Tag Archives: Sunday Brunch

HoC Ep. 20: The Master of This House, Pt. 2

One Week Later…

Heather followed the doctor through the quiet hall of the clinic, closed to normal clients for the evening. The faintly antiseptic smell of the recently washed floors and tables mixed with the whiff of vitamin snacks hidden in the doctor’s pockets. He pushed open a swinging door and led Heather back into the rooms of work tables and caged animals.

He stopped in front of a bank of cages. “He was a better patient last time,” he said. “He didn’t complain so much.”

Heather knelt. In the dim recess of the cage, Rune blinked back at her and uncurled. She unsnapped the latch on the door and opened it. “Hey.”

“You here to spring me?” Rune asked and levered himself up onto two good legs, a bone-bruised shoulder, and a broken hind leg in a splint. “The food’s awful.”

Heather reached in and curled one arm under him and the other over. Rune offered no objection to being manhandled. “You bit the last person who offered you a treat.”

Rune growled low and squirmed around until he was comfortable in her arms. His one leg dangled awkwardly and the heavy splint banged her hip. “She called me ‘puddy-tat.’ I can’t be held responsible,” he said.

The doctor smiled blandly, only understanding Heather’s half of the conversation. “Now, you’ve got to take the splint off him before he changes,” he said. “Otherwise he could be injured as he outgrows it. Do you have something to use when he’s human?”

Heather nodded. “We’ve got it all prepared.”

“This isn’t ideal,” the doctor said, “but a hard cast is out of the question. Your peculiarities do pose something of a challenge.”

Heather shrugged and smiled apologetically. She couldn’t shake hands while holding Rune. “Thanks for your help.” She looked down at Rune. “You ready to get out of here?”

Rune chirped an affirmative that even the doctor understood and he led them back out of the clinic. Out in the parking lot, Dopple’s rented car idled in the shade of a huge oak tree. As they walked up, she got out to open the back door for them. Heather settled Rune on the blanket-covered seat and slid in after him.

Heather kept a steadying hand on Rune as they pulled out onto the road. The sedate ride home was a far cry from the panicked flight to the clinic immediately after the accident. There had been a long, horrible hour during which they had to wait for the cat’s bane to work out of Rune’s system before taking a taxi into town. The driver’s misgivings about having an injured cat loose in his taxi were overridden by Heather’s ferocious orders to waste no further time. His intimidation, in turn, was nothing compared to what Topaz must have done to scare off the driver who hit Rune.

Rune made an unhappy noise and Heather looked down to realize she had her fingers burrowed deeply into his thick fur, holding on to a hunk of skin over his shoulders. She loosened off her grip and smoothed the fur. They hadn’t let her stay with him while they took X-rays, since the clinic was still open at that hour and the doctor didn’t want to explain why Heather was an exception to the usual rules.

“Topaz gave me the blender,” she said abruptly, thinking of Topaz seated beside her in the exam room, battered bag clutched to his chest while they waited for news.

“It was okay?”

“Just the box was a little dented.”

Rune shook his head. “No, I mean. I didn’t know if you would want something different. Aren’t blenders the one thing you shouldn’t give a woman?”

Heather still didn’t like to think of where he had learned something like that, the abandoned life with a human wife frozen like a bug in amber since his return to the House. But she was glad he had disregarded the human rules. And she was even gladder Topaz had told her, in no uncertain terms, just what Rune had meant by it. “There’s a pot of cream of potato soup at home.”

She could hear Rune’s stomach rumble over that of the engine. “I’m dying for a good meal. I’m lucky the Leo moon’s now or that doctor would have kept me cooped up even longer.”

Heather grimaced. “Yeah, well, I would have preferred time for your leg to heal more.”

“You’re not happy I’m coming home early?” Rune asked but she could tell he was pulling her tail. She tugged one of his ears fondly and he subsided, obviously worn out, for the rest of the drive.

Rune made the torturous journey from the solarium–he had to camp out downstairs until his leg improved enough to allow the navigation of stairs–to the front porch on a pair of truly ancient wooden crutches. The top braces were padded with rolled dish towels, sacrificed from Heather’s supply, and the hand grips were wrapped in gauze left over from bandaging his paws. He barely cleared the door when Heather closed it behind him. He pivoted slowly.

Heather held up a brush and a can of blue paint. “Right or left?”

“Right or left what?” Rune had come home to find the solarium finished. Heather had said Topaz and Rafflesia pitched in when he asked, even as Heather set him down on a sofa no longer covered in plastic in a room no longer reeking of paint fumes. “Are you sure you should be doing that? Can’t it hurt the kitten?” His voice stuttered over the word. They still had not spoken about their soon-to-be offspring. It had been enough that Heather stayed near him as much as possible, even sleeping in the recliner that night after she took off his splint before the change came. And she had lost most of that paranoid edge.

Heather rolled her eyes and brandished the paint can at him. “It’ll only take a minute. Now, which hand do you want to use?” He held up his right hand, helpless before her demands. “Okay, stand right here,” she said, tapping a spot inches from the closed front door.

Rune hobbled over and leaned his right crutch up against the wall. He held out his right hand. Heather dipped the brush, barely breaking the surface of the bright paint, and wiped most of it off on the lip of the can. Then she stroked it across his palm, cool and slick, comprehensively tinting his hand with ticklish swipes. She held his wrist and brought his hand to the white surface of the door. “Press.” After a moment, she let go and he pulled his hand away with a sticky sound of tacky paint. A perfect blue hand print remained on the door, his broad palm and short fingers crisscrossed by small white lines.

“Now me,” Heather said. She set down the one paint can and brush and picked up another, this one full of a rich cream. Rune had to set aside his other crutch and stand precariously balanced so he could hold the can while she painted her own right palm. When she pressed her hand in the same spot he had and pulled it away again, she left behind the print of her hand in the middle of his. Her hand was smaller, fitting entirely into his, but her long fingers reached almost to the tips of his.

He held on to the handle of the paint can for an extra moment when she took it from him so their hands touched. “It looks good.”

She smiled, bright and a little sharp, a little wary, and said, “It’s not finished.” She glanced quickly down at her belly. It was flat and would remain so, since her kitten would stay a kitten until he–she? Rune wondered–was about two years old. Only when Heather was a cat could you tell she was pregnant. “When this one comes along, we’ll add a paw print in the middle.” She looked up at him. “Okay?”

It was the closest she had come to asking him directly if he planned to be around then. And it was about more than her suspicion, well-founded, that he might skip out on another unexpected child. He had to make a decision: would he be a tom, a rover who might protect a queen with his kittens, but who made no promises to settle down? Or would he be a father, with all the human-style responsibilities that came with the title? How willing was he to accept Heather’s baffling attachment to life as a human, which their kitten would grow up with, even if Rune refused to be a part of it? Would he refuse?

“We should wait until the little one is old enough to remember doing it. I want us to remember.” The paint on his hand tied him to the House and to her, stark as a brand against his skin and the home they shared. The home they would continue to share. The home they would make together, all three of them.

The phrase in cat-speak Heather used to refer to Carlisle’s job roughly translated to “one who can remove the lids from trash cans without dumping them over,” which was a much-prized skill usually only seen in raccoons. In English, she called him her Minister of Finance. Which was why, when she sat grim-faced in Yvonne’s living room, she had him in tow.

When Yvonne settled into a chair opposite them, Heather cut off anything she might consider saying, even the niceties involved in having guests over to one’s house. “I am prepared to give your association a substantial cash gift, in exchange for being left alone for the remainder of, well, forever, basically.”

Next to her, Carlisle leaned forward, practically out of his seat. Folded in his hands, the leather cover of a new checkbook, on which he could sign now, creaked in protest. He had not liked the idea. As far as he was concerned, if Poppy could give the homeowners’ association the brush-off, her daughter could do the same. But Heather found the more control she took over the House, the more placidly he went along with her plans. And when she expressed her desire to cut ties with humans who had proved more trouble than they were worth, both Carlisle and Rune had been tripping over themselves to agree with her.

Yvonne uncrossed her hands from where they were primly folded in her lap. Once again, Heather was struck by how drastically the woman’s personality could change. Gone were both the casually demeaning socialite and the nervous and apologetic double agent. Now, she exuded a cool confidence bereft of personal sentiment. She picked up the folio waiting on the low table between their seats and opened it to a page marked with a yellow sticky note. She pulled out a single sheet of paper and slid it across the table to Heather.

She waited in silence while Heather read the paper–a brief and simply phrased contract–which had been signed and dated by a person whose name Heather did not recognize and Poppy Lee. Carlisle leaned against her shoulder to read it as well. “This says my mother made a contribution to the association in lieu of membership.”

Yvonne nodded. Heather could see where her red lipstick had bled, just a little, into the lines around her mouth and Heather wondered just how old the woman was. She had known Heather’s mother, at least. “You are a great deal like your mother, it seems,” she said as though she had read Heather’s mind. “So while I appreciate your offer, I’m afraid she beat you to the punch by rather a lot of years. This has been on the books since well before I became president.”

Heather was thrown off her rhythm, to say the least. She had explained away Yvonne’s last visit and her warnings about Ellison as being the product of a dubious sense of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But after being kidnapped, and most especially after Susanna Dahl’s cooperation with said kidnapping, Heather felt that anyone without a thirty year precedent of friendship with her needed to be purged from her life. “Why did you wait until now to tell me?” Heather asked. Carlisle pulled the paper out of her hand and studied it at a range of half an inch, as though literal closer inspection would reveal some unnoticed details.

Yvonne snapped one acrylic nail against the other, making a sharp popping noise. It had to be a nervous gesture, as the noise would have put anyone off the action had they not been distracted. “I drove up to your house the other day.” Heather had a split second of blind panic in which she wondered what Yvonne might have seen and why no one had told her about a strange car driving around. “You painted it,” Yvonne said. “You trusted me when I told you it was important.”

Heather rolled her shoulders in a shrug that tried to be relaxed, but mostly failed. “You didn’t have to say much to convince me Ellison would use any excuse to screw with me.” She took the paper from Carlisle and slid it back across the table.

“Well, it was only fair that I tell you about the agreement. As a show of good faith and proof that we have a dislike of Mr. Ellison in common.” Yvonne slipped the paper back into the folio and closed it. “I very much wanted any excuse to see your home.”

“The local haunted house,” Heather said, remembering their first conversation.

“I would have liked to have been friends. But I get the impression from you that my time spent dealing with the likes of Mr. Ellison has perhaps had a negative effect on my personality. So barring the possibility of friendship, I would like to help you make life difficult for him.”

Heather leaned back and considered the idea. “And if I’m not part of the association, he’ll hit a dead-end if he tries to pressure any of you. Saves all of us a lot of trouble.” Even if she was not sure which personality was the true face of Yvonne, Heather found she was rather grateful to finally have the woman on her side. For a lady who put on a good show of being as superficial as possible when surrounded by the other members of the association, she was ruthless. And when she had to go up against George Ellison, Heather had a lot of respect for any ruthlessness she could get.

George left work later than he would have liked. He had the impression that cats were primarily nocturnal and spent the afternoon sleeping. He wanted to be free in the afternoon. Instead, it was verging well into evening before he drove out of the office parking lot and stopped at the gas station. The late June sky was full of pink tinged light, the only hint that sunset approached. He filled the red plastic gas can with an obscenely expensive quantity of gas. Damn summer price hikes.

He wasted another hour by circling town a couple of times, burning off more overpriced gas in his car, but none of his nervous energy. He knew what he wanted to do. It had come to him like a revelation, bright and painful, while listening to Susanna’s voice message and watching the construction crew. It had, like all proper revelations, come from somewhere beyond what he just saw and heard. It was more than the sum of its parts.

It was the right solution. He knew that. But it took almost three winding circuits through town before he could work up the nerve to pull over to the side of the road some way past the driveway and walk back to it. The gas can was very heavy.

He walked up the middle of the long driveway. If someone came from either the road or the house and saw him, he would not care. He was in a place beyond shame and beyond doubt. He crested the hill and walked right across the empty front lawn.

The house was very still and very quiet. He waited a long moment, standing at the corner where the front porch connected to the house, where no one would be able to see him unless they came outside. He heard sounds of movement somewhere on the second floor, so he knew someone was at home. That did not concern him.

He started there at the porch, which was all weather-worn wood, gone pale and dry with age. The gasoline made dark, stinking puddles but the wood quickly sucked them up. He doused the floor and the railing and the boards that blocked off the crawl space, just as far as he could reach without moving into view of the window. Then he poured a shaky line down the long side of the house where stonework met tufty grass.

He bent low to pass under windows along that wall. He felt a burst of déjà vu, remembering the last time he found himself inching along that wall, and an answering pang of regret that he had not managed to get a video of the still-unexplained transformation he had witnessed then. If he had, perhaps the situation would not have become irretrievably screwed up. Then George might have avoided the uncomfortable territory of physical intimidation, rather than his preferred world of psychological pressure.

He backpedaled from the word intimidation as he shook out the last of the gas over the wooden frame of a window. He needed to remind himself that this was not just the next step in persuading Lee to sell to him. He had made a decision: Lee was never going to willingly let go of the house and it was pointless to keep dicking around as though she was just like any other stubborn owner. No, George had realized an endgame was the only logical action for him to take.

He took the box of matches out of his coat pocket. He was not a smoker and so did not own a lighter. Instead, he had moved the matches he kept over the fireplace to the glove box of his car. That had been the moment when he knew he truly intended to go through with the plan. At that point, he had started considering days and times and had known there was no turning back.

He struck the match, holding it away from the possibility of fumes from the soaked wood. It flared to life, strangely dim in the daylight. It looked innocent. It was such a small thing, simple too, and it hardly seemed like he was doing anything wrong. He stepped up to the window, no longer concerned with hiding. He reached out.

Dopple stretched on her back with her son, who was still just being called The Creature, wriggling across her belly. His strategy lately had been to use his stomach as an extra appendage and forcefully squirm, legs and tail flailing, in the general direction he wanted to go. So far, he headed in the opposite direction about half the time, but his record was improving.

On the floor next to them, Mysti read an honest to god book of baby names. They had taken over one of the least used rooms on the north-facing side of the house. It was unfurnished, but it let them get away from the crowds during the Leo moon. Mysti was, in fact, working through her second book of names. “Matthew? Nigel? Othello?”

Dopple scooped The Creature up and touched noses with him. “No, really, now that Rune is back, we’re asking him for suggestions. You are banned from picking names.”

Undeterred, Mysti turned the page and said, “Presley?”

Dopple lurched up. “Banned, I say.” Something flickered in the corner of her eye.

Yellow. A stranger’s red-flushed face underlined by flames. A sky gone orange.

Dopple rolled to her side and shoved The Creature into Mysti’s hands. The book dropped to the floor. “Go! Take him to the woods and hide,” she ordered while hauling Mysti to her feet by one elbow.

She pulled Mysti into the hall and down it. At the stairs, she twisted her head to one side and shouted, “Heather! Human, fire,” and kept going.

Her shouts got everyone’s attention so that people tried to stop and question her. She shouldered past them until she had Mysti out the back door. With a last look at her son in her lover’s arms, she turned left and raced in the other direction.

In the pocket of her jeans, her hand closed around a hard cylinder. She pulled it out and curled her thumb over the top. How many runs had she been on since Heather gave it to her? Not once had she needed to use it, so that it became a familiar touchstone instead of a weapon. Now, as she rounded the corner of the house, she held it out at arm’s length like a gun.

Her eyes flicked from the red gas can on the ground to the line of fire spreading from the window and down the length of the house and finally to the man. She did not have to recognize his face to know him.

The man looked at her without expression. She wondered if it was possible to go into shock even if you were not the victim. She tightened her hand and a hard stream of liquid shot out from the can of pepper spray.

Now the man reacted, hands flying to his face where they clawed and scrubbed. A box of matches fell close enough to the fire to catch, going up in a series of flashes, as though each match burned in orderly succession.

“Son of a dog, bastard,” Dopple bellowed and followed his movements with the spray, splashing his hands, his hair, his shirt collar.

When clawing his own eyes out did not help, he turned blindly in the direction of the spray and lunged. He snarled and cried, frantic like it was his house on fire. That was when Dopple ran, spay clutched in her hand, bravery failing her at last.

Topaz grabbed Heather as she careened down the stairs and twirled her away from the front door. “The porch is on fire, I already checked,” he said and they both turned toward the back door.

“What the hell happened?” Heather asked as she tossed a fire extinguisher to him from under the kitchen sink.

“Dopple said human,” Topaz answered on his way out the door. He didn’t know, but he wondered if that meant who he thought it meant. He knew Heather would guess the same thing.

Rounding the front of the house was like walking into a war film on mute. The far side of the porch was just covered in flames, which were inching and more than inching their way across it. Whatever noise the burning wood generated, Topaz did not hear it. All he perceived was that his home was on fire and, at the moment, he alone stood between it and just burning up entirely.

He pulled the pin on the extinguisher and shot a stream of white foam at the advance guard of the fire. And wow, that stream of foam was small and helpless compared to an angry, billowing fire. How had he ever told himself that setting fire to the catnip was a good plan? How had he believed that being made in large part of stone meant the House was impervious to fire? He didn’t think a house made out of concrete or mud or gravity-defying water would be safe against the maw of flame that seemed ready to engulf the whole porch.

He vowed to empty the lighter fluid out of Oden’s cigarette lighter, assuming it and the house still stood by the end of this.

Rafflesia jumped over the moving hose that wrapped around the side of the house. Good, that meant someone was helping Topaz out front. Smoke was thick in the air but the south side of the house remained comfortingly fire-free. She waved her hand toward her. From the house came a gush of people, forced into something like a line by the size of the doorway and the size of Rafflesia’s commands.

“Come on, this way,” she said, continuing to wave people across the garden. “Keep going, all the way through to the graveyard,” she ordered in a loud voice. Around her, panicked voices murmured and sobbed and shouted, but they all kept moving. Queens carried their unchanged kittens in their arms. Older parents and young adults helped the elderly. “Stay down there until I tell you it’s safe. Stay together and you’ll be fine.”

Rafflesia’s mother broke free of the stream of people to get to her daughter’s side. “You need to get clear of the house,” Valoria said.

Rafflesia shook her head and kept waving people on, keeping up a steady monologue of calm instructions. “I can’t,” she said between breaths. “Someone’s got to make sure everyone is out. The other adults who don’t have someone to protect are all putting the fire out.”

“You’re not going back in there alone,” Valoria insisted and tried to pull Rafflesia along into the woods.

She shook free and grabbed her mother’s shoulders. “You need to go with them and make sure everyone is accounted for. If someone is missing, I need you to tell me. Please, Mom, there isn’t time to argue. Get everyone down there.”

Valoria made a stricken noise in the back of her throat. “What are you going to do?”

“Check all the rooms. Help anyone I find. Now go. Go!”

She slipped in behind the last few people headed out the door and began clearing rooms and halls one by one.

Rune hobbled down the hall, letting out a stream of curses to himself and making his leg hurt like a son of a bitch by putting too much weight on it because crutches were just too slow. When he saw Rafflesia charging down the hall, throwing open doors as she went, he called out, “What the hell is going on?” Which yes, obviously from the smoke and panic in the air, fire was what was going on.

“Heather and Topaz are out front putting out the porch. I’m checking for anyone left behind. My mother is with the others down at the graveyard.” She darted from one side of the hall to the other. “I heard it was a human.”

Rune cursed again. “Where is Dorian?” Rafflesia shook her head. “I need him to stop the human from leaving.”

Rafflesia stopped in front of him, thrumming with energy just waiting to be unleashed again. “You need to get out of the house. I want everyone out. What if it burns down?” He could see on her face the moment when the adrenaline and the focus dropped away and she realized that was the reason she was running through the house looking for people. Heather and Topaz and whoever else was around might fail to put out the flames. Their home might be lost. Her face crumpled painfully, everything pinching around her huge eyes.

“Hey, stick with me here. You’re doing a great job,” he said. “We’re going to beat this. I’ll keep looking through the ground floors. I need you to go find Dorian and tell him to stop the human. Okay? Can you do that?”

Rafflesia nodded. She ran away down the hall, seemed to not even touch the ground. Rune had to drag himself, but he finished checking the hall. Grinding his teeth against the sharp pain in his splint-supported leg and the bruised feeling of deep muscles in his arms and side where the crutches bit in, he headed back out toward the unchecked parts of the house. He held the image of Heather dousing flames with a hose in his mind, because he could not help thinking of her, but all the other images his mind wanted to supply tried to freeze him with terror.

Carlisle was dragging his fifth stack of boxed papers out to the backyard, where several other cats were transporting them to a safe distance. He trusted Heather (in this moment he was even prepared to trust Topaz, if it just meant someone fixed this), but he was not going to leave several generations’ worth of paperwork and record keeping unattended in a burning house. Then he heard the commotion and, since he had overridden his common sense by returning to said burning house, he disregarded it again to follow the sound.

He came around the front of the house to see that more cats had joined the effort to put out the flames, going so far as to smother fires with towels and blankets where possible. But Heather had disappeared from the group and putting out the fire had been her steadfast position as soon as it started. Someone was up on the roof, obscured by smoke and heat haze, raining water down on everything and everyone with the garden hose, pulled taut against the edge of the roof.

He still had to go beyond the house and look down the hill to see what had people shouting. Or rather, it seemed to have one person shouting. Out of the oak trees to the side of the road down the hill, Ellison burst with his arms flailing as though he was beset by invisible attackers. Then the visible attackers came into view: Dorian and two other veteran hunters chased him with grim determination. They must have only just found him, as any one of them should have been able to outrun him. Then, in the middle of the road, Carlisle saw Heather.

With the setting sun on her left, half her body was thrown into deep shadow, which seemed to pool at her feet and stream away into the creeping twilight. The light made her pale hair glow like flame. She was monolithic. She was running.

Carlisle chased the whole staggered field of them down the hill. Ellison ran like a man possessed, mad and terrified. Dorian and the others ran like a pride, fanning out around Ellison and pacing themselves, prepared to run him down rather than go to the trouble of a burst of speed and a tackle. But Heather outstripped them all, as though everyone’s life depended on her getting to the bottom of the hill first.

Ellison would not have stopped when he reached the road, either planning to run to wherever his car waited or perhaps just running blind and straight on, except Heather screamed, a panicked noise that only faintly resembled the word “stop.” She actually grabbed him before he could step into the road and manhandled him around to face her. Carlisle could only imagine, after what happened to Rune, what she saw when someone ran into the street without looking. Perhaps she did not even mean to stop him personally, but reacted on instinct.

“You stupid child,” she said fiercely. Carlisle skidded to a stop behind her. Even though he was out of breath, he found himself almost holding it just to remain as quiet as possible. The deep, wild parts of his mind told him that one did not attract the attention of any queen when she was that angry. Even Dorian, whose laid back personality belied a relentless hunter, kept his distance.

Ellison tried to fight her, but he had to stop any movement halfway through to scrub at his face, which was red and blotchy and streaked with dirty tears. His breath came in ragged gasps, sucked through a tiny straw over great distance. Heather put a hand around the back of his neck and shook him like she was snapping the neck on a caught mouse. “You can’t have it, so no one can? Grow up,” she ordered and now her voice was getting quiet. The hair on the back of Carlisle’s neck and arms stood on end.

Carlisle saw Dorian make an aborted motion to help her, to take control of Ellison for her. But Heather’s voice did not belong to someone who needed help controlling the likes of Ellison. “Sometimes, we can’t have what we want. But you thought you were special, you thought you were clever and could take what you wanted.”

She maneuvered them, fingers still digging into his thick neck, until he was looking up at the sliver of roof visible from where they stood. “But you failed. You blew it.” She shook him again. “Do you get that? You could not drive me from my home. That will always be my House,” she said and Carlisle thought even Ellison could hear the capital letter on House.

She leaned close to his ear. “I have bigger things to worry about than your greed and your plotting and your sneaking around. I am bigger than you, you petty thief.” She turned them around the face the road again. Ellison had gone along with all of this, hands knuckling his eyes like a distraught child. “I’m never going to see you again. I’m not even going to hear about you from my friends, who are not going to have to put up with your nonsense any more than I am. Do you understand?”

She must have squeezed her hand, because Ellison finally barked out a wheezing “yes.” Heather did not shove him away. She just let him go. Then she stood there, implacable and unafraid. “Go away now.” And Ellison went, running and tripping down the road and out of sight.

Carlisle watched Heather as she stood for a long moment. No one moved; they would wait until their Queen showed them what she wanted them to do. Carlisle looked at Heather and he saw the House of Cats, more than just a building on a hill, but made of flesh and blood and fur. Living and immortal at once, Queen and House were connected. Carlisle held that image in his mind, keeping the memory of the day when his childhood friend and his home and his Queen became all one figure.

Two Months Later…

Heather slumped into a chair at the kitchen table. Oh, yeah, her kitten could feel free to be born any time now. Across from her, Dopple hunched over their new laptop computer and peered furiously at the screen. On the floor by her feet, a wireless router blinked and, from Dopple’s frustrated grumble, failed to respond in the appropriate way. Heather reached her hands up to Rune. “Okay, I’ll take him now,” she said.

With endearing reluctance, Rune handed over Dopple’s son, with whom Rune had formed some sort of unbreakable bond after giving him the name Adam. “He’s in a climbing mood this morning,” he said.

The kitten sneezed then gave them all a startled glance. “Sometimes, I wish they changed from the start,” Heather said. “At this age, human babies are not so much with the mobility.” It said a lot about how far Rune had come that the comment elicited no more than a pained grin that had more to do with the kitten on hand. “Are you sure you don’t want me to talk to the builders when they get here?”

“I’ll be fine,” Rune assured her.

“You have the check for them?”

Rune touched the back pocket of his jeans. “Stop worrying. It’s bad for the kitten.”

Heather snorted. By now, the phrase “it’s bad for the kitten” had been applied to the following: worrying; painting; tap water; overly hot baths; tomatoes; loud music; and microwave ovens. Heather was beginning to regret encouraging Rune to be a part of their kitten’s life, as actively forbidding him seemed to be the only way to get his own worrying down to manageable levels. “So, Dopple,” she said, deliberately forgetting about Rune so he would get on with his own day. “Do we have internet yet?”

The inarticulate growl that followed prompted Carlisle to look up from where he leaned against the kitchen counter, reading the instructional brochure on accessing their account online from their stock management company. “Maybe you should wait until Mysti gets back from the airport.” This suggestion did not go over well.

Out by the front door, Heather heard the clatter and thump of a suitcase bumping down the stairs. A moment later, Topaz came in and did a quick twirl. “How do I look?”

Heather looked over the shirt, complete with actual collar, and the pants, entirely free of frayed hems or torn knees. “I for one would be completely willing to let you into my home if you showed up on my doorstep after one phone call and a letter.”

Heather watched Carlisle looking at Topaz without raising his head again. After a moment and with a quirk of his mouth that Topaz would be smart enough to not comment on, Carlisle said, “Marginally less disreputable than usual. The cats at the New York House probably won’t count the silverware after you leave. Probably.”

Topaz pouted, which Heather found cute on her maudlin days and enraging on her testy days and which she chose to ignore all the rest of the time. “You will have the internet working by the time I get there, right? Because this will be a lot less impressive if I can’t connect them with the Queen here.”

Dopple looked up from the computer. “Kid, you’ve never been to New York. I promise, even if it took me the next month to get this working, you would find a way to keep yourself amused. Now please be quiet so I can work.”

From the solarium, Rafflesia called back, “Oh, yes, did I possibly ask for the same thing five minutes ago? Oh, that’s right, I did.”

“No sass,” Heather called back, “or I won’t quiz you tonight for your history test.” Rafflesia had taken to studying for her GED so well that Heather sometimes found herself wondering why she had not seen Rafflesia for several days. Shortly after which, Rafflesia would emerge from her room and announce that she was hungry and long division would be the death of her. Mostly, it was going about as well as any teenager-in-high-school experience went, from what Heather could gather.

Mysti came into the kitchen and immediately came over to Adam and began smoothing the fur on his chest. “Sit up straight, pudding, or you’ll have bad posture later.” She kissed the top of his head. “Well, what’s the hold up? Airport traffic is hell and LAX waits for no cat.”

“Okay, okay,” Topaz said. “Ambassador Topaz is off on his first diplomatic mission.”

Heather smiled up at him. “Good luck,” she said. He looked like a little kid playing dress-up to her, but she thought he would probably look pretty impressive when he showed up at the House of Cats in New York, bearing a letter from Heather and instructions on setting up their first point of contact in the transcontinental network Heather had envisioned.

Well, they had all envisioned it. Heather had wanted to bring more technology to the House. Carlisle wanted a more reliable way of sharing news. Mysti had contacts with just about every group of cats, from full-scale House down to extended family cluster, anywhere in North America. With Carlisle occupied with managing the House’s finances, it had been Topaz who took the role of diplomat. Even Carlisle admitted that Topaz had shown promise in Carlisle’s usual work, way back in that first winter together when Topaz did half the interviews with returning cats.

And while the network, a dream of real-time connections between cats across the country, was just getting off the ground, Rafflesia had already proposed a traveling school, where she could teach cats at Houses all over the country, who could then teach their own kittens, about human life and how to go to school or get a job. Rune had dredged up some of Poppy’s long-disused contacts to get human papers for Topaz and Rafflesia.

So now Heather was maybe a week away from seeing her House become the starting point of something big and amazing. She was also, from what Valoria told her, maybe a month away from having her kitten, which blew ideas about diplomatic relations between Houses clean out of the water in terms of big and amazing. She had a house that had not burned to the ground and, in fact, looked a lot less like a heap of rubble than when she had first returned. She had a construction company building a new porch to replace the one that, between termites and fire and way too many years, definitely needed to be retired.

Heather braced Adam on her chest, where he purred and kneaded her shirt with sharp little claws in a way that made Heather’s hormone-addled brain turn to happy mush. Mostly, she had a family who stood by her through all those changes, big and amazing and scary. Even when she ran, her family followed after her. She delegated a lot of her running, these days.

Dopple suddenly threw her arms up over her head. “Take that, computer.” From the solarium, Rafflesia yelped, “Quiet!” Dopple said, “We have internet, your majesty.”

“So, we need to make an email address, right? Where are Mysti’s instructions?” Heather asked. As Dopple turned the screen to Heather and scooted her chair around so they could both use the computer, Heather wondered what she had gotten herself into. But she didn’t worry too much; in the past year, she had developed a damn good track record for this sort of thing.

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HoC Ep. 19: The Master of This House, Pt. 1

Up on the ladder, Rune swept the brush left and right, spreading a thick daub of paint across the molding where the wall met the ceiling in the solarium. After the experience of falling out of that tree–not landing on his feet being yet another reason he disliked a human body–he would have preferred to avoid the ladder. But Heather had stubbornly refused to give up her spot over at the nearest window, where she swept a brush swiftly around the wood framing the taped-off glass.

Heather had been strange for at least a week and, no matter how often he hashed out his impressions with Topaz, Rune could never get more specific than “strange.” She seemed jumpy, becoming inexplicably snippy if anyone came up behind her or if she had to spend a long time outside. Then she would laugh it off and tell Rune she had made dinner for the two of them. Or, as more often was the case, the ten of them, since Heather’s dinners had started to take on mythic proportions. More and more, she invited Topaz and Carlisle, Dopple and Mysti, Rafflesia and Valoria to join them and referred to the meals as “family night.”

Rune descended the ladder and moved it over to the next couple feet of unfinished wall. He ran his thumb across the masking tape protecting the edges of both wall and ceiling from the contrasting paint of the molding. Rune had relented to the hiring of professional painters for the outside of the house in exchange for Heather’s cooperation on painting the inside themselves. He also relented about taking cat’s bane. The emergency use of it when Heather was kidnapped had pushed him past the last wall of reluctance. He didn’t like it, but being human had stopped being a source of unthinking terror for him.

Below him, Heather sat down on the plastic-covered couch in a whuff of displaced air. She pressed the back of her wrist into one closed eye and then the other. Rune held his brush over the mouth of the paint can and asked, “You need to take a break?”

Heather sniffed and pressed her wrist to her mouth as well. “I’m so sick of these fumes.” She went over to the already open sliding door and stuck her head out. Her shoulders rose and fell with deep breaths.

Rune stepped down from the ladder again and he could see her wince at the way his boots rattled the metal against itself. “Why don’t we quit for the morning? You go do your thing with Carlisle.”

Heather nodded. She looked ready to cry, face pinched and eyes wet. “Thanks. We can finish the room this afternoon.”

Rune watched her leave to change out of the paint-flecked jeans and t-shirt she wore, and then he went back to his painting. Heather might have other business to take care of, but Rune still contented himself with acting as the resident handyman. Apart from that, he had no other demands on his time or attention these days, which made him about the only one in the increasingly busy House.

Carlisle watched Heather’s hair split to either side of her bowed neck as she bent to sign the papers. She straightened up and pushed the papers over to the man behind the counter. He signed below both Carlisle and Heather’s names, stamped and sealed the papers. The process of notarizing the paperwork was horrifically dull, yet Heather seemed stressed.

Heather collected the papers back into a sheaf while Carlisle paid the fees. The bell over the door rang as another customer came in. The noise must have startled Heather because Carlisle heard the flutter of papers flying into the air. But even as he watched, Heather caught them up into a rough pile again, practically picking them out of mid-air. He had noticed that since she had started spending more time as a cat, her reflexes had improved. But she had also become alert almost to the point of hyper vigilance.

On the sidewalk outside the notary office, Heather tapped her fingertips against the manila envelope of papers. “I have another stop to make, if you don’t mind,” she said.

“Lead on, then,” Carlisle said and followed her back to the street and east. He had needed to go with her to sign the papers with a witness, but the truth was that no one wanted Heather to go anywhere alone. After what happened with Ellison, Carlisle had to concede that hyper vigilance was not an inappropriate response. “How did Dahl take it when you called?”

Heather glanced over at him. Her hands hovered at stomach level and held the envelope like a shield. Inside it were contracts and trusts and wills describing who controlled what at the House and in what order control passed to them. Susanna Dahl, who had managed the trust for years before Heather came home, was no longer anywhere on that list. No human was. “I think she was relieved to not have to work for us ever again.”

“Do you think she believed Ellison?” Carlisle had hesitated to bring up the subject after what happened. Heather had, if anything, become more obviously distressed as more time passed.

Heather jogged through a cross walk so that Carlisle was left behind even though the signal had only just changed for them. When he caught up, she said, “I don’t know, but she didn’t make any threats when we spoke. She made some noise about wanting to know we were satisfied as clients, but I could tell it was lip service. So maybe she suspects, but I think she’d rather not know anything.”

Carlisle hesitated before bringing up the next subject as well because Heather had been so determined in her course of action. “I’m going to have to brush up on my investing skills, with the way you set up the stocks.” Which was an understatement: Carlisle had been officially reassigned to managing all the House’s assets himself, with the certificates being held by a company that left most everything but the actual work on the stock exchange floor to the customer.

Heather turned into another strip mall with several glances over her shoulders. “Not really. The House is the definition of long-term stock. We’ve had most of those companies since they went public. If you don’t want to touch anything with quick turnarounds, you don’t have to,” she said with a careless shrug at war with her tense body language.

Carlisle made a neutral noise in response. Heather had come back from her kidnapping with some strong opinions on what changes needed to be made to the House. She stopped in front of a store and pointed to a bench a few feet down from its door. He looked up at the name. “Phones?”

“You can wait outside if you want. It might take a while to get signed up for service.” Heather had a hard expression on her face that dared him to make the mistake of questioning her plan.

“I’ll come in. They can show both of us how to use them. I’m not familiar with them.” Carlisle tucked his hands in his pockets and tried to look inoffensive. Heather nodded and whirled into the shop. Carlisle followed her, trying to walk the fine line between protecting her and getting his head bitten off.

Dopple stroked her bare thumb down her son’s spine and across the thin whip of his tail. He squiggled across the bedspread on pudgy legs and bumped his head into her other hand. His eyes were still closed, but everyone told her that was expected; changing-cats took longer to do everything as kittens.

She curled her arm around him and hitched her body up over his a bit when she heard a knock on the door. “Who is it?”

Heather stepped in quietly, eyes going to the kitten largely hidden by Dopple’s body, and silently took up the desk chair. “He asleep?”

Dopple relaxed enough to let her hip settle onto the bed again, but kept her arm curled around him. “Just woke up, so he’s bored.”

“Have you decided on a name yet?” Heather fidgeted with the top flap of a cardboard box. She kept turning it in her hands so Dopple couldn’t make out the writing on the sides.

“Mysti keeps vetoing everything. I’m threatening to call him Pudding if she doesn’t start helping me pick.” She jerked her chin towards the box. “What’s that?”

Heather stopped tumbling it and faced the label toward her. The front had a plastic window through which she could see a flip style cell phone. “I got the family plan,” Heather said and pulled the plastic packing out of the box.

“We’re getting phones?” Dopple uncurled her arm from the kitten to accept the phone Heather offered.

“That’s just for starters.” She handed Dopple a slip of paper. “These are all the numbers you need to put in.” It listed numbers for Rune, Carlisle, Topaz and Heather. “Carlisle says you know something about computers.”

Dopple grimaced. “Mysti taught me a little. I can use the things if I have to.” Typing hurt though and her fingers didn’t have the right reach to easily use a full-sized keyboard.

Heather picked at a tear in the corner of the box and peeled off strips of the glossy coating on the outside. “If we got a computer and ran cable lines up here for internet, could you use email?”

Dopple raised her eyebrows. “Who am I going to be chatting with?”

Heather had reduced the corner of the box to confetti. “I’m not sure yet. Just, could you be technical support if I go through with it?”

Dopple shrugged the shoulder she was not bracing on. “Between Mysti and me, we can manage.”

Heather smiled and Dopple noticed she looked a little flushed. “Thanks.” She took the damaged box with her as she headed for the door. At the threshold, she turned back. “How is it?” At Dopple’s questioning wave of her hand, Heather said, “Being a mom?”

Dopple looked down at where her son gnawed on the pad of her thumb with needle-sharp teeth. He had his arms wrapped around the ball of her thumb and she counted–again–the little pink and white claws just peeking through the black fur. “I’m scared all the time, even when he’s right with me, that something might hurt him. And I spent four hours the other day watching him nap after Donya nursed him.” She shrugged again. “I wouldn’t change anything. Now I’m not just myself. I’m his mom first.”

Heather’s smile looked a little less shaky this time as she nodded and let herself out of the room. Dopple flipped open the phone. She stretched over to the desk and snagged a pencil. The buttons for the numbers were too small for the blunt ends of her fingers, but with the eraser end, she typed in the numbers for the other phones in their new fleet, adding Mysti’s, long ago memorized, first.

George’s cell phone started vibrating to tell him he had a message, just as the foreman led him past the skeletal walls of a house being built. His thumb pressed the keys to start playback without looking away from where the foreman used a rolled up blue print to point out something a couple of workers were doing up on the roof of another house.

“Message received on. Monday. June 7th at. 7:53. AM,” the automated voice chanted. Then the voice changed and became richly, viciously human. “Hello. It’s Susanna. I called when I knew you wouldn’t answer because I wanted to say this without having to listen to you interrupt me and shout at me and tell me how stupid I am.”

George turned the volume on his headset down a bit, so that Susanna’s voice became a murmur underlying the outside world. And outside, the foreman droned on about fire-resistant materials. “So. Um. What I wanted to say is, I think you’re a real bastard.” She paused as though she had surprised herself by saying it. “I tried to walk on eggshells around you when you were busy and pissed off and I told myself it was just the work getting to you. And that, if I brought over dinner or went to work late to see you when you weren’t busy, you would start having more time and be good to me again. That didn’t exactly work, now did it?”

The foreman picked up a shingle from a pile and showed it to George. With a flick of his nail, the shingle rang brightly. “I’m a busy woman, too, you know,” Susanna whisper-shouted in his ear. “I have a career that takes all my attention and I thought you understood that. I thought you wanted to spend time with me. That’s what the stupid house was about, you said. But no, it was all just about going after Lee.” George instinctively growled, prompting a confused look from the foreman. George noticed just long enough to make a dismissive noise.

“God. Do you have a crush on her or something?” The foreman led him over a crunchy section of rocks, out beyond the last house being constructed, so they could look down over the rest of the development where a machine crawled over overturned land on caterpillar treads. “Because God knows you’re horrible to the women you like.”

“Was I always just a way to get at her? I had my misgivings–you never really stopped obsessing over that house–but I thought it was just a thing for you. A sticking point. But it’s not like your whole life revolved around that one house.”

George followed the foreman back across the lots to the trailer he used as an office. “Except, apparently I was wrong about that. So.” As he walked, the foreman fanned out the blueprint and tried to hold it with both hands and point to something with a third one he didn’t have.

“I guess that’s everything. You never cared about me, I see that now, and you used me and you were so rude to me I can hardly think about it. And now I think you might be completely insane.”

George followed the foreman up the steps into the trailer. “And I don’t ever want to see you again.” The foreman waved him into a seat. “Goodbye.” Before he sat down, George pressed the button to delete the message and flipped his phone shut again.

Heather leaned over Rune’s shoulder and pointed to one of the brightly colored icons on the little screen of the cell phone. “See, you go there to change the settings,” she said. She reached around his side and tried to press the buttons.

Rune pulled the phone out of her reach and scowled over his shoulder. “I know how to use a phone,” he said. He leaned over the arm of the couch in the front room to get away from her, which didn’t exactly make her feel great.

Heather jerked back. “Well, I didn’t,” she snapped. And yes, maybe her attempts to teach Rune how it worked had turned into taking the phone away from him and doing it herself, but damn it, he wouldn’t ever do it the way she told him to. “I had to make the man in the store explain everything to me and he looked at me like I had two tails.”

Rune continued to press buttons and the phone obediently beeped back at him. “If you had told me what you were planning, I could have gone with you.”

Heather made a rude noise and thumped over to the opposite end of the couch. She leaned her back against the arm and propped one leg up on the couch. She flipped through the instruction booklet, letting her left arm drape over her belly between page turns. After a chilly pause, she said, “It’s not like you tell me anything about your past. How should I know what you know about cell phones?”

Rune shut his phone with a loud snap. “Can we get this fight over with soon? You’ve been weird lately and I can’t help but think I’m the reason.”

Heather looked at him over the top of the booklet and curled up a little more. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not mad at you.” At least, she hadn’t been before she gave him the cell phone.

“So why are you riding me?” Rune asked and pulled the booklet out of her hands to toss it on the floor by the rest of the packaging from the phones. “And I’m not talking about the phone. You threw a book at me the other day because I didn’t knock before I came into your room.”

“You startled me. I didn’t know it was you.” Heather thought of Dopple’s answer: I’m scared all the time.

“Do a lot of people attack you in your room?” She saw the moment when he realized what a small leap it was from “kidnapped in your driveway” to “attacked in your room.” He lurched across the middle of the couch and put a hand on her bent knee. “Is this about–”

“No,” Heather practically wailed because she got enough of the post-traumatic psychology talk from Carlisle as it was. “This isn’t about, about that night,” she said. Part of her continued to be bitterly disappointed, as it had been for the past week since she realized what was going on herself, that Rune had not just guessed what was on her mind.
“Because I can talk to Dorian about setting up more daytime patrols and rigging up more booby traps,” Rune said, like he didn’t hear anything she said, just relentlessly pursuing the wrong trail.

“I’m pregnant.”

Topaz found Rune in the attic, which didn’t bode well when he had just seen Heather restlessly thumping about in the kitchen and refusing to talk to him. Even when he said he still needed her to help him with the new phone and if she had time now, he would go take some cat’s bane, she just snarled that he should ask Rune because he knew all about them. She had a big knife in her hand. He booked it out of there.

Rune was human, at least, which meant he hadn’t taken any catnip. Yet. Topaz trotted over to where he leaned against an ancient steamer trunk. A bar of light from the tiny window slanted down across his face. The light washed out the lines and cast everything past the hard line of his jaw into shadow. Topaz thought he might have looked like that as a young man.

Rune rolled his head to the side to look at Topaz then back again. He shut his eyes against the light. “Heather’s pregnant,” he said. Desperation put a hysterical edge to his voice.

“Dude, you don’t waste any time,” Topaz said. He sat next to Rune and flicked his tail in the dust of the floor.

Rune groaned. “I didn’t mean to.”

Topaz snickered. “Uh, bro, you do know how this works, right?”

Rune opened his eyes just enough to glare. “We weren’t really thinking about it at the time.”

Rune really did sound desperate, so Topaz took pity and dropped the teasing tone from his voice. “Isn’t this an okay thing? You two have been, what’s the word, dating? Dating for a while.” Cats translated the human concept of dating as “patrolling the same territory amicably.” Topaz thought that was a pretty good description of the two and their strolls around the property. “What did you say to Heather?”

Rune winced and Topaz braced himself for whatever deeply insensitive thing Rune had probably blurted out. “I don’t think I said anything. I kind of just stared at her for a while and then I went away.”

Topaz grumbled in the back of his throat. It was worse than he thought. “Man, Heather’s pissed. What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking I can’t be a father!”

“Did she ask you to be?” Because lots of queens, most, in fact, raised their kittens alone or with someone who wasn’t the actual father. Just because a queen thought a tom was good enough to have his kittens didn’t mean she wanted to be stuck with him the rest of her life.

Rune seemed to hear all the unspoken remainder of Topaz’s thought. “Heather lived as a human most of her life. She’s going to expect me to help if I’m going to be part of her life any more.”

Topaz scoffed. “Heather’s not going to break up with you. She wouldn’t be this pissed if she didn’t care too much to let you walk away.”

“You don’t understand,” Rune said, leaning forward to drop his head between his knees. “She knows about,” and his voice trailed off into a strangled mumble. He sat back up and fixed Topaz with a hard glare. “I had a human wife and I got her pregnant and she had a human daughter,” he said in one rough breath. “And I ran away. And Heather knows.”

Rune gave Topaz a minute to chew on all that information. He thought maybe Rune was a big asshole for running off like that, except then Topaz would never have met him and Rune wouldn’t have met Heather and life just generally started to look like a foreign country. “Do you want to be a father?” Topaz asked at last.

Rune’s face twisted painfully. He held his hands out like someone would drop the answer into them. “I don’t want to be the kind of man I was before I met her,” he said and it sounded like he was choking on the words.

Topaz rolled his eyes. Leave it to Rune to bury the truth about whatever he was feeling under fifteen feet of only vaguely related crap. “So let her know you plan to stick around.”

“I can’t afford to buy her a ring, if that’s what you’re thinking. Unless I borrow money from her, which is pretty tacky. I’ve got about fifty bucks left to my name.”

Topaz hadn’t been thinking of a gift, but now that Rune mentioned it… “Something for the kitten would just make it seem like you want her to act like a regular cat. So something human.” He could see Rune hesitating, talking himself out of the whole idea. “I’ll get changed and go with you, so get your tailless butt off the floor and get that money.” He trotted away before Rune could argue. Really, he understood Heather’s pain; talking to Rune was like convincing a mouse to braid your whiskers.

Rafflesia hooked her claws at the pages of the newspaper and scrabbled them open to the one she wanted. A6, [UNIVERSITY], where they kept talking about tuition and books and protests and students. Her tail flicked across the dining room table, where Heather had left the newspaper. Rafflesia could read, but a lot of the words didn’t mean anything to her. She left the paper behind, unable to carry it, and hopped down from the table.

In the kitchen, Heather sliced peaches with quick, fluid motions. The room smelled of juice and vanilla and paint fumes from down in the solarium. A burst of lemon scent joined them as Heather squeezed half of one over the bowl of peach slices. She glanced at Rafflesia as she came into the room and jumped onto the counter then Heather went back to reducing peaches to paper-thin slices.

Rafflesia sniffed a pot cooling on the stove. It was filled with a cream-colored goop that smelled strongly of vanilla. “Whatcha making?”

Heather pointed her knife at the large glass bowl set back against the wall. “Trifle,” she said. The bottom of the bowl was lined with sticks of pound cake. A carton of whipping cream and a bottle of orange juice sat next to it, along with the plate bearing the partially sliced pound cake.

Rafflesia snuck a quick lick of vanilla goop from the wooden spoon lying next to the stove. Pudding. Delicious. “Did you make all this right now?”

Heather grunted a yes-like noise and used a bright red brush to spread orange juice on the cake in the bowl. Then she started arranging peach slices in a starburst pattern. “Did you need something?” Heather asked, hitting the word need hard, like anything less than life-or-death desperation would be ignored.

Rafflesia thought of asking her what was wrong, because any idiot could see she was upset, but Rafflesia knew she cooked to forget about her problems. So instead, she said, “What is a university? And what is tuition?”

Heather picked up the wooden spoon and scowled at the long stripe of clean wood through the middle of the pudding residue. “You’ve been reading the paper again?” She asked as she washed the spoon in the sink. “It’s a type of school. They’re talking about increasing how much you have to pay to take classes there.”

“So it costs to go to school?”

Heather spooned a big glop of pudding into the bowl and used the back of the spoon to push it around, covering up the cake and peaches. “Yeah. This one is a state university, so the government runs it and it costs less, so lots of people can go.”

“Costs less than what?”

“Than a private college,” Heather said and started making more sticks of cake.

“What do you have to do to go there?”

Heather raised her eyebrows but kept her eyes on the swiftly moving knife. “Well, mostly, humans apply while they finish high school and, if they get accepted, they start taking classes at the university.”

“And how to you get into high school?”

Heather set the knife down and looked at Rafflesia. She stood with one arm folded across her stomach and the opposite elbow resting on that arm. She circled her hand around in a sort of get on with it motion. “Why the sudden interest in schools, Raff?”

Rafflesia drew herself up to her full height. “I want to go to school and learn lots of things so I can come back and teach the other kittens.”

Heather relaxed out of her stern stance. “You want to be a teacher? Here? The way you talked, I thought for sure you would want to leave home again. Maybe go stay with Umber for real this time.”

“That’s just it. I want to learn all about life outside, but I want to come back and tell people about it. Then the other cats would know enough to go out and have their own adventures.”

“Well…”

Rafflesia tiptoed across the edge of the stove, still warm from use under her feet, to sit right next to Heather. “This is important to me. I really, really want to do this.”

“I guess, if we can get some papers for you, you could get your GED and apply with that. You might have to start at a city college before a university will take you. And I’ll have to talk to Carlisle about paying for tuition, but I’m sure we have more than enough. And…” Heather kept talking to herself, thinking of details and complications and solutions. And Rafflesia listened to everything and added to her list of words to ask about, filing away GED and city college and dormitories for later consideration, missing nothing.

Rune switched the handles of the paper bag from one hand to the other and wiped his sweaty palm against his jeans. “Are you sure Heather will like this?” He looked down into the oversized bag at the box labeled “immersion blender.”

“She doesn’t have one, does she?” Topaz asked. His brother made a big show of walking along the narrow ridge of asphalt along the shoulder of the road. Even with Topaz’s effortless balance, Rune thought it looked like too much trouble. “She already has a cook book she likes. And this looks pretty cool.”

Rune wasn’t sure why anyone would need an immersion blender, cool or not, but they had argued the point three times already. He had bought the thing and that was that. “I just feel like I should be getting her jewelry. Or flowers. Women still like those, don’t they? Human women, I mean.” Except apparently his brain wasn’t all on the same page and needed to circle around the problem a little longer.

He could feel Topaz roll his eyes at him. “Does Heather even wear jewelry? I mean, if you were trying to impress Mysti, I’d say sure.”

“Impressing Mysti could never be worth pissing off Dopple,” Rune grumbled. As they rounded the sharp curve in the road, he caught sight of the mailbox. His stomach flip-flopped. If Heather didn’t like it…

“The point is that you know Heather is not like other women. She’s not like other women to you and Rune, look out!”

Rune had barely stepped out to cross the road. Stupid, stupid, his mind repeated in the brief eternity it took to turn enough to see the car already braking hard as it came around the turn at him.

Even with the driver simultaneously laying on the horn and the brake, the car clipped Rune. The impact broke his left leg, he thought distantly, and the image of Poppy Lee, ancient before her time and leaning heavily on a cane, came unbidden to his mind. The force bucked him up over the hood, but the angle made him roll up and off to the side, instead of into the windshield.

The worst part was hitting the ground. His brain already protected itself in an absorbent layer of shock, so he heard, rather than felt, the crunch of his ribs cracking and something going pop in his shoulder. Asphalt scraped his cheek. The prickle of dry oak leaves all over his skin was a relief because it meant he was off to the side of the road, out of the way of crushing tires.

It hurt too much to move, so he felt grateful he ended his rag doll roll on his back. Above him, a half sky of blue and a half canopy of leaves twisted in a dizzying rhythm. If he lay still and took shallow breaths, his body just seemed to buzz, foreign and ignorant of his suggestions, but somewhere out the other end of pain.

He heard Topaz screaming at the human, telling it to get out of here. That was good. He couldn’t go to a human hospital and the human would want to call an ambulance, but maybe not as much as it wanted to be let off the hook. Rune forced himself to croak out some assurance, some variation on it’s just a scratch, just a flesh wound. He couldn’t hear over the ringing in his ears whether or not it came out right. Were his eyes even open any more?

To be continued…

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HoC Ep. 18: Alley Cat Blues

Dopple found a rock in the scraggly backyard. “We’re not going to have a lot of time,” she said. “Do you see her?”

The tom cupped his hands around his eyes and peered in the dark window. “Something must be wrong. I told her we would come tonight.”

Dopple stood by the back door. “Get ready then,” she said and smashed the glass of the window with the rock. She knocked out the jagged shards and reached through to unlock the door.

The house stank of shit and death. It rolled out through the door like a big dog’s rank breath. Dopple caught the tom hesitating, pulling the collar of his shirt up over his nose, and jerked him into the house. Common cats scattered before them. Dopple pushed some away with her boot when they smelled her and thought about picking a fight. She stepped over others too sick or old to care who or what she was. In a corner, a cat mewled repeatedly, half-starved and mad or stupid, rocking against the wall.

They found the queen in the closet. Naked and filthy, she sat with her skinny legs pulled up to her chest. Parasites bloated her stomach so it swelled out from visible ribs. There, in the nest of her arms and legs and belly, a newborn kitten slept.

Dopple kept lookout while the tom scooped her up. The house made the shelters look homey. Hosing out the cages started to make sense to her now. Even in the dark, she could see filth staining the carpets and the smell was unbearable. The human must have burned out her nose years ago; nothing else, not even compulsive hoarding, could explain how a person could live with that smell.

A light went on under a door. “We’re out of time,” she said and hustled the tom to the door. As they ducked out, she heard someone calling out to whoever was there. The cats inside watched her with lifeless eyes. She left the door open behind them; let the common cats escape if they could.

In the car, Dopple kept one eye on the woman stretched on the backseat and one on the road as she drove to the tom’s home. “Did you know she had a kitten?”

He turned away from watching her as well. “She was going to have it any day.”

In the back, the woman stirred under the blanket he had thrown over her. “Where are we going?”

“Someplace safe,” he said. “We’ll take care of you.”

She murmured weakly. “My baby?”

The tom reached back and curled his hands over hers, where the kitten slept. “You’re holding him.”

“Lucky,” Dopple said when he turned around again. “You finding her when you did.”

“He’s not mine, if that’s what you’re thinking,” the tom said. “I normally stick closer to home, but I was desperate for a bit of–” He didn’t say a bit of tail, though Dopple knew he meant it. “For company. So I strayed a little farther than usual. I didn’t want to call the authorities until someone got her out.”

“We have a vet who helps us, but I don’t think she’s going to make it,” Dopple said as quietly as she could. She pulled into the driveway of the tom’s house. He lived as a human full-time, but roamed like any tom during his days off from cat’s bane.

The tom carried her inside. Curled up, she barely took up half the couch. Dopple pulled off a glove and pressed two short fingers to her neck. The pulse there was weak, her heart fluttering under the strain of the dozen infections and parasites the queen no doubt had in her system.

“Can you do anything for her?” asked the tom.

Dopple pulled her glove back on. “Get a glass of warm water with a little salt and sugar. She’s dehydrated.”

Dopple did not see where he went to get it; she barely noticed anything about his house. All she could see was that little black-furred head peeking out of the queen’s bony hands. When she died–Dopple was not deluded enough to think she would survive–he would be left an orphan. She could take him to the House, but what then? Who would take care of him until he was old enough to take care of himself?

Dopple climbed out of her mother’s jacket and tumbled down into her lap. When her mother changed, they spent a few days down in the bushes and palm trees that grew in the far corner of the park with the regular humans. Her mother insisted on keeping her close, but Dopple was old enough to take care of herself. She made a beeline for their normal home, out where the other abandoned and feral cats lived.

She jumped up on the edge of the fountain in the middle of the park and circled around it. In the dark, with just the street lamps for light, the pennies at the bottom seemed to swim and dart through the water. Down on the other side, Dopple ducked behind a bench to hide from a cat picking through a discarded takeout box. She wasn’t supposed to talk to cats she didn’t know. Sometimes they were mean.

Behind the human bathrooms, she found something interesting. Some kind of box, it was made of metal and she could smell something good inside. She sniffed again. It wasn’t tuna salad. It wasn’t sparrow. One end of the box was open. Cautiously, Dopple inched into the small opening on tiptoe.

Something slammed and Dopple darted forward as a rush of air went past her hind feet. She turned in the tiny space and found the end she came in at now closed. She pawed at it, head-butted it, kicked it, but nothing budged it. Dopple called for her mother as loud as she could, but neither she nor anyone else came to find her out there in the dark.

The next morning, humans woke Dopple from a restless sleep. She was hungry, since the food she had smelled had been no more than a mouthful, and hoarse from crying. A big hand lifted up the trap. Exhausted, Dopple mewed plaintively nonetheless and pawed at the gloved hand through the gaps in the metal bars.

“Got one of the kittens in here,” the human said. “Seems pretty friendly. The shelter might be able to find a home for this one.”

“This one’s already tagged,” another one said. Dopple saw it hold up another cage with an adult inside. “You’d think after they got fixed, they wouldn’t want to mess with the traps any more.”

“Aw, you know they don’t remember that long. Just let ’em out and we can head back.”

Dopple was unceremoniously slid from one cage into another in the back of a van. All around her, cats chattered, but no one would talk to her. The doors closed on her last sight of the park.

Dopple woke up slowly, recognizing her surroundings in flashes separated by what felt like days of drugged sleep. She slept on the little round bed by the television. Her fuzzy mouse toy waited just in front of her nose, but she did not have the energy to play with it. One of the humans who fed her moved around the house, though Dopple’s attention lapses made it seem like the human teleported from kitchen to bedroom to garage.

The last time she woke up and stayed awake, she remembered where she was and where she had been. The humans had taken her to the doctor and left her there, where it was noisy and smelled strange and where humans she didn’t know touched her all over. She didn’t like it there. Then she must have fallen asleep, because now she was back in her new home. Her mouth tasted like cotton and her head swam.

Dopple stood up. Her front paws felt like they had been plunged into hot coals and broken glass. The pain raced up her legs and she sprang away. She shook her paws, trying to rid them of whatever hurt them so, but it just made them throb with her pulse. Every flex made the muscles scream. She licked her paws and groaned at the shudder of pain it sent through her body. They tasted of medicine and steel and blood.

No claws scraped against her tongue when she licked across the inflamed pads. The very ends flopped uselessly when she tried to control them, her delicate paws reduced to clubs. And everything hurt.

The human bent over her, a paper bag of food in her arms, and snatched Dopple’s arm away from her mouth. “Don’t lick the medicine, Pepper,” she said, calling Dopple by that ridiculous name they insisted on using to refer to her. And it hurt, hurt, hurt when the human touched her, like she was dying, like the whole world was ending.

Dopple crunched up her body and struck out with her hind feet and at least that worked, at least those still had claws. The human jerked away when Dopple’s feet ripped two sets of long gashes up her arm. And Dopple ran.

She ran on paws stabbed with needles and knives. She ran out the front door and past the car, doors open and spilling more bags of groceries. She ran with the human chasing after her and calling a name that did not belong to Dopple. She ran under bushes and across lawns and behind houses. She ran until the blood and the hurt and the numbed-out, beyond-pain ache of it all knocked her down at last.

Dopple picked her way along the familiar path between dark buildings. It was just past closing time and the restaurant would have put out its garbage for the night. Dopple had to arrive early, before the smell of food left out reached the other cats in the area. Dopple kept her nose clean; she didn’t mess with anyone else’s territory. She ripped into a plastic garbage bag with her teeth and poked through the contents. The lumpy bag felt soft on her sore paws, especially compared to the chewed up concrete in the alley.

Dopple ate well on scraps of salmon and rice and cheese rinds and overcooked vegetables. She wasn’t picky and ate things the other cats wouldn’t touch unless they were truly starving. No one else had arrived, so she took the time to clean her face thoroughly. She had a funny feeling, like maybe her food hadn’t agreed with her. But it wasn’t quite her stomach that was upset. She felt creepy-crawly and restless and grouchy.

She had to lie down for a while, pressed into the corner where the building met the steps leading up to the back door. She panted. Her body felt electric and wild. She knew something strange was happening when she thought she stretched out to sleep and realized her body really did stretch, long and thin. Her legs and arms seemed to unfold endlessly. The corner became too small. The whole alley seemed too small.

The first things Dopple saw as a human were her hands, fingers cut blunt down to the first knuckle. She flexed them. They moved, albeit clumsily. She looked at her bare feet next. Whole. She stood up. Nothing hurt. She didn’t need hands to walk any more. Naked and in a strange body, she felt invulnerable.

She hissed and lunged at the first cat to join her in the alley. She laughed when it ran, tail bristling, and hugged herself. She was like her mother and, whatever else that meant, she was free from her tottering walk and her constant pain and her terror of anything bigger and stronger than she.

But beyond the alley, there were humans and cars and noise. She couldn’t stay where she was like that. Her mother had always kept a stash of clothing near their home for when she changed–and suddenly all Dopple’s memories of her mother made some kind of sense–but Dopple had no such resources. But if her mother had changed like this, there had to be more of them. If Dopple could find them, she would find a safe haven as well, she was sure.

She untied the top of one of the other garbage bags. Her hands still hurt to use, but she gripped the bottom corners between her thumbs and the sides of her first fingers. The upended garbage bag vomited kitchen scraps and waste paper. Dopple tore holes in the bottom and corners and pulled the stinking thing over her head. In the dark of night, it would hide her nakedness long enough for her to steal clothes.

Fearlessly, she prowled unfamiliar streets beyond the heart of her city, looking for just one unlocked door or open window. All she needed was a way in and she could have whatever she wanted.

Dopple came to a screeching halt when she realized someone else was already in the attic. And in a house full of cats-turned-human, he still had all his fur. Instinctively, she hissed at him, never thinking how unlikely it was that a common cat would hang out in their attic. He was certainly no kitten and so had to be old enough to change.

He cocked an ear at her when she hissed. “Flea bite you? What’s with the display?”

Dopple sank back and shook her head. “Thought you were common. How come you’re all–” She waved her hand to indicate his general state of being. “Thought we all had to change for the same moon.”

He unfolded his body and padded over to her. He was a big cat, and muscular, and if she had been on the street, she would have run at the sight of him. Even now, after a couple of months in the House, she wanted to escape the masses of other cats she encountered in every room. She had thought the attic would be a safe place to hide out for a few hours. The cat jumped up onto a dusty suitcase next to her. “Catnip suppresses it. I didn’t feel like being human right now.”

Dopple wrinkled her nose. “I like being human,” she said hesitantly. “Walking on two feet is way better than four.” She saw the cat focus on her hands and she reflexively curled them into protective fists.

“You should wear gloves. Might help,” he said.

Dopple set a hand on one of the cardboard boxes stacked in the attic. “I came looking for more clothes. There’s nothing good in the trunk downstairs.”

The cat shrugged. “I know where there’s a pair. I’ll trade you for them.”

“Trade?”

“If you go down to the garden and bring me back some more catnip, I’ll tell you where a pair of gloves are.”

Dopple nodded. “Catnip grows out back, right? With that other plant.”

“That’s cat’s bane. It’ll keep you human.”

Dopple hardly heard the rest of what the cat said. Cat’s bane would let her stay human a little longer. She scurried downstairs before he finished talking. She would trade him catnip for gloves, but she already owed him, even if he didn’t know it, for that tiny piece of information.

Maybe, if the gloves helped her hands, she could get money to go buy a pair of her own. She wouldn’t even have to worry about when the moon ended if she ate cat’s bane. She dashed through the house, ignoring the cats she had been so nervous around, and thought of all she could do if she could pick and choose when she turned human. Maybe that spotted cat, Carlisle, who ran everything now that the queen had died, maybe he would trade her money for something. Maybe she could work for the House.

Dopple grumbled under her breath and turned down a different aisle of cages when the fifth cat that day hissed as she passed by. The humans started giving her funny looks. It was never this hard when she went to the shelters. She always knew what she was looking for when it was someone’s girlfriend or son or friend who got picked up by animal control. But the cat show came with only the vague instruction from Carlisle to “check it out,” because show cats tended to be young, young enough to not yet change, which made them ticking time bombs for the secretive House of Cats.

The truth was, Dopple could hardly tell the difference between common cats and changing-cats. Cats at the House claimed you could tell by smell, by eye shape, by size or tone of voice. But Dopple just saw and smelled and heard “cat” from all of them. And they all elicited the same response: avoid when possible; respect everyone else’s territory; eat early and eat alone; know who’s in charge and keep on their good side or their blind side.

Right now, the show floor smelled of cat and kibble and shampoo. There was human and potted plant and, somewhere, peanut butter and jelly being eaten. The benched cages were done up with ribbon and flowers and glitter-crusted letters. Cats glared out at her from each one. She smirked at one wearing a ruffled, lacy collar and pulled the collar of her leather jacket up around her neck. She was nobody’s show cat.

She walked by more cages, waiting and hoping that a changing-cat, if there was one at the show, would recognize her, even if she couldn’t recognize it. She concentrated so much on picking out some subtle difference in their faces or their attitude that she almost did not notice the woman tailing her. She stopped in front of an information display put on by a local cat fanciers’ branch, expecting the woman to stop as well or break off or, well, do anything normal in stalking a person.

Instead, the woman walked right up to Dopple, cocked a hip against the table, and said, “If you wear a little perfume, it throws them off. As long as you don’t hold still for long, they’ll think you’re human.”

Dopple glanced around, making sure the unmanned booth was still empty. “That’s, uh, good to know.” Dopple tried to not be obvious about sniffing in the woman’s direction. She did smell faintly of perfume, flowery and totally different from a natural cat scent.

The woman tucked a lock of bright orange hair behind her ear and offered her hand. She had tricolor hair, so classically calico that Dopple wondered how people didn’t guess what she was all the time. “I’m Mysterium, but call me Mysti,” she said, still with her hand outstretched.

Dopple curled her hand around Mysti’s, who offered just a delicate press in return. “You’re not, I mean, you’re here on purpose, right?”

Mysti tilted her head to the side and the lock of orange hair slipped free. “On purpose?”

Dopple looked around again and lowered her voice. “I work for the House of Cats.”

Mysti’s face lit up. She slipped her arm through Dopple’s and guided her back into the flow of people. “You’re a smuggler,” she said with a little laugh. “I’m surprised you weren’t the one following me.”

“I’m not–” Dopple started to say she wasn’t able to tell the difference, but it was stupid to reveal that kind of weakness, so she settled for giving a noncommittal wag of her head. “I’m having trouble finding anyone.”

“This show has popular veteran and house pet divisions, so everyone’s mostly too old. Sammy’s the only one I’ve found today. Now, tell me about your House.”

While Mysti cut a swaying path across the hall to where she had found a young changing-cat, Dopple told her about Rune and Carlisle, about Poppy before that, and about the woman Heather who Dopple had never met but whose name she wore like a borrowed fur coat, full of money and power Dopple didn’t know how to use. With her gentle touches and her bold manners, Mysti had Dopple talking about everything.

Dopple heard the commotion of people chasing after the loose cat, but there was a long wait before Sammy wove into sight between the legs of oblivious humans. Without acknowledging him, Dopple walked into the ladies’ room. She felt him dart past her feet as the door opened and closed.

Behind the closed door of the stall, Dopple held open the tote bag Mysti had allowed her to borrow. Sammy hopped inside and Dopple arrange a silk scarf, wallet, keys, and cell phone over top of him before zipping it shut. The door to the room opened. Someone walked down the row of stalls, each door squeaking as they were pushed open in turn.

“Is someone in here?” A voice asked when they couldn’t open the stall Dopple occupied.

“Yes. Just a minute,” she called back. She hoisted the heavy bag onto her shoulder and flushed the toilet.

It was one of the ring assistants, ducking down to look under the sinks and behind the toilets. “There’s a loose cat. Someone said she saw him come in here.”

Dopple watched in the mirror while she washed her hands. “I didn’t see anything.” Had someone seen her let him in?

The door opened again and Mysti strode in. “Please tell me you found my phone,” she said.

Dopple stared mutely, feeling the assistant’s eyes on her, and finally nodded. What was Mysti thinking? Dopple unzipped the bag. Under the scarf, Sammy stayed frozen. Dopple took the cell phone from the pile and handed it to Mysti.

Mysti flipped it open, as though checking that it was really hers, and snapped it shut again with at satisfied air. “That’s what I get for keeping it in my back pocket,” she said. She turned to the assistant. “So, did you find that cat? He definitely ran past me when I was heading down here.” Mysti didn’t wait for an answer and Dopple followed her out.

They left the show unnoticed and Mysti took Dopple through the parking lot to a white car. “Don’t let him out until we’re out of here,” she said while she unlocked Dopple’s door first.

“Why’d you send someone in after us?” Dopple asked as they drove away. She watched out the window as they pulled onto the street. She had never been in a car before.

“The best defense is a good offense,” Mysti said. “You opened the bag with an assistant watching. No one would believe you were stealing a cat after that.”

“You could have at least warned me,” Dopple grumbled. The car sped through a tightly curved on-ramp and onto the freeway. “How’d you learn to drive?”

Mysti smiled and tapped a fingernail against the steering wheel. “You can let him out now,” she said. While Dopple twisted around to reach the bag in the back seat, she said, “I know all kinds of useful things. Like how to hide in plain sight. And how to drive. I had to have some kind of hobby in my old age.”

“Old age?” Dopple snorted.

“I had to stop showing when I was old enough to change. I couldn’t hide it from my humans. And I don’t think they would let me enter as both owner and cat in the same show.”

“Well, thanks for the help. I’ve never been to one before,” Dopple said. She didn’t look forward to going back. In the back seat, Sammy groomed himself and curled up to sleep.

“I noticed. Also, you should think about learning to drive, too. Public transportation isn’t going to serve you well in California if you plan to keep going on these rescue missions.”

“How would I learn?”

Mysti held her right hand out, palm up, like she was offering something. “I could teach you,” she said. “While I’m at your House. Provided you’re a fast learner.”

“You aren’t going to stay?” Dopple tried to shrug off her disappointment, but she liked Mysti. She was so different from other cats. So different from Dopple as well. Dopple wore her humanity like a shield, but Mysti wore it like a string of pearls. Just another chance to charm others.

“I’m looking for something,” Mysti said. The explanation of what kept them occupied the whole, long drive back to the House of Cats.

Dopple opened the door to her rooms and found Mysti methodically destroying a fuzzy mouse toy. Mysti shoved it under the bed and out of sight; she knew Dopple couldn’t stand them. She even knew the story of how one had been the first thing she saw after being de-clawed. “Welcome home,” she said and rubbed up against Dopple’s leg. “How did it go with the hoarder?”

“Piss poor,” Dopple said wearily. She was worn out from popping cat’s bane to get her through the end of the moon, from driving all night and then some. Her stomach knotted. “There’s something I need you to see.”

Mysti followed her down the hall and into another room. “I don’t remember Donya having two kittens,” she said when she saw the little black newborn nursing while Donya’s own kitten, now two months old and an enthusiastic explorer, played nearby.

Dopple raised a hand in greeting when Donya looked up then pulled Mysti back out of the room. “She had given birth before we got to her,” she said. “And now she’s dead.”

Mysti leaned against her in an approximation of a hug, which Dopple needed more than she was willing to admit. “I’m so sorry.” She backed away to look up at Dopple. “But I’m guessing there’s something more.”

Dopple tugged on her gloves, pressing between each finger to get them to fit as snugly as possible. She looked at them instead of Mysti. “He’s going to need someone to take care of him. I mean, not just nursing him.”

Mysti was quiet for so long that Dopple’s hands started to hurt from fussing with them while she waited. “He looks like your side of the family,” she said at last.

Dopple dropped her hands. “You have black in your coat too. And his fur’s longer than mine.”

Mysti seemed to think it over. “And I suppose you can’t do it alone. Not if you’re going to be a working mom. I’ll have to stick around, then, to take care of him when you go gallivanting around the country.”

Dopple scowled. “Who goes gallivanting? Remind me, I think I forgot.”

“Hush now.” Mysti looked into the room again. Dopple knew the feeling. The little kitten compelled her attention like nothing else. She had spent the drive home with him tucked into her jacket, a warm glow against the cold sorrow of watching another cat die. Mysti said, without looking at her, “You know, it’s a complete waste, not passing on a pedigree like mine.”

“Maybe. But you can pass on the things that really make you special. Your confidence. Your charm.” Dopple turned away and scrubbed at her blushing face. She cleared her throat and said gruffly, “So is that a yes or not?”

She saw Mysti roll her eyes. “I don’t know. Are you ever going to let me go in there and meet my son or not?” She started across the room to him. “And can we give him a proper name? Something I wouldn’t be ashamed to see on papers?”

Dopple chased after her. “What do you mean, proper? Are you saying there’s something wrong with my name?” She hoped the kitten liked the sound of bickering; he was in for a lot of it, now that he was stuck with them.

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HoC Ep. 17: God Save the Queen

Heather felt the tip of her pencil tear into the paper. Rune’s front paws, planted on the two sides of the open phonebook, obscured the number she had been copying down. “What do you mean, hire someone?” Rune asked. He stood there deliberately so she had no choice but to pay complete attention to him.

Heather scrubbed the eraser across the now illegible phone number for house painter number six. “The house is too big to do it myself,” she said.

“Half of it is stone,” Rune countered. He hooked a paw at her pencil, but she dodged out of the way and went back to erasing. The paper started to shred more. “And I would help you.”

“Oh, so it will take an actual month of Sundays to finish, instead of just a figurative one.” She gave up on erasing and just crossed out what was left of the entry. “Did you miss the part where I have a deadline for this?” She started copying it out again.

“Assuming Yvonne was telling the truth,” Rune said. He pounced forward. Now his paws obscured the paper and he sat on the phone book. “Would you stop fussing with that for a minute?”

Heather set the pencil down with a snap. “I’m trying to get this done so I can go into town and call them all in one shot and get prices to compare.”

“No one can make you sell your home just because the paint is peeling.”

“No, but they can make life unpleasant enough that it stops being worth it to stay.” She shoved her chair back and left Rune behind as she jogged down the stairs.

He followed her, of course, and cornered her again while she pulled on her shoes by the front door. “We’re not going to leave, no matter what they do.”

“Fantastic,” Heather said and yanked on the laces. “How about you start answering the door, so you can deal with the next person who comes here on George frickin’ Ellison’s behalf?” She stood up and opened the door onto a hot May morning. “If painting the house gets them off my back, we’re going to paint the house.”

“Where are you going?” Rune asked before she could close the door.

“To get the mail,” she said. She felt viciously glad to know that Rune would be disinclined to follow her that far down the road. He could make it about half way, just until the street came into view, before he balked and that was with Heather coaxing him along.

At the bottom of the hill, Heather jerked on the door of the mailbox to get it open. That was one more thing that needed repair or replacement and it was one more thing she would probably have to do on her own. Behind her, the rumble of a car’s engine grew as it came around the turn. Her whole plan for the day was shot because Rune wanted everything they fixed on the house to be a joyous sharing experience. She took out the handful of letters and slammed the door shut again.

Heather knew it would be a lot of work to organize the House around avoiding human painters. She shuffled through the letters as she started back up the hill. Back on the street, a car door slammed; probably someone lost again, trying to find the Shadow Hills entrance on the other side of the hill. It was not exactly a cake walk when the exterminators came out, mostly thanks to Rune himself. But Yvonne’s warning was just the latest piece of evidence that George Ellison was out to get Heather. And Heather was not going to sit still for it.

Heather was still out of sight of the house when she heard a footstep crunch on the gravel behind her. Great, someone was lost and wandering around on the property. She turned just as two arms whipped around her. There was a flash of white and a hand wrapped in cloth smashed into her face hard enough to split her lip where it hit against her teeth. She took a gasping breath and her head swam. Fumes!

Topaz peeked out of the backpack where Umber left it unzipped. Below him in the dark, popcorn-scented bottom of the backpack, Rafflesia yelped as he stepped on her while fighting to stand upright. Umber turned right and headed up the walkway. Behind her and where Topaz could see, the marquee of the theater came into view again as they walked out from under it. Birds pecked around the ground while it was still early and the shopping center was mostly empty. “That was amazing,” he said. “Can we go again tomorrow?” He thought of all the kittens at home who would probably love human movies.

Umber continued her leisurely walk but answered him in a low voice. “Hey, movies aren’t cheap, especially when someone insists on popcorn with extra butter.” She paused as a human passed them going the opposite way and continued when Topaz reemerged from the backpack. “Plus, I’m spending too much as it is. My truck takes a lot of gas to drive six hours down here and six back every weekend.”

Rafflesia shoved him to the side so she could look out. “You wouldn’t have to check up on us if someone would go back to the House with me.” She licked her lips. “I’ve got popcorn stuck in my teeth still,” she muttered.

“Okay, okay,” Topaz said. Next to them, the automatic doors of a grocery store slid open. “Blame it all on me. Does anyone else smell salmon?” The doors started to close, only to reopen again halfway through. A familiar woman stood by them, oblivious to their frustrations, and hunched over a cell phone. Topaz grabbed Rafflesia by the scruff of her neck and pulled her down into the backpack. “I know her.”

While Umber pretended to examine a display of potted plants with Mother’s Day-themed decorations, Topaz listened in on the woman. “Slow down. What are you talking about?”

Topaz strained to hear. He could just make out the voice of the person on the other end. “…Lee…Just come…what I’m doing…”

“What’s she saying?” Rafflesia demanded.

Topaz pushed her away with a hind foot. The woman said, “Alright, I’ll be there. Just don’t.” She hesitated then walked quickly away from the store. “Don’t do anything dangerous.”

“Umber, run, get your truck,” Topaz said. “We have to follow her.”

Umber, to her credit, only paused to ask why once they were in the truck and following the woman’s car out into the suburbs. On the seat, Topaz put his paws up on the arm rest and watched out the window. Umber squeezed through the last second of a traffic light to keep up with the other car. “You’re sure she’s talking about Heather?”

Topaz spared her a quick glance. “There’s something going on between her and Heather. That other person sounded bad. I just know.”

“She’s slowing down,” Rafflesia said, watching from over Topaz’s shoulder.

“Shit, look,” Umber said as she downshifted and slowed to a crawl. “That’s a gated community. I can’t follow her without a pass code.”

The car turned into a driveway and stopped at a box mounted on a post. Topaz watched as an arm reached through the window and pressed buttons on the box. “Roll down the window.”

Umber leaned across the seat and cranked down the window, still driving down the road as the gap between them and the other car closed. “I have to pass by.”

“Go get help,” Topaz ordered. Then he dove through the open window. He landed on the side of the road at a run and bolted into the cover of the hedges that lined the driveway. He heard Umber’s truck accelerate away as he chased the car. So long as he kept up, he could guide the others there as well. So long as Rafflesia could get someone to come help him.

George led Susanna into his garage, flicking on the light as he went. The room smelled of oil and dust. Five degrees cooler than the rest of the house, it felt like he could use it as an extra freezer. “You’ll have to help me get her into the house. I had a devil of a time getting her into the trunk in the first place.”

Behind him, Susanna scurried across the concrete and over to the trunk. “She’s still in there? She could be dead!”

George rolled his eyes and bent to pull the latch inside the car. “I checked on her when I got home. She’s just unconscious.”

Susanna backed away as the trunk popped up an inch. “Won’t she be awake by now?”

“How should I know?” He went around to the back of the car. “I tied her hands, at any rate.” He lifted the trunk lid. “Oh, hell.”

Susanna leaned forward. “Is that a cat?” She looked over at him and blinked theatrically. Color rushed back into her pale face. “You kidnapped a cat?”

“Don’t be stupid,” George said, mind racing. A white and brown cat lay with its head sticking out of the collar of Lee’s shirt and the tip of its tail flicking at the hem. The hastily tied ropes lay in a knot toward the back of the trunk. He should have thought of this. She was one of them, whatever they were. Lee’s jeans were piled at the other end of the trunk, bent at the hip and knee just as he had left her curled up. Had she changed because he knocked her out?

“George, are you sure you’re all right? I think maybe the stress has gotten to you.” She set a hand on his shoulder, fingers taking up a pinch of shirt, and tried to lead him away from the car. “You might have had a nervous break–”

“That is Lee,” he said and batted her hand away. “I would have pictures to prove it, but I broke my phone and almost got caught and–”

“That’s a cat,” Susanna insisted. She pointed to it as she backed away. “And pictures to prove what?” She edged around the car and toward the door. “You’re scaring me.”

The cat was still asleep, so he wrapped it up in the shirt and carried it back to the house. “Where did the clothing come from then? Huh? And why is the cat wearing them?”

Susanna edged away from him through the house, always a step ahead but never quite ready to turn and leave. “It probably got cold. God, where did you even get the poor thing?”

George turned into the guest bathroom downstairs. No windows and only one door meant he could keep the creature contained easily enough. “Look, give me a day. I’m sure she’ll change back. I mean, she spends so much time as a human, she can’t stay like this for long.” He opened the door to the shower and put the bundled cat on the floor of the tub. With the door closed, it could not jump out or run out the door when they tried to come in.

Susanna looked away. He would have to keep her away from the phones in case she got a clever idea to call the police. “A day. But! But if nothing happens, I want you to see a doctor.”

George shrugged. Really, this was better than he hoped. He could get video evidence and beat down Lee in one fell swoop. “Sure thing. You’ll see. I’m not crazy. I’ve got everything under control.”

Rune paced in the kitchen. Even with it full of cats, the lack of Heather made it seem sinister. Umber sat on the floor and jingled her car keys restlessly. The constant rattle set Rune even more on edge. “We knew something had happened. I went looking for her when she didn’t come back. When I found the mail on the ground, I knew she was gone.”

Rafflesia squirmed as her mother nearly smothered her with attention. “Topaz said he knew the woman.”

Rune nodded. “That will be Susanna. And if she’s involved, you can bet it’s George Ellison she went to see.”

Carlisle, who had been sulking ever since he found out Rune and Rafflesia had conspired to bring Topaz home, finally spoke up. “The man who wanted to buy the house? I thought Heather settled that months ago.”

“He knows something about us,” Rune said. “He’s trying to blackmail Heather.”

The roomful of cats erupted into worried murmurs. Carlisle said, “Why wasn’t I told? We could have done–”

“Done what?” Rune interrupted. “No human will believe him if he tells them about changing-cats.”

“And if he gets the perfectly mundane Animal Control up here?” Carlisle countered.

Rafflesia pushed her mother away and stood between Rune and Carlisle. “Um, guys, aren’t you missing the point? Whoever has Heather and whatever the reason, we have to go get her back. Topaz is waiting for us.”

Rune huffed. He glanced at Carlisle, who looked as abashed as Rune felt. “So he knows where she is. How do we get us in and her out?”

“It’s a gated community,” Umber said. Rune could see everyone watch her warily. Even if she was helping them, no one seemed comfortable with the human who suddenly had an all-access pass to the House. “Getting to the front door is going to be difficult.”

Rune glanced at Dopple, who pinned her ears, but nodded. “I can get in the back door, but a cat should go find her. I won’t be able to hide as a human.”

“You’re not getting it,” Umber insisted. “How are you even going to get past the gate? And if someone notices you, how will explain being there?”

Rafflesia perked up. “You need a disguise or something.”

Carlisle cleared his throat. “I, ah, might have something.” He turned to Rune. “Do you think your old uniform will still fit?”

“My old…You kept that?”

“What is it?” Rafflesia asked. She seemed a little too excited about the whole masquerade part of the plan. Rune wondered what she imagined his uniform consisted of.

“I’ve got the uniform, the ID, I’ve even got the taser,” Carlisle said.

At Rafflesia’s baffled look, Rune explained, even as he wished they would just forget the whole idea. “I worked as a security guard.” In another lifetime, Rune thought. All the times he hid out in the attic to get away from the memories of his human life, there must have been a suitcase tucked away with all the reminders waiting for him.

“That’s perfect,” Umber said. “You can provide a diversion at the front door while Dopple breaks in and Topaz gets her out.”

“He’s not going in alone,” Rune said. “He’ll need backup in case only one of them answers the door.”

“I’ll go,” Rafflesia volunteered.

Rune heard a chorus of other voices with his when he immediately said, “No, you won’t.”

Dorian, flanked by several other of the House’s best hunters, said, “We’ll put together a team.” The others walked away with him, muttering about their respective talents.

“You’ve met this George,” Dopple said. “What if he recognizes you?”

Rune shrugged. Of all the parts of the plan, that was the least of his concerns. “I’ll improvise.”

“What’s that mean?” Rafflesia asked scornfully. She was obviously pissed off she was not part of the rescue team.

Carlisle hooked a paw over her shoulders and pulled her away. “I think he means he’ll hit him. Rather hard, probably. Come help me find that uniform.”

The group broke up to pursue their respective tasks. That left Rune alone to face his own preparation. He turned to Umber. “I need you to get something from Heather’s rooms for me.” He took a deep breath. There was no avoiding it, not if he wanted to get Heather back. Damn, but he wanted to get Heather back right now. He let the shaky breath out again. “Cat’s bane.”

Something wet dripped on Heather’s face. The backs of her hind legs burned. She wiped a paw across her face and opened her eyes. A shower? The faucet dripped noisily into the drain. She pushed the shirt up over her head and slipped out of it. When had she changed?

She stretched a leg up past her head and licked at the stinging skin along the back. There was blood in her fur and scrapes under that. Her lips felt bruised. She remembered the sound of gravel crunching. The driveway? The opaque glass of the shower prevented her from seeing more of the room. Where was she? She switched legs, grateful for the excuse to concentrate on the calming rhythms of grooming.

When she felt clean again, she put her paws up on the edge of the tub. She hooked at the closed door, but could not get it to slide open. The House did not have any sliding doors on the showers; they all had curtains. She was not at home.

The last thing she remembered was gravel crunching. And a car. There had been a car. And before that, she had argued with Rune about painting the house. She retreated to her shirt, which was dry and warm, especially compared to the floor of the shower. If she had her shirt here, but not the rest of her clothes, then she must have changed somewhere else and been moved.

Beyond the milky walls of the shower, another door opened. Human footsteps. The door closed again. Heather backed into the far corner of the shower to put as much space as possible between her and whoever was out there. The shower door slid open.

“Hey, kitty, are you awake?” Everything slammed into place in Heather’s mind when Susanna Dahl poked her head into the shower with a dumb smile on her face. Someone had attacked her, knocked her out, and taken her somewhere else. And if Susanna was there, Heather did not have to guess who her attacker had been.

Susanna put a plastic container full of water on the floor inside the shower. “Are you thirsty, kitty? I bet you are, huh?”

Susanna had no idea this was Heather. So she must not have seen her change. Good, great, perfect, Heather thought with grim determination. She mewed as sweetly as she could. She walked over to the water and sniffed. She lapped up some and let it wash the cottony taste out of her mouth.

Susanna stretched her hand out. “Come here, honey.”

Heather came close enough to rub her head up into Susanna’s palm. “I would like to bite you in a fatal way,” she said in cat-speak.

“Oh, what a good kitty,” Susanna said, oblivious to Heather’s threats, and scratched down her spine.

Heather could just see a door and a towel rack behind Susanna. “If I get out of here, I’m going to piss in your shoes before I leave,” Heather said and purred at the thought.

There was a knock at the door. “I’m coming in,” said a voice muffled by the door. Susanna sighed and closed the shower door again. The bathroom door opened and closed. Now the voice was clear and Heather could tell it was Ellison. “Is she awake?”

“Yes, but she’s still just a cat,” Susanna said. She spoke softly and sounded at least a little scared. Heather could see her silhouette in the glass bend deferentially toward Ellison. “George, she came right over and let me pet her.” Under the submission, though, Heather heard defiance. She doesn’t believe him. That means he doesn’t have proof of Heather changing either or he would have shown it to Susanna.

Ellison loomed huge in the door when he opened it. Heather chirruped at him and wove her body in a figure-eight. Heather thought of her mother, back before Heather was old enough to change, and how Heather would weave between her legs with just that motion and beg to be let up onto the counter while Poppy cooked.

“You don’t fool me,” Ellison said. He did not try to reach in, no doubt expecting an attack. He closed the door. Heather heard the lid of a toilet close. His silhouette sat on it just outside the shower. “I’d like to ask you again if you won’t consider selling me that house,” he said, all easy charm like he was in an office talking to a human.

Heather concentrated on keeping up the charade of being a normal cat. If she could see them, they could probably see her. And if she could just get Susanna on her side, she might bluff her way out of this.

Rune hoisted Dopple up over the top of the brick wall surrounding the front of the community. The street outside remained silent and dark under the light of the less than half-full moon. A new moon would have made it easier for them, but they all hated waiting even this long to have the cover of night. “I’m too damn old for this shit,” Rune groaned as he hauled himself up and over.

They met the others up the street, keeping in the shadows of houses for the moment. His feet crushed jasmine vines under his boots, sending up waves of fragrance as he crouched in the dark. Topaz loped over to him. He stopped with his front paws on Rune’s knees and panted. “I followed them to the house, but I haven’t seen Heather.”

“You did a good job,” Rune said and ran a hand down Topaz’s back. “Take us there.”

Topaz sent Rune up the street on foot. He walked in the open now. The old blue work pants were a little tight about the waist, but the belt fit. He considered pulling the taser from it as soon as someone answered the door and zapping them, but the rest of them had convinced him that surgical precision would be the goal.

Topaz appeared and disappeared as he led both Rune and the cats to the house. Rune waited in the shadows by the house. In the backyard, Dopple would be picking the lock of whatever door she could find. Only once they were in and had a chance to even find Heather would it be worthwhile for Rune to create a distraction. He just needed to keep Ellison, and the woman if he was lucky, out of the way while they got Heather out. He pulled the baseball cap lower over his eyes.

Topaz jumped onto the wall around the house and silently signaled Rune. Go. The doorbell rang in the recesses of the house. Rune self-consciously straightened the name tag over his heart. The shirt smelled foreign, like a relic from someone else’s life. He heard the deadbolt turn.

“What?” Ellison barked. A vein stood out along his neck.

Rune touched the brim of his hat. “Good evening, sir. We’ve had reports of a loud disturbance in this area and we’re just checking it out.” He slowed his speech to a drawl. Just doing my job, no need to panic. “Have you seen or heard anything suspicious tonight?”

Rune could see Ellison squinting against the porch light to see his face. He shifted to hide his face better while letting Ellison get a look at the name tag and the company insignia on his left arm. “We haven’t heard anything. Someone reported us?”

Guilty conscience, Rune thought. “No, sir. Someone called about gunfire, but we suspect it may be someone setting off illegal fireworks.”

“Well, thank you, but we’re fine.”

“All the same, sir, we’re advising residents to stay indoors tonight.” He left off the usual warning to lock all doors and windows. The last thing he wanted to do was remind Ellison to check those.

Ellison shut the door on him with a thin-lipped thanks. Damn. He was lucky if that was five minutes. Rune exhaled hard and walked stiffly back down to the street. He hoped he had bought them enough time.

George snarled under his breath and headed out to the kitchen. This was taking too damn long. It was time to up the stakes. He pulled a black plastic trash bag from the box under the sink. Susanna could believe whatever she wanted, but he knew that was Lee and he knew she understood him. This whole charade needed to end now. He took a roll of packing tape from the drawer of miscellaneous screw drivers and scissors. A little near death experience should get things moving.

When he heard the scream, he dropped the bag and tape and ran to the bathroom. Susanna chanted variations of “oh, my god.” He heard cats hissing. Shit. He grabbed the edge of the doorway and stumbled to a stop.

“They opened the door,” Susanna wailed. A pair of cats had her cornered in the tiny space between the toilet and the sink. Another pulled open the sliding door of the shower.

“Stop them! Don’t just stand there,” he shouted and dove for the shower door. Something hit him in the head. He caught his balance on the towel rack just as a fourth cat, one he had not noticed, raked its claws from his temple, across his ear, and down to the back of his neck.

The scratches stung, setting one side of his face on fire. The thin skin of his forehead bled profusely until he was blinking it out of his eye. He reached up and grabbed the first handful of furry body he could find. It yowled right in his ear. The whole room echoed with screams and hisses. He flung the cat as hard as he could. He heard a yelp and a clatter of broken glass.

Where was Lee? George scrubbed at his face and left a wash of blood across the back of his hand. The shower door stood open. He spun, trying to find her. A white and brown tail disappeared around the corner of the bathroom door. He lurched after her. Something caught his arm and held him back.

“They came to rescue her,” Susanna said, voice high and reedy with shock. “Oh, god, the cats knew how to find her.”

“I told you,” he growled and shook her off. Susanna’s guards had disappeared. Lee and her savior were gone. Even the cat George threw into the mirror had vanished. A bloody mess on his head, a shattered mirror, and a handful of shed fur were all he had left.

He ran through the house. How had they gotten in? And more importantly, had they gotten out yet? If he could catch them all, Lee would fold. Surely, if he could beat her whole damn family or whatever they were, she would give up.

Susanna stumbled into his back when he stopped at the laundry room door. It stood open. Beyond it, there was a vine-covered wall and darkness. There was no sound and no movement. They were all gone.

He shook Susanna by the shoulders. “What did you do?”

She slapped at his hands. “There was a knock on the door. I thought it was you.” She pushed away from him so hard that as soon as he released her, she fell backwards to the floor. She glared up at him and rubbed a hand over her shin. There were razor-thin streaks of blood on them and huge shreds in her nylons. “This was your plan.”

George turned away and slammed the open door shut again. He could feel the blood starting to dry into a cracked skin on his face. “And my mistake was bringing you along,” he said. Learn from your mistakes, he thought. Do it better next time.

Topaz pounced on Rafflesia. “And Dorian was all, ‘Rawr! I kill you now!'” He sprang away from her and collapsed into the waiting masses of cats. “And the man was all, “Yaa! Save me! I must scream and flail now.”

Dorian laughed weakly. He had an ice pack wrapped in a dish towel pressed to his aching back. “I’m just sorry I didn’t go straight for his eyes. I hope he dislocated his shoulder throwing me like that.”

Topaz butted heads with him. “It was awesome, man. Heather and I just ran right between his legs.” He pantomimed a bob and weave maneuver. “Out the door and down the street, thank you very much.”

Rafflesia squealed and tackled Topaz, completely delighted with the full-body retelling of their daring rescue. “Wait, wait, tell me about the woman. What about her?”

Topaz rolled over and, as he did, he saw a bobtailed rump retreating from the doorway. He grinned at Rafflesia and wriggled away. “You’ll have to ask them. ‘Cuse me a minute.” Behind him, he heard someone say, “We head-butted the door to sound like knocking…”

He bounded up the stairs just as Carlisle disappeared into his room. He hadn’t seen Carlisle once since returning to the House. He had expected some sort of drama. He nosed open the door and slipped into the dark room. But Heather had just said he was the Queen’s Official Spy, which seemed to mean he got to stay. Then there had been Rafflesia and Umber and a whole house of cats who wanted to hear how he — Topaz! — had saved the Queen’s life.

Up on the bed, Carlisle’s gray body stood out against the yellow of a familiar towel. He had it wadded up around him, just the way Topaz liked to sleep on it. Topaz sat at the side of the bed and looked up. Carlisle turned his face away from the window and over to Topaz, his eyes flashing teal. Topaz struggled to keep quiet. He had to let Carlisle speak first. He had to know he would speak.

Carlisle looked away again and Topaz feared for a long moment that it had been a dismissal. But Carlisle finally said, “I think Heather was right all along.” Topaz opened his mouth to ask what he meant, but Carlisle kept talking. “Rune willingly took cat’s bane tonight. He went down to the mailbox to find Heather when she disappeared.”

Topaz had been too worried about Heather to really think about what it meant when he first saw Rune crouched in the bushes, unexpectedly human and out in the world. Even now, Topaz wanted to tell Carlisle he hadn’t come to talk about Rune.

“What you did, that day,” Carlisle said haltingly. The words dried up in Topaz’s mouth. “You saved him. And now you’ve saved Heather as well. Because you keep doing stupid, reckless things that put you and everyone else in danger.”

“I think there was a compliment in there,” Topaz said at last when Carlisle’s monologue seemed to have stalled out.

Carlisle curled his body away, turning his back to Topaz. “I’m keeping this towel,” he said quietly.

Topaz swished his tail happily. Even if Carlisle never admitted it, Topaz knew now he had been missed as much as he had missed — well, everything and everyone. “I’ll just borrow something to replace it.” He went over to the closet and, with a jump, pulled one of Carlisle’s vests down from its hanger. Topaz dragged it in his teeth over to the door. The fabric was soft and smelled like Carlisle and mothballs and detergent. “Good night.”

On his way out the door, he heard Carlisle say, “Welcome home.”

Heather picked clothing out of her dresser with fingers that still shook. She couldn’t bring herself to go into the bathroom just yet. The idea of being locked in a bathroom again set her heart racing. She looked back over by her bed, where Rune stood at attention, facing the wall. He had brought her cat’s bane when she had been too shaken to get the emergency pills she kept in the cupboard.

“I told Umber she could stay the night.” She stepped into a pair of panties and steadied herself against the nightstand. When that made the lamp rattle a little, she saw Rune half turn to her. He couldn’t seem to decide if it was more important to avert his eyes or to check on her wellbeing.

“I’m fine,” Heather said and pulled a sleep shirt over her head. There had been no point in trying to send him away while she changed. Rune had been no more than six inches away from her since they met up at Umber’s waiting truck. “You can turn around now.”

Rune stood with his hands jammed in his pockets. The tails of the button-down shirt had been pulled out over the ill-fitting pants and the plain tie fluttered loose at the collar. He was the best thing she had ever seen. “Are you sure?”

It took Heather a moment to remember that he was asking if she was fine, not if he could turn around. “I’ve just got some grazes on the backs of my legs. I think he dragged me to his car once I passed out.” She could see the hot blood rush to Rune’s face. Every so often, something would remind him of what had happened and he would start stomping around like he wanted to kill something. “There’s antibiotic cream in the medicine cabinet,” Heather said to distract him.

When he came back with it, he put his hands on her waist and turned her around. “Let me,” he said and she felt him drop to his knees behind her. He slid a warm hand up the back of her calf and just waited there until she hitched the hem of the shirt up to the tops of her thighs.

The cream was cold when he dabbed it on the first patch of raw skin just below her knee. She hissed at the sting of it and Rune’s already gentle hands became the faintest of sensations. Feather touches raised goose bumps on her legs as he moved up to her thighs. Her hands tightened on the bundle of fabric knotted in them.

When he finished, he pressed a kiss into the small of her back. A rush of desire hit Heather hard enough to catch the breath in her throat. His hands were still on her thighs with his thumbs slipping just under the edge of the shirt.

She felt disappointed when he dropped his hands to brace against his knees as he pushed himself up off the floor. She heard his knees creak and could not stifle a laugh. The laugh faded away as his arms curled around her. By her ear, he said, “What’s so funny?”

She turned around in his embrace and put her hands on his shoulders. “Did I wear you out, old guy?”

Rune glared at her but his mouth quirked up. The beginning of stubble showed gray on his cheeks. “You should talk. Aren’t you a little old to be running off like this? I had to scale a wall, twice, to get you back.”

Heather took a step backward. He followed and bent to kiss her, more hesitantly than she liked, even if she did have a bruised lip. She cupped her hands around his cheeks to feel the soft rasp of stubble against her palms and the hard line of his jaw. “I guess you’re too tired then, after your adventure,” she said between kisses.

Rune did not ask what she meant. He didn’t play hard to get. He just moved her back another step so her legs touched the edge of the bed. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. “I would do anything to get you.”

Heather tipped them both down onto the bed. “You already have me.”

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HoC Ep. 16: A Jury of Your Peers

George knew, when he saw her car in the driveway, that he had company, but he hoped it was not so even as he opened the unlocked front door and walked into the living room. The coffee table had sprouted a forest of Chinese take-out boxes and paper-wrapped chopsticks and plastic packets of soy and chili sauces. He let his briefcase drop to the floor by the hall closet, thudding on the hardwood floor. On the couch, Susanna jumped and twisted around to face him. She had that nervous, twitchy expression, like a panicked bird, on her face again. Obviously, the two weeks of peace he had bought himself when he gave her a key to the house had run out. They were back to clinging again.

“You’ve been having so many late nights; I thought you would like this better than going out somewhere. It’s from the one you like,” Susanna said. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear then repeated the gesture a few more times as he crossed the room.

“Is it still hot?” He undid his tie and draped it on the back of the couch. He wanted to ask her if she didn’t have a job of her own, but lately she was on some sort of personal crusade to mother him.

“I reheated it a few minutes ago. This is about the time you’ve been finishing work lately.” Her eyes flicked to the time display on the stereo. “How was your day?”

George snapped apart a set of chopsticks and stabbed them into a container of chow mein. He grunted as he slurped up a mouthful of noodles. Over the edge of the container, he saw Susanna’s hands fidgeting in her lap. He flicked the chopsticks towards the other containers. “Eat,” he said after swallowing the noodles.

Susanna picked pieces of slightly limp zucchini from a container. She chewed at the ends of her chopsticks between bites and watched him. She was in a determined mood then. He stood the chopsticks up in the noodles and leaned back. “You want to know how my day was?” She smiled and grimaced and winced all at once. “Not good, that’s how. You want the details? Of course.”

He picked up a different container and shoveled some kind of chicken into his mouth. It tasted like soggy cotton to him. Greasy, soggy cotton. “Well, three of the developments have run over budget. Two of the completed ones are having trouble filling.” The beef had too much chili in it and he felt it burn down his throat and settle in to rot around his heart. “One of my top luxury developments is experiencing some sort of goddamn exodus.” He pushed the food away and wiped his face with a paper napkin. “Oh, and the board of directors is holding a vote on Monday.” He threw the wadded up napkin across the room.

“What kind of vote?” Susanna asked. Her fingers dimpled the paper carton in her hands. Like she couldn’t guess. Who had told women it was attractive to play dumb all the time?

“A vote of no confidence.” His voice rose. He shouldn’t have to put up with this shit in his own home at the end of a hard day. He wanted a beer and a basketball game and some frigging peace and quiet. “A vote to replace me as president.” He slammed a foot into the edge of the coffee table. “Of my company. I made that company.” A tower of cartons tipped over and tumbled to the floor. The top one popped open and spilled white rice across the carpet.

George heaved himself off the couch and turned to the kitchen to get that beer. It was the only thing he seemed likely to get that night. He heard Susanna slide off the couch and start scraping spilled rice onto a napkin. For once, George did not have to worry about cleaning up some pointless mess.

Heather danced from paw to paw on the counter as Carlisle took out the platter of food she had put in the refrigerator the night before. She could hardly remember the years when Saturdays were a source of dread. Now they meant an excuse to spend Friday cooking something frivolous and delightful and Saturday eating and lounging and walking with Rune. Carlisle took so long easing the plastic wrap away from the plate of deviled eggs that Heather almost grabbed it with her teeth.

Rune sniffed. “Curry?”

“Curry eggs and BLT eggs and Mediterranean eggs. I love deviled eggs. I may die of cholesterol poisoning, but at least I’ll die happy.”

Valoria jumped up on the counter with them. “Something smells good. Having a picnic again, dears?”

“Sure are,” Heather said. “Try some. I made more than enough.”

Valoria nibbled politely on half an egg. “Carlisle, have you heard anything from Rafflesia?”

Carlisle folded the plastic wrap into a little square. “Not yet, but you know what teenagers are like.”

Valoria licked a bit of bright yellow filling from the tip of her nose. “I suppose it was too much to expect a letter as soon as she got settled.”

Rune looked up from his second half. “I am absolutely certain, if she had so much as a stuffy nose, Umber would have written to you herself.”

Valoria cocked her head. “I’m quite surprised to hear you say that.”

“I spoke to her extensively before Rafflesia decided to go with her. I have complete confidence in her.”

Heather twitched an ear at him. Complete confidence? But Valoria seemed substantially comforted by this. She finished her egg, praising Heather rather excessively, and left again. When Carlisle started to leave, Heather hooked a claw in his sweater sleeve to slow him. “Why not take the day off? We can’t eat all this by ourselves.”

Carlisle scratched behind her ear for a second. “Thank you, but I have work to do. Save me some leftovers.”

“Sure thing,” Heather said to his disappearing back. He had been distant and weird lately, but she was more interested at the moment in Rune’s unlimited esteem for Umber. She slid an egg off the tray with a paw and said around a bite, “You could have just told me Raff was going to find Topaz.”

Rune coughed on his food and stared at her with big, guilty eyes. “What makes you think she did?”

“Oh, please, don’t give me that. I knew you two were up to something when she left. I thought maybe you were just taking a special interest in Raff’s well-being, but you’re way too relaxed about her being with a human. You knew all about it, didn’t you?”

Rune looked around and lowered his voice. He spoke over his egg like it would muffle what he said. “It was her idea in the first place. I expected her back before now.”

“So what went wrong? You must have an idea.” Heather gulped down the last of the egg and reached for another. They really had turned out exceptionally well.

“If something had happened to Topaz, she would have come home by now. I’m sure she’s with him.”

“So why wouldn’t they come home?”

Rune snorted. “Because Topaz will find out that Rafflesia and I were the only ones in on it and he’ll come up with some damn fool idea that no one wants him to come back. No one who counts, because your own brother apparently never does.”

Heather smirked. “I’m sensing this is an ongoing problem for you two?”

The tip of Rune’s tail twitched in annoyance. He did not, however, stop eating the eggs any more than Heather did. “I hoped he was over it. I hoped Rafflesia would convince him. If we don’t all greet him with hugs and dead mice, he thinks we don’t want him around.”

“So he has self-esteem issues,” Heather said and got a flat-eared glare from Rune. “Well, that’s what it is.”

“If you say so. Point is, I don’t think he’s going to come back without a royal invitation.”

Heather glanced back toward where Carlisle had left the room. “I think it’s the second-in-command he’s more concerned about.” She groomed her whiskers fitfully. “How am I going to get Carlisle to let him back?”

“That’s your department, not mine.”

Heather unfolded the plastic with her teeth and paws and tugged it over the platter. “Is there a rule that says every house must have at least one oddly surfer-styled, cheeky ginger tabby with an endearing inability to hold his liquor?” Heather jumped down from the counter and pawed open the back door. “Because that would be really helpful right now.”

“I hear he’s a good cat burglar. Need any locks picked?” Rune asked as he followed her out into the yard for their Saturday walk.

When George heard the click of heels across the floor, he just kept looking out the window. The hillside dropped off beyond the backyard and created the illusion of isolation. Mountains in the distance and open patches of cloudy sky were the only things to see. “You have a lovely view here,” he said, turning as he did. “Yvonne.”

Yvonne did not offer him a hand or an air kiss. She looked like a soldier at attention in her crisp suit and brass buttons. “Mr. Ellison. Is this a social call, or are they still making you work weekends?”

“Neither. I had a little private business to discuss with you.” He helped himself to a chair by the window, setting his cowboy hat in his lap. After a long pause, Yvonne sat across from him. “Are you familiar with Heather Lee?”

Yvonne’s expression revealed nothing. Botox and Aqua Net did wonders for her poker face. “She owns property within the Shadow Hills community.”

“You’ve met her?” George pressed.

“Of course.” Yvonne picked a stray thread from her skirt without seeming to take her eyes from him.

“Of course. I don’t know if you’ve seen the old place lately, but I think it’s gone to pot, don’t you?” She stared steadily at him, just waiting. “It doesn’t reflect well on Shadow Hills when something like that happens.”

“Since you are not a member of the Shadow Hills homeowners’ association, I fail to see the cause of your concern.” She waited a single, charge beat. “Well-meaning though it may be.”

“Things like that can get people thinking, maybe it’s time to move to greener pastures. Properties go up for sale, land starts opening up. It gets very attractive to men like, well, like myself.” He gestured the brim of his hat toward his chest.

“I was under the impression you preferred to establish housing developments of your own. And cut from a rather more, hm, efficient cloth than Shadow Hills. The parcels here can’t be broken down to less than ten acres.”

“Oh, certainly. And I’m all about quality. I certainly wouldn’t want to see Shadow Hills change. But my colleagues, say, the ones who specialize in strip malls, they would love to buy up every parcel here. And once you get something like that up here, more people lose interest and move on. More land ends up in the hands of–”

“Men like yourself?”

George smiled tightly. “Exactly. Well, to make a long story short, it seems to me, it would be in your best interest if someone more capable than Lee owned that place.”

Finally, Yvonne’s face showed a flicker of uncertainty. “Someone?”

George nodded as though admitting a somewhat embarrassing secret. “Like myself.”

“I see.”

“I don’t presume to know your business, but I would be surprised if the issue hasn’t already come up.” There. That hard, strained look at the corners of her eyes told him what he needed to know. “Just a little friendly, unsolicited advice. I know how important it is to you that Shadow Hills not turn into another housing track or shopping center.”

“I’ll certainly keep that in mind,” Yvonne said and stood.

George allowed her to direct him to the front door without protest. “You do that. It’s not often that someone comes along who wants to buy a place like that. Not these days.” He settled his hat on his head and tipped it to her. “You wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to see it go to someone you can trust.”

Yvonne opened the door for him. Her glare said she trusted him as much as a rabbit trusted a fox. That was fine by him. He wanted her fear more than he would ever want her trust. He tipped his hat to her again. The door shut, but he felt her watching him from the window as he walked back to his car. Trust might get him a friend, but fear would get him everything else.

Carlisle took a stack of new blankets into one of the common rooms even as he felt the last of the day’s cat’s bane fading from his system. He probably knew as well as Heather did the signs of impending change and had certainly gone through it more often than she had. He too stood apart from the normal experience of being a changing cat. He smiled to the cats alternately bedding down and waking up for twilight as he swapped used blankets for fresh ones. Polite distance separated him from the rest of the House. He traded familiarity for responsibility when Poppy took him under her wing as a replacement for Heather.

Over in the corner, between the trunk of shared clothing and the window, he bent down to gather up one particular beach towel that had been left untouched for months. His fingers unconsciously curled into it, possessive and jealous. He shuffled it into the pile with the rest, but it did not end up in the laundry room when he finished. He hardly liked to even let it touch the other blankets for fear that they would contaminate it.

Back in his room, Carlisle spread the towel on his bed. Fastidious though he was, he did not pick off any of the stray hairs and he would never dream of washing it, even if it had kibble crumbs scattered on it. He shed his clothing just in time for the change, when the cat’s bane finally ran out and his body just gently turned itself inside out for a few seconds. If a full day of work did not leave him tired, changing certainly did. He did not so much jump onto the bed as climb paw over paw.

He hooked his claws in the terry cloth loops of the towel, slightly worn with age. He knew it on sight, but only when he changed could he smell the traces of Topaz that still lingered there even after so long. It was covered in his golden fur. Carlisle burrowed his face against it. He had resisted the urge to retrieve it after Topaz left. He felt betrayed and so much in the house fell on him — again — while Heather helped Rune recover. When heart-sick longing finally swallowed up the anger, there was no time to indulge it.

He used his claws to hook an edge and pull it around his body, cocooning himself in the familiar scent. But now Heather spent all her time with Rune, suddenly enthusiastic about the responsibilities of caring for the House. Even Dopple had Mysti, neither of whom had much desire to spend an afternoon discussing the newspapers Heather brought him when she went into town. And they all had other people with whom to climb trees or hunt grasshoppers.

The smell of Topaz grew stronger as Carlisle’s body heated the air in his cocoon and he started to drift to sleep. Change. Work. Change. Sleep. Change. His life took on unprecedented monotony and he had no one to blame but himself. He sent away his own grasshopper-hunting, tree-climbing, paper-reading partner and he did not know how to get him back.

The cats got used to bailing out of the front room whenever there was a knock at the door, so Heather did not have to tell them anything and they were gone by the time she reached the door.

On the other side, Yvonne waited and wrung her hands. “Hi, sweetie. May I please speak to you?” The polite request from someone who seemed to take it as her right to help herself to your time and space surprised Heather enough that she just stepped aside and let her in.

“We can sit in the kitchen and have something to drink, if you’d like,” she said in a clear voice intended to warn away the cats who had just relocated there. No small part of her also wished Rune would hear her and stay close by.

“The place looks nice,” Yvonne said as she hovered on the edge of the chair.

The day was just full of surprises. “I’ve been working hard on it.” She almost amended that to “we” when Rune slipped into the kitchen to hover behind her chair.

“You should paint the exterior. A fresh coat of paint would really liven the place up.” Yvonne accepted the glass of iced tea Heather offered her. “No lemonade this time?”

Heather smiled weakly. Yvonne’s new demeanor should have put her at ease, but instead she found herself bracing for the inevitable jibe that had to follow. “Was there something you needed to talk about?”

Yvonne stared into her glass and stroked lines through the beads of water on the sides. At last, she said, “You need to get this place fixed up. And I know I’ve told you that before,” she continued in a rush, “and I suppose I might have been a bit harsh about it.”

Heather gave a breathless chuckle and glanced over at Rune to see what he thought. “A little harsh?” Yvonne winced at the tone of disbelief. “You implied that I could not be expected to successfully wipe my own nose.” Rune watched in silence. Couldn’t he at least say something? It would not mean anything to Yvonne.

Yvonne nodded and kept her eyes down. “I should not have been so rude. But I’m trying to make up for it.”

“And how are you doing that?”

“By warning you.” The ‘duh’ at the end was almost audible. “You need to make this place impeccable. So people can see that you are a responsible owner for the place.”

“He’s gotten to you,” Heather said and it stared her in the face, the obvious fact that George Ellison would do more than just make idle threats.

Yvonne nodded and finally looked Heather in the eye. “I couldn’t bear it if he or one of his buddies tore this place up and turned it into a movie theater and a boutique.”

“He can’t have the house. He just can’t.” Heather thought she sounded pretty confident, which was reassuring. She did not really feel confident. Rune trotted out of the kitchen again. What, this was old news, so he had better things to do?

“He won’t stop trying. He will get something you care about and hold a knife to its throat until he gets what he wants.” Yvonne looked out the window wistfully, as though she loved the house as her own. Heather hoped she did not notice any cats out there.

The image her words brought up made Heather’s stomach turn to ice. Because she could think of all the very real, very much alive things she cared about that he could threaten. “So he sent you here to back up his threats.”

Yvonne shook her head frantically. “He sent me here to get you to sell. To tell you the association didn’t want you here or to make you think you couldn’t handle the house.”

“Jeez, you were doing that before he came along. I’m afraid of what you would be like when you try to drive me away.”

Yvonne pushed her chair back. “I told you I was sorry.” Heather did not remember her saying any such thing, but she supposed Yvonne considered her actions as good as an apology. “Please, don’t underestimate him. Whether he gets this property or another one, know that you won’t be the only one to suffer. I’ll show myself out.”

Heather hoped the cats got out of the way for Yvonne. She didn’t know what to make of the conversation. Yvonne hadn’t told her anything she didn’t already know. Including just how far the damage would spread if Ellison put his mind to it. She knew better than Yvonne could imagine just how many people would be unhappy. Or worse.

Even on the weekend, George recognized half the people who filled the bar as ones who worked in his offices. It was not a bar to take a date or a client. It was a bar to get thrashed with coworkers because you had lost the client and couldn’t get a date. It matched George’s mood better than he would have liked as he hunched over his scotch like a junkyard dog with a bone. After last night, even Susanna had left him in peace, making no mention of going out over the weekend when she left his house. He scattered a handful of peanuts onto a cocktail napkin and crushed the shell of one between thumb and forefinger.

The mirror behind the bar gave him a view of the rest of the room without turning. There was James something or other, who worked with Hill over in PR. He chatted up a woman George did not know, but who seemed to be cut from the same cloth as his own secretary and who could very well have brought him faxes and coffee on any given day. He thought a few people were from accounting, but he could not be sure. The peanut shell crumbled into fibers and salty dust under his fingers. While he watched, someone — he knew her from somewhere, didn’t he? — stared back at him in the mirror. She ducked to say something into the ear of her nearest companion, whose eyes flicked up to him and darted away again. George looked away when they laughed, heads bowed together.

He took a gulp of his drink. These peons probably didn’t know him from Adam, never mind that he was president of the goddamn board and had been in this line since they were picking their noses in grade school. The alcohol welled up behind his eyes and he crunch peanuts in the palm of his hand to drive away the wave of maudlin stupidity. The board would never vote him out, he told himself. It was just office politics rearing its ugly head. Well, he had better things to do than kowtow to that lot.

He swallowed the last of his scotch and tucked a couple of bills under the glass. The laughing girl did not look at him as he left the bar. Outside, the buildings obscured the setting sun so that all he could see above their tops was blue sky gone white at one edge and purple at the other. It would all blow over, he told himself again. They could say what they wanted about leadership and profits and new directions. It was his company. Nothing would change that.

Rune trotted up the spiral staircase. A huge clang shook the close quarters and he winced and pawed at his ringing ears. On the landing, Heather heaved another shattered chunk of masonry into a metal wheelbarrow. Rune skirted around it and sat on a pile of bricks. “Why is there a wheelbarrow in the house?”

“I couldn’t think of a better way to do this,” Heather said. She did not stop working and she did not look at him. The clangs turned to thuds as the wheelbarrow slowly filled. Heather wiped her arm across her forehead even as sweat continued to drip from the end of her nose.

“Why not wait until I can help you? This is a two person job.” To him, the small space radiated pleasant warmth, perfect for a cat nap.

Heather pulled more bricks from the pile blocking what remained of the doorway onto the tower’s walkway. They tumbled down in an avalanche and she jumped back to avoid getting her toes crushed. “I can do this alone. It doesn’t take any special knowledge to haul bricks away.”

“You’re going to have trouble getting it down the stairs again if you fill it much more,” Rune said after a minute.

“Why don’t you go see if someone else needs help? I’m fine here.”

Rune rubbed up against her leg. “You’re upset. Is this about what that woman said?”

Heather sidestepped him. He had to back off to avoid the next cascade of bricks she brought down without warning. “No. Yes. I don’t know,” she said impatiently.

“Maybe you should take a break for a while. You’re probably just tired.”

“I’m not tired,” Heather snapped. “And I should have done this months ago, especially after Elly got lost up here. It’s dangerous. It can’t wait just because you have the wrong body today.”

Rune sat down heavily. “Is that what this is about?” He batted at her leg when she didn’t answer. “Are you mad at me because I’m not human all the time?”

Heather passed a hunk of brick from hand to hand while staring at the half-dismantled wall. “I’m mad that you aren’t human when I need you to be.”

“I told you this could wait for a while. Elly was a fluke. No one’s going to go up here.”

“It’s not about this,” Heather said and flung the brick into the pile. It set off another little tumble. “It would have been really nice to have some backup when Yvonne showed up.”

“Like when Ellison did?” Because really, Yvonne was nothing compared to that son of a dog.

“I need more than what you can give me with two days out of every month.” Heather still stared at the wall, like she could not look at him and speak her mind at the same time. He knew that feeling. Her hands hovered in front of her with nothing to hold, covered in red dust. “I wouldn’t ask you to be human all the time.” She chuckled and wiped at her face again, but he did not think it was sweat she rubbed from her eyes. “Guess that was a once in a lifetime thing, huh?”

They were not going to have a conversation about his old life. “You’re not being fair. I’m doing the best I can.” She had him doing more than he had been able to do in years. He had walked halfway down to the road with her the other day to get the mail, for heaven’s sake.

“I’m sorry. It’s not enough.” She shrugged. “I can’t schedule my whole life around the Leo moon. Not for you, not for anyone. Things come up all the time. I have to know you can be there.” She turned quickly and picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow. Her progress down the stairs was slow and torturous, but Rune did not attempt to catch up to her.

George stood up from the table, hands planted on the reflective surface with a loud slap. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I guess that settles that.” Half of the board of directors looked uncomfortable and the other half looked defiant. He plucked a stale Danish from the plate in the middle and gave the whole table a cocky grin. “It’s no skin off my nose. I think I’ll leave you to your business. Good luck picking the new guy.” No one said a word as he left the board room with a swagger and a mouthful of pastry.

He circled through the hallways with his head up. Out there, no one noticed anything different. The same meaningless faces greeted him, people he never needed to bother remembering. He positively strolled into his office. Behind her desk, the secretary visibly relaxed, smiling at him with the phone pressed between her ear and shoulder, taking his good mood as an equally good sign. He slashed a finger in front of his throat to tell her to hold all his calls and locked himself in his office.

He dropped the pastry in the trash and sank into his chair. He opened his cell phone. When Susanna answered, he said, “We’re going out tonight. Somewhere nice. Dress accordingly.”

“Does this mean the meeting went well? You’re still president?”

“Who the hell else could they get to put up with this crap? Of course I am. I’ll pick you up at six.”

He picked up the sign on the edge of his desk proclaiming George Ellison the President, Board of Directors. He threw it at the door hard enough to leave a nick in the wood after it clattered, chipped, to the floor. It would need replacing anyway, when he handed in his inevitable letter of resignation as president. Next, he opened his filing cabinet. Slowly and systematically, he flung folder after folder across the room. They flapped and landed on the floor. He wrenched the clips from contracts and released them in a downpour. He stood in a storm of paper and hurled bolts of rolled blue prints. When the cabinet was empty, he gently slid each drawer shut.

He swept papers from his chair and sat down again. Then he took out a little notebook and a pen. He flipped to a page of lists, where one entry was circled. He circled it again. He let the pen run around it, circle after circle, each one more erratic, until you could hardly tell that the name Lee had been there at all. The pen tore though the first sheet of paper and turned the name into a paper cut-out covered in black ink. It popped free. Without removing it, George snapped the notebook shut.

The secretary was off the phone when he walked out again. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Clean up the paperwork in there and file everything.” He grabbed his jacket from a hook by the door. “I’m done for the day.” I’m just getting started, he countered in his head.

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