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Ain't Never Caught a Rabbit

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Well, this was a problem.

Shiro stared through the planks of the fence.  On the other side, his tennis ball sat, just a few inches away.  Close enough to see and smell, but not close enough to touch.

Letting out a soft whine, Shiro jammed his muzzle into the gap again.  His fur rubbed awkwardly, stretching the old scar over his nose and unintentionally baring his teeth.  No matter how hard he pressed, the rest of his head wouldn’t go through, and even his tongue couldn’t reach the ball.

Damn.  

Pulling back, Shiro let out a huff of frustration.  His tail thumped against the ground as his mind worked.  There had to be a way to get the ball. The humans could get it whenever it rolled out of the property, so Shiro should be able to manage this for himself.  

With that in mind, he got down on his belly and scratched at the gap, like he saw Iverson do.  It reached farther than his muzzle, though it was far more awkward. Shiro’s tail wagged hopefully.  One more swipe and he felt his claws just barely graze the edge of the ball-

Then pushed it farther away.

No!

Shiro yanked back, his ears flat.  Now it was even harder to get! He’d been so close.  Letting out a grumble, he dug into the ground with his one front paw to make the hole bigger.  

Except he wasn’t supposed to do that.  Digging was Bad. Shiro glanced back at the house, hoping no one had seen his slip.  Luckily, there were no human in sight. Shiro’s keen ears could just barely pick up the sound of the television inside.  

Shiro could probably bark and get Iverson’s attention.  But he always got scolded when he was too loud in the backyard, and Shiro didn’t need him.  He could get this himself. If he just…

Well, he’d figure it out.

Shiro pressed his muzzle as far through the fence as he could and sniffed at the lost ball.  A soft whine escaped him. Outside time was supposed to be fun. Shiro liked being able to laze about in the fading sunshine.  It was the hot season, but these later hours were still nice, and he was allowed to chew his balls wherever he liked. It had been going great until he’d dropped the ball off the lawn chair.  It had bounced just right and rolled right through the gap.

And now Shiro was here.

He was tempted to whine again, but instead he focused on the ball.  This wasn’t the time to mope. This was the time for action. Shiro tilted his head to the side and pressed forward again.  He jolted forward an extra inch, which was nearly enough. Each panted breath made the fibers flutter.

Just a little bit father…

“You’re not going to get it like that.”

Shiro jolted.  He tried to pick his head up, only to smack it against the wooden bar higher up.  Yelping, he scrambled back away, then turned, his fur bristled. “Who’s there?”

From between the planks, another dog crept closer.  His fur was long and messy, just shy of matted, but still a shining black.  In the fading light of the evening, he blended in well with the shadows, and he had a grace that was almost feline.

The dog also looked very amused at Shiro’s predicament.

Shiro stayed tense, a low growl bubbling in his throat.  “Who are you? You don’t live in this neighborhood.” Shiro knew every dog on this road.  There was Lance down the street, always keen to play but very loud. Hunk on the corner house was very big and very shy, but enjoyed dozing in sunshine too.  Across from him was Allura, the former show poodle, and just next door was Pidge and Matt, who were always sticking their faces through the fence to say hi.

There were also the dogs on the next street over, who smelled of pain and fighting and who always snarled when Shiro was on walks.  Whose growls and snarled muzzles reminded him of pain.

Bristling, Shiro prepared himself in case this dog tried something.

The other dog sat down in front of Shiro’s ball.  He made no aggressive action, only blinked curiously at Shiro.  “I’m Keith,” he said, head tilted. “I live anywhere I want to. Who are you?”

Oh! A stray.  Lance had loudly complained about seeing one recently.  Announced it to the neighborhood with his barking, really.  Maybe this was the same dog?

“Shiro.”  Shiro crept closer, now that Keith seemed uninterested in fighting.  He sniffled delicately, memorizing the scent. “What are you doing here, then?”

Keith’s tail curled around his legs.  “Right now? I’m watching you. It’s funny.”

Shiro’s ears snapped back against his head again.  “I just about had it,” he insisted, and tried not to feel silly under Keith’s amused gaze.

“What’s so special about this thing, anyway?”  Keith put one paw delicately on top of the tennis ball.  

“I like that one.  The new ones don’t have the loose fibers.  I like pulling them off. And this one bounces the best.”  Shiro paused, head tilted. “It’s a ball. Do you not like balls?”

Keith best down and sniffed at it, then looked up at Shiro.  “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

Oh.  Shiro had known it had to be hard for strays.  No spoonfuls of wet food in the evening, no resting his head in a human’s lap for ear rubs, no warm blanket in his crate.  But he hadn’t even considered that there were no balls. There couldn’t be, without a human to bring it and throw it. But it was still so sad.

Keith finally used his muzzle to knock the ball closer.  It rested neatly between the planks, within easy grabbing distance.  “You should be able to get that. Why are you caged up, anyway?”

“It’s not for me,” Shiro replied.  He sat down and perked his ears up.  “It’s for everyone else. This is my territory.  I keep it safe for Iverson. It keeps most everything out, but sometimes birds or squirrels get it.  But not for long. Not in my territory!”

Keith looked Shiro over like he wasn’t sure about that, but he finally seemed impressed.  “Have you caught a squirrel before?”

“Once,” Shiro said, tail wagging.  That had been a good day. Iverson hadn’t been pleased at the mess, for some reason.  He’d taken it away and buried it, which seemed to be some strange human custom. But Shiro still knew he’d done a good job protecting his lands.

In fact, Keith’s ears were perked and his tail thumped in approval.  “I haven’t yet. I’ve gotten really close, but they go in the streets and then those metal human cages come through.”

“Maybe you should get a yard,” Shiro suggested.  “There are houses without dogs, here. You could probably live in one.”

Keith’s fur bristled.  “No way.” He backed away, as if the fence and collar were contagious.  “I like the outside. It makes me tougher.” Despite his words, there his ears were back, and he looked almost scared.

This strange stray made Shiro’s chest feel too tight.  “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. But here.” Shiro nudged the ball through the bars again, back toward Keith.

“I just gave it back to you,” Keith said, tail drooping.  “What’d you do that for?”

“I have other balls,” Shiro said.  “That one’s my favorite, but there are more.  If you don’t have a ball, you should have this one.  Even if you don’t have a human to throw it, it’s good for chewing.  You can chew it anywhere, no yard needed.”

Keith stared at him, eyes wide.  Then, slowly, he reached down and took the ball in his muzzle.  His tail gave a tiny wag, which slowly grew into a proper wave.

Without another word, he turned and darted back down the street.  A minute later, Shiro heard Lance start barking up a storm.

It was sad to see his ball go, but not so sad as a dog without a ball at all.  So Shiro figured this had worked out alright.

Besides, he had some sun to soak up before it got too dark.

***

Shiro curled on the deck, contentedly chomping away at one of his toys.  When he was outside, he could make it squeak all he liked without getting the toy taken away.  The little stuffed mouse’s noises were music to his perked ears.

The breeze picked up, wafting a particular scent to Shiro’s nose.  He paused, then shook the toy hard, nearly dropping it from the force.

There was no need to make a fuss.  He’d caught that particular smell a couple of times over the past week.  Faintly, like Keith had been wandering near the fence line when Shiro wasn’t out.

Which was fine.  So long as Keith didn’t come into Shiro’s territory, there was no problem.  Even if he did, Shiro would have been okay, provided he behaved himself. Almost every dog on the block had been here at least once, and they were allowed to stay as long as they listened and played nice.  

So Shiro didn’t turn around, though his ears stayed perked.  Maybe Keith was just wandering past. It would be interesting to talk to him and ask if he’d liked the ball, but Keith could speak up first if he wanted.

Then there was a squeak.

Shiro turned around like a shot and jumped down from the deck.  His tail wagged eagerly as he peered through the planks of the fence.  Then he straightened, head held high, as if he hadn’t just been summoned like a dopey puppy from the sound of a toy.  His owner was an obedience trainer, and Shiro was far above such indignities.

Luckily, Keith didn’t look like he’d noticed.  Instead his eyes were wide as he dropped the squeaky bone.  “You’re fast, considering.”

Shiro ducked his head, looking down at his single front paw.  His tail stilled, then dropped. “I’ve had time to adapt.”

Keith’s ears flattened too.  “I meant for a pet. Not for-”  He shifted from paw to paw, clearly nervous.  “Not that.”

Oh.  “Yes, I am.  My owner, Iverson, he used to do agility training for me.  I can jump through hoops and walk over beams and all that.”  

Keith’s muzzle wrinkled up, but he didn’t comment.  Clearly, he didn’t see the point. That was fine, neither did most dogs.  They thought it was silly that Shiro liked doing such specific and difficult tricks.  But it made Iverson so happy when Shiro did well, and he liked figuring out what the humans wanted and performing well.  He used to go to competitions and when the important humans with the clipboards said he was best, Shiro got extra ear rubs and special meals.  It was nice.

They hadn’t done that in a long time.  Not since Shiro had been hurt.

“Did you like the ball?” Shiro asked, head tilted.  He sat down in the grass, getting comfortable for the conversation.  “Good, right? Enough to want another.” His mouth opened and his tongue lolled with his amusement.

Keith sat as well, his short, knotted tail thumping into the dirt.  “It’s good. And nice of you to share. So I got you this, so we’re even.”  He knocked the squeaky bone closer, so Shiro could pick it up through the gap in the planks.

This was for him?

Shiro’s tail picked up again as he looked Keith over.  “You didn’t have to do that.” Even so, Shiro’s mouth watered eagerly at the toy.  It looked pleasantly broken in, too, rather than that extra-slick feeling when it still smelled like the store.

All he got was a shrug.  “I owed you.”

That wasn't really how it worked.  It had been a gift, and Keith didn’t have to do anything in return, especially when he’d helped Shiro get the ball back in the first place.  But he didn’t have the heart to turn down such a nice gesture, especially when he really wanted it.

So Shiro leaned down to take the bone-

Only to reel back sharply.  He knew the scent on it. In fact, he knew this particular toy.  “This is Allura’s!”

Keith tilted his head.  “Who?”

“The poodle!  Where did you find this?  She has to be looking everywhere for it.  We need to get it back to her.”

Keith’s head tilted in the other direction.  “I found it by that fence over there.” He turned to look in the precise direction of Allura’s house.  “I saw it when that loud dog was telling me to get lost, and I thought you’d like it. Do you not like it?”

Well, yes, obviously.  It was a really good toy and it made great noises.  But that didn’t mean it was okay to just take Allura’s toy.  “Thank you for getting it for me,” Shiro said tightly. “But this isn’t yours to give.  You need to put it back.”

Ears flat, Keith stared at the toy.  “But I got it for you. It should be yours.”

This concept might be hard to explain to a stray.  Shiro huffed and tapped his left paw against the grass as he thought.  “I appreciate the gesture, but you don’t need to get me any toys at all.  It was a gift. I wanted you to have it.”

Keith bristled, then pushed his head under the fence.  He was thinner and smaller than Shiro, so his whole head fit under.

For the first time, they were face to face without a barrier between them.  Keith’s eyes seemed far more intense up close, especially when directly aimed at Shiro.  The fur between his ears stuck up in curly clumps, and Shiro fought back the urge to groom it down for him.

“Why?”

“Because you needed it more,” Shiro said plainly.  “That’s not pity, it’s just sense. I have more toys than I can play with in a day.  You should have one. So you don’t need to get me more, because I already have enough.”

The accusatory light of Keith’s gaze faded into something softer.  He looked over Shiro again, his ears relaxing down. “You shouldn’t have less toys just for me.  You’re a pet, you need them when you’re locked up like this. I have the whole world, you only have this little space.”

Shiro ducked his head, wounded despite himself.  He liked his territory and his yard, but he couldn’t deny that sometimes it was boring and small.  It was why he liked it so much when other dogs came over - including strange, dirty strays.

“Maybe you do,” Shiro finally said.  “But the whole world seems like a very lonely place if you don’t have anyone to share it with.  Or to help you when you need it.”

Looking down at the space his right paw used to be, Shiro thought of the human hands that had snatched him up from the front yard.  Of being taken away and surrounded by jeering humans, loud and smelling of alcohol. Facing down bloodshot eyes and snarling teeth while their audience screamed.  Iverson finding him, even streets away and without any nose for tracking. The scary, bad-smelling place where they’d put Shiro on a table and made him sleep, but afterwards Iverson had been there.  The gentle, firm hands as he adjusted to one less leg, and praise when once simple tasks were now painstakingly accomplished.

Shiro was better, now.  Sometimes he was scared, especially when he heard unfamiliar barking or snarling.  But if he hadn’t had Iverson, then Shiro didn’t think he’d have survived the awful pain.

There was no one like that for Keith.  So, sure he could wander the whole world, but who was there to sit by his side and make him happy?

Keith’s eyes went wide.  Then he back pedaled quickly, yanking his head away.  “I’m fine on my own,” he snapped out, tail tucked between his legs.  “And I still owe you for what you gave me. Either you get a new toy, or I give the old one back.”

But why?  This was all so dumb.  What did it matter if Keith had this one toy?  He’d seemed happy with it before, why take it if he was going to be like this?

Shiro looked at Keith, with his sharp, direct eyes and his dusty ears.

Then he got an idea.

“Okay.  Next time you come, bring the ball back and we’ll discuss this.”  Shiro held his head high and forced his tail not to wag. He was good at looking very stern and professional.  He wasn’t supposed to wag and jump on the humans at agility competitions, either, and he still remembered how. “We’ll figure it out so we’re both happy.”

There was a flash of something like pain on Keith’s face, but he nodded.  “Fine.” Standing, he started to leave.

Shiro scrambled after and jumped up, resting his paw on the fence.  “Hey! Don’t leave without taking back Allura’s toy!” It wasn’t like Shiro could return it, after all.

Huffing, Keith wheeled back and snatched up the bone.  It gave a forlorn squeak that made Shiro’s jaw physically ache to bite down on it.  But it wasn’t his, and it wasn’t Keith’s to give, so Shiro just sat down and watched the stray slink away into the bushes.

Once he was sure Keith was a good distance away and couldn’t hear, Shiro glanced back at the house just once.

No Iverson.

Good.

Shiro started to dig.

***

Digging with just one paw was difficult.  But Shiro had learned a lot since he’d healed, and he knew how to re-balance himself on his hind legs for longer periods of time.  He used to do it for tricks, but now it had become an essential skill.

Even so, it was a tiring activity, and it took a while.  Especially since Shiro had to keep glancing back to make sure that Iverson wasn’t watching.  If he was caught, then Shiro was going to be in big trouble. He might even be locked inside tomorrow, which would ruin everything.  What would Keith think, if he came back and found no Shiro? He might leave the ball and never come back.

That couldn’t happen.  It wasn’t allowed to happen, not on Shiro’s watch.

So he worked, and took a short break to recharge with his squeaky mouse, then worked some more.  The sun sank lower and lower as Shiro lost the best hours for dozing on the deck. But it was worth it.

He was so absorbed in his task he almost missed the sounds of a door opening and closing.  Claws scrambled quickly against wood, and then through grass.

Shiro tensed, his nose still in the ground.  But that wasn’t the sound of a human, and especially not Iverson.  The scent on the wind quickly confirmed who it was.

“Hey, Shiro.”  Pidge sat down on her side of the fence, head resting on the horizontal wooden bar that held it together.  “Up to something?”

“Shiro’s never up to something.”  Matt joined her a second later, peering through the planks.  But then his ears twitched back in surprise. “Oh, you are! You’re all dirty.  I’ve never seen you dirty like that.”

Jumping to his feet, Shiro shook his head hard.  A fine layer of dirt came off his fur. Ugh. “Is that better?”

Pidge’s tail wagged good-naturedly.  “Better. Bad for you, good for every other dog on the street.”

Well, excuse Shiro for keeping clean.  He liked having a shiny coat and no knots.  Now that he wasn’t in competitions, Shiro didn’t get brushed quite so often, but he still liked the feeling.  “Some of us don’t all roll in mud puddles.”

“Some of us are missing out,” Matt shot back.  He shoved his pointed nose through the wood and sniffled.  “You’re a hypocrite anyway, digging over there. What are you up to?  Smells like your human brought a new dog.”

Shiro’s ears fell back.  “No. Just someone passing by.”

Immediately, Pidge perked with curiosity.  “Oh, that stray! Did you hear Lance earlier?  He was going nuts. Apparently whoever it was tried to steal a toy from him.”

Oh.  Whoops.  Guess Keith had tried Lance first and got caught at it.

It was wrong, and Keith shouldn’t steal other dogs’ toys for Shiro.  But he had to admit, the idea of Lance barking his head off while Keith tried to inch away his spiky ball was a little funny.

“Well, hopefully he won’t try it again.  Everyone’s toys should be safe.” Shiro sat down hard, still panting from all his work.  “Have you seen the stray?”

Matt shook his head so hard that one of his ears folded inside out.  “No. Probably knows better than to mess with our yard! Two dogs for the price of one.”  He licked over his sister’s ears and neck, flattening out the chaotic mess of curly brown fur.

Or they just hadn’t been making fools of themselves to catch Keith’s attention.

Shaking off her brother’s fussing, Pidge hopped up and rested her paws on the fence.  “So what are you burying?”

“Nothing.  I’m making a hole under the fence.”

Both of them froze in place, staring at him.  They faced each other, heads tilted, then looked back at Shiro.

“You want to get out?”  Pidge’s eyes narrowed. “Did Iverson do something to you?  You usually like him. If he yelled at you, I’ll bite him.”

“So loud,” Matt agreed sagely.  “All the yelling and the whistling.”

Shiro bristled and hopped to his feet, upset on behalf of his human.  “He does training! The whistles are signals.” He huffed out a breath and tried to glare them both down.  “No, he didn’t do anything wrong. I just wanted a hole there. Like you don’t dig for fun sometimes.”

That learned him and open-jowl smile.  “You’re not wrong. But we got in big trouble for digging up the plants by the house.  They’re just flowers, it’s not anything good.”

Well, Shiro was just digging up the green grass, which grew everywhere, but for some reason the humans were very protective of it.  

Really, humans were so odd.

“If you don’t want to go out, but you want a hole under the fence…”  Pidge slid to the ground then shifted excitedly from paw to paw. “You want someone to come in!”

Dammit, how did she do that?  “Shhh,” Shiro growled out. “You’re going to make the humans look.”

Thankfully, both of them understood the value of not being caught at trouble.  Pidge stilled, and Matt’s ears flattened seriously.

“Okay, yes,” Shiro admitted.  “I have a plan. But no more toys are going to get taken if I do it right.  So don’t mess it up.”

Matt’s ears perked right back up as his fluffy tail twitched.  “Wait, you’re letting in the stray? Into your territory?”

“He’s not just a stray,” Shiro said, then winced at how defensive he sounded.  “I mean, he is a stray, obviously. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be nice to him.  Besides, you guys can’t be over all the time, and he probably wants someone to play with too.”

Drooping, Pidge considered that.  “Yeah. Just keep watch of your stuff.”

Well, that’s the opposite of what Shiro wanted, but he wasn’t exactly going to admit that.  “I will. And I’ll make sure he doesn’t get on your side. This is just… an experiment.”

Matt and Pidge both nodded sagely.  They knew all about experiments, because that’s what their humans did.  If any dogs on the block knew the value of testing, it would be these two.

It didn’t matter nearly as much to Shiro, but if it’d get them on board and not yapping up a storm, he’d take it.

And if it was an experiment, then they'd have to repeat the process.  Keith would have to come by over and over and sit with Shiro and play together and maybe share a tug-of-war rope.  Keith could drink from Shiro’s bowl and have treats too. It’d be great.

“We lost him,” Pidge whispered to Matt, whose tail thumped in agreement.

Snapping back to reality, Shiro shook his head and focused.  “I need to keep moving. I have to go in soon, and Iverson can’t see.”

“Good luck,” Matt said.  With one last friendly wag, he turned around and started to sniff in the grass.  Pidge streaked by him to pick up a toy, and in seconds they were playfully tussling over it.

Watching them, Shiro had to bite back a mournful noise.  It always looked like such fun, to have someone around all the time.  He didn’t want exactly what they had, with the play fighting and ear nipping.  But he’d like someone to curl against on the couch and to play with when Iverson couldn’t pay attention to him.

Shiro huffed and turned away, ignoring the siblings.  Instead, he set himself to his task.

He needed to be ready.

***

When Shiro got in that night, Iverson huffed at him for his dirty nose and ears and gave him a wipe down.  But he didn’t seem to realize that Shiro was digging. Matt and Pidge’s warning had really saved him.

Shiro slept hard that night, dreaming of chasing thrown balls, trying to get to them before all the other dogs could.  He got there at the same time as Keith, and their fur brushed together as they tried to be the fastest.

It was a good dream, but Shiro woke up buzzing with too much energy.

Normally, Shiro loved his inside time.  The couch was a wonderful napping spot, and he liked curling up on the rug near Iverson’s desk while he worked.  The constant babble into phones or at his glowing screens was comforting.

Today, though, it dragged.  Shiro kept pushing his face through the blinds to look out at the backyard.  Keith had only been around for a week - what if he came earlier? What if he didn’t know Shiro only came outside when it gets less hot.  What if he waited out there all day for Shiro, and he got hot and felt sick and there was no one there to watch him?

If someone else was around to see Shiro act so overbearing, they’d laugh at him.  His human certainly didn’t get it, pulling him away from the window with increasingly annoyed questions.  But Shiro couldn’t help it. Keith was too good to be out there in the cold all alone. What if he got picked up like Shiro was, but he had no one to know he was gone?

That couldn’t happen.

Finally, finally, Shiro was let out for the afternoon.  He burst out like there was a squirrel in his territory, and paced along the fence in anticipation.

Iverson hovered on the deck for a while, watching and occasionally speaking to Shiro.  He seemed confused but not concerned, and he eventually went back inside with a shake of his head.  Normally that would feel bad, but Shiro had a more important goal today.

Shiro waited.

He was good at waiting.  He knew that ‘stay’ meant ‘stay’, even when a treat was put down in front of him or someone squeaked his toy.  He could wait whole minutes, still as a statue, ready to be released so he could have his treat and pets.

Today, it felt like he was a puppy again, confused by this strange game where he had to sit alone for so long.

Eventually, Shiro found his way back to the desk and chewed sulkily on his mouse.  Maybe Keith had decided not to come at all. Maybe he didn’t want to give up the ball, so he wasn’t going to return.

The thought was so awful that Shiro pulled on his mouse’s ears, nearly ripping them off.

But then Shiro heard the faint click of claws on concrete and the shaking of disturbed bushes.  When he picked his head up, Keith was there, the familiar ball in his jaw.

Dropping it, Keith pushed the ball through the fence, into the hole Shiro had left.  Then he sat down, ears back and tail still. “All yours. I shouldn’t have accepted it in the first place.  I’m sorry.”

Shiro hopped down from the fence and settled in front of Keith.  He couldn’t help the way his tail started to wag with anticipation.  “Are you sure you don’t just want to have my gift?”

“I can’t.  It’s not even.  I don’t want to take from you.”  Keith looked at Shiro through the messy fur that fell into his eyes.  The soulful gaze makes Shiro want to howl.

“Fine.  I’ll take it back, then.”  Shiro’s tail picks up even faster.  “On one condition.”

Keith continues to stare, wary now.  “What?”

“You come inside the fence with it.”

That stilled Keith.  He looked at Shiro, then at the fence, then at the ball.  “I can’t get through those planks.”

Shiro’s entire bottom half shook with the force of his wagging.  “Yes, you can! You almost fit before, and I made the hole bigger.  See? You can get under.”

Considering that, Keith experimentally stuck his head through.  It went easily this time, and he was able to pass through up to his shoulders without much effort.  “Oh. Why, though? This is your territory, you said. It’s already so small.”

“You said you wanted to make us even, and you were going to bring me toys.  But you can’t bring me other dogs’ toys. So bring me mine instead. As long as you keep coming over, you can keep that ball as long as you want.”

Slowly, Keith’s ears perked up eagerly.  “That’d make us even?”

Shiro practically squirmed in place.  “Yes, already! Now come on. We only have so much time.”

Finally, Keith squirmed his way through the hole. His hips only barely fit, but then he was inside.  Shiro pressed against him, practically shoving Keith to the ground in his enthusiasm to great him.

Despite the dirt and knots, Keith felt wonderful to lean against.  It was so nice to have another dog here again, and even better to have Keith.

Keith pushed back just as hard as he got.  “Alright, which toy are we playing with?”

“How about… the mouse!”  Shiro set off at a run toward the deck, Keith only half a step behind him.

They got in almost an hour of keep away and racing.  It wasn’t quite as fun as it could have been, because they had to stay quiet.  If Iverson saw a random stray in the backyard, he might start to yell. But so long as they didn’t bark much or bump into the door, there was no need for the human to know.

But as the sun started to sink, Keith tilted his head up.  “I should go.”

“But-”  Shiro flopped down on the desk, his sides heaving from all the running.  “You could stay. Iverson would be startled, but there’s room for two of us.”

For a moment, Keith seemed to seriously consider it.  Then he shook himself hard, making all his fur stand up.  “No. I like being outside all the time. I don’t want to be a pet.”  He looked over and took in Shiro’s crestfallen look. “But I’ll be back tomorrow, okay?  All the days. I’ll take the ball, so you’ll always know I’m coming. I can’t leave you to die alone from boredom, can I?”

Shiro gave a single twitch of his tail, the only acknowledgment of the joke.  He stayed morosely sprawled out as Keith picked up his ball and headed for the fence.  He could protest, but it wouldn’t do much. It was clear what Keith wanted.

Maybe someday he’d decide it was okay to be taken care of.  Keith will decide it’s okay to have a fence and a human and ear scritches on the couch.

Until then, he could have his freedom.  Shiro just didn’t want to worry he’d never see him again.

Shiro picked up his head to watch Keith go. “You really promise you’ll come back?”

Keith squirmed through the hole, then turned around.  His eyes were warm and soft, though no less intense. “I’m taking the ball, aren’t I?  I want to be even. So I’ll come back and play with you.”

“How long can you keep that up?”

“As many toys as it takes.”