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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.
I found myself looking toward the door again.
<Still early.> signed Mila, appearing on the door’s mirror.
I sighed and forced myself to resume training. There were many things to learn and only limited time, but my mind was on breakfast. I wasn’t worried about eating, but I wanted to be there with the others, have the next step started.
When I was little, nights were always about the next step. There were several nights when Mama Vera skipped sleeping to stay up with me, but I always felt bad when she struggled with the day. She had a list for me every night, things to do to stay busy. When she was up with me, she’d always warn me to be patient and tell me the next step was coming. I just needed to finish the one I was doing first. I remembered her tired smile well, the way she’d pinch herself, struggling to keep awake. She worked hard every day, and so would I.
Some time later, Mila informed me “Lady Pendreigh is on her way to the kitchen now.”
I felt torn, wanting to be there and not wanting to be alone with Alma. There were several times over the past few nights where she offered to help me train in martial arts. I was grateful for the lessons, since she was obviously good and didn’t need me to slow down. I never knew there was someone that strong in the world, and she collected some of my blood whenever I was injured enough. I thought she was just helping to clean up at first, but the blood flew into a vial. She made me nervous. If she was a villain, I didn’t know how to stop her. I felt like I could break my hands punching her all day without really troubling her. If she wasn’t a villain, why wasn’t she being a hero? She could save so many people…
“Emma seems quite chipper this morning. She already tended to the lawn and is skipping to the kitchen.” stated Mila.
I smiled. Emma was very kind and sweet. I told Mila “Done with training! I’m heading to the kitchen.”
“I thought you might.” she replied.
I ran, smiling as I did. No one cared if you ran in the halls here. Walking was too slow with a building this large. If I walked, the day would be over. I still felt I was in someone’s dream. Where else had carved ceilings, fancy paintings everywhere, and halls that took more than a few seconds to run? Then there was James… He seemed far too good to be real. Was I really working for him in a place like this?
I came to a stop as Emma whipped around, grinning once she saw me.
“Good morning, Portentia! You look excited.” she asked.
“I am.” I admitted, thinking again of that beautiful costume I’d get to wear.
We started talking about Ancient Tribes of Earth. Part of my training was devoted to that game, since we’d be representing it for the next few days. My character was a bit slow compared with the others, since she was newer, but Mila assured me that I could catch up if I played enough. Playing a hero in a game was a bit silly when I was a hero in real life, but the game was fun. You really had to think if you wanted to win fights, planning your dodges for a quick counterattack.
Everyone had shown me some of what their characters could do, but Jarod’s seemed the most impressive to me. He didn’t use magic or carry a weapon. He was a weapon. If you attacked him with a weapon, you’d often find yourself disarmed and injured by your own weapon. He admitted that his outfit was heavily imbued with magic to help resist spells and strengthen his character, but his style was still something I wanted to learn.
As others arrived, we continued discussing the game and the convention. The excitement was contagious. When breakfast was finished, Alma insisted that we squeeze in some last minute practice. James finally arrived as we practiced, the door opening for him on its own. Alma probably used magic with how she had rushed over to it.
I could guess she was speaking to him with how he looked down to her, but I didn’t have a clue what she was saying.
Aaliyah was sitting on his shoulders, holding a violin. She looked exasperated as she said, “Bring a plate to go if anything. We need to move, boss-man, sir! The semi’s waiting!”
“Semi? What semi?” he asked, looking up.
“Did you expect all my equipment to magically appear at the convention center, silly? We need to unload after we arrive! Mila pulled the limo around already for us.” she explained.
I wasn’t surprised that James had a limo, but I was surprised that I got to ride in one. Mama Vera would have been shocked to see me step out of a limo.
After putting a plate in James’ hands, Alma turned to the rest of us and clapped her hands together. Then she motioned to the door. We all made our way outside, and the limo really was there with the doors open for us. I turned excitedly to thank James, and found him holding Alma’s hand. They weren’t a couple… Why were they holding hands like that..? I stepped into the limo, barely feeling the soft seat as I was lost in thought.
What was I missing here? Just days ago, James spent a fortune buying me dresses to attend his birthday. He asked me to live with him and work for him. Was he interested in me or not? Boys were confusing. He could just be that kind… He seemed kind, incredibly kind. Was she a kinder person than I believed? He wouldn’t be holding her hand if she wasn’t, would he?
Mama Vera had told me many times that even the best of people did foolish things. Perhaps James was being deceived? I needed to watch and learn.
Emma poked my arm and said, “Smile! Convention!”
Her grin brought out my own. We were going to have fun this weekend, inspiring others. Being an inspiration to others was important for being a hero, and I’d truly look the part this weekend. They’d know me as Calamity, the one who brings disaster to evildoers everywhere.
I did my best to ignore that James and Alma were still holding hands, wanting to get lost in the fun instead. Brandon and Jarod had sat up front, but they were leaning around to talk with us as well, making following the conversation awkward at times.
“Boss-man, sir! The door!” exclaimed Aaliyah, literally bouncing in her seat as she pointed.
We had arrived. There were many men quickly unloading a semi and hauling various things into the large building ahead. Aaliyah handed us each a name tag which had a logo and the words “Global Princess Entertainment” on it.
We went inside and watched as the men finished unloading. I would’ve helped, but Aaliyah insisted that wasn’t my job today. When the men left and the doors closed, my eyes were drawn to the motion as the various packages flew into the air and unwrapped themselves. A stage was quickly assembled with lights, speakers and screens. Computers lined up along tables.
A large shop-looking thing was assembled and filled with devices and merchandise. Magic was wonderful and daunting. There was no sign of anyone doing a thing. We all just stood there watching as far as I could see, but I knew. This was Alma. Most of the others looked impressed. Ai and Mai seemed bored. Alma was completely unreadable, but she wasn’t looking at James for now.
Aaliyah stepped out in front of us and said, “Well, now that that’s over with, let’s get into costume and start our warm ups, save for Alpy. You don’t mind keeping an eye on things, do you, Alpy?”
I didn’t catch her response, but she didn’t look too pleased. Aaliyah, on the other hand, looked excited as ever, waving for the rest of us to follow her. We picked up garment bags from the newly assembled counter, knowing whose was whose by the name tags. Then we went through a number of halls and into a hotel. Brandon hit the button for the fifty-fifth floor, and we made our way all the way to the top.
We walked into a massive, luxurious suite with several bedrooms and split up to change clothes. I unzipped the bag more slowly than I had unzipped anything before in my life, admiring each bit of red I saw. The outfit was beautiful and made from a sturdy leather. I knew leather wouldn’t stop bullets, but a uniform such as this would easily startle a criminal, especially once it became a symbol. I doubted I’d get to keep the outfit, but I would thoroughly enjoy it all weekend. I would enjoy being Calamity.
I sat for a time, watching as James worked with Brenna and Emma on learning magic. I couldn’t see this energy he talked about and quickly grew too bored to pay attention. Brandon was in the same boat as me and suggested we have a rematch. I was game. I missed what he said to James when we stood, but I guessed that he probably just told James what we were doing with how James nodded.
I needed to keep things slow, but dodging Brandon’s attacks was really difficult like this. I just had to focus while he punched and kicked at me over and over. I hit him!
Brandon backed away, laughing.
“What did I miss?” I asked, looking around.
“I just gained a point. You were going too fast.” he told me, grinning.
I frowned. I might have gone a bit fast. This wasn’t right. I was stronger than him. I should be overwhelming him even going at his pace, but he blocked and dodged my attacks too easily.
“Point.” he laughed.
I looked back at Alma. She didn’t even seem to be watching… Then her cool gaze turned on me, and I found myself looking away immediately. Maybe she was.
I struggled on in frustration, knowing I’d win if I went all out but knowing I needed this. I didn’t even know which of the twins I had fought, but the ease with which I was beaten still stung. I stood no chance as I was.
Mama Vera had taught me patience. She seemed to have eyes in the back of her head, like Alma. The difference was that Mama Vera was definitely on my side. All she did was to help me. She had known I would need to blend into the masses if I was going to hunt evil. She homeschooled me, so my slips didn’t give me away. I sometimes wondered if Mama Vera had had the ability to see the future.
James was my mentor now, and I needed to respect his lessons if I was to be a better hero. I would get better.
Brandon held up his hands, obviously wanting me to stop.
“What is it?” I asked.
Everyone was moving when I looked around.
Brandon caught my attention before he said, “The boss said to hit the showers. We’ve got some sort of training today.”
The room suddenly flooded with water, and I found myself panicking. I swam against the current, hoping I’d be able to save the others from drowning, but then the water washed back out of the room. I stared at my clothes in shock, they were dry.
Brandon’s hand was waving in front of me, so I looked at him.
Laughing, he said, “Ai or Mai did that. Neat way to get clean, isn’t it?”
I nodded instead of informing Brandon that I didn’t sweat. With how spotless the floors were, any soiling my clothes received was from him.
Aaliyah was here now, stretching to hug Alma’s waist. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, and she wasn’t signing for me at the moment. Something James replied seemed to upset her.
She released Alma, looking shocked, and said, “But boss-man, sir, I gave you a memo and everything. You wouldn’t be neglecting my memos still, would you?”
James’ shoulders seemed to slump slightly.
Alma quickly spoke up, saying, “The memo simply stated ‘We’ll be preparing for the convention. Be ready’ I hardly would even call that one a memo, considering it gives no more information than the note on the calendar.”
Aaliyah turned to her, saying, “But Alma… I don’t send the company memos to you. You only get the house ones, and James receives additional ones, being the boss-man and all.”
I was quickly becoming certain that I would need to watch out for memos here, and I was equally certain that I wouldn’t like reading them. With Alma’s back to me as she faced Aaliyah, I had no clue what she replied. Whatever she said made Aaliyah grin.
“If you’ll all come to the ballroom, we’ll totally get started!” exclaimed Aaliyah, signing now as she spoke. “You wouldn’t believe the time I spent preparing for our preparations!” Then she ran around Alma and jumped onto her back, obviously expecting to be carried.
When we were all gathered, contracts appeared on the the large mirrors of the ballroom, and started scrolling along. Aaliyah encouraged each of us to read them thoroughly. I didn’t understand what I was reading halfway through the first paragraph. Looking around, no one but Alma seemed all that interested in the contracts. Even James was looking at his phone instead. Weren’t these important?
I followed everyone’s example and signed when the contract reached the end. Then a video replaced the contracts. Fantastically dressed characters were walking through crowds. A girl in red caught my eye among them. Her costume was a beautiful red with a cape fit for a superhero. A cracked, handheld mirror on the chest even gave her a symbol. The characters reached a stage and started singing and dancing. Names appeared on displays above them partway through.
“Calamity.” I murmured. I liked the sound of that. Everything clicked when I remembered that this was supposed to be a training video. I was to be Calamity.
I leaned toward James and asked “Do I really get that outfit?”
James motioned in front of my eyes to get my attention and told me “You’ll have to ask Aaliyah if you get to keep it, since this is her show.”
“Calamity. I really like that name. I could definitely be a Calamity to evildoers.” I told him, staring at the screens again.
I often thought of taking on a name to better inspire others, but I hadn’t found any I liked. Some of my friends had given half-hearted suggestions before, but none of them really fit me. Calamity did. Meeting me was a disaster for villains, and I would happily inspire fear of that disaster’s approach in them.
The video depicted us getting down from the stage and selling stuff to the masses. We were apparently supposed to have our pictures taken with some. Then the video changed, and the enormous hall was empty.
A large mess of objects leaped into the air and came together. I could only guess that someone was supposed to do some sort of crazy magic to pull that off. At least, I didn’t think there was technology to do something like that.
“Come on. Time to practice!” exclaimed Aaliyah as she signed for me. “Just follow along, and I’ll show you the dance.”
I was grateful to see I wasn’t the only one fumbling along. Brandon, Brenna, Jarod, and even Emma were struggling too. We were still practicing when Marco came into the room, pushing a cart covered with food. The dancing immediately stopped in favor of eating. I had no complaints and couldn’t resist joining them. Everything smelled delicious!
The taste was even better. I chatted with the others and found out what some of the foods were, since I didn’t even recognize all of them. Then we talked about how amazing the costumes looked, and I found out they were from a game Aaliyah made. I paused in thought, thinking of the characters on the stage again. Brandon wasn’t wearing that was he? The video had depicted a girl. Before I could ask, we were told the time had come for singing lessons.
I remembered my vocal lessons and the struggle I had learning to talk. I had discussed what singing was back then. Even today, the notion seemed a little odd to me. At least, the thought of trying to sing. I often didn’t even catch lyrics to songs when I watched. The words seemed so exaggerated in song. I couldn’t do this…
<Relax.> signed Aaliyah. “You’ll be lip-syncing, so I just need you to learn the lyrics. Well, you’ll also have to try matching how the others move their mouths, since you need to appear convincing. Don’t worry. You’ve totally got this.”
I actually felt a little more confident, but the practice felt so odd. I was thankful when we finally stopped the lessons for dinner. Conversation revolved around Aaliyah’s game, and I was informed that I needed to play some before the night was through. Aaliyah had taken the liberty of creating me a character and seemed really excited to see me try her.
There was some internal struggle, knowing I should be heading out to patrol with the sun setting, but doing this was something I could do for James. I had agreed to work here, so I needed to hold up my end. Even with this being my first day, I was already confident that there was much to be learned here.
I didn’t patrol as long as I could have last night, despite having help. I discovered a phone in my bag last night with the words “Property of Best Friend For Hire” clearly engraved on the back, and Mila would chat with me whenever I pulled the phone out. Having her to help navigate made learning the streets much easier. I didn’t usually even have a map.
I learned a great deal from Mila, but before the sun was even rising, I found myself roaming the halls of my new home. I already felt attached to the people here, which worried me greatly. Something always happened to force me to move. My entire childhood with Mama Vera was spent moving.
There were buildings that became condemned shortly after we had unpacked. Several times a fire claimed our home. Mama Vera was hospitalized once by a freak explosion due to multiple faulty safety devices in a natural gas oven, and the apartment was no longer livable afterward. Luckily, she had survived.
Something about Somerset Estates made it seem permanent. The enormous home looked brand new from everything I had seen, but it had the presence of something that had been there for quite some time. Perhaps the wings were part of what made the building seem older. I hadn’t even heard of a modern building have wings before.
Of course, James was probably a large cause for my feelings about this place. He had warned me about some nifty magic of his, making everyone like him. As a superhero, such an ability would be extremely useful. I could see him talking down villains that would normally never surrender, and he’d be able to calm scared citizens with far more ease than I could. Being kind, thoughtful, and exceptionally handsome helped too.
A nearby mirror lit up and Mila appeared on it. “Breakfast will be ready soon. I understand that you don’t need to eat, but the social aspect is every bit as enjoyable as the food from what I’ve seen.” she told me, signing as she spoke.
<Thank you.> I signed before walking toward the kitchen.
Alma was already seated with Ai and Mai when I arrived.
“Good morning.” she told me as she signed.
The twins smiled at me, but there was a eerie viciousness to their eyes.
“Sorry. Mila suggested I should join everyone for breakfast.” I explained.
Alma motioned toward the chef, who was waving at me.
Seeing that he had my attention, he said, “I’m Marco. Always glad to see a new face. You are going to love this. I promise.” Then he smiled and winked.
The difference between his smile and that of Ai and Mai was as great as night and day. He seemed incredibly friendly where the twins seemed openly villainous. James kept very interesting company.
Others gathered before too long. Jarod and Emma were the next to arrive, with Jarod being first by a small margin. Then there was Brandon and his sister, Brenna. The atmosphere seemed far more relaxed with those four present. After introductions, they shared some stories about jobs they had done here. Brenna suggested that I could do modeling with her easily, but I wasn’t very comfortable with the idea. Emma seemed to agree with Brenna, but I could more easily picture her modeling than me.
Where Brenna was often quiet, Emma was talkative and very animated. She asked me if I ever thought about dying my hair and told me about how she could never stick with a color for too long. Even her outfit was vibrant, though I didn’t know why she was wearing spandex.
I remembered seeing them both dancing with James last night. Emma was the more graceful of two, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Brenna had lessons at some point. Both of them made dancing look so easy. I wanted to get better as well. Dancing with James was incredible.
Honestly though, I doubted I’d make the time unless James offered me lessons. I had a job to do, and I was quite confident there would be plenty of work here. Every city had crime, but I heard rumors of this place having more than its fair share. That’s what drew me here. I’d be able to help people.
Most of us had eaten more than our fair shares by the time James arrived. He must have been very tired to have slept so long. I often wondered what feeling tired was like. Day after day, I saw people yawn and grow listless. They’d go to bed and have dreams while I was vigilant as ever.
I caught dreams being portrayed on television several times, not that I often had opportunity to watch something all the way through. Dreams seemed interesting, like getting to live another life each night. Mama Vera had told me that time moved differently in dreams, and days could be felt in those short hours.
I didn’t exactly envy people their sleep and their dreams, but I was curious. For unknown reasons, I was different, and that difference kept me apart from others in many ways. I was stronger and faster than most I met, and even the ones who could keep up with me for a while wore down eventually. I couldn’t be just a normal person, so I became a hero.
James, barely having woken up, looked happy to see me. He saw me fight, saw me bleed, and wanted me to be here, even promising not to get in the way of my work. I still felt there was a dreamlike quality to him, but his abnormality seemed to make him more a part of society.
Everything changed once James was seated with us. Instead of random conversations all around me, everything gravitated to James, not that I could keep up with them all any more easily.
“I’m really looking forward to my first lesson today.” I told him as he checked his phone.
He looked up, staring into my eyes, and then smiled at me. “I’ll try to keep things entertaining.” he assured me.
He kept looking toward Alma, and I wondered what she was saying when I wasn’t looking. Eyes in the back of my head would have been so useful, but I was thankful for the advantages I did have.
Before James was even done eating, he told Marco to stick his plate in the fridge. Marco protested but did as instructed. Then we all made our way to a gym that was apparently in Ai and Mai’s wing.
James told me that I would be sparring with Brandon and explained where I needed to hit Brandon to score “points”. Apparently, we’d be done after I had enough. I admitted to never playing at fighting before, but James insisted that practice would only make me a better hero. When we were told to start, I let Brandon have it, trying not to hurt him too bad.
I was surprised when Brandon’s body physically altered. His muscles bulged, and I needed to hit him harder to move him at all. He was far too slow to keep up, though he did seem to guess a few of my attacks.
James waved to get my attention and I moved back, smiling when he declared me the winner.
“Without the points, I think Brandon and I would be here all night.” I told James. Then I turned to Brandon and said, “You really can take a blow!”
I missed one of the twins talking, but James explained that she wanted a turn. I didn’t mind taking a villain down.
I moved to punch her in the gut and end this quickly, but she moved around my arm and threw me! I stood and attacked her faster, but found myself on the ground. Again and again, I attacked, but she threw me each time, barely even moving.
Admitting to myself that I wasn’t making any headway, I stopped and asked “What are you? I’ve never seen anything but old vampires keep up with me.”
Alma caught my attention as she signed and said, “You are quite swift, but there are plenty who are swifter. If you want to get the most out of lessons from James, you’ll have to do your best to hold back. Moving more quickly than your opponent is wonderful in an actual fight, but you will better utilize your time if you work toward honing your skills in these walls. I suggest for you to try mimicking the speed of your opponents much like you move more slowly when walking and talking.”
“You wouldn’t believe how hard that is.” I told her, not wanting to be lectured by someone who couldn’t know.
She suddenly blurred, and I felt a tap of my shoulder. I spun so fast I tripped over my own feet, falling backward and staring up at Alma. She was far too fast. I never had seen anything like her before.
“Wouldn’t I?” she asked, passively looking down at me.
“Really. What are you?” I asked.
“Perhaps if we become friends one day, I might explain. Until then, you have a great deal to learn.” she replied.
I accepted Alma’s hand and was taken aback by the strength of it. She was tiny, but her grip was unyielding. I never would have expected her speed. The self control she and the twins possessed was amazing to me, never even hinting that they were anything more than graceful humans by their motions.
Emma turned out to be stronger than I would have expected, but not intimidatingly strong like Alma. I did my best to stay at her pace as she started explaining the basics of the fighting done here. I would learn this. I couldn’t let Ai or Mai toss me around if I was going to continue being a superhero. James was right, this could help me.