two of a kind

"Get out of my bathroom," Howl ordered the cat.

He had already tried (a) pretending the cat wasn't there, (b) telling Michael to get rid of the cat, (c) asking Sophie to get rid of the cat, (d) inverting the bathroom above their route while passing a duckpond. None of them had worked.

"Thank you for at least doing me the courtesy of speaking to me," the cat replied. He had a dark voice, the brisk shade of a good bitter in a student pub, as sleek as his black fur. "Now, I understand that you grant wishes?"

"You've been misinformed." Howl picked the cat out of the basin and put it down on the floor. "I do paid jobs, and I charge very high rates."

The cat folded his tail around his legs, and sat there, staring up at Howl. "I can pay."

Howl swept a bow. "You have my full attention."

"Owing to his crass stupidity, a friend of mine has managed to change his shape into a kitten. He can't change back. I can't change him back." The cat paused to sniff, his whiskers flaring. "I need a wizard to change him back."

"Hm." Howl began to pace thoughtfully, his sleeves swinging. "Your friend is a wizard, then?"

"He'll tell you so at every opportunity," the cat replied, "but I have my doubts."

"Plausible," Howl agreed. "Now, about the payment –"

"As a wealthy storekeeper, my friend will of course be glad to pay you from his shop funds," the cat said swiftly.

"As a mighty wizard, I would expect half my fee first," Howl said just as fast.

"As a cat of the utmost probity, my word is my bond," the cat said.

"I'm sure you can easily find another wizard to de-transform your friend," Howl said with his pleasantest smile. "I won't detain you."

The cat sniffed, flicked the tip of his tail, and sniffed again. "The fee to be paid in part in trade goods at the current retail price."

"Fifty per cent of the fee," Howl said, "and at supplier rates, not retail."

The cat licked his nose, then said briskly, "Agreed. Will you be able to commence treatment at once?"

"Certainly," Howl said, with a mental note that at once meant after I have finished seeing to my hair. "Where is the unfortunate individual?"

"In that cupboard over there," the cat said, indicating the direction of Howl's hair dye cupboard with a flirt of his tail.

Howl flung himself across the room and wrenched the cupboard door open, with a great flapping of sleeves and a cry of mortal agony.

The fluffy little grey kitten inside the cupboard looked up from the pot of gel which he was investigating. "Mew?" he said harmlessly.

"Out of there," Howl snarled. He picked the kitten up by the back of its neck, and held it dangling in mid-air, staring into its eyes.

"Mew," the kitten said again.

"Don't give me that," Howl snapped. "Both you and I know perfectly well that you are currently fully intelligent."

"Really?" the kitten said. "That is, meow." He brought his paws up to hide his nose, peering from behind them. "I am but a humble shopkeeper, a mere toiler on the path of knowledge, and while unfortunate fate has cast me in my current position –"

"I did tell him that it was a personal magic," the cat said from behind Howl, "but would he listen? Nooooo."

"—I lament the necessity that has caused me to cause you unnecessary work," the kitten finished, ignoring the cat. "So very sorry."

"Your apology is accepted but won't get you a refund," Howl said firmly. "Kind words butter no parsnips."

"Hm." The kitten put its paws together in a cute little begging gesture. "Well, as long as you aren't going to bankrupt me. Life is hard on the small businessman. I don't suppose I could persuade you to take some of it out in trade? I have a couple of helpful young people who owe me large favours."

Howl considered that. He did in fact have a number of jobs which required the donkey-work of unskilled labour, and that it would be a waste of talent to use Michael for. "Are they reliable?" he asked.

"Totally," the kitten said. "Hard-working, obliging, sincere, devoted, maybe a small tendency to backtalk and a lack of a sense of humour, but that can easily be ignored."

"Fair enough," Howl said. "I'll evaluate the portion of your bill that they cover once I've actually seen them on the job."

"Kuchiki-kun and Kurosaki-kun may have a word or two to say about this," the cat said warningly.

"Nonsense," the kitten said. "I made it quite clear that after using my photo in that wretched lolcats business –"

The cat fluffed up and spat.

"Yes, precisely. I believe the saying is that they owe me one. And I owe Wizard Howl one. Therefore, in the vernacular and following this inescapable trail of logic –"

"They owe me one," Howl finished his sentence. "Perfectly good logic. Now please hold still while I analyse this enchantment on you."

The kitten stayed as still as most kittens would have, which is to say that he wiped gel off his whiskers, wriggled, and pounced at the end of Howl's sleeve.

"Reflexes," he apologised, as Howl raised his arm with the kitten swinging off the sleeve. His voice was muffled, since he was chewing on the silk. "Terribly sorry. Yoruichi, I have no idea how you manage to cope with all these –"

"Will it make you work any faster if I double the fee?" the cat asked Howl.

"Yoruichi!" The kitten fell, rolled, got up, and began to wash his nose. "That's my money you're throwing away!"

"Incentivising," the cat said smugly.

"If anyone here will kindly allow me to get a word in edgeways," Howl said, focusing on calm cool deliberation, "I believe I can remove the spell right here and now. It's a comparatively simple matter."

"Please go right ahead," the kitten said. "I can't tell you how grateful I am to you for sorting this out –"

Howl gestured, calling on Calcifer's power, and spoke a Word. Light thrummed around the kitten in a power chord of transmutation, and the air rippled and shuddered. Over to one side, he saw the cat covering his head with his paws.

There was a small, triumphant boom.

Where the kitten had been sprawling, a man now stood. He was dressed in shades of green and white, and a hat half hid his eyes. It was probably deliberate. He impressed Howl as being significantly untrustworthy.

"As I was saying," the man said, "thank you so very much. I'll be sending payment as soon as I'm back to my home dimension."

Howl had heard that one before. "I'm sure that you could manage a deposit here and now," he hinted.

"Alas," the man said deftly, "I don't have any money in these pockets. But I'll pay my part of the deal, don't worry. Now what was it? Fifty per cent in service, fifty per cent in trade goods . . ."

Howl looked down his nose at the man, then turned to the cat. "Fifty per cent cash, fifty per cent partly trade goods at wholesale price, partly services, as I remember it."

The cat sighed, and lifted one shoulder in a delicate display of unconcern. "Yes, that was the deal. I apologise for Urahara's poor memory –"

"Have no fear," Urahara said. He stooped to pick up the cat, cradling it in his arms. "I'll have it all to you by tomorrow."

"I do hope so," Howl said. "Because there's one thing I should mention."

Urahara was raising a hand, probably to begin a transportation spell, when that got through to him. "Oh? What would that be?"

Howl lifted his own hand. A flicker of light glimmered in it. "There is a small possibility that the spell might reinvert. I would be greatly distressed, of course, if you were suddenly to turn back into a kitten again in front of – now who would it be in front of?"

"The Captain Commander of the Gotei 13," the cat suggested helpfully. "Or possibly a large number of school-age girls with ribbons and flowers."

Urahara's mouth curled into a smile of blinding sincerity. "Payment tomorrow, I think I was saying?"

"Payment today would be even better," Howl suggested.

"Of course," Urahara said. "Far be it from me to contradict you. I'll be back in just a few minutes . . ."

He vanished with the cat.

Howl let the flicker of light between his fingers fade away. Of course there wasn't any remnant of the spell left. He was a professional, after all.

But he'd had customers like that before. Shining dishonesty like his could recognise another sparkling example.