Tiger’s Eye

by Kyouya Shizuka (強谷 湖)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/22271.html)

(set in the world of “Stalking Worthy Prey” from the July 2006 Shousetsu Bang*Bang by permission of the author)

“Some toms,” the Joker told her with a grin, “have got no appreciation for a good thing. None whatsoever. Now, me, on the other hand…”

Nao twitched her tail out of reach before he could start stroking it again, and snapped him with the damp bartowel just to make sure he got the message.

“Hey!” He made a production number of shaking his stung hand, and turned wide green soulful eyes on her. “You know, doll, I suppose I could understand you being bitter about toms as a whole, recently, but that’s no reason to take it out on me.”

“I don’t need any more reasons to take it out on you,” Nao said. “You’ve given me plenty already.” The soulful eyes had been sort of irritatingly charming the first few weeks; three years later, though, Nao had built up quite an immunity to them, and only wished she could build up an immunity to the groping as well.

She was careful to tuck her tail down when she crouched under the bar to fish out two more beers — one for the Joker and one for his longsuffering partner, who was studiously ignoring him. People called them ‘the Siamese twins’ not because of any resemblance to Siamese, or even to each other — the Joker was a scrappy, scrawny little ginger alleycat, and Ace was a big sleek muscular blue — but because it was an unwritten law of nature that ninety percent of the time you found Ace with the Joker as inevitably as though they were joined at the hip.

The other ten percent of the time, people speculated that sooner or later one of them had to use the toilet, or else the Joker would eventually succeed in sweet-talking his way under some queen’s tail. Speculation ran rampant about whether or not Ace was still attached to his hip at that point, but the betting pool hadn’t been claimed yet, and Nao wasn’t hard up enough for the next month’s rent to feel like finding out the obvious way.

Nao popped the caps off the bottles with a flick of claws. It didn’t actually discourage the Joker in the slightest, she’d learned, but at least it made her feel better. She served Ace first, though, because she figured the big tom needed some kind of compensation for whatever sadist had assigned him to partner with the Joker on their various unsavory expeditions.

Ace nodded his head at her silently, and took a long swallow that emptied half the bottle at once. After a second’s thought, Nao handed the Joker’s bottle to him as well, despite the little ginger’s yowl of protest.

“Oi! That’s downright favoritism, there!”

“Ace hasn’t been toying with me,” Nao shot back, bending down for a third beer with a soft grunt.

“Just ’cause he ain’t got the balls,” the Joker grumbled, and then had to dodge a swing from Ace’s newly-emptied bottle. “Come on, pal, I’m doing you a favor; you’re never going to get under her skirt if you don’t out and tell her you want her tail–”

Ace swung at him again, his ears flat back against his head, and only the Joker’s speed kept him from a concussion.

“Outside,” Nao said firmly.

“But — but he’s the one who–”

“Outside. Before I have to pitch you both out myself.”

“Okay, okay — we’ll be good, won’t we, Ace?”

The big tom was rumbling deep in his throat, and Nao was glad she stuck to bottles because a can in those claws would’ve been perforated and spraying beer all over the bar already. She reached over to stroke the nape of his neck, gauging how upset he was and getting a hand in position for a scruff-grab in case she did need to throw him toward the door.

He went almost embarrassingly limp under her grasp and put the bottle down immediately, the rumble shifting to a purr that he hastily muffled behind one hand.

Amused despite herself, and a little more sympathetic than she wanted to be, Nao thought, oh. So it’s not just because the Joker’s teasing him; it’s the Joker teasing him about me.

Years of tending bar had left her almost as good at reading body language as Mei’s talent, but body language didn’t give her specifics. She’d have to ask Mei later whether she’d ever brushed up against Ace, to find out whether the big tom was reacting to the mother in her or to the female.

The Joker was trying those eyes again. “How come you never pet me like that?”

“You never give it a rest, do you.”

“If you’d just tell us where he’s hiding, we’d be out of your way in no time.” There was no actual hope in his voice; this conversation was long since worn thin.

“Trust me,” Nao said with a sigh, “I want to know where he is just as badly as you do. If not more so.”

“Yeah,” the Joker said softly, leaning his chin in his hand. “Yeah, I know.”

Startled by what might actually have been unfeigned empathy from him, Nao set the new bottle of beer in front of him without a grumble. The Joker took a swig, and then gestured with it impatiently.

“So that’s why I was telling you, some toms have got no appreciation! You need to hire us, doll — you need more muscle around the place now that he’s haring off ‘making deliveries’.” The Joker rolled his eyes, and his partner elbowed him hard.

“Shut up,” Ace hissed under his breath. Nao knew about the unspoken rule, of course — the one that said that nobody should talk about the Lion’s ‘business’ in front of the staff of the Tiger’s Eye. There had been hundreds of drunks who’d been jumped by their intoxicated buddies before anything less innocous than ‘deliveries’ could pass their lips, because the other half of the unspoken rule whispered about what the Lion would do to anyone who mentioned it to her or to Mei. She couldn’t just tell them it didn’t matter, that she already knew, because then he would find out that they knew, and that would be… uncomfortable, all around. She and Mei had an unspoken agreement of their own, to protect his innocence, in a certain way.

“But she needs us,” the Joker protested, still punctuating with the beer bottle. “Or somebody like us. She shouldn’t have to throw us out by herself, not now. That’s just not right.”

“So will you throw yourselves out for me?” Nao asked sweetly, batting her eyes at them.

Ace came down with a sudden, fierce compulsion to groom his forearm. Nao couldn’t quite decide whether it was more adorable or unnerving, being able to embarrass one of the terrors of the south side with just a lean forward and a flutter. The Joker was glaring at his partner in unbridled disgust.

“Cut that out; you’re making us look like kits!”

Ace shoved his half-groomed arm behind his back, his tail and ears tucked low. –Damned hormones; it was taking work to keep herself from pinning his neck and washing behind his ears, when he looked that much like a scolded kitten. Nao sighed, and rubbed the small of her back, and ignored the Joker’s suddenly refocused leer through long, long habit.

“How about an arrangement,” Nao said. “For each hour you work the floor for me — while you’re sober, that is — I’ll give you a couple of drinks once you’re off shift.”

“Doll, our fees are a lot– yeooooowch!”

“Sounds good,” Ace rumbled, despite the Joker’s fierce green-eyed glower.

“You dipshit, I could’ve got her to-ooooowrch! ow ow ow sonuva–“

“No, you couldn’t have,” Nao said, arms crossed.

Ears flat, the Joker grumbled, “You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

“Doesn’t matter. You still couldn’t have.”

“We don’t do charity,” the Joker growled, glaring at his partner.

“Good, since I don’t take it. And we both know you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t waiting for the Lion to walk through the door, so don’t tell me there’s nothing in it for you.”

“This joint ain’t seen a whisker of him for how many months now?” he asked, giving her body an assessing look; Nao bristled.

“Then what are you doing still pestering me about his hideouts? Go find yourselves a better precog.”

The Joker threw up his hands, then finished his beer and set the empty on the bar with a thump. “Come on, you damn softie, we should go see if anyone’s spotted him down at the Claw.”

Ace cuffed him across the back of the head; the Joker turned around sharply, hissing through his teeth, tail lashing, and Nao snapped, “Out!”

“Yeah, yeah. Deliveries. The Claw’s real known for their delivery boys. Quit your bitching already, fluffums…”

Nao shut the door behind them, locked it, kicked it for good measure, and all but collapsed onto the nearest table with a groan. She’d begun closing the bar a couple hours early in the past couple of months, but those two tended to stick around until the gory dregs of the night anyway.

“Are they gone?” Mei asked in a mock-whisper; Nao could see the tips of her ears sticking up from the cellar stairwell.

“Good riddance,” Nao sighed, rolling onto her side in a somewhat vain attempt to find a less uncomfortable position. Bar tables weren’t really designed for napping on.

Mei’s ears pricked further forward at Nao’s shift in position. “No panties?” she asked brightly. “Is that an invitation?”

Nao yelped and rolled over again quickly. “That’s — it’s — er– Mei!” Anything that ruffled her belly-fur was almost unbearable anymore; she didn’t even like wearing an apron over her dresses, let alone anything to ruffle her fur the wrong way or constrict her middle. …Like underthings. But she certainly hadn’t meant it as an invitation; the Joker would never have let her hear the end of it if he’d noticed, and Ace might well have died of heart failure, and–

–and Mei’s hips were twitching in a little wriggle Nao knew all too well.

“Er. Mei. I don’t know if I’d trust this furniture that much–”

Mei giggled, and pounced anyway.

“Table!” Nao squawked, sinking all her claws into the table as the pedestal-surface wobbled wildly. “Not enough legs! Mei…!”

“But you’re so fluffy,” Mei purred, rubbing her cheek against Nao’s shoulder and kneading her claws lightly in the fabric of her dress. “I hope the little ones will be longhairs too. They’ll be adorable. Tiny bright-eyed silk-fluffs tumbling around underfoot; I can hardly wait!”

“You can hardly wait?” Nao groaned. “Off the table before it quits on us!”

“You’re so practical,” Mei said as she helped Nao down from the table, as though it were a great and grave disappointment. “Fluffy, of course, but dreadfully practical.”

“Someone around here has to be,” Nao said, a little more tartly than she’d meant, and then she rubbed under Mei’s chin with a gentle fingertip to try to take the sting from it. “I’m sorry. It’s just… it’s been a long day. –A long year.”

“I know,” Mei murmured, and nuzzled gently behind her ear. “Hang in there, honey. You’re nearly there. Just a few more weeks to wait.” Then she added with far too much enthusiasm, “And then the really messy and exhausting parts start!”

“You’re not helping, you know.”

“But you can hand off the messy and exhausting parts once they’re external,” Mei said. “That’s what badly-paid preteen kittensitters are for!”

“For fourteen hours a day?”

“We’ll work it out,” Mei said, kneading between Nao’s shoulderblades. “I promise. I’m not going anywhere.”

Unlike some people, Nao thought, eyes closed. And unlike some people, I think I can believe you when you say that.


Unsurprisingly, Ace and the Joker made excellent bouncers. It wasn’t really a case of good-cop-bad-cop, because that would’ve assumed one of them had any intention of playing nice, but they found another natural balance for themselves. Ace took the ‘loomingly intimidate ’em into good behavior’ role, and the Joker took the ‘bust heads and balls with vicious, gleeful, and indiscriminate abandon’ role, and Nao didn’t have to chip her own claws on anyone.

Just as unsurprisingly, the downside had nothing to do with their official job performance. The downside involved having to keep them around long enough afterwards for them to claim their due in alcohol, which always led to ostensibly intoxicated passes from the Joker and mute, tipsy lovesickness from Ace.

Nao couldn’t decide whether she was more irritated at the fact that the Joker wasn’t nearly as drunk as he made out to be while attempting his gropes, or that Ace generally was that drunk and couldn’t hold a conversation in a bucket when he was too busy gazing. Soulfully.

She couldn’t help feeling sympathy for the poor tom, because he didn’t seem all that un-housebroken in himself; but he came attached to the Joker, and that was just too much to ask.

Besides, she already had a strong, silent type who’d slunk into a corner of her heart marked for family, and taken up residence there, and she knew exactly how exasperating their melancholy gazes and stubborn refusals to communicate could be.

“It’s late,” she said to the Joker. “Go home already.”

“Someone could still come in and make trouble.”

“You’re the last ones here,” Nao pointed out, tail snapping from side to side. “If you leave I can close the bar. Haven’t you got anything better to do with yourselves?”

“It’s Tuesday,” the Joker said gloomily, swirling a quarter-inch of whiskey around the bottom of his glass. “Who’s got anything better to do on Tuesday night than get wasted?”

“You live a sad, short-sighted life,” Nao said, pointedly cleaning the bartop around him.

“So what’s your hurry? Got a hot date coming, and you don’t want us cramping your style?”

“Yes, she does,” Mei said brightly, and draped herself around Nao’s shoulders with an insinuating and rather loud purr. The Joker snorted his opinion of that.

“You have your hot dates on Tuesdays?”

“It’s my birthday,” Mei said, and licked behind Nao’s ear just to see it twitch in tickle-vexation.

“Oh, don’t mind me, girls,” the Joker said with a leer. “Go right ahead.”

“If you insist,” Mei said with a giggle, and bent Nao over backwards.

It was a good thing the little fawn-point was stronger than she looked, because Nao’s knees gave out from under her at the way Mei licked and nuzzled her way down the slope of Nao’s throat and over the curve of her milk-heavy breasts, then buried her face in Nao’s cleavage and began kneading at her hips and tail with husky little rowls in the back of her throat.

Nao sank all her claws into any solid surface she hit in flail range, and tried not to think about the startled and rather needy noises which, she suspected, were probably coming from her own throat.

The wolf whistle wasn’t her fault, though, she was pretty sure. A quick glare over at the Joker confirmed that much.

“Enjoying the show?” Mei asked him, just a little breathless.

“Hell yeah,” he breathed, halfway between gleeful and reverent.

“That was the teaser,” Mei informed him, with wide, innocent green eyes all asparkle. “A hundred and fifty thousand, cash, up front, to see the rest.”

“…WHAT?!” Nao and the Joker yelped, in unison, and then looked at each other.

“A girl’s got to make some birthday money,” Mei said helpfully. “Birthdays only happen once a year, you know. And we could hire sitters for quite a while with that!”

For one sick, crazed moment, Nao realized she was actually thinking about it. The Joker, meanwhile, had grabbed Ace by the ear and was dragging him toward the door, grumbling under his breath.

“You,” he shot over a stiff shoulder on his way through the door, “are a cruel, heartless fiend. …First time I’ve been glad the shower’s hot water’s busted. Fuckin’ hell…”

“Glad to be of service!” Mei called after them brightly, and locked the door behind them, and collapsed into giggles.

Nao groped for a barstool, very carefully lowering herself onto it before she re-collected enough breath and enough nerve to ask.

“Mei. What the–” Except the logical way to conclude that sentence, a snarky little voice in the back of her head informed her, was entirely too apt. It wouldn’t have surprised her if Mei was listening to that little voice, because she started laughing harder.

“Should’ve seen… the… the looks… on your faces…!” She scrubbed laugh-tears from her cheeks, and wheezed, “Poor Ace, though… didn’t deserve that…”

“And I did?” Nao sighed. “What are you actually up to, you little minx? Because I know your birthday’s not for another three months.”

“Oh, I got you a hot date,” Mei said blithely. “A little too hot even for the Siamese Twins. He’s tied up in the beer cooler for precaution’s sake. With whipped cream and a cherry on top! Never say I don’t love you, sweetling!”

“Mei–!”

On another instant’s thought, though, Nao turned and hurried toward the cellar stairs. If there actually was someone tied up in the cooler, Mei wouldn’t let them freeze to death, but she wasn’t above frostbite if she didn’t approve, and too hot for the twins implied on the far, far side of legal, and–

–and only he, Nao thought a bit dizzily, sitting down on the stairs before she fell, would wander back into her life on a random Tuesday night.

He was standing at the prep sink, fiercely scrubbing disinfectant dish soap all over himself, his fur standing out in matted little spikes dripping with bubble-foam, naked as the day he was born, and his clothes were in a kicked-aside pile that reeked of sewage even from the far end of the cellar, and Nao realized, where’s the one place they don’t put the city vidcams? Why, the one place where you’re literally only caught dead.

And this, she realized a few moments and a few lifetimes too late, was why Ace and the Joker never would catch the Lion. Because the Lion they were searching for was serious and grim and could compete head-on with the most deadly assassins in the business, up to Tsume the Blade, and some rumors said maybe beyond. The Lion they hunted moved elegantly in the shadows, and came into bars like the Claw on Friday nights, and sat in the furthest, best-hidden corner, and drank smoky bourbon on the rocks.

But they had never known a sweetly, coltishly awkward kitten named Haruki, who tripped over his own paws trying to chase butterflies when he was four, and grew tongue-tied around girls, and stammered when spoken to. And for all that he tried so hard to be serious and mature, Haruki truly had no idea that the Lion was expected to reappear in the Claw on a Friday night and drink bourbon on the rocks.

Because it was both far more ridiculous and far more practical to crawl through the camera-free sewers to the Tiger’s Eye on a Tuesday, because that just happened to be the night when Haruki had finished a job in this part of the city.

…And the Lion would literally never have been caught dead scrubbing the stench out of his fur with dish soap in the cellar because he hadn’t had the foresight to pack a disposable wetsuit of some ilk, and…

“Oh, gods, you idiot,” Nao said, and her voice cracked on tears she hadn’t realized had spilled down her face; Haruki turned sharply at the sound of her voice, and then dropped the bottle of dish soap in shock, and it was so him that she didn’t know whether to laugh or to shake him. “You — you unbelievable dork. Gods. I’ve missed you so much…”

Haruki took a step toward her, and then looked down at his drenched and soap-dripping fur and hesitated — and only then did he remember he was naked, and lunged for a discarded dishtowel.

He moved like an assassin now, Nao thought, all sleek silent elegance; but how many assassins would blush like a boy and try to hide themselves behind an old dishrag?

She turned the faucet hose on him full-blast, to wash out the soap before she led him upstairs; and then she gave him her apron, because it did a better job of preserving what fragile dregs of dignity he might have been trying to cling to. Not much better, considering it was an apron, but better than a discarded dishrag anyway.

Mei had just finished closing all the blinds and the security gates, and the one table lamp she left burning was furthest from the windows, so that the muni vidcams couldn’t catch even enough of their shadows to pattern-match from.

“So,” Nao said, watching his hands fidget with the apronstrings. “You’re, uh… How’s business?”

“Busy. –Lots of deliveries,” he said, a little desperately. “You never know when… when someone in the tunnels… needs… um… lunch.”

“Lunch,” Nao repeated blankly, and wasn’t sure whether she was going to laugh or cry.

He nodded a little, and her apronstrings definitely weren’t going to survive the reflexive flick of his claws. “You’re… uh…” And he stopped there, ducking his chin like he had when he was five.

“Go on,” Nao said, darkly amused despite herself.

“Um.” He scratched behind an ear. “You’re… you’ve gotten …big.”

“That’s how it usually happens,” Nao said; he flushed.

“That’s not what I mean! — I mean — it is, but not like that — I mean — I just — hadn’t seen you for a while, and I didn’t know you’d gotten so… round… um… –I’m sorry.”

He wasn’t apologizing for the flurry of words. Nao reached over and swatted him. “Don’t apologize. Just be here. Be here so that you won’t be surprised that they’re here, the next time you come back.”

“But I need to work,” he said, in a voice far too small and fragile for the legend he carried on those sleekly muscled shoulders. “For you and for Mei, and especially for them. I can’t just stay here at the bar and do nothing, and I can’t… I can’t help with the bar. People, um, know me. They’d… they’d come here and… –I just can’t. I have to work. Somewhere else.”

“Making deliveries,” Mei said from across the room, busy with the lost-and-found box. Haruki actually jumped at her voice; then he nodded quickly, clumsily.

“It just — it pays, that’s all, and… I’m good at it. –Here.” He pulled a Tiger’s Eye credit chip out of the pocket of the apron he’d borrowed, slotted the chip into the table, and tapped at the table’s credscanner, authenticating the transfer of something that had too many zeroes in it.

“Haruki,” Nao said, and he blinked at her.

“…you know, I don’t remember the last time I heard that name. It was probably you then, too.” He laughed a little, hoarse, and dug fingers through his still drenching-damp fur. “Please. I can’t be what you need me to be, I can’t be here, I’m not… who you need me to have been. But I can do this. It’s all I can do. All I can give. I wish it were more–”

“I don’t want it,” Nao said sharply, and bit her tongue before she could say, I don’t want my little ones fed with blood money.

“Nao–”

“I don’t want your money. I want you here, smiling when they pounce on your tail. I want them to grow up with Mei teaching them to be charming little hellions, and you teaching them to stalk dustbunnies, and to say please and thank you. I want…” I want it to be like it used to be. Before the madness, before the pain; before they took Kenage, and half your soul with him…

“I’m sorry,” he said, head bent. “I’m so sorry.”

Startling them both, Mei dumped a pile of clothing on the table between them, and dusted her hands off.

“Okay,” she said, “let’s figure out which of these are wearable and which are dish rags in training. Because we’re not letting you out of here in nothing but an apron. We’re the only ones who get to take blackmail pictures!”

As she picked up handfuls of fabric and turned them inside out and shook them to judge the difference between ‘artistically-tattered’ and ‘sad’, she added, “Ken would’ve broken something laughing at the apron, you know. After he got done taking pictures, that is. Be glad I don’t know where his vidfeed went, because I am merciless.”

Haruki looked more wilted than he had any right to, even dripping wet. “Mei… I… I’m s-”

Mei hit him over the head with a pair of abandoned jeans, and startled Nao into a snort of laughter at his poleaxed expression. She dropped a different pair of jeans and a shirt on him, and said, “Try these on.”

The shirt was a little too tight across the shoulders, and the jeans were too loose and long, but all in all it was an improvement over the apron in terms of ‘things that could be worn outdoors.’ Haruki sat slumped at the table while Mei rumpled him ferociously with towels until he was warm and dry and as fluffy as a dandelion.

Nao really couldn’t help herself; Mei had been rubbing off on her too long. When most of his head was buried in towel, she reached over and brushed a fingertip against the soft, fine fur lining the curve of his ear, just to see the little sneeze-and-ear-twitch he made by reflex.

“You’re such an overgrown kitten,” she said fondly.

He looked up at her for a moment, with those wide blue eyes, and the fingers of his white-furred hand twitched toward her in a fractured motion he stopped before it had even properly begun.

“Oh, now you’re being ridiculous!” Mei said, ears flat back. She caught him by the scruff of the neck with one hand and dragged his palm toward Nao with the other. He squirmed desperately, afraid to put too much of his strength into his protest lest he hurt one of them.

“You shouldn’t– I shouldn’t, I have no right–”

“You’re their father, you silly goose,” Mei said with a sigh. “If you don’t have the right, who does?”

“You shouldn’t trust me,” he insisted, tail tucked between his legs, limp and unhappy under Mei’s grip. “I don’t know how either of you trust me. Kenage — it was my–”

“I suppose next you’re going to claim responsibility for the fact that there’s fog tonight, too,” Mei said. “He was a force of nature. You’d have had as much a chance of changing the path of the wind. Now. Are you going to be grown up about this, or am I going to have to pin you down and wash you silly?” She licked behind his ear in illustrative warning.

“Let go,” he mumbled, sounding far more like a sulky kit than he’d have liked, and raked his fingers through the fur at the scruff of his neck in sheer teenaged stubbornness.

“All right, this is war,” Mei said, and leaned all her weight into the hands on his shoulders to keep him pinned as she started vigorously washing the back of his head for him. He yowled and spluttered and flailed, tail bristled straight out stiff in sheer indignation, and Mei just laughed and kept licking.

I don’t know why I ever wondered whether I can take care of my kittens, Nao thought wryly, watching them. I’ve spent half my life taking care of one or the other of these two already. I’ll do fine.

She yawned and stretched, arching her back to try to ease the near-perpetual ache from the unaccustomed weight of girth and milk, and Mei paused in her ferocious grooming-assault to lean an elbow on Haruki’s shoulder and look at him upside down over the top of his head.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” she asked, with the tip of her tail twitching in a way that boded ill for anyone standing in the direction of her newest mischief-impulse.

“Probably not,” Haruki mumbled, and she laughed and nipped at his ear.

“No pouncing,” Nao reminded her tiredly, pushing herself up from the table and heading toward the second floor stairs. “No pouncing on me, that is. I’m too close to due. Play with each other if you’ve got that much leftover energy.”

“Oh, no pouncing,” Mei agreed, and whipped the tablecloth off the table and lunged.

Somehow or other, Nao found herself stretched out on top of the bar, on display atop the tablecloth, and being licked silly. “RRRrrrmph — Mei! — rrRRRrrrrrrrr…”

“But you look so tasty when you stretch like that,” Mei purred, and kept licking. “I need a platter… and some cocktail umbrellas… and honey; honey makes everything fun…”

Meiiii-iiiyoooowrrrrllll…!” She had a feeling her claws were leaving gouges in the bartop. Well, it wasn’t like the bar hadn’t seen worse.

Poor Haruki looked like he was going to spontaneously combust from force of blushing, but he extracted Mei from Nao’s newly half-unbuttoned dress and sat her down on one of the barstools and held her there despite her wriggles and yowls of protest.

“Nao,” he said, and carefully untangled Mei’s fingers from his own shirt too. “Nao, when is she… um… supposed to… uh…. ”

“When is she going into heat?” Nao asked, just to see whether the poor boy could in fact blush more. As it turned out, he could. “I would’ve said next month, except that my hormones may have thrown her off her cycle. Or yours might have, tonight.”

“I’m not in heat,” Mei protested. “I’m just feeling frisky.”

“Oh really,” Nao said, and unfastened a couple more of Haruki’s buttons, and Haruki had to move fast to keep Mei at arm’s length. “…Right. You get her up to bed; I’ll go see if she has any estroban doses in the cabinet.” Somehow, I doubt he’s going to have any trouble keeping her attention on him.

By the time Nao found them and made her way back into the bedroom, Mei had gotten most of Haruki’s borrowed clothes off of him, and he was clinging to the tablecloth around his hips with one hand and scratching the good spot just above her tail with the other; it kept her too busy arching into his hands and kneading the carpet and walls to protest his tablecloth. His eyes were full of woeful self-reproach, though.

“I shouldn’t be here, should I.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Nao said, even as she caught a handful of fur at the scruff of Mei’s neck in order to keep her still for the injection.

“But — but she’s too young for kits, and–”

“By that logic, you’re too young for kits too, you know.”

“But I don’t have to carry them,” Haruki mumbled, looking away, and Nao tried her best not to laugh at him.

“You’re wearing too many clothes,” Mei complained, and started again on the buttons of Nao’s dress. Nao sighed, and dug both hands through Mei’s thick chestnut hair to scratch the good spots behind her ears. The purr she received in response was startlingly loud, and Mei rubbed the side of her face against Nao’s forearm before she caught two fistfuls of fabric and wrenched.

Nao’s buttons went flying. Startled, she stared down at Mei, who was blissfully nuzzling and licking at her shoulder and breast, rumbling with purrs. Then, guiltily, Nao glanced over at Haruki, whose sweet, expressive face had gone very wide-eyed and still.

Her first impulse was to apologize, but she bit it back sternly; there was no way she could apologize for what she had become. Trying to hide herself would also speak of shame, and she couldn’t make him think that she was ashamed of what they had done; he carried too much guilt already.

Carefully, softly, she asked, “Are you all right?”

Either he’d completely frozen with shock, or he hadn’t even heard her. Neither one was a particularly good sign. Nao sighed, and tried to tuck the halves of her dress around herself again.

Mei, however, was having none of it. She twisted away from their hands in order to pull the fabric off Nao’s shoulders and down her arms. “Don’t hide,” she scolded softly, and brushed gentle fingers over Nao’s shoulder. “You’re breathtaking. Our silly dandelion-head’s just in awe, that’s all.” She twined herself around Nao’s back in a playful caress and smoothed both hands over Nao’s curve as though presenting a treasure for display, stroking lightly, tenderly, without even the faintest prickle of claws.

“Haruki?” Nao asked, because she couldn’t help herself; he hadn’t blinked, hadn’t even twitched an ear.

“Come on, silly,” Mei told him amusedly. “Come and touch your children.”

“…I can’t.” His hands were fisted at his sides, trembling all over. “My hands are covered in blood.”

It was the first time he’d even come close to admitting what he’d done. Nao would have tried to ask him why, except that Mei had already reached over to cuff him across the head.

“That’s why you wash,” Mei said indignantly. “And you were dripping dish soap all over everything tonight. There is not a thing wrong with your hands. Come here.”

“But–”

“Come here. Now.”

Barely more than a breath, he asked, “Nao…?”

She held out both hands to him, because she didn’t trust her voice not to break. He bowed his head, and drew an unsteady breath, and then sank to his knees before her, his breath faintly stirring her fur.

His fingertips were barely more steady than his breath, scarcely brushing the tips of her long mocha-dark fur, let alone touching the body beneath it. Nao put her hand over his and held it to her middle, firmly, despite the startled flicker of his eyes.

“See? It’s all right, silly,” Mei said indulgently, and Nao wasn’t quite sure which of them she meant by it; she had one arm about what remained of Nao’s waist and the other curved gently against the back of Haruki’s head, and she leaned on him until he let his cheek rest against Nao’s kitten-curving. It tore a hoarse sound out of him, ragged and unsteady.

After a moment, Nao realized to her horror that it was supposed to be a purr. But it wasn’t the right kind of purr; it was the sort of broken sound that you made when you were wounded and alone and it was the only attempt at comfort you had left. Or when you were pleading with someone stronger not to hurt you more. It didn’t belong in his throat, didn’t belong in the gentle circle of their embrace, but he buried his face against her side and tried his best to purr for her.

Nao shot a frantic glance over her shoulder at Mei, who looked just as shocked.

Oh, gods, Haruki — what have you done to yourself, that you don’t even remember how to purr in pleasure?

Don’t ask, Mei mouthed silently, and Nao wondered how directly she’d picked up on the unspoken question, or whether she knew more than she wanted to about the answer. Over the top of his bent head, Mei gestured toward the pile of quilts and pillows that made up their bed; Nao nodded, and ruffled the fur at the back of Haruki’s head.

“Come on,” she said, tugging at the scruff of his neck; he stumbled along after her in blind response to that instinct, but when she padded a soft circle in the bedding and tried to coax him down with her, he balked a little, wide-eyed.

“But — Mei–”

“Please?” Nao asked, and stretched shamelessly, trying to find a comfortable spot to settle. “At least rub for me? I ache so much…”

Guilt was an even shorter leash than the scruff-grab, for him. Some other time, Nao would let herself feel guilty about using it, but tonight he immediately arched himself against her, a warm solid comfort for her weary back, and he set both strong hands to kneading at her shoulderblades, and she thought she might just melt into the quilts.

“….mmmMMMmmmmmmrrrrrrrrrrr…”

Hesitantly, he let his voice join hers, a ragged, lower echo; Nao twisted around until she could get a better angle for washing his face like a kitten, because he clearly needed it.

“Nao!” he protested, nose crinkled; and just when she thought he was going to flail and squall and protest his grown-up-ness like kittens all over the world, he turned her in his arms instead, so that he could nip at the back of her neck and keep her still beneath his hands, like a tom.

“Hush,” he said sternly, and his hands were really too talented for anyone’s good. “You’re aching. Let me help.”

“Mmmm,” she agreed; she’d meant to be a little more coherent about it, but it was much more tempting to go limp and purr at him, so that he’d keep those skillful hands rubbing right where her back ached, right there…

There was a clatter and a soft whumph from the direction of the closet, and they both pricked their ears toward Mei, who had just dumped a pile of dark clothing on the floor and was rolling around in it.

“Sweetling,” Nao said, “aren’t I supposed to be the one with the nesting instincts?”

“I’m fine,” she said, wriggling her way under a coat and a discarded shirt and curling up in a little ball, the tip of her tail tucked over her nose. “You start teaching him how to purr again. I’ll catch up in a little bit.”

Something about her posture had startled Haruki’s eyes wide and uncertain; but Nao trusted Mei’s instincts more than his, even when Mei was heat-fogged, and so she batted at his nose until he focused on her again.

“You heard the lady,” she said, and started licking the tender spot right under the hollow of his throat, the place that always set him off in miniature lion-rumbles when they’d been kittens. The sounds she coaxed out of him were better this time, closer to a proper purr, even if a little strangled by how he was trying to arch away from the tickle without unseating her too rudely. Nao sneezed on a giggle, and followed the clean arch of his throat down to the sweep of a strong collarbone.

He wasn’t as ticklish there anymore, though; pity… so she nuzzled her way over his shoulder, climbing over him toward the hollow beneath his shoulderblades despite his startled yelp and quick steadying clutch at her hips.

“Nao — careful! The kittens–”

“So lie down, and I won’t have anywhere to fall,” she said, and buried her face in his back-fur again. His fur was much coarser than hers or Mei’s; he was wild-bred, his family throwing back to some long-vanished line of mountain lions, and the short thick fur barely concealed the scars he’d collected over the years, or the lethal strength hidden coiled in his body. She licked at the ticklish spot beneath his shoulderblade just to make him wriggle and yowl an amusingly high-pitched protest.

No sense in letting him forget who was in charge, after all. The fact that he could have broken her in two without a thought had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that she’d been bossing him around since they were knee-high to a hobbyhorse.

He crouched down on all fours, elbows in tight to try to protect more ticklish spots, ears drooping and tail twitchy. Nao took a swat at the tempting twitch, and giggled when she pinned the little white fluff of the tip of his tail.

“Gotcha!”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Not even going to try to wrestle?” she pouted.

“Nao–”

“Scaredycat.”

“I am not,” he said, all wounded dignity and hunched shoulders.

“Scaredycat, scaredycat, scare–”

He rolled her over and pinned her shoulders to the floor, licking and licking at the fur of her bared throat until she went limp in surrender, the vibration of her purr catching on giggles. Instead of letting her go, though, he shifted down to rest his head against the soft, rounded curve of her belly, his white hand stroking through her long silky fur.

His purr was still husky from disuse, but she could hear playfulness in it now.

“That’s better,” she said, toying with his ears to watch them twitch. “That’s much better.”

“Mmm. Mmmm.” She rubbed along the soft arch between ear and jawline, and smiled to hear his voice shift over: “Mmmrrrrrrr…”

There was a third voice echoing their purrs now, but it was much too deep for Mei; Haruki was suddenly bolt upright again, braced to lunge, to fight, to run, and Nao caught his tense shoulders and rubbed her cheek against him, feeling him tremble.

“It’s all right,” she whispered. “It’s all right. They’d never hurt you, either of them…”

Hey, there, dandelion-head, Kenage’s voice said, full of laughter, and Mei dropped to her her haunches in front of them, her eyes glowing golden and warm as she reached out to ruffle Haruki’s ears. I heard you miss me.

Haruki made a little desperate sound that almost sounded like he was going to be sick, his eyes wide and staring, pupils dilated until the irises were nearly invisible. Mei, dressed in his old faded shirt and the tatters of his trenchcoat, tipped her head to one side with a grin that was purely Kenage’s.

Not even a hello? That’s downright unfriendly–

–and then Haruki was huddled on the floor, twisting onto his back, throat bared and eyes shut tight in abject submission. “I’m sorry,” he wailed, shivering all over. “I’m sorry — I’m so sorry — I–”

I know, squirt, Kenage said, and he bent — Mei bent — to lick at Haruki’s ears affectionately. It was never your fault, you know. I never blamed you.

“We know,” Nao said, and coughed a little, surprised to find her throat tight with tears. “None of us ever blamed him. He just blamed himself.”

That’s our dandelion-head, all right, Kenage told her, wry and rueful; and then his eyes widened, and so did his grin. He sauntered over to crouch on his heels beside Nao, patting her belly with an appreciatively insinuating rowl. And you’ve been a busy girl while I’ve been gone, haven’t you! How many sires did you waylay?

“Just one,” Nao said, glaring, and Kenage laughed in her mind while Mei’s higher voice giggled aloud; the echo was disconcerting.

Somebody’s quite the stud, then, to get you so full of kittens all by his lonesome– ouch!

“Cut it out,” Nao said, not sure whether or not she should feel badly about swatting Mei to get at her nuisance of a lover. “You’re not helping him like this.”

All right, all right, I’ll quit teasing. Mei settled herself in a long warm curve around the huddled-up knot of Haruki’s trembling, and wrapped both arms about him, and Kenage’s scent on the old shirt was as familiar as autumn.

“I’m sorry,” Haruki whispered.

I know. Kenage stroked his hair gently, wryly, still amused by the eternally futile quest to settle the wild tawny thatch that had earned him the dandelion nickname to begin with. I know. I forgive you. And I’ve never stopped loving you. Never.

Haruki twisted around and buried his face in Kenage’s shirt; Nao snuggled against his back, to keep him warm and completely surrounded by family.

What do you think, Nao? Kenage asked them both, with an insinuating lilt in his tone. One more round for old times’ sake?

“I’d forgotten how incorrigible you are,” Nao said, “you randy, insatiable–”

Mei likes the idea.

“She would; she’s in heat.”

Really? He sounded so surprised, and so delighted, that Nao dizzily wondered what they did and didn’t share inside her head. Well, then what’s dandelion-head waiting for? She’s always wanted kittens–

“They should have been yours!” Haruki choked, ears flat back in misery. “You should be here instead–”

I’m here enough, aren’t I?

“No!” he said fiercely. “Not enough for her, not enough for–”

Oh, Kenage purred, running claws lightly through his fur, I think I’m here enough for a few things.

Haruki pulled away, shuddering. “You’re dead,” he said, stark-voiced. “You’re dead. And it’s my fault.”

Yeah, well. Tell that to my hormones and see where it gets you. –Besides jumped, that is.

It was so cheerfully him that Nao coughed, sputtered, and burst out laughing. Haruki cast her an utterly betrayed look.

Chin up, will ya? Kenage said, wistfully. I don’t want to go until I see you smile one more time. I wanted to see you happy, not… not like this…

“I’m sorry,” Haruki said, and Kenage cuffed him across the ears lightly.

Will you cut that out already? He rolled golden eyes toward Nao. How’d you get him to stop apologizing long enough to get you with kits anyway?

“It took some work,” Nao said, studiously ignoring the wounded betrayal in Haruki’s big blue eyes. “And some alcohol, and some tickling.”

Tickling, huh. The golden eyes shining out of Mei’s face were brim-full with mischief. Think we’ve got enough hands to double-team him?

And, ever the strategist, Kenage didn’t even wait for Nao’s answer, pouncing on Haruki and rolling him over while both of them were distracted.

Haruki hissed and flailed and spat, outraged at the sheer indignity of being taken off guard like that, the wound to his pride far more mortal than any bumping around he’d gotten.

Kenage in Mei’s body just laughed, with a beckoning gesture: Oh, come ON, you can do better than that!

With a growl, Haruki leapt, and they both went tumbling across the room; Nao sighed when one of the floor lamps toppled over and made a distressingly crunchy sound when it hit.

The pair of them tore around the room as though someone had lit their tails on fire, and after a few ricocheting circuits and a hopeless scattering of her business files, it was getting harder to tell which of them was doing the chasing and which the fleeing, because they kept switching directions almost mid-leap.

Nao wondered for the dozenth time where Mei got all that energy from. Of course, not being near-burstingly full with kittens at the same time as trying to own and manage a small business probably had something to do with it, but still…

The fifth time one of them nearly stepped on Nao’s head as they leapt across the room and took the sofa-back as a launchpad, she decided she’d had enough.

There was a particularly sparkly ball of yarn under her pillow, one she’d bought for Mei as a joke; she picked it up and whistled sharply. Both of them skidded to a stop, ears pricking toward her in unison.

“Downstairs,” Nao said, and flung the ball so it sailed over the stairwell to fall bouncing on the bar floor below.

Kenage was after it almost before she’d finished throwing, sending Mei leaping straight over the balcony rail. Haruki had just enough self control left to roll his eyes at her, but he followed Mei’s leap off the edge of the balcony instead of even pretending to the dignity of stairs.

The crashing and thumping and splintering below didn’t bode well for her repair bills, but there were only two of them; it couldn’t be that much worse than an everyday bar brawl.

Nao had almost gotten the pillows rearranged and the blankets settled enough to lie back down for a nap when a particularly ear-splitting yowl from below caught her attention. If it had been just the one, she might have been able to ignore it; a moment later there was another yowl, though, this one almost panicked, and Nao sighed and heaved herself to her feet, padding over to the balcony to look down.

The pair of them had gotten hopelessly tangled up in the exuberantly thrown-about yarn, and somehow or other they’d managed to end up dangling from opposite sides of a roof brace. Haruki’s attempts at struggling free of his set of tangles pulled Mei’s set tighter. She might have had more success at working herself loose if Kenage’s trenchcoat hadn’t snarled up so much, and if Kenage himself wasn’t too busy laughing himself dizzy to help. Nao groaned aloud as she went to look for her sewing scissors.

The sporadic, plaintive yowls from downstairs weren’t helping her concentration any. “I know, I know,” she shouted over a shoulder, digging through the upturned remnants of her desk in a futile quest to tell which direction the sewing drawer had flung its contents in its catastrophic death-throes. “You know, if you idiots hadn’t destroyed the room…!”

Eventually, finally, she found the scissors imbedded in the wallboard behind what had once been a plant stand, and Nao stumped downstairs again, panting with vexation. “All right, I found the scissors; just hold still and…”

…From behind, with that dark coat swirling about them both with each rock and shudder, Nao could have sworn it was Kenage there, bowed over Haruki’s back, making the tawny tom moan and claw at the floor as he arched into each thrust.

“…Oh,” Nao said, rather stupidly, and bit her tongue before but Mei doesn’t have the right parts for that could make its way past her lips. Clearly, they’d found a… mutually acceptable way to… improvise.

…And there was still tinsel-bright yarn tangled around them both.

Kenage reached forward and caught Haruki’s shoulder, biting down on the juncture between shoulder and throat; Haruki cried aloud as he came, crumpling forward to gasp for breath, and Kenage draped himself over the boy’s shuddering frame, purring loud enough that Nao could hear it clear across the room.

…Until he blinked, and swatted again at the tinsel-tangle looped around an ear and twined through the whiskers and snarled around the epaulet-buttons at the shoulders of the trenchcoat.

“Distractible much?” Nao asked, because she just couldn’t help herself.

It’s been a while since I got to play with yarn, Kenage said, defensively.

Haruki made a little muffled sneezing sound. Then he did it again, and then he clamped both hands over his mouth, and only then did they realize that he was trying to stifle giggles.

Kenage tipped Mei’s head this way and that, with a slow, delighted grin turning into a chuckle. Good, he said, and leaned down to nuzzle the boy’s cheek. That’s good. You had me worried for a while there, squirt.

Haruki clutched at Mei’s wrist quickly, desperately. “Don’t go,” he said, and he clearly meant it for an order, but it sounded more like a plea.

I never did, Kenage said, as gentle as they’d ever heard him. But we’ve gone and worn the girls out, you know… oh, come on, dandelion-head, stop that. You know I can’t stand it when you look at me like that.

“I’m s-…”

Mei pinned his head down and started vigorously washing his ears before he could finish the sentence. I said cut that out, Kenage said.

“I… just… I missed you,” Haruki said, miserable. “I missed you so much.”

I’ve always been right beside you, Kenage said. I promised I’d never leave you alone, didn’t I? I’m just not quite as much of a nuisance as I used to be, that’s all… ah, hells, will you quit it with the eyes already? Close your eyes for me. Just for a minute. His voice softened a little. I promise, I’m not going to leave you.

Slowly, unwillingly, Haruki closed his eyes; Mei folded her hands over his heart, and pushed.

It should have been visible somehow, Nao thought. Whatever Mei was doing, it should have left signs — something glowing, or wind, or an energy charge, or something. But she just didn’t have Mei’s extra senses; she couldn’t see anything, or feel anything.

It didn’t surprise her in the least that Mei’s eyes were newly green again, though.

“Can you feel him now?” Mei asked, a little husky-voiced from Kenage’s deeper-pitched purrs; Haruki clutched at her hand, almost panicked.

“I can’t hear him–”

“Probably not while you’re awake,” Mei said. “Just try keeping him out of your dreams, though.” With a vixen’s grin, she added, “I don’t envy your poor sheets!”

“Mei!” Haruki yelped, fiercely embarrassed, with the white hand rubbing at his heart. Then he looked down at his chest in surprise. “…Mei? I think he’s laughing at me; it tickles…”

“You’re the one who wanted him to be more of a nuisance again,” Mei reminded him cheerfully, and then yawned wide enough to pop her jaw. “You two work it out, okay? I’m tucking Nao in before she falls asleep on her feet, poor thing.”

“…Oh.” His whiskers drooped a little. “I was being selfish, wasn’t I. I’m sorry, Nao.” The clothes Mei had chosen for him were still lying on a table; he picked them up and started to wriggle into the slightly-too-snug shirt. “I, um, I guess I’ll… see you around…”

“Wait,” Nao said, and hoped her voice didn’t sound as desperate as she thought. He blinked up at her, one ear still pinned flat by the half-on shirt, and she realized a moment too late, I don’t have anything to keep him here with, do I?

Mei said, “And just where do you think you’re going?”

“Out the back way?” Haruki said, befuddled. “There aren’t as many cameras, and–”

“The right answer,” Mei informed him briskly, “was ‘upstairs.'”

“But you’re going to bed; I should leave n-… oh. Um.” He was just as slow on the uptake as ever, but Kenage must have been leaning on him; rubbing behind an ear, he mumbled, “I’m not sure why, but I’m sorry for something else?”

“That’s better,” Mei said, and pulled his shirt back off. “I’ll tell you why you’re sorry later.”

“Um. Right.”


At some point, Nao was vaguely aware that there was sunlight out, which meant that Mei must have turned off the alarm and she really ought to be awake and going over the stock list to make sure she put in reorders in time for the weekend rushes, except that the warm thing next to her was purring and telling her to go back to sleep, and it sounded like a wonderful suggestion.

The next time she was aware of her surroundings, the warm purring thing had found her favorite brush. Her favorite brush in the whole world, the one with the thick stiff bristles that flexed just enough, so that you could brush hard enough to get a good scratching in without hurting, and her brush was going over her back in long, deep strokes in rhythm with the purr.

“….mmmrrrrRRRRrrrrrrrrr-don’tstoppprrr

rrrRRRrrr…”

“I won’t,” said an amused voice rather deeper than she’d been expecting, and Nao blinked gummy eyes until she realized the fur on the thigh beneath her cheek was tawny-gold.

“Oh — you stayed…? Good,” Nao mumbled, and snuggled closer.

“Mm-hmm.” Haruki was almost anxiously careful with the brush, pausing at the faintest hint of a tangle at her side, coaxing it free so that he could give long, deep strokes over her shoulder, around her ribcage, over her curve. “Mei told me what I was sorry for.”

“…She did, did she.”

“Mmm.” He lifted her arm and brushed from shoulder to fingertips, then settled her hand back against his thigh and resumed his careful attention to her hips and belly, so breathtakingly tender it almost hurt. “I’m sorry I tried to go when you’d wanted me to stay.”

Nao sighed and closed her eyes, trying to cling to the feeling of his warmth and his careful touches, for later. “It’s all right,” she murmured. “I know you can’t stay here.”

“No, but I can stay a little while.” He set the brush down and lifted her just enough to tip to her other side, making sure her head was comfortably pillowed against his thigh again before he resumed brushing. “I… um… I’m sorry we left you out last night, too.”

“Left me out…?”

“…Um. Kenage and I. And kind of Mei. More than ‘kind of’ Mei, I guess, considering, but kind of not… I mean…”

Nao chuckled. “It’s all right. I wasn’t left out. I know how much you’ve missed him.” Slitting one eye open enough to watch his reaction, she teased, “So how were your dreams?”

“I didn’t,” Haruki murmured. “I mean, I didn’t go to sleep. I wanted to… um… watch you. Watch over you, while I can.”

Nao thought irritable things for a moment, but that brush was far too persuasive. “…Twit,” she said with a sigh.

“I know.” He’d brushed her other side smooth from shoulder to hips, and was being sweet and tentative and overcareful about her bulge.

“Mmmm. …More.” She put a hand over his and leaned on the brush to demonstrate; looking a little startled at how much pressure she wanted, Haruki obediently brushed harder, and Nao went limp in pure bliss. “Mmmmrrrrrrrrrrrrrr….”

A rattling noise from the doorway wasn’t quite enough to convince Nao to turn her head; Haruki went tight with nerves, though he kept brushing.

“What is that?” he asked.

Mei padded over and sat on her heels beside them, tail twitching suspiciously perkily. “Oh, just making good on a promise,” she said, and sprayed whipped cream all over him.

“Meiiiiii–!”

“But I promised her a hot date with whipped cream and cherries,” Mei said, wide-eyed. “You wouldn’t want to make me break my promise, would you?”

“Don’t stop brushing,” Nao complained, even as she stretched to see whether she could reach the whipped cream without having to move too much. It smelled too good to resist, though, and Mei was happily sticking cherries in the cream like a row of shirt-buttons despite Haruki’s ears-back indignation. Nao scrunched and stretched and wriggled just enough closer to be able to start licking his chest clean.

“Brush her back,” Mei suggested, bright-eyed. “She goes completely rug-shaped.”

“Rug-shaped?” Haruki sounded just as miserable and confused as he looked, but he tasted irresistable.

“You know. Rug-shaped. Totally flat in bliss, and too limp and boneless to twitch a single whisker in protest!” And Mei was shaking the canister again.

Haruki said, “Mei, I’m not sure that’s a good–” fsssssssst “–yeoooOWWWwrrr~!”

As soon as Nao could take her mind off the completely unexpected sensation of having had whipped cream sprayed under her tail, she realized Haruki had been protesting the fact that she’d sunk all her claws into him at the chilly-soft assault on a very sensitive spot.

“…Ow ow ow shit.” With a sour glare, Haruki asked, “Too boneless to protest, huh?”

“But you quit brushing her,” Mei said. “Go on. Brush some more.”

Carefully retracting her claws, eyes averted, Nao said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s okay. Whipped cream under your tail is just unfair,” Haruki said, rueful, and set the brush at the good spot right between her shoulderblades, and gave a deep, strong stroke right there.

Nao melted.

“See? Rug-shaped,” Mei said, and then buried her nose in the whipped cream between Nao’s thighs and started licking.

The sound Nao made was extremely undignified. Mei sneezed on a giggle, which tickled unfairly. The sensations were nearly overwhelming — the chill of the whipped cream slowly melting-dripping into her fur, and Mei’s hot bristle-soft tongue lapping away at a very intimate spot, and the little tickle of her breath, and she was rubbing the inside of Nao’s thigh at the same time that Haruki was completely unfairly scratching at that good spot between her shoulderblades and brushing her. Long, deep, strong strokes over her shoulder, down her sides, over her hips, over her belly…

Nao really did mean to protest, except that she was shivering all over with the force of her purr.

Mei’s fingertips were as soft as velvet when she kept her claws sheathed, soft and warm and silk-gentle, stroking at her, then gently easing inward. …And the trouble was that Mei had two hands, which should have been outlawed, because the whipped cream went fssssssst! again and then Mei’s hot little tongue was lapping at her navel as though she were the cherry on her own ice cream sundae somehow.

Mewling and panting despite herself, Nao got a double-handful of blankets and hung on tight, since it really wasn’t fair to let her clawing-reflexes gouge up poor Haruki just because Mei came armed and dangerous.

“Mei,” Haruki said, steadying Nao’s shoulders as she stretched for the whipped cream that had caught under his chin. “Are you sure you should… um. I mean. She’s… um…”

Mei barely looked up from licking the whipped cream off Nao’s fur. “It’s therapeutic.”

“It is?”

“Having orgasms,” Mei said, licking her way up the curve. “Helps her body… learn the rhythms for… mmmmmrrr… for birth. So we’re obligated.”

“…Oh.” Haruki took a dutiful, long, deep brush-stroke along her spine, and Nao arched into his hands despite herself.

She was really going to give Mei a tongue-lashing for preying on his well-intentioned-ness like that, as soon as she could manage actual words again.

–And probably after the whipped cream ran out. She knew she wasn’t supposed to have too many empty calories, but it clearly wasn’t her fault when she was being assaulted by the stuff, and oh Mei’s fingers knew too much about where to rub inside. She could feel herself shivering now, knees trembling, claws sunk into their bed — the poor down quilt was never going to be the same.

Mei had licked her way up Nao’s body and was kneading and suckling at her breasts, ignoring Nao’s gasping, pleading noises. Haruki’s brow furrowed at the distress in her voice — but damn it, those were sensitive, too full of milk and… and… oh gods fingers right there and…

“It’s all right,” Haruki soothed, stroking and stroking over her back. “Preparation for the kittens, you know? I’m sure Mei knows what she’s doing. Just relax…”

Oh, Mei knows exactly what she’s doing, Nao thought a little desperately, and damn, I can’t decide whether I ought to strangle her or worship her.

There were little electric jolts running through her at the combination of the suckling and kneading and Mei’s fingers and Haruki so intently brushing the places that made her arch and squirm and pant, and he nuzzled at the nape of her neck at the same time that Mei was rubbing inside, velvet-soft and hot, and the world dissolved into white fireworks.

When she could focus again, Mei looked entirely too smug, especially with the half-lidded eyes and the whipped cream streaked across her cheek. Haruki, the adorable twit, was still carefully, industriously brushing. Her fur was going to be smoother than silk by the time he finished with it.

…Mei still had her fingers in there, Nao realized, when she tried to turn over.

“….Mrrrrt?”

“The really fun thing about being a girl,” Mei said, shaking the evil can of sweet dairy torment, “is that you can keep on having orgasms, you know. Given a little encouragement, that is.”

“…oh, gods. Mei, let me breathe first–”

–fssssst.


The bar opened inexcusably late that day. Nao was still too groggy and half-boneless to protest when the Joker tried teasing her about the lateness, or about what looked like melted whipped cream behind her ear. Sitting on a barstool, leaning heavily on the bar to keep from slipping off into a mocha-colored puddle on the floor, Nao just sighed when the Joker ran a hand down her tail.

“Damn,” he said, “I should’ve brought the cash. That’d be one hell of a hot birthday video.”

“Yes, I’ve got the hottest birthday video ever,” Mei agreed brightly, setting a whiskey in front of Ace. Nao and the Joker blinked in unison.

…say WHAT?”

“You didn’t,” Nao said desperately. “You wouldn’t. You couldn’t have. –Oh gods. Yes, you would — if Kenage’s vidfeed was in the box of his clothes– oh gods–”

Mei just laughed.

“All right, where?” the Joker asked, ears and tail pricked forward eagerly.

“Let’s take a collection,” Mei called to the room at large. “Anyone who wants to see my birthday video on the monitors, come chip in to the better-equipment fund!”

Nao’s howl of protest was totally lost in the horny roar and stampede of bar patrons.

She CAN’T, Nao told herself desperately, despite the fact that Mei had a data chip in her hands and was fiddling with the inputs to the monitor bank. Even if she didn’t get Haruki on the video, his voice is still there, they’d know his voice–

The monitors flickered as they adjusted to a different chroma of video input, and then the video started playing. It was, strangely enough, very green.

…Very, very green.

Nao started laughing despite herself at the poleaxed look on the Joker’s face.

Half a dozen kittens were standing in the grass around a picnic blanket with a cake on it, dutifully singing in a variety of keys: Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you; happy birthday, dear Meeeeiiii…

“…GODDAMMIT I WANT MY MONEY BACK!”

But Mei had already shoved the credit chip down the front of her dress.

The Joker pounced on her. Mei swatted him across the nose and he howled in protest, then lunged again.

Poor Ace had slammed the whiskey in one gulp and had his head buried in both arms on the bar. Nao reached over and scritched his shoulder in commiseration.

“You got exactly what you paid for,” Mei told the Joker, wagging a fingertip in front of his nose. “My hottest birthday video ever! It was over a hundred in the summer that year; we didn’t even get to eat the ice cream before it melted–”

“Sometimes,” Nao murmured to Ace, “you really don’t know whether to love them or strangle them, do you.”

“I’d buy you a drink,” he rumbled, “since you probably could use one, but, well…”

“It’s all right,” Nao said, watching their partners rolling over and over across the bar floor to much catcalling from the crowd. “It’s the thought that counts.”

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