Portentia and I walked into the house while Mila parked herself.  “James!  You’re finally here.  Happy birthday!” exclaimed mother as she embraced me.  “Happy birthday, son.  Who is this charming lady?” asked father, shaking my hand after mother was finished hugging me.  “Huh?  Oh.  This is Portentia.  Portentia, these are my parents.” I told him.  As she nervously greeted them, Mother grabbed onto my arm and whispered into my ear “James, I don’t know how you keep finding these girls, but you really should settle on one before they really start fighting.  I can’t keep up with this.”  I sighed.  Only mother.  “Do you happen to know what is going on here?” I inquired.  “Your birthday party, of course.  Aaliyah asked us to stand in as greeters after we arrived.  She’s ran off into the crowd somewhere.” explained father.  “So you don’t live here?” asked Portentia, somewhat surprised.  “Oh, no.  Rachel and I are a bit less flamboyant than my son.” laughed my father.  Rolling my eyes, I excused myself and guided Portentia toward the ballroom with me.  The decorations were more plainly visible as we approached, and there were large piles of presents on tables near the door.  I never imagined how spectacular the mirrored room would look when filled with people.

 “Do you really know all of these people?” asked Portentia as we greeted our way through the crowd.  “Umm.. most, actually.  Some are clients.  Others went to school with me.  Then there are friends of the family and some of my parents’ business contacts.” I told her.  “Who is that little girl?  She’s adorable,” said Portentia as we drew closer to the stage that was set up against one of the eight walls.  “That’s my secretary, Aaliyah.  We’ll have to catch her between sets if I’m going to find out what’s going on here.  She never mentioned a birthday party.” I explained.  “Oh.  Really?  I swear I’ve seen her somewhere before.  Is she famous?” asked Portentia.  I slowly nodded and said, “I suppose so.”  Then Portentia turned to me inquisitively and said, “You claim to be just a ‘kid whose business is going fairly well’, yet you live in a mansion and have a celebrity as your secretary?”  I didn’t feel this was the time to explain that Aaliyah was probably more famous for other things.  Instead, I greeted someone from my track team.  “And now if you could clear the floor for my wonderful boss, he can kick off the dancing!” exclaimed Aaliyah from the stage.

 A large spotlight was shining down from the ceiling as the rest of the lights dimmed.  Portentia and I were caught in the center of the floor.  I smile and waved, not knowing what else to do.  Portentia urgently whispered “James, what’s going on?”  Between my teeth, I told her “Just follow my lead.  You’ll be fine.”  Aaliyah started singing a slow song I didn’t recognize, and the band played along with her as I listened to the song, a wide circle of onlookers around us.  I felt for Portentia, swept into this situation which was obviously making her nervous.  How did people normally view her?  She looked surreal with her perfectly white skin and royal blue dress, the makeup and tints in her hair adding to the effect.  “What are you doing?” she asked when I placed my hand on her hip.  “Dancing,” I said.  She looked horrified, and only then did I remember that she was deaf.  “Look, I’m going to be counting the beats.  Try to follow my motion and move with my counting,” I said.  I really needed to face her when speaking.  Then I quickly added “The lights!  See the flashing?  That’s in time with the music.  As long as you step with the lighting, you’ll be fine.”  Nonetheless, I counted anyways as I took the first step.

 Dancing with Portentia was different for me, requiring far more focus than I generally gave anything, really.  She slipped occasionally, but I covered for her.  Aaliyah’s choice of song seemed almost cruel with its varying rhythms, but overall, I felt we were doing well.  When the song finally ended, I was sweating, but Portentia’s hand was perfectly cool.  The crowd’s cheer was a loud barrage that she couldn’t hear.  She was smiling though, even as she clung to me.  “Ai and Mai will be singing the next number.  Please dance and have fun!” announced Aaliyah as the twins took the stage.  Portentia and I walked toward the end of the stage where Aaliyah exited.  “That was.. sorta fun, really.  Next time, could you teach me first?” asked Portentia.  Her cheeks were slightly rosy, pink blossoms on a field of snow.  “Of course.  Sorry about that.  Aaliyah can be a bit over-the-top at times,” I said, feeling I might be understating things.  When we finally reached the diminutive girl, she hugged my leg and said, “Happy birthday again, boss-man, sir!”  Then she smiled up at Portentia and signed something as she told her “Nice to meet you!”

 Portentia was obviously surprised and started signing back without saying a word.  I felt at a complete loss during the exchange.  “How did you know she was deaf?” I asked.  Aaliyah rolled her eyes and said, “I just got done explaining that, boss-man, sir.  Pay attention!  How do you like the party!?  Isn’t it great?” she happily yelled over the music.  I felt guilty for not paying more attention to Ai and Mai’s performance, but I still got myself to ask “Why didn’t I know about there being a party today?”  Aaliyah shrugged and told me “Not my fault if you don’t read the memos, boss-man, sir.  You really should invite Alma to the party, since she’s the one paying for everything.”  My heart was thudding loudly.  Alma did this?  Even after everything, Alma threw me a birthday party?  “Why?” I muttered.  Still smiling, Aaliyah told me “You know why, boss-man, sir.  Go ahead.  I’ll take care of Portentia!”  The twins were starting another song, some pop song I didn’t know by the sound.  I was tempted to stay for it, but there was a vision in my head I couldn’t ignore.  I saw Alma sitting alone in her enormous wing while a party she instigated was in full swing.  Beautiful Alma who did all this for me when I did nothing but yell at her the few times I saw her.  I banned her from most of my home, and she threw me a party.  Then I remembered dancing with her and suddenly needed to do so again.  I was running.

 When I arrived at her door, I went to knock, but the door opened before my fist touched it.  “Hello?” I asked the darkness.  Lights appeared before me, floating by each wall and illuminating a path.  Never before had I stepped into this wing, and I was surprised to see how closely in style it was to the rest of the house.  Where the twins did massive changes to their wing, this hallway had the engraved ceiling seen in other parts.  The large tapestries along the walls were a unique touch, but there were still numerous mirrors where I could surely access Mila if needed.  All of the doorways were closed along my path, but I could see paintings down several of the other halls.  When at last I reached the room at the end, the door opened for me, and I wasn’t prepared for the sight.  Alma sat at a desk with six different monitors glowing at her, each primarily filled with conversations.  A phone floated by her head, and I heard her talking to someone.  There was a frozen pizza which appeared to be cooking itself in midair while another floated in slices, one of which appeared to be waiting for Alma to take a bite.  As I stepped closer, Alma seemed to go stiff and said, “Something just came up.  I’ll call you back.  Responses appeared across several monitors at a time, all reading “We’re adjourned for now.”

 “James?  Why aren’t you at the party?  Did you not care for it?” she asked, turning her chair to face me.  Despite her small size, she looked more like a queen on a throne than someone in a desk chair, especially with how luxurious hers appeared.  “Why aren’t you?” I replied.  She rolled her eyes and said, “Someone banned me from that part of the house.  Pizza?”  She motioned toward a slice floating by me.  I was surprisingly hungry still.  “Sure.” I replied.  A table flew beside me, followed by a plate where the pizza then landed, and a chair next to the table.  A nearby teapot poured itself into a cup that took its place next to my plate.  After sitting and taking a bite, I told her “As wonderful as this is, there’s a bit more variety at the party, and I would be quite happy if you attended.”  She blinked, and I wondered what thoughts were flying behind those captivating violet eyes.  “Mila, show me the party on monitor four,” she said, looking to her computers.  My heart was racing just looking at her.  I never felt quite like this around anyone else.  “Face the wall, and know you’ll die if you peek for even a moment.” she demanded.  I was turned, my chair floating for a moment with me in it.  Before I could say a word, Alma told me “You may look now.”

 She was now wearing a floor-length, lavender dress with sheer sleeves.  Turning to the monitors again, she told me “I suppose this will have to do.  You are the most infuriating boy I have ever met.  If I would have known that you’d drop your ban so casually, I would have had something prepared.”  Smiling, I replied “You look gorgeous.”  The sound of a lion roaring broke the mood.  I turned, fearing a werelion.  “Alberich, come say ‘hello’ to James,” said Alma, kneeling down to pet the odd, little creature.  Staring up at me, was a white lion with an enormous mane, considering the cat was barely the size of a typical house cat.  Bending down for a closer look, the cat’s face was most definitely that of a lion.  “How is this possible?” I asked, wondering what sort of magic turned the king of the jungle into a cute pet.  “No idea.  Alberich was a gift from Aaliyah not long after meeting her a couple years ago.  If she wanted me to know, she would have told me.” replied Alma.  Looking into the lion’s eyes, I said, “He reminds me of someone else I just met.”  Before I finished, Alma told me “I assume you mean the albino next to Aaliyah.  White lions are not albino.  Who is she?”  Looking up at the monitor, I saw the two of them.  Oops.  I hadn’t really meant to draw more attention to Portentia.

 “I met her earlier this morning.  Her name’s Portentia.  She needed some help, so I offered her a place to stay.” I explained.  “Really.  You just happened to come across a beautiful girl in distress who was dressed for a party.” Alma stated flatly.  “Please don’t get upset.  Come dance with me, meet some people, and try to enjoy the party.” I pleaded.  She looked at me for a moment, sighed, and took my hand.  Alberich made a noise to which Alma replied “No, Alberich.  You stay here.  Be careful around Alberich if you’re ever watching him for me, James.  He’s as strong as a typical lion and as smart as an average human.”  The last was said as we started walking toward the hall, and I couldn’t help glancing back at the cat.  If she was being serious ― and I was inclined to believe she was ― Alberich was a very unique companion.  I could hardly think of a creature that intelligent as a “pet” and worried that Alma did.  “You’re taller than I remembered.” I commented as we walked.  I winced and leaned against the wall after she stomped on my foot.  “I’m in heels.  Are you going to be a proper gentleman, or should I go back to work?” she asked, arms crossed as she glared up at me.  “You really get offended too easily.  I just thought my memory was off.” I told her, trying to rub my foot through my shoe.

 “My apologies.  The past week was exceptionally stressful due to a certain boy going off with countless women.  I may have gotten slightly jealous.” she told me without looking remotely apologetic.  “Were you there yesterday?  I looked for you, but I didn’t see you anywhere.” I confided.  Taking my arm again, she said, “I’d rather not talk about it.  We’re here now, and I believe this will be an exceptional gathering.”  I wasn’t certain what I was going to do with her.  She could be sweet, she was often fiery, and she turned my world upside down without seeming to care.  Her haughty demeanor was only outmatched by her extraordinary abilities.  Yet still, for some indescribable reason, I was certain I wanted to spend more time with her.  I spent so very many months thinking about her more often than not, and I still barely knew her.  All I was certain about was her beauty, her power, and her talent for setting me on edge.  Beyond those things, she was still a mystery to me, but I knew that I was looking forward to solving that mystery.  “You are not wanting to date that albino, are you?” asked Alma before we stepped out of her wing.  Oh, this was going to be a painful mystery to solve, but I was confident that Alma was worth the effort.

  “Wow.  That looks amazing!” exclaimed Portentia.  I quickly looked behind me, but didn’t notice anything that really stood out until I caught the sign.  A man in a pinstriped suit was holding out a plate of food.  The window had text over it, saying, “I’m gonna make you a breakfast you can’t refuse.”  I never heard of Papa Stefano’s before.  “Are you hungry?” I asked.  Portentia hesitated a moment before saying, “I really don’t need to eat at all.”  She was.  “Mila, how are the reviews on that place?” I inquired.  In a sultry tone, she told me “Oh, master, the restaurant has a four-point-three star average rating out of five, and reviews claim the food is ‘to die for’.  If I had lips, I’d shared a bite with you there over and over.”  I refrained from sighing, since Mila couldn’t seem to help Emma’s influence from getting to her.  “Please drop off us there.” I replied.  “Certainly, master, but you’ll require a change of clothes.  The princess has directed me to take you around the block where you both can acquire said clothing and change.  She’s arranging reservations as I speak.”  Portentia, who was reading text projected on Mila’s windshield, looked disturbed and questioningly said, “The princess?  That’s the second time Mila’s mentioned her.”

 “Oh.  That’s a nickname for my secretary.  She’s not royalty, at least to my knowledge.” I explained.  “Okaaay.  As long as she’s not an assassin, we’re good,” said Portentia.  I blinked and, unfortunately, stuttered when I asked “An assassin?”  She nodded and told me “Yeah.  As a superhero, I hear some crazy tales.  Supposedly, there’s an assassin out there that goes by ‘the princess’.  She’s on my list of people to stop.  Goin’ around and killin’ just ain’t right, especially for profit.”  Oh boy.  Mila was certainly reporting this to Aaliyah.  Wait.  Aaliyah was arranging clothing for both of us, so… she didn’t mind?  I really hoped this wasn’t part of some elaborate assassination plan.  “Sounds pretty scary.  Aren’t you worried that she might kill you if you met?” I asked.  Portentia laughed and said, “I can’t die, remember?  I’ve been shot, stabbed, beaten, dropped from high buildings, blown up…”  The list continued until we got out of the car.  Then Portentia stopped to ask “Is this the right spot?  This place looks insanely expensive.”  Considering the suits and dresses on the manikins, I wasn’t going to argue, but I wasn’t going to argue with Aaliyah about what we needed to wear for Papa Stefano’s either.

 As we walked inside, there were several women there to greet us.  “Mr. Somerset, we’re so pleased to have you here.  We have a room set for each of you if you don’t mind coming this way,” said the tallest of the women.  “What kind of secretary do you have?” whispered Portentia.  I couldn’t blame her for being shocked, but I couldn’t really even attempt to explain Aaliyah.  “A twelve-year-old with a big imagination.” I told her, trying not to think of the previous night.  Portentia tried forming words numerous times, but she didn’t manage to actually say anything before one of the women guided her off.  My attendant guided me in a different direction and into a room with a comfortable looking chair and a small table holding refreshments in the center.  Mirrors lined the wall, providing a dizzying view of myself.  “Gentleman,” said the attendant as she clapped.  Five guys, each wearing a slightly different suit, walked out into the room, stopping in front of me and posing a few ways before forming a line.  “Are any of these to your liking?  If not, we’ll need only a moment to show you the next set.” stated the attendant.  I wasn’t accustomed to shopping like this at all.

 “Umm… The second from the left is my favorite of these.” I told her, surprised when the man took a step forward and posed again.  The lady waved her hand toward the door, and the guys all headed that way.  “We’ll show you our favorite color options momentarily,” she said, smiling at me.  The woman’s slim figure was very apparent in the tight dress she wore, and the mirrors didn’t make finding a place to look any easier.  I resigned myself to staring at my water as I waited, wondering how a place carried only suits I liked.  Picking a “favorite” might as well have been a coin flip for me, since I picked off the lack of a tie more than anything.  I didn’t really feel like wearing a tie today.  A vest could get hot under a jacket, but I could leave the jacket in Mila.  I was running out of thoughts on the suits and feeling more nervous under the attendant’s gaze when the gentleman finally came back, now wearing different colors of the suits.  I only hesitated a moment before picking the navy blue suit.  When the attendant offered to show me a variety of shoes, I assured her that the one’s the man was wearing would be perfectly fine.  After she guided me to the dressing room, I felt the thin fabric of the curtain between us wasn’t nearly enough, so I changed as quickly as I could manage.

 I was shocked at how well the suit fit, up until I noticed my surname embroidered inside the jacket.  I wasn’t going to ask how well Aaliyah knew my measurements or how she found out, but I knew this was her doing.  After briefly trying on the jacket, I walked out with it over my shoulder and inquired “How many suits did I order again?”  Without needing to check, the woman said, “Sixteen.  Is this one to your satisfaction?”  I nodded, and the woman then asked “Would you like to try on any of the others before we ship them to you?”  I declined and did my best to ignore the idea that this woman wanted to help.  “Let’s see how Portentia’s doing.” I told her.  The attendant didn’t look pleased, but showed me the way nonetheless.  When we arrived, Portentia was reclined with a sheet over her, and numerous women were fussing over her.  At least, she wasn’t assassinated.  “What’s this?” I asked, utterly confused by what I was seeing.  “I tried to tell you, but she’s not ready yet.  You might as well go back to your suits.” she stated with great exasperation evident in her voice.  “No, please.  Please stay.” came Portentia’s voice from somewhere behind the women.

 With an exaggerated sigh and turn, my attendant left.  Before I managed to become too awkward, standing in the doorway, a couple gentleman came carrying a chair for me, so I took a seat facing one of the mirrors.  I wasn’t certain why they had placed the chair facing that direction, since a mirror really didn’t stop me from seeing anything.  I did find it easier not to stare at numerous posteriors this way, so I just sat and waited.  “There.  Let’s have a look at you,” said one of the women after an indefinite period.  I looked up to see Portentia stand, wearing a short, blue dress.  There were tints of blue throughout her hair, and she wore somewhat fanciful matching makeup.  She really didn’t appear human to me so much as a beautiful piece of art.  “Does it look alright?  I normally wear red.” she commented.  “I noticed,” I said with a grin, “but you do look lovely in blue.”  She laughed and said, “I suppose you must have.”  The women around her seemed to approve as well with all of their “oohs” and “aahs”.  “Shall we go then?” I asked, offering her my arm.  Portentia seemed to feel awkward as she took it, especially as we walked out.  “I’m really not used to heels.  It’s been a while, since I tried to wear them.” she confided.  “We look forward to having you again, Mr. Somerset.  Please come back soon,” said the attendant I had as we walked out, her smile making me nervous.

 Once we were back inside Mila, Portentia seemed to relax, blurting out “I can’t believe that place.  The women are so creepy, and the clothes are completely impractical.  This was the only thing they had for me that allowed me to move well at all.  What do they do if they get in a fight?  Even in this one, I’ll be scared to tear it, and how would I get the blood out?”  I laughed.  I couldn’t help it.  The idea of her having to fight should have been horrible, but her rant made the idea quite comical in my mind.  “You could try not getting hit.” I suggested with a smile.  “Oh, yeah.  Like that’s easy.  Have you ever tried fighting four guys at once?” she inquired.  “Well, just the other day, actually.” I admitted.  “Huh?  Really?  You win?” she asked enthusiastically.  “Well, I prevented them from hurting me.” I told her.  “Oh?  So you didn’t get hit once?” she said, poking my side.  “No.  I’ve had training.  They obviously hadn’t, and they gave up fairly quickly.” I explained.  “Training?  Like what?  What do you do, anyways?  You really do seem like some sort of special agent.” she insisted.  “No, I’m really not.  My business is called Best Friend For Hire.  My employees and I are hired out as best friends to help people with whatever they need.” I explained.

 “Yeah, like that makes you sound any less agent-tee.  Seriously, what sort of best friend needs to be able to fight and use magic?” asked Portentia, her smile quite enchanting.  “Please, don’t mention magic out in public.  People we’ll think we’re nuts, or worse, take us seriously.”I pleaded.  “Yeah-yeah.  Don’t worry about it.  I know better than to go around telling everyone I’m a superhero.  Denying it to you would have been a bit rough with how you found me is all.  I know how to keep a low profile.” she claimed.  Grinning, I told her “I can see that,” and pointedly eyed her up and down before stepping out of the car again.  She punched my arm when I reached the sidewalk, surprisingly hard, and said, “Oh, shut up.”  Walking into Papa Stefano’s arm-in-arm, we found that the place really was elegant, reminding me of the classier places in old mobster movies where everyone dressed to impress.  All of the tables and booths were made of finely finished wood, embellished with decorative carvings.  Individually lit paintings hung between each of the red windows, and even the ceiling was a mix of stained glass backed by lighting and more intricately carved wood.  Unlike most places I frequented, the benches here were all joined together, curving toward the wall and back out with the center of each curve hosting a table.  The entire center of the restaurant was a round bar surrounded by countless chairs.

 “Is it really alright if we eat here?” inquired Portentia as she nervously gripped my arm, her strength making me fear I might bruise.  “Don’t worry about it.  You’re a superhero, remember?” I whispered.  She pursed her lips and glared at me, but that quickly broke into a smile.  A somewhat rotund, well-dress man came up to us and asked “You kids have a reservation?”  I nodded and said, “Check under ‘Somerset’, please.”  The man looked surprised for a moment before saying, “Marco’s boss?  Hey, guys, this is the kid Marco’s always talking about.”  I quickly found myself shaking numerous hands while trying to remember names.  From the stories I was being told, this was apparently one of Marco’s favorite places to try picking up girls, and I really didn’t want to know as much detail as I was getting.  Poor Portentia was blushing as bad as I surely was at some of them.  Still, these seemed like pretty good men, the type that would have your back if needed.  “So how did you meet Marco?” I asked eventually.

 “He never told you?  Well, listen here.  I was running this place as normal when this putz comes in here already half-loaded and orders my penne all’arrabbiata.  When he gets it, he takes one bite and spits it out, right in front of me.  Then he goes on about how ‘this is not a arrabbiata sauce’ and storms into the kitchen before anyone can grab him.  Slippery chef you got there, by the way.  My guy, Louis, is terrified of this raging drunk at first, but stopped us when we ran back there.  Despite being drunk, Marco was whirling around the kitchen like a man possessed.  When he finished, he shoved a spoonful of sauce in front of me and said, ‘Now this.  This is arrabbiata.’  Then he promptly passed out.  We put him in a corner till he came to.  Then he was all apologetic and taught Louis a few recipes to make up for all the fuss.  We won an award off his pasta last month, and it’s been great for business.  Anyways, Marco still comes around and helps out once in a while.  My regulars like him, so I got no complaints.  He’s a great guy as long as you don’t mess up his food.” explained Stephen, who supposedly went by “Stefano” to make his place seem more authentic.

 When I went to pay the bill, Stephen told me “Hey, now.  Put that away.  I can’t let Marco’s boss pay, especially when it’s your birthday.  It’d be bad for business.”  I thanked him.  As we walked out, Portentia said, “I didn’t catch half of what was being said in there, but now I really feel bad.  I can’t believe you’re doing all this for me on your birthday.  Why didn’t you tell me!?”  I told her not to worry about it and assured her that I was enjoying the company, which she didn’t take well, telling me that she was going to pay me back sometime.  I could hardly believe how high the sun was already, and I hadn’t even slept yet, not that I felt tired.  Still, I was looking forward to relaxing for a bit after showing Portentia the house, but I was met with another surprise as Mila pulled up the drive.  The number of cars filling up the lot was astounding, and I was a bit impressed that there was still room for Mila to slip through.  I turned back to Portentia, planning to explain that I had no clue what was going on here, but she was staring up at the house.  Just above a whisper, she told me “Okay.  You win.  I’ll be your sidekick.”

  The sun was rising, so I walked toward the lake, thinking that such a sight as the sun over the water would be relaxing.  I didn’t understand why I felt so awake, but I was attributing it mostly to the bizarre array of information thrown at me.  The day Aaliyah revealed to me that she was an assassin, I was horrified by the idea.  Finding out that she could shapechange and went on many dates with me over the past couple weeks was no less horrifying, albeit in a slightly different way.  She was only twelve.  How did such a strange plan ever get in her head?  Between her murderous job and blazing intellect, not to forget a mental internet connection, I supposed she was exposed to a great many things beyond her years.  Nonetheless, I felt there was something inherently wrong with a girl losing her childhood so quickly.  Yet that might explain why she acted so very childlike at times.  Perhaps she enjoyed playing games so very much because her youth was, in a way, stolen from her when she was made into a cyborg.  Then again, I generally enjoyed her games immensely, so I couldn’t really call them childish without admitting myself to act like a child.  I preferred thinking myself to be somewhat mature.

 Would a mature person try avoiding what was really bothering me?  Sure, the revelations about Aaliyah weren’t an enjoyable surprise, but if I was to be honest, the revelations about myself were more disturbing.  How many people have I unintentionally influenced throughout my life?  The only girl who was apparently safe from me was the same one who had manipulated me over the past few months.  As much as I’d like to say that my accidental influence was a lesser evil than her intentional machinations, I wasn’t entirely sure that was the case.  Even if Aaliyah was right and I truly didn’t strip away free will, I still altered people’s view of me, and who could say how much that altered their lives.  I felt like like I should go to every person I ever met and apologize, but there was no reasonable way to do it.  I wasn’t about to prove the existence of magic to anyone, not knowing that such knowledge could put them at risk.  What was I going to do?  Ignore gunshots?  Wait.  Gunshots?  I jumped up against the nearby building, only then realizing I heard the sound of fighting nearby.  A gun fired again, and I peeked around the corner.  

 There was a very bloody girl with a metal trash can lid about to hit a guy over the head.  Spotting a second guy on the ground behind her lifting a gun, I called “Look out!”, but I was too late.  The girl was shot through her back, and blood spurted out on the man she would’ve hit.  I knocked the gun to the side with a spell, and hit the two conscious men over the head with another.  They should survive it easily.  Three others were unmoving on the ground already.  As I approached the girl, I wondered at how she was still standing.  There was so much blood on her, and so many holes through her hoodie.  She looked bewilderedly at the man who had dropped in front of her for a moment before noticing me.  “Let’s get you to a hospital.” I told her.  She shook her head, and then moved her hands in front of her as she said, “We need to tie these guys up for the cops.”  I wasn’t sure what to say in response, especially when she pulled duct tape out of her hoodie and seriously started taping the nearest guy’s wrists together.  “You know you could bleed to death, right?” I asked, taking note of how much blood was already on the ground in the area.  How was she standing?

 The strange girl ignored me, and started taping the man’s ankles together.  The alley in which we stood was lit by a single light above an open doorway, next to a broken camera.  There were several other guns on the ground as well as a large, bloody knife.  I created a spell to move all the weapons away from the men and under the black van which blocked the alley, not wanting my fingerprints on any of them.  The girl was wearing red gloves, and I hoped the red wasn’t from her blood.  As I watched her, I wondered how many times this girl had bound people with tape, since she seemed pretty quick at it.  No response.  “So what happened here?  Why were you fighting these men?” I asked.  Again she didn’t respond, so I tried once more.  Still nothing.  After binding the last man, the girl grabbed a couple duffel bags from near the open doorway and tossed them inside, shutting it afterward.  Turning to me, she asked “Care to go on a date?”  Was she insane?  I texted Mila to come get me.  “My car’s coming.  I’ll get you to the hospital, okay?” I told her.  She frowned at me, and all I could do was worry about the pallor of her skin.  She was incredibly white, like all color had seeped out of her.

 “So, uh… I don’t really need a hospital.  I’ll take you up for some coffee if I can find a place to clean up first.  My name’s Portentia Zhidkova.” she told me, taking off her glove and holding out her hand.  There was residual energy covering her, so I didn’t want to touch her, worrying about inadvertently making her like me.  “My name is James.  I’m sorry, but I don’t want to accidentally affect you with magic,” I said as I glanced back to look for Mila.  Portentia grabbed my face and turned it to her.  “I can’t read your lips when you’re not looking at me.” she explained.  “Oh.” I mouthed.  Her hand motions were sign language.  “Sorry.  I didn’t realize you were deaf.” I confided.  She was smiling, obviously not offended.  Was my magic already doing its work?  “Look I ummm.. well.. I have this magic that might be causing you to like me.  I can’t help it, but it’s more potent when you touch me due to the energy on your skin.” I dumbly explained.  “Sounds handy.  I bet that really helps you keep a girlfriend.  You wouldn’t have anything that can get blood out of my shirt, do you?” she asked.  I hadn’t thought of it till she mentioned it, but I probably could help her if I acted swiftly.

 “If we hurry to the lake, I can.” I told her.  She shrugged and told me to lead the way.  I started jogging, and Portentia easily kept pace, despite her injuries.  Poor Mila was probably wondering if I was playing a game with her.  Even jogging, Mila caught us before we got to the lake.  “Whoa.  Where’s the driver!?” asked Portentia.  “Oh.  Yeah.  Portentia, meet Mila, my car.” I told her.  “Master, is all that blood fresh?  She’ll stain my seats,” said Mila when I opened the door.  “I’ll clean you.  Don’t worry.” I told her, as I motioned for Portentia to step inside.  “Wow… I really need your toys.  Are you some sort of secret agent?  A superhero like me?  Who are you?” inquired Portentia.  “Wait.  Superhero?  What are you talking about?” I asked.  “Well, you have this crazy car, and can use magic.  That sounds pretty super to me,” she said.  “Umm… oh.  I never really thought of it like that before.  I’m honestly just a kid whose business is going fairly well.” I claimed.  Laughing, she replied “Fairly well?  This car had to cost a fortune.  I’m totally looking for a sidekick if you’re interested.”  I was glad that Mila could drive, so I could more easily talk toward Portentia, but I couldn’t believe this conversation.

 “How are you able to take a bullet without needing a hospital?” I inquired.  She shrugged and said, “I have superpowers.  That’s why I decided to become a superhero.”  I was impressed that the girl hadn’t passed out yet.  “Are you some type of therianthrope?  Werewolf of werelion perhaps?” I asked nervously.  There truly was something strange about her, beyond how white her hair was.  Even her eyelashes were white where there wasn’t blood.  “You’re an albino?” I half-asked, half-stated.  “Nope.  No cool shapechanging.  Not the sharpest tool in the shed, are we.” she replied mirthfully.  I was probably blushing, but I couldn’t help being surprised.  I never met someone who was deaf or albino, so someone who was both was doubly new for me.  Mila parked on the street when we got close to the lake.  I asked Portentia to step out of the car for a second.  She was such a mess.  Her hair was matted down with drying blood.  There was blood on both arms, all over her clothing, and sticking to her legs.  The sharp contrast of the blood red and the white of her skin made me shiver inside.  No normal person could survive with so much blood loss.  The men that did this hardly looked injured in comparison, just battered and bruised a bit.

 I carefully pulled water over to us, cleansing it of impurities as the twins taught me.  Portentia poked the floating ball of water as it approached her, and I carefully casted various spells to pull the blood into the water, purify the water, and repeat.  I slowly walked around her as I worked.  There were so many holes in her clothing from the fight, but I didn’t see any wounds or scarring as I cleaned.  Her skin was, for lack of a better word, perfect, an unblemished white canvas that was losing its paint.  I was feeling more thankful for the lessons on manipulating blood than I had been previously.  I looked her over again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and noticed a faint pink hue on her cheeks.  I truly wasn’t leering, just trying to be thorough.  “Oh, master, I was so worried.  Blood stains would be quite the disfigurement for me.  Can you imagine what the princess would say if she saw me in such a state?” commented Mila as I worked.  Knowing Aaliyah wasn’t bothered by blood, anything she said would probably be some sort of bad joke.  “If you have a spell to mend clothes, you’ll make the best sidekick ever.” added Portentia as I finished removing the blood on Mila’s seats.

 “Sorry, but I don’t know any way to do that with magic.” I told her as I looked down into her eyes.  They were an unbelievably light shade of blue, as if they barely had color at all.  “That’s too bad.  I’ll still take you on if you want.” she replied.  “Umm… sorry.  I don’t really want to abandon my employees.  So what was that about in the alley?” I asked.  “I told you.  I’m a superhero.  Those guys were robbing a bank, so I stopped them.” she claimed.  “How did you know about the robbery?” I asked.  There really wasn’t anymore blood appearing that I could see.  How did she heal so quickly?   “Well, I was sorta chillaxing in the alley.  I’m new to the area, and don’t have a place to stay yet,” she said.  “Most people go for hotels.” I commented.  Portentia then told me “I tend to get by day-to-day, so I don’t really have the cash for a hotel.  Plus, they tend to want credit cards.  I don’t have those either.”  I felt sorry for the girl.  “Don’t worry about me.  I don’t really need food and don’t sleep.” she claimed.  My thoughts must have been showing on my face.  I knew inviting a stranger home was crazy, but so was everything else today.  “Care to stay with me for a while?” I asked, gesturing to Mila’s open door.  Portentia blinked and looked surprised.  “If you’re sure you have room… I’ll try to stay out of the way.” she replied.  This girl was in for a shock.

  “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.