Chapter 1

"All right, I just want to go over it one more time–"

"Ludwig, it's not necessary, really–"

"His favorite toys are in the shelf next to his bed in the den–"

"Right."

"His food is in labeled containers in the fridge, all you'll have to do is heat it up, and you have his feeding schedule–"

"Might as well be a menu from Francis' restaurant..."

"His litter has been changed, so you don't have to worry about that today."

"Thank goodness."

"And he's still deathly afraid of the dogs, so if you're letting them up from the basement you have to set up the pet gate between the first and second floor, so Gino can stay in our room and the dogs can't go up–"

"We got it, we got it!" Ludwig and Roderich turned to Elizabeta. "Gino and the dogs will be absolutely fine!" She flashed a sunny smile at Ludwig, who nodded.

"I know, I trust you, it's just that–" he glanced at Feliciano; the artist was standing near the open door, holding onto his cat almost as hard as his cat was holding onto him.

"Oh Gino, it'll only be for a few days, we'll be back before you know it, ve!" Feliciano cried, rubbing his tear-stained face against Gino's fur. Gino was sobbing and wailing right back.

"Feliciano, stop that," Ludwig said, though he lowered his voice so as not to sound so harsh, "it's unhygienic, I told you."

"G-Gino is squeaky clean, L-Ludwig, he just had a bath y-yesterday!" Feliciano said between sobs.

"Just because he licked himself does not mean he received a proper bath!" Gino's crying grew louder.

"Feli," Elizabeta said gently, "seriously, we'll take great care of Gino. We love cats. We've been thinking of getting a cat or two ourselves!"

"We have?" Roderich said.

"Now you have to get going, you don't want to miss the exhibition, right?" she continued.

"V-ve..."

"It will be fine," Ludwig said, "given how meticulous Roderich is and his prior experience in caring for the dogs, I am sure they will be able to keep Gino safe and occupied until our return."

"I g-guess... you have our numbers if anything happens, right?" Feliciano sniffed.

"Yes, we do," Roderich said patiently, "and nothing is going to happen to Gino. Now get going, I thought this event was important to you?"

"I-it is, ve..."

"Then here, you're not going to get anywhere if we stand around all day!" Her tone brooking no nonsense, Elizabeta strode up and– after several tugs– pulled Gino off of Feliciano, the cat mewing piteously, paws waving in an attempt to latch back onto his master. Ludwig grasped Feliciano's shoulder and turned him towards the door.

"T-take care of him! G-goodbye, Gino!" Feliciano cried, Ludwig dragging him across the threshold, down the path and to their car. The cat's wails and squirming intensified, but Elizabeta held him fast.

"Bye, Feli! Have a great time!"

"Good luck and congratulations again, Feliciano."

Ludwig stood by the driver's side door. "Thanks again, Roderich, Elizabeta," he called. "I'll call you when we get there."

"No worries, just enjoy yourselves, okay? We'll take great care of the place!" Elizabeta would have waved, but her arms were full of sobbing feline. (Until today, she hadn't known that cats could cry at all.)

The car doors slammed. Feliciano poked his head out, calling over the rumble as Ludwig started the engine. "Bye Elizabeta! Bye Roderich! B-bye, Gino!"

And they were off, Feliciano's voice growing fainter and the white handkerchief he was waving out the window looking ever smaller as the vehicle sped away, further and further, until he couldn't be seen at all.

Roderich sighed as he closed the door. "Whew," Elizabeta said, Gino trembling in her arms. "Ludwig wasn't kidding when he said Feli probably loved Gino more than pasta." The cat tilted his face up at her; somehow, he actually looked peeved.

"It would seem that way," Roderich said, shaking his head.

Elizabeta wandered into the living room, petting the cat absently. "Wow, will you look at this place!"

"Yes, yes, it's very nice; Feliciano must have done the decorating."

Ludwig had given them a very quick tour of the first and second floors before pulling them aside and explaining how to take care of the dogs and cat, and Elizabeta hadn't been able to take in much of the house at all. Now she could walk around and appreciate it; the soaring ceilings, the floors of dark wood, the understated, elegant furniture, and most impressive, the walls dotted with ornately-framed paintings by Feliciano himself – landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and more abstract works. The room was suffused with morning light flooding in from the tall windows. It was hard to imagine that the two had only been living here for a month; Ludwig had unpacked and arranged everything so quickly (with Feliciano directing chirpily from the sidelines). Elizabeta was happy that their friends were doing so well for themselves.

"Well, what would you like to do now?" Roderich's voice interrupted her thoughts.

"Hm? What did you say?" Elizabeta turned away from an oversized oil painting of pasta and wurst. She had continued stroking Gino with her free hand; it seemed to calm him, though the cat was still trembling.

"Well, we're here. Would you like to watch T.V.? Paint, perhaps? Feliciano graciously offered the use of his studio." Gino meowed weakly.

Elizabeta arched one slim eyebrow. "You don't sound very cheerful," she said.

"Forgive my lack of enthusiasm, but as I recall, you were the one who practically tripped over herself volunteering us before I could say a thing, when Ludwig didn't even ask." Roderich had crossed his arms, the little curl of hair he'd nicknamed Mariazell bobbing over his forehead like a wagging finger.

Elizabeta smiled at him placatingly. "Come on, this is Ludwig we're talking about– he never asks anyone for help at all, and for once we can do something nice for him and Feli! And you know, you still owe him for when you broke all those plates at his old place–"

"I told you to never bring that up again!" Roderich cried, face flushing.

"–And this is just to take care of their dogs and cat while he and Feli are away, and I know you like Ludwig's dogs, and he's even letting us stay here!"

"I– Elizabeta, we'll have to walk the dogs, brush the dogs–"

"I know, isn't it great?"

"–pick up after the dogs–"

"Oh, you're doing all of that."

"W-what?"

Elizabeta grinned at her husband's horrified look. "You helped Ludwig with the dogs in college, right? Let's let them up, I haven't seen them in ages!" In her arms, the cat tensed and started mewing again; she glanced at him with a frown.

"Only when he was sick," Roderich said. "And he – wait, Elizabeta, leave the cat in their room first, remember what Ludwig said."

"Oh! You're right, I almost forgot!" She shifted Gino in her arms and peered into his wide, liquid eyes; he couldn't really understand what she was saying, could he? Maybe he just knew what the word "dog" meant, or maybe he was simply still anxious about Feliciano leaving. "Come on, kitty, let's get you upstairs."

Soon enough, the cat was shivering on top of Feliciano and Ludwig's bed instead of in Elizabeta's arms.

"Ohh, poor kitty," Elizabeta said, bending over Gino. "Are you really that scared of the dogs? Ludwig's dogs are harmless, really!" Gino looked away, his ears lowered. "But really, they wouldn't hurt a fly," she insisted. "They're big, but so gentle and playful once you get to know them!"

Gino hunched over, looking even more miserable. Elizabeta's heart twinged. "I guess you're really scared right now… you don't know me and Roderich very well, after all. I'll leave you here for a bit, maybe that'll calm you down…"

"Elizabeta, are you talking to the cat?" Roderich called.

"NO!" she shouted crossly towards the door. She turned back to Gino. "I'll see you later, okay?" With a parting pat, Elizabeta walked out of the room, down the stairs.

Gino listened on the bed; there was the creak of the pet gate being closed, Roderich and Elizabeta's voices, their footsteps growing fainter, and then the opening of the basement door –

Gino gasped and darted behind a pillow. He heard the dogs' voices filtering up the stairs, their enthusiastic, happy yelps, each sharp bark making him cringe.

At first, Gino hadn't thought it would be so bad – he'd move out with Feli and Ludwig, get settled into his new home, and once in a while, maybe Lovi would come over and bring Enrico with him.

He hadn't thought about how strange the new house would smell; how everything wouldn't be in the right place, how there were new sounds and scents everywhere, making him bewildered and uncomfortable – and oh, the dogs. Ludwig had smelled like his dogs whenever he visited Feli, so they weren't really strangers to Gino, but seeing them that first time, when Gino sat on Feli's lap and Ludwig brought the three out for an introduction – Gino had shrieked and bolted away up the stairs.

So big, so loud, so s-scary! Being across the room from them hadn't been far enough. Since then, Gino had spent most of his days on the top floor, exploring Feli and Ludwig's rooms, looking wistfully out the windows. Sometimes he'd venture onto the first floor, when the dogs were in the basement or being walked outside, and wrinkle his nose at their smell and shiver as he listened to them.

It had been a very trying month. And now, Feli was gone – gone for three whole days, gone to some gallery in a city far away to celebrate his wonderful paintings. Gino had known about the trip, but when the day arrived, it suddenly felt as if it had come too fast. He wasn't ready, especially with no Enrico or Lovi or anything familiar around, and especially with those dogs, and now two strangers as well. Sure, Feli said they were friends, but Gino didn't know them. The woman – Elizabeta – was nice enough, and she smelled like flowers, but the man, Roderich, didn't seem to like him very much.

Gino sighed. "Oh, Feli…" Feli and Ludwig had been talking about it a week ago. Neither of them wanted Gino or the dogs to stay in a kennel for several days while they were away, and when Feli called Lovi for help, Gino could hear Enrico's irate caretaker shouting through the phone about why couldn't Feli's potato bastard do it if he was so perfect? Both humans had seemed at a loss until Ludwig told Feli over dinner about some friends who had offered to house-sit, and Feli had beamed, and that was it.

It could have been worse, Gino conceded. He could have been brought to yet another strange, new place to live for a few days; it might have been dirty and loud and crowded. At least Gino could still smell Feli in his room and studio.

Gino could hear Elizabeta's ringing laughter. "Aster, Blackie, I missed you too!" He flinched, curling into a tight ball.

He remembered shivering at the window of his old house, watching cats being chased by dogs when their owners let them off their leashes. Sure, Ludwig's dogs probably wouldn't try it with Ludwig and Feli around, but why risk it? They were always barking up the stairs at Gino, saying "Come down come down come down" and shouting "Let's play let's play let's play," but Gino knew what they really meant was "Chase him eat him eat him" and he didn't want to die!

He spent the morning and early afternoon under Feli's pillow, thinking about the days they'd had before he met Ludwig, and all the days that followed, leading up to where he was now. He breathed in his friend's familiar smell, and didn't come out until Elizabeta arrived with lunch.

"Oh, Gino…"

Gino glanced at Elizabeta as he lapped his food – some sort of chicken dish Feliciano had cooked. What a lucky cat.

"How long were you under that pillow?"

Gino continued eating, eyes cast down again.

Elizabeta sighed. It had been a good morning – she and Roderich had played with the dogs, taken them out for a walk, and prepared lunch after shooing them back down to the basement. Roderich had relaxed and seemed to accept the pet-sitting, Ludwig had called when they'd arrived at their hotel, and everything was going smoothly. She'd thought she would find Gino wandering around the upper floor, but it seemed as if the cat hadn't moved in the few hours since she'd left him alone.

"I did hear that it can take pets a long time to adjust to new surroundings," she mused out loud. Gino's ear flicked, but otherwise he didn't look up. Elizabeta peered at him thoughtfully. Maybe he would feel better if she gave him some of his toys?

She took his bowl when he'd lapped it clean, meeting his gaze. "You've been having it really rough, huh?" she said. "Do you want a toy? Does little Gino want a toy?" Gino turned his head away. Well, it wouldn't hurt to try.

Elizabeta went downstairs, left the bowl in the sink, and brought up some squeaky mice and a cat wand with a fluffy bird dangling from one end. She tossed the mice onto the bed, but Gino barely spared them a glance; she swung the fluffy bird above his face, but he just backed away and sat a little farther from her.

Elizabeta whistled. "Don't feel like playing, huh?" She was at a bit of a loss. Should she just leave him alone for the rest of the day? Elizabeta stared at the cat; the cat stared back at her. Cats were such beautiful creatures… she loved the way the afternoon sun lit up Gino's bright cream fur, highlighted his quirky curled strand of hair, and swam in his amber eyes. She was suddenly struck by the desire to take a portrait of Gino; Feli would undoubtedly be overjoyed at it, too. "Wait here, let me show you something really great!"

She darted to the first floor again. Roderich was flipping through one of Ludwig's cake cookbooks as she raced past him to the guestroom. "What are you doing?" he said, but she ignored him and ran back up the stairs, clutching her big green handbag. She was breathing a little heavily when she spilled its contents onto the bed; Gino hadn't moved from where she'd left him.

"Look, I was going to see Kiku tomorrow, but I figured I'd show you first! Roderich isn't interested in any of this at all, so I don't really have anyone to talk to about these things."

Gino's head tilted as he focused on the gadgets; he rose and started sniffing them.

"That one's a camcorder, this is a little voice recorder, and this is a camera." She turned the camera on, aimed carefully, and took a photo of Gino; the cat mewed, blinking at the flash. Elizabeta laughed. "Oh, you're so cute, Gino!" She was about to take another photo when she noticed the room behind him. "Actually…" Elizabeta stood up, forgetting about Gino as she looked at the ceiling corners, the dresser, the nightstand, and the bookcase. "Hmmm. You know, the voice recorder could probably fit right in that crack there…"

"All right, what's – oh, for heaven's sake!" Elizabeta turned; she heard Gino utter a small meow as Roderich strode into the room, staring lividly at the things on the bed. "I can't believe you'd even think about–"

"Think about what?" Elizabeta shot back.

"You know what I'm talking about! Bringing a camcorder here, now I know why you wanted to housesit for them so badly–"

"I wasn't planning on doing anything at all!"

"I thought your bag felt heavier than it should have been, but I didn't say anything–"

"I would never do anything without Feliciano's permission, and I haven't asked him, I just brought this stuff because I'm going to see Kiku tomorrow and we're going to exchange tips–"

By this point, neither of them was paying attention to the cat, but if they were, they would have seen Gino flattening himself on the bed, looking smaller than he actually was as their voices rose higher and higher.

"–voyeurism is not an acceptable hobby–"

"You're such a hypocrite!"

"How dare you call me a hypocrite, I've never so much as looked at one of your filthy magazines!"

"Oh, I know you've done a lot more than just look, you pervert!"

"W-what on earth are you talking about?"

"You know exactly what I'm talking about–"

"THE AWESOME ME IS HERE!"

Gino snapped his head towards the window; Roderich and Elizabeta immediately shut up.

"GUYS! FELI, LUDWIG! LET ME IN!"

Elizabeta and Roderich looked at each other, all anger gone, faces paling. "Fuck," they said in unison.

Gino quavered. "Oh my god, what do we do?" Elizabeta said.

"I'll talk to him," Roderich said. Elizabeta nodded, and began shoving her things back into the bag as he left the room.

"WHERE IS EVERYONE? LET ME IN!" The voice was so loud, obnoxious, and piercing, it could only belong to one person.

"Damn it, damn it, damn it," she said. She looked up at Gino. "You haven't met Gilbert yet, have you?" The cat tilted his head. "Good. No one should have to meet him, much less know him." She shuddered, drawing a frying pan out of the bag. "Stay put, kitty, you're safer up here than anywhere else." And she walked out of the room, closing the door behind her.

Gino immediately raced to the window and pulled himself up the sill. What was going on? Was another stranger coming? He looked down; standing at the front door was a man with silvery-white hair, pale red eyes and – some sort of yellow bird bouncing on his head. The man took a deep breath, probably to yell again, when the door opened.

"What do you want?" Roderich said.

"Eh? What the hell are you doing here? Isn't this Ludwig and Feli's house?"

"It is, you just missed them, come back next week." Roderich started to shut the door when the man jumped forward and shoved himself inside.

"Eh, wait wait wait wait wait!"

"Wait, what are you–"

Gino saw the humans scuffling before the one with white hair pulled the door shut. The little cat jumped off the sill and ran to the bedroom door, listening for voices; they were a little muffled now, but he could still hear them.

"Elizabeta, you're here too? How's it– OW, damn it, did you really have to hit me?!"

"Why did you let him in?"

"I didn't, you know Gilbert, he just does whatever he wants!"

"Why didn't you just keep the door closed?"

"Don't you think I tried?"

"I meant why did you open the door in the first place?!"

"Where is that little brother of mine? HEY, LUDWIG!"

"I told you, they're not here–"

"So what the hell are you doing in their house?"

Is he really Ludwig's brother? Gino thought, as Roderich quietly explained.

"What?" Gilbert screeched, "They went away and he didn't even tell me? I'm his brother!"

Thenagain, Gino mused, he and Rico weren't really alike.

Roderich muttered something Gino couldn't hear.

"Shut the hell up! Anyway, since this is Ludwig's house it's automatically my house too, but since I'm so awesome I'll let you guys stay, how's that?"

"What? Now hold on just a second–"

Gino froze. Something was thundering up the stairs. He shot under the bed, half a second before the door slammed open and dirty black boots started bounding all over the room.

"Holy shit, the bed is huge!"

"Gilbert, you have to get out."

"Damn, if I'd known he'd get such a sweet love-nest with Feli, I'd've visited sooner!"

"Gilbert–"

"Oh hey, where are the dogs? Blackie, Aster, Berlitz!"

"Damn it, Elizabeta–"

"I know, I know!"

The strangers pounded out of the room, leaving the door swinging in their wake.

Gino was alone again, stuck in a strange house with three horrible, loud dogs and three horrible, loud humans, Feli's friends or not. He wished he was home, where Feli and Lovi grew tomatoes in the garden, and the sun glittered between leaves in the spring, and Enrico chased him around whenever Gino tried to sneak an extra bite of pasta from his brother's bowl. Home, where he was safe and comfortable. Had it really been a month? Gino might as well have moved in yesterday.

He bit back a whimper. At least, under the bed, it felt secure enough. From the floor below, he could hear some of the clanging "music" Ludwig sometimes played – "metal," he called it (humans were so strange) – but it was much louder than Ludwig would ever have it. Ludwig's brother was guffawing in the midst of the crashing and screaming music, and the dogs were howling with him.

"Gilbert, turn that down, it's bothering the animals!" Gino heard Elizabeta shout.

"Come on, the dogs love it!"

"JUST TURN IT DOWN!"

"Okay, okay, geez woman…"

The music abated somewhat. Gino sniffed. He wished Feli was back…

He couldn't tell how long he waited under the bed, listening to the noise. Once, gathering his courage, he even crawled across the rug and poked his head out the door – but the sound of barking drove him back to hiding. The dogs were out, Ludwig's brother was so loud, Gino would probably be stuck in this room for three days, what was he going to do

I'm an awesome bird, if you please. Piyo!

Gino paused.

I'm an awesome bird, if you don't please. Piyo!

There was a soft flapping in the room, accompanied by a low, slightly musical, grunting.

Now I'm looking over my new domicile

If I like I stay for maybe quite a while. Piyo!

With great care, Gino slowly, slowly peeked out from under the bed.

The bird that had sat on top of Gilbert's head was flying leisurely around the room; it was round and yellow and fluffy and seemed to be grunting out a song in a low, scratchy voice, though it certainly didn't sound like any songbird Gino had ever heard.

I'm an awesome bird, if you please.

I'm an awesome bird, if you don't please.

The yellow "awesome" bird was flitting all over – fascinated, Gino crept out, ignoring the barks downstairs, when the bird landed on the bedframe and pecked at it.

"Eh, d-don't do that!" Gino cried.

The bird flew up, startled, until it spotted Gino; then it seemed to relax, and flew to the nightstand and started pecking on that, too.

I like taking naps on top of Gilbert's hair

No one else is awesomer than me, I swear. Piyo!

"Ehh, stop it!" Gino said more loudly, mustering up his courage, "F-Feli and Ludwig will be angry!"

The little bird continued fluttering around, paying him no attention; it pecked at the bookcase, then flew to the curtains.

"S-stop, ve-meow!" Just thinking about how Ludwig and Feli would look when they came back and saw that everything had been pecked on gave Gino the strength to jump up and try to bat the bird away – but instead, he ended up catching his claws on the curtains.

"Ve-meow!"

The delicate fabric ripped as he slid down, leaving huge, frayed gashes. "Oh, no!" he cried. The bird turned and flew to the little potted plant in the corner of the room, Gino whirling after it. "P-please, go away!" He ran up and stood on the rim of the pot, shouting – but then it overbalanced, tipping plant and dirt and Gino onto the floor. He jumped up from the mess – What would Feli say? And what if Ludwig let the dogs eat him?! Before Gino could finish this thought, the bird fluttered back to the nightstand.

"Stop it!"

Gino jumped onto the nightstand to drive the bird away, but he was so clumsy he ended up knocking into the lamp; it crashed to the floor.

"Did you hear that?" someone downstairs said.

He heard the humans coming up. Gino froze where he sat on the nightstand. "No, I didn't – I didn't mean to–"

The door slammed open. The white-haired man stood there, eyes darting around the room; an angry-looking Roderich and Elizabeta were right behind him. "What happened– Gilbird!"

"Piyo, piyo," Gilbird grunted. He fluttered around the room one more time, then flew over and settled on his master's head.

"I was wondering where you went!" Gilbert said, reaching up to scratch Gilbird with a finger. "But what the hell happened here?"

Elizabeta shoved Gilbert forward to get a better look, and gasped. Roderich was shaking his head, a hand on his temple. Part of the curtains had been slashed and frayed, there was a broken lamp and dirt all over the floor, and there was Gino sitting on the nightstand, covered with dirt, ears flat and body trembling. "I – I didn't mean – I was just trying," Gino stammered, but he couldn't get the words out.

"Whoa, did the cat do this?" Gilbert said. "Hey guys, Feli has one badass cat!"

"N-no, I was just trying – the bird –"

"What a disaster," Roderich muttered.

"Gino, what did you do?" Elizabeta said, and Gino couldn't take it anymore – he dove under the bed.

"Gino!" Trembling with guilt, he watched their feet and listened as they talked.

"Leave him alone, it's probably separation anxiety. We should tell Ludwig."

"Well, sucks for you, Roddy, but you're cleaning up."

"What?"

"Well, you're housesitting, right? So you have to clean up when there's a mess – there's a mess, so clean it up."

"Gilbert –"

"I'll clean it up," Elizabeta said. "You two, just – just go. And Roderich, make sure he doesn't destroy anything else!" The black boots stomped out of the room; Roderich growled and followed Gilbert down.

"Gino? Gino, come out, kitty. We have to get you clean."

Elizabeta crouched; her hair swept the floor as she angled her head horizontally and spotted Gino under the bed. She reached in to try to grab him, but he cringed away. "It w-wasn't my fault! I just want Feli back!" Gino mewed.

"Oh all right, but you have to come out eventually," she murmured. She walked out; minutes later she was back, and Gino watched as she tidied up the room, straightening up the potted plant. He flattened his ears against the roar of the vacuum cleaner. He watched her sweep the rest of the dirt into a dust pan, heard her set the lamp back on the nightstand.

"Ooh, there's a big crack here… we'll have to tell Ludwig and Feli when they get back." Gino hunched miserably.

Her feet paused at the door.

"I'll bring you your food later, okay? Gilbert, will you turn that down!"

Her footsteps sounded down the stairs. Soon, Feli's friends were squabbling again. Gino only stayed, thinking that this was probably the worst day of his life, and wondering how he would ever get through until Feliciano returned.


Author's Note: You won't believe how many revisions this chapter had, and I'm still not satisfied. -_- Apologies for the slow updates; school is really kicking my behind.