Ten minutes from yet another date, and I found myself seriously wondering if I should even be here.  Not one date that I attempted was truly memorable in any positive way.  No, dancing with Alma instead of my date didn’t make that night positive ― at least I tried to convince myself of that truth.  I was here because I didn’t want to end dating on last night’s catastrophe.  I still was appalled that my date tried using me to get revenge for her friend, especially through a fight.  On a bright note, I probably saved some other poor dupe from getting his face beat in by the four thugs.  Plus, Delilah Evadne really seemed like an amazing girl.  She was valedictorian of her high school, competed at her state’s tournament for track and field as a pole vaulter, and still was very active now that she was in college.  I was honestly impressed that the girl could make time for a date, but I couldn’t be happier about the idea.  I finally would have a truly enjoyable date, assuming I could keep my nerves in check.  Maybe I shouldn’t have shown up quite so early, but I didn’t really have time to go home again.  This morning was spent playing Ancient Tribes of Earth with Eseld.  Then I acted as a courier for Mrs. Mars before she asked me to stay for the opening of a new art exhibit.

 I checked my phone again and found that I still had five minutes before Delilah was supposed to arrive.  I watched as various people passed, not wanting to miss my date, though there weren’t that many people at the tables.  The park had a very nice lake-side view and seemed quite popular.  I was somewhat surprised that my parents had never taken me here when I was younger.  Maybe they hadn’t visited the place themselves.  I snapped a picture with my phone and texted it to father to see what he thought of it.  I gave into staring over the water for, perhaps, too long when my phone buzzed.  Father hadn’t been here before, but he asked me not to mention it to mother, claiming he might want to surprise her with a visit here.  I was smiling until I noticed the time.  Either my date was late, or she missed where I was sitting.  I stood up and looked around a bit, but I didn’t see Delilah anywhere, assuming I truly could recognize her from the profile picture.  I took another look at it on the site’s app to be sure.  Maybe she got held up by something.  With her being late, surely she wouldn’t find me rude if I were to start playing a game while waiting.  I started browsing through the popular games when I noticed that the first ten were all by Global Princess Entertainment.  Aaliyah never mentioned that she made mobile games, so I downloaded one and gave it a try.

 D.E.A.D., Denying Earth’s Advancing Destruction, proved to be impossible to play while sitting still, so I just played through the tutorial which had me walk around a building briefly to diffuse a bomb only visible through my phone’s high-tech “scanner”.  Exiting the game, I looked up videos on it to see what else there was; countless hours of entertainment unfolded in the sped up mission summaries people had posted.  The game forced you to move throughout the real world acting as a secret agent to covertly avoid disasters.  There turned out to be co-op play as well, allowing you to meet real people who played the game and do some tasks together.  Some of the people giving reviews were really into it and gave interesting, albeit far-fetched, accounts of their missions.  Seventeen minutes had passed without sign of Delilah.  I checked for messages on the dating app, but she hadn’t sent anything about being late.  I decided to send her one, in case she was still coming.  Maybe she had taken a nap and overslept.  These things happened.  I decided to give another game a try, reading the description first this time.  

 Prayer for The Lilly Slayer was a Sim where you played in a futuristic world overseen by a goddess known as “The Lilly Slayer”.  As far as life simulation games went, this one looked top notch, but I wasn’t really too interested.  The Cake Dynasty was an extremely cutesy-looking war game revolving around the search for the perfect cake.  If I didn’t know Aaliyah, I would have been surprised that, according to the reviews, the game contained an incredible index of cake recipes that was being updated by user submissions.  That girl really had an obsession.  Singing with The Princess was a mobile karaoke game.  Laser Bubbles turned out to be something I could play while sitting around, so I gave it a try.  The goal of the game was to redirect laser beams from enemy ships with bubbles fired from the deluxe bubble cannon, so that the enemy ships would, in effect, be destroying themselves.  The game allowed for an interesting array of possibilities through various bubble shapes affecting the lasers in different ways and utilizing numerous bubbles for maximum carnage.

 After clearing several stages, I stopped to check the time again.  Still no messages and my date was forty minutes late.  If she had read my message, I would think she’d have replied, but she also might have rushed out the door immediately afterward.  Given traffic in the city at this time of day, she could be caught up for a while, so I probably should wait longer.  Delilah didn’t seem like the type to just abandon someone.  She probably was just caught up.  Maybe her phone died, preventing her from sending a message.  I seemed to remember her mentioning that she knew first aid in her profile, so she could be trying to save a life at an accident.  Yet I couldn’t stop the nagging possibility that she just didn’t want to meet me from entering my mind.  She was the one who had suggested the date, but maybe I came across poorly when I was asking where she was.  There was no way I could have offended her so much initially that she’d set me up, right?  I’d give her a little more time.  Five minutes passed.  Then another ten.  There was a terrible sinking feeling in my chest like I just lost some unnameable, yet important thing.  Maybe… maybe…  “What are you playing?” someone asked.

 There was an amazingly beautiful, blonde girl peering over my phone.  She wore a patterned, thigh-length skirt with a solid black shirt, but looked nothing like Delilah.  This wasn’t my date.  “Laser Bubbles.” I said, feeling awkward over the name.  Why couldn’t Aaliyah have given the game a more manly-sounding name, like… like… Bubbles of Doom?  The blonde smiled and told me “Looks interesting.   Care if I sit and watch for a bit?”  I knew nothing came out of my mouth for a moment even as my lips were moving.  ”Umm… Sorry.  Yes.  Feel free.” I stammered.  She sat close enough that I could feel the warmth of her leg, and I feared I was sweating.  ”So how do you play?” she asked.  I explained what I knew of the game as I demonstrated the current level.  I scored in the top thousand worldwide, which I felt was good enough to impress for my first try.  ”I think you could have done that a little better.  Mind if I give it a try?” she inquired, holding out her hand.  ”Oh.  Umm…. Sure.” I lamely replied.

 Easy James.  She’s just interested in the game.  I handed her my phone and watched as she started to play while trying not to get too close.  When she turned her back to me and leaned against me, my heart surely stopped.  Why did girls wear v-necks?  While the game was easier to see, so were a couple things that shouldn’t be.  Doing my best to focus on the game, I realized that this girl was making my attempt look pathetic.  ”How did you do that?” I asked after she killed the whole fleet on their first shot.  ”Well, the game has an indicator warning you where they’ll attack, and the bubbles can act as mirrors, lenses, etc., depending on the bubble’s material, shape, angle, etc.  Judging by how the lasers reacted when you played, I simply split the laser, reflected the numerous beams around their defenses, and targeted their bridges.” she explained as the replay highlighted her point.  I really wanted to see what this girl could pull off in Ancient Tribes of Earth, since the entire system was even more advanced.

 ”Who are you?” I asked, feeling highly impressed.  ”Oh.  Sorry.  I’m Trixibelle, though most people call me Trix.” she replied, smiling up at me.  Her sparkling blue eyes were amazing, but also seemed familiar.  I was certain I’d remember Trixibelle if we had met before, but I couldn’t shake the feeling.  ”I’m James.  Nice to meet you.  Which name do you prefer?” I asked.  ”Trix is fine.” she told me.  ”Could we have met before perhaps?” I inquired.  ”There’s no way I could forget you, James.” she replied.  Her earnestness was a bit overwhelming with her gazing up at me as she was.  ”Umm… Care to try another stage?  I’d love to see if you can pull that off without seeing the stage in advance.” I told her.  Somehow I had forgotten the source of my discomfort on the last stage and tried my best to avert my eyes while still watching her play, a task far easier said than done to my shame.

 Trix’s skills continued to impress as she annihilated the stages with ease and kindly explained what she was doing.  ”Do you do much gaming?” I asked as she beat another stage.  ”You could say that I do my fair share.  Unfortunately, I should be leaving.  I need to meet my daddy for dinner.  Any chance I can see you again tomorrow?” she asked.  ”Of course!  Can I get your number?” I inquired with a little too much enthusiasm.  I didn’t want to scare her off.  ”Sorry.  Let’s meet here tomorrow at 10 AM if that works for you.” she suggested.  I quickly checked my schedule and as quickly agreed.  ”It’s a date then.  Nice meeting you, James,” she said before heading off.  I barely spent any time with Trix, did so on accident, and already felt that I had a better date than any prior, even though this wasn’t technically a date.  Admiring her figure as she walked away, I only just realized that she was about as short as Alma.  Perhaps this was the girl who could surpass the phony villain.  Even if she wasn’t, I looked forward to meeting her again.  Trix was very unique.

  “Is something bothering you, master?” asked Mila as she drove me out again.  “Will you run a search for statistics on bad dates?” I inquired in reply.  “I’m terribly sorry, master, but I don’t currently have enough data on your criteria for what constitutes a ‘bad’ date.  I would like to suggest that any date without me is less fun than one with me, and I fully intend to back that statement with evidence when we have our date.” she claimed.  Perhaps having Mila do the search wasn’t the brightest notion, but I supposed she did have a point.  Though I was less than satisfied with my dating experience thus far, I wouldn’t say that they were all complete catastrophes.  Leaving Mona to her fate earlier wasn’t sitting well with me at all.  I just… didn’t…  Mona?  I stared out the window for a moment in disbelief as Mona walked past me on some guy’s arm.  She looked… happy-ish.  Well, I definitely felt less guilty over having a second date today, but…  but what?  Was I really so distraught over having her move onto a new guy so quickly?  Maybe I was just feeling off because someone else seemed to be doing better at making her happy.  Whatever the case, certainly I could fully enjoy a date as well.  

 Elmira, pronounced el-MEER-ah according to Mila, wasn’t into video games, unfortunately, but she was interested in fine dining, long walks, and many different movies.  Surprisingly, she wasn’t wanting to see a movie tonight.  Instead, she requested that we go on a walk together, eat somewhere she picked, and then see how we’re getting along from there.  After my recent experiences, I could really appreciate a planned escape clause in a date.  Thinking of how difficult escaping from Alma was, I started frowning.  “Master?  Your smile is on backward.  Let me assist you with it.” stated Mila just before the windshield flooded with images and videos of fluffy, young animals.  There were kittens playing, puppies barking, and more exotic animals each doing their thing.  A number of the animals seemed to be playing with Mila’s avatar.  Despite myself, I did start grinning.  Mila commented “Much better, master.  For the remainder of our journey, let me suggest my personal playlist of cute animals on ‘the tube’, as the princess would put it.”  She didn’t wait for a reply, but I didn’t mind at all.  After a couple videos, I asked “Mila, how do these videos make you feel?”

 There was a long enough pause that I almost spoke again before she finally said, “Curious would be the best term.  I want to experience the texture of those fluffy critters.  I long to touch things.  Taste would be nice too.”  I nodded and said, “Well, not everyone can have good taste, but I’ll try to help with that.”  Surprisingly, she laughed, and it was beautiful.  My car was a magnificent machine, but the A.I. running it was more marvelous by far.  I could scarcely understand what being her must be like, and I was forever awed by the little girl who created her.  “Good luck on your date, master!  Just remember that our date will be better,” said Mila.  I laughed and told her “I’ll try to keep that in mind.” before stepping out and heading down by the lake.  There was a fairly long path by the lake which always had enough people to seem active without seeming crowded, and Elmira loved the idea of meeting here when I suggested it.  I found myself frowning again when I thought of my walk with Nakita by the river, but thinking of what Mila did in the car was enough to brighten my outlook.  Life could be fun if I tried to make it that way.

 I completely missed Elmira until she called my name, bringing my attention to her pose.  She was bent over as if she had been stretching and was looking at me upside down from between her legs.  I waved and walked over to her.  “Hi, Elmira.  I can’t say I’ve ever stretched out before walking before.” I commented.  With a laugh she said, “I was just feeling a bit stiff.  I can’t say many people get my name right on the first try.  Good going!”  I nodded and shrugged, not wanting to explain that a helpful Artificial Intelligence corrected me on it earlier.  I could easily see that as a date ender for some girls.  They would think I was crazy even after further explanation.  Elmira and I started walking together at a casual pace.  We talked mostly about experiences from high school.  She told me about some of her exes and adventures as a cheerleader.  I told her about some good times I had with Jarod and had with the track team.  “So what about your old girlfriends?  What were they like?” she inquired.  I shrugged and said, “I didn’t really date, precisely.  There was one girl I probably should have dated, but I was a bit dense.”  I panicked a little as she took my hand, but kept walking.  Holding hands wasn’t a big deal, right?

 As the conversation continued, which somehow meandered to Elmira’s experiences at parties, I found myself worrying over if a relationship with this girl could go anywhere.  How was I going to explain my living conditions?  “So do you live with anyone?” asked Elmira, as if on queue.  “Well, you could say I have a few roommates in a sense.” I responded evasively.  “Oh?  How many?” she inquired.  “There’s seven of us, but Jarod stays over fairly regularly anymore.” I told her.  “Whoa.  You living in a frat house?  I haven’t been to a frat party in weeks,” she said.  “Oh?  I’ve never been to a frat party, honestly.  What are they like?” I asked, not wanting to explain my home in any more detail.  Letting her know I was well off wasn’t the safest decision, but telling a girl that I was living with five other girls couldn’t go over well.  Regina really would have fought the idea if she hadn’t been the sixth for a while.  I was surprised mother wasn’t against it.  From what Elmira was saying, the frat parties she attended weren’t nearly as wild as I envisioned.  

 We walked and talked for over an hour by the time we arrived back where we met, and Elmira hadn’t let go of my hand even once.  Things seemed to be going well though.  Unlike with Nakita, I was actually participating in the conversation.  If there were any dark secrets in Elmira’s past, they weren’t leaping out at me.  No sneaky jabs like Jarod enjoyed throwing either.  There was just a peaceful atmosphere, save for my nervousness.  Even an hour long walk wasn’t enough to cure me of nerves.  “Should we catch a cab to the restaurant?” she asked.  I hesitated a moment before saying, “No.  I actually drove here, so I can save us some money if you don’t mind me driving.”  Instead of protesting, she started asking about what kind of car I drive.  I sent Mila a text, telling her to flip to her analog displays, as I explained that I drove an Aston Martin DB5.  “Really?  Like the one in Skyfall?” she asked.  “Same color.” I responded, surprised that she recognized the model.  “That’s awesome!  You don’t have an ejection seat, right?  I don’t want to go flying.” she told me with a laugh.  “Don’t worry.  I’m not planning on getting rid of you.” I assured her.

 “Oh wow.  I can’t believe you actually have one of these.  How much did you pay for this?” she asked.  “Well, I helped my friend and his father out often at the father’s shop, so they got this for me as a fixer upper.  Then Jarod and Aaliyah did some amazing work to it.” I explained.  “Oh?  And who’s Aaliyah?  Jarod’s girlfriend?” she suggested as she stepped into Mila.  “Umm… No.  Aaliyah’s an extremely talented, young girl whom I babysit.” I explained as I started the car and headed out, grateful that the engine noises were activated.  “Seriously?  You make a girl work on cars when you babysit?  She’s gotta think you’re the worst babysitter ever.” claimed Elmira.  “I’d like to think she enjoys it.” I said defensively.  At least, Aaliyah always seemed to enjoy my company.  Considering the girl was far more intelligent than me as well as one of the most deadly people I knew, I felt claiming to truly understand her would be foolish at best.  “Yeah, because every little girl wants a car for her birthday.  Trust me, James.  Girls would rather be named a princess than a mechanic.” she argued.  “Her father does call her his ‘little princess’, and I call her that a fair amount as well.” I conceded.  “At least you got that part right.” she replied.

 Following Elmira’s directions, I drove us to a little burger joint that she claimed was “the best in town”.  I wondered if she would stick to that claim after eating any of Marco’s cooking.  A short wait later, I seriously doubted it.  The burgers were large, for certain, but that was the most exceptional part about them, not to say they were bad.  I enjoyed the food well enough, but I wasn’t going to place the joint on my top ten list.  The Intergalactic House of Awesome Sauce would definitely blow Elmira’s mind if she tried anything on the menu.  As we were walking out, Elmira bumped into a guy around our age, spilling his drink down the front of his shirt.  “What are you doing!?” he yelled, grabbing her arm.  “Let go of me before my boyfriend beats you up.” she replied.  Great.  “Take it outside, Mikey.” stated the man by the grill without even looking up.  “Yeah.  Take it outside and see what happens!” exclaimed Elmira, looking disturbingly excited.  “I’m terribly sorry about your shirt.  I’ll cover your meal for you.” I told him, not liking atmosphere any longer.  “And what’s that supposed to do for my shirt!?” demanded Mikey as he let go of Elmira’s arm.  “Absolutely nothing, but I’m sure a washing machine will work wonders.” I replied, handing him more than enough to cover his meal.

 He pocketed the money and nodded to us while looking at some guys in a nearby booth.  With a hand on her back, I started guiding Elmira out of the restaurant.  “Hey!  My friends want some food too.” called Mikey, walking up behind us.  Looking around us, the streets were mostly empty.  This part of town wasn’t as nice as that to which I was accustomed, even at my parents’.  I barely caught sight of Mikey’s fist in time to dodge back.  “Get in the car!” I called.  “We really don’t need to fight.  I paid for your lunch.  Your shirt can be cleaned.  Just let this be.” I told him.  I was glad that his friends weren’t messing with Elmira, but I still wished she’d just get into the car.  She was leaning against Mila, watching us with her hands over her mouth.  Mikey swung again, and I threw him to the side.  Two of the guys stepped closer while the third was trying to get behind me.  When the first of the two took a swing at me, I ducked under his arm and hit his side before sweeping his legs out from under him.  Then I hit him in the stomach and rolled backward onto my feet.  Mikey was back up and staring at me hard.  The two others that were up looked down at the one on the ground.  “Let’s go guys,” said Mikey after a moment.  I waited till they were all back in the restaurant before walking over to Elmira.

 “Are you some sort of ninja or something?  You kicked their ass!  Why didn’t you finish it?” she asked excitedly.  “Let’s go,” I said, stepping into the car.  “Or are you really Bond?  You know how his movies end, right?” she inquired, touching my arm.  “No, I’m not Bond.  I’m just annoyed.  Why did you tell them I’d beat them up?  There really was no reason to fight.” I told her, shrugging off her hand.  “He was wanting it!  I could totally see it in his eyes.” she claimed.  “That’s no reason to encourage it.” I told her.  “Oh, come on.  Those guys were nothing for you.  You’re like a giant, kung fu fighter!” she continued.  “That’s not the point, and you couldn’t have known that when you started it.  Was bumping into him even an accident?” I asked, feeling frustrated.  I was just going to drop her off.  This date was over.  “No.” she muttered.  “Wait.  What?  Seriously?  Why would you do that!?” I demanded.  “That jerk used to date a friend of mine, so I wanted to get a little payback for her.” she explained.  This date was definitely over.  She threw a fit when she realized where we were heading.  “You could at least take me home, since you have a car!” she claimed.  “Not interested in where you live.  Sorry, but this isn’t going to work out.”  I was worried that she wasn’t going to step out at first, but she did.  I was looking forward to gaming with Eseld tonight.  Real life was just too crazy.

  I was meeting Mona Sarila at The Frosty Museum, so named, supposedly, because museums are cool.  More likely, the museum once had another name but was renamed due to the overwhelming consensus that the staff were as warm-hearted as icebergs.  Nicknames had a way of sticking around.  At least, that was what I happened to be imagining when I realized a tall, slim girl was standing next to my bench.  She was wearing a deep blue, lace jacket over a white halter top with a blue skirt that matched the jacket.  I quickly stood and greeted her before telling her that she looked lovely, which earned me a smile.  She replied “Thank you, James.  You really don’t mind going through here with me, do you?  You mentioned that you had been here before.”  I nodded and said, “Oh, I have, but that was years ago.  I’m sure the exhibits are completely different now.  What would you like to see first?”  At her request, we simply headed left and started working our way around.  The first exhibit was on dinosaurs, and I immediately thought of the Sypher’s entryway.  I told Mona “A little girl whom I babysit actually has a dinosaur as a bench when you enter the condo.  Then there are little pterodactyls for coat hangers.”

 “That sounds highly impractical.  Her parents must have a unique sense of taste.” she replied, gazing up at the nearby t-rex skeleton.  “Well, I do agree the entire condo is unique, but though the decor was far from normal, everything seemed perfectly efficient.  For example, taking the slide downstairs is far faster without using as much energy.” I argued.  She shook her head and said, “I can’t imagine allowing a slide indoors.  That just seems like a disaster waiting to happen.”  I was already wishing I was on Ancient Tribes of Earth instead of on a date.  Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have time to play at all after this, since I was due for a hair appointment.  Aaliyah would surely take offense at Mona’s opinion of her home, and I could easily imagine the diminutive girl defending her condo while casually sabotaging Mona’s phone.  Even knowing Aaliyah to be part cybernetic, I couldn’t explain how she was able to hack into phones as she did at the mall.  “Don’t you think, James?” asked Mona.  I hadn’t been paying attention for the past several minutes, so I wasn’t entirely sure what she was asking.

 “Sorry, but I seem to have missed what you said.” I told her.  She sniffed and walked away, obviously irritated.  Perhaps this was another date I needed to end early.  Neither of us seemed to be enjoying the other’s company, or so I thought before Mona grabbed onto my arm as I caught up. She told me  “Look at this video of baby dinosaurs.  Don’t you think tiny things are far more adorable?  I wish there was some creature that could remain tiny and cute forever.”  I nodded, thinking of how, only minutes ago, Mona insulted the home of a girl who very well might remain tiny and cute forever.  Once again I found myself realizing how there was absolutely no way to explain my secretary well and have any reasonable person believe me without meeting her.  Mona then went onto say with a sigh, “I sometimes wish I was shorter.  My dad obviously wanted me to remain little forever.  My name means ‘little noble one’ in English, but it also means ‘wish’ and ‘desire’ in Arabic.  If I could have remained smaller, maybe… maybe…”  Her voice cracked and she stopped speaking for a moment.  Dating really seemed like walking a field of landmines at times.

 I sighed, which caused Mona to apologize, but I really didn’t feel like explaining that I sighed because I was thinking of another girl.  Alma.  Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V once again popped into my head unbidden.  I didn’t feel like dating her would resemble a minefield at all, more like hugging a human-shaped, armed bomb while knowing the danger.  Unlike a bomb, Alma did seem to have control over her detonation for the most part.  As Emma pointed out, the city wasn’t gone.  When Alma danced, I felt so alive next to her.  Strangely happy.  Coming back to the moment, I realized that Mona was excited over the next exhibit, which showcased Egyptian artifacts found in the tombs of various less known pharaohs.  I took a couple pictures with her phone of her posing next to several of the artifacts, which seemed to delight her.  Then she insisted on taking one with me, unfortunately.  I never wanted to be anyone’s bad memory, but I really wasn’t seeing us getting anywhere when she was so quick to judge Aaliyah’s home.  Well, that was the reason I tried telling myself, despite Alma lingering in my mind.  I COULD find a girl who wasn’t so… words like “beautiful” and “graceful passed through my mind, but I rejected them for “controlling” once again.

 By the time we reached the second floor and were looking through the gem collection, I had already rehearsed several different ways to make my escape, but I couldn’t abandon someone who looked at me with such hope in her eyes.  Mona needed someone to listen to her, at which I was largely failing.  I did my best as she talked about which were her favorites, but our tastes weren’t even close to matching.  Then we watched an hour movie which briefly told the history of the museum.  I truly could appreciate the value of the building, but the current date’s compatibility with me wasn’t on par.  We continued through several other exhibitions before I noticed the time.  How did we already spend three hours in here?  Granted that the movie took an hour, but the other two passed surprisingly quickly considering the little enjoyment I had.  “I’m terribly sorry, Mona, but I’m going to be late for an appointment if I don’t leave.” I confessed.  She took hold of my hand in two of hers and said, “Please, don’t go.”  She looked to be on the brink of tears.  “Well, I suppose I can go through another with you, but I truly can’t stay too long.” I replied.  She clung to my arm as we looked at the history of some Native American tribes.  

 “My dad left a few years ago.  He wanted his ‘little noble one’… a little princess, really, but I… I grew up.” stated Mona out of the blue.  “I can’t imagine a father leaving his daughter just because she aged.  Don’t blame yourself for his faults.” I told her.  She shoved my arm at me and yelled “THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH MY FATHER!”  The poor, poor girl.  “I’m sorry to have offended you, but I’m questioning your reasoning here.  Something happened to cause your father to leave, whether he could control it or not, but he should have explained in a note if he couldn’t in person.  Whatever reason he had for reasoning, I don’t believe he left just because you grew up.  You’re a tall, beautiful girl who has many talents from what I gleaned from your profile.  Your mother must be proud.” I told her.  She shook her head and said, “She’s dead.  Father left.  My aunt died years after.  Now you’re leaving.”  I could see why someone wouldn’t display such loss on their profile, but why was she feeling so attached to me!?  We just met and could hardly say we knew one another.  I wanted to help her.  I truly did, but if I tried to comfort her, would she become more attached?  There was no way I could become what she wanted.  I knew no spell to make her troubles disappear.

 “I obviously don’t have a daughter and probably shouldn’t mention this, but I recently was reminded by an acquaintance that every girl’s a princess in their father’s eyes.  Whatever happened wasn’t your fault, and I hope you can come to terms with that in time.  I’m sorry, but I need to leave.  I’m not leaving because anything is wrong with you, per se, but I really don’t see us dating.  There hasn’t been much of anything we’ve actually agreed upon this whole date.” I confessed.  To my surprise, she hugged me, tears rolling onto my shoulder.  “But I like you, James.  I really do.  I don’t know why, but do I need a reason?” she whispered.  I gently patted her back and told her “Yes, you do.  Not for me, but for yourself.  Just acting on impulse can lead to many unpleasant places.  I really wish you the best of luck.”  Mona wasn’t letting go, so I gently pried her off me.  I felt horrible, but I didn’t know any way to save her.  If I brought such a girl into my life, how would she survive the horrors I face?  If she knew of werewolves, she might just decide one killed her father and tried to take revenge.  Even if one had, a quest for vengeance wasn’t a better life for her.  Could I really date a girl without magic knowing that my use of magic might put her in danger?

 With a heavy heart, I let Mila drive me home, the image of Mona standing with her head down haunting me.  As Aaliyah cut my hair, she sang to me.  The music might as well have been magic with how my worries eased and soul found peace.  The tiny, tiny girl who was so proud to be twelve worked miracles compared to me and probably would have handled the situation with Mona better, even if her solution was cake.  Despite the worries and pain my life as a best friend for hire brought me, I was extremely fortunate in my friends and family.  My friendships here were fairly young, but I could feel how strong many of the bonds were.  Well, Jarod’s was old now.  I needed to make up with the twins.  Both of my parents lived and loved me, which was more rare and precious than I often realized.  Aaliyah grinned as she held up the mirror for me to see my reflection.  My hair looked perfect, for lack of a better word.  I was thinking of canceling my second date today to play Ancient Tribes of Earth with everyone, especially Eseld.  Then Aaliyah said, “Your date tonight’s going to be soooo happy when she gets to look at you!  You look wonderful, boss-man, sir.  Tell me how it goes!”  My little secretary could have easily hacked into my dating profile if I hadn’t made her help with it in the first place.  Of course, she knew.  I could survive one more date.

  Having Emma attend training with Brandon and Brenna was a bit of surprise, but I reminded myself that she was an employee now.  Demonstrating positioning was far easier with her help, since she truly was very adept, unless compared with the twins.  Brenna was improving well, and she seemed to appreciate another girl in the room.  At least, she seemed more focus with Emma than when I was trying to help.  Brandon was still, well, Brandon.  Some days he was giving training his all.  Other days, like today, he let himself be distracted.  I had to admit that Emma in spandex would distract most anyone with a heartbeat.  My own wavering focus proved that plenty well.  Brenna, thankfully, practiced in less revealing clothing, or I probably wouldn’t have made as much progress with her in martial arts or magic.  Brandon actually hung around to “watch” when the magic lessons began, though I was fairly certain he was simply there to watch Emma.  Again, I couldn’t blame him.  I felt a bit odd teaching Emma magic, having been her pupil only months before, but I truly surpassed her knowledge already in some areas.

 I was demonstrating a technique to separate the heat of a flame from the light when Alma entered the room with the twins.  I almost said something before remembering we were in the East Wing.  The twins obviously wouldn’t ban Alma from their wing.  I carefully finished my demonstration and started emphasizing how the separation of light and heat could throw off an opponent’s defense.  When a transparent field separated the room into two sections, I trailed off.  If not for a faint shimmering, I wouldn’t have noticed the field at all.  With slow, precise movements, Alma, Ai, and Mai started fighting one another.  Ai and Mai were inhumanly graceful, and their attacks seemed perfectly synchronized with one another, but Alma, seeming to move at the exact same speed, always managed to weave her body around theirs, tripping or striking them.  Alma’s fighting was very unorthodox, but I saw how effective it could be if a person could apply enough strength and balance.  There was good reason that a normal person never tried such techniques.  Mai grabbed Alma’s hair at one point, and was sliding off the field the next moment.  

 The superb control and balance demonstrated by the three was breathtaking to watch as they seemed to dance around in slow motion.  The form-fitting, black bodysuit Alma wore had my head straining not to wonder what was beneath it.  When spells were added to the bizarre show, things became even more surreal to watch, though I realized Brandon would be missing that aspect.  He still wasn’t able to see residual energy, and Alma was obviously causing the spells to dissipate before they could strike.  For me, there was continuously moving pinpoints of light that coalesced into spells before being torn apart.  Though their physical motion was slow, the spells energy flowed rapidly around the three, which was why I felt certain that Alma dispersed them.  The twins seemed to be throwing all they had at her.  I missed some queue that caused the three to move faster.  For a brief moment, I was able to still follow their movements.  Then there was naught but blurs of bodies mingling with the endless spells.  I would have stayed watching far longer if my phone didn’t signal my need to leave.

 After excusing myself, I hurried to shower and change for my job, running a number of errands for Mrs. Baker.  She was getting up in years and had difficulty getting around these days; precisely someone that needed a best friend.  Though I felt bad about accepting pay at times, I always felt great when I was able to help someone who truly needed it.  Beyond tending to her yard, I took Mrs. Baker shopping, replaced bad hinges on a door, mounted brackets for a curtain rod, and few other odd jobs.  She offered to cook me food when I finished, but I declined on account of needing to clean up before my date.  Between Sarit not being over her ex yet and Nakita… being herself, I felt that today’s date couldn’t possibly be any worse, giving me a certain degree of optimism that this one would be fantastic.  I wasn’t going to let the fact that I was seeing a movie outside of my own theater once again bother me.  There were just too many reasons not to bring any girl home without getting to know her well first.

 A. Rivers ― she didn’t provide her first name on her profile or in her email ― was a college girl majoring in marine biology.  She loved action movies, some video games, and looked to be very athletic, despite not listing whatever form of exercise she did.  With my stomach growling, I was wishing we planned to eat before, instead of after, the move.  As I waited, I was quite tempted to go ahead and order refreshments, but I really didn’t want to greet her with butter-covered fingers.  Besides, she might like if I were to buy her ticket as well.  “Gotcha!” yelled a voice as I was tickled from behind.  I fought the urge to strike behind me and swirled to find my date grinning at me.  “Ever consider surprising someone like that could be dangerous?” I asked.  She smiled up at me and replied “Are you dangerous, James?”  I rolled my eyes, and said, “Sorry, but I’m mostly harmless.”  She laughed and told me “Like that one movie with the depressed robot!  I loved that!”  A girl who recognized a Hitchhiker’s Guide reference definitely earned points in my book.  I smiled at her, but confessed “I’m afraid that I don’t know what to call you.”  She shrugged and said with a wink, “‘Rivers’ is fine.  It’s like ‘River Tam’, but with a little extra that way.”

 “As you wish, Rivers.” I told her as I followed her to get tickets.  “Two for The Expendables 2.” she told the man.  As I pulled out my wallet, she pushed my hand back and said, “Sorry, honey, but these are on me.”  I shrugged and thanked her.  Rivers was really piquing my interest so far.  I really wasn’t expecting her to make a Sci-Fi reference of her own and most of my dates hadn’t been interested in paying for anything.  When we arrived at concessions, I ordered some popcorn, nachos, and a cola, explaining “I’m a bit famished, having missed lunch.  Mind if I get yours too?”  She grinned and said, “Only if you share some of that.  Don’t really need anything else.”  I agreed, and we went into the theater.  The movie was entertaining in every way one would expect after seeing the last one.  There was plenty of gunfire and dead bad guys, but Chuck Norris made the movie in my eyes with his cameo.  I was, unfortunately, a bit distracted off and on by the smell of beer beside me.  Rivers snuck a few drinks in her purse and was surprised when I declined having one.  After the movie, she asked “You aren’t against drinking, are you?”  I shrugged and told her “I’m underaged and not experienced with it.  Plus, one of us has to be able to drive to the restaurant.”  She laughed and suggested we take her car.  

 After Rivers second beer at the restaurant, she explained with a slight slur “You wanna know why I tell people call me ‘Rivers’?  My parents are jerks.  My name’s ‘Abundantia Callirhoe Rivers’.”  I didn’t see the problem until she went onto say, “Sure, they sound fine, but you should see the spelling on paper.  kal-IR-oh-ee is spelled with a ‘hoe’ in it.  No girl wants that!  Then my first name looksh like ‘abundant’.  For real!”  I mouthed “oh”, feeling uncertain what to say.  Then I went ahead and told her “They do sound pretty enough though.”  She shook her head and said, “Nah.  I don’t like them.  I wanna to be named ‘Anashtashia’ or ‘Ishabelle’.  Shomething that shounds like a princessh, not ‘aaah-booon-DAHN-tsee-ah’.  No one’s going to look at my name and even pronounce it halfway right.”  She continued her rant through her third and fourth beer, leaving me greatly disillusioned about how much I would enjoy dating her.  I spent far too much of the meal thinking about how Alma looked today.  By the time I was finished eating, Abundantia wasn’t in any shape to do anything but rest.  I wasn’t certain what to do as I walked her outside and over to her car.  

 “Lemme drive.” she said, worrying me more as she reached for the keys.  “Umm… no.  I think we’ll both be better off if you let me drive you.  Where do you live?” I asked.  She laughed and told me “Can’t take guy home on first date, mishter.  Niesh try.”  I sighed and replied “Sorry, but I don’t really want to leave you alone in your state.  Can I see your license?”  She hugged her purse and said, “No.  Bad picture.”  After a little begging, I managed to convince her to let me see it.  Unfortunately, the address on it was for her home two states away, not her apartment.  She was halfway asleep, drooling into my shoulder before I got her to tell me where she lived.  On the way there, she kept telling me that she was “too hot” while trying to remove her shirt, but I managed to pin her arms without swerving too much.  Her building’s parking lot just needed a tag, so I wasn’t too worried about where to park.  I still took a picture of where I put her car and texted it to her, which got her trying to unlock her phone while I carried her upstairs.  I panicked more when she told me “I don’t feel good.” on the way up.  A little fortune was with me when I managed to get her into the restroom before she lost her lunch.  I held her hair back for her while vowing never to be around binge drinking again.

 After cleaning the vomit off her face, getting her some water, and getting her to bed, I hurried out and sent Mila a message to get me.  I was so very grateful for a self-driving car.  As Mila took me home, she brought up new notifications from the dating site, which I wasn’t entirely interested in seeing after tonight.  With a bit of urging, she managed to convince me to look, claiming that I was due a good date any time.  She did proclaim that none could possibly be as good as the one I owed her though.  Most of the messages were deleted before I even read through the whole thing.  Out of the few that led me to read their profile, only two really stood out as good possibilities though.  I replied to both from the car, and then gave myself a couple hours of Ancient Tribes of Earth with Eseld to improve my night.  If only I could meet a girl in my area more like her, I would be able to go without thinking about Alma more easily.  As much as I was annoyed by the intrusion, I still couldn’t get the sight of Alma practicing with Ai and Mai out of my head.  How was I going to find someone else who could move with such grace?  If not for Eseld’s company, I probably would have given up on dating already.  Dating was just too hard.

  My brain felt fried after nearly four hours of studying, but I would still be at it if Mila hadn’t interrupted to point out the time.  I was very grateful for the break as well as for being able to meet Nakita Yara on time.  She looked great in a black and grey striped dress that went halfway down her thighs.  Black socks stretched almost high enough to meet the dress, and grey, open-toed heels matched the dress perfectly.  Her blonde hair was parted on one side and slightly windblown, which looked great to me.  I quickly banished the thought of Alma’s exceptionally long, auburn hair blowing in the wind, and greeted Nakita, saying, “Hi.  How are you?”  She smiled, and replied “I’m, like, so excited today.  Everything’s gone completely perfect.  So there was a problem with a couple of my girlfriends last night where these creepy creeps were bugging them at this club, right?  Well, my place was nearby, so they hid out there and ended up staying over.  I woke up in a panic, thinking they might need consoled or something, and I really didn’t want to miss our date.  Well, they actually made me breakfast this morning, and it was soooo super good.”

 I opened my mouth to tell her that I was happy her morning went well and ask if she was ready, but she didn’t even stop for a breath before saying, “They were in a great mood, so the ice cream last night really did help them, which made me feel like a great friend, since, ya know, I was able to help my friends and all.  Then, like, they helped me pick out an outfit after seeing your profile and told me that I must get going to meet you.  Jessica, like my BFF forever” ― That was a bit redundant. ― “did my nails for me while Tess helped with my makeup.  Do you like it?”  I said, “Yes”, but she talked right over it, continuing with “Tess is just sooo good with this sort of stuff, which would make me super jealous if she wasn’t already super jealous over me getting to go on a date with you.  Aren’t they, like, the best!?”  I started saying that they sound wonderful, but she didn’t pause.  Since she was gripping my arm, I just started walking down to the river where I had planned on us taking a stroll to talk a bit.  As I walked, I patiently waited for a moment to come where I might participate in the conversation.  Nakita seemed perfectly content in her rambling, so she probably felt our date was going well.  

 “Which reminds me of this one time I was jogging, because, ya know, I like to jog, and this duck was floating along and one of my friends mistook it for a swan.  Then I was all like, ‘If that’s a swan, I’m the swan princess.’, which made them giggle.  One of them claimed that the swan princess died, which was, like, super creepy.”  I nodded and said, “She does die.”  In the pause that followed, I was shocked to find Nakita without comment.  Her lips were moving for a bit before she said, “But that’s so sad! Like really, really sad.”  I then explained to her “She comes back to life when Rothbart is slain, so don’t worry.”  Nakita then replied “But I don’t want to be a zombie princess!  They’re like smelly and gross.  You’re not one of those zombie freaks that goes preparing for zombie invasions and stuff are you?  I, like, don’t think I could handle that.  I mean, like, the guns and stuff are kinda sexy, but I don’t want a bomb shelter for a basement or anything.”  As she continued listing off pluses and minuses for “zombie freaks”, I was rather impressed that she knew that much about zombie stories.  She talked about the different types of zombies and how each was gross before eventually circling back to how she really, really couldn’t date a “zombie freak”.

 While she rambled, we managed to arrive at “Pete’s Perfect Pie”, a local pizza joint that had great reviews.  I was excited to try the food there and thought Nakita would enjoy it as well, since she listed pizza as one of the “best foods ever” on her profile.  Thinking back on the profile, there truly were hints in it regarding her personality.  Perhaps I needed to read more carefully before accepting dates.  After we were seated with drinks, I managed to say, “By the way, Odette comes back fully alive, not as a zombie.”  Throughout dinner, Nakita expounded on her relief over Odette’s full recovery and on how I made her day by clearing that up, since she would have had “horrible zombie nightmares” if I hadn’t.  Throughout her rant, I wondered if I should mention that in “Swan Lake”, both the prince and princess die.  At the start, I was under the impression that she was referring to “The Swan Princess”, which tells a slightly different story.  On one hand, I didn’t truly wish to mislead her, especially with how she might be talking about this later.  On the other, I wasn’t certain I was up for her distress over the couple dying.

 The deep dish pizza was superb, filling my nose with its spicy aroma as I devoured the savory slice.  I was tempted to have another slice, but Nakita ate so little that I worried over her thinking me a pig if I did.  I never worried over my image too much when I was in high school, but now I needed to always have a good image for my company’s sake.  I didn’t want a bad date to reflect poorly on how people saw my employees, and there was no way Nakita wouldn’t be talking.  “Like, is something wrong?  You seem to be, like, lost in thought or something.” she stated, as if on queue.  I was both shocked and grateful when she waited for a response this time.  “No-no.  Sorry to worry you.  I get lost in my own head at times.  My mother blames it on my father when she catches me at it.” I told her.  Then she was off again, saying, “Oh.  Do you, like, still live with your parents?  I still visit mine, but they’re paying for me to have an apartment closer to my school, since I, like, would never make it otherwise.  Traffic is so horrible in the morning, and I really, like, don’t know how people manage to get up early enough to beat it.”

 I covered our meal and started walking back along the river with Nakita, the golden glow of the sun reflecting beautifully across the water as it grew closer to setting.  The entire way was spent listening to Nakita explain how she felt about every last member of her family, how she felt about their pets, and how most of them needed “serious help with their wardrobe.”  I did understand how choosing clothing that complimented one’s figure was difficult for some, but I wasn’t nearly as proactive about changing it as Nakita seemed.  I preferred the idea of enjoying the best of people without forcefully trying to change them.  Thinking yet again about what Alma did to me, I wondered if she was attempting to change me with her actions or if she truly was attempting to teach me.  Was I too harsh on her?  Would the point have stuck if I wasn’t harsh?  Did the point even stick?  I looked around to try spotting her, wondering if she followed me once again, but I didn’t see her anywhere.  What if, after following me on so many dates, Alma truly gave up on me?  I wasn’t happy about her behavior in general, but I did want to see the girl again, despite her actions.  I thought Eseld would know what to do, but I didn’t really want to talk about girl troubles with her.  The sense of relief I felt parting from Nakita would be enough for now, especially if Eseld was online when I returned home.  Things could work out still.

  My job this morning was over far too quickly, leaving me ample time to get nervous.  Once again, I was meeting two girls in the same day for dates, both of which were only available today.  The first, Sarit Aysu, wasn’t interested in video games, unfortunately, but she seemed like a well cultured girl, of which my parents would definitely approve.  Mother, at very least, seemed to worry about such things.  Some of Regina’s best paintings were inspired by her travels.  I shivered, remembering that mother was probably working on a portrait of Alma and me.  The sooner I managed to find a decent girlfriend, the sooner Alma would leave me alone, or so I hoped.  Sarit.  I needed to keep my mind on the date, so as not to disappoint her.  At twenty-two, Sarit had already traveled to numerous countries and acquired a taste for fine wines.  She was also a fine poet, judging from the awards she mentioned winning in her profile.  We shared similar tastes in music, and she seemed fit enough that she must exercise regularly.  I could easily imagine going on a morning jog with her, and…  obviously not practicing magic together.  Was I going to hide that part of myself if I started dating?

 Sarit walked into view and started looking around.  Okay, I needed to forget about magic and focus on the date.  What would I do if the date went well though?  Would I need to call Nakita and cancel my date with her?  The first date was by far the scariest in that respect, but I went ahead and waved at Sarit, not wanting to leave her looking for me.  I smiled and stood as she approached, holding out my hand and saying, “Hi.  I’m James.”  She smiled back, shook my hand, and responded “Nice to meet you, James.  I hope the restaurant is to your liking.”  I nodded and told her “I’ve never been here before, but I do enjoy Thai.”  She smiled but didn’t get a chance to say anything more before the waiter came over, handed us the menus, and took our drink orders.  I nervously wondered if I should have gotten her chair.  I knew that some girls find such things too old fashioned, but she seemed like the type that might enjoy it.  Sarit started suggesting appetizers, all of which sounded delicious to me, but I chose the curry puffs, not wanting to come across as too indecisive.  I wasn’t trying to decide between her and another girl… yet.  I felt guilty.  Was I supposed to tell girls when I scheduled multiple dates in a day?  “Sorry, but we’re on a tight schedule.  I need to meet someone else after this.” surely wouldn’t go over well.  

 I finally decided on what to order, but when I set down my menu, I was faced with a tear rolling down Sarit’s cheek.  “Are you alright?” I asked, trying to figure out how I might have inadvertently offended her.  “Huh?” she asked, looking confused.  “Umm…  you’re crying.” I replied.  She felt her cheek and looked a bit shocked, but I noticed her eyes seemed sad when she was brushing away the tear.  “Sorry to mention it, but I was worried that I upset you somehow.” I confessed.  She smiled at me with somewhat watery eyes and said, “You’re wonderful, James.  Please don’t worry.  I probably just got some makeup in my eye when I was rushing to get ready.”  I nodded, not fully believing that was the case.  Something felt off to me, but I wasn’t entirely certain what.  “I love your name, by the way.  I’ve never met another person with it.” I confided, hoping to cheer her up with a compliment.  “Thank you.  I’m quite fond of it myself.  When I was born, father looked at me and called me his ‘little princess’.  My mother, who is fluent in Hebrew, suggested naming me ‘Sarit’, since it means ‘princess’.  I… I always liked it.” she explained.  

 Sarit seemed to be getting more teary-eyed as she spoke, and I had no clue why.  I really couldn’t think of anything I had done to make her upset, so maybe something happened before she arrived.  What though?  I didn’t want to pry too much, but something was obviously bothering her.  Not knowing what else to say, I said, “I was named after my father.  I’m still occasionally surprised that mother allowed him to continue the tradition of passing along the name, but my parents do get along very well together.”  Sarit had more tears on her cheeks.  Our waiter, Nick, returned with our drinks while I was still floundering for something that might improve Sarit’s mood.  The curry puffs arrived not long after, with us sitting in silence, other than her occasional sobs.  Nick appeared to be having a worse opinion of me with every time he checked on us.  I really was trying to be a decent date, but I knew no way of cheering the girl up without having a clue what was wrong.  I wondered if Aaliyah could write a training manual for how to handle crying girls in situations like this, but I reminded myself that she was twelve and probably didn’t have any experience in this area.  She’d probably just suggest cake, and I really doubted that offering cake would help.

 I bit into one of the curry puffs and enjoyed the fabulous sensation of the spicy, thick curry mixing with the soft crust.  The food here truly was excellent, making me wonder if Marco ever tried his hand at Thai.  If not, there was always a chance that Aaliyah, Ai, or Mai had.  “I knew you would like those.  Buzz loves them as well.” stated Sarit through her tears.  “Who is Buzz?” I asked, halfway worried that I shouldn’t.  “My boyfriend.” she cried.  “Wait.  You have a boyfriend?” I inquired.  She nodded, then shook her head negatively, and said, “He… he… he broke up with me!”  I mouthed the word “oh” and sat in shock for a moment.  “How long ago was this?” I wondered aloud.  “La-last week.  He said he loves me bu-but needed time apart.” she whined.  I shamefully was relieved that Nick walked by again, since he seemed to realize I wasn’t the one at fault.  That relief was tinged with guilt though, not feeling Sarit was in a state to be out.  “Thi-this was whe-where he too-took me on our first da-date.  He ordered th-the curry puffs just like ya-you.” she bawled, earning long looks from fellow patrons.  What had Sarit been thinking when she chose this place?  I stopped Nick, handed him money for the food, and told him to keep the change.  Then I helped Sarit up and asked her to take a walk with me.

 We walked over to a small park I had spotted on the way to the restaurant, found a bench, and talked for a while about her relationship.  Buzz turned out to be a bit of a nerd like myself, enjoying video games, fantasy novels, and various trading card games.  That was what drew Sarit to my profile.  I did my best consoling her as she explained her view on what happened between them, but I couldn’t resist pointing out things that seemed a bit off.  Surprisingly, she didn’t seem to mind and ended up thanking me in the end.  “You’re such a sweet guy, James.  Mind trying again sometime?” she asked.  “Give yourself time to sort out your feelings first.  Who knows… maybe Buzz will realize what a wonderful girl he’s losing.” I said.  They really did sound like they cared about one another.  From what she said, I felt Buzz needed to be more expressive about his feelings, and she needed to be more understanding that he wasn’t good at expressing himself.  After walking Sarit to her bus, I called Mila to pick me up.  I still had over four hours till my next date, but I didn’t feel like going home, especially when Mila informed me that Eseld wasn’t on Ancient Tribes of Earth.  I decided to go to a park and run through more courses using Mila’s interface.  I really needed to be more proactive with my studies if I was going to keep up with my friends.  Life was always flying along.

  “Hi!  Sorry if I kept you waiting,” I said to the beautiful redhead who stood when I approached her bench in the park.  Meeting someone so close to home seemed a bit dangerous to me, despite ample evidence that Alma was well aware of my dates.  Shannon Assan might have seen my name on the estate’s entrance, considering that she suggested the park across the street, but I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt.  I guiltily wished that her hair was closer in color to Brenna’s, but that was mostly because the actual color nearly matched Brandon’s.  Thinking of him on a date was almost worse than thinking of Alma.  “Is something wrong?” asked Shannon as she brushed some hair back from her face.  Why did all my thoughts lead back to Alma?  “No.  Sorry.  Care to take a walk before heading out, or should I show you to my car?”  I asked.  Shannon giggled and said, “Umm…  a walk or a walk… I’ll take the second!”  I supposed my wording could have been a bit better, but I replied “Excellent choice!  I was quite concerned that you might choose the walk, which would have forced me to make a swift exit.  I simply can’t abide by people who choose that one.”

 She laughed and replied “Me neither.  Those type of walkers always trip me up.”  In her profile, Shannon did mention she was a bit of a klutz, so she probably was being halfway serious on the last part.  I was more than a little surprised she immediately proved the case by tripping over the slightly uneven sidewalk and grabbing my arm for support.  “Sorry!  Sorry!” she said as she regained her balance.  A twig and even the air caught her before we reached Mila, both earning more apologies.  I helped her into the car, scared of what she might injure if I did not.  Mila was in her analog mode, so there wasn’t anything too flashy distracting us as I drove.  I was still amused by how accustomed I was already to letting Mila drive for me.  If I wasn’t more careful, I easily could become quite the lazy man.  Father would disown me for certain.  “Huh?  What did I miss?” asked Shannon, causing me to apologize and admit that something funny just occurred to me.  “Oh.  Well, you have quite the unique car here, James.  I’ve never known anyone who drove something so… classic.” she told me, glancing at the various gauges as she spoke.

 I smiled and told her “A friend’s father owns his own shop, and they got this for me as a present.  I helped out at the shop in my free time fairly regularly, so they went overboard in repaying me.”  She nodded and asked, “How’s the sound system?”  I switched on the radio while saying, “I’m sure we can find something you like on here.  You like classics, right?”  I was so accustomed to Mila bringing up whatever I wanted that I felt extremely out of touch with the radio, especially the analog version.  Thankfully, she made sure the right music was playing when I stopped turning the knob.  Shannon was obviously enjoying it, only singing a little off-key and not bothering to ask why there was never any interruption to the music.  She did mention how lucky she felt with so many of her favorites playing, but I didn’t bother telling her that Mila probably created the playlist after scanning every social media site Shannon used.  Without any awkward realizations, we arrived safely Morris Pier, which was Shannon’s choice for our miniature golf match.

 From Shannon’s first swing, I could tell that her coordination was exceptionally poor, but I didn’t refuse her when she asked for help.  I started off attempting to demonstrate what made a good swing, demonstrating the posture, the arc of the swing, and the proper time to strike the ball.  Father taught me golf, though my interest never matched his enthusiasm.  With demonstration failing, I attempted to help guide the putter in her hands, stepping behind her and placing my hands over hers.  Having long arms truly was useful at times outside of fighting.  When I started stepping back, I found myself barely dodging the putter as Shannon took an overly wide swing.  “Whoa there.  This isn’t a driving range.” I told her.  “Well, yeah.  We don’t have golf carts.” she replied.  “Umm… Driving ranges are for practicing your long range in golf.” I explained.  With obvious shock, she said, “Seriously!?  My cousin lied to me!  He told me that they were for cruising around in the carts and picking up balls.”  Maybe her cousin worked at a golf club instead of participating, but I was still surprised that she believed such a thing.  “Well, ignore what he said and try your swing again without nearly clubbing me.” I told her, stopping the putter with my foot when she went to swing too far again.

 “Let’s try this,” I said, facing off with her, so I was swinging backwards.  “Just follow my swing.  Gently and easily.  No need to strike anyone behind you.” I told her, only to step back a moment later when she turned to look, slipped on her ball, and nearly hit me again.  “Are you sure you want to do golf?” I asked.  Blushing, she said, “We don’t have to…  Sorry.”  I rolled my eyes and told her “Don’t worry.  Just be careful.”  Many people passed us as we slowly progressed through the course.  I barely managed to catch her when she managed to trip on the little bridge, almost falling into the water below.  When we reached the tougher spots, I ended up doing them for her after she took a few tries.  Surprisingly, she seemed to be having fun, despite the bruises she earned when I wasn’t near enough to stop her from falling.  I had to wonder at how the girl managed to survive this long.  After we finally finished the course, we walked into the pier’s seafood joint and ate some pretty decent fish while talking over our favorite movies.  Shannon loved children’s movies with her favorite being “A Little Princess”, which I remembered vaguely.  I never realized the movie was based off a book until Shannon told me, but I was more surprised that she never read it, despite loving the movie.

 I was quite well aware that most people didn’t read nearly as much as my father, but I would be very interested in the book if I found a favorite movie based off one.  Father proved quite well that the books generally had far more engrossing stories than even the movies that portrayed them well.  I easily imagined him hearing Shannon say that and going on about how she must read the book.  Despite the books age, I wouldn’t be surprised if he read it at some point.  I guiltily wondered at how many books Alma had read so far.  Ai and Mai collectively had a very large library, mostly containing books pertaining to their family.  I never even set foot in Alma’s wing before banishing her from my part of the house.  The west wing was the largest of them and was bound to be as exquisitely furnished as the rest.  Did Alma have a pool?  I had difficulty picturing her swimming.  Even when I saw her in the club, she was quite well covered.  I was always surprised at how easily many girls stayed cool even when I was sweating.  What if Alma was planning to swim when she found Emma and I there?

 “James?  You’re blushing.” stated Shannon.  “I’m so sorry.  I spaced off for a moment.” I told her.  We talked a little more until our bill arrived, and I covered it despite her protests.  Shannon worked as a cashier, a nice, stationary job that kept her from falling over, but I was certain to have less money troubles and was considering ending the date early.  There was a theater at the pier, but paying to see one when I was already paying to have them play in my private theater seemed ridiculous.  There were some rides, but riding a Ferris wheel would probably just have me thinking too much of Raine.  I never met anyone quite so timid before.  Even worse, I started thinking of how Alma would like staring out at the lake from a Ferris wheel, the dying light bringing out the red in her hair.  I suggested that we head out, and Shannon didn’t protest, though I worried that I hurt her feelings.  She was singing along with the music again when we were in the car, so my worry subsided some.  We said our goodbyes in the park, and I walked home, texting Mila to send her that way as well.  I wondered throughout the walk whether or not Alma was watching today, and I worried over how my heart behaved when I thought about her giving up on me.  There must be some girl who could compete with her.

  Surprisingly early Sunday morning, I found myself pacing around the pond, wondering what I was supposed to do with Alma.  I accepted a date for later today shortly after waking up, but I started wondering whether or not I was really ready for another one.  I was talking aloud in frustration, which got Mila responding quickly about how my date with her would be far better.  Coming out here for a bit seemed like the best way to have time alone.  The pond was a comforting place where I could easily forget about time as I sat in the shade and watched the water.  Regina’s statue was here, an amazing replica which seemed almost lifelike in expression and in folds of the fabric protecting her figure.  What would Regina have thought of Alma?  Even she didn’t go so far in her pursuit of me.  Even she wasn’t so distractingly gorgeous. The thought pained me, as if I was betraying Regina in some way with it, but I couldn’t deny the truth of it.  Regina was a very beautiful, talented girl who had incredible potential.  Alma was… extremely accomplished and devastatingly intelligent.  Part of me wanted to know her better.  Perhaps I would forget her faster if I knew her weaknesses.  There was no way I could simply walk up to her and say, “Hey!  So what are you bad at doing?”

 With the image of her dancing, her hair wrapping around her, in my head, I was having great difficulty believing she truly was bad at anything.  I never knew anyone to dance in such a way before.  Did she use magic on me?  Was that why I couldn’t get her out of my head?  How she moved was hypnotic and enticing, but I… How long did I dance with her?  I would probably remember the way her lips parted into such a perfect smile until the day I died.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely certain she wouldn’t be the one putting me in my grave.  She followed me on at least two dates already.  Was she jealous?  I felt like checking on them and making sure they were alright, but I didn’t want to risk them getting the wrong idea either.  Neither date went very well.  Alma wouldn’t really kill a girl for going on a bad date with me, right?  I wasn’t certain at all.  The girl’s influence seemed to have global reach, so was there really a limit to how far she was willing to take things?  What all was she capable of covering up?  Giving in to her wasn’t going to save me if she was that psychotic.  

 “Hey, man-slave!” called Emma as she walked up to me.  I averted my eyes, not wanting to admire how amazing she looked in her red bikini for too long.  Unwanted thoughts formed when I wasn’t careful, and I needed a clear head to sort through my troubles.  “Hi, Emma.  Felt like a swim?” I asked.  “Nah.  Was going to strip down and sun tan for a bit.  Care to join me?” she inquired.  “Wha-wha-what!?” I asked, staring at her in shock.  She fell to the ground laughing and holding her stomach.  She really got me with that one.  I moved over her, started tickling her, and said, “That’s not funny!”  Still laughing, she replied “It’s a little funny.”  She gazed into my eyes, and I suddenly realized how close I was to her.  She kissed me before I managed to convince myself to move away.  The feeling was wonderful, but somehow wrong.  Then there was a smell nearby of something burning, which made me pull back and look around, but I didn’t see the source of the smell.  “Do you smell that?” I asked Emma.  “Don’t worry about it.  Alma was being a snoop and lost her cool a little.  I already fixed the poor bush.” she replied, still smiling.  I never before realized that Emma was as insane as she was beautiful.

 “She set something on fire, and you call that losing her cool a little?” I inquired.  Emma shrugged and said, “We’re still alive, and the city didn’t disappear.  I’d say part of a bush is definitely a little.  The world is lucky she has as much control as she does.”  I looked at her incredulously for a moment before thinking about what I saw when fighting Alma.  “Do you think she could really wipe out a city?” I asked.  Emma’s casual nod made the idea all the more disturbing.  “She won’t, James.  Relax.  Alma would never purposely hurt you.  She won’t hurt me for kissing you.  She doesn’t kill anyone without cause, and she promised me that dating you wasn’t actual cause.” explained Emma.  “You wanted to date me?” I asked.  With a smile, Emma said, “You can be really thick, man-slave.  Ai and Mai are interested as well, although I think they’ve pretty much given up.”  I felt so confused.  “Why are you telling me this now?  Did Alma put you up to this as some strange gambit?” I asked.  Emma moved over to where I was kneeling and sat next to me.

 “No, James.  I’m officially unemployed.  I’m telling you because I would rather date you than work for you, but I think the latter is more likely.” stated Emma.  I felt at a loss.  Could I believe her?  She seemed perfectly earnest as I gazed into her blue eyes.  “Did you know as well that  I’ve been going on dates?” I asked.  “You have?  With whom?” she inquired.  “Oh.  Girls I met online.  Alma followed me on at least two of them.  I ended up dancing with her last night.  I’m really sorry, but my feelings are a bit of a mess after finding out… well… everything.  I didn’t expect you to be working for the girl I was training to kill.  I don’t know if Ai and Mai are even my friends at the moment.  Things have been so awkward here.  Then there’s Alma…  I really shouldn’t have danced with her last night, but when she started…” I said, stopping when Emma put her finger to my lips.  With a grin, she confessed “Yeah.  I was crushing on Alma when I first met her, but she’s way too far out of my league.  Besides, she already was interested in you.”  There were times, such as when she kissed me, that I completely forgot that Emma was bi.  “I’m glad I’m not the only one whose head Alma sends for a spin.” I told her.

 Emma and I sat there talking for quite a while, and I ended up telling her about my dates so far, which earned quite a few laughs.  “Well, your date with me earned me a broken leg, which was definitely not part of Alma’s grand scheme, so you’re probably just cursed, man-slave.” she suggested with a smile.  I wasn’t certain how to take such an idea.  “Are curses real?” I asked, not entirely certain I wanted to know.  She laughed and shrugged before saying, “They might well be, but I doubt it, unless you mean some demented spell placed on someone.  Alma would have noticed such a thing on you.  You’re just having an unlucky streak is all.”  I frowned and told her “Luck can be manipulated by magic as well.  Maybe Regina dying for me placed some sort of curse on me.”  We both looked up at Regina’s statue, then to one another, and said, “Nah,” at the same time.  I couldn’t really imagine Regina of all people cursing me.  Emma obviously didn’t either, but she squeezed my hand and told me “I’m glad you’re feeling better at least.  I still miss her too though, so don’t ever hesitate to talk with me.  I was serious about the job thing, by the way.  Mind hiring another female Best Friend?  You’ll find that I have outstanding references.”  I accepted wholeheartedly and sent a note to my secretary.

 I wasn’t entirely certain how I felt about Emma explaining her feelings for me.  I truly loved her company and was glad that our friendship was still intact, but I couldn’t really picture us dating anymore.  After our first date, I gladly would have dated her and felt blessed for it.  Something was different now though.  Our friendship was greater than ever, but the romantic feelings simply weren’t there anymore for me.  I still found her exceptionally attractive, and she definitely knew how to make me blush.  We could talk together, laugh together, and play together with ease.  The past couple hours proved that to me.  Maybe a month of nightmares together was too much for me.  I certainly couldn’t ever view death the same again.  Instead of an idea of passing onto some other existence, there was now the certainty of a dangerous, inescapable entity who could claim numerous lives simply by lifting her scythe.  Whatever was to come, I hoped with all my heart that I never faced Death’s daughter again.  I was all too certain that such a meeting would be my last, even if my sanity was all that perished from it.  Unfortunately, Death’s daughter was everyone’s last date.

  What was I doing?  Thinking yet again about Mila requesting a date from me, I couldn’t help but worry.  If tonight’s date worked out, would Mila get jealous?  Would the date be jealous of Mila?  No, Mila didn’t have a body, but she was definitely developing quite the personality, not that I had romantic feelings for her.  Spend enough time talking with someone, and you developed some sort of feelings for that person.  I couldn’t deny that I cared for my wonderful… car?  Assistant?  If Mila wanted actual pay someday, what would her job title be?  This situation was far too confusing for me.  I enjoyed a simple life.  I worked, paid bills, and tried to enjoy life with my friends.  I only graduated high school a couple months ago.  I doubted many of my classmates were very far into college yet, but here I was with employees, constant training, and a surpassingly beautiful girl trying to rule my life.  What appeal did I even have for her?  Lady Alma dealt with global leaders, and probably had business problems I’d never imagine.  She probably knew guys around the world.  Why was she here?  How old was she?  I really wasn’t sure.  One day I thought I saved her life, and then I couldn’t get her out of my mind.  She was petite enough to pass for someone quite young, but there was something about the way she carried herself that made her seem much older.  

 “Scared that I wasn’t going to make it, James?” came a voice before I noticed the porcelain skinned girl.  Alma’s skin was very light as well now that I thought of it.  “No.  Sorry.  Umm… I’m afraid that I don’t remember how to pronounce your name at the moment.” I told her.  “I’m surprised you didn’t just take a shot.  You couldn’t be that off, right?” she replied with a teasing smile that made me feel a bit uncomfortable.  There was something different about this girl beyond the black, lacy dress that rose above her knees before dipping down to her calves in the back.  There was a lace bracelet around her wrist with a chain going to a ring and a lace choker around her neck sporting a red gem, but those weren’t what really made her stand out either.  “Eye-rah-wen is how you say my name.  It means ‘snow-white’, similar to the princess from the Brothers Grimm, don’t you think?” she informed me, winking at the end.  The red of her lips really went well with the red of the gem.  “My apologies,” I said, breaking into a sweat as her finger trailed down my arm.  I quickly stood and asked what she would like to do.  I didn’t really plan this one too well with so much else on my mind.  In response, she wrapped her arm around mine and started walking.  With the sun already blocked by the buildings, the city was dark, but Eirawen’s skin seemed to glow in the lamplight.  

 “Where are we headed?” I asked, feeling exceptionally nervous.  I realized that the cut of Eirawen’s dress wasn’t all that dissimilar to what Phèdre had worn on our… date, if I could really call it that, but Eirawen’s demeanor was what really made the difference.  They both held onto my arm, but where Phèdre seemed like she was cuddling, Eirawen seemed to be toying with me.  I was the mouse in the cat’s paws.  “Are you sure this is safe?” I asked as we turned down an alley.  “Perfectly.” she told me.  There was something cat-like even about her voice, like the word purred out of her mouth.  Despite my racing heart and my uncomfortable mix of emotions from Eirawen’s touch, I was able to prepare a few spells in case we were attacked.  Part of me was hoping that Alma was nearby again, but I did my best to suppress it.  From the dark alley, we went even further into darkness, down some stairs to a closed door.  Eirawen pressed a buzzer that I failed to notice in the blackness until her incredibly white skin was over it.  A large man opened the door, glanced at her, and proceeded to look at me long enough to add to my discomfort.  Perhaps a bright green shirt wasn’t acceptable here?  Before I managed to find something to say, the man jerked his head to the door, and Eirawen pulled me inside.

 We walked down a hall lit by black lights, which really made her skin glow.  I was surprised by the lack of lint on my own clothing.  Last time I was under a black light, I felt distinctly embarrassed by it.  The door at the end of the hall swung open as we approached, and the music that filled the hall was incredibly loud, as if there was a metal band performing therein.  I felt the bass of the music hitting me and the matching change in Eirawen’s steps.  Not far into the room, she started dancing against me.  The types of dance in which I was schooled seemed far more classical in comparison to this bouncing room.  Nonetheless, I dispersed my spells and started to move with the music as well.  I never would have thought of going to a club for a date, but I hadn’t even realized there was one that allowed people under twenty-one inside either.  Eirawen’s dancing emphasized what really set her apart enough that I couldn’t ignore it.  Where Raine was cute, Phèdre was crazy, and Niele was studious, Eirawen was provocative, a sensual creature whose every movement seemed dangerous to me.  With the realization came a powerful urge to flee.  My heart was thumping loudly in my chest, or perhaps that was still the waves of bass slamming against me.  I wasn’t sure anymore.  The room was so alive with sound and motion, unlike any place I ever visited.

 There was no way I’d be able to explain anything to her over the roaring music.  Perhaps she would simply follow me if she noticed me head to the door.  Where was the door?  Without breaks in the music, I wasn’t sure how long we had been dancing.  Looking around me, there were so very many girls, far too many pressing against me.  How did I end up so far into the room?  I tapped Eirawen’s shoulder, pointed to myself, and then pointed off to where I hoped the exit was.  She gave me a peace sign and kept dancing, so I guessed the date was over.  Making my way toward the wall, I found a bar instead of an exit.  This was not what I wanted at all.  Looking at the various beverages which seemed to glow in neon colors, I doubted there was anything safe to drink here.  How did people even place orders when they weren’t likely to be heard yelling?  The bartender was staring at me, so I gave him a wave and headed back into the crowd.  I needed to let Eirawen know I was leaving, not getting her some unknown drink.  Too many girls were trying to block my path, dancing against me.  What was I supposed to do?

 I winced as someone squeezed my wrist and pulled me through the crowd, and then was shocked when I found myself in a small open space where the music was only a light buzz.  “Calm down.  You’re safe here.” came a familiar voice.  I looked down and felt the frown slip off my face as my racing heart skipped a beat.  Alma’s eyes were exotic pools of glowing violet in the light.  She was standing calmly with several feet of open floor between her and everyone else.  I didn’t realize I was staring until she spoke again, saying, “I own this club.  It’s a trap for a number of would-be killers, although most seem to stay clear now.”  My ears were ringing slightly from the music.  I felt like thanking Alma for giving me a break from the crowd, but I felt angry as well.  Why did she always follow me?  I didn’t get a chance to say anything.  The music suddenly crashed back into me as Alma did the unthinkable; Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V started to dance.  There was no rubbing against me or pushing around.  When she spun, her incredibly long hair moved as a ribbon around her, an undulating stream in shades of red that briefly hid her face when she stopped.  A single eye was visible past the hair, staring up at me, when she took my hand.  I wasn’t certain how long we danced together in our private oasis, but I found myself reaching after her when she disappeared, felt the smile leave my lips.

 One moment we were dancing together, someone bumped into me from behind, and then Alma was gone, the crowd instantly filling where she had stood.  My outstretched hand was snatched by Eirawen whose approach I hadn’t even noticed.  I saw her ruby red lips move as if she was talking, but didn’t know what she was saying.  She started pushing her way through the crowd, and I followed, gripping her hand.  Eirawen’s grip seemed a tenuous thing after Alma’s, although Alma’s touch was feather light when we danced.  When we stepped out into the hall, the thick door cutting off the music behind us, Eirawen said, “Sorry about that.  I was swept up in the crowd when you went to get drinks.  Isn’t that place wild!?”  She was sweating and breathing heavy, but I felt that wasn’t why her beauty seemed somewhat diminished.  Alma was still dancing in my mind.  “I’m the one who should be apologizing.  I ran into someone I knew and lost track of time.” I confessed.  She shook her head and told me “Hey.  We’re here to have a good time.  Loosen up and smile!”  Her smile looked playful and reminded me a bit of Emma in that respect.  I smiled at her, and she leaned against my arm and started walking.  I felt the heat pouring off her and was a bit embarrassed by the state of my shirt, which seemed drenched in sweat.  

 We sat at a burger joint talking and eating for a good hour, mostly about Ancient Tribes of Earth.  She was shocked when I told her that I was leader of The Garde but was obviously quite proud of her own guild.  She asked if I wanted to come back to her place afterward, and seemed disappointed when I declined.  I felt guilty, not at declining her offer but for thinking of Alma the entire time we talked.  Eirawen got on her toes and kissed my cheek before telling me “Well, feel free to call whenever you have time.  I’d like to meet up again.”  As I walked to Mila, I knew I wouldn’t be calling.  The contrast between the panic I felt around Eirawen and the fun I had dancing with Alma was too great.  The former definitely could not help me get over the latter.  I allowed myself a smile thinking about how pleasant Alma’s company was when she wasn’t maneuvering me.  Tonight she was a girl happily dancing, and I was a foolish guy enjoying how well she danced.  With the night coming to a close, I was all too certain that the overly-controlling Alma was going to return.  Dancing with her was a mistake.  Yes, she was the reason I had fun tonight, but she was also the girl who followed me uninvited.  I wasn’t going to escape her iron grasp if I gave into her whims.  I needed to try harder to gain freedom.

  Fighting two demons at once Friday morning was difficult despite the size and exceptional training of my guild.  The last two were far more difficult even with my generals at top form.  Brandon was doing his best to keep pressure on both of the demons.  Jarod, Brenna, and Emma had their troops working as a wall between the enemy minions and Brandon’s troops.  Ai and Mai used their troops to distract and destroy as much as they could of the enemy army, keeping the full force of the enemy army from protecting the demons.  At first, Eseld’s troops always seemed to be just where they were needed any time we were about to lose ground, but even with killing ten times their losses, they were having fewer and fewer troops to lend support.  Overseeing the battle, I temporarily transferred returning guildies to Eseld’s command as I felt others could spare them.  There wasn’t enough.  We were gradually being beaten by enemy numbers as well as tactics.  I was almost too late in realizing why.

 With constant calls for reinforcements, I was so busy trying to help rally my guildies where they were needed that I was failing to see the big picture.  I switched Ai and her team to attacking the same one as Brandon’s, and told him to ignore the other one entirely.  I then dispersed Eseld’s whole team around the parameter, focusing most of them between the demons.  Eseld seemed upset till I explained what I was doing as I reassigned certain people under her.  Then I told her to buy time and commanded the inner half of Jarod, Brenna, and Emma’s teams to focus on the weakened demon.  The parameter crumbled shortly after Eseld went down, but not until after we took one of the demons down.  Unlike us, they didn’t have a way to respawn.  We were too weak to beat the other demon, but everyone fought as long as possible.  Being quick with formations, we easily got organized and headed back with full health to finish the job.  Unfortunately, the other demon fled.  With no one having their primary gear, destroying the enemy army took some time, but that quickly turned into a relaxing game of “which team can kill the most”.

 Despite the wipe and letting one demon escape, spirits in the guild were still high afterward.  Most people stayed on for a couple more hours, just visiting and enjoying the victory.  Eseld was the least pleased out of anyone, not liking to lose, but even she confided “I never would have made that call, but I think you did right under the circumstances.  We were being systematically picked away with fewer and fewer people having their top gear.”  I smiled and thanked her.  Then I told her how I never dreamed I would get quite so into a game.  “I feel like that is what Aaliyah does to people though.  She drags us out of our world, pushes our limits, and then rewards our efforts, occasionally in ways we don’t quite understand at first.” I finished.  Eseld responded with “Ha ha.  Not quite what I would say about her.”  When I inquired what she thought of Aaliyah, she told me “I won’t deny that Aaliyah is brilliant, but I question how benevolent she is.  This game can be brutal and infuriating.”  I laughed and said, “She can be brutal, but I still believe she’s kind.  At the very least, she’s kind to me.  If you ever listen to ‘Hmm?’, know that she wrote that and performed it live just to wake me up.”

 Eseld teased me and asked if Aaliyah and I were dating.  I laughed and told her “Aaliyah’s only twelve.  I babysit her.  She was dancing on the foot of my bed when she was playing, not being… well… what you were thinking.”  Eseld then said, “Oh?  And how would you feel if I were to dance on the foot of your bed?”  I was probably blushing after reading that, but I told her “After recovering from the shock of you pulling that off, I’d still have to recover from the shock of you being here.  Are you wanting to come for a visit?”  There was a long pause before she responded, saying, “Unfortunately, I don’t believe that would work too well for me.”  I was disappointed, but we continued talking for quite some time.  Embarrassingly enough, I fell asleep chatting with her.  When I woke, still logged into Ancient Tribes of Earth, I found that Eseld was still online.  I apologized for falling asleep, and she told me “Good morning, sunshine!  Going to play for a bit?”  Looking at the time, I apologized again and told her I needed to be off.  I was going to be late for work.  Then I confessed that I had another engagement afterward, so I probably wouldn’t be on till late.

 Work today was a complicated arrangement of overlapping jobs that I would never even have thought to schedule.  I was a chauffeur, a dog walker, a carpenter, a chauffeur again, and then went on to do some computer work before filling in as a dance instructor.  When I picked up Mrs. Taylor again, she asked if I managed to keep myself entertained between stops, so I told her that I managed to pass the time without missing her too much.  She chuckled and said, “I may have believed that if I were sixty years younger, but I’d have driven myself at that age.”  I smiled and replied “Quality company is always a pleasure.  I’d be quite the failure as a best friend if I overlooked your many charms.”  She laughed some more before telling me where to head next.  Mrs. Taylor really admired Mila, telling me how she had always wanted to sit in a DB5 ever since seeing the one in the movie “Goldfinger”.  Talking with her about James Bond was one of the many fine points of our conversation, but I refrained from showing her how Bond-like Mila was.  After dropping Mrs. Taylor off, I rushed home to take a quick shower before heading to meet Eirawen Waters.

 Eirawen’s picture caught my eye when I was looking through messages.  Her hair was naturally black and contrasted greatly with her exceptionally white skin.  She was a fan of Gothic fashion, something with which I wasn’t particularly in touch, but her pictures spoke quite well of her choices.  When I read through her profile, I was amused to find that she was the founder of a Gothic guild in Ancient Tribes of Earth which was saving up for a Cathedral to call their home.  Outside of gaming, she worked as a hair stylist, which led me to asking Mila when Aaliyah was cutting mine next.  Wednesday.  Everyone at Best Friend For Hire plus Ai and Mai enjoyed free haircuts from Aaliyah, who probably gave herself a pay raise.  I hoped she had at very least.  I asked Mila, frowning when I found out she didn’t receive one, and asked Mila to remind me about it next time Aaliyah was visiting.  “Master, would you believe that I haven’t received a raise yet either?” asked Mila.  I wasn’t even aware of Mila being paid.  Could one legally pay an A.I. for services rendered?  If so, Mila deserved a fortune, probably more than I could afford.

 “No, I wasn’t aware of that,” I said, “Are you wanting one?”   The Alma-like figure on the windshield and smiled quite suggestively.  I really needed to talk with Emma about what she was teaching Mila.  “Well, master, I don’t really need currency, but I’m sure you can give me a bonus in another way.”  The smile she bore sent my mind reeling down a path I did not wish to follow.  As I frantically tried thinking of a reply to the massively powerful computer that ran my house, drove my car, and acted as a friend whenever I needed to talk about anything, Mila continued, saying, “With you dating all of these girls, I really don’t see any harm in you giving me a chance as well.”  I thought about pointing out that I was human, but I knew that wouldn’t help.  Mila of all people knew quite well what she was.  Other than the Alma-like avatar, she didn’t have a body.  Well, maybe she considered the car her body, since the primary hardware for her was stored therein.  I ended up saying, “Mila, I’m not really against your request, but I can’t truly say that I fully understand what you’re wanting either.  Do you just want to spend a day talking with one another?”  The avatar smiled stunningly, and she replied “That’ll do nicely, master.  I’ll, of course, still be taking care of all that I manage.  Please don’t worry about any lack of functionality elsewhere.  I just want a day with my master.”  The dreamy way in which the last part was said made my heart race.  I told myself that was because she looked like Alma and regretted the thought a moment later.  A date with Mila would be an experience unlike any other.