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“You want to know a good time to visit the zoo?” Church grumbles. The words are muffled by the scarf half-hiding his face. Carolina lags behind, avoiding the muddy snow kicked up by his sullen stomping. “Not January.”

“Come on, dude, it’s this or class,” Tucker says.  “What would you choose?”

Church ignores the question, too busy scowling at the pale sky and faint sunlight. He gets one step closer to the bus before he has to dodge Caboose. He sighs as Caboose turns the missed tackle into a hug. “Hi, Caboose.”

“Hi, Church! Is this your first time visiting the zoo? I’m going to show you all my favorite animals!”

“Which is all of them,” Wash deadpans.

“Yes, of course,” Caboose says, nodding. “I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”

Church rolls his eyes. “You can’t hurt their feelings. They’re animals.”

Caboose’s smile wavers; he’s clearly torn between agreeing with Church and arguing with him. Slowly he says, “Um, Church, if you can’t hurt their feelings, then why does Freckles always look so sad when I have to go to school?”

“I didn’t say they didn’t have feelings, just that you can’t hurt them--”

Carolina gets on the bus while Church is preoccupied. It’s only half-full. Apparently most of her classmates don’t have guardians like Kimball to force them out of bed an hour early for the field trip. She wonders if anyone will miss the trip.

She glances out the window. Church has escaped from Caboose, only to get distracted complaining to Mr. Donut about the cold weather. Donut looks amused as Church gestures wildly.

Donut’s voice carries, the cheer in his words at odds with his obvious lack of sympathy. “Well, it’s above freezing, so I’m sure we’ll keep all our fingers and toes. Now, did you want to get on the heated bus or to keep talking?”

Church chooses the former. He flops into the seat next to Carolina; she pulls her backpack into her lap seconds before he would’ve sat on it. He looks resigned. “The reptiles have to be kept warm, right? Maybe I’ll just hide there the whole time.”

“Have fun with that,” Carolina says. “But I think Caboose has plans.”

Church groans. The he brightens. “At least Kimball and Grey gave us some money. We should pool our cash and check out the restaurant, I think it’s southwestern food--” He has her backpack half open before she can react, digging through for the envelope Grey gave Carolina that morning.

“Don’t touch my stuff!” she snaps, yanking it out of his hands, but it’s too late.

He stares at the card in his hand, bought in secret the week before when he was at Tucker’s and Grey and Kimball were both at work. He looks puzzled. “A birthday card? Why do you….” Understanding widens his eyes. His lips tighten. “Carolina, you can’t send this.”

Carolina feels her face go hot. Anger knots her stomach. Struggling not to sound defensive, she snatches the card back. It’s a simple card. She erred on the side of caution and didn’t go with one that mentioned mothers or daughters. It just has the words Happy Birthday and a picture of a birthday cake on the front. “Yes, I can. I figured out a loophole. I’m not allowed to write to her, so it doesn’t have a message. I’ll send it to the Chicago headquarters, and they’ll forward it, and she’ll see where it came from and--”

“And nothing,” Church hisses. “This isn’t a loophole, it’s wishful thinking. If you send this, she’ll end up as a ball of wax.”

Carolina winces, but shakes her head. “There has to be a loophole!”

“Sure!” Church says. “There's always a loophole! But around that loophole is a solid brick wall covered in barbed wire and magical crocodiles summoned specifically to eat your face! You. Can't. Miss.” He takes a deep breath. “And for every loophole that worked, there’s twenty that didn’t. We can’t risk it.”

We?” Carolina echoes, and it’s Church’s turn to wince.

He slouches in his seat, glancing away from her. His voice comes out low. “You know what I mean. The Council is watching everyone like a hawk. Malcolm wants you to do something exactly like this.”

“So he can bring out the magical crocodiles,” Carolina says. She fights against the frustration that twists her stomach, but the words come out bitter and her hands shake. She tucks the card back into her bag before she can accidentally crumple it. Then she hesitates. Over the last few months she’s learned not to assume anything. “Are the magical crocodiles a metaphor or real?”

Church sighs. “A metaphor. The ball of wax punishment is definitely real, though.” He pauses. “And the being turned into a cat thing.”

“Did you say cat?” Caboose asks excitedly. He looms over them, oblivious to the way they both jump in surprise. “Are you guys getting a cat?” Before either can answer, he turns and calls towards the front of the bus, “Wash! Mr. Simmons! Carolina and Church are getting a cat!”

“Don’t,” Simmons says, unexpectedly sour. “They’re annoying.”

Wash, halfway down the aisle, turns to give the teacher a scandalized look.  

Simmons registers it. He flushes, freckles half-lost against the bright red of his cheeks. “Sorry. G-- My cat was up all night yelling over nothing.”

Wash crosses his arms. There’s something a lot like disapproval in his voice as he says, “Cats are naturally nocturnal. Probably means you’re not paying enough attention to him.”

Simmons makes a face. “Right. Yeah. That’s probably it.”

“You should--”

From her seat, Carolina sees Wash’s mouth snap shut as Niner elbows him in the ribs. “Okay, point made,” Niner mutters. “Now sit down before you get detention. I’m not sitting on the bus with you while everyone else gets to see the animals.”

It’s Wash’s turn to grimace, but he doesn’t argue, just drops into the seat in front of Carolina and Church. Then he props himself by the elbows to peer over the seat and grin at them. “So you guys are thinking about getting a cat?”

Carolina and Church exchange a look. In his face she can see the same usual panic as he scrambles for a lie. She struggles with one of her own, already envisioning Kimball and Grey’s faces if they came home with a cat from Wash’s mom’s animal shelter.

“Uh, we were, but I don’t know if it’s a good idea. I mean, I’m only here for two years, and we travel too much for a pet, you know?” Even as she offers up the excuse, Carolina feels a pang. The last four months have dragged on, feeling both fast and slow all at once. And still there’s another twenty months before she can get her license and see her mom again. Her backpack with the blank birthday card seems to weigh heavier in her lap.

Church glances sideways at her. There’s a second’s hesitation, and he adds, “Yeah. It’s probably animal cruelty to drag a cat from Massachusetts to Alaska.”

“Maybe I should send him to Alaska,” Simmons mutters. He probably meant it to say it under his breath, but the bus is still slowly filling up and his voice carries.

Wash glares at him again, but before he can say anything, Caboose says, “That’s okay, Church! You can pretend Freckles is your dog too! We can share!”

Church looks unenthusiastic at the prospect. Carolina hasn’t met Caboose’s dog, but by all accounts he’s almost as big as Caboose himself, and just as energetic. “Uh, thanks, Caboose.”

“It sounds like your cat needs a playdate!” Donut says. “Your place or mine?”

“Uh,” Simmons says, drawing out the word. He fiddles with his clipboard. “I don’t think-- uh, I’m not sure how he feels about other cats.”

“Don’t worry, Whiskers won’t come on too strong,” Donut assures him. “He’ll win Grif’s heart in no time!”

Simmons’ smile is more of a grimace. “Great.” Then his eyes narrow for a second, and a slight smile touches his mouth. “Actually, you know what? He definitely needs friends. Bring Whiskers over this weekend. I’m sure he’ll be glad for someone else to talk to.” There's a beat and he laughs. "You know, cat to cat."

 


 

Earlier That Morning

“Watch it,” Simmons says, instinctively pulling his photocopied spellbook closer as Grif jumps on the table and almost knocks over a half-full coffee mug.

Grif ignores him as usual. Instead he places one paw on the spellbook and puts his full weight onto it. Simmons could try to pull it out from under him, but it’ll be a struggle, and it’s too early in the morning for Simmons to lose his dignity.  

“Grif, you’re not having pizza for breakfast.”

Grif narrows mismatched eyes at him. “Yeah, we’ll see about that. But that’s not what we need to talk about.”

Simmons frowns. He’s noticed Grif’s recent restlessness and the way he keeps getting underfoot, especially when Simmons is up late. “Is this about you staying inside while I’m at work? You know old Mr. MacGruff will call the animal control if you keep wandering the neighborhood.”

Grif snorts. “Yeah, it isn’t about that narc either. We need to talk about the magic experiments.”

Simmons is instantly defensive. He tries to pull the spellbook closer, but Grif doesn’t move. Simmons gives up after a second, and crosses his arms. “What about them?”

“Uh, let me think,” Grif drawls, sarcasm dripping off each word. “What to talk about first? Maybe that it’s been months and all you’ve managed was that blue spell one time. It might be time to just give up and call that one a fluke, dude.” Simmons opens his mouth to protest, and Grif’s tail twitches. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re going to keep trying. But you need to do your spells at work so I can claim plausible deniability.”

Simmons stares at Grif, who seems sincere amid the sarcasm. “At work?” he repeats. His voice gets away from him; the words come out as an incredulous squawk. “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea, Grif. No one will ask why I’m doing weird experiments in my room between classes.”

“Uh, one, no one will care. Two, it’s still better than here.” Grif doesn’t move, but his tail keeps twitching. “The Council has already turned me into a cat, not really looking forward to worse if somebody showed up and found out I was helping a mortal try to use magic.”

“Yeah, you’ve been such a great help,” Simmons mutters.  He mimics Grif’s unimpressed voice. “Looks like Experiment 47 was a rousing success, Simmons! Way to go!”

“I’ve never used the word rousing in my life,” Grif says.

“Not the point!” Simmons’ voice goes from a squawk to a screech, and he winces at the same time Grif does. He grinds his teeth for a second, but frustration makes it hard to think clearly. “And anyway, did you forget I borrowed the spellbook from some kid? They’d probably notice! It’s not like magic is discreet!”

“Didn’t Donut mention that biology teacher who learned how to turn rocks into gold for a week last year? Obviously this kid isn’t that smart. You’ll be fine.” Grif leans forward, his eyes fixed on Simmons. “And it’s safer for all of us. Any magic at school can be blamed on the kid. If you do another spell here and the Council notices, we can’t really pretend it wasn’t you.”

“I,” Simmons says, and stops. His stomach sinks as he realizes that Grif has a point. It is safer to do further experiments at the school. But he’s gotten used to Grif’s sarcastic remarks as Simmons pores over the book and reads out the latest spell he’s thinking of trying, of Grif’s jokes about magical screw-ups he’s heard about from other witches whenever Simmons is frustrated over his lack of progress. He bites his lip. “But--”

He glances around, trying to figure out a way to argue. His eyes land on the clock. Frustration’s replaced by alarm at the time. He stands up, leaving the spellbook under Grif’s paws. “I’m going to be late for the field trip. We’ll talk about this later,” he snaps.

Grif doesn’t budge, just watches Simmons gulp down the last of his coffee and grab for his winter coat. “Sure, we can talk about how the Council would lock us in a cell on Pluto and throw away the key. I won’t do good in jail, Simmons.” His tone changes as Simmons stalks towards the door. “Uh, Simmons, you forgot to turn the TV on. Simmons? Hey--”

“See you tonight,” Simmons snaps, and slams the door behind him.

 


 

9:30 AM That Day

“Okay, kids!” Sarge shouts from behind a megaphone as everyone mills around in the zoo parking lot. “Everyone’s expected back at the bus at two o’clock! Don’t do anything stupid. No feeding the animals, no banging on the glass, no jumping into the exhibits and trying to fight a wily beast to prove your manhood--”

“That is...weirdly specific,” Niner whispers to Carolina. “Ten bucks says he’s banned from a different zoo.”  

“Yeah, that’s a sucker bet,” Wash says. He nudges Carolina with his shoulder. “So, ready to see some lions and tigers and bears?”

“Oh my,” Church deadpans. He glances at Carolina and then looks down, kicking at slush and almost hitting Tucker with the spray. “I think Caboose is dragging me to the big cats first.”

He glances at her again, and then away. He’s been side-eyeing her the entire bus ride. She tries not to bristle, fixing a smile on her face and adjusting the straps on her backpack. She turns to Wash and Niner. “What did you guys want to see first?”

Wash hesitates. His gaze darts between her and Church. He’s clearly noticed the tension, but just as clearly he decides not to ask about it. He shrugs. “Depends. You’re the one who’s traveled the world. Maybe you’ve seen all the animals.”

“All the animals?” Niner says, snorting. “How many animals do you think there are, exactly?”

“Shut up,” Wash says without a change in his expression. As Niner grins, he adds, “The Australian animals are, like, hibernating, and we can’t see the butterflies, but everything else is fair game.”  

“Uh, Carolina, maybe we should meet for lunch,” Church says. His eyes shift again, and she realizes he’s looking at her backpack. “We didn’t finish….talking…..” He trails off, grimacing, as Carolina ignores him and walks towards where Donut is passing out the tickets.

“What did you do?” Niner asks behind her.

“Nothing!” Church snaps defensively. “Why do you think I did something?”

Niner jogs to catch up with Carolina, Wash following behind. They both look curious, but Niner only snorts and says, “I’m so glad I don’t have brothers.” Apparently content to leave it at that, she adds, “Let's save the gift shop for last. Otherwise Wash'll be hauling a bunch of toys around for his sisters the entire day.”

“Who says I’m buying anything for them?” Wash says. “I might buy something for myself.”

Carolina’s distracted from her frustration long enough to stare at him.

Wash’s shoulders slump. “Okay, I promised them both something, but--”

“End of trip,” Niner says firmly. “Now let’s show Carolina some flamingos.”

 


 

Simmons has a headache, and it’s only ten o’clock. He pinches the bridge of his nose and takes a deep breath. Meanwhile, Donut looks amused by the entire situation. “It doesn’t matter which one said the dare! The zoo could bar the entire school, all because you two wanted to try and ride a zebra.”

The twins look unfazed. North shrugs. “I mean, they’re pretty much like horses, right?”

“No!”

“Well, they are both part of the Equidae family,” says the zookeeper before she remembers she’s angry. She looks between Donut, Simmons, and the security guard who hauled the twins out of the enclosure. “You have two choices. They can stay here until it’s time to leave, or they can see more of the zoo under your direct supervision.”

The walkie-talkie at the security guard’s hip crackles. “Hey, can we get a teacher for this guy? He keeps knocking on the glass in the reptile house and doing knock-knock jokes and if the snakes don’t attack him, I will.”

Simmons feels the blood drain from his face. “I-I’ll handle the twins. You can go get Reggie.”  

Donut pouts. “Aw, but I wanted to plan for our little Wine and Cheese and Catnip Hour! I think Whiskers and Grif are going to get along so well. How about Saturday, eleven o’clock?”

Even the thought of Grif’s reaction to dealing with an actual cat doesn’t help with Simmons’ headache or mood. “Yeah, well, we’ll talk about it later.” He motions at North and South. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Can we go to the gift shop?”

Simmons stares at North, who stares back, guileless. “No!” he yelps when he finds his voice. “In what universe do you get rewarded for terrorizing zebras?”

“Calm down,” South says, and Simmons realizes that she’s resisting the urge to roll her eyes at him. Oh, they’re both definitely getting detention for this. Will Principal Larue let him give them a month? Maybe he should ask Vice Principal Kraft first, though he hates talking to the man. “We didn’t even get close to them.”

Simmons sputters, and finally settles for just pointing at the door. “Outside.”

 


 

“Carolina.”

Carolina grimaces before she gets control of her expression. She keeps her eyes fixed on the menu, though she can feel Niner and Wash give her matching weird looks. Connie, who missed the earlier argument, looks confused.

Church coughs and says, “Uh, can we talk? Alone?”

Connie glances between them, still confused, and says, “I’ll order for you. ...Unless you want me to tell him to get lost.” She looks almost hopeful at the prospect, although as far as Carolina knows, Connie and Church have barely interacted.

Church has been looking uncomfortable, his expression half-hidden by his scarf and hat. Now he scowls at Connie before he refocuses on Carolina. “Listen, I’ve got like five minutes before Caboose tracks me down or Tucker sneaks away from Simmons. Just give me that time?”

“Fine,” Carolina says. She keeps her voice calm, but her stomach twists itself into a knot. She’s been trying to distract herself all morning with the animals. Getting to feed the giraffes was fun, but now she’s thinking about her mom again, and the birthday card, and months of separation.

“Tucker is with Mr. Simmons? What did he do?” Niner asks.

Church rolls his eyes. “He tried to fight a peacock.”

Wash laughs. “I can’t believe I missed that.”

Connie raises both eyebrows. “Did he win?”

“What do you think?” Church says, and then glances at Carolina. The temporary amusement in his expression shifts back to awkwardness. He jams his hands into the pockets of his winter coat and shuffles his feet. “Uh.”

“So we’re still talking about this,” Carolina says when they’re alone. Or at least as alone as they can be in a zoo with their entire class wandering around. She keeps her voice low.

“Uh, yeah because you clearly weren’t listening before, and I don’t want you turned into a cat or All-- or your mom to be turned into a ball of wax. Which is what happens if you send that card.”

Carolina opens her mouth to argue that there’s always a loophole. She’s thought hard about this one, worked out every possible objection the Council would have. What comes out is, “It’s her birthday, Church. What do you want me to do?”

“Not this!” Church snaps, gesturing at her backpack. “Save the card for when you can see her again. But this isn’t going to work.”

“So I’m supposed to just spend two years without my mom because some witches hate the idea of mortals and witches getting married? It’s--” Carolina’s breath catches in her throat, because she’s about to complain that it isn’t fair like some six-year-old. Her face gets hot despite the cold January air stinging her cheeks. “It’s stupid.”

“Of course it’s stupid! But we’re not exactly in a position to change the rules, so we have to follow them.” Church sighs. “Carolina, there are loopholes and then there are loopholes. Some rules are easier to get around than others, like how all children under 10 must be accompanied by monkeys. Just give them a toy monkey. But this one? If anyone’s found a loophole about mortal parents, I haven’t heard about it. And the Council probably made sure of that.”

“But...Dad tried,” Carolina says.

They’re eye-to-eye; she sees Church’s flinch, hears him draw a surprised breath.

She’s not sure what either of them would’ve said next. They’re interrupted by Caboose’s familiar voice yelling Church’s name. He bounds over to them, his pout a weird juxtaposition to the fact that his face is painted like a dog’s. “Why’d you leave?”

“I...I’m not getting my face painted, Caboose.” Church’s irritation lacks its usual bite.

“But we could both look like Freckles!” Caboose says earnestly. “Or you could look like the cat you’re not going to adopt. Or Mr. Simmons’ cat!”

“Pass,” Church says, but he’s still looking at Carolina, his face for once unreadable.

“Don’t forget lunch, Caboose,” Carolina says, and walks back to the table where her friends are waiting.

 


 

Simmons’ headache is on its way to a full-blown migraine. He tries not to glare at all the students surrounding him, but it’s hard when the zoo is about ready to bar the entire school forever over a handful of troublemakers.

After North and South, there had been Reggie harassing snakes and Tucker fighting a peacock. After that York tried to hug a penguin. And then Maine, who’s always been quiet in Simmons’ class, used his strength to drop a drunk man over a wall and out of the petting zoo. Simmons isn't too mad about that last one, because apparently the guy was harassing the animals, but the school has a zero policy on physical  violence, so Maine gets at least a day of detention.

Simmons says through gritted teeth, “Okay. Anyone with detention, go with Sarge to the bus. The rest of us get one last treat.”

“We’re going to the gift shop?” someone asks hopefully.

“No. The zoo has a special guest lecturer, a scientist who’s visiting as she travels to report on her five year study of chinstrap penguins in Antarctica!” Simmons isn’t expecting a ton of enthusiasm. That’s good, because he doesn’t get any, especially when York, still sulking, says loudly, “Does she use nose-plugs? Because penguins smell.”

“Mr. Simmons, can I go to the bus too?”

Simmons blinks at Wash, who grimaces and holds up a bandaged hand. “A goat bit me.”

“A goat-- okay. Yeah. Go to the bus.”

Donut pats his shoulder sympathetically. “Don’t worry. Field trips are always a disaster.”

Simmons wants to believe him. “This much of one?”

Donut’s smile falters briefly, and Simmons sighs, his brief hope squelched. “Don’t worry. We’re almost to the weekend! Just think of Wine and Cheese and Catnip Hour!”

“It’s Wednesday,” Simmons says, and Donut turns and calls cheerfully, “Don’t forget Tucker, Sarge!”

The guest lecturer is a tall woman with frizzy hair and a smile that becomes fixed as the zookeeper in charge of the penguins jovially introduces her as Sherry. “Sherry is for my friends,” she deadpans. “You can call me Doctor Sherry.”

She doesn’t wait for a response, but glances around at the horde of bored or distracted teenagers in front of her and asks, “So how many chinstrap penguins do you think there are?”

“Fifty thousand?” someone guesses.

“Try 8 million.” A few kids make skeptical noises. Simmons is about to shush them when Sherry laughs. “No joke. I’m in the middle of a five-year study of their population in Antarctica, seeing how global warming is impacting them, but these guys get all over the place. Argentina, Bouvet Island, Chile, the Falkland Islands, the French Southern Territories, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Every once in a while, a few will go rogue and end up in places like New Zealand and South Africa.”

Dr. Sherry pauses, smiling ruefully. “To give you the short version of what I do, my research has been looking at how climate change, human disturbance, and decreased food availability have potentially impacted the penguin population.”

“Oh no,” Caboose says, sounding worried. “Are they endangered?”

“Caboose, she just said there are eight million of them. I think they’re okay,” Church says. Simmons can’t see him in the crowd, but he recognizes that tone and knows the expression that follows; Church is looking faintly exasperated.

Caboose protests, “But maybe there used to be twenty million!” His voice wobbles. 

“There wasn’t,” says Dr. Sherry. “It’s a little early to tell, but some of my colleagues have theorized that increasing temperatures might actually help the chinstrap population compared to other types of penguins. Chinstrap penguins prefer sea waters without ice.”

“Oh good!” Caboose says.  

Dr. Sherry glances over the crowd and meets the eyes of Simmons and Donut at the back. Her smile goes crooked. “I hear someone tried to hug a penguin earlier. Well, I wouldn’t advise it, but especially reconsider if you’re near chinstrap penguins. They’re the most aggressive type of penguin, and they will attack you.”

“Oh no, they’ll peck our shins,” someone mutters in the crowd. There’s scattered laughter.

“Yeah, keep laughing. See how you like it when one throws itself at you and knocks you flat on your-- flat on the ice. Or grabs some of your expensive equipment and drops it into freezing water. Or tries to bite you.” She crosses her arms. “I’ll get back at them someday.” The whisper’s probably meant to be under her breath, but the words get picked up by the mic and carried to every ear in the audience.

“Why are adults so weird?” Niner complains.

Simmons coughs. Before the lecture can get any more awkward, he says brightly, “I think we can all agree that no one should hug penguins. You said something about impacts on the population. Could you tell us some more about that?”

“Uh, right,” Dr. Sherry says, looking embarrassed, and launches into the long version of her work. Some of the kids seem asleep on their feet, and the applause at the end of her speech is half-hearted at best, but no one booes and a quick headcount assures Simmons that no one has wandered off, so Simmons counts it as a win.

He claps his hands, drawing everyone’s eyes towards him. “Okay, guys, let’s thank Doctor Sherry and then head back to the bus!”

“What about the gift shop?”

Simmons somehow manages to not roll his eyes. “You all have been here for five hours, you had plenty of time to go to the gift shop.” A chorus of groans answer him, and he sighs and looks at his watch. “Okay, you guys have thirty minutes, and then we’re leaving.”

“Crap, I’ve got to buy Wash’s sisters their stupid toys,” Niner says.

 


 

Carolina takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders, and knocks on Church’s bedroom door. She knows he’s inside, but it feel like a long wait before he answers.

Church stares warily at her, a look that doesn’t change when she asks, “Can I come in?”

He mutters something that sounds like, “Great, time for round three,” but opens the door wider so that she can enter.

She can’t help from glancing around curiously. It’s only now that she’s inside that she’s struck by strangeness. This is the first time she’s been inside his room, even though he’s always invading hers to gripe about the history homework. The piles of dirty laundry on the floor that she has to step over to his desk aren’t much of a surprise, but the barrenness of his walls is. She was half-expecting posters of his favorite video game or one of those grunge bands he’s been listening to lately, but there’s only cream wallpaper.

Glancing around, she realizes that her room might be sparse compared to Wash or Niner’s, but she’s still made it a temporary home. There’s the framed photo of her with her parents, and more recently a wall display for her track medals and ribbons and a fake poster of her and the ‘band’ that Wash, Niner, and Connie chipped in together to give her for Hanukkah.  Her room feels lived in. She doesn’t think she can say the same for Church’s.

“Are you seriously going to try to argue that your plan is a good one?” Church asks, interrupting her thoughts.

“No,” Carolina says. “I wanted, uh, to make sure you weren’t going to tell Grey or Kimball about me trying to get around the loophole.”

Church blinks. Judging by the surprise in his face, the thought never crossed his mind. She notices a little bit of black paint under his left ear, missed in his washing off of the facepaint. The surprise shifts to a scowl. He folds his arms and says testily, “I’m not a snitch.”

“Right,” Carolina says. “I didn’t-- Okay. Good.” She’s not sure what else to say. She came in prepared for another argument, and his bristling outrage that she thinks he’d tell Grey or Kimball has thrown her.  

It’s almost a relief when his scowl darkens and he says, “It’s still a dumb idea.”

She scowls back. “How? I haven’t signed it.”

“Come on, Carolina. Al-- she-- your mom will know exactly who it’s from, and that’ll be enough for the Council. Even if they don’t figure that part out, at least one of them is smart enough to look at the postage stamp and see it came from this town.” Church shakes his head. “If we’re coming up with a loophole, it needs to be one that will actually work.”   

“But without proof-- wait. What?”

“We need to come up with a loophole that will actually work,” Church says. He’s still scowling, but he’s directing it over Carolina’s shoulder, not quite meeting her eyes. His fingers tap at his arms.

It’s Carolina’s turn to be wary. “You want to help.”

Church rolls his eyes. “No, I want you to be miserable for the next year and a half.”

“You said it was too risky.”

“Because it is!”

“So why would you help?”

Church snorts. “Take your pick. You're gonna do it anyway. Maybe with help you won't fail and your mom won’t end up as a ball of wax. The Council's rules are a bunch of crap.” He pauses. His shoulders loosen a little. “And it’d piss off Leonard so much if we succeeded.”

Carolina studies him. “So...spite.”

Church snorts again. “Yeah. Pretty much. Just promise me you’ll put the card away. You can write happy birthday and save it to give to her when we figure stuff out.” His eyes slide away from hers again. He wanders over to his desk. “Anyway, since you’re here, I, uh, got something for you.”

“You did?” Carolina asks, surprised. She blinks down at the bag he tosses at her. When she peers inside, she recognizes it from her brief visit to the gift shop, which she escaped once she saw the crowds and the prices. She blinks at the leopard print. “You got me a pouch?”

“Yeah, one of those waist pouches, for when you’re running. You can fit a water bottle in it.”

She’s not sure what her expression is, but whatever is on her face has Church flushed and defensive again. “Look, buying it got me away from Caboose for five minutes, okay? Plus, I get an allowance from Grey and Huggins, and it wasn’t that expensive anyway.”

“Wait, you get an allowance from Huggins? Since when?”

Church smirks a little. “Since Halloween. I mean, she’s my ‘mom’ so when she kept bothering me I told her that moms give their kids allowance.”

“You’re a jerk, you know that, right?” Carolina says, smiling despite herself. She takes the pouch out and turns it over in her hands. It’s a good gift, though his offer to help her see her mom is a better one. Then she frowns. “I didn’t get you anything.”

“Yeah, I didn’t expect you to,” Church says.

“But I should get you something.”

Church groans. “Not everything has to be a competition.”

Carolina raises her eyebrows, amused. “Says the guy who has a temper-tantrum every time he loses a video game.”

“I don’t throw temper-tantrums!” Church yelps. “You know what, I’m taking that back--” He grabs for the pouch; she easily dodges. He makes one more swing for it and then leans against the desk, crossing his arms again. “Fine. Keep it.”

“Thanks,” Carolina says, smiling, before she sobers. “Thanks,” she repeats, this time not talking about the pouch.

Church looks uncomfortable. “You not trying any loopholes without me is thanks enough. Give me a couple days and I’ll come up with some ideas that might actually work, okay?”

“Okay.”

 


 

Simmons has been expecting it, but he still startles a little when his doorbell rings.

On the couch, Grif opens one eye and yawns. He watches Simmons approach the door. “Dude, the only people who knock on your door on Saturday mornings are salesmen or missionaries. Hard pass on both.”

“Good morning!” Donut sing-songs as soon as the door opens. He has a cat carrier in one hand and an actual picnic basket in the other, but bounds inside like neither weighs a thing. He beams at the sight of Grif, who’s now fully awake and staring, unblinking. “Let’s get this Wine and Cheese and Catnip Hour started!”

“Meow,” Grif says flatly. He darts a confused and accusing look at Simmons before the cat carrier rocks and a plaintive wail escapes it. Then he stares at the carrier. His fur slowly starts bristling.  

Simmons feels a little vindicated by Grif’s obvious confusion. He’s been second-guessing himself all week, wondering if inviting Donut and Whiskers over was a good revenge for Grif’s suggestion that Simmons was failing at magic or just a recipe for disaster. Give Donut an inch, and he’ll take a mile, and Simmons isn’t sure he wants Donut to think of him as a friend and not just a colleague. But Grif’s outraged look has him biting his lip and fighting a grin. He adds sweetly, “Donut suggested you might be lonely, so we thought you should meet Whiskers.”

Donut sets the basket on the coffee table and then lowers the carrier carefully to the ground in front of the couch. Grif watches every move, still staring, as Donut says, “I think they’ll get along great! And I brought along some catnip for them to enjoy while we have our wine.”

“Yeah, I guessed that from the constant mention of Wine and Cheese and Catnip Hour.”

“Time for the meet-cute!” Donut chirps, and opens the carrier door.

There’s a moment of silence, and then an orange head pokes out cautiously, nose and ears twitching. Simmons has seen Whiskers in framed photos on Donut’s desk at school, but somehow he didn’t realize how big Whiskers is. He’s not fat, but he’s a long, lean cat as he emerges from the carrier.

Whiskers sniffs at the air and then looks up and notices Grif. His ears turn sideways and he stares back, meeting Grif’s mismatched eyes with two unblinking blue ones.

Simmons waits for Grif to give a sarcastic meow or glare at him again. Instead he watches as Grif’s pupils swallow up the colors of his eyes and his ears flatten against his head. A low growl fills the air.

With a start, Simmons realizes that it’s Grif making that sound. “Uh,” he says.

Whiskers’ ears flatten as well. He hisses.

Grif’s growl turns to a snarl. His paw moves like lightning, smacking Whiskers once, twice, maybe three times in the face, and then Grif is up and moving faster than Simmons has seen him move. He scrambles up the back of the couch, and then uses Simmons’ shoulder as a launching pad, his claws digging in through the shirt as he jumps to the top of the bookshelf. There he spits and snarls, all of his fur on end and his tail thrashing.  

Whisker, meanwhile, retreats into his carrier with another hiss.

“Well!” Donut says brightly. “That could’ve gone better.” He crouches and cooes at Whiskers, “Don’t worry, Whiskers, your daddy loves you. Grif is just a sourpuss!”

Simmons gingerly massages his sore shoulder. He eyes Grif, but Grif’s still not looking at him, glaring daggers at the carrier. His heart pounds a little from alarm. He expected Grif to be angry, but he didn’t expect Grif to do that. It’s...weird. For the first time since Grif was faking being a cat, he feels like a complete stranger. Is this a witch thing? All Grif's admitted about being a witch familiar is that he's stuck like this for ten years and that he doesn't have access to his magic. Simmons says slowly, “There was probably a better way to introduce them.”

“Hmm?” Donut says, already in the middle of opening a bottle of wine.

“You know what? Maybe we should try this another time.”

Donut pouts. “Aw, Whiskers is okay with rejection! We could--”

“Nope.” Simmons closes Whiskers’ carrier and pushes it into Donut’s arms. He maneuvers Donut towards the door. “Sorry. See you on Monday!”

It’s only when he closes the door behind Donut that he turns and realizes that the picnic basket is still there. For a second he contemplates running the basket out to Donut, and then he remembers the wine. He needs it more than Donut does. 

“So, um,” he says, hearing the uncertainty in his voice. “Witch familiars and cats don’t get along?”

For a long second Grif just stares. Then he blinks, his pupils shrinking. His hair is still bristling, but his tail slows to an agitated twitch. He licks the tip of his nose. “I'll let you figure that out," he says, and despite everything Simmons relaxes a little at the familiar sarcasm in Grif's voice. “What the hell was that?”

Simmons grabs the wine and roots around the basket for the corkscrew. It buys him a second, but he can feel the weight of Grif’s irritated gaze on his head. His shoulder still hurts, but he’s not about to check for scratches while Grif is watching. He can feel heat creeping into his face. “Well, you’re the one who wants me to take my experiments to work!”

“What does that have to do with you bringing that weirdo and his cat here?” Grif demands. He jumps down, landing with a loud enough thud that Simmons instinctively winces, and then stalks over to poke his head into the picnic basket. “Huh, what did he bring? Cheese?”  

“He did say it was Wine and Cheese and Catnip Hour,” Simmons reminds him.

Grif snorts. “That dude is weird. But he has good taste in cheese. What is this, Gouda and mozzarella?” He tips the basket over, and looks amused as Simmons yelps and dives for the second bottle of wine and the glasses.

“He also mentioned wine pairings,” Simmons says, glancing between the bottles of  Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon. He opts for the red first. He’s half-hopeful Grif’s distracted by the promise of food, until Grif glares up at him.

“But seriously. What do the experiments have to do with Donut and his cat invading the apartment?”

“Uh, well.” Simmons grabs one of the glasses. He pours himself a hasty glass and takes an even hastier gulp. “I mean, you said I should work at the school, so I figured you’d want company.”

“A cat isn’t company,” Grif says. “Especially when he's a jerk.”

Simmons swallows more Cabernet. It’s been a while since he’s had any, he realizes. He used to have a glass or two when he needed to slow his thoughts, especially after he quit law school, when he’d lay in bed and stare at the ceiling for hours, convinced he’d made a terrible mistake and ruined his life. The realization makes him take another drink and mumble, “He’s a jerk? He’s a cat in an unfamiliar place. You’re the one who hit him. You’re the rude host.”  

“Yeah, well, I was surprised,” Grif says. He noses a plastic bag. “What’s this?”

“Probably catnip?” Simmons sets the wine aside for a second and opens up the plastic bag.

Grif immediately paws it away from him. “Hey, you’ve got your wine. I get catnip.”

“Does it affect you?” Simmons asks, immediately curious. Witch familiar physiology is fascinating. Grif can eat pizza without being affected, but apparently wine and beer tastes weird to his palate now, something he’s complained about on more than one occasion.

Grif shrugs. “Probably not, but hey, maybe.” He’s distracted by the bag, sticking a paw inside and wiggling it around, so Simmons risks plucking at his shirt collar and squinting at the still-stinging bare skin of his shoulder. He doesn’t see blood, but Grif’s claws have left some marks and potential bruises.  

So much for getting back at Grif for telling him to take his failed experiments elsewhere. Simmons finishes off his wine and pours himself another glass.

Three glasses later, and Simmons is wondering if the heater is working overtime. He’s too hot. He plucks at his shirt collar again, unbuttoning the top button, and then flops back against the couch, frowning up at the ceiling.

“What’s with the face?” Grif demands. When Simmons glances down at him, Grif is pacing around the coffee table, his tail twitching. There’s bits of catnip clinging to his whiskers. “I don’t think you’re allowed to frown when you’re drinking wine. Or maybe that’s a witch rule. But you want to be a witch, so…..” He trails off into an agitated mutter.

Simmons peers down at him, confused. “What?”

“Nothing,” Grif mutters, and then abruptly grabs Simmons’ ankle with his paws. Before Simmons can do more than blink, Grif rubs his face briskly against his shin and bounds away, rubbing his body along the length of the couch and then jumping on top of the abandoned picnic basket. “Just saying, you’re being weird.”

You’re being weird!” Simmons argues. It’s not the best argument he’s made, and he’s not surprised when Grif snorts and stalks over to rub his side against the front door. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” Grif says again. Then he makes a running leap at the couch, so suddenly that Simmons flinches. He lands clumsily, half in Simmons’ lap, and then scrambles so that he’s sitting next to Simmons. “Just thinking about how you’re being weird. Why would you invite Donut here? You don’t like him! You’re always complaining about him! Did you really think I’d get along with Whiskers? Seriously? Why’d you mention the magic experiments?”

“Uh,” Simmons says. It’s hard to follow Grif’s fast-paced speech. He blinks.

Grif is in his personal space again, one heavy paw kneading Simmons’ knee, claws pricking through his pants as Grif somehow speaks even faster, “Are you mad about me telling you to do them at school? Was this like revenge? Because that’s dumb. I thought nerds were supposed to be smart. Did you miss the whole deal where I got turned into a cat just for being a Good Samaritan and not knowing anything about politics? I just don't want us to end up like Locus. That dude? That dude is like on Pluto forever. And forever is a long freaking time with you're a witch! And a lot of time when you're a mortal so I don't want to go to jail, dude. We gotta be smart, Simmons.”

Simmons blinks, trying to absorb the flurry of words Grif has just babbled at him. He picks out one unfamiliar word. “Who’s Locus?”

“The dude I helped. Like, how was I supposed to know he and his dumb friend tried to overthrow the Council? I mean, plenty of people try to take over the Mortal Realm. I don’t know why, it seems like so much work, but power corrupts or whatever. But no, Locus and Felix had to go big and try to take over the Council! Who does that? And now they’re not cats like wannabe dictators, they’re going to be cold and miserable for the rest of eternity, and that’s not happening to us, okay? We’re not--”

Grif stops. He blinks, and abruptly as he’s been running around, he yawns and flops down, sprawled across Simmons’ lap. His head rests against Simmons’ arm, pinning it there as Grif mumbles around another yawn, “We’re not going to Pluto. Massachusetts is cold enough. I miss Hawaii.”

“Okay,” Simmons says. His thoughts move sluggishly and settle on one idea, though Simmons doesn’t quite believe it. He squints down at Grif. “Wait…. Grif….. So when you told me to do my experiments at school, it was...it was because you were worried about us? About--” Somehow his brain catches up with his mouth before he can say, ‘About me?’  

Grif answers with a soft, snuffling snore.

Simmons blinks. He’s not sure whether to be pleased or exasperated. He goes with neither as he yawns too. His eyelids feel heavy. He leans carefully, stretching out a hand so he can deposit the glass on the table without jostling Grif. Then he sinks back against the cushions and closes his eyes. “Okay. Fine…. Experiments at school. Though I’d like to visit Pluto, as long as I could leave again…. There was a warming spell in the book, we could use that, if I can figure things out. It’d be really interest…..”  He yawns, and sleeps.