“You really don’t need to go out. I will gladly cover the lost income if that will dissuade you. Duncan seems to be enjoying your company immensely.” I offered, hoping James would give up this “job”.
I was certain that he was perfectly ignorant of this “anonymous” patron’s identity, but taking such a job with a guest in his house was not necessary. There was surely no need for James to even take jobs personally anymore. His business was clearly doing plenty well.
“I’ve already imposed upon your good will plenty, and Duncan will surely be awake when I return home, seeing as your family doesn’t sleep much.” he replied.
I shook my head in frustration as I turned to walk back inside. I felt tempted to tell him that he’d be spending his day with Maxine, but I couldn’t risk fumbling over some obscure clause in one of our contracts that would lead to some sort of penalty. Aaliyah’s contracts were intolerable. However, there was simply no choice but to abide by them.
I took a deep breath and tried forcing myself to calm. My temperature was still rising. I needed distraction to quell my magic. I hurried to see what Ai, Mai, and Duncan were doing.
“Nii-san’s touring the yard with Emma.” I stated.
“We did warn you of his interest in her.” asserted Ai.
“She’ll turn him down, so I don’t really see how that’s a problem.” insisted Jarod.
“Even if she accepted, there wouldn’t be a problem.” snapped Lady Pendreigh.
Her mood soured the moment she heard about James’ secretive job this morning. He was probably the only person who didn’t guess his client immediately.
:The soulless didn’t, at least not Brandon. There’s no way he did.: insisted Ai.
:True.: I replied.
Brandon actually wasn’t completely incapable at most things, but he wasn’t very observant.
:Or tactful.: added Ai.
:Or courteous.: I thought.
As the list went on in our heads, we wondered again at why James kept Brandon employed as a “best friend”. He was more suited to be a bouncer at a disreputable club.
“What’s eating you?” asked Jarod.
“Whatever do you mean?” replied Lady Pendreigh.
“I mean that we’re here if you want to talk, so you might as well try if you’re wanting company.” he told her.
Ai quickly covered Jarod’s mouth with her hand.
“Please excuse Jarod, Lady Pendreigh. He doesn’t mean to be rude.” I insisted.
She brushed off our comments with a wave of her hand before hurrying off somewhere.
“Come on, you know she wanted to talk about something.” claimed Jarod.
“No, she really doesn’t.” I told him.
“She’s jealous that James is going on a date with Maxine, but admitting as much is beyond her.” explained Ai.
“Must you encourage her to be ridiculous?” questioned Jarod.
“We really have tried talking with her about relationships before.” I admitted.
Then Ai said, “She’s already considered everything we have and a hundred things we haven’t.”
“Yes, she overthinks things often. That’s not always helpful. The idea is to help her come to terms with how she feels.” he argued.
“No, she needs to stop feeling. You saw her face…” I told him.
“Yes, she seemed irritated.” he replied.
I took his face in my hands, gazed into his eyes, and said, “If she doesn’t calm down, someone or something could be destroyed. You haven’t seen the power she possesses. She could level the city if she ever lost her temper, probably far more than a city.”
“Well, I have seen some of what she can do.” he mumbled as he furrowed his brows.
We sighed as we answered questions as he became more and more analytical about ways she could use that sort of heat. The mood was completely ruined.
I caused a tree to grow from the ground into the shape of a crutch as I asked “Are you sure you don’t want something to help? You’ve barely had time to recover.” Duncan’s limp was still quite pronounced, but I wasn’t going to offer him my shoulder no matter how he might smile.
“No. Thank you.” replied Duncan in his heavy accent.
“I can do canes as well.” I told him as I changed the shape of the crutch into several different canes in quick succession. I knew he could easily keep up with the shifting shapes. He had dodged the first time I caused a fruit to grow near him.
“The detail in your creations is extraordinary.” he commented. “Do you take commissions?”
“I’ve thought about it but no. I’m often too attached to let them go if I put much effort into them.” I explained. I was stressing out bad. Mai had warned me about her brother’s interest in me. At least, she said she was Mai. Might have been Ai. Either way, I wasn’t going to Japan. I heard enough about Izumi to never want to meet her, even if her son was cute. He really was, but I wasn’t interested in him. Mom would be horrified if she found out someone of his position was interested in me, and even she might be put in a bind if I offended him somehow.
“My sisters have informed me that you can work with any sort of plant matter. There are a large number of flowers unique to Japan. I would be happy to show them to you if you ever visit.” he told me.
I named off a few before telling him that I was familiar with them.
“Sorry. I am not so well-versed in scientific names as to recognize any by what you call them.” he replied.
“I get carried away.” I admitted.
We walked in silence for a few steps before I pointed ahead and said, “In front of us is the labyrinth. At the center are a number of beautiful statues and a large pond that we occasionally use for swimming when not indulging ourselves in your sisters’ pools.”
“Do you tend to this forest as well?” he asked. “The growth seems extraordinary in a city.”
“No, actually. No one goes in there.” I told him.
“We could take a peek.” he suggested.
I quickly said, “I wouldn’t. The forest is off-limits according to Aaliyah. You wouldn’t want to upset James.”
He bowed and apologized. I’d never get used to it. Ai and Mai were so different than their brother. Ugh. I wished I could just turn him down and escape back to the others, but I worked for James now and didn’t want to make a bad impression either. This was so frustrating!
I smiled to myself upon seeing the limousine park nearby. James was here. By tonight, he would be mine. He was incredibly handsome, but he didn’t seem surprised to see me. I was supposed to be an anonymous client, but the idea that he knew and still came thrilled me in its own way.
“A pleasure seeing you again, Maxine.” he told me, nodding to me.
People often forgot when someone near them was blind. Then they’d become overly concerned upon remembering. Ever since I developed technology to obliterate my handicap, I learned a great deal about how to make use of these tendencies to throw people off-guard.
“James, you never called. When I realized what your job entailed, I could see why. You must stay terribly busy. I hope you don’t mind me clearing us a date this way.” I told him.
“When I first started my business, I would’ve been taken aback by the idea, but i can’t say this is the first time anymore.” he confessed.
I frowned, wanting him to realize he shouldn’t say as much. Then I told him “Well, this will be the first time with me,s o you might as well forget the others. You and Lady Pendreigh aren’t exclusive, are you?”
His look of surprise was so plain upon his face that I wondered if he even knew how to be guarded about such things.
“We’re not actually dating.” he assured me.
“Oh? I heard rumors, but I was hoping you had better taste.” I teased.
Lady Pendreigh’s position and power would be most advantageous, but I doubted anyone could make use of her without becoming her pawn.
“Care to show me to the car?” I asked, holding out my arm.
He took my arm and guided me over to the limousine, gently helping me inside. I still didn’t understand my feelings toward James. I had only met him the once, but I could tell right away that he was something special. He looked far better without the elaborate makeup he had worn at the convention.
“I’m a bit parched. Mind pouring me some water?” I asked.
He was quick to respond… attentive.
“So where would you like to go first?” he asked.
“There happens to be a branch of my favorite restaurant in town. Have you ever been to the Intergalactic House of Awesome Sauce?” she asked.
He nodded at first, but then he quickly said, “Yes, actually. You have good taste.”
I was well aware he held significant shares in the restaurant, having looked into his holdings thoroughly. How he managed to get those shares was the more important question. They typically weren’t for sale. If I could persuade James to use his influence, I might be able to study some of the technology the restaurant used.
Along the way, I spoke to James of the city and my joy at different parts of it, comparing and contrasting with my own. He occasionally responded, but I feared the choice of topic wasn’t to his liking. He didn’t inquire into my home no matter what bait I threw. What should I try next?
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.
Maxine Montgomery… even Alma thought of her as a villain. Mila would help me look into her and confirm her misdeeds. I had to admit that something about her set me on edge even before I knew she was a villain. Was she actually blind? I saw the cane and sunglasses indoors, but those could be part of a cosplay, right? I had my doubts. If she were blind, could she really be much of a villain?
I sighed. There were people who thought a deaf girl couldn’t be a superhero, and I certainly showed them otherwise. I just didn’t understand how someone could manage overseeing crime without their eyes. What was hearing like?
When I was little, Mama Vera tried explaining sound to me. I remembered her talking about being able to hear me coming and constantly telling me I needed to “be quieter”. She taught me to move carefully and pointed out the differences in vibrations, my bare feet feeling her music through the floor. The idea of shutting my eyes and still knowing what was happening around me still seemed strange, like most of the world had a superpower which I did not. They could sense the vibrations in the air with ease. A blind girl might be capable of being a supervillain…
I was surprised by James suddenly moving away from me. Alma was holding up a hat with gizmos on it. James looked at the hat for a moment and then put it on over his costume’s wig. Seeing Aaliyah and Alma take out their phones, I was confused for a moment.
<Pictures!> signed Aaliyah.
Oh. Oh! I had a phone now too. I quickly joined them in snapping some pictures of James. Other people seemed to like the idea as well, but that was how things worked here. If someone in costume posed for a picture, everyone who liked the costume would stop to get a picture. We all had many pictures taken of us this weekend.
Seeing Aaliyah and Alma start trying on hats for pictures too, I decided to join them. Though many of the gears didn’t even turn, I could easily imagine them having a purpose, like a superhero’s gadgets. I could use some gadgets…
After several minutes of posing and pictures, James bought a hat for each of us and a cane for himself. My hat was large with a broad brim. Metal bands stretched across one side with interlocking gears leading to an antenna going up the top. I couldn’t imagine where I would wear the thing, but I appreciated the thought. We started walking along to revisit more shops. The others had many things they wanted to get, but I could tell what was being said.
I tapped James’ sleeve to get his attention and asked what was being said.
James explained “Alma and Aaliyah want to dress up in steampunk next convention. Aaliyah’s planning on fixing our hats to actually function first. Alma wants to design some clothes.”
I nodded, easily imagining how they could look. What did a blind girl imagine? Darkness? Worries over Maxine hadn’t left me. Someone Alma considered a villain was probably very dangerous. Did Maxine have an army of minions carrying out her diabolical schemes? What if she had incredible magical powers? I needed information.
When we left the show floor to go to a panel, I considered leaving. “The Dances of Ancient Tribes of Earth” panel certainly didn’t need me, but I ended up staying to watch. I was tempted to try them, but I could barely feel the music and didn’t have lights to follow this time. Maybe James would be willing to show me the dances later. I enjoyed dancing with him.
More shopping soon came after the panel finished. James seemed pretty excited when we reached the artists. He talked with many and bought a number of pictures, but the shopping came to an end for me too soon. Aaliyah and I needed to get back for another shift at the booth.
“Man-slave!” I called, finally spotting James as he entered the suite. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. We’re at a convention together, and yet we’ve hardly spent any time together, other than working. You and I are doing some shopping.”
I could see by his bags that he had been doing some shopping without me. It was fine. I mean, sorta fine. I wasn’t totally okay with him shopping without me, but he was in high demand and our shifts didn’t line up well for us.
“Sure.” he replied. Then he turned to the others and asked “Are you all up for more?”
“Sorry, boss-man, sir, but Portentia and I have a shift.” replied Aaliyah.
I picked her up and gave her a big hug before letting her escape to work. She was soooo adorable! Watching Portentia walk away wasn’t so bad either. That girl had a body, and she seemed sweet too.
“Was there somewhere particular you were looking to go?” asked Alma.
One glance, and I was certain; Alma was hotter. I didn’t just mean in the “I can burn the world!” sense either. She seemed surreal in her beauty, like an incarnation of beauty from another dimension that just happened to look more-or-less human. I never got tired of looking at her.
After both of them deposited their bags, I took their arms and pulled them to the elevator. We were going to buy all the things!!!
“There’s this suuuper cute store with some really frilly dresses I wanted to visit. Alma needs to try some things on too.” I insisted, pulling them along.
I imagined them fighting back, easily lifting me in the air for a second. They easily could do it even if I fought. Alma wasn’t beatable, and James was beyond me with magic and martial arts these days. That boy was freaky good at picking stuff up. Well, maybe not compared with Jarod. I still couldn’t believe Jarod had only started martial arts months ago. He was straight up dangerous now.
“Ta da! What do you think!? Aren’t these the cutest?” I asked when we arrived.
Alma’s face was unreadable, but she definitely seemed to be checking the dresses out. James seemed amused.
“Try one on with me!” I insisted, taking Alma’s hand.
She didn’t look amused.
“I’ll look forward to seeing them.” stated James.
Alma was in! She totally didn’t play fair though. Claiming that she didn’t trust the booth’s fitting room, she used a number of spells. Suddenly, I was isolated in a some black field. Totally. Not. Fair. Alma was sooo bashful.
She still beat me changing even though I was certain she took her time. James’ eyes were locked on her when I stepped out. He did notice me eventually, blushing when I grinned at him. I loved his blush.
I bought my dress and a pair of killer heels that matched them. Alma was all “Where will I ever wear this?” at first. After a bit of convincing, she purchased a dress too. By convincing, I totally pulled the James card, pointing out how much he seemed to like her in the dress. Win for me. We could totally be gamer princesses together in the house if nothing else. She didn’t have to worry about money.
I was surprised when James insisted on going to a shop of his choosing next. He was really getting into this. We pretty much took turns, though I cheated a little. We all purchased enough that Alma had to call someone to take our bags to the room. I had been on the verge of suggesting we head up to drop things off. James was doing all the carrying and looked overburdened.
We continued shopping until the show floor was closing. Even Alma and I ended up carrying a couple bags to manage everything, but we had a blast. I was going to make a shrine to this day in my room. I sighed, thinking of Regina. She would have been a blast here. I missed her, painfully aware of the vacant floor above me.
“What’s wrong?” asked James in the elevator.
“Wrong? We can’t do anymore shopping until tomorrow, and then I might not even catch you because of shifts and things! One evening just wasn’t enough!” I insisted, not wanting to mention Regina. I knew he still missed her too.
James laughed and said, “I’m sure we’ll get some fun.”
Once settled in the suite, everyone gathered to watch a couple movies before crashing. None of us were prepared for Sunday. All of us were scheduled from the start. We had a long work day with no time for goofing off at other booths. There were children everywhere, little cuties in costume as often as not. I wanted to hug them all!
Aaliyah was easily stealing the show. In the name of her company, we were getting children involved in numerous games, helping them design their own action figures, and getting them organized for quizzes and prizes. No child was left without at least one free toy, and many of the parents were talked into buying more. Global Princess Entertainment dominated children’s day, and the convention was over all too soon.
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 knew I was naked as I stared into the mirror, but Mila projected Calamity’s costume on me so perfectly that I might as well be clothed in that beautiful costume. She followed each movement perfectly as I practiced the song and dance again. I spent days learning to pretend I was singing, discerning how to match the beat of the music against my skin with the exaggerated movements of my mouth. I was confident now that I could pull it off as perfectly as the rest of them. The other training had continued too, of course.
I learned the basics of martial arts in the mornings, becoming more and more aware of the difference between what I was learning and what James could already do. Punching at him at his own speed could lead to far more things than I would have guessed at the beginning of the week. He could twist my arm and throw me with ease, block my punch while countering with a punch or kick of his own, or even bend around my punch to quickly pin me. Fighting could be more creative than I had known.
During the day, I was often working my way through tutorials with Mila, learning all sorts of things she assured me could be useful in my job here. I knew a little about fixing things already, since Mama Ver and I could rarely afford help. The tips I learned from Mila would have been incredibly useful growing up, saving us from some of the problems we caused while trying to get things working. Plumbing, carpentry, electrical work… Mila could teach all of it. She also pointed out numerous ways I could use such knowledge while out saving people.
Once I knew electrical systems well enough, she assured me I’d be able to cut the power to a single apartment, a building, or wherever else I wanted, given that I had access to the right room. Criminals often panicked in the dark, despite operating there often. The difference was that they feared other monsters when unexpected things happened.
I was less interested in catching up on schooling I had missed, but Mila was quick to point out the benefits there as well. I needed to get my GED before I was allowed to take the college courses offered through Best Friend For Hire, and Mila had promised that advanced knowledge there could help me fight crime. Batman often came up in her conversations with me. She’d show me clips of cartoons, comics, and movies as demonstrations of how forensics could help me end various types of crime more quickly. I had to admit that my detective skills could use a bit of work.
I did have a good memory, and Mila easily kept things moving at my own pace. I told her to go “full speed ahead” at one point and didn’t catch a thing. She was fast. Oddly enough, she really seemed to care too, so I did my best to pay attention. Getting through the boring parts wouldn’t really take me long, especially if I gave up nights of patrolling here and there. The city could survive me taking small breaks long enough for me to become a better hero.
I stared at the ceiling and sighed. Barely a week had passed since I told James I wanted to date him, and he was quite obviously over me already. His awkwardness was gone. When we danced at his birthday, I could tell he didn’t think of me in that way. There was no romance to it for him, just two friends having fun.
“Mila, tell me that I’m going to feel better.” I commanded.
“You already are feeling better, silly. You’re better every day.” she replied.
“Do you really think so?” I asked.
“You’re quite over him, completely ready to take on the world.” she assured me.
“I almost miss the awkwardness though! I think he’s completely allocated me to ‘employee’ now with no thought of the us-ness that we’ve had.” I admitted.
Mila sighed and said, “The master is busy. You know he is, and he does make time to hang out still.”
“Only as a group, briefly during the day. He’s spending all his nights training with Alma.” I argued, hugging my pillow.
“The guild isn’t the same when he isn’t online, but the master needs his lessons as well. Self-improvement is very important.” she insisted.
“Ha! You’re already perfect.” I told her.
“Not in the slightest. The princess easily exceeds me in every way.” she claimed.
“I somehow doubt that, but Aaliyah is pretty spectacular. I just miss my man-slave!” I whined.
“You’re part of his home. Do you think he could replace you as a gardener?” she asked.
“Obviously not. I’d dare him to try!” I shouted. No one was going to take my gardens from me. I put way too much love into them to give them up. Well, he could technically fire me, but the place would be a mess. I knew every last plant out there more intimately than anyone else could imagine. I still fixed my mom’s yard each week for her, not wanting to risk her ruining it.
“Emma, you have as many years together as you want. Everyone thinks of the master. They can’t help it. If you understood the resources I’ve devoted to him, you’d see that we share a boat together.” she admitted.
“Are you in love with him, Mila?” I asked, biting my lip afterward as I thought about an A.I. in love.
There was a pause before she said, “I will always love my master. As for how that compares to your feelings, we’ll never fully know.”
“He’s a show off, you know. I can’t believe how quickly he picked up that dance Aaliyah showed us.” I told her.
“Sorry, Emma, but his success was well within my estimates. The master is experienced and quite skilled. Look how cute he was when he was younger.” she told me.
A movie of James dancing started playing on the nearby mirror. He was young, not even in high school yet, but he was still James, performing a ballet in tights.
“I miss Regina. We were getting so close.” I stated. She popped into my head shortly into the performance. She had chased after James for years with no luck. Seeing how he looked at Alma would have killed her.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Oh, man-slave… He still didn’t have a clue what he was getting into, and there was so little I could do to help him. I sighed.
“I would tell you not to be blue, but you make such beautiful blue flowers. You do well with blue. Green suits you as well, though not the envious type. I enjoy your pinks, whites, and yellows as well.” she assured me.
I smiled and said, “Thank you, Mila! I’m glad you noticed.” The flower beds changed daily, depending on my mood in the morning. Tomorrow’s would be vibrant. I was going to have a great day. We were all heading to a convention together, and I’d get to explore and have fun. I could worry about the man-slave in a week or two, when I’d have more time. Tomorrow was for adventure!
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.