Since the last story was so well-received by everyone--and even got some fanart from the generous Two_Twig!--I decided to do another installment. I'd actually meant to have this finished sometime last week, but progress on this one went a little more slowly than the last one, and I came down with a nasty headache that laid me up literally all day yesterday, preventing me from getting anything done.
I'm feeling better now though, and have this to show for it.
This is something of a prequel to the last story, set during the events of the Yarn Ball. It's a little love letter to all the Maxwell fans out there who want to see him get a little attention, too. If there really is a love triangle in progress here, then I'm certainly rooting for Peanut, but I don't want to go any further into the "future" of the current story arc without seeing what direction Rick takes it in, first. He is
the artist, after all.
I'm not entirely happy with the way this one came out. I think the characterization is a little inconsistent in some places, and the ending is definitely rushed, but like Two_Twig, I've been looking at this thing for far too long, and if it isn't published now, it never will be. There are probably mistakes and spots where I repeat myself, and I'll try to edit those out later; at the moment, it's six in the morning (again), and I'm a little too tired to care.
None of this is canon, of course, but I try to respect established aspects of the strip whenever possible; that's why if you look closely, you can see some of them referenced here. That being said, be warned that this story strays a little further from the source than the last, as it includes some stuff that Rick has specifically identified as being non-canon
, as well as a few things that I just thought would be fun. With that in mind, I hope that won't keep it from being fun for you, too.
Housepets! and all related characters are the property of Rick Griffin, and are used here without permission. This work was not written for profit, nor was it written to libel Rick Griffin or Housepets!
~For Ebly, Grape's biggest fan
~Housepets: Auld Lang SyneSomewhere in the United States
January 1, 2009
Grape watched the blooming flowers of fireworks light up the night sky with an amused expression. Fireworks of any kind were quite illegal in Babylon Gardens--there were both state and local ordinances against either purchasing or using them--but that didn't stop people from setting them off every year, and this year was certainly no exception. Not that it really mattered, of course... it wasn't as if the police ever tried to actually enforce the law, anyway. It was similar to the municipal leash ordinance; technically, pets were supposed to be kept on a leash at all times, but in practice, they virtually had run of the neighborhood and could go anywhere they pleased, with or without their owners, as long as they kept their collars on. So long as you avoided causing any trouble, the cops would look the other way. Whether that was because they had more important things to worry about or simply because there were so many police dogs on the force, Grape wasn't sure.
Hypocrisy of that sort usually annoyed her, but not in this case. She realized that she was probably more tolerant of double standards when they were of direct benefit to her. She almost felt guilty about it.Almost.
"Happy New Year," she murmured flatly to herself, still gazing at the glittering pyrotechnics that flared brightly and then faded into the darkness of the night. "May it suck a little less than the last one."
"Come now, what kind of a resolution is that?"
Grape turned her head toward the source of the voice. A black tomcat was stretched out along the top of the fence next to her, a blue scarf draped around his neck and a golden bell dangling beneath it. He regarded her with pale, aquamarine eyes that reminded her of the color of the ocean when her parents would take her and Peanut to the beach for their yearly vacation. It occurred to her that he was studying her, the expression on his face not unlike one cats used when watching prey; his eyes were lidded, and he was leaning on one elbow, propping his chin up in his upturned palm.
"I don't make resolutions," she replied. "What's the point in making a promise you'll never keep?"
"So why don't you?" the tomcat said, shrugging his shoulders. "Whether you keep the promise or not is entirely up to you, no one else."
"The problem is that people get too ambitious. They promise themselves that they'll get promoted, or win the lottery, or lose 100 pounds, or do things that they generally have no control over in the first place. Then they feel bad about it when they fail. I like to keep my goals a little simpler."
"Mmm. Like what?"
Grape shrugged in kind. "Get out of bed in the morning. Make it through a nap without being interrupted. Annoy one of the neighborhood dogs. Read another chapter of Pridelands
today. That sort of thing."
"You were right about keeping it simple," the black cat said, flashing a toothy grin. "Living one day at a time, hmm?"
"Something like that," she replied, grinning back at him. "What about you?"
"Oh, I'm afraid my desires are far too lofty for your liking." The tomcat feigned a sigh. "I suppose I'm just one of the deluded many with too much ambition. Unrealistic expectations, and all that."
Grape rolled her eyes. "Oh, really
," she mused. "And what, pray tell, is so unrealistic?"
The other cat shifted his position, swung his legs over the edge of the fence and hopped down into the alley where Grape stood. He landed easily upon his feet, with the silence that was characteristic of his species, save for the soft jingling of the bell around his neck. "I'd like to kiss a pretty lady this year," he said.
Grape couldn't help but chuckle. "You're right, that is
asking for a bit much," she agreed.
"Oh, you cut me to the quick," the tomcat said, clutching at his chest and staggering backward in mock injury. But he quickly recovered, clasped his hands behind his back, and leaned toward Grape, that same, broad, fanged smile upon his face. "So tell me," he said, "What's a nice cat like you doing back here all alone when there's a perfectly good party going on?"
"I'm afraid I'm not much of a party animal, Maxwell," Grape replied. "I told you that when you asked me to come to this little shindig of yours. I'm not fond of big crowds, they bring back... bad memories."
The other cat winced. "Firstly, don't call me that... please."
Grape blinked. "Why not? That's your name, isn't it?"
"Yes, but my parents
call me Maxwell... and usually only when they're really angry. My friends call me Max."
Grape gave an amused smile. "Okay... Max.
Max nodded. "Good," he said. "And secondly, this isn't just a 'shindig'... it's the Annual Babylon Gardens New Year's Yarn Ball. It's the biggest block party of the season, and we throw one every year." He was speaking in an indignant done, as if he had been offended by how easily she had dismissed the event.
Grape tilted her head to the side. "This is really important to you, isn't it, Max?"
Max's ears flattened back. "Well, yeah... I'm one of the organizers. We put a lot of effort into planning things, getting the word out, and bringing the community together. The point is for everyone to have a good time."
Grape's own ears folded back in like fashion. Now she did
feel guilty. "Look, I don't mean to be a killjoy or anything," she said, "but I'm not exactly a social butterfly."
Max shrugged again. "Didn't you say that you wanted to meet some new faces? Every cat in the neighborhood is here tonight."
Grape lidded her eyes. "Since I've been here, I've met ten cats all with the same
face--and the same name
--none of whom I can tell apart, another who doesn't talk
, and yet another whom I already know," she deadpanned. "Not exactly what I had in mind."
Max cupped a paw against the back of his head. He looked rather sheepish. "Well, I admit that things haven't exactly been ideal," he muttered, "but that doesn't mean you can't still have fun..."
Grape shook her head. "Sorry, Max. I don't mean to put a damper on things, but if it's all the same to you, I think I'm just going to head home. Thanks for the offer, though. Don't stop having fun on my account." She turned around and began walking toward the other end of the alleyway, back toward the street, when she heard something that stopped her in her tracks.
Grape looked back over her shoulder. What she saw made her heart sink; Max looked absolutely crushed, his ears folded back and his whiskers drooping. His expression reminded her of how Peanut looked when he was upset... he had those same, pleading, puppy-dog eyes... except, well, they were on a cat.
"If you don't want to stay, Grape, then I won't ask you to," Max murmured, "but at least grab a bite to eat before you go. We managed to get some good stuff together this year, it's all free, and... it would mean a lot to me."
Max saw a strange look come over Grape's face, one that he had never seen before. He saw a flash of... something
... in her widened, yellow eyes, but couldn't readily identify it. Then she smiled at him, a smile that he knew was forced. "Okay, Max," she said. "For you."
The black cat's face immediately brightened, and even though he knew her smile was a false one, he returned it anyway. "Okay," he said, turning about and gesturing with an arm. "Follow me."
As she and Max walked down the alley, Grape could hear the assembled cats singing in the distance, a sound that rose over the rooftops, carried upon the winter breeze, and steadily grew louder as they approached its source.Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne...
The alley opened up into a wide, spacious area that Grape initially believed to be a courtyard before she remembered that there were none in Babylon Gardens. She realized that she was standing in the parking lot of the local Pizza Palace
. The pizzeria was a relatively small building, one that was part of a regional chain, but it had an inordinately large lot that Grape estimated could accommodate fifty cars or more. Tonight, it had been commandeered by the neighborhood cats; they were everywhere, some sprawled upon the various tables and lawn chairs that were strewn across the lot, while others sang and danced around a fire that had been lit within a rusted old oil drum. A few were even perched upon the rooftops of the neighboring buildings, peering up at the night sky with pairs of binoculars to better see the explosions of light and color that cast their many-hued glow upon the revelers below. Two of the tables had been pushed together and set with food, napkins, and assorted plasticware.
"Well, here's the buffet," Max said, gesturing to the array of snacks and appetizers. "We have bottled milk, canned tuna and chicken, some crackers, and a big bag of Cat Snacs. Jasper donated a bowl of those little goldfish made of cheese that his parents like to eat. They like to stick to the roof of your mouth, but they're pretty good. Someone also brought along a platter of fruits and vegetables... I'm not sure if that's a joke, or if somebody is trying to tell us to eat healthier."
Grape gathered up a handful of the goldfish crackers with a look of amusement. "How novel," she said, popping one of the treats into her mouth. "Mmm, not bad... better than dog biscuits, anyway."
"What was that?"
"Nothing," she lied, munching on another of the cheesy confections. "What're those?" she asked, pointing to a row of small, cylindrical objects near the table's edge.
"Hm? Oh, that's just catnip," Max said, reaching out to pick up one of the paper wrappings. "Do you nip?"
"Occasionally," Grape said, squinting at the cigarette Max held in his hand. "That doesn't look like the catnip I got for my birthday."
"That's because it's not. I made those," Max said, grinning impishly. "Little hobby of mine."
"Really? I didn't think they sold that to pets."
"Well, they don't. They always charge you way too much for a pack at the pet store, anyway. My parents buy the processed stuff by the pound, and I roll it myself. It's easy to do, and it saves money. I got a ton of it for Christmas, and I like to share." He held the cigarette out to her in offering. "Want some?"
Grape was silent for a moment, considering, before she shrugged her shoulders, promptly crammed the remaining goldfish in her hand into her mouth, and accepted the proffered gift. "Why not?" she said.
Max nodded, still wearing that same Cheshire grin. He retrieved another roll of paper from the table for himself, lifted it to his lips, and began rummaging around inside his scarf. He frowned. "Crap, I think I forgot my lighter," he muttered. "Hey, Joey!" he called out, "You got a light?"
The orange-furred "cat" standing near the opposite end of the table gave a startled gasp and looked at Max like a deer caught in the headlights. He lifted a hand and began nervously fumbling with his own collar, eventually withdrawing a small black matchbook. "M-Matches okay, Max?" he stuttered, holding out his paw.
Max smiled reassuringly and took the matchbook in his hand. "You're a lifesaver, Joey," he said. "Thanks."
Joey offered a meek smile of his own--Grape could have sworn, for a moment, that he was actually blushing, although that could have been nothing more than the glow of the fireworks that were still going off above--and promptly turned his attention back to the buffet table, suddenly looking very interested in a plastic spork.
Max chuckled to himself. "Poor boy was probably worried that he left them in his other cat suit," he murmured.
"You know about that?" Grape asked.
"Know what?" Max replied, striking a match against the edge of the booklet, shielding it from the wind with his hands.
"That Joey's... well..."
"A dog? Sure, we all do." Max paused to peer at her, curiously, his unlit cigarette wedged between his lips and the match still flickering within his paws. "Didn't you?
"Not until recently," Grape said. "To be honest, I never really paid much attention to him."
"Mmm." Max finally managed to light his catnip, drawing in a deep breath before letting it out again, faint curls of smoke drifting from his nose. "Yeah, we're pretty sure that 'fur' of his is really made of orange bathroom towels sewn together with some pieces of carpet."
"And you don't mind?" Grape said, holding out her own catnip.
Max obliged her, lifting the match to the edge of the roll of paper until it began to burn, then blew it out, briefly waving the smoking remnants of the stick in the air before discarding it to the ground. "Joey? Nah, he's harmless. A little shy though. He tries so hard to fit in with us, and always seems so worried that we'll find out the truth. None of us has the heart to tell him that we already know... as if we'd actually do anything about it." Max took another drag from his cigarette and lidded his eyes, murmuring, "Although if the boy wants to keep a secret, maybe he shouldn't wear his dog tags on the outside."
"But I thought the Yarn Ball was just for cats," Grape said, taking a puff from her own catnip, watching as the smoke she exhaled from her lips drifted away into the night sky.
"The Yarn Ball is for everyone
," Max said, emphatically. "Anyone can come, we don't discriminate. The ball is about having fun, not about being a cat... and if dressing up like one is Joey's way of having fun, then he's welcome to join us." He pointed toward the oil drum that Grape had seen earlier. "Look there."
Grape looked. She realized for the first time that there was music playing, and probably had been the entire time she was standing there; she had been so distracted with Max that she simply hadn't noticed. She heard the familiar strings of The Devil Went Down to Georgia
being played from somewhere behind her. A number of cats were still dancing around the drum to the frantic tune of the fiddle, while others were sitting in a circle around them, seated upon old tires, cardboard boxes, and whatever else was handy, smiling and laughing and singing along with the lyrics, clapping their hands to the rhythm of the song. Max was right... it did
look like fun.
"There are so many," Grape murmured. "I don't think some of them are even from Babylon Gardens..."
Max nodded. "They come from all over to be a part of things," he replied. "To experience that togetherness, that sense of community and brotherhood... it doesn't matter if they're strangers or not, because they're all friends here. That's
what the Yarn Ball is all about."
Grape couldn't help but smile. She could actually feel what Max was talking about, that sense of brotherhood--or sisterhood, in her case--and the bond with her fellow cat. It was almost like being back home with her family. It was a pleasant sensation... or at least it was until a sudden blast of icy air swept through the parking lot, causing Grape's scarf to flutter around her neck. She squeezed her eyes shut and huddled up in her own arms, a hard shiver running through her. Being a cat, walking around naked had never particularly bothered her, but at times like this, she was actually envious of the humans and the heavy jackets they wore; her fur was usually enough to keep her warm, but tonight, the harsh arctic wind bit right through her violet pelt and into the skin beneath. She supposed she should consider herself lucky that it wasn't actually snowing. She took a long, shaky draw from her cigarette, inhaling deeply, hoping that the smoke might serve to warm her insides.
Max could plainly see her shivering and draped an arm around her shoulder. "What's wrong?" he asked.
Grape looked up at him and managed a weak smile. "It's nothing," she said. "Just a little chilly. I'm not usually out this late... especially not in the dead of winter." She turned her eyes back to the lot; the music was still going strong, and the cats were still making merriment as if nothing at all had happened. "It doesn't seem to bother them
, though," she observed.
"That's because they're having too much fun to be cold," Max said. When he spoke again, Grape could hear a hint of jest in his voice. "Maybe we should get you warmed up, hmm?"
Grape looked at Max again, narrowing her eyes. "Just what do you mean by that?
" she asked, suspicious.
Max merely flashed her that characteristically toothy smile of his. "What I'm asking, dear lady," he murmured, "is if you would like to dance with me."
Grape suddenly felt flushed. "Dance with you?
" she gasped. "I... I can't!"
Max looked hurt. "And why on earth not?" he asked.
Grape bowed her head, trying to ignore the intense burning sensation in her cheeks. "I... I've never danced before," she stammered, lowering her eyes to the ground. "I... don't know how."
Max made a raspberry sound with his mouth. "Pfft, is that
all?" he said. "Well then, I'll just have to teach you, won't I?"
Grape could actually feel the color draining out of her face. "You can't be serious," she stated. "I'd be tripping all over my own feet, to say nothing of yours
"I'm quite serious," Max replied. "We won't be able to do it with this music, of course, it's a little too fast-paced for a beginner, but I'm sure we can arrange something more suitable for you. Besides, you're a cat, you're naturally graceful... you just don't know it yet."
"Max, please, don't drag me out there in front of all those cats!" Grape was actually pleading with him; she had sunk to her knees without even realizing it. "I'll just end up embarrassing myself... and you!"
"No you won't, Grape."
Grape could only stare up at Max. He was smiling down at her, as he seemed so fond of doing, his eyes glimmering in the dark. "Trust me," he murmured, reaching out for her with a paw. "I won't make a fool out of you."
There was something in his smile, and in his voice, a self-assured confidence that made Grape believe him. She wasn't quite sure why, but she grasped hold of his proffered hand anyway, and rose to her feet. "Okay," she whispered.
"Good," he said. "Now, first thing's first... hey, fellas!"
Max was yelling up at a pair of cats who were sitting atop the roof of the Pizza Palace
itself. One was a dark gray tom with white eyes and sitting at an electric keyboard; his companion was a brown-and-white tabby with gray eyes and a fiddle in his hand. Grape realized that they must have been the source of the music she had heard earlier; the song had just ended, and they looked to be preparing for their next set.
"Grape, allow me to introduce you to our maestros for the evening, Fiddler and Keys. They're the finest musicians in Babylon Gardens..." Max lifted a hand, cupping it against his muzzle, and yelled, "... and they're both a tremendous pain in my tail!
"Aw, blow it out your ear, Max!" Fiddler retorted. "Go back to whatever Dumpster you crawled out of!"
"Don't let that alley cat get too close to you, honey!" Keys added. "He'll give you fleas!"
Grape was horrified, but Max seemed completely unfazed by the exchange of vulgarities; in fact, his smile seemed only to widen. "I have a request, boys," he said. "I want to teach the lady a few dance steps, so I need something slow. Do you think you can come up with something appropriate?"
Fiddler turned to face his counterpart. "What do you think?" he asked. "Layla
Keys shook his head. "Too fast. Stairway
"Too long. Turkey in the Straw
"Too country. Hotel California
"Too weird. Scarborough Fair
Both cats nodded. "Give us a minute, Max," Fiddler said.
Max nodded in return. He turned his eyes to Grape, and paused when he saw the expression upon her face. "What's wrong?"
"Those two are your friends?
" Grape asked, incredulously.
"Hm? Well, yes, I suppose they're as much my friends as you are." Max canted his head to the side. "Why?"
"Well, you sure don't act like it, that's all."
That familiar smirk creased Max's lips. "Haven't you ever seen a bunch of guys trade insults with each other, Grape? The ancient, testosterone-laden ritual of name-calling, chest-thumping, and lie-telling?"
"I've never seen the neighborhood dogs talk to each other like that
," Grape said. "I've sat in on a few of Bino's meetings before, for the, uh... for the catering. They were about as exciting as watching paint dry."
Max gave a snort of breath. "That's because dogs have no sense of humor, Bino least of all," he said. "So, are you ready?"
Max watched as Grape lifted her catnip cigarette to her lips and took a drag from it--a long one, so long that the roll of paper promptly burned down to little more than a charred, ashen butt that she promptly flicked away. "I am now," she coughed.
Max chuckled, and treated his own cigarette in a similar fashion, drawing it down to nothing before discarding it without a second thought, breathing out the catnip-smoke in a sigh. Still grasping Grape by the hand, he led her out to where the other would-be dancers stood; most of them were merely milling around the oil drum, warming themselves by the crackling flames while they waited for the next song to begin.
When the music started, it was slow, and calm, just ask Max had asked. Grape could hear the lilting melody of the strings as Fiddler so expertly played them, joined by soft tones of Keys as he provided accompaniment on his piano. What surprised her the most was not the beauty of the song--although she had heard it before, and thought it was quite lovely--but the fact that they were able to play it so well, so easily
, without any rehearsals, apparently by ear. While the other cats around her began to pair off and move to the music, she shifted uneasily upon her paws, waiting for Max to instruct her.
"Put your hand on my shoulder, like this," he murmured, guiding her paw as he spoke. "Good. And I'll put mine on your hip... there. Now, take my other hand in yours, like this... that's it. Okay. This is a good starting position. You want to be close enough to your partner to be intimate, but not so close as to make them uncomfortable. Understand?"
Grape nodded. "I think so."
"All right then. I'll start us off. Just follow my lead, and you'll be fine." Max took all of two steps before Grape's feet stumbled across his own; she drew away from him so suddenly that she almost fell backward onto the pavement.
"I'm sorry," she blurted out, reflexively, instantly diverting her eyes to the ground. "I'm sorry, I--"
"No, no, it's okay, don't worry about it," Max said. "Let's try again. There. Now, take your time, there's no rush. Don't try to beat me to where I'm going, I won't go on without you. It's okay to be late. With a little practice, it'll become second nature to you."
Grape's attention was riveted upon her feet as she moved, trying to make sure she wouldn't step on Max again; when he spoke, she could hear the amusement in his voice. "Grape, don't look at your feet, look at me
She did. The expression on her face was one of intense anxiety, only a few steps below outright terror; Max, on the other hand, was smiling at her, same as always. "Hi," he said.
"H-Hi," she gulped.
"Don't be so nervous. No one here is going to laugh at you, least of all not me. I don't expect you to get it right the first time. But you should always be looking at your partner... you don't want him to feel ignored or insulted, do you?"
Grape quickly shook her head. "No, no, I don't," she said.
"Good. You want him to know he has your attention, so don't take your eyes off him. But that can be a bit tricky... you should look at him, but you don't want to stare. Looking into his eyes is pretty safe, and he probably won't complain, but you should try to take in his whole face, if you can. Remember that you're looking at him
, not his individual parts."
Grape nodded again. Max's coaching led her to examine his own features; she realized, with a pang of guilt, that she had never actually been this close to him before. He had large, expressive eyes that reminded her of Peanut's, although they were much lighter, and greener in hue. She could make out every detail of his face, from his long, thin whiskers to the pink pad of his nose. Her wandering eyes drifted to his right ear, which caused her to flinch involuntarily; a large piece of it was missing, and had clearly been bitten off by another animal. She immediately regretted her reaction to the sight, but if Max had noticed, then he gave no indication of it.Are you goin' to Scarborough Fair?
Grape's ears perked upward. It was a woman's voice, one as melodic and harmonious as the music itself. "Who's that?"
Max inclined his head in the direction where Fiddler and Keys sat. "Take a look, see for yourself," he said.
Grape turned her head toward the pair of feline music-makers. They had been joined by a third one, a black one, like Max, although Grape recognized subtle differences in the way it moved and stood that indicated it was female. She wore a yellow scarf around her neck, and a golden ankh
of the same color hung just below her collar. She was standing near the roof's edge, bathed in the glow of the moonlight and the ongoing fireworks, her hands clasped together in front of her, her eyes shut, and her mouth open.Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme...
Grape's jaw slacked as she gaped at the sight. "Holy cow," she whispered. "Is that... Sabrina!?
"Yeah, she's got quite a set of pipes on her," Max said. "What, you've never heard her perform?"
"I... I don't think I've ever heard her speak
," Grape replied. "I've certainly never heard her sing
"That surprises me. She's one of our most dedicated volunteers, we couldn't have put this event together without her. She's always willing to do anything to help, even serenade a little, when we ask her to."Remember me to one who lives there...
"She's got a voice like an angel," Grape breathed. She suddenly had a new appreciation of why Fido was so fond of her.
Max chuckled. "Well, she must be doing a good job."
"Why do you say that?" Grape asked.
Max smiled at her. "Because you haven't had a misstep since she started."
Grape promptly broke the rule that Max had set for her earlier and looked downward. Her steps were still slow, and cautious, but it was true: since her initial stumble, she hadn't tripped over either his feet or her own. She was following his lead, moving as he did... and she hadn't even been thinking about it. She looked back up at him, her astonishment evident upon her face. "I... I'm dancing, Max," she said, as if she couldn't believe it herself.
Max's smile only broadened. "Yeah," he said, "you are."She once was a true love of mine...
She wasn't sure how her head ended up resting against Max's shoulder. Perhaps it was the slow, soothing rhythm of the old English ballad, or the sonorous sound of Sabrina's heavenly voice. Maybe it was just the catnip finally taking effect. Whatever the reason, it just seemed natural to draw closer against him, to slip her arm a little further around his neck; when she did, he made no move to draw away, but instead reciprocated the contact, sliding his own arm around her waist. She liked the feel of him, the nearness of his warm, dark fur that staved off winter's touch. Despite what she had said earlier about not being social, she found that she was actually enjoying herself. For a time, they were both silent, merely taking in the music, and Sabrina's dulcet tones.
"Can I ask you something?" he whispered.
"Why did you come out here tonight?"
Grape lifted her head to look at him. "Because you asked me to."
Max shook his head. "And when I did, you looked like I'd punched you in the stomach. You could have said no. Why didn't you?"
Grape bit down upon her lip. "I can't say no to free food," she said.
Max smirked. "Hey, Grape, if you don't want to tell me--"
"No, no, I mean it," Grape said, shaking her head in turn. "I... I literally can't turn down a free meal."
Max tilted his head. "Why not?" he asked, his tone genuinely curious.
Grape's ears splayed back. Her eyes drifted down to the pavement below. "Because there was a time in my life when food was very scarce," she said. "I often didn't know where my next meal was coming from... or if it was coming at all. That's why, when people are so generous as to offer me a bite to eat and expect nothing in return, I have to say yes. Because I know better." Max could see that she was shivering again, but this time, it wasn't from the cold. "You don't know what real hunger is unless you've been starving, Max. I don't mean 'I-missed-breakfast' starving, I mean really
starving. So hungry that you're willing to eat anything... and you do
... just to try and make the feeling go away."
"Yes, I do," Max whispered.
Grape gave a start and looked back up at him. There was a distant expression on his face; he was looking at her, but she got the impression that he wasn't really seeing
her. "You haven't asked me about my scar," he said.
Grape blinked. Her eyes instinctively moved toward Max's injured ear, and then hurriedly darted away again; she felt that embarrassed, shameful heat return to her face, and only hoped that he couldn't see her cheeks redden. "I... didn't want to be rude," she said.
"It's okay," Max said, speaking in a soft voice. "I wasn't always the handsome, charming, sophisticated tomcat you know today. Once upon a time, I looked very different. This was long before I ever met you; I doubt you would have even recognized me. I was a lot thinner back then. No collar, no bell, just skin and bones. It seemed like I was always hungry... and then, one rainy night, I ran into a dog who was even hungrier than I was." He lifted the hand that was clasped against Grape's back, lightly trailing his index finger along the curving indentation in what was left of his ear. "He did this to me. He probably would have done more, but I managed to run up a tree and get away from him before he had the chance. So yeah, I know exactly what a starving animal is capable of... and I sincerely hope that I never have to again."
Max's eyes seemed to come back into focus; Grape thought she could see them glistening with faint moisture, but the flickering firelight from the oil drum behind her made it hard to be certain. "Fiddler didn't call me an alley cat for nothing," he whispered. "I used to be a stray, too."
"Max, I'm sorry, I..." Grape bowed her head. "I didn't know."
"Not many people do." His hand moved from his ear to her face, gently tilting her chin upward and lifting her eyes to meet his own once more. "Does it really matter?"
She gazed back at him, her eyes lidded, and lightly stroked her own fingers along the tips of his whiskers. "It does to me."
A sudden burst of applause disrupted the air of intimacy between them and startled them both; Grape felt her tail go rigid behind her and saw Max very nearly leap out of his skin. She realized that the song had ended, and the performers were receiving their due accolades from a grateful crowd; she saw Sabrina smile shyly and take a bow, and Fiddler and Keys followed suit shortly after.
Grape abruptly felt uneasy, as if the loss of the tender music had somehow broken the spell it held over her. She became keenly aware of the presence of all the cats around her, and while Max's embrace did not bother her, she was uncomfortable being in the middle of so many of them. She leaned away from Max, slowly, lifting her hands to press them against his chest. "I should go," she said, sounding almost apologetic. "It's getting late, and my parents will be worried about me if I'm not home soon."
Max nodded. "I know how that is," he said. He, too, spoke with a certain sadness in his voice. "Can I walk you home?"
"No, it's okay, I live just around the block. Thank you, though." She leaned in close to him then, gingerly rubbing the edge of her muzzle alongside his own in a gesture of feline affection. "Really... thank you for this, Max," she whispered. "I had a good time tonight."
Max leaned into the touch, allowing his eyes to close, a soft purr rumbling from within his chest. "That's the whole point of the Yarn Ball," he murmured in reply. "I'm glad you had fun."
"Did you make any friends?"
"One, I think," Grape said, the edges of her lips quirking upward into a grin. "In fact, I'm a little surprised about him."
Max blinked. "Oh?" he asked. "Why is that?"
Grape's fingers brushed against the surface of the bell Max wore, coaxing a soft jingle from within it; she was amused at the sheer novelty of the bauble. "Well... I'd always heard that you were a real jerk," she said.
"Mmm, you heard right," Max said, grinning in his own right. He lifted his hands to her face, gently cupping her cheeks within his palms. "I am
a jerk... when I want to be."
He was looking at her with those lidded aqua eyes of his, leaning nearer to her, slowly closing the distance between them. She could feel his breath wash across her face, see
it as it dissipated into mist in the cool night air, warm and still smelling of catnip, his muzzle drawing closer, and closer...
Grape lifted her hand from Max's bell, gently pressing her index finger against his lips. "I'm sorry, Max," she whispered. "I... I can't."
Max straightened his posture, his ears flattening; she may as well have slapped him across the face. "What is it?" he asked. "Have I done something wrong?"
Grape quickly shook her head. "No, no, not at all. You've been wonderful, really, a perfect gentleman... and I'm very flattered... but..."
Max's face fell. "... there's someone else," he finished, sullenly.
"Yes... no, not exactly," Grape said. She let out an exasperated sigh and shut her eyes, pausing to search for the right words. "There is
someone... someone I care very much about... but he doesn't know. He's always been there for me, and I... well... I want to see where that leads. It may not lead anywhere
, I really don't know. But I owe it to him to find out... and I owe it to myself, too." She offered a weak smile. "Am I making any sense?"
Max nodded slowly, and smiled back at her, although Grape could see the disappointment in his eyes, hear it in his voice. "Yeah," he said, "I understand."
Grape sighed again; she hadn't wanted to hurt Max's feelings. "Listen, Max," she said, pressing her palms against his chest, "I'm not saying 'no', I'm saying... 'wait a while'. If things don't work out, I'll still be here... and unless you're planning a vacation or something, you'll still be here too, won't you?"
That appeared to lift Max's spirits a little; his ears perked back up, and his smile seemed a touch more genuine. "You can count on it." He closed his eyes and let out a rueful chuckle. "So much for that resolution," he sighed. "I guess maybe I am
a little too ambitious, after all."
"Not necessarily. That just means you have the rest of the year to try... unless you plan on giving up." Grape gave him a sly smile. "You're not a quitter, are you, Max?"
Max flashed her a roguish grin of his own. "Certainly not."
"Good." Grape stepped forward and hugged him, tightly, wrapping her arms around him and nuzzling her face against his shoulder. "Happy New Year, Max," she whispered.
Max embraced her in like fashion, squeezing his arms around her middle, tilting his head to rest it against her own. "Happy New Year, Grape," he whispered in return.
She drew away from him and turned to leave, taking a few steps toward the alley... but then she paused, and looked back over her shoulder at him. "Hey, Max?"
"Yeah?" Max looked just in time to catch her lavender-colored scarf as it struck him in the face. He let out a startled ffft
of a sound before clutching at the bundle of fabric, furrowing his brow at the sight of it. "Wait... what's this for?"
"Keep it," Grape said, resuming her walk toward the street. "Think of it as a memento of the night."
"But I can't keep this!" Max protested, holding the scarf out toward her in a futile gesture. "You need it to stay warm!"
"No thanks," Grape said, smiling back at him, her tail swishing back and forth behind her with each of her steps. "I'm not cold anymore!"Illustration by Two_Twig!
Grape felt good.
No, she felt better than good; she felt great
. The catnip was in full swing now, and she knew it, but she didn't care; being high as a kite did absolutely nothing to put a damper on her happiness. She couldn't remember the last time she had felt so pleased, and for no particular reason at all. As a cat, she had always been light on her feet, but she almost felt as if she were walking on air; she didn't walk home so much as skip
, merrily humming to herself like a schoolgirl.
It was wonderful. The celebration, the food, the singing, dancing, Max, all of it had been absolutely wonderful. She thought she was going to hate it, but she didn't, and that fact alone thrilled her to no end. She had been to a party and she liked
it. Her only regret was that Peanut hadn't been there to share it with her.Peanut
. The very thought of him almost stopped Grape in her tracks and brought a frown to her lips; it seemed like such a shame that he had to miss out on all the fun. But what could she do? The party was almost over now, and he would've felt out of place around all those cats. Surely there was something she could...
It struck her like a bolt of lightning. She would tell him. That immediately brightened her mood. Yes, she would tell him. Just walk right in the door and say it to his face. Why not? It was New Year's, after all, and she felt fantastic; it was the perfect time to let him know. It would make him happy, and it would make her happy, too. And then they'd both
As she turned down the walkway into the front yard, she was already giddy with anticipation; she couldn't wait to see the look on his face when she told him. It was enough to make her wish she had a camera. When she reached the front door, she found herself fumbling with the knob and giggling like an idiot, but again, she didn't care. Finally, after resisting her efforts, the door at last swung open, and she slammed it behind her with unintentional force. "Woo!"
"Grape? Is that you?" Peanut called out from the next room.
She found him sitting at the dining room table, his nose buried in another book, as usual; he didn't even look up when she walked in. He was such a bookworm--bookdog?--always reading about something-or-other. No wonder he never let himself relax, like she did. "How was the party?" he asked, still not looking up.
"Couldn't be better," she replied. She paused, and then decided to try again. "Couldn't be better
." Once more, with feeling. "Couldn't beeeee
better." She giggled again; yes, she decided she liked that one best.
That was enough to get his attention; he arched an eyebrow and looked over the rim of his book at her. "Grape," he said, slowly, "have you been nipping?"
"A little?" she replied, sounding unsure herself. "Just a little," she repeated, nodding, lifting a hand and squeezing her thumb and forefinger together for emphasis. "A tiny bit, just a teeny, tiny bit.
"I see," he stated, flatly.
"Of course you do." She stumbled closer to him, jabbing a finger at his collar in almost accusatory fashion. "Now listen," she demanded, "because I have a have a secret to tell you."
"A secret?" he asked, his ears drooping. He suddenly looked worried.
"Yes a secret
," she breathlessly replied. Her eyes were heavily lidded, and she wore an odd, knowing little smile upon her face. She leaned very near to him, gently brushing her lips against the edge of one of his ears, whispering, "Now listen very closely. . ."
The next thing Peanut heard was the highly confidential sound of Grape snoring as she slumped against him, her face buried against his chest.
"Well," he mused, smiling faintly, "that's some secret."
With a heavy sigh, Peanut set aside the book he had been reading and carefully gathered his friend up in his arms. It wasn't the first time he'd had to tuck Grape in; being a cat, she was liable to sleep almost anywhere, sprawled across the armchair, or slouched against the window, or even hanging upside-down off the edge of the couch. He sometimes wondered if she was narcoleptic; the least he could do about it was to help her look a little more dignified while she got her rest.
He carried her back into the living room, where she had come from, and gingerly placed her slumbering form upon the soft cushion of her cat bed. She blurted out something as he laid her down, a random stream of syllables that was virtually unintelligible.
"Yeah, yeah," he murmured to himself with a smile. "I know." It wasn't the first time he had heard her talk in her sleep, either.
He drew her blanket up around her shoulders and watched as she instinctively snuggled into it, rolling onto her side to make herself more comfortable. He would never tell her, but he liked to watch her sleep, sometimes; she looked so peaceful, even content. At the very least, she wasn't yelling at him.
Peanut felt himself tempted. He began to lean in toward her, but then stopped, and shook his head... no, she wouldn't like that. If he woke her up, she'd only be mad at him again... and he always hated to see her unhappy. Instead, he gently pressed his palm against her cheek, lightly stroking his thumb across her whiskers.
"Good night, Grape," he whispered. "Sweet dreams."
Peanut rose from where he knelt before her bed and headed back into the kitchen. As he did so, he paused by the lamp that he had left on for her, glanced over his shoulder at her one last time, and then switched it off, enshrouding the room in darkness.
While she slept, while she dreamed, Grape could hear the words of the song Sabrina had sung earlier echoing in her mind, coaxing a warm purr from within her throat as she danced with her phantom partner:Are you goin' to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme...
Remember me to one who lives there...
She once was a true love of mine...
~If you'll notice, Grape attends the Yarn Ball with her scarf on but returns home without it. I'm sure that Max has it framed somewhere at home in a not-at-all-creepy way.