He hadn't been human in so long.

He didn't know the passage of time. It was harder for him to tell, as the dog. He still had his mind in here, but it was easier to let things go in this form. That was why he stayed like this. It hurt, but it wasn't as bad this way. The pain was an old wound, when you were a dog. An ache for a master who wasn't there. It wasn't like being human and feeling every second that you would lose your mind if the grief kept battering away like this.

And he had something to protect, after all. That was easier when he was a dog, too.

She still annoyed him when they moved into their human forms. It was better when they stayed like this, covered in fur and unable to speak much. It was mostly myth that cats and dogs couldn't get along, after all. So long as they stayed in these forms, it was easy. Just stick together, huddle close at night for warmth when they had to sleep out in the open. Sometimes they staged elaborate diversions to distract the humans so they could snag good food. He refused to eat the stuff that she dragged out of dumpsters. Just because he was a dog didn't mean he had to eat that.

In truth, they were both going hungry more often than not. It would have been easier to get food if they got out of the city. But they would never leave the city. All the information was here. It was here they could shadow members of Sceptre 4 and listen to what they said. It was here they could creep around the old bar where the Reds had gathered, and try to hear what the ones who were left had to say. A new Red king hadn't arisen yet, and some of them had gone, but most had lingered. They didn't have anywhere else to go, most of them.

Just like the two of them, he mused. They had nowhere else to go, either. And nowhere they wanted to go, not without their king.

He was dozing beside the back stoop of a restaurant, warming himself in a patch of sunlight while Neko picked through the garbage, trying to find something edible. It had been a hard night, and he was tired. He'd spent most of it fighting.

There were other strays in the city, although they were only simple animals and not like the two of them. But that didn't make them less dangerous. You had to avoid the territory of other dogs, obviously, and he understood that. It was the cats, mostly. They all went for Neko all the time. She was small and her illusions didn't really work that well on animals. She didn't know much about fighting physically.

So when the other females tried to tussle with her, or even worse, when the toms came and tried to pin her down and have their way with her, it was him that had to stop it. Last night he'd fought with some old grizzled tomcat of massive size. It must have weighed twenty-five pounds, and it knew how to fight like the street veteran it was. It had been confused, at first, and wary, wondering why a dog would step between a cat and the female he wanted, and Kuroh had thought he could chase him off by barking. The thing got very offended by that and lashed out, and the fight had lasted for what seemed like forever. Kuroh had won, in the end. But his face and ears and neck were oozing with wounds uncounted, and he was very tired.

Neko gave up on the garbage, since it was all from last night and had turned bad. They'd wait and see if someone opened the back door and they could rush in and grab something and rush back out while the people were still confused. She nuzzled up to him and purred her gratitude, her eyes big and soft. She seemed fine, and that made the pain all right. It was for Shiro's sake he looked after her, but he was beginning to think she wasn't so bad after all.

She started delicately licking at his ears, cleaning the wounds. Her tongue was raspier than a dog, and so small, and it tickled unbearably. But he bore it, because she wanted to say thank you, and because his wounds needed cleaning anyway. She moved on to his face, and that was a little less ticklish. He closed his eyes and sighed and tried to sleep.

They heard footsteps and Neko immediately planted herself in front of him, hissing and spitting to give him time to stagger up and shake off his drowsiness. Humans were generally not good news. They didn't like stray animals. Mostly it was just shouting and the occasional kick, but once someone had thrown water all over him, and he'd been cold all the rest of the day because it was cloudy and he couldn't get dry, and then once someone had tried to hit Neko with a broom. He'd gotten clocked in the head trying to rescue her, and he'd felt sick and disoriented for hours.

This human, though, seemed different. He'd slipped out the back door and sat down on the stoop next to them and he just smiled at Neko like he understood her hissing fury. He was tall and trim and had brown hair, and seemed to be tired. He was wearing an apron that was damp and stained.

"It's a nice day, isn't it?" he said to them, smiling. He turned his face up toward the sun and basked in it for a moment. "I was always so hidden away that I forgot it could be nice to work with your hands and just enjoy some nice weather."

His hands were chapped. Kuroh figured he was a dishwasher for the restaurant. A humble job, but he seemed happy. It was still puzzling that he was talking to them, though. Especially around restaurants, the humans got upset about stray animals. This one seemed glad of their company. Neko had stopped spitting at him and sank down warily to sit beside Kuroh.

He was odd, this one. The feeling was growing more and more with each passing second. He wasn't just a dishwasher at a restaurant. He had such a proud bearing and such far-reaching eyes.

A shudder rippled through him. He hoped the man didn't see it. Neko felt it, and turned her face up to his with a puzzled mew. He ignored her.

"I don't really know what I want to do, now I've got a new body," the man said conversationally. "I can only bide my time for so long. No Red King, no Colourless King . . . I suppose I've just got to wait until they appear, and then I'll know what to do."

His eyes had been watching the clouds, but now they flicked cunningly to Neko and Kuroh. The fur on his neck bristled up.

"You're waiting too, I expect," he said casually. "You haven't lost your mission, have you? You'll want to judge the new King. I do admire your faithfulness."

So he did know. Kuroh wasn't sure what he ought to do now. He'd been caught out by the Silver King, but it remained to be seen what the man wanted. He'd rather stay in his dog form until he knew that. It was just . . . Easier. To be a dog. If he was human right now, the sight of that brown hair and different body would be impossible to cope with. As a dog, he could just barely manage it.

"I didn't expect to see the two of you together, though," he mused, and he reached down toward Neko, causing Kuroh to leap up with a snarl and Neko to cringe. Unperturbed, he simply scratched under her chin and smiled softly at her. "It shouldn't surprise me. You must miss him very much. I rather miss him too, if you can believe that."

Adolf Weissman could be a threat, but he didn't seem to want to be. Kuroh was still wary, but only in the general sense that he was always wary of everything. The man was a mystery, and Kuroh did wonder how he'd got this new body, but he wouldn't harm them or try to control them.

His hand moved, reached over Neko to touch the deep gouges the tomcat had left on his snout. They stung. "You had probably better let me clean you up a little. I'm off at five, and you can come with me to my place. It's not much at all, very small, but I think it suits me for now. I can get some food from the kitchen, too. You both look like you haven't been eating well."

They should run away from the Silver King, run without looking back. He was too hard to guess at and he could have plans they'd get caught up in. But then Kuroh felt rather ashamed of himself for his suspicions. The man's eyes were bright and guarded and careful and he was so aloof— Wasn't he terribly, achingly lonely?

"So at least let me give you a good meal and bandage your wounds, if nothing else," the man said in his usual soft tones. "I owe you a great deal."

Kuroh felt himself softening. It wasn't even the same face, and it wasn't him at all, not even remotely the person he was missing, and yet—

Neko mewed happily and ran her body around the man's legs.

"Well, that's settled then," he said with a smile. "Just wait here until five. I'll make sure nobody bothers you. You could even stay with me, if you like," he added, standing up and acting as though it were nothing much. "The two of you. You can stay as animals or as people or whatever suits you. We're all waiting, so we may as well wait together."

As people? Neko might, but he couldn't. But if as a dog . . . It might be okay. It might. They were all waiting. None of them seemed to know what they were waiting for, but maybe if they waited in one place it wouldn't ache so much. Maybe.

Kuroh settled down again beside the stoop as the door closed again and the Silver King went back to washing dishes. Neko batted herself excitedly against his side, but he just closed his eyes to sleep. He didn't want to think anymore right now. He was tired and laying in a patch of warm sunlight and he was a dog, after all.