"Why're you buying a house over there?" Ferio complained, flopped on his back on the floor of his sister's flat, where all five of them had retreated after spending the day packing up Clef's flat next-door. "It's too far away, and it's dodgy as fuck. You're gonna get broken into in a week, you know."
"It's close to work," Clef returned, from where he was flopped on one of Emeraude's sofas. "It is, in fact, the only area close enough to work that I can cycle in that has any detached houses with reasonable gardens that I can actually afford." The garden was the most important part of that for his purposes. He'd been sold on the house as soon as he'd walked out back.
The two of them were alone for the moment - Emeraude was showering, as she actually had clean clothes here and had also managed to get so much dust in her hair going through Clef's bookshelves that she'd gone from honey-gold to white-blond, and Lantis and Zagato had gone to pick up their take-away order. Ferio pulled a face at him, flailing one gangly arm and nearly hitting the sofa with it - he'd just had another growth-spurt, making him a very gangly (though still not tall) sixteen, and Emeraude had stuck him on box-labelling duty after the third time he nearly tripped over his own feet and broke something.
"Seriously, less than a month, you'll wake up and all your stuff will be gone. And how will Em and Zagato find an excuse to meet now?"
"They could always both come visit me at the same time? So can you, for that matter. There's a reasonable bus route." Clef closed his eyes, trying to relax aching shoulders. For the three years he'd been here, he'd been a handy excuse anytime Emeraude and Ferio's parents - who did not approve of Zagato courting their daughter - asked why she'd seen him again. He was just visiting Clef, that was all. Clef just happened to live next-door, and also be Emeraude's friend, and-
Well, he'd done his part, and things were about to escalate rapidly - he'd seen the ringbox in Zagato's hands, and seen the ring since, in Emeraude's, but she wasn't wearing it openly yet and obviously hadn't told her brother. They couldn't keep it secret much longer; getting married had to be done in public, with records.
And if it went badly… Emeraude's flat was being paid for by her parents, and there wasn't room in the tiny terraced thing Zagato and Lantis were sharing with three other people to add in someone else. Clef figured if he had a place he actually owned, with a decent sized guest room - if the worst came to pass, they could stay with him as long as they needed to get on their feet. That was about all he could do to help; he was pretty certain Emeraude knew what he was thinking, too. She'd foisted a lot of cookies off on him the past month, since he'd taken her to the viewing and asked what she thought of the place.
It was a nice house - a little twenties thing with an unreasonably large garden for the size of the building, covered in wisteria, with stained glass above all the doors and a boiler that was probably going to stop working the moment it got cold, but the chimney was still there, and both bedrooms had a boarded-up fireplace he was planning to reopen. Given the amount of overgrown trees in the back garden, he should have enough free wood to keep things going until he could have the heating replaced. It would have to be; getting the chimney fixed was taking the last of his inheritance. Okay, it wasn't the best neighbourhood, but it wasn't the worst either - whatever Ferio said. He didn't have much worth stealing, either. He wasn't worried.
Ferio, however, was sulking. Probably over the loss of somewhere to hide when his sister and her secret fiance got all romantic more than anything else. He kicked Clef in the leg, almost gently, and huffed. "Just you wait," he muttered.
Two weeks later, Clef came awake in his new bedroom to the THUMP clatter-tinkle of something breaking downstairs, and his heartrate shot through the roof. Another thump followed, and a kind of scuffling noise - definitely in the house.
Ferio was never going to let him forget this. But this was his house, and he wasn't going to put up with intruders.
Sliding out of bed, he made his way carefully out of the room in the thin darkness, the high window at the top of the stairs letting in a fair amount of starlight. There was a pole in the corner for opening it, as it was well over head height; he picked it up, carefully, and crept to the top of the stairs to peer into the sitting room.
Starlight glinted off the broken fragments of glass around the end pane of the windows, the one which had refused to shut, wooden frame too warped out of shape to fit anymore. More glittered on the floor, around the heap of what had been a rather threadbare, patchily faded old curtain - it looked like it had torn in half.
He didn't see anyone. Maybe the noise had been enough, and they'd shot off already? Or they were out of sight, in one of the other rooms…
Then the little heap of curtain twitched, glinting slivers of glass highlighting the movement, and a low, steady growl started to fill the air.
Clef blinked, and reached back to the light switches at the top of the stairs, flicking them all on - he wasn't sure which was the one for the sitting room yet. And there, wrapped in half a terrible old curtain and looking rather the worse for wear, was a thin and bedraggled cat.
The cat looked at Clef, and then opened its mouth, on the thinnest, most plaintive awful wail Clef had ever heard a creature make came out of its throat.
"Huh," Clef said, and set the pole down on the stairs. "…I don't think you're what Ferio was predicting." It wailed at him again, with feeling. "Yes, I can see, you're in a right mess. Guess I need the number for the emergency vet. And my wallet. …You're lucky the heating's decided to work so far, or you'd be stuck with my first aid until morning, and I don't think either of us want that."
Two nights later, just as he was dropping off to sleep, a new noise in the sitting room had Clef sitting up and listening hard. It came again - the furtive creak of one of his windows opening.
It did not sound like another cat.
He'd propped the curtain pole next to his bedroom door, after knocking it down the stairs one too many times since he'd taken it downstairs - obviously, he was doing something wrong with it, but he picked it up now thankful that he didn't have to go groping about for it in the dark as he slipped from his room. At the top of the stairs he paused, listening hard, and for a moment there was nothing - then a small voice quietly called out "Cat! Cat, where are you!"
Sighing, Clef propped the window opener against the wall, and flicked the sitting room lights on before getting down enough stairs he could peer through the railings. A small boy stared back at him, eyes huge, perched on the windowsill. He looked - somewhere between nine and ten, probably, and he'd frozen when the lights came on.
"You're looking for a tortoiseshell ball of fluff and claws?" he asked, keeping his voice steady. The boy blinked, but said nothing. "If he's your cat, you need to take better care of him. He's very underweight, and that cut on his ear was infected."
"You - you did kidnap Cat!" the boy said, voice rising. "You've got him trapped! You have to let him out!"
"He is yours, then?"
"I - no, we can't afford a cat, Cald- uh. My guardian says so. But he likes the back gardens. I've been feeding him what I can. Please, mister, he didn't mean to break your window, he was being chased - I saw it from my bedroom, I was too far to throw any water at the other cat-"
Clef's lips quirked up, in spite of himself. This was probably the kid from the upstairs flat next-door, then; he'd seen a bicycle outside it about the right size. "I promise I'm only keeping him contained until his leg heals. Look, would you mind getting down from the windowsill? The cat did enough damage, I'd rather not loose another pane out of it so soon."
"Okay," the boy muttered, and slid down. Clef came down the stairs and around to the utility room, and the boy followed, a wary few metres away.
"He broke his leg, so it's in plaster, and they had to shave a few bits of him to treat him after he lost the fight with my window," Clef said, quietly. "He's still on painkillers, so he may not act how you're used to. But you can see him, as long as you don't scare him. Okay?"
"I wouldn't!" The boy shot him another look, and now he'd unfolded, Clef raised his estimate of the kid's age a few years - he was too skinny, and possibly as old as twelve. "You - took him to the vet?"
"And brought him home again." Clef opened the door, and stepped away to let the boy past.
Any question of whether the cat knew him was answered by the rusty purr which started as soon as he got close to the makeshift catbed, which had been a laundry basket and a number of Clef's older towels in its former incarnation. The boy scooted forwards into the little room, and held his hand out; the cat bumped his head up into it, and the sawblade-purr got louder still.
Then he saw Clef, and the purring was interrupted by a quavering meow. "You've got a bowl of food right there!" Clef objected, staring back. "And water, and you've stolen at least three pieces of string from my unpacking to play with, you don't need anything." It meowed again, the attempt at looking pathetic rather spoilt by the way it was rubbing its head on the boy's hand every few seconds. "You cannot lie to me, cat, you just want to sleep on my feet again. I know what happens when you do that."
"What?" the boy asked, looking back at him, shoulders entirely relaxed now.
"Teeth and claws at two in the morning when I try to turn over," Clef said, darkly. "Fell asleep on the sofa this afternoon and apparently twitching, blanket-covered feet are the best toys ever."
The boy snickered.
A minute more, and Clef stirred. "Okay, kid, the cat needs to rest, and both of us should be asleep, as well. What are the chances of getting you to leave by a door?"
"…Back door?" The boy asked, looking at him sideways.
Given the likelihood he'd climbed out his bedroom window and was planning to get in the same way without his guardian knowing, Clef probably wasn't going to get him to leave by the front, but it was better than his broken window at least. And the tree that brushed against the house next-door was an oak, in decent health; good for climbing, Lantis would call it.
"If it has to be, then yes, the back door. But if you bring your guardian with you, you can come back to see the cat in the evenings while he's getting better. Okay?"
Three minutes later, all was quiet again in the house, though Clef stood by the back door until he saw the small shape scramble off the tree and back in through an upstairs window next-door, confirming all his suspicions. He turned away, shaking his head, and contemplated the windows.
"Guess I need to move 'replace window locks with something functional' up the list," he muttered, and went back to bed.
At six pm the next evening, about ten minutes after he got back, the doorbell rang. He opened up the front door to find one rueful small boy being corralled by a young woman with a cheerful smile and nothing soft about her eyes as she inspected him.
"Here, Ascot's come to apologise to you," she said, hand steady on the boy's shoulder.
"I'm sorry that I climbed your fence and got in your garden and went through your window and got into your house and thought you hurt Cat and if you tell the police it'll be bad I already have a record," the boy rattled off, all in one go, obviously memorised - and just as obviously, from the woman's expression, not meant to contain the last bit.
"You're not meant to tell him that!" she snapped, but the boy didn't actually look cowed at all; he frowned back at her.
"You said I should say what you said!"
"Not all of it!" The woman closed her eyes, thumping her hand against her head before opening her eyes to face Clef down. "Look, sir, he's very sorry he broke in and he didn't steal anything and he knows you're not torturing that feral, he'll leave you alone."
Clef looked at her for a moment, lips twitching, then looked down at the boy - at Ascot, presumably. "Well, you didn't break the window, unlike your furry friend. Apology accepted." He looked back up at the woman. "Would you like a cup of tea?"
"I- what?" She blinked at him.
Clef held out his hand. "I'm Clef, nice to meet you. Both of you. Would you like to come in for a cup of tea? I have apple juice, too. And water, as long as you don't mind it from the tap."
"…Caldina," she said, taking his hand to shake it, with a firm grip, the hard edge to her expression softening a little.
"I'll put the kettle on. Cat's in the sitting room, kneading one of my sofa cushions into rags."
Caldina and Ascot followed him in, Ascot making a beeline to where Cat was doing exactly that - he looked up, hissed reflexively at Clef and Caldina, then started up the rusty purr again. Caldina paused a moment, then she followed Clef back to the kitchen; he could see her looking around curiously as he put the kettle on. "You live here alone?" she asked, looking back at the stairs. "Isn't this a three bedroom place?"
"Two and a box room, really. And if you're not counting Cat, then yes, for the moment." She raised an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged. "I have a couple of friends who - well. Did you actually want tea? I've got assam, or lady grey, or some herbal ones somewhere - sorry, I'm not entirely unpacked yet."
She waved him off. "Tea's good, whatever's strong. Look, you really aren't going to call anyone about Ascot breaking in?"
Clef rinsed his teapot out with hot water and dumped two teabags in, then took the opportunity to study Caldina almost as closely as she had him. "What is there to tell?" he said, finally. "He was worried about the cat, so he came to check it was okay. He didn't break anything, he certainly didn't take anything, and he obviously told you about it. Plus, he let me know just how much I need to get those windows fixed."
"It's - no one's been in this house for nearly a year, so he used to come over into the garden sometimes, there were a couple of cats who hang out down at the bottom and it's so big I didn't think anyone would care while it was empty," Caldina told him, all in a rush, and flopped down in a seat. "Now you're here he'll stop-"
"The garden next-door goes with the downstairs flat, then?" Clef asked, pouring water into the teapot. "You don't get any of it?"
"We get the shadowy two-foot-strip down the side of the house," Caldina said, sounding far too old and resigned for her age. "The back is about half the size of yours, anyway, but it's the property of the two little old ladies who live downstairs, and they keep it pristine."
Clef looked out the back, and snorted. "That definitely can't be said of mine. Look - if Ascot would help me tame some of the back garden sometimes, he can come run about in this garden. He'll be able to meet Cat out there when his leg is better, rather than breaking in, and you're welcome to come around too - I'm out most of the day at work, if you're about in the afternoons you won't get in my way, because I won't be here. There's a gate down the side of this house but I think it must have rusted shut years ago. If so, I don't mind if you take one of the panels out of your fence - they're all rotten anyway, and no one's going to notice back there."
Blinking, Caldina stared at him. "You're inviting us to use your garden? Aren't you going to do anything with it?"
"Oh, I'm going to have a working garden, but it'll still have space to run about in. I'm planning on sticking vegetables in as much as possible, and getting those fruit trees into shape - and there's a whole thicket of hazels at the bottom which need coppicing, but- uh. Sorry. Anyway, if I show Ascot what's a weed and what isn't, he can do some weeding, and you can have half the produce - I'm never going to have time to look after it all, so that'll save me losing things to being choked out." Clef shrugged.
Caldina tilted her head at him, one eyebrow raised as she accepted a cup of tea from him. "So, what, we're a charity case next-door? Why grow all those vegetables if you're not going to eat them yourself?"
"Because my job is researching sustainable urban environments, and the back garden's a good place to test what I preach in my papers?" He pulled a face at her. "But I'm going to be testing growing methods on too wide a range of vegetables for one person to actually consume, if they go well. I don't even like some of the things I'll be growing. Besides, people get paid good money to weed people's gardens. I can't afford that, but I can make it a trade, so I won't spend my entire life out here. And it'll teach your kid some life skills that he can always put to use later."
"Huh." Caldina sipped her tea, settling back in her chair. "You'll put it in writing that you don't mind us in the garden when you're not in?"
"I'll sign it in blood if you need me to," he promised.
She grinned, suddenly, bright and clear. "Then I guess we might have a deal."
Two months later, Ferio was dragging a string for the somewhat-less-bedraggled cat (still called Cat more often than not) to chase across the back patio, as Cat, leg well recovering, growled and batted at it. Clef was turned away from them, putting the kettle on yet again for the movers - seriously, they hadn't just got engaged, they went and got married while Emeraude's family were out of the country and wouldn't notice?
Ferio's hiss startled him. "Clef! Clef - there's someone on your fence!"
Clef blinked back at Ferio's urgent face, then grinned. "That'll be the gardener," he said.
"It's a kid!"
A sudden irritated noise burst from Ferio's throat. "Cat just went straight up to him! Why does he not get hissed at?"
"Because Cat was his cat first, and I stole him," Clef said, calmly. "Would you ask him to tell Caldina she'd better come around the back, there's far too many people at the front of the house to get in that way." He pulled a couple more mugs out of the cupboard, only to stumble as he turned around, against the creaking ball of fluff now wrapping about his ankles. "Yes, I know, you only hug me when my hands are full and I can't hug back," he told Cat, amused, and looked up in time to see Caldina taking Ascot's normal route and climbing over the fence from next-door, laughing and ignoring the slightly crooked opening in the panel as Ascot grinned at her.
"I still can't believe no one broke in," Ferio said, poking at the rotten wood around the kitchen windows. "These would be so easy to get through."
"I know," Clef said, with a laugh, and sat down with a cup of tea to wait for everyone else to appear so he could give introductions.