Once upon a Time in Verona

"Veronique?" Ronald whispered.
Nadja tensed and miowed when she heard her caretakers hushed voice. He insisted to call himself her owner, but who could really own a living being? You couldn't own the wind or nature, so how could a human own her? She waited, patiently, for Veronique to get the clue.
"I'm here." Veronique called, lifting up the plywood barrier that concealed a small square area in the school attic. The rest of the attic was dusty and in disarray, but once Ronald passed the plywood, he entered a cosy space with blankets, cushions and a small window that brought in some much-needed light. The cushions and blankets they'd snuck in from their respective homes over the weeks they'd been meeting here and Nadja had to admit that the space was decently furnished for her needs.
Andrez her fellow catling, rubbed his head against her shoulder to get her to focus. But Nadja was a bit tired. She yawned and lay down, purring softly as her face sank down in the plushy fleece cushion.
"Amazing." she purred.
"All you think about is sleeping." Andrez complained.
"So? Go eat some treats. All you think about is food."
"And exercise..." he grinned.
"You perv," Nadja replied, not really offended, "Last time you said that you took me for a RUN across town."
"And didn't you have fun?"
She had to admit that she had. Drifting to sleep, Nadja dreamt about the outside streets, alleys and parks in the city of Verona. Places she'd never dreamed existed as she'd been living the life of a sheltered house-cat since her birth. As a young catling she'd been handed out to a non-suspecting human, Ronald in her case, and left to mature on her own until the time was there to make their presence known to the unsuspecting humans.
Andrez, meanwhile, was closely following the conversation between his caretaker, Veronique, and Nadja's human, Ronald. Andrez had noticed the two of them growing closer, though to call them lovers was still too soon. They hadn't even held hands yet, but they had shared their dreams and that meant something. Both these humans were practical and not sentimental or romantic. But they had found some solace with each other. Andrez on the other hand, was a romantic soul and seeing these 2 humans come together was like watching an entertainig soap. He couldn't wait for their first kiss but suspected he'd be waiting for a couple seasons before they finally took the plunge. But at least he'd have great food to enjoy while he waited.
"Want some cookies?" Veronique asked Ronald.
"You made these in class?" he replied.
"Yes, they came out nice if I do say so myself."
"I'll take your word for it, your treats are always very good."
"Someday I'll be opening a bakery."
"You'll see me every day to buy some."
Ronald promised.
"And what about you? Planning to take over the family business"
"There's not much planning about it, I'm expected to since I've been born."

Veronique nodded, everyone knew Ronald was the heir to the city's largest law firm. She could imagine he'd do a great job, but that being a lawyer also wasn't something Ronald would enjoy doing. During their short visits to play with the cats, she'd come to know Ronald as a quiet, introspective and sensitive person. The first time they met, Ronald had been frantically looking for Nadja who'd snuck away during class, probably following Andrez to his little retreat here in the attic. Seeing the usually perfectly groomed young heir with his hair ruffled and his clothes wrinkled, had touched her. Ronald clearly cared about his cat and so did she so they'd bonded instantly over their furbabies.
"And what do you want to do?" Veronique pried.
"Honestly? I'd like to sail around the world, but I wouldn't even know where to begin." he laughed.
"That sounds like a great adventure... though I think I'd be too afraid of rough water."
"Well maybe we could start learning to sail on a lake."
Ronald suggested.
"Maybe I would do that." Veronique agreed.
Ronald took a deep breath and felt his heartbeat pick up. The last week he'd been thinking of Veronique more and that had interrupted his studies somewhat. Now that he had her close to him, he was pretty sure he wanted to see her more often than once or twice every week for a stolen half an hour. Making sure he didn't snag his pants on a stray nail, he shuffled a bit closer to her.
Andrez, saw the move and inched closer as well. Was this the moment he'd been waiting for? Could it be happening? The atmosphere was right and all scenario's pointed in the right direction. Ronald stretched and reached for the cookies, and replaced his left hand, supposedly to steady himself but actually to bring it close enough so his pinky touched Veronique's hand. Instinctively, Veronique flexed and for a brief second their fingers clasped. Andrez waited, holding his breath.
Veronique felt her finger take hold of Ronald's pinky and after the first shock was over, she pulled back quickly, blushing slightly. They were friends, fellow cat-owners. Ronald would probably not want to know that she sometimes dreamed of being his girlfriend. After all, she wasn't good enough for him. He needed a social and smart woman with social standing and the appropriate connections. Hiding her face, she quickly took a cookie and waited for her heartrate to go down.
Andrez swished his tail. He should have known. A good soap would milk this for all it was worth and he'd still gotten his hopes up. Annoyed with himself he laid down next to Nadja and closed his eyes. Still, there was progress. Maybe a short nap would help him find a strategy to bring these two humans closer.


Night had fallen and Nadja was enjoying her beauty sleep on a shaggy gold pillow that contrasted beautifully with her fur. It had been one of Ronald's first presents for her and it was still her favourite. A loud bang interrupted her slumber and, yawning, she opened one eye and glared to see who had disturbed her. Ronald entered the room, followed by his mother and father. For once he wasn't quiet.
"I won't." he said.
"She isn't right for you. She can hardly afford to keep coming to school. Imagine our surprise when we found out you've been meeting this golddigger in secret during school hours." Ronald's father argued.
"Your duty is to study so you can take over the firm." his mother added.
"We're not doing anything wrong." Ronald tried.
"People have been talking about it. Who knows who these rumours have reached." his mother argued, "You could get expelled for this. That would be a blemish on your record."
Nadja stayed quiet and followed as the arguement continued. Ronald trying to persuade his parents to leave him be and his parents threatening to send him away, to have Veronique expelled, or to increase Ronald's already monumental task-list. Nadja did note however that the usual calm and at times fatalistic Ronald was not backing down this time. Maybe Andrez was on to something after all. Nadja had always laughed about his love theories. In stead of matchmaking their respective caretakers he should be paying attention to her. Though it was sweet that he liked romance as he did.
After his parents left, Ronald sat down on his bed, sighed and wondered what to do. Nadja hopped on next to him and rubbed her head against his hand.
"I won't keep letting them tell me what to do. I'm 18 already. What's wrong with meeting friends? Okay, I want to be more than friends... but we're not there yet. Who even knew about our meeting?"
Nadja let Ronald rant. She thought she knew who'd reported their little hideout. The week before she'd smelled one of Ronald's classmates nearby as they climbed down. Maybe she'd been the one to tattle, hoping to get closer to Ronald by eliminating the competition. Nadja snorted, now she was hatching romance novel plotlines of her own. Her musing was interrupted by the door opening.
"Ronald, are you going away?" Adelaide, Ronald's younger sister, asked.
"No, why?"
"I heard Mother calling aunt Isolde and they were talking like you'd go to them."
Ronald's blood seemed to freeze in his veines, "Adelaide, I might need to get out now."
"Are you coming back?" Adelaide asked, wide-eyed.
"I will. I just, need to talk to someone." Veronique needed to know what trouble was potentially coming her way. If his parents sent him away then he wouldn't be here to help her or support her in telling the truth. The absurdity of it all struck him there. Aren't lawyers supposed to help their clients speak their version of the truth? Well, his parents didn't seem to want to listen to the actual truth.
Nadja stretched and got ready. They weren't going anywhere if she could help it. She'd never get back to Andrez if she had to trust on Ronald to grow a backbone. Looking around, she located Ronald's backpack and dragged it closer to him. She did the same with her pillow and looked at him, again waiting for the human to take the hint. Ronald wasn't really paying attention, but he did pack the pillow mechanically when he picked up his bag. As usual he packed an extra set of clothes which meant Nadja didn't have to drag those out. She'd preferred that he take more clothes but Ronald clearly had o idea which direction they were headed in.
Jumping into the bag as well, Nadja waited for Ronald to escape the house, which wasn't that hard since his bedroom was on the ground floor. Nobody suspected he would go out through the window so no alarms sounded and neither was he kept from leaving the premises. How long they'd remain undetected was uncertain however. Luckily Ronald was making haste. Peaking out, Nadja watched as the city streets merged into each other, taking turn after turn with dedication. Ronald seemed to know where Veronique lived.


Soft taps and a mental nudge alerted Andrez that they had visitors. Miowing, he woke Veronique and traipsed to the window, looking back often to make sure she'd notice his weird behaviour. Veronique stretched and looked puzzled. Luckily another pebble hit the window and she got out of bed. Putting on a long vest for warmth, she opened the window and leaned on the railing of the little balcony. She could literally only take one step outside but she'd always loved their house for those little extras.
"Who's there?" she called, trying to make out shadow from person.
"Veronique" Ronald called, "We need to talk."
"Ronald!" she called out startled, "Why are you here?"
"Can you come down?" Ronald asked.
"Not really, can you climb up?" she asked, thinking of her older brothers and parents sleeping in the hallway with their doors open. Trying to go downstairs would surely wake up her family. And trying to explain why a boy was coming to her house in the late evening might be difficult. Especially since she had no explenation to give.
Ronald looked at the vines growing below Veronique's window. They looked sturdy enough and he wasn't that heavy, but he wasn't close to being an acrobat. Still he could try. With clammy hands and a quick prayer, he started climbing. Glad to have climbed the trees at his own house as a boy, he reached the top and swung his legs over the balcony, falling inside.
"Now tell me." Veronique asked, having a couple of scenarios running through her mind, all of them dire.
"Someone told my parents that we were meeting in school and they assumed that we were dating and then they started threatening to make me go to my aunt..." the story sounded lame to Ronald's ears now. What if Veronique thought nothing of him? She'd just laugh and think him silly.
Nadja chose that moment to jump out of the backpack and install herself on the bed, next to Andrez who'd returned there while Ronald was climbing the window. While the humans talked, they held their own mental conversation about what had happened. Nadja revealing her plan to have the two budding lovers elope.
"Do you really think they'll go for that? You can't find two more straight-laced people than these two." Andrez objected, "I think they'd even be able to keep a long distance relationship going."
"Don't you want us to be together?" Nadja whimpered.
"I hadn't thought that far." Andrez mused.
"Ronald is sure to take me with him. I'd rather not stay with his parents to be honest. His sister is ok but they are not very animal-minded."
Meanwhile Ronald and Veronique were trying to think about what to do.
"Can we just tell them we just like to play with our cats?" Veronique asked.
"I tried but my parents just don't want to believe that. They seem to think that we're in a relationship and that you're completely wrong for me."
"Well they aren't wrong..."
Veronique said.
"Why? You're a hard worker and friendly. You make amazing food and well... I wouldn't mind... that is...."
Veronique was taken aback by his words.
Andrez grinned and Nadja purred. Maybe this plan would be easy to bring to fruition.
Just at that moment, heavy pounding sounded through the house and a male voice yelled to open up.
"Who's that?" Veronique started, but the voice clearly stated they wanted Ronald to come out.
"This won't look good. What now?"
"Oh really, of course now we run."
Nadja said a she shifted in human form. "What else can you do? Hurry pack some necessities and climb down those vines. We'll help." she said and poked Andrez to follow her lead.
"We're not supposed to shift in front of the humans." Andrez said.
Frozen, Ronald and Veronique just looked.
"Now you've done it, they're not moving." Andrez sighed.
"Hurry." Nadja urged, opening a large backpack while Andrez threw in some clothes and some leftover treats Veronique had made that very evening.
Nadja grabbed Veronique's hand and pulled her toward the window which was fortunately located at the back of the house, far away from the front door. The garden of the house was walled but a small gate led to an alley at the back and to other gardens and streets. Andrez urging Ronald right behind them, followed Nadja's lead and let her determine the route. Nadja had no real experience in this area but her nose helped her to stay away from human presences. While they ran she urged other cats to make noises in the opposite directions, leading their pursuers away from them. Being a cat-shifter had it's perks.
After about 20 minutes of running they had to stop. Veronique was close to collapse and Ronald wasn't looking much better.
"You need to work on your condition." Nadja said.
"To be fair you lay on your cushion all day." Andrez said, defending his caretaker.
"I do not, I train accordingly at night. I just use an efficient regime." Nadja interjected, "Now, whereto?"
"We can't go anywhere." Ronald said, "We're two kids with no allies or family to help us. We can only go home."
"No you don't."
Andrez interjected, happy to see the 2 young humans were holding hands at last, "I know a place where we can go."
"Is it close?"
Veronique asked, carefully looking to see if she could recognise her cat in this strange moustached face.
Ronald twirled his moustache and grinned. "About a month ago I was walking through the city when..."
"Dumpster-diving more likely."
Nadja huffed, "I remember that day, you stank."
"I was WALKING,"
Andrez repeated, "and I suddenly saw another alien creature materialise. I didn't know what it was and it was big so I hid. But a human was with it and they said something about needing people. We could go there and see if the creature is still around."
"This does not sound safe."
Ronald interjected, "they could be needing people for food or sacrifices for all we know."
"I didn't get bad vibes from them. You can trust my instincts."
"And WHAT are you?"
Ronald asked.
"We're cat-shifters. We've been living here for years. There's a lot of us around now."
"Are you looking for human sacrifices?"
Veronique asked, quite scared by the prospect.
"Hardly, I'd prefer your cookies. Andrez has been boasting about them."
"Well they're good."
Andrez said, "Come on, they might not even be there but it's worth a shot."
Following the 2 cat-shifters, they walked toward the nearly abandoned streets where Andrez had seen the dragon and it's rider. The night was quiet and the streets were poorly lit. This didn't hinder the cat-shifters who led their respective humans. Andrez felt sorry forVeronique who was gripping his hand firmly and tried to reassure her with a soft purr.
"I'm still me. Just bigger. Trust me." He said.
Up front, Nadja pulled Ronald and picked up on the scent of the dragon in question. "I'm pretty sure they're around here." she said.
"Do you mean us?" a low rumble asked as two iridiscent eyes opened right above them.
Veronique screamed and Ronald threw himself in front of her but whatever carnage the invisioned didn't happen.
"We are still looking for people to stand for the eggs." The dragonrider said, picking up on the cat-shofters thoughts through his mental bond with his rider. "You're welcome to try though you might never be able to return to this world. People don't know about dragons yet."
"They don't know about cat-shifters either. Yet."
Nadja said.
"I know about them." the dragon thought.
"We're coming!" Andrez and Nadja said, "And they're coming too!"

STORY - [Veronique] [Ronald] [Nadja] [Andrez]
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