“Here’s a refill.  I do hope you’re enjoying your cake.” stated Carl, whose entrance I hadn’t even noticed.  He didn’t seem remotely surprised that Aaliyah was now here instead of the beautiful Trix whom Aaliyah had been.  “Thank you, Carl!  This cake is sooo good!  You should steal a piece while you’re here!” exclaimed Aaliyah as she grinned at the elderly man filling her drink.  “If you insist, how could I possibly refuse?” he inquired, moving to acquire his own slice.  I was amazed how much of the enormous cake was already devoured and couldn’t remember how many slices I had eaten now that I thought about it.  A great smile, the type that makes you certain a man is both sincerely delighted and trustworthy, crossed Carl’s face as he bit into the cake.  Then without a word, he left us to continue our conversation.  Wait.  Was there a third plate when he had brought the cake out?  “So you see, boss-man, sir, you really don’t have anything to be concerned about.  Your amazing secretary is more amazing than you thought, you have the experience of a multitude of dates without consequences, and now you get magnificent company over the most delicious birthday cake you could want!” explained Aaliyah.

 Arguing about the cake would be extremely difficult considering the variety of amazing flavors amongst the slices, and my secretary certainly was amazing.  I really had to wonder about the lack of consequences though, since I still worried over Chad.  I wasn’t going to reveal that Aaliyah was a shapechanger without her consent, and I couldn’t really explain kissing her without mentioning that she looked my age at the time.  That would be absolutely beyond explanation, at least beyond any I’d care for someone to contemplate.  I was, however, certain that I’d feel guilty every time I talked with the man now.  How could I not?  “So is the yacht your father’s?” I asked.  “Well, it’s ours, but he doesn’t know we own it.  He’s never asked when we’ve gone out on it, so I didn’t really have any reason to explain details to him.” she explained.  Having such an easygoing father had to be a boon in her line of work.  “Where does he think you are right now?” I inquired.  “With you, silly.  You’re being paid to babysit me!” she happily exclaimed.  Great.  I kissed someone whom I was being paid to babysit.  That was more than a little awkward.

 “Don’t look so glum, boss-man, sir!  It’s your birthday!  Time for happiness and joy!  You survived another year even after meeting all sorts of dangerous people.”, said Aaliyah all too giddily.  She did have somewhat of a point, but I felt the point might be lessened considering one of the most dangerous of those I met was currently eating cake with me.  With how she smiled, I worried a moment that she could read my thoughts.  Then she started licking the frosting off her plate, so I decided that her enthusiasm for the cake simply hadn’t subsided.  “So how much of the dates did you plan?” I asked, deciding that I truly wanted to know more.  “Enough to give you tons of hints and stuff.  I needed to find just the right girls in this area  to spell out a message with their names for you, and then I wanted ones whose surnames would have a nice flow to them in a couple ways.  Plus, I gave consideration to what types of girls you might find attractive at first glance.  I really don’t think you could handle dating a girl without magic, by the way.  Keeping such a big part of yourself secret wouldn’t sit well with you.  In addition, they just wouldn’t be as interesting to you, since there’s all this stuff in which they couldn’t participate.”

 As she was talking, I was still thinking of the girls I dated.  I took a little while, but I finally did realize they spelled “a princess named” up until Trix.  “Okay, so ‘princess’ constantly being mentioned wasn’t a fluke either.” I stated, realizing that the word ‘princess’ came up on at least most of my dates.  Aaliyah replied “You got it, boss-man, sir!  I’m THE princess, after all.  I’m glad you didn’t look at your pay too closely over the past couple weeks.  That would’ve been dreadful, since you were paid for all the dates.”  I didn’t want to ask, already sure that I had been “babysitting” without realizing it this whole time.  “So if I met one of these girls in person…” I started.  “Then you’d have an unfair advantage, already knowing stuff about them!” she exclaimed.  Some of them probably wouldn’t be bad as friends, but I really didn’t want to risk getting to know them at the moment.  Despite Aaliyah’s assurances, I still felt weird over the idea that I magically encouraged people to like me.  “Do you think Alma has been doing all of this to me due to my magic?” I asked, unsure if I really wanted to know the answer.  Shaking her head, she said, “Nah.  She’s barely been affected by you so far.  She recognized your power and started thwarting it before you even got her across the street.”

 I almost asked how Aaliyah knew about my meeting with Alma, but I remembered that the two seemed to know each other well.  “What did you do to Alma that made her dislike babysitting you?” I asked, remembering that being mentioned.  Aaliyah sighed dramatically as she set down her fork.  Then she told me “I drew Alma a perfectly awesome picture, but she didn’t like how I wrote the ‘V’ when I abbreviated her name, claiming it looked more like a ‘Y’.  I called her ‘Alpy’.  She took exception to it and started losing her temper.  I had some fun with her.  Let’s just say that she’s not accustomed to dealing with me.”  The explanation was told in such a sing-song manner that I had difficulty taking it seriously, though that would explain the nickname.  I might have to ask Alma about it someday.  Alma…  I really was going to attempt to forgive her.  Despite all her scheming and manipulation, I still felt something toward her, something I knew to be special.  “Does Alma know you’re the one who’s been going on dates with me?” I asked, somewhat nervously.  I couldn’t decide if her knowing would be a good thing or not.  How much did Alma know about Aaliyah?

 “Ha!  That’s a good one, boss-man, sir.  You and Carl know the extent I can change my form, boss-man, sir.  Our little secret!” she told me with a wink at the end.  “So.. Carl knows we were are a date?” I inquired worriedly.  Was he going to report me to the authorities?  “What’s this ‘were’ talk?  We haven’t even finished the cake!” claimed Aaliyah.  I jumped when Carl walked past me to cut another slice of cake for Aaliyah.  “Don’t worry, James.  I would never betray someone whom I’m forced to like.” stated Carl in perfect sincerity.  I gazed at him, horrified by the idea, until Aaliyah started giggling.  “Carl!” she exclaimed before saying,  “He’ll actually believe you if you say it that way.”  I looked from the now smiling elderly man to the tiny girl and thought I saw how they really could be friends.  I almost protested when he set another slice of cake in front of me, but my stomach growled at that moment.  I was setting a new personal record for most eaten, which really was saying something.  “Umm.. Thank you.” I muttered before he left again.

 Smiling after Carl, Aaliyah said, “He’s not human, boss-man, sir, and no, he doesn’t mind you knowing.  In fact, you’ll get your meals for free here starting today!”  I wasn’t entirely sure which part to be more shocked about.  “That’s one crazy birthday present.” I told her.  I couldn’t honestly remember the last time I paid for a meal here.  “Does that mean he’s sending me coupons like you, or…” I started asking.  Then Aaliyah interrupted, saying, “I get coupons because I think they’re fun!  Makes people feel like you’re really getting something special when you get to hand over something other than currency and still get food.”  Uh huh.  Only Aaliyah.  She really was a very unique girl.  “Huh.  I suddenly don’t feel so bad about getting shown up at Laser Bubbles.” I told her after realizing I was beaten by the game’s creator.  “Okay, so I had a slight advantage.  Still…  I’m glad you liked me, boss-man, sir.  Not everyone gets to meet the girl I could have been.”, she said somewhat wistfully.  “What do you mean?” I asked her.  “Oh.  That form was sequenced off my original deoxyribonucleic acid, and the personality, well, let’s say it was extremely accurate for what I would have been had things gone differently.” she explained.

 I had a feeling that asking for more explanation would lead into things far beyond me.  I really needed to get along with my studies more.  I wasn’t anywhere near ready to look into genetics, and Aaliyah probably invented something for determining personalities when she created Ancient Tribes of Earth.  The NPCs in that game were easily passable for real people.  Imagining something being difficult for Aaliyah was nearly impossible anymore.  I shuddered uncomfortably as I remembered Death’s Daughter and hoped the tiny assassin would never meet her.  Trying to lighten my mood, I told Aaliyah “Your parents really did well naming you.  ‘Trix’ suits you as a nickname.”  Grinning at me, she said, “There are a number of meanings associated with Trixibelle, like ‘voyager through life’.  I feel that suits me just as well as what you were implying, boss-man, sir.”  A girl who didn’t age could voyage through the lives of countless others.  “As usual, I can’t really argue with you.  So when am I supposed to get you home?” I asked.  “I’m heading there shortly, so I can get daddy ready for his day.  He’ll be home in no time.  Don’t worry.  I’ll tell him you had to hurry up and send your greetings.”

 As always, Aaliyah seemed to cover all the details before I even considered them.  “I think I’ll go for a walk then.  I think I’m on some sort of sugar high from all this cake, since I don’t feel tired yet.  Maybe I’ll be ready to sleep for a bit afterward.  I probably should contact my parents at some point.” I told her.  They surely would want to do something for my birthday.  Unless Jarod told someone, I doubted the others knew, which was fine by me.  I could use some peaceful relaxation today.  There was so much to think about, starting with how to start mending things with Alma.  “Okay, boss-man, sir.  Looks like we’re off, Carl!  Thank you for all the wonderful food!”, she said, the last part directed over my shoulder.  I stood and shook his hand, saying, “Yes, thank you.  That cake was the best in so many slices!”  With how he smiled, I was certain he knew I was referring to the different flavors therein.  Aaliyah hugged my leg, wished me “happy birthday” again, and vanished before I could respond.  “As she told you, you do get to eat here for free.”, said Carl, patting my back as he walked me out.  I thanked him and headed out to try getting my head in order.  Life was so strange.

  “Aaliyah?  Why are you here?  Where’s Trix?” I asked.  She was staring up at me, her blue eyes… disturbingly like Trix’s.  I was on my feet looking around, but my eyes came back to the diminutive girl.  She was wearing a pastel blue dress, but thankfully not in the same style as Trix.  My eyes frantically searched for Trix, and there was nowhere to vanish so suddenly.  My lips were moving, but I couldn’t say anything.  Aaliyah was not a shapeshifter.  I didn’t spend the best day of my life on a date with a twelve-year-old.  Despite what I was telling myself, there was a nameless feeling creeping up on me, a dark horror that would engulf me if I didn’t find answers soon.  “Aaliyah, please tell me what happened to Trix.” I pleaded, needing answers.  There was no slow shift or subtle change; one moment Aaliyah was sitting there, and the next moment Trix was.  “My full name is Aaliyah Trixibelle Sypher, boss-man, sir, and yes, I can change my appearance on whim.” she told me, suddenly back to her normal form.  “But you can’t use magic…” I protested, plopping back into my seat.  I took a long drink, but Aaliyah was still sitting there when I set my glass down.

 “Don’t worry, boss-man, sir.  Everything’s fine.” she assured me.  “Fine?  Fine!?  I was having the best day of my life, my first wonderful date.  We even… well..” I started saying, suddenly not wanting to think about the hours on the boat at all.  “Chad… What am I going to tell him?  He’ll murder me!  Forget losing you as a secretary, I’m going to be losing my life!” I told her, now pacing on my feet.  “Maybe he’ll make you marry me!” exclaimed Aaliyah with an enormous grin!  Couldn’t she take anything seriously?  What father wouldn’t murder an eighteen-year-old ― well, nineteen-year-old now ― who kissed his little daughter, especially with how tiny she was?  How was I going to tell him?  “Chad obviously doesn’t know where you are.  He’s probably called the police if he’s noticed you missing!  We really need to get in touch with him.”  I pulled out my phone and started typing his name into my contact search.  What was I going to tell him?  What was… Where was my phone?  I looked quickly to Aaliyah who was singing of all things.  How could she sing at a time like this?  She stood up and caught me as I fell.  The idea of a three-foot-nothing girl carrying an over six-foot-tall boy amused me for a moment as she set me back in my seat.  I felt surprisingly relaxed.

 “Daddy doesn’t know that I can shapeshift, and he never will.  Got it?” she asked.  I nodded, my brain was trying to fight through a fog.  I forgot how early in the morning we came here.  I needed sleep.  “But Aaliyah, I was treating you like…”  A tiny finger suddenly covered my lips, and Aaliyah said, “Exactly as I would hope from a wonderful guy.  I’ll explain if you’ll just listen for a bit.”  The fog was starting to clear again, but I didn’t feel panicked for the moment.  I tried to gently push her arm aside, but I might as well have tried to lift a building.  Aaliyah was incredibly strong.  “First off, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that you finally gave me the right cake.” she claimed, lowering her hand to grasp one of mine in both of hers.  “What does cake have to do with anything?” I asked, feeling bewildered.  She rolled her eyes and told me “EVERYTHING, boss-man, sir.  I promised you answers for cake, and you finally gave the right one, birthday cake.”  I considered arguing for a moment, but I realized, beyond the futility, that I actually did cut her slice for her.  “Unlike most humans, you have magic, a unique wonderful magic that rarely popped up in all of human history.” she explained.  I wanted to argue that human history was too vast to be certain, but Aaliyah always seemed to know everything.

 “This power of yours allows you to absorb residual energy and involuntarily use it in numerous ways.  Most important with regard to your dates is that you enchant everyone around you, forcing them to like you.  How much they like you and how they treat people they like varies greatly, of course, but you’re stuck with people liking you.  Basically, the more energy you absorb, the more people will like you, though there are honestly a bunch of variables involved.”  I sat there, staring at Aaliyah and wondering if she could be joking, but I gradually acknowledged that I did have a way with people.  “In addition, you’re able to sense the truth of things, provided your body has enough energy.  That is why you can tell Ai and Mai apart with such ease.  Coincidentally, that’s also why you’re not still fighting about whether or not I’m Trix.  You know it’s true.  You knew it before I even told you, just not consciously.”  I didn’t really know before, did I?  If Aaliyah was just messing with my head, how would I know?  “I’ll admit that I did feel exceptionally relaxed around Trix, er… you, before the revelation, but I never feel that I know the truth about anything.” I told her.  “Not my fault if you don’t always trust your gut.”, she said with a little shrug.

 She started to say something else, but I interrupted her, saying, “Wait a second.  How am I supposed to know who actually likes me, and who likes me because of this ability?”  Aaliyah smiled and told me “That’s the best part!  They do actually like you.  The more time someone spends with you, the more your power has affected them, the more you’re sincerely and legitimately liked from the bottom of their hearts.”  I didn’t buy it, no matter what my gut said.  I needed a way to stop this.  “Is there a way to stop it?  As far as I know, I wouldn’t even have friends today if I didn’t force friendship on them.”, I said, muttering the last part.  Patting my hand, she told me “If you find a spot void of energy for you to absorb, your body will run out for a bit, but you’re worrying too much about this.  You’re not doing anything horrible to people.  They just like you.  Now that you know what you’re doing, you can use your abilities to take over the world!”  I stared at her incredulously for a moment before saying, “I’d never want that!”  Aaliyah giggled and replied “I know, but you could at least run for president.  I guarantee you’d win votes everywhere you went!”

 Aaliyah definitely couldn’t take things seriously.  I needed to tell Jarod about this and hope he wasn’t offended.  No one liked being forced into things, and I apparently was influencing him for countless years now.  My poor parents were surely victims as well.  I was sure they would have loved me anyways, but…  “Aaliyah, I can’t really think of my parents giving me any sort of special treatment.  Father can be pretty harsh at times.” I confided, feeling exceptionally confused.  “Fair point!  Are you convinced that you don’t steal away free will yet?” she asked, picking cake crumbs off my plate.  “How can you still be hungry for cake?” I inquired.  She grinned and asked “Do you want some more!?”  I rolled my eyes and said, “No, thank you.  You really shouldn’t overeat.  You know you’ll throw up.”  A guilty, yet somehow cute, look passed over her face before she told me “Well, I haven’t actually thrown up unintentionally for years.  I kinda did that to distract people when I needed to go kill some folk.  Besides, if you had to be so many different people in the past couple weeks, you’d be hungry too!”  Wait.  “You purposefully threw up when we met!?  You were killing someone?  And who else were you recently?” I asked, suppressing thoughts that were coming to mind as well as I could.

 With a shrug, Aaliyah said, “When people need assassinated, who ya gonna call?”, pointing to herself as she said it.  “Aaaaand I may have been busy keeping my boss from regretting his dates.” she told me with a shrug.  I gaped, those not-so-suppressed thoughts being confirmed.  “None of those girls were real?” I asked.  “Well, they’re all real girls.  I just borrowed their identities, personalities, et cetera to let you experience dating them without you having to worry about hurt feelings and such for long.  Surprise!  You didn’t actually offend anyone!” she told me.  “But…” I started before even letting my mind wander across the field of “buts” that were springing to mind.  “Hold on.  You’re the one who got me in a fight!?” I asked, watching Aaliyah cut herself another slice of cake.  “Yes!  Weren’t you amaaaazing!?” she exclaimed.  “Someone could have been seriously injured!” I told her, feeling my anger rising.  “I knew you wouldn’t hurt them badly.  You’re a good person, boss-man, sir.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t work for you.” she explained.  My anger deflated as I considered that though out-numbered, my second in that fight was the world’s greatest assassin.  Those guys were lucky that she didn’t intervene.

 “What was the point of all this?” I asked, my mind still reeling.  “We’re getting through them, though you forgot the plural.  ‘Points’, boss-man, sir.  Life’s way too interesting to ever just have one point.” she claimed.  I decided to join her for another slice of cake, since I was feeling surprisingly hungry again.  I needed to do something, and maybe shoving cake in my mouth would give me enough time to work through these bombs Aaliyah so casually dropped on me.  The best date of my life was with the same person as all of the bad ones, and she claimed all of it was for my benefit.  On top of that, I found out that I was accidentally enchanting everyone and needed to trust my gut instincts more.  Despite what Aaliyah might say, I was still very glad that I didn’t go any further with my last date than I had.  Looking at the tiny girl gobbling down an enormous slice of cake, I never would suspect that she was a shapechanging, cybernetic assassin, but I knew she was that and more.  She was also the greatest secretary I could want and my friend, but I still wondered at what other secrets she was keeping.  She had mentioned that she wanted me to know her better, but this was not what I expected.  What other surprises would she spring?

  Trix was sitting on my lap, her hands tickling my sides as she kissed along my jaw.  My hands slowly moved down her back, finding the opening in the lace dress.  My thoughts were scrambled, leaving nothing but the moment available to me.  I felt her breath on my ear and shivered.  She softly bit my lip, and I fought against my body’s urges.  Telling myself I barely knew this girl, I tried to control myself, but I didn’t want this feeling to stop.  I didn’t want the taste of her lips to leave my tongue.  Her nails softly scratched my back through my shirt, and I lost my breath in our kiss, gasping when our lips parted again.  Clothing seemed such a flimsy barrier between our bodies, I envisioned tearing the lace from her body, only to snap back a second later, looking around.  “James?  Is something wrong?” asked Trix.  I barely heard her as my eyes searched for Alma.  What if she was watching us?  What if she was crying?  I shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t be doing this.  I shivered as Trix kissed my cheek, part in pleasure and part in guilt.  I tried to convince myself that there was nothing wrong with this.  Alma wasn’t my girlfriend.  I really didn’t know her well.  Looking up at Trix, there was a moment where I saw violet eyes staring down at me.

 “I’m so, so terribly sorry, but can we take a break for a moment?” I asked her, fearful of her reaction.  Trix sat beside me and snuggled into my shoulder, apparently not offended.  She was such an amazing, talented girl from the little I knew.  “Why don’t I make us some drinks?’ she suggested.  “Umm..  Nothing alcoholic, please.  I’m underage.” I told her, feeling embarrassed for once about my avoidance of alcohol.  “Don’t be silly.  So am I.” she told me, calming that one emotion.  I felt… so much right now.  My body felt hot with my desire though the cool lake air was teasing my skin to send a shiver across my back.  Trix very well could be the perfect girl for me, so why was I thinking of Alma now, worrying over how she felt?  “I’m not a cruel person.” I told myself, as I watched Trix deftly slicing up fruit.  I really didn’t want to hurt Alma, but the feeling inside me was far more intense than that, as if hurting Alma was like cutting into my heart with a dull butter knife.  I couldn’t date anyone right now, not even Trix; Trix who was distracting on so many levels couldn’t make me forget how thoughts of Alma tugged on my heart.  I really needed to get over that girl if I was ever to date anyone.

 “Take a sip,” said Trix as she held a glass to my lips.  Various fruits mixed with some type of soda and things I couldn’t identify.  I leaned my head back and gazed up at the twinkling sky.  The drink truly was refreshing, and my heart was finally returning to a more reasonable pace.  Realizing that Trix was smiling up at me, I asked “Is something on my face?”  She shook her head, her blonde hair catching in the wind before cascading back down her breast.  I quickly looked away, and she giggled.  “No.  I was just thinking of how photogenic you must be.  You really look incredible from every angle.” she claimed.  I was certainly blushing, and she was giggling more.  “Let me see your license,” she said.  “Umm…  why?” I asked.  “Just do it.” she told me with a grin.  She was exceptionally beautiful, maybe even as beautiful as Alma.  I felt a pang of guilt and quickly grabbed my wallet for the girl, pulling my license out and handing it to her.  “I knew it!  Even your driver’s license picture is perfect.” she told me, staring down at the card.  I rolled my eyes and looked back at the sky.  The picture wasn’t really that great.  Hearing her gasp, I looked back at Trix.  “You didn’t tell it was your birthday!  Happy birthday!” she exclaimed, handing my license back.  “It’s not.  It’s tomorrow.” I assured her.  Shaking her head, she said, “Not anymore.”  

 Checking the time, I couldn’t believe how many hours had passed.  I was surprised to see my schedule was wide open today until I realized that Aaliyah surely knew today was my birthday.  She seemed to plan for everything.  What was I going to do with my day?  Well, sleep was probably going to take up most of it, considering 4 AM already passed us by.  Strangely, I wasn’t feeling remotely tired yet.  “Let’s go get some cake.  I know the perfect place, birthday boy,” said Trix, still grinning.  “We really don’t need to go anywhere, and I doubt we could find cake this early in the morning.” I told her.  Maybe I should be going home, but I really didn’t feel like telling her “farewell” yet.  How was I supposed to tell Trix, the girl who gave me such an incredible date, that things weren’t going to work, at least not yet?  “I insist.  Cake is necessary on birthdays.” she told me, tugging at my hand as if to pull me up.  I stood and told her “As you wish.  I can’t very well argue with the captain on her ship.”  I walked over to the helm and chatted with Trix for a while as she took us back onto the river, but she didn’t tell us where we were heading despite my inquiries.

 I was tempted to call Mila to pick us up, but a taxi happened to be driving by as we reached the street.  Trix gave an address I didn’t recognize instead of saying the name of this mysterious place that served cake in the wee hours of the morning.  The ride seemed amazingly quick chatting with Trix, and she insisted on paying the fare.  Stepping out, I found myself in front of the Intergalactic House of Awesome Sauce.  “Have you ever eaten here before?” asked Trix, smiling at me and taking my hand.  “OH, yes.  The food here is really out of this world,” I said with a grin.  She laughed and pulled me along.  I was impressed that she could move so quickly in heels.  “James!  Happy birthday!  Who would’ve thought to see you this early in the day?” asked Carl, greeting us.  He still looked to be from an entirely different era to me, but Trix didn’t seem to notice.  “Hi, Carl.  I never knew you were open this early and am generally not up yet.” I told him.  “Well, nothing like an early start on your birthday.  Please, take a seat.  Your cake will be out shortly,” he said, walking away before I could ask how he knew today was my birthday.  Looking around at the room, I wasn’t surprised to find yet another new design.

 The table and chairs twinkled softly and appeared to be made of glass too fragile to touch, but I didn’t impale myself sitting down.  Instead, I was relieved to find myself reasonably comfortable.  Candles burned on the table, and the ceiling appeared to be a night sky with the moon softly glowing almost overhead.  With her unfaltering smile, Trix told me “This is my absolute favorite restaurant.  You won’t find better cake anywhere!”  I nodded and said, “I can understand that.  I once had cheesecake here that was absolutely divine.”  Gazing into her bright blue eyes, I was taken again at how exquisite this girl was.  Being able to talk so easily with someone was always incredible, and I thought again that I could come to love her in no time.  But…  But I might already be in love and didn’t want to enter a relationship with mixed emotions.  Even laughing and talking ― not laughing was impossible with Trix being so delightful ― I found myself thinking more and more about Alma.  If I went on more dates with Trix and started dating her in earnest, what would happen with Alma?  Would she burn my house to the ground in revenge?  I didn’t really think she would, but that was easier for me to consider than seeing tears in her eyes.  Something about Alma crying was far worse to me than losing all I owned.

 “I hope this is to your liking.” stated Carl as he rolled out a massive cake depicting my guild hall from Ancient Tribes of Earth, complete with the hill on which it rested.  “This is fantastic!” I told him, completely in shock.  “How did you have this prepared?” I asked.  “Well, I knew your birthday was coming up and had some time on my hands, so I did what I always do and wheeled this out precisely when I felt it was ready.” he nonchalantly explained.  “Please, enjoy,” he said, setting drinks in front of us.  I couldn’t believe the minute details, such as a sword mark in a pillar Brandon had accidentally slashed, which were perfectly captured.  Did Carl play?  Had Aaliyah sent him pictures?  Well, she might well have sent him a three-dimensional model complete with annotation.  She really had a way of going overboard that put everyone else to shame.  I nearly protested when Trix started slicing through the work of art with a knife, but I managed to remind myself that this was a cake meant for eating.  “Here you are, my birthday boy,” said Trix as she placed a slice in front of me.  I stayed her hand when she moved to cut her own, and said, “I insist on cutting yours in return.”  As she watched me carefully slicing into the hill, she told me “I’ve never anticipated eating dirt so much before.  You really can sell anything as a treat, can’t you.”

 Trix pushed her plate over by mine as I sat down.  I understood, somewhat, a moment later when she lit two candles on the ones burning on the table.  She quickly plunged the burning candles into the cake and said, “Birthday cake isn’t the same until you blow the candles out.”  After I blew out the candles, she kissed my cheek and said, “Happy birthday!”  Then she danced back to her seat, biting into her slice as she sat down.  “This is the best dirt ever!” she exclaimed.  I laughed and took a bite of my own before telling her “I think mine might be better.”  She protested and held out some of hers on her fork.  I rolled my eyes, but cut a little onto my fork and did the same.  We tasted each other’s slice at the same time, and new flavors met my tongue.  The slices truly did taste differently.  “Well, that was unexpected.” I confessed.  Trix laughed and said, “Many cakes from here have different flavors at different parts.  They’re all delicious!”  I wasn’t by any means a chef myself, but I ate at countless places throughout my life and still couldn’t fathom how Carl managed such a feat.  After devouring my slice, I was hesitant to go for seconds, not wanting to seem a pig, but Trix dove right in for another slice the moment she finished hers.

 As I devoured my second slice, a unique flavor from the first, my resolve hardened.  I couldn’t drag this fabulous girl along when my feelings were such a mess.  Setting down my fork, I started explaining “Trix, you’re wonderful, completely and truly.  Our time together has been one of the greatest days of my life.”  She was smiling at me, so I looked to the sky and trudged on, saying, “I really, really don’t want to ruin my chances with you, but I feel that I must confess my heart isn’t entirely in this.  There’s this girl I’ve been trying to get over.  She’s infuriating and bossy.  I’d even say she’s dangerous, but… I… I really think I might be in love with her.  I need to spend some time with her and try to understand why before I can be the guy you deserve, assuming I’m able to move past her at all.  You’d be amazed how much of a wall such a tiny person can be.  Well, maybe not.  I mean, she’s around your size, but…”  The sound that reached my ears cut through my thoughts like a knife as Trix’s voice altered somewhat, saying, “It’s okay, boss-man, sir.  I know how you feel.  Don’t worry though.  I’ll be your friend forever.”  I looked over to find little Aaliyah smiling at me.  What was going on?

  “Would you happen to be free for a while yet?” asked Trix after taking a drink.  My heart leaped for joy as I looked into the girl’s beautiful eyes, because I wanted any excuse to spend a little more time with her.  “Not at all… I mean I’m not busy.  I’m free.  I think.  Let me double check.” I told her, the words shooting out of my mouth with little order.  I checked my schedule on my phone, and tonight’s job still said, “Unconfirmed.”, so I shot Aaliyah a text, telling her that I wouldn’t be available.  Oh shoot.  There was something this morning?  I didn’t remember seeing that job earlier, so I’d have to look into it and make reparations if possible.  Mentally, I made a note to tell Aaliyah that I found a flaw in her notification system.  “Yes, I’m free.  Sorry for the wait.” I told her.  Trix giggled at me and said, “Well, I have an extra ticket to see Annie at the theatre soon.  If you’re interested that is… I mean.. I know some guys don’t”  I interrupted her, saying, “I love Broadway.  Thank you!  This sounds wonderful.  Shall we go?”  Trix smiled beautifully and started packing up the basket.  Then we folded the sheet together before she tucked it over the dishes.

 When I started to walk, Trix grabbed my arm and said, “Mind walking there?  If you consider traffic this time of day, it’ll probably be faster even.”  I only hesitated a moment before agreeing.  Trix did seem to know her way around this area, having suggested this cozy spot for a picnic.  I took the basket, and Trix took my hand.  There was something unbelievably relaxing about this girl.  Feeling her fingers intertwined with my own seemed completely natural, so much so that I was surprised when I found that we had arrived.  Our seats were in the center of row ten, which gave a great view of the stage.  Trix and I shared stories of other trips to the theatre, which was another area she beat me.  I mainly saw performances with my parents when they had been in the mood.  Trix seemed to know countless musicals by heart, quoting lines with ease.  As the show started, the bright red of Annie’s hair had me thinking of Brandon and Brenna, and I wondered how they were today.  I skipped giving them lessons today after convincing Emma to take over in my stead.  Then I found myself looking around the theatre for Alma, Alma whose hair was a beautiful red when it caught the sunlight.

 I easily could imagine Alma seeing countless performances in London, though I was sure things were a bit different there.  I wondered what her singing voice was like, feeling that it had to be incredible going off her speaking.  Did her accent vanish when she sang as it did for some British performers?  I chuckled as I thought of how The Hard-knock Life wouldn’t suit Alma at all.  If such a girl had been born into poverty, would she have became a criminal, taking all she wanted?  Was there even someone to stop her?  Trix squeezed my hand, leaned against me, and said, “I love this.  Isn’t it amazing how such a small girl can have a huge impact?”  I smiled and nodded.  Alma and Trix were both small girls, but Aaliyah took the cake on that one.  Of course, Aaliyah did love her cake and was an enormous influence on my life.  If there was some reasonable way to explain how much Aaliyah did for me, Trix would probably grow bored listening to it at great length.  Then again, she might just call child services instead.  I really needed to make an attempt at tracking the number of hours Aaliyah worked.  The volume in contracts alone was staggering.  I reminded myself that her cybernetics probably sped such things up considerably.  Still…

 I felt my face flushing as Trix kissed my cheek.  She smiled at me when I looked over at her.  “Sorry, but you looked too adorable.  I couldn’t resist.” she teased.  I smiled and gave her hand a squeeze.  Trix was something special, and I didn’t want to screw up this date.  I needed to stay in the moment.  The number of times I had to remind myself of this was inexcusable, but Alma had a way of slipping into my head.  Still, I was on my feet as swiftly as Trix to applaud the performance.  All of the actors seemed marvelous, and the overall performance was exceptional.  I only wished that I had given it my full attention.  “If you’re still free, there’s somewhere else I’d like to drag you.” announced Trix on the way out.  “You have me for as long as you want.” I told her.  “Dangerous words to tell a girl on a date, James.  I might decide to fight the universe, so I can keep you forever.” she claimed.  Laughing, I said, “No offense, but I would doubt your reach if I wasn’t busy doubting the universe would want me.”  She grinned and claimed “Then the universe is a foolish place, and I wonder if we should skip out on it.”  I shook my head and told her “Alas, but I cannot abandon my home so easily.”

 Not terribly long later, I was standing in a room filled with animals, part of an animal shelter that Trix supported.  “Sorry, James, but after seeing Annie, I just had to visit the orphelins in the orphelin’s home,” said Trix as she petted a puppy.  “Orphelins?” I asked.  “Well, I was referencing Meet Me in St. Louis, but Margaret O’Brien’s pronunciation of ‘orphan’ in that movie made me think of the French term.”  After a moment’s consideration, I had to agree that many of the animals here were comparable to orphans.  There truly was something undeniably relaxing in playing with animals, especially when a gorgeous, fun date was involved.  I felt a bit disappointed when we were told that the place needed to close for the night, but not so much to steal the smile from my face.  Trix seemed equally jubilant as we started walking back to Mila, at least until the rain started.  Late August showers could be surprisingly chilly, and this was a downpour.  We quickly ducked under a nearby awning, but I hadn’t thought of bringing an umbrella when I left.  I was tempted to just have Mila pick us up, but I quickly was distracted when Trix started talking with a man I hadn’t even seen.

 “Oh, don’t worry.  Keep the basket.” she was telling the man who now held her picnic basket.  “Thank you.  Thank you both.” he replied.  He appeared to be in pretty bad shape from the filthy state of his clothes, and I could guess he was homeless.  “Let’s duck in here, James.  I’ll kick your butt at some games.” claimed Trix.  As I was caught up in studying our company and wondering how there was so much leftover food, Trix had realized that we were standing in front of an arcade.  I was even more surprised when she pulled out a membership card.  “Come here often?” I asked, following her inside.  “Maybe.” she replied with a wink.  From shooters to air hockey, I never quite won, though I at least came close a few times.  In my defense, Trix didn’t play fair.  When we were taking turns, she’d tickle me.  On shooters, she’d block my gun if I got too close to her score.  Then when I tried to get a little payback, she proved extremely talented at playing under duress.  For some “strange” reason, I couldn’t talk her into trying the basketball game with me.  She couldn’t think that I’d use my tremendous height advantage against her, right?  Her playful grin said otherwise.  She was right.

 I finally won playing skeeball against Trix.  She almost beat me in that as well, but I managed to nudge her arm on her last shot, throwing her off just enough.  “Oh, you!  You cheated!  Against a girl!  James, how could you!?” she demanded, laughing and indignant.  “I must apologize for my clumsiness, Trix.  As you can see, my shoelace came untied.  Tripping into you right as you made your shot must’ve been pure coincidence, like when you happened to grab my butt when I was trying to beat your score at that motorcycle game.” I claimed.  “Uh huh.  Claim what you want, cheater, but I know the truth!” she replied, hitting my arm.  I glanced at my phone and was absolutely amazed to find that I was still having a great date after nearly twelve hours together.  “No-no.  No sighing and copping out after beating me in such an unfair manner.  I demand bowling, so I can have my revenge!” she announced.  I actually sighed only because of the time, thinking she’d be wanting to leave soon.  I was up for some bowling.  Luckily, the rain was passed when we looked outside, and there was a bowling alley just a couple blocks away according to my phone.  

 I made an attempt not to grin when Trix was handed a pair of bowling shoes obviously meant for children, but she hit me nonetheless before saying, “Oh, and what size do you wear, mister?”  I rolled my eyes and told the man at the counter.  Trix stared at the shoes he handed me with wide eyes before looking down at my feet.  Then she grabbed one and ran off to our lane.  “These are clown shoes!” she announced, walking around with one foot barely staying in my shoe.  “Then you’ll feel extra bad when you’re beaten by a clown.” I told her.  “But when I win, I’ll just feel like you were clowning around now.” she replied, grinning.  I laughed and put on the shoe I had.  Then I chased after Trix and carried the giggling girl back to our lane, setting her on my lap as I sat down.  “May I have my shoe back now?” I asked her.  Smiling, she told me “Maybe.” just before kissing me.  The sensation was just as incredible as the first time, and she slipped off my lap before I fully came  back to my senses.  As she handed me my shoe, she inquired, “Prepared to get your butt kicked?”  I shook my head negatively and said, “No, but I’m prepared to see you try.”

 Not staring when she bowled was difficult due to the lovely curves of her slender body, but not blushing on my turn was even more difficult with the catcalls she made.  The first game was entirely playful with shots between the legs, granny bowling, and other such silly moves.  Trix ended up winning, so I took the second game more seriously.  By the fifth frame, we both had nothing but strikes, and then on the sixth I fumbled and ended up with a spare.  To my dismay, Trix’s streak continued until she won 300 to 254.  The third game was closer, but she still won 300 to 276.  My arm was sore by the fourth, and I dropped down to 235.  She kissed my head as I was switching out my shoes and said, “Aww… Poor, James, mercilessly beaten by someone half his size.”  Her grin really was infectious.  “Maybe we’ll have to have a rematch someday, though I can’t say I’ve ever seen someone bowl three perfect games in a row before.  You definitely got some attention around here.”  By the third game, a fair number of people had been watching us play.  After the fourth, Trix earned applause and the staff was asking where she learned to bowl so well.  To my shame, I had checked if she was using magic to cheat.  At very least, she wasn’t using any that I could see, and I felt guilty for doubting her.

 The bowling alley was closing as we left, and I was amazed to find that we were out past one in the morning.  I gave pause when Trix asked “Mind walking me home, James?  We’re not terribly far away.”  We weren’t near any residential areas that I knew about.  Was she living in a hotel?  I, of course, assented and enjoyed her company as we walked.  I really wasn’t expecting us to end up at a harbor though.  Trix casually walked along the dock and guided me into an enormous yacht.  “You live in a boat?” I asked.  She nodded and said, “I own a Princess S72 to be precise.  Come aboard and let me show you around.  They’re quite cozy.”  I accepted and followed as she showed off the various lounges and bedrooms.  The yacht was far more spacious than I ever imagined a boat to be, and, despite the time, I gladly accepted when Trix offered to take me out on the river.  We used the highest helm, so we had a better view of the glowing city lights around us.  Whether from the reflections on the water or the excitement of my present company, the city’s glow seemed more breathtaking than ever before.  I smiled as I thought to myself that this was what a date should be like.

  Wearing a pale blue, button-down shirt tucked into my favorite black slacks, I left without a tie.  There was substantial debate in my mind over the tie, considering the date was starting at an art gallery, but I didn’t want to appear overdressed for the date.  I considered bringing a sports jacket as well, but the August heat was just too much for me to pull the jacket off without sweating rivers, unless I cheated.  Magic was a constant in my life these days, always tempting me to do something beyond the means of most.  I managed fine without using any magic on my past dates, but I knew there were times I considered it in the back of my mind.  Perhaps I should have saved Niele’s dress, since the wine ruining it was completely my fault.  I didn’t though.  I was trying to have a normal date, a date that wouldn’t remind me of Alma at every turn.  Today was my best chance yet, even with my memories of similar thoughts nagging at my brain.  Trix was different though.  I couldn’t say what about her was so different than the rest, but I was certain something about that girl was exceptional, even beyond her talent at gaming.  Then again, part of me needed this date to be a step above the rest just to ease my mind, negating that terrible possibility that my dating life was cursed.

 Breaking the terrible curse, assuming it did exist, would require my “A” game   I learned a fair amount at the art gallery I visited for work yesterday and hoped to use that knowledge for an edge in my date, assuming Trix was dressed for it.  Not having any means to contact her made planning a date all the more complicated.  Perhaps I should have brought a change of attire with me, but I would be late if I turned around now.  What if she had her own plan that involved paintballing or some other athletic event?  I really should have planned better, but surely she wouldn’t mind a quick shopping trip if I needed a change of clothes.  Whatever happened, I surely would be able to work things out if I just stayed calm, stayed calm with a beautiful girl patiently waiting on me in all my ineptitude.  I really should have considered asking Aaliyah for a guide to dating.  Though she lacked experience, she probably could do better research into it than I did.  Of course, there were certain thing which popped up in my own research that I didn’t feel she should be reading.  Maybe asking the little genius wouldn’t have ended well.

 When I arrived, I looked around with anxiety hastening my search.  What if the mysterious beauty didn’t show?  Being stood up two days in a row would probably shatter the slim remainder of my confidence.  My eyes eventually locked onto a pastel blue dress with lace around the neck and partway down both arms.  Trix’s shoulders were bare due to a break in the lace.  I wasn’t meaning to stare, but her legs looked fantastic all the way down to the matching pastel heels she wore.  The countless straps up to her ankle made me wonder how such shoes were even donned.  I took a calming breath before approaching her, since she didn’t seem to notice me yet.  She was staring at her phone and intently pressing the screen.  Even when I stood next to her, she didn’t look up, so I took a peek at what she was doing.  “Trying to beat my high scores?” I asked, seeing that she was playing Laser Bubbles.  “You know, this game is fairly addictive.  I actually beat the high scores I got on your phone last night, so I’m guessing you haven’t been playing.” she replied, not looking up.  “Oh.  Sorry, but I generally play Ancient Tribes of Earth when I’m home.  It’s even more addictive, and I have a guild to run.” I admitted.  She smiled and continued playing, so I took a seat next to her.  “Sorry.  I’ll be ready in a moment.  I just want to finish this stage,” she said.  

 After winning, Trix laughed and hugged me, which was unexpectedly pleasant.  I was surprisingly less nervous now than I had been while preparing this morning.  “Any chance you would enjoy going to an art gallery with me?” I asked.  “Art gallery?  Sure.  That could be fun.” she told me.  “Excellent!  Mind if I drive?” I inquired.  “Only if you’re kidnapping me,” she said with a grin.  “Well, you’ll have to be very persuasive before I’m convinced to go that far.” I claimed, though I couldn’t imagine myself doing such a thing.  As we walked to Mila, Trix had me laughing with her quick wit and amazing smile.  She had a great sense of humor.  “I love your car.  Are you a Bond fan?” she asked, taking a walk around Mila.  “Oh yeah.  My father and I love watching those movies together.  Getting this was just a lucky break though.  I worked on cars a fair amount at a friend’s father’s shop, and they got me this car as a gift.  Then Jarod, the friend, fixed it up with the help of a little genius I know.” I explained.  “A ‘little genius’?  Sounds like an interesting person.” she commented.  I nodded and said, “Yeah.  You definitely could say she’s interesting.  You’d probably get along, considering you enjoy Laser Bubbles.  She wrote it.”  Trix looked surprised and took a moment before saying, “Wow.  She must be talented.”

 We were still talking about games when I pulled into the gallery’s parking lot, resisting the urge to demonstrate Ancient Tribes of Earth on Mila’s windshield.  Any girl so interested in gaming would be impressed by my guild.  Nonetheless, I continued to resist and walked with Trix into the gallery.  We started by visiting sculptures, and I managed to regurgitate some of what I learned yesterday, which seemed to impress her.  Mother would be happy to see me taking an interest in art if a date wasn’t involved.  Well, maybe she would be just as happy to see me on a date with this girl.  Maybe.  I didn’t fully understand mother’s criteria for who I should date.  Trix and I took turns posing with statues for pictures and took a few together.  When I fumbled on a painting’s name after we moved into that section, I was surprised that Trix knew which it was.  She took over being the tour guide and showed me up well, making me worry over what I might have gotten wrong with the sculptures.  My worry had trouble finding deep rooting as the pictures continued.  Trix really lit up a room with her smile, and her laugh was even more contagious.  As I listened to her describe how a picture of the night sky made her feel, I was captivated by her words and felt moved, as if vast expansions yet unexplored to me were opening in my mind to show me a glimpse of glory I wanted to know.

 After seeing and posing with numerous paintings on countless subjects, I inquired “How would you feel about going ice skating next?  There happens to be skating rink to which we can walk from here if you’re interested in going.”  With an unfaltering smile, she said, “Sounds wonderful.  I haven’t gone skating for a while.”  More than her words or even the playful curve of her lips, I was entranced by her incredible eyes, eyes which made me relax in their familiarity.  Trix casually looped her arm around mine as we walked out of the gallery, and I was all smiles.  I knew I was grinning like an idiot as we talked our way to the rink, but things really seemed to be going well for once.  Trix was intelligent and charming, playful and sophisticated, beautiful and enjoyable; she was truly incredible, so why did I catch myself looking for a pair of violet eyes watching over us from afar?  Walking into the rink, the chill sent a shiver through me, making me wish I brought my jacket.  Trix’s warmth next to me was emphasized all the more by the cool air, and she was cuddling into me, obviously feeling the cold as well.  We rented skates and went onto the ice hand-in-hand, gliding easily together.

 Trix turned out to be a better skater than me, doing tricks I couldn’t even name.  To say she was graceful was to say the ice was slick.  Even though she far outclassed me, she was always holding my hand a second later, skating beside me when she could be soaring ahead… like Alma.  Alma was a being so much faster and stronger than me, always watching over me, and yet somehow interested in me, not what I could do for her.  I really couldn’t think of anything I could do for a girl who seemed to have everything, but…  Trix lips connected with mine as she pulled me down toward her, banishing all other thoughts from my mind.  This wasn’t my first kiss, but I might as well have never kissed a girl before for all I knew to do.  I was lost in a beautiful sensation unable to comprehend that I was supposed to do anything.  Luckily, my lips seemed to know what to do where my mind was blank, but with the parting of our lips came a moment of emptiness as I tried to cling to that amazing feeling I had known.  Those eyes gazing up at me, that sweet smile before me, and even those hands clinging to me brought the world back into focus in the most incredible way.  I was on a wonderful date not due to anything I managed to plan, but because the girl with whom I spent time was wonderful.

 Floating back to the car with her hand in mine, my heart was still racing.  A distant thought was trying to impose itself on my mind, telling me that I needed to figure out where to eat, but I couldn’t focus on food at a time like this.  When we sat in Mia’s luxurious interior, Trix surprised by pulling a basket from the back seat.  “What’s that?” I inquired.  “Our lunch, silly.  At least, I hope you don’t mind, but I put together a picnic basket thinking we could eat in a park.” she explained, seeming adorably uncertain with her smile faltering.  “I would love to try your cooking.” I blurted, obviously not thinking too clearly.  She giggled and asked told me of a park just a few minutes away.  The park turned out to be fairly small, but pretty.  Sitting amongst the trees, I could almost forget that we were in the city, even the sounds were subdued.  I spread out the sheet from the basket and we sat next to one another admiring the general splendor as we ate.  When I told her that her cooking surpassed that of most restaurants I visited recently, she blushed and said, “Thank you.  I was hoping you wouldn’t mind.”  She was so delightful that I didn’t want our date to end, but I didn’t have anything else planned.  Was she even free for much else?  I needed more time.

  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.