The first thing that Eric did when he got home was to check to make sure that everything of Sookie’s was back in place as he needed it to be. He breathed a sigh of relief to find that it was.
Courtesy of Bobby’s forethought, a new phone had been delivered to the building that morning, and the SID card from Eric’s old phone had been moved to it. He answered as it rang.
“Will you be ready in fifteen minutes?” Henry asked.
“Yes,” Eric answered and then hung up.
He went to the kitchen—as far away from the bug as he could get—and called Octavia Fant, who was the woman from whom Sookie and he were getting their kitten. Sookie had heard about Octavia through Amelia. Octavia was, according to Amelia, an “eccentric,” and for Amelia to say something like that about someone else was pretty significant.
Octavia ran a very small and specialized animal rescue and adoption service. In particular, she would rescue pregnant female cats that were due to be euthanized by the animal shelter in her area. She would care for the cats and their kittens until the babies were weaned. Then she would find homes for all of them. Her service had become quite popular, so Sookie and Eric had been on a waitlist until their kitten had been born seven weeks before. Sookie and he had been the last in line to get a kitten from the litter, so they’d not picked their pet. All they knew was that the kitten was a boy and that he was yellow and white. Like expectant parents, they were anxious to meet him.
Eric asked Octavia if there was any way that he and Sookie could pick up the kitten that afternoon, despite the fact that they’d been told to come the next Sunday. He explained to the woman that he had a good reason and left it at that. The elder woman agreed since she was planning on completing the kittens’ weaning process that same day.
Their kitten—Sookie’s long-awaited birthday gift—would be coming home!
Eric sighed. He and Sookie had had a long discussion about where to put the litter box and had finally decided on the bathroom in the guest bedroom. Sookie had set things up the previous week when he’d had to spend long hours at the office with the Chinese delegation. He took a minute to ready the kitten’s food and water dishes in the kitchen before making sure that the litter box was filled.
While he was in the guest bathroom, he got a text from Henry, telling him that the office bug was now officially “listening.” Eric took a deep breath and went into his office. He made a point to shuffle a few papers before picking up the house phone. He dialed Liang’s number first; it didn’t take Eric long to find out that the Chinese delegation had everything they required. That done, he dialed Amelia even as he pulled the script Bobby had come up with from his pocket.
It had taken all the acting skills that Eric possessed to pretend to be affectionate with a woman other than Sookie when he left Amelia’s brownstone that morning—though he’d flat out refused the suggestion that they kiss. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Amelia; it just seemed wrong to even touch a woman other than Sookie now. Even when Isabel had taken his hand the night before, he’d had to refrain from his instinct to pull away from his friend.
But he’d done what he needed to do. He’d given Amelia a long hug outside of her home and he’d even nuzzled her neck a little—just as they’d planned. But that was all he’d been able to do before his kissed her cheek and left in a cab. His only consolation was that he was positive that Sigebert had been snapping pictures of it all.
“You miss me already?” Amelia answered the phone in a sultry tone.
“You know I do,” Eric replied huskily, trying to read his line like he meant it. All of his years of hiding his true feelings aided him greatly. “Why don’t you come over tonight?” he asked. “That new blond hair of yours makes me want to do all kinds of things to you—naughty things.”
“Don’t you think you were naughty enough last night?” she asked coyly. “I mean—I can’t believe you went to a party with Isabel and then came over and fucked me—twice.”
Eric chuckled. “I didn’t go to a party; it was here. And don’t tell me you’re jealous of Isabel.”
“No,” Amelia laughed.
“So—tonight?” Eric asked.
“How about 9:00?”
“I can’t wait,” she said hanging up.
Eric ended his call, left the office, and then texted Henry. Within a minute, Henry was calling him.
“The bug’s signal is being intercepted again. You can come down the stairs of the fire escape. Blake’s waiting in the garage with his car. ‘The Bert’ is across the street monitoring the front entrance and the garage exit. So just duck on your way out.”
“Thanks Henry,” Eric said.
“Don’t mention it. Sookie’s waiting.”
Eric and Sookie had chosen the number of the gallery they would visit the previous morning—before she’d left for Amelia’s house in Brooklyn. But now that seemed like a very long time ago.
It was before Appius had Nora put a bug into Eric’s office.
It was before Appius had Eric followed.
It was before Eric and Amelia had been forced to practically make out on Amelia’s front stoop!
Sookie smiled softly. It was also before Eric told her that he was willing to change his whole life for her.
It was before he made clear that she was his priority.
It was before they talked about staying together for the rest of their lives.
It was before he asked her to marry him.
It was before they decided they wanted to have children together.
It was before she knew that her life with Eric would continue.
It was before she knew that love and happiness would continue to fill her existence.
Yes. So much had happened since they’d picked that day’s gallery.
“You look beautiful,” Eric said from behind her.
She turned around to face him.
“Hey you,” she said, smiling up at him as he bent down to kiss her softly on the lips.
“What have you seen so far?” he asked.
“I just got here. I was waiting for you,” she responded as she looked around Gallery 135, which was full of facsimiles of paintings from ancient Egypt. There were also two large sculptures, both of which depicted the goddess Sakhmet, who had the head of a lioness.
Eric and Sookie explored at a leisurely pace. Most Sundays, they walked apart, meandering in and out of each other’s path, but that Sunday, they kept their hands tightly linked and walked through the gallery together.
“I have a surprise for later,” Eric said with a boyish grin after they were done “discovering” the gallery.
“Oh?” she asked, enjoying his easy grin and the light in his eyes. “You wanna tell me over lunch?”
He nodded and led them out of the gallery. As always, they visited the place where they’d first kissed, Gallery 823, before leaving to grab their lunch.
“So what’s the surprise?” Sookie asked as they made their way to the Great Lawn with their food.
“I called Octavia, and the kitten’s ready to come home!”
Sookie squealed a little.
“I thought you’d be excited,” Eric smiled.
Sookie rose up to her tiptoes and kissed him. “I thought we had to wait until next week.”
“I told Octavia that we had a good reason for wanting the kitten early, and she said that he’s pretty much weaned and ready for action.”
“How will we get him home? We don’t have our carrier with us.”
Eric smiled again. “I brought it with me to the museum. Ben’s holding it.”
Sookie smiled widely. “I can’t believe we’re gonna have a kitten today!”
“Yeah,” Eric said. “I know it sounds a little cheesy, but after yesterday, I just didn’t want to wait for any part of our life to begin.”
“That is cheesy, Mr. Northman, but I like it,” she said leaning in to embrace him.
Eric reveled in his Sundays with Sookie at the MET and in Central Park. They seemed sacred to him—a kind of church that fed his soul more than any religion he’d ever known. And—ironically—it was through them that he had begun to believe that God might really be out there, watching over him after such a long absence from his life.
As they always did on Sundays, Eric and Sookie had spent most of the morning looking through that day’s gallery. Then they’d had lunch in the park. That day—it had been hotdogs from their favorite vendor.
Eric’s favorite part of Sundays—by far—had become their time in the park, especially after they ate. Sookie had taken to bringing a thin blanket in her backpack, and they would lie on the ground if the weather permitted. Sookie would always prop herself up on her side so that she could write, and Eric would lie curled up so that his head was resting on the comfortable valley created above her hips. He especially enjoyed how she would unconsciously play with his hair as she gathered her thoughts. And he would often drift away into a nap.
After Sookie was done with her notes, they would return to the MET, chat with Ben and his crew for a while, and then go back to that day’s gallery, where Sookie and he would talk about what they liked and disliked as they walked around the room again. Then—as always—Sookie would take her single picture to capture the piece that most struck her.
About two months before, Eric had finally told Sookie about the betting pool among Ben’s crew, but instead of feeling self-conscious, Sookie had just laughed about it, and then—in typical Sookie fashion—she’d begun to bring a fresh-baked bag of cookies to the previous week’s winner, thereby endearing herself to Ben’s crew even more.
Yes. Eric loved their Sunday routine very much, but on that particular Sunday, they were both anxious to leave the museum a little early because they wanted to go get the newest member of their family.
Still, Sookie went through her process—though in a somewhat abbreviated form—recording the parts of the interesting gallery that she wanted to remember.
“There are a lot of cats in here,” Eric observed as they walked around the gallery one final time.
Sookie giggled. “I know, after you told me we were getting the kitten today, I noticed that there were tons of cats in here—including these!” She pointed to the two large sculptures of Sakhmet.
Eric chuckled. “We could name the kitten Sakhmet.”
“But he’s a boy, and Sakhmet is a goddess’s name,” Sookie reminded.
“True,” Eric observed. “Then—we should name him after your favorite today,” he said with a mischievous grin.
“And you think you know my favorite today?” she asked with a challenging lilt to her voice.
“Well—I know I have a favorite, and our favorites usually match up.”
She walked over to him and embraced him. “So? What’s his name gonna be then?”
“Ned,” Eric answered confidently.
“Ned?” Sookie asked, looking around in confusion.
“Yeah,” Eric said as he walked them over to a facsimile of a yellow striped cat. The facsimile was called “Cat Killing a Serpent”; it was from the Tomb of Sennedjem.
Sookie looked at the facsimile carefully. Indeed, it was the one she’d chosen for her favorite piece of the day. Even before she’d known about the impending arrival of the new member of their family, she’d been drawn to the image of the strong cat killing the serpent. Though the story behind the facsimile was not included in the museum’s description of the piece, Sookie had recently copy-edited a book on Egyptian lore, and the story of the cat depicted in the facsimile had struck her then.
The tale of the cat and the serpent was from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Ra, the sun god, took the form of a cat in order to destroy Apep, the spirit of darkness and destruction, who was hell-bent on stealing the light of the sun. In his jealousy, Apep, the snake, wanted to punish the well-loved Ra—which would, in turn, punish anyone who loved the light; he literally wanted to encircle the world and squeeze until it was only an empty, crushed shell. Apep was also unique among ancient Egyptian deities in that he could not be reasoned with; his evil consumed him. So he wanted to consume all good.
Sookie shivered a little. The facsimile had stood out to her from the moment she’d walked into the room. Eric called her “min sol” or “my sun” sometimes, but he was also the thing that most lit her own life. And she certainly viewed Appius as evil incarnate. She sighed. Appius was even more evil in her eyes because he focused seemingly all of his spite at his son, while pouring affection onto his other children, especially Nora. Her own mother, Michelle, had done the same when it came to Jason. Sookie often wondered how a parent could love one child so much and seemingly despise the other.
Yes. The story portrayed in the facsimile was appropriate, given Appius’s most recent actions. However, when Eric had told her about getting their kitten that day, her choice had been solidified in her mind.
Sookie stared at the caption of the facsimile for a minute before she giggled. Looking at the name “Sennedjem,” who was the occupant of the tomb where the painting had been found, she saw the word “ned” in the middle.
“Definitely Ned,” she said, taking out her camera and snapping her picture.
There were seven kittens in the litter that Ned belonged to, but their kitten stood out to Eric and Sookie from the moment they stepped into the room where Octavia was keeping Ned and his siblings. For one thing, he seemed to latch onto Sookie and Eric right away—quite literally. In fact, the little kitten seemed part dare-devil as his launched himself onto Eric’s jeans and began to climb the long way up his leg.
“Just be careful that he doesn’t do that on your bare legs,” Octavia chuckled. “You got a scratching post like I suggested—right?”
“Yes,” Sookie answered as she scooped little Ned off of Eric’s jeans once he’d reached his mid-thigh. “He’s so cute!” she exclaimed as she petted the purring ball of fur. “I can’t believe he wasn’t the first one picked.”
Octavia chuckled. “He was the runt of the litter, and he was a little withdrawn from the others when he was younger—though you wouldn’t know it now. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t encourage you two to come and meet him when he was younger. For the first two weeks or so, I wasn’t sure he’d make it, but he’s been thriving lately.” She winked at them, “And—as you can see—he’s now the little extrovert, especially with people. He enjoys playing with his litter-mates, but he seems to enjoy playing with people even more.”
Sookie grinned at the little yellow and white striped kitten that was squirming to get back to the floor. As soon as she put him down, however, he started to climb Eric’s jeans again, much to the delight of both Eric and Sookie.
“Well, he seems to like you two. That’s for sure!” Octavia laughed.
“So—where’s Ned’s mom?” Sookie asked.
Octavia explained that—for the past week—the mother cat had been let into the room only once a day to feed the kittens; otherwise, they were eating kitten food mixed with a little pet milk. Octavia also shared that she’d decided to keep Ned’s mom since she was such a sweet cat. Generally, she found homes for the moms too, but Octavia had become attached to Ned’s mom.
Octavia let Eric carry Ned with them as she led them out to her sunroom, where the mother cat was lazing on a comfortable-looking chair. The cat briefly looked up at them and then immediately laid her head back down as if to pretend that one of her kittens was not in the room.
Octavia chuckled. “If you’d been holding little Ned like that six weeks ago, she would have gotten very agitated. However, when the kittens start to get sharp teeth, the momma cats start to prefer being away from their offspring.” She chuckled a little louder. “Bailey here complains every time I make her go see them now, but she was a really good momma until her milk started drying up. Today will be the last time I put her with them. Would you like to see Ned nurse for the last time?”
“Sure!” Sookie said as she stroked Ned’s soft fur. He was currently sprawled out on his back in Eric’s large hands; he looked as if he wanted to play and to sleep at the same time.
Octavia chuckled as she picked up Bailey. “Your little Ned there sleeps like the dead for most of the day, but he loves to explore when he’s awake. I’m glad that you two have a big house for him to roam in. But I’ll send you home with a water bottle.”
“Water bottle?” Eric asked, as they followed Octavia back to the room where Ned’s litter mates were. Bailey was wiggling with dissatisfaction.
“For my money,” Octavia answered, “the best way to train a kitten not to scratch what you don’t want him to scratch is to squirt him with a little water when he misbehaves.” She entered the room and put Bailey into a little cat bed. Immediately sensing their mother was there, all the other kittens, who had been curled up asleep, popped up and ran over to her like vampires smelling fresh blood.
Octavia laughed, “That’s why Bailey’s tired of them.”
Eric chuckled as Octavia motioned for him to set Ned down near Bailey. Though Ned wasn’t as rabid-seeming as the other kittens, he was excited at the prospect of milk, and it wasn’t long before he was latched on to a teat. Bailey’s expression could only be described as “long-suffering” in that moment.
“Now I always do a little basic training with my kittens to make sure that they behave.” Octavia pointed over to the couch in the room. “For instance, they crawl all over that, but you don’t see any claw marks because I squirt them if they start trying to scratch it. In fact, now all you have to do is shake the bottle, and most of them will stop doing whatever it was that they were doing before.”
“So I assume, then, that we won’t need to give Ned baths?” Eric asked.
“Not unless you like being clawed,” Octavia chuckled. “Most cats hate water, and they keep themselves clean well enough. They are pretty self-sufficient really. A scoop of the litter box each day, and fresh water and food is all he’ll need. I can already tell that y’all are gonna give him plenty of love and spoil him rotten. So he’ll be a happy little lad.”
Sookie smiled. “Will we have to train him to use the litter box?”
“Nope,” Octavia responded. “He’s already trained. Just make sure you show him where the litter box is right when you get home. And I always suggest that you feed the kitten near the litter box—at least at first. It’ll help your Ned to establish his territory. And since he’s a boy, be sure to get him neutered right at four months old. It’s safe then, and he’ll be young enough so that he hasn’t yet felt the need to mark anything. He’d likely not feel the urge to mark his territory anyway, given the fact that you two have never had other pets in your home, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Sookie nodded, even as she took some mental notes. Eric and she had already researched how to care for a kitten, and they’d even found a vet who was close to them and who got great reviews; however, Octavia was giving them some good practical advice.
Bailey seemed to have reached her limit and got up, leaving the kittens in a squirming pile behind her. Quickly she moved toward the door, and Octavia let her out with a chuckle.
“It’ll be best to let his food settle for about half an hour before you take him—so that he won’t get sick on the ride,” Octavia advised, “but if you need to leave now, that’s fine. Otherwise, I can show you around a bit.”
“We’re not in a hurry,” Eric said, looking down at his watch. It was only 4:30 p.m.
“Good!” Octavia said. “I’ll take you around to meet the various cats and kittens I have right now.”
“So—uh—how did you start doing all this?” Sookie asked.
“After my husband died and my kids grew up and left, I had so much excess space that I almost decided to move, but I love this old house. My husband left me well-provided for, and, though I work part-time with Amelia at her shop, I was looking for something else to fill my time.” She smiled a little. “My husband was always bringing in strays, and one day—about six months after he passed away—this pregnant cat showed up on my front stoop. And then things just went from there!”
Sookie smiled. “Amelia said that lots of people come by the store, looking to get one of your kittens.”
“Yes,” Octavia smiled. “I’ve already converted four of the rooms downstairs into what I call ‘kitten stations.’ I try to keep up a rotation so that I have litters at various stages,” she explained, as she led them into a room where there was a pregnant cat sitting in a window seat.
“Wow! She looks like she’s about to pop!” Sookie exclaimed as she reached out and let the cat smell her before petting it. She’d read to do that on a website.
“She is!” Octavia chuckled. “This momma cat’s real sweet. You can feel the babies squirming around in her belly if you want.”
Sookie moved her hand over the cat’s belly and smiled widely. “Oh, my goodness!”
Eric reached out and touched the cat too. A look of awe settled onto his face, especially considering the fact that Sookie and he had talked about children only that morning.
Octavia smiled at the couple. “I go by the animal shelter I work with every two weeks or so and get another pregnant cat. They try to let me take the ones that are closest to their due dates, instead of euthanizing them.”
“It’s awful that they’ll do that!” Sookie said with a frown. Though she understood that the stray animal population needed to be limited, she still felt bad for all the kittens who had been euthanized right along with their mothers.
“Well the man that runs the shelter I work with hates it too, but he has to follow city ordinances. Like I said, he keeps the mothers as long as he can, hoping someone will adopt them, and I try to take the ones like this momma—the ones who are nearing their time and haven’t been adopted yet. I got this little—I mean big—girl only two days ago.”
Next, Octavia led Eric and Sookie to a room across the hall where a litter of four tiny black kittens was lying next to their mother’s warm body; their eyes were still sealed shut. The mother cat, who was also jet black, was bathing them. She hardly looked up from her task to regard her visitors.
“These kittens are only a week old,” Octavia explained. “So the momma cat’s really territorial about them. However, you can pick one up if you want. I try to get the kittens used to human touch.”
Sookie bent down and picked up one of the black kittens. Bending down beside her, Eric also picking one up and stroked the wiggling kitten gently. After a minute or so, the momma cat started to look a little perturbed, so they put the kittens back against her and rose. Immediately, she started rewashing the two returned kittens.
Octavia chuckled. “Momma cats are funny. She’s working on getting your scent off of them right now.” Octavia led Eric and Sookie to one more room; inside was a litter of only two five-week-old kittens.
“If little Ned hadn’t made it, this would have been your litter,” Octavia said with a smile. “As you know, I put people on a waitlist and they get the litter they get. Otherwise, they’d all clamor for kittens like these.”
“These are Persians—right?” Sookie asked, looking at the long-haired kittens.
“Yep,” Octavia returned. “And they’re pretty coveted. Usually I don’t get pure breeds like this; however, this momma cat was brought into the pound when she was already extremely pregnant. In fact, the manager of the shelter called me and asked that I come get her right away. Thankfully, I had an empty room because she had her litter that very night!”
“Well they’re cute,” Eric said, “but I’m glad we got Ned. These have,” he paused, “smashed noses. They look like something Sophie-Anne would want.”
Sookie giggled. “I agree, but they are cute. Of course, I think all kittens are pretty cute.”
Octavia smiled and then led Eric and Sookie to her kitchen where she offered them some iced tea and went over some information with them. She didn’t charge a fee for the kitten; however, she did take donations, which she used to keep up her service and to pay her granddaughter to help her with the cats. Octavia said that she would take any amount that they wanted to give, but her eyes grew momentarily wide when she read the number on the check Eric had given her.
Octavia talked to Eric and Sookie about the shots she would suggest for their kitten—though, since Ned wouldn’t be around other animals, she explained that some immunizations weren’t really necessary.
Sookie asked about whether they should let Ned out onto their terrace, and Octavia said that she’d never heard of a cat that had just jumped off of a balcony—like Sookie feared he might. She chuckled and informed them that cats’ instincts and intelligence kept them from jumping anywhere unless they saw a good landing spot. She did suggest that they wait to take him outside until he was a little older, but that he’d be okay out there and would likely enjoy sunning himself outdoors. She also suggested that they plant a pot of cat grass for him to enjoy when he was outside.
When Sookie shared her fear that Ned might get hurt trying to get into the elevator, Octavia suggested that they use the spray bottle to train him to stay away from it if he seemed overly curious. She assured that he would learn soon enough.
Their business and chatting complete, Octavia led them back to the room where Ned and his litter were being kept. Eric and Sookie had bought a fabric carrying case for him since it had a soft bed inside, and—as Eric had been instructed—there was a towel in there too. The kittens, all curled together in what looked to be a milk coma, were sleeping soundly, so Octavia carefully lifted Ned and tucked him into the carrier. The kitten barely stirred.
“I know you’ll enjoy him,” Octavia smiled as she led Sookie and Eric to the door and handed Sookie a bag with a couple of cans of soft kitten food, some pet milk, an empty water bottle, and some brochures. There were several other identical bags on the table, so Sookie knew that each new set of “parents” got one, but she thought it was a nice gesture nonetheless, and she hugged Octavia and thanked her profusely for taking such good care of the newest member of her and Eric’s little family.
A/N: Well—it’s late here, but I got you a third chapter for the week! I figured that Eric and Sookie could use a chapter with a little less stress, although we had a little at the beginning. I also wanted to take them back to the MET for a bit.
As you know, I’ll now be moving to Uninvited for the next week or so. But TtF will return the week after that.
Thanks so much for all your wondering comments about this story! I appreciate all the “alerts,” “favorites,” etc.