Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation
By: Light Clark

Synopsis: Ashton is a selfish failure of a man until a mysteriously bracelet decides to force him to make more of his life.

Warning: This story is 'technically' set in the Whateley universe. It uses no characters or places from that universe; just borrows a few terms and general thematics. It is certainly not canon.

Chapter 01

Everything was absolutely perfect. I had my feet kicked up on the empty seat beside me as I reclined in my own chair. In my earbuds, smooth jazz played, mellow and somnolent. That was probably why I was at best half awake, dozing away the wee hours of the night in languid tranquility. Even the intermittent dreams that came to me were wonderful, warm, and full of pleasant things.

Suddenly, that perfect cozy little dream shattered as something kick the chair beneath me hard. Gasping in surprise, I jerked awake, nearly flailing myself right out of my chair. Luckily, I managed to catch myself before I took the painful spill onto the floor, but that was the extent of my luck.

“What the fuck?!” I growled, yanking the buds from my ears as I twisted around in my chair to see who had kicked me. When I saw who it was, I winced at my stupidity.

Standing there with an angry look on his face was my boss, one Mr. Duncan Ganver. He was in pretty good shape for an old guy. His potbelly didn’t dent out his security guard uniform quite as far as mine did, and while his hair was mostly gray, it was a good deal thicker than my muddy brown widow’s peak. We were even the same mediocre five-nine. It made me dread what I’d look like in twenty years when I was fifty one like him.

“That’s what I should be asking you!” Duncan barked back. “You’re supposed to be watching the God damn cameras, Ash, not taking a God damn nap!”

“And I was,” I tried ineffectually to lie. “I literally just closed my eyes for a second.”

Duncan rolled his eyes at that. “Well I’m sick of you just closing your eyes for a second or just having a couple beers before work or just getting a little high in the security room. I don’t care if your brother did fix my knee. If I catch you do any of that shit again or any new shit you come up with, you’re fired. D’ya understand me?”

That ultimatum prompted my second wince of the conversation. I couldn’t afford to lose this job too. It was the best job that I’d had in years – good pay and almost no actual work. “Yes, sir. I read you loud and clear.”

“Good. Now get your ass out of here and go do rounds. I don’t want to have to look at you,” Duncan ordered.

“Yes, sir,” I mumbled, quickly scooting out of my chair.

Sliding my way past my still glowering boss, I hurried out of the security room. What awaited me outside was the floor of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The lights were turned low thanks to the late hour, but it was still a rather grand looking place. The first few nights that I’d worked there, I’d been sort of awed by it as I’d roamed the floors. I wasn’t really a history buff or anything, but without any visitors to crowd the exhibits, it had felt like getting my own personal tour of the world. Of course, two months later, it might as well have just been decked out in cheap carpet, fluorescent lights, and cardboard cubicles, because it was just another workplace to me.

“Damn it,” I grumbled in annoyance. “Why can’t that old fart just lighten up? It’s not like it’s the end of the world if I take a quick nap or get a little high. Dude needs to get that stick out off his butt and learn to have a little fun.”

The museum’s only answer was the echo of my own words coming back to me. I liked to think of that as the place agreeing with me. It was saying the exact same things that I was, after all.

Whether the museum agreed with me or not, didn’t really change anything. I still had to go on rounds, and with Duncan in the security room, he would be able to see on the cameras if I tried to slack off. With a weary sigh, I started on my trek through the huge building.

Doing rounds was my least favorite part of the security gig. The reason why was quite obvious before I’d even gotten all that far at all - namely that I was not in great shape. Less than halfway through the task, my back was aching and I was puffing a bit for breath. One might think I’d be more used to doing this, but avoiding this particular assignment was one of the things that I actually worked hard to do. Whatever it took, notes from my doctor brother, random complaints, even occasionally just doing my job well, if it got me on camera duty, I did it. For the most part it had worked, though, Brett had said that he was getting pretty tired of me constantly bugging him for excuses.

“Hey, Ash,” my radio crackled to life with Duncan’s voice. “We’ve got a camera out at the loading dock in acquisitions. Go check on it.”

Hearing the order elicited a sigh from me as I grabbed my radio from my belt. I didn’t want to trek halfway across the building to check on some camera, and I sure as hell didn’t want to walk in on a criminal on the off chance that there actually was one for once. “Are you sure? It’s probably just a computer glitch. We could just have the tech guys look at it tomorrow.”

“Jesus, Ash. Man up, and go check on the damn camera,” Duncan growled over the radio.

I sighed yet again, before responding, “Yes, sir.”

Returning my radio to my belt, I turned and started toward acquisitions. It was a part of the museum that I rarely had any reason to visit. The section was mostly for storing and researching random junk that was donated to the museum. The artifacts back there usually wasn’t very valuable and the labcoat guys that worked with them didn’t like idiots like me poking around and possibly damaging irreplaceable relics and expensive lab equipment.

After a quick trek across the floor, my security key card got me into the staff area of the museum. From there, it was a series of hallways and small rooms to get to the acquisition area in the back of the building. Another swipe of my key card unlocked the door to the loading dock as well, allowing me to step inside. The sight that awaited me caused me to freeze in place.

The area was even more of a mess than usual, with random crap strewn about the floor in addition to the various loading equipment and crates that usually filled the loading area. In the midst of the mess was a woman in a black trench coat. At least, I assumed it was a woman from the long golden hair that flowed down her back. She was in the midst of digging through a crate that had been left on one of the workbenches – or at least she had been. The sound of the door opening had her twisting her head around toward me, revealing the glossy, black, full-faced mask that looked like it was carved from stone.

“Freeze, rent-a-cop,” the woman commanded, raising a hand to point it at me.

Having no idea what powers she might have, if she had any at all, I immediately raised my own hands non-threateningly. No way was I risking my life for some old junk. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Compliant. Good,” the woman noted when I promptly obeyed. “Now, walk over to me, slowly.”

With plenty of trepidation in every step, I started toward the woman. She didn’t move a muscle as I walked; just stared at me impassively. Her arm didn’t even quiver from the effort of holding it extended.

“Now, kneel over there, facing the wall,” the woman instructed, using her free hand to point to the wall a few feet to the side.

Once again, I did exactly as asked, kneeling down against the wall. No more orders came from the woman. All I could hear was the soft sound of rustling as she went back to the task of digging through the junk in the box.

For several long moments, I just knelt there against the wall, arms and knees both protesting the awkward position, until finally my radio squawked. “Ash? You better not be slacking off in there. Report on the damn camera already.”

“Tell him that you’re still investigating the camera but that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it,” the woman instructed.

Not wanting to do anything that might get me killed, I slowly reached down to grab the radio from my belt. “I-I’m s-still looking into it, Duncan, but it seems fine. No sign of any tampering.”

“Fine, just leave it then and get back to your rounds,” Duncan directed. “And don’t dawdle.”

“Y-Yes, sir,” I replied, hoping that I’d done well enough to appease the woman.

From behind me, the woman sighed right before she snactched the radio from my hand. A moment later, I heard the crunch of metal being crushed. “Since I’m short on time, I’m going to have you help me. Open that box on the left and start looking for a copper bracelet with an emerald set in it. If we find it before I need to go, you live. If not, you die. Understand?”

Always motivated when my life is on the line, I nodded energetically. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good, then get to work,” the woman directed before turning right back to her own crate.

Rising from my knees, I reached out toward the crate that I’d been told to open, hands shaking with fear. I knew that I had to hurry. Duncan wasn’t going to give me a lot of time to show up on the cameras before he radioed me again. When I failed to answer, he’d know what was up and sound the alarm. After that, it was just a matter of time before law enforcement would arrive, and I’d either be stuck as a hostage or dead.

Grabbing a nearby crowbar, I pried the crate open, revealing a mess of old junk that ranged from a silver tea set to a crudely painted wooden stick. That part barely registered with me, though, as all I noticed was a distinct lack of a copper bracelet. As such, I dug into the hodgepodge collection, yanking things out and tossing them aside as I searched for the item.

The first crate’s contents vanished quickly, but there was no sign of a bracelet, so I just grabbed the next box. Tearing into it, I dug through it’s equally random mess of junk, going so fast that I frequently jabbed or cut my fingers on various objects. It didn’t matter, though. I could spare a little blood, just as long as I found what the woman wanted.

The problem was that speed didn’t seem to make the bracelet appear. The second box emptied without a sign of it, forcing me to move on to the third. I ripped through its contents as well, shoveling them out over my shoulder like I was digging a ditch not handling potentially priceless artifacts. The contents inside dwindled, fueling my desperation, as I knew my remaining time was ticking away.

Adding to my desperation was the increasing sounds of frustration from the woman behind me. She no longer merely tossed unneeded objects aside, but smashed them to vent her fury. Every crunch and crack caused me to cringe, as images of my bones making those exact same sounds played through my mind.

Finishing another crate, I shoved it out of the way so that I could get to the next. I pried open the lid, and my eyes lit up. Resting there on the top of the pile was a cylinder of shiny copper with a large emerald set in the face. It had to be what that the woman was looking for.

“I think I –” I began to say, just before a loud crash interrupted me.

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Chapter 02

Jumping in surprise, I turned toward the crashing sound, half expecting to die where I stood. Across the room the regular door that led outside was smashed inward, rent almost clean off its hinges. Standing beside it was not death, but a muscular, black-haired man in blue and white spandex with a half-mask covering most of his face.

Just as my mind realized that this was some hero come to rescue me, a bolt of pure black shot across the room from somewhere beside me. The hero barely managed to get his arms up before the bolt could slam into his face. Instead, it struck the man’s forearms before ricocheting back across the room – right toward me.

Frozen in a mix of fear and disbelief, all I could do was stand there and watch as the bolt careened toward me. It was quite fast, and yet oddly slow, as if time itself had changed to make me watch my doom for even longer than was necessary. Either way, it was inevitable.

As luck would have it, the bolt’s aim wasn’t quite perfect. Instead of knocking my head off my shoulders, it slammed into one of those shoulders. A loud crack preceded the blossoming of the most excruciating pain that I had ever felt in my life. It was like my shoulder had been smashed into a puddle.

The next thing I knew, I was on the ground, surrounded by broken bits of artifacts and boxes. Intense pain still wracked my body, but not quite at the level where it drove all thought from my mind. That didn’t stop me from curling up with my hand clutching my shoulder as I moaned in pain, wishing someone would save me.

Over my pained whimpers, I could hear the crashes and blasts of the two supers fighting each other. A bolt of black energy slammed into a nearby crate, tearing it apart. Splinters from the blast pelted me, slicing shallow bloody lines into my skin. I hardly even felt those, though. Compared to my shoulder, they were nothing.

Suddenly, the loudest crash yet echoed through the room, followed by the sound of a metal door smashing into concrete. Lifting my head a little, I could see that the metal door of the loading dock had been blasted out onto the pavement behind the building. The gap where it had stood served as the perfect escape route for the woman in black as she lifted up into the air and took off into the night.

“Get back here!” I heard the hero yell before he took off in pursuit.

“Wait!” I tried to shout after him, but only managed a pained croak. Even that faded away as I made the mistake of trying to reach out with my injured arm.

Blinding pain took thought away from me again, leaving me with nothing but a timeless moment of agony. When it faded, I heard the sounds of new voices, faint but not too far off. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, though. It was like a whisper that was just a bit too quiet to hear. A moment later, they faded into a black nothingness along with everything else in the world.

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Darkness was suddenly a blinding white, forcing me to squint my eyes which had apparently opened on their own. Fighting through the ocular pain, my world started to come into focus, gaining blurry shapes that quickly grew distinct. Those shapes turned out to be the interior of a hospital room. Having a brother who was a doctor, I knew the look quite well, from the neutral cream walls, to the slightly cheap and sparse furnishings.

“Morning, bro,” a familiar male voice greeted my awakening, forcing me to lift my head up enough to look over at one of the chairs along the wall. In it sat my brother, Brett.

Upon first seeing Brett and me together, people were always shocked to learn we were related at all, much less brothers. It was easy to see why, though. Unlike me, he was quite handsome, with a toned athletic build, marvelous brown hair that showed no signs of thinning like mine had, and he usually sported a friendly smile as well. He was the quintessential male doctor. A female fantasy made flesh.

Of course, there was a reason for such a difference between us. After all, Brett was a mutant while I was not. In addition to stunning good looks, it had also given him a healer’s touch – quite literally. That power had made him an amazing reconstructive surgeon. Better results than a normal doctor could hope for, plus nearly no downtime. Naturally, that meant he got to add considerable wealth to his list of winning attributes – not that I was jealous or anything.

“Well now I know I’m not in heaven,” I joked, voice raspy. “There’s no way a lucky bastard like you would ever die.”

Laughing, Brett rose from his seat to walk over to me. “You’re a pretty lucky bastard, too, Ash. The EMTs didn’t think you’d make it to the hospital alive, much less survive surgery.”

“Well, I’m guessing you had something to do with that second part,” I replied, tilting my head to look at my injured right shoulder. I couldn’t see what kind of shape it was in, between the blankets and my hospital gown, but I could feel that it was bound in bandages. It wasn’t just my shoulder that was bound either. My upper arm had been bound against my chest, preventing me from moving it around. I was able to flex my fingers at least, which was good, but it felt weird – numb and sluggish.

“I did what I could, but it was lucky you got to keep the arm at all. Your shoulder was a mess,” Brett informed me, as he saw where I was looking. “It should be usable for day to day stuff, but it’ll never be the same.”

As my brother talked, I kept on flexing my fingers, seeing if they got any better with movement. They seemed to loosen up a little bit, but that was about it. “I see …”

“On the bright side, with a chronic shoulder injury, you’ll be able to get workman’s comp,” Brett tried to brighten things up. “If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to work again.”

“Well then I shoulda gotten myself almost killed years ago,” I remarked, chuckling softly.

Brett grinned. “Or you could’ve just not blown through all your college money getting high and gotten a decent job.”

“Fuck that. Not worth it,” I scoffed derisively.

“Well then this should be another upside for you,” Brett noted as he pulled a small piece of paper from his pocket. “Prescription painkillers just in case.”

“This just keeps getting better and better,” I responded, a smile creasing my face. “Now, why don’t you really make my day and tell me when I’m getting outta here?”

Brett shrugged. “I’ve got some tests to do to check your arm’s mobility first, but assuming those go well, tonight or tomorrow.”

“If it’s ready to move around, why is it bound in place?” I inquired, glancing back at my arm again.

“Mostly just to keep you from wrenching it when you came to,” Brett answered. “You’re gonna need to take it easy on it for a little while as well. It would be best if you keep it in a sling until I say otherwise.”

I nodded. “Sure thing, doc. I still got ol’ lefty to keep me entertained.”

Brett rolled his eyes at my remark. “Yeah … anyway … if you want, I can cut you out of those bandages real quick and we can do those tests.”

I shrugged … well half-shrugged as my right arm wouldn’t move much. “Sure, let’s do it.”

“Be right back,” Brett told me before heading out of the room. He returned a few moments later with some medical scissors. Once he was back, Brett was all business, taking his job seriously even when it was something as simple as checking my supposedly healed shoulder. He used the bed remote to sit me up before sliding my hospital gown off my shoulders.

“Try not to enjoy the show too much,” I joked lamely.

Brett just ignored me as he continued his work. Carefully, he slid the scissors into position, causing a chill to run down my spine as the cold metal touched me. After that, it was just a few snips before he pulled the bandages away and I got my first look at my shoulder.

The first thing that I noticed was that Brett’s work was as amazing as ever. The only readily visible oddities on my shoulder were the pinkness of my skin, and the slight puckering in a few areas that indicated minor scarring. Once the new skin’s tone evened out, it would be hard to tell that I’d ever even had a shoulder injury.

“Be careful with it,” Brett instructed, once the bandages were off.

With a slight nod, I took my first movement with my arm, lifting it a little – carefully, of course. The moment I did, though, I could tell that the inside wasn’t as pristine as the outside would lead me to believe. The joint was very stiff, painfully so, and didn’t move around smoothly, occasionally catching on something in there. It also suffered from the same sluggishness and diminished sensation that I’d felt when flexing my fingers earlier, clearly a sign of some nerve issue. Still, it was way better than not having an arm at all.

As I toyed with my arm, I lifted it higher, enough so that the blanket that covered the lower half of it fell away, revealing something unexpected. There on my wrist was a slim band of copper with a sparkling emerald set in it. Having nearly died over the thing, I recognized it instantly.

“What the hell?!” I gasped at the sight of the bracelet the masked woman had been after. “Why am I wearing this?”

“What?” Brett questioned. “You mean the bracelet? Isn’t it yours?”

I gave him an incredulous look. “Do I look like the kind of guy that would own something like this?”

“No, but you were wearing it when they brought you in,” Brett explained. “We couldn’t take it off you either. The latch is broken or something.”

Hearing that, I raised my hand up in front of my face to inspect the bracelet. The back side of it had a little hook latch that didn’t look like it could possibly be that difficult to open. Sure enough, just getting my thumb under it popped it open easily. Immediately, a hidden hinge behind the emerald did it’s work, and the bracelet fell into my lap.

“How’d you do that?” Brett questioned, clearly surprised.

“Are you kidding? It was easy. It just popped open with a little tug,” I answered, furrowing my brow in confusion.

Eyes wide, Brett just stared at the bracelet. “I swear, we had like four people try to get that off you. If it had been in the way, we would’ve had to resort to cutting it.”

“Well it’s a good thing you didn’t because it belongs to the museum. That masked villain lady was looking for it too, so it must be really valuable,” I noted, looking down at the bracelet. It didn’t really look like much. Actually, it was rather plain. The jewel was quite large, though, so I supposed that was what the woman was after. It was either that or it was some really valuable artifact, but if that was the case, it didn’t make sense for it to be just stuffed in some random crate. “Anyway, let’s get these tests finished up already.”

“Right … the tests … sure …” Brett mumbled dazedly. A quick shake of his head brought back his focus, though, allowing him to get back to checking out my shoulder.

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Chapter 03

“Well, looks pretty good, considering the shape it was in last night,” Brett declared when he finally finished examining my shoulder. “You’ll definitely need some physical therapy to loosen it up, though. I’ll give you some exercises to do.”

That news got a groan from me. “Ugh … I hate exercise.”

“Yeah, well, you’ll hate it a lot more not being able to reach anything above your head, so you’re doing it if I have to drag you into my office every day and get one of my nurses to walk you through it,” Brett retorted.

I perked up a little. “Really? Is Beth still working for you?”

Immediately, Brett was glowering at me. “She is, but I’ll stick you with Liz. You know, the husky sadist that loves to hear her patients squeal.”

I shuddered at the thought. “Fine, fine, I’ll do the damn exercises.”

“That’s what I thought,” Brett remarked before changing the subject. “Anyway, I’m going to go review your x-rays and then get started on getting you released. Try not to move your arm around too much and buzz the nurse desk if you need me.”

“Alright, see ya,” I told Brett.

Giving me a quick nod in farewell, my brother headed out the door. As soon as I was alone, I let out a weary sigh, silently thanking whoever might be looking out for me for the fact that I was still alive. When that black bolt had been rocketing at me, I’d been sure that I was toast.

“Woulda sucked to die for some shitty old trinket,” I muttered as I reached for the tv remote to find something to entertain me while I waited. I never even got the TV on, though, before I heard the sound of the door opening.

“Mind if I come in?” Duncan questioned from over by the door.

I shrugged. “Sure, why not.”

“Thanks,” Duncan replied as he walked over to my bed. “You look pretty good for someone they say almost died.”

“Well that’s my brother for ya,” I responded. “He’s really good at his job.”

Duncan nodded. “Yeah, I remember. Anyway, I uh just wanted to say that I’m glad you’re alright. The museum has your medical bills all covered along with paid medical leave, of course. You’re job will be waiting for you when you get better, too, although, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to come back after what happened.”

“I probably won’t. Even Brett isn’t enough of a miracle working to completely fix my shoulder,” I explained.

Duncan nodded again. “Yeah … that’s uh … no surprise. I uh saw what you looked like before he got to you. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Yeah … it didn’t feel pretty either,” I remarked. “Oh … by the way …” I segued as I turned to the little stand next to my bed to grab the bracelet. “You should take this. It belongs to the museum. Plus, I think it’s what that bitch was looking for. Somehow it got brought in here with me.”

“Really? Huh …” Duncan muttered as he reached out to take the bracelet. “Doesn’t look familiar.”

“It was in one of the crates in acquisitions. I guess it’s part of some collection that got donated,” I explained.

For a moment, Duncan peered at the bracelet before shrugging. “Well whatever. I’ll get one of the labcoats to tell me what it is.”

“Let me know what they say. I’d like to know what I almost died for,” I told him.

Nodding, Duncan turned toward the door to go. “Sure thing, Ash. I’ll give you a call when I know more.”

“Alright. See ya,” I responded.

Still nodding, Duncan turned the bracelet over in his hand as he walked slowly toward the door. Clearly, he was as curious about what made the trinket so special as I was. That was no surprise, really. Someone breaking into the museum was a strange occurance, after all.

Turning back to the TV, I reached for the remote to turn it on as I heard the door open. I also heard Duncan step outside, but the door never clicked close. Instead, the older man gasped, “What the hell?”

Confused, I looked up to see Duncan come back into the room. “What’s the matter?”

“The bracelet … it’s gone …” Duncan stammered, staring down at his empty hands.

“What?” I questioned, thoroughly confused how someone could lose something that they were literally holding in their hands. “Did Brett put you up to this or something?”

“Brett? Why would he …” Duncan began, trailing off when he looked up at me. Instantly, his eyes widened and locked onto my lap.

Furrowing my brow in confusion, I looked at my lap as well to see what duncan was looking at. Resting there on my wrist, was the copper bracelet, it’s emerald sparkling in the light. It was like I’d never taken it off at all. “What the hell?”

“That thing just vanished from my hand when I walked through the door,” Duncan noted as he and I both stared at the bracelet.

Not wanting to believe that I had some magic bracelet that I couldn’t get rid of, I quickly worked the latch to get it off. Once it popped free, I offered it to Duncan again, making sure to keep my eyes on him, so that it couldn’t possibly be some kind of trick. “You’re gonna try it again.”

“Okay ... “ Duncan replied uncertainly. Accepting the bracelet he started toward the door again.

This time, I watched Duncan until his body blocked my view of the bracelet, then I immediately switched to looking at my wrist. I heard the door open again for Duncan to step outside. A moment later, the bracelet was just back on my wrist again.

“Well fuck,” I muttered, not happy at all. After all, some crazed woman had been willing to kill for the stupid thing and now I was stuck with it.

While I pondered how bad my situation had just gotten, Duncan walked back over to my bed. “I guess it’s one of those power stone things you hear about in the news sometimes.”

“Yeah, but what does it do besides act as clingy as a psycho ex girlfriend?” I questioned, twisting my wrist around to look at the bracelet from every angle. I didn’t feel empowered in any way, and the thing didn’t have any markings on it to indicate how it was supposed to be used. “And more importantly, how do I get it to stop acting that way? Maybe there were some notes with the collection it came in with?”

“If there were, good luck finding them. That room’s a mess, and most of the stuff in the boxes were ruined,” Duncan told me. “I could try to ask around the staff and see if anyone knows anything.”

“Really? That would be great!” I replied before I realized a problem with that plan. “But … uhm … could you … not tell anyone that I have this thing?”

Duncan furrowed his brow in confusion. “Why?”

“Because I don’t want that crazy bitch finding out and coming after me for it,” I explained.

Duncan’s eyes widened in understanding. “Oh … right. Yeah, that would be bad. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it quiet.”

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As I looked out the window, I could practically see the net income of people dropping as Brett drove toward my home. That was no surprise, of course. I lived in one of the worst parts of town, after all – not that it bothered me. I didn’t need a big empty house like my brother had.

Soon, income levels hit rock bottom and that was when the car finally rolled to a stop. In front of me was home sweet home, a rundown little complex of low-rent apartments. The place looked like a mess with some graffiti painted on the wall and clear signs of degrading structural integrity. Even the cars parked around it had seen better days. Most were old and several had wrongly colored parts from body work that had been done to them.

“Whelp, thanks for the ride, bro,” I announced as I awkwardly unbuckled myself with my left hand since my right was now in a sling at my brother’s insistence.

“You sure you don’t want to stay with me for a few days?” Brett asked the question for the third time since I’d been released from the hospital. As he asked, he looked around warily as if he expected his expensive little sports car to get stolen right out from under him.

I nodded. “I’m sure. My place is more comfortable, and I don’t like the look your maid gives me everytime she sees me. I swear she thinks I’m an actual cockroach. It wouldn’t surprise me if she tried to spray me with bug spray in my sleep.”

“Well … alright …” Brett mumbled, clearly not happy with my decision.

“Oh stop it. I may not act like it, but I’m a fucking grown man. I can manage to take care of myself without ruining your work on my shoulder,” I spat in annoyance as I shoved the door open with my foot and got out.

Brett let out a defeated sigh. “You’re right, sorry. Give me a call if you need anything. Otherwise, I’ll see you in a couple days for your check up.”

“See ya in a couple days,” I told him right before slamming the door closed and starting toward my place. It took a couple of moments before the car behind me finally drove off.

My apartment was the worst of the lot, sitting on the far end of the building on the first floor. One might think being on the first floor was a good thing, but only if one had never lived below my upstairs neighbor. I’d never figured out what she actually did for a living, but it seemed to be some mix of strangling a guitar and being the world's most enthusiastic wall banger. That last part was probably a different kind of banging, though.

Adding to the bad location of my apartment was its proximity to the dumpster for the building. The thing was only about a dozen paces away, and by pick up day could usually be smelled all the way at my door. On particularly unlucky weeks, the stench didn’t even stop at the door.

Sighing as I made it to my door, I fished around in my pocket for my keys. I managed to get them out only to have my left hand fail to keep hold of them properly, dropping them on the ground at my feet. “Ah fuck,” I sighed as I bent down to get them.

Just as I got all the way bent over, I heard a loud hiss come from behind me, causing me to start with surprise. Twisting around, I oriented on the source of the angry sound, some grumpy stray cat that had been hissing at me for the last few days. The thing was scrawny, gray furred, and poking its head around the corner of the building to hiss and spit at me for being there.

“Yeah, well fuck you too,” I shot back at the cat as I finished scooping my keys off the ground. Ignoring the continued hissing, I got my door unlocked and stepped inside.

The interior of my apartment perfectly suited its exterior. The walls were dingy, and the carpet worn thin and stained. My furnishings were sparse and cheap, sporting a couch with one broken leg propped up with books, and a couple large crates to serve as a coffee table and end table. I even had a shitty little CRT TV mostly so that no one would want to steal it.

As soon as I was through the door, I tugged off my sling and walked over to a cabinet in the kitchenette, pulling out a bottle of whiskey that resided there. It was already half empty, but that just meant I still had half of it to finish off. Popping it open, I took a swig, relishing the feel of it burning down my throat.

“Ah, it’s good to be home,” I sighed as I started toward my bedroom with the bottle still in hand. In there, I flopped into my desk chair in front of my crappy old computer, sat my bottle on the desk, and clicked the power button. While it booted up, I dug through the drawer to grab some marijuana. Nothing goes better together than whiskey and weed.

Once my various consumables were ready, I turned back to the now booted computer. A few clicks had a folder opened in front of me while I hummed thoughtfully. “Hmm … I’m thinking magical girls and let’s go with ... tentacle monsters,” I finally decided, before starting the video up and leaning back to enjoy my evening.

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Chapter 04

The obnoxious bleats of my ringtone penetrated into my hazy sleep, tugging me awake, though, only just barely. Groaning, I opened blurry eyes, trying to sort out exactly where I was and what was going on. Somehow, I’d ended up on the floor, a fact that my back was not at all pleased with. The rest of me wasn’t too pleased with it either, judging by how sore I felt. The only light in the room was the very faint amount that managed to leak through the blinds during the day.

“Okay, phone. I hear ya …” I grumbled before rolling over and trying to get my feet under me. It wasn’t an easy task, and if not for the nearby bed to grab ahold of, I’d probably have ended up on my ass more than once.

By the time I’d gotten to my feet, the phone had stopped ringing, which presented a whole new problem. I now had to figure out where it was. My best guess was that it was in the bedroom, judging by how loud it had been, but everything seemed loud right now. Even my own breathing was giving me a headache.

Several minutes of nearly blind fumbling followed, during which I actually did manage to fall once. Finally, though, I had my phone in my hand. It proudly displayed that I had one message, so I called it to check.

“You have one unheard message … first unheard message … a member of your household has one prescription that is–” the phone told me before I ended the call.

“Oh … right … painkillers,” I muttered, rubbing at my pounding head. “Gonna need those for sure.”

Tossing my phone on my bed, I turned toward the bathroom, half walking and half stumbling as my I made my way there. Inside, I stopped in front of the mirror, leaning heavily on the counter. “Hey there, pudgy,” I teased my reflection – not that I looked as pudgy as usual at the moment. Instead, I had a pale, haggard, almost gaunt look to me.

“Guess almost dying is good for losing weight,” I remarked, shrugging. I certainly looked like I’d almost died – or in fact was still almost dying. A lot of that was the blood shot eyes and slack, half-awake way that I slumped against the counter, more like an animated corpse than a living person. It made me wonder how awful I must have looked before my brother fixed me up.

Deciding that was enough staring in the mirror, I opened the medicine cabinet to grab some painkillers. They weren’t prescription, but they’d hopefully still do at least something about the hangover headache. Certainly, I was going to need some relief if I was going to manage to actually go outside of my apartment.

After taking a double dose of pain pills, I tilted my head to the side to give myself a sniff, crinkling my nose at the mix of sweat, booze, and funk that entered my nose. Even with how bad I obviously smelled, I was tempted to skip the shower anyway. Only the fact that I hoped it would wake me up a little got me to start stripping down.

The last thing I removed was the strange copper bracelet. I’d done some testing with it after what had happened with Duncan, but I still didn’t know too much. Apparently, if it or I were moved out of the room the other was in, it would just appear on my wrist. I also seemed to be the only one that could take it off, as I’d had both Duncan and Brett try after discovering its teleporting nature with no luck. It hadn’t revealed any other abilities to me, though.

“Stupid thing,” I muttered as I tossed the bracelet on the counter. If I was going to be stuck with it, the least it could have done was let fly or be immune to hangovers or some shit.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Hmm,” I hummed thoughtfully to myself as I stared at the selection in the store’s liquor aisle. Like most convenience stores, it wasn’t a particular large or high class selection, but that was fine with me. I cared more about maximizing my alcohol per dollar than getting the best stuff anyway.

While trying to decide between two large bottles of whiskey and one really large bottle of whiskey, I heard the sound of someone approaching. It was obviously a woman from the sharp click of her shoes on the tile floor. That piqued my interest enough to glance up to see them.

A short way down the aisle stood a pretty young thing somewhere in that perfect coed age with an excellent figure packaged in revealing summer attire. She was looking at the beer selection, so I took that as proof enough that she was old enough to be interested in. Putting a lopsided smile onto my face, I tipped my head to her and said, “Hey there, cutie.”

The mundane greeting was enough to get the woman to look up, meeting my eyes for just a moment. I could practically see the revulsion fill up those orbs before spilling out onto her face in a disgusted expression. A faint shudder was all that I got in reply before she turned back to her beer. This time, she selected her beverage choice almost immediately before turning and hurrying off.

“Bet that woulda worked for Brett,” I grumbled before shrugging off the rejection. It was hardly the first time that had happened to me after all.

Deciding that I needed as much liquor as possible, I snagged two of the extra large bottles before leaving the aisle as well. I strolled languidly through the store, glancing around more as just something to do than out of any actual interest in what the place had to offer. That was what made it all the more surprising to me when one aisle caught my eye.

As with most stores, this one had an aisle entirely devoted to spoiling children – the candy aisle. Like many adults, I almost never ventured near the place. Kids didn’t trick or treat in my neighborhood, and I had long outgrown the desire to stuff my face with sugar. Still, a little sweet to mix in with my drug consumption sounded pretty good at that moment.

Shrugging, I turned off the main path and delved into the dizzying assortment of processed sugar. I was surprised that I recognized most of the names, but not well enough to really know what would be good. The nostalgia of it made me want to grab them all.

“You’re not getting workman’s comp yet,” I reminded myself before snagging a fruit flavored one off the shelf and stuffing it in my right hand pocket. I figured I might as well save the dollar.

With my random urge sated, I got myself back on track, heading to the pharmacy to grab my meds. It was a bit of a walk to get across most of the store, leaving me huffing slightly from lugging the whiskey all that way. At least there was no line, though, allowing me to walk straight up to the kindly older gentleman that was manning the counter.

“Good afternoon! How can I help you?” the old man greeted cheerily.

“Ashton Hinton,” I supplied my name.

Nodding, the old man started to type, pulling up my file. A few questions later, my identity was confirmed and he grabbed my meds off the shelf behind him. “You want me to get those for you too?” he asked, pointing to the bottles in my hand.

“Yeah, thanks,” I replied, plopping the two bottles on the counter. Without even thinking about it, I grabbed the candy bar from my pocket and started to place it on the counter as well. By the time I realized what I was doing, it was too late to put it back in my pocket, causing me to silently curse my stupidity. I’d just cost myself a dollar for nothing.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Stupid fucking station being so damn far away,” I grumbled as I made what was about a five block hike from the subway back to my apartment. The entire way, I had been huffing for breath, sweat glistening on my brow. My left arm ached as well, suffering under the weight of the whiskey I’d bought as well as the fact that I couldn’t switch the weight to my right hand to give it a break.

At least, my apartment was finally in view, though, that only meant that the hardest part remained. The last little stretch of the journey was a steep upward hill to where the apartment building sat. In reality, it was probably twenty feet up from where I was at most, but aching and tired, it looked like Everest to me.

“I need a car … “ I groaned as I stared at the incline. That would solve all my problems, if only I could afford one. “Maybe I can get Brett to pity me enough to get me one … “ I mused as I forced myself to start the trek up.

Normally, my brother avoided giving me money or anything that could easily be sold for money. I couldn’t really blame him, given that I had sold my last car for pot money. However, this time, I’d recently almost died and was still hurt. Brett was a sucker for stuff like that. I just needed to play up how much pain I was in when I saw him the next day and I’d have a shot.

The sputtering hiss of an angry cat tugged me from my scheming as I neared the door to my apartment. After a quick jump in surprise, I tilted my head down to glare at the source of the noise. Once again, that gray stray was poking its head around the corner of the apartment to hiss at me.

“Fuck every damn day. Are you ever going to stop that?!” I growled at the cat, earning another hate-filled hiss in response. “I should call animal control on you, you little shit.”

The cat wasn’t the least bit intimidated by my threat, meeting my glare with unrestrained hostility. It was like the thing was daring me to try messing with it. I didn’t want to find out what it had planned for if I did try something.

“Damn demon cat,” I muttered as I quickly worked the lock and slipped through the door, slamming it closed behind me. “Thing would probably leap on me and claw my eyes out or some shit.”

Once I was inside, I dropped my bag of stuff on the counter, sighing in relief. Flexing my left hand to loosen it up, I pulled the bag open with my right to get started on indulging in the vices contained within. Painkillers came out first, mostly just because they weren’t something I always had, then I started to reach for one of the whiskey bottles. My hand stopped just before grabbing the bottle, though, as I noted the little package of candy I’d impulsively bought. Without really thinking about it, I grabbed that instead and started off toward my room.

In my room, I walked over to my computer chair, tearing open the candy as I went. Plopping into the chair, I used one hand to toss a piece of candy into my mouth while the other grabbed the mouse. “Huh, pretty good,” I mused as I chewed on the sugary treat. I didn’t give it too much thought, though, as I still had to find some entertainment. Once I found one, I leaned back in my chair and popped one of the pain pills into my mouth. “Let’s see if the power of love can defeat a masked stranger this time …”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 05

The sound of my phone ringing once again pulled me from sleep. It didn’t do a very good job of it, though, as my head felt like mush and my body like lead. There was no hangover, at least, nor was I on the floor. This time, I’d apparently passed out in my desk chair somewhere in the middle of … my movie.

“Damn painkillers knocked me out,” I grumbled as I rubbed at my eyes with one hand, reaching for the phone laying on my desk with the other. “Hello?”

“Where the hell are you, Ash?!” my brother’s infuriated voice shouted from the other end of the line. “You were supposed to get to my office hours ago for your check up!”

Furrowing my brow in confusion, I wondered if Brett wasn’t having a little medicinal fun today, too. “What are you talking about, dude? That’s not ‘til tomorrow.”

“God, you don’t even know what day it is, do you?!” Brett huffed. “That’ll teach me to ever write you a prescription.”

“I know what day it is, ass!” I argued. “It’s Thursday. I’m not supposed to see you ‘til Friday.”

On the other end, I heard a loud groan. “Yeah ... it’s not Thursday.”

“What?” I questioned. “Of course it is.”

“No. It’s not. Go check,” Brett instructed.

Sighing in exasperation, I forced myself to sit up enough so that I could reach the mouse and move it. A moment later, my computer screen powered up again, causing me to squint from the sudden light in my dark room. Through blurry vision, I managed to guide the mouse pointer over to the clock and clicked. Much to my surprise, the little pop up window said Friday.

“What the hell?” I muttered at the sight. “I just took one …”

“Yeah, sure you did,” Brett remarked sarcastically over the phone. “Whatever. I’ll squeeze you in during my lunch break, so just get here by one. Okay?”

Still dumbfounded, I stared at the clock on the computer screen. According to it, I’d slept away nearly a whole day. That had never happened before, at least not without me taking a lot more than one little pain pill.

“Ash?” Brett said when I didn’t answer.

“Huh? Oh … one … yeah … I’ll be there,” I finally replied.

There was a moment’s pause before Brett added, “Maybe I should send a cab to pick you up or something.”

“I’ll be fi–” I started to reject the offer out-of-hand, before stopping to think. After all, if I turned Brett down, I’d just have to take the subway, which would cost me money and take a lot more time. It wasn’t like Brett couldn’t afford it. “Actually, that would be a big help, thanks.”

“No problem,” Brett responded. “And, Ash, lay off the pills a little.”

“I really just took one!” I protested.

“I’ll see you at one,” came Brett’s reply right before he hung up.

Sighing, I tossed my phone on my desk. I wasn’t surprised that Brett didn’t believe me. I wasn’t sure that I even believed me. It would make a lot more sense if I had ended up taking a bunch of pills and just forgotten about it after I blacked out.

Suddenly curious, I grabbed the pill bottle off the desk. There had been thirty in total when I’d gotten them. Popping it open, I dumped the pills out on the desk and started to count. A moment later, I got to twenty-nine before I finally ran out.

Shaking my head, I slumped back in my chair. “I must be turning into a lightweight in my old age …”

My self-reflection lasted all of a moment before I shrugged and shoved myself out of my chair. Stretching my hands over my head to loosen up from my excessively long nap, I got my mind focused on the day ahead. Clearly, I couldn’t take any more of those pain pills unless I wanted to just lose a month of my life, but I still had time off from work and plenty of booze to enjoy it with. I just had to get the stupid check up with my brother out of the way and I could get back to enjoying myself.

“Guess I should get ready for that then,” I mused, turning toward the bathroom. Brett would want to know I was taking care of myself, which meant a shower, some clean clothes, and me finding that stupid sling he wanted me to wear.

In the bathroom, I stopped in front of the mirror to rub at my chin. I’d never had much of a beard, but I still had to shave on occasion. Apparently, this wouldn’t be one of those occasions, though as there was only a little bit of stubble.

After the beard check, I quickly went over the rest of my appearance. Some eye drops were going to be a must given how bloodshot my brown orbs were. There was nothing to be done about the dark circles under my eyes or the thin, haggard look, however.

“My diet has been awfully liquid, lately,” I remarked as I poked at my cheeks. After half-dying, I’d had one decent meal in the hospital, then nothing really other than the candy bar the day before and lots of whiskey. It was no wonder that I looked like shit. “Brett’s probably gonna throw a fit about that, He’s such a fucking mother hen.”

Dismissing my reflection as a lost cause like I usually did, I quickly stripped and hopped into the shower. Like most of the apartment, it was shitty. The water pressure was terrible, and the damn thing never managed to get more than lukewarm. It always made me want to break the water heater just to see if I could force the landlord to fix it. After all, it’s not like I would've cared if I had to just go without a shower for a couple weeks.

“Skinny and haggard ain’t lookin’ so bad down here, though,” I mused in the shower, patting my much diminished tummy bulge. It hadn’t been so close to flat since I was in a high school. Of course, back in high school, I’d also been a scrawny little shit, and some of that scrawniness was starting to show itself again without the pudge to add some bulk. It was better than being fat at least.

After a couple minutes, the shower was done and I was back in my room getting dressed for the day. Nothing fit great, but it didn’t need to. There was definitely one pretty big problem, though.

“Where the hell is that sling?” I growled in annoyance, trying to remember where I’d tossed the thing. It wasn’t like I even needed the damn thing. Other than being a little numb, my arm felt perfectly fine. It wasn’t even stiff anymore. Brett would be expecting me to wear it, though, so I had to find it.

Vaguely remembering taking it off when I got home, I headed out into the main room of the apartment. Sure enough, there it was, laying on the counter right next to the two bottles of whiskey that I hadn’t gotten around to the night before. For a moment, I considered getting started on one of them now. It wouldn’t be the first time that I had whiskey for breakfast. Still, it didn’t seem all that appealing at the moment.

“Brett would be pissed if I showed up drunk,” I muttered, giving up on the whiskey to go grab some chocolate cereal from the cupboard.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

A smile spread across my face as I set foot in Brett’s doctor’s office. Immediately, I swiped a hand back over my hair to smooth it out, adding a little swagger to my step. Doing my best to be suave, I strolled over to the reception desk and leaned against it casually.

The source of my sudden cheerfulness sat behind the desk. She was a girl by the name of Beth, an adorably perky, little blonde that worked for my brother as a nurse. She was also almost ten years younger than me and hated my guts, but those were trifling matters.

“Hey there, sugar,” I greeted. “Is Brett ready for me?”

Even just the sound of my voice got Beth to wince. When she actually looked up at me it was with cold disdain in her eyes. It was a look that I’d never seen her give anyone else in my entire life. Until she’d first given it to me, I hadn’t even thought the cute little thing could even dislike someone.

“Dr. Hinton is with another patient. He should be just a moment,” Beth replied, using civil words but said in a tone that couldn’t be less welcoming.

“Brr,” I joked, affecting a shiver. “Why do you always have to be so cold?”

“It might have something to do with how you drunkenly hit on my sister ... at her wedding reception ... then vomited all over her,” Beth answered icily.

I just shrugged it off nonchalantly. “Well that’s her fault for having an open bar.”

Beth’s eyes narrowed to the tiniest of slits. “I hope someone puts cyanide in your pain meds.”

“Whoa, whoa!” I exclaimed, holding my hands up. “Aren’t you guys supposed to be all ‘first do no harm’?”

“There would be no harm in removing you from the face of the earth,” Beth retorted, adopting a sickeningly sweet smile to go with the death in her eyes.

This time, when I shivered, it was because of real chills going down my spine. Deciding those chills meant that I would be in real danger, if I continued, I shrugged again to try to appear nonplussed then turned to plop in one of the seats. Waiting quietly wouldn’t kill me.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long before the door to the back opened and Brett stepped through. Behind him came a kindly old lady with a cane who was laughing at something Brett must have said before they’d come through the door. It wasn’t a surprise. Brett was popular with ladies of all ages. No one would ever wish he had cyanide in his meds.

“I’ll see you next week, Dr. Hinton,” the old lady said in a farewell, offering a friendly wave to go with it.

“Looking forward to it, Mrs. Cruise,” Brett replied, before his attention shifted to take in the reception area. A frown stole across his face when he saw the scowl on Beth’s face. Sighing, he turned toward me. “I see you’re making a good impression as usual.”

“I was just trying to be pleasant,” I said in my defense.

“As pleasant as a flea, and just as in need of extermination,” Beth rejoindered sharply from her desk.

Rolling his eyes, Brett waved me over. “Come on. Let’s go before this gets any worse.”

Shrugging, I rose from my seat and walked over to the door which Brett held open. As I walked by, I noticed he had a slightly bemused look on his face. At first, I thought that it might just be because I didn’t keep going at it with Beth, but as we walked back to one of the exam rooms, he kept just looking at me.

“What?” I finally asked.

“Huh?” Brett mumbled snapping out of it.

“You’ve been staring at me, so what is it? Worried about how I look, because let me assure that I’m ugly as I’ve always been,” I told him.

Brett shook his head. “No, it’s just something seemed kind of off about you.”

“Well I have lost some weight, since the whole almost dying thing,” I noted, figuring that was probably what it was.

“I noticed that. That’s probably just some system shock from the trauma combined with some after effects of my power being used on you,” Brett responded, smoothly entering doctor mode. “Nothing to worry about as long as it doesn’t get too extreme.”

“I see, so I can expect to be my usually pudgy self again in a few months?” I asked.

Brett nodded hesitantly. “Well … without exercise or a diet change or anything else like that then … yes probably.”

That news was a little disappointing to hear. There was no way I was going to diet or exercise, after all. “Well, good to know.”

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Chapter 06

“Thank God that’s over with,” I sighed right after slamming the door to Brett’s car shut behind me, freeing me from my brother’s company and the incessant nagging that went along with it. “I swear sometimes he sounds just like Mom.”

Determined to forget all about wasting time on that stupid check up, I took a deep breath and started toward my apartment, pulling my keys from my pocket along the way. Inside, there was booze and entertainment aplenty, and I wouldn’t have to leave again until I needed to make another trip to the store. It was going to be heaven.

“Mryow…” came the weak whimpering sound of a plaintive cat, interrupting my fantasies.

For a moment, I was so confused by the fact that the noise wasn’t a hiss, that I just furrowed my brow and stood there. “So you finally got over the hissing, huh?” I remarked as I glanced over to the cat’s usual spot. Awaiting me there was another surprise.

Instead of doing its usual thing of poking its head around the corner and hissing at me when I came home. The cat was flopped onto its side a good couple feet from the corner. As such, its body was in plain sight, which also meant that I could see how bad of a shape it was in today. Its fur was either matted down with what looked like congealed blood or in some places torn right off. The thing looked like it had been on the wrong end of a fight with something that was all claws and anger.

“Guess you hissed at something you shouldn’t have,” I taunted the badly injured cat, before turning to get back to unlocking my door. There was just one problem with that course of action, though. When I tried to reach for the door with my right hand, the hand refused to move an inch. It was like someone had grabbed my wrist and held it in place.

Confused once again, I turned back toward the cat to peer at my hand. There was no sign of anyone holding it, nor anything around for it to be snagged on. A quick tug showed that while I could move the hand around as well as the arm, but my wrist, the wrist with that weird copper bracelet on it, refused to budge from where it was.

“Damn it!” I cursed, grabbing the bracelet with my other hand. I quickly found the little latch on it and tried to pry it open, but it too refused to budge. “What the hell’s wrong with this fucking thing?”

In the background, I faintly heard another pitiful mewl from the cat while I tried to figure out how to free myself from the shackling bracelet. At the sound the bracelet moved, but not to let me free of it. Instead, it jerked slightly toward the cat as if trying to point at it.

Blinking, I looked at the bracelet, then the cat, then back at the bracelet again. “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me! You want me to help it?!”

The bracelet didn’t reply in any way. It just sat there on my wrist, continuing to hold me in place no matter how much I tried to tug it toward my apartment. That was seeming like a ‘yes’ to me.

“Unbelievable …” I sighed in exasperation. “First you latch yourself onto me without even asking, and now you’re gonna make me help some flea-ridden, stray cat?”

Once again, the cat whined, causing the bracelet to jerk toward it a little bit.

“Fine! I’ll help the damn cat that always hisses at me and probably wants to claw my eyes out!” I huffed, starting toward the cat. Sure enough, the bracelet stopped holding my wrist in place and let me go.

Stomping over to the cat, I knelt down next to it to look it over. The thing was clearly in really bad shape, but I didn’t really know what I could do for it. Several of the claw marks looked pretty deep and still leaked blood. It needed real medical attention.

“Well no way am I fucking trekking across town to a vet with a half-dead cat in my arms,” I grumbled, reaching into my pocket for my cell phone. Brett had only just dropped me off, so he couldn’t have gone too far. “He can heal the damn cat.”

A dial and a few rings later, Brett picked up and said, “Hey, Ash. Forget something?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. “There’s this stray cat at my place that’s all clawed up, and that stupid bracelet I got stuck with is making me help it. You think you could come back here and take a look at it for me?”

“Wait, did you just say the bracelet is making you help it?” Brett asked, concern evident in his voice.

Even though I was on the phone, I nodded like Brett could see me. “Yep. Damn thing just held me in place until I agreed to help the little pest. I figured calling you has got a better chance of working out than me trying to schlep it to a vet somewhere.”

“Alright, sure. I’ll come on back. I’ll just be a couple minutes,” Brett told me.

“Great. See ya,” I responded before hanging up and turning back to the cat. “Alright, so help’s on the way. Just to be safe, I should probably do what I can to help out ‘til he gets here, though. Wouldn’t want this stupid thing cutting my hand off or something, because I didn’t do everything I could,” I added, glaring at the bracelet on my wrist.

Not sure if it would be a good idea to move the cat, I got up and started toward my apartment. My best bet was to just gather basic supplies that Brett might need, like hot water and clean towels and stuff. I was pretty sure that I even had a first aid kit under the sink. It was for people, but maybe that stuff works for cats too.

Unlike my previous attempt to enter my apartment, the bracelet didn’t resist me this time, allowing me to roam around gathering the various items that I thought might help. By the time I got some water heated up, I had a pretty good pile of supplies out by the cat. It was all just in time for Brett to pull up in his car.

“Hey. It’s not much, but I gathered what I had,” I informed Brett as he got out of the car and started toward the cat.

“I see that. Thanks,” Brett replied without slowing down in the slightest. A moment later, he was kneeling next to his patient, carefully examining it. After several more moments, he straightened up and turned to me. “These towels are clean, right?”

I nodded. “Should be.”

“Alright, then help me move it onto one of those as gently as possible, then start cleaning out its cuts,” Brett instructed, enlisting me as his nurse.

Kneeling down beside the cat, I did as instructed, helping shift the thing onto one of the towels and start cleaning its wounds. Every time I finished with a wound, Brett would check it, then use some disinfectant from the first aid kit. After that, he would press a finger onto the cut, while using his other hand to keep the cat from thrashing about in pain. Then, a warm, soft, yellow light would spread over his hand and the gash would start to close. Within just a couple minutes, all the visible wounds were gone, and the cat was sound asleep.

“Well, I’m no vet, but it should be out of danger for now,” Brett finally declared, leaning back. “You should still take it in just to be safe, though.”

Hearing that suggestion made me wince. If the bracelet was determined that I had to help this cat, then I’d probably have to do exactly as Brett instructed. A trip to the vet was the exact thing I’d be trying to avoid by calling him.

“Damn it …” I cursed under my breath. “Think I could bum a ride off ya?”

Brett nodded. “Sure. Just wrap it in some towels and we’ll get going.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“God, this is taking forever,” I grumbled as I shifted in the waiting room chair to get comfortable. It wasn’t really the chair that was causing my discomfort, though, but the other occupants of the room. Several pet owners, along with their pets, were waiting, and most of them were not well trained. The parakeet that refused to shut up was especially annoying, as was the big St. Bernard a couple seats away that kept slobbering at me. If it tried to lick me, I was going to kick it.

Probably worse than the even the strangers’ pets was the fact that I was stuck in this stupid waiting room at all. My plan had been to just drop off the cat and leave, preferably after leaving a fake name and number so that I wouldn’t have to pay for the visit. Unfortunately, the bracelet was determined to not let me be free of the cat so easily, refusing to allow me to write down any false information on the forms that I had to fill out. It wouldn’t let me just leave either, which meant that I was not only stuck paying but also stuck waiting. The only bright side was that I hadn’t had to go into the back with the cat for the examination.

“Mr. Hinton,” I heard a male voice call, getting me to look up. The speaker stood across the room at the door back, holding the gray cat that I’d brought in. He was a handsome man, that reminded me a lot of Brett. Naturally, I had an instant dislike for him.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I responded, rising from my seat to walk over there. “How is the little pest?”

The vet scowled at my use of the word pest. “Other than seeming a bit anemic, she’s fine. Better than fine, really, for having been in as bad a shape as you’d claimed. Your brother does good work.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, he’s a miracle worker…”

“Anyway … “ the vet segued, ignoring my sarcasm. “I remember you saying that she was a stray, so I wanted to ask what your plans for her are now.”

“What do you mean? Can’t I just drop her off at the side of my apartment where she usually is?” I asked.

The vet shook his head. “No. We can either send her to an animal shelter and hope she gets adopted, which will be hard for her given she’s fully grown and has several spots of fur missing from the fight, or if you’d like to keep her, we can get her shots done while she’s here.”

“Oh no … “ I groaned, looking down at my wrist where the bracelet sat. I could almost see the emerald there glint maliciously at me. It was definitely going to make me keep the damn thing. “Fuck … fine … just do the shots and I’ll keep the thing.”

The vet gave me a dubious look. “Are you sure? Because if you’re just going to abandon her the moment it gets difficult ...”

“Oh, trust me. I’m not going to abandon her,” I assured the vet, knowing full well that I was stuck with the animal. “I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”

“Alright, then I’ll get started on the shots, and you will have some paperwork that you’ll need to do with reception,” the vet told me.

Sighing, I nodded. “Great, more paperwork.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 07

A weary sigh escaped my lips as the door to my apartment finally closed behind me. It had taken hours, and cost hundreds of dollars, but I was finally back home. The trip had been exhausting too, but I was too hungry to just go to my room and plop on the bed.

“Take a load off, kitty,” I told the cat as I set my new cat carrier on the floor. From within, the cat meowed in response.

Rolling my eyes at the carrier, I left it there and walked over to the kitchen in search of something to eat. A frozen burrito seemed like it would serve that purpose. Pulling it from the freezer, I tossed in on a plate and shoved it in the microwave. A couple minutes later, it was done, piping hot, and smelling so good that it made my tummy rumble.

“Ah, perfect,” I breathed in delight as I grabbed a soda from the fridge and started toward the couch in the living room.

I didn’t even make it out of the kitchen, though, as the moment I tried to walk past the cat, it yowled loudly and relentlessly. Cringing, I nudged the carrier with my foot, shaking it a little to quiet the pest. “Hey! Shut up!”

My efforts only turned the yowling into an angry hiss that caused me to yank my foot back before something happened to it. The moment the carrier was still again, the cat returned to whining as loud as it could. Clearly, this wasn’t going to be easy to deal with.

“What the hell do you want?” I demanded as I knelt down to look into the carrier.

The cat, true to its job as a nuisance, just kept up the indecipherable racket it was making. It had been pretty quiet up until a minute ago, so I was pretty sure it wanted something from me. Either that or it was mad about something I’d done, but all I’d done was make a burrito and try to eat it …

“Oh … you’re hungry, aren’t you,” I surmised to continued yowling. “Alright, alright. I’ll get you some food.”

Rubbing at my temples, I straightened up and went back into the kitchen. I didn’t have any cat food or anything, but I did have some milk. I wasn’t sure if a grown cat could live on just milk, though. The last thing I wanted was for it to get sick and need another expensive trip to the vet.

“Hmm … no … not this either … “ I mumbled as I dug through my mostly empty cabinets in search of something. “Ah ha!” I finally exclaimed, yanking out a can of tuna that was buried in the back of one of them. I knew cats liked tuna, and according to the can it wasn’t expired yet. It would work until I could get to the store at least.

A minute later, I had a small bowl of milk and the open can of tuna in front of the cat’s carrier case. I stood back just staring at the little barred door with trepidation, though. The cat hadn’t tried to claw me when I took it to the vet, but it had been mostly out of it back then. Now, I wasn’t so sure, and my hand had to get in striking range to open the little door.

“You better not claw me,” I threatened emptily as I reached out.

The moment the little latch opened, the cat leapt out, but thankfully it wasn’t to claw the shit out of my hand. Instead, it just raced over to the can of tuna and started chowing down. It didn’t seem to have any objections to the meal that I’d provided.

“Well at least you’re quiet now,” I muttered, turning back to my own meal.

By the time I got to the couch and got my first bite of burrito, it was already starting to cool off. Still, having eaten practically nothing in I couldn’t remember how long, it was delicious. I had the whole thing scarfed down in no time, allowing me to lean back on the couch in satisfaction.

“Oof!” I grunted as suddenly a cat landed on my full tummy. Annoyed, I glared down at the critter. “What do you want now?”

The cat just stood there on my tummy, looking up at me. It’s only response was a slight tilt to its head, like it was curious. Since it was looking at me, I looked right back at it. It was the first time that I’d really had a chance to see the thing. Usually it was mostly hidden by the building and not exactly close. Now, though, it was neither of those things. The thing’s gray fur was a mess from whatever it had fought, but that wasn’t the only telltale sign it had of having been in a fight. The tip of its left ear was missing as well, seemingly the result of some other fight given that it appeared to be an old wound.

“You’re pretty runty for a full grown cat,” I noted as I looked at the thing. It seemed somewhere between adult cat and kitten sized, like its growth was stunted from living on the street without proper food.

“Meow!” the cat replied softly, before stepping forward to rub its head against my chest.

The cuteness of the act elicited a defeated sigh from me. “You want to be pet, don’t you,” I realized as it rubbed at me. There wasn’t a persona live that could’ve resisted caving to that desire in the moment, so I just accepted it, reaching a hand up to scratch the thing behind its ears. A moment later, it was purring.

“I suppose I’m going to have to name you, too. I can’t just call you insulting names forever. People will think I’m nuts,” I remarked as I scratched. “But what to call you … hmm .. “ I mused as I tried to think of a good name. “How about Mini, ‘cause you’re so small?” The cat just kept on purring so I supposed that it must not have minded. “Mini it is, then.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

The searing agony of a claw digging into my nipple yanked me from my sleep. “Damn it, kitty!” I rasped, wincing at the newfound pain of a very sore throat. Raising my hands, I rubbed it at my throat with, trying to soothe the scratchiness, while the other one rubbed at my pudgy chest. “Ugh, don’t tell me I’m allergic to you.”

For her part, Mini just leapt away, not bothering to answer me. I couldn’t even glare at her either, since I couldn’t tell where she went in the dark of the room. While I was sleeping night had apparently fallen, and I hadn’t bothered to turn any lights on.

“Fucking … stupid … “ I mumbled, little more than an incomprehensible growl. Even that caused my throat to ache, so I quickly gave it up.

Scooting over on the couch, I got to one end and reached over for the lamp that sat on the crate there. The bulb flickered on, bathing the small room in dim yellow light. In front of me, on the wooden box that served as my coffee table, sat Mini, peering at me with that curious tilt to her head. I figured that she was probably wondering why her scratching post had annoyingly decided to move.

“I’m talking about you,” I huffed, pointing an accusing finger at the cat. Mini just reached out to swat at it playfully, clearly not at all concerned by my discomfort. “Figures … no respect.”

Sighing, I shoved myself off the couch and started toward the kitchen. The bottles of whiskey were still sitting on the counter, and they sounded like exactly what I needed. It wouldn’t matter how crappy I felt if I was wasted. Just as I was about to reach for one, though, something bumped into my leg.

“Mrow,” Mini whined, rubbing herself against me.

“God, what do you want now?!” I spat angrily, immediately regretting it because of the way my throat protested. “Ah … shit …”

On the ground at my feet, Mini just looked up at ne with her head tilted. “Meow.”

All I could do was sigh. The damn thing was probably hungry again. I didn’t have any more cans of tuna, though, which meant having to go buy something to feed it. Maybe, the convenience store down the street had cat food.

“Alright, fine, I’ll be right back,” I told the little nuisance before stomping over to the door. Mini followed me the entire way, adding another couple whines. Even once I was outside and the door was closed, I could hear her whining through the door. “Stupid thing.”

Ignoring the plaintive noises from inside the apartment, I took off down the slope from my apartment building. The city was pretty quiet thanks to the late hour, although, there were still the occasional sounds of unseen cars as I made my trek. Luckily, it wasn’t a very long one, just a couple of blocks to the little corner store that was one of the only places open so late at night.

“Good evening, ma–er–sir” the clerk, a rather tall looking twenty-something, greeted as I stepped through the door. I tossed a glare the clerk’s way for the mistake. I mean, just because I wasn’t some giant like him didn’t mean I was short. Of course, that hadn’t stopped it from happening all the time when I was younger and scrawnier.

Annoyed, I started toward the aisles, but quickly stopped and winced. Changing directions, I walked walked over to the cashier instead. “You guys carry cat food?”

“Uhm … yeah … far back corner,” the clerk told me.

“Thanks,” I muttered as I walked off.

As I passed each aisle, I glanced down it to see if anything caught my eye. After all, I was already out, so I might as well grab some things for myself too. I snagged a few things along the way before pausing in front of the candy aisle. The last piece I’d bought had been pretty good, so I figured why not, and snagged one this time as well.

A few minutes later, I made it to the pet aisle with my arms already loaded down with junk. For such a small store, there was a pretty good selection in the aisle with several different types of food both canned and in bags. Unprepared for such a selection, I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to get.

I was just about to let price settle the matter, starting to reach for the cheapest bag of food, when the fluorescent light glinted off the bracelet on my wrist. Immediately, I pulled my hand back to give this a little more thought. If I skimped out here, and the cat didn’t like it or got sick or something, then I was pretty sure that the bracelet would make me regret it. It was probably better to just pay a little extra to avoid the risk.

“You’re a real pain in the ass. You know that?” I hissed at the bracelet before grabbing one of the more expensive bags that was supposedly tastier and more nutritious. I even grabbed a couple cans of the wet stuff just to be safe. Meanwhile, the way the bracelet glinted at me in the light made me swear that it was winking at me.

Defeated, I headed back to the checkout, struggling a bit with all the stuff that I was trying to carry at once. It was going to be even worse when I had to lug it all back up the hill to my apartment. At least for that trip, it would all be in bags, though.

“Find everything you need okay?” the cashier asked pleasantly as I dumped my purchases on his counter and he started ringing them up.

“Yep,” I answered curtly, trying not to engage. I hated it when cashiers tried to talk to me like I was their friend or something.

The cashier didn’t take the hint, though. He just kept smiling down at me from whatever giant height he stood at as he forced the conversation to continue. “Awful strange for someone to come out this late for cat food.”

“You wouldn’t think it was strange if you knew how annoying my cat was,” I replied, getting drawn into the conversation by the chance to complain. “She’s a real pest.”

The cashier laughed. “I bet. I swear my dog waits for me to have just fallen asleep before he decides it’s time to go out to pee.”

Hearing that remark got me to wince. I had forgotten all about how cats had to go to the bathroom. Hell, I didn’t even know if Mini was trained to use a litter box even if I had one for her to use. That was something that I was going to have to figure out.

“Something wrong?” the cashier asked.

“Just remembered something annoying I need to do,” I explained.

The cashier nodded in understanding. “Ah, well, sorry to hear that. Anyway, seventy-one thirty-three is your total.”

“Okay,” I mumbled as I fished out my wallet. Like the vet visit earlier, this too went on my credit card, a card that was rapidly going to reach its limit. I was going to have to be careful for the rest of the month – that or hit Brett up for money. He’d probably say no, though. That was yet another thing for me to worry about on my trek back home.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 08

The feel of something soft and tickly bumping repeatedly into my nose pulled me from my sleep. Cracking open blurry eyes, I struggled to focus on the thing in front of me. Eventually, the grayish blob cleared to show Mini’s little face, right before she bumped me in the nose with her forehead once again.

“Ugh … what do you want now …?” I groaned, barely managing to get above a whisper thanks to my voice being all but completely gone. My voice might have been gone, but at least my throat didn’t feel so sore anymore. Thank God for small miracles.

My query was answered only by Mini bumping me yet again, offering no clues as to what the cat wanted from me. “Don’t tell me you ate that whole bowl last night,” I complained, as I forced myself to sit up and rub sleep from my eyes. It was pretty clear that Mini had no intention of letting me sleep until I did what she wanted.

After returning from the store, I’d given Mini a full bowl of food and water, figuring that would shut her up. It proved quite effective at that, allowing me to rest from the trip by flopping on my bed. There, I’d apparently slept undisturbed until right now, whenever now was. All I could tell was that it appeared to be day, judging by the light leaking past the blinds.

With me finally starting to move, Mini hopped off my bed and scurried over to the door to the main area. There, she stopped and turned back to face me. When she found that I wasn’t right behind her, she added a meow to motivate me.

“Damn pest,” I sighed as I slid off the bed and followed after Mini.

Once she saw that I was on the move, Mini trotted into the main area before heading over to where her bowls sat in the kitchen. She might have cared about the bowls, but I was more focused on the smell that assaulted my nose as I got closer. The stench of cat poop radiated out from the carrier that Mini had apparently decided to use in the absence of a litter box.

“You’re a stinky little thing, aren’t ya?” I remarked raspily, crinkling my nose. Getting a litter box was definitely going to be on my to do list for the day. The prospect having to pay out for yet another expense related to that stupid cat, caused me to sigh, though. The little shit was bleeding me dry.

Unconcerned with her stench producing capabilities, Mini just poked her head at her food bowl, causing it to scrape on the tile. It was enough to draw my attention back to the cat’s demands. Even half expecting it, I still managed to be surprised at the sight of the empty bowl.

“How does such a little thing eat so damn much?” I questioned as I bent down and snatched up the bowl. Walking over to the cabinet where I’d put the bag of food, I scooped out a little bit and set the bowl back down. Clearly, I was going to have to ration the stuff out if I didn’t want the little furball to become a huge furball.

Mini didn’t seem to care about serving size, and attacked the bowl with gusto. Seeing her go to town caused my own belly to rumble jealously. Snagging a bowl from a cabinet for myself, I quickly filled it with some cereal to munch on while I thought about the upcoming day.

“I should probably check in with Duncan and see if he’s figured out how to get this thing off me yet,” I mused as I took my full bowl over to the couch to sit. The sooner I figured out how to get rid of the bracelet the better. Hell, once it was gone, I could put Mini up for adoption too, or just toss her back outside where she’d started. That would save me a lot of trouble.

As if realizing that I was thinking about her, Mini hopped up onto the couch next to me before trying to burrow her way past my arms to get to my lap. Eating interrupted, I tried to use my elbow to shove the cat away, but she was too nimble. She just snaked around my efforts, getting herself onto my lap where she promptly sat down and stared up at me.

“Damn cat … never a moment’s peace,” I grumbled as I lifted my bowl up higher to try to keep eating even through the distraction.

Not seeming to approve of my ignoring her, Mini didn’t just sit still. Instead, she reared up on her hind legs, using her front legs to climb up my chest. I was determined to ignore that as well right up until a paw smacking one nipple caused a twinge of pain.

“Ow!” I hissed, glaring down at the cat. Figuring that she’d clawed me in the same damn nipple again, I ignored my food to use my free hand to shove her off her my chest. Mini just dropped back to my lap, tilting her head curiously at me while I tugged the neck of my shirt open to see if she’d got me to bleed this time.

“What the fuck?” I mumbled at the sight that awaited me in my shirt. There wasn’t any sign of blood, but the nipple was clearly inflamed with it and the whole areola swollen and brightly colored. “Did it get infected the last time you clawed me?”

Needing to figure out what was going on, I set my bowl off to the side and tugged off my shirt. Almost immediately, it became quite clear that the problem wasn’t from getting clawed because it wasn’t just the one nipple that was like that. Both were swollen, creating twin peaks on my chest. It was not a good look for me, given how flabby my chest already was, lending my saggy pecs a more boob-like look.

“More allergy stuff?” I guessed as I peered at my puffy chest. Both a sore throat and random swelling sounded like an allergic reaction, but I’d never been allergic to cats before. It was possible to develop new allergies, though. “Guess I’d better get Brett to check me out, just to be sure.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Hmm … “ Brett hummed as he peered at my bare chest. He’d been doing that for over a minute now, ever since he’d briefly poked at them. It was really getting on my nerves.

“Will you stop that, and tell me what’s going on already?!” I yelled, or at least tried to. My almost non-existence voice made that pretty hard. It came out more like a harsh croak.

Wincing at my outburst, Brett rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. “Well, I’m not a hundred percent sure what it is, but I can give you a guess.”

“Then guess away,” I told him, wanting to get this over with already.

“I want to check one other thing first. Can you stand up for me?” Brett requested, gesturing with his hand for me to rise.

Shrugging, I shoved myself off the exam table and stood there with my arms spread. “This good?”

Nodding, Brett returned to peering down at me for a moment, before asking, “You’re five-nine right?”

“Yeah,” I replied, shifting uncomfortably. I always hated standing next to him. It served as a painful reminder about how much taller and better looking he was, especially when he was looking down at me. In fact, now that I thought about it, his eyes seemed even further up than I remembered them being …

“Yep, that pretty much has to be it,” Brett finally declared, pulling my attention back to him.

“What has to be it?” I demanded impatiently.

“Well, there’s no real way to sugar coat this, Ash, but I think that bracelet of yours has decided to change the way you look,” Brett began. “Judging by impacted areas, such as voice, decreased height, weight loss, and your swollen nipples, I’m guessing that whatever your final look is going to be, it’ll probably be female.”

After blinking once, I looked down at the bracelet then back up at Brett again. “You’re saying this thing’s turning me into a girl?”

Brett nodded. “Sorry, but that seems to be the case. You’re expressing symptoms pretty similar to those seen in mutants that undergo such changes. Of course, there’s no way to be absolutely certain that’s what’s happening.”

“So you could be wrong then?” I questioned hopefully.

Brett’s skeptical look was all I needed to see to know how unlikely it was that he was wrong. “I mean … it’s possible, but there just aren’t very many medical explanations for someone being five-nine a few days ago, but no more than five-six now. Combined with the other changes, and well ...”

“Girltown,” I finished for him.

“Yeah … sorry man.“ Brett mumbled.

I shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant about it all. It wasn’t like I had absolutely no idea how I was supposed to possibly deal with something like being turned into a girl or anything. “Just more bullshit from this cursed thing in its quest to ruin my life.”

“You figure out any way to get rid of it, yet?” Brett asked, glancing down at the bracelet suspiciously.

I shook my head. “Nope. I texted Duncan about it on my way here, and he said he was still looking. Apparently, it wasn’t in the list of the donor’s collection. All he’s been able to learn is that the design seems old – like ancient Rome or Greece.”

“Really? It doesn’t look all that old, but I guess it is magical. It’s probably pretty resistant to wear and tear,” Brett remarked. “You know, you might want to try asking someone with more magical expertise. They might have better luck figuring out how to get rid of it.”

“Sure, but how do I find one that isn’t a fake?” I asked. “Besides, it’s not like I’ve got money to pay someone like that. The real ones charge even more than you doctors do.”

Brett considered that problem for a moment before responding. “Well … I may know someone that can help, and I don’t mind footing the bill, but you have to promise to behave yourself. Can you do that?”

“Hey, if it gets me free of this fucking thing, I’ll be a God damned saint,” I told him.

Brett nodded. “Alright, I’ll give her call then, and see when she’s free.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 09

“This is it?” I questioned dubiously as I followed Brett out of the car and toward the residence of his supposed magical expert. It was a nice, but simple, suburban two story in a nice, but simple, neighborhood. In fact, there was nothing about it to distinguish it from any of the other houses along the street.

Brett nodded as he made his way up to the door and rang the bell. “Sure is. Why?”

“It’s just not very … magic-y,” I remarked. Even the doorbell was perfectly normal, not some strange magic contraption or spooky tune.

“What did you expect, for her to live in a hut in the middle of a swamp?” Brett asked incredulously.

I shrugged. “I don’t know … just something less … mundane.”

If Brett had a response to that, I never heard it, as that was the moment that the lock on the door clicked open. A moment later, the door was open as well, revealing a most striking looking woman standing on the other side. She was tall and slim with cold, ice blue eyes and hair colored to match. Adding to the icy coloration was skin so white that I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t made from actual snow.

Catching me staring at her, the woman leveled a glare my way that sent a chill down my spine. “Hello.”

“Hey, Abby,” Brett greeted pleasantly, while using an elbow to jab me in a reminder to behave myself. “This is my brother Ashton.”

“Brother, huh?” Abby questioned, getting me to rankle a bit at the reminder of my sort of in between appearance at the moment. While I stewed, her eyes trailed down me, coming to rest on the bracelet on my wrist. When she saw it, her eyes widened. “That’s the bracelet that’s causing you trouble?”

“Yep, this is the one,” I explained, lifting my hand up to make the bracelet easier to see.

Frowning slightly, Abby gestured for us to enter. “I think we’d better talk inside.”

Doing as requested, Brett and I followed the icy woman into her home. The place was not icy at all, with the AC at a perfectly normal temperature and bright homey decorations scattered about. In fact, its interior was a perfect match for its exterior. Only its owner seemed at all out of place.

“I take it you’ve seen this thing before?” Brett questioned as Abby led us to the living room.

“I have,” Abby answered, taking a seat in a high-backed, reading chair. “Please have a seat.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’re about to give me some bad news,” I remarked as I plopped down onto the couch.

Abby chuckled. “Well probably because if you think that bracelet is cursed, you’re not going to like what I have to say.”

“How is it not cursed?!” I exclaimed raspily. “The damn thing’s turning me into a girl!”

Abby raised an eyebrow at that. “Really? How interesting.”

“How is that interesting?!” I demanded.

“Well, from what my colleague told me about that bracelet when I asked him about it, he said it only changes its host in accordance to their own mental image of a magic-wielding hero of good and justice,” Abby explained. “If it’s turning you into a girl, then you must think that such a person is female for some reason.”

I blinked in surprise at that revelation. “Wait, you’re saying this is my fault?”

Abby nodded. “Well yes, in a manner of speaking. I’m not sure you can really be blamed for what your subconscious image of something is, but if that image was something different, then you wouldn’t be in this predicament. The last host for the bracelet looked like an old wise man, like merlin is often depicted. It was probably quite frustrating for him, since he was only twenty-two when he found the thing, but it does make me wonder what image would result in you being female. Maybe some kind of old hag style witch or something?”

“He hasn’t aged any in appearance. If anything, he looks younger,” Brett spoke up.

That little piece of information made something click in my head. A younger female, magical hero of justice and ... “Oh no.”

Abby tilted her head at me in curiosity, reminding me a lot of the way that Mini was always looking at me. “I take it you figured out what your mental image is.”

“Yeah … I think so … “ I sighed defeatedly. “You know those girls in anime … err japanese cartoons …”

Before I could even finish, Abby burst into laughter. “That’s hilarious!”

“What is?” Brett questioned, clearly out of the loop.

While I blushed in embarrassment over the topic, Abby reeled in her mirth to explain. “In japanese cartoons, there is a common trope of magical teenaged girls that fight against evil and injustice in the world, often resulting in ... sexually compromising situations. It seems that’s your brother is a fan.”

“I see …” Brett mumbled, looking away from me uncomfortably.

“There’s some way to remove this thing, right?” I questioned desperately, trying to ignore how embarrassing this situation was.

“Well … technically yes there is a ritual to give the bracelet to someone more worthy, but it’s not very helpful in practice,” Abby explained. “Once you’ve been chosen, separation from the bracelet, whether it’s willing or not, inevitably results in death.”

Hearing that news got me to plant my face in my hands. “This is just getting worse and worse …”

“Is there anything else you can tell us about the bracelet?” Brett asked, while I bemoaned my fate.

“Yeah, such as why it makes me do things I don’t want to, like rescue stray cats?” I added.

Abby chuckled. “That’s what my comment earlier was about. In return for the power to be a hero, the bracelet insists that its host act like one, whether they want to or not. If you think something is evil or perfidious or selfish it will try to stop you from doing it. If you think someone needs help, it will try to make you help them. Even those naturally inclined to righteousness can find that price difficult to pay, and for those less … selfless … well I imagine it would be difficult.”

Clenching my jaw, I ignored the jibe at my integrity. “What power? So far all it’s done is hold me in place, start turning me into a girl, and done a great job of emptying my not exactly substantial bank account.”

“Oh have you not figured out how to summon the staff yet?” Abby remarked, furthering my annoyance with her.

“What staff?” I hissed through my teeth.

Abby tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Hmm … you should be able to summon some kind of magical staff or wand from the bracelet. While it’s out, you should be able to cast spells by … hmm ... I think he said chanting rhyming couplets.”

“You don’t sound very certain,” Brett noted.

“Well, it’s been several years since I talked to Rich about it,” Abby explained. “It’s not like I can ask him about it either, since he passed away.”

While Brett and Abby talked, I fiddled with the bracelet on my wrist. I tried tapping the jewel and twisting it, as well as twisting around the bracelet as a whole. Nothing made any sort of staff appear, though. So much for the one supposed upside of the thing.

“That’s not going to work,” Abby interjected into my efforts. “It’s not a mechanical switch or something.”

“So what I need to chant some stupid spell, like ‘magical bracelet so strong and bright, give me the power I need to fight’?” I questioned snarkily.

Before Abby could answer, the jewel on the bracelet flashed. A moment later, bright green light leaked from the emerald, rushing up my arm and across my body. Within moments, I was enveloped in a cocoon of green that completely blocked my vision of the world around me. Then, as quickly as it had come, the light vanished.

The sight that awaited me when the shell vanished caused my jaw to drop. Resting in the hand that the bracelet would normally be on, was a slim copper scepter roughly three feet long. On top of the scepter was a fist-sized emerald cut to look like a flame with thin, copper bands spiraling up around the base. That was not what made my jaw drop, though.

Along with the scepter, new clothes had appeared to replace my old ones. Rather than wearing a t-shirt and some cargo shorts, I was dressed in a skin tight, strapless, green dress with a copper colored rope belt tied around my waist. The dress extended from about mid chest down to a couple inches shy of mid-thigh. To match it, I also sported a green cloak, gloves, and boots, all with copper fasteners on them while atop my head I could feel some kind of hat resting.

“What the fuck?!” I gasped, staring at the embarrassing outfit. Even as I did, I reached up with my free hand to grab the hat off my head. What I pulled down was a big, floppy, witch hat complete with a copper tassel on the point.

Off to the side, Abby covered her mouth in a vain attempt to suppress her laughter while Brett stared at me askance. It was Abby that tried to speak up through her laughter. “I guess … hehe ... it wants you … heh ... to look the part … hahaha.”

Shooting a glare the icy woman’s way, I tried to think of a way to get out of the ridiculous outfit. A rhyme had brought it out, so I figured a rhyme would put it away. “The fight is over, the day is won, so now go back to where you come from,” I tried, but no flash of light appeared. I was still stuck in the stupid dress.

Down to just snickering, Abby smirked at me. “You’re not bad at this, but that was a slant rhyme.”

“Gah! You’re telling me this thing is picky about technicalities?” I growled angrily.

Abby shrugged. “Well that or you are. There’s a pretty good chance it uses your standards for what counts as a rhyme.”

Glaring at the scepter, I gave it a good shake. “Stupid thing … alright … fine … uhh … no that won’t work … uhm … hurry now there’s no time to waste, return the clothes I seek with haste.”

That time, the scepter obliged, the emerald on top of it flashing brightly. A moment later, green light surrounded me. When it was gone, I was once again dressed in my normal clothes with the copper bracelet on my wrist.

“Finally,” I breathed, relieved to be out of those ridiculous clothes.

“Not bad,” Abby remarked. “You might want to memorize those or at least write them down, though.”

“Why? No way am I ever calling out that get up again,” I spat.

Abby chuckled. “Well, you might not want to, but that bracelet isn’t likely to give you much of a choice in the matter, and the last thing you want is to be trying to figure out a rhyme while you’re in the middle of a fight to the death.”

“That thing’s going to make him fight people?” Brett asked, clearly concerned.

Abby nodded. “Yes, unless his idea of a hero of justice involves cowardly hiding from evil under his bed. You will probably want to look into finding a way to make the whole hero thing official, too. Otherwise, the authorities are liable to label you a vigilante and hunt you down with the criminals.”

“That suicide ritual is sounding better and better,” I commented morbidly.

“There’s no need to be so melodramatic,” Abby chastised. “I’m sure you’ll get used to it. Most of my hero friends love what they do.”

“Good for them,” I huffed, slumping down in my chair.

Brett tossed a worried look my way which only served to make me feel worse. I hated it when he pitied me. “Well, I guess we should probably get going then,” Brett announced. “Thank you for all your help, Abby.”

“Yeah, you’re a fantastic harbinger of doom,” I grumbled sarcastically.

That remark turned Brett’s look of worry to one of anger. “Sorry about him.”

“It’s quite alright. It’s not every day some loser like him gets told he’s gonna have to be good for a change,” Abby replied.

“Hey! I’m not a loser!” I protested.

Abby rolled her eyes. “If even half the stuff Brett has told me about you is true, loser is too good a word for you.”

Jaw dropping, I turned to Brett to ask, “What the hell have you told her about me?”

“Less than I could,” Brett informed me. “Now let’s go before the two of you start fencing with something more dangerous than words.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 10

“Meow!” Mini greeted as I stepped through the door to my apartment.

“Well at least someone isn’t insulting me today … or are you? I guess that could just as easily be ‘feed me you fat old slob’ as ‘hello’,” I muttered as I walked over to the counter to set the bags I was carrying down. “I’m pretty sure you won’t insult me once you see what I’ve got for you, though.”

No more meowing came from Mini. She just looked up at me, tilting her head like I was some kind of idiot for trying to talk to her. I supposed that was kind of true. It wasn’t like she could understand, much less talk back. She’d probably understand new stuff, though.

Digging around in the bag, I started pulling stuff out and tossing it on the floor for Mini to look at. “I got you this little mouse chew toy thing, and your own bowls, and a litter box, and some cat treats for when you aren’t being an awful little pest. Well, I didn’t really get them for you, since Brett paid, but I picked it all out. What d’ya think of that?”

Down on the floor, Mini was just curled up around the little mouse toy. The things head was shoved in her mouth, and she appeared to be trying her best to chew it off. She had absolutely no interest in thanking or praising me.

“Figures,” I sighed, taking some solace in the fact that the cat seemed to at least like the toy. It would have been nice to get some sort of thanks, though.

While Mini played with slash murdered her toy, I got to work on the task of setting everything up for the rascal. I swapped out her bowls, filling the new ones with food and water in the process then got her litter box filled with litter. That left me with the daunting task of cleaning out the shit in the carrier, but luckily the newspaper that had been inside made that task not too horrible. It still required a good scrubbing followed by an immediate trip out to the dumpster to drop off the trash bag it all went into.

Once I was back in the apartment, I just walked over to the couch and flopped on it. “All done …” I mumbled wearily to no one in particular. Of course, that phrase wasn't really true. It was just the beginning really. Mini wasn’t going anywhere, and it wouldn’t be long before I’d have to figure out what to do about the whole girl thing, plus there was no way of knowing what else would come up because of the bracelet. Just thinking about it made me so tired that I wanted to close my eyes and never open them again.

I barely managed to lean my head back and get my eyes closed before I felt something soft and furry rub itself along the top of my head. A moment later, the weight of a cat landed right on my stomach, causing to me to curl up reflexively. When I opened my eyes, Mini was curled up on top of me, rubbing her head against me.

Lips curling up in a faint smile, I reached up to scratch the cat behind the ears. “Never a moment’s peace ...”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

The sound of some kind of loud banging yanked me awake. Jerking upright, I rubbed at my eyes as my disoriented mind tried to sort through what was going on. Even when I realized that it was someone ‘knocking’ on my door, it didn’t make me feel much better. After all, that kind of banging meant someone was angry with me.

“Coming!” I called out in an effort to get the banging to stop.

Hearing my voice caused me to wince. While I was still somewhat raspy, my voice was partially back – well someone’s voice was anyway, because it certainly wasn’t mine. The voice that I had was rough, but clearly female in tone and pitch. It was the first obvious sign of my slowly progressing change.

Grumbling wordless frustrations, I shoved myself off the couch and trudged over to the door. Mini appeared from somewhere to fall into step with me, staying right on my heels. Once I stopped and pulled the door open, she started worming her way around my legs, rubbing up against me.

Outside of my apartment stood a very angry looking, plump, middle aged woman, also known as my landlady Piper Gertz. She looked a lot taller and bigger than I remembered, actually taller than me in spite my memories saying she was fairly average height. I realized that was probably an indication of how much smaller I was getting, than her growing.

“Who the hell are you?” Ms. Gertz demanded, glaring at me suspiciously.

That question prompted my second wince since waking up. “It’s me, Ms. Gertz – Ash.”

“Very funny, miss,” Ms. Gertz remarked sarcastically, clearly not believing me. “Is Mr. Hinton around? I’ve been getting complaints about him.”

“No he’s not, but you can tell me and I’ll let him know,” I lied, figuring it was easier than trying to convince the irate woman of my identity.

Ms. Gertz gave me a skeptical look, but shrugged it off quickly enough. “Very well, the first is his neighbors complaining about a cat, which I can see is true, judging from the little furball at your feet. Pets are not allowed in this complex.”

“They aren’t?” I asked, genuinely unaware of that rule. In fact, I hadn’t even considered that being a problem when I took Mini in. After all, why would someone care about pets at a shit hole complex like this one.

“No, they are not. Neither are unregistered tenants for that matter,” Ms. Gertz informed me.

“I’m not an unregistered tenant. I–” I began to protested.

Ms. Gertz held up a hand to cut me off. “I don’t care what sordid relationship you have with Mr. Hinton, miss. Just let him know that I’ll be evicting him for this. He, you, and that cat, all need to be out of here by the end of the week.”

“You can’t do that! It’s illegal!” I argued, knowing full well that there were laws about providing sufficient notice and such.

Ms. Gertz features hardened. “Well you can certainly try to stay passed Friday, as is your right, but let’s just say I wouldn’t recommend it. This is a rough part of town, especially for a young woman that’s all alone. I hope I’ve made myself clear.”

“Very,” I hissed, barely keeping my rage in check.

“Good,” Ms. Gertz replied, turning to leave. “Have a nice day, miss.”

My response came in the form of my slamming the door shut as hard as I could. It was impotent rage, though. If Ms. Gertz wanted me gone by the end of the week, she’d find a way to make sure it happened.

“I’m screwed,” I muttered, slumping back against the door. There was no way that I would be able to find another place that quickly. Even if I could, I didn’t have money for a deposit and rent, and there was no way I was getting my deposit back from that vulture. There just weren’t any options – well almost none.

Sighing in defeat, I started searching for my phone. Once I found it buried in the cracks of the sofa, I made my call. While I listened to the phone ringing, I tapped my foot impatiently, really wishing that I had some other choice.

“Hello?” Brett said as he picked.

“Hey, Brett. I need a favor,” I told him.

There was a brief pause on the other end. “Is that you, Ash?”

Indulging in yet another wince, I tried to just shake off the frustration my new voice was causing me. “Yeah, it’s me, just with a new set of pipes. Now, can I get to the favor I need?”

“Uh, yeah sure, sorry,” Brett mumbled, clearly as weirded out by my voice as I was.

“So, I just got a visit from my landlady. Apparently, cats aren’t allowed at my place, and she’s decided to use that as an excuse to kick me out,” I explained. “I’ve got ‘til the end of the week to find a new place.”

“What? That’s not – “ Brett started to argue.

I just cut him off. “I know that, but she’s not exactly the most upstanding landlady. I’ve heard rumors about the kind of stuff she does to unwanted tenants. The way she was talking, I’m pretty sure she plans to get some gangers to break into my place and do God knows what to me if I’m not gone by Friday.”

“Jesus …” Brett muttered.

“Yeah … so anyway, between the cat and everything I don’t exactly have enough money to get a new place,” I informed him.

“I see … well you’re still welcome to come stay at my place until you can afford something,” Brett offered.

Even expecting that offer, I still winced. “That’s awfully nice, but I was hoping –”

Brett didn’t even let me finish. “I’m not lending you money, Ash. I’ve got a perfectly good spare room at my place. Besides, with all the stuff that you’ve been dealing with, it might be a good for you to not be alone all the time.”

It was pretty obvious that Brett had me here. I was desperate, and he was the only one I could turn to for help. Maybe I could have gotten a couple nights on couches from other people, but not enough to last me a month or two. Still, I had to try one last thing.

“Are you sure? I mean, your maid’s probably not going to be too happy with having to clean up after a cat,” I pointed out.

“I think she’ll be more upset having to clean up after you,” Brett retorted. “But I’m sure she’ll get over it.”

With that, I sighed in defeat. “Alright, I’ll come stay with you. Thanks, I guess.”

“No problem,” Brett told me as if my thanks weren’t sarcastic. “I’ll swing by your place after work so we can get you moved.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 11

The noise of someone vacuuming tugged me to dreary wakefulness. At first my surroundings confused me. The bed and pillow were far too soft, and the room wasn’t dark and dingy. In fact, the room was almost painfully bright, making me want to dig my head into my pillow to hide from it. Unfortunately, the continued racket coming from outside of the room made it pretty clear that trying to sleep anymore wasn’t going to work.

“Fucking hell,” I grouched, wincing at the decidedly cute voice I spoke with – a voice that was no longer rough or raspy. That sound was quickly forgotten, though, as I looked around and finally realized where I was.

After calling my brother, I’d waited around for the rest of the day until he showed up. Once he did, we’d quickly moved me out of my apartment. It was quite the simple task. There was no need to bring any of my shit furniture or appliances. Other than my clothes, computer, and some random odds and ends, it was easier to just leave the rest for my landlady to have to throw out. From there, we’d just headed off to Brett’s place.

Like me, my brother’s home was a reflection of his success in life. While I lived in a dump that only the poor and desperate would even consider occupying, Brett owned a lovely two-story home in a nice quiet neighborhood. It was a pretty big place, too, with a handful of bedrooms and multiple bathrooms, all tied together with a classic decor that spoke of elegance and class. In short, the place was absolutely, sickeningly ostentatious.

Determined to find a drink to counteract my already foul mood, I rolled off the bed and stomped out of my room. The bedroom that I’d been lent was upstairs, a horrific state of affairs that required me to actually exert myself to get to the kitchen. With every step I had to take, my mood only darkened.

“Oh! Hello,” the maid, and source of the cacophony that had awoken me, greeted me pleasantly when she saw me come down the stairs, a warm smile on her face.

The pleasant tone derailed my plan to glare at the woman, who I’d never been able to remember the name of. Normally, she just gave me dirty looks without saying anything, and if she did speak, it was in a tone that made it clear that I was filth that should be scrubbed clean. Today, though, she wasn’t just nice, but actually smiling at me. When it finally registered in my mind that she couldn’t recognize me, my shoulders slumped.

“I’m sorry if I woke you,” the maid apologized, mistaking my slumped silence for exhaustion.

“It’s fine,” I muttered, continuing on my way. If she wasn’t going to recognize me, I saw no reason to correct her misconception and return to her looking like she was plotting to kill me constantly.

In the kitchen, I found Mini hiding in her carrier to escape from the vacuum. She mewled pitifully at me when she saw me, probably hoping that I would save her from whatever monster she thought the appliance was. There was a twinge of pity for the little furball, but I had another mission that I needed to handle first.

Much to my consternation, the two bottles of whiskey that I’d brought from my place weren’t on the table where I’d left them the night before. After a quick search, my frustration turned to outright rage when I finally found the bottles. Both were sitting in the sink, upside down and drained of all their contents.

“Passive aggressive, ass,” I spat at my absent brother. I should’ve known that he’d do something like that when he didn’t complain about me bringing booze into his house. He was so puritanical. “He should’ve found this stupid bracelet. Wouldn’t have had to change his life one damn bit.”

Bitching about what had happened did nothing to bring my whiskey back, though, and I knew better than to try to find any other form of recreational substance in Brett’s house. There weren’t any stores in walking distance from Brett’s home either. Clearly, I was going to have to live without – somehow.

“Alright, Mini. Come on. There’s no reason for both of us to be miserable,” I declared, going over to retrieve the terrified cat from her carrier hiding place.

Mini didn’t seem to be too happy to be in my arms, fighting against my grip. She got especially feisty when I started taking her toward the stairs which also meant going toward the vacuum. Luckily, she didn’t fight hard enough to break free of me, allowing me to get her up to my room.

“There, isn’t that better?” I asked once I finally let her go in my room and closed the door to block out most of the noise from downstairs. Mini’s only response was to hop up onto my bed and snuggle herself into the blankets. “I see how it is, you ungrateful runt.”

With my bed taken over, I flopped into the desk chair that I’d brought into the room when I set up my computer the night before. Without anything to drink, I was going to need other forms of entertainment, which it would provide for me. Luckily, the move didn’t seem to have caused it any problems as it whirred to life the moment I pressed the power button.

As the old machine booted up, I settled back in my seat to get ready, only to frown at the drastically shrunken bits that my hand found when I reached down. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be … up to the task that I’d had in mind. Sighing, I retracted my hand and let it flop off to the side of the chair. “Welp, so much for that.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

The sound of the door opening got me to crack my eyes open. What awaited them was the sight of my brother standing in the doorway to my room. When he saw that I was still lying on the bed even well into the evening, an exasperated look crossed his face.

“Have you been in here all day?” Brett questioned.

“Mmhmm,” I hummed, shifting my position a bit to curl up around the cat that was sleeping next to my tummy.

Brett rolled his eyes at me. “Are you the cat now?”

“Meow,” I imitated.

“Jesus, Ash. You can’t just sleep all day,” Brett reprimanded.

Groaning, I pushed myself up to a half sitting position. “Why not? There’s nothing to do.”

“Well, I don’t know, maybe you could research what you’re going through, or learn more about your new powers, or hell even just shop for some clothes that fit!” Brett exclaimed clearly growing frustrated with me.

“My clothes fit fine,” I argued.

Brett let out a derisive chuckle at my claim. “Are you kidding me? You look ridiculous.”

“No, I don’t,” I insisted.

“Unbelievable ... “ Brett muttered. “When was the last time you even looked at yourself ... I mean really looked.”

I shrugged, not really able to remember the last time that I’d actually stopped in front of a mirror to look. “I don’t know … a couple days maybe.”

“Alright, get up,” Brett instructed, gesturing at me to rise.

“But –” I started to protest.

“Now,” Brett cut me off, his tone cold and uncompromising.

Sighing, I did as instructed, rolling off the bed to get to my feet. Even standing, I had to look up quite far to meet Brett’s eyes, far further than I was used to. It made me feel absolutely tiny in comparison.

Once I was on my feet, Brett walked over to the closet in the room and pulled the door open, revealing the mirror on the reverse side. “Look.”

Suppressing feelings of trepidation, I shrugged and affected a casual stroll over to stand in front of the mirror. I couldn’t maintain the nonchalant attitude when I saw my reflection, though. My eyes widened in surprise, and I just stared.

The person in the mirror no longer bore any resemblance to the man that I’d once been. She, and it was definitely a girl, was far younger than I was, close to a teen in appearance. She was a lot smaller than me, too, so short and slim that my t-shirt was practically a dress for her, and my shorts seemed to just barely be clinging to her hips. Her face was quite pretty, nothing like the thin, haggard visage that I remembered seeing in the mirror a few days ago. To top it all off, red was creeping into the girl’s hair, which was notably longer than I always kept mine as well as no longer sporting a receding hairline. The red created a copperish color that went well with eyes that appeared to be green not brown. The girl even had a slight tan, rather than my pasty complexion.

At first, my mind rejected the reflection, finding it too different to believe. After all, I could remember checking my reflection not that long ago and still being pretty much me, albeit thinner than usual. That had been some time ago, though, I realized. The last few times I’d walked past a mirror, I’d just ignored my reflection … no actively avoided looking in it. Now, I couldn’t look away.

“Look, Ash, I get it. This isn’t easy, and Lord, I know how much you hate working, but you can’t just spend all your time sleeping and hope it goes away,” Brett told me. “You’re not going to get paid leave forever, and from what Abby told us, that bracelet is probably not going to let you just sit around either. You need to start doing stuff before the situation forces you to, whether you’re ready or not.”

Still stunned by my reflection, I managed a distracted nod. “Okay …”

“Really?” Brett asked, doubting my sincerity.

“Yeah,” I replied, continuing to nod with my wide eyes remaining locked on the mirror.

“Alright, good, because I got in touch with a couple of my friends today, to help,” Brett informed me. “Abby said that she’d teach you a little about how magic works and help even you find some clothes if you want, and Tony, a hero buddy of mine, was willing to see about taking you on as a sidekick once you have a better grasp of what you can do, assuming you want to try the hero route like Abby suggested.”

I briefly glanced from my reflection to give Brett a skeptical look before turning back. I didn’t look like much of a hero – more like a cheerleader really. Once I summoned the scepter, and the accompanying clothes, I’d look even more ridiculous. “You really think I can do the whole hero thing?”

Brett shrugged. “I don’t know, Ash. From what Abby says, that bracelet is really something, so you should have the power for it. The rest is up to you.”

Shaking my head, I let out a weary sigh. From what I knew of the bracelet, it wasn’t like I really had a choice. “Alright … I’ll give it a try.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 12

“At least he’s got a nice TV,” I muttered as I half-watched the awful daytime programming that played on the screen.

Laying atop my chest as I slouched on the couch, Mini was far more interested in what was going on on the screen than I was. She was absolutely fascinated by the rapidly moving lights, seeming ready to spring at a moment’s notice. It made me wonder, if she’d just pounce at the screen, if I paused it. Figuring that it would be pretty cruel to toy with the cat like that, I just reached up to scratch her behind the head instead.

The bing of a doorbell interrupted the lazy scene, announcing the arrival of the person I was waiting for. Abby was supposed to come over to help me get started on the whole ‘new life’ thing that I was supposed to work on. It had sounded reasonable when I’d been dazed and confused by my reflection the day before, but now I was dreading it. I couldn’t believe I’d actually let Brett talk me into learning how to be a hero. I wasn’t hero material.

“Alright, kitty, off you go,” I instructed, trying to nudge Mini off my chest with one hand. She was having none of that, though, digging her claws into my shirt. “Ow! Fine! You can come with me then!” I declared, wrapping an arm around her so I could just carry her with me.

A second bing sounded impatiently from the doorbell as I finally got up and started toward the door with Mini curled up in my arms. “I’m comin’! I’m comin’!”

It didn’t take long before I got to the door and opened it, revealing Abby standing there on the other side, tapping her foot impatiently. The woman’s annoyance vanished immediately when she saw me, though. Instead, her lips curled into an amused smirk as she looked down at me from a considerable height advantage. “Well aren’t you the little cutie, now.”

“Ha ha, very funny,“ I laughed sarcastically, trying to play it off like the joke didn’t bother me. Everyone looked down at me anymore, because I was just so short. Brett had measured me the day before and I was down to five-three, and apparently still shrinking. The bed had seemed just a bit taller this morning than it had the morning before anyway. Abby probably had half a foot on me, even without the heels that she was wearing.

Abby just kept on grinning before tilting her head at the cat in my arms. “Who’s the feline?”

“Oh, this is Mini,” I explained, hefting the cat a little, “The obnoxious runt of a stray that my bracelet made me rescue. Now she follows me everywhere.”

“Well, you are carrying her,” Abby pointed out.

I shot the annoying woman an exasperated look. “She does it even when I’m not carrying her, you smartass,” I retorted before setting Mini on the ground. Rather than run off, or even go outside which she rarely got to do, Mini just started rubbing up against my legs. “See? It’s been kind of weird for me, really. She used to do nothing but hiss at me before I rescued her.”

Expecting another snide remark, I was surprised to see Abby tap her chin thoughtfully. “Interesting.”

I furrowed my brow in confusion. “How so?”

“Well, it’s just that magic users often keep such animals as familiars, a sort of magically bonded companion. It might be that … Mini here is intended to be yours,” Abby explained. “I don’t remember Rich mentioning anything about the bracelet finding its host a familiar, but perhaps it has to do with your image of magical hero. Most magical girls have some sort of mystical ally.”

“Some ally …” I muttered, glaring down at the cat. “All it does is lay around and make me pet and feed it.”

Abby chuckled. “Well, look who it learned from.”

That remark had me lifting my glare up to Abby. “Are we going to actually do anything today or did you just come here to insult me?”

“Sorry, you’re right. I did promise Brett that I’d take this seriously,” Abby apologized, still smirking in amusement.

“Yeah, we wouldn’t want to disappoint Brett now would we?” I remarked sarcastically. “He might trash talk me to all of his friends again.”

Abby’s mirth instantly vanished. “Do you really think that’s what he’s doing?”

“Of course. I mean, how else would a woman I met once already hate my guts enough to openly mock me,” I pointed out. “Unless you just happen to be this shitty to everyone?”

Abby rolled her eyes. “I know that much because your brother is always worrying about you. Unlike an obnoxious, ungrateful loser like you, he actually has friends, like me, that he goes to for advice – not that he ever listens to it.”

“Oh, so you must tell him to be less of a judgemental ass, then?” I shot back. “Because he certainly doesn’t do that.”

“No, I tell him that he should just cut you out of his life already, like the malignant tumor that you are!” Abby retorted angrily.

Stiffening at the insult, I narrowed my eyes. “Well this ‘malignant tumor’ has decided to go back to bed, so … “ Not bothering to finish, I just slammed the door in Abby’s face. At least, that was what I tried to do. My right hand, however, refused to obey my command. Instead, it was held in place by the bracelet. “You have got to be fucking kidding me!”

Abby furrowed her brow in confusion at my outburst. “Uhm … what’s going on now?”

“What’s going on, is that this stupid bracelet won’t let me slam the door in your pompous, bitch face, because apparently standing here while you just shit all over me is somehow the heroic thing to do,” I spat, furious at this turn of events.

“Well, I’m pretty sure it’s mad because … “ Abby started to explain only to trail off when she saw my glare. “Nevermind …”

“No! Tell me! Enlighten the moronic, dropout stoner on the intricacies of asinine magical bracelet logic!” I yelled furiously.

Clearing her throat uncomfortable, Abby collected herself before finishing. “Well I think it’s not so much wanting to make you stand here and get insulted as it is trying to stop you from refusing my help.”

“And why should I want help from someone that thinks disposing of me would be helping?” I questioned.

“Probably because I am a female magic user who already knows your situation, making me sort of ideal for helping you along,” Abby noted. “Well, at least that was the that argument Brett used to get me to help.”

Further mention of Brett only worsened my mood. “Somehow, even when he’s not around he finds a way to fuck things up for me – like always.”

“And how exactly is he the one ruining your life?” Abby demanded.

I snorted in amusement. “Have you ever been the short, ugly, stupid, useless, younger brother of someone who’s literally supernaturally amazing?”

“Well I’m not a bo–” Abby began.

“You know what I fucking mean!” I interrupted.

Wincing, Abby shook her head. “No.”

“Then you have no fucking idea about who’s fucking with who’s life,” I spat. “Now, let’s get started on whatever you came here to do, because if I hear my brother’s name again, I’m going to find a way to slam this door in your face if it kills me.”

Abby nodded in understanding. “Alright, let’s start with magic basics and work from there.”

“Great, let’s, “ I harrumphed, turning around to walk back inside with Mini following along at my heel. The moment I got back to the couch, I plopped down and folded my arms across my chest.

“Uhm … you might want to get something to take notes with,” Abby suggested.

“Fine,” I sighed, shoving myself back up and lollygagging my way up the stairs. In my room, I snagged a small notebook that I’d gotten to write down the rhymes I used. It seemed as good as anything for taking notes about magic.

A moment later, I was back downstairs. Tossing the notebook on the coffee table haphazardly, I flopped back into my spot on the couch. “There.”

Abby rolled her eyes at my intractability, but began her lecture anyway. “Alright to start with, we should talk about the building blocks of magic, essence. You can think of it like electricity, or ki, or whatever other kind of energy you’d like. Casting a spell is you shaping essence into the form you wish. In your case, the wand you summon is an essence battery, and the rhymes are a formula the wand uses to shape the essence it has to the effect you desire.”

“Sounds simple enough,” I commented.

Abby tilted her head from side to side. “Well, your wand’s functionality is, but you’ll probably want to learn to cast magic by yourself as well, especially if you can learn to draw essence from the wand to your own well.”

“I have a magic well?” I questioned. “Can I throw coins into it to get my wishes granted?”

That joke got an exasperated glance from Abby. “Yes, you, and everyone else, has some natural ability to store essence. Usually it requires someone else to provide you with essence to trigger this ability, which lasts as long as you don’t completely exhaust your reserves. Since you have the wand, it should be able to provide the essence you will need. That’s where we’ll begin today.”

“Alright, so how do I do that?” I inquired.

“Well first, you’ll need to summon the wand like you did the other day at my house,” Abby explained. “After that, I’ll walk you through the process of learning to manipulate essence with your will.”

I blinked as my mind realized what Abby’s request entailed. “You want me to bring out that ridiculous get up again?”

Abby nodded. “Of course, well the ‘get up’ is irrelevant, but you will need the wand and they seem to be a package deal. The bracelet is a dormant recharge form that won’t provide essence to you.”

“Ugh … damn it, “ I groaned at the thought of having to wear that stupid, embarrassing outfit again. There wasn’t much choice in the matter, though. The bracelet clearly wasn’t going to let me get out of this. “Fine … Magical bracelet so strong and bright, give me the power I need to fight.” Even just saying the words was so humiliating.

As soon as I finished the rhyme, the bracelet flashed and green light rushed outward to surround me. For a moment, my world was nothing but green before the light faded away Once it was gone, I steeled myself for what awaited me before looking down.

Just like last time, I wore the weird green and copper outfit, complete with tiny, strapless dress. It all looked every bit as ridiculous as it had the last time, like I was dressed up in some kind of cosplay rather than magically empowered by an ancient artifact. At least it didn’t look like crossplay, although, that fact wasn’t great for my confidence either. I was more than slim enough for the little dress which clung to what were clearly budding curves while showing decidedly sleek looking legs poking out from its short hem.

Filled with too many thoughts and emotions to get straight, I jerked my gaze up from my ever increasing girlishness, determined to ignore it for now. The action caused my big floppy hat to slip down in front of my eyes, forcing me to reach up to push it back out of the way. With my vision unobscured, I could see Abby grinning at me in a way I found most infuriating. “Well?! What next?!”

Getting serious again, Abby nodded. “For starters, I want you to close your eyes and try to focus on …”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chuckling softly, I watched as Mini squirmed around on her back in front of me. The cause of her squirming was the vigorous scratching I was giving her tummy which was also producing a great deal of purring. It was pretty adorable, but also quite silly looking.

“You’re supposed to be some kind of mystical companion?” I questioned dubiously. As if sensing my doubt, Mini suddenly stopped squirming to swipe at my hand with one paw, causing her claws to dig into my skin. “Ow! You little brat!” I shouted as I yanked my hand away to flail it in pain.

With the abrupt end to the scratching, Mini looked up at me and tilted her head. For all the world, it looked like she was confused as to why I had stopped petting her. Either that or she was just mad that she couldn’t claw me again. It was hard to tell with her.

“No more pets for you,” I told her, wagging a reproving finger at her from outside of claw range.

As soon as she heard that, Mini rolled right back onto her feet. She was barely there for a moment before she jumped, hopping from where she lay beside me on the couch up onto my chest. From there, she could look me right in the eye with that cocked head manner of hers.

“Ow!” I gasped as the cat’s weight smashed down on top of my frustratingly existent boobs. The things might not be very big, but they were decidedly tender – more than tender enough that I didn’t want cat claws digging into them. “Alright, alright, jeez.”

Capitulating to the bullying, I reached up to scratch the little cat behind the ears. Instantly, the cat flopped onto her side on top of me, causing me to wince at another sting of pain from my chest. Within moments, Mini was purring again as she rubbed her head into my hand.

“I’m starting to think we’re less companions than master and slave,” I remarked. Mini didn’t stop her purring to contradict me. Clearly, she knew who the master was.

The rumble of a garage door opening pulled my attention away from my subservience to the feline and filled me with anger. I knew what that sound meant. Sure enough, within just a couple minutes, the kitchen door opened and Brett walked into the house.

“Hey, Ash,” Brett greeted as he came into the living room. “How’d things go with Abby today?”

“Just great. She called me a malignant tumor then had me spend all day trying to use my mind to move invisible energy,” I responded sarcastically.

Hearing that, Brett came around into my vision so that I could see his disapproving scowl. “God, Ash. What did you do this time?”

“Me?!” I exclaimed. “I didn’t do anything! She’s the one that’s hated me from the moment I met her!”

Brett sighed in frustration. “Ash, you never think you’ve done anything. You need to apologize to her. She’s the most magically knowledgeable person I know. You need her to teach you.”

I rolled my eyes at my brother’s lack of faith. “Whatever. You don’t have to worry about that. She’s not going to let her distaste for me cause her to disappoint you. No one ever wants to disappoint you.”

“This isn’t about me, Ash,” Brett replied.

“Are you kidding?! Of course it’s about you!” I exclaimed. “It’s so obvious that she’s got the hots for you, man. That’s the only reason she’s putting up with me.”

Brett shook his head. “We’re just friends.”

“How many times do I have to tell you this, Brett?! Girls are never ‘just friends’ with you!” I shouted. “You’re a smart, handsome, successful doctor. You’re like woman kryptonite. The only ones that don’t want to sleep with you are the ones that aren’t into guys, and even some of them would probably switch teams if they had a chance at you.”

“That’s not … nevermind,” Brett started to argue before giving up. “This whole training thing is for you, so what do you want to do? You want to quit and go back to working security?”

I shrugged. “I’d love to quit, but unfortunately, I don’t have a choice in the matter. This stupid bracelet has decided that I’m sticking with it, whether I want to or not. So congratulations, Brett, you get exactly what you want, like usual.”

“Yes, well sorry for wanting you to understand your powers so you don’t get yourself killed,” Brett spat. “How silly of me.”

“Well according to your friends, you’d be better off if I did get myself killed, so it actually is pretty silly,” I retorted.

“Yeah, well my friends don’t get to decide who I want in my life!” Brett growled. “I’m not going to give up on you just because everyone else, including you, has!”

Falling into silence, I looked away from Brett. I didn’t have a come back ready for his response. For all of it, no matter what had happened, he’d never wanted to stop being my brother – not even when I’d wanted him to.

“Look, I’ll talk to Abby about how she’s been acting,” Brett announced, calming down a bit.

“Don’t bother,” I told him morosely. “I already know how she feels.”

“Then what do you want me to do, Ash?” Brett inquired.

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Seeming to understand, Brett nodded. “Well, let me know when you do.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 13

“Elements obey my desire and blast my foe with lots of fire,” I chanted as I pointed the scepter in my hand at my brother’s backyard pool.

The moment the rhyme was finished, a ball of bright copper flames, about the size of a person’s head, shot out the tip of the emerald. It zipped through the air toward the center of the pool, sizzling as it went. The moment it hit the water, it rather anticlimactically fizzled out with a hiss and a puff of steam.

Seeing the spell fizzle out, I chuckled in amusement. “Welp, guess even magic fire loses to water. I’ll have to find some other place to test it.”

With my most recent spell a bust, I let out a weary sigh and turned back toward the picnic table that was behind my brother’s house. Resting atop the table was my notebook, inside of which I wrote a quick description of the effect next to the rhyme that I’d just tested. There were a few other descriptions written in there as well, along with several rhymes that were crossed out as failures.

Once my note was written, I plopped onto a seat to go over my work. The scepter had proven quite finicky, both in terms of what it counted as a rhyming couplet, and in terms of how it interpreted such things. Earlier, I had tried to create a magic laser beam, only to have the stupid thing shoot out harmless strobes of light, like I was in some of kind disco ball at ashitty club. Of course, even that was better than the numerous rhymes that had produced nothing at all.

“At least I got a few good ones,” I remarked as I looked over the list. The one that I’d come up that allowed me to fly had been especially fun, as well as more than a bit terrifying. Once the magic had begun, it was controlled by mere thought, no different than trying to walk or jump. Of course, I didn’t have decades of practices doing it like I did walking. There had been some near misses while I’d figured out how to move around.

Something bumped against my hip, interrupting my review. Before I could even look to see what it was, there came the soft whine of a cat. Mini was clearly tired of being ignored while I practiced.

“Alright, alright,” I muttered as I dropped a hand down to pet the cat. I’d tried to leave her inside to avoid exactly this problem, only to have her just sit at the back door, whining at me until I let her come with me. “You know, I really spoil you.”

The cat just purred out its delight while rubbing up against me. Clearly, she didn’t care if she was spoiled or not as long as she got attention. I supposed that she had been a good girl while I’d practiced, quietly staying out of the way, so she deserved something.

“I should remember to ask Abby more about this whole familiar thing,” I mused as I glanced down at the cat. I couldn’t imagine that they’d be all that common if a familiar was little more than just an unusually clingy pet. As such, I was pretty sure that there had to be more to it than that, like some way to communicate or something. “Not sure I really want to know what you have to say to me, though.”

The sound of the back door to the house opening pulled my attention from the little cat. Standing at the door was Abby with a faint look of surprise on her face. “Surprised to see you in that outfit already.”

I shrugged. “I was just practicing a few rhymes while I waited for today’s tongue lashing.”

“Yeah, well there’s not going to be a tongue lashing,” Abby replied. “We’re just going to get started.”

Groaning, I rolled my eyes at the news. “Ugh … he got to you didn’t he? I told him not to bother.”

“Well I could lie and say that he didn’t talk to me about it, but I won’t. He wasn’t too happy about it either. However, he didn’t tell me to stop,” Abby noted. “I just thought we could skip it, since it seems you want to actually be serious today.”

I gave her a skeptical look, but quickly shrugged it off. “Whatever.”

Chuckling at that, Abby came over to sit at the table across from me. “So how did the practice go? Have any trouble?”

“Not really,” I told her, shaking my head. “Damn thing’s pretty particular, but I think I’ve got it figured out. Kinda hard to test here, though.”

Glancing around, Abby nodded in understanding. “I can see what you mean. I know a good place for that, though. We can swing by there, so you can do your testing.”

“Really? Great,” I replied.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Floating a few inches above the ground, I lifted my scepter to point it at a large rock that rested on the ground a couple dozen yards in front of me. The wind blew, rustling the ridiculous cloak that I wore and caused the hair poking out of my hat to tickle my neck. It also blew up a small cloud of dust in the abandoned construction plot. I ignored that, though, keeping my focus on maintaining my magic.

“Elements obey my desire and blast my foe with lots of fire,” I chanted, starting to feel slightly less ridiculous with repetition.

Like the last time that I’d said it, the rhyme caused a large ball of fire to explode outward from the tip of my scepter. It roared across the distance to crash into my inanimate adversary. Rather than fizzle out like it had when it hit water, the ball exploded upon the rock, erupting into a huge column of flame at least fifteen feet in diameter.

Shielding my eyes from the glare of the explosion, I could barely see the shockwave rush toward me, all hot air, rock shards, and lots of force. The hot air tugged at my clothes while causing me to wince from the uncomfortable temperature. The rocks and shockwave, however, never reached me. Instead, they crashed into a curved nearly invisible barrier in front of me, making it look like the air in front of me was rippling. I was very glad that Abby had suggested that I use my magic to protect myself before testing the fire spell.

When the aftershock was passed, I let my various spells end, dropping me back to the ground. The air around me was still full of dust and grit, making me cough every few breaths as I tried to survey the damage of the spell. Through the haze, I could see a huge ring of blackened earth with a small crater in the middle.

“Jesus Christ …” I muttered as I looked at what the spell had done. “When am I ever going to need to do that?!”

“I think you’d be surprised,” Abby remarked from her hiding spot behind a large pile of dirt to my left. “Maybe you have to shoot down some devisor death machine, or destroy some evil artifact before it unleashes doom upon the world, or just blow apart something large and heavy that someone is trying to crush you with. It comes up.”

Shoulders slumping, I let out a heavy sigh. I definitely didn’t want to be in any of the situations that Abby had just described. “I’m really not cut out for this hero shit,” I muttered under my breath before turning to talk to Abby. “That was the last one I had to test. Anything else you wanted me to try?”

Shaking her head, Abby stepped out from her cover. “Nope. We proved you could keep several spells active at once, and you have a decent enough variety of rhymes to handle most basic situations. That’s probably enough for one day.”

Breathing out a sigh of relief, I nodded. “Good, ‘cause after that explosion, I really need a shower. I’m like caked in dust.”

Abby tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Really? Because, I’m not sure I want to get my car all dirty …”

“You know what makes cars really dirty?” I asked rhetorically. “Getting hit by a giant ball of fire.”

Abby laughed. “I think that would make it more destroyed than dirty.”

I shrugged. “Same difference.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Ah … much better,” I muttered as I stepped out of the shower, glad to have all the gunk from practice washed away.

Snatching a towel from the rack, I used it to rub at my hair. The stuff was getting long enough to really be a nuisance. It tickled my neck and shoulders in the back and was long enough in front for copper strands to fall into my eyes. “I should get it cut,” I muttered as I quickly finished toweling it off.

Like usual, I reached for my clothes to quickly get dressed and go back to my room, before stopping. For a moment, I just looked at those clothes, a t-shirt and shorts like any of the others that I’d worn for the last several days. Finally, I grabbed the shirt, but rather than put it on, I held it up in front of me. It seemed absolutely huge, to the point where it was hard to believe that it was actually mine. I wanted to say that I couldn’t have shrunk that much, that someone must have switched out my clothes with those of some huge fat guy, but I knew it wasn’t true.

Sighing, I tossed the shirt aside, and looked down at myself. There were the pair of breasts, not looking so small anymore and apparently still getting bigger. There was the short slim body with the distinct swell to its hips and smooth tan skin. There was the flat crotch that had left manhood behind for good the other day.

Steeling myself, I stepped in front of the mirror to look at myself for the first time since my brother had demanded that I do so. The girl in the reflection had only grown girlier and cuter since the last time that she’d been in front of me – every bit the pretty teen. There was no sign of an out-of-shape loser in his thirties there.

Reaching up with one delicate hand, I rubbed at the wet copper strands that hung beside my face. “Maybe I should grow it out actually,” I mused, trying to decide if it suited me. I’d always liked girls with longer hair. “It might get in the way during all the hero stuff, though, assuming I ever actually do any of that.”

Unsure of what to do, I just peered at the mirror … at my reflection, trying to imagine how different lengths might look. It was hard to really visualize as I’d never really thought that much about hairstyles before. To me, girls either had good hair or didn’t, and I hadn’t changed my own hairstyle in over a decade.

“I’ll ask Abby,” I finally decided, figuring that it was probably smarter to just ask a girl. She might be willing to help me find some new clothes too.

With that decision made, I quickly scooped up the clothes that I had for the moment and got dressed. Once that was done, I hurried out of the bathroom and went in search of Brett. New clothes cost money, and I didn’t have a lot of that to spare. Brett did, though.

It didn’t take me long to find Brett. He was sprawled in a recliner in the living room, relaxing from work with a little TV. “Hey, Brett. Can I talk to you about something?”

“Huh? Oh sure,” Brett muttered before grabbing the remote and turning off the TV. “Is something wrong?”

I shook my head. “No … well … I guess sort of but nothing serious. I was just thinking about getting some new clothes because mine are ...” I began before gesturing down at my currently tent-like attire. “... a little big. I’m still pretty strapped for cash after all the stuff with Mini, though, so …”

“You need money,” Brett finished for me, looking a little skeptical of the request.

“I was thinking of going shopping with Abby, assuming she’s still willing to help out with that,” I added, a little annoyed that it seemed like Brett wasn’t going to trust me without a chaperone to make sure that I actually spent the money on clothes.

Brett nodded at that. “Oh! She and I already set that up a few days ago. She’ll get you what you want and I’ll reimburse her for it.”

Sighing, I rolled my eyes. “Couldn’t just trust me with a couple hundred bucks, could ya?”

“I’ve known you too long for that, Ash,” Brett replied. “Besides, I think you’re grossly underestimating how much this is going to end up costing.”

“What are you talking about?” I questioned. “A few t-shirts and shorts is like a hundred bucks, then the other hundred for undies, socks, and a pair of shoes.”

Brett chuckled at my list. “Yeah, Abby’s not going to let you get away with that.”

A chill ran down my spine. “What do you mean?”

“Let’s just say that she’s been looking forward to this,” Brett answered, grinning.

I gulped. “Uhm … I’ve changed my mind. I’ll just keep wearing what I’ve got.”

“No no … that won’t do,” Brett countered. “I mean really, you look ridiculous.”

Another argument started to form in my mind, but I never put it into words. I knew that I’d already lost. I needed new clothes, and I needed advice. Abby wasn’t going to do anything to me that I wasn’t trying to do to myself. “Damn it … fine. I’ll go shopping with Abby.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 14

Looking down at Mini, I was unsure of what I was supposed to do. The little cat was resting on my chest, which was not uncommon for her. What was uncommon, however, was that she’d apparently taken quite a liking to my boobs, and was currently repeatedly rubbing her head against one of them. It wasn’t unpleasant or anything, but it felt decidedly odd.

“What’s gotten into you? I mean … I get liking tits and everything, but why now?” I asked, but Mini didn’t stop with her rubbing. “You’re such a weird cat.”

Getting called weird caused Mini to roll her head around so that she could briefly look me in the eye. Almost immediately, though, she was back to nestling herself into my cleavage. It seemed like she thought that I was the weird one here.

“Whatever,” I muttered as the sound of the doorbell brought an end to my investigation.

Knowing better than to try to dislodge Mini when she didn’t want to be dislodged, I cradled her against me as I got up off the couch and walked to the door. Once I got there, I opened it and greeted the woman beyond with a chipper, “Hey there.”

“Hello,” Abby greeted. “You ready to go?”

“Yeah, just let me figure out how to extricate myself from this cat without getting a boobful of claw for my trouble,” I replied, trying to slowly pry Mini away from me. The cat didn’t look too amused to lose me, but at least she didn’t claw me. Setting her down, I stepped outside adding a, “See ya in a bit, little guy,” before closing the door behind me.

Abby watched the entire exchange with a slight smile on her face. “You two are pretty cute together.”

“I guess,” I conceded, shrugging. “That reminds me, though. I wanted to ask you about the whole familiar thing. Is there like something I need to do to make that happen or does it just happen over time.”

“Well, I’m not actually sure, since I don’t know what exactly your bracelet is and isn’t doing in all of this, but yes you will need to use magic to bond you and your cat,” Abby explained. “However, there are downsides to it. From what I understand, the bond is very close, and it can be used against you. You’re still a ways from knowing enough to be able to do it anyway, though, so you’ve got some time to think about it.”

I chuckled. “I figured, since I can barely manage to light a candle by myself.”

Abby joined in my mirth. “I was in the same boat back when I first started too. It took a long time to get to where I am now. It’s worth it, though.”

“Sure, but it would still be nice if there were some shortcuts,” I replied.

Mention of shortcuts brought a slight frown to Abby’s face. “You should always beware shortcuts when it comes to magic, Ash. They get you places quicker, but they never take you anywhere you’d actually want to go.”

“That sounded awfully ominous,” I commented.

“Because it was meant to,” Abby responded. “I’m serious, Ash. Don’t try to cut corners. There are far worse things that can happen to you than getting stuck with a bracelet that makes you act good all the time.”

Realizing how serious Abby was, I nodded solemnly. “I’ll make sure to remember that.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“So where do we start?” I asked as I followed Abby into mall.

At the question, Abby paused, turning to peer at me thoughtfully for a moment. “Hmm … well … given your height, build, and overall look, our best bet would be to try some places that cater to teens. Of course, then you’ll look like a teenager, so if you want something more mature we can try some place that goes more towards the twenties crowd.”

Glancing down at myself, I shrugged. “Whichever you think is best.”

“Really?” Abby questioned, raising an eyebrow at that. “Well personally, I think you should embrace the cute look. If you try to deny it, you’ll just be frustrated when people don’t always go along with it.”

“Alright, cute it is,” I agreed. “Lead the way.”

After considering that answer for a moment, Abby nodded and started off. I fell into step beside her, though, I had to step quite a bit more quickly than she did in order to keep up. Being short definitely had its downsides.

“Alright, this is the place,” Abby announced after a little while, turning into one of the many clothing stores along that stretch of mall. “It’s sort of an in between place. Not too trampy. Not too alternative.”

Looking around at the selection, I nodded along with Abby’s explanation. It did seem more conservative than some of the places that we’d past, and there were too many pastel colors for it to be some kind of punk store. I supposed that meant it was pretty normal teen stuff, but hell if I knew. It wasn’t like I’d seen many teenaged girls in a long time.

“Great, what’s first?” I asked, deciding the place seemed fine.

“Well, how about we start with tops and go from there?” Abby asked, getting a nod from me.

With our beginning point decided, Abby started off again with me in her wake. She quickly went through rack after rack of tops. Occasionally, she’d stop, pull something out, and hold it up in front of me. Sometimes, she’d hand it to me to hold, other times she’d just put it back. While she worked, she pointed out what worked and what didn’t, like how some colors didn’t go with my complexion, and how some styles were wrong for my frame. I did my best to keep up with the information, but I was sure that I’d forgotten half of what was said by the time we made our first trip to the dressing room.

The dressing room was my first real interaction with the differences between boys and girls clothing. There were a surprising amount of such differences, even with something as simple as a t-shirt. Girls shirts were thinner, and usually fit snugly to my frame rather than hanging baggy like I was used to. These two things combined to make my female anatomy very obvious, especially the way my nipples dented the thin fabric. Clearly, I was going to need a bra.

After getting used to the different feel, I quickly went through the shirts, trying each one in turn. Some had different fits. Some had different necklines. Some of those necklines were even quite low. No matter what, though, I put each on and stepped outside for Abby to judge how it looked before moving on to the next one.

“Alright, that’s enough for tops,” Abby declared once I’d gotten through the pile. “Let me grab a few of the good ones and we’ll go find some bottoms to go with.”

With that, Abby ducked into the dressing room to grab a few of the tops that she’d like. She handed them to me before heading back out onto the floor. This time things got even more complicated as now stuff had to not only suit me, but one of the tops.

At first, Abby only grabbed shorts, but after a little bit, she surreptitiously pulled a skirt off a shelf instead to hold it up to me. I just let her grab what she wanted. A skirt really wasn’t that different from shorts anyway. Of course, once she realized that I wasn’t going to freak out about it, she picked a lot more skirts than shorts for me from then on.

Once that was done, it was off to the changing room once more. Like with tops, girls bottoms were pretty different from what I was used to. For one, they showed way more leg. The shorts that I was used to often went past the knee. None of the shorts that Abby had picked out for me made it past mid thigh. In that way, the skirts were actually more conservative. They had a different problem, though.

“That feels weird,” I muttered as I tugged on the hem of the first skirt that I tried on. It felt sort of like I wasn’t actually wearing pants at all and my shirt was just hanging down to my thighs. In spite of that feeling, I knew from the mirror that it looked perfectly normal, so I was just going to have to get used to it.

Rather than dwell on how the skirt felt, I stepped outside to get it judged. From there, I quickly cycled through all the various bottoms, usually wearing the top that was supposed to go with it at the same time. That had Abby narrowing things down even further, until there was only a fairly tidy pile of clothes left that had passed inspection.

“I’m surprised at you,” Abby remarked once the bottoms were all done.

“Why?” I asked as I put all the various rejected items in the spot for the clothes that needed to be returned to the shelves.

Abby scrunched her face up thoughtfully. “It’s just I thought you’d be more … resistant … uncomfortable …. embarrassed.”

I smirked at that. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

“I’m not disappointed … well maybe a little,” Abby admitted. “You still make for an adorable dress up doll. I am curious why it doesn’t bother you, though.”

“It’s just clothes. They don’t change anything. You know what did, though?” I replied, before stepping back into the dressing room to point at the mirror. “Seeing that girl in the mirror changed things. That bothered me.”

Abby looked surprised. “Really? I couldn’t tell from the way you were acting.”

“Probably because I was so bothered by it that I ignored it as much as I could, but it got too hard to ignore,” I explained.

“Are you bothered by it now?” Abby asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s definitely weird to look in a mirror and see some teenaged girl reflected there. At the same time, though, that girl looks cute and fun and not at all like some middle-aged loser. Plus, she’s got magic.”

“Thinking you might be better off?” Abby guessed.

I shrugged again. “I don’t know.”

“Wait here, there’s something else I want you to try on,” Abby instructed, before hurrying off.

Feeling introspective and just a bit curious, I took a seat in the dressing room to wait. While I did, I looked at my reflection in the mirror, frowning a bit. It looked wrong, but it took me a moment to realize it wasn’t because it was a girl being reflected there. It was because that girl was slouched over like some sad, tubby, old man. Sitting up a bit, I shifted how I was sitting so that it was still relaxed, but not so out of place. Since I was back in my own clothes it still looked a little off, but it definitely seemed much better. I’d have to work on that.

There was a quick knock before the door opened and Abby stepped inside. In her hands was a dress made of some kind of lightweight, pale green fabric. “If you’re going to go the cute and fun route, I think you should try this.”

At first, I was skeptical, but it didn’t last long. Shrugging, I reached out to take the dress. “Alright. Sure.”

With a quick nod, Abby ducked out of the dressing room, leaving me to quickly change one last time. It only took a few moments to strip out of my baggy old clothes and slip into the dress, pulling it up so that I could slip the straps over my shoulders. From there, I just had to tie the little sash belt it came with and it was on.

The dress was even more different than any of the other clothes had been. The skirt was loose and flowing, something that had been quite uncommon among the skirts that I’d tried on. The top however was fairly snug, but lacked sleeves, and had a fairly low v-neck styling to it that shoved a little of the swell of my modest bust. I tried not to focus on how it felt, though, but how it looked in the mirror. There, it wasn’t weird, but cute and fun just like Abby had said it was. That image in the mirror was what I was aiming for.

“So? How is it?” Abby called from outside.

“Good,” I answered. “Really good.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 15

“Oof!” I groaned as the weight of a cat dropped down on my stomach from the back of the couch. Within moments, Mini had herself nestled against my chest. “Damn it! You’re getting cat hair all over my new dress!”

Mini didn’t seem to care about my complaints. If anything, she seemed to find the fabric of the pale green sundress quite enjoyable, rubbing herself all over it. Sometimes, it really seemed like she was just trying to be a nuisance.

“Stop that!” I scolded, starting to grab the cat to lift her off me. As soon as I got a grip on her, though, I saw the claws start to come out. The threat was clear. If I tried to move her, those claws were digging in. “Ugh … fine …”

Slumping in defeat, I shifted one of my hands from grabbing Mini to idly petting her. As I did, I noticed that she was in better shape than she’d been when I’d first taken her in. Her fur seemed softer and healthier, and the missing patches from the fight were starting to grow back in. She wasn’t quite so scrawny anymore, either, although, she was still really small for a fully grown cat.

“Guess a little food and a safe place to sleep goes a long way,” I mused as I pet the little furball. “Now, if I could just train you to not bully me with those claws of yours … not that that’s ever gonna happen.”

In the background, I heard the rumble of the garage door opening, heralding Brett’s return from work. Immediately, I was struck by nervousness. Clinging to Mini more than petting her, I sat up and looked over toward the kitchen.

“Hey Brett!” I called out in greeting when I heard the door to the inside open.

“Hey, How’d the shopping tr–” Brett began as he started toward the living room. The moment he walked into the room and got an unobstructed view of me, he stopped, surprise plastered across his face. “What are you wearing?”

“A dress,” I answered, trying to keep my tone even.

The surprise on Brett’s face shifted to suspicion. “Did Abby make you wear that? Because, I told her not to –”

“No, she didn’t,” I answered before he could even finish. “She did pick it out, but I’m wearing it because I like it.”

“Oh …” Brett mumbled, surprise returning to his face. “Well … uhm … it looks … uh ... nice … yeah.”

Brett’s obvious discomfort put a slight smile onto my face. “You weren’t ready for a dress, were you?”

“No. Actually, I was expecting to come home and find you back in your old clothes and ranting and raving about how mean Abby was to you,” Brett admitted. “What made you even want to try a dress on, anyway?”

I shrugged. “Acceptance … I guess. It just got too hard to pretend the girl in the mirror wasn’t me. Is it going to be weird between us, me being a girl now?”

“No … well maybe a little,” Brett admitted. “You’ll always be my little brother, well, I guess little sister now, but you know what I mean.”

Chuckling, I nodded. “Yeah. I know what you mean. It’s a little weird for me too.”

For a moment, a brief awkward pause hung between us before Brett spoke up. “So … is that all you got or do you have some giant pile of surprises waiting for me upstairs?”

“There’s a pile, but it’s not a very big one,” I told him. “Abby said there was no point in buying a lot until I finished changing.”

Raising an eyebrow in surprise, Brett gave me a quick once over. “Aren’t you already finished?”

I shook my head. “Still getting girlier by the day. I don’t seem to getting shorter anymore, though. Thank God.”

“Yeah, you were starting to get awfully tiny,” Brett remarked.

That remark got me to laugh. “I was always pretty tiny compared to you.”

“Oh, speaking of your changing,” Brett segued. “Whenever you do think you’re done, we need to get you in to see a doctor, someone other than me, to make sure that everything is in working order.”

I winced at the thought of that doctor visit. “That’s not gonna be fun, is it?”

“According to everything women have ever told me about it … no. It won’t be any fun at all,” Brett confirmed.

That got a sigh from me. “Well … fuck.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Narrowing my eyes, I focused on the hovering cup in front of me, using magic to push it gently. As soon as I did, the cup started to drift slowly across the table. Once it got to the edge, I made it start float around the edge, circling its way back toward me. It took quite a lot of concentration on my part, but I got it all the way back around without it falling.

“Well done,” Abby complimented as I finished my spell and the cup settled back down onto the table.

The praise got a smug grin from me. Levitating a cup didn’t seem like much of an accomplishment for someone that had been chucking fireballs just a couple of days ago, but it definitely was. Unlike with the fireballs, I’d done this all on my own. I’d done the ritual to gather the essence for it instead of tapping the bracelet’s reserves. I’d learned the pattern for the spell, rather than just making some dumb rhyme work. I’d cast it all and the cup floated because of me. I was quite proud of that.

“A lot harder to do without this thing’s help,” I remarked, holding up the unused bracelet on my wrist.

Abby chuckled. “Definitely, but it doesn’t require dressing up like a magical girl.”

Shrugging, I joined in the chuckles. “I don’t know. That outfit’s starting to grow on me.”

“It is pretty adorable,” Abby admitted. “It’s also rather flashy, and unlike in those shows, the bad guys aren’t going to wait around for your transformation sequence to finish before they attack.”

“Huh,” I mumbled thoughtfully. “I never really thought about it but it does take some time to get it ready, doesn’t it? Don’t heroes chase the bad guys, though?’

Abby tilted her head from side to side. “Usually, but not always. You never know when you might find yourself in a situation where you need to act immediately. I know I have, and I don’t actually do the whole hero thing.”

“What exactly do you do?” I asked, realizing that I didn’t know. “I mean … you have time to come over here to teach me for hours every day.”

“Well, right now, I’m taking some time off, but normally I work as a magical expert,” Abby explained. “I mostly ward places against magical espionage and consult on cases with magic elements. Occasionally, though, people like you will come to me with other things like a curse they need lifted.”

“As I seem to remember, though, you weren’t so helpful at lifting my curse,” I pointed out. “Some magical expert you are.”

Abby laughed. “I do quite well usually, and technically, you aren’t cursed. That bracelet only binds to people that accept it.”

“What? I don’t remember ever signing up for all of this,” I argued.

“It’s not like there’s a document you need to sign for it, silly,” Abby chided. “It would have been more of a subconscious thing like a wish for something that the bracelet could give you.”

Frowning, I thought back to when I’d first gotten the bracelet, trying to figure out what I could have wished for. There’d been that woman searching for it, and then that hero had come to stop her. After that, there had been so much pain before I’d just woken up in the hospital, lucky to be alive. That was when it clicked for me.

“Seems like you figured it out,” Abby remarked, my realization apparently clear on my face.

Looking down at the bracelet with a bit of awe, I nodded. “I’m not sure what all Brett told you, but the first time I saw this thing, I got caught up in a super fight and got hurt real badly. When I woke up in the hospital, Brett said that I was lucky to be alive … that the EMTs were amazed that I’d even made it the hospital. By then, this thing was already on my wrist, even though, I’d never put it on. It saved my life, didn’t it?”

“That seems likely,” Abby confirmed. “Given how much it’s managed to change you physically, it having healing ability doesn’t seem unlikely – at least at the level it would take to keep you alive until help arrived.”

I wasn’t really sure how to take this revelation. The bracelet had been mostly a nuisance, something that only seemed to cause trouble for me. Apparently though, without it, I would have died from that blast. Plus, some of the other stuff it had done had begun to grow on me. Mini was actually pretty sweet, and having magic was proving fun. I was even looking forward to the possibility of being a hero, though, that idea still terrified me, too. I supposed that what Abby had said a little bit ago was right. I wasn’t cursed.

“By the way …” Abby segued, tugging me back from my ruminations. “Going back to the topic of my work, I’m not going to be here to teach you tomorrow. I have an important job that I have to take care of.”

“Oh, okay,” I told her. “I guess I could use a day off to lounge about.”

Hearing that plan caused Abby to grin wickedly. “Oh, you’re not going to get to do any lounging about I’m afraid. No no. Tomorrow, you’re going to have a new teacher.”

“I don’t like the way you’re grinning,” I commented with trepidation. “Who’s this new teacher?”

Abby’s grin was joined by a devious little chuckle. “He’s a hero friend of Brett’s. He’s going to take you through a crash course on close-combat training and physical fitness, so have fun with that.”

“You’re just messing with me,” I replied dismissively, before uncertainly adding, “Right?”

Shaking her head, Abby’s grin grew all the wider. “Nope.”

My shoulders involuntarily slumped. “Well … fuck.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 16

“Kinda wish I was the cat in this relationship,” I muttered as I watched Mini.

The cat was dozing; sprawled out on a pillow that Brett had bought for her. I knew from my brief chance to touch it before the cat had claimed it that it was a very soft pillow, which had made me wish that I could have made a bed out of them. I also wished that I had nothing to do today but sleep. Sadly neither was true.

“And no that doesn’t mean give me cat ears and a tail,” I added, glaring at the bracelet on my wrist. I was starting to get used to the whole girl thing, but being a cat girl would’ve been too embarrassing to handle.

Tossing one last wistful glance Mini’s way, I left my room behind, heading downstairs to wait for my new teacher. I didn’t really know much about him; just that his name was Tony and that he was a professional hero. The only other thing that I had to go on was that his lesson was going to be a lot more physical than Abby’s had been.

With so little to go on, I was definitely intimidated, especially since physical fitness had never really been my thing. Of course, I wasn’t a pudgy, out-of-shape man moving into middle age anymore, but I didn’t get my hopes up. Even for a girl, I was tiny, barely five-one and rather slim. I was pretty sure that the day’s lesson was going to be absolute hell.

While I waited for Tony to show up, I paced back and forth in the living room, too antsy to just lay around like I usually did. With every pass, I would alternate between telling myself that I would handle this without a problem and imagining how horribly I could fail. It was kind of like waiting to get picked for a team as a kid, except I was thirty-one not ten. I shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of shit anymore.

Finally, the doorbell binged. The sound freed me from my pacing, but filled me with trepidation as I turned toward the door. Walking over to it, I reached out for the knob slowly, like I was in some kind of horror movie about to get jump scared. Eventually, though, I gripped the handle and pulled the door open.

Waiting on the other side of the door was a handsome hispanic man. He was tall and muscular, reminding me a lot of my brother with how Adonis like he seemed to be. I did my best to resist the urge to hate him instantly.

“Hi! You must be Brett’s little … sibling,” the man greeted cheerfully. Adopting a warm, friendly smile, he offered a hand to me to shake. “Antonio Reyes. You can just call me Tony, though.”

“Ash,” I replied, taking the offered hand. It felt absolutely huge compared to mine with a firm but not painful grip.

“Well, Ash, do you mind if we skip the small talk and get right to business?” Tony asked.

I shrugged. “Fine by me.”

Tony nodded. “Alright. To start with, we’ll need some place open enough that I can set up a few mats.”

“The backyard’s got plenty of space,” I informed him.

“Great! Let me just grab the mats from my truck real quick,” Tony declared, starting to turn to go to his car when he stopped and turned back. “Oh, I almost forgot. Brett said you already had a costume, so go get changed into that while I set up. I’ll meet you out back.”

“Uhm … okay …” I replied uncertainly.

With that, Tony turned once again, striding quickly back to his truck. There, he pulled out a couple of large mats from the back, lifting each with ease in spite of their considerable size and weight. Once he had them, he started to walk around the house rather than try to drag them through the inside.

While Tony took care of the mats, I closed the front door and quickly mumbled the rhyme to bring out the scepter. A quick lightshow later, and I was dressed in the dress, cloak, and hat of my ‘costume’. Looking down at it, I let out a little sigh. I’d certainly changed enough to pull the outfit off, but it still felt kind of absurd to wear, especially in front of a real superhero.

Knowing that I was stuck with the outfit, I shrugged and hurried toward the back. By the time I got back there, Tony was already there, setting up the mats. When he heard the sound of the back door opening to let me out, he looked up, and his eyes bugged out.

“That’s your costume?” Tony blurted incredulously.

Blushing in embarrassment, I nodded. “Yep. This is it.”

“Well … uhm … alright then,” Tony stammered, clearly trying to get himself back on track. “Have you ever taken any martial arts or self-defense training or anything like that?”

I shook my head. “No. Not anything I remember anyway.”

“Alright then, we’ll start with the basics,” Tony told me. “We’ll do a little stretching to loosen up then start with how to fall properly.”

“I’m going to learn how to fall?” I ask dubiously.

Tony nodded. “Indeed, you are. Knowing how to minimize the damage of a fall is very important in a fight. You’re gonna want to lose the hat, boots, and … uh … wand for this.”

“Alright,” I conceded, bending down to unlace my boots. Once I had those off, I set them, my hat, and the scepter on the table and walked over to the mats.

“We’ll start with touching our toes,” Tony announced, once I was in position. Immediately, he bent over to do the stretch as well, though he went far further than just touching his toes. He folded over nearly in half with his head almost touching his legs.

A little intimidated by the show of flexibility, I gingerly bent over as well. Much to my surprise, tightness didn’t immediately appear in the back of my legs like it would have before my changes. My fingers nearly reached my toes before I started feeling tension, and I managed to push enough to make it all the way there without hurting myself. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever been flexible enough to actually reach them.

After touching our toes, Tony led me through a few other stretches. Most of them were easy enough, even fun, to do as I marveled at my much improved limberness. Not all of them were easy, though.

In front of me, Tony spread his legs wide, before bending one knee to really stretch out his inner thigh. Caught up in my new capabilities, I moved to follow suit, spreading my legs out. I never made it to the bending part of the stretch, though, as the extremely short hem of my dress rode up on my thighs high enough to flash a peek at the pair of white panites I apparently wore underneath. Instantly, I clamped my legs together so fast that there was an audible snap as my knees came together. At the same time, I quickly tugged the skirt back down where it belonged.

The sound got Tony to look up at me in confusion, only just barely too slow to see my underwear. “Something wrong?”

Flushing red, I shook my head vigorously. “Nope! Just … uhm … gonna skip that one.”

There was a brief moment of confusion on Tony’s face, but it quickly turned to realization as he glanced down at my outfit. “I think we’re probably limber enough to get started anyway.”

“Yeah, I think so too,” I agreed nervously. All the while my face burned over the fact that I’d just given out a real life panty shot. At least it didn’t seem like anyone had seen it but me.

“Alright, so falling,” Tony segued. “There are a few key things to remember when it comes to falling properly. The first one, is make sure to distribute your weight as best you can. Falling with the impact spread across your back and shoulders will hurt a loss than landing right on top of one shoulder. The second thing to focus on is to try to roll with the fall. Allow me to demonstrate.”

Stepping back a bit to make sure he had room, Tony spread his arms and dropped backwards. He hit the mat on his shoulders, tucking his chin up against chest. As soon as he hit, he kicked his feet up, rolling back over one shoulder to come right back to his feet. “Like so.”

“Seems simple enough,” I commented.

“Alright, then give a try,” Tony suggested, gesturing for me to proceed.

Glancing around, I made sure I had enough room before taking a deep breath. Once I felt ready, I spread my arms just like Tony had and let myself fall. Just like him, I hit the mat on my shoulders, kicking my legs up. Just as I got my feet over my head, I felt the first problem with my attempt, namely a shift in the mass of my boobs that made it feel like they were about to pop out of my dress. Snapping a hand up to my chest, I got off balance, rolling awkwardly over. My feet still managed to get under me, but my cloak didn’t make it all the way around, leaving my head covered with the green fabric. From outside that field of green, I heard Tony snicker.

Angrily, I used one hand to swipe the cloak off my head while the other tugged on the top of my dress to get it back into place. Once I was free, I leveled a glare Tony’s way. “It’s not funny.”

Tony quickly suppressed his chuckles, but he couldn’t quite wipe the annoying smirk from his face. “You can’t afford to let your vision get blocked like that. If you roll faster, you won’t have as much trouble with that, but it’s still best to just make sure you swipe the cape over your head as you come around, assuming you intend to keep wearing it.”

“Don’t have much of a choice in the matter,” I grumbled.

Tony rubbed his chin at that information. “Alright, then we’ll need to go over some of the tactical issues wearing a cape presents later. First, though, you need to practice falling. Do that a couple dozen times then we’ll move on.”

Letting out a heavy sigh, I nodded in concession. “Alright …”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Alright, let’s go through this again,” Tony directed as he set up in front of me once more, placing his hand on my left shoulder.

The moment the hand touched, I snapped my knee forward, pretending to slam it into Tony’s crotch. While he feigned the crippling pain that entailed, I twisted around. Grabbing his wrist as I went, I shoved my hip up against him and yanked, easily leveraging the large man over me to splat onto the mat. I didn’t stop there, though, as I quickly twisted the arm in my grip, locked the wrist and elbow before dropping my knee onto his throat.

“Good, good,” Tony complimented from his back, getting me to release him. “You’re picking this up pretty quickly.

I shrugged. “I guess. Not gonna matter much in a real fight, though.”

Furrowing his brow in confusion, Tony hopped back to his feet. “What do you mean?”

“What I mean is, there’s no way I’d actually be able to do any of this to a guy like you if you were actually fighting,” I explained. “You’re too strong to get held by a weakling like me.”

“Ah,” Tony breathed in understanding. “Well, there is definitely a strength limit on a lot of these holds …”

“See!” I cut in.

Tony tossed me an annoyed look. “But … you’re not as weak as you think you are.”

I furrowed my brow incredulously. “Are you kidding? Look at me? I’m like ninety pounds soaking wet.”

“Well you’re small sure, and that is a disadvantage, but you’re not weak,” Tony corrected. “I mean … I’m rated an exemplar four and I’ve only been holding back a little while we’ve been practicing. I’m pretty sure you’re at least an exemplar three. You’re not going to be tossing around guys with super strength, but you should be at least as strong, if not stronger than most grown men.”

“What?” I asked, genuinely surprised.

“You never noticed?” Tony asked.

I shook my head. “Uhm … no …”

“Well, I guess that’s not really a surprise,” Tony conceded. “Most people don’t exactly go around lifting heavy objects.”

“So I’m actually really strong?” I asked for confirmation, raising an arm to try flexing it. There didn’t really seem to be any muscle on the slim limb.

Tony nodded. “Yes … well for your size anyway. I wouldn’t recommend trying to overpower too many people, though. Weight and leverage both matter a lot, and you’ve got neither.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied, still finding it hard to believe that I wasn’t as weak as I was small.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Kitty no,” I groaned as Mini bumped her head against my hand for the third time, clearly in dire need of pets. I didn’t want to pet her, though. I wanted to just lie on the couch in an attempt to recover from a day of exertion. All my resistance got in response was yet another bump from the persistent feline. “Ugh … fine …”

Fighting against my exhaustion, I managed to lift my hand up enough to rest it atop Mini’s head and get my fingers moving. Within moments, I could hear Mini purring as she cuddled up next to my hip. Her warmth just made me feel even sleepier ...

The next thing I knew, my eyes were jerking open to the sound of a door opening. That sound was followed by the clomp of my brother’s shoes and him calling out. “Hey, Ash. How’d it go with Tony?”

Mustering my strength, I managed to lift my head up enough to look over toward the kitchen just as Brett stepped into the living room. “I’m so tired and sore that I couldn’t even make it up to my room.”

Brett chuckled at my complaint. “Still hate exercising, huh?”

“It wasn’t that. There was just too damn much of it,” I corrected. “Getting slammed into a mat for hours on end hurts.”

“Not as much as some villain beating the crap out of you, though,” Brett pointed out.

“I guess not,” I conceded. “Hopefully, they’d have the courtesy to take me out quickly, though.”

Brett shook his head at my retort. “So, what did you think of Tony? He somebody you could work with?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Seems like a good guy. Really focused on his work once he gets started. He kinda reminds me of you actually.”

“Well that’s a good first impression, at least,” Brett replied. “Unless you meant being like me as an insult.”

I laughed at that. “Not this time. I’m not sure how good of a first impression I made on him, though. He seemed to think my ‘costume’ was pretty ridiculous.”

“Don’t tell me you actually trained in that get up?” Brett asked, getting a nod from me. “The hat and everything?”

I shook my head. “He had me take the hat off for all the tumbling, thankfully. I had enough trouble with just the rest of it.”

“Yeah … it’s not exactly the most practical of outfits,” Brett commented.

“You’re telling me!” I exclaimed. “I felt like a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen.”

That got a slightly self-conscious chuckle out of Brett. “Well, I guess you’re going to have to be careful then, huh?”

“Very careful,” I agreed. The two of us drifted into silence for a moment before I spoke again. “Hey, Brett … uhm … thanks … y’know … for getting me to actually try to do something for once. I know I complain about everything, but it’s actually been kinda ... nice.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” Brett assured me. “I always knew you had it in you to be something more. I’m glad to see it finally happening.”

“Yeah … well .. we’ll see. I could still end up right back where I started,” I pointed out.

Brett shrugged. “Only if you decide you want to.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 17

Standing in front of the mirror, I carefully checked over my reflection, before reaching up to make a minor adjustment to my chest. The fleshy globes that resided there had gotten to be pretty substantial. They were far from huge, especially by the standards of the animes that my appearance was based on, but they were sizable enough to be called large – about the right size for a main heroine. What they weren’t the right size for, though, was the bra that I was wearing which was a source of consternation for me. I wasn’t used to wearing bras to begin with, finding them constricting and uncomfortable, but that got way worse when they were too small. The damn thing kept pinching my boobs, causing me to feel the constant need to fidget with it. On any other day, I could’ve just taken it off and walked around the house without one even if it did look rather inappropriate. Today, though, I was going to need a bra.

Outside of the poor fit of my bra, I looked my best for the day. I wore a pale yellow tank top with a scoop neckline that showed off my slightly bulging cleavage. There was a short, tight, white skirt around my hips to go with it. My copper hair, now past my shoulders in length, I had pulled back in a loose ponytail. I’d even dared to try the short heels that Abby had bought for me.

“It’s better than being the jealous flat chested girl, at least,” I muttered as I gave up on trying to get my bra to sit comfortably. There was usually at least one such girl on most shows who spent most of their time feeling awful because of their lack of bust. The last thing I wanted out of all of this was something that would make me feel inadequate and miserable.

I was just about content with my look when suddenly I felt paws on my leg. “Mini,” I groaned, looking down at the cat who clearly wanted to be picked up. “I just got all dressed up and you want to get cat hair on me?”

“Mreow!” the cat whined, reaching its paws up a little higher.

“Ugh … fine,” I conceded, reaching down to scoop up the cat, holding her against my chest as I scratched her head. “But just until I find Brett.”

With cat in hand, I left my room behind, heading downstairs. It was a somewhat slow trip, though, thanks to my unfamiliarity with heels. They were only two inches, but that was enough to get me wobbling if I didn’t actually focus on walking. Adding a cat and stairs into the mix only slowed me down even more.

Finally, I made it down the stairs and into the living room where I found Brett. He was laid back in a recliner with a book, reading the day away. For such a good-looking guy, he could be such a dork.

Hearing me come down the steps, Brett lifted his gaze toward me, eyes widening slightly at what he saw. “You’re awfully dressed up.”

“Yep,” I agreed. “And do you know why I’m dressed up?”

Furrowing his brow thoughtfully, Brett shook his head. “No … I don’t think so.”

“I’m dressed up, because I’m sick of this house,” I announced. “You and I are going out.”

“Oh, alright. I wouldn’t mind catching a movie or something,” Brett agreed.

I rolled my eyes at that. “Yeah, well I would. I mean out like a bar or a club. Y’know, get some drinks, meet some people, have some fun.”

Brett’s face screwed up skeptically. “And you know I don’t like that stuff … besides, no one’s gonna let you into a club. You look like you’re fifteen, and you don’t even have ID that looks like you anymore.”

“Yeah, well I’m actually thirty-one. You’re my doctor. Can’t you whip up something that says I’m old enough to drink?” I questioned.

“I have some documentation to help you establish your identity, but I doubt a bar is going to let you in with that,” Brett replied.

I let out an exasperated groan. “Ugh … damn it. Fine … we’ll do a movie. Anything to get out of this house.”

“Never would’ve thought you of all people would go stir crazy,” Brett remarked. “I didn’t think you ever left your apartment unless you had to.”

“Yeah, but my apartment had weed and booze in it. This place has protein shakes and granola bars,” I retorted.

Brett chuckled at that. “I’m sorry my house isn’t a den of indulgence and vice.”

“Well you should be!” I spat. “Now get up, so we can get outta here already.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“I want some candy,” I declared as Brett and I handed our tickets to the ticket boy and walked into the theater.

“Go ahead. No one’s stopping you,” Brett told me.

I rolled my eyes at that. “D’you see any pockets in this outfit? ‘Cause I don’t, and I didn’t bring a purse.”

“So you want me to get you some candy,” Brett surmised.

“Look at that, I guess all those years of school weren’t wasted on you after all,” I teased.

Chuckling, Brett pulled out his wallet, grabbed a few bills, and handed them to me. “Alright here, get what you want. I’ll go find us some seats.”

“Right-o,” I replied, giving Brett an absentminded wave as I strolled over toward the concession stand.

While I waited in line, I looked at the various junk food available for sale. Brett had given me more than enough money, so it wasn’t like I needed to keep it to just one piece of candy. At least a couple of things should be fine.

I was so focused on my decision, that it surprised me when the attendant said, “What can I get for you, miss?”

“Uhm … hmm …” I hummed, folding my arms in front of me as I thought. It took another moment before I finally had an idea of what I wanted.

Ready to order, I looked up at the guy working the counter, some scrawny, acne-faced teen. The expression on his face made me forget all about candy, though. His cheeks were red, and his jaw decidedly slack. Also, his eyes were not only wide and unblinking, but clearly aimed somewhere below my face. I didn’t even need to glance down to realize what he was staring at, causing my cheeks to pinken slightly.

“Ahem!” I coughed as I shifted my arms up a little bit so that they blocked my cleavage from sight.

The sound snapped the guy out of his trance. Gaze jerking up to my eyes in an instant, he blushed an even deeper shade of red, clearly dreadfully embarrassing at being caught. “I … uhm … w-what did y-you want?”

“This and this,” I answered cooly, pointing at the boxes through the glass.

A few moments later, I had the indicated boxes in hand as I moved quickly away from the counter. I realized logically that I should have expected something like this. I was cute, and it wasn’t like this neckline was designed to hide my assets, but that kid was not only a boy but like half my age. It had just been too weird.

With my mind still on what had happened at the counter, I barely managed to stop myself when someone suddenly stood in front of me. Jerking to a halt, I looked up to see another boy, this one a little older than the one at the counter, but not by much. He was a great deal less awkward, though, with a clear complexion, a more athletic frame, and enough height to have nearly a foot on me even with my heels.

“You alright?” the boy asked. “That dork didn’t mess with you, did he?”

“Uhm … no. I’m fine,” I answered, a little confused. I supposed that someone could mistake my hurry to get away from the counter for distress, though.

“You sure?” the boy questioned.

I nodded. “Yep, just eager to see the movie.”

“Oh, yeah? I guess it should be pretty good,” the boy commented. “You know what would make it even better, though? If I could watch it with you.”

For a moment, all I could do was blink before my mind finally started to form a response. “I … uhm … I’m kinda here with my brother … my big and overprotective brother.”

“Oh … alright … well maybe you could give me your number and we could do it some other time?” the boy inquired, sounding just a little bit desperate.

“Yeah … I don’t think so … excuse me,” I told him before quickly slipping around him to dart off toward the theater.

Once I made it inside and the door closed behind me, I paused to shudder at the fact that a teenaged boy had just hit on me. “This is ridiculous …” I muttered as I started on my way again. Clearly, I needed to get back to Brett, so that these idiots would stay away from me.

“Here’s your change,” I said once I’d found where Brett was sitting, offering him the leftover money.

“Wow, change … wasn’t expecting that,” Brett remarked as he took the money. Once he did, though, he looked up at me, and worry creased his brow. “You alright?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah …” I mumbled as I plopped into a seat. “Just got ambushed by horny teenaged boys.”

Brett’s eyes widened at that. “You’re joking.”

I shook my head. “God, I wish was.”

“Well, I guess you are pretty cute, so I suppose this was bound to happen,” Brett noted, chuckling to himself.

“Don’t even start,” I hissed, glaring at Brett. “I’m traumatized enough already.”

That response only fueled Brett’s chuckles. “Oh I’m sure it must have been horrifying for you.”

“It was!” I exclaimed. “They were everywhere, and so clumsy and stupid. It was like they were zombies, except I couldn’t bash their heads in with a shovel.”

Chuckles turned to a full on belly laugh at that. “You were the one that wanted to go out tonight.”

“Yeah, too a bar!” I growled. “A place where there aren’t any stupid little kids to try to hit on me!”

“Well, I suppose that’s true,” Brett admitted. “Guys at bars probably wouldn’t hit on you like that, either. They’d be too afraid of going to jail for it.”

Huffing in annoyance, I slumped in my chair, folding my arms in a pout. In spite of my anger, I realized that he was probably right. With the way I looked now, teenagers and sickos were about the only people that were going to show interest. “Just shut up and watch the fucking movie.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 18

“I’m just saying that the girl could’ve used some bigger tits,” I argued as Brett and I got out of his car at home.

Brett rolled eyes at my comment. “There’s more to an actress than how big her bust is.”

“I didn’t say there wasn’t!” I retorted. “You’re the one that won’t let it go!”

“Yeah, well I hope yours end up as big as your head,” Brett huffed, clearly still not ready to let it go. “That would teach you.”

I couldn’t resist the urge to make a joke of that line. “About how fun big boobs are to play with maybe.”

Brett rolled his eyes again. “You’re irredeemable.”

Shrugging, I walked into the living room and plopped on the couch. “I like what I like. At least I’m honest about it, unlike you, who would rather be single for the rest of your life than risk someone finding out you once had a perverted thought.”

“Just because I like to focus on a woman’s mind, doesn’t mean I’m going to be single for the rest of my life,” Brett countered, walking past me toward the bathroom.

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Abby’s got a great mind, and great body too, and yet somehow you were still free saturday night to hang out with me,” I pointed out. The only answer that came from behind me was a loud thump, like something heavy hitting the carpet. Confused, I twisted around in my seat and pushed myself up to see over the back over the couch. “You okay … Brett …?”

Behind me was a sight that I had no idea how to react to. Brett was on the ground, seemingly out cold. Above him stood a figure that caused an involuntary shudder of fear to run down my spine. It was the woman with the black mask – the one that had nearly resulted in my death.

“Careful. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to hunky over here,” the woman warned, resting her foot on Brett’s throat in an obvious threat.

Seeing that, I froze in place, knowing full well that this woman could, and would, follow through on such a threat. I knew I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing, though. This woman had been after the bracelet at the museum, the bracelet that was currently very attached to my wrist.

“You look a lot different from when I last saw you, rent-a-cop. Alot smaller and cuter,” the woman remarked, seeming to find my appearance amusing. It was hard to tell with the expressionless mask hiding her face. “Give me the bracelet and you and your brother get to live past tonight.”

I winced at the expected ultimatum. Abby had never taught me the ritual to give the bracelet up, so I couldn’t give it to the woman whether I wanted to trade my life for Brett’s or not. I had to think of something.

“And by that I meant right now. I’m not a patient person,” the woman pressured.

“Alright alright,” I conceded, reaching down to unhook the bracelet. I felt a moment of relief when the latch actually worked, letting me take it off. Slipping it free of my wrist, I held it up for the woman. “Here.”

“Toss it to me,” the woman directed.

Knowing I had no leverage in this situation, I did as instructed, tossing the bracelet in an intentionally short lob. “There.”

The woman stepped forward to catch the bracelet, leaving my unconconscious brother behind her. As soon as she had it, she held it up in front of her, obviously marvelling at it. “Glad to see you’re as compliant as ever. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

“Yeah well, I can’t really say the same, mostly because you’re still here,” I replied, adding a little snark to make it seem like I was upset.

“I suppose that’s fair,” the woman remarked, chuckling as she turned toward the back door. “Enjoy the rest of your night.”

Responding with just a nod, I watched every step that the woman took carefully. There seemed to be no sign of anything amiss. It looked like she was going to just leave like she’d promised. Apparently, she didn’t know.

The moment I saw the woman step through the threshold, my gaze dropped to my wrist. Sure enough, the bracelet was resting there, just like I’d hoped it would be. The moment I saw it, I began to chant, “Magical bracelet so strong and bright, Give me the power I need to fight.”

Even as the jewel flashed to begin the clothing change, I ducked down behind the couch. I doubted it would provide much cover from the beams that I knew the woman could shoot, but hopefully it would at least throw off her aim. Anything that could buy me the few seconds that I needed to change was a good thing.

“What the … “ I heard the woman gasp even as green light enveloped me. “Why you little …!” I just barely got into my costume before a bolt of black energy tore a hole through the back of the couch before zooming over my head to slam into the wall beyond.

Expecting the woman to keep blasting, I dove to the side while my mind raced to figure out what I was supposed to do next. I needed to cast another spell, something to take care of those energy bolts. A defense spell? What was that shield rhyme?

Even as my mind worked, another blast tore through the already damaged couch, this time cutting in low to slam into the floor. Luckily I was out of the way by then. I rolled to my feet a couple of feet away from the couch, losing my hat along the way. As I did, I tried to get my bearings and remember that rhyme.

The woman still stood outside, the glass door in front of her shattered. Her hand, the source of those blasts was raised. Even as my mind registered all of that, the hand swept toward me, preparing to release another blast.

“Needing defense is a matter of course …” I began, knowing I was going to be too slow.

Just before the bolt of black energy could erupt from the woman’s hand, something small and dark leapt up from the ground. Claws dug into the woman’s hand as the weight of flying cat knocked her aim high and wide. Rather than blasting me in the face, she took a hole out of the ceiling.

“Mangy rat!” the woman shrieked, swiping her hand to the side. Mini went flying several feet into the dark to crash down in the grass with a pained yowl.

“So wand surround me in a field of force,” I finished, wincing at what had happened to Mini. I couldn’t focus on that, though. I had a shield up now, but there was no way of knowing how many blasts it could take. I needed to take that woman out.

With Mini out of the way, the woman swung her hand toward me again, firing off another blast. Reacting instinctively, I dove out of the way, but I wasn’t fast enough to get entirely out of the bolt’s path. The blast clipped me in the shoulder, the same shoulder that last time it had pulverized with ease. This time, it deflected off my shield to slam into the wall behind me.

Turning my dive into a roll, I came back to my feet once again, this time with a spell in mind. Pointing my scepter at the woman, I started the spell. “I call upon my inner power, to blast my foes until they cower.”

The moment the rhyme finished, a beam of brilliant green blasted outward from the tip of the scepter, expanding as it went. The woman fired another blast my way, but the sparkling green light just engulfed it like it was nothing before continuing on. A moment later, it slammed into the woman’s chest, sending her flying out across the backyard.

“Yes!” I exclaimed in celebration. I knew better than to think the fight was over, though.

Breaking into a run, I rushed out to the backyard, hoping to get another shot in before the woman could get back to her feet. I wasn’t so lucky, though, as another bolt of black energy met me at the shattered door. This time it slammed into my barrier at the stomach, staggering me back, before bursting into black sparks.

“Elements obey my desire … “ I began to chant as I recovered, furious at the woman’s assault. Before I could even finish, though, I heard the rush of wind, followed by something dark and barely seen zipping up into the night sky. “... and light this yard to … cool my ire.”

A globe of soft white light shot out from the scepter, rising up high enough so that its light could spread out across the whole backyard. It wasn’t very bright, but it was enough to make it clear that the backyard was empty of evil women in masks. It was also enough to remind me of another problem.

“Mini!” I gasped, darting over to the limp gray shape of the cat. Sliding to my knees, I looked down at the cat, desperate to know that she was okay. There was no outward signs of harm but it didn’t look good. She was still breathing, but it was ragged and shallow, clearly not that of a healthy cat.

“Shit … uhm … no that doesn’t rhyme … uhm … damn it!” I growled, struggling to find a rhyme to create a healing spell. All the while, I cursed myself for not thinking to make one up before now.

Suddenly realizing something, I snapped my fingers before shoving myself back to my feet. Sprinting back inside, I raced over to Brett, kneeling down next to him. “Come on, Brett, get up,” I command, slapping his cheeks. I started lightly, but as my desperation grew, I hit him harder and harder. “I said get up!” I shrieked before cracking a full on slap on his cheek.

“Ow!” Brett groaned, eyes fluttering open. “What the hell happened …?”

“No time! Mini’s hurt! Get up!” I ordered, getting my feet back under me. Once I did, I grabbed my brother’s hand and started tugging him up to his feet.

Even in his stupor, Brett was up in no time thanks to my strength. As soon as he was, I yanked him outside. He stumbled the whole way, but he managed to make it over to Mini without falling down. There he knelt down next to the cat to examine her.

“Well?” I asked desperately, wishing that he would just hurry up and heal her.

“I sorry, Ash, but there aren’t any visible wounds, which means she’s hurt inside somewhere, like a broken bone or something. If I use my power on her, I might cripple her permanently or worse,” Brett explained.

“But you have to help her! She saved me!” I argued as if the cat’s heroics should factor into this somehow.

Brett’s only answer my desperation was a look of helplessness. “The best I can do is try to keep her stable until we can get her to a vet.”

Willing to take whatever I could get, I nodded rapidly. “Fine. You do that. I’ll drive.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“God, this is taking forever,” I grumbled to myself as I paced back and forth in the emergency pet care clinic waiting room. Every time the door to the back would open, I’d looked up hoping for good news, but so far that news had not come. There were a few other pet owners there, giving me strange looks but I didn’t care. I was pretty sure that none of their pets had fought a supervillain for them.

Finally, the door opened and the sight of Brett awaited me when I looked up. “Well?”

“Everything seems fine. The vet got everything set up so I could heal her. He’s just checking her over now to make sure it went well,” Brett replied.

“Thank God,” I breathed in relief, getting a chuckle from Brett. “What?”

Brett shook his head. “It’s nothing. It’s just that last time we were in this situation, you were upset that you even had to help at all. This time, you’re so stressed out, I thought you might throttle me if things went south.”

“Whatever,” I muttered, finding a seat to flop into.

Brett took a seat next to me. “So … do you have time to explain what happened to me now that things aren’t life and death?”

“Huh? Oh … yeah,” I mumbled wearily. “The woman from the museum came looking for the bracelet. I guess she was hiding in the bathroom or something because she knocked you out when you walked over there. She used you as a hostage to get the bracelet, but I managed to trick her with that teleportation thing it does. I guess she didn't know about it. After that, I managed to chase her off, but not before Mini got hurt saving me from one of her energy blasts, y’know, the ones that obliterated my shoulder last time.”

“Yikes … “ Brett hissed. “I guess I owe you one for saving me.”

I shook my head. “No. She wouldn’t have even been there if not for me. Wish I knew how she figured out where I was.”

“Well, who all knows you have the bracelet besides me and Abby?” Brett questioned.

I shrugged. “I guess Tony knows and … “ I paused as realization dawned on me, causing me to smack myself in the face with my hand. “Duncan. I had him checking into the bracelet at work. She must have had someone there tell her about it.”

“Seeing the kind of reception she gave us, you might want to check to make sure he’s okay,” Brett suggested.

I nodded. “Yeah. I’ll text him when we get back home.”

Brett shook his head. “I doubt she’d try there again tonight, but it’s probably still best that we not go back there. I’ll get in touch with Tony, and see if he’s got some place where we can lay low for a bit.”

“Ah … right … “ I mumbled. “Sorry, I dragged you into this, man.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Brett assured me. “I’d want to be in it whether I was dragged or not. No way am I going to stand by on the sidelines when someone tries to go after my little sister.”

I chuckled at that. “Yeah well your little sister doesn’t want to have to keep rescuing your butt because you can’t fight.”

“Who says I can’t fight?” Brett questioned.

“Uh me,” I retorted. “Besides, didn’t you have to swear an oath to not harm people?”

“Only when I’m serving as their doctor,” Brett corrected. “It doesn’t preclude me from beating the crap out of someone to defend my family.”

I nodded in understanding. “Ah … right … well you’re still useless in a fight.”

“I’ll remember that next time you get your shoulder blasted into bits,” Brett remarked.

“Speaking of next time, I need to think up a rhyme for healing,” I noted.

Brett gave me a skeptical look. “Uhm … that might not be such a good idea. There are a lot of ways to heal someone wrong. Like if you’d tried to heal Mini instead of bringing her here, she would have been in bad shape for the rest of her life.”

“Still probably a good idea to have just in case there’s no other way,” I replied.

Brett nodded in concession. “Yeah, but just be careful with it.”

“I will,” I assured him. “I’ve gotta be careful with basically all my spells. They all pack a real wallop, which isn’t usually so good for stuff around my target.”

“So I can tell from the state of my house,” Brett commented.

“Hey! That was all the villain bitch,” I protested. “The door was already broken when I blasted her.”

Brett chuckled. “Well it’s no big deal really. Shouldn’t be too hard to get the place fixed up. Gotta get the villain before we can go back anyway.”

“Don’t worry. We will,” I assured him. “She hurt my cat.”

The End

Author’s Note: Hey all, Light Clark here, also known as lightivation or lightoffury or just Light. If you liked the story, consider checking out my free fantasy series, The Trials of Tannen, which is being told in serial at my website here: https://lightivation.wordpress.com/

Also, if you want to support my work, and have a little money to spare, stop by my patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/lightivation No pressure, though. If you just wanted a free read, that’s fine too.



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