Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 177

“James, how do you fare with heights?” I asked, hoping that minor detail wouldn’t get in the way of what I had planned.

“Heights have never bothered me.” he quickly assured me.

“This may seem like an odd request given my condition, but I would like to be touristy and go to the top of the tallest building. Would you take me?” I asked.

“Of course, but, if you don’t mind my asking, why do you want to go up there?” he inquired.

I squeezed his arm a little tighter as I leaned against him. Touching him like this was intoxicating. I desired him. Carnal desires clouded judgement. I had learned the hard way before, and I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to skin James as I had the other. A clear lesson had to be taught that day and a reminder to myself as well. Besides, James had a very well-connected and dangerous ally in Lady Pendreigh. Though I wasn’t opposed to her becoming angry at losing James to me, I didn’t really want her angry at me. Assuming the rumors weren’t greatly exaggerated, Lady Pendreigh was a force of nature when upset. I’d survive her revenge with ease, but I could take some serious losses depending on who and what else was caught up in the inferno she’d create.

Realizing he was still waiting for a response, I told him “I’m curious what I’ll be able to hear and smell from up there, what the wind will feel like whipping against us.”

“Oh. Is that all?” he asked.

James needed more than such a flimsy reason. I wanted him to know the truth, despite how personal this was to me. My voice came out in a whisper as I said, “I may have heard of such a thing in an old movie and wanted to experience it.”

He nodded, and I relaxed against his arm, thankful that he accepted that reason. There were others as well, but none so personal to me.

When we entered the building, the security nodded, recognizing me. Their boss owed me a favor, and this was something too small to even start paying me back.

James started moving to the elevator, but I pulled on his arm, getting him to stop.

“Would you mind taking the stairs with me?” I asked.

“W-what? You do realize how tall this building is, don’t you? There are over two thousand steps.” he replied.

“Yes, of course, and I want to climb them together.” I insisted.

He acquiesced, and we started ascending together as I kept a firm grip on his arm. I couldn’t risk James fatiguing and falling, not that I really believed he would. He seemed to be in great shape.

“Don’t feel down. The stairs are far more fun, giving you a sense of accomplishment.” I teased. “Imagine the places these stairs could be leading me. Unlike you, I can’t see what’s ahead, so I can picture the grandest of things being just at the top. You’re stuck in the reality of what you see. Ignoring the sound and smell, I could see us climbing on secret stairs to the top of a mountain or boarding a spacecraft parked on a roof. You could be taking me to your secret condo for a late night rendezvous.”

He didn’t blush, but he didn’t seem to be thinking too much on my suggestion with how he looked at me.

“Or maybe we’re lost together, desperately trying to find a way out from the maze below. The city’s layout really is maze-like from what I’ve heard.” I confided, curious if he had ever noticed.

I continued offering possibilities to James for some time as we climbed, but he remained very noncommittal. Was he lost in his own imagination and not sharing or simply too fatigued to be engaged in conversation? I wasn’t certain. I considered telling him of how I was counting the steps, but I didn’t want him to know that I agonized over reaching the top. Was he interested in me or not?

Whatever the case, I felt him tense for a moment when Aengus came into view. The way his muscles relaxed and his stance shifted, I wondered if he was preparing for a fight.

“There you go, miss. Need anything else before I head off?” asked Aengus as he offered us each a water bottle.

“No. Thank you, Aengus.” I told him.

He nodded and left the staircase.

“Aengus is such a sweetheart once you get to know him.” I assured James. “We had a disagreement a while back, but I managed to bring him around. Now he works for me doing odd jobs.”

James didn’t take up the conversation there either, so I continued telling him stories while slowly getting small tidbits from him. Perhaps taking the stairs wasn’t the best of plans, but for over forty minutes, I was able to hold onto him.

The strong wind was felt the moment the door opened, and I used the excuse to hug myself against him as I wondered what James would do if he saw me jump. The shock when he found me perfectly well at the bottom would be tremendous, but I couldn’t afford risking the exposure. There might be a camera still running in the area that I had missed, and there was no way to account for some tourist taking pictures at the bottom of the building.

“Take me by the edge, James.” I ordered.

He did, slowly guiding me over and then protectively keeping his hand on my shoulder as I leaned against the wall.

“I’m not honestly certain we’re supposed to be here.” stated James.

No, the building’s roof was not open for just anyone, but I had made arrangements. I told James “Don’t worry. I know the company’s president, which is why the door was unlocked.”

James nodded, forgetting again that I couldn’t see.

“Did you know some birds are born blind, James?” I asked him.

“No. I can’t say that I ever considered it.” he admitted.

“My niñera raised me, really, since my parents wanted nothing to do with me, feeling I was defective.” I explained to him. I didn’t speak of how much I missed her still. “She was a hispanic nanny that my parents only hired because she was willing to work for the least out of those who interviewed. She was a fan of old movies and told me about Slepaya ptitsa, a Russian film about a boy who wanted to help a blind bird. My niñera taught me not to let others restrain me with their assumptions about what I could do, to seek the skies if that’s what I wanted. I know better than to try flying a plane, but I wanted to come here and breathe the same air as the birds with a boy who helped me reach this height today. Help me to see, James. What’s out there?”

I turned toward him, wanting to see his reaction. He seemed to acknowledge the importance of the story for me with his expression. He seemed to be considering how to respond.

There was an air of grandeur to his voice as he said, “A great kingdom stretches out before us with endless buildings extending into the horizon. Were you to address those below, they would never even know you were speaking, so great is the distance between us. The great carriages rushing about appear as multi-colored toys scurrying around by their own volition.”

I smiled even more as I told him “So even you can admit that, when staring at the big picture, the individuals disappear?”

“I can’t say I’m experienced at planning anything grand, but I hope I’d manage to help all I could if I were to plan something big.” he admitted.

“That man whom we spoke of earlier could very well be attempting to fight a great evil we couldn’t even notice from down there, and in turn he can’t be expected to notice each one of us with his eyes glued on the greater good.” I explained. Then I went on to speak of Marvelous Max might well be saving the world, a greater goal than any of the small losses taken along the way.

James looked thoughtful as he listened, but he always argued small points as if he didn’t want to admit that letting a few people die was perfectly acceptable when saving millions. Couldn’t he see that even a thousand deaths for a secure future was well worth the cost? If we needed to ritually sacrifice a million virgins as pagans of old, would that not be worth a better future for humanity?

I feared that my points fell on deaf ears as we descended together in the elevator, but I was still glad that James was with me. He could surely come about given some time to think. Perhaps he was caught up wondering how many lives Lady Pendreigh sacrificed for her goals. I didn’t know the grand tally myself, but I couldn’t doubt it was high.

I tried numerous more times as we visited other attractions throughout the city, and James’ arguments seemed to diminish. I wasn’t precisely pleased with the silence that often replaced them, but I had hope that he was thinking things through.

“Would you be able to extend our time together a bit longer?” I asked. Then I quickly assured him “Not for free, of course, but I will quite happily buy a bit more of your time if you can spare it.”

“With a guest at home, I can hardly keep myself out and still consider myself a decent host.” he replied. “Please forgive me for any disappointment, but I will see you again tomorrow at your auction.”

I watched as his limousine took him away and wondered if tomorrow would bring good news. There was still hope.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 176

James spent some time answering my questions about how his business got started, but I couldn’t say I was really satisfied with the answers, despite being more than satisfied with him. Most people would have been bragging about such success, but James was perfectly humble, acting is if being in charge of the business was just his own good fortune rather than the reason for the business’ success.

When he seemed to lose steam on the subject, I commented “I really find the idea of your business fascinating. I wouldn’t have guessed such a business could sprout up out of nowhere and get success so quickly.”

“I never thought my business would prosper quickly either, but I do enjoy helping old friends and meeting new ones. Plus, I get the diversity in work that I craved.” he replied with a shrug.

I found myself smiling as I said, “You’re just so charming, James. Is there anyone who doesn’t want to see you again after meeting you?”

“Thank you, but I’m really just another guy who’s had good fortune of late.” he insisted.

“Is meeting me part of that fortune?” I teased.

He paused long enough to stare at me for a second before saying, “I assure you that this is far from my worst date.

I realized I had started pursing my lips and quickly stopped. I didn’t want to make him nervous, even if he wasn’t as complementary as I had hoped. Neither was Camila if I were to be honest, so James might well be the perfect impersonation of a best friend.

“Do you ever worry about needing bodyguards?” I teased. “Given how much you and some of your clients are worth, someone might attempt a kidnapping eventually.”

Well, I was partially teasing. Kidnapping James was tempting, very tempting. I’d much prefer him to come willingly, but I could take him. At least, I could take him if Lady Pendreigh weren’t around. She was far too dangerous to face head-to-head. Though she couldn’t do any lasting injury to me, I was certain she’d destroy my machine and physically restrain me before I could react. I needed time to plan.

James had shrugged nervously and now said, “I never really considered it. I do provide my employees with defensive training, having had a considerable amount myself. Besides, a decent kidnapper would probably plan for bodyguards if I was seen with some regularly.”

I smiled and told him “Then the decent kidnapper would attempt to plan for a competent combatant, which is more difficult without knowing what sort of training regimen you use. Would you protect me if someone attempted to kidnap us today?”

“Of course.” he replied with a nod. “I can’t standby as someone hurts my client, after all.”

“Don’t you mean your date?” I pouted, teasing him.

“Yes, of course. My apologies. Why the sudden interest in kidnapping?” he asked.

“Sorry.” I laughed. “I suppose that might seem strange to you. I heard mention that the crime rate in this city was considerably high, so I was reading about recent events.”

“Oh? I didn’t realize the crime rate was that high.” he admitted.

I shook my head slightly as I said, “Oh come now. You were recently quoted in an article for having been at some sort of robbery.”

He didn’t respond, looking thoughtful.

“Apparently, you witnessed some man in a giant robot crashing through a wall.” I prodded, hoping he’d at least tell the story. What did he think of my alter ego?

“Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was a man, but there was some sort of mechanized suit. What sort of person would blow up a wall without knowing who was on the other side? If I had been just a little farther ahead, I would have surely died.” he insisted.

“I’m actually somewhat familiar with a few ways the alleged criminal might have checked for people through the wall. That must have still been quite the ordeal for you.” I admitted. Why was he complaining when he was perfectly fine?

“Yes. It really was. Would you believe some sort of caped crusader attacked the criminal?” he asked.

“Several witnesses claimed as much, but I can’t see how anyone would’ve survived being hit by a machine that can easily break through brick walls. The journalist who wrote the article didn’t seem to buy that either.” I informed him.

James smiled slightly as he said, “Having been there, I can confirm it. I was certain the hero was dead when she was hit, but she kept fighting till the criminal flew off.”

I needed to clarify things with him, so I said, “I’m not even certain the one in the suit should be called a criminal. According to my sources, the man stole weapon plans before they could be sold on the black market. Isn’t someone who risks arrest for the greater good supposed to be a hero?”

James seemed surprised by the notion. “So the police know what was stolen? I hadn’t heard of this.” he admitted.

I shouldn’t have mentioned that to him. This was bad. I couldn’t afford to be so smitten with anyone to risk telling too much, yet I wanted him to believe in me. I considered a few different ways I might turn things about before saying, “I didn’t get that information from any official source, but I am well connected.”

James rubbed his chin as he said, “Oh, so you don’t know if that criminal might be using the supposed weapon plans for something even more nefarious.”

Criminal. The term was beneath me. I was far more than some mere criminal. I was fighting to save the world from threats most people couldn’t even imagine. I wanted to tell him everything and make him understand, but I needed to be careful. James seemed too set in his belief that Marvelous Max was the bad guy here.

“I was just meaning we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the man’s motives. He could be fighting a battle most people know nothing about.” I informed him.

He seemed to consider my words before saying, “While we’re not making assumptions, we shouldn’t be set on the person’s gender either. There’s no telling who is behind a destructive machine. Maybe aliens even.”

I laughed and said, “Aliens, James? Really? I suppose that technology does seem pretty impressive, but I’d believe in this restaurant’s alien origin first, considering it is the Intergalactic House of Awesome Sauce.”

He seemed more relaxed for a moment, but jumped when our hostess returned to retrieve the dishes.

“I hope you’re ready for dessert!” she exclaimed. “You two are going to love this.”

“Evanna, how do you feel about the idea of this place being created by aliens?” asked James.

Shrugging, she said, “I wouldn’t rule it out. The universe is a big place. You wouldn’t believe my delivery range if I told you.”

She was obviously teasing, barely containing a smile. She failed entirely when James laughed.

“Man, I was doing good up until you laughed.” she claimed.

James looked at me for a moment being turning back to Evanna and asking “So what’s for dessert?”

Evanna lifted tall domes to reveal crystal goblets filled with sparkling gems of various colors. “Enjoy!” she exclaimed before pushing away the cart she had filled with our used dishware.

“So what is it?” I asked, pretending not to know.

“Well, I have no idea to be honest. There are these goblets with tall spoons to the right. The goblets and spoons appear to be made of some sort of crystal while the contents looks to be multi-hued, tiny gems.” he replied.

I grinned as he spoke, allowing my excitement to show. I didn’t even wait for him to finish speaking, so long had I gone without these exquisite delights. Catching how James watched me, I explained “I’ve heard of this, though the restaurant doesn’t give it a name. If heaven were a taste, this would be it.”

James seemed lost in the taste the moment he tried the dessert. I felt the same. My senses seemed incredibly sharp as ecstasy suffused me. I could hear the conversations throughout the enormous room with ease. The feeling of the light breeze piercing my clothing to tickle my skin was intense enough to make me shiver but pleasant enough to make me sigh in comfort. My clothes themselves seemed both softer and rougher at different parts. I was so aware of everything, and then the dessert was gone, leaving my senses to return to normal. Was the experience as delightful for James as it was for me?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 175

“I’m really glad you agreed to participate in my charity auction, James. We’re going to help so many children this way. I actually had a hand in the new hospital’s design, though Lady Pendreigh used her sway over the Pendreigh Group to make a few alterations. They were improvements in a way to be perfectly honest, but I don’t really care for Lady Pendreigh at all. She’s so… stuffy.” I explained.

“What sort of improvements?” he asked, finally taking the bait on a line of conversation.

How deep did Lady Pendreigh have her hooks in him? I wanted to save him from her.

“For example, I had a grand entryway designed which I felt would lift people’s spirits as they entered. Hospitals are so dreary. I failed to consider how some of the sculptures would affect traffic flow, and Lady Pendreigh added a sterilization system to the fountain that will work with the ventilation to clean the air while spreading an airborne sanitizer. For all her stuffiness, she really is brilliant. The design was very elegant.” I admitted.

If he was particularly invested in her, I couldn’t speak too negatively of her without putting him on guard. I found myself wondering if ever I had wanted someone to join my cause so much before.

“I can’t say I’ve actually seen any of her designs myself. She’s always working, and I hate to bother her.” he replied.

I shrugged and said, “Oh, I’m not surprised. She had her fingers in countless pies throughout Europe, and her influence here is growing rapidly. To be frank, I don’t feel spending time with her is safe.”

I carefully watched him to gauge his reaction. Hopefully, I hadn’t said too much.

“She’s not so bad.” he argued.

I resisted the urge to sigh and forced myself to laugh instead. “If you believe that, you really don’t know her well. What’s one good thing about her?’

He paused to think for a moment before saying, “Well, her desire to see things done right will help that hospital.”

Shaking my head I asserted “No-no. You can’t turn her obsessive need for control into a good thing. Can you think of any positive qualities she possesses?”

I watched him struggling to come up with something. A seed of doubt was successfully planted. Hopefully, the seed would flourish.

“Sorry, but your time’s up. We’ve arrived.” I informed him.

“How did you..?” he started to ask.

“The smell, James. This parking lot always smells fresher than most of the city.” I replied.

I wasn’t even lying. The change in smell was distinctive to this place, and I only looked to verify afterward.

James stepped out of the limo and offered his hand to me, so I accepted it and followed after him.

“Pardon my asking, but do you have partial vision?” he asked.

He was more observant than I had thought. I needed to be more careful.

“Oh, no. I’ve been completely blind since birth.” I explained. No one could know that I overcame my condition through technology of my own design. Not yet at least.

He seemed to accept my admission at face value, casually taking me into the restaurant. This part always baffled me. We stepped across the threshold, and I found myself in an impossible room. The inside was quite obviously larger than the outside and appeared to be constructed of smooth crystal of the highest clarity. Rugged patches of crystal stretched beneath us, never reaching the forested ground far below. The dimly lit forest was embraced between mountainous peaks to our right and a large moon off to the left. The moon was quite obviously not our own, making this structure and its environs seem to be on another world.

I changed the mode on my glasses to gather as much information as possible while we were here. If I could unravel the technology causing this illusion, I would easily be able to implement it for all manner of uses.

“How is it, James? What is the room like?” I asked, wanting to hear his take on it.

His voice was barely a whisper as he said, “The room is transparent, and we’re surrounded by a moonlit valley so beautiful that I lack words to describe it.”

Yes, this view was incredible, but I felt he could do better at describing it. Perhaps he wasn’t so observant after all. Before I could pursue the matter, a girl yelled to him.

“James! How’s it going?” as a curly-haired brunette with bright blue eyes.

She was shorter than me and quite pretty. Her curls seemed far less disorderly than mine, probably due to thinner hair. What was she to James if not an employee as her dress suggested?

“Evanna, right? I thought you were a driver.” he commented.

She rolled her eyes and said, “I am, but Carl insisted I fill in for a moment between shifts. Can’t argue with the boss. if you follow me, your table is just over here.” She showed us to a table before enthusiastically telling us “I’ll bring your food in just a sec!”

I reached for his hand purposely missing and feeling along the table before clutching it. “Details, James.” I told him. “I feel like there is a soft breeze in here.”

For just a moment, I thought he was put off by something, but then he said, “There is a great, crystal dome above us suspended by archways around the giant circle of a room. Each archway appears to be completely open, allowing the night air to reach us. The moon looks different to me somehow, as if it’s not our moon but that of another world. It’s absolutely enormous and tinged with blue. The forest beneath us is hard to make out, but it’s quite expansive, stretching into the distance.”

I squeezed his hand encouragingly and asked him to continue.

“I didn’t notice at first, but the crystal appears to be glowing faintly. Even looking away from the moon toward the mountains, I can make out the outline of the floating structure by the dim glow.” he explained. Then he paused for a moment, looking around before saying, “I… I have no idea where our server went from here. She seems to have vanished entirely.”

I knew he could be more observant. There were numerous times I had tried figuring out how the servers seemed to slip away, but I never was able to follow them. Something always pulled my attention away before they slipped out of the illusion. Magic might well be involved in this place, but Camila never could detect any. If there were spells in place, they were beyond her. I would suspect the Slayers, but they weren’t allowed in here for some reason. Perhaps the proprietor was a match for them. Carl was an enigma.

Smiling at James, I told him “I’m not surprised. I’m guessing some of the patrons here aren’t even real. I think this room utilizes some very advanced technology to create realistic screens on the walls. Then there must be some sort of environmental control for the temperature and breeze. You’d be amazed at some of the theories I’ve read.”

He seemed to be considering my words as he looked around, missing Evanna’s approach from behind him. I had heard her footsteps quite distinctly in this room.

“Sorry. I didn’t see you return.” stated James, having jumped when a bowl was set in front of him.

Laughing, she assured him “I’m the one that should be apologizing. I’m supposed to be making people feel comfortable. Playing host really isn’t my thing. Who wouldn’t get distracted in a room like this.”

“Evanna, is it? Do you happen to know how this illusion is created?” I asked.

Laughing again, she said, “Sorry, but I’m not allowed to discuss any of the inner workings, even with a friend of James. Please enjoy your meal.”

She knew!? I needed to put this restaurant under surveillance and have my men grab her from the parking lot the moment she got off. She should have known better than to flirt with my date.

A scent distracted me, and I exclaimed “Moqueca!” in delight.

“Pardon?” asked James.

“The dish, silly. I had this when I was in Brazil a few months back. You’re in for a treat if you’ve never tried it.” I assured him.

The host left us, and I began my normal routine of “finding” everything’s location as my niñera had showed me when I was young. I couldn’t leave James wondering again if I might not be blind. Once finished, I quickly took a bite. The taste was incredible, even better than I remembered. The secrets of this restaurant’s recipes would be worth a fortune by themselves.

“This is even better than I remembered. How do you like yours?” I asked.

“Oh. It’s great! I’ve never had anything quite like this, but the flavor really is wonderful.” he insisted.

“I’m glad you think so too. My chef can’t quite get the flavor right, so I told him to give up. I’d fire him, but he really does quite well on most things.” she explained.

James seemed to earnestly enjoy meal. Though he ate slowly, savoring each bite, a smile continually came to his lips. I enjoyed watching him far more than I would have thought possible and found myself wishing to keep him around constantly. Perhaps one day.

Best Friend For Hire reprise, Entry 174

“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.

Oops.

“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?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 165

Getting to work directly with James was pretty great, though we didn’t have time for talking. The Astors, an elderly couple with a very nice home ― at least, nice when not compared with James’ mansion ― had hired us to pack their belongings, load them onto a truck, and take them to be sold at an auction. They were moving to Europe and didn’t want to take most of the stuff with them. I could understand. The furniture looked more decorative than comfortable. What’s the point of sitting if you’ll only become more uncomfortable?

I was originally asked to do the packing, but James didn’t seem to trust me with it, which was fine. I always had preferred carrying. Mr. Astor seemed shocked by how easily I lifted some of the boxes. I couldn’t blame him. Who would expect a superhero to be helping him move?

Mrs. Astor seemed delighted to have James’ help, and I couldn’t blame her. Even if he didn’t have some cool magic helping people along, James was James. Who wouldn’t like James? I still couldn’t believe this was my life now. I still performed as a superhero at night, but I was only helping people by day too. Well, I did have to pull out my new suit while heading home the other day. Some jerks tried robbing a gas station practically right in front of me.

After we were finished, James took me out for burgers and insisted on paying. I didn’t mind. Made it feel more like a date. I tried showing him some sign language while we were there, since he seemed interested. He struggled a bit, but he was getting it.

We left the restaurant to head back to Mila, and I couldn’t help feeling sad that my time with James was almost over. Everyone wanted his attention back at the house, so spending any time with just him was impossible, especially when Alma was around.

I couldn’t help getting irritated every time I thought about her. She was completely incredible at everything, but she outright refused to join me, helping people. In fact, she wanted me to stop being a superhero as if she was rooting for the bad guys! I could imagine how angry she’d be if she knew Aaliyah supplied me with another costume.

OH! I hadn’t shown James yet! I looked around to make sure no one was that close to us before saying, “Aaliyah didn’t let me keep my costume from the convention, by the way. She told me that she knew what I would do with it, and mentioned how many people probably saw me on video feeds. I was really feeling down about it until I got back to my room and found this.”

I pulled back my sleeve a little, so James could see the suit underneath. Then I asked “Want to see the whole thing sometime? It looks a lot like the other costume, including my symbol, but this one’s thin enough to wear under baggy clothes easily. It’s still armored though, not that I need protection. I’m sure Aaliyah made it for me, but I haven’t gotten a chance to thank her without Alma around. That girl really bugs me. She could save sooo many people with her abilities, but she’s like… not even interested. She wouldn’t even let me go patrol at night when we were at the convention. Who does she think she is? She’s not my boss, but fighting her won’t get me anywhere. I broke my fist when she let me punch her.”

His eyes had gone wide for a moment when I pulled back my sleeve, and he quickly looked around to check for people. After seeing that the area was still clear, he said, “Sorry. Alma was probably concerned over you getting in trouble, and we both knew she could handle anything that came up in the hotel.”

I rolled my eyes and told him “Yeah, but would she?”

We both knew she wouldn’t lift a finger. She was super, but she was no hero.

“I really do think she has a kind heart.” insisted James.

The wall next to us blew outward, and I quickly moved to protect James. We were thrown to the ground, but I managed to catch his head before it hit the sidewalk.

“Find cover. I’ll handle this.” I told him before looking around. No one was watching, so I quickly pulled off my clothes to reveal my suit and grabbed the rest of it from my bag. Then I darted off into the new hole.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A robot! There was a robotic man taking something from the bank! I charged it and started trying to find a way to dismantle it. Unfortunately, I underestimated its speed. The thing grabbed me and threw me clear across the street. Luckily, a wall caught me, so I was able to charge back at it again before it could escape.

The robot had a white cape, and I wondered if I could maybe get it entangled in its own cape. Was someone in this thing!? I easily ducked its punch as I got close and reflexively kicked its leg. I felt my bone break and heal again. This thing was too sturdy.

I got knocked back when thrusters in its feet switched on, lifting it into the air. I resisted the urge to yell at it, but this wasn’t over. I’d find that thing again.

No one around looked injured, but I still asked to make sure. I didn’t see anyone replying, so I said, “Get an ambulance. There are injured people inside.” Then I took off to find Mila and hope I could hide hop inside the car without being seen. I didn’t really want to sneak back to the mansion in broad daylight.

Success! Mila had been heading toward us and stopped by an alley long enough for me to hop inside unnoticed, though she warned me not to get blood anywhere. I crouched there, waiting for what seemed like far too long. Mila explained that James was getting questioned by the police.

When he finally got into the car, I was thankful that he grabbed my bag. I quickly snatched it to get my street clothes back on, accidentally making James jump.

“I really need to get some sort of fancy gizmos for combat. I couldn’t do anything to that guy.” I told him.

“I hope no one gets the wrong idea. With that guy in white while you’re in black and red, you know who looks more like the villain here.” he teased.

“Oh, please. He clearly blew out the side of a building and escaped with something. I, on the other hand, wasn’t holding anything.” I retorted.

After I finished changing, I crawled up to sit by James. He let Mila take over driving and turned to me.

“How do you like the new suit?” I asked.

“From what I saw, it looked pretty incredible. I like the mix of red and black.” he admitted.

“It’s super cute, right!? I love how the black lines look like cracks. These gloves have some sort of armor in the fingers. Hitting that suit didn’t even hurt.” I told him, convinced there had to be a person in there. Robots didn’t get scared and run away.

James and I talked about crime fighting the whole way home, but he still didn’t seem interested in being my sidekick. With his magic, he could surely help out in all sorts of ways. I needed to find a way to really get him interested.

,,,^._.^,,,

I stepped into the bank, shattering the glass as the door’s frame was bent away by my suit. The vault door was shutting, so I quickly fired a missile to break the hinges. Perfect. I just hoped these weapon plans would be as useful as advertised. I couldn’t guess at why the little toad had hidden them here in this pathetic excuse for a bank. If he was lying, I’d make him regret it.

Tearing the box open was easy. I would have to thank my new friend for his tips. The forums where I found him was mostly full of fanboys with no real talent, but my friend was brilliant. He could actually carry an intelligent conversation and seemed to have a real thirst for knowledge.

When I went to leave, people were flooding out of the exit. I didn’t have time to wait, so I blew a hole in the far wall. Much to my surprise someone in a cape came charging me through my new exit. Annoyed, I grabbed her and threw her, wondering why useless people always tried getting in the way of real progress.

I felt a moment of absolute shock as the woman stood and charged at me again. There was too much blood for her to be human. She obviously was mentally handicapped to try taking on my suit barehanded, but could she really heal like me?

Catching movement to my left, I glanced over, shocked to find James Michael Somerset III there, staring at me. What did he think of my suit?

I punched at the nuisance, but she managed to dodge and tried kicking this time. I laughed as I engaged the flight system. Try-hards would never get anywhere without having a plan. That was another difference between her and me. I knew precisely what I was doing. The world had only begun to see Marvelous Max.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 162

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Care to pose for me?” asked a girl.

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

“Umm… sure.” replied James.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You two know each other?” asked James.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other two seemed ready to throw down.

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

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

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

“What was that about?” asked James.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaliyah giggled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

,,,^._.^,,,

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

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

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

“Umm… sure.” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You two know each other?” inquired James.

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

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

She knew!? How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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