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Curiosity and the cat

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The cat is wrong. Crooked tail up in the air, it ambles through the cafe's pink and green tables, traversing the forest of chair legs, people legs and veils of plastic cloth with a pointed, proud disdain, as cats around these parts are wont to do. Its path is too regular. If it is looking for food, it has elevated the act to a condescending art, scouting the area through a faux-randomized series of halts and turns.

But above all that, Beauty thinks to herself as she can't help but follow that black spot in the corner of her eye, the cat is wrong. It is fixed where it should not, strained, both blurred beyond reality and popping out of it like a garishly edited photograph.

And here comes another pause to lick its fur, right on cue – maybe these local cats aren't so different from the ones at home after all. Basic coding is easy to spot and under the lazy late afternoon sun, sipping a cocktail and sticking around for a contact who is taking his sweet, sweet time, Beauty has no better way to kill the wait than to trace its route in her mind. It is heading toward her.

(Do they answer to specific commands? Undercover briefings never address these things, so much for 'local customs and culture')

An inch beyond the range of her riding crop, it sits, tail still raised like a question mark.

“Here” she offers, leaning down before this turns into a staring contest. The cat seems to appreciate the gesture, if not the curt greeting, and rubs up against her hand. It splits. Its fur is warm and soft between her fingers, tickling the underside of her manicured nails as she brushes another layer, on another plane, and she has to blink and check that she is not seeing double, that there is still only one singular physical cat purring and pawing at her. “Good girl”, she tells it, and goes on to experiment if cats like salty treats. Two peanuts tossed, two caught mid-air: success.

“Say what? Let's get another drink so we get more snacks to share. The boss won't complain.” You can't do that with the pets back home, though coworkers sometimes fill that position in her life, and Beauty doesn't mind the simple, casual company. Moreso when its wrongness lifts – it's gone in a moment, like that napkin that is being carried away by a sudden, lonely gust of wind – and the agent is left to bide her time with a cheeky black furball who likes peanuts, surprise attacks and the worst, most cramped, most ridiculous hideouts a cafe table can offer, such as, currently, a cat-shaped bump where the table's cloth meets an empty chair. So sneaky.

 

When the cat turns its ears and leaves, following a call beyond her audible range, Beauty knows better than to let it go. She considers leaving her tab for her contact to pay as soon as he shows up, but she has a feeling that he already has shown up, in a way – and besides, it's all money out of Sith's pockets anyway. Leaving cash and a generous tip under her glass, she hurries after the fugitive, catching a glimpse of its tail as it disappears in a back alley.

 

And there he is, at the end of the street. Leaning against a railing, bending down just as little as the kitten needs to jump in his arms and nest there. Absent, melted in his surroundings and, all in all, putting up a remarkable show of urban camouflage for someone decked in bright red and hair gel. He is one with the railing and lets the sprawling city exist around him, with its chatter and clanks and car horns and the sharp, warm rays of the setting sun. Useful, she says to herself, for a spy, and one has to wonder if the boss would use him, too, or what plans they have for this asset with the power to change the world (or at least to mesmerize a cat).

The air has shifted. Wrong again, but now it is her contact who is strained, fixed where he should not. Beauty notes how it feels when a soul is holding onto a body where it doesn't belong: all of reality shivers in its wake. In this heated summer, she could do with the chill.

 

“Mister Sissel.” A greeting and an acknowledgement, not a word wasted. “About time. If you are done with games, let us discuss these added terms of our agreement.”

“This was it”, the man says with a plastic smile, to which she responds with a well-practiced one of her own. “Just a little test, for my little friend's sake... the results are in and the expert says you passed. Throw in a lifetime's supply of quality cat food and cat litter for him, the best scratchin' post you can smuggle from this whole blasted nation, and my power's yours.”

Nothing is quite as heartwarming as a man declaring himself ready to sell out his life and country, but only as long as his cat gets first-class treatment – it's almost moving enough for Beauty to get over her annoyance at the smugness dripping from his voice.

“I shall relay the news, mister Sissel. Just one question left.” She scratches the cat's ears with her long, elegant nails, enjoying the gentle purring in response. The little rascal does have his charm. “How's His Highness called?”

And this is weird – out of all the fake emotions Beauty would have expected to see enacted on that blank canvas of manipulation, this wincing seems genuine. The sudden urge to adjust his sunglasses and a half-step backwards, it's all in unison and it spells out surprise. Of all things.

Like he hadn't thought of it.

He freezes and this pause, this is him catching his nonexistent breath, struggling to form a word on his tongue. Eventually, the corpse regains his posture, shuts his mouth, manages to pull off a compelling air of condescension.

“...just cat.”