1 – Zach, Suzi, Des – Midnight

Zach looked down at the blonde head resting against his shoulder, and gently brushed a straying lock of hair back, a few white strands glinting in the TV’s light. He’d felt Heather gradually relaxing through the movie. Not much surprise that she’d fallen asleep.

He didn’t take it personally. Her job as a business consultant was sometimes demanding and draining and could involve difficult people. Some days she came home from work exhausted but still so wound up that she flitted around the house doing twenty jobs at once, vibrating with manic energy.

His job, as he saw it, was to help her wind down. Sometimes that meant finding a movie they could watch that could actually hold her interest. Sometimes it meant running a hot bath for her to soak in and putting on one of the playlists Theo had made for her that started bouncier and gradually slowed. Sometimes it meant luring her off to bed for what, those times, generally began vigorous and playful but ended gentle and intimate. Now and again, he could even coax her into a one-on-one basketball game in their driveway, although she always got mad at him if he deliberately let her win.

Of course, he’d been playing basketball for as long as he could remember. A broken ankle in his last year of high school had made it the first year he hadn’t been the team’s star player. It was tricky to keep from discouraging her without visibly holding back.

“Heather,” he said softly, stroking her hair. “Hey, hon, wake up.”

“Hm?” She stirred, raised her head and blinked at him sleepily. She hadn’t washed her face, and her makeup had smeared a bit around her closer eye; he’d taken the clasp from her carefully-styled hair earlier, so she could be more comfortable, and now that she was moving it tumbled down to frame her face. “Oh. I fell asleep on you.”

“Literally.” He kissed her forehead. “C’mon, go to bed. You can sleep in tomorrow. If it’s a nice day, tell you what. We’ll make some lunch and toss the cooler and a blanket and one of the wagons in the back of the van, and we’ll go wander around the conservation area until we decide to stop and have a picnic. We both leave our phones turned off so nobody can find us, and we just run away from the world for the day.”

“Sounds wonderful. But Vera asked you to help her talk to Sawyer’s parents.”

“Janet managed to get them to agree to Tuesday.” The organization he worked for dealt with low-income families. Chronically underfunded, they somehow struggled along, determination boosted every time they managed to make a difference in another sad situation. Zach’s role, in particular, revolved heavily around being there every day after school so the children had somewhere to go other than an empty house. He hadn’t planned on it, and had in fact decided against a career involving kids when his attempt at university for teaching had resulted rapidly in bitter disillusionment. Somehow, volunteering to spend a couple of hours after school teaching kids basketball while briefly unemployed had evolved into a job and more than a job.

Ferociously protective of “his” kids, the ones who were there regularly, the ones that had opened up to him, Zach found the times he couldn’t do anything brutally hard—but the times when he could made it worthwhile, and the bad times could be endured while Heather was there, his strength and his anchor.

Underfunded they might be, but they looked out for each other, and coming in on weekends—other than the occasional special event—was a slippery slope to step onto, especially in a job with a high burnout rate.

“Oh, good. I know it’s important, so I wasn’t going to say anything, but…”

“I know. So. Are we on for tomorrow?”

“If you’ll get me a glass of milk while I go get ready for bed,” she said mischievously.

“You drive a hard bargain, woman. All right, you win. I’ll bring it to the bedroom.”

She twisted around to steal a kiss, and slid her feet off the couch to the floor. “Don’t be long.”

In the kitchen, he found a glass, and turned to the fridge.

The remaining milk almost filled the glass.

He rinsed the carton, tossed it in the recycling, and took the glass to the bedroom. The sink in the master bathroom was running.

“We’re out of milk,” he called, over the water sounds. “I’m still dressed. I’ll run down to the corner and get more.”

Heather came to the bathroom door, already out of her clothes and wrapped only in a lightweight pale violet bathrobe. “It can wait, can’t it?” she objected.

“No milk for coffee in the morning,” he pointed out.

“Oh. Oh, yeah.” She looked torn. “It’s late, and I know I heard thunder.”

“It’s less than two blocks. I’m still a bit restless anyway, it’ll let me work that off. Actually, I might go the long way around the block, I might sleep better. You finish and go to bed. I’ll be back soon.”

“All right. Be careful. Love you.”

* * *

Suzi draped her arms around Levi’s shoulders from behind.

Since he was well over a head taller than she was, the fact that he was sitting in front of the computer was all that made it possible; as it was, she knew it worked nicely.

“It’s late. Coming up on midnight. And the girls haven’t been out yet.”

“Give me a minute, okay? Someone asked about agility training and compared it to making circus animals perform and implied that they’re both abusive and take advantage of the animals involved.”

“What, they’d rather have dogs bored out of their minds and misbehaving until they get surrendered or, if they’re lucky, someone calls someone like us? Dunno so much about the circus animals, probably a lot of them are abused and I don’t like the idea of breeding animals for the circus or capturing wild babies. Living wild isn’t exactly a life of luxury, but being kept in a cage and used for entertainment isn’t a whole lot better than being kept in a cage and used for research. But those are animals that have not had thousands of years of evolution and selective breeding making them really want to work with humans. Dogs are different.”

“Hm, good point. I really want to finish this…” Levi looked up at her, visibly divided.

“That thunder’s getting louder and closer, and the girls are starting to go on alert. You finish that reply before the storm actually hits and we need to turn off the computer. I’ll take the girls out for a short walk to stretch and do their thing, so that gets done before it storms.”

“You know I don’t like you out alone at night. There are too many assholes and perverts and god-knows-what out there.”

“I won’t go far, and no one’s going to mess with me when I’m walking two dogs. I bet the girls’d protect me, anyway, especially Jazz. It’ll be all right. You need to straighten this person out before anyone else gets ideas that agility training is abuse instead of a sport for the dogs even more than their people, if it’s done right.” She leaned forward to kiss his cheek, and went to get the leashes for Jazz and Bijou.

Not that the extremely-well-trained border-collie-cross pair, Bijou who looked like a small slender golden retriever, heavier black-and-white Jazz with her German Shepherd build and flopped-over ears and clipped coat, really needed the leashes; they responded reliably and immediately to vocal commands and, in older Jazz’s case, to hand signs as well. But there were people who were nervous about dogs, especially unleashed ones, and besides, Bijou had only been with them for a year and was prone to flighty moments.

The dogs waited impatiently for her to snap the leashes on. She took her reflective nylon belt, which had a dispenser for plastic bags and a small pouch with a snapped flap for a handful of dog treats and a second small pouch for keys and cellphone, and wrapped it around her waist, feeding it through the D-rings and back securely.

She hoped she wouldn’t get wet, or her off-white T-shirt and pastel-shaded knee-length summer skirt were going to become far too revealing, but if she waited long enough to change the odds went up that they’d get caught in a downpour. Better to just be quick about it, take them around the block and get back inside.

Although, considering the way the wind was lashing the trees, maybe it would be safer just to let them into the securely-fenced back yard?

In the middle of the driveway, she wavered, but the dogs were used to having a walk, and they settled overnight better than if they only had the back yard, unless it was for an extended period. She could relate: she doubted very much she’d be able to just go to bed tonight without working off some energy. Why she was feeling so restless was a mystery, since she’d already had a full day of puppy class, agility class, a therapy dog certification, all the preparation and wrapup for all of the above, and working on notes for what to say when she did that upcoming interview with Theo about therapy animals—much of it would be useful in the presentation Reverend Fiona had asked them to give, as well. She wasn’t particularly nervous about an on-air interview; she trusted Theo, who was adept at making his visitors sound good, and it was usually easy to relax and forget that they were being overheard by his considerable audience. She knew he’d be doing research of his own so he could ask relevant questions and fill in briefly if she came up blank, just like he always did; by now, he must have at least a general knowledge of an amazing range of subjects. She had learned, though, to be ready.

In and around that, she’d been looking after their own pair and their own lives, and had spent time spinning more wool into yarn for the small hand-woven flowers-and-butterflies tapestry she’d been working on as a birthday gift for Levi’s mom, and sketching a new design she planned to make next for a church fundraiser. Reverend Fiona said the items she made by hand were always popular, and it delighted Suzi that something she got such enjoyment and satisfaction doing could also help her church and bring pleasure to whoever took it home as well. It had been a busy day, the way she liked it, though not unusually so.

Compromise, she decided. Short walk, just around the block. Then she could let them into the back yard for however long they had until the storm broke.

* * *

“All right, I’m running out of gods to ask for help on this one,” Des sighed, plugging in the computer he was working on. “Who’s left? Ceiling Cat? What do you suppose would be a good offering for Ceiling Cat, guys?”

Small sleek black-and-white Ramses, the elder of Des’ cats and currently perched on Des’ desk where he could tap screws onto the floor with an inquisitive paw, listened with every sign of interest, as he always did when Des talked to them in the otherwise empty apartment. Ryu, the larger and younger tabby, lay on the couch nearby, taking up quite a remarkable amount of it for a fifteen-pound animal; he’d gotten bored with the whole thing shortly after Des brought out a recycled computer case and his boxes of used parts to see if he could put together another working system. He’d dragged an origami cube Des had made and packed with freeze-dried chicken liver and whitefish up with him, and it was looking the worse for wear. Time for a new one, very soon.

Long ago, Zach had mentioned how much of a disadvantage “his” kids were often at when it came to school, because they didn’t have a computer for homework and couldn’t always readily reach the library and Zach’s place couldn’t afford them. That had made Des start thinking about all the parts that were left over when he upgraded systems. He’d been setting aside choice bits for years, generally so he could keep JC at least up-to-date enough for email and browsing and more recently listening to Theo—JC’s usually minimum-wage jobs, which somehow never lasted more than two or three years, were an endless source of worry and confusion to his friends but not a reliable source of funding for computer upgrades.

There were other parts, though, stable but not up to high-demand use and destined for electronics recycling unless he found a way to give them a new purpose. With skill and patience and trial-and-error, they could be put together into functional, if not exactly gaming-worthy, systems. Basic mice and keyboards were inexpensive; he scavenged monitors, as well, when he could.

So now, a room at Zach’s workplace held rebuilt systems available for the kids to use, with schoolwork a priority but fun acceptable if they weren’t otherwise in use, and some went home on an indefinite loan.

This particular one was getting annoying.

“You aren’t helping, guys. All right, if it works this time, I’ll dedicate six cans of high-end cat food to Ceiling Cat.” He pressed the power button.

The familiar whir, as it began to boot up… and the system light began to flash a pattern, long-short-short, long-short-short.

Des swore and shut it down again.

“All right. That’s enough for tonight. It’s almost midnight. I’m going to start throwing things very shortly if I keep at this.” He unplugged it and pushed the low table it was on against the wall so it was out of the way, the boxes of parts with it, then leaned back in his chair until his back stopped twinging. The familiar pain was a reminder that the table was too low for this work, especially after a couple of decades hunched over a keyboard and moving hardware that was sometimes heavy. He really needed to replace it with one that was higher so projects like this would be at a more comfortable height. He needed to take care of that soon, before that pain became more persistent.

Ramses stepped delicately down onto the barely-showing edge of the keyboard tray and from there onto Des’ lap. He circled a couple of times, then settled down, kneading gently at Des’ denim-covered leg and arching into his obligingly stroking hand.

“You’ve got it all beat,” Des told him. “Your whole life is about what feels right at the moment and what feels good. You wash each other just ’cause you’re friends, no ulterior motives. Well, except when Ryu wants to play and it’s a warmup to wrestling. No self-consciousness. No over-thinking. Everything you do, you meant to do that, even if you didn’t know you did. No secrets that make you feel alone and guilty when you keep ’em and piss off your girlfriend when you risk telling her, even though it doesn’t hurt anybody. You’ve got me providing shelter and food and toys and love, and when I can’t be here like for the computer conference next month, you’ve got JC staying here to keep you company, and if he can’t, then you get Theo and Max spoiling you at their house and Kayla making you toys and building you climby things. You two have it made. One of these days, you’re all going to up and tell humans, so long and thanks for all the cheeseburgers.” He curved his hand to dig his fingers into the spot just behind Ramses’s ear, and Ramses pressed hard into it, his purr escalating. After a moment, the little cat shook his head so hard his whole body rocked with it.

Des laughed. “Earthquake. Success. Down you go. I need to go for a walk and relax, or I’m never going to be able to sleep. Another way you guys are superior, nothing keeps you from sleeping.” He lowered Ramses gently to the floor. The cat planted his front feet and arched so first his front was up and his back end down, then took a further step with his front feet only and arched his front end down with his back end still high, and finished it with a Hallowe’en-cat humped stretch and a yawn before strolling off.

“Show-off. I’m not sure even Alison could pull off moves like that. Most humans sure can’t.” Chuckling to himself, Des made sure the kitty fountain was flowing freely and there was kibble in the bowl—although Ramses was heading for the wet food left from suppertime—and locked the door of his basement apartment behind him on the way out.

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