Gato felt sympathy for Hollow as she tried to adjust to her new surroundings. They remembered being similarly cautious the first time they had been in a barn, and like Hollow, they had been with someone that helped them learn not to be quite so skittish around it.
They especially felt for her when she was on the back of the horse, with the breathing of the creature interrupting her thoughts and words, sending her body into freeze mode where all her muscles tensed up. They remembered how they had been similar the first time, unsure of the giant creature. “Tha neighin’ can definitely be loud. It woul’ probably echo a lot in here, so ya’re right, best if we don’t hear it in such close quarters!” Gato said, watching her as she bobbed up and down on the back of the mare. At this point it felt natural to them, but to someone like Hollow who was just seeing a horse for the first time, it was both awe-inspiring and terrifying.
“Aye,” they agreed, looking at the long fur growing out of the back of the mare’s neck. “If tha’ hair were on ‘er back instead o’ ‘er neck, the lass would be much warmer. Might not even need a blanket then. I wonder why it grows like that?” They tilted their head and puzzled over it a moment. While the way Hollow had said it might be taken as rude, she wasn’t wrong. If their fur where distributed more evenly instead of growing off their neck and tail the way it did, they would likely have more fur than a cat of their size. “What odd but fascinating creatures,” they murmured, straightening their head as they came to the conclusion they weren’t going to figure out why horses were the way they were.
They smiled when Hollow said the scent must be hard to pick up, as they knew that even the warm, strange scents of the barn wouldn’t be able to keep the smell of mouse from wafting into her nose. They were right; as soon as she smelled something else under all the other smells, they could tell it. Gato scented the air too and noted that there were several mice scents coming from the pile of hay that lay there.
“Aye, in there,” they said, slowly following Hollow back onto the stall fence and down the stool to the floor of the barn. “Stand ove’ by tha’ small hole in tha wall, one o’ them will head that way.” Then they slipped into a crouch, eyes gleaming as a mouse poked out from the hay. They placed their paws gently one after the other as they stalked closer to the creature that seemed completely oblivious to the cat. It was usually like this; there were so many mice that it could feed a tiger, they were sure. They came upon the mouse and pounced, swiftly biting the back of its neck to kill it. Another mouse sped out from under the hay nearby, scrambling for the hole in the wall they had told Hollow to stand near.
It was a comfort to Hollow that in spite of Gato's experience with horses, they still found them fascinating. Worldliness had the potential to fester into a jaded, bitter outlook on life, but in Gato no such transformation was apparent. She would have relaxed if not for her lingering wariness of the horses themselves.
That wariness began to abate as the two of them returned to the barn floor, Hollow watching as Gato approached the pile of hay. It had been a long time since she had hunted with another cat, and she had forgotten what it was like. Although, in all honesty, hunting with Gato was not much like hunting with her brothers; Gato was much more pleasant to be around. Their directives, for instance, did not have the same strictness of an order, and Hollow willingly obliged by stalking her way over to the indicated hole in the wall.
Although Hollow could not see the mouse Gato was angling for from her perspective, she could tell the moment that the creature wandered into their sight. Gato's eyes darted to a fixed point with the unmistakable precision of a predator, and Hollow had to remind herself that being a good hunter had no bearing on a cat's disposition; Gato had proven themselves trustworthy, and a simple bout of mouse-catching—an activity that any forest cat should be well-acquainted with—should not be doing anything to spark suspicion. And yet, Hollow had to tamp down the tide of terror in her mind, trying to quell her skittish emotional response through sheer power of will.
She was mostly successful. Or at the very least she was distracted, as Gato pounced on their quarry, prompting a second mouse to scurry out of the hay stack and directly into Hollow's waiting claws. She hardly even had to move; her claws struck out almost of their own accord, and the mouse was dead on impact. In a momentary fit of self-deprecation Hollow wondered if mere shock had done the creature in rather than any prowess of her own. She shook the thought away and picked up the still-warm mouse in her mouth, padding back around the pile of hay to meet Gato again.
"Good strategy," she praised, before realizing that the mouse was muffling her voice. She placed her catch down again before continuing. "Do you usually have a partner for this?" Hollow tried to keep her tone light, but a sudden curiosity had taken hold. Gato was a friendly cat, and she was beginning to wonder just how friendly. They didn't smell particularly strongly of anyone else, so Hollow had to assume that they were largely solitary. It seemed unlikely, though, that a cat as affable as Gato wouldn't have more consistent or least more varied companionship than just Hollow. She tucked into her mouse to temper the probing question with an air of nonchalance.
It seemed the life ebbed out of the mouse in their jaws in seconds, just as they had been aiming for. Even though they had never experienced death, they didn’t want it to be long and drawn out for their prey, not wishing for it to drag out like a skirmish. There were times when Gato had met not so friendly cats and their claws had been sharp, and they imagined that’s what it felt like to the mouse in their mouth.
After a moment of crouching there making sure their meal was truly dead, they raised their head to look for Hollow. She had gone to the side where the hole in the wall was, as they had asked, and had managed to grab one of the mice that had tried to escape through that exit. Good, they thought. With so many mice these two would hardly be missed in this barn. They padded closer to join Hollow, a purr rumbling in their throat as they saw the she-cat’s catch. They wouldn’t mind hunting with Hollow again sometime.
“No, I oft’n hunt alone,” they admitted as they set the mouse down at their paws. Though their belly rumbled from the scents of the mouse and the taste that was just in their mouth, they figured they should explain first. “Tho’ I am a house cat, I travel oft’n. The outside calls me. In fact, right now the moun’ains are calling me. I had been on me way there when I smelled ya, an’ decided to see who ya were. I meet cats from all walks o’ life in me wanderin’s. Some friendly, like ya, some not. I don’t like fightin’ much meself. I’d rather talk me way out of conflict, ya know? Frien’s are better t’en foes. I’m glad ya turned out to be frien’.”
For a moment their eyes gazed past Hollow, glazing over as they thought back on all the cats they had encountered and of all the things they’d done. Almost as soon as it had begun their eyes flashed and brought them back to the present moment, and they gave Hollow an apologetic smile. “All tha’ tah say I may hunt alone, but I make good frien’s along tha way,” they said, drawing up their legs under them to get comfortable on the barn floor. It was about time to tuck into this mouse that lay dead on the floor before it turned too cold.
Nodding to her mouse to indicate she should eat too, Gato lowered his head and began picking at the mouse. It was plump from stealing food from the horses, though they were so tiny the horses probably didn’t mind too much. It tasted better than the food that their owner often fed them, much softer than the hard pellets that filled their bowl back home or the slimy wet food that they sometimes got to eat. Gato would still eat it, but they had come to prefer life as a traveler. Once their mouse was little more than a pile of bones, they looked up at Hollow and said, “Thank ya. It’s been a while since I’ve eaten a meal with someone else.”