It was the first week of December and Nala Grey, the cat in charge of a clowder of feline spies, eyed the envelope that had just been placed in front of her suspiciously. She knew what it was – an invitation from her mother. Svetlana, the feline Countess of Grey, could be extremely formal when it came to the holidays. The Countess knew that when it came to her daughter, formality helped. It wasn't just an invitation to her, but to all of Clowder Number Nine and to Rhys. How the Countess knew about Rhys, Nala wasn't sure but she had her suspicions. Since the invitation was to Phoebe, Fiona, Alex, and Rhys as much as herself, she couldn't just turn it down out of hand and claim she had work to do. Nala was sure that Lady Gwenllian had told the Countess that Clowder Number Nine was still on light duty until the beginning of the New Year.
It wasn't that Nala didn't want to go home, She did. She loved her parents and her siblings at home. For the year of training and the two years that Natalia was still at M.E.O.W., they had both proudly gone home for holidays – Christmas, New Year, Easter, and the August Bank Holiday. But in the four years since Natalia had gone rogue, Nala had avoided home as much as possible. It was guilt over the way her twin had turned out and how Nala, hadn't brought her to justice yet. Natalia was a blot on the Grey family honor and she felt responsible.
This year, though, Nala did kind of want to introduce Rhys to her parents. In the last month, they had gotten close. Well as close as his work allowed. His Clowder was still on active missions. She had thought about trying to get him to transfer to Clowder Number Nine but street smarts wasn't the skill set they were missing. They needed a computer expert.
She waited until dinner to tell anyone about the invitation. Dinner was the one time every feline would be together. Fiona and Phoebe had noticed how close Nala and Rhys were getting and had asked him to join the Clowder at the meal when he was at Headquarters. Rhys had gratefully accepted as he wanted to get to know the rest of Number Nine. Alex, the no longer quite so young kitten, was glad to have another tomcat at the table. He missed Erik's male influence being left with the three ladies. Others would be envious of having three such lovely and deadly examples of feline femininity to himself, but Alex wasn't so pleased. Not that he didn't agree they were all lovely and deadly. It was just that they were so much older than him and they tended to mother him when not on missions. Erik had been able to influence Fiona to back off but with him gone, the mothering had gotten worse. That was until Rhys had returned. Rhys had distracted Nala and Fiona was keep busy with teaching her history class, which left only Phoebe to mother him. He wouldn't want the mothering to completely stop, after all the attention was nice, so the attentions of one maternal cat was good.
After the dinner – roast beef with cooked carrots – had been served, Nala brought up the invitation. She let her opinion that they shouldn't go be known but the others seemed excited by the prospect. Fiona hadn't be looking forward to Christmas with out her brother. Rhys was both excited and nervous about meeting the Earl and Countess. Alex was awed and honored. He remembered his history lessons and the Grey family were legends. He was awed to be included in their holiday celebrations. Fiona teased him about being so awed when he'd been working with a Grey for the last six months. It wasn't the same he insisted. Phoebe chimed in that she had no other plans except maybe attending the party the MacDougals through in the mess hall every year for the cats who had no where else to go or were on duty.
That was it. Clowder Number Nine and Rhys would be traveling to Northumberland for the Christmas Holiday. Nala conceded to the enthusiasm of everyone else. That evening she went to the offices of headquarters. There was always a secretary on duty to help with any official correspondence any cat needed. Nala requested that the formal stationary her mother had sent her be loaded into a printer ready for when she had finished composing her letter.
It took Nala close to an hour to write the short three paragraph letter. It printed on the ivory linen paper and the secretary took it out and placed it before the gray cat. The secretary opened a blue ink pad and waited for Nala to press her right front paw into the ink and then onto the paper above the line that read “Lady Nala Grey”. The signature done, the secretary brought over a warm damp towel to clean Nala's paw. Paw clean, the feline left for her evening activities and the secretary folded the letter and inserted it in the per-addressed envelope. A stamp was placed on it and the letter was set on the pile of out going post.
Nala went to the gym to pound on the cat sized heavy bag for a while. She loved her family but the idea of having to go visit them with Natalia still on the loose made her angry. She would happily go visit the Earl and Countess when the family honor was restored. Until then, being forced to go made her need to work off the anger. It wasn't just the smudge on the family honor that made her not want to go home, but also the fact that the cottage held good memories of her sister.
An hour latter Nala was in a much better frame of mind. She went and washed the sweat out of her fur. Once that was done she went in search of her boyfriend, Rhys. She found him in the cafeteria having a small snack of leftover salmon.
Nala signaled for a snack herself. A staff member brought out a small plate of salmon for herself. Nala thanked her and set to eating the treat.
Rhys waited until the plate was almost clean before asking the question upper most on his mind.
“Are you ashamed of me?” Rhys asked, in cat because this conversation shouldn't be overheard by the humans. “Is that why you didn't want to take me to meet your parents?”
Nala looked at Rhys. He looked like he was extremely hurt by that suggestion. That was the last thing she ever wanted do. She never wanted to hurt him. Rhys was the best thing to happen to her and she didn't want to loose him. She didn't want to explain her reluctance to go home but her desire to not lose Rhys outweighed that so she told him. Everything.
Rhys listened to Nala's story – to her pain. He nudged her shoulder with his head. He purred. She relaxed against him. Soon she started purring too. She might not want to face her family but with Rhys at her side she could. He gave her strength. He couldn't make Natalia's betrayal go away but Rhys could make it easier to bear.