Heather slid her omelet onto a plate, grabbed a fork from the drying rack in the sink, and sat down at the kitchen table. Out in the yard, small birds picked through the grass for the last morsels of the year as winter set in. For the moment, they were unmolested by cats. The weather had turned cold, after a long and typically warm California autumn, and the cats did not like to go out until the pale winter sun had a chance to warm things up. There was a thump and Heather looked up to see Rafflesia shaking her head and a small mark on the glass door from a wet nose.
“What are you doing, sweetheart?” Heather asked.
Rafflesia jumped onto the chair opposite Heather and up to the tabletop. “I wanted to chase the birds,” the young cat said, “but I forgot the door was there.”
“I thought only birds flew into glass doors,” Heather teased. “What are you doing up so early?”
Had Rafflesia been human, she would have looked close to tears. As it was, her ears were pinned and her tail drooped. “I have a question.”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“What is Christmas?”
“Where did you hear about that?”
“The newspaper you get had that word all in it.”
Heather thought back to recent articles she had read. The business section had a rather depressing one about the still-dismal sales being reported by stores around the country. From the way the writer had talked, the average American family was eating damp cardboard for Christmas dinner. “It’s a holiday that some humans celebrate.”
“Like Thanksgiving? We celebrated that.”
“Yes, we did. It’s a bit like that. It’s a little hard to explain, though. Some people celebrate Christmas as the birthday of a very important man, a special person for them. But a lot of people just want a chance to spend time with their families and do special things.”
“You said Thanksgiving was a family time.”
“Yep. Christmas is too.”
Rafflesia settled down onto the table. “What do people do?” She sniffed Heather’s omelet.
“I’ve never celebrated it myself,” Heather said. “But they give each other presents and eat big, fancy meals together. And they decorate their houses.”
“What do they decorate with?” She asked and inched towards the plate.
“Pine trees. With ornaments on them.”
Rafflesia cocked her head. “They put pine trees in the house?”
“Weird, huh? Why the sudden interest, Raff?”
“Charlie said it wasn’t real. He said that even humans wouldn’t do something that dumb. He said it sounds like a silly fuss.”
“Maura’s son, Charlie?”
Rafflesia pinned her ears again. “Yeah. He’s a big jerk.”
“Well, you tell him I said it was all true. And if he thinks that’s weird, he should hear what they say about Santa Claus.” She pawed at Heather’s plate in silent appeal.
If Rafflesia wondered about Santa Claus, it was overwhelmed by her desperate pleading. “Auntie Heather, can we have Christmas here?”
“I don’t know, Raff. Thanksgiving was a lot of work and it hasn’t been that long since then.” Heather cut off a bite and pushed it across to Rafflesia. “I’m not sure I can handle another big meal.”
“Maybe not a big meal. Maybe just presents. And a tree in the house,” she said around a mouthful of egg.
“I’m not sure,” Heather hedged. Rafflesia visibly wilted in disappointment. Heather sighed. “I’ll see what I can do. Presents and a tree, right?”
Rafflesia jumped up. “Yes, please! May I go outside now?”
“Ask you mum first.” Rafflesia bounded down from the table and dashed out of the room. Heather watched her disappear. She held up her fork with a piece of now cold omelet speared on it. “How does this happen to me?”
Carlisle pulled a stack of blankets down from the linen closet, only to have the whole thing tumble down on his head. He sighed wearily and stooped to gather them up. He had eaten cat’s bane for three days straight just to keep up with the work to be done in the House. There were voices everywhere and every time someone new arrived, they could be counted on to create a new pocket of noise when they reunited with some long-lost friend. He rather wished they would keep in touch in the first place and spare him their throes of ecstasy.
“Let me help,” Heather said when she appeared at his side. She folded a blanket and stacked it with the rest. “I need to ask you about Christmas.”
Carlisle gave her a look of pure incomprehension. “What? Why? Now?” He handed half the blankets to Heather and picked up the rest himself. “Walk with me.”
“Rafflesia wants us to have Christmas,” Heather said with a wry grin.
Carlisle entered a room already crowded with cats. The floor was a patchwork of blankets mounded into comfortable beds. “Does she know what Christmas is?”
“That was the other part of the conversation,” Heather said and flung open a blanket before bundling it into an unused corner. “How many cats are we up to at this point?”
“Number one hundred seven arrived in the night. Word has gotten out that a new Queen is here. I’m absolutely at my wit’s end. There’s so much to do and no one will hold still long enough for me to get it done.”
“I’ve never celebrated it, myself. A friend invited me to Thanksgiving once, but I moved between then and Christmas.”
“Hand me another one,” Carlisle said and reached blindly for a blanket while he moved two existing beds farther apart to make room.
“I know the usual icons — tree, shiny ornaments, wrapped presents, lights — but I don’t know where to start if we’re going to have it here.”
Carlisle hurried downstairs, where he could hear voices raised in anger. “It’s not really a good time for me,” he said to Heather as she trailed after him.
“I just thought, you were with that dout and maybe you knew something about it.”
“The Blue Roads did not celebrate Christmas, to the best of my knowledge. In fact, if I remember correctly, their leader had taken up Wicca somewhere along the way. Very strange, if you ask me, a religious cat. Though I did know a rabbi’s cat once.” Carlisle ducked into a room, but someone else had broken up the fight, so he hurried back upstairs.
“I’m not really concerned about that, Carlisle. But I’m going to be very unpopular with Rafflesia, and probably with all the other kittens by the time she gets done talking to them, and I’d like to avoid that.”
Carlisle stopped and whirled around. He took Heather by the shoulders. “I truly do not have time to worry about Christmas right now. If I can get through setting up beds for all the newcomers, get updates from my traveling contacts, and prevent any major wars, I will be more than happy to talk to you about Christmas.”
“Heather, I will dress up as Santa Claus, I swear, but not now!” In another room, someone was calling his name. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to go. I will talk to you later.” The person called again. “Just one bloody minute,” he shouted back. He patted Heather on the shoulder and rushed off towards the next emergency.
Heather lay in bed and listened to the House breathe with her. The other cats had come back from their nighttime hunting. In the predawn darkness, finally, everyone slept. Except Heather. She could get no peace and did not know why. Half-realized thoughts kept waking her as she fell asleep, only to disappear before she could take hold of them.
There was a scratch at the door. Heather pulled on her robe and drifted to the door. Rune stood on the other side. He had his eyes averted, as he always did when Heather was around.
“I could hear you moving around,” Rune said. “I figured you were awake.”
“Will you come in?” Heather asked.
Rune kept his distance as he walked past her into the room. “I think it’s a good idea.”
“What is?” Heather asked as she curled up on her bed. She pulled the blankets up to her lap to keep warm and propped herself up with pillows. When she patted the bed, Rune jumped up. His feet made dimples in the thick blanket as he kneaded it into a comfortable arrangement.
“Christmas,” he answered when he had made himself comfortable. “Or something like it.”
“Surprise, surprise,” Rune said. “The kittens would enjoy it.”
“That’s pretty obvious. How could they not? But I never figured you would be up for it.”
Rune stayed silent for so long, Heather thought he had fallen asleep. “I have made some mistakes,” he said finally. “I want them to remember their home, the House and the cats in it, fondly. As I do.”
“I can help you. I know a bit more about it than–” He hesitated. “Than others,” he finished.
“I would appreciate any help I can get. That being said, why exactly did we need to discuss this at–” Heather looked over at the clock. “–four in the morning?”
“Because everyone else is asleep. And this should be a surprise for them.”
“I don’t think I can hide a pine tree in the house without them noticing.”
“We’ll decorate it ahead of time. But we need to keep the presents a surprise. Let the kittens think that a tree and decorations are all we can manage.”
“You’re a sneak,” Heather said. “I like it.”
Rune ducked his head, but she thought he looked happy to hear it. “Meet me in the attic later and we can work out what we’ll do.” He jumped down from the bed.
“Where are you going?”
“To sleep, of course. Aren’t you?” He jumped up and unlatched the door himself by hanging from the bar-style handle. He pushed away from the wall with his hind feet and the door swung open. Heather watched in amazement. Though the doors in the House all had that kind of handle to allow cats to open doors for themselves, only a few were adept at it. Rune looked back from the doorway. “Oh, and tell Carlisle that he’s too thin to be Santa Claus. Talk to Dorian about it instead.” Rune hooked a paw around the edge of the door and pulled it. Its weight closed it the rest of the way.
Heather wriggled down until she was cocooned in blankets up to her chin. She chuckled. Santa Claus. She closed her eyes and when she opened them again, the sun was high in the sky, dawn long behind it.
Carlisle massaged his temples for a moment, then dropped his head to his arms where they were folded on the kitchen table. He wanted nothing more than to sleep for a week. He heard someone come into the kitchen and the crinkle of plastic bags. Then hands started working the knots out of his shoulders and neck. He did not have to look up to know who it was. Topaz’s hands moved like miniature creatures, fingers and thumbs and palms all doing something different, each more wonderful than the last.
“How go the interviews?” Topaz asked.
“I was just about to get to work again,” Carlisle said, voice muffled with his head buried in his arms. “I think I’m about halfway through.”
“You want some company? I promise not to pester you into playing hooky.”
Carlisle sat up and reluctantly gathered his papers and pens. “I rather wish you would. But yes, company would be lovely.” Carlisle looked over his list, the headed upstairs. “Jainie is next on my list. She’s a solitary out of Nevada area, last I heard. And I think we put her up in the yellow room.”
In the yellow bedroom, makeshift beds took up most of the floor, but only a few cats occupied them. Jainie, a middle-aged tortoiseshell, slept soundly in a bed of bath towels. “What could you possibly want right now?” Jainie asked when they woke her.
“Hello, Jainie,” Carlisle said. “You know I have to keep records. Sorry to be a bother.”
She blinked sleepily. “Oh, Carlisle. I didn’t recognize you. Very well. The usual routine?”
“Just so. Where have you been staying the past year?”
“There’s an old farmhouse outside Reno. The owner is retired. He keeps an old car in the barn under the pretenses of restoring it, but he hardly ever goes out there. It’s a good, safe spot.”
“Pity it isn’t a dairy farm,” Topaz said. “A squirt of fresh cream now and then wouldn’t bother me one bit.”
“Oh, I used to steal bottles of milk off doorsteps,” Jainie said. “This was in a tiny town where they still delivered it fresh from a local farm every morning. It was lovely.”
“Have you been in touch with anyone out there?” Carlisle asked.
“In spring, a dout came through. One of their queens gave birth there.”
“Which dout was that?”
“Carnival’s group,” she said.
“Ah. Young Tramps, then. Always exciting company.”
“I kicked them out after the third time the owner called the police, thinking there were vandals in the barn.”
They went on like that for some time, trading stories in amidst the pertinent information. All the while, Carlisle filled out a page on a legal pad with Jainie’s territory, contacts, clan and heritage.
“Do you think…” Topaz started to say as they walked through the house, hunting down the next cat on Carlisle’s extensive list, only some of whom were known to be at the House for winter already.
“Yes?” Carlisle prompted him.
“Do you think I could do any of these? If you give me that sheet you just finished, so I don’t forget to ask anything. And tell me some of the cats we’re looking for.”
“Do you really want to?”
“I figure, the sooner all this is finished, the sooner you’ll be back in the mood to play hooky with me. It’s completely motivated by self-interest, you see.”
Carlisle smiled and kissed him. “Well, who am I to stop you then?” He wrote down a list of cats to look for and pulled that, his notes from the last interview, and several blank sheets off of the pad.
Heather whipped the hastily donned sheet down from the live pine tree set up in the front room. “Ta da! What do you think?”
The kittens all blinked and cocked their heads. There were a dozen kittens and another handful of young adults, all human thanks to cat’s bane, plus a few more too young to change. Rafflesia came forward and circled the tree curiously.
“Is that all?” Charlie asked. He had a snobby, know-it-all air. “We have bigger pine trees in the back.”
“It’s not decorated yet,” Heather said. “We have to decorate it.”
Rafflesia sniffed it and ran her fingers through the long, soft needles. “It smells good,” she said.
“We can plant it with the others when Christmas is over,” Heather said. “That’s why we got a live one.”
“What do we decorate it with?” Rafflesia asked.
Heather pulled out a cardboard box from behind the tree. “With all this.” Inside were pine cones and brightly colored yarn and bottles of glitter and glue and construction paper. “We’ll make our own.”
One by one, the kittens came forward to start pawing through the box. They tossed pine cones at one another and spilled glitter on themselves and tried to stick their fingers together with the glue. Heather did not say anything. She just sat down near them and started squeezing glue onto the open scales of a pine cone. She took a paper plate from the box and poured red and gold glitter onto it. By the time she had rolled the pine cone in the glitter, Rafflesia had figured out what she was doing and started making one as well.
After that, all the kittens joined in. Their discovery of scissors was a death-defying experience and they spent a good while distracted by the pleasures of yarn on its own. But even Charlie forgot his skepticism as they made their ornaments. Heather showed them how to make paper snowflakes. The kittens made bird and mouse cut-outs and strung them on yarn. Before long, they had used up all the supplies in the box and the front room was covered in traces of glitter and glue and yarn.
“Now, we decorate,” Heather said. “Put the heavier ones on thick, sturdy branches, close to the trunk of the tree. See?” She slipped a loop of yarn, tied to a pine cone, over a branch so that it bobbed gently. “Okay, kids. Go to it.”
Heather stepped back while the kittens fought over the best branches and the bigger ones lifted the little ones up to reach the highest branches. The older cats all watched with her, amused and baffled by their offspring’s enthusiasm.
On the couch, Carlisle looked up from where he and Topaz made a silver and gold swirl with their bodies and tails. “Where do you find the energy?” He asked in awe. “I spent a week human and I’m exhausted. And here you are, the biggest kid of them all.”
“Plenty of practice,” Heather said.
On the back of an armchair, Rune watched through half-closed eyes. The tip of his tail twitched comfortably. “It looks good,” he announced. “Very festive.”
Heather flushed with pleasure. “Thank you,” she said. “Next year, we’ll have to start earlier and we can make popcorn garlands for it.”
“Just no tinsel. Someone’s bound to eat it,” Rune said.
“I tried to keep that in mind when I was shopping. I figured that everything would get tasted by somebody along the way.”
“That’s the last of it,” Rafflesia announced.
“Not quite. There’s one more thing up in my room. I’ll be right back.” Heather returned with her hands behind her back. “We need something for the top.” She brought her hands around and Rafflesia squealed. Heather held a star made of gold paper, intricately folded and attached to a cone to fit in the tree.
“Can I put it on?” Rafflesia asked.
“Sure can. Stand on this chair here.”
Heather steadied Rafflesia as she stretched on tip-toe on a chair next to the tree. Rafflesia barely got the star onto the tree before she jumped down to admire it.
“And for the finale,” Heather said. “Somebody hit the lights for me.” The room went dark. Heather reached behind the tree and plugged a cord into the outlet there. A gasp went around the room when the tree lit up with the string of tiny lights Heather had wrapped it in before unveiling it. She was satisfied to see even the adults were wowed.
That night, after all the kittens had been put to bed for the night, Heather broke out her second box of supplies, hidden safely in her room. Topaz and Carlisle and Rune were all there, but Topaz and Carlisle were still too tired to shift again. So Valoria and Evergreen had signed on to be Heather’s assistants. Even so, it looked like it would take them all night and morning to finish their work.
“So, what do we have to work with?” Evergreen asked.
Heather sat cross-legged on the floor and started unpacking the box. “I’ve got all sorts of yarn. Paper towel rolls and things like that. Some small brown paper bags. Bells. Felt and fabric scraps. Assorted socks. Sticks.” She laid out all that and more on the floor. The others sat in a circle around the supplies.
“What’s this?” Rune asked, sniffing a plastic bag.
“Lavender,” Heather said.
“It smells amazing,” Rune said and rubbed his face against the sealed bag.
“It’s a substitute for catnip. No side effects, but lots of cats like it.”
Rune nodded. “Good. I don’t want the kittens…”
“I know,” Heather said quickly. “I figured as much.”
Carlisle cleared his throat. “So, what are you going to do with all this?”
“Make toys, of course. We can make good, fun toys out of all this.” Heather demonstrated by stuffing some fabric scraps into an ankle sock. She opened the bag of lavender and the room filled with its scent. She sprinkled some in, then dribbled a pinch onto Rune, Topaz, and Carlisle’s heads. All three were distracted for several minutes, busy rolling and rubbing against the fragrant dried flowers. Meanwhile, Heather folded that sock shut and put it top down into a second sock. “See? Now the filling won’t fall out. I know it’s not much, but the kids should get a kick out of it.”
Valoria picked up a set of baby socks and did the same to them. Evergreen cut a length of string and attached it to one of the sticks, a thin bamboo rod.
“Here, I’ll make a pompom for that,” Heather said. She fashioned a puff from short pieces of yarn tied together.
“Do the rest of us get to play with these?” Topaz asked.
“My thought exactly,” Evergreen added. “I’m pretty jealous of the kittens right now.”
Heather laughed. “At least let them have first dibs,” she said.
“Hand me that red yarn, will you?” Valoria asked. Rune batted it over to her. “How about some plain yarn balls?” Valoria suggested. “Provided no one minds having to clean them up when they’ve been unraveled.”
Heather groaned. “Don’t remind me. It’s going to take forever to clean the glitter out of the carpet downstairs.”
There was a knock at the door. Heather hissed them into silence and they all moved to hide the toys behind their backs. Heather opened the door a crack. Annabelle peered back at her. Behind her, a clutch of cats, all human, giggled and shushed each other.
“Is this the secret meeting?” Annabelle asked. “We’ve come to help.”
Heather waved them in. “We need all the help we can get. We have a lot of toys to make before morning. Just sit down anywhere,” she said.
The other cats waved to Heather as they came in. They were all newcomers, at the House just for the winter. They introduced themselves as Jainie, Coral, Max, and Boston. The cats already present made room in the circle and passed supplies around to the new cats.
“Anyone know any carols?” Boston asked. “I can sing.”
Topaz knew the tunes and so provided a little feline accompaniment, while Coral and Boston sang their way through a medley of carols. Heather tentatively joined in, doing her best to remember the songs she had heard played over the radio, in the restaurants, and all around every town she lived in from October to January. Sometime in the dim hours of morning, when they were all giddy and throwing toys around the room at each other, Heather swore she even heard Rune humming along. But he might just have been purring. She did not bring it up.
Heather stuffed the last toy between the cushions of a couch then ran to her seat by the Christmas tree. Next to her, Carlisle attempted to relax, despite Topaz’s constant excited fidgeting. On the back of the couch, just by her head, Rune perched, to all appearances sleeping. Dopple was within tail’s reach of Rune on the nearest windowsill. And all around the room, cats waited. Queens with kittens were there, but so were a great many others, such that they spilled out into the hallway and wandered through other rooms.
“We ready?” Heather asked. When the others agreed, she called out, “Okay, you can come in!”
The kittens, cats once again, ran full tilt into the room from upstairs, where the adults had made them wait with the tantalizing promise of “something good.” As Heather had expected, Rafflesia was at the head of the pack. “Merry Christmas, kids,” Heather said. “It’s time to have presents.” The kittens all looked around the room, which appeared empty of anything special. “But you have to find them first.”
“Where are they?” Rafflesia asked immediately.
Heather rolled her eyes. “What’s the fun of my telling you? You have to sniff them out. They’re all hidden downstairs. So get to work. When you find one, bring it in here. I’ll tell you when you’ve found them all.”
The kittens did not need any more encouragement than that. Some darted down the hall, no doubt trying to stake out one room or another as their private hunting ground. Some squeezed under furniture. Rafflesia bounded up onto a chair and took a flying leap at the Christmas tree, having already spotted a bright purple sock toy in the upper branches. Her leap brought it, and several ornaments, tumbling to the ground. She picked it up in her teeth, tail high in pride, and dropped it at Heather’s feet. “That’s one,” Rafflesia said and bounded off again.
Valoria laughed. “This was a very good idea,” she said. “Highest marks for understanding the minds of kittens.”
“Such as they are,” another queen added.
“It wasn’t my idea,” Heather said. She leaned over so her head brushed Rune’s. “This fellow was the mastermind. I just did the shopping.” Rune harrumphed and returned the light headbutt. Soon, more kittens trickled in with toys from all over the ground floor. A pair struggled to drag in one of the fishing pole toys, each holding a section of string in their mouths and tripping themselves up with the stick as they went.
Topaz jumped up to the back of the couch and batted at Rune with a paw. He spoke in a low voice and Heather could only make out a few words of what he said. She was sure the word “catnip” was in there and maybe “clean.” She glanced over. Rune’s eyes were slit and his posture, relaxed only a moment ago, had turned stiff.
“I found another,” Rafflesia said.
“Hey, that was mine,” another kitten cried out, chasing after her.
They both pounced on each other at the same time, snarling and flailing.
“Hey, break it up,” Heather said and pulled them apart by the scruffs of their necks. She pointed to the other kitten. “You, play nice and go find another toy.” She held onto Rafflesia. “You, come here.”
Head low, Rafflesia jumped into Heather’s lap. Heather smoothed down her rumpled fur. “You wanted Christmas and you got it. But if you want the other kittens to think your idea was a good one, you need to make sure they have a good time too. There are plenty of toys for everyone to find some. I better not see you fighting over them again or you’ll spend the rest of the hunt sitting right here. Understood?”
“Yes, Auntie Heather.”
Rafflesia jumped down and rushed out of the room. Valoria watched her go then looked up at Heather.
“Are you sure you’ve never had kittens of your own?”
“Quite, thank you,” Heather said.
Valoria shrugged. “You’re doing my work for me, at any rate. But you should think about having one. You’d be a good mother.”
“Yeah, I think I already have my work cut out for me.” Then she noticed that a large gray body had just slipped into the hallway. She looked back. Rune was not on the couch any longer. Heather excused herself and made her way upstairs, all thoughts of toy hunts and kittens flying from her mind.
Heather found Rune waiting for her in the attic with a partially scattered pile of catnip. “So, have you taken it?”
“I knew you would follow me,” Rune said. He had a slightly wild look to his eyes.
“That’s a yes, then,” Heather said. “It wasn’t hard to guess where you were going.”
“You won’t be able to stop me,” Rune said.
“If you wanted me to stop you, you should have given me more time to get up here.” She slid down to the floor with her back against a trunk.
Rune started pacing. “Topaz put you up to this, didn’t he?” He spoke precisely, trying to keep himself under control.
“Whatever he said to you just now, he’s a ninny.”
“He said he was proud of me,” Rune said with a bitter laugh. “He thinks I’m cutting back.”
“And we both know you’re worse than ever,” Heather said. She pointed at him, jabbing at him with one finger. “The question is, do you want to cut back?”
Rune butted his head against the wall then turned on her. “I can’t.”
“You could with help,” Heather insisted. “But I’m not going to waste time trying to save someone who would rather self-destruct.”
“So I’m to be your pet project now, is that it?”
Heather shook her head and started to get up. “I’m offering you help. As a friend. As someone who would like you to live through this.”
“Don’t go,” Rune said meekly.
Heather sank back to the floor. “Do you accept my help? Or will you kill yourself?”
“Catnip won’t kill me,” he said then ruined the argument by twisting around to bite his own sides in a brief frenzy of violence.
“Wanna make any bets about that? Right about now, your heart is racing, your body is overheating, and you are having visual disturbances.” Rune’s expression confirmed everything. “If you’re lucky, you’ll have a good trip and see phantom butterflies. But mostly, you’ll think there are bugs behind your eyes and worms in your skin.”
“You’ve used it.”
“Hello, I was a teenager once. I have tried the stuff. You forget that I’ve actually been around a lot longer than you have.”
Rune scoffed. “Poppy would be so disappointed in her good little girl.”
“Spare me. Mother knew all about it. It was the human stuff that I kept to myself.”
“You dishonor her memory, the way you run this place.”
“I do no such thing,” Heather said, voice rising. “I’m here, doing what she wanted me to do. If I wanted to dishonor her, I’d burn the place to the ground.”
Rune’s tail thrashed. “Poppy died of a broken heart because you disowned her.”
“I didn’t disown her. I ran away from home. She wasn’t even the reason I did it,” Heather said softly.
Rune’s hallucinations were peaking as he stumbled and wove across the room towards her. “I don’t want you here.”
“Since you’re half out of your mind on drugs and I’m ten times your size, I don’t think I’ll be leaving at your say-so.”
He put his paws on her legs and stared just past her ear, the closest he ever came to a direct glare. “I could hurt you. I’ve hurt others.”
“Are you proud of that?” Heather asked. She tried to keep her voice neutral, to make it a genuine question and not an accusation. “Are you proud of what you’ve done to innocent people because you decided you couldn’t cope?”
“Sometimes, the only thing to do is run away!” Rune spun away, swiping at his ears as though he could unhear what he had said.
Heather clucked her tongue. She bet her mother never had to put up with this kind of crap. “Guess we’ve both run out of places to run.” She rolled to her knees and shuffled across the floor to the pile of catnip.
Rune looked over at her. “What are you doing?”
Heather dropped a pinch of catnip into her mouth and swallowed hard around the dry herbs. “Something staggeringly foolish. What’s it look like?”
Rune moved to straddle the pile, blocking her with his body. “You can’t have that.”
Heather rolled her eyes. “Because I would hate for you to have to go without.” Color bloomed at the back of her head. The cat’s bane in her system took most of the bite out of the catnip. Her vision and hearing sparked with phantoms, but her mind stayed intact enough to tell her what she saw was an illusion. She snuck her hand under Rune, taking advantage of his pitifully slow reflexes, and took another pinch. She would never change if she did not get enough.
“Why?” Rune howled. “Why can’t you just act like you’re supposed to?”
Heather could not answer him for a time, as the change battered through her, blasting a hole through the shields put up by the cat’s bane. Her mind stuttered as it switched from English to cat-speak. “No one should be alone on Christmas, or so they say,” she said. Heather shook off the last blurs in her vision and the shakes from the change. “I’ve stopped running. When will you?”
Rune watched her for a long time. It was strange to have him look directly at her after so many months of averting his eyes. She could not help but distract herself with grooming her newly grown fur under such a gaze. Finally, he said, “Not today.”
Heather smiled and settled down to ride out both their highs. He had not said never. Whether he admitted it or not, Rune had just handed his tomorrows to Heather.