SHADOWS IN THE NIGHT

By C Paradee

Bookcover


Disclaimer: This is an ALT story because that's all I know how to write. ;-)

Special thanks to my excellent beta readers, Day, Inga, Lois and Lunacy. They Rock!

October 2002


Prologue

"Please, Dad, don't take her."

Bruce sighed impatiently. This conversation was going nowhere. "I told you our new apartment doesn't allow pets. Now, let me have Queenie."

Amanda cradled the large cat in her arms, tears tracking down her face. "I don't want to move if Queenie can't come. Please, Dad, please. Can't we find someplace she can come, too?"

Laura's heart was breaking as listened to her husband and daughter from the doorway. She'd already had this discussion with Bruce, but to no avail. They'd gotten Queenie as a kitten when Amanda was only three, and the cat had been her constant companion for the past nine years.

Looking to his wife for support and finding none, Bruce said sternly, "Give me Queenie, right now, or you're going to your room for the rest of the day."

"I don't care!" Choking back tears, Amanda hugged Queenie and felt the feline's answering purr. She kissed her best friend, murmuring, "I love you, Queenie," and began crying harder when the feline extended a paw to her face. "I'm so sorry..."

Bruce grabbed the cat from his daughter's arms, exasperated. "Quit acting like a baby. I told you she'd find a good home down there."

Amanda sobbed, "What if she doesn't? They'll just put her to sleep."

"Who told you such nonsense? They are not going to put her to sleep."

Haunted, red-rimmed eyes gazed at him. "Cindy's father told her that's what they do if the animals don't get adopted. Please, can't we at least try to find her a home?"

"Well, Cindy's father is wrong, and we don't have time to find her a home. The movers will be here tomorrow." Bruce saw the last vestige of hope fade from his daughter's eyes, and abruptly turned toward the door.

Her heart breaking, Amanda gazed at her beloved companion one last time as her father left, her last goodbye unspoken: 'I love you, Queenie.' Agonizing sobs wracking her body, Amanda ran past her damp-eyed mother and into her bedroom. She threw herself on her bed, crying inconsolably, praying that someone would adopt her beloved cat.

* * * * * * * * * *

A lone, dark form eased around the side of the building, a mere extension of the shadows blanketing the perimeter of the narrow alley, their depths unaffected by the dim illumination of a nearby street light. She froze when a rock skittered across the pavement, barely missing Scar Face and Ghost, disturbing the two felines eating a meager meal near the base of the dumpster, and driving them to a hiding place behind it.

Standing at the mouth of the alley, the dark-haired college student chuckled derisively. "You couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. I'll show you how to make them really run. Five bucks says I nail one with a rock."

His taller companion smirked. "Go for it."

A sharp clank echoed through the narrow alley as a rock bounced off the large metal container. Vindictive laughter chased Scar Face and Ghost from their refuge and they tore off down the alley, chased by an onslaught of small stones. Despite their panicked, speedy retreat, several of the rocks slammed with dull thuds against their thin bodies.

Poking his elbow into his friend's side, he chortled, "Did you see that gray and white one jump?" Completely oblivious to the pain he had caused the innocent creatures, he continued to gloat. "I think I got the white one, too."

"So, big deal. Let's go."

"Poor loser." The undergraduate held out a hand. "Come on. Cough it up."

His comrade pulled a wad of money out of his pocket and peeled off a five dollar bill, handing it over with ill grace. "You just got lucky."

The recipient of the windfall snickered as he pocketed the money. "Lucky, my ass. I could knock a flea off a rat if I felt like it. Hell, I could've pitched for the Yankees."

Annoyed by the bragging, the disgruntled loser stalked off, muttering, "Whatever."

* * * * * * * * * *

Fools! Humans can't see well in the dark. They should have stayed behind the dumpster. Crouching in the shadows, she lay absolutely still, her eyes and ears tracking the two men as they walked down the street until she could no longer hear their noisy movements.

During her short lifetime, spanning almost six full moons, she had learned to use an advantage her flashier kindred did not have. Her black pelt blended with the darkness, rendering her nearly invisible at night; and she could usually easily avoid the hated two legged animals and their cruel, merciless ways.

She fully extended her senses, checking for any other unseen danger. Satisfied, she trotted over and crouched down to enjoy the scrap of bread and smidgen of meat that Scar Face and Ghost had left behind. It wasn't much, but it would take the edge off her hunger until she went hunting.

* * * * * * * * * *

The orange kitten raced up the sidewalk, adrenaline fueling her small, scrawny body. Instinctively dodging the legs of two people, her mind was totally focused on escaping the huge beast chasing her. She could hear the steady clicking of the claws on the sidewalk drawing ever closer, and only sheer willpower kept her from succumbing to exhaustion. She frantically searched for a small opening or something high to jump onto, but she was lost and disoriented. Suddenly, she felt the hot breath of her pursuer tickle the hair on her back, and summoned one last burst of energy to dive around a corner into an alley only a hair's breadth ahead of the large canine. Bunching her muscles, she leaped for the top of the dumpster near the alley entrance.

The metal container was too high, and her claws fought uselessly for purchase against the smooth metal as she slid toward the drooling mouth of the excited, barking dog. Terrified, she unleashed a piercing scream that reverberated through the alley.

So great was her fear; she didn't see the dark form crouching on top of the dumpster, or its perfect arc over her back and onto the head of the beast below. Once she realized that she was on the ground and still alive, her attention turned to the ferocious fight taking place a few feet away. The dog that would have had her for breakfast was yelping and desperately trying to dislodge an angry, growling black feline that clung to the top of his head. Eyes wide with amazement, she watched spellbound as the cat attacked the dog from the safety of her perch on his head, out of reach of his mouth. When the dog began howling and then turned to race away down the street, her savior nonchalantly jumped to the ground and trotted gracefully back to the alley.

The orange kitten rushed out to meet the stranger, only to be greeted by a hard bop on the head and an angry hiss.

She dropped to her belly, frightened, but in awe of the fearless cat with the strange blue eyes. "Thank you."

Shadow narrowed her eyes and spat, flicking the tip of her tail back and forth. "Don't thank me. I didn't do that for you. A dog killed my brother. I hate those beasts almost as much as I hate humans."

Looking puzzled, the younger feline quietly disagreed, "Humans aren't all bad."

"Where do you come from, stupid kitten? Of course they're all bad. Now get lost," Shadow growled menacingly, and began making her way down the alley.

Sunshine watched the older feline walk away, then rose to her feet and slowly began trailing her, staying well back, but never losing sight of her.

* * * * * * * * * *

Shadow knew the kitten was following her, but she was unconcerned. She would lose the youngster before she returned to her lair. Danger was greater during the day, and she spent that time sleeping under the porch of an old house. She had been lucky to find such a good hideaway. It had only two openings: an entrance and an escape route.

Several weeks before, she had almost abandoned it when a human moved into the house. For two nights, she stayed hidden in the hedge surrounding the yard, waiting and watching. When it became obvious that only one person had moved in, Shadow decided to stay, but took extra care to avoid being seen when entering or exiting her den.

The black cat briefly wondered why the orange kitten wasn't with her family group, where she would have some protection. She couldn't be any more than three moons - way too young to be on her own - and she was pitifully thin. Shadow pushed the kitten from her thoughts. She had to be concerned with her own survival, and didn't have time to worry about one of the many other kittens trying to survive in their harsh world. Most of them never lived to see six moons as she had, anyway.

Shadow knew this because she had watched her own family fall, one by one, until she was the sole survivor. Even her mother was gone, victim of a big wheeled, metal machine. She turned around, spied the tag-a-long, and hissed angrily, then growled loudly. Sunshine stopped, gazing at her forlornly.

Irritated that the kitten hadn't run off, Shadow continued on her way, freezing at a slight movement in the weeds to her left. Her patience was rewarded when a mouse slowly ventured out. In one swift movement, she killed the rodent, planning to consume it in the safety of her hideaway.

She picked up her kill, catching sight of the orange kitten in her peripheral vision. The younger feline had moved a little closer and dropped to her belly. Shadow could see the hunger in the round green eyes looking at her hopefully. She stood indecisively for a moment, and Sunshine crept one step closer.

Shadow decided this might be a good way to shake her unwanted follower. Besides, she could detour to one of her favorite feeding places on the way to her lair and retrieve a meal there.

Dropping the mouse on the ground, Shadow stepped back and blinked at the orange kitten.

The young feline ran to the offering and eagerly began eating, meowing her thanks between bites.

Shadow watched her eat for a moment, unnerved by the feeling of kinship the kitten evoked, then turned and trotted off. By the time the waif finished her meal, she would be long gone.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sunshine scarfed down everything edible, the sharp hunger in her belly partially abating for the first time in days. She licked a paw and began washing her face as she looked around for her benefactor. Loneliness washed over her when she realized the older kitten had disappeared, and her paw slowly dropped from her face, cleanliness no longer important. She broke the rule of silence her mother had taught her and meowed softly, yearning to hear the scary hiss or growl of the other feline. However, her cry went unanswered.

The kitten knew she should hide soon because the darkness was slowly fading, but a primal urge to find the black cat overpowered her instinct to seek safety. Standing up, the orphan looked around, trying to decide which way the other cat might have gone, deciding to go in the direction they had been traveling. Sunshine set off, determined to find the elusive feline.

She trotted at a quick pace, ignoring her tired body's complaints - sleep would have to wait. Slowing to a walk, her eyes hopefully searched every nook and cranny she passed, but none revealed a lone, black cat. Distracted by a piece of paper fluttering across the sidewalk, she playfully batted it until remembering her mission. Reprimanding herself for taking time out to play, the kitten renewed her search, this time unwavering in her quest.

All of a sudden, she froze. The savage sounds of growling and snarling shattered the calm night air. Sunshine recognized the ferocious hissing as that of the black feline, who sounded as if she were engaged in mortal combat.

Battling her fear, the small orange kitten urged her rigid body into motion. Staying close to the ground, she followed the sounds to a narrow opening surrounded by three buildings. Garbage cans lined the inner walls, and even in her apprehension, she couldn't help noticing the tantalizing smell of fish wafting through the air.

Her keen hearing pinpointed the growling and snarling to a corner behind a garbage can. Fear increased her heartbeat to a staccato rate, but still she crept slowly forward, anxious to help the dark cat should she be in danger.

Sunshine reached the garbage can and peeked around it. A fish on the ground at her feet, the older feline was cornered, striking out at a small, dog-like creature with a fuzzy, ringed tail. The orange kitten watched the long-clawed animal moving closer to her trapped friend, and realized she needed help.

Remembering how the black cat had rendered the dog helpless earlier that night, she knew what to do. Sunshine swallowed her fear, knowing that if she missed her mark, the strange creature would surely kill her. Fortunately, surprise was on her side because the two adversaries were so intent on each other, neither one had noticed her.

She lowered herself until her belly touched the ground, then crawled around the garbage can. She knew the black saw her when the older kitten savagely intensified her attack, keeping the beast's attention fully focused on her.

Sunshine crept to within a few inches of the creature's tail, bunched her muscles, and jumped into the air, hoping she would hit her target. She never had time to savor her initial success, instead having to focus on maintaining her hold on the angry animal now vigorously shaking its head.

When the creature slammed her into the garbage can, she lost her precarious perch and dropped to the ground, stunned.

* * * * * * * * * *

The momentary diversion gave Shadow the opportunity she needed to jump on the back of the raccoon, scratching and biting it until it began running toward the street. Jumping from its back, Shadow growled a warning after it.

She trotted back into the enclave and saw the orange kitten getting shakily to her feet. Shadow walked over and touched her nose to the smaller kitten's. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah. I think so."

Shadow sat down and eyed the younger feline. "Thank you." She lowered her head and pushed the fish toward the kitten. "Here. You earned it."

"No, we both earned it."

Blue eyes glimmered with new respect for the ragamuffin kitten, and she blinked, crouching down to share a meal, something she had not done since her last brother had died.

A short time later, when the fish had been reduced to bones, Shadow said, "It's time to get to safety. The sun is beginning to rise. Go home to your family."

"I don't have a family anymore. They're all gone."

The black's resolve to leave the kitten behind wavered at the sadness reflected from the emerald green eyes gazing at her. The little stray was just like her - homeless, hungry, and alone. Shaking off the feeling of empathy, she said, "Well, go to wherever you go. I'm out of here."

"I don't have anywhere to go. Let me come with you, please."

For the second time since meeting the waif, Shadow stood indecisively. The kitten might not last another day out here, and her simple lair was big enough for both of them. The youngster had risked her life to help her fight off the raccoon; and as much as it pained her to admit it, she genuinely liked the spunky kitten.

"Okay, but only until you're big enough to take care of yourself."

Sunshine ran over and rubbed against the larger feline, the rumbling of her internal motor radiating her happiness. Shadow spat, "Knock it off!" She was loath to admit it, but the contact had been nice and comforting.

"Come on." Shadow set off at a ground-eating pace, determined to reach the safety beneath the porch before full daylight. Twice, she warred with her instincts to hurry, and waited for the kitten to catch up.

She hissed a warning to silence her suddenly rambunctious companion, and waited while the kitten crawled next to where she was crouched in the hedges surrounding the house. Shadow lay motionless for several long moments, watching for any movement.

Finally satisfied no danger lurked nearby, she nudged the kitten and dashed the short distance to the hole beneath the porch, the orphan at her flank, never seeing the serene copper eyes gazing at them through a window of the house.

Shadow stopped just inside the entrance and extended her senses to ensure there were no trespassers before venturing further into the dark lair. Walking across the cool earth, she settled into her favorite spot: against the brick wall, halfway between the two openings.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sunshine watched Shadow lie down, then gazed curiously around the large enclosure. Haphazardly strewn bricks outlined by multi-colored leaves added color to the simple abode. Wrappers from old food containers, now devoid of any odor, lay inside the larger entrance to the porch, and a half buried, rusty piece of metal protruded from the earth beneath the steps.

Movement captured her attention and the kitten crouched, her tail twitching back and forth as she stalked a small intruder. Her paw snaked out and nudged the tiny, furry, brown and orange, multi-legged creature. When it curled into a ball, Sunshine leaned over and sniffed it, but the odor was unfamiliar. She touched it with her paw again, but it remained motionless. Tired, and bored with the game, the small feline looked around for a place to sleep and chose a space along the rear wall close to Shadow.

Though Sunshine was exhausted, her sleep was fitful. She could hear the even, rhythmic breathing of the black feline and knew her companion was asleep. She crept soundlessly across the open area between them and snuggled contentedly against the larger kitten. Warmed and comforted by the contact, she almost instantly fell into a blissful sleep, never seeing one blue eye lazily open to gaze at her, before closing again.

* * * * * * * * * *

That evening, Shadow decided to teach Sunshine how to hunt small rodents, knowing it was unlikely that the kitten's hunting skill was refined enough to catch anything but the slowest moving prey. She justified her decision as an attempt to get rid of the orphan by teaching her how to survive on her own.

She gazed over at the energetic kitten who was jumping on small piles of leaves and attacking them when they scattered.

"Let's go hunting."

Shadow saw the pleasure reflected in the bright green eyes, and was surprised when the kitten bounded over and ran her rough tongue across her cheek. She jumped back. "Quit it."

She watched Sunshine back away and sit down, but the waif's loud purr crossed the distance between them, eliciting a glare from Shadow. "You keep that up and everything will hear you coming."

"Oh." The vibrating noise gradually stopped.

Shadow lay at the rear entrance of their habitat, carefully surveying the surrounding area. "Okay, it's safe." The enthusiastic bouncing of the kitten at her side warmed Shadow's heart as she led them to the safety of a field across the street.

"You stay here, and don't move, or you'll scare everything away. I'll go catch something and bring it back for you to practice on."

Bright eyes shone excitedly. "Okay."

Sunshine obeyed her instructions and lay crouched in the weeds for what seemed like an eternity. What if Shadow couldn't find her in the dark? She sat up and looked around, trying to find her teacher. She thought maybe she should look for her, but before she could move, some weeds a few feet in front of her began swaying unnaturally.

She sat there waiting patiently for Shadow to reappear, and instead found herself face to face with a big, brown, furry animal with ears reaching into the sky. She jumped back, hissing and spitting wildly, every hair on her body at attention. The creature's nose wiggled as it stomped its back feet against the ground before quickly bounding away. Her heart rate had barely returned to normal when a dark shape landed next to her. She spat and growled, backing up steadily.

Shadow sat down and bopped her. "Stop it. I heard you carrying on all the way across the field, and I'm sure every other living creature did, too. Now, what's wrong?"

Sunshine ran to Shadow and buried her head between the larger kitten's front legs. "There was this big animal with huge ears..."

Shadow thought she'd seen a rabbit hop away, but had focused on the kitten's safety and ignored it. Adult rabbits were too difficult, but small ones were definitely doable. She sat still, listening to the muffled words of the frightened youngster, readily acknowledging that she had let a potential meal get away in order to protect the kitten. The black cat also realized at that moment that she would protect this kitten to the death. Shadow didn't know why - she just knew it was true.

Leaning over, she licked the kitten's back. "It's okay. That was a rabbit. They would rather run away than fight, but their back legs are dangerous."

"You're not mad at me?"

Shadow looked at the small face gazing earnestly at her and blinked. "No. Come on. Let's go get some fish."

She was pleased to see the kitten jump up, her natural exuberance restored. "Okay!" Shadow spent the remainder of the night showing Sunshine many of the things she'd already learned - like how to cross the street and avoid the big-wheeled machines, and how to remain unseen by other predators, including humans.

The orange kitten listened with wide-eyed wonderment at every new mystery Shadow revealed, and the black feline's heart filled with pride with each small lesson her younger friend learned.

They also gorged themselves on fish remnants, this time uninterrupted by competing animals, and arrived back in their hideaway well before dawn.

When Shadow noticed Sunshine gazing longingly at her, she blinked a welcome, and waited for the orange kitten to settle against her before protectively wrapping her body around that of the smaller feline.

* * * * * * * * * *

As the days passed, the kittens' bond became stronger until they were virtually inseparable.

Over the next few weeks, the two felines established a pattern of leaving their den at dusk and returning just before dawn. Shadow continued to teach her young friend how to avoid the dangers of their harsh world, and her student continued to impress her by learning quickly. Sunshine hadn't caught a small rodent yet, but Shadow knew that would come once the kitten honed her hunting skills a little.

Early one morning, the duo was later than normal returning to their den because hunting had been sparse - even the fish cans had been empty. Just before dawn, Shadow had managed to catch a small rat, but it had only taken the edge off their hunger.

The felines crouched side by side in the hedge, surveying the area. Sunshine suddenly started when her eyes swept across the porch. "Look!" She stuck her head out of the bushes to get a better view of the feline lying on the wooden floor. The stranger's face was a symmetrical division of black and orange, gradually blending across her back into a richly designed tapestry.

Shadow saw a human sitting in a chair on the porch not far from the feline at the same time Sunshine unveiled her head for a better look, and hissed a warning.

"Stop! There's a human on the porch. I can't believe you did that. She might have seen you."

Thoroughly chastised, Sunshine retreated into the leaves next to her companion. "How come that cat isn't afraid of her?"

Shadow had never seen one of her kin comfortable around a human before. "That cat must not know that humans can't be trusted. Come on. Let's go in the other way." It wasn't the black feline's first choice, because the rear hole was small and she had less room to maneuver if danger lurked inside their lair, but today she didn't have any other option. Half an hour later, both kittens were safely in the den.

"I'm sorry for breaking cover."

Gazing at Sunshine affectionately, Shadow said, "Don't be sorry. Just be more careful. I don't want anything to happen to you."

"How come we never smelled that cat?"

Shadow had been wondering the same thing, but had finally figured it out. "She stays inside the house, so her scent is in there. That's why we never saw her or smelled her. She must have come when the human did."

The kitten rubbed against the older feline, purring. "Do you think we should warn her about the human?"

"No. Stay away from her. She might lead the woman to us." Shadow groomed the kitten as she snuggled against her, and both soon fell asleep.

* * * * * * * * * *

The woman remained motionless, her eyes glued to the spot where she had seen an orange head emerge. She'd woken up early and was sitting on the porch watching the sun slowly rise in the sky. A slight movement in the shrubbery, and a glimpse of orange amidst the green had caught her attention; and shortly thereafter, she had seen the kitten.

When it became apparent the kitten would not reappear, she went into the house to prepare for work, making a mental note to stop at the store and buy some kitten food. She had thought about getting another cat now that she owned her own home, but maybe a kitten had found her instead. She smiled at the thought.

The young woman got up early the next morning, opened a can of Friskies kitten food, and scraped it onto a small saucer. She set the dish on the porch before retreating into the house to watch from a window that overlooked the area with the food dish. The beautiful tortoiseshell cat climbed onto the back of the overstuffed chair to wait with her.

* * * * * * * * * *

Shadow made sure they got back well before dawn the next day, and woke when she felt Sunshine leave her side. "Where are you going?"

She needn't have asked, though, because a tantalizing odor filled the den. Her curious friend was near the entrance, sniffing the air. She hissed, "Get away from there. The human might see you."

"I'm hungry."

Shadow retorted, "You're always hungry."

However, she was hungry, too. Lately, the longer, warmer days were slowly giving way to shorter, cooler ones; and the black feline sensed that the lengthening darkness was needed to hunt food that was becoming scarcer. It wasn't something she'd noticed overnight. It had been a gradual, but steady change that had started with the last moon.

Sunshine meowed quietly. "We only had a mole. Can't we go see what it is?"

Unable to turn down the orange kitten's request, Shadow decided to risk the danger and investigate. "You stay here. I'll go see what it is. If it's safe, I'll come and get you."

She stealthily traversed the narrowed escape route and flattened her body against the outside of the porch. Remaining motionless for a long moment, she then very slowly rose to her hind legs, stretching to see the top of the porch where her sensitive nose had pinpointed the source of the aroma.

Shadow dropped down and froze when she heard the human open the door and walk across the porch before re-entering the house and closing the door. The odor suddenly grew fainter and slowly disappeared. A moment later, Shadow heard the woman step back onto the porch, go down the steps, and walk away from the house. When the feline could no longer hear her, she jumped softly onto the porch, but she knew wherever the smell had been coming from, it was now gone.

Feeling uneasy, she glanced up at the window overlooking the porch and saw the strange cat that lived inside the house watching her. Shadow hissed, but the cat just blinked at her and yawned.

She hurried off the porch, hating to have to tell Sunshine that there was no treat waiting for them after all.

When the same thing happened the following morning, the black feline decided to stay awake the next day until the odor first appeared.

* * * * * * * * * *

Shadow finally convinced the younger kitten to go to sleep, assuring her that she would wake her if she found the food that morning. Sunshine had argued with her wanting to stay up, too, but finally fell asleep when Shadow lay down next to her.

It was only a short time later when the tempting scent permeated the air. Shadow carefully followed the same path she had on the previous two mornings. She jumped onto the porch and pressed her body tightly against the wall, out of sight of the window the house-dwelling cat sat in. The smell was coming from a dish of strange looking food sitting near the door of the house.

Shadow watched the dish for long minutes, but there was no movement from the house. The last two mornings, the human had not come back out until the sun was much higher in the sky. Even the large, multicolored feline was absent from its perch in the window.

She warred with her instincts. She knew the human had put the food there and that alone made it dangerous, but neither she nor Sunshine had gotten enough to eat for several days. Shadow could ignore her own hunger - it was a way of life. What she couldn't ignore was the hunger she saw reflected in the eyes of the orange kitten.

Jumping off the porch, Shadow returned to their den and woke Sunshine. "The food is on the porch. You eat and I'll stand guard. If the human comes out, run. I'll distract her long enough for you to get away."

Shadow knew she'd made the right decision when Sunshine bounced up with joy, but the green eyes quickly clouded over with concern. "What about you? You're hungry, too."

The black feline licked the kitten. "I can wait until tonight." At her friend's reluctance, she lied, "You know I eat faster than you. I ate more than you did last night. Now, come on. Hurry up, before it disappears again."

Sunshine followed Shadow through the narrow rear entrance of their den. She waited until the black cat jumped onto the porch and called out before joining her.

Following her companion's instructions to stay close to the house, she hurried to the food dish. She glanced back to where Shadow was crouching, but when the older kitten glowered at her, she quickly turned her attention back to the meal at hand.

Sunshine attacked the plate of food ravenously, not slowing down until it was over half gone. Oblivious to the woman sitting in the house watching her with the orange and black cat at her side, she licked up the remainder of the meal until her cheeks were bulging and there wasn't a scrap left on the plate, then hurried over to where Shadow was waiting. Sunshine followed her back to the den, and then carefully dropped the food she had carried back in her mouth onto the dirt ground. She sat down, quite pleased with herself.

Shadow gazed at her little friend, then reached over and touched noses, purring loudly. A short time later, the treat was gone and both kittens were sound asleep.

* * * * * * * * * *

The woman carried the smiling plastic pumpkin outside, setting it on the wide railing of the porch under the close observation of the tortoiseshell cat. It was only a few weeks until Halloween, and she had decorated the inside of the windows days before, but put off decorating outside for fear of scaring off the little orange kitten that came to eat each morning, then quickly disappeared. She suspected the kitten stayed beneath the porch. However, she wasn't about to scare it away for good by nosing around down there. She would be patient. Hopefully, one day soon, the kitten would trust her.

Each morning she put the saucer of food out, went back into the house and watched the dish from a window. The kitten hadn't shown up the first two days, so not wanting to attract other wildlife, she removed the food before going to work. From the third day on, the kitten ventured onto the porch and scarfed down the food about five minutes after she went into the house. What puzzled the woman was that each day, after the kitten ate, like a chipmunk she packed the remainder of the food into her cheeks before leaving.

She had even increased the amount of food she put out for the kitten, hoping to reassure it that food would always be available, yet each morning the little feline repeated the odd ritual. She's probably just saving it for later. Maybe I should put out a plate at night, too.

* * * * * * * * * *

Shadow knew that Sunshine was learning some things amazingly quickly, but she was concerned because the kitten still hadn't caught any mice or other small rodents. On several occasions, she'd gotten frustrated with her young friend because the mouse she given her to practice with escaped.

She knew part of the reason was because the human had been leaving food out both in the morning and in the evening, and Sunshine wasn't hungry enough to take hunting seriously. Shadow also knew that her friend didn't seem to get caught up in the thrill of the hunt the way she did. She wondered if that was an acquired pleasure. No matter. She would provide for Sunshine, but Shadow still wished the youngster would hone her skills, so she would be able to survive in the unlikely event that something happened to keep her from protecting her young friend.

Determined to help her learn, the black cat quickly caught a mouse in the tall grass and carried it over to where Sunshine was waiting. Maybe today the kitten would actually catch it.

She blinked at the kitten and dropped the mouse at her feet.

Sunshine extended a paw and batted the motionless mouse. It took off running, and the chase was on. She zig zagged behind the rodent, keeping it in sight, just as Shadow had taught her, and was about to pounce on it when a bee buzzed by her head. She forgot all about the small critter and jumped up, trying to swat the bee. Not able to reach the insect, she snagged a yellow leaf that was fluttering to the ground in front of her. She attacked and shredded it into unrecognizable pieces, before jumping back in surprise when a small green snake hissed at her.

The fur on her tail returned to its normal size and she crouched down, stalking the snake, occasionally bopping it with her paw as it tried to crawl away.

She froze when Shadow quietly growled in her ear, "Where is the mouse?"

Chagrined, the kitten looked down. "It got away."

Shadow stared at Sunshine. The kitten had been having so much fun playing, she just couldn't ruin it. She gently butted her head against her smaller companion.

"It's okay. You'll get one soon."

"You think so?"

Shadow blinked. "Yes."

Excited and happy, Sunshine playfully tackled Shadow. When Shadow hissed at the unexpected contact, the younger kitten froze for a nanosecond, and then took off running. Shadow forgot her dignity and joined in the game, playing for the first time in months and thoroughly enjoying herself.

* * * * * * * * * *

Early one morning, the woman caught a brief glimpse of a larger black kitten, which solved the mystery of what the orange kitten was doing with the food she packed into her cheeks. She nodded, smiling. So, there are two of you. I should have known. Pretty black kitten, I don't know how you paired up with that little orange one, but she sure looks out for you. Don't worry. I have plenty of room and love for both of you.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sunshine was angry. "You aren't getting enough to eat. I can't carry enough food for you and you won't let me go back and get more."

"I'm fine. I catch plenty of stuff at night."

"One mouse is enough? I don't think so. You're getting thin."

Shadow hissed. "Enough!"

"Please, Shadow. Please come with me to eat tonight."

Shadow looked away, the simple request tugging at her heart. How could she turn the orange kitten down? Yet, she needed to be able to divert the human's attention if the woman made a move toward her friend or if the house-dwelling cat suddenly became threatening. However, Shadow grudgingly acknowledged that the cat had never shown anything but friendly disinterest. Could she react quickly enough if she was right next to them? If it's for Sunshine, I can.

She turned back around. "Okay." Shadow knew she'd made the right decision when she saw the happiness radiating from the emerald green eyes.

* * * * * * * * * *

The woman set the food and water bowl onto her front porch and smiled to herself. For the past week, the black kitten had been coming to eat, too. Clicking her tongue against her teeth, she softly called out, "I won't hurt you. Come on, now. It's time to eat."

Smiling warmly, she waited as the black adolescent emerged from its hiding place and gracefully walked the length of the porch, stopping a foot away from her. The feline stared at her brazenly and hissed, just as it had every single day since it had first come to eat. She stood there unmoving, waiting for the black to summon the orange with a soft meow. Once the smaller kitten appeared, she went back into the house, followed by the tortoiseshell, and sank down into a chair strategically placed to observe the kittens as they ate. The torti contentedly curled up at her feet.

The woman watched the kittens and smiled. She had originally thought that the little orange kitten really looked out for the larger black one, but she had come to understand that the older black kitten was the protector and that these two felines had a very special relationship, taking care of each other.

* * * * * * * * * *

Shadow walked toward the woman on the porch, stopping just out of reach and hissed. She could sense no danger emanating from the woman standing in the doorway or the house-dwelling cat sitting in front of her, purring loudly. She called out to Sunshine and waited for the kitten to join her, then sat guard until her young friend finished. Against her wishes, Sunshine always remained with her until she ate, too.

Licking her mouth, Shadow glanced at the orange and black cat that was standing next to the human. The Tortoiseshell blinked at the two kittens and spoke for the first time. "Trust her and be her friend and she'll love you forever."

"You're crazy." Shadow signaled Sunshine and they hurried off, leaving the odd house-dwelling cat and human behind.

In the safety of their den, Sunshine gazed at Shadow. "That cat really likes that human, Shadow. I wonder how they met?"

Shadow was just as curious, but was leery of a cat that lived with a human. "I don't know. Don't pay any attention to her. She's not normal. Cats don't live with humans."

"But she seems happy..." Sunshine trailed off when Shadow narrowed her eyes, and curled up next to the larger feline, quickly falling asleep. The black cat remained awake longer, intrigued by the mystery of the house-dwelling cat despite herself.

* * * * * * * * * *

Shadow and Sunshine returned to the porch twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, and the woman never failed to appear with delicious food, always accompanied by the large tortoiseshell feline. Each time they ate, the house-dwelling cat gently urged them to trust the human and be her friend, promising that in return she would love them forever.

* * * * * * * * * *

"It's cold. Why can't we just go into the house? That human is nice, and she wants us to come in. She holds the door open for us everyday and that pretty cat likes us."

Shadow glanced out the entranceway of the porch. It was cold, and she hated the strange white stuff on the ground that made their feet wet and even colder. But, except for this woman, all of her experiences with humans had been bad. People had kicked her, thrown stones at her, chased her, and screamed at her. Shadow didn't understand why this woman kept leaving food out for them and beckoned them to enter the house, nor did she understand why the house-dwelling feline seemed so content. Perhaps it was a trap of some kind, but the big black and orange cat seemed happy. She needed to think about it some more.

"No. It's not safe." Shadow wasn't so sure that was true, but she didn't want to endanger her friend by making a rash decision.

The orange kitten looked at her pleadingly. "Please. I'm freezing, and the ground's all wet and hard. The cat that lives with her says to trust her."

Her entreaty was met with a scowl. Shadow moved closer to Sunshine, trying to shield her from the cold with her own body. "We don't know if we can believe that cat. Aren't you afraid something bad will happen in there?"

Sunshine mewed softly. "No. My mother told me there are good humans. She lived with one when she was a kitten, just like that cat does. She told me during her last week with the humans, she started hearing really loud bangs. The noise scared her and she hid under the bed. Then one night, the whole sky lit up with flashes and booming sounds, and it didn't go away right away like on the other nights. My mother was so frightened, when a door opened, she ran out. She ran so far, she got lost; and even though she tried to find her home again, she never could. She looked for her human until she died of wounds she got protecting me from a male cat."

Gazing at her older friend, Sunshine added, "I think this human is one of the good ones or that cat wouldn't live there."

Shadow affectionately licked the younger kitten's face and curled her body around her companion's. She had to admit that Sunshine had a point. "Maybe tomorrow."

* * * * * * * * * *

Halloween broke with another few inches of unseasonably early snow. A northern clipper carrying arctic air had moved down from Canada and temperatures were plummeting. The woman bundled up and swept the snow from the porch for the second time that day, worried about the kittens. She'd been heartened when they had showed up to eat that morning - and for the past few days had even stood there, holding the door wide open the entire time they were feeding - but so far they had not ventured inside.

Maybe this evening... She carried the food out and set it down, and stood shivering in the doorway. Waiting until both kittens had finished eating, she spoke softly, "Come on in. It's warm in here."

The tortoiseshell cat stood at the woman's side, her friendly copper eyes blinking at the two kittens. She purred loudly, her love for the human evident. "Trust her and be her friend and she'll love you forever."

Sunshine could feel the warmth radiating from the house onto the porch. She gazed longingly into the bright interior, her paws numb with cold. She glanced at Shadow to make sure she had her friend's attention, then casually walked past the human and torti into the house, leaving a very surprised looking Shadow staring after her.

Shadow was beside herself. She couldn't let anything happen to her friend. Hissing at the woman and resident cat to remind them that she was in control, she dashed into the house to protect Sunshine.

A bright smile covered the woman's face when the orange kitten walked right by her legs and into the house. She smiled encouragingly at the black feline as it stared first at her, then into the house where the orange kitten had gone. The woman knew there was a strong bond between them, and waited patiently for the black to follow her companion, instinctively knowing she would. Her smile broadened when the older kitten half-heartedly hissed and ran inside. She smiled and closed the door. Her patience had finally been rewarded.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sunshine greeted Shadow with a loud purr and looked around the kitchen in awe. The floor felt funny - it was hard and cool, but not cold. She watched the human close the door, then darted into the living room, Shadow at her side.

She gazed in wonder at the many obstacles to jump up onto, and leapt onto a soft cushion. The tortoiseshell cat was sprawled on the opposite end of the large soft fixture, with a cushion separating them. She began kneading the soft cushion, blinking contentedly at Shadow who had joined her.

Shadow looked around, taken aback when her eyes fell upon a talking, moving picture box. She watched, fascinated, as figures danced across the screen until she saw the human approaching. She tensed to leap from the couch, calling out to Sunshine, "Come on. She's coming over here."

The orange kitten looked at the inside cat, contentedly washing her face, then at the smiling woman. "No, Shadow. It's okay. She's nice. She won't hurt us."

Sitting on the cushion between the cat and kittens, the woman slowly extended her hand toward Sunshine, elated when the kitten walked over and sniffed her fingers. She softly stroked her behind the ears, gradually moving her hand down the small body, grinning widely when the kitten began to vibrate.

A few moments later she extended her hand to Shadow, but stopped short when the kitten glared at her and raised its paw to strike out.

Meeting Shadow's eyes, the tortoiseshell cat quietly assured her again, "Trust her and be her friend and she'll love you forever."

Sunshine piped up, "Yeah, Shadow. Come on. She's nice."

Shadow grudging allowed the hand to approach and touch her, hairpin reflexes ready to fight or retreat if need be. To her surprise, the hand felt nice against her head and back - not as pleasant as when she brushed her body against Sunshine's, but quite nice, nonetheless.

The woman softly stroked the kittens, both of whom were now purring contentedly. "Oh, you two are so beautiful and precious. You'll always be safe here, and I promise to love you forever."

Seeing the orange and black kittens sitting side by side elicited an old memory and she reached for a framed photograph sitting on her coffee table as she spoke softly to the purring felines. She looked at it for a long moment, before she set it next to her on the cushion, and started reminiscing.

"When I was a young girl, I had the most wonderful cat. Her name was Queenie and she was gorgeous. Half of her face was orange, just like you," she smiled at Sunshine, then turning to Shadow said, "and the other half was all black, like you. The rest of her body was jet black with bright splashes of orange mixed in. She was my best friend and I loved her so much, but I lost her. We moved and my father took her to the shelter. I never found out what happened to her. I still miss her, sometimes."

Amanda smiled through damp eyes. "She would have liked you two." She reaffirmed her promise to the kittens, "You'll always have a home with me and I promise both of you, I'll love you always and forever."

Sunshine nudged the melancholy woman's hand with her nose, eliciting a warm smile, as Shadow gazed curiously at the framed portrait on the cushion. The black feline bumped her head against Sunshine to get her attention and meowed softly, inclining her head toward the picture.

The kittens gazed questioningly from the old photograph to the big tortoiseshell cat that was the spitting image of the cat in the picture. Copper eyes twinkling, Queenie sat up and assured them, "She'll love you forever..." then slowly faded away.

Amanda looked at the two kittens staring at the other end of the couch. "What are you two looking at?"

Sunshine and Shadow turned back to Amanda and climbed into her lap, accepting her gift of love and purring a promise to return it.

THE END

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