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Befriending the Fire Beast

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There were worse ways to wake up than with a dog's cold, wet nose probing the inside of your ear.

There were also much better ways too, which was why Eddie flinched sharply away from the sudden intrusion. One of his hands reflexively went to defend the left side of his face from his attacker, only to be met by soft fur and then a wet tongue licking his fingers.

Cracking his eyes open, he found a pug had found its way up next to him on the couch, and was currently trying to give him a kiss. It looked like he'd fallen asleep sitting up, and the dog was in charge of delivering his wake-up call. The colorful Rubix cube clipped onto her collar identified her as Nelson's therapy dog.

"Hey Ruby…" Eddie gave her a few scratches behind the ears, then set her back down on the floor. He wiped the slobber on his hand off onto his jeans as she yapped at him and bounded across Guybrush's living room floor, drawing attention to the fact that he wasn't alone.

Looking around, he saw Nelson, Guybrush, Manny, Meche, and Elaine were all standing around the living room watching him, all in various states of smiling and giggling at the scene. Nelson was still kneeling on the floor, having been the one to send his dog to wake Eddie up.

Eddie's ear twitched, still trying to erase the impression of Ruby's nose from the sensitive skin inside, which made Guybrush laugh hard enough that Elaine swatted him on the shoulder.

"You doing okay there, mijo?" Manny asked, weaving around the armchair he was standing behind to come closer to Eddie. "The food's ready, we were just about to head outside. We started to get worried when you didn't come back."

Eddie sighed as he scrubbed a hand over his face. "Sorry guys… didn't mean to ditch you, I guess I'm just not feelin' it today."

Which was true, he really wasn't. Nothing had happened, nothing was wrong, he'd just woken up this morning and instantly known it was just gonna be one of those days. Y'know, the kind where he got back in bed and stayed there for like a week.

He couldn't just not show up today though, they'd been planning this little cookout in Guybrush's backyard for a while now. He felt bad that he was here being a wet blanket, but he'd have felt even worse about not coming at all. Hanging out for a little bit with everyone in the kitchen and then taking a break in the living room had seemed like a good idea at the time, all the way up until he got jumped by a surprise nap. No one was supposed to notice that he was gone.

Manny frowned. Not at him, more at his depression. It was the kind of frown that Eddie had learned by now was born out of sympathy and concern, not out of irritation at the inconvenience of it all. "Reason or no reason?"

Eddie shook his head. "No reason."

Manny took a seat next to him on the couch. Ruby returned to Eddie and set her front paws up on his knees, looking up at him with her wide brown eyes. Her experience as Nelson's support dog was telling her that Eddie could probably use some cheering up.

Eddie gave her a wan smile for her efforts and rubbed her head, careful to keep his claws out of the folds of her face. He'd hate to reward her kindness with an accidental slash across her forehead.

"What do you want to do?" Manny asked, gently. "Do you feel up to coming outside, or do you want to stay in here to rest?"

"I'm good to join you guys," Eddie sighed as he stretched out his shoulders, "Let's just keep things rolling - I might be kinda quiet, but I wouldn't have come if I couldn't handle it."

Manny nodded, then stood. 'Just act normal while I catch up' wasn't that uncommon of a request, no matter how much Manny wished that it was. He definitely preferred it over Eddie not saying anything and suffering in silence, but it just wasn't in Manny's nature to leave things alone when there might be something he could do to help.

It wasn't in any of their natures, come to think of it, which was probably why Nelson ventured a suggestion once they reconvened to the back porch.

"Have you thought about maybe getting a support animal of your own?" He asked, ruffling the fur around Ruby's neck. Ruby yipped in agreement, or more probably in anticipation of playtime. "Ruby's helped me through a lot; if you're still struggling after all this time, maybe you ought to try something new."

At once Eddie wanted to just dismiss the idea out of hand. Pets were a lot of work, he couldn't imagine adding all that extra responsibility to his plate when he felt like he was wearing a lead blanket all the time. It wouldn't be fair to the dog if he couldn't find it in himself to get up and take care of it.

But - Nelson also had a very good track record of being right, while Eddie had a pretty long history of making questionable decisions when he wasn't feeling well. Just this once he wanted to trust somebody else's perception of what the best way forward was. Besides, agreeing to the idea wouldn't make a pet suddenly appear out of nowhere. He'd have time to think it over more before anything was really set in motion.

"Y'know, at this point I'm ready to try just about anything. I wouldn't know where to start with finding a therapy dog, though."

Nelson smiled brightly, more than happy to help. "Well, to start with, you'll need a prescription. It sounds kinda weird to ask a psychiatrist for a dog like it's some kind of medicine, but for it to be registered as a support dog you need to go through whoever it is that you see for your mental health issues. 

"Second, Ruby isn't a therapy dog, she's an emotional support dog. Service dogs are specially trained to help people with disabilities and therapy dogs are deployed to help raise morale in a whole range of people in places like hospitals or old folks' homes. Emotional support dogs are neither - all Ruby had to do to qualify as my emotional support dog was comfort me when I needed her, and she's only for me. Just about any animal can be an emotional support pet, as long as it provides you with some kind of aid just by being itself."

Eddie nodded. So all he'd have to do was talk to his therapist about it, get a prescription if it seemed like a good idea, and then it sounded like he could find any pet he wanted.

"Oh! Eddie, if you're looking for a pet, you should come have a look around at the animal shelter!" It was Meche's turn to propose a solution, it seemed. "There are lots of wonderful pets down there just waiting for a new owner, and even if you don't find what you're looking for at least you'll know a little more about what you want."

"We could even come with you to help you look, if you wanted," Manny offered. "Could be fun."

Eddie smiled. "That actually does sound pretty good. Thanks, guys."

&&&&&&

"So what am I looking for here?"

He'd done the therapy visit, he'd gotten the ok, and now Eddie and his friends were standing in the lobby of the local non-profit animal shelter Meche volunteered at. Signs pointed off in different directions towards where the different species of animals were kept. It looked like the dog kennels were through a door to the right, the cats were kept further into the building down a hallway dead ahead, and the smaller critters like rodents and reptiles were off to the left beyond the front desk.

There were a few people waiting around with animal carriers on the benches at the perimeter of the room, as the shelter had a few veterinarians on staff who helped take care of the animals even after they'd found homes.

"Well," Nelson said, "you're looking for a pet that would help support your emotional needs. Since I'm not you I can't say exactly what that would mean, but you'll know when you find it. Ruby and I just kind of meshed right from the beginning, to the point that it honestly felt kind of weird that she hadn't been living with me the whole time. She was my dog, simple as that."

Eddie nodded. He still wasn't feeling too great, but he wasn't going to get better by doing nothing about it. Plus, since depressive episodes were what his pet was supposed to help support him through, being in the middle of one while he was looking might let him test out the different animals to see if they had any impact.

"Do you have any idea what you might want?" Guybrush asked. "Dog, cat, size, breed…?"

"No, not really," Eddie said, shaking his head, "I didn't have any pets as a kid, so as far as I know I'll be able to get along with just about anything."

Guybrush nodded. "Well, then why don't we start with the dogs? Those are the most common support animals, maybe a dog is what you need."

Nelson shot him a flat look. "You just want to play with the dogs."

"I mean, yeah, maybe, but c'mon! They're dogs! Whether or not the right one is currently in the kennel, at least we'll have fun looking!"

Nelson rolled his eyes as the two of them started moving toward the dog kennels, Guybrush defending his totally not-selfish suggestion to start there and Nelson reminding him that they were only here to help Eddie.

Eddie started to follow them, when he realized Manny wasn't right behind him.

"You coming?"

"Eh, I'm not exactly a dog kinda guy," Manny said, sticking his hands in his pockets. "Not really all that interested in playing tug-of-war with one of my legs, y'know what I mean? You go on ahead - I'll go check out the hamsters, see if there're any particularly hardcore rodents over there."

Eddie smiled. More like he wanted to commune with the Guinea pigs until his girlfriend showed up. He never could get Manny to outright admit it, but he'd always seemed to have a soft spot for Guinea pigs. 

Plus, he was right - it probably wasn't a good idea to toss an entire skeleton full of bones into the middle of a yard full of excitable dogs. Not if Eddie wanted his partner to stay in one piece, so he simply nodded and made his way out into the kennels. A lot of the dogs were already outside in the fenced off yard behind the shelter so they could get some exercise, which made it pretty easy to start getting to know some of them.

There were plenty to choose from. Big dogs, small dogs, fat, lean, fluffy, short-haired, you name it. The two pitbulls tugging on either end of a rope were very sweet, and the little yippy dog with the black ring around her eye was so excited to see him that he was more than a little worried about accidentally stepping on her. The chocolate lab never seemed to get tired of asking him to throw his tennis ball for him, and the doberman was glad to have somebody to play rough with.

Of course, there were also a few that saw his horns and teeth as a threat. Most of those dogs were content to just bark at him until he moved a little further away, but once or twice he'd had to fend off a set of jaws that definitely weren't trying to be playful.

Guybrush and Nelson were having a great time giving the dogs a workout, but as time went on all Eddie found was that the dogs were tiring him out. It wasn't their fault, they were just being dogs; he just couldn't match their energy right now and before too long he had to tap out and take a break on the bench by the door back inside.

The closest he came to a match was with the shaggy black and grey mutt relaxing in the shade next to him, but she was old and half blind and hardly seemed to know he was there. Which was really not great for what he was looking for; he didn't want a houseplant to take care of, if he was going to adopt a pet he wanted it to be a little more active and affectionate. Just not as needy as most of the other dogs were.

Meche found him just before he got up to go back inside. A dog just wasn't for him, and he told her as much when she asked about how his search was going. After he told her about all the things he liked and didn't like about the dogs - namely, that they were good for making him feel wanted but bad for exhausting him - she simply nodded and suggested he try spending some time with the cats they had available.

Nelson and Guybrush were still totally engrossed in playing with the dogs, so he figured he'd just do this part by himself.

Meche led him back inside and through the hallways down to the playrooms the shelter had set up for getting to know the cats. They weren't kept in the rooms full time, it was more of a casual showroom-type situation than anything. Comfortable furniture like chairs and soft benches lined the perimeter of the room Meche ushered him into, and various toys were scattered across the floor. Several scratching posts and tree structures were tucked into the corners, and there was a door labeled "Employees Only" on the back wall. About a dozen cats were littered around the room, lounging and playing as was their wont.

He wasn't the only one looking for a cat today, a set of parents were already in the room with their kid, but they didn't stick around for too long after he arrived. Just another blessing graciously bestowed upon him by his Mom's affiliation with the Tainted Coil - no one tended to want to get too close to the horned freak.

The cats in the playroom were definitely more his speed, but even after almost an hour of socializing he still just wasn't feeling that zing with any of them.

Sure, all of them were cute and soft, and plenty were affectionate and constantly rubbing against him in search of pets, but none of them really felt like they were meant to be his, y'know?

Nelson said he'd know when he'd found the right companion because the two of them would just mesh, just like him and Ruby, but Eddie still just wasn't feeling much of anything at all, really. Maybe a cat wasn't the answer after all. Or maybe he needed to come back when he wasn't in such a low spot.

He was just about to leave when the door into the employee area opened and a volunteer released a cat into the play area.

The new cat looked like a brillo pad made out of shadows and lint. Their whiskers were kinked and tangled as if somehow they'd accidentally gotten caught in somebody's bike chain, and there were small pinkish areas of thinner fur on the cat's muzzle, near their eyes, on their front paws, and at the tips of their ears. The cat's fur was thick and unkempt, and the look in its eyes spoke of wisdom, intelligence, and a deep dissatisfaction with the world and all its inhabitants.

All in all, this cat looked like hell.

The very first thing it did once the volunteer left the room was growl and take a swipe at a smaller, younger cat that had ventured too close. The little tabby tumbled backward and ran off to try playing with some of the other cats, leaving this one to leisurely walk to one of the cat trees in the corner and curl up in the little shelter at the top.

What a little punk.

Eddie watched as the pair of bright yellow eyes still visible from the depths of the shadows in the shelter blinked twice, then slid shut as the cat went to sleep.

He couldn't help but be intrigued by the little furball. Stepping around the cats on the floor, he made his way to the cat tree. It looked like the cat wasn't totally asleep yet, as it opened its eyes and regarded him coldly once he was close enough.

Eddie presented his hand, and, instead of sniffing it and accepting the offer of being touched, the cat batted at it with one of its paws. Eddie left it there for a little while after the cat lost interest in inventing a new secret handshake, at which point he was finally rewarded by the cat rubbing its cheekbone against his knuckles.

He was ever so generously allowed to pet the cat, but the fur around the cat's head was so thick that it was hard to really make contact. For the most part he'd only been petting the animals today with his fingers and with with backs of his knuckles, not scratching. Despite the fact that he purposefully blunted his claws with a nail file on a regular basis, he still felt like it was too easy to accidentally draw blood without meaning to.

This cat seemed to be a tough little beast though, so to get beyond its mane and make the petting worthwhile he sank his fingers into the cat's ruff and very gently gave it a few scratches behind its ears.

The effect on the cat was dramatic and immediate - at once, the cat pressed its head more firmly into his hand and closed its eyes, lightly purring in pleasure.

"Have the cats been any better?"

Eddie jumped; he hadn't heard Meche come in, so to him it appeared that she'd just materialized at his elbow. Once he got on top of the little jolt of adrenaline he said, "Yeah, for the most part. What's the story on this one?"

Meche peered up into the shelter to get a better look at the cat Eddie was referring to, then said, "This little one is Balthazar. He was rescued from a house fire that sadly took his previous owners, that's why he's a bit singed around the edges. He's never been very friendly, but he's certainly a survivor."

Eddie hummed in acknowledgment as his heart sank. Balthazar was a pretty sick name for a cat, but if he came from a house fire? Probably not a good fit for him then, not with his ability to make things burst into flames. He'd hate to scare the cat, Balthazar didn't deserve any more close calls with hellfire.

Eddie withdrew his hand. Balthazar cracked open one of his eyes when the lovely nails combing through his fur went away, then croaked an indignant meow when the fingers didn't return.

"Sorry buddy, it doesn't look like you and I are gonna work out," Eddie apologized, then turned to go sit on the bench against the wall.

Balthazar rolled onto his stomach and stuck his head out of his den. It was very rude of the red human to just stop petting him like that, he hadn't told him to stop yet.

Balthazar meowed again in an attempt to put the big guy back in his place, but he just ignored him! Was he deaf?

Still sticking halfway out of his den onto the little porch outside, Balthazar rolled onto his back and whined. If he didn't understand that, then clearly Balthazar was going to have to go teach him some manners. It was bad enough that he'd just walked away, but now he was making Balthazar get up?

What a disgrace.

Sure enough, Eddie didn't even register that the smoky cat in question was still vocalizing at him. Instead, he was too busy watching the other cats running around and play-fighting with each other.

He set his chin in his hand, more than a little bummed. His cat just wasn't here. His pet just wasn't here. The dogs were too high maintenance, the cats were too aloof, and, thinking about it, everything else was too small and delicate for him to even want to consider.

Eddie tried to ignore the burning in his eyes; maybe Nelson was wrong. Maybe he just wasn't meant to have an animal friend.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden weight on his shoulder and a sharp nip to the tip of his ear. Turning his head in surprise, Eddie was shocked to find Balthazar standing there and glaring at him like he wasn't angry, just disappointed.

The cat batted him in the eye with one of his soft, fire-kissed paws - sans claws, thankfully - then hopped down into his lap and got comfortable. Eddie just stared down at Balthazar in confusion with his hands hovering in the air, honestly unsure of what he was supposed to do.

Meche couldn't help but grin; she'd noticed Eddie's long face and had been just about to ask him what was wrong, when she saw Balthazar making his way over to him. So, she'd said nothing in favor of continuing to brush the cat she'd picked up to start grooming. Perhaps Balthazar had actually found someone he liked.

Eddie looked up at her and said, "Hey, what gives? I thought this cat didn't like people."

"Maybe I was wrong," Meche giggled, "or maybe he thinks you're cute!"

She laughed when Eddie's confusion turned to pure bewilderment. He immediately looked down at Balthazar and said, "Dude, I'm not a giant sexy lady cat, so if you're looking for a girlfriend you oughta get going."

Balthazar just stared at him like he was the dumbest person he'd ever seen. At Eddie's continued inaction, Balthazar then reached out and scooped up one of Eddie's hands with his paws and started rubbing his face on it.

Eddie was lucky his hands were so nice - it almost made making Balthazar do all the work in this relationship worth it.

Meche decided to cut Eddie a break. Finishing up with the tortoiseshell tomcat she'd been grooming, she took a seat next to him and offered him her brush.

"While you've got him here practically begging you to pet him, would you mind brushing him for me? He tends to lash out at most of the volunteers that try to get near him, so he doesn't get groomed as often as he should."

Eddie took it from her hesitantly. He didn't exactly have a lot of experience brushing cats, with his luck he'd end up hurting poor Balthazar by doing it wrong. "I thought cats groomed themselves."

"Oh they do, but helping them along every so often means they won't have to deal with quite so many hairballs, and you won't have to deal with a lot of shedding."

Eddie nodded in understanding. "So… do I just go for it? Or is there a method here?"

Meche showed him which of the two sets of bristles he ought to use first and where to start, as well as how to deal with some of the more stubborn tangles he'd no doubt find in Balthazar's wild mane.

"Just be gentle," she advised, "and I'd avoid his belly for now. It takes a lot of trust for a cat to let you groom their more vulnerable areas."

Balthazar chirped at Eddie to get on with it; he'd seen Meche give him the brush, but it looked like he was just as slow at grooming as he was at learning how to pet a cat.

Two more chirps and a swipe up at the brush finally got Eddie moving.

"Alright, relax!" he snapped, "I'm gonna brush you, just hold on a minute."

Balthazar glared at him, unimpressed.

Meche left him then, citing some of her other responsibilities she needed to take care of. He could leave the brush in here if he had to go before she saw him again, she'd be back for it later.

Eddie started to run the brush through the ends of Balthazar's fur as delicately as he could - pulling on a hidden mat probably wouldn't feel very good. The longer he brushed him though, the less worried he became; going a little deeper and pulling a little firmer didn't seem to be hurting Balthazar, and in fact after a while he even started purring again.

Eddie fell into something of a groove; finger-comb the area looking for problem spots, run the brush through it a few times, clean the collected fur out from between the bristles, repeat. Once he finished with the long steel pin-bristles, he flipped the brush over to use the much finer, softer plastic bristles to finish the job.

By the time he was done he'd collected enough fur to make a second Balthazar, and the original was looking much happier for it. He'd practically melted into Eddie's lap while he worked, and his coat wasn't nearly as scruffy anymore. You could almost call it neat, having been tamed into something far less raggedy-looking. Or at least you could, all the way up until Balthazar shook it back out to all its former unruly glory.

Once the cat settled back down again Eddie set the brush aside and just went back to petting him. The disheveled state of Balthazar's fur didn't stop it from being soft as hell, and if Eddie was one of the few people he liked he ought to pet him for all he was worth while he was here. If he needed brushing then he probably needed extra petting as well, and who was Eddie to deny a cat in need?

He got so engrossed in running his fingers through Balthazar's fur, gently scratching behind his ears and occasionally stroking down his neck, that it took him a while to recognize the sound of a second cat purring in harmony with Balthazar. The second sound was much deeper in pitch, closer to a military tank than Balthazar's motorcycle.

It wasn't until Balthazar sat up and looked at him in confusion, then stood on his hind legs to set a paw firmly on his sternum, that Eddie realized that the second cat was him. The deep rumble was emanating from somewhere within his chest, vibrating through his ribs and making him feel... almost happy.

Content was probably a better word for it, but the fact that he was doing it at all made him blush all the way out to the tips of his ears. Thank goodness Meche wasn't here to witness it - she'd probably tell Manny, and then he'd never live it down.

Eddie fought off the wave of mortification he felt at the discovery by focusing back on Balthazar. Idly he tried going over some of the positive thinking techniques Lars had tried to share with him in the past - accept who you are, take pride in your differences, don't be embarrassed by something you can't control - but just not thinking about it seemed to be the best way forward.

Focus on petting Balthazar, not on your freaky purring.

It wasn't easy to do. Now that he knew he was doing it he couldn't help but wonder how long he'd had the feature installed for, and why he'd never noticed it before today. It also didn't help that Balthazar had settled into a position that let him lean against Eddie's core so he could feel the vibrations better, only drawing more attention to the phenomenon.

Just pet the cat, just pet the cat, just pet the-

He couldn't do it. It wasn't Balthazar's fault, Eddie just couldn't stave off the emotions rising in his throat, to the point that he set his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands. That was strike two for today's emotional stability, maybe it was time to go home before he hit strike three.

And then he got an idea. The purring didn't seem to want to stop, but it also seemed to be tied to his breathing somehow; maybe it was like hiccups. Maybe if he held his breath, whatever nerve spasm that started it up would settle down.

Relaxing back against the wall, he let one of his hands go back to idly stroking Balthazar while he put his theory to the test.

Initial results were good, not breathing immediately stopped the sound, but there were some complications with the long term experiment. Namely, once the cat noticed the sudden lack of purring, and then correlated it with the lack of chest movement in general, he nipped at Eddie's fingers to try and start it back up again.

Which totally worked, because protesting the sudden pain in his fingertips necessitated breathing.

Eddie glared down at Balthazar. Balthazar glared unrepentantly back up at him. Eddie pushed Balthazar off of his lap. Balthazar jumped up onto the bench, and then onto Eddie's shoulders so he could lie across the back of his neck. Eddie reached up and tried to get a grip on Balthazar, but Balthazar was once again nipping and swatting at his hands to stop him.

Neither of them had stopped purring.

And then Eddie began to laugh, because this was ridiculous.

He was having a grudge match with a cat, over something as stupid as a little purring. How many people could say that sentence and mean it as literally as he did?

Eddie let one of his hands fall into his lap while the other rubbed Balthazar's forehead in congratulations. He won, no doubt about it.

The only ones around to hear him purr were about a dozen other cats. His ego could handle purring for a little longer, especially since it honestly did feel kinda good.

Eddie swept his hair out from under the cat, folded his arms, and got comfortable leaning back against the wall, using Balthazar as a neck pillow and loosely trapping him behind his neck. Balthazar gave him a warning trill but didn't try to escape, or really seem all that bothered by his incarceration.

The next however-long was spent simply relaxing. Balthazar's purring was giving him a very gentle massage that almost instantly started to raise his mood, and his own purring felt like it was scratching a deep itch he hadn't even realized was bothering him.

The sounds of the playroom started to fade out around him until it was just him and his cat. Nothing to worry about… not until, until...

Until...

Until Meche was very gently shaking him by the shoulder to wake him up.

Drowsily he sat forward, entirely unaware of his surroundings. He'd completely forgotten about Balthazar, who slid down the wall to rest at his lower back still completely asleep.

And also Manny was there, for some reason.

It took him a minute to really connect the dots. Cats everywhere... Meche waking him up... Manny standing in front of him with a suspiciously knowing smile on his face...

Ah. He fell asleep in the cat room at the animal shelter, and Manny was here to collect him because it was time to go. The cat breathing evenly against his spine was still totally dead to the world, even as Meche very carefully pulled him out and deposited him onto Eddie's lap.

Eddie sat back again now that he wasn't in danger of crushing Balthazar into the wall.

"S'it time to go?" He asked, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

"Yep," Manny confirmed, "though I couldn't help but notice your friend there. You think you found your pet?"

Looking down at Balthazar, the word yes was on his lips almost before he could stop it. The thought of taking him home and spending even more time with him made him smile. Balthazar was great, he was exactly the right amount of affectionate yet independent. If he had to choose right now, based on all the animals he'd spent time with today, he would have to pick Balthazar as his pet.

What else would you call the animal that made you happy and took surprise naps with you?

The keyword there though, was almost. Just before he could agree to taking Balthazar home with him, he just barely remembered that his pyrokinesis probably wouldn't mesh well with the cat's past. He really, really liked Balthazar, the cat didn't hesitate to kick ass and take names when he thought it was important, but that just meant Eddie would feel even worse about accidentally hurting him.

Although… it had been a really long time since he'd had control issues. Maybe he could get away with taking Balthazar home? Maybe it would be okay. Maybe they'd both be alright.

Balthazar twisted around in his sleep so he could get comfortable facing the other way on his lap, and watching it made Eddie's heart ache.

His face fell. He needed to do what was best for Balthazar, not just what he wanted for himself. Balthazar deserved someone who could give him a big house to run around in and who wouldn't drag him away from that stability for a few months every year to go on the road. Eddie's life as a roadie just wouldn't work for Balthazar, not with all the strange people and new places they'd be visiting.

For as much as he wanted to keep Balthazar all to himself, he had to let him go.

"I... I think I need some more time to think about it. Adopting a pet is a big step, I shouldn't just jump into this on the first visit."

Manny and Meche both raised their eyebrows in surprise. His excuse was sound though, they couldn't fault him for trying to be responsible.

They glanced at each other before Meche said, "Alright then, do you at least want me to put your name down as a reservation? If you just leave him here it's possible someone else could get to him first."

Good.

"No, I wouldn't even go that far. This little guy is great, but I'm not gonna stop someone else from taking him just because I can't make a decision yet."

Manny was frowning at him now. He never could pull one over on Manny now, could he? Still - Manny had never stopped him from making his own decisions, so before he could change his mind he scooped Balthazar off of his lap and handed him off to Meche.

All the jostling finally woke him up, and Eddie gave him one last scratch behind the ears to say goodbye.

He left the room before Balthazar's sleepy little eyes could convince him to take him back.

Manny could hardly keep pace with him as he strode down the hallway back towards the front of the animal shelter. Eddie didn't want to talk to him right now; if Manny asked him to explain his reasoning he wouldn't be able to outright lie to him about Balthazar, and if he thought too much about what he was doing he'd probably start crying.

He wanted that cat so much it hurt.

"Eddie, slow down-"

Nope.

Nope nope nope, not thinking about Balthazar.

"Eddie-"

"Hey guys, did you have fun with the dogs?"

Nelson and Guybrush were within speaking distance, and Eddie was nothing if not good at putting on a show. Manny looked mad as hell at him, so Eddie went right on ignoring him.

Guybrush grinned. "We sure did! Elaine's not going to be happy about the grass stains I got on my jeans, and honestly I'm not too thrilled about them either, but those dogs were worth it. Good boys and girls, every single one of them!"

Nelson nodded in agreement. "I'm probably not going to adopt another dog, Ruby's enough of a companion for me in my day to day life, but Meche was telling us about this program the shelter has for people to volunteer specifically to play with the animals. They don't really need any more people to help run the shelter, but having more hands on deck to keep the animals happy is always welcome."

"Wow, maybe you oughta sign up for that, Eddie, seeing as you get along so well with the cats," Manny spat sourly.

Guybrush lit up. "Wait, did you find a cat you like?"

"I- no, I mean-"

Manny cut him off with a swift jab to the ribs. While Eddie was occupied with rubbing his side and hissing in pain, he said, "Yes, he did, but he won't admit it for some reason."

"What? Why not?"

"I don't know. Tell us Eddie, why won't you talk about the cat?"

Everything was going to pieces, including his resolve to leave Balthazar behind.

"Because..." all three of them were staring at him, coming up with an excuse was way harder when he needed to get all of them off his back, "because..."

He was saved by a sudden impact on his shoulder that included a set of claws pricking his skin while the UFO found its balance. Just as Eddie feared, his attacker was sporting a set of bright yellow eyes and missing the tips of his ears.

Balthazar started purring like a chainsaw as he ground his face into Eddie's cheekbone.

Meche ran up to him a moment later, panting and breathless. "Sorry Eddie..." she took a moment to catch her breath. "He wouldn't stop crying at the door once you left and I couldn't keep him from trying to escape through it, so I took the staff exit to leave. The moment it was open he took off like a shot and nobody could grab hold of him - it looks like he ran all the way here just to say goodbye to you."

Guybrush raised an eyebrow at her. "I wouldn't call that goodbye, that looks more like 'please don't leave me here, I wanna go home with you so I can kill you in your sleep when you inevitably stop petting me'."

Meche huffed a laugh and nodded in agreement. She'd never seen Balthazar so much as look at someone twice, whatever Eddie had done to earn his favor must have been incredible.

Eddie reached up to pet Balthazar so he could turn his head and swipe at the moisture in his eyes with his other hand. Obviously the dumb cat got fur in his eye, because he wasn't crying over this.

Manny set a hand on his arm. "If you want the cat, all you have to do is say so, mijo."

Eddie nodded, but before Meche could go start preparing the paperwork he just managed to choke out through the sudden tightness in his throat, "But he deserves better."

Once again Manny's eyebrows were up at his hairline in surprise. "What do you mean?"

Eddie's sudden and unexpected cat allergy was making his throat hurt so bad he couldn't speak. Luckily, Nelson got to the root of the problem for him.

"You're worried you can't take care of him properly, right?"

Eddie nodded.

Nelson smiled sympathetically. "I felt the same way about Ruby before I adopted her. I thought there was no way I could find the time to play with her and take her on walks with all the work I had to get done. I was so stressed that I didn't even want to think about adding yet another responsibility on top of everything else, but you know what?"

Eddie raised an eyebrow at him askance.

"That was the whole point of getting a support pet. The responsibility to take care of Ruby took precedence over everything else, and was much more pleasant to deal with. I stopped working overtime trying to get everything done perfectly right because I had to be back in time to take her outside - little mistakes here and there didn't matter, Ruby was more important. Making the time to play with her meant I spent more time relaxing and enjoying myself, which helped me feel less anxious even when Ruby wasn't on duty. On days where she had to come to the office with me, no one thought it was weird that I needed to have a dog with me. And the Psychonauts take care of her when I have to leave her behind.

"You can take care of a cat Eddie, I know you can. You have all the resources you need to help you, and I promise that having him around will help you feel better if you really put your all into being a good owner."

When Nelson finished the little speech with yet another reassuring smile and reached out to stroke Balthazar's head, only to have the cat growl at him and swipe his claws at the offending hand, then immediately go back to eroding Eddie's hand with nothing but his face, Eddie broke.

Balthazar was his cat, and he would be damned if he was going to leave him behind.

With tears finally allowed to stream down his face, he gathered Balthazar into his arms so he could hold onto him properly. The cat stood on his hind legs so he could rub against Eddie's jaw, and Eddie ran one of his hands down his back in reassurance.

Guybrush gently guided him by the elbow over to one of the chairs at the perimeter of the lobby so he could sit with Balthazar while Manny helped Meche fill out the paperwork. The Psychonauts would be paying for Balthazar since he counted as an emotional support animal and therefore fell under Eddie's health insurance plan, and Manny could fill out everything else but his signature.

It took a little while to regain his composure, but Nelson and Guybrush didn't seem to be judging him for crying over a cat, and there weren't that many strangers passing by this late in the day. Once he got a hold of himself and Balthazar was convinced that he wasn't going anywhere, the cat jumped up onto his shoulder again so he could nip at his ear for leaving him behind.

"Ow! Yeah, okay, I'm sorry - I deserve that."

Damn straight, the cat's eyes seemed to say.

Apology accepted, Balthazar hopped down into his lap and got comfortable. Not too long after that Meche returned with the paperwork, and a few quick signatures later, Eddie was the proud owner of a foul-tempered cat with gnarled whiskers and a probable taste for blood.

And he wouldn't want it any other way.