A Neighborhood for Cats
AU, modern day, Malik/Leonardo. The military gives Malik his discharge papers. His mother gives him a cat named Altaïr. For Laylah, with thanks to Kytha for beta and encouragement.

They have the paperwork already prepared before Malik leaves the hospital.

In retrospect, he should not be surprised. The climate has not been good within the American military for some time, not for a man whose last name is Al-Sayf, whose family lives almost entirely overseas. There are provisions, of course, and non-discrimination clauses, and exceptions that are held up loudly as examples. Yet, Malik suspects that his COs would prefer he exit gracefully, in a manner where no one can doubt he has served well. To this very last, Malik has performed dutifully. He has been all he could be.

His brother, even more.

They give him insurance forms and discharge papers along with his prescriptions and scheduled follow-up slips, numbers for trauma recovery counselors and for specialist practitioners. The military is nothing but thorough in the last assignment folder prepared for him. Malik is a cog, but he has always been a cog. The military gives him no cause for disillusionment.

His mother gives him a cat.

"Doesn't he have the most darling face?" she coos, cradling the demented ball of fur in her arms.

The face in question belongs to a creature that is anything but darling. It appears to be a cat only by virtue of four paws, two tattered ears, and a matted, muddy-brown coat of fur. Its tail is a limp banner tacked on for afterthought. Otherwise, it could easily be classified as a concentrated nodule of pure arrogance.

Malik stares. It had been a very surreal car ride back to his parents' home; the medicinal cocktail that has replaced his blood has not been pleasant. He had had to make them pull over twice so he could throw up on the side of the road. Fast-food coffee had been a mistake.

Gingerly, he reaches out and pokes at the animal. It lazily stretches a paw, flexing three front claws and a stub where the fourth should have been. "Where did this... thing come from?"

"We got him from the shelter, but they say he must have been a stray, because he is already familiar with people. They were very eager to see him find a home!" Malik's mother hefts the beast closer to her chest as the weight of it begins to ooze loose. "They did his neuter and first year of vaccinations for free. I have named him Altaïr. He is for you."

"How can I take care of a cat right now?" Malik replies flatly, without much fire in his voice. The hospital has drained the fight out of him; he is a creature of sterile gauze and ointment. "Watching over a pet, after all that has happened?"

At this, his mother looks at him, straight through his mulish despair, and he is startled to see the redness in her eyes, the lines of exhaustion that she has been so careful to mask during her visits to his bedside. "Do not worry, Malik. You will appreciate him later. We will bring him with you when we drop you off at your house. After - after everything is over."

He spends the funeral in a haze of painkillers. Kadar must be buried right away, as soon as possible in keeping with tradition, but the nature of their deployment and the condition of the body have combined to delay matters long enough for Malik to crawl out of his bed and not miss the ceremony. He is grateful. He does not know if it is worse to defy the burial rituals or to miss his only brother's funeral, but he will accept damnation if that is the latter's cost.

The drugs paint a thick, nauseating layer of fog across the cemetery. Everything is happening too fast and too slow at the same time. Events are over before he can really pay attention to them; people say words that he doesn't hear, assuming reactions that he can't figure out how to make. He keeps expecting to find Kadar there - keeps turning to look for Kadar, and half the time he thinks he sees his brother standing there anyway, bloody with all his teeth broken out.

The drugs make him loopy. When people come up to Malik and try to embrace him, he keeps sliding away because he's trying to hold them with the wrong hand.

Once the ceremonies are done, and his parents have taken him back - his mother's eyes blotchy with weeping, his father's mouth stiff from trying not to - Malik finds himself wandering at a slow limp through the rooms of his home. His and Kadar's house is just a short distance from their parents, close enough to help out with chores when they are stateside, but far enough away to keep their own sanity intact. The building itself is small and tidy. Malik had split it with his brother, one of them keeping an eye on things if the other had been deployed separately. Half the time, they never bothered staying current with maintenance; their parents had to take care of that, which meant that most of the rooms ended up getting used for storage whenever their father needed a place to stick the lawnmower or a piece of furniture he didn't want to admit to ruining yet.

Now it feels strange, strange because it doesn't feel different at all yet, as if Malik is simply home to waste the days before his next flight out. The fridge gives off a quiet hum, operating on a smooth power efficiency cycle despite the lack of frequent use. A few boxes are stacked in the corners, lettered with phrases like Holiday Lights and Dining Room - FRAGILE. He passes them all by, drifting like a curl of smoke.

Despite himself, he pauses at the door to Kadar's bedroom. He tries to reach out and nudge it open with his knuckles, the barest of touches - but nothing happens, and after a moment, Malik moves his right hand instead.

Inside, there's nothing of Kadar remaining. His clothes are already packed up, the hamper emptied. The sheets on the bed are gone. That much is typical - they were rarely around enough to bother keeping their beds permanently made. Both of them had fallen into the habit of stripping their rooms whenever they shipped out; it made coming home feel like a new experience each time.

But the difference now is that the mattress is already tipped up, the framework dismantled, tucked away that Malik doesn't have to worry about doing it himself. It's a gesture that's cruel and kind at the same time, and as soon as he sees it, he realizes that he is secretly glad that he was spared the task.

He turns and leaves the room that's already empty of anything he might look for in it, and returns to the kitchen, stacking his bottles of pills on the counter and lining them up by vital importance. The cat takes one look at him once freed from its carrier, and promptly disappears. Malik lets it go. There's a litterbox already prepared in the bathroom - he's not looking forward to changing that with only one hand, never mind future vet visits - and food and water dishes in the kitchen, so Malik assumes the interference of his mother and is properly grateful.

Come evening, he goes to sleep without showering, waging a battle with medicine that alternately wants to keep him awake, wired to the gills with nervous energy, and too exhausted to even twitch. He rolls his body over the cool coverlet, hissing when he accidentally applies pressure to his left side. The nerves whimper. The lines of his clock blink meaninglessly - it doesn't matter what time it is, he has no obligations, no job, nothing to wake up for or to sleep for, and he doesn't bother to set an alarm.

As soon as he clicks off the light, Altaïr begins to whine.

Malik clenches his eyes shut, unwilling to pay any attention to the fussiness of an animal he didn't even want in the first place. When he relents and turns the lights back on, Altaïr goes silent, staring at him expectantly from the doorway. When he tries to pat the bed in invitation, Altaïr only continues staring.

He turns off the light. Immediately, Altaïr starts to wail again.

At 2:15 a.m., Malik gives up and lets the cat out.

At 2:32 a.m., the cat wants back in. It yowls and scratches at the front door, circles around and scratches at his window, at all the windows, making an unearthly wailing that sounds more like a pissed-off command than a plea to be let back inside. It thumps against the glass. At one point, the whining comes from directly above Malik: the cat has somehow scaled the walls, and is on the damned roof.

By the time that 4:30 a.m. rolls around, there is a blessed interlude of silence that finally lasts, dragging on with each sweet second until the drugs win their side of the war, and pull Malik down into an unsteady sleep. He dreams vividly, surrounded by the howling of unearthly beasts, their tongues long and drooling as they lust for the blood of fallen soldiers.

At 8:34 a.m., he gets an angry demand from his neighbor for compensation for their dog's emergency vet bills, and an Animal Control officer at his door.

After that, Malik installs a catflap in the kitchen.

It's harder to use a drill and jigsaw than he expects. He braces things with his knees, cursing at each slip, and trying not to feel either hindered or triumphant as he works through each frustrating inch. He has the Disability paperwork waiting for him in his study - part of the package they gave him, waiting for signatures and dates - but even going near the documents makes him scowl. He never thought about it much before, but now the word makes him want to flinch. Disabled, crippled, lame. Words he never hesitated to use before, dropping each casual adjective in conversation, and it shames him to realize how they must have always sounded to other people, people he thought he was respecting.

He duct-tapes the flap shut the next day, after discovering that Altaïr has become fond enough of the house to decide to urinate all over his bedspread. As he drags the covers into the kitchen to try and pretreat them with stain remover, he laughs and laughs at the enraged scratching he hears from outside as the cat attempts to burrow through the plastic.

It is the smallest of victories, but he relishes it. He feels saturated with bitterness and anger and amusement and chemicals, and it is a good place to be.

After a gratuitous amount of scrubbing - cursing whenever the fabric starts to slither away - Malik eventually gives up on trying to make everything better. There's a chance that the combination of everything he's used will cause his dryer to explode, which causes him to stop and rinse the blankets off, getting soppier and soppier as he goes. Then he sorts the covers between loads, hefting up the excess up on the kitchen table so that at least they might not be stepped on.

After that, he peels off the tape and stands back, watching as Altaïr fishes a paw through the flap to poke at the air before finally sliding the rest of the way into the kitchen. When the cat sniffs disdainfully at the reek of cleaning chemicals on the air, Malik only laughs again, and throws a wet towel at it.

Emboldened by his victory over his own pet, Malik starts to venture outside by gradual degrees. He is not accustomed to the neighborhood; it is strange to think of it as a place he will be living now, instead of simply spending time at between assignments. He does not know the families around him. People have moved in, people have moved out, an endless tide of strangers with identical curbside trash barrels. Every September, someone knocks over their mailbox, regular as clockwork. Every year, Malik and Kadar have put it back up again.

It will be harder to fix this year, alone.

But he does not need to know about the neighborhood. He does not need to care. These people have no bearing on his life, and no interaction with him that is meaningful, that will impact beyond if they have remembered to clear their trashbins out of the road or not. He and Kadar never knew them. The unfamiliarity goes both ways.

The cat grows on him, gradually. Perhaps because it stubbornly refuses to be deterred by Malik's attempts to both ignore and control it; it follows its own idea of social interaction, which includes how to show affection. Its voice is harsh and rusty whenever it makes demands. When it is being particularly needy, it makes a sound that Malik can only describe as a high-pitched, chirping belch.

"Clearly, you have low standards of being adorable," he tells it sternly one day, and it has the gall to look hurt.

Matters improve after Malik decides to take an active hand in restoring order to his household. His wisest investment is a spray bottle filled with water; he uses it liberally, spraying Altaïr whenever the cat is misbehaving, or starting to misbehave, or simply looking as if it is contemplating mischief, until one day Malik discovers himself chasing the cat like a madman through the apartment, soaking everything with gouts of water while chortling at the top of his lungs.

Once he realizes, he skids to a halt, panting, listening to the echoes of his own laughter while Altaïr tackles a lamp in the next room.

Otherwise, the cat is an unwelcome distraction, particularly whenever Malik's missing arm itches at him. When he rubs and rubs at the skin, irritating the scars but unable to stop trying to touch something his mind insists is there, Altaïr likes to come investigate, pouncing at Malik's sleeve with all claws unleashed. When it's not busy attacking him, it likes to sprawl out over whatever Malik is working on, whether it's the newspaper or forms from the doctors. If he is being inattentive - by accident or on purpose - Altaïr will start to rip the papers apart, tearing them to shreds with tooth and claw, and then leave the remains scattered merrily across the bathroom floor.

The cat climbs everywhere. It scrambles up bookshelves, up counters, down counters, ravages the shower curtain, scales clothes in their hangers and pulls most of them off. Most of the time, it climbs up things simply so it can jump off again. It makes a game out of ambushing Malik's feet, sneaking out from cover to deliver a bite to his ankle, and then scampering away again with its tail humped and back arched with glee.

Malik tries once - just once - to get the thing washed, herding it into the bathroom and waiting until the door is securely shut before filling the tub, but the cat will have no part of such a thing. It struggles and screams all the worse as he turns up the knobs and floods the bathroom with steam. Malik goes for the towel trick, pinning down a corner of the cloth with his knee, but Altaïr wrestles loose and takes a chunk of skin out of his wrist in vengeance.

"You're not going to drown," he tells it sternly, sucking at a welt that's already starting to swell bright pink.

Altaïr, puffed up and hostile, continues to make a fire siren wail from the corner.

In the end, Malik lets the cat out after nearly getting clocked with his own aftershave, and Altaïr stubbornly goes and gets himself covered in mud.

Bathtime is not Malik's only failure. After losing four collars in a row to Altaïr's refusal to wear anything with a bell, Malik gives up and lets the cat win the war with a plain buckle and flat plastic rabies tag. His reward for this surrender is a grisly wad of flesh that is placed directly on his slippers the next morning: a peace offering, or simply breakfast.

"Did you slaughter your own kind?" he blurts incredulously, and then takes a closer look - no, wrong color of fur, wrong consistency. Probably. A squirrel, maybe. A squirrel... tail. Oh. Yes. Ugh.

Altaïr watches him reproachfully when Malik scoops up the offending morsel and flings it out into the yard. When Malik reaches down and tries to gingerly scratch Altaïr's head, the cat retaliates by leaking a blast of foul air from its bowels.

Covering his nose, Malik backs away, escaping back into his house in hopes that the cat will get bored, and eventually wander off to become someone else's problem.

The cat's love-hate-destruction relationship with him only evolves as time goes on. At first, Malik is merely vexed by the creature's irrational love of heights. This sentiment blossoms into full-fledged horror once Altaïr ends up deciding that Malik's height makes him a perfect climbing tree; it starts to use Malik as a ladder at will, digging in with its claws and jackknifing up all the way to Malik's hip before Malik can scream sufficiently and throw himself to the ground in an attempt to peel off the attack.

Right during the middle of a fresh assault, the phone rings. Malik makes a grab for it, trying to stifle a flurry of fresh curses as he successfully relocates Altair onto the sofa, slithering down to sit on the floor in self-defense.

It is his mother. Determinedly cheerful, her voice floats over the phone. "Malik! I have today off, and I was thinking it has been a while since I have visited. Perhaps, we could have lunch at the new seafood place that opened up? It is in that shopping district, the one downtown at Falcon Plaza. On a second level, I think? Will it be too difficult for you to walk up the stairs?"

"I lost an arm, not a leg," he snaps at her, and promptly feels like a monster. "Here, let me speak to Father. Please."

Deprived of his primary form of amusement, Altaïr pads up beside him and sits down. Then, aiming directly at his lap, the cat begins to snort and huff in a series of coughs that Malik gradually realizes - with dawning horror - is prelude to a hairball.

He yelps, flailing a hand at the cat and rolling away, only to have it promptly hack up a dripping, fibrous wad where he had been sitting mere moments ago.

"This cat is not suited for my home," he declares once his father is on the line. "Also, he smells. I believe he eats skunks on a regular basis. Imagine how many diseases he might be collecting at this very moment. Tell Mother that she has given me a monster."

"I will do no such thing," Malik's father huffs. "That cat is a gift from your mother, and you will respect that duty. I hope you are taking proper care of it, and not trying to run it off with neglect."

Malik promptly denies everything.

A hook of guilt lodges itself in his gut, however, despite all attempts to ignore it. If he was being responsible and looking out for his pet, he would not let Altaïr outside at all. There are many dangers to be found in suburbs - cars, coyotes, idiotic teenagers - and any one of them could be the end of something that is small and furry, regardless of how much attitude that creature may contain.

He does not like the cat, but that does not mean he wants to see it die miserably on the side on the road. Die painfully, die wounded. Die like - die like nothing should have to perish, injured and suffering beyond all ability to recover.

"Listen," he tells the cat sternly that night, crouching down and trying not to feel stupid. "Don't go out there, understand?"

Altaïr gives him an unimpressed look and then yawns in his face, meaty breath washing over Malik's face. Malik rolls his eyes.

"Fine," he says. "Be that way. See if I care."

Recovering from his injury is as difficult as he expected - only in different ways. Malik fiddles with the paperwork in increments, well-aware of the deadlines for filing. He's always had a high tolerance for physical pain, but that's not his enemy now: it's the itching, the tingling, the expectations he has for himself that he can't manage to meet. Self-discipline should solve everything. Self-discipline keeps slipping out of his grasp.

The medicine makes him sick and hijacks his appetite, though he's finally finishing up the last of the antibiotics. Even the doctor visits have started to taper off. He gets decent health coverage for what he needs, at least. Which is an irony - he has good health coverage, but never expected to use it past the occasional strain and fracture. He and Kadar had ended up in the military because it was in his blood; his father had been hired in a logistics capacity, before 9/11 and the paranoia that erupted in the months following. Afterwards, it had been as if they had had to work twice as hard to even seem half as reputable, simply due to their origins. The bulk of their family was still overseas; Malik hadn't seen most of them in years.

But he hadn't minded. He'd always had his brother with him, both of them enrolled and invested in service, cheerfully blocking out the rest of the world whenever they felt like it. Malik had always looked out for his little brother; his brother had always looked up to him. It didn't matter how ignorant other people's prejudices were, or how pig-headed their father was, or how hard the training had been - his brother had been there with him, and he'd always been careful to make sure Kadar knew all the tricks to help protect himself, things to listen for while on patrol and knacks for rigging his gear to keep it from bunching up during a run.

And yet, when the explosions had gone off around them, bombs opening up in curdled puffs of light, it hadn't been enough.

He refuses a prosthetic. It feels - awful to strap something on, and then shameful that it is awful. Malik knows that he is not the only one in his situation and that there are even children who have to grow up with worse each day, and his own stubborn reluctance makes him feel even more wretched, a cycle of inner loathing that others would call self-pity if he tried to express it - but it's not pity, it's anger. Anger that he is not a better man, that he can't adapt effortlessly, that he cannot simply accept something logically and allow that understanding to permeate the rest of his being.

His father does not show him any more mercy on the subject either. "Even if you do not wish a prosthetic," he muses during their next phone call, "they are making more and more advances with science, Malik. I am certain that in a few years, they will be able to find a better solution for you. Perhaps, even to fix you."

For a terrible, maddening second, Malik's vision registers as a blur: a haze of utter rage. "I don't need to be fixed," he barks. "I'm not broken, Father."

"Then what are you doing there, eh?" In his mind's eye, Malik can see his father, bristling and irrationally aggressive. "In that house, all alone? Not even liking your own cat."

"I - "

"Your mother and I have lost Kadar, Malik. Do not be so selfish that we lose you as well."

The conversation dies quickly after that. After Malik ends the call, he snaps the phone shut and flicks it violently on the bed, where it slides all the way up to bump against a pillow.

He doesn't want to think of himself as disabled, but he can't understand why, why he would reject the word when there should be no lessening of worth attached - when actively refusing the term is a sneer against everyone who is strong enough to stand up beneath a label. He shudders with his own self-disgust. He's not that kind of person, because he knows other soldiers that have been wounded and he doesn't think any less of them, because he's not that kind of person - but he can't help feeling like he's lost something with Kadar and a discharge, something that can't be replaced by a pair of medals and a neatly folded flag.

If it's not his arm, and not his brother, then he doesn't know what else it could be.

Sickened to the pit of his stomach, he sprawls out on the bed. He is too old to be a child about this, but he does not know what else he can do. Kadar is gone. There is no one else here with him. He has no help for finding his way through it all.

After a moment, he feels the mattress depress, and then roll as the cat pads closer. Altaïr sniffs his ear, the whiskers tickling, and then the cat shifts; a warm, insistent weight forcefully shoves itself against Malik's head, and threatens to give him an instant crick in the neck.

Malik has enough time to wonder how much, exactly, of Altaïr's filthy stinking rump is being pushed up directly against his scalp, and then he feels a strange rumble: a purr, rough and wheezy, but strong enough to vibrate directly into Malik's skull.

He twists enough to free up his right arm, and then awkwardly drops it across the furry body, feeling it nestled against him. It purrs at a wobbly pace, flanks pulsing in time with each rusty noise, radiating perfect, honest contentment.

When Malik wakes up the next morning, Altaïr is still wedged up against him, wrapped in a warm knot with his head tucked into Malik's neck.

He figures things out slowly after that, finding the boundaries that both he and Altaïr will tolerate. Instead of attempting baths, he starts using a damp brush to comb out the cat's fur, and invests in waterless shampoo. The moisture helps with the matting. After a few weeks of tending, Altaïr's dense hairs start to feel soft instead of oily. Malik runs his fingers through them with satisfaction; Altaïr allows himself to be touched.

"You must really love your cat," the clerk tells him when he shows up for the third time that week to the pet store. He's started to purchase toys and leave them cunningly around the house in hopes that they will convince Altaïr to spend more time indoors. Altaïr's response so far has been to shred them and stash brightly-colored feathers in the pantry.

"He is the bane of my existence," Malik replies, with intense sincerity, but it must be a complaint she's heard before, because she smiles indulgently and hands him his bag and receipt.

He keeps trying the toys anyway. Altaïr stealthily vivisects each one with hungry glee. He picks up an anti-mite formula that can be applied through drops on the back of the neck, rather than force an earwash. Altaïr shakes and spatters the medicine all over Malik's face. He puts down soft blankets, and Altaïr stains the fleece with gunk and dirt, but Malik doesn't mind.

One afternoon, as Altaïr sprawls on the front porch, furry belly inflating and deflating like a ravenous bellows, Malik gingerly reaches out and touches the cat's flank.

Altaïr is completely sacked out - a chipmunk ran by earlier without even earning a twitch of the cat's ear - so the most that Malik expects is for the cat to not even acknowledge his presence. The air is peppered with Altaïr's little snores, nasal grunts that tickle the air, completely ungraceful as ever.

He expects the cat to startle, but Altaïr doesn't stir. Then, slowly, the vibration of a purr starts to seep up into Malik's skin. Struck by the tiny sound, he keeps his hand frozen; using the utmost care, he leans over to see if the cat has roused himself, but Altaïr is still a comatose lump, eyelids shut and ears relaxed.

How does he know, Malik wonders. How does he recognize it is me, with just a touch?

How can he purr like that, trusting in me with his eyes still closed?

As the pattern of dealing with Altaïr develops, Malik finds he can work around it, when the cat isn't being contrary on principle. There are anti-flea and tick medications that can be applied directly to the skin, rather than through a collar, and Malik learns how to tip the cat carrier vertically so that he can drop Altaïr into the container rather than shove him. He checks to make sure the catflap doesn't get stuck, and changes the water daily. He finds a dry food that Altaïr will actually eat, and remembers to refill the bowl.

A night, when his body whispers aches into his dreams and wakes him up, uncertain if he dreamed it all - dreamed the skirmish and amputation and funeral and everything since his brother was gone - Malik gropes at the left side of the bed, trying to steer his way back to the present.

Each time, he feels a furry body tucked there instead, filling in the gap: Altair lying down in place of Malik's missing arm.

When Malik gets a knock on his door in the latter days of summer, his first thought is of Altaïr. The cat had been remarkably well-behaved ever since they finally started adjusting to one another; Malik doesn't know if Altaïr spends most of the night out on the prowl, but whenever he wakes up in the morning, Altaïr is always there.

It can only be a matter of time, he figures, before something truly horrific happens.

Unfortunately, he is correct.

There's a man standing on his porch: approximately his age, with lighter skin and a sharper nose. His beard has a rudimentary trim, overgrown by the shagginess of inattention. There's a smear of dirt - no, dust, charcoal dust of some kind - all along his neck, gilding the collar of his shirt. A wirework mess is in his left hand, dangling in a tangled lattice of silver and rubber. The tail sticking out of the side is instant proof of Altaïr's predicament.

"Is this one yours?" the man asks, lifting the cage.

Malik starts to answer automatically, and then stops when he gets a better glance at the contraption. The cage is flat-bottomed, but that's the only similarity it bears to normal animal traps; there are sliding partitions set throughout the rectangular box, and a few extra latches that don't make sense no matter how hard he stares at them.

"That's not standard issue from Animal Control," he says, part of him mildly weary of the fact that he can make such a statement with authority.

The man frowns, looking at the cage as if he's temporarily forgotten what he's holding and that it might be considered abnormal. "No - no, it's my own design. Do you like it?"

Now that Malik's able to examine the structure, he's not sure it falls under any category of practical. Or legal - it looks like it could fold up and collapse with a cat still inside it, squashing them like a piece of bread in a toaster. On the other hand, the cage caught Altaïr, which means that Malik should invest in at least twenty, and place them strategically around the house. "Yes?"

"I keep finding him in my garden! The neighbors two houses down say he belongs to you. Actually," the man corrects, "they say he belongs to the pound, and that I should bring him there right away without ever speaking to you, but I figured I would check in with you first. Well?"

In the cage, Altaïr - who must have apparently given up on trying to tear apart the bars by force - has resorted to lying on the gridwork floor and trying to ooze out between the cracks, much like a sad lump of fur with ears.

Malik, knowing better than to fall prey to pity, only considers. Tempted - briefly, very briefly, his mother might forgive him someday - he finally shakes his head. "He is mine," he sighs, resigned to a fate of irregular stenches and occasional hairballs. "Thanks. Ah - you said he was bothering you?" he adds hopelessly, knowing that there is absolutely no way he can actually convince Altaïr to stay away from anywhere.

"More my cat than me," the man allows. "Sorry, we haven't met yet, have we? I live on the corner, the house with all the windows? My name is Leonardo - Leo is fine! So, you like cats? Have you seen mine at all near your place?"

In only a matter of minutes, Malik finds himself dragged out of his abode - defenseless against Leonardo's cheerful ramblings - all the way down to a squat cottage-style home with mismatched curtains in the windows. There, lying like a barricade across the sidewalk, is a rather nonchalant feline, lean and pale-bodied with creamy fur and dark markings on its extremities.

"Ezio here is a Colorpoint Shorthair," Leonardo says affectionately. He extends a hand, and - magically - the cat immediately picks herself up and comes over, ducking her head to bump it against the man's fingers. "She was rescued from an Italian breeder, so I understand. Pedigree and all! Very shady business - I think something happened where the business tried to offload some of its stock, or maybe someone tried to do it for them. I don't know what else happened to the rest of her litter. I thought she was a boy when I acquired her and then I had so much else going on that I didn't have a chance to check until I took her to the vet, but by then it was too late. The name stuck. She looks like an Ezio though, don't you think?"

Malik, whose experience with Italian names largely stems from restaurants and bad movies, nods blankly. "Yes, very pretty," he says, and earns a disdainful tail-flick from the cat.

Leonardo finishes ruffling the cat's ears, who purrs and accepts the affection gracefully. "She is, but it will go straight to her head. So, what is it that you do, Malik?"

"Army," Malik says, automatically, and then corrects himself. "Discharged. Honorably - the, the injury." Having to talk about it makes him all tangled up. He feels an irrational burst of annoyance; Leonardo should have interpreted that much from the pinned-up sleeve. "You?"

"Oh," Leonardo says. "There are some patents that help me meet the bills. And I have a few contracts," he adds offhandedly, and Malik is familiar enough to know that - around their area, so close to D.C. - contracts means military, just as he knows not to ask for more details. Then, before Malik can recoil in time, Leonardo reaches out and claps him on the shoulder: a warm touch of the hand made with easy confidence. "Want to come in for a bit? It's a good afternoon for coffee, I think?"

"I have to go." The abrupt response vaults out of Malik's hindbrain. Leonardo's invitation makes him feels trapped and skittish, assaulted by the man's overwhelming gregariousness and not ready for any of it. "Thank you. I'm sorry if Altaïr causes you any trouble, in the future. Goodbye."

The sense of panic subsides once Malik is back in his abode, on familiar turf - safe inside his territory, visited only by himself and his smelly cat. There are no strangers here. There is nothing new, nothing that he might not be ready for, no forms of contact outside the clinical realm of grocery transactions and pharmacy visits.

Leonardo shows up at his door the next day.

The man is unabashedly cheerful as he fidgets on the front stoop. He brandishes a baking dish when Malik opens the door, radiating the scent of tomatoes and cheese. "I saw that you might be home, so I figured, why not check! Are you hungry? Have you eaten dinner yet?"

Outmaneuvered by a pair of brightly-checkered blue oven mitts, Malik examines the meal being forcibly shoved towards him. There's a paper towel spread across the top, but the dish is clear glass, and he can see the ominous colors of red and beige squashed together in an aimless mess. Pasta, apparently. He wonders if he's expected to offer something inappropriately stereotypical in exchange, like baklava. "Is that lasagna?"

Leonardo picks up on the suspicious look, and laughs it off. "Ah, I know, the only thing worse for me to bring would have been spaghetti, right? Anyway, it's was frozen. Stouffer's brand! My grandmother, she used to make the best old-fashioned meals, all from scratch! So I like keeping a little something in my groceries to remind me of her, even if it's predictable. I thought, maybe, you would like some as well?"

The thought of company wrinkles Malik's nose. "Really, no - " he begins, but then Altaïr pokes his head out of the doorway and darts outside, spooking Leonardo's leggy cat out of the bushes, and somehow he and Leonardo end up spending the next few minutes yelling at both felines as Ezio somehow vaults across the neighbor's car and straight into a second neighbor's trashbin.

When everything's calmed down again, it seems almost pointless to try and send Leonardo away. They end up sitting there on Malik's front porch, digging into the cooling lasagna with their forks working from opposite ends of the dish.

"I think, maybe, that I offended you last time?" Leonardo asks suddenly, peering at him from underneath his long bangs. "If so, I also wanted to apologize."

Malik shakes his head. "No. It's just," he fumbles, trying to explain things away without prodding any of the sore points that wait like landmines, buried pains that he hasn't been able to master. "It's been hard for me, since. My brother - he was also Army. With me."

That's all that he can force out, the words truncating themselves there and refusing to go any further; he tries to elaborate with a gesture of his fork to his empty sleeve. Leonardo nods. "I understand," he says, graciously. "And your cat must be more than a headache, eh?"

Gratified by the change in topic, Malik smirks. "Altaïr will be the end of me," he acknowledges, and resumes peeling back the layers of cheap pasta and ricotta, picking at the ground hamburger and listening to Leonardo talk about the latest art installation that he had the misfortune to visit.

That night, Altaïr sprawls right over the middle of the bed, taking up as much space as he can while exposing his belly. Malik reaches down and tangles his fingers in the tufts of hair, idly spinning dark small whorls.

Life isn't as bad as he thought. Ezio, he thinks, looks much more rational than Altaïr, except that he cannot shake the feeling that Ezio keeps looking at things as if she is one heartbeat away from trying to tear them to pieces. She's far more chatty as well, always padding around and sticking her nose in his business or Leonardo's, meowing whenever she feels like it: a stark contrast to the proud independence that Altaïr displays.

After that, he sees Ezio around the yard sometimes; the two cats seem fond enough of one another, if fondness means chasing one another madly across rooftops, up and down trees, and stalking one another through the shrubbery. But if fondness is a hunt, a pursuit defined by the rules of those playing it, then it could take any kind of shape. It could be any sort of game.

Maybe it is.

Summertime waddles out slowly, leaving the nights warm and simmering. Excess heat makes Malik groggy; paradoxically, it also keeps him from having a solid night's rest, waking him up every few hours to kick off his own tangled sheets.

When dawn sneaks around one Friday morning, Malik finally gives up on any attempts to rest. He stumbles sleepily into the bathroom and flicks on the light, scratching lazily at his belly.

There are kittens under his toilet.

He yelps, stumbling backwards - at first glance, the kittens had resembled a squirming mass of nightmares, countless closed eyes and tiny writhing bodies - and nearly clocks his head against the door when he tries to steady himself with his absent left hand.

Ezio sticks her head out from behind the plunger, gives him a reproachful look, and goes back to grooming the newborns.

Malik flees.

"Didn't you fix her, Leonardo?"

Leonardo hunches his shoulders. "I've been meaning to," he protests weakly. "It's just, one thing and another, and then before you know it she's got kittens again, and they're really fascinating to watch, you know, how they learn to use their bodies while they continue to develop - "

"I'll pay it," Malik interrupts. "I'll take her to the vet myself."

He had wisely evacuated from his house once he realized it had been taken over by Ezio and Ezio's likely-psychotic offspring; Altaïr had apparently decided the same thing after poking his head in and seeing the situation at a glance. They had both scrambled out through the kitchen. Malik had done the sensible thing and went straight to Leonardo's, ringing the doorbell that played classical tunes backwards until he got sick of it, and hammered on the back door to wake the man up.

Now he's fetched up in Leonardo's wreck of a kitchen, which apparently doubles as a chemistry lab and a painting studio. "What is she even doing at my place?" Pieces of sausage rack up on the tines of his fork, speared one by one. "At least I know Altaïr is not the cause here. He has never spawned."

"Are you sure?" Leonardo's eyes narrow. "You told me he was picked up by the shelter as an adult, correct? He probably had dozens of offspring before that. Would you have even remembered to get him fixed if the shelter hadn't done it for you?"

Dozens. Dozens of furry little mini-Altaïrs running around. Malik suppresses a shudder.

"Really! I feed her, give her a warm place to sleep, everything she should wish for! And all I ask in return is that she not knock over my canvases or play with my brushes, or shed all over the oils." Leonardo fusses with the frying pan, cracking open another egg to scramble. "And now she has had kittens on me. Again."

"There is this 'again' part that I think I'm having the most problems with, Leonardo," Malik points out cuttingly, waving his fork like a spear. "What about a veterinarian's fee is difficult to understand?"

"I just." Leonardo starts to throw up his hands dramatically, and remembers he's holding a spatula at the last second. "You have to take them early, get bloodwork done, then pick them up twice, I never remember - and Ezio does this thing when she hates going in the carrier, if I take my eyes off her for a second, she's up in the attic somewhere or the air ducts and once in my chimney, she dropped a dead owl down the flue - "

"You are the most disgustingly lazy thing I have ever encountered," Malik declares. "And I live with Altaïr, so that is saying something. I will take her. I will put her in my carrier and take her to my own vet and deal with her that way, and she will be much healthier and happier as a result. And I will be free of this nonsense."

Leonardo stops digging at the eggs. He twists around, eyebrows quirked in thoughtful arches. "Does it weigh on you that much, this visit?"

Looking at Leonardo's disappointed curiosity makes Malik feel suddenly brutish. "Well," he reasons grudgingly. "I did get breakfast out of it, I suppose."

A grin blossoms over the other man's face, forgiving everything in a flash. "You can use my bathroom until Ezio gets out of yours," he says cheerfully. "She gets cranky if she's evicted from her hideouts when she's not ready."

"And how long will that be?"

"Maybe a month? Two? It depends how quickly her kittens grow."

Malik feels the incredulous look that's rapidly taking over his face. "You want me to use your bathroom that long?"

"It'll be longer if she tries to take over your house," Leonardo replies gloomily. "Better pack a bag."

At first Malik resists - sensibly resists, because it seems insanely illogical to yield one's entire domicile to one tiny feline and her offspring, regardless of how manic the cat looks in the right light - but the longer that he considers the option, the more that he finds it's not completely unlikeable. It isn't bad to have a change of pace. And - as it turns out - it's even useful for him to house-sit at Leonardo's during the mornings and most of the evenings, and even for some of the nights. Leonardo goes to work at erratic hours, disappearing early and staying on site for days; his usual habit was to stack the food bowls high and hope that he'd come home before Ezio got into trouble.

Now, Malik's around to keep an eye on things. He ends up with a spare key and floats between both their homes depending on the time of day, watching over the cats and ordering take-out delivery when he knows that Leonardo will be home. Sometimes, he cooks the meals himself. Sometimes, he simply picks up groceries for them both, purchasing frozen entrees for Leonardo with the money that the other man leaves on the counter. There's always more cash than he needs. Malik doesn't know what to do with the change, so he invests in baked goods at random, pastries and bread freshly made each morning. Leonardo responds by devouring the treats whole.

It's not too bad. It's even a familiar responsibility to have to keep track of someone else's mess, wandering around a place where someone else has been living and seeing traces of them in what chores they've left half-done. Trying to handle two houses, even small ones, is intimidating when Malik is still trying to pick up things with the wrong hand, but it functions as a vicious form of physical therapy; he's forced to become creative with how he goes about his chores, rather than simply leave something undone because he will be the only one to endure the sloppiness.

But there are some days when he's delayed in checking one house or the other, and is forced to endure the unhappy wails of a hungry cat, desperate for fresh food even though there's plenty left in the bowl. Ezio is particularly piteous; she cries and gorges and cries again, and as Malik tries not to neglect either one, he thinks he can understand Leonardo's choice to let Ezio roam. If there is no one to feed your pet, then foraging seems the lesser of two horrific fates. He would be afraid, too, if he were away from home for days on end. It is bad enough to worry about Altaïr being hit by a car, but worse to think of the cat slowly starving behind a door that he knocks shut while playing: weakened with thirst, dying in fear and desperation and confusion for being abandoned.

Grimly, Malik endures Ezio's appetite for attention, and his reward is a benediction of purrs whenever she sees him.

Leonardo claims that it's important to socialize with the kittens, so the man goes over regularly whenever he can, and drags Malik along. Sometimes they bring movies, loading discs into Malik's aging DVD player and letting the felines roll and tumble and leap at Kenneth Branagh's face on the screen. Leonardo feeds bits of chicken to Altaïr, which Malik always protests - it will only cause Altaïr to stink later, regardless of how much he purrs now.

Neither one of them worries as the kittens mature. The evenings are good; there is no rush.

But waiting is what gets them into trouble, because somehow, before either one of them has a sense of urgency about it, Ezio decides to get frisky again. It happens between moments of distraction, when Malik is busy engaging in a mission to pull up all of Leonardo's gunk-covered carpets and replace them with sensible hardwood flooring, and Leonardo is off doing something that possibly involves missile silos. Unfortunately enough, it doesn't get discovered until the both of them stop by the house together for a daily visit, en route to a new Thai restaurant that Malik read about in the papers.

While Leonardo checks the fridge and makes sure nothing in the kitchen is transforming into penicillin, Malik goes into his bedroom to discover a new litter nestled messily on his pillows, the smell of blood lingering on the air from their recent birth.

"This is an apocalypse," he breathes, listening to the tiny, piping mews. "A furry, hateful apocalypse."

Leonardo takes only one quick look at the situation before he has an answer. "The catflap," he deducts instantly, turning on his heel and making a beeline for the kitchen.

With the help of duct tape - on both sides of the flap - and checking the interior and exterior of the house, there's a little more security to keep Ezio from prowling the streets. But it does mean more time spent at the house, now that Ezio is shut up inside it. The first litter of kittens is fully mobile, squeaking and having accidents everywhere, and there's a lot of damage to undo to the furniture and rugs. Everything breakable or heavy that can feasibly get knocked over gets stashed in boxes; lamps go on floors, hanging cords get pinned up, and drapes are removed entirely.

The one good thing is that - since Ezio has relinquished her murderous hold on the bathroom - Malik can move back in, but when he considers the options of where else he would have to sleep, Leonardo's place wins out. For one thing: no furry kittens clambering over Malik in the middle of the night. For another thing: Malik has decided that it's only fair to make Leonardo suffer equally for the inconvenience, and when Malik brings up how irregular it is that Ezio had kittens at his place instead of her owner's, Leonardo simply shrugs.

"You do keep a very nice bathroom, Malik," he tuts. "I would have kittens in it myself, if I were able."

As Malik is busy sputtering, unable to tell what part was a joke or not, Leonardo scoops up one of the kittens, coos at it, and attempts to dump it straight into Malik's lap.

Leonardo names the kittens after what jobs he thinks they'd do best at in life, and he doesn't bother to differentiate, so now there are two Barbers and one Smuggler regularly rubbing around Malik's feet, batting at one another and chewing on his toes whenever he tries to walk. Malik had dismissed the practice as frivolous, until he discovered Courtesan in the laundry bin three nights in a row. After that, he started hoping for a Lawyer; he figures it might come in handy whenever there's someone he doesn't like, but Leonardo has not yet been inspired.

Yet even those weeks pass, and Malik watches the new kittens grow into their limbs, becoming less wobbly and more confident when they pounce. They finish weaning and start chowing down on solid food; Ezio stops looking as if she'll actively murder anyone in a fifty-yard-radius, and resumes alternating between charming and casually lethal. The first batch of kittens is well on its way to needing new homes of their own, and Malik dutifully circulates posters and online listings, keeping them all inside to prevent any accidents.

He stays over at Leonardo's the evening after they finish dropping off an Engineer and Harlequin with one of the man's coworkers; say what he will about Leonardo's irresponsibility, at least they've found homes for all of Ezio's illicit brood. Dinner was supposed to be restaurant fare again, but they ended up doing drive-through after all, retreating back to Leonardo's home where they pair a bottle of red wine to hamburgers and french fires. Malik skips the alcohol, but steals a second hamburger, quashing the flicker of guilt under the taste of salt and pickles.

Leonardo has his canvases set up in the dining room - best not even to think about what the kitchen has been taken over with this time - so they've fetched up on the floor of the living room, clearing space between magazine stacks and antique furniture. The weather is still warm enough to leave the windows open, so Leonardo runs a brace of lights into the fireplace and plugs them in, shedding stained-glass colors everywhere.

Malik settles back to relax against the coffee table. "Tomorrow," he declares, "we will put an end to Ezio's wild sexual escapades at last."

"Mm," Leonardo replies, busying himself with refilling his glass.

Malik doesn't mind the silence. His stomach is fed and content; there is a sense of accomplishment that buoys him up, gifting him with a measure of fulfillment. When the edge of the coffee table starts to grate a bit too sharply against his spine, he slouches against it, letting his head tip back so that he can search for meaning amidst the roofing beams.

"Leo," he says after a moment. "There are things on your ceiling."

Leonardo finishes a quick gulp from his glass, and then sets it carefully to the side. "Ah, yes! I used to hang mobiles up there. Old flying machines that I built out of balsa wood! Ezio ate them. Here, lie down, you can see them better that way."

Skeptical, Malik squints at the faint marks that are painted at random across the wood and plaster, criss-crossing like the remnants of blueprint notes left exposed. Only when Leonardo makes an impatient tch! does he finally surrender and lie down, feeling mildly foolish as he does. The first batch of lines he looks at are even more confusing than before; being on the ground does nothing for his perspective. He has no idea what he's even supposed to be looking for.

Then, as he turns his head slowly, panning the ceiling, the lines in one corner suddenly match up. Like a kaleidoscope shifting colors until it reveals a perfect landscape, the marks on the beams meet and merge through implication, forming an elongated, wireframe plane painted over the ceiling. The delicate form is trapped mid-flight across the beams; it is an outline that stretches like a shadow, cast by an invisible sun.

Fascinated, Malik squints at it. "I haven't seen these before. Are there supposed to be more?"

Leonardo grins at his amazement. "Yes - the whole ceiling, in fact! I painted them so I could see them just right from one particular spot. They help me think sometimes, if I lie here and watch them. Here, let me find the angle for you."

Before Malik can protest, Leonardo slides down, scooting alongside him on the floor. His head bumps gently against Malik's ear, and then presses firmly, unconcerned for personal space. When Malik makes a questioning, awkward noise, Leonardo simply hums.

"Move to your left. Two inches, please."

Malik obeys. As he does, the rest of the lines join up and expand; what was a mess of abstract angles now becomes an entire squadron of box-kite planes. They spread like flattened toys above him, fleshed out through hints of color. Together, they soar in formation, rising into a hidden sky.

The rustle and smack of the catflap startles Malik; he tenses, but doesn't move, uncertain of Leonardo's proximity. Leonardo simply chuckles. "Ah, Altaïr is back," he observes. "He must have smelled my fries."

Cautious of what he should be doing - admiring the ceiling, or asking Leonardo if he should move aside and let the artist have the full view - Malik instead latches onto the issue of cats. "Are you ever afraid when Ezio goes out?" he asks, honestly curious. "That she might be injured somewhere, hurt and in trouble, and you will be back here unable to help?"

There is a pause; Leonardo's shoulders bunch up, and then relax. "All the time," the artist admits. "But so far, she always comes back home. I'm hoping she gets wiser, as she gets older and slows down. I don't think she knows how important she is to me. She reminds me," one of Leonardo's hands makes a helpless, wavering motion in the air. "She reminds me... to return here. When I'm at work for too long, or I think about following projects overseas perhaps, I remember that I have someone waiting for me. I think that when you have something to take care of, it makes you more human." His hand drops, limply resting against Malik's shoulder. "You and I, we might not have the most glamorous lives compared to the adventures they are getting into. But I think we benefit too, in our own way. What about you? With Altaïr."

The question is worth some thought. Malik has never considered Altaïr to be anything more than a furry disaster - an annoyance that gained and lost its potency over the months until Malik simply grumbled whenever Altaïr purred against his chest. The cat has wormed steadily into his life. Trying to think about how much is impossible; whenever Malik wakes up, or goes outside, or tries to use the bathroom in peace, it seems as if Altaïr is hovering nearby. Even when Altaïr is out terrorizing parts unknown, he remains a part of Malik's life.

But a benefit - no. That would only be true if Malik could say he benefitted from a thing that had introduced nothing but chaos into his world: destroying the solitude of Malik's home, decimating the local ecology, dragging Leonardo to Malik's doorstep, chasing Ezio around their yards.

Without the cat, Malik would be home by himself right now. He would have never needed to go outside.

"Maybe," he says at last. "Maybe."

There's no answer. After a moment, he nudges his head against Leonardo; no response. The other man is completely asleep.

In the kitchen, he can hear Altaïr rustling about. Beside him, there is Leonardo, relaxed and slack, his lips slightly parted and exhaling a miasma of wine on each breath. The lights in the fireplace cast shadows in green and gold and blue, illuminating the living room like a carnival.

"This will be the end of it," Malik tries out loud, sounding out the words. The declaration comes out soft; he clears his throat, but catches himself mid-noise, not wanting to shatter the peace by waking Leonardo up. "I will go home tomorrow, and there will be no more interruptions. No more kittens, no more reasons to visit. The end."

He waits for a moment, wondering if this will be the moment where Leonardo opens his eyes and reveals that he is still awake, but the other man simply continues to slumber, tucked up against Malik's body as if he belongs there.

"I am going to get up now," Malik announces. "I am going to leave you here."


Thwarted, Malik waits for Leonardo to shift his weight so that he can slip away with dignity, escaping out the back door like a ghost - but Leonardo only rolls closer, wrapping his arm over Malik's waist. Warmth seeps across the gap. Leonardo's head shifts; he turns his face, lips brushing over Malik's ear, his nose nuzzling Malik's hair as if he's found a perfect niche.

The longer that Malik lies there, the less reason he can think of to move.

On one side, he has his house. On the other, he has Altaïr depopulating the wildlife and Ezio gregariously prowling the neighborhood and Leonardo's crazy bursts of artistic whimsy, and Leonardo - no, Ezio - needing someone around to make sure that the catflaps are properly open and the food dishes are full and the mail hasn't been buried beneath the latest pottery project. There are water filters to change and air filters to check and all his cooking spices are stashed in Leonardo's cupboards, and that's not even counting the bizarre vegetable garden that's been taking over Leonardo's back lawn. Someone has to be there.

Leonardo's hand rests on Malik's stomach. Leonardo's leg shifts and drapes itself over Malik's thigh. The moonlight is cool on the mismatched curtains, but the colors in the fireplace are a feast of jewels - and as Malik lies there and listens to the sound of someone else's breathing, he decides that maybe it's not such a bad thing after all, having a life run by cats.

"I hope you are not thinking that your injury should keep you from feminine company."

Malik resists the urge to roll his eyes. The older that his father gets, the more antiquated he seems. Even though more than a year has passed since the injury, his father seems torn between pretending the accident never happened, and hoping that Malik will suddenly start a family with five kids and a closet of sensible business suits. "No, Father. I am fine."

"Good. It is time that you start thinking about your options for the future, now that you are no longer being deployed. I understand that there are some very sensible young women in your area that your mother can introduce you to. Though you should be careful. I understand that there are some... people who are interested perversely by the nature of, of your, your situation - "

Altaïr springs up to the top of the dining table, balancing on his hind legs, and starts pawing at the cords of the overhead fan. "I have company in my life," Malik snaps, trying to shoo the cat away. "I have Leo."

The sudden disapproval is smothering. "Leo." It's not a question.

"I - yes, and I have Altaïr," Malik says desperately, flapping his hand like a crazed duck. "Watching over this cat takes up all of my free time. Perhaps you and Mother should have thought about that first, before - "

It's at this point that Altaïr, unexpectedly, comes to the rescue, though he does so by flinging himself off the table, and bringing an entire bookshelf down.

"Your father and I are worried, Malik." Malik's mother is cannier than her husband; she brings up the question in person, during a weekend visit while she is checking up on his health. "Do you... get out enough?"

Malik rolls his eyes, eager to get off the subject and onto something less intrusive, like the economy or even the weather. "I spend most of my days out, Mother. Leonardo is usually around. We have dinner together quite often. He even has me house-sit sometimes. You have nothing to worry about."

Malik's mother is a tiny woman, small-boned and rounding in the cheeks and belly. She is impossibly yielding, always modest and tolerant of his father's many blunders, always accepting even when his father is incredibly wrong. One of her best friends spat at her feet several years back and accused her of being a terrorist, and Malik's mother did not say a thing. This is how Malik has known her; this is how he has known her all his life.

But now, when Malik reaches out and tries to usher her towards the door, towards the distraction of easy restaurant food, his mother stays put like a figure made of steel.

"I would," she says, "like to meet this Leonardo."

For once - in a terrible fit of irony - when Malik admits that he has no idea what is going on, Leonardo simply smiles and pats him on the shoulder. It is a terrifying thing to trust Leonardo with his parents, but there is no escape: his mother has made a request with no room for deviation, and Malik could flee to the ends of the earth with that expectation still chasing hungrily behind him.

A time is set. Malik snaps at the cats all day long. His mother brings his father along with her, both of them stern and tidily-dressed, and Leonardo schedules dinner out at a good restaurant, somewhere modest and casual without being too noisy.

Malik's father begins the assault before the dinner rolls have even arrived.

"My son tells me you work part-time with the military. That you are an, an artist in your spare time. That you paint portraits, do statues." When Leonardo nods gracefully, Malik's father snorts. "No wife?"

Leonardo continues to keep a pleasant half-smile, as if the whole dinner conversation is merely a script, and he has already skimmed ahead. "No. There is no woman in my life."

There is a heady moment of silence, during which Malik takes a long drink of water and prays for the kitchen to set itself on fire.

Malik's father breaks the standoff. "Well," he says, clearing his throat. "Since my son already has no further career in the active armed forces, I suppose he can't make it any worse by hanging around you."

A wince pulls Malik's mouth tight. It hurts, to hear those words, no matter how much of it is bluster - but Leonardo takes it all in stride. "If it might make you feel any better," he offers mildly, his hands unfolding the napkin from his silverware like a magician with a magic trick, "the military is well aware of my qualifications. My contracts require that I maintain a TS clearance. My most recent Single Scope renewal was in June of last year."

Malik stares.

His father is suitably impressed as well, for the questions ease off after that, becoming general queries on the national budget and renewable energies. He, like Malik, knows enough not to pry on certain security topics. Leonardo fields each inquiry deftly. Malik spends most of the evening expecting Leonardo to start rambling on about physics or abstract art, but - miracle of miracles - the man behaves himself, channeling his usual madcap energy into a congenial temperance that doesn't launch itself sideways at random bursts of inspiration.

Afterwards, as they are parting in the parking lot and Leonardo is exchanging polite farewells with his father, Malik's mother reaches up and cups his cheeks in her hands. "You look happy," she says, as if that were ever in doubt.

"Of course I am happy, Mother," he protests. "Altaïr has not thrown up on me yet this week."

She purses her lips and shakes her head knowingly. "He is a good thing for you, that one. I am glad that you have him. I approve."

Compelled by the sense that he has somehow missed something about those words, or perhaps about the entire dinner, Malik watches his parents bundle themselves into their car and fuss themselves out of the parking lot. Leonardo is leaning against the side of his own car - watching him, as if he expects Malik to react to something, to have gone through some revolutionary bout of self-discovery when all Malik wants to do is go back home and flick crinkly paper balls off Leonardo so the cats can go nuts.

Eventually, as the lights of other cars swivel around them, Leonardo poses a tentative, "Are we still on tonight for movies?"

Malik rubs his head. He's not sure exactly what went on - how it felt as if Leonardo and his parents were having a conversation on an entirely different level than Malik was understanding - but when Leonardo smiles at him, he finds himself smiling back. To hell with it. He'll figure it out later. Right now, everything's perfect.

"Yes," he declares. "Come over. Bring Ezio. We'll make a night of it."

The moving van that sways its way into the neighborhood next month has the scuffs of a do-it-yourself brand, with a single car rigged on a hitch behind it: all the earmarks of either a young couple or individual in transit. Malik is only mildly interested, but Altaïr wants a closer look, pawing and meowing at the windows to get Malik's attention. Eventually, the cat gives up and scrambles out the flap. Plagued by visions of Altaïr getting himself squashed under a dresser, Malik sets down his book and tags along, trailing behind the van until it pulls up at a house down the block, and unloads a solitary young man in a button-up with the sleeves rolled back.

One of the first thing the man does is to haul a cardboard box over onto the driver's seat once he's disembarked. He blinks at Malik and then at Altaïr, who has gone boldly over to sniff at the man's shoes. "Hello there, pleasure to meet you," says the gentleman, all crisp overseas consonants to go along with his neatly-pressed collar. To Malik, he smiles, and asks, "You're a cat person, eh?"

"I am sorry, that is Altaïr, feel free to prod him out of the way - by force if necessary," Malik apologizes, but the man only shakes his head.

"Probably smells my boy on me. I had to drug him up with catnip just to get him to stop shredding the carrier from the inside. Even then he wouldn't shut up until I took him out and let him ride beside me. Oh - sorry, the name's Shaun," he adds, reaching up to fish around in the box. "And this charming fellow here," he continues, hauling out a rather grouchy - if halfway comatose - feline, "is Desmond."

At the sight of the new invader, Altaïr puffs up like a balloon. He shifts his weight back to his haunches, chin tucked in with disgust, and then decides to go on the offensive by prowling underneath the van in preparation for a pounce.

Malik stifles a laugh, and extends his hand forward in greeting. "Malik. Welcome to the neighborhood, Shaun. I think you'll find that you're in good company here - you and Desmond both."