Carlos, a scientist, contrary to popular belief, does not actually live in his lab.
He just sleeps there, often, when he’s hard at work on one thing or another, or when there are things creeping around under the floorboards in his apartment and he doesn’t especially want to stay the night.
Last night though, for the first time in several weeks, Carlos spent the night in his apartment, in his bed, and though no creaking sounds or disembodied voices kept him from sleeping, he does not feel very well rested as he takes the short walk up to the lab.
Other things, things that grew and stretched within his own mind, kept him awake instead.
He thinks of this as he passes a tailor that never seems to be open, a luncheonette he’s never had the nerve to enter, and an alley between two small, brick buildings of unknown purpose.
He will pass them again, tonight, on his way back to the apartment, where he will get ready for what is, he supposes, for all intents and purposes, a second date.
The thoughts that kept him up last night are thoughts that keep him moving sluggishly now, dreading the rest of the day while simultaneously wishing he was already at his destination, where a file cabinet full of mysteries can distract him.
He’s already running late, although considering he sets his own hours, and also that time doesn’t operate in Night vale as it should, it doesn’t really matter.
So he takes a break from walking to lean up against one of the brick buildings, sighing and rubbing at his temples as a headache threatens to set in just behind his eyes.
He really likes Cecil, is the problem.
And Cecil really, really likes him, which is another problem.
Or rather, the problem, as a whole, is that he and Cecil really like each other, but that neither has the whole picture, and while Carlos hasn’t been lying about anything, all his cards are not quite on the table, and for that, he feels slightly guilty.
He’s half-sure that Cecil is unintentionally hiding a great many things as well, but they are likely things he has no control over, and quite possibly no knowledge of, so Carlos is not about to hold it against him.
He imagines revealing his not-quite-secrets to Cecil, imagines the potential disappointment that could follow, the crestfallen expression and soft, sad ‘oh,’ he might utter when he discovers that Carlos is, perhaps, not quite as beautiful and perfect as he believes.
Or at least, not in the exact fashion he believes.
The headache behind his eyes is no longer a threat, but a siren wail, a last minute scream to run, run now before a tidal wave of pain wallops the coastline of your fragile person and drowns you in its rushing, violent waters.
He sighs again, louder.
From deep in the alley between the two brick buildings, someone clears their throat.
“Something on your mind?” A voice asks, and it sounds closer than the throat clearing.
Carlos looks up, sees no one down the alley, and says, “Um.”
“Cat purrs are supposed to be healing, you know. Very therapeutic.”
Carlos squints into the dim light of the alleyway, unsure if this is another disembodied voice, or simply a person he can’t see. Just under his line of sight, taking light, lazy steps toward the main road, is a black cat.
He turns his attention there instead, to lamp-like eyes and a small but full, densely furred body, and watches as the cat flops down onto its side, lifting one front paw daintily.
“That is my polite way of saying you should come over here and pet my belly,” The cat says, and either its mouth moved to form the words, or it was a trick of the light and Carlos can only hear them deep inside his mind.
Neither idea is especially comforting.
“I’m sorry,” Carlos says, and takes a step away from the wall he was leaning against, getting a closer look at the cat, “Who are you?”
He wants to smack himself for asking such a ridiculous question, for talking to a cat at all. He has never even been the type to meow at cats on the street to get their attention, much less have conversations with them in plain English.
But then, he lives in Night Vale now, not the rest of the normal, non-talking cat filled world, and he guesses he should really get used to this. To all of this.
The cat simply raises one paw a little higher, and answers, “A cat. Obviously.”
Obviously. Carlos doesn’t know why he didn’t think of it himself.
“Fair enough,” He says, and stoops low to get closer to the cat’s level. He reaches out and gives a tentative stroke to the swell of its belly, and doesn’t particularly care if anyone on the street is judging him. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else out right now anyway, but if there were, they would probably be shrieking or talking to fruit. To each their own, right?
“So what’s your trouble?” The cat asks as Carlos pets it in long, smooth strokes. He isn’t sure whether the cat is just asking to be polite, or if it honestly cares. Either way, it would probably be nice to get some of this off his chest, even if he is sharing with a stray cat.
“Ah, romantic problems, I guess.”
The cat wrinkles its nose a little, almost flinching, and yes, Carlos thinks, that is precisely the correct reaction to the phrase ‘romantic problems.’
“Well, not problems, exactly,” He amends, still working the tips of his fingers into the cat’s fur, a bit further up its chest now, “More like, potential problems.”
“Oh?” The cat says, head tipped back, eyes closed in relaxation as it begins to purr, gently, “Are you in love with someone awful? That happens all the time.”
Carlos shakes his head, smiles faintly, “No, he’s not awful. He’s…perfect. Nearly perfect.” He glances up to the cat’s face, studying the whiskers there for a moment before blinking himself to realization for a quick correction, “I like him a lot.”
As opposed to loving someone a lot. There is a difference, and that difference is mostly built of time and circumstance and stubborn denial.
The cat opens its eyes slightly, lazy, and peers back at him, “Is it mutual?”
Carlos smiles again, almost laughs, “Oh, he definitely likes me too.” He swallows back worry over the possibility of that fact changing in the near future. Instead he says, “He probably likes me more than he should.”
For a moment, Carlos worries that the cat will ask if he is awful, and he isn’t entirely sure how he would respond. Luckily, there is no such question.
The cat purrs louder, and somewhere in the sound there is a thoughtful hum.
“Is he cute?” The cat asks instead, and Carlos isn’t sure if it’s teasing him or not. There’s an air of genuine interest in its tone, and he can’t help but laugh a little this time.
“Yes. Yes he is…cute.”
The cat purrs louder still, clearly pleased, and as Carlos scratches just beneath its chin, asks, “Is he more handsome than me?”
Carlos leans back a little, studying the cat in its entirety. It’s a nice looking cat, certainly, fluffy around the neck, sturdy in its structure, with clear, bright eyes. It looks like the velvet flocked Halloween decorations he always wanted to put on his front porch as a child, like the sort of cat every sweet old woman in every warm, lived-in bungalow ought to have twining round their legs, howling for food and attention.
It’s a handsome cat, but not really comparable to a person, and certainly not a person that Carlos very much wants to kiss again.
“Well,” Carlos says, hesitant, “I’m only attracted to people,” Or at least, person-shaped things, since he is still not entirely convinced that Cecil is, in fact, a person in the traditional sense, “So I’m not really a good judge of feline looks.”
The cat gives him a sharp look, and bites his hand, very quickly, just hard enough to make him pull away in surprise.
“Rude,” It says, and licks around its mouth before sitting up, setting about cleaning its front paws.
Carlos frowns, disappointed at the loss of purring and soft fur under his fingers. Much as he hates to admit it, the cat was right. Petting it had been pretty soothing, honestly.
“Sorry,” He says, and feels immediately as though the apology isn’t enough. The cat is looking at him reproachfully between sections of its grooming routine, and he wracks his brain for something to make it stop giving him such a dirty look. He knows he shouldn’t care, that it’s just a stray cat, one he didn’t even start a conversation with, but still, it’s going to make him feel bad all day if he doesn’t make right by it. He doesn’t think he can afford to feel guilty about a cat when he’s already got himself worked up over things with Cecil.
“Look,” He says, “You are a really good looking cat, it’s just…” He gestures vaguely, not sure how to continue, and gives up with a sigh.
What do stray cats like? Food?
“Are you hungry?” He tries, “I could get you something to eat, if you want.”
The cat perks up at that. It looks directly at him, eyes twice as large as before, and its tongue darts out again, “Yes,” The cat says, “Yes, you should.”
They go to the luncheonette that Carlos has never had the nerve to enter.
It’s actually a pretty nice place.
The cat orders grilled cheese and, at its enthusiastic suggestion, Carlos does the same.
He watches the cat groom itself in the booth seat across from his own, waiting in relative silence, till the waiter comes by and slides their plates onto the table while offering a wide, not entirely comfortable looking smile.
He watches the cat eat, since he has never seen a cat eat a grilled cheese sandwich before, and the whole process is pretty interesting.
Eventually he takes a few bites of his own food, finding it to be as good as the cat insisted it would be, and by the time he’s halfway through it, the cat speaks up.
“So anyway,” The cat says, sitting up in a suspiciously human fashion against the back of the booth, “Go on.”
Carlos swallows a mouthful of bread and cheese, says, “Sorry?”
The cat studies its front paws, which it has now folded and placed on the edge of the table, “Your romantic problems. Elaborate.”
“Oh,” Carlos says. He had almost put all that out of his mind. He leans back in his seat, thinking, for a moment, of how much work he could be getting done now if he had just gone to the lab like he was supposed to, “That.”
The cat looks up at him, waiting, and he feels compelled to explain.
“It’s not even a problem, really. I’m probably making mountains out of mole hills.”
The cat nods, (at least he thinks it nods,) and says, “Especially dangerous, around here.”
And while he isn’t sure what that means, Carlos nods back, “It’s just that I haven’t been entirely honest with him…or, rather, he doesn’t know my full situation. That is…”
He struggles to find the right phrasing, while the cat watches him, slightly suspicious.
“I’m not actively hiding anything from him,” He says, “It’s just that some things are awkward to bring up on a first date. We’ve only had one date, by the way.”
The cat looks a little less suspicious.
Carlos weighs the pros and cons of just saying what’s on his mind.
The pros; explaining his problems to someone who seems to care, perhaps giving better thought to said problems through voicing them, and hopefully reasoning things out in such a way as to make himself feel less bad about the whole thing.
The cons; a possibly judgmental look from a talking cat.
Considering that all looks from cats are a tad judgmental, it isn’t really a con at all.
“It’s a gender thing,” Carlos says bluntly. There, he went for it.
The cat puffs up. Its tail rises like a fluffy pole as it shows its teeth, pupils narrowing.
“Gender,” It hisses, then settles into a low growl.
Carlos raises both eyebrows, watches the cat relax again, fur flattening out, not quite all the way, as it licks one of its front paws sulkily.
“Gender,” It says, “Is a wild beast.”
And though it might only be teasing him, or possibly talking complete nonsense, Carlos thinks that the cat actually has a point. He nods, slowly, unsure. The cat sounds as though it too has had a long, difficult battle with gender, and has perhaps come out just as scarred as Carlos himself.
Which should be an insane thought, and yet….
He thinks back to petting the cat’s belly. He hadn’t noticed if it was a boy cat or a girl cat. Now that he thinks about it, it doesn’t really matter. He’s been thinking of the cat as simply a cat all along anyway.
He wonders if ‘cat’ is a scientifically recognized gender identity, at least here in Night Vale. He sees no reason for it not to be, honestly.
Although it feels sort of ridiculous to think it, Carlos feels instantly more comfortable with the cat, sensing a shared struggle. He takes another bite of his grilled cheese sandwich, chews, swallows, and continues, quietly.
“He doesn’t know yet,” He says, “My, uh…romantic interest. About the gender thing.”
The cat hums in understanding, raising a paw to flag down the waiter. It orders a slice of red velvet cake, with milk in a little saucer on the side, and turns back to face Carlos once the waiter is gone.
“It’s tricky,” The cat reasons, “It isn’t the kind of thing you want to just immediately disclose- I mean, why should you have to? But it can be hard to bring it up later down the line.”
Carlos nods, slightly astonished that the cat has turned out to be so understanding and relatable. Of all the people or animals to run into on a bad day, this cat has to be the best one.
“It’s kind of like my situation,” The cat says, shrugging slightly, although Carlos is not sure how it manages the movement, “I mean, I’m a talking cat, and that always throws people off. It’s not like I can walk around with a big neon sign that says ‘Talking Cat,’ though. That’d be stupid,” Carlos nods again, smiling, because he has had similar thoughts himself, “When I start talking in front of people though, of course they’re shocked! It’s unavoidable. There isn’t really a good in between.”
Carlos is slightly relieved to know he’s not the only one around here to have been surprised by a talking cat, although honestly, he thinks he probably should have been more surprised than he was.
“I know, right?” He says, animated, and the cat looks sort of amused by his renewed enthusiasm, “I’m supposed to be going out with him again tonight and, I mean, how am I supposed to go about breaking that news? ‘Hey Cecil, just so you know, my genitals might not be exactly what you’re expecting’?”
The cat’s eyes shift, slightly, at the name, and Carlos feels the slightest touch of regret at having exposed his date’s identity. He shrugs it off, lowering his voice a little as he continues, “I mean…I guess that’s exactly how I should go about it. Just getting it out there. Assuming it’s even an immediate issue. I don’t want to be too presumptuous.”
The cat raises its eyebrows, or rather, the whiskered area above its eyes, and Carlos is fairly sure he’s blushing.
He’s absolutely sure he’s talking too much, and he should watch what he says. Cecil’s tendency to spew personal information to any and all who’ll listen must be starting to rub off, he thinks.
“Hm, no,” The cat says, and Carlos could swear that it’s smirking, “Certainly not.”
The smiling waiter comes back around to their table, placing the cat’s cake and saucer of milk in front of it, snatching up the plates containing little more than crusts and stealing them away to the kitchens.
“To be honest,” Carlos continues as the cat begins picking apart its slice of cake, “And this is stupid, I know. But I’m almost hoping that he turns out to have tentacles or, or a swirling vortex in his stomach or something. Something weird. Then it could be a process of discovering…things. About each other. You know?”
The cat glances up with a mouthful of cake, makes a thoughtful noise.
“He’s probably perfectly normal though,” Carlos says with a laugh, “Wouldn’t that just be the kicker?”
The cat laps at the saucer of milk, licks a few drops from right under its nose, and says, “You are too. Perfectly normal, I mean.”
And Carlos can feel himself blushing again, because he’s being reassured in his identity by a cat of all things. He nods, a little embarrassed, and mutters that he knows this.
He had been joking, mostly. He doesn’t really expect to find anything bizarre in Cecil’s pants, if he ever even manages to get into them. And assuming he does discover something unearthly about Cecil, it would still be a vastly different situation from Carlos’ own.
“Look,” Says the cat, and Carlos looks up, not realizing he’d zoned out at all. But sure enough, when he meets the cat’s eyes, it is already licking the last of the cream cheese frosting from its whiskers, “I don’t know your deal, really. But from what I gather, I can’t see you having a problem.”
Carlos leans in, interested to see what pearls of wisdom the cat has to offer.
For the first time since they started talking, the cat seems to hesitate. After a moment, it swipes a paw over its whiskers, sets it back on the tabletop, and says, “All I’m saying is, if this date of yours is the guy I’m thinking of, he’s made it pretty clear to half the damn desert how much he likes you. How likely do you think it is he’s gonna turn around and stop fawning over you just because you’re different than expected?”
Carlos stares, and the cat seems to shrug again.
“I mean yeah, okay, it’s a concern. But really. I have a good feeling about this one. Nobody’s gonna dump someone so ‘perfect and beautiful’ that easy.”
Carlos feels quite flushed then. The phrasing assures him that this cat knows what it’s talking about. Cecil’s effusive declarations of affection are more far reaching than he’d previously thought. He imagines all the local animal life taking bets on his love life, perhaps commenting on what a cute couple they are. It is much too silly of a thought to be taken so seriously, but at this point, it feels like a valid concern.
He will be forever suspicious of the birds that perch just outside the lab.
“Of course I don’t know how it’ll really go,” The cat says, “But I mean, you’ll have to tell him what’s up eventually.”
Carlos nods and thinks, as he was earlier today, as he was late last night when he couldn’t sleep, of telling Cecil. Telling him everything. Instead of horrible outcomes he envisions positive ones, trying to take on Cecil’s stalwart optimism for his own uses.
He thinks of Cecil being unsurprised, being excited, even. He thinks “Neat!” in Cecil’s smooth, soothing voice, pitched ever so slightly higher out of giddiness, and smiles to himself.
Maybe it could go well.
Maybe it could go perfectly.
“Thanks,” Carlos tells the cat, who stands and stretches, offering a full-body shiver in response.
“No problem,” It says, “Good luck with everything.”
And with that, it jumps down from the booth and pads away, tail curled to a question mark.
Carlos stares after the cat, still confused, but mostly relieved.
A moment later, the waiter slides into view and hands him the check.
That night, as he walks back to his apartment to put on some clothing that isn’t blood stained and possibly radioactive before his date, Carlos peers down into the alley between the two small, brick buildings of unknown purpose. He pauses there, for just a moment, and far off behind a set of trash cans, sees a flash of yellow lights.
“Thumbs up,” The cat says, and it takes a moment for Carlos to realize that the cat has no thumbs, and therefore, cannot simply make the gesture.
He offers a thumbs up of his own, a grateful nod, and resumes the trip home.
He thinks he’ll wear his best fitting shirt tonight.