From the author: Brigitte introduces Hēi Māo to her best friends. This is the final free teaser. To find out what happens next, you'll need to buy the book.
Brigitte led her two best friends up the stairs to her room. With her hand on the door, she glanced back at Ruhul. "You sure Juniper will be okay with him?"
The boy grinned and reached up to pat the small red fox perched on his shoulder. "She's awesome with regular cats and even better with familiars. I don't think it'll be a problem. And if it is, she can go downstairs while we hang out. She's pals with Callie."
She nodded and pushed the door open. "Ni hao ma, Hēi Māo," she called. He'd woken up for pets when she'd been home for lunch, and he'd seemed interested when she told him Friday night was usually game night.
"You talk to him in Chinese?" Aalia asked. "Ru, do you talk to Juniper in Italian?"
Ruhul laughed and shook his head. "No. It hadn't even occurred to me to try." He followed the girls into the room. "How did you find a multilingual familiar, Gitte?"
"Luck?" she suggested peeking into the hidey-holes of the cat tree. "Where are you kitty?"
A soft questioning, "Mow," came from her bed, but he wasn't peeking over the side yet.
"He really likes my bed." She wandered over to the ladder.
"With as much as your pops says he likes you, that's not a surprise," Ruhul said. "It probably smells like you, so it keeps him company when you're gone."
"Hey there sweetie," Brigitte said, smiling at the black cat sprawled on her pillow. "We have company, and they'd like to meet you." She thought for a moment, working through the translation. "Tā men shì wo de péng you." They are my friends.
Ruhul laughed. "Juniper came from Russia. Maybe I should try Duolingo for Russian and see if she still understands it." It was a Moroccan custom to pair witch children with their familiars young, so he'd been the first in the class, at just over eleven, to show up at school with a clingy new familiar. He was always the first to help each of their witch-born friends as they adjusted to their new bonds.
"Oh my god, Gitte," Aalia squealed as Hēi Māo crawled into Brigitte's arms. "He's adorable." She started to reach out, but caught herself before she could be corrected. "Sorry. Still getting used to that." Aalia's family weren't witches; Brigitte and Ruhul were her first magic friends when she'd moved to Paris from Martinique eight months ago.
Hēi Māo stretched his neck to sniff at the other girl, then the boy. His head tilted slightly as he took in the curious fox. He wiggled a bit, and when Brigitte loosened her hold, he climbed up onto her shoulder as if in imitation of Juniper.
"Gitte," Ruhul said, puzzled as he stared at the cat. "I thought you said you hadn't gone through the familiar ceremony yet."
"We haven't." She put one hand behind Hēi Māo to keep him steady as she climbed down the ladder.
Ruhul snorted. "You look claimed by each other. It's a little fainter than most familiar bonds," he clarified. "But that's pretty common at first." He narrowed his eyes a moment and shook his head. "Any prior claim you thought he had is completely gone."
"What does that mean?" Aalia asked.
"Short story, that cat is definitely hers, no take backsies," he explained. "Long story, he probably has some magic of his own, and he's not waiting for her to choose him. He's made up his mind and he's made himself her familiar." He squinted again. "It's a little one-sided, yet. Probably 'cause Gitte hasn't gone through the formalities."
Later, the friends sat side by side on the chaise, which had been dragged over to Brigitte's computer desk. They'd already gone through Mario Kart, with Aalia surprising them all by being the overall victor for a change, and Brigitte couldn't bring herself to care.
"She's distracted by her kitty," Aalia insisted, pointing at Hēi Māo. "But I'll take it."
Ruhul laughed, his smile soft with reminiscence. "Yeah. That happens to all of us."
"What does?" Aalia asked.
"It's an adjustment to have a familiar, someone so connected to you." He reached out catch Juniper's muzzle in a gentle caress. "It's really nice, knowing you'll never be alone. I mean, you have to fuck up pretty badly for your familiar to snub you, and very few witch-born are willing to risk that."
"Does that mean her grades are going to slip?" Aalia asked, frowning a little.
"Teachers at L'Étoile du Nord are pretty good about accommodating new witch and familiar pairs," Ruhul said, glancing up for a moment before focusing on the racetrack again. "You haven't really gotten to see it, because most of us had ours before you moved here."
"But I've seen all the animals in class," Aalia pointed out. A full half of their class were witch-born and a few others had different forms of magical power or abilities. "How long does it take to get used to being connected to… someone like that?"
"It's usually just a couple of weeks," Ruhul assured her. "Gitte will be back in usual form soon."
"Gitte," Aalia said once she'd crossed yet another finish line in first place. "I know you've been focused on your kitty search, but did you see the update on the case with Jacque Parenteau?"
Brigitte felt Hēi Māo go still under her fingers. The famous model, son of her favorite designer, was right around their age. The consistently brilliant showings of the Parenteau fashion house was part of what first sparked her interest in design. She religiously followed their trends and news, and had been about ten when Pierre's wife vanished under mysterious circumstances. Normally she'd be more invested in this particular case; she'd actually kept tabs on it since Jacque went missing from a photo shoot at Grand Palais in June.
"Uh, no. Did they find him?" Brigitte asked.
Aalia shook her head. "No, but apparently they've had some good leads. Pierre announced that he'd received solid evidence to suggest Jacque was fine, and he seemed convinced he'd be home soon." She tapped at her chin with one finger. "He didn't say if it was normal evidence like photos or a letter, or if he was working with a psychic. But based on how he practically begged Jacque to come home, I'd guess he got intel that Jacque isn't being held anywhere against his will."
Hēi Māo's tail lashed about, and Brigitte settled a hand on him to calm him. "I hope he really is okay. I hate to think of all the awful things that could've happened to him."
Aalia patted her back, careful not to brush against the fidgeting kitty. "Remember, what we talked about Gitte. If the really horrible things had happened, there would've been a ransom demand."
Brigitte nodded. "I know. I just… I think he's had a difficult life, and I worry." Hēi Māo chose that moment to rest his head on top of hers, his little kitty motor vibrating against her scalp. She sighed, soothed by his actions.
When they switched over to SkullGirls, the black cat let out a couple of excited chirps and wriggled on Brigitte's shoulder. "You like this game, Kitty?" she asked.
He leaned against her and hummed.
"Come here," she said, patting her lap. "You can help me."
"You don't need help," Ruhul said with a laugh. "We don't even to try to beat you anymore. We just aim for as high a score as possible against you."
"No, no," Aalia said eagerly. "Let the cat help." She grinned. "He might even things out a bit."
Ruhul nodded quickly. "I mean, yeah. Please help Gitte out, Hēi Māo. As much as you want. She needs it."
"Hey!" Brigitte objected with a giggle. "We're still new at being a team, no judging."
"We aren't judging, girl," Aalia insisted, her hands out in a warding off gesture. "We're supporting your new relationship. That's what friends do." She ruined her serious statement with a laugh.
"Yeah," Ruhul agreed. "What Aalia said."
Brigitte settled her hand on the right side of the controller, her fingers hovering over the buttons. Wrapping her arm around Hēi Māo, she used her left hand to pin the controller to her knee. She pointed to the big gray buttons. "You're in charge of those, okay."
The black cat butted his head against the bottom of her chin and reached out to place his left paw over his buttons.
"Do we get a warm up round?" Brigitte looked up to find her friends staring at her, their eyes wide. "What?"
"Your cat plays video games?" Aalia asked, stunned.
"Ummm…" Brigitte took in Hēi Māo's gaze, intent on the monitor, his lithe body tense and ready to leap into action. "No idea."
"I'm no longer sure this was a good idea," Ruhul muttered.
"How good can they really be at it?" Aalia asked. "They've never teamed up before, and it's not like normal teams where they each have their own controller." She snickered. "I kind of want to see what would happen if we gave Hēi Māo his own controller."
Ruhul shook his head. "Something tells me you're about to get schooled in the power of familiars, Aalia." He patted her shoulder. "It's okay though. I get to play the loser."
Hēi Māo liked Brigitte's friends. They were funny and kind to his witch, something that pleased him. Aalia spoke to him as though he were one of them, and he enjoyed the way Ruhul treated him, like he was an extension of his witch. His familiar, Juniper, was interesting, and he thought they could become friends in time, too.
He just needed to convince Brigitte that he was the best familiar for her. Helping her defeat Aalia and Ruhul at SkullGirls, while sharing a controller had been a ton of fun, and he felt it was encouraging her the right way.
He curled up on her pillow, purring as she lay down beside him, one hand slowly passing over his smooth fur. Once she'd finally fallen asleep, he crept out through the skylight. He lived here now, and he needed to fetch his few belongings. If nothing else, the money would allow him to pick up some clothes that fit when he needed his human shape.
The rooftop where he'd been storing his knapsack was several blocks away, a round trip he could manage in under an hour. Running back to the bakery in human form, with shoes that were too small, was uncomfortable. That feeling was only compounded by the fact that he was no longer used to being a human, but he simply couldn't carry the backpack as a cat. Getting his things up to Brigitte's roof took a bit of climbing, but he was good enough at that even as a human. He'd had a climbing wall in his old bedroom before he ran away, and her fire escape wasn't that far off the ground.
Once his things were tucked in a secure spot on the roof, he curled back up on top of Brigitte′s comforter. He watched her sleep, listening to her soft breaths, before closing his own eyes. Perhaps tomorrow he could convince her that he should be her familiar. He appreciated her effort in letting him choose, but didn't she see he already had?
He'd met his father's familiar several times, of course, but she didn't like talking to him. She'd treated him as though his existence offended her in some way, like he wasn't human enough or cat enough. She loyally reported to his father, anyway, so it was probably for the best. Still, he'd learned enough to understand how these contracts worked. Living with the Defresne-Li family, even for a few days, made it clear that he couldn't possibly do better as a person or a stray.
Brigitte is a teen witch who is desperately ready to find her familiar. Jacque was an internationally-known teen model, but he's spent the last four months living as a stray cat on the streets of Paris. What could possibly happen when these two cross paths?
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