Once upon a time, the universe had been his.
Some worlds had spread rumors that he was a lost prince from a long line of murdered kings; others claimed he was a punished, mortal god forced to roam space alone. The stories were never true, but he liked them all the same. He liked being infamous.
Aurora had never asked for his name. He remembered holding her hand to his lips and hearing her whisper, “I’ve heard you’re a prince. Is that why you want a princess?” She’d smiled, closed-lipped and lovely, her eyes dark against the moonlight of the meadow.
“I’m no prince,” he’d answered with his own smile. “But I am a hunter of sorts.”
“Hunter,” she’d said, pulling him close. “A hunter of my heart, then.” She’d kissed him, careful and knowing, as if she held more secrets than he’d dared to dream. As if she were willing to give them all to him, if he chose to ask.
After, when the warlocks were far behind him and all the familiar worlds long gone, he’d hidden himself as best he could, disguising his hideousness in different forms. At times he was an old man, or a child, or a quiet widow.
He eventually stopped hearing the stories of the infamous space outlaw. The stories themselves were now forbidden.
He’d stopped at a rundown station on the edge of the furthest galaxy, knowing that he had no choice but keep moving. Tucked into the dark folds of his coat, he’d sat at the bar and nursed his drink. On the video screens, warrants for his arrest flashed like dying stars.
“You got a name?” someone had growled at him from behind.
He’d held his glass between two fingers.
Dying stars. Aurora.
“Hunter,” he’d whispered, and that was the moment he decided to disappear for good.
“What is that?”
He turned away from the window and cocked an eyebrow. Whether Bee caught it or not, he wasn’t sure; his animal form was difficult to maneuver on this planet, strange as it was.
She wandered over to him and clucked her tongue. “Well, aren’t you just the little artist,” she said, poking her finger at the constellation designs he’d traced into the condensation on the glass. “Are those...star patterns? Is it, like, Cancer or something? The crab-thing? I’m not big on astronomy. Or astrology. I’m a Capricorn, by the way—whatever the hell that is. It’s Latin for ‘constantly unemployed.’”
He frowned. They’d completed a half dozen jobs in the last month, and Bee was finally becoming adept at handling her sword. But too many trips into Fish Bowl Space were dangerous, and he could feel the toll they were taking on his magic abilities. He couldn’t continue to use his powers to help a human Earthling, even someone as kind-hearted as Bee.
“Hey, don’t look so down, Puppycat. You don’t always have to do your flashy, creepy thing with the weird stationary every time I make some lameass comment about my lameass life. I’m not so bad off.” She scratched her fingers behind his ears. “I’ve got you, and you’re an awesome roommate.”
He wasn’t sure what she meant; he’d never heard that term before coming to Earth. But her gentle touch and contented smile told him it was a good thing.
Bee’s eyes suddenly narrowed. “Wait…” Her hand swept around his neck and along his collar, where she cupped the small gold tag in place of the original bell. “When did you get this? I never bought you an ID.” She squinted down at the lettering.
“Hunter,” she read softly. “You have a name?”
He raised his chin, his tail flicking to one side.
“Puppycat, you actually have a name! This is awesome! Now I don’t have to feel all weird about wanting to call you Sebastian, or Hubert.” She picked him up and held him at arms length, beaming at him.
“Hunter,” Bee said again, reverently. “It works. It really does.”
Strange how hearing her say the name didn’t hurt nearly as much as he’d expected.
What would happen to Bee once he moved on? Would she remember him? Would the warlocks trace him back to Earth and try to fill her head with lies? He wondered too much about things he couldn’t control. It was one of his worst weaknesses.
He heard a sharp knock at the door, which startled Bee. She blinked owlishly at the door.
“Coming,” she called. Then, under her breath, “Wouldn’t it be super great if it were free pizza?”
He stayed on the couch and watched her scurry off. The door creaked open when she answered, one hand fidgeting behind her back.
“Hey, Deckard, what’s up?” she asked. Her voice sounded higher, softer.
“Nothing, I was just—I had some leftover tuna and thought maybe, uh, your cat would want it?”
“Oh! I, um, have no idea if Puppycat eats tuna, but what the hell, sure! Do you—want to come in?”
He could see a pair of feet on the other side of the doorway shuffle back and forth, and a dark head peered just over Bee’s head. The man—Deckard—had a blush very similar to Bee’s. “I really would, I swear, but I’m late to work. Got caught up in my game and lost track of time.”
Bee kicked her foot back behind her ankle, fingers still folding in and out of a loose fist. “Which game?”
“Eternal Souls 4.” Deckard laughed as if he were embarrassed.
“I love Eternal Souls 4,” Bee replied. “It’s, like, way better than the last three combined, y’know?”
He laughed again, only this time the sound was less self-conscious. “Yeah, yeah, exactly! The graphics this time around are crazy detailed.” Deckard cleared his throat. “I’m off tomorrow. You should...come over and play a game. I haven’t mastered the fifth level world yet, maybe you could show me?”
“I’m not even through the third world yet,” Bee said. Her hand twisted into the back of her skirt.
Deckard’s feet stopped shuffling. “Oh. Sure. It’s pretty hard and everything.”
“You’d just have to sit there and watch me be a complete loser.”
“Sure.” Deckard took a step back.
Humans, it seemed, were very inept at communication. It made very little sense, given how simple their language was. He hopped off the couch and trotted over to the front door, insinuating himself between Bee’s feet.
Deckard said, “Oh, hi there, Puppycat!”
He glanced up, taking in Deckard’s pink flush and heightened pulse. The man was obviously nervous.
“His name’s Hunter!” Bee said. “It says so on his collar.”
“Hunter, huh?” Deckard crouched down and smiled at him. “D’you like it here, Hunter?”
The answer to that question changed daily. But as humans were easily satisfied, a simple rub of his head against Deckard’s leg would suffice.
“Wow, he likes me!”
Bee laughed a bit breathlessly. “Yeah, go figure. Sometimes he couldn’t care less that I’m in the room.”
“I’m pretty good with animals. My aunt has these two Labs, they adore me. They’re always trying to crawl in my lap.”
“Your lap’s probably a nice place,” Bee said before making a strange choking sound. He looked up and found Deckard biting his lip.
“Anyway, I’m late.” He handed her a blue container. “I hope Hunter enjoys the tuna. Catch you later?”
Bee made another strangled sound as she took the container from him, their hands brushing. Deckard blinked quickly, then turned back down the hallway.
“Deckard!” Bee suddenly called.
He paused, glancing over his shoulder.
“Tomorrow is good,” she said in a rush. “For the—thing. Game. Thing.”
Deckard’s eyes flared, along with his blush. “Awesome, cool, yeah, that’s—cool. I’ll see you then.” He flailed his hand in an awkward wave, stumbling back over his feet.
Bee closed the door with a loud bang. She leaned back against it and moaned.
“Ohmygod, what am I even doing,” she muttered. “This is so dumb. So dumb.” She looked down at him. “I guess you know I don’t actually own a game system, right?”
He didn’t know. But he had a feeling this was important. And what’s more, he cared about the shiny gleam in her eyes, and the way her hand shook slightly as she set the blue container down on the carpet in front of him.
“What do you say to an early dinner tonight?” she said. “I’d break out the fancy candles, but I don’t have any. My house is sorely lacking in the fancy candle department.”
He sniffed the fish-smelling food in front of him. As he took a hesitant bite, Bee went into the kitchen, whistling an off-key tune to herself.
She was happy. And he was pleased that she was happy.
Maybe that would be enough for him for a while. Maybe the universe could simply exist here, in this apartment building, amongst the lives of these simple humans, being a part of their happiness.
It was far more than a banished, cursed monster deserved.
“You like it?” Bee called. She stuck her head out from the kitchen.
He buried his face in the fish and swished his tail.
“Nice. Deckard’s food is nice. He’s nice. D’you think he’s nice?”
He glanced up and made a purring sound.
Bee smiled. “Me, too.”
She brought her plate of food into the living room to sit on the carpet with him, and they ate in companionable silence. When he’d licked the container clean, he allowed himself to curl up at Bee’s hip, full and content.
He felt a hand stroke over his head.
“You’re pretty nice, too, Hunter,” she whispered.
Hunter smiled to himself as he drifted off to sleep.