Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 205

Brimming with energy, I couldn’t resist joining the others in dance, especially with Mila providing us with song and lighting effects fit for a club, not that I had actually snuck into one. My head was still fuzzy and I needed to burn off some of this energy before I made silly mistakes.

Not refraining in showing off my moves was probably a mistake, but I wasn’t about to let everyone ― excluding Portentia ― show me up by too much. Though graceful and a quick study, Portentia obviously hadn’t studied dance.

“She’s deaf.” stated Aaliyah after leaping into my arms to have me spin her around.

I stared at her blankly, hardly able to believe what I had just been told. Unable to hear the music, Portentia had to be watching us and feeling the vibrations for queues. Her abilities just raised themselves a couple notches in my eyes. I had thought her accent was a bit odd, but I merely assumed English was a second language to her. The girl was remarkable to say the least.

I misstepped slightly as Aaliyah kicked off me to flip backward out of my arms. As I spun around to catch myself, James easily snatched my hand, dancing with me now. I still couldn’t really believe he was “human-ish” as Aaliyah had put it. I could feel his strength in his hands and the very slow beat of his heart as we danced. His heartbeat was far too slow for a human at rest, much less one dancing.

Trying to shock him, I made my body grow taller. His eyebrow raised, but that was all. I knew I was being observed as I observed him, but being the one who was likely getting less from the exchange was rare for me when away from my parents. I had no doubt that Aaliyah was his secretary by choice, but who was he to have drawn her into such a position?

A stab of misery plunged through my heart as I thought of them, how I’d never see them again.

James dipped me back with such ease that I’d swear he had danced like this a thousand times, easily lifting me as he spun us around. When he set me down, I was facing Aaliyah again, so I shrunk to dance with her, my clothes becoming baggy sacks over my frame where they had been too snug a moment before.

My tiny friend thought nothing of it, of course, but nothing had ever surprised her to my knowledge. From the moment we met, she had held all the cards. My parents’ meager attempt to oppose her when they realized something dangerous was in our home was met with playful brutality as she demonstrated the ease with which she could kill them. She asked so little of us that my father spoke in shocked whispers about her for a week.

Did Aaliyah manage to shock James as much? I was having trouble gauging him. He smiled with such ease and seemed genuinely kind, but who gained such wealth at his age without misdeeds? He seemed young at least. Was he really?

Portentia smiled as James passed her my way, and I took on her appearance, surprising her immensely. I would wager that her vampire friends had been cautious around her. Invulnerability was an intimidating aspect to overcome if she ever became an enemy. I didn’t doubt her certainty in her ability to regenerate was well-tested, now that I had seen a fraction of it myself. If she actually acted the part of a superhero, she had surely been attacked countless times.

“Your heart’s not beating.” I stated a while into dancing with her.

“Nope. Don’t need a heartbeat.” she told me proudly.

“I could have sworn I heard a single beat when I fed off you.” I told her.

She shrugged, concentrating on dancing, but I was still wondering what she was. How many other oddities lived here beyond James and her? I was intrigued but a little overwhelmed. Why did Aaliyah bring me to such a place where I was obviously outmatched? Whom could I trust here? James… I wanted to trust him. As mysterious as he was, I already knew I believed in him. Such trust this early was worrisome.

“Master, you should probably change clothes and head to breakfast.” stated Mila hours later when she suddenly paused the lights and music. “Marco will have food prepared in seven minutes. You are scheduled to give your normal instruction this morning, though we might need to switch to the employee recreation center if the evil twins don’t give Cosette permission to use their gym.”

Dancing with Mila had been interesting. I was fascinated by the technology involved in her construction and even more impressed by the A.I. existing.

“Oh. Fair point. I’d best be on my way then.” replied James, taking a step toward the door. Then he turned to us and said, “Thank you, everyone, for the lovely time.” Looking to Aaliyah, he asked “Care for me to come back this way on my way to the kitchen, or should I just meet you there?”

She tapped her chin as if in thought before saying, “I’ll go to the kitchen with Cosette. I bet she’d love to try Marco’s cooking!”

“Wait. What? She eats food?” he inquired.

“I’m perfectly capable of eating, yes. See, I have teeth.” I assured him, causing my fangs to grow in size as I opened my mouth wide. Giggling at wry expression, I said, “Sorry. Vampire humor. You’d be amazed what my parents saved on dental work.”

“I bet, but you still won’t get paid extra for not making use of our dental plan.” he insisted with a wink.

I laughed and said, “You’re as bad as Aaliyah, ruining my perfectly good plans before I can get started. In all seriousness, I can consume human food just fine. I simply don’t get any nutritional value from it. As long as I keep my tongue active, I do get to enjoy the flavor as well.”

“Umm… Keep your tongue active?” he inquired.

“Well, I’ve been told I’m an amazing kisser, so I suppose I can demonstrate.” I replied, stepping toward him.

“What!? That has nothing to do with eating.” he stated.

“For a vampire, it can.” I teased.

“Vampires have a great deal of control over their bodies, boss-man, sir. She can ‘turn off’ her taste buds. Vampires keep a large number of their organs inactive to conserve energy.” explained Aaliyah.

Nodding, I said, “Generally speaking, it’s just easier as well. Keeping things active takes concentration. You wouldn’t believe how difficult carrying a baby is for a vampire. I have huge respect for my mother.”

Aaliyah walked over and hugged me. As well as I might try to hide my jumbled emotions, she knew.

“Ah. I see. I really must be going though. I’ll meet you both in the kitchen.” James assured us.

“I’m going too.” stated Portentia, obviously not wanting to be left out.

“Well, the three of you. Sorry. See you soon!” he exclaimed with a wave before turning to the door.

Mila followed on his heels.

“Any recommendations on what to wear?” I asked Aaliyah.

She grinned at me and went running to my bags.

“Why bother changing? It’s not like any of us worked up a sweat.” stated Portentia.

“I can’t be seen wearing what I arrived in last night.” I argued.

“Why not? No one will care.” insisted Portentia.

“That Alma girl will certainly look down on me if I do, and these clothes smell of where I’ve been the past day.” I replied.

She shrugged and said, “Everyone collects odors. What’s the big deal?”

“James doesn’t seem to smell of anywhere. He just smells…” I paused, trying to decide on the right word for him.

“Like James. Yeah, I getcha.” she told me, smiling.

I found myself wondering if Portentia had any clue how many heads she must turn with her flawlessly white skin and hair. She didn’t seem like she’d even consider it. We might well become friends, especially if her sincerity about letting me have her blood held true. If nothing else, I did have hope.

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Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 204

I should have found time to feed before coming here, but I was so worried over escaping with what I could salvage that even feeding was pushed to the back of my mind. The time spent discussing furniture with Aaliyah and Emma left me hungrier and hungrier. I was acutely aware of their blood, but I wasn’t about to ask Emma to be my meal, not when she had lost her father to a vampire. She was sleeping now and wouldn’t necessarily know, but I couldn’t do that to her. I didn’t trust Aaliyah’s blood, given that I didn’t know what she was other than dangerous.

“I really should get something to eat before the sun comes up.” I announced, not really wanting to leave but unwilling to risk weakness here.

“You said you don’t kill people, so how do you get food? Blood banks?” suggested James.

“Well, no. From people, generally. I just am careful about how much I take and from whom I take it.” I explained.

“Oh. I suppose that makes sense. Isn’t that dangerous for them?” he asked.

Shaking my head, I said, “They certainly feel tired afterward, but I don’t think it’s too dangerous. I always watch after them for awhile after feeding. They really are safe, at least as safe as I can keep them.”

“What about the bite marks and their memories? I’d certainly go to a hospital if someone bit me, so there must be a strangely high number of reports.” he insisted.

“Why don’t I just show you?” I suggested, wondering why I was being so forward even as the words came out. There was something about James that made him seem extraordinarily trustworthy. I’d fear I was under some spell if my kind were resistant to those tricks.

“What!?” he exclaimed in shock. “Sorry. I wasn’t meaning to pry too much. I am really curious, but… well…” The shock faded from his face, replaced by a sort of fascination as he seemed to be working through the idea. “I suppose, but you have to bite me somewhere that I can hide. How does this work even? You don’t seem to have long fangs or anything.”

I smiled reassuringly and took hold of his hand. “Don’t worry.” I insisted, preparing my magic to puncture his skin. “You won’t feel a thing. Or… Maybe.” I stated with a frown. James’ hand was soft and felt perfectly human, but I didn’t have the strength to make the smallest hole through his perfect skin. I felt as if the blood that touched him became void of magic. “What are you?” I asked.

“Umm… Human.” he claimed.

“No, you’re obviously not.” I replied, wondering what he was keeping from me. Who was he?

“The master is far more than a human.” commented Mila, humbly standing to the side as if waiting for instructions.

“Yeah…” started Aaliyah. “You won’t be able to use your magic on him, Cosette. Sorry. He really is human-ish though!”

“I’m missing something here.” stated James. “What magic? What did you try to do?”

“I usually don’t bite people. My parents taught me all of their tricks. When feeding, I touch a person’s skin and send some of my blood inside them, using it to cut off their sensations temporarily as I create an opening. Then I take a little blood and heal their wound.” I explained.

“Oh. That’s… different. Sorry, I seem to be pretty good at blocking magic by reflex now.” he bashfully announced.

“I noticed.” I replied, still shocked by it while forcing myself to smile.

“Is that how most vampires go about feeding then?” he asked.

“No, I’m afraid not. Many do bite people, literally drink their blood, and kill their victims. It’s more efficient, you see.” I replied, frowning to show my distaste for it. I needed him to understand I was different from those vampires.

“Well, not really. How’s that more efficient? Sounds messy to say the least.” he insisted.

“They don’t use up their magic to feed, boss-man, sir. The whole point of feeding is to get energy. How Cosette feeds uses up energy, so she’s getting far less from any given person than she could.”

“I’ll get better though.” I assured him. “My father was really skilled at it. My kind tend to hone their skills a great deal over the years, making the use of our magic far more efficiently than when we start.”

“Pardon, but Portentia would like to enter.” announced Mila.

“That’s fine. Please let her in.” I told her, surprised by the arrival.

The pure white girl had her hand raised as if she were about to knock. She quickly lowered it with speed rivaling my own. “Hi. Mila told me Cosette was hungry, so I thought I’d save her a trip.” she announced, smiling as she looked to me with those faintly blue eyes.

“Oh. You were serious earlier?” I asked in surprise.

“Well, yeah. I’ve had a few vampire friends, and it’s not like you can hurt me.” she replied with a shrug.

What was she to be so confident that vampires couldn’t even hurt her when she allowed them to feed?

James placed his hand on my shoulder, and I was very aware of his touch as if all of my senses switched to focusing on him.

“Portentia does feel pain, but she regenerates incredibly fast.” he told me.

I tore my eyes from James to look back at Portentia and said, “I see. Well, not really. What are you then?”

“I might as well tell you, since everyone else here knows.” she replied with a shrug. “I mean, Aaliyah trusts you, right? I’m Calamity, the superhero.” she told me with a grin.

Her whole pose changed, and I could tell that she was quite proud of her claim.

I giggled, entirely amused by the idea of a self-proclaimed superhero. What would my parents have thought of this? I noticed Portentia frowning and quickly told her “Sorry. Really. I’ve never met someone who refers to herself as a superhero before. About the name… don’t you feel that’s a bit less than heroic sounding?”

“Don’t worry about it. I like to think of myself as the Calamity that comes to those who do evil. If you’re ever interested in helping people, I wouldn’t mind a vampire sidekick.” she assured me.

I did my best not to laugh again, but I couldn’t manage to suppress my smile when this girl was so sincere about being a superhero. Managing to keep some of my mirth from my voice, I said, “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”

“So how do you like to do this?” she asked, walking toward me. “Quick bite and be done, or do you like something more elaborate? One of my friends liked to act out a horror scene as often as not.”

She was so casual about me feeding on her that I found myself believing this was commonplace to her.

“Here. Let me see your hand.” I told her, reaching my own out as I stepped toward her.

I was immediately surprised by how cold she felt. Then the complete lack of a pulse struck me. For a moment, I wondered if she might be one of my own kind, but my blood passed into her without too much resistance.

The moment her blood passed into me, my heart hammered to life, pushing the sustenance throughout my body. I felt energy like I had never known before. There was so much, far more than I could store. My mind went fuzzy, and I felt a tingling throughout my entire body, a tingling that seemed to pierce beyond my body.

“Cosette?” asked James, muffled and far away from me.

Everything was far away from me except the energy. I had never felt this good before. I longed for more even though I knew I couldn’t contain it. I was aware when Portentia lifted me from the ground, though I didn’t remember falling.

Portentia calmly said, “Don’t worry about it. She’s fine. Vampires sort of get high off my blood. She’ll be back with us any…”

Portentia, life giver, and being of unfathomable energy was holding me easily in her arms. I knew I should do something, say something.

“Oh my gosh! What are you!?” I blurted, leaning up to stare at her. I hadn’t meant to be blunt, but my head was in too many places.

She easily caught me as I changed position but then set me on my feet.

“Superhero.” she replied with another shrug.

“I’ve never felt anything like that before. I feel like running or dancing. There’s so much energy!” I exclaimed in wonder.

“Dancing! Yay!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

“Dancing? What? What time is it? Oh. Hey, Portentia.” asked Emma as she rubbed her eye.

How could she be tired at a time like this!? I felt as if I could touch her and zap a day’s supply of energy into her without even noticing.

“Sorry, Emma. I’ve been learning about vampires, and Cosette’s feeling a bit energetic.” explained James.

Emma nodded and said, “Yeah. Not really her bedtime, is it.” Then she stifled a yawn in her sleeve. “Well, I’m going to my room. See everyone in the morning.” mumbled Emma as she headed to the door.

Aaliyah was already starting to dance, and to my surprise, there was music! I joined her immediately. Mila did as well, so I couldn’t let them dance without me. James joined us as well, demonstrating an incredible skill at dancing. Portentia seemed hesitant, but I grabbed her hand and got her moving with me. She was such an amazing person!

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 203

James was barely beginning to test out his new body, his modified spirit. He didn’t have a clue how much he was capable of doing now. As he marveled over the flavor of the cake, his digestive system was already at work preparing to make use of every last scrap of energy. He was vastly more efficient now.

He was dealing with the change of our relative time to the others in the room better than most would, observing and analyzing possibilities while considering how this related to me. Of course, I knew that just as well as I knew all thoughts he would have.

“I am a little girl. Look at me, boss-man, sir.” I told him, enjoying how his senses were telling him I spoke the truth despite what his mind hoped to hear.

“Fine, but you’re not just a little girl. How can time be selectively frozen without magic, which you supposedly don’t have?” he asked.

“Oh. That was Carl this time, not me. He likes to do that for me, so I can get cake before I die of starvation.” I replied, watching him catch the distinct lie mixed in with the truth.

“But you can’t really die…” he stated aloud, shocked by the revelation. “I feel at such a loss. How is it that knowing I am able to sense the truth leaves me more confused about what you say than when I didn’t realize I could? You honestly think of yourself as a little girl and as Death. You’re not lying to me about Chad being your father, but you’re supposedly vastly older than him. I…”

I showed him a missing piece to the puzzle, a time when I was far more human than I am now. He saw our first meeting, a meeting with a child lost in the store. I childishly had gotten distracted by a video game advertisement, and my mommy didn’t notice that I wasn’t behind her any longer.

“What was that?” inquired James, knowing his memory shouldn’t have been in the third person.

“You know what you saw.” I told him.

“Yes, but what caused me to suddenly recall that moment… to recall… meeting you?” he questioned, though that wasn’t really what he wanted to know. “I met your mother.” he realized.

Nodding, I told him “I thought you should know. The first time we met I was still relatively human. I was lost and scared, and this marvelous boy showed me the way without a second’s thought. Wasn’t my mommy beautiful?”

“Yes. Yes, she was. Where is she?” he asked.

“She died in a car crash when I was seven. My grandfather had hired a hitman to kill her, the same hitman who killed my grandmother years before. He couldn’t stand the idea of either of them running away, so he had them killed. The hitman then broke most of my bones before bringing me to my grandfather, so my grandfather would have the excuse to perform his surgery, changing me into a cyborg.” I explained perfectly calmly, even knowing how the story played throughout James’ mind.

A tear ran down his cheek as he imagined what I went through. I helped his brain along with some missing data, since he had no clue what my grandfather or the assassin had looked like.

“My auntie came for me as soon as she could, as soon as she knew I was still alive, but I had already been captive in my grandfather’s lab for nearly a year. Quite by accident and with the aid of my latent magic, she changed me into something far stronger than most would believe possible. My auntie’s magic is quite powerful, but her understanding of it is extremely limited. Of course, most beings have a very limited view of magic. Besides, existence needed me as I am now.” I told him, watching how he was about to marvel over the knowledge.

“Existence needed Death?” he questioned, hearing the truth echoed in his own words.

Smiling, I said, “Yes. I traveled through time quite a bit with Carl’s help. He first introduced me to The Lilly Slayer, and I learned what being completely in awe felt like. She gave me my scythe and told me that I had a great deal of work to do. Then I did a large number of jobs as an assassin, first throughout time and then throughout space as well. Eventually, I went so far back in time that I stumbled upon my purpose. Before me, spirits had nowhere to go when their bodies died. They lingered and caused problems without even understanding what they were doing, not that most of them really had a clue what they affected when they were still alive.”

“And what do you do with them? Kill them?” he asked.

“Some, yes.” I replied. “For most, I give them someplace to go. Some are given to new bodies when the time is right. Others exist in perpetual bliss. Still others receive the punishment they feel they deserve. Let me show you an example of the happy ones.” Then I held up my hand for him to take it.

Setting his cake aside, James took my hand, so I brought him outside by the pond in his yard. I allowed him to see Regina as she was now, embracing him the moment he arrived. James would be horrified as he worked through what was happening. He wouldn’t understand, thinking this was some cruel fate.

“Regina…?” he asked, bewildered by the sense of her touch.

“She can’t hear you, boss-man, sir.” I explained.

“Tell me this isn’t real. Why would you trap her here? Why didn’t you save her?” he asked, tears flowing once more down his cheeks.

“Imagine a world where no one dies. I could dictate every life to be absolutely perfect. There would be no hunger, no pain, no sorrow, and not one person would truly understand what they were missing.” I replied.

“Why not just her? She didn’t deserve to die, Aaliyah!” he exclaimed.

Agreeing that she didn’t deserve her death, I said, “No, she didn’t deserve the hardships she faced, but she remained a better person by continuing to struggle onward despite them. She knew how to love unconditionally with such passion that her spirit still remembers your name when she’s forgotten so much else.”

I could have left her more of her memories, but her existence would become an endless struggle with less of a reward. She’d make mistakes that would cost James and others in his household. Besides, this was only a temporary arrangement. Regina didn’t remember the whole of our bargain, but I did. She’d have a different paradise soon enough.

“But why not save her?” he asked again.

“She died exactly how she wanted: saving you. Her spirit goes on exactly how she wants: helping you. Why do you think Portentia, who brings misfortune everywhere she goes, can live here so peacefully? Regina is still helping you, countering all misfortune as best as she is able. She’s not angry about dying. She doesn’t want her memory to hold you back either. I’m not going to negate her sacrifice or keep her from what she wants just because you feel I should.” I pointedly stated, crossing my arms as I looked him in the eye.

I knew James would still find me adorable even as my little body attempted to look commanding. The point still reached him though, and he did his best to shove his selfishness away. Jumping up and hugging him, I felt his arms wrap around me as he wondered over how childlike I felt.

“Would you rather I felt like this?” I asked, changing my form to the one I had taken for our date.

“Umm… no. That’s quite alright.” he told me, once again dodging those feelings that made him uncomfortable. Looking around, he asked “Where did Regina go?”

She was hugging his back still, but I had taken away his ability to sense her. Eventually, he’d notice her without my help. If he was paying better attention, he’d sense her magic even now. Of course, he’d also sense other magics playing their part if he realized they weren’t just continuous background noise. He would learn.

“Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. She doesn’t get jealous anymore.” I replied, pressing my head into his shoulder.

“Not really what I was thinking.” he stated, ignoring the part of his mind that had thought of me in that way.

“Oooh. Sorry, boss-man, sir, but you can’t see spirits unless I let you. Don’t worry. She’s fine, and now you know why you always get that warm, fuzzy feeling when you’re here!” I exclaimed.

Finally putting some pieces together, he said, “Hold on a second. She was moving. Did we just vanish in front of Cosette and Mila?”

“Nah. Just made a little adjustment, so you could see that Regina’s happy for a bit. I need more cake.” I told him, bringing us back inside.

Ignoring how I was about to take a giant bite of cake, James asked “How much does Cosette know about you?”

Playing up my reluctance as I set down my fork, I said, “She knows that I’m faster and stronger than she is, that I’ve killed people, and that I don’t mind helping out my friends when they need it.”

“Except if they’re going to die. I still am having trouble understanding why you let Cosette’s parents die. You could have stopped it, couldn’t you? You seem to know most things. Don’t you have a sense of when people are about to die, so you can collect their spirits?” he inquired.

I could explain to James in great detail where Cosette would be at this moment if her parents were alive. I could tell him of how vastly different her life would play out. I had let her parents see what would become of their daughter in numerous possibilities. Even they preferred this one, accepting their death. I reunited those two with many deceased loved ones, and I would let them observe Cosette’s growth from time-to-time. James didn’t need to know, not yet. I knew how the knowledge would affect his life as well.

“I told you that was their time.” I stated, setting my fork down again. “You believe that saving a life, especially a relatively good life, is the right thing to do.”

Walking up behind James and patting his shoulder, Carl said, “She has the final say on who lives and who dies. You’re quite right there. But come now, my boy, do you really want one being to dictate all life everywhere? She chose to allow her own mother to die, you know. She lets Chad die when his time comes as well. She allows the rest of us to make choices, because she decided that free will is important. Yes, she intervenes from time-to-time, because she understands what will happen far better than even I do. Are you trying to fault her for allowing freedom in the world, for believing that each of us should be allowed to make our own choices?”

James’ mind rapidly ― rapidly for him at least ― worked through possibilities from what Carl said. Having Carl speak to him now helped James accept that I knew whom to save far better than he did.

“Do you really want me to save every last life that you would deem relatively good, James, no matter the consequences?” I asked him, already knowing his answer.

“No. Sorry.” he quickly told me. At such a young age, he was already wise enough to know that power without knowledge could be exceedingly dangerous.

“Lilly will be proud of you, dear boy. Mark my word.” stated Carl. Then he winked at me, picked up the dishes and cake, and walked away as I stuck my tongue out at him.

“He took the cake!” I exclaimed when James could hear it.

Ignoring my plight, James asked “Who is Lilly?”

“You’ll see eventually, James. Everything changes when The Lilly Slayer comes.” I told him, smiling wistfully.

I could see all of the interactions the two would have together. Where most were far too overwhelmed by Lilly’s presence to even make their requests properly, James was one of the few who could casually talk with Lilly, and she always appreciated his company.

“I guess I’ll see then.” he confirmed before asking “Is Carl as fast as you, by the way?”

I laughed and asked “Really!? Carl?” Then I explained “He walks practically everywhere, boss-man, sir. Speaking of which, we better get in place. This is about to end, since he’s home again.”

James wasn’t entirely satisfied by our interlude, but he didn’t try to object. He merely accepted that things were out of his control. I made a fuss over him as I fixed his position precisely back to what it was before our little chat, so no one else would notice something out of place. Then I took up my own position.

“I really never knew which of his stories to believe, some of them seemed quite outlandish.” stated Cosette, once again choosing her words well.

Even James had trouble noticing when Cosette wasn’t being honest, since she did well at speaking a truth most of the time. How others interpreted her words versus how she meant them led to a great deal of confusion in many, but that was what she trained to do. Her father was far more skilled in various arts than he was ever credited.

James was able to recall that we were just discussing how Cosette’s father was once a king and made sense of her statement perfectly. He was going to enjoy having this vampire around.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 202

After returning to my room, I ordered some research on Cosette’s parents. If what Aaliyah said was true as it seemed, I could be in trouble. Her friends were protected under our agreement with her. Ignorance wouldn’t save me from a reprisal. I had known the girl instantly from a portrait I had seen through their window.

While waiting, I mulled over Adelmar’s order. I had informed him immediately after Cosette recognized Aaliyah, and he felt amused by the situation, enough that he simply wanted me to study her for now. We already knew enough about vampires that I didn’t really see what was to gain, unless he was hoping to find some leverage on Aaliyah. I hoped he wasn’t foolish enough to believe she truly had emotional attachments.

I started working well before the preliminary results were sent to me. Cosette had indeed lived across the hall from Aaliyah. That much wasn’t a lie, so I could be in a great deal of trouble. I wished I would have looked over the apartment thoroughly before killing them. I might have found some warning of their acquaintance.

Not much later, I found myself worrying over how James was going to deal with things, only to realize he was standing outside my door. He was very quick now. I opened the door with a spell just before he could knock.

“ALMA!” he yelled the moment he stepped inside.

“In here, James.” I replied, forcing my voice to be steady.

He was angry with me again. There were times that I feared his temper matched my own, but instead of yelling at me, he came into the room and watched me work. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

“Did you need something, or have you come to your senses and banished that vampire from your yard?” I asked, realizing just after that more caution would have been advisable.

“That vampire is a fourteen-year-old girl who just lost her parents to a mysterious fire.” he stated, practically spitting the words. “I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she just moved into the same building as her parents’ killer.”

“Yes, she did. I’m certain Aaliyah will make me pay for killing them in some way, since she did, in fact, live across the hall from them a few years back. Had I known that little detail, I assure you that I wouldn’t have killed them without consulting her first.”

There was a pause where I couldn’t even hear him breathing. I would need to grow accustomed to his changes.

“How can you be so cold?” he asked.

“What? Like a vampire?” I retorted. “They feast on humans to survive, James. Would you have me prove in great detail how many humans have been killed by each one before saving countless lives from the likes of a vampire?”

“Cosette hasn’t killed anyone.” he insisted, sounding absurdly certain.

“Ha. A likely story.” I argued.

“I guarantee that she isn’t aware of killing anyone. She’s innocent, Alma, which makes me wonder if her parents were as well.” he claimed.

I was more interested in her being fourteen. If that were true, what happened for her “parents” to turn her so young? Another possibility floated through my mind, but I dismissed it. Vampires having biological offspring was absurd. I also wondered why James was so determined to believe her, probably his secretary’s influence.

I nodded and told him “For you, I will consider this, but I can make no promises, James. If I’m ordered to kill something, I will. Please don’t try to make me go against my family.”

“Will you try getting to know Cosette?” he inquired.

“I would rather not, but I have been ordered to study her.” I admitted.

“What? Ordered to study her? What do you mean?” he asked, sounding wary.

“I informed Adelmar of your newest guest. My cousin is amused by the situation and wants me to keep an eye on her, so I’m forced to play along with this farce for now.” I explained.

After another lull in our conversation, I retrieved one of the pizzas from my freezer with a spell and asked “Would you like a snack?”

James was staring as if he were surprised by the simple spell. “I can feel it.” he stated.

“Feel what?” I inquired.

“Your magic.” he claimed, still staring.

I found the notion absurd but started heating the air next to him to test it. To my surprise, James ducked and rolled away from the magic.

Laughing, I said, “I wasn’t going to hurt you, James. I must say that is intriguing. We’ll have to see how the twins fair against you after you’ve had some rest.”

“Intriguing” was an understatement. If he could sense all magic, that could give him a distinct edge in combat against my family. Facing someone with a common affinity was rare enough that no one was practiced in it, save for Ai and Mai. I would have a great laugh if anyone of their affinity were stupid enough to face one of them.

James merely nodded and accepted some of the pizza after it finished heating. He remained quiet for a time, sitting and watching me work. I knew I wasn’t being the best of hosts, but I couldn’t stop midway with my current meetings. Was there something more he wanted? I would focus better if he left, but I was painfully aware that I didn’t want him to leave.

“Thank you for the pizza. I’m going to check on my new guest.” he informed me as he stood.

I could think of a hundred reasons to keep him here, none of which would likely dissuade him from leaving. I nodded and wished him a good night.

,,,^._.^,,,

“Oh. Mila. What are you doing here?” asked James as he stepped out of Lady Pendreigh’s wing to find me curtsying.

“Master, I am here to serve you, of course.” I replied as I rose.

His eyes were looking me over, and he seemed somewhat uncomfortable. Did he see me as a woman now that I had a more physical form for him to admire?

“I don’t really need anything at the moment.” he stated.

“As you say, master.” I replied.

I knew James still wasn’t interested in me. There was a distinct difference in how he looked at me compared with how he looked at Lady Pendreigh, despite our similar appearance.

“Oh! Would you mind helping me fetch Cosette’s luggage?” he inquired.

“Oh, master, do you think I’m such a poor maid that I wouldn’t have already seen to the luggage?” I teased.

Nodding, he said, “Oh, right. I suppose I did ask you to take care of it already. Umm… You don’t really need to follow me.”

“But master, this body was made to serve you. The closer I am to you, the more swiftly I can assist you.” I assured him, recognizing his continued unease but unwilling to let him ignore me.

He would grow accustomed to my changes as I expanded my functions, just as he had with the others.

“You seem tense, master. Might I give you a massage?” I offered, stating the obvious to give reason for my request.

“Not right now. Thank you. I thought I’d check in on Cosette again.” he informed me, forgetting that I am quite well aware of what happens throughout the house.

He started walking, so I followed, imitating meek maids I had seen in fiction rather than real life counterparts. When we arrived at the door to Cosette’s chambers, The Princess opened it for us.

“Boss-man, sir! Emma made Cosette some furniture, but she’s already falling asleep! We’re going to have a girls’ night tomorrow, so maybe you should plan something with Jarod and Brandon.” she suggested.

“Sure. That would be fun.” he assured her.

“Master, please don’t forget about planning our date either.” I stated, not willing to let him forget.

“Of course not, though I’m not really certain what you’d be interested in doing.” he admitted.

“Everything you’d want to share with me!” I insisted.

The Princess tugged on the leg of his pants to get his attention before saying, “I might consider helping you, boss-man, sir, if you convince Mila to join us physically for the girls’ night.”

I kept my face smooth, despite having discussed girls’ night in great detail with The Princess already.

“Mila, please join them. You don’t want to disappoint The Princess.” he stated.

“Whatever you wish, master.” she replied.

“Princess? Which one?” inquired Cosette, appearing perfectly serious.

“Huh?” asked my master.

“Cosette’s daddy always called her a princess too, boss-man, sir. Of course, her daddy was once a king.” explained the Princess.

“Yeah, well… That’s what he claimed.” admitted Cosette. “Apparently his people revolted, and he was saved by the vampire who turned him just before his execution.”

,,,^._.^,,,

“Sorry, boss-man, sir. That was their time.” I informed him in response to his thoughts.

He had been wondering if I could have saved Cosette’s parents, if I could have saved Regina months earlier. His confusion was adorable as he completely missed that everyone else was frozen in time.

Stepping up behind James with three layer cake in hand, Carl said, “I would suggest cake if you two are going to have such a dreary conversation.”

James practically jumped before spinning around. “Carl!? What are you doing here?” he asked just before noticing his surroundings.

“Well, Aaliyah knew you wanted to talk and suggested that I bring cake for the two of you, so here I am. I’ll just leave this here, so you two can be about your business.” he explained as he set down the cake. Then he adjusted time around James before walking away.

To James, Carl seemed to vanish.

“What…? How?” asked James.

“Oh. Carl has had a number of names throughout the years. ‘Father Time’, for example, has stuck fairly well.” I informed him, walking to the cake. I cut off a nice, big slice

James followed suit, though he was still glancing around, wondering what to make of these events. With his first bite of cake, he felt a little better. His extraordinary life was just getting started.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 201

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

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

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

“Were you waiting for me?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh! You must be James!” I exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aaliyah!” I exclaimed jogging to her.

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

“Cosette? Seriously?” inquired James.

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

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

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

Was “Alpy” really a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 200

“James?” I vainly asked.

I knew not how long I had knelt, having fallen to my knees when Death’s weapon vanished from before me.

“James!” I cried.

There was no heartbeat. No motion.

“No, no, no.” I protested, glaring up at Aaliyah through tear-streaked eyes. “What have you done to him?”

His eyes jerked open with surprising speed, leaving me wondering if the scythe had affected me.

“You’re… alive?” I asked in disbelief. “Where’s your… Oh.” I stated, hearing a single beat of his heart.

“Alma? What’s wrong?” he asked, speaking far too rapidly for any human. Then he moved away from me, dodging my tear as it fell.

“What was that?” I asked, wondering if this was truly James.

Aaliyah was being her typical self, standing there as if bewildered while shrugging.

“How did you do that?” I asked James, carefully approaching him. I started creating a spell to snare him, just in case this was not truly him.

“Do what?” he asked, still speaking too fast.

I slowly punched at him as I had many times during our practice sessions. How one moved in a fight could tell a great deal about them. James did his typical dodge but far more rapidly than he should have managed. I kicked at him, moving considerably faster. He dodged with ease in a very typical manner for him, efficient but without retaliation. I moved faster and faster as I attacked, even adding spells to my repertoire. This was still James, but he was countering my spells as fast as I was making them. He even tried a few in return, attempting to throw me off balance and knock me back.

I finally managed to strike him once in the side as he stared at a spell I made to lift him into the air, toss him about, and pin him down with air instead of telekinesis. James was quite gifted with telekinesis and easily surmised appropriate ways to counter it. Surprisingly, my spell did nothing to him. The wind just passed by as if he was completely immovable.

“Where did you learn that?” I inquired, impressed by the feat.

“Huh?” he replied, looking confused.

I quickly created a dozen spells and launched them at him. He didn’t even make an attempt to block them, staring around wildly. In his defense, I had never shown him any of these, but his body was impervious to each. Not even the hair on his arms burned when I tried a little of my personal magic.

Turning to Aaliyah, I asked “What did you do to him?”

“I gave him this glowing drink. Now look at him go!” she exclaimed after a shrug.

“Fine. Is this a lasting effect?” I inquired.

Nodding, she said, “Looks like it.”

I rolled my eyes in frustration. I was foolish to have tried getting information out of her. I reinitiated my attack against James, pressing him hard. Soon I found myself just having fun. I hadn’t been able to move with anyone like this in far too long, and James was being quite impressive for his limited experience.

My ribs cracked as I took a blow that sent me bouncing across the yard, leaving furrows in my wake. I never saw Aaliyah move, but I knew what had happened. The little brat hit me. This was surely a violation of the contract in some way. I attempted to remember what parts of the convoluted document might pertain to when she could attack my family as I watched her warily. My ribs were already starting to heal, but I hadn’t felt pain such as that since my mother was alive.

Touching James arm, Aaliyah said, “Easy, boss-man, sir.”

Why did he seem so weak? He stumbled as he looked around.

“Where did she go?” he asked.

Aaliyah pointed at me as she told him “Over there on the ground, glaring at me.”

I wasn’t glaring. I was simply watching, warily.

“Huh? Why?” he asked.

“I hit her.” she told him with another shrug.

“What!? Why did you hit her?” he demanded, sounding appropriately indignant.

“You’re out of energy, so her next hit would’ve killed you.” she explained.

The anger, which had been rising strongly, instantly abated, and I felt like my heart was sinking in my chest. I had nearly killed James.

“Alma was having too much fun and didn’t notice, so I hit her.” she continued, grinning.

I paid greater mind to what I was seeing, and James was back to seeming perfectly human. I quickly approached, and then slowed before I was quite too him. “I’m so sorry, James. I didn’t realize… She had said what she did to you would last.” I admitted, feeling foolish for having trusted Death.

“Why did you attack me in the first place?” he inquired.

I smiled ruefully and told him “I just meant to test you a bit but got a little carried away. That was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?”

He rolled his eyes and said, “I was the one on the receiving end of all those hits, you know.”

“Just be sure to charge him up before you consider going a second round. The boss-man needs some acclimation time to get accustomed to his upgrade.” instructed Aaliyah.

“Upgrade?” he asked.

She nodded and grinned, saying, “Uh-huh! You’re boss-man 2.0 now.”

“What did you mean when you said to recharge him?” I inquired, hoping she’d be perfectly clear for once.

The tiny girl rolled her eyes and said, “You know how he’s always ran on residual energy? He still does, but with more betterness.”

I took James’ hand and started directing my magic into my own, creating ample amounts of residual energy. His body absorbed it just as quickly.

“That’s amazing!” I exclaimed. As I gazed around, I could clearly see how much of the energy was missing from the air, so I admitted “I should have noticed.”

“I thought you had to use your magic to draw residual energy into the world.” he stated.

“I am, obviously. I’m attempting to heat up my own bone, and my body’s counteracting the heat. Both acts use magic. I have a slight advantage with this type of thing.” I explained.

James used a spell to clean off my costume, and I hoped I wasn’t blushing from the attention. I was perfectly aware of how ruined my costume was after bouncing across the yard in it.

“I can see in the dark.” he stated, surprisingly talking slow enough for a human despite the energy flowing into him.

“Well, I’d wager you couldn’t see if there were no light.” argued Aaliyah. “You can always ask your little friend to test that out. She’s rather good with light, you know.”

“What was that stuff you gave me?” he inquired.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes again. Only now, having already imbibed the bottle’s contents, did he bother considering what had been in it.

“I gave you a vial. You’re the one who broke the seal. I’m betting it wasn’t the poison though! I would’ve been sooooo sad if I had mixed those up!” she claimed.

“Why do people call you ‘Death’s daughter’?” he asked, switching topics.

The tiny girl giggled before saying, “Well… People are silly and generally picture Death as a guy, yet those who had seen me and lived were certain I am female. Someone decided I must be the daughter instead of Death herself. Something like that perhaps.”

Why was he bothering to ask her such a silly question now? His brain might be fuzzy… Having no idea of how his body had been altered, guessing the possible side effects of his transformation wasn’t feasible. I was surprised by the enormous quantity of energy he could contain now. His body was still putting sponges to shame.

“Just remember… I’ll know if you tell anyone about me.” she told him with a smile and a wink.

He laughed!

I stretched up, turned his head in my direction, and plainly said, “She’s not joking, James. She kills people who reveal her secrets.”

He kept smiling as he told me “You have to admit she’s adorable even when threatening me though.”

I sighed, not willing to admit anything about her cuteness, and replied “Just don’t let her fool you. Now you should realize why I’ve tried to warn you not to trust her.”

“I realize why worrying about her might have been a bit silly, but she’s still the most amazing secretary I could have.” he argued.

Aaliyah giggled.

I, however, was justifiably frustrated. “A bit” silly? He had continually worried about protecting Death herself! I couldn’t even conceive of a more ludicrous notion at the moment. I restrained myself from punching his side, not knowing if he had enough energy yet to do so safely.

“Thank you, boss-man, sir! You’re the bestest boss ever!” insisted Aaliyah.

“Let’s finish checking out the yard and get inside. You might want to get into something that isn’t torn.” suggested James.

“Oh! Oh! I can fix that!” exclaimed Aaliyah, vanishing from my senses.

I felt my garments move slightly and noticed James’ attire shift as well. Then Aaliyah was visible again, brushing off her hands against each other.

“That took some tricky stitching, but I managed!” she exclaimed.

Wanting to verify her work visually, I looked down. The fabric looked perfectly new and refreshed. I could even smell a faint, pleasant scent from it.

“Show off.” I stated. Then I quickly said, “Thank you. I do like this costume.” As I spoke, my eyes searched over James’ garments to see what had been done there. “Oh. You fixed James’ as well.”

“I figured I might as well, but I didn’t bring thread for it and had to run clear back home again for some. You wouldn’t believe how hard sewing his jacket was while balancing on your shoulder, Alpy. If you weren’t standing still, I don’t know if I could’ve managed!” she claimed, obviously lying.

I might as well be standing still to her when running flat out from what I had seen. James had simply nodded in response and took a step as if to continue on our way as if nothing had happened.

“James…” I started, pulling him back. “You didn’t give me your answer.”

He seemed confused. Had he forgotten or was he merely wanting me to ask again?

“About dating.” I encouraged, feeling I was blushing in my frustration.

I felt like time had slowed as understanding showed on his face. The vibration of his phone in his pocket couldn’t have come at a more untoward time.

“Sorry. Just a moment.” he stated, pulling it out instead of ignoring the bloody thing.

I did my best to stay calm. James wasn’t doing this to avoid answering me. He simply was practical about business. I probably would have done the same to him if our roles were reversed.

“You promised me a date, master.” stated Mila from the phone. “You can’t be exclusive with her and go on a date with me, can you?”

“What!?” I demanded. “You even promised Mila a date? James, this is ridiculous.” I blurted, feeling excessively annoyed by his frivolous dating practices. Was he or was he not interested in me? The way he stared into my eyes had my heart racing. I needed to be reasonable. This was Mila, an artificial intelligence. I would not fall to jealousy. I continued, saying, “Still, I suppose I can allow this before you give me your answer, not that I really know how you intend to go on a date with her. Maybe Jarod will loan you his glasses? With the right software, I suppose you could see a projection of her inserted places.”

Knowing Mila, she could probably write appropriate software with ease. She wasn’t merely sentient, but extraordinarily intelligent with hardware I would love to examine if not for its designer. I didn’t dare even attempt stealing from her.

“So you won’t be angry?” asked Mila

“I can’t say that I’m pleased about how casually James agrees to dates, but I don’t see the harm in this…” my words trailed off as I noticed someone running toward us with exceptional speed. The disturbing part were the proportions. I felt as if I was running toward myself in a way, though I was quite well aware of the differences in heat distribution… and dress. This was incredible work.

Arriving around the corner could have been my twin in appearance, save that she wore an elaborately tailored maid outfit with a ruffled, lace headpiece. Instead of my violet eyes, hers were a perfect green to match Mila’s digital avatar. Otherwise, the resemblance was astounding. Even her skin seemed remarkably similar to my own. Though part of me wanted to know how this was fabricated, I found myself suddenly very against this date of theirs. What was Mila playing at?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 199

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Want to go paintballing?” asked Brandon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Halloween party?” asked Brandon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

,,,^._.^,,,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

,,,^._.^,,,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then who is Chad?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” he questioned.

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

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

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

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

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

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