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.
: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.
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?
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!
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.
Maxine Montgomery… even Alma thought of her as a villain. Mila would help me look into her and confirm her misdeeds. I had to admit that something about her set me on edge even before I knew she was a villain. Was she actually blind? I saw the cane and sunglasses indoors, but those could be part of a cosplay, right? I had my doubts. If she were blind, could she really be much of a villain?
I sighed. There were people who thought a deaf girl couldn’t be a superhero, and I certainly showed them otherwise. I just didn’t understand how someone could manage overseeing crime without their eyes. What was hearing like?
When I was little, Mama Vera tried explaining sound to me. I remembered her talking about being able to hear me coming and constantly telling me I needed to “be quieter”. She taught me to move carefully and pointed out the differences in vibrations, my bare feet feeling her music through the floor. The idea of shutting my eyes and still knowing what was happening around me still seemed strange, like most of the world had a superpower which I did not. They could sense the vibrations in the air with ease. A blind girl might be capable of being a supervillain…
I was surprised by James suddenly moving away from me. Alma was holding up a hat with gizmos on it. James looked at the hat for a moment and then put it on over his costume’s wig. Seeing Aaliyah and Alma take out their phones, I was confused for a moment.
<Pictures!> signed Aaliyah.
Oh. Oh! I had a phone now too. I quickly joined them in snapping some pictures of James. Other people seemed to like the idea as well, but that was how things worked here. If someone in costume posed for a picture, everyone who liked the costume would stop to get a picture. We all had many pictures taken of us this weekend.
Seeing Aaliyah and Alma start trying on hats for pictures too, I decided to join them. Though many of the gears didn’t even turn, I could easily imagine them having a purpose, like a superhero’s gadgets. I could use some gadgets…
After several minutes of posing and pictures, James bought a hat for each of us and a cane for himself. My hat was large with a broad brim. Metal bands stretched across one side with interlocking gears leading to an antenna going up the top. I couldn’t imagine where I would wear the thing, but I appreciated the thought. We started walking along to revisit more shops. The others had many things they wanted to get, but I could tell what was being said.
I tapped James’ sleeve to get his attention and asked what was being said.
James explained “Alma and Aaliyah want to dress up in steampunk next convention. Aaliyah’s planning on fixing our hats to actually function first. Alma wants to design some clothes.”
I nodded, easily imagining how they could look. What did a blind girl imagine? Darkness? Worries over Maxine hadn’t left me. Someone Alma considered a villain was probably very dangerous. Did Maxine have an army of minions carrying out her diabolical schemes? What if she had incredible magical powers? I needed information.
When we left the show floor to go to a panel, I considered leaving. “The Dances of Ancient Tribes of Earth” panel certainly didn’t need me, but I ended up staying to watch. I was tempted to try them, but I could barely feel the music and didn’t have lights to follow this time. Maybe James would be willing to show me the dances later. I enjoyed dancing with him.
More shopping soon came after the panel finished. James seemed pretty excited when we reached the artists. He talked with many and bought a number of pictures, but the shopping came to an end for me too soon. Aaliyah and I needed to get back for another shift at the booth.
“Man-slave!” I called, finally spotting James as he entered the suite. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. We’re at a convention together, and yet we’ve hardly spent any time together, other than working. You and I are doing some shopping.”
I could see by his bags that he had been doing some shopping without me. It was fine. I mean, sorta fine. I wasn’t totally okay with him shopping without me, but he was in high demand and our shifts didn’t line up well for us.
“Sure.” he replied. Then he turned to the others and asked “Are you all up for more?”
“Sorry, boss-man, sir, but Portentia and I have a shift.” replied Aaliyah.
I picked her up and gave her a big hug before letting her escape to work. She was soooo adorable! Watching Portentia walk away wasn’t so bad either. That girl had a body, and she seemed sweet too.
“Was there somewhere particular you were looking to go?” asked Alma.
One glance, and I was certain; Alma was hotter. I didn’t just mean in the “I can burn the world!” sense either. She seemed surreal in her beauty, like an incarnation of beauty from another dimension that just happened to look more-or-less human. I never got tired of looking at her.
After both of them deposited their bags, I took their arms and pulled them to the elevator. We were going to buy all the things!!!
“There’s this suuuper cute store with some really frilly dresses I wanted to visit. Alma needs to try some things on too.” I insisted, pulling them along.
I imagined them fighting back, easily lifting me in the air for a second. They easily could do it even if I fought. Alma wasn’t beatable, and James was beyond me with magic and martial arts these days. That boy was freaky good at picking stuff up. Well, maybe not compared with Jarod. I still couldn’t believe Jarod had only started martial arts months ago. He was straight up dangerous now.
“Ta da! What do you think!? Aren’t these the cutest?” I asked when we arrived.
Alma’s face was unreadable, but she definitely seemed to be checking the dresses out. James seemed amused.
“Try one on with me!” I insisted, taking Alma’s hand.
She didn’t look amused.
“I’ll look forward to seeing them.” stated James.
Alma was in! She totally didn’t play fair though. Claiming that she didn’t trust the booth’s fitting room, she used a number of spells. Suddenly, I was isolated in a some black field. Totally. Not. Fair. Alma was sooo bashful.
She still beat me changing even though I was certain she took her time. James’ eyes were locked on her when I stepped out. He did notice me eventually, blushing when I grinned at him. I loved his blush.
I bought my dress and a pair of killer heels that matched them. Alma was all “Where will I ever wear this?” at first. After a bit of convincing, she purchased a dress too. By convincing, I totally pulled the James card, pointing out how much he seemed to like her in the dress. Win for me. We could totally be gamer princesses together in the house if nothing else. She didn’t have to worry about money.
I was surprised when James insisted on going to a shop of his choosing next. He was really getting into this. We pretty much took turns, though I cheated a little. We all purchased enough that Alma had to call someone to take our bags to the room. I had been on the verge of suggesting we head up to drop things off. James was doing all the carrying and looked overburdened.
We continued shopping until the show floor was closing. Even Alma and I ended up carrying a couple bags to manage everything, but we had a blast. I was going to make a shrine to this day in my room. I sighed, thinking of Regina. She would have been a blast here. I missed her, painfully aware of the vacant floor above me.
“What’s wrong?” asked James in the elevator.
“Wrong? We can’t do anymore shopping until tomorrow, and then I might not even catch you because of shifts and things! One evening just wasn’t enough!” I insisted, not wanting to mention Regina. I knew he still missed her too.
James laughed and said, “I’m sure we’ll get some fun.”
Once settled in the suite, everyone gathered to watch a couple movies before crashing. None of us were prepared for Sunday. All of us were scheduled from the start. We had a long work day with no time for goofing off at other booths. There were children everywhere, little cuties in costume as often as not. I wanted to hug them all!
Aaliyah was easily stealing the show. In the name of her company, we were getting children involved in numerous games, helping them design their own action figures, and getting them organized for quizzes and prizes. No child was left without at least one free toy, and many of the parents were talked into buying more. Global Princess Entertainment dominated children’s day, and the convention was over all too soon.
“Boss-man, sir, most valued of employees, your shift ended seven minutes ago.” stated Aaliyah, shortly after arriving down from the stage.
James stared at her, seeming confused for a moment. Then he nodded and pulled out his phone. Seconds passed and he just kept staring. Was something wrong?
“Hey, boss.” I started, hoping to get his attention. When he looked, I said, “Wanna roam around together some?”
“Oh. Sure! I’m actually free for a couple hours.” he replied.
“Thanks, man. You really wouldn’t believe how often I get hit on like this.” I admitted as we headed down one of the crowded aisles.
“I’m still completely bewildered as to why you agreed to it.” stated James.
“Well, I first found out I could do this when I was just a toddler.” I explained. “Brenna wanted to play some girly game, and I kinda became a girl to play with her. The high school thing really wasn’t as bad as she made it sound… I think.”
“Umm… I really don’t need to know. As long as you’re comfortable with it, that’s fine by me. I just was worried you had been pressured into the change.” he explained.
That’s my boss, always thinking of others. “Thanks, man.” I told him. “I’m so, so glad my sister and I started working for you. We never really had a place to be ourselves before. Even our parents got a bit weirded out by what we could do. Life’s been so much more enjoyable lately, and I’m still asking myself if it’s real at times. It’s like ‘Don’t pinch me! I don’t wanna wake up!’, ya know.”
He nodded and said, “I can understand the feeling a bit. I never thought my business would take off so fast, and I can’t believe how well things have gone, much less the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. I’m glad you’re happy. You two are really doing great!”
“Thanks again. We really do appreciate all you do for us.” I told him, but he was staring off at something.
Whoa. A bounce ball just smashed into a register, opened it, and relieved the clerk of some cash. Then the money got caught in some wind and flew back to the guy.
“Whoa. I wish I could’ve caught that on camera!” I admitted, laughing at the craziness of it.
James seemed distracted as ever as we walked. He was the strangest boss. One, he was younger than me. Secondly, he wanted us to all know how to fight and was incredible at it. Thirdly, he could do some really crazy stuff with magic. Well, then there was the mansion we lived in, his absurdly tiny secretary, and superhuman girls who didn’t even work for him but happened to live there. Even living there, I still wondered at times if James had some super secret past where he was some child spy that toppled governments. Whatever the case, I wasn’t being hit on with him around, though we both were stopped several times to pose for pictures.
“Whoa, dude. Hold it. I need these!” I exclaimed, catching sight of a t-shirt vendor with some really funny shirts. The problem with my current job is that I knew I could buy all of them but didn’t want to destroy my savings either. Sure, having room and board covered by the company helped replenish savings quickly, but I had been talking with my sis for a bit about getting a new car. Sharing could be rough at times even with Mila helping us out with lifts. Must choose, but choose wisely. I could totally go Indiana Jones on these.
After getting a couple shirts, I made James stop with me a few more times. He was browsing, but didn’t really buy anything. I had to admit that most of this stuff didn’t really seem like it’d fit with the mansion’s overly expensive look.
“Care to pose for me?” asked a girl.
Yep, she was asking James. Hot girl though. Short… Emma short, not Alma short. I liked her hair, endless brown curls all over that made me want to pat her head.
“Umm… sure.” replied James.
I never understood how a guy who attracted girls like him could still be bashful. The girl handed me her camera and moved over by James. When she took her sunglasses off, her face was even more gorgeous, but her eyes… they seemed to drift independently from each other. Was something wrong with her?
“Not like this.” she stated as James took position by her. “Could you dip me back as if you just caught me mid-fall?”
Whoa. He made that look easy. How many girls had he caught like that? After I took the picture, she quickly put her sunglasses back on. James was blushing slightly. I really didn’t get it. Even though I’d totally take this girl on a date, she wasn’t nearly the prettiest girl I had ever seen. We lived with so many pretty girls…
She pulled a thin rod out of her purse that extended into a staff length at the click of a button. Then she said, “Thank you ever so much. I always wanted to try that.”
Oooh… she was blind. How was she getting through this crowd by herself!?
“Oh. No problem at all. Really.” insisted James.
I held the camera out toward her, wondering if I should put her hand on it, but she grabbed it easily as if she knew it were there. Did she hear me move over this crowd!? Wait a minute… why did a blind girl want pictures?
As James turned to leave, the girl grabbed his arm and said, “Sorry, but might you tell me where your boss is? She wasn’t at the booth when I went looking for her.”
“I think she’s behind you, Maxine, although James is my boss too!” exclaimed Aaliyah.
I jumped a little, as did Maxine. Aaliyah was easy to miss due to her height. I should have noticed Portentia. That girl really stuck out, especially in costume.
“You two know each other?” asked James.
“Well, no. I’ve been trying to get in touch with Aaliyah for some time, but she doesn’t reply to my emails.” explained Maxine.
“Maxine’s been trying to hack into my game ever since she heard how totally awesome it is! I’m betting she was going to try hiring me as a pretense to look at code written by me. Great idea, huh?” replied Aaliyah.
A blind hacker!? I had to ask Jarod about this.
“Maxine Marveille Montgomery.” came a very recognizable British accent. “Causing trouble as usual?” asked Alma.
“Oh my. Lady Pendreigh, what brings you to town?” asked Maxine. “Trying to start fires with your business rivals?”
Whaaat? Was that a coincidence, or does she really know Alma? Where was Jarod when I needed him!? This was too weird.
“You should know that I don’t need to do any hostile takeovers. They simply give me what I want when asked.” stated Alma.
“You two are just so adorable!” exclaimed Aaliyah, easily the most adorable person present.
The other two seemed ready to throw down.
“Well, I see that I’m not going to get what I want here today.” stated Maxine. She turned back toward James and said, “Meeting you, James, was a pleasure. If you want, we can have lunch while I’m in town.” She held up a business card for him to take.
Alma looked pissed when James took it, but that was one of her three expressions. She could look uncaring, pissed, or strangely happy. I didn’t know which was scariest.
Maxine wandered off, tapping her long cane in front of her as she maneuvered through the crowd.
“What was that about?” asked James.
Almost on top of him, Portentia asked “You’re not really going to have lunch with that girl, are you, James?”
“That girl is nothing but trouble, James. Be careful.” stated Alma almost at the same time as the other two.
Aaliyah didn’t seem to have a care in the world, hugging the boss’ leg and smiling up at him.
James looked around at everyone before saying, “I have to admit that I’m a bit intrigued by that whole exchange. You three have amazing timing.”
“I’m with James on that one.” I admitted.
“Well, there’s a contest for hacking my game. I entered, of course, and am going to win by default, since they all suck for even trying. Maxine was hoping to get an edge by looking at source code written by me. She’s even more trouble than Hugh, but not as cruel.” insisted Aaliyah.
Alma, who had been coolly gazing at Aaliyah, said, “I know her from business. She works with part of my family in more nefarious pursuits.”
“I knew there was something I didn’t like about her!” exclaimed Portentia. “How are we going to take her down?” she asked, looking around for suggestions.
Alma sighed loudly, obviously not in the mood to indulge Portentia’s pastime.
“I thought she was rather cute. Kinda am wishing I would’ve met her when I’m more myself, if you get what I mean.” I admitted with a grin. I didn’t want anyone fighting. I never wanted to see James so upset again.
James laughed too, which made me happy. “You’re not supposed to purposely go after the bad ones.” he claimed.
“Oh? Really? I thought they were supposed to be all the more fun.” I insisted.
Seeing people angry was never fun, especially friends, but James was on a different level. The man had the type of presence that demanded attention, but you found yourself staring at something terribly unpleasant without being able to look away when he was upset. James being anything but his good-humored self was wrong somehow. I was glad I got him smiling.
Portentia tugged on his sleeve to get his attention and asked ”What did he say? I couldn’t see from here.”
“Oh. Brandon seems to like bad girls. Maybe I should give him Maxine’s card.” teased James.
Portentia looked at me in wide-eyed shock as she exclaimed “That’s horrible, Brandon! I’d have to turn you in when I caught you, and I would catch you.”
I didn’t doubt it. Portentia never seemed to get tired, and was already stronger and faster than me. She was really obvious when not in public. The girl was as amazing as she was beautiful.
“Care to pose for me?” I asked, certain James would.
James Michael Somerset III, owner and CEO of Best Friend for Hire, was currently working for Aaliyah T. Sypher, a child genius with the most incredible software development skills known to me. Along with some of the most skilled hackers in the world, I’ve been trying to find vulnerabilities in Ancient Tribes of Earth without success. I needed to get an edge.
James III was the only child of James II and Rachel Somerset. His father owned a small hotel chain with some interesting clientele. The mother was a painter, a dreamer. I might commission her to do some work for me. Some of my father’s favorite paintings still lingered throughout my businesses.
“Umm… sure.” he replied.
I had easily recognized James from pictures, but he was even more attractive in person. I wanted to run my hands across his face and embed it firmly in my mind. I handed his employee, Brandon Underhill, my camera. Brandon had been adopted along with his sister, Brenna, by Jack and Susan Underhill. Orphans now, the siblings had meaningless lives before coming to work for James.
James took a pose next to me as if I was some mere fangirl. I removed my glasses, and my blindness returned. Developing technology to allow me to see took considerable effort, but I wasn’t helpless without it.
“Not like this.” I told him. “Could you dip me back as if you just caught me mid-fall?”
There was constant noise around us, endless footfalls and chatter. I could make out numerous conversations throughout the crowd, but I didn’t recognize any voices. Most of my enemies had no idea who I was.
I wasn’t ready for the swiftness with which James dipped me. I could move faster easily, but I was still surprised by it. I liked the feel of his arms. Anyone who could make a crazy business such as his out of nothing had to be talented, especially to capture Aaliyah as a secretary.
I heard the camera click, but I didn’t really want him to lift me back to my feet. A few more seconds of being held by him wouldn’t hurt my schedule, but our moment was over. I donned my sunglasses and scanned the area. I hadn’t missed anything. I quickly pulled out my cane. I needed to find Aaliyah and convince her to do business with me.
“Thank you ever so much. I always wanted to try that.” I admitted.
“Oh. No problem at all. Really” he insisted.
I took the camera back from his underling. James gathered interesting people around him. He could be so useful… I gave into an impulse as James turned from me, grabbing his arm.
“Sorry, but might you tell me where your boss is? She wasn’t at the booth when I went looking for her.” I informed him, certain he’d be able to get in touch with her.
“I think she’s behind you, Maxine, although James is my boss too!” exclaimed Aaliyah.
I jumped despite myself. How did she get so close without me hearing her? The girl was mere feet from me. A little farther behind her was the pale girl. I couldn’t find information on her anywhere when I had done my research. Portentia Zhidkova might as well not have existed before coming into James’ employ. Who was she?
“You two know each other?” inquired James.
“Well, no. I’ve been trying to get in touch with Aaliyah for some time, but she doesn’t reply to my emails.” I explained.
“Maxine’s been trying to hack into my game ever since she heard how totally awesome it is! I’m betting she was going to try hiring me as a pretense to look at code written by me. Great idea, huh?” claimed Aaliyah.
She knew!? How?
“Maxine Marveille Montgomery.” stated one of my least favorite voices. “Causing trouble as usual?”
“Oh my. Lady Pendreigh, what brings you to town?” I asked. “Trying to start fires with your business rivals?”
Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V was a force in the world. She had ruined numerous business deals for me in the past year alone. I needed to be careful.
“You should know that I don’t need to do any hostile takeovers. They simply give me what I want when asked.” she replied.
“You two are just so adorable!” exclaimed Aaliyah with a grin.
I’d have to accept this defeat and move onto other plans, such as kidnapping the tiny girl. If Lady Pendreigh was really living in James’ residence as my sources suggested, a kidnapping would be impossible. Alma would surely take notice of any kidnapping in the park between Aaliyah’s residence and James’.
“Well, I see that I’m not going to get what I want here today.” I told them. I turned to James and said, “Meeting you, James, was a pleasure. If you want, we can have lunch while I’m in town.” I offered him my card, which he took.
If I could win James away from Alma, perhaps she would go back to the United Kingdom where she belonged. Her business expansion into the U.S. had gone too far already. Plus, I’d quite enjoy seeing more of James.
I walked off, using my cane to help people realize they needed to get out of my way. A smile came to my lips as I thought more of James and the ways I could use his company. This day was certainly not a complete waste.