by Susan M. Garrett

Sydney lifted his head, then turned it slightly, ears cocked. He'd heard something. Not just a something, but cat something, which was a very important something to hear.

Rising from his place on the couch, he kneaded his front paws against the cushion to get the stiffness out of them, pretending that he wasn't listening intently for the something to happen again. Of course, he remembered to sheathe his claws as he kneaded--his non fur, Natalie, was usually angry and very unhappy when he used his claws on the couch cushions. When he'd been a young kitten he hadn't known any better and her voice had been very loud when she'd arrived and found him playing happily with the cushion fluff. It had been an unhappy time, leading to a new couch--with an odd smell--that he wasn't allowed to go near.

Patting the cushion proprietarily, Sydney sunk down on his front paws. But he remembered now to sheathe his claws and the couch, particularly this spot, was his.

Not that the whole world wasn't his. He straightened and sprang suddenly, arching his back as he sailed through the air so that he landed on the carpeting with uncommon grace . . . well, at least he thought so. His tail held high and twitching in warning, Sydney began to patrol the world which he owned and protected, from wall to wall.

It was a serious undertaking and he was proud to have the responsibility--his non-fur Natalie had to be protected from intruders. So he padded across slick tile--and checked out his food bowl, which still hadn't been filled--and the soft carpet of the couch place, then the light tile of the hall, and down to the plush of the bedroom. Standing near the bottom of the bed, he rubbed his head along a draping of the heavy comforter that hung over the edge. For a moment he was tempted to halt the patrol and take a leap onto the bed--there could be intruders there, his non-fur had been gone for a long time. And if there wasn't anything strange, he deserved to snuggle and roll in the softness of the comforter, burrow deep inside and make a warm spot for himself . . . .

Shaking his head, Sydney dispelled that notion. Maybe later. He still had the other slick-floored place to check. In fact, it was his favorite place to check because his non-fur would leave the window open a crack.

The thought made the hair along his spine tingle and Sydney quickly padded to the doorway. Sometimes his non-fur would leave the door closed and he would have to press his head and belly against the floor, his nose sniffing at the open space at the bottom to catch a tantalizing whiff of that wonderful scent of outside.

Thankfully, the door was wide open and he walked right in . . . then stopped and tilted his head again, listening intently. There was that something again. It sounded very much like another furred one, like himself. Nothing like that sissy Persian down below, who spent the day sunning himself in the broad window when Sydney's non-fur took him out to play or to that cold, bright, awful place where strange non-furs stuck nasty-sharp things in him. And yet not like any other furred one he'd ever heard, and he'd heard quite a few at the nasty/cold place.

Sydney leaned back on his haunches, put his paws against the wood of the cabinet, and stretched his neck, looking up. His nose twitched at the scent of outside, a chill breeze bringing in all the lovely scents and smells from the place beyond his ordered world. There was another scent, too, a furred scent that was oddly non-furred. And . . . a quick flash of sleek black at the window.

He blinked, not certain he'd seen the flash of darkness reflected in the glass, lit by the streetlight outside. Narrowing his eyes, Sydney tried to concentrate on seeing more, but there was only blackness beyond. If he wanted a better look, he'd have to climb.

He purred happily, then padded back and forth across the tile floor, tail swishing. His non-fur didn't like it when he climbed up to the window, but he didn't have any choice--something was invading his territory. She'd understand. She was pretty smart, for a non-fur.

A leap and he sank his claws into the soft wood of the cabinet. From then, he twisted and thrust upward with his feet, which propelled him onto the slick surface of the sink. His non-fur had forgotten to wipe it down and he hesitated when he came upon a wet spot, dipping his tongue daintily to taste.

Sydney's eyes clenched shut; he shook his head and sneezed at the peppermint taste on his tongue. It burned for an instant and he overcompensated on the slick surface, nearly falling, shaking his head to and fro in an attempt to get rid of the bad, stinging thing on his tongue. In desperation, he slid down into the bowl of the sink, ignored the lingering wetness on his fur, and caught the drips from the tap. That was normally forbidden, but that stinging, awful stuff was nasty!

It so distracted him, he almost forgot why he'd gone up there in the first place . . . until he heard the soft, "Meow," again. His head lifted in one sharp move, before he could miss the shadows at the window.

It was a She-cat, sleek and black and smooth, with wide green eyes and a small, pointed muzzle. She was pretending that she hadn't noticed him, her gaze raking past him in indifference, the turn of her head revealing a single patch of white alongside her throat, just beneath her red leather collar.

She was beautiful.

His jaw dropped open for a moment as he simply stared. Now this was a cat. She was elegant, slim and shining, and he imagined that she must move like silver, shiny things, graceful and quick.

And he was sitting in the sink.

Sydney scrambled up out of the bowl of the sink, found purchase on the slick surface, then leapt immediately for the top of the commode. There was a clatter of items, the resounding echo of a metal can of hair spray lingering long after the cardboard box of tissues--make a note of that, it was something to play with later--had hit the floor with a soft thud and some sort of glass or china plate of flower-smelling beads had shattered. The scent of flower oil drifted up around him as he slowly padded his way over to the window and placed his paws on the sill.

She was still there, just outside, still pretending not to see him. Sydney yowled a greeting and found himself fixed by those beautiful green eyes, long and deep, shining like beacons in the night.

She yowled back, although her answer was hardly as coarse as a 'yowl.' Her voice was as sultry and as sleek as her fur, soft like the stuff inside the couch cushions.

He felt . . . warm and tingly, like when his non-fur would pet him from the tip of his head straight down his back, in a constant, stroking motion. Sydney pressed his nose against the cold glass and yowled again, the scent of the She-cat and the inviting whiff of the air from outside teasing him. His slipped his nose to the crack of the window and thrust his snout beneath it, but it was too heavy to move. Not being small enough to slip through, he'd tried to wedge himself into the space to widen it once or twice before, like he did when he made tunnels on the bed. It hadn't budged before and wouldn't budge now. Desperate, he thrust one paw into the space and patted tentatively.

It was a cold, dark place. And then--the touch of silk and claws! Sydney looked up and found the She-cat directly on the other side of the window, staring at him. Her whiskers twitched as if she were laughing, and she tucked her paw beneath the sill. She was inviting him to come out and play, to join her in the great wide place beyond the window.

He was trapped! He couldn't move the window. And he wasn't about to tell her to wait for his non-fur to return. Natalie never took him out to play at night, rarely took him outside at all when the air was this cold, and she'd be loud and angry when she saw what had happened to the tile floor--the scent of flowers was still making his nose burn.

He could pretend that he didn't care, that he didn't want to go out and play . . . but that wouldn't work. The She-cat's twitching whiskers told him that. So he settled for a sad and helpless meow, hoping that she might pity him and stay, rather than laugh and run off alone into the night.

The She-cat didn't laugh. Nor did she show any signs of sympathy. For a moment, she slipped down behind the wood of the window, disappearing from view. Terrified that she'd left him, Sydney pulled his paw from beneath the window and leapt up, resting the pads of his front paws against the glass.

She wassleek, and long. The She-cat had slipped both of her paws beneath the window sill, then her snout, then the tips of her ears disappeared.

Sydney watched in wonder, then dropped back against the sill as the wooden frame of the window began to move and the glass rattled. It scared him, but he stopped himself from leaping to the floor and backed down only as far as the slippery top of the commode.

The window was moving upward. The head of the She-cat appeared in the space between the frame and the sill, along with her front paws. She twisted sideways, then made a puffing noise as she arched her back.

She was moving the window.

Sydney was aghast and a little amazed. Even he wasn't strong enough to move the window and his non-fur had often told him that he was a big, strong cat . . . and that he was handsome and clever and charming, and a number of other things. There was no way he could move the window.

But it was rising, if slowly. When it was high enough, she slinked beneath the window and stood on the sill, then sat down and began to preen her sleek black coat, which was dotted with paint chips and dust. It was as if he wasn't even there.

Sydney approached slowly, one step at a time, his head lowered and eyes wide. She was beautiful and strong and clever. Not that his non-fur, Natalie, would ever take a second look at her while he was around, but--

Shaking off the thought, he continued to pad toward her. The She-cat seemed to have finished her maintenance. She looked up at him almost disdainfully, then stretched further along the sill and turned over on her side, exposing her sleek black belly.

Sydney froze again, but this time being uncertain had nothing to do with it. The She-cat wasn't challenging him, she was inviting him into her presence. And however much that invitation made his short hairs stiff and his paws tingle, he wasn't at all certain that he wanted to take it. Who was she to invite him?

She yowled lightly in impatience and Sydney saw her mouth and teeth--a tiny, red/pink tongue and fangs that were not quite feline fangs. In fact, they were longer and looked sharper than feline fangs should look. Almost . . . dangerous.

Sitting back on his haunches, Sydney ran his tongue over his own fangs experimentally. Nope--he had ordinary cat fangs. And the She-cat's fangs were anything but ordinary. In fact, they reminded him of something, just like her not-quite-She-cat scent reminded him of . . . .

The She-cat was suddenly on her feet and beside him--Sydney was quite astonished as he'd never seen her move, she was suddenly there. She slinked along his length, that sleek black fur stroking his own as she yowled for him to come and play with her, to explore the wide world beyond the window, and the night with its sharp and inviting smells.

The not-quite scent of the She-cat made his nose tickle. Sydney wrinkled his nose, ran his paw along it, and then sneezed. The She-cat laughed low in her throat, the kind of purr that sent a tingle from his back toes straight through to his snout. He stared at the She-cat, who now seated herself directly in front of him and bumped his snout with her own.

Her eyes were large and gold and liquid, and her dark fur rippled in the breeze from the open window, which led to such wonderful things. Sydney felt her purred promises wash over him, bathing him like a silken tongue would soothe and set his fur. A languor set in and he found his entire body tingling with a warmth not unlike that pleasant moment when he'd remain wrapped in his non-fur's arms, safe and content, slipping into the darkness of that other place where he could rip stuffing from couch cushions or roam in the outside green carpeting under a bright, warm sun.

He didn't want to move. He couldn't. And though it seemed to him that the She-cat hadn't moved, somehow he knew that she had. Her small, pink mouth opened and he saw those non-feline fangs again, glistening in the light from the moon. She yowled softly, hungrily, and however much he wished to twitch his tail in fear, he found that he couldn't.

Faintly, very faintly, he heard a metallic jingle, a noise known to fill him with ecstasy or, upon occasions, dread. It signaled that his non-fur Natalie was home.

The She-cat heard it, too. Her ears twitched and she looked away.

It took only that long for the pounding in his ears to lessen. His tail twitched, then Sydney let out such a cat screech of fear and warning that the tiles echoed with it. His leg muscles tensed and he leaped directly to the floor, flying for a brief instant, then colliding and slipping on the slick tile and the ceramic chips scattered over it. His paws fell out from beneath him and he skidded ungracefully on his belly, yowling again in discomfort as the fur there was twisted back and forth out of place and the scent of rose petals rose up to drench him in a sweet smell. His head slammed back into the door and he lay there for an instant, stunned.

But not too stunned to see the She-cat leap to the floor. She didn't fall--she flew! She descended through the air as did one of the small things from the sky that perched safely on the window and annoyed him with chirrups and mocking calls, or that refused to play with him when his non-fur took him to the park and they roamed through the long, stiff, fresh-green carpet. Those things--birds, she called them--would hop along just in front of him, and then slap their wings against the air beyond his reach . . . although Sydney was a jumper and had a very long reach of which he was quite proud.

But the She-cat acted like a bird and not like a bird, falling slowly to the floor and landing without such much as a ruffled hair. She was sleek and black and dark, with the exception of those gold eyes and that too-pink mouth and those sharp, white teeth . . . .

She was stalking him, moving slowly, paw before paw, laughing low and deep within her throat.

Sydney didn't feel much like a leaper just then, or like the big, strong cat his non-fur was always telling him that he was. He felt quite small, and fragile, like he'd felt when he was just a kitten and his fur was still short and fluffy, like down, and his feet were quite too large and he fell over them whenever he tried to run and leap. Safety had meant another She-cat, a large, gray, she-cat, who was soft and licked his fur straight and purred into his ear and made him feel warm and happy.

In his mind, the thought of that first She-cat merged and became his non-fur. His heart beat quickly when he thought of how she cooed over him and held him close . . . and even scolded him, when he'd done something perfectly cat-like that a non-fur just couldn't understand.

He realized then that he'd heard the jingle-sound, his non-fur was near. And so was the She-cat.

The She-cat might hurt his non-fur!

His paws gathered beneath him instinctively. Sydney backed up against the door, lowered his head, and snarled, his ears lying flat against his scalp in warning. The fur on his back rose, making him twice his size, and he hissed and spit in warning. This She-cat would never hurt his non-fur!

The She-cat paused for a moment, pacing back and forth as if in surprise. Then a low, laughing purr rose from her throat, a sound so fearful that it put all thoughts of defiance from Sydney's mind and made his eyes open wide and his claws unclench. She began to stalk forward again, head low, eyes gleaming, and still laughing.

"Sydney?" called the voice of his non-fur, from the room beyond the closed door. "I really don't know what he's done. I hope he hasn't trapped himself in the bathroom again. Sydney--?"

The eyes of the She-cat were large and gold and focused on him. Sydney knew that there was no escape. But he had to warn his non-fur. So he opened his mouth and yowled for all that he was worth, just as the She-cat leaped at him, hissing angrily--

The door flew open and Sydney was pushed very forcefully and suddenly across the tile. There was a whoosh of air as the She-cat sailed over him. Unable to turn, she struck the door with a loud 'thump,' which made Sydney wince so hard, he closed his eyes.

But they didn't stay closed. He looked up and saw the fanged non-fur standing over him--the one his non-fur called 'Nick'--the neck of the She-cat clenched tightly in his fist, even as the She-cat continued to hiss and spit and snarl. Sydney scrambled to his feet and yowled a warning--he didn't much liked the fanged non-fur, but it made his non-fur Natalie purr, so he didn't want to see it hurt.

"No, you don't," said the fanged non-fur. He needed both hands to hold the struggling She-cat.

"Nick?" called Sydney's non-fur, from the other room.

"He's fine," called the fanged non-fur. "Better get a broom--looks like he broke something in here." He slammed his back against the door, closing it--just as Sydney had decided to make a dash for the opening--then moved to the window. The fanged-non-fur held the She-cat through the opening by her red collar. "If you ever come back," he said, in a voice so cold it made Sydney's tail curl beneath him, "I'll drain you dry. Now, get!"

There was a startled screech as the fanged non-fur released the She-cat, but it was quickly cut off when he closed the window. Hoping to avoid notice, Sydney slunk down behind the commode, between the pipe and the wall, and made himself very small. Now he knew why the She-cat smelled so familiar--it was like this non-furred-fanged one that his Natalie liked so much. They were near-mates.

The door opened and his non-fur stood in the passageway, a broom in her hand. "Nick, what 's--? Sydney! How could you do this?"

The muscles in his back legs bunched together and Sydney launched himself across the floor, aiming for the spot between her legs and the door--freedom!--then found himself snatched into the air unceremoniously. The fanged non-fur, Nick, held him tightly, strong hands clasped around his middle and leaving his legs to dangle.

It was very embarrassing.

Then the fanged one's eyes widened and he coughed. "What's that smell?"

"Bath oils. I had them in a dish--he must have squished some." His non-fur moved closer to Sydney and glared at him, eye to eye. "Bad Sydney! I don't know how one cat could make so much of a mess. And guess who's going to need a b-a-t-h?"

It was that word. Sydney meowed unhappily and tucked his head beneath the fanged one's arm as he tried to escape the impending indignity of being wet--very, very wet--and unhappy.

"Can he spell?" asked the fanged-one in surprise.

"He knows I'm pissed at him. Do me a favor? Take him out into the living room until I get this mess cleaned up. And hold on to him. I don't feel like playing hide-and-seek with him. I can't believe he did this. He knows he isn't supposed to be in the bathroom--"

Sydney lowered his head and kept his ears flat, trying to look pitiful--it usually worked on his non-fur. But she was so angry this time, she wasn't even noticing.

Nor did it help that the fanged-non-fur carried him out into the couch place, where she couldn't see him. Sydney scrabbled with his back feet against the soft leather jacket--that got the fanged-one's attention. He placed his hand on Sydney's rump, supporting him, and Sydney snuggled into the crook of the fanged-one's arm. That not-non-fur scent tickled his nose and he sneezed.

"Well, you don't smell like a bed of roses, either." Then the fanged-one smiled--not showing his teeth. "Sorry--that's exactly what you smell like, isn't it?"

Sydney yowled softly and unhappily as the fanged one walked over to the window, but his attention soon became fixed on the reflections in the glass and the night outside. Remembering the She-cat, he shivered and snuggled closer to the fanged-one.

"You had a close call," said the fanged-one quietly, stoking Sydney's head. "Both of you. Could be coincidence. Just like it's coincidence that you both entertain a fascination for us." His fingers tickled Sydney beneath the chin.

Sydney's eyes closed into slits--ooh, that was just the right spot. Maybe this fanged non-fur wasn't so bad after all.

"I don't know if it was an accident . . . or if it wasn't. That carouche had a collar. I don't want to take any chances."

The scratching stopped. Sydney looked up reproachfully and meowed. Nick's eyes were looking out the window, but Sydney thought for a moment that the fanged non-fur was very far away, like the place Sydney went when his eyes closed.

He rubbed his head against the fanged non-fur's hand. Nick looked down at him, then placed a finger beneath his chin, so that their eyes met. "No more flirting with carouches, okay? You're a little beyond your depth with that one. Trust me."

The finger started to scratch beneath his chin again. Sydney purred in complete assent, not really understanding what the fanged non-fur was saying. He hummed contentedly to himself, slitting his eyes and not opening them even when he heard his non-fur Natalie approach.

"Were you talking to Sydney?"

"Nat--he's a cat."

"I know he's a cat." He felt her hands on him and opened his eyes, only to find his non-fur had a firm grip on him. "You were talking to him, weren't you?"

Sydney caught a whiff of sharp tingling stuff--soap!--as his non-fur slung him over her shoulder. He pawed frantically at her shoulder and meowed piteously, eyes fixed on the fanged non-fur in hopes of rescue.

"Sorry, buddy," said the non-fur with a shrug. "Nat's the boss."

"Yeah, you remember that," said his non-fur sharply. "Both of you."

No matter how hard he scarmbled and clawed for purchse, he never really had a chance. He was lifted, twisted in the air . . . and then plopped, rump first, into a sink full of warm, soapy water.

The soft, echoing sound of cat laughter made him twist his head toward the window--but he didn't get a chance to see anything as a warm wet cloth covered his snout and rubbed vigorously.

And that was when Sydney decided that he had to tell his non-fur Natalie that you just couldn't trust non-feline fanged ones, fur or non-fur.