HoC Ep. 12: First Steps

The vet snapped off his rubber gloves and tossed them into the pile of used gauze pads and paper wrappers. Rune, propped up by pillows in bed, rubbed his nose to clear the antiseptic burn. The human’s noise and smell and mess were so different from Heather’s quiet, efficient attentions. “Everything looks fine,” he said. “Your girlfriend has done a good job taking care of you.”

Rune and Heather looked at each other and back at him. “She’s not–” and “I’m not–” they muttered together.

The vet did not seem to notice. “I want you to take it easy on those hands– paws– er, anyway, for a little while longer. I can’t say if the scars will fade when you change, but the new tissue will be tender at the very least.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Heather said. “Though after four weeks, I’m not sure I have the heart to make him rest any longer. I’m going pretty stir crazy myself.” Heather followed the doctor out, chatting away with him, probably saying what an awful patient Rune had been.

Rune swung his feet over the side of the bed and put them down. It felt like he had not set foot out of bed in all that time. It was like learning to walk all over again. He wiggled his toes. He flexed his ankles. He failed to swish his tail or twitch his ears. Human.

He had gotten used to the idea after what must have been the fiftieth change out of three hundred. But he had been out of his head anyway. Now, weak but lucid, he was no longer sure he was prepared to go back to his dual life. The closed door of the bedroom looked like the edge of the world.

He stood up, letting the sheets fall away from his bare skin. Heather had brought him clothing, which was laid out over the back of the desk chair. She had asked him what he used to like wearing, as though she expected him to demand silk slacks and a top hat. He was happy enough to just pull on the faded jeans and the long-sleeved t-shirt. Anything to ward off the cold that seemed to suffuse his body down to the marrow.

Once dressed, he washed in the bathroom and examined his face in the mirror. The last time he had seen himself, he had been what, twenty? Twenty-five? By human looks, at least. He leaned close to the mirror and pushed his skin around with a fingertip. There were lines where once there had been none, laid down around his mouth and eyes, roads running across his forehead. He ran a hand through his hair. At least he still had that, a gray dandelion puff cropped close to his head.

He went back and sat on the edge of the bed, but that felt like a retreat. He got up and opened the blinds, letting in the milky light of an overcast day. He shivered and rubbed his arms; it looked cold out, like rain was on the way. He looked back at the door. He could go out any time he wanted. He sat down at the desk. Maybe in a minute.

Heather leaned in the doorway, one hand on her hip. “Well? What are you waiting for? A royal invitation?”

He had gotten used to seeing her, too, during his recovery. In the long stretches between bandage changes and bathroom runs, it had been her face in his mind. For a time he had thought of Caroline, remembering snippets of their time together. Somewhere along the way, though, Caroline had begun to look like Heather. The memories shifted. Where there had been human life, he started to remember cat life.

He closed his eyes and saw Heather; he opened them and found her looking down at him as though she had been there all along. “Yes,” he said when she just kept watching him.

She smiled and held out her hand. “So, I’m inviting you.” He took her hand and let her lead him from the room, out into the rest of the house and the rest of the world.

Heather tottered from side to side, each arm held out stiffly, each hand full of plastic bags, each bag heavy with newly purchased seedlings. She lowered them gently down onto the back patio and flexed her stiff and reddened fingers. She poked idly at the debris in the yard with her toe. No one had bothered to clean up the charred remains of Topaz’s bonfire and Heather had not had time while caring for Rune. Now that he was well again, though, she could go back to work.

The house had a small, attached shed at the corner, just past the reel of garden hose, which contained all the household tools. There was an old red toolbox with unrecognizable wrenches and drill bits and spare bolts. There was a bundle of rebar, left over from god knows what, a lawnmower with no gasoline, a slightly tattered tarp, and a sawhorse. The walls were studded with nails and hooks, on which everything from shovels to hammers hung. Heather grabbed a trowel and a shovel from the wall and slammed the creaking door behind her.

The trowel waited with the plants while Heather, in a new pair of garden gloves, shoveled burned wood fragments and stinking lumps of melted plastic into a garbage bag. She shuffled back and forth from the scattered ashes to the bag, sweating under her sweater despite the cool and damp air. When everything had been cleared away, she looked down at the patch of ground where once the garden had been. It was an awful lot of work, she thought, for something that might be a huge mistake. But she knew what it was like to be a young cat; they would get it somewhere else if they had to.

She glanced over at the plants, out of sight for the moment in their bags. Cat’s bane and catnip, a dozen small plants of each. She had considered leaving the garden fallow. She needed too much cat’s bane on a regular basis to rely on the garden alone, so she had no personal need to replant it. And if she had asked Carlisle — which she had somehow forgotten to do before leaving to do her shopping that morning — he would no doubt have told her putting catnip in front of Rune would be a mistake. It would, in fact, doom him to a relapse.

Heather stomped the shovel deeper into the ground then pushed up a clump of damp dirt. Rune would never be able to touch catnip again, Heather knew, like any other recovering addict. But if he never faced the object of his addiction again and lived in a bubble, how could anyone be sure that he could resist? That would be no better than his edict against cat’s bane before Heather arrived, just another way of running away.

Heather worked her way across the plot of ground, turning up dirt and breaking the lumps apart with the point of the shovel. On the other hand, she thought, it would all be wasted effort if they moved. She had not forgotten about George Ellison’s offer, though she had still not brought herself to tell Carlisle. Would it be so bad, moving to a new house? It never crossed her mind to abandon her duties; she must rule a House of Cats here. But ‘here’ could be flexible, couldn’t it?

Heather put the shovel back by the shed and uncoiled the hose. A new house, one that did not fall apart if you looked at it funny, she thought as she sprayed water over the tilled soil. Someplace closer to town so that running errands did not require a map and a day’s supply of water. Someplace with flatter land that they could protect with fences and gates to keep the humans out. Mind in turmoil, Heather settled in with her seedlings and her freshly turned ground to plant and debate.

Rune barely recognized anyone. Even before the catnip became a problem, a real problem, he had avoided everyone during the Leo moons. Now, everyone looked like as much of a stranger as his own reflection. Everyone was older. He recognized some of the kittens from Christmas when they had changed to open presents. He walked in a daze through the house, passing cats without knowing who they were. But there was one face he would welcome.

“Have you seen Topaz lately?” Rune asked a cluster of cats playing poker around the kitchen table. They all shook their heads. He heard them whisper as he walked away, but could not make out what they said.

Rune looked through the upstairs bedrooms. He checked the backyard, but did not go out. Mist hung in the air and everything looked sodden and cold. He checked the kitchen and the room in which he had recovered. He checked the attic. Finally, he found Carlisle going through folders of receipts in Heather’s office. “Good. You’ll know.”

Carlisle smiled between fastidiously sorting slips of paper into piles. “Good to see you up and about. What will I know?”

“Did Topaz go into town today?” Rune was startled by the expression of deep pain that passed over Carlisle’s face. Had something happened to Topaz? He remembered his brother coming to visit him and apologizing for something, but it was all very hazy.

But Carlisle’s expression cooled even as Rune watched. “You’ve been very sick. I’m not surprised you don’t remember. I’m sure Heather did not want to upset you by bringing it up.”

“Tell me.”

“Topaz set fire to the garden, not to mention a good quantity of lumber and all the catnip in the House. He’s gone.” Carlisle stood up and leaned with his hands resting on the desktop. “There was nothing anyone could do.”

Rune’s lip curled as he said, “You banished him,” and he crossed his arms over his chest. Carlisle had not been able to boot Rune from the House, at least once because of Topaz’s loyalty. Now Topaz had taken the fall for Rune once again.

Carlisle stood up straight. Even in a vest and slacks and all tousled hair, his age made him intimidating. He might not be a gray-whisker yet, but he made Rune feel like a naughty schoolboy all the same. “He made his decision.”

But Carlisle was still an intellectual and a bureaucratic wimp and apparently also a cold-hearted bastard, because you had to be blind to not know there had been something going on between him and Topaz. There was no way Rune would turn tail to him. “Undo it.”

“I can’t–”

Rune unfolded his arms, drawing attention to his broader chest and bulkier shoulders. It was no substitute for a properly bristled tail, but it was better than nothing. “Undo it and bring him back. He only did it to help me. Besides, I deserve it more than he ever could.”

Carlisle tucked his chin and made a wide-mouthed hiss to one side before speaking again. “And the next time he decides to do something for your own good? Or any other reason? Will he burn something else down to make a point?” Carlisle looked away. “I’m sorry, but he’s a danger to the House.”

“Heather would want him to come back.”

Carlisle flinched. “And do you think I’m happy he’s gone? This is about more than what I want.” Carlisle sat down again, forearms braced on the desk and head hanging low. “Besides, I don’t know where he is to tell him to return, even if I could.”

“You’re banishing an innocent cat just so you can follow the letter of the law.”

Carlisle laughed weakly. “I can hardly imagine the word innocent applying to Topaz.”

Rune stalked out of the room before he decided to jump Carlisle just to get some sort of concession out of him. Rune hadn’t the strength for it anyway. He pounded down the stairs, anger giving him a burst of energy. If Carlisle would not help him, Rune would just go over his head. Heather would agree with Rune and she never followed the rules in the first place. Rune just had to get Topaz back to the House so Heather could reinstate him.

Heather jogged from the backyard to the kitchen, chasing after Carlisle as he passed through. “Just the person I wanted to see,” she said.

Carlisle looked at her grass-stained knees and the dirt under her fingernails. “You certainly are a wreck.”

“I’ve been gardening,” she said as she scrubbed the dirt from her hands in the kitchen sink. “I need to talk to you.”

“Is this about what Rune said?”

Heather looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Huh? No, why? Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing. My mistake.” He uncrossed his arms and leaned against the counter. “What’s on your mind?”

Heather dried her hands off on the dish towel then stood fidgeting with it. “You know how I met with Ms. Dahl a while ago? There’s something I didn’t tell you.”

“Are we running out of money?”

“No, no,” Heather said and hopped onto the counter. She worried the faded towel between her hands, looking at it instead of Carlisle. “She invited this man to the meeting. George Ellison. He’s the one who was at the House with her when I first arrived, remember?”

“Vaguely,” Carlisle said with a dismissive tilt of his head. “Who is he, a coworker?”

“I’m not sure what he is. He didn’t really say what he does. But he doesn’t work with her.” Heather stopped then. She could not think of how to tell Carlisle, no matter how many times she had gone over the conversation in her head.

“What did he want?” Carlisle prompted her.

“The House,” Heather said then fell silent again.


Heather threw down the towel before she tore its thin fabric. “He wants to buy the House from us. From me.”

Carlisle laughed, but it sounded strained. A muscle in his cheek jumped. “Ms. Dahl must be worse at her job than I realized. Or else she did not speak to him before inviting him to your meeting. It’s not possible.”

“She says it is,” Heather said meekly.

“Nonsense. The trust has to remain in the family.”

“Yeah, but it’s not really hereditary. The last holder writes their successor into the trust. Just like Mother did with me.”

“Well, yes, I suppose you could theoretically name anyone. But I don’t see the point. You won’t name him, so it’s not possible.” Carlisle stared at her intensely, no doubt waiting for her to jump in with agreement.

“I just wondered if it wouldn’t be a good idea. Selling. This house.”

Carlisle put a hand on her knee. “I understand how much stress you’ve been under, caring for Rune the way you did. It’s only natural that you feel the need to escape.”

“We could buy a new place. Land we can fence, a house that doesn’t fall down around us.” She started to remember all the arguments she had constructed. “This is open land in California. It’s worth a lot of money.”

“Out of the question,” Carlisle snapped. “You’re not to see that fellow again. We’ll find someone new to handle the estate if we must.” He turned his back on her, but paused before leaving. “I know you hate it here, but scheming to take the House from all of us… I expected more from you, Heather.”

Heather leaned back on the counter so her head rested against the cabinet doors. She clicked her tongue against her teeth. “That went over like a lead balloon,” she said to herself. She repeated the annoyed click then hopped down. She opened the refrigerator. Only one thing to do in a situation like this: cook something amazing.

Rune’s back ached and his fingers were throbbing with his pulse and all he wanted was to lie down somewhere. “If you see him,” he said to the cats in front of him, “in town or so, let him know I’m looking for him.”

The cats all nodded in agreement. “Of course we will. Don’t you worry.”

Rune nodded and plodded back up the hall and into the solarium. He sank boneless into a recliner and curled up on his side. He had been all over the house, talking to anyone he recognized and just about anyone he did not. Everyone assured him that they would do their best to find Topaz. Without, that is, actually agreeing to look for him. They were appeasing Rune, he knew, and he had no way of getting them to do more. He had no authority since Heather arrived, no respect since his last bad trip, and no charisma since he slithered out of bed.

“Hey,” a female voice said somewhere in front of him.

He cracked an eye open. Rafflesia waved to him, but her normally animated face was serious. “You’re the first friendly face I’ve seen since morning,” he said.

“I wanna help you find Topaz.”

Rune closed his eye. “That’s nice. Thanks. Everyone is very willing to talk to him if they see him.”

He felt her snap her fingers in front of his nose. “Wake up! I mean looking for him. Finding him and bringing him home.”

Rune uncurled and sat up. “And how do you propose to do that?”

Rafflesia pouted. “I don’t know. I just figured I would go look for him. Outside. You know,” she said and leaned close to him, “outside.”

“You’re a little young to be running away from home,” Rune said.

Rafflesia rolled her eyes in such a theatrical way, he half believed she practiced in front of the mirror. “I’m not going to stay out there. Jeez. I’m not dumb. But if I borrow some of Auntie Heather’s cat’s bane, I can stay human and nothing will attack me.”

“You’ve thought this through.”

She sat on the couch beside him, tucked her feet under her butt and leaned across the armrest. “Yeah, hello, I told you: I want to get Topaz back too. And you’re not going to go after him yourself, are you? You never go beyond the yard.”

Rune winced. From the mouths of babes, he thought. “I’m not healthy enough yet,” he said, which was true as far as things go, but rather missed the point. “So you’re just going to walk out the door and start calling his name? You need a better plan than that.”

“I have a plan,” she said with her nose in the air. “But you won’t like it. And if you tell anybody, I’ll, I’ll tell Heather you like her.”

Rune smiled at the little girl threat. “I wouldn’t want that, now would I?”

“Do you promise not to tell?”

“Promise.” He drew a cross over his heart with a finger. She probably had no idea what that meant, but she seemed satisfied. “What’s the daring plan?”

“It’ll take a while,” she hedged. “I know you want to find him now, but if we wait a couple weeks, I heard Carlisle saying that the coven is going to come here.”

Rune growled and lurched forward. The longer the day wore on, the more he missed the feeling of his coat puffing when he was angry. “You are not going with them.”

Rafflesia retreated not an inch. He could have pitied his inability to intimidate her, except he thought it had more to do with her strong personality than his weak state. “I just need them to take me along for a while. Mom will never let me go otherwise.”

“And what if they don’t want to let you go? You never know what humans are really capable of.”

“Please. I’ll take cat’s bane all that day. No one’s going to do anything if I’m human.” She rolled her eyes again. “I’ll just ask them to take me into town. Topaz will be there. He loves humans. He’ll be near them.”

“Are you sure?”

“Completely. I’ll find him there and we’ll come home together.” She nodded once, the look so serious as to be comical. Her confidence was absolute, even if Rune had his doubts. “But I need you to help me convince one of the humans to take me with them.”

“They won’t be allowed to take another if they do. It will be difficult.”

Rafflesia grinned as if to say, yes, of course, where’s the fun otherwise? “Are you up for it?”

Rune massaged his eyes. He would live to regret this, he was certain. But Topaz would have done this and more for him. He already had risked everything. And even if she did not really know what she was getting into, Rafflesia was willing to take the same risks. There was only one possible answer. “I’m in.”

Heather sat on the front steps with a sandwich and a big mug of hot tea. It was not the amazing food she had originally intended, but the passion for cooking had left her almost as soon as it arrived. But cheddar and apple on sourdough had just the right blend of sweet and savory that made the sandwich seem above ordinary. Cooking had fallen by the wayside while she nursed Rune. With all her free time broken up, it had felt like she spent weeks just waiting for it to be time to check his bandages or bring him food again.

The front door opened and she heard two sets of feet leave the house — clomp-clomp and tap-tap. “Aren’t you cold out here?” Dopple asked as her black boots appeared at Heather’s side. She dropped to a crouch and, when Heather moved her plate, sprawled next to her on the steps.

Heather leaned forward to look at the sky past the overhang of the porch. Dark clouds scudded across the sky, blown by a swift wind. They piled up against the western horizon. She rubbed her hands over her arms, chaffing warmth into them with the thick wool of her sweater. “Smells good at least,” she said. She took a bite of her sandwich and leaned back again.

Mysti leaned against the column at one side of the steps. Her own top was low-cut and goose bumps stood out on her exposed skin. Dopple looped an arm around one of Mysti’s legs. “Carlisle told me.”

“Whatever he said, it’s not like that,” Heather said. “I’m not trying to close the House of Cats.”

“You can,” Dopple said.

Heather twisted around to face her. “When did you get replaced by a robot?”

“Dumb ass. You’re the Queen. You have all the power here.”

Heather laughed. “The prime minister just scolded the Queen. He might as well have sent me to bed without dinner and grounded me from going out with my friends, just to complete the humiliation.”

Dopple looked like she swallowed the first five things that came to mind in response, which made it even worse when the first thing that actually came out was, “Are you feeble-minded in some capacity? Do you have a spine?” Dopple glared at her. “He only does that because you let him.”

“Yeah, this is building up my confidence by leaps and bounds,” Heather said.

“Oh, Carlisle, pay the bills for me,” Dopple said in a sing-song whine. “Talk to people for me. Do my job. I have to go fry a soufflé.”

“That is it!” Heather leapt to her feet. “First of all, you bake a soufflé, you cretin, and second, you and Carlisle and everyone else, you can say what you want about my leaving, but I have busted my ass since I got here.” Heather gestured with her sandwich so violently, a slice of apple flew out and landed in Dopple’s lap. “What’s more, if I’m so important to the House, it would be swell if someone actually listened to what I have to say.”

Dopple applauded. So did Mysti. It was such an unexpected response Heather sank back onto the steps, all the wind taken from her sails. “Finally,” Dopple said. “It shouldn’t take you so long to get to this point. You’ve got to start out spitting fire and bile at everyone else.”

Heather set her abused sandwich back on the plate. “I’m afraid I don’t have your substantial charms.”

Mysti patted Dopple on the head. “She is something else, isn’t she?”

Dopple pulled off one of her gloves and held her hand up, palm facing Heather. Her fingers were a grisly sight. “I can’t live anywhere else. And I’ll throw my lot in with whoever has the most power to keep me safe. I’m not proud. You tell me that your House will be L.A. or Utah or Canada and I’ll go there, because I think you’re in charge.

“But there is more here than just stone and wood.” She pulled her glove back on. Her fingers curled into protective fists. “Our kittens are born here and our dead are buried here. You know what my vote is.” She stood up and turned to go inside. Out on the lawn, the first drops of rain started to fall. “But whether you or anyone else likes it, you make the decision. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Rune awoke with a snort and a grunt when someone shouted near where he slept curled in the recliner. “What? I’m awake,” he said, rubbing his eyes like a child. “What’s going on?”

“The rain is ruining the new plants,” Heather said.

Rune shuffled over to her at the sliding door. “I thought plants liked rain.”

“They’re just seedlings. They’ll get all pounded down by rain this hard. And see? It’s washing away all the dirt around them.” She pressed her hands to the glass, but made no move to go outside. With the rain pelting down, he couldn’t blame her for that.

“Aren’t you going to do anything?”

“I don’t know what I can do. I guess I could dig a moat around them to drain off the excess.”

Rune rubbed at his arm, which had lost feeling while tucked between his body and the seat. “Just cover them. Don’t we still have that tarp in the shed?” Standing at her shoulder, he could smell her hair in the rain-clean air.

Heather looked over at him. “I think so. But if I just lay it flat, it’ll squash them with the weight of the water.”

Rune grinned sleepily. “Are you willing to get rained on for a while?” Heather nodded. “Come on then.” Without waiting, he threw open the door and ran, barefoot, out into the muddy yard.

He splashed through puddles on the concrete, one arm up to ward off raindrops so fat and frequent as to be painful. Heather burst into the shed after him, huddling against him. Rune put an arm around her without thinking, even when she shook water out of her hair and onto him. He handed her the shovel and the bundle of rebar and the hammer. Heather wrapped her arms around it all with difficulty. Rune laid the folded tarp over the sawhorse and hauled it back out into the rain.

“What are we doing?” Heather asked, shouting to be heard over the din of rain and rising wind.

Rune put the sawhorse on the uphill side of the yard, pushing it into the soggy ground to anchor it. He motioned for her to set her bundle on the ground. The tarp unfolded with difficulty until the wind caught it and snapped it up. “Take that over to the other side,” he said once Heather caught the free end. He pulled his side over the sawhorse.

While Heather stood with her feet on the edge of the tarp that threatened to blow away, Rune hammered rebar into the opposite end. The sawhorse held it up over the plants at an angle. The stakes punched through the tarp easily and he had to drive them at an angle, pinning the tarp to the ground so it did not slip up and off. He came around to the other end and dropped the rebar on the edge of the tarp.

Heather’s sweater hung to her knees, stretched by water weight. “Dig a trench to divert the run-off,” Rune said and knelt in the mud to secure that side of the tarp. The wet scrape of the shovel mingled with the thud of the hammer, all the noises going dull in the rain. He was too cold to feel uncomfortable any longer. His fingers burned with blood rushing to warm them.

Rune stood up, tarp completely secured. Heather dug out hunks of mud, soupy on the top and firm deeper down where the rain had not yet soaked through. The line of the trench filled with rain as she worked her way down past the edge of the tarp. “It’s going to flow right to the house,” she said.

He looked under the high edge of the tarp to see the plants. “Yeah, but these things will be happy. Here, give me that.” He took the shovel from her and dug a second trench along the high side, where the rain was seeping downhill into the plants. He carved a corner into it so it connected around to the first one and emptied downhill.

Heather grabbed the remaining pieces of rebar and Rune took the shovel and they ran back to the shed. Suddenly, the tiny room seemed warm and safe. Heather stood in the doorway and rung out the hem of her sweater while Rune wiped mud off the shovel against the grass before hanging it up again. “That should protect them. Rain never lasts that long around here.”

“It was a great idea,” Heather said. “How did you remember all that stuff was there?”

Rune wiped the muddy sole of his foot across the concrete floor, leaving a streaked print. “I was in charge here for a while. Rumor has it, anyway. I’m not sure I remember that part right. But it was my job to be able to protect everything here.”

“Even plants?” Heather said.

“Even plants,” Rune agreed. “And damsels in distress.” Then he put his rust- and mud-stained hand around the back of her neck and pulled her in for a brief kiss. “I remembered that though,” he said. It seemed like a bad move as soon as he let himself think about it. She had looked so pretty though, face flushed and hair dripping and actually grateful to him of all people. It had been all he could think about for days now, ever since he sorted out his memories enough to realize it had not been the phantom of Caroline who kissed him late one night.

He held very still under the speculative look Heather leveled at him. Then she said, “I don’t suppose you know how to build things, do you? I seem to own a house in need of repairs. If I’m going to live here, I’ll have to fix things up.”

He had waited so long for someone to need him again. Doctor’s orders be damned. Rune had rested enough. “Whatever I don’t know, we’ll figure out. What’s the first step?”

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HoC Ep. 11: Queen of Hearts

Heather scrubbed her hands until they were stinging and hospital clean. She shook off the water and switched the light off in the attached bathroom with her elbow. “I never thought I would be playing nursemaid here,” she said quietly. On the bed, Rune slept on without noticing her. She unwrapped the gauze from his hands. The sterile pads against his fingers were discolored. She sniffed them and wrinkled her nose.

“Your dedication is commendable. You won’t catch me doing that for him,” Carlisle said, the smell of fresh coffee drifting from him.

Heather’s hands remained steady on Rune’s. “I didn’t hear you come in,” she said without looking up. “They’re definitely infected. He’s had a fever since yesterday.” She washed his fingers over a basin with a pale blue solution. “Can your vet contact get me any stronger antibiotics to go with the rest of these things?”

“I already asked him. He says not unless we bring Rune in so he can treat him directly.”

Heather smeared antibiotic cream on his cut and swollen fingers. “Which will be hard to explain to the rest of the clinic until his body decides to switch again. And that could be in an hour or in a week.”

Carlisle leaned his hip against the side of Rune’s sickbed. “I’m sorry. I seem to have called in all the favors I have with him. And I can’t afford to push my luck. The chances of finding another vet who can cope with what we are–”

“Slim and none. I know.” Heather folded a pad over Rune’s fingers then started tightly winding gauze to hold it in place. “I just don’t know what I should be doing. His toes are staying clean, but with his hands, half the time I come in, he’s clawed his way through them. I just can’t keep them together.”

“Perhaps an after-hours visit,” Carlisle said. “Even if he’s human, unconscious and uncooperative, he can check him out enough to determine a treatment.”

“Getting him out would be an interesting challenge.”

A gauze-wrapped vice closed on Heather’s wrist and the rest of the roll spilled to the floor. She looked down into Rune’s fever-bright eyes, suddenly open. “I can’t go out there. I won’t.”

“Rune, I’ve told you what trouble you’re in. And you were awake and coherent at least some of the time, so no claims of memory loss, please.”

“I don’t care. If I go out there, she’ll see me.”

Heather looked at Carlisle. This was new. In his semi-delirious states, Rune had talked about people he knew — Topaz chief among them after Heather told him what had happened — but the only “she” Heather could think of was Dopple. “Who will see you?” Heather asked.

“If I go out as a man, she’ll recognize me. She won’t have forgotten yet. It’ll be safe in a few years. Just a few more years and I can quit.”

Heather smoothed the sweaty hair from his face. “Hey, hey. It’s okay. You’re safe. Just relax. Do you want some water?”

Rune nodded and relaxed back into his pillows. Heather brought a mug with a straw close to his mouth. After a few gulps, he let the straw slip from his mouth and turned his face away from her. In a moment, he was asleep again.

Heather went back to work bandaging his hands. “What the hell was that about?”

“Not sure,” Carlisle said, but something in his expression made Heather think otherwise. “I’ll talk to the vet. Maybe we can work something out.”

Heather opened the door cautiously after making everyone clear out of the front room. She was not expecting guests. As soon as the door opened, the woman on the porch strode in, a small wheeled suitcase chasing her. Heather stared after her. Under the perfume the woman wore, Heather could smell cat, so she at least was not a human.

But what a human she made. For a woman her age, her figure was perfect, the sort they wrote songs about, baby tee and tight pants and high boots doing nothing to downplay her good looks. She looked around the room then glanced back at Heather over her shoulder. Her shoulder-length blonde hair swung in a perfect arc and either side of her face was framed by one bright orange and one black hank of hair. The orange one was slightly longer and hung over her eye a bit. In another era, she might have belonged in a smoky jazz club, singing to soldiers sixty years ago.

She smiled, painted lips quirking up at the corners. “Hi, sugar. Think you could put me up in a room?”

“Yeah, sure,” Heather said in a daze. “Who’re you?”

The woman tipped her luggage up, turned as smoothly as if she had been on a pedestal, and offered Heather her hand. Her grip, despite her fine-boned hands and the tinkle of two gold bangles, was strong and sure. “I’m Mysterium,” she said. “But call me Mysti. No one but judges ever called me Mysterium.”

“Judges?” Heather echoed.

Mysti picked up her luggage and headed for the stairs. “Cat show judges. In my glory days, I competed. But you don’t want to hear about that ancient history. Now, about that room?”

Heather nodded and dashed up the stairs, feeling like an oaf around this poised beauty queen. She hoped they had a furnished room free; winter was fading in California and cats were starting to move out of the House. Heather nodded to Dorian as she passed him in the hall. She stuck her head into a room. Perfect. Nicely done up for human and cat alike.

“This one–” she started to say, then realized she was alone.

Down at the other end of the hall, Mysti had Dorian cornered and was obviously chatting him up. “Think you can get me caught up on what I’ve missed?” Mysti asked in a purr no human body should be able to make. If Dorian’s response to Topaz’s drunken come-on a few months ago had been any indication, Heather thought he did not swing that way. Even now, he smiled like he was indulging her.

“I’ll just take this into your room, shall I?” Heather asked and took the handle of the suitcase from Mysti’s lax hand.

Heather had not expected Mysti to pay any attention to her — Mysti was like Yvonne all over again — but Mysti turned a blinding smile on Heather and touched her hand as she drew away. “Thanks, sugar. If you have time, I’ll catch up with you later.” She slipped her arm around Dorian’s waist and Heather heard her speaking in a low, sultry whisper to him. Heather shook her head and pulled the suitcase into the room. The excitement never ended at the House of Cats, she thought.

Heather poured a good splash of milk into the bowl, the oats swirling across the top before settling. “You want a bowl too?”

Carlisle looked up from a stack of receipts. “Thank you. That will be lovely. Are you sure we can afford to rebuild the porch?”

Heather shook oats into another bowl while hers rotated in the humming microwave. “I asked Mother’s lawyer about it. When she wasn’t–” Heather stopped herself before she said anything more. She had not told anyone about George Ellison’s appearance at their meeting and his offer to buy the House.

“When she wasn’t what?” Carlisle asked. He groped blindly for the cup of tea by his hand, eyes fixed on a bill.

“Nothing. She just said that I can borrow against the value of some of the assets. They’ll keep earning money at the same rate and I just pay the trust back.”

“Hm. That’s good.”

“So, who do you think Rune was talking about yesterday?” Heather tried to make it sound casual, though her curiosity was driving her mad.

Carlisle looked up. “I told you I didn’t know.”

“I thought, since you’ve been here longer, maybe you knew about a girlfriend he used to have. Or a sister. Someone.”

Carlisle murmured nonsense in response and took a sip of tea. “I’ve never seen him with any one in particular. Except Dopple.”

“Do you think he was talking about her?”

“I very much doubt that.”

Heather groaned and flopped across the kitchen table. “I can tell you’re hiding something,” she whined. Behind her, the microwave dinged.

“Your breakfast is ready.”

“Hmph. Fine. Don’t tell me. I’ll just pester everyone else in the house and get them all in an uproar and start crazy rumors about you. It should be fun,” she said.

Carlisle pushed his papers aside. “I’m not hiding anything. I really don’t know to whom he could be referring. But there has always been some speculation about his past, given his dislike for most queens. And his stubborn refusal to ever shift.”

“His past. Like, before he came to the house?” She set Carlisle’s bowl in front of him and perched on the edge of the table with her own in her lap.

“I remember when he first came here as a young tom. He was normal.” He took a bite of oatmeal, chewed thoughtfully, and swallowed. “A little rebellious. He decided to leave shortly after that. Rumor has it, he lived as a human.”

“Get out. Rune? Mister Rarr, Humans Bad? I don’t believe it.”

“I don’t know anything about it. Your mother was very close to him, though.”

“I sort of gathered that, since he’s told me several times what a disgrace to her I am. But he came back here at some point?”

“He came back, already addicted to catnip. Depressed, moody, occasionally violent. Your mother took him under her wing, more so than ever. And that truly is all I know about it.”

“Pity Mother isn’t here to tell me what she knew,” Heather said. But maybe… She wolfed down her oatmeal in a few bites, blowing steam from her mouth. “Gotta go. Work to do.”

Mysti pounced on a patch of moving grass. Something squiggled under her paws. She lifted one then the other. The mouse disappeared down a gopher hole as soon as she did. She snorted and jumped to a nearby rock, avoiding the damp grass of the lawn. Even so, she methodically cleaned her paws, licking traces of dew and scraps of grass from the tips of her claws.

“I could do that for you,” a tom said. He jumped up on the rock with her, squeezing close though there was ample room for two cats on it. “If you’d like,” he added with a lick to her ear.

Mysti looked him over from ears to tail and he shivered under her cool gaze. He was a black and white, at least. That was a start. But he had too much white, giving him more of a cow coat than a tuxedo. “What’s your name, honey?”

“Altair,” he said. “And you’re Mysti. I’ve heard about you.”

“I hope I live up to expectations,” she said. The eyes were the right shade of green, at least.

“And then some,” he said, circling her. “What brings you to the House?”

Mysti considered what sort of lie would get her the farthest with him. “I’m looking for someone,” she said, deciding on a mysterious version of the truth. Maybe he was just an oddity, with his excess white markings and his close-set ears. He could come from better breeding.

“Which someone?”

“I don’t know his name,” she said. “But I’ll know him when I meet him.”

“What’s this mystery tom like?”

“He’s got a black and white coat,” she said and repeated her top to bottom gaze. The tom tripped over himself. Hooked, she thought.

“What else?”

“He’s young. And very handsome.”

“I think I might know someone like that,” the tom said and bit at the back of her neck.

Mysti shook him off on the pretense of doing a little grooming herself, nosing the fur at his neck. “And he comes from exceptional pedigree. What’s your pedigree like?”

This threw the tom for a loop. He tried to focus on the question even as Mysti teased him with flicks of her tail against his body. “Mom’s from the Langley clan. Dad is, uh, oh, he’s one of Yarrow’s kids.”

Mysti rolled her eyes behind his back. Nasty, common families. Nice enough people, she added guiltily, but just not her sort of cats. “I’m thinking of someone who goes a bit farther back than that,” she said and jumped down from the rock.

“Hey, wait up!” The tom chased after her. “Who cares who my folks are?”

Mysti sighed. The young ones were always the worst. They always thought they would be the exception to the rules. “I do, of course. I thought you said you had heard of me.”

“They say you’re the most beautiful cat on the continent,” he said. He sounded petulant instead of enticing.

“Go ask a gray-whisker about it then,” Mysti said and swung her tail in farewell. “You’re not what I’m looking for.”

With a growl, the tom tackled her and grabbed a fold of skin at the back of her neck between his teeth. Around his mouthful, he said, “Just give me a chance. I’m really good, I promise.”

Mysti threw herself sideways on the ground and rolled on the smaller tom, squashing him under her substantial weight. When she felt him let go, she sprang away, long fur bristling until she looked like a calico tumbleweed. “Never cross a queen,” she hissed. She clocked him across the left eye with one paw, claws exposed. “No means no. It also means drop dead.”

The tom slunk away, shaking his head every few steps and rubbing his undoubtedly smarting eye. Mysti shrugged. They always made it harder on themselves. She trotted into the house and turned her thoughts to dinner, yet another tom forgotten in an instant.

Mother’s papers had been a disaster when Heather arrived at the House, but she had sorted them out since then. At least, the important papers were sorted. Easily identifiable things — receipts, bills, bank accounts — had all been dealt with months ago. But the personal items, a morass of half-finished notes and private letters and datebooks, had been too much to deal with, especially when Heather had only known for a few weeks that her mother had been dead for years. So she put them all in a series of bins and tucked them away in a corner of her office and forgot about them.

Now Heather sat on the floor with the boxes around her and sifted through the parts of her mother’s life that had not revolved solely around being a figurehead for cats around the country. Feeling like a voyeur, Heather read greeting cards and journals and scraps of paper tucked into folders and books. They were not just from cats either. Poppy had regular correspondences with humans: some were for business, like the previous sympathetic veterinarian; some were personal, like the woman who talked about her coven and ended all her letters with “blessed be.”

Her mother’s address books spanned decades, with a new book replacing the old one every few years. Everything was meticulously organized and alphabetized. There were entries for every cat Heather remembered meeting in her life and scores of ones she had never heard of. Her mother kept track of cats who lived in the House full-time, those who came and went seasonally, and those who were only distant contacts.

Curious, she flipped to the section where her own family name was listed. Heather’s father had never been part of the family. He was just someone her mother chose to breed with once. But under Lee, there was an entry for Heather and three blank lines. So her mother had never known where she was. Heather had suspected the lack of contact through the years was because her mother did not want to speak to her or was punishing her for running away. Heather had never really believed that she had gotten away with it. She supposed there was an entry for her in each book.

But if she wanted to find out where Rune had been, she needed to go back five or ten years, to the late 90s. That book was only slightly worn at the edges and had a cracked spine. A rubber band kept loose pages contained. At least it was not yellow with age. She opened it gingerly. If Rune had a family name he used, Heather did not know it. She just looked for Rune. There was nothing. She sighed. It had been a long-shot anyway. She leafed backwards and forwards a few pages to be sure.

Then she saw it. Ron Rutherford. Parentheses, Rune. So he really had lived as a human. Then came the crazy part, the stomach-turning part, the part that made Heather want to put the book back and never look at it again.

Next to his name, it said: married, 1999, Caroline Summers.

Parentheses, human.

Mysti did not move when she heard someone breathing outside the house. She was alone in the front room and human again so she could comfortably read her book. The person breathing kept trying to hold their breath to be quiet then letting it out in gusts noisier than normal breathing.

She uncurled from the couch slowly and set her book on the end table. She stretched her arms over her head then, still under the pretense of working the knots out of her back, twisted at the waist and looked over her shoulder. She saw of flash of amber eyes reflecting green in the darkness. Well. At least it was a cat.

She faced backwards on the couch and pushed the window open a crack. “It certainly is warm in here,” she said loudly.

After a moment, the amber eyes appeared again, this time looking up at her from right below the window. “Is Rune okay? Do you know?”

“And who are you, baby, that you want to know?”

“I’m his brother, Topaz.”

“Ah, I heard about you. They’re keeping him on the other side, ground floor. Come on around there and I’ll let you in for visiting hours.”

Topaz nodded immediately and dashed off. Mysti shut the window, picked up her book, and strolled casually down the length of the house to the room she had seen Heather in and out of all day, every day.

Inside, she shut and locked the door before opening the window. On the bed, Rune woke and rolled weakly towards her. “Who?” His voice was scratchy.

“Friends,” Mysti said. “Here, your water,” she said and brought the mug of water on the table within reach of his dry lips.

Topaz jumped through the window to land on the bed beside Rune’s head. He jarred him enough that water splashed across his jaw and neck. “Sorry, bro,” Topaz said. Mysti imagined he was apologizing for a good deal more than some spilled water.

Rune tipped his head up. “Hey. They let you back in?”

“Naw, man, I snuck back. Like a sneaky thing.”

“Good job,” Rune said with a weak laugh.

“You look like hell, buddy,” Topaz said and touched a paw to the cuts on Rune’s face and the dark circles under his eyes. “What’s Heather been feeding you? Knuckle sandwiches?”

“Did it to myself. Makes me look rugged.”

“Sure, sure. Very urban punching bag. I hear that’s in for spring.”

“You’re looking pretty thin,” Rune said and ran his bandaged hand along Topaz’s side where his ribs showed through his thick coat.

“I’m sorry,” Topaz blurted out. “I messed up bad. I just wanted–”

Rune’s attempted shove barely moved Topaz. “I’ve got it together for now, so I’m gonna say, we’re okay. You did right by me. Just, if I freak out about it later, don’t blame me. Heather says I’m pretty crazy still.”

“She taking good care of you?”

“Real good. I think. I’m not awake that much,” he said, eyes glazing as he spoke.

“I hear someone,” Mysti said. “Topaz, you’d better go before you get caught.”

“Thanks for letting me in. Hang in there, bro.”

“Will do,” Rune mouthed, but no sound came out.

“Are you okay?” Mysti asked. But Rune’s eyes were no longer focused on her and his breathing had gotten shallow. “So much for that,” she said. “You’ve got a long ways to go, young man.”

Heather wrapped her bathrobe tighter to ward off the chilly night air as she walked downstairs for her midnight check on Rune. Someone came out of his room. Mysti, the strange new cat whom everyone else seemed to know like a much-talked about celebrity. What was she doing with Rune? Heather blushed. Everyone did say that Mysti was always on the lookout for a quality tom.

Mysti winked at Heather as they passed each other. “I’m told my bedside manner is superb,” she said.

Inside, Rune was barely awake and shifting uncomfortably under his blankets. Heather put a hand to his forehead. “Your fever is back up.”

As she turned to get a washcloth from the bathroom, Rune grabbed her wrist in a weak hand. “Don’t leave me,” he said.

Heather squeezed his hand and removed it from her wrist. “I’ll be right back. I’m just going into the bathroom. I won’t even be out of sight.” She watched him as she wetted the cloth and rung it out. There was shed fur on his pillow and his bandages were rumpled, though not removed, so she knew he had gone through another partial change since her last check-up.

She folded the damp cloth and laid it across his forehead. “You need to drink some water. You’re going to get dehydrated.” She helped him hold his head up to drink.

He sunk back into the pillows, but he looked a bit better. “Stay with me,” he said. “Talk to me.”

Heather pulled the chair over and sat so that she could lean her left arm on the bed. “You had a guest,” Heather said, unable to resist bringing it up.

“Topaz should never have been sent away,” he said in a voice she could barely hear.

Heather sat up and leaned close to him. “Topaz was here?”

“I wish you could have met him. I wanted so badly to have a family to introduce you to.”

Heather patted his hand. “Rune, I do know Topaz. We’re friends.”

But Rune was not listening. He spoke with the single-minded determination of someone with a speech to get off his chest. “I wanted to tell you, ever since I met you, about what I was. But I never had the courage. I thought, as long as I managed to hide it from you, it was better to let you think we had a normal life.”

Oh, god, Heather thought, his wife. He thinks I’m his wife. The realization made her want to jerk her hand away from his and run from the room. It was not even compassion that kept her at his side. It was morbid curiosity. What had happened between them that brought him back to the House a broken man?

“I hated keeping it from you. I imagined, so many times, what you would say if I told you. I pretended you would come back here, that you would be willing to live as a cat. Sometimes, I even imagined you were really a changing-cat and I didn’t know it.”

“You wanted to stay with me,” Heather said because she could not bear to let him make a confession like that and offer nothing in return. “You wanted to make it work.”

“But when she was born, I panicked. There was no pretending she was anything but a human.”

Heather felt bile rise in her throat. They had a child? Was that even possible? She could think of nothing to say, no sweet line to feed him. He had a child out there somewhere. A human child.

“I asked Poppy if there was a chance, any chance that she could be a changing-cat. But that was after I had left you. I’m so sorry.” He pulled Heather closer. She could have resisted, his grip was so weak. But she let him pull her out of her chair until she was leaning over him.

He brought a hand up to cup her face. She felt cold and sick and horribly complicit in what he was telling her. “Please forgive me,” he said. “I was a coward and I never loved you as much as I imagined I did. But I did not want you hurt. Please. Forgive me, some day.”

Heather did not know and could never explain why she did what she did next. She did not imagine herself to be an unusually compassionate person. And she found Rune’s story horrifying. She wondered if she would not have done what he did as well, if it had been her strange, changeling child.

But she knew what it felt like to be beyond the possibility of redemption. Poppy Lee was gone and with her any chance for Heather to be forgiven for twenty-five years on the run. That, more than anything, made Heather bring her face close to his ear and whisper, “I forgive you. Can you forgive yourself yet?” And she turned to press the slightest of kisses to the corner of his mouth.

Rune sighed and let his hand drop from her face. Heather stayed close, feeling the waves of heat coming from his body, until she was sure he had fallen back to sleep.

Heather sulked in the stairwell by the front room, where it was dark and no one else wanted to be. She leaned her head against the cool wall and closed her eyes. She heard voices in another room. And footsteps outside. Everything hurt her ears and made her brain ache. There was some commotion outside. She was not going to see what it was. They were on their own. The door opened and she involuntarily opened her eyes to look.

“A little help here?” Dopple said breathlessly from the door.

Heather groaned and stumbled over to the door and the first of three cages Dopple had deposited on the porch. She knelt and fumbled the door open. A cat slunk out, skinny and scared, then bolted for the nearest piece of furniture it could hide under. “Bad case?” Heather asked.

“Shelter cats.”

Heather pulled the cage out of the way then took another from where it hung by a strap on Dopple’s shoulder. Dopple winced and tottered into the house with the last cage. Four more cats came from those, their condition no better than the first. “I’ll go get Carlisle,” Heather said. “He’ll get them set up.”

In the kitchen, Carlisle and Mysti chatted with half a dozen other cats. Mysti was the only one human at the moment. Heather touched Carlisle’s head. “Dopple is home with some traumatized cats.”

Heather had a second to notice that Carlisle looked to Mysti, rather than saying anything to her, before Mysti disappeared from the room with more speed than should have been possible in heels that high. Curious, Heather followed after her. She could hear Carlisle behind her as well.

They made it back to the front room in time to see Dopple just as she looked up from unlacing her boots, struggling with her fingers. Heather could see the slow slide of her eyes up Mysti’s body to her face. Heather half expected some kind of blow-up, given the strong personalities of both cats.

Instead, Heather heard a short, high squeal from Dopple as she flung herself into Mysti’s arms. The kiss that followed smoldered with so much suppressed passion that Heather found herself averting her eyes in embarrassment. She glanced at Carlisle, who exhibited no surprise at all. This was normal?

“When did you get here?” Dopple asked. She could not seem to stop touching Mysti, cautious brushes of her fingers like she expected Mysti to melt into nothing at any moment.

“A few days. You took longer than I thought you would.” Mysti had an arm around Dopple’s waist and the other hand on her neck under the fringe of her black hair.

“Are you going to stay? Please stay.” Her eyes, normally slit in annoyance, were wide and hungry.

“For a while,” Mysti said. She did not seem to want to talk about it.

“How much is a while?” Dopple asked persistently. “A long while?”

Mysti pressed a kiss to Dopple’s temple, even as she said, “I need to keep looking. I haven’t found the perfect one yet.”

Dopple’s hands turned to fists and she pushed away from Mysti with her forearms against Mysti like bars. Mysti did not let go. “You’ll never find the perfect tom,” Dopple said. “You’ll never be satisfied and then you’ll be dead before we had any time together.”

“We have time together,” Mysti said soothingly.

“A weekend every few months isn’t enough!”

“Let’s not fight about this now,” Mysti said, trying with her not insubstantial charms to steer their reunion back towards romance.

She really was the same Dopple Heather knew. With a gorgeous queen fawning over her, Dopple was still furious and spoiling for a fight. “Why? So you can run off in a day or two before we talk about it at all? No! You were gone for six months this time.”

“I wrote,” Mysti said. She shrugged helplessly.

“It’s not the same. I want you here. With me. All the time. For keeps.”

“I won’t be around forever.”

“A kitten won’t be a replacement for you. I don’t want some consolation prize when you’re dead.”

So that was why Mysti was the legendary breaker of hearts. She wanted to raise a kitten with her lover — whom Heather could see, as they stood face to face, was quite a bit younger than she — so Dopple would not be left alone after Mysti died.

“And you’re not staying in a room by yourself while you’re here, either,” Dopple said, getting into the swing of her argument. She pulled Mysti by the hand towards the stairs. When she saw Heather and Carlisle watching, horrified spectators, she hissed. “What are you looking at?” Heather and Carlisle jumped out of her way and she stomped upstairs like a petulant teenager, Mysti hurrying after her.

“Are they always–” Heather said.

“Always,” Carlisle agreed. “The course of true love, Heather. That’s what we all have to look forward to, if we’re that lucky.”

Previous Episode :: Back to Index :: Next Episode

HoC Ep. 10: Bend Before You Break

Heather felt the irrational urge to swing her legs under the seat of the chair or eat a grape lollipop. The last time she had been in this room, she had been a child. But it still looked the same. Better lighting, some new furniture. New people. But it was definitely the same place. The memories made the impersonal office seem warm and inviting.

The secretary hung up the phone. “Miss Dahl will see you now,” she said.

Heather followed her around a corner and into an office. Susanna Dahl stood up and shook Heather’s hand. “Thanks for seeing me,” Heather said as she took a seat.

“Of course. I’ve been hoping for a chance to talk to you about the state of affairs. I pulled everything I could on your finances after you asked.” She waved to a stack of folders – the House predated computers and, according to legend, paper as well.

“Great. I have a lot of plans for the place. I know it needs fixing up. I just want to make sure that the money is going to be there.”

“Your family had a lot of sense. Your investments are very solid. You’ve lost quite a bit of money during the recession, but, to be honest, it’s a small fraction of the total assets.”

“I’d like to know what my options are for borrowing against those assets. I’m looking at some major construction costs and I’m afraid of taking too much out, you know?”

“Well, there are a few options, but–” Her phone range. “Excuse me. Hello? Oh, good. Send him in.”

“If this is a bad time,” Heather said.

“No, no. Actually, I asked someone to come in to meet you. I think you might have something in common.”

“In common?” Heather repeated and turned around as the door opened.

The man who walked in was stout-chested and middle-aged. He wore a large belt buckle, like a cowboy’s trophy buckle. He loomed over Heather and offered his hand. “Hello. I’m George Ellison,” he said. “So, what have I missed?”

“I remember you,” Heather said. “You’re the who-are-you bullshit man.” She suddenly heard her mother’s voice, repeating the same instructions every time they went out in public – remember what you are.

“Good memory,” he said with a laugh that sounded indulgent, like a condescending uncle. “Did you tell her?” He asked Susanna.

“Not yet–”

“Let’s not beat around the bush then,” he said as he pulled up a chair and turned it to sit at Heather’s elbow. “I’m prepared to make you a very lucrative offer.”

“Ahem,” Susanna said.

He spared a glance at Susanna. “Excuse me. We are prepared.”

“An offer on what?”

“Your property, of course.”

Heather choked out a laugh even as her stomach clenched under a wave of cold fear which she could not explain. “The House isn’t for sale.”

“Now, Susanna has been very insistent about how long that place has been with your family. Many generations, I’m led to understand.”

“More than you realize,” Heather said.

“But I also know that you have been beating yourself over the head trying to get it fixed up. Home renovation can be very difficult. I’m in the business myself.”

“And how exactly do you know that I’ve been fixing it up?”

He brushed the comment aside. “Susanna told me.”

“When you asked for the portfolio summary,” Susanna said, “I assumed renovations.”

Heather felt creepy-crawlies on her skin, but it was not from any change. “And you want to buy the house from me instead.”

“A place like that is too much work for one little woman like yourself.”

“I’m managing,” Heather said, her voice becoming a growl.

“I’m sure you are.” Heather could envision him patting her on the head. “But what are you going to do with it if you finish fixing it up? Not live there.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” It was the House of Cats and, as her memory of Poppy Lee reminded her, she was a cat.

“A young woman like you doesn’t want to be isolated up a damn mountain like that. Think of what you could buy with the money. I bet a beach-front condo would be perfect for you. Close to shopping and work.”

Heather looked at Susanna, who could not quite meet her eyes. “And my family’s trust? What does it say about this?”

“Well, that is, it’s a little complicated.” Susanna’s hand-wringing suggested it was more than a little complicated. “But I’ve been working on ways around it. Really, as long as you signed the trust over to us, it would be legally acceptable. Of course, all the other assets would be transferred to your name first. Just the property would pass to us.”

Heather wished she carried a purse, so she would have something to gather up in preparation to leave. “I’m sure you understand that this is something I’ll have to think about.”

“Of course. Wouldn’t want to rush into things,” George said, but his self-satisfied smile said he thought he had what he wanted.

“I think I’ll be going now. If I have any more questions, I’ll call you,” Heather said. When a cat cannot fight, she runs.

“We can still talk now,” Susanna said.

“No. Thank you. I think I’ve heard all I need to right now. Good bye.”

Topaz was waiting to greet Heather as soon as she walked in the door. He had refused to speak to her for almost two weeks. Now, he grabbed her by the wrist and started hauling her up the stairs.

“What the heck?” Heather said. “What’s gotten into you?”

“There’s something you need to see,” Topaz said as he started up the steps into the attic. He planted Heather in front of the blank wall. “Wait here.”

“I know about the door, if that’s what this is about.”

Topaz shook his head. His hair flared out in a lion’s mane, always just a little longer than he would like. “Just wait, will you?”

Heather sighed and crossed her arms and waited. Topaz nodded and got down on the floor. He tripped the cat door and slithered through. It was a pity it was a Leo moon, or it would be easier still. When the human door opened a moment later, Topaz waved Heather into the secret room. Before she could say anything, he hushed her with a finger to his lips. Then he stepped out of the way and pointed to the far wall.

Heather clamped a hand over her mouth, a horrified noise still squeaking out. There was blood. Not a lot, but enough for her to recognize it from across the tiny room. And there was shed fur in clumps, like it had been pulled out. And there was Rune, halfway through a change, though even Topaz was no longer sure in which direction: human or cat?

She took a step forward and, when Topaz did not move to stop her, knelt at Rune’s side. She watched his human finger nails grow long and sharp before shrinking to cat-sized claws. They created bloody furrows through his fingers as they did. The change partly healed the damage, but even as she watched, the change stuttered and reversed, causing more injuries.

“How long has he been like this?” Heather asked in a whisper so quiet, it was more breath than sound.

“I found him an hour ago. But I’ve been spying on him for a few moons now and it’s been getting worse, just like this.”

“When was the last time he took a break day?”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“You know, a day off. From the catnip. I take every Saturday off from the cat’s bane to let the transformation get out of my system.”

Topaz let out a bitter little laugh. “Let’s see. Probably not in about eight years. That’s how long someone told me he’s been taking it.”

Heather shook her head. “He hasn’t changed in eight years?”

Topaz tried to hush her as her voice rose, but his had grown a little frantic as well. “I think he’s changed like this, when the pressure gets to be too much. But he doesn’t remember or pretends he doesn’t.”

“This is bad. I’ve never tried to go more than a month without break. And that was a disaster. One of my coworkers filed a missing person’s report, I was out of commission so long.”

“What do we do?” Topaz asked.

Heather ran her fingers over Rune’s dark fur. Some of the blood had come from self-inflicted wounds, like the claw marks raking across his ribcage and the scratches on his face. “I don’t know. We’ll have to wait for the moon to pass.” Rune’s ear twitched in her direction.

“Why? He’s like this all the time now.”

Heather’s voice rose again, trying to drown out Topaz’s objections. “But the moon will make it worse, and–”

Rune lashed out with a slightly deformed paw. His claws connected with Heather’s arm and slashed down the back of her hand. She jerked away and scrambled back from him, but he did not follow. He did not seem to even be consciously aware that she was there. Topaz lifted her to her feet.

“I have to go,” Heather said, shaking all over.

“But what about him?”

“Just keep him in here. I’ll figure something out.”


But Heather had triggered the human door and run from the room. Two pear-shaped drops of blood formed a minimalist trail behind her.

Heather jogged up to the café and the tables out front. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she said to Yvonne, who was placidly stirring her iced tea. “There was a problem at the house,” she added. She self-consciously rubbed at the bandage hastily taped over the back of her hand.

“Why don’t you sit down?” Yvonne asked.

“Thanks. Did you order?”

“Yes, I’m afraid I did.”

Heather busied herself with her napkin and water and silverware, trying to not notice the little lip-curl of disgust Yvonne was giving her. It was probably all in Heather’s head, she told herself. “That’s okay. If you see our waiter, just snag him for me and I’ll figure out what I’m getting.”

“I was so pleased when you asked me to lunch. I should have expected that your responsibilities would complicate things.” Yvonne stroked a fingertip down the side of her glass, wiping away mist and droplets with methodical focus.

“Uh, yeah. Sorry about that. I just never know when the next thing is going to fall apart on me,” Heather said, trying to make it sound funny. “But how are you?”

Yvonne lit up with more genuine interest than Heather had ever seen in her. “My genealogy society is putting on an exhibit at the local library. You should come by.” All her ironic detachment vanished. She was earnest, even a little nerdy in her passion. She was a whole new person. “I’m sure your family tree would be impressive, what with your family being in town for so long. I imagine a wealth of information.”

“Oh, I don’t know. My pedigree is pretty normal. And they weren’t much for community involvement. But I’ll definitely swing by,” Heather hastily added when Yvonne’s face fell. “I didn’t know you were in a genealogy club.”

“I founded it, actually. You could join, you know.” She said it in much the same way a child would offer a new friend admittance into the Tree House of Secrecy.

“Aw, you wouldn’t want me. I’d just be late to all the meetings, wouldn’t I?”

Yvonne tuned out again, her voice going flat. “So, how is the house? No more casualties, I hope?” She flicked a nail at Heather’s bandaged hand on the table.

“Not yet. I’ve tried to figure out what I need to fix and in what order. Do I rebuild the tower? Or just patch up the walls and roof where it used to be? And do I do that before or after fixing the porch?” Come on, Heather thought, where did the other Yvonne go? I need a friend today.

“You’re not planning on just repairing the railing, are you?”

Heather rubbed the back of her neck. “I guess not?”

Yvonne leaned forward and Heather thought some of that spark was back. “Heather, that thing is a death trap. You need to have it replaced.” But she leaned away again and put a barrier of ice tea and glass between them. “Sweetheart, what are you thinking? You can’t just slap some spackle on that house and call it done.”

“I wasn’t. I just–”

Yvonne opened her clutch and handed Heather a handwritten list of names and phone numbers. “I think you need to talk to all these people about what needs to be done up there.”

The neatly printed numbers were followed by half-realized notations of name and profession. Carpenter, landscaper, masonry specialist. “I figured I would need to hire people, but this list is awfully long. I thought I could do at least some of it myself.”

“Yourself? You could have killed yourself with your fall last week.” She reached across and deliberately patted Heather’s sore hand, the faint touch stinging in its condescension. “I would not fix anything more drastic than a hangnail, if I were you.”

Heather snagged the first uniformed person she spotted. “Waiter? Hi, do you think I could get a menu? And a drink?” She grinned and felt the desperate pull across her face, not so much an expression as a prayer for rescue. “Maybe just a whole bottle? Thanks.”

Carlisle shook his head. He put a warm hand on Topaz’s shoulder. “I agree with Heather. If he can get through this moon, we’ll have a better chance after that to wean him off the catnip. We’ll help you, I promise.”

“And what if he can’t get through it now?” Topaz asked. He paced the front room where Carlisle had been working. “Are you sure there isn’t anything we can do?”

“Nothing I know of.” Carlisle shuffled his letters like a nervous tic. “I’m almost grateful for the catnip keeping him insensible. It will keep him quiet.”

“You haven’t seen him. I think it’s just the sensible part that’s been keeping him from doing something really terrible to himself.”

There was a thumping noise upstairs. They both looked up. “He can’t get out,” Carlisle asked, “can he?”

“He can barely stand up most of the time. He just lies there.”

“But if he got up?” Carlisle insisted.

“He must know where the triggers are.”

“Maybe we should check up there,” Carlisle said just as a louder crash was heard.

Topaz bounded up the stairs before Carlisle finished suggesting it. On the landing, he listened and heard a whimper, followed by a short scream. He ran in that direction. Halfway down the hall, he found a door open.

Inside, a young queen held Rune at bay with a chair. Though she was human and he was, from what Topaz could see, fully cat again, he seemed to have the upper hand. He was hissing and spitting. He clawed at the chair and made sudden dashes towards her, keeping his body low to the ground.

Topaz dove for Rune before he could notice another target in the room. Rune twisted in Topaz’s grip like an eel, all long muscles and wide, sharp-toothed jaws. He kicked and clawed and swung his body around in midair.

“What do I do?” Topaz shouted to Carlisle, who appeared in the doorway. “I can’t hold onto him.”

“I’ll get one of Dopple’s carriers,” he said, already moving away.

“No! If he changes again, he’ll get hurt in there.”

Carlisle hesitated for precious seconds. “Then take him back to the attic. You’ll just have to guard him in there.”

Topaz wrapped his other arm around Rune’s middle and immediately got a vicious kick with both hind feet. “Damn it, Rune, stop!” Topaz held him tighter, one hand still on the scruff of his neck and the other arm pinning him to Topaz’s belly. Blood and fur went tacky against one another. He tried to kick again, but could not fold up tightly enough to get at Topaz’s arm. Topaz half walked, half ran for the attic. Ahead of him, Carlisle tripped the cat door.

“Try to push him through here,” Carlisle said.

“Oh, yeah, right,” Topaz complained. Rune had worn himself out and hung limp in Topaz’s arms. But he still made an eerie, low growl that rose into a screech and a hiss when Topaz pointed him into the open doorway. Topaz reached in as far as he could while still holding Rune. As soon as Topaz released him, he turned around in the doorway and slashed at Topaz’s retreating hand. But he backed away after that until he cleared the doorway and was shut into the little room.

Topaz sat back heavily and cradled his battered arm to his chest. Behind him, Carlisle sighed loudly. “That was an adventure,” he said. “I’ll go get something to clean up your arm. Stay here. If he tries to get out again,” Carlisle said and trailed off.

“I’ll think of something,” Topaz said. He pressed his arm to his shirt to stop the bleeding. He sat and listened for any sign of what his brother was doing on the other side of the wall. And he tried to think of something useful to do.

Heather trudged up the hill to the house. Yvonne’s criticisms still rattled around in her head. The worst part was that Yvonne tried to be nice. Heather felt certain she meant well when she said those things. Heather stopped in front of the house. There on the porch was the pile of lumber, hand saw, nails, hammer and measuring tape, all waiting for her to patch up the porch. She had not told Yvonne about that.

Heather really had thought she could fix it herself. She sat down on the steps and picked up the measuring tape. She pulled it out and let it coil itself back up again. Maybe Yvonne was wrong. Yvonne did not look like she had done a lot of home repair, after all. Maybe it was not as bad as all that. Heather stood up. She would show Yvonne. She was a competent young woman. Person. Cat. Something. She could figure this out.

She measured the space between supports where the railing had broken. Then she measured out that same length on a board. It would not look good, she thought to herself as she used a fingernail to mark a line across the board, but it would be functional. It would serve its purpose, until she figured out what she would do next.

She propped the board against the wall at an angle, held it in place with one leg and one hand, and started sawing. And that stupid George, she thought. What did he know? Heather could take care of the house on her own. She expected him to call her “little lady” at some point. Pig. Who did he think he was? Heather bet he had bullied Susanna into letting him show up. He was that big a jerk.

The board clattered to the floor in two pieces. “Triumph,” Heather said aloud. She picked up one piece and went to the rail. All she had to do was drive nails into it at a slant and they would catch in the support beams. Ugly, but functional, she told herself again. She held the board up against one side. It would not stay. She looked over at the other side. Something was not right. She held the board in the middle and looked at both sides. It was too short. Just by a little bit, but when she centered it, there was a visible gap on either side.

“Maybe I picked up the wrong half,” Heather said. She grabbed the other piece off the floor and held it up. It was even shorter. Heather stared at them in disbelief. She screwed it up completely. It was all wrong.

With a cry of outrage, she threw one half and then the other past the porch and into the front yard, where they gouged out divots. Why was everything so hard, she thought miserably. Heather sank to the floor, covered her face with her hands, and cried. She hated the house and everyone in it. She hated Yvonne and George for being right. She took a gasping, shuddering breath. She hated herself for proving them right. She wished the world would just blow up and leave her in peace. She shook her head, on the verge of throwing herself to the floor, kicking and wailing like a child, and wallowed.

Heather padded downstairs, rubbing her red and sore eyes after a nap that left her feeling worse than ever. She sniffed. What was that smell? She hoped it was not someone cooking. The last thing she needed was company in her favorite room. She scrubbed again at her eyes, which seemed to sting more with each second. She sniffed again. Really, where was that smell coming from? She turned into the kitchen.

Several cats cowered against the kitchen counter, embracing one another, too scared to move. Heather turned. She felt it as several distinct stops. Turn her body. Let her head follow. Change the focus of her eyes from inside the house to outside. See the fire. Freeze.

“No,” she breathed. “No, no, no!” Her body broke free of the spell it was under and she surged forward. “Someone get the extinguisher,” she shouted. “Under the sink!”

She could feel the flames through the glass doors as she shoved them open and ran out. Six feet of flame greeted her, along with the smell of burning plastic and floating embers of half-burned leaves. She ran for the garden hose. She was so focused on what she needed to do that she did not see Topaz until he wrapped an arm around her and caught her up.

“Let it burn,” he said with terrifying calm.

Heather wasted critical time staring at him without comprehension. Then she thrashed and shoved him away. “You idiot, the house! The house will burn!” She bolted away while she could. The hose lay coiled at the corner of the patio.

“It’s stone,” Topaz said above the crackle of the fire and the whistle of the wind it generated. “It’ll be fine.”

“The porch won’t be,” Heather shouted back. “The windows won’t be. One spark gets in and the whole place goes.” She turned the hose on full tilt and ran back towards the fire. The water hissed and steamed as it hit the fire, which sent up huge plumes of black smoke.

She heard a metallic clatter behind her. Someone had thrown the fire extinguisher out the door, but no one dared come outside to use it. “Topaz, damn it, help me!”

Topaz still just stood against the wall and watched the fire consume the garden. Heather saw the lumber she had bought for the porch at the bottom of the flames, the planks glowing orange between a layer of crackled black. Heather pulled the hose as far as it would reach and grabbed up the extinguisher. She fumbled with it, trying to pull the pin with her hands full.

Someone took the hose from her left hand. She fought to get it back until she saw Carlisle’s grim face. She did not waste time explaining; she just pointed the extinguisher at the flames and squeezed the trigger. With the white spray shielding her, she advanced on the heart of the fire, a pile of plastic bags of dry herbs atop the crossed planks of wood out in the middle of the garden.

She saw Carlisle fight it from the side out of the corner of her eye. Inch by inch, then foot by foot, the flames died back, replaced by choking smoke. They both continued to douse the embers until there was no sign of flame amid the blackened wreckage. Heather kicked the ashes with the toe of her shoe. Carlisle soaked the newly exposed embers in water. Finally, only the smoke and foam and soupy ashes remained.

Heather let the spent extinguisher drop to the ground. She wiped the backs of her hands across her sweaty face and they came away dark with soot. She jumped when Carlisle set a hand on her shoulder. “What happened?” Carlisle croaked.

Heather could not make her mouth work. She turned, though, back towards the house. Topaz still stood against the wall. His face had no expression. He pressed his hands palm-first against the wall. In a voice scratchy from breathing smoke, he said, “It was all I could think of doing.”

Topaz stuffed another set of jeans and a moth-eaten sweatshirt into the brown paper bag Dorian had brought up. He checked that his lighter was in his pocket. Satisfied he had what little belonged to him packed up, he tucked the bag under his arm. “I’m ready,” he said. Dorian followed him downstairs.

Rafflesia met him at the bottom. She scrubbed tears from her eyes and thrust a large plastic bag at him, full of assorted leftovers from the refrigerator. “Hey, thanks,” he said, but she ran out of sight without a word. Topaz set the food in with his cloths. He squared his shoulders and prepared himself.

In the front room, Carlisle stood at the door with his arms crossed over his chest. He had a smudge of soot still on his face. Topaz’s hand twitched, ready to reach up and brush it away, but he held himself back. The room was full of residents, watching with funereal solemnity.

Carlisle met his eyes as though he could not have cared less what was happening. “As per the rules of the House of Cats, which state–”

Topaz held up a hand to cut him off. “Spare me the ceremony,” he said. “I know the rules. I won’t put up a fight.”

Carlisle cleared his throat and just started up where he left off. “Which state that any cat found guilty of harming another resident without just cause or of endangering the House itself, whether through direct action or neglect, may be evicted at the discretion of the Queen or her delegate, I hereby banish you from the House of Cats, effective immediately.”

Somewhere, Topaz heard Rafflesia’s girlish, hiccupping sobs. He kept his eyes straight ahead, focused on a spot of nothing just past Carlisle’s ear. “I understand,” he said.

“You no longer have a home here,” Carlisle said and his jaw clenched like he wanted to say something else, but would not let himself. He stepped away from the door.

Topaz put his hand on the door handle. “Say goodbye to me?”

Carlisle’s nose flared. He swallowed hard. And he walked away. Topaz sighed and opened the door. He tried to think of something to say, some way to make them all understand. I had to do it, he told himself. I had to save him, no matter the cost. But I didn’t want to hurt anyone.

But he did not say anything. He shut the door behind himself. He put one foot in front of the other until the hill and the trees blocked the House from view. The road opened up, cars appearing and disappearing around the bend like ghosts. And Topaz just kept walking.

Heather took a pinch of catnip from the little pet store plastic bag. She rolled her desk chair over to her bed, where Rune rested, a panting, shaking mess. “Here you go,” she said. She pushed his lips apart with her fingertips and placed the dusty herbs as far back on his rough tongue as she could. She grabbed the mug of water and spooned some into his mouth next. “Swallow, please, or you’ll get my bed all soggy,” she said in a soft voice. Rune smacked a few times. Heather gave him more water until his mouth did not make dry, sticky noises.

Carlisle slipped into her room silently and stood beside her. “How is he?”

“This stuff is pretty weak, but the last dose calmed him down a lot. I just gave him more because he started shaking again. I’m sorry–” She could not think how to say it right. Sorry I made you kick out your boyfriend while I played nursemaid to someone who might be dead soon. “–I left everything else to you.”

Carlisle hung like a phantom behind her, pale and soot-smudged and heart-sick. “Has he changed again?”

“Not since he turned cat. Did you get the bandages?”

Carlisle held up a roll of plastic-wrapped gauze. “Are there any wounds now?”

“I found some blood under his fur where he scratched himself. And his face is a little swollen. His paws seem to have healed.”

“That’s a small mercy, at least.”

“Until he shifts again. The pain in his human body makes him hurt himself even more.”

“How long do you think this will go on?”

Heather shrugged helplessly. “A normal change lasts, what, thirty seconds? Not long. I went for a month once and lost a few days to this. I just had constant shifts though. No damage.”

“A week? Two?”

“Longer. If he survives that long,” Heather added.

“What if you gave him a larger quantity and then worked him down again?”

Heather rubbed a knuckle across her forehead. She had wondered the same thing. “Every minute more he spends on this just adds to the toxic build-up his system has to get rid of. I hate to say it, but Topaz may have had the right idea.” Carlisle crossed his arms and Heather could see him shut down. “Ahem. Well, the best I can do for Rune is use this to keep him calm. A little seems to ease the symptoms. I just hope it’s little enough that it doesn’t make matters worse.”

“How much of this is physiological and how much is,” Carlisle searched for the words, “whatever it is that makes us change in the first place?”

“That’s a question for a philosopher or a doctor. Both. I don’t know. All I know is, whatever causes the changes, it will keep trying harder and harder to make us shift until we do.”

“And he has eight years to work off.”

“Maybe not,” Heather said, letting herself sound hopeful. There was no chance the hope would go to her head, not when Rune looked half-dead. “Topaz said he’s seen him human before, recently. He may have been changing a little each moon for some time now. But Topaz said Rune never remembered changing.”

“Do you think he will survive?”

“He’s pretty much the most stubborn bastard I’ve ever met.” Heather looked up at Carlisle, knowing he had just sent his boyfriend packing, best intentions notwithstanding, just to uphold the rules of the House. “And I’ve known a lot of contenders.” She stroked Rune’s thick fur, smoothing it over the rumpled patches where he had clawed and bit himself. “If anyone can get through this, it’ll be Rune.” Just one more tomorrow, she thought. Last through one tomorrow after another.

Previous Episode :: Back to Index :: Next Episode

HoC Episode 9: Brotherly Love

One day, when Topaz came back from exploring the back alleys near his family’s den, the last of his litter mates was gone. He thought, or hoped, she was just out exploring. But dawn came and still she did not return. They never stayed out all night like that. Topaz curled up in their nest of newspaper and old blankets and hid his face under his tail. Being a Maine Coon, even as a kitten his tail was already impressively fluffy. He was the runt of his litter, born healthy, but always behind the others in growing and learning. He was the slow one. But even alone, in his den, he was warm and comfortable.

Topaz woke up when his mother returned. He knew when he saw her that something was wrong. Something had bothered her for some time, but she never talked about it. Now, she watched him like she watched dogs that strayed too close to their den. “So,” she said, “you’re the last. Always slow. You take longer than anyone else. Do you know how old you are?”

“We were born in spring,” he said without certainty.

“And it’s winter now. You should be grown and moved out by now.”


“Don’t call me that,” she snapped. “I know what you are. I would give anything to know which tom was your father.” The low light of early morning behind her, barely strong enough to reach the alley, turned her into a cut-out of black.


“So I could kill him myself! For making me give birth to a mongrel like you. A changing-cat. You might as well be all human.”

“I don’t understand,” Topaz cried. He backed away from her until the back of the den, a cardboard box, stopped him going any farther.

“I’m going to fix this,” she said, half to herself. “I would be protecting some other queen, wouldn’t I?” Then she lunged.

Topaz hissed and scrambled away from her. He was small for his age and took too long at everything, but he was smarter than his siblings and smarter than his mother. And she was too angry to think straight. Barely ahead of her teeth and claws, Topaz dove out of their den and into the alley.

He ran down the alley then jumped from a pile of trash bags to a dumpster and up to the fire escape of an apartment. He could hear his mother behind him. Her heavier body sank into the trash bags and she lost time trying to follow him. Topaz loved to explore and he knew all the fastest ways to get around town. He jumped into an apartment, the one that always kept its window open, and skidded under the bed. He heard his mother rattling up the fire escape stairs outside. She would find him, he thought, and he crawled farther under the bed amid dust and a rolled-up sleeping bag and old tennis shoes.

Topaz stayed there, too tense to sleep, too scared to move, and waited for her to find him. But she never did. Maybe she did not see which window he went in. Maybe she did not know what windows were for, even. Topaz was the only cat he knew who liked to watch humans and all they did. Maybe she just could not smell him out. But after a while, he slunk out, groomed the dust from his golden fur, and went to the window.

He saw no one. He took the fire escape the rest of the way up to the roof. From there, he could get down to a different street and more beyond that. So he walked until he did not recognize anything and did not smell anyone he knew. He kept walking until he thought it was safe to stop. It was a long day before he did.

Topaz dug through an overturned trash bin. He nibbled on something that smelled like it might have been food once. He spat it out. Plastic again, smelling of whatever food it had once wrapped. Yuck.

“You look awful,” someone said behind him.

Topaz sprang from the ground to the top of a newspaper dispenser, the nearest tall object. He hissed and bristled. Five. He could never fight off five cats alone. He would have to run.

“Easy, son,” a different cat said. “No one’s going to hurt you.”

“None of us, at any rate,” the first cat added.

“I found this first,” Topaz said. “Fair and square. No one had marked it.”

“Who would?” The first cat said. “How would you like to eat something more delicious than used baggies and brown paper?”

“We know what you are,” the second cat said.

“The last time someone said that to me, it was my mother, just before she tried to kill me.” Topaz felt like someone else, someone old and tired and jaded, was using his mouth to speak. “So, no, I think I’ll pass.”

The second cat sat and all the others followed suit. “I’m Quell and this is Oden. And you are a changing-cat,” he said. “You don’t know it yet, but you will be able to turn into a human.”

“Cats don’t turn into humans,” Topaz said warily. He remembered hearing changing-cat before. “They don’t.”

“Some do. We do.”

“You can turn into humans? So prove it. Do it now.”

“Can’t. Only during the Leo moon.”

“I thought as much,” Topaz said. He jumped down, never taking his eyes off them. “I think I’ll get going, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Actually, it isn’t all the same to us,” Oden said. “See, when you change, it’s going to cause a bit of a fuss if any humans see. And that’s bad for all of us.”

“So we would like you to come with us. We can keep you safe. We have a home,” Quell, the obvious leader, said.

“A home? In a building?” Topaz liked buildings. They were warm inside, even when it was cold out.

“And food,” Quell added.

Topaz’s rumbling stomach decided the matter. Two weeks of scrounging through garbage had not agreed with his growing body. “Take me there,” he said.

He fell into formation with the rest of them. They moved around him to keep him in the center, safe and partly hidden. Finally, he started to relax again.

“So, who’s your mother?” One of the other cats asked him.

When he told them, they all laughed. “I heard Brighton say he got to her,” someone said.

“Who’s Brighton?” Topaz asked.

“Local tom,” Oden said. “He throws changing-cats all the time, but won’t ever admit it. He doesn’t change himself, but no queen will touch him if it gets out that he carries shifting.”

“So he’s my father?”

“Probably. He’s the only one we know about, anyway, and we all keep to ourselves, so it wasn’t us.”

“I think one of his kittens is up at the House,” another cat said.

“Your home?”

“No, no. The House of Cats. Big place just for changing-cats,” Oden said. “I heard he’s taken the place over these days. Something about the queen being dead or missing. Something like that.”

“Where is this place?”

“North of here,” Oden said. “Probably a month’s travel for us.”

“Do you know the way?”

Quell shook his head. “We don’t know the way and it’s too dangerous to go alone.” He glanced over at Topaz, looking him up and down. “But, if you don’t mind hanging around a while, there might be another way.”

Topaz ran his sensitive fingers over the tough fabric. “Jeans,” he repeated.

“You have to wear clothing as a human. If you go out, at least,” Oden told him. “How’s it feel?”

“Weird,” Topaz breathed. “And also awesome. I want to do this every day.”

Oden shook his head. “It gets old, after a while. But I actually meant how the clothing feels. Does it fit okay?”

“I guess? I’m still mostly wrapped up in the weird.”

“Wait until you get outside. It’s a trip, going into the city for the first time as a human.” Oden pulled a bright yellow object out of his pocket and a flat box. He took something out of the box and put it between his lips.

“What’s that?” Topaz asked.

“A bad habit,” Oden said. He flicked his thumb and a flame sprang out of the yellow thing. “I smoke sometimes when I’m human.” He turned his head away and blew a puff of smoke.

“Amazing! I want to smoke too!”

“Yeah, no. I’ll just get in trouble with Quell for corrupting today’s youth again.”

“Can I at least see that thing?” Topaz asked and reached for the lighter.

Oden sighed and handed it over. “Just don’t burn the house down, yeah? No, no, you’re doing it wrong. See, like this.” He demonstrated again before Topaz had a chance to burn himself. “Now, come on, we’re going to be late.”

When they got downstairs, Quell tried to take the lighter away, but Topaz held it protectively and gave him a piteous look until he gave up. As they walked down the street, he flicked it on and off happily. He ran his palm through the hot air above the flame.

“So, where are we going?” Topaz asked. That was when he really noticed where they were. There was so much color. Every shop had its name written in a different color and style. There were neon signs in the windows and canvas awnings above the doors. Topaz stopped on the sidewalk and stared.

Oden grabbed his wrist and pulled him on down the street. “Don’t get left behind, buddy. This party is for you.”

“Party?” Topaz asked as he loped up to Quell, who was waiting a few shops ahead with an indulgent expression on his face.

“Remember what I told you about there being another way to get to the House of Cats?” Quell asked.

“Uh huh,” Topaz said, still staring around with eyes and mouth wide open. Things were so much brighter as a human. How could all these people just hurry past, barely looking at their own city?

“We’re going to meet her.” Quell touched Topaz’s shoulder to guide him forward again.

“It’s a her?”

“She comes through her now and then, when she gets word of a changing-cat in danger.”

“Like me?”

“Naw, we can take care of ones like you ourselves,” Oden said. “She gets the really tough cases. Pet store kittens and ones that have already been bought by humans.”

“Humans buy cats?”

“Awful, isn’t it?” Quell said.

“Usually it’s just regular cats, the snotty bastards. Those fur balls deserve what they get,” Oden said.

“Now, now,” Quell said. “Let’s not have this argument again. But the point is, this cat saves them before they get caught changing. She is one of the most important members of our community.”

“But why? I mean, that’s nice that she helps them, but what’s the big deal?”

“Secrecy from humans keeps us all safe. Without cats like her, we would all be circus freaks and lab experiments,” Oden said.

“Here we are,” Quell said. He had stopped beside a car parked outside a pet store. “Time to meet your ride.”

The woman who left the store and headed to the car looked a little like a biker chick, Topaz thought, remembering the people who frequented a bar nearby that he liked to explore around. Oden clapped a hand on Topaz’s back. “Good luck, kid,” he said.

“You’re leaving?” Topaz yelped.

“You’ll be fine. Maybe we’ll see you around sometime,” Oden said.

“Take care,” Quell said. Then they left and Topaz faced the scary biker chick.

The woman — the cat, Topaz had to remind himself — wore a short jacket of black leather, gloves, and boots. She had a cat kennel in her arms. Topaz reached out and put his arms around it as well. “Let me help you with that,” he said in his best English.

The woman’s face did a complicated series of expressions, fear and suspicion and hostility and recognition all rippling across it. “You’re a changing-cat,” she said. “Thanks,” she added after a pause and released the kennel into his grip. “You need something?” She unlocked the back door of the car.

Topaz slid the kennel across the seat. The woman pushed him out of the way and reached through to wrap the seatbelt around the kennel and snap it shut. Inside, a white cat chirped in agreement to something she said that Topaz could not hear. “I need to get to the House of Cats,” Topaz said. “Can you drive?”

She straightened up and leaned against the car with one arm draped over the open door. “What’s in it for me?”

“They said you help cats,” he said.

“Yeah, I bust them out when they need it,” she said and jerked a thumb towards the pet shop. The fingertips of her gloves were oddly floppy, like her fingers were not long enough to reach the ends. “But it looked like you had someone to watch out for you.”

“I think my brother is there. I want to find him.”

“Who’s your brother?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, this should be interesting.” She bumped her heel against the tire for a minute while staring into space. “I might be persuaded to give you a lift,” she said at last. “But I’ll need your help.”

“Help with what?”

“Just a little B and E. This cat says she’s got a cousin who sold before she did. I’ve got to get her back. You up for it?”

“Sure. I’ll help.”

“Good boy. Get in. The house is uptown.”

Being in a car was yet another experience that convinced Topaz that humans had the best lives ever. He pressed his hands to the windows and craned his head in all directions to take in everything they passed.

“You ever broken into a house before?” The woman asked without looking away from the road.

“I’ve gotten in through windows before, if that’s what you mean.”

“Something like that.” He heard laughter in her voice. “If we’re lucky, the humans will all be out.”

“What if they aren’t?”

“We wait.”

“But this is the last day of the moon. We’ll change back. We don’t have much time.”

She held up a bottle. “I’ve got the solution right here,” she said and gave it a shake. Something rattled inside. “Here we go,” she said as she pulled up to a house. There were no other cars in the driveway. The whole cul-de-sac looked deserted, being a Wednesday afternoon. “Let’s have a little fun, shall we? Nothing I like better than making humans miserable.”

“But they have such amazing things,” Topaz protested as he followed her around the side of the house and up to a side door into the garage.

“Yeah, just fantastic,” she said. “Hold this.” She handed him a little zippered case. She took a metal tool out of it and started fiddling with the lock on the door. After a minute, it popped open. She eased it open and stuck her head inside. “You hear anything?” She asked in a whisper.


“Good. Go fetch.”


She glared. “You want a ride or not?”

Topaz gulped. “Right.” He ducked low as he went through the door, shutting out all the strange and wonderful things he wanted to look at, focusing just on getting the cat and getting out again.

Topaz escaped into the backyard of the House. No one else was around, so he caught his breath and started exploring. Everyone wanted to talk to the new arrivals, including Topaz, but there was only one cat he wanted to talk to and Topaz had not found him yet. He sneezed once. All the smells there were new and so different from the city he knew. He could hear living things moving around everywhere and every breath of air was filled with the scent of pine.

Topaz heard someone moving behind him and he turned. “Hello,” he said and then he actually registered what the cat looked like. It was a cute bobtail cat with a spotted coat. He was intensely attractive. Topaz trotted over, tail swaying in the air. “I’m Topaz.”

The bobtail bowed his head slightly in a way that looked just like a human. “My name is Carlisle. Welcome to the House of Cats.”

“Thanks. So, you wouldn’t happen to be in charge here, would you?” Topaz really hoped he said no, because if this was his brother, he would have to wash his brain out after the thoughts he was having.

“After a manner of speaking, I suppose. Was there something you needed?”

“I was told I was looking for a cat who sort of took the House over a while ago.”

“Ah. Well, in that case, I’m afraid I am not the one you are looking for,” Carlisle said. Topaz hoped that the note of disappointment was not imagined. His list of cats to talk to definitely had a new entry. “That would be Rune,” Topaz barely heard Carlisle say.

“So his name is Rune.”

“You don’t have some sort of vendetta against him, do you? I shouldn’t be surprised, given his behavior sometimes, only it will be a bit of trouble.”

“I think he’s my brother,” Topaz said, suddenly shell-shocked at the prospect of actually finding him.

“Tell me, are you related by mother, or father?”

“The top tom around my old home was, I think, a changing-cat. His name was Brighton.”

“Then, as the official record keeper of the House, including pedigrees, I am pleased to tell you that Rune is your brother. At any rate, he has stated that a cat named Brighton was his father as well.”

“Is he here?”

“Follow me.” They walked around the corner of the house, into a grassy area full of the brightest, most golden sunlight Topaz had ever seen. Everything was warm and comfortable. And there was a gray tabby sleeping in the sunlight. “Go on,” Carlisle said, giving him a nudge. “He sleeps all the time, so you can’t possibly do him any harm by waking him.”

Topaz looked down at Rune, his brother, his family. The only family he had that might still accept him. He was too nervous to say or do anything to wake him. But the shadow Topaz cast over Rune must have awakened him.

Rune rolled over and squinted up at him. “Yeah?”

“I think I’m your brother, well, I mean, I’m pretty sure I am and my name’s Topaz and hi,” Topaz said in a rush.

Rune sat up and looked him over. “Huh. We don’t look much alike.”

“Different mothers,” Topaz said.

Rune wiped a paw across his eyes and blinked a few times. “Sorry, seeing spots. So.” He tipped his head, motioning Topaz to lie down in the warm grass. “Tell me about yourself.” Topaz felt all his nervousness and all his longing evaporate like dew on the sun-heated lawn.

Topaz regarded the two patches of cultivated ground behind the house. Catnip. Cat’s bane. Two plants, two beds. Dopple had told him she took cat’s bane to go on her trips as a human. And Carlisle had told him, after too many occasions of weird behavior from Rune, that his brother had an addiction to catnip.

Topaz wanted to go into town. He had not been away from the House since arriving and he wanted to see human things again. He peeled off a stalk of cat’s bane with his teeth. He sniffed it. Would it really make him change right then and there?

“Who gave you permission to do that?” Rune bellowed.

Topaz looked up then flinched away. Wherever Rune had come from, he was suddenly right on top of Topaz, all flattened ears and bristled tail. “I’m sorry,” Topaz said immediately, backing away. “I didn’t know it was yours.”

“Don’t ever touch that,” Rune said. He sprang and if Topaz had thought his mother was frightening, it was nothing compared to his brother. There was no getting away from him. Topaz kept leaping away, but every time he did, Rune got closer still. Rune knocked him to the ground and bit his ear viciously. Topaz yelped and jerked and threw Rune off him.

Topaz had grown and would get bigger yet, if his breed was any indication, but Rune was full-grown and fit and quite possibly insane. Rune caught Topaz with both front paws around his rump, like a lion taking down a zebra, then tumbled him to the ground. This time, Rune bit his neck near the shoulders and shook him.

“Never, never, never,” he repeated around his mouthful of fur and loose skin. “No one changes, do you understand me?”

“Yes, fine! Lemme go!”

Rune let him go and Topaz wriggled out from under him. Topaz achieved minimum safe distance and shook his fur out. He used a paw to wipe the blood from his punctured ear tip. Then he noticed that a crowd of cats had formed by the back door. They were watching, not with the air of spectators to a blood sport, but like hostages. Then Carlisle burst out of the crowd and ran over to Topaz.

“What happened? Where are you hurt?”

Topaz shrugged him away. “I’m fine. It was just a misunderstanding.”

“What did he do to you?” Carlisle asked and cast a glance at Rune. Dopple had gone to Rune’s side, but they were not talking. “Did he attack you?”

“It was nothing. We were just messing around and got carried away.”

“You don’t have to cover for him,” Carlisle said in a whisper. “This isn’t the first time he’s done this.”

“It’s fine,” Topaz said emphatically. He looked at Rune. The first day he had arrived, Carlisle told him the rules of the House. First among them was that all changing-cats were welcome in the House, always. Except. Except if they brought harm to another changing-cat or to the House itself. That was the only reason they could ever be kicked out. And the rules were always enforced.

“Please, just say the word,” Carlisle said with an imploring look. “He’s a danger to everyone here. Please, I need you to say it.”

Topaz looked at Rune and met his eyes across the yard. He was Topaz’s only chance for a family. Topaz looked back at Carlisle. “Nothing happened.”

Carlisle seemed to cave in on himself. “Very well. Come inside and I’ll clean your ear for you. We mustn’t let it get infected.” He snorted and shook his head. “We would never be allowed to change and take you to a doctor.”

Topaz followed Carlisle back to the house. The crowd dispersed before them with murmurs and nervous looks. Topaz could not save them, not at the expense of his brother. But, he thought, maybe he could save his brother.

Topaz stretched and yawned and rolled over so the sun in the window could warm his belly. He cracked his eyes open and saw Heather, upside down, at the door. She closed the door behind her with a foot, as her arms were full with two boxes.

“What’s that?” Topaz asked, flipping himself around and chasing after her.

Heather looked down at the top box. “I know I ordered one thing, but I’m not sure what the other is. It’s for me, but I don’t recognize it.”

“Maybe it’s a present from a secret admirer,” Topaz said as he followed her into her office and jumped on to the desk.

She flopped down in her chair. “Highly unlikely,” she said. She slit the tape on both boxes with a letter opener. “Guess we’ll find out,” she said as she folded the flaps of the box back. She lifted out a plastic bag filled with something light brown and crunchy. She tossed it in her hand so the label faced her.

“Well? What is it? Something good? A gift? Food?” Topaz bounced from paw to paw.

“It’s catnip,” Heather said, her voice flat.

Topaz stopped bouncing and sat down heavily. “Catnip? Why would you order that? I thought we had an agreement.”

“I didn’t order it,” Heather insisted.

“He didn’t buy it himself.”

Heather shook her head. “The other Heather.”

“Dopple,” Topaz said, understanding and rather wishing he did not.

“I knew he couldn’t be getting it from the garden,” Heather said. She sounded frustrated and relieved at the same time, now that the mystery was solved for her. “Not at the rate he uses it.” She closed the box up and set it and the other one aside.

“Aren’t you going to open the other?” Topaz asked. He could not imagine anything worse could come from it.

“I already know what’s inside,” Heather said. She was not meeting his gaze.

“What?” Topaz insisted.

“Cat’s bane.”

Topaz stood up. He sat down again. He tried to make the words come out, but his brain was stuck on the feeling of betrayal. “You. I don’t. You’re just like him!”

“Topaz,” Heather said and reached out to him.

“No! You said you would help, but you’re just as bad.” He jumped down to the floor and paced. “You probably think it’s just fine for him to use it.”

“I don’t think that. I’ve been trying.”

“Not hard enough, if he has Dopple restocking for him,” he said.

“Topaz, this isn’t something he’s going to drop overnight. You need to be patient.”

“No! I’m sick of being patient.” His tail lashed behind him. “You can say that. You’ve only been here a few months. I’ve been here over a year and it’s just getting worse.”

“I know it is.” Heather fiddled with the letter opener in her hands, still not looking at Topaz. “I can’t just take it away from him. He has to be ready to quit.”

“Why? Why does he have to be ready?” He ran to the box and put his paws up on it. “Why can’t we just throw all that away? Then he’ll just have to deal with not eating it.”

Heather put her hand on the box as well. It was like a passive game of tug-o-war. “That would be dangerous. He’s too dependent. His body needs it.”

“His body doesn’t need to kill itself,” Topaz yowled.

“You don’t understand how this works.”

He stalked away from her then back again. “I don’t understand why no one is saving him. Why no one is helping me.”

“I’m trying to,” Heather said.

“Try harder!”

“I’m sorry, Topaz. I really am.” Topaz did not think she sounded sorry. She sounded patient and patronizing. She sounded calm and he could not tolerate anyone being calmer than he was just then. “But you’re just going to have to trust me. I’m making progress. He’s getting to the point where he wants something better from his life than just one high after another. Just give it a little more time.” She took the box and set it on top of the desk.

“What will you do with that?”

“Give it to Dopple, I suppose,” Heather said with a resigned shrug.

“So she can give it to him.” Heather started to say something more, but Topaz turned his tail on her. “Just don’t. I don’t want to hear about it.” He ran from the room before she could argue any more. Nothing she said could make any of this right for him.

Topaz camped out in front of the front door. He knew Dopple was heading out again on a recovery mission; it was only a matter of time before she tried to get past him. When she did, she greeted him like she always did. “Hey, kid. Done any burglaries lately? Want to make this run with me?” She pulled her leather jacket out of the hall closet.

“Why are you buying catnip for him?” Topaz asked.

Dopple squatted down to get on his level. “He’s the boss,” she said simply. “I do what he tells me.”

“Even if it hurts him?”

“I’m not his mother. He can make decisions for himself.” She blew the fringe of her bangs out of her eyes. “If I think they’re stupid decisions, it’s not really my business. And if I second guessed every order he gave me, I would never get anything done.”

“Orders? What orders? Is he some, some sort of general? Is this an army? Make your own decisions,” he spat.

Even as a human, Dopple flinched away from him at his outburst. “It’s not that simple.”

“I’m making it that simple. Better is he’s mad at us than dead.”

“I can’t do that. I need to know he will take care of me.”

“You’re an adult too. Take care of yourself.”

“That’s a low blow, kid. You know I can’t.” She looked down at her gloved hands. “You know why.”

Topaz was so tired of hearing their excuses. No matter what, they had a reason to say ‘I can’t.’ “You could live as a human, like Heather does,” he said. “You would be safe that way.”

“I’m nothing like Heather,” Dopple said even as she instinctively looked up at the staircase to make sure Heather was not listening. “She’s a coward for no reason.”

“But no one’s going to kick you out of the House for defying him. He’s not in charge any more. You don’t have to impress him all the time.”

“Guess it’s just a bad habit of mine then,” she said with a shrug. But she added, voice suddenly fierce, “I’ll stick by him no matter what.”

“Doesn’t it matter that your boss, your friend, is killing himself?”

“What would you have me do? If I stop helping him, he’ll find someone else. Maybe he’ll even stop me from doing my job any more. Maybe he’ll stop watching out for me. What do I do then?” She reached out to stroke the back of her hand along his spine as if to reassure herself they were still friends.

“Please,” Topaz said and butted his head against her hand. “Why can’t you see that I need you to help me, not him?”

Dopple pulled away. “I don’t see you standing up to him either. One good tussle and you slunk away with your tail between your legs, if I remember correctly. You want him to like you just as much as I do. You said he’s your last chance at family. You’re not going to give that up.”

“I will if I have to. I will if it will save him.” Please, he thought, just don’t make me go it alone.

“Brave words, but I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ve got to head out, kid. I have work to do. You should find something to keep you busy as well. And leave Rune to his own devices. He’ll take care of himself just fine. He did before either of us came along.” She closed the door.

Topaz sat staring at the door for a long time, watching a distorted square of sunlight slide across it. He was on his own. But that was okay. He had been there before and he always figured things out. He would come up with something. He just had to outsmart all the adults around him. He had to think like a kitten again. He had to do something rash. He grinned, showing his fangs to no one. He could do rash.

Previous Episode :: Back to Index :: Next Episode

HoC Episode 8: A Good Man

A tiny candle flickered inside a glass dome and heated George’s arm as he reached across the table to take Susanna’s hand. “There’s something I need to ask you,” he said.

Susanna blushed and set her fork down. “Yes? What is it?” Susanna asked.

Nearby, someone sawed on a violin. George thought of bad Italian restaurants in the seventies. “In the short time that we have been seeing each other, I have come to respect your judgment immensely. And I have a little project in mind.” He kept talking over her half-voiced noises of appreciation. “You of all people know how much time and attention I put into my job. But sometimes, I forget why I started doing this.”

“You have been so stressed lately,” Susanna murmured. “I’ve been worried about you. I’ve hardly seen you this past week.”

“I want to buy a little place, a fixer-upper, just for myself.” He held her gaze and her hand. “Or, maybe, ourselves.”

Her look of enraptured affection slipped. She looked confused now. “What do you mean?”

A lesser man might have been nervous, might have faltered when she did not leap at the idea. George Ellison just settled into his pitch. “I want to buy a house with you as my partner. I want something we can spend time on together. And I would sincerely like your help in it.”

“Oh, I think that sounds wonderful,” she said and George could see she did not mean it. Not yet. But she did not say no. “I would love to do that with you.” Negotiations had begun. He just needed to find the right angle.

“I am so pleased to hear that,” George said. He lifted his wine glass. “To us, then, and our endeavor. May it be profitable and enjoyable.” Their glasses clinked together. And may I enjoy my profits, George added privately.

Rune chomped on dry kibble without pleasure. The community bowls were running low and, since Heather insisted on keeping the bags sealed, he could not get more on his own. He stretched and sniffed and twitched his ears. A voice caught his attention while he was contemplating another dose of catnip.

“Remember how I said that homeowner’s association had its annual meeting just after the first of the year?” Heather said.

Rune padded in her direction. Another voice then. Carlisle’s. “I remember. You said it was today.”

“Yeah, I sort of left something out,” Heather said, sounding embarrassed.

Rune trotted into the solarium, but pulled up sharply when he saw the third occupant of the room: a vacuum. He did not remember them owning a vacuum, the wretched, noisy things. Heather leaned against the handle.

“Yvonne wanted everyone to get a chance to see the house. So she asked me to be hostess. Here. Today,” Heather said, wringing her hands.

Carlisle slumped into the reclining chair where he was seated. “Oh, Heather, what were you thinking?”

“I tried to say no, but she can be quite persuasive.”

Rune moved around the edge of the room, keeping his distance from the vacuum. He jumped onto the coffee table and waited and listened.

“One hundred or more cats,” Carlisle snapped. “And on a Leo moon. There is barely enough room for them as it is. What do you expect me to do with them while you have a bloody tea party?”

“This is important,” Heather whined. “I need to make a good impression on these people.”

“Why? Poppy never bothered with them,” Carlisle said with a dismissive flick of his hand.

“Yeah, and now I’m in trouble for it. It’s mandatory. There’s some rule about attendance for property owners.”

“Absolute rubbish,” Carlisle pronounced.

“Please? Can’t you just take everyone out on a field trip or something?”

Rune meowed to get their attention. “You can’t send them outside,” he said when they looked at him. “There are kittens still under age. They can’t change yet.”

“So their mothers can carry them or something,” Heather said.

“Into town? Do a bit of shopping with a kitten in their back pocket?” Rune said.

“Carlisle, think of something,” Heather said. “I need the house today.”

Rune huffed an annoyed sigh at her theatrics. “The whole damn house for a few humans to chat over canapés?” He scratched behind his ear with a hind foot and said, “You can have the ground floor. Carlisle and I will keep everyone upstairs.”

“Really?” Heather asked, rounding on him with wide eyes. “You’re okay with it?”

“Not even a little,” Rune said. “But we’ll call it the lesser of many evils. Carlisle, get Topaz to call in anyone outside. You and I will start moving everyone upstairs.”

“The meeting is at noon,” Heather said.

“Then by noon, you will have the illusion of a cat-free house,” Rune said acidly. “I’m sure everyone will be pleased to get as far as possible from that machine,” he said and flicked his tail at the vacuum. He set off at a trot through the house, rounding up changed cats as he went and wishing he had just gone upstairs for catnip instead.

Rune retreated from the top of the stairs where he had been eavesdropping on the rather dull conversation of Heather’s new friends while his high fizzled under the weight of the Leo moon. He heard another set of raised voices coming from the opposite end of the floor and went to investigate. He scratched at the door, which opened only after a long delay, during which he heard several voices arguing. “I take it the concept of keeping quiet was a bit too difficult for you all,” Rune said when the door shut behind him. “What’s going on?”

Topaz and another big tom were restraining a frantic queen. Her face was red and wet. She strained against their hands on her arms. “My kitten,” she wailed. Topaz clamped a hand over her mouth before she could get any louder.

Carlisle said, “We have a problem,” and turned away from the woman. “Her kitten is missing,” he said quietly.

“Have you checked the other rooms? It might have ended up with friends somewhere else.”

Carlisle shook his head. “Topaz already checked. No one has even seen her.”

Rune sighed. “I’ll see if I can find her.” He turned to the queen. “What’s your kitten’s name?”

She shook her head free of Topaz’s hand. “Elly. Please, she’s only three months old. If she got outside…” She dissolved into tears again.

“Should I get Heather?” Carlisle asked.

“No. I’ll find Elly. Heather and her buddies need never know. It’ll just raise too many questions if you show up downstairs. Ma’am, where did you last see Elly?”

She wiped her hands over her face, the pressure leaving streaks of white amid the red. She sniffled and said, “We were in the solarium, watching the birds outside. Then we came up here. I know she was with me. I carried her, for pity’s sake.”

“But you haven’t seen her up here?”

“We came in before most of the others. She must have snuck out when a group came in.” She knelt in front of Rune. “The humans won’t hurt her, will they? If they find her?”

“Heather would never let them do anything to a kitten,” Carlisle said.

“I’m going to find her before it comes to that,” Rune said. “I promise you, no harm will come to your kitten.”

“Thank you,” she said, stroking her shaking hands over Rune’s coat.

Carlisle let him out into the hallway. Rune sniffed. The kitten would smell like her mother, like milk, and like the fine, soft fur that only kittens had. He listened carefully, but there were so many small noises in the background, hidden behind closed doors. He tried to pick out cat noises from all the human noises.

It was no good. He would have to just start looking. He ran to the end of the hall, but instead of going downstairs, he hooked his paw around the door of a cabinet. Inside, where the right-hand wall should have been, there was just open darkness. He ducked low and entered the crawlspace, tracing the ceiling beams through the house and over to the solarium.

Susanna held her breath as the engine died and ticked quietly in the silence. She glanced over at George and caught him staring at her. She preened under the attention and he put a hand on her shoulder.

“I’ll walk you to your door, then, shall I?”

“You could come inside. I can make us coffee. We did have rather a lot of wine. I would hate for something to happen to you.”

“If we’re just being responsible, why not?” George said. “I’ll take that cup of coffee.”

Susanna smiled when they went inside, but not at George. She smiled because she had planned for this and her little house looked impeccable. She led George into the kitchen, with its unused, black-handled knives and its bowl of bright orange and green mangos that smelled sweetly rancid to Susanna, and began setting the coffee maker to work.

“It wouldn’t be for keeps,” George said out of the blue.

Susanna flicked the switch on the coffee maker and turned around. “What’s that?”

“Our project. I just want to be clear. We wouldn’t be picking out a house we want to grow old in,” he said. “Just an investment for the two of us together.”

“I think that sounds fine,” Susanna said. She thought, you can bet I’ll do the picking when it comes time for us to choose a place to live. “Very practical.”

“Something that we can turn around in a real spectacular fashion,” George said.

Susanna boosted herself into the stool next to him at the kitchen counter. “Did you have something in mind?”

“I wouldn’t make a decision without you. But I admit I had thought of one place.”

“Don’t keep it a secret,” Susanna said. She leaned in close to him as though they really were sharing a great secret. “Tell me.”

“That house on the hill. The Lee place.”

From his hidden perch in the rafters, Rune looked down on Heather’s meeting. Of course, Heather had cooked and the smells rising from the table, pastry dough and mushrooms and butter, set Rune’s stomach growling so loud, he worried it would attract the attention of the humans below.

“Heather was telling me — we ran into each other in town the other day — that she wants to restore the house,” Yvonne, that chatty human, said.

Rune rolled his eyes. Nothing would get restored unless someone ripped the oven out so Heather could not cook anything for a while.

“And I said,” Yvonne said with a laugh and a knowing glance around the circle of men and women, “I said, dear, restore it to what? A lumber pile?” Everyone else laughed. Heather laughed. Heather also winced and fidgeted. Anyone with half a brain, even a human, could see she was embarrassed. Rune ignored them and scanned the room, searching for Elly. A kitten that young could get into all manner of hiding places, Rune knew.

“I know it’s a little run down,” Heather said, only to be drowned out by the other voices.

“The way you talked, Yvonne,” a man said, “I imagined mud walls and a thatched roof.”

“I’m glad I didn’t disappoint, then,” Yvonne said in a burst of raucous laughter that ruined her veneer of gentility. She must have noticed Heather, whose body language said she was moving from ashamed to defensive. Yvonne patted her hand. “Oh, I’m just teasing you, pet. I know you’ve only been here a little while. There’s only so much one person can do in that time with a place like this.”

A place like this, Rune mouthed. Who did the bitch think she was? She wanted to be there. No one had forced her. And what was so wrong with his home, their home, that she could talk about it that way?

“Don’t you have any family?” Another woman asked.

Heather flinched, but put on a brave smile. “No. My mother was the last. I was living abroad and I guess it was hard for her to keep the place up.”

Rune growled. That was the understatement of the century. He thought he saw movement, but it was only the reflection of a woman’s hand moving in the window. He began to lose hope of finding Elly quickly.

“Did you hear something?” Yvonne asked, looking around the room.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Heather said and looked pointedly up at the ceiling where Rune hid. But no one was listening to her anyway. Rune took that as his cue to leave. Elly was no where in sight, at any rate. He ducked back into the crawlspace and made his way farther down the length of the house.

Rune trotted through a back hallway. With the temporary population boom, these little-used parts of the House were inhabited and dust hung in the air, stirred up by many feet from its usual resting places. He stopped to watch the movement of dust motes through a wedge of sunlight. Minutes or hours later, he came to enough to realize he sat slack-jawed and staring in the empty hallway. Concentrate, he ordered himself. Think. Just a little longer, damn you. Keep yourself together. He shook dust from his coat and continued on. He had almost reached the end of the house.

Rune stopped in his tracks. There. What was that sound? He took a few steps forward and realized, with growing fear, where he was. An archway opened in the wall just ahead. He ran to it. A spiral staircase led straight up into the highest reaches of the house.

He strained his ears forward, hoping against hope that he would hear nothing. But there it was again, the repetitive mewing of a kitten, as though she navigated by sonar. Rune leapt up the stairs, higher and higher until he reached a landing that would be level with the roof.

Where another doorway should have been, this one leading out onto an open-air walkway, there was just rubble reinforced with several boards, hastily pushed into place to prevent further damage. It was all that remained of the interior of the tower.

“Elly?” Rune called out. “Elly, can you hear me?” The mewing increased in frequency and pitch. Damn it, why did she have to be there? “Elly, are you okay? Are you hurt?” The only answer was more frantic mewing, a babble of cat-speak gibberish. “Just stay where you are. I’m going to come get you.”

Rune pushed his nose and paws into the gaps in the rubble. He could see where she had gotten out, a tunnel that had formed where two boards met and the debris had tumbled out below them. He could see light at the other side. But try as he might, he could not get through after her. He pawed at the debris, trying to dislodge it to open a wider passage. But everything had settled in the time since the original collapse and gravity had mortared stone and wood into place against one another.

He growled and shook his head. He was wasting time. “Elly? I want you to stay right where you are, understand? I’m going to get help. We’re going to get you back to your momma. Just sit tight.”

After dinner and drinks, George’s breath was sour with garlic, wine and coffee, trapped against his own nose by the curve of Susanna’s neck. “It’s important to me that we be partners,” he said. He left a kiss there and moved on.

Susanna curled her fingers up into his hair. “I want that as well.” Her acrylic nails were thick and blunt, easy on his scalp. The last girl he had been with was a secretary with sharp nails, kept short for typing.

“That we be equals in this,” he muttered while he struggled with the clasp of her bra. She made matters more difficult by continually arching into his touch, providing a moving target.

“Equals,” she obediently repeated while her arms and legs wound around him and totally prevented him from enjoying her newly liberated breasts.

“I’m glad you agree.” He pushed down one of her legs and felt around for the zipper on her skirt. Her fingers chased his and undid it before he even saw where it was. “The split will make this so much more meaningful.”

She made a pained noise when he pitched the skirt away into the dim room. “What split?”

“Oh, just on the property.” She finally started moving with him, whipping away his unknotted tie and getting his shirt rucked up under his arms without unbuttoning it. “Each of us putting up half for the down payment. That’s all.”

As soon as he got his cuffs unbuttoned, she had the shirt off of him, left in some secluded corner to do unspeakable things with her likewise abandoned skirt. “We don’t even know for sure that it’s available. Let alone how much the down payment might be.”

He kept moving, letting her fumble too long with his pants just to keep her busy. “You don’t think we should be equals?” If she had time to stop, she would think they were having a serious discussion.

“I didn’t say that,” she said, successfully derailed by pants and emotional blackmail.

“Then you do,” he said and kissed her out of simple pleasure as she got the better of his pants at last.

“Well, yes, but I don’t see–”

“Then that settles it, he said, sinking his weight onto her at last. “Half and half. Two people, coming together for a common goal.”

She laughed and he knew, in that sound, he would get everything he wanted. “I believe your thinking of something else now.”

Rune rushed through the house. Heather was no longer in the solarium, nor were her guests. He skidded to a stop in the front room. Voices outside. He jumped onto the window sill. They had moved onto the porch. The guests were carrying their purses and coats as though they intended to leave, but they were still chatting away like they could stay the rest of the day. There was no time to wait for them to clear off. His need for catnip gnawed at him, worse than pain, worse than hunger. He opened the front door with an easy jump and ran outside.

When they heard the door open, the humans turned and watched in astonishment as he let himself out. “My, what a clever trick,” a woman exclaimed. “Did you teach him that?”

Heather made shooing motions with her hand at him even as he approached. “No, jeez, no. He was my mother’s and now I’m stuck with him. I’m going to have to change doorknobs so he can’t do that.”

“I think it’s cute,” the woman said.

Rune rolled his eyes at the stupid humans. Everything animals did was cute, because the humans never had a clue what they were really doing. “Heather, get them to leave,” he said. Heather grimaced and pretended to not hear him.

“Sounds like someone wants his din-dins,” Yvonne said.

Rune put his paws up on Heather’s legs. “I need your help. Now. It’s important.” She just brushed him off and hissed under her breath.

“We should let you get back to your routine,” the first woman said. “I think he’s saying we’ve worn out our welcome.” Brilliant, Rune thought, a human who actually listens.

“Don’t rush off on his account,” Heather said. “He can wait.”

“But Elly can’t,” Rune said and hooked his nails into her calf. Heather shouted in surprise and jerked away from Rune, but he was behind her and she stumbled. She tried to catch her balance on the railing of the porch. But when her weight hit it, there was a crack and Heather fell backwards off the side of the porch, through the new, woman-sized gap in the railing.

“Oh, my god, are you alright?” Someone asked. There was a clamor of voices as everyone rushed to Heather’s side. No one would let Rune past.

Heather groaned and rolled over. Under her back, a two-foot length of splintered wood had partially sunk into the soft ground. Heather coughed and wheezed like the wind had been knocked out of her.

“You could have been impaled,” Yvonne said. Rune thought it sounded like an accusation, as though Heather had just pulled some foolish stunt.

Rune circled around them and finally broke through. He sat at Heather’s side and pawed at her hand. She braced herself on her hands and knees. “Okay, ow,” she said. “What the hell happened?”

“I’m sorry,” Rune said. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m okay,” Heather said, more to herself than anything. “That’s going to leave a bruise.”

“Do you want us to call an ambulance? Take you to the emergency room?” A man asked.

Heather knelt up then rose to her feet. She moved slowly and closed her eyes, head no doubt spinning. Rune kept his distance, afraid to trip her again, but did not leave. “I’ll be fine,” Heather said. “I’m sorry to cause such a scene.”

“It’s getting to be a regular occurrence with you, these little disasters,” Yvonne said coolly.

Rune hissed quietly at the foul woman. “Send them away, please?”

“I should go put some ice on this,” Heather said, “if I want to be able to walk tomorrow.”

“Good idea,” a woman agreed. “Or take a nice hot bath, dear.”

“Thank you for an otherwise pleasant afternoon,” a man said reluctantly, the polite phrases suddenly out of place.

Heather waited for them to all drive away, queuing up behind one another for the drive down the hill. Then she turned on Rune. She would have been more intimidating if she had not been wincing and holding a hand to her back. “This had better be good,” Heather said, “or I’m going to poison your kibble some day soon.”

Neither climbing ladders nor rappelling around the outside of buildings was Rune’s forte, but Heather accepted the rescue mission with a stoicism he admired. Elly had emerged in the middle of the rubble that sealed the top and side of the house where the tower once attached. Heather had to navigate the unstable debris, while Rune watched nervously at ground level, pacing and eating as much of the homegrown catnip as he could stuff in his mouth at once. He gratefully rode out the less attractive moments of his high in solitude.

Heather finally descended the ladder then reached into her shirt and pulled out tiny Elly, who was crying up a storm. “Let’s get her back to mommy,” Heather said.

Her mother nearly crushed Elly in her enthusiasm to have her back. Her thanks were tearful and blubbery and Rune and, he suspected, Heather were happy to be rid of her. With the guests gone, the cats were once again given free rein of the house.

“We need to talk,” Rune said when Heather tried to leave with the rest of the cats in the room. A few stayed behind to settle into their temporary accommodations.

“Let’s take this in my office,” Heather said.

“Alone,” Rune said when Carlisle tried to follow them into the office.

“I beg–” Carlisle started to say.

“It’s okay. Go,” Heather said.

Rune pushed the door shut with his shoulder. “If you get your way, humans will have more freedom in this house than cats.”

Heather sat down behind her desk, turrets of folders and books on either side. “That’s not fair.”

“Isn’t it?” He jumped up and perched inches from her. “If you had anything resembling a backbone, you would have told that harpy it was impossible to have the meeting here.”

“Thanks to you, I might not have a backbone any more. And she was trying to give me a chance to get involved.”

“She was looking for a new chew toy.”

“She’s my friend,” Heather barked back.

“You should make friends with your own kind!”

Heather leaned back in her chair and circled her hand in his direction, still carefully out of reach. “Is that was this is about? Your, your anthrophobia? Your terror of all things human? Your prejudice?”

“Prejudice,” Rune spat. “Is it prejudice to acknowledge that we live in separate worlds? That they would neither believe in what we — what you – are, nor treat us kindly if they did?”

“You don’t know that,” Heather said, all teenage petulance.

“Yes, I do.”

“I’ve lived with humans for years. They can be good. I’ve made friends I really cared about.” She leaned farther away. The studied pose of relaxation made her look more on edge than ever.

“That’s your business. This house is mine.”

“Are you challenging my authority here? Because that went so well last time.”

Rune did not rise to her bait, hyper-focused by the unfamiliar feeling of being the mature one of the pair and mellow after his last dose of catnip. “The cats here follow you, follow me, follow your mother, because they need a leader. They need someone who knows more than they do, to protect them, to serve their needs.”

“And I’m doing that.”

“Sometimes. And sometimes you indulge in a fantasy where you can shed your fur forever.” He took advantage of her reclining posture to jump into her lap and get so close to her face, he could no longer see her. It was a great mercy to see nothing but wide blue eyes and a blur of cream that could have been fur. “You are a cat at the end of the day. You are not one of them. You can’t be. And every time you try, you risk yourself and every other cat living here.”

“If you hadn’t tried to kill me, there would have been no problem today.”

“A kitten could have died because you wanted to hold a tea party to satisfy a woman who treats you like a dog.”

Heather dumped him out of her lap and stood in one panicked move. “She did not–”

“A dog, Heather. A pet to be teased. And I’ve had enough. If you want me to lead a rebellion, I can probably manage that.”

Heather crossed her arms. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“I would and you know it.” He let out a chirp of bitter laughter. “I’m not reasonable enough to resist. But I would rather you just listen to me.”

“Listen to you insult the people I would like to befriend? Listen to you tell me I’m just another cat?”

Rune shook his head. “You are not like other cats,” Rune said and he could not help smiling. What a joke, he thought, lecturing her while I can’t go two hours today without a fix. We both make pretty rotten cats. He headed for the door. “But you need to stop this. No more strangers visiting. No more courting them instead of us.”

In the morning, Susanna woke up to George watching her. “Hey,” she said. “You stayed.”

“Sure.” He brushed a lock of hair out of her face. “Did I come on too strong last night?”

She sat up long enough to twist her hair back and away from her face. “What, the–” She waved her hand vaguely to indicate what they had done.

He pulled her back down to his side. “No. I know you liked that. I meant about the project. I think I pushed you too hard. I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m happy about it, really.” She rolled over and burrowed her hand under the sheets so she could snuggle into his arms. “A little surprised. It hasn’t been that long.” Privately, she bemoaned how long it had taken him to offer her a proper incentive to keep seeing him. She was not a teenager any longer; she was not going out with him just for the pleasure of his company.

“That’s why it’s so critical to me that you and I go into this equally. I don’t want you to feel like I’m holding the project over your head.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t think that.”

“You say that now, but I’ve worked with partners before.”

She slapped his shoulder then kept her hand there to knead the muscles. “You’re breaking my heart here.”

“None as lovely as you, of course.” That was what she liked about George. He always gave her the attention she was due. He never missed a cue. “That’s why we’re going to do this right. You’ll never have to worry that I’m going to cheat you.”

“You’re a good man, Mr. Ellison.”

“Only for you, sweetheart,” he said amid a flurry of kisses.

“Let’s go out for breakfast,” Susanna said.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay in?”

“When we’re done, ah, staying in, will you be doing the cooking?”

“Ah. I see your point,” he said with a grimace. “How about brunch then, my treat?”

“You’re a tough negotiator, but you’ve got a deal.” She offered her hand for a mock shake to seal the deal.

He pulled her hand to roll her onto his broad body. “I always get the deal,” George said.

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