Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII is the property of Square-Enix. No profit is sought from this work
They were sneaky about it the way children are, meaning not very sneaky at all. There was shushing and stage-whispering and soft, muffled steps, like the exaggerated tiptoe walk of a cartoon burglar. Cloud caught them right away, SOLDIER-like ears always pricking at any slight disruption. "What have you got there?" he asked, rolling to the doorway on his rickety, ratty salvage yard chair.
They jumped. Pretty high too, but Denzel kept his grip. A cardboard box, Cloud observed, the kind canned goods were starting to be packed in again. The label might have been for peas and carrots once, going by the shreds of color, but most of that was gone, leaving the ragged white square that was bound too tightly by the glue. There was writing in that space, done with a thick, fading blue marker. '…ree to a goo…,' it said. Denzel's hands covered the rest.
"Please don't throw them out," Marlene said. She had a way of clasping her hands now that nudged at something in Cloud's head, but not too much. It was just a shadow of a habit, not a true resemblance. Cloud set a heavy lid on bubbling thoughts and stood to get a look.
Three kittens. Perfect. Old enough to leave their mother, from the looks of it, but just barely. Cloud scratched his head. "You know, I think when you find those 'Free to a good home' boxes, you really just take one."
"But the box was there all day," Denzel said, "and nobody was taking any of them."
"They'll be cold and hungry if we don't help them," Marlene said and Cloud, helpless and hopeless against this kind of attack, could not argue with that right then. Still, it was Tifa's house.
"We'll have to talk about this," he said, because it seemed like the responsible adult thing to say.
"Talk about what?" Tifa asked, coming up the stairs, and this time there were three guilty faces instead of two.
Tifa had had a cat, once, way back in Nibelheim. It didn't take much convincing. Cloud rather wished it had because the whole thing had gone down too fast for him. He had never had a pet, barely knew the first thing to do with one, much less three. He was learning fast though. He learned to watch where he put his feet. He learned not to leave the milk out. He learned to get the good kitty litter because cat shit was just awful. But he couldn't say he was happy with it all.
He couldn't say he was unhappy either. The whole thing seemed to have happened with him as a close bystander, present but not affecting anything at all. Tifa thought the things were cute and they did like the attention she gave them. The kids kept them entertained with homemade doohickeys made of feathers and string.
It wasn't that he minded, really. The kittens regarded him with a benevolent indifference. He could not for the life of him tell the two tortoiseshells apart. Marlene and Denzel, of course, knew exactly which one was the female with the black spot in front of the orange spot on one side and which one was male with the orange spot closer to the ground on the other side. Cloud supposed he could learn it eventually but kittens apparently didn't stay very still. That, and he felt odd about bending down to check a cat's crotch.
It was the last cat that worried him. Two days after the informal adoption, while Tifa and Marlene discussed names and cat food, the one with the mostly white fur had abandoned its dirty string toy to come sit at his feet. Cloud had straightened up. This was a serious little kitty, with its white body and black tail and the black spot veering off to one side of its muzzle. The cat stared at him first, seeming most indignant, at him and at the spot that had the nerve not to lie in the center like a proper marking.
"You're going to get cross-eyed if you keep glaring at it like that," Cloud told it and then the kitten was glaring at him again. The other two had yellow eyes. This one did not. Cloud noted it in the split second before the cat was on his ankles.
His cry was not loud but it got everyone else in the room staring at him, including the little torties. He pressed his lips together and stared down at the culprit, who seemed all too satisfied with the response. "That cat is the devil," Cloud said, with sudden unconscious certainty. Of course, the name stuck and the little beast seemed quite pleased.
Devil grew. Faster than the others, but not by much. Cloud wondered if they were really from the same litter. Devil stalked and hunted. He did not play. Or maybe that was how he played. His favorite toys were Cloud's feet. Cloud took to wearing his boots all the time.
Devil was the only one who took any notice of Cloud, the other two having written him off as a bulky inconvenience. Cloud would not say it unnerved him, exactly, but it would take some getting used to, having this cat around, following him around the house at a distance, keeping him in sight.
"What's your deal, cat?" he asked Devil one night. In the light from the little bulb in the fridge, Devil's eyes glowed and something about it set Cloud's mind squirming. He settled it quickly in the confines of his own head. Just a cat, after all. Their eyes do that.
Cloud slept fitfully for some time, but then he had never really been a sound sleeper. A few times he woke up in the middle of the night to find Devil's eyes glowing at him from the doorway. He started locking his door.
He had a few nights respite then woke from a dream of spilling red and swirling green to the sensation of light pressure keeping him in place. Devil was on his chest.
Cloud emptied his closet the very next day and took Tifa's standing invitation to move into her room.
The other two cats got named 'Muffy' and 'Puffy'. Cloud had no clue which was which. They played well with the kids and were fond of Tifa. Cloud was content to ignore them until they learned Devil's trick with locked doors.
"How…?" he asked, resisting the urge to pull the covers tight around him.
Tifa yawned and stretched and slid her feet into her slippers. "The window ledges, I guess," she said, making Cloud's eyes fly to curtains that waved in the morning breeze. "Cats are pretty acrobatic." Cloud spent most of the day racking his brain to remember if he had locked his.
They came to sort of an accord eventually. Devil never stopped following Cloud around. The cat had a fascination with swords. If Cloud set any of his down, there Devil was, inspecting his cold metal reflection. He sniffed and hissed and batted lightly with paws and never touched the cutting edge, at least not that Cloud could see.
"It's not another cat, you know," Cloud said one day. Devil's expression was disdainful and Cloud got the impression that Devil already knew. Cloud stopped saying much to Devil after that.
He got used to his shadow, in a way. Devil had some tricks left to pull. He could drop unseen from a high ledge to some place near Cloud, startling Cloud because even with his SOLDIER-like ears, Cloud would not hear a thing. Cloud was fairly certain now that Devil got around via window ledges, but the cat got into things with no visible opening either. Cloud would open closets and cupboards and there Devil would be, staring up at him. Cloud got used to it, after a fashion.
Then one night after helping Tifa close, Cloud drew himself a beer like he did sometimes. He set it aside to finish wiping the dishes. He turned around to see Devil yank his head out of the mug, licking away the froth. That was too much. "Tifa!" Cloud called. "Your cat drank my beer!"
"He's your cat, Cloud," Tifa said from somewhere upstairs. Cloud was taken aback.
"My cat?" He had never asked for one. Devil stared at him, eyes taking a shine even with all the lights on. The cat settled itself on the newly-cleaned counter, staring at Cloud as he were daft not to have known.
It was war after that. Cloud refused to back away. When Devil stared at him, he stared back. And he kept a close eye on his beer. Devil did not drink much of it but he had quite a taste for the stuff. Even Tifa could not say what in the world might make a cat want beer. "Maybe he remembers it from another life," Marlene said. "Don't cats have nine?" Cloud called Devil a drunk and a weirdo one night and got a look of pure disdain.
Still, Devil was attached to Cloud in some odd way, waiting for him to come home from deliveries, pouncing at his heels if he stood still too long. Cloud capped his half-empty beer mug with a coaster and wondered what exactly would make an animal fixate on him. "What's your deal, cat?" he asked as Devil batted at the coaster. Devil replied, as always, with a stare.
Devil began to get into fights. He terrorized Muffy and Puffy and was murder on the trashcan lids when he got out at night. "Cloud, go round up your cat," Tifa grumbled, half asleep.
Cloud sighed and felt around in the dark for the one slipper that always ended up under the bed. "Never asked for him," he said, but he went anyway and locked Devil in the laundry room for the night.
He was not there the next morning. Tifa hurriedly cleaned up the mess she found there, a scattering of dark feathers. "I think a bird got in," she said, tying the trash bag so the children would not see. "He must have hunted it down and dragged it away to eat it." Cloud shuddered. No, he had definitely not asked for this kind of pet.
Tifa sat him down at lunch and handed him a phone number. "Here, I think you need to make an appointment?"
Cloud was puzzled. "What for?"
"To neuter your cat, obviously," Tifa said. "I think we've put it off long enough."
Cloud blinked. "You're going to cut off Devil's…?"
"Well, technically the vet will do it," Tifa said, sipping her juice. "It should calm him down. Can't have him marking territory and mangling the other two all the time, and we definitely don't want anymore kittens."
Cloud stared at the phone number. It made sense. "What about Muffy?"
"Hmm?" Tifa raised her eyebrows at him over her glass.
"Puffy?" Cloud guessed again.
Tifa shrugged. "Male torties are usually sterile," she said and launched into an explanation of cat genes that left Cloud more confused than before. He called the vet from the garage but nobody answered. He called twice more while he was out on a delivery and finally succeeded in setting up an appointment.
"Hey, cat," he said when he came back to glowing eyes in the dark. "You're getting the snip." Devil hissed so hard Cloud almost ran.
Cloud dreamt of the Lifestream that night, something he did with a certain amount of regularity. He floated in the shimmering green, watching currents mingle and part. He woke when it was still dark and crept downstairs for an early breakfast. Devil landed on the counter beside him, one dark feather still between sharp kitten fangs. He stared at Cloud, then meaningfully at the beer tap. Cloud ignored him.
He made hot chocolate instead of coffee, seeking to prolong his half-sleep and dwell in the realm of Lifestream dreams a little longer. When he woke after such dreams it was often with the thought that some part of his mind had never left the place, that it was still there, waiting, calling to all the rest of him. Sometimes he tried to reach out and feel for it, but the Lifestream was a languid place.
Was it like that for everything, he had to wonder. Did mako remember who it had been? Did a tree remember being a million butterflies? Did a butterfly recall being a tree? If a cat had not been exactly a cat in a past life, did that count towards the nine? If the parts below the surface could call to the parts above, could the parts above call back?
Cloud thought he had fallen asleep again but the glow before him was just a pair of cat's eyes, accusing in the morning light. "What do you think, Devil?" he asked. "Think your balls will call you from the Lifestream?" Devil glared and walked away, tail high in the air so his sphincter would be in Cloud's face. "Damn cat," Cloud said, but there was no heat to it.
One day after the operation Cloud came home and Devil was not there. "He ran away," Marlene said sadly. "We can't find him." Cloud felt something but he could not say what it was. The next time he had a Lifestream dream he tried to reach out to whoever else might be in there with him, but if Devil's testicles were in there, they weren't answering.
Cloud learned how to live without his shadow. He did not get startled when he opened closet doors. He was not distracted by an animal's strange vanity. He started padding around the house barefoot again. Maybe there was something when he got himself a beer and did not have to cover it, some half-formed thought that faded before it could be seen. Cloud spent his late nights and early mornings properly alone, the way he had before, and sought no more answers from his hazy Lifestream dreams.
In the perverse way of such things, Devil waited until Cloud had completely reacclimated before making his quiet reappearance. He sat inside the doorway as if he had never left, waiting for Cloud to return. Cloud stood with one hand on the doorknob and stared down at the now fully-grown cat. "Trying to give me a heart attack?" he asked. "You'll have to do better than that." Devil seemed mildly amused.
His frame was bigger now, but he was thin and his fur had lost some of its sheen. Cloud popped open a can of sardines and set it on the counter. Devil leapt up, as light and limber as ever, his bearing elegant despite jutting bones. Cloud shook his head at the notch in one ear. "So, proved you're still tough even without your nuts?" Devil flicked his tail.
Cloud smirked. "Want some beer?" Devil perked up. Cloud fetched the third cat dish from where it had lain unused in the cupboard under the sink. "Just a little now," he said and drew off a tablespoon or two. Devil went at it eagerly enough and Cloud wondered again why his cat was so strange.
He reached out while Devil lapped and for the first time really stroked his back. He was bony as heck, vertebrae forming lumps and notches under Cloud's fingers, but he arched his back into the touch while he drank and softly began to purr.
"Hmm," Cloud said, more certain than ever. "You are the devil." And a cat, he thought as he stroked. Just a cat.