Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 187

“Aren’t you going to take it apart?” asked Portentia, looking as if she was ready to rip the giant, metal fist apart with her bare hands to see what was inside.

“Eventually, sure.” I assured her. “I’m going to have Mila scan it first for explosives, tracking devices, et cetera. Don’t want to risk breaking anything, and a tracking device might be useful if there is one.”

“Aren’t you worried about her tracking it here?” asked James.

I nearly sighed, but instead said, “Ha. You’re joking, right?” He, of all people, should realize that we take jobs from all sorts of clients. Explaining away the hand would be easy if Maxine came peacefully and somehow managed to find her way down here. As I looked between him and Portentia, they obviously weren’t thinking things through, so I told them “Imagine what Alma would do if Maxine tried to start something here. Besides, the estate’s defense system is absolutely incredible from the little I’ve seen, and no signal’s getting out of here in any case.”

James pulled out his phone and looked at it. Then he turned it to me and said, “I think elevators block signals better, Jarod.”

He had full bars? “Oh. Mila’s probably relaying it as she does for mine.” I told him, realizing she probably did that automatically for him.

“No, I’m not.” she replied. “In fact, I can’t even find a signal coming from his phone. The princess must have installed some technology I don’t understand in it.”

I smirked, turned back to James, and asked “You say an elevator blocked your reception?”

He nodded, saying, “Yeah. When Portentia, Alma, and I got stuck in that elevator at convention.”

I barked a laugh before telling him “I have the strangest feeling that Aaliyah chose to ignore you for some reason.”

James looked shocked at first, but his expression quickly changed to consideration.

“Maybe we should take a look at your phone instead.” I suggested.

“But… but the fist!” exclaimed Portentia, sounding exasperated. “Who knows what we can get out of it! You might be able to find some weakness in her suit or find some way to hack it. You’re the tech master!”

I felt for her as she was practically pleading, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes before explaining “More than likely, I’ll just see the finger mechanisms and possibly a weapon of some sort. I really doubt she conveniently placed something in the fist to reveal her secrets. However, being able to transmit a signal that can penetrate this garage could have many uses.”

Seeing Portentia’s disappointment saddened me, but there was nothing I could do about the truth.

“Master, I don’t recommend examining your phone too closely. The princess is superb at keeping her secrets, and she keeps them very well.” insisted Mila.

“Yeah, she’s right.” I agreed. “I really wish Aaliyah would share more of her tech, but I can’t really complain to her when she does so much for us already. Oh well. So what’s this job you’ve hired me for?”

“I missed part of that. What job?” asked Portentia.

James looked between Portentia and I before turning to her and saying, “I’ve hired Jarod for the next few hours. Sorry, but there are a few things we need to do.”

“Oh. Okay.” stated Portentia glumly. “Promise to tell me what you find when you get around to examining the fist?” she asked, looking into my eyes.

I nodded and vowed “I promise. I’ll even give you the details if you want.”

She rolled her eyes and shook her head as she said, “Yeah. As if that ever does any good.” Turning to James, she told him “Be sure to hire me next time. You know I’m a great listener!”

He laughed and said, “I never doubt that you’re paying attention. Sorry for stealing Jarod away. I’ll try to make it up to you soon.”

Grinning and grabbing his hands, she told him “It’s a date!” Then she spun around inhumanly fast and skipped to the lift.

“I’d call that another win for Portentia today.” I stated, watching her head up the lift. “Tired of your endless string of girls yet?”

“Asks the guy who seems to be playing with the twins.” he retorted.

“I’m not playing with them. We’re going to start dating.” I admitted.

“Which one?” he asked.

“Don’t know. Can’t tell them apart.” I replied.

James’ look of disbelief was incredibly amusing. Surely he figured out that the twins were telepathic by now. Didn’t he? Well, they were more than telepathic. They shared each other’s feelings. When I had nearly stopped the heart of one, the other felt it as if it were her own heart. The two weren’t physically conjoined, but they certainly were mentally.

James was just staring at me for a while. He eventually asked “That doesn’t bother you at all?”

“Should it?” I teased.

“Jarod! They’re two different girls! You know you’ll have to figure out which is which and pick one to date, right? As close as they are, there’s no way they’d want to share you.” he claimed.

He really didn’t know. I shrugged and said, “I offered to implant chips into their arms, but they refused. Not my fault if they don’t want me to know who I’m speaking to at any given moment. Relax. Breathe. If things get serious, I’m sure Ai will figure something out without forgetting Mai feelings.” I did my best to emphasize their names as a joke, but he still seemed worried.

“Okay.” he replied. “Just be careful. I don’t want any of you getting hurt over this, and you know those two can really hurt.”

“Did they tell you I managed to make Ai’s heart skip a beat the first time we sparred?” I asked.

“As I recall, you nearly killed her by stopping her heart.” he stated quite seriously.

“Yeah, but her heart still skipped a beat.” I replied with a shrug. If I hadn’t come that close to killing her, our relationship probably wouldn’t have progressed at all. The twins were significantly beyond humans, and I needed to be their equal, despite my humanity, to warrant attention.

James seemed to be considering what I said all too seriously. What was eating at him now?

“So I’m sure you didn’t hire me to talk about my budding romance. What’s up?” I asked.

“Want to take me for a spin? I haven’t seen your Mustang in a while.” he suggested.

“Sure, but my boss makes me charge for gas.” I teased.

“Well, you’re a best friend for hire, not for free. Losing money on a job would be silly.” he replied, still serious.

“So would be charging gas money on an electric car.” I retorted. “You haven’t gotten a ride since I reworked the old girl.”

He followed as I started walking to the lift. I fought the urge to let him take the lead. I still didn’t understand why being in front of him always had bothered me, but it did. Everyone always looked to James, including me.

“Don’t expect too much.” I cautioned. “I don’t have Mila incorporated into the Mustang or any of the digital works you have. I honestly haven’t decided what all I want yet. Aaliyah provided me with a power source when I inquired about buying one. No charge even. That’s another problem with my first suit. I haven’t figured out a good way to power it yet. Got it running with a power line at the moment. I wish Portentia could have cut that out of Maxine’s monster. I was really tempted to stick the power source Aaliyah gave me in there, but Mila would probably rat me out.”

“Would not!” she exclaimed indignantly.

“Sorry, Mila!” I apologized. “We both know she’d find out somehow though.”

James laughed, finally loosening up again. I felt as if tension just left the air, like I had finally started breathing again without knowing I held my breath. I mean, I hadn’t been, but the feeling was similar.

James seemed to be appraising my baby as he walked around her. Then he hopped in her like he had hundreds of times before. We spent so many hours together working on this car, and I still sometimes felt shocked that James was my best friend. Everyone wanted to spend time with him, but he chose me for some reason.

I eased us back out of the garage as I considered where to go.

“Whoa. You didn’t shift. Did you disconnect the stick without removing it?” asked James, sounding shocked.

“Yes and no.” I replied. “You see, I cheated a bit on your Aston Martin. Mila handles the transition between gears to smooth things out. The torque from my engine is enough to seriously damage things if there’s any misalignment, so I felt more comfortable with an outrageous computer handling it. For this, I decided I really didn’t need as much top speed, although I gained some back from a lighter car, so there’s no shifting. The shifter now controls the noises the car emits through the speakers to simulate a combustion engine. Pretty sweet, huh?”

“Yeah. You’re amazing as ever.” he insisted. “Wow. Sorry that I didn’t help out at all.”

I grinned at his sincere apology. “Don’t sweat it. I know you’re busy. Besides, I have a great job, an awesome place to live, and some cool new friends thanks to you.” I explained. “Things are going great for both of us, so relax. You stress way too much.”

He nodded, but still seemed to be stressing out. What could possibly be tearing him up this badly?

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Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 186

<Are they here yet?> I asked again, signing to Mila. I wasn’t sure how many times I had asked already, nor could I really care. I was bouncing with excitement, having fought off Maxine and taken a trophy off her suit.

<They’re almost up the drive.> she replied. < I should warn you that James and Jarod both have plans, so they won’t have long to hear you out.>

<They always have plans. If James worked anymore frequently, he wouldn’t sleep.> I insisted. I already wasn’t sure how he found the time. He wasn’t like me, so he needed his sleep.

<Don’t worry. I monitor his sleep cycle to ensure he receives adequate rest each day.> she assured me as if reading my thoughts.

I nodded, trusting Mila’s judgement. She knew a great many things that I didn’t, some of which she couldn’t reveal to me. I still wondered at times how I became so lucky to have such a home. The answer was always James, of course. Without him, none of this would have happened. He was such an incredible person, and I needed to get his attention before he slipped away tonight.

<Turn around.> ordered Mila, vanishing from the mirror.

I spun to find James stepping into the house. “James!” I exclaimed. “We need to talk. Is Jarod with you?”

He watched as Alma walked off, and then opened his mouth to say something.

Before he could answer, I saw Jarod stepping in with one of the twins holding his arm. The other twin and their brother followed. Jarod was saying something, but I missed it.

“Jarod! I need to show you something.” I insisted. “Are you free?” I asked, hoping that his plans weren’t starting immediately. Mila implied they weren’t.

“Jarod will be indisposed all night.” claimed the girl on his arm.

The other twin was saying something as well, but I couldn’t see her well enough past the others to know what exactly. I didn’t bother looking around to see if Mila transcribed what she said. They rarely spoke without harassing someone, so they were probably just teasing me. I became slightly more interested when I noticed Duncan looking startled by what was said.

“No, I don’t. I haven’t even finished healing from the last match.” he was insisting.

I hoped they weren’t trying to get him to fight me. With him already injured, I might hurt him too much.

The girl who was on Jarod’s arm had turned around to bug her brother. Duncan was quick to remove her hand, but I couldn’t see him speak past her head. Didn’t anyone understand this was important? I needed James and Jarod! The twins started hugging one another and staring at their brother. What were they doing now?

As they turned around to grab Jarod, they said, “Jarod, please save us from our perverted brother!”

What!? Those two had to be half villain. I felt sorry for their brother. Jarod seemed to be saying something, but I couldn’t see what now. I was running out of patience. I needed him to come see what I had before he was forced to leave. The girls seemed to be fighting over Jarod, pulling him back and forth between them. James was turned, watching the exchange. Was I really going to lose my chance here? No. I needed to do something. I started to formulate a plan of attack when everyone suddenly looked off to the side. I turned to see Alma there, serene as ever.

For once, I was quite glad to see her when I realized she had called off the twins and their brother. The three followed her away, leaving Jarod and James with me! She might be part saint after all.

Someone touched my shoulder, so I turned to find Jarod looking at me.

“What’s so urgent? I have half an hour before a job James hired me for, something rather vague I might add.” he informed me, signing as he spoke.

His sign language wasn’t perfect yet, but he was sweet for bothering to learn at all.

“I have part of her suit!” I exclaimed, finally getting to tell them.

“What?” they both asked in surprise.

“While you were out being duped at the villain’s party, I was fighting her. Well, I was too late at most of the scenes, but I got some help from a friend getting to the last one. I didn’t manage to stop her from breaking in, but I did take her arm and send her running!” I explained. Mila didn’t want me to mention her aid yet. She seemed concerned about how James would take it.

“Maxine was actually there the whole time.” stated James.

Nodding, Jarod said, “She must have an accomplice or some clever type of control system.”

I hadn’t considered that she might not actually be in the suit.

“So where’s the piece?” he asked.

I smiled and said, “In the garage, of course. I wanted you to be able to work on it.”

I started walking that way and explaining how the fight went. Jarod seemed impressed by the lasers, but I insisted that they were nothing compared with my staff, Midnight. Dodging missiles was pretty intense, but I related what happened as best as I could up until we arrived. James, noticing the fist, immediately knelt down to look at it. He was interested! I hadn’t been sure with how impassive he seemed as I told my tale. Maybe he was spending too much time with Alma.

James jumped when we started descending into Jarod’s work area.

“There’s a subfloor?” he asked, looking around.

I didn’t know how to take him not being aware. How could he not have known? I missed most of what Jarod was saying, but he just seemed to be explaining what was down here to James.

“Whose is this?” asked James as he walked over to the old Volkswagen that was being repaired.

“Oh. Brandon asked for an oil change the other day, and I noticed some other problems. This is a 1987 Silver Volkswagen Quantum Syncro Wagon. Bit old, but it’s in reasonably good shape now. I just have a bit more that I want to do to it.” explained Jarod.

“I have no idea how you find time to do anything.” replied James, looking completely sincere.

“I actually have more room in my schedule than you on most days.” insisted Jarod. “I had Mila give me an analysis on a whim one day. Hey, Mila, would you mind moving this over by my suit?”

I knew Jarod had been constructing a suit as well, but I hadn’t seen it in action yet. Well, I hadn’t seen it at all. He was keeping the whole project hidden. I missed part of what they were saying, but Mila was transcribing for me on the far wall.

James had asked “Is your suit behind the sheets?”

Then Jarod told him “Nah. That’s a little project for Mila. It’s not ready yet. My first suit’s straight ahead, though I doubt I’ll be using that too much.”

“Oh? Why’s that?” asked James.

“I was mulling over a new idea during the… umm… auction. The problem with a suit like Maxine’s or my first one is that they’re too bulky. Even if I figure out the power supply, I couldn’t use the suit in many parts of the city without risking collateral damage like Maxine constantly causes. I was reading up on some tech the other day that could potentially replace muscle for electronic arms. Thinking through the tech used in creating a cyborg, I’ve realized I might be able to make a less intrusive interface to communicate our thoughts to a durable fabric that could enhance our strength by acting as additional, external muscle while also providing support to save our joints.” explained Jarod.

“The general idea is nice, but that’ll take a bunch of research and development if it’s possible.” insisted James.

With a shrug, Jarod said, “I think I can manage. Thanks to Aaliyah, we have access to resources that most people don’t. Plus, my assistant is top notch, right Mila?”

“Not having to sleep does have its advantages, but I am still learning a great deal from you.” she replied.

“The biggest part I’ll need your help with, James, is finding a way to enhance the design with magic.” stated Jarod.

James stared at him, looking surprised.

Jarod smiled as he said, “I know you have a ways to go, but Ai and Mai don’t know how to enchant things like Midnight there. Alma, if she does, hasn’t been interested in aiding in my endeavors. For now, there are some spells that Mila’s chosen from her database which should give temporary boons.”

“I’ll try, but I have a long ways to go.” replied James.

I was growing impatient again. Yes, everything said was important enough. Jarod could come act as my sidekick if he finished any sort of suit to help him keep up, but we had something important to do at the moment! Weren’t they interested in what was in the mechanical hand?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 173

My sisters were completely disrespectful, dragging me out to all manner of places and treating this Jarod as if he were worthy of our company. I never had imagined that they’d fall so far as to openly display affection for a human. Mother was not going to be pleased.

I glanced at Jarod, disgusted by how he showed tiredness on his face after a mere night of frivolity. He couldn’t keep up with them, and I would never approve of my sisters dating beneath themselves, even if he could make them smile.

He also proved quite skilled at dancing and had a talent for languages. I wished I could get a close look at his engine design to see if his work actually did deserve the merit its price suggested.

James’ work, odd as it was, earned the respect of Lady Pendreigh. When I left my home, I was still surprised that she would move to this country, even temporarily, but meeting James showed me a man of great worth. He was obviously well-bred but made his own fortune, enough to have such a garish home. The computer, Mila, was astounding. My family’s companies couldn’t match her software, and I could only imagine the processing power behind such a machine. Mother would be most interested. My sisters told us far too little.

I followed them into the gymnasium at the front of the wing they rented from James. He was there, already making his employees train despite the early hour. They all seemed most capable, showing good form as they followed his instruction. Noticing us, he approached.

“James, nii-san was curious how soon you’d be awake, since he was interested in sampling one of Marco’s breakfasts.” stated one of my sisters.

I still grew irritated that they never bothered letting me know which was which. Despite mother’s intentions, I knew the connection between them made the two inseparable. Feeling everything the other did made any intimacy shared. There could be no secrets between them. They should show me respect enough to at least reveal to whom I was speaking when we did meet. If I asked, they might lie. They might tell the truth to throw me off as well. There was no way to tell. Yet James, they had revealed, knew some way.

“Mila told us you were in here, so we just had to come watch.” insisted the other one, smiling at him.

I might not have minded were they to gain James’ affections. He seemed a man of great principle.

James looked surprised as he said, “Oh. Sorry, Duncan, but we need to fit practice in right now. Brandon and Brenna” ― he gestured to the red-headed siblings ― “have work early today.

Nodding, I told him “I like that you teach your employees discipline. All four have excellent posture. Too bad that one doesn’t seem to participate.” I had looked over to Jarod as I spoke, appalled that he couldn’t even be bothered to train properly.

“Jarod actually has a different teacher. He’s quite…” started James.

I interrupted him, saying, “What? He can’t keep up with your class?”

James wasn’t even working on any advanced techniques in here at the moment.

“Jarod, get changed.” came a voice from behind me.

I shivered, knowing the sound. Aaliyah was here.

“Nii-san, I hope you packed something fit for an exercise.” teased one of my sisters as she lightly touched my arm.

“We wouldn’t want your clothes torn.” agreed the other.

Their glee troubled me.

“Well, this should be entertaining.” stated Lady Pendreigh, though no amusement showed on her face. No interest either. She seemed, as always, perfectly serene.

What would be entertaining though? I reasoned that they wanted me to fight Jarod, but how would that even be worth my time?

Then Lady Pendreigh said, “You just insulted Aaliyah’s sole student in front of her.”

Fear coursed through me. I knew what was beyond that innocent child’s face. I knew her true form and could never escape having seen it. I dropped to the ground, bowing in dogeza style, as I adamantly apologized and prayed for my life. She could take life at a whim, so disrespecting her was absolutely forbidden. Why hadn’t my sisters warned me?

“Rise and prepare. I will tell my student to go easy on you.” she replied when I was finished.

The child-like face and cheerful demeanor did nothing to ease my inner suffering. Lady Pendreigh would not have even raised an eyebrow if had I been slain in front of her, too great was my mistake.

As I dressed, I tried to ease my tension. I was alive and possibly forgiven. I could not argue with Aaliyah, but I felt insulted by her words. No human was a match for me in any sense. In my veins ran the blood of the great ones, a strength which has protected humanity for millennia.

I hurried back, easily beating Jarod. I watched James training his students, unwilling to risk a glance at her. My sisters were blessed by their ignorance, all smiles and jokes. Had they known what I knew, they would run in horror from this place. How did James ever procure her help as a secretary? He might be even more dangerous than he seems.

When Jarod returned, James called his students to the side of the room, telling them to watch. Jarod and I stepped to the center, facing one another. He looked completely calm. I never noticed his eyes before. There was an intensity to him, an inner fire I had missed. Still, I would end this quickly.

I punched at his chest, intending to shatter his ribs. He flowed around my first like he was made of water, slamming his fist into my throat. I found myself falling to the ground, gasping for air. How could a human hit with such strength!? I took far longer to rise than I intended, but my breathing was off. I felt bruised.

When I rose, he was still standing there, completely calm. I attacked faster to match my opponent’s speed. I had underestimated him, but now I tested him. I faked hit after hit, trying to find his weakness. I couldn’t. His skill was very impressive. When he kicked at my head, I found my opening, so I kicked at his knee.

Jarod jumped into the air, kicking me solidly in the head. I needed more caution. Time passed in a continuous stream of near hits as both of us danced around the other. I wasn’t sure how much time has passed when I realized he was mocking me. He hadn’t been trying to attack yet, just toying with me.

In my rage, I attacked in full haste. He anticipated my attack, slamming his palm precisely across my knee. Through my rage, I felt the pain as my kneecap slid out of place. I dropped instantly, screaming out in defeat. The fight was over. I had lost.

,,,^._.^,,,

As nii-san clutched his leg, Jarod calmly bowed and walked away. James was quick to go after him, probably worrying over something silly again. Lady Pendreigh, my sister, and I hurried over to nii-san.

“Nii-san, did you get a boo-boo?” I asked.

“Want us to kiss it better?” teased Mai.

“Out of the way, girls. Your brother needs aid.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.

“Hai!” we exclaimed, stepping to the side.

“Isn’t that a bit harsh?” asked Emma.

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“Nii-san needs a little teasing.” insisted Mai.

“I have to agree with Alma. That’s like when one of you went all crazy on my leg.” claimed Brandon. He grimaced as Lady Pendreigh repositioned nii-san’s knee.

“Oh, soulless… you were fixed in seconds.” I told him.

“Much to our despair.” teased Mai.

“Duncan will probably take a couple days, but he’ll be fine.” stated Lady Pendreigh as she stood.

:Our tips paid off!: exclaimed Mai.

:Jarod’s execution was incredible.: I insisted.

She didn’t argue. Nii-san’s pride would take longer to heal than his leg. He always did have a temper, and Jarod played it like a master musician.

“How did you find my student?” asked Aaliyah.

Nii-san grimaced before saying, “He is very formidable. Please forgive my misguided insult.”

“Nii-san, are you feeling okay?” asked Mai.

“Obviously not.” he replied.

“Oh. I knew you couldn’t really mean to say something nice about Jarod.” I told him.

“No, I did mean what I said.” he insisted.

“If you’re crippled for life, do we get all of your stuff?” I teased.

He laughed and said, “You two should show some sympathy for your brother. I’m injured!”

:James is back without Jarod.: pouted Mai, watching him come toward us.

“Sorry for getting a little excited there.” apologized nii-san. “It’s embarrassing to have so much trouble with a human. I’ll have to thank him later.”

“Thank him for what?” asked Jarod in shock.

“For saving him from me. Cheating is forbidden, especially when it puts someone so valuable at risk.” explained Lady Pendreigh.

Nii-san’s humor died as he nodded, ashamed of his transgression.

Aaliyah leaned close to him and giddily whispered “I didn’t appreciate you cheating either.”

Lady Pendreigh actually laughed.

My sister and I nearly laughed as well. Nii-san’s somber expression was priceless! He almost seemed scared. The assassin was certainly dangerous, but she wasn’t going to kill him without a contract. No one would be crazy enough to put a contract on him. Mother would call in every favor she could seeking revenge.

:She certainly doesn’t want us succeeding her.: teased Mai.

We didn’t really care, not anymore.

My sister and I pointed out “We did warn you, nii-san.”

“No one around her is normal, even the humans.” expounded Mai.

“James has a most interesting household.” I reiterated.

Nodding, Lady Pendreigh said, “So you can tell your mother one of the reasons I’m here.”

Nii-san attempted a smile, but he looked worried. He quickly turned to Brandon and asked “What can you do?”

Brandon smiled and caused his arms to grow in length and muscle mass, making him appear even more like the monkey he really was.

Not wanting to be shown up, Brenna changed her hair to black while tanning her skin.

“She thinks she’s only quasi-soulless.” I teased.

Nii-san then turned to Portentia and asked “And you?”

Shrugging, she told him “I’m invincible.”

Nii-san laughed, but we frowned, knowing she healed far too fast.

“That’s untested, but she does heal far more quickly than anyone else I’ve encountered. She also mastered the staff well enough to keep up with your sisters in a week.” stated Lady Pendreigh.

Our frown deepened. She didn’t have to tell him that much.

Nodding, nii-san told Portentia “Perhaps I can duel with you in a couple days after I’ve healed.”

Without waiting for a reply, he turned to Emma and said, “I’ve heard remarkable things about you. I would love getting a tour of the gardens if you don’t mind.”

My sister and I sighed. Mother was probably wanting to steal Emma away. James wouldn’t have it if he were told.

“Umm.. sure. Okay.” replied Emma.

:Emma’s not stupid. She wouldn’t give up this to be mother’s tool.: stated Mai.

:She’d be more interested in us anyways. We’re more fun: I teased.

:Oh! Great idea! You can chase after Emma while I take Jarod.: replied Mai in an equally teasing tone.

If we swung that way, we might actually consider it. We did enjoy Emma’s company, just not like that.

James helped nii-san to his feet before saying, “If you’re still hungry, we usually eat in the kitchen, honestly, but we can eat in the dining hall if you’d prefer.”

“As the saying goes, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’.” replied nii-san.

We each took one of his arms to help him along, but he started speaking to us in Japanese, asking us to help him court Emma. The larger problem for us was that he claimed this was his own intent, not mother’s. We were certain mother would approve if Emma could be persuaded. Emma’s magic was potent and immensely useful, so mother would gladly claim her. We didn’t really believe Emma would be interested and had no idea how to let nii-san know. He was too enthusiastic about this. Hopefully, Lady Pendreigh could help.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 168

:Just end this quickly, so we can get on with our day.: ordered Ai.

:No problem.: I replied, taking position opposite of Portentia. We felt insulted that James wanted us to spar with someone who didn’t even understand the basics of fighting.

I thrust my staff at Portentia and was mildly surprised by how she knew to sidestep there. I was moving very slowly, but I hadn’t believed she would have even considered dodging from what I saw of her before.

Portentia’s staff came down at my head, so I deflected it, bringing the bottom of my staff up to hit her side.

:What!? When did she learn to do that?: demanded Ai as Portentia easily blocked my attack while counterattacking.

Portentia and I started moving faster and faster. I didn’t want to believe this was the same girl who had been so easily tossed around before. She was keeping up easily. Her legwork was even great, maintaining her balance to block my kick while also deflecting my staff. I kept trying and trying to get a good hit on her, but nothing was working. Ai’s stream of suggestions in my head weren’t of any use. The sound of our staves connecting over and over was so loud, but I couldn’t let up.

Pain… I made a mistake and was struck hard enough to throw me back against the wall. I’d make her pay for that. I hopped back to my feet and attacked her again, determined to get my revenge for that embarrassment. I finally got a hit in, but her arm seemed fine. I was certain I had broken it. What was happening? Blocking grew more and more difficult. I was wearing down, but she continued attacking, attacking, attacking… Where was an opening?

I worried that my rib might have cracked as I flew back again, but my positioning was better. I kicked off the wall to attack again. I couldn’t afford to lose here, not with Lady Pendreigh watching.

:Mai, don’t… you’re in pain. You can’t keep this up.: warned Ai.

:I can’t let her win.: I insisted.

I fought and fought, but swinging the staff was becoming a chore. I hadn’t been so tired for a long time. All of my concentration was focused on not getting hit again. I couldn’t even attack, and she was smiling. I’d do anything just to smack that smile off her face, but there was nothing I could do.

:Forfeit. You’re going to get hurt even worse.: ordered Ai.

:No. We can think of something.: I argued.

Ai saw her first. Aaliyah was here, clapping and supporting a staff between her arms. What was that? I disengaged as I turned to stare.

:I’m not certain, but it looks familiar.: replied Ai.

We were certain that was no ordinary weapon, not with her holding it. What did the assassin bringing a weapon here mean? The staff was beautiful to behold, like a glittering night sky.

“Why am I not surprised to find that you have that?” stated Lady Pendreigh.

:Of course, she knows.: complained Ai.

Aaliyah stared at Lady Pendreigh with her wide, blue eyes looking far too innocent.

My sister and I might get berated for failing to study some ancient text we were assigned years ago at this rate, but I couldn’t complain at the moment. I was thankful to be catching my breath. I felt like I might fall over if my grip on the staff slipped. How did Portentia get so strong?

“Are you really letting her have such a dangerous weapon?” demanded Lady Pendreigh.

Aaliyah grinned widely as she nodded in excitement and said, “Yep! This is for Portentia!”

I shuddered. The idea of Portentia, with her crazy ideas of being a superhero, wielding a powerful weapon was too much.

“May I know the reason?” asked Lady Pendreigh.

Aaliyah nodded enthusiastically.

“Well…?” questioned Lady Pendreigh expectantly.

“A superhero needs to be able to fight villains, and this will help!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

My sister and I groaned.

“OW!” exclaimed James. He was staring down at his hand which was held by Lady Pendreigh’s.

Lady Pendreigh actually looked distraught as she said, “I’m so, so sorry, james. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

:I can’t blame her. We’d feel bad if either of us hurt James.: I admitted.

:At least Jarod’s not here for this.: added Ai.

Neither of us wanted him to see my humiliation or Lady Pendreigh’s lapse. He always seemed to think of us as “just people” and was prone to pointing out everyone made mistakes. When did he make mistakes?

I watched as Aaliyah crossed the room and presented the staff to Portentia. There was palpable excitement exuding from Portentia as she caressed the staff.

“The writing along the shaft is in xiǎozhuàn, also known as ‘lesser seal script’. The Chinese poem describes the time between one day and the next and relates it to a time between life and death, as if time freezes in those moments. To my family, the staff is known as ‘Midnight’. One of my ancestors was toying with the wielder of that staff when he died. He meant to block the end with his palm, but a blade came up through his hand and into his skull. The wielder fought her way out of his camp and disappeared.” explained Lady Pendreigh.

With such a history behind the staff, I felt even more uncomfortable with Portentia having it. I could feel Ai’s anxiety matching my own.

After Portentia took hold, Aaliyah signed <Twist the grip away from you while firmly holding the lower half. Then slide the grip downward.>

Portentia followed the instruction, causing the upper portion to segment and slide over the bottom to reveal a large blade.

“After you master Midnight, you’ll be able to beat down armored villains!” exclaimed Aaliyah excitedly.

:Why must the assassin be encouraging this hobby?: complained Ai.

:I wish I knew.: I agreed.

Nodding, Portentia pushed the grip back up and twisted it back around.

“Stop!” exclaimed Aaliyah, waving her arms wildly. Then she grimaced as a blade shot out of the lower portion into Portentia’s abdomen.

Aaliyah poked the flat of the blade with her fingertip as she said, “You twisted too far.”

Portentia pulled the blade free and exclaimed “I just bought this shirt!”

:What? She was stabbed and is complaining about her cheap clothing?: I questioned.

:No way.: stated Ai in shock.

“That’s completely unfair.” I agreed, staring at Portentia’s stomach. There wasn’t even a mark. She seemed to be completely healed.

“I know, right? I’ve only worn this shirt once. I really need to learn how to sew sometime.” suggested Portentia as if we cared about her shirt.

Exasperated, Ai explained “Not that. My sister was referring to your healing. Your wound closed the instant the blade was out.”

Portentia shrugged as if that was nothing and twisted the grip to retract the bloody blade.

“You probably should at least clean the blade off.” suggested James.

“Our floor as well.” we insisted together, though my sister and I were feeling more disturbed by Portentia’s healing than by the floor. We had underestimated her. In a prolonged fight, we stood no chance, and she was far too skilled now to beat her quickly without magic.

Portentia sighed, twisted the blade back out, and said, “Yeah. You’re right. Got a mop and bucket?”

We rolled our eyes and summoned water from the other room to sweep away the mess. After cleaning the floor, we directed the water to the blade, not wanting such a weapon sullied despite its new owner.

My mouth fell open as the water broke free of our control.

“Well, that was somewhat unexpected.” stated Lady Pendreigh without sounding remotely surprised.

James was laughing.

Ai quickly took control of the filthy water and sent it to the drain, but my eyes were locked on the blade where Portentia’s blood seemed to be sucked inside.

“Look at the blade.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.

I glanced at her. She was speaking to James.

“Portentia’s blood is magical?” asked Ai.

“A fair assessment.” stated Lady Pendreigh.

“Are you sure the weapon isn’t just self-cleaning?” asked Portentia.

Alma’s flat stare spoke volumes to us as she told Portentia “You’ve surely noticed that your blood will simply disappear given time.”

Shrugging, Portentia said, “Well, yeah, but…” She paused for a moment. “Okay. I’ve got magic blood.”

Residual energy drifted over to the staff and disappeared as we watched.

“That’s really neat!” exclaimed James.

“Quite. I wonder what Midnight does with it.” pondered Lady Pendreigh. Looking over to Portentia, she said, “I doubt we’ll ever know, considering your employee will probably eat with the bloody thing now.”

“Aaliyah gave the staff to me, so I’m keeping it. You’d probably end up breaking it in a fit.” argued Portentia as she hugged the staff.

Aaliyah giggled, and Alma sighed. Even Lady Pendreigh didn’t want to cause a rift with the assassin, so stealing it was out.

“Just don’t spar with anyone using Midnight. You could seriously injure them.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.

“But I need to practice with it to get better!” argued Portentia.

:I am not fighting her again.: I stated.

:But sister… you wouldn’t want me injured, would you?: teased Ai.

“Whatever you’ve been doing on your own seems to be working well enough. The staff isn’t Mai’s best weapon, but holding your own against her is impressive considering your limited experience. You’ve improved immensely, so keep practicing on your own if you insist on using Midnight.” replied Lady Pendreigh.

Portentia stared at her, looking shocked.

:We’re going to be hearing about this later.: complained Ai.

:She’ll think we have been slacking in our studies now.: I agreed.

Looking around at everyone, Lady Pendreigh said, “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would like some lunch.” Then she turned and left the room.

Aaliyah raised her arms up at James, who casually lifted her and followed after Lady Pendreigh.

My sister and I watched the others leave and then looked to one another. None of this had gone as we expected when we had agreed to spar, but we did learn from it.

:James is taking us shopping, so we didn’t completely lose out.: I suggested.

:Jarod will be coming as well.: agreed Ai.

Things could be worse.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 167

I followed the motions demonstrated on the screen, striking the dummy with my staff. The next form appeared instantly, so I followed. Over and over I maneuvered the staff and struck my target. When Mila’s avatar dropped her staff, I did as well without a thought.

<You have company.  James is at the door.> she signed.

I nodded and turned. The door opened for me, revealing James, still in his workout clothes. He looked at me briefly, and then his eyes seemed to wander across my room.

“Hey. What’s all this?” he asked.

“Nothing, really. I’ve just been doing some training. What’s up?” I replied, wondering what was bothering him. He seemed… off.

“Well, I haven’t been seeing you around, and Marco mentioned that you never show up for food. Are you doing alright?” he asked, staring into my eyes.

I shrugged and said, “Yeah. I’m fine. I’ve just been wanting to get better with a staff, so I’ve been training. Mila showed me this sweet program that teaches all kinds of stuff in the employee utilities.”

“So nothing’s wrong? You haven’t been having any problems with anyone here, right?” he asked, looking serious.

“Oh, master. Portentia hasn’t had time to have problems. Between jobs and her morning practices, Portentia’s trained for over one hundred and forty hours.” explained Mila, signing to me from left of the door where her avatar had moved.

James looked shocked, looking past my shoulder and then staring at me. He then said, “I must admit that’s a bit much to wrap my head around. Care to show me how you’ve progressed?”

I flipped a nearby staff up at him and smiled as I took position with my own.

James deftly caught the staff but tossed it aside. “I know you have me beat.” he admitted. “I was thinking of seeing if Ai or Mai is up for giving you a challenge.”

I frowned. I had been excited about the program for training because I could avoid the twins. I told James “I really don’t think they like me too much.”

Looking surprised, he said, “I know the twins can be a handful, but they really are great girls. I doubt they’ll mind sparring a bit.”

I hesitated for a bit, remembering how I had been tossed around last time I faced them. I really didn’t want to be embarrassed like that again. On the other hand, I had learned so much this past week that maybe… Looking at James, I said, “Let’s do it.”

James stepped into the room and said something I missed, but the mirror I had been using for practice lit up to show Ai and Mai sitting in a room fit for villains.

“James, where are you?” asked one with the other staring over her shoulder.

“…was wondering if one of you would be up for sparring with Portentia a bit. She’s been learning how to fight with a staff, and I really can’t help her at all anymore.” he explained.

I couldn’t get a good angle to see both James and the screen, so I was going to be missing parts of the conversation. Oh! Mila was transcribing again, this time in the top corner. I smiled, thankful for the help.

“What’ll you do for us?” they asked, grinning wickedly.

Evil often tried to hide its nature but not these two. They didn’t even pretend.

“What do you want?’ asked James warily.

The two took a few seconds to consider before one of them said, “You haven’t taken us shopping for a while. Seems like you still owe us some clothes from that time we saved you at Aaliyah’s birthday party.”

When was Aaliyah’s party? How did James end up needing saved by these two? Unfortunately, he couldn’t really turn them down if he was indebted. He was far too much of a good person.

“Oh. Right. Sorry about that. If you want, I’ll even see if Jarod wants to tag along.” suggested James.

Backup! Good thinking. Maybe Jarod had invented something that could take the twins down.

The girls actually looked shocked as one of them asked “You think Jarod would want to shop?”

“That does sound like fun.” claimed the other with a surprisingly friendly grin to her sister.

“Agreed!” they exclaimed together, seeming to be all smiles and cheer now.

What was their interest with Jarod? Did they have some nefarious way to blackmail him?

“We’ll meet you in your gym shortly.” stated James.

After the twins nodded, the screen went back to its mirror-like reflection.

I followed James out of my room. I was about to face one of the villainous twins again in combat and wasn’t entirely certain of myself. Given enough time, I could probably wear one down, but I would have needed a very long time before, given that I was the only one being tossed. I knew I was better now, but could I…

I caught James as he stumbled back, but he immediately became posed like he was ready for a fight.

Looking around I asked “What’s wrong?” I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

He remained tense, but his breathing was off… strained. Then tension seemed to flow out of him. “Sorry.” he told me. “I never noticed this painting before.” He nodded toward a picture but looked away from it quickly.

The painting was of a frightened man in the woods. Human-like shadows appeared among the trees. I couldn’t say the painting was one of my favorites here, but I didn’t understand why James seemed… scared.

He started walking, but he was shivering.

“James, what’s wrong?” I asked, grabbing his shoulder and spinning him toward me.

“I once met Death’s daughter, and even a portrayal of her sends me back to the moment.” he claimed.

I stared at him for a moment, trying to decide if he was serious. He looked serious, but he couldn’t be. “Oh, please.” I told him as I laughed. “You really had me going there for a moment.”

“I’m not joking.” he claimed, still looking completely serious.

My laughter died as I saw his look. I quickly assured him “That’s just an old wives’ tale. Death’s daughter isn’t real.” I had heard the stories a few times; none of them were believable.

“I wish that were true, though she saved my life. Just by lifting her scythe, she made an entire pride of werelions disappear.” he explained.

He looked so earnest that I felt bad for laughing. He had to be making a joke, didn’t he?

“What do you mean by ‘disappear’?” I asked as I thought through what he said. Then I quickly told him “If she saved your life, then what’s the problem?”

Werelions were prone to eat others and difficult to stop, so I didn’t doubt they were out to get him. Wouldn’t Death’s daughter be a hero to him?

After taking a deep breath, he said, “The werelions had just killed a close friend of mine and were charging at me. Then she appeared and they all vanished without a trace. I was far too scared at the time to even move, but the area was searched afterwards. The twins didn’t see them run. They were just gone. I could barely even sleep for over a month after I saw her, and I never want to see her again. Reaper images don’t do her horrific appearance justice, but they bring back the memories all too well.”

Death’s daughter sounded impressive, but I couldn’t really relate to not sleeping for a month being a bad thing too well when I never had slept. I knew people got tired and looked ragged without sleep. I really did. I just… What was being scared like that even like? I sorta understood the idea of nightmares, but I couldn’t have them. James still looked frightened though, and I felt bad for laughing. Even worse, I had seen a similar look before.

“I knew a vampire who claimed to have seen her once. I always thought he was pulling my leg. I’ll have to apologize if I ever see him again. I… I’m really sorry, James.” I told him, unable to really explain how bad I felt for not believing him… for not believing Thomas.

Not knowing what else to do, I hugged him until the shivering stopped. When I let go, I saw tears had been streaming down his face, making me feel even worse. I quickly wiped them away with my sleeve. What could do this to James?

After several seconds more, he looked at me and said, “Let’s hurry. The twins aren’t known for patience.” Then he started to jog.

When we arrived, I saw that both girls had changed. They looked as identical as always, making telling them apart impossible. James always seemed to know, but I couldn’t even guess how. Maybe the twins just went with whatever he said? Alma was there too. I couldn’t make out what she was telling James with how close she was standing to him.

One of the twins approached me, carrying two staves. Seeing me look, she said, “Just drop that by the door. We’ll both use one of these.”

I knew better than to trust a weapon granted to me by an enemy, but my wooden staff couldn’t hold up to metal. I had gone through so many just versus a test dummy. Accepting the staff, I was surprised by how light it felt.

James had turned to us and now said, “That seems a little unfair to me. The weight will be totally different.

I winked and assured him “It’s fine. I’m a bit stronger than I look.” Then I demonstrated, twirling the staff around my body. I was looking forward to seeing how well this held up.

The twin and I took our positions in the center of the gym and slowly started to test one another. As I picked up speed, she matched with ease until neither of us was holding back. To my surprise, I was able to anticipate her movements. She seemed far less intimidating now. Eventually, she even made a mistake, allowing me to smack her full force. She flew backward farther than I would’ve expected, smacking against the wall. She flipped back to her feet with ease, undaunted as she charged at me. I smiled. I could win this. I knew I could. I screwed up a couple times as we continued to fight. My wrist broke for a moment at one point, but she was slowing down. My smile grew as she made more and more mistakes. I had her! If I kept practicing, beating her could become easy! I stopped the staff mid-swing as my opponent looked away.

Following her gaze, I saw little Aaliyah clapping from the doorway. A black staff with silver caps rested against her, between her arms. The staff was beautiful with glittering, Asian writing that seemed composed of stars. As the staff moved, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The ends reminded me of suns with rays streaming onto the shaft. The grip was silver as well but was shaped like comets heading in opposite directions with their tails wrapping together. Was this really for me?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 166

I watched James all the way home after my fight with that mechanized monster. He seemed fine. I was worried that he might be injured, but I didn’t even see a scratch. I had gotten to him in time. I was even more certain when he immediately joined the others in Ancient Tribes of Earth after entering the mansion. I joined them too, since the game was fun.

My character still seemed slow, but I was certain she’d get faster. Everyone in the world grew as they spent time there. If my character possessed my superpowers, I could become an unstoppable savior for them as well. The world was amazingly detailed. I still had trouble believing Aaliyah made this. She was so tiny and cute, not someone I’d expect to be this clever. If she were to turn to villainy, would I even suspect her?

James surprised me, being the first to leave. I considered following him, but I wanted to be the first one to get to Jarod when he returned home. In my short time here, I learned that Jarod was usually in the garage building things. If anyone here could make gizmos for me, he certainly could. Maybe I could have a laser that shot from my wrist to cut through that metal armor or a shock device that could fry circuits!

“Mila, you’ll tell me when Jarod arrives, won’t you?” I asked

“Gladly.” she assured me.

I needed something. I could punch really hard, but I didn’t even dent that suit. I had no chance of lifting it either, so I couldn’t tip it over. I could try wrapping a cable or something around the suit, but I didn’t think I could really do that fast enough. A net might work, but it’d have to be really strong.

I continued brainstorming as I played, but I didn’t come up with anything that I thought would work. I had defeated hundreds of villains in my life, perhaps over a thousand, but I never fought something like this. I didn’t have any way to keep the guy from just flying away.

Text appeared on my screen, saying, “He’s here.”

“Thank you! Please log me out.” I told her.

“What’s the rush?” inquired Alma.

“I need to speak to Jarod about something.” I told her, hoping she wouldn’t stop me.

Alma made me feel weak, vulnerable. She probably could’ve tore that suit apart with her bare hands, but she probably would have just watched. Luckily, she didn’t bother getting up now.

I ran to the entrance by the garage. Jarod had a fancy car, so he’d be parking and coming in this way. I waited. He wasn’t here. Did he go to work on something? I started to pace.

“Mila…” I started.

The door opened, and Jarod looked surprised to see me. I quickly told him everything about my fight, about that mechanical suit.

He nodded and asked “Where’s James?”

“In his office.” replied Mila.

“C-can we go up there?” I asked. Mila had warned me that the upper floors were out of bounds, being James’ personal living quarters. I had been here so little time, but this place felt like home to me. I didn’t want to be banished.

“Permission granted.” she told me.

Jarod started to jog. Maybe he was running? I held back to keep pace with him. We were going to the third floor! I had only been here once, briefly to sign paperwork after being hired. The office was like something out of a movie.

I stared in shock for a moment. The office was completely different. James appeared to be sitting on a beach, typing away on air while staring at nothing.

James had noticed us while I was staring around. What did he say? I missed it. Oh! There were words floating behind James. Mila was transcribing for me.

“Yeah. Portentia caught me just after I entered the house and mentioned you two were there. i can’t believe Maxine’s finished her suit already. I’m getting close, but mine isn’t ready yet. I wish I had a clue what she was using to power the thing. I’ve made some progress recreating the storage used in the designs I have, but I still haven’t figured out precisely what materials were used. I’m going to give up and ask Aaliyah for help now. If she’ll create a power source similar to what’s inside Mila for me, I’ll have my suit running in no time.” stated Jarod.

“You’re building a suit too? Are you planning on helping me bring criminals to justice?” I asked. Maxine… I should have known. I went onto say, “I really could use a sidekick, but I don’t think we should get a kid involved.”

“I’m just wanting her help to finish my suit, not to fight. You’ve played Ancient Tribes of Earth on the system Aaliyah designed. She’s brilliant.” he explained.

I shrugged. I couldn’t deny the girl was crazy smart.

“You already guessed that she made your suit, right? It’s no different, really.” insisted James.

He did have a point, and I loved my suit. I really loved my suit.

“Wait a moment. Did you say Maxine finished her suit a bit ago?” asked James.

He missed that!?

“Huh?” asked Jarod, looking confused. “Yeah. Maxine.”

“Was there a second robbery? The one we were at had some guy in a suit. He had at least a foot on me.” insisted James.

Well, the suit did look like a guy.

Shaking his head, Jarod said, “No, that was Maxine. Didn’t you notice the double ‘M’ monogram on the chest?”

I nodded. I had told him about it.

“That stands for ‘Marvelous Max’. She pretends to be a guy while out causing trouble. This isn’t a coincidence, James. I have a folder of evidence showing that Maxine is always in the same city that Marvelous Max hits.” insisted Jarod.

Evidence… was he a part-time investigator? What? How did he know about Marvelous Max if he didn’t know she finished the suit? I needed to get more out of him.

“Why not give the evidence to the police and let them arrest her then?” asked James.

Oh. I guess they could just arrest her.

“Yeah, sure. I give them a bunch of circumstantial evidence, they get a warrant, and then they have a lawsuit against them after finding nothing. Maxine’s smart. She’s really smart. There’s no way she’ll have any incriminating evidence somewhere they could find. If not for her ego, I’d have never suspected she was in that suit. The name, Marvelous Max, pops up too much in relation to that suit for it not to be her.” explained Jarod.

Maybe he had just been piecing things together? I frowned, imagining what would happen to a human facing that suit. There might not have been nearby witnesses before. I needed to get rid of that thing before the police could move in on her.

I pretty much jumped when Aaliyah walked by me. The tiny girl had glasses on and a large, pink backpack. Well, the backpack wasn’t that large, it just looked large on her. What was she doing here? I wanted to scoop her up, hug her, and explain that we had important matters to discuss.

Oops. I missed something. Let’s see…

“…a large number of very valuable, historical artifacts were discovered in a vault on this property after your acquisition of it. Many are decorating the house, but most are still in storage. They’ve all been authenticated and catalogued for insurance purposes. Pretty cool, huh?” asked Aaliyah.

I wished I had started reading from the beginning, but the text only appeared for a short time before vanishing to keep up with the conversation.

“Mother will really want to see this vault if she finds out. Care to show us before we let Maxine auction anything off?” asked James.

“What? Why would Maxine be auctioning something?” I demanded. We had just been discussing her criminal activities!

Jarod’s hand waved in front of my face, so I looked at him. He quickly explained what I had missed as well as repeating the last of it.

“You can’t seriously be thinking of helping her!” I protested.

Aaliyah had a stern expression when she looked up at me and said, “The charity is for a children’s hospital, not for Maxine’s pockets. I’ll be donating an American Longrifle I acquired a while back, and Alma’s donating some old clothes. The evil twins haven’t decided yet.”

“How can we trust anything she’s doing? She’s a criminal! This could be a setup to fund her criminal pastimes!” I insisted.

“I really wouldn’t trust her with my money or belongings. She might just be gathering things for a heist.” added Jarod.

James didn’t look convinced as he stood and followed Aaliyah out of the room. Jarod and I came along, continuing our attempts to make him see reason, but I didn’t think we were getting anywhere.

At the bottom of the stairs, a wall moved, revealing a passage. I stopped my arguing as I received a flashlight. Darkness awaited ahead. I followed the others through countless twists and turns. When I thought we were lost deep in the earth, Aaliyah would fiddle with a wall and reveal another passage. I was usually good at finding my way around, but I didn’t feel confident about escaping from here. If for no other reason, I didn’t know how to open the walls. The thick stone looked quite formidable. Would I be able to break through eventually?

After numerous hidden doors, we came to a large opening with a very large, round door. Three combination locks formed a large triangle. Aaliyah stretched to reach two of the locks, twisting them round and round. James had to lift her for the third. A large hole appeared in the center of the triangle. Aaliyah wiggled free from James, pulled off her backpack, and started pulling odd bits of metal from it. She assembled them together like some sort of puzzle, forming a round handle with a twisted thingy coming off from it.

“Yes, boss-man, sir, entering your vault required a quest to attain the key shards.” she announced with a large grin.

I could see Jarod laughing, but I was still confused. Who would have a vault like this? James didn’t seem to realize this was here, so how did the little girl know?

James lifted the unwieldy thing and twisted it into the hole. He seemed to be getting instructions from Aaliyah on what to do, twisting it back and forth more as she instructed. Then Jarod and James swung the enormous door open together.

Bright light streamed out from the room beyond. Stone shelves were laden with all sorts of things. I followed the others inside and wondered at what I was seeing. Most everything in here looked very old. There were numerous vases, clothes from other eras, paintings, carvings, weapons, jewelry, and more… so much more. How wealthy was James? I felt like he’d need me here to keep him safe if dangerous criminals ever found out about the riches here.

“You should come in my lab sometime and see what I’ve been building.” suggested Jarod.

I nodded and said, “I could use some gizmos. I couldn’t even dent that suit.”

Jarod smiled and said, “Well, I might be able to help some. You’d have to be really careful with anything that could penetrate that armor. I imagine she reinforced it similar to what I did.”

“When will you be finished with it? I don’t mind being a guinea pig if you want someone indestructible to test it.” I suggested.

“No idea. I’m having trouble coming up with a safe power source that’ll be strong enough. Current batteries don’t have enough energy density for my purposes.” he explained. Then he turned to Aaliyah and said, “I could really use your help.”

Shaking her head, she said something to him, but I couldn’t see what. His disappointment said enough. I stopped when she suddenly turned around.

“You, on the other hand, could use a weapon. Learn to use a staff, and I’ll give you something special.” she claimed, grinning widely.

I believed her. I grabbed James’ shoulder and begged “Please, teach me.”

“I can teach you the basics, but I’m not really that fantastic. I’ll help you convince Ai and Mai to help after I teach you what I can.” he replied.

I frowned, not liking the idea of learning from those two. I knew they were skilled, having experienced their skill firsthand. I could handle it. I was picturing staves that shot rockets, acted like tasers, and other wonderful things. What type of staff would she design for a superhero? I couldn’t wait to see!

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.