Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 172

“I noticed that you landed a few hours ago, Duncan. I trust your flight went well.” commented Lady Pendreigh.

“Yes, thank you. My flight landed much earlier than they expected due to strong tailwinds.” he explained.

:Nii-san wouldn’t really try to pull anything over on her.: stated Ai.

:No, but I do think he was testing her.: I replied.

Lady Pendreigh had smiled slightly. An average person probably would’ve laughed at nii-san’s joke had they understood he always helped planes along with his magic. Unlike us, his affinity was for manipulating air, gas of any sort, really. In combat, he could be precise enough to separate gases enough to combust with a spark, which he’d casually provide.

:Still not a match for us.: teased Ai.

:Not together at least.: I agreed.

Lady Pendreigh politely told him “Funny how often that happens for you.”

Nii-san smiled and nodded before raising his hand to catch a waiter’s attention. In Italian, he said, “Please bring out the wine you’re keeping for me.” Then he explained in English “I deposited a wine here earlier as a gift for you. I hope you enjoy its flavor.”

:His Italian’s slightly better than his English.: mentioned Ai.

:He really needs to spend more time practicing with a native speaker for both.: I agreed. :If only mother would let him call us more…:

Ai gave an internal shrug as she said, :She won’t. We’re a bad influence in her eyes.:

I knew she was right, just as she knew I wished she wasn’t.

My sister then asked “Nii-san, how long are you going to be staying?”

“I’ll be staying until the end of the upcoming charity auction. Mother sent a donation.” he replied.

:Lady Pendreigh must have orchestrated his visit.: I suggested.

:Agreed. She probably told mother about what she planned on donating while also offering a business proposal.: replied Ai.

We wondered what Lady Pendreigh had planned. Too great an offer would have drawn mother here in person, but something important enough for a courtesy call from nii-san was on the table, something that would keep him here for weeks..

:You don’t suppose…: started Ai, thinking about how our attachment to Jarod had obviously been mentioned.

:He’s part of her plan. We’ll have to wait and see what comes next.: I finished for her.

“Sixty-one Château Latour?” I asked, surprised by nii-san’s choice.

Ai quickly said, :Mother’s choice probably.:

She rarely let anyone else around her make a decision.

“Can we open it, nii-san?” Ai asked, smiling at him.

“The wine is Lady Pendreigh’s, so that would be her choice, though I would wait until our meal arrives.” he replied curtly.

Giving a slight nod, she said, “Let’s wait then. I’m sure you’ll find the food here equally appealing, Duncan. I asked the finest chef I know to rearrange the menu not long ago. Unfortunately, he wasn’t willing to take over as the head chef.”

“Oh? I’m surprised anyone would refuse one of your offers.” he told her.

“She shrugged and explained “He works for James at Somerset Estate. You’ll be able to sample plenty of his excellent cooking during your stay.”

My sister and I smiled. Neither of us came close to Marco’s cooking, and we weren’t so bad ourselves. The man knew more variations on more dishes than anyone we knew. We had questioned him extensively over our stay and had him teach us numerous techniques. Sadly, he was even better than us in regard to making Japanese cuisine, though we did manage to teach him a couple recipes he seemed to like.

“I look forward to anything that earns your praise.” stated nii-san.

We nearly laughed, but managed to control ourselves. Nii-san surely had no notion of how his words could be purposefully misinterpreted.

“What are you going to have, Jarod?” asked Ai when the waiter returned.

“We’ll gladly order for you.” I assured him.

Jarod casually ordered in Italian as if he had always spoken the language. We couldn’t control our grins.

:His fluency has to put nii-san to shame.: I suggested.

Ai agreed, saying, :Not that he’d admit it to Jarod. Did you see the scowl?:

She only saw it through my eyes, so she knew I had.

“Trust me to order?” asked Lady Pendreigh to James.

“Please do. I can’t say I’ve ever studied Italian.” he admitted.

Nii-san quickly said, “Please order for me as well. I’ll trust your expertise.”

We nearly laughed again, knowing he probably didn’t want to demonstrate his poor speech again in front of Jarod. Lady Pendreigh politely nodded to him before ordering. She was, of course, perfectly fluent, being the one to instruct us.

“James, my sisters tell me that your business started just this year. I find your success to be quite impressive, considering the niche your company fills.” stated nii-san to strike up a conversation again.

“Well, we’re managing to stay afloat largely due to my secretary’s amazing organizational skills.” replied James. “Jarod, on the other hand, single-handedly designed an incredible electric engine. The original prototype is what gets me from place-to-place.”

“Yes, I read about his design. Most impressive.” begrudgingly admitted nii-san. “How do you manage to find clients for your company?”

“I originally relied heavily on my website and viva voce, but Aaliyah, my secretary, seems to use some of her own contacts as well.” explained James.

Smiling, nii-san said, “Your secretary sounds like an amazing woman. I should like to meet her someday.”

“You already have.” stated Lady Pendreigh.

My sister and I nearly giggled again as nii-san stared in shock at Lady Pendreigh.

Quickly standing, nii-san bowed and said, “Sumimasen. My sisters failed to mention this.”

:Bit extreme…: I muttered.

:Well, the assassin is rather well known to our family.: replied Ai.

:Figures nii-san blamed us.: I told her.

:We’ll make him pay later.: she teased.

“Don’t worry. She gladly tells everyone about working for me. She’s even listed on my website as my secretary.” explained James, looking a bit confused.

We grinned at nii-san as his gaze turned to us. He wasn’t amused.

:He’s going to lecture us again.: stated my sister and I. We didn’t really mind. He’d at least be paying attention to us.

As we waited for our food, nii-san continued ignoring us as well as Jarod as best as he could. We didn’t mind that either, since he couldn’t say anything about us holding Jarod’s hands under the table that way if he actually was paying attention. Nii-san could locate people through vibrations of the air if he concentrated much like we could find people through water. None of us could compare with Lady Pendreigh. Locating people seemed effortless for her, as did most things.

Our food was quite good, and nii-san seemed satisfied as well. The wine was quite delicious, but we were surprised how much Lady Pendreigh seemed to enjoy it.

“You must try this, James. It’s pretty rare.” I insisted.

“I’ll order you a cola if you wish, but you should at least take a sip.” suggested Lady Pendreigh.

He looked hesitant, but he went ahead and took a sip. Then he said, “No offense, but I think I’ll have that cola. Alcohol really isn’t something I’m comfortable drinking, being underage here.”

“Ah. Sorry. Sorry. I never thought to ask your age. My family is highly resistant to ill effects from alcohol, so we don’t often consider such things, though my sisters probably could have warned me.” explained nii-san, look at us sternly.

We commenced with akanbe, but he wasn’t amused.

Conversation continued with pleasantries at a little business discussed, largely between nii-san and James. Nii-san was ignoring us again, not that we were surprised. He could be incredibly stiff.

When dinner was finished, we all walked out to the parking lot. My sister and I rushed to nii-san’s sides as the cars were being fetched, clinging to his arms and smiling up at him.

“Nii-san, don’t you want to ride in Jarod’s car with us?” we asked.

He crossed his arms, and told us in Japanese “No. You two need to learn proper etiquette before I’ll be seen in public with you. I am surprised Lady Pendreigh admits to knowing you.”

“Well, we might be home late.” suggested Ai.

“We’ll have Jarod all to ourselves.” I added with a grin.

“Let’s go, Jarod!” we exclaimed, rushing to the mustang.

Nii-san sprinted to the front passenger seat of the car, despite the witnesses. I argued with him a little about who should get to sit by Jarod before sitting by my sister in the back. Jarod was amused, and we convinced nii-san to join us, even if he looked rigid with his arms crossed. We still won. He was going to get to know Jarod no matter what he wanted.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 171

“Looks like Jarod will be a bit still. I’m sure he won’t mind if we go ahead and start shopping.” suggested James, looking completely unashamed.

:We are partially to blame for not telling James the time in advance.: claimed Mai.

:He still should’ve taught Jarod to always dress up for a date of any kind with us. Having to inform him simply delayed things further.: I argued.

:He might’ve caught too many eyes before he met us had he known better.: Mai insisted.

James quickly assured us “I’m sure he just got a bit flustered when he was asked to dress up. You know what he’s comfortable wearing.”

Alma took James’ arm and started guiding him toward a store, so we didn’t bother replying.

:He’s so very tall.: I commented, staring upward at him through my sister’s eyes.

:Especially next to Lady Pendreigh, but they’re still cute together.: replied Mai with an internal giggle.

We weren’t going to say anything of the like to Lady Pendreigh. She was occasionally grumpy about her height. Both of us grinned the moment we stepped inside, looking around the store together. This place was worth the trip.

:I wonder what Jarod will like best on us.: pondered Mai.

Our thoughts had merged on that point, wishing we could read his mind at times. We were still learning how to deal with Jarod. He was handsome but had no sense of fashion. He was quick-witted enough to keep up against both of us, which was incredible for a human.

:The way he smiles!: exclaimed Mai.

:He’s always up to something, but the happiness is so genuine.: I agreed.

Lady Pendreigh had spoken with the staff on our behalf, and we actually liked a number of the dresses they brought out as well as some of the suits. The shoes were another matter. Several pairs were cute, but most were too dull.

:We do have a bit of a collection.: teased Mai.

:But we could always use more!: I insisted.

I felt her agreement in her mirth. We wondered at times how people managed without another half. One body wouldn’t have enough hands.

:Or eyes… feet… anything really.: agreed Mai.

Yet Jarod managed. He was incredibly productive and still would sit around talking with us about anything we wanted.

:The way he catches onto things is amazing.: I stated.

Giving an internal nod, Ai said, :I love how his eyes light up as he asks questions and makes comments.:

Jarod understood. He always understood. Unlike James who was idly staring around the room, Jarod always paid attention as well. We both grinned outwardly.

:He still can’t tell us apart.: teased Mai.

:James is a freak.: I stated.

We didn’t have a clue how he always knew, but there was no fooling him anymore. He didn’t even have to glance at us, and he’d know which spoke. Lady Pendreigh had personally analyzed our voices before. They were identical, but James still knew.

With Jarod still absent, we decided to start trying on our favorites of what we had seen. Lady Pendreigh actually decided to try one as well, much to our surprise. We smirked. Everything had to be tailored for her, since practically no one carried her size here. She did have much better luck in Japan when we all visited together, but there was rarely reason to see our mother.

We sighed, knowing she was going to cause trouble. Winning nii-san over was an imperative, but Jarod could manage.

:Couldn’t he?: we questioned, feeling somewhat worried.

“Hey, James. Mila told me you four were in here.” stated Jarod from the other room.

We grinned and hurried to finish changing again.

“Sorry. I should have thought to text you about it. Why are you wearing your glasses?” asked James.

:Jarod’s always wearing those things.: we commented to ourselves.

:They do look nice on him.: admitted Mai.

“That will not do.” stated Lady Pendreigh.

:The glasses?: I asked.

:She has no right to complain about mutlitasking.: Mai insisted.

“Sorry, but I don’t really have much occasion to dress up.” replied Jarod.

:Oh.: stated Mai.

:Of course.: I agreed.

We could guess how he was dressed. After checking each other over, we rushed out to save Jarod from more scrutiny.

Mai rolled her eyes as she said, :Black tennis shoes. Really?:

:Only Jarod…: I agreed. Then I posed and exclaimed “Jarod! Does this look weird?”

Mai posed as well, smiling at him as she said, “I look cute though, right?”

We could tell by the way he looked at us that he approved of both outfits. His smile was so wonderful.

“You both look great.” he assured us. “Sorry that I’m a bit late.”

Lady Pendreigh rolled her eyes as she said, “I’ll blame James, since the twins were already at fault twice today. Let’s get moving, shall we?”

We pouted but hurried to change. Neither of us doubted that she had been annoyed by the outfit she tried just as much as by Jarod’s current attire. After quickly stating what we were getting to the awaiting attendant, we hurried back out to Jarod.

“James, please take care of the bill for us.” ordered Lady Pendreigh before we were even finished.

He was looking at his phone in confusion when we stepped out, but we didn’t doubt he was worrying over something silly. Jarod, on the other hand, looked nervous under Lady Pendreigh’s scrutiny. She kept looking up at him as she typed something into her phone.

:Working, working, working.: complained Mai.

:She never stops.: I agreed.

There were times when we were younger where we actually did try to get her to take a break, but she never really gave into our pleas in that area. There would always be a laptop floating by or at least one of her phones with constant messages be exchanged. She made our ten to fourteen hour workdays look like shameless slacking.

:We do take several days off at a time when we want.: mentioned Mai as she took Jarod’s arm.

:Because we’re sane!: I exclaimed, winking as I took Jarod’s other arm.

When James returned to us, we took our purchases from him and then followed as Lady Pendreigh guided us to another shop.

“I’d recommend getting no less than a dozen suits ordered, Jarod. You’ll make a much finer impression at meetings if you dress the part of a millionaire instead of acting the part of a million dollar bum.” she insisted.

Jarod tensed.

“Please, Jarod.” begged Mai.

Staring up at him, I said, “For us. You’ll look incredible in a nice suit.”

“Don’t you want to dress up for us?” asked Mai.

“We really do love seeing you in nice clothing.” I insisted, letting my bags slide down my arm, so I could play with the button of his shirt.

Looking from us to James, Jarod asked “Mind helping me pick some stuff out, James?”

:Completely smooth in a fight…: started Mai.

:Scared of nice clothes.: I finished.

:Only Jarod.: we thought as we watched him retreat into the store with James already rambling about options.

Taking a seat, Lady Pendreigh said, “James has impeccable taste in clothes. They’ll be fine.”

We nodded. There was no arguing that James dressed well. He was like some artist’s rendering of what a perfect guy might look like, but he was too stuffy. Perfectly likeable.

:Incredibly likeable.: agreed Mai.

:But stuffy.: I complained.

As we waited, we listened in on the boys talking about suits and their current wealth. We also considered what married life would be like for Lady Pendreigh and James. We could easily picture them being perfectly formal even alone together, casually chatting about the weather even if their minds were on a dozen other things.

:More like a million for Lady Pendreigh.: argued Mai.

:James might try to worry about a million things at once. Hard to say.: I countered.

She didn’t argue. We didn’t know how they’d ever make any progress. Jarod, on the other hand, was playful. He wasn’t against showing his feelings even as he analyzed ours. We were going to have such fun with him, especially with him moving into the mansion soon.

When the boys finally returned to us, we told Jarod about how excited we were to see him in a suit, certain he’d look absolutely perfect. He didn’t argue as we followed the other two into the next building over. Once there, we thrust our bags at James, who instinctively took them without a word. Then we dragged Jarod off to find him something more fitting for today. With Jarod being a far more reasonable size than James, finding some things we liked off the rack wasn’t a problem at all.

“You have to try this one!” I insisted, grabbing a navy suit off a rack.

“No-no. He has to try this one.” insisted Mai, handing over a black suit with a scarlet shirt.

:Isn’t it ruby?: asked Mai.

:Maybe it’s the lighting, but I think scarlet.: I told her.

Mai took that shirt back from him as I took the navy suit away. Then I handed him a plum shirt. Well, Mai did, but I had spotted it when I looked at her. Jarod had such lovely green eyes, and the plum-colored shirt would bring them out. Knowing we were going with this ensemble, we used a spell to take off the tags and caught them as if they had happened to fall off.

“These shoes!” I exclaimed as we approached the dressing room. Mai let go of Jarod long enough to grab them for him.

“Get changed while we find you a better tie.” we insisted.

He gave us a half-smile before doing as he was told.

We had some fun looking through ties and imagining what they’d look like on them, but we went with a simple black one with dark grey designs across it. Time was running short. The moment Jarod stepped out, we smiled at him and hurried to put the tie on him.

“Perfect.” insisted Mai.

“I’ll trust your instincts. Lemme get changed back, and we can be off.” he told us.

We quickly grabbed him and said, “No!”

“You can’t change back, Jarod.” I told him.

“There’s no time.” explained Mai.

“And we couldn’t bear to see you abandon the clothes we picked so quickly.” I insisted.

Nodding, Mai said, “Let’s go pay.”

Luckily, he didn’t fight us. Jarod could be difficult in his own way at times. James and Lady Pendreigh had barely moved from where we had left them, so finding them was easy.

Smiling, I said, “And we present to you…”

“For your viewing pleasure.” stated Mai.

“Jarod, the lunch-ready-jerk-who-stole-our-shopping-day.” we finished together, pointing at him from each side.

James gave a thumbs up while Lady Pendreigh gave a small nod.

“I suppose that will do.” she stated before turning toward the door.

Jarod nervously looked over his outfit.

“Ignore her.” I told him, lifting his chin with a finger.

“You look wonderful!” exclaimed Mai, hugging his arm.

“We adore this outfit.” I added.

If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have forced him to buy it.

The three of us followed the other two to James’ car. Once there, we quickly insisted that our clothes would be wrinkled if we all squeezed in the back, so the three of us hurried to where Jarod had parked his Mustang. I let Mai sit up front, so I could pout in the back.

“So where are we going?” he asked.

“Migliore del Cielo.” stated Mai.

“Just take a right two lights down.” I told him. “I give far better directions, so I really should’ve sat up by you.”

“Oh, sister… Jarod likes me best, and we both know I give better directions.” she claimed.

“Jarod, tell her you like me best.” I begged. “You know it’s true!”

“As if I could fairly pick a favorite between minds like yours.” he teased.

:He really is remarkable.: stated Mai as she rubbed the sleeve of his jacket.

:We’ll have him. Lady Pendreigh will help us if needed.: I assured her.

When we arrived, Jarod tossed the keys to the valet, and we each took an arm. He never seemed to mind the stares of onlookers, probably something he picked up from James. With James around, a group was guaranteed attention. The manager knew us on sight and personally showed us to the table.

“Please remember to be on your best behavior.” instructed Lady Pendreigh as she stared into Jarod’s eyes. “This is important for you.”

He was quite obviously surprised with how he looked at us, but we just smiled, confident that he’d manage without foreknowledge of who was visiting.

“Nii-san!” we exclaimed, catching sight of our brother. We then ran to him and hugged his arms as he smiled.

Speaking in Japanese, he told us “I am glad to see you, but please behave yourselves. You two need to work on your manners.” Turning to Alma, he bowed and said, “Thank you for having me, Lady Pendreigh.”

James rose to greet him, shaking hands and saying, “I’m James Michael Somerset III.”

“I’m Duncan Daichi Drache. Thank you for taking care of my sisters. They speak highly of you.” replied our brother.

Jarod, who had risen as well, also shook his hand, saying, “I’m Jarod Davis. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

We sighed as our nii-san went stiff.

“I’ve heard of you as well.” he curtly stated.

We blamed our mother. Since Duncan spent most of his time with her, he picked up all sorts of terrible habits. Despite her, he had a good heart. We had hope for him yet.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 170

“You don’t have permission to enter the master’s domain. His vitals indicate that he needs more rest.” warned Mila.

Ai continued running up the stairs with me at her side.

“You have three seconds to comply.” stated Mila. “Preparing to execute.”

We stopped, staring around at the countless firearms that had sprang out from the walls. When were those installed?

“He’s supposed to take us shopping!” insisted Ai.

“I am aware.” replied Mila.

“Then let us through!” I demanded.

“You have been found in breach of contract and can be executed. I’m verifying the master’s wishes as we speak.” she informed us.

:Is this thing serious!?: exclaimed Ai.

Neither of us could believe what was happening. We remembered that we weren’t supposed to be up here without permission, of course, but this was far too extreme for James. We considered using spells to destroy the weapons, but we didn’t feel confident that there weren’t more we couldn’t see. The assassin built this infernal machine, and her reputation as a killer was impeccable.

Suddenly, the weapons returned into the wall. My sister and I stared around cautiously.

“Access granted. Please do not violate your agreement as tenants again in the future. You have been warned.” stated Mila.

I cautiously took a step forward. Nothing more happened, but neither of us could muster our earlier enthusiasm with our hearts still racing. We slowly walked up the stairs and down the hall. When Ai moved to knock, the door swung open, revealing James.

“Sorry, ladies, but I didn’t realize you’d be wanting to go quite this early.” he told us, smiling as if nothing was wrong.

“Why were we almost shot when we came, out of the goodness of our hearts, to wake you?” demanded Ai.

“We didn’t have any trouble when we came up here before.” I insisted.

“As I already explained, you two had permission from the Princess on your previous visit to the master’s room. This time, you didn’t.” replied Mila.

She had mentioned that when we raced to the stairs, but neither of us had asked for permission.

“I didn’t honestly know there were guns in the walls, and I never read your tenant agreements.” admitted James. “Sorry to have caused you two trouble, but you could’ve just told me when you wanted me up last night.”

We turned our heads away from him with a “Hmph.” He obviously wasn’t up for talking last night.

I told my sister :I’m glad he’s doing better now.:

:Me too.: she replied.

He didn’t have any idea how much we had worried about him.

“If you give me a few minutes to shower and dress, I’ll be ready shortly.” commented James.

“Where’s Jarod?” I asked.

“You promised us Jarod too.” insisted my sister.

Before he could reply, I asked “And he didn’t sleep here last night, so is he meeting us?”

“You didn’t lie to us, did you, James?” we inquired together.

“First off, I didn’t promise you Jarod. I had told you that I’id see if he wanted to tag along. I’ll give him a call and see if he’s ready after I finish freshening up.” claimed James.

:He looks nervous.: I stated.

:He’ll deliver.: replied Ai.

:I know, but do you think Jarod will be ready in time?: I asked.

:We’ll make him ready.: Ai assured me.

Nii-san was coming. Jarod needed to look his best. I sat on James’ bed as Ai paced for the both of us. Good impressions weren’t Jarod’s forte, and we could easily imagine how he would be dressed. I smiled as Ai imagined giving Jarod a new haircut, but we couldn’t really picture anything looking better on him.

James seemed to be taking his time, and we didn’t feel comfortable snooping around the room with Mila watching. We still didn’t understand how the others seemed perfectly fine with constant observation. Even Lady Pendreigh seemed fine with Mila, and she never would put us under constant surveillance.

:We can’t be certain.: stated Ai with a frown.

:True.: I admitted.

We had learned that underestimating the lengths to which Lady Pendreigh would go was always wreckless.

“Is he finished yet?” asked Ai.

“Obviously not.” stated Mila.

“You’re watching him, aren’t you.” I suggested.

“Jealous?” asked Mila.

“What!? Of course not.” Ai insisted.

“We’re not perverts like you.” I added.

“The Princess will be most amused by your point of view. She created me to serve the master’s every need.”

The emphasis she placed on “every” gave us chills. James stepped back into the room, so we rushed to his sides and grabbed his arms.

“He likes us better, and we’re taking him away!” we insisted.

“Oh? Are you going to try stealing him away on foot? I’ll catch you, evil twins. Besides, the master obviously prefers my company.” claimed Mila.

“Girls, please make some attempt to get along.” demanded James. “I really don’t want dragged into an argument, especially over something like this. I would never even attempt to choose a favorite when all of you have admirable merits and can, when you’re not arguing, be truly spectacular company.”

My sister and I both released him and turned our backs to him, annoyed that he’d put Mila on the same level as us. We both resisted the urge to throw something at the mirror when we noticed Mila sticking out her tongue at us.

“Really, I’m sorry everyone’s having a rough morning, but we will make the day better.” insisted James.

We grabbed him and started pulling him to the door. Jarod was waiting for us, and we didn’t want to be late. Mila appeared to be following us, her image hopping from mirror-to-mirror as if she were some ghost only visible through the mirrors. Suddenly, she seemed to jump onto James’ back, hugging him from behind. James laughed, but we were not amused.

“This is why we didn’t let that thing into our wing, James. We’re sure she spies on people, and she’s incredibly rude.” stated Ai.

“I really don’t understand how you can sleep with her watching you. Isn’t that creepy?” I asked.

“Master, Alma wants to know why you’re keeping her waiting.” announced Mila, all too cheerfully.

“What? Alma’s coming?” asked James.

:We forgot that Lady Pendreigh decided to join us!: I exclaimed.

“Run!” we exclaimed, pulling James along with us.

James couldn’t keep pace and tripped running down the stairs, but Ai easily caught him and got him moving again. Lady Pendreigh did not look amused, tapping her foot impatiently as we approached.

“Please don’t tell me that you’re already mad at me as well.” blurted James.

”Let me guess. The twins didn’t tell you when we were leaving.” stated Lady Pendreigh as she glared at us.

Realizing that we might hurt James if we kept squeezing him, we released our grip. Then we said, “Sorry, Lady Pendreigh.”, as we curtsied for her.

“Let’s be off then. I assume Jarod’s meeting us near the stores?” she asked.

“Sorry, but I told him that we’d pick him up.” replied James.

“We’re short enough on time as it is. Mila, please tell Jarod to meet us at the park by the shopping district, and have him dress up, since we’ll be dining out.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.

“Gladly, Alma, but could you convince your evil underlings not to violate their tenant agreement? The master was most distressed when I notified him.” claimed Mila.

Lady Pendreigh stopped to look back at James, and we shrank away.

James sighed and said, “Mila woke me up with a very loud alarm while holding the twins at gunpoint. Sorry. I’ll talk with her about it.”

“Please don’t. They violated their agreement, and I wouldn’t want your security to suffer for their sake.” replied Lady Pendreigh.

:I really hate that machine!: exclaimed Ai as she turned away from the mirror.

Mila was sticking out her tongue at us again.

There was nothing we could do about her, not with Lady Pendreigh on her side. We quietly followed into the DB5 and felt even less inclined to speak when we were inside. James’ exhaustion was plainly visible, and we worried over where his mind might be going. The world always seemed gloomier when James was unhappy.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 169

:I wish we could dress that quickly.: commented Mai.

:Agreed.: I replied.

Lady Pendreigh had a knack for changing in the blink of an eye, even to us.

“Well?” she demanded.

“You look wonderful.” we assured her.

“Those jeans fit you perfectly.” I insisted.

“What less would you expect from us?” asked Mai.

“I feel that I might tear them with a wrong move.” argued Lady Pendreigh.

:I doubt she’s ever torn something by accident.: I stated.

:She’s far more likely to burn something.: teased Mai.

We smiled as James walked into the room. Lady Pendreigh surely wouldn’t change again now, not with the way James was looking at her, his eyes wandering over her body.

“What?” she demanded, raising an eyebrow.

“Nothing. I’m just… umm… Are we not having a lesson today?” he mumbled.

:I wish they’d just kiss already.: I complained.

:You know they can’t.: stated Mai.

I felt her frustration, but Lady Pendreigh was far too important to have an easy engagement. Unlike us, she had control over a vast chunk of the world. We had nothing, since our brother would inherit everything.

Mai hurried up to James and took his arm, exclaiming “Of course!”

“Today, we’re going on an adventure!” I told him, taking his other arm.

We were certain James hadn’t even noticed us, but he didn’t jump, much to our disappointment.

“Well, I am glad you two are optimistic about this endeavor, but you better not let your guard down. Don’t expect me to come to your rescue if you get yourselves in a pinch.” claimed Lady Pendreigh.

Mai’s amusement poured through me as she said, :She can be so cute.:

:She’d save us in a heartbeat if anything truly dangerous appeared.: I agreed.

She’d kill us herself before she let someone else take us down.

:Probably find a way to raise us from the dead just to kill us again for pushing her into it.: teased Mai.

“What precisely are we doing?” asked James, looking worried.

“I’ll explain on the way. Come along.” ordered Lady Pendreigh as she walked by us toward the door.

James didn’t even try to move, staring after her.

“Lady Pendreigh sent us to buy her jeans this morning.” I informed him.

“She didn’t bother trying them on until a moment before you arrived.” added Mai.

:If she had, she’d have talked herself out of wearing them.: I laughed.

“You know that I can hear you quite well, don’t you, girls.” flatly stated Lady Pendreigh.

Mai and I agreed not to push her too far. We didn’t really want her to set anything on fire in a fit of embarrassment. We quickly came along as James hurried after her. When we stepped into the limo, Mai spotted an opened bottle of Riesling Scharzhofberger Auslese.

:Isn’t this year supposed to be particularly delicious?: she asked as she grabbed the bottle.

As far as we could remember, we were in for a treat with this one. Even if the wine somehow fell short of our expectations, James’ expression of concern did not. He actually seemed to believe in the danger.

A rich pineapple flavor came to my taste with the first sip. The spices they chose were paired well.

:Apricot too.: commented Mai.

Before our first glasses were even finished, Lady Pendreigh said, “Today, we’ll be going down into the sewers. I expect each of you to maintain a light, keep the sewage off your clothes, create breathable air around yourself, and defend yourself against any attackers. We very well could meet more than I expect with all the twists and turns beneath this city, so don’t stray too far away from me either.”

James still looked worried, which amused us greatly. Lady Pendreigh warning us not to wander off might as well have been a promise of protection.

She continued, saying, “There was a Slayer’s close descendent here when this city started growing rapidly. He took a great interest in its development, designed a number of buildings as well as the waterworks, and personally created hidden passages in everything built from his designs. I fear at least some fault lies with him regarding this city’s extraordinary number of supernatural creatures.”

Several minutes passed in delicious silence as we enjoyed our wine.

“So what are we doing?” asked James.

Lady Pendreigh looked surprised as she turned toward him and said, “I thought that was obvious. We’re hunting down dangerous creatures in the sewers. The type I expect to find this outing is best left as a surprise.”

:James isn’t looking too well.: I commented.

:Probably our fault. This is only his second time.: replied Mai.

Our thoughts unpleasantly went to Regina. We had failed all of them that day.

:We won’t fail again.: we promised one another.

No amount of drink could make us forget. No joke could fill our hearts with a joy capable of drowning out our sorrows. Still we drank and laughed and hoped that we could keep that promise. There were plenty of dangers in the world beyond us, but we would not idly let the monsters of this world win. Despite what our mother thought of us, we knew our duty.

Over an hour later, the car stopped and Lady Pendreigh said, “We’re here. Come along.”

Once out of the car, James walked at her side, towering over her. Despite his skills, he was obviously nervous. He kept walking even after she stopped. Lady Pendreigh pressed a brick in the wall, and the grating sound of old machines could be heard. Then the wall lowered in front of us, sliding into the ground. We followed behind them into the passage, and Lady Pendreigh pulled a lever to close it behind us.

:Do you think she researched this place or stumbled across it while scouring the city?: I asked.

Mai shrugged, but I watched her theories play through her mind as we followed the two through hidden passageways and sewers. James seemed to relax a little as we walked. He did plenty well with his spells, seeming to cast and maintain them with ease.

“Prepare yourselves. Ai and Mai take the lead.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.

We did as she instructed and diligently watched for an attack. She’d save us if we were in danger, but she wasn’t beyond letting us get injured if we were careless.

“Split up here. Each of you take a tunnel.” she ordered.

Just a couple steps down my tunnel, a bestial roar filled the tunnels. I moved my light spell ahead a bit and watched as a humanoid creature with the head of a bull charged me. I was shocked, having thought these creatures were already eradicated, but my sister was already engaged with one.

I grabbed the horns of mine and was impressed by the strength of the beast. I had to use spells to help restrain the creature.

“Turn around, you fool!” exclaimed Lady Pendreigh.

I glanced back to see James being approached by one holding a pipe like a weapon. He’d be fine. Another was coming toward me, so I didn’t have time to really examine the one I held. I guided water to slice their necks, beheading them both. The bodies soon took on an appearance similar to humans but closer to neanderthals.

:I think they’re closer to Homo habilis.: argued Mai.

Mai was easily handling hers as well. She was already on her third. I was still waiting to see if another would come my way. I didn’t wait long. Two more came my way.

:The arms aren’t long enough.: I told her.

“What are these, Alma?” demanded James.

“They’re trying to kill you. Does it matter? I promise they’d eat you if given a chance.” she assured him.

Light flashed through the tunnels as fire briefly filled them. Lady Pendreigh apparently had had enough, so I rushed over to her along with my sister.

“I thought these creatures were long extinct.” stated Mai.

I winked at her and said, “Looks like we were wrong.”

“How can you be so happy to see they’re alive when you were eagerly slaughtering them?” asked James. He seemed disturbed for some reason.

“That’s enough for today. Let’s be off.” stated Lady Pendreigh before taking the lead.

As she walked, she said, “They aren’t human, James. Given a chance, they’ll devour every human they can as well as any other meat they can get. Yes, they can take a human-like form, but they’re not as evolved as the werewolves or werelions you faced. Their minds are more similar to a beast’s than a man’s. My family protects humanity, not the creatures that prey on it. What would you have done if I wasn’t there to kill for you? Would you have dodged around until you were too worn out to fight? These creatures don’t tire as easily as you do. They would have killed you.”

He didn’t reply. Even from behind him, Mai and I could tell he was disturbed. We didn’t know anything we could say to calm him, so we stayed silent. When we arrived back at the limo, the silence continued. James’ anxiety was practically palpable, enough to put us on edge as well. What would we do if he shut down for another month? What would Lady Pendreigh do? Was the death of monsters so terrible for him? We remained awake long after arriving home, too worried over what we’d see in the morning. Had we left him scarred again?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 168

:Just end this quickly, so we can get on with our day.: ordered Ai.

:No problem.: I replied, taking position opposite of Portentia. We felt insulted that James wanted us to spar with someone who didn’t even understand the basics of fighting.

I thrust my staff at Portentia and was mildly surprised by how she knew to sidestep there. I was moving very slowly, but I hadn’t believed she would have even considered dodging from what I saw of her before.

Portentia’s staff came down at my head, so I deflected it, bringing the bottom of my staff up to hit her side.

:What!? When did she learn to do that?: demanded Ai as Portentia easily blocked my attack while counterattacking.

Portentia and I started moving faster and faster. I didn’t want to believe this was the same girl who had been so easily tossed around before. She was keeping up easily. Her legwork was even great, maintaining her balance to block my kick while also deflecting my staff. I kept trying and trying to get a good hit on her, but nothing was working. Ai’s stream of suggestions in my head weren’t of any use. The sound of our staves connecting over and over was so loud, but I couldn’t let up.

Pain… I made a mistake and was struck hard enough to throw me back against the wall. I’d make her pay for that. I hopped back to my feet and attacked her again, determined to get my revenge for that embarrassment. I finally got a hit in, but her arm seemed fine. I was certain I had broken it. What was happening? Blocking grew more and more difficult. I was wearing down, but she continued attacking, attacking, attacking… Where was an opening?

I worried that my rib might have cracked as I flew back again, but my positioning was better. I kicked off the wall to attack again. I couldn’t afford to lose here, not with Lady Pendreigh watching.

:Mai, don’t… you’re in pain. You can’t keep this up.: warned Ai.

:I can’t let her win.: I insisted.

I fought and fought, but swinging the staff was becoming a chore. I hadn’t been so tired for a long time. All of my concentration was focused on not getting hit again. I couldn’t even attack, and she was smiling. I’d do anything just to smack that smile off her face, but there was nothing I could do.

:Forfeit. You’re going to get hurt even worse.: ordered Ai.

:No. We can think of something.: I argued.

Ai saw her first. Aaliyah was here, clapping and supporting a staff between her arms. What was that? I disengaged as I turned to stare.

:I’m not certain, but it looks familiar.: replied Ai.

We were certain that was no ordinary weapon, not with her holding it. What did the assassin bringing a weapon here mean? The staff was beautiful to behold, like a glittering night sky.

“Why am I not surprised to find that you have that?” stated Lady Pendreigh.

:Of course, she knows.: complained Ai.

Aaliyah stared at Lady Pendreigh with her wide, blue eyes looking far too innocent.

My sister and I might get berated for failing to study some ancient text we were assigned years ago at this rate, but I couldn’t complain at the moment. I was thankful to be catching my breath. I felt like I might fall over if my grip on the staff slipped. How did Portentia get so strong?

“Are you really letting her have such a dangerous weapon?” demanded Lady Pendreigh.

Aaliyah grinned widely as she nodded in excitement and said, “Yep! This is for Portentia!”

I shuddered. The idea of Portentia, with her crazy ideas of being a superhero, wielding a powerful weapon was too much.

“May I know the reason?” asked Lady Pendreigh.

Aaliyah nodded enthusiastically.

“Well…?” questioned Lady Pendreigh expectantly.

“A superhero needs to be able to fight villains, and this will help!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

My sister and I groaned.

“OW!” exclaimed James. He was staring down at his hand which was held by Lady Pendreigh’s.

Lady Pendreigh actually looked distraught as she said, “I’m so, so sorry, james. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

:I can’t blame her. We’d feel bad if either of us hurt James.: I admitted.

:At least Jarod’s not here for this.: added Ai.

Neither of us wanted him to see my humiliation or Lady Pendreigh’s lapse. He always seemed to think of us as “just people” and was prone to pointing out everyone made mistakes. When did he make mistakes?

I watched as Aaliyah crossed the room and presented the staff to Portentia. There was palpable excitement exuding from Portentia as she caressed the staff.

“The writing along the shaft is in xiǎozhuàn, also known as ‘lesser seal script’. The Chinese poem describes the time between one day and the next and relates it to a time between life and death, as if time freezes in those moments. To my family, the staff is known as ‘Midnight’. One of my ancestors was toying with the wielder of that staff when he died. He meant to block the end with his palm, but a blade came up through his hand and into his skull. The wielder fought her way out of his camp and disappeared.” explained Lady Pendreigh.

With such a history behind the staff, I felt even more uncomfortable with Portentia having it. I could feel Ai’s anxiety matching my own.

After Portentia took hold, Aaliyah signed <Twist the grip away from you while firmly holding the lower half. Then slide the grip downward.>

Portentia followed the instruction, causing the upper portion to segment and slide over the bottom to reveal a large blade.

“After you master Midnight, you’ll be able to beat down armored villains!” exclaimed Aaliyah excitedly.

:Why must the assassin be encouraging this hobby?: complained Ai.

:I wish I knew.: I agreed.

Nodding, Portentia pushed the grip back up and twisted it back around.

“Stop!” exclaimed Aaliyah, waving her arms wildly. Then she grimaced as a blade shot out of the lower portion into Portentia’s abdomen.

Aaliyah poked the flat of the blade with her fingertip as she said, “You twisted too far.”

Portentia pulled the blade free and exclaimed “I just bought this shirt!”

:What? She was stabbed and is complaining about her cheap clothing?: I questioned.

:No way.: stated Ai in shock.

“That’s completely unfair.” I agreed, staring at Portentia’s stomach. There wasn’t even a mark. She seemed to be completely healed.

“I know, right? I’ve only worn this shirt once. I really need to learn how to sew sometime.” suggested Portentia as if we cared about her shirt.

Exasperated, Ai explained “Not that. My sister was referring to your healing. Your wound closed the instant the blade was out.”

Portentia shrugged as if that was nothing and twisted the grip to retract the bloody blade.

“You probably should at least clean the blade off.” suggested James.

“Our floor as well.” we insisted together, though my sister and I were feeling more disturbed by Portentia’s healing than by the floor. We had underestimated her. In a prolonged fight, we stood no chance, and she was far too skilled now to beat her quickly without magic.

Portentia sighed, twisted the blade back out, and said, “Yeah. You’re right. Got a mop and bucket?”

We rolled our eyes and summoned water from the other room to sweep away the mess. After cleaning the floor, we directed the water to the blade, not wanting such a weapon sullied despite its new owner.

My mouth fell open as the water broke free of our control.

“Well, that was somewhat unexpected.” stated Lady Pendreigh without sounding remotely surprised.

James was laughing.

Ai quickly took control of the filthy water and sent it to the drain, but my eyes were locked on the blade where Portentia’s blood seemed to be sucked inside.

“Look at the blade.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.

I glanced at her. She was speaking to James.

“Portentia’s blood is magical?” asked Ai.

“A fair assessment.” stated Lady Pendreigh.

“Are you sure the weapon isn’t just self-cleaning?” asked Portentia.

Alma’s flat stare spoke volumes to us as she told Portentia “You’ve surely noticed that your blood will simply disappear given time.”

Shrugging, Portentia said, “Well, yeah, but…” She paused for a moment. “Okay. I’ve got magic blood.”

Residual energy drifted over to the staff and disappeared as we watched.

“That’s really neat!” exclaimed James.

“Quite. I wonder what Midnight does with it.” pondered Lady Pendreigh. Looking over to Portentia, she said, “I doubt we’ll ever know, considering your employee will probably eat with the bloody thing now.”

“Aaliyah gave the staff to me, so I’m keeping it. You’d probably end up breaking it in a fit.” argued Portentia as she hugged the staff.

Aaliyah giggled, and Alma sighed. Even Lady Pendreigh didn’t want to cause a rift with the assassin, so stealing it was out.

“Just don’t spar with anyone using Midnight. You could seriously injure them.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.

“But I need to practice with it to get better!” argued Portentia.

:I am not fighting her again.: I stated.

:But sister… you wouldn’t want me injured, would you?: teased Ai.

“Whatever you’ve been doing on your own seems to be working well enough. The staff isn’t Mai’s best weapon, but holding your own against her is impressive considering your limited experience. You’ve improved immensely, so keep practicing on your own if you insist on using Midnight.” replied Lady Pendreigh.

Portentia stared at her, looking shocked.

:We’re going to be hearing about this later.: complained Ai.

:She’ll think we have been slacking in our studies now.: I agreed.

Looking around at everyone, Lady Pendreigh said, “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would like some lunch.” Then she turned and left the room.

Aaliyah raised her arms up at James, who casually lifted her and followed after Lady Pendreigh.

My sister and I watched the others leave and then looked to one another. None of this had gone as we expected when we had agreed to spar, but we did learn from it.

:James is taking us shopping, so we didn’t completely lose out.: I suggested.

:Jarod will be coming as well.: agreed Ai.

Things could be worse.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 167

I followed the motions demonstrated on the screen, striking the dummy with my staff. The next form appeared instantly, so I followed. Over and over I maneuvered the staff and struck my target. When Mila’s avatar dropped her staff, I did as well without a thought.

<You have company.  James is at the door.> she signed.

I nodded and turned. The door opened for me, revealing James, still in his workout clothes. He looked at me briefly, and then his eyes seemed to wander across my room.

“Hey. What’s all this?” he asked.

“Nothing, really. I’ve just been doing some training. What’s up?” I replied, wondering what was bothering him. He seemed… off.

“Well, I haven’t been seeing you around, and Marco mentioned that you never show up for food. Are you doing alright?” he asked, staring into my eyes.

I shrugged and said, “Yeah. I’m fine. I’ve just been wanting to get better with a staff, so I’ve been training. Mila showed me this sweet program that teaches all kinds of stuff in the employee utilities.”

“So nothing’s wrong? You haven’t been having any problems with anyone here, right?” he asked, looking serious.

“Oh, master. Portentia hasn’t had time to have problems. Between jobs and her morning practices, Portentia’s trained for over one hundred and forty hours.” explained Mila, signing to me from left of the door where her avatar had moved.

James looked shocked, looking past my shoulder and then staring at me. He then said, “I must admit that’s a bit much to wrap my head around. Care to show me how you’ve progressed?”

I flipped a nearby staff up at him and smiled as I took position with my own.

James deftly caught the staff but tossed it aside. “I know you have me beat.” he admitted. “I was thinking of seeing if Ai or Mai is up for giving you a challenge.”

I frowned. I had been excited about the program for training because I could avoid the twins. I told James “I really don’t think they like me too much.”

Looking surprised, he said, “I know the twins can be a handful, but they really are great girls. I doubt they’ll mind sparring a bit.”

I hesitated for a bit, remembering how I had been tossed around last time I faced them. I really didn’t want to be embarrassed like that again. On the other hand, I had learned so much this past week that maybe… Looking at James, I said, “Let’s do it.”

James stepped into the room and said something I missed, but the mirror I had been using for practice lit up to show Ai and Mai sitting in a room fit for villains.

“James, where are you?” asked one with the other staring over her shoulder.

“…was wondering if one of you would be up for sparring with Portentia a bit. She’s been learning how to fight with a staff, and I really can’t help her at all anymore.” he explained.

I couldn’t get a good angle to see both James and the screen, so I was going to be missing parts of the conversation. Oh! Mila was transcribing again, this time in the top corner. I smiled, thankful for the help.

“What’ll you do for us?” they asked, grinning wickedly.

Evil often tried to hide its nature but not these two. They didn’t even pretend.

“What do you want?’ asked James warily.

The two took a few seconds to consider before one of them said, “You haven’t taken us shopping for a while. Seems like you still owe us some clothes from that time we saved you at Aaliyah’s birthday party.”

When was Aaliyah’s party? How did James end up needing saved by these two? Unfortunately, he couldn’t really turn them down if he was indebted. He was far too much of a good person.

“Oh. Right. Sorry about that. If you want, I’ll even see if Jarod wants to tag along.” suggested James.

Backup! Good thinking. Maybe Jarod had invented something that could take the twins down.

The girls actually looked shocked as one of them asked “You think Jarod would want to shop?”

“That does sound like fun.” claimed the other with a surprisingly friendly grin to her sister.

“Agreed!” they exclaimed together, seeming to be all smiles and cheer now.

What was their interest with Jarod? Did they have some nefarious way to blackmail him?

“We’ll meet you in your gym shortly.” stated James.

After the twins nodded, the screen went back to its mirror-like reflection.

I followed James out of my room. I was about to face one of the villainous twins again in combat and wasn’t entirely certain of myself. Given enough time, I could probably wear one down, but I would have needed a very long time before, given that I was the only one being tossed. I knew I was better now, but could I…

I caught James as he stumbled back, but he immediately became posed like he was ready for a fight.

Looking around I asked “What’s wrong?” I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

He remained tense, but his breathing was off… strained. Then tension seemed to flow out of him. “Sorry.” he told me. “I never noticed this painting before.” He nodded toward a picture but looked away from it quickly.

The painting was of a frightened man in the woods. Human-like shadows appeared among the trees. I couldn’t say the painting was one of my favorites here, but I didn’t understand why James seemed… scared.

He started walking, but he was shivering.

“James, what’s wrong?” I asked, grabbing his shoulder and spinning him toward me.

“I once met Death’s daughter, and even a portrayal of her sends me back to the moment.” he claimed.

I stared at him for a moment, trying to decide if he was serious. He looked serious, but he couldn’t be. “Oh, please.” I told him as I laughed. “You really had me going there for a moment.”

“I’m not joking.” he claimed, still looking completely serious.

My laughter died as I saw his look. I quickly assured him “That’s just an old wives’ tale. Death’s daughter isn’t real.” I had heard the stories a few times; none of them were believable.

“I wish that were true, though she saved my life. Just by lifting her scythe, she made an entire pride of werelions disappear.” he explained.

He looked so earnest that I felt bad for laughing. He had to be making a joke, didn’t he?

“What do you mean by ‘disappear’?” I asked as I thought through what he said. Then I quickly told him “If she saved your life, then what’s the problem?”

Werelions were prone to eat others and difficult to stop, so I didn’t doubt they were out to get him. Wouldn’t Death’s daughter be a hero to him?

After taking a deep breath, he said, “The werelions had just killed a close friend of mine and were charging at me. Then she appeared and they all vanished without a trace. I was far too scared at the time to even move, but the area was searched afterwards. The twins didn’t see them run. They were just gone. I could barely even sleep for over a month after I saw her, and I never want to see her again. Reaper images don’t do her horrific appearance justice, but they bring back the memories all too well.”

Death’s daughter sounded impressive, but I couldn’t really relate to not sleeping for a month being a bad thing too well when I never had slept. I knew people got tired and looked ragged without sleep. I really did. I just… What was being scared like that even like? I sorta understood the idea of nightmares, but I couldn’t have them. James still looked frightened though, and I felt bad for laughing. Even worse, I had seen a similar look before.

“I knew a vampire who claimed to have seen her once. I always thought he was pulling my leg. I’ll have to apologize if I ever see him again. I… I’m really sorry, James.” I told him, unable to really explain how bad I felt for not believing him… for not believing Thomas.

Not knowing what else to do, I hugged him until the shivering stopped. When I let go, I saw tears had been streaming down his face, making me feel even worse. I quickly wiped them away with my sleeve. What could do this to James?

After several seconds more, he looked at me and said, “Let’s hurry. The twins aren’t known for patience.” Then he started to jog.

When we arrived, I saw that both girls had changed. They looked as identical as always, making telling them apart impossible. James always seemed to know, but I couldn’t even guess how. Maybe the twins just went with whatever he said? Alma was there too. I couldn’t make out what she was telling James with how close she was standing to him.

One of the twins approached me, carrying two staves. Seeing me look, she said, “Just drop that by the door. We’ll both use one of these.”

I knew better than to trust a weapon granted to me by an enemy, but my wooden staff couldn’t hold up to metal. I had gone through so many just versus a test dummy. Accepting the staff, I was surprised by how light it felt.

James had turned to us and now said, “That seems a little unfair to me. The weight will be totally different.

I winked and assured him “It’s fine. I’m a bit stronger than I look.” Then I demonstrated, twirling the staff around my body. I was looking forward to seeing how well this held up.

The twin and I took our positions in the center of the gym and slowly started to test one another. As I picked up speed, she matched with ease until neither of us was holding back. To my surprise, I was able to anticipate her movements. She seemed far less intimidating now. Eventually, she even made a mistake, allowing me to smack her full force. She flew backward farther than I would’ve expected, smacking against the wall. She flipped back to her feet with ease, undaunted as she charged at me. I smiled. I could win this. I knew I could. I screwed up a couple times as we continued to fight. My wrist broke for a moment at one point, but she was slowing down. My smile grew as she made more and more mistakes. I had her! If I kept practicing, beating her could become easy! I stopped the staff mid-swing as my opponent looked away.

Following her gaze, I saw little Aaliyah clapping from the doorway. A black staff with silver caps rested against her, between her arms. The staff was beautiful with glittering, Asian writing that seemed composed of stars. As the staff moved, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The ends reminded me of suns with rays streaming onto the shaft. The grip was silver as well but was shaped like comets heading in opposite directions with their tails wrapping together. Was this really for me?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 166

I watched James all the way home after my fight with that mechanized monster. He seemed fine. I was worried that he might be injured, but I didn’t even see a scratch. I had gotten to him in time. I was even more certain when he immediately joined the others in Ancient Tribes of Earth after entering the mansion. I joined them too, since the game was fun.

My character still seemed slow, but I was certain she’d get faster. Everyone in the world grew as they spent time there. If my character possessed my superpowers, I could become an unstoppable savior for them as well. The world was amazingly detailed. I still had trouble believing Aaliyah made this. She was so tiny and cute, not someone I’d expect to be this clever. If she were to turn to villainy, would I even suspect her?

James surprised me, being the first to leave. I considered following him, but I wanted to be the first one to get to Jarod when he returned home. In my short time here, I learned that Jarod was usually in the garage building things. If anyone here could make gizmos for me, he certainly could. Maybe I could have a laser that shot from my wrist to cut through that metal armor or a shock device that could fry circuits!

“Mila, you’ll tell me when Jarod arrives, won’t you?” I asked

“Gladly.” she assured me.

I needed something. I could punch really hard, but I didn’t even dent that suit. I had no chance of lifting it either, so I couldn’t tip it over. I could try wrapping a cable or something around the suit, but I didn’t think I could really do that fast enough. A net might work, but it’d have to be really strong.

I continued brainstorming as I played, but I didn’t come up with anything that I thought would work. I had defeated hundreds of villains in my life, perhaps over a thousand, but I never fought something like this. I didn’t have any way to keep the guy from just flying away.

Text appeared on my screen, saying, “He’s here.”

“Thank you! Please log me out.” I told her.

“What’s the rush?” inquired Alma.

“I need to speak to Jarod about something.” I told her, hoping she wouldn’t stop me.

Alma made me feel weak, vulnerable. She probably could’ve tore that suit apart with her bare hands, but she probably would have just watched. Luckily, she didn’t bother getting up now.

I ran to the entrance by the garage. Jarod had a fancy car, so he’d be parking and coming in this way. I waited. He wasn’t here. Did he go to work on something? I started to pace.

“Mila…” I started.

The door opened, and Jarod looked surprised to see me. I quickly told him everything about my fight, about that mechanical suit.

He nodded and asked “Where’s James?”

“In his office.” replied Mila.

“C-can we go up there?” I asked. Mila had warned me that the upper floors were out of bounds, being James’ personal living quarters. I had been here so little time, but this place felt like home to me. I didn’t want to be banished.

“Permission granted.” she told me.

Jarod started to jog. Maybe he was running? I held back to keep pace with him. We were going to the third floor! I had only been here once, briefly to sign paperwork after being hired. The office was like something out of a movie.

I stared in shock for a moment. The office was completely different. James appeared to be sitting on a beach, typing away on air while staring at nothing.

James had noticed us while I was staring around. What did he say? I missed it. Oh! There were words floating behind James. Mila was transcribing for me.

“Yeah. Portentia caught me just after I entered the house and mentioned you two were there. i can’t believe Maxine’s finished her suit already. I’m getting close, but mine isn’t ready yet. I wish I had a clue what she was using to power the thing. I’ve made some progress recreating the storage used in the designs I have, but I still haven’t figured out precisely what materials were used. I’m going to give up and ask Aaliyah for help now. If she’ll create a power source similar to what’s inside Mila for me, I’ll have my suit running in no time.” stated Jarod.

“You’re building a suit too? Are you planning on helping me bring criminals to justice?” I asked. Maxine… I should have known. I went onto say, “I really could use a sidekick, but I don’t think we should get a kid involved.”

“I’m just wanting her help to finish my suit, not to fight. You’ve played Ancient Tribes of Earth on the system Aaliyah designed. She’s brilliant.” he explained.

I shrugged. I couldn’t deny the girl was crazy smart.

“You already guessed that she made your suit, right? It’s no different, really.” insisted James.

He did have a point, and I loved my suit. I really loved my suit.

“Wait a moment. Did you say Maxine finished her suit a bit ago?” asked James.

He missed that!?

“Huh?” asked Jarod, looking confused. “Yeah. Maxine.”

“Was there a second robbery? The one we were at had some guy in a suit. He had at least a foot on me.” insisted James.

Well, the suit did look like a guy.

Shaking his head, Jarod said, “No, that was Maxine. Didn’t you notice the double ‘M’ monogram on the chest?”

I nodded. I had told him about it.

“That stands for ‘Marvelous Max’. She pretends to be a guy while out causing trouble. This isn’t a coincidence, James. I have a folder of evidence showing that Maxine is always in the same city that Marvelous Max hits.” insisted Jarod.

Evidence… was he a part-time investigator? What? How did he know about Marvelous Max if he didn’t know she finished the suit? I needed to get more out of him.

“Why not give the evidence to the police and let them arrest her then?” asked James.

Oh. I guess they could just arrest her.

“Yeah, sure. I give them a bunch of circumstantial evidence, they get a warrant, and then they have a lawsuit against them after finding nothing. Maxine’s smart. She’s really smart. There’s no way she’ll have any incriminating evidence somewhere they could find. If not for her ego, I’d have never suspected she was in that suit. The name, Marvelous Max, pops up too much in relation to that suit for it not to be her.” explained Jarod.

Maybe he had just been piecing things together? I frowned, imagining what would happen to a human facing that suit. There might not have been nearby witnesses before. I needed to get rid of that thing before the police could move in on her.

I pretty much jumped when Aaliyah walked by me. The tiny girl had glasses on and a large, pink backpack. Well, the backpack wasn’t that large, it just looked large on her. What was she doing here? I wanted to scoop her up, hug her, and explain that we had important matters to discuss.

Oops. I missed something. Let’s see…

“…a large number of very valuable, historical artifacts were discovered in a vault on this property after your acquisition of it. Many are decorating the house, but most are still in storage. They’ve all been authenticated and catalogued for insurance purposes. Pretty cool, huh?” asked Aaliyah.

I wished I had started reading from the beginning, but the text only appeared for a short time before vanishing to keep up with the conversation.

“Mother will really want to see this vault if she finds out. Care to show us before we let Maxine auction anything off?” asked James.

“What? Why would Maxine be auctioning something?” I demanded. We had just been discussing her criminal activities!

Jarod’s hand waved in front of my face, so I looked at him. He quickly explained what I had missed as well as repeating the last of it.

“You can’t seriously be thinking of helping her!” I protested.

Aaliyah had a stern expression when she looked up at me and said, “The charity is for a children’s hospital, not for Maxine’s pockets. I’ll be donating an American Longrifle I acquired a while back, and Alma’s donating some old clothes. The evil twins haven’t decided yet.”

“How can we trust anything she’s doing? She’s a criminal! This could be a setup to fund her criminal pastimes!” I insisted.

“I really wouldn’t trust her with my money or belongings. She might just be gathering things for a heist.” added Jarod.

James didn’t look convinced as he stood and followed Aaliyah out of the room. Jarod and I came along, continuing our attempts to make him see reason, but I didn’t think we were getting anywhere.

At the bottom of the stairs, a wall moved, revealing a passage. I stopped my arguing as I received a flashlight. Darkness awaited ahead. I followed the others through countless twists and turns. When I thought we were lost deep in the earth, Aaliyah would fiddle with a wall and reveal another passage. I was usually good at finding my way around, but I didn’t feel confident about escaping from here. If for no other reason, I didn’t know how to open the walls. The thick stone looked quite formidable. Would I be able to break through eventually?

After numerous hidden doors, we came to a large opening with a very large, round door. Three combination locks formed a large triangle. Aaliyah stretched to reach two of the locks, twisting them round and round. James had to lift her for the third. A large hole appeared in the center of the triangle. Aaliyah wiggled free from James, pulled off her backpack, and started pulling odd bits of metal from it. She assembled them together like some sort of puzzle, forming a round handle with a twisted thingy coming off from it.

“Yes, boss-man, sir, entering your vault required a quest to attain the key shards.” she announced with a large grin.

I could see Jarod laughing, but I was still confused. Who would have a vault like this? James didn’t seem to realize this was here, so how did the little girl know?

James lifted the unwieldy thing and twisted it into the hole. He seemed to be getting instructions from Aaliyah on what to do, twisting it back and forth more as she instructed. Then Jarod and James swung the enormous door open together.

Bright light streamed out from the room beyond. Stone shelves were laden with all sorts of things. I followed the others inside and wondered at what I was seeing. Most everything in here looked very old. There were numerous vases, clothes from other eras, paintings, carvings, weapons, jewelry, and more… so much more. How wealthy was James? I felt like he’d need me here to keep him safe if dangerous criminals ever found out about the riches here.

“You should come in my lab sometime and see what I’ve been building.” suggested Jarod.

I nodded and said, “I could use some gizmos. I couldn’t even dent that suit.”

Jarod smiled and said, “Well, I might be able to help some. You’d have to be really careful with anything that could penetrate that armor. I imagine she reinforced it similar to what I did.”

“When will you be finished with it? I don’t mind being a guinea pig if you want someone indestructible to test it.” I suggested.

“No idea. I’m having trouble coming up with a safe power source that’ll be strong enough. Current batteries don’t have enough energy density for my purposes.” he explained. Then he turned to Aaliyah and said, “I could really use your help.”

Shaking her head, she said something to him, but I couldn’t see what. His disappointment said enough. I stopped when she suddenly turned around.

“You, on the other hand, could use a weapon. Learn to use a staff, and I’ll give you something special.” she claimed, grinning widely.

I believed her. I grabbed James’ shoulder and begged “Please, teach me.”

“I can teach you the basics, but I’m not really that fantastic. I’ll help you convince Ai and Mai to help after I teach you what I can.” he replied.

I frowned, not liking the idea of learning from those two. I knew they were skilled, having experienced their skill firsthand. I could handle it. I was picturing staves that shot rockets, acted like tasers, and other wonderful things. What type of staff would she design for a superhero? I couldn’t wait to see!