“All I’m saying is that an ’in-flight meal’ is more than just a package of peanuts and half a can of Coke,” Ocelot groused. The small but surprisingly strong hand of the flight attendant tightened on her shoulder and a quick shove moved the assassin faster down the boarding hallway from the plane toward the terminal at Denver International Airport. “If you don’t want to get sued for false advertising, you should change the brochure.”

“Thank you for the input, ma’am. I’ll pass it along to management.” The flight attendant’s response slithered past her, dripping with the venom of someone who has been dealing with too many people for far too long on entirely too little sleep.

“Forgive her, please,” Bennu responded with a bored drawl, her words dripping with sarcasm from farther back where even her longer legs were having trouble keeping up with the hurried pace of the flight attendant and her charge. “She’s so smart she thinks everyone should just listen to her and do what she says and that would make the world a better place.”

“It totally would,” Ocelot announced. “And it’s so nice to finally keep the company of someone who realizes that.”

“That was sarcasm, Ocelot,” Bennu groaned.

“Thank you for flying Terminus Airlines,” the irate flight attendant announced as they crossed over the threshold of the boarding hallway into the terminal. As she spoke, she released Ocelot’s shoulder, giving the scantily clad woman a little extra push. The look on her face when Ocelot turned around to speak to her again was one of exasperation. Or it might have been disappointment at the fact that her extra push had not launched the annoying woman headlong across the terminal and out one of the opposite windows to land face first on the tarmac and be promptly run over by some piece of large equipment there.

“You know, as much as I appreciate you saying that, it doesn’t really sound sincere to me,” the assassin began, raising a finger to point at the woman. “I’m going to have to mention that in my online review of your performance.”

“Why you little—” The woman started to step forward, hands clenched into fists of anger, when Bennu’s larger hand gently wrapped over her shoulder, stopping her. 

“Thank you again for your understanding and patience,” Bennu began, moving up next to the woman and giving Ocelot a frustrated glance before composing her face into a sweet smile and turning it on the irate attendant. “I’ll make sure the review is appropriate, please don’t worry.”

“I think we’re past that,” the woman growled, intentionally narrowing her eyes and ignoring Bennu’s look to stare past her at Ocelot.

“I’m very sorry,” Bennu continued to try and calm the attendant. 

“Yeah,” Ocelot chimed in. “Sorry you don’t understand the concept of customer service. Twelve dollars for some peanuts and half a Coke? I’m wealthy beyond the dreams of Avarice and even I couldn’t afford those prices. I mean, if I charged my customers on that scale I’d have to charge—” She stopped for a minute, her eyes losing focus as she ran some numbers in her head, then looked back at the other women and finished. “—six thousand two-hundred and eighty seven dollars per bullet. Nobody would pay those rates. I’d be destitute in no time. I’d have to find a normal-person job doing normal-person things.”

“Maybe it would teach you some normal-person people skills,” the attendant growled. She tried to step toward Ocelot but Bennu’s hand on her shoulder grew firmer and held her in place. 

“Pu-lease,” Ocelot rolled her eyes. “I could do your job in a New York minute.” By way of demonstration, she put on her best Barbie face and struck a pose, thrusting her hips to one side at a jaunty angle and thrusting her breasts forward. “Excuse me, sir. The Captain has turned on the fasten seat belts sign, which means you need to turn off all your electronic devices, even though there’s no legitimate evidence to indicate they can have any effect whatsoever on flight operations or vehicle safety.”

“Why you!” The woman pushed harder on Bennu’s firming grip, to the point that the mage had to lean forward a bit to keep the smaller woman in place. Not to be deterred, however, the woman twisted around, breaking Bennu’s connection with her shoulder and quickly ducking under her arm as the lack of resistance caused the mage to stumble forward, trying to catch her balance. She took two steps toward Ocelot, one hand outstretched toward the assassin’s throat and the other cocked back in a fist, ready to strike. 

The space went suddenly quiet as Bennu caught her balance and spun around, eyes widening at what she saw. Ocelot stood there, calm as the eye of a hurricane, one hand casually holding one hand around the flight attendant’s throat, gently squeezing it from either side, the other on one of her holstered weapons. The assassin’s face was somewhere between calm and elated, with the beginnings of a maniacal grin twitching at the corners of her mouth and a twinkle in her golden eyes. The flight attendant had frozen in place, arms held in mid air and her breathing coming in slow, careful pulls, trying not to aggravate the situation.

“Yes,” Bennu groaned. “That’s exactly how to handle the situation. Ocelot, let her go this instant.”

“No skin off my neck,” Ocelot breathed, the smile finally spreading across her lips. As if nothing had happened, she took a step back from the frightened woman. Her hands moved to her hips and she stood there grinning, arms akimbo and tail twitching while the flight attendant deflated, retreating away from her. 

“You’re friend’s a real psychopath, you know that?” the woman mustered the courage to spit at her.

“Sociopath, actually!” Ocelot called back at her from farther down the concourse.

“Sorry,” Bennu frowned, turning toward Ocelot and jogging to catch up. “Seriously?” she grumbled, moving up alongside her companion and matching her pace. “All of that, over a package of peanuts?”

“Peanuts aren’t a meal,” Ocelot shrugged.

“And how did you even get all of your weapons past security?”

“Most people can’t see them, remember?” she shrugged again.

“I’m thinking that airport security has the ability to see through enchantments. Even good ones.”

“I have a permit?” Ocelot tried, raising an eye at her companion.

“Just as likely as the previous statement,” Bennu confirmed with a sigh. “So, you aren’t going to tell me then.”

“Isn’t it nice to have a little mystery in your life?” Ocelot beamed.

“You know, when I decided to stay away from the conservancy and spend some more time with you, I really didn’t think it would be like babysitting an ornery preteen. Plus, I’m really not okay with just killing people.”

“You still haven’t killed anyone, unless you’ve been doing it while I’m asleep,” Ocelot corrected.

“This isn’t going how I’d hoped at all. Suddenly, I’ve got a job, bills, a disrespecting, angsty preteen of my own.” She motioned at Ocelot as she spoke.

“Oh, ha ha,” Ocelot snorted. “Anyway, welcome to the real world.” She shrugged, stopping outside a lounge and fixing her eyes on a television where a newscaster was talking about something to do with an escaped mage who had somehow broken free of a Quanta facility and was last seen entering the city. They were too far away to hear the audio, but the lounge staff had turned on the subtitles so they could read what was being said from the concourse hallway.

“…still unsure as to the reasons for her flight to Denver, if she is indeed here. This footage taken during her escape from custody shows the mage supremacist’s utter disregard for human life.” The station rolled footage in a picture window next to the announcer, showing the obsidian form of what could only be described as a force of nature tossing people around without touching them and snakelike black tendrils sucking the life out of people in seconds. “Authorities warn the public not to approach or attempt to restrain her. If you have any information on Sardonia’s whereabouts, contact Quanta at the email address or phone number below.”

“Hey,” Ocelot called out to one of the lounge patrons. A few people looked their direction and she pointed at one, asking, “When did that happen?”

“A few days ago,” he responded. “If you just arrived, you might want to get back on your plane, ’cause it looks like the authorities are going to make this one take a while.”

Grunting in his direction, Ocelot turned, nearly walked into Bennu, who was standing nearby watching the newscast with wide eyes. Looking her companion up and down, the assassin shook her head, stepping around her and marching off again. Bennu took a moment to stare at a few scenes of damage caused by the mage’s escape, cringing at images of the dark-skinned, rainbow-haired woman, superimposed over scenes of damaged buildings, collapsed walls, and sinkholes in roads, before turning and trotting after Ocelot.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Bennu said, drawing up next to the assassin, who was uncharacteristically quiet as they walked. “What’s bugging you?”

“Nothing,” Ocelot replied, not even trying to conceal the fact that she was obviously bothered.

“Should we look into it somehow?”

“Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

“That’s not very compassionate.”

“Um, assassin, remember?” Ocelot pointed at herself with both of her thumbs, stepping onto the underground train car that would take them back to the main building of the airport.

“I can’t take this constant vigilance, Ocelot,” Bennu sighed. “It’s, like, being on guard to stop a disaster every waking moment. I’m exhausted.”

“You should get some rest then. You haven’t been sleeping well.”

“I haven’t been sleeping well because I’m constantly watching you.”

“I can appreciate that,” Ocelot nodded. “I am a sexy beast.”

Bennu groaned, rolling her eyes and sagging into the wall of the train. She pressed her fingers into the bridge of her nose and took a deep, calming breath to steady her nerves. For a moment, the faint rumbling of what sounds like the dragon language rolled from her barely-moving lips. At last, she let out a deep breath and tried again, “I’m trying to tell you something, Ocelot.”

“So, stop trying and just tell me already,” Ocelot responded, turning toward the door as it opened again. “Shouldn’t be so difficult.”

“And yet—” Bennu grumbled, launching herself off the wall and following her companion out onto the platform.

“I think you’re making excuses,” Ocelot continued, walking up the escalator as if it were a set of stairs. Halfway up, she ran into a couple who were standing on the moving stairs, obviously in no rush, and cleared her throat loudly. When they looked back at her, she motioned toward the top of the stairs expectantly, then squeezed between them when they moved almost imperceptibly. She reached the top of the escalator mere seconds before the couple, who were rightfully upset and casting her disparaging looks as they stepped off and pointedly took the long way around the landing to avoid further interactions.

“I’m so sorry,” Bennu called after the pair, moving up behind Ocelot and wincing at the glowers they tossed back her way. “This is what I’m talking about,” she said to the assassin.

“No, it isn’t,” Ocelot shook her head. “You’re talking about everything except what you want to talk about. Because you’re afraid.” Her tone was serious, for once, as they moved onto the next train platform, watching as the light rail cars moved into view, slowing to a stop in front of them. “You’re afraid. Of me. Of what I do. And of what being around me for too long will turn you into.”

Ocelot fixed her gold eyes on her companion’s storm-cloud grey eyes and kept them there long enough for Bennu to see that she did, in fact, know what she was talking about. That had been exactly what she’d been trying to say since they’d landed in Indianapolis.

“Ocelot, I—” she started to say, but the assassin cut her off.

“It’s okay, Bennu. It’s for the best, really. I’m an assassin. I’m not going to stop being who I am any more than you could. And I think it should be pretty obvious by now that I’m no good with relationships of any kind. I’m better off on my own, and you’re better off with people you can reason with. This—” She gestured between the two of them with a wave of her hand. “This was never going to work out.”

Shrugging, Ocelot took a backward step onto the light rail, waving as the door closed in front of her, cutting the pair off and leaving Bennu on the platform as the cars accelerated away.

She watched the platform, and her best friend in the entire world receded away from her into the distance, wiping a single, solitary tear from her face as she did so, then turned away from the scene, holding onto the rail near the door for stability as the car accelerated coming out of a turn.

“Man, that was harsh,” a voice whispered in her direction. Her yellow eyes snapped toward the sound, landing on the face of a cat-like person sitting on one of the side benches. Big, feline eyes fixed on her standing by the door.

“Listening to that, were you?” Ocelot purred, raising an eyebrow.

“Kinda hard not to overhear,” the felinoid responded, whiskers twitching.

“Then I assume you also heard the part about me being an assassin?” Ocelot asked, turning to face the cat. A slender knife appeared in her hand, held behind her leg where nobody on the car could see it. She took a half step toward the stranger, then stopped when her phone began to play the tune People are Strange by The Doors. “Hold that thought.” She held up a finger at the cat person, disappearing her knife once more and retrieving her phone from some unknown location on her person. “Jeshi, what’s up?” she asked the device.

Jeshi was the owner of Lyrica Magica, an old church that had been converted into a club that hosted people of every stripe. And, while anyone was welcome, the club tended to be seen as more of a hangout for mages and anthropomorphs, people who had used magic to change themselves into elves, ogres, trolls, or any number of other beings, like the cat-person still looking at her from the other side of the train. Jeshi was also an immortal, and a powerful seer, with the ability to look into the future and see what it held. More often than not, he used his power to help steer humanity away from disastrous potential futures, but the cost of doing so often meant that much smaller disasters, both personal and otherwise, befell himself and those around him. This was why he tended to keep most people at arm’s length and not make too many personal connections.

“It’s time,” Jeshi said, his voice carrying an edge of uncertainty. Which, in itself, was reason enough for Ocelot to be concerned.

Jeshi was a generally calm, intelligent, and introspective person whose abilities didn’t reside merely in the metaphysical or financial areas of his life. He was a man who commanded so much respect, on so many levels, and from so many communities, that no sane person would ever dare start a fight in his club for fear of incurring his wrath. And the one time she’d seen someone bring a fight to his doorstep, Ocelot had watched him draw a sword from his cane and wade into a tsunami of summoned, slavering, tooth-and-claw bearing naga as if it were the most normal thing in the world. The man had stood in front of a flood of supernatural monsters from another dimension and not once had he wavered. Instead, he had forged ahead, fighting off one monster after another to ensure his employees and his clients were all safe and accounted for. 

And she owed him a favor. 

“I’m calling in my marker,” he added.

For starting a fight in his club.

“I’m on my way,” she responded. The line went dead and she returned her phone to whence it had come, before looking back at the feline form across from her. “Looks like you get to keep however many lives you’ve still got on file.”