Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 240

James started the magic show doing card tricks, hat tricks, and other types of sleight of hand. Then, pretending to trip, he tipped his hat over a table, which was my cue to fall out from behind the hidden compartment near the top. The hat had been used for a number of tricks before I slipped inside as a kitty, so the audience had probably thought it empty. When he snapped his fingers, I leaped from the table up onto his palm. I could tell at a glance they admired him as they should. James was amazing. Unfortunately, many were now staring at me.

“Yes, she’s far more adorable than a rabbit pulled from a hat, isn’t she, folks? Far more intelligent too.” insisted James. Leaning down so his head was next to me, he nodded and then said, “Oh. They doubt you? No, look again. That’s not doubt, but awe.” He stood upright and gestured to me. “Give her a big round of applause, and maybe we can convince her to prove to you how utterly amazing she is.”

After the crowd had applauded, James said, “Thank you! Thank you. What would you like to see her do first? How about teleportation?”

Many people in the audience smiled at the suggestion, and others clap their hands. James progressed with the act, gesturing with his hand to activate the signaling device. There was a puff of smoke over the table, hiding the transparent tubes the rose out of it

He gently set me on the table, opened the nearby tube, and patted my head while saying, “Here you are, my lady.”

I knew my part and stepped inside, using my mouth to shut the door after I entered. I almost jumped when the audience applauded. Aaliyah had written into the script that they would, but I hadn’t believed it. I should have known that the princess would accurately predict them.

James stepped away from the table, smiling at the audience. “Now I’m sure some of you are already making guesses as to how our little friend here will teleport from one tube to the other, but you can keep on guessing as I remain over here.”

He then snapped his fingers, signaling the mist to fill both tubes. There was an electrical effect that shot between the tubes as an additional distraction. I had two seconds to open the secret compartment, get inside, shut it, enter the other tube from the secret tunnel in the table, and shut that hatch. I could have managed in a tiny fraction of the time.

This applause I was expecting, since the audience wouldn’t know how simple this trick was. I stepped outside of the tube and took a bow. The audience applauded again.

“Isn’t she every bit as talented as I promised? For our next trick, I’m going to allow Raine to saw me in half. Yes, you heard me correctly. This cute cat will be sawing me in half.” announced James with a wink and another smile.

Some of the audience laughed while others shook their heads. No one seemed to believe he was serious, but they did not know the princess was behind these tricks.

James assisted me in putting on a lab coat, wheeled out the machine with the sawblade, and gently moved me to the controls. He placed the two-by-four under the blade and ducked for cover when I activated the machine. There were some who laughed as he had ducked away, but many oohed after the two-by-four was cut. After clearing the debris, James confidently moved his box under the blade, pushing out the false feet once he was inside. I dutifully activated the machine and watched as his box was cut in half. I then pulled the lever to separate the box’s two pieces.

Tilting his head to see and smile at them, James asked the audience for requests on how he should move his feet as proof that they were his. He obliged the numerous shouts, using the voice recognition system the princess had made to cause the feet to follow his commands.

After a little demonstration, he said, “Those of you who are faint of heart should look away for this next part for Raine is all paws at using glue. Please excuse me if I start coming apart again after the show. The glue occasionally breaks on us.”

I lowered the big lever to put the boxes back together. Then I carried a bottle of glue across the machine and hopped with it onto the box. After some dramatic acting on James’ part as I pretended to glue him together, he stood up, revealing that he was whole.

Our act continued with the audience participating in card tricks, followed by levitation stunts, and then me using a crystal ball to act like a psychic. The last trick was especially nerve-racking for me, since James wasn’t helping with it. The princess had written a sophisticated bit of software which she implemented in a crystal ball to predict what answer I should give to questions asked by the audience members. My prompts appeared within the crystal ball, written too small for human eyes to notice. Then I was required to do impromptu acting as an attempt to convey the answers for the audience. Despite my performances, the audience seemed enthusiastic about the show.

I did my best to stay calm after the show when the girls wanted to come and pet me. I kept reminding myself that James was nearby. He would come save me if necessary. I could do this. The seconds seemed even longer than normal as I endured the attention, but I managed to get through. I then waited as James slowly took apart the props and stage, loading them back into the truck.

“Sorry to keep you, but I simply must ask… would you be willing to sell that cat?” asked Mrs. Vander, the birthday girl’s mother.

My fur stood on end as I heard those words. Countless scenarios of me being trapped in this place passed through my head before I could reassure myself that there was nothing here which would hold a monster. As far as I knew, there was nothing anywhere which could contain me. Furthermore, James was kind, too kind to try selling me.

“I really can’t sell her. She’s quite popular among my employees, and I can’t imagine she’d ever forgive me if I let her go. I would be quite willing to help find another cat suitable for your daughter if that would help.” he replied diplomatically.

“I can’t imagine training one so well to be very quick. I’m willing to pay a great deal if you’ll sell her to me this instant.” she insisted.

“No matter the price, I can’t sell my friend. She’s one of a kind. Please excuse me. I do have another engagement soon.” he insisted, scooping me up in one of his hands.

James had called me his friend. The thought elated me. Then the guilt came along with whispers from the dark place in my mind. He didn’t know me. He didn’t know that he held a monster. He had no clue that I could cause destruction by accident. With a turn, I could brush aside this semi truck, sending it flying miles away. The truck was fragile. Everything was fragile. If he knew that I was a monster, I was certain he could never call me ‘friend’.

Stepping aside, Mrs Vander said, “Well, thank you for listening. I do understand. We all loved the performance. Don’t be surprised if we ask you here again next year!”

James gently sat me on the seat after he hopped inside. I curled up on the passenger side and let myself zone. My stress for today was done. Well, not really. The stress was never done, but surely things couldn’t get any worse. Plus, I made money. I actually performed a job successfully and earned a paycheck! The paycheck couldn’t get rid of the voices here in the city. I could hear the conversations of thousands and thousands of people as if they stood next to me, but the paycheck would help me fit in with the people. I was a working girl now. Would Mom be proud?

I could hardly believe what was happening as the doors of the trailer in front of us opened. I should have warned James. I realized I had heard the men speaking to one another among the other voices. I hadn’t paid enough attention. Were they going to attack us? I saw energy moving around them, slowly attempting to form patterns. I was terrified that I would need to act. I would never allow anyone to hurt James, even if I must reveal that I am a monster to him, but I didn’t want to kill. What if I went too far? What if I hurt these people? The bloody mush that was left of the werewolves from when I was a toddler came to mind along with my mother’s terrified face. Killing was effortless and terrible.

The world sat frozen to me between one thought and the next. There was a chance that I could leave the vehicle, move all of the men behind us, kick away the semi, and be back inside before James knew what was happening. He was barely faster than a human. No. Wait. The semi might hurt people if I kicked it. I’d have to take the time to find a new place for it and be careful not to break it. If I wasn’t careful, shrapnel could rip off of things I moved, destroying what they hit more easily than bullets. Bullets were far, far too slow. Even James could dodge a bullet. Moving people required extra care. If I didn’t focus on keeping them safe… I shuddered and shoved the thought out of my mind.

The scenarios continued to play through my head as I considered what to do, what was safe to do. Some time later, I noticed that James was moving energy as well. Was I safe not to act? I decided to wait. The bad men were moved and seemed pinned. The other semi and trailer were lifted into the air, allowing James to drive under it. No one was harmed. James was safe. He was amazing!

I did my best to focus on the way home, staying alert in case anything should happen. I listened to the confusion of the men James had bound behind us with his magic, and giggled in my head. They thought he was scary. James was extremely gentle and caring, but the bad men thought he was scary. They were lucky I didn’t need to act.

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Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 239

Raine looked adorable as ever, entering the gym in her cat-eared hoodie. She obviously had no intention to fight. I wished that I could get a better look at her hair. From the little I managed to see yesterday, she spent a great deal of time grooming it despite always hiding it.

“You probably should take off the hoodie for exercise, since you’re liable to get it dirty.” cautioned James.

Raine didn’t respond, still staring at the floor.

Unperturbed, James said, “Okay. Let’s have a demonstration, so you can see what you’ll be learning. Emma, mind being the attacker?”

“Sure thing, man-slave!” I exclaimed with a grin.

“Brandon, good luck.” stated James.

“What!? Why me?” he complained with a frown. Not waiting for an explanation, Brandon moved to the center of the gym faced off with me.

I had already thought of a scenario and swaggered toward him. Then, attempting to sound thuggish, I said, “Hey, you. This is my alley. What you doin’ here?”

“Umm… walking?” stated Brandon with no enthusiasm for his part.

“Nevermind. You walked down the wrong alley, punk. Gimme your cash.” I ordered.

“No. I’ll just be leaving.” he claimed, attempting to walk past me.

I reached for his wrist to stop him, but he quickly grabbed my arm, attempting to twist it behind my back.

Not wanting him to use his strength to overpower me, I quickly slammed my free hand into his chest and declared “KNIFE TO THE HEART!”

“Oh, come on. I would’ve seen it.” he argued, rolling his eyes at me.

“Well, maybe, but you could’ve blocked her arm. I can’t say that was the greatest example. Just have a fair fight, so Raine can see some of what you’ve learned.” suggested James.

“You have to admit that I’d be a great thug, man-slave.” I teased. Unfortunately, Raine didn’t really seem to be paying attention.

“I’m sure you’d be the most interesting one.” he agreed with a slight smirk. “Begin.”

Luckily, I heard Brandon move behind me and guessed at his approach. I ducked under his arm and kicked his side as I spun. There was no need for me to hold back, given Brandon’s abilities, so I didn’t relent, dodging and attacking at full force. I even managed to throw him a couple of times.

“Well, good enough, you two. Would you mind working with Brenna and Portentia today? I’m going to try getting Cosette and Raine in shape.” declared James minutes later.

,,,^._.^,,,

Having seen Brandon and Emma fight several times already, I knew Emma was easily capable of beating him every time, especially if she was allowed her magic. Brandon had used his magic this time to no avail. Beating either of them would be child’s play for me, since Emma wouldn’t likely attempt a killing blow. Still, I wouldn’t want her as my enemy, especially outdoors where she could easily turn every plant into a lethal adversary.

“I-I’m… healthy.” insisted Raine after James ended the little match.

Laughing, I said, “He means in shape for fighting.”

“B-but… I… I-I can’t.” she maintained. She hadn’t seemed to really be watching the fight, and I wasn’t surprised at her continued reluctance. Raine was exceptionally timid. Even gaming last night, she’d respond to our questions in game chat rather than aloud.

Smiling, James said, “That’s okay. Just think of this as exercise. Repeat it enough, and you’ll be able to block a punch without thinking about it.”

“You can go full werekitty on me if you want. As a vampire, I don’t really have a problem with healing.” I assured her.

“N-no. N-never.” she replied, shrinking farther into her hoodie as she shook her head.

“No need to worry, Raine. Let’s just work on a basic stance today. You can even keep your hoodie on as long as you can see me well enough.” explained James. His face suddenly grew distraught as he looked at me. “Oh, Cosette… I’m so sorry. I just realized that the windows won’t automatically shut now. Did you have any trouble getting here?”

Forcing myself not to laugh, I said, “I called Aaliyah, and she told me how to shut them.” He really was too kind.

“Excellent. Sorry about that… I should have realized the issue sooner.” he insisted.

James patiently worked with us for the next hour, attempting to improve our technique. I still maintained my charade, not wanting to demonstrate my actual ability. He and Alma were far too dangerous for me to risk exposure. If they ever turned against me, I needed a way to surprise them, though I was having trouble even imagining they ever would.

James seemed to realize that Raine wasn’t putting effort into the lesson. The moment after he would fix her posture, she would slouch again. Despite her obvious timidity, I had trouble understanding why she was this reluctant to learn self-defense. What was she afraid would happen?

,,,^._.^,,,

Smiling, James asked me “Was that so bad?”

“I-I… g-guess not.” I stated, having somehow managed to get through the lessons without hurting anyone. As cool as martial arts looked, I knew my use of them wasn’t safe for others. Everyone was far too fragile. If I were to block an attack, the attacker would probably break an arm or leg. My mind was too eager to provide gorey possibilities, and the darkness inside murmured its approval.

The phone in James’ pocket buzzed, so he pulled it out. There was a sadness to his expression as he looked at the screen. The way he touched the screen made doing so seem painful, as if the gentle caress was as damaging to him as my touch could be.

He looked at me and said, “Aaliyah needs to meet with us about something, Raine. She’s apparently in my office. Mind if I freshen us up with magic real quick, so we can head straight there?”

Us? At first, I wanted to run, picturing James’ magic touching me all over. I managed to calm myself, knowing James wouldn’t be indecent. This was fine. I could do this. I nodded. Then I watched water slowly float through the air, dancing to its own song. The water passed around and through my clothing, tickling along my skin. Drifting away once more, the water contained small particles I hadn’t even noticed were on me. I knew that neither of us had sweat at all ― I could easily smell the sweat of those who had. I hadn’t expected to see anything in the water, but some of the fuzzy softness of my hoodie had broken off.

A greater concern was making its rounds in my imagination as well: I’d be seeing the princess again! Thinking of her always brought so many other thoughts to the forefront of my mind. She was a brilliant, adorable entity whose accomplishments outstripped those around her with ease. Thinking of Ancient Tribes of Earth alone, she had given us so much to enjoy. My mind roamed through all I had seen there and branched into the “what ifs”.

“Mind asking Aaliyah to stop by my wing after you finish with her?” questioned Cosette. She obviously knew the greatness that was the princess, but could one of us simple employees truly beg audience with the princess?

I knew I couldn’t be so bold. Asking the princess to be alone with a monster was far, far too much.

“Of course not.” replied James, as if her request wasn’t anything spectacular. Turning to the others, he said, “Aaliyah needs to see Raine and me, so I’m leaving the rest of you to it.”

I was amazed that he seemed to think nothing of her request. I looked at Cosette with awe, wondering who she was to be of such importance. Then I followed James back through the halls and up to his office. The walk seemed exceptionally long, knowing who was waiting for us. I took a deep breath. I could do this. I wouldn’t embarrass myself. The princess was kind. She’d forgive me if I did.

When we finally reached the office, the princess was standing on a chair behind the desk, playing with a deck of cards. She deftly moved cards around her tiny fingers, shuffling them like a wizard.

“What’s up?” questioned James, casually watching her.

“Well, boss-man, sir, there’s a particular job lined up for you this week that’ll require specialized training, and I think this is a great opportunity to get Raine out there.” she announced.

The princess had been thinking about me. Part of my mind was savoring this moment while another part was terrified. I had barely joined the company, and the princess wanted to deploy me this soon. I couldn’t refuse, but could I really accept? Words needed? None found. Refusal against the wishes of the princess wasn’t valid.

“What? She’s not even been here for a full day yet, so there’s no way she completed the introductory courses.” argued James.

He was such a wonderfully considerate person. If not for who I was, I would have considered hugging him. There was always an urge to hug James. Remembering how I leaned against him yesterday was as embarrassing as it was wonderful. I had felt so completely relaxed, enjoying his warmth. Since then, I had moved him in my mind, creating a large room to nearly match the princess’ in grandeur.

“Boss-man, sir, you’re being hired as a magician!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

The statement inspired humorous scenarios of this magic-wielding man of wonder pretending to do tricks as he casually performed actual magic. I was so inspired by the idea that I nearly managed to ignore the section of my mind processing that I would be part of the act. There was no possible way for me to perform in front of an audience. Every scenario was ending in failure.

“I don’t honestly know any decent magic tricks and don’t feel using actual magic would be appropriate.” replied James.

Disappointment sprouted inside me as the area considering how incredible James could be as a magician shattered. The ideas of him disguising actual magic as tricks had been beautiful and wonderful. The loss of them was a very sad thing.

Nodding, the princess said, “I guessed as much. I made a course you can adapt to perform with Raine! I wrote it ages ago for just such an occasion.”

“How do you propose to get Raine to be comfortable on a stage?” inquired James, seeming as confused as I was about the idea.

“She’ll perform as a cat! Everyone will think she’s an extraordinarily well-trained cat, and she will be!” exclaimed Aaliyah with the cutest grin.

The words repeated multiple times in my head as I pictured myself as a magical kitty assisting James. I could do this! More scenarios formed. I could do this!

“I see. I suppose that might work. Raine? What do you think?” asked James.

The scenarios continued to run, but I realized that words were needed. A question had been asked of me. Verification of a point was validated as a response. Question applied: “I-I’ll get… get paid?”

Smiling, he said, “Oh. Of course. This is a job after all.”

Words successful. On my second day in the company, I had already secured a paying job. I would get to work with James! The happiness at the prospect of working with him was managing to fight down some of the anxiety building over the idea of being on stage, even as a kitty.

“Good. That’s settled then. I need to be off. The course is already loaded.” announced the princess. She hopped off the chair and walked around the desk.

“Cosette wants to see you before you’re off!” exclaimed James as if he just remembered.

She hugged his leg and hurried out the still-open door, shutting it behind her.

A thought had bubbled up from the back of my mind as she had moved. I had considered different ways to broach the subject, but none seemed entirely appropriate. This was the princess, not some ordinary person with whom I regularly spoke. Of course, I never made a habit of speaking. Too many words necessary. Asking a favor of her was impudent, knowing that every moment of her time was extremely valuable.

“Au-Autograph.” I stated to the door, unsatisfied by yet another failure to make my precious request known.

“Don’t worry. You’ll get one.” insisted James. “Mind getting started? I have a few hours free at the moment.”

His certainty made me smile. I knew that James’ time was extremely valuable as well. He was the boss of this company, important to Ancient Tribes of Earth as leader of the most powerful guild and spokesperson for the game, and a friend to many. I diligently memorized the entire course as we watched it, and listened as James made suggestions about what part I was to play. I could do this.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 238

Mmm… the smell of food was growing gradually stronger as carts made their way towards the ballroom. Even the kind words about me still crossing guild chat couldn’t distract me from the idea of eating such wonderful smelling food. I shut my eyes and let my mind picture hundreds of different possibilities for the order in which I’d sample everything.

My eyes popped open as they watched Marco, pushing one cart while pulling another behind him, both laden with food. Despite the burden, he appeared perfectly happy, smiling as his mouth started to open. Not wanting to be noticed, I shut my eyes again.

“She is asleep? I can always make her something later. Il gatto like the fish or the chicken, no?” he asked.

I heard the flutter of tiny wings move over to the first cart. I could imagine how the minuscule fairy looked, shedding light as she examined each and every dish.

“I am certain she would be more than happy to eat either, but we really should convince her to eat with us as you’ve already made such a splendid meal.” stated Alma in a tone the brooked no argument.

“But look at her… She’s so sleepy.” argued Emma as she stroked my head with her fingertips.

“Her eyes opened before Marco even entered the room. She’s just being stubborn.” explained Alma.

How did she know? Could you hear the faint sound of my eyelids moving? Was there some other trick she used?

James stood, faced Emma, and asked “Would you mind taking her somewhere to get changed? I’d hate for her to miss this.”

“Sure thing, man-slave!” exclaimed Emma before gently lifting me from her lap. Repositioning in one arm, she’s in grab my clothes from where they lay.

“There are more chairs in here?” asked Marco as Emma and I left the room.

“Here, I’ll get you one.” offered James.

I heard the door swing, something being jostled, and then what I could guess to be a chair gently setting down.

“Such magic is helpful. Had I talent, I might not have learned cooking.” suggested Marco.

“Then the world would have been losing the magic of your meals, so I am quite pleased you do not.” insisted Alma in a surprising display of kindness.

Emma had only carried me one room down. She set my clothes on a chair, set me on top of them, and then shut the door behind her as she stepped out of the room. She waited there, so I decided to take my time changing, not wanting to demonstrate my speed.

“Are you trying to make us cry?” asked a twin as she walked across the room, probably towards the cart of food.

“The thought of you not cooking is depressing.” insisted her sister, who had followed her to get food.

Brandon, Brenna, and Jarod move to get food as well. I jealously listened to their motions as I finished dressing.

“Do you not like being a chef?” questioned James.

“I love what I do, especially here. No worries.” replied Marco with a smile and it is voice. “I am descended from the… er… Slayers. Had my family not lost the magic, life would be very different is all.”

Slayers? That sounded ominous.

“Oh. Wow. I imagine it would be.” agreed James.

“No doubt. How long since your line served the family?” asked Alma.

“Several generations now. We lost favor due to one’s folly and quickly had nothing, or so nonna said.” explained Marco.

“I don’t feel as bad for not keeping up with you in the kitchen.” teased a twin.

The other quickly said, “Oh sister, you’d have to catch up to me before you could even approach him.”

Marco laughed and told them “Girls, you both cook a well. By my age, you be eccellente!”

I stepped out of the room and almost jumped back, not due to being startled by Emma’s presence, but because of the eager look in her eyes. She had looked me up and down appraisingly the moment she could see me. I was still surprised when she grabbed me by the hand and started leading me back to the ballroom.

“I wonder if my father might have known your grandparents.” pondered Cosette.

She was such a quiet, observant person. I knew her better in game than in person, but I felt I would end up missing her when I am forced to leave here.

“I doubt. They a weren’t that importante.” insisted Marco.

“Still, I’d never have guessed. You don’t have that air about you like you’re going to destroy all before you.” teased Jarod with a smile in his voice. He sounded mischievous.

James quickly said, “You obviously haven’t watched what Marco does when he wields a knife. Many meats, vegetables, et cetera all get diced with such swiftness and efficiency that he obviously has quite the practiced hand.”

“Come here, you adorable creature.” commanded Emma pulling me into the room.

As eyes turned my direction, I stepped behind Emma to avoid the gazes. I could do this. No need to run.

“This is first. I meet you twice now and still have no idea what you look like. Come, food will grow cold.” insisted Marco.

Emma decidedly grab the plate and started piling food onto it., but I was painfully aware of everyone watching to me. I stared at the floor to avoid their gazes and listened for movement.

The smell of the food was intoxicating, but I couldn’t bring myself to take any while being watched. Memories the high school cafeteria haunted me. Everyone was judgemental about everything. I could remember it all perfectly down to the last crumb on the floor of any given day.

“You no like a ravioli?” asked Marco, sounding concerned.

No! I loved ravioli, even exotic ravioli such as this. I couldn’t worry Marco. He seemed nice and wanted me to eat his food. Part of my mind searched for a trap in this, but all of my senses told me to trust him. Time for words! Mission: Put Marco At Ease!

“I-I… do. St-steak… and… p-potatoes too.” I stepped closer to the cart, stoked my courage, and lifted my head slightly. I was allowed to eat this. No one here would judge me for what I took. They didn’t realize food was wasted on me, since I didn’t need it. The guilt of eating when I knew people were starving in parts of the world always fought with the guilt of not eating when someone cooked for me.

“You should have seen her perk up as we approached the kitchen. I swear she basked in the aromas.” commented James.

Picking on me? No. James was attempting to help me put Marco at ease. He had the quest as well!

“When just guys, you should ask me more about French girl I met in Prague. Great story.” replied Marco as he playfully smiled.

Mission successful? At what cost…?

“You know I will.” stated Brandon with a devilish grin.

The implications multiplied in my mind as I caught Jarod smiling as well. Even Emma! Was everyone here that sort of person? James wasn’t smiling. The twins looked annoyed. I couldn’t see Alma. Portentia was alert trying to watch everyone and Cosette’s fingers at the same time as the latter signed to her. I would need to learn sign language then. I could help.

Thoughts of helping to relay speech for Portentia wasn’t enough to distract me from the conversation. In fact, I became caught up in the idea of trying to get the implications of what was happening through to her in sign language. Could I even do that without becoming embarrassed? People could be so… so…

Memories were flooding through my head. I knew of no one with hearing as exceptional as my own. No one else was forced to listen to that kind of stuff whenever it happened, and I doubted many would believe how often that happened. There were times at school when it even happened in the building, no matter if I was taking a test. The worst part at school was always knowing who was involved.

“Hey, Raine. Watch this!” exclaimed Emma, picking up some of her potatoes with her fingers.

I stared in shock as I watched each detail of the potato changing and becoming an uncooked vegetable again. Even stranger was the green plant the gradually became a chair, intricately woven from all of the plant matter. There were leaves and everything! Emma could use magic, and it was amazing!

Marco smiled and stared, saying, “That is…”

“Showing off.” stated the twins in unison.

“I’d argue that it’s the coolest way to play with your food.” teased Jarod around a mouthful of steak.

I took advantage of the distraction to get closer to the cart. I was aware that James was still watching me as well as Emma’s incredible display. His eyes darted back and forth with above-average speed. How many times had he seen such a thing to not be impressed by it!?

“One should not generally play with one’s food, but Emma did need a place to sit if she’s giving Raine her chair.” muttered Alma as she turned her chair to resume playing Ancient Tribes of Earth. Her floating plates and phone followed her movement as if held by invisible arms. Even her food separated itself and floated into her mouth in small portions.

James turned towards Jarod and said, “Oh. I forgot to ask. What movie did you see?”

I resisted the urge to grab everything at once, but I did start filling a plate with every type of food that would fit. I concentrated on staying slow, moving like a human. I was just a kitty to them, not a monster.

“Ah. Skyfall. Despite the lead actor, it’s still a Bond movie, and I thought it was cool that they brought back the DB5.” replied Jarod, frowning as he mentioned the car.

I nearly dropped my fork when I heard the sound of sadness into his voice towards the end. His ever-smiling face now frowned.

“Worth seeing?” questioned James as if nothing was wrong.

Jarod shrugged and said, “Eh.” His frown at least vanished.

“Really? I thought it was pretty cool.” insisted Brandon. “Tons of action scenes.”

“There were some good parts, but there were also a number of things I really didn’t enjoy. Like why were they trying to tell Bond that he’s washed up?” asked Jarod.

“Spoilers!” exclaimed Emma, nearly yelling the word.

I jumped slightly at the start of the word, momentarily forgetting my plate as I worried about not breaking anything. I took my time figuring out the best way to keep my food from being lost while restraining my speed. My execution was still a bit awkward, but not a crumb was lost.

Emma motioned for me to take her old seat as she sat proudly on the fantastic plant chair. I carefully moved around her, hoping she wouldn’t yell again. The size of the comfy looking chair appealed to me, since I could nuzzle into it and hide.

“Fine-fine. I’d say watch it, but don’t get your hopes too high.” asserted Jarod as I walked.

“Yeah. I won’t argue.” agreed Brandon. “What do you think about James Bond, Alma?”

“The workings of MI6 are classified, and you don’t have clearance for my full review. Besides, I prefer my James.” she replied, hidden in her chair.

I gladly took my seat and was very happy to find the reality hadn’t let me down in the chair’s comfy feel nor its engulfing size. Alma’s words made me wonder more about her, since she seemed perfectly serious in her implication that she did have clearance.

Brandon whispered “She serious?”

No one responded, but it was getting the impression that might happen often to Brandon. Emma motioned for me to sign into my account on Ancient Tribes of Earth, but I pointed to my plate.

Marco then asked “Jarod, would you mind a showing me how to run the theater? I went there other day and couldn’t watch. Mila always handled it.”

“Oh. Sure thing. Want to head there after we eat.” he replied, his voice sharing in the loss.

Mila again, and such a sad tone. I knew that the princess could create wonders, but I didn’t expect such an attachment to one of her creations from everyone here. I wished I could have known this Mila. Maybe… just maybe… I could have helped.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 237

As Cosette carried me, James’ continued describing the rooms as we passed them. Many of the rooms only received a brief description, though a few were opened to show me. Cosette playfully tickled my belly while I swung my paws around her fingers, but I felt distracted by the fantastic scents of food being prepared.

“A large number of these rooms aren’t really used frequently, at least to my knowledge. Considering that I’m continually finding out about new hidden doors, someone might be ducking into another secret lab for all I know.” he explained, seeming to be waiting for response.

None came.

I started to wonder if he was wanting me to respond, despite my current form. I might be able to. Mom could manage, but she always said it took her considerable concentration.

As I tried to picture different things I might say, I wasn’t happy with any of them. I would likely know if someone opened a door on the opposite side of the mansion, so I was fairly certain no secret passages were being opened. The idea of them was really cool, but the statement was more of a confirmation than a surprise. A mansion filled with magic without secret doors would be far more surprising.

I could smell such wonderful things right now. Meat, cheeses, pasta, potatoes, some sort of sauce, and a great many spices were calling to me. I could hear the man dancing around the kitchen as some wizard working his magic. His heartbeat was steady as his body moved between pans, bowls, or other such metallic implements. There was something glass as well. What I did in Ancient Tribes of Earth, this man did in the real world.

James was continuing his tour, and I did pay attention. I simply wasn’t paying as much attention as I could have if not for the sounds and smells from the kitchen. I could basically taste the delicious food, and my imagination couldn’t help providing imagery, though there were smells I couldn’t picture as well.

As Cosette finally stepped into the magical room, I wished I could will her to stop. I wasn’t mentally prepared to meet someone. What if he didn’t like me, or asked James to send me away? What if a glance was enough to tell him of the monster entering his domain? A small eternity passed as I panicked, reminding myself that I couldn’t run away. I didn’t want to risk hurting Cossette. I needed somewhere to belong.

“Ah! James! I am just a fixing the dinner. Ravioli di spinaci e ricotta con burro e salvia for the pasta, and then black angus cooked just a right. I felt tonight we needed a taste of home. There will also be potatoes, which I using a recipe I got in northern Italy from this woman… bellissimo. Is magnifico. There is also meringue, though this recipe is from French girl I met in Prague. Perhaps you will approve, Cosette? Is French.”

The man speaking was considerably shorter than James, certainly older, and wore a large smile that fit his chef’s outfit well. His happiness is reflected in his bright, brown eyes when he had looked over at Cossette. My inner panic grew when his eyes started lowering down to me.

“Of course. I’ve been delighted by everything you’ve made.” she assured him.

Looking concerned, he asked “Is that a new pet? I can’t say I prepared anything for il gatto, since I did not a know.”

His concern reaffirmed all my fears, making the urge to flee grow and grow. Then his concern magically had become embarrassment instead. What sort of chef even makes food for cats? Was this normal?

“Oh. No-no. Marco, this is the newest member of Best Friend For Hire, Raine. She’s a werecat, and Cosette had wanted to see her cat form.” explained James.

“Ah! This is good then, assuming she like a what I fix…?” inquired Marco as he looked to James.

James nodded and said, “I have no doubt. Hopefully, you’ll get to meet her as a girl for dinner, so you’ll know I’m not crazy.”

With a wave of his hand, this wizard-chef brushed aside James’ fears and said, “I see wonders daily here, so you speak and I believe.” His heartbeat remain steady, and the dilation of his eyes didn’t change. There wasn’t even a quiver in his smile. Marco was a very honest man who trusted James completely.

“If you’ll excuse us, I’m going to finish giving Raine here the tour.” replied James, smiling again. This smile lacked sincerity, as if James had his own inner demons to fight as well.

If he did, he would win. I could tell James was that sort. Even the princess trusted him enough to work for him.

“You’re the boss. If you have time, dinner will be ready in… twenty minutes. I’ll send a notice.” replied Marco.

“A quick tour for now then.” agreed James, his smile becoming real again.

We left the kitchen, and my anxiety was on the rise. James briefly spoke of the rooms we passed, not even slowing his step by them. We were hurrying to a room filled with people, some human and some not. There was excitement in this room where people played Ancient Tribes of Earth, and I couldn’t fault anyone for finding excitement in the game. I knew Alma was there as well, and I held no excitement for seeing her again.

What if she had already turned the others against me? James couldn’t defend me if so many of his friends saw me for the monster I am. I would need to leave, alone once more in this world. They might even try to stop me, knowing a monster shouldn’t be allowed to roam free. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I’d have to carefully escape from Cosette’s hold, hurry to grab my things, and leave while they wondered where I went. But where could I go next?

Numerous eyes turn to us as we entered the room. Thankfully, they were mostly on James. One beautiful girl was completely white from hair to bare toe. Her eyes possessed the palest blue I had ever seen, and I saw a great many colors in eyes. I was certain that her scent was one of the ones I didn’t know.

“James, why is that one out of her clothes again?” asked Alma.

“Why would clothing matter when she’s a cat?” countered Cosette, not tensing at all despite arguing with the angry girl.

Sounding surprisingly calm, Alma said, “A girl undressing in front of James always matters. We can’t allow ourselves to act like animals, even if such behavior is in our nature.”

“She shrinks into them, really.” stated James as if he were making a joke.

Cosette glanced at James before looking back to Alma and saying, “If you must know, I asked Raine to change out of curiosity, and I feel she makes a most adorable cat.”

“I already have Alberich, so I don’t need another cat.” replied Alma with false calm.

I could see the slight tension in her fingers as she continued playing the game. The interface in this room was interesting. There seemed to be some laser-guided tracking system over a keyboard and mouse projection. I didn’t know such a thing could be implemented well enough for gaming yet.

A girl with blonde hair dyed in numerous colors jumped out of her seat while saying, “But she’s so adorable! Why didn’t you tell me she’s this cute?” She bent down and peered into my eyes as I reflexively attempted to back up. She smelled of plants, as if she had rolled around in grass and other things, though that was impossible during winter.

The extraordinarily white girl and a pretty, redhead girl approached me as well. I couldn’t quite squeeze under Cosette’s arm to back up more, at least not without hurting her.

“Aww.. can I pet her?” questioned the redhead.

“Such a pretty kitty!” exclaimed the other one.

If I was in my human form, I might be blushing. As things were, I just felt confused. Alma had clearly said something about me, probably when I was in that office and couldn’t hear properly. Yet these girls appeared friendly, without any visible sign of deceit. The white girl lacked a heartbeat, but wasn’t a vampire. What was she? Her scent was similar to my own, but not the kitty part of me. Was she a monster too? She didn’t seem dangerous, but most people wouldn’t think I am dangerous. I could feel something inside her calling to me.

“She’s a bit shy.” stated James. After briefly looking at me, he amended his statement. “Okay, she’s more than a bit shy, so some space would be nice. Does anyone have cat allergies? I just realized that may be an issue. Do werecats produce allergens?”

“Yes, they do.” replied Alma.

James waited for further response. Receiving none, he announced “Marco said dinner will be ready in twenty minutes. I suppose that was a few minutes ago though, so seventeen-ish.” Then he went on to say, “At any rate, I was giving Raine here the tour and felt she should see how we like to game, since she’s in our guild.”

“She plays Ancient Tribes of Earth?” asked Jarod, looking intrigued.

“Yes, she’s Nekopawpaw.” explained James.

The girl with the multicolored hair appeared excited and surprised. “You! I’m your general! This is so cool! You need to log in ASAP. People have been worried about you, since you haven’t been on lately.”

General Toxi!? Toxi was nice. She could be overly affectionate, but she was always kind. When I was low on supplies for guild commissions, she would always volunteer to appropriate some from the guild’s storage. She’d also act as an intermediary between me and other guild members.

Her hands approached me, and I wondered if being held by her would be like lazing in the grass on a summer day. I could easily picture her growing flowers and fruit from her hair with how natural the scents were. There was the smell of fresh tomatoes and herbs. Had she been helping in the kitchen? Maybe there was a greenhouse she had visited.

Instead of petting me, she lifted me away from Cosette. I frantically released my claws from Cosette’s clothing, not wanting to tear anything. The redhead and white girl reached toward us, but General Toxi ignored them, carrying me to her seat where she placed me on her lap.

General Toxi announce in game that I was with her in person. I could hardly believe the reaction. Hundreds of messages appeared. Some more greeting me. Others were claiming to have missed me. Then there were some saying they wished they could be here to see me as well. I didn’t really feel as if I interacted with any of them enough to warrant this display, but here it was.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 236

Even my excitement from being near the princess couldn’t keep me focused on the incredibly long contract to work here. There was a plethora of legal terms that I didn’t really care about, so I did my best to just tune in when she told me to sign. I doubted I could really be here too long. Monsters weren’t allowed peace.

James had left us in his fancy office while he changed clothes. The office was a surreal place composed of incredibly tiny, color-changing spheres that combined to imitate objects, such as desks, chairs, and lights. Even the bulbs were composed of the tiny spheres but somehow radiated light.

When James returned, I glanced hopefully at the paperwork, but there were many pages to go. I drifted in my mind, sometimes forgetting to keep my body upright as I thought about my situation. I knew I couldn’t be here forever, but James’ presence was incredibly reassuring. I felt so peaceful here, sitting in his office.

The sound dampening in this room kept me from hearing what was happening throughout the mansion and beyond. There were no heartbeats, shuffling feet, tapping fingers, cars, or trucks. I no longer smelled all of the people either. The air here was purified and scented with that strange, fresh smell too perfectly for even my nose. When James had left, his scent had diminished rapidly.

Pages, pages, pages. Sign. Pages, pages. In a small part of my mind, I was planning out what crafting I’d want to do when I could play Ancient Tribes of Earth again. I had such a lovely, little shop and many orders to complete. Weapons and armor were steady business, and I wanted everyone to be safe. Still, I preferred making decor for houses, jewelry, and clothes. I had a few more outfit designs for Nekopawpaw that I wanted to try.

I also considered how to make my new room cute. Even if I’d only be here for weeks, having a cute room was important to feel comfortable. I’d need new posters, and a place for my figurines. I needed something comfy to curl up on when I sat around thinking. Kitty furniture was nice for when I wanted to enjoy being a kitty. Should I have chairs?

The bathroom would need some decoration, such as a seat cover, toothbrush holder, mirror decals, soap holders, shower curtain, curtain hooks, floor mat, and tub mat. Bathrooms were really decorative for me. Things were always fixed when I moved. Clean clothes and a clean me were constant reminders that I was a monster, unchanging evil in disguise.

The princess took off her glasses and packed up her things. “All set, boss-man, sir! I’m going to get back home. Still much to do!” she exclaimed.

“Much to do?” asked James.

“Yes, boss-man, sir! Much to do!” she insisted. She hugged his leg, too tiny to reach very high. Then she hurried out the door.

I didn’t feel like moving, comfortable in my thoughts. The darkness in my mind was tucked nicely away for the moment. No struggle to keep it there.

“Well, I suppose a tour is in order.” announced James after a while.

Seconds? Minutes? I wasn’t certain. They were all so long. My mind had other ideas, comparing the pacing of his words with the unknown interval. Seconds of silence.

Mmm… James touched my shoulder, gently shaking me as if he thought I was asleep. Oh. My head was resting on my arms over his desk. Change of position necessary.

“How would you like a tour?” he asked.

“That… that sounds… nice.” I replied, recalibrating my thoughts for motion. In a world where everything was fragile, movement required caution, not that I really struggled.

My first memories took place in the womb. I accidentally injured mom, not that I really understood at the time. I remembered the connectedness, the need to be still. I didn’t move again for months. Mom eventually told me of how she worried that I had died. Werecats couldn’t risk hospitals and were often alone. I learned to understand English by the time I was born. Speaking didn’t take long after. I missed mom.

“Well, I’m not going to bother showing you the rest of this floor, since I don’t really make much use of it. Maybe one day I will, but I generally like to spend most of my time on the ground floor. At any rate, the second and third floors are my private domain. The ground floor of the main building is open to everyone, save for the kitchen, which is Marco’s. I imagine he’ll be more concerned about things getting back to their proper place now that Mila’s gone.”

“Who… who’s Mila?” I asked. Did I make a mistake? There was a sadness to his posture, a sudden stiffness followed by a slackness. I felt something, as if his sadness became a part of me.

“Mila was a friend. She was in charge of the house and my cars.” he explained, a forced calm in his voice.

I felt he wanted to talk, and there was something I wanted to know. I asked “But… I mean… how? Umm… Not how did she d-die, but…” Too blunt? How should I put this? Must form better words. Focus. Focus. I can do this. “Aaliyah had said ‘sti-still dead’. Can she bring someone back?”

“Mila was an artificial intelligence created by Aaliyah. Her hardware was recently destroyed when we fought a necromancer, so Aaliyah’s rebuilding her, at least I think she’s rebuilding Mila. I hope.”

“Oh.” I mentally swept up the pieces of that shattered dream. Mom was dead. There was no coming back. As the funeral for the dream took place in my mind, I felt James gently patting my shoulder.

“Sorry. Not even the princess can bring someone back to life. We didn’t mean to get your h-”

“The princess!” I exclaimed, realizing my mistake. “I d-didn’t get… I… her autograph.” That dream was cracked, so I gently placed it in bubble wrap on a shelf with a lip to prevent rolling. I might catch her before being forced to leave.

“Oh.” stated James with a chuckle. “Don’t worry. You’ll get plenty of chances now that you’re working here. Aaliyah lives nearby, so she’s often around.”

With those few words, the crack was partially mended. I silently thanked James, placing his picture next to the slightly cracked dream as a guard. I had leaned against him while my thoughts were scattered between my dream room, the waking darkness that took offense at the idea a monster could be evicted, Ancient Tribes of Earth, my ongoing renovation options, the monotonous replay of the contract, and mom’s memorial room. The gentle warmth of James’ kind presence had sucked me in like a magnet, his positive existence pulling the negative nightmare that I am.

“Are you okay?” came his voice, brushing my consciousness as I considered a new room in my mind for James. He had always shared a room with the princess just off from the room for Ancient Tribes of Earth. He deserved more.

“Raine?”

“Hmm?” I replied when I realized a response was needed.

“Umm.. are you okay?” he asked.

Yes. Response needed. Let that question slip by long ago. Position: still sucked into warmth. I looked up. James seemed confused. He had such a nice face. Forgetting something. Words! Must make with the words.

“Waaarm.” I explained.

He could surely understand that my kitty nature needed warmth. Mom loved to cuddle. So many memories.

“Umm.. Raine? I’m also your boss now, and I do have a girlfriend. Might we keep some space and get on with the tour?”

Processing. Space needed? Request denied. Wait. Boss. Request accepted. Making space. Bye-bye warmth, but not really. So close. Words needed? Inner sigh in three… two… one… BIG SIGH. Was there a way to concisely explain my inner home and how many places in which I dwelled? No. Simplest answer equates to best answer for now. Making words.

“Hmm? Oh. S-sorry. I haven’t had… had… my n-nap. Groggy.” I explained, feeling “groggy” was the most adequate simplification of my state. I didn’t want to leave my waking dreams just yet.

“If you’d like to sleep first, that’s fine. There really is no rush. You’ll have to complete the basic training course before you can start going on assignments, How are you about getting up in the morning? I know Aaliyah mentioned it, but there’s martial arts training most every morning. Can you use magic? I try to teach some spells every day as well to those who can participate.”

Sleep good. Fighting bad. No magic, not James. I used words. “N-no, thank you.”

“Self-defense is mandatory given how dangerous the world is. As best friends, we need to be able to protect ourselves and our clients.”

I stared up at him, my senses homing in on his every twitch. “F-fighting is… is… r-required? I’ll… g-get my…” Nope-nope. Not fighting. Fighting bad.

James was quick to say, “No-no. You don’t have to fight. You simply need to learn how to defend yourself in case something happens while you’re out with a client. Just come to the morning workouts. They can be fun, I promise.”

“O-okay.” I replied, more than certain he wouldn’t want to see me even pretending to fight.
His assurances continued as he guided me out of the room and back down the stairs. The sounds and smells were back in full force, telling me of the world around me.

After going down a floor, he said, “The upper floor of the wing past this door is rented by Cosette. How do you feel about vampires?”

I knew. I knew she was walking towards the door with soft steps and a complete lack of breath. I could smell the faint signs of decay in organs she didn’t fully use. Most kitties probably couldn’t, so I asked “She’s… she’s… v-vampire? Really!?”

“Yes. She recently lost her parents as well, so she started working here for me.”

“S-some vampires are… are nice. M-mom said they c-can be at least. P-parents? Is s-she… young?” I questioned.

He nodded and said, “Around our age. She’s-” As the door opened, he stopped and smiled.

I moved behind him, not certain I was mentally prepared for a vampire. Scenarios of her attacking crossed through my mind. What if I hurt her on accident? The girl seemed to study us, and I doubted her age. Those eyes were sharp, and the slight twitch of her nose meant she took in our scents. Girls my age typically talked about fashion and boys. Many were mean, especially ones this pretty.

“James, do you have a cat now?” she asked with an inquisitive arch to her brow. “Who’s behind you?”

Didn’t she piece the puzzle together? Not enough time? Vampires were barely faster than humans. She might need time.

“Nice timing. Cosette, this is Raine. Raine, Cosette. Raine just joined Best Friend For Hire, and I’m about to give her a tour.” explained James as he gestured between us.

Cosette gracefully gave us a small curtsy and said, “I see. Meeting you is a pleasure, Raine.”

Says the vampire to the monster. She probably couldn’t tell. Vampires were practically human. Her smile didn’t seem fake. Vampires were hard to catch in lies. No scent queue or heart rate queue. They could keep the same expression for hours. This one was being nice and lived with James. He seemed to like her. I trusted James. Word time.

“H-hello.” I told her. “J-James told me… t-that you’re… vampire. I-I’m… kitty.”

Words successful? No. Confusion. Fake? Seemed real. She stared at James questioningly as she talked.

“Are you? That’s adorable!”

“Yes. ‘Werecat’ is apparently the term.” he informed her, still smiling.

I wondered if James ever forgot he was smiling. I did at times. I smiled all day one time spent alone at home simply because I forgot. Mom had commented on me seeming happy when she returned home from work. I couldn’t tell her the truth.

“Interesting. Would you mind showing me sometime? I mostly have avoided therianthropes, so getting to know one would be quite fun, really.” insisted Cosette.

I considered her motives for a time, picturing myself pacing around them. As the scenarios played out, my paranoia drained away. She’d see eventually anyway. I want keeping this form all the time, and everyone was safer when I was a tiny kitty with soft fur. I nodded and transformed.

Cosette seemed excited. Whether sincere it not, she was very gentle when she picked me up. She complimented my fur, my paws, and even my nose as she petted me, smiling the whole time. As she followed James along with the tour, I decided that though her body was colder than the air, Cosette was a warm person.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 235

James sat with me, never taking his hand from my shoulder. My tears continued, running… drip, drip, drip. Water running nearby as if my tears already made a puddle. I could feel James’ touch. There was carefree skipping in the distant, otherwise empty park. I was never carefree even as a child. James was with me. I fought back the darkness when he mentioned getting shot so casually, but the tears continued. James stayed with me. I knew what I was avoiding. There were thoughts too tender to touch. What would become of me now? The tears continued, bad thoughts avoided. James was still with me.

I could hear the flap of wings similar to a hummingbird. The sound soon hovered nearby, so I glanced up to see what was there. “James! There’s a… a fairy! A real-life fairy!”

“Is there?” he asked.

For a moment, I wondered if I somehow became even more crazy, but the smile he fought to control told me otherwise. He could see it. As I considered possibilities, I slowly reached toward the fairy.

Thoughts of the fairy cowering, flying away in fear, entered my head as I considered what would happen if she saw my other form. I smothered the darkness as it tried to burn out from its hole. Unlike me, this fairy was innocent. I mustn’t let her see. Mustn’t let James see.

“Looks like she wants to play with you.” commented James as his smile grew.

“What? How can you tell?” I dubiously questioned. “Dubious” was a fun word. I liked dubious. I didn’t like being teased. Was James picking on me?

“Didn’t you see that image?” he asked.

James saw his own darkness? I couldn’t really picture something dark within him. I was probably confused. I never quite got the hang of communicating with people. They could forget stuff as they spoke. I never forgot, but I often grew distracted. With how slow people talk, my thoughts could drift to a thousand places before they finished their sentence. I would collect and order my thoughts, respond, and wait again, fighting the fear that would always rise. Oh, yes. Image.

“What image?” I asked. The fairy hadn’t said anything this whole time, watching us.

She was unashamed in her nakedness. Beautiful and confident. Her wings were translucent while her body was radiant. Her wild hair looked perfectly natural. I wanted to hold her and talk with her.

He had been talking. He was saying something about the fairy. I continued thinking about the fairy while he spoke. Then I arranged the pieces.

“Huh. Perhaps you’re unintentionally blocking her out as I had done, but the Fey communicate directly with your mind, placing images, feelings, scents, et cetera directly into your mind.” he had told me.

“Wh-what? But… I want to hear her…” I assured him, even as I doubted myself. I watched the fairy flutter. “Flutter” was another good word.

“I did too, but I… well, I suffered from too much attention when I was young and grew accustomed to ignoring a great many things. Now I fight the urge to bottle myself up every hour of every day, because my little friend here grows quite annoyed with me when we can’t communicate.” he explained. “You have to open yourself to her, really want her inside your head.”

Before he was finished speaking, I was cringing. The idea of this innocent creature exposed to my mind was terrifying. She would be terrified if she found the darkness, if she knew what I was. Even fairies couldn’t be friends with monsters.

“I… I can’t.” I admitted, certain James would think even less of me. Maybe he wouldn’t even turn me away nicely now.

He reached out, placing his hand back on my shoulder. When had it left? Oh. Back when the fairy arrived. I felt his gentle touch, enjoying it and knowing I shouldn’t. If I transformed, his hand would be shredded by my fur.

“Raine, don’t run. You still have an interview, and I have a feeling you’ll fit in nicely here. There are other fey you’ll be able to meet if you work for me.”

Fact or fiction? Fact: He had said those words. Fiction: Their validity. Monsters can’t belong. He didn’t realize what I was. I considered fleeing some more. Fact: I needed time for those thoughts lurking in my mind. Fiction: I could be happy here for a time. I wanted that fiction.

“Other f-fey? More fairies?” I questioned.

Smiling again, he said, “No, the others don’t appear as fairies. They come in all shapes and sizes with an equally great range of abilities.”

I had my fingers along the grass, surprisingly lush despite the heavy snow. Wait. Why wasn’t I touching snow? I had sat in snow. Things were warmer than they should be. I saw a circle of grass where we sat, surrounded by snow beyond the circle. Thinking back, I heard it when I was crying. I had stopped crying! Why was the snow melted!?

“The snow melted!” I exclaimed as I stood, wanting James to take notice as well.

He shrugged and said, “Oh. Sorry. I was worried about you catching a cold, so I heated the area around us and got the water out of our clothes.”

Huh. I remembered seeing the lights move faster than normal but was distracted, fighting the darkness. I didn’t consider there was a meaning this time. I remembered wishing each pinprick of light was a fairy looking over the world when I was young. I had underestimated the beauty of fairies. She was wonderful in her tininess. My thoughts continued to wander till I realized I was far afield from where I started. Oh!

“Y-You… you can use magic? You’re so…” I started wondering how to describe him in terms of speed as I thought about how he sounded when he ran toward me while I worked up to hitting the doorbell. Pitter patter. Pitter patter People don’t move that fast. “so fast too…” Wait. James wasn’t a person!? I thought for a time. No, he was a wonderful person. He just wasn’t human. “Wh-What are you?” I felt rude. I asked him what he was without letting him know he stood before monster. Monsters were allowed to be rude.

“Human, surprisingly.”

Anime style eye-bulging was how I imagined myself. His pacing hadn’t been human. I checked and rechecked, imagining myself with a ruler as I measured his stride before returning to the door.

“Apparently, one of us pops up with gifts here and there.” he insisted with such confidence that doubt would be an affront to the statement.

Monsters were supposed the be confrontational, so I almost forgave myself for dubiousness. I believed James, despite knowing humans weren’t like him. The dilation of his eyes hadn’t changed. His heartbeat was slow and steady. He didn’t sweat. He didn’t smell of fear. He was certain, but he was probably certain the girl he faced was just a kitty, not a monster.

“Most of the others living here are not human, so you really don’t have to worry about species.” he insisted, obviously unaware of what stood before him.

Other than Alma and those twins, I could probably name every species who had been in that house for the past several months by smell alone, though I knew something else now too. Fey. There was a similar smell to the fairy on the redhead. Why wasn’t he tiny and cute if he was related!? Life wasn’t fair. He probably had impossible dreams of being a sixtieth his size and looking cute.

“But…” I started, knowing I should tell James the truth. “But…” I tried again, knowing you wouldn’t want a monster in his precious home. Something had changed. The skipping child was much closer. I caught her scent on the wind. Her voice… Wide-eyed fangirling was to commence in three… I started to turn, savoring this moment. Two… The excitement was building. One… I could already see the skipping, singing form in my peripheral vision. Zero… My heart beat like a war drum sounding off an engagement. My mind raced through how I would build such a drum in Ancient Tribes of Earth. The game’s creator was skipping toward me. I felt as if a goddess was descending despite seeing the carefree skipping over the snow. Her socks didn’t match. The jacket contrasted terribly with her mismatched shoes. Wild, blonde hair danced in the wind. Her eyes sparkled with fun.

“That’s… th-that’s the princess!” I exclaimed, uncertain his “human” eyes could tell. Could a magically imbued human still claim humanity? She’d know! The princess was famous for knowing.

The fairy was fangirling even harder than I was, flying off to meet the princess before she reached us. The temptation was real. I could be to her before the fairy’s wings flapped again. Would I even be able to talk? I wasn’t even worthy of talking with her. I was a monster. This was the princess! Would she remember me? James hadn’t. Well, he knew my name, but… why did people think we had dated!? Didn’t matter. Princess coming. Must make words.

“Can…” I started. Good word. More needed. Must accomplish mission. No… quest! So many thoughts. Words needed. Communicate. James was nice. He’d help. “Can I…” Step closer to victory. I can do this. I already imagined how her hand might move, stroking a page with a pen. Page!? My game. I needed her to sign my game. Could I pay for more autographs!? One first. Must make with the words. “I mean…” So nervous. “Please, will you…”

James’ heart rate had risen and his scent changed. He was nervous too. Even James couldn’t grow accustomed to being near the princess. Nerves were fine. Goal in sight. I could do this. No! Question left unfinished! Needed more words.

“Autograph, please.” I finished, forcing myself to speak as clearly as possible. Would he understand!? The wait seemed too long. Mission failure!? No! Wait. Time was a slow thing. Waiting required. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

“You want her autograph?” inquired James.

Success! Quest stage complete. Onto next stage! Multi-tiered quests could be tricky, but the princess was close in… I could do this! Oh. More words needed. He had asked a question. Confirmation required. Must click quest box to approve stage clearance.

Nodding, I said, “I… I’m… I’m in your g-guild.”

Clarity: poor. Mrs. Darfunkle frowny face. She was my favorite teacher in grade school. Her frowny faces were heart wrenching. I remembered them all. I always knew I goofed when there was frowny face. Monsters get worse, so I survived with just frowny faces. She never learned about the monster in her class.

“I really doubt she’ll mind. Aaliyah acts as the secretary here, although I’m certain she’s underpaid.” replied James.

A tower of powerful i-beams fell apart in my head. Well, steel was fragile, so I overvalued their strength. I worked through what caused the mess. There was something distinctly out of place here. Words needed again. Princess questions important.

“But… I thought… You don’t… d-don’t work for her?” I questioned, reconsidering if adequate words were there. Scenarios of James working for the princess were hovering around a trash bin.

“I do at times.”

Scenarios placed back on shelves and petted gently for good behavior.

“Well, generally I’m technically working for her father, but that might as well be working for Aaliyah too. You’ll see. She’s quite the brilliant little girl.” explained James, adding to my questions.

How incredible was Aaliyah’s father? What did they do for fun? Did he play Ancient Tribes of Earth? If he did, was he in our guild? Are there actually people who don’t know the princess is brilliant!? The questions continued whirling along as James talked more.

“Oh! If you play Ancient Tribes of Earth, you’ll love the setup we have here. With the fastest computers I’ve seen.”

His voice sounded slightly pained when he mentioned computers. What tragedy had befallen a computer in his presence. James deserved happiness. He wasn’t a monster like me. Could I really stay here without telling him the truth? Maybe for a while? The princess was coming. No time for monstrous truths.

“Can I… can I really w-work… for… for y-you?” I managed to ask.

“Well, I’m technically supposed to be giving you an interview, but I’m leaning toward ‘yes’, though we’ll have to work on your shyness. What brought you here today?”

“Mom…” I started, fighting back those thoughts I didn’t have time to consider. “My mom…” I tried again, but the thoughts came. I wasn’t with her and didn’t protect her this time. As I fought the thoughts, I felt James hug my shoulders. He had such a pleasant warmth.

“Were-… werewolves…” I remembered her blood in the alley. “They…” I had fought so hard not to follow them. “they killed her.” The darkness called. I could find them… kill them… I’d be gone and back next time James blinks. Tears were coming. The monster needed chained. I should just leave. I could run far away or maybe just never stop. Could I eventually wear out? “I… I need…” I needed to flee. I needed to save James from myself. I had so many thoughts on what I needed, but I said, “home.”

I didn’t want to leave now. I didn’t want to flee. I had nowhere else to go. Monsters didn’t belong in this world. The werewolves belonged more than I do, but I had to be somewhere. I couldn’t stop existing, despite my existence endangering others. The darkness stayed contained as I focused more and more on James’ warmth. He was so kind.

“Boss-man, sir, I see your interviews are as intimate as ever.” stated Aaliyah as she reached us with the fairy still fluttering around her.

“This being my first one, I can hardly say that’s the case.” he replied.

“Boss-man, sir! Don’t you remember interviewing me!?” she questioned, sounding hurt.

Smiling, he said, “Perhaps my memory’s fuzzy, but I recall you more or less giving me an ultimatum.”

“Boss-man, sir! That’s not nice. I’m telling your mommy on you.” she warned as she placed her tiny hands on her hips and glared adorably.

“I’d worry, but you know I was only teasing. Did you know Raine here as in our guild?”

“Well, duh, boss-man, sir. She plays Nekopawpaw, the catgirl crafter. Everyone knows her.”

I was surprised by the casualness with which they bantered. These two were even closer than I had surmised when I first met them. Even more surprising, the princess knew me. She recognized me in real life and as my character. I considered hugging her, kneeling before her, prostrating myself and telling her how unworthy I am.

“Oh!” exclaimed James. “You’re that crafter!? Wow. I’m glad you didn’t end up leaving. Are things going well under Emma’s command?”

I was befuddled. Some errant dream had replaced reality. The greatest guild leader in all of Ancient Tribes of Earth couldn’t remember my name. This life was a lie. Good things we’re rare and precious, not a treasure trove pouring out without end. I already had seen James again, received numerous hugs, met a fairy, and even saw the princess again. Was I dreaming in some alleyway!? We’re dreams this good!? I tried to break back into reality. Nothing happened. I would try words. Quest accepted.

“You…” I started, not wanting to be confusing yet trying a hundred other words in my mind. I’d stick with that one. “You… you… noticed me?” Clear. Concise even? Mission cleared?

“Of course” he replied, sounding dream warning bells in my head. “I couldn’t have one of our best crafters leave the guild. I’m surprised that you don’t do more fighting. You have to have great reflexes.”

Fighting… fighting bad. Not safe for me to fight. I shook my head. I wasn’t a fighter. I was a monster. People die when monsters fight.

“Well, we’re glad to have you. What do you think, Aaliyah? Will Raine here be a fine best friend for hire?”

Aaliyah grinned widely as she said, “You totally should hire her, boss-man, sir! I came over to help you find the paperwork, since Mila’s… still dead. How’s your back? I heard you were shot.”

I moved slightly. “Shot!?” I asked, remembering that was mentioned earlier. Not a joke then. “Who… why… James!?” I couldn’t imagine why someone would want to shoot James. Why did people kill?

“Stung a bit, but it’s really not a big deal. I’m fine.” he insisted.

“Can I see the holes!?” asked the princess excitedly.

James sighed and turned around after letting go my shoulder. He didn’t even stand. I stared with wide eyes at the holes through his jacket and shirt. His skin looked pristine, yet he still called himself human.

“You… you’re… fine?” I questioned, verifying that I was somehow trapped in a dream.

“He’s not the average human.” stated Aaliyah with a wink. Then she turned to James and inquired “Did you ask if she eats people yet? Marco will want to know who to cook for her if she does.”

Bubble pop. The princess knows everything. True story. Wait. She knows. James doesn’t. “I’d…” Need more firmness. Not a dream. I’d never have dreamed about the princess asking such a thing. Dreams aren’t mostly pleasant. “NO!” I asserted. Too forceful? The princess seemed amused. What was happening? I couldn’t find a rational scenario.

“Sorry, Raine. I haven’t honestly had much luck with the therianthropes I’ve met. We had to know.” explained James, acting perfectly certain in his belief of my words.

I nodded, still confused.

Standing and reaching toward me, he said, “Welcome to Best Friend For Hire. Sorry about the contract. Aaliyah gets carried away writing them.”

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 234

 I transformed into my house cat form, crawled out of my hood, jumped back up to James, and nuzzled him, unable to resist the urge.  He was so wonderful.  James reached into his pocket for his phone after it buzzed.  He held phone too high for me to see, but I didn’t care.  I was happy to be held, though he seem to be growing nervous.

 When James turned, the sparkling lights around us danced into a pattern, and my bags jumped into the air to follow us.  I had seen the lights move for someone before, but never so many with such speed.  Mom never could see them…  Double doors of his home opened for us, as did the next set.  The enormous entry hall did not disappoint after seeing the size of this place.  Ancient Tribes of Earth was still being played in a room adjacent to us, but I heard voices asking if James had returned.  They were coming toward us.

 I told myself I was fine.  James was with me, holding me.  I could do this.  Despite my own reassurances, I felt like running.  I didn’t want to be stared at.  Would I hurt James accidentally if I jumped from his arms and grabbed my belongings?  James mustn’t be hurt.  The footsteps drew closer.

 “Hey, boss.  Umm… Isn’t that luggage a bit girly for you?” asked the tall redhead.

 The blond one, looking self-satisfied in his smile, said, “Don’t worry about it.  I’m sure James just has his hands full with a new hire.”  He stared from me to James.  “Didn’t you say you were dating Alma now?”

 How did he know?  The two smelled human-ish, though these halls were laced with non-human smells.  Was he able to piece things together from what he saw, despite my current form?  There was an easy confidence to this one, and I decided his smile had a knowing quality to it.  The redhead seemed confused by the other one’s remark.

 “Yes, I…” started James, hesitating for a second as the muscles in his arm tensed.  The heat from his body seemed to increase.  His odor subtly shifted.  “There’s an explanation for this.”  His freehand petted my head reassuringly.

 I basked in the feeling of his fingers on my fur.  The ever-calling darkness was a small thing in my mind at the moment.  Hundreds of scenarios played through my head with each stroke.  James was completely kind.  He wouldn’t turn me away, despite what I am.

 “I don’t doubt.” replied the blond.  “Make sure to tell me later.  Brandon and I are going to watch a movie in the theater if you want to catch us when you’re free.”

 “Jaaaaaaarod!” exclaimed two girls in unison as they came up behind the blond.  

 The two girls looked remarkably identical, so much that I wasn’t entirely certain I’d be able to tell the difference between them with their eyes shut.  Their eyes were slightly different shades of brown.  Would they smell the same?  Most twins don’t, but most have slight physical differences even between identical twins.  Even their voices were the same.

 “What?  I said you two were invited.” replied Jarod.

 Pouting and turning her head to look at him, one whined “But we want your input on the house.”

 “You know this is for all of us.” insisted the other twin, looking as if “us” couldn’t exist beyond the three of them.

 Their scents were reaching me, and I couldn’t tell the difference.  They weren’t human, but I wasn’t certain what they were.

 “House?” inquired James.

 With a nod, Jarod said, “Oh.  We’re building a house next to the guild hall in Ancient Tribes of Earth.”

 I knew what they were doing from their discussion while I was outside.  In the back of my mind, I had worked out well over a thousand possible layouts that could be done in the game, each with its own charm.  If they’d let me, I could help.  I could craft every piece necessary and customize things to their specifications.  Part of me wanted to cry, knowing how they’d run if they really knew me.  They wouldn’t want my help.

 Noticing my belongings, one of the twins said, “Lady Pendreigh won’t approve that luggage.”

 Already they wanted to cast out my things.  I couldn’t be accepted.  I shouldn’t be welcome anywhere.  Monsters don’t belong with people.  The memories came of that night long ago when I first transformed to protect mom.  The werewolves died from my slightest twitch.  There was so much blood.  Blood everywhere.  I saw my reflection and screamed, but even the scream could cause nightmares by its inhuman sound.  Mom was horrified, cringing and hiding behind her arms.  I could never hide from the nightmare I am.

 “You should replace it, and she already has a cat.” stated the other twin.

 My memories had already spawned into countless nightmares by the time she spoke.  Even more came as she casually spoke of discarding my precious things.  When she mentioned a cat, I instinctively found the scent.  I heard it then, my ears picking up the faint sound of this cat sleeping to the West.  This was a lion, kept in the house like a pet.  Something seemed off.  The breathing was too shallow.  Was this a cub?

 The twins connected the pieces, their eyes widening in shock as realization struck them.  My desire to run increased, but James was too close, holding me so gently.  What if I scratched him?

 “WHO IS SHE?” they demanded in unison.

 Without giving him a chance to reply, one said, “You can’t possibly be thinking of hiring a therianthrope.”

 “James, that’s ridiculous.” insisted her sister.

 Anger shot through me, drifting from that darkness in my mind, begging to rip apart those who insulted my mom with their disgusted sniffs.  I was terrified that I’d give in, destroying everything… killing… I couldn’t kill.  Never again.  The monster needed to stay hidden.  I wanted to run, to cry.  Their disgust at therianthropes would pale when compared to the horror they’d experience if they knew the monster I really was.  I sealed the black pit in my mind, ashamed of its existence.

 Someone else was coming.  I heard the rapid footfalls of someone far beyond humans coming up the drive; someone like James, but maybe faster.  The doors opened for her, maneuvered by sparkling lights James had wielded.  Her scent was strange, pleasant yet fierce.

 James turned to face the most inhumanly stunning girl I had ever seen.  She proudly stood there without a hint of embarrassment for being whatever she was.  Her eyes, piercing and violet, had moved between James and me in a small fraction of a second.  Her skin practically glistened in its perfection.  Auburn hair flowed halfway down over her calves, looking quite red where it caught the light.  Her full lips formed a smile that seemed sinister due to the complete lack of joy in her eyes, and I knew I might need to run, but where?

 “I’m more concerned about why she’s out of her clothing, and in your arms, dear.” stated the girl, practically sneering as she spoke the last word.  Her words were laced with anger, but the way she said them was beautiful.

 I loved her posh accent.

 The redhead behind us barked a short laugh, but no one else seemed amused.  The newcomer glared in his direction.

 James sighed and said, “Look, she’s a cat.  There’s nothing happening here.  I think she’s reacting a bit strongly to my magic is all, and I didn’t want to leave her belongings outside.”

 Clothes were odd in the way they’d reform, clean and without tears.  I never worried about them getting ruined.  The idea that leaving them behind was bad never occurred to me.  I wouldn’t litter.  I’d pick them up before I was forced away.  The feeling that even James couldn’t keep me here was growing.  Where would I go when no one wanted the monster around?

 “Oh, I’m sure.” replied the auburn-haired beauty.  “James, should I be expecting more of the girls you dated to be moving here?  Even your home might start feeling… crowded.”

 Dated?  She thought James and I had dated?  Why?  I couldn’t come up with a reasonable scenario.

 “There’s an explanation for that as well.” he insisted.

 What explanation!?  He didn’t deny it.  I needed to know, but couldn’t ask.

 “Let’s get moving.  I think we’ve seen enough here.” suggested Jarod.

 “You kidding?  This is great!” exclaimed the redhead.  “She’s probably hot.”

 Beautiful.  The auburn-haired girl was an incarnation of beauty.  She deserved better than “hot”.

 James turned to face the guys and twins.  The redhead was staring at me, so I tried scooting behind James’ arm.

 “Guys, really.  Raine’s here for a job interview.  That’s all.  Speakings of which, I’m going to let her use a room to get sorted out.  Please, excuse me.” stated James, wielding the light to move my luggage and running down the hall.

 He turned and kept running down another hall past open double doors at the far end where the hall continued.  The entire length had paintings, vases, and engravings throughout the wooden ceilings, seeming to depict a story.  This new hall was lined with equally spaced doors, but there were still picture of throughout.  He stopped at one of the doors, opening it with the sparkling lights.  The auburn-haired girl wasn’t far behind.  She had kept pace behind us.

 James carried me into the room, and my luggage landed inside.  He lifted me away from his shirt, carefully pulling out each of my claws as if worried about hurting me.  I took a while remembering when I had grabbed onto his shirt, back when the auburn-haired girl was glaring.  I didn’t smell blood, so James thankfully wasn’t hurt.

 When I was on the floor, he said, “Please, get dressed, and we’ll discuss everything when you’re done.”  Then he shut the door.

 I changed faster than he had stepped from the room, but I knew better than to come out immediately.  Too inhuman.  He thought I was a therianthrope like mom.  I might be safe for now.  Maybe?  I didn’t want to lie to James, but could I risk telling him the truth?  NO!  Visions of him seeing me for the monster I am flooded my mind.  I never wanted to scare James.  Never.  He deserved better.  I should just leave.  No one would want me here… I wasn’t wanted anywhere.

 “James, I’m sorry for getting angry.” stated the auburn-haired girl from the other side of the door.

 I heard James turn to face her.

 She took a breath and said, “I realize you couldn’t have planned for this girl to be here, given that we’re supposed to be out on a date.  I’m certain you can understand my surprise, since you had dated her.  I must say that I hadn’t even realized she was a therianthrope.”

 Why did she think James and I had dated!?

 “What do you call her species?”

 “‘Werecat’ in England.  There are some other names floating around the UK, and obviously more in the rest of the world.  Are you certain about allowing one into your home?” she asked.

 “I really haven’t had time to think things over.” he earnestly replied.  “She was at the door when I arrived home, turned into a kitten, and you saw most of the rest.”

 “Did Aaliyah hire her then?”

 Aaliyah… I wanted to meet her, to get her autograph.  She was tiny, cute, and completely fantastic.  One little girl had given me so much companionship and happiness through her game.  I owed her, but had nothing worthy to give her.  Still, I wanted one thing more…

 “No, but I received a text just before coming inside, saying to expect Raine for an interview.” explained James.

 Enough time had passed by that I felt I should head out instead of eavesdropping.

 As I opened the door, the girl said, “Just to be sure you know, werecats are dangerous, James.  Their animal form can be disarming, but they are powerful predators.”

 I shut the door and headed for the window, doing my best to act like a werecat.  I couldn’t stay here.  I wouldn’t be welcome.  Anyone who thought my sweet mom was dangerous… they couldn’t accept me.

 “She’s attempting to escape out the window.  Shall we?” inquired the girl.

 They easily caught up.  How could she possibly think werecats were dangerous!?  Mom couldn’t have harmed her even if she somehow mustered the desire.  Oh, mom… I left your things.  I’d have to transform to outrun these two, and then they’d know… they’d fear me.  I didn’t want to scare James.  I didn’t want him knowing me as a monster.  I fell to the snow-covered ground and cried.  No one wanted me anywhere.  There was nowhere to go.  No one would accept me.  I was alone.  Completely alone.

 “Murdered someone recently?” inquired the girl.

 “ALMA!” yelled James.  “That’s enough.”  He knelt beside me in the snow and placed his hand on my shoulder.  

 I leaned into it as the tears continued to flow.  I saw countless reasons for him to flinch at my touch, to pull away, but he didn’t.

 “When will you stop jumping to conclusions?” he demanded.

 His words cracked through my thoughts, making me wonder if I was under a misunderstanding, but then Alma spoke, letting me know he had been talking to her.

 “What?  I simply gave you fair warning.  You can’t possibly hold me accountable for how someone chooses to take my words.” she argued.  “If she stays, you should have her show you her hybrid form.  She’d easily take Brandon down, despite his training.”

 I didn’t want to hurt anyone… I needed to find somewhere isolated to hide, like the bottom of an ocean, but I didn’t want to hurt the fish either.

 “Could you just… give us a moment?” asked James.

 I almost stood, but realized his hand was still there, still touching my wet cheek.

 “As you wish, but I do wish you’d remember that we’re supposed to be having a date.” she told him.

 “Yes, but that was ruined when I was shot.  Thank you.”

 Someone shot James!?  Anger… thoughts of blood… voices encouraging me to kill…screams in the background.  I shoved it all away.  James was alive.  He seemed fine.  He’d be nice about sending me away.