The vet snapped off his rubber gloves and tossed them into the pile of used gauze pads and paper wrappers. Rune, propped up by pillows in bed, rubbed his nose to clear the antiseptic burn. The human’s noise and smell and mess were so different from Heather’s quiet, efficient attentions. “Everything looks fine,” he said. “Your girlfriend has done a good job taking care of you.”
Rune and Heather looked at each other and back at him. “She’s not–” and “I’m not–” they muttered together.
The vet did not seem to notice. “I want you to take it easy on those hands– paws– er, anyway, for a little while longer. I can’t say if the scars will fade when you change, but the new tissue will be tender at the very least.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Heather said. “Though after four weeks, I’m not sure I have the heart to make him rest any longer. I’m going pretty stir crazy myself.” Heather followed the doctor out, chatting away with him, probably saying what an awful patient Rune had been.
Rune swung his feet over the side of the bed and put them down. It felt like he had not set foot out of bed in all that time. It was like learning to walk all over again. He wiggled his toes. He flexed his ankles. He failed to swish his tail or twitch his ears. Human.
He had gotten used to the idea after what must have been the fiftieth change out of three hundred. But he had been out of his head anyway. Now, weak but lucid, he was no longer sure he was prepared to go back to his dual life. The closed door of the bedroom looked like the edge of the world.
He stood up, letting the sheets fall away from his bare skin. Heather had brought him clothing, which was laid out over the back of the desk chair. She had asked him what he used to like wearing, as though she expected him to demand silk slacks and a top hat. He was happy enough to just pull on the faded jeans and the long-sleeved t-shirt. Anything to ward off the cold that seemed to suffuse his body down to the marrow.
Once dressed, he washed in the bathroom and examined his face in the mirror. The last time he had seen himself, he had been what, twenty? Twenty-five? By human looks, at least. He leaned close to the mirror and pushed his skin around with a fingertip. There were lines where once there had been none, laid down around his mouth and eyes, roads running across his forehead. He ran a hand through his hair. At least he still had that, a gray dandelion puff cropped close to his head.
He went back and sat on the edge of the bed, but that felt like a retreat. He got up and opened the blinds, letting in the milky light of an overcast day. He shivered and rubbed his arms; it looked cold out, like rain was on the way. He looked back at the door. He could go out any time he wanted. He sat down at the desk. Maybe in a minute.
Heather leaned in the doorway, one hand on her hip. “Well? What are you waiting for? A royal invitation?”
He had gotten used to seeing her, too, during his recovery. In the long stretches between bandage changes and bathroom runs, it had been her face in his mind. For a time he had thought of Caroline, remembering snippets of their time together. Somewhere along the way, though, Caroline had begun to look like Heather. The memories shifted. Where there had been human life, he started to remember cat life.
He closed his eyes and saw Heather; he opened them and found her looking down at him as though she had been there all along. “Yes,” he said when she just kept watching him.
She smiled and held out her hand. “So, I’m inviting you.” He took her hand and let her lead him from the room, out into the rest of the house and the rest of the world.
Heather tottered from side to side, each arm held out stiffly, each hand full of plastic bags, each bag heavy with newly purchased seedlings. She lowered them gently down onto the back patio and flexed her stiff and reddened fingers. She poked idly at the debris in the yard with her toe. No one had bothered to clean up the charred remains of Topaz’s bonfire and Heather had not had time while caring for Rune. Now that he was well again, though, she could go back to work.
The house had a small, attached shed at the corner, just past the reel of garden hose, which contained all the household tools. There was an old red toolbox with unrecognizable wrenches and drill bits and spare bolts. There was a bundle of rebar, left over from god knows what, a lawnmower with no gasoline, a slightly tattered tarp, and a sawhorse. The walls were studded with nails and hooks, on which everything from shovels to hammers hung. Heather grabbed a trowel and a shovel from the wall and slammed the creaking door behind her.
The trowel waited with the plants while Heather, in a new pair of garden gloves, shoveled burned wood fragments and stinking lumps of melted plastic into a garbage bag. She shuffled back and forth from the scattered ashes to the bag, sweating under her sweater despite the cool and damp air. When everything had been cleared away, she looked down at the patch of ground where once the garden had been. It was an awful lot of work, she thought, for something that might be a huge mistake. But she knew what it was like to be a young cat; they would get it somewhere else if they had to.
She glanced over at the plants, out of sight for the moment in their bags. Cat’s bane and catnip, a dozen small plants of each. She had considered leaving the garden fallow. She needed too much cat’s bane on a regular basis to rely on the garden alone, so she had no personal need to replant it. And if she had asked Carlisle — which she had somehow forgotten to do before leaving to do her shopping that morning — he would no doubt have told her putting catnip in front of Rune would be a mistake. It would, in fact, doom him to a relapse.
Heather stomped the shovel deeper into the ground then pushed up a clump of damp dirt. Rune would never be able to touch catnip again, Heather knew, like any other recovering addict. But if he never faced the object of his addiction again and lived in a bubble, how could anyone be sure that he could resist? That would be no better than his edict against cat’s bane before Heather arrived, just another way of running away.
Heather worked her way across the plot of ground, turning up dirt and breaking the lumps apart with the point of the shovel. On the other hand, she thought, it would all be wasted effort if they moved. She had not forgotten about George Ellison’s offer, though she had still not brought herself to tell Carlisle. Would it be so bad, moving to a new house? It never crossed her mind to abandon her duties; she must rule a House of Cats here. But ‘here’ could be flexible, couldn’t it?
Heather put the shovel back by the shed and uncoiled the hose. A new house, one that did not fall apart if you looked at it funny, she thought as she sprayed water over the tilled soil. Someplace closer to town so that running errands did not require a map and a day’s supply of water. Someplace with flatter land that they could protect with fences and gates to keep the humans out. Mind in turmoil, Heather settled in with her seedlings and her freshly turned ground to plant and debate.
Rune barely recognized anyone. Even before the catnip became a problem, a real problem, he had avoided everyone during the Leo moons. Now, everyone looked like as much of a stranger as his own reflection. Everyone was older. He recognized some of the kittens from Christmas when they had changed to open presents. He walked in a daze through the house, passing cats without knowing who they were. But there was one face he would welcome.
“Have you seen Topaz lately?” Rune asked a cluster of cats playing poker around the kitchen table. They all shook their heads. He heard them whisper as he walked away, but could not make out what they said.
Rune looked through the upstairs bedrooms. He checked the backyard, but did not go out. Mist hung in the air and everything looked sodden and cold. He checked the kitchen and the room in which he had recovered. He checked the attic. Finally, he found Carlisle going through folders of receipts in Heather’s office. “Good. You’ll know.”
Carlisle smiled between fastidiously sorting slips of paper into piles. “Good to see you up and about. What will I know?”
“Did Topaz go into town today?” Rune was startled by the expression of deep pain that passed over Carlisle’s face. Had something happened to Topaz? He remembered his brother coming to visit him and apologizing for something, but it was all very hazy.
But Carlisle’s expression cooled even as Rune watched. “You’ve been very sick. I’m not surprised you don’t remember. I’m sure Heather did not want to upset you by bringing it up.”
“Topaz set fire to the garden, not to mention a good quantity of lumber and all the catnip in the House. He’s gone.” Carlisle stood up and leaned with his hands resting on the desktop. “There was nothing anyone could do.”
Rune’s lip curled as he said, “You banished him,” and he crossed his arms over his chest. Carlisle had not been able to boot Rune from the House, at least once because of Topaz’s loyalty. Now Topaz had taken the fall for Rune once again.
Carlisle stood up straight. Even in a vest and slacks and all tousled hair, his age made him intimidating. He might not be a gray-whisker yet, but he made Rune feel like a naughty schoolboy all the same. “He made his decision.”
But Carlisle was still an intellectual and a bureaucratic wimp and apparently also a cold-hearted bastard, because you had to be blind to not know there had been something going on between him and Topaz. There was no way Rune would turn tail to him. “Undo it.”
Rune unfolded his arms, drawing attention to his broader chest and bulkier shoulders. It was no substitute for a properly bristled tail, but it was better than nothing. “Undo it and bring him back. He only did it to help me. Besides, I deserve it more than he ever could.”
Carlisle tucked his chin and made a wide-mouthed hiss to one side before speaking again. “And the next time he decides to do something for your own good? Or any other reason? Will he burn something else down to make a point?” Carlisle looked away. “I’m sorry, but he’s a danger to the House.”
“Heather would want him to come back.”
Carlisle flinched. “And do you think I’m happy he’s gone? This is about more than what I want.” Carlisle sat down again, forearms braced on the desk and head hanging low. “Besides, I don’t know where he is to tell him to return, even if I could.”
“You’re banishing an innocent cat just so you can follow the letter of the law.”
Carlisle laughed weakly. “I can hardly imagine the word innocent applying to Topaz.”
Rune stalked out of the room before he decided to jump Carlisle just to get some sort of concession out of him. Rune hadn’t the strength for it anyway. He pounded down the stairs, anger giving him a burst of energy. If Carlisle would not help him, Rune would just go over his head. Heather would agree with Rune and she never followed the rules in the first place. Rune just had to get Topaz back to the House so Heather could reinstate him.
Heather jogged from the backyard to the kitchen, chasing after Carlisle as he passed through. “Just the person I wanted to see,” she said.
Carlisle looked at her grass-stained knees and the dirt under her fingernails. “You certainly are a wreck.”
“I’ve been gardening,” she said as she scrubbed the dirt from her hands in the kitchen sink. “I need to talk to you.”
“Is this about what Rune said?”
Heather looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Huh? No, why? Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing. My mistake.” He uncrossed his arms and leaned against the counter. “What’s on your mind?”
Heather dried her hands off on the dish towel then stood fidgeting with it. “You know how I met with Ms. Dahl a while ago? There’s something I didn’t tell you.”
“Are we running out of money?”
“No, no,” Heather said and hopped onto the counter. She worried the faded towel between her hands, looking at it instead of Carlisle. “She invited this man to the meeting. George Ellison. He’s the one who was at the House with her when I first arrived, remember?”
“Vaguely,” Carlisle said with a dismissive tilt of his head. “Who is he, a coworker?”
“I’m not sure what he is. He didn’t really say what he does. But he doesn’t work with her.” Heather stopped then. She could not think of how to tell Carlisle, no matter how many times she had gone over the conversation in her head.
“What did he want?” Carlisle prompted her.
“The House,” Heather said then fell silent again.
Heather threw down the towel before she tore its thin fabric. “He wants to buy the House from us. From me.”
Carlisle laughed, but it sounded strained. A muscle in his cheek jumped. “Ms. Dahl must be worse at her job than I realized. Or else she did not speak to him before inviting him to your meeting. It’s not possible.”
“She says it is,” Heather said meekly.
“Nonsense. The trust has to remain in the family.”
“Yeah, but it’s not really hereditary. The last holder writes their successor into the trust. Just like Mother did with me.”
“Well, yes, I suppose you could theoretically name anyone. But I don’t see the point. You won’t name him, so it’s not possible.” Carlisle stared at her intensely, no doubt waiting for her to jump in with agreement.
“I just wondered if it wouldn’t be a good idea. Selling. This house.”
Carlisle put a hand on her knee. “I understand how much stress you’ve been under, caring for Rune the way you did. It’s only natural that you feel the need to escape.”
“We could buy a new place. Land we can fence, a house that doesn’t fall down around us.” She started to remember all the arguments she had constructed. “This is open land in California. It’s worth a lot of money.”
“Out of the question,” Carlisle snapped. “You’re not to see that fellow again. We’ll find someone new to handle the estate if we must.” He turned his back on her, but paused before leaving. “I know you hate it here, but scheming to take the House from all of us… I expected more from you, Heather.”
Heather leaned back on the counter so her head rested against the cabinet doors. She clicked her tongue against her teeth. “That went over like a lead balloon,” she said to herself. She repeated the annoyed click then hopped down. She opened the refrigerator. Only one thing to do in a situation like this: cook something amazing.
Rune’s back ached and his fingers were throbbing with his pulse and all he wanted was to lie down somewhere. “If you see him,” he said to the cats in front of him, “in town or so, let him know I’m looking for him.”
The cats all nodded in agreement. “Of course we will. Don’t you worry.”
Rune nodded and plodded back up the hall and into the solarium. He sank boneless into a recliner and curled up on his side. He had been all over the house, talking to anyone he recognized and just about anyone he did not. Everyone assured him that they would do their best to find Topaz. Without, that is, actually agreeing to look for him. They were appeasing Rune, he knew, and he had no way of getting them to do more. He had no authority since Heather arrived, no respect since his last bad trip, and no charisma since he slithered out of bed.
“Hey,” a female voice said somewhere in front of him.
He cracked an eye open. Rafflesia waved to him, but her normally animated face was serious. “You’re the first friendly face I’ve seen since morning,” he said.
“I wanna help you find Topaz.”
Rune closed his eye. “That’s nice. Thanks. Everyone is very willing to talk to him if they see him.”
He felt her snap her fingers in front of his nose. “Wake up! I mean looking for him. Finding him and bringing him home.”
Rune uncurled and sat up. “And how do you propose to do that?”
Rafflesia pouted. “I don’t know. I just figured I would go look for him. Outside. You know,” she said and leaned close to him, “outside.”
“You’re a little young to be running away from home,” Rune said.
Rafflesia rolled her eyes in such a theatrical way, he half believed she practiced in front of the mirror. “I’m not going to stay out there. Jeez. I’m not dumb. But if I borrow some of Auntie Heather’s cat’s bane, I can stay human and nothing will attack me.”
“You’ve thought this through.”
She sat on the couch beside him, tucked her feet under her butt and leaned across the armrest. “Yeah, hello, I told you: I want to get Topaz back too. And you’re not going to go after him yourself, are you? You never go beyond the yard.”
Rune winced. From the mouths of babes, he thought. “I’m not healthy enough yet,” he said, which was true as far as things go, but rather missed the point. “So you’re just going to walk out the door and start calling his name? You need a better plan than that.”
“I have a plan,” she said with her nose in the air. “But you won’t like it. And if you tell anybody, I’ll, I’ll tell Heather you like her.”
Rune smiled at the little girl threat. “I wouldn’t want that, now would I?”
“Do you promise not to tell?”
“Promise.” He drew a cross over his heart with a finger. She probably had no idea what that meant, but she seemed satisfied. “What’s the daring plan?”
“It’ll take a while,” she hedged. “I know you want to find him now, but if we wait a couple weeks, I heard Carlisle saying that the coven is going to come here.”
Rune growled and lurched forward. The longer the day wore on, the more he missed the feeling of his coat puffing when he was angry. “You are not going with them.”
Rafflesia retreated not an inch. He could have pitied his inability to intimidate her, except he thought it had more to do with her strong personality than his weak state. “I just need them to take me along for a while. Mom will never let me go otherwise.”
“And what if they don’t want to let you go? You never know what humans are really capable of.”
“Please. I’ll take cat’s bane all that day. No one’s going to do anything if I’m human.” She rolled her eyes again. “I’ll just ask them to take me into town. Topaz will be there. He loves humans. He’ll be near them.”
“Are you sure?”
“Completely. I’ll find him there and we’ll come home together.” She nodded once, the look so serious as to be comical. Her confidence was absolute, even if Rune had his doubts. “But I need you to help me convince one of the humans to take me with them.”
“They won’t be allowed to take another if they do. It will be difficult.”
Rafflesia grinned as if to say, yes, of course, where’s the fun otherwise? “Are you up for it?”
Rune massaged his eyes. He would live to regret this, he was certain. But Topaz would have done this and more for him. He already had risked everything. And even if she did not really know what she was getting into, Rafflesia was willing to take the same risks. There was only one possible answer. “I’m in.”
Heather sat on the front steps with a sandwich and a big mug of hot tea. It was not the amazing food she had originally intended, but the passion for cooking had left her almost as soon as it arrived. But cheddar and apple on sourdough had just the right blend of sweet and savory that made the sandwich seem above ordinary. Cooking had fallen by the wayside while she nursed Rune. With all her free time broken up, it had felt like she spent weeks just waiting for it to be time to check his bandages or bring him food again.
The front door opened and she heard two sets of feet leave the house — clomp-clomp and tap-tap. “Aren’t you cold out here?” Dopple asked as her black boots appeared at Heather’s side. She dropped to a crouch and, when Heather moved her plate, sprawled next to her on the steps.
Heather leaned forward to look at the sky past the overhang of the porch. Dark clouds scudded across the sky, blown by a swift wind. They piled up against the western horizon. She rubbed her hands over her arms, chaffing warmth into them with the thick wool of her sweater. “Smells good at least,” she said. She took a bite of her sandwich and leaned back again.
Mysti leaned against the column at one side of the steps. Her own top was low-cut and goose bumps stood out on her exposed skin. Dopple looped an arm around one of Mysti’s legs. “Carlisle told me.”
“Whatever he said, it’s not like that,” Heather said. “I’m not trying to close the House of Cats.”
“You can,” Dopple said.
Heather twisted around to face her. “When did you get replaced by a robot?”
“Dumb ass. You’re the Queen. You have all the power here.”
Heather laughed. “The prime minister just scolded the Queen. He might as well have sent me to bed without dinner and grounded me from going out with my friends, just to complete the humiliation.”
Dopple looked like she swallowed the first five things that came to mind in response, which made it even worse when the first thing that actually came out was, “Are you feeble-minded in some capacity? Do you have a spine?” Dopple glared at her. “He only does that because you let him.”
“Yeah, this is building up my confidence by leaps and bounds,” Heather said.
“Oh, Carlisle, pay the bills for me,” Dopple said in a sing-song whine. “Talk to people for me. Do my job. I have to go fry a soufflé.”
“That is it!” Heather leapt to her feet. “First of all, you bake a soufflé, you cretin, and second, you and Carlisle and everyone else, you can say what you want about my leaving, but I have busted my ass since I got here.” Heather gestured with her sandwich so violently, a slice of apple flew out and landed in Dopple’s lap. “What’s more, if I’m so important to the House, it would be swell if someone actually listened to what I have to say.”
Dopple applauded. So did Mysti. It was such an unexpected response Heather sank back onto the steps, all the wind taken from her sails. “Finally,” Dopple said. “It shouldn’t take you so long to get to this point. You’ve got to start out spitting fire and bile at everyone else.”
Heather set her abused sandwich back on the plate. “I’m afraid I don’t have your substantial charms.”
Mysti patted Dopple on the head. “She is something else, isn’t she?”
Dopple pulled off one of her gloves and held her hand up, palm facing Heather. Her fingers were a grisly sight. “I can’t live anywhere else. And I’ll throw my lot in with whoever has the most power to keep me safe. I’m not proud. You tell me that your House will be L.A. or Utah or Canada and I’ll go there, because I think you’re in charge.
“But there is more here than just stone and wood.” She pulled her glove back on. Her fingers curled into protective fists. “Our kittens are born here and our dead are buried here. You know what my vote is.” She stood up and turned to go inside. Out on the lawn, the first drops of rain started to fall. “But whether you or anyone else likes it, you make the decision. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Rune awoke with a snort and a grunt when someone shouted near where he slept curled in the recliner. “What? I’m awake,” he said, rubbing his eyes like a child. “What’s going on?”
“The rain is ruining the new plants,” Heather said.
Rune shuffled over to her at the sliding door. “I thought plants liked rain.”
“They’re just seedlings. They’ll get all pounded down by rain this hard. And see? It’s washing away all the dirt around them.” She pressed her hands to the glass, but made no move to go outside. With the rain pelting down, he couldn’t blame her for that.
“Aren’t you going to do anything?”
“I don’t know what I can do. I guess I could dig a moat around them to drain off the excess.”
Rune rubbed at his arm, which had lost feeling while tucked between his body and the seat. “Just cover them. Don’t we still have that tarp in the shed?” Standing at her shoulder, he could smell her hair in the rain-clean air.
Heather looked over at him. “I think so. But if I just lay it flat, it’ll squash them with the weight of the water.”
Rune grinned sleepily. “Are you willing to get rained on for a while?” Heather nodded. “Come on then.” Without waiting, he threw open the door and ran, barefoot, out into the muddy yard.
He splashed through puddles on the concrete, one arm up to ward off raindrops so fat and frequent as to be painful. Heather burst into the shed after him, huddling against him. Rune put an arm around her without thinking, even when she shook water out of her hair and onto him. He handed her the shovel and the bundle of rebar and the hammer. Heather wrapped her arms around it all with difficulty. Rune laid the folded tarp over the sawhorse and hauled it back out into the rain.
“What are we doing?” Heather asked, shouting to be heard over the din of rain and rising wind.
Rune put the sawhorse on the uphill side of the yard, pushing it into the soggy ground to anchor it. He motioned for her to set her bundle on the ground. The tarp unfolded with difficulty until the wind caught it and snapped it up. “Take that over to the other side,” he said once Heather caught the free end. He pulled his side over the sawhorse.
While Heather stood with her feet on the edge of the tarp that threatened to blow away, Rune hammered rebar into the opposite end. The sawhorse held it up over the plants at an angle. The stakes punched through the tarp easily and he had to drive them at an angle, pinning the tarp to the ground so it did not slip up and off. He came around to the other end and dropped the rebar on the edge of the tarp.
Heather’s sweater hung to her knees, stretched by water weight. “Dig a trench to divert the run-off,” Rune said and knelt in the mud to secure that side of the tarp. The wet scrape of the shovel mingled with the thud of the hammer, all the noises going dull in the rain. He was too cold to feel uncomfortable any longer. His fingers burned with blood rushing to warm them.
Rune stood up, tarp completely secured. Heather dug out hunks of mud, soupy on the top and firm deeper down where the rain had not yet soaked through. The line of the trench filled with rain as she worked her way down past the edge of the tarp. “It’s going to flow right to the house,” she said.
He looked under the high edge of the tarp to see the plants. “Yeah, but these things will be happy. Here, give me that.” He took the shovel from her and dug a second trench along the high side, where the rain was seeping downhill into the plants. He carved a corner into it so it connected around to the first one and emptied downhill.
Heather grabbed the remaining pieces of rebar and Rune took the shovel and they ran back to the shed. Suddenly, the tiny room seemed warm and safe. Heather stood in the doorway and rung out the hem of her sweater while Rune wiped mud off the shovel against the grass before hanging it up again. “That should protect them. Rain never lasts that long around here.”
“It was a great idea,” Heather said. “How did you remember all that stuff was there?”
Rune wiped the muddy sole of his foot across the concrete floor, leaving a streaked print. “I was in charge here for a while. Rumor has it, anyway. I’m not sure I remember that part right. But it was my job to be able to protect everything here.”
“Even plants?” Heather said.
“Even plants,” Rune agreed. “And damsels in distress.” Then he put his rust- and mud-stained hand around the back of her neck and pulled her in for a brief kiss. “I remembered that though,” he said. It seemed like a bad move as soon as he let himself think about it. She had looked so pretty though, face flushed and hair dripping and actually grateful to him of all people. It had been all he could think about for days now, ever since he sorted out his memories enough to realize it had not been the phantom of Caroline who kissed him late one night.
He held very still under the speculative look Heather leveled at him. Then she said, “I don’t suppose you know how to build things, do you? I seem to own a house in need of repairs. If I’m going to live here, I’ll have to fix things up.”
He had waited so long for someone to need him again. Doctor’s orders be damned. Rune had rested enough. “Whatever I don’t know, we’ll figure out. What’s the first step?”