The soldier cleared the safehouse when they arrived, checking every room and taking in the available space and materiel while Rumlow spoke to Westfahl downstairs. When the soldier returned to report everything in order, Rumlow had taken a few crucially significant steps toward the door, while Westfahl was planted firmly in the middle of the room.
This was not, the soldier realized, a standard mission, or even preparation for a standard mission. He kept his gaze on Rumlow, his designated senior handler, though he could not help being aware that Westfahl was rummaging through a large, full gear bag set on the coffee table. Nothing inside it sounded like standard weapons or surveillance equipment.
If the soldier had been asked to offer an analysis, he would infer that that bag was full of toys, and that he was going to be spending his time in this safehouse serving his recreational function. For Westfahl.
Rumlow looked him over, looked toward Westfahl, and shook his head slightly. "Soldier, I'm seconding you to Westfahl for twenty-four hours. He's actually done a few things right lately, and competence is rewarded. So until this time tomorrow, your orders are to do whatever he tells you. Precisely what he tells you. Understood?"
"Understood," the soldier echoed. There was no other possible answer. He had his orders. He would obey them. He would obey. He would obey Westfahl.
Rumlow looked again from him to Westfahl--who was busy with the gear bag and didn't even look up or acknowledge what Rumlow had said--and then said, "Whatever kind of mess you make, you're cleaning it up after I take him to the medics."
"I'm not going to make a mess," Westfahl insisted. "Now fuck off, sir, please and thank you, you're cutting into my time."
Rumlow raised his eyebrows but turned on his heel and stalked out.
The soldier was alone with Westfahl and the gear bag.
"Kneel," Westfahl said, watching avidly as the soldier obeyed. The soldier kept his face perfectly expressionless. Twenty-three hours, fifty-eight minutes. Whatever Westfahl did to him, Rumlow would take him to the medics when it was over.
"On all fours," Westfahl directed. He had something in his hand, something curved and black and... fluffy.
He reached for the soldier's head and fitted the thing onto him, a band that dug in behind his ears and crossed his skull. He'd gotten just enough of a glimpse to realize it had two furry triangular ears on top.
The soldier stared straight ahead. He was a weapon. He was a ghost. He would obey orders. He was a machine. He was--
"For the next twenty-four hours," Westfahl said firmly. "You are my pussycat."
The soldier shifted his gaze to Westfahl's face. Rumlow had ordered him to obey Westfahl. Westfahl had ordered him to be a cat.
He had seen a lot of cats on various missions. He knew how cats behaved. He could imitate a cat. He could comply--precisely, as Rumlow had directed--with this order.
The soldier hissed, knocked the false ears off the top of his head with a hand that might have been a paw, and bolted out of Westfahl's presence.
Westfahl caught up with him after he had curled himself onto the top shelf of a closet in the rear bedroom.
"Soldier!" Westfahl snapped. "Get down here."
A cat would not go where it was told to go. How many times had the soldier told a cat to get out of his way when he was in a sniper's perch and been ignored? And it was even worse trying to coax a cat closer. A cat wouldn't even give any sign that it heard such an order.
The soldier stretched to the extent that he could in the tight space, and laid his head on his paws to nap.
Westfahl made an amused noise. "Okay, yeah, you're a pussycat. Come here, kitty--"
Westfahl's reaching fingers did not make contact with the soldier's neck before the soldier swiped at him with fingers half-curled to simulate claws--cats had claws. He was therefore under orders to pretend to have claws, and to use them where appropriate. While Westfahl staggered back, the soldier leaped down, landing lightly on four points of contact, and trotted quickly away.
He perched on the edge of the kitchen sink, turned on the tap by batting at it with his paw--he had watched a cat do that in the apartment next door to his target's--and lapped at the stream of water until he heard Westfahl come into his vicinity. When he looked up Westfahl was standing in the doorway.
The soldier stretched his body across the sink in a feline arch, and made steady eye contact with Westfahl while he batted a glass off the counter. It landed with a satisfying crash on the floor, and Westfahl flinched.
That was an appropriate reaction. The soldier shifted further across the sink and swept a canister down after the glass. It burst open, and the floor was covered in strongly-smelling coffee grounds, mixing irretrievably with the shattered glass.
Westfahl took a step forward, then jerked back.
A cat would not fail to punish an interloper in his domain. The soldier knocked down another canister, and sugar cascaded out to mix with the coffee and glass.
Westfahl said, "Fucking malfunctioning bucket of bolts," and strode away, leaving the soldier in possession of the kitchen.
The soldier turned and lapped some more water from the still-running faucet, and then began to groom himself.
Westfahl was on the couch, arms folded, looking irritated, when the soldier wandered catlike into the room. There was a promising square of sunlight on the floor on this side of the coffee table, so the soldier positioned himself in it--perfectly correctly as a cat would do--and prepared to bask.
The sunlight was very pleasant. Cats knew what they were doing.
He lapsed into a state of semi-consciousness as when he was awaiting a shot for many hours. He would be alert to any significant sound or movement, but in the absence of such he was inert if not exactly asleep. The sunlight continued to provide a pleasant, slowly shifting warmth. He squirmed over twice to stay centered in it, and then he was up against the wall and the square of sunlight began to climb it.
"Hey, kitty," Westfahl said, and leaned forward, rummaging in the gear bag.
The soldier moved his head in such a way that he would have been twitching an up-angled ear if he had one.
"Wouldn't you like some nice tuna fish?" Westfahl asked, and as the soldier watched he peeled back the lid of a tin can and pushed it to the edge of the coffee table. The soldier waited until Westfahl sat back on the couch again and then, after grooming his paws for a few thoughtful moments, he rolled up onto all fours and sauntered over to the coffee table.
The tuna fish was oddly watery but smelled thickly of salty good food, and a cat would not turn up his nose at it. The soldier lapped at it, then, reassured that there was a solid lump of fish below the watery layer, began to eat.
He was well into the tuna fish when he noticed Westfahl moving closer, but a cat would focus on getting his meal. A cat would be confident in his ability to run away as soon as he chose to do so. A cat wouldn't be hasty.
Westfahl stretched out a cautious hand and began to pet the soldier, from the nape of his neck down the line of his spine. This was an acceptable sensation, so the soldier ignored it and continued eating, using one paw to brace the can as he chased the last fragments of fish.
He toyed with the can for a while after it was empty so that he could continue ignoring Westfahl as long as Westfahl continued the repetitive, agreeable petting motion. But eventually Westfahl changed the nature of the stroke, trying to insinuate his fingers under the waistband of the soldier's pants. The soldier twisted away and trotted off, head high and imaginary tail in a dignified arch while Westfahl cursed behind him.
The soldier went into the front bedroom and sprawled on the bed, which had a sliver of sunlight on its surface and continued to be satisfactorily soft and pleasant when the sun went away. Westfahl came and stood in the doorway and made various angry noises, said some words of command and control, but a cat would be uninterested in all of these. The soldier continued to obey his primary order and ignored Westfahl with perfect feline indifference. Westfahl did not come within range of the soldier's claws.
Eventually, the soldier began to feel bored and restless. These were not unusual sensations: the soldier's body was an overpowered machine, with a much higher capacity for exertion than most missions required. In normal cases, the soldier simply suppressed these sensations and continued to hold still as necessary to comply with orders, but a cat would not exert self-control. A cat who was bored and restless would choose to do something about it, stretching its body and using its muscles however it pleased.
The soldier pushed up onto all fours, indulging in a thorough stretch of every muscle group before he leaped down from the bed and trotted toward the living room, noting as he did that Westfahl was in the bathroom. Good. That meant he would be out of the way. The soldier stood for a moment in the place where the hallway opened out into the living room, considering its options as a cat's playground.
Then, just as the bathroom door opened behind him--with a distinct lack of preceding sounds to indicate handwashing--the soldier launched into motion, propelling himself several feet through the air to land on the couch and immediately bouncing off again. He landed lightly on the floor and bounded again, bouncing off the wall and barely touching the floor before he vaulted onto a chair and straight off, knocking it over in the process.
The soldier had a brief glimpse of Westfahl standing in the doorway with his mouth hanging open as he flashed by, bouncing off the wall beside Westfahl and springing toward the couch again. The soldier continued making these circuits, moving faster and faster, until he was scarcely making contact with the floor at all. All the pictures had fallen from the walls, the couch was torn in two places, and all other furniture was upended.
The soldier began to feel dizzy and well-exercised, and Westfahl's entertaining expression of shock had faded into dull watchfulness. The soldier bounced down to the floor, sprang up again in a midair roll to bleed off momentum, and landed lightly on the coffee table, kicking over Westfahl's bag of gear as he settled into a catlike crouch.
Westfahl raised a hand holding a tranq gun, and the soldier sprang away, not bothering to question whether a cat would know to be cautious of guns. He bolted into the kitchen, taking a perch on the counter, and then sought a yet higher vantage and sprang from the counter to the top of the refrigerator.
His weight landed almost entirely on the forward edge of the refrigerator, throwing the freezer door open and tipping the whole appliance forward. The soldier sprang back off it as it fell, aiming himself at the kitchen doorway; he collided with Westfahl, who had pursued him, and knocked him flat in the process. The tranq gun spun from Westfahl's hand and bounced off a wall as the refrigerator crashed down behind. The soldier caught the gun neatly in his mouth as he bolted to the rear bedroom and dove under the bed.
Westfahl didn't come anywhere near him, so the soldier, after stashing the tranq gun in a suitable location, stayed quietly under the bed, waiting, occasionally grooming himself. He was considering the possibility of staying put until Westfahl went to sleep or the twenty-four hours was up, and then he heard a vehicle arriving outside, and shortly after that, Rumlow's voice near the front door.
The soldier slunk out from under the bed and made his way cautiously, silently, into the hall, listening. Westfahl was complaining about him, demanding that Rumlow take him away. The soldier didn't think he would mind Rumlow taking him away, although he was feeling great satisfaction in obeying his orders so thoroughly.
He crept on all fours toward to the entrance to the living room, listening for Rumlow's response.
"You told him to be a cat?" Rumlow sounded incredulous, but not angry. "Have you ever met a cat? You literally ordered him to be an asshole and ignore everything you say."
Westfahl muttered something petulant and uncomplimentary while the soldier crept close enough to peer around the edge of the doorway at Rumlow.
He was running his hands through his hair. "Tell me you at least gave him a time limit on the order. You remembered something from Asset Handling 101, right? No continuous orders without time limits? Because if we have to wipe and freeze him early to stop him from being a cat, you're going in the chair as soon as he's out of it."
"I told him twenty-four hours," Westfahl muttered, and he picked his head up and glared directly at the soldier. "He knows exactly what he's fucking doing."
The soldier sauntered out of the semi-concealment of the doorway, walking on all fours over to Rumlow.
"He's not stupid, Westfahl, or he wouldn't be useful. Of course he knows what he's doing. But he does whatever you tell him, so you're responsible for the orders you give him."
The soldier reached Rumlow's side and rubbed his cheek thoughtfully against the outside of Rumlow's calf, keeping Rumlow between himself and Westfahl. Rumlow gave sensible, well-considered orders, and fed him regularly. Sometimes there was chocolate.
"And I see you're going to have quite a mess to clean up after I take him off your hands. Possibly some drywall to hang," Rumlow added, while the soldier experimented in rubbing his side up against Rumlow's legs, itching a spot on his hip against Rumlow's knee. Rumlow braced himself and stood still for it, not trying to touch the soldier at all.
"He did it on purpose," Westfahl insisted. "He ought to have to fucking clean it up, he's the one who did all of it."
The soldier butted his head against Rumlow's hand.
"I just told you who's responsible for that, I'm not repeating myself," Rumlow said. "Anyway, look at him, he's a fucking sweetheart."
Rumlow rubbed his knuckles just firmly enough along the soldier's scalp, then held his hand still and let the soldier continue rubbing against his knuckles, getting just the right firm pressure against the spot he wanted petted along his jaw.
"For you," Westfahl grumbled.
"For me," Rumlow agreed. "Because I put at least thirty seconds of thought into how to handle him, unlike some people."
The soldier did his best to imitate the rumbling purr of a cat pleased with the quality of petting it was receiving, and leaned more firmly against Rumlow's shins.
"Would you just take him?" Westfahl asked plaintively. "Cleaning this place is already going to eat the rest of my leave, and he likes you."
"Nope," Rumlow said, pushing his knee gently into the soldier's side to indicate that petting was finished. "He's your kitty cat. You asked for him, you keep him until your time's up. You're never going to learn if I bail you out when you fuck up. I'll see you in the morning, soldier."
The soldier gave a slightly mournful mrow and trotted away.
The soldier detected the sound of Westfahl fixing himself a drink and decided to fix one for himself. The bathroom tap was harder to turn on, but he managed, and left it running while he went to explore options for sleeping places. He decided that he preferred the bed in the front bedroom, so he went into the rear bedroom, opened his pants, and made his opinion of Westfahl known, as a cat would, by urinating thoroughly over the surface of the bed there.
He then took himself to the front bedroom and sprawled out across the maximum possible extent of the bed and settled down to sleep.
Westfahl's yowl of outrage when he realized the bed was wet was almost catlike. The soldier purred a little, alone in the other room, even though there was no one to hear.
When the soldier was sure that Westfahl was asleep--on the damaged couch, because Westfahl knew better than to try to usurp the soldier's chosen sleeping place--he retrieved from his pocket the ball of hair which his grooming had produced and considered what to do with it.
He put it into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully on it. It was an unpleasant sensation, but he would endure any level of unpleasantness to carry out orders.
He made his way quietly down the hall to the living room, creeping up to the spot next to the couch where Westfahl had left his boots. When he was in position, and Westfahl was still asleep, the soldier made himself swallow the ball of hair, then leaned his mouth directly over the top of Westfahl's boot while he made himself heave, working at gagging the hairball back up. He succeeded just as Westfahl began to stir, and the hairball dropped wetly into Westfahl's boot, saturated with saliva and just a hint of bile.
"Soldier? What the fuck are you--"
The soldier bolted again. Westfahl didn't follow him, and did not investigate his boots. That was all right. Whether Westfahl knew it or not, the soldier was excelling in his performance as a cat.
Sometime before dawn the soldier woke up from a light, watchful doze and felt hungry. Westfahl had only bothered to feed him once, and even with the amount of resting he'd done, he needed more fuel than that. Of course the soldier could endure hunger, but he was a cat right now. A cat would not.
A cat also would not scavenge for itself--a feral cat would, of course, but he had not been ordered to be just any cat. He had been ordered to be Westfahl's cat. That meant Westfahl was responsible for feeding him.
The soldier slunk over to the living room, sat on his haunches by the couch, and yowled loudly enough to make his displeasure with the lack of food clear.
Westfahl jerked awake, stared at him, and said, "It's still fuckin' dark out," then rolled over as if he meant to go back to sleep.
The soldier jumped up onto the coffee table and leaned from it over the couch to bat one paw--his left one, which seemed likely to be more effective--first against Westfahl's arm, and then, when Westfahl waved his arm and tried to shove the touch away, against his face.
"Knock it off," Westfahl snarled, rolling onto his back and reaching a hand toward the soldier as if he would touch or even hit him.
The soldier darted his head forward and bit down hard on Westfahl's fingers, then leapt away. Food belonged in the kitchen. He would await food there.
Westfahl did not immediately come in, so the soldier fetched a suitable bowl and set it on the floor to make the problem clear. Westfahl still did not follow, and could be heard cursing quietly in the living room. He was still on the couch.
The soldier began to yowl more loudly, in case Westfahl had any ideas about going back to sleep. He made his irritated noises progressively louder until Westfahl stomped in, switched on the kitchen light, and saw the soldier waiting with the empty bowl on the floor.
"Fuck, fine!" Westfahl yelled, and stomped away again. He came back with several cans of tuna fish, peeled them open and dumped their contents, one by one, into the bowl. He was working awkwardly, one handed; he was favoring the other hand as though it were seriously injured, though there was hardly any blood.
The soldier waited until Westfahl had dumped out all the fish, and then, when Westfahl got out of the way, he began to eat. He ate quickly, because he was hungry, and because he did not like Westfahl's posture as he stood watching. But Westfahl did not come close enough to touch him, and stood still, cradling his hand against his chest, until the soldier was finished.
When the soldier had finished licking the bowl and Westfahl was still standing there, the soldier finally made up his mind to simply ignore Westfahl. He was walking past him, loftily unconcerned, when Westfahl lashed out and kicked him in the ribs.
The soldier twisted away from the blow, letting out one furious yowl, and then darted straight to the couch. Staring steadily at Westfahl the entire time, he squatted over the pillow his head had been on, and let loose a stream of piss.
Westfahl stared back at him for ten seconds and then, before the soldier had even finished relieving himself, he threw his hands in the air. "Fine. Fine! You fucking win!" Westfahl stomped up to the front door and let himself out, grumbling as he went. "At least you won't remember this the next time I see you. Fucking psycho cat."
The soldier finished emptying his bladder and jumped up onto the back of the couch to peer out through the window. Westfahl was sitting on the porch step. He still had not put his boots on.
The soldier stretched out along the top of the couch, where he could keep an eye on Westfahl and where the sun would find him as soon as it came up, and settled in to nap until the termination of his orders.