Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 179

“When you say ‘tenants’, do you mean these creatures actually pay rent?” asked James.

The master was on the edge of the forest. Just a few steps, and I would be unable to detect him. I didn’t understand the nature of the field around that place, but there was something which blocked me. Would his phone work in there?

“The fey? Not in money, but they do tend the forest for you.” she replied.

:Fey still survive?: I asked.

:You’ve seen them.: she replied.

:I have them labeled as ‘unclassified life forms’, given the variety of creatures I’ve caught lurking at the edge of the forest. The one disappears from all sensors at whim.: I explained.

:Wow! That’s amazing!: she exclaimed.

:You say they’re tenants, but I don’t have any record of them as tenants.: I told her.

:Oh! You’re looking through the house records. The forest records aren’t in the same place.: she replied.

:Oh? Where are they then?: I asked.

:You know that storage area forty feet north of the ballroom’s first sublevel? In there.: she replied, sending me a marker on the mansion’s layout.

:Princess, that section is filled with paper files that you had said I don’t need to worry about.: I stated, trying to express my distress in my tone.

:Why would you have to worry?: she inquired.

:Having incomplete data might cause me to err and inconvenience the master!: I exclaimed, knowing my concerns to be perfectly legitimate.

:Hmm… Maybe you should start scanning those then. They’re pretty old and might keep better digitally.: she admitted, sounding as if she were actually needing to consider the idea.

I sighed and said, :You already have them scanned, don’t you.:

:I do!? That’s awesome! I guess I could share that with you then!: she told me, sending the files.

:I still don’t understand why you kept these from me.: I stated. The most unusual part of the paperwork was that the tenant agreements all spoke of ‘service to the land’ as the sole means of payment, but even that was considered in Emma’s agreement once she became the official groundskeeper. :You didn’t want me speaking to the master about the fey, did you. Why not just inform me not to speak with him about them then?:

:Good question. I’ll have to think about it.: she told me.

:Do the fey actually count as one species?: I asked.

A massive file was uploaded onto my drive, containing an extraordinarily detailed analysis of their genetics. I started perusing the data as the Princess and James stepped into the forest. I didn’t like that my sensors weren’t penetrating the forest. James’ phone, however, was still working perfectly fine. I could hear their footsteps as well as those of others. I resisted the urge to ask the Master to pull out his phone. Inconveniencing him simply to satisfy my own curiosity was wrong.

“Are the fey dangerous?” asked James.

The Princess seemed amused as she said, “That would depend how you want to define ‘dangerous’, boss-man, sir. If someone were to attack your land, they would learn how dangerous fey can be. If you don’t harm them, they won’t intentionally harm you.”

“Alma seemed to harm the land a bit with her fire. Do they only guard the forest?” he asked.

“They can feel her magic and recognize her as one of their own, albeit a scary one.” explained the Princess.

The master then asked “If the fey can’t talk, how do you know all of this?”

“I’m the daughter of a linguist, boss-man, sir. Communication is easy for me.” she cheerfully replied. “That being said, most people can communicate with the fey easily. Very easily, in fact. You’re just blocking them out.”

Blocking them?

“What? How?” he asked.

The silence seemed to stretch as I yearned to hear the reply.

“She’s been sitting there, pouting, for months.” stated the Princess. “They’re really emotional creatures.”

That was no answer. Was she not going to explain?

“How do I communicate with them?” asked the master just before I asked her myself.

“You tend to block everything out, ignoring the world as best as you can. You need to stop. The habit of yours has guided your magic to block out certain types of communication.” she told him, still not answering the question clearly.

I could guess what she meant though, but I found the idea discouraging.

“Are you saying the fey are telepathic?” he asked as if voicing my thought.

“Not as most people think of it, but yes.” she answered. “Just relax, boss-man, sir, and pay attention to this girl. She wants to know you. They all do.”

How was I going to communicate with telepathic creatures? Well, ones that didn’t communicate verbally at all. The twins did seem telepathic. I had no organic brain for them to read. At least, I was fairly certain my mind wasn’t organic in any part. I didn’t actually have full specs for my systems yet.

“Hello.” stated James as if he too were troubled by this revelation.

There was silence, save for the breathing of numerous creatures including the master and Princess. Was he managing to communicate? I wondered at what these strange creatures might say.

“Stop fighting, boss-man, sir. Just relax. The flickering images in your head aren’t your own.” stated the Princess.

Flickering images? I easily could manage a poor video stream, struggling to unveil a movie. Was that what he was experiencing? Data streams were more intimate for me than for humans. I was far more aware of what was happening at any given moment, though I couldn’t claim a greater knowledge of their functionality than all humans. Jarod was quite remarkable.

“Ouch!” exclaimed the Master.

“Wrong sort of meditating, boss-man, sir. Don’t look inward. Look out.” commanded the Princess.

I wished so much that I could see what was happening. How had he been injured? What were they seeing?

The Princess explained :I pinched him to get his attention.:

An image stream suddenly became available, and I found myself watching the master, surrounded by creatures. The clarity was incredible. There was so much to follow. The master suddenly looked disturbed as if he didn’t like what was happening.

“That one does like you a bit much I suppose.” stated the Princess.

“You… you saw that too?” he asked.

I realized I was seeing through the Princess’ own eyes as the image jerked. She was nodding. From the vantage point when she looked up at the master, I guessed that she was sitting on his lap.

“Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. She’s just like that. Ever since she snuck into the house during the ghost hunt, she’s been crazy about you.” she explained.

I recognized the one to which she referred. She had been barely more than a sensor blip during the event, but I had detected her around the edge of the forest on multiple occasions. She was one that frequently visited the pond outside of the forest as well.

“How do you make sense of all that?” asked James. “I felt so overwhelmed.”

“You’ll be able to handle it much better with a bit of practice.” the Princess assured him.

“Well, I’m glad the fey aren’t so overly affected by my magic.” he stated.

“Actually, they are.” she replied.

“What!?” he asked, looking quite startled.

“There-there, boss-man, sir. They don’t get emotionally overwhelmed, and they’ll always give you space when I’m around.” she assured him.

“Why do they give you space?” he asked.

“The fey see me differently than you do, boss-man, sir.” she teased.

He stared at her for a while as if considering something. Then he asked “Why did they all gather here on my land?”

“They’ve been here for as many years as the ghost stories surrounding this place, boss-man, sir. They stay here because they’re safe in these woods. You literally have an enchanted forest in your backyard. Pretty cool, huh!?” she exclaimed.

After some more consideration, he asked “Does Alma know about this?”

“You’d be surprised what that girl can miss, boss-man, sir. Someone a bit more clever even than her placed the enchantment here. No offense, but you could search for years and never notice it even now that you know about it, boss-man, sir.” she informed him.

“Good thing I have a secretary far more clever than me. How did you find out about it?” he inquired.

I heard the sound of a yawn, and her eyes shut for a moment.

Then she said, “I know who placed the enchantment.”

“Any chance you’ll introduce me to this person some day? I could obviously learn a thing or two from someone capable of this.” he declared.

The image was starting to fade. Was she falling asleep? Well, pretending to fall asleep would be a more accurate assessment. Even when the Princess appeared to be asleep, her mind was racing far beyond anything I could process. As the data stream ended, I wondered at how much I still had to learn.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 178

James was home. I felt his presence, the heat from his body as he stepped out of the limousine. The flames around me intensified as where he had been came to mind again. Why had he gone on a date with Maxine of all people? What use did he have of her when I had vastly more resources? Wasn’t I enough company?

I took a deep breath and calmed the fires around me as I calmed myself. I needed isolation at the moment. An errant thought of annoyance could be enough to incinerate someone if I wasn’t careful. Every moment of every day needed to be cool and calm to avoid casualties, but the temper within me fought against my control.

James stepped into the ballroom where the others were at play. I fought the urge to cast a spell and listen to what they would tell him. I did not want to stoke my inner fire with more irritants. Ai and Mai could be more than a little vexing in their playfulness.

I took another breath and thought back to when I was a child, little more than an infant. Mother chided me for being unclothed, despite the isolation of the forest where I sat, floating in the air. Even then my temper was a problem, but I had run away without injuring anyone that day. She would not approve of finding me like this again. She never had, but she never commanded me to go inside after that day.

We had argued, which turned into a fight. I went nuclear, not even understanding what the term meant yet. The blast could have killed so many, including myself, but I hadn’t known. I was young, angry, and far too dangerous to be left unsupervised. Mother recognized what was happening as the heat’s intensity grew and created dozens of spells in an instant to save as much as she could. The shockwave still threw her with me cradled in her arms, but nothing save for a relatively small part of the forest paid the price.

James was coming, jogging toward me. He was so delicate, so very human. I knew part of my attraction to him stemmed from exposure to his magic, but I did not care. James was good in a way which made everyone around him check themselves, wanting to better themselves. No one ever wanted to do something which wouldn’t meet his approval, because disappointing James was too painful to bear. I knew firsthand.

I thought of running, knowing I shouldn’t let him see me like this. I knew he wouldn’t be able to see my body through the smoke and the fire, but he might be disappointed that there was fire. I failed to control myself well enough.

A quiet voice in the back of my mind wondered how he would react if I let him see me for a moment. I smothered it with all my might. Such a lapse of propriety would be far too inappropriate. We weren’t even dating, much to my dismay.

:Oh cousin, I noticed.: whispered Adelmar in my mind.

:Do be quiet!: I screamed at him, only to hear mocking laughter.

I sometimes wondered if he trusted me, so often he came into my mind.

:Cousin, you know I have faith in you. Just don’t destroy the poor boy.: he teased.

James was sprinting toward me now. Unfortunately, Adelmar’s teasing only made me more anxious. I needed to be calm. I carefully prepared spells to shelter James from the magic swirling around me and then unleashed them. He floated toward me, safe from the wind and fire. Part of me wanted to embrace his broad back, but I couldn’t, not now. Possibly not ever. The thought made my heart sink.

I took a breath and carefully said, “I apologize for catching you in a spell, james, but I am not currently fit to be seen. Please don’t turn this way.” I couldn’t risk having my sinking heart affect my voice as thoughts of losing him swirled through my head.

I knew he wouldn’t turn. James was completely trustworthy to his core.

“I was worried when I returned home and heard that you were upset.” he replied.

A smile touched my lips, and I felt elevated instantly. He really did care.

“I’m fine.” I assured him. “I just wanted to let loose for a bit.” He would forgive a little lie, wouldn’t he?

“Would you believe that Maxine spent the whole day trying to convince me of how just her actions were? I had a rather horrible day. Figure I might join the others at gaming for a bit to unwind. Care to join us?” he asked.

I had to fight back my fires the moment he said her name and felt unjustly satisfied when he admitted to a terrible day. He deserved better than this. I was supposed to be better, but the war inside me was being waged to the best of my abilities. What more did he expect of me?

Calm. I took a breath. Calm. Then I said, “In a bit. Do you ever let something minor get under your skin and have it grow and grow until you can’t think of anything else?”

I was feeling slightly more relaxed. Just being around James helped. The way he smiled could lift my day as easily as his anger could ruin it.

“I’m sure everyone experiences that from time to time.” he assured me.

He was so very kind.

“Watching my temper is far more important for me than for most.” I admitted. Then I found myself explaining “Only my cousin seems to really understand, having to fight with his constantly as well. Our tempers are volatile and so, so fierce. My magic responds to mine, raising the temperature of my body. If I fail to counter it, I can set things on fire with a touch or incinerate someone who’s annoying me.” Was I getting through to him? “Magic like mine doesn’t care about reason. I feel, and the magic acts.” Something was off. What? “Sometimes, I need a moment to myself, so I can just let things burn. Don’t worry. I’ll pay Emma to fix this part of the yard tomorrow.” The soil was gone beneath me, a perfect dip made by the initial blast of my heat.

I still couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me. James was fine. I started reaching toward him, and the fire simmered down to almost nothing around me as my foot touched the ground. If he turned, he’d see me wearing nothing but a thin, stylized fog before him; such an insubstantial barrier could never hold back desires.

“Oh, no. I’m so, so sorry, James.” I told him, realizing what I had done. The yearning for him was tremendous, and I was losing ground fighting it. “You can’t be around anyone for a while, especially not me. Find somewhere isolated to run.” The constant use of magic in this area had charged James with energy, the very energy his magic used to enchant people.

My arm was inching toward him even as I fought to keep it back. I wasn’t in control, but I was losing a war I had never fought before. I needed to find more strength. I felt so weak. I wanted to embrace him and… and…

“What? Why?” he asked, spinning toward me.

I bit my lip, fighting the words that wanted to come out. I fought against my arm, clenching my other fist. As I was now, I could kill him on accident by merely embracing him too tightly. I couldn’t trust myself, not with the wild thoughts taking over my mind. He needed to be away.

“James, please. Please, leave.” I begged, my voice trembling as I spoke. “I’ll explain later” I promised.

Just a little more, and I would touch him. I wanted to feel his skin and stare into those eyes. His lips might help quench the burning desire within me. I knew they wouldn’t be enough. With the last of my strength, I made a spell and threw James across the yard.

I was down on one knee, fighting for control. The urge to chase after him was so very intense. I feared nothing could keep him safe from me, and then anger flared within me once more. A naked girl seemed to appear out of nowhere, jumping into James and hugging him.

I almost killed her, but I resisted. My inner battles had merged now, anger and passion fighting for dominance. The girl was pulling him to the forest. Others were there. Dozens of creatures had stepped to the edge of the forest. Were we under attack? Move… I needed to move!

When I felt Aaliyah arrive beside James, I worried what had happened. Why was the Reaper here? I created a spell to protect my mind and ran to them, but no one else was in sight.

“What happened?” asked James as I approached.

“You’re looking scary today!” exclaimed Aaliyah, staring up at me.

“Where are they? Who are they?” I demanded.

“This is James. I’m Aaliyah. Is your memory gone?” asked Aaliyah.

I nearly lashed out at her, but I restrained myself. I was too close to James at the moment, too out of control. I felt his magic sweeping away the meager protection I had made. I didn’t have the will to reinforce it.

“There were others here. Many for that matter.” I told her. “We need to keep people away from James right now. Even now I feel my spell’s insufficient.”

Her gaze had shifted to James, and they stared and stared at one another. He started patting her head. What was happening. Think. My mind felt heavy, foggy. I was exhausted from the strain of my inner turmoil. No. No, no, no. I needed to make a spell, something to stop this, but my will was too weak. I could barely keep myself from embracing James.

“Please. Not you too.” I pleaded, realizing that James was even affecting Death herself.

“Don’t worry, Alpy. You don’t need to protect me. He can’t affect me now.” stated Aaliyah as a tear rolled down her cheek.

There was a sadness to her I couldn’t even comprehend at the moment. I believed her. James approached me, acting as if he was about to hug me. I imagined the feel of his hand against my skin and mustered all I could to move away from him.

“Please, James, keep your distance. Aaliyah, promise me that he’s safe with you.” I demanded.

“He’s safe, Alpy.” she assured me.

I ran and ran and ran. I didn’t stop running until I was out of the city and hiding in the nearest forest. Tears streamed down my face as I collapsed. I desperately wanted to go back there and find him, but I couldn’t. I knew I couldn’t trust myself any further. One more glimpse of him, and I’d have no will left. I was so weak. How could I ever face him again?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 173

My sisters were completely disrespectful, dragging me out to all manner of places and treating this Jarod as if he were worthy of our company. I never had imagined that they’d fall so far as to openly display affection for a human. Mother was not going to be pleased.

I glanced at Jarod, disgusted by how he showed tiredness on his face after a mere night of frivolity. He couldn’t keep up with them, and I would never approve of my sisters dating beneath themselves, even if he could make them smile.

He also proved quite skilled at dancing and had a talent for languages. I wished I could get a close look at his engine design to see if his work actually did deserve the merit its price suggested.

James’ work, odd as it was, earned the respect of Lady Pendreigh. When I left my home, I was still surprised that she would move to this country, even temporarily, but meeting James showed me a man of great worth. He was obviously well-bred but made his own fortune, enough to have such a garish home. The computer, Mila, was astounding. My family’s companies couldn’t match her software, and I could only imagine the processing power behind such a machine. Mother would be most interested. My sisters told us far too little.

I followed them into the gymnasium at the front of the wing they rented from James. He was there, already making his employees train despite the early hour. They all seemed most capable, showing good form as they followed his instruction. Noticing us, he approached.

“James, nii-san was curious how soon you’d be awake, since he was interested in sampling one of Marco’s breakfasts.” stated one of my sisters.

I still grew irritated that they never bothered letting me know which was which. Despite mother’s intentions, I knew the connection between them made the two inseparable. Feeling everything the other did made any intimacy shared. There could be no secrets between them. They should show me respect enough to at least reveal to whom I was speaking when we did meet. If I asked, they might lie. They might tell the truth to throw me off as well. There was no way to tell. Yet James, they had revealed, knew some way.

“Mila told us you were in here, so we just had to come watch.” insisted the other one, smiling at him.

I might not have minded were they to gain James’ affections. He seemed a man of great principle.

James looked surprised as he said, “Oh. Sorry, Duncan, but we need to fit practice in right now. Brandon and Brenna” ― he gestured to the red-headed siblings ― “have work early today.

Nodding, I told him “I like that you teach your employees discipline. All four have excellent posture. Too bad that one doesn’t seem to participate.” I had looked over to Jarod as I spoke, appalled that he couldn’t even be bothered to train properly.

“Jarod actually has a different teacher. He’s quite…” started James.

I interrupted him, saying, “What? He can’t keep up with your class?”

James wasn’t even working on any advanced techniques in here at the moment.

“Jarod, get changed.” came a voice from behind me.

I shivered, knowing the sound. Aaliyah was here.

“Nii-san, I hope you packed something fit for an exercise.” teased one of my sisters as she lightly touched my arm.

“We wouldn’t want your clothes torn.” agreed the other.

Their glee troubled me.

“Well, this should be entertaining.” stated Lady Pendreigh, though no amusement showed on her face. No interest either. She seemed, as always, perfectly serene.

What would be entertaining though? I reasoned that they wanted me to fight Jarod, but how would that even be worth my time?

Then Lady Pendreigh said, “You just insulted Aaliyah’s sole student in front of her.”

Fear coursed through me. I knew what was beyond that innocent child’s face. I knew her true form and could never escape having seen it. I dropped to the ground, bowing in dogeza style, as I adamantly apologized and prayed for my life. She could take life at a whim, so disrespecting her was absolutely forbidden. Why hadn’t my sisters warned me?

“Rise and prepare. I will tell my student to go easy on you.” she replied when I was finished.

The child-like face and cheerful demeanor did nothing to ease my inner suffering. Lady Pendreigh would not have even raised an eyebrow if had I been slain in front of her, too great was my mistake.

As I dressed, I tried to ease my tension. I was alive and possibly forgiven. I could not argue with Aaliyah, but I felt insulted by her words. No human was a match for me in any sense. In my veins ran the blood of the great ones, a strength which has protected humanity for millennia.

I hurried back, easily beating Jarod. I watched James training his students, unwilling to risk a glance at her. My sisters were blessed by their ignorance, all smiles and jokes. Had they known what I knew, they would run in horror from this place. How did James ever procure her help as a secretary? He might be even more dangerous than he seems.

When Jarod returned, James called his students to the side of the room, telling them to watch. Jarod and I stepped to the center, facing one another. He looked completely calm. I never noticed his eyes before. There was an intensity to him, an inner fire I had missed. Still, I would end this quickly.

I punched at his chest, intending to shatter his ribs. He flowed around my first like he was made of water, slamming his fist into my throat. I found myself falling to the ground, gasping for air. How could a human hit with such strength!? I took far longer to rise than I intended, but my breathing was off. I felt bruised.

When I rose, he was still standing there, completely calm. I attacked faster to match my opponent’s speed. I had underestimated him, but now I tested him. I faked hit after hit, trying to find his weakness. I couldn’t. His skill was very impressive. When he kicked at my head, I found my opening, so I kicked at his knee.

Jarod jumped into the air, kicking me solidly in the head. I needed more caution. Time passed in a continuous stream of near hits as both of us danced around the other. I wasn’t sure how much time has passed when I realized he was mocking me. He hadn’t been trying to attack yet, just toying with me.

In my rage, I attacked in full haste. He anticipated my attack, slamming his palm precisely across my knee. Through my rage, I felt the pain as my kneecap slid out of place. I dropped instantly, screaming out in defeat. The fight was over. I had lost.

,,,^._.^,,,

As nii-san clutched his leg, Jarod calmly bowed and walked away. James was quick to go after him, probably worrying over something silly again. Lady Pendreigh, my sister, and I hurried over to nii-san.

“Nii-san, did you get a boo-boo?” I asked.

“Want us to kiss it better?” teased Mai.

“Out of the way, girls. Your brother needs aid.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.

“Hai!” we exclaimed, stepping to the side.

“Isn’t that a bit harsh?” asked Emma.

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“Nii-san needs a little teasing.” insisted Mai.

“I have to agree with Alma. That’s like when one of you went all crazy on my leg.” claimed Brandon. He grimaced as Lady Pendreigh repositioned nii-san’s knee.

“Oh, soulless… you were fixed in seconds.” I told him.

“Much to our despair.” teased Mai.

“Duncan will probably take a couple days, but he’ll be fine.” stated Lady Pendreigh as she stood.

:Our tips paid off!: exclaimed Mai.

:Jarod’s execution was incredible.: I insisted.

She didn’t argue. Nii-san’s pride would take longer to heal than his leg. He always did have a temper, and Jarod played it like a master musician.

“How did you find my student?” asked Aaliyah.

Nii-san grimaced before saying, “He is very formidable. Please forgive my misguided insult.”

“Nii-san, are you feeling okay?” asked Mai.

“Obviously not.” he replied.

“Oh. I knew you couldn’t really mean to say something nice about Jarod.” I told him.

“No, I did mean what I said.” he insisted.

“If you’re crippled for life, do we get all of your stuff?” I teased.

He laughed and said, “You two should show some sympathy for your brother. I’m injured!”

:James is back without Jarod.: pouted Mai, watching him come toward us.

“Sorry for getting a little excited there.” apologized nii-san. “It’s embarrassing to have so much trouble with a human. I’ll have to thank him later.”

“Thank him for what?” asked Jarod in shock.

“For saving him from me. Cheating is forbidden, especially when it puts someone so valuable at risk.” explained Lady Pendreigh.

Nii-san’s humor died as he nodded, ashamed of his transgression.

Aaliyah leaned close to him and giddily whispered “I didn’t appreciate you cheating either.”

Lady Pendreigh actually laughed.

My sister and I nearly laughed as well. Nii-san’s somber expression was priceless! He almost seemed scared. The assassin was certainly dangerous, but she wasn’t going to kill him without a contract. No one would be crazy enough to put a contract on him. Mother would call in every favor she could seeking revenge.

:She certainly doesn’t want us succeeding her.: teased Mai.

We didn’t really care, not anymore.

My sister and I pointed out “We did warn you, nii-san.”

“No one around her is normal, even the humans.” expounded Mai.

“James has a most interesting household.” I reiterated.

Nodding, Lady Pendreigh said, “So you can tell your mother one of the reasons I’m here.”

Nii-san attempted a smile, but he looked worried. He quickly turned to Brandon and asked “What can you do?”

Brandon smiled and caused his arms to grow in length and muscle mass, making him appear even more like the monkey he really was.

Not wanting to be shown up, Brenna changed her hair to black while tanning her skin.

“She thinks she’s only quasi-soulless.” I teased.

Nii-san then turned to Portentia and asked “And you?”

Shrugging, she told him “I’m invincible.”

Nii-san laughed, but we frowned, knowing she healed far too fast.

“That’s untested, but she does heal far more quickly than anyone else I’ve encountered. She also mastered the staff well enough to keep up with your sisters in a week.” stated Lady Pendreigh.

Our frown deepened. She didn’t have to tell him that much.

Nodding, nii-san told Portentia “Perhaps I can duel with you in a couple days after I’ve healed.”

Without waiting for a reply, he turned to Emma and said, “I’ve heard remarkable things about you. I would love getting a tour of the gardens if you don’t mind.”

My sister and I sighed. Mother was probably wanting to steal Emma away. James wouldn’t have it if he were told.

“Umm.. sure. Okay.” replied Emma.

:Emma’s not stupid. She wouldn’t give up this to be mother’s tool.: stated Mai.

:She’d be more interested in us anyways. We’re more fun: I teased.

:Oh! Great idea! You can chase after Emma while I take Jarod.: replied Mai in an equally teasing tone.

If we swung that way, we might actually consider it. We did enjoy Emma’s company, just not like that.

James helped nii-san to his feet before saying, “If you’re still hungry, we usually eat in the kitchen, honestly, but we can eat in the dining hall if you’d prefer.”

“As the saying goes, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’.” replied nii-san.

We each took one of his arms to help him along, but he started speaking to us in Japanese, asking us to help him court Emma. The larger problem for us was that he claimed this was his own intent, not mother’s. We were certain mother would approve if Emma could be persuaded. Emma’s magic was potent and immensely useful, so mother would gladly claim her. We didn’t really believe Emma would be interested and had no idea how to let nii-san know. He was too enthusiastic about this. Hopefully, Lady Pendreigh could help.

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 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!

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 164

I stared up at James’ enormous mansion. This place felt like home, and the notion struck me as odd. Despite having just left the grandiose hotel, the mansion’s grandeur remained undiminished. Was I really that accustomed to being here already? Multiple houses could fit inside this one with plenty of room to spare. Ai and Mai’s wing alone was easily over twice the size of my parents’ house, and that’s not counting any secret passages I didn’t know about. There probably were some.

I always liked the idea of hidden passages in walls, secret ways to get from room to room, but I never thought I’d actually see as many as I already had. There was a hidden theater, secret storeroom, and rooms with purposes which I could only guess at. The place was amazing… Even the garage was larger underground than on the surface.

Just walking inside, you had to pass two sets of double doors. I could easily imagine James standing on the balcony which overlooked the foyer and greeting us. That wasn’t his style at all, but he would look right there. This was the most incredible home I ever heard about, and my best friend owned it.

The technology inside still amazed me. I followed the others into the ballroom where little Aaliyah was already typing away with her secretary glasses firmly planted on her nose. She didn’t need glasses at all, but they were cute. To think someone so cute designed this tech-heavy room was amazing. There were eight, very large mirrors creating the walls. Each mirror could swing outwards, revealing either a passage or storage. The mirrors also served as giant screens.

I was certain Aaliyah had designed the chairs as well. The eight chairs, designed for luxury as much as gaming, seamlessly hid beneath the floor when the ballroom was to be used for something else. They could be controlled by a digitally displayed system far more advanced than any others I had seen. The speakers built into the chairs had excellent sound quality, but were virtually silent from even a foot away.

Aaliyah was far, far beyond me in so many ways. If she had only designed Ancient Tribes of Earth, I’d still have believed it. The game’s size, customization, and in-depth story were vastly superior to anything else I tried, but the game ran smoothly on every system I had seen, including those of clients with relatively old systems ― A surprising number of our clients played. Had James noticed?

The little girl’s choice not to engage in battle was amusing to me, knowing that her knowledge of combat was superior to my own as well. Every last move we used in the game had been coded by her, but she was also my teacher in real life. She taught me how to move when fighting but also how to think. I knew James didn’t entirely approve of it. He never wanted to hurt anyone, but breaking an arm or leg to end a fight quickly was sometimes for the best. We already lost one friend. I didn’t want to lose anyone else.

“I think I’ll go tell Marco that we’re back.” stated James as he took a step toward the door.

“Oh, master, Marco has known when you would be arriving for days now. The Princess is very organized. I can’t believe that you’d doubt her.” teased Mila through the room’s speakers.

“Must she really call you ‘master’ in that fashion, James? I don’t feel it’s appropriate.” insisted Alma, from her favorite of the room’s chairs.

“Thank you, Mila.” stated James. Then he faced Alma’s reflection and said, “She has a mind of her own, and I’ve found what I say has little bearing on what she does and doesn’t decide to do.”

I half-expected Mila to make some snappy quip, but she apparently didn’t feel the need. Which was harder between designing Mila and Ancient Tribes of Earth? I wasn’t certain. The game was massive and had fully interactive NPCs who would vocally respond to anyone addressing them, but I doubted any of them were actually conscious like Mila. Her mind was impressive to say the least, and her knowledge was as vast as the internet. I couldn’t have made the progress I did in my own designs without her input, at least not as quickly.

I took a seat to play Ancient Tribes of Earth with the others. Even after an entire convention where we had focused on this game, I was ready for more. Only a tiny fraction of the world had actually been explored, and the game was immersive enough to make you feel this was a second life. My friends in the game were every bit as real to me as those around me. I knew their quirks and capabilities in the game. We had talked enough that I knew significant amounts of their out-of-game lives as well. Even if the game somehow grew boring, I couldn’t imagine quitting because I’d miss them.

I was talking about the convention with them, since none of my lieutenant generals were able to make it in person. Something seemed off though, not with them, but… Maxine. Brandon had told me about meeting a cute girl who turned out to be some sort of criminal. She was trying to hack the game, but Brandon said she was blind. She couldn’t be…

“Sorry, guys, but I need to log already.” I told them.

“What? Come on…” complained Lake.

“It’s too early, and you haven’t even been on very long.” whined Jesse.

“I’m going to get some chicken wings.” stated Alec.

Typical Alec. I said, “Mmm… I haven’t had wings for a while. Catch everyone later!”, and logged off. James glanced back looking surprised as I made my way to the door. Partway to the garage, I asked “Mila, you were listening when James met a girl named Maxine, right?”

“Of course. I must always be prepared to help the master.” she replied, making “master” sound flirtatious as ever.

“What was her full name?” I asked.

“Maxine Marveille Montgomery.” she stated.

“Mind digging up everything you can on her?” I requested.

“Oh, I already started digging when the master met her. Want to see what I have or wait until I’ve finished investigating?” she asked.

“Wow. Over a day, and you’re not finished?” I questioned, surprised by the idea that Mila wouldn’t have someone’s whole life story in that time.

“She actually has very impressive security measures guarding her personal servers, and I wasn’t too focused on breaking into them. She was also very thorough in erasing all digital data regarding her parents and brother. I actually had to make some calls for inquiries and am still waiting on responses.” she informed me.

“I wish I could say I’m surprised.” I told her before breaking into a run.

“Is something troubling you?” asked Mila when I entered the garage.

“Have you compared the IP addresses between the Maxine from the convention and the one with whom I’ve been corresponding?” I asked.

“No. For your correspondence, I only went so far as to see that they were rerouted through several machines each time. I never bothered with a full trace, but I do see why you’re concerned. I believe you’re correct as well. The servers I’ve been casually poking are at her primary home address. I had checked the ISPs in the area to see which she used and retrieved her IP address from there. Given the scope of Maxine’s public holdings, she probably has access to numerous servers throughout the world and plenty of processing power to run all sorts of interesting software. Want me to shut her down?” she offered.

The idea was tempting, but I wanted to do a little more research first. Shaking my head, I said, “No, but thank you. She probably doesn’t have the data I’d want networked. Destroying the servers you’ve been ‘poking’ would only get her attention. I’m sure she could replace them easily enough, and I don’t want her calling in favors from her friends in Ai and Mai’s family. Mind opening the attachment on the email Maxine sent earlier today?”

“Here you are. She seemed most impressed with your actuators and sent you schematics for those servos you had discussed.” she replied.

Great. I’ve impressed an evil genius. After looking over the schematics, I started fiddling with my tablet. All of this was the result of a game of sorts Aaliyah had given me with the tablet. Would Aaliyah have helped me so much if she knew I’d inadvertently help a criminal mastermind? Being blind, I didn’t imagine Maxine would be doing much of the actual legwork herself, assuming there was legwork, but there had to be, otherwise she wouldn’t need the suit. Would she actually trust someone else using it? How could she use it if she were blind? Sensors? Even with a good audiofeed, reflexes would be slowed, but I already had a number of ideas for pulling it off. She’s been at this a while, so she surely had refined plenty of ideas.

All thoughts of Maxine left my mind as the next part in the game unlocked. There were detailed schematics of Dr. Conway’s work. His work wasn’t for an exoskeleton though. He had intended to replace bones, even organs, with machinery he had designed. The designs were brilliant, incredibly brilliant, but having them implanted would be dangerous and very painful, assuming you didn’t lose sensation entirely. I became lost for a time, puzzling over how the connections to the brain worked. I needed to study more biology, but I had the resources.

I started listening to Conway’s audio diary while reading. He actually did this procedure several years ago? These measurements though…

“Mila, mind displaying these pieces fitted together as a skeleton?” I asked.

Conway droned on as tears came to my eyes. He didn’t… He couldn’t have… Estimated height of the subject was just under thirty-five inches. What sort of monster would do this to a child? As I listened from the cold floor, Conway described the child and the procedure. He really was a monster. I needed to talk to James. He had to be told.

“Where’s James?” I asked.

“In his bedroom.” somberly stated Mila.

I left the garage, trying to compose myself as the lift carried me up. If anyone was awake, I didn’t want to bother them. I needed to talk with James first. How could a little girl do so very much with her day? She wasn’t human. She should have been. She should have grown. As I made my way up the stairs, I started running. I meant to knock gently, but I was pounding at the door from the start.

James was dressed for bed, staring at me in shock.

“We’ve gotta talk now. This is crazy. This is so, so crazy.” I told him.

He put his finger to his lips and waved for me to step inside. I did. Who would hear us on the third floor? Oh. Alma. She might. I started pacing, but James pulled a chair out, obviously wanting me to sit down. Could I sit still right now? No. I kept pacing. James sat on his bed and stared at me. He looked worried.

I opened my mouth to tell him what I just learned, but I felt like I might cry again. I stopped myself and decided to tell him the lesser bad news first.

“This is some heavy, heavy shit. First off, I screwed up, man. I think I really screwed up.” I admitted.

James raised his hand to get my attention and asked “What happened? Start from the beginning?”

I nodded, took a sec to reorganize my thoughts, and said, “Yeah-yeah. Okay, so Brandon was telling me about this cute girl you two met who went by Maxine. Well, I didn’t think anything of it at first, but as we were playing downstairs, some pieces started clicking together. You remember that tablet I got from Aaliyah for my birthday?”

He nodded.

“Well, there was a sort of game on there. The thing is that the game was actually instructions, walking me through the life’s work of some guy who was trying to make robotic parts to strengthen humans back in the sixties.” I explained.

“Sounds like an impressive guy if he made any progress, but I don’t see what the problem is.” replied James.

What? Oh, right. I needed to explain more. I told him “Just hear me out. To unlock the next part of the instructions, I had to answer questions about the workings of what I had seen so far. Some of that got pretty tough rather fast, since I don’t have the background to understand all of it. Well, I didn’t want to ask Aaliyah, because that seemed like cheating, since I felt she gave me the program to challenge me. I started browsing forums and talking with people about specific aspects of what I read. There was this one girl, Maxine, who was super knowledgeable. She was great to talk with, since she really seemed to understand me. We started talking through direct messages rather than on the forums where the others made stupid comments. No offense intended, but they did. Some of the stuff she said just seemed weird to me, like ‘imagine trying to design a servo blindfolded.’ That’d be crazy, right? Except that putting her comments together with you meeting a blind, intelligent girl named Maxine makes me believe that she did do it blindfolded.”

“Wait. Why are you assuming that the Maxine I met was that intelligent? We hardly talked, really. ‘Maxine’ can’t be that uncommon of a name.” argued James.

I stared at him a moment, trying to tell if he was being serious. He was? Feeling slightly exasperated, I said, “Really, dude? This blind girl’s attempting to hack Ancient Tribes of Earth according to Aaliyah. Then she’s working with part of Alma’s family. We’ve met the twins and Alma so far, and all three are very intelligent. How useful to them could Maxine be if she wasn’t bright?”

James seemed to consider it a moment before nodding and asking “Okay, so how did you goof?”

“She helped me with problems. I helped her with some. If she’s a criminal like Brandon made her sound, I just assisted a criminal in a robotics project. I really doubt she’s going to use whatever she’s working on for world peace.” I explained

“Look, you had no way of knowing that you were helping a possible criminal. You just have to be a bit more careful in the future.” he assured me.

I shook my head, knowing I needed to tell him about Aaliyah. I started by saying, “Yeah, I know. Just bothers me. That’s actually the lesser of what’s bothering me at the moment. As I was trying to figure out what harm she could do, I was reading through that program some more. Then something else clicked for me.” Then I looked him in the eye and said, “I think Aaliyah’s a cyborg.”

A dark cloud passed over James’ face. He looked worried, upset… Not surprised.

“Jarod, don’t say anything until I get a response. Not one word.” he ordered.

I did as I was told, feeling shocked. What was happening? He didn’t question me at all, just got upset. What was with him? Texting now of all things? He seemed to get a reply instantly, and I could see the tension leave his body.

“Dude, what was that about?” I demanded.

An eerie smile came to his face as he said, “You just stumbled across something dangerous to know. You can’t let anyone else find out that Aaliyah’s a cyborg. Ai, Mai, and Alma know as well. If you mention it around them, they’ll have you in a sealed room in a second.”

“You knew? Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, feeling really confused now.

The smile was gone in an instant. James looked at me that way he does when he seemed to see straight through me. Then he said, “Aaliyah’s the assassin, Jarod, as in the only assassin. The twins explained to me that if you reveal her secret, whomever you tell dies. You die. Your family dies. Aaliyah apparently doesn’t make exceptions for friends. At least, I think she considers Ai and Mai her friends.”

Was he messing with me? “How could you know she’s the only assassin or an assassin at all for that matter?” I asked.

“I found out after she let me see her kill two people, though I can’t say I actually saw her even move. She told me afterward that she had killed off all other assassins years ago.” he claimed.

He wasn’t bluffing. James was dead serious. Aaliyah killed off every assassin!? I knew she could fight. She had been teaching me to do things I hadn’t thought possible, like breaking an egg inside a glass without touching it. I could actually do that now despite my lack of magic. Stopping a person’s heart would be easy. The speed James had claimed didn’t add up though. The numbers weren’t working in my head. Conway’s voice was playing through my head again. I couldn’t push it out.

“Okay, so I can see how she would be deadly given what was done to her. I don’t understand how she could be that fast though. It’s too much from what I saw.” I insisted. Conway’s description continued replaying as I said, I really feel sorry for her. It had to hurt so, so much. No one should have to go through that, much less a kid.”

“Go through what?” asked James, looking confused.

“The operation, James.” I told him.

He still looked confused.

“‘The subject was brought in with injuries all over her body, internal bleeding, and broken bones throughout both arms and legs. Her skull was fractured. I commenced with the operation, replacing her bones with those of my own design.’” I told him, regurgitating the words in my head. “‘The subject’s remarkable healing ability kept her alive, but her body burned through the anesthetic rapidly. The surgery was a success.’ is a somewhat rough summary of her doctor’s notes on the surgery.”

The poor, poor girl. Knowing Aaliyah was the test subject, I couldn’t keep the image of her crying out from my mind. That little girl should be smiling, always smiling… not tortured.

I forced myself to continue, saying, “She woke up countless times during the surgery, James. Her body healed rapidly, but she was in pain for at least a couple weeks while she recovered. I don’t know what they did to save her, but her body was outgrowing the implants after nearly a year, causing her constant pain. Aaliyah was a military test subject. The descriptions led me to believe it was her. The blonde hair and blue eyes. The dimensions of the implants given would put the test subject at around thirty-five inches tall.”

The tears were coming again. I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t stop thinking about her being forced to go through that operation… There was no way the doctor just happened to have synthetic bones made for her lying around. All those injuries were done to her as an excuse to perform the surgery. The man was a monster!

The door opened and a blur was there and gone faster than I fully registered. Aaliyah was there on my lap, hugging me. She really was fast, incredibly fast. I couldn’t understand her speed.

“I’m so sorry, Aaliyah.” I told her, trying to hold back the tears. I didn’t want her to see me crying. The girl had enough tears of her own.

“Don’t cry, Jarod.” she insisted. “I’m fine now. Honest.”

She handed me something. A phone. My phone. I hadn’t even seen her pull it from my pocket. It was ringing. I answered it and put it to my ear.

“I have telepathy!” she exclaimed through the device without even moving her lips.

I laughed a little and said, “Yeah, I suppose that is like telepathy.” I hugged her again and told her “Still, I’m sorry that you went through that.”

“Just don’t tell, especially not my daddy.” she insisted.

I nodded and said, “I promise.”

I talked with her for a while, trying to make sense of the world. Aaliyah didn’t mind sharing some of her stories as an assassin with me, since some of the contracts were no longer valid. Most of her contracts included a “certain level of discretion”. As we talked, I thought again of how much I had been missing before Emma told us about magic. How much more was I still missing? Emma had only told us about magic as part of Alma’s grand plan. Was there a larger plan at work? I could imagine Aaliyah having one. The tiny girl was too incredible for belief.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 163

Maxine Montgomery… even Alma thought of her as a villain. Mila would help me look into her and confirm her misdeeds. I had to admit that something about her set me on edge even before I knew she was a villain. Was she actually blind? I saw the cane and sunglasses indoors, but those could be part of a cosplay, right? I had my doubts. If she were blind, could she really be much of a villain?

I sighed. There were people who thought a deaf girl couldn’t be a superhero, and I certainly showed them otherwise. I just didn’t understand how someone could manage overseeing crime without their eyes. What was hearing like?

When I was little, Mama Vera tried explaining sound to me. I remembered her talking about being able to hear me coming and constantly telling me I needed to “be quieter”. She taught me to move carefully and pointed out the differences in vibrations, my bare feet feeling her music through the floor. The idea of shutting my eyes and still knowing what was happening around me still seemed strange, like most of the world had a superpower which I did not. They could sense the vibrations in the air with ease. A blind girl might be capable of being a supervillain…

I was surprised by James suddenly moving away from me. Alma was holding up a hat with gizmos on it. James looked at the hat for a moment and then put it on over his costume’s wig. Seeing Aaliyah and Alma take out their phones, I was confused for a moment.

<Pictures!> signed Aaliyah.

Oh. Oh! I had a phone now too. I quickly joined them in snapping some pictures of James. Other people seemed to like the idea as well, but that was how things worked here. If someone in costume posed for a picture, everyone who liked the costume would stop to get a picture. We all had many pictures taken of us this weekend.

Seeing Aaliyah and Alma start trying on hats for pictures too, I decided to join them. Though many of the gears didn’t even turn, I could easily imagine them having a purpose, like a superhero’s gadgets. I could use some gadgets…

After several minutes of posing and pictures, James bought a hat for each of us and a cane for himself. My hat was large with a broad brim. Metal bands stretched across one side with interlocking gears leading to an antenna going up the top. I couldn’t imagine where I would wear the thing, but I appreciated the thought. We started walking along to revisit more shops. The others had many things they wanted to get, but I could tell what was being said.

I tapped James’ sleeve to get his attention and asked what was being said.

James explained “Alma and Aaliyah want to dress up in steampunk next convention. Aaliyah’s planning on fixing our hats to actually function first. Alma wants to design some clothes.”

I nodded, easily imagining how they could look. What did a blind girl imagine? Darkness? Worries over Maxine hadn’t left me. Someone Alma considered a villain was probably very dangerous. Did Maxine have an army of minions carrying out her diabolical schemes? What if she had incredible magical powers? I needed information.

When we left the show floor to go to a panel, I considered leaving. “The Dances of Ancient Tribes of Earth” panel certainly didn’t need me, but I ended up staying to watch. I was tempted to try them, but I could barely feel the music and didn’t have lights to follow this time. Maybe James would be willing to show me the dances later. I enjoyed dancing with him.

More shopping soon came after the panel finished. James seemed pretty excited when we reached the artists. He talked with many and bought a number of pictures, but the shopping came to an end for me too soon. Aaliyah and I needed to get back for another shift at the booth.

,,,^._.^,,,

“Man-slave!” I called, finally spotting James as he entered the suite. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. We’re at a convention together, and yet we’ve hardly spent any time together, other than working. You and I are doing some shopping.”

I could see by his bags that he had been doing some shopping without me. It was fine. I mean, sorta fine. I wasn’t totally okay with him shopping without me, but he was in high demand and our shifts didn’t line up well for us.

“Sure.” he replied. Then he turned to the others and asked “Are you all up for more?”

“Sorry, boss-man, sir, but Portentia and I have a shift.” replied Aaliyah.

I picked her up and gave her a big hug before letting her escape to work. She was soooo adorable! Watching Portentia walk away wasn’t so bad either. That girl had a body, and she seemed sweet too.

“Was there somewhere particular you were looking to go?” asked Alma.

One glance, and I was certain; Alma was hotter. I didn’t just mean in the “I can burn the world!” sense either. She seemed surreal in her beauty, like an incarnation of beauty from another dimension that just happened to look more-or-less human. I never got tired of looking at her.

After both of them deposited their bags, I took their arms and pulled them to the elevator. We were going to buy all the things!!!

“There’s this suuuper cute store with some really frilly dresses I wanted to visit. Alma needs to try some things on too.” I insisted, pulling them along.

I imagined them fighting back, easily lifting me in the air for a second. They easily could do it even if I fought. Alma wasn’t beatable, and James was beyond me with magic and martial arts these days. That boy was freaky good at picking stuff up. Well, maybe not compared with Jarod. I still couldn’t believe Jarod had only started martial arts months ago. He was straight up dangerous now.

“Ta da! What do you think!? Aren’t these the cutest?” I asked when we arrived.

Alma’s face was unreadable, but she definitely seemed to be checking the dresses out. James seemed amused.

“Try one on with me!” I insisted, taking Alma’s hand.

She didn’t look amused.

“I’ll look forward to seeing them.” stated James.

Alma was in! She totally didn’t play fair though. Claiming that she didn’t trust the booth’s fitting room, she used a number of spells. Suddenly, I was isolated in a some black field. Totally. Not. Fair. Alma was sooo bashful.

She still beat me changing even though I was certain she took her time. James’ eyes were locked on her when I stepped out. He did notice me eventually, blushing when I grinned at him. I loved his blush.

I bought my dress and a pair of killer heels that matched them. Alma was all “Where will I ever wear this?” at first. After a bit of convincing, she purchased a dress too. By convincing, I totally pulled the James card, pointing out how much he seemed to like her in the dress. Win for me. We could totally be gamer princesses together in the house if nothing else. She didn’t have to worry about money.

I was surprised when James insisted on going to a shop of his choosing next. He was really getting into this. We pretty much took turns, though I cheated a little. We all purchased enough that Alma had to call someone to take our bags to the room. I had been on the verge of suggesting we head up to drop things off. James was doing all the carrying and looked overburdened.

We continued shopping until the show floor was closing. Even Alma and I ended up carrying a couple bags to manage everything, but we had a blast. I was going to make a shrine to this day in my room. I sighed, thinking of Regina. She would have been a blast here. I missed her, painfully aware of the vacant floor above me.

“What’s wrong?” asked James in the elevator.

“Wrong? We can’t do anymore shopping until tomorrow, and then I might not even catch you because of shifts and things! One evening just wasn’t enough!” I insisted, not wanting to mention Regina. I knew he still missed her too.

James laughed and said, “I’m sure we’ll get some fun.”

Once settled in the suite, everyone gathered to watch a couple movies before crashing. None of us were prepared for Sunday. All of us were scheduled from the start. We had a long work day with no time for goofing off at other booths. There were children everywhere, little cuties in costume as often as not. I wanted to hug them all!

Aaliyah was easily stealing the show. In the name of her company, we were getting children involved in numerous games, helping them design their own action figures, and getting them organized for quizzes and prizes. No child was left without at least one free toy, and many of the parents were talked into buying more. Global Princess Entertainment dominated children’s day, and the convention was over all too soon.