Kaiser sighed as he walked stiffly back into the lot. The sun was setting, washing red light over the grass and buildings. He felt bruised all over, and the blood on his fur had dried; he had a lot of cleanup to do. And tomorrow, they'd need to leave a little later so that he could sleep this off and recover; he couldn't protect Gino if he was exhausted.
He really wasn't looking forward to explaining this to his group; they barely respected him enough as it was. And Siegfried - his brother would never let him live this down.
"Kaiser? Gino? You do know that the Heights are holy shit what happened to you?!"
Speak of the devil. The white cat shot up from where he'd been sitting and ran over.
"Ve-meow, this really nasty guy attacked Kaiser and tried to hit me, too, but Kaiser saved me again!" The little cat gave Kaiser a smile that shone brighter than the setting sun; Kaiser muttered "I did say I would protect you" and looked away.
"Blitz? That little fucker did this? What the hell happened?" Siegfried snarled.
Kaiser was a little taken aback; he had expected his brother to laugh at him, not display this level of concern. Did he look that terrible? "What are you shouting about? These are just scratches, the blood makes it look worse than it actually is. I can still knock you on your thick head if I felt like it."
Siegfried's shouting had attracted the attention of the rest of the group. Elise gasped and bounded up to them when she saw the blood on Kaiser's arm, while Johann frowned and followed at a more sedate pace.
"Kaiser, look at you!" Elise gasped. "What happened? Come here, let me clean you up-"
"Elise, if he isn't dying, he's fine," Johann said, though his face betrayed some concern for his leader.
"I'm fine, it's just a scratch," Kaiser said, shifting away from her attentions. "We were nearly to the end of Blitz's territory when he spotted us; he took me by surprise and knocked me around. The scratches are from when I defended Gino, they aren't deep. Gino and Blitz's sister stopped us from fighting. If they hadn't, my wounds would probably be worse." He nodded at Gino, and the little cat jumped and drew close to him.
"Ve-meow, that Blitz was so mean! He wouldn't give us a chance to explain and wouldn't let us leave. He made us go all the way back! But I'm glad Kaiser didn't get into a fight with him; I don't want Kaiser to get hurt." Kaiser's gaze softened as he looked at the little cat.
"He made you go all the way back when you were nearly to the end? That little Scheißkerl! This is why you should've taken me with you! With the two of us fighting he wouldn't have stood a chance!"
"No," Kaiser snapped, "I needed you to be here to watch over our territory. This was just because I wasn't careful enough. It won't happen again."
Siegfried cursed, pacing back and forth. "If I see that bastard again, you won't be able to find a bit of fluff to know he even existed!" he said darkly.
"Siegfried, drop it. It's just a surface wound, I'm perfectly fine. It isn't nearly like what happened with-"
The group fell silent. Gino looked back and forth between them. "Um, with what, Kaiser?"
"Nothing," Kaiser said, shaking his head. "It does not concern you. Everyone, please, just – just go back to whatever you were doing."
But they stayed. As Kaiser lapped the dried blood off his fur, Gino cuddled up to him, and Kaiser didn't have the energy to push him off. Elise brought them the ham they'd stolen in the morning and started grooming Gino, fussing over his mussed fur as he giggled, and Johann laid down close by. Siegfried finally flopped down next to Johann, tail lashing the ground.
"You can take on three dogs but can't even beat one cat," Johann drawled.
"I'd like to see you fight Blitz, you pampered housepet," Kaiser shot back, though it was without rancor.
"Oh, how I wish I really was a pampered housepet," Johann sighed.
It had been a long time since they were together like this; most nights, Johann and Elise were off by themselves, and maybe Kaiser and Siegfried would tussle, if his brother wasn't away, but Kaiser was usually alone. It was... nice, that they had all gathered around him now, though Kaiser tried to ignore how pleased he felt. Maybe they did care about him more than he thought...
"So what are you going to do? Still taking Gino back to the Heights?" Siegfried asked, pawing restlessly at the ground.
"Yes. Tomorrow we're going to go through Mao's territory." Gino perked up, and Siegfried scratched the ground particularly hard.
"Y-you're still taking me back?" he meowed with shining eyes, "even after all that?"
"Of course, Gino," Kaiser said, his voice low. "I gave you my word." He braced himself for Gino's sobbing tackle, but the little cat was probably exhausted - he simply sighed and cuddled Kaiser fiercely, rubbing his head on the larger tom's chest and smearing more tears over him. "Oh, Kaiser," he whispered. Kaiser felt his face heating up, and he cleared his throat; Gino, of course, didn't move a muscle.
"Mao? That's going to take a while," Elise said, looking up from where she'd been grooming Gino's face (now pressed tightly against Kaiser's fur), "plus he does have one of the biggest gangs in the city..."
Kaiser had thought this through. He knew that they could theoretically cut across Vanya's territory, which bordered Blitz's to the east, but he couldn't risk Gino's life. Unlike Blitz, if Vanya caught them, he would never willingly let them leave. And then there was the gang of five cats to the west of Blitz's territory, controlling the neighborhood next to the coast - the leader and his subordinates were having some kind of inner conflict, Kaiser had heard, he didn't want to be caught up in that.
No, the best route to take would be further east, through Mao's territory.
"I will be much more careful this time. If we travel by day, with the humans about, his gang is less likely to try to start something."
"That's it!" Siegfried said, getting to his feet. "I'm coming with you-"
"And I keep telling you to stay here, where you're needed!"
"Who's going to come strolling through our territory, huh? No one's tried to come in since we beat Vanya! Taking one day to walk with you guys isn't going to hurt."
"Blitz probably wasn't expecting me to be there either, but he was vigilant enough to catch and throw me out! I need you to do the same!" Kaiser shouted.
Gino hated when people fought; he hated that they were fighting essentially because of him, now.
"Ve-meow, Siegfried, we'll – ah – we'll be more careful this time. I'll – I'll try really hard to listen for danger!" he said, stealing a glance at Kaiser, "So – so you don't have to worry. I trust Kaiser."
"Kid, look at him, he's all roughed up! You can't deny that the three of us would stand a better chance of getting you back to the Heights than just you two."
"B-but that would leave just Johann and Elise looking after your home… I… I've already caused so much trouble for you…"
"Oh, Gino, it's really been no trouble at all," Elise said, nuzzling him. Johann scoffed.
Kaiser sighed. "Siegfried, Mao is more reasonable. Even if he caught us, I doubt he'd try to attack me like Blitz did. He'd probably let us pass without much hassle."
"Yeah, but what about those crazy kids of his?"
Gino's head tilted. "Mao has kittens?"
"Mao adopted a few abandoned kittens about a year ago and raised them as his younger brothers and sisters," Kaiser said. "They are quite enthusiastic when it comes to defending him, but I could probably take on two or three at once. I don't think they would attack, though, since they're still smaller than me; we could outrun them, or they'll try to bring us to Mao instead of attacking." The gray tom sighed. "Look, Siegfried, if we are chased away again, then obviously I am doing something wrong, and you can accompany us. Until then, I need you to stay here."
The brothers glared at each other, blue eyes to red, until Siegfried growled and said "Fine! Stubborn brat." He turned away, loping into the grass. "I'm going to patrol. You better not let yourself get beaten up by a bunch of kittens tomorrow!" Kaiser sighed, shaking his head.
The sun was finally dropping below the horizon, the sky darkening to navy blue. Elise gave both Gino and Kaiser a lick on the cheek (Johann looking on with disgruntlement). "I know you're fine, Kaiser, but you did look pretty bad when you got back. You really ought to be more careful," she admonished. "And I'm glad you're safe, Gino. You need to look after him; he's one to talk about taking unnecessary risks, am I right?"
Gino laughed and nodded vigorously. "Elise, I promise to look after him really hard! I'll make us run away before he gets scratched again!"
Kaiser groaned as Elise winked and went off with Johann to their pan. If she was back to teasing him, it meant they knew he really was okay.
Silence settled over the lot; it was just him and Gino, now.
Just him and Gino…
For some reason, Kaiser felt – embarrassed? Uncomfortable? Being alone with the little cat. They weren't really alone, but Gino was sitting very close. In the stillness, Kaiser was aware of the tears drying on his fur, how they cooled him whenever a breeze flickered by. "You can join them, Gino," he said quietly. "I'm going to finish cleaning up–"
"Ve-meow, c-can I help?" Gino's eyes were almost closed, but he still managed to look extremely hopeful. Kaiser didn't understand why the house pet kept his eyes squinted all the time. If he opened them up he would probably stop bumping into things. The street cat made a mental note to tell Gino this.
"It's fine, Gino, I can take care of it myself."
"Ve-meow, but there's some parts you didn't get to…"
There was fur on his shoulder and neck that Kaiser hadn't cleaned up yet; after being thrown around by dogs and bowled over twice by Blitz, his neck felt sore enough that he didn't want to twist around. He'd been leaving those parts for last.
Kaiser shook his head. "Go to sleep, Gino, we have a long day tomorrow."
"I…" Gino faltered, looking unsure; then his expression turned resolute. "But, but Kaiser got those scratches for me! I… I should help you take care of them. So, please…"
How could Gino make his eyes water and shine so much when they were nearly closed? "Fine, fine," Kaiser grumbled. He knew that if he denied Gino much longer, the pet would continue protesting, or perhaps start crying or act dejected all night. What Gino lacked in strength and courage, he more than made up for in persistence. Or maybe Kaiser was really getting soft? The dark tom frowned. He did feel like he was being too lenient with Gino at times. Tomorrow, he would stress and restress the importance of keeping quiet and not trusting other cats–
The warm swipe of a small tongue across his shoulder sent a tingle along Kaiser's spine and made his fur fly up.
"Ve-meow, Kaiser, are you okay? Did I hurt you?!"
"I – I'm fine, Gino," Kaiser said, trying to force his heart rate down and flatten his fur. Damn it; this was because no one had groomed him for years, this was because he was exhausted –
Gino lapped tentatively at Kaiser's fur. "Eh, it's been a long time since I groomed anyone. Ever since Rico and I were separated…"
Kaiser said nothing; he was bewilderedly wondering why his heart had sped up.
Gino cleaned around the edges of the wounds on Kaiser's shoulder, wincing at the metallic taste. He'd never tasted blood before. The sight of it still scared him. But, he had to try to be brave, for Kaiser; he was cleaning a friend who had stood to defend him…
"This is the second time I've seen you bleeding," he said quietly.
"…" What was Kaiser supposed to say to that? The thundering in his chest was getting worse. He felt very warm.
"You never told me what happened that night. How come you were bleeding? How come you were in the Heights? Were you fighting again?"
Kaiser said nothing for a long moment as Gino softly lapped at his neck. Crickets chirped in the grass; a warm summer breeze whispered across their fur. The soft glow of fireflies blinked in and out of the air. Kaiser watched Gino from the corner of his eye, how careful he was, how gentle. "I am always fighting, but that fight was one of the worst," Kaiser said quietly, close to Gino's ear, so the words wouldn't carry to the sleeping pair huddled away from them. Gino shivered, and Kaiser drew back in concern. "Are you cold?"
"N-no! Per favore, go on." Gino grinned shakily before resuming his grooming. Kaiser eyed him for a moment before continuing. "A new tom, Vanya, had moved into the neighborhood months before; we didn't know where he came from, but he was very strong. Strong enough to displace a few of the resident cats and establish his own territory."
Gino's gentle grooming was soothing; it helped ward off the darkness Kaiser felt upon recalling that night.
"The more cats he defeated, the more his influence grew. He formed his own gang. One night he came to the territory Siegfried and I held. Said he'd heard about us and wanted us to join him. We refused, of course. We'd heard of his methods, and didn't trust him even if he said we'd be treated well. And we were much too stubborn to live forever under his paw. So we fought. You should have seen Elise and Johann–"
Gino paused to look at him. "Johann? Johann fought?"
"He's pretty useless most of the time, I'll admit, but that night he and his mate trounced quite a few cats. Inexperienced, stupid cats who thought they could win because they had a strong leader." Though to be fair, probably no one had been more surprised than Kaiser when the spoiled former housecat had shown his teeth and claws. And Elise – she had practically been a hurricane with fangs.
"But even with the four of us, Vanya's group was larger; he and his two lieutenants separated me from the gang. I fought to the best of my ability, but it wasn't enough."
"Three against one," Gino whispered.
"I had to get away, or they would have killed me and I wouldn't have been able to help my group. I didn't know where I was running, but I ran. I could barely see anything. I ran and ran, and they kept chasing me. I don't know how long I ran; it wasn't until I reached your neighborhood that I found they weren't chasing me anymore."
Kaiser took a breath. "After I… met you, I went back home. Vanya's group had retreated. But my brother was gone."
"Elise and Johann didn't know where he was; we took a day to rest, and snuck into Vanya's territory. Launched a counterattack. We took down the guards who still hadn't recovered, and attacked Vanya together. He'd captured my brother and tried to force him to join his group, but in the end, it backfired; when Siegfried heard us, he fought his own guards and got away. We wounded Vanya considerably; he hasn't tried to attack us since."
Gino was gaping. Kaiser twisted his sore neck around to check the wound on his shoulder; the fur was clean and smooth. "Thank you, Gino, you did a good job. You can go to sleep now."
Gino burst into sobs, flinging himself between Kaiser's paws and crying into his chest.
"Be quiet, you'll wake Elise and Johann!" Kaiser hissed.
"B-b-but – but your life is so dangerous, th-that night you could've – could've died and I'd never have seen you again!" Gino hiccupped between sobs.
Kaiser swallowed. He awkwardly laid a paw on Gino's back and tried not to read too much into the words. "It… it was a while ago. I'm fine now. And I doubt Vanya would try that again with us. Last I heard, he was focusing on other parts of the city."
Gino whimpered. "Why do all of you fight? Why can't you get along? We're all cats, ve-meow!"
Kaiser paused. Honestly, he had never thought about it much. "We don't have enough room, enough food. There are too many of us. And many cats like being in charge. We just can't get along. I wouldn't have liked Vanya ordering me about, telling me to attack other cats whenever he wanted."
"Ve… still, it shouldn't be like this."
Kaiser gave a soft sigh. He'd never really had to comfort anyone in his life. His brother was pretty stoic when it came to actual feelings, Elise and Johann had each other… and he had never met anyone as emotional as Gino.
"There's no good reason I can give you. It's just the way things are. I'm used to it, it doesn't bother me."
"But… but still… I don't like you getting hurt." Gino sniffled, cuddling close to Kaiser's side. "Ve-meow... Kaiser, you know, my grandfather was a street cat too."
Kaiser looked at Gino in surprise. "He was?"
"Si. His name– actually, his name sounded a lot like yours."
"...Really. What was his name?"
Gino grinned. "Caesar."
Kaiser felt his heart jump. "Caesar? Your grandfather was named Caesar?"
Gino nodded brightly. "Yep!"
Kaiser stared at him. "A street cat named Caesar. Did he used to live around here?"
"Ve-meow, it was so long ago, I don't remember where he lived… sorry, Kaiser," Gino said, his ears folding backwards. "He wandered around a lot. And Rico and I, we weren't always house pets in the Heights... we lived... I don't remember, but it wasn't in a big house. It was in a small house; our lady raised us after our mother died. Feli and Lovi came and adopted us when we were less than a year old, and we've been living with them ever since."
Kaiser was staring at Gino. A grandson of Caesar… but were they talking about the same Caesar? Maybe they were talking about two cats who had the same name?
"What did your grandfather look like?"
"Ve-meow, he was very big, with dark brown fur, and a curl on his head kind of like mine!" Gino's hair curl bounced as he nodded. "He loved singing, and dancing, and laughing, and pretty girls!"
Kaiser felt himself relaxing. The description matched, but there were lots of big brown cats in the city. And the singing and laughing? They couldn't possibly be talking about the same Caesar–
"And he was always fighting, all the time! Ve-meow, grandpa had so many scars on his body, I–"
Gino stopped, and stared at Kaiser. His eyes were open wide.
"What? What is it?" Kaiser whispered.
"N-nothing," Gino replied. His eyes slid nearly closed again. He looked – almost shaken. "I just – I just don't want that to happen to you too," he said faintly.
Kaiser shook his head. "It can't be helped. It's what comes when one must fight to live."
"He said that sometimes it was better to run away," Gino said.
"Who, your grandfather?"
"There was a cat named Caesar who used to live in this city. He sounds like your grandfather, but I can't be sure if they are the same. This Caesar was very famous because he was such a great fighter, he had the largest territory of any cat, and he could walk anywhere without fear. As far as I knew, he never ran away."
Gino's ear flicked. "I think your Caesar and my grandpa are the same. Grandpa was always telling me about the different parts of the city he'd taken over. Sometimes he did run away from fights, he told me. And he told me that it was especially important that I run away from any fight."
Gino smiled sadly. "He said I was too small and gentle. Enrico too, even though he has more of a temper than me. He said he never wanted me to get hurt."
"Hm." Gino's Caesar had a point there. Honestly, Kaiser couldn't see Gino ever winning a fight. It was fortunate that he'd been taken as a pet early on.
"I don't think you run away enough, Kaiser," Gino said. "You'd get hurt less if you did."
"You didn't grow up on the streets, Gino. If you did, you'd find that if you ran away too often, one day you might be left with nothing. No home, no friends, no food."
"The same would happen if you fought too much, like my grandpa."
They regarded each other silently. This whole conversation was making Kaiser a little uneasy – he had never told anyone about his gang's fight with Vanya. He hadn't had another cat open up to him like this since he'd awkwardly comforted Elise about her and Johann's new life on the streets. And part of him was afraid that there might be more to Gino than he'd originally believed.
"We should really go to sleep, Gino," Kaiser said finally, getting up. He flexed his legs; he'd been sitting too long.
Gino mimicked the larger tom's motions, getting up and stretching his limbs. "Ve-meow, Kaiser, c-can I sleep with you?"
Kaiser felt his face heat up. "No. There are plenty of small nooks and bushes for you to sleep in."
"Goodnight, Gino. Don't stray too far."
Kaiser headed over to his sleeping nook, feeling suddenly cold. What did it matter? He slept alone, he'd told Gino too much already, and Gino was going home tomorrow.
He crawled into the nook and looked out; Gino was looking around frantically, shivering. Kaiser frowned, closed his eyes, and pushed the thought of Gino out of his mind. The house pet would be fine. Sleeping alone for one night wouldn't kill him.
He wasn't surprised when he felt a warm body crawling in next to him not a minute later, making the small space even more cramped. Kaiser sighed, exasperated. "Gino…"
"I looked around and couldn't find anywhere else to sleep and it's chilly and I really liked sleeping with Kaiser yesterday!"
Kaiser had been drifting off. What with the fight with Blitz and staying up to talk, he didn't feel like mustering up the energy to kick Gino out, when the little cat would just come back later. "Fine, you can sleep with me tonight."
"But be quiet!" Kaiser hissed, and Gino immediately quieted down and apologized, giggling.
As Gino cuddled up close to him, yawning and saying something in Italian, Kaiser reflected that he really was getting soft.
Author's Note:Happy belated Valentine's Day! The next update may not be for several months... I'm really busy right now and I've recently gotten sucked back into the Bleach fandom :P thanks so much to everyone who faved/followed/reviewed!