Kit

Part I

by Fel (aka James Galloway)

 

ToC    1

 


Prologue

 

        Silence.

        The wind had died down, leaving only the echo of silence, a memory of sound, as if motion had been quelled in a moment of respect.  The soft snow muffled all other sounds, leaving a strange void, a disjunct wrongness, almost eerie in its totality.

        But only for the briefest of moments.  The sound of someone sniffling shattered the silence, and Kitstrom Lucas Vulpan III opened his eyes and remembered where he was.

        It was cold.  So cold.  His fur was even cold against his skin, and the wind again picked up, slicing through his exposed fur, causing him to huddle deeper into his coat, shivering his tail.

        Cold day for a funeral.

        They were all there, of course.  The entire family, friends, acquaintances, employees, lawyers, hangers-on, golddiggers, the whole nine yards.  The entire Vulpan line stood out in that meticulously preened cemetary, the private Vulpan cemetary, attending the funeral of their patriarch.  Kitstrom Lucas Vulpan II, caretaker of the Vulpan dynasty of Vulpan Shipyards and Vulpan Steel built by his grandfather and father.  He’d died a rich fox, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  One of the richest furs in America, on the top 500 list, dead of a heart attack at 49.

        He could hear the crying.  How much of it was real, and how much of it was just a show?  He always wondered that.   He always wondered how much that bitch of a female pretended to care when she looked into his eyes, and how those eyes changed when they looked at him.  Like he was…an inconvenience.  Oh, his father didn’t care about that.  He didn’t care about love.  After the death of his first wife, Kitstrom’s mother, he married that cold, vicious witch because she was the daughter of a rich British noble, a true blue-blood and a fox.  Cybil Whitmore Vulpan stood there, by the casket, crying uncontrollably, leaning against her father, Count Chester Whitmore.  No doubt lamenting the loss of all that money.

        The priest went on with his long-winded soliloquy, talking about rebirth and repentance, eternal happiness and heaven.  His voice was somber, deep, the big elk raising his hands from time to time as he read from the bible in his paws, his antlers dipping and bobbing with his speech.

        Empty words at a time like this.  The bastard didn’t deserve such comfort.

        He sighed, seeing a cloud of misty breath waft in the cold air before him.  He knew what was coming next.  All those eyes would turn to his sister, Vilenne.  She was the heir, four years his senior and just back from England, she was the one his father had given his stocks, just before he died, she was the one that would have control.  All the gold-diggers, all the toadies, all the sycophants, they would descend on her like flies, trying to ingratiate themselves to her, trying to leech off from the family fortune.

        It was his father’s greatest shame, handing over the family dynasty to his daughter rather than his son.  For the first time in the century-long history of Vulpan Shipyards, a male Vulpan wouldn’t be sitting at the head of the executive table.  It would be Vilenne Vulpan, honor graduate of Harvard Business School, Oxford scholar, and upon her would fall the herculean task of guiding both the family business and the family itself into a new era.

        She could have it.

        He’d never gotten along with his family.  Ever since he was 12, he and his father had barely spoken and usually only in anger, when the young Kit told his father he wanted to join the Air Force and be a fighter pilot.  That was when he found out that his father was a ruthless bastard.  His father made life hell for him after that, forcing him to learn about business, driving him, trying to force him to do something he didn’t want to do.  His father had wanted his male heir to take the reins of the family, a fact that put considerable pressure on the relationship between his father and sister.  But Kit had not budged from his adamant position.  He did not want to go into business.  He did not want to run the family.  His sister was brilliant and motivated, she would be a much better family head than he would ever be.  Years of continuous badgering, force, and heated arguments had eventually led to his outbursts, disobedience, three occasions of him running away, and even several arrests.  It all culminated on his sixteenth birthday, when his father had told him he either took his place as the head of the family, or be disowned.

        Kit walked out the front door with nothing but the clothes on his back and never looked back.

        His father would break out of that coffin and strangle Vilenne if he knew that Kit was at his funeral.  Kit didn’t want to be there himself, but he promised Vilenne, and he could never break his word to his sister.  Besides, in a way, he had to be here.  He had to see them put him into the ground, and know it was over.

        From that day forward, his father was his greatest enemy.  Not content to simply allow Kit to leave, he had done everything in his power to ruin Kit’s life.  No matter where he went, his father’s greasy fingers followed.  From utilities being shut off to his bank accounts being closed or monkeyed with to police harassing him, even to his apartment being repeatedly vandalized and his bike stolen any time he left it unattended, everything that happened had his father’s stain all over it.  His father wouldn’t let him go, trying to punish him as much as possible for rejecting the family, but Kit stood up to it tremendous tenacity, refusing to allow his father to neither run nor ruin his life.

        It wasn’t all bad.  Vilenne sympathized with him, and she helped him after he was disowned, even at the risk of being disowned herself.  She secretly lent him some money, had a friend of hers pay for an apartment in Boston for him, and helped him finish school.  His hope of going to the Air Force Academy had been shattered by his ejection from his family, for his father had to ensure that his son couldn’t get in.  One letter to the Secretary of the Air Force made sure of it.  So he went into the ROTC at the University of Massechusetts instead, enduring even more of his father’s attempts to destroy his rebellious son’s life as his father tried to get him kicked out of school.  He learned how to fly a plane while in college, advancing his dream to fly fighter jets, but then it all crashed down on him in one moment, and his father hadn’t had to lift a finger.

        It was just dumb luck, he supposed.  The wrong place at the wrong time.  The ocelot driving the minivan never saw the light and ran right through it, plowing him and three others over.  Two of the others died, the third was paralyzed from the waist down, and he spent nearly four months in the hospital with a broken back.  And that ended his hopes of flying in the military.  That kind of injury was an automatic blackball, because his back couldn’t withstand the stress of flying high-G maneuvers.

        And that was that.  His dream was dead.  He guessed his father probably danced around his office when he heard the news.  The bastard wouldn’t even pay for his medical bills.  Vilenne had to help him pay them, since he didn’t have insurance, which his father didn’t try to stop when the scandal hit New England that the son of Kitstrom Vulpan had been critically injured, and couldn’t even pay the medical bills to stay in the hospital while in a full body cast.  The social backlash of his father’s cold-heartedness had forced him to relent and allow his sister to pay his bills.  He washed out of ROTC because of his injury, and drifted through school until he graduated with a degree in history.

        Graduation was last week, since he graduated in the fall semester because of his injury.  No doubt the old bastard had kicked when he found out that Kit had managed to graduate from school despite all the roadblocks put in his way.

        He could feel their eyes on him. Dozens of Vulpan eyes, glancing at him, some of them, like Uncle Zach, glaring at him.  He knew they wanted to know why he was there.  Was he there to try to worm his way back into the good graces of the family?  Was he there to apologize?  Was he there to see cousins and aunts and uncles he hadn’t seen in over five years?  He let them wonder.  He was there for only one reason, and that was to see them put his father into the ground.  To see it, to know he was dead, and know that when he left that cemetary, he was free.

        He blinked, realizing that the priest was done talking.  The widow put a single rose on the casket, and then they watched as it was placed in the marble crypt at the base of a thirty foot tall monument.  The old bastard, he even had to be gaudy and ostentatious in death.

        And it was over.

        He sighed, a sigh of relief.  It was over.  The bastard was dead, dead and buried, and he was forever out of Kit’s life.  He could walk away now, walk away and know that his bastard of a father wouldn’t be behind him, stalking him, trying to destroy him.   That he was dead, and may he rot in hell.

        He sensed that they were looking at him, for he’d stepped out from the throng when they lowered the casket down into the crypt and looked down at it, resisting the urge to unzip his fly and piss down onto his father’s casket as a final act of defiance.  His ears twitched, both his whole right ear and his damaged left ear, the top half of which was missing, the remnant border ragged and evil-looking.  He turned away from the casket and looked at his family.  The lot of greedy, haughty, arrogant, stuck up, useless wastes of carbon-based life forms that ever slithered across God’s green earth.  He glared at them, Vulpan eyes staring into Vulpan eyes, but he didn’t say a word.

        He took his paw out of his pocket, then quite deliberately flipped off the entire Vulpan family.

        Then he walked right through them, to a tumultuous array of gasps and angry growls, even a few of his uncles trying to barrel through the clan to get their paws on him, being held back by other family members that didn’t want the battery of paparazzi camped outside the cemetary’s fence to get pictures of the Vulpan family brawling over the grave of their family head like backwood hillbillies, like hungry piranha denuding the corpse of a hapless victim.

        The faster he could get away from them, the better.  If anything, being disowned had been the best thing that ever happened to him.  He hated his family, except for his sister, he hated the way they treated people, he hated the way people sucked up to them.  Vilenne was the only Vulpan outside of himself that didn’t think they were divine royalty, five rungs up the evolutionary ladder from all other furs.  There wasn’t a single non-fox anywhere in their family tree, and his father had been a radical purist, obsessed with keeping their bloodline pure and strong.  Only the most elite and richest fox families who could trace their ancestry back hundreds of years even had a chance to get their children a date with a Vulpan, because of the vehemence of the elders of the family about purity and bloodlines.

        “Kit,” came a familiar call.  He stopped and sighed, then turned around. Vilenne was coming up to him, and he looked away from her when she put her paws on his shoulders.  “I’m glad you could make it, little bro.  I know that couldn’t be easy.”

        “Just be glad Clancy took my flamethrower at the front gate,” he said in a humorless tone.  “Or I’d have nuked that old bastard.”

        “I should have let you have it,” she grinned.  “But only if you fried Cybil along with him.”

        “Amen.”

        “I want to talk to you later, okay?  After the reading of the will.  Once everything’s all settled.”

        “You mean after they read the part that says that anyone caught giving me money or assistance forfeits everything given to them in the will?” he asked bluntly.

        “Yeah, that’s one of the parts they’re going to read,” she said with a wink.  “But that’s just legal hogwash.  He’s dead now, little bro, and I’m the one that’s going to be making the decisions now.  I just don’t want you to think that you’re all alone.”

        He looked into her eyes.  Vulpan eyes.  Her left eye was amber, but her right eye was green, the same as his, the same as her father’s, the same as his father before him.  That unique trait had bred true through every descendent of Arthur Vulpan, Kit’s great-grandfather and the founder of Vulpan Shipyards.  In a way, it was a Vulpan calling card.  All of Kits’ cousins, aunts, uncles, great uncles, and great aunts all had the same eyes, left amber and right green.  If anything, it had been quite a convenient means of squelching frivilous paternity suits brought against Kit’s grandfather back in the day, for he was a notorious skirt-chaser, and no child that didn’t have the Vulpan eyes would even be taken seriously as a bastard child of Kitstrom Vulpan Senior.

        Back before the days of DNA.

        “I like being alone, sis,” he said evenly, looking down into her eyes unwaveringly.  “Aside from you, this family turned its back on me years ago.  I wish I could say I was a better fox than them and forgive them, but it’s just not in me.  Now that the bastard is dead, I can live the rest of my life without worrying about him coming up behind me to destroy it.”

        “I can’t blame you, little bro,” she sighed.  “But I’d like to try to put things right.”

        “Nothing can put things right now, Vil,” he stated.

        “Well, I can,” she said flippantly.  “Suzy told me you packed up your apartment and gave her back the keys.  Where are you going?”

        “West,” he replied.  “Far from here.  Now that he’s dead, I have nothing to worry about.”

        “You got a job?”

        “Not yet.  I’ll just keep going til I find a place I like, and settle in.”

        “Have money?”

        “Sis, I love you, I really do, but I don’t want any money from this family.  Ever.  Except for you, they turned their backs on me, too afraid of losing their trust funds and inheritances.  They don’t care about me.  All they care about is their fortune and their delusions they’re better than everyone else.  Well, I want nothing from them.  If I have to pay my way by washing dishes, well that’s money I know I earned.”

        She gave him a long look, then chuckled softly.  “If father found out you were washing dishes, I think he’d roll over in his grave.”

        “No, he’d probably dance,” Kit grated.  “That bastard did everything he could to ruin my life after I walked out.  He’d see me washing dishes as some kind of just desserts.  Then he’d try to have me fired.”

        “And stain the Vulpan family honor?  Inconceivable!” she said melodramatically, putting the back of her paw to her forehead and looking away.

        “Let it be stained.  It’s about time this family was stained, if only to show the blackness that boils inside their souls.”

        She chuckled, then rose up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek.  “Well, you have my number, little bro,” she told him.  “If you ever need help.”  She fidgeted with the front of his coat.  “If you ever need to talk.” She smoothed out the lapels, then patted him on the shoulders.  “If you ever need a friend, just call me.  But don’t call me collect.  I don’t think I could afford it,” she said with a grin and wink.

        “You’re the only thing I’m regretting leaving behind, Vil,” he admitted, pulling her into a tight embrace.

        “You’re only leaving me behind if you forget about me, Kit,” she said, patting his sides.  “Go out there, bro.  Find your place.  Live.  And if you ever need me, you know where I am.  I’ll never turn my back on you.”

        “That means a lot to me.”

        “When are you leaving?”

        “Now.  My bus leaves in two hours.  It’ll take me that long to walk down to the bus stop and catch a metro to the bus station, then change.  I don’t think I want to ride the bus in a suit.”

        “Walk?  Bro, I’ll have Rogers drive you.”

        “No.  Six years ago, I walked out out the front door.  I’ll walk again.  That way, I can leave this place with my conscious clear.”

        She sighed, then nodded.  “It’s a long walk.”

        “I’m used to walking.”

        “Send me postcards?”

        “Every time we stop,” he promised.

        “I’d really like that.  Kit…are you sure you don’t need any help?”

        “Well, you could buy the postcards.  I’m on a tight budget,” he smiled.

        “Done,” she chuckled.  She opened her tiny purse and took out a hundred dollar bill, and pushed it to him.  “It’s the smallest I have, bro, so deal with it.  And I expect a hundred dollars’ worth of postcards,” she winked.

        “You’ll get them.  I promise.”

        He leaned down and gave her a long kiss on the cheek, then hugged her one last time.  “I have to go, sis.  Keep it real, okay?”

        “I know Boston is nothing but a bad memory, but always remember that this is your home, little bro,” she told him.  “And I’ll always be here when you need me.”

        “Just promise me one thing.”

        “Anything.”

        “Don’t turn into him.”

        “That is my solemn vow, bro,” she said, pushing away enough to look up into his eyes.  “If I do, may God make my fur fall out.”

        He chuckled.  “Be good, sis.”

        “I expect to see a postcard in the mail soon.”

        “You will.  I promise.”

        He turned and walked away, towards photographers snapping hundreds of photos, his face resolute, her face regretful.

        Just more fodder for the tabloids.

        But finally.  Finally, it was over.  The bastard was dead, and he was free.

 

 

ToC    1

 

 


To:   Title    ToC            2

Chapter 1

 

        The restaurant was busy, loud with the clatter of dishes and conversation, and thick with both smoke from cigarettes and the smoke wafting from the open grills.  It was Friday night, and that was always busy at the Double J Steakhouse, just outside the Northcross mall in Austin, Texas.  Customers could see their steaks sizzling on open grills in the back of the dining area, the kitchen doors just beside the grill array where red-shirted waiters and waitresses rushed back and forth to bring orders to their tables.  There was quite a long line of customers waiting to get in, and that put the manager in a knot to get the tables turned over and ready for the next customers.

        Kit wiped his brow, blew out his breath, and heaved up his large basin of dirty dishes, then set it on his hip as he wiped the table down.  Bussing tables was a harsh business, but on Fridays it was murder because they were so busy.  He hefted the full basin over his head and threaded his way through a narrow aisle mined with the tails of the patrons jutting out from their open-backed seats.  He apologized his way through the throng and then hurried back to the kitchen, narrowly avoiding a ferret female waitress with brown hair who almost crashed into him carrying a tray of dishes, then set the basin down on the track and started feeding dishes through the opening and back to the dishwashers.

        Fifteen more minutes.  Fifteen more minutes, and he was done for the day.  He kept telling himself that over and over again.

        He caught his reflection in the chrome of the freezer by the dish window, and frowned.  His reddish hair was all wild again, sticking to his right ear, and he still couldn’t help but look at the void where the tip of his left ear should have been.  Even after two years, he still wasn’t used to seeing it gone.  It was because he could only see it in a mirror, he reckoned, since was used to seeing the jagged white-furred scar on his right arm, just below his elbow and running halfway to his wrist, and the two white streaks of fur in his left arm where his fur had grown back over the wounds, but had come back in white instead of red.

        Ancient history.

        Vil had offered to pay for reconstructive surgery to replace the tip of his left ear, but he’d declined.  He couldn’t afford it, and he’d be damned if he took a penny of money from his family where his life didn’t hang in the balance.  He let her pay for the hospital bills when they put him back together, but he wouldn’t allow her to pay to fix his ear.

        “You better get moving before the Blimp catches you daydreaming,” Candice teased as she came up to him.  Candice was a rather cute doe with pretty brown eyes and a darling smile.

        “I only have fifteen more minutes,” he answered.  “And two more days.”

        “Yeah, I heard about that.  I’m gonna miss you, hon,” she said, putting her paw on his shoulder.  “Sure you can’t hang around?”

        He shook his head.  “I put back enough money to move on,” he told her.  “I haven’t run out of west yet, so I’d like to keep going.”

        She laughed.  “Well, there’s only desert from here west,” she grinned.  “Til you hit the Pacific, anyway.”

        “Yeah.  I’m kinda looking forward to seeing it.”

        “I wish I could do what you’re doing,” she said as she started unloading dishes from her own basin.  “See the world, one odd job at a time.”

        “Do it,” he prompted.

        “Not til I finish school, I won’t,” she laughed.  “I’ve only got one more year to go!  After that, I might look at doing it.”

        “It’s been fun so far,” he told her, hefting his empty basin.  “Let me get out there.  I can do one more sweep before quitting time.”

        Out on the floor, he worked quickly and efficiently, collecting up plates and glasses, and enduring the occasional stare.  His eyes were unusual, he knew it, and he was a little used to people either staring at his eyes or gawking at his left ear an the white hair and fur around it.  The Blimp, a fat bear that served as the night manager, prowled the area, watching him and the waitresses to make sure they were doing their jobs, but it didn’t really phase him.  Kit did his job and he didn’t slack.  He put in effort for the time he was paid, unlike some others in the restaurant.  He moved to another table and quickly started clearing it, slipping aside as Alice, a cute little black mouse, grabbed up her tip from the table before moving on to check on her other customers.  He cleared five more tables, then hefted his heavy burden up onto his shoulder and picked his way back to the kitchen, then started unloading the dishes onto the conveyer.  Once that was done, he saw he had five more minutes, so he stacked some clean plates into the dish dolley for the waitresses, then stacked a few carts of clean glasses onto the pallet.  But when the clock hit 7:00pm, he threw his towel over his shoulder and headed straight for the time clock.  He punched out, went back and washed his hands, then changed out of his red shirt in the bathroom.  He retrieved his backpack from the office, then headed out the employee’s door in the back.

        He usually didn’t bail that fast, but he had an appointment today.

        He walked the two blocks to the Java Joint, an internet café where he’d applied for a job but never got a callback, ordered a cup of tea, then sat down and opened his laptop.  It was the only really expensive thing he owned, a gift from Vil for Christmas not two weeks after he left Boston, but he was glad she sent it.  Using the laptop, they could correspond via email and video, using a videoconferencing program she’d had installed on the laptop before she sent it to him.  All he needed was a broadband connection, and lucky for him this café was a wireless hotspot.  He did more than just that on it, though.  He started keeping a journal of his travels, people he’d met, things he’d seen, writing it all down, and he had to admit, a game of Solitaire or Hearts or Civilization made monotonous days go by a little faster.  He started up the videoconferencing program, flipped the cover on the built-in webcam open, then waited for a connection, then smiled as Vil’s face appeared in the window.  He seated the headset on his face a little, then cut in the audio as he adjusted the microphone that hovered near his muzzle.

        “Hey sis,” he greeted.  “You get my postcard?”

        “Sure did,” she answered.  “Is that thing real?”

        He laughed.  “Sure is.  I saw it. It’s made out of plaster.”

        “I’m not surprised,” she grinned.  “So, how’s life been treatin’ ya, little bro?”

        “Oh, same as always,” he told her.  “I just got off work.”

        “Oh?  Where you working?”

        “Bussing tables at a steakhouse,” he answered.

        She sighed.  “Bro, you have a degree.  Couldn’t you at least try to get something a little more, well, dignified?”

        “It’s hard to get those kinds of jobs quick, Vil,” he told her.  “They like to interview, then call, and then interview.  At least at the Double J, I had a job ten minutes after I filled out the application.  I needed the money.”

        “And whose fault is that?” she teased, giving him a grin.

        “All mine,” he said immediately.  “I didn’t budget very well, and it didn’t help that I got fired from that Wendy’s in Houston.”

        “You got fired?  Why?”

        “Because they were breaking health regs, and I blew the whistle on ‘em,” he answered.

        “Isn’t that illegal?”

        “In the real world it is.  For us wage slaves, there’s nothing we can do about it.  What are we gonna do, hire a lawyer?”

        She shook her head.  “Don’t get me started, Kit,” she warned.  “You know how I feel about that.”

        “That’s your problem,” he grinned, then he scratched the side of his muzzle.  “Just to warn ya, I’m moving on again next week.”

        “You never gave me your address there,” she complained.  “How can I keep up with you?”

        “It keeps you from sending me any packages without my consent,” he teased.

        “Well, you can’t blame me for being worried about you, little bro.”

        “I appreciate that.  How’s work?”

        “Bleh,” she grunted, sticking her tongue out, which always made him chuckle.  She had a habit of doing that when she was thinking about something unpleasant.  “I fired Bundowski yesterday.  That little bastard was trying to sell off the Baton Rouge foundry without my approval, probably some kind of kickback scheme.  So he’s toast.  Want his job?  All yours.”

        “No thanks,” he said with a shudder.

        “Outside of that, it’s going pretty well.  I’m looking at buying a shipyard in New Orleans called Avondale right now, and the New Hampshire shipyard just won a new Navy contract.”

        “Sounds risky.  I passed through New Orleans a few months ago, and it’s still kinda crazy down there, even after all this time since the hurricane.”

        “Yeah, but they’re offering a pretty attractive price, and the shipyard comes with quite a few Navy contracts.  I could send down some people from the New Hampshire and Virginia yards and get them restaffed quick.  I’d just have to ram the merger approval through the Department of the Navy.  They have to approve shipyard transactions where there’s active contracts.”

        “Sounds like you more or less made up your mind.”

        “Yeah, I’m kinda leaning towards buying it,” she nodded, then she adjusted her microphone a little.  “Just waiting for the cost benefit analysis to see if the numbers crunch the right way.  So, met anyone lately?” she winked.

        “What is this?  The Ice Queen, asking about my love life?” he teased.

        “Oh, bite me, bro,” she said, sticking her tongue out at him.  “I’m busy now.  I had my flings in college, I’ll have you know, but I’m too busy right now to date.”

        “I haven’t really dated either.  Most femmes aren’t too keen on going out with a fox like me, who’ll be gone next month.”

        “You’d be surprised,” she winked.  “Aunt Sarah is sure trying to push me off on Steven Vastonne,” she said, her tongue peeking out again.  “What a stuck-up, insenstive, pig-headed prick.”

        “But he’s got the blood,” Kit said with a frown.

        “And so Aunt Sarah keeps pushing him,” Vil sighed with a nod.  “I think I’m gonna marry this cute raccoon I saw down at Wal-Mart the other day,” she mused.

        Kit almost spewed tea all over his laptop.  “Half the family would die of a heart attack!”

        “Yeah.  Almost makes it worth doing, doesn’t it?”

        Kit laughed.  “What were you doing in Wal-Mart?” he asked curiously.  “Isn’t that a little lowest common denominator for you?”

        “Hey, I needed a new blackberry battery and it was right there,” she protested, tapping her muzzle with her forefinger.

        “They have everything made in China, if it’s cheap,” he grinned.  “I shop there all the time.”

        “If you show up with a yellow smiley face sticker, I’ll disown you myself,” she warned.

        He laughed.

        “Kit,” she said, a bit more seriously.  “I want to send you something.”

        “No.”

        “Hear me out,” she said, putting her hand up.  “I want to send you a cell phone.”

        “I don’t really need one, sis.  I have the laptop.”

        “Yeah, but you can’t use it everywhere.  I, I don’t like the idea of you out there without some kind of way to contact me in an emergency.  I promise I’ll only send you the phone, and I’ll take care of the bill.  That way you can always call someone if you have an emergency.  Me, the cops, 911, whoever you need to.  Will you let me?”

        He turned it over in his mind, then finally nodded.  “Alright.  I’ll let you send it.  But if there’s anything else in that box, I’ll come back up there and spank you.”

        “Well, now I know how to get you to come home,” she teased.  “Let me get a pen so you can give me your address.”

        “Won’t work, sis, I’m staying in a mission,” he warned.  “They don’t take deliveries.”

        “Hmm.  Give me the address anyway, and also where you’re working now.  I’ll take care of it.”

        “How?”

        “Think like a Vulpan, silly boy,” she winked.  “The mission may not take deliveries, but you will.  I’ll run a messenger down there with it.  If I have both addresses, that way he can find you no matter where you are when he arrives.”

        “You’re gonna make someone fly down here just to give me a phone?”

        “Sure am,” she grinned.  “It’s the Vulpan way.”

        “I’m glad I’m out of that family,” he grunted, which made her laugh.

        “Hey!  No insulting your big sister!”

        “When you’re deserving of it, you will be insulted,” he teased.

        She stuck her tongue out at him.  “I’ll try to get it down there tomorrow morning.  That work for you?”

        “I have to be at work at ten.”

        “Well, I know you’re not much of an early riser.  Mind if he gets it to you at work instead?”

        “That’s fine.”

        “Okay, give me the address.”

        “I’m not sure of the exact street address, sis.  But it’s the Double J Steakhouse just across from the Northcross mall here in Austin.”

        “That’s all I need.  He’ll find it,” she promised.  “Where are you going from there?”

        “I really don’t know.  I’ll jump on the bus and get off when the mood hits me.”

        “Sometimes I wonder how you do it.”

        “It’s actually not that bad.  I’ve been keeping a journal of it on the laptop.”

        “Oooh!  Send it to me!  I wanna read it!”

        “Well, sure, okay.  I’ll email a copy to you tonight.  That okay?”

        “Fine, fine.  Now I get to see the world through your eyes,” she grinned.  “It should be really cool!”

        He laughed.  “No wonder you drove that old bastard crazy.  You sure don’t speak like a Vulpan.  Six years of private school and proper English lessons, down the drain.”

        She laughed brightly.  “At least you haven’t lost your Boston accent!” she teased.  “I should send a cah down for you, bro!”

        “It’s not that bad,” he said defensively.  “Six months in the south has taken the edge off of it.”

        “But I can still hear it,” she winked.  “Hate to say it, little bro, but I’m gonna have to cut this short.  I have some reports to go through before bed, and it’s getting late here.  What time is it there?”

        “Around eight.  It’s, what, nine there?”

        She nodded.  “I’m looking at three hours of boring reports before bed.  And I want to read some of your journal too.”

        “Alright.  I’ll look for that messenger tomorrow.”

        “Okay, bro.  Send me those files, okay?”

        “They’re on their way as soon as we finish.”

        “Then start sending it,” she grinned.  “Okay, next appointment,” she said, holding up her blackberry.  “Wednesday, any time after six.  That work for you?”

        “I’ll be on a bus.”

        “Damn.  Well, I’ll just call ya, okay?  Since you’ll have a new phone,” she winked.

        “Heh.  Alright, sis.  Talk to you later.  Love you.”

        “Love ya, bro.  Be good.”

        Her picture vanished from the window, replaced by a big black screen with DISCONNECTED blinking within it.  He put his black-furred paws together over the laptop and laced his fingers, then set his muzzle atop them, lost in thought.  A phone.  He couldn’t disagree with her reasoning, and that was the only reason he accepted it.  It would be a little safer.  And knowing his sister, it would be one of those phones that would work anywhere in the entire world, like hers.  That global plan deal.  Although…it would give the family a means to get in touch with him, if they ever wanted to bother him.

        Not that would happen, really.  The old bastard’s hand kept reaching out from the grave to keep Kit separated from the others.  The aid clause was still in the will.  Anyone caught giving him anything they got from their inheritances could have it taken away.  Vil was the only one who dared to go against the will, but that was because she was the one in control of the family business, and she’d aleady threatened to take the entire family to court to have the will invalidated and make her executor if anyone in the family dared try to get her cut out.

        She could do it.  Vil was a sweet femme, loving and considerate, but she could be as tenacious as a wolverine when she was angry, she was a genius, and she had the Vulpan ruthlessness when it came to business.  That’s how she got the nickname “The Ice Queen,” because she could be a cold bitch when dealing with people she didn’t like, and when she was at work, she was all business.  The family was afraid of her, because they knew that if she threatened to do it, that meant she was confident she could pull it off.  And none of them were particularly keen on the idea of having Vilenne Vulpan, the Ice Queen, in control of their money.

        Such a misleading nickname, he often thought.  Vil got that nickname while in school because of her icy demeanor when dealing with boys looking to try to woo a rich femme, a Vulpan no less, and some reporter had latched onto it when she took over as the CEO of the family business.  It was an indication of his sister’s personality.  In private, she was warm, funny, kind, and sweet, but in public, she was every inch a Vulpan.  Cool, calculating, dangerous, and almost ruthless.  For the first few months, she needed that cold nature to sweep out the lackeys and sycophants from the company and weed out the backstabbers like Bundowski, those who wouldn’t accept the young female as their boss, or thought they knew better than a wet-nosed little kit that was just out of college.  She cleaned house quickly, and now had the company running smoothly the way she wanted it.  But under it all, she was still Vil, his big sis, who had been a shoulder to cry on when their mother died when he was eight, and the reassuring, steadying presence in his life that served as more than a sister.  She’d become more protective of him after their mother died, more like a mother herself than a sister, and she was still the only member of his family that he could honestly say he loved.

        The rest of them could go to hell.

        He blinked, and remembered he made a promise.  He sent the files holding his journals as a series of emails to her, one for each state he’d visited since leaving Boston, then shut down the laptop and closed it.  He finished his tea, then simply sat there a moment and listened to Bunvayne playing over the speakers as the song finished up.

 

        “Oooh, look at him, JD!” Sandy squealed in a low whisper, elbowing her and pointing.  The chinchilla leaned in close to her, almost cheek to cheek.  “That missing piece of his ear makes him look so dangerous, doesn’t it?  I wonder if he’s one of those rough types.”

        “Sandy,” Jessie sighed.  “The last thing I need right now is another rough type.”

        “Yeah, well, it was just a thought,” she said, a little less enthusiastically.

        That was really the last thing she needed.  Burke had been cute too, with rugged wolf looks and a good bod, but the instant he dared to slap her during an argument, it was over immediately.  She wouldn’t put up with that kind of treatment, and besides, her brother would have killed him if she ever told him it happened.

        Really.  Why did some males think that hitting a female was a way to win an argument?

        She hadn’t really wanted to come out, but Sandy could be a real pest sometimes.  She knew what happened, and she felt it was some kind of moral obligation to help her sorority sister.

        A lop bunny sat down on the far side of Sandy and started making small talk.  Sandy was insufferably cute and perky, and she could talk to strangers like that.  She was so fearless!  But, it gave Jessie a moment to secretly look at that fox again, without Sandy pointing out body parts and making all kinds of lewd observations.  Something about him…tickled at her.  He seemed vaguely familiar to her, somehow.  She didn’t know how.  Had he stood behind her in line down at the cafeteria?  Had he been in one of her classes?  She’d seen him before, she was certain of it.

        Well, he was kinda cute.  He was a bit more rugged than most foxes, with a slightly broader muzzle, and looked a little taller too.  And his furry arms were a little bigger than the usual college student.  This guy worked out.  He shifted his arms, and she realized he had a jagged white stripe in the fur of his forearm, ending just before the color of his fur changed to form the dark mittens on their paws common among foxes.

        “Scars,” Sam said as she sat down beside them, adjusting her round-lensed glasses.

        “Huh?” they asked in unison.

        “The white stripes on his arm.  Those are scars.  Probably gotten the same time he lost that piece of his ear.”

        “Says you, miss Pre-Med,” Sandy grinned.  “And who says we were looking at him?”

        “Mmm-hmm,” the skunk intoned, staring directly at the small gray chinchilla.

        Sandy’s cheek fur ruffled slightly, which made her eyes flash.  Somehow, Sam could always do that to Sandy, despite the fact that Sandy was one of the most fearless femmes Jessie had ever met in her life.

        “We should go say hi to him,” Sandy said with a conniving grin.

        “You mean you want me to go say hi to him,” Jessie corrected.

        “Sure, go for it!  He’s cute, and now we know he’s not a rough type!”

        “He’s got some money, too.  That’s a Sabletech DV laptop. Those things are expensive,” Sam reasoned.

        “That’s just another good reason!” Sandy said in an excited whisper.  “Go on!”

        “I,” she hedged.  He was cute, that was for sure, but something told her…he didn’t want to be bothered.  “No.  He seems like he’s just fine.  I don’t think we should bother him.”

        “You are such a chicken!” Sandy said, then she got up, adjusted her tanktop, and then marched right towards him.

        “Sandy!” Jessie said in a strangled whisper, her fur already ruffling out.  She was going to do it!  She was really going to go over there and try to set them up!

 

        Lost in the rhythms of the song, imagining in his head the chords he’d have to use to play the guitar component of the song, Kit was oblivious to the world.  Music had been one of his few escapes from reality since he left home.  The hammering of the drums, the melodic rise and fall of the lead instruments, the angst and anguish in the voice of the lead singer, they merged with the haunting lyrics to form a ballad of loss and dejection.

 

                Nobody knows me.

                Nobody cares.

                Nobody sees me.

                Nobody stares.

 

                I’m lost in the world.

                I’m lost in my head.

                I’ve lost my girl.

                I’ve no tears to shed.

 

                Come back to me;

                My Dark Angel.

                We were meant to be;

                My Dark Angel.

                Take my soul with you.

                Before you return

                Before you return.

.

                Return to hell.

 

        The lyrics were vague, but Kit could see the heart of them.  A male had lost his soulmate, not to a breakup, but in death, and he mourned and hoped for death so they could be reunited.  The artist’s use of non-rhyming lyrics in the chorus was unusual, holding the rhymic finishing lyric until the very end of the song, but it provided extra impact, more emphasis on the core of the song’s meaning.

        It was very clever.

        He really needed to practice more with the guitar.  He could play it some, but he was nowhere near good enough to play in public and not feel like an idiot.  Besides, singing had always been his strong suit.  His family said he had a good voice, and he actually rather liked it.  Too bad he was born to a father who thought music was a waste of time and energy, and refused to allow him to take band or join a chorus or anything like that.

        “Hi!”

        Kit started, almost knocking his teacup off the table.  He found himself staring up at a gray-furred chinchilla with large brown eyes, round ears with three piercings, and a huge grin.  That grin slipped off her face when he looked up at her, and then she suddenly clapped her hands and gave out a little squeal.

        “Your eyes are beautiful!” she exclaimed, reaching down and putting her paws over his wrists.  “I’ve never seen anyone with two different colored eyes before that weren’t faked with contacts!  Were you born that way?”

        “I, uh, yeah,” he said, trying to get his bearings.  She talked a thousand words a minute, and it was hard to keep up with her.  “Uh, thanks for the complement.”

        “You come here often?”

        “Just a few times.  It’s the only place I can use the internet.”

        “Aww, nuts, I thought you were in U.T.”  U.T. was the University of Texas, which was down on the south side of Austin, right by the state capitol.

        “No, I went to U-Mass,” he corrected with a shake of his head.

        “I thought you were a Yankee,” she teased, patting his wrists.  “I can hear it in your accent.”

        “Guilty,” he said with a chuckle.

        “So, can I sit a minute?”

        “I guess so,” he shrugged.

        She seated herself across from him.  “It’s nice to meet a guy first, without him coming over and laying all kinds of corny lines on us,” she grinned.  “Sorry I scared ya.”

        “I was listening to the music.  I zone out sometimes when I’m doing it.”

        “My sis does the same thing.  Then again, she’s a music major.  I think she’d marry some of those classical composers if they were dug out of their graves.”  She gave him a devious little grin.  “Now, let’s get down to business.”

        “Business?”

        “Yeah.  My friend over there just broke up with her asshole of an ex-boyfriend,” she said, pointing to his left.  “She’s cute, and she’s available.  You’re cute, you don’t look like you’re attached, and I thought you might like to ask her out.”

        He glanced over.  In a booth against the wall, just under a movie poster of Star Wars, two femmes were sitting.  One of them was a rather serious looking skunk, with large round glasses, kinda cute in a studious sort of way, and the other was a cream-furred female cat, but she had blond hair, black ears, and black mittens on her paws.  Her blue eyes were wide, her face fur was virtually standing on end, and she looked mortified.

        She was gorgeous.

        In one glance, he took her in.  She was wearing a blue designer shirt and a silver bracelet on her right wrist.  Her hair was perfectly cut and styled in a long side-parted poof that hovered over her eyes, tucked up under her opposite ear.  She was very shapely from what he could see of her, filling out her shirt nicely.

        Though she was the most beautiful femme he’d ever seen, he just wasn’t sure he was ready to even try to talk to her.  He wasn’t just worried that he wasn’t ready to enter the dating scene, but there was a very real fear about how his family would react if their disowned embarrassment started taking up with a cat.  He may not be a part of the family anymore, but he could still be a liability to their reputation.

        “Well, her boyfriend must have been an utter idiot to let someone like her slip through his fingers,” he said evenly, looking back at the chinchilla.  “She’s beautiful.”

        “So, that’s even more reason to go introduce yourself,” the chinchilla pressed, grabbing his paw.  “Come on, I’ll introduce you!”

        “No thank you,” he said, with sincere regret.  “I’m leaving in a few days, so I’m afraid I’m not exactly what she’d be looking for.”

        “Aww!  You’re leaving?  Going back to Massachusetts?”

        He shook his head.  “I’m going west.”

        “Where?”

        “I don’t know yet.  I’ll go until I find a place that, well, invites me to stop.  Then I’ll stay there a while and try to find out why it wanted me there,” he said, a distant look in his eyes.

        “How romantic!  So you just go until you find a place to stop?”

        He nodded.

        “Wow, what a way to live!  Imagine everything you get to see and do.  It’s like living a vacation!”

        “Until you get hungry or need someplace to sleep.  Then this little issue called money shows up and spoils it,” he chuckled.

        “Well, why don’t you go over there and talk to my friend JD,” she offered.  “Maybe you can sweep her off her feet and take her with you,” the chinchilla purred to him.

        “Girls like her won’t have anything to do with people like me,” he said evenly, but with a hint of finality.  “She has a life and friends.  All I have is the road.”

        “Well, if you sweet-talked me enough, I might break up with Bobby and tag along,” she winked.

        He chuckled.  He patted her paw, then leaned in and kissed her lightly on the cheek.  “It’s a tempting offer, but I’ll have to pass.  And it’s time for me to go.  Thank you for a wonderful chat, uh…”

        “Sandy,” she said, taking his paw and shaking it.

        “Kit,” he smiled.

        She giggled.  “Kit?  Your parents named you Kit?  That’s like JD’s parents naming her Kitten, or—“

        “Why does everyone always say that,” he sighed, throwing his paws up in exasperation.

        “Well, because—“

        “I know why,” he cut her off, which made her giggle again.  He stood up and picked up his laptop, then smiled down at her.

        “Why would they do something like that to you?”

        “It’s short for something that’s even worse,” he said with a shudder.  He hated his name, and he wouldn’t go by his middle name because that’s what his bastard of a father was called.

        “Oooh, what?”

        “Never in a million years,” he said with finality, then he pushed in his chair.

        “Maybe you can come back tomorrow and we can talk some more?” she asked.

        “I work up until I leave.  I doubt I’ll have time.  Night, Sandy.  It was nice meeting you.”

        “You too!”

        And with that, he extricated himself from the talkative chinchilla.  He passed right by the booth holding the skunk and the cat, and he couldn’t help but look at her one more time.  Her cheek fur poofed out almost instantly when she looked at him, but he just gave her a genuinely compassionate smile, and said not a word to her.  Lord knows, her friend probably embarrassed her half to death already.

        Such a beautiful cat.  The sad part was, most of him really wanted to sit down next to her in that booth and talk to her, but he knew that that was something he’d better not visit on some poor unsuspecting girl.  If she knew about him, she might consider him to be lying, just pretending, then the awful reality would hit and she’d be besieged by tabloid reporters and angry Vulpans threatening her to stay away from one of their own. Even if he was disowned, he was still blue-blood, and no feline tramp should even dare look in his direction, they’d tell her.

        He wouldn’t drop that hell on her, no matter how beautiful she was, or how much he might want to sit in that booth and talk to her.

 

        “So, what did he say?” Sam asked with uncharacteristic curiosity as Sandy came drifting back to the table.

        “He’s so romantic!  He’s working his way across the country, just stopping wherever he pleases.  He said he knows to stop when the town invites him to stay.  Wow!” she gushed.  “Did you see his eyes?  Weren’t they gorgeous?”

        “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Sam said clinically.  “At least not in person.  I’ve seen pictures of it in my medical journals, though.  It’s a genetic mutation.”

        “Oh, stop trying to make it all science-y!” Sandy complained.  “Can’t you see the beauty just for beauty’s sake?”

        “JD?  JD?  Hello?” Sam said, waving her white-mittened paw in front of the cat’s face.  Jessie blinked, then glanced at the skunk.

        He was so handsome.  Even with the scars and the missing ear, he was a handsome fox, and his eyes were—wow.  They were beyond gorgeous.  She looked at him, and she wasn’t even able to talk.  It was almost, well, intimidating.  But that wasn’t new for her, since she was naturally shy to begin with.

        And again, this strange, nagging feeling that she’d seen him somewhere before.

        “Oh yeah, she likes him,” Sandy grinned.  “I should have asked where he works!” the chinchilla said, smacking herself in the forehead.

        “I’ve…seen him before,” Jessie said slowly, blinking and looking at the table.  “I don’t know where.  But I have.”

        “Probably bumped into him at the Circle K,” Sam noted.

        “Maybe.”  Or maybe not, she mused to herself.

 

        Early shift at the Double J was busy in one way, relaxing in another.  It was their job to set up the restaurant to open, which was pretty easy.  Kit did whatever needed to be done, from setting out chairs to cutting up vegetables in the kitchen to vacuuming the carpets.  The Blimp didn’t work days, instead it was Sheila, a mongoose with a pretty laid-back disposition, so much so she brought a Game Boy with her to work and often played it in corners during lulls.  Unlike the Blimp, she trusted her crew and knew everything would get done, and she allowed them to go about it without trying ot loom over them and micro-manage.  That was why Kit always smiled when he saw he was on dayshift.

        He was a little distracted today, though.  He’d already warned Sheila that someone was going to come see him and he might need about ten minutes when they arrived, and she was alright with it.  He kept an eye on the door while they were getting ready to open, but got busy in the kitchen helping them change out a gas cylinder for the fountain drink machine, because the fitting was stripped and they couldn’t get the hose off.

        Saturday was slow at first, but it got busy quick after about one o’clock, so it was important to get all the little things done before they got slammed.  They also usually had a short-handed staff until about one o’clock, which was why Kit worked wherever he was needed when there weren’t any dishes to clear.

        “Hey, Kit!” Sheila boomed from the door to the dining room.  “Those people you said were coming are here to see ya!”

        “Sure, hold on a minute!” he called back.  “We almost got this fixed!  Okay, hold it steady, Lucy, let’s try one more time.”  His arms quivered as he struggled to unscrew the fitting, then the nut cracked and it turned with a light squeal of protest.

        “My hero!” the cougar said with a laugh, patting him on the shoulder.  “I can get it from here, cutie.  Go take care of whatever that is boss wants.”

        Kit came out of the back cleaning his hands on a rag, then almost fell over!

        There, flanked by two large panthers in dark suits, wearing a serious gray dress skirt and blazer and holding a briefcase, was Vil!

        “Sis!” he said in surprise as she lowered her sunglasses, showing him the family eyes.

        She laughed and slammed into him, giving him a rough hug.  “Little bro!” she called.  “It’s so good to see you!”

        “I never dreamed—“

        “That’s why I did it,” she grinned.  “You’re so thin!  And look at this!” she said, picking at his red uniform shirt.  “Red does not look good on you, bro.  You need to talk to whoever gave you this.”

        He laughed.  “I seriously doubt they’d listen,” he said.  “What are you doing here?”

        “Do you have any idea how hard you are to track down?” she complained.  “I haven’t seen you in six months either!”

        “You see me every week.”

        “Well, I can’t hug you ever week,” she added, giving him a little squeeze, but careful not to put any pressure on his back.  “Now give your big sister a kiss!” she ordered, tapping her cheek imperiously.

        He laughed and did as he was commanded, kissing her on the cheek.

        “Where’s your boss?  I want to talk to him.”

        “Her.  And don’t you dare,” he warned in a serious tone.

        “I won’t say a word,” she said, sticking her tongue out at him.  “Just go have a seat.  I want to make sure you won’t get in trouble if you sit down and talk with me a while.”

        “Well, alright,” he acquiesced.  He went over and sat down at the nearest table, but Vil’s two panther escorts didn’t move from the front door.  Vil stood near the kitchen door with Sheila for a few minutes, chatting with her, and they both looked over at him once.  Then she laughed and nodded, then went back into the kitchen.

        “There, all taken care of,” she said, putting her briefcase on the table.  She opened it and took out a box holding a Motorola phone.  “Here you are,” she told him.  “It’s on a satellite plan, bro.  It’ll work almost anywhere.  Use it however you want.  The number for the phone is on a post-it stuck to the phone inside the box.  I have my work, home, and cell numbers in its address book, and a few other numbers you might want to have.”

        “Like?”

        “Like Clancy, for one.  He basicly helped me raised you, bro.  He’s been really worried about you.”

        “You mean you helped him raise me,” Kit grinned.

        “Technicalities,” she said with a dismissive wave of her paw, which made him laugh.  “Now, I’ve totally murdered my entire schedule for next week, so let’s make it worth it.”

        He did.  They talked over nearly two hours, about anything and everything.  He told her all about his travels and what he’d seen and done, and she went into exhaustive detail about work and home.  She told him all about the little war going on in the family over the will, and there were already a couple of lawsuits filed over this or that cousin that felt he was unfairly cut out.  It also turned out that their bastard father’s brothers and sisters also felt a little upset that they weren’t given the company to operate, going instead to his daughter, and she felt that two of their uncles, Kitstrom Jacob and Kitstrom Zachary, might try to challenge the will in court.

        “They don’t have a prayer, but it could be a little distracting,” she snorted.  “There was an executor clause in his power of attorney that transferred all the shares over to me before he died.  Hell, the board at the company approved it long before it happened.  I was the next in line way before dad’s health started going on him.  That torpedos their lawsuit right there.  The way I was given the shares makes it impossible for them to try to get them through the court, and I’ve already hired Ursus and Vorick to look into invalidating dad’s will.”

        Kit whistled.  “Expensive.”

        “Yeah, well, Clancy brought me a copy of an email Cybil sent to her father looking at the possibility of getting me cut out through the back door, because of you, and also a way to try to invalidate the pre-nup so she can lay a claim on the inheritance.  So I’m going to beat her to the punch.  And since the family’s all pissed off over what they didn’t get, I guess I’ll just have to void Dad’s will and take control of everything myself.  And since I was given control of the company while he was still alive, there’s not a damn thing Uncle Jake and Uncle Zach can do about it.”

        “I’m sorry to hear about that, sis.  I knew that would be a shitstorm when he died, but I was hoping it would pass you over.”

        “Watch your language, young man,” she teased with a wink.

        “I’m an adult now, sis.  So bite me.”

        She laughed.  “Well, the firm feels they have a viable case to invalidate the will, because of you,” she winked.  “Dad’s obsession with you indicates a lack of sound mind, in their opinion.  After all, a man has to be crazy to do what Dad did to his own son.”

        “Heh.  I’d love to see that.  I know it would make that bastard roll in his grave if I was un-disowned, but at least in that regard, he’ll get his wish.  I’m never going back to Boston, Vil.  They turned their backs on me when I needed help the most, and I won’t ever feel like I’m a part of them again.”

        “Well, as long as you don’t turn your back on me, I can live with that,” she told him seriously.

        “Never.”

        “Good,” she smiled.  “I read your journals, bro, and they’re incredible!  You should publish them!”

        “They’re not that good,” he said dismissively.

        “Bro, the way you describe people and things, it’s like I was there,” she told him seriously.  “I almost peed myself when I read about that rabbit in New Orleans and the soup can!”  She broke out into a gale of delighted laughter.

        “Well, it was his story, not mine,” Kit chuckled.

        “That’s just it, bro.  It was like he was there telling me the story, not you just writing down what you heard.  It was amazing!  Do me a favor.”

        “What?”

        “Keep doing it.  You always wondered what your calling was…well, I think you found it.  I really think you could make it as a writer.”

        “I don’t think I’d be a good writer.  I could never make a deadline, and I’m not that good at making things up.  All I can really do is write about what I’ve heard, or seen.”

        “Not every writer is a fiction writer, Kit.  At the very least, you should put these up on a blog.  And write your journal as a blog.  You could call it ‘A Poor Little Rich Boy’s Experiences In America’,” she said grandly, putting her hands out as if seeing her title in lights.

        “I think Richie Rich would come after me with a switchblade for stealing his nickname,” Kit mused, which made Vil erupt into laughter.

        “You should think about it.”

        “I will,” he promised.

        “So, you have, what, three days?”

        “About.  I’ll be a little sad to leave.”

        “Why is that?”

        He glanced at her.  “I saw a femme I wanted to get to know better,” he admitted.

        Her eyes brightened and she leaned over the table.  “Okay, now we’re getting to the good stuff!” she giggled.  “Tell me all about her!  Where did you meet?  Is she pretty?”

        “I didn’t really meet her,” he said, then described the circumstances in the café the night before.  “I wanted to sit down and talk to her, but all I could see was that bastard and the family, just waiting to bury her if they knew I was going out with a cat.  Can you imagine what would happen if they found out a Vulpan was going out with another species?”

        “Yeah,” she said, frowning a little.  “That would be a little messy, but nothing that couldn’t be worked out.  But was she pretty?”

        “She was the most beautiful femme I’ve ever seen in my life.”

        “Even prettier than me?” she said with mock rejection.  He slapped her on the arm, which made her laugh.  “That’s okay, if you thought I was pretty like that, I’d start getting worried,” she teased.  “Did you get her name?”

        “No, her friend called her JD, but I seriously doubt that was her name,” he said, with a little sigh, putting his elbow on the table and leaning his cheek into his paw.

        “Well, we need to get you fixed before you see her again,” she said, reaching up and tweaking his half-missing left ear.

        “Eh, I’m kinda used to it now,” he told her, letting her do something he wouldn’t let any other fur do, touch his injured ear.

        “I hate it.  When will you let me get it fixed for you?”

        “When I can pay for it myself.”

        “Bro—“

        “No, Vil.  And that’s final.”

        She sighed, then nodded.  “You hungry?  I think I’d like to try some of the food here.”

        “Food?” he said, then he gasped and looked at the clock.  “Aw, crud!  We’ve been here talking for hours!”

        “It’s alright,” she laughed.  “Your boss said you have the rest of the day off.”

        “But I need the mon—“

        Vilenne grabbed his muzzle, clamping his mouth shut.  “Don’t you dare say that five-letter word in front of me,” she told him with serious eyes.  “Now, when I take my paw away, you’d better not say anything but yes.  Got that, young fur?”

        He nodded silently.

        She released his muzzle, but he just gave her a sly grin.  “Money,” he completed, which made her both laugh and haul off and slap him on the shoulder.

        “Now, I’m sure they’ve been watching us all this time, so let’s at least use it.”  She looked back towards the kitchen and waved her arms.  When no one came out, she put her fingers to her muzzle and gave out an ear-splitting whistle.  Even now, he had no idea how she could do that.  He’d tried to learn how she did it for years.

        Seconds later, Amanda, a rather cute german shepherd, rushed up with a order pad.  “I take it you wanted to see me?” she said with a bright smile.

        “Amanda, this is my sister, Vil,” Kit introduced.

        “Oh, we heard who she was,” she winked.  “If you don’t mind me saying, I think your eyes are lovely, miss Vil.  I didn’t know you had them too.”

        “It’s a kind of family trait,” Vil winked.  “Everyone from our great-grandad down has the eyes.  It’s how we know each other in a room full of foxes.”

        Amanda chuckled.  “Hungry?”

        “You bet!  What’s good?”

        “Everything,” she answered.  “Want a menu?”

        “Please.”

        “Good.  Don’t trust this one’s food choices.  All he ever eats are hamburgers,” Amanda teased.

        “Well, some things never change,” Vil  laughed.

        Amanda brought her a menu, and she spent a long moment looking at it.  “Oh, yeah.  Marcus!  Stav!  Go ahead and get something to eat, on me!” she called to the two panthers who still stood silently in the entry foyer, near the receptionist’s podium.

        The two panthers took a table near the two foxes, and Amanda brought them menus as well.  She came back and gave them a bright smile, lingering her glance at Kit.  “Ready?”

        “Yup!  I’ll take the ribeye, rare,” she answered.  “No potato.  Put this shrimp bowl here on the side in its place.”

        “We can do that, no problem.  What do you want to drink?”

        “Milk please,” she answered.

        “What do you want, Kit?” she grinned.

        “I’ll just take a hamburger.  Jimmy knows how I like them,” he answered.

        “You bet.  I’ll get it out to you as quick as it’s done, ‘kay?”

        “Sooooo,” Vil sounded after Amanda hurried off.  “Think you’re gonna go, or maybe stay a while?”

        “My head and my conscious tells me to go.  Another part of me is trying to change their minds.”

        Vil laughed.  “Would that be your heart, or perhaps something a bit further south?”

        “I’m not sure yet.”

        She giggled.

        “I dreamed about her last night,” he admitted, his words without their usual crispness as he started to zone out, usually something he only did when a song he liked was playing on the stereo.  “I don’t usually remember my dreams, but I remembered that one.”

        “What happened?  Something you can’t mention to your sister?” she teased.

        He blinked.  “No, nothing like that,” he said, his cheeks ruffling slightly.  “I just had the guts to sit down and talk to her, that’s all.  And she told me her name.”

        “What was it?”

        “I don’t remember.  It’s one of those things where you hear, but you don’t hear, and it’s like you heard.  If you know what I mean.”

        “Well, maybe you should think of hanging around a while, then,” Vil urged.  “Find an apartment.  Get a better job than this.  Maybe get into a position where you do have the guts to talk to her.”

        “But the family—“

        “Bro, you said it yourself.  They turned their backs on you.  You’ve been your own fox since you were sixteen, and no thanks to them.  You don’t owe the family a damn thing.  Don’t let them run your life now.  Do what you want.  If you want to chase after this cat and see where it goes, then by great-grandad’s green right eye, do it!”

        “I’d love to, but…I dunno.  I wouldn’t even know what to say.  How could I explain it, sis?  ‘Oh, by the way, I’m one of the Boston Vulpans, but I’m as poor as a church mouse and my family might want you dead if they knew about you.’  Not quite the kind of smalltalk that’s gonna get us on the right foot, is it?”

        “Just be yourself, bro.  That’s all you need to be, and all you should ever be.”

        “That’s the problem,” he growled.

        “Hey, never know til you try,” she teased.  “What’s the worst that could happen?”

        “Uncle Zach could have her killed,” Kit said with a serious look.  “You know how maniacal he is about our bloodline.”

        “I don’t think it would go quite that far.”

        “Well, I do.”

        “Then I’ll just have to do something about that, I suppose,” Vil said dismissively.  “Once I have the will voided and they find me holding all their purse strings, let’s see how creative they get.”

        “I’d be careful about that, sis.  If you back them into a corner like that, they might surprise you when they come out swinging.”

        “It won’t be a bother at all, bro,” she shrugged.  “I’ll just remind them that they turned their backs on you years ago, so what you do now is none of their damned business.  You’ve already been disowned.  If any of them thinks they’re going to put themselves in our father’s shoes where you’re concerned, I’m going to bust out the sledgehammer and start bashing some toes.”

        “Nothing would make me happier.  The day I wake up and don’t remember who I am and where I came from will be the happiest day of my life.”

        “You’re so mean to me,” she teased.

        “Well, not counting you, sis.  Never you.”  He took her paws in his own and squeezed gently.

        “Now, where is that food?” she complained.  “I need to start thinking of going back.”

        “It won’t take long,” he promised.

        Five minutes later, their food was on the table.  Vil took one bite of her steak and almost quivered.  “Mmmmmmmm, oh wow, you weren’t kidding!  This is better than any steak I’ve ever had in Boston!”

        “They don’t know how make steak north of Arkansas,” Amanda teased as she put platters down in front of the two panthers.  “If you want real steak, you have to come where we take making steak as seriously as a pastor takes God.”

        Vil laughed, almost losing her mouthful of steak.

        Kit enjoyed his hamburger as his sister devoured the steak, then went through the shrimp quickly.  “Mmm, I wish they delivered, but it’d be cold by the time it got home,” she giggled.  “Amanda!  Can you have them grill me another one and put it in some foil?  If it microwaves and tastes half as good as it does fresh, it’s still better than what I can get at home!”

        “One more steak, coming up!” she called from near the kitchen doors and hurried inside.

        “It is very good steak, madam,” one of the panthers agreed.  “I’ll go talk to their chefs, if you’d like, and take some notes for Deward.”

        “That’s a great idea!” she said with a nod.

        The panther stood up and took a small notepad from his inside pocket, then approached the kitchen door.  He opened it and called out.  Sheila peeked out and gave him and Vil a curious look, but both of them just waved her on.  She nodded, and the panther disappeared into the kitchen with her.

        “Stav is always so thougthful,” she chuckled.  The two panthers were unknown to him in person, but her emails told him who they were.  They were bodyguards, and had worked for her for about a year.  She described them as utterly professional, discrete, and quite intelligent.  They were twin brothers, with twenty years of impeccable service as the personal bodyguards of some of the biggest names in the world.

        Kit endured several more minutes of his sister trying to subtly sway him into doing what she said, but he was quite adamant.  The only area where he showed any signs of wavering was in his decision to leave Austin or stay.  “I, I just don’t know,” he sighed, leaning his head back.  “I’ll have to think about it.”

        Amanda returned with a large styrofoam box.  “Here we are, Miss Vil,” she said.  “One rare ribeye, double foil wrapped.  It should stay hot for a while.  Jimmy said if you nuke it, just pour some water or marinade over it and cook it in a sealed container.  That should keep it from drying out as it heats up.”

        “I’ll keep that in mind,” Vil said as she took the box from her.  “May I have the check for us and my panther friends please?  Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind, separate Kit’s burger from it.  I have to pay for that separately.”

        “They still watch the bank accounts even after the old bastard died?”

        “Like a hawk,” she nodded, finishing her milk.  “But they can’t make a mouse’s squeak about what I pay for in cash earned from my boutique.  That’s my money.  It has nothing to do with the family.”

        The boutique was indeed just that.  It was something she had to set up as part of her work in Harvard, to build a business from the ground up, and do it for real.  She had taken a two thousand dollar initial investment and parlayed it into a successful boutique in downtown Boston, where it made a tidy profit every year.  The success of Blue Buttons Boutique was one of the reasons why the board of Vulpan Shipyards had agreed with his bastard father to allow Vil to succeed him as head of the company.  When it came to business, Vil was every bit a Vulpan.

        God, he wished he could have been there when the bastard made that announcement.  He must have chewed on his own tongue before saying it.

        The old bastard’s will was quite specific.  It stated that anyone that helped Kit using family assets would forfeit their inheritances.  Vil’s outside income from her boutique was no part of the will, so she could spend that money to help him if she so chose.  But he still resisted it when she did so, because he knew his family would try to find some way to twist it to try to get Vilenne cut out of the will…more for them.

        Amanda returned with two checks.  Vil handed her a platinum Visa for one, and a hundred dollar bill for the other.  “My and my panther friends’ dinners on the card, his dinner with the cash, please.”

        “Yes ma’am,” Amanda said with a nod.  “I’ll be right back.

        “Okay, bro, last chance.  Is there any way I can convince you to come home?”

        “Absolutely none,” he stated adamantly.

        She sighed.  “Alright.  You have the phone now, bro.  Please, please, use it, okay?”

        “Well, you have the number, so I’m sure you’ll make sure to remind me when you think I’m not keeping in touch,” he chuckled.

        “You bet your furry butt I will,” she grinned.

        Amanda returned.  Vil signed for the card, took the change, then pushed fifty of it back to the startled waitress.  “Because you’ve earned every penny,” Vil winked.  “And here, take this and give it to the cook, for being so considerate to me,” she added, handing her a twenty.  “And give this to Sheila for being so kind to give me and my brother time.”  She handed her the other twenty, leaving nothing but pocket change in her paw.

        “Ohmahgawd, thank you, miss Vil!” she said, then she ran excitedly back towards the kitchen, waving the bills in her hand.  “She tipped us!” she squealed as she vanished into the kitchen.

        Vil handed the box holding the steak to one of her guards, then picked up her briefcase and stood up.  Kit too stood up, and he shared a long embrace with her.  “You be good down here, bro,” she told him.  “And think about that cat.  All I can say is don’t leave.  Find her.  Chase her.  See where it can go.  Don’t let the family deny you any chance at happiness.”

        “I’ll, I’ll give it serious thought, sis,” he promised.  He was always honest with Vil, no matter what.

        She pushed back to look up at him, and patted his shoulders.  “Well, I’m proud of you, Kitstrom Lucas Vulpan,” she said with a grin.  “And I’m proud to say that my brother washes dishes.”

        He laughed, then leaned forward and put his forehead against hers.  “You always were a nut.”

        “That just proves we’re related,” she teased back.  “I love ya, bro.  I’ll see you soon.  Bye.”  She kissed him on the cheek, then turned and walked away.  He watched her go around and to the entry foyer, and then her guards opened the door for her and escorted her out into the parking lot.

        He sighed.  He missed her.  She was the only family he had, and thank God she had never given up on him.

        He glanced around.  Some of the customers were looking at him, and six faces were crowded into the doorway to the kitchen, staring at him with silly grins.  “Kitstrom!  Oh, Kitstrom!  Wash dishes for me!” Sheila called loudly.  “If it doesn’t chafe your delicate, noble hands!”

        His day manager ducked into the kitchen with a squeal when he threw a full napkin roll of silverware at her.

        But the surreal day was over now.  He pocketed the new phone and went back to work.  There was still four hours on the clock, and he owed that and more to Sheila for being such a wonderful boss.

 

        Outside, Vilenne Vulpan stood with Marcus as Stav brought the car around, putting her sunglasses back on.  “Marcus,” she said in a cool tone, as the business vixen in her began to reassert itself, now that she was back in public.

        “Yes, madam?”

        “I have a job for you.  And it won’t be easy.”

        “I thought you might, madam.”

        “Did you hear?”

        “Yes, madam. It’s not much to go on, but it’s enough.  Once I find the chinchilla named Sandy, I’ll find this JD.”

        “It can’t be obvious.  If the family finds out—“

        “I can do it all from my Boston office, madam.  What I do on my own time is none of their concern.”

        “I’m glad you understand the situation.  Just be discrete on this side as well. If Kit finds out I’m putting a paw in, he’ll beat me up.”

        “We’d never allow that, madam,” Marcus said with a slight smile.

        “Remember, be discrete, but this is important.  I only want to find her so I can be there in case he can’t.  We’ll let him try first.  If he can’t find her, he might get discouraged and move on.  I can’t let him do that.”

        “I’ll have a complete file on her by Tuesday.  That is a guarantee, madam.”

        “There’s an extra ten thousand added to your and Stav’s quarterly bonus if you do.”

        “You’ve always been a generous employer, madam.”

        “It’s how I keep you here.”

        “True,” he agreed honestly.

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    1      3

Chapter 2

 

        Thuk-thud.  Thuk-thud. Thuk-thud.

        The tennis ball hit the wall, then bounced off the rickety floor, and then dropped into Kit’s waiting paw.  There wasn’t much room in here, and even less to do, but a male with a tennis ball always had a means of entertainment at hand.

        He was sitting on the floor in front of his World War II surplus cot, in a tiny closet that passed as a room here in the Lone Star Mission, a place for furs like himself to come and find shelter.  There was a homeless shelter on one side, but since Kit had a job, he qualified for these private rooms.  He wasn’t guaranteed a room, though.  Every week, on Monday, he had to sign up for one and prove he still had a job.  And so long as he got signed up before they ran out of rooms, he was set for another week.  And it wasn’t free, either.  He had to pay fifty dollars for a week, but that was a whole heap cheaper than he’d find anywhere else.  It was enough for him, though.  The room wasn’t too clean, but it was dry, the door locked, and he had access to a shower.

        He often did that as he thought.  He rather liked playing tennis back when he was younger, and though he lost his racket long ago to a thief, he did like to keep a tennis ball around.  Bouncing it off the wall was a rhythmic activity that kept his paws busy and gave him time to think.

        And all his thoughts were on her.

        He dreamed about her again last night.  It was almost the same dream, but this time he met her in the Double J.  He was working, and she came in to eat.  She smiled when she saw him, and he sat down and talked to.  Then the Blimp came by and started screaming at him, so he tore off his work shirt and left paw in paw with her….then he woke up.

        Why couldn’t he get her out of his mind?  He never even talked to her, for crying out loud!  She could be a ditz.  She could be crazy.  Hell, she could be some psycho serial killer in cahoots with Sandy and that skunk, trying to lure him off to a private place so they could kill him.

        One thing was for sure.  He couldn’t leave now.  If he left, she would haunt him for weeks, months, maybe even years.  Vil was right about that.  He had to find out.  If he left and never even tried, then there was no telling what he might be missing.

        And that’s why he sat there on the floor, bouncing the tennis ball off the wall just under the window, because had a lot to do.  He had the next two days off, and he had things to do.

        Today, he would go get a Sunday paper and look for a job and start looking for apartments.  He’d also go back to the Java Joint and surf the help-wanted websites.  Tomorrow, he’d start filling out applications and start sending out resumes.  He was a college graduate, after all, with a degree in history.  But he was also good with his paws and very healthy and strong, thanks to his time in ROTC and his habit of exercising ingrained into him after the physical rehabilitation after his accident.  He could find a job where his degree would help, but he could do almost any job.

        He was basically just waiting for the Java Joint to open, really.  And sitting there wondering why he was going to all this trouble over a femme, but part of him just couldn’t try to talk to her without being in a better position.  How would it look to her to be asked out by a dishwasher who lived in a homeless shelter?  She’d laugh in his face!  Such a beautiful cat wouldn’t even entertain being asked out by a scarred, broke, nothing like him.  He had to prove he was worth it to her.  He had to find a job.  He had to find a place to live.  He had to show that he wasn’t a waste of her time.

        Thuk-thud.  Thuk-thud.  Thuk-thud.

        “Would you cut that out!” the guy in the next room shouted, banging on the wall.  “You and that damned ball!  You’re worse than a dog!”

        “Sorry!” he called, blinking.  He palmed the ball and stood up, figuring it was about time to get moving.  By the time he got down to the Java Joint, it would probably be open.  It was nearly noon, and he wanted to get a seat before the church crowds were on the streets.  He put on a clean shirt and a pair of jeans that only had one hole in them, the left knee torn out, shouldered his backpack, and headed out.

        He passed by others like him in the hall.  The destitute, the out-of-luck, the young trying to get on their feet and the old looking for a second chance.  There were a thousand stories in places like this, most of them sad but some of them hopeful, and many of them were stories told in the journals he kept.  Doing what he did, Kit met all kinds of people.  He’d met European royalty in a bar in New Orleans, and had a chilling brush with an escaped murderer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  He’d sit down and strike up conversations with people, and they’d just talk to him.  They’d tell him stories.  They’d answer his questions.  They’d show him who they were deep down inside, and then he’d write it down in his journals.

        That made his inability to sit down and talk to that cat even more maddening.  He wasn’t a shy person.  He would have had no trouble sitting down and talking with her, but it was different.  He was looking for more than just to talk, and the spectre of his family had risen up and made him afraid.  If he’d not wanted to do more than talk, he’d have had no problem sitting down and coaxing her story from her.

        Everyone had a story to tell.

        It was a half hour walk to the Java Joint from the mission, but for him it was a chance to think things through a little more.  He got a plan set up in his mind about what he needed to do, a course of action to maximize his efficiency and minimize the time it would take to get it done.  It was a typical Texas day in August, dry and already starting to get hot, and by midafternoon it would be broiling outside, much too hot for a New Englander.

        It was with relief that he found the Java Joint wasn’t busy yet, so he got his favorite table near the small stage they had for open mic nights, pulled out his laptop, and got to work.  With a cup of green tea, a bagel, and a Sunday paper, he started hunting through the want ads, both for apartments and for jobs.  There weren’t many interesting jobs in there, and since this was a college town, there were tons of apartments but many of them were outrageously expensive.  He transcribed all the ads into his computer by hand, making a detailed little spreadsheet of apartments available, sorted by price and location, then started listing the available jobs in the want ads in order of desirability.  Later he’d cross-reference the two spreadsheets by addresses, so he could focus on apartments near jobs and jobs near apartments.

        All those years of being forced into business schools did have some benefit, he supposed.  He could make Excel get up and dance across the table.

        Once he was done with the paper, he turned to the internet.  He surfed several help-wanted websites, searching for jobs in the Austin area, and got quite a few promising leads.  His major was history, but that kind of degree also meant that he knew how to write, and he was very good at research and editing, because of all the papers he had to write.  There were two jobs posted for researchers, both for local magazines; one a college magazine aimed at the U.T. students and the other a local scene magazine.  There was also a job being posted for an internship for a local TV station, but that was aimed more at journalism students from the university than someone like him.  But, it was listed, so it was worth at least a look.

        He realized he had email.  He opened it up and found a message from Vil, a short little note.

 

                Hey Bro.

                (512) 555-3924.

        That’s Lone Star, a magazine based there in Austin.  They’re looking for a researcher.  I know that’s something you’d be good at doing.

        Give them a call.

        And I swear right here and now that I haven’t meddled a bit.  You’ll have to earn that job yourself.

        But I reserve the right to help you any way I can, both with what you’ll let me do and what I can get away with where you can’t see me.

 

                Vil

 

        Kit looked at the number, and realized he’d already written down that ad and had it in his spreadsheet.

        He had to chuckle.  That damn meddling female, but he loved her for her concern.  She was going to let him live his life, but she was still gonna stick her paw in when she wanted to.

        He shot back a reply thanking her for something he’d already found himself—just to tweak her a little bit—and promised he’d call first thing tomorrow morning, just as soon as he got his resume printed out down at Kinko’s.

 

        “This is stupid,” Jessie complained, mainly to herself, crossing her arms before her in the passenger seat of Sandy’s Festiva.

        “No way!” she said.  “I’m hungry!”

        “And we’re driving all the way up to North Austin to get a bite to eat?  Sandy, you’re being silly.”

        “Okay, well, maybe I am going back to that café,” she winked as they stopped for a red light.  “I want to see if he shows up again!”

        “I have homework to do!” she protested.  “I can’t be out all day.”

        “Well, seeing as how I’m the one with the car keys, I think you’re going to stay out til I decide to go home,” she teased, flashing an evil little smile.

        “Sandy!”

        She laughed.  “Come on, it’ll be fun!  Think of the excitement waiting to see if he shows up!  We can grab some lunch there, then go hit the mall and get you some new clothes!  You’re available again, hon, you gotta advertise!”

        “I have enough advertising clothes already.”

        “I’m almost thinking you’re sick,” she grinned.  “Turning down the chance to shop?”

        “I, I just want to go back,” she hedged.

        “Afraid he won’t show up?  Or afraid he will?” she pressed.

        “I’m not answering that,” she said primly.

        “Riiight.  And who was it making all those cooing noises and saying his name before I woke her up this morning?”

        The cream-colored fur on her cheeks ruffled.

        Sandy laughed.  “You’re almost cute sometimes, you know that?” she grinned.  “Such a prig.”

        “I was raised to be a lady,” she protested.  “Besides, if my mom found out I was even going out on dates, she’d have a cow.”

        “She’s that bad?”

        “She thinks I should get married before I even go out on a date.”

        Sandy laughed.  “How can you find a guy to marry if you can’t date?”

        “Well, that hasn’t quite worked itself into her head yet.  And she’d go on a three hour rant telling me how much she disapproves if she found out, then threaten to cut me off and make me come home and go to Cincinnati or Ohio State, where she can be close and keep an eye on me.”

        “Wow.  She sounds like a real bitch.”

        “Why do you think I came here to go to school?  It’s a thousand miles away from Cincinnati.”

        “Well, you’ve certainly come a long way since we hazed you,” Sandy said with a naughty tickle in her voice.  “It only took us a year to get you a boyfriend.  Too bad we picked such a jerk.”

        “Eh, it was fun with Burke, at least until I found out what he was really like.”

        “Well, I’m sorry about that.  We’ll find someone better this time.  We just gotta get you laid, and everything will work out just fine.”

        Jessie’s entire face poofed out. “Well, why are we doing this if he’s just going to leave?”

        “Because he was cute.  And hell, girl, you can have a one night stand with him and never have to worry about seeing him again!”

        “That was not what I had in mind when you got me in this car,” she said primly.

        “Well, it won’t hurt just to see, will it?” she asked with a naughty smile as they got off the interstate.

        They pulled up into the parking lot and piled out.  The place didn’t look very busy, but then again, it was early on Sunday.  Jessie went in first, but she stopped dead near the door, causing Sandy to crash into her back.

        He was here!

        His back was to the door, but there was no mistaking him, not with that piece of his ear missing.

        “What?  Oh, he’s here!” Sandy said in an excited whisper.

        “Oh my God,” Jessie said fearfully, smoothing her hair, kicking herself for wearing nothing but an old pair of jeans and a U.T. tee shirt.  She smoothed her shirt, put her paws on her cheeks.  “Do I look okay?  I must look terrible!  I didn’t do my hair or anything!”

        Sandy laughed.  “You’re dressed the same way he is,” she said, putting her hands on Jessie’s back and pushing her forward.

 

        Kit was about to start rearranging the want ads to put Lone Star on top, taking a drink from his tea, when a shadow passed close to him.  “Hi!” came a cheery, loud voice, which almost made him choke on his tea.

        He knew that voice.  It was the chinchilla, Sandy.

        He lowered his mug of tea and looked over, then he almost dropped it.  She was with her!  She looked embarrassed half to death, but she was even more beautiful seeing her a second time.  She hadn’t preened herself, hadn’t dressed up and dolled up.  He was seeing the real femme under the veneer, and it was even better natural than it was carefully prepared.

        “Fancy meeting you again. Sandy, isn’t it?” he asked.

        “You bet!  And this nervous little kitty here is Jessie, but we all call her JD.  It makes her sound cool,” she grinned.

        “Nice to meet you,” he said, trying to sound casual and friendly.  She was clearly quite nervous, and he didn’t want to put her off.  “I’m Kit.”

        “Um, h-hi,” she said nervously.  She didn’t quite know what to do with herself, standing there wringing her black-mittened paws, then she stuck one paw out towards him.

        God, she was gorgeous.  He just had to look at her again.  Slender but well curved, with a long-haired tail that made her look very sensual, a tail that was the same cream color as her fur but had a black tip.  In a way, her color markings were almost fox-like, with the ears and the mittens and the black tip on her tail, but she was definitely a cat.

        He took her hand and shook it gently, but didn’t let it go.  He just looked up at her, silent, and she looked down at him with that same nervous expression.  But she didn’t try to pull away.

        “Hey, can we join ya?” Sandy asked boldly, giving her friend a sly look.

        “Sure, I don’t mind,” Kit said, shaking out of his reverie.  “Please, have a seat.”

        “Thank you,” she said, seating herself on his right.  He was almost disappointed when she pulled her paw from his, putting her paws together on the table before her and looking very, very unsettled.  No doubt her friend had put her up to this, and now she was at a loss as to what to do next.

        “I’ll go order us something, JD.  Don’t run away!” Sandy said with a wicked tilt, then hurried off.

        “Umm, so, Sandy said you travel around?” the cat said hesitantly.  “And you’re getting ready to leave again?”

        “Travel around yes, but I’m gonna stay here a little while longer,” he answered.  “I’ve been looking for a new job this morning.”

        “On a Sunday?”

        “It’s the best day.  New ads in the paper, new job listings posted on Saturday night.”

        “What, uh, do you do now?”

        “I bus tables at the Double J,” he said immediately, looking her in the eyes.  “It’s not much, but for someone like me, it’s usually enough to let me put enough back to move on.  But, since I’m gonna stay a little while longer, I need something that pays a little better.”

        “Oh.  What’s it like?”

        “What?”

        “Moving from place to place.”

        “Sometimes it’s not so bad,” he answered.  “I’ve met a lot of really interesting people.  Not all of them have been nice, and it was scary there a few times, but on the whole it’s been worth it.”

        “Is that how you—“ she said, then she put her paw over her mouth.

        “How I lost my ear?” he finished.  She nodded, her face frizzing in a blush of embarrassment.  He chuckled.  “No, I was hit by a car when I was in college, that’s where I lost my ear.  It wasn’t from being mugged in some dark alley,” he said with a light smile.  “Though that did happen a couple of times when I first started out, before I knew how to get around on my own.”

        “You were in college?  Where?”

        “U-Mass.  I graduated last December.”

        “Why didn’t you get a job instead of roaming?”

        “That’s…a long story,” he said, a little distantly.  “Maybe someday I’ll tell you about it.  Now, why do they call you JD?”

        “Because there’s another Jessie in the house,” she said shyly.  “Since she was there first, they all call me JD instead.”

        “Well, I kinda like it.”

        “Thank you,” she said, her cheeks ruffling in a very pleasing manner.  “I think it makes me sound like a male, though.”

        He chuckled.  “No one could ever say that after they see you.  You’re beautiful.”

        “I’m a mess,” she complained, patting her hair and smoothing out her face fur.

        “No, you’re you,” he told her.  “Sometimes you can see more about a person when they’re relaxed than when they’re ready.  Pretty clothes and makeup and professional hairstyling can often cover up what’s underneath.  That’s what’s always interested me, what’s inside.  The outside is just a shell, a front.”

 

        Jessie immediately had an image in her mind of Burke, a handsome wolf whose true nature was hidden behind his handsome face.  He had been a rotten person wrapped in an attractive package.  This fox, he was very insightful, and he seemed very wise.  Much wiser and smarter than most males the sorority girls had thrown at her.  All they cared about was how cute they were and how good they were in bed.  But there was more to this fox than just a handsome face.  The more she looked at him, the more handsome he seemed, even with his unusual dual-colored eyes and the missing piece of his ear.  They were almost like beauty marks rather than mars to her, part of what made him handsome.

        There was a long silence.  She  just looked at him, and he just looked at her, and she didn’t even realize it.  She was lost in looking at him.

        “So!” Sandy said loudly, startling both of them.  Jessie gave Sandy a dark look as she plopped down in the other chair, holding a platter of bagels and coffee for her, and soda for Jessie.  “When’s the big moving day, Kit?”

        “Well, I was going to leave on Wednesday, but I think I might hang around a while longer,” he said, glancing unconsciously at Jessie, a little move she didn’t miss.  “Something about Austin just invited me to stay a while longer.”

        “Do tell,” Sandy purred, leaning on her elbows and looking directly into Kit’s eyes.  “So, you want JD’s number?  We’re roomies.”

        “Sandy!” Jessie said in shock.

        “Well, as nice as that sounds, I’m not going to have much time for the next couple of weeks,” he said.  “I need to find somewhere to live. I’ve been staying in the mission since I’ve been here.”

        “The mission?” Jessie asked.  “What is that?”

        “A homeless shelter,” he answered directly, looking right at her.  He wanted to see how she reacted to that news, she was sure of it!  “They rent out cheap rooms if you have a job.”

        “Kinda like the Y?” Sandy asked.

        “More or less, yeah,” he nodded.  “But if I’m gonna be here more than a few weeks, I’d like something a little…cleaner,” he said with a hilariously distasteful face.

        Sandy laughed, and Jessie tried not to giggle.  The way he said it was so funny, but she didn’t want him to think she was laughing at him.

        “You should pick up one of the campus mags,” Sandy told him.  “There’s a ton of listings of people looking for roomies, and it’s way cheaper than getting an apartment.”  She glanced at Jessie. “And most of the apartments are close to the campus,” she added.

        “You know, that’s a good idea,” he said honestly.  “I’ve been going through the apartment listings around here, and ugh.”

        “Yeah, they’re expensive,” Jessie agreed.

        “And people are still trying to fill up houses and apartments.  We’ve only been back for two weeks, so the dust is still flying,” Sandy added.  “This is a good time to look.”

        “I’ll have to look into it.”

        “So, what do you do when you’re not washing dishes and sitting around in here?” Sandy pressed.

        “Not much.  Just live, I guess.  There’s not much to do, really.  All you can really do is hang out with a bunch of smelly homeless guys, but sometimes that’s actually kinda cool  Some of the have some pretty interesting stories to tell.”

        Sandy took a big bite out of her bagel, then kicked Jessie under the table.  Jessie glared at her for a quick moment, then took a sip of her soda.  What was she supposed to say?  What should she do?  She wanted to learn more about him, but she was so nervous!  What if she said something that got him upset?

        “You gotta excuse JD, Kit.  She’s kinda shy, and she’s from a sheltered family,” Sandy said after she swallowed.  “She’s really interested in you, but doesn’t quite know what to do about it.”

        “Sandy!” Jessie gasped, her face poofing out.  She almost felt like she wanted to die, she was so embarrassed!

        Kit looked right into her eyes and smiled.  “That’s okay, I’m a little nervous too.  Sometimes I’m not quite sure what I should say or do when I’m around a beautiful femme.”

        She looked away, both embarrassed and flattered.  He thought she was pretty!

        “And it’s a little different for me.  I mean, I’m effectively homeless, rootless.  What can I really say or do that covers that over?  Kinda makes it hard to talk to femmes, really.  You know that old rap song, got no money and you got no car, you got no female, so there you are.

        “You’re not homeless,” Jessie blurted.  “You just have a different way of living, that’s all.  I think you could get a real home if you wanted to.  You’re just living outside the box, as it were.  You know, living life your own way, experiencing it from a different perspective than most other people.  There’s nothing wrong with that!”

        “Well, thank you,” he said, smiling at her.  “And I see there’s a bit of poet lurking in there somewhere.”

        “And literature.  My major is English,” Jessie admitted.

        Kit chuckled.  “Listen.  Wanna go do something?”

        “What ya have in mind?” Sandy grinned.

        “Have you ever been ice skating?” he asked.  “They have a rink right there in the mall.”

        “Sure!” Sandy said loudly.  “If you don’t mind a third wheel and all, but I’m also kinda JD’s ride home,” the chinchilla winked.

        “I, I’ve never skated on ice before,” Jessie said shyly.  “Just on roller skates.”

        “It’s a little different, but you can get the hang of it if you try,” he promised, holding out his paw.  “What do you say?”

        “You don’t mind?”

        “Not at all.  I’ll even pay,” he smiled.

        “Naw, you’re gonna need your money!” Sandy told him. “I’ll treat!  You two walk on over, and I’ll go move the car.  See you at the rink!”

        The chinchilla jumped up and rushed out, leaving her alone with him.  She felt her cheek fur ruffle slightly when he looked at her, and she kicked herself for being so shy.  Come on, you silly femme!  You know you want to talk to him, so talk to him! she thought to herself.  “So, what’s it really like, doing what you’re doing?” she asked.

        “It’s been very interesting.  I’ve been keeping a journal of it as I move from place to place.  Things I’ve seen, people I’ve met, the stories they’ve told.  Everyone has a story, and it’s been really interesting going out and finding them.”

        “Sounds like you want to be a reporter, or a writer.”

        “I really have no idea what I want to be,” he said as he packed his laptop in his backpack and stood up.  He offered his paw to her, and she took it as she stood up.  His paw was warm.  Strong.  His pads were rough and hard, a sign he worked for his dinner, but his grip was gentle and inviting.  “So, what are you going to do with an English degree?” he asked.

        They walked out of the café, and her paw was still in his.  It felt kinda nice, and she hadn’t thought to take it out.  “I want to be a teacher,” she said.  “I’m going to teach while I earn my Master’s, then be a full-time teacher.”

        “Ah.  What level were you looking to teach?”

        “I was thinking middle or high school,” she said.  “I haven’t decided yet.”

        “How long have you been at U.T.?”

        “I just started my junior year,” she explained as they walked towards the mall.  “I’ll probably stay and get my Masters here too.  I kinda like it here.”

        “Where are you from?”

        “Cincinnati,” she answered.  “You’re from New England, somewhere, aren’t you?”

        He laughed.  “Boston.  It is really that obvious?”

        “It is noticeable,” she giggled.  “Everyone but you and me has that drawl.  Goodness, Sandy’s from Utah, and even she speaks with a drawl now.  I swear, it must be viral or something.”

        He laughed.  “Hopefully I won’t catch it.”

        “You and me both.  What did you study in college?”

        “Well, I started in ROTC working towards a degree in political science, but after I was hit by the car, I was washed out medically,” he said with a strange, wistful sigh.  “I wanted to join the Air Force and fly planes, but I can’t even pass the physical.”

        “You look fine to me.”

        “My back was broken,” he said simply.  “That kind of injury is a blackball.”

        “Oh.  Are you okay?”

        “I’m fine,” he told her, squeezing her hand gently in thanks for her concern.  “Sometimes it’s a little stiff in the mornings, but I’m just fine.  Anyway, I changed majors to history after the accident and graduated last December.  While I was recovering, there wasn’t much for me to do but read, and I got kinda interested in history.  Reading about ancient history kept my mind occupied, and after I got back in school, I decided to study it for real.”

        “What did you do your capstone on?”

        “I compared ancient Rome to modern America,” he answered.  “I compared the societal conditions between the two, with the thesis that America is following Rome’s path.  And if something doesn’t change, we’ll meet the same fate.”

        “Wow,” she breathed, looking over at him.  He let go of her hand and opened the door, then held it open for her.  “Thank you.  That’s pretty deep.”

        “It was an interesting concept.  My department head said it made her think about it for a while.  I guess I couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”

        “I wouldn’t mind reading it.”

        “Just go to U-Mass’ website and search for the title America and Rome, two civilizations, one fate.  They keep all capstones and dissertations in the library, you can read it online.”  He winced a little.

        “What?” she asked as he opened the inner door for her.

        “Well, my name’s on the capstone,” he said.  “My name is…I don’t like it,” he admitted.  “That’s why I go by Kit.  It’s awful.”

        “Well, it can’t be any worse than Desdemona,” she said with a slight ruffle of her cheeks.  She couldn’t believe she told him her middle name!

        “Ah, so that’s where the D comes from?” he said with a smile.

        She nodded.

        “Your folks were big Shakespeare fans?”

        She laughed.  “My father’s an English professor at the University of Cincinnati.  My sister’s middle name is Ophelia.”

        “Following your dad in the family footsteps?”

        “I guess.  He used to read me stories when I was kitten, and I just got interested.  I’m more of a modern femme, though,” she said with a smile.  “I’m more into modern literature.  If the authors are dead, it’s not as interesting to me.”

        He laughed.  “I hope Vonnegut isn’t on that list.”

        “You read Vonnegut?” she asked excitedly.  “He’s one of my favorite authors!”

        They got involved in talking about Vonnegut as they walked to the rink in the center of the mall, but their discussion was interrupted by Sandy, who crashed into them from behind.  “It’s about time, you two!  Okay, Kit, show us where to go.”

        He took them to the rink, rented skates, and stuffed his backpack in a rental locker as they put them on.  Sandy looked a little shaky on the thin blades, and Jessie herself was quite unstable when she first stood up.  Kit, wearing a pair of hockey skates, stood up rock stable.  “I shoulda known you’d know how to skate, being from Boston!” she laughed.

        “Every winter,” he grinned.  “Come on, I’ll teach you,” he said, offering his paw to her.

        She felt strangely vulnerable out on the ice.  She knew how to roller skate, but all her weight was on those thin blades, and it made her ankles feel dangerously wobbly as she tried to balance on them.  She was almost leaning against Kit as he led her out onto the ice, where others were also skating with different degrees of mastery.  Most were shaky and unsteady, like her and Sandy, but a few furs were zooming around the rink as effortlessly as could be.  It felt strange to be out of control, and she felt very self-conscious trying not to look like a fool in front of him, but he just smiled at her and seemed to not notice at all that she was trying her best not to fall down and embarrass herself.  Sandy, on the other hand, had no such reservations.  She flopped down on her butt almost immediately after getting on the ice, and just sat there and laughed loudly about it.  But, the chinchilla was keeping her distance, and for that, Jessie could kiss her.  It wasn’t half as embarrassing trying to talk to him without her there mortifying her.

        He kept hold of her paw as he explained how to move without falling down.  They started out slow, and she had trouble concentrating on what she was doing with him holding her paw.  He smelled so nice, and he was so strong and sure of himself!  But he pushed out to arm’s length once she was a bit more stable, and she floundered along beside him as he glided with almost ridiculous ease.

        She felt like a pregnant cow, but he seemed oblivious to her clumsiness.  He just glided along with her as she stumbled, then swung around and took both her paws in his and guided her.  “Easy, easy,” he said.  “It’s just like roller skating, JD.  Push off with one foot, then again, then again.”

        “It feels weird.”

        “I know, it’s because you don’t have four wheels.  Now push off with your foot and do it just like roller skating.”

        After three circuits around the rink, she was starting to get a little more sure of herself.  It wasn’t easy, because all she could feel, or think about, was his strong paws holding hers.  “See, you’re a natural,” he told her as he let go of her paws and drifted back, skating backwards in front of her.

        “At least I’m not falling down making a fool of myself,” she said ruefully.

        “You should never be embarrassed about learning,” he said sagely.  “We all can’t be experts at everything we do the first time we do them.  I didn’t expect to see you come out and start doing triple axels,” he added with a grin.  “Then again, if you did, I’d have felt really stupid,” he laughed.  “’Let me teach you,’ I said, then you’d come out and make a fool out of me.”

        “I wouldn’t do that,” she said impulsively.

        “I’m glad you wouldn’t.  I know I’d feel way nervous right now if I was the one that looked silly cause I didn’t know how to skate, but that’s okay.  I just hope you don’t think I did it to you on purpose, that’s all.”

        Was she really that transparent?  He seemed to know that she really was nervous, and she was feeling a little self-conscious because he was so good at it, so graceful, and here she was clunking along like she had a ball and chain locked to her ankle.

        “Well, at least I’m not that bad,” she said with a laugh, pointing at Sandy.  She was on her butt again near the rail, laughing.

        “Let me go take care of that,” he chuckled.  “Wait for me, okay?”

        “Sure,” she said, coming to an unsteady stop they way he taught her.  He circled around Sandy, then reached down and helped her up.  Jessie watched as he did the same for Sandy he did for her, holding her paws and skating backwards as he explained how to move to get going.  She saw how gentle he was, how he guided her, just laughed with her when she remarked how dumb she looked, but then immediately squelched any further attempts at self-deprecation by giving her an encouraging little pep talk.  She stood in the middle and turned to watch as he guided her around the rink a complete circle, then let go of her paws and skated backwards in front of her as she stumbled uncertainly.  He slowed down a little and reached his paws out to her, but she caught her skate on the ice and pitched forward, slamming into him and driving both of them to the ice.

        Sandy rolled over on her backside and laughed, but Jessie realized that Kit wasn’t laughing.  He had his back arched, almost unnaturally so, sitting on his hip with his left elbow down to steady himself, as his other paw was held behind him.  He was grimacing in pain.

        Oh God!  He’d told her he broke his back when he got hit by a car!  Sandy must have hurt him!

        “Kit!” she said in shock and concern, rushing to him as quickly as she dared.  She stumbled to a stop and kneeled beside him.  “Are you okay?”

        “Just give me a minute,” he said, sucking in his breath.  “That was just bad luck.  I hit exactly right.  Well, exactly wrong, that is.”

        “Aww, I’m sorry, Kit!” Sandy said, scooting over to him.  “I didn’t realize I hit you so hard.  You okay?”

        “I’ll be alright,” he said, taking a few cleansing breaths.  “And it wasn’t your fault, Sandy.  I just landed the wrong way.  Would you two mind if I go sit down for a minute?”

        “Here, let me help you,” Jessie said in worry, taking his paw in both of hers.

        Sandy helped her lead him over to the empty gateway to the lockers.  He sat down on the closest bench and leaned far back, both paws on the small of his back.  “No, I’ll be fine, really,” he said to them as he saw two concerned faces.  “Just give me a minute.  Get back out there and practice, you worry-hens!” he said, brushing them away with a paw.

        She realized he didn’t want to concern them…that, or he didn’t want them to see him like that.  Either way, she just nodded to Sandy and went back out on the rink with her.  “I’m sorry, JD, I didn’t realize I hit him so hard,” she apologized.

        “No, he told me how he lost that piece of his ear,” she explained.  “He was hit by a car, and it broke his back.”

        Sandy blanched.  “Ohmahgawd, I musta—“

        “I think he’s okay.  I guess it’s still tender, that’s all.”  They both looked back to the benches, and saw him massaging his back with both paws.  He saw them looking, then smiled and waved.  They waved back, and floundered along together.

        “So, like him?” Sandy asked.

        “Yes!” she said instantly.  “He’s really interesting!”

        “He’s gorgeous,” Sandy said, giving her a lascivious grin.

        “He’s smart,” she countered.

        “Glad we came looking for him?” she grinned.

        “Yeah, I guess I am.  Thanks, Sandy.”

        “Anytime, hon, anytime.  Did you see how he was looking at you when he said he decided to stay?” she whispered.  “I think he was going to stay just for you!”

        “I don’t think so,” she said demurely, but she remembered how he glanced at her.  Was he really going to stay just to go out with her?  If so, that was so romantic!

        “I think he really likes you,” Sandy said with a sly smile.  “You gotta give him our number, JD!”

        “Our number?” Jessie protested.

        “I live in the house too,” Sandy grinned.  “Besides, if you two don’t work out, I might take a shot at that hunk of fine fox.”

        They went around twice on their own, then they saw him stand up and stretch his back, bend side to side, then start back out onto the ice.  He glided over to them easily.  “Sorry about that.  Hope I didn’t upset you.”

        “Naw, JD told me what you told her about the car.  How long ago was it?”

        “About two years ago,” he answered.  “The docs told me my back would always be a little tender.  Stuff like that’s happened before, it’s no big deal.  I’m fine.”

        “Well, that’s good to know.  You guys want something to drink?  I’m thirsty.”

        “I’m fine, thank you,” he said.

        “No thanks, Sandy,” Jessie said.

        “Okay, lemme stumble over to that concession stand and get something.  Be back in a bit.”  Sandy gave her a wink where he couldn’t see, then went towards the opening.

        “You okay?  Really?”

        “Really,” he chuckled.  “It’s just when my back gets jarred in certain ways, it hurts, that’s all.  Hitting the ice like that was one of the ways.”

        “Well, I’m sorry about that.”

        “No reason to apologize, JD,” he said dismissively.  “I know it would never have happened if Sandy knew.”

        “That’s nice of you.”

        “Eh, I kinda like her.  She’s silly, and boy does she talk fast.”

        Jessie laughed.  “She reminds me of my little sister.  She talks a mile a minute.”

        “Ophelia?”

        Jessie laughed again.  “Don’t ever call her that or she’ll rip out your liver,” she said.  “Her first name is Jenny.”  She was quiet a moment.  “Do you have any sisters?”

        “I have a sister,” he said.  “She’s probably my best friend.”

        “That’s nice.  It’s not often you hear a brother say that about a sister,” she said with a smile.

        “Me and Vil went through a lot,” he said.  “After our mother died when I was eight, she was more like my mother than my sister.  Even now, she always tries to mother me.”

        “I’m sorry to hear about your mother.”

        “Thank you.”

        “What about your father?”

        “He’s dead,” Kit said, his voice turning flat and hard almost out of reflex.

        She looked away, a bit chagrined that she seemed to have ventured into dangerous territory.  “I’m sorry.”

        “No, no, it’s okay.  Me and my father had a very long and very ugly history,” he explained.  “He threw me out of the house when I was sixteen.  After that, my sister was the only family I had.  She risked a lot to keep in touch with me, because my father—well, let’s just say that he forbade the rest of my family from having anything to do with me, and the rest of them were too afraid of him to go against him.  Everyone but Vil, anyway.”

        Jessie could sense…evasion.  There was much more to this story than he was letting on.  Was he only telling her what he felt comfortable saying, or was he trying to hide something?  What had happened between him and his father that had caused him to be thrown out at sixteen?  What kind of fox was he that he kept the rest of Kit’s family away, and what kind of vixen was this Vil that she was willing to defy their father to keep in touch with him?  There was something…intriguing about what he wasn’t saying.  Maybe someday, he’d trust her enough to tell her.

        “Anyway, Vil helped me find a place to live, she’d sneak me money, she helped me get into U-Mass after I graduated from high school, and when I was hit by the car, she was the one that was there for me.  If it wasn’t for Vil, I’d be dead now.”

        “Well, I’ll have to thank her when I meet her,” Jessie mused impulsively, then she looked away from him, her cheek fur ruffling.

        “Geez, will she want to meet you,” he chuckled.  “I talked to her yesterday, and I made the eternal mistake of telling her about you.”

        “But, but we’d never even spoken!”

        “I know, but….” he trailed off, looking at his skates.  She looked at him, and could see that he was trying to think of what to say, and then his cheek fur ruffled a little.  He was nervous!  Finally, his veneer of confidence was stripped away, and she saw that he wasn’t as strong or self-confident as he seemed.  “I told her about how Sandy dropped in on me, and made the mistake of saying that you were beautiful.  She was all over me at that point.  She knows I don’t make observations like that unless I really mean it.”

        Jessie’s heart seemed to flutter a little.  He really did think she was beautiful!

        “She’s the one that talked me into not leaving.  She talked me into hanging around, try looking for you, and seeing if there was something there when I did.  She had to talk—” he sighed, then he glanced at her.  “I guess I should explain something to you.”

        He stopped them in the middle of the rink, and she was starting to get a little nervous, and also a little curious.  “This isn’t easy for me to explain,” he said, looking at her with sober and earnest eyes.  “Mainly because it’s so outlandish sometimes I don’t think even I’d believe it if I heard someone else say it.  So please understand that what I’m about to say isn’t the whole truth.  It’s just a part of the truth that puts everything in a rational perspective.”

        “I—okay.”

        “Alright.  Here goes,” he said, taking a cleansing breath.  “I’m from what you might call a very eccentric family.  They have very extreme views, and most of them are rabid, fanatical purists.  To them, the purity of the family line is more important than anything else.  If they found out that I was out on a date with a cat,” he said, then he shuddered.  “But the sad thing is, I’ve been disowned, and I’m still so afraid of them, that it, well, I’m afraid of anything that might happen, that’s all,” he said with a sigh.  “When I saw you in the booth with the skunk, all I wanted to do was sit down and talk to you, but then I saw this spectre of my family hovering over you like a ghost, and I was afraid to do it.  It’s almost sad.  I’ve been disowned for six years, and still they can reach out and run my life,” he sighed.  “But even me being disowned wouldn’t be enough for them.  They’d see me and you as an insult to the family, and I’d be afraid of what a few of them would do, especially Uncle Zach.”

        And that’s why you roam around like a vagabond, isn’t it? she realized to herself.  Because you’re still running from a family that hates you, but you’re still afraid of.  How would I feel if Mom and Dad turned their backs on me?  I’d feel totally lost.  I’d be devastated.  Oh, God, you poor fox.

        She reached out and put her paws on his shoulders, her heart pounding in her chest.  It was an instinctive move, a need to comfort what she could see was obvious pain.  “I’m not afraid of them,” she told him in a gentle voice.  “Kit, I,” she started, then she looked down.  “I just met you, but I’d like to see you again.  I’m not afraid of your family. After all, they’re all in Boston, aren’t they?  And you roam around. How could they know?  How could they do anything?”

        “My family has a very long arm, JD,” he said honestly.  “A very, very long arm.”

        “Well, let’s see if it can reach all the way to Austin,” she said daringly, sliding a little closer to him.  She looked up at him, and before she had any idea what happened, he was kissing her.

        She tensed up, but his kiss was gentle, inviting, not forced or hungry.  She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around his neck, and began kissing him back.  Burke had never kissed her that way. It was so, so, so…warm.  And sensual.  And almost intoxicating!

        Just as she started surrendering to the kiss, he pulled away.  She looked up at him in confusion, and saw his eyes were chagrined.  “I had no right to do that,” he said in a growl, mainly at himself, she realized.  “I’m sorry, JD.  It was wrong.”

        “No, no, it wasn’t wrong,” she said, a little out of breath.  “If I wanted you to stop, I’d have kneed you in the groin.”

        He gave her a curious look, then laughed.  “Well, I’d have deserved it.”

        The magic of the moment faded, and she put a paw to her muzzle, realizing they’d just kissed right out in the public, where everyone could see!  She felt her face poof out in a blush, but all he did was smile down at her.  “I think this is about the time when I should be saying goodbye,” he said.  “I’ve just done something entirely too forward, and did it out where your friend could see.  And, I need a little time to think, okay?”

        She could hear the pent-up fear behind his voice.  Even with her blessing, he was still afraid of his family.  Who were they, and what kind of furs were they that could instill such fear in him like this?

        “I understand.  I can give you my number, and you can call me later, okay?”

        “No, that’s not proper.  I’m not sure you’re going to still be this happy to see me after you think things through.  I’ll give you the number to the cell phone my sis makes me carry around for emergencies.  That way you can be the one to decide if what I said and did here was alright enough with you to want to see me again.  That way there’s no pressure on you at all.  Come on, I need to get the phone.  I don’t really know the number off the top of my head.  I’ll have to look it up.”

        He took her paw and guided her back to the benches, leaving her a little confused.  He didn’t seem cold or angry, it was almost like he was so afraid after what he said, and what he did, that he wanted to back off and think.  But did he want her to think or did he want to think himself?  Usually Jessie was pretty good at reading other people, but right now she wasn’t sure.  All she could really tell was that he was kicking himself for kissing her, he was really upset with himself, and maybe he was afraid he lost all the ground he’d made with her up to that point by doing something so rash.

        Sandy kept her distance, hovering at the edge of the concession stand with a cup of soda in her paws as Kit opened the locker he used, took out his backpack, and pulled out a brand new and very expensive-looking black cell phone.  He flipped it open and pulled a little post-it note off of it, and handed it to her.  “That’s the number of the phone,” he told her, folding it into her paw.  “But please, don’t rush.  Think about it.  Think about what I said, and think about what it means.  And after you decide, if you can forgive me for being an idiot, and if you’re really ready to take a chance on someone like me, then call me.  I’ll be waiting for you.  I promise.”

        His eyes were so earnest.  He was so upset.  He was so afraid.  How much different he seemed now than just a few minutes ago!  But as soon as he started talking about his family, his entire demeanor changed, and now he was very unsettled and unsure.  She realized that even if she didn’t think he was being serious about his family, he sure was.  His fear of them was very real, even if it was misplaced.

        He hesitated, then he seemed to screw up his courage.  He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, then quickly hurried away.  She watched him go, saw him strip off his hockey skates in almost record time, then all but throw them at the clerk at the rental window as he rushed away.

        “What happened?” Sandy asked quickly as she hurried over.  “Did he grab you or something?”

        “No, he,” she said, then she sat down on the bench and tried to sort it all out.  “He told me about his family.”

        “And that scared him off?”

        “Yeah.  It did,” she said, opening her paw and looking at the telephone number.  The area code was unknown to her.  “He’s really afraid of his family, Sandy.  I think that’s why he lives like a homeless vagabond.  He told me that he was afraid of what they’d do if they found out we were dating.  I could hear it in his voice.  He was really serious.”

        “What are they, terrorists or something?” Sandy asked curiously.

        “I don’t know,” she said.  “He gave me his number.”

        “Well, it’s not a lost cause, then,” Sandy said with a smirk.  “Call him when you get home.”

        “No, I think that’d be too soon,” she said.  “I think it’s best if I wait until tomorrow.  If I just called him so fast, he wouldn’t think I thought about it the way he asked me to.”

        “Femme, you gotta explain this to me.  Let’s go ahead and go back to the house.”

        “Yeah.  That’s a good idea.  I forgot I have that homework to do.”

        “But, was he a good kisser?” she asked, elbowing her in the ribs.

        “It curled my toes,” she admitted with her cheeks ruffling, which made Sandy laugh.

        “That’s what’s most important,” she teased.

 

        He was kicking himself.

        Stupid, stupid, stupid!

        How could he do that?  How could he kiss her!  He could tell she was nervous, he could tell she was a little shy.  That was the most idiotic, stupid-assed stunt he could have possible pulled to totally wreck what was such a wonderful afternoon!

        He went back to the mission and paced around his room angrily, for over two hours, his tail swishing back and forth behind him with sharp, jerking movements.  He worked so hard to make her feel at ease.  He worked so hard to seem as un-intimidating as possible.  He could sense that she was shy, he could sense that she was nervous.  He didn’t want her to be nervous.  He wanted her to feel comfortable, to talk to him, to show him the true person inside.  And there for a while, she was opening up to him.  She was smiling, she was laughing—

        God, was her voice lovely!

        And then came the question.  He had no choice but to tell her, because she’d told him about her family.   He knew he was going to screw that up, that he couldn’t possibly explain it to her in a way that she’d believe, but still convey how he felt about it.  But she looked up at him, and her eyes was so beautiful, and he just, just couldn’t help himself.  He was kissing her before he even knew what the hell he was doing.  And right when he realized it, she put her arms around him, and he lost all rational thought when she kissed him back.

        That female could kiss!

        He groaned, flopping down to the floor, feeling his back protest the hard impact and the unforgiving surface.  Stupid, stupid, stupid!  The only female that had ever turned his head, a female so beautiful he even dreamed about her, so gentle that he felt almost giddy when she touched him, so compassionate he could feel her concern like a palpable thing, and he blew it.

        The phone in his backpack rang, almost startling him out of his wits.  Was it her?  Was she calling him back this fast?  He scrambled to his knees and tore it out of the pack and flipped it open.  “JD?  JD?  I’m sorry—“

        “Nobody’s ever called me that before,” Vil laughed from the other end.  “Did you find her, bro?”

        Kit groaned and flopped back onto the floor.  “I’m an idiot, sis!” he said loathingly.  “I think I totally blew it!”

        “Whoa there, bro, calm down.  What happened?  How did you blow it?”

        “I kissed her, Vil!  Right on the mouth!”

        “On your first date?  You move fast,” she teased.

        “It was a disaster!” he lamented, putting his free paw over his eyes.  “It was the worst thing I could have done!”

        “Well, walk me through it, little bro,” she said, sitting down in her Boston apartment on the sofa near her work desk in her study.  “This may not be as bad as you think.”

        He glossed over most of their outing, up until he got to the point where he had to explain his concern.  “How could I tell her, Vil?  How could I explain it?  I just couldn’t!  I have no idea what I said, but it must have sounded totally ridiculous.  She didn’t seem to take it seriously.  Then she looked up at me, and God was she so beautiful, I, I just don’t know why the hell I did that!”

        “Okay, bro, first thing.  Calm down,” she called in a steady, cool voice.  “Just calm down.  Working yourself into a seizure isn’t going to help right now.”

        He took several breaths, then began again with a less hysterical voice.  “At least she didn’t slug me,” he finally said.

        “Well, that’s a positive outlook,” Vil chuckled, leaning back on the sofa.  “Now, what happened after you kissed her?”

        “I apologized,” he said immediately.  “And I broke off the date.  I gave her the number to this phone, and told her to call me if she wasn’t angry with me, and if she decided that seeing a homeless bum making minimum wage who’s too much of a chickenshit to stand up to his own family was worth her time.”

        “Watch your mouth, Kit,” she scolded.

        “Sorry,” he said with a sigh.  “I don’t know what to do, sis.  I feel so stupid.”

        “The first thing you can do is get off the floor,” she told him.

        There was a startled silence.  “How did you know that?”

        “I know you better than you think, little brother,” she told him seriously.  “Now get up and sit down on a chair or a bed or something.  Do not flail about on the floor like a madman.”

        He did as she ordered, getting up and sitting on the bed.

        “Alright, now, think about it.  Did she do or say anything to you that hinted that she was angry?”

        “Well, no,” he said after a moment.  “But it was so out of line—“

        “Stop that!” she barked.  “This isn’t about you.  Did she say anything after you kissed her?  Anything at all?”

        “No, she didn’t say a word.  I think I scared her half to death.  She’s very shy, Vil.  She’s shy, and she was nervous.  That’s why it was like the ultimate bad thing to do to kiss her.  I must have scared her out of her mind!”

        “Stop it,” she warned in a dangerous voice.  “Just repeating things over and over gets us nowhere, and it just works you up.”

        “No, wait.  After I kissed her and said I was sorry, she said that she woulda kneed me in the balls if she thought I was out of line,” he remembered.

        Vil laughed.  “I think I like this girl,” she said.  “So, she joked about it after you kissed her, but didn’t make any indications she was angry?”

        He thought for a minute.  “No, not that I can remember.”

        “Did she kiss you back?”

        He blew out his breath.  “I thought I was going to pass out right there in the rink,” he said thickly.

        “So, she did,” Vil chuckled dryly.  “And it sounds like you enjoyed it.”

        “I thought my heart was going to stop.”

        “Okay then, bro, just relax a little.  A girl never kisses back if she feels put upon or forced.  If she kissed you back, she was definitely into that kiss.  You may have ambushed her with it, but she wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea of it, from the way it sounds to me.  I think you surprised her when you backed off and then broke off the date.  If I was just kissed by a guy I liked and he ran away afterward, I’d be surprised too.”

        “Awww!” he groaned.  “I never thought of it that way!”

        “It’s alright, it’s alright,” she said soothingly.  “If you want my advice, just wait a while.  She’s going to call you, baby bro.  That’s a guarantee.  You said she was shy, so it might take her a little time to work up the courage to be so forward, but she will call you.  Just wait for her.”

        “I…okay.  I can do that.  I’ll wait as long as it takes.”

        “Is she worth it?”

        He answered her immediately.  “Hell yes,” he said fervently.  “She’s not just beautiful, sis, she’s really smart, and she’s fascinating.  She’s gentle, and kind, and considerate.  And she loves Vonnegut!”

        “Then wait for her, bro,” she told him seriously.

        “Until hell freezes over.”

        “Good.  Now, I want you to listen to me,” she said, very seriously.  “I want you to forget about the family.  I will keep them the hell away from you.  Don’t let that affect your decisions about this femme in any way.  Do you understand?”

        “I wish it were that easy,” he sighed.

        “Kit, have I ever lied to you?”

        “No.”

        “Do you trust me?”

        “Of course I do.”

        “Then trust me now.  I promise you, I’ll take care of it.  I’m not going to let them interfere in your happiness.  You deserve it.”

        “I’m not making any promises, but I’ll try.”

        “Okay, now that that’s settled,” she said, not giving him time to beat himself over it, “did you start looking for apartments, or did you just go out with her today?”

        “I have a few good leads on some places,” he said.  “And no, I don’t want your help,” he declared.

        She laughed.  “Well, I can get you something that doesn’t come with its own forms of life lurking in the fridge, Kit.  Trust me, I’ve seen what some people try to pass off as apartments.”

        “I can guarantee you I’ve both seen and lived in worse, sis,” he said calmly.

        “I guess you have,” she chuckled.  “But the offer’s there, Kit.  You’re a phone call away from a decent apartment, whenever you need it.”

        “I’m happy you’re thinking of me, Vil, but I’ll manage.  I’ve managed all this time on my own just fine.  Trust me.”

        “Alright.  I think I’ll let you go, baby bro, but you’d better not brood or sulk.  If I catch you doing it, I’m gonna fly down there and spank you.”

        “I’ll try not to,” he chuckled.

        “Okay, bro.  I have some work to finish up before tomorrow, so I’ll talk to you later.”

        “Love you sis.”

        “I love you too, bro.  Bye.”

 

        Vilenne turned off the phone, silent a long moment, tapping the antenna of the phone against her muzzle.  She then got up and went to her desk, and sat down.  There, in an open manila folder, was the entire life history of one Jessica Desdemona Williams.

        Marcus had been both efficient and speedy.  In just one day, and on a Sunday, no less, he had found a girl whose name he did not know and dug up absolutely everything there was to know about her.  Family history, her school records, her health records, everything.  All of it was right there for Vilenne to peruse, an entire life rendered down into a series of records and reports.  Dean’s List student at the University of Texas, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English.  Honors student who graduated fifth in her class from Southside High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Daughter of John and Hannah Williams, both cats, but Hannah’s father was a fox, which meant that Jessica was a mixed species. It certainly didn’t show, from looking at her picture.  She looked like she was all cat.

        There was nothing in that folder that dissuaded Vilenne in any way about wanting to see her brother chase her.  But, that wasn’t why she’d had Marcus find out about her.  All the other reports were just Marcus being thorough, the only thing that Vilenne had really been after was the girl’s address and telephone number.

        Not yet.  If she called out of the blue, it might scare this girl away from her brother, and she wouldn’t allow that.  Her brother had had a very hard life, and she’d be damned if she would screw up his chance to find a little happiness.

        She knew exactly how to play it.

        She punched up a phone number with her thumb and put the receiver to her ear.  “Hey Vicki, how you been?  No, I’m afraid this isn’t a chitchat call.  I need a favor,” she said.  “It’s going to be a bit strange, but humor me, okay?”  A pause.  “Cool beans, Vicki.  Now listen.  I need you to run a story for me, but it’s important you put my picture in it with color.  No, I don’t know what kind of story. Make something up.  Dig something out of the files or call the shipyards or something.  What’s important is that my picture is in the paper, the picture is in color, and the article is somewhere where a college student will find it.  You have a close-up color picture of me in your files?  Good.”  A pause.  “No, Vicki, it has to be in color.  It does no good at all if it’s in black and white.”  A pause.  “Well, tell your editor if you do this for me, Vilenne Vulpan will owe your paper a big favor.  And if that doesn’t work, then tell him to call me and tell him I’ll pay for it.  Say, double your normal advertiser’s fee for the space taken up by the article?”  A pause.  “Since when has journalistic integrity had anything to do with the newspaper business?”  Vilenne laughed after a pause.  “This is important to me, Vicki.  It’s very important.  More important than money.”  A pause.  “It has to be either tomorrow or Tuesday.  I can’t stress it enough, Vicki.  It’s really important.”  A pause.  “No, this has nothing to do with business.  This is personal.”

        She leaned back in her chair and sighed.  “Well, I guess it is too late to get it in tomorrow’s paper.  No, Tuesday works just fine.  I guess I can do an interview if you want to do something real.  Sure, bring a photographer, he can take a shot of me in my office.  But can you guarantee it’s in by Tuesday?  Thanks a ton, Vicki. You’re a lifesaver.”  A pause.  “Well, I think I could swing that, but I’ll still owe you a big favor on top of it.”  She laughed.  “Yeah, it’s that important to me, Vicki.  You too.  Send me the a copy of the paper when you print it, okay?  I’d like to see it,” she chuckled.  “You too.  Take care, hon.  Bye-bye.”

        There, that should get the ball rolling down there in Austin.

        Kit had tried to explain his family to her, but didn’t think she’d believe him.  Well, let her see just who Kit was related to, and it should all fall right into place.

 

        There was a lot to do and not much time.  Besides, it kept him from carrying the phone around with him in his paw all the time.  He kept himself completely busy, doing his best to try to not think about JD, even though everything he was doing was directly because of her.  She was the only reason he wasn’t getting ready to get on a bus for points west, points unknown.  She was the only reason he wanted to stay in Austin, because it was where she was.  And he had a lot to do.  A femme that beautiful, that sweet, that wonderful needed someone much better than the fox he was right now.  After all, he was homeless.  What kind of embarrassment would he be to her when her friends asked about him?  After all, she’d have enough to worry about when he eventually broke down and told her the whole truth about him and his family.

        If she didn’t run away screaming at that point, or laugh in his face.

        He still had no idea how he was going to explain it.  It was just so, so, ridiculous.  He could hear himself now:  “Oh, by the way, JD, I’m from one of the richest families in America, but I’ve been disowned and I don’t even have a home.  And by the way, my family would probably want to kill both me and you if they ever found out I’m dating you.”  Oh yeah, that was going to go over so well.

        But he’d have to find a way.  She deserved to know the truth, and she was worth the effort.  God, was she worth it.

        Monday morning was very, very busy.  He was up at five, before dawn, and hit the floor running.  His first stop was Wal-Mart, where he bought clothes that he felt looked decent enough for him to go job-hunting; a white dress shirt, a pair of black slacks, a nice tie and belt, and a respectable pair of shoes.  Then he stopped by a Staples near the mall and picked out a cheap yet tasteful portfolio to carry his laptop and whatever papers he needed or collected.  After he got his business clothes all in order, he banged out something of a decent-looking resume on his laptop and ran it down to Kinko’s and had them print him ten copies on good quality gray paper.

        All that was done before 9:30am.

        As soon as 9:30 hit, he was on the phone.  He’d always felt that 9:30 was the best time to make these kinds of calls, since it gave the people in the offices a chance to settle in, but got to them before they got too busy with other things.  His first call was to Lone Star, the magazine looking for a researcher.  The receptionist was a male, which surprised him a little, and directed his call to the fur in charge of hiring.

        “Uh, yes sir, I was calling about the ad you placed on Monster for the researcher’s position.  Is it still available?”

        “Yessir, it is,” he said in a heavy Texas drawl.  “Pardon my pointing this out, but you don’t sound like you’re local, son.”

        Kit chuckled.  “I’m in Austin now, sir.  Might I come and hand in my resume today?”

        “You certainly may.  When you get to the office, just tell the fluffy fella at the front desk you’re here to see Rick.  That’s me.  I’d rather you hand it to me yourself, that way I know it don’t get lost or nothin’.”

        “Rick,” he said to himself, writing it down on a little memo pad he kept in his backpack.  “Thank you very much, sir.  I should have my resume to you in an hour.”

        “I’ll be waitin’.”

        It wasn’t wise to put all his eggs in that basket, but that was also the only company for which he’d gotten a phone number.  The rest were all faxes, post office boxes, websites, much less personal means of contact.  But, now that the phone call was made, it was time to get busy with all that other stuff.  It was nearly an hour’s bus ride down to the south side of Austin, near the university.  Lone Star Magazine was headquartered on Congress Avenue, which was the main avenue that ran right up to the capitol building.  In fact, it was only two blocks from the capitol to the south, only five blocks from the south end of the U.T. campus.  It was a very old building, he could see, done in late 19th century architecture with heavy stone blocks and sculpted corners, with tall, narrow windows on all five stories.  It was a multi-office building, with some oil company on the first floor, Lone Star on the second, and some trading company taking up the top three.  The security guard in the lobby directed him to the stairs—he never rode in an elevator unless he had to, he hated them—and found himself in a large receiving room with bright red carpet, blue walls, and the Texas flag painted on the wall behind the reception desk along with LONE STAR MAGAZINE blocked above and below it.  The receptionist was a sheep, his wooly fur meticulously combed and organized, and the male was actually wearing makeup.

        Well…he was indeed “fluffy,” but now he saw that the male he talked to on the phone meant the word in a much less literal sense.

        “May I help you?” he asked in an effeminate voice.

        “Yes, I’m here to see Rick.”

        “Down the office, last door on the left.”

        The office to which he’d been directed was a nightmare of clutter.  Books, files, sheafs of notes, they were stacked almost everywhere.  An oil painting of some badger in an old uniform was on the wall, and there was an antique desk made of mahogany on the far side of the office, with two chairs between it and the door.  Behind that desk sat a dog with very unusual, almost calico-like fur pattern, a riot of reds, whites, browns, and tans all looking like some mad painter had used him as an easel.  He had a patch of white over his left eye, and a streak of brown over his nose and crossing over his right.  His chin fur was a little shaggy, showing his age, and he glanced up just slightly.  Then he did a double-take and gave Kit a long look, probably either looking at his eye or his ear, Kit supposed.  He was used to it.  “And what can I do for you, sir?” he asked.

        “I’m here to turn in a resume,” he answered.  “May I come in?”

        The dog laughed.  “A resume?  Really?  Is this some kind of joke?”

        “Uh, no, sir,” Kit said uncertainly.  “We talked on the phone just a little while ago.”

        “Well,” he hummed, leaning back in his chair and tapping his fingertips together.  “Well, well, well.  I always wondered what happened to you.  I’ll admit, I’m a bit surprised to see you standing at my door.”

        “Excuse me?”

        “Kitstrom Lucas Vulpan the third,” he said with a slight smile, then he put his paws behind his head and clunked his feet up on his desk.  “The disowned rebel of the Vulpan family.”

        Kit blanched, almost taking a step back.  Of course he might have heard of his family, he was in the magazine business!  “I, uh, I…You’re not going to hold it against me, are you?” he asked, almost pleadingly.

        The dog laughed.  “Of course not!  So, you have a resume to hand in, do you?  Can I see it?”

        Kit stepped in and opened his portfolio, and took out a manila folder holding a copy of his resume.  He stepped up and took it out, and handed it to the dog.

        “Have a seat,” he said absently as he put his feet down and started reading.  Kit seated himself, grabbing hold of the end of his tail and wringing it nervously as he tried to calm down.  This guy knew about him, knew that he’d been disowned.  When people did that, knew who he was, they either asked him a million questions or treated him like a live snake.  Even when they said it didn’t bother them, it still did anyway, thinking that Kit just wasn’t like them.  But how was this male going to handle it?  Was he going to give Kit a fair shake?

        “So, despite the fact that you obviously wrote this this morning, tell me. What brought you to Austin?  And why do you want to work here?”

        “I’ve been traveling around since I graduated from college,” Kit answered.  “Just staying in a place a while, then moving on.  And when I got here, something about the town just told me I needed to stay for a while.  There’s a lot to see here.  So I’m trying to find a real job instead of what I’ve been doing.  You know, restaurants and such.”

        “I see.  History, eh?”

        “Yes sir.  I’m used to doing extensive research.  It’s kinda necessary in the history business.”

        “That’s a definite plus.  You have some copies of your research work?”

        “Not with me, but I can give you a website that has it all archived.  U-Mass keeps it all in their E-library.”

        “I’ll definitely want to look it over before I call you back,” he said, his voice professional.  “What we are, Mister Vulpan, is a college magazine, about the college crowd, and for the college crowd.  I’m the main editor of this little expedition.  I also own the magazine.  Lone Star is circulated mainly on campus and in town, College Station, and we just started shipping to San Antonio.  I like to have my reporters and staff to either be young or understand the college lifestyle, and I think you fit both bills in that regard.  Though you’re not familiar with the University of Texas, you are from a pretty big school, so you know what it’s like.”

        “Yes sir.  I lived in the dorm when I was at U-Mass, and I played my share of Half Life.”

        He chuckled.  “Good.  Now, what kind of research you’d do if I hired you is both normal research and also field work.  You’d do your share of hunting down facts and statistics, but I’d also send you out to the college to gather information directly from the students.  You have any problem talking to strangers?”

        “None at all, sir.”

        “Good.  Since we’re also rather small, there’s a chance I might ask you to do some writing, maybe even some photography.  I only have six people on staff, so we all do what we can, when we can.  But none of my people are accomplished researchers, so that would be your main focus.  Since you’re a history major, you know how to put together an essay and make it logical, but have you done any other writing?”

        “Well, I kept a journal when I was out on the road,” he said.  “If you want, you can use that to judge my ability to write outside of the college format.”

        “Excellent.  You need to send it to me.”

        “I have it right here,” he said, reaching into his portfolio and pulling out his laptop.  “Do you have a wireless network?”

        “It’s firewalled against outside machines, but I have a flash drive handy,” he said, reaching into his desk and taking out a small USB flash drive.

        Kit turned on the laptop and kept half an eye on it as Rick Sanders kept talking.  “You ever done any photography?”

        “Not professional, sir.  But I can take normal pictures.”  His laptop finished booting, so he inserted the flash drive and prepared to copy the 7 journal files over to the flash drive, one for each month he was on the move.

        “Do you know how to use Word?”

        He nodded.  “Both Word and Excel.”

        “You have any experience with Photoshop?”

        “No sir, the most computer work I did was making Powerpoint slideshows for my presentations.”

        “Do you have any skills you think I might find useful in a magazine publishing environment?”

        “Well, no, not really, sir,” he admitted honestly.  “Well.  I took some accounting and business classes, but I don’t think they’d be much help here.  And I do have a pilot’s license.  I’m not sure how much help that’d be around here, but if you ever get an airplane, I can fly you somewhere in it.”

        “What kind of hobbies do you have, Mister Vulpan?”

        “Well, I can play a guitar a little and I like to sing.  I love to read, anything and everything, and I enjoy listening to music.”

        “what kind?”

        “ABR, sir.  Anything But Rap.”

        Sanders laughed.  “I’m a country man, myself.”

        “I’m not all that big on modern country.  It seems like it tries too hard to be like pop music,” Kit noted.  “I like older country, from the 80’s back.  That’s when country was best.”

        “Son, you just made a friend,” Sanders laughed.  “Who’s your favorite old timers?”

        “My favorite old musicians are probably Alabama and Tammy Wynette,” he said.

        “You like any of the new groups?”

        “Well, Big and Rich are kind of interesting,” he noted.  “It’s country with a sense of humor.  That’s fresh.  Outside of them, it’s all sort of cookie-cutter music.”

        “Amen, amen,” he nodded.  “Now, you have to answer a question for me.  It might be a little personal, so if it offends you, I’m sorry in advance.”

        “Go ahead, sir.”

        “What happened to you?”

        “Excuse me?”

        “The accident.  I remember reading about it in Furs.  You were hit by a car, and your father refused to pay for your hospital bills.  It said in the story you’d been disowned since you were sixteen.  Did that all work out?”

        Kit sighed, scrubbing the back of his head with the short claws on his fingers.  “Well, mostly,” he said.  “My sister paid my bills, and the scandal basically embarrassed my father into not doing anything about it.”

        “That wasn’t what I was asking, son,” he chuckled.  “Did it all work out between you and your family?”

        He looked down.  “It did after my father died,” he said bluntly.  “I was at the funeral.  I watched them put that old bastard in the ground, and it was the first time in my life I ever felt free.  It worked out for me, sir.  I’m through with them.”

        He was quiet a long moment, and Kit felt a little stupid and chagrined for saying that.  Oh, sure, that was a way to try to impress someone that could give you a decent job.

        “Well, we all have family problems at one time or another,” he said with a slight smile.  “I’ll look over your papers and your journal and see what kind of work you do, and give you a call back either tonight or tomorrow.”

        “I, thank you, sir,” Kit said, standing up.  The dog stood up as well, and they shook paws.

        Kit left feeling a little uncertain.  He asked that question, Kit answered before he thought about it, then he was hustled out the door.  He had a feeling that Lone Star was a bust.

 

        The rest of the day was busy.  He spent a great deal of time of it in the Austin Public Library, using and abusing their computers and their fax machine.  He sent out resumes to 29 different companies in the Austin area, jobs ranging from researching at Lone Star to an apprentice welding opening for Cubrin Metalworking, anything that paid a decent salary that he was even remotely qualified to do.

        And he sent them out, he wondered how many of the people who read his resume would recognize his name, and immediately throw his resume in the garbage thinking it was either a joke or there was no way they’d hire someone like him, some rich kid that they couldn’t depend on because he didn’t need the money.

        His name.  He should have changed the damn thing, but that was like a thousand dollars, and there was no way he could afford something like that.  So he was stuck with it, at least for now.

        He kept himself so busy that he didn’t realize that it was sunset when he left the library.  He hadn’t eaten all day, so he stopped at the first fast food joint he came across, a Burger King on Congress Avenue, across from the campus.  Kit had a thing for hamburgers.  They were his favorite food, and if there was a hamburger on the menu no matter where he went, that’s what he got.  After growing up eating the exotic food of the rich, he had a love of the simple food of normal people, food that didn’t have French names, or served on gold-laminated china in geometric patterns for artistic flair.

        Food that wasn’t tiny.

        He dropped down at a table near the counter and dug in, eating with a haste that came with hunger.  He was almost finished with his burger when the phone in his pocket rang, and he literally threw it down, his heart leaping.  Was it JD, finally calling him back?  “Hello?” he called in excitement.

        “Heya, Rick Sanders here,” came the voice on the other side of the connection.  “I looked over your papers and your journal, Vulpan, and it’s good stuff.  Your capstone was very well done, but I was much more impressed by your journal.  It’s what I’d expect my journalism graduates to put out.”

        “Thank you, Mister Sanders,” he said, trying not to sound so giddy.

        “Rick.  Only my pastor calls me Mister Sanders.  You said that research was a job requirement for a history major, and you proved it.  And you have the writing skills to do some actual writing if I need it in a pinch.  So, why don’t you drop by the office tomorrow and we’ll hammer out the details.”

        “Excuse me?”

        “I’m offering you the job, son.  Anyone who can dig up ancient Roman manuscripts to use as references for a capstone certainly knows how the hell to do research.  But I still say you went into the wrong major.  You’d have been one hell of a reporter.”

        “Really?  That’s great!” he said explosively, almost standing up.  “And I thought I’d butchered it when you asked about my family,” he admitted.

        “Actually, that’s what convinced me.  It proved that you were serious about living your own life, son, away from your family name.  I didn’t want someone that was gonna pack up and run home as soon as the job got hard.  What you said showed me you’re in it for the long haul.”

        “Well, I’m in it for a couple of years at any rate,” he said impulsively.

        “Be here at nine, Mister Vulpan.  We’ll talk about your salary, and if you take the job, we’ll get your paperwork done.”

        “Kit, sir.  Everyone calls me Kit.”

        “Kit it is,” he chuckled.  “See you tomorrow.”

        “Thank you, Rick,” Kit said with total sincerity.  “This chance means a lot to me.”

        “Well, let’s see what you can do with it.  I’m on my way out the door, son, so have a good evening.  Bye.”

        Kit closed the phone, and had to resist the urge to let out a whoop right there in the restaurant.  He had a real job!  He threw away the burger he’d thrown on the table, not hungry anymore, and speed-dialed Vil as he was rushing out of the restaurant.  “Hello?”

        “I got a job, sis!” he cried loudly and happily, almost bowling over a skunk femme and a coyote male as they were walking into the restaurant.  “Lone Star Magazine hired me to do research!”

        “That’s great, bro!” she said happily.  “What kind of salary?”

        “We’re gonna talk about that tomorrow,” he answered, stopping on the sidewalk near the parking lot.  “But it’s gotta be better than the Double J!”

        She laughed.  “No doubt.  Don’t just cave, bro.  You’re good at what he hired you to do, so don’t settle for his first offer.  You know how to research, so research.  Find out how much other researchers make, and take it to ‘em!  Show ‘em how good of a researcher you are!”

        “I’ll do that,” he promised.  “God, it feels good.  Now JD won’t be totally embarrassed about me.”

        “Has she called you back yet?”

        “Not yet,” he said.  “I hope she calls soon, though.  I’m like dying here waiting for her to call.”

        “She will, baby bro, just be patient.  Well, you got a job.  Now find a place to live.”

        “I’ll get on that first thing tomorrow after I’m done at the magazine.  I need to go find a wireless hotspot, sis, so I can dig up that research.  I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

        “You bet.  Give ‘em hell, bro!” she said enthusiastically.

        He said his goodbyes and closed the phone, then almost ran down the street.  He had to go back to the Java Joint and get on that, so he could walk into Rick’s office tomorrow armed with all the facts to get a good salary out of him.

        He’d show them just how good of a researcher he was.

 

        “Sam?  Sammy, hello?” the coyote called, poking the female skunk in the shoulder.

        “Oh, sorry,” she said, watching the fox tear down the street.

        “You know that guy?”

        “I kinda do, yeah,” she answered.  “He went out with one of my roommates yesterday.  It didn’t end very well.”

        “What happened?”

        “From what JD told me, he kissed her, and he backed off and left, when she didn’t want him to.  She said he seemed scared to death about something, but she wouldn’t tell me what.”

        “Sounds a little weird.”

        “Yeah, so far everything about that guy is weird.”

        “You heard what he said, didn’t you?  He said JD wouldn’t be embarrassed about him now.”

        “Yeah, he did say that,” she said musingly, putting a finger to her muzzle.  “Hon, mind if we call it a little short?  I think I need to go talk to JD.”

        “Sure, I don’t mind, sweets.  How about tomorrow?”

        “Tomorrow sounds just fine.  Thanks for being so understanding.”

        “I know that a femme just can’t sit on juicy gossip,” he grinned.  “I can’t compete with I have got to get home and tell JD all about this.”

        Sam laughed, patting him on the arm.  “Call me, okay?”

        “You know it.”

 

        The phone stood there, mocking her.

        Jessie sat on her bed, wearing nothing but an oversized Alpha Xi Omega sorority nightshirt, staring at the wireless phone on her nightstand, both desperately wanting to pick it up and too nervous to actually do it.  Her stereo was on, tuned to the local pop station, but she really wasn’t listening to it.  All she could hear was his voice, going over everything that happened the day before.

        He asked her to think about it.  Well, that’s all she did all day.  She’d been totally lost in classes today, spaced out and distracted, because all she could think of was him.  Every part of the time they’d been together, every word he’d spoken, how nice his paws felt when he held onto hers…how warm and wonderful his kiss was….

        She groaned and flopped back on her bed.   Why couldn’t she do it?  He liked her, she knew he did!  It wasn’t like she didn’t know what to expect from him!  He gave her his number, for crying out loud!

        Ever since she was a kitten, she’d always been like this.  She was a very shy kitten, and though her career choice had made her start facing that shyness, when it came to personal things like this, she was just as shy as ever.

        It was so silly!  He gave her his number, because he didn’t want to pressure her.  She understood that, given that really strange thing about his family that made him afraid, and after he kissed her like that.  It was actually very sweet of him to let her be the one to decide and make the next step.  But it meant taking initiative, being bold like Sandy.  If it was Sandy, she’d have called him back like ten minutes later!  But as more and more time went by, she got more and more nervous.

        Sometimes being shy was just a damn curse.

        It was easy.  All she had to do was get up and go to the phone.  The post-it with his number was sticking to her mirror, right there in plain view.  Just pick up the phone and dial the number.  That’s it.  Pick up the phone, dial the number.  Get up, you silly cat! she thought to herself.  Get up!  Isn’t he worth it?  Do you want him to think that you’re not interested in him?  Do you want him to think that he scared you so much you don’t want another date?  He didn’t, and it’s not fair to him to let him think that!  So get up right now!

        She blew out her breath and did get up.  She walked over to the phone, and spent a long moment staring at it, her paws trembling slightly.  Then she snatched up the phone and looked up at the number.

        Her door banged open, and Sam was there, with Sandy right behind her.  She’d been out on a date with her boyfriend, but she shouldn’t have been back so soon.  “We gotta talk, JD,” she said with a slight smile.

        “Can it wait?  I was about to, uh,” she said, holding up the phone slightly.

        “So you finally worked up the guts to call him, eh?” Sandy teased.  “Be glad, I was coming up here to do it for you!”

        Jessie’s face ruffled a little, and she glanced away.

        “Well, this is about him.  I ran into him down at the Burger King a few minutes ago.”

        “Really?”

        “Yeah, he almost ran me over,” she laughed.  “We heard him talking to his sister on his cell phone.  He said he got a new job at Lone Star magazine,” she said, then she looked back down the hall quickly, “and from the way it sounded, he got it with you in mind.”

        “Huh?”

        “He said, and I quote, ‘maybe now JD won’t be embarrassed about me.’”

        “See, I told you he was staying in Austin because of you, JD!” Sandy said smugly.  “Isn’t that romantic?  He’s giving up on his trip just to be near you!”

        “It’s almost like a stalker,” Sam said.  Sandy punched her in the arm.  She was not gentle.

        “Stalkers don’t give out their numbers, Sammy,” Sandy said.  “I think it’s romantic.  He took one look at JD, and he decided to stay because he wanted to go out with her, so he went out and got a better job than being a dishwasher, just to impress you.”

        “Well, I think it’s a little strange,” Sam noted, rubbing her chin with a single black-furred finger.  “But, I do have to admit, from what I heard yesterday, I think he’s okay.  He told his sister he was dying for you to call him.  I think he’s maybe trying a little too hard, but he’s okay.  I’d be careful til you get to know him a little better, JD.  Once you’re sure he’s not a space case, anyway.”

        Jessie laughed.  “There’s something he’s not telling me,” she told them.  “He even admitted it.  He tried to tell me about his family, and said that I probably wouldn’t believe him.  And you shoulda heard how he said it!  It was something like what I’m about to tell you isn’t the whole truth, but a part of it that’ll let you understand what I’m trying to tell you.”

        “He wouldn’t be the first guy that didn’t like to talk about his family.”

        “Well, what he said about them wasn’t very good.”

        “Yeah,” Sandy agreed.  “JD told me he said that his family is a bunch of purists, and they’d have a conniption if they found out he was dating a cat.”

        “That’s what he said, but it was the way he said it,” Jessie said musingly.  “That wasn’t the part he wouldn’t tell me, just the part he thought was important for me to know.”

        “Does it bother you that his family is a bunch of purists?” Sam asked.

        “Not really.  They all live in Boston, and we’re down here.  But, it really bothered him,” she noted, almost clinically.  “I could hear it in his voice.  Even see it.  He’s terrified of his family.  I, I think that’s why he lived like a homeless vagabond, really.  To get away from them, to hide from them.  If you don’t have an address and move from town to town, how can they keep track of you?”

        “Yeah, maybe,” Sandy mused.  “So, we’ll get outta here, and you call him,” she prompted, pushing the phone in her paw towards her face.  “And take notes,” she grinned.  “I wanna know!  Especially if you two start talking dirty!”

        “Oh, out, you!” she commanded, pushing both of them out the door, then slamming it Sandy’s face.

        But she didn’t hesitate this time.  She immediately started dialing his number.

        It was like Sammy’s information broke the wall of her shyness.  He was dying for her to call him.  He really wanted to see her, she was very impressed with what he was doing where she couldn’t see, trying to get a better job just so she wouldn’t be dating a dishwasher, and it made her feel wanted, and very, very happy.  There was no nervousness at all now.

        The phone rang.  It rang again.  And her heart leaped a little when she heard it pick up.  “Hello?”

        “Kit?” she asked.

        “JD!  Hey!  I was hoping you’d call…but would you please call me back in about a half an hour?  I’m on a bus right now, and I’m the kind that thinks it’s very rude to talk on a phone in a public setting.  It’s disrespectful to the others on the bus.”

        She giggled.  “Sure, I can do that, but you have to do something for me.”

        “Anything!”

        “Don’t call me JD unless you’re asking for me here at the house.  Call me Jessie.”

        “Jessie it is.  Half an hour?”

        “Half an hour sounds good to me.  I’ll be waiting.”

        “Heh, I’ll be sitting here staring at my watch,” he said ruefully.  “I’m so glad you decided I was worth a second chance, Jessie.  Talk to you in thirty.  Bye-bye.”

        “Bye.”

        She put the phone down, feeling a little giddy. She had talked to him without being shy, even asked him to call her by her name!  And he was so polite!  He could have just asked her to call him back, but he explained why he wanted it, and his reason was so chivalrous.  He was so considerate, even to complete strangers!

        She carried the phone back to her bed and sat down on it, pulled her legs up to sit cross-legged on it with her longhaired tail wrapped around her legs, and started staring at her alarm clock.

        Thirty minutes….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    2      4

Chapter 3

 

        She almost overslept.

        The other girls in the house were both a little peeved at her and intensely curious, because she stayed on the phone almost all night with Kit.

        They talked about everything, the slightest things that would cross their minds.  They talked about likes, dislikes, movies, books, TV (though Kit didn’t watch TV).  She talked about school.  He talked about living on the road.  She talked about Cincinnati and her family.  He talked about how life had been just after he’d been disowned.  The only thing he wouldn’t talk about was his family, and she didn’t press him.  She could tell that he was very uncomfortable with the subject.  All she really learned from him was what little he revealed while talking about other things.  He had a sister named Vil, who ran the family business.  His father and him had been fighting since he was twelve, and he was disowned at sixteen because he refused to go into the family business.  She had no idea what that family business was, but given he was from Boston and was from a stuck-up, purist family, she was betting that his family had some money and ran something like a jeweler’s shop or something.

        His sister seemed to have money.  That expensive Sabletech laptop was a Christmas present from her, he’d told her.

        They talked, and talked, and talked.  For hours, they talked, and the more they talked, the more interesting he was to her.  He was very smart, and he was very kind and thoughtful, and though he hated his family, he loved his sister deeply.  He loved hamburgers and scary movies.  He was a strategy game fanatic, from chess to computer games.  He loved to read.  He loved to sit and listen to people tell stories, and write them down.  And he really loved music.  He was learning to play the guitar, he’d said, and he liked to sing kareoke and at open mic nights.  She could tell that he was a very strong fox, strong convictions and willful, but not stubborn or obstinate.  He had his opinions, but would listen to the opinions of others, then loved to debate the points of those opinions.  They’d spent almost an hour arguing about Vonnagut’s works, and though he was hard to sway from his viewpoint—which was all wrong!—he listened respectfully to her point of view.

        He was such an enigma!  Strong, yet willing to bend.  Opinionated, yet open to others trying to sway him.  He was very laid back, but had very strong views about politics and government.  He was a delight to talk to, an intelligent, well-traveled fox who could tell a sad story about some of the people he’d met, then make her laugh herself silly telling stories he was told from those very same people.

        They talked until after midnight, and the only reason they had to quit was because Kit’s cellphone battery was almost dead!  If not for that, she felt they would have talked all night long.  After she reluctantly got off the phone, she realized she’d not done a whit of homework!

        It made for a long night, and almost no sleep.  She dragged herself out of bed and saw she was a fright, but it was too late for a shower.  She resorted to a female’s best friend…lots and lots of hair spray.  She threw on whatever she had at hand and rushed downstairs, where Sandy, Sam, and two other sorority members, a gray wolf named Charlotte and a rabbit named Lisa were sitting at the kitchen table, eating breakfast.  As usual, Sam had her USA Today at hand, reading the news.  It was a morning tradition for her.  “Hold it right there!” Sandy boomed.  “You tie up the phone all night, and think you’re gonna sneak out of here without a word?  What did you talk about?”

        Jessie giggled.  “What didn’t we talk about is the better question,” she grinned coyly.  “The only reason we stopped is cause his cell battery died!”

        Sandy laughed.  “I’m sure it’s charged back up by now,” she hinted.

        “Yeah, but he’s starting a new job today,” Jessie said with sincere regret.  “He’s already out and about, and I don’t want to disturb him.  He said he had to go to an internet hot spot and do some research for work before he got there, so he can haggle a good salary out of his new boss.”

        “Ooh, where’s he working?”

        “You ever read Lone Star?”

        Sandy nodded.  “I’ve seen some copies of it on campus.  It looked pretty good.”

        “That’s where he’s working.  He said that his main job is going to be doing research, but it’s a small staff, so he might have to write articles sometimes and act like a reporter.  When they need it.”

        Sam snapped her paper, then looked carefully at the new section she picked up.  “JD,” she said seriously.  “What did you say his sister’s name was?”

        “Vil,” she answered.

        “As in Vilenne?  Vilenne Vulpan?”

        “He never told me his last name,” she said.  “He said it’s one of those things he’d explain later, when he was more comfortable with it.  But he never called her Vilenne.  He just said her name was Vil.  Why?”

        “Because I think she’s in the paper,” she said seriously.  “Look at this.”

        Jessie leaned over Sam and looked where she was pointing.  It was a picture of a vixen sitting on the edge of a glass top desk, a computer monitor behind her, legs crossed demurely and leaning on her right paw.  She was a very attractive vixen, Jessie noted.  “So?” she asked.

        “Look at her eyes.”

        Jessie did, and she gasped.

        Her right eye was green, and her left eye was amber.  Just like Kit’s!

        The caption of the photo read Vilenne Vulpan, 4th generation CEO of Vulpan Shipyards, in her Boston office.  The title of the article was New Blood In An Old Chair:  The Youngest Fortune 500 CEO.

        “It can’t be!” Sandy said in shock.  “Kit’s a Vulpan?”

        “Who are Vulpans?” Lisa asked.

        “The Vulpans are one of the richest and most powerful families in America,” Sam answered her.  “They have more money than some third world nations.  You’ve heard of the Kennedys?  Well, the Vulpans are like the Kennedys, but they never got into politics.”

        “Wow,” Lisa breathed.

        She remembered what he said on Sunday.  It’s not the whole truth.  It’s just a part of the truth that will help me explain things rationally, he said.  Because the truth is so outlandish that even if I heard it, I wouldn’t believe it.

        Outlandish.  Kit, the son of one of the richest families in America, but he was disowned, homeless, and up until today was washing dishes for a living…that was outlandish alright.

        Then, in a flash, an image.  Months ago, a magazine.  She remembered seeing a picture of a fox with two different colored eyes, missing his left ear, walking out of a cemetery.  Was that where she thought she’d seen him from?

        It could have been the funeral of his father, the father he hated.  I just had to be there, he told her last night.  I had to see them put him in the ground and know that he was dead and buried.

        “Sam.  Can I borrow your laptop a minute?” she asked.

        “Why?”

        “Kit gave me a website where he said I could read his capstone, and he was kinda embarrassed because he said his capstone had his full name on it.”

        “Oh.  Ohh!  Sam!” Sandy said in excitement.

        “On it!” she said, literally running out of the kitchen.  She returned a moment later and plopped it on the table.  “What’s the address?”

        “He didn’t say exactly, just that U-Mass kept all capstones in their E-library.  And I know the title of his capstone.”

        “Easy enough.  Google is a femme’s best friend,” she said with a chuckle.  The four others crowded over her shoulders.  A few mouse clicks brought up the University of Massechusetts main page, and she quickly found her way over to the library page.  She clicked the search box and cracked her knuckles.  “Alright, JD, what is it?”

        “Two nations, one fate, Rome and America.”

        She typed that in and hit enter.  Immediately they got a response.  Sam clicked on the link, and they were looking at a .pdf file showing a cover page of a capstone paper, the title reading America and Rome:  Two Nations, One Fate.

        “Well, you were close,” Charlotte laughed as Sam scrolled down.

        There it was.  Kitstrom Vulpan.

        “Oh my GOD!” Sandy gasped.  “He really is a Vulpan!  God damn, femme, you hit the jackpot!  He must be worth millions!”

        “No, he’s homeless and broke,” Sam said evenly.  “JD said he said he was disowned, but that does explain the laptop,” she said clinically, rubbing her chin with a finger.  “That’s a pretty damn expensive laptop.”

        Jessie looked at his name on the capstone, then looked at the picture of Vilenne Vulpan, with her smart gray skirt and blazer, her slight smile, sitting in the lap of luxury while her brother washed dishes for a living.  But then she remembed how Kit always seemed to speak of his sister so warmly, so lovingly.  He said she’d always been there for him, that she had been the only member of the family to help him when he got hit by the car, and if she sent him the laptop, maybe she did try to look out for him.  Maybe it was Kit that refused to take what she offered, but she was always there to help out if something went very wrong, or he was in dire straits.  She even remembered what he’s said about his phone, my sister makes me carry it around in case I have an emergency.

        “Wow!” Lisa sounded.  “Jessie, where did you meet him?”

        “By sheer luck,” Jessie answered.  “In that coffee place by Northcross Mall.”

        “I wonder what it was like for him,” Charlotte breathed.  “From having all that money, then bam, on the streets.  How did he make it?  I mean, think about it.  He wouldn’t know what it was like to live like normal people, not living in his mansion with all his servants.”

        “Damn, you’re right,” Sandy said quietly, her eyes drifting to the rabbit.

        “It woulda been hard, that’s for sure,” Sam noted.

        It fit.  That’s why he was so afraid of his family. He said they had a very long arm.  Well, if they were that rich, then they probably did.  No wonder he was so afraid.  The poor fox, he could never feel like he would be free of them!

        She went through everything she remembered from last night.  Everything he told her fit together neatly with this new little bit of critical information, and everything became more clear.  It explained his love for his sister, who had literally saved him from dying on the streets.  It explained his almost rabid hatred of his family, who had turned their backs on him and not helped him when he needed it most, when he’d been hit by that car and broke his back.  It explained why he was so afraid of his family, because he feared they would lash out at him if he dared to stain the family honor, disowned or not.  And since he was no longer part of the family, destitute, he had no real protection from them, no safety.  All he had was his sister, who was his lifeline and also his only defense against the rest of his family.

        She put her clasped paws to her muzzle and sighed.  Oh, God.  What a hard six years for him, but he’d come through it a better fox for his hardships.  He hadn’t lost his kindness to others, and he could still smile and laugh.

        What a male!

        “JD?  JD?  You okay?”

        “I’m fine, Sandy,” she said with a little smile.  “This actually makes it all make perfect sense to me now.  It explains everything.  He was trying to tell me, but he didn’t think I’d believe him.  I guess I wouldn’t have,” she admitted honestly.  “He was trying to lead me into it, but he was afraid to be honest with me.”

        “I can see why,” Charlotte laughed.

        “I need to talk to him,” she declared.  “Can I have that, Sam?” she asked, pointing at the Money section of the paper, the one with the article.  “I think I’ll need it.”

        “Sure.”  She handed it up and over her shoulder.

        “Thanks.  I need to go, I’m gonna be late for class.”

        “Where can I buy that paper, Sam?” Sandy asked quickly.

        “Anywhere,” she shrugged in reply.

 

        Jessie didn’t pay much attention in her morning class, her mind preoccupied with Kit, and what she wanted to tell him.  She had to let him know that she knew, and she understood, and it did not bother her.  She wanted to see him, wanted to get to know him. She wanted to go see scary movies with him and hide her face in his chest when the monsters jumped out of the shadows.  She wanted to walk along the river park with him, paw in paw, talking about nothing in particular.  She wanted to go to a bar with him and be embarrassed to death when he pulled her up on stage and made her sing with him.

        She wanted to kiss him again.

        She waited until lunch before she called him, from a cell phone borrowed from the other Jessie from the house, who had the same European Literature class with her.  “Hello?” he answered.

        “Kit?”

        “Jessie!  Hi, how are you?”

        “I’m fine.  Listen, I know you’re busy right now, but when do you get off work?”

        “I’m actually off already.  When my boss found out I have no home or car, he kicked me out so I could find a place.”

        “That’s nice.  Did you get a good salary?”

        He laughed.  “He was a bit shocked when I went in there with a spreadsheet of researcher’s salaries.  I made a few concessions to get some immediate help, but all in all I think I got a good salary.  Nineteen thousand a year to start, which is about midstream given I don’t have any experience, with an adjustment meeting in six months, and a thousand dollar advance so I can afford to get a place of my own.  The main thing is, Rick, my boss, he’s going to let me use his wife’s old second car until I get something of my own.”

        “That’s good.  Listen, I want to see you.  Can you meet me somewhere?”

        “Right now?”

        “No, later.  I have two more classes today.  Do you know the campus well?”

        “Not really.”

        “Okay, here on campus we have a big bookstore, kinda in the middle.  Right outside of it, facing the old bell tower, there’s this little square that has benches along the sidewalk.  Can you meet me there around five thirty?  I’ll be sitting on one of the benches.”

        “Sure, I can do that.  I should be in the area, I’m concentrating on finding a place within walking distance of the office.  That way I can give Rick back his car.”

        “Okay.  Maybe after we talk a while, we can go get some pizza or something?”

        “I’d love to.”

        “Good.  I’ll see you then.”

        “I’ll be waiting.  Bye Jessie.”

        “Bye-bye.”  She handed the phone back to Jessica.  “Thanks Jessie.”

        “No, keep it for now,” the tiger grinned.  “If he gets lost, you might need to call him and guide him.  Just put it on silent and don’t answer any calls, okay?”

        “Sure.  Thanks, you’re a lifesaver.”

        “We’ve been trying to get you a boyfriend for a year, you silly kitty,” she laughed.  “The whole house has already agreed to do whatever it takes to get you two together.”

        “Gee, thanks,” she said with a slight ruffle of her cheeks, which made Jessica explode with laughter.

 

        Research.

        That’s what Kit was going to do for a living, and that was exactly what she needed to do.

        She started with the article.  She read it completely.  It was about Vilenne, how she was the youngest of all CEOs running the Forbes 500 list of biggest companies.  She was the fourth Vulpan to run the company that was named after her family, Vulpan Shipyards, the biggest shipbuilding corporation in America, and fifth biggest in the world.  They built every kind of ship, from speedboats up to aircraft carriers, and had branched out to other areas that mainly supported building ships.  Vulpan Steel was the ninth largest steel company in America, its own company, but it was folded into Vulpan Shipyards in some business way Jessie didn’t completely understand.  She operated both companies, even though they were technically separate from one another.  The article focused on the challenges Vilenne faced being both very young and also a female in a the male’s world of high-ranking corporate executives, but she’d been groomed for the role.  Valedictorian of her class in Harvard, third in her class in Harvard Business College, one of the most prestigious business colleges in the world, and she was also an Oxford scholar.  She was a sharp businesswoman, and she’d already increased profits at Vulpan Shipyards in the six months since she’d been at the helm.

        There was no mention of the rest of the family or Kit in the article.

        After her second class, she hit the computer lab and made Google her best friend too.  She looked up the Vulpan family in google, and was stunned to get back over a hundred thousand replies!  Googling Kit himself brought back over ten thousand replies!  She narrowed down her search, and more or less pieced together what had happened to Kit, using old news stories, gossip columns, and blogs.  And everything she found on the internet fit exactly with everything Kit had told her.  His being disowned, the accident that broke his back, all of it.  And oh my God, how the gossip columns went to town over Kit and his father!  They speculated on what had caused Kit to be disowned, and it was was all the gossip columns talked about for like a year after it happened.  They even sent out photographers and reporters to get pictures and details of the disowned Vulpan trying to make it on his own afterwards.  How rude of them, and how cruel, to make his personal pain some kind of sick real-life soap opera to drool over every morning in the paper!  It proved he wasn’t lying, but it also reinforced his declaration to her that she wouldn’t believe him if he told her the truth, that he wouldn’t believe it himself if someone told it to him.

        After that, she looked into other members of the Vulpan family.  It was a pretty big family, with lots of aunts, uncles, grand-aunts and uncles, and cousins by the platoon.  And all of them, every single one, had the same eyes as Kit.  Their right eyes were green, and their left eyes amber.  There was even an article on google about it, calling it the “Vulpan Eyes,” a very distinctive family trait that made a Vulpan very distinct from other foxes.  Sam would have loved to read that article, it was all about genetics, how it was some kind of dominant genetic trait that bred true through the Vulpan line.

        Out of curiosity, she looked up Kit and Vilenne’s father, Kitstrom Lucas Vulpan Junior.  The obituary said he died of heart failure at 49, and was survived by brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles…and only one child.

        God, what a heartless man. Even in death, he wouldn’t acknoweldge that he had a son.

         She ran out of time and had to go to her Fundamentals of Education class, needed for he teaching certificate, but her mind wasn’t much on the class.  She had all the facts now, so it was just a matter of talking to Kit about it.  She knew him pretty well now, after their marathon talk last night, so she had an idea of how to break the subject with him.  Direct, to the point, yet with gentleness and tact.

        After class, she went down to the bookstore and picked a nice empty bench within sight of the bookstore, but out of the hot August sun.  She picked at her blouse and smoothed her jeans, going over it all in her mind over and over.  She was impatient, but she was willing to sit there and wait all night for him, knowing that he would be there.

        He was late, but he made it.  About ten minutes to six, just before she was about to call him, she saw him all but running along the sidewalk by the bookstore. He stopped and looked around, and she waved to him.  He waved back, and padded up to the bench quickly.  “I’m so sorry,” he said, a little out of breath.  “I couldn’t find a place to park!”

        “It’s okay,” she smiled.  “I’m glad you made it.  Sit down please?”

        “Sure.  How was your day?”

        “It was…distracting,” she told him honestly.

        “It was for me too,” he said, leaning back on the bench and brushing his hair back.  Then he looked at her.  “Jessie?  Is something wrong?”

        She reached down into her backpack, and pulled out the newspaper.  She handed it to him.  “Kit.  This is your sister, isn’t it?”

        He looked at the picture, and his eyes widened, and he seemed to stiffen up.

        “You’re Kitstrom Vulpan,” she said gently.  “From the family that owns Vulpan Shipyards.”

        He sagged.  He buried his face under his paws, and he was almost stock still.

        “Kit,” she called, putting a paw on his shoulder.

        “I’m sorry, Jessie,” he said, not looking at her.  “I didn’t know how to tell you.  I couldn’t figure out a way.  I didn’t think you’d believe me, that a homeless dishwasher was a Vulpan.  I was afraid you’d think I was lying to try to impress you, or I was just nuts.”

        “Well, I’ll admit, I was a little shocked when I found this, and then I looked up your name on your capstone and put it together.  I remembered that you told me your name was on it.  But Kit.  Kit, look at me.”

        He didn’t move.  She reached under his paws and lifted his head, and she almost melted when she saw that he was tearing up.  “Oh, Kit, I’m not angry,” she told him immediately.  “You warned me yourself that you didn’t know how to tell me without sounding outrageous.  Outlandish, I think you said,” she said with an encouraging smile.  “Remember what I told you when you said how your family would react if they knew you were seeing me?”

        He nodded silently.

        “I haven’t changed my mind,” she smiled.  “I understand, Kit.  You’re afraid of your family because they’re rich, and they can reach down here all the way from Boston and make our lives hell.  Well, I’m not going to let them stand in our way, and neither should you.  I don’t care if you’re broke and homeless.  I don’t care that you’re from a rich family.  And I really don’t care what they think of me.”

        “I’m, I’m glad you feel that way, Jessie,” he said, sniffling a little, leaning down with his elbows on his knees.  “Do you know how it feels to like someone, but be so afraid of your own family that you don’t do anything about it?  To be ruled by a family you hate, but you can never get away from?  It makes me feel helpless sometimes, frustrated.  Impotent.  I’ve been on my own for six years, but I’m still so afraid of them I won’t live my own life because they might disapprove.”

        “But you did do something about it,” she told him.  “You went ice skating with me,” she said with a smile.  “And we talked all night, and I really liked it.  And I want to keep seeing you, Kit, no matter what your family thinks of it.”  She reached out and clasped his paw, and he put his other paw over hers.  “I told you I wasn’t afraid then, and I’m not afraid now.  Even though I know that you were serious, it doesn’t matter to me.  You’re worth the risk.  You’re worth it.  Can you meet me halfway and share the risk with me, Kit?”

        He looked over at her, his eyes earnest.  “I’d carry you.”

        “We’ll talk about carrying me some other time,” she giggled.  “Are you okay with it?  I know your secret, but I don’t care who you were.  All I care about is who you are right here, right now.  I think you’re a handsome, intriguing, wonderful fox, and I want to go out with you, I want to get to know you.”

        “And I want to get to know you too,” he mirrored.

        “Well then, I think there was a promise of pizza somewhere in here,” she grinned.  “But, before we get to the pizza, I think I owe you one more thing.”

        “What?”

        She put her paw on his muzzle, pulled him so he was facing her, then she screwed up her courage and leaned over, and kissed him.  She felt him tense up a second in surprise, then lean into her and kiss her back with gentle, sensual enthusiasm.  The paw on his muzzle looped around his neck, and she felt him put an paw on her knee and his other paw on her shoulder, but all she could really feel was the warm charge running through her from his kiss.

        She broke the kiss slowly, then pushed back to gaze into his eyes for a long moment.  Then she smiled.  “Well, I’m not going to run away on you like you did on me,” she winked.  “Unless you think I was too forward,” she giggled.

        “No, forward away,” he said, a little breathlessly.  “You’re a fantastic kisser, Jessie.”

        She laughed, leaning against him.  “So, how does pizza sound?  My treat.”

        “That sounds great.  Uh, isn’t that Sandy?” he asked, pointing.

        She looked over by the bookstore, and saw all her sorority sisters over there, in a big group, all of them clapping and cheering.  Her cheek fur stood straight out, and she buried her face in his shoulder.  “Oh my God!” she cried.  “This is so embarrassing!”

        He laughed. “You certainly weren’t very shy a moment ago.”

        She looked up at him.  “You know, it’s the strangest thing.  Last night I was scared to call you, because I was too shy.  But then Sam comes in and says that you nearly knocked her down in front of Burger King, and said that she overheard you talking to your sister on the phone, that you were so excited about getting the job, and you mentioned my name and were dying waiting for me to call you.  I was touched, Kit, really.  And then I wasn’t nervous at all about the idea of talking to you.  I don’t know why.  I would have been mortified at the idea of kissing some other male, but not you.”

        “I’m honored you feel that way about me,” he said sincerely.  “Now, there’s one thing we can talk about over pizza.”

        “What?”

        “Getting even with your friends for spying on us,” he said, standing up and offering his paw to her.

        She laughed, and took it.  “I’m sure you have a few ideas?”

        “If you want them to hate you forever, sure, I have a few,” he winked.

        She laughed even harder.  Kit picked up her bookbag and slung it over his shoulder, then he turned and gave her friends a Bunny Hill salute, complete with a goofy expression on his face, which made several of them bend over laughing.  He put his arm around her shoulder, and she felt just fine being snuggled up close to him as they walked away.

 

        Life was wonderful.

        Kit woke up at the mission at seven, and just laid there replaying last night over and over in his mind.  Jessie was, she was…wow.  They sat in John’s Pizza and had dinner and talked, then, after two wonderful hours, he walked her back to her sorority house.  She invited him in, but he felt that it would be best not to get grilled by all her friends, so he declined.  They kissed again on the porch, a long, passionate, soul-engaging kiss that made his knees a little rubbery when she showed mercy on him.  She admitted with a laugh that he was murdering her grades, so he told her to call him only when she felt comfortable.  He was patient, and he’d be there when she was ready.

        She called him before he even got back to the mission.  They talked until nearly eleven, when the cell phone’s battery squealed in protest, almost out of power.

        What a special femme.  She knew his secret, and she understood why he felt the way he did.  That really meant something to him.  It showed she was willing to see it through his eyes, see that his fear was very real.  And she wasn’t afraid, even knowing the truth.  It was so humbling.  She was a shy femme, shy and demure, but she had real strength in her, a powerful strength that gave him the courage to finally stand up and shout to the world I WILL LIVE MY OWN LIFE, MY FAMILY BE DAMNED!

        He felt humble and honored that she was so interested in him.  That she was willing to go out with him, talk with him, be his friend, despite the fact that she knew he had nothing, but was willing to work hard to be something she could be proud of.  She was taking such a big chance on him, a homeless dishwasher with a terrible family that would hate her, but she didn’t care.  He could learn a lot from that female about courage.

        But, he had work to do.  He had a job, now he needed a home.  Rick told him he’d start on Thursday, which gave him a couple of days to track down a place to live.  He had to make something of himself.  He would not let people say that Jessie Williams was going out with a homeless bum!

        He was up and about by eight.  He had to walk a while to get to where he’d parked Rick’s car, but everything was safe and sound.  He drove back to the magazine’s office and went up and checked in with Rick, and told him what he had planned, where he was going to go to look for apartments that day.

        “You needed to see me, boss?”

        “Yeah, here,” he said, pushing a box on his desk.  “Your business cards.”

        Kit opened he box and looked at them.  There, with the Lone Star logo in the background, was his name.  Kit Vulpan, Lone Star Magazine, along with the magazine’s telephone number and his very own email address, kit@lonestarmagazine.com.

        “Wow, thanks, boss.  I’ve never had business cards before.”

        “They come in handy.  What’s with the clothes?”

        “Well, this is an office.”

        “Wear anything that won’t get you arrested, we don’t care,” he grinned.  “There’s no dress code here.  Now, about a place to live.  You should look at the area around Bergstrom International,” he suggested.  “Ever since the base closed and they turned it into an airport, there’s some pretty cheap housing out that way.”

        “It’s kinda far out,” he said.  “And I don’t have a car yet.”

        “I told you you can use mine til you get one.”

        “I know, but, well, I’d like to live close to U.T.,” he said.  “I have a good reason.”

        “There’s some fine fur strutting around on that campus,” Rick grinned.

        “Well, there’s only one there I care to look at,” he explained.

        “Ah, say no more.”  He leaned back in his chair.  “Say, since you’re here, I have a favor to ask.”

        “What?”

        “I’m gonna run short in next week’s print, and I was looking at your journals.  I’d like to take the first one and break it up into article-sized pieces and run it every week, kinda like a running story of sorts.  I’ll pay you for it.  That okay with you?”

        “Fine with me,” he said.  “Do you want me to do the editing?”

        “Naw, I’ll have Barry do it,” he said.  “But I’ll make sure you approve before it goes to press.”

        “That’s fine, Rick.  I work here now, I’ll do whatever I can for us to make money.”

        He laughed. “That’s the spirit!  Now go find a place to live, ya homeless bum!”

        “Yes sir!” he said, snapping to attention and saluting Rick outrageously.

        He spent most of the day going from apartment to apartment, and blackballing each one.  Too small.  Too run down.  Too many whores strutting up and down the sidewalk outside.  Roommates that were too obnoxious.  Too far from campus.  Too scary.  He went through nearly his entire list for the day, when he came across Westwood Apartments, just off Guadalupe.  It was only about six blocks from the campus, about nine blocks from the office, and it had assigned parking.  He went in and talked to the manager, and to his delight, they had two apartments available, but both of them were two bedrooms.  He was about to say his goodbyes, but the manager, a dusky chihuahua with big eyes named Lupe, stopped him.  “Well, think about taking on a roomie, friend,” he coaxed.  “You ain’t even gonna find a one bedroom for seven hundred twenty five anywhere this close to U.T., long as you don’t mind not having all the perks some other apartments offer, like broadband and gyms.  We may not be cutting edge, but our units are clean, they’re big, we have parking, and you won’t find nothin’ broken in any apartment.”

        “Well, I could use the other bedroom as an office,” he mused.  “And seven twenty five is a bit steep for my salary, but I can manage it.  And it is close to work.”

        “You’re not a student?”

        He shook his head.  “I work at Lone Star magazine.”  He took out one of the business cards that Rick had printed for him and handed it to  the chihuahua.

        “Aw, really?” he asked, then he reached under his desk and pulled out a copy of the magazine.  “I read it every week,” he grinned.  “Now, since you work for a magazine I like, friend, how say I knock it down to six fifty a month, long as you promise not to throw no wild parties or be one of those kinds of tenants?  I’ll put you in the unit across from the rental office, so any prospective tenants see a young professional living here, not a beer-guzzling jock.  I’ll save money in the long run just cause I don’t have to repair nothin’.”

        “You got a deal,” he said immediately.

        An hour later, Kit had an apartment.  A six month lease at six hundred fifty dollars a month, water included, but he had to pay the other utilities himself.  Lupe let him use the office phone book to call to get the electric turned on in his name.

        “What, no cable?”

        “I don’t really watch TV,” he answered.  “I might talk to them about a cable modem, though.  I’ll need internet access to do my work.”

        “They bundle cable TV in with the modem around here,” Lupe told him.  “You gonna call the phone company, or you use a cell?”

        “I use a cell,” he affirmed.  “Why pay for a phone when I already have one?”

        “That’s the smart thing,” Lupe grinned.  “When you gonna move in?”

        “Right now,” he answered immediately.  “The furniture’s gonna take some time to filter in, but I’ll be honest.  I just got this job, and I’m kinda living out of a hotel right now.  I’ll sleep on the floor as long as it’s in my own place.”

        “Been there done that, bud,” Lupe nodded sagely.  “I got an extra bed in the show unit.  It ain’t much, but it’s softer than the floor.  I’ll let you borrow that til you get one of your own.”

        “Hey, that’s nice of ya, Lupe.  I really appreciate it.”

        “Hey, no problem.  I get the feeling you’ll be the kinda tenant we like around here.  Quiet and not blowin’ crap up.”

        Kit laughed.  “I’ll do my best,” he grinned.  “And I’ll make sure to try to work in how cool you are somewhere in the magazine,” he added.

        Lupe laughed.  “Hey, any publicity is good publicity.  Let’s get it moved into your new place.”

        And so, Kit was officially no longer homeless.  1642 Guadelupe Avenue, apartment 1-B, with nothing inside it but an old bed with a worn-out mattress with no sheets, blankets, or pillows.  But it was his apartment.  He wandered around the place, with its tired beige carpeting and vanilla walls, the venetian blinds on the windows, its fifteen year old appliances in the kitchen, but Lupe was right.  The rooms were big, the place was spacious and clean, and his apartment was directly facing the office and show unit.   No doubt Lupe was willing to give him a break on the rent to put a tenant he could trust in the unit facing the office, where potential renters could get a bad impression if a visible apartment was occupied by a party animal.

        A trip to Wal-Mart fixed some glaring problems.  He bought bedding, a pillow, a cheap nightstand table, and an alarm clock.  He also bought some food to put in the fridge, cereal and milk, hamburger, tea in coffeee maker bags, a coffee pot he could use to make either tea or coffee, and a gallon of spring water to drink.  He even remembered the paper plates, bowls, and plastic silverware to hold him over until he could get real ones.  He got home, put it all away, then set up the alarm clock, made the bed, and flopped down into it contentedly.  He stared up at the ceiling for a long moment, then pulled out his phone to spread the good news.

        The first call was to Rick.  “Rick here,” he answered the direct line that bypassed the receptionist, the gay sheep named Marty.

        “Rick, this is Kit.  The house hunt’s over.”

        “Great!  What did you get?”

        “An apartment on Guadelupe.  Westwood.”

        “Ah, they’re old, but hey, it’s what you wanted.  Walking distance.”

        “Hell yeah.  I signed the lease and everything, so I’m golden, but we might have to sneak in a blurb about the apartments for the landlord.  He gave me a break on the rent cause I work for the magazine, so we kinda owe him a little,” he chuckled.  “I’ll bring your car back when I get started to work tomorrow.”

        “Eh, keep it for a bit longer.  You’re gonna need to move some stuff around for a few weeks.  Get all that settled, then you can give the car back.  But you will be at work tomorrow.  Time to start earning that advance.”

        “I’m looking forward to it, boss,” he said earnestly.

        “Nine o’clock, but I’m in the office by eight every morning, so don’t feel bad if you show up early,” he chuckled.

        “I’ll be there.”

        “I got a workstation all ready for ya,” he declared.  “And bring your laptop, so Mike can add it to the network.”

        “Will do.”

        “Now settle in, and I’ll see you tomorrow morning.  Be good, son.”

        “Thanks, boss.  Night.”

        “Later there.”

        Kit hung up, then speed-dialed Vil.  “Hello.”

        “Sis, I got so much news for you,” he said immediately.

        “Baby bro!  Ooooh, I’m all aflutter.  So, let’s start with the important part.  JD?”

        “She called me back!” he declared.

        “I told you she would!”

        “And she saw your picture in the newspaper and guessed at who I am,” he declared.

        “Oh, she did?  What happened?”

        “Much to my surprise, she’s okay with it,” he told her, which made her audibly sigh in relief over the phone.  “She told me that she’s not afraid of my family, even now that she knows just who they are.  I swear, sis, what did I do to get a chance to go out with a femme like her?  I guess God’s starting to give me a break.”

        “It’s about time he did,” she said seriously.  “So, have you gone out on a real date yet?”

        “Not a date date, but we did go have pizza after she sat me down and told me that she knew.”

        “Did you kiss her?”

        “Yeah.  I think I lost track of a few hours afterward.”

        She laughed.  “That’s great, Kit, it really is.  I’m very happy for you.”

        “And the other good news, sis, is I am now officially no longer homeless,” he announced.  “I am talking to you inside my very own apartment.”

        “That’s wonderful!” she said brightly.  “What’s it like?”

        “Not too bad.  It’s really old, but nothing’s on fire, all the appliances work, and there’s no holes in the floor.”

        She laughed.  “Furnished?”

        “I wish.  The landlord’s letting me borrow one of the beds out of the show unit til I get my own.  He’s a pretty nice guy.  He even gave me a break on the rent cause I work at the magazine, and I won’t be some insane party animal.  He put me in the apartment right in front of the rental office, so I can make a good impression on the visitors.”

        She laughed.  “Don’t blow it, bro.  A landlord scorned is almost as bad as a vixen scorned.”

        “I’m not about to.  I start my first day of real work tomorrow.  Rick, my boss, he even printed me some business cards.”

        “Speaking of that, bro, I need your address and number for work, and for your new place,” she told him.

        “Yeah, sure, hold on.  I need the card and my lease.  I haven’t memorized them yet.”  He retrieved them.  “You ready?”

        “Go.”

        He gave her the address and number of the office, then the address of his apartment.  “I’m warning you right now, sis, no surprises.  No packages, no nothing.”

        “I wouldn’t do that.”

        “Bull—“

        “Kit!  Watch your mouth!”

        “You would so do it,” he teased.

        “Alright, I would do it, but if it bothers you that much, I won’t.”

        “I want to make it on my own, sis,” he told her.  “I want to see if I can do the real life thing on my own as well as I made it doing the homeless drifter thing.”

        “I can understand that, bro, I really can.  Oh, speaking of money, did you sock it to your boss when you discussed your salary?”

        He laughed.  “I had a spreadsheet ready for him,” he said, which made her laugh delightedly.

        “That’s my brother!” she told him.  “How much?”

        “Nineteen thousand a year.”

        “That’s it?”

        “For a researcher with no experience, that’s more than the average,” he said defensively.  “And I wrangled some other perks out of him, like him letting me borrow one of his cars for a whle.”

        She giggled.  “Good.  You didn’t tell him your license expired last year, did you?”

        “Of course not,” he said with a naughty chuckle.  “Now that I have a place to live, I’ll go get a new license.  One with my address on it,” he said with a dreamy kind of contentment.

        “A great feeling, eh?”

        “Ohhh, yeah,” he all but purred.

        “Kit.”

        “Yeah sis?”

        “I want to come down and see you,” she announced.  “And I want to meet her.”

        “Uh, well, she already knows about you, so I guess that wouldn’t hurt,” he said.  “But sis, if you come down here, they’re going to know.  And they’ll find out about her.”

        “It’s going to happen sooner or later, bro.  Which would you prefer, now or later?”

        “I’d prefer never,” he grunted.

        “Don’t wish for what can never be, bro.  Just trust me.  I promised you I’d keep them off you, and I’ll do just what I promised.  But I want to meet this female that has you so smitten she’s making a respectable fox out of you.”

        He laughed helplessly.  “By God, I guess she did at that.”

        “So, I can come down?”

        “I can’t really stop you if you did.”

        “That’s right.  I’m kinda tied up right now, so it won’t be until next month.  Find a couple of days off and tell me, and I’ll work my schedule around it.”

        “Alright.  I guess that gives me a month to get Jessie ready for it.”

        “Jessie?”

        “She doesn’t really like me calling her JD unless I’m asking for her on the phone,” he chuckled.

        “Do you have her number?”

        “Yeah.”

        “Give it to me.”

        “What?  Why?”

        “Because I want it,” she stated.  “If I ever have to find you and you’re not answering you phone, I’ll have it. And besides, you know I’ll just get my hands on it the other way if you don’t.”

        He grunted.  “Who’s saying you didn’t already?”

        There was a long pause.  “I refuse to answer that question, on account of the grounds that you’ll beat me up.”

        “You did, didn’t you!  You’re asking for it just to cover your ass!”

        “Well, I did dig a little,” she admitted, a little ruefully.

        “You’re terrible!”

        “No, I’m a sister who wants her brother to be happy, even if I have to put a paw in myself,” she said simply.  “I didn’t use it, little bro.  And I wouldn’t have unless she didn’t call you back within five days.  That way I could find her and lead you to her if she didn’t call you back.”

        He wanted to be angry with her, but he knew her, and knew she was saying exactly what she meant.  “You’re too damn nosy.”

        “You bet your ass I am where you’re concerned,” she said without a hint of shame.

        “Watch your language,” he teased.

        She laughed.  “So, I’m forgiven?”

        “I guess so.”

        “I’m afraid I’m about out of time, bro,” she sighed.  “I got a ton of work here to go through.  I’m really happy things are starting to work out for you.  Really.”

        “Thanks, Vil.  You’re the reason I’m here.  If not for you, I’d be getting on a bus tomorrow.”

        “I’m just happy you’re happy, Kit.  I’ll call you this weekend so we can work out when I come down.”

        “Okay.”

        “Be good, baby bro.  I love you.”

        “I love you too, sis.  Bye.”

        “Bye-bye.”
        He closed the phone and dropped it on the bed beside him, then laid back and stared at the ceiling.  Maybe things really were working out for him.  He had a decent job now, his own apartment, and about a half a mile away, there was a gorgeous cream-colored cat with black ears and mittens that was thinking about him, who knew his secret, and was not afraid of his family.

        God, he never knew life could be this good.  And there was only the potential for it to get even better.

 

        No matter how enthusiastic he was about his first day of real work, certain ugly realities managed to put a serious damper on his mood.

        The first one was the bed.  That bed and his back did not get along.  He woke up feeling like a pretzel, and it took him almost a half hour to get to the point where he could move without wincing.  Clearly, the first thing on the list of things to buy was a heating pad.

        The second damper on his day was the fact that he had never considered the possibility that the bathtub wouldn’t have a shower curtain.  That made a shower out of the question, removing the possibility of aiming the shower head at his lower back and letting the heat work out the pain, and sitting in the tub wouldn’t work as well.

        So, being that he was out of options for a soothing way to ease the pain, he opted to stop at the Circle K near his apartment and buy a little single-dose pack of Advil.  He downed it with a bottle of iced tea, and drove on to the office for his first day of work.

        He arrived a bit after eight, wearing the only pair of jeans he had that didn’t have a hole in them and a clean tee shirt, and found that the lights were on but only Rick was there.  He stopped by Rick’s office to announce himself, and Rick gave him the dime tour.  The magazine’s offices were split into a large central room with workstations around the walls, a large circular table with an inset LCD computer monitor for displaying the magazine layout, and two tiny offices on the far side from Rick’s office in the hallway leading to the central room.

        To Kit’s surprise, one of those offices was his.  It was a tiny cubicle-sized space surrounded by boxes and boxes of papers, articles, files, magazines, and books.  There was a desk in there with a workstation on it, and a very old leather-bound chair, probably a holdover from the original tenants of the office.  “A researcher needs a separate space for all the resource material, and a quiet place where he can dig without distractions,” Rick explained.  “Besides, until yesterday this was a storage room, so why not put you right in here with the stuff you might have to dig through?”

        Kit chuckled.  “True.”

        “The boxes do have a kind of order to them. You’ll figure it out as you get the hang of it.  You okay?”

        Kit grunted, putting his paws on his sides.  “The bed my landlord lent me is too soft.”

        “You have problems with your back?”

        He nodded.  “It’s not really a surprise, if you think about it.”

        “Yeah, true.  You gonna be okay?”

        “I need to go buy a heating pad.  That helps out quite a bit.”

        “Say no more.  Go ahead and go get one.  There’s a Target about six blocks from here. Just turn left out of the parking lot, you’ll see it on the right.  You’re just spinning your wheels til Mike gets here to set up your laptop anyway.”

        “Thanks boss, I appreciate it.”

        He returned with a heating pad, a new coffee mug, and an empty picture frame he fully intended to fill with pictures of Vil and Jessie.  He set up his heating pad and sat down in the chair, testing it, when Rick opened the door in front of a dusky raccoon.  “Kit, this is Mike Belcher,” he said.  “He’s our resident tech-head, and he runs the website for the magazine.  If you have any computer problems, he’s the raccoon to see.”

        “Nice to meet you,” he said, standing up and shaking Mike’s paw.

        “You too.  Boss said you have a laptop for me to add to the network?”

        “Yeah, hold on.”  He dug it out of his portfolio and put it on his desk.

        “Wow, a Sabletech DV 900!  You know your rigs!”

        “No, I have a sister who knows people who know about computers,” he chuckled ruefully.  “She gave it to me for Christmas.”

        “Well, your sister made a good buy.  A little expensive, but it’s one serious piece of hardware.”

        “I’ll tell her you said she made a good buy.”

        “A damn good buy,” he said, taking out a memo pad.  “It’ll just take a second.  This run on wireless G or N?”

        “No idea.”

        “I’ll look it up,” he chuckled.  “Don’t know much about them, eh?”

        “I know how to click on the pretty little pictures, but once you start throwing jargon at me, I’m lost.”

        Mike laughed.  “It’s not that hard.  I’ll teach ya.”

        “Sounds like a deal to me.”

        Mike looked up some settings on his laptop and wrote them down on his memo pad.  “Alright, it’ll be added in about ten minutes.”

        “That’s quick.”

        “When you know what you’re doing, it doesn’t take long,” he grinned, then he scurried out.

        “Mike’s damn good,” Rick told him as Kit sat back down.  “Here.”

        Rick handed him a file folder.  “Ooh, my first assignment?”

        “Yep.  I want everything you can get on the company and its board.  And look up the history of the land in the file, too, so Barry has some good background to go on when he gets his interview.”

        “You got it.”  He turned and looked at his monitor, saw the icons for the programs he needed to research, as well as the web browser that would get him to rich data sources like the library and the courthouse.  “Shivers,” he said with a chuckle.  “My first real job since college.”

        “Welcome to the real world, Kit,” Rick grinned.  “Now prove I made a good decision when I hired you.”

        “I’ll do my best.”

 

        Mike was a chatty fellow, friendly and outgoing, which Kit rather liked.  Mike’s primary job was maintaining their computer network and the website for the magazine, but he also dealt with the publishing programs, did some photo editing, and basicly handled little things the office needed, since he was the fur that usually had the most free time on his paws.

        Rick too he liked, because he was intelligent and kind, and had been very good to him.  Rick was the main editor, working with his graphic artist Savid to lay out the magazine every week.  It was Rick that decided what went into the magazine, and he also dealt with the outside, dealing with advertisers and such.  Rick was a very, very busy dingo.  It would almost be overwhelming with him deciding to print a weekly magazine, but the magazine only had about twenty pages on the average every week, and they usually had no trouble filling the pages with both content and advertising,  That was because Lone Star had a good circulation in Austin, and was just starting to test the waters in College Station and San Antonio.  Rick told him that they had enough work backlogged to fill three issues.  When Kit called him on it about his journal, he just laughed and admitted that he fibbed a bit, and just thought that running the journal as a weekly feature would be a good draw.

        He met Marty later that morning, and found the sheep to be flamboyantly gay, but also a pretty smart guy with a wicked sense of humor that Kit immediately liked.  Not only did Marty work as the receptionist, but he also did a lot of the editorial work in conjunction with Rick, proving that Rick wasn’t lying when he said that everyone in the office wore more than one hat.  Marty’s part of the magazine was the mailbag, printing reader letters, going through submissions and deciding which ones would be printed, then editing them a little if they needed to be cut down or had objectionable language that had to be removed.

        Barry was one of the two journalists that worked on the magazine.  He was a black bear, with an intimidating visage but a soft voice, who was sober, diligent, and from what Rick said, a damn fine reporter.  Barry did the “real” news articles that went into the magazine, but also did some lifestyle articles dealing with college life.  And now that Kit was there to help him research, he’d get even better.  Barry had been doing almost all the research for the magazine, and Kit was there to take the load off of him and let him focus on reporting. Barry was the fur in the office he’d be working with the most.

        Lilly was the only female working at the magazine.  She was a graduate student in journalism, taking her master’s classes at night, cutting her teeth in the industry at Lone Star.  She was a red squirrel, with about fifty piercings in her ears and dressed goth, but with a good nose for a story and a finger on the pulse of college nightlife.  She was the one that knew what was hot and what wasn’t.  Lilly handled the magazine articles that dealt with college culture and lifestyle, maintained The Scene section of the magazine that listed all the current hot spots, and she kept track of all the bands that came through town and listed where they were playing.  Lilly was also the best photographer they had, and was the one that took most of the important pictures.

        Savid was an Indian mongoose that was the assistant layout editor and head graphic artist.  He had an atrocious accent, but he was a very good-natured fellow that had a stunning eye for what was artistic.  He was the only artist Kit had ever seen that could draw a nearly perfect circle using a computer template board, free-handed.

        Jeffrey was a white-furred mouse that was the junior graphic artist.  Where Savid focused on designs and graphics, Jeffrey did most of the illustrations and other detailed work.  Jeffrey was a talented artist, working mainly on paper and scanning in his work where Savid worked mainly with a template and graphics programs.  Jeffrey also wasn’t bad at photography, and Lilly was training him in the art so he could more or less take over that role…though Rick was considering hiring a dedicated photographer, much the same way he hired Kit to be a researcher.

        Eight furs printing out a weekly magazine.  The office was always busy, always a little hectic, it seemed, but the seven furs he was just getting to know all seemed to get along well with each other, and knew what they were doing.

        Kit did his best.  He finished his Aguavo Construction research job by lunch, of interest to Lone Star because they were going to build a new dorm in an annex just off the campus grounds.  He laid down on Rick’s desk a sheaf of information about the company, its board members, the land they were about to develop, the blueprints of the proposed building and its past history of the building that had stood on the lot before it was demolished, all neatly cross-indexed and with a table of contents.  All it took was a phone book, a pleasant voice, a couple of hours of surfing the public records, and a masterful command of Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word.  Rick opened it up and started leafing through it, and he just kept nodding.  “Holy hairballs, Kit, this is damn nice work.  And fast.”

        “Well, everyone goes a million miles an hour around here, boss,” he chuckled.  “I didn’t want to look like I was slacking.”              

        “Son, you’re gonna fit in here just fine,” he winked.  “Lunch!” Rick screamed, startling Kit a little bit.

        “Chinese!” Mike called.

        “Fast food!” Lilly screamed in reply.

        “Lunchbox!” Marty shouted with a funny lilt.

        “Uh, what does that mean?” Kit asked.

        “What they want for lunch, of course,” Rick grinned.  “What are you up for?”

        “Anything that doesn’t squeal when I stick a fork in it,” he said.

        Rick chuckled.  “You can either go out and get something, or call something in and have it delivered.  If you do go out, it’s policy around here to see if someone wants something brought back, and bring it.  Just pay for it and bring the receipt, they’ll pay you back.  When you get back from lunch, I need some research done on a fraternity on campus that’s on probation.”

        “You got it.”

        “Rick, advertiser on line one,” Marty’s voice came in over an intercom on his phone.

        “Dammit, work calls,” Rick growled, picking up the phone.  “You going out for lunch?”

        “I think so.”

        “Pick something up for me.  I don’t care what.  I’m not picky when I’m hungry.  Rick Sanders,” he said into the phone after pressing a button on its face.

        He waved to Rick, then poked his head out into the main office.  “I’m going out.  Any orders?”

        “Chinese!” Mike called.  “Little Dragon on Congress, best takeout.  Kung Pow chicken and two eggrolls, please.”

        “I have to go out myself, so I’ll pick mine up,” Lilly told him.

        “Okay.  Jeffrey?  Savid?”

        “No thank you,” Savid said with his thick accent.

        “I’ll go later, but thanks,” Jeffrey said with a wave of his paw.  He and Savid were bent over looking at a monitor built into the main table, a page layout from the look of it.  They went back to discussing something about it.

        Kit decided chinese worked for him too, and picked up lunch.  He ate in his office, paging through the file Rick had sent him about the fraternity on his desktop, his chopsticks blurring as he wolfed down beef pepper steak stuffed in the little square cardboard box.  He worked through the material.  The fraternity was on probation for a party where they allowed underage students to drink, and they got busted by an Campus Police undercover officer. He tossed his garbage, then started working through it to get the information Rick wanted about the members of the Rho Chi Epsilon fraternity.  He started with the fraternity website, then called the national headquarters for the fraternity and fished for a list of members.  After that, he dug up phone numbers for the parents of some of the members and called around.  He didn’t ask anything invasive or combative, simply explaining he was doing research on the fraternity that their sons belonged to, and he wanted some honest opinions from them about it.

        He worked through the list of information Rick wanted, then cross-indexed it and dumped it into Excel so he could array it and set up a table of contents.  Once it was all organized to his satisfaction, he exported it back to Word, then sent the file to Barry’s computer.  “Barry, that fraternity material’s ready!” he shouted from his tiny closet.  “I sent it to your desktop!”

        “Thanks, dude!”

        Rick pulled him out of his office after that and had him work with the others, basicly just watching what they did.  Rick put him with Mike first, who occupied the other tiny office that hosted five computers and a bunch of computer manuals.  Kit sat down with him, and Mike showed him around the website, showed him the page he was building for Kit’s bio for the magazine.  “We won’t come out and say you’re a Vulpan Vulpan,” he grinned.  “Oh yeah, I need a pic of you for the page.  He picked up a camera from his desk.

        “Rick told you about that, eh?”

        “Yeah, you’d think he’d have to, if you think about it,” he nodded.  “But that’s okay, we’re cool with it.  You do good work for a disowned ex-rich kid,” he grinned.

        “Thanks.”

        “Let’s take the pic in your office,” he said.  “Sitting at your desk.”

        “My office is a mess.”

        “Yeah, but your office is the office of a researcher.  Researchers are supposed to be surrounded by books and junk like that.”

        Kit laughed.  “Point.”

        Mike snapped a few pictures of him sitting at his desk, turned to look at the camera, then uploaded them into his computer.  Kit watched as he threw the picture into Photoshop and cut it down, made a few tweaks to it to make it internet-friendly, then dropped it into the webpage.  “There, just that easy,” he said with a nod.  “Barry’s gonna write a bio summary about you that’ll go down here,” he added, pointing at the empty area to the left and below the picture.

        “Cool.  I’ve never seen a webpage being built before.”

        “It’s not that hard.  I’ll teach you.  You seem to know your Microsoft Office.  I think you’d do well playing with HTML.”

        “The legacy of a mis-spent youth,” he grinned.

        “I doubt that,” he chuckled.

        He was put with Barry next.  Barry showed him some of the reports he’d done, and walked him through the open projects he had going.  “I’m done editing what we’re gonna put first in the new piece,” he said, bringing up a document.  It was from his journals.  “We’re gonna call it ‘through my eyes,’ and pick out some of the stories and things you wrote about in the journals.  I think it’ll do well.  You’re a pretty good writer.”

        “Wow, thanks for the complement,” Kit said with a slightly goofy smile.

        “Rick had me drum up a bio summary on you for the website.  Read it over and tell me what you think,” he said, tabbing to a new window.

        Barry had been kind to him.  The bio made no mention of who he was.  It simply said he was 22, a graduate of the University of Massechusetts, and he was from Boston.  It said that he’d spent time after graduating from U-Mass traveling the country to experience what America had to offer before coming to Lone Star, which was his first real job after college.  The bio listed him both as a researcher and a staff writer for the magazine.

        “It’s really nice.  Thanks for kinda not mentioning that.”

        “They’d think we were lying if we did,” Barry grinned, showing off a mouth full of sharp carnivore teeth.  Barry had had his teeeth sharpened.  It was a custom in some parts of the south and west for carnivore furs to sharpen some or all of their teeth, to look more like the carnivores they were.  Kit himself didn’t do it, but like most foxes, he did have a pretty impressive set of canines.  He could deliver a brutal bite if forced to defend himself to that degree.  “I think it’s kinda cool that you managed to find your own place despite that.  I think it was pretty rough going from being a trust fund rich kid to fending for yourself.”

        “It wasn’t fun,” he nodded.  “But I made it.”

        “Someday I might have to do an interview about that with ya.”

        “Well, maybe someday,” Kit hedged.

        “Hey, no pressure.  Whenever you feel like doing it.”

        “Thanks.”

        He was placed with Savid and Jeffrey after that.  They showed him how they built the basic layout of the magazine in a computer program using the magazine’s template style, which Rick would come out and check over and correct from time to time.  Savid showed him his graphics he kept on his computer, and Jeffrey drew a quick sketch of Kit and showed it to him.  “Wow, that’s good for how fast you did it,” Kit noted.

        “Thanks,” the mouse replied.  “I do the editorial cartoons we put in the mailbag section, so I have lots of practice.”

        “Rick, he say you were from Boston,” Savid said.  “What it like there?”

        “Cold in the winter,” Kit chuckled.  “With lots of trees and gentle rolling hills.  The harbor is very pretty in the fall, when you look down from Breeder’s Hill and see the riot of fall colors bending with the buildings, and then the blue sea stretching out like a blanket.”

        “It hot here, like India, but winters are cold.”

        “Cold cold, or cold for India cold?”

        Savid laughed.  “Cold to me cold.”

        “They’re not that bad.  It can drop below freezing from time to time, but we don’t get snow or nothin’,” Jeffrey added.

        “Rick say you have rich parents before breaking from family to live by self.  You travel to my country?”

        “No, I never did get to India,” he shook his head.  “I did go to Hong Kong and Australia, though.”

        “Ah, I been to Hong Kong.  Amazing city, yes?”

        “Yes, it was awesome,” Kit agreed.

        He sat with Lilly after that, as she showed him The Scene page of the website.  “Basicly what we put in the magazine gets thrown up here, too,” she explained.  “This is the only page that Mike doesn’t handle himself.  I’m still learning the advanced HTML stuff, so he helps me make it look just right, but I do all the content.”

        “It looks nice.”

        “Thanks.  You like to club?”

        “I like to go out sometimes, but I’m not a clubhopper,” he answered.

        “Too bad.  A handsome fox like you?  You’d never go home alone, that’s for sure.”

        He laughed.  “If I did that, the cat I’m seeing might not be too happy.”

        “Damn, the cute ones are always taken.”

        “That’s because there’s more competition for us,” he grinned playfully.

        “Least you’re not one of those ‘not outside my species’ types.”

        “Hell no.”

        “Good.  My last boyfriend had purist folks, and they had a fit when he told them he was dating me.  They rode him so hard, I broke up with him just to get them off his back.  But we still see each other in secret,” she grinned.

        The most intersting sit-in had to be with Marty.  The sheep had pink streaks in his wool, and he painted his nails.  Kit didn’t feel self-conscious sitting beside the gay sheep as he showed him his section of the magazine.  “I go through the letters people send and decide which ones to print,” he said.  “I’m a big believer in free speech and different views, obviously,” he said with a tilt to his voice that made Kit laugh, “so I like to put as many viewpoints as I can on the page.  It’s a pretty cool gig.  Rick hired me just to be the receptionist at first, but he gave me the mailbag and told me to run with it.  He’s a great guy.  Too bad he’s married,” he mused.  “And not interested.”

        “He’s got an interesting coloration.  I’ve never seen that many colors all random like that on anything but a calico.”

        “His mother’s a dingo and his father’s an African wild dog.  Can you say clashing fur, honey?”

        Kit laughed.

        Marty snapped his fingers.  “But it does look good on him,” he noted.  “Just like that eye of yours looks good on you.”

        Kit chuckled and unconsciously put his paw to the right side of his face.  “People do love to stare at it.”

        “I read that your whole family’s the same way.”

        “Yeah.  Everyone descended from my great-grandfather.”

        “Must make for some killer family pictures.”

        “It makes the family stand out,” he agreed.

        “Mmm-mmm-mmm, I should look into a colored contact lens,” he noted.  “I’d knock ‘em dead if I had a blue eye!”

        “At least you could take out the lens when you don’t want to attract attention.”

        “Oh, honey, since when does Marty Wexler not want to attract attention!  Bring it, honey!  I’m a drama queen!”  He struck a Madonna-like pose, looking imperiously up at the ceiling, which made Kit nearly fall out of his chair laughing.  “So, you coffee or tea?”

        “Tea.”

        “Chinese or italian?”

        “Italian, naturally.”

        “Treadmill or weights?”

        “Treadmill.”

        “Long walks on the beach, or snuggled up by a fire?”

        “Hmm, I’d have to go for the fire.”

        “Oh, baby!  Too bad you’re not gay!  We’d sync!”

        Kit chuckled.  He didn’t feel self-conscious at all.  “Well, you are kinda cute, in a sheep sort of way.  If I did swing that way, you’d get a second look.”

        Marty laughed.  “We could play the hunter and the hunted,” he grinned.  “Oh Kit baby, come raid my chicken coop!”

        Kit laughed.

        “And I’m glad you’re not one of those gay-o-phobes,” Marty grinned.  “Usually males start shying away when I say things like that.”

        “Nah, it’s cool.  I’m not interested and you know it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take a joke.”

        “Oh yeah, we’re gonna get along, honey, that we are,” Marty said with a nod.

        He sat in with Rick after that.  Rick talked with him about the magazine for a while, how it made money by relying heavily on advertising, since the magazine was distributed free on the campus and only cost a dollar on news stands out away from the campus and out of town.  “Our main income is the advertising,” he said as he showed Kit the layout of a page from next week’s issue.  “The sale price off campus basicly just covers the costs of shipping it out.  We contract with a printer that’s only about a mile from here, and they ship the issues out where I pay to have them sent.  They have a few other customers, but we’re their biggest, so they go a little further with us than they do with their other customers.  If they lost our account, they’d probably go under.”

        “What kind of fees do you charge?”

        “Not that bad.  But advertisers are willing to pay for space, because we have a good circulation.  Sometimes I have more ads than I have space for them,” he chuckled, “but I won’t let the magazine get cluttered up with ads.  If I did that, I’d lose readers cause they’d feel like they were reading a commercial.  I try to keep the fees down so I don’t scare the advertisers off.  It’s something of a juggling act sometimes, and some months the magazine barely breaks even.  But hell, as long as it pays all our salaries, that’s what matters.”

        “Amen,” Kit chuckled.  “Do Savid and Jeffrey do ad work?”

        He nodded.  “Sometimes they design ads for some of our clients, Jeffrey mainly.  Savid’s specialty is computer graphics and design, but Jeffrey’s much more of an artist than a designer.  He’s talented.”

        “I noticed.  He whipped out a sketch of me in about five minutes.”

        “I have him do editorial cartoons and other sketches,” he said.  “I asked him if he thought he could do a three panel comic strip serial to run in the magazine.  He can do it, but he’s not very good at writing it.  Say, maybe you and him could get together and work something out.  You’re a good writer, and he’s a good artist.”

        “I wouldn’t know how to do something like that,” Kit laughed.

        “So?  It’s not like you’d lose anything if it bombs.”

        “Well, if you want us to try, boss, we’ll try.”

        There was a knock at the door.  Kit and Rick looked up, and Kit’s heart lurched a little.  It was Jessie! She was wearing a U.T. tee shirt, Longhorn Orange, with University of Texas emblazoned across it in white letters, and a pair of jeans with a wide belt hitched over one hip.  “Hi,” she said with a smile.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

        “Of course not!” he said happily.  “Rick, this is Jessie Williams.  We’re going out.  Jessie, this is Rick Sanders, my boss.”

        “It’s nice to meet you.  Sorry to drop in like this,” she said shyly.  “But Kit told me where he works, and I wanted to see his office.  Is that okay?”

        “That’s just fine, my dear,” Rick said easily.  “Come in, come in!”  She stepped in, and he shook her hand fondly.  “My, you’re very beautiful, my dear.  Kit can certainly pick a femme.”

        She looked away with a shy smile, her cheek fur ruffling.

        “Show her your office, Kit,” Rick urged.   “We’ll pick this up after you’re done.”

        He gave Rick a grateful smile.  “It’s not much, Jessie,” he chuckled.  “Here, it’s just across the hall.”

        “Leave the door open!” Rick called as he led her out.  “I’ll have no shenanigans going on in the office!”

        Jessie’s entire face poofed out, and she put her paws to her cheeks.  “He didn’t!”

        “Be glad it wasn’t Marty.  It would have been worse,” Kit laughed.

        “You bet it woulda been, honey!” Marty called from the reception desk.

        “Well, here it is,” he said, showing her into the tiny room.  “Sorry that I can’t offer to have you sit down, but I’m not sure if there’s even another chair under all this mess,” he said ruefully.

        She giggled.  “That’s alright.  How is your first day?”

        “Pretty cool,” he said as he sat down at the desk.  “I’ve already got some work done, and I’m learning my way around the office and learning how they put the magazine together.  I’ve never done work like this before, but at least the researching part isn’t that bad.”

        “How do you do that?”

        “The internet and a phone book,” he answered.  “Rick or Barry or Lilly asks me to dig up information on a person or a place or a thing, and I go find it and arrange it so it’s easy for them to read and they can find the facts quickly.  It’s just like writing a paper in school, really.  But instead of spending all my time in the library, I spend my time looking things up online or making phone calls.”

        “And he’s good at it!” Barry called from the main room.

        Kit chuckled.  “Thin walls and an open door.  And no doubt they’re all in there being quiet so they can eavesdrop on us.”

        “Busted!” Lilly said melodramatically.

        Jenny giggled.  “Well, I’m sorry I barged in on you,” she apologized.  “I should have waited until you were off, but I didn’t know when that was.”

        “Five or so,” he told her.  “Maybe later if I’m working on something.”

        “Well,” she said, sitting on a box near the door, then squeaking in surprise and jumping up when it shifted under her.  “Want to go get something to eat after you’re off work?”

        He scratched his muzzle.  “It might not be a good time, Jessie,” he said, with obvious disappointment.  “I just got an apartment yesterday, and it’s totally empty.  I have to go get some stuff for it after work.”

        “You did?  That’s wonderful!” she exclaimed.  “What’s it like?”

        “It’s a bit old, but it’s actually kinda roomy,” he said.  “The landlord me cut a deal on the rent because I’m not a typical college party animal.  Right now, it’s totally empty.  If not for my landlord’s kindness, I woulda slept on the floor last night.  Though I might do that tonight,” he grunted, putting a paw on his back.  “The bed he lent me is too soft.  I woke up this morning bowed over like an old geezer.”

        “Your back, huh?”
        He nodded.

        “Well, I can go with you,” she offered.  “Males sometimes forget some of the little things you need to make a home.”

        “Well, that would be nice.  Not much of a date, though,” he smiled.

        “Who says we need to go out on a date to have fun together?” she challenged.  “Spending time with you is spending time with you, Kit, wether we’re watching a movie or shopping for diswasher detergent.”

        “Point,” he chuckled.

        “You said you don’t have anything at all in the apartment?”

        He shook his head.  “Just a bed, a nightstand, and an alarm clock.”

        “Does it have a dishwasher?”

        “Yeah. I assume it works.”

        “Okay.  Does it have a shower curtain?”

        He laughed.  “Nope.  And boy did that surprise me when I went to take a shower this morning.”

        “Okay.  I’ll go sit down and make up a list of things you’ll need, and we’ll go get it after you’re off.”

        “Thanks, Jess, really.”

        “Jess?” she asked.

        “Sorry.”

        “No, no, you can call me Jess,” she said with a smile.  “It’s just nobody ever has before.  I kinda like it.”  She went to the door.  “Mister Sanders?  Is there somewhere I can sit down?”

        “Certainly, my dear,and please, call me Rick.  Go pick a chair in the main office.  We have a nice big table right in the middle you can use.  And don’t mind the staff.  If they start bugging you, just smack ‘em.”

        “Hey!” Lilly called.  “No fair, boss!  How can we scope her out if we can’t bug her?”

        Jessie laughed, her cheek fur ruffling slightly when she looked back to him.  “I’ll be waiting.”

        Kit leaned back in his chair, feeling very…content.  Jessie was a wonderful femme, caring and thoughtful.  Rick beckoned him for his own office—they could see each other from their offices when sitting at their desks—and he went back to his boss’ office.

        “She’s beautiful, son,” he said quietly.  “And she’s very charming.  Don’t blow it.”

        “Believe me, I’ll do my best not to,” he answered vehemently.  “You can say that me being here is because of her.  I was about to move on when I met her.  And, well, here I am.”

        “Well, if you work out, I’ll have to thank her.”

        “My sis said she’s making a respectable fox out of me,” he laughed ruefully.

        “Nothing wrong with that, Kit,” he chuckled.  “Now, let me show you our master template.  It’s the basic layout the entire magazine follows.”

 

        In the main office, Jessie had a glowing smile.

        So, she was making a respectable fox out of him, was she?  Well.  She guessed she’d have to make sure he stayed respectable.

        “Jessie!  Jessie!”

        She looked up, then blinked as the red squirrel female with a zillion earrings in her ears snapped a picture of her.  “Nice,” she beamed, looking at the image captured in the tiny screen on the back of her digital camera.  “Kit has an empty picture frame in his office. I’m gonna give him something to put in it.”

        She smiled shyly. “He does, does he?”

        “You bet.  Mind if I give him your pic?”

        “I’d like that, thank you.”

 

        Shopping with Jessie was fun.

        She was very thorough.  She had a long list of things he’d need for his apartment, from obvious things like a shower curtain and soap and toilet paper, to little things he never considered, like cleaning supplies, a flashlight, a laundry basket, a vacuum cleaner, and a pair of scissors.

        “Scissors?” he asked curiously, looking at the list.

        “There’s nothing worse that not being able to find something you should have,” she said simply.  “The first time you need those scissors, you’re gonna thank me.”

        “Can’t argue with that,” he nodded.

        They prioritized the list based on his money and his needs.  Between the advance Rick gave him and the money he had saved up, he had about six hundred fifty dollars available to spend after paying his rent and deposit for the apartment and the electric company, and holding back the money he needed to live on until his first paycheck.  The first thing he needed was a new bed, and for that, they went to Value City Furniture.  Kit tested out several beds, which Jessie fretted over the cost.  Some of them were more than he had!

        “This is a necessary expense, Jess,” he told her seriously as he tested a queen-size.  “Because of my back.  If I don’t get a bed my back can handle, I’ll wake up every morning feeling like I was tied in a knot.”

        “Well, yeah, I guess so,” she acceeded. “I didn’t realize they were so expensive.”

        “Yeah.”

        What he eventually settled on was a queen size mattress and box springs that ran him nearly three hundred dollars.  Instead of a proper bedframe, he instead bought bedrails.  The furniture store promised to deliver it to him tomorrow afternoon, which he wasn’t too happy about, but that was the best they could do.  “I guess I can live with one more night in the other bed,” he grunted.  “At least I already have a heating pad, and I’ll be able to take a hot shower in the morning.”

        After that, they hit Wal-Mart.  Instead of buying sundries, instead, Jessie pushed him straight to the male’s wear department.  “You can’t wear the same jeans every day,” she challenged.  “You need more clothes!”

        “Heh, I need clothes because almost everything I own that I could wear to work is dirty.  It’ll be expensive to wash clothes that often if I don’t expand my wardrobe.  My apartment has hookups for them, but they also have a coin-op laundry room for the efficiencies I can use until I get my own.”

        “Well, I can take your things to my house and wash them for you so it doesn’t cost you so much, until you can get a washer and dryer.”

        “Jessie, you don’t have to do that for me.”

        “I don’t have to, but I want to,” she told him firmly.  “Now let’s pick out something nice for you.”

        After he had three more pairs of jeans and a pack of tee shirts, they tackled the list.  They filled a buggy with all manner of things he needed, the top item on the list being a cheap microwave oven.  After that important item was secured, they started down the list, from towels to a TV tray and folding chair so he could use his laptop, all the little things one might find in a junk drawer, to clothes hangers for his closet.  Kit used a piece of paper to keep careful track of the total cost of everything in the basket so he didn’t go over budget, and it was almost like they were a married couple.  He got to see what she liked and didn’t like as they roamed the aisles, and he found that he liked her taste.  She was elegant, yet understood the need for thrift and picked a happy medium between taste and price.

        When he got within fifty dollars of the cap, he reined it in.  “Alright, we’re close to the edge here, Jess,” he called.  They both leaned against the handle of the cart, looking at the list, noting all the items crossed off of it.  He could smell her fur, that lovely scented soap she used, and it was hard to concentrate on what they were doing.

        “Well, it’s not even half of it,” she complained.  “That bed really hurt.”

        “Yeah, but the bed mattered more than the rest of the list,” he grunted, scratching his cheek.  “Or I’d be showing up at work every morning very grumpy.”

        She giggled.  “Well, it’s a start, anyway.   Do you cook?”

        “I can cook for myself, that’s about it,” he answered.

        “Have you bought any food for the house yet?”

        “A little.”

        “A little isn’t going to cut it, mister,” she told him with a slight smile.  “What is it, cereal and beer?”

        He laughed.  “Cereal, yes.  Beer, no.  I don’t like beer.  I drink wine.  I bought cereal and some hamburger, mainly.”

        “Did you get bread?  Or eggs?  Did you get some of those disposable salt and pepper shakers to hold you over?  Did you buy cooking oil?”

        “Uh, no.”

        “Males,” she sighed.  “Come on, let’s go get you stocked with the necessities,” she announced, pushing the cart forward.

        “I’ve been scolded,” he remarked with a rueful chuckle, then he followed behind that gorgeous long-haired tail of hers.  “At least I remembered the coffee pot!” he called.

        “But you didn’t buy a frying pan!” she challenged, pointing at the cheap frying pan that was in the basket.  “How were you going to cook that hamburger you bought, Kit?” she asked, looking back at him.

        He laughed.  “Point.”

        Using what little money he had left, she outfitted him with the bare necessities he’d need to hold him over until he got paid.  She picked out basic staples, bread, cheese, lunch meat, cooking oil, and some little cups of yogurt which he rather favored.  She told him what he needed, and he picked the brands he preferred.

        When he announced they were at the red line for his finances, they stepped back and regarded the shopping cart, which was absolutely full, and rather heavy.  She put a finger to her muzzle and regarded it, then brushed her hair back away from her blue eyes. “It doesn’t look like three hundred dollars, does it?” she remarked.

        “I’m gonna be eating out of a brown bag until I get paid,” he chuckled.

        “Well, at least now you have what you need to do that,” she said, giving him an amused sideways glance.

        “Thanks to you, Jess.  You were a lifesaver.”

        “I’m glad I could help.”

        The cheetah that checked them out was a little intimidated by the cart they pushed up in front of his counter, but he tackled the order with no complaint.  Kit watched the prices go by, checking them against his figures, making sure he didn’t forget anything and would go over budget.  After nearly ten minutes of checking out items, the total came up to $297.38, which was only two cents off what he estimated, because of rounding the sales tax.

        “Wow, you were almost dead on,” she noted, looking over his shoulder at the notebook.

        “Well, anyone in my family is good with numbers,” he said modestly as he dug up the cash to pay the cheetah.

        “You two must be setting up a new home,” the cheetah noted as he took the money.

        “Well, I’m helping him settle into a new apartment,” Jessie answered with a demure smile.  “Males don’t know how to shop.”

        Kit laughed.  “I’m glad she came along to hold my paw,” he admitted to the cheetah.  “I woulda never thought of half of this stuff until I needed it.”

        “Told you,” she grinned.

        “You did at that,” he agreed with a chuckle.

        The one thing they didn’t consider was bulk.  Rick’s second car was a Chevy Cavalier, and it only had so much cargo space.  Kit and Jessie had to do a little stuffing to get it all into the car, because of the microwave oven and folding chair taking up so much of the trunk and the garbage can dominating the back seat.  In the end, Jessie had to share the footspace of the front seat with the groceries, and had the bag holding the clothes he’d bought in her lap.

        He stopped to think a minute.  Shopping with her was…wonderful.  It was such a mundane thing, and they didn’t do much but talk about what they were buying, comparing it, but it was an interesting window into how her mind worked, and he’d had a great time.  It just felt, natural, palling around with her as she made fun of his sense of style, and he complained about how expensive some of the things she was putting in the basket were.  It wasn’t a date, hell, they hadn’t really gone on a real date yet, but in some ways, it was even better than a date.  He couldn’t see who she really was, what kind of female she was, sitting in a movie theater.  Going shopping with her had been much more educational.

        “What is it, Kit?” she asked, adjusting the bag in her lap as she looked at him.

        “Nothing.  I had a wonderful time, Jessie.  That was almost better than a date.”

        She laughed.  “Well, I had fun too,” she told him, reaching over and putting a paw on his shoulder.  “But I hope our dates aren’t quite that expensive, or you might have to ask your sister for a loan just to go out with me.”

        He laughed richly.  “Knowing my sis, she’d foot the bill herself,” he chuckled as he started the car. “Vil likes to try to mother me, Jess.  She keeps trying to send me things and send me money between attempts to make me come home, but I won’t let her.”

        “Why not?  She’s only doing it because she loves you.”

        “Yeah, but it’s also risky for her to do it,” he said.  “If my family wanted to get anal about it, they could try to claim that she was violating the terms of my bastard father’s will.  There’s a clause in the will that states that any member of the family that’s caught helping me forfeits everything they got from him.”

        “Wow,” she breathed, putting a paw to her mouth.

        “Yeah.  They can’t touch the company, though, because she was given the shares that gives her control while he was still alive.  And she does have some money that has nothing to do with the family fortune.  But she does have a lot of money from the inheritance, and her house, and lots of other things.  They all came from the will.  If she got dis-inherited, she wouldn’t be homeless and broke, but it would cause a serious disruption in her life, and I won’t allow it.  I love my sister, Jess, and I won’t let her end up with her life turned on its ear because she’s been helping me.  I’m a grown fox, I can make it on my own.  I appreciate her concern for me, I really do, but I have to look out for her as much as she’s looked out for me.”

        “That’s very noble of you, Kit.”

        “Nobility has nothing to do with it,” he chuckled.  “All I care about is that Vil doesn’t ruin her life because of me.  So I have to watch out for her.”

        “Well, I think it’s sweet.”

        “She wants to meet you, you know,” he told her.

        “I’d like to meet her too.”

        “That’s good, because she wants to come down and see me next month.”

        “Really?”

        “Yeah.  She’s not sure what days yet.  She’ll call me back this weekend and set it up.”

        “That’s fine with me, Kit.  I’d love to meet her.”

        “Oh, and I should warn you.  She has your telephone number.”

        “That’s okay.  I don’t mind,” she assured him.

        They talked about little things as he drove them back towards campus, but she looked around as he turned onto the street on which her sorority house was located.  “Where are you going?”

        “I’m taking you back to your house.”

        “Oh, no,” she challenged.  “I’m not making you carry all this around yourself!  Besides, I want to see your apartment.”

        He chuckled.  “Alright, but I’ll say now that I warned you.”

        It wasn’t far to his apartment, barely more than a mile.  He pulled into his space, and motioned.  “Well, here we are,” he said.  “Home sweet home, or something like that.”

        “Okay, you go unlock the door and I’ll get started.”

        They took turns ferrying bag after bag into the apartment, storing it up against the walls of the bare domicile for the moment.  Jessie carried the trash can he’d bought as he carried in the microwave, then she wiped her brow and looked at he roomy living room.  “It’s pretty big.”

        “Yeah, it’s a two-bedroom.  It’s old.  I guess they built this place back when space mattered.”

        “How much?”

        “I got a deal on the rent.  Six hundred fifty a month, as long as I behave.  As you saw, we’re right in front of the rental office.  The manager, Lupe, he said as long as I don’t throw wild parties or blow things up, we have a deal.”

        She laughed.  “I guess I can see his side of it because of all the U.T. students,” she agreed.  “Well, let’s get this mess organized.”

        She didn’t have to help him, but she did.  She put the groceries away while he put up the shower curtain.  She set up the TV tray and little lawn chair in the corner of the empty living room while he put away the towels in the linen closet and put the fur soap and shampoo in the shower, then set a roll of toilet paper on the spindle by the commode.  She seeded a junk drawer in the kitchen with the little odds and ends while he put hangers up in his closet and took the tags off his new clothes.  He heard the radio he bought come on in the kitchen, as she tuned it to the local pop station, but he let her go on about it as he unpacked the new sheets for the bed they’d deliver tomorrow and put them in the linen closet.  He put the light bulbs she had him buy on the shelf above the sheets, then went back into the living room to start working on the cleaning supplies.  He heard a sizzling from the kitchen, and smelled hamburger.  He peeked in and saw her standing in front of the electric stove, singing along with the radio as she tended two hamburgers that had just started to brown in the new pan.

        “Jessie, you don’t have to do that!” he protested.

        She looked over at him and smiled.  “I’m hungry, you haven’t eaten, and I don’t know if you know how to cook,” she said with a smile.

        “Uh, you know, there’s only one chair, and I don’t have a table.”

        She laughed.  “We can stand and use the counter,” she winked.  “Can you make us some tea?”

        “Of course.”  He busied himself with setting up his coffee maker to brew a pot of tea, and she pulled the ice trays out of the freezer and filled them with water, her tail ghosting over him and she went around him to put them back.  It felt really strange being in the kitchen with her, just making dinner, but hell, this was ten times better than anything else he could have imagined.  It just felt right to him to be around her, when it was just the two of them, when he was just being himself, and she was just being herself, and he loved it.

        She finished frying the hamburgers, and put them on pieces of bread laid out on styrofoam plates.  “Ketchup?”

        “Please,” he answered as he poured to plastic cups full of hot tea, and she dug the brand new bottle of ketchup out of a bag and squeezed tight little circles of ketchup onto both burgers.

        There was a knock at the door, which surprised him a little bit.  He went over and opened it, and found Lupe at the doorway.  “Hey, I was just checking to see if you needed anything,” he said.  “I saw you take all that stuff in, and figured by now you’d know if you forgot somethin’.”

        Kit laughed.  “No, I don’t think so. But thanks a lot, Lupe, I appreciate the concern.”

        “Hey, no prob,” he said, putting his paws in his pockets. “Is the cute kitty-cat gonna be rooming with you?”

        Kit’s fur ruffled a little.  “Uh, no, she’s just helping me settle in,” he answered.

        Lupe grinned.  “Ah, I got it.  I’ll leave ya to it, then,” he said, then turned and walked back to his own apartment, which was beside the office.

        “Who was that?” Jessie asked as he came back to the kitchen.

        “My landlord, just seeing if we needed anything,” he said.

        “That was nice of him,” she said, handing him a styrofoam plate.

        “Yeah, he’s a pretty good guy,” he nodded.  “Well, my first real meal in my own place,” he said, looking around.

        “A little threadbare,” she laughed.

        “But with wonderful company,” he said honestly, looking into her eyes.

        Her cheeks ruffled slightly, and she smiled at him.  “To independence,” she said, holding her hamburger out like a glass of wine.

        He laughed and bumped his own burger against hers.  “To independence,” he agreed, and they both took a big bite out of their burgers.

 

        It was nearly nine when he took her home.  They’d enjoyed a plain meal of hamburgers and yogurt cups, with hot tea to wash it down.  Then she actually did the dishes for him, washing the pan and spatula she dirtied making dinner while he set up the trash can and threw away their plates.  Then, they just roamed the apartment and talked for nearly an hour, about what kind of furniture he wanted, how much it would cost, how he could use the second bedroom as an office for when he brought work home from the magazine, and then she went on a thirty minute tear about the windows, talking about curtains.  But, then she realized it was late, and she had homework to do, so he offered to take her home.

        All in all, it was a wonderful evening.

        He pulled up outside of her sorority house in his boss’ car.  She unbuckled her seat belt, then looked over at him.  “I had a great time, Kit,” she told him with a bright, sincere smile.  “It was really nice to just hang around with you.”

        “You were a lifesaver, Jess,” he told her.  “Thanks for all the help.”

        “Hey, I can’t let my guy run around looking for a pair of scissors when he needs them,” she grinned playfully, then she leaned over and kissed him.  He literally hummed in his throat as he kissed her, feeling his tail shiver, then she broke her kiss and leaned back with shimmering eyes.  “Bring your dirty clothes to work with you tomorrow, and I’ll pick them up after school and take them home to wash them for you, okay?”

        “You don’t have to do that.”

        “No, but I want to,” she said, putting her paw on his shoulder and neck.  “I’ll see you tomorrow, Kit,” she said.  She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, then she opened the door and climbed out.  He handed her her backpack, and she lingered her paw over his as she took it from her.

        “Have a good night, Jess.  And thanks again.”

        “Any time.  Drive safe now.  Remember, this isn’t your car,” she said with a playful wink.

        He watched her walk up to her sorority house, a large affair with columns in the front that supported a balcony, upon whch he saw Sandy and a collie standing at the rail, looking down.  God, she was so beautiful.  The door opened before she reached it, and the skunk he’d seen before and a rabbit pulled her inside excitedly.

        “Hey Kit!” Sandy shouted from the balcony.

        He leaned down so he could see her through the open passenger window.  “Hey, Sandy!” he shouted in reply.

        “So how did it go?”

        “We had a good time!” he shouted in reply.

        “What did you two do?”

        “We went shopping!” he called, which made her laugh.  “I’ll talk to ya later, okay?  I gotta get home!”

        “Sure, see ya later!”

        He put the car in gear and pulled away.  Yes, he’d had a great time.  A fantastic time.  A wonderful time.  And tomorrow, he’d see her again.

        He already couldn’t wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    3      5

Chapter 4

 

        “You went to Wal-Mart?  What the hell kind of date is that?” the other Jessie protested, then she laughed.

        “It wasn’t a date date,” Jessie remarked as she put her backpack on her shoulder.  She’d been ambushed in the living room, where Jessie, Charlotte, and a gray vixen named Sherry were watching TV when he dropped her off.  Sam and Lisa had opened the door for her.  “Kit just got an apartment, and he didn’t have anything at all.  It was totally empty.  So I helped him buy what he needed for it.”  She laughed.  “That poor male, he had no idea what he needed.  He’d bought food to cook, but didn’t buy any pans to cook it in!”

        Sherry and the other Jessie laughed, but Charlotte looked over at her with a curious look on her face.  “So, he got an apartment, eh?  I hope he had a bed,” she said with a sultry look.

        “Not one he was going to keep,” she said primly, ignoring that bit of lewd innuendo.  “The one his landlord lent him was hurting his back, so he bought a new one.”

        “Did you sit on it?  You know, try it out?” she asked.

        Jessie’s cheeks ruffled slightly.  “I did no such thing!”

        “You shoulda,” she winked.  “Getting you laid before you graduate is the driving goal of this entire sorority.”

        Jessie’s face frizzed out as the other females laughed.  “We thought we had you taken care of with Burke, but he turned out to be a first class bastard.  We’re sorry about that,” the other Jessie apologized.

        “Well, it worked out. If it wasn’t for him, Sandy and Sam would have never taken me to that movie, and we wouldn’t have met Kit in that café.”

        “Well, he was good for something at least,” Lisa grinned.

        “Well, details, girl!” Sam pressed.  “What did you do?  What did you talk about?”

        “Details have to wait,” she told them.  “I haven’t done any of my homework yet!”

        “Oh, no!” they all said.  Sam and Lisa grabbed her by the paws and dragged her into the living room, then pushed her down on the couch between Sherry and Charlotte.  They forced her to go over the whole day, from going to Kit’s work to their shopping venture into Wal-Mart to going to his apartment.  They kept grilling her over everything he did, most everything he said, and musing over it.  They all knew who he was, that he was the disowned son of a rich family, and they kept harping on how he didn’t seem like a rich person, that he seemed like a normal guy.  More and more femmes came down as they were talking, until nearly the entire sorority was packed into the living room, some twelve females.

        “And he never tried anything forward once?” Sandy demanded.

        “No, he was the soul of courtesy,” Jessie answered.

        “Someone needs to smack some hormones into that male,” she said, which caused some giggling.  “I’ve never met a male that didn’t at least try after the third date.  I hope he’s not a eunuch or something.”

        “He doesn’t kiss like a eunuch,” Jessie challenged.  “He just knows I’m shy, so he’s being considerate.  Ever since we went ice skating and he kissed me, he’s been going very slow.  He told me then that he was letting me be the one to take the steps.  I think he’s still doing it.”

        “Hon, you may be shy, but you’re not timid,” the other Jessie noted with a grin.  “I think it’s about time you started inviting him to take a couple of those steps.”

        “Well, I’ve been thinking about it,” she said, her cheeks ruffling a little.  “He is handsome.”

        “God is he!” Sandy said with a lustful sigh.  “I even love that half-missing ear, it makes him look like a rogue!”

        “So, JD, are you gonna make that invitation?” Sam said with an uncharacteristic grin.  Sam wasn’t the type to be too much into gossip.

        “Well,” she hedged, her cheeks ruffling, which made them all laugh.

        “The house virgin thinking about a male.  It’s about time!” Denise, a fellow cat, called raucously.  “Finally, the mission will be accomplished!”

        “I wouldn’t mind at all,” Jessie admitted with a demure glance down.  “But since our first date, and now that I know who he is, I want to be careful.  He’s had a very bad time of it, and I, I don’t want to blow it, you know?  Something tells me I have to be careful with him.  He’s still terrified of his family, and I’m afraid if I push him too fast, too hard, his fear of his family is going to drive him away.  He’s not going anywhere.  He has a job now, and an apartment.  He likes me, he likes to be with me, and that gives me time to work him out of his fear.  I’m thinking about it.  God, am I thinking about it, I can’t lie.  But I have to make sure he’s ready, or it could ruin everything.”

        “I’ve never met a male that wasn’t ready,” Sandy said with a dirty grin.

        “His body might be ready, but his mind might not be,” Jessie said immediately.  “I don’t want to lose him, Sandy.  If that means I have to go slow and be careful, then that’s exactly what I’m going to do.  I’ve gone twenty-one years without having sex.  I can wait a couple more months.”

        “And it’ll make bagging him that much sweeter,” Sherry giggled.

        “Well, it sounds like you’ve thought about this,” Sam noted.

        “I’ve seriously thought about this,” Jessie nodded.  “Kit is very special, but he’s also very delicate.  If I don’t handle this the right way, I’m going to ruin it, and what’s worse, it’s going to make it that much harder for him if he ever tries again.  If I hurt him too much, he may never try another relationship with a female again.  He’ll just use his fear of his family to push females away.”

        “I never thought of that,” Charlotte said soberly, and several females nodded.

        “I guess those psychology classes actually aren’t a waste of time,” Lisa said with a rueful chuckle.

        “So, if you think I’m not moving fast enough, or I don’t want to—you know, you’re wrong,” she stated, feeling her cheek fur itch a little.  “I’m going to reel my catch in slowly, because he’s very special and needs special attention.”

        “Well, we’re here if you need help,” Sandy grinned.  “It’s still the greatest and most sacred mission of this sorority to get you laid.”

        “You femmes,” Jessie said, her face frizzing.

 

        That bed was going to kill him, but then again, it had had its last chance.

        Kit woke up at 6:00am, unable to sleep any longer, and staggered out of the borrowed bed with his back screaming in protest.  He went straight for the shower, now that he could take one, to let the hot water massage his back and soothe out the pain.  Fifteen minutes under steaming hot water began to untie the knots in the muscles of his lower back, and he sighed in contented relief when he felt the pain drain away.

        God, Jessie had been a gift.  Thanks to her, he actually had a towel to dry off with, food to eat for breakfast, a place to sit down to eat it, a radio to listen to—at least after he changed it to a classical music station—and lunch to take to work.

        He finished drying off and put on his new clothes, then remembered to pack the dirty clothes in the basket and take it out to the car.  Then, with almost sadistic glee, he stripped the bed, took it down, and stacked the mattresses and rails by the wall to make room for the bed he was getting today.  Then he locked up and went to work.

        The second day was just as hectic as the first, but he found that he actually enjoyed it.  They would bring him things, and he’d track down the details.  He also got his first lesson in using Photoshop, and he got to see the team interact.  They were like a bunch of teenagers, laughing, playing, joking with each other, but it was clear that they had fun working for Rick.  Rick too wasn’t above joking himself, old in body but young at heart, and Kit felt very at home among them.  They worked hard and did good work, but they also remembered that they were all friends in addition to being co-workers.

        At the end of the day, after five, he attended his first staff meeting.  This was the issue-ending meeting, as Rick went over the issue that would be printed on Friday, which had been finalized a while, and asked for any last-minute input.  Kit saw with some surprise that they’d put his picture on the article they were running that was taken out of his journals, and Rick announced that Through My Eyes was going to be a weekly back-page article.

        He was even more surprised when Savid turned it to the second page, where all the credits were listed, and Kit’s name was added…and there was a small box article beside it, with the headline Lone Star Welcomes Kit Vulpan To the Team.  The picture of him in his office was under the title, with a short paragraph under it:

 

        Lone Star is growing!  We welcome Kit Vulpan to the crew!

        A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Kit has joined the team as the lead researcher and a staff writer.  He’ll be penning a new series of articles for us, and making sure we keep our facts straight!

        Be nice to him, Austin!  He may be a Yankee, but he’s a great fur!

 

        “I’ll need a new picture to replace our group shot,” Mike said.  The group shot was on page two of every issue, over the listed credits, a picture of the crew sitting around the big table.  Then he grinned.  “I think she can take it for us.”

        They all looked to the hallway.  Jessie was standing there, her backpack over her shoulder, a little embarrassed.  “I’m sorry,” she apologized.  “Mister Marty wasn’t at the front desk, I thought Kit was just working late.”

        “Oh, honey, don’t call me Mister!” Marty said morosely.  “If anything, call me Miss Marty!”

        Jessie giggled.

        “No problem, my dear,” Rick smiled.  “Since you’re here, mind taking a picture for us?”

        “I can do that,” she nodded.  Lilly got a camera and showed her how it worked, and she backed up to the hallway.  “Alright, gather in everyone!” she called.

        Lilly draped herself into Kit’s lap and threw her arms out, grinning at the camera.  Everyone gathered in around them, making funny gestures or pointing to each other.  Kit grabbed Lilly’s bushy tail and reached over and stuck it under Savid’s chin just as the flash went off.  Savid sneezed, and Mike collapsed in helpless laughter.

        “That was great!” Barry laughed.  “Tell me you got a good picture!”

        “I think so,” Jessie said, advancing into the office.  Mike looked at the image on the screen, then grinned broadly.

        “Fantastic!  This is our new group shot, no doubt!”  He uploaded it to the network, then replaced the old group shot with the new one, and everyone laughed when they saw it.  Savid had a surprised look on his face in the picture, but he just laughed when he saw how silly he looked.

        “It is good!  It shows how much fun we have making the magazine!”

        “Alright, folks, it looks like it’s a wrap,” Rick said.  “Any objections?”

        There was silence.

        “Alright, it’s off to the printer.  Kit, for us, Friday is a late day.  I don’t expect you to be in until one, and we tend to work until about eight or nine, but if you want to come in earlier, you’re welcome to.”

        “He always says that,” Barry grinned at him.

        “So, that’s it, people.  Good work.”

        Kit got up and came over to Jessie.  Rick went around them, then stopped and turned around.

        “You know, if you want to hang around here, you’re welcome to, Jessie,” Rick told her with a smile as Kit came over to her.  “We’re not stuffy or picky, and you wouldn’t be the first girlfriend to come hang out with us.”

        “Or boyfriend!” Marty called.

        Rick chuckled.  “So for the record, you never have to knock around here.  You’re always welcome in the office.”

        “Thank you, Rick, that’s kind of you.”

        “Hey, you’re a very attractive young cat, and at least you don’t have fifty earrings in your ears like Lilly,” he winked.

        “Watch it, you old dingo!” Lilly called with a grin.

        Kit was blinded by a camera flash.  Lilly had the camera in her paws, taking pictures of the three of them.  Jessie leaned over and kissed Kit on the cheek, and Lilly caught it on her camera.  She looked at the picture on the screen, and laughed.  “Oh, that’s a good one!”

        “Let us see!” Marty called.  They gathered around her, and Kit saw him smiling, Rick smiling, and Jessie kissing him on the cheek with one foot raised behind her, her eyes closed but her expression mischievous.

        “That’s a keeper!” Mike announced.  “Website fodder!”  He snatched the camera from Lilly and rushed for his office.

        “Checks are on my desk, people,” Rick called.  “Good work, you earned it!”

        “Next week will be better!” everyone shouted in unison, which startled Kit and Jessie, and that made them all laugh.

        “They’re a pretty funny group,” Jessie noted as she waited in his office as he packed his portfolio.

        “I feel at home here, even after only two days,” he told her honestly.  “They’re all great.  I feel blessed that Rick gave me this job.  Do you want to go out tonight?  You know, we haven’t had a real date yet.”

        She giggled.  “No, I’m afraid I can’t tonight.  I have a test tomorrow in English Lit.  You’ve been killing my grades, Kit, I have to study!”

        He chuckled.  “Don’t blame me for that,” he said with a wink.

        “It is your fault,” she accused, crossing her arms beneath her breasts and giving him a cool, yet amused, look.

        “Careful there, hon, or he might prove you right,” Rick said as he came up to the door.  “You’ve got a check on my desk, Kit.”

        “I’ve only been here two days!”

        “You’re on salary, silly fox,” he said.  “You get the same pay every week, even if you did only work for two days.  Besides, I get the feeling that you might need the money.”

        “Well, I can’t deny that,” he admitted.

        “I think you’re gonna work out here, Kit.  The crew really likes you, and you’re a damn good worker.”

        “Thanks, Rick.  I really like it here.  This place is awesome.”

        “Have you opened a bank account yet?”

        He shook his head.  “I was going to go get a Texas license tomorrow, so I can just swing by a bank and open an account when that’s done.”

        “Sounds like you have a plan.  How goes the apartment?”

        “Well, I’m set on the niceties, and I should have a bed being delivered in, oh, about half an hour,” he noted.  “The rest of it’ll fall into place.  The bed’s the important part.”

        “Good for your back?”

        He nodded.

        “I know that feeling,” he chuckled.  “But mine’s from age, not an accident.”

        “You don’t look that old, Rick,” Jessie protested.

        “I’m forty-three, my dear,” he grinned.

        “No way!”

        “I know, I aged well,” he chuckled.  “I’m heading out, so you need to clear outta here, Kit.  Unless you want to be locked in.  My wife takes a dark opinion of it when I’m late getting home on Thursdays.”

        “I’m getting ready to go right now.”

        “Don’t forget your check.”

        “I won’t.”

        Kit retrieved his check and he and Jessie were herded out of the office by Mike and Barry.  “So, you wanna go grab a drink with us, Kit?” Barry asked.  “We always go down to The Pit on paydays.  It’s a local bar.”

        “I’ll have to pass,” he answered.  “I have to get home, they’re delivering my new bed.”

        “Ah, well, maybe later.”

        “See you tomorrow then, Kit.  Have a good one!”

        “You too,” he said as they pushed past him and started down the stairs.

        “Did you bring your laundry, Kit?” she asked.

        “Yah, but I’ll tell you again, Jess, you don’t have to.”

        “Hey, I’m helping you out.  Besides, if I have your clothes, you have to come see me,” she winked.

        He laughed.  “I’d do that without holding my clothes hostage.  May I drive you home?”

        “Sure.”

        He drove her back to her house, and got out with her.  The laundry basket was in the trunk, and he opened it up.

        “This is it?” she asked.

        “You said my work clothes,” he said in confusion.

        “I said dirty clothes,” she responded.  “You have to have more than this!”

        “Well, yeah, but I don’t want you turning into my maid, Jessie.  It’s just not proper.”

        She laughed.  “Kit, stop being silly!  Let’s go back to your place and pick up your laundry.”

        “Well, alright, but I’ll have to find some way to pay you back for your help.”

        “Well, do you have Sunday off?”

        “Yeah, Sunday and Monday.”

        “Then let’s go out on Sunday.  A real date.  Dinner and a movie.”

        “It’s a deal,” he said with a nod.  “But dinner and a movie is just too cut and dry.”

        “What did you have in mind?”

        “Dinner and something better than a movie,” he answered.

        “What?”

        “Well, you’ll find out on Sunday, won’t you?” he said with a mysterious smile.

        “Ohhh, okay, if you wanna play it that way.  I’ll just wait and see what you have in mind,” she said with a beautiful smile.

        He drove them back to his apartment, and she followed him in.  “We have got to get rid of this ‘no furniture’ echo,” she said with a look around.

        “Eh, I’ll get there eventually.  I have the clothes piled up in my room.  We only bought one laundry basket, I had nowhere to put them,” he chuckled.

        She came in and stood beside him.  “That’s it?”

        “That’s it.  I don’t have many clothes, Jess.  That’s all the dirty clothes I have.  It’s just about all the clothes I have,” he chuckled ruefully.

        She sighed, then she laughed.  “Well, I guess you’ll fix that eventually too.”

        There was a knock at the front door.  “Go ahead, I’ll gather it up,” she told him.

        He answered the door and found himself staring at a huge panda, almost a head taller than him, stood in the doorway, taking it up.  A thin meerkat was at a large truck in the parking lot, opening the rear door.  They had blue coverall uniforms with Value City embroidered on them.  “Kit Vulpan?” the panda asked.

        “Yeah, you have my bed?”

        “A-yup.  We’ll bring it in for ya.”

        Kit stood aside as they brought in the mattresses, then the panda removed the plastic as the meerkat brought in the rails.  Then they very quickly put the rails together and stacked the mattresses.  Kit returned to the living room with them and took the clipboard that the meerkat handed him.  “Sign right here,” the meerkat said in a Texas drawl.

        “Looks like you might be a repeat customer,” the panda noted, looking around.

        “Probably,” Kit chuckled.  “As you can see, I’m just getting settled in.”  He finished signing and handed it back.  “It won’t be quick, that’s for sure,” he grinned.  “It’s gonna be a ‘what can I get with this paycheck’ kinda deal.”

        “Well, you won’t beat our prices, so come on back.  We’ll get you all decked out.”

        They left, and he saw Lupe coming out of the office across the way.  “Lupe, I’m done with the bed!” he shouted to the next building.  “Wanna come get it?”

        “Tomorrow’s fine!” he called back.

        He went back in, and wandered back to the bedroom.  He stopped in the doorway and leaned against it, crossing his arms and kicking one foot up onto his toes behind him as he watched Jessie.  She’d put all the clothes in the basket, but now she was sitting on the edge of the bed, both paws down beside her, bouncing on it just slightly as she looked down and behind herself, away from him.  She ran one paw along the bed, tracing her padded fingers along the new material, then she looked to him.  Her cheeks ruffled a little, and she gave him a shy smile.

        He didn’t say anything.  He’d only known her a few days, but in that very short time she’d seemed to have shed much of her shyness around him.  But that, that was a shy smile.  Was she thinking dirty about him?

        God, he hoped so.  He’d been thinking that way about her since the first time he saw her, but was always very careful never to let stray thoughts like that taint things when she was with him.  He saved those kinds of thoughts for when he was alone, because she was shy, and he didn’t want to scare her off.  After that disaster of kissing her on their very first pseudo-date, he didn’t want to give her any reason at all to feel uncomfortable with him.

        “I take it it meets your expectations?” he asked with a teasing smile.

        “Well, I’m not sleeping on it.  I was curious how firm it was, because of your back.”

        “Firm, but not like a board,” he answered.  “You ready to go?”

        “Sure.”

        He took her back to her house, and got out of the car and went to the trunk.  “What are you doing?” she asked.

        “I’m going to take this in,” he replied.  “I’m sure your friends are all kinds of curious about me.  May as well run that gauntlet now, rather than make you have to run it by yourself.”

        She laughed.  “Oh, they are at that.  They’re like a bunch of nosy sisters.”

        “How did you end up in a sorority?”

        “Well, my mom was in this one,” she said as he picked up the basket, and she closed the trunk.  “I didn’t really want to join a sorority, but I really didn’t like my roommate in my freshman year, so I worked up the courage and pledged.  They all like to make fun of me because I’m shy and I come from a really traditional family, but that’s okay,” she giggled.  “When they need help with their homework, or when they want something they don’t make in a microwave, they always run to me or Sam.”  She led him up the sidewalk.  “Sam’s the skunk you saw that first day.  She’s in pre-med.  She’s really smart.  Was valedictorian and everything.”

        “Do you like it?”

        “I do now,” she nodded as they reached the door.  “The others are all nice femmes, and we get along really well.  Last chance to run away,” she winked.  “If you go in there, they may not let you out.  Oh, and they know about you,” she warned.  “So don’t be surprised if they ask about it.”

        “That’s good to know,” he said with a nod.  “Alright, lead me into hell, Charon.”

        She laughed and opened the door.

        It wasn’t as bad as Jessie let on.  He wasn’t allowed past the living room—house rules—and not all of the sorority members were home.  Jessie took the basket from him while Sandy and a gray cat converged on him from the couch.  “Kit!” Sandy called.  “You’re bringing laundry?”

        “I kinda don’t have anywhere to do it right now,” he said ruefully.  “Jessie agreed to help me out.  She’s great.”

        “You know, you owe her if she’s gonna do your laundry,” Sandy teased, poking him in the shoulder.

        “I know.  I really have to make it up to her,” he agreed.

        “Kit, this is Danielle.  Dan, this is Kit.”

        “Hi,” she said.  He shook her paw cordially.  “JD’s gone on and on about you.”

        “Well, I hope she left out all the bad parts,” he grinned.

        “Are you kidding?  The bad parts are the good parts!” Sandy protested.  “So, how’s the magazine?”

        “I love it there,” he said honestly.  “The people are great, and the work is fun and challenging.  If you want, come down to the office and look around after classes,” he offered.  “See how a magazine is put together.”

        “Cool, I might do that!” Sandy nodded vigorously.

        “Just don’t all come at once.  Rick said he doesn’t mind when people come to the office, but I think three or four pretty young femmes might cause too many distractions.”

        “That’s what’s fun to do,” Sandy grinned.

        “And you have to behave.  I’ve only been there a few days.  If you come in there and turn the place upside-down, I might get fired.”

        “Now it’s no fun at all,” she said with a toss of her hair.

        Jessie returned.  He stepped up and took the empty laundry basket she offered him, which had a spare laundry bag in it.  “Listen, Jess, I really appreciate this,” he said sincerely.  “You’ve only known me a few days, and you’re doing my laundry.  That’s kinda…weird.”

        She laughed.  “I don’t mind at all, Kit,” she told him with an honest smile.  “You’re in something of a weird position here.  And if I can help you get on your feet by doing laundry, and it doesn’t cost me anything when I can just throw your laundry in with mine, well, why shouldn’t I?”

        “And we get to check out what kind of underwear you wear!” Sandy added.

        Kit reached behind himself and raised up his shirt, then pulled the waist of his jeans down a little to reveal a waistband of his briefs.  “Looks like Fruit of the Loom to me,” he noted, which made Sandy laugh.

        Jessie, however, wasn’t laughing.  She looked behind him, then gasped and put her hands on the tail of his shirt and pulled it up a little more, exposing his lower back.  It was crisscrossed with white streaks of fur.  They were scars.

        “Oh, those are from the surgeries,” he explained as Jessie, Sandy, and Danielle looked at his back.  “They operated on me three times.  First time they put in steel rods, the second time they added some screws, then the third one they took the rods out.”  He put his paw on his lower back, in the center of those stripes of white fur.  “This is the exact height of the hood of a Ford Aerostar,” he remarked, flattening his paw and chopping his thumb and finger against his back lightly.  “Or so they always told me in the hospital,” he chuckled, gently pulling his shirt down.  “I actually don’t remember anything from that entire day.  The docs said that was normal.  In my memory, I went to bed the night before, and next thing I know, I wake up two weeks later in the hospital, in a full body cast.”

        “Ouch,” Danielle said compassionately, her expression riveted.  “Well, I’m glad you’re better, Kit.”

        “Thanks.  The happiest day of my life was the day I got out of that cast, and I could go to the bathroom by myself.  Even after months of it, I never got used to having a nurse, help,” he added.

        “I can imagine.  It wouldn’t be easy doing something like that with an audience,” Sandy reasoned.

        “You have no idea,” he noted fervently.  “Well, I hate to say it, but I’m gonna get going.  I don’t want Jess complaining that I’m wrecking your grades too,” he winked.

        “I can wreck my grades all by myself,” Danielle laughed.

        “Remember, Sunday,” Kit told her.  “Dress casual.”

        “I’ll call you and tell you when you can come get your clothes,” she promised.  “Can you tell me exactly when you’re picking me up?”

        “I’ll have to see what time it is,” he grinned.  “I’ll let you know by tomorrow.”

        “Okay.  Have a good night, Kit.”  She reached over and put her paw on his shoulder, then kissed him.  It was little more than a quick peck, but on the lips nonetheless, which put a little shiver in his tail.  “Talk to you tomorrow.”

        “I’ll be waiting.  Bye you two.  And thanks for letting me get out of the house unscathed.  Jess made it sound like I’d be tied up and interrogated,” he grinned.

        “Oh, that’s coming,” Sandy teased.  “There’s just not enough of us here to hold you down.”

        Kit laughed.  “Then I’ll run away now,” he said, then he literally ran to the door, which made all three femmes laugh.

 

        Friday was busy, because it was the first day of the new cycle, and it was like starting over.  Though Rick and Savid already had this week’s issue planned out, there was a lot of work to do to put it all together, and Friday was a huge day for Lilly, because it was the start of the weekend and Lilly was the one that kept up on the current hotspots and trends in U.T. student society.  Lilly spent Fridays out of the office, roaming the campus during the day, and hitting the clubs at night to review bands and keep track of the “in” things.

        Kit could knock out any reasearch they threw at him relatively quickly, so he spent a lot of time working with everyone else, doing anything he could both to learn the tricks of the magazine trade, and to make sure Rick felt he didn’t make a mistake when he hired someone like him.  He and Jeffrey talked about trying to make up a comic strip to run in the magazine, debating if it should be comedy or melo-comedy-drama, stand-alones or serialized with an ongoing plot.  Jeffrey sketched out a few ideas for characters for the strip, and they worked out something of an idea that they’d pitch to Rick after Jeffrey whipped up a few episodes of it.

        And he got to see the magazine in printed form.  Rick brought him a copy around four, while he and Jeffrey were talking things over, and Kit paged through it.  It looked just as it did in the editor program, but it did feel kinda nice to actually hold onto it, to be able to read it without having to click on a mouse.  He had to laugh when he saw the group picture, and Jeffrey turned to the page holding his first journal story, showing a huge closeup of his face, only his eyes, right beside the title of the article, Through My Eyes.  Beneath the title was his name, and a boxed caption explaining the article to the reader.

        “Oh, that’s downplaying it right there,” Kit said with a rueful chuckle.

        “Hey, it’s your most striking feature,” Jeffrey laughed.

        “I kinda thought this was,” he said, pointing at his half-missing ear.

        “Hell no, your eyes just reach out and grab someone,” Jeffrey countered.

        Kit read the caption under the title:

 

        Kit Vulpan spent six months traveling from New England to Austin after graduating from college, working his way across America.  These articles are excerpts from the journals he kept of his experience.  The furs in these articles are real, though the stories they tell may not be.  This is America, seen through his eyes.

 

        “Not bad,” Kit noted.  “At least Barry picked a good piece to introduce with.  If he went with one of the sob stories, it might turn readers off.”

        “Yeah,” Jeffrey agreed.  “Was that guy really like that?”

        Kit nodded.  “Sure was.  He sat at that stool every night.  It took me almost a week to get him to where he’d talk to me, then he told me that story.  Trying to butter up the waiter, I guess,” he chuckled.

        “Musta been cool to do it.”

        “It had its moments.  But I’m glad I’m here.  For more than one reason.”

        Jeffrey laughed.  “She’s gorgeous.  You’re a damn lucky fox.”

        “Amen.  Now I just have to not blow it.”

        “What, she’s emo?”

        “No, she’s just a little shy,” he explained.  “And I really screwed up on our first date.  So I’m kinda walking on eggshells around her.  She was very gracious and gave me another chance, and I don’t want another strike.  I think after the next strike and I’m out.”

        “She didn’t seem shy to me.  She even kissed you for that picture.”

        “I know.  That surprised me a little.  But if you want to see if she’s shy, try talking to her.  She’ll blush at the drop of a hat.”

        Jeffrey laughed.  “I think demure is a better term,” he grinned.

        “I just call her perfect,” Kit said honestly.

        “Then don’t blow it,” he teased.

        “I’d better not anytime soon.  She has almost all my clothes,” he chuckled.

        “She’s washing them?”

        “Just this once,” he affirmed.  “I don’t have a washer and dryer yet.”

        “Be careful, you may get everything back pink.”

        “Only if I make her mad,” he laughed.

        About five, Jessie called on his cell phone.  “Kit, your clothes are done,” she told him.  “You can come pick them up after work.”

        “Jess, thank you.  Really.  You didn’t have to do this for me.  It was very kind of you.”

        “Well, I expect to be wowed on Sunday,” she giggled.

        “I’m buying the tickets right now,” he told her…and he was.  He was on the website, reserving tickets for them to an outdoor Austin Philharmonic Orchestra performance in a place called McKenzie Park, which was on the south bank of the river that ran through the city.  “I’ll be picking you up around two, Jess.  We’ll go eat dinner first, then go.  I suggest that you do not wear a skirt.  Actually, jeans or shorts would work best.”

        “What kind of date is this?” she asked, her voice both a little concerned and amused.

        “The best kind,” he told her.  “Just trust me.”

        “I trust you,” she assured him.  “When will you get off work?”

        “Around eight,” he answered.  “Me, Jeffrey, and Savid are the only ones in the office right now.  Everyone else is out working.”

        “Oh, looking for stories and such?”

        “Yeah.  Lilly and Barry are working on stories.  Marty and Mike are helping them, and Rick’s over at an advertiser talking to them.  I get my turn outside tomorrow.”

        “What are you going to do?”

        “I’m being sent down to the campus to gather some information from students face to face,” he answered.  “Sometimes research takes more than a phone and a computer.”

        “Hey Kit,” Rick’s voice called.  He turned and saw him in the doorway of his tiny office.

        “Rick needs me, I gotta go.  See you soon.”

        “Okay. See you soon.  Bye-bye.”

        “Bye hon,” he said, then he closed the phone.  “Yah boss?”

        “I remember you saying you play the guitar, and my wife dug this out of the attic,” he said, showing him a dusty guitar case.  “It belonged to my son, one of a long line of interests that died as soon as he realized he’d have to work at it.  If it still works, it’s all yours.”

        “Wow, thanks, boss,” Kit said in appreciation.  “I haven’t played in a couple of months, since my guitar got smashed at the bus station in Mobile.”  He put the case in his lap and opened it, and found an old acoustic guitar inside.  He took it out and put the case on the floor, then pulled it up and tested it.  It was out of tune, but that wasn’t a problem.  He tuned it up with practiced ease, then played a series of chords to test the tuning.

        “I thought you said you were still learning!” Rick laughed.

        “Well, I am,” he said modestly.  “What I just did is easy.”  He began to play a tune, then began to sing the lyrics almost immediately.

               

                Would you know my name,

                If I saw you in heaven.

 

                Would it be the same,

                If I saw you in heaven.

 

                I must be strong, and carry on,

                ‘Cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.

 

        “Woah,” Rick breathed.

        “What?”

        “Damn, son, you said you liked to sing, but I didn’t know you could sing,” he said seriously.  “What song was that?”

        “It’s called Tears in Heaven,” he replied.  “It’s one of my favorite songs, and one of the few I can play all the way through on a guitar, even though I’m just playing basic chords, not the real guitar melody that goes with it,” he added, then closed his eyes and picked it back up, unable to just stop without finishing the song.

 

                Would you hold my hand,

                If I saw you in heaven?

 

                Would you help me stand,

                If I saw you in heaven?

 

                I’ll find my way, through night and day.

                Cause I know, I just can’t stay here in heaven.

 

                Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees.

                Time can break your heart, have you beggin’ please.

 

                Beggin’ please.

 

                Beyond the door, there’s peace I’m sure.

                And I know, there’ll be no more, tears in heaven.

 

                Would you know my name,

                If I saw you in heaven.

 

                Would it be the same,

                If I saw you in heaven.

 

                I must be strong, and carry on,

                ‘Cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.

 

        He finished, and opened his eyes.  He saw Rick, Savid, and Jeffrey all standing in the doorway, amazed looks on their faces.  “What?” he asked.

        “Well, I know who we’re taking to the Pit for open mic night contests,” Jeffrey said, then he laughed.

        “You sing very beautiful,” Savid told him.

        “Thank you,” he said modestly, putting the guitar in his lap.  “Just another legacy of my youth,” he said.  “I really liked music, but my bastard father refused to let me enjoy it.  It was all business with him.  He had no soul for art, no ear for music, and considered it a compete waste of time.  To him, there was only money.” He strummed the guitar absently.  “I was starting to learn to play a guitar.  Clancy smuggled one into the house for me,” he remembered, his eyes distant.  “My father found it, and he broke it right in front of me.  Then he told me that a Vulpan didn’t waste time on such ridiculous nonsense.”

        “That’s raw,” Jeffrey noted.

        “That, was my father.  May he rot in hell,” Kit said with utter conviction.  “After I was disowned, I was too busy trying to survive to learn how to play,” he told them.  “But once I got into U-Mass, after the accident and I washed out of ROTC, I bought a new guitar and took lessons from a music major friend of mine.  I used to be a lot better, but I got rusty.  I need to practice more.”

        “Well, you should have time,” Rick told him.  “Just not around here,” he added with a grin.  “I’m not running a karaoke bar here.”

        “Of course not,” he laughed, putting the guitar away in its case, then propping it up against some boxes next to his chair.

        “If you never got to do music, where did you learn to sing?” Jeffrey asked.

        “Well, singing is something you can always practice, unless you’re gagged,” he chuckled.

        “True enough.”

        Kit swung by the sorority house after work, and found it almost deserted.  Almost all the femmes were out, with only Sam and Jessie inside.  He brought his laundry basket, and Jessie went to go get the laundry while he sat on the couch and waited.  Sam was sitting in a recliner across from him, a biology book spawled in her lap, but she closed it when he sat down.  “So.”

        “So?” he asked curiously.

        “Where are you going on Sunday?”

        Kit gave her a grin.  “What, do you tap the phones?”

        “JD is something of the house’s little sister,” Sam said seriously.  “We all watch out for her, and that means we drag these things out of her, because she’s shy, and maybe a little naïve.  How someone as pretty as she is got to college like that is beyond me.  Fanatical parents, I guess,” she mused.  “You can expect anything you tell her that’s not personal to be common knowledge in this house.”

        Kit laughed.  “She warned me that I’d face the third degree, but I didn’t expect you to grill her too.”

        “She’s the kind of femme we rarely let out of the house by herself,” Sam told him.  “Not because she’s not an adult, but because she’s a total sweetheart and we love being around her.  Everyone in this house loves her.  So, if you hurt her, you’ll have a whole mess of angry sorority sisters breathing down your neck.”

        “Understood,” he said immediately and honestly.  “Believe me, that’s the last thing I’d ever do.  I already screwed up with her once.  I won’t do it again.”

        “And how did you screw it up?”

        “When I kissed her.  That was way out of line.  I’m just glad she gave me another chance.”

        Sam gave him a slight smile.  “That wasn’t as much a mistake as you think it was,” she told him.  “She thought it was a good kiss.”  She opened the book again.  “And you’d better think of kissing her again, very soon, or she’ll think you’re not as interested in her as she is in you.”

        “I’m looking forward to it, but I’m not going to rush it,” he said calmly.  “Jess isn’t the kind of girl you let slip through your fingers.  I’m willing to take things at her pace.  She’s worth waiting for.”

        “I’m glad you understand that.”

        “Jess said you’re studying pre-med.”

        “I want to be a doctor,” she affirmed.

        “What year are you in?”

        “I’m a junior.  Me and JD pledged together.”

        “Nice.  How long have you known her?”

        “Since pledging. We’re roommates.”

        He glanced towards the stairs, looking for Jessie, then leaned forward.  “Are her parents as bad as she said?”

        Sam chuckled.  “Yes, mainly her mother.  JD calls her Momzilla.  Her mother calls here at least three times a week to check on her.  If she’s not here at night, her mother pitches a fit over the phone.  And she’s relentless.  She knows that JD’s seeing you, and had a complete meltdown last night over the phone since JD hasn’t been here the last two times she called.”

        “Because of me?”

        “Because you’re male period.  Her mother thinks she shouldn’t so much as kiss a male unless it’s at the end of a marriage ceremony.”

        “Well, how is she supposed to find someone like that?”

        “Her mother doesn’t think that way.  JD is the oldest child in her family, but she’s the first one to leave home.  Both of her daughters are out of high school now, and both left home.  JD is here, her sister is going to Ohio State.  So her mother is having some separation issues with letting her children go.  She said that since her sister left home, her mother’s been off the deep end.  The funny thing is, she isn’t half as nuts about her brother Ben.  She’s only crazy over protecting her daughters.”

        “Her brother can’t get pregnant,” Kit noted.

        “Yeah, I’m thinking along the same lines.  Her mother is ultra-traditional.  Marriage before sex, behaving like a lady, yadda yadda yadda.  She’s a relic of a forgotten time, if you ask me.  She should have been raising her children in the fifties, not the new milennium.”

        “Stop bad-mouthing my mother, Sam,” Jessie said as she came down the stairs, carrying a full laundry basket.  “I know I complain about her a lot, but she does mean well.”

        “And this defense will cease the instant she calls,” Sam noted calmly, which made Kit chuckle.  He stood up and took the basket from her, then put it on the couch.

        “Listen, Jess, let me thank you again.  It was very good of you to help me out.  I really owe you one.”

        “Well, I think there’s something you can do to repay me,” she said, tilting her cheek up towards him and tapping it.

        He laughed.  He leaned down and gave her a very loud kiss, which made Sam giggle.

        “I’d better get a better kiss than that on Sunday,” she told him with a teasing, but inviting smile.

        “Sam, I might need to practice, so I can live up her expectations.  You available?”

        Sam’s book fell out of her lap as she erupted into laughter.  Kit grinned at Jessie, but got a face full of couch pillow for his trouble when she whacked him.  That nearly made Sam fall out of her chair.

        “I wash your clothes for you, and you try to get a date with my roomie?  Out, you ingrate!” Jessie said, pointing at the door, but she couldn’t suppress a grin.

        “I’ll pick you up at two,” he said with a playful smile.

        “I’ll be waiting,” she promised as he picked up the basket.  She stepped up and gave him a real kiss, a light, inviting kiss on the lips, then she stepped away with a little smile on her face.

        Sam gave him a knowing look as she went back up the stairs, and he couldn’t help but watch that gorgeous cat with that amazing long-haired tail swaying back and forth behind her, almost hypnotized.  Sam cleared her throat, and he realized he was staring.  He blinked, then pulled the basket up to his hip.  “Uh, thanks for the chat, Sam.  It was fun.”

        “I’ll see you later,” she said with a nod, picking up her book.  He let himself out, and Sam found her page, took a sip of her soda, and chuckled to herself.

        “Oh yeah.  She’s got him hooked, alright.  Now just comes the reeling in.”

 

        The last thing he expected to find on his desk on Saturday morning was a note, and a key.

 

                Kit:

        I don’t work on Saturdays.  This is your key to the office. The code for the alarm is on the post-it on your monitor.  If you’re the last out, don’t forget to set the alarm before you lock up.

        Your assignment is on my desk.  When you’re done, you’re done, go home.

                Rick.

 

        Well, he guessed it was a show of trust that Rick would give him a key to the office before he’d even been there a week, and give him an assignment without any kind of supervision at all.

        He wouldn’t allow that trust to be misplaced.

        Rick wasn’t the only one that had Saturdays off.  Jeffrey, Marty, Savid, and Mike were all off on Saturday.  The only ones that worked were the writers, it seemed…but, they had Monday off where the others had to work.  At least Rick made sure everyone had two days off…that was nice of him, given they had such a small staff, and producing a magazine was a tough business.

        His assignment actually took most of the day.  He researched available Saturday facilities on campus, both for school and for student recreation, using a press pass secured for him by Rick for the research.  He studied the facilities, both the quality and variety, and interviewed students using them to guage their satisfaction.  Since he didn’t know much about the campus, it actually gave him quite a tour of the campus, and he got to meet quite a few of the students.  A couple of them recognized him from the magazine.  One of them even startled him with a question.  “Dude, who was that gorgeous cat that was kissing you?” the lemur asked.

        “Huh?”

        “On your mag’s website, he said.  “There’s a pic of a kickass cat hottie giving you a kiss.  Who is she?”

        “That’s my girlfriend,” he said with a laugh.

        “Damn,” the lemur muttered.  “You lucky bastard.”

        Girlfriend.  He’d said it impulsively to defend his turf, but after sitting down and thinking about it, he realized that was exactly how he wanted to think about her.  She was beautiful, she was smart, she was kind, she was gentle, she was funny, she was…she was amazing.

        She was what he’d been looking for all his life, and his family be damned.

        It was at that moment.  For the first time, probably ever, the spectre of his family began to fade.  He was already overcoming that fear, wanting to go out with Jessie, be with her, but the fear had still been there, just suppressed.  But for the first time, for the first time ever, he wasn’t afraid.

        He wasn’t afraid.

        He couldn’t be afraid.  If he was afraid, he would lose her.  If he was afraid, he’d drive her away when she was finally ready to take the next step, and he wasn’t prepared to meet her there.  If he was afraid, the best thing that ever happened in his life would slip through his fingers, and he would spend the rest of his life in bitter regret over losing his chance at happiness.

        He’d been such a coward.  It wasn’t courage that got him through life after he was disowned, it was his sister’s kindness.  It wasn’t courage that got him through college, it was his sister’s help.  It wasn’t courage that got him through nearly six months in a hospital bed, it was tons of painkillers.  It wasn’t courage that got him through six months of living as a drifter, it had been fear.  Fear of settling down where they could find him, fear of getting too attached to people because of his family, fear, fear, fear.

        If he wanted her, he had to have the guts to tell his family to go to hell, and mean it.  Not just mouth it in bitter anger over how they had hurt him.  Not just scream it as a front for blaming them for what happened to him.  Not growl it in his throat when he found something good, something special, but something of which they’d disapprove.  He had to mean it.

        He had to mean it.

        He stood up.  “The Vulpan family can go to hell,” he declared with utter sincerity, meaning it.  “Well, except for Vil,” he added with a sardonic chuckle.

        He walked away from that spot.

        And he felt like a new fox.  He felt like a new life was waiting for him just over the horizon.

        A new life.  He had a job now, and a home.  He had new friends, and he had a female who seemed interested in him, and a female he’d walk through fire for if she asked it of him.  He didn’t need to hang off the end of his sister’s string anymore.  She didn’t need to mother him anymore.  She would be his dear sister, his good friend, and his only family, but he didn’t need her protection anymore.  He could stand on his own feet.  He could be his own fox, and make a new life for himself without needing her help.

        And the rest of his family could go to hell.

 

        If anything, Vil was usually punctual.  She said she’d call him that weekend, and it was almost dead middle of the weekend when she kept that promise.  His phone rang when he returned to the office, and transcribed his notes from his reasearch he’d been writing in his laptop to his desktop.

        “Hello,” he hummed absently as he started transferring files.

        “Hey, baby bro,” Vil answered.  “How you doing?”

        “I’m doing great,” he told her.  “I’m getting settled in here at work.  I’m about to leave now.”

        “You don’t have weekends off?”

        “Sunday and Monday,” he answered.

        “Ah, I see.  Well, doesn’t change what I have to tell you,” she chuckled.  “I’ll be down next weekend.  I’ll be arriving on the third and be leaving on the sixth.”

        “Labor Day weekend?” he asked as he called up the calendar on his laptop and switched it to September.

        “Yeah.  I was aiming at three days with you, but I’ll take two and two evenings.”

        “Well, one evening.  I work evenings on Friday.  It’s a very busy time for us.”

        “What do you do on a Friday night for work?”

        “Vil, this is a magazine aimed at college kids,” he reminded her.  “Friday’s a big day for students, so that’s when we do a lot of our work.  Lilly, one of the reporters, is usually out almost all night gathering info for her pieces.”

        “Ah, true,” Vil mused.  “Well, I can just wait for you, I suppose.”

        “I’ll give you what time I can, sis, I’d love to see you again.  But I just got this job, and I can’t blow it.  So you’re gonna take a back seat.”

        “I’m not used to being out of the spotlight,” she teased.

        “Well, welcome to the real world,” he told her in a tone that made her laugh.

        “So, how’s it going with Jessie?”

        “We have our first real date tomorrow,” he answered, saving his work and then closing his laptop.

        “That’s nice, but it doesn’t answer the question.”

        “It seems to be going fine,” he answered.  “I’m not rushing it, sis.  When she’s ready, we’ll take the next step.”

        “And what step is that?”

        “Whatever she wants,” he answered immediately.

        “Where are you going on your date?”

        “Orchestra,” he answered.  “Austin Philharmonic’s performing Beethoven.”

        She laughed.  “I should have known,” she teased.  “It’s not the Boston Pops.  You’ll have to tell me if they’re any good down there in Texas.”

        “Here’s hoping.”

        “Here’s hoping she likes classical, or it’s going to be a bad date for her,” Vil laughed.

        “Well, there’s always opera, I suppose.  Femmes are supposed to like the opera.”

        “Kit, she’s a normal girl.  She’d probably be more interested in going to see some rock band.”

        “True, but I think she’ll like it.”

        “I’m rootin’ for ya, bro.  And I hope you’re right.”

        “Yeah, me too.”

        “Remember, I want to meet her, so expect me to invite her out with us at least one day.”

        “I already warned her.  She’s okay with it.  She’s curious to meet you.”

        “Well, I’m curious to meet her,” Vil mirrored.  “By the way, I love this picture of you with your magazine crew.”

        “What?  How did you get that?”

        “I had a copy of your magazine Fed-Exed,” she said.  “And I see you took my advice about your journals.  Good for you!”

        “Actually, that was my boss’ idea,” he admitted.  “He read through my journals with the other material I gave him when I applied for the job.”

        There was a short silence.  “What is this?”

        “Huh?”

        “Where is the request not to let the others see the magazine?” she teased.

        “Let them,” he said immediately.  “I don’t care.  Maybe it’ll piss them off that I’m building a life for myself without them and their money.”

        Vil laughed.  “It probably would.  I’m looking at it right now.  Ah, so that’s the Lilly you mentioned.  Your boss is kinda cute,” she told him.  “He has some wild fur, doesn’t he?”

        “He’s a great guy.”

        “Maybe I can come visit your work.  I’d love to meet your boss.”

        “We could probably manage it.  He knows who I am, so it wouldn’t be a big shock for him.  They all do at work.  And all Jessie’s sorority knows.”

        “I’m glad you’re not hiding from it, bro,” she said seriously.

        “No, I guess I’m not.  I’m not gonna shove it in people’s faces, but I won’t hide from it either.”

        “Good for you.  I’ll get off of here and get some work done, bro.  “I’ll call you before I leave and give you some specifics.”

        “No prob, sis.  I need to lock up the office and head home, I’m done for today.”

        “Good luck tomorrow,” she said.

        “Thanks, sis.  Be good.”

 

        Kit was actually nervous.

        This was unusual for him.  He wasn’t the kind to get nervous over something he understood.  She liked him, and he knew it.  She was looking forward to this date, and he knew it.  So was he.  But he was still nervous.  Maybe Vil was right and she didn’t like classical music.  If so, this might be a very long and unpleasant date.  Maybe it was a good thing they were going to go eat first.

        He was there at exactly two, and he saw six of the sorority femmes sitting on the balcony over the front door, no doubt there to scope him out and spread the warning through the house that he was there.  He told her jeans and tee, and he mirrored his own suggestion, wearing his new jeans and a simple white tee, with a short sleeve white linen shirt worn over it, left unbuttoned.  He didn’t even get a chance to ring the doorbell when he got to the porch.  The door opened, and Jessie was there, with several femmes behind her.

        She was stunning.

        Her hair was done to perfection, looking breathtaking.  She must have spent hours combing her fur, for there wasn’t a hair out of place anywhere.  She had the tiniest bit of eyeshadow on her eyelids, and just the tiniest touch of mascara, and she wore a simple pair of gold chain loop earrings in her ears.  She wore a tan tank top and a pair of shorts, with a delicate little leather belt and a small beige purse on a thin leather strap on her shoulder.  He stepped up to her, literally gawking, and he could smell a faint flowery perfume about her.  Her makeup, her dress, even her perfume, it was subtle, delicate, enhancing what was already there instead of trying to hide it.  God but was she a wonder!

        “You like?” she asked demurely, stepping out and looking up at him with her gorgeous blue eyes, the bright sunlight making their pupils contract down to vertical slits.

        “I’m afraid to take you anywhere,” he told her.  “I’ll have to beat the other males away with a stick.”

        She giggled, her cheek fur ruffling slightly, and the sight of that drove him wild.  He held his paw out to her, and she took it.  Just the touch of her sent a shiver through his tail.  “Well, I’ll protect you, Kit,” she smiled.

        “I might need it,” he said heavily, then he blinked and remembered they weren’t going to spend the entire date standing on the porch.  “Shall we go?”

        “Where do you want to eat?” she asked as he walked her to the car Rick was letting him use.

        “Anywhere you want,” he told her.

        “Well, there’s this nice place just down the street from my parents’ house in Cincinnati,” she suggested with a teasing smile.

        He laughed.  “By the time we get up there, you might be in a little trouble with your professors.”

        “Well, in that case,” she said with a mock sigh, “I guess I’ll have to settle for Red Lobster.”

        “Red Lobster it is,” he said as he helped her into the car, then closed the door for her.

        She had to guide him to the restaurant, and they spent the driving time talking about whatever crossed their minds, as they tended to do.  They had the same freedom of words they had that first night when she called him, talking about just about anything.  Their issue of discussion, talking about post-Civil War literature, continued into the restaurant, and held firm all the way through ordering dinner.  “I can’t stand Chesnutt,” Jessie said, shuddering her shoulders.  “That dialect he uses is the written equivalent of nails on a blackboard.”

        He laughed.  “Well, if you can read through it, it’s kinda interesting,” he protested, taking a sip of his tea.

        She looked at his cup, then she laughed.  “I guess you can’t take a Bostonian away from his tea,” she grinned.

        “You can’t take a Cincinnatian away from their terrible football team either,” he retorted.

        “Oh, now you’re getting personal,” she teased.  “Here comes a half hour schpiel glorifying the Patriots,” she complained, throwing her paws up.

        He laughed.  “I didn’t know you were that much of a football fan.”

        “My parents are football freaks,” she told him.  “Pro, college, high school…they’d even show up at peewee games if they knew where they played them,” she said, which made him chuckle.  “My dad is so funny,” she giggled.  “He’s this little slip of a cat, barely taller than me and even thinner, and come Sunday he paints himself up in Bengal stripes and screams like a maniac.  He hasn’t missed a Bengal home game in like twenty years.”

        “Season tickets?”

        “He saves for them every year,” she laughed.  “I guess football rubbed off on me.  I even played in the 12 year league.”

        “You played football?” he said in surprise.  “How could anyone on the team concentrate?”

        Her fur ruffled in a very appealing manner.  “Well, I hadn’t filled out quite yet then, and besides, even now, put this under football pads, and it’s not very noticable,” she said, motioning at herself.

        “I’d notice it,” he said honestly.

        “You’d be looking,” she winked.

        “Damn right I’d be looking,” he retorted instantly.

        The hyena waiter brought them their dinners.  He had crab legs, she had lobster.  “I haven’t had lobster in months!” she said happily as the waiter put her plate down.  “Burke hated seafood!”

        “Anyone who takes a cat out had better expect seafood to be on the menu,” Kit teased.

        “Too right,” she agreed pleasantly, picking up the shellcracker.

        It had been years since he’d had crab legs, and he found them to be rather good.  Jessie seemed quite happy with her lobster, going through it faster than he’d ever seen a femme eat.  “Hungry?” he asked teasingly.

        “I haven’t had anything but a slice of toast all day,” she answered.  “The others wouldn’t let me eat lunch, either.”

        “Why not?”

        “They’ve been making me get ready since ten,” she answered.  “And I was too nervous to cook this morning.  They didn’t want me burning myself at the stove, and I don’t trust any of them to cook.”

        “You were nervous?”

        “A little,” she admitted, looking over to him.

        “I was too. I still am, a little.”

        She smiled gently.  “Well, me too.  I’m not sure where we’re going.”

        “I’m not sure if you’ll like it.”

        “Well, I promise to keep an open mind.”

        “I’m just glad I’m not the only one who’s nervous,” he said with a relieved sigh.

        “Of course I’d be nervous, Kit.  This is our first date, and I don’t want to look like an idiot.”

        Her honesty took him off guard, and he laughed ruefully.  “I was thinking the exact same thing.”

        “Well, since we’re being totally honest here,” she said, giving him an adorably sly little look, “would you think I’m a pig if I asked for one of your crab legs?”

        He laughed delightedly.  “Be my guest,” he said, breaking one off and offering it to her.

        After dinner, he drove her to the park. She was a little curious when they arrived, and was even more curious when she saw all the other cars.  He got out and helped her out, then opened the trunk and pulled out a blanket and a small cooler he’d bought the night before.  “And here we are,” he said.

        “What are we going to do?”

        “We’re going to a concert,” he told her.

        “Oh!  What kind of music?”

        “Classical.”

        “Really?  I’ve never been to a live classical concert before.  Do they always have them out at the park?”

        “Sometimes they do,” he said.  “The Boston Pops has this huge outdoor theater where they perform quite a bit, in the summer.  So, you don’t hate classical music?”

        “I’ll admit, I don’t listen to it all the time, but I don’t hate it.  This should be interesting.”

        “Well, next date, it’s your turn to surprise me,” Kit told her as he put the blanket over his shoulder.

        After giving his tickets to a raccoon standing at a roped-off area, he proved he had no glass bottles in his cooler, received a program, and they moved in.  He spread his blanket at what he felt was the optimal distance from the stage, just behind most of the others who had arrived before them, then helped her sit down.  He sat down himself beside her.  “What are we going to listen to?” she asked.

        “Your program has it all,” he said, opening it.  “Three Beethoven pieces and a violin concerto,” he told her.  “Movements from the Third, Fifth, and Ninth symphonies, and Brahms’ violin concerto in D major,” he told her.  “Hmm, I’m not familiar with that piece.  This should be nice.”

        They filled the time waiting with idle chitchat, as the orchestra took the stage and began to tune and prepare.  “So, what’s going to happen?” she asked as those around them began to quiet down a little.

        “Okay, they’ll spend about fifteen minutes or so getting ready, on the average,” he explained.  “Then the conductor will come out, and we’ll applaud.  He’ll get the orchestra ready to play, and then they’ll play.  Usually, we don’t applaud until they finish the entire piece on the program, because sometime there are pauses between movements.  But, if a soloist does a really fantastic job, sometimes the audience does applaud between movements, but they try to keep it brief so it doesn’t interrupt the flow.”

        “Do they tell you what they’re playing?”

        “They’ll follow the order in the program,” he said.  “If you’ll notice, there aren’t any microphones up there.  The conductor will never say a word.”

        “Ahh, okay.”  She looked around, and saw their blanket was surrounded by other blankets.  “I didn’t realize this was so popular.”

        “Popular with some.”

        “Umm, did you see where the restrooms are?” she asked.

        “No,” he said, standing up.  He looked around, then sat back down.  “Over there,” he said with a point.

        “I’ll be right back then,” she told him, standing up.  “Watch my purse for me?”

        “Of course.”

        “Thanks,” she said, patting him on the shoulder as she got up.  He watched her walk away, watched that gorgeous black-tipped tail of hers, and he almost shuddered.  She was so damn sexy!

        He leaned back after she hurried off, trying to get his heart back under control.  Sometimes he thought it was unfair, her being so beautiful.  It was so hard to keep his attention focused, because she was so smart, and he had to keep his wits about him to keep up in conversation with her.  He couldn’t just stare at her and say “duh.”  She might not appreciate that.  He had no doubt that she had males staring at her all the time, and he didn’t want to be just like all the other males.  He wanted to be different to her, special.  But it wasn’t easy.  She was so pretty, he had no doubt that she could afford to be shy, because she had no end of males that tried to talk to her.  She could be picky.  That was one reason why he felt so honored that she seemed so interested in him, that out of all the males out there that would jump if she snapped her fingers, she chose him to go out with.

        A homeless dishwasher with only half of an ear, a bad back, and a very dark and unpleasant family history.

        She returned and seated herself demurely beside him, sitting on her legs.  He looked over at her, and couldn’t look away.  She was radiant, the picture of loveliness.  She glanced at him, then looked to him with her blue eyes, and she smiled.

        He sighed in contentment, and that made her cheeks ruffle.  “So, what are you thinking?” she asked in a low voice, leaning close to him.

        “That I must have won God’s lottery,” he answered, gazing into her eyes.

        “Oh, do tell,” she said with a throaty chuckle.  “I didn’t realize I was a prize.”

        He blinked, not quite sure how to answer that.  But her eyes were expectant, so he just blurted out the first thing that came to mind.  “Not a prize.  A treasure.”

        Her eyes seemed to soften, and she bumped her shoulder up against his.

        The conductor came out onto the stage, and those around him began to applaud.  He blinked when he realized she’d been leaning closer and closer, until their noses were almost touching.  She pulled away a little as they both clapped, then looked down at him in curiosity as he leaned back on his paws and closed his eyes.  “What are you doing?”

        “Don’t listen to the music, Jess.  Feel it.  That’s the big difference with classical music.  You listen with your heart and your soul, not your ears.”

        The concert began.  Kit tried to lose himself in the music, like usual, but he just couldn’t.  She was right there beside him, and that was all he could think about.  He kept opening his eyes, kept glancing over at her, both to see if she was enjoying the music, but also because he couldn’t think of anything else but her.

        He lost all manner of conscious thought halfway through the second movement of the Ninth symphony, when she leaned against him.  He had his arm around her before he was even thinking, and she began to purr.

        God, that was incredible!  It filled his ears, and it seemed to vibrate through him like a thousand symphonies.  All he could do was think oh God, she’s purring! and he didn’t even dare to move, afraid that she’d stop, that he would ruin the moment, when she was so content and happy that she would purr for him.  He closed his eyes, then, and lost himself not in the power of the music, but in the power that Jessie’s purr had over him.

        He was honestly shocked when the concert was over.  He didn’t remember the end of the Ninth.  He couldn’t recall a single bar of Brahms’ concerto.  He just looked up and realized that others were getting up and folding their blankets, and the concert was over.

        He’d totally zoned out!

        “Uh, Jessie?”  he asked softly.  She was still against him, her head leaning against his, and she was still purring.

        “Mmm?”

        “I think the concert’s over.”

        “Mmm,” she hummed, her purring going right on.

        “But you can keep right on,” he said with a soft chuckle.  “That’s the only music I’ve been listening to since you started.”

        Her purring stopped, almost immediately, and was afraid that he’d offended her.  She looked at him, then she smiled.  “I’ll perform that music for you whenever you like,” she told him in a low, sensual whisper.

        Her eyes…invited him.  Subconsciously, he started leaning down towards her, slowly, hesitantly.  He could see the invitation, but he remembered what happened the last time.  He hesitated, but she made his mind for him by leaning up and kissing him.  Again, he found himself all but paralyzed by her.  The entire world melted away, and there was nothing but her.

        She pulled away, looking into his eyes, and she was smiling.  “That was nice,” she hummed.

        “When I can move my tail again, I’ll let you know,” he said breathlessly.

        Jessie giggled like a teenager.  “I guess we should go,” she said with a little regret.

        “We don’t have to go home yet,” he offered.  “This is a big park. Would you like to go for a walk?”

        “Yes,” she nodded.

        They walked along the river, holding paws, and they talked.  They talked for hours, wandering the park aimlessly, but always coming back to the river.  Jessie seemed to be digging for something.  She kept guiding their conversation to his personal life, asking about U-Mass, asking about his sister, asking him about living alone after he was disowned.  He wouldn’t dare lie to her, so he told her the truth, the honest truth, telling her what it was like, and how it made him feel.  She was silent a long moment, then she stopped them by a bench and sat down.  “Kit, I have to ask you something.  And you might not want to answer it,” she told him.

        “I’d answer any question you asked me, Jess.”

        “Do you love your family?  Did you ever love your family?”

        He sighed, leaning back on the bench.  “I think there was a time when I did,” he said.  “When I was very young.  They were always around, always visiting, and I had lots of cousins to play with.  Uncle Zach used to carry me around on his shoulders,” he said, his voice a little wistful.  “But then my mother died, and everything changed.  Dad became distant, and basicly gave up raising us to Clancy and nannies.  And as I got older, I realized that my aunts and uncles and cousins, they were being nice to me because they wanted something from me.  At that time, my sister wasn’t interested in business because she was raised as a debutante, and, well, everyone just assumed I was going to be the next Vulpan that ran the company.  It had passed from father to first son through three generations.  I guess everyone assumed it but me.  After mom died, all Dad did was work.  It was his entire life, and I hated it.  I hated how it took him away from me, and I hated how everyone wanted to be my friend just because they thought I’d be the one running the family after Dad died,” he said, looking down at his paws.  “I resented it, and then I began to resent him, and them.  So I started to rebel.  Ever since I was twelve, me and my father had something of a family war.  He was dead set on training me to be his heir, and I’d have nothing to do with it.  I’d tear up the books he gave me.  I ran away several times.  I even set fire to his Bentley once,” he chuckled humorlessly.  “Then I turned sixteen, and Dad told me flat out I either start getting my act together, or I was disowned.

        “He never got the chance to disown me.  I walked out.  I never looked back.  I decided right there that I’d rather die on the streets living my own life than live trapped in the hell of that family, where money was the only thing that mattered, and marriages were based only on how rich and how pureblooded the spouse was.”  He sighed.  “A life where all I did was obsess about money, and come home every night to a vixen I didn’t love.  I couldn’t stand the idea of it.

        “Vil explained what happened after I left.  There was almost a rift in the family because my uncles kept trying to get their sons into the CEO’s chair, but my dad was totally honked off.  See, Dad was the oldest, and he didn’t want to give up the prestige of being the one that passed the company to his own son…and all he had left was Vil.  Vil does love business, so she proved to our father she could be a good CEO.  She went to Harvard, then graduated from business school.  After she graduated, she talked him into giving her the company, and he was desperate.  By that time, he’d found out his heart was bad, and he had to start thinking of succession.  So the company’s board met, and they voted Vil to be the next Vulpan.  That pissed off my uncles something fierce.  They didn’t want a female running the company and having control of all the money.  As you can tell, they have some pretty Victorian views…guess it goes paw in paw with their purist mentality.  So, my dad compromised by dividing up the family fortunes among all my aunts and uncles after he died, and cutting Vil out of most of the money.  All she really got out of the will was her house in Chelmsford, a few cars, and her trust fund.  She’s rich, don’t ever doubt that, but she has a lot less money than the rest of the family.  Most of the family fortune is in the hands of my aunts and uncles, but they still hate the idea of Vil running the company.”

        “Because she’s a femme?”

        “That, and because she never stopped defending me,” he grunted.  “My family hates me now, Jess.  I’m a traitor to them.  I put myself above the family and I got disowned, and I didn’t have the courtesy to just die in some gutter like a failed excuse for a fox.  I’m a walking embarrassment to them, an eyesore.  And I certainly didn’t help my case at the funeral,” he mused.  “After they put the bastard into the ground, I flipped off the entire family right there at the gravesite.  A paparazzi got a picture of it and everything,” he chuckled.

        “I, I saw a picture of you when you were there,” she told him.  “I hadn’t remembered it until a couple of days ago.  You were wearing this long overcoat, and you were walking away from your family.  There was a short vixen behind you, looking away.”

        “That was my sister Vil,” he told her.  “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you saw a picture of it.  They put it in Furs.  Anyway, since Vil has always been on my side, it’s made her something of a pariah in the family, but she’s a pariah my family has to be nice to, because she runs the company,” he said with a humorless chuckle.  “They have their fortunes, but Vil is the one that controls the family legacy, and all the power that comes with sitting in the big chair at Vulpan Shipyards.  It makes her a global power player.  When Vil snaps her fingers, the President of the United States jumps.  Whichever Vulpan sits in the company’s chair is the most powerful member of the family, money or no money.  She has all the prestige, all the power, even though her aunts and uncles have about fifty times more money than she does.”

        “The first time I saw you, I had this feeling I’d seen you before.  After I remembered that picture, well, that explained it.”  She giggled.  “Too bad.”

        “Huh?”

        “Well, you seemed familiar to me,” she explained.  “That was why I was so interested in you.  Maybe I thought it was fate or something.”

        “I think it was,” he said honestly.

        “You think so?” she asked, looking at him.

        “There can’t be any other explanation why a femme like you would go out with a male like me.”

        “There’s nothing at all wrong with you,” she protested.  “You’re handsome, and you’re very smart and charming and polite.  A femme couldn’t do much better than you, Kit Vulpan.  And don’t you forget it.”

        “That’s very flattering,” he smiled.

        “It’s the truth.  Do you know what I see when I look at you?”  He shook his head. “I see a wondeful male who’s trying to find a place for himself in the world.  I see a male who’s shaken off some things that would have crushed weaker males and still came through it with his sense of humor and his compassion for others.  I see a male who’s brave and courageous, because he’s willing to defy his family to go out with a cat.  I see a male who’s lived in the shadow of his family for so long that he’d forgotten what the sun looked like, but still keeps yearning for the light.”

        They were silent a long moment.  “Kit,” she said.

        “Yes?”

        “I think I know you pretty well now, even though this is only our first week together,” she told him, nuzzling his cheek with her muzzle, reaching out and taking his paw in her own.  “Kit, there was nothing to forgive when you kissed me in the skating rink.  I was a little surprised, but I really liked it.  I wanted you to kiss me.  I keep wanting you to kiss me.  And I keep wanting to kiss you.  And I’ve been thinking about you the same way you think about me,” she breathed huskily in his ear, which made his tail shiver.  “I’ve been waiting because I knew your fear of your family would push you away if I tried too hard.  And I’m not sure you’re entirely over them yet, so I’ll keep waiting.  When you can look at me and not see the spectre of your family hovering over me, then we both know it’s time,” she intoned sensually.

        His tail straightened out behind him, the fur standing straight out, and the paw holding hers trembled a little bit.

        “God, you know how to motivate a fox,” he said nervously, which made her giggle.

        “How do you think I feel?  Kit, I’m a virgin,” she told him.  “And I mean a virgin.  I don’t know much at all about males, or what I’m supposed to do, or how I’m supposed to act.  If my mother ever heard me say that, she’d chain me to the wall in the basement until I was thirty.  I’m nervous too.”

        “Could you at least show it?  Here I am trembling, and you’re as solid as a rock.”

        She laughed.  “It makes a femme feel good to know she can make a male tremble.  I spilled my secret.  Time to reciprocate,” she teased.

        “Well, you can’t ever expect a rich kid to be a virgin,” he told her.  “There’s just too many opportunities.  But I haven’t been with a femme since the accident.”

        “That’s a long time.”

        “Not as long as you.”

        “Well, I don’t know what I’ve been missing,” she said, squeezing his paw.

        “I guess I can’t counter that one,” he chuckled ruefully.

        They sat there for a while in content silence, watching as the sun began to set over the western hills.  “Jessie.”

        “Hmm?”

        “Do you believe in love at first sight?”

        She looked at him.  “Not really.  It’s a romantic idea, but I don’t think it really happens.  But I do believe in love at first kiss.”

        He looked at her.  “So….”

        She just smiled, all mysterious.

        “Mean kitty,” he accused playfully.

        “I have to keep you guessing,” she winked.  “You might get too complacent.  Aunt Penny always says that once a male hears you say I love you, he stops trying.”

        “Love isn’t a game that has a finish line,” he protested.  “If it did, then it would be finished when you got there.”

        “That’s romantic,” she said.

        “So, if I promise to never stop trying, will you answer the question?” he asked.

        She laughed.  “Mmmmaybe,” she teased, tracing her finger in circles on his shoulder.

        “And you said you had no idea how to talk to males,” he laughed ruefully.  “You liar,” he teased with a grin.

        “Alright, alright,” she acquiesced, scooting up against him.  “I’ll tell the truth.  When you kissed me, I was surprised.  I thought there was something there, but then you confused me when you backed off.  At first I thought I did something wrong, then I realized you thought you’d done something wrong, and I thought it was so sweet.  You were thinking of me before yourself.”

        “It’s because you’re so shy, and you were nervous.  I, I couldn’t help myself when I kissed you, and I realized I went way over the line.”

        “I could tell you knew I was nervous, and you were still being so kind to me, trying to make me feel comfortable,” she told him.  “And then, when you kissed me, I didn’t feel you being forward, I just felt what you were trying to say without words.

        “So, was it love at first kiss?  I don’t really know.  My dad always says you’re never really sure when it is you fall in love, you only realize it later.  But, from the way I feel right now, I’m thinking that it might be a distinct possibility…” she trailed off, looking into his eyes.

        He could not look into those eyes and resist the overpowering temptation.  He leaned down and kissed her, kissed her with pure, unrequited passion, trying to tell her without words just how he felt about her.  She pressed against him, her arms looping around him, even felt her long-haired tail wrap sensually around his.  It was sheer bliss, and he was almost disappointed when it was over.  She looked up at him, a little breathless, and he chuckled.

        “What?”

        “I see I’m going to have to start saving money.”

        “For what?”

        “For a ring,” he said earnestly.

        She gave him a wild look, her cheeks ruffling out, then she laughed.  “Slow down there, my fox,” she told him with a smile.  “You have to meet Momzilla before you decide to become part of my family.”

        He laughed.  “I’ll make sure to wear my armor.”

        “You’ll need it,” she grinned, pushing herself into his arms, tapping him playfully on the nose.  Then she leaned in and kissed him again.  “Mmm, well, one thing’s for sure.”

        “What?”

        “I’m going to enjoy this game you call love.”

        “Me too,” he grinned, and he kissed her.

 

        He got her home at nine.  Both of them were a little out of sorts, for they’d spent over an hour on the bench, kissing and nuzzling, and being totally frank and honest with each other.  Some pretty dark secrets were traded on that bench between them, acts of trust offered and taken with sincerity.  Though neither of them came out and said I love you, it was there.  Oh, it was there.

        He helped her out of the car, and she wrapped her arms around his waist and kissed him lingeringly, sliding her fingers up and down the scars on his back lightly as he held her close, then dared to slide his paw down and press it against her very attractive backside.  She squeaked a little, but just kissed him with a little more passion, more than happy to allow him to paw her in a place that a respectable male had no business putting his paws.

        “I’ll save you the torment of going in,” she giggled into his neck as she nuzzled him.  “Call me tomorrow?”

        “I’m off tomorrow.  I’m going shopping for a couch.  Want to go?  I like your sense of style.”

        “Sure, I’d love to.  Pick me up at five?”

        “I’ll be waiting.”

        “Mmm.  Kit, I had a wonderful time.”

        “So did I.  I’m going to go home and take a cold shower.”

        She grinned.  “If that’s the case, then maybe you should take your paw off my butt,” she teased.  “It can’t be helping.”

        He laughed, moving the offending appendage.

        “But don’t worry,” she said, raising up and whispering to him, close to his ear, “I think you’ll be ready very soon.  Like you said, you have motivation now.”

        He slid his paws up her back, until they were resting on her shoulders.  “I’ll do my best.”

        “Don’t make me wait too long. I want to know what I’m missing,” she purred.

        “And who’s not helping now?” he protested.

        She laughed, then lunged in and gave him one more kiss, a chaste kiss on the cheek.  “You be good, my handsome fox,” she told him.  “And I’ll see you tomorrow.”

        “Have a good night, my pretty kitty,” he smiled in reply.

        “Only if I dream of you tonight,” she said throatily, then she pulled free of him and sauntered up the sidewalk.

        He watched her walk up to the door, open it, look back at him, then go in.  Once she was out of sight, his knees wobbled, and he blew out his breath.

        Good God, what a female!

        He got back in the car, started it, then leaned against the steering wheel for a minute.  Cold shower. Yes.  Cold shower would be good.  He pulled out, heading for home, thoughts of Jessie dominating his every second.

        He wasn’t joking.  He was definitely going go start saving for that ring.

 

        Neither he, Jessie, nor the femmes watching from the sorority house saw the telephoto camera pull back into the window of a dark sedan, and then pull off in the opposite direction.

 

        Inside the house, every femme was in the living room.  They watched her come in, then lean against the door as she closed it and let out a long, contented sigh.

        “Oh, tell me you did!” Danielle said expectantly.

        “No, but we will soon,” she literally purred, putting her black-furred paw to her cheek.  “I think he’ll be ready soon.”  She gave them all a huge grin.  “I’m going to marry that fox,” she declared with a little hum.

        They all squealed and clapped, then swarmed her, demanding a second by second account of the entire date.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    4      6

Chapter 5

 

        Kit’s apartment slowly began to resemble a home, rather than an empty dwelling.

        Jessie helped him pick out a nice couch, a light tan one with deep cushions and flared armrests on the ends, covered with thick upholstery.  It was kind of pricy, but she liked it, and since she liked it, he bought it.  He also bought a cheap desk for his laptop, a rolling chair, and one of those flimsy metal tables to put in the large living room right by the kitchen, a dining area, that gave him something to eat on.  He completed his bachelor’s dining room suit with two very cheap and unmatching chairs.  A tablecloth covered up the cheap flimsiness, but at least now he had somewhere for him and Jessie to eat.

        Jessie had told her friends about his apartment, and Tuesday, when he got home from work to await the delivery of his couch, he found almost half of her sorority waiting for him.  While Sandy was flirting with Lupe, they pulled a TV stand, endtable, and an old TV out of their cars.  They were letting him borrow them until he could get his own, some of the cast-off furniture that was in the basement of the house and a TV donated by Danielle, who’d just bought a new TV, one of the LCD ones she could hang on the wall of her rather cluttered room.  The TV she lent him was an old tube TV, but it was a 33 inch model that must have taken up a huge piece of real estate in her room.

        He didn’t really watch TV all that much, but it was kind of her to let him borrow it, so he’d take it with gratitude.

        Jessie stayed over after her sisters went home, and she cooked him dinner, and they spent nearly three hours sitting on his new couch, talking, which led to making out.  He got her home about ten, after he realized it was either take her home or take her back to the bedroom.  She told him when he could think about that and not see the spectre of his family, when he could think about making love to her without a single worry about his family crossing his mind, then it was time.  It wasn’t time yet, but he managed to go quite a while before he had a single thought about his family.  And he had too much respect for her to do anything other than what she wished, when it came to that.  When that time did come, and it would come, he would be able to look into her eyes and tell her so with utter honesty.

        He had to agree with her, regardless.  She was right.  He had to be free of his family before they got intimate, or it would be a weight dragging them down into the bottomless pit.  God knows, he didn’t want to share his bed with his entire famly, and that’s what it more or less would be if he slept with her with his family hanging over him.

        The loaned TV also gave the cable guy something to do when he arrived to install Kit’s cable modem.  The cable modem went in the spare bedroom, but the leopard also hooked up the cable to the TV.  It was indeed a package deal, basic cable for just fifteen bucks a month with the cable modem subscription, anything he could get without using a converter box.  It gave him about fifty channels, which was about forty-seven channels too many.  He rarely turned it on, and when he did, it was either on a news channel, the Weather Channel, or A&E, Discovery, or National Geographic.

        He wasn’t quite sure how to handle the modem, so he asked Mike for some help.  The raccoon came over after work on Wednesday, then they hit the tech stores.  Mike had him buy a good wireless router, then hooked it up for him, isolated it so only Kit’s computer could use it, and showed him how to add new computers to his wireless network when he bought a desktop.  Kit rather liked the wireless part, though.  He could use his laptop anywhere in the apartment, even sitting out by the door outside on his tiny porch, and Mike had fixed it so he could get to the magazine’s network from home to move files back and forth.  That would let him take work home with him, since he could do some of his research from home.

        By Thursday, his apartment almost looked normal.  He had a couch, TV, coffee table, dining table, desk, and a bed.  Hell, he was almost there, even if some of it wasn’t his.  Not only furniture, but he had cable, internet, and a radio, too.  All he needed now was a DVD player, a good stereo, and some music and movies to play in them, and he’d be set.

        Well, and a car.  He was still using Rick’s wife’s car, so he had to start looking for his own.

        He was initiated into the Lone Star custom of going to The Pit after work on Thursday, but he didn’t go alone.  Jessie joined them, and they spent a few very fun hours palling around with the crew, basicly just moving their fun from the office to the bar.

        Vil called while he was at the bar and gave him her arrival time.  She’d get in before he went to work, and when he offered to pick her up at the airport, she scoffed.

        “Oh, please.  I already have a limo arranged that’ll take me to the Austin Regency.  I’m also going to do a little work there.  There’s a steel company there in Austin, and I want to give it a once-over to see if it’s worth buying.  I’m also going to talk to one of the smaller oil companies about a contract with the Galveston repair facility.  I told them I’d talk to them about it there in Austin.  Their CEO is going to fly out and meet me tomorrow afternoon at a satellite office in Pflugerville.”

        “You just had to turn this into work,” he accused lightly.

        “Hey, that’s how I write off the trip on my taxes at the end of the year,” she teased.  “This is a business trip.  The fact that you’re there is just a convenient coincidence.  They don’t have to know that the only reason I’m going to talk to the company and look over the steel mill is to give me that front of officiality for when I come see you.”

        He laughed.  “You’re terrible!”

        “That’s how a Vulpan does business,” she teased with a smug little trill to her voice.  “I’ll pick you up after work, and we’ll go meet Jessie at her house.  I want to give it a look.”

        “You can tell her that yourself,” he told her.  “She’s here with me.”

        “Oh, really?  Put her on!”

        “Jess!” he called.  She laughed and looked away from Rick and Marty, and he held the phone out to her.  “My sister wants to talk to you.”

        “Really?” she asked, taking the phone.  “Uh, hello?  Vilenne?”

        Kit winced.

        “Vil, Vil,” she said placatingly.

        “You’re learning,” Kit grinned at her.

        “Oh, hush, Kitstrom,” she told him with a charmingly insulting expression, then paid attention to the phone.  “Sorry, I was chastising your brother.  Oh, yes, he deserved it.”  Then she laughed.

        “Dude, she goes for the throat, doesn’t she?” Jeffrey laughed from across the table.   “Straight to the full name!”

        “I enjoy the punishment,” he mused, just enjoying watching her talk to his sister without listening to what she was saying.

        Vil kept Jessie tied up on the phone for nearly a half an hour.  Jessie’s body language relaxed visibly as they talked, as she got over being nervous over talking to someone as imposing as Vilenne Vulpan to giggling and carrying on like she was talking to an old friend.  “Here, she wants to say goodbye,” she saidm, handing him the phone.

        “Hey sis,” he said into the phone.

        “I like her,” she said immediately.

        “Well, so do I.  Why do you think I ask her out?” he challenged.

        Vil laughed.  “So, tomorrow when you’re about to get off work, call me.  I’ll come to your work to pick you up, meet your co-workers, and we’ll go get Jessie and get some dinner.”

        “Sounds like a plan to me,” he agreed.

        “Cool beans, bro.  See you tomorrow.”

        “See you tomorrow, sis.  Have a good flight.”

        “Thanks.  Bye-bye.”

        “Bye.”  He closed the phone and looked at Jessie, who was talking to Rick.  She glanced at him, then turned and looked at him curiously.

        “What is it, Kit?”

        “Vil said she’s going to come pick us up tomorrow after I get off work,” he told her.  “She wants to see the office too, so I think I’d better call her a little early,” he mused.

        “What was that?  You’re gonna bring your sister up to the office?” Rick asked.

        “Yeah, she wants to see it.  Is that okay?”

        “Hell, son, that’s fine.”

        “Do you think she’d mind giving me a very brief interview?  It’d be a major scoop if we got an article about Vilenne Vulpan into the magazine!” Barry said.

        “Yeah, but then people will find out she’s my sister,” he protested.  Then he closed his mouth and thought a brief moment.  “No, nevermind.  Go ahead, Barry.  I shouldn’t be ashamed that my sister is rich and successful,” he grinned.  “And though I don’t bring it up, I shouldn’t really hide the facts about my family either.”

        Jessie put a paw on his arm.  He looked to her, and saw that glorious smile on her face.  “What?”

        “Oh, nothing,” she said, then she leaned in close to him.  “Let’s go back to your apartment,” she whispered huskily in his ear.

        “Uhh, sure, if you want,” he told her.  “Sorry guys, but Jess needs to head out, so I’m going to take her home.  See you guys tomorrow.”

        “No, our secret weapon for the open mic contest is bailing!” Marty said with mock outrage.  “We bet money on it!”

        Kit laughed.  “Well, do your best,” he grinned as he stood up, then helped Jessie out of her chair.

        He drove them back to his apartment and let her in, but Lupe intercepted him after he went to check the mail.  His new checks had arrived.  “Yo, Kit,” he called.  “The UPS guys dropped a package off at the office for you.”

        “UPS?  I wasn’t expecting anything.”

        Kit went to the office with Lupe, and inside against the wall there were three boxes stacked neatly.  One of them was fairly large, but the other two were medium sized.  He recognized those boxes almost immediately.  They were the original boxes he’d used to store all the stuff when he left Suzy’s apartment in Boston.  Vil had shipped it all to him!

        “Oh, cool!” he said in surprise.  “I almost completely forgot about this stuff!”

        “What is it?”

        “It’s my stuff from home,” he answered.  “From when I was in college.  I told Suzy to do something with it all, but she musta sent it to my sis, and my sis mailed it to me.”

        “Cool deal.  Lemme help you carry it home.”

        “Thanks, I appreciate it, but be careful. The two small boxes are mostly books.”

        “I get one, you get one, no prob.”

        Kit and Lupe carried the three boxes over to his apartment and stacked them by the door.  Lupe looked around, and chuckled.  “Damn, dude, this place looks like a real home now,” he said.  “All you need is some pictures or something for the walls and some curtains, and you’re set.”

        “Yeah,” Kit said as he put down the largest box.  “Thanks for the help, Lupe.”

        “Hey, no prob.  Don’t forget, you gotta pay rent next month!” he teased with a laugh.

        “Like you’ll let me forget,” he grinned.

        “Jess, come look at what Vil sent me,” he called as Lupe left.

        She came out from the bathroom and looked at the boxes.  “What are these?”

        “It’s my stuff from when I went to U-Mass,” he said.  “After the accident, Vil didn’t want me living in the dorm because of my back, so she helped me get an apartment just off campus, a little one bedroom efficiency.  After I graduated I put all my junk in these boxes and told Suzy to get rid of it.  I’d totally forgotten about it.”

        “Suzy?”

        “A friend of Vil’s.  She helped us out by acting like a middle-fur so Vil could pay my rent without anyone knowing.”

        “Ah.  What do you want for dinner?”

        “Jess, you don’t have to cook for me,” he protested.

        “I don’t have to, but I want to,” she answered.  “You need to eat.”

        “Well, if you really don’t mind cooking, I can’t very much demand anything specific,” he chuckled.  “Just surprise me.  There should be an X-Box in here,” he said eagerly.  “And I have a bunch of DVDs too.”

        He unpacked his old life in the living room while Jessie cooked.  Old knick-knacks, some of his old schoolbooks, some sketches his roommate did before the accident and he moved out, and yes, his old X-Box was in there, as well as a bunch of games and quite a few DVDs.  He had the DVD player add-on for his X-Box, so he had something to play them on.  He dug out the little Transformers toy that Paul had given him on his birthday as a joke, but he’d kept, some thing he’d bought on Ebay called Sky Warp, which turned into an F-15 fighter.  It was an inside joke between them, because he was taking flying lessons and wanted to be a fighter pilot.

        And books!  Lots and lots of books.  Fiction and nonfiction, but mostly non-fiction.  History book after history book after history book, most of them about the Roman Empire, which was his favorite field of study in history.  His cookbooks were in there too.

        He put the little toy out on the TV ostentatiously, and taped the sketches up on the wall in the eating area, then went about hooking up the X-Box.  By the time he had it hooked up, he realized the batteries in the DVD add-on remote were dead, so that was something he’d have to go buy.

        “Heh, well, you guys need an extra alarm clock?” he asked as he opened the final box and found his old alarm clock on top, the most of the remainder being books.

        “I can take it home with me,” Jessie called, coming out of the kitchen.  She didn’t have much food to work with in his kitchen, but she’d managed to make a salad and some Hamburger Helper he’d bought the other day.  “We need to talk about your shopping habits, mister,” she teased.  “There’s not much I can do with what’s in there.”

        “Hey, us young guys aren’t known for cooking,” he chuckled.

        “Well, come get something to eat,” she told him.  “I’ll make us some tea.”

        They enjoyed the simple meal, and Kit was getting a strange feeling.  Jessie was…watching him.  He enjoyed being with her, and over the last couple of weeks, he’d gotten to know her, and what she was doing wasn’t entirely normal for her.  She was eating too, but she kept her eyes on him, almost all the time.

        The good thing about plastic dishes was not having to clean up much afterwards.  He washed up the pan she’d dirtied while she wrapped the salad and leftovers in plastic and put them in the refrigerator.  He noticed that she was humming to herself.  Sheesh, did that one beer she drank have that much of an effect on her?  He made a mental note not to take her into anymore bars…or, well, maybe taking her to bars if it made her this agreeable afterwards.

        They sat on the couch, and almost immediately she cuddled up to him in a way he found incredibly pleasing, which went up by exponential degrees when she began to purr.  He put his arm around her and just listened to her purr for a long, long time.  She patted him on the shoulder.  “Kit?” she asked.

        “Yes?”

        “May I use your phone?” she said, looking up at him.  Her eyes were absolutely smoldering.

        Those luminous blue eyes put him out of sorts.  “Uh, sure,” he said, digging it out of his pocket and handing it to her.  She flipped it open and hit the speed dial for her own number, and put it to her ear.  “Hey Linda, it’s JD.  I’m fine.  Listen, can you tell Sam that I won’t be home tonight?  I’m staying over at Kit’s.”

        Kit’s tail almost broke when it tried to snap straight out behind him, driving into the back of his couch.

        “Hush, you.  No.  No, no, hush up a second.  Just tell Sam what I said.  No.  Linda—Linda.  I’m going to hang up on you.  I mean it!  Okay.  Just tell her, and so help me, if I come home tomorrow and find anything like that, I’m gonna have Ben come down and beat you up!  I swear I will!”  She snorted.  “Fine.  Fine.  Linda, you are keeping me from Kit,” she said in a voice so intense it surprised him.  “If my mom calls, make something up, stall, do something, can you do that for me?  Thanks.  Okay.  Bye.”  She leaned forward and put the phone on the coffee table, then leaned back against him and began to purr again.

        He was quite out of sorts.  “Uh, Jessie, we’re gonna—“

        “Mmm-hmm.”

        “But what about—“

        “You’re over it,” she told him sedately.  “When you told Barry you weren’t ashamed of your sister, I knew you were over it.”  She was quiet a moment.  “Remember when I told you we’d have to talk about you carrying me later?”

        “Yeah.”

        “Well, why don’t you carry me somewhere?” she asked, giving him a glowing smile.

        She didn’t have to ask twice.  He swooped her up and carried her over to the door, and she laughed as he locked it.  Then he turned and carried her back to the bedroom.  “I think this is entirely too soon,” he told her seriously, but he wasn’t stopping.  “We’ve only been going out for two weeks!”

        “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this,” she said huskily in his ear.  “And I don’t want to wait anymore.”

        “Your wish is my command, my Lady,” he told her as he carried her through the bedroom door.

 

        Some things are worth waiting your whole life for.

        It was morning, 6:42am, but his alarm hadn’t gone off yet.  Not that he really had to set it, because Friday was his late day, but Jessie had morning classes and he didn’t want her to be late.  He lay on his stomach, paws under his pillow as he looked at the clock.  She was awake too, propped up on her side, her paw sliding up and down his lower back, over the scars from the surgeries.  It was that gentle touch that had awakened him.  His back was aching from last night, but her gentle hands seemed to seek out the pain and soothe it with a light, delicate touch.  She didn’t know his back was hurting him…or at least he didn’t tell her.  But her fingers just seemed to know exactly where to go, and her touch was magical.

        He’d slept with other girls, but it had never been like that.  It was…absolutely indescribable.  And though she was a virgin, she was in no way shy or timid.  She was beyond ready to be deflowered.  She was very…enthusiastic.  And very curious.  Even afterward, she spent a long time doing what she was doing right now, exploring his body with her eyes and her paws, getting to know every inch of him.

        He still felt this was a little too soon.  He wanted to take his time, lead her to this point slowly, gently, carefully, but she seemed to want nothing to do with his schedule.  But then again, he should have expected it.  She’d made her intentions quite clear on Sunday, but he didn’t expect her to feel that he’d reached that level quite so quickly.

        She was right though.  Not once, not once all night, did he have a single thought about the possible consequences they might suffer from his family.  Even now, those consequences meant absolutely nothing to him.  He didn’t care if they went ballistic once they found out he was dating a cat.  Hell, he wanted them to know.  He wanted to shout it from the rooftops, put it on the internet, that he was in love with Jessica Williams.  He was in love with a cat.  They could all go to hell.  It was his life, and he’d live it any way he damn well pleased.  They lost any right to have a say in his life when they turned their backs on him, more concerned about their money than one of their own family.

        They were like sharks, turning on each other the instant there was more in it for them to do so.

        “Does it hurt?” she asked, caressing his back.  “I never really thought about if I might hurt you when we were doing it.  I was a little…preoccupied,” she added with a laugh.

        He turned his head and looked at her.  “No, it doesn’t work quite that way,” he told her.  “It only hurts if I sleep on it wrong or I get jarred or hit the wrong way.  I know how not to move and what not to do to keep from hurting it.  I can satisfy your demands without hurting myself,” he grinned.

        “That’s good, because I think I’m going to have some more of those demands,” she giggled, leaning down and kissing him on the muzzle.  “Thank you for an absolutely wonderful evening, sir,” she grinned.

        He laughed and rolled over on his back, and she snuggled up with him.  “It’s too bad it’s almost time to get up and get moving.  What time do you have your first class?”

        “Nine,” she told him.

        “Hmm,” he said, looking over her and to the clock.  “You know, we have about a half an hour,” he told her.

        “Not long enough,” she complained.  “I want to experience it, Kit.  It’s too new, to wonderful to me to be something we try to do before the alarm goes off.  Thirty minutes for my second time?  Nuh-uh.  We’d never make it in time.  It would take me that long just to kiss you properly.”

        “Ah, it would technically be your third time,” he pointed out.

        She laughed.  “Well, I stand corrected, and you’re supposed to be a little more caring and considerate giving I’m entering an entirely new stage of my life here,” she said, poking him in the chest with her finger.

        “The old A.S., eh?  After Sex?”

        She laughed.  “And here I thought you’d still respect me in the morning.”

        “Oh, we might have to talk about that, I suppose,” he said off-handedly, which earned him a face full of pillow.  He pushed it away from his muzzle, laughing.  “I can’t respect you, you’re just too adorable,” he added.  She laughed and pulled the pillow away, looming over him, then she quite deliberately reached out and touched him in the only place she’d avoided all night.

        She very gently pinched the ragged edge of his left ear.

        “Did it hurt when you lost it?” she asked.

        “I don’t remember it at all,” he reminded her.

        “Oh yeah.  Did it hurt much after?”

        “They had me on too many painkillers for me to feel much of my ear, when it felt like my back was on fire,” he told her honestly.

        “You know something?”

        “What?”

        “I can’t imagine what you’d look like with your ear whole,” she told him, covering his entire ear with her paw and rising up and away to look down at him critically.  “It’s like this was how you were meant to be to me.  Doesn’t that sound silly?”

        “Not silly at all,” he said gently.  “You know something?”

        “What?”

        “Your claws are very sharp.”

        Her cheeks ruffled and she gave him a contrite look.  “I’m sorry.  Did I hurt you?”

        “Nothing I wasn’t willing to endure,” he grinned.  “I’ve never slept with a cat before.  I didn’t expect that Vulcan Death Grip.”

        She laughed helplessly, burying her head in his neck and shoulder. “I’ll try to be more careful next time.”

        “If you’re not, I’m going to make you wear oven mitts.”  She rose up and gaped at him, and he winked.  She erupted into gales of laughter.  “That’s some pretty formidable weaponry there you have, ma’am,” he told her.  “Have you ever had to use them?”

        “Once,” she answered, still giggling a little.  “When I was in high school.  Boys don’t harass cats or skunks.  We can do very mean things to them if they get fresh.”

        “Remind me never to be fresh with you,” he smiled.

        “Well, I think I could let you be a little fresh, given you’ve done all those other things with me,” she winked, then she flopped down on his chest and kissed him.  “Mmmm,” she hummed, then she began to purr.  “Well, their mission is accomplished,” she noted.

        “Huh?”

        “My sorority.  They’ve told me it was their mission in life to find me a boyfriend that would take my virginity.”

        “Remind me to thank them.  I hope they like kisses,” he mused.

        She growled in her throat, a very surprising sound.  He laughed and put his arms around her.  “Understood, ma’am,” he grinned.

        “And don’t you forget it,” she smiled, then she began purring again as she kissed him.

        Oh, God.  She was a good enough kisser as it was, but her purring just vibrated right through him in the most exotic, unbelieaveable manner.  “Mmmrraaahhhh,” he hummed as she snuggled in with him. “Are you sure you were a virgin?  I’ve never met any femme who can kiss like you.”

        “You just bring out the vixen in me,” she teased.

        “I’d rather bring out the cat in you,” he countered.  “Do all femme cats kiss as good as you?”

        “I don’t know.  I’ve never kissed a femme cat that way.”

        He chuckled.  “Point.”

        “Come on, if we stay in this bed I’ll just get bad ideas,” she told him, rising up.  “Can I take a shower?”

        He laughed.  “We make love, and you ask me to use the shower?” he noted.  “Jess, love, my house is your house.  After last night, I think you can do whatever the hell you want.”

        She dropped back down and gave him a toe-curling, passionate kiss.  “My, what was that for,” he said breathlessly.

        “For calling me love,” she grinned.  “There’s other rewards for good behavior, too,” she said in a purring voice, playfully nipping at his right ear.

        “I think I’m going to like this training,” he mused as she got out of bed and sauntered towards the bathroom, as he watched that tail of hers sway back and forth.

        Despite his brave front, his back was stiff.  While she got the shower ready, he lay in bed for a minute, then sat on the edge of the bed with both paws on his waist, working out the kinks.  He wasn’t used to that kind of…exertion.  Hopefully he’d build up either some endurance or some resistance to it.  That, or taking Advil before bed was going to become a ritual.

        He stood up and stretched, then gathered up the sheet to make the bed…and realized he’d have to wash the sheets.  And he hoped that her first time hadn’t hurt.  He bent down to pull the sheet and felt his back sting, and rose up with both paws on his back, arching it as his tail slashed back and forth.

        He jumped when her paws touched him.  “I thought you said your back didn’t hurt.”

        “Well, it’s a little stiff, but nothing serious,” he hedged.

        “Kit,” she said seriously, wrapping her arms around him and pressing up against his back.  “I’m a little disappointed in you.  You can be honest with me.”

        “I just didn’t want to worry you, that’s all.  Last night was your night, Jess.  I wasn’t going to do anything to take away from it.  Besides, I wasn’t about to stop either, back or no back.”

        She hummed in her throat.  “But you’ll be honest with me from now on?”

        “Even if it’s what you don’t want to hear?”

        “Especially if it’s what I don’t want to hear.  Now, does your back hurt?”

        “A little.  But don’t you worry about it.”

        “I will worry about it.  I don’t want to hurt you.”

        “Love, this isn’t something you can hurt me like that.  If that makes sense.”

        “Not really.”

        “Alright, then just trust me when I say it’s nothing you need to worry about.  You didn’t hurt my back.  It’s just sore, that’s all.  After either a hot shower or a little bit with a heating pad on it, and I’ll be just fine.”

        “Mmm, a shower, eh?  Then c’mon,” she purred, turning them around.  “Let’s get this back all better.”

        She virtually babied him.  She massaged his back in the shower, her magical paws soothing away the pain, then he washed her hair and her tail for her.  He ruffled her tail dry, pausing to tweak that black tip.  “God, I love this tail.  Almost like a fox.”

        “My grandfather’s a fox,” she winked back at him.  “I inherited his black tips,” she added, holding up her black-mitten paws, and wiggling her black-backed ears.

        “Well, I think it looks wonderful.”

        “You’re a fox.  You’re biased,” she giggled.

        “Then call me biased.  Do you like Honey Nut Cheerios?”

        “Sure do.  Now turn around, mister.  Someone’s tail looks like Sandy when she gets out of the shower.”

        His back was completely pain-free by the time his tail was dry and combed.  He got dressed and went to the kitchen, and poured cereal into plastic bowls for breakfast while Jessie dressed.  She came in while still combing her hair, and took the bowl from him with a smile and a nod. “Not quite what I had in mind, but I guess we’ll have to make do,” he noted.

        “What did you have in mind?”

        “Something a little better than plastic spoons and styrofoam bowls,” he sighed.  “You’re much too important to me.”

        She gave him a radiant smile, and laughed.  “Oh, Kit, it could be gruel served on a toilet seat, and it wouldn’t matter.  The company is much more important than the accessories.  You may be from this super-rich blueblood family, but I much better like the Kit that likes to eat hamburgers on pieces of bread and doesn’t complain about Hamburger Helper.”  She leaned in and nuzzled his neck.  “I do appreciate the thought, but I’m much more interested in this,” she told him, putting her paw on his shoulder, “than some perfect fantasy.  Reality was much sweeter than anything I dreamed about.”

        He felt his tail shiver at that.  “Pretty kitty,” he said in a quivering voice.  “Don’t make me regret having to go to work.  Cause you’ll regret going to school.”

        She laughed. “I’m already regretting it.  But there’s always tonight.”

        “Well, there is that,” he said.  He took up his spoon.  “If we can keep Vil from talking all night, that is.”

        “That’s alright.  I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

        “Oh, she’s gonna love you,” he chuckled.

        After breakfast, he drove her back to her house.  He got her home around eight, which would give her more than enoguh time to go in, change, and get her books for her classes.  He helped her out, and she gave him a long, lingering, sensual, intimate kiss.  “Jessie.”

        “Mmm?”

        “I know this is crazy.  We’ve only known each other two weeks, for crying out loud.  But, I love you.”

        Her claws dug into him painfully.  “I think maybe it was,” she breathed.

        “Was what?”

        “Love at first kiss,” she said, looking up at him.  He was lost in her eyes for a long moment, then she kissed him again, passionate, fiery, which almost made his knees unlock.  He had to lean back against the car, and she chased him relentlessly, making him completely surrender to her.  “Mmm, start saving for that ring, Kitstrom Vulpan,” she whispered in his ear.  “Keep going the way you’re going, and you won’t be disappointed when you ask that question.”

        She was evil.  She hurried away after saying something like that, and all he could do was watch her and wonder just how much of it was a joke, and how much of it was serious.  He blew out his breath, ran his paws through his hair, then lightly slapped himself on the cheeks.  For a moment, he forgot where he was and what he was doing, then vaguely recalled that he had to go deposit his check in the bank, and start researching cars so he could find a good bargain.

        He got in Rick’s car and got to work.  He had things to do today, and it was time to get back to reality after that blissful night of heaven on earth.

 

        Jessie didn’t even make it to the stairs.  She was hoping that she could sneak into the house and get to her room before anyone noticed her, which wasn’t hard given her room was the first door on the right upstairs, but clearly they’d been looking for her.  The other Jessie, Sandy, and Danielle ambushed her not five steps from the front door, the big tiger grabbing her in a huge hug an picking her up off the floor.  “We’re so happy for you, baby!” she called.

        “Yo, ladies!  MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!” Sandy screamed at the top of her lungs.  Jessie’s face poofed almost straight out, even her tail frizzed, and she thought she was going to die of mortification when loud cheering and clapping came from upstairs and the kitchen.  “Now, give us the low-down, JD!” Sandy said as the other Jessie put her back down.  “The lower, the better!”

        “I’m going to be late for class,” Jessie said primly, heading for the stairs.

        Sandy erupted into laughter.  “Playing innocent doesn’t work anymore, you naughty femme,” Sandy teased.  “You’re not innocent anymore!”

        “Well, maybe not, but still, it’s just not the proper thing to do,” she said.

        “Oh, stop playing coy,” Danielle grinned.  “You know you wanna talk about it.”

        “Well, maybe a little,” she admitted, her cheeks ruffling.  “But can it wait a little while?  A night like that isn’t something you just talk about.  It was wonderful.”

        “See, now you’re talking,” Danielle laughed as they started up the stairs.  “How was it?”

        “You know very well how it was,” she answered, a touch priggishly.

        “That depends on the male,” Sandy said with a dirty grin.

        “Did his back cause any problems?” the other Jessie asked.  “My dad hurt his back a few years ago, and mom said he has trouble, performing.”

        “Your mom talks sex with you about your dad?  Ewww!” Danielle shuddered, which earned her a swat from the tiger.

        “Well, he was sore this morning, but he seemed to get better after he got up and moving,” she answered.  “I never even thought about that until this morning, when I woke up.  he was laying on his stomach, and I could see the surgery scars on his back.”

        “Is he as cuddly as he looks?” Sandy asked.  “His fur is so soft and gorgeous.  He must be nice to hold.”

        “He snuggles well,” she giggled in reply as they reached her room.  Sam was already gone, for she had an eight o’clock class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

        “I have to say, I’m a bit surprised,” Sandy said with a laugh.  “We try to get you laid for two years, and you go and jump in the sack with a guy you met two weeks ago!  And after you put on all this aire about waiting for the right time!”
        “It was the right time,” she said calmly as she pulled her shirt off, changing for school.  “I was waiting for him to lose his fear of his family.  Well, he lost it.”

        “That was fast,” the other Jessie chuckled.

        “Well, on Sunday, I kinda hinted that the as soon as he did that, I’d be more than receptive to sleeping with him,” she said with a little giggle.  “He had…motivation.”

        The other three femmes laughed as she took off her jeans, and fished clean clothes out of the dresser.

        “Sure he wasn’t faking it?”

        “I’d know if he was.  I know him very well, Sandy.  I could tell if he wasn’t sincere.  No, he lost his fear of his family.  I guess I just offered him something worth facing up to it.”

        Sandy gave her a wicked smirk.  “Oh, you offered something, all right.  Something about any male would have wanted.”

        “Only one male will ever get it,” she declared as she put on clean underwear, then stepped into a fresh pair of jeans.  “I’m marrying that fox, femmes.  Mark my words.  I couldn’t find a better male if I searched all my life.  I found my husband.”

        “I hope he knows this,” Danielle giggled.

        “Oh, he knows,” she stated, giving Danielle a glance.  “He knows.  All that comes now is the waiting.  He’s much too much the gentlefur to ask me now.  He feels like we’re moving too fast, and he’ll want to slow down a little.  He’ll get secure in his job, feel out how I feel about it, and I guess I’ll have to take him to meet my parents,” she said with a shudder.  “But as soon as he feels like he’s ready, that he can give me a stable home and can take care of me, he’ll ask me.”

        “And you’ll say yes?”

        “I’d say yes right now,” she declared.  “But he won’t ask me right now.”

        “You’re sure about that?”

        She nodded.  “I know him very well, Sandy.  I’ve only known him two weeks, but…but I know him.  I’m sure of it.”  She began to pack her bookbag for her two classes.  Friday was something of her short day.  Her 1:00pm class didn’t meet on Fridays, so that gave her a class at 9:00am and another class at noon.  On Mondays and Wednesdays she also had a class at 1:00, but that was a two hour class.  But instead of going to class on Fridays, she worked as a tutor in the study center from 2:00pm to 3:00pm, tutoring in English.  It was good practice for her, she felt, getting her used to teaching students.  “Now, if you guys will excuse me, I gotta get to class.”

        “Oh, put aside some time on your calendar after you’re done, femme,” Sandy declared in a teasing voice.

        “You may have to wait.  Kit’s sister is coming today, and she wants to meet me.”

        “Ooh, bring her here!  We need to meet her!”

        “It must be nice to be so rich she can fly down whenever she wants,” the other Jessie noted with a chuckle.

        Kit was right about one thing…A.S.  It really did have an impact on her.  She was kinda lost most of the day, ghosting through her first class, forgetting to eat lunch, nearly forgetting her homework assignment for her second class.  She kept thinking about Kit, and last night, and Kit…and last night.  And Kit.  Oh, and last night….  It was almost embarrassing, because she’d never had those kinds of thoughts with that kind of intensity while sitting in a public area.  At one point, she was purring while lost in one of her reveries, and a weasel male made a rather direct comment about it from the next table.  That about mortified her.

        She struggled through her last class, trying to think of some way to keep her mind on school when it was somewhere else, and was blissfully thankful when it was over.  Not because she could go see Kit, but because she wouldn’t feel ashamed that she wasn’t really prepared for class.  Her grades had come way down since she met him, so much so that her European Lit professor had pulled her aside and asked her if anything was wrong, and that was something she had to correct.  She just had to learn how to concentrate with this new distraction in her life.

        When she came out of class, she was a bit surprised to find two huge panthers standing in the hallway.  They were watching the students leave, but when Jessie came out, one of them approached her.  “Miss Williams?” he called.

        “Uh, yes, that’s me,” she replied uncertainly. Who were these two, and what did they want?  Were they cops?  They were certainly dressed up like they were official, with their black suits.

        “We work for Miss Vilenne Vulpan,” he told her.  “She’s downstairs, and would like to give you a ride.”

        “Really?  She’s here?  How did she know?”

        “When Miss Vulpan wants to know something, it’s our job to find out,” the panther told her right up front and evenly.

        “Oh.”

        “Follow us, please.”

        She followed the two panthers downstairs, and to a teacher’s parking lot that was right beside the building.  Jessie stopped in surprise when she saw a limo sitting in the parking lot!  “You shouldn’t be surprised, Miss Williams,” the other panther told her with an amused tone.  “Miss Vulpan is wealthy.”

        She laughed.  “Well, after spending time with Kit, I guess I didn’t expect it.”

        One of the panthers went ahead and opened the door of the limo, and Vilenne Vulpan stepped out.  She was actually rather short, a few inches shorter than Jessie, but she looked almost regal.  She had a calm, cool expression, and was wearing sunglasses.  Her gray skirt and blazer were made of silk, and she wore a conservative dress shirt beneath her blazer.  She was short, but she was also slender and sleek, with curvy hips and a slightly smaller than average bust.  Jessie came up to her, and the fox offered her paw.  “It’s nice to meet you, Jessie,” she said with a slight smile.  “I’ve been looking forward to it.”

        “It’s nice to meet you too, Vil,” she said, taking her paw.  Jessie was a bit surprised when the short fox pulled her into an embrace.

        “I think I’d rather have a hug than a handshake. You are dating my brother, after all,” she laughed.  “Now please, get in, get in!  We have a lot to talk about outside of Kit’s earshot.”

        Jessie had never been in a limo before.  It was huge!  There was room for eight furs back there, in its facing seats, and there was a TV set into the side of the limo.  It was clearly a rental, but it was meticulously clean and very snazzy.  Vil seated herself by the door, and put Jessie in the seat facing her, so they could see each other while talking.  “Now, pardon me dropping in on you like this,” she started.  “I finished what I was doing faster than I expected, so I had Stav track you down so I could pick you up.

        “No, that’s alright,” she assured her, feeling a little nervous.

        “You’re not quite sure what to expect, do you?” Vil asked, leaning back and putting a finger to her muzzle, then she winked.

        “Well, no, not really.”

        “I’m the same femme you talked to on the phone last night,” she grinned.

        “Yeah, but it didn’t really hit me that you’re you until just now.  The limo,” she said.

        She laughed.  “Well, I’m not like my brother.  I like the little perks that comes with money,” she winked. “So…you’re going out with Kit.  First thing, honey, thank you.  He’s totally crazy about you, and you’ve given him the first happiness he’s had probably since he was eight.”

        Jessie’s cheeks ruffled, and she looked away shyly.  “He’s a wonderful male,” she said.  “I love him, Vil.  I know I’ve only known him for two weeks, but I love him.”

        “Ooh, really?” she asked eagerly, sitting on the edge of her seat.  “And what makes you think that?”

        “I don’t have to think it,” she replied.  “I just…know.”

        “Well, far be it from me to doubt something you believe in your heart,” she said with a mysterious smile.  “How do you think he feels about you?”

        “I know he loves me.”

        “You’re sure?”

        “I’m positive.”

        “Hmm.  What do you think he’s going to do?”

        “Marry me,” she said, looking directly into Vil’s eyes.

        “There’s a lot of baggage that comes with a ring in this family, honey,” Vil said seriously.  “That’s one of the things that I’m here to talk to you about.”

        “Kit told me all about it, Vil, and it doesn’t worry me at all,” she said calmly.  “I know that his family will hate me, and that since they’re rich, they might even try to break us up.  But I’ve found the fox I’m going to marry, and I’ll dig these in and I won’t let go,” she said, holding up her paws and extending her claws.

        Vil laughed.  “Kit might not appreciate that.”

        Her face poofed out a little.  “He’s already complained a little,” she admitted.  “Vil, I slept with him last night.  I think you deserve to know.”

        “Really!?” Vil gasped, then she laughed.  “Good for you!  I’m happy for you!”  She looked at Jessie’s claws, the laughed even harder.  “Oh my, did you stripe him?”

        “Not where anyone can see,” she said demurely.

        “I think I might have to send him a monthly shipment of Neosporin,” Vil mused, which made Jessie’s tail frizz out.  “So, was it good?”

        “That’s a strange question for a sister to ask.”

        “He may be my brother, but he’s also my best friend,” Vil told her evenly.  “Call it curiosity.  You’ll find that we foxes are just as curious as cats, and we don’t like to have that curiosity denied.  That’s why Kit’s in a good job where his curiosity is a job asset,” she grinned.

        “Well, he was my first,” she admitted with a bit of a ruffle.  “So it’s not like I can compare it with anyone.  But it was wonderful.”

        Vil gave her a curious look.

        “What?”

        “You were a virgin?  And you’re that pretty?  Good God, femme, did your mother keep you in a box in the basement until you graduated from high school?”

        Jessie erupted into helpless laughter.  “Something like that,” she admitted.  “My mom kept me away from males.  She’s an ultra-traditionalist who thinks I shouldn’t even date until after I’m married.”

        “And that’s why you went to school far, far away,” Vil mused.

        “I see you see to the heart of the matter,” Jessie said with a small smile.

        “Alright, so, where are we going?” Vil asked.  “We can’t sit here in the parking lot.  No doubt we’re attracting attention.”

        “Uh, could you drive me home so I can drop off my backpack?”

        “Certainly.  Marcus, take us to her sorority house.”

        “Yes, madam,” the panther behind the wheel replied.

        “It’s—“

        “He knows where it is, honey,” Vil cut her off.  “And that’s something that you’d better get used to, pretty quick.  I know a lot more about you than you’d expect.  When Kit told me about you, I got curious, and I looked you up.  Does that bother you?”

        “Well, it’s surprising.  And a little disturbing.”

        “Yes.  And that’s something that the others will do when they find out that Kit’s dating you.  So, I had Marcus dig to find anything about you they might try to latch onto.  And luckily, he couldn’t find anything.  Thank that mother of yours for keeping you as clean as a saint, honey.  You’re an angel, and that takes away one angle of attack that my uncles might try to use if they go after Kit.”

        Jessie frowned.  The way she said it…it was as casual as if she were talking about mowing the lawn.  Were the lives of normal people really nothing but something to be used to her family?

        “But that’s the other reason I’m here, honey,” she said, reaching over and patting Jessie’s knee.  “I promised Kit that I would keep his family off his back if he pursued you.  I’m here early to talk to you to make you that same promise.  I swear to you, Jessie, that I will do everything in my power to keep Kit’s family out of your life.  Well, except for me, of course,” she said with a grin.

        “I, that’s very nice of you, Vil.”

        “Kit’s my little brother, but ever since mom died, I’ve felt more like his mother than his sister,” she told her.  “Kit took it really hard, and it didn’t help that our father all but abandoned us after Mom died.  Dad took it even harder than Kit did.  I guess that most of what happened between them all goes back to that,” she sighed.  “I think it would have been much different if Mom had lived.  Anyway, Kit’s had a very rough time of it, honey.  I’ve done what I can to make it as easy as possible, but I have to be careful, and Kit’s very independent.  He doesn’t like it when I meddle.  If he’s found happiness with you, you’ll find me to be the strongest ally you’ve ever had.  I’d do almost anything to make Kit happy, Jessie.  I owe it to him at the very least, I want to at the very most.  If you ever need anything, and I mean anything, I want you to call me.  If you ever just want to talk, hey, call me.”

        “I will, I promise,” Jessie assured her.

        “I think I’m going to like you, Jessie.  You’re not just good for my brother, you’re also a sweet femme that’s fun to talk to.”  Her smile faded.  “Now, as to that other thing.  Just because my family knows I’ll come at them like a pissed off bitch if they interfere with Kit, that doesn’t mean that they might not try behind my back.  That’s where you come in.  Hon, Kit will never tell me if his uncles start trying to interfere.  He’d try to deal with it himself, and keep me out of it to prevent me from having any issues with the rest of the family.  But you will tell me.  If you notice anything unusual, people taking pictures, cars that seem to hang around, I want you to call me.  If anyone ever contacts you with strange messages or you get any threatening letters, call me, and save those letters.  If any of your sorority sisters or friends see anything unusual, you need to tell them to tell you about it, and if it happens, call me.  I can’t step on the family if I don’t know they’re up to something.”

        Jessie nodded.  “I will.”

        She pulled a piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to her. “Here.  There are two numbers there. The first one is the number to my personal cell phone.  That’s the number you call if you ever need to talk to me.  See that second number?”

        “Yeah.”

        “That’s the number to Vanguard Security. That’s a private security firm.  I’ve hired them to keep an eye on things around here, to keep a passive watch over Kit and you and make sure my family doesn’t try anything funny.  Now, they are going to keep an eye on you, but do it from a distance.  If they do it right, you’ll never notice them, and they’re not going to be planting cameras in your rooms or anything like that.  Their job is to stay deep in the background and serve as a discouragement for my family, because I will tell them that I’ve put men down here to protect you. They’ll just be keeping an eye out for any shenanigans my family might try, but they’ll also be available to you in case you ever need them.  If you ever feel like you might be in trouble, call 911 for sure, but also call them immediately.  They’ll come to help you.  They’re at your service, hon, even if you just don’t feel comfortable walking alone across an empty parking lot.  They will always come if you call, and they will help you.  So if you’re nervous about walking across campus after dark, call them. They’ll send a guard to escort you.”

        Jessie laughed.  “Kit did say you like to mother,” she stated.

        “He wasn’t lying a bit,” she grinned.  “You’re important to my brother, so you are important to me.  And you’ll find that I’m the ultra-protective member of this family.  Here, I want you to have something.”

        “What is it?”

        “It’s a cell phone,” she answered, reaching into the bag beside her and pulling out a Motorola phone box.  “This phone will work just about anywhere, hon, and don’t you worry about the bill.  I’ll take care of it.  The phone’s inside, but it’s already charged, and I already have mine, Vanguard’s, and Kit’s cells on its speed dial.  Now, if you’ll give me your old phone, I’ll have Marcus take care of moving everything to this one.  You’re going to lose your old number, but hey, you can make all the calls you want for free,” she said with a wink.

        “I don’t have a cell phone, Vil.”

        “What?  Hon, that’s not good.  Thank God I got here, then.  A femme should not go around without a phone.  It’s not a good idea.”

        “I usually don’t go out alone.  One of my friends is almost always with me.”

        “Well, still, I don’t want you going around without a phone.  You matter to me, honey.”

        “You’re very thoughtful.  Thank you,” she said with a nod, taking the box.

        “I was going to give you this phone and have you get rid of your old one, but since you don’t have one this works just as well.  Just don’t give that number to your mother,” she winked.

        “I appreciate it, but you really don’t have to give me anything, Vil,” she said demurely.  “Kit likes to make it on his own, and I can understand why he does.  He wants to completely split from his family, to where he doesn’t feel like he needs you to mother him anymore, and he can’t do it as long as he feels you’re gonna be there to bail him out whenever he gets in trouble.”

        Vil gave him a serious look.  “You really do know my brother,” she said with a sober nod.

        “I understand him, Vil.  I think he’ll get mad if you’re giving me things, so you might not want to do it.”

        “This isn’t a gift, hon.  This is a necessity.  If you need to call someone and don’t have a phone, you’re gonna be in serious trouble…and I’m not just talking about my family.  A college femme should not be going around without a phone.  It’s just not a good idea.”

        “Well, thank you again.”

        “It’s just the first of many gifts,” she grinned.  “I’ll tell a secret.”

        “What?”

        “I’m going to buy him a car.”

        Jessie laughed.  “He’s going to fight you over that,” she told him.

        “He can fight all he wants, because he’s going to lose,” she said with confidence.  “I’ll explain it to him in simple terms.  He’ll fight, he’ll yell, he’ll argue, he might even threaten to not see me again while I’m here, but I’ll win.  I have the one thing on my side he can’t ignore.”

        “What is that?”

        “Logic.  My brother is very practical, Jessie.”

        “I’ve noticed.”

        “I’m sure you would have.  He’ll see that he needs his own car.  It’s not really a matter up for debate.  I’ll let him pay me back for it if it makes him happy, but I’m not going to let him go around without a car.  If he loses his job, well, he’d have to give that car back his boss is letting him borrow.  I’m not going to let him stay in that kind of a position.”

        “I doubt that’ll happen.  His boss likes him, he likes his job, and he does good work.  All the furs at the magazine are great.  I like them a lot.  They’re almost like a family.”

        “Does Kit fit in with them?”

        “Like a glove,” Jessie giggled.

        “So, you have a license, hon?”

        She laughed.  “Oh, no, you’re not gonna talk me into a car.”

        “Why should I talk you into it?  This is another of those logic issues here, hon.  Given who you are and the kind of family Kit has, I don’t like the idea of you not having a way around if you have an emergency. I don’t want you to be at the mercy of someone else.”

        “Well,” she said, putting a finger to her short muzzle in thought.  “When you say it like that, it does make a kind of sense.  And I’ve never had a car of my own before,” she mused.

        “See?  That wasn’t hard at all.”  She reached into the bag, and produced a pair of two keys.  “Here you go.  One’s for your new Corolla, the other goes to Kit’s Pathfinder.”

        Jessie laughed helplessly.  “You already bought it?”

        “Like I said, this was an argument I knew I was going to win.  Besides, if he wakes up and finds it in the parking lot, what’s he gonna do?  Give it away?  My brother’s practical, and besides, I think he wouldn’t put up a fuss about it in private,” she grinned.

        “You’re terrible!”

        “Kit tells me that all the time,” she hummed pleasantly.  “It doesn’t change anything, though.”

        Jessie just couldn’t help but laugh.  She’d known Kit’s sister for all of a half hour, and she’d already proved she was everything Kit said she was.  She was friendly, warm, funny, kind, and caring, but she was also very nosy, very protective, and very loose with the idea that she needed to keep her distance from her brother.  That she’d go out and buy cars for her brother and his girlfriend because she felt they needed them, without any kind of consultation, said much about Vil’s personality…both the good and the bad.

        “I hope you don’t mind stock,” she said.  “I took what was on the lot, but I did go for ones with some extras on em, like CD players and car alarms and such.  I don’t know if you can drive a stick, so I got you an automatic, but Kit’s is a standard.  He might have to teach you how to drive it.  Your car is white, but Kit’s Pathfinder is charcoal gray.”

        Jessie laughed.  “Vil, why on earth would I complain about it when someone who gives me a car?” she said.  “That’s a huge gift!”

        “Well, it’s nothing to me,” she said dismissively.  “If you don’t like it, let me know.  I’ll talk to the dealer about letting you trade it for something you do.”

        “No, no, I’ll be just fine.  I just hope that Kit won’t be too mad, or that you’re trying to subvert me or something.”

        “I’ll explain it to him, honey.  And don’t expect any other gifts,” she winked.  “I only gave you the phone and the car because I honestly believe that you need them.  I won’t be giving you anything unless I feel it’s a necessity.”

        They pulled up to the sorority house, and she pointed at a white Corolla sitting at the curb a little ways down.  “My, they already delivered it so you could give it a look over.  Nice,” she noted.

        One of the panthers got out and opened the door for them.  Vil climbed out, and Jessie followed her, holding her backpack.  She was torn between wanting to look at the car and trying to keep her sense of decorum.  She was actually thrilled at the idea of getting a new car, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to be too excited about it until she saw how Kit felt about it.  She might have to give it up.  She wouldn’t keep it if it bothered him that much, she knew how he felt about how his sister meddled.

        She’d hold her excitement.  She had to talk to Kit first and see if she could keep it.

        “Want to come in?  My sorority sisters are curious about you.  They know about Kit.”

        “Sure, I can do that,” she said.

        There were only five femmes home when the panthers escorted Vil and Jessie inside.  They stood by the door while Jessie introduced Vil around, then she ran up and dropped off her backpack while Vil chatted with the femmes in the living room.

        “What’s it like running a big company?” Sandy asked excitedly.

        “Lots and lots of paperwork,” Vil laughed.  “And you don’t get much free time.  A lot of people depend on me to keep the company profitable for their jobs and their livelihood, and it’s been getting harder and harder with so many jobs going overseas.”

        “You won’t do the same?”

        “We can’t,” she answered.  “We have naval contracts, and those demand that the ships be constructed inside the United States.  It’s just a good thing that my grandfather was visionary when it came to business and branched us out so we have companies that produce everything we need to build ships.  That keeps our costs low and keeps us very competitive, because we can build them cheaper than anyone else in America, but produce the best quality possible for ships that might enter combat.  Trust me, femmes, the shipyard considers quality to be the most important product,” she said proudly.

        “Does being so young and a femme cause any problems?” Sam asked.

        Vil laughed.  “Oh, yes.  I’m called ‘the baby’ by others in my circle, but most people in business call me the Ice Queen,” she winked.  “Because when it comes to business, I’m a cold bitch.  And I’m proud of it.”

        That produced quite a bit of giggling.  “My major is business.  What do you think I should look into doing when I graduate?” Charlotte asked.

        “Tech,” she answered instantly.  “If I were you, I’d either get on board a tech sector company or start your own.  Or, you can send me your resume when you graduate, and I’ll see if you’re Vulpan material,” she winked.  “But I’m very picky about who I hire, and I have a high standard.  If you work for me, you will work.  But I’ll take good care of you in return.”

        “I’ll have to do that.”

        “Well, ladies, I’m afraid I don’t have time to hang around.  I have to go drop in on my brother,” she grinned.

        “Well, say hi for us,” Sandy said.  “We like Kit.  He’s a sweet male.”

        “He is at that,” Vil agreed with a nod.

        As they drove to the magazine, Vil seemed a little preoccupied, but she had this strange smile on her face.  When the limo stopped outside and one of the panthers opened the door for them, she gave Jessie a smug look.  “Now watch and learn how to handle my brother,” she told her.

        Jessie broke into a fit of giggling.

        Jessie introduced Vil to Marty first, and all work in the office ground to a halt when Vil came back to the main office.  Kit came out of his office and hugged his sister, and Jessie watched as she worked across the room, shaking paws, smiling gently, and being very gracious and feminine.  She followed the siblings back to Kit’s office after the introductions, and watched as Vil took something out of the bag and handed it him.  “What is this?” he asked.

        “The keys to your new car,” she stated bluntly.

        “Oh, hell no,” he said immediately, pushing them back at her.

        “No, “ she said strongly, pushing them back.  “Listen to me, Kit.  You need this car.  I can’t have you going around in your boss’ car.  If he needs it back, then you’re going to be walking.  And my brother is not going to walk.”

        “There’s nothing wrong with my feet.”

        “That might be true, but—“

        “There’s no—“

        “Listen,” she snapped, putting her paws down on the arms of his old chair and getting nose to nose with him.  “I know very well that you can walk, and I know very well that you’d rather walk than taking any charity, especially from me.  But this isn’t about you.  This is about what’s necessary.  If you have an accident, what are you going to do, walk to the hospital?”

        “I’ll call—”

        “Well, I’m sure that Jessie is going to love taking a bus when you go out on dates.”

        He looked a little less sure of himself now.

        “And what happens if she needs to go somewhere?  Do you ask one of her roommates to take her, or do you take her yourself?”

        Jessie almost giggled.  Vil was sneaky!  She was going to browbeat him into taking the car before telling him she bought one for her too, and use his need to take care of her as the main point of her argument for him taking the car!

        “Well—“

        “And what do you do when you need to go grocery shopping?  Carry them?  Buy one of those little carts I see old females toting around that has groceries in them?  And let’s look at the most important thing.  If something happens, if you or Jessie has an emergency, you need a way to get around quickly.  No matter how normal you want to be, you do not live in what one might call normal circumstances.  Not so long as you carry the name Vulpan.  You need a car.  There’s no two ways about it.  Now, you can either scrape and save and scrimp and buy some used piece of junk that might conk out on you after two months, or you accept that I’m right, you’re just being stubborn, and take what I’ve given you because you need it.”

        He was silent a long moment.  “I don’t like it.  How am I ever going to make it on my own if you’re always doing stuff like this, Vil?”

        “I’m only doing what I think needs to be done,” she told him archly, poking her finger in his chest.  “If you’ll notice, I didn’t stuff a check in your pocket.  I bought you a car.  I bought you something you need, and no amount of whining about it is going to change that fact.  I bought you your laptop because you needed it.  I gave you that phone because you needed it.  And now I’m giving you a car, because you need it.  But no matter how much you whine, argue, complain, bitch, or moan, at the end of the day you will take that car, Kit.  I feel you need that car for your own safety, and I’m not going to back down.  So take these keys.  Because if you don’t, I’ll just wear you down until you give in, and you know I’ll do it.  You talk brave over the phone, little bro, but when you’re face to face with me, you know you won’t win.”

        He glared at her, then he sighed and gave a rueful little laugh. “I take it you’re not going to give in?”

        “I’ll clear my calendar,” she threatened in a frosty voice.

        He was silent a long moment.  “Alright,” he declared in a growl, but he did reach out and take the keys.  He looked at them.  “Uh, Vil.  These keys aren’t the same.”

        “That’s right.  The other key is to Jessie’s car,” she winked.

        Kit gaped at her.  “You sneaky bitch!” he said hotly.

        Vil laughed.  “You just got boonswoggled, little bro,” she grinned.

        “Uh, Kit, about the car.  I can give it back,” Jessie offered.

        “No,” Kit said.  “What goes on between me and my sister is between us.  But if she gave you a car, and you want to keep it, love, then I’d never step on your happiness.  Never feel you have to ask me for permission for anything.  You know how I feel.  You know me.  I know you’d never go too far, because I trust you.  But Vil’s right.  If you have an emergency, you may need a car.  And I sure as hell would rather you have it and not need it, than have you need it and not have it.”

        “Damn right,” Vil said adamantly.  She snapped open her phone.  “I’ll find out where it is.  They should have delivered it by now.”

        “What kind of car is it?”

        “I got you a Pathfinder,” she told him.  “It’s a stick, I know you hate automatics.  I felt you might need something that can carry cargo.  I bought Jessie a Corolla.  It’s the perfect car for a student.  It’s small and gets great gas mileage.  Hello, this is Vilenne Vulpan.  I want to speak to Steve Cruthers.”  She tapped her foot.  “Yes, this is Vilenne Vulpan.  Has my Pathfinder been delivered?  Where?  I didn’t see it when we pulled up.  Ah, very good.  Thank you, Mister Cruthers.  Good evening.”  She closed the phone.  “It should be parked just around the corner from the front door,” she told him.  “Let’s go make sure it’s there.”

        They followed Vil and her panther escorts out and around the corner, and there it sat.  It was a charcoal gray Pathfinder, brand new, still with the stickers on the window.  “There it is,” she said with a nod.  “I gave you a month of insurance, baby bro, it came with the car.  So’s the first year of taxes.”

        “It’s in my name?”

        “Yeah.  I know all your vitals, so I had it put in your name.”

        “Alright,” he said as they reached it.  He opened it and looked inside.   “How much did it cost you?”

        “Some number between one and one billion,” she said dryly in reply. 

        “Sis,” he said threateningly.

        “I’m not budging, bro,” she stated bluntly.  “After the hell the family put you through, the least I can do for you is buy you something you need.  Take it and be happy, you little ingrate,” she said with a challenging grin.

        “Vil,” he sighed.

        “Hey, don’t piss on my parade, baby bro,” she told him.  “You’ve never let me do something for you like this.  Don’t make me upset.”

        “Alright, alright,” he sighed.  “Thank you for getting me a car, sis.  I’m not too happy about it at this moment, but I’m sure it’ll grow on me.”

        She laughed.  “See, that wasn’t so hard,” she grinned.  “But don’t worry, bro.  I know you want to make it on your own, so I’ll back off.  I only bought you this because you need it.  No more, no less.”

        He came up and kissed her on the cheek.  “And for that much, Vil, thank you.”

        “Hey, I understand, baby bro, no matter what you think,” she winked.  “Now let’s go back in.  Lock up your new toy,” she reminded.

        Jessie found herself being pulled along with Vil as Kit locked his new car.  “That’s how you deal with him, hon,” she whispered with a conspiratorial grin.  “Kit can be stubborn, so you have to nail him before he can set his feet.  He’s more amenable to being swayed before you start arguing with him,” she explained.  “As he argues, he rationalizes his points and gets more and more stubborn.  Never let him do that.  If you do, you won’t move him.  Get in his face immediately and throw everything you have at him.  Make your entire argument and don’t allow him to argue back.  He may love you, but he still has his manners and he won’t interrupt you.  He thinks that it’s rude, and he’d never be rude to someone he loves.  Use that against him.”

        Jessie giggled.  “You’re a bad femme, Vil,” she said with a grin.

        “I know my brother, hon,” she said sagely.  “As long as you make sense, he’ll listen to you.  He’s practical, so if you prove you’re right, he’ll change his mind.  It just takes being a little dirty to get him to do it.”

        Jessie laughed.  “Mean vixen.”

        “I’m not called the Ice Queen for nothing, kitty,” she grinned.

        They went back inside and spent over an hour with Kit’s co-workers.  She met with them and sat around the big center table and talked, and laughed, and got to know them.  Jessie saw that Vil had a powerful effect on people, and not because she was rich and powerful.  She was warm and personable, and she was very…affable.  Jessie wasn’t quite sure why they called her the Ice Queen when what she’d seen of her was very charming and charismatic…but then again, the way she’d browbeat her brother into taking the car was rather ruthless.  Barry took Vil back to Rick’s office for a few minutes, probably to interview her like he mentioned yesterday, and Kit went back to his office to finish up some work.  Jessie followed him in, and sat down on a stool that he’d put in the office for visitors.  A chair wouldn’t fit in the cramped space.  “Kit?”

        “Yeah love?” he asked as he picked up a folder.

        “Do you really mind about the cars?”

        “I can understand Vil’s argument, love, but how can I ever prove to myself that I can make it if she keeps holding my hand?” he asked simply.  “But to answer your question, no, love, I don’t really mind.  Vil was right.  I need a car, and I’d be in a world of hurt if I wrecked Rick’s car.  Not only would I not have a car, I’d have to pay him for the damages, and that’d be a major problem for me.  And I’ll be honest here, Jess.  I’m thrilled she gave you a car.  It shows she’s not just thinking about me.”

        “Well, now I can come over whenever I want,” she said, leaning in and nuzzling him.

        He reached over and put his paw on her cheek.  “I’ll have a key made for you.  And I notice that Vil already thought of that.”

        “How?”

        “She gave me a key to your car.”

        “She gave me a key to yours,” Jessie giggled.  “Can you teach me to drive a stick?”

        “Oh, my poor clutch,” he lamented.  “I’ll have to apologize to it in advance.  Ow!” he sounded when she swatted him on the back of the head.

        “I have to go, I have a meeting,” Vil called from the hallway.  “Come on, Jessie.  I’ll give you a ride.”

        “Do you mind, Kit?  I’d like to go check out the car,” she said with building excitement.

        “Go have fun,” he smiled.  “We still having dinner, Vil?”

        “You bet.  I’ll meet you at your house after you get off work.  Can I have the key?”

        “Uh, sure.  Think you can swing by somewhere and make a key for Jessie?”

        “And one more for me,” Vil said with a sly smile.

        “No,” he said bluntly.  “You’re not taking a copy of my house key back to Boston.  That’s just begging one of our uncles to steal it.”

        “If they knew what it was,” she said flippantly.

        “I mean it,” Kit said in a dangerous tone.

        “Alright, alright,” she sighed.  “I won’t make an extra key.  Just one for Jessie.”

        “Thank you.”  He gave her the key to his apartment, and Jessie gave him a kiss goodbye, then filed out with her after saying goodbye to the crew.

        “Now then, let’s get you a key.  Two, actually.”

        “But you said—“

        “I never break my word, Jessie,” she said calmly.  “I promised him I wouldn’t make an extra key for me. I’m going to have one extra made for him.  He should have a spare.”

        “Ah, okay.”

        “I told you hon, I look out for my baby bro.  He sometimes doesn’t think of things like that.  It’s one of his faults.  But I love him anyway.”

        Jessie laughed.  “That’s true,” she agreed.  “I had to help him buy his stuff for his apartment.  He had no clue what to get.”

        “He’ll learn,” she said simply.  “My bro is smart, hon.  He’ll learn, and he’ll be wiser for it.  Now, let’s go finish up that meeting.  I’ll need you.”

        “Huh?  Why?”

        “I could have Kit’s car put in his name because I know all his vitals, and I can forge his signature,” she winked.  “But your car will be in your name, and that means you have to sign some papers at the dealership so they can issue you the title.”

        “Oh, okay.  I guess I’ll have to get insurance for it.”

        “Nope.  Insurance is all taken care of.  You’ve got a month of insurance through the dealership, but you’ll only need it for all of this weekend.  That car is a gift, hon, and that means you never pay a dime for anything but gas.  Ever.  I’ll have the policy Fed-Exed to you by Tuesday.  I’ll take care of the insurance.  That car is under warranty, and I’ve also set up an account with them for all maintenance for your car.  If it ever breaks down, call the dealership.  They’ll fix it for free.  I also want you to take it there for everything you do to a car, hon.  Oil changes, tune-ups, everything.  Take it back to the dealership, and it’s free.  They’ll take good care of you, or I’ll come back down here, buy their dealership, then close it.”

        Jessie laughed, but she saw the look on Vil’s face.  “You’re serious!”

        “You bet your tail I’m serious,” she said bluntly.  “I made it abundantly clear to them that you are very special to me, and I don’t take kindly to people trying to cheat me in a business deal.  If they ever try to charge you a dime, you call me, and I’ll eat them for breakfast.”

        “Wow, now I know why they call you the Ice Queen.”

        Vil laughed.  “As long as you do what you promise to do, I’m as sweet as honey, Jessie.  But cross me, and you’ll find out how much of a bitch I can be.”

        Jessie giggled.  “I won’t cross you, I promise.”

        “You’re my bro’s girlfriend, hon.  You can cross me,” she winked.

        They went to an auto dealership called Tucker’s that was just off I-35, and Jessie and Vil were shown into the office of the owner himself.  There, as the owner, an antlered buck, gushed all over Vil, Jessie signed the papers for the car.  “Now, Miss Williams, Miss Vulpan has set up a special agreement with us over your car.  Just bring it to us for everything, and you will be taken care of, free of charge.”

        Jessie listened as the owner of the dealership explained everything that would happen in detail, about her license plates, her temporary insurance, and the special arrangement that Vil had set up.  She received his personal card, and he told her to call him direct if she ever had any complaints or problems with anyone at the dealership.  “Now remember to take your U.T. ID card with you when you go to pick up the license plates.  With that, you don’t have to change your license over to Texas.”

        “My license is already Texas.”

        “Ah, well, then you have nothing to worry about,” he chuckled.

        “Thank you, thank you very much,” Jessie said, a little overwhelmed.  “I really appreciate it.”

        “It’s no problem at all, Miss Williams.  Remember, put those papers in your glove compartment as soon as you get back to your car.”

        “I will.”

        Vil had her panther driver take them first to get a key made for Jessie for Kit’s apartment, then he took them back to her house.  She gave Jessie a hug inside the limo.  “Now go play with your car,” she grinned.  “I’m not going to pick you up, hon.  Just drive over to Kit’s apartment and wait for us there.”

        “I can’t thank you enough, Vil.”

        “Thank me?  For something you need?  It’s not a bother, hon.  It’s a requirement.  You have those keys, Stav?”

        “Right here, madam,” the panther said from the open door, holding up two keys.

        “Take those, and give one to Kit, hon.  Now go charge up that phone, and carry it with you at all times.  And enjoy your car.”

        “Thank you, Vil!” she said happily.  The panther opened the door for her, and she took the box holding the phone and all its equipment and rushed towards the door.

        It was the last thing she ever expected…Vil had given her a car!

        And what was almost as important to her…Kit had given her a key to his apartment.

        Oh, the possibilities….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    5      7

Chapter 6

 

        Vil was as good as her word, which was par for course for her.

        She’d bought him and Jessie new cars, she’d given Jessie a phone because she needed one, and not a single thing more.

        She really did understand.  She knew he wanted to make it on his own, prove both to his family and to himself that he could survive, even prosper, without the family money and the family name.  She loved to mother him and to meddle, but she knew how important it was to him.  She would supply him with what she felt he had to have as a matter of safety, but nothing more.

        Dinner on Friday was at the Double J Steakhouse.  Vil had fallen in love with their steaks, so they went back there so she could indulge herself.  Kit watched Jessie most of the dinner, who seemed almost unable to sit still because of the wonderful gift that Vil had given to her.  He spent most of the dinner, and the time after, catching up with Vil, and listening as Vil and Jessie got to know each other better.

        Jessie was also good to her word.  There was tomorrow.  When Vil left his apartment, she remained.  And she spent the night.

        That was why it was so great she had her own key to the apartment and her own car.  Kit had to work on Saturday, so he just left her at his apartment, and headed in when she decided to go back to sleep after he got up.  She’d lock up and drive home on her own.

        Saturday, Vil took them to a Broadway show playing in Austin, then Kit took them to a bar to catch a local band that Lilly said was really good.

        And Jessie stayed the night on Saturday.

        Sunday, Vilenne and Jessie just hung out with him in his apartment.  Jessie seemed totally amazed that Vil loved to play X-Box, and what was more, she totally whipped him in the games they played.  Vil certainly made all sorts of comments about his apartment and how slapdash it appeared, but she didn’t offer to buy him any furniture.  It was a fun day for him, having the chance to just spend a day with his sister and his girlfriend without any kind of activities or pressures.  They was just being themselves.

        Sunday night, they said their goodbyes.  Vil was leaving first thing in the morning, and she wasn’t going to roust him to see him tomorrow.  She had to get back to Boston.  Besides, she confided to him privately, she knew that Kit and Jessie only had one day off a week together, and Vil had taken it from them.  Monday was a school holiday, so Monday was for them, not for Vil to interfere.

        God, he loved that sister of his.

        After Vil kissed them goodbye, they watched from the doorway as she was driven off in her limo.  Kit leaned against the doorway as Jessie waved, then he reached out and took her paw.  She looked back at him and smiled.  “Well, hello there,” she told him with a teasing smile.  “Think I can stay over tonight?”

        He laughed.  “Do you have to ask?”  They went back inside, and sat down on the couch and snuggled in contented silence, as he listened to her purr.  “Haven’t you missed like four calls from your mother?”

        “Yes, I have,” she answered.  “I’m doing it on purpose.”

        “Why?”

        “So I can maybe send her to the hospital when I tell her the truth.”

        Kit laughed.  “Don’t be mean to your mother.”

        “Momzilla?  She deserves it,” Jessie said with a snort.  “She’ll have a cow when she finally gets me on the phone, you mark my words.”

        “And what will you tell her?”

        “The truth.  That I’ve met a male,” she answered simply.  “That we’ve been going out.  And if she asks if I’ve had sex with you, I won’t deny it.”

        Kit laughed.  “She’ll have a stroke.”

        “She’ll threaten to cut me off,” she said.  “My parents are paying my tuition, and they send me money so I don’t have to work.  Mark me, she’ll threaten to cut me off and make me come home.   When she does that, I’ll threaten to go get a job as a stripper to pay for tuition.”

        Kit’s ribs started to ache.  “Oh, God, pretty kitty, you’re brutal!”

        “Oh, it has a purpose, my handsome fox,” she said, looking at him with a grin, then she laid down with her head in his lap, looking up at him.  “I want her to see the worst that can happen…at least in her point of view.  Once she chews on that for a while, I’ll offer to bring you home to meet her.”

        “Oh, so the purpose is to get me killed and buried in a shallow grave,” he teased.

        “No, the purpose is to make her think there’s a consequence if she decides to go on the warpath without even trying to be civil to you,” she explained patiently.  “I think my folks will like you, Kit, if they just give you a chance.  I’ll have to step on my mother to make her give you that chance.”

        “And all this time I thought you were innocent,” he laughed.

        “You corrupted me,” she winked.  “And I know my mother.  If I don’t put a leash on her, she’ll instantly hate you, and she won’t ever let go of it, even when we get married.  You won’t be my husband, you’ll be the evil male that destroyed my innocence and stole me away from her family.”

        “Good God, you’re serious?”

        “As a doctor,” she affirmed.  “My mom is almost fanatical.  She thinks that she will pick out my husband, so she’s sure he’s ‘right for me,’” she said, making ditto motions with both paws.  “When he’ll really just be right for her.”

        “I can’t believe she’d do that.”

        “It’s more or less how she got married,” she sighed.  “Though in their case, it worked out.  Mom and Dad really do love each other.  So Mom thinks that if it worked for her and Dad, it’ll work for her daughters.”  She grunted.  “Sometimes I wish I was born a male.  Ben doesn’t have to put up with Momzilla like we do.  She’s really nosy about his girlfriends, but she doesn’t actively try to stop him from meeting femmes like she tries to keep me and Jenny from meeting males.”

        “Oh hell no,” Kit said immediately.  “Don’t ever say that again.”

        “Say what again?”

        “That you wish you were male.”

        She laughed.  “I’ll never say it again, I promise,” she said with a teasing grin, reaching up and patting him on the chest.  “Anyway, how would you feel about a trip to Cincinnati over Thanksgiving?”

        “Hmm.  Well, I’ll have to talk to Rick about it.  It’ll all depend on that.  But, if I can find the time off, sure.  I’m willing to face Momzilla.  You know I can’t say no to you, my pretty kitty.”

        “Well, it’s going to be important, my handsome fox.  Even if you can only swing a two day trip.  We’ll have to do it.”

        “Now that I think we can do.  I can always borrow the money from Vil for some airline tickets, and we can fly up on Sunday and fly back on Monday.”

        “Well, that would be you.  My folks always have me fly back for Thanksgiving. I’ll be there the whole break.  They usually make me stay for winter break too, but I’m going to stay here and just fly back on Christmas.  Would you like to come for Christmas too?  I don’t think you’ll be going to Boston.”

        “No, I won’t be,” he assured her.  “And we can always drive up for Christmas.  It’s cheaper than flying.”

        “Hmm, eighteen hours in a car with you?  However will I stand it,” she said with a teasing smile.

        “I’m sure you’ll find a way to tolerate it,” he said dryly.

        She laughed.  “So, you’re okay with it?”

        “You told me that facing Momzilla was a condition for marriage.  So, let’s get that out of the way.”

        Her eyes softened.  “What a sweet thing to say,” she said in a purring voice.

        “I’m just hoping I’m still going in the right direction to hear the answer I want to hear,” he teased, tapping her on the nose.

        She gave him a sultry look.  “Well, your chances are beginning to slide.  I think it’s because you’re ignoring some of my demands,” she told him.

        “Oh, I’ll have to do something about that, I suppose.”

 

        The good mood didn’t last much into Monday, though.  Jessie stayed over again on Sunday night, and at least that part was quite nice and enjoyable.  Having her around the house made him feel very happy, and not just because he loved to look at her and to touch her…it was just because she was there.  She cooked breakfast, he washed up what dishes they had, then they went to go buy some real dishes and silverware.  She picked them out, going for the cheapest sets that didn’t look terrible.

        It was in the checkout line that the day started to go south.

        “Oh.  My.  God,” Jessie gasped, blushing so hard almost all the fur on her entire body was ruffled, and her tail looked like a pipe cleaner.

        He looked at her.  She’d pulled a copy of the National Enquirer out of the rack by the register and was leafing through it as the bear at the checkout counter rang up his purchase.

        “What?” he asked, looking at her.  She turned and held out the paper, opened to an inside page, where there were many pictures of various furs, most of them clearly taken from a distance or in poor quality, paparazzi photographs of unsuspecting celebrities.

        There, in a small picture just under George Clooney, was Kit and Jessie, kissing outside her sorority house.  She was dressed in the clothes she wore from their first date, when he took her to the park.  God damn it!  Someone must have followed them, taken pictures, and sold them to the tabloids!

        There was a story as well, a short little paragraph mixed in with other such small bits of dirt on other people whose pictures appeared on the page along with theirs:

 

        Kitstrom Vulpan III, rebel of the Vulpan family, has been spotted over six months after he nearly started a fight during the funeral of his father, Kitstrom Vulpan Junior.  The details of what happened during the funeral are still secret, but whatever the circumstances were, they caused the renegade Vulpan to disappear after the funeral.

        Further attempts to identify the unknown femme kissing him have been met with resistance from the Vulpan family, who aggressively deny any knowledge of their rebel son and any relationship he might have with the femme.

 

        He gave her a stricken look.  “Jessie, I’m sorry—“

        “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she told him.  “When I told you I wasn’t afraid of your family, I knew this might happen.  I knew this might happen, Kit.  Your family is famous, my handsome fox, and no matter how much we try to run away from it, it won’t change.  I just wish they could have gotten a more, well, dignified picture.  Not one with me hanging all over you like a wanton tramp.  If my mother sees that picture, she might have a heart attack.”  She gave him a slight smile.  “Let’s buy this.  We can cut the picture out and put it in a scrapbook.”

        “Well, my pretty kitty, the cat’s out of the bag now,” he said in a grim tone as he paid for the dishes and the silverware, and started pushing the cart out.  He noticed that the bear went immediately to another copy of the magazine that Jessie had bought. “There’s no doubt that my family knows by now.  They keep an eye on the tabloids.”

        “Let them know,” she breathed in his ear.  “I’m ready for them.  But the question is, are you ready for my family?”

        He chuckled.  “I think I can handle it.”

        “Well, I guess this is one of the things Vil thought might happen when she arranged for those security people.”

        “Excuse me?”

        “Vil told me she hired a security company, uh, Vanguard I think it’s called, to kinda lurk in the background in case your family starts trouble for us,” she explained.  “She said they weren’t supposed to follow us around or anything like that, but they are supposed to be here to play defense in case your family does anything.  I guess they’d probably go after paparazzi too, if we told her they’re harassing us.  She also told me if I call them, they’ll come help me if I ever feel afraid or anything.  Almost like having my little brother Ben around to make me feel safe.  I guess if I start getting followed around by cameras, I can call them and have them come help me.”

        Kit turned that over in his mind.  It was her meddling, there was no doubt about that, but in this case, he was very glad she decided to take that step.  Vil was very protective over him, but she knew he knew how to handle things like that.  But Jessie might not, and if she could call security to come help her or chase them away, then that was just fine with him.

        He meant it when said that what Vil did for Jessie was just fine with him.

        “Well, I’m glad Vil was thinking ahead,” he said honestly, using his keychain remote to unlock the Pathfinder, and opening the back door to put in the new dishes.

        The tabloid embarrassed Jessie, but it unnerved him a little bit.  He was quiet and contemplative as he drove back to his apartment, and unpacked the new dishes and silverware and decided where to put them while she read the material she was assigned for homework, thinking it over.  Just saying that he was ready for his family to know was fine, but he wasn’t quite sure he liked the idea of the public getting in on the act.  He was kinda used to tabloids and paparazzi from his time as a Vulpan, and then after, when the story broke he’d been disowned and they circled him like vultures, watching him, waiting for him to crash and burn and being there to take pictures of it all.  In a way, he guess that really pissed them off, for Vil had made sure that he didn’t end up in a hospital or in jail, taking care of him when he was unable to take care of himself.  The tabloids had a field day with it, but then the story faded into memory as time went on and it became disappointingly clear that Kit Vulpan was not going to become a juicy news story.  The only real issues he’d had with the press after his being disowned and getting settled into a new life was when he was hit by the car.  That was news, and then it erupted into a scandal for the Vulpan family when the press got wind that Kit had no way to pay for his hospital bills.  One of the richest families in America refusing to pay for one of their own after he was nearly killed…the negative press was so damning to the Vulpan reputation that his bastard father had relented and allowed Vil to pay for his hospital bills.  He wouldn’t even do it himself, and he made Vil take that money out of her own trust fund.

        That, he had to admit, had been about the only time that the public attention had ever really helped.

        It almost made him afraid to open the door to his own apartment.  Would there be a swarm of cameras out there, waiting for him?  How many people in Austin had seen it, and would piece together that he worked at the magazine?  Was the magazine going to be harassed?  Would his friends get hassled because of him?  Was it going to be like Boston all over again, where people would follow him around, peeking in his windows?  He hoped not.

        But one thing was for sure.  He was calling ADT or some other alarm company first thing Tuesday.  He wanted some kind of alarm on his apartment.

        He sat down on the couch beside her, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his paws under his chin, deep in though.  He  was a little startled when Jessie put her paw on his shoulder, then pulled him to lean back on the couch, then wormed her way into his arms, nuzzling his neck.  “It’s going to be fine, my handsome fox,” she told him gently.  “I’ll protect you.”

        He chuckled.  “My well-armed pretty kitty, I’d like to see that,” he teased.

        She raised her paw, and showed him those small yet razor-sharp claws, which made him laugh.  “I guess I’m just worried. I never really considered the possibility that the tabloids would care about me.  It’s not really news that I’m living a normal life, ya know?”

        “It is when it’s a Vulpan doing it,” she answered, looking at him with a grin.

        “Well, I’m just hoping they’ll forget all about it when they realize that I’m not glamorous.  The only thing I have going for me they might want to take pictures of is you, my pretty kitty.”

        “Aww, such a sweet thing to say.”

        “Well, they’re not taking pictures of me for my looks, that’s for sure,” he noted.

        She laughed.  “You’re the most handsome male I’ve ever seen, mister,” she told him, poking a finger in his chest.  “Don’t sell yourself short.”

        “As long as you find me handsome, that’s all that matters,” he told her.  “Does it bother you?”

        “It does, but it’s worth it,” she answered honestly.  “I’m a very private person, my handsome fox.  You know that.  So the idea that a picture of me trying to taste your tonsils is plastered in a national tabloid is rather disturbing.”

        He almost collapsed in helpless laughter.

        “But it’s worth the embarrassment, because it means I’m still with you,” she told him when he recovered.  “I don’t care about all the press.  If that’s baggage I have to lug around as part and parcel of being your girlfriend, then so be it.  I’ll do it.”

        “I’m honored you’d do so much for me.”

        “I think I’ve done a little bit more than that for you,” she said with an arch little smile.

        He laughed.  “Well, don’t make it sound like it was a chore now.”

        She giggled.  “Only for you, because of this back,” she teased, reaching behind him and putting both paws on his lower back, over his scars.  “I think I’m going to take some massage lessons,” she mused.  “So I can fix in the morning what I broke the night before.”

        “I won’t complain.  I think you do a good job as it is.  As of right now, I’m just glad you’re not cutting your initials into me anymore.”

        She laughed, her cheeks ruffling out.  “I’m getting better.”

        “You are at that,” he said in a husky manner, nuzzling her neck.  “What do you want for dinner?”

        “Why do you care, I’m the one cooking,” she teased.  “I should be asking you that.”

        “I can cook!” he protested.  “You forget, ma’am, I’ve worked in my share of restaurants.  I know my way around a kitchen!”

        “Only if you don’t have to stock it,” she teased.

        “Ya ya ya, bite me,” he shot back.  “Ow!” he gasped when she leaned in and did just that, clamping her sharp canines into the side of his neck, just hard enough for him to feel it but not hard enough to draw blood, which made him jump.  He laughed helplessly.  “So, it’s my turn to cook for you.”

        “It won’t be exotic, will it?”

        “I can do exotic, and I can do hamburgers,” he chuckled.

        “Well, I was thinking of Italian.”

        “Ooo, a kitty after my own heart,” he chuckled.  “Lasagna?”

        “You know how to make lasagna?”

        “Didn’t I just offer to make it?”

        “So, who makes it for you?  Hungry Fur?  Banquet?  Betty Crocker?”

        He laughed.  “I do, you goofy kitty,” he answered.  “I’ll have to go buy what I need for it, though.  Wanna come?”

        “I think I need to get this homework going here, love,” she said regretfully.  “Do you mind?”

        “Of course not.  I’ll go get it and get it started.  Hold down the fort.”

        Much to her surprise, he did know how to cook, because he had a cookbook and he wasn’t afraid to use it.  It had been in the books that Vil had sent him, the stuff from his old apartment.  Kit wasn’t a gourmet chef by any means, but he could follow the directions in a cookbook, and preparing lasagna actually wasn’t that hard as far as the actual preparation went. The hardest part was layering it into the brand new baking dish he’d had to buy along with the ingredients.  “And there we are,” he announced.  “Now we just sit here and smell it cooking and not go crazy.”

        She laughed.  “Oh, I know all about that.  I’m the only femme that really knows how to cook at the house, and I get these vultures hanging around the kitchen when I’m doing it,” she told him.  “They eat TV dinners while I cook chicken casserole,” she giggled.  “I’ve been teaching Sam and Sandy, and they’re getting the hang of it.”

        “Your mom teach you?”

        “Yeah, but my dad’s actually a better cook than my mom,” she said.  “He likes to cook, but mom thinks that’s her job, so he doesn’t get the chance to do it often.  Only when mom’s feeling really tired or he wants to pamper her.  It’s not a big shock, is it,” she chuckled. “My mom’s been teaching me and Jenny how to cook since we could walk.”

        “I didn’t even know what a kitchen looked like until I was twelve,” he told her.  “I think the first time I ever cooked anything was when I was sixteen.  Suzy had to send her cook over to teach me,” he said distantly, remembering.  God did that femme save his butt.

        Suzy was Vil’s best friend. She was a fox too, but she wasn’t in the same social class as the Vulpans, so his father had never really considered her as potential for a wife.  Suzy’s family was new money, her father Jack had built a fortune in the electronics business.  He was the founder of Yankee Bytes, a chain of computer and electronic stores in the northeast.  But, she’d had something of a crush on Kit, so she was more than willing to help out.  Suzy and Vil had quite a conspiracy going, as Vil funneled money to Suzy to help pay for Kit’s living expenses.  Suzy was the femme who had taken Kit’s virginity, back when he was fourteen and she was sixteen…in an office in the Boston Oaks Country Club.  To this day, Kit had very erotic memories of overstuffed leather sofas.

        “So you were trained?”

        “I was trained how not to blow up the kitchen,” he said.  “Actually, the main thing Vince taught me was how to read a cookbook and follow the directions.”

        “Smart.  At least that way you could teach yourself new recipes.”

        “Yup.  I learned how to cook what I like to eat, and since I’m not too picky, I’ve never worried much about taste.”

        “That’s an odd thing for a rich kid to say,” she grinned.

        “Oh believe me, rich people food is not anything to brag about,” he snorted.  “It has to be exotic to impress, and made to look like the freakin’ Mona Lisa on your plate.  I think I ate every possible edible plant and animal on Earth before I was ten, when all I wanted was hot dogs and french fries.”

        “Well, you’ve had a chance to try lots of different things.”

        “Yeah, but I got to eat it again about five months later,” he told her.

        “Ouch.”

        “Yeah.  Trust me, pretty kitty, when you’re a rich kid, it’s nowhere near as much fun as most people think it is.  Sure, you have toys and servants, but most people don’t see the training and the work.  Not many seven year olds are put in front of a table for two hours a day to be taught how to eat properly.  Trust me, I busted my butt for all the perks that comes with being rich.”

        She leaned against the counter.  “You’ve seen both worlds, my handsome fox.  Answer me honestly.  Which world would you rather be in?”

        “Honestly?  Right here,” he said immediately.  “Money is a curse, my pretty kitty.  It’s a curse.  I saw it consume my father and turn my family against itself.  If a lawyer came down here right now and handed me a check for the entire Vulpan fortune, I’d tear it up.”

        “But think of what you could do with it.”

        “Yeah, and I also think of what it did to my father.  I never want to be like that.  I never want to be so obsessed with money that I abandon my own children.”

        “I’ve never had money,” she mused.  “Well, my folks make a good living and I’ve never really gone without, but I’ve never had the money to do anything I wanted.”

        “Most people think if they make enough money, they’ll be free,” he told her.  “In reality, you just trade one set of legchains for another.  I became free when I gave it all up.”

        “Well, I’m not going to complain.  It brought you to Austin,” she smiled.

        “You want to know what real treasure is, my pretty kitty?  It’s right here,” he said, putting his paws on her waist.  “You’re worth more than my entire family put together, because true treasure is that which you value the most.  To some, treasure is money or gold.  To me, it’s you.”

        Her eyes softened, and she gave him a glorious smile.  “You’re such a sweet male,” she said, looping her arms over his shoulders and kissing him.

        Kit helped her work through her homework by allowing her to type up an essay on his laptop, then emailing it to her school account.  She surfed the internet while waiting for the lasagna to cook, and Kit made a salad to go with it, then sat down on the couch and practiced with the guitar Rick gave him.  His guitar books were among the books in the stuff Vil sent him from his apartment, so he had it open before him, practicing the chords as they appeared in the book he’d been using before he graduated.  He was terribly rusty, only managing to get about halfway through material he’d already learned before without making a mistake.  The only reason he’d managed to play Tears In Heaven without any mistakes was because it was one of his favorite songs, and one of only about five he’d learned by heart.

        “I think it’s cool you’re learning that,” Jessie told him from the TV tray and lawn chair that served as his living room computer desk.  “I never learned an instrument.  Then again, I never really wanted to, to be honest about it.  I’m not that good at music, and I was way too shy to ever think of playing in public.”

        “You can learn and never play for anyone but yourself,” Kit chuckled.  “I’m certainly not learning this to make it as a rock star.”

        “Well, cats don’t do well with stringed instruments,” she said with a smile.

        He laughed.  “Gee, I wonder why,” he said dryly.

        The lasagna turned out pretty well…or at least Jessie seemed to enjoy it.  Really enjoy it.  She was the fastest eater he’d ever seen, but on the other paw, she ate small portions, and there wasn’t even an ounce of fat anywhere on her it shouldn’t be.  She didn’t say a word until she was done with both her lasagna and the salad, then she got up and kissed him on the forehead.  “That was wonderful,” she told him.  “I think I’m going to like this arrangement.”

        “What arrangement?”

        “A male that can cook food I like to eat when I don’t feel like cooking,” she told him as she washed off her plate.

        “I live to serve, my pretty kitty,” he chuckled.  “I think there’s a yogurt cup left in the fridge if you want dessert.”

        “Now I get to watch you eat,” she laughed.

        “I was trained to eat slow,” he shrugged.

        “You never had to compete with a brother and a sister,” Jessie giggled.  “When there’s two chicken legs and three kids who want it, someone’s gonna miss out.  Besides, the last kid at the table usually ended up getting roped into doing the dishes.”

        Kit laughed.  “Ah, that explains it.”

        Jessie’s phone rang.  She went over to her purse and dug it out, and Kit went back to his dinner.  “She did what?” Jessie demanded.  “No, no, it’s ok Danny.  Did he leave, or does he—okay.  Hello?  No, officer, I’m fine,” she said in a calm voice.  “I’ve been staying at a friend’s house, that’s all, and I kinda told my friends not to tell her I’ve been out, because I didn’t feel like having an argument.”

        Officer?  Kit put his fork down and paid attention.

        “No sir, it’s okay.  My mom is kinda…protective.”  She laughed nervously.  “Well, that is one way to say it.  It’s not a bother, really.  Thank you for understanding.  Yes, I’ll call her right now.  No, I don’t need to talk to Danny—Danielle.  Thank you very much sir.  I will.  Goodbye.”  She closed the phone, then actually screamed!  “My mother called the cops!” she said fiercely.  “Because I haven’t been at home all weekend!”

        “Holy cow,” Kit breathed.  She wasn’t kidding about her mother, not a bit!

        “I need to call her, my handsome fox, and this will not be a pretty call.  I should go home.”

        “No, you don’t need an audience, and you’ll have one if you do it at the house.  Do it here, where you’re alone.  I’ll go down to the store and get some things I need.  You call me when it’s safe to come back.”

        The look she gave him was one of the most profoundly grateful looks he’d ever seen in his life.

        “First, my pretty kitty, use my phone.  If your parents have caller ID, they’ll have your number.  Trade me phones.”  She did so, handing him her phone, and he fished his phone out of his pocket and gave it to her.  “Second, don’t scream too loud.  I’m not sure how thick the walls are around here.  You might be entertaining my next door neighbor.”  He kissed her on the cheek. “You’re on my speed-dial hon.  Just be strong.”

        “I love you, Kitstrom Lucas Vulpan,” she told him sincerely.

        “And I love you, Jessica Desdemona Williams,” he smiled.

        Kit left her to what was clearly going to be a very ugly business.  He knew she was going to be terribly upset when she called him, so he first went down to IGE, the closest supermarket, and bought a bottle of red wine, some tissues, and a large box of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers.  When she was finished with that ugly business, she was going to be very upset and hurt, and he wanted to minimize her pain as much as possible.  After he had everything he needed, he went down to The Pit, since it was only about a mile away, and basicly nursed a single daquiri for over an hour as he waited in grim silence.  He didn’t have to imagine what might be sizzling over that phone between them, because he’d had his own share of nasty words with his father.  There wasn’t anything Jessie could think to say to her mother that Kit hadn’t screamed at his father.  He knew how he’d felt after those shouting matches…angry, infuriated, disrespected, but also very hurt and very vulnerable, feeling like he’d eroded away one of the foundations upon which his life had been set, even if it was a bad one.  That was the curse of fights like that with a loved one…driving the dagger into them sank it just as deep into your own heart.

        His phone rang.  He sighed and opened it.  “Pretty kitty?”

        “Come home,” she said in a small voice, raw and trembling.

        “I’ll be right there.”

        He left the chocolates and wine in the car, and went in with the flowers and the tissues.  She was standing near the table when he came in, and when she looked at him, it was painfully evident she’d been crying.  She ran across the room and collapsed against him, crying uncontrollably.  All he could do was wrap his arms around her and hold her close, rocking her back and forth.

        It took her a long time to cry herself out.  He sat with her on the couch, holding her, stroking her hair, comforting her as she worked through it, until she settled in heavy silence against him, her head buried in his shoulder.  She took in a ragged breath.  “Thank you,” she said in a weak, weary voice.  “The flowers were very thoughtful.”

        “I have some chocolates out in the car,” he told her.  “And a bottle of wine.”

        “Getting drunk right now sounds like a great idea,” she said in a breaking voice.

        “No, getting drunk is not a good idea right now,” he told her gently yet firmly.  “Don’t drink your problems away, pretty kitty.  I’ve seen what happens to those who do.  It’s a road best never putting a single foot on.”  He squeezed her gently.  “But, a glass of wine does help take the edge off of it.  Would you like one?”

        “Please,” she sniffled.

        She wiped at her face and took the opportunity to blow her nose while he retrieved the wine and chocolates.  He poured her a little more than he’d usually put in a femme’s glass, poured a glass of equal size for himself, and returned to the couch.  “Gently now, my pretty kitty,” he said as she reached for it with a trembling paw.  Kit watched with a little dismay as she drained nearly half of it with one swallow.  She held it close to her mouth, then finished the rest of the glass with a second.  Then she put the glass on the coffee table and reached for his.  He considered holding it away from her, but the last thing she needed right now was someone else telling her what to do.  She was 21, she was an adult.  If she wanted to get drunk, he wasn’t going to stop her.  He’d just make sure she didn’t hurt herself while inebriated.  He let her have it, and watched her empty his glass as well.

        Given how much she’d just drank, she’d be in no condition to drive in about ten minutes.  She was so light, that alcohol would hit her like a hammer.

        “Give me your keys,” he stated immediately.

        “They’re in my purse,” she said weakly.  “But I’m not going home tonight. I don’t want to be alone.”

        “You’re welcome to stay with me any time, my pretty kitty. Any time.  Do you feel like talking about it?”

        “She said she was going to cut me off,” she told him.

        “Did you tell her about us?”

        “I did,” she said, gripping his shirt in her paws.  “She made me angry, and I just threw it in her face.  I even told her we were sleeping together.”

        Kit winced.  It was one of those fights.

        “Why won’t she treat me like an adult?” she asked in a plaintive voice.

        Kit sighed.  “Sometimes, pretty kitty, you can just never answer some questions.  That’s one I don’t think I can answer.”

        “I’m afraid, Kit,” she said in a small voice, almost trembling.  “If she cuts me off, I might have to go home.”

        “Or become a stripper,” he said with dark humor.

        She actually laughed a little.  “I guess I should go fill out some applications.”

        “That’s my kitty,” he told her with a lighter voice.  If you make a joke out of it, it doesn’t seem so bad.  But don’t you worry about it, love.  Your semester’s already paid for, and I won’t let you starve.  How’d you like to have a sugar daddy?”

        She looked up at him.  “Kit, you can’t afford—“

        “I can very much afford to feed and take care of my femme,” he told her strongly.  “I have almost everything I need now, Jess.  From here out, my pay is just for living.  I can easily support both of us for the rest of the semester.”

        “I can get a job,” she told him, her expression looking less bleak.  “I can help.”

        “No, you don’t,” he told her.  “School is your time, my love.  I’ve graduated, let me do the working.”

        “But what about next semester?  My scholarship doesn’t cover all of my tuition.”

        “Let’s worry about next semester when it gets here.  So, rest easy, my pretty kitty.  If you want to stay here, I’ll do everything in my power to make it happen.  Even,” he sighed, “even if I have to call Vil.”

        She gave him a wan smile.  “You’d do that for me?”

        “I’d do anything for you, my love,” he told her immediately and adamantly.  “Even if I have to go to Vil.”

        She gave out a sigh and put her head on his chest.  “Thank you,” she told him.  “I know what that means to you.”

        “So maybe now you know what you mean to me.”

        Her eyes almost seemed to melt.  She leaned in and kissed him tenderly.  He waved his paw between them when she pulled away.  “You’re gonna be lit up in about fifteen minutes, judging from that,” he said with a gentle smile.  “I think we’d better get you settled in before you start dancing on the coffee table.”

        “I would, for you.”

        “Well, maybe some day when I’m not afraid you’ll fall off,” he told her, gathering her up in his arms and standing up.

        “Where are we going?”

        “Back to the bedroom.  I think you need to rest a little bit.”

        “I don’t want to be alone.”

        “I’ll be right there until you fall asleep.  And that’s exactly what you need right now, my sweet, pretty kitty,” he told her, kissing her on the cheek.  “A nap does wonders.  Things won’t seem quite so bad when you wake up.”

        “I don’t want to sleep.”

        “Then we’ll lay there.”

        Despite her declaration, she didn’t stay awake long.  He laid with her in his arms, a calming, reassuring presence, and the emotional exhaustion from the fight, combined with the wine, lulled her into a calming nap.  He disengaged himself from her carefully, tucking her in, then he kissed her on the forehead.

        He’d had his own share of what she was feeling now. Sleep was always the best prescription.

        Back in the living room, he sat down on the couch and blew out his breath.  Poor Jessie.  But this was a reckoning that he figured was inevitable.  Eventually, Jessie and her mother was going to have this argument…Jessie actually told him that it was coming.  But Jessie wasn’t as ready for it as she thought, and her mother calling the police to find her had broken the dam of indignation in her and caused her to go off on her mother.

        But, things would be alright.  Kit had offered her a way out, a way to feel like her mother didn’t have her trapped into a situation where she had no control.  She’d feel much better, and would engage in her next argument with her mother from a position of strength.  The threat of losing not just her power, but her relationship with her daughter should snap her mother right into line.  Because if Jessie didn’t need her mother, then her mother had better watch her step for fear of driving her daughter away.

        His phone started vibrating across the coffee table.  He figured it was either Rick, Vil, or Jessie’s mother, calling back to continue the argument.  He picked it up and read the number on the display.  It was out of state and not Massechusetts.

        He spent an entire ring debating, then opened the phone.  “Hello,” he called.

        “Who is this?” came a mild male voice.

        “My name is Kit Vulpan,” he said evenly.  “And you must be John Williams.  She called you using my phone,” he said quickly, before he asked the question that had to be on his mind.

        “Ah.  Is she available?”

        “No.  I put her down for a nap.  She was very, very upset.”

        He actually laughed.  “I’d never think to hear someone say that about my daughter,” he said.  “Is she alright?”

        “She will be, after some sleep.  I don’t know what was said, but she was barely coherent when I came back.  It took a whole lot of holding and a glass of wine to calm her down.”

        “Oh dear,” he sighed.  “Well, first off, allow me to apologize for visiting another’s problems on your door.”

        Kit was a bit surprised.  It seemed her father wasn’t anything like her mother.

        “But given these, unusual, circumstances, I would ask that you return my daughter to her house at once.”

        Nope…spoke too soon.

        “She asked to stay, so I’m letting her stay,” Kit said evenly.  “She’s twenty-one years old, Mister Williams.  She’s an adult.  I’m not going to send her packing home like a child because her father said so.  It’s her decision to stay, and so she will stay.”

        “I would gather to make note that since you will not produce my daughter, that is a claim you cannot make in good faith.”

        Ohhh, this one got formal when he was angry.  Kit could hear it rippling behind his voice.

        “Then I’m afraid you’re going to have to take it on faith.  But as soon as she wakes up, I’ll be happy to have her call you.”

        “That is unacceptable.  She must return home at once.”

        “Might I point out, sir, that you’re in no position to make demands.  Jessie is asleep, it’s sleep she needs, and I will not send her home.  And there’s little you can do about that, so it’s best to simply concede the matter now so we can move on to all those questions I’m sure your wife is hissing at you to relay right now.”

        There was a startled silence.  “Well, you’re a very perceptive male, I’ll give you that,” he acceded.

        “Very well.  Now, since I have your attention, let me make things very clear.  Jessie is very special to me.  I love her.  I love her a great deal.  And no matter what you or your wife says or does, you are not going to stop us from seeing each other.  That’s a point you’d better just take off the table right now.”

        “Ohh, little boy, you had better believe that she is going to stop seeing you!” a female voice cut in, probably from another phone.

        “Or what?  Or you’ll cut off her money and starve her until she comes home?  That’s a pretty nasty way to get your way, isn’t it?”

        “You have no right—“

        “I have every right, madam,” he snapped quickly, cutting her off.  “The one that has no right is you.  She’s an adult.  She is twenty-one years old.  She has the right to live her own life, in the manner she pleases.”

        “Not while we pay for her college she does not!” the woman said hotly.

        “Fine.  Cut her off,” Kit said calmly.  “I’m not in college, Misses Williams.  I graduated six months ago.  I already have a job, and I make a comfortable salary.  I can easily support her and pay her tuition.  If you cut her off, then I will pay for her school and her living expenses.  So go ahead and threaten to starve her into obeying you.  You’ll find it to be a hollow threat.”

        To call it a stunned silence was a gross understatement.

        “Perhaps now you start seeing the big picture?” he asked evenly.  “I would very carefully consider what you say to her the next time you talk to her, Misses Williams.  If you make her too angry, she’ll have nothing to do with you.  And she won’t need you.”

        The threat of that hung like a heavy blanket over the phone.  He could hear two sets of breathing over there, no doubt each of them on a different phone.  He heard one of those phones over there hang up, and he wondered a moment which one of them had done so.

        “Is she living with you, Mister Vulpan?” the father asked calmly.

        “No.  She lives at the sorority house.  She’s just been coming over during the holiday weekend. My sister was in town, and I wanted them to meet.”

        “I see.  What do you do?”

        “I work for a magazine,” he answered.

        “I fail to see how a reporter can afford to pay my daughter through college.”

        “Do you happen to have a computer handy, Mister Williams?” he asked.  Perhaps it was time to kill two birds with one stone.  They deserved to know the truth of him, and that truth would back up his claim quite effectively.

        “Why yes.”

        “Then go to any search engine and look up my name.  Kitstrom Vulpan.”

        “And what does this prove?”

        “That I can pay your daughter’s way through college,” he said simply.  “Let’s make that clear right now.”

        There was a brief silence.  “Kitstrom…Vulpan,” he hummed aloud, then there was silence.

        And silence.

        And more silence.

        “You cannot possibly be one of those Vulpans!”

        “Afraid so,” he said, a little regretfully.  “That’s me.  Right eye green, half of my left ear missing.  If that’s not enough proof, then go to the website of my magazine.  Lone star magazine, all one word, dot com.  You’ll see a picture of me in the staff section, and there’s a picture of me and Jessie in the photo gallery, so you can see us together and you can’t possibly deny it.  Compare those pictures to all those other pictures of me floating around on the internet, then come back and call me a liar.  Now, while you’re doing that, let me explain something.  See, I’ve been disowned.  That’s why I never had my ear fixed.  Honestly, I can’t afford it, and I refuse to take any money from my family.  But you see, my sister still loves me, and she’ll do me a favor.  Her name is Vil.  Vilenne Vulpan, the CEO of Vulpan Shipyards.  You can look that up while you’re at it,” he said easily, leaning back on the couch.  “Now, usually I stay away from my family.  We had a very nasty falling out, which is why I’m disowned.  But my sister keeps in touch with me, and she owes me a favor.  If I asked it of her, she’d pay for Jessie’s college.  To Vil, paying two years of tuition at U.T. is little more than petty cash,” he stated, deciding to rub it in a little harder.  “I’ll never take a dime from my family, Mister Williams.  As far as I’m concerned, all of them but my sister can rot in hell.  But where your daughter is concerned, I’ll do anything to make her happy.  I’ll swallow my pride and I’ll beg my sister for a favor.  I won’t take a dime from my sister, Mister Williams, but I’d be more than willing to beg my sister to give Jessie the money to pay for school.  And my sister would do it.”

        He let Jessie’s father chew on that for a second.  “I’m not a rich man, Mister Williams.  I’m what you’d call lower middle class.  I have no money from my family, and I don’t want it.  I broke from them six years ago, when I was sixteen.  But, my sister sympathized with me over what happened in my family, so she’ll do me this favor.  Vil will pay for your daughter’s college, and I’ll work two jobs if I have to in order to make sure she has the money she needs to live on.”

        “You’d do all this?”

        “In a heartbeat,” he said instantly.  “I love your daughter, Mister Williams.  I’ll crawl to hell and back carrying the Rock of Gibraltar for her.”

        “That is…quite an emphatic declaration.”

        “It’s truth.  As soon as I have enough money saved up, I intend to propose to her.  That is how seriously I take this, Mister Williams.  That is how far I’m willing to go for her.  And she fully knows how I feel about her, and I can only hope she loves me even half as much as I love her.  And now that you know this, maybe that will help you understand why Jessie got so angry with her mother earlier.”

        “She’s never mentioned any of this,” he breathed, mainly to himself.

        “And why does that surprise you, Mister Williams?  Your wife rides Jessie relentlessly, and Jessie’s told me that her mother didn’t want her to have anything to do with males.  She calls almost every other day to check on her, and if she’s not home to answer the phone, your wife has a conniption.”

        “She’s only worried about Jessica.”

        “There’s a big difference between being worried and being obsessed,” Kit said bluntly.  “If you were still in college, would you like it if your mother called after you every other day, and called the police to find you when you didn’t answer the phone?”

        “Well, no.”

        “Then why are you putting your daughter through something you wouldn’t tolerate yourself?”

        “Well, because she is a very innocent young lady and it’s a parent’s right to be worried.”

        “You have to let her go eventually,” Kit noted.  “She’s twenty-one, Mister Williams.  She’s an adult.  She can walk into any bar and order anything she wants.  Take it from someone who came from a broken family, Mister Williams, your wife is doing a fantastic job of pushing Jessie away.  And if you don’t get your wife to back off, you see what’s going to happen.”

        He sighed.  “Yes, I can see it,” he admitted.  “I would never have believed it, but given that I could hear Jessica screaming over the phone, I can see what might happen.”

        “Pardon my observation, but this fight was inevitable,” he said.  “Any child would resent what your wife was doing to Jessie.”

        “I suppose so,” he sighed.  “And I must admit, you’re rather surprising, Mister Vulpan, facing down the angry parents of your…girlfriend.”

        “Thank you for conceding that point, sir,” he said with sincere respect.

        “Please, call me John,” he said, his voice less hostile, more curious and conversational.  “What kind of magazine do you work for?”

        Kit and Jessie’s father talked for nearly an hour, as he quietly probed Kit’s life to get a better understanding of this male that was courting his daughter.  Kit could tell that John was quite intelligent, and wasn’t quite as fanatical as Jessie’s mother.  He’d seen to the heart of the matter quickly, and now he was gathering information, most likely to use it against Jessie’s mother.  And he reciprocated.  He was an English professor tenured at the University of Cincinnati, whose subject of expertise was Rennaisance literature, specifically Shakespeare.  He enjoyed to cook, and he was also an avid sport shooter, which surprised Kit.  He seemed too mild-mannered to talk about guns, and know what he was talking about.  But he wasn’t a hunter, he just enjoyed target shooting and skeet shooting.  From John, Kit learned more about Jessie’s family.  Jessie’s younger sister Jenny was going to Ohio State, majoring in nursing, and her younger brother Ben was still in high school, where he was a football player and would possibly be courted to play football in college on scholarship.

        So, that explained all those times Jessie said she’d have Ben come down and beat someone up.

        He glanced up and saw Jessie.  She was standing in the hallway leading back to the bedrooms, and she looked a little bleary.  He held his paw out to her, and she came over and sat down, immediately curling up with him.  “Your daughter is awake now, John,” he said.

        She gave him a strangled look.

        “It’s alright, my pretty kitty,” he chuckled.  “Hold on, sir.”  He held the phone out to her.

        “Uh, D-Dad?” she said tentatively.  “No, I’m alright.  I feel a little light-headed, though. No, Kit had wine here, and I drank some to calm down.  Kit already took my keys.”

        Kit heard the loud voice clearly.  “Keys to what?”

        “Go ahead and tell him.  I already told him who I am,” Kit told her.

        She nodded, then looked down towards knees.  “Umm, Kit’s sister came to see him this weekend, and, uh, she gave me a car.  Yes, Dad, a car.  It’s a Corolla.  She said it would be good for a student.  Yes, I think it was nice of her too.  Yes, Dad, I thanked her,” she sighed, and was silent a long moment as Kit heard the mumbled voice of her father.  “Yes, Dad, he did,” she finally answered.  “I’m not too happy about the idea of him going so far out of his way for me, especially having to crawl back to his family, but I do think it’s sweet of him.  Yes, Dad.  Yes, Dad,” she said, with a little exasperation.  “Honestly?  I want to stay here.  This is Kit’s home, and I want to be near him.  If I have to get a job to help pay my way through school, then that’s what I’ll do.”  Her cheeks ruffled.  “Well, I feel the same way, Dad.  I love him.”

        Kit squeezed her a little bit at that declaration, which made her giggle.  “Nothing, Kit’s just being a little silly, that’s all.”  She sighed.  “No, I don’t want to talk to Mom.  I’m still mad at her.  No, Dad.  No, I’ll be fine.  Kit will take care of me.  He even knows how to cook,” she said in a warm voice.  “Dad, I’m going to go.  We’ll talk about this tomorrow, okay?  Okay.  Okay, I’ll tell him.  Love you too, Dad.  Bye-bye.”

        She closed the phone.  He took it and put it on the couch beside them, then wrapped both arms around her.  “What did he say?”

        “That he has your phone number now, so you’d better behave,” she told him.

        He chuckled.  “Well, I think everything’s gonna work out, my pretty kitty.  I laid down the law on your mom.”

        “What did you do?”

        “I told her who I was, who my family was, then told her that I’d pay to keep you here if she cuts you off, so she’d better start treating you like an adult instead of a little girl, because you wouldn’t be dependent on her anymore.  She hung up on me right about then.”

        “That’s Mom, alright,” she sighed.  “I’m sorry they called you, Kit.  You didn’t have to get involved.”

        “I didn’t mind at all, Jess.  Those are my future in-laws, after all.  If I don’t deal with them now, when am I going to start?  I’m a big fox now, hon.  I can take it.”  He gave her a little squeeze.  “I wish they had a webcam.  I would have paid money when they found out I’m a Vulpan.”

        She giggled.  “You know, that might actually help,” she said, looking up at him with a little smile.  “If anything, Mom can say I landed a rich husband.”

        “I told them I was disowned.  I told them the truth, hon.  They deserve to know.”

        “Ah, well, it was a good idea.”  She put her head on his shoulder and chest, and sighed.  “And it was such a good day, too.  You even cooked for me.”

        “Any day with you is a good day, my pretty kitty,” he told her gently.

        He held her for a long time, time passed in weighty silence.  Kit kept pondering how her parents were going to react, how it was all going to play out, but no matter what, he wasn’t going to lose her.  He’d make sure she stayed in Austin, that she got her degree, even if he had to ask Vil to make it happen.  Whatever made her happy.

        He was going to marry her, after all.  So her happiness was the only thing that mattered to him.

        Strange.  He was so worried about his own family…the last thing he expected was to run into an issue with hers.

        “Kit?”

        “Yes, love?”

        “I want to make love to you.”

        Not a surprise to him.  She’d just suffered major emotional turmoil, and maybe she just wanted to feel safe, and secure, and wanted, and loved.  “Of course.  But if you throw up in the bed, I’m going to rub your nose in it,” he warned.

        She laughed.  “I don’t feel sick, just buzzed.”

        “Well, I’m not usually the kind that takes advantage of drunk femmes,” he chuckled.  “Will you respect me in the morning?”

        “Well, mmmmaybe,” she hummed.

        “Enjoy it while you can, love,” he told her. “Cause you’ll have a hangover in the morning.”

        “Don’t remind me,” she grunted as they walked, arm in arm, back to the bedroom.

 

        Kit had Jessie stay over all night, and he got to see her at her worst…bent over the toilet, retching her guts out kind of worst.  Hair a mess, eyes baggy, breath that would scare away Godzilla kind of worst…but he didn’t mind.  He wanted to know all of her, and seeing her at her worst wasn’t that bad at all.  Even with her hair a mess and sick, she was still beautiful, and he considered it a privilege to take care of her through it, not a chore.

        She was definitely not feeling well in the morning, but it wasn’t a full-blown hangover.  She’d drank enough wine to definitely get buzzed, but not falling-down drunk, so the backlash was only moderate.  She had a bit of a headache, and felt a little tired and groggy, but not much more.

        “You sure you’re alright to drive?” he asked as they came out of the apartment.

        “I’m okay, you big worrier,” she told him.  “I have to go back to my room and get my early class books, then I’m off to school.”

        “Okay then.  Tylenol will do wonders for that,” he said as she winced against the light.

        “I have some aspirin at home.”

        “I’ll call you tonight, pretty kitty.  Even despite last night, it was a good weekend.”

        She winced.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

        “You made it up to me before it happened,” he said with a sly smile.

        She laughed, then put her paw to her head.  “Maybe that was your fault, getting me all excited,“ she said, then her cheeks frizzed and she laughed nervously when Lupe waved to them from the building across the way, going the fifty feet from his apartment to his office.  “Want me to cook tonight?”

        “As long as you tell your roomies to tell your mom you’re with me,” he winked.  “I don’t doubt that she’ll be calling tonight.”

        “Probably,” she sighed.  “Maybe you can help me do my homework,” she said brightly.

        He laughed.  “We’ll see.  I charge a stiff fee for homework.”

        “I might pay it.  I definitely need to borrow your laptop.  Mine died on me about a week before I met you, and I’ve kinda been in the lurch since.  Mom and Dad were going to send me a new one.  I hate sitting in the computer lab to type out my assignments.”

        “Buy a flash drive today while you’re at school,” he told her.  “That way you can just save everything to your flash and take it to school with you.”

        “That’s a good idea.”

 

        Kit was dead on with his prediction.  As they were cooking a dinner of leftover lasagna and salad, his phone rang.  Jessie picked it up for him, took one look at the number on the screen, and sighed.  “Hello,” she said, in a not quite enthusiastic voice.  “Yes, Mom, I’m at his house.  I don’t have a laptop, remember?  I need to use a computer to do some homework, and he’s letting me use his so I don’t have to sit in the computer lab.”  She handed him the leftover lasagna from the night before, and he put it in the microwave.  “What, you were calling him instead of me, or were you just looking for me?”  She growled a little in her throat, that strange sound, and he saw her ears lay back momentarily.  So, that’s what she looked like when she was angry.  “Kit, I’ll talk to her out on the porch,” she told him.

        “Take your time,” he told her.

        She was out on his porch for about twenty minutes, no doubt as her mother tried to salvage the situation after Kit effectively knocked her legs out from under her.  He heated up dinner and set it out, then picked up her phone and called Rick to talk about some of the research he’d been doing that day, and also to go over the cartoon idea he and Jeffrey had been working on, since Rick was out of the office for the latter half of the day and they hadn’t had a chance to talk about it.  She came back in as they talked about the strip in a conference call with Jeffrey, and Jessie held the phone out to him.  “She wants to talk to you.”

        “No, we werent—sorry Rick.  Uh, hold on.”  He took the phone.  “Misses Williams?  Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m talking to my boss on the other phone right now.  Would it be a bother if I called you back?  It shouldn’t take more than ten minutes.”

        “I—very well.  I’ll be waiting for your call.”  Her tone was a bit frosty.

        “Thank you.  Goodbye.”  He closed the phone and put Jessie’s phone back to his ear.  “Sorry about that.”

        “Troubles, son?” Rick asked.

        “Nothing major.  Jessie’s mother wanted to talk to me.  No doubt to give me the third degree to decide if I’m good enough for her daughter.”

        Rick laughed.  “We can pick this up tomorrow morning, no problem.”

        “No, we’re here and we’re almost done with it, let’s get this done,” Kit said.  “Anyway, Rick, what do you think?”

        “I like the idea of it.  Are you going to intoduce more characters later?”

        “We’re already designing them,” Jeffrey answered.  “We’ll start with Jo-jo, Oxnard, and Buck, and we’ll introduce the others as it goes along.”

        “And you’re sure you can maintain a storyline?”

        “Well, this is going to be half plotted, half stand-alone strips,” Kit answered.  “The main plot will evolve around the three main characters, but quite a few stand-alone strips will involve the tertiary characters.  Those will be zingers and comedy, while the main plot will be comedy with a story.”

        “We were planning on doing two or three strips an issue for the first month to introduce the strip and establish the story, then cut back to one per issue,” Jeffrey added.  “If we have room.  Marty might kick our asses for cutting into his mailbag space, though.”

        “I think we can juggle a little bit of space on page nine for the extra strip,” Rick noted.  “We can cut down Barry’s article about the governor’s tour of the campus and bite a couple of letters out of the mailbag and squeak out the room.  How many strips have you finished?”

        “We have nineteen strips totally done,” Jeffrey said.  “Kit did the writing for six more, I just haven’t done the panels yet.”

        “You did that many before even bringing it to me?” Rick asked with a laugh.

        “Eh, it gives me something to do at home while watching Mythbusters,” Jeffrey laughed.

        “And it fills up that empty time I have between assignments,” Kit added.

        “Okay, you busy bees.  We’ll have a group meeting in the morning so we can get some feedback on the strips.  You know, see if furs other than you two think they’re funny and all.  If they think the strips’ll fly, we can work ‘em into the next issue while me and Savid have time to make space for ‘em.”

        “Sounds like a done deal,” Jeffrey assented.

        “Works for me,” Kit agreed.

        “Okay, son, the reprieve is over.  Time to face the music,” Rick chuckled.

        “I’ll bring a bathrobe for you tomorrow, Kit,” Jeffrey sniggered.  “Just in case she skins you.”

        “Oh please,” Kit snorted.  “But thanks for the votes of support,” he added with a sarcastic drawl.

        He hung up, and took in a girding breath.  “Alright, pretty kitty, dial it.  Let’s get this overwith,” he said like a fox about to do war.

        And it was war.  Hannah Williams did not like him, and her dislike was all over her voice as she asked Kit relentless questions.  She grilled him about his family, about his work, about his personal life, even about his past love life.  She was almost brutally direct, and wasn’t afraid to ask him literally anything. And her questions were definitely slanted, asking him questions like if he’d ever beaten his girlfriends, did they give him venereal diseases, if he did drugs.  She kept asking him what bad things he did rather than asking him about his hobbies or his work or how he felt about her daughter.  Jessie sat at the laptop and listened to his side of the conversation, but thankfully she didn’t hear the ugly questions he was being asked…for he would only reply to those with yes or no.

        Interspersed through the questions were the comments.  Snide comments, unfriendly comments, where she made denigrating, hostile remarks about him and his life.  Kit ignored them, because he wasn’t about to take that bait and challenge her over it.  She was dying for him to give her an excuse to yell at him, to prove that he was no good for her daughter, but he wasn’t stupid enough to walk into that cave.  He was polite and respectful over the phone, and he remained just as polite and respectful no matter how disrespectful she was to him.

        She kept after him for over an hour, and he kept getting less and less patient with her…which was probably what she wanted.  She was badgering him, probably trying to provoke a reaction which she could then use against her daughter…along the lines of “well, he was rude and abusive to me over the phone!” while leaving out the fact that she provoked it with relentless biting comments.

        It all basicly came to a close when she finally asked the question he felt she was probably avoiding.  “And just how do you expect to pay Jessie’s way?” she demanded.

        “I may have been disowned, Misses Williams, but I still have someone in the family who loves me.  Vilenne Vulpan.  She’s my sister, and she’s rich.  And she owes me a favor.  For her, paying for two years of tuition would be the same as the change in your pocket.  She’ll give Jessie the money if I ask it of her.”

        “So you can’t even pay it yourself!” she declared.  “You have to slink away to your family and beg money out of them like a freeloader!”

        “Where Jessie’s well being is concerned, I’ll do whatever it takes,” he said calmly.

        “Don’t you dare presume to know what’s best for my daughter!” she said in outrage.

        “Her well being is whatever she wants,” he said evenly.  “I’ve told you before, Misses Williams, I’m very much in love with her.  What makes her happy is what makes me happy, and I’ll do whatever I can to make her happy.  Even if I have to go back to my family and ask for money to help her get through school, I’ll do it if Jessie asks it.  As far as I’m concerned, she’s worth it.”

        She chewed over that, looking for a hole to exploit, but found none.  “I have to cook dinner,” she declared.

        Then she hung up on him.

        Well, Jessie was right about the whole “hanging up when losing” issue.  That was the second time she’d done it.

        He blew out his breath and closed the phone.  “She hung up on me,” he told her.

        “Then she couldn’t think of a way to argue with you,” Jessie giggled.  “Speaking of dinner, it’s probably cold by now.”

        He looked at the lasagna and salad on the table.  “Well, we can just reheat the lasagna.  Why didn’t you eat?”

        “Without you?”

        “I don’t need to be spoon fed, silly femme,” he said, which made her laugh.

 

        The whole brouhaha with Jessie’s parents simmered down, and Kit put it out of his mind as the days rolled into weeks.

        Jessie and Hannah reached something of an understanding.  Hannah detested Kit, but she held her tongue about it out of raw fear over the possibility that Jessie might wash her paws of her mother and accept Kit’s offer to pay for her schooling.  That created something of a wary truce between them, and even made it a bit easier on Jessie.  Because of Jessie’s explosion on her mother, Hannah seriously curtailed her invasive behavior. She called less and less frequently, until she was down to just once a week, every Saturday while Kit was at work and Jessie was at home, and their conversations were a little strained because her mother so desperately wanted to lay down the law on a child she no longer had any control over, which was an exercise in futility.

        It had been a devastatingly effective tactic, and it knocked the wind right out of Hannah’s sails.  Jessie was quite happy with the result, even if Hannah was beside herself.

        For Kit, though, it was a blissful time.  He and Jeffrey began their strip, which they called School Daze, about Jo-jo the raccoon, Oxnard the bull, and Buck the wallaby, and the warped insanity that followed them around while they attended the University of Texas.  Jo-jo was a genius inventor of things that blew up in her face or caused chaos on campus, Oxnard was her boyfriend, a star linebacker on the football team who quoted Shakespeare and had a deliciously jaded view of life, and Buck was a foreign exchange student from Australia who mistook the insanity that Jo-jo created to be typical American life.  One particular panel that Kit really liked was when Oxnard handed Buck a beer, and the wallaby just stares at it in the next panel with a fearful look on his face, paw hovering over it, trembling.  In the last panel, Oxnard gives him an amused look and says, “Forsooth, Buck, normal beers don’t explode,” to which Buck simply replies, “Ah.  Got it.”  Lilly collapsed into laughter when she read the nineteen panels that they’d finished, telling them that “oops” was going to be the ultimate tagline for Jo-jo.  When she said “oops,” everyone evacuated the building.

        It was a hit.  Jeffrey’s artistry was amazing, and Kit had a dark enough sense of humor to put them into all kinds of evil yet funny situations.  Rick ran two strips, then the next week he ran four more, then ran three the next week.  The feedback on the strip was mostly positive, with some asking for new strips to run on the website rather than the magazine.

        Rick made room for School Daze as a new weekly.  It would run two strips a week, for as long as Kit and Jeffrey could keep it funny.

        Kit and Jessie settled into a very pleasant routine.  They’d meet during the week, keeping it minimal so Jessie’s grades didn’t slip, but Saturday and Sunday they were always together.  Jessie would come to the office on Saturdays and do her homework, study, even help out around the office, and Jessie got involved in the writing of School Daze as she offered a femme’s outlook on how new characters being introduced would behave.  Her suggestions evolved into her taking control of a the off-plot strips that dealt with two minor characters, Missy the snobby vixen and Cutler the goth doberman and the clash of personalities their differing lifestyles entailed.  Jessie had a wicked sense of humor, and her off-plot strips were riotously funny.  Jessie’s name was added into the by-line for her strips, and Rick even started paying her for her effort.

        On Sundays, they just hung around the house most of the time, acting more like a married couple than a dating couple.  And Kit loved it.

        Not everything was just swimming along, though.  For one, there was an eerie silence from his side of the family.  By now, he was sure they knew about Jessie, and he’d expected at least a phone call in the middle of the night, telling him to break up with Jessie, or a brick thrown through the window at Jessie’s sorority or something.  But nothing.  Nothing at all.  Either they really didn’t care about him, or Vil had really stepped on some necks up there in Boston and scared them out of the idea of interfering.  Jessie’s side of the family, though, was about the same.  Hannah’s hatred of Fox only intensified, just as Jessie predicted, as she took huge offense to Jessie going out with a male she didn’t hand-pick for her, and what was worse, a male that threatened Hannah’s vice-like grip on her daughter.  The relationship between the two of them became really strained, which often necessitated John to intercede between them during their more vociferous arguments.

        As September faded into October, Kit took stock and realized that he’d saved up enough money to start shopping for engagement rings.  He was very thorough about it, researching extensively to find the right jeweler selling the right ring at the right price.  It took him almost a week to find the ring he wanted, a beautiful pear cut diamond with two emeralds flanking it in an elegant gold filigree setting.  Once he found the ring he wanted, it took him nearly three weeks to pay for it.  They accepted his down payment, then dropped nearly his entire next two paychecks into paying it off, forcing him to live off ramen noodles and walk to work to save on gas.  He showed it to Rick on a windy, rainy October afternoon, two days before Halloweeen, in a black velvet case.  Rick whistled as he examined it, then handed it back to him.  “Damn, Kit, that’s a hell of a ring.  How much was it?”

        “Well, let’s just say that Jess shouldn’t be too attached to our first born,” he said, which made the dingo laugh.  “It took me almost a month to pay for it.  They’ve had it reserved for me, letting me pay in installments.”

        “When are you gonna officially pop the question?”

        “I’m not sure yet,” he answered.  “I do know that I’m not sure we’ll have the ceremony until after Jessie graduates.  I’m not sure I want to do that to her.  Getting used to being married on top of school?  It might hurt her grades.”

        “She might share your view, son. In my experience, femmes don’t like having their males uncommitted.  She may insist on the ceremony long before then.”

        “It’s all up to her,” he said simply.  “I’m happy either way, as long as we’re married at the end.”

        “Have you talked about it much?”

        “Not really.  She knows I’m gonna propose, but she always kinda changes the subject when I talk about specifics.  I guess she doesn’t wanna think about things like that until she has a ring on her finger.”

        “Never know, maybe,” Rick nodded.  “I didn’t give Martha any advance warning,” he chuckled.  “I floored her with my proposal.”

        “How long did you go out before you proposed?”

        “About a year.  I’ve often thought that maybe you and Jessie went a little too fast, but now I think it was a silly thought.  You two are perfect for each other.”

        “What changed your mind?”

        “Watching you two around the office,” he answered.  “The one part most couples don’t consider when they get engaged is how they’ll gel living in the same space.  You and Jessie are compatible in every way.  That’s a solid foundation for a lasting marriage.”

        “I hope so, cause the idea of a lasting marriage is what I’m looking for.”

        “Well, you may be a young couple, but I think you’ll make it.  I’ve been married for twenty-one years, and I pray to the good Lord every night that we have fifty more just like them.”  He closed a file he was working with on the computer.  “Well, I’d say it’s about time to knock off for the day,” he declared.  “You walk again today?”

        “Yeah, gotta save money,” he grinned.

        “You want a ride home?”

        “Nah, I’ll be fine.”

        “I’d rather drive you, son, that hardware you’re carrying there isn’t something I’d want to risk on a mile long walk through town.”

        “Well, when you put it that way, sure, I’ll take a ride.”

        Kit packed up before Rick, so he said goodbyes to the crew and went out early to wait for his boss.  He stood by the door, spotted Rick’s car down by the corner, and started walking towards it, his mind filled with images of how it would look, how it would feel, when he knelt down in front of Jessie and offered her the ring that occupied his raincoat pocket.  He almost couldn’t wait.  He wanted to take her down to the courthouse and marry her today, but females just didn’t do things that way.  Besides, he also didn’t want their marriage to impact her school.  He’d give her the ring, probably on Sunday, and after that they could sit down and talk about the specifics.

        He glanced back for Rick, and his eyes took note of a black truck or SUV that pulled to a stop beside him.  He didn’t much notice anything about it, but as he turned away, his mind flashed an image of the person in the passenger’s seat…and the pistol in his paw.

        Six months of living in homeless shelters had conditioned Kit.  He flinched and whipped around, even as he heard the gunshot.  Something slammed into him from behind, making his breath blast out of his lungs.  Before he even felt the pain, he knew.  He knew he’d been shot.  He dove to the ground as he heard another shot, and in a moment of clarity rolled on the wet streets towards the shooter, getting a parked car between them and getting out of his line of sight.  He rolled up to the side of the car and tried to put both paws down, but his left arm was hanging limply, and the first thunderclaps of pain was starting to throb through him, making him suck in his breath as he got to his knees.  He heard the car door open, and realized the shooter was coming out for him!

        He huddled by the car. He’d turn and moved towards the back of the car, against the flow of traffic.  The shooter would come around the front of the car to get at him, and he already saw one of the shooter’s legs.  He had no time to try to go around the back!

        He reacted instinctively.  When his assailant’s leg appeared around the front of the car, he lunged.  He slammed into a tall, burly leopard, who seemed honestly surprised, knocking his gun paw high.  The leopard grabbed at him, trying to bring his weapon to bear, but Kit used the only weapon he had available to him.

        The leopard howled in pain when Kit opened his mouth and drove his long fang-like canines into the neck and shoulder of the larger leopard.  He clamped down like a pit bull, grappling with the leopard even as he sawed his teeth back and forth, tasting hot blood in his mouth even as his breath turned to fire in his lungs.  But the leopard put his clawed paw into Kit’s shoulder, grabbing where the bullet came out of him, and he shuddered as pain overwhelmed his rational mind.  He released his biting grip on the leopard, staggering, and then something struck him in the side of the head and he dropped to the ground, his mind consumed in a haze of pain and confusion.

 

        Rick was coming out of the lobby of the office building when he heard it.  A loud explosion, a sharp crack, which he immediately recognized was a gunshot.  It was just outside!  He ran across the lobby and erupted from the door and quickly looked around.  He saw it immediately, and it chilled his blood.

        He saw a figure crumpled on the wet pavement, and a tall leopard stepping out of a SUV, one paw to his neck and a pistol in his other paw.  He stepped towards the twitching figure.

        It was Kit!

        Rick reacted with the speed of his old training back when he was in the Army.  He reached to his concealed shoulder sheath and and produced a Glock, and he did not hesitate.  As the leopard stopped over Kit’s body and raised his pistol, aiming at his head, Rick took aim and fired in a fast motion. The leopard’s head snapped to the side, and he dropped to the sidewalk like a gutted fish.

        The SUV’s tires squealed as the driver took off.  Rick raced out into the street, pistol in paw, and the reporter in him took over from the Army grunt that had roared back into his mind, and he memorized the license plate number of the black Grand Cherokee.  Then he blinked and raced to Kit, putting his weapon back in its holster.

        Thank God for the Texas concealed carry laws!

        He was breathing.  Rick saw that he’d been shot in the back, high in the left shoulder.  The bullet had exited just under his collarbone, leaving a sickening spatter of blood on the wall  a few steps further down.  Kit’s eyes were open, but his expression was vacant, and his tail was twitching spasmodically.  He was already in shock!

        A quick glance at the leopard was all it took to see he was dead.  He’d been shot literally in the ear canal, and it had went through his head to blow a huge hole out the other side.

        There was  scream behind him. Marty and Lilly had been just a few steps behind him, and they stood there in shock.  “Call 911!” he barked immediately to them as he pressed his paws against both sides of the wound, to stem the loss of blood.  “Kit’s been shot!”

        Lilly screamed again, but Marty immediately went for his cell phone.  Rick pushed Kit back down to the sidewalk as he began to move jerkily.  “Easy, easy, son,” he said in a calm voice.  “Just lie still.  This doesn’t look like a serious wound, but you can’t jostle around.  The paramedics are on the way, so just lay back and relax and let me take care of you.”  Rick pushed Kit gently yet firmly down to the pavement, laying on his side, his eyes blinking owlishly and his breathing fast and shallow.  “Lilly!  Lilly!  Go get anything we can throw over him to keep him warm!  Now!” he barked.

        Lilly gasped, literally jumping up and down, then rushed back into the building.

        “Marty, where is that ambulance?” he barked.

        “The operator says it’s coming,” he said.

        “Listen to me!  I got the plate of the other guy’s car.  Repeat this into the phone for the dispatcher.  Black Jeep Grand Cherokee, Texas plates, Whiskey Delta X-ray nine six three three.  Say it back!”  Marty nodded, and repeated it to the operator on the line.  “Tell the operator he’s going into shock, so they’d better get here now!”

        Marty repeated that.  “He says to cover Kit and try to keep him warm,” he said.

        “I’m already one step ahead.  Where is that damn squirrel?”

        The whole crew appeared on the street, carrying seat cushions, coats, and the quilt that Rick kept on the back of the old leather chair in his office.  “Don’t touch him!” Rick snapped when Mike moved to grab the pistol laying close to the leopard’s nerveless fingers.  They draped the quilt and coats over Kit as Savid put a pillow under his head, and Rick kept his paws on Kit’s wound to stem the blood loss.

        “What happened, Rick?” Jeffrey asked fearfully.

        “I have no idea.  I heard a shot, so I ran out and see Kit on the ground, and that leopard standing over him with a gun.  I don’t even remember pulling my gun.  It musta been instinct,” he growled.

        “I think that instinct saved Kit’s life, Mike breathed, as the sound of a siren wailed in the background, getting louder and louder.  “Thank God, here it comes.”

        An ambulance and two police cars screamed onto the scene.  A raccoon and skunk boiled out of the ambulance, running over with a medical kit, and a burly dog and a lioness jumped out of the police cars and hurried over.  “Is that the shooter?” the lioness asked as she took in the scene.

        “Yeah, officer. I shot him,” Rick said.  “My weapon is holstered.  I’ll give it to you in just a minute.”

        “You musta had first aid training, sir,” the raccoon noted as he knelt by them.

        “Army,” he said simply.  “I’m keeping pressure on the wound.  Tell me what to do here.”

        “Okay, go ahead and take your paws off,” the skunk told him.  “We’ll take good care of him.”  Rick let go and stood up, giving them room, as the two paramedics quickly took command of the situation, cutting Kit’s coat and shirt away to start prepping the wound so they could transport him to a hospital.  Rick held his paws out wide, covered in blood.  “Left side, officer, you’ll find my weapon in a holster under my coat.  I don’t know if I safetied it, so please be careful.”

        “You have a permit?”

        “Yes ma’am,” he said immediately.  “It’s in my wallet.  Right back pocket.  Excuse me if I don’t get them for you,” he said, holding his bloody paws up.

        “We’ll get to that later, I think I can trust your word for now,” she said as her partner started talking to the others.  She took out a notepad.  “You know the fox?”

        “Yes ma’am, I’m his boss.  His name is Kitstrom Vulpan.  My name is Richard Sanders.”

        “Alright.  Now explain what you saw.”

 

        Sense returned to him, and with it came pain.

        Kit sucked in his breath when a lightning jag ripped through him, and reason returned with sensation.  Two paramedics were over him, working on him, and he saw the dead leopard behind the paramedic, as the other one rushed back to the ambulance for something.  He saw the gun laying on the ground.

        He’d been shot!

        “Easy, easy,” the raccoon said soothingly, putting a paw on him when he tried to move.  “I just gave you something for the pain, so just give it a minute and it’ll take the bite off.  Do you know your blood type?”

        “What the hell happened?” he asked woozily.

        “I was hoping you could tell us,” a female voice called.  He looked up and saw a lioness in a police uniform leaning over him, along with Rick and the paramedic.

        “Someone tried to kill me,” he said uncertainly.  He was starting to get cold, and his head was pounding, and his shoulder was on fire.  “I think he hit me in the head.”

        The paramedic produced a light and shone it into Kit’s eyes.  “Looks like you might have a concussion on top of this,” he said with a nod.  “Can you move your legs?”

        “Y-Yah, I’m okay, I think,” he said, then he hissed in pain when a white-hot jag of agony ripped through his shoulder.  “Or maybe not,” he said in a weak voice.

        “Don’t go Rambo on me now, friend,” the paramedic chuckled as his partner showed up with a stretcher.  “Can you feel your left arm?  Can you move your fingers on your left paw?”

        “I can feel my arm,” he said, then tried to move his fingers…which twitched in reply.

        “Good, looks like the bullet didn’t hit any nerves.  Do you know your blood type?”

        “A negative,” he answered.  He’d been in a hospital long enough when he was hit by the car to remember that much.

        “Okay then, what’s your name?”

        “Kit.”

        “Alright then, Kit, here’s what’s going to happen.  We’re gonna immobilize you and put you on a stretcher, cause if you were hit in the head I don’t want to take any unnecessary risks.  Then we’ll cart you off the the hospital so you can flirt with the nurses.”

        Kit chuckled weakly, which made him wince when the pain lashed through him.  “I think my girlfriend would kill me.”

        “I won’t tell if you won’t,” he grinned.  “Officer, I think it’s best to talk to him at the hospital.  He’s lost a significant amount of blood, we need to get him stabilized.”

        “No sweat, Jack, I’ll follow ya.”

        More police arrived as Kit was bundled on a backboard, combing the scene, talking to the others in the crew, and already roping off the area with police tape.  The paramedics secured his head to a padded collar so he couldn’t move his neck.  “Rick,” he called.

        “Yeah, son?”

        “Can you take my phone and call Jess and my sister?  And could you hold onto the ring for me?”

        “I’d be happy to, son.  I’ll call them and get down to the hospital as quick as I can, as soon as the police are done taking my statement.  Which pocket are they in?”

        “The phone’s in my front pants pocket.  I put the ring in my raincoat pocket,” he said, his voice slurring as a gray haze began to creep into his vision.  It was either loss of blood, or the pain, or the medication they pumped into him, but he was feeling decidedly unfocused.

        The raccoon gently and tentatively checked Kit’s pockets, then found the phone and the box holding the ring.  He handed them to Rick, who immediately turned his back and opened the phone to start making calls.

        Kit was immediately relieved.  His precious ring was in safe hands.  He closed his eyes, facing down the pain and allowing the paramedics to do their work.

        “You’re gonna be just fine, friend,” the raccoon told him.  “We’ll have you up and about again in no time.”

        “Which hospital are you taking him to?” he heard Rick ask.

        “Austin General,” came a reply.

        “Rick,” he intoned, in an disjointed manner.

        “Yeah, son?” he asked.

        “Think I can get a few days off?”

        Rick actually laughed.  “I dunno, I might have to think about it.  But I’m glad you can joke at a time like this.  It shows me you’re gonna be just fine.”

        Kit tried to relax, but it wasn’t easy.  His shoulder felt like it was on fire, but at least from the feel of the pain, it wasn’t deep in his chest or anything like that.  It was on the outside of his chest, in the shoulder, and it hurt like hell.  He just hoped that Jessie wouldn’t have a fit when she found out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    6      8

Chapter 7

 

        They took good care of him in the hospital.  He was carted straight into the emergency room, and then he was surrounded by doctors.  They asked him all kinds of questions, examined the wound, even X-rayed it to look at the internal damage…which wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  When Kit flinched when he saw the gun, it literally saved his life.  The bullet hit him in the back of his shoulder, near his arm, and had exited just under his collarbone, near the sternum.  The bullet had missed everything vital, but the collie that was the attending lead doctor did tell him that he’d be having some surgery so they could repair some tissue around his sternum that had been torn by the compressive force of the bullet as it went through him.  “It shouldn’t take very long,” he told Kit as they applied a temporary bandage to the wound.

        The pain medication had really kicked in by then, reducing his shoulder to a dull throb rather than it feeling like someone drove a red-hot spear through him, but the medication combined with what the doctors called a mild concussion made him a little dizzy and made it hard to think.  They had him in the bed, sitting up so his shoulder was elevated, when the lioness that had been down at the office came into the treatment room.  “They said you’re up to answering a few questions now,” she said.  He nodded.  “I’m Sergeant Elizabeth Rivers, Mister Vulpan.”

        “I wish we could have met under different circumstances…even a speeding ticket,” Kit mused, which made her laugh.

        “Alright, Kitstrom—“

        “Kit.”

        “Kit.  Let’s start at the beginning.  Just tell me what you remember, and take your time.”

        He went through what he remembered, having to backtrack a couple of times because his memory was a little fuzzy about the details of that mess.  “After I bit him, I don’t really remember all that much.  I think he pistol-whipped me or something.  Is he dead?”

        The lioness nodded.  “Your boss carries a concealed weapon,” she told him.  “He shot the leopard.  You should thank him, Mister Vulpan.  He saved your life.”

        “Oh, I will, trust me.”

        “Now, I have to ask this, Mister Vulpan.  Is there anyone you know that might have reason to hurt you?”

        “You don’t think it was a robbery?”

        “Most robbers don’t kill their victims before robbing them,” she said.  “And certainly not in broad daylight on a city street.  We think this might be personal.”

        He sighed.  “Well, I could say that I’m shocked, but not surprised,” he told her grimly.  “My family has very extreme views, and I’m violating them.”

        “The Vulpan family?  You really think one of them would hire a hitman to kill you?” she asked.

        “Ah, so you know about my family.”

        “We are the police,” she grinned.  “It just took a couple of ID checks to dig it up. It’s not exactly hidden.”

        “Well, let’s say that I wouldn’t be totally stunned if one of them did,” he said.  “I can think of a couple of uncles that might try it.”

        “Which ones?”

        “Zach and Jake—er, Kitstrom Zachary and Kitstrom Jacob.  My grandpa named all his boys Kitstrom,” he explained as he saw her eyebrow raise.  “My dad continued the tradition when he named me.”

        “Ah.  Well, I’ll call up to Boston and ask around a little bit.  Just to make sure.”

        “Tread very carefully, officer,” he said with absolute seriousness.  “The Vulpans own the Boston Police.  Expect to be stonewalled.”

        “I’ll keep that in mind, at least until the detectives take the case from me,” she said with a smile.  “I’ll tell the doc I’m done, and you’re ready for visitors, okay?”

        “Thank you, officer.”

        “De nada, Kit.  I’ll come check on you in a while.”

        The doctor returned, and not alone.  Jessie and Rick rushed in behind her.  Jessie’s eyes were sheened and red, and the fur on her cheeks was matted from tears.  She tried to hug him but recoiled when she saw the bandages, so just settled for putting her cheek against his own, nuzzling him.  “I’m alright, my pretty kitty,” he told her.  “See?  Still here and kicking.”

        “I was so worried,” she said, her voice trembling.  “Are you okay?”

        “I’m just fine,” he said.

        “He’ll be fine, miss,” the collie told her.  “He’ll be going up to surgery in—“

        “Surgery?” she gasped.

        “It’s alright, they just want to repair some damage to the tissue under the exit wound, miss, ah.”

        “Jessie,” she answered.

        “Jessie.  Like I said, they’re going to fix that, and then he’ll be in a hospital room and well on his way to a full recovery.  The bullet didn’t hit anything important, and the injury is easily treated.  He’ll be up and about in no time,” he said with a chuckle.  “All he’ll have to show for his adventure is a scar nobody will see under his fur and an old arm sling he can hang on the wall and use as a prop for his story,” he smiled.

        “Doc, I have enough scars, I don’t need another one people can see,” he chuckled, pointing with his good arm at his injured ear.

        “Well, that one’s more spectacular anyway,” the doctor chuckled.  “You should play the lottery, Mister Vulpan.  This is the second major incident you’ve survived.  Now, steal your kisses while you can, Mister Vulpan, you’ll be off to surgery in just a few minutes.”

        Jessie nuzzled him tenderly.  “I’ll be right here waiting,” she told him.

        “You have school tomorrow, little missy,” he told her in a weak but playful voice.  “And they’re not going to let me go anywhere.”

        “Just try and make me go home,” she said adamantly, taking his paw in hers and holding it.

        “I don’t think I have the arm strength for it at the moment,” he smiled weakly.

        “Son, I have your things.  Do you want me to keep them or give them to Jessie?”

        “Give her the phone, Rick,” he said, his eyes steady.

        Rick nodded in understanding.  “I’ll put the rest of it in your office then,” he said, giving Kit a wink behind Jessie’s back.  “They only let two at a time in to visit, and the whole crew’s waiting outside.  So I’ll give up my spot so they can take turns until they take you up.”

        “Officer Rivers said you saved my life, Rick.  Thank you.”

        “Any time, son, any time.  Thank Martha, actually,” he chuckled.  “She was the one that didn’t feel comfortable with me working the hours I do without protection.  She’s the one that got me to get the permit.”

        “Well, I owe her a big kiss on the lips.”

        “I might get jealous,” Rick grinned, but he filed out.

        “Vil called me,” Jessie told him.  “Right after Rick did.  Rick called her, then called me, then she called me.  She told me to tell you that she’s already on her way down, and don’t worry about the hospital bills.  She already called the hospital.”

        “She just needs to take out health insurance on me,” Kit sighed.

        “What happened, Kit?”

        “I’m honestly not really sure.  The police don’t think it was a mugging.  They think it was a failed hit, which I guess is possible, if my family decided I committed a sin too grievous to forgive.”

        She gave him a stricken look.  “You mean they tried to kill you because of me?”

        “If they really did do it, they tried to kill me because of me,” he said unflinchingly.  “Don’t ever think that this is your fault, my pretty kitty.  But, I do want you to call that security company that Vil hired and tell them what happened, and they might want to keep a much closer eye on you. I don’t want you going around alone.  Not right now.”

        Marty was the first to visit.  He looked very grim and serious, expressions that seemed alien on his face, and he patted Kit on the good shoulder.  “Keeping the faith, soldier?” he asked in a surprisingly quiet and positive tone, much unlike his usual flamboyant melodrama.

        “The docs say I’ll be just fine, Marty, and right now I’m too keyed up on morphine to feel much of anything,” he said with a smile.  “Is Lilly okay?  I heard her screaming.”

        “She was a little freaked, but she’s better now,” he answered.  “Don’t you worry, Jessie, we’ll be right here with you.  You’ll have lots of friends there while we’re waiting.”

        “Thanks, Marty,” she said, giving him a look of profound gratitude.

        “Hey, I gotta watch out for the only femme around that looks better than me in pumps,” he said airily, which made her giggle.

        Okay, Marty was feeling better now.

        Before Marty could send the next person in, two orderlies returned with the collie.  “Alright, Mister Vulpan, let’s get you up to surgery.  If you two will wait in the waiting room, the receptionist can tell you when he’s done, and what room he’ll be in.”

        Jessie leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, her eyes worried.

        “Relax, pretty kitty.  As you can see, I’m not in any danger, and I’ll be just fine.”

        “That he will,” the collie agreed.  “Now if you two will go to the waiting room, we can get him going.”

        “Come on, Jessie, let’s go tell the others he’ll be okay,” Marty said, patting her on the shoulder.

        She gave him a longing look and blew him a kiss as Marty walked her out, and the orderly transferred the IV hooked up to his arm to a stand attached to the bed.  “Alright, Kit, away we go,” the doctor said.  “You’ll be in and out quick, and we’ll get you settled into your room.”

 

        Kit had been through enough surgeries in his day to know that for the patient, it was a very undignified business.

        The first thing they did was shave off his fur.  His fur was one of his few vanities, for it was thick and glossy, and it looked quite nice.  Not satisfied with just shaving away around the area to be worked on, the doctors had gone on a veritable orgy of clipping, shaving away almost all the fur on the entire left side of his chest, both the white fur on his chest and the reddish fur on the sides of his shoulder and outer pectoral.  Not satisfied with peeling his chest like an apple, they also shaved off the fur around the entry wound on the back of his shoulder.  As if the half-missing ear wasn’t bad enough, now he’d look like he had mange until his fur grew back in.

        The surgery itself wasn’t really that bad.  The surgeons were professional and polite, and they had him under within minutes of putting him on the operating table.

        It was the aftermath that was the embarrassing part.

        For one, anesthesia wasn’t quite as serene as most people believed.  Every time he’d been put under, when he woke up, he was violently ill.  And this time was no different.  It was hard to be dignified retching into a pan, and even less so when one did it to an audience.  A vixen nurse helped him through most of his indisposition, which had to be as distasteful to her as it was to him.

        For another, doctors couldn’t operate on one’s finger without stripping the patient completely naked, then putting them in a flimsy little hospital gown that would open in the back with the slightest flick of the tail.  Being in a bed with a blanket over him didn’t change the fact that he knew what he was wearing, which would make any trip to the bathroom more of a show for the nurse than anything else, who would have to help him out of bed and over to the bathroom.

        One could manage only so much dignity with one’s bare butt hanging out the back of a hospital gown.

        But, at least it was over.  They had him in observation in a private room in the hospital, and though his shoulder and chest were in pain, it was dulled by the drugs dripping into his arm through an IV.  The doctors had given him a glowing report when he was coherent.  The repair to the tissues in his chest was done without any complications, and he’d have no movement or health problems at all once he healed.  He’d have to undergo some physical therapy once the muscles pierced by the bullet mended, and also because his arm would be in a sling for a few weeks.

        It already was, actually.  His arm was literally strapped to his side to keep it immobile, to prevent any movement from torquing the wound and possibly tearing his stitches.

        But, even though the injury itself wasn’t serious, the implication behind it was.  Officer Rivers stopped by soon after the surgery, before they allowed anyone to visit him, and filled him in.  The leopard that was killed was one Josh Ruger, a.k.a Spots, a mid-level hood in the Atlanta mob.  Unless Spots was on vacation in Austin and decided to keep himself in practice when it came to shooting furs, then he was there on business, and his business was Kit.  It was a very strong indication that someone tried to have Kit killed…and the list of those who might want that was decidedly short.

        Vil was going to blow a blood vessel when she found out…and may God help the family.  She’d come down on them like an avalanche.  For the first time since he was sixteen, he found a sliver of sympathy for someone in his family other than his sister.  Vil was a vindictive bitch when she was angry, and the family was about to see the Miss Hyde that lurked beneath that witty exterior.

        Whoever did it certainly seemed to sense that, for they’d dug up someone far, far from Boston to do the deed.  And they must have warned the guy.  He didn’t fly or take any kind of public transportation into Austin the cops could find, and no cars were rented in Austin under any known alias Spots used.  They thought he drove in from Atlanta to cover those tracks, and would have driven back after it was done, so they were looking for his car, and had an APB out on his car that covered all of Texas and Lousiana.  Austin was pretty much well smack dab in the middle of Texas, so it was going to take anyone driving that car several hours to get to virtually any border, even Mexico’s.

        So…it seemed that the family did take exception to his relationship with Jessie, and decided to voice that displeasure with the business end of a gun.  It was shocking to him, but not surprising.  It was shocking that they went straight for that very dangerous and extreme option immediately, without the usual attempts to sway, intimidate, or blackmail him into breaking it off.  No, they went straight to the ultimate solution, killing Kit to prevent him from marrying someone that many in the family would consider little better than livestock.

        God knows, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.  Not only was Kit disowned and poor, but he was thriving.  That had to be an anathema in their eyes, a cancer on their souls, that Kit didn’t just eke out a meagre existence eating out of garbage cans, he instead had built a good life for himself without their money, without their power, without them period.  He didn’t need the Vulpan family to be happy, and that had to eat at them like acid poured into their eyes.

        The collie doctor came in.  “And how are we feeling?” he asked as the vixen nurse handed him Kit’s chart.

        “Exposed, half-naked, and doped up,” he answered.

        “In other words, normal for someone just out of surgery,” the collie grinned.  “How much fur did they take off?”

        “Too much,” he replied with a grunt.

        “Yeah, they love to go nuts with that shaver,” he chuckled.  “Oh, if nobody told you, I’m Doctor Randy Barnett, the chief physician around here.  You can call me Doc.  I know, it’s a terribly unimaginative nickname for a doctor, but if I was more creative, I’d be working in Hollywood instead of Austin.”

        Kit chuckled.  “It’s not much more creative than Kit.”

        “Hmm, well, all these squiggly lines and mysterious marks look all in order,” he noted, handing the chart back to the vixen, who was giving him an amused smile.  “Now, let’s see if they put your heart on the right side of your chest like I told them to.”  He put the stethoscope in his ears, and probed Kit’s chest for a moment, as the nurse took his blood pressure.  “Well hell, they didn’t do it again.  I really need to go down there and straighten the surgery staff out,” he said.  “But that’s a healthy heart, no doubt about it.  BP?”

        “One ten over eighty,” the nurse replied.

        “Now let’s see if that concussion didn’t knock some sense into you,” he said in a jovial manner, taking a pen light out and shining it in Kit’s eyes.  “Well damn, you’re just giving me nothing to do.  Couldn’t you at least pretend that you need me here, Kit?”

        Kit laughed.

        “I guess I won’t be able to keep you locked up in this prison, I suppose.  You look ready to handle that pack sitting out in the waiting room.  Let me trot out there and sell them some tickets, and they’ll be in in a few minutes.”

        Kit laughed again, which his shouldern’t didn’t agree with.  “I’d appreciate it, Doc.”  He gave a short wave, and swept out of the room as quickly as he entered.

        “Don’t let his Patch Adams act fool you, Kit,” the vixen said with a smile.  “Doctor Barnett is one of the best doctors in Texas.  You’re in the best care around, and we’ll take good care of you.”

        The vixen left him alone for about a minute, then the door opened again.  Jessie literally ran into the room, her paws on his face and kissing him all over his muzzle, cheeks, and forehead.  He had to laugh at her display, which made her cheeks ruffle as she looked coyly down at him.  The whole crew filed in behind her, and as she pulled the stool over to his bed, he shook paws with everyone and got a kiss from Lilly.  “You really scared us there, Kit,” Mike told him.  “The doc said you’d be just fine though, so that’s good news.”

        “Yeah, he told me the bullet went right through and didn’t hit anything vital,” Kit nodded.

        “Is it hurt much?” Savid asked.

        “They have me on too many drugs right now to feel it,” he answered, motioning with his muzzle at the IV dripping into his right arm.

        “If you wanted some time off, you should have just asked for a vacation,” Jeffrey grinned at him.  Lilly and Barry gave him a shocked look, but Kit laughed, which broke them of their feeling he’d said something out of bounds.

        “Well, Rick complains I don’t get enough rest,” he noted, looking at his boss, which made him laugh.

        “We’ll be a little short-handed without you, but we’ll manage,” Rick grinned.

        “Well, I hope I’m back at work soon.  We have too damn much fun there for me to want to stay away.”

        “Shh, don’t tell the boss we have fun!” Lilly protested, giving Rick a sidelong smile.  “He might decide to stop paying us!”

        “I’d have to stop paying myself, and Martha might have something to say about that,” Rick said with a mild smile.  “Have the docs given you a date for getting out of here?”

        “Not yet, but hopefully not long,” he said.  “If I’m lucky, I’ll be back home in a few days.”

        “That soon?” Jessie asked in surprise.

        “There’s really not much they can do around here but stick needles in me, pretty kitty,” he told her.  “I can sit on my couch at home and watch TV the same as I can sit in this bed and watch TV.  Besides, you ever taste hospital food?” he asked with a shudder.  “I had almost five months of it, and it’s not something you wish on your worst enemy.”

        “We’ll smuggle you in some real food,” Barry promised with a grin.

        “That would be nice,” Kit assured with a nod.

        Jessie’s phone rang. “Vil!  No, I’m right here with him right now. He’s out of surgery, and the doctor told me he’s going to be just fine.  Sure, hold on.”  She held the phone out to him, and after looking at the IV, she instead put it right to his ear.

        “Hey sis,” he said.

        “Are you okay, Kit?” she asked fearfully.

        “I’m alright.  I was shot in the shoulder, and I’m feeling about as good as one can under the circumstances.  Until the meds wear off, anyway.”

        “I’m on a plane right now,” she told him.  “I’ll be there about three hours.  We’re somewhere over Tennessee right now.”

        “Well, it’ll be nice to see you, even if I’m not quite happy about the circumstances.”

        She gave a humorless chuckle.  “I’ve already got in touch with the Austin police,” she said, her voice turning icy.  “They told me what they think.”

        “Uh oh,” he said quietly.

        “Yeah, uh oh,” she said.  “When I get home,” she said, then was silent a moment.  He could almost imagine seeing her bristle in her seat on that plane.  “I will find out who’s at the bottom of this,” she declared in a cold, sinister tone.  “And then I’m going to skin him with a rusty butter knife and hang his mangy pelt on my wall.”

        “Just be careful, sis,” he said seriously.  “I’ve told you before.  Don’t underestimate the uncles. They will fight back, and they have lots of money to do it with.”

        “We’ll just see about that,” she said with a hiss.

        Oh, God.  Vil was going to be a nightmare.  He’d heard that tone before, and she would destroy anyone that got in her way.

        “Did they put you in a private room?” she asked, getting her temper back under control.

        “Yeah, they did.”

        “Good.  Don’t you worry about a thing, baby bro.  I’ve already picked up the tab for this.  I’ll let you get back to Jessie, and we’ll talk when I get there.”

        “Alright.  Love ya sis.”

        “Love ya bro.”

        He nodded to Jessie, who took back the phone.  “Vil?  No, I’m okay.  Thanks, that’s sweet.  Do you need someone to pick you up?  Okay.  Okay, see you soon.  Bye.”  She hung up the phone.  “Vil said she’d be here in a couple of hours,” she told the group.

        Kit enjoyed the visit with the crew, as they kept probing him over wether or not he was really feeling okay, and joking and kidding him and each other, at least until the vixen nurse came into the room.  “Alright, people, afraid open visiting hours are over,” she told them.

        “Can I stay?” Jessie asked in a frightened tone.  “I don’t want to leave him!”

        “Are you family, hon?” she asked.

        “She’s his fiancee,” Rick told the nurse.

        “Then you’re welcome to stay.  But the rest of you, shoo!” she told them.  “Open hours are from eleven to eight.  Come back tomorrow, eleven o’clock, if we don’t send him home first,” she smiled.

        He shook their paws, and Lilly kissed him on the cheek, and then they waved their farewells as the vixen herded them out of the room.  “Now, let’s check that blood pressure, Mister Vulpan.”

        “Kit,” he corrected as she pulled a blood pressure cuff from a slot on the wall behind the bed.

        “Kit.  Any sharp pain?”

        “No, just a dull ache.”

        “Alright,” she said as Jessie moved, and she checked his blood pressure.  “Nice and stable,” she said with a nod.  “I’ll leave you to your visitor, Kit.  You’ve got two hours until visiting hours are over, honey, so get your kisses in now.  And no shenanigans in here,” she added with a naughty little smile as she left the room and closed the door.

        Kit chuckled as Jessie’s cheeks ruffled, and she sat back down and took his paw in hers.  “I’m fine, my pretty kitty.  Don’t look so worried.”

        “I have every right to be worried!” she protested.

        “I know, but look.  I’m fine.  Really.”

        “If you were fine, you wouldn’t be in the hospital,” she challenged.

        “Okay, I’m fine in relative terms among people who are in hospitals,” he said with a grin.  “You’ll see, pretty kitty, they’ll have me out of here in just a day or two.  They could probably send me home right now, but I guess they just want to make sure there weren’t any complications from the surgery.”  He frowned.  “They shaved off my fur.  I look like I have mange.”

        She gave him a startled look, and actually laughed.  “You’re nearly killed, and all you can worry about is your fur?” she asked him.

        “This is nothing compared to what it was like after I was hit by that car.  If I seem a bit blasé about this, well, there ya go.”

        “And you’re not afraid?  I mean, someone tried to kill you!”

        “And Rick shot him,” Kit said simply.  “I’m not afraid for me, I’m worried about you.  Did you call that security company?”

        “Yeah, I did.  They have someone in the waiting room right now. He’ll escort me home, and they said they’d keep a guard with me if I wanted it.”

        “Well, I want it.”

        “I know.  So I told them that it’d be okay for a few days.  Because I knew it would make you worry if I didn’t.”  She sighed.  “Besides, I’m a little scared, Kit.  I feel safer with the guard, but—“

        “Don’t worry about it, pretty kitty,” he told her.  “Vil is coming, and she’s pissed off.  You’ve never seen my sister when she’s angry, Jess.  It’s not pretty.  You’ll find out why they call her the Ice Queen.”

        “Yeah, when she called me back, I could tell she was mad,” she agreed.  “She sounded like the clock on a time bomb.”

        “That’s a pretty accurate description,” he chuckled.  “Vil will find out who tried to kill me.  And when she does, well….”

        “What?”

        “Let’s just say that there’s a good chance the police won’t be bothered about it.”

        She gaped at him.  “You mean—“

        “Yup,” he nodded.  “Vil will play at that level.”

        “I’m…well…wow,” she said, blowing out her breath.

        “This isn’t the little league, my pretty kitty,” he told her.  “Vil may decide that the law isn’t good enough.  And one thing you need to learn about rich people is that to them, the law is nothing but a minor inconvenience.”

        “That’s really surprising.”

        “It shouldn’t be, given where I’m sitting right now,” he told her seriously.  “Odds are, one of my uncles decided that following the law wasn’t sufficient to get what he wanted, and well, here I am.”

        “But to have someone killed?”

        “You’re dealing with people who don’t have the same morals as normal people, Jess,” he told her seriously.  “I’ve told you before that money is a curse.  Well, you’re getting a look at one of the ways that curse works.  My uncles think they’re the highest form of life on Earth, and believe they’re above the law of the puny mortals.  The only law they really fear is my sister, because she holds the reins of the family’s power.  And though I love my sister, Jess, she has the same mindset.  She’ll obey the law of us normal people, until it gets in her way.  She can be just as ruthless as any other member of my family.  In a way, she has to be.  You have no idea what really goes on behind the doors of a huge company like the shipyards.  Vil breaks the law on a daily basis, I’d wager, and when it’s something personal like this, well, she may throw the law out the window and deal with it in the way she feels is appropriate.  Just like whoever tried to have me killed, she’ll be judge, jury, and if needs be, executioner.”

        Jessie was silent a long moment.

        “Does that surprise you?”

        She sighed.  “Yes.  She didn’t seem that way.  I thought she was very nice.”

        “Oh, she is, Jess.  I love Vil a lot.  She’s a sweet, charming, and loving vixen who has a big heart and a kind disposition.  She’s the nicest member of the family, and very generous and caring.  In that way, she’s much different from the rest of the family.  But there’s another Vil lurking behind what you see, a calculating, ruthless vixen who will crush anything and anyone that gets in her way.  That is the Ice Queen, and you’re going to get your first good look at it when she gets here.  Just don’t let it affect your opinion of her too much.  This isn’t a part of you you’d ever see unless it was serious, like right now,” he noted, motioning at his injury with his right arm.  “Once her sense of justice has been satisfied, she’ll go right back to the funny, charming vixen you’ve come to know.”

        “Well, she’s only doing it because she loves you,” Jessie reasoned.

        “Just so,” he nodded, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. The ordeal of the day was finally catching up to him, and he was starting to get sleepy. Before he could even say a word, though, he felt her paws brushing his hair away from his face.

        “Getting sleepy, my handsome fox?” she asked in a gentle voice.

        “Tired,” he answered.  “I’ve had a busy day.”

        She laughed in spite of herself.  “I remember when you were there for me, Kit,” she said in a low, gentle voice.  “Now it’s my turn to be here for you.  Just rest, my love.  I’ll be here, and I’ll take good care of you.  I will always take good care of my handsome fox,” she breathed, taking his paw and squeezing it gently.

        “I’m going to hold you to that,” he said with a weary smile.

        “Feel free,” she whispered, kissing him on the forehead.  “Now get some rest.”

        “I will.  Have I told you today that I love you, Jessie?”

        “I can never hear it enough,” she told him with a gentle kiss.

        “Well, I love you, Jessica Desdemona Williams,” he declared in a tired voice.

        “And I love you, Kitstrom Lucas Vulpan,” she returned, patting the back of his paw.

        Her presence soothed him, soothed away the pain in ways the medicine could not, and he fell asleep after a few minutes.

 

        Jessie sat at his bedside silently, holding his paw, relief warring with concern inside her, and more than a little fear.

        Jessie was fearful, but she was intelligent, and her mind was already working through what she’d learned.  She saw now that Kit’s fear of his family had been totally justified.  Though they had no proof of what happened, Kit seemed convinced that it was his family that had arranged to have someone try to kill him, and she’d trust his judgment in the matter.  It made her reflect on his family, and him, and even her relationship with him.

        She looked down at him and asked herself a simple question.  Do I love this fox? she asked, to which the answer was immediate.  With all my heart, she answered herself, feeling her heart melt just looking at him, his face composed and looking totally vulnerable laying in that hospital bed.  She felt relieved he was going to be alright, fearful for him, worried about his recovery, concerned that there might be complications.  But under it all was that simple love.  Since their first meeting, she’d been swept off her feet by him.

        It really had been love at first kiss, right there in that skating rink.  It had just taken her a while to come to see it, just like her father had said.  That was when she fell in love with him, when he kissed her.

        She didn’t believe in love at first sight…but her own experience was making her doubt that position a little.

        She stroked the fur on the back of his paw.  Now that she knew where she stood, she had to look at the situation.  Someone had tried to kill him because of their relationship, and they might try to kill her too.  Maybe even her family.  Is it worth it? she asked herself, staring down at him.  Is it worth risking my life over to stay with him?  Is it worth the chance that they might come after my family?

        That was a hard question to answer.  She loved him completely, and she had no real concern for herself.  To her, it was worth the risk to see him, because he was worth it.  He was perfect, the male God had put on this Earth for her to find and love.  Her devotion to him was unswerving, as unswerving as his own was for her, but her family was a complication.  It was more than just her in this, she saw.  Was it fair to her parents and siblings to drag them into this?

        No.  It wasn’t fair to them, really.  She had to admit that to herself.  But, she was an adult.  This was her life, this was her choice, and she wasn’t going to be afraid of Kit’s family.

        It won’t drive me away, she vowed to herself.  I can warn my folks what happened and what it might mean, but I won’t run away.  I’ll just have to take precautions.  Vil will help me, I know she will.  She can keep my folks safe.  I trust her.  Kit was willing to risk everything for me.  I have to be just as strong as him.

        She made her decision.  She would stand by him.  She would face the future with him together, because she loved him.

        And she knew just how to tell him.

 

        The nurses and doctor that checked in on them periodically were quiet and cordial.  They didn’t wake Kit up when they found he was asleep, but the did check his temperature and replace his IV with a new bottle.  Jessie stayed right by his bedside, not leaving him for a second, just watching over him while he slept.  Even after even her visiting hours were over, for some reason, they didn’t make her leave.  As the time and the silence and the energy expended over the day caught up with her, though, she got more and more tired, until she leaned down onto Kit’s bed and fell asleep with her head on his stomach.

        A light touch on her shoulder woke her up.  She sat up blearily, putting a paw over her face.  “Do I have to leave?” she asked in a low whisper.

        “Not if you don’t want to,” came a low reply, slightly amused.

        Jessie sat straight up and turned around.  It was Vil!

        She hugged the smaller vixen fiercely, and Vil patted her on the back.  “I just got in. How is he?”

        “The doctors say he’ll make a full recovery,” she answered, holding onto Vil’s paws as she pushed away a little.  “They did surgery on him after he got here.”

        “They’ve been keeping me up to speed on that,” she told Jessie, sitting down on the stool, and reaching out and stroking back Kit’s hair, her fingers lingering on the two white streaks in it that were from when he was hit by the car.  “Hey, baby bro,” she called in a low, tender whisper.  “I’m sorry it took so long for me to get here, and I’m sorry this happened to you.  But don’t you worry.  Your big sister is here, and I’m going to take care of it.”  She stroked the hair back from his face the way a mother would, then rested her paw on his shoulder as her other paw gently squeezed his left paw, jutting out from the sling that kept his left arm immobilized.  She bowed her head, and Jessie clearly heard her sniffle.  She put her paws on Vil’s shoulders, and much to her surprise, Vil whirled around and grabbed hold of her, crying into her stomach and chest.

        To see that kind of emotion from someone Kit said was ruthless when she was angry surprised her a little, but then again, her love for her brother should have told her that that was a stupid assumption.  She cradled Vil’s head and comforted her, being there for her, and held her for long moments as she let her grief run its course.  Vil’s weeping ceased, and she just held onto Jessie for a long moment, unashamedly showing that she wasn’t as cold as the world believed her to be.

        “Thank you, Jessie,” she said in a more composed voice, letting her go.  “I guess it didn’t hit me until I could sit down and see him.  See what they did to him,” she said, her voice turning to ice.

        Maybe Kit really wasn’t exaggerating.

        “Are you alright, Jessie?” she asked pointedly.

        “It scared me, but I’m okay.”

        “That’s not what I asked,” she said, looking at her directly.  “Now you know.  Now you know just what kind of family he’s from.  Now, I’ll ask you again, are you alright?”

        She knew what Vil meant, and she nodded.  “I won’t leave him, Vil.  I’m afraid for my own family, but I won’t leave him.  I’m not going to let them win.”

        “Don’t you worry about your family,” Vil said in a steely tone.  “This is all my fault.  I thought I had them all well leashed, but I see now I was in grievous error.  I’ll make sure your family never gets dragged into this.  They’ll be just fine.”  She turned back around to look at Kit.  “And thank you, Jessie.  Kit really did find his soulmate when he met you.  You have the right stuff, femme.  You’re strong enough to be the wife of a male like him.”

        “He hasn’t asked me yet,” she said, her cheeks itching.

        “Oh, he will, Jessie.  He will.”

        “I hope so.  After this…I don’t want to lose him, Vil.  I want to marry him.”

        “It should happen soon.  I can’t wait, actually.  I’m as impatient as you are.  I’ll be honored to call you sis.”

        “That’s very nice of you to say,” Jessie said modestly, her cheeks ruffling.

        “Well, I meant it,” she said, stroking Kit’s paw with her fingers.  “My brother is my family, Jessie.  He’s the only member of it I care about, and the only one that really matters.  Before he met you, all he did since college was wander around, looking for a purpose, but having no real desire to find it.  Just drifting through life.  I thought for a while that it was going to end up killing him.  It was a rough life, hon, a lot rougher than he ever let on.  I know, I kept an eye on him.  Then he met you, and inside three days, he had a job, he had an apartment, and he had hope.  That was something he hasn’t had any of since the accident that ended his dream to go into the military.  You changed his life, Jessie.  In many ways, I think you saved it,” she said softly.  “I think if he would have gotten on that bus and moved on instead of trying to find you, he’d have been dead within two years.”

        “Well, I’m glad he stayed,” she whispered, leaning over Vil and looking down at him.  “I think I would have spent my whole life looking for him, and would have never been truly happy.”

        Vil reached up and patted her paw.  “Well, let’s give him a chance to get some sleep, hon.  Come take a walk with me.  We have some things to talk about.”

        “But—“

        “He’ll be alright on his own for a few minutes,” she said with a soft chuckle.

        They walked down the hall, towards the small sitting area for visitors by the elevator, near the nurse’s station.  While they walked, Vil explained everything the police had told her in greater detail, telling her where the assailant came from, how they were looking for his accomplice, and she theorized about how it came about.  “I’m not sure who did this, but I will find out,” she declared in a growling hiss, keeping her voice low.  “And when I do, God help them.”

        “Vil,” she said, stopping them.  “Kit told me some of that, but he also said what you might do.”

        “What I might do?  What I will do,” she said seethingly.

        “No,” she said quietly, but firmly.  “Don’t do that.”

        “It’s what they deserve!”

        “Then you’d be no better than them,” Jessie said with quiet dignity.

        Vil started to say something, but came up short.

        “Please.  For me.  All I ask is you don’t stoop to their level.  I don’t want to wake up some day in the future and feel like I have blood on my paws.”

        Vil’s eyes flashed, but she blew out her breath.  “You’re asking me to tie my paws, hon.  You can’t fight fair against these people.  They cheat.”

        “I never said be an angel, Vil. I just said don’t kill them over it.  Punish them, yes.  But do it the right way.”

        “There is no right way,” she retorted.

        “Yes, there is, Vil.  Think about it.  If you kill them, what does it prove?  Did you ever see the movie Trading Places?”

        “I don’t think so.”

        “Well, in the movie, a rich boy and a poor boy get humiliated by a pair of rich brothers.  In revenge, they make them poor.  Don’t you think that would be justice?  Find a way to take away their money.  Do to them what they did to Kit, just without the guns.”

        Vil opened her mouth, then closed it.  Then she rubbed her chin with a furry finger, her eyes deep in thought.  “Well, I have been exploring invalidating Dad’s will,” she mused.  “But that probably wouldn’t work.  The other members of the family will just give them money.”

        “But what kind of use is all that money when they’re in prison?”

        She snorted.  “Uh, Jessie, sweetheart…I hate to tell you this.  But if a Vulpan ran into a Starbucks and hacked everyone inside to death on live national television, no jury in Massachusetts would ever convict.”

        “If Massachusetts is their playground, then perhaps you should look into making them play on your playground, then,” Jessie urged.  “Kit once told me that if you snapped your fingers, the President himself would jump.  He said you have all the power in the family.  Use it.”

        Vil’s eyes narrowed, and she gave an almost imperceptible nod.  “So, you want me to destroy them,” she said in an offering tone.

        “They deserve it for hurting Kit,” she said with surprising vehemence.  “Just do it legally.  I don’t want to live my life knowing you had someone murdered over me and Kit.  I’d never be able to live with it.”

        She gave Jessie a long, serious look.  Then she put her paws on Jessie’s arms.  “I never make a promise I can’t keep, so I won’t promise.  But I will promise you that I’ll try.”

        “That’s good enough for me, because I know you’ll succeed,” she said with a gentle smile.

        “You really are something special, hon,” Vil smiled, then gave her a brief, warm hug.

        “Vil…my parents.  I’m worried about them.  I’m willing to walk through hell for Kit, but they don’t have anything to do with this.  My mother would probably have paid half of what it cost to hire that hit man,” she said with a sour frown.  “She hates Kit, with a passion that’s almost holy.  But I’m worried that me and Kit might cause my family trouble.  I don’t know what to do.”

        “Well, I do,” Vil said.  “Leave it to me, Jessie.  I’ll make sure they’re safe and sound, and they’ll never know they were being watched over.”

        “I appreciate it, Vil, really,” she said with a grateful smile.  “You’re so good to us.”

        “I’m just being motherly,” she winked.

        “Well, don’t stop on my account,” Jessie smiled.

        “Well, in that case, see what you can do to talk Kit into letting me mother him a bit more,” she said with a sly smile.  “I don’t like him living in that apartment.  You two need a house.  A nice big house, with a big yard and plenty of room for your kids, and a maid and cook to free you from all those menial chores, and—“

        “Take what you can get, Vil,” Jessie teased.

        “I’m a Vulpan, dear.  I get what I want.”

        “At least until you come up against another Vulpan,” Jessie winked.

        “Don’t make me not like you, femme,” Vil grinned.

        “It’s too late for that.”

        Vil laughed, then put her paw over her mouth when the black-furred dog nurse behind the desk gave her a harsh look.  “You’re almost too good for my brother,” she told Jessie with a smile.

        “Nah.  We’re just right for each other.”

        “True enough,” she agreed as they returned to his room.  He was still asleep, sleeping peacefully, and Jessie’s heart melted when she saw him.  He was so strong, such a strong fox, but here he was, totally vulnerable, and yet…he still seemed strong.  Even laying in that bed, she remembered how he didn’t worry a whit about himself, his only concern was for her.  His only worry was for her.  He had tried to comfort her from a hospital bed.

        How did she get so lucky to have a male like him love her?

        “Come on, let’s go watch over the most important male in our lives,” Vil said with a gentle smile and a nudge.  “He needs us.”

 

        Kit was very unhappy with Jessie, because she ditched school.

        He could understand that she was worried about him and was upset, but still, there was little she could do for him, he was just fine, and there was no real reason for her to miss classes.  She should have gone, even if she couldn’t concentrate, because an absence was an absence, and they’d hold it against her.  He didn’t want her to mess up her school for his sake.

        But it was a losing battle, and he knew it.  When he woke up, both she and Vil were with him in the room, Jessie sleeping literally at his bedside, and Vil in a chair by the little table next to the window.  Both of them seemed to know he was awake before he even got to put his paw on Jessie’s gorgeous blond hair, and he was smothered in kisses from both his sister and his Jessie.  The doctor checked in on him before they could talk, though, taking his blood pressure, and bringing in a nurse to change his bandages.  Kit got his first look at the wound, which was now a line of stitches about two inches long just to the left of his sternum and literally just below the edge of his left collarbone.  It didn’t look all that bad, but it was oozing a tiny bit of blood after the scabbing that was stuck to the bandage was pulled free.  But that bleeding stopped before they even put on the new bandage.

        After they left, Vil sat down and talked to him.  She told him everything she knew, and speculated on which uncle was the on that did it.  There wasn’t much more she could tell him that he already didn’t know, but what she did tell him was what she promised Jessie the night before.

        What surprised him even more was that she agreed to it.  “I owe her that much, little bro,” she stated.  “This does involve her too.  If she wants me to play nice, well, I’ll try it her way first.”

        “That’s all I want,” Jessie nodded.  “I know it may not bother you, but it bothers me.”

        “And that’s why I’ll try it your way first.”

        Then came the argument…such as it was.  When he realized it was ten, and Jessie’s first Wednesday class was in session, he told her she should go to school…and he almost got his head bitten off by both of them.  He endured a ten minute tirade from the two of them about how she was worried about him, and her place was there, and so on and so on and so on.  He shut up just so they’d give over on the nagging and give him some peace and quiet.

        They weren’t the only ones playing hookey, though.  The entire crew showed up at eleven, when visiting hours began, and they stayed for nearly three hours.  Lilly brought a camera and they took quite a few pictures of him, the room, the crew in the room, Jessie and Vil, even the doctor and the nurses that came to check on him.  Mike put quite a few of them on a memory card, to add to both the website and two that would go into the magazine.

        It had hit the news last night that he’d been shot.  It wasn’t that big a deal, just a news blurb on the local channels, but on campus it was big news.  Lone Star was a popular magazine on campus, and to hear that one of the staff had been shot rippled across campus by ten.  He received quite a few cards and even three bouquets of flowers once word got out, and Mike told people on the website where they could drop off the cards.

        Kit kept watching Vil.  She would spend quite a bit of time over by the window as the others kept him engaged, on her phone.  He wondered what she was hearing, what orders she was giving.  The Ice Queen was going to rampage across Massachusetts like a tornado, he knew it, and he just wondered how much she was going to adhere to her promise to try to do it legally once she was back home, and no longer had Jessie right there to remind her of it.

        The collie doctor from last night showed up around two, and he shooed everyone but Vil and Jessie out of the room.  He examined Kit and asked quite a few questions.  “Alright, Kit, here’s the deal,” he said, closing the chart in his paws and looking at him.  “We’re going to take you down and give you a CAT scan to survey the injury and make sure the surgeons did everything right.  After that, if everything pans out and there’s no sign of infection, and with luck, we’ll probably be releasing you the day after tomorrow.”

        “Yes!” Kit said happily.

        “Don’t get too happy about that,” he grinned.  “Part and parcel with an early release is a nurse that comes twice a day to check up on you and change your bandages, and I’ll be stopping by once a day to examine you and make sure you’re behaving.  You’ll also be restricted to your house and put on extended rest.  That may not be a big hole, Kit, but it does go all the way through, ya know,” he grinned.  “The key to a quick recovery for you is to keep as sedate as possible and limit how much you move.  Now, I’m willing to let you go home and do your recovering there, but if I see you’re not healing, I’ll haul your furry butt right back in here so fast your tail won’t know where you went.”

        “Understood,” Kit chuckled.  “Why two days?  Why not tomorrow?”

        “The simple truth of it is, we could probably release you right now and you could do alright,” he said honestly.  “But right now, we’re much more worried about infection than the possibility you might tear your stitches.  We’re keeping you over to make absolutely sure that wound doesn’t get infected, and if it does, you’re already right here so we can stomp on it quickly.”

        “Well, that makes sense.”

        “What are the chances of that happening, doctor?” Jessie asked.

        “Right now?  Pretty slim.  We’re over the hump as far as the risk of infection goes, but we’re not taking any chances.  Sometimes the sneakier bugs take a couple of days to start showing up.  Now, have they let you out of that bed today, Kit?”

        Kit laughed.  “Only to go to the bathroom.  Which they won’t even let me do alone,” he added, giving Jessie a cool look.

        Her cheeks frizzed when the doctor grinned at her.

        “Well, then I think you’ll be up to moving to a wheelchair.  I’ll have a nurse come get you in a minute, and we’ll take you down to the CAT room.  So, pretty ladies, help him sit up and baby him while I go fetch a wheelchair for his drag race down to the second floor,” he grinned, then he left the room.

        Kit had seen TV shows about CAT scanners, but the reality of it was…big.  It was a huge machine that took up the back half of the room in which it was placed, looking like some kind of mutant plastic donut.  Kit was placed on the moving table in the middle, and a camera-looking device orbited around him behind the cover of the device.  It was a rather dull experience, actually, for he had to lay in there and be still for a quite a while.  “So, this is like an MRI?” he asked the technician as the machinery hidden inside the machine continued to hum.

        “Kinda the same principle,” the rabbit replied from behind his shielded position.  “But CAT scanners are actually X-ray machines, where an MRI uses magnetic fields.  CT scans are good for what they’re looking for here, damaged tissues around the sternum.  Those will show up in the imaging very clearly.  They could have used an MRI to do it too, but they won’t put you in an MRI because of the screws in your back.”

        “But the screws in my back are supposed to be titanium.  That’s not magnetic, is it?”

        “Nope, but there’s also some radio waves used, which would cause the screws in your back to heat up,” he answered.  “It wouldn’t make them melt or anything, but given where those screws are, I can see why the doctor didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.  If they thermally expanded too far, they might crack the bones they’re in…and those bones aren’t in a very good place for such a thing to happen.”

        “Ah.  I didn’t know that.”

        “Well, now ya do,” the technician chuckled.

        The CAT scan took about thirty minutes total, and he was back in a wheelchair being pushed by a rather burly bobcat nurse or orderly, he wasn’t sure, who chatted amiably at him while taking him back up to his room.  “You should talk to some of the docs about fixing that ear,” he noted as they came out of the elevator.  “It doesn’t look like it would be all that hard for them to make as good as new.”

        Kit was quiet a moment, recalling what Jessie said about his ear.  I can’t imagine what you’d look like with your ear whole, she’d said to him.  It’s almost like this was how you were meant to be to me, you know?

        “No,” he said as the orderly pushed open his door.  “I like my ear just the way it is.”

 

        Jessie eventually lost the battle, because Kit cheated.  Outrageously.

        While she and Vil were down at the cafeteria getting something to eat, Kit called the nurse, who called Doctor Barnett for him.  He told them he was worried that Jessie was going to flunk school if something wasn’t done, so he asked the doctor to force Jessie out of the room after visiting hours were done that night.  She just had to go back to school, she couldn’t miss two days in a row.  She’d be so far behind that it would take her a week to get back up to speed, and that didn’t count the bad grades from missed work, the possibility of doing poorly on tests, and having absences on her record that might cost her if she had another emergency this semester and had to miss more classes.

        “So, you want me to step out in front of that semi, do ya?” Barnett laughed over the phone.  “Don’t answer that. Sure, I’ll be the evil meanie for ya.  If worrying about her is keeping you from getting your rest, well, something’s gotta be done about it.”

        And so it came to pass.  The crew came back after work and hung out in his room for a while.  Rick and Savid brought a laptop and showed him the layout of the next issue, including the front page picture of him in his hospital bed, with Jessie and Vil sitting on each side, and him giving a thumbs-up to the camera.  Barry had done a story about the shooting, which read almost like something out of Newsweek given its detail and the number of interviews he did with the police and the hospital.  It ran three whole pages, which created an issue with 26 pages rather than the usual target of between 20 and 24.  He told them he’d be out by Friday, which relieved everyone greatly, and caused Barry to furiously edit part of the story he’d written about it.

        They hung around for a few hours, and then drifted out one by one, until Rick was the last one.  And much to Kit’s happiness, Martha stopped by to see him.  Martha was a surprisingly tall great dane, which made her a pretty good match for Rick.  But she was a plump as she was tall, a middle-aged woman who enjoyed eating the food she cooked, and had a very matronly and caring personality.  She’d raised three sons with Rick, all three out of the house now and two in college.  Martha had been a part time worker before their youngest left for school at LSU, but now she’d taken up working full time in a crafts store, for she was exceptionally good  at sewing and was a good expert to have about for questions asked by customers.

        “Martha!” he said happily as she came into the room.

        “Hello dear,” she said with a smile, bringing in a fruit basket and a covered box.  “I brought you some dinner, I thought you might be about sick of hospital food.”

        “You’re a lifesaver, Martha,” he said with a laugh.  “What is it?”

        “Meat loaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, and some homemade rolls,” she answered.  “And how are you feeling?”

        “Fine, just a little achy, and the bandages itch,” he grinned, his eyes locked on that box in her paw.

        She laughed.  “I take It you’re hungry?”

        “For real food?  You bet I am.  Jessie won’t leave long enough to cook me anything.”

        “Oh, don’t push this on me, you silly male,” Jessie laughed.  “You never asked for me to make you something.”

        “But you know I hate hospital food,” he said, looking at her.  “You should have sensed my hunger and distaste for hospital food and taken action!”  He sighed.  “And here I thought we were perfect for each other.  I’m starting to re-evaluate the foundations of our relationship, pretty kitty.”

        She whacked him with the spare pillow, albeit gently and carefully, little more than a light tap to his muzzle.

        “I’ll give you foundations for our relationship when I get you home,” she threatened, though she was smiling.  “You seem to forget who’s going to be the one taking care of you when you’re out of here.”

        “Uh, Rick, think I can borrow Mickey’s old bedroom?”

        Martha laughed.  “Oh no, you made that bed, young’un, time to lay in it,” Martha warned.

        “Maybe they’ll hold me here for a few more days,” Kit mused, which made Jessie laugh.

        “Well, it’s good to see you in such high spirits,” Martha said, taking Rick’s paw.

        “High spirits is a good term for it,” he grunted.  “The meds they had me on made me as high as a kite up until about this morning.  I think I’d rather take the pain over that.”

        “I kept saying that while I was pregnant,” Martha chuckled.  “Then the contractions came.  They couldn’t give me enough painkillers after the truth was staring me in the face.”

        “My reasoning is a little different, Martha,” Kit said.

        “When Kit broke his back, they had him on some pretty strong stuff,” Vil said.  “After he started to heal, they had to wean him off of it.”

        “Yeah,” Kit nodded.  “Martha, this is my sister Vil.  Vil, Martha, Rick’s wife.”

        “It’s nice to finally meet the legend in person,” Martha smiled, taking Vil’s paw.

        Vil laughed.  “A legend in my own mind maybe,” she winked.

        “I’m sorry it took so long for me to come see you.  I was in El Paso yesterday to see Brian.  When Rick called and told me what happened, I wanted to come back to see you, but I couldn’t trade in my plane ticket,” she said with a sigh.  “And I wanted to make you something nice when I did get back.”

        “I’m so glad you did,” he said as Jessie unpacked the box for him, and before his eyes was real food.  “How was Brian?” he asked.

        “Same as always.  Like a big teddy bear.  He sent you a get well soon card, by the way.”

        “Tell him thank you from me.  How did the interview go?”

        She smiled.  “He hasn’t heard anything solid yet, but he had a good feeling about it.  To think our oldest is going to follow his old man into the journalism business.  I would have hoped for something better for him,” she said, giving her husband a smile and a teasing poke.

        Kit laughed.  “Well, tell him congratulations from me.”

        “Dear, working at KXEP is a hell of a lot different from what we do,” Rick chuckled.  “Brian has a face for television.  A mug like mine’s best served staying in print.”

        “What is Brian going to be doing?  Reporting?” Vil asked.

        “Brian’s a meteorologist,” Rick answered.  “He’s going to be doing weather forecasts for a TV station in El Paso.  It’s his first big break since getting out of college.”

        “He’s our oldest,” Martha added.  “Our younger boys are still in college.”

        “You sent three kids through college?  That must have been expensive,” Vil noted.

        “It was a challenge, that’s for sure,” Martha said.  “You’re looking at the two biggest misers in Texas, Vil honey.  We don’t make pennies squeak, we make the beg for mercy.”

        “Well, I’m impressed.  That’s quite an accomplishment.  Congratulations.”

        “Well, now I can say I know a TV weatherman,” Kit chuckled.

        “He’ll be doing weekends and off hours stuff for a while, but after he’s been there a while he might move up,” Rick said modestly.  “Brian’s a handsome boy, and he’s actually pretty good at his job.  It just in the TV business, looking good on camera’s almost as important as predicting the weather.”

        “Yes, Brian doesn’t look like a patchwork quilt like his father,” Martha said, which made Vil laugh.

        “If I recall, dear, my fur is what me got me my first date,” he told her.

        “Well, not everyone has good taste like I do,” she said.

        Martha got to know Vil as Jessie tried to feed him, and he kept slapping her paw away.  “There’s nothing at all wrong with my right arm, you silly kitty,” he told her teasingly.

        “Well, excuse me for worrying about you,” she returned with a slight smile.

        It was a wonderful meal, almost tasting heavenly after two days of hospital food.  Martha was a good cook, and he was ever fond of meat loaf.  After he finished eating, Doctor Barnett came into the room.  “Well, I hate to break up this little party, including food,” he said, glancing at the plate on the little wheeled tray, “but Kit’s going to need a good rest for tomorrow.  So I hate to tell you all this, but his visiting hours are over.  For everyone,” he said with a smile, but quite firmly, staring right at Jessie and Vil.

        “But he—“

        “Doctor’s orders, little lady,” Barnett said firmly.  “He’s going to be busy tomorrow, so it’s best to just wait until he’s ready to be discharged before you come back.”

        “So that means you will be in school tomorrow, young lady,” Kit said adamantly.  “Vil, make sure it happens.”

        “I’m not going to be able to concentrate at all,” she complained.

        “That doesn’t matter,” he said.  “What matters is you show up, so they don’t mark you absent again.  I’m sure we can arrange it so they don’t discharge me until after you get out of your last class.”

        “What time is that?” Barnett asked.

        “Around four,” Kit answered for her.

        “Oh, definitely.  He probably won’t be discharged until around five,” he said with a nod.

        “See?  So go to school tomorrow, and Vil can come pick you up and come back just in time to take me home.”

        “Alright,” she sighed.  She leaned down and gave him a lingering kiss, then Vil kissed him on the cheek and patted him on the shoulder.

        “I’ll take her home,” Vil said.

        “I drove here.”

        “Give your keys to Marcus, he’ll drive your car back for you,” she said.  “I’d rather take you home myself.  We have some things to talk about.”

        “I—okay.  See you tomorrow, my handsome fox,” she said.  “You can call me if you get lonely.”

        “I’ll be fine,” he told her.  “I’ll call you before I go to sleep, just so you know I’m okay.”

        “You’d better,” she said, nuzzling him.

        Barnett herded them all out of the room as they said goodbye, and he leaned back against his pillow and sighed.  Truth be told, he’d rather have his sister and Jessie with him, but it was for their own good.  Jessie had to go to school tomorrow, and Vil would be too much of a worrier to get much rest.  He appreciated their concern, but in this case, it was more of a detriment to them than it was a boon for him to be comfortable to allow them to go on with it.  Jessie needed to go to school, and Vil needed a night in a bed so she could get some real sleep.  Those two femmes meant a great deal to him, and he’d make damn sure they were both okay.

 

        Fortunately for him, things went very smoothly in the hospital.  All the tests they did showed that the surgeons had repaired the damaged tissues around his sternum perfectly, and there was no sign of infection. The wounds were already healing, and things looked quite favorable.  Favorable enough for them to return his pants to him—his shirt and coat had been cut off of him and were trash now—and Vil had one of her panther bodyguards bring an overized shirt she bought for him to put on, his arm lashed to him by a sling under the shirt.  He felt a heck of a lot better after he had on real clothes, even if they didn’t want him moving any more than absolutely necessary.  He felt a little lonely, that was certain, but he could handle it.

        It did make the time crawl by, though.  They wanted him to rest, to not move around, and he wasn’t used to that.  He was an active fox, and he didn’t realize how active he was until they didn’t want him to move around.  He laid in bed for a while and tried to watch TV, but TV never really interested him and he could only watch so much news before he got depressed about the sad state of the world.  After that petered out, he sat at the little table by the window and read newspapers the nurses brought him, then started on one of the books from home that Vil had had her panther guards go retrieve the day before.

        Some people watched inane TV.  Kit read history books about Rome, Greece, and the ancient civilizations.

        But his heart wasn’t really in it.  He basicly drifted through the day, waiting for them to let him go home, waiting to see his sister and Jessie again.  He guessed it was a delayed reaction after the fact, but now he felt strangely vulnerable, and being alone was more unnerving than it was restful.  All he wanted was to be around his family and friends, to be near them and know they were alright, and know he was alright.

        A cat orderly did bring him a present around noon.  It was a copy of Lone Star, and there on the cover was a picture of him, Vil, and Jessie, and underneath it read the title He’s Okay!

        That was sweet of the crew, really.

        He got curious, and read the article.  The article read much like what he’d heard Rick and the officers say, and it did specifically state that it was Rick who had shot and killed the attacker, and that the accomplice was up to the time of printing still at large.

        The last two paragraphs were what caught his attention:

 

        Kit is slated for release from Austin General on Friday afternoon, and is expected to make a full recovery.  We hope to have him back in the office keeping our facts straight very soon.  Well-wishers are encouraged to drop him an email here at the magazine.  Letters can be emailed to kit@lonestarmagazine.com.

        A $50,000 reward has been offered for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the accomplice that participated in the attack.  Anyone who has any information about this attack should call the Austin Police, the Texas Rangers, or Crimestoppers.

 

        A reward?  Naturally…that had to be Vil.  But he wouldn’t say anything about it.  He wanted that other bastard to be found and thrown in jail, and if there was a big bounty on his head, the chances he’d be caught were much better.

        He leafed through the magazine, knowing what was in it but having nothing better to do than read it…until he got to the mailbag.  The School Daze strips were gone.  In their place was one of Jeffrey’s drawings, a three panel comic that took up the entire top half of the page.  In all three, there were very realistic sketches of Jessie, In a dark, gloomy kind of background.  In the first, she was standing far to the left side of the empty page, in the distance, her head bowed and her paws before her.  The caption read I didn’t know what you meant to me until I almost lost you.  In the second panel, she was closer, her back to the viewer, looking into the distance. The caption read I thought we had forever.  In a second, I almost lost forever.  In the third, it was a close-up of her, her expression hopeful.  Life is too short, and love is too precious, my handsome fox.  Will you marry me?

        He was stunned.

        Either Jeffrey was playing the worst joke in the history of the universe, or Jessie had proposed to him using the magazine.

        It took him almost five full minutes to wrap his mind around what he was seeing.  When he did, when he finally got his senses, he was on the phone so fast he almost tore his stitches reaching for the phone with his bound left arm, forgetting it was in a sling.  He called the office first, and heard Marty’s voice answer.  “Lone Star,” he called.

        “If you don’t get Jeffrey on the phone right now, I’m going to come down there and strangle you with a mouse cord,” Kit said in a deadly voice.

        Marty laughed.  “I can do that, honey,” he beamed over the phone, then he was put on hold.  Jeffrey picked it up almost immediately, and Kit could hear that it was on speaker.  “Kit, I thought you might call,” he said, then Kit heard almost everyone laughing in the office.

        “If that was a joke, I’m gonna—“

        “No joke!” Jeffrey told him.  “Jessie wrote it and asked me to draw it.  It’s serious, bud.  She proposed to you.”

        Kit was silent a long moment.  Shy Jessie had proposed to him…by using a public magazine?  That was almost…almost…insane!  In both regards!  It was insane that she would propose to him, since she was so traditional, but it was even more insane that she would do it literally in the public venue!

        “Kit?  You there?” Mike asked, snickering.

        “I’m here,” he said woodenly, which caused even more laughter.  “So, what’s the answer!” they all shouted in unison.

        “As if you even have to ask that,” he snorted, then he laughed.  “Rick?”

        “Yeah, son?”

        “Why did you let Jessie go through with that?”

        “It was what she wanted, son, and besides, I wasn’t going to say a word.  It wasn’t my place.”

        Kit sighed.  “You realize I’m going to get all of you for this.”

        “Such are the declarations of males who can’t do a damned thing about it,” Lilly laughed.  “So answer her!”

        “My answer is in Rick’s desk,” Kit said.  “Can you bring it to the hospital, Rick?  I’d like to have it handy.”

        “I’ll bring it right now, Kit,” he said with a chuckle, as the others all started demanding what he meant.  “Kit bought Jessie a ring,” he said, meant for the others, but audible to him.  “A damn fine one at that.  He had it with him when he was shot.  He was attacked more or less on the way to go propose to her.”

        That wasn’t quite the way it happened, but Rick had planted that seed before Kit could even say a word, and he realized that it would be impossible to get that idea out of their minds.  They all begged to see it, and Kit relented.  There was a pause, and then came gasps from the crew as they must have been looking at it.  “My God, Kit, how much did that cost?”

        “A lot,” Kit answered.  “Why do you think I’ve been walking to work the last month?”

        “You sold your truck? Damn!” Barry gasped.

        “No, I was just saving money on gas,” he laughed in reply.

        “I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes, son,” Rick told him.  “Just hang in there.”

        “Yo, Kit.  I’m saving the original board for you,” Jeffrey added, then he hung up the phone.

        Kit spent that fifteen minutes in a bit of a daze.  He’d already bought a ring, and if he wouldn’t have been shot, he would have looked for the right opportunity to propose to her.  But this, this just overwhelmed him.  Jessie had gone against her personality, her nature, even her training as a young lady in what she did.  He was amazed.  He was astounded.  He was…happy.  That she would do something like that for him, so much against her nature, it showed how much she loved him.  She proposed to him!  She beat him to the punch!

        God, what a femme!

        Rick arrived while he was pondering it.  He came in and shook Kit’s hand, then produced the little box holding the ring.  “Here it is, son,” he said.  “Now, when are you going to give it to her?”

        “The first thing when I get home,” he grinned in reply.  “Now I want you to back me up if she asks about the ring,” he said.  “You’re my witness, boss, I had the ring before today.  I had marriage on my mind long before she had Jeffrey draw that strip.”

        Rick laughed.  “You surely did.  And I’ll make sure to tell her when she shows it to me.”

        “I knew you were a good guy,” Kit grinned.

        Kit’s waiting grew almost unbearable after Rick went back to the office.  He wanted to see Jessie.  He wanted to see her now, but she wouldn’t be there until after four.  And having to remain calm and sedate made it worse.  Five separate times, he got verbally spanked by the nurses for too much moving around.  At one point, they even called in Doctor Barnett, and they threatened to tie him to the bed if he didn’t either sit down or lay down and remain stationary.

        It was an eternity.  He almost started watching the clock, waiting…waiting…waiting.  The time between three and four was absolute hell, knowing he’d see her soon, but knowing it was so far away.  He was like a hyper child waiting for Christmas, unable to sleep, unable to get out of bed for fear that Santa would pass his house by, trapped into an eternity of waiting for the desired prize at the other end of that long tunnel.  Doctor Barnett threatened to medicate him if he didn’t calm down around about 3:15, when they gave him a final checkup, took his blood pressure, and drew blood one final time to test for any infection.  They sent it off to the lab while the nurses changed his bandage, and Barnett stayed in the room to keep him from pacing while they waited for the reply.

        That was the torture.  Barnett kept him solidly in his chair, where all he could do was tap his foot and wait for the lab to do whatever it was they did.

        A few minutes after four, the answer came.  “Well, your white count is normal, no unusual spikes anywhere,” he said.  “That’s that, Kit.  You’re outta here.  Call your ride, and I’ll have the nurse get the papers ready.”

        He was on the phone seconds after Barnett left the room.  He called Vil’s cell, and she picked it up before it could even ring once.  “Hello?”

        “Sis, I’m being released!” he told her happily.  “Can you go get Jessie and come pick me up?”

        “I already have her.  I just picked her up from school.  We’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”

        “Don’t be late, I need to talk to Jessie!” he told her.  “I mean I really need to talk to Jessie.  Put her on.”

        “I rather thought you might,” she said in an amused voice, then hung up before he could press her.

        That bitch!  Oh, she was gonna get it!

        Calling back would be pointless.  Vil just wouldn’t answer the phone.  He was forced to wait.

        He did get a little sidetracked when Barnett came back in with a nurse and some papers.  He basicly allowed Kit to sign out of the hospital, then sign some agreements about his home care.  A nurse would come twice a day to check on him and check his bandages, and once a day, about 8:00pm, Barnett himself would be making a house call to check his progress.  He’d have to return in two weeks to have the stitches taken out, but that could be done at the outpatient clinic, which was in an annex building across the street from the hospital.  Barnett brought him an extra sling, just in case he had to remove the one he had, and explained to him how to put it on by demonstrating with the spare, as his nurse put it on him.

        He didn’t hear the door open, but he definitely heard her voice.  “Kit?”

        He turned around, and she hurried to him.  She stopped just before him, reaching out but afraid to embrace him, but he didn’t give her a chance.  His good arm reached out and dragged her into an embrace, and he put his right around around her, holding her shoulder, and did nothing more.  He just held onto her, tightly, his cheek against the side of her head.  She put her paws in the only place she felt safe to hold him, low on his back, and just leaned against him contentedly.

        “Jessie,” he breathed.

        “Yes, Kit?”

        “I’m going to murder Jeffrey,” he told her.

        She giggled.  “So, you saw it.”

        “And we’re going to talk about that when we get home,” he told her.  “There’s something I want to say to you, but it can wait until we’re in private.”

        “An answer?”

        “You’ll find out.”  He let go of her, and looked to Vil.  “Take me home, sis.”

        And she did.  There was a limo waiting in the pickup lane.  Vil’s two panther bodyguards helped him into the limo, and Vil and Jessie got in behind him.  Jessie kept giving him expectant looks, but Vil just sat over there with a little smile on her face.  She knew him, she knew him well.

        He kept his peace until he was home.  They helped him out, and Jessie opened the door for him and led him into the apartment.  Vil stopped at the door, but did not come in.  She just gave him a knowing smile, and then slowly closed it, leaving them alone.

        “Kit, I just—“

        “No, my pretty kitty, don’t say a word.  We’ve always joked about marriage, and I’ve talked about it, but I’ve never done anything to prove to you how serious I was.”  He dug into his pocket.  “The day I was shot, Jessie, I was bringing you this.  I’d just picked it up that day.”

        He held out the box to her.

        Her fingers trembled when she took it from him, and then her eyes widened and she gasped when she opened it.  “That’s why I was walking to work, pretty kitty.  And why I’ve had no food in the house for the last month.  I was saving for this.  I wanted to propose to you, Jessie, but you beat me to it.”

        He put his paw over one of the paws holding the ring box, and he knelt down.  “Jessica Desdemona Williams, I love you.  I want to spend the rest of my life with you.  Will you marry me?”

        “YES!” she screamed, dropping to her knees and kissing him passionately, even as she was very mindful of his injury.  She put her chin on his shoulder, and behind his back, she took the ring out of the box and slipped it on her finger.  “I love you,  Kitstrom Lucas Vulpan, and I want to be together with you always.  I want to have your children, and watch them grow, and grow old with you.  I want the forever that was almost taken from us.”

        She kissed him again, and he heard Vil chuckling at the doorway.  “That’s not something you do on your knees, you two.  And congratulations.”

        Jessie’s cheeks frizzed, and she laughed helplessly.  “Did you buy him the ring, Vil?”

        “Nope.  If it was me, it would have been a hell of a lot bigger.  Rick told me about the ring yesterday, but swore me to secrecy.  Kit bought it before he was shot.”

        “So now you know, my pretty kitty,” he breathed in her ear.  “I was touched by your proposal, I really was.  But the traditionalist femme in you can rest easy knowing that I was half a heartbeat from it.  If not for being shot, I’d have proposed already.”

        “I love you!” she said happily.  “When can we have the ceremony?”

        “Oh, I don’t know,” he chuckled.  “After I heal for one, and after you’re sure you can handle such a big change in your life without it affecting school for another.”

        “So, a month?” she offered.

        “Oh, hell no,” Vil called.  “My little brother’s getting married.  You’re not going to run to some judge somewhere and get married in a little office!  Oh no, this calls for a real wedding!”

        “Hell no,” Kit growled, looking at his sister.

        “Come on, I dare you to fight about it,” she said pugnaciously.  “You want to deny Jessie a chance at the kind of wedding little girls dream about?”

        That bitch.  She knew exactly how to attack him.  He could reject her help all day, but as soon as Jessie’s happiness got involved, he just had no defense.  He couldn’t deny her anything.

        “Then I’ll leave it up to her.  Jessie gets to plan the wedding.”

        “Actually, that’s my parents’ job,” Jessie giggled.

        “The way your mother feels about me?  It would likely involve machine guns and land mines.”

        Jessie laughed, then got up and helped Kit back to his feet, but she kept her arm around him and stayed in his embrace.  “I’ll have to tell them,” she said.  “Want me to tape it for you?”

        “I should be able to hear it clearly if I just go outside,” he said dryly, which made both Jessie and Vil laugh.

        “I think she might calm down a little once she knows we’re engaged, my handsome fox,” she said.  “Not much, though.  I guess I should get used to that,” she sighed.  “It’s going to make visiting my folks a little tense.”

        “It’ll all work out,” Vil assured them.  She came over and put an arm around each of them, hugging them both.  “I’m very happy for both of you,” she told them.  “And I’m going to go back home now, Kit.  You’re going to be okay, and I can go home knowing that you’re home, you’re going to be just fine, and you’ve done what you should have done a month ago.”

        “I wasn’t ready a month ago,” he said, looking into Jessie’s eyes adoringly.  “I didn’t have a ring. I couldn’t propose without a ring.”

        “I would have said yes,” she told him with a loving smile.  “Ring or no ring.”

        “I’d never take anything you deserve away from you, my pretty kitty,” he said softly.

        “Then never leave me,” she told him, her heart in her eyes.

        “Never.”

        “I’ll make sure of that,” Vil told them with a chuckle.  “It’s a guarantee.”  She kissed Kit on the cheek, then kissed Jessie on the cheek.  “Now then, it’s time for me to go.  I have a lot to do, a wedding to plan, and some family members to castrate.”

        “Behave,” Jessie told her seriously.

        “I promise to do my best to do things the way you want,” she said honestly.  “But I reserve the right to deal with them in the way they deserve.”

        “Just remember what I said.”

        “I won’t kill them.  But when I’m done, they’ll wish they were dead,” she said in a cold, deadly voice that made Jessie physically flinch.

        Jessie laughed.  “I think I can live with that.”

        “I’m glad you can.  Jessie, call your parents tonight and tell them.”

        “I will.  I’ll call them right now.”

        “Good.  Be good to each other, you two.  And call me, both of you.  Every day.”

        “We will,” Kit assured with a nod.

        Vil left then, left so abruptly that it surprised him a little bit. He expected her to stay at least until tomorrow…but then again, Vil was still bristling mad, and that made her a little unpredictable.  Now that Kit was safely home—no doubt with an army of security guards surrounding Westwood, all out of sight—she felt it was safe to leave him now, and get on to the business of rabid, no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled payback.

        May God speed her on that journey.

        Kit leaned down and kissed Jessie tenderly, just revelling in the thought of it.  They were engaged.  They were going to be married…and all he could think was finally!

        “Well, what now, Kitstrom Lucas Vulpan?” she asked with a light smile but loving eyes.

        “Now, you call your parents,” he told her.

        “I want to move in.  Tonight.  Now.”

        “I want you here,” he returned.  “But your parents need to know.”

        She looked down at the ring on her finger, then she looked up at him.  “I love you, my handsome fox,” she said simply, nuzzling him.

        “And I love you, my pretty kitty.”

 

        Vil settled herself in the limo, feeling very satisfied.  It seemed that her gentle nudging had been all it took to get those two together, and now that they were engaged, she was quite content about.

        But there were things to do.  From what she’d learned so far, the orders had come out of Boston, but so far her investigators had not narrowed down exactly who gave the order.  Whoever did it was very, very careful, obviously fearful of being discovered.

        Not fearful of the law.  Fearful of her.  Vilenne Vulpan was fifty times worse then the law.

        “Marcus, laptop please,” she called.  The panther took her laptop from the front seat and passed it back to her, and she set it on her lap.

        “Shall I call the airport, madam?”

        “Yes,” she answered as her laptop came up.  “Tell them we’re not going straight to Boston.”

        “Where are we going then, madam?”

        The system came up.  She open a file, a detailed report sent to her just in the last hour, showing the current progress on several projects, from shipyard business to her building legal challenge over the will to the search for who shot her brother.  “Cincinnati,” she finally answered.  “I think I want to meet Jessie’s shrew of a mother face to face.”  She went to another file, holding the telephone numbers of certain individuals that the law would very much like to see disappear.  “And step on her.”

        “Very well, madam,” Marcus acknowledged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    7      9

Chapter 8

 

        Judging from the fireworks he could hear over the cell, Hannah reacted to the news pretty much well the way he expected.

        He sat on the couch as Jessie paced back and forth through the living room, listening to her.  To her credit, she didn’t try to hedge or try to work her into it.  Jessie knew that her mother would object, so she went right to the point.  Within two minutes of making the call, the message was delivered…in surprising terms.

        “Mom, listen.  Kit proposed to me, and I accepted,” she stated, in an even voice.  That was it.  No softening the blow, no using more flowery language.  The facts, straight up.

        The eruption came immediately.  Kit couldn’t make out Hannah’s words, but he could definitely hear her screaming, even from that distance.  Hannah raged at her daughter for long moments, as Jessie remained quiet, but then she retaliated when Hannah played out the initial salvo.  “Now you listen to me!” Jessie barked.  “I don’t care how you feel about it, Mom!  This is my life!  I love him, and I want to marry him!  You can either accept that, or you can not accept it.  That’s your choice.  But don’t ever think that there is any way you can ever make me change my mind.”

        He heard her tone change, from demanding and outraged to wheedling, but Jessie just stonewalled her.  “If you’re not going to do anything but tell me how I’m messing up my life, mother, than I think I have nothing more to say to you.  Allow me to introduce you to your favorite way to end an argument!”

        Then she hung up.

        Kit laughed delightedly, then winced a little when it sent a little shiver of pain through his shoulder.  “That’s giving her her own medicine,” he said with an approving nod.

        The phone rang again almost immediately.  Jessie opened it, closed it, then deliberately turned it off.  “I’m glad she doesn’t have my cell number,” she laughed.  “Let’s call Rick and tell him the news.”

        The news was spread quickly.  It was Friday, the late day at work, so everyone was there when Jessie called them.  “He’s putting it on the speaker in the office,” she told him, as she set the cellphone to speaker as well and held it out for them.  “Rick?  Guys?” Jessie called.

        “We’re here, hon,” Rick said.

        “All of us!” Lilly called.

        “So, what did he say?” Marty asked.

        “That’s a stupid question, Marty!” Kit called.  “But I had to do it properly.  Kneeling down and everything.”

        There was a wild celebratory whoop from the office.  “Congratulations, guys!” Jeffrey said.

        “I’ll put it up on the website!” Mike called happily.  “Did you finish that drawing, Jeffrey?”

        “I drew up a new board announcing the engagement,” Jeffrey said to them.  “It has you two kissing, and just the word yes in big letters across the top,” he added.

        “You didn’t!” Jessie gasped, her cheeks ruffling.

        “Hey, if you’re gonna propose in a magazine, it’s only fair to the readers to see the answer,” Jeffrey laughed.

        “Congratulations you two, really,” Rick said.  “Son, I’ll drop by in a few minutes and bring you your laptop.”

        “Thanks, boss.”

        “What did the hospital say?”

        “I’m on extended rest at home,” he answered.  “Restricted activity, but I hope to be back at work in a couple of weeks at the most.  It’s not that strenuous to sit at a desk, after all.  I just won’t be typing very fast until I get rid of this sling,” he chuckled.

        “Don’t push yourself, bud,” Barry called.  “We’ll be here.”

        “Maybe I teach you edit while your arm heals,” Savid offered.

        “Hey, that’d be cool,” Kit said brightly.

        “Only if you can do it here,” Jessie warned.  “The doctor told him to rest, and I’ll make sure he rests,” she said.  “I’m going to move in with him.”

        “You go femme!” Lilly said happily.  “Get those claws in him and don’t let go til after he says I do!”

        “She’s not going to be dragging me to the altar, Lilly,” Kit laughed.  “I’m entering into that nightmare willing and able.”

        “Nightmare?” Jessie asked with an arched brow.

        “I’ll enjoy the torment,” he said, giving her a kiss.

        “I hope so,” she teased, nuzzling him.

        “Now if only we had someone there to take pictures of that warm and fuzzy moment,” Mike mused, which made Kit laugh.

        “Well, I think we’ll let you get back to work,” Jessie told them.  “I need to go buy some groceries and cook him something for dinner.”

        “No, no, no cooking,” Rick said. “I’m coming by, I’ll bring you something.  What do you want?”

        “Pizza,” Kit said hungrily.

        Rick laughed.  “Pizza it is.  What kind and where from?”

        “Pizza Hut,” they said in unison  “A medium supreme for me,” Kit said.

        “Get me something without mushrooms,” Jessie said.  “Outside of that, I’m not picky.”

        “Got it.  I should be down in about half an hour, kids.  Don’t start eating the carpet before I get there.”

        Jessie laughed.  “I may not be here, Rick, I still have to go to the store.  There’s almost nothing to eat here.  Kit’s been starving himself to buy my ring.  And I’m not too happy about that,” she said, giving him a stern look.

        “Well, I am,” he told her.

        “Uh, you have money for that, hon?  I can—“

        “I’m fine, Rick.  Vil gave me a pre-engagement present.”

        “Oh, she did not—“

        “It’s alright, Kit,” she said placatingly.  “She knew you were broke because you bought the ring.  She gave me two thousand dollars to hold us over until you get better.  We do have to pay the rent and the bills and eat, you know.  And since you don’t have insurance, she didn’t know if you had any kind of workman’s comp to pay you while you heal.”

        “Well, I guess that’s alright,” he said.  “At least she didn’t try to give you a check.  I wouldn’t put it past her.”

        “She’s tried,” Jessie giggled.  “But I keep telling her no.”

        “Well, that was nice of her,” Marty said.  “Think she might want to take care of me?”

        “You’re not her type, Marty,” Kit chuckled.

        “Well, I wouldn’t have let you get tossed into the street,” Rick chuckled.  “You’re not just my workers, you’re my family too.  And families watch out for each other.”

        “Aww, I feel a group hug coming on,” Mike said in a gushy voice, then he squealed when someone must have slapped him or something.

        “I’ll get a move on, kids.  Be there in a bit.”

        “Well, what shall we do while we wait for Rick?” Jessie asked after they said their goodbyes and closed the phone.

        “I can think of something, future Misses Vulpan,” he said, pulling her against him.  She giggled and cuddled in with him.

        “I think I can go to the store after we eat,” she said with a contented sigh, leaning her head against his shoulder and neck, and then she began to purr.

 

        John thought that perhaps Hannah had gone a bit too far this time.

        He sat in his chair in front of the TV, turned off, with a book in his paws, trying to focus on reading while Hannah stormed around the house, carrying the telephone with her.  She’d been trying to call Jessica back for nearly two hours, hitting redail every few minutes, pacing back and forth and back and forth, from the kitchen to the foyer and back again.  She was quite furious and outraged, and John was keeping his mouth shut.

        Unlike Hannah, John wasn’t half as opposed to the idea.  Oh, he certainly felt that Jessica was too young to get married, and that she should have most definitely finished school first…and that might still happen.  What little he’d managed to piece together so far was that Jessica was engaged, that she didn’t elope.  There was time to try to convince her to hold off on the actual wedding until after she graduated from school, when she could more diligently focus herself on the change of lifestyle that came with having a spouse.  But where Hannah was violently opposed to Jessica’s choice in males, John wasn’t.  Kit seemed to be a decent, hard-working sort that would treat Jessica well, but no amount of trying to explain it to Hannah was going to move her.  For her, this was personal, and it wasn’t about Jessica.  It was about her own father.

        He could see that rather clearly.  Hannah’s father was a fox, and he had not been a good father to her, nor a good husband to her mother.  He’d been a lazy, shiftless sort who cheated on Hannah’s mother at the drop of a hat, yet her mother wouldn’t leave him because she loved him.  It was quite a sad situation, actually.  Victor had used Patricia, living off of her, cheating on her, and when Hannah was nine, Patricia had finally reached her limit and laid down an ultimatum to Victor.  He would either shape up or ship out.

        And he left…but not before cleaning out the bank accounts and taking as much furniture as he could fit in his truck while Patricia was at work and Hannah and her two brothers were at school.

        Hannah spent most of her childhood listening to her mother tell her how no-good her fox father was, and it developed a prejudice against foxes in her mind.  To her, all foxes were like her father.  If Kit were a cat or a dog or something, John felt she wouldn’t be quite this adamant about it, though she would still object to it.  But since he was a fox, Hannah’s personal prejudices were building on her protective impulses.

        He almost felt sorry for her.  Jessica was a very demure, shy young lady, but she was very willful.  If she’d dug her claws in about marrying the fox, she wasn’t going to be moved.  Hannah could crash against that wall for the rest of her life, and it wasn’t going to move.  The only thing that would change Jessica’s mind was herself, and the harder Hannah tried, the more she was going to alienate her daughter.  Jessica loved her mother, but every child had a limit, and Hannah would push her to that limit.  Hannah was just as willful as Jessica, and now that they were put on a collision course with each other, a train wreck was a virtual certainty.  All he could hope was that the two of them didn’t permanently poison their relationship.

        He sighed a little as Hannah stormed through the living room, then reappeared immediatley, stopped to dial the fox’s number, and then she actually cursed and continued on.  Ben came down from upstairs as she stormed past, a surprised look on his face.  Ben was a very burly young man, tall and muscular, which was perfect for a football player.  Ben took after his father in his coloration, with cream-colored fur everywhere but a dark patch of fur on his right shoulder and the right side of his back, hidden under his shirt.  “Did Mom just say what I think she said?” he asked.

        “Probably, son,” John said evenly, turning the page.

        “What’s got her tail under the rocking chair?”

        “Jessica.”

        “What did Jessie do now?”

        “It seems that her boyfriend proposed to her, and she accepted.”

        “Woah, really?”  John nodded.  “Wow, I never thought Jessie would do something like that.  No wonder Mom’s trying to claw up the furniture.  I guess this is a bad time to ask to borrow the car,” he chuckled.

        John was about to chide his son, but the doorbell rang.  “I got it, it’s probably Hank,” Ben said, hurrying to the door.  John went back to his book as Hannah came out of the kitchen.  “Uh, can I help you?”

        “I’m here to see your parents,” came an unknown voice.

        “Sure.  Please, come in.”

        “Who is it, Ben?” Hannah asked as she moved towards the foyer, which was around the corner from the living room, just past the stairs.  John heard Hannah gasp when she got to the corner.  “I don’t believe we’ve met,” Hannah said, in a somewhat unfriendly tone.

        “My name is Vilenne Vulpan,” came the reply.  The sound of that name made John almost drop his book.  Vilenne Vulpan?  The boy’s sister, who he said was rich?  “Kit is my brother, and I’m here to talk to you.”

        “Uh, please, come in,” Hannah said, her voice a little uncertain.  John looked up as Ben and Hannah led a rather short vixen into the living room.  She was dressed in a plain gray business suit, with a skirt instead of slacks, and a little black tab-tie.  Her eyes were just like the pictures that he’d seen on the computer of Kit, with her left eye amber and her right eye green.  It must be some kind of shared trait between the two of them.  Two huge panther males stepped into the room behind her, dressed in black suits, one of them carrying a briefcase.

        John put his book in the chair beside him and stood up, then went over and shook her paw.  “I’m John Williams,” he said in introduction.  “My wife Hannah, and our son Ben.  Please, sit down.”

        She seated herself on the couch, her thick tail tucked in beside her, and she gave them a direct look as John and Hannah sat down in their chairs.  Hannah looked a trifle piqued.  Ben stood by the stairs, not getting involved but curious enough to hang around to listen.  “First off.  Has Jessie called?”

        “Yes, she called,” Hannah said with pinched fury.  “Have you talked to her? Do you know what she said?”

        “She’s engaged,” Vilenne said simply.  “To my brother.”

        “And I would assume that your visit concerns this engagement?  If I recall, you live in Boston, madam,” John said calmly, cutting off the certainly biting remark that Hannah was about to deliver.  “What brings you to Cincinnati?”

        “I was on my way home,” she said.  “I arranged to stop over here so we could talk.  First thing, I suppose.  Did Jessie tell you what happened?”

        “Not concerning the engagement?”

        Vilenne shook her head. “My brother, Kit, was shot just outside his office a few days ago,” she told them.

        Hannah gave her a startled look, and John gasped.  “Dear Lord, is he alright?”

        “He’s home now,” she told them calmly.  “As far as gunshot wounds go, he was very lucky.  His injury wasn’t bad, and he’s already home and on the mend.  He’ll be just fine.”

        “Well, that’s good news at least.”

        “Thank you for your concern.  But, obviously, that’s not why I’m here.  I’m here about your daughter and my brother.”  She leaned back a little.  “Jessie told me that you’re not…happy, about them.”

        “No, I’m not,” Hannah finally said, a bit frostily.

        “Why?” Vilenne asked simply.

        “Because she shouldn’t be fooling around with boys while in school,” Hannah said immediately.  “And definitely not with a boy I don’t know!”

        “Have you tried to get to know him, or did you just immediately decide not to?” she asked, quite conversationally.

        Hannah drew herself up, preparing to let this young vixen have it, but John raised his paw.  Hannah might be a formidable woman, but this slight little vixen just oozed confidence.  If Hannah got into a shouting match with her, she wasn’t going to win.  “Hannah, dear,” he said urbanely.

        “Don’t you dear me, John!” she said icily.  “It’s quite clear she’s siding with them on this matter!”

        “Of course I am,” she said pleasantly.  “I don’t think you understand those two very well, Misses Williams.  You decided to take a stand without investigating.  You don’t know my brother the way I do.”

        “And you don’t know my daughter!”

        “I know her quite well.  We talk at least once a week,” she said dismissively.  “Sometimes as often as every day.”

        Hannah came up short.  “She’s never told me that!”

        “That’s because every time you call, all you ever do is nag her about my brother,” she answered.

        Hannah took a stiff expression at the word nag.  “I’m only doing what’s best for Jessica!”

        “What’s best for Jessie?  I don’t think so.  What’s best for Jessie is to marry Kit,” she said calmly.

        Hannah was about to start yelling, but John brought her up short.  “And what makes you believe that?” he asked.

        “Because Jessie is the best thing that ever happened to my brother,” she answered casually.  “He absolutely worships her.”

        “That’s no reason why it’s best for Jessie, it’s only what’s best for him!” Hannah snapped.  “He’ll just use her and then throw her away when he’s done!”

        “Just like a fox?” Vilenne asked simply.

        Hannah’s cheeks ruffled.

        “Stav,” she called, reaching out her paw.  One of the two panthers, the one with the briefcase, stepped forward and gave her the briefcase.  “You don’t know my brother, Misses Williams,” she said calmly as she opened it on her lap.  “I don’t think you appreciate what life has been like for him.”  She took out a small pack of papers.  “Our mother died when he was eight,” she began.  “When that happened, our father pulled away from us.  My father suffered from the same curse as my brother, Misses Williams. He loved too much.  When my mother died, it destroyed him inside.  He lost all interest in me and my brother, he left us to be raised by our butler and nannies.  Seeing us reminded him of her, and he couldn’t stand it.

        “That set the stage, I suppose.  Kit hated our father for rejecting us, and he acted out.  It got even worse when our father got over his grief enough to take interest in Kit again, but it wasn’t love.  He wanted Kit to train to be the next Vulpan in line to run the family business.  I won’t go into the details of it, but it ended when Kit turned sixteen, and he left the family after our father issued an ultimatum.  When he did that, my father disowned him, but he couldn’t let it go.  My father hounded my brother from that moment on.  He couldn’t accept that Kit rejected him, and his obsession to bend Kit to his will became total hatred.  My father did everything in his power to ruin Kit’s life after he left, to force him to crawl on his knees back to the family and beg to be taken back in.  My father arranged it so Kit’s life was hell.  He had people steal his things.  He would get Kit fired from any job he could get.  He once even had someone set fire to the apartment building where Kit was staying with a friend.  Kit had no peace, Misses Williams.  No peace, no safety, nothing.  Can you imagine that, Misses Williams?  A sixteen year old rich kid thrown on the streets, with no inkling of how the real world works, and a father with hundreds of millions of dollars trying to ruin anything he built for himself?  Sometimes I’m amazed he managed to survive, but my brother is very strong.

        “He wasn’t alone, though.  I love my brother, Misses Williams.  When our mother died, I more or less became his mother.  After our father disowned him, I did my best to make sure he could make it.”

        “Pardon my curiosity, but what does any of that have to do with my daughter?” Hannah asked coldly.  “We all had hard childhoods.  So he made it, big deal.  From the way it sounds, I’d not want my Jessica to have anything to do with someone carrying so many childhood scars.  It just proves he’s no good for my daughter.”

        “Hannah!” John said in surprise.

        “I see you’re putting your own scars into this,” Vilenne said with surprising calm.  She opened one of the files in her paws.  “This is the record of your father, Victor Cremeans,” she said, which made Hannah’s eyes bulge.  “Do you hate my brother because of who he is, or do you hate him because he reminds you of your father?” she asked with direct eyes.

        “How dare you!“ Hannah snapped, jumping to her feet, but the slender little fox just gave her a long, steady stare, a chilling stare that seemed to suck the defiance right out of his wife.

        “You’re not dealing with a child you can shout down, Misses Williams,” the little fox said with a biting tone.  “I stare down the rulers of nations on a daily basis.  You do not intimidate me in the slightest.”  She closed the folder, then opened a different file.  “I would guess that that’s the main reason you hate my brother so much, but I think there’s a little more to it.  The past is the past, Misses Williams.  The days of the Columbus Twenty are long past.  Kit fully knows that Jessie is a mixed breed.  She told him herself, I believe on their second date.  My brother doesn’t care about it.  All he sees is her, not who her parents are.  Or grandparents, in this case.  Kit loves her for who she is, Misses Williams, not what she is.”

        “How did you know about that?” Hannah gasped, dropping back to her chair heavily, her eyes wide.

        “I’m a businessfemme, Misses Williams.  I never enter into any situation without being fully prepared.  It took only about twenty minutes of studying your family to get an idea of why you hate my brother so much, and your history is a simple matter to dig up once one knows your maiden name.  Simply put, Misses Williams, my brother is not your father, and her heritage never once crossed his mind.  I told you where he comes from so you could get an idea of what kind of fox he is.  My brother is strong, Misses Williams.  He stood up to everything my father could throw at him, and he came through it.  You have no idea how courageous he is.  If you ever met my family, you’d understand.  My family is not nice, Misses Williams.  When Kit was disowned, they abandoned him, because they were more interested in the family’s money than they were in my brother.  When it was clear he wasn’t going to be the heir, and my father was disowning him, they threw him away like so much garbage.  When he was hit by a car and nearly killed, I heard my uncles complain that he survived, and my father was going to refuse to allow anyone to pay his bills in hopes that the lack of treatment would kill him.”

        Hannah’s jaw dropped and she gaped at the vixen in shock.  John felt his own level of outrage himself.

        “Maybe now you understand what my brother faced?” she asked simply.  “After that, Kit totally abandoned the family, except for me.  He hates them now, and he won’t have anything to do with them.  He wants to make it on his own, without his family name, and without the family’s money.  Does that give you an idea how determined he is?  Now, the other side of that is simple, Misses Williams.  My brother is in love with Jessie.  And I’m not talking about puppy love.  He loves her.  And before you ask how I know, mind that I basicly raised him after our mother died, Misses Williams.  I know him better than anyone on this planet.

        “Before he met Jessie, my brother lived a transient life.  He would ride a bus somewhere, get off, and work menial jobs until he had enough money to move on.  Sometimes I think he did it to hide from our family, because they still hate him, and a family as rich as mine has a very long arm.  Sometimes, I think he was looking for something.  He was doing the same thing in Austin, and he was only a couple of days from leaving when he met Jessie.  And that changed everything.

        “Within three days of meeting her, Misses Williams, he had a job, an apartment, and was starting to build a real life for himself,” she explained.  “And he did it all just so he could date your daughter.  He didn’t want her going out with a homeless dishwasher, so he got a good job at a magazine, he got an apartment, and he created a stable foundation for himself so he could court her.  That’s how much he loves her, Misses Williams.  He completely changed his entire way of life just to be worthy of her.”

        She shuffled through the files in her paws.  “I’m telling you this for two reasons.  The first is so you can understand just how much Kit loves Jessie.  She’s his entire life, and he’d walk through fire for her.  The second is so you understand my brother a little better.  He’s strong and courageous, and he won’t give up on Jessie.  He won’t leave her, and he’ll always be there for her.  All he wants to do now is make her happy, even to the point of letting me do things for her he never let me do for him,” she said with a humorless chuckle.  “He never let me buy him a car before he met her, but he didn’t mind one bit when I bought one for her.”

        She gave Hannah another of those long, slightly ominous looks.  “Now, Misses Williams.  Did you have something to say to me?”

        It hung there for a long moment.  Hannah looked about ready to lay an egg, but then she screwed up her courage and drew herself up in her chair.  “I don’t think a child pretending at being an adult should be walking in here telling me how I should think about my own daughter,” she declared with narrow eyes.

        “This isn’t about your daughter.  This is about my brother,” she said simply.  “And I may be young, Misses Williams, but I run a multi-billion dollar corporation.  I think that gives me at least the leeway to presume to think I know as much as someone your age, even if you’re almost old enough to be my mother.”

        John cut it off before Hannah had a conniption.  “I think you’re quite brave for coming here, but I think this is something Kit should have done himself.”

        “No, that would have been quite impossible,” Vilenne said simply, staring at Hannah.  “Because your wife would have never given him a chance.”

        “Why should I give him a chance?” Hannah snapped.  “I don’t have to even see him to know what kind of male he is!”

        “Hannah, dear, you’re being rude,” John told her, a bit sternly.

        “I don’t have to be polite!” she said hotly, whirling on him.  “She can’t defend that tramp of a brother of hers!  Didn’t you hear her?  He’s a bum, a hobo!  He’ll leave our Jessie the instant he’s bored with her!”

        “Dear, I think you’re only hearing what you want to hear,” John said, with more authority.  “I’ve humored you up to this point because I felt you’d eventually come to your senses, but this has gone on quite long enough.  From what I know of Kit and what I’ve heard today, I’m actually quite at ease about the idea of him marrying Jessica.”

        “You can’t be serious!” she gasped.

        “Deadly.  You took an instant dislike to the boy out of anger because Jessica was going out, and you refuse to let it go, even when it’s abundantly clear that this is not Jessie going steady with Jack Singer back in high school.  This is our Jessica finding a husband, which is what you’ve wanted for her all along.  Now, you should take a good long look at this, Hannah.  If you don’t relent, you will push Jessie away.  She’s not going to give up on this marriage just because you disapprove.  I’m rather sure of that.”

        “Perhaps if you did get to see them, you’d change your mind,” Vilenne noted, taking a thick stack of photos out of her briefcase, inside a folder, and putting them on the coffee table between them.

        “I don’t want to see them!  And I will not back down, John!  That boy is going to ruin her life, you mark my words!  And I will not stand for it!”

        “Well, then, I guess my time here is done,” she said, putting the papers back in her briefcase and closing it.  “Since that’s your decision, then now you will listen to mine.  Kit and Jessie are getting married.  Jessie wanted you to plan her wedding, as is traditional, but I’ll be telling her that that’s quite impossible.  I’ll have her plan it herself, and I’ll be paying for it.  And if I pay for it, you will not be invited,” she said coldly to Hannah.  “But you’re more than welcome to come and give her away, Mister Williams,” she said in a much more cordial tone.  “And I’ll always be there for them, Misses Williams.  If they have problems, they will come to me.  When they need advice, they will come to me.  When they need help, they will come to me.  I will be the one having baby showers for Jessie, and sending their children birthday cards.  I will be the part of their lives that you refuse to be.  I will always be there to support them and help them, because I love my brother and I love Jessie, and I want them to be happy.

        “There was a lesson in my story, Misses Williams, one you seem to have missed.  My father’s anger with my brother turned into an obsession of hatred that destroyed Kit’s life and consumed my father like cancer.  Before my father died, his hatred of Kit had blackened his soul and turned him into a miserable wretch.  I think his heart gave out because it could no longer keep a soul like his alive on this Earth any longer.  What I’ve heard from you here tonight is just the same as I heard from my father.  Your hate has no rationality.  It is hate for the sake of hate.  And if you’re not careful, you will turn out exactly like my father.  You will destroy everything good in your life, you will drive your daughter away, and your actions will tear your family apart like paper, just like it did mine.”

        Hannah jumped to her feet and took a threatening step towards the vixen.  Ben almost lunged to intercede, but one of those huge panthers put a big paw in front of him and shook his head.  Vilenne took a business card from her pocket and boldly stepped past Hannah and handed it to him.  “This is my card, Mister Williams,” she said.  “The number written in pencil at the bottom is to my personal cell phone. Call that number, and you will get me directly.  If you have any questions, or you ever need help, just call me.  You’re now a part of my family, and you’ll find that I’m always willing to help.”

        “I’ll, ah, I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, glancing at Hannah.  “I must say, you’re a very interesting young vixen.”

        Vilenne gave him an amazingly charming smile.  “I’m full of surprises, Mister Williams,” she told him.  “Marcus, could you call the car around?”

        “Certainly, madam,” one of the two panthers said with a nod, and quickly let himself out.

        “I’ll be going back to Boston now,” she told them.  “I hope you think about what I said, Misses Williams, and ask yourself if holding on to your hate is worth losing your daughter.”  She walked away from them before Hannah could respond, but she stopped in front of Ben, who looked down at her with some surprise.  “Ben, is it?  Or do you go by Benjamin?” she asked.

        “Uh, Ben, ma’am,” he said uncertainly.

        “You’re one hell of a running back,” she said with a grin.

        “How do you know that?”

        “I had Stav dig up some tape of your games.  Like I said, I’m thorough when I come to a meeting,” she winked.  “I had your entire life histories in those papers I pulled out of my briefcase.  You should think about playing college ball.  Given your moves, I think you could make it all the way to the NFL.”

        “I’m hoping to.”

        “Hmm,” she mused.  “Which college do you want to play for?”

        “Uh, well, I kinda want to play for Ohio State.  I’ve been a Buckeye fan for like all my life.”

        “Ohio State, eh?” she said with a mysterious smile.  “I’m a U-Mass fan, myself.  Too bad you don’t want to be a Minuteman, they could use a running game.”  She patted him on the forearm.  “Don’t worry too much, Ben.  As good as you are, I’m sure you’ll get an offer from someone.”

        John escorted her to the door, and a look outside showed a limo sitting on the street, the other panther at the door waiting for them.  “I should thank you for spending the time and effort to come see us,” he told her.  “Even if you didn’t get the outcome you wanted.”

        “Oh, I’m not so sure about that,” she said with a smile.  “At least you understand.”

        “Ah, yes, well, you’ll find that when my wife digs in her claws, she’s almost impossible to move.  It may take a few years for her to come around, when she sees beyond any shadow of a doubt that Jessica and Kit will stay together.”

        “What she misses in that time is her own fault,” Vilenne shrugged.  “All I care about is that Jessie will be unhappy because of her mother’s adamance, because nothing will stop her from marrying Kit.”

        “She inherited her mother’s stubbornness,” John chuckled.

        “And her father’s mind,” Vilenne added.

        “Why thank you.”

        “Just try to make it clear to her, Mister Williams.  She’s on the losing end, and if she doesn’t admit defeat gracefully, she may miss out.”

        “I can only try.”

        “That’s all I can ask, Mister Williams.”

        “I think you can call me John,” he chuckled.

        “John,” she smiled.  “My friends and family call me Vil.”

        “Vil.”

        “It was nice meeting you.  Good evening.”

        “You too.”

        He watched her go, escorted by that hulk of a panther.  The other panther opened the door for her and let her in, they got in with her, and then the limo drove away.

        That, was a dangerous young vixen, he realized.  Young, yes, but intelligent, and absolutely fearless.  She took on a hostile Hannah in her own home, and stared her down.  And Hannah was not timid!

        He leaned against the doorframe and smiled.  Well, if anything, he was even more secure in the idea of Jessica marrying Kit.  Vilenne—Vil—had made it clear that she would be watching over them like a guardian angel.

        A guadian angel with millions of dollars in the bank.

        He closed the door and came back into the living room, where Hannah sat in her chair, still holding the phone, a look of fury and indignation on her face.  She got up and threw the phone into her chair, then stormed to the stairs.  “You can sleep on the couch,” she declared in a cold tone, then stomped up.  Her footsteps pounded across the ceiling, and then he heard a door slam.

        “Woah,” Ben said in a low tone.  “I think Mom’s a little mad.”

        “You think, son?” John chuckled.  “Just give her time.  That young vixen put some pretty convincing truths in front of her, and she’s just too stubborn to admit she’s wrong.”

        “You think she’s wrong?”

        “I know she’s wrong, son,” he said simply.  “I think Vilenne was right about that.  She hates Jessica’s boyfriend because he’s a fox, not because of who he is.  She looks at him and only sees what her father did to her family.”

        “I never took Mom as a purist,” he mused.  “Especially since she’s a mixed breed herself.  She didn’t say anything at all when I was going out with Shelly.”

        “She’s not a purist, son, she’s just biased against foxes.”

        “Good thing she looks totally like a cat,” Ben chuckled.  “Else she’d have some issues every time she looks in a mirror.”  He grinned.  “You know, there’s this total hottie vixen at school named Amanda.  Maybe she’d go out with me.”

        “Ben?”

        “Yeah Dad?”

        “Are you trying to kill your mother?”

        Ben laughed.  “I have to keep my options open here, Dad.  You know, that’s something I always wanted to ask her.”

        “What?”

        “What was it like for her when she was growing up?  I mean, we got tons of mixed breeds at school. It’s no big deal.  Heck, America has so many breeds now, it’s sometimes hard to even find your own breed to go out with.  I think some of them look just awesome, like Zoe.  She’s half tiger, half wolf, and she has black stripes and her tail—uh, well, I’ve read my history books.  Not many guys can say his mom is in a history book.  What was it like for her?”

        “It wasn’t easy for her, but she was a very resilient young femme,” John chuckled.  “I remember when she started school, that first day,” he said musingly.  “It was during the start of desegregation, Ben.  Back then, being a mixed breed was just the same as being an African fur.  Probably worse, if you really want my opinion.  African breeds at least had their pure lines, but mixed breeds like Hannah, well, that was a moral taboo, even among European and American breeds.  Back then, son, breeds kept strictly to themselves, and mixed breeds were worse than children born out of wedlock.  Children like her had much more to deal with than racial bigotry, because purists are even more fanatical than racists.  They were discriminated against by everyone, even the African breeds.  They had no place, no status.  Slavery ended after the Civil War, but the Mixed Breed Emancipation Act didn’t pass until after femme suffrage.  Mixed breeds were still little more than slaves until then, they didn’t even have the right to vote, all because of the fanaticism of the purists.  You should have seen her, Ben,” he sighed.  “Having to go through all those parents who were yelling and screaming all those nasty things at her, throwing things at her.  But she never once lost her temper.  She just kept her head high and outclassed them all.  I think that’s when I fell in love with her,” he sighed.  “God, were my parents against it,” he chuckled.  “But Hannah charmed them right out of it.  Hopefully, Jessie and Kit can charm her out of her attitude.”

        “Huh.  I’ve always been afraid to ask Mom about that.”

        “She doesn’t like to talk about it.  After all, son, she does look just like a cat.  She never had to reveal she was a mixed breed.  You’d never tell it from looking at her.”

        “Why did she then?”

        “Because she had something to prove,” he said.  “She wanted to show the world that even though she was a mixed breed, she was still a proud femme who was going to make something of herself.  Besides, son, her brothers were visibly mixed breed.  If she would have hidden behind a lie of pure blood, it would have been insult to her brothers, and she loved them too much to do that to them.”

        “It’s a shame.  I woulda liked to have met them.”

        “They were very nice,” John told him, remembering those two, with their fox muzzles and cat ears, fox mittens and cat’s claws.  “And they loved their big sister.  They never deserved what happened to them.  But that’s a sign of those times, son.  Jeb and Will died because of the stupidity of hate.  Don’t ever forget that lesson.”

        “You know something, Dad?”

        “What?”

        “It sounds like Mom forgot that lesson.”

        John blinked, and looked at his son.  “You know, Ben, I think you’re right.  And I think it’s about time someone reminded her of that.”

        “So, can I borrow the car?”

        “Go ahead.  Be back by eleven.”

        “Aww, man!” he sighed, then he picked up the keys from the tray where John kept them and cleared out.

        John went upstairs and knocked on the bedroom door.  “I have nothing to say to you!” she shouted from inside.

        “Well, I have plenty to say to you, dear,” he said seriously.  He opened the door and saw her sitting on the bed, her arms crossed, looking away from him.  And for a brief moment, he saw the young, strong femme he’d known in high school, sitting there with her head held high despite the nasty things the others were whispering to her.  That strength had been her salvation back then, but it was working against her now.  “I think you’re being totally unfair, and I wanted you to know that.”

        “I cannot sit by and watch my oldest girl’s life be torn apart,” she said coldly.  “That fox will be nothing but heartache for her.”

        “And how can you know that?” he asked.  “All you’ve ever done is talk to him over the phone, and as I recall, you were very unfriendly!  Is it any surprise you got a bad impression from him, since that’s what you wanted to get from the start?”

        “Don’t cloud the issue, John!” she shouted.

        “I think you’re the one clouding the issue here, Hannah,” he told her sternly.  “I have to ask you this, dear.  Did you appreciate the way my parents treated you when you were younger?”

        She gave him a startled look.

        “Dear, you’re treating him the way they used to treat you,” he pointed out.  “They made up their minds about you without ever meeting you, but you changed their minds.  Don’t you remember?”

        She sighed, then smiled a little.  “Yes, I remember.”

        “They were wrong about you.  They were very wrong about you, and they admitted it.  It took my mother a little longer to admit it than my father, but they eventually did.”

        She put her paws on her knees and leaned forward, her long-haired tail swishing back and forth behind her.  Jessica had inherited her mother’s tail, and it looked good on both of them.  “I just can’t accept it, John.  I don’t like it.  He’s going to break her heart.”

        “Dear, she’s an adult.  I think she’s more than capable of dealing with a broken heart, if it would come to that.  And personally, I disagree with you.  I talked to him for a quite a while, and I think he’s sincerely in love with her.”

        “So was my father with my mother, at first,” she said pointedly.  “You just can’t trust foxes where their hearts are concerned.”  She gave a slight chuckle.  “And him sending his sister here was just dirty.  I thought she was going to put me over her knee and spank me there for a minute.”

        “She is a rather formidable young vixen, isn’t she?” John chuckled, coming over and sitting down on the bed, taking her paw in his own.  “Dear, I understand you’re worried, but understand that I think you’re wrong.  I object to the engagement simply because I think Jessica should finish school before getting married, but I have nothing against Kit otherwise.  Once she finishes school, I’d be quite content to see them marry.  And despite the fact we disagree, I still love you.”

        She gave him a sidelong look, then sighed.  “You don’t have to sleep on the couch tonight, John,” she declared.

        “Who says I would have?  There’s always Jenny’s room. If you can get past all the stuffed animals.”

        Hannah giggled.  “I’m sorry I yelled at you, John.  That was uncalled for.”

        “All’s forgiven, my sweet,” he said, leaning over and kissing her on the cheek.  “Now, for once, you are going to let me cook.  I think you have something you need to think about.”

        John left her sitting on the bed.  He glanced at her before closing the door, saw her lean back on her paws, looking up at the ceiling, already in thought.

        He left her and went down to the kitchen, and busied himself with making dinner.  He liked to cook, but Hannah thought it was a scandal if he did, so he rarely got the chance.  He decided on something simple, so he started putting out what he’d need for chicken parmesan.

        He heard movement in the living room.  He peeked his head out, thinking Ben had come back for something, but it wasn’t Ben.  Hannah was sitting on the couch, and she had the folder that Vil left open in her lap.  She was going through the photos, one at a time.  John couldn’t see them from his angle, but he saw Hannah’s eyes soften more than once as she looked at them.

        John smiled.  Who knows, maybe she will come around, John thought with a little smile as he went back into the kitchen.  At least to the point where she can be civil.

 

        Jessie was worse than a mother.

        He expected her to be a little protective, but he didn’t expect her to virtually take over his life.  When Doctor Barnett stopped in that night just for a quick visit, Jessie and Doc had a long talk about exactly what Kit should and should not do, how she needed to work with him because of the injury.  And Jessie followed those instructions to the letter.

        She was almost a dictator.  She kept him on the couch almost all the time, and she talked to Lupe to have him look in on him when she was at school.  She did all the work around the house, she carefully made sure that he took all his medicine, antibiotics and mild painkillers in the evening to take the bite off and allow him to sleep comfortably.  She controlled every aspect of his day from morning til night, most of which was spent on the couch either watching DVDs or surfing the internet on his laptop.

        Of course, his chances came when she was at school.  She wanted to be with him all the time, but he put his foot down at the very thought that she’d leave school.  He was just fine on his own while she was at classes, because the nurse came in around ten to check on him, and Lupe was just across the courtyard, who came and checked on him about every hour.  When he had the place to himself, he was working.  It was kind of hard to type with one hand, but he could pick up a phone and click a mouse, and Rick didn’t mind sending him little projects to work on to help alleviate the boredom.

        The apartment sure wasn’t empty in the evenings.  Several femmes from Jessie’s sorority came over almost every night to visit with Jessie, see him, and even help out a little bit.  Sandy and Sam were Jessie’s best friends, and they were over almost every night.  They’d helped her move her things to the apartment, and now they dropped in quite often, which Kit didn’t mind at all.  He rather liked those two.  Some of the crew also dropped in on him almost every night as well, as Rick brought him some material to play with during the day, and they just came over to hang out and help Jessie.

        One thing was for sure, Jessie had an easy time of it.  She had plenty of paws around willing to help her with almost anything.

        And not a day passed where Vil didn’t call at least once to check on him, and use the video conference program to see him, check on his progress.  He could see that she was still furiuos in those video conferences, but hadn’t yet discovered who had attacked him.  She voiced her frustration about a week after Kit returned home.  “Whoever it was certainly covered their tracks,” she growled, throwing a report file down on the table before her computer, out of his sight.  “I even took Atlanta apart, and nothing.  This guy didn’t take this contract through the mob.  It was a personal job.”

        “What did you do in Atlanta?”

        “I think that it’s best you don’t know,” she said with a direct stare that shut him up immediately.  “You’d think that I’d find something by now,” she said with a dark scowl.  “I think I’m going to have to start shaking the family tree.  If it becomes clear I’ll punish the entire family over the actions of one, someone might balk.”

        “Be careful,” he warned again.  “If you push too hard, they’re gonna push back.”

        “Let them,” she said flatly.

        Despite the whole “nurse nazi” issue, Kit loved having Jessie around all the time.  After all the visitors went home, they’d sit on the couch and cuddle, sometimes for hours, as he just let the sound of her purring lull him into a sense of total contentment.  She moved into his bed as well, though she kept her paws off of him because of the injury.  Doctor Barnett had warned against any kind of intimacy, and she showed a hell of a lot more control than he did.  He was willing to bend the rules a little, but she wouldn’t hear of it.  About all she’d allow him were kisses and an occasional feel of all those things he loved to touch that she kept hidden under her clothes.  She seemed to have a line, and wouldn’t allow either of them to cross it.  It was worst at night, when she was right there in bed with him.  He’d reach out and touch her, and she’d allow it, but when he started getting frisky, she shut him down like a misbehaving washing machine.

        Of course, her parents weren’t too thrilled about it.  She hadn’t told them she moved in when she told them about the engagement, and her parents found out when they called the sorority.  Sandy had let it slip that she’d moved in at Kit’s, and Kit was the one that ended up fielding that call, since Jessie was at the store.

        “Is it true she’s moved in with you?” her father asked directly not two seconds after he answered the phone.

        “She didn’t give me much choice,” he answered, a bit ruefully.  “But yes, she did.”

        “I do not approve of this, Kit,” he said.  “Not only is it completely improper, it might interfere with her school.  That is why she’s in Austin, not to chase boys.”

        “Well, sir, you can try to talk her out of it,” he said simply.  “Best not try until after the docs take this sling off me, though.  She’s gone completely Nurse Nightengale on me.  Right now, I’m not her fiancee, I’m her patient.  Actually, can you talk to her?  She’s worse than a freakin’ nanny.”

        John actually laughed.  “That bad, eh?”

        “You have no idea,” he said with a short growl.  “She got these instructions from the doctor, and she follows them religously.  And if I try to object or if I get restless and want to move around, she puts the worst guilt trip on me you’ve ever heard.  And she teases me,” he sighed.  “She won’t—nevermind.  I think that’s not something you’d care to talk about.”

        Much to his surprise, John laughed.  “I think I can understand what you’re saying,” he said.  “She’s affectionate, but she’s not being affectionate.”

        “God,” Kit sighed.

        “Have you set a date yet?” he ventured to ask.

        “No, it’s too early yet, and besides, she won’t talk about it.  She and Vil have been calling each other and talking for hours every night, so I’m pretty sure they’re setting it all up.  Will Misses Williams budge?”

        “She’s budging a little, but no icebreaking yet,” he answered.  “I think she’s getting a double shot of reality to the face, and it’ll get worse when I tell her that Jessica is planning her wedding.  I think that might push her over the edge. If she misses her first child’s wedding, I think she’d kick herself for the next ten years.”

        “I hope she does.  I’d like to have her there.”

        “But she hates you.”

        “So?  It isn’t about me, John, it’s about Jessie.  Jessie will be happy if her mother is there, and that’s that in my mind.  I’m more than willing be civil to her for Jessie’s sake.  And the hate is only one way, I assure you.  I don’t hate Misses Williams even if she can’t stand me.  She’s just being a mother-in-law.”

        John laughed.  “I would much prefer to see Jessica return to her sorority when you’re off doctor’s care.”

        “It was her decision, John,” he replied calmly.  “And I can’t deny her anything she wants.  You’re welcome to try to talk her back to the sorority, but I’m not sure you’ll have much luck.  She’s taken over my apartment,” he chuckled.  “I’ve never had makeup in my medicine cabinet before, and my shower is now cluttered with like ten different bottles.  I have weed through them to find my shampoo and soap.”

        “You’ll get used to that.  But I would prefer you get used to it after you’re married.”

        Jessie came in through the door with Lupe, who was helping her carry in groceries.  “Actually, you can talk to her yourself, she just got home.  Hold on.”  He put his paw over the microphone on his cell.  “Jessie, it’s your dad.”

        “Hey Dad,” she said after taking the phone.  “Yes, I did,” she said immediately.  “Why?  Because for one, he needs me to be here right now because he’s on bedrest, and for another we’re engaged.  No, I don’t think so.  Dad, we’re going to be married.  Does it matter if I move in now, or after the wedding?  It’s not like we’re not already—“  She blew out her breath.  “Well, that’s the way it is, Dad.  It’s not like it’s going to be too long after the doctors say he’s healed that we get married.  No, we haven’t yet.  Vil wants a little more time to talk about it.  She offered to pay for the wedding, you know, and since Mom won’t have anything to do with it, I’m the one that’s planning it.  I don’t know yet.  I’m too busy taking care of Kit to think much about it.”

        “I’m not an invalid!” Kit protested, which made Lupe laugh as he went back to the door.  “And if you burned out my clutch, femme, we’re gonna have words!”

        Jessie laughed.  “I drove Kit’s car to the store, and it’s a standard,” she giggled into the phone.  “I’m not bad, really!  It’s not that hard.”  She put her purse on the coffee table.  “No, Dad.  No.  No.  Listen, it’s not up for discussion.  I moved in with Kit because he needs me, and I love him.  After he heals, I’m not moving out.  This is where I belong.  Yes, I know how Mom is going to explode,” she sighed, “but I don’t care.  No, Dad, I haven’t forgotten school  Kit browbeats me into doing my homework every night.  He won’t let me forget about school.”  She put her paw over the phone.  “Thanks Lupe, you’re a lifesaver,” she told the chihuahua as he brought in another load.

        “De nada Jessie,” he replied.  “We want him back too.  I got nobody to play poker with on Sunday nights!”

        “No, I’m here, Dad,” she said, mouthing the word poker at him, which made Kit just laugh and nod.  “The landlord was helping me bring in groceies, that’s all.  No, you can tell Mom, I don’t care.  But if she calls here and nags us, I’m gonna turn off the phone.  Make sure you tell her that.  Okay.  I’ll think about.  Dad, I have to go, I have to put away the groceries and cook, and Doc Barnett should be here in a little bit to check on Kit.  I will.  I love you too, Dad, bye-bye.”

        “So, you moving in, Jessie?”

        “Yeah, Lupe.  Is that a problem?”

        “Naw, naw, you’d be moving in when you marry anyway,” Lupe grinned.  “Ain’t nothin’ in Kit’s lease about not takin’ on a roomie.”

        Surprisingly enough to Kit, Jessie’s mom never did call to explode on her.  But then again, Kit had the feeling that Hannah was walking on eggshells around Jessie now.  She was being pushed out of the wedding, a clear indication to her that her daughter was more than willing to choose him over her, and now that fact was making her seriously reconsider.  The times Hannah did call her, she was much less hostile and confrontational, but they did get into some arguments, over him.

        As the days passed, some of the restrictions on him were lifted.  Doctor Barnett gave him a little more license to move around every day.  By his first week back, he was allowed to move about the house freely so long as he got plenty of rest between activity cycles.  His wound was healing at a rate that pleased his nurse and Barnett.  He spent most of his time doing what work that Rick sent him, and also answering get-well emails sent to him.  On Friday, Jeffrey ran the other strip, just a huge drawing of Kit and Jessie kissing with YES! In huge letters across the top, telling everyone that was interested that he and Jessie were engaged.  He answered quite a few congratulatory messages after that, and Mike took a picture of the happy couple and put it up on the website for anyone who was curious to see them in the flesh, as it were.

        About a two weeks after he came home, Barnett came over and removed the bandages and was quite pleased with the results.  “Well, tomorrow the stitches come out, and I think it’ll be just fine.  It looks like you’re healing up just the way you should.  Maybe even faster.”

        “That’s because I make him stay on course,” Jessie giggled.

        “Well, remember, Kit, tomorrow at two at the annex,” he said as he put on a new bandage, then helped him back into his sling.  “They’ll pull your stitches, and I’ll come over give you a complete exam and we’ll talk about where we go from there.”

        “Think I can get out of the sling?”

        “It’ll depend on how well you’ve healed inside,” he answered.

        “But I’m having almost no pain now, just a dull ache and itching.  I’ve even stopped taking the pain meds.”

        “Well, that’s a good sign.  We’ll see tomorrow.”

        Jessie didn’t go to her English Lit class to take him to the hospital, but at least this absence was planned for and excused.  She sat with him in the waiting room, and they even allowed her to be there when the nurse and orderly removed the stitches.  “I see your fur is growing back,” the nurse noted.

        “It’s kinda prickly,” he complained.

        “Just let it grow out, and it’ll soften up,” she said as she carefully removed another stitch.

        “How is it looking, nurse?” Jessie asked.  “Did he heal well?”

        “Well, the cut in his skin is almost healed,” she noted.  “I doubt that he’s in danger of opening it as long as he’s careful.  I think the doc’ll let him go without new stitches.”

        Barnett filed in wearing a lab coat over slacks and a dress shirt.  “Okay then, Kit, now that I have you where I keep all my power tools, let’s check out that shoulder, hmm?”

        Barnett’s examination took over an hour, where Barnett thoroughly examined his shoulder, then had him to quite a few movements and exercises to test his arm and how much pain he felt when moving it.  He sent Kit over to the hospital for another CAT scan, and they waited in an exam room there for Barnett to come back.  When he did, he was carrying some papers.  “Alright, you want the good news or the bad news?”

        “Uh, both?” Kit asked.

        Barnett chuckled, scratching at his muzzle.  “The good news is that you’re healing along quite nicely.  I’m not going to replace your stitches.”

        “That’s good news, alright,” Kit said.  “What about the sling?”

        “That’s the bad news, I’m afraid,” he chuckled.  “But, there’s some not-so-bad news that goes along with it.  I want you to keep your arm in a sling for one more week, Kit, but we’ll forego the straight jacket.  I know it doesn’t hurt that much, but the bullet did go through most of the muscles that deal with moving your shoulder, so I’d like to give them just a little more time to heal before you start putting stress on it.  But, you’re no longer on restriction,” he announced.  “I’ll give you a standard sling, and you’re free to go back to work and engage in light activity.  But don’t push it,” he warned.

        “How light?” Kit asked, glancing at Jessie.

        Barnett laughed.  “Oh, I think as long as you’re stationary,” he said with a toothy grin.

        Jessie’s entire face frizzed out.

        They left with a new prescription for an antibiotic to guard against infection, and a new normal sling.  It felt so good to at least be able to move his arm a little bit, not feeling like his left side was tied down.  “I can’t believe you asked him that!” Jessie said as they walked to his Pathfinder.

        “Well, at least now we have permission,” he said enticingly in her ear, sliding his paw up her side.

        She shivered a little.  “We’ll talk about this when we get home,” she said sternly.

        “I hope so.”

        They stopped at the office first.  Kit and Jessie visited, and he told Rick that he could come back to work.  “I still can’t type til they take me out of this sling, but I’m dying at home, Rick,” he complained.  “I need to come back to work.”

        “No problem, you can work with me and Savid until you’re back to full strength,” Rick told him.  “Since we’re off tomorrow, why don’t you just come in on Monday.  That alright?”

        “Hell yeah,” Kit chuckled.  “I’d rather come in tomorrow, but I wouldn’t mind a weekend with Jess.”

        “No pressure, though, son,” Rick told him.  “If you feel tired or want to go home, just lemme know.”

        “I’ll keep that in mind, boss,” Kit nodded.

        They went home after that.  “I’m gonna need to borrow your car, my pretty kitty,” he told her as they filed into the apartment.  “I can’t drive mine like this.”

        “That’s okay, my handsome fox,” she told him.  “What do you want for dinner?”

        “I know what I want for dinner,” he said huskily, draping an arm over her.

        She giggled.  “I’m still mad at you for asking that.”

        “Well, we got permission,” he breathed, grabbing her belt buckle.

        “I dunno, my fox, I’m afraid I might hurt you.”

        “You can tie me to the bed,” he offered.

        “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, my fox,” she giggled, then she shivered when he pulled on her belt buckle, cinching her belt around her.  “Alright, I think we can try,” she said thickly, reaching up and putting her paw on the side of his head as he nuzzled her cheek from behind.  “But if I hurt you, it’s your fault.”

        “I can live with that,” he said, pulling her towards the bedroom.

        “Wait, I forgot to lock the door!” she said, pulling away.  He waited when she went and locked it, then sauntered back to him.  “Now, let’s talk about this,” she said in a purring voice, holding his paw and giving him a smile.

        “It’s your fault,” he complained.  “Letting me touch you, then not letting me go any further.”

        She laughed.  “I couldn’t help it.  I love it when you touch me, my handsome fox,” she said with a bright smile, pulling him back to the bedroom.  “It makes me feel wanted.”

        “Well, mission accomplished, because I so want you right now.”

        She laughed and pulled him into the bedroom, then she closed the door.

 

        Making love while injured introduced some complications to the process, but Kit had no complaints.

        She lay with him in bed, with the afternoon sun making the curtains glow, and she was purring in contentment.  His left arm was carefully draped over his stomach, but his right arm held her close.  She was exquisitely careful, but he did have a little pain…which he’d never admit to.

        “Mmm,” she hummed, her purring ceasing as she spoke.

        “How do you do that?” he asked.

        “Do what?”

        “Purr when you kiss me, when you can’t purr when you talk.”

        She giggled.  “I breathe when you kiss me,” she said, snuggling up to him.  “Because I know you love it when I purr.”

        “It’s like kissing a vibrator,” he said, which made her gasp in surprise.  “But that’s a good thing,” he told her, keeping her from rising up to glare at him.  “It goes right through me and makes me knees melt.”

        She laughed.  “Well, now I know how to stop any argument immediately.”

        “I doubt you’ll be purring when we’re fighting.”

        “My handsome fox, I can purr on demand,” she said with a giggle, her paw carefully and delicately tracing through the area where his bandages were, in the area of shaved fur.  “Sure, I purr when I’m happy, but I’ve learned how to fake it,” she giggled.

        “Oh, there goes my self esteem,” he said darkly, which made her laugh.

        “No, it’s not that I want to fake it,” she told him.  “It’s just that when I was a little girl, I couldn’t purr.  I didn’t really understand why, so I tried to learn how to do it.”

        “Why couldn’t you?”

        “I really don’t know,” she said.  “Mom always told me I was being silly when I worried about it, but all my cat friends could do it.  I guess that was the first time I ever really felt like my mixed breed ancestry was a bad thing.  For years, I thought that I couldn’t purr because my grandfather’s a fox.”

        “Well, obviously it worked out.”

        “Yeah.  I guess I just had to grow up a little more before I could purr, that’s all.  My cat friends could do it when they were six or seven.  I couldn’t purr until I was almost twelve.  But, all my trying to do it on purpose kinda taught me how to do it when I could,” she chuckled.  “My mom thinks it’s amazing that I can force myself to purr.  She doesn’t know any cat that can.”

        “Maybe it’s a good part of being mixed.”

        “Mom can’t do it.”

        “I think your mother only purrs when she’s burning me in effigy.”

        Jessie laughed.

        “Did you ever have trouble being mixed?”

        “Nah,” she replied.  “I went to public school, and there’s lots of mixed breeds in city schools.  Besides, I don’t look like a mixed breed.  I can pass as a purebred cat easily.  Now if I’d have been born somewhere in the rural south, I guess it’d be a problem.  Why, is it an issue in Boston?”

        “Not really, but they’re not very common,” he answered.  “It used to be bad, though.  Boston used to be the headquarters of the Purity League.”

        “Oh, them,” Jessie sighed.

        “My family were charter members,” he admitted with a dark grunt.  “A lot of Vulpan money funded their lobbying.  But then Massachusetts changed the law and redefined them as a hate group, and they were booted.  Thank God.”

        “I’m lucky that way, I guess.  All of Mom’s kids are.  None of us have any fox traits but me, and all I got was the coloration.  But that’s nothing definitive, ya know?”

        “Yeah, there have to be plenty of cats running around with black mittens, black ears, and a black tail tip.”

        “Well, some have mentioned that they do look kinda fox-like, but nobody’s ever asked me if I’m mixed,” she told him.  “I can imagine you had almost as much trouble as if you were mixed.”

        “My eyes?  Only in Boston,” he answered.  “It’s the Vulpan family trait, so it kinda identified me.  Most of the time it was useful, but there were quite a few times when furs wanted to beat me up because I was a Vulpan.”

        “I can imagine.”

        The phone rang.  Jessie had put it on the nightstand, so she reached across him and grabbed it.  “Oh, nuts,” she breathed, opening the phone.  “Hello?  Hey Mom.”

        Kit laughed.

        “No, this is not a good time to talk.  I’m busy.  No.  No—Mom, you don’t want to know.  Mom—Mom.  Mom!  Fine.  I’m in bed with Kit,” she said in a hostile voice.  “Yes, you heard me!  In bed!  Naked!  And we just finished having sex,” she said heatedly.  “There, are you happy now?  At least now you know!”

        And she hung up the phone.

        Kit laughed delightedly.  “You’re getting mean, my pretty kitty.”

        “She wouldn’t stop asking what I was doing, so I told her,” she said with a huff, turning the phone off and putting it back on the nightstand.  She snuggled back down with him, sighed in contentment, and began to purr.

        “Oh, sure, now you purr,” he snorted.  “Now I’ll always wonder if you really mean it, or you’re faking.”

        She laughed, then slid up and kissed him on the nose with a cherubic grin.  “I promise I’ll only fake it when you ask me to,” she winked.  “But so far, every purr you’ve heard out of me was genuine.  Fiancee’s honor.”  She held up her right paw.

        He laughed.  “There’s no such thing.”

        “What are you saying?  I have my honor.”

        “Not when we slept together,” he grinned.  “You’re honorless.”

        “Well, that’s your fault now, isn’t it?” she retorted primly.

        He laughed and put his good arm around her, pulling her against him.  “God, I love you, you silly kitty.”

        “Mmm, say that again,” she purred, nuzzling his neck and cheek with her own cheek.

        He thought that her kissing him when she was purring was bad enough, but her nuzzling him like that put her throat in direct contact with his neck, and he could feel it vibrating against him.  “God, you know how to drive me crazy,” he groaned, twining his fingers through her hair.  “You give an entirely new definition for the term necking.”

        She laughed against his ear.  “This is how naughty kitties do it,” she whispered in his ear.

        “I love naughty kitties,” he sighed, surrendering to her attentions.

 

        The new sling wasn’t half as bad as the straight jacket, and it was wonderful to be able to go out again.

        They spent almost all day Saturday out, from walking in McKenzie park to going to see a movie, then a nice dinner that Jessie didn’t have to cook.  When they went home, they spent a wonderful evening just sitting on the couch, cuddling…at least until her mother called.

        Hannah wasn’t too happy about her little stunt from the day before, and it touched off a bit of a heated exchange between them.  But then Jessie laughed and cuddled in with him a little more.  “Well, Mom, I’m trying,” she said.  “Wow…what is that I just heard?  Without a single scream?”  She laughed.  “Okay, okay, thank you for at least trying.  I appreciate it.  We haven’t really talked about it yet.  Vil said she’d pay for it, but Kit doesn’t really like it when she pays for things for him.”

        “Oh my God, you’re talking about the wedding?  And she isn’t going nuclear?” Kit asked.

        Jessie gave him a cool look, and swatted him on the leg.  “I guess you’d have to talk to her about that.  I can have her call you.  You do?  How did you get it?  She what?  Oh my goodness!  Kit, Vil went to see my folks!” she declared.

        “Huh?  She never told me she did that.”

        “When did she come see you?  When?  Hmm, that’s when she left here, after Kit got out of the hospital,” she said, mainly for his benefit.  “Well, what did you think of her?”  Jessie listened to the response, then laughed.  “Yeah, she’s like that, but I really like her.  She’s a wonderful vixen.  She bought me a car,” she all but purred.  “Uh, Mom, since you’re not going crazy, I wanted to tell you something.”  She gave a startled look, then laughed.  “No, Mom, I’m not pregnant,” she laughed.  “I’d love to be, though,” she added impulsively.  “Anyway, I invited Kit to come to Cincinnati for Thanksgiving.  Would that be alright?  I want him to meet you and Ben and Jenny.”  She giggled.  “No, Mom, I’ll have Dad hide all the guns and knives before he gets there.  Now, why did you call?”  She laughed.  “Mom, you always have a reason to call anymore, usually when you feel like arguing.”

        Jessie sat up a little.  “Mom!  I don’t feel like arguing now.  Well, you do!  When’s the last time we talked that didn’t turn into an argument!”  Her cheeks ruffled appealingly.  “Umm, well, I was…busy.  And you wouldn’t stop asking!  No, Mom, I wasn’t just saying that.  We really were in bed.  Well, he’d just gotten back from the doctor, and we couldn’t—uh, well, he’d just gotten taken off restriction.  Well, you go two weeks and see how you feel!”  She gasped.  “Oh my God, I’m sitting here talking about sex with my mother,” she realized.

        Kit laughed when Jessie’s entire face poofed out.  “Mom?  Mom!  Mom, I’m—“ she stopped, then she laughed.  “No, I’m not trying to ruin it on purpose, but you asked!  No, no, that’s fine.  It’ll be nice to hang up the phone without us hanging up on each other for once.  Okay.  I love you too, Mom.  Bye.”  She closed the phone, and gave out a little squeal and hugged Kit.  “I don’t believe it!”

        “She’s not ordering voodoo dolls of me anymore?”

        She laughed.  “Well, not quite, but she did say she’d come to the wedding.  Under protest of course, but she said she’d be there.  For Mom, that’s a huge step.”  She snuggled down against him, laying her gorgeous tail over his lap.  “She said you’re welcome to come to Thanksgiving.”

        “Should I bring the number for the Poison Control Center?”

        She giggled.  “Putting it on speed-dial may not be a bad idea.  Mom might just be playing nice to get close enough to you.”

        “Your mom is something else,” he chuckled.

        “Well, she’s just protective.”

        “Kinda like you,” he teased, poking her in the shoulder.

        “Now you know where I get it from,” she giggled.

        “I wonder what got her like that.”

        “I know what got her like that,” she sighed, a little sadly.

        “Oh?  Feel like telling me?”

        “Only if you can promise to keep a secret.”

        “For you, pretty kitty?  You have my word.”

        “My mom was one of the Columbus Twenty.”

        Kit gasped.  “Hannah?  Hannah Cremeans?  That’s your mother?”

        “Yeah.  When she married and her name changed, she kinda faded into the background.  I’m surprised you knew her name.”

        “Pretty kitty, I have a Bachelor’s in history.”

        “But your focus is ancient history.”

        “That doesn’t mean I don’t know my modern history.”

        “Well, my mom had two brothers.”

        “Say no more, pretty kitty,” he sighed.  “I know about it.”

        “I guess she doesn’t want to lose anyone else, so she’s majorly protective,” she reasoned.  “Grandma more or less picked out my dad for her, which worked out since my dad was in love with my mom.  So, now Mom thinks she needs to pick husbands for me and Jenny.  Add those two together, and you see why me and Jenny left home to go to school.”

        “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

        “Because my mom hates it,” she answered.  “Because of what happened to my brothers.  She doesn’t like to talk about it.  And you can’t ask her about it, Kit.  It just makes her sad, and she’ll hate you even more.”

        “Wow,” he breathed.  The Columbus Twenty, twenty mixed breed high schoolers that integrated the Columbus East High School after the Mixed Breed Civil Rights laws were passed in 1971, which completely ended all forms of breed segregation.  Even though mixed breeds were supposedly covered in the civil rights laws of the 60s, the purist movement kept finding ways to exploit the loopholes in the laws to continue to discriminate against mixed breeds.  The Columbus Twenty were like the African breed children in the south, the first kids to go to school under the new laws.

        Oh yes, that was a dark day in the Vulpan household, he was told.

        If Jessie’s mom was Hannah Cremeans, then he knew her story.  Her younger brothers, William and Jebediah Cremeans, were both killed by a purist mob in October of 1972, the last known furs to have been lynched.  Six of the killers were convicted, and they were still in prison to this day.

        Damn, no wonder she wanted to forget.  Her brothers were killed because they were mixed breed, and they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But that was also an event that changed public opinions and spelled the death of the purist movement and purist organizations.  Those two boys were literally killed on camera, and it caused massive outrage.  Kit was surprised that Hannah had managed to vanish from the public eye like that, since she was famous after a fashion.  But then again, that was a kind of fame that one would never want.

        “I understand, pretty kitty,” he said, hugging her tightly.  “Did she ever talk about it with you?”

        “No.  She never talks about it.  I learned about it from Dad.”

        “Well, that does explain a little about why she may hate me,” he sighed.  “The Vulpans were never very shy about their sympathies.”

        “No, I don’t think she even knew who your family was until after I met you.  And her hatred of you started way before she knew who you were.  Besides, think about it.  I’m a mixed breed, my handsome fox.  That you’re marrying me might make her feel different.  You’re no purist,” she giggled.

        “Well, I’ll have to keep that in mind next time I’m about to be pissed at her.  That was one rough road to travel.”

        “Maybe now you know why I put up with it for so long.  In a way, I kinda understand the way she feels.”

        “Yeah, I can understand that.”

 

        Learning the truth about Jessie’s family had actually changed Kit’s opinion of her mother quite a bit.

        He thought about it most of Sunday, as he was more or less browbeat to sitting on the couch as she settled into his house—their house—a bit more, making it more of a home for herself.  She went out that morning and bought new curtains to replace the ratty old ones donated by her sorority house, and occupied herself with much of the morning and early afternoon with putting them up.  Kit helped as much as she’d allow, but he spent much of his time pondering what he’d learned about Hannah Williams.

        In a way, she felt kind of like a kindred spirit.  She too had faced tremendous hardship in her life, from a different source but with a similar effect, but she’d suffered much more loss than Kit.  Kit had never lost anything but his love for his family and material things he could replace.  Hannah had lost her brothers, and had been punished, degraded, and humiliated for something beyond her control.  And she’d managed to come through it, raise three children, and find a husband who loved her and build a good life for herself.  Sure, she was a little extreme, but now that he knew what he knew, he could rationalize her ultra-protective nature.  He could understand it.  Hannah had lost much in her life, and she wanted to hold on to what she had, a compulsion so powerful that it drove her almost to the point of driving her daughters away from her.  But there was also a tremendous acceptance there.  Since Hannah never talked about her past, she was keeping her own experiences out of her children’s lives, allowing them to grow up without any of her own bad experiences tainting their outlooks.  She’d raised them like any normal mother, albeit a protective one, allowing them to be normal kids, giving them the childhood she’d been denied.  That she could separate her own bad experiences out of her parenting told much of Hannah’s wisdom and strength, and at least in Jessie’s case, she raised an intelligent, well-adjusted young femme that, while maybe a little naïve, was just as normal as any other twenty-one year old.  And that was an accomplishment.

        It was too bad she hated him.   He’d love to talk to her, and learn her story.

        But he wouldn’t do that even if she didn’t hate him.  Jessie said that her mother never talked about that, never talked about her history, and he’d respect that.  It had to be painful, and he knew from experience that there were some parts of his own past that he’d love to never think about again, never have to remember.  But he could respect her without ever asking about it.

        Monday, he finally got to go back to work.  Since he couldn’t really type very fast and that hindered him in his usual duties, he instead worked with Rick and Savid, and started learning the business of magazine editing.  They started training him in how the editing program worked, kind of like a glorified Powerpoint, and he started getting the hang of it.  Mike, not wanting to be outdone, hijacked him for a couple of hours after lunch to show him how a website really worked, teaching him the very basics of HTML and actually relating it in ways to the editing program that made sense to him.  Mike also couldn’t resist showing off all the pictures of him in the hospital he’d put on the website’s photo gallery, as well as Jessie’s proposal and the reply on their own special webpage.  “That’s part of magazine history now,” Mike grinned.  “The magazine’s very first marriage proposal.”

        “Mike, the magazine’s only been in print for two years,” Kit protested.

        “So?  It’s still a red-letter day.”

        Driving Jessie’s car was a lot different from his.  He’d gotten used to being high up, and driving the Corolla was like riding a motorized sled.  But her car was an automatic, and since he only had one arm—at least officially, since he could move his arm quite well now without pain—it was really his only option.  He got home and found Jessie not there, so he surreptitiously took off the sling and exercised his arm slowly and carefully.  It burned a little when he moved it too far, which he only did carefully for fear of tearing something in there, and there was still a little nagging ache and a lot of itching, but he had a fairly decent range of motion without any pain at all.  With luck, he’d be fully healed in just a week or two.  As long as he didn’t raise his arm over his shoulder or reach too far to the right side or too far behind him, it was more than tolerable.

        Jessie came in carrying some Wal-Mart bags, and she gave him an immediate hostile look.  “What are you doing!” she demanded.

        “The doc told me to exercise my arm out of the sling, remember?” he said mildly, putting his right paw on his shoulder and very tentatively working his left arm back and forth.  “He said five minutes a day once I didn’t feel any jabs when I took it out of the sling.”

        “Oh.  So he did.  How does it feel?”

        “Like I’ll be back to playing football soon,” he smiled, then he patted her backside as she went back.  “Or the good kind of wrestling.”

        She laughed, swatting him with her tail. “I think you’re already up to that point,” she said with a naughty smile at him.  She opened a bag from Circuit City, and showed him a small box.  “I hope you don’t mind, but I went out and bought something for us.”

        “What is it?”

        “It’s a camera,” she answered.  “You know, we don’t have one, and I’d like some more pictures than what Mike takes.”

        “Oh, how much was it?”

        “Four hundred dollars,” she said, her cheeks ruffling slightly.  “I know it’s a little expensive, but Lilly recommended it.  It’s just like hers.  She said it takes great pictures, it can even take video, and it’s really tough. She’s dropped hers bunches of times and it still works fine.”

        “Well, I don’t mind if it’s what you want,” he told her.

        “I know, I’m sorry,” she said, looking down demurely.  “But we don’t have any pictures, and I want a camera.”

        “Don’t apologize to me, my pretty kitty,” he chuckled.  “We’ve managed Vil’s gift very well, and since Rick kept paying me even when I was in the hospital, we had the money to spare.  And she won’t mind at all that you used the excess to buy something you think we need.”

        “I was going to ask you to save it to help me buy me a new laptop, but I can just keep using yours, if you don’t mind.”

        “It’s yours for the taking, love,” he assured her.  “I don’t use it at work.  We might fight over it a little at home, but I’m sure we can work it out,” he chuckled.

        “I know I’m sounding like I’m just taking over all your money,” she said with sudden shyness.

        He laughed.  “Jess, it’s not my money, it’s our money.  You even have an ATM card for my bank account.  You don’t have to ask for permission, silly kitty!  As long as you warn me so I don’t go thinking I have more money in the bank than I do, you’re more than welcome to it.  I trust you, love.  You’re a sensible cat who won’t go crazy with our money.”

        She laughed sheepishly.  “Well, I’ve had a few impulses, but I knew it would be a bad idea.”

        “And that’s why I trust you,” he smiled, putting his arm back in the sling.  “So, let’s get that camera set up.”

        After installing the software on the laptop, they played with it a little bit.  Jessie took pictures of the apartment and of Kit, and he took a few of her, then they downloaded a few of them to the laptop.  Jessie mailed some of them to Sam and Sandy, and mailed quite a few of them to her father’s university email account, mostly the ones of the apartment.

        Kit had noticed before that Jessie was very good at taking pictures, and the pictures she took were actually very well done.  Jessie had an eye for it, just like Lilly.  Lilly had taught Jessie how to use her camera, and obviously taught her a little about photography, so Jessie had went out and bought the exact same kind of camera so she was working with something with which she was familiar.  Kit watched as she mailed the photos off, sitting at the dining room table, with him leaning over her shoulder.

        “You know, we need one more thing,” Kit noted.

        “What?”

        “A video camera.  One with a stand, we can set up in the bedroom,” he said huskily, putting his paw around her slender waist.

        “You,” she laughed, elbowing him gently.  But her breath caught in her throat and she immediately began to purr when he started nuzzling her.  “Do you think it would be too much to ask for a laptop, love?”

        He chuckled against her neck.  “How much money do we have in the bank?”

        “I don’t know exactly, maybe a little over a thousand,” she answered.

        “We’ll go shopping for them next weekend.  And I’ll look at video cameras,” he added kissing her neck.  “We’ll give Mike something good to put on the magazine website.”

        She laughed, reaching up and putting her paw against his head.

        Kit’s idea of shopping for laptops actually never got off the ground.  When Vil called that evening to talk about the wedding, he asked her where she bought his.  “Why, did yours break?”

        “No, Jessie doesn’t have one, and I was going to shop for one for her.”

        “She doesn’t have a laptop?”

        “She broke hers about a week before she met me.”

        “Well hell, I never knew,” she said in obvious surprise.  “You couldn’t afford the laptop I gave you, little bro.  I’ll send her one.”

        “But—“

        “Let’s not get into that argument again, brother,” she cut him off.  “Jessie needs a laptop, and I’m not going to let you buy her one out of some discount store.”

        “You know I hate it when you do that.”

        “And I know you can’t say no when I give things to Jessie,” she returned, rather smugly.  “She needs a laptop for school, and so she’ll get one.  A real one, not a junkbox special out of a blue-light sale.”

        “You just make me feel so able to provide for my future wife,” he said darkly into the phone, which made her laugh.

        “It’ll be there tomorrow morning.  You working?”

        “Yeah.”

        “I’ll have it overnighted to your office.  Now put her on the phone.”

        He snorted.  “Jessie!  My evil bitch of a sister is on the phone!”

        Jessie laughed as she came out of the bathroom.  “Are you being mean to your brother again, Vil?” she giggled when she took the phone from him.  “Really?  Aww, Vil, you don’t have to do that for me!  We can afford a laptop.”  She laughed.  “Yeah, well, Kit’s is nice.  Aww, you’re so sweet.  Thank you!”

        Kit stalked away, grumbling under his breath.

 

        He kept thinking about Hannah, kept wondering at the story that she might have to tell, but more worried about her hatred of him poisoning her relationship with her daughter.

        He thought about it sitting at work, as he got to design his very first magazine page for the week after next’s issue.  While he was sitting there juggling article text, ads, and pictures within the magazine’s style template, he thought about it.  He needed to bridge the gap with Hannah, offer an olive branch now that it seemed that she was starting to come around, at least as far as the wedding was concerned.  He shifted a column of text into its spot, nestled in around a picture of a new nightclub that was opening next month.

        Text.

        It was such a simple, elegant idea!  The art of writing a letter was a dead art nowadays, but hopefully someone of Hannah’s age might appreciate it.

        He finished up the page he was working on, saved it, then wandered back to his office.  He sat down at his computer, took his arm out of its sling, and then started up the word processing program.

        And he wrote.

        His first paragraph summed up the entire letter quite nicely:

 

        Dear Mrs. Williams:

 

        I’m sure that you’re a little surprised to receive this, and please pardon the fact that it’s not hand-written and was sent via e-mail.  But I felt it was necessary to write this.  You and I haven’t exactly been on friendly terms.  I know that there’s little I can do to persuade you against your position on me, but I felt that it was necessary for you to understand how I feel about Jessie.  So, this letter is for you, but it’s about your daughter.  I can only hope I can express how much I love her and keep it under the size of a novel.

 

        He wrote simply and from the heart.  He told Hannah about how he met her, and how she had captivated him, almost from the beginning.  He pulled no punches about himself. He was a homeless dishwasher when he met her, and he admitted as much.  He went on to talk about her, how he felt about her, the little things about her that he loved, from her black mittens to the maddeningly adorable way she blushed, to her amazing sense of humor, to her wonderfully caring and compassionate personality.  He described her to Hannah through his eyes in honest terms, putting in words what he felt inside, but feeling and admitting in the letter that his words just couldn’t do it justice.

        And on he wrote, as his left shoulder began to ache from the effort.  Members of the crew came to his door and saw him almost totally engrossed in what he was doing, and didn’t bother him, not even Rick.  Page after page, honest, sincere emotions, observations, hopes, dreams, and plans.  He told her about how he hoped the wedding would go, but he was keeping himself politely out of it because it was Jessie’s wedding and it was to make her happy.  He told her about the children they hoped to have, he told her about the plans he had for the future.  His plans completely revolved around Jessie, as he prepared to support her, nurture her, care for her, and spend the rest of his life making her happy.

        And he told her about his family.  Again, he pulled no punches.  He told her about his history, about the history of his family, and about the split that had caused him to leave the family and spurn their views and their money.

 

        How can I explain it, Hannah?  I guess I can’t.  By all rights, I should have grown up just like my father, just like my family.  But I didn’t.  I never felt the way they did.  I couldn’t understand why they hated so much.  I heard all of their propoganda, and I guess I believed it out of blind faith, until I rebelled against my father, and I got to see first hand for myself out on the streets. Do you know that I’d never even seen a mixed breed in real life until I was fourteen?  I didn’t quite know how to react.  I remembered what my family had said about them, but when he talked to me, I just couldn’t fathom what on earth they were complaining about.  He was kind.  He was concerned about me because I was wandering the streets alone after dark, and I was obviously just a kid.  When he coaxed the fact that I’d run away out of me, he didn’t march me straight home.  He took me to a Burger King and sat down and talked to me, something my father had never done.  He was warm and friendly, and that night sitting in that Burger King, sharing a box of fries while he let me voice all my pent-up frustrations and anger about my family, was one of the turning points of my life.  I guess some children have their illusions shattered by harsh reality.  Mine were shattered by a talkative, kind male named Rudy, who was half raccoon, half dog.

        I never really told them about how I felt, because I knew that not just my father would come down on me.  The Vulpan family is tight-knit around the controlling family, which was mine, because they held the reins of power and the keys to the bank.  I was doted on as a kid because I was the heir apparent, but inside all I could do was scream.  It wasn’t what I wanted to do.  I would have been a terrible businessmale.  After meeting Rudy, I knew that if I didn’t try to find my own happiness in life, I would have wasted the gift God gave me.

        I guess I should thank Rudy and my father, and my family.  Their actions brought me to Austin, and it was here that I found that happiness.

        And the money?  I’m sure you might wonder about that.  I saw what it did to my father, Hannah.  I saw it consume him until money was all he cared about, even over his own children.  I saw what money had done to my uncles, and my cousins.  Money can make some people happy, but when you have too much of it, it destroys your life.  It’s a curse, Hannah, a curse that destroys, no matter how much it can be used to build.  I was rich, once.  But I’m far richer now that I ever was when I had money, because now my life is nearly complete.  And when we have our first child, then I’ll know what it’s like to be truly blessed.

 

        And he wrote on.  Friends came and went, but when they called him, he didn’t answer.  His left arm went beyond pain and settled into an angry numbness, a kind of dull buzzing.  He just wrote, and wrote, divulging heartfelt desires, admitting to fears, anything he thought that would help Hannah understand him so she would understand just how much he loved her daughter.

        He blinked when the phone rang.  He picked it up, then grunted in pain when he carefully rotated his left arm as he opened it.  “Hello?”

        “Kit?  Where are you?”  It was Jessie.

        He looked a the clock on his computer, and saw that it was nearly 8:00pm.  He’d been sitting there three hours after quitting time, working on the letter.  “Oh, I’m still at work.  I’ve been working on something that I couldn’t quit.”

        “Come home,” she told him.  “The doctor said light activity, not overtime!”

        “I’ve been taking it easy, love,” he assured her as he started the last paragraph:

 

        Well, Hannah, I’m afraid I’m going to have to end it here, though I feel I’ve completely failed to try to explain how I feel.  I just haven’t done it justice.  But, your daughter just called me and is nagging at me to come home.  I’m still in the office, some three hours after I should have been home, and she’s still in nurse mode.  Until the doc gives me a clean bill of health, she’s going to be my terror of a pretty kitty.  I can only hope that you read this letter and at least understand how much I love Jessie, and can only beg for your blessing to be her husband and the father of your grandchildren.

                                                                                        Sincerely,

                                                                                        Kit

 

        He saved the letter, then opened up the email program.  “Hon, what’s your email address at home?” he asked.  “Something I can send to your family at home, rather than your father’s office?”

        “Umm, try skeetfan at armstrong dot com.  That’s my dad’s home email.”

        “So, your mother would get an email if I sent it there?”

        “Mom?  You’re sending email to Mom?”

        “She’s put out a cease fire offer, pretty kitty.  I’m going to try to get a peace treaty.”

        Jessie laughed.  “Yeah, just put it in the subject line it’s for Mom, and Dad’ll have her come read it.”

        “Well, it’s going to be a file and a message, in case she doesn’t want to try to read it that way.”  He copied the entire text of the file into his email client, attached the document that made up the letter, and then sent it on its way.  “Alright, pretty kitty, I’m on the way home.”

        “I’ll call home and tell her you sent her something.”

        “If you do that, she’ll get your number.”

        “Well, I guess I should.  Like you said, she’s showing signs of asking for a peace treaty, so I guess a little show of faith on my part would help a little.”

        “Okay.”

        “What did you send her?”

        “A letter,” he answered, putting his left arm back in the sling after closing everything out and turning off the monitor.  Mike didn’t like them shutting down their computers, he was one of those who believed that letting them run was better for them in the long run than turning them off and on.  “A letter explaining how I feel.”

        “It took you three hours to write it?”

        “I’ve been writing it since after lunch,” he answered.  “I hope she has some time.  It’s over twenty pages.”

        “Woah.”

        “I don’t think I did a very good job.  It’s hard to put I love you in words that don’t do it justice.”

        “Aww, you’re so sweet, my handsome fox.”

        “Thanks, my pretty kitty.”

        “Come home, baby.  I’ll cook you something to eat.”

        “I am a little hungry.  Gotta hang up now, hon, I need the only paw I’ve got to set the alarm and lock the door.  See you in fifteen.”

        “Before you go, what do you want for dinner?”

        “Anything handy.”

        “How does hamburgers sound?”

        He laughed.  “Since when do I say no to hamburgers?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    8      10

Chapter 9

 

        The laptop that Vil had sent Jessie the day before was, quite simply, awesome.

        It was a new model, the next step up from Kit’s own laptop, and he was just slightly jealous of it.  Mike, on the other hand, was almost violently jealous when he came over to help them set up the laptop for their home network.  Sam too was quite interested in it, having come over to hang out with Jessie and get some more lessons on cooking.  “Think I could get your sister to do me a favor?” he asked with a laugh as they finished setting up the laptop for the network, and Mike went about installing the programs she’d need on it and importing over the work she kept on his laptop into her own.

        When Vil called that night to talk about the wedding, he told her that the laptop had come.  “Jessie’s in love with it, and Mike almost stole it,” he chuckled.

        “What, you like it?”

        “It’s a lot nicer than mine,” he admitted.

        “I didn’t even see it.  I just told them to send the best they had.  I have the same laptop as you, bro, how much better is it?”  He told her about the upgrades with the new model, which made her laugh ruefully.  “Hmm, sounds like I’m gonna upgrade mine too.”

        “Mike was drooling over it.”

        “Oh, he’ll get over it.”

        He should have caught the little tilt in her voice that would have warned him that she had shenanigans on her mind.  It would have prepared him for what happened at work the next day.  As he and Savid worked through the mailbag page with Marty, working out how much space he’d need for the issue, Fed Ex showed up in the office.  Two of them, with a dolly of Sabletech boxes.  “Which of you is Rick Sanders?”

        “I am,” Rick called as he came out of the office.  “What’s this?”

        “Delivery,” he said.  “You got nineteen boxes total here, sir.  Where do you want us to stack them?”

        “Delivery of what?”

        Kit, however, was on the phone almost instantly.  “Hey bro,” Vil called in a bored voice, the sound of a computer keyboard’s clicking in the background.

        “Vil!” he barked.

        She laughed immediately.  “Are they there?”

        “Vil sent them!” he said, in a little disgust.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

        “I was looking for a way to pay Rick and your friends back for saving your life, baby bro,” she said pleasantly.  “I figured what the hell, why not invest a little in your company?”

        “What the hell did you do?” he demanded.

        “I bought your office a new computer network,” she replied.  “And some other equipment that magazines often need.  Did you think I’d forget?  I don’t forget slights, but I also never forget good samaritans.  And it’s not like I’m down there throwing cash around,” she said teasingly.  “Tell me that your magazine can’t use what I’ve sent you.”

        He growled, then sighed and chuckled ruefully.  “We probably can,” he admitted.

        “And it’s not a gift.  It’s an investment.  I expect to see a return on the money I’ve invested in your company.  But, I won’t be looking for money.  I’ll be looking for a favor sometime in the future.”

        He blew out his breath.  “What did you send?”

        “It’s Christmas for Lone Star, baby bro.  Open them and see,” she actually giggled, then she hung up on him.

        Rick gave him a wild look.  “Vil sent it all,” he repeated.  “As a thank-you for what you guys did for me.”

        “She did?” Marty gasped, as the two delivery drivers waited patiently.

        “Stack them anywhere,” Rick told them.  “Let’s see what we got here.”

        After four more trips, all the equipment was taking up the entire office.  Rick talked with the two delivery drivers, a mouse and a rat, signed for it, and then they left.  “Well, let’s see what’s in them,” Rick said.  “Everyone pick a box, but don’t scatter stuff everywhere.  And look for a manifest!  There has to be a manifest in one of the boxes. They’d never send a shipment this big without a manifest.”

        Vil was thorough, and she made everyone in the office feel like a little kid.  Vil had sent enough cutting-edge desktops to replace everyone’s workstation, complete with large monitors, as well as a high-powered new server that could replace the five boxes Mike used for the current website and other jobs.  And she also sent eight identical laptops, the same model as Jessie’s new laptop, even one for Kit.  There were also four video cameras, three high-powered professional digital cameras, five hand-held casual digital cameras, two new digital drawing easels, two new high-powered scanners, four professional-grade color printers, and a huge LCD TV that could be hooked up to a computer and serve as a monitor, which they could hang on the wall and use for meetings.  The last item they came across, buried in the box holding all the cameras, was a small box packed with a personal gift to Rick, the fur who had literally saved Kit’s life.  Inside the box was a stack of envelopes, a little plaque to hang on his wall, and a letter.  “There are three personal gifts to each of you,” he read aloud to them all.  “I’ve also decided to invest in your magazine by supplying you with equipment you need to do your work.  The laptops, the Blackberries, and the envelopes in this box are are my personal gifts to you, the crew, who were there for my brother when he needed you.  The professional equipment is for the magazine, so you have everything you need to do your work.  Except,” he chuckled, “for the Toshiba camera.  That one is Jessie’s.  I just had them send it to the office as part of the shipment, and Kit can take it home to her tonight.  And to Rick, who shot the fur who nearly killed my brother and saved his life, a personal thank-you, my eternal gratitude, and a small token of my appreciation for saving my little brother.”

        He looked at the envelopes, saw that his own was on top, and he opened it.  He gasped, his eyes wild.  “Holy—“ he said, breathing fast.  “She sent me a check for twenty thousand dollars!”

        “Oh God!” Lilly said with a squealing laugh.  Rick handed the next one in the stack to Mike, who tore it open, then gave a whoop.

        “She gave me ten thousand!  I can buy a new car!”

        After all of them were opened, Kit saw the ugly truth.  Vil had given ten thousand dollars to every member of the crew but Rick, to whom she gave twenty thousand.  And there was nothing he could do about it.  Outside of the laptop and the Blackberry, she’d directly given nothing to him.  She instead went around him and gave to everyone at his job, including the job itself.  And there was nothing he could do about it.  She only sent him the laptop and the Blackberry, and not because of who he was, but because he was a member of the staff.

        He wouldn’t complain too much.  He had to admit, Jessie’s laptop was awesome, and he was secretly thrilled that Vil sent him a toy of equal wow-factor.  He had his principles about not taking hand-outs from Vil, but the little kid in him couldn’t deny the excitement of having a kick-ass laptop to play with.  The Blackberry, well, he could actually see use for that.  He did do some work outside the office, and staying in touch was always a good thing.  Thanks to Vil, now the whole office had a way to keep in touch through company phones, something Rick couldn’t afford.

        And he also had to admit, Vil was right.  They could use everything she sent.  It was all cutting edge, and they could really get a lot of work done on it.

        Mike was in heaven.  It would be a lot of work to install all the new equipment, but he looked forward to it with a childlike enthusiasm.

        And he got to work.  The first thing he did was put all the new laptops on the network, and after that, little got done…so it was a good thing that the next issue was already basicly wrapped up.  It usually was by Wednesday, what most of them were working on were pieces and sections for next week’s issue.  The entire office started installing their programs on their new laptops as Mike went through and started installing equipment.  He started with the master computer, which was the main station that handled the actual editing software and files they sent to the printer, and worked down from there, moving on to Rick and Savid’s systems, which also handled editing, but Rick’s computer also held most of the vital magazine files and documents he needed to run the magazine.  Mike was very thorough as techs went, and was able to mirror everything on their original systems into the new ones quickly and efficienty, making it almost seem that they weren’t on a new machine.  There were some differences, and he’d had to reinstall some software because the new machines were more powerful and had more options, but it didn’t take him long, about two hours per box.  He drew up a schedule after he finished with Savid’s system and made sure everything worked properly.  Mike would be installing the new machines at a rate of two a day from there out.  Jeffrey and Lilly would get theirs tomorrow, Barry and Kit the day after, and then the day after that, Mike would come in on his day off and install his own workstation and port everything dealing with the website and databases to the new blade server stack.

        “Now, since we got all this junk all over creation,” Rick said after Mike told them about the plan, “here’s the deal.  When Mike finishes installing your new station, if you want, you can keep your old one and take it home.  Jeffrey, Savid, you can keep the gear you have installed on your old machines, since you’ll use it.  Anyone who wants the old printers and scanners can throw their names in a hat and we’ll draw to see who gets to keep them.  Mike, the machines you’re using to run all the network stuff are yours.”

        “I’m going to keep two of them here to serve as backups,” Mike told him.

        “Mike, think I might borrow one of those?” Kit asked.  “I don’t have a desktop at home, and I’d like a platform for doing some stuff.”

        “Why not use your old computer, Kit?” Barry asked.

        “Kit’s box isn’t set up for dealing with heavy graphics or movie files,” Mike answered for him.  “It’s the oldest box in the office, and it just doesn’t have the horsepower.   I think I could swing trading you your old box for one of the servers.  It has the hardware for it.”

        “You can have my old machine, Kit,” Savid told him.  “I don’t need another computer at home.  I have what I need…but I would like to keep easel.  Easel here is better than easel I have at home.”

        “I doubt I’ll be doing any graphic design,” Kit chuckled.  “But thanks, Savid.  We just bought a camera, and with this one that Vil sent Jessie, I’d like to have a single computer we can use for it, not two separate laptops.”

        “No problem, Kit.  You get good computer for that, mine is graphics machine, it has lots of power and much memory for graphics.  I have many graphics programs on it already,” he grinned.

        “Well, there ya go, Kit,” Mike laughed.  “Savid has all the good graphics software on his box, so you get the whole shebang.  I think he even has Moviemaker.”
        “Yes, you install off server for me, remember?”

        “You can do what you want with them, son,” he chuckled.  “I’ll have Mike install the big TV on the wall on Monday, and I think I’ll have cable put in for it,” he chuckled.  “Can it run cable and still work as a presentation monitor when we have staff meetings?”

        “Hell, easily, boss,” Mike nodded with a chuckle.

        “Mmm—mmm—mmm, can you say superbowl party, ladies?” Marty said with a snap of his fingers, which produced some chuckles.

        “We’re gonna be a little crowded with all these boxes around, but it’ll work out.  Don’t throw them away, Mike.  I’ll take them home and stow them in my old storage shed, just in case we need them to ship something back.”

        “Got it, boss,” he nodded.

        In all, Kit was a little miffed at Vil for meddling, but again, she had him by the whiskers on this one.  She didn’t send anything directly to him.  She sent things that the magazine could really use.   And though she sent money, she didn’t send truly obscene sums.  She gave each of them a large amount that they could really use, but not so much that it went beyond the pail.  And besides, they were his friends.  He couldn’t be angry that Vil had shown them such generosity, for they were all like him, even Rick. They were all squeaking by on lower middle class incomes, but they all loved their jobs and they had a lot of fun doing it.  Rick may have owned the magazine, but on some weeks he took home less money than he paid his staff, and he kept paying Kit even when he wasn’t working…so that Vil gave him money seemed like a very proper thing to do for him.

        And Kit got an awesome laptop…and a little more.  Kit put his name in the hat for the printer, and he won one of them, but he lost on the draw for the scanners.  He was happy about that, because those were professional-quality graphics printers, and able to print out high-quality photgraphs when one used the right paper.

        He went home with his old and new laptops, Jessie’s new video camera, printer, and Savid’s old system.  Jessie was in the kitchen, a little apron on over a tank top and shorts, getting ready to cook stuffed bell peppers.  “Sam’s coming over later, my handsome fox.  What is that?”

        “You won’t believe what Vil did,” he grunted as he put his portfolio on the coffee table.  “Come out the car, I need your help.”

        “What?”

        Jessie listened as he explained what happened, and laughed when he opened the trunk and showed her Savid’s old computer and monitor.  “Vil sent you a video camera too, so I figured I may as well take advantage of it.  Rick’s letting everyone keep their old computers to take home, but Savid gave me his because my old office machine is kinda old.  Savid’s computer is a graphics machine, so it’s got plenty of power.  It can handle everything we need to do on it, no problem.  We can put all our pictures and movies and such on the desktop, that way it’s not scattered across three laptops.”

        “Hmm…Kit, are you too attached to your old laptop?”

        “Why?”

        “Because Sam would kill for it.  Think you might sell it to her?”

        Kit laughed.  “Love, she can have it.”

        “She’ll be thrilled!” Jessie said, kissing him exuberantly.  “I’ll get the heavy stuff, my handsome fox, you get what you can carry.”

        Even though Kit was sure he could do it himself, Mike still showed up a little after he got home, still giddy and all but dancing around like a kid.  “I came to help ya network that desktop,” he grinned.

        “I think I can handle it, Mike,” Kit chuckled.  “You’ve taught me well.”

        “Well, yeah, but this one’ll be a bit trickier.  You’re dealing with a machine that was part of another network, so I’ll have to do a little remapping on it.  It’s either that or reinstall.”

        “And lose all the programs Savid has on it?  No way!  This is like free Edit Master, Office, Flash, Moviemaker, Studio, and Photoshop!”

        “Then let’s get it set up,” he grinned.

        Sam came over as Mike was setting up the desktop to be the main part of the their home network.  “What?” she gasped from the living room, then she appeared in the doorway of the spare room where Kit had his modem, serving as a little office.  “Kit, are you giving me your laptop?”

        “My old one, yeah,” he grinned.  “My sis sent me a new one, and Jessie asked if I’d sell my old one to you.  But you’ve been a big help, and the sorority gave me a lot of my furniture, so it’s only fair to return a favor with a favor.  As soon as I get all my stuff off of it, it’s all yours.  Just share it with the rest of the sorority,” he added with a chuckle.

        Sam charged in and hugged him from behind, “I think I love you!” she shouted.

        Kit laughed.  “Don’t let Jessie hear you say that.”

        It took about two hours.  Mike and Sam stayed over for dinner as Mike set up their new desktop.  It had all of Savid’s programs on it, and Mike went ahead and set up the printer and attached it to the network so any of the four systems on the network could print using it.  Mike even helped him mirror his old laptop onto his new one, then cleared out his personal files and gave the old laptop to Sam, but left the programs on it.  They decided to leave it on their home network as well, so Sam could come over and use their printer.  Since Sam was pre-med, the ability to print some detailed pictures might be useful to her for her anatomy homework and such.

        Sam looked like a girl with a new doll after Mike helped him move all his personal files off his old laptop and to his new one, and he handed the old one over to Sam.  She actually cradled it like it was a baby when she waltzed out of the room with it.

        “That’s one femme who takes her computers seriously,” Mike chuckled.  “And cute, too.”

 

        It took Mike until Tuesday to finish the conversion of the office to the new equipment, and the last station he replaced was Kit’s own.  It was a huge upgrade for him, going from that wind-up toy to a cutting edge workstation with the best graphics card and a virtual bottomless pit of RAM.  It was so powerful, he could run about ten different programs at once and barely notice a slowdown.  It also put them a little behind on their work, because of the sheer giddiness and the disruption of the computer network while Mike replaced everything.  They had to roll up their sleeves and buckle down to get the magazine fully laid out and ready for printing on Thursday night.

        On Thursday, they held their first staff meeting using the big TV as their display as Rick and Savid went over the issue and looked for feedback or last minute changes.  It was a huge difference from all of them crowding around the monitor they had in the table…which was actually still there.  Rick rather liked using it when he and Savid were working, since it was fairly large and under glass, which allowed them to lay things over top of it to get a rough idea how things would look.

        Getting used to the Blackberry, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so easy.  He’d never had one before, and had no idea how it worked.  He spent the better part of Wednesday afternoon reading its manual and learning how to set it up and customize it, and really saw that he wasn’t going to get as much use out of it as he expected…at least until he had it all working.  Since Vil had set up the accounts for them, she knew which was his, and she was already sending him messages.  Vil was a dedicated “Crackberry,” someone who was never without her trusty device, and now that Kit had one, she started using it to email him.  The one she’d sent them all was like a bloody swiss army knife.  It was a phone, email messager, text messager, web browser, video and audio player, integrated camera, organizer, wifi, modem feature that allowed the blackberry to connect a computer to the internet using the device’s own phone feature, it even had GPS.  He emailed Vil when he got the device up and running, and she called him back using the Blackberry’s phone number not a minute later.

        “Hey bro,” she said with a chuckle.

        “I didn’t need another phone, Vil,” he told her.

        “Hey, I wanted to get you a real toy, and Blackberries do it all,” she told him.  “I’d be totally lost without mine.  Look at it this way, bro.  Now, when applications ask you for a work phone and you don’t want Marty knowing your business, give them the Blackberry number.”

        Kit laughed.  “Well, that is a good point.  And it feels kinda businesslike to have a company phone,” he added.  “I hope this doesn’t cost too much.”

        “Eh, I just had your accounts added into the shipyard account, but your phones are like mine and my higher execs, unlimited, where I have limits on the ones used by my lower execs.”

        “Isn’t that a bit dangerous?  I mean, that’s documented help you’re giving me.”

        “Don’t you worry about that, little bro,” she told him seriously.  “I’ve almost taken care of that little problem.”

        When he asked he what she was going to do, she refused to answer, and then hurriedly said her goodbyes and hung up.

        Rick put a memo out for them all that had all their Blackberry numbers listed, so they could call each other.  All of them put the numbers in their phone features, and that wired up the whole magazine.

        The Blackberry came in handy the next day, when he was at the annex for his next doctor’s appointment.  This time, he was there alone, and Doctor Barnett gave him another exam to check his arm.  The exterior signs of the wound were now fully healed, and there was only a little tightness and twinging when he moved his left arm in certain ways.  His fur was even well on its way to growing back out.  Barnett examined him for about a half an hour, and then had the nurse draw some of his blood.  “Well, we’re gonna check for any sign of infection,” he announced, “but either way, I want you to take that antibiotic until it’s gone.  That will really discourage any bugs from trying to take up residence in you.”

        “Okay, Doc,” Kit chuckled.

        “Now, on to the results.  Good news, bad news…which do you want?”

        “Both,” he smiled.

        “Okay, since you’re leaving it up to me.  The good news is, kiss the sling goodbye,” he grinned.  “I still want you to take it easy, though, and you’re still on light activity restriction.  No heavy lifting, no stresses to your shoulder, and if you spend extended periods of time at a computer, I want you to take a five minute break every twenty minutes.”

        “Okay.”

        “Now, the bad news.  Physical therapyyyyy,” he said in an intentionally melodramatic, spooky voice which surprised Kit and made him laugh.  “Three times a week right here in the annex, you’ll have a half hour of physical therapy, to work the tightness out of your shoulder and get your muscle tone back.”

        “How long will I have to do that?”

        “It’s never a set time, Kit, it’ll depend on how well your shoulder responds to therapy.  When I feel your shoulder is rehabilitated, you’re outta there, and you never have to come back.  But, I want you back here in two weeks so I can check out the shoulder and see how it’s responding to therapy.  Same place, see the nurse at the desk for your appointment and to set up your therapy.  Now get outta here!” he said with a grin and a shooing motion with his paws.

 

        Once everyone got used to the upgrades, it just rocked.

        The new computers were fast and powerful.  The Blackberries actually proved very useful when Barry, Lilly, and Kit were out doing fieldwork, letting them check in with the office and each other quickly, and more than once on the next Tuesday, Kit sent off research information straight to Barry’s Blackberry as he was out doing interviews.  All in all, by the time they released the next issue, they were fully used to them, and the magazine was better than ever.

        He also got an answer from Jessie’s mother.  After returning to work from physical therapy, he found an email message from her in his work email.  He opened it and found a short message:

 

        Kit:

        I received your letter and read it.  I found it to be surprisingly moving, and I have to admit that you stated your case with emotion and warmth.  I can appreciate your candor.

        But understand, this is a very personal and emotional issue for me.  I have no doubt you love Jessica, not after reading that letter, but what I fear is the future, when you grow bored with her and then abandon her.  I know you say you’ll never do that, but that’s the big difference here.  You say you won’t do it, but I think you will.  And I don’t want my daughter to have to raise children alone because you’ve left her.

        I’ve agreed to come to the wedding. I admit that I can’t stop it, that I can’t turn Jessica away from what I think is a terrible decision.  She’s made it clear to me that if I force her to choose between you and me, she’ll choose you.  I have to accept that fact.  All I can do is step back, watch, and pray that I’m wrong.  And when you do leave her, I’ll be there to help her get her life back together.

        I do want you to come to Thanksgiving.  You need to meet Jessica’s brother and sister, and I’d like to talk to you in person, so we can discuss the marriage.  I promise I’ll try to be civil.

 

        Hannah

 

        Kit leaned back and read it again, and pondered it.  Well, that was…nothing he ever expected.  She was afraid he was going to leave Jessie when he got bored with her?  It was almost ridiculous!  But, since so many marriages ended with divorce—no, that was a silly thought.  No, not really.  It was a justifiable thought for Hannah, since she didn’t know him and she didn’t understand how much he loved her.

        He was right…he just couldn’t put it into words.

        She did deserve a reply, though.

 

        Hannah

 

        I’m a little surprised by your reasoning.  It had never crossed my mind.  But, looking at it from your point of view, I can at least understand it.

        That’s one of the things we can talk about when I come for Thanksgiving.

        But, I do need to warn you.  Because I was in the hospital (I’m sure Jessie told you all about it, I won’t go over it again), and my boss was kind enough to pay my salary while I was out of work, I can’t in good faith ask him for any extra days off.  It would be terribly rude.  We will be doing an issue on the day after Thanksgiving (our magazine prints once a week, and is released on Fridays), so I’ll be working during Thanksgiving week.  The best I will be able to do is to fly up on my days off, stay overnight, and then fly back the next day.  My normal days off are Sunday and Monday.  I’ll talk to my boss, but I may end up going that way.

        I will get Thanksgiving day off, however.  If me coming up either before or after Thanksgiving is too much of a hassle for you, or I’ll miss meeting Jessie’s brother and sister, I could fly up on Wednesday night, and then fly back on Friday morning.  On Fridays, we don’t come into the office until 1pm.  That would give me enough of a window to fly in, spend Thanksgiving day with you, then fly back early the next morning.

        By the way, Hannah, if you ever want to talk to me in real time, please, don’t hesitate to call.  You have my number, and I’m always willing to talk with you.

 

        Kit

 

        He thought that was a decent enough reply, and sent it off.

        He spent most of the rest of the day knocking out some research projects and working with Jeffrey on the strip, and was surprised to have a reply back from Hannah as he checked his mail one more time before heading home.

 

        Kit:

 

        I’d rather keep it in emails for now, since I have time to think about what I want to say.  That prevents me from saying something that might get me banned from the wedding.  The phone doesn’t have a backspace key.

 

        Kit had to laugh at that.

 

        I can appreciate your dedication to your company.  Given the choice between a weekend at either end or Thanksgiving itself, I’d much rather have you there on Thanksgiving day.  It might make things a little rushed, since I’d like to have a long talk with you and I have a lot of cooking to do that day, but you’ll miss Jenny if you come before Thanksgiving and you’ll miss John if you come after.  John has to go to a conference in Chicago, and will be leaving on Sunday afternoon.  I don’t think that would give us enough time to talk with you.

        So, if you would, please make your reservations for Wednesday evening and a return on Friday morning.

 

        Hannah

 

        Kit typed out a quick reply telling her that he’d do so, then went home.

        Jessie was doing her homework at the table when he came in, but the smell of tuna cassrole assaulted his nose in an appealing manner.  “Hey pretty kitty,” he called as he closed the door.  “You mom sent me an email about Thanksgiving.”

        “She did?  What did she say?”

        “I gave her the options for me coming out, and she went with Thanksgiving day.  I’ll be flying out Wednesday evening, and flying back Friday morning.”

        “You won’t get much sleep.”

        “I’ll live.  God, that smells wonderful.”

        She giggled.  “You mind some company tonight?  I asked Sandy and Sam to come over.  I’m going to help Sandy with an essay she needs to write.”

        “I love how you asked me after you invited them over,” he laughed.

        She grinned.  “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

        “You’re terrible,” he accused, leaning over and kissing her on the ear as he went into the kitchen for some tea.  Jessie always had at least a cup of tea waiting for him when she got home before he did.  “Your mom also answered my letter.  She gave the strangest answer to it.”

        “How so?”

        “She said that she thinks I’m going to leave you after I get bored,” he said with a mystified expression as he took a sip of his tea.  “But, at least she said she believes I love you now.”

        “Well, it’s a small step,” she said.  “But I agree, that’s a weird reasoning.  I think Mom doesn’t understand.”

        “Not at all,” he said with a nod.  “I’m a fox that takes marriage vows seriously.  When the priest says til death do you part, I take it to mean exactly that.”

        “I’m glad, cause that’s the only way you’ll ever get away from me,” she said with a loving grin, reaching over and patting his paw.  “How’s your shoulder?”

        “Doing fine,” he said.  “I didn’t have any pain at all today.  So, any movement on the marriage front?”

        She laughed.  “Some.  I don’t want to set a date until you’re completely healed, though.  Me and Vil have just been talking about decorations and the reception, and my dress.  There is something she wants, though, that we haven’t told you yet.”

        “What?”

        She seemed to steel herself.  “She wants to have the ceremony in Boston.”

        “Absolutely not!” he said immediately.  “I won’t go within a thousand miles of Boston!  Is Vil crazy?  Does she want to start a war in the family?  If I brought you to Boston, that would be like bringing you into the lion’s den!”

        “She’s…serious about it, Kit,” she said.  “I’ve been trying to urge her out of the idea, but she doesn’t want to give it up.  She wants you to get married at the church where your father and mother married.”

        “Well, that’s nostalgic of her,” he said with dark irony.  “No. We met here, our life is here, we marry here.  I won’t get married in a place that has nothing but bad memories.”

        “I think that’s why she wants us to marry there, so you’ll have a good memory.”

        “Well, she can just get that idea right out of her mind,” he said adamantly.  “She went way over the line this time.  I could handle her giving the office and the crew gifts because it made them happy, but she’s starting to get way too comfortable with the idea she can cheese me into what she wants.”

        “I’ll tell her—“

        “No, I’ll tell her, Jess,” he said, standing up and taking the phone out of his pocket.

        She picked it up on the first ring.  “Hey baby bro,” she greeted.

        “No,” he said with a hiss.

        “Ah.  She told you, did she?”

        “Are you crazy?” he demanded.  “You want us to get married in Boston?  Are you just trying to kick sand in the family’s face, Vil?  This isn’t some kind of game of nose-tweaking!  This is our lives, Vil!  I won’t bring Jess within artillery range of Boston!”

        “Kit, I didn’t want it because I want to rub you in the family’s noses.  I wanted to…it’s hard to explain.  I wanted to honor a promise.  Do you remember Mom much?”

        “Of course I do,” he answered.

        “Well, it was mom’s wish that we got married at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Kit,” she told him.  “I just thought it would be nice to do the one thing I could remember that Mom always wanted, that’s all.”

        “She never told me that.”

        “Since when do mothers talk about weddings with their sons, baby bro?” she asked.  “It’s something that mothers talk about with their daughters.  Trust me, bro, I’d never bring you to Boston without a good reason, and I sure as hell would never expose Jessie to the family.  I just want to do something for Mom.”

        “Well, I can understand that, but it’s still completely out of the question,” he said.

        He heard her sigh.  “How about a deal, then?”

        “What?”

        “You have your wedding in Austin, but you also get married at the Holy Cross,” she said.  “I can arrange for a midnight ceremony at the Holy Cross.  You can fly in, go straight to the cathedral, have a ceremony, then go right back to the airport.  That way we honor Mom’s wishes and minimize the exposure.”

        “I…dunno, sis.  I’ll have to talk to Jess about it.  This is something we have to agree to together.”

        “No pressure, baby bro.  Talk about it and get back to me.”

        “Talk to me about what, love?” Jessie asked after they said their goodbyes.

        “Vil explained why she wants us to marry in Boston,” he said, sitting back down and taking her paw.  He explained Vil’s idea to her quickly and simply.  “I…I don’t know, love.  I’d love to give something to Mom, but….”

        “But you’d have to go to Boston,” she surmised, touching his cheek.

        He bowed his head, holding onto her paw.

        “I understand, love.  I know what Boston is to you.  So really, I don’t have anything to say.  Personally, I don’t mind flying in and having the ceremony.  We’d only be there like two hours.  But I’m not the one that matters here, my handsome fox.  Vil doesn’t understand why you don’t want to go there, does she?”

        “She knows that Boston is nothing but bad memories for me,” he told her.  “I spent most of my life either trying to get away from that place, or trying to forget it.  But,” he said with a sigh.  “But I loved my mother, Jess.  If she wanted me to get married in that cathedral, I’d like to fulfil her wish.  It just won’t be easy.”

        “I’ll be there with you, my love.  You don’t have to face it alone.”

        He gave her an earnest look of relief, love, and gratitude.  She leaned over and kissed him, then, to his surprise, she urged him down, until he was laying on the couch with his head in her lap.  He sighed and closed his eyes as she tousled his hair, and just babied him a little as he tried to get over the fear and anger and humiliation and pain that always came whenever he thought of his life in Boston, both before and after he was disowned.  Sometimes Jessie just amazed him.  She always seemed to know how he was feeling, and always seemed to know exactly what to say or do to make him feel better.

        Clearly, that moment of quiet intimacy was the perfect time to be interrupted.  The doorbell rang, and Jessie just sighed.  “It’s open!” she called, keeping her paw in his hair.

        Sandy and Sam came in, Sam carrying her new laptop and backpack and Sandy with her backpack.  “I think we’re interrupting something,” Sam noted.

        “Naw, if JD’s head was in his lap, then we’d be interrupting something,” Sandy said with a naughty grin.

        “I think someone doesn’t want any supper,” Jessie said in a prim tone.  He didn’t need to look at her to know her face fur was ruffled.

        “When will it be ready?”

        “When the timer goes off,” she answered, twirling his bangs around her finger.  “You two can set the table.  I’m busy.”

        “We can see that,” Sandy laughed.

        “Did we have to let them in?” he asked, rolling over on his back and looking up at her with a light smile.

        “Well, given I invited them over, it would have been a little rude to leave them on the doorstep,” she giggled.

        “I swear, JD, we must have totally corrupted you,” Sandy grinned as Sam came out of the kitching holding plates.  “You go from the vestal virgin to engaged in like three months.”

        “I was just waiting for the right guy to come along,” she said with a gentle smile down at him, her cheeks ruffling slightly.

        “Can you find one for me?  I think me and Bobby are about done.”

        “Mind if I make more tea?” Sam asked.

        “Go for it,” Kit called, reaching up and taking Jessie’s paw.

        “Hey Kit, your fur grow back?” Sandy asked.

        “It’s about halfway there,” he answered her.

        “Can I see?” she asked.

        “You really don’t want to eat dinner, do you?” Jessie said archly.

        Sandy laughed, then laughed even harder when the timer went off.  “Oh no, I’d better get it before you kick me out!”

 

        The physical therapy wasn’t much fun.

        It wasn’t that Kit minded doing physical labor, since he’d spent months doing manual jobs.  It was the mechanical feel of it.  He did exacting exercises in a large room filled with other patients and therapists, which made his arm and shoulder ache when he went back to work.  He went three times a week, and though he hated it, over the course of three weeks, it did do its job.

        Over that time, his fur grew back in, and the pain finally faded away from his shoulder.  Doc Barnett proclaimed him fully healed, but continued him on physical therapy to both strengthen his shoulder and arm and also to make sure that he’d have no lingering pain or reduced range of motion from his wound.  The latter concern was minimized, Barnett said, because of the excellent work of the surgeons who had repaired the tissues in his chest and shoulder, putting it back together perfectly and allowing Kit to heal with no issues at all.

        When he was finally released from physical therapy and completely discharged and proclaimed healthy, his shoulder was as good as new.  There was no pain, no stiffness, and much to his eternal relief, no sign he’d ever been shot.  His fur did not grow back scarred white like it did on his back and head, mainly because the vast majority of the surgical scars were on his white-furred chest.  Only the edges of the incisions wandered into the red fur on his shoulder, and that fur grew back red, not white.

        It was nice to finally be free of it.  He was back to full strength, back to work, and Jessie was overjoyed that he was fully healthy.  She made him a cake from scratch when Barnett gave him his all-clear and discharged him from physical therapy, German chocolate, and even gave him a very private party that night that resulted in him being late for work the next day.

        As he’d healed, he continued corresponding with Hannah.  It was strange to talk to her over email, like something out of that movie You’ve Got Mail, but it had a strange quirky charm.  Kit wrote her about every day, a page or two as he talked about work and other innocuous things, but mainly continued to tell her all about his life with Jessie and how much he loved her.  He told Hannah things that Jessie wouldn’t, even delving slightly into their love life when Hannah boldly asked if they were practicing any kind of protection before the wedding.  He was honest in telling her no, that Jessie was hoping to get pregnant, and though he’d be overjoyed to have a child, he was secretly hoping that Jessie could finish school before she conceived.  He really wanted her to get her degree, and a child would honestly make that much harder.  But, he’d written, he could not deny Jessie anything.  She wanted a baby, and though he was concerned for Jessie’s ability to finish school, he couldn’t tell her no.  If she became pregnant, well, they’d find a way to make sure Jessie got her degree.  Hannah really didn’t like that answer, but, he did feel like he scored a few points with his position.  She grudgingly complemented him for his wisdom and his dedication to Jessie’s education.

        But what he liked most was the fact that he was getting to know this enigmatic woman, who had a story he was dying to learn, but knowing he could never ask her to tell it to him.  Not only would it be terribly rude, but he’d made a promise to Jessie, and Kit was a fox of his word.  Jessie called Hannah “Momzilla,” but when he learned the truth of her, and then began to correspond with her, he started understanding her and didn’t think she was quite that bad.  Sure, she was pushy, willful, cunning, overbearing, melodramatic, and she was stubborn, but at least he knew why she was the way she was, and that allowed him to shrug off the majority of her invasive badgering without getting angry about it.  He could see that though her actions were being influenced by her own past, she still sincerely loved her daughter and wanted what was best for her, and in that manner he could not fault her.  Jessie was a treasure, the most precious thing in the world, and he’d be just as protective if she was his daughter.  The main difference between them, though, was that Kit trusted Jessie, where Hannah didn’t.  But that was a fundamental difference between spouses and parents the world over.

        He’d just finished up another message for Hannah and sent it off as he sat on the couch, laptop in his lap, listening to classical music on the radio and the wind howl as a freak November thunderstorm raked across Austin on a Sunday afternoon.  Jessie was over at the sorority, visiting with friends, and Lupe had just left a bit ago with two other neighbors, Dan the lion and Mickey the lemming, who came over to watch football.  Which, for Kit, meant getting ragged on because he wasn’t a Dallas fan.  Luckily, they didn’t watch Dallas play, so the snide comments and Patriots bashing was kept to a minimum.

        Kit may have hated the city of Boston, but he was still a loyal Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox, and Bruins fan.

        He made himself some tea, and was sitting at the couch, a hot cup on the coffee table as he surfed the web and checked email when Jessie got home.  She was in the act of closing her phone when she came in.  “Hey, my handsome fox,” she called with a bright smile.

        “Welcome home, pretty kitty.  You’re in a good mood.”

        “Just got off the phone with Vil, we have everything all planned out as far as what we want.  And now that you’re all healed up, it’s time to set a date.”

        “That is your domain, my pretty kitty,” he said with a gentle smile as she leaned down for a kiss.

        “Well, I’d like at least a little input,” she said to him.  “Sometimes I feel like you’re a little too accommodating, Kit.  Do you realize we’ve never once fought?  That’s a little unusual given how long we’ve been together.”

        Kit laughed.  “Oh, that’s not going to last forever, but I’d like to avoid that for as long as possible.  And I’m accommodating because I want you to be happy, my pretty kitty.  If it makes you happy, then it makes me happy.  And since I honestly have absolutely no opinion about what day we should have the ceremony, then what more is there for me to say?  It all falls on what day makes you happy, Jess.  We can get married tomorrow, we can get married next year, it doesn’t matter to me as long as we’re married at the end and it makes you happy.”

        “Really?”

        “Really, love.  Find the day that works best for you and your family.  Since Vil can come down here whenever she wants, and that’s the only member of my family I want at the wedding, this side of the aisle is flexible and easy to please.”

        She laughed.  “Okay then, love, lemme call my folks and talk to them about it.”

        “Think I’ll go over to Lupe’s.”

        “Poker?”

        “Minimum safe distance,” he said immediately, which made Jessie laugh richly.  “Who’s cooking tonight?”

        “I am, silly.  What do you want?”

        “I’ve been having a craving for steak.”

        “Only because I bought some and they’ve been in the meat drawer,” she accused.

        “Well, that might have had something to do with it,” he agreed.

        “Well, that works for me too.  I think I’m gonna be on the phone for a while, and that’s something I can cook with one paw tied up by the phone,” she chuckled, kissing him one more time.  “Take your phone, I’ll call you when it’s ready.”

        “Surely, love.”

        Kit evacuated himself over to Lupe’s apartment to give Jessie the space and privacy to deal with the sure hostility Hannah would present when a solid date was put in her face.  Hannah had been rather pleasant and civil.  Lupe’s apartment was very much a bachelor pad.  It was a little messy, dominated by his TV, and filled with mismatched furniture.  And though it was a little messy, it was actually rather clean.  Lupe just had a habit of leaving things laying around.  “She boot you brah?” Lupe asked.

        Kit chuckled.  “Nah, just giving her space.  She’s setting the date of the wedding, and that means calling her mom.  She’s not very happy about Jessie getting married, and Jessie doesn’t like to fight with her mother in company.  So I cleared out to give her privacy.”

        “Ah, that’s nice of ya, brah,” he noted.  “Glad to hear you’re finally getting the ball rolling.  Any idea when it’ll be?”

        “Knowing Jessie and my sister, the first day that her parents can manage to get here…but probably after Thanksgiving,” he speculated.  “She does want them to meet me before the wedding, and I’m going up to her folks’ for Thanksgiving dinner.  So, probably sometime in December.”

        “Ah, cool.  So, you have any of that leftover curry in the fridge?”

        Kit laughed.  “No, you ate it all.  And I was a bit ticked when I went looking for it,” he said, pushing Lupe lightly on the shoulder.

        “I can’t help it, brah, Jessie’s an awesome cook.  She offered to teach me.”

        “She’s trained quite a few cooks, she could make something out of you,” he noted.  “I think she gives cooking lessons once a week over at her old sorority.”

        Lupe grinned.  “So, she have a sister?”

        “She does, who lives in Ohio,” Kit told him.

        “Damn.  Is she cute?”

        “No idea.  I’ve never seen her before.  She does have a brother though.”

        Lupe gave him a look, then laughed brightly.  “No thanks!”

        “Hey, it’s always an option.”

        When Jessie called him back home, he was fairly sure she had a firm date, and she didn’t disappoint, nor did she wander too far from his expectations.  “We have a date,” she told him.  “December eighteenth.  I’ll be out of school, Dad’ll be done at work on the fifteenth, but Vil can’t get down here that week until the seventeenth, so we’re holding it the day after.”

        “Nice.  So, we’re still having it at Four Corners?”

        “The reception, yeah.  My folks had to be talked down over the church, though,” she giggled.  “They thought we were having a catholic wedding.  I had to remind them three times it’s not going to be a catholic wedding, just in a catholic church.  Our Lady of Fatima.”

        “Never heard of it.”

        “Vil organized it for us.  It’s a new catholic church about two miles from here.  The monseignor there agreed to conduct a non-denominational wedding for us, but Vil was kinda adamant about a catholic priest conducting the ceremony.”

        “Vil’s a Catholic, pretty kitty.  “The whole family is, at least theoretically.  I haven’t been to confession since I was fifteen.”

        “Well, my family is Baptist, and I didn’t want a holy war,” she laughed.  “Vil’s coming down next weekend to finalize the details, and I still need a dress.”

        “Go as the most beautiful femme in the world, love.  Go naked.”

        “I’m sure you’d like that,” she giggled, her cheeks ruffling.

        “So would every male in Austin,” he added, leaning over and kissing her on the neck.

        “Well, I think I’d have a problem showing my dress to my daughters in fifteen years,” she giggled, beginning to purr almost immediately.

        “We can always take pictures,” he offered in a husky voice, wrapping his arms around her.

        “Kit!  Don’t you dare distract me right now!” she ordered, pushing against his chest.  “This is important!”

        He chuckled.  “Have you got the invitations?”

        “The list is done, yeah.  Now that we have a date, Vil said they’ll go out tomorrow.  She’s the one that’s been doing all the real planning,” she giggled.  “After we finalize the details, she takes care of it.  So far, we’ve got all the decorations and flowers handled, and Vil’s booked the reception for us at the Four Corners.  I just need to get my dress and the bridesmaid’s dresses, and you need to pick a best man and grooms, and the rings.”

        “That’s easy.  Rick will be best man, and I’ll dispense with the other grooms because I couldn’t pick just two or three.  It’d be the whole crew or none.”

        “That’s fine, love.  Sam and Sandy will be my bridesmaids.  We’ll have to get you a tux.”

        “I can rent one.”

        “Vil already said no.  She wants you to keep your wedding clothes.  She said it’s an old custom.”

        “That’s why I wasn’t going to do it.  It’s a Vulpan family tradition, and you know how I feel about my family.”

        “Well, can you humor me?  I’d like to have your tux hanging in the same bag with my dress.  That way we’re always together, just like our wedding clothes.”

        He smiled gently.  “For you, my pretty kitty, of course I will.”

        “I just hope your tux and my dress get along as well as we do,” she giggled.

        “They better, there won’t be much room in that garment bag.  I guess we’ll know they do if we open the bag in a year and find baby clothes in there,” he agreed, which made her laugh.

        “Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll have a baby to put in them,” she cooed to him, nuzzling his cheek.

        “And who’s distracting who now?” he challenged.

        “I have more control than you,” she said teasingly.

        “Oh really?” he asked archly.  He knew all her little buttons, and he used one of them against her.  He put his paws on the small of her back, above and to each side of her tail, and started to massage her.  Jessie’s back was very sensitive, and he’d learned that that area was particularly sensual for her.  She leaned against him and immediately began to purr, her claws kneading his back and shoulders.  But then she caught herself and laughed ruefully.

        “You cheater!” she accused, pushing out a little.  “I didn’t do that to you!”

        “Hey, I’m just arguing my case,” he retorted with a teasing smile.  “You said you have more control than me.  Well, I think that statement’s been debunked.”

        She laughed richly, then gave him a sultry look.  “Well, if you want to fight over who has less control, well, I know your on switch, love,” she threatened with a smug smile.

        “Oh no, get that throat away from me,” he laughed as she began to purr and leaned forward.

        “I win,” she said smugly, letting him go with a victorious smirk.

        “And you accuse me of cheating,” he said under his breath as she sauntered back towards the kitchen.  “What about the rings?”

        “Vil told me to go pick out what we want, and she’d pay for them.  She also said if you argue about it, she’ll brain you.”

        Kit laughed.  “I get the feeling she’s going to insist.”

        “Well, given how much money we have right now, we wouldn’t have many options,” Jessie answered as she pulled the baked potatoes out of the broiler.  Kit moved to make some tea for them, but the combination of the smell of the steaks and Jessie’s gloriously shapely backside taunting him as she retrieved the foil-wrapped potatoes made it hard for him to keep his mind on what he was doing.  “But I don’t think we’re going to go buy rings that cost more than our cars,” she giggled.  “I want to find some rings that are tasteful but not too expensive.”

        “I saw some good ones at the place where I bought your engagement ring.”

        “We can go look tomorrow after I get out of school.”

        “Sounds like a plan.”

        Knowing that they had a solid date didn’t make him feel nervous as much as it made him anxious.  He felt like a kid waiting for Christmas.  He thought about it all during dinner and while he was practicing the guitar and she was doing homework.  They were going to be married, and all he could think was why do we have to wait so long?  He watched her as they ate, as pop music played on the radio, and couldn’t think of anything else.  She glanced at him, then smiled and blew him a kiss, which made his heart flutter.  “Did I go too far?” she asked with a little smile.

        “Not far enough,” he answered.

        “Eat your dinner,” she ordered.  “I didn’t slave over a stove just to watch you ignore my cooking.  Besides, I get the feeling both of us will need our energy tonight.”

        He laughed.  “Yes ma’am.”

        Kit spread the news at work the next day, dropping in on them on his day off while Jessie was at school.  “We’ve set a date,” he said in the office as Savid, Jeffrey, and Mike were busy preparing pieces for the next issue.  “December Nineteenth.”

        He accepted hearty congratulations and pawshakes, and a rough hug from Marty, then sat down at the big table.  “I need a best man yet,” he ventured.  “Think you’d be up for it, Rick?”

        “Of course, son!” he said with a laugh.  “I haven’t worn a wedding tux since Martha dragged me to the altar.”

        “Oh, I’ve been dissed!  The heartache!” Marty said, putting the back of his paw over his eyes melodramatically.

        “Well, you could always ask Jessie if you could be a bridesmaid,” Jeffrey chuckled.

        “Oooo, I’ll have to talk to her,” he said.  “I just can’t clash with the bridal party!  We have to color-coordinate!”

        “I’ll leave that to you, Marty,” Jeffrey laughed.  “Where can I rent a tux at, Rick?”

        “You don’t have to wear a tux if you’re a guest, son,” Rick chuckled.  “Just something nice will do.”

        “Kit, can we invite some folks?” Mike asked.  “I’d like to have my folks come and such.”

        “Well, I don’t see anything wrong with it, but lemme ask Jessie before you do,” he said.  “You should get your invitations in the next couple of days, by the way.  They’re supposed to go out today, but my sis is handling it, so I guess they’ll come from Boston.”

        “I’ll be looking for it.  And I need to call Martha, we’ll have to go reserve a tux,” Rick chuckled.

        They went shopping for rings that afternoon.  The shop owner remembered him, and showed them several pairs of wedding rings.  Jessie gasped in delight when he took out a fifth set, which were amazingly plain.  The male’s ring was a simple band of gold and silver twisted together, and the female band was similar, but had three small diamonds vertically arrayed across the top, which was similar to her engagement ring’s single diamond and vertically flanking emeralds.

        “They’re beautiful!” she exclaimed, holding up the female’s ring.  “Look, Kit, the gold and silver bands are just like you and me, two different breeds who come together to make something beautiful.  How much are they?”

        “The set is fifteen hundred dollars,” the little chipmunk said with a light cough.  “But since you’re a repeat customer, I think we can negotiate over that a little.”

        “You make it thirteen fifty, I can pay for them right now,” Kit said immediately.

        “Kit, that’ll wipe us out!”

        “It’s worth it,” he said, holding up the male’s ring, then slipping it on his finger.  “And it even fits as is.”

        “Well, why not?” the chipmunk laughed.  “Thirteen fifty it is.  Try it on, madam, let’s check the sizing.”

        Jessie’s ring wasn’t quite as made-to-order.  It was a tiny bit too small, which the jeweler fixed using a very light mallet and a strange little cylinder that was thicker at the bottom then the top, marked with ring sizes.  He slipped it onto the cylinder, got Jessie’s ring size, then used the mallet to delicately and carefully stretch the ring to fit by tapping it down onto the cylinder.  He only had to enlarge it by a half a size, so he was done in just a moment. He carefully inspected the ring to ensure it wasn’t damaged in any way, then had her try it on again.  “Perfect,” he said with a satisfied nod.  He nodded again when Kit handed him his debit card, but he pulled it back a second.
        “Jessie, remember when I told you it was important to tell me if you took out any money?”

        “Let me guess, this is when that counts,” she laughed, and he nodded.  “I’m positive I haven’t.”