Best Friend For Hire, Entry 328

“I was putting in place the enchantment to help you three and others blend in with my guests. Sorry if I startled you.” I replied to Papak.

“And what are you insinuating?” asked Alma as she stepped around me to glare at Papak.

He grinned.

“You can come out, Raine. They’re fine.” I called, having felt her presence in the bushes.

Papak moved to grab the tiny kitten from the bushes, but found himself clutching air. “Illusion?” he asked.

“No. Half-demon. She’s that fast.” I replied.

“Half-demon?” inquired Vito, finally joining us. “Yes. I remember Ariadne mentioning her.”

“My brother didn’t mean to startle you, Raine. Would you mind joining us?” asked Zachary.

I suddenly felt her pressed behind me, shaking slightly. The poor girl was all nerves about today.

“Raine, this is Vito, Papak, and Zachary, eldest of the vampires. Gentlemen, this is Raine.” I announced, gesturing to each in turn.

“We would never try to hurt a friend of James.” stated Papak as the giant man leaned to look around me.

“Raine, please don’t cling to my fiancée on our wedding day. Rumors will spread.” suggested Alma as she gently guided Raine out from behind me.

“You’re a pretty one, aren’t you.” cooed Vito, possibly admiring Raine’s dress.

Seeing Raine out from under her hoodie was quite rare. I hoped no one attempted to get too friendly with her during the reception. The poor girl might forget herself and run. She probably was trying to work up her courage by wearing it already.

As he spoke, Aaliyah appeared behind him with Ariadne, winking and vanishing a moment later.

“Vito, are you hitting on this child?” inquired Ariadne as she stepped up behind him.

“No. I was merely acknowledging that she is pretty. I expected a demon’s spawn to be more like Papak.” he replied, gesturing to his brother for emphasis.

“What are you trying to say?” asked Papak as he lifted his brother in one hand. Then he pointed at Raine and asked “Why’s she shaking?”

“S-sorry.” mumbled Raine in a whisper. Her position suddenly shifted.

“What!? I… I… I…” started Cosette, staring around wildly.

“Gentleman, this is Cosette Bourbon. She obviously knows who you three are.” I explained.

“Cosette! Lovely to make your acquaintance.” stated Zachary as he held out his hand in greeting.

I gently took Cosette’s arm and guided her into action. She continued without me.

“I’m… I’m sorry. Mila told me you were here, and I was attempting to figure out how to greet you. I’ve heard so much about you.” she explained, sounding and looking more confident as she spoke.

“Y-your win-window was… open.” mumbled Raine.

“Well, I’m glad I was dressed.” she teased as she turned. Then she guided Raine to stand next to her, denying the girl cover once more. “I love your dress, but why are you wearing it already?”

“I… W-well…” mumbled Raine as she fidgeted and stared at the ground. “P-practice.”

Papak barked a laugh and said, “I know the feeling! Takes me ages to find something I’m comfortable wearing.”

“And he literally means ages. The man is never in touch with the times.” remarked Vito with a smug smile, despite his position.

Papak blew a raspberry at Vito, but then he finally set his brother down. I felt Papak’s suit looked surprisingly fashionable considering the man’s odd proportions.

“Thank you. Ladies, meeting you all is a pleasure, even you, Lady Pendreigh.” stated Vito with a bow.

“I’m surprised you three could attend with how rarely you get out.” she replied.

“Rarely? Aren’t you told that we devour people by the hundreds each night?’ teased Vito.

“Hundreds?” asked Papak. “That hardly sounds dramatic. You’d find hundreds in a single block these days.”

“In a single building with some of the taller ones.” corrected Zachary.

“Fine, but Vito should have said thousands!” insisted Papak.

“Yes-yes, I see your point.” snapped Vito.

“You do get out then?” inquired Alma looking at them with her typical unreadable face.

“Well, I like to go jogging each morning, personally.” replied Papak with a grin.

I smirked, picturing him out for a jog and casually waving at people. Though he was typically squatting, Papak was probably twice my height when he fully stood.

Alma, however, rolled her eyes and said, “Jogging must be a great workout for you.”

“If James isn’t opposed, I wouldn’t mind letting you try giving me some pointers for exercise. I’ve heard you’re a pretty decent fighter.” suggested Papak.

“B-be nice.” stated Raine as she looked up at him.

Papak smile as he said, “I am! I was just offering. Care to try yourself? I must admit I’m curious how strong you are.”

“Please, Raine. That would be most entertaining.” insisted Alma.

“No. Please, don’t.” pleaded Cosette as she gently grabbed Raine’s arm.

“J-James?” asked Raine, looking up at me.

“I don’t want this place devastated, so I expect you to guard everything you throw him at if you choose to accept.” I replied.

“She’s that good, huh?” asked Papak, rubbing his chin.

“No. Her technique is still terrible, but her natural aptitude is far beyond me. I doubt even you saw her fetch Cosette.” admitted Alma with a smile.

“True. She’s easily faster than me.” he replied, looking even more uncertain.

“She could toss him straight up.” suggested Vito, a slight smile playing at his lips.

“Maybe the three of us together should try? We haven’t faced a demon for many years.” suggested Papak.

“I’m not inclined to try.” replied Zachary, holding his hands aloft as if to ward him from the thought.

“I must concur. Though I do remember the spells we’ve used in the past, she seems much stronger, judging by her speed.” mused Vito. “I still think you should try, dear brother, to keep your honor intact after issuing such a challenge.”

“Children, behave.” ordered Ariadne. “James, I would like your permission to enter the forest with these three before your other guests arrive. They’ve been itching to see my family ever since I told them of the survivors.”

“Sure. Let’s head there now then.” I replied. “Sorry, Raine. No tossing Papak yet.”

She nodded. I guided everyone into the forest and let the vampires see the fey once more. A couple thousand years apart meant nothing to the fey. Their feelings were as bright and vibrant as ever, greeting the brothers warmly, though they seemed more excited by Ariadne’s return. I hoped to share such joys many more times this day when my wedding truly began.

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Best Friend For Hire, Entry 327

“Boss-man, sir, how are you feeling?” asked Aaliyah as she stepped into my office.

“Excited and a bit nervous. Alma won’t be too forgiving if I make any mistakes.” I told her.

“You’d be surprised at how forgiving she can be where you’re concerned.” insisted Aaliyah.

“Perhaps. What brings you here this early in the morning?” I inquired, noticing the time.

Nodding happily, she said, “Your first guests will be arriving shortly, and there are still some last minute preparations to make.”

I almost asked who would be arriving before dawn, but I could easily imagine the vampire envoy wanting to miss the sun. How were we going to keep them in the shade?

“That’s part of the preparations you must make, boss-man, sir. You need to prepare the magic to protect your guests.” she told me, obviously reading my mind again.

I shrugged and said, “Oh. Sure. Mind showing me which spell or spells?”

Aaliyah smiled, flipped over my desk, and landed seated on my lap. Then she pointed to a spell on the screen that hadn’t been there a moment before.

I zoomed in, hoping to get a better idea of what needed to be done, but zooming in several times still left the image looking like some incandescent, crystalline structure. When I was finally close enough to make out the individual parts, the spell seemed enormous in the way skyscrapers felt from the ground, but stretching multiple directions.

“I can’t do this.” I told her, thinking of how much energy I’d be utilizing at once.

“There’s plenty in the forest.” she replied.

“Fair enough, but I still couldn’t control all of it precisely enough. This too big. Isn’t there a simpler way?” I asked, looking through more and more of the spell.

“Sure, if you want to spend a day casting and maintaining spells, but you were too busy for doing that sort of prep, even if Alma had helped.” she told me.

“I like when you call her ‘Alma’ instead of ‘Alpy’.” I admitted. “You must have some sort of plan. What is it?”

“You know.” she told me.

“No. I’m not using that thing again.” I replied instantly when I realized to what she was referring.

“You are, boss-man, sir, because you don’t want to ruin the wedding. This is necessary, and you aren’t the type to shirk your responsibilities, especially not to your guests on your wedding day.” she told me.

“Why don’t you do this for me? I’m actually fairly certain that you could.” I told her.

She grinned at me and said, “Easily. Effortlessly, but I will not. Unless you’re commanding me…?” She looked at me with wide-eyed curiosity and a small smile as her mouth hung partly open.

I frowned. She always seemed too happy about the idea of me giving her orders, and her giddiness made me nervous. She spoke about rending time and rewriting the world with childlike innocence that only made the malevolence of the deed more prevalent in my mind. I didn’t understand the ramifications of having Death cast the spell herself and thus could not command her to do it, even if she’d listen.

“I always listen, boss-man, sir.” she told me, hugging me.

I shuddered, thinking about what I was to do. I needed to control myself better than last time, not let my mind wander. I needed to keep from seeing Aaliyah again and really focus on the task at hand.

“You’ll manage.” she assured me, still hugging me.

I scooped her up with one arm as I stood and walked to the stairs. I descended and continued down the hall, stopping when a shadow detached itself from the entrance to Alma’s wing. I felt Alma’s magic and realized that was her.

“What?” she asked. “Seeing the bride on her wedding day is bad luck.”

I nodded. “Need something?” I inquired.

“Just you. You’re not running off, are you?” she questioned, a bit of worry creeping into her voice.

“No. Of course not.” I told her, sounding more terse than I intended. “Sorry. I need to do a very difficult enchantment, so our guests won’t take issue with one another.”

The disapproval in her voice was obvious as she said, “Adelmar will want to know the full extent of what you do, since he’ll be attending.”

I hesitated as I considered what I was doing again. Aaliyah had warned me of the side effect of using that room. Hoping that she might get Carl to alter time again, I looked to her, only to find her shaking her head.

“If you don’t mind standing in the wedding area, you can easily watch and report.” stated Aaliyah with a smile for Alma.

“Really? James, is that true?” she asked. “You’ll let me see?”

Nodding, I said, “Sorry in advance. I’ll be using a great deal of energy, so your protections will be taxed.”

“Yes, I suppose I should gather the household to protect them as well.” she commented.

“There’s no need to wake them. You’ll see.” I told her glumly. As I considered her words again, I found myself smiling. Protecting the household from my gifts would probably seem easy to me while using that room, even while performing such a difficult enchantment. On the other hand, I’d be using the room for longer than necessary that way and might affect them more than if I just took care of the enchantment and stopped.

“James, what’s bothering you?” she asked.

I wanted to tell her, but was I allowed? We weren’t married quite yet.

“Don’t worry! James is just going to do something marvelous, but he’s struggling with his Jamesness again.” stated Aaliyah.

I sighed. Then I told Alma “You’ll see what’s bothering me shortly. Try not to worry. I’m certain this will help our wedding go smoothly.”

“James, what are you doing, really? I’ve never seen you like this, especially not regarding a spell.” she stated.

I laughed wryly, thinking of how this must seem to her. “The spell isn’t what bothers me, being mostly illusion. What bothers me is how I need to cast it.” I told her. “Hurry outside. I want to get this over with.”

She hesitated for a moment before running off. I didn’t want her to wait long, but I couldn’t help walking at a slower, more human speed. I really didn’t want to do this. My step quickened as I thought of Alma waiting out there expectantly. I was taking too long. She could be patient, but she shouldn’t need to be, not today. Aaliyah hopped out from my arm just before I was inside the room.

“How will I know the spell?” I asked her.

“You’ll know.” she replied.

I stared at her, hesitating again. She looked so tiny, so fragile. Things could be so different than what they seemed. What was the greater purpose in having me do this? I forced myself to look at the wall and push thoughts of Aaliyah out of my head as I connected. I found the spell instantly, still shown on the screen in my room. Casting it was equally fast, and I forced myself to disconnect, trying to ignore my senses as I felt the world at beyond once more.

I took a deep breath simply for the feel of the air in my lungs, the feel of being more human once more. As briefly as I had used the room this time, I knew I had done other things beyond my intended goal, even though I wasn’t precisely sure what.

“Well, people will be ‘inexplicably’ happier today all over the world, so that’s a good thing, right?” she asked.

“Is it?” I questioned, wondering if some negative effect could come from it.

“You better go see Alma. She’s entirely flabbergasted and wouldn’t even appreciate how fun that word is right now.” stated Aaliyah, vanishing before the last word was even spoken.

I hurried out to my fiancée and easily found the deeper shadow in the night.

“James? Did you feel that!?” she exclaimed, embracing me as she asked.

“Sorry. I didn’t really know what to say to warn you properly.” I admitted.

“That was you?” she asked, holding my arms as she looked up at me.

I looked away as I said, “You just cancelled out your spell.”

“Enough with superstitions for now. Was that really you? There was a surge of energy, and then…” she stopped speaking as she hugged me again.

“And then what?” I asked her.

“I felt suddenly alone, very alone.” she told me.

“Sorry.” I replied.

“Don’t be. I feel happy, honestly. I see why you didn’t want me to bother the others. I couldn’t have protected them from that. The loneliness was just odd, as if something beautiful vanished from this world. I’m fine. How did you do… whatever you did?” she asked.

I kissed her head and said, “I’ll explain after the wedding.”

“What am I supposed to tell Adelmar about this?” she asked.

“Just tell him that we put in place an enchantment which will keep guests from seeing one another as what they really are, so everyone will feel more comfortable.” I explained.

She nodded, but then said, “He’ll probably have felt that, you know.”

“Yes. Everyone with magical potential on the planet just felt it.” I told her, hating the thought.

“Then how did you…” she started, stopping before finishing.

“Yes, time was…” I stopped and moved Alma behind me as I accelerated my body and mind. Something was coming. I relaxed, smiling as I saw Vito, Papak, and Zachary come into view.

Vito stopped at the edge of my yard, staring around cautiously, but his brothers rushed to me.

“James! Did you feel that?” asked Zachary after he stopped a few feet from me.

Papak’s enormous nose sniffed the air as he said, “What are you two doing out here on your wedding day? Getting a head start?”

I felt Alma’s magic pulse within her and hoped she’d stay calm. Though I was certain to be in for a long day, I wanted this to be a pleasant one as well.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 320

“Are you sure about this? You really don’t have to go.” I assured Portentia.

She took her bag from my hand, laughing as she said, “I’ve been hired, James. I accepted the job, and I’m going. Don’t worry so much! This won’t take long.”

I held back a sigh. Alma had hired Portentia to chase after Maxine and dismantle her criminal network. I didn’t doubt Portentia would’ve gone for free, but Alma was probably paying her a hefty sum. Personally, I was against it. Yes, Maxine was problematic. I didn’t agree with her outlook or her methods, but I did feel her intentions were decent. If good intentions was no longer enough to let someone live peacefully, then I should be at war with my own fiancée. We certainly didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything.

As misguided as Maxine’s attempt to save me from the Slayers was, she did have a point about their behavior. The family was influential and powerful in a very lethal way. Their infighting was disruptive to the global economy as holdings could shift based on fighting prowess rather than business merit.

Alma took my hand and said, “Don’t worry, my love. I’m confident Portentia will be finished in time for our wedding.”

I nodded. She was passively watching as Portentia stepped into the limo. A short ride, a relatively quick flight in Alma’s private jet, and Portentia would be causing trouble for Maxine. I hoped the criminals around here didn’t get word of the city’s superhero being away.

“If they do, you can be a good sidekick and tell them to behave.” commented Aaliyah as she stepped out from behind Alma.

“If who does what?” inquired Alma, looking down at her.

“Aaliyah’s suggesting that I do a bit of crime fighting on Portentia’s behalf while she’s gone.” I explained.

She rolled her eyes as she gazed up at me, but she was smiling. “You worry too much. With Jarod’s suit and her weapon, Portentia is more than a match for Maxine. She’ll finish promptly and return.” she insisted.

“Don’t forget my daughter’s help!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

“Mila will surely be invaluable.” agreed Alma.

“You’ll have to get used to this, boss-man, sir. Employees will need to fly away at times if you’re going to expand, and you simply must expand.” stated Aaliyah.

“Why?” I asked. “Aren’t I doing well enough?”

She grinned at me and said, “I’ve already made some arrangements on your behalf. I can cancel them if you want, but Best Friend For Hire isn’t really about you, is it? I thought you wanted a job where you could make a difference in the lives of others.”

I nodded. “Yes, I do want to make a difference.” I agreed.

“James, I understand that you trust her, but shouldn’t you look into these arrangements of hers before deciding?” inquired Alma.

I shrugged and said, “If she wants me to know, she’ll tell me. If she doesn’t, I wouldn’t be able to understand the paperwork even with Mila’s aid. I’ve told you before that she’s the one with actual power.”

“You’re still the boss, boss-man, sir.” insisted Aaliyah with a giggle. “Just tell me what you want, and I’ll start the arrangements!”

Looking to Alma, I said, “There’s another side of my argument. She already knows what I want, so the arrangements are made to get me there. I don’t have the knowledge or the wisdom to question her judgement on what is best.”

“I do hope you know marriage will change us. I don’t plan to be separated more often than not as is normal for my family, so we’ll both have to grow accustomed to proper discussion over big decisions.” she replied, staring into my eyes.

“Planning on us merging businesses as well?” I asked.

“Well, no.” she replied.

“Then you really don’t need to worry over how mine is run. I’m confident things will continue to go well.” I told her.

Aaliyah giggled as she said, “You have no idea how well.”

Alma’s gaze shifted to her, and I wondered what was going through her mind. She had seen a glimpse of what Aaliyah could do. I wondered if Aaliyah would ever let her see more. I rubbed my aching head, pushing the thought of what I had seen back again. There was just too much of Aaliyah for my poor, little mind.

Hearing the door open, I turned to find Mila standing there in one of her maid outfits. There were subtle differences between them.

“Master, your appointment is nearly here. Do you intend to greet her personally?” she asked.

I shrugged and said, “Might as well.”

She gave a small nod, curtsied, and went back inside.

“What appointment?” inquired Alma.

“Another applicant. A fair number are getting through Aaliyah and Mila’s combined scrutiny lately.” I explained.

“How do you feel Dejon is doing?” she questioned.

I shrugged and told her “Cosette was happy with his performance the other day, and Mila has told me that he is studying with almost as much fervor as Jemal. I think he’ll work out.”

She nodded.

“You were hoping he’d fail, so you could poach him.” I inferred.

Her lip twitched just before she said, “Maybe. You must admit that his magic is useful.”

“No, darling. I refuse to ever admit such a thing.” I half-teased. I still didn’t like the idea of him using his gift very often.

“You two are soooo mushy that you might as well get married.” stated Aaliyah with a sigh.

“Ha. You’re not going to take credit for this too?” replied Alma wryly.

“I can if you want!” exclaimed the tiny girl. “You know I’ve given James advice about you, right? I mean, I have been helping you both out.”

Sighing, Alma looked down at her and said, “I do at times realize why James doesn’t bother questioning you more thoroughly. I don’t actually want to know to what you are referring.”

Grinning back, Aaliyah told her “You have a number of ideas in your head, so you know well enough without me.”

“Behave, you two. My potential new hire has arrived.” I playfully chided as I watched the distant gate open.

“She left. Have you ever tried working through the significance of her actions? Everything she says and does has a purpose.” insisted Alma.

“I know. I’ve considered some of her actions from time-to-time, but I don’t believe…” I started.

Interrupting me, Alma said, “Another girl? Should I start worrying about your fondness for beautiful women?”

I leaned down, kissed her head, and assured her “You know better.”

“James, not in front of the new hire.” she rebuked.

“Yes, dear.” I told her as dryly as I could manage.

Smiling up at me, she lightly punched my arm before saying, “I’ll leave you to it then.”

Her hand left mine, and I found myself instantly missing her. Since our engagement became official, we spent far more time together than we had before, despite my lessons in magic from her coming to an end. My intense studies of magic through the virtual grimoire had boosted my skill enough that Alma no longer seemed inclined to attempt showing me anything new there, though we did spar almost nightly still. Despite our closeness, I still felt we had too little time to ourselves. Our honeymoon after the wedding would lend us some quality alone time, but I was already certain our honeymoon would feel too short.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 314

“What’s the time?” I asked when Aaliyah dropped us off in my office, having given our farewells at Alma’s home.

“Two minutes after you left, boss-man, sir.” replied Aaliyah, grinning up at me.

“What? How can I possibly explain doing work from there and here at the same time?” inquired Alma.

“Celebrate your day off!” exclaimed Aaliyah as she raised her hands in the air as if she was cheering. “James, on the other hand, has a job soon.”

“Oh. I figured that would be cancelled.” I admitted.

Alma looked shocked as she said, “Day off? I can’t possibly afford a full day off. There is still so very much to do.”

“Master, should I place your rings in the vault for now?” asked Mila.

“Oh, sure! Thank you.” I told her as one of her bodies walked into the room.

She took each of our rings, placing them into a container she carried, and then left without another word.

“James, help me here.” demanded Alma.

“What? You have a day off. You can’t possibly complain about gaining time. Read, play some games, or anything else that entertains you. I’ll join you when I return home.” I assured her.

“If this happens too often, we’re going to look ancient far before our time.” she complained.

Aaliyah giggled.

“Well, perhaps I will. Going off Hyun-Woo, I’m sure you’ll still look young for many years.” I argued.

“You don’t really expect to grow old, do you?” asked Aaliyah.

“Pardon?” I replied.

At the same time, Alma stepped backward as she said, “I should hope we have long lives.”

“Oh, you will, but aging… that’s funny. How old do you think the fey in the forest are? Any of them seem old to you?” inquired Aaliyah.

“I am not a fey.” stated Alma.

“Your fey blood is far stronger than you realize. Emma will age very slowly compared with most everyone here, but your connection is even stronger.” argued Aaliyah.

“I don’t have any fey blood.” I stated, finding myself imagining what it’d be like to watch Alma stay young as I grew older and older.

“Aww… don’t worry, boss-man, sir. You’d have to drain yourself of energy to pull off aging even a second.” she assured me.

“This can’t be true.” argued Alma. “Yes, some of my family have lived into their hundreds, but they do die in time.”

“Not you.” stated Aaliyah.

“How can you be certain?” demanded Alma.

“Because Death really does know when everyone will die.” I told her. “You should accept it.”

She sighed, frowning at me.

“I can’t tell you why I’m certain, but I have good reason.” Turning to Aaliyah and patting her head, I asked “Am I right?”

“Of course, boss-man, sir. I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I didn’t know simple things like when someone will die. Imagine how late I’d be running all the time!” she exclaimed, smiling up at me.

“You are aware that Aaliyah has no qualms about lying, are you not?” asked Alma. “She could simply sense when someone dies. You’re quite well aware of how quick she is.”

Aaliyah grinned at Alma as she said, “Admitting that there’s a reason for me to visit the dead?”

Alma looked uncomfortable for a moment.

“I’m also aware of when she lies, just as I’m aware when anyone else lies.” I admitted. “I thought you had figured that out.”

“I admit that you do seem rather good at determining who’s lying these days. You weren’t always.” she insisted.

“When I… changed, the ability was vastly heightened.” I told her.

“She has ways of avoiding magic.” argued Alma.

“Yes, and I’m sure she can avoid mine as well. Still, I believe her. How will we even go in public ten years from now?” I marveled. My parents would certainly be shocked by this.

“Illusions?” suggested Alma. “There are spells my family members have used for such purposes.”

“They do work for that necromancer.” I admitted, frowning as I thought of him.

“Yes. His were exceptional.” she agreed.

“Well, you two have time to get even better!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

I nodded, still wrapping my head around the idea of an exceptionally long life. Would I grow as old as Ariadne? What of Zachary and his brothers?

“Zachary’s actually the youngest.” pointed out Aaliyah. “You have to admit that they’ve seen some marvelous things throughout their years.”

“Oh? Did they show you anything of interest?” asked Alma.

“Nothing that you can report to Adelmar.” I replied.

She frowned. “James, we are to be married. Do you really trust me so little?” she asked.

“I’ve learned that you are very loyal to your family, and don’t always wish to burden you with more secrets.” I replied.

“I’d rather know than not, but I can appreciate your warnings on what cannot be shared.” she told me, not fully being earnest.

“See, you weren’t entirely honest there.” I teased.

“I’ll have to be more careful around you, won’t I.” she stated, but she smiled beautifully as she did. “Perhaps I should have said that I can grow to appreciate the warnings.”

“Much better.” I acknowledged, smiling back.

Aaliyah sighed and said, “You two love birds need to confirm plans for Alma’s birthday, although I should point out that Portentia’s birthday is on the same day.”

“What!? Really?” asked Alma.

“Yes. She was born four years before you.” replied Aaliyah. She then looked up at me and said, “While we’re on the topic of birthdays, Adelmar sent a card, thanking you for the gift we sent. His birthday was on the seventeenth.”

I was very glad she had taken care of sending him something, but I didn’t want to admit that I had missed not only the day but sending the gift in front of Alma. “I’m glad he was pleased with it.” I told her.

“You should save it, James.” suggested Alma. “Mail from the head of my family is exceedingly rare, especially these days.”

I did my best not to frown as I wondered what I was going to get Alma. I had forgotten her birthday was coming up. I needed to get something for Portentia as well.

“Will you mind spending part of the day with Portentia?” I asked.

“Of course not. We do get along.” insisted Alma. “Any idea what to get her? Mila normally gives me more notice.”

I would admit that Alma seemed less judgemental of Portentia’s role as a superhero these days.

“Sorry, Lady Pendreigh.” apologized Mila.

“No need to be sorry. I am just surprised is all.” replied Alma.

“Like a birthday surprise type of surprised?” asked asked Aaliyah.

“Ha ha.” stated Alma, rolling her eyes.

“We could go with more tickets to sidekick for her.” I suggested with a shrug.

Alma sighed and said, “Though I have no doubt she would be perfectly happy with such a gift, I cannot approve of it. Surely we can come up with something she’d enjoy which would not have us frolicking about the town in a costume.”

“Are you planning on us always sending gifts as a couple from here on out?” I inquired, enjoying the idea.

“Oh. I suppose I am getting ahead of myself.” replied Alma, actually blushing.

“No. You really aren’t.” I assured her, taking her hand as I bent down to kiss it. “I love the thought of having you tormented with me over what to buy.”

“I see. My fiancée is already plotting to have me tormented.” teased Alma.

“Just a bit when you’re in the mood.” I replied, attempting to sound sincere.

Arching her eyebrow, she asked “A mood to be tormented? What a strange person you think me.”

“Strange enough to marry me for sure.” I told her. “Any suggestions, Aaliyah?”

Mila quickly spoke up, saying, “Master, mother felt you two weren’t in need of a fourth wheel while flirting and took off. Luckily for you both, she didn’t deny me the opportunity to join you if you’re fine with a third wheel.”

“Do you have any suggestions, Mila?” asked Alma.

“Of course, though I’m disinclined to reveal them until I’ve settled on what I’m getting her.” she replied.

“I see.” replied Alma, twisting her lips in thought. She then pulled me down to her and kissed my cheek before saying, “You best be off, or you’ll be late. I can use my… day off… to consider our options.”

I nodded, saying, “Yes, dear.”

She must have noticed my put-upon tone, because she hit my arm just after I said it.

I took off Caladfwlch and handed it over to her. “Mind holding onto this while I’m working? I don’t believe it wants left alone again.” I told her.

She nodded, staring at the sword in surprise as she held it.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“James, Caladfwlch still shines!” she exclaimed, staring up at me. “Not as brightly by any means, but the sword shines!”

“Why wouldn’t Caladfwlch accept Arthur’s descendent, especially one as splendid as you?” I inquired. “Besides, you shouldn’t feel bad. That’s about how the sword looked when Arthur held it.” I assured her with a wink.

Her mouth actually dropped open, and I ran out before she could say anything more. I was certain now that Aaliyah wouldn’t mind me saying that much. Something had changed between the two of them, or Aaliyah wouldn’t have allowed Alma to skip signing a contract. Things were looking magnificent.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 313

By the time the sun was rising, Alma had given me the basic tour of her home, though I was certain a great number of hidden passages were left out. After the tour, she insisted on doing some work to “clear her morning”. I excused myself to wander the grounds a bit, not wanting to try playing games on her backup computer. I was sure the machine was considered top of the line, but everything seemed far too slow, having grown accustomed to Mila easily keeping up.

Everywhere I had gone, the land was vibrant with plants bearing fruits. I wondered if Alma would bother with some cover up or if she would just let people jump to their own conclusions. I was quite certain there would be some very confused botanists visiting the area.

“Your majesty, the items you required are ready for your inspection.” stated Sebastian.

“Thank you. Please, lead the way.” I told him, still feeling annoyed that he refused to stop calling me that. Before I even stood, I felt a buzzing in my pocket, so I took a look at my phone after rising.

“You should take one of my bodies along next time, so we can really have fun with the staff.” declared Mila in a text. “I would gladly demonstrate the type of service to which you are accustomed.”

I told her “That would be amusing.” I wasn’t sure Alma would be too thrilled with the idea of her staff seeing Mila dressed as a maid, given the acute similarities in their appearance. Furthermore, I worried that Mila’s flirtations might get out of hand and cause all sorts of gossip. Alma would not be amused if that were to occur.

When we reached the materials, I was plenty happy with them, but I had no doubt that I would be. Alma’s standards were exceedingly high for many things, and her staff was surely aware of it.

After thanking Sebastian, I excused myself to check on Alma, but she was still typing away with spells on numerous keyboards as she fiddled with her phone by hand. “Have much left?” I inquired.

“Always, darling, but I can excuse myself if you are ready to begin.” she replied.

“Well, Sebastian has already procured everything we’ll need, so we might as well.” I informed her.

She smiled and said, “Excellent. Give me thirty seconds. I’m quite interested in seeing what sorts of spells are utilized in your craft.”

“About that… will you be completely disappointed if there is something for you to sign?” I inquired. Seeing her smile fade, I quickly told her “Sorry, but there are reasons, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“This is precisely why I worried about her getting involved in your life.” she stated.

“Still worried about her?” I questioned, surprised by her statement. I felt Aaliyah more than proved herself to be our ally.

“Always. As fantastic as she can be, I know her mood can be mercurial, and there is nothing that will withstand her wrath.” stated Alma.

I smirked as I said, “I find her perfectly adorable.”

“You’ve seen her other side.” replied Alma, not amused.

“As I recall, everyone was a bit put off by her presence when I was fighting for your hand. She seemed fine by me.” I told her.

“Has she actually shown you what happens to someone killed by her scythe? I know she’s generally too quick, but she’s not above demonstrations.” explained Alma.

“Want one!?” asked Aaliyah, suddenly grinning up from between us.

“No.” replied Alma. “Never again.”

“No promises.” replied Aaliyah with a wink. “I brought the paperwork for you!”

“Lovely. Was I saying too much?” she asked.

“No, Alpy. James is more aware of who I am than anyone else alive today, including Carl, and that’s really saying something.” she replied, sounding giddy.

“Please excuse my disbelief.” stated Alma as she started perusing the “paperwork” on the tablet Aaliyah had brought.

“I can’t explain yet, but I’ve seen her. Really seen her, not how she is now or as Death. She’s magnificent, I assure you.” I insisted, though my head started to ache just thinking back on it. My mind was burning through energy to move faster and faster, but it wasn’t enough.

“Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. She’ll know well enough one day.” promised Aaliyah as she smiled at me.

I felt at peace as I saw her smile, and I stopped thinking about what I had seen. The headache left me.

“If she’s truly that magnificent, then why must her infernal contracts be quite so complicated?” demanded Alma. “Surely, she could have me promise not to tell and accept that my word would suffice.”

“As you wish.” replied Aaliyah, taking the tablet back.

“What? Are you serious?” asked Alma.

Aaliyah nodded and said, “Uh huh. We’ll be boring this time.”

“But what about…” started Alma.

“I trust you.” stated Aaliyah, interrupting her.

“I haven’t even promised anything yet.” argued Alma.

“And I trust you.” replied Aaliyah. “Have fun!”

“She’s messing with me again.” insisted Alma as she looked around. “The bloody girl is playing another of her games.”

Aaliyah was gone in Alma’s mind. I knew otherwise. I had seen part of her, stretching on and on beyond my senses. I turned my mind to the task at hand as the headache was coming back again. There was simply too much information for my mind in its current state, and I was not remotely capable of processing everything when I was greatly enhanced.

I hugged my fiancée and kissed her head. “Shall we get started?” I asked, taking her hand and pulling her along.

As we ran past the materials Sebastian had brought, I used a spell to pull them after us. Alma sealed the room with spells before she opened the entrance to the subterranean home of her father. We descended, greeting him upon arriving.

I started explaining what precisely we’d be doing and quickly found that Alma had more knowledge than I initially had regarding metalsmithing and metallurgy. She was a bit dubious about the alloy I proposed, but she let that slide. When I demonstrated spells, however, she had a great many questions.

“This part here looks like something I’ve seen in a book on the dark arts.” she insisted as she pointed.

“I’m sure it’s similar, but we’ll be using that bit to identify one another.” I explained.

“James, this probably isn’t wise.” she argued.

“I swear on my life that this is perfectly safe. I know in great detail what every part of these spells does.” I assured her.

“How could you possibly know what every part does? No one does. We simply know the rough purpose of any given pattern we use, but I’ve demonstrated to you the disastrous results that can happen when attempting to alter patterns as well as combinations we know to be disastrous.” she told me.

I sighed, dismantled my spell, and recreated her demonstration. Then I went about explaining the differences between the subtle alterations she had made when demonstrating this to me. To seal the point, I told her precisely what would happen when I altered part of the symbol in another way and unleashed the spell, causing waves of fire to erupt from a point in a plane above us.

Her father seemed amused, but she did not.

“You’ve obviously done that before, so knowing what will happen isn’t that impressive.” she argued, being stubborn.

“Yes, but I’ve also studied, as I’ve told you before, from a book of sorts which I can’t share with you yet. Trust me. These spells we’ll be using are perfectly safe for this use.” I insisted. “I’ve been studying magic a great deal since I enhanced Jarod’s suits.”

I didn’t want to explain that these particular spells had Aaliyah’s assurances, knowing that she still seemed to have a grudge against my tiny secretary. She still had no clue how much Aaliyah knew about magic, and I couldn’t tell her that yet either.

“Fine. What is this supposed to do?” she asked.

“We’ll be using the part that reminds you of necromancy to identify one another, so the rings will react to us. If you prefer, we could tie the rings to each other and leave things at that, but I thought a little extra information would be nice.” I told her.

“What sort of information?” she inquired.

“We’ll not only know precisely in what direction the other is, but we’ll have a sense of distance as well. The rings will also pulse slightly in time with our heartbeats, so you’ll know if I’m alive and calm no matter where I am. Furthermore, the rings won’t function for anyone else.”

“All that from a bit of necromancy?” she asked.

“Well, more that the bit of necromancy will allow for it.” I told her.

“I can easily imagine some saying that feeling your partner’s heartbeat through a ring is a bit much.” she stated.

“Are you one of those people? Personally, I’ll find knowing with absolute certainty that you are alive to be wonderful.” I told her.

“You’ll also be able to avoid me when I’m angry. Nothing gets my heart pumping quite the same.” she muttered.

“I’ll know where to find you, so I can find out what’s wrong. Besides, I always know when you’re angry if I’m nearby. Your magic gives that away.” I replied.

“And what if I don’t want to be found because I might lash out at you?” she asked.

“Marriage isn’t a perfectly smooth ride for anyone. I’d rather know where to find you than be left wondering where you are.” I insisted. “There are also a number of protective spells I’d like us to place on the rings. I do need to warn you that undoing these spells is far more difficult than placing them. You could consider this an eternal bond if we go through with it.”

“I figured as much. Let’s do it. All of it. I find myself amused by the idea of always having your heart.” she teased.

“Well, there’s that too, but you don’t need a ring for it.” I assured her.

She smiled, so I continued explaining the plan. Then we started discussing patterns, coloration, engravings, and gemstone possibilities.

When we actually began our practice rings, I felt that Alma took to forging rings much more easily than I did. Unlike me, she was working with her eyes closed, relying completely on her ability to feel the heat. I had that advantage in having crafted this ring many times at Aaliyah’s insistence. Alma wasn’t the only one with extremely high standards.

Aaliyah was the one who told me how the spells would interact, tying our rings to the node of magic here, another spell I wasn’t to explain fully to Alma yet. I found the warnings against explaining certain things disheartening even after seeing Aaliyah let Alma get by without a contract. One month was all I had to wait before I could tell Alma everything. One more month of secrets.

Letting all of my extraneous thoughts drift away, I poured my concentration into getting the final ring absolutely perfect, since she’d be wearing it for the rest of her life. When I finished, I looked to see how she was progressing, smiling as I watched her work. The decorative engravings in the dark metal would be hard for most to notice at a glance, but I could see them clearly, a small depiction of herself dancing with me around the band, an eternal dance. To match her engagement ring’s flame, my ring had twin bands of rubies along the outside. I set sapphires in hers to match those in her engagement ring.

When at last she finished, she smiled up at me and said, “I think that went rather well.”

“Let’s hope you got the sizing right.” I teased. “They won’t come off easily, so we can’t try them on.”

Aaliyah had revealed to me more details as to how these rings would function, a way to circumvent the protective magic of my body. The “bit of necromancy”, as Alma had put it, tied these rings to our souls. Once accepted as part of me, my body wouldn’t try to counteract the spell. If I wanted, I could even enchant a suit to work for me now, but there was no need. Besides, Aaliyah had been very clear about the dangers of magic such as this, and I was certain that I’d never want to utilize it again. If Alma ever did want to leave me, Aaliyah would have to personally undo these spells.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 310

“What about sending Dejon out with Jarod on a job?” I asked.

“Sorry, master, but Dejon doesn’t have the knowledge to be of any real value to Jarod, and Jarod hasn’t been taking any low salary jobs recently. The twins keep him… occupied.” explained Mila.

“Cosette! She said she’s resistant to his ability, and you could monitor things for me.” I suggested.

“I’ll speak with her about it on your behalf, master.” she replied.

“No. I’ll talk with her.” I insisted.

“Sorry, master, but the twins have a more urgent concern for you.” stated Mila as she opened the door and stepped out of the office.

Ai and Mai rushed into the room, crossed their arms, and glared at me.

“I see you’re displeased about something.” I stated.

Mai held out a hand bearing a wedding ring.

“What? Did Ai lose her ring?” I asked. “I’ll gladly ask…”

“Baka-yarō!!!” they exclaimed in unison.

“That isn’t nice.” I stated.

“Where’s Lady Pendreigh’s ring!?” they asked.

“I don’t believe the wedding rings have been made yet.” I explained.

Ai sighed and said, “The engagement ring.”

“We’re already engaged.” I told them.

Mai slapped her forehead with her palm and said, “Yes, but aren’t you going to give her a ring?”

“Your wedding is in one month!” exclaimed Ai.

“Are you certain she wants one?” I asked. “I’m not really familiar with Slayer customs.”

“You’re in the U.S., aren’t you? It’s expected here!” exclaimed Mai.

“The wedding invitations have already been sent out, so everyone knows! People will wonder if she’s caught without a ring now.” insisted Ai.

“She’s British aristocracy, so they might not.” I feebly argued, realizing I made a serious mistake.

“Yes, they will!” they exclaimed. “Do you realize who all has been invited to your wedding!?”

“No, honestly, since I didn’t take part in the guest list.” I replied.

“You’re going to have one of the most high profile weddings of this decade, so get Lady Pendreigh an engagement ring already!” they insisted. Then they turned and stalked out of the room.

“Right.” I muttered to myself. “Mila, will you please scroll through images of engagement ring designs, preferably exotic ones.”

As I perused the designs, I was very grateful that Mila’s systems were as fast as they were. This would take far longer otherwise. As minutes passed, I still didn’t feel any closer to deciding what to get.

“BOO!” exclaimed Aaliyah, jumping up from behind my desk!

“Hello.” I greeted her.

“Aww… you didn’t jump.” she pouted.

“You knew I wouldn’t without you really trying to scare me.” I replied. “Any suggestions on what Alma would like for an engagement ring?”

“Of course, boss-man, sir. I’ve got a model all set to inspire you.” she replied with a grin.

“Oh?” I asked. Suddenly, I found myself standing elsewhere. Looking around, I decided I was far elsewhere. The trees nearby were enormous as were the creatures. A shadow was all the warning I had that something was swooping in toward me from the sky. I could hardly believe my eyes when I looked up and saw a dragon. An enormous, winged dragon with cobalt scales glinting in the sunlight was descending toward me. I could see residual energy pouring off the creature and couldn’t help smiling. Jarod would be so jealous right now.

Wind whipped around me as the dragon caught the air with its massive wings, slowing its descent to land right in front of me with an audible thump. The creature’s huge muzzle was mere feet away as it eyed me.

I felt a pressure that I recognized and allowed to enter my mind.

:Who are you?: asked the creature.

“James Michael Somerset III.” I replied with a small nod. “Who are you?”

:You’re from my world. How did you get here!?: she asked, moving her head to look at me from different directions.

“Oh. Sorry. I thought I was expected. My secretary had said she arranged for a model to inspire me.” I replied, not seeing Aaliyah anywhere.

:A model!? Here? For what purpose?: she inquired. :You seem incredibly calm for someone seeing a dragon. Most would reek of fear:

“Well, I don’t really frighten easily these days. I’m trying to come up with an idea for an engagement ring. Alma and I are already engaged, but she apparently wants a ring…” I explained, hesitating as the dragon drew back. “Is something the matter?”

:Tell me Alma’s full name.: stated the dragon.

“Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V.” I replied.

The dragon snarled as it said, :You think yourself worthy of my daughter!?:

“Pardon?” I asked, shocked by the truth in her words. This was Alma’s mother. How!?

:I am Adelina Slayer, and I do not find you worthy.: she declared, opening her maw. :Scared that your little spell didn’t bedazzle me, mortal?:

“Oh. Sorry. I can’t do anything about that enchantment. Please don’t attack. I really don’t want to hurt you.” I told her, frowning as she snarled and lunged at me. I moved, sucking the energy away from her body.

Adelina seemed surprised snapping her head to the side to find me hundreds of feet away.

“Sorry, but I don’t want to be eaten either. Your daughter’s doing well, by the way.” I told her.

She rushed to attack me, but something far faster came down from above, pinning her down with a single claw and casting a spell to redirect the air as it filled the vacuum she left in her wake. I was impressed by the complexity of the spell. Where Adelina was easily fifty feet long, this new dragon was easily two hundred.

:Manners, little one.: stated the larger dragon.

“Adelina!” exclaimed Aaliyah, sliding down from the larger dragon’s back. “I wondered where I misplaced James.”

:Death.: snarled Adelina, wincing as the larger dragon squeezed her.

:My apologies, James. This one is young and impudent. She’ll learn.: stated the dragon. :I am known simply as ‘mother’ for my mate and I were the first of our kind and no other intelligent life dwells here, save for Death.:

“Meeting you is a pleasure.” I told her, feeling awed by her presence.

Her scales were pure white and the largest was easily taller than me, but she also had enormous spines stretching down her back where Adelina did not. There was a distinct difference in the ridges of her face as well.

She smiled as she said, :Meeting you is a pleasure as well. You are known far and wide.:

I saw my shock reflected in Adelina’s expression as well.

“Isn’t he wonderful?” stated Aaliyah as she nodded. “We’ll be back soon to talk, but his day will be busy as ever! We’ve gotta get these rings done before the wedding. Adelina’s daughter will come with us next time, so that’ll be a treat, won’t it?”

:Wedding?: asked the dragon mother. :I look forward to welcoming you to the family, James. Please, enjoy your time here.:

Adelina stared at us for a moment after the dragon mother leaped into the air, but then she followed without a word.

“Rings?” I asked.

Nodding, Aaliyah said, “Yep! Gotta teach you how to make rings, so you and Alpy can make your own wedding rings. We’ll be making your engagement ring too, of course.”

“I see.” I stated, knowing Aaliyah had a plan. “What did the dragon mother mean when she said I am known ‘far and wide’?”

“Pretty self-evident, isn’t it, boss-man, sir? Everyone knows you!” she exclaimed.

I took that to mean I wasn’t getting an answer yet. I followed Aaliyah to a cave in a mountain. The heat coming out of it was immense, and I smirked when I saw lava flowing far beneath us deep inside. Was I to craft the Ring of Power out of Lord of the Rings now? The feeling only grew as she started instructing me on spells I’d need to use. I quickly realized this would certainly be a one-of-a-kind engagement ring.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 304

The decorations for tonight’s party didn’t take too long, since I didn’t hold back much in my haste, stopping only once in the forest for a quick recharge. Alma seemed amused when I had finished.

“I still am not accustomed to your speed these days.” she admitted.

“H-he’s f-fast.” mumbled Raine.

“Not compared with you.” I insisted. “Emma’s going to be disappointed if she doesn’t catch you today.”

“C-catch me?” asked Raine, looking confused.

Nodding, I told her “Today’s Emma’s birthday, and she apparently has a tradition of giving everyone a kiss. She got Marco when returning her plate after breakfast, and most of the rest of us beforehand.”

“I was her first target. She jumped me in the hall before she reached the kitchen.” added Mila.

Raine looked a little startled as she said, “I-I b-bought her a p-present. I-I wasn’t av-avoiding her.”

“I didn’t think you were. I just wanted to let you know that she’ll expect to see you today even if Deyanira is present.” I informed her.

“D-Deyanira’s her p-present!?” asked Raine with wide eyes and a small smile.

“Though I’m sure Emma wouldn’t be against eating Deyanira up, Brandon might take issue with that idea.” stated Alma impassively. She then grabbed onto Raine’s wrist.

Raine looked at her in shock and then stared at the door behind me. “B-but…” she mumbled.

I didn’t see anything over there, but I could guess Deyanira was on her way with Brandon, having finished their share of the decorations.

“Don’t worry, Raine. I haven’t seen her bite anyone yet.” I assured her.

The room appeared to warp around Raine as she grinned up at Alma with an incredibly large mouth filled with extremely sharp-looking teeth, but Alma didn’t even flinch.

“No. Stay here.” reprimanded Alma.

As things returned to normal around her, Raine lowered her head, seeming to pout. “Y-you d-don’t understand.” mumbled Raine.

“Don’t understand what?” I asked.

Raine shook her head but didn’t respond.

I looked over to Alma when I noticed that Raine seemed to be shivering. She gave a slight shrug.

“Heya, boss. We umm… yeah. We didn’t do quite as much as you guys did, but we got part of a hall done.” stated Brandon as he looked around.

“Raine!? Is that you!?” exclaimed Deyanira, staring at Raine.

She nodded without looking up.

“You’re the only person I know with that hoodie. What happened to you? You disappeared before the second semester was up.” stated Deyanira.

“You know each other?” I asked.

“She was a freshman my senior year in high school, but she suddenly switched schools without a word.” explained Deyanira.

“Y-your friends were b-bullies.” muttered Raine.

“Not that again. I wanted you to hang out with us.” insisted Deyanira.

“I-I h-heard them.” stated Raine.

“Heard what?” asked Deyanira.

“Y-your f-friends… p-picking on m-me.” replied Raine.

Shaking her head, Deyanira said, “They were just teasing. They didn’t really mean anything by the things they said.”

“T-they threw away m-my b-backpack.” stated Raine.

“No. Why would they do that?” asked Deyanira.

Raine shrugged and said, “T-they weren’t very n-nice, and y-you… y-ou always y-yelled at me.”

“You were just too quiet. You’re still too quiet.” stated Deyanira.

Raine shook her head.

“Raine could have killed them by accident if she had gotten angry.” explained Alma.

“What?” asked Deyanira incredulously.

“I can easily create a nuclear explosion that would destroy a city, and I’m no match for Raine. You’re berating one of the strongest beings on the planet, so tread softly.” stated Alma.

“You’re serious?” inquired Deyanira, looking startled. Turning back to Raine, she said, “Why won’t she just speak up for herself then?”

“Because she’s scared of what would happen if she did.” I informed her.

Raine was shivering still.

“Will you show her if Alma releases you?” I asked.

Raine shook her head.

“Deyanira’s tough. She can take it.” I assured her.

“Show me what?” asked Deyanira.

“James, are you sure this is a good idea?” questioned Alma. “Deyanira is only human.”

“Yes, I’m human. Show me what?” asked Deyanira again.

Ignoring her, I said, “My parents were fine. Deyanira can handle seeing Raine’s other side briefly.”

Alma let go of Raine’s wrist.

“Just show her.” I encouraged.

Raine shook her head and hugged herself.

“I want to see what they’re talking about. Just show me already!” demanded Deyanira.

Raine looked up at her, snarled, and transformed. “D-don’t be a bully!” she exclaimed.

Deyanira jumped back, and Raine caught her from behind, stopping her instantly. Then Raine moved the moment Deyanira started to turn. I sped up to follow what was happening, but Raine was far too fast, like a phantom just out of sight.

“Raine, that’s enough. You’re scaring her.” I warned.

Raine stopped, transformed, and caught Deyanira as she tripped backward. Hugging Deyanira, she said, “I-I’m s-sorry. Y-you… f-frustrate m-me.”

Deyanira cried into her shirt, shivering as the smaller girl held her.

“James, perhaps that was a bit much for her.” suggested Alma in a whisper. “I could try taking some of it away.”

As I was about to reply, the front door swung open.

“Happy Valentine’s Day!” exclaimed Aaliyah. “Ooooh. Deyanira’s visiting again! Is Raine stealing her from Brandon?”

“No. They apparently knew each other. Raine just showed Deyanira a little of what she can do.” explained Alma.

“Did you see them in the yearbook?” asked Aaliyah. “So cute!”

I was about to ask what she meant, but Mila displayed the pictures around the room. Deyanira and Raine certainly looked close in them.

“I-I… n-never saw… these.” mumbled Raine.

Deyanira looked around with tears still streaking down her face. Her voice shook as she said, “I missed you. You changed your number and never got in touch.”

“I-I’m s-sorry.” muttered Raine. “I-I d-didn’t… didn’t w-want to h-hurt you.”

“How’s your mom?” asked Deyanira.

Raine stared at her for a moment before saying, “S-she… d-died.”

“I’m so, so sorry. She was wonderful.” replied Deyanira.

Throughout all this, Brandon stood there, looking around uncomfortably.

“Shouldn’t you two be going out on a daaate?” asked Aaliyah, staring up at Alma and me.

“James, perhaps we shouldn’t.” suggested Alma as she nodded toward Raine and Deyanira.

“They’ll be fine. Let’s head out.” I told her. “Aaliyah can manage things here without us.”

“You bet, boss-man, sir! Tonight’s party will be amaaazing!” she exclaimed.

“You really do work here?” asked Deyanira as she stared at Aaliyah.

“Yep!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

“Care to help me study sometime?” asked Deyanira.

“No. Mila would get all jealous.” replied Aaliyah.

“Oh, mother. I can’t blame anyone for preferring you.” insisted Mila.

“I can!” exclaimed Aaliyah with a grin. “You don’t pick on my baby girl, miss.” she ordered, pointing at Deyanira.

“I wouldn’t!” exclaimed Deyanira.

“Y-you can’t h-help yourself.” mumbled Raine as she continued hugging Deyanira. “You’re a b-bully.”

“If you’ll all excuse us, we’ll be off.” I stated, taking hold of Alma’s hand. “I’ve got an exquisite reservation for us. Something truly out of this world.” I teased as I started walking out the door.

Alma looked at me curious as she said, “You can’t mean…”

“Of course not. You’re not allowed in there. Carl is willing to cater for me though.” I told her with a wink.

The limo was already waiting for us outside, so we stepped in and were off. This date was just getting started.