“How do I look?” Preening like a peacock, Talon was dancing four inches above the actual surface of the floor, glowing faintly blue as she did so, out into the living room where Chance and Jake were rather impatiently waiting for Callie to arrive.
“A little conspicuous. The dancing is fine, but we do stay mostly attached to the floor. And the whole glowing thing is undeniably out of the ordinary.” Chance beckoned her over to the couch.
“I meant the outfit.” She spun a last few feet over to the couch, and turned a back flip to land light as a feather in Chance’s lap, the silvery blue glow fading away.
“Great colors. Where’d you get that stuff?” Jake asked admiringly. It was a worthwhile question. Talon was attired in light blue jeans that fit just snugly enough to be enticing, slightly scuffed leather boots in a deeper blue shade, (that looked wonderfully comfortable), a long-sleeved white silk shirt, and a beautiful blue leather jacket embroidered and beaded in a subtly complex design that seemed to suggest moving water and shifting currents. Her hair was braided in a dozen long, light braids down her back, and twisted in the braids were tiny strands of multicolored blue and pearly-white ribbons that fluttered as she moved.
A wicked expression danced gleefully in her green eyes, a look Jake was beginning to realize usually heralded something utterly impossible in normal reality. But then normal reality, the ironic thought drifted across his mind, took a sharp left back there a ways, didn’t it? He’d never had so much fun in his life, and he sure hoped it didn’t stop now. and he’d been worried that he’d be bored since Chance got a girlfriend!
“I cheated,” she confessed sheepishly, sitting up in Chance’s lap and running an arm around his shoulders. “I popped back to my Ship. I have a whole native wardrobe on data file there. Ship can whomp up whatever it is I need, suitable for every climactic variation on the planet and everything. But does it look good? To be truthful, I’m not all that used to wearing a body. Coordinated attire is kind of a new concept for Ship and I. You’ll tell us if we ever get it wrong, won’t you?”
“You’re doing fine so far, ” Chance took advantage of her proximity to collect a kiss when she finished, and Jake was about to laughingly retreat to the kitchen for a minute when all three caught the sound of a car.
“That’s Callie,” Jake said.
They headed out the kitchen door into the yard, and Callie pulled up with a flourish in front of them. She hopped out of the car and leaned on the roof, calling “All set?”
“What you see is what you get!” Talon replied. Callie shot a look at Jake like she was dying to say something but didn’t quite dare, and Talon, walking around to her side of the car and interpreting the look without difficulty, quipped softly, “Oh, go ahead and say it.”
“Do I get to keep it at the end of the night?” Callie asked in an undertone, meant for Talon’s ears only, and the two of them looked at each other and burst into a fit of giggles. “I like you!” they chorused together.
“You realize we’re going to be a pocketful of trouble as neighbors.” Talon said over her laughter.
“I certainly hope so.” Callie’s eyes sparkled with a look of delighted anticipation, as if she were dreaming up pranks now.
“Did you ever get the feeling you were outgunned and outclassed before you even started?” Chance asked Jake rhetorically.
“Right now.” Jake nodded assent. “These two are dangerous apart. Together. aren’t you glad it’s us?”
“You have no idea,” he replied. “If I can interrupt the female bonding,” he said in a louder tone, “we males were wondering where we were going.”
“We,” Callie said mock-severely, “are going on a picnic in the mountains to watch the meteor showers. They’re supposed to be particularly bright for the next few nights. The picnic basket is in the trunk, and you, hotshot,” she tossed him the keys, “can drive. Tally and I are going to sit in the back and talk girl-talk, and if you’re very nice, we might let you join in.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Chance snapped her a salute, and Jake, shaking his head and chuckling under his breath, opened the front passenger door and got in. The ride up to the mountains took nearly two hours, but the time flew as the pair in the back seat shamelessly teased the pair in the front. Jake was surprised at how relaxed and witty Callie was, and realized that he’d never once seen her just being herself. Not being Deputy Mayor, not having to save her city from immanent destruction, not having to be brave enough for any three normal people, just being herself. He mulled it over, not sure if he’d ever really known her at all. Well, he was, at long last, going to get a chance to find out for himself. Wishing he could thank Tally for what she was inadvertently doing for him, he remembered maybe he could.
*Thanks.* He knew he didn’t have to say why, or what for.
*You’re welcome, Jake. And I love you, too.*
“Oops! We’re going to miss the turnoff, Chance, slow down.” Callie leaned forward, and pointed off to the right of the dirt road they’d been following for the last half-mile. Nodding, Chance eased the car up the track, which petered out into a small grassy meadow high on the mountainside, completely surrounded by the massive trunks and overhanging canopies of old-growth forest. Talon opened the car door and stepped out into a sky that literally went on forever. It was a little past sunset, and the stars were beginning to come out, filling the vault of the sky a hundred times more brightly than could be seen from the city. The meadow was a small pocket of pastel green in the deep browns and emeralds of the trees, and the wildflowers scattered in the high meadow grasses were still faint, dim splashes of color. The wind touched her face lightly, and Talon felt an almost overwhelming urge to kick free of the planet’s gravity and let the wind carry her aloft.
“Callie. how did you ever find this place? It’s incredible.”
Callie propped her chin on her hands, resting in the edge of the open car door, and answered dreamily, “I found it when I was a teenager, and I’ve come back all my life. It’s always exactly like this, as if it were waiting for me, because it knows I love it.”
Chance, standing, as usual, with his arms around Talon, regarded at her with a surprised expression. “I never knew you were a closet romantic, Callie.”
A meditative smile came back at him. “It doesn’t go with the suit, so it’s not something I show very often.”
“You’re not wearing a suit,” Talon pointed out logically, and Callie’s thoughtful expression gave way to an endearingly practical one.
“Very true.” She shook her head quickly and threw Jake and Chance a smirk. “Anybody feel like dinner? `Methinks thou hast a lean and hungry look.’ See? I’m well-read, too.”
Laughing, Chance popped the trunk and handed out not only two picnic baskets, but also a huge red plaid blanket that looked as if it’d make a fair-sized tent.
“Spread it out by that rock, there,” she pointed to a smooth boulder near the middle of the meadow, “that way you can lean back and watch for the meteor showers without getting a crick in your neck.”
Once ensconced on the blanket, Callie unpacked an amazing variety of food from the two baskets that smelled, at least to the other three, several steps beyond mouth-watering. Talk was temporarily suspended in favor of eating, interspersed with expressions of delight and innumerable repetitions of `you’ve got to try this!’ Half an hour later, Talon voraciously decided in this respect a matter-body had it all over an energy-one. The ability to absorb ambient radiation didn’t come close to the fun of having taste buds. It all tasted so good! Having stuffed themselves replete, even Callie, who had dived in as greedily as the others, the foursome propped themselves against the giant rock as the sky obligingly streaked itself with brilliant light.
Deciding to try out their new bond a little more, Chance organized his thoughts, and reached along that faint line running from the back of his mind to the back of Tally’s. It was funny how fast you got used to someone else’s mind in yours. For something that sounded so horribly invasive, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. That faint pair of presences in his head was so comforting and reassuring he couldn’t imagine ever feeling lonely again in his life.
*That’s so sweet, I might vomit.* Ship’s sleepy thought drifted back, and Chance swatted at him mentally, amused he knew how to do that without bothering to think about it. *A little quieter, please, bro, some of us are trying to sleep.*
Talon picked up the conversation with them, a soothing mental touch stroking Ship’s worn-out mind back to sleep, but her teasing thought was for Chance. *Don’t worry about it, darling, you’ll get the hang of reaching one of us without disturbing the other quickly enough. You’re still very new at this, please remember.*
*I’ll remember. Question for you. is it me or are Jake and Callie awfully friendly all of a sudden? Jake’s sitting over there with his arm around her, and the Jake I know probably would have fainted dead away or had a heart attack before doing that before. Razor maybe, but Jake?*
*They do seem to have enjoyed a meeting of minds themselves, don’t they? None of our business, love, unless they choose to tell us. And why are you referring to Jake and Razor as two separate people? They’re not, you know. Jake is Razor, and Razor is Jake, so don’t get so wrapped up in keeping your `secret identity’ a secret you start getting that weird split-personality, jealous-of-yourself thing. You’d be surprised how many people in our situation, juggling two identities, get totally hung up on that.*
Remembering his and Jake’s conversation regarding Tally herself, he chuckled internally and was surprised to hear her mind-laugh ring along with his.
*He said that to you? My fan! I’m going to do something extra-nice for him for that.*
Surprised, he asked, *You remembered that with me?*
Another lively, caressing mind-laugh. *Of course, darling, I saw it mirrored in your mind as you remembered it. You are talking directly to me with your mind, so what you `think’, I’ll `see’. For some things it even works that way if we’re not actively communicating along the link, but when we are.well, maybe an explanation or two on how telepathy works is in order here.
As an example, I was asleep when you were telling Ship about how you and Jake became Swatkats, but since Ship and I are mind-linked, the information downloaded to my memory automatically, and integrated itself even as I slept. I woke up `remembering’ everything you’d told him. But that’s a special circumstance, Ship was, in effect, `remembering’ for both of us. You’ll learn how to do that later, but you’re picking up most of what you’re learning from Ship and myself on a subconscious level. Your new telepathic. I guess `sense’ is the best term, is watching and feeling everything Ship and I do on our two-way link through our three-way link. You’re learning all this way below the conscious level, but that doesn’t mean you’re not learning it.
But on an everyday level, you’ll have to be `talking’ to me for me to hear your specific memories, and I won’t `hear’ them unless you `think’ them while you’re `talking’ to me. At that, as we learn our way around each other’s minds better, our three-way link will eventually subsume Ship’s and my two-way link completely. Understand?*
*I `think’ so.* Chance was surprised to find telepathic puns got the same response as spoken ones, a disgusted mental groan and shudder.
*That was awful, darling.*
Intrigued by all this, Chance sent, *Can you enter my mind when I’m asleep?*
*Certainly enough to wake you up, or to `see’ what you were currently dreaming. Some particularly strong bond-mates have been known to hear each other’s dreams, or dream in parallel, but that’s not common. But you must understand this! Ship and I gave you access to our minds freely, and you gave us the same permission. That’s trust, and love, between us.
To enter someone else’s mind without their knowledge or permission is rape, pure and simple. A violation of someone’s mind is a thousand times more. horrible, invasive and traumatic than any violation of body. Mind-rape is one of the few capitol crimes intergalactic society has left. Death for the perpetrator, plain and simple. No excuses, no explanations. Death by the hand of the first galactic cop, or concerned citizen, for that matter, who catches up with them. There have been cases of relatives, lovers or friends avenging mind-rapes by killing the perpetrator, and it’s not a crime.*
*But you said I could conceivably learn to enter someone else’s mind using your powers, isn’t that what you just explained?*
*No. `Galactic cop’ training teaches us a lot of techniques that most telepaths don’t ever use in their lives. But sometimes we have to. it’s analogous to a doctor having to perform surgery to save the patient. We have to enter their minds to save their lives, or someone else’s lives; as in the case of spaceship wrecks, where an unconscious crew-member knows where life-pods with other hurt people are. But we access their minds very carefully, and limit our search to only the information we need to help, and we’re as gentle as we can be. Mind-rape is pawing through someone’s every thought, every memory, every feeling and emotion they’ve ever had, totally against their will. It’s sick, sick, sick, to violate anyone’s soul that way.*
Feeling the revulsion and disgust reverberating down their link, stringently shielded from the sleeping presence of Ship, Chance suddenly knew something. *You’ve seen it happen, haven’t you?* Pain, old and new, helpless anguish and remembered sorrow washed over him, and he tightened his arm around her.
*Yes, beloved, I. was present when the last mind-rape occurred, about three of your years ago. I saw what happened to a good cop, and a good friend, when he was ambushed by a rogue telepath. His ship-partner was murdered, and his mind was. ripped apart. Shredded. We never thought he could live. Most of his telepathic powers were burned out. To have to live mind-blind and reft of your ship-partner. most of us would have let ourselves die rather than live like that. I would have, if I’d lost Ship. But he was too stubborn and determined to die, and we tracked that rat-bastard down together and I cut him down and my friend cut him dead. And I was glad to do it.*
Heart-breaking sadness and old guilt tormenting his beloved, Chance gathered her up into his lap and hugged her close. *I’m so sorry, love.*
*It was all I could do. all I could do to ease his pain. and it wasn’t enough! He vanished after it was over, to kill himself, we think. Mind-blind the way he was, there wasn’t even any way to track him before he suicided. I failed him.I failed his dead ship-partner. Ship’s own cell-brother.*
Her agonizing self-condemnation lacerating her soul, Chance cushioned her misery with a sympathetic psychic blanket of reassurance and love, hardly aware of how or what he was doing, only knowing he had to do it.
*Ssshhh, you did everything you could, I know you did. And so does Ship.* Odd how he did know, and she could see the truth of it in his mind. *Easy, love, don’t blame yourself so hard. You can only do so much in this world. Or any other.*
*It hurts so much, sometimes! But you know, don’t you? You really do understand. You and Jake made that decision when you became Swatkats. To try and help, and accept that you couldn’t be everywhere or help everyone; but where you could help, you would, and to the Nova with what it cost you personally. How I love you, dearest! I couldn’t have wished for a better mind-mate. Always remember that, my own.*
*How could I ever forget?*
A wash of sorrowful amusement. *Don’t think a mind-link is going to solve every problem between two people, or three, in our case. Sometimes it just makes things harder, because you can feel how much you’re hurting the other person.*
*I think I’m going to have to see that for myself.*
*Ugh. Can we at least put it off as long as possible?*
*I didn’t mean us.*
*You know any other telepathic triads?*
*One last thing, beloved, that you should know. Just because you and I and Ship share our lives, and our minds, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have secrets from each other. There are some `galactic cop’ things I can’t share with you, or Ship, and as close as you and Jake are, there are things about him you know that I have no right to know without his permission. There are things about Ship’s species they don’t share with anyone, not even their ship-partners. There are going to be personal things that you’re not comfortable sharing with me. Everyone needs a little corner of their minds to themselves, and other people’s secrets are not ours to share. Ok?*
*If you say so.*
*I’ll parrot your own words back at you, and tell you, `Just take it a step at a time.’ We’ll all do fine. Was that a raindrop?*
Chance, looking up at the sky, got a fat, wet splat right in the face, and he and Talon jumped to their feet as thunder cracked behind them.
“What the heck? Where’d this storm come from? The sky was clear not fifteen minutes ago!”
“Looks like we’re getting more than heat waves in the way of crazy weather. Run!’ Callie illustrated her point by grabbing whatever was in arm’s length and stuffing it in the basket nearest her, and Talon caught up the other one and followed suit. Chance and Jake bundled up the blanket as they tumbled off it, and all four ran for Callie’s car as the skies truly opened up. Chance snatched Talon and shoved her through the driver’s side door and skinned in after her, and Jake, slamming the trunk of the car down, hopped in behind Callie. All four stared out at the rain in amazement as brilliant white lightening arced overhead continuously, lighting up the whole mountainside.
“Two shows a night. Callie, you can plan our nights out any time you like! I am so impressed. what else can you do?” Talon’s laughing compliment, with its implicit assumption of more nights out to come, made both Chance and Jake blush this time, and Callie had to strangle a unholy shriek of laughter at the paralyzed expressions on their faces.
“Well, since you ask, and since we probably ought to get out of here, there’s this nifty new blues bar I stumbled across researching new businesses in the city. I guarantee you the bartender will make your very favorite drink, without asking, and make it exactly the way you like. Perfect every time. How’s that for a boast?”
Chance’s stupefied expression immediately gave way to one of challenge. “I’ll take that bet. Nobody ever makes a spiked lemonade like my gran’pa used to in the summertime. My brother wails about it every hot summer. I don’t wanna know what he’s going to be like this year.”
Callie’s smirk grew. smirkier. “Would you care to make a small wager on that, Chance?” she purred.
Talon gave her a raking look, and bit her lip in mirth. “Don’t do it, sweetheart. you’ll regret it! I know that expression.”
Chance merely gave her a sardonic oh-ye-of-little-faith-look, and asked equally sweetly, “What did you have in mind, Callie?”
“I’m going to be moving soon, and I’m sure I could use someone to fetch and tote for me on moving day. you know, the couch goes there, and the piano goes there, and the washer and dryer go over there.”
“All right, and if I win?”
Callie’s eyes gleamed, and her smirk acquired a scimitar edge. “You can name your price.”
Jake choked. “You really don’t want to do that, Callie, Chance has a warped sense of humor. I mean.warped.”
Callie ignored him, but her fangs showed slightly as her grin grew wider. “Is it a bet, Chance?”
“Bet.” He said firmly. They shook hands over the front seat and Chance turned to the wheel, kicking the engine over. “Where is this place?”
“There it is.” Callie leaned half over in the front seat and pointed to a quiet building down on the waterfront section of town that was currently undergoing an urban renewal under Deputy-Mayor Briggs’ auspices.
“Jeez, Callie, all this is happening because of you?” Talon gazed around in fascination, drinking in the numerous little improvements and revitalized touches in what once must have been a rather run-down section of the city.
Streets signs were straight and freshly painted, there were flowers in big stone planters on the street corners, the brick and cobblestone sidewalks were washed, all the streetlights worked, there was a small park, with functioning fountain and young trees and shrubs among a few old but neatly pruned giants, and the houses on the streets were being painted or had been recently repainted, with small neat gardens in front. There were a lot of kid-sized bicycles in those little yards, Jake noticed. This late at night, younger couples wandered along the streets, strolling by small businesses peering through the windows, most headed for the building Callie had pointed out, a rather sedate wood and stone affair with an overhanging second story.
“In a way. I arranged for a lot of low-interest homeowner’s loans for younger couples with children, and set up a program to do the same with the older store buildings for small business owners looking to expand out of the main commercial district. Then I got them to organize themselves into neighborhoods committees and petition the city for upkeep and beautification funds, and with the influx in new taxpayers into the district, they got increased attention from the Public Works Department.”
Talon gaped at her in blatant admiration. “Hell, yeah, all this is happening because of you! Nice going, girlfriend! You really earn your keep, don’t you? Why aren’t you Mayor, anyway?”
Chance pulled into the parking lot and looked back at Callie. “You know, I’ve always wondered that myself. Why don’t you run, anyway? You have to know you’d win by a landslide.”
Callie leaned back in the seat, a faint frown puckering her brow, studying Talon’s sincere admiration with a calculating expression. “You want to know the truth?”
Talon matched her gaze unhesitatingly. “I do.”
“Because Manx is an institution, and if I did take over now I’d spend so much time fighting his cronies and relatives I’d never get anything done. I have to weed out those bad apples gradually and replace them with competent people. But I have to do it so quietly nobody notices or thinks to stop me, or pays attention to how the old-boy network is withering away. Then, when I have honest, trustworthy people in positions to do some good, and back me up, I’ll ease Manx out and do it so casually nobody even blinks an eye. And then, all the old-money families like Steel and Feral who buy their way into every office and out of every screw-up are going to get the shock of their lives.” Callie’s eyes gleamed with a dangerous light and her fists clenched. “Then, I’m going to show them all how an honest politician handles their bribes and buy-outs.” She raked Chance and Jake with a scorching look. “Don’t think I don’t know how you two really ended up running the salvage yard.”
Talon shook her head, so lost in admiration at Callie’s grim determination she was speechless. Chance and Jake just plain stared, so flummoxed by this ruthless avenging angel behind Callie’s usual charming facade they didn’t know what to say.
Talon stretched out a hand over the seatback, her expression dead serious. “I’m with you, girlfriend. Count me in.”
Callie’s hand came up and clamped around hers. Jake and Chance swapped stares, each reading the other’s answer with the ease of long friendship, and piled their paws on top of their clasped hands. “Us, too.” Chance said for them both.
Callie looked at them and her look acquired that scimitar edge she’d shown for a moment earlier in the night. “Four together, then. Megakat City, watch out.”
Then the razor-edge was gone as if it had never been, and a sweetly rapacious look took its place. “In the meantime, Chance, I think we have a bet to settle.”
Talon smothered a grin. “You’re gonna be sorry.” she chided Chance.
“You think so?” He opened her door for her and offered her a hand gallantly. “We’ll see.”
“You said you knew that expression. You’ve only known Callie two days. How could you recognize her expression?”
Talon’s smile acquired the razor-edge Callie’s had worn, startling all three of the others. “I didn’t say I knew her expression. I said I knew that expression. I see it in the mirror sometimes, right before I do something really awful to someone.” She threw Chance a look that abandoned him to his justly deserved fate as they walked into the bar. “I warned you.”
Twenty minutes later, Chance put his head down on their table and admitted defeat. Upon arrival, they had secured the last remaining booth and proceeded to send Jake, a supposedly neutral party, to order four `House Specials’. The tall bartender had studied them quietly for a moment, acknowledging Callie’s apparently familiar presence with a half-smile. Then he had built four drinks of various colors and sizes, and sent Jake back over to the table with a set of instructions and a tray to carry the glasses. Jake had carefully handed them out, presenting Chance with a large frosty glass full of a faintly greenish-yellow liquid. Chance had stared at it in surprise, muttering, “It’s the right color. we could never figure out that color.” then he had sampled it. Shocked surprise had arced across his face, and he’d pinned the bartender with a dumbfounded look that the lean kat seemed to shrug off with a vague amusement. “It’s. perfect. It’s exactly right. How did he know? We didn’t know!”
Callie had yelped `yes!’ victoriously, and Chance’s forehead had clonked on the table at his own words. Talon and Jake didn’t bother to hide their hilarity, and as Chance lifted his head and acknowledged his defeat, he caught sight of a familiar face. Glad for something to divert the others, he commented, “Hey, isn’t that Lieutenant Feral over there?” Callie and Jake had looked up, and Talon, remembering she wasn’t supposed to have met Felina yet, assumed a carefully bland expression. “The pretty brunette in uniform with the white streaks in her hair? Is she a friend of yours? There aren’t any seats left at the bar, why don’t you invite her to join us? You can introduce me.”
Callie had given her a surprised look, but waved a hand, catching Felina’s attention, and she had headed over their table with the doubtful expression of someone who wasn’t sure if they were welcome. Talon nudged Chance to push in closer to the wall, and made room for Felina next to her.
“Hi, Felina.” Callie smiled at her in friendly fashion, and after a second’s hesitation she smiled back. “Won’t you sit down for a minute? I want to introduce you to a new friend of mine.” Felina sat down gingerly next to Talon, and accepted her open grin with greater confidence. “This is Talon Per Astra. She just moved to Megakat City. Tally, meet Lieutenant Felina Feral, the most daredevil pilot in the Enforcers.”
Talon offered a hand, and Felina shook it, her shoulders straightening at Callie’s flippant introduction. “Nice to meet you.”
“You too. I wondered if you were a pilot, I thought that looked like a flight suit. Just off-duty?”
Her casual question setting Felina at ease at last, she nodded with a face that made even Chance chuckle. “Night patrol again. I swear I do twice as many rotations on the night shift as any other kat.”
“Well, hop up for a minute and let me grab you a drink while I get another round for all of us.” Felina glanced over at the bartender, and if her fur weren’t so dark he couldn’t tell, Jake would have sworn she was blushing.
“Thanks,” she answered, sliding out for a second. Talon sauntered casually over to the bar, and waved a hand to catch the bartender’s attention, who was washing glasses down on the other end of the counter. He was a tall kat, he’d probably top Commander Feral by half a head, Talon estimated, and Feral was the tallest person she had met yet on this planet.
“Another round, miss?”
“Same as before, with one for the new addition too, please.” Gazing idly at a slightly off-color poem hung over the bar, Talon took momentary advantage of the fact that when you were a telepath it wasn’t always necessary to be looking at someone to be dissecting them right down to the subatomic level. The big kat was large in the heavy-bone-with-lots-of-lean-muscle-stretched-over-it way. There wasn’t a spare ounce of flesh on that frame, and yet the leanness of it fooled you into thinking he was smaller than he really was, as did the casual slump of his shoulders.
Other than that he wasn’t remarkable in any obvious way, blue jeans, brown leather vest, white t-shirt, pale brown pelt, straight, shiny black hair worn in a ponytail, and unobtrusive, observing brown eyes in a lean, angular, calm, kind face. His hands caught her attention, long, capable fingers with a thoroughly competent look to them. Hands that looked like they were made to hold musical instruments and effortlessly coax harmonies from them. Fingers that would always find the precise sore spot when they were kneading your back.
*Hello, R’n’o. You know, I was just thinking about you earlier tonight.*
*Not crying over me? I’m glad. It’s good to see you again, T’l’nn. How do you like the body?*
*It’s nice. Unobtrusive, yet very friendly-looking. The perfect bartender.*
*Yours is gorgeous. Ship’s design? I thought I recognized the fine hand of my favorite artist.*
*He did do some job on me, didn’t he? I’m still me but I’m a kat. I’ll never figure out how he did it.*
*When did you to figure out it was me?*
*When I saw your hands a second ago. I thought I sensed something when I walked in, but I wasn’t sure until I saw you up close, and those paws of yours clinched it. That musical personality of yours comes through no matter what.*
*What. are you going to do?*
*Nothing?* A wave of shocked disbelief.
*Nothing.* A wave of quiet reassurance.
A moment of silence.
*That’s a longer explanation. Do you care?*
*Not really. Not anymore.*
A longer pause, before he started again.
*Are we still friends?*
*That’s up to you. I’m still your friend. Are you still mine?*
A very long pause, this time.
*Well, that’s that, then.*
*No coincidence at all you got this planetary assignment, was there?*
*That big kat with the stripes is in love with you.*
*I know. The pretty police Lieutenant’s got a crush on you.*
*I know. Thanks, T’l’nn. You’ve always been my best friend.*
*You’re welcome, R’n’o. I always will be.*
“Here are your drinks, miss. Twelve-fifty.”
“Thank you. You’ve got a great place here.”
“Thanks. I’m putting in a proper stage for music later this week, you know, so people can come in and jam with the house band.”
“That so? I play keyboards myself.”
“Maybe you’d like to come in some night and play with us.”
“I’d like that.”
“See you then. I’m Reno, by the way. I own the place.”
“I’m Talon. My friends call me Tally.”
“What were you talking to the bartender about?” Chance took the tray of drinks from her hands and set it on the polished table, handing out glasses to Callie, Jake and Felina.
“Nothing much. He’s putting in a stage for music, and letting people sit in with the band. I might come and play a bit some night.”
“Do you play?” Felina took a sip from her glass as she said it, and then a somewhat longer drink. “This drink’s great. Just the way I like it.”
Callie looked smug. “They’re always like that. That’s why I come here. As poor Chance here found out. It’s like the bartender can read your mind.”
“His name’s Reno. He owns the place.” Talon tried her new drink, and found it, too, was just the way she liked it.
“Really?” Felina said, a tad too disinterestedly. “I’d never caught it before.”
“He seems like a nice guy. Nice place, too. You come here a lot, Felina?”
“Not for drinks, but I almost always stop in when I’m on night patrol. My apartment’s halfway up the block. They throw together a great roast beef sandwich for the regulars if you look particularly starved, and I can’t cook to save my life.”
“Me neither.” Talon shrugged helplessly. “I burn water.” She looked over at Callie curiously. “How about you?”
Callie looked a trifle embarrassed. “If we’re being truthful, I’m a great cook. I make a killer Roast Baron of Beef with horseradish sauce.”
Chance all but salivated on the table. “Really? My grandmother used to make that for me when I was a little kitten. I loved it.”
Callie chuckled in response. “Well, I know who to invite the next time I have a yen to make a mess in the kitchen.”
Felina finished her drink, and stood up reluctantly. “I hate to go, but I have dawn patrol in the morning, too.”
“What about your sandwich?” A deep, resonant voice slid into the conversation. All five turned to look at the bartender, who was standing immediately behind Felina with a roast beef sandwich. A sandwich, Chance had to admit, that looked absolutely delicious. Felina, who had nearly jumped through the ceiling when he spoke, seemed momentarily bereft of speech, and Talon, realizing she was tongue-tied, picked up the conversation without losing a beat.
“Oh, sit down, Felina. Another twenty minutes won’t kill you.” Talon flashed the bartender a dazzling smile. “Have you been introduced to Lieutenant Feral yet, Reno?”
“No,” he rumbled. “But I’ve noticed her around. Would you rather I wrapped it up for you?”
“No, I. I’ll. eat it here.” Felina got the words out in a rush, as she sat back down limply. “And thank you,” she tacked on hastily.
Reno nodded and set the plate down in front of her.
Callie, who by this time had caught on to the undercurrent between Reno and Felina, piped up, “So Tally said you were putting in a stage, Reno. Could you stay a minute and tell us about it?”
“There’s not much to tell,” but he pulled a chair over and sat down as Jake and Callie obligingly squashed a little closer together to make room. “Just enough room for a drum kit, and a set of keyboards, and a couple of stools for guitar players like me.”
Jake, who had been silent up to now, but following the conversation with great interest, asked, “How are you going to rig the power conduits for the monitor-speakers?”
“I hadn’t decided yet, I haven’t been able to find a sound board that.” and the conversation drifted off into arcane matters such as the correct distance to avoid feedback, and the voltage level required for optimum instrumental tone, and other things that the rest were just as happy to be completely ignorant of. Felina managed to get down her sandwich gracefully enough, and Talon quietly swapped glasses with her when no one was looking to give her something to wash it down with, rather than have to ask Reno for a refill. Felina shot her a covertly grateful look.
“I have got to go now.” Felina said again, looking unbelievably reluctant this time as she stood up.
“So should we.” Chance glanced over at the clock above the bar. “Don’t you have to close soon, Reno?”
“Yeah. Thanks for coming, all of you. I’d better close up. The sandwich’s on the house, Lieutenant.” He stacked the glasses and plate on the drink tray, and balancing it deftly, turned back to the bar. “Oh, yeah.” He set the tray back down and fished a folded piece of paper out of his vest pocket. “Chance, right? This is for you.”
Chance looked at it blankly. “What is it?”
“Spiked lemonade recipe. The secret’s in the syrup of violets.” Reno winked at him casually, and picked up the tray again.
As he walked away, Felina blurted out, “Reno? Thanks for the sandwich, and.”
He turned back to her. “Yes?”
“My name’s Felina.”
A slow smile lit his dark brown eyes. “Felina. Right.”
Callie, Talon and Felina swapped a three-way, slightly shamefaced, slightly conspiratorial grin as they all walked out.
A thoroughly rainy and dismal Tuesday the next week, the front door to Reno’s was cautiously pushed open, despite the `Closed for Renovations’ sign on the door, by two kats carrying a large, flat object some five by three feet, wrapped in industrial plastic, now dripping warm rain all over the sawdust-littered floor.
“Crud! He’s not here.” Jake wiped water from his face, and looked around for a light switch.
“I’ve got it. You know this’d be easier if you’d let me carry it with TK. Or if Chance were here, he’d make short work of this thing.” Talon shifted her grip on the slab, traced the electrical circuitry through the walls with a thought and flipped the appropriate relay with a quick telekinetic push. The overhead lights flickered on obediently.
“Let’s not be quite that obvious about your extra-terrestrial origin, but that light switch trick is nice. Could you teach me to do that? And why didn’t you go with Chance over to his parents’ for dinner anyway?” Jake quickly surveyed the barroom by the bright light, and jerked his chin at an empty pair of sawhorses. They lugged it over, stepping over scattered two-by-fours, power tools, a ladder, paint cans, brushes, with a fine layer of plaster dust coating everything.
“I’m not sure if you could pick that trick up. I could try and teach you if you like, telekinesis has been known to manifest in your race. It’s entirely possible you could if you tried.” Talon set her end of the bundle down with a sigh of relief. “Being matter has some disadvantages, too, doesn’t it? I didn’t know I had so many muscles to pull. For the life of me I can’t get used to sleeping in a gravity field.” She rotated her shoulder gingerly, wincing a little. “As for Chance’s parents, I don’t think I’m up meeting families just yet. Definitely not yet.”
“Get Chance to rub it for you tonight,” Jake advised, “That’ll help. Where do you suppose Reno is?”
“Hello?” Reno stepped out of the swinging doors leading to the kitchen, and immediately relaxed when he recognized them. “Hey, this is great, what are you two doing here?” The genuine friendliness of the greeting made Jake return the handclasp he offered just as warmly, and he clapped his other paw on Reno’s shoulder and declaimed, “We come bearing gifts! And an answer to your problem.”
An expression of martyrdom settled on Reno’s lean face as he released Jake’s paw. “You’re going to have to be more specific than that. All I have at the moment are problems! But should I open it now?” He eyed the sawhorses covetously. “It’s a nice big package. Do I want to unwrap it in all this dust?”
Jake frowned slightly. “Actually, no. Maybe I better just tell you. You remember you told me last week you were having trouble finding a board to wire into the old sound system?”
Reno grimaced. “Do I ever! But come on over to the bar and sit down while I scrounge us up a drink. I’m parched, and if you were lugging that thing, I bet you are too.” Leading them over to the only corner of the bar not currently in use as a workbench, he swiped off two barstools with a towel, and ducked under the bar to rummage in the coolers under the bartop.
“The only thing I have left that’s cold is ginger beer, can you manage on that?” He pulled out two bottles, popped the tabs, handed them to Talon and Jake and took out a third for himself, continuing the conversation while dropping despondently on a stool behind the bar.
“Everything’s done except the sound system. That’s the big problem. The sound system that the building came with is an old one, but it’s a really good old one; so if I could find a compatible board to hook up to it, I’d just leave it in. It runs great, and all the speakers are already wired into the walls.” He took a long swig off the bottle and rested his elbows on the dusty bar top. “Unfortunately, the system is so old, nobody anywhere has a compatible board I can buy. So it looks like I’m going to have to rip the entire old system out, buy a new one and install it from scratch. I’ll have to stay closed for another month at least, plus all the extra expense, and I can’t even buy a stock system as good as the old one, it was custom made when the place was built.” Reno drained the rest of his bottle sourly, looking as if he wished it were a double-bourbon instead. “Tell me you have a solution to this, please.”
“How about a Reynard Soundmaster XJB with the expandable memory board?” Jake said innocently.
Talon was very glad Reno had already finished his drink, or she’d have been wearing it from the look on his face at that comment.
“What? That’s exactly, exactly the board I need. My God, is that it?” He spun around on the stool to stare hungrily at the plastic-wrapped slab. “Tell me that’s it, please!”
“It sounded familiar when you told me about it before. So I went digging through the salvage yard. That one was in one of the old storage buildings, it was salvaged from the old Megakat Opera House when the city tore it down. I cleaned it up, tested out the circuits, fixed anything that didn’t work, and it’s all set to go. I’ll even help you install it if you like.” Jake leaned back on his stool, looking quite satisfied with himself.
Reno stared at him in sheer disbelief, then began to laugh, leaning on the bar and burying his face in hands. “Is there a next trick? Are you going to hand me the moon on a string? The treasure of Blackmane the pirate? The golden crown of Katchu-Pichu?” Lifting his head, wry amazed respect written across his features, he extended a hand back over the bar to Jake. “Thank you, Jake.”
Jake took the black claw-tipped paw and joked, “Anything for a friend of Callie’s. I’ll take a front row table on opening night for the rest of us and call it even.”
Reno accepted the tension-breaker with a grin of his own. “For you, the best table in the house, every night!”
“So, since we have a whole unoccupied evening, why don’t you two install that beast while I bring a bit of order out of this chaos?” Talon inquired crisply, surveying the mess with a disapproving expression.
“Yes, ma’am.” Reno snapped a crisp salute to her, and turned to Jake, “C’mon, I’ll show you the main breakers and where we’ll need to hook up the board.”
“Lead me to it. I’ll have it purring like a kitten in no time.”
By the end of the evening, the new sound board was wired in, Talon had the whole bar rearranged according to Reno’s new design, scrubbed spotless (Jake suspected the minute he and Reno were out if sight, she’d cheated shamelessly with her telekinesis, nobody could clean that fast), with all the instruments, amplifiers, mikes and monitors unpacked, set out on the newly varnished stage, and all the cables neatly untangled and plugged in.
“Ready for the big moment?” Reno stood in front of the soundboard. Talon, standing on the stage, checked the cable connections one last time, then gave Reno a thumbs-up.
“Hit it, Jake!” He yelled back.
“Here we go.” Back in the kitchen, Jake flipped the main circuit breakers on, and pushing the swinging doors open, walked over to where Reno stood in front of the newly installed soundboard.
“So far, so good.” He commented, holding up crossed fingers.
“Hit the power to the keyboards.” Talon requested. Stepping up onto the stage, she walked around behind the quad-deck of electronic keyboards she’d hooked up. Power hummed faintly through the speakers as she flipped the individual keyboards on and let the monitors warm up. Lifting one slight, graceful paw, she set a claw-tip on a white key. One piano note sounded clear in the silence. Studying the program configuration, she toggled several more switches and hit another key on the board above it. A drum strike echoed, then a quick run as one hand danced for a moment over the keys.
Looking up at the two of them, her eyes sparkled mischievously. “Do we dare give it a real test run?”
“We have to some time.” Reno and Jake each held up crossed fingers this time.
“Ok.” Her fingers danced over the lower right-hand keyboard, and a jazzy drum rhythm poured out. Hitting the `repeat’ key, she switched to the lower left-hand keyboard, and an understated bass riff joined the drum rhythm. Quirking another smile at the pair, she lifted slender fingers to the upper right-hand deck and a piano melody joined the other two. Her left hand picked up a counterpoint to the melody on the last keyboard, and a bouncy, lively blues tune rolled through the empty room.
“Hey, I know this one.” Reno chuckled, leaning on the board, then glanced over thoughtfully at Jake. “Hit the power to the first mike and the lead guitar, would you?” Sliding around the board, he leaped up on the stage and lifted a guitar off its stand. He snaked a foot around a stool and braced a hip on it, slipping the strap over his shoulder and flipping the monitor on with a toe-claw. “Play the intro again, Tally.”
Talon obligingly returned to the beginning, and as she picked up the main theme, Reno leaned over the mike and a clear baritone rolled out, picking up the vocals with his guitar blending perfectly with her playing. Jake’s eyes widened, as Talon laughed in sheer delight and tapped the backup mike over the keyboards. Hastily switching on her mike, Jake upped the guitar feed a bit to compensate, and leaned back in sheer amazement as her voice soared out in harmony with Reno.
Just down the street, a car pulled up in front of a brownstone apartment building, and Felina stepped out. Leaning back down, she gave her uncle a casual thanks for the ride home and waved as he pulled away. She turned to head up the stairs to her apartment, but her attention was caught by the faint sound of music. Most of the street was dark, shop windows closed for the night and rain spattering on deserted sidewalks. Glancing further down the street, her gaze sharpened at the light shining out of the windows at Reno’s. The `Closed for Renovations’ sign was still up, damp from the rain, but the lights were on. Fighting a quick, losing battle with herself, Felina trotted back down the steps and dashed out in the rain. As she nipped down the street, dodging from awning to awning to stay out of the downpour, a truck turned up the street behind her and pulled to a stop in front of the bar just as Felina reached the shelter of the overhanging eaves.
“Lieutenant Feral?” Chance peered through the rain at her as he slammed the truck door behind him and joined her under the eaves.
“Furlong, right?” Chance nodded. “What are you doing here?”
“Jake found some antique that Reno needs to finish fixing up the place. He and Tally came by earlier to drop it off. They weren’t home when I called the salvage yard, so I figured I’d come by and give them a ride. This rain’s the pits.”
“I know. the humidity makes my fur itch nonstop.” Felina rolled her shoulders in her uniform and twitched convulsively.
“Is the door open?” Chance put a hand out to try it, but Felina interrupted him.
“Give me a minute first, would you?” she asked, looking uneasy, but like someone who has made a resolution and means to follow it through no matter the personal cost.
Sensing something odd, Chance let his paw fall and regarded her curiously. “Sure, Lieutenant. What’s on your mind?”
“It’s about my uncle.” Chance’s face blackened, and Felina held up a paw to stop his angry retort. “Let me finish. I dug through the records surrounding your demotion in the Enforcers. My uncle.” Felina looked pained, but continued bravely, “.he really shafted you guys and I wanted you to know I don’t approve of what he did. That collar was yours and if it weren’t for my uncle you two would have brought DarkKat in. You got a lousy break you didn’t deserve and if I can help you get reinstated, I will.” She blew out her breath. “There, I said it.”
Totally blindsided by this admission, Chance gaped at her open-mouthed, then shut his jaw with a snap as he realized she was utterly serious. A series of emotions chased across his face; surprise, disbelief, and vindication, ending with a reluctant, rueful respect.
“Thanks, Lieutenant. That couldn’t have been easy to say.”
“It wasn’t. Look, I know you don’t have any reason to like a Feral, but could we be friends anyway?” Felina glanced away from him, a melancholy expression on her pretty face. “I don’t have many friends since I transferred here.” Substitute `any’ for `many’ and that statement would be closer to the truth, she admitted to herself. “Everybody’s either sacred stiff of my uncle or thinks I’m a fast ticket to promotion. Nobody wants to get to know me.”
Remembering all the times she had stuck up for them as the Swatkats, all the times her courage and nerve had helped them out of a tight spot, Chance felt ashamed he had never bothered to get to know her better before, risk or no risk.
“Friends. Felina?” He held out a hand, and a smile breaking over her face, Felina clasped it back.
“Friends. I hear you’re a hell of a pilot yourself.”
Chance looked torn between wanting to boast and not wanting to look like an arrogant jerk, but the first urge won out. “First in my class at the Academy.”
“Me, too. Whadda say we get in out of the rain, flyboy?”
Laughing, Chance reached for the doorknob, which turned under his hand and the two of them walked into a flood of music that flowed over them like silk as they entered. The music had prevented the trio inside from hearing them enter, and Chance and Felina stopped short, transfixed by the amazing music Reno and Talon were making.
They were a sight to see up on the stage, Talon standing behind the keyboards with her hair floating around her snapping with static, completely relaxed yet her body surging with energy at the effort of flying fingers dancing from keyboard to keyboard; the lovely lean muscles of her ribs and belly standing out against her tank top as she sang. Her face was transformed with the unearthly joy that musicians know when completely lost in the rapture of the music. Reno was leaning back on the stool, half-curled around his guitar wringing the utmost from the strings, eyes half-closed and an indecipherable expression on his face, a strange blend of half painful pleasure, half merciful relief.
Somehow, it was the juxtaposition of the two expressions on Reno’s face that gave Chance the sharp pang of jealousy the beatific joy on Tally’s face hadn’t, when he walked in and saw them playing together. She loves me, he reminded himself disgustedly, don’t be any more of a jerk than you have to be.
Talon was the first to catch sight of them, and waved a hand in greeting, not missing a note of the tune she was belting out, with fingers or lyrics, but the detached, exalted expression disappeared as she smiled lovingly at Chance. A tendril of gentle affection brushed lightly at the edge of his awareness, and he started across the floor toward her. Jake waved them over to the soundboard, but Reno, looking up and spotting Felina, drew a claw across his throat, and the sound died away as the two stopped playing. Talon let her arms drop back to her sides with an expression of relief.
“I’m out of practice.”
She reached the edge of the stage just as Chance did, and he put his paws around her waist, lifting her down off the stage into his arms for a hard hug.
“Hey, Beautiful. That was incredible!”
“Yes, it was!” Reno affirmed. “You’re new in town, right, Tally? Tell me you don’t have a job yet!”
Talon, standing in the circle of Chance’s arms, looked over at him quizzically. “No, I don’t. Why?”
“Come work for me! With the money Jake saved me with not having to buy a new sound system, I can even afford to pay you decently. You’re the best musician I’ve heard since I opened this place. Please come work for me!” Reno’s pleading expression was comical, but so obviously sincere that Talon was nonplussed for a moment.
*Don’t you think you’re overacting a bit?* she `pathed amusedly.
*Screw you. You haven’t heard what they call a musician in this town. I’ve met Skrulls with better voices.*
Talon looked at Chance, then Jake, then Felina, noting the genuinely impressed looks all of them wore. “What do you three think?”
“Do it!” Jake said immediately. “You two are incredible.”
“You blew me away,” Felina replied, “I say go for it.”
“Can I come watch you every night?” Chance leered at her gleefully, “if I can it’s more than fine with me!”
Talon threw up her hands. “It’s unanimous, then. Yes, Reno, I’d love a job. It’ll beat hell out of working in an office.”
Reno cheered, and after a second, the rest joined in, even Talon.
Disclaimer: SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron is copyright to Hanna-Barbera Cartoons Inc. All Rights Reserved. © 1995. All other characters and material within this page are the property of their respective creators.