Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 201

“Mama… Papa… je suis ici.” I mumbled aloud, staring at the large gates of Somerset Estate.

“I’m neither your father nor your mother, but you certainly are here and are quite welcome.” came a voice as the gates opened. “I’m Mila. Please allow me to help you with your luggage.”

She had been so quiet that I didn’t even hear her breath. Now that I caught sight of her approaching, she clearly appeared to be a maid. The outfit was possibly a costume, given how extravagant it seemed.

“Were you waiting for me?” I asked.

“Of course. The Princess would not want her dear friend waiting with so much luggage, much less trudging down the drive with it all.” replied Mila.

There was something very peculiar about her, other than her extraordinarily long, auburn hair and particularly petite frame.

“They’re quite heavy. I’ll manage.” I told her, not wanting to strain such a tiny girl.

“I’m not human, so there’s no need to worry over me.” she explained, easily lifting the majority of my things.

I fought a moment to keep my poise. With my parents dead and the majority of our belongings destroyed in the fire, this was quite literally all I had in the world.

“This way, please.” stated Mila as she turned and started walking up the drive.

“What precisely are you, if you don’t mind my asking?” I inquired shortly into our walk, hoping not to offend her while indulging my curiosity.

“What you see is an android body connected wirelessly to the rest of me. I was designed by the Princess for the sole purpose of aiding my master and your host, James Michael Somerset III.” she replied, putting an overly affectionate tone into the word “master”.

I forced myself to start walking again, having momentarily stopped. I had no idea there was such incredible technology in the world to create someone so lifelike, but I knew Aaliyah was far beyond normal. I also found myself wondering how incredibly wealthy James Michael Somerset III was to have such an enormous mansion. At first, I hadn’t realized quite how long the drive was, but walking a ways gave me a better sense of proportions. I needed to pay more attention, despite my emotional state. I should have taken the taxi to the door.

Feeling guilty, I said, “Sorry to trouble you.”

“If the Princess had wanted us to ride, I could easily have picked you up in one of the cars. I fear this journey is to amuse her in some way, as was keeping news of your coming from the master.” she explained.

I chuckled, thinking how perfectly typical that was for Aaliyah. She lived to mess with people, her friends especially.

“Would you mind telling me something about this place?” I inquired.

“Business headquarters of Best Friend For Hire and residence of James Michael Somerset III, Somerset Estate was personally renovated by the Princess to accommodate the master’s whims. I’m not at liberty to disclose the precise number of rooms to you or even the footage, since the Princess finds secrets to be far more entertaining. The forest is strictly off limits without being accompanied by the master, but you’re free to wander anywhere else you can manage. I will warn you that attempting to pass into the master’s vault would be lethal, even for your kind, so I cannot recommend it.” she told me, perfectly matter-of-factly even about my potential demise.

I nodded, not particularly surprised that Aaliyah had explained my nature. She seemed to follow her whims while enacting overly complicated plans. I was grateful that she was helping me.

The remainder of the walk was made in silence up until we reached the front doors, which swung open for us to reveal another set doing the same. The interior was every bit as extraordinary as the exterior.

“Just set your things here for now while I fetch my master. He’s needing to see me, and I’ll escort him to you.” she informed me as she set down my belongings. Then she started jogging back outside.

I slowly spun, staring all around me at the incredible entryway. The twin stairways leading to the balcony were ornately carved as was all the rest of the woodwork. I felt as if I was lost in a fairy tale. What would my parents think of this place? Papa would likely tease that it reminded him of home. He liked to call himself an exiled king while calling me a princess, probably one of the reasons Aaliyah and I got along so well.

The wait seemed long, and I was nervous, both excited and afraid. I wished my parents were alive and with me. I wished I knew what to expect here. I wished I was better prepared to be alone in this world. Thinking of papa, I started to sing one of his favorite songs, Castle on a Cloud from Les Misérables.

I was part way through when I heard the large doors open again, but I kept quietly singing, not quite ready for this dream to end. When I turned around, there was a very tall boy walking into the room in an elaborate, red costume. He was as graceful as he was handsome, which was quite the pairing. His picture on his company’s website hadn’t done him justice at all.

“Oh! You must be James!” I exclaimed.

Father had always insisted that letting people underestimate you would give you an advantage.

“I am, but who are you?” he replied in a manly voice fit for his stature.

I refrained from giggling, though I felt excited. There was something about him that bespoke of excellence. I needed to be calm, rational. I didn’t know what enemies I would find here.

“A vampire.” stated Mila’s twin after arriving with terrifying speed.

Her eyes were a brilliant violet unlike Mila’s green. This one was dressed in a fancy costume like James. Was there still a Halloween party happening? There was something about her stance and gaze that made me wary.

James moved in a blur, suddenly in front of me saying, “Don’t you dare!”

I peeked past her large back to the girl, feeling confused by the situation. I clearly wasn’t expected here by either of them.

“Don’t worry, boss-man, sir.” came a familiar tone. “Alpy wouldn’t dare hurt my friend. Right, Alpy?”

“Aaliyah!” I exclaimed jogging to her.

“Cosette!” she replied, jumping up into my arms.

“Cosette? Seriously?” inquired James.

“Huh?” I asked. Wait, I hadn’t introduced myself. “Oh. Yeah. My father was a fan of Les Misérables, so I learned that song practically at birth. My name’s Cosette Bourbon.”

Aaliyah’s presence made me far more confident. As tiny as she was, I was well aware the girl was vastly beyond me.

“James, you can’t seriously be thinking of letting her stay here.” stated Alpy.

Was “Alpy” really a name?

“Stay here? What? Oh. Aaliyah, what is going on here?” he inquired.

Forcing me to change my grip as she turned toward him, she explained “My friend here is going to be renting the upper northeast wing. She also wants to try working for you. Isn’t that great, boss-man, sir?”

Working for him? Aaliyah hadn’t mentioned that I would be working here, though I wasn’t particularly opposed.

“Did you talk with Emma about this?” he asked.

“James! Really? A vampire?” demanded Alpy.

“A vampire? Where?” asked a fairly tall, redhead boy as he came walking into the room with two beautiful girls. “I love a good vampire costume.”

“Whoa. How many people live here?” I asked, fearing there were hundreds I’d need to watch.

“Umm… ten at the moment.” replied James.

“Twelve if Mila and you are included. More if you count the staff and the fey.” argued Aaliyah.

“Fey!?” I exclaimed, picturing fairies and the like flittering through the halls.

Aaliyah’s imagination was part of what made her fun.

“Emma, James is thinking about letting this vampire rent the floor above you.” stated Alpy. “What are your feelings on the matter?”

“What!?” exclaimed one of the girls who had entered with the redheaded boy. Her short hair was fancifully dyed.

I could smell fear exuding from her even at this distance, and her skin grew exceedingly pale, though not as pale as her companion’s.

“Oh. Cool. You must be one of the good ones then.” stated the pale companion with perfectly white hair as she walked toward me. “I’m Portentia. If you’re ever feeling hungry, I’ve heard that my blood’s amazing. By the way, is Alma multiplying?”

Did I just hear her right? She wanted me to feed on her? Who was Alma? Oh. Probably Alpy.

“I was wondering that too. Love the maid outfit!” exclaimed the redhead.

“This isn’t funny.” stated Emma, trembling slightly.

Feeling that Aaliyah may have taken some joke too far, I wondered if I needed to leave. Where would I go? What would I do?

“Emma, Cosette, and Aaliyah, please follow me.” commanded James. “We need to talk.”

Aaliyah hopped down, took my hand and then Emma’s as she came close. I could feel the tension between us. James glanced back once, but didn’t say a word. The walk through the vast halls was long, and I was happy when the smell of fear seemed to fade. Though I occasionally glanced at Emma, she stared pointedly ahead.

When we stepped into a room on the second floor, something changed about her. The remaining fear evaporated, replaced by a sadness in her countenance.

“I hadn’t been up here, since they moved everything out.” she stated, breaking the silence.

“What happened to the previous tenant?” I asked.

Looking around with a somber expression, James said, “She died saving my life.”

“Oh. I’m sorry for your loss.” I stated, suddenly needing to hold back tears. I failed as Aaliyah hugged me. Thoughts of my parents were flooding through me. I understood all too well the pain of loss.

“What’s wrong?” asked James, looking concerned.

I could tell he was sincere, so I told him “I’m sorry. I just lost my parents.”

“What? How old are you?” demanded Emma. She looked ready to pick a fight with me.

I told her the truth, saying, “I’ll be fifteen in a few days.”

“But how old are you really?” she asked, obviously not believing a word.

“She’s not lying, Emma. She’s really fifteen. Were you turned recently then?” asked James.

I shook my head as I explained “No. I was born a vampire. My father was over two hundred. My mother was a bit short of one hundred. They decided to have me the old-fashioned way, which takes considerably more work for vampires.

Nearly nine months of concentration to keep her organs alive and functioning was needed for my birth. Any lapse in her concentration, could have killed me. Mama, you were amazing.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” stated James.

“Do you have siblings?” asked Emma, looking sad again herself.

I did my best to put on a smile as I said, “Not exactly. Father had some children before he was turned in the late 1700s. Mother never did, at least not that she told me. Arguably, I might have some sort of relatives out there, but I doubt hunting them down would do me any good. When Aaliyah suggested I live here, how could I refuse?”

“Refusing her can be tricky. I used to babysit Aaliyah before James started stealing all of her attention.” admitted Emma.

“Chad rented the apartment next to mine for a while.” I explained, happy to find that we had something to share other than loss while pained by the memories. Needing to find a change of subject, I asked “Who was the obnoxious girl that was causing such a fuss?”

“Sorry. That would be Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V. She might’ve been worrying about me. My father was killed in front of me by a vampire.” explained Emma.

“Oh. I’m sorry. That’s awful! I’ve never killed anyone.” I assured her.

“Well, I…” started Emma. She frowned, took a deep breath, and then said, “I suppose I can give you a chance.”

“Huh.” stated James. “I didn’t really expect things to be quite that easy, but okay. Mila will bring your luggage up. Need help with any of your furniture?”

“My apartment was destroyed in some freak fire. Didn’t even touch the rest of the building. I’ll buy some things after my little friend here finishes helping me gain access to my parents’ funds.” I told him. “If you want to help me seal up the windows, I…” I trailed off as the windows suddenly darkened, blocking out the night completely.

James smirked as he said, “This house is very well equipped with all sorts of technological gizmos. I’m sure Aaliyah will gladly explain what all Mila, the A.I. who runs everything, can do for you. I must excuse myself to go have a chat with someone.”

James leaving the room shouldn’t have affected me, but it did. I barely knew him and already felt attached. I wanted him back. I did my best to calm my mind, knowing I was still unbalanced due to my loss.

“What type of furniture would you like?” asked Emma.

“I don’t really know.” I admitted looking around. This room was every bit as splendid as the rest, save for the lack of furnishings. How many rooms did I have? I stopped and stared, realizing that Emma was sitting in a chair.

She laughed and said, “I’ll make you some if you want. I have a large collection of seeds, so I can do a fair number of types of wood. I grew this out of the floor where I found a nick in the varnish.”

“You grew it?” I inquired, bewildered by what I was hearing.

She grinned and two more fully carved chairs sprouted from the arm of hers, detaching as they finished forming. She flinched as I hugged her, so I quickly apologized, but she laughed. I hoped we’d become wonderful friends.

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Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 199

I hugged my pillow, not wanting to move. James had been tense the last couple weeks after the catastrophe at that amusement park, and everyone felt it. I didn’t want to get up for a birthday full of tension. I wanted some fun. Brandon offered to take me out to some bars, since I was turning twenty-one, but that wouldn’t be till late.

“Mila, know what Marco’s fixing for breakfast?” I asked.

“No time for breakfast yet. The master’s waiting for you and your brother. Brandon’s nearly dressed.” she replied.

“James is waiting for me?” I asked, bolting upright and wondering what he had planned. I felt like I had butterflies in my stomach. Then I started worrying if something bad had happened.

“Don’t worry. Just get ready. The master is waiting!” insisted Mila.

I nodded and hurried to pick out an outfit. Then I carefully used a spell Ai and Mai had taught Emma and me on my hair, since there wasn’t really time for brushing it. Looking into the mirror, I smiled. I loved magic.

Pounding the door, Brandon called “Sis, you up yet? James wants to see us.”

“I’M COMING!” I yelled, marching over to the door.

He grinned at me when I opened the door, and I did my best to maintain my scowl. He didn’t need to be quite so happy. Twenty-three was just another year for him. At least, last year he had claimed twenty-two was just another year. I felt like that was so long ago now. This summer and fall had been incredible.

“The master’s in the front hall.” stated Mila.

“Race you there!” he exclaimed as he started running.

I chased after him even knowing I didn’t stand a chance. He’d never let me live it down if he beat me by too much, despite cheating. Anyone watching could see the difference in his legs through his jeans.

When we arrived, I was on the verge of sweating and quite thankful I knew a spell to clean myself. I would help Brandon too, but he didn’t care. James was looking handsome as ever as he smiled at us.

“I hope you two weren’t busy, but I wanted to show you something before you were out and about today.” he announced, walking toward the door.

Brandon glanced at me, and I shrugged before following. Two beautiful cars I didn’t recognize sat outside.

“The keys are in the ignition. Happy birthday.” he casually stated.

My mind went blank and then tried to comprehend what he just said.

“What!? Are you serious, dude!?” exclaimed Brandon before I could even fully grasp what was said.

“Of course. If there are any problems, please let Jarod know. He put them together and maintenance will be covered by the company, so no worries there. Mila’s fully integrated into both cars. I hope you like the colors. Aaliyah chose for me.” he explained.

“Hmm… do I want green or black?” asked Brandon with a grin.

“I-I… ugh…” I mumbled, having trouble believing this was happening.

“Fine with the green one, sis?” he asked, still grinning.

I nodded and started walking toward the car. I had never seen anything like it and didn’t recognize the logo. BHILL2 was on the green one’s license plate. What were these? The door opened for me when I was a few feet away.

“Welcome, Brenna, to your new car. We can complete the registration process as you drive.” announced Mila.

I didn’t recognize the material on the black and green seats as I touched them, but it was very soft. The whole dashboard looked extremely high-tech, glowing with a soft green trim. “Is there a manual?” I asked.

“Of course, though I can’t recommend it. The princess did her usual job of ensuring each detail was covered.” replied Mila. Then she said, “Would you like to accept a call from Brandon?”

I nodded.

His face appeared, smiling at me from the center of the windshield. “Hey, sis. Ready for a second race?” he asked.

I glanced at the speedometer and wondered if this thing really went over two-hundred. I grinned back at my brother, started the car, and took off.

“Whoa! Easy there! These things are brand new!” exclaimed Brandon as I reached the gate.

The acceleration was incredible, and the seats were so comfortable. Brandon hung up shortly into the drive, and Mila started asking a few questions. I felt like I was in a dream the whole time, hardly believing this car was mine. Our dad would never have believed this if he were still alive. I wasn’t sure how long we had been out when we pulled back through the gate and came up the drive.

James was still standing outside, waiting for us. Alma was there too now with laptops floating all around her. I hoped we hadn’t been out too long. I let my fingers trail along the side of my car as I walked toward them.

“Do you like your car?” asked James as if there could be a doubt.

I nodded and said, “That drives so much better than our wagon!”

“Yeah. I can’t wait to see how many tickets she gets driving like that.” teased Brandon from behind me. “Seriously, man. Thank you. You just saved me a bundle. I had been planning on getting something soon, so Brenna could have the wagon.”

I smiled at him. He had told me his plan. We both had enough money to get cars now, but both of us were following Aaliyah’s advice on savings and investments as well. Getting a car just kept getting put off.

“Even my brother has a good bone or two in his body, but yes, thank you, James!” I exclaimed.

James smiled and the world seemed brighter. “I’m glad you like them. What would you like to do next?” he inquired.

Glancing at Brandon, I asked “There’s more?”

James shrugged and said, “Well, today is both of your birthdays. I figured I’d spend the day with you two if you don’t mind.”

Brandon and I looked at each other in disbelief. James had taken the day off for us!?

“Want to go paintballing?” asked Brandon.

“Ugh. No. Let’s go shopping!” I told him.

He scrunched up his face and said, “You shop plenty. What about hitting a movie?”

“We could just watch one on the theater here. Maybe go out to eat?” I suggested.

“Boring. Marco’s a better cook anyway.” he insisted.

He was right. Nothing tasted the same after trying Marco’s cooking. I sure didn’t bother cooking anymore, unless Marco was teaching me.

We each tried several more ideas but got distracted by a car pulling up behind us. Aaliyah was here! Her father didn’t really look all that old, smiling and waving as he got out of the car. He was still handsome for sure. I was surprised when Aaliyah came up behind him, bumping into him with two large, wrapped boxes blocking her view.

“Hey! Happy birthday, you two. Aaliyah insisted on carrying your gifts.” he explained.

“Boss-man, sir! You already gave them the cars!?” she complained. “Shouldn’t presents come after the cake?”

“My mistake.” replied James. “I’ll remember to check my schedule first next time.”

“Well, I need to get going to catch my flight. Thanks for looking after my princess again.” stated Chad, patting Aaliyah’s head as he spoke. Then he leaned down and kissed the top of her head before walking toward his car.

Aaliyah quickly shoved the presents at James, ran after her dad, and latched onto his leg, hugging. He looked so happy as he bent down, hugged her, and spoke to her. I wished I could’ve had that type of relationship with either of my dads. I never really got to know the first one, and the second had an awkward transition phase.

As Chad pulled away, Brandon said, “I don’t know, boss. Sis and I aren’t really agreeing on much.”

“Neither of us really expected to have the day off.” I told him Mila had informed us both in our cars about today’s jobs being bogus.

“Don’t worry!” exclaimed Aaliyah, skipping back to us. “I’ve got you covered! We just have to be back by five, so we can get all of the prep for the Halloween party done on time.”

I looked from her to James, but he seemed confused.

“Halloween party?” asked Brandon.

“What Halloween party?” I questioned, looking back to Aaliyah.

“There’s an open house tonight at seven followed by a masquerade ball at ten. The invitations went out weeks ago.” explained Alma out of nowhere. She had been so silent this whole time, typing away on her phone with the laptops still hovering around her.

Walking up to James, Aaliyah stared up at him and asked “You didn’t forget, did you, boss-man, sir?”

“I might not have mentioned it to anyone due to circumstances and stuff.” he replied unconvincingly.

With a big sigh, she told him “Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. I’m sure we’ll manage.” She then pulled a phone up from somewhere and said, “Mila, will you get everyone to the ballroom?”

Brandon looked at me and shrugged before following the others back into the house. This was one crazy day. I nearly jumped as I heard the cars start from behind us. I felt my pocket, but the keys were still there. Both cars started driving to the back of the house by themselves. Despite seeing James’ cars do that many times and being assured Mila was a great driver, I still wasn’t accustomed to it, especially not with knowing my car did that now.

Once gathered, Aaliyah started explaining everyone’s agendas. As she spoke, I was getting more and more excited. I really didn’t have high expectations for my birthday this year, but I probably should have. This day was already incredible.

,,,^._.^,,,

“Whoa. What’s all that?” I asked, staring at the semis taking up part of James’ drive.

This day was insane! I still couldn’t believe sis and I had new cars. Sports cars, really. The things were tricked out in the most absurdly awesome way! Most of the day was spent going from place to place in the limo by Aaliyah’s agenda, and I felt like I was having the most intense birthday of my life. This day was making my twenty-first birthday seem tame, and Brenna hadn’t even taken her first drink yet!

“The yard decoration crew!” exclaimed Aaliyah. Then she pointed at the house and said, “The interior decorations should already be waiting inside. Much to do!”

I laughed. She was the best kid ever. Everyone headed inside and the decorating began. I was grateful that Jarod and I were working together when I took a look at the schematic for our assigned rooms. This whole place was being turned into a haunted mansion, and the explanations were typical Aaliyah, meaning virtually incomprehensible for more normal people. Brenna was working with Emma, so I figured they could figure things out with a bit of help from Mila. I didn’t know how we were going to finish in time till Alma came sweeping around the house. The moment she arrived in our fourth room, everything seemed to hop up into place perfectly. Her magic was still intimidating to me. The girl was scary. Incredibly beautiful, but scary.

We all split up to get dressed and I changed my bod a bit to fill out the caveman look better. Aaliyah had even provided me with a hollow, wooden club ― or maybe Emma had made it? Literally thousands of people came through the mansion as the night went on. I toured the haunted mansion once myself, and Mila got me good. She had control of all the sound effects, lights, and electric gizmos throughout it. Her timing was phenomenal on the jump scares.

I was careful around the security in the area, not wanting to make enemies with any of the local police James had hired, but I still got my drink on before joining in on the dancing out back. I wanted to keep an eye on my sis in case any of the guys she danced with got handsy. I was sure Mila would inform security, but that might take time. My worries only lasted until she smoothly flipped a guy onto the ground and kicked him in the stomach. I had to admit my little sis was much tougher than she used to be.

Spotting James, I made my way over to him. He really stuck out with his intensely red costume and stark white skull, especially near the bonfire as he was.

“I think you win for scariest costume, boss. The skull is freaky by the fire.” I informed him.

“Did you have a good birthday?” he asked.

I laughed. Only James would feel the need to ask if this was a good birthday with a live band playing on the stage for what had to be the largest party in the city. “This has been the wildest birthday I can remember. Thanks a million. Brenna’s been having a great time as well, not that I’ve caught her much with all the guys trying to dance with her.” I informed him.

“I’m just glad you managed to have a good time. This was a bit more than I was expecting.” he admitted.

I nodded and grinned. James was the most modest, good-natured guy I knew, and he continued to seem oblivious to how he affected everyone. Anyone in his costume would probably catch attention, but there was obviously more people in this area than farther away and not just because of the bonfire.

Not long after getting back to dancing, I lost track of James. I was certain I could find him if I just looked for the thickest crowd, but I didn’t want to take up all of his time. Besides, there were a number of girls who needed the attention of a caveman.

,,,^._.^,,,

“James…” I stated, undecided on how I would continue the sentence. The guests were gone and the security team was dismissed. At my request, James was walking the grounds with me, but I found myself nervous. I was one of the wealthiest, most powerful women in the world, but I found myself completely hesitant about what I wanted to say. What if he refused?

“Yes?” he asked after too long of a pause.

I took a breath and forced myself to inquire “Would you be interested in dating me?”

Foolish. I should have asked if he would date me, not if he’d be interested. I already knew he was interested. At least, I assumed he was. Looking into his eyes, I doubted myself. Would he be willing? I considered running.

“You…” he started, staring down at me with his gentle grip loosening slightly in my hand. “want to date me?” he finished, sounding completely surprised.

Was he playing with me? “If you are interested, I would very much like to formally declare that we are dating exclusively.” I explained, trying to be perfectly frank about my intentions. Why was I so nervous?

Why did he look so shocked? He had to know how I felt, didn’t he?

“I…” he started, letting the word hang far too long.

“No.” stated Aaliyah, her voice seeming to come from nowhere at first.

Then I spotted her and asked, “What? Why are you here?”

“He’s not ready.” she told me, stepping towards me from the shadows.

“How dare you!?” I demanded, feeling my anger rising. “I’m perfectly capable of deciding whether or not someone is worthy to date me.”

I found myself shoved up against the house, and I struggled desperately not to move even a hair despite the fear suddenly enveloping me. I didn’t dare look down despite knowing what was there, a hair’s width from my throat. I felt the scythe-shaped void in front of me. One touch, and part of me would be gone. I might even be dead. Endless rumors floated throughout my family about that weapon. I struggled to think, to be calm, but endless despair washed over me ― a pale emotion compared with the stark terror inside. I fought with all I had to keep in control, but I was somehow still aware of what transpired in front of me, an insurmountable distance in those few feet.

“And I said ‘no’.” stated Aaliyah. Turning to James, she said, “James, you’re not her equal. You don’t understand what dating her entails. Her family has rites of which you haven’t been made aware. You’ll face dangers that you can’t surmount as you are. You’re not ready, no matter what she says.”

Tears were flowing down my cheek, but not just because of the struggle with my fear. An even worse despair was settling into my heart as I considered that Death might keep us apart.

“Alma? What’s she talking about?” he asked, looking towards me, but our eyes didn’t meet. He couldn’t even see me with this thing between us. He turned on his phone and shone the light in my direction.

I wanted to keep him from seeing this, but I didn’t dare interfere. I watched helplessly as Death gripped his hand in the form of a little girl.

“Don’t fear the reaper, James. I won’t harm you.” she claimed.

“All this time, you’ve been terrifying me? You’re Death’s daughter?” he asked, surprisingly calmly.

“I’m known by many names throughout all of time and space. Death’s daughter is just one.” she replied.

“Then who is Chad?” he asked.

“My daddy. Even Death had to come from somewhere.” she insisted. “I’m not lying, boss-man, sir. There’s just a bit you don’t know about me. I am ancient and young. Don’t worry about defining me, boss-man, sir. I’m your friend and your secretary. Well, technically I’m also the little girl you’re babysitting till daddy’s home. As your friend, I want to help you.”

James had started shaking as she spoke. He fell to the ground and shut off his phone’s light. I desperately wanted to help him, but still locked in my own battle I could do nothing.

“Help me how?” he asked, staring up at her.

“If you truly want to date Alma, drink this.” she stated, holding out a black vial.

“What is it?” he questioned.

“It’s not pumpkin juice.” she teased with a wink.

Then he asked “What will it do to me?”

“It will give you the strength you need to stand at Alma’s side.” she claimed.

James started reaching for the vial, and I fought to find my voice. I wanted to warn him not to trust her, to leave. I wasn’t worth his life. For a moment, I found the will to move, but seeing the thing between us froze me. New waves of terror suffused me, binding me in place. There was nothing but the endless void of that scythe waiting to devour me.

As I finally tore my eyes away, I heard Aaliyah ask “Or was that the poison?”

He was lost, and part of me would die with him.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 181

I nearly dropped my fork halfway to my mouth when I noticed a light out of my sister’s eyes. Hovering over James’ plate with a slice of his bacon bigger than her held aloft by tiny little hands was an actual, luminescent fairy. I quickly looked to verify with my own eyes as well.

“Man-slave! A fairy! A fairy is eating your bacon!” exclaimed Emma.

Luckily, the little creature ignored her.

“Is that some sort of magic?” asked Brandon.

“She’s so cute!” exclaimed Brenna right over him.

“I thought all of the fey were dead. She is one, isn’t she?” questioned Jarod at the same time.

Possibly to himself over the fuss, Marco said, “I’ll have to figure out what she likes to eat and order doll-sized dishes.”

:This is really happening.: stated my sister and I at once, still disbelieving what we were seeing.

:I’ll text Lady Pendreigh.: agreed Mai, understanding my thoughts on the matter.

If this really was what we thought it was, we were all in danger.

James raised his hands for silence, staring all of us down until the loudest noise was the fairy fighting with the bacon. I was impressed by how much she was eating and how quickly she was eating it.

“She lives in the woods on my estate and followed me home.” he announced.

“You are a man of many surprises, James.” replied nii-san in his thick Japanese accent.

If not for Lady Pendreigh, we would worry what he would tell mother about this discovery, but mother wouldn’t dare encroach as long as Lady Pendreigh was here.

As the little fairy wrestled a sausage, James smiled and said, “I don’t think you’ll have to try too hard to find something she’ll eat, Marco.”

Smiling and nodding, Marco seemed to agree.

“After my leg heals a bit more, would you allow me to stroll through your woods and see if there are any more like her, James?” inquired nii-san. “This is quite the discovery.”

James looked hesitant as he said, “Give me a few days to think on it. Oh. Wait. Weren’t you leaving after the auction?”

“Due to my injury, and now this discovery, I feel a need to extend my trip, as long as you don’t mind me taking advantage of your hospitality a while longer.” he replied.

“Oh. Of course. Stay as long as you like.” insisted James.

“James, don’t move.” ordered Lady Pendreigh the instant she arrived. She was staring intently at the fairy.

:Seems we were right…: mumbled Mai.

I was just as distracted as she was, having watched as the fairy glanced at Lady Pendreigh before diving into James’ shirt, still holding what remained of the sausage.

“She really does find you scary, doesn’t she.” commented James as he smirked at Lady Pendreigh.

He might as well have struck her with the brief moment of distress that showed on her face.

Then her emotions washed away, and she said, “Funny, considering she’s one of the most dangerous creatures my family ever encountered. She could kill most of you before I could react.”

Before she was finished speaking, my jaw dropped. Images were flooding through our minds. In them, we saw Lady Pendreigh wreathed in fire and pointing at James’ food. As the little fairy hid, Lady Pendreigh swept up the last piece of bacon, devouring it as she smiled down at the little creature. We continued watching as the image went through other possible ways that Lady Pendreigh might take the food away.

:That’s amazing!: exclaimed Mai.

:I know… Why didn’t we think to take James’ bacon in such a manner!: I teased, despite being equally awed at the fairy’s telepathic abilities.

“Apparently, she believes you’re here to steal her food.” explained Emma.

Nii-san and Lady pendreigh looked confused, so we told them “She has telepathy!”

The fairy’s thoughts suddenly changed, picturing James angrily waving his finger at Lady Pendreigh. Outside of her thoughts, she flew out of the pocket and up to Lady Pendreigh in a most defiant manner. Then she dove back down at James’ plate.

“Charming, but she’s dangerous, James. We need to find a place where she’ll be safe away from people.” stated Lady Pendreigh.

“She has a place. She lives in my forest.” insisted James, staring her down.

“But she… the forest. How many are there?” she asked, closing her eyes. “I always wondered why there wasn’t so much as a bird there. Who did this? How?” She was quiet for a moment, casting numerous spells, when suddenly she winced before sitting down. She rubbed her temple as she said, “I can’t advise anyone to study the enchantment around the forest. There are defenses I’ve never seen before.”

Mai and I glanced at one another. The forest was off limits, so we avoided it. We never considered what might be in it. The idea that there was an enchantment there beyond Lady Pendreigh was frightening. Who could have made such a thing?

The fairy suddenly darted off into the hall with another of the sausages, and we wondered what startled it. A moment later, we saw the fairy fluttering around Aaliyah as she entered the room.

“Marco, could I get another plate?” asked James.

“Me too!” exclaimed the diminutive girl, wearing her secretary glasses and munching on the stolen sausage. She finished chewing and then asked, “What?” Pointing the sausage at the fairy, she said, “She offered.”

The little fairy ignored the sausage pointed at her, already eating other things.

“Busy day today, everyone!” announced Aaliyah, crawling onto James’ lap. “Boss-man, sir, you’re going to be late for training if you don’t hurry. Alpy? What’s wrong?”

“Hmm? Nothing. James, will you let Ai and Mai handle training everyone today and take me into the woods?” inquired Lady Pendreigh.

We sighed, having intended to spend the morning with Jarod and nii-san.

“Why? What do you want to do?” asked James.

“I suppose we can make time, but as your tenant agreement states, you’ll have to sign a visitation form to enter the forest and be escorted by the boss-man.” muttered Aaliyah as she looked at James’ phone.

“Emma, will you join us as well?” offered Lady Pendreigh.

“Of course!” exclaimed Emma, grinning at her.

We could guess that Lady Pendreigh wanted Emma’s company because of the exceptionally strong fey blood running through her veins, but we still felt put out by being given work and left behind.

“I’m sure most of you want to see them after meeting this little one.” stated James as he motioned to the fairy. “I’ll see how we can manage after gauging how the fey react with these two.”

Jarod was obviously feeling disappointed as well, but at least he might join us. He obviously had much he could teach in the martial arts lessons.

Everyone finished their food quietly while watching Lady Pendreigh creating balls of light and sending them toward the fairy. Residual energy poured off the little creature as she caught the lights and sent them back. The entire time, images danced in our heads, showing us different ways to maneuver the light. There was a questioning tone to it.

“What’s her name?” asked Emma.

James paused with his fork halfway to his mouth as he said, “Apparently, they don’t use names.”

“You’ve gotta name her.” insisted Brenna. “We can’t just call her ‘fairy’ all the time.”

Smirking, Brandon said, “Unless that’s her name.”

Brenna hit him, but he kept grinning. We agreed with Brenna that a name was appropriate.

“We could name her ‘Lucia’.” suggested Mai.

Nodding, I said, “Or perhaps ‘Lucita’, since she’s so small.”

“I like ‘Glimmerwing’, because she glimmers and has wings.” offered Emma.

“Could just call her ‘Laser’, since that’s how she’ll kill you.” stated Lady Pendreigh, though she was still smiling at the fairy.

“That’s horrible! You can’t name a girl that.” protested Brenna.

Looking intrigued, Jarod asked “Can she really create lasers?”

“According to what I’ve read, which is admittedly one account, these little ones created ‘beams of divine light which burned through scores of men’. The author is credible though.” replied Lady Pendreigh.

Jarod was grinning instantly, probably considering wacky ways to make use of such magic.

:Wacky, but brilliant.: admitted Mai.

We could never argue against his brilliance. He really was remarkable.

“You can’t tame them or reason with them. There’s no trusting fey. They feel, and they react. If you’re going to give her a name and admire her like a pet, you should realize that she’ll probably outwit you and destroy you in a moment of anger. Though I feel my family went too far when they attempted genocide against these creatures, I’m not going to tell you I approve of keeping them in the house either.” explained Lady Pendreigh.

Despite her warning, the rest of us continued debating on what the best name would be, at least until the plates were taken away. Then we demanded everyone, at least those who were coming, to get to practice. If we were ordered to act as instructors, we wouldn’t let Lady Pendreigh down.

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 162

“Boss-man, sir, most valued of employees, your shift ended seven minutes ago.” stated Aaliyah, shortly after arriving down from the stage.

James stared at her, seeming confused for a moment. Then he nodded and pulled out his phone. Seconds passed and he just kept staring. Was something wrong?

“Hey, boss.” I started, hoping to get his attention. When he looked, I said, “Wanna roam around together some?”

“Oh. Sure! I’m actually free for a couple hours.” he replied.

“Thanks, man. You really wouldn’t believe how often I get hit on like this.” I admitted as we headed down one of the crowded aisles.

“I’m still completely bewildered as to why you agreed to it.” stated James.

“Well, I first found out I could do this when I was just a toddler.” I explained. “Brenna wanted to play some girly game, and I kinda became a girl to play with her. The high school thing really wasn’t as bad as she made it sound… I think.”

“Umm… I really don’t need to know. As long as you’re comfortable with it, that’s fine by me. I just was worried you had been pressured into the change.” he explained.

That’s my boss, always thinking of others. “Thanks, man.” I told him. “I’m so, so glad my sister and I started working for you. We never really had a place to be ourselves before. Even our parents got a bit weirded out by what we could do. Life’s been so much more enjoyable lately, and I’m still asking myself if it’s real at times. It’s like ‘Don’t pinch me! I don’t wanna wake up!’, ya know.”

He nodded and said, “I can understand the feeling a bit. I never thought my business would take off so fast, and I can’t believe how well things have gone, much less the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. I’m glad you’re happy. You two are really doing great!”

“Thanks again. We really do appreciate all you do for us.” I told him, but he was staring off at something.

Whoa. A bounce ball just smashed into a register, opened it, and relieved the clerk of some cash. Then the money got caught in some wind and flew back to the guy.

“Whoa. I wish I could’ve caught that on camera!” I admitted, laughing at the craziness of it.

James seemed distracted as ever as we walked. He was the strangest boss. One, he was younger than me. Secondly, he wanted us to all know how to fight and was incredible at it. Thirdly, he could do some really crazy stuff with magic. Well, then there was the mansion we lived in, his absurdly tiny secretary, and superhuman girls who didn’t even work for him but happened to live there. Even living there, I still wondered at times if James had some super secret past where he was some child spy that toppled governments. Whatever the case, I wasn’t being hit on with him around, though we both were stopped several times to pose for pictures.

“Whoa, dude. Hold it. I need these!” I exclaimed, catching sight of a t-shirt vendor with some really funny shirts. The problem with my current job is that I knew I could buy all of them but didn’t want to destroy my savings either. Sure, having room and board covered by the company helped replenish savings quickly, but I had been talking with my sis for a bit about getting a new car. Sharing could be rough at times even with Mila helping us out with lifts. Must choose, but choose wisely. I could totally go Indiana Jones on these.

After getting a couple shirts, I made James stop with me a few more times. He was browsing, but didn’t really buy anything. I had to admit that most of this stuff didn’t really seem like it’d fit with the mansion’s overly expensive look.

“Care to pose for me?” asked a girl.

Yep, she was asking James. Hot girl though. Short… Emma short, not Alma short. I liked her hair, endless brown curls all over that made me want to pat her head.

“Umm… sure.” replied James.

I never understood how a guy who attracted girls like him could still be bashful. The girl handed me her camera and moved over by James. When she took her sunglasses off, her face was even more gorgeous, but her eyes… they seemed to drift independently from each other. Was something wrong with her?

“Not like this.” she stated as James took position by her. “Could you dip me back as if you just caught me mid-fall?”

Whoa. He made that look easy. How many girls had he caught like that? After I took the picture, she quickly put her sunglasses back on. James was blushing slightly. I really didn’t get it. Even though I’d totally take this girl on a date, she wasn’t nearly the prettiest girl I had ever seen. We lived with so many pretty girls…

She pulled a thin rod out of her purse that extended into a staff length at the click of a button. Then she said, “Thank you ever so much. I always wanted to try that.”

Oooh… she was blind. How was she getting through this crowd by herself!?

“Oh. No problem at all. Really.” insisted James.

I held the camera out toward her, wondering if I should put her hand on it, but she grabbed it easily as if she knew it were there. Did she hear me move over this crowd!? Wait a minute… why did a blind girl want pictures?

As James turned to leave, the girl grabbed his arm and said, “Sorry, but might you tell me where your boss is? She wasn’t at the booth when I went looking for her.”

“I think she’s behind you, Maxine, although James is my boss too!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

I jumped a little, as did Maxine. Aaliyah was easy to miss due to her height. I should have noticed Portentia. That girl really stuck out, especially in costume.

“You two know each other?” asked James.

“Well, no. I’ve been trying to get in touch with Aaliyah for some time, but she doesn’t reply to my emails.” explained Maxine.

“Maxine’s been trying to hack into my game ever since she heard how totally awesome it is! I’m betting she was going to try hiring me as a pretense to look at code written by me. Great idea, huh?” replied Aaliyah.

A blind hacker!? I had to ask Jarod about this.

“Maxine Marveille Montgomery.” came a very recognizable British accent. “Causing trouble as usual?” asked Alma.

“Oh my. Lady Pendreigh, what brings you to town?” asked Maxine. “Trying to start fires with your business rivals?”

Whaaat? Was that a coincidence, or does she really know Alma? Where was Jarod when I needed him!? This was too weird.

“You should know that I don’t need to do any hostile takeovers. They simply give me what I want when asked.” stated Alma.

“You two are just so adorable!” exclaimed Aaliyah, easily the most adorable person present.

The other two seemed ready to throw down.

“Well, I see that I’m not going to get what I want here today.” stated Maxine. She turned back toward James and said, “Meeting you, James, was a pleasure. If you want, we can have lunch while I’m in town.” She held up a business card for him to take.

Alma looked pissed when James took it, but that was one of her three expressions. She could look uncaring, pissed, or strangely happy. I didn’t know which was scariest.

Maxine wandered off, tapping her long cane in front of her as she maneuvered through the crowd.

“What was that about?” asked James.

Almost on top of him, Portentia asked “You’re not really going to have lunch with that girl, are you, James?”

“That girl is nothing but trouble, James. Be careful.” stated Alma almost at the same time as the other two.

Aaliyah didn’t seem to have a care in the world, hugging the boss’ leg and smiling up at him.

James looked around at everyone before saying, “I have to admit that I’m a bit intrigued by that whole exchange. You three have amazing timing.”

“I’m with James on that one.” I admitted.

“Well, there’s a contest for hacking my game. I entered, of course, and am going to win by default, since they all suck for even trying. Maxine was hoping to get an edge by looking at source code written by me. She’s even more trouble than Hugh, but not as cruel.” insisted Aaliyah.

Alma, who had been coolly gazing at Aaliyah, said, “I know her from business. She works with part of my family in more nefarious pursuits.”

“I knew there was something I didn’t like about her!” exclaimed Portentia. “How are we going to take her down?” she asked, looking around for suggestions.

Alma sighed loudly, obviously not in the mood to indulge Portentia’s pastime.

“I thought she was rather cute. Kinda am wishing I would’ve met her when I’m more myself, if you get what I mean.” I admitted with a grin. I didn’t want anyone fighting. I never wanted to see James so upset again.

Aaliyah giggled.

James laughed too, which made me happy. “You’re not supposed to purposely go after the bad ones.” he claimed.

“Oh? Really? I thought they were supposed to be all the more fun.” I insisted.

Seeing people angry was never fun, especially friends, but James was on a different level. The man had the type of presence that demanded attention, but you found yourself staring at something terribly unpleasant without being able to look away when he was upset. James being anything but his good-humored self was wrong somehow. I was glad I got him smiling.

Portentia tugged on his sleeve to get his attention and asked ”What did he say? I couldn’t see from here.”

“Oh. Brandon seems to like bad girls. Maybe I should give him Maxine’s card.” teased James.

Portentia looked at me in wide-eyed shock as she exclaimed “That’s horrible, Brandon! I’d have to turn you in when I caught you, and I would catch you.”

I didn’t doubt it. Portentia never seemed to get tired, and was already stronger and faster than me. She was really obvious when not in public. The girl was as amazing as she was beautiful.

,,,^._.^,,,

“Care to pose for me?” I asked, certain James would.

James Michael Somerset III, owner and CEO of Best Friend for Hire, was currently working for Aaliyah T. Sypher, a child genius with the most incredible software development skills known to me. Along with some of the most skilled hackers in the world, I’ve been trying to find vulnerabilities in Ancient Tribes of Earth without success. I needed to get an edge.

James III was the only child of James II and Rachel Somerset. His father owned a small hotel chain with some interesting clientele. The mother was a painter, a dreamer. I might commission her to do some work for me. Some of my father’s favorite paintings still lingered throughout my businesses.

“Umm… sure.” he replied.

I had easily recognized James from pictures, but he was even more attractive in person. I wanted to run my hands across his face and embed it firmly in my mind. I handed his employee, Brandon Underhill, my camera. Brandon had been adopted along with his sister, Brenna, by Jack and Susan Underhill. Orphans now, the siblings had meaningless lives before coming to work for James.

James took a pose next to me as if I was some mere fangirl. I removed my glasses, and my blindness returned. Developing technology to allow me to see took considerable effort, but I wasn’t helpless without it.

“Not like this.” I told him. “Could you dip me back as if you just caught me mid-fall?”

There was constant noise around us, endless footfalls and chatter. I could make out numerous conversations throughout the crowd, but I didn’t recognize any voices. Most of my enemies had no idea who I was.

I wasn’t ready for the swiftness with which James dipped me. I could move faster easily, but I was still surprised by it. I liked the feel of his arms. Anyone who could make a crazy business such as his out of nothing had to be talented, especially to capture Aaliyah as a secretary.

I heard the camera click, but I didn’t really want him to lift me back to my feet. A few more seconds of being held by him wouldn’t hurt my schedule, but our moment was over. I donned my sunglasses and scanned the area. I hadn’t missed anything. I quickly pulled out my cane. I needed to find Aaliyah and convince her to do business with me.

“Thank you ever so much. I always wanted to try that.” I admitted.

“Oh. No problem at all. Really” he insisted.

I took the camera back from his underling. James gathered interesting people around him. He could be so useful… I gave into an impulse as James turned from me, grabbing his arm.

“Sorry, but might you tell me where your boss is? She wasn’t at the booth when I went looking for her.” I informed him, certain he’d be able to get in touch with her.

“I think she’s behind you, Maxine, although James is my boss too!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

I jumped despite myself. How did she get so close without me hearing her? The girl was mere feet from me. A little farther behind her was the pale girl. I couldn’t find information on her anywhere when I had done my research. Portentia Zhidkova might as well not have existed before coming into James’ employ. Who was she?

“You two know each other?” inquired James.

“Well, no. I’ve been trying to get in touch with Aaliyah for some time, but she doesn’t reply to my emails.” I explained.

“Maxine’s been trying to hack into my game ever since she heard how totally awesome it is! I’m betting she was going to try hiring me as a pretense to look at code written by me. Great idea, huh?” claimed Aaliyah.

She knew!? How?

“Maxine Marveille Montgomery.” stated one of my least favorite voices. “Causing trouble as usual?”

“Oh my. Lady Pendreigh, what brings you to town?” I asked. “Trying to start fires with your business rivals?”

Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V was a force in the world. She had ruined numerous business deals for me in the past year alone. I needed to be careful.

“You should know that I don’t need to do any hostile takeovers. They simply give me what I want when asked.” she replied.

“You two are just so adorable!” exclaimed Aaliyah with a grin.

I’d have to accept this defeat and move onto other plans, such as kidnapping the tiny girl. If Lady Pendreigh was really living in James’ residence as my sources suggested, a kidnapping would be impossible. Alma would surely take notice of any kidnapping in the park between Aaliyah’s residence and James’.

“Well, I see that I’m not going to get what I want here today.” I told them. I turned to James and said, “Meeting you, James, was a pleasure. If you want, we can have lunch while I’m in town.” I offered him my card, which he took.

If I could win James away from Alma, perhaps she would go back to the United Kingdom where she belonged. Her business expansion into the U.S. had gone too far already. Plus, I’d quite enjoy seeing more of James.

I walked off, using my cane to help people realize they needed to get out of my way. A smile came to my lips as I thought more of James and the ways I could use his company. This day was certainly not a complete waste.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 156

I looked around warily as more and more people entered the enormous room, but they all hurried off, as if knowing exactly where they were going. Well, a few needed help from one of the convention’s staff. No villains of any type appeared. I embarrassingly thought that Alma could easily stop a criminal faster than I could, but would she? I doubted it. She might well be the one behind the nefarious deeds.

I would need to be careful here even if I needed to act. Aaliyah was paying us all to help promote her game. I couldn’t embarrass her. Embarrassing her would also embarrass James, since I was hired through his company. I couldn’t do that to them, especially after Aaliyah made this wonderful costume for me.

Every day I lived as a hero, but wearing this costume made me feel like one more than ever. I felt as if the entire outfit had been made to be a part of me, fitting me more perfectly than anything else I’ve worn. Furthermore, I looked like a hero. There had been suggestions that I needed a costume in the past, but I never could picture myself in any of the suggestions before. This outfit was me.

Brandon’s feminine hand waved in front of my face, so I looked up at him… well, her. Brandon did make a beautiful girl, but I couldn’t believe he actually wore his character’s costume. Didn’t he feel exposed?

“Are you seeing all this?” she asked. Then she laughed and said, “Of course not. It’ll take all weekend!”

He… she… was obviously excited. I wanted to see things as well. I could relate, but I was more excited about being seen. I had told myself so many times that being unnoticed was a good thing. Rumors would spread of the terror that awaited villains even if the people didn’t know they were protected. But now… I wanted to be that symbol which brought people hope. I needed to step up my game.

I felt a tiny hand on my shoulder and looked to see Aaliyah grinning. I impulsively hugged her. The girl was wonderful and so very kind.

When I released her, she signed <Care to join James and me up front?  I need help handing out pamphlets.>

I smiled and nodded. She was the boss this weekend. No… James wouldn’t see it quite like that. He would say that we each were her best friend for the weekend. I needed to be whatever she needed.

I stood and watched as Aaliyah gave directions to the others, most of which I missed, but I got the idea that they were to open the booth and be ready to sell stuff. When Aaliyah moved over toward a box, I picked it up for her, earning me a smile.

Unasked, Alma joined us as we went to find James. The way she moved was so different than the rest of us. She was graceful, but there was more… Well, her posture was perfect. She had an air about her that commanded attention. Even when we reached the crowd pouring into the room, people seemed careful not to touch her.

James was there, smiling and posing for a picture. He seemed to be having fun, encircled by onlookers. When he noticed us, he waved and the circle engulfed us as well. I never realized how shy Aaliyah was until I saw her dodging to hide behind James whenever someone she didn’t know got close.

I wasn’t used to getting this much attention, but I was managing. Aaliyah and Alma both helped when I missed what someone said, and I mostly just needed to smile, pose, and hand out pamphlets as I could.

A number of the people here were other players in Ancient Tribes of Earth. Some were even from James’ guild, our guild. The idea that there were thousands of people in the world who intimately shared that pastime with us seemed strange to me. Being able to meet some of them in person was even stranger. Thousands only seemed like a lot when you didn’t consider how few that was next to the billions in the world. Still, I would save thousands just as happily as I saved one if they were in danger.

<This is fun, isn’t it!> signed Aaliyah.  <There will be more people here this weekend than the population of many small towns throughout the country.  Isn’t that crazy?>

The tiny girl had been thinking similar thoughts to my own, but she went the opposite direction. I hadn’t considered that even saving the people coming here this weekend would compare to a whole town. Saving a town… now that would make a symbol.

As much as I liked the idea of saving so many, I’d be horrified that someone would be so evil as to endanger that many. No one I had faced was quite that terrible, not yet at least. I glanced at Alma, turning my head when she looked my way. Could she do it? Could she endanger an entire town?

Even posing and taking pictures together, she didn’t seem to share in the spirit of it with the rest of us. Her smiles were rare, pretty much reserved for James exclusively. She didn’t look annoyed either, just… emotionless. Emotionless people could be extraordinarily dangerous, since hurting others didn’t affect them like normal people.

I felt someone tap on my shoulder and turned. James was smiling at me.

“Are you hot?” he asked.

“What?” I replied, feeling confused.

“Hot… You know, from wearing the costume.” he insisted.

I shook my head and said, “No…”

He looked surprised. Didn’t I tell him that I don’t really get hot or cold? There was the time that Alma used magic on me, but that’s magic. I was quickly interrupted by someone asking for a picture and didn’t get a chance to try explaining again.

Eventually, all of the pamphlets were gone, and James lifted Aaliyah onto his shoulders. We stopped several times on the way back to the others for quick pictures, but Aaliyah posed from where she sat, unwilling to get down near the crowd. Did she worry about getting trampled? Kidnapped? We were there for her. I’d protect her.

When we arrived, our booth was already filled with people. Crowds were dangerous. Shoplifters and the like loved to take advantage of a crowd, but we could stop them. Well, those of us who were staying behind. Brandon, Brenna, and Jarod were sent out to hand out pamphlets, and the twins followed them, carrying drinks. Emma was still with us, looking cute in her outfit as she helped our customers. This was such strange work for a hero, but I would manage.

I did my best, reminding myself not to move too fast. The temptation to move faster and faster was always there. Countless people were around us, each wanting attention. Alma wasn’t speeding up, and I wasn’t about to let her show me up. I could handle this too.

I was surprised when a divider started sliding down in front of me.

<Time to get on stage.> signed Alma.

She could be very considerate, which confused me.

I felt a strange feeling, getting on stage and having all those people staring up at us, but I saw how the group looked in the numerous televisions around us. We looked amazing. I really did look like a hero should. I knew what I had to do and performed as we had practiced, though I was a little confused at the end. Water had somehow formed on me. When we left the stage, I looked to Alma, wanting to ask if she did this.

She was already signing to me, saying, <I told the twins to make us look like we were sweating.  They’ll get rid of it momentarily.>

James left shortly after with Alma and Aaliyah, apparently for an autograph slot. Brandon, Brenna, Jarod, and I were left to tend the booth while Emma took a break with the twins. Things were harder without Aaliyah and Alma. No one here knew sign language, and they seemed to have trouble hearing me. We still managed, and nothing was stolen, even after hours passed. Where was James now?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 155

I smiled as I looked at myself in the mirror. Callan’s armor suited me well, and I looked forward to James’ opinion, not that he’d probably notice. I knew I didn’t stand a chance with him, not with how he looked at Alma, but I still liked the occasional compliment from someone other than my brother. I frowned, thinking I should probably make sure Brandon figured out his costume, not that there was much to it. He had interrupted my lessons over and over this week to ask my opinion how he looked as a girl. Only my brother would play a female character, decide to dress up as her, and still panic over how he looked.

I smiled again when I turned around and saw Portentia trying to catch herself in the mirror again. Prying her away from it had been tricky. She was beautiful, but I doubted she saw anything but that costume. Even I had to admit she looked like a hero in it, at least more so than she did walking around in a hoodie. When I met her and saw her in that dress she wore for James’ party, I thought Alma might have some competition, but Portentia didn’t even seem to care how she looked most days, it was obvious. I stepped out of her way, but Emma squeezed in front of her.

Emma pulled off her character, Toxi, well, but she always looked cute. I wasn’t into her style, but I couldn’t deny that she pulled it off. Months living together, and I still wasn’t used to the way she’d occasionally look at me. I did enjoy her company. Emma was never against watching movies with me, discussing makeup, or any of the other things I couldn’t do well with the others. I did watch movies with the others, but always “boy movies”. Emma was up for watching things with more depth.

“Onward!” called Aaliyah from by the door. She looked precisely like her character, but that was to be expected when she designed her character to look like her. Resisting the urge to pick her up and hug her was a constant chore, but she never cared when I gave into impulse. I just knew I couldn’t do that to her all the time. Despite her looks, she was twelve. I hated when Brandon would treat me as a little kid at that age when he was only two years older than me.

Following Aaliyah out into the hall, I sighed. My brother looked ready to run.

“You are Brandon.” stated James in a loud whisper.

“This is weird, isn’t it. I should go change. Forget you saw this, okay?” he asked.

“Oh no you don’t, buster!” I yelled at him.

I grabbed him by the arm and said, “You’ve been practicing for days! You can’t just duck out now.”

“So you knew he could do this?” asked James.

“I am his sister, you know. It’s not like a guy can hide this sort of thing. You wouldn’t believe the stuff I’d catch him at in high school.” I informed him.

Brandon quickly covered my mouth. In a rush, he said, “Brenna likes to exaggerate. I was just curious one day, and well… things happen. If you could change your shape to some extent, you’d try things too. Besides, you’ve gotta admit I can make one incredible rack!”

I knew that was his hand, but things still felt a little strange with his breasts pressing into my back. He was usually taller and all muscle. I might be able to take him in a fight right now. He couldn’t be that used to his current body.

I shoved his hand away and told him “Yeah-yeah. Convince yourself of whatever you like, but I’m just being honest. At any rate, you’re not chickening out now. You’re the one who wanted to play as a girl.”

I could totally take him right now, till he cheated. I knew he’d cheat if I tried.

“So Aaliyah’s forcing you to dress as your character?” asked James in disbelief.

“Of course not, boss-man, sir. I gave him two different costumes, so he could choose.” explained Aaliyah.

I rolled my eyes as Emma started checking out Brandon. No matter how he looked, she had to know that was still my doofus brother’s brain in there.

Giggling, she asked “So umm… are you able to change all your parts?”

James quickly covered Brandon’s mouth with his hand and said, “Some things are best left unknown.”

Emma giggled harder at how obviously embarrassed James was by the question. He was too cute.

When James released him, Brandon loudly whispered “I’ll tell you later!”

Great. My brother might try hitting on Emma as a girl now.

“We gotta get moving, people! It’s makeup time! Then we’ve gotta get your wigs on, and some of you need new ears!” exclaimed Aaliyah as she pulled out a large box from her backpack.

I found myself watching carefully as Aaliyah did makeup. The girl knew tricks I never had seen before. She was good. She might as well have been a professional makeup artist with how dramatically she could change a person’s face.

For me, she just held up a mirror and told me what to adjust. I often wore makeup despite being able to change my looks without. Going without made me nervous, because there was always a chance of something going wrong. A girl whose makeup never runs gets attention I didn’t want, but I wasn’t going to argue with Aaliyah. I didn’t doubt James would listen if Aaliyah thought I needed to be sacked, and I loved my job.

When Aaliyah was finished with us all, we looked incredible, as if all of us had stepped directly out of the game and into the room. The girl was absolutely amazing. We all followed her out to the elevator.

Speaking to my brother, James asked “Wait a sec. What are we calling you during the convention?”

Brandon pulled up his badge and showed it to James.

“‘Elf Hottie’. I should have known.” stated James.

When we reached the ground floor, Alma and the twins were waiting outside of the elevator.

James blurted “Who’s watching our stuff?”

Alma patted his arm as she walked by him without saying a word, followed by the twins.

The rest of us went back out and started playing Ancient Tribes of Earth on the computers there. Aaliyah told us we needed to “test” them, and none of us had anything better to do. She was the boss this weekend, paying for everything. I still wondered at times how rich that little girl was already. She had to be loaded.

I couldn’t concentrate. Aaliyah had us doing vocal warmups as we played, and I couldn’t really pay attention to the game’s chat while singing. James, on the other hand, was perfect as ever.

“How do you do it?” I asked aloud.

“Do what?” he replied.

“Multitask so well. You didn’t seem to miss a note even while replying to people in the game.” I insisted.

“I dunno. It’s just something I’m decent at for the most part. I honestly am not always paying as much attention as I should to some things. Maybe that gives me more time for the others.” he suggested.

I laughed and said, “No, you’re definitely not always paying attention.” At least he knew it.

Alma, Ai, and Mai were already on their way back, coming up behind James.

“Well?” asked Alma.

James spun around, and even from behind him I could tell she had his attention. She was every inch Eseld now. Seconds of silence ticked away as he stared.

“Most people would be kind enough to at least give a compliment. Is something off?” she asked.

I couldn’t tell if she was actually worried or not. Reading Alma was impossible.

One of the twins patted her shoulder and said, “The outfit is perfect, Lady Pendreigh.”

Then the other said, “James is just horrible at giving compliments.”

“Well, I think you all look beautiful. If I didn’t know better, I’d think Ai and Mai were dressed as twins!” exclaimed Jarod.

The second twin made a face at Jarod as the other rushed him.

“Just don’t ruin your costumes!” exclaimed Aaliyah as the two fought.

This was going to be one crazy weekend.