Original SWAT Kats Story

A Mega-Hotfoot

By Cat Matson

(Unfinished) In the midst of a slew of supervillain attacks, T-Bone meets a very unusual girl and takes a very unusual shine to her. But, with secrets, secret identities, and a tangle of villainous schemes, romance is a bit complicated.

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Chapter 2

Chance Meeting

Megakat City dozed in the warm afternoon. Kats walking the streets weren’t hustling and pushing the usual way traffic flowed in the wide avenues. Passerby strolled slowly, unwilling to exert themselves in the baking heat that rose up off the roads and sidewalks in blurry waves. Cars moved along without the perennial honking and occasional cursing that made Megakat City never quiet. It was a scene of bucolic stupefaction that seemed to remove whatever ambition the punishing heat left behind.

Megakat National Bank, the gray stone facade blindingly bright in the sunshine, offered a haven of coolness inside its thick concrete walls. Kats pushing through the big glass doors in front breathed involuntary sighs of relief as the sweltering heat cut off abruptly.

Customers seemed grateful for the chance to stand in line and relax in the dim coolness of the cavernous lobby. Callie Briggs, the City’s popular and pert Deputy Mayor, waited patiently in her queue, her hands twisting her thick, curly blond hair off the back of her neck. Her usual severe pink suit hung limp in the humidity, and her normal rolling curls were a mass of frizzy knots.

Reaching the teller station, the broad-faced clerk smiled in welcome, holding out a paw for Callie’s transaction. “Afternoon, Miz Briggs, how ’bout this heat?”

The flippant comment made Callie smile a trifle wanly. “It does seem to be the only thing anyone can talk about.”

“Yeah, I’ve started greeting everybody like that to get it out of the way right off. Sure has made people beat.” The teller’s paws shuffled slips automatically, fingers tapping out an uneven rhythm on the computer keyboard in front of him.

“It’s got me. Not to mention the problems it’s causing.”

The teller nodded again, “Yeah, I saw on the news last night that the hospital’s gonna be sucking up the majority of the excess power in the city. People seem to be taking it pretty well, though. How long before things are back to normal? I figure you’ve got the latest scoop on the situation.”

Callie opened her mouth to answer and never got the chance as both front doors slammed open and a hail of gunfire aimed at the ceiling made everyone, staff and customers, hit the floor automatically. Callie, who had dived over the counter as the clerk dropped flat, scrabbled through her purse for the distinctive triangular feel of the alarm beeper she was never without. She knew those silvery metallic silhouettes far too well. The security guard never had a chance as Mac Mange’s first glancing shot knocked him into the wall, and he slumped to the floor in an unconscious heap, the smell of singed fur filling the room.

The brawny teller shoved Callie as far back under the counter as she would fit. “Stay out of sight,” he hissed warningly. The whole city knew of the Metallikats’ insane hatred for Callie Briggs, and he was well aware her chances of surviving this encounter were nil if Mac or Molly realized she was here. Callie’s hand clamped over the beeper and the silent pulsing under her fingers told her at least one alarm had gotten out, and she noticed the husky teller’s fingers had jammed the silent alarm under the counter so hard the button was stuck in the housing.

Grinning widely, steel fangs glinting sharp in her featureless face, Molly strolled up to the bank manager’s desk, and pointed her heavy gun at the kind-faced old kat. “I’d like to make a withdrawal,” she drawled. “Everything you’ve got.”

The gray-muzzled old tom straightened up, an expression of profound contempt on his face. “Take it yourself, crook. I’m not helping you.”

Mac snorted in impatience, turning from covering the sprawled customers to aim his blaster at the vault door. “Suit yourself.” His shot blew the lock on the massive vault door to a melted mass of metallic slag, and Mac wrenched the door the rest of the way open with inhuman strength. Gold bars glinted in orderly stacks, and piles of neatly-bundled currency were arrayed on long shelves.

“Now isn’t that pretty,” Molly purred. She swung her gun to point it at the clump of tellers. “You, start piling it on the cart, or you start losing customers. Permanently.”

The tellers looked over at the old manager, standing stone-faced behind his desk. He nodded shortly. They set to work piling bars on a small cart usually kept in the vault to make moving the piles of currency easier for the occasional armored car transaction, and stuffed the bundled currency into heavy bags bearing the bank’s name and seal. Between the dozen of them, they had the vault stripped in less than ten minutes. Piling the bags of currency atop of the stacks of gold bars, the brawny teller who had been helping Callie, together with two other toms who had been working behind the counter, threw their weight behind the cart and managed to get it as far as Molly, standing in front of the bank manger’s desk. Her metal paw closed over the handle of the cart, and her steel sinews had no trouble pulling the cart single-handedly over to the front door. “It’s been a pleasure,” she taunted, and as Mac backed up to stand next to her, the two of them sent another fusillade of shots into the walls at head-height, causing everyone to press themselves flatter to the floor, hands covering their heads as chunks of plaster rained down on them.

The pair vanished back through the front doors, and the bank manger’s voice rang out sharply over the scream of tires as their massive, tank-like vehicle pulled away. “Stay down until the Enforcers get here!”

Callie was the only one to ignore the command, vaulting the counter and sprinting for the doors. She stopped at the curb as a cyclotron skidded to a halt in front of the bank.

“Where?” T-Bone shouted.

Callie pointed a claw at the departing vehicle and the engine roared as he took off after them. Wondering where the Turbokat and Razor were, Callie flagged down Feral’s car as a phalanx of Enforcer tanks and police cars thundered around the corner a few minutes later and disgorged a flood of troops in full riot gear who pounded into the building. “They’ve already gone!” Callie yelled impatiently, yanking the passenger door to Feral’s command car open and jumping in. “Up Main and towards the Bay Bridge.” Feral nodded shortly and barked a series of commands into his radio as half the tanks peeled out behind him, and a squad of helicopters overhead arrowed toward the Bay. “The Metallikats cleaned out the bank vault completely, but I don’t think anyone was more than banged up a little.” Callie ground her teeth in angry frustration. “This time I’m melting them down for planters personally and sticking them on the steps of City Hall. I’m sick of this!”

“Feeling bloodthirsty today, Deputy Mayor?” Feral growled, “That’s not like you.”

“Maybe your attitude’s rubbing off on me,” she retorted.

“That’ll be a first,” he said in an undertone, swinging the wheel around to dodge a car lying on its side with two badly shaken kats crawling out of the driver’s side window.

***

As T-Bone shot down the street a good three or four miles ahead of them, he had no trouble following the trail of destruction the Metallikats were leaving in their wake. Overturned cars and downed light poles marked their passing like a physical residue of evil. So far, by some miracle, nobody seemed to have been seriously hurt, but T-Bone knew that kind of luck couldn’t last. He cursed as he realized the chase was leading down towards the section of town where Pops Perkins’ newsstand stood. It was new comic day, and that section of old Main Street would be crowded with pedestrians, most of whom would be mothers indulging children and teenagers there on their own. T-Bone had been meaning to head over there later to check for the new issues of Scaredy Kat and Kat Kommandos himself.

Spotting the monolithic armored car they used, he twisted another turn out of the throttle and activated the cyclotron’s heads-up display. The on-board computer interfaced with his helmet’s targeting display and gave him back the shrill whine of a targeting lock. Aiming for the vehicle’s only exposed spot, the wheel wells where the tires made contact with the road, he sent up a quick prayer for Razor’s skill and pressed the trigger. A pair of mini slicer-missiles took out the left and right rear tires, and the vehicle spun out wildly and rocked to a halt just short of the corner where Pops’ newsstand stood. Breathing a second prayer, this time of thanks, he saw the street corner was indeed filled with kats of all ages, all staring in amazed surprise at the scene.

Mac blew the jammed door open with his blaster, and he and Molly emerged to send a deadly hail of firepower at the cyclotron. The bystanders scattered in all directions, most fleeing down the street, but those who had been clustered around Pops’ newsstand were forced to retreat up a short alley that dead-ended against a new building. The clump of civilians; two mothers, one clutching a small kitten with terror in her eyes, another with two toddlers clinging to her legs, a pair of teenagers who had been talking with Pops, a stunningly pretty female kat with a long blond braid, and Pops Perkins himself, mashed themselves against the alley wall and watched the scene with various expressions of horror and anger.

Mac and Molly, forced to abandon their loot, were raging at each other and T-Bone as they exchanged fire, T-Bone pulling the cyclotron around for a blast shield and wishing frantically for a clear shot.

“We gotta get outta here!” Mac snarled, “that damn Swatkat has us pinned down!”

“I know a way to get him off our tails.” Molly grinned evilly.

“No!” T-Bone bellowed. He’d never be able to reach them in time, but he threw himself at the Metallikats as Molly raised her gun and pointed it squarely at the clump of terrified civilians trapped in the alleyway. One mother wrapped her arms around her tiny kitten and deliberately turned her back in a despairing effort to shield the little one. Even as Molly fired, the kat with the long blond braid he’d noticed earlier stepped in front of the group and threw her arms up over her head. A nimbus of blue fire flared around her upraised hands, spreading out into a dome of energy over them as Molly’s shot struck the weird shield and ricocheted off it to blow a sizeable hole in the building above them. Debris rained down on them, striking the dome and sliding down it to settle in heaps of rubble around the edge of the coruscating energy wall. The remaining civilians stared at their odd savior in blank amazement that they still lived. The pair of teenage boys who had been talking with Pops let out a faint cheer.

The blond kat paid no attention to them, her green eyes blazing with raw, unadulterated fury. “All right, you bastards,” she spat, “now you’ve made me mad.”

Stepping through the glowing shield wall like it wasn’t there, she clenched her fists at her sides and as balls of crackling energy built up around her hands, she lifted her arms and whipped the orbs of energy straight at the Metallikats. One struck Mac squarely, slamming him back against the armored car with an impact that dented the heavy armor plating. The other blew Molly’s arm, gun still attached, clear off her body to land clattering halfway down the street, smoke drifting from the severed end, sparks popping and snapped conduits dangling obscenely.

Paying no attention to Mac, the stranger advanced on Molly, hissing angrily, “You bitch, now you die.”

“Molly!” Pulling himself erect, Mac lifted his blaster to aim straight for the blond. “Not so fast, Metallikat!” T-Bone raised his glovatrix and fired a tangle-field net at him, snaring him in the meshes and forcing his shot off to blow a smoking hole in the pavement next to the blond, who by now had ripped Molly’s other arm off barehanded and was making a very good attempt at ripping her head off the same way.

“Stop right there, Swatkat!” Feral’s angry bellow rose above the noise of the battle, as Enforcer tanks and police cars screamed around the corner to bracket the street.

“Oh, shit…” The blond dropped Molly and looked around for an escape route.

Deciding he owed her for saving those civilians, T-Bone leaped for his cyclotron and gunning the engine, pulled to a stop in front of her. “Need a ride?”

The blond didn’t even hesitate. “Under the circumstances, I’d be delighted.” She threw a leg over the seat and locked her arms around T-Bone’s waist. “Hit it, handsome.”

Slinging the bike around, T-Bone gunned the engine again and headed straight for one of the Enforcer tanks, and pulling the front wheel clear off the ground, raced up the front of the tank like a ramp, jumping the roadblock cleanly as Feral and his Enforcers dived for the ground as they passed overhead.

Dodging a few stray police cars and waving an arm at Deputy Mayor Briggs as he whipped past, T-Bone shot down an alley and quickly lost the remaining pursuit in the maze of streets around the warehouse district down by the docks. The blond behind him let out a triumphant howl and tightened her grip as he skidded around a corner and shot down the deserted road that led out of the city toward the swamps, her long hair streaming behind them like a victory banner. After twenty minutes of doubling back through the overhanging trees and thick vines of the swamps to be sure he lost any remaining aerial pursuit, T-Bone ducked down an overgrown side road that led to a deserted stretch of stony beach several miles down the coast from the city, and let the cyclotron slow to a stop under a crumbling cliff side. The grip around his waist relaxed as they stopped, and a soft sigh blew gently past his ears as the blond leaned back and flexed her fingers gingerly. T-Bone stiffened as a sharp surge of desire welled up from that light breeze on the nape of his neck. “You sure can drive, friend.” She hopped off the cyclotron lightly and muttered a curse as she tried to run her claws through her hair to pull it away from her face and snarled her fingers in the mass of knots. The speed of the chase had pulled it loose from its neat braid, and it was a windblown mass of tangles. “You sure can fight!” he said admiringly, jerked back to the present by the casual remark. “What did you hit the Metallikats with? And where can I get one?” “Is that what they’re called? Metallikats? What the heck are they? Robots?” The blond turned back to him, catching the odd look T-Bone unintentionally gave her as he climbed off the cyclotron. “What did I say?”

“You don’t know who they are?”

“No clue. I arrived here a week ago and I’ve already gotten the local law enforcement mad at me. That might be a record, even for me!” The droll tone of her comment made T-Bone laugh.

“With Commander Feral, I’m afraid being seen with me has probably doomed you from the start.”

“For that matter, who are you? A Swat…Swatkat? You certainly were in the right place at the right time, unlike that bellowing idiot, who, I take it, was Commander Feral?”

“Right on both counts. Commander Feral is the Commander of the Enforcers, who are Megakat City’s police force. My partner Razor and I are the Swatkats. And our jet, the Turbokat. We’re… we’re vigilantes, really.”

T-Bone’s forehead wrinkled as he struggled to describe his and Razor’s relationship to Megakat City, but the blond arched her eyebrows in a look of comprehension, and she chimed in, “I see, you’re the city’s guardian angels! I didn’t know it had one. Or two, apparently.” She sighed again, this time with satisfaction. “I like this place better already. Every city should have a hero or two.” Still trying to work her claws through her hair, she lifted her chin in an arch gesture, and teased him gently, “So what do I have to do to get your name?”

T-Bone couldn’t believe it. What was probably the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen in his life, a girl he’d just watched flatten the Metallikats all but single-handedly, was standing there and flirting with him. On a deserted beach. Alone. Absolutely unbelievable. Deciding he could give as good as he got, he riposted, “I’ll tell you mine, if you tell me yours.”

“Oooh, is that only for names or does it imply more?”

“I said tell, not show.”

“Show n’ tell? That sounds like fun.”

Unable to keep from laughing by this point, the two of them dissolved into helpless mirth. T-Bone held out a hand and the pretty stranger placed hers in it unhesitatingly.

“I’m T-Bone. At your service.”

“I’m Talon. Delighted to make your acquaintance, T-Bone.”

“Not nearly as delighted as you’re going to be,” he commented, not releasing her hand. Glancing around, he spotted a driftwood log half-buried in sand that would serve his purpose, and led her over to it. “Sit down and let me take care of that.” She sat down with a half-smile, and T-Bone turned her back to him and began working his claws through her knotted hair. Untangling the long fine strands, he noticed a faint scent of lemon and almond blossoms drifting up from them.

“So what were those Metallikats anyway? Rogue robots?”

“Sort of.” T-Bone replied absently, gently working out another knot. “They were originally ordinary criminals, a couple named Mac and Molly Mange. They broke out of prison and tried to escape in a small boat. They ended up nearly getting killed. But before they died, their bodies washed up on the beach and were found by an old scientist that lives up the coast. He decanted their personalities into two metal robot bodies in an attempt to save their lives. Unfortunately, they’re even more evil in their new bodies than they were in their old ones.”

“And now they have the advantage of metal bodies that are basically walking weapons. Nice.” She half-turned back to T-Bone and wrinkled up her nose for a moment, an expression that contrasted oddly with the sleepy pleasure on her face from his claws combing her hair. “Megakat City home to any other weirdos that I should know about?”

That got a chuckle from T-Bone. “How long do you have, anyway?” Not waiting for an answer, he reeled off, “Dr. Viper, the Pastmaster, DarkKat; he’s a real piece of work, Hard Drive, Turmoil, Mad Kat, Chop Shop, are you disgusted yet?”

“Not with you, but yes. Sounds like this city needs you.”

“Depends on who you ask.” T-Bone had smoothed all the tangles out of her hair, but kept combing his claws through it, reluctant to let go of her. “Oh, don’t stop. That feels wonderful.” Her body relaxed a little more, and the faintest purr came from her throat for a moment. T-Bone felt himself go dizzy at the response that tiny purr coaxed from him. “Whatever you say.” It didn’t come out nearly as funny as he’d meant it to be. Another laugh, this time much softer and throatier. “Don’t tempt me, handsome, you saved my life back there. I might be tempted to reward you in the traditional manner.”

“Who am I to argue with a lady?” he said softly back, and exerting the smallest pressure on her shoulders, drew her back to lay against his chest with her head pillowed on his shoulder, and began to knead her shoulders gently. “Ooohhh…” The rumble of her purr vibrated in his chest, bouncing down his spine to send a very clear message to one part of him. Her head was turned away from him, and the fine cream-colored fur on her cheek and neck looked so soft he itched to press his lips to it and see for himself if it was that velvety soft… Realizing he was very close to losing control and kissing her, he slowed the movement of his hands but that only made it worse. His hands stilled and a tiny protest broke from her throat. “I… I think we better stop now, Talon.”

She turned back to him, and he was somehow unsurprised to see her lovely eyes smoky green with desire. “Do you want to stop?” “No.”

“Good.” She lifted one hand to his face and traced the edge of his mask. “Kiss me.”

Caught without an answer, T-Bone drew her around and lowered his mouth to hers. She slid her arms around him and shivered faintly as he pulled her against him, half-burying herself in his thick fur. Her mouth wandered over his, nipping his lip gently, tasting the texture of his fur, murmuring his name in a throaty whisper that only had the effect of arousing him more. He pulled his lips from hers and buried them in that soft fur on her neck, groaning as her pulse beat under his mouth. His paws slid up under her shirt and he dug his claws into the muscles of her back, causing her to arch herself against him with a cry and press closer.

Sliding down into the sand, he pulled her on top of him and wrapped a heavy leg around her, holding her in the curve of his body as he half-dug them into the sheltered side of the log. Cuddling her against him, he let his hands rub her back again, crooning her name as he luxuriated in the feel of her body against his. “So warm,” she breathed, unzipping his g-suit enough to tuck her shoulder into it, burying her face in the fur of his chest, letting her claws tickle the broad muscles under her fingers. Too overwhelmed by it all to do anything except clutch her tightly, T-Bone settled the two of them into a warm hollow in the sand. The sun had set unnoticed behind them, and as the stars began to wink on in the sky above them, T-Bone wished he dared make love to her right there. But when they did… when they did, he wondered bemusedly, when did it become when and not if? The hell with it, he thought, when they did, it was going to be in someplace a lot more comfortable than a sand dune.

“Talon?” He nudged her gently, as her breathing had slowed to the point where she seemed only a step away from sleep. “Call me Tally. All my friends do.” She caressed her cheek against his chest, and his arms tightened around her automatically. “Tally. We should go. It’s getting late.”

She sighed and lifted her head to gaze sadly into his eyes. “I know. I just don’t want to.”

T-Bone kissed her fiercely. “Don’t look like that. You aren’t getting rid of me that easily.”

“Good.” Her lips wandered over his mouth again, and he smiled under her kiss.

Sitting up, he pulled her into his lap and got to his feet, cradling her in his arms. “Come on, beautiful, let me take you home.” Carrying her, he walked back to the cyclotron, and climbed back on the bike, this time placing her in front of him, her slender body pressed tight against him. Twisting around, she kissed him again, drinking in his kisses hungrily.

Sighing, he revved up the bike and meandered slowly back towards town. The ride back was magical, Talon’s hair flowing over his shoulder, her warm back pressed against his chest, her laughter mingling with his as he pointed out places where he and Razor had tangled with Megakat City’s various villains. Reaching the outskirts of town, he realized he had no idea where to take her. “Where are you staying?”

“A place on the beach called the Gray Gull. I haven’t bothered looking for an apartment yet.” She made a face. “I hate apartment-hunting. You have to look at fifty nasty places for every nice one. Bleah.”

“I know where it is. I can drop you off half a block away. I probably shouldn’t let you be seen with me. It could get you in trouble. You’re in enough already if someone recognized you.” He turned the bike toward the beach and moved a paw from the cyclotron’s handlebars to slide it around her waist, troubled by the hard time Feral would give her if he found out she knew him. He wasn’t expecting the snort of disgust she gave.

“I’m well able to take care of myself, or hadn’t you noticed?” “Actually, I had,” he replied, remembering she never had told him what she’d flattened the Metallikats with. He had enough secrets of his own, he realized, he didn’t have any right to pick at hers. He pulled over on a deserted street corner, and pointed towards the beachfront. “That’s the street your hotel’s on. It’s right around the corner.” “Thanks.” She slid off the bike with obvious reluctance, and turned to him with sad eyes.

Troubled by the pain in them, T-Bone reached out and crushed her against his chest one last time, whispering her name. She kissed him, and then turned away and walked down the street toward the beach, spine ramrod-straight and not looking back. T-Bone was halfway back to the salvage yard before he realized he had never asked her when he could see her again.

Stashing the cyclotron in the underground hanger, he noticed Jake had temporarily suspended the work he’d been doing on the Turbokat’s engine, up on blocks, and was in the process of welding the new missile racks into the wing struts. He changed back into jeans and a shirt, finding a long blond hair tangled in his g-suit harness as he hung it up. Twisting it thoughtfully around his claws, he climbed the steps into the garage, to find Jake sprawled on the couch watching the end of the late night news, waiting for Litterbin to come on. A half-eaten pizza lay open on the coffee table, and Jake glanced up as he walked in. “Hey, buddy, you’re just in time, they’re talking about you.” Sure enough, Ann Gora was standing in front of the rubble-filled alleyway where he and Talon had tangled with Mac and Molly. “…and witnesses say their lives were saved by the Swatkat T-Bone and an unknown female kat, who not only protected the innocent bystanders from the Metallikats’ rampage, but brought down Molly Mange single-handedly. Whoever she is, she has Megakat City’s thanks tonight for her brave, selfless actions. That’s all for tonight, this is Ann Gora for Kat’s Eye News, good night.” Jake flipped off the volume as commercials filled the screen, and raised an eyebrow at Chance’s distracted expression. “So do I ask where you’ve been?” Catching sight of the long blond hair twisted around Chance’s fingers, he joked, “Or should I not ask where you’ve been?”

“Did they have any idea about the girl’s identity?” Chance asked, worry creasing his forehead. “None at all, nobody got a good look at her. About all they know is she had long blond hair.” Picking up on the concern in his partner’s voice, he looked at the hair Chance had not put down yet. “Which does seem to be correct. Are you ok, buddy?”

“Yeah, only worried. Feral would make Tally’s life hell if he found her. And she’s new here, she doesn’t know… doesn’t know the city. Doesn’t know who to trust, and who not to trust.”

“Is that her name? Tally?”

“Talon, but Tally for short.” Chance dropped down on the couch and wound the blond strand around the small plaque on the wall behind them that marked his and Jake’s top rating from flight school.

“She’s sure got your head spinning.”

Chance had to smile at that, and leaned forward to pick up a slice of pizza, munching absently as he remembered the sweet smell of her hair.

“Hello, Ground Control to Chance Furlong?” Jake’s voice penetrated Chance’s reverie, and he looked back over at his partner, shaking his head at his lapse.

“Sorry, buddy, what did you say?”

Jake shook his head back. “Boy, you have got it bad, haven’t you? She must be something pretty special.”

“She sure is.”

“I said,” Jake stressed, making it obvious this was probably the fourth or fifth time he’d asked, “when are you going to see her again?”

“I don’t know. As soon as I can figure out a way.”

Jake rolled his eyes in disgust. “Let me know if I can help, ok?”

“Sure. Thanks, Jake.”

“What are friends for?”

***

Three days later, Talon walked back into her hotel after a fruitless day of apartment hunting, and as she padded wearily towards the elevator, the front desk clerk waved a hand to catch her attention. “Ms. Astra!” The gangly night clerk was a student at the local college, and could usually be found with his textbooks spread out over the front desk, studying rather erratically. “This was dropped off for you today by messenger.” He held up a small, flat box, perhaps three inches square, wrapped in plain brown paper, with her first name written across it in a handwriting she did not know.

“Weird. No message?”

He shook his head. “Not unless there’s one in the box.”

“Well, thanks,” she said, slipping the package into her jacket pocket, despite the clerk’s obvious desire to see her open it there. But as the elevator door closed behind her, she took the package out and turned it over in her hands. “Please,” she whispered to herself. Once in her room, with the door safely locked behind her, she tore the paper from the box with hands that trembled only slightly. The box proved to contain a note, which said simply, ‘The end of the breakwater, midnight. Press the button when you’re alone.’ Under the note was a fine silver chain with a small oval locket strung on it. Turning it over in her hands, she noticed it had an intertwined S and K engraved on the front. Inserting a claw in the tiny catch, she popped the cover and found, instead of a picture frame, a mass of micro-circuitry wound around a tiny silver button. Her hand clenched around the locket and she glanced over at the clock. 6:00pm. Midnight seemed a thousand years away.

At 11:30, she had made her way down the beach to the breakwater, a huge jetty of granite boulders stretching out into the bay. A few fishermen were night-fishing off the surf side, but the farthest one out was barely halfway to the tip of the jetty. Leaping from boulder to boulder, she gradually worked her way to the farthest outcrop of stone and sat down on the edge with her bare feet dangling over the water. Checking her watch, she had ten minutes left before midnight. Reaching up to the locket strung around her neck, she rubbed it with a thumb, the engraved whorls of the SK reassuring her.

At 11:58 she couldn’t stand it anymore and pressed the tiny button. For an agonizingly long minute nothing happened, then the water directly beneath her feet began to boil and swirl. Slowly a darker shadow appeared in the water, breaking the surface less than three feet away. It was a sleek, manta-shaped submersible painted in black, red and blue, and a line of faint light appeared around a hatch cover on the top. Biting her lip to keep from crying out as she rose to her feet, Talon could not restrain a low moan as T-Bone’s burly shoulders poked up though the hatch.

He turned to face her and held out his hands. She leaped the gap into his arms without another sound, toe-claws of her bare feet scrabbling for a minute on the wet steel, and he didn’t waste a second pulling her down through the hatch and sealing it behind them. T-Bone dropped into the pilot’s seat with her clutched tightly in his arms and hit the autopilot as he kissed her. The ship slid back under the water, and turned to head out to sea as Talon buried her face in his shoulder. The omnipresent painful ache that had rested next to his heart for the past three days finally eased as he held her.

“Hi.” She said at last, pulling back enough to look at him.

“Hi.” He tapped the locket around her neck with a claw. “You got it. I wasn’t sure if you would. I didn’t know your last name, and Razor said the desk clerk at your hotel looked kind of… unreliable.”

“He is, but he did manage to get it to me. It’s a homing beacon, isn’t it?” T-Bone nodded. “Razor made it for you.”

“Remind me to thank him when I meet him.” Talon shivered convulsively. “I was so afraid…” she trailed off, her voice fading as she looked away.

T-Bone gently turned her face back toward him and asked, very quietly, “What were you afraid of?”

She didn’t answer for a minute, then sighed and admitted, “I was afraid I’d never see you again. And it hurt… a lot.”

His arms tightened almost painfully around her. “Never,” he muttered fiercely, “not while I live.”

“What’s happening between us, T-Bone? I… nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I hurt inside when you’re gone.” Talon had tucked her head into the curve of his shoulder again, as if was easier to talk when she wasn’t looking at him. He could understand that, gazing into those lambent green eyes made the words stick in his throat too. “I think it’s called love at first sight. I wouldn’t know. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before, either.”

“I don’t care what you call it. So long as you’re here.”

“Always.” Content to hold her again, he settled more comfortably into the pilot’s seat, and pulled her around so he could sit with her cradled in his lap and still see her lovely face. Deciding they needed a moment to recover from the soul-shaking admission they had both endured, he cast about for something commonplace to talk about.

“So how’s apartment hunting going?”

She gagged inadvertently in response. “Awful! You wouldn’t believe what apartments in this city are going for. Not to mention I couldn’t live right in the city anyway. I need green growing things around me. Plus I like a bit of wildlife about the place. You know, so I could hang a birdfeeder and watch the birds in the morning. I’m beginning to think I should quit looking to rent, and find a place that fits my criteria and buy it.”

“Can you afford to do that? Property’s expensive right now, thanks to Mayor Manx.”

A shrug. “I have a small trust fund, I could certainly negotiate a property loan with one of the local banks. But I haven’t found anyplace I’d like well enough to buy, either, so it’s kind of a moot point. I have another meeting with a new seller tomorrow. He’s supposedly got some property on the outskirts of town that he hasn’t been able to unload, that’s about what I want. I might be able to pick it up cheap if it’s at all decent.”

“Uummm…”

A smile twitched Talon’s mouth at his non-answer. “If we’re through making casual conversation, would you kiss me?” “Willingly.” All he had to do was turn his head slightly to reach her, and as their lips met again, all conscious thought fled from his mind. An unknown time later, the autopilot beeped, rousing them from the sweet trance they had been enmeshed in.

“We’re there.” T-Bone mumbled, nibbling along the curve of her jaw.

“Where’s there?” She asked, reluctantly removing her arms from around his neck.

“I have something I want to show you. Come on.” Flipping the autopilot off, he pulled back on the control yoke and let the craft bob to the surface. The water sheeted off the heavy plexiglass of the main viewscreen, revealing a deserted beach. T-Bone reached up over his head and with a grunt, threw the wheel sealing the overhead hatch around. It clanked open with a metallic clang, spattering them with a few drops of seawater. Lifting himself up onto the hull, he extended a paw back to Talon and she shinnied through the hatch quickly. Gathering her up in his arms, he kicked the hatch closed.

“Is it safe to leave it like that? The current won’t sweep it away?”

“Naw, it’s got an auto setting that will hold it in place ’til the pilot comes back. Razor does good work.” Bracing himself, he took a couple of quick steps and leaped the half-dozen yards to the beach in one jump. Talon’s arms tightened around his shoulders, and she squeaked as they hit the beach sand with a thump. Giggling, she let herself slip back to the sand.

“That was fun.” Looking around, she realized they were on a very small island. The sharp point of a volcano peak rose above them, but judging from the cloak of thick foliage shrouding the peak, the volcano had been dormant for decades. The sandy beach they were standing on curved around out of sight, but Talon would have bet cash the whole island wasn’t more than a mile or two across. “Where is this place?” “Kat’s Paw Island. It used to be an old Enforcer targeting ground, but it’s the breeding ground for some weird species of seal, and the city declared it an endangered species preserve a few years back. Nobody ever comes here.”

“So no worries about being hassled.” She tipped a gamine’s impish grin at him, and twined her fingers through his. “Very clever.”

“I thought so.” Grinning irrepressibly back at her, he led her up to where the heavy undergrowth met the beach sand, and pushed his way into the brush. “There used to be a path up to the volcano bowl here a while back.” He eventually found it more by default than anything else, and Talon was helpless with stifled giggles as she trotted along in his wake. As they scrabbled up the slope of the old volcano, the tumbled, overgrown path finally gave out high on the peak, and the gaping mouth of a lava bore opened almost directly in front of them. T-Bone took a small flashlight from his pocket, and reached for Talon’s paw again. “Stay close behind me,” he warned, “I haven’t been through here in a year or two, and rockslides are pretty common.”

“Ok.”

Crouching a little to fit in the low tunnel, T-Bone led her through cautiously, shining the flashlight’s beam on the fallen rocks scattered on the smooth flow of the tunnel’s floor. A circle of faint moonlight marked the tunnel’s exit, and T-Bone straightened up with a grimace as he stepped out into the night. Talon sucked in her breath with a wide-eyed expression of awe as she looked around. They were inside the volcano bowl itself, and the moonlight fell on a perfectly circular lake in the center of the crater. The center of the lake bubbled, and in the faint moonlight Talon could see straight to the sandy bottom, the water was so clear. The crater was lined with tropical flowers shining palely in the darkness, hung thick on vines that had completely overgrown the cliff sides.

“It’s beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Letting go of T-Bone’s hand for a moment, she picked her way down the slope to reach the water’s edge. The ground around the lake was thick with a heavy green moss that felt like velvet under her feet. Kneeling down, she dipped her fingers in the water and found it delightfully cool.

“Tell me it’s safe for swimming.”

“It is,” he answered, hunkering down beside her, and tucking a flower he’d picked into her hair. “The water bubbles up from an underground spring. It’s so clean you can drink it straight from the lake.”

Gazing back over her shoulder at him, her eyes sparkled with mischief. “Brave enough to go skinny-dipping with me?”

“That hardly takes courage. Just good sense.”

She swatted playfully at him in mock-anger, and he caught her wrist and pulled her off balance, so she had to catch herself against him.

“Uuummm… as long as I’m right here…” Leaning against him, she fastened her mouth over his, and let her body go lax as that enticing purr rumbled against his chest again. T-Bone felt his blood heat with her unabashed, hungry desire, and he let his paws slide back up under her shirt and stroke the fine lines of her back. The purring upped a notch as she stretched under his hands, the smooth ripple and play of her lean muscles under his fingers driving him crazy. He let himself fall back on the soft moss, pulling her on top of him, all but unable to think as Tally wrapped her legs around his waist. She sat up on his chest for a moment, and pulled the silk ribbon securing her hair loose, letting it tumble over him in a heavy, thick cloud. Her face framed by the long, white-gold mass, she lowered her mouth to his with exquisite slowness, her green eyes glowing, her claw-tips catching in his g-suit harness and pulling him closer.

He ran his hands through her hair, drawing in the dizzy sweet scent of her tumbled mane, the beauty of her making his heart pound painfully. When it got to be too much to bear having her body pressed so close to his, he rolled onto his side, catching her slim form and easing it down beside him.

“I need a break, beautiful. Or I’m not going to be able to be a gentleman any more.”

“We do seem to have trouble stopping, don’t we?” She stroked his whiskers with gentle fingers, her eyes reflecting back the moonlight. “I think it’s because neither of us wants to.”

He drew her fingers to his lips and kissed them. “What’s between us is awfully strong. Let’s take it a step at a time.”

“Agreed.” A hopeful look sparked in her eyes. “Can we still go swimming? That’s pretty tame.”

He couldn’t help himself; he laughed out loud, and hugged her tight. “Whatever you say.” She sat up, that same mischief sparkling in her eyes. “Turn your back,” she instructed firmly. T-Bone obediently rolled over and contemplated the crater wall for a few minutes as various pieces of clothing hit the moss next to him. A faint splash, accompanied by a musical laugh, warned him she was already in the water. Rolling back over, he feasted his eyes on her. She was floating shoulder-deep in the water, her back to him, with her long hair floating on the water behind her. As she looked coyly back over her shoulder at him, she sank beneath the water like she was born to it, even the trailing banner of her hair finally disappearing under the water.

Shrugging out of his harness, he peeled off his g-suit, and the fire-retardant underwear he and Jake had managed to retain from their Enforcer days. His hands stilled for a minute as he lifted his hands to his mask, then with a determined gesture, he pulled it off and tossed it to land on top of the rest. He didn’t bother with testing the water, he just walked to the edge of the rock shelf that jutted out into the water a couple feet below the surface and dove in. Surfacing, he shook the water from his eyes and looked around for Tally. Even as he spotted a blond gleam in the water below him, two hands fastened on his lazily kicking ankles and yanked him under the water with surprising power.

Suddenly remembering he had watched her rip Molly Mange’s arm off with nothing more than her two hands, he wondered how someone so lithe and slim could be so strong. His lady… the thrill that thought sent through him warmed him all through, …his lady was altogether remarkable. And all his. Even as he turned under the water and made a grab for that rapidly disappearing flash of gold, he decided he was going to have to do a lot of good deeds to make up for the gift fate had sent him.

They sported in water for a good three hours, playing catch-as-catch-can, splashing, and exploring the underwater crevices of the lake together. T-Bone had to admit he had an unfair advantage, his darker fur didn’t stand out in the water like a flare the way hers did, and his black stripes acted like natural camouflage. Her pale cream fur outlined her like a flame underwater. He was nowhere near the swimmer she was, though, she moved through the water like it was her natural element. He caught himself making a mental note, the next time he caught Dr. Viper, to thank him for turning him into a mutated frog so he’d learned to swim… Tiring, Talon flipped on her back to float like oil on water. T-Bone’s breath clogged in his throat at the fine lines of her bare body. Her fur plastered flat to her skin, it outlined every muscle, every tendon, the graceful curve of her breasts, the tiny dark nipples usually hidden in her fur, the mass of her hair floating like seaweed, her long legs and delicate ankles… he filled his eyes with the sight of her, more than happy to watch her all night. All night… he suddenly wondered what she would look like while sleeping. Letting himself drift closer to her, he lifted a paw and traced the paths the water had left in her belly fur, wishing he had known her long enough to feel free to touch her wherever he pleased. “What are you thinking, with such a serious expression on your face?” She had turned her head to one side, and was watching him as she floated. “You have a very nice face, by the way.”

“Nothing I can say without sounding like a lecherous pig,” he answered bluntly.

Her body disappeared back under the water as she dissolved into giggles again, and she lifted her head and let herself drift into him, as she wrapped her legs around his waist and twined her arms around his neck. “Nobody makes me laugh the way you do. Do you know how special that is?”

“I know how special you are, does that count?”

“I don’t think so.” She blew her breath in a whuff, and kissed him quickly. “While I hate to be the one to break up this party, I think that’s the false dawn peeking over the horizon. We should probably go.”

“Probably. Go ahead, I want to check something.” Releasing him a trifle reluctantly, she slipped through the water like an eel, as he stroked back across the lake to the place where part of the cliff had collapsed recently and fallen away. Sure enough, the vines that cloaked the interior of the volcano bowl had reseeded themselves there, with small sprigs curling up from the rocks and earth. Carefully working a small tendril loose from the rest, he loosened its roots and gently gathered up a handful of dirt around it.

Swimming slowly with the small rootlet cupped in his paws, he made his way back across the lake to where Talon was sitting on the mossy lakeshore, clad in the tank top she seemed to wear in place of a bra, and a pair of skimpy thong underwear. She was wringing water out of her hair, and as he watched, she bound it up into a loose ponytail with her hair-ribbon. “What have you got there?” she said curiously, as he struggled for a minute to get a leg up on the rock shelf that jutted out into the water without his hands to pull himself up. Pulling himself to a sitting position, chest-deep in water, he held up the little plant.

“You said you liked green growing things. Think you can get this little guy to grow?”

Bright, unshed tears turned her eyes into liquid emeralds. “You darling… that you would think of this…” wading into the water, she held out her hands, and cradled the sprig with infinite tenderness. “I’ll need something to wrap the roots and dirt in to keep them damp until I can get it home.”

“Use my mask, I don’t need it. I’ve got a couple of spares.” Talon gave him a very sharp look, as if she knew exactly what a gesture of trust that was for him, but merely nodded and walked over to the remaining pile of their clothes. Picking up his mask, she walked back over to the water’s edge as he pulled himself the rest of the way out of the lake. She knelt down by the lake edge, and soaking the mask with water, wrapped it around the ball of soil, carefully swathing it so the roots would not be crushed. He had pulled his g-suit back on as she tended to the plant, swearing at the difficulty of pulling cloth over damp fur, and deciding the harness was too much trouble, he simply picked it up to carry back. “Hold this for a minute, would you please?” She held out the bundle of cloth, and he held it gently in one hand as she shinnied back into her jeans. The way her hips moved and her tail twitched as she wiggled the stubborn cloth up over her legs was almost enough to make him reconsider their decision to take it slow, and he wondered how long his self-control was going to hold out. Handing her back the little plant, he took her hand and they scrambled up to the lava-bore tunnel, and Talon turned back one last time before they entered it. “We can come back soon, can’t we?” The longing tone of her comment made him squeeze her hand. “As often as you like,” he promised. She smiled up at him as if he’d given her the crown jewels of Queen Callista. His and Jake’s idle rivalry over Callie was certainly over, he mused. It had never been anything other than a game for him anyway, as he’d always known Jake liked Callie a lot better than he did. Callie would be better for Jake anyway, if his buddy would ever get off his tail and do anything. Looking over at Tally, he shook his head as he realized it had taken a full-on battle to get him to get up the courage to speak to her. Maybe he should be sending the Metallikats a thank-you note too… Talon laughed suddenly, looking over at him, and wrinkled up her nose in a droll gesture he was fast becoming very attached to. “What?” he asked, startled by the way she sometimes seemed to be able to read his thoughts right out of his head.

She shook her head. “That’s for when we know each other a little better.” Wondering what the hell she’d meant by that, he led her into the tunnel and back to the Hydro-kat, still rocking in the breaking waves. Handing her his harness, he gathered her up in his arms again and got a running start this time. His impact made the Hydro-kat heave underfoot, and he fought for his footing for a minute before he set Tally down. He heaved the hatch open, and dropped down into the craft, holding up his hands to take his harness and her plant. She slid down in behind him, and flipped the hatch closed easily, spinning the wheel to seal it against the seawater’s pressure. Plopping down in the co-pilot’s seat this time, Talon was studying the controls with great interest. “Do free lessons come with the ride? This looks like fun,” she commented, reaching out a hand to take back his harness and hang it over the back of his seat, and tucking her plant-bundle into a unused cranny of the control panel. He gave the hatch wheel a tug to make sure it was properly closed, but that odd strength of hers had done the job nicely. “Sure, if you like.” A bit surprised at her interest, he began explaining the various controls. The rest of the trip back was occupied by her rapid-fire questions, and by the time they reached the breakwater, he was wondering if she couldn’t pilot the damn thing better than he could. She did seem to take to anything that involved water. He couldn’t wait for Jake to finish the new mods to the Turbokat so he could take her for a ride. He had a probably unflattering urge to show off his flying to her. He stopped the Hydro-kat a few feet below the waterline and used the periscope to make sure there was no one on the jetty to see her emerge.

“All clear,” he turned to Talon and found her holding her tiny rootlet with a determinedly cheerful expression plastered on her face like an ill-fitting mask. “Are you busy Friday night?” Two days away seemed like an eternity, but he’d stuck Jake with all the work on the Turbokat for three days straight, trying to figure a way to get to her, and a lot of the bodywork left to do required two sets of paws. She nodded, apparently not trusting her voice, and being careful not to crush her little plant, he drew her into his embrace and kissed her for a long moment. “Stay safe, beautiful.”

“You too.” He turned to the control panel and let the sub break the surface. He spun the wheel to open the hatch, and she climbed out lithely, only stopping long enough to stick her head back in and say, “Tell Razor thank you for making the locket for me, would you please?”

He nodded, not trusting his own voice, and she kicked the hatch closed behind her. Securing it with a tug, he checked the periscope to make sure she had reached the jetty safely, but she was halfway down the breakwater, and moving like a leaf in the wind as she leapt from boulder to boulder in the grey dawn light. He hid the Hydro-kat in its usual underwater cave, and as he made his way back up the long tunnel the Turbo-mole had cut to connect it to the underground hanger, he wondered if Jake was up yet. Somehow he knew Tally would be annoyed if he failed to give Jake her thank-you. Sure enough, Jake was bent over the workbench, patiently working away at the radar scrambler he was trying to upgrade. He looked up from his work as Chance walked in and began stripping off his g-suit, suddenly tired. He looked at Chance with amusement, noting his still-damp fur. “Have fun? I thought you didn’t like swimming.” Chance tossed the damp clothing on the floor to be washed, and shrugged disinterestedly. “I don’t. I could definitely get to like skinny-dipping, though.”

Jake burst out laughing. “You old tomkat! When do I get to meet this bravest of kitties?” “Soon’s you like, but I’m not seeing her again ’til Friday. Tally wanted me to tell you ‘thank you’ for the locket, she loves it.”

“Tell her she’s welcome. I probably oughta make Callie one, I’ve gotten a lot better at micro-circuitry since we gave her that first beeper.”

“Not a bad idea.”

“Ask ya a question, buddy?”

Chance shot him a weird look. “Since when do you have to ask?”

“Since you picked up a lady friend. Where’s your mask?”

“I loaned it to Tally. Thanks for reminding me.” Pulling up the zipper on his coveralls, he walked over to the storage lockers and rummaged around until he dug out a spare mask, which he tossed into his locker.

“Wow,” was Jake’s only response. “You really trust her, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I do. But it’s not like she knows Chance Furlong exists, and in a city this size, what’s the odds she’s gonna end up way the hell out here?”

“Good point. Why don’t you go grab an hour’s sleep before we start for the day?” Jake turned back to his workbench and hid his grin until Chance was heading back up the stairs. He couldn’t wait to meet this girl. Anybody that could get identity-paranoid Chance to extend that kind of trust to anyone but him was somebody he absolutely had to meet. And probably take notes from.

***

Friday morning, Talon was strolling out of the elevator when the gangly desk clerk waved her over again. “Ms. Astra! Another message for you!”

Smiling indulgently, she walked over to the desk and leaned her elbows on it. “What is it this time?”

“An envelope. But that same messenger dropped it off again.” He reached under the counter and produced a sealed envelope, again with only her first name written on it. Talon reflected she was really going to have to remember to tell T-Bone her full name one of these days. “Thank you. I’ll be checking out Monday.”

The clerk’s face fell. “Leaving town?”

“No. I made an offer on a piece of property on the outskirts of the city and it was accepted. I’m going to sign the papers now.”

“Well, it was nice having you.” The gawky youth handed her the envelope, and turned back to his books.

Sauntering out into the sunshine, she gasped as the torrid heat hit her like a hammer blow. Hailing a taxi, she told the hack, “City Hall, please.”

“Whatcha wanna go thar for, Missy?” The grizzled old driver asked her.

“I have an appointment with Mayor Manx.”

“Do yers’lf a faver, Missy, and don’ trust tha’ ol’ snake in t’grass atall. Deal w’ th’ purty girl depitty. She’z a strait shoot’r.”

Tally winked at him. “I’ll remember. And thanks for the tip.” Slitting the envelope, she found another sheet of paper with ’16th hole, Megakat Springs golf course, sunset. Wear sturdy clothes.’ Leaning back against the cushions, she smirked smugly. All in all, the day was shaping up to be a real winner.

***

Back at the salvage yard, Jake was finishing up the last of the day’s work when he noticed a cloud of dust coming up the old city access road. Recognizing Callie’s car, he waved a hand as she pulled in. Jake’s sometimes painful shyness was a subject of good-humored ribbing between himself and Chance, but he sometimes wondered if a little of it wasn’t a reaction to Chance’s always cheerful self-assurance. Still, with Chance gone, there wasn’t much to do but talk to Callie himself, instead of hovering in the background the way he preferred. Anyway, he certainly was less tongue-tied when it was just him and Callie together, which was pretty weird when you thought about it. He’d’ve thought it would be the other way around. “Over here, Ms. Briggs!”

“Hi, Jake.” Callie got out of her car, waving a hand in front of her face in a futile attempt to generate a cooling breeze. “Where’s Chance? I’ve got some news for you two. You’re getting a new neighbor!”

“He’s gone. He’s got a date.”

Callie looked admiring. “Who’s the lucky girl?”

“She’s new in town, I haven’t met her yet. What do you mean, a new neighbor?”

Callie looked around theatrically, as if for suspicious characters lurking in the bushes, and then whispered gleefully, “Somebody totally put one over on Mayor Manx!”

Jake grinned as he wiped his hands on a grease rag. “This I gotta hear.” Screwing up his courage, he asked, “Want to come inside? It’s a little cooler and I was about to quit for the day.”

Nodding, Callie followed him towards the garage, and let out a sigh of relief as the temperature dropped a dozen degrees as they entered. “Oh, that’s better.”

Jake pulled open the refrigerator and held up a can of milk, and when Callie nodded again, he went to the cupboard for a glass.

“Leave it in the can, please! It’s colder that way.” She accepted the can gratefully and pressed it against her forehead.

Dropping into the kitchen chair, after holding one out for Callie, he took a long drink of his own milk and gestured for her to continue, figuring he couldn’t sound like an idiot if he didn’t say anything. Didn’t girls like the quiet ones? He wondered abruptly if Chance’s new girl would be easy to talk to.

“Well,” she said, leaning forward conspiratorially, “you know that piece of property that abuts the salvage yard on the water? The one that the Mayor hasn’t been able to unload since it was zoned for wetlands and couldn’t be commercially developed?”

Jake nodded casually enough, but internally he tensed. The parcel of land she was talking about was directly behind the salvage yard, and both the Hydro-kat’s underwater cave and the access tunnel to the underground hanger were directly under the property. The only building on it was a large warehouse down on the shore, that had been used for storage of excess property by a shipping concern that gone bankrupt years ago.

“The kat who bought it got it for practically nothing, since it had been on the city’s back tax rolls for so long. The building’s in decent shape, but because the only road in is the old city access road, nobody wanted to buy it.”

“Because the Mayor won’t cough up the money to have the old road widened and repaved, and you can’t cut a new road, because of the wetland zoning regulations.”

“Exactly. But it turns out that all she wanted was to live there. She’s going to turn the old warehouse into 3 huge apartments, one on each floor, and keep the top floor for herself! She’ll make a mint on rent, and since that’s a residential, not a commercial, use of the property, the zoning laws don’t apply to her at all! And the road’s fine for cars.”

Jake looked baffled. “Why the heck would anyone want to live out here?”

Callie gave him a look like he was insane. “Are you crazy? I told her I’d take the second-floor apartment the minute it was ready! I made her promise me first dibs! I did everything but twist her arm.”

Jake looked even more confused. “Why would you want to live out here?”

Callie looked heavenward for patience. “You’ve lived out here too long. You take it for granted. To the center of town from here is less than twenty minutes up the access road. It’s never crowded, and nobody comes down here but the salvage delivery from the city dump three times a week. It takes me longer to get to City Hall from my apartment in the city that it will from here, and here it’s quiet. No sirens, no honking horns, no noisy neighbors… just birds, and wildlife, and peace. I can’t wait to get out of the city.” Draining the rest of her milk, Callie looked over at him, a bemused expression on her face. “Think you can stand to have me as a next-door neighbor?”

“Glad to,” he answered hastily, “I guess I never really thought about it. This place is…” he trailed off, not sure how to vocalize his and Chance’s reaction to being exiled to this place by Feral’s vindictive whim.

Callie surprised him by leaning across the table and squeezing his hand gently. “Sometimes it isn’t what life throws at you that’s important, Jake. Sometimes what’s important is what you throw back.” She stood up. “Thanks for the milk. Tell Chance’s new girl she’s lucky. And remember, Jake, a diamond’s still a diamond even in a dung-heap. Or a salvage yard. You might think about that the next time you look in a mirror. Any kitty with a brain would be pleased and proud to call either of you her tomkat. Believe me, I know.” With that parting shot, she strolled out the door, leaving Jake sitting at the table, staring at her empty can, mind in such a whirl he could only gape after her in complete disbelief.

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