I smell the city before I see it . . .
All cities look the same to me. There are the dirty streets, the trunks of buildings, and the wet, dark world underneath. But no other place smells like this one. I breath in the familiar scent and feel my whiskers twitching in pleasure. Familiar is safe, and safe is –- though it has been a long time since I have had to worry about safe or not safe. I'm strong now, and the others can smell it on me. The smell of strength is something to respect.
Next to me, the girl who is mine, Lena, is skipping. From time to time she pulls out a small shining rectangle and holds it high to the sun. This is Lena's smell of strength. The other humans respect it.
Lena is quiet this morning. I think she is missing the other human, who stayed in the town when we left. I let Lena keep to her silence; most times in life do not require words.
We reach Lena's home as the sun is beginning to set. Her parents welcome her back with hugs and she tells them excitedly about the victory we won together. Just thinking of it is enough to make my whiskers curl with satisfaction.
We eat our fill. Lena is tired from the long walk and falls asleep right away. At my place by her side, I curl into a ball, feeling drowsy.
Suddenly a sound jolts me awake. I listen intently – yes, a faint rustling is coming from the kitchen. The sound is not the sound of Lena, asleep at my side, or the sounds of her parents. It must be the sound of an intruder. Alert now, I pad my way to the kitchen silently.
A pokemon is on one of the counters. Under the moonlight, her gray fur is turned silver. She has knocked open a cabinet and is scrabbling through it with her paws.
"Thief!" I shout, the cry sharp and cutting.
The thief stops abruptly. Her tail unwinds into the air, tense and straight.
I bare my teeth threateningly. She has sharp claws like the purrloin that would harass us when we chanced to go above-ground, but I'm strong now and don't need to fear her thin body or weak claws.
Anyway, she makes no move to attack. She can smell my well-fed scent, the rich oil of my fur. I don't have patches in my coat, and hunger no longer makes my teeth break.
She drops to all fours and her body tenses – she is going to try and run.
Not on my watch . . .
There is loud, clumsy movement from behind me. The household must have been woken by my cry. Lena comes in first. She moves slowly, her body heavy with sleep. I feel anger course through me, that this intruder has disturbed Lena's sleep.
"What's going on, Champ?" Lena says.
Thief, I tell her, in simple words that I know she will understand. Stealing food. Bad pokemon.
"A glameow," says another voice – Lena's mother. "A stray by the looks of it. Poor thing must be starving."
Yes, starving. The glameow's fur has grown out in irregular tuffs. Her scent is of hunger and desperation.
Lena steps forward and the glameow darts to the open window. They left it open to let in some air on this hot night. So that's how she slipped in, the thief!
"Wait!" Lena says. She opens the cold box where the food is stored and takes out some stew. Even cold, the thick savory scent fills the air, and my mouth fills with saliva. The glameow smells it too. She remains perched on the window-sill, her mouth hanging slightly open.
Lena takes a few slow steps forward. So she means to give food to the thief . . .
The glameow watches. Entranced by the scent of the food, she does not run.
"Here," Lena says, laying down the stew where the glameow was eating before. "You can have this, okay?"
The glameow stares.
"She said, it's yours," I growl. The glameow looks at me with wide eyes. Then, slowly, she walks over to the bowl of stew. She dips her head down and hastily starts to eat, jerking up warily every few seconds as if expecting a sudden attack.
Lena watches the glameow eat with a strange expression. I decide she is very sad, though I am not sure why.
Lena's mother sighs. "Sweet of you, darling, but it'll come back every night now. You never just feed a stray once."
"Sorry," Lena says, still watching the glameow.
Her mother sighs again, gives her a quick hug, and heads back to bed.
Lena sits on the floor and I hop into her lap, sensing that she needs comfort.
"I wish I could feed every stray," she whispers suddenly, sounding choked.
"Then you would have no food," I tell her. Why did that thief come here? I think, angry that Lena is sad. Why did she not go looking in the dumpsters by the restaurants? That's where they toss out full meals.
"Listen, thief," I rumble quietly, so that only the glameow can hear me. "Don't come back. There's not enough here to feed another mouth. You're taking the food out of her mouth – she's letting you, but I won't. Come back here and I'll tear you apart."
The glameow freezes. She looks up with her strange bright eyes. "I understand," she mews softly.
"What did you say, Champ?" Lena asks.
"I just explained how the world works," I say. We are lucky, but only just. The glameow is not lucky. She shouldn't try to be stealing our luck.
I can tell that Lena doesn't quite understand what I said. She nods, and rubs my back in a familiar, comforting motion.
The next night Lena sits up for a while, waiting for the glameow to come back, but eventually she slips into sleep. I don't. I wait, hoping I do not need to make good on my promise, but the night passes and the glameow does not return.
Good, I think, though something tugs at my chest even as I think it.
A few nights later, I am again awakened by a sound. The thief! Warm anger fills my blood. I slip into the kitchen, and am not surprised to see the glameow, bent over the counter.
"I told you –" I growl quietly. I do not want to wake up Lena.
The glameow starts, and the object in her mouth falls onto the counter. It's a paper bag, with a delicious scent emanating from it.
"I'm not here to steal," the glameow says frantically. "Here." She pushes the bag towards me with a paw. "Here, it's for her. It's thank you."
Her chin is crusty with saliva. She takes in deep breaths of the scent, as if that's enough to fill her stomach. She's so hungry.
I remember hungry. I remember how hungry used to tear apart my stomach every night.
"It's thank you," the glameow repeats. "I'll go now. I won't come back."
Turning away from the food, she bends her legs to jump up to the window.
"Wait," I say roughly.
She looks back at me with eyes that are dull and clouded by hunger.
I jump up onto the counter and approach her slowly.
"Your coat is dirty," I say. "Don't you have anyone to groom it?"
"I'm alone here," she tells me simply. "My littermates didn't survive the cold."
I remember the cold. I remember huddling with the other rattatta in a frantic clump. When it was cold, the fighting ceased. We lay against each other blindly, seeking warmth.
"I was sleeping next to my sister," the glameow says. She sounds dazed, as if she has forgotten I am here. "I woke up because she was so cold next to me. I started to lick her, but she was cold all through. And she didn't say anything after that . . ."
Warmth, I think. Food is for the lucky ones, but we should all have warmth . . .
"Lie down," I tell her. She complies without a word. She's tired; it's probably a relief to sink down onto the counter.
I start to groom her.
Her fur is thin and stiff. When I lick too hard, I nearly choke on a mouthful of hair.
"What are you doing?" she says sleepily. I don't answer.
Her fur tastes like oil and grime. There's so little of it.
At some point, she falls asleep. Her back begins to rise and fall in irregular, jerky motions. When I finish, it has been a long time. I am tired too, and though her fur is lank and course, she is still warm to the touch . . .
I wake up with a start. The sun hasn't come up yet; the sky outside is a dark gray. Lena's mother moves quietly through the kitchen, putting a pan on the stove, taking various dishes out of the cabinets. She fills a bowl with milk and sets it down a few inches from me. I realize that the glameow is still curled up under me. During sleep we must have shifted – one of her paws rests protectively over my side.
I don't decide. I simply know, then, that she is mine, just as Lena is mine.
I nuzzle her gently to wake her up. She opens her eyes slowly, blinking.
I let out a quiet click. "Food," I tell her. "Breakfast."
I learned that word from Lena. Breakfast is the food that comes when the sun rises. Lunch is the food for when the sun is high in the sky. Dinner is for when the sun sets. It's a wonderful thing, to eat with the sun.
"For me?" she asks cautiously, flicking her tail.
I push her towards the bowl in response. She laps the milk up wearily at first. Then, as if crossing some invisible line, her reserve breaks, and she is gulping the milk down without pausing for breath. I watch her eat, feeling as if I am eating too. Just watching her seems to fill me up.
The glameow finishes her meal. She licks her paws and then carefully washes her face. Her movements have a grace they didn't have last night. Even the way she holds herself is different – lighter.
Suddenly she goes still, and turns to face me. "I can't pay it back . . ." she says, trailing off.
"You don't need to," I tell her. "I was selfish. We have enough to spare. I was forgetting – "
"Forgetting?" She stares at me, perplexed.
" – a human child who rubbed my back and gave me something to eat. So I brought her an item another human threw away, and that was thanks, but it wasn't an end. It didn't stop like that. And then a time came when it stopped mattering who did what first, or what was given, or what was taken, do you see?"
"I think so," she says quietly.
Just then, Lena walks in, rubbing her eyes. "Hey Mom, did you see where Champ got to – " She breaks off, noticing me on the counter. "Oh. Hey." She starts to smile. "Glameow, you came back!"
Instantly, the glameow rushes over to the paper bag she brought and pushes against it with a paw.
"For us?" Lena asks. "Thank you." She holds out a cautious hand to Glameow, who sniffs at it tentatively and then nuzzles her. Lena smiles, and goes to help her mother prepare breakfast.
Glameow watches her for a while. She's thinking about something – I can tell by the way her tail coils up tight.
"Listen," I say, nudging her. She looks at me curiously, and I falter. This isn't a question I've thought to ask before.
My whiskers give a nervous twitch, and then I say: "Do you want to be warm every night?"
Glameow's eyes widen. She glances from me to Lena. "Is it – " She hesitates. "Is it allowed?"
"Lena," I say. The girl who is mine looks up at the sound of her name. I flick my tail over Glameow and think about how to say it so the girl can understand me. "You are mine. And I am yours. And this one here – she should be ours."
It takes a moment, but when Lena comes closer I see that she has understood me. "You want to come with us?" Lena says slowly. "Champ and I travel all around, you know."
"That's true," I say. "We fight battles together." I look at the glameow's thin body doubtfully and add, "You would not need to fight battles."
She narrows her eyes and straightens her tail. "I could fight."
"When your claws have grown hard," I tell her. "Then you can fight."
She stares at me through her narrow eyes, and I bare my own teeth in response. Lena puts out a hand and then pulls it back, watching us nervously. At last the glameow relaxes her tail and says, "When my claws have grown hard I will fight."
I rub my cheek against hers to show her that I am not upset. "You must drink more milk so that your claws will grow hard soon. And I will tell you all about the great victory that Lena and I have won together."
All through breakfast, Lena and I tell Glameow about our battle. I notice that Lena is growing quiet as her Mom takes the dirty dishes away.
"We should train a little," Lena says suddenly. Her voice sounds strange - thin and high. "Uh, you shouldn't come, Glameow, 'cause you need to save your strength."
I follow Lena outside, wondering what we are going to do. But Lena does not tell me her plan, the way she usually does when we train. Instead she sits down on the steps and pulls me onto her lap.
"I like Glameow," Lena says. "A lot. But, it's just -" Her voice is wobbling and I can smell her distress. "It's just a bit weird," she says finally, burying her face in my fur. "This whole time it's just been you and me. And now it won't be."
I lick her cheek, making her giggle. "For a long time, I was alone," I remind her. "Then you came, and I was not, and it was better."
Lena nods, but she doesn't say anything. I think about food and warmth, and wonder if I can explain it.
But there is no need. When night comes, we curl up in bed, all together.
I drift into sleep, feeling warm . . .
END OF PART ONE
a/n: A huge shout-out to Gerbilfriend who drew some lovely fanart of Lena.
The link is in my profile, since this website eats links.