The cat was brownish. It had ears. It was looking at Alessandro, so it wasn’t dead. That was about all he could see, since it was squished into the farthest corner of the cage.
“That’s Zlatan,” said the shelter worker at Alessandro’s shoulder. “He’s the last one of his litter to go.”
“Zlatan?” Alessandro repeated slowly, trying out the unfamiliar name.
Up till now, the shelter worker had been doing his best to encourage Alessandro to stick his fingers through the bars and talk to the animals and basically make a fool of himself, but the man wasn’t doing any of that with this one. He just stood back with Alessandro and looked into the cage. “It’s Bosnian or something like that, I think? We have a girl from there who works here, and she checked that litter in so she got to name them.”
“Oh.” Alessandro squinted at the cat, then blinked when the cat seemed to squint back. It was hard to make out much about it, with the shadows and the fact that unlike all the other animals, this one didn’t seem that interested in investigating the stranger. If anything, it seemed pissed off that it was being looked at.
Grimacing, Alessandro shook his head and then absently ran a hand through his hair. He wasn’t an animal person. He didn’t do the baby-talk thing to his pet because he didn’t have one, never had, and he did not anthropomorphize. People were people, animals were animals, and he was only here to prove to his family that he was not an antisocial hermit who was going to die alone and unnoticed in a one-room walk-up. Fine, they were Italian but sometimes he thought the metaphors were a bit much.
“I guess I should tell you he’s already been adopted out twice, and neither of them worked out,” the shelter worker abruptly added. He moved his shoulders uncomfortably, glancing between Alessandro and the cat. “Both of them said he’s a little too active for them.”
The cat’s ears had been half-relaxed, but now they stiffened like it was listening to them. It flicked out its tongue over its lip, then suddenly but gracefully uncoiled, stalking up to the door. It was brown all over, but not really a uniform brown: its fur was made up of light and dark brown strands mixed together so the cat had almost a golden sheen when it turned into the light, and on its face it had dark stripes running around its eyes and from them down the nose. The tips of its ears also appeared to have little black tufts.
“What do you mean, too act—”
Bang. The cat bounced off the cage door, which now had a dent in the wires, and fell onto its side. It kept rolling and got back onto its feet, apparently unhurt. Without a backward look, it went back to its corner. The tail flicked up, then sideways as it resumed its curled-up position, only now it had its back to them.
“We think Zlatan might be hybrid to some degree,” the shelter worker offered in a faltering voice. When Alessandro turned a questioning look on him, the man shrugged diffidently and began looking away, down the hall where the rest of the cats were. “He and his siblings were, ah, recovered from a place that also kept exotic wildcat species, and there may have been some inadvertent crossbreeding. The breeder wasn’t very responsible about how he housed them—anyway, that’s why he’s so large.”
“He looks about the same size as the other ones you showed me,” Alessandro said, frowning.
The shelter worker gave Alessandro a tight smile. “Yes, but they were adults. He’s still only about five months old. He’s got a while yet. Listen, there’s really a lovely two-year-old in the next room. Very friendly…smaller…”
The man was already moving away. While the sensible thing would have been to follow him, Alessandro stayed put and stared at the cat again. God, only a few months old and that big…and the arrogant shit wouldn’t even bother to be friendly and cute. He seemed as disgusted with the shelter worker’s patter as Alessandro was; all right, the man had a job to do and Alessandro supposed that he was doing it well, but he barely knew Alessandro and already he was making all sorts of assumptions about what kind of cat Alessandro wanted. And Alessandro had no idea what kind of cat he wanted because he wasn’t a pet person, so he didn’t know how some stranger would know.
“Sir? If you’ll just come this way…”
“He’s fine. I’ll try him,” Alessandro said. He watched the cat swivel its head around and stare at him. “I work long hours and I don’t really want a needy pet.”
That apparently wasn’t the standard answer because for a long time the shelter worker was quiet. Finally he shuffled his feet a bit. “He is quite active. Well, not now, but—”
“I don’t have a lot in my place either.” Because Alessandro could live just fine without all the knick-knacks that cluttered up everyone else’s flats, and that was just being rational. That was not the sign of a desolate life, damn it. “I like his…his independence.”
“Well, all right,” the shelter worker eventually said. “If you’re sure. Then…then hang on a moment and I’ll get the gloves.”
Alessandro was letting his perverse side get the better of him and he knew it, and he knew full well how ominous the shelter worker’s words sounded, but he wanted to get this over and done with. He looked at the cat and the cat looked at him, and Alessandro narrowed his eyes. “Listen. I’ll give you a roof and food and a litter box, but don’t think that gives you the right to walk in and take over. I make the trains run on time, and this is Italy. I don’t take shit.”
The cat’s ears rose a little, like it was really hearing him. But then it shut its eyes and turned its head around. After another moment, it twisted a bit so its hindlegs were flopping open and it was showing its…wait, wasn’t the shelter supposed to neuter its animals? Granted, Alessandro wasn’t a vet, but it still looked like the cat was intact.
“All right, then.” The shelter worker was back and he’d brought another man with him. Both of them had heavy leather gloves on and were screwing up their faces as if they were about to plunge into a pit of poisonous snakes. “Er, sir, can you move out of the way? This might get a bit…well, it’ll be better.”
“Sure,” Alessandro said bemusedly, stepping to the side. All right, the cat promised to be rather gigantic, but it wasn’t there yet so this seemed a bit extreme to him.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, Alessandro was fumbling somewhat more than he needed to in order to get out his keys because after he’d gotten inside, he’d have to take out the cat from its carrier. And he had no idea how he’d do that—at least, not without risking his fingers and possibly a few more chunks of flesh, and now he was cursing his inability to just admit he’d made a mistake. The moment that cat had launched itself from the cage, a hissing ball of claws, he should’ve said no, he’d take a different one, but he’d already committed himself and he would’ve looked like a coward to the shelter worker. A complete stranger. Over a cat.
Alessandro bit the inside of his mouth, then irritably shook his key-ring out of his pocket and unlocked the front door. Well, at least the shelter had been decent enough to knock down the fee, since the cat wasn’t spayed because no one could get near it long enough. And it was only half-grown at most.
He went inside and accidentally bumped the carrier against the doorway as he did. From inside the box came a sharp scrabble, but then the cat was silent again. Once they’d gotten it into the carrier, it’d settled down, but somehow Alessandro doubted that that was because it’d given up.
After setting down the carrier, Alessandro turned around and shut the door. Then he took off his coat and shoes, dropped his mail and keys on a table, went to the kitchen. He looked over the litter box and two small plastic bowls in the corner, all of which had been empty this morning but now were full with food and water and litter pebbles. It didn’t take long to find the cheery note from his mother tacked to the fridge; Alessandro read it, smiled because he loved his mother and it was a nice thing for her to do, and then threw the note away, sighing, because his mother was much, much too enthusiastic about this.
Then he went back into the next room. He got down by the carrier and a dark lump jerked back from the door, then resolved into the cat, all hunched over and wary. Alessandro thought a moment, moved to behind the carrier, and then undid the latches, careful to keep his fingers away from where the cat could get them. He quickly flicked the door open and then stood up and back.
Something peeked out the door, or so Alessandro thought—when he bent down, it disappeared. He straightened back up and the cat didn’t come out. He waited and it didn’t move. He couldn’t help a sigh, then folded his arms over his chest and stared down at the carrier between his legs, and still no cat appeared.
A minute passed. Five. Ten, and Alessandro threw up his hands and stalked towards his bathroom. He’d had a long day at work, then had gone to the shelter, and now he had a long, paperwork-filled night ahead of him. “Well, fine. The things are in the kitchen, you can get them yourself,” he said over his shoulder.
Then he paused and looked back. No cat. Shaking his head, Alessandro went into the hall.
* * *
Once Alessandro had showered and changed, he came back to check and the carrier was empty. Blinking, Alessandro looked sharply around, and then more slowly and closely, but he didn’t see anything remotely cat-shaped. He went into the kitchen and there were paw-prints in the litterbox, and the amount of food in the bowl was considerably reduced.
He went out. No cat—wait. His bookcase had a lump on it. His bookcase also was taller than him, and the next closest surface was the arm of the couch, which was at least a meter lower and about half a meter away.
Well, however the cat had gotten up there, he couldn’t stay there. Alessandro went over and waved his hand. “Get off.”
The cat had been looking at him the whole time, but now it looked away. Annoyed, Alessandro took another step up, grabbing at one of the shelves to help support himself. “Off! You’re not allowed up there.”
The cat looked back at him through slitted eyes. “Raow.”
“Don’t talk back to me!” Alessandro snapped unthinkingly. Then he grimaced and pressed his hand to the side of his face. No, he told himself. He’d had the cat for less than a day. He wasn’t talking to it like it was a little person in a fur-coat already, and he wasn’t going to start. “All right, then I’ll—”
Alessandro started to grab for the cat, then remembered the scene in the shelter and yanked back his hand just as the cat sprang to its feet. It hissed and arched its back so that brushed the ceiling, its head swiveling to keep track of Alessandro as he backed off, looking around for the…where was that damn book…there.
He picked up the Cats for Dummies book and the cat promptly stopped hissing. Surprised, Alessandro looked back at it to find it in the oddest posture: scrunched down, its legs under it, ears flat back but eyes squeezed shut. It almost looked like…like the cat thought…Alessandro glanced down at the book, then flipped a few pages while watching the cat.
Its eyes slitted open and it looked at him. He flipped a few more pages, but it didn’t do anything else. So he put the book down and its ears rose a little, surprised. Alessandro picked the book up, and the cat flinched and hunkered back down. Reading that reaction didn’t require the kind of sentimental imagination that made Alessandro roll his eyes at pet-owners; it was as clear as a street sign.
Alessandro put down the book a bit hastily so it clattered onto the table. He sucked in a breath, annoyed at himself, then stepped back from the table and ran a hand through his hair, feeling a little ill and, frankly, rather frustrated. He didn’t want the cat on the bookcase but he didn’t know how to get it down, and now he couldn’t look it up.
After a few more indecisive moments, he looked back up at the cat, who had relaxed a bit but who was still watching him closely. It was probably just in his mind, but the cat looked confused too.
“All right, but only because it’s your first day,” Alessandro finally said. “Tomorrow, you stay off my furniture.”
The cat blinked and sat there.
Throwing up his hands, disgusted with himself now, Alessandro went out of the room and into his bedroom. He had work to do.
* * *
In the morning, the food bowl was empty, and the water bowl nearly so. The litterbox, by comparison, was…was used. Used impressively, even. If one didn’t have to scoop out the stuff, and even if the litter did clump, it was still…well, cat shit.
The cat was still on the top of the bookcase, but Alessandro was already running a bit late, so he just shook the bagged shit at it as he rushed out. He’d get it when he got home in the evening.
* * *
Except by the evening, he’d forgotten all about it, and in fact he’d just about forgotten he had a cat because work had been so horrific. Once again, football derbies had been moved around for the TV companies with barely any notice for anyone else, and of course that meant trains had to be rerouted and rescheduled and when Alessandro got home, he just wanted something for his headache.
He’d gotten that and was well into cooking dinner when he heard something at the entrance to the kitchen. Alessandro looked up and the cat yanked back its head. He kept watching while stirring the pot and eventually the cat peeked around again. It paused, then marched right into the kitchen and sniffed at its food bowl, which Alessandro now was empty again. Then it went back a few steps, looked at him, and walked back out.
At least it was…Alessandro frowned and gazed into the pot without really seeing it. Then he turned the heat down and went out, and yes, the cat was back on the bookcase. “Oh, for…wait.”
He went back into the kitchen and measured out food into the bowl, making sure to make plenty of noise. Then he waited, but no cat. So he picked up the bowl and rattled it, and then even carried it out into the next room so the cat could see it.
The cat yawned. It had very white teeth and its tongue wiggled vigorously between them.
“You—well, you can stay up there, then,” Alessandro snapped, stalking back into the kitchen. He put down the bowl, ran his hands under the tap to get off all the kitty kibble dust, and then went back to cooking his dinner.
* * *
The next evening was a bit better and Alessandro did remember. So he came home, ready to have it out with the cat, only to find the top of the bookcase bare. Surprised, he looked around and a “raow” directed him to look at the carpet. The cat was sitting right in front of him, about a meter away, head cocked as if to say Alessandro was a blind moron.
“Oh, good, you’ve learned,” Alessandro said.
The cat cocked its head the other way. “Rrau raow,” it said, and then it deliberately walked away and hopped first onto the couch, and then spectacularly onto the bookcase. “Rau.”
Alessandro just stared at it, slightly open-mouthed. The absolute nerve.
“Raaoooow.” Sounding exasperated, the cat jumped from the bookcase to the couch, then to the floor. It trotted purposefully across the room and into the kitchen, then came back pushing the food bowl in front of it.
“Oh. Well, I’m sorry, but I just got ho—wait, there’s still food in here,” Alessandro told the cat, looking narrowly at it.
For a moment the cat looked back. Then it closed its eyes hard, like a person with a migraine. “Raaaow.”
Clearly the food wasn’t it, but why else would the cat be…Alessandro suddenly remembered last night, and what he’d said. But that couldn’t be it. This was a cat and it didn’t understand human words and anyway, even if it could, it didn’t have any concept of permissions. Besides, it was a cat and he was the owner. “That’s not what I meant!”
The cat’s ears rose slightly, doubting him.
“No, you’re not allowed up there. I don’t care what I said last night, I don’t want you up…where are you going? I’m not done yet,” Alessandro said, getting up as the cat abruptly whipped around. It ran up onto the couch and in a second had its usual place on the bookcase. “Hey—hey!”
“Rau!” the cat snarled at him. Its fur was all ruffled and it had its ears back, and if Alessandro didn’t know better, he’d say it was mad at him for taking back his word, which he hadn’t given in the first place.
He was thinking much too deeply into this. At any rate, one didn’t make promises to cats, and so there was nothing to break, and no reason to feel guilty. Or whatever was making Alessandro look down at the food bowl by his feet.
“I don’t want you clawing up my furniture. That bookcase has been handed down in the family,” Alessandro finally told it. He’d meant to sound stern, but somehow it came out almost apologetic.
Oh, this was more and more ridiculous the more time he wasted on it. Alessandro shut the door, locked it, and then nearly kicked over the bowl as he turned around. He glared down at it, then sighed and picked it up to take it back to the kitchen. His stomach growled, reminding him that he had more than a recalcitrant ball of fur to see to.
* * *
After dinner, Alessandro came back into the living room and stood in front of the bookcase. The cat was still up there, and when he looked at it, it hunched down as if to say, “You want off, then you’re going to have to drag me off.”
“What’s so attractive about that spot anyway?” Alessandro asked, folding his arms over his chest. “It can’t be that comfortable. You have a bed, you know.”
“Raow?” the cat said.
“It’s over—” Then Alessandro caught himself. He stopped pointing and put his face in his hand, then let out a long sigh. “It’s been a hard week. And I’m talking to a cat. Maybe I do spend too much time alone.”
The cat nodded knowingly.
Alessandro shut his mouth and stared at the cat through his fingers. It seemed to make the animal uncomfortable, since it kept folding and unfolding its forepaws under itself. Finally the cat got up and walked off a bit, then twisted back to glower at Alessandro. “Raow rau,” it said defensively. “Rau?”
“I’m talking to a cat!” Alessandro snapped, jerking down his hand. “You’re not supposed to talk to cats as if they understand! It’s a sign of insanity.”
As if it was actually considering the idea, the cat sat down and stared off into space for a few seconds. Then it tilted its head and flipped the tip of its tail.
“It is so your problem. This is your ow—oh, God, what am I doing?” Completely disgusted, Alessandro put his hand back over his face. He massaged the sides of his nose, then took a deep breath and looked up at the cat. “Look, you’ve got food and water and a litter box, and you do have a bed. The least you could do is leave my grandfather’s bookcase alone.”
“Raooow,” the cat said irritably. It pulled back its head like a turtle, then got up and started pawing at the bookcase.
Of course Alessandro cursed and lunged forward to stop the cat before it shredded the wood beyond repair. He grabbed one of the shelves and the cat skittered back into the wall, then lifted up its head. It pugnaciously stood there and waited till Alessandro had awkwardly hauled himself up and could see the top of the bookcase and…and Alessandro had to notice that the wood looked fine.
The cat looked at Alessandro. It raised a paw, licked it, then used it to prod the bookcase.
He wasn’t just talking to it, Alessandro suddenly realized. He was actually having a discussion, and this was ridiculous and yet it seemed to come naturally out. But it was completely irrational and silly and…and well, it might be all those things but he couldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening.
“Look,” Alessandro finally said. “I just want you to be careful.”
“Rau,” the cat replied, sounding exasperated. Then it walked to the end of the bookcase, using exaggerated steps so it was practically tip-toeing. It paused to make sure it had his attention, then bounded off the bookcase to the couch to the floor.
Alessandro blinked, still not certain what had just happened. Then he reasoned that whatever it’d been, it’d worked and far be it for him to question it, so he got off the bookcase and started to go back to his bedroom. But the cat ran in front of him, then sat there, miaowing loudly. “Oh, what else?” Alessandro asked.
The cat squinted at him, then lifted one paw and hit his shin. When Alessandro flinched back, the cat actually seemed to smirk for a second. Then it sat there and stared up at him.
What else had they—oh. Sighing, Alessandro turned around and went to the kitchen. He stopped on the threshold and looked down; the cat had followed him and was right by his leg, giving him a confused look. For a moment Alessandro was confused too, because he didn’t know why he would be so surprised that a pet might follow its owner around. Granted, this one seemed to have odd ideas about asserting itself, but really.
He gave himself a shake and went into the kitchen, where he pointed out the cat-bed. The cat went up to it, bent and sniffed it, and then twisted round to give Alessandro another confused look.
“That’s it.” Alessandro poked the cushion-y thing with his foot.
The cat sat down and stared at him some more.
All right, it was soft pink with cute catnip-stuffed toy mice stitched to the rim and a lacy design on the outside. It was still a nice bed and it was big enough to hold two of the cat, so it’d accommodate however big the cat grew. “My mother bought it,” Alessandro told the cat, trying not to sound defensive. “I think she thought I’d get a pretty little tabby girl.”
“Raur,” the cat grinned. It honestly was grinning; it had its head tilted back so Alessandro could see the whole line of its mouth and the corners had a distinct upwards curl.
“That’s my mother you’re talking about. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with it.” Alessandro watched the cat watch him, then let out an annoyed sigh. “Don’t tell me you’re too embarrassed to sleep in it. Nobody’s going to see except me and it’s not like I really care about looks, all right? What, would you rather sleep on my bookcase? Is that why you’re always—”
Grin gone, the cat abruptly leaped into the center of the bed. It turned around in a tight circle, poking all over the bed’s bottom, then flopped down onto it with a quick glance at Alessandro. A few moments passed, and then the cat rolled over so it could poke at the bed’s rim. “Mau,” it said, a little surprised. It snuggled up to the rim and prodded one of the toy mice, then suddenly, savagely lunged forward to bite the mouse’s head. A quick chew and the cat released it to loll onto its back, looking pleased. “Raaaaaow.”
“Ah, I see it pleases your majesty,” Alessandro snorted. He took a step back, then turned on his heel and went to check his email.
* * *
The next morning was Alessandro’s off-day. He slept in, as usual, until something cold and wet smashed itself into his nose. Cursing, Alessandro bolted upright and nearly slapped himself in getting his hand up. He touched his nose and his fingers came away with what felt like moisture, but he didn’t see or smell anything on them.
Then Alessandro put his hand down and felt the sheets shift away from it. He looked over and the cat was on his bed. For a couple seconds they just eyed each other.
“What are you doing here?” Alessandro yelped, jerking back his hand. He half-twisted around, then tried to grab the cat. When it easily evaded him, he switched to waving furiously at it. “Get off! You have your own bed!”
“Raaaow.” Just out of reach, the cat squatted down and began kneading the mattress.
Alessandro rolled over and reached for it. The cat jumped over his hand as that came down, then ran to the other end of the bed so Alessandro had to do a near-somersault to get around at him. But Alessandro missed and the cat scampered over his back and down his leg, like it was a piece of playground equipment. Cursing, Alessandro yanked away his leg and began to move towards the edge of the bed, like he was getting off. Then he whipped around and lunged and he nearly got the cat that time.
Ten minutes later, it was still Alessandro’s off-day and he was lying flat on his back, gasping for air and feeling utterly wrung-out. He was staring at the ceiling, wondering just when he’d lost his reflexes as well as his mind, when something brushed his arm. Then two points of pressure sank down on his bicep. They stayed put for a second before walking onto his chest so the cat could smirk at him.
“We agreed about the bookcase only,” Alessandro managed after a moment. He couldn’t hit the cat, he thought. That would be cruel, and anyway, he was merely imposing his ideas about humanity onto its face. It wasn’t really smug. “The bed is off-limits.”
The cat tipped its head to the left, then lifted one paw and began to chew at its claws. It seemed to get very into the chore, quickly settling itself down on its belly on Alessandro. A rumbling purr that was unexpectedly deep began to emit from the cat.
“Why don’t you listen to me?” Alessandro asked. He’d meant it to sound demanding, but he was still wheezing so much it sounded rather pathetic.
“Raow,” the cat mumbled around its paw. It dragged out the last claw, spent a moment licking its lips, and then began to lick down the fur around its claws. The look it gave Alessandro was downright contemptuous. “Raow, raaaow rau rawr.”
Alessandro pressed his lips tightly together. He started to sigh, then snapped up his arms around the cat as he sat up, trapping it between his arms and knees. “Hah!” he said, looking triumphantly down at it.
The cat wriggled hard, then went oddly slack. The memory of the shelter worker’s shredded shirt-sleeve—through the leather glove--suddenly came to mind and Alessandro stiffened. He almost let the cat go, but then had the thought that that would make it worse because it’d be able to run around again. So he held onto it, and it still wasn’t moving and when he actually paid attention, he realized it was just staring up at him. Its body was all tense, like iron against his forearms, and its lips were pulled back in a sort of grimace, expecting the worst, and it looked so…so…
…and so Alessandro was holding a half-grown kitten, who was watching him and waiting for him to figure out what he was going to do with it. He swallowed hard, then relaxed his grip. The cat glanced down as its legs slid against his chest, now having the room to move around, but instead of fleeing, it looked around and seemed to think and sat itself in his lap. It looked up at him again and Alessandro cautiously put a hand on its back, and when nothing happened, Alessandro finished his sigh and scratched the cat’s back.
“Zlatan,” he said. He paused. “That was what they called you, right. Listen, Zlatan, you can’t sleep with me.”
The c—it—Zlatan arched his back, making Alessandro’s nails run down it to the base of his tail. He started to butt his head against Alessandro’s chest, then turned his head so the butting became rubbing. He purred, ignoring every single word Alessandro said.
“I mean it,” Alessandro said, and that was when he definitively lost the war.
* * *
Strangely enough, Zlatan didn’t seem any less fond of his own bed, and frequently took to dozing in it whenever Alessandro was doing something in the kitchen. He soon chewed most of the toy mice off the rim, and even bit entirely through one, forcing Alessandro to drag out the vacuum to clean up the assorted specks of cotton and terrycloth and dried herbs from the carpet. The only redeeming factor of the whole episode, frankly, was the fact that Zlatan was initially terrified of the vacuum and had retreated to the top of the bookcase in the blink of an eye. Then he sulked up there for a whole hour after Alessandro had finished vacuuming because Alessandro couldn’t help laughing at the cat’s bug-eyed expression. For a non-human, Zlatan had an impressively expressive little face.
Zlatan got over it quickly, and while Alessandro was a little relieved to see that the cat hadn’t been traumatized any more than he already seemed to be, he was a little disappointed. It would have been useful to have had something that would consistently make Zlatan pause. Whatever the…the moment they’d had on the bed had been about—Alessandro still hadn’t quite figured it out—it seemed to have unlocked all the remaining reservations Zlatan had. Alessandro finally understood what the shelter worker had meant by too active.
It started first thing in the morning, before Alessandro’s alarm even went off. Of course he would get an early riser for a cat, and there Zlatan always was, poking him in the face with a cold nose or punching his pillow. And the cat wouldn’t be deterred by swearing or a flailing arm, and if Alessandro didn’t get up soon enough, it would progress to Zlatan walking up and down his back like the next thing in massage. Except massage wasn’t normally done with claws.
Once Alessandro was up, it wasn’t quite so bad. As talkative as Zlatan had suddenly become, his voice had a pleasant low timbre with a slight burr to it, so his constant raow-ing didn’t work too hard on Alessandro’s pre-coffee nerves. He also tended to go off and do whatever he did while Alessandro dressed, only showing up again when Alessandro had settled down for breakfast and the morning paper. By then the coffee had woken Alessandro enough so that he usually remembered to bend down and untangle his shoelaces that Zlatan had twisted together before getting up.
Then he had to weasel himself away from Zlatan and sneak out the door of his own flat, as if running off from an embarrassing one-night-stand. The cat had developed an incurable curiosity now that he thought Alessandro wouldn’t do anything about it, and always seemed to think that things were more exciting in the places where he wasn’t allowed to go. Well, Alessandro lived in a decent neighborhood but it was still an Italian city with plenty of Italian drivers on the roads. Zlatan might think he knew it all but he didn’t know what a Vespa could do to an overconfident furball.
By the time Alessandro got home, Zlatan had generally gotten over it, or at least had put it off for the day—Alessandro still hadn’t made up his mind whether the cat had that bad of a short-term memory or was that tenacious—and was waiting for him at the door. And then Zlatan wanted to play, and no matter what absurdly pricy toys Alessandro desperately threw the cat’s way, “play” always seemed to end up being Alessandro chasing Zlatan around to try and get back his pen, mobile, whatever it was that he needed right that moment and that of course Zlatan had zeroed in on.
Alessandro could understand, he supposed. Young things had a lot of energy that they needed to burn off; the one time he’d complained to his mother, she’d reeled off story after story about how he’d run her ragged, till he’d been flushing too hard to even speak. And he had to admit, he did have a hard time staying mad when he saw how ridiculously happy Zlatan seemed to get with just a silly game of chase-the-cat. But he did have a job and it was exhausting and he did need a rest when he came home. And instead of slowing down and getting calmer as he got older, Zlatan seemed to just get worse.
* * *
Dr. Buffon shrugged as he washed his hands in the sink. “Well, it’s hard to tell without knowing his pedigree. I’ll have a better idea at the next check-up, since I’ll be able to calculate his long-term weight gain rate. But probably he’s still got some growing to do.”
Still rubbing his butt—sore from the thermometer—against the table, Zlatan glowered at the veterinarian’s back. “Rawr.”
“Yes, I will still be bigger than you,” Buffon said. He turned around and looked at Zlatan, talking to the cat and that cleared up a moment’s confusion for Alessandro. Then he frowned thoughtfully. “He’s still on the young side. You could try leash-training him, since he’s not neutered—”
Zlatan hissed loudly, then suddenly jumped off the table at Buffon so Alessandro had to grab him out of the air. Even after Alessandro had bundled the cat up against his chest, Zlatan continued to make growling noises and clawing motions in Buffon’s direction. The veterinarian’s brows rose a little, but otherwise Buffon returned the attention with a flat stare.
“Leash?” Alessandro gritted out, telling himself he was not embarrassed about his cat. This was the first time they’d been to the vet and it was a strange place, so it wasn’t unusual for animals to act defensively under such conditions. Surely Buffon had seen this sort of reaction before.
“Leash. Take him for a walk around the block.” Buffon picked up his clipboard from the counter, glanced down it and then took off a sheet from it and held it out to Alessandro. After a moment, he folded it in half and carefully inserted it between Alessandro’s completely-occupied arms and Zlatan’s flank. “You can ask the secretary for a pamphlet on the way out.”
* * *
Fortuitously, that was at the end of July, so Alessandro had the August vacation to look into it. He did swallow his objections to Buffon’s vaguely supercilious attitude and ask at the desk for the pamphlet, but he would’ve done his own research even if the pamphlet hadn’t positively skeletal in the amount of information it provided.
The whole process seemed a bit lengthy, but not that difficult except for getting the leash on the cat. As friendly as Zlatan generally was these days, he was still so hard on his scratching posts that after buying three in a week, Alessandro had just wrapped an ugly gift-sweater around a table-leg. It seemed to be working out; Zlatan was positively gleeful about shredding the sweater, and Alessandro’s family seemed to think that Milan was in the Arctic so he didn’t lack for sweaters he wouldn’t wear if somebody held a gun to his head. Plus, he thought, now he had a valid excuse for when his aunts wanted to know what happened to their presents.
So Alessandro was careful about it. He did his research at work during his breaks and never brought any of the information home. The pamphlet from the vet’s was ostentatiously dropped into the trash while Zlatan was watching, and Alessandro made sure to be as irritated as usual in batting the cat away from the door when leaving or coming in. Figuring out how to measure Zlatan for the harness was a little more problematic, but finally Alessandro hit on using his hands while wrestling his mobile away from the cat yet again. It was a rough measurement, but Zlatan was still growing at an alarming rate so the harness would have to allow for that anyway.
The next day, after stopping off to buy a new cover for his mobile, Alessandro checked out the selection in the nearest pet store. Frustratingly, they didn’t have anything in the right size—well, not unless he looked at the harnesses meant for dogs. And as odd as Zlatan could be, that just didn’t seem right to Alessandro. Of course Alessandro could always order something online, but that would take longer and the training was already supposed to take a few weeks, and by then Alessandro’s vacation would be long over. He was already staying home instead of going off to Sardinia or somewhere nice like that, so he wanted to be doing something with his time.
In the end he bought a simple collar and leash instead of a harness. It’d take less effort to get onto Zlatan, so possibly it might even work out better.
Alessandro took it home, hiding it from Zlatan’s sight till they’d had dinner and a lengthy run-around so even Zlatan was exhausted. The cat flopped on his back in the middle of the room and pawed absently at a sunbeam while Alessandro fought his own urge to fall over. He knew it was only a matter of minutes before Zlatan was up on his feet again and he needed to get the leash.
The plan was to carry it over while still in the bag, then slip the collar onto Zlatan’s neck before Zlatan would notice, but inevitably it didn’t play out that way. The bag slipped through Alessandro’s exhausted fingers and rustled, Zlatan’s ears pricked up and Alessandro froze, then told himself he did not feel guilty as he gave up and took the leash out of the bag.
“Rau?” Zlatan said, lifting his head. At the same time his tail went down flat against the floor, as if he was debating whether to flee. He looked at the leash, then at Alessandro.
“This thing goes on you, and then I’ll take you outside,” Alessandro muttered. He fiddled with the leash and his hair before realizing he was doing that with the same hand, and had just snagged part of the collar on his hair. After freeing it, he glowered at the now-sniggering cat. “I’m serious. You’re wearing me out, but it’s not like I can move to a bigger place, and I suppose you can’t help it. So we could go outside, but I’m not taking you unless you wear this. I don’t want you running off and…and thinking you can win against a car and then God knows what you’ll look like afterward, but it won’t be…won’t be good, and—”
Zlatan had gotten up and walked over. He stared up at Alessandro, then nudged Alessandro’s hand again before turning so his neck was under the dangling collar. “Rawr raow.”
“Well, I’m trying to explain, you impatient little shit,” Alessandro said defensively.
“Raow,” Zlatan told him pointedly.
Alessandro opened his mouth, shut it, and just swapped Zlatan’s normal collar for the one on the leash. Then he started to stand, but thought the better of it and instead scooped Zlatan up and lifted the cat with him. A cut-off gasp pressed out of Alessandro’s mouth and he had to heft the cat before he could get his keys from the table. “Oh, excuse me, not so little. You cost more to feed than me, you know.”
“Rawr.” Wriggling happily, Zlatan twisted himself in Alessandro’s arms so he was facing forward. His ears were pointed that way as well in keen anticipation. “Raow! Raow rau!”
“Just give me a minute, damn it,” Alessandro snorted, fumbling one-handed with the door-knob. Though in all honesty, he was rather relieved. This was going much better than he’d thought.
* * *
“This is not how I thought it’d go,” Alessandro half-sighed, half-growled about a half-hour later. He folded his arms and looked meaningfully at the cat on the opposite branch.
Zlatan blinked a few times, then gazed around as if he had no idea what they were doing up a tree either. He poked at his branch, shifted his rump on it and began to groom himself. “Mrrraow.”
“We’re in a tree, you stupid cat!” Alessandro threw up his hands, then exhaled loudly and dragged both hands through his hair. Not only that, they were in a tree that was on a very public street, and the only reason Alessandro still had a shred of dignity was because so far nobody had come by. But he doubted that that would last long—actually, he was in the extremely awkward position of hoping not. “How are we supposed to get down? It’s too far to jump, unless you want to break so—Zlatan, don’t you dare. This isn’t my grandfather’s bookcase and you’re not a flying acrobat. You’re a cat.”
“Raow,” Zlatan snorted. He put down the paw he’d been licking and stared hard at Alessandro. Somehow it managed to point out all the things Alessandro wasn’t, too.
Rolling his eyes, Alessandro gave the cat a grudging nod but then put his hands down on his branch. He took a good grip and began to look around. “Oh, never mind. Listen, just don’t—Zlatan!”
But the cat didn’t listen, damn him. In a flash he was off the branch but the leash—Alessandro cursed as he saw its loose end flying through the air after Zlatan. He must have dropped it because he was so upset, but Zlatan had just jumped and the sudden fear completely crammed out any annoyance Alessandro felt.
Alessandro nearly jumped after the cat, but the moment his weight shifted, he felt as if he was falling and instinctively grabbed the branch again. Then he swore at himself for thinking about that and craned about, trying to see the ground even though he almost wanted to shut his eyes and not see. If it turned out that Zlatan had…had…Zlatan was sitting calmly at the base of the tree, his leash trailing into the grass behind him. He looked quizzically up at Alessandro, his tail gently swishing back and forth.
“You scared the hell out of me,” Alessandro snapped unthinkingly. “You little bastard.”
Zlatan flinched, looking startled. Then he hunched down, his ears lowering. “Raaow.”
“No, I’m glad you’re fine but goddamn it, I didn’t know you were going to be…oh, don’t do that.” Every time Zlatan got that look on his face, like he thought Alessandro was taking him back to the shelter, Alessandro’s temper just seemed to dissolve. It was hard to stay mad when Zlatan looked so…so pissed off and defiant and yet utterly pathetic at the same time. “Zlatan, I just…just warn me next time, would you?”
After a moment, Zlatan relaxed and his ears resumed their usual alert position. He stood up, stretched and then looked expectantly up at Alessandro.
For some reason Alessandro was suddenly filled with embarrassment. He did his best to be sensible and choke it down. “Zlatan. I’m not a cat. I can’t—I’ll roll my ankle if I just jump down. Look, just stay there while I…figure out…something.”
“Rau.” Skeptical, Zlatan tilted his head. He looked over Alessandro, then turned around and started looking up and down the street.
“Zlatan! No! What did—what did I just say?” Alessandro said desperately, sensing where that furball brain was going. “Stay! Zlatan! Stay!”
Zlatan took a few steps away from the tree, then looked pointedly back. He waited till he was sure he had Alessandro’s cursing, pleading attention, then took off in a brown whirl of motion. Before Alessandro could shout again, he’d disappeared down the street.
“Zlatan! You goddamn—” Alessandro slipped on the branch again, and this time nearly barked his chin on it before he managed to regain his balance.
After pulling himself upright, Alessandro angrily kicked the tree trunk and pulled off a few branches. He glowered about himself, spotted the opposite branch and lunged for it before he really thought it—well, he didn’t think at all. He just tried something utterly stupid, and nearly broke his neck before he managed to haul himself back up to a safe spot. Which was no closer to the ground than before, and damn it. Zlatan was gone.
Not that that kept Alessandro from continuing to call out for the cat for a good minute. But eventually it became painfully apparent that that was useless and Alessandro slumped back against the tree trunk. Well, that had lasted longer than he’d thought, but it’d still come to a bad end. And some part of himself had thought it would too, from the very beginning, but now that it’d actually happened he didn’t feel vindicated. He felt like a failure. All the comments various people had made over the years about him—he was too monofocused, inconsiderate, too intense, had no side other than work—came crowding up around him where one stupidly headstrong cat should have been. Good God, even animals wouldn’t stay with him.
Alessandro frowned. Then he realized that he was being spoken to and he looked down into the greenest eyes he’d ever seen.
A moment later he noticed they were attached to a man, and the man had Zlatan in his arms. Yawning, Zlatan showed his fangs to Alessandro before twisting in a way that Alessandro recognized. Then the man was crying out in surprise and Alessandro was barely getting his feet braced and arms out, and then Alessandro was clutching a smug cat to his chest. He should have been absolutely furious, or at least thinking about whether Zlatan had just broken his breastbone, but instead Alessandro was just happy. He hugged Zlatan and kissed the cat’s head before he quite knew what he was doing.
“I, ah, I suppose he is yours, then?” The man was pushing himself back from the trunk, having tried to hold Zlatan back. He brushed a strand of hair out of his eyes and he was ridiculously handsome, like one of those movie stars from the 1950s.
“Oh! Yes, he is,” Alessandro belatedly replied. Then he looked down at Zlatan, who was now purring, and finally managed to work up a bit of indignation. It was more than a little forced, admittedly, but damn it, Zlatan couldn’t think everything he did was the right thing. “Nuisance.”
The man chuckled. He had a beautiful voice as well, a light lyrical tenor that made it hard for Alessandro to concentrate on what he was actually saying, and Alessandro normally wasn’t much for music. “He came tearing around the corner like his tail was on fire, then wouldn’t leave me alone till I came with him. It’s good to see it’s nothing after all.”
“No, Zlatan’s just a bit of a drama-lover,” Alessandro muttered.
Zlatan stopped purring and reared back to look accusingly at Alessandro. “Rau? Raow rau rau!”
“Only because you went jumping off as if you’re some action hero! I think I was well within my—damn it, Zlatan, not a—”
From the ground, Zlatan gave Alessandro an offended look. “Raaaow,” he insisted, before curling up on the ground. He spotted something and stared hard at it, his butt wiggling, and then pounced. A butterfly hastily flew up from his paws and winged swiftly away as he stared disconsolately after it.
“Serves you right,” Alessandro said. Then he looked around and nearly started to see the man still there.
“Ah…are you all right?” the man asked after a moment.
Alessandro bit the inside of his mouth. He glanced around, then swallowed hard and accepted the fact that this was going to be one of his most humiliating experiences. “Well, to be honest, I’m…I’m stuck.”
Somehow the man’s reaction wasn’t mocking or even slightly amused, and moreover, it didn’t seem as if he was just being polite. His brows rose and he blinked, then backed up a step, looking genuinely concerned. “Oh. Well, if you can wait a moment, I can get a ladder.”
“Thank you,” Alessandro said, hopelessly blushing now.
* * *
His name was Paolo, and he owned a high-fashion men’s clothing boutique around the corner. That was to say: he owned the building, ran a boutique out of half the first floor and rented the other half to a café, and lived on the second floor with a cat so he understood. He was also absurdly charming to go with his absurd good looks, and managed to press a coffee on Alessandro so nicely that Alessandro didn’t notice him ordering a saucer of cream for Zlatan. Of course the cat had promptly climbed onto the table and wouldn’t get off, no matter what Alessandro said, and it was too public to go grabbing for him when Alessandro knew he’d miss.
“He’s a very intelligent cat, knowing to go for help like that,” Paolo said approvingly, watching Zlatan sniff the cream. When Zlatan looked up at him, Paolo smiled to show creamy-white teeth and Zlatan promptly grinned back, then sprawled out to lap lazily at the cream instead of sitting up like a proper cat. Looking amused, Paolo reached out and petted Zlatan’s head before suddenly glancing up at Alessandro. “Is this all right?”
“Yes.” Then Alessandro made a face at himself. Fine, he hadn’t really sat around and had a casual cup of coffee in a while, but he hadn’t been raised in a hermitage. “That is, I don’t mind, except you’re going to give him an even bigger head than before.”
Zlatan purred and stretched his head out under Paolo’s hand, then turned over onto his back. His tongue flicked out and around his mouth, sweeping off the traces of cream from his fur.
“Oh, I’ve never met a cat who needed help with that,” Paolo said, laughing. He pushed the empty saucer to the side for the waitress, then played something that looked a bit like pat-a-pan with Zlatan: he would hold out his finger and Zlatan would push at it with a paw, and then Paolo would push lightly back. “I have to say, I’ve also never seen someone try to walk a cat before. I’ve heard it can be done, but…”
Alessandro shrugged and sipped his coffee. “Then you’re more knowledgeable than me. My vet suggested it to work off some of Zlatan’s energy, since Zlatan here was running me ragged around my flat and it’s supposed to be fairly easy to train kittens.”
Paolo’s brows flew up. He looked down at Zlatan. “How old is he?”
“Seven months. All right, well, he’s not exactly a kitten now but…” But Paolo wasn’t paying attention to Alessandro. He was still staring at Zlatan and Zlatan had stopped playing with him to stare back, and Alessandro had to admit he was on Zlatan’s side. He put out his hand over Zlatan’s side and Zlatan craned his head around to see what that was. Then Zlatan abruptly got up, walked over and plopped himself into Alessandro’s lap; Alessandro’s hand rose out of habit and began scratching Zlatan’s back. “Yes, he’s large. He’s probably only about half-grown, actually.”
“Oh.” Blinking, Paolo absently reached for his coffee. Then he pulled back his hand and looked up at Alessandro, as if he sensed the change in mood—or perhaps had heard the edge in Alessandro’s voice. “I’m sorry, I’m used to my cat. She’s a good bit—I didn’t mean to be insulting, if you took it that way. He’s quite…I suppose I should stop before I dig myself any deeper.”
He sounded so chagrined that Alessandro reluctantly admitted it was genuine. “No, it’s…look, to be honest, I’m still a little embarrassed about earlier. This was our first walk, and frankly, I’m not sure if it’ll also be our last given what Zlatan put me through.”
“Raow,” Zlatan protested.
“I don’t care if the squirrel was tasty-looking. You have plenty of cat chow and treats at home—though you’re not getting any of the treats tonight,” Alessandro said, glowering down at the cat. He snorted as Zlatan turned around and began looking out at the rest of the café like he didn’t care. Those beef-flavored sticks alone cost a small fortune. “You’re lucky I didn’t just take you straight home after getting out of the tree.”
“A squirrel? Is that how it happened?” Paolo laughed again, but somehow he didn’t seem to be laughing at Alessandro. “They are terribly plump around here, aren’t they? Once I left a window open and the next thing I knew, I was half-out on the ledge trying to get Helena back inside before she fell off it.”
Alessandro looked up sharply and found Paolo looking a little embarrassed, but not ducking Alessandro’s gaze or anything like that. Instead the other man simply shrugged, acknowledging that there really wasn’t much choice when it came to cats.
“But she’s usually an indoor cat. Actually, she tries to claw me if I try to take her out,” Paolo added. He picked up his coffee, then used his cup to point at Zlatan. “I think it’s wonderful that you’re trying to accommodate him, though. So many people would just take him to the shelter.”
“I know. That’s where I got him.” And all right, Alessandro was glad that he had. Even with all the ridiculous troubles that Zlatan put him through, he…he sat there and tried but he really couldn’t imagine taking Zlatan back to the shelter. Nor could he understand people who would, to be honest.
Paolo sipped his coffee, then lowered it and smiled pleasantly at Alessandro. “Well, even if it was rather embarrassing for you, I’m happy to have made your acquaintance. It’s actually a bit funny—I’ve been here for a while and you do live nearby, but I don’t think we’ve ever crossed paths before till your cat chased that squirrel.”
“Er, no,” Alessandro said slowly. Something about the way Paolo said that, eyes resting warmly on him, seemed to be inviting…but that was what was unclear to Alessandro, and he didn’t want to wrongly assume anything. He wasn’t even sure what he wanted to assume anyway.
He looked around and happened to see a clock, and the time made Alessandro choke before he could catch himself. Both Paolo and Zlatan gave him puzzled looks and Alessandro attempted to calm himself down. He’d only be a little late if he left right now, and carried Zlatan the whole way so the impossible nuisance didn’t get them into another jam.
“I’m sorry—” Alessandro started, rising.
Shaking his head, Paolo got up first and then came around to take Alessandro’s chair, which was very helpful since the cat in Alessandro’s arms was suddenly squirming frantically. “Oh, no need to apologize. You’ve got something to go to, I see.”
“Thank you again for not laughing,” Alessandro blurted out. He grimaced. “I mean, helping. That is—”
“You’re welcome,” Paolo said. He reached out and patted Zlatan on the head, then raised his voice to speak over Zlatan’s sudden yowl. “Well, if you’d ever like to stop by again, you and Zlatan are both wel—”
“Raaaaoooooow,” Zlatan whined, struggling towards Paolo. He kicked his backlegs and one took Alessandro hard in the stomach.
Too breathless to speak, Alessandro had to merely nod a reply to Paolo’s offer as he dragged Zlatan out of there. Once they were in the street again, Zlatan seemed to give up, but only to moodily stare around and refuse to acknowledge Alessandro’s inquiries.
“What is it, anyway? Don’t tell me you like him better than me—he’s only just met you, and has no idea what your idea of a wake-up call is like,” Alessandro muttered, stalking off. “Does he smell like catnip? Tuna? He smelled fine to me.”
Zlatan made a contemptuous sniffing sound, then twisted hard so Alessandro dropped him. Alessandro sucked in a breath and promptly tightened his grip on the leash, but Zlatan just stood there, looking up at him. After a moment, Zlatan turned around and began calmly trotting forward, as if he was taking Alessandro for the walk.
“Don’t tell me you were smelling his girl-cat,” Alessandro said, picking up his pace to keep up. “You’re still a kid. Far too young to be thinking about that, and anyway, maybe I’m not letting the vet get out his scalpels, but I’m not about to let you knock up any cat you want either. Especially when Paolo was so helpful. He was much nicer than he had to be, you know.”
“Raow.” After throwing a long-suffering look over his shoulder, Zlatan resumed walking. He didn’t look to either side, but instead behaved perfectly all the way home, and so Alessandro didn’t have to make too many apologies when he met his parents for dinner later that night.
* * *
Halfway through Alessandro’s afternoon nap the next day, a small cannonball pounded into his back. He woke wheezing, lancing pains shooting up and down his spine, and craned his head around to see Zlatan staring down from a shoulder. Zlatan had his leash in his mouth. “Ramph,” he mumbled.
Alessandro stared at him.
Zlatan opened his mouth so the leash fell out of it and landed on the cushion by Alessandro’s face. He worked his mouth a few times, as if he had cramp, and then bent down so his nose was nearly touching Alessandro’s nose. “Raaaow. Rau! Rau rau rau!”
“I’m up and I don’t want to be,” Alessandro muttered, putting his face back into the couch.
His cat wasn’t having it. Paws dug hard into his shoulder. “Raooooow,” Zlatan accused.
“Yesterday you got me up a tree! And it’s not even dinner.” But Alessandro was getting up anyway. Stupid cat, he just wasn’t going to leave Alessandro alone till he got to go out.
* * *
“Oh, hello,” Paolo said through the glass, a little surprised but still gracious. He held up a hand, gesturing for them to wait. A few minutes later, he’d come out of his shop and was apologizing for the turpentine smell and his paint-streaked appearance. “My usual vacation plans fell through, so I thought I’d redo the walls since I’d be home anyway.”
He looked fine to Alessandro. His shirt-sleeves were rolled up and perhaps there were a few spots of paint on his hands, but otherwise he was as immaculately handsome as yesterday. Frankly, he didn’t look like the type who’d do his own painting; Alessandro glanced at the shop behind Paolo, just to check, and only then realized its windows held drape-cloths and cans of paint instead of clothed mannequins.
“Is that where the lad—” Alessandro cursed and took a firm hold on his end of the leash “—damn it, Zlatan. Stay away from that before you get little paw-prints all over his sidewalk.”
Zlatan looked up from the half-dried puddle of paint he’d been about to investigate, eyes big and innocent. He took a few exaggerated steps away before something else caught his eye and he went bounding over to check out half a pastry somebody from the café had dropped on the ground.
Alessandro was dragged off his right foot before he managed to catch himself. “Zlatan! Don’t sniff that! You don’t know how long it’s been there!”
“Oh, if he’d like to see one, I think we can do that,” Paolo said, laughing. He went over and bent down to hold out his hand to Zlatan, who barely looked at it before rearing up on his hindlegs. Zlatan rawred loudly, waving his forelegs around, and Paolo obligingly picked him up. Paolo did have to let out a brief grunt at Zlatan’s weight, saving Alessandro’s feelings; it’d taken a month before Zlatan had asked Alessandro to be picked up. “Would you like to come in for a moment?”
Paolo was talking to Alessandro. His mind still irritated at Zlatan, Alessandro nodded before he had a chance to think about it.
“Raow,” Zlatan said, grinning about something.
* * *
It turned into a routine. Every afternoon without fail, Zlatan would appear with his leash in his mouth and pester Alessandro till they went out. At least Zlatan did seem to be burning off some of his excessive energy that way, even if he was doing it by hauling Alessandro all over the neighborhood instead of making Alessandro run all over his flat. Alessandro had been living in the area for several years and he hadn’t seen so much of it as he had in the past few weeks. And, having seen all of that, he had to say he could’ve lived very well for several more years without knowing which of his neighbors tried to stuff trash down the street sewers, or having had to chase an over-excited cat through mosquito-infested puddles.
Speaking of which, Alessandro had concluded that Zlatan was simply abnormal. Cats were supposed to hate water. Zlatan adored it: he jumped into every single body of water he saw, whether it was the birdbath two houses down or the splatters that Alessandro left on the bathroom floor when he got out of the shower. He’d also tried to get into the shower, but Alessandro had drawn the line there.
“So he actually got in there with you?” Paolo asked, voice warm with amusement.
“And nearly got his back broken. It’s slippery in there! I could have stepped on him, and then you wouldn’t be able to play with the suds, would you?” Alessandro shot a pointed look at the cat rolling over their feet under the table.
Zlatan ignored him and continued sunning himself, occasionally sticking a paw out to bat at the laces of Paolo’s shoes. Inevitably they ended up here, sitting at a table in the café in Paolo’s building, where Alessandro would complain about Zlatan’s latest misadventures to Paolo’s sympathetic ear. Sometimes Zlatan would pull Alessandro this way, but more and more often it was Alessandro dragging them there, fed up with his cat and needing a break and understanding. Paolo did seem to have an odd calming influence on Zlatan, who was always happy to see him and who never seemed to be much trouble around him. Then again, Paolo always was willing to slip Zlatan a saucer of cream or a bit of chicken, so perhaps it wasn’t so odd.
Alessandro knew he should put a stop to that, if he ever wanted Zlatan to shape up, but he had a hard time enough making Paolo not pay for his coffee every time. And if he was really honest with himself, he had a hard time considering the idea that their coffees weren’t entirely about his cat. But it’d been quite a while since he had had a friendship that didn’t revolve around work, let alone something beyond that. He didn’t know where to even begin to ask. It was much easier to just have the coffee and complain about Zlatan, or ask after Paolo’s renovations, or talk about football.
* * *
August came to an end and Alessandro went back to work. Neither he nor Paolo explicitly said so, but he thought it was understood that that would change things. The day before, Paolo had murmured something about his reopening and of course had politely invited Alessandro to stop by, and Alessandro had politely given him a noncommittal answer. Paolo hadn’t pushed, though when Alessandro thought too hard about it, he liked to think the other man had looked disappointed. But he tried not to think too hard about such things; they only distracted him and with the kind of work he did, the whole country depended on his being able to concentrate properly.
However, nobody had told Zlatan.
The first night after the August vacation was over, Alessandro was so worn out that he was able to sleep through his cat’s importuning. The second night, Zlatan didn’t bother coming to the door to greet Alessandro, but instead sulked on the top of the bookcase. Alessandro apologized, he offered treats, he tried to explain and finally he grew too frustrated and threw his own fit, stomping off to his bedroom. But he didn’t have a good night’s sleep, tossing and turning, feeling guilty and irritated. He was sorry too, because he’d liked their walks and he had to say, going back to work this time had been a bit rougher than usual since he’d actually had a decent vacation. But he had to work and there was nothing he could do about that.
Zlatan begged to differ. Or, more accurately, climbed into bed the next morning and rampaged all over Alessandro till Alessandro had stumbled out into the street, the world still blurry, with leash barely in hand. He had no idea where Zlatan was going, but only wanted the damn cat to stop kneading him.
“Sandro?” somebody eventually said, catching him by the shoulders.
Alessandro blinked. Then rubbed his eyes till Paolo came into view. It was barely light out and Paolo had perfect hair paired with a stylish yet casual trousers and dress shirt outfit. “Hmm?”
“I was just about to get my morning coffee,” Paolo said after a moment, careful and slow. He patted Alessandro on the shoulder, then nodded to the side. “Would you like one, too?”
“Mmm,” Alessandro nodded, following the other man.
* * *
Ten minutes later, Alessandro was awake and wishing he could die. He pressed his face into his hands. “I don’t even know what I was doing.”
“Raaow,” Zlatan said sympathetically, rubbing his head against Alessandro’s arm.
Alessandro shifted his head so he could peer through his fingers at the cat, who was squinting back. “Wait a moment. Yes, I do.”
Zlatan blinked a lot, then turned around like he didn’t know what Alessandro was talking about. He ambled across the table and began to sniff at Paolo’s coffee; Paolo put his hand over the mug and Zlatan prodded at it with a paw while Paolo looked considerably more convincing with his sympathy. “Well, if it’s any consolation, I didn’t mind seeing you. I was surprised, since I thought you said you’re not an early riser…”
“’m not. Till him.” It was impossible to glare properly through a hand, so Alessandro reluctantly put down his arms. Then he looked at his watch and cursed. “Damn. I’m sorry, but—I mean, it was good to see you too, but I have—”
“Of course, work,” Paolo said, getting up. He let Alessandro gather up his protesting cat—as usual, Zlatan had to be peeled away from Paolo—before revealing the catch to his constant solicitousness. “If it’s going to be mornings now, I suppose I should tell the barista to stock up on cream.”
Alessandro opened his mouth to say no, it wouldn’t be mornings, but maybe just weekends at most, and Zlatan yowled with real feeling and support. It was loud and pitiful and so Alessandro instead stuffed the cat against his chest and nodded tightly. “See you, Paolo.”
“I hope so,” Paolo said, smiling, and Alessandro’s stomach plummeted.
* * *
“Because I always screw my relationships up! You should’ve seen what happened last time—I’ve still got to be careful about where I eat when I go back to Rome over that one,” Alessandro hissed. It was a morning a few weeks later. He had ended up setting his alarm clock even earlier so he could walk Zlatan before going off to work—walk Zlatan and see Paolo and it was impossible even for him to deny that he liked the man a good deal, and not just for his way with Zlatan. His stomach had stayed down by his knees so long it was looking into the real estate there, and his damn cat just thought he was being an idiot. “Look, if something goes wrong, we won’t be able to take walks anymore. It’ll just be too awkward if we run into him.”
Zlatan stopped and looked back at Alessandro. Then he turned around, his tail flicking dismissively, and resumed trotting along the sidewalk.
“I know what I’m talking about, so you just stay out of it,” Alessandro firmly said.
They turned into the café. Paolo was already at one of the tables, two cups of coffee and a saucer of cream in front of him. When he saw them, he started to get up and Zlatan suddenly took a flying leap at him. China broke and cream splashed through the air, accompanied by Paolo’s surprised shout and Zlatan’s demented ‘rawr!’ Alessandro stood there, mouth agape, and at first all he could think was the leash was really pointless.
* * *
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what got into him, but I’ll pay for your shirt,” Alessandro repeated again, twisting the wet rag between his hands. He almost managed a glance at Paolo’s face before his courage failed him and he instead dabbed at Paolo’s stained clothes.
“Oh, it’s all right.” Paolo pushed aside Alessandro’s hand and then plucked his shirt off his body to look down on it. Thick white splatters liberally decorated him from neck to waist against a background of black silk. The corners of Paolo’s mouth twitched, then went flat as he began unbuttoning the shirt. “Accidents happen.”
Alessandro did look hard at Paolo then, sheer disbelief overriding his humiliation. “An accident? Zlatan did that on purpose!”
“Raow!” came a protest from the other room. The cat himself, however, wasn’t risking an appearance. Sensible of him, since this honestly was the closest Alessandro had ever been to strangling the little monster.
Paolo glanced past Alessandro, then drew in a breath as if he wished to speak. But he seemed to change his mind, instead turning a shoulder to Alessandro as he continued to deal with his shirt.
“I know it’s completely ruined, but I’ll buy you another,” Alessandro said helplessly. He put out his hand, then took it back. Then he set back his shoulders and put his hand on Paolo’s arm, then pulled at it; if it was coming to this, he thought, he at least wanted to know for sure. That’d been half the problem with the last time, nobody willing to cut it off when it needed to be. “However expensive it—”
“Sandro, honestly, I run a clothing—” Paolo started, turning sharply.
They were suddenly quite close, much closer than Alessandro had intended—but then, Paolo had been moving too and Alessandro hadn’t really paid attention to that, so caught up was he in his own thoughts. Paolo had his shirt nearly off now, barely hanging onto his elbows, and he was covered in cream and he was looking at Alessandro with strange, intense eyes, as if he wasn’t sure either. And then he had his hands up around Alessandro’s face for some reason, and then he was kissing Alessandro, very gently and softly.
Paolo took down his hands and looked sharply at Alessandro. Then he grimaced and ducked his head. “I apologize,” he said stiffly. “I didn’t mean—”
Alessandro, thankfully, still had his hand on Paolo’s arm. He pulled the other man back, and then wrapped his arms around him. The cream from Paolo’s chest soaked into Alessandro’s shirt, and somewhere the clock was saying Alessandro was going to be late for work, and Alessandro suddenly, wonderfully, didn’t give a damn.
When they parted this time, Paolo kept his hands on Alessandro’s face. He was smiling with an affectionate amusement as he stroked Alessandro’s cheek. “Sandro, I run a clothing store. I have plenty of shirts, believe me.”
“Oh.” Well, he would, wouldn’t he. “But still…”
“You could cook me dinner, if you’re that determined to make amends,” Paolo suggested.
Alessandro blushed violently, stammered and thought that he must look like the greatest idiot in the world right then. And Paolo kissed him anyway.
“Oh, and don’t worry about Zlatan. No one was hurt—rather the opposite, actually.” Paolo drew back with some reluctance to get his soiled shirt completely off. “I should probably th—”
“Mau!” said a cat that wasn’t Zlatan. Paolo had a cat.
Dreading the worst, Alessandro rushed into the next room to find a small, pretty golden cat crouched on top of a table at the very edge. Her ears were back and her tail was angrily swishing as she glowered down at a confused-looking Zlatan. He glanced to Alessandro, then went back to staring at Paolo’s cat. “Rau?” he said.
She narrowed her eyes and hissed at him.
Zlatan flinched, then backed up a bit. He paused, then did a funny spring into the air so all four of his feet left the ground at the same time. When he came down, he looked at Paolo’s cat. She had stopped hissing but was still hunched in a defensive posture.
“Mrrrraow,” Zlatan said, ducking his head. He sounded oddly nervous, and then he began pacing back and forth, using exaggerated steps. He’d go about a meter, then stop and stretch till once Alessandro held a bone pop. Then he’d turn around and go the other way, all the while shooting little glances at Paolo’s cat.
She watched him for a bit, then abruptly turned around and began licking a paw, as if bored. This seemed to sting Zlatan, who stopped dead in his tracks. For a moment he just stared at her, disbelieving, but then he ran around the corner, his leash slapping the carpet behind him. Alessandro belatedly took a few steps after him, but Zlatan was too fast and Alessandro didn’t want to plunge into the depths of Paolo’s flat without permission.
“Helena, he’s a perfectly nice cat,” Paolo said from behind Alessandro. He went over to the table and picked up his cat, stroking the top of her head. She accepted it but looked unconvinced as Paolo came back to Alessandro, looking thoughtful. “I don’t think she’s in heat.”
“She’s not fixed? Oh, Zlatan isn’t either—oh.” Alessandro pinched the bridge of his nose. Well, the urge to scold Zlatan was still outweighing the urge to cuddle him in thanks. “I should get him out of here before he pesters your cat anym—”
Zlatan reappeared in the room. He took a moment to find where Helena had gone so they had time to see he had something in his mouth. Then he came prancing up to Paolo’s feet, proudly waving that dead rat around, before dropping it as Alessandro disgustedly jerked away. He took a second to lick off his mouth before looking up at Helena. “Rawr?”
“Oh, my God, Zlatan,” Alessandro said, exasperated. “Get that thing away!”
Paolo took it a bit better, showing his distaste but not moving as he stared down at the floor. “I have rats?”
“Miaow?” Helena wriggled a little, then slipped out of Paolo’s arms. She landed gracefully right by the rat and across from Zlatan. After a sniff and a paw at the limp rat, she picked it up in her mouth, held it for a few seconds and then spat it out.
But she stayed put, which was apparently enough because Zlatan did a ridiculous little jump, then padded over to Helena to rub against her side while she pretended to be grooming her tail. He was purring and didn’t even notice when Alessandro took the chance to scoop him up. The damn cat just kept staring at Helena with that goofy grin on his face.
“I’m sorry,” Alessandro said desperately.
Paolo looked at him, then leaned over and kissed Alessandro on the mouth. When he leaned back, he paused to put his hand on Zlatan’s head. “It’s all right,” he said. “I understand. You come with the cat. So do I.”
Alessandro opened his mouth, then shut it. Then he looked down at Zlatan, and somehow, it all made sense. This was absurd and irregular, and was likely to change Alessandro’s life—had already changed his life, since the moment he’d decided on that sullen ball of fur in the shelter. He’d always thought he didn’t do absurdity, didn’t know how to do it, but as it turned out, he did. And he wasn’t bad at it, and moreover, he was happier this way. “I—yes, I do.”
“Well, then you’ll bring him for dinner?” Paolo asked hopefully.
“No.” After a kiss to Zlatan’s head—he’d be mad at the cat later, and Zlatan wouldn’t listen, and somehow it would work out—Alessandro looked up and was surprised at Paolo’s discomfited look. Then he realized what the other man was thinking and swiftly corrected his mistake. “He’ll bring me.”
* * *
“Raow! Rau rau raoooow!” Zlatan howled, struggling wildly in Alessandro’s arms.
Buffon spared a moment to shoot Zlatan an irritated glance. “I don’t see why you’re complaining, when it’s your fault.”
“He just wants to make sure she’s all right,” Alessandro snapped, nervously eyeing the mess of bloody flesh in Buffon’s hand. “Are they all out?”
“Yes, but normally I don’t recommend letting the father s—” Buffon shut up as Zlatan finally wriggled free and immediately dashed over to the mewling, sodden little balls huddled up by Helena’s side. Then he tossed the placenta aside and started to reach for Zlatan so Alessandro had to grab his elbow and drag him back.
The vet began to scold Alessandro, but stopped when he noticed that Zlatan was not, in fact, eating his kittens. Actually, he was making funny little stunned noises in between licking them clean, his eyes wide with awe and love. He occasionally paused to rub his head against Helena, who was lying there with her eyes closed, utterly exhausted. She had a right to be, given the way she’d ballooned up over the past few weeks.
Two arms went around Alessandro’s waist, and then Paolo put his chin on Alessandro’s shoulder. “I’d forgotten how small kittens are,” he said quietly.
“I’d call these two extremely large,” was Buffon’s contribution.
Nobody was listening to him, so he finally started cleaning up, leaving the rest of them to contemplate the kittens. One of them flopped towards Alessandro’s foot and Alessandro was about to nudge it back when Zlatan sprang in between them. He glared up at Alessandro, then carefully rolled the kitten with his paws till it was nestled up against Helena’s belly.
“I suppose he won’t want to leave now,” Paolo commented after a moment. It had been getting increasingly difficult to pry Zlatan away when Alessandro had to go home, to the point that Alessandro just kept a spare change of clothes in Paolo’s closet. “Do you?”
“Well, not really, but I’ve work.” Alessandro couldn’t help a grin as Zlatan spared a moment to sniff the placenta. Proud father, all right, but still incurably curious. “I think I’ll have to leave him with you for a bit, if you don’t mind.”
Paolo hummed. “Or you could move in with him.”
For a moment Alessandro forgot about the kittens and just looked at Paolo. Then he twisted around, slung his arm over Paolo’s neck and kissed him as hard as possible.
“Raaaow!” Zlatan stared demandingly up at them, then looked at Helena.
Alessandro opened his mouth, then bit back his first comment as he knelt down to his cat. The sharp words went down a bit easier with Paolo’s laugh in the background, as the other man went to see Buffon out. “She’s fine,” Alessandro said, picking Zlatan back up. “Besides, Buffon does know his business and he said nothing fancy for her tonight, just lots of water. You need to eat, though—I think you’ve actually lost weight fretting.”
“Rau,” Zlatan said insistently.
“Well, fine, we’ll go get her water. But that’s it. I mean it.”
Zlatan looked skeptically up at Alessandro, who pretended to ignore him. It wasn’t like Zlatan didn’t know what would happen, so Alessandro wasn’t about to stroke his ego. Even if deep down, the cat deserved it.