Carlisle dug his hind claws into the tree trunk and shoved himself up another foot. The pull in the tendons of his front paws felt wonderful after a busy week spent cooped up inside. His spine stretched and bunched as he propelled himself up to the first branch. He stopped there to twist and roll the kinks out of his shoulders. With Heather on her Saturday break from the cat’s bane, the office was probably off-limits anyway. Below him, a gopher inched out of its tunnel, took a look around, and disappeared again. Carlisle stretched out on the branch to watch it.
Behind him, he heard a soft voice speaking. The gopher bit off a sprig of a weed close to the tunnel entrance and ducked away. The voice moved closer and Carlisle looked back toward the house to see who had come to interrupt his holiday. Heather wove between clumps of grass with her tail high over her back. Next to her, Rune listened in silence as she chatted away.
While they were still far enough away, Carlisle bolted higher into the tree. He picked a spot where the branches were close together and the pine needles would hide him somewhat. Heather and Rune slipped into the shadows of the trees. Perhaps the office was available after all, Carlisle thought bitterly. She had ordered Carlisle out the last time he tried to talk to her while she was a cat. Her tail brushed Rune’s as they walked together.
“I think we should paint the house next,” she said. “The weather is supposed to be good for a while. And it’s not too hot yet.”
Rune kept his head turned towards her. Carlisle had no doubts that he only ventured this far from the house because Heather distracted him from his fears. Rune ducked his head in agreement. “Sure. Some of the older kittens might like to help.”
Heather stopped right below Carlisle’s tree to watch the gopher as it ate a bare patch in the grass around its home. “Good idea,” she said quietly, eyes fixed on the tunnel entrance and the quivering whiskers that cleared its mouth now and then.
Rune watched her with the same intense focus. “Should I leave you two alone?”
Heather looked up. Carlisle could see even from fifteen feet above her the way her eyes widened when Rune spoke to her, how her whole body tuned in to him when he was near. “Sorry. Got distracted. Do you want to go farther or head back?”
Rune tipped his head side to side, debating. “I can go a bit farther,” he said at last.
“I left tuna salad on the counter for us this morning,” Heather said as they set off again. “I put an ice pack with it to keep it fresh. And its covered, so hopefully no one will decide to steal it this time.”
“Did you leave a note?”
“One on each side, just to be certain.”
Carlisle let their voices fade from his mind as they walked away. Heather fixed food for him all the time when he worked longer than she thought appropriate. It was hardly something to feel jealous about, he told himself. He scrambled down from the tree. Maybe he could read letters in the garden today, if it was not too noisy with cats enjoying the sunshine. His solitary holiday just did not seem like much fun any longer.
Carlisle waited at the bottom of the hill by the mailbox for Dopple to return from town. He tugged at the ratty t-shirt fitfully. He wondered what it would be like to see her after twenty-five years. He tried to think of her as the Queen, her mother’s daughter. But in his mind, she was Heather, a teenager forever.
A taxi pulled into the driveway. Dopple slid out of the backseat. She looked him over once the car disappeared around the bend. “You look like hell,” she said. Her own leather jacket was slick black.
Carlisle grimaced and tried to pull the shoulders straight on the shirt. He would have given anything to wear his own clothes. “I had to wear something I could afford to leave behind when I change again.”
“He didn’t see you leave, did he?” Dopple reflexively looked up the hill toward the house.
“I saw him go upstairs around noon. I hope you’re right about him staying up there.”
“He won’t come down while everyone is changed,” Dopple said. “I have directions for you.” She held out a scrap of paper. Her handwriting wobbled across it.
“How far is it?”
“Two weeks, unless you hitchhike while you’re human.”
“I’ve no money to offer and I’d rather not take the chance of changing around a human.” Carlisle looked down the road and tried to get his heart to stop beating so hard.
He saw Dopple cock her head out of the corner of his eye. “You sure are a mess over this girl of yours. And I thought you and Topaz had something going on.”
Carlisle coughed. He was certainly too old to be of any interest to Topaz, who had every queen in the place following him around and several of the toms as well. “I just want to find her as soon as possible.”
“What’s her name?” Dopple asked. Something in her voice made Carlisle wonder if she suspected his deception.
“Crimea,” he said. The lie came easily, though he almost ruined it by laughing at the idea that he had been involved with Crimea. His younger self wished it so, but he had sense enough now to know a pointless crush when he saw one.
Dopple shrugged and turned up the road. “I’ll make excuses for you to Rune if he notices you’re gone.”
“That would be very helpful,” Carlisle murmured, but Dopple just trudged on.
He read her directions again and again while he walked. It was essential that he memorize them. In two days, he would be a cat once again and he would have no choice but to work from memory.
He chuckled a little. If Dopple spread his story around the House, he would certainly come home to an interesting reputation. Ex-girlfriend, indeed. He hoped no one mentioned it to Heather when they got back. She always hated it when people gossiped about them. At least, she used to. He wondered if that had changed in the years of their separation. He wondered what else might have as well.
Carlisle opened the door warily. Dopple was not due back so soon. Poppy was not expecting any visitors today. He squinted at the young man on the doorstep. He had a long scrape on his cheek and his clothes were filthy. He rather looked like he had been run over by a truck. “Rune?”
His posture relaxed a bit. “Hey, is Poppy around?” When Carlisle stepped aside to let him in, he walked with a terrible limp.
“What happened to you?” Carlisle steadied him with a hand on his arm.
“Got in a bar fight. You should see the other guys.” Rune’s grin was shaky and made pathetic by the slight swelling at the corner of his mouth.
Carlisle snorted. “Ridiculous. Were you too drunk to find your way home? Last time you wrote, you were in Nevada. What are you doing here?”
“This is my home,” Rune said. He clamped a hand on Carlisle’s wrist. “This is my home,” he repeated.
“I wasn’t going to send you packing,” Carlisle said. He patted Rune’s shoulder with his free hand. “There’s an open room down the hall. Come on.” He pulled Rune’s arm over his shoulder and helped him walk.
Carlisle looked up when he heard the thump of Poppy’s cane on the wood floor. She looked past Rune as though she expected to see someone else with him. There was a smudge of flour in her hair, white on white, and she smelled of vanilla. When Rune looked up at her, she clicked her tongue against her teeth. “You always have to pick a fight, don’t you?”
He ducked his head. “Yes, ma’am. I waited until I got back though.”
“Very wise of you, minimizing how far you had to walk on that leg,” she said and poked it, carefully, with the tip of her cane. He winced. She sighed and handed the cane to him. “You need this more than I do. Tell me what happened.”
She stood at Rune’s side so that Carlisle had no choice but to move out of her way. “Ma’am, I can get him set up. Please don’t trouble yourself,” Carlisle said.
“That won’t be necessary,” Poppy said without looking back. “Rune and I have private matters to discuss.”
Carlisle watched them hobble down the hall to the room he had in mind for Rune. They closed the door. Well. That was fine. There was plenty of work Carlisle could get done, since they did not need him. He went upstairs to Poppy’s office in search of letters to answer or bills to pay. He did not know Rune all that well anyway. He was just being nosy. Better to mind his own business.
Carlisle slit his eyes against the hot light coming through the window. He could hear Vince gathering up a crowd of hunters for a trip into the woods. He wished there was a door he could slam here in the front room. Vince had asked him along, but he had better things to do than hang out with that rabble. Scarborough would never hang out with that lot. They had never even been out of this town. Boring.
Someone stroked the top of his head. Dreaming of Heather again. Wherever she was. The stroke turned into a tap between his ears. “Wakey wakey,” Poppy said. She knelt by the windowsill he occupied. “Would you be willing to help me with something?”
Carlisle stretched and stood up. “Like what?”
Poppy offered him something leafy on her open palm. “Eat this, then get dressed and come to my office.”
Carlisle shrugged and ate the cat’s bane. He fell off the windowsill when he changed, but no one was around to see, so he brushed imaginary dust off his knees and went upstairs to find some clothing. Dressed in jeans and a sweater, pleasantly warm but tragically lame looking, he entered Poppy’s office without knocking.
She gestured him into a seat on the opposite side of her desk. “Why aren’t you out with the others today?”
Carlisle looked away. “Didn’t feel like it.”
“We’ll find her eventually,” Poppy said.
“Whatever,” Carlisle said and knew it was a small and lonely word compared to the store of curses and pleas for Heather he kept inside. “What did you need me to do?”
Poppy pushed a stack of envelopes towards him. “Do you know what these are?” He shook his head. “I receive a great many letters from cats around the country.” She tapped a finger against the stack. “They tell me who has died and who has had kittens. Where they are and if they will be near our House in the future.”
Carlisle picked up an envelope and, when she did not stop him, unfolded the letter inside. It was several pages of stiff paper, written in an erratic hand. “Long,” he said.
“Yes. And I have many other things I need to take care of today. Do you think you could help me with these?” She set a pad of paper and a pen next to the letters. It had been divided into columns, labeled with things like “clan name” and “number of births (include pedigree)” and “current residence.”
“Sounds deadly dull,” Carlisle said, but his eyes kept slipping back to the letter in his hand, curious about what it might say.
“It would be very helpful to me,” Poppy said gently. “Heather was supposed to help me with these,” she added after a hesitation.
Carlisle scooted his chair up to the desk and picked up the pen. “Maybe just this once. ‘Cause I got nothing better to do.” He as much as he wanted to see Heather again, he wanted to prove he was better than she was as well. She left him behind and he didn’t think he would ever forgive her.
“You have nothing better to do,” Poppy corrected him.
He raised his eyebrows, which was his favorite expression from Scarborough. “I said that.”
“How you speak with your friends is your own business, but I expect you to speak properly when you are working,” Poppy said with a mild smile. He would not know it for a few months, but he would need to brush up on his language for when he started writing letters as well as reading them. By then, he had forgotten he was just Poppy’s second choice after Heather left.
Carlisle picked at the plastic bracelet they had snapped on him when he walked in with the rest of the dout. “Why do I have to wear this?”
“So they know not to serve you alcohol,” Crimea said. She wore a spiked collar. Carlisle had never met anyone as hopelessly cool, except Scarborough, their leader. “Human bars aren’t allowed unless you’re old enough.” Everyone in the dout spoke her dialect. Learning that fact made it harder to imagine Crimea had any special interest in him, almost as much as when he found out she and Scarborough went together. His crush had not abated, nonetheless.
Scarborough roughed Carlisle’s hair up so the short curls stood on end. “And you look about twelve, kid.”
Carlisle shook his hand off. “Why come to a human bar at all?”
Crimea smirked and rolled her eyes. Carlisle felt his face flush up to his ears. “If I didn’t know you were so smart, I would think you were pretty dumb. Have you met any cats running bars?”
Brig practically bounced in his chair. “Oh, oh, I have,” he said in his usual explosion of noise. “In Louisiana, there’s this–”
“Rhetorical question, Brig,” Scarborough said. “We’re here to meet another dout.”
A big man clapped a hand on Scarborough’s shoulder. “Present and accounted for.”
Scarborough stood and they exchanged friendly thumps to the back. “John. Thought we’d have to send out a search party.”
The man pulled a chair up to their table and sat by Scarborough. Two women slipped into the circle as well, their chairs pulled up so close to each other they were almost sitting in each other’s laps. They were tiny, positively dwarfed next to John, and perfect twins, down to their oddly short arms and legs.
Scarborough flung an arm around Carlisle, who peered at the newcomers from around his leader’s side. “This is our newest member, Carlisle. This is John, Naomi and Natasha. Border Crossing Dout.”
Carlisle waved awkwardly. John grinned, all teeth. “You robbing dens now? Or was he born with you?”
“Nope, picked him up at Poppy’s House. Kid knows his stuff. He’ll really be something in a couple years.”
“Were you up at Poppy’s when her kid bailed?” John asked. Carlisle wrapped both his hands around his glass of water and brought it to his lips, the ice trembling inside. Scarborough shook his head and John said, “Happened a couple months ago.” The bar seemed quiet, all the background noise dropping away.
Before he could say anything more, one of the twins, Natasha maybe, interrupted. “Word has it, she ran away.” “And no one has been able to find her,” Naomi added. “She stole all the cat’s bane at the House,” Natasha said. Naomi leaned forward to say in a scandalized voice, “Rumor has it, she’s gone full-time furless.”
Carlisle did not have to ask to know what that meant. Heather had made good on her threats. In some human city, dressed up as one of them, Heather had disappeared. Carlisle did not realize he had stood up until Crimea pulled him back down into his seat. “I have to go back,” he said.
“Now, hang on,” Crimea said. “She’s not your problem. Poppy will take care of it.”
Carlisle shook his head. “You don’t understand. Heather is– We were– I might be able to bring her home.”
“We’re at least four weeks hard travel from the House,” Scarborough said. “The trail will be cold long before you get back, even if you leave now. And we won’t be headed back there for another year, at least.”
The noise in the bar crashed back to full volume. Carlisle hovered on the edge of his seat. “I know her. I can find her.”
“You can’t go alone,” Scarborough said.
“I’ll go,” Brig said, waving his hands and pointing to himself.
Crimea smacked him on the back of the head. “You’re worse than no one at all.”
“Listen, I’m headed west myself,” John said. He turned his big palm up on the table. “We can take him most of the way, if it’s that important.”
“We didn’t know you knew her,” Natasha said. Naomi said, “We’re sorry.”
Scarborough leaned back in his chair and took a swig of his beer. “You won’t be able to connect up with us again until we come to the House again.” He raised an eyebrow. “You know we don’t follow a plan.”
“I have to go,” Carlisle said helplessly. He had to get Heather back. That was all there was to it. He saw the Blue Road dout the next time they happened his way, but he never did roam with them again. Some things, he told himself, just aren’t meant to be.
Carlisle licked a swath between Heather’s ears, grooming the fur against the grain, and then smoothed it again with short strokes. She purred, the vibration transferring from her back to his side where she curled. But her purring stopped as soon as he stopped washing her. “What’s wrong?”
Heather flopped over so they faced each other, all four paws touching. “I want to try something,” she said and looked away.
Carlisle liked trying new things with Heather. She never made fun of him, even when she laughed at him. Heather was his favorite cat in the whole world. The answer was always the same: he wanted to do whatever she wanted.
She stayed silent and stared past him. When her eyes met his, her pupils were dilated so large they eclipsed the blue in a black with more depth than should have been possible in her small, fine-boned face. She leaned forward until her nose touched his. “Like humans,” she said. The tip of her tongue touched his upper lip. “I want to kiss like humans.”
Carlisle copied what she did, but went no further. Heather had never proposed something like that before. She pressed her mouth next to his. Her whiskers tickled his nose. She licked again and the ticklish rasp of her tongue made him jerk away. “Sorry. Whiskers,” he said and rubbed a paw against them to relieve the tingly feeling at the sensitive base of each one.
Heather looked away again, obviously disappointed. “It looked like more fun than that,” she said.
Carlisle hooked a paw over her shoulder and rolled her back to curl beside him again. “We can try it the next time we change.” Carlisle always felt ridiculous, all oversized hands and feet and skinny legs, compared to Heather as a human, who already looked like a woman.
Heather rested her chin on his paws. “When I run away,” she said and the list of things that followed that statement was longer than Carlisle could easily remember. “You have to come with me.”
“Yes,” Carlisle said. Whatever Heather wanted. “We’ll travel the world, just like my mum does.”
“Tell me about England again,” Heather said. She always liked to hear about Carlisle’s fragmented memories of his homes before his mother left him at the House.
Outside their nook, someone said, “hey, the Blue Roads are here,” in a voice loud enough to summon every cat in the house. Carlisle slipped out from under Heather’s weight. “Let’s go see who’s here.”
Heather sighed and followed him. He knew she hated meeting new cats, but Carlisle was curious. In the solarium, a whole crowd of cats surrounded the newcomers. They all talked rapidly, exchanging bursts of information in a flurry of sound. Lost in the back of the crowd, Carlisle saw the prettiest cat — next to Heather — he had ever seen, sitting by herself.
He looked back as he crossed the room. Heather sat in the doorway, watching with a wary expression. Carlisle went over to the forgotten cat and said hello.
She grumbled under her breath and chirped a greeting back. It was a different dialect, which explained why she was not part of the larger conversation. She had a highly domed forehead, aristocratic and exotic, and the blue of her coat made even Carlisle’s rosettes look like simple gray.
“You’re a Russian Blue then, aren’t you?” He asked in her dialect.
“You speak,” she confirmed with a smile. “I’m Crimea. No one in this territory speaks.”
“I speak three dialects. And human English,” Carlisle said.
Crimea tipped her nose toward the door and Heather. “Your friend speaks too?”
Heather’s fur puffed and she disappeared from the doorway. “Ah, no,” Carlisle said. He would have gone after her, but just then Crimea swiped at another cat. When she had his attention, she introduced them and it was hours before Carlisle could get away long enough to tell Heather, coolly disinterested, all about the Blue Roads and how they wanted him to join them.
Heather told him not to follow her around but what she didn’t know, Carlisle thought as he nosed aside a loose board in the garden fence, couldn’t hurt him. He squeezed through the opening, getting the tip of his tail pinched for his efforts, and walked through the leafy corridor under the branches of a flowering bush. The junk heap, where kittens’ voices could be heard, was in the back corner. Carlisle was tired — Heather had walked a long way before stopping at this rundown house — and he flopped down in the prickly grass as soon as he found an opening big enough to see through.
Heather played with the other kittens. They were a little younger than she was and a little older than Carlisle. There were five of them, all different colors and coats. Heather explained to them in a tone of great authority that food always tasted better cooked. The kittens expressed vociferous disbelief. Carlisle watched the way Heather’s eyes flashed in the dim light.
“Mommy always cooks all my food,” Heather said.
“Cats can’t cook,” one of the kittens insisted.
“We can when we’re human,” Heather explained with a roll of her eyes. Carlisle sat up, a bad feeling itching under fur. Mum always told him not to talk to strange cats. There were the right kinds of cats and the wrong kinds, she told him. In the shade of an overturned bathtub and a rusted bicycle, Heather described cooking in elaborate detail.
Carlisle backed away. If he told Heather to come home, she would get mad at him for following her. She would pull his ears and refuse to talk to him for the rest of the day if she got really mad. Carlisle slunk back out of the garden. Outside, he broke to a run. Heather’s mum would help.
When he got home, he did not even have to explain to Poppy. She met him at the front door. “Where is Heather?”
Walking the path there and back made it easy to remember. Carlisle always remembered where he had been. Explaining to Poppy just which lumpy rock he had turned left at proved harder. In the end, she carried him in her arms while she ran, flat human feet pounding the ground.
Poppy broke the latch on the garden gate to get in. The noise distracted the kittens’ mother, which meant she loosened her death grip on Heather’s neck. Poppy grabbed the cat by her neck in turn and flung her across the yard. She landed in a flower pot with a yowl.
Heather refused to even look at Carlisle while Poppy carried them home. “You must never, ever go near them again,” she said. “Cats that don’t change will hurt you if you let them.”
“You’re the right kind of cat,” Carlisle said helpfully, “and they’re the wrong kind.”
Heather twisted away and buried her face in Poppy’s arm. He heard her say in a sniffle, “I’m not a cat at all.”
Poppy stopped walking. “Don’t say that. You are a perfectly good cat.”
Heather looked up at her mother. Carlisle could see bite marks, red and puffy, behind her ears. “She said I’m just like a human.”
Poppy bundled Heather closer to her chest. “They don’t know what they’re talking about,” she said. “Just forget all about it.”
It took three months for Heather to forget about Carlisle tattling on her and start talking to him again. She never did forget what the cat told her that day though.