Little Angel

Little Angel
By: Light Clark

Synopsis: The world can be a confusing place, especially for a little girl. There are so many different people out there, so many places, so many things you can do. Trying to tell the good things from the bad ones can be tricky, but you have to try. Otherwise, you’ll end up being a bad girl which will make your father mad, and that won’t do at all. After all, all that matters to a little girl is being her daddy’s little angel.

This is not a TG story, although, it does include other transformation elements. However, it’s part of a set up for a series that is, so it is being posted for completeness.

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

The very first thing that I ever felt was that I was floating. All around me was this … warmth that supported me, comforted me, embraced me. It was wonderful, like a thick snuggly blanket, keeping out a cold winter’s night. I could’ve been happy just drifting in it forever.

Suddenly, there was light, blinding, painful, confusing. A blurry world faded into view, shown to my newly opened eyes. There wasn’t much in that world, just some gray walls that surrounded me on either side. However, in front of me, I could see into a room of some kind. It was mostly empty, very clean, and seemed to be cold and unwelcoming. I was glad that I had the warmth to protect me from its chill.

Something passed by in front of me, blurred by both its movement and my eyes still adjusting to the light. As such, it was gone too fast for me to make out what it was, which was very disappointing to me. I hoped that it would come back, so that I could try again.

To my delight, it returned a moment later, and this time, it even stopped in front of my little space. The object was a man, one that looked familiar. His name escaped me, though, dancing on the edge of my thoughts but never entering them fully. Not being able to catch hold of the flittering name was frustrating, but it refused to come to me.

Agitated, I tried to reach out to the man, but my hand couldn’t get to him. It stopped long before, caught on something cool and slick – glass. I tapped at the unseen barrier, annoyed that it was keeping me from this familiar person.

Across from me, the man had a different reaction. He smiled at me. It transformed his face, turning it from lined, weathered, and tired to warm, pleasant, and comforting. I loved that smile even more than the warmth.

The man did more than smile, though. He also reached out, pressing his hand to the same spot of the slick barrier that mine was pressed against. He had no more luck getting through the glass than I did, but even though we couldn’t touch, I was happy. Clearly, the man wanted the same thing that I did, and that was enough.

For a time, the two of us just held that state, each wishing they could join the other. Eventually though, the man conceded to the barrier and pulled away. He partially ducked around one of the gray walls on my sides, and seemed to be working with something there. When he finished, he returned to being in front of me with his hand pressed before mine once more.

This time, it was me that couldn’t keep up the position. I wanted to. I wanted to stay like that until I found a way to get through the barrier. It wasn’t possible, though. My arm felt weak … tired. It couldn’t keep my hand there, causing it to drift away. Quickly, that exhaustion spread, filling every part of me, so that only the warmth around me kept me upright. The warmth couldn’t keep my eyes open, though. Soon, they had drifted closed, and my world returned to darkness.

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

“Wake up.”

Sensation appeared in the darkness again, but it was different than last time. I wasn’t floating in some amorphous warmth that protected me from the world. Instead, I was laying atop something. Whatever it was, it was soft and cozy.

“Come on, wake up.”

I wasn’t just laying on something. There was something on top me as well, also soft and cozy. It didn’t cover all of me, though. My head was bare to the world, and so, surrounded by cool air for me to take in with slow, deep breaths.

“Just open your eyes.”

As that instruction echoed in my darkness, I felt the urge to obey it. My eyelids seemed so heavy, though. They didn’t want to open. They wanted to stay stuck together as I drifted back into the meaningless dark. All I had to do was just sink into the softness beneath me. It was tempting.

“Please.”

My eyes popped open at that word. When they did, they were assaulted by stinging light, nearly sending them shut again. I fought through it, though, determined to answer that voice’s plea. I would make my eyes stay open.

“Ah, there you are,” the voice breathed in relief as the blurry outline of a face appeared in front of me. “How’s my little angel feeling today?”

Through squinted eyes, I tried to focus on the face. It was familiar. I had seen it the last time that I’d opened my eyes. At the same time, I felt like I’d seen it on many occasions before that as well, but I couldn’t recall those times, just like I couldn’t place the name that went with the face. I knew that they existed, though.

“Who …” I managed only that single word in a high, squeaky, little voice before my throat protested painfully.

The face, the man, smiled. “It’s Daddy, angel.”

Daddy. Of course, that was his name. How could I have forgotten something like that? How could anyone forget their own father? I felt so stupid, resolving to never forget anything about him ever again. That was the only way that I’d be able to make it up to him.

“Daddy,” I breathed, feeling my lips curl in an imitation of my father’s smile.

A flicker of something passed across my father’s face – something that looked like … pain. His eyes even seemed to glisten as if he was about to cry, but it all vanished in a literal blink of an eye. Quickly, he turned, grabbing something before turning right back to me.

“Here, drink this,” my father instructed, holding something to my lips.

It took a moment to recognize the straw for what it was, but when I finally did, I sucked on it without question. Water, cool and refreshing, slid down my throat, quenching a thirst that I hadn’t even realized I had. The feeling made me drink faster, eager to gulp down the revitalizing fluid.

“That feels better, doesn’t it?” my father commented as I drank, earning a happy nod from me. “I’m glad. I would hate for you to ever suffer.”

I was too busy drinking my fill to respond, not that I knew what to say. I was just happy that my father was there for me. Without him, I never would have been able to open my eyes, learn his name, or quench my thirst.

As I drank, my father just watched me, his gaze soft and patient. In spite of that, I felt the urge to hurry, so that he wouldn’t have to wait on me. Toward that end, I drank faster, quickly growing satisfied. Once I had, I released the straw.

“All finished?” my father double-checked.

I nodded. “Yes, Daddy.”

“Good,” my father replied as he set straw and cup aside. “Now, do you think you could do something for me.”

Again, I nodded, though far more enthusiastically. “Sure, Daddy. What is it?”

“I want you to try to sit up,” my father told me, making a rising gesture with his hands. “You think you can do that?”

Confident that I would not let my father down, I nodded a third time before immediately trying to perform the task. Moving my body wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped it would be, though. My muscles felt so incredibly stiff and sluggish. At first, I could barely manage to get my head to tilt up. Then, I managed to get an arm to move, wedging it underneath me. With that, I started to push myself up. It was a slow and trying process, but eventually, I managed to get myself upright.

“Good job, angel,” my father praised, his smile seeming to grow even warmer at my success.

“Thank you, Daddy,” I responded politely, returning his smile with one that I hoped was equally warm.

“It didn’t hurt, did it?” my father inquired.

I shook my head. “No, but it was hard. Everything’s so stiff.”

“That happens when you sleep for a while,” my father informed me. “And you’ve been asleep for a very long time.”

That information confused me. Had I been asleep a long while? I couldn’t remember falling asleep. I couldn’t really remember being awake either, just that one time when I’d been floating in warmth. It had been a lot easier to move then. Maybe that had been a long time ago? I hoped not, because that would mean that my father and I had been apart for a long time, and I didn’t want that.

“Are you ready to try the next thing?” my father asked.

“Mmhmm,” I hummed, eager to please.

“If you do it, I’ll give you a reward,” my father promised.

Excitement filled me at the prospect, eliciting a delighted chirp of, “Yay!”

My excitement only increased as my father reached out, slid his hands under my arms and lifted me up. For a few amazing moments, I was suspended in the air as my dad twisted around and bent over. Then, my feet touched down on the floor which was very cold.

“Eep!” I squeaked at the cold, curling my legs up under me to keep them off the chill. “Cold!”

“Just try to bear with it, angel,” my father told me.

“Kay …” I mumbled, willing to at least try to tolerate the icy floor for my father. Slowly, I uncurled my legs, so that my toes just barely rested on the ground.

My father nodded in approval. “Now, I’m going to let you go, and I want you to stay standing. Okay?”

“Okay,” I agreed, eager to earn my reward.

Slowly, the pressure of my father’s hands under my arms lessened while the pressure on my toes increased. The stiff muscles in my legs had to start working to keep me upright and balanced. They were pretty good at the first one, but when my father finally released me completely, I found out that they weren’t so great at the latter. I overbalanced forward a bit, stumbling a step before managing to catch myself. There, I held as still as I could trying not to fall.

“Did I do it?” I asked after a few moments, daring to hope that I’d succeeded.

“Yes, you did, my little angel,” my father replied as he straightened up.

Hearing that confirmation, I looked up to smile at my father. For the first time, I noticed how much bigger and taller my father was than me. He seemed absolutely huge, a great tower of strength that was watching over me.

“Are you ready for your reward?” my father asked.

I nodded eagerly. “Uh-huh!”

Once again, my father bent down, dropping to one knee. It made us much closer in height, but he was still taller than me. I barely had time to notice that, though, before he leaned in and wrapped his arms around me. The warmth of his hug enveloped me, full of emotion and strength. As a reward, it was too much. I felt like I had to give him something back. Raising my arms, I wrapped them around him as well, doing my best to mimic his loving embrace.

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

A savory smell full of depth and seasoning tantalized my nose. I wanted to go see what was causing it, but my father had been quite explicit that I was to wait. As such, I sat at the the table struggling to sit still while I waited for the source of the delightful aroma.

In an effort to distract myself from the smell, I looked around, taking in the sights of the house that I was in. Unlike my father, it didn’t look familiar, making me think that he must have moved while I was asleep. At the same time, I couldn’t seem to remember any other house of his either.

While I couldn’t remember it, the house was a nice one. It was large, cared for, and well furnished. The room that I’d woken in was apparently my bedroom, and had been on the second floor, not too far from my father’s room. There were several rooms on the first floor as well, a dining room, a living room, and of course the kitchen in which I now sat. My father had showed them all to me before instructing me to sit at the table.

The only place that my father hadn’t shown me was the basement. All he had done was show me the door that led down there and told me not to go through it without him around. It was apparently very dangerous there, and he didn’t want me getting hurt. I was happy to oblige, because I didn’t want to get bit by any of the spiders that I’d been informed resided down there.

“Here you are, my little angel,” my father announced as he walked over, setting a small, plastic plate and cup down on the table in front of me. “One scrumptious omelet with a side of the best juice ever squeezed from an orange.”

After that declaration, I just looked at the plate, head tilted to the side. It was fascinating to look at, all shimmering and golden with little wisps of white trailing off it to vanish into the air above. It smelled amazing too, causing me to lean in a little closer to envelop myself in the mouthwatering scent.

“You’re supposed to eat it, silly, not look at it,” my father teased.

“Oh …” I mumbled, my cheeks burning with heat. Reaching out, I grabbed the small fork in my hand, using it to poke at the blob of yellow on the plate. The mass of egg parted easily, tearing off into a piece that was small enough for me to jam it into my mouth. It tasted even better than it smelled. “Mmm … ‘ewicious”

“Thank you,” my father replied, bowing his head slightly. “Don’t forget to drink the juice too.”

Nodding at the instruction, I eagerly grabbed the cup in my other hand. It wasn’t very big and had a plastic lid on top with a small spout rather than a straw. The spout required me to tip the cup back to get at the juice within which was as delicious as the eggs.

While I alternated gulping down eggs and juice, my father sat down at the table next to me and watched me eat. Like when I’d woken, he had a smile on his face as if watching me was the best thing in the world. It didn’t make much sense to me, but I was glad that he was happy.

“What would you like to do after you finish?” my father asked suddenly.

The question seemed like an easy one, but when I searched my mind for an activity, it came up blank. It wasn’t just that nothing seemed particularly appealing, but that I couldn’t think of anything at all. The only ideas that came up were sleep, eat, and drink.

“Whatever you’d like, Daddy,” I answered, figuring that he would come up with something fun.

My answer seemed to be fine as my father’s smile never wavered. He just nodded in acceptance. “Well, how about this? Did you like it when I picked you up earlier?”

“Yeah!” I blurted happily at the memory. “I felt like I was flying!”

“What if you could fly on your own, would you like to do that?” my father inquired.

The very idea filled me with excitement, getting me to nod energetically. “Uh huh!”

“Then that’s what we’ll try,” my father stated. “But first, you have to finish eating.”

With the promise of fun in the future, I went at my food with even greater speed than before. It wasn’t long before the plate and cup had both been emptied. When they were, I held them up proudly, while chirping, “All done!”

“Good girl,” my father complemented, patting me on the head before taking the plate and cup away from me. “Go wait on the couch in the living room for me. I’ll clean up in here and be right in.”

Hopping from my chair, I scurried into the other room. In my excitement, I barely noticed how much easier it was to move about now as my body steadily loosened up. Instead, my focus was on what it would be like to fly all by myself as I plopped onto the couch, kicking my feet in the air in anticipation.

Before long, my father came in and sat down next to me. “Now hold still,” he instructed as he leaned over me. I did my best to follow the instruction, freezing in place. It almost didn’t last, though, when my father suddenly pulled my hair forward so that it slapped me in the face.

“Thbbt! Hey!” I blurted as I swiped the long, sunshine blonde locks from my face.

“Sorry, angel,” my father apologized, chuckling softly.

Once I’d pushed the hair off to the side so that it wasn’t in my face, I returned to sitting there as still as I could. It wasn’t an easy task, though, as I could feel my father’s fingers tickling the back of my neck. Occasionally, I would squirm or giggle, but he never reprimanded me for it. He just kept at his work. After a short while, there was an audible click, and something that had been wrapped around my throat was pulled free.

The moment after the click, I felt an unpleasant tingle start to tickle at my fingertips and toes, like little pin pricks. It didn’t stop there, either, but spread up my arms and legs, growing more and more intense until I could barely feel my limbs at all. When it finally reached my torso, it penetrated deep, stabbing into my chest in agonizing waves. Doubling over, I clutched my hands to my chest as tears filled my eyes and air was desperately sucked into my lungs while agony filled me.

Slowly, the pain and tingling started to fade away. As it did, my breathing slowed, turning to deep ragged breaths as I sobbed. Eventually, the torment had dimmed enough that I could feel my father’s arms wrapped comfortingly around me, keeping me safe and warm. The tingle never quite faded completely, though, leaving my body feeling like there was something buzzing around inside of it, eager to be let out.

“I’m sorry, angel,” I heard my father apologize. “I’d hoped that it wouldn’t hurt that much.”

“What … what?” I gasped, feeling so confused and betrayed. “Why would you … ?“

My father partially released me so that he could pull back and turn me to face him. “I didn’t want to, but sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to do.”

That answer didn’t really make much sense, but I nodded anyway. “Kay …”

“Good girl,” my father praised me, rubbing the top of my head affectionately. “Now, are you ready to fly?”

Reminded of the original purpose for what had happened, my tears dried up, replaced by excitement. “Yeah!”

“You should be able to do it now, just imagine yourself floating up, but not too high,” my father instructed.

With that information, I closed my eyes and did exactly as I was told. I imagined myself getting lighter, floating up into the air. I also made sure that I didn’t go too high, just about a foot up before stopping there to hover.

“Open your eyes, angel. You have to see this,” my father commanded.

Immediately, my eyes popped open, as my focus turned to my father. A moment later, my focus shifted again as I felt a sudden lurch followed by the sensation of falling. The moment after that, I bounced against the couch cushion.

Watching me topple from the air, my father couldn’t help but laugh. “You have to remember to keep flying, silly.”

“I would’ve if you hadn’t distracted me!” I whined, pouting indignantly.

“Ah ah, good girls don’t pout when they fail. They try again,” my father chided, wagging a reproving finger at me. “You’re a good girl, aren’t you?”

Reluctantly, I nodded. “I’m a good girl.”

“Then try again, this time with your eyes open the whole time,” my father directed.

Without closing my eyes, I tried to picture the same thing as before, floating up to hover above the couch. It wasn’t easy to do, especially when it started to work. The moment I lifted off and started to drift higher, my wonder very nearly sent me crashing right back down again. I refused to fail a second time, though, forcing myself to maintain my focus. Soon, I was floating at eye level with my father. Only then did I celebrate.

“I did it, Daddy!” I cheered, looking down at the gap between my butt and the sofa cushions.

“Very good, angel,” my father complimented. “Now, we’re going to work on doing a little more than just hovering …”

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

I watched as the fuzzy green ball arced lazily through the air toward me. As it moved, I concentrated, gathering my focus for when it drew close. When it was only a couple feet away, I imagined a shield in the way, blocking its path toward me.

In response to my thoughts, the air in front of my face shimmered before being filled with a pale, translucent, white circle about two feet in diameter. When the ball struck that disc, it rebounded as if it had hit a wall, bouncing back toward its thrower. It didn’t quite make it all the way there, hitting the ground at my father’s feet.

“How was that, Daddy?” I asked, eager for approval. Unlike flying, the task of reflecting the ball had taken me more than one failed attempt, and I felt like I was finally getting the hang of it.

“That was very good, angel,” my father complimented, bringing a smile to my face. “I’d like you to try one more thing then we’ll take a break.”

The idea that we would be stopping soon was a little disappointing to me. I’d loved having my father teach me all the things that I could do. Even then, I was floating above the ground rather than standing, because I was having too much fun with it. The ball game was fun too, and he’d promised me that there were other things as well. I wanted to learn them all.

“Do we have to stop?” I asked, almost begging.

My father nodded. “Yes, angel. You’ve only just woken up, so I don’t want you pushing yourself too hard. After this, there will be no more flying, deflecting things, or anything else until tomorrow.”

“Aw … but I’m having fun,” I whined.

“And we’ll have more fun tomorrow, but only if you act like a good girl and stop complaining about it,” my father promised. “You can do that, can’t you?”

I nodded reluctantly. “Yes, daddy.”

“Good, now, this time I want you to imagine something a little different,” my father began his instructions. “Instead of a shield to block the ball, I want you to imagine a sword. When the ball gets close, hit it with the sword. Can you do that?”

The request sounded simple enough. I knew what a sword was, a long, sharp blade. It shouldn’t be any different to imagine than a shield. “I think so.”

“Alright, then here it comes,” my father warned before tossing the ball at me.

Following the arc of the ball, I focused on how I was going to react. First, I needed the sword, so I imagined a long slim blade extending out from my wrist and down over my hand. The air there shimmered as just such a blade extended, made of the same pale, translucent, white glow as the shield. From there, I just had to wait for the ball to get close enough.

Bursting into motion, I slashed across in front of me, catching the ball in mid air. There was a problem, though. My sword just slashed right by without altering the thing’s course, so it was still sailing right toward me. I was so surprised that I couldn’t even think to put up a shield before the ball bopped into my forehead, splitting into two perfectly matched, little halves as it bounced off to roll on the ground.

“Ow …” I grumbled, reaching up to rub at where the ball had hit me.

“That was very well done, angel,” my father complimented.

“But the ball hit me!” I protested.

My father smiled. “I didn’t say anything about the ball hitting you, only you hitting it. The shield is for stopping things from hitting you. The sword is for hitting things.”

“Oh …” I mumbled, glancing at the sword. I didn’t like it as much as the shield. After all, it had ruined the ball, plus I’d gotten hit. I figured that I just didn’t get what it was for yet. “Does that mean we have to stop now?”

My father nodded. “Yes, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop having fun.”

“Really?” I asked hopefully.

“Really,” my father assured me. “I have a movie ready that I think you’ll love.”

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

Somewhere in between wakings, I felt like I had a dream. I couldn’t say what happened in it or even who was in it. There was just a vague sense of happiness there. I wanted to cling to it, to stay that happy, but that isn’t the way of dreams.

Instead, I woke to the first rays of dawn streaming into my room through the window. Almost as soon as my eyes were open, I popped upright, buzzing with energy and excitement as the pleasant dream faded out of memory. I was so excited that I nearly flew out of my bed before remembering that my father wanted me to walk whenever I didn’t need to fly. I didn’t really understand why, but a good girl does what she’s told.

Resorting to normal movement, I hopped out of bed and immediately raced out of the room. Down the hall I went before bursting through the door to my father’s room. Unlike mine, it was kind of dark thanks the blinds being drawn to keep out the dawn. It wasn’t dark enough to keep me from seeing my father sleeping in the bed, though.

“Wake up!” I squealed as I pounced onto the bed and the man sleeping there in.

“Gah! What?!” my father gasped in surprise as he jerked awake from the impact. His confusion quickly turned into an annoyed glare when he saw. “What are you doing, angel?”

“You said we could play more in the morning. It’s morning. Sun’s up and everything!” I told him, a little upset at him getting annoyed with me. “We are going to play, aren’t we?”

Rubbing at his face wearily, my father nodded. “Yeah, but not quite yet. Daddy needs more sleep.”

“But you promised!” I whined petulantly.

“Alright, just give Daddy like an hour,” my father mumbled. “Otherwise he won’t be any fun to play with.”

I slouched down into a pout. “What am I supposed to do for an hour?”

I don’t know if it was the pout or the question, but I saw my father’s shoulders slump in defeat. “Alright … we can play now.”

“Yay!” I cheered in delight.

“Now, get out so Daddy can change clothes,” my father instructed.

Happily, I moved to comply, hopping off the bed. That was as far as I got, though, before something caught my eye. Rather than turn toward the door, I stopped and reached for the night stand by the bed to pick up a picture frame. In it was a picture of a young woman with the same sun colored hair that I had. Beside her stood a younger version of my father with a awkward smile on his face as he looked more at the blonde than at the camera.

“Why’s your face look so silly?” I asked my father, giggling at the dopey grin that he had in the picture.

“What? Oh …” my father mumbled as he saw what I was looking at. When he continued, his voice sounded weirdly heavy and soft. “I was nervous.”

“Why?” I inquired.

My father reached over my shoulder to point at the blonde in the picture. “Because of her.”

“Oh … who is she?” I questioned.

“That would be your mother,” my father informed me.

The answer had me blinking in surprise. Of course, it made sense that I would have a mother, but unlike my father, this woman didn’t look familiar. There was no sense of rightness within me when I thought of her as ‘Mommy’. Still, I liked the idea of having a mother.

“Where is she?” I continued my questions.

“Gone,” came my father’s reply, voice so low and heavy that it made my heart ache just hearing it. “Taken away by very bad men.”

“Can we rescue her like the princess from the movie?” I asked, looking up hopefully.

The look on my father’s face crushed my hopes before he even shook his head. “No. We can’t.”

“Oh …” I mumbled, sniffing slightly as I rubbed at eyes that were starting to burn.

Picking me up, my father pulled me onto the bed next to him. Once I was up, he kept one arm wrapped around me while the other took the picture from my hands. He didn’t take it away, though, just held it in front of me.

“You know, you look just like her when she was little,” my father commented.

Hearing that, I looked down at the woman in the picture, trying to see the resemblance. I couldn’t, though, not because I didn’t feel like there were similarities, but because I couldn’t really picture myself. We both had the same hair color, and my father said that we looked alike, so I knew it had to be true. That seemed like it was a good thing, because she was very pretty.

“Now, how about you go play in your room so Daddy can get ready?” my father suggested.

“Kay,” I agreed, hopping off the bed again to go back to my own room. There, I hopped onto my own bed, trying to think of something to do while I waited. Nothing much came to mind, though. Looking around my room didn’t help much either. It was mostly empty, just a bed, a dresser, a night table, and a …

As my gaze trailed over the closet, I stopped. I’d poked around in there a little the day before. There were mostly just spare clothes inside, though, so I’d quickly lost interest. Clothes weren’t the only thing inside, however. There was also a mirror.

Slipping off my bed, I walked over to the closet and pulled the door open. On the other side was the mirror that I remembered. It had seemed unimportant the night before, but now it it let me see myself.

Looking at my reflection, I supposed that I did sort of look like the woman from the picture. We had the same sunny blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Our faces looked similar, but mine was rounder and smaller. If I looked beyond my head, though, that was the end of the similarities. I was a little girl, short and skinny. I didn’t have any of the rounded bits that my mother had. I wondered if maybe I’d get them when I was older. I sure hoped so. I wanted to be every bit as pretty as her so that my father would make that goofy face again.

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

Wind blew through my hair as I shot upward, chasing after the wayward tennis ball that my father had launched straight up. It had a massive head start, already dozens of feet up before I could react to its angel. It didn’t matter. I caught it in a flash, hacking it in half with my sword before drifting to a stop and turning back toward the ground.

A good hundred feet below me was a large field with trees all around it. It had taken a while to get to, a long boring drive that had been hard to tolerate. It was so big and open, though, giving me so much more room to fly around than the living room. I supposed that made it worth the trip.

In the middle of the field stood my father holding a weird bazooka like weapon. With that, he was launching the balls into the air for me to chase down, creating an amusing game. If a ball touched the ground before getting hit, he scored, and if I got it first, I did. To further complicate things there were two colors of balls, green and yellow. The green ones had to be cut with the sword, but the yellow ones I had to bounce off a shield. If I got it wrong, he scored that ball instead of me. At first, he scored a lot, but at the moment, he hadn’t scored for several dozen balls. That didn’t mean it wasn’t still fun, though. That was why I was a little disappointed to see my father beckoning me toward him.

Disappointed or not, I dove quickly, dropping down to float in front of my father. “What is it, Daddy? Are you mad you’re not winning? I could let a few of them fall if you want.”

My father chuckled at my offer. “No, angel. I’m not mad. We’ve just been at this a while and I don’t want you to over do it. It’s time to go home.”

“But –” I started to protest.

My father leveled a hard look at me that instantly shut me up. “Good girls don’t complain when it’s time to stop.”

Looking down contritely, I nodded. “Yes, Daddy.”

“Now, set yourself back on the ground. I have a treat for you,” my father told me, pointing a finger toward the ground before walking over to the car we’d used to get to the field.

Disappointed, I did as instructed, ceasing my flight. A moment later, I dropped lightly onto the grass, looking down in annoyance. I didn’t like walking. It was so much slower and more difficult than flying around. Plus, if I flew everywhere, I wouldn’t need to wear shoes.

A stray splash of color in the field of green caught my attention, causing me to walk over and crouch next to it. There, I saw two things, a yellow flower, and an odd puffball of white that looked sort of prickly. When I poked it, though, it proved to not be prickly at all, but rather soft and explosive. A few little white pieces got knocked off by my touch before getting caught in the faint breeze. As they drifted away, I crouched there, staring at the plant in surprise.

“Ah … that’s what you’re playing with,” my father’s voice remarked from behind me. “You should try plucking one of the white ones and blowing on it.”

Curious, I did as instructed, reaching out to tug one of the white topped stems free. Holding it up, I puffed on it, sending half of the white pieces blowing off. They sailed through the air in a cloud for a ways, before finally drifting apart.

“You’re gonna have to blow harder to get them all in one go,” my father noted. I got ready to do exactly that when he suddenly tapped me on the shoulder. “Later. Treat first, otherwise it’ll melt.”

Frowning at the half finished puffball, I shrugged and let it fall. “Kay.”

“Good girl, now try this,” my father replied, handling me a stick with a big brown bar on top of it. “It’s very tasty.”

Mention of taste meant it was food, so I bit into it, only to find out that the inside was very cold. The moment it hit my mouth, I scrunched up my face and held my mouth open, trying to get the cold to touch as little as possible. “At’s col’.”

My father chuckled at my reaction. “Yes, it is, but that’s part of the fun. Just stick with it.”

Trying my best, I moved the blob of cold goop around in my mouth to get it to melt. As it did, I noticed that it didn’t just make my mouth cold, but tasted good too. It was very sweet and smooth, enough so to convince me to take another bite. This time, I went with a smaller nibble, one that was much easier to handle while giving me all of the taste, causing me to moan softly in delight.

“See? Tasty, isn’t it?” my father asked.

“Mmhmm,” I hummed, too busy eating to use actual words.

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

“We’re going to be doing something a little different today, angel,” my father announced, as we once again found ourselves in the out of the way field.

“But I thought we were going to get to play the ball game again?” I questioned, a little disappointed at the change in plans. I’d really liked the ball game.

“I said we were going to play a ball game, but it’s a different one,” my father explained. “I’m sure you’ll like it just as much.”

A slight pout invaded my lips, but I nodded in concession. “Kay.”

“Good, now, you know how I use this gun here to shoot balls right?” my father asked, getting a nod from me. “You’re going to try to do something similar today.”

Furrowing my brow, I looked at my father in confusion. “But I don’t have any balls, Daddy.”

“You’re going to make them just like you did the sword and shield,” my father informed me.

“But I can’t shoot either of those,” I argued.

“That’s why you’re going to have to learn,” my father told me. “Now, what I want you to do is hold your hand up and point it at that block of wood I put over there.”

Nodding, I did as instructed, raising my hand with the fingers spread and palm out. I pointed it across the way to where a log had been stood up on end in the grass. It wasn’t small or far away, so I figured it would be easy to hit.

“Good, now, just imagine something shooting out of your hand really hard and fast,” my father directed.

Another nod preceded me trying to do exactly that. It wasn’t as easy as the sword and shield had been, though. I had to focus harder, going to the point of scrunching up my face as I tried to visualize it. Then, I felt something kick against my hand, causing me to jerk back.

Rather than a ball, like I had imagined, a brilliant white beam shot out, slicing through the air. To my disappointment, it shot wide of the log, searing off a ways before finally hitting the ground. When it did, my disappointment vanished.

In the distance, the ground burst apart, disappearing into a cloud of white fire, dirt, and wind. A thunderous roar echoed back from the blast, assaulting my eardrums. It was joined by a palpable force that rocked me back on me heels as the wind raced by. After that, the wind and fire faded, leaving just a haze of dust floating in the air.

“Very good, angel,” my father complemented, somehow, completely unsurprised at the massive explosion that I’d just created.

The lack of surprise made me assume that the result was expected, but that didn’t mean I was ready to accept the compliment. “But I missed.”

“Everyone misses their first shot,” my father told me. “The important part is that you managed to shoot at all.”

“Oh,” I mumbled, allowing myself a little smile.

“Now, it’s time to practice,” my father informed me. “First, you have to hit the piece of wood, but once you manage that, we’ll play a game with the balls where you have to shoot them out of the sky. That sounds fun, doesn’t it?”

I nodded excitedly. “Yeah!”

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

“Alright, you ready for this?” my father asked as he sat down on the couch next to me, a big bowl of popcorn in his hands.

“Uh huh!” I exclaimed eagerly, looking forward to our usual nightly movie after a day of practice. They were always so enthralling.

“Then here we go,” my father replied, scooping up the remote to press play.

A moment later, the movie appeared on the screen, starting into the opening credits and logos. As it did, I nestled up against my father, using his side like a big warm pillow. At the same time, I snaked my hand around to scoop some popcorn out of the bowl then stuffed it in my mouth.

Soon, the movie proper began, and I was quickly wrapped up in the story. It was about a boy who wanted to spend time with his father, who for some reason wasn’t around. He wanted it so much, that he prayed for a miracle, and somehow, it was granted. Seeing how it was granted was the part that really got to me, though.

On the screen there were angels, helping the boy and some older men play a game called baseball. I watched the angels with utter fascination, seeing them zip around through the air helping the players. They were amazing, doing the same kind of things that I could do. They were even called angels, just like my father always called me. There was just one difference that I could tell. They all had wings, but I didn’t.

A frown creased my lips as I was pulled from my enjoyment of the movie. It just wasn’t right that I didn’t have wings. I could fly. I could do all the stuff the angels in the movie could and more. I helped my father, or at least would if he needed me. I should have wings.

At that thought, something twisted painfully in back, eliciting a gasp from me. It was followed by another, causing me to curl up as if it would keep the ache away. It didn’t, as more and more twists and shifts wiggled around within me.

“Angel, what’s wrong?” my father asked, worry in his voice. He even slid off the couch, kneeling in front of me to look at me with concern.

“I … I don’t …” I gasped between hisses of pain.

A loud crack was joined by a piercing stab of agony that arched my back and forced a scream from my lips. It was followed by the sound of tearing, then there was just silence. In that silence, I could feel a dull ache from my back along with something else – like I had arms back there somehow.

“That … how …. “ I heard my father gasp, seeming even more surprised than the one morning that I’d jumped on him in bed.

Lifting my gaze to my father, I saw him staring at me with wide unblinking eyes. Actually, it seemed he was staring behind me. That got me to twist around to look at what had startled him so. When I saw, my jaw dropped.

Spread out from my back was a pair of white, angel wings. They were pretty big, each longer than one of my arms and covered in soft downy feathers. Apparently, in the process of sprouting they had also torn my dress, leaving it hanging in tatters on my back.

“I have wings!” I exclaimed in delight, trying to move my new appendages. When they wiggled in time with my desires, I giggled in delight, turning back to my still stunned father. “Isn’t this awesome, Daddy? Now, I’m just like the angels in the movie!”

“But … how?” my father managed to breathe through his shock. “That’s shouldn’t be one of your …”

I shrugged, causing my wings to shrug as well. “I don’t know. Maybe God granted my prayer like he did for the boy in the film.”

“You prayed for this?” my father questioned.

“Yeah. Well, I mean, I’m supposed to be an angel, aren’t I? You always call me one. The angels in the movie had wings, so I thought I should have some too,” I answered excitedly.

The surprise started to fade from my father’s face, replaced with curiosity. “Can you make them go away?”

“What?! Why would I do that?! I just got them!” I blurted, horrified at the idea.

“Calm down, angel. I just want to see if you can,” my father reassured me. “Think of it like one of our games.”

“Oh … okay … I guess,” I mumbled, not really enthused by the idea of trying. Reaching back, I rubbed one of the wings just to feel it once in case it went away for good.

My father smiled at my acceptance. “That’s a good girl. Just think, if you can do this, we’ll have a whole new game to play.”

Intrigued by prospect of a new game, I got a little more motivated to try. If I could make them go away, surely I could bring them right back. Besides, it wasn’t like I wanted to disobey my father. If he wanted me to try, then I would. I was already imagining the wings going away before I remembered how much it had hurt to get them.

Before I could change my mind, I felt a shift in my back. It wasn’t accompanied by the same kind of pain as the first time, though, just a mild discomfort, like a joint that needed to be popped. Without the pain, I was able to watch as the wings pulled back into me. Only the ruin of my dress showed that they had ever been there.

“Amazing …” my father gasped. “And it didn’t hurt that time either?”

Saddened by the loss of my wings, I shook my head glumly. “Nope.”

“Marvelous,” my father breathed, his voice full of awe.

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

Chapter 02

The first rays of dawn greeted me as I woke just like they did every morning. Stretching my hands over my head, I let out a little sigh of delight as my body loosened up. Once that was done, I hopped out of bed, eager to start yet another day.

Rather than rush off to bother my father, I set about getting myself ready. How to do so had been one of the many lessons that my father had given me in the weeks since I’d first woken in this house. Now, every day, I got myself up, took a bath, put on clean clothes, and even got my own breakfast together.

As I got ready, I wondered what game my father and I would play that day. There were many different games. Early on they had been simple things like hit a ball or transform part of my body as requested. They’d steadily gotten more complex as time went on requiring multiple different abilities and quick reactions to complete. I loved seeing the proud smile on my father’s face when I completed the challenges.

When I got to the dressing part of my routine, I made sure to pick a dress that had a low enough back on it to allow me to have wings that day. After I was dressed, I recreated my wings, an act that, after so much practice, now elicited only a mild twinge from my shoulder blades rather than any sort of pain. Once I had them, I took a few moments to just admire them in the mirror, moving my body and them around to see them from all sorts of angles. They didn’t really serve any particular purpose. In fact, they kind of got in the way, but I didn’t care about that. I liked them. They made me feel like an angel. Because of that, I transformed to have them whenever I could, and the best time for that was in the morning before my father woke. Once he did, we’d leave the house, and I’d been told that I wasn’t allowed to have wings outside of the house. I didn’t understand why, but a good girl doesn’t cause trouble over something like that.

After finishing my self-admiration, I folded my wings neatly behind me and left my room behind. A short walk brought me to the kitchen, where I grabbed a chair and dragged it over to the pantry. It provided the height that I needed to get to the box of cereal, something that I could just float up to if flying was allowed, but it wasn’t. I quickly dropped that box off on the table before tugging the chair around to get to the cabinet with the bowls. A bowl and spoon joined the box as I went to get the milk, which thankfully didn’t require a chair. It was, however, the hardest thing for me to actually get, because it was so heavy, making it awkward for me to wiggle it out of the shelf in the refrigerator.

With all the components gathered, I sat down to enjoy my breakfast. Over the noise of my chewing, I could hear the sound of water, indicating that my father was up and getting his shower. That meant that soon we would be off to play. Even after many days like that, I could still feel myself getting excited. Playing with my father was always fun.

Once I’d finished eating, I cleaned up after myself, dragging the chair around to where I needed it to put things away. There was an extra stop this time, as I had to use the sink to wash my bowl and spoon. By the time I finished, I could hear my father’s footsteps approaching, and quickly retracted my wings, so that he wouldn’t even see them.

“Ah, there’s my little angel,” my father greeted, smiling brightly as he came into the kitchen. “How are you this morning?”

“Great!” I chirped happily, hopping off my chair to run over and hug him. “I’ve been trying to guess what game we’ll play today.”

Even as he returned the hug, my father chuckled. “Well, you never will.”

“Why not?” I asked as the embrace ended, allowing me to pull back.

“Because today, we’re going to play a game that we’ve never played before,” my father responded.

Already excited, my anticipation skyrocketed at the mention of a new game. New games were always the best. Since I didn’t know how to do them, they were far more challenging, and more importantly, my father was far more proud of me when I did well at them.

“Yay! What is it?! Does it involve the balls?! Will I get to fly?!” I rapidly questioned.

My father smiled wryly. “Well, if you’d sit down and listen, I’d tell you.”

Instantly, I turned, racing over to a chair. Plopping down, I put my hands in my lap and tried very hard to sit perfectly still and quiet. It was very hard to do given how eager I was to learn about the game.

“Good, now, do you remember the other day when the batteries in the remote died?” my father asked as he walked over to sit at the table as well.

I nodded rapidly. “Yeah. We threw them away and put new ones in.”

“Very good,” my father complimented. “Because that’s what you do with things that go bad, you get rid of them. Does that make sense.”

“Uh huh,” I agreed, finding that logic easy to follow.

“Now there are more things in the world that can go bad than batteries,” my father told me. “The remote control, itself, could have gone bad and we’d have to throw it out. The TV could also go bad, or the food in the fridge, or the car that I drive. Whatever it is that goes bad, we either fix it or we get rid of it.”

So far, everything made sense to me, so I nodded along. Naturally, there would be no point in keeping an appliance that didn’t work or food that couldn’t be eaten. Naturally, you would either fix it or get rid of it. I wondered how it could be relevant to a game, though.

“Now, some things are easier to fix than others,” my father continued. “You can fix a remote, but you can’t fix rotten food. In fact, you can’t fix anything once it goes rotten, not food, not drink, not people. They are forever bad. That’s why it’s so important that you always be a good girl, so that you never get rotten.”

“I’ll always be a good girl,” I assured him.

A warm smile brightened my father’s face at my words. “Yes, I’m sure you will be, but not everyone is, angel. Some people don’t care about being good. Some people just do bad until they’re all rotten inside. What do we do with rotten things, angel?”

“Get rid of them,” I answered promptly.

“Very good, angel,” my father told me. “And with that, we get to today’s game, the game that all the other ones have been leading to. You see, angel, there are rotten people mixed in among everyone else in the world – criminals, low-lifes, and brutes. They prey upon the good girls and boys out there, causing all sorts of harm, and so, they have to be gotten rid of. Most good boys and girls can’t get rid of them, though, because they’re so dangerous. They need an angel to help them do it. They need you.”

A torrent of emotions swept through me at my father’s words. There was fear at the idea that so many rotten people could be lurking outside our home. There was pity for all the other good little boys and girls that could do nothing to stop them. Finally, there was determination to do my job to help.

“How do I tell which ones are the bad ones?” I asked.

In the time since I’d first woken, I hadn’t seen very many other people. Sometimes, I could see them out of the windows of the car, or occasionally, one would be outside or even come to the door to talk to my father. None had seemed bad, though.

“You’ve seen some of their traits in the movies we’ve watched. They break the law. They hurt other people for no good reason. They lie, steal, and cheat,” my father explained. “Those are the rotten people in the world, and I will point them out to you.”

My father was right. I’d never seen a real person do any of those things, but I had seen what a rotten person was like. He was also right that they were absolutely no good, and in many of the movies the good people got rid of them.

“You have to remember, though, that they’re dangerous,” my father warned. “They don’t want to be gotten rid of. In fact, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep that from happening. If they try to hurt you, protect yourself with your shield.”

“I will, Daddy, but where do I throw them?” I asked. “Is there like a big trash can for them?”

That question earned a slight chuckle from my father, though, I had no idea why he thought it was amusing. “No, angel. You just deal with them like one of the balls,” he explained, adding two gestures, one slicing and one exploding, with his hands to clarify his point. “After you do, someone else will throw them out for you.”

I nodded in understanding. “Kay.”

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

As the sun shone down from above, I just couldn’t stop smiling. It wasn’t because of the prospect of the new game that my father had promised to let me play. That, I was actually kind of nervous about. Besides, I didn’t think it was actually a game at all, but something more serious, like a job maybe. No, what had me smiling was my current activity, walking down the sidewalk, holding my father’s hand.

Everyday, my father and I left the house together. Normally, though, we drove off to the secluded field to play. This was the first time, we’d gone somewhere else. My father had driven us into the city, not out of it, then, he’d parked the car in a lot, and we’d started walking along the streets toward our destination.

The city was not pretty. It was old and run down – the kind of place that showed up sometimes in movies that I’d watched as the ‘seedy part of town’. That wasn’t unexpected or anything, though. My father and I were there to find a rotten person, after all, and such people were always in the bad parts of town.

Bad part of town or not, it was still interesting to me to look around. None of the streets or buildings were familiar. There were people around too, not a lot, but more than I was used to being around. It was my first time being so close to people that weren’t my father. Part of me wanted to hide from them, slinking behind my father as I walked. Another part of me was incredibly curious to see what they were like. I ended up somewhere in the middle, smiling shyly at the people that we walked past. They almost always smiled back. Some even waved, which got me to wave back at them. It was fun.

“Ah, here we are, angel,” my father declared as he stopped in front of a particularly dilapidated apartment building. “Now, do you remember everything I told you in the car?”

The question got an immediate nod of confidence from me. My father had been quite thorough on the way, making sure that I had the address, name, and photograph of the rotten man memorized. To be absolutely certain, I recited it as well. “Casey Albin, apartment two-oh-three. He’s a heavy-set man, a little taller than you are Daddy, with dirty blonde hair and green eyes. The key you gave me will let me in. After I’m done, walk two streets that way and wait there for you to pick me up.”

“Very good, angel,” my father complimented as he released my hand. “Now, go do your best.”

“I will, Daddy,” I promised before skipping over to the door.

As I’d been told, the door was locked, but that wasn’t a problem. My father had given me a bracelet with a key hanging from it, so I just inserted that into the lock. It worked perfectly, letting me through the door into the small lobby area of the building. There wasn’t much in there, just some mailboxes along one wall, a couple of doors leading off to the sides, and the thing I cared about, the stairs that led up.

Bounding merrily up the stairs, I came out into a hallway with dingy carpet that smelled of mold and smoke. The stench crinkled my nose before I covered it with one hand and tried to breath through my mouth. As I walked down the hall, I wondered why the place was so stinky, or how anyone could live with it.

After the stairs, it was a short walk to the apartment that I was looking for. Once again, I tried the door, found it locked, and used the key on my bracelet. When I opened the door, the smell got even worse, not only stronger but also adding garbage and spoiled food to the mixture. It was enough to seep through my hand and get me to gag, but not enough to deter me. I had a mission, and I wasn’t going to let the other good girls and boys down.

Stepping inside, I was greeted by the sight of an apartment that was literally covered in mess. There were empty pizza boxes piled on the coffee table in the living room. Empty take out boxes and dirty dishes littered the counters in the kitchen as well. Even the only occupant of the place, a man, had crumbs and stains on his t-shirt.

“What the hell? How’d you get in here?” the man, a perfect match for the picture of Casey Albin that my father had shown me, questioned as he rose from his seat on the couch to stare at me in confusion.

“I got this key from Daddy,” I answered, holding up the bracelet with the key.

Casey blinked in surprise. “Your dad gave you a key to my apartment? Who’s your dad?”

“He also said you were a bad man,” I continued. “Are you?”

“What?” Casey muttered, seeming to have not heard me.

“Are you a bad man?” I repeated my question.

Casey’s features hardened. “Alright, I’m tired of playing games, kid. Get out.”

The lack of answer caused me to frown. I just wanted to make sure that the man was a bad one, but he was being difficult. “Are you a bad man or aren’t you?!”

“Yeah! I’m a bad man! The worst!” the man growled angrily. “Now get out or you’ll see just how ba ...”

The man’s words trailed off as my sword coalesced at my wrist. He had just enough time to be stunned before I zipped forward, using my flight to move higher and faster than I would have been able to on my own. As I closed, my sword cut across, slicing right through the man from one shoulder to the opposite armpit. The next moment, the two separate pieces of the man were falling to the ground.

Coming to a stop, I floated above the bloody mess, looking down at it. “Of course, Daddy was right,” I remarked before waving to the corpse. “Bye bye, bad man.” With that, I floated back out the door before setting myself down. The moment my feet touched the ground, I was already skipping off down the hall, eager to get back to my father.

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

“How did it go, angel?” my father asked as I got into his car.

My response was a disinterested shrug. “Fine.”

“Fine?” my father repeated the word as a question. “I need a little more information than that, angel.”

“But that’s what it was,” I insisted.

A flicker of annoyance crossed my father’s features. “You followed through on my instructions, correct?”

I nodded. “Yes, Daddy. I found the apartment, the man was inside, I slashed him just like a ball, then I came here to find you.”

“Very good, angel,” my father praised, giving me a warm smile.

Unlike usual, I didn’t really feel all that great about the compliment. “Can we play a different game now, Daddy?”

“A different one?” my father asked, quite surprised. It was the first time that I’d ever asked him to play a different game than the most recent one that we’d been playing. “Do you not like this one?”

“Not really. It’s boring,” I admitted honestly. Good girls are always honest. “The bad man wasn’t nearly as dangerous as you said. He didn’t try to do any of the things you said he’d do. He just stood there.”

“Oh … so that’s what the problem is,” my father mumbled, nodding thoughtfully. “You’ll have to forgive me, angel. I went easy on you because this was your first time, but clearly, I underestimated you.”

I smiled. “It’s okay, Daddy. Today was still fun.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” my father replied. “For now, I think we will play some other games. I need some time to find a really tough bad guy for you to deal with. You’d like that right?”

Excited by the prospect, I nodded rapidly. “Yeah!”

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

“Alright, angel,” my father began as we came to a stop near a building. It was an old cannery that had long since closed down. Oddly, that didn’t put it in any worse shape than the apartment building from the last time. “Remember, it’s not going to be easy this time, so I want you to take this seriously. If you think you might be in trouble, just run away, and Daddy won’t be mad. Okay?”

“Yes, Daddy,” I agreed, getting a little nervous at how worried my father seemed to be for my safety this time. Perhaps the bad person this time really was dangerous.

After a quick nod, my father bent down to give me a hug. “Good luck in there, angel. Go get ‘em.”

Quickly, I returned the hug, always glad for the affection. When it ended, though, I was filled with anxiety. There was no skipping or bounding this time as I left my father’s side to approach the building.

Unlike the last time that I’d played this game, I had no key, because the door wasn’t locked. That allowed me to easily enter through the side door of the building. Inside, was the main floor of the facility, still cluttered with some of the old machinery and material which made it difficult for me to see very far. Fortunately, I could hear the sound of voices, so I just started toward them, meandering through the various obstacles in my path.

As I was getting close to the voices, a woman suddenly stepped into view from around a small stack of crates. She seemed to be on her way to grab something from a cooler, but then she saw me. Immediately, she stopped in her tracks, turning to face me with wide-eyed surprise.

“What the hell?!” the woman gasped.

As the woman stared at me, I quickly looked her over before deducing that she wasn’t my bad person. While her clothes certainly gave her the look of a bad person, her hair was purple, not red. Since she wasn’t who I was there for, I raised a hand to wave, smiled, and greeted her brightly with a, “Hi there!”

“What’s going on Val?!” another female voice called out in question.

“There’s this little blonde girl here,” the woman, apparently Val, answered, pointing at me.

A moment later, another woman stepped into my view. This one did not get a wave, and even drove the smile from my face. She was on the short side for a woman with the tight, toned physique of an athlete. Like the other woman, she was dressed in a sort of trashy, street tough manner. Unlike the other woman, she had red hair and the face that I’d been told to memorize.

“Scarlet Whip,” I stated the woman’s name neutrally as I gathered myself for what was coming.

“How do you know that na–” the woman started to ask, but I was already moving, using my flight to dart forward as my sword appeared.

Unlike the man, this woman did not just stand there in shock as I slashed her. Her reaction was quick, smooth, and violent. One of her hands lashed out, but it wasn’t just her hand that came at me. As she moved, a glowing crimson whip extended out from her hand, crackling as it came at me.

My reaction was just as fast, a sudden lurch left in the air that took me out of the whip’s line. The air sizzled as the weapon cut by me, followed by a thunderous crack as it hit the ground. I couldn’t see the damage it wrought, but I could feel the spray of concrete bits that were sent flying by the impact.

In spite of my dodge, I didn’t lose my opportunity to strike, swerving back toward the woman to slash with my sword. Whip tried to twist away from it, but she wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid it entirely. A slash appeared in her shirt followed by a bright red line of blood across one side of her ribs.

As the exchange ended, my momentum carried me past Whip, where I rolled over in the air to make another pass. My plans changed in an instant as I saw Val and a newly arrived women pull handguns and aim them at me. Desperately, I focused on bringing up my shield.

A moment later, I felt like someone had just punched me in the shoulder, followed by a series of roars from the handguns. The roars were followed by pings as bullets hit shield and ricocheted around. One even caught Val in the thigh, dropping her to the ground.

Meanwhile, I pressed a hand to my right shoulder. The arm hung limp and there was a throbbing pain there that filled my eyes with tears and made me want to just cry out for my father at the top of my lungs. There was one problem with that. I was still in danger of getting hurt even more.

Having twisted around, Whip tried to use her signature weapon on me, and I was too distracted by my injury to try to dodge this time. Luckily, it was no more effective than bullets were against the glowing hemisphere of pale light that protected me. It crackled and spat as it struck, but did nothing to penetrate or harm me. It did, however, penetrate my pain addled thoughts.

“That hurt!” I shrieked angrily, releasing my wound to lash out with my left hand. My power kicked against the outstretched limb as a beam of light shot out.

When the beam struck, Scarlet Whip vanished into a massive blast of white fire and debris. Even objects near the blast were sent tumbling away, several of which ricocheted off my shield. It ended the fight, though, as even if the women had somehow survived, I wasn’t going to stay around to fight them.

Instead of making sure that I’d won, I turned and fled zipping back the way that I’d come to burst out into the open. From there, I darted off, toward the side alley where I was supposed to meet my father after I finished. Sure enough, my father and the car were right where they were supposed to be. I didn’t even make it all the way to it, though, I just plopped myself out of the sky in front of the car, and curled up to cry.

Moments laters, my father was out there kneeling in front of me. “What happened, angel?”

“They … they … they …” I blubbered uselessly before gesturing at my bloody shoulder. I didn’t even realize that my father was already looking at the injury.

“Alright … shhh … calm down,” my father responded soothingly, patting my hair. “Look, it’s already getting better.”

“What?” I squeaked through my sobs, looking up at my father.

My father used my attention to point at my shoulder which he had wiped partially clean with a handkerchief. “See for yourself.”

As I looked down, I was rather surprised to see very little in the way of injury there. There was just a pucker of pink skin underneath the cleared away blood. Even that soon faded away to leave no sign at all that I’d been hurt. Unwilling to believe what I saw, I poked my free hand at the spot, but there was no pain or anything else left.

“See? All better,” my father remarked as he watched me prodding it. “Nothing to worry about.”

Blinking away tears, I rubbed at my nose while sniffling. “But … it really hurt …”

“I know, angel,” my father commiserated, pulling me into a hug. “That why I warned you about how dangerous these people are. They like to hurt good little girls like you. It’s also why you have to get rid of them.”

Wrapped in my father’s arms, I nodded in understanding, starting to feel a lot better The memory of the pain was already fading away. Instead, I felt a little embarrassed. My father had warned me of the danger, but I’d still let myself get hurt. That was silly of me.

“Now, come on, angel, get in the car. We need to leave,” my father instructed once the hug was over, helping me to my feet.

“Yes, Daddy,” I agreed, immediately moving to do as requested.

As soon as we were both inside, my father started the car and took off. At the same time, he glanced at me, looking a little worried. “Now, tell me, angel, did you get the bad person?”

“I … I don’t know … “ I admitted, hanging my head. “I ran, ‘cause I was hurt. I threw a beam at her before I left. It looked like it hit her. It … it also hit two others that weren’t the bad person … I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t mean to screw up. I–”

“It’s alright, angel,” my father interrupted. “Did these other two people attack you?”

I nodded. “Yes.

“Then you did nothing wrong,” my father replied. “They were bad people too, and I told you to run if you were in danger.”

Once again the compliment rang hollow with me. “But … but I don’t know if I got the bad person.”

“If you hit her with your beam, you got her. Trust me,” my father assured me, smiling proudly at me. “Even if you hadn’t, though, you did what I asked, so it was still a good job.”

I let myself smile a little at that. As long as my father could smile like that I couldn’t have messed up too much. Plus, now that I’d seen what a real challenge was like, I’d do even better next time, then he’d really be happy.

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

Humming a merry little tune, I skipped down the hallway, reading the numbers on the doors. I liked this apartment building much better than the last one. It wasn’t in nearly as bad a shape. In fact, it seemed rather ordinary, with none of the smelliness or degradation that I’d come to associate with where bad people lived. Clearly, bad people were even sneakier than I’d thought.

My skipping came to a halt as I saw the number that I was looking for. Stopping in front of the door, I waited for a couple of moments, gathering myself for what lay ahead. I really wanted to do well this time, no mistakes or injuries or anything else. This time, I was going to get everything done perfectly.

Once I felt ready for the coming challenge, I reached out for the door, using the key that my father had given me. Like the last time, it worked perfectly, turning easily in the lock. A moment later, the door was open and I was strolling inside.

The first thing that I noticed about the interior of the apartment was how loud it was. From the outside, I’d been too caught up with my own tune to notice, but inside, there was no way to ignore the blaring heavy metal music. It was enough to get me to scrunch my face up in pain and cover my ears.

“So loud …” I mumbled, barely even able to hear myself speak.

The occupants of the apartment couldn’t hear me speak at all. In fact, they didn’t even seem to notice that I had entered. There were four of them in total, two guys playing a game at the tv, and a guy and a girl on the couch. The latter’s activity was rather odd, though.

Starting to get used to the noise, my attention shifted purely to the boy and girl as I walked closer. For some reason, they appeared to be sucking on each other’s faces, much like I had sucked on a lollipop that my father had given me once. It seemed like a rather strange thing to do to someone’s face, though.

Coming over to the couch, I tugged on the girl’s shirt to get her attention. “Does he taste good?”

The tug did in fact get the girl’s attention, getting her to glance my way. When she saw me, it turned from a glance to a wide eyed stare as she started and screamed, “Ah! What the hell?!”

Immediately, all the boys turned to me as well, gawking at my arrival. For my part, I barely noticed that. I just tilted my head to the side and repeated my question, “Does he taste good?”

“Jesus, did one of you assholes leave the door unlocked?” the man who the girl was sitting on questioned.

“I guess … “ one of the two guys playing the game answered.

Meanwhile, the lack of answer was starting to annoy me. “Why won’t you tell me if he tastes good?”

“Because you’re not old enough to know yet, sweetie,” the girl answered, finally recovered enough from her shock to both hear my question and slide off her man’s lap. “Now, why don’t you go run along. You shouldn’t be in here.”

“Yes, I should,” I countered, pointing at the man on the couch. He was the bad man, Darren Glover. “Daddy sent me in here for him, because he’s a bad person. Oh right ...”

Memory jogged, I forced myself back on task. For the moment, I had a mission to finish, and I didn’t want to screw it up. I’d have to find out later if boys tasted good. Maybe, my father would know.

Materializing my sword, I lashed out, slashing at Darren. Rather than the usual effortless swing, though, it felt like I hit a wall as my arm lurched to a stop. No, I would have cut right through a wall. This was something else. The problem was, I couldn’t see what.

In front of me, Darren sat unharmed with a truly stunned expression on his face. My sword was just stopped right on top of his shoulder, refusing to cut through him. That left me pretty stunned too.

“Holy shit!” one of the men that had been playing the game finally yelled, breaking the moment of surprise.

My gaze was just starting to drift toward the man that had spoken when I saw movement from in front of me. Immediately, I raised my shield, surrounding myself in a glowing, translucent bubble. Darren’s fist thudded into the bubble, but like my sword with his shoulder, couldn’t get through.

Once again, Darren seemed stunned, looking at his hand like it had betrayed him. I could certainly understand the feeling. If my sword was going to let me down, though, then it was time to go with the beam.

Dropping my shield, I raised my left hand, preparing to blast. Darren seemed to realize something was coming and desperately dove out of the way. His movement was perfectly timed with my shot, causing the beam to cut right past him to slam into the wall.

Even before my beam struck, my barrier was back up. It was a good thing, too, because at that close of a range, I would’ve gotten at least partially caught in the blast. The shield kept the flame and debris that came my way at bay, but I had little time to pay attention to that. I had a bad man to keep track of.

In our tendency to swap surprises, Darren hadn’t just dove out of the way, he’d flown. In fact, he was still flying, fleeing toward the window and away from me. He didn’t even slow when he got there, just crashed through, and took off into the air.

“Come back!” I called after the bad man before taking off after him.

Coming out of the broken window, I spotted Darren, cutting between two buildings a short distance away. Instantly, I shot off after him, zipping through the alleyway. By the time I got there, the man was already nearing the other end.

Even as he got ready to turn, Darren glanced back my way, his eyes widening with surprise and fear. When he took off to the left, he moved even faster than before, driven to escape from me. I had no intention of letting him succeed in that, however.

Picking up the pace as well, I zipped off after the bad man, mirroring his turn. For a brief moment, we were on a main street, but almost immediately, Darren took another turn down an alley. I pursued him as we weaved through alleys and over buildings.

Unfortunately, Darren had the advantage of being in the lead. He got to pick where to go, and I had to react to him. It wasn’t enough of a lead, though. I was faster than him, and soon was close enough that I barely even lost sight of him for a couple of moments when he turned.

Another turn later, Darren and I were headed down a new alley, a fairly long and narrow one. Focused on his escape, he wasted no time looking back at me, trying to find something he could use to shake me from his tail. He never saw me lift my hand and fire.

The bad man vanished as the beam struck him in the back and exploded. White fire filled the space between the buildings, searing stone walls and shattering glass. When the flames cleared a couple of moments later, there was no sign of Darren.

Peering down the empty alley, I frowned slightly at the lack of evidence of my success, but I shrugged it off. “I got him,” I told myself as I turned to fly back the way that I’d come so that I could meet up with my father as planned. I managed to retrace my path for a few turns before I came to a street that didn’t look familiar to me. When I turned around to look back, I couldn’t remember that way either. A sudden dread dropped into my stomach at those facts. I was lost.

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

Chapter 03

My world was nothing but tears. I had tried to find my way back home, darting around through all sorts of streets in search of anything familiar, but I had failed. In the end, I’d just collapsed in one of the alleys and started sobbing, certain that I would never see my father again.

The first thing to appear in my world besides tears was a warm hand touching my shoulder. My sobs slowed a bit as I looked up to see who had touched me. There was a man kneeling there beside me. He reminded me of my father, albeit younger without the gray hair and worry creased face. His eyes, though, showed the same caring, green-colored concern as I always got from my father.

“What’s wrong, little girl?” the man questioned after our eyes met.

“I … I … I ...” I started, but was constantly interrupted by my crying.

Giving me a reassuring smile, the man shifted his hand to rub my back. “There, there, it’s alright. I’ll help you with whatever it is.”

Sniffling, I tried to push back my tears, but they kept streaming down my cheeks. At least, it got my sobbing under control enough to talk. “I … I was chasing all over … and I couldn’t remember where I went … and now ... I can’t find Daddy!” I barely got that all out before I devolved into body-wracking sobs again.

The man didn’t seem to mind, though. He just nodded in understanding and said, “You got lost, huh. Well, don’t worry. I’ll help you find him. Do you remember what the place was called where you last saw him?”

I shook my head.

“Okay, not a problem. Do you remember your address?” the man tried.

Again, I shook my head. I could recognize what house I lived in, but I’d never really thought about the address. After all, I only ever went out with my father. I couldn’t even remember the street name.

“Alright, do you know your daddy’s name?” the man inquired.

Yet another shake of my head came in response. I was sure that my father must have a real name, but I didn’t know it. He was just Daddy to me.

There was a slight waver in the man’s smile. “Okay … how about your name? Can you tell me that?”

Finally, the man asked a question that it seemed like I should be able to answer. I even started to open my mouth to do exactly that, only to come to a very strange realization. I didn’t know my own name. Obviously, I had to have one. Everyone had a name. I couldn’t remember it, though. I couldn’t remember my father ever using one for me either.

“Daddy always calls me his little angel,” I offered, hoping that would help in some way.

The man chuckled slightly. “You do look like a little angel, but I need your real name, not your daddy’s nickname for you.”

“I … I don’t know my real name …” I admitted, looking down. Not knowing my own name was just so embarrassing.

Finally, the comforting veneer vanished from the man’s face, replaced by a confused and worried look. “You don’t know your own name?”

All I could do was shake my head again, too humiliated to even speak. How could I not know my own name? Everyone knows their own name.

“Well, that does make it trickier, but don’t worry. I’m sure your daddy will be looking all over for a cute little girl like you. We just need to get your picture to the police, so that he has a way to find you,” the man remarked. “We’ll have you back to him in no time.”

Filled with sudden hope, I looked up again. “Really?”

The man nodded in confirmation. “Yep. I can’t very well just leave you in an alley until then, though, so why don’t you come with me. That way we can get you cleaned up, fed, and then take your picture,” he told me before offering me his hand. “That’s sounds good, right?”

Managing a slight smile, I nodded eagerly and took his hand. “Mmhmm.”

Once he had my hand, the man easily pulled me to my feet and started leading the way out of the alley. “My name’s James Young by the way, but you can just call me James.”

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

Before me sat a truly dizzying array of food. There were eggs, pancakes, sausage, bacon, even a bowl of fruit. It was far more than a person as small I could possible ever eat, but that wasn’t stopping me from trying. I was devouring it, scarfing down bite after bite of the various things. The deliciousness did a good job of keeping my fears from my thoughts.

“I know it’s not standard procedure, but there’s something weird going on so I’m doing it,” James huffed as he returned to the table, ending the call on the cell phone in the same breath. Once he had, he sat down across from me. “Sorry, I took so long.”

“It’s o’ay,” I assured him through a mouth full of food. “This is tas’y.”

James smiled at that. “Good. What is also good is that I got your picture to the police. Shouldn’t be long before your father reports you missing, then they’ll let me know, and I’ll take you back to him.”

“Yay!” I cheered happily, eager to return to my father. I hoped he wouldn’t be too mad that I’d gotten lost. It had only happened because of the bad person, so it wasn’t like it was my fault.

“Don’t get too excited. They haven’t called yet,” James told me to temper my eagerness. “Until then, you’ll just have to put up with me.”

The prospect of spending time with James didn’t sound so bad. He seemed like a good guy. He even sort of reminded me of my father, the way he smiled and looked after me.

“That’s okay,” I replied, shrugging off the prospect of waiting. “You’re pretty fun.”

That complement got a laugh from James. “You’d be one of very few girls to think so. Most think I’m kind of a smart … alec.”

“What’s a smart alec?” I inquired, momentarily forgetting about the food before me to focus on the conversation.

“It’s … uhm … someone who tries to show off how smart they are in a way that is intended to annoy,” James answered, fumbling a bit for the right words. “You’ve never heard that before?”

I shook my head. “Nope. Why do you act like one if you know it’s annoying?”

James shrugged. “It’s just who I am, I suppose. It would be like you trying to not be blonde.”

“But I can not be blonde,” I pointed out, confused by the analogy. “See?” To prove my point, I focused on transforming my hair color. A moment later it was like ink had been spilled on my head, staining my hair black. It was only that way for a moment, before I changed it right back to blonde.

The sight of my hair color changing caused James’s eyes to bug out in surprise. “Holy sh-err-crap!”

Confused by the expletive, I tilted my head to the side curiously. “What’s wrong?”

“Uhm … nothing … it’s just … little girls can’t usually change their hair color in an instant like that,” James explained.

“Well, I’m different. I’m an angel,” I corrected him, before eagerly adding, “Wanna see my wings?”

James held up his hands to stop me. “That won’t be necessary. I believe you, and besides, it’s a little cramped in this booth for you to be suddenly sprouting wings.”

“Oh … yeah …” I mumbled, glancing around me sheepishly. It would’ve have been a pretty tight squeeze creating my wings inside the booth. “I’m not supposed to have them outside the house anyway.”

“Oh? Is that one of your daddy’s rules?” James asked.

I nodded. “Yeah. I don’t really get it, but I’m sure Daddy’s just looking out for me. He does that a lot.”

“I’m sure,” James agreed softly, furrowing his brow thoughtfully. He held that expression for a moment before asking, “Do you have other … uhm ... angel abilities?”

“Oh sure!” I chirped, happy to discuss all the fun things that I could do. “I can do lots of stuff like make a really tough shield or fly. I really like flying. Daddy and I go out every day to play games where I get to fly.”

“Amazing,” James remarked. “Do you ever do normal little girl things?”

Thrown off by the question, I looked at James in confusion. “Don’t normal little girls play games?”

“Well, yes, but not ones where they fly,” James answered. “They play stuff like house and hopscotch and tag.”

None of the things that James listed sounded familiar to me. Then again, none of the games my father and I played had ever had any names. I supposed that meant that I hadn’t played any normal games, so I shook my head. “Nope. Are they fun?”

“Yeah,” James told me before adding, “For little girls anyway.”

“Will you play one with me?” I asked, intrigued by the prospect of new and unusual games.

A dubious look scrunched up James’s face for a moment, but he ended up shrugging it away. “Sure, why not. We can swing by the park after this and play a few normal games.”

That response prompted a delighted cheer from me, “Yay!”

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

“So I just chase you and try to touch you with my hand?” I questioned, finding the game far too simplistic.

James nodded. “Yep, but no flying. Flying is cheating.”

A frown curled my lips at the added stipulation. Flying was one of my favorite parts about the games that I played with my father. I supposed that there was nothing to be done about it, though. Normal girls couldn’t fly, and this was a normal person game.

“Kay,” I agreed, nodding.

“Alright then … go!” James declared before running away from me.

The suddenness of the game’s beginning confused me, but only for a moment. Never one to tolerate losing, I started to take off after the man, only to remember that I wasn’t allowed to fly. I set myself right back down before breaking into a run.

While flying, I was quite fast, but while running, I found it very difficult to gain ground on James. That wasn’t to say that I thought he was quick, more that I thought I was frustratingly slow. Running was just not nearly as effective as flying. Still, I pressed on, refusing to give up even with the weird limitation.

“Come on, little girl! You gotta do better than that if you want to catch me!” James called mockingly over his shoulder as he darted around some bushes.

Fueled on by the taunting, I lowered my head and picked up speed, cutting around the bushes behind him. From there, I chased James as he wove through trees, then darted across a footpath, and rounded a playground. All the while, we both had to dodge other people that were out enjoying a nice day in the park. Those people gave us odd looks, but I was too focused on catching James to notice.

Luckily for me, my determination paid off a moment later as James slipped on the grass during a turn. His feet slid out from under him, dropping him on his hip. While he tried to get back up and get moving, he didn’t have the time. I was already too close, descending on him in his helplessness.

“Got you!” I squealed in delight as I ran into his back, using the impact to halt my sprint.

“Oof! No!” James grunted in mock despair and pain as I rammed him. “The shame! Defeated by a little girl!”

I grinned smugly at my victory. “Don’t feel bad. I always beat Daddy, too.”

“Well you truly are a talented little girl, then,” James remarked as he got back up to his feet. “Of course, this is only a set back. After all, now it’s your turn to run. Don’t expect me to go easy on you when I catch you.”

“You’ll never catch me!” I declared confidently.

“I will if you just stand there!” James retorted, scrambling to his feet threateningly.

Jumping in surprise, I spun and raced off, having no intention of letting James score a point. He was a dogged pursuer, though, managing to stay within just a few steps of me as we ran along. My inability to make a gap had me looking around for help from my surroundings. I tried a trip around a tree, but that was no good. Worming between a couple of bushes didn’t stop him either. I needed something else.

Suddenly, all thoughts of the game vanished as I skidded to a stop. My focus had been stolen by the sight of a young child, a boy from his clothes, being dragged away from the playground by a woman. The boy was screaming, tears streaming from his eyes while the woman pulled mercilessly on his arm.

“Little girl?” James questioned as he trotted to a stop next to me, looking at me in concern.

“Bad person,” I muttered in response, earning a confused look from James. That look turned to shock when I materialized my sword and took a step forward.

Before I got further, James reached out, snagging the wrist of my sword arm. “What are you doing? What the hell is that?”

I turned to look at James in confusion. “She’s hurting that boy. Only a bad person would do that, and bad people have to be gotten rid of.”

“What?!” James gasped. “Who told you that?”

“Daddy did,” I answered, getting annoyed by the questions. I could still hear the boy’s tortured screams. I could save him from the pain, but James was stopping me. “Now, let go.”

James shook his head. “That’s not happening, little girl. You can’t just go attack someone because their kid is crying.”

That response didn’t make any sense to me. Someone hurting a child seemed like a perfectly good reason to attack them. “Why not?”

“Well besides being illegal, it’s wrong,” James answered. “The boy’s probably just throwing a tantrum because he doesn’t want to leave. It’s not like she’s trying to hurt him or something, even if she was, that,“ James paused to point at the sword that extended from my arm, “isn’t the way to go about fixing things.”

“But Daddy said–” I started to protest.

“Your daddy was wrong!” James interrupted.

The forceful declaration stunned me, causing my sword to fade away. It wasn’t that the claim made sense. The idea that my father could be wrong was absurd. The fact that James seemed to believe what he said, though, was just as unfathomable.

“Daddy’s not wrong!” I exclaimed defiantly, tuggin on my hand to try to get it free. James’s grip was too strong for the half-hearted attempt, though.

“Yes, he is,” James stated calmly. “You can’t just go around attacking anyone you think is bad. That would make you bad.”

“Make me bad?” I repeated, dumbfounded by the idea that I could somehow be bad.

James nodded. “Yeah, then people would come and lock you up, so you could never go out and play or fly around or eat delicious things again. I should know, since it’s my job to catch bad people and do exactly that to them.”

“But … “ I mumbled, not really sure what to say. My father had told me one thing. Now, James had told me something else. One of them had to be wrong. “Why are you lying?”

“I’m not lying,” James assured me.

“Yes, you are!” I shrieked, tired of listening to James. This time when I tugged on my wrist, I added my flight powers. It hurt my arm, but I got free, leaving me floating there in the air in front of James.

For his part, James stumbled as I yanked free of his grasp, forcing him to catch himself. When he did, though, he peered up at me with a strange look in his eyes. It wasn’t one that I had ever seen before, but it seemed sad. I didn’t like it.

“Alright, you got me to let you go. What are you going to do now, little girl?” James asked. “Are you going to attack that woman, and make me chase after you? It won’t be fun like playing tag.”

I didn’t have an answer for James. My father usually told me what to do, but he wasn’t around. He also usually told me who was bad. This time, I’d decided on my own. Maybe it wasn’t about James or my father being wrong. Maybe I was the one who was wrong.

“Is it really bad to attack her?” I questioned uncertainly.

James nodded emphatically. “It is.”

While I wasn’t really sure if James was telling me the truth or not, it was the only answer that I had at that moment. Hesitantly, I let myself drift back to the ground. “Then I won’t.”

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

“I don’t see why we had to leave the park,” I grumbled, pouting as I walked along the sidewalk.

Strolling beside me, James chuckled. “You don’t have much experience being in public, do you?”

“Public?” I asked, unsure of the word.

“I mean, around a lot of people you don’t know,” James explained.

I shook my head. “Oh … no. Just a couple of times with Daddy.”

“Ah well, you see doing stuff like flying and creating energy swords in public is … well, not bad, but something to avoid,” James explained. “It makes people uncomfortable. If we’d stayed, all the other people would’ve been worried.”

“Worried? About what?” I inquired.

James seemed unsure of how to answer that. “Well … people who have abilities like that are rare, and some of them are really bad. Because the bad ones are so dangerous, whenever people see stuff like that, they worry that it’s one of the bad ones doing it.”

It seemed a little strange to me that people would assume anyone with abilities was a bad person. Then again, I had been about to do something bad – at least according to James – so I could see how someone could make such a mistake. It was sad that I had to leave the park because of that, though.

“But I wanted to play tag again …” I mumbled in disappointment.

“Oh? You liked the game, even though, there was no flying or anything like that?” James asked, a smug smirk on his lips.

I nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah. It was fun. Are the other games as fun as that one?”

“Hmm … I suppose they are,” James answered. “Tag was always my favorite when I was little, but I knew kids that preferred the other ones.”

“Then I hope I get to try the others sometime,” I declared, looking forward to asking my father to play some of them with me when he found me. Surely, he knew about such games.

James smiled. “I hope so too. Maybe, if we have time, I’ll even play another one with you later. For now, though …” He trailed off as he came to a stop in front of a shop. “... I’ve got a different kind of treat in mind.” With that, he pulled the door open and gestured for me to enter.

At first, I was just curious what the treat would be, but when I stepped inside the shop and saw what they sold, my whole body filled with excitement. Occasionally, my father gave me ice cream as a treat after games. After the shock of the first time, I’d always enjoyed it immensely. The shop that I’d entered also sold ice cream, but it sold far more than simple chocolate covered bars of it. There was a whole counter of options along with a menu full of pictures of all the different varieties of treats that they had.

So caught up in the sight of the shop was I that James had to gently push me from behind to get me out of the doorway. As he did, he chuckled to himself. “I take it you like ice cream.”

At a loss for words, I just nodded absently. All the while, my gaze darted rapidly from one delicious picture to another wondering what they all would taste like. There were even other patrons in the shop that were eating things that looked just as scrumptious but didn’t have pictures on the menu.

“At least there’s some normal in you,” James remarked before taking my hand to lead me to the counter. “Come on, we didn’t come here to gawk, but to eat.”

“Good afternoon. What can I get for you?” the teenaged boy behind the counter greeted as James and I approached.

When I didn’t speak, James shook my hand encouragingly. “Tell the man what you want.”

“I … uhm … “ I mumbled as I looked at item after item, trying to figure out which I wanted. I’d never had so many choices before, or any choice even. It was overwhelming.

“Sorry, she’s not used to stuff like this,” James apologized to the teen.

The teen shrugged disinterestedly. “No problem.”

Apology made, James turned to me to ask, “Want me to pick something for you?”

“I … uhm …” I repeated ineffectually before nodding shyly.

Again, James chuckled at me. “Alright, two, large, hot fudge sundae’s it is then.”

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

When I first saw the hot fudge sundae, I was disappointed. Compared to the many other extravagant confections that the shop offered, it seemed quite plain. There was just a cup of white ice cream with some chocolate sauce on it. The first bite proved how deceiving its simplicity was, though. The mix of chocolate and vanilla was always delicious, but the chocolate was actually hot, melding with the icy cold of the vanilla in a way that no food that I’d had before did. Fascinated, I’d started shovelling it into my mouth.

As he so often did, James chuckled at my actions. “Slow down or you’ll get a brain freeze.”

I did slow down, although, not because of the warning so much as because of confusion about it. Looking up, I gave James a puzzled expression. “A what?”

“A brain freeze. You know how when you eat ice cream too fast your head starts to sort of pound?” James tried to explain, but my puzzled expression remained. “You’ve never had one of those, have you?”

I shook my head. “No.”

“Well, you don’t want to. They aren’t fun,” James told me.

Assuming that James knew what he was talking about, I made sure to eat more slowly from then on. I never ended up getting one of those brain freezes, so it seemed like I did it right. Of course, that didn’t stop me from being disappointed as I scraped at the bottom of the empty cup, trying to get the last little drops of the treat.

Once I could no longer scrape any more from the cup, I looked up, seeing James smirking at me as he continued to eat slowly. Unlike me, he still had a good third of his sundae left. Just seeing it had me licking my lips enviously.

“Should’ve eaten slower, little girl,” James commented as he slipped his next bite into his mouth with exaggerated slowness. “Mmm … gotta really savor it.”

Again, I licked my lips. “Can I … can I have some more?”

“I don’t know,” James answered, shrugging. “Maybe I’ll share some of what’s left with you … then again, maybe I won’t.”

“That’s … but … “ I stammered, trying to come up with some sort of argument. None came to mind, though, leaving me to just watch with ever growing jealousy as James took another bite.

“How about this, I’ll get you something small before we go, but you have to pick it out,” James offered, before quickly adding, “and it can’t be another hot fudge sundae.”

The denial of the option that I was going to pick caused me to pout, but I still managed an excited nod at the prospect of another treat. Immediately, I started looking around, trying to see which of the various options looked the best. There were just so many choices.

Across the room, I spotted a particularly tantalizing looked treat that a teen couple were splitting. It was an incredible pile of ice cream, fruit, and whipped cream that I was sure had to be excellent since the couple seemed to be enjoying it a lot. The girl appeared to be especially happy with it, given the satisfied look on her face.

I was just about to settle on the couple’s treat for myself when I saw the two start to act a little strange. At first, it was just the girl reaching out to wipe some cream off the boy’s cheek. The boy, rather obnoxiously it seemed, immediately splattered some more on there, which oddly got the girl to laugh. After the laughter, the girl leaned in again, but this time, she didn’t use her hand to wipe the cream off, but her tongue. A few moments later, she and the boy were kissing.

Watching the couple ignore the sweet dessert to kiss got me thinking. At first, I worried that the treat must not be that good, but quickly my thoughts switched to maybe boys were just that tasty. The girl from earlier that day had seemed very interested in kissing her boy as well. There certainly seemed to be something to it.

“Do boys taste good?” I asked, turning my attention to James.

Choking on his ice cream, James spent the next moment sputtering and hacking before finally gasping out. “What now?”

“Do boys taste good?” I repeated. “I keep seeing girls kissing them, and they seem to really like it, so I thought maybe they were tasty.”

“Oh …” James sighed in relief. “I thought … well never mind that. As for if boys taste good, I wouldn’t know. I’ve never kissed one.”

The lack of information brought a frown to my lips. If James didn’t know, then I was just going to have to discover it for myself. Hopping out of my chair, I walked over to James and started to climb up on him to give him a kiss.

Before I got far, adult hands intercepted me, forcing me back to the ground. “What are you doing?!”

“Kissing you,” I answered matter-of-factly. “I wanna see what you taste like.”

Shaking both his hands and his head, James waved me off. “Oh, no no no. That’s not allowed.”

“Not allowed?” I questioned before pointing toward the teenaged couple. “But those two are doing it. Why can’t we?”

“Those two?” James repeated, following my pointed finger. “Oh … you see you have to be old enough to kiss someone. They are. You’re not.”

Once again, James’s answer brought a frown to my lips. I’d tried asking, but no one I’d asked would tell me if boys tasted good. I’d tried to kiss one, and been told that I wasn’t allowed to. How was I supposed to find out if boys tasted good then?

Suddenly, an idea came to me. James just said that I needed to be older to kiss a boy. I’d never used my transforming abilities to make myself older, but I saw no reason why I wouldn’t be able to. During games with my father, I’d made myself taller, stronger, bigger, and numerous other things. I’d even grown parts I didn’t normally have, like wings. All I had to do was figure out what I’d look like when I was older, and it should work. Luckily, I already knew someone older that I looked a lot alike, so I closed my eyes and pictured my mother. With a few small changes, I was pretty sure I had an image of what I would look like when I was all grown up. Once I did, I used my ability.

In response to my wishes, my body started to flow and shift. The first thing it did was shoot upward, nearly breaking my concentration with the wave of vertigo that change created. While I didn’t lose my focus, I did lose my balance, but luckily it was easy to retrieve. I just used my flight to start floating in the air even as I continued to change.

The next major change arrived a moment after the first and was heralded by a very loud ripping sound that resonated through the ice cream parlour. That sound was courtesy of my clothes which were not up to the task of covering a body that had suddenly gotten much bigger around. My shoes clattered on the ground as they split, but my sundress managed to stay on me after a fashion, just now incredibly short and completely split along one side.

The final change was in the details. I had to create things that I’d never had before, such as the bloating of my chest and hips that big girls had. Some things required other little tweaks to them as well, but it didn’t take long. From start to finish, the entire change into a grown up took only a handful of seconds.

When I opened my eyes, I saw James was gawking at me with his jaw hanging limply from shock. Vaguely, I could tell that the other people in the shop were also staring at me, but I didn’t care about that. I just smiled and asked, “Am I old enough to kiss now?”

“What … no … that … I …” James tried to formulate a coherent sentence, but ended up just gibbering unintelligibly.

Without a clear answer, I decided to just go for it. Floating forward, I leaned in to try to kiss James, but to my frustration, hands once again appeared to block my way. This time, they appeared between my face and James’s, preventing any contact.

“No! No, no, no, no,” James interjected, averting his eyes from me. “That’s not what I meant! Now, change back, right now!”

Annoyed, I pouted, folding my arms across my chest. Doing so felt rather strange as my chest bumped against me in ways that I wasn’t used to it doing. Strange or not, I stayed on topic and whined, “No! Not until you kiss me!”

James didn’t seem to be any happier with my response than I was with his, smacking himself in the face with his hands. “Ack … little girl, listen to me. You have to change back.”

“Why should I?” I demanded.

“Because you’re half naked!” James blurted.

A glance down confirmed that James was right, or maybe even being too generous with his assessment of the amount of me that was covered. My sundress now only barely made it to about mid hip, revealing some torn underwear that only sort of covered me down there. Up top wasn’t much better as my shredded dress currently left one of the squishy mounds on my chest uncovered. I wasn’t going to let any of that sway me, though.

“Don’t care,” I huffed. “Not changing back until you kiss me.”

“Argh! Fine! I’ll kiss you!” James exclaimed in exasperation. “Just change back already!”

“Kiss first!” I insisted.

Growling angrily, James thrust himself from his seat and lunged toward me. In spite of it being my demand, I was quite surprised when a moment later, I found his lips on mine. It felt weird, soft and warm with a taste that I’d never experienced before. I couldn’t say that it was a particularly good or bad taste, but when James pulled away again a second later, I was disappointed that it was over.

“There! Now change back!” James yelled.

Dazed, I just nodded and brought up the image of my child self. Immediately, I started to shrink back down. A few seconds later, I was back to my old self. It didn’t solve the half naked problem, though. My clothes were still ruined. At least they covered everything they needed to, though.

Seeing my state, James turned to the counter to yell, “Can we get a towel or something?!”

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

“I can’t believe you did that,” James grumbled angrily as he led me out of the ice cream parlor.

Beside the man, I pulled the tablecloth that was serving as my clothes a little tighter around me as if it could hide me from his wrath. “Sorry …”

“Sorry?! As if that made it better!” James scoffed.

Volume added to the harshness of James’s words, causing them to stab into me like verbal knives. “I just wanted to see what a boy tasted like.”

“And I just–!” James started to yell until he saw me wince. After that, he let out a weary sigh. “Sorry. I shouldn’t be yelling at you. I should have been clear about why us kissing would be a bad thing.”

“It was bad?” I questioned, quite confused by that. It certainly hadn’t seemed that way to me.

James nodded. “Yes. I’m not really sure how to explain to you why that is, but just trust me that it wasn’t something that we should be doing.”

“Oh …” I mumbled sadly. If it was bad, then I wouldn’t get to do it again. “I didn’t mean to be bad.”

James gave me a little smile. “I know. Really your daddy is the one to blame. He’s been doing a terrible job teaching you.”

“He has?” I asked, very confused by that claim.

“Yep,” James confirmed. “He’s got you all turned around about what’s right and what’s wrong. Plus, he hasn’t given you a bit of common sense.”

I furrowed my brow at the unfamiliar words. “What’s ‘common sense’?”

“It’s … well, it’s stuff that practically everyone knows,” James answered. “Things like how little girls shouldn’t kiss strange men that they don’t know.”

“But I do know you,” I protested.

James chuckled. “Alright, what do you know about me, besides my name.”

Resting my chin in my hand, I tried to think of what all I knew about James. “You catch bad people for a living.”

“Alright, what else,” James responded.

“You’re good at tag,” I tried.

That answer got a laugh from James. “Okay. What else.”

“Hmm … “ I hummed thoughtfully as I tried to come up with more.

“How about where I live, or how old I am, or what I do for fun, or if I have any family?” James prompted.

I shook my head. “I don’t know those things.”

“So you don’t really know very much about me at all,” James stated.

“I guess …” I admitted reluctantly, feeling kind of sad that I didn’t know more about James. He’d been really nice and fun.

While I considered my lack of knowledge, I heard the sound of music in the background followed by James saying, “Hello? He did? Alright, tell him I’ll be bringing her home in about …” he paused for a moment. “... an hour. Yeah. Thanks. Bye.”

I looked up just in time to see James hanging up his cell phone. “Who was that?”

“A friend of mine,” James answered. “She called to let me know that they found your daddy.”

“Really?!” I blurted excitedly.

James nodded. “Yep. You’ll be home soon enough, but first, we need to get you some new clothes. Can’t have you showing up in nothing but a tablecloth.”

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

Chapter 04

The sound of my home’s doorbell ringing set to me to fidgeting. Up until that point, I had been nothing but excited to get back home to my father. That sound, though, changed things. It made my father’s arrival imminent, and with it, I worried about how he would react. I had clearly done some things that I shouldn’t have, like getting lost, damaging my clothes, and forcing James to kiss me. He had every right to be angry with me. Still, I hoped that he wouldn’t be.

There was just enough time for my fear to get to the point of driving me to hide behind James before the door opened, revealing my father. At the sight of me, his face lit up with relief and happiness while he breathed, “Thank God you’re alright, angel.”

With no sign of anger from my father, I left my hiding place behind James to step forward, but I kept my gaze on the floor. “I’m sorry I got lost, Daddy.”

“It’s alright. We’ll talk about it later,” my father told me as he ushered me over to him. That was all the more prompting I need to dart forward and wrap my arms around him.

“Well, I guess that answers the question of whether or not you actually are her father,” James remarked.

While patting me on the back, my father looked up at James, adopting a strained smile. “Yes, and you are?”

“James Young,” James offered his name and hand at the same time. “And I must apologize, but I had some doubts as to your legitimacy at first.”

My father shook the offered hand with trepidation. “Oh, and why is that?”

“Just some little oddities like the girl not knowing her own name,” James answered.

“Ah, well she spends most of her time with me, and I use pet names for her. Plus, I’m sure it was very stressful for her being lost and alone like that, so it likely just slipped her mind,” my father rationalized.

Hearing that proved that I did have a name. It didn’t help me remember it, though, leaving me to wonder what my name might be, and for that matter, why I couldn’t remember it. I also found myself wondering what else I might not remember.

James nodded. “Of course. Speaking of stress, she had a little mishap with one of her … gifts which ruined her clothes. That’s why we were so late getting back.”

“A mishap?” my father questioned, turning to me. “What happened, angel?”

“I … uhm … “ I mumbled a little afraid of answering.

“She altered her form to appear grown up,” James answered for me. “She believed that doing so would let her do grown up things.”

A slight frown creased my father’s face. “She did this in front of you?”

“She did,” James confirmed.

“Well then I suppose you can understand why my daughter spends most of her time by my side,” my father responded. “And why I’d appreciate it if you kept her abilities to yourself.”

“Yes, I can,” James agreed. “I would like to know one thing, though.”

My father’s frown darkened into a full on scowl. “And what would that be, Mr. Young?”

“Oh, nothing too important. I was just wondering where such abilities come from,” James asked. “She’s awfully young to be a mutant, and she’s not in the MCO database.”

“That’s because she’s not a mutant, Mr. Young,” my father answered. “And I think that’s all you need to know about her.”

James nodded in concession. “I understand. I should probably get going anyway. Goodbye, little girl.”

I gave James a little wave. “Bye, James. Thanks for getting me home.”

“It was my pleasure,” James told me before turning and walking away.

My father waited until James got in his car and left before finally ushering me inside the house. A moment after I got inside, I winced as my father slammed the door closed behind us hard. The bang it created was followed by a loud and angry, “Damn it!”

Cringing back from the outburst, I looked at my father with worry and fear. His face was unlike I’d ever seen it, contorted in rage. Worse, he vented that fury, kicking the recently closed door as he cursed.

“Daddy, I’m sorr–” I began to apologize, assuming that it had to be my fault.

Spinning toward me, my father screamed, “Shut up!” as he glared at me with anger.

That outburst might as well have been a slap, it hit me so hard. I started with surprise before curling up demurely, trying not to look at the image of wrath that was my father. That wasn’t too hard, since tears were already filling my eyes.

As suddenly as my father’s anger had appeared, it vanished, replaced by him kneeling down next to me to hug me. “I’m sorry, angel. I’m not mad at you. It’s my fault. I never considered that you might end up on your own, so I didn’t tell you what to do.”

The attempt to console me didn’t help much. Whether my father was mad at me or because of me didn’t really change anything. I had made a mistake, a bad one. Worse, I didn’t even know what the mistake was.

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t mean to get lost,” I sobbed out an apology. “The bad person ran, so I chased him, and then I couldn’t find my way back, and …”

“Shh, it’s okay,” my father shushed me, rubbing the back of my head. “That was the right thing to do. You can’t let bad people get away. The problem is that James person.”

“James?” I questioned, truly confused. “But he was really nice.”

My father loosened his embrace so that he could pull back and look me in the eye while resting his hands on my shoulder. “Listen, angel. Not all bad people will seem bad. Many pretend to be nice, but it’s a trick. They do it to get close to good people, to get them to let their guard down, so that they can do bad things to them. James is one of those people.”

“What?!” I gasped, unable to believe what I was hearing. “He can’t be! He taught me a new game! He got me ice cream! He even brought me home!”

My father nodded. “Yes, but that was all to get something from you.”

“What could he get from me?” I asked.

“You are a very special girl, angel,” my father began. “You have power, your abilities, that no one else has, and you showed that to James. Now that he knows, he will want to take you from me, so that he can force you to use your power for his own twisted purposes.”

I shook my head in denial. “He wouldn’t! He’s a good person who captures bad people to stop them!”

“He might capture bad people, but not to stop them,” my father corrected. “He does it to use them for even worse things, just like he’ll want to use you.”

Again, I shook my head, but with much less conviction. My father had been so angry about James, and I could think of no other reason for him to be mad than if James was a bad person. In addition, my father was never wrong. It was far more likely that I was the one that was wrong. I’d been wrong before. I’d been wrong about using my abilities in front of James. I’d been wrong about attacking that woman. I could easily be wrong again now.

“Trust me. He will try to take you from me,” my father warned. “He might even try to kill me to do it. If that happens, you need to be ready to stop him. Can you do that for me?”

That time, I nodded despondently. “Yes, Daddy.”

My response had my father pulling me into another hug. “That’s my good little angel.”

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

The cereal in my mouth seemed oddly flavorless as I munched on it. I forced myself to eat it regardless. Good little girls eat their breakfast and don’t waste food. After all the mistakes that I’d made the day before, I was determined to be as good a little girl as I could be.

Flavorless cereal wasn’t the only thing bothering me that morning. The night before had been filled with dark thoughts and even darker dreams, keeping me from sleep. Because of that, I felt lethargic, actually reluctant to get out of bed with the sun like I usually did.

The one bright spot of the morning was my father would be up soon. I could hear the sounds of his shower shutting off, meaning that it wouldn’t be long before he came out of his room. When he did, I could see his smile, and we could do something to make me forget about my fears of being taken away from him.

Finishing up my cereal, I got up to clean the bowl. By the time I had it put away in the dishwasher, I could hear my father’s footsteps coming. Rather than wait for him, I hurried out of the kitchen to meet him.

“Good morning, Daddy!” I chirped happily as I spotted my father.

For his part, my father managed a faint smile at the sight of me. “Good morning, angel. How are you today?”

“Good,” I answered. “I’m looking forward to today’s game.”

“Today’s game?” my father repeated, furrowing his brow. “I’m sorry, but we’re not playing a game today.”

That answer left me blinking in surprise. Every day since I’d first woken, my father and I had played together. “We-We’re not?”

My father shook his head. “No, we’re not. Thanks to Mr. Young, I have some work to do, so you’ll have to play by yourself today.”

“Oh …” I mumbled despondently.

“Don’t be sad, angel,” my father chided gently. “The sooner I can finish my work, the sooner we’ll be able to stop worrying about Mr. Young trying to take you away. You can handle a few days on your own for that, can’t you?”

I nodded dutifully. “Yes, Daddy.”

Coming over, my father bent down to kiss the top of my head. “That’s, my little angel. I have only three rules for today: Don’t leave the house, don’t make a mess, and try to be quiet. As long as you follow those rules, you can do whatever you want to play, even flying and stuff.”

“Kay,” I agreed to the terms.

With my acceptance, my father released me and started toward the door to the basement. “I’ll see you in a little bit, angel.”

As I watched my father walk away, I waved glumly while adding a quiet, “Bye.”

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

All around me, little flecks of glowing white light danced and shimmered. They seemed almost like snowflakes, falling down upon me. They weren’t, though. I couldn’t even remember having ever seeing snow. I knew what it looked like, though, and the little constructs around me, made with the same ability as my sword, definitely matched that knowledge. It had taken days of practice, and that was exactly why, in spite of the beautiful flurry around me, I was slumped despondently on the couch, barely even noticing.

When my father had refused to play with me, I had hoped it was a one time thing, a single day lost to my mistakes. I could have accepted that. After all, I’d been bad and that necessitated punishment to set me back on the path of good. It hadn’t been a single day, nor even two. I was on my third day of being on my own, lonely and bored.

Letting out a little sigh, I waved a hand to drive away the artificial snow. It vanished back into thought as quickly and easily as it had materialized. That just got it out of the way, so that I could get up and walk over to the TV. That had been my other source of amusement in the days by myself. I’d re-watched many of the movies that my father and I had first watched together. It hadn’t been the same, though. There was no popcorn, no warm firm pillow of a father to lean on, no companion to laugh and cry with. All there had been was the empty ache of memories that were much better than reality.

While looking through the movies for one that might pass the time even just a little bit faster, I heard the doorbell ring out through the house. Pausing, I glanced that way curiously. The sound was very rare in my home, but I’d heard it a few times. Every time, my father had answered the door, while I’d snuck glances at the visitor from around the corner.

Leaving the movies behind, I wandered over toward the door to wait. Visitors had always been an interesting diversion in the past. In addition, my father would have to come answer the door, giving me a chance to interact with him a little.

Time drifted by as I waited, and the doorbell rang again. There was no accompanying sound of my father coming, though. I wondered if he couldn’t hear the sound from in the basement. If he couldn’t, did that mean I should go tell him? There were problems with that Idea, though. I wasn’t allowed in the basement. I wasn’t allowed to make too much noise, either, which I’d taken to mean no noise that might disturb him.

A third ring of the doorbell echoed through the home, pulling my attention back to the door. I knew that the door was supposed to be opened when the bell was rang. It always was whenever I’d heard it. Without my father coming, I wondered if that meant that I should open it. I could at least tell whoever it was that my father was busy, so that they’d stop ringing the bell and go away.

Resolved to that course of action, I left my hiding spot around the corner and padded cautiously over to the door. Grabbing the handle, I took a deep breath to steady my nerve. Finally, I turned the knob and pulled it open.

On the other side of the door, there was a familiar looking man. He wasn’t facing the door like I’d expected, but had turned and started walking away. The sound of the door opening, however, had stopped him in his tracks while he glanced over his shoulder at me, a smile spreading on his face.

“Hello, little girl,” James greeted.

At the sight of James, fear gripped me, clutching at my chest like fingers of ice. At the same time, I felt disbelief that he was actually here. It seemed impossible. He’d been so nice, so friendly.

“Is something wrong?” James asked, stepping toward me with a look of concern.

The man’s approach startled me from my fear and disbelief, reminding me that I had to do something. Immediately, I materialized my sword, while muttering. “I won’t let you take me away.”

“Wait? What?” James gasped in confusion, holding his hands up non-threateningly. There were no weapons in them, just one empty hand and another carrying a plastic bag with some writing on it. “I’m not here to take you away.”

I peered at James suspiciously. “You’re not?”

James shook his head emphatically. “Of course not! Why would I want to take a little girl from her father?”

“But Daddy said … “ I mumbled, trailing off. At the same time, my mind whirled, trying to figure out what to do. It could just be another trick. My father had warned me that he would be nice, that he would pretend to be my friend, and that I shouldn’t fall for it.

“Seriously, I’m not here for you. I came to talk to your father, actually,” James asserted.

“Just to talk to him?” I asked, still suspicious.

James nodded. “Yep.”

“Oh …” I replied, relaxing enough to let my sword fade away.

“Could you go get him for me?” James asked, lowering his hands.

I shook my head. “No. He’s busy. I’m not supposed to bother him.”

“Oh, I see. Well then, I’ll just have to try him some other time then,” James announced, starting to turn from me. Almost immediately, he stopped, extending the hand with the bag. “Oh, I almost forgot. I got this for you.”

Tilting my head to the side, I peered at the bag curiously. “For me?”

“Yes, it’s a new dress, well two actually,” James explained. “One to replace the one that got ruined, and one big enough to wear if you ever try being a grown up again. At least, I hope it is. I had to guess at the size, but I’m pretty good at that sort of thing.”

Reaching out, I took the bag and peeked inside. “Why would I want to be big again? Wasn’t that a bad thing to do?”

James tilted his head from side to side uncertainly. “Well yes, in that situation, but if you aren’t going to ruin your clothes and try to kiss grown ups, it wouldn’t have been.”

“But why would I want to be grown up if not to kiss someone?” I inquired.

“Good question, kid,” James remarked, chuckling to himself. His mirth just earned a confused look from me. After the chuckle, he paused to rub at his chin thoughtfully for a moment before continuing. “Do you remember me mentioning a game called house?”

I nodded. “Yeah, but we never got to play it.”

“True, but you could play it by yourself,” James replied. “It’s really simple.”

The prospect of a new game was very exciting. Even better, I could play it by myself, meaning that it would be just perfect for while I waited for my father to finish his work. “Really?”

“Yep,” James confirmed.

“How do I play?” I asked.

“Well, like I said, it’s very easy,” James began. “At it’s heart, house is a game about pretending to be a grown up. You imagine that you’re an adult, married, have a house, maybe a baby, and you do all the things that come with that.”

Confused by the premise, I furrowed my brow. “Like what?”

“Like maybe you and your husband go dancing, or maybe you have to take care of the baby, or you have to make dinner, or throw a party. Y’know, grown up stuff,” James explained.

Considering those scenarios sounded pretty fun to me. My father had certainly never taken me dancing or let me throw a party. I’d seen both in movies, though, so I had a pretty good idea how they were done.

“Who would be my husband?” I asked.

“Whoever you want to spend the rest of your life with.” James answered.

“Oh … that’s easy. Daddy,” I stated.

James raised his hands in a halting gesture. “Whoa, whoa, anyone except your daddy.”

“Why not Daddy?” I questioned. “He’s the one I want to be with.”

“That’s just the rules. You can’t marry your father,” James explained. “Though, a lot of girls do try to get as close as they can.”

The denial of my father as potential husband material brought a frown to my face. “That’s a dumb rule.”

“Maybe, but you won’t know if you don’t try it,” James pointed out. “You thought it was dumb that you couldn’t fly in tag, too.”

James had a point there. I had been disappointed that I couldn’t fly in tag, but I’d accepted it as part of the rules. In the end, I’d had a lot of fun anyway. It seemed reasonable that I could have fun playing house too, even if my father couldn’t be my husband.

“Kay. I’ll give it a try,” I conceded.

“Well have fun then,” James told me, offering a quick wave before he turned to walk back to his car.

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

“Was I really this big?” I asked as I clutched my new grown up dress to myself to keep it from falling off my little girl body.

In the mirror, I could see just how ridiculously James’s gift, a white sundress that looked very similar to one I owned, fit me. Through the torso, there was so much extra fabric that I had had to bunch it up to even get it close to my frame. The straps were a complete lost cause, requiring me to use a hand to hold them on my shoulders. Even the skirt was silly looking , long enough to pool on the floor.

Thinking about it, though, I had been pretty big as a grown up, enough so to tear apart my clothes. I’d just been too focused on getting my kiss with James to really notice how much of a giant I was. That realization was both daunting and exciting. I wouldn’t just be getting to pretend to be older, but bigger. I probably wouldn’t even need a chair to get things in the kitchen.

“Alright, here it goes,” I told the mirror before closing my eyes on the image of me as a child. In my mind, I brought up the image that I’d used to turn into an adult. Briefly, I considered tweaking it, but I decided it was best not to tamper with it lest my dress not fit.

A moment later, my body started to shift and stretch. The dress that had been so baggy that it could barely even hang on me as a child quickly filled in. Within just a few moments, it was done, and I opened my eyes.

Reflected in the mirror was someone I had never seen before. The woman was tall, slim, and very pretty, much like the mother that I had based her on. While she was clearly fully grown, there was a slight childishness to her face that distinguished her from that same mother, making her seem much younger, barely old enough to be called an adult. That same trait was what made it clear that she was me, a grown up me but still me.

“Wow …” I breathed, looking down at myself and the dress that now fit quite well. I ran my hands along my adult body, feeling its size and curves and just enjoying how mature I felt while I was in it. It was too bad that it was only a look, though. I would’ve liked to be able to try kissing again.

Before that desire to do something I wasn’t supposed to got far, I tapped myself on the forehead to clear it away. Instead, I drove my thoughts towards things that I was supposed to do while playing house. James had given me a list of things to attempt during the game, and I wanted to try them all.

“Let’s try cooking first,” I decided before skipping off eager to do exactly that.

My feet barely managed a single skip before I ground to a halt and looked down. At the same time, I clutched my hands to the squishy mounds on my chest. They’d bounced when I’d tried to skip, and even as my hands touched them, they’d wiggled a little.

“Hmm …” I hummed as I released them, watching them jiggle slightly as they settled back into place. I repeated this a few times, hefting them and dropping them. I even added a couple hops to watch them bob around. In the end, I just shrugged at them, which also caused a little bobble. “Weird.”

Without giving my chest further thought, I started off again, this time using a normal walk to avoid the bouncing of a skip. Besides, I’d never seen a grown up skip. My father certainly didn’t, and they never did in movies. Only little kids did that, and I was supposed to be a grown up right now.

Moving through the house further emphasized how big I’d become. Everything seemed so short compared to me. Even the distance to the kitchen seemed shorter than it used be, taking far fewer steps than I remembered. The kitchen itself, normally so large and unwieldy, looked just about the right size for once, everything situated at a height that made sense for use.

“Let’s do eggs!” I declared to no one but myself as I walked over to the refrigerator. The carton of eggs was soon out and seated on the counter. After that, I just had to get a skillet, which created the first downside of being tall that I’d encountered.

All the pots and pans were kept in a cabinet under the stove. Normally, this was at the perfect height for me. I knew, because, in spite of my never having cooked before, my father often asked me to get things out for him when he cooked. Now though, it was far too low, forcing me to bend down awkwardly to get access. Bending down wasn’t as easy as I remembered it being either. My chest seemed to want to topple out of my dress, and there was much greater strain on my knees and back than I was used to. I couldn’t just pop up and down like I had as a kid.

“Still better to be tall,” I told myself as I got down into a squat that seemed to be good enough to get into the cabinet.

Tugging out the skillet immediately proved my claim to be true. The big pan was usually heavy, awkward, and hard to get out from under the other items. None of those things were true now as my grown up body moved the normally heavy objects with ease.

Once I had the pan, I popped back upright and set it on the stove. After that, I grabbed a spatula from the drawer, completing the gathering portion of cooking. That left me staring at the eggs in their carton as I readied myself for the next part.

My father made eggs with some regularity, so I was not entirely unfamiliar with their preparation. It was one of the reasons why I’d picked them. Breaking them open, however, had seemed to be a tricky task. Even my father sometimes had difficulty doing it properly. I had faith that I could manage, but I was still a little nervous as I scooped up the first egg.

Egg in hand, I carefully brought it over to the skillet and tried to tap it against the edge of the skillet. There was a clink sounded, but no sign of any crack. Another attempt didn’t succeed either.

“A little harder maybe,” I suggested to myself.

Putting some more force into it, I whacked the egg on the edge again. This time, it not only cracked, the whole thing crumbled. Goop flew out from around my fingers, luckily mostly spattering into the skillet. It still left my hand covered with goo while it held the shattered eggshell.

“Eww! Gross!” I whined, shuddering at the icky feeling of the cold ooze on my hand. Hurrying over to the trashcan, I dropped the shell into it before rushing back to the sink to start washing my hand off.

Once I no longer felt gross, I returned to the eggs, eyeing the little troublemakers with a look of anxious suspicion. I did not want to cover my hand in that stuff again, but I needed more than one egg. As a little girl, I ate two, so I was sure as a big adult I would need at least four. It ended up taking me until that fourth one to get one to crack right, but luckily, I never splattered my hand like the first time again. Still, I did make a bit of a mess that I had to clean up before I could start to cook.

With the eggs deshelled and cleaned up, it was time to start up the stove. We had a gas stove which created these really pretty blue flames while my father cooked. I knew that in order to get those flames, I had to turn the knob on the side, so I did exactly that. The problem was, the flames didn’t appear like I’d thought.

“Is it broken?” I mumbled, looking under the skillet at the lack of fire. While I did, I kept twisting the knob around.

Suddenly, a series of clicking sounds filled the air followed by a sudden fwoosh. The latter came right alongside a burst of flame that had me letting out a startled yelp as I stumbled back. The stumble turned into a fall, leaving me to plop painfully on my butt when my feet got tangled up underneath me.

“Ow …” I groaned, rubbing my butt as I got up. While I did, I noticed it was a lot squishier than it usually was too. Kinda like my chest actually. I wondered if it was normal for all grown women to be so squishy. Clearly, all guys weren’t like that, because my father wasn’t. James didn’t seem squishy either.

Distracted by my butt, it took the smell of cooking egg to get me back on task. Snatching up the spatula, I worked the eggs like I’d seen my father do in the past. Before, they had always seemed to cook rather slowly, but now that I was the one doing the cooking, they seemed to go quite quickly. I would’ve sworn I’d only just started when I began to see a few bits turning brown from getting burned.

“No, no, no,” I begged the eggs as I pulled the skillet from the stove. Leaving the flame burning, I quickly rushed over to a cabinet, fiddling with it one handed to get out a plate. Once I did, I dumped the eggs onto it, relieved to see that they didn’t look too different from my father’s.

With the eggs finished, I set the skillet back on the stove and turned it off. Only then did I get the last few things that I needed for a meal, such as a fork, a glass, and some milk to fill it. Once I had it all together, I sat down to enjoy my eggs. They were a little overdone in parts, a little runny in others, and altogether rather poorly mixed with lots of yellow in some spots and white in others. Still, to me they were absolutely delicious, because I’d made them myself.

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

Around me, the world bobbed and spun. The movement matched my own as I twirled along with the music, mimicking the dance that I’d seen the characters in the movie do with the music. It was a simple routine, just a few repetitive foot movements and lots of swirling about, but that was fine. I was still having a lot of fun.

Part of the fun came from the pretend of it. I wasn’t in my living room by myself, listening to the background music of the movie. Instead, I was in a grand hall, wearing an elegant gown, while an orchestra played for just my partner and me. Since my father was not allowed, I’d chosen to dance with James, letting him guide me through the steps and twirls. He was as well dressed as I was and far more skilled at dancing. With him in the lead, it felt like I could never stumble or miss a step. It was perfect, right up until the spin where I saw my father enter the room.

“Daddy!” I exclaimed, throwing me off my rhythm. I stumbled through the final twirl, just barely keeping my balance as I did. When I finally caught myself, I was facing my father. Like everything else, he seemed so much smaller, barely even taller than me rather than towering over me like a giant. That didn’t keep his rage-filled glare from being just as intimidating as always, though, causing me to slouch down a little.

“What’s going on here?” my father questioned coldly.

While fidgeting with my dress, I quietly mumbled, “I was playing house, Daddy.”

“House?” my father used the word as a question. “Who told you about such a game?”

James’s name leapt to my tongue, but I hesitated to actually vocalize it. I knew that, if I did, it would just make my father even more angry than he already was. I didn’t want that, but a good girl doesn’t lie either. I didn’t know what to do.

My father’s eyes narrowed, deepening his glare, “It was that man, wasn’t it? Did he give you that dress too?”

“Yes, Daddy,” I confirmed in a defeated tone.

“Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?” my father asked.

“I couldn’t,” I answered. “You said not to make noise or go in the basement.”

My father’s face shifted to confusion. “In the basement? I wasn’t in the basement when he dropped you … he was here today, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, Daddy,” I told him.

Once again, my father’s face shifted, this time to a neutral hardness that was if anything worse than the anger. “Tell me everything about his visit.”

I nodded in acquiescence. “I was looking at movies when I heard the doorbell ring, but you didn’t answer the door like you usually do. It kept ringing, and still you didn’t come, and I didn’t know how to tell you about it, because you were in the basement and I wasn’t allowed to make noise.”

“Yes, so you said,” my father remarked evenly. “Go on.”

“Well, since I couldn’t get you, I thought that I should get the door, so I did,” I explained, preparing for an outburst of anger. None came from my father, though. “James was there. I thought he was there to take me away, so I got ready to fight, but he said that wasn’t what he was here for. He just wanted to talk to you. I told him you were busy, and he was just about to leave when he said he had something for me. This dress and one to replace the one I tore. I couldn’t figure out what this dress was for, so he explained how to play house to me. After that, he left.”

When I finished talking, my father didn’t say a word. He just peered at me while nodding thoughtfully to himself. All the while, I grew more and more nervous, worrying that I had done something wrong.

“Was I bad?” I asked after a few agonizing moments of silence.

My father gave me a very slight shake of the head. “No. In the future, if I’m in the basement and the doorbell rings, come and knock on the door to get my attention.”

“Yes, Daddy,” I agreed immediately.

“Also, change back to yourself, remove the dress, and throw it and the other one in the trash,” my father instructed.

That command elicited a pained wince from me. “But, Daddy, I like being big. It’s fun, and stuff’s a lot easier to use, and I –”

“Enough!” my father growled, cutting me off. “Change back, get rid of the dress, and never return to this form again! Understood?!”

Wincing again at the outburst, I capitulated, mumbling softly, “Yes, Daddy,”

With my concession, my father spun and stormed off, clearly furious. That left me alone in the living room, looking down at myself sadly. The day of house had been a lot of fun, and it had been really nice being big for once. Like when I wore wings to feel like an angel, being grown up had made me feel so much more capable and mature. It was all just a facade, though. To my father, I’d still just been a little girl to chastise and command.

Despondently, I started moving, walking slowly back toward my room. Once I was there, I let my ability take away the false form, returning me to my real self. As it did, the dress fell off me to pool on the floor at my feet. I just left it there while I went to the closet to find clothes that would fit.

Once I was dressed, I checked my reflection, seeing a sad little girl in the mirror. I tried to make her smile, but that just made her look sadder. I tried to tell her that it was for the best. She was just following her father’s wishes like a good little girl should. That didn’t work either.

Sighing, my gaze drifted from the mirror to the crumpled up dress on the floor. Walking over, I scooped it up, holding it in front of me. Once again, I was struck by how big it was compared to me, making it hard to believe that it had fit quite well just a few minutes ago. I’d liked the feeling, though, even if my father had apparently been angry with it. He hadn’t been happy with me wearing wings either.

“Would it really hurt to keep this?” I mused, clutching the dress to my chest.

Obviously, such an idea was bad. A good girl does what her father tells her and mine had told me to throw the dress in the trash. It was a gift from James too, a bad person. I probably shouldn’t have even accepted it to begin with. Still …

“It wouldn’t hurt to keep it in my closet just in case …” I rationalized poorly. It was still enough to sway me, getting me to take the dress over to my closet where I hid it in a back corner in the hopes that someday I’d get to play house again.

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

A deep, profound sigh was the only noise that could be heard in the living room. I was its source, laying there curled up on the couch. No games were being played. No movies were flickering by on the TV. There was nothing to pass the time as another day was wasted on whatever work my father had in the basement.

After the disaster that was my father catching me playing house, I began to wonder if this was just how it would be from now on. My father could just be punishing me for all my mistakes. There had been so many. One of them, the grown up dress, was still nestled in my closet, a testament to my guilt. It was in the midst of those depressing thoughts that I heard the doorbell ring.

Instantly, I perked up, rising to a sitting position to look toward the door. In spite of that prompt response, I listened intently for the bell to ring again, to prove that it wasn’t some trick of the mind. For some reason, I hoped that it would ring again.

Sure enough, the bell rang a second time. The moment I heard that, I got moving, hopping off the couch to hurry over to the basement door. There, I knocked loudly, while calling out, “Daddy, the door!”

“Coming!” I heard my father’s muted voice reply.

Having done as asked, I just stood there at the basement door, waiting for my father to come up. It wasn’t an easy wait, especially when I heard the doorbell ring again. I wanted to just rush over and see who it was. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to wait long.

A moment after the bell rang the third time, my father opened the door from the basement, stepping up onto the first floor. There was a worried look on his face until he saw me waiting there, then it turned to a frown. “Go wait in your room, angel.”

“B–” I started to protest, barely getting the first bit of a syllable out before I caught myself. “Yes, Daddy.”

After giving my answer, I started off again, this time hurrying to my room. Inside, I waited, listening to the sound of my father moving through the house. Finally, I heard the sound of the front door opening then men speaking.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Jenkins,” James’s voice greeted cheerily. “How are you today?”

“Fine, Mr. Young,” my father’s voice answered, far icier than the other man’s.

“Excellent!” James replied. “I hope I’m not … I was just … talk … your daughter …”

Unable to hear all the words clearly, I craned my head a little, leaning forward to the point where I nearly crossed the threshold of my room. It wasn’t enough, though. The two were just not quite loud enough to be heard properly. If I wanted to know what they were talking about, I was going to have to get closer, but my father had said to wait in my room.

“Mmm … ahh … I should … no … “ I angsted for a moment, before curiosity finally won out, and I took that first forbidden step out of my room. From there, I crept down the hall to the corner to peek around at the front door. There, my father and James stood facing each other.

“I do not appreciate you coming here to tell me how to raise my own daughter,” my father responded to whatever I had missed.

“I realize it’s a bit presumptuous of me – “ James began.

My father let out a derisive snort. “A bit presumptuous? Try outright offensive, Mr. Young. Do you even have any experience raising normal children, much gifted ones?”

“Well, no …” James admitted.

“And yet you expect me to put my daughter at risk on your word?” my father criticized.

James tilted his head from side to side uncertainly. “Well, I guess technically there’s some risk to it, but there’s risk to you just tucking her away at home where she never interacts with anyone but you. How’s she supposed to develop social skills and independence like that.”

The word independence caught in my thoughts. I knew what it meant, to be on one’s own, but the way James used it seemed to imply that it was a good thing. Why would anyone want to be on their own?

“And how’s she supposed to develop those things when everyone will shun her as some kind of dangerous monster?” my father demanded. “Other parents will do whatever it takes to keep their children away from her. They might even try to outright harm her, if they think she’s enough of a threat, and they probably will.”

My father’s words left me in stunned disbelief. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could mistake me for a monster. I was an angel. I could even wear wings to prove it. Besides, I protected good little boys and girls. There was no reason to keep them away from me. Yet, my father seemed certain that they would act that way. James had seemed worried about that on the day that I got lost as well. Did that mean that I was a dangerous monster, after all?

“They’d probably be right to too, given the warped way of thinking she’s gotten from you keeping her locked up here,” James countered. “Not everyone would, though. There are people out there that can help her.”

My disbelief only deepened with James’s response. Not only was I some sort of monster that people would be afraid of, but my mind was warped as well, and somehow it was my father’s fault. That just couldn’t be. My father would never do something bad to me.

“Her way of thinking is not warped,” my father denied, expressing the very thoughts I was having.

“The other day, I had to stop her from attempting to attack, probably even kill, a woman with a force blade. She was convinced that the woman was bad, because her child was throwing a tantrum,” James argued. “That is not normal behavior for a seven year old.”

“No, but normal seven year olds don’t have the power to do anything about an adult,” my father retorted. “They have to just watch helplessly, even if they think something should be done. My daughter does have that power.”

James rolled his eyes. “That’s all the more reason why she needs to be out dealing with people, so that can learn not to act like that while she’s still young. If not, she’ll end up as some crazed super villain, slaughtering whoever she feels like.”

Even though I couldn’t see my father’s face, I could tell he was glaring at James. His whole body was tense with anger. “My daughter does not slaughter indiscriminately, Mr. Young.”

“Yes, because discretion while slaughtering makes it so much better,” James shot back.

“That’s enough, Mr. Young!” my father hissed. “If I ever see you around this house or my daughter again, I will call the police. Now, get off my property, this instant.”

The fight seemed to just leak out of James. Letting out a defeated sigh, his gaze shifted away from my father. For a moment, he was looking right at me, with an expression on his face that I had seen from him once before. It was the same distraught look that he’d given me when I’d tried to attack the woman in the park. I didn’t like it any more this time than I had that time.

A moment later, James’s expression hardened and he turned back to my father. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Mr. Jenkins. Goodbye.”

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

Chapter 05

The crack of the door slamming shut on James caused me to start with surprise. I’d been so focused on what had been said, on the truths of the world that had been revealed, that I hadn’t even realized that the conversation had ended and James had left. Because of that, I also hadn’t realized that it was time for me to leave.

Even as the sound shocked me, my father turned, seeming ready to stomp off angrily. He didn’t, though, not once he saw me peeking from the top of the stairs. When he did, all that anger he’d had from James’s visit focused directly on me, making it seem like his eyes would literally bore through me.

“Why aren’t you in your room?” my father questioned, his voice masked in a veil of calm and control under which rage blazed.

“I … I just wanted to hear what you two were talking about,” I admitted, not wanting to compound my mistake by lying.

“And I told you to wait in your room,” my father retorted.

Ashamed of my actions, I let my gaze fall to the floor. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

For several moments, my father didn’t answer. He just looked at me with those rage-filled eyes, seeming to grow only angrier with every moment. Standing there, I felt like I might actually melt in that look. Part of me even wished that I would.

“This is his fault,” my father hissed. “No … it’s both of yours. He’s trying to influence you, to turn you rotten, and you’re letting him.”

“No, I’m –” I started to assure him.

“Silence!” my father yelled cutting me off. “I don’t want to hear anything from rotten little girls that don’t do what their fathers tell them!”

The blaring accusation cut through me like a knife, causing my eyes to blur with tears. I wanted to speak out, to defend my actions, to convince my father that I was a good girl, but I couldn’t do that. He’d ordered me to be silent, and as he’d pointed out only bad girls didn’t do what they were told.

Seeing me cowed, my father let out a weary sigh. “While I am not pleased by your disobedience, at least one good thing came from it today. You heard it for yourself, from James’s own mouth, how he wants to take you away from me and force you into a place where people will belittle and despise you even as you try to help them. Now, you understand why he is a bad person and a threat to us.”

While it was true that James had seemed to be suggesting I be apart from my father, I didn’t really understand how that led to him being a bad person or a threat. He had seemed genuine in his concern for my well-being, not seeking to manipulate me and use me like my father claimed. I had missed some of the conversation, though, so maybe he’d confessed his evil before I’d gotten closer. It could also just be part of his trickery. My father was undoubtedly right about him, so I nodded in agreement with his claims.

“Good, because the next time he tries something like this, and trust me he will try again, we won’t be talking with him, but fighting,” my father informed me. “Do you think you’ll be able to do that, angel?”

“I … yes,” I assured my father, steeling myself for the possibility of fighting James. If he was a bad person, there was no other choice.

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

The street around me was dark, dimly lit by streetlamps that flickered and popped. The dismal light did nothing to ease the crowds. The people were packed in tightly, suffocatingly close. There was no space between them to move through, just an endless mass of bodies squashed all together.

No, there was space, just only in one spot, the area around me. All of the people gave me a wide berth, parting as I moved through them as if I carried some terrible disease. They did this even with the lack of space, scrunching against each other in ways that had to be painful and disgusting just to avoid me.

The people around me did more than just part at my presence, though. They stared as well, watching my every movement with eyes peeled. The looks were all different, some filled with fear, some with hatred, some with both. Never was there a smile, though, nor any hint of compassion or warmth.

“Monster … warped … criminal … villain … bad girl … “ voices whispered as I walked, hushed insults hissed out behind my back by people too afraid of me to let me know who said what. I knew that it didn’t matter, though. After all, they all said something.

“I’m not!” I pleaded with the crowd, but my words just drove them further away, scrambling over each other to escape from me. If I tried to approach, they’d flee. If I tried to use my powers, they’d cower. If I tried to help, they would curse my wickedness. There was nothing I could do, but stand in the center of their abuse and accept it.

When I slumped there in defeat, the crowd turned. No longer were they afraid, no longer did they cower and flee. Instead, they attacked, throwing rocks with their harsh words to try to hurt me. After only a couple of stinging hits, my shield went up, protecting me from the barrage, but that just made the crowd try harder. New weapons arrived, knives and guns. People even threw themselves at the barrier, clawing at it as if to tear it apart and me with it. I was trapped, alone, helpless, calling out for my father with desperate cries, but no one came to help.

With a shriek, I woke, lurching upright in my bed as I gasped for breath. Around me, the nightmare faded away, leaving my empty room, gray and bland in predawn light, in its wake. It did not fade from my mind, though. There, the images of those bloodthirsty faces scrabbling at me like deranged monsters haunted me.

Slowly, the panic within me started to reside, and my breathing eased into a more normal rhythm. It was just a dream, an awful one, but a dream. There was nothing to fear. It wasn’t dangerous. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t real.

Icy fingers of fear gripped my chest, replacing the panic with a deep-seated dread. What if it was real? What if that was what waited for me out in the world? Both my father and James had seemed to think that was so, that the world would despise me. James had even said that they might be right to.

“Am I a bad girl?” I questioned, looking down at myself. I’d disobeyed my father. I’d done things that James had been furious about. I’d been been called a monster and told that I was letting myself become rotten. It all seemed bad, but how could I know for sure. I couldn’t ask my father. He would just say that it was James’s fault. He had basically done that earlier. I couldn’t trust James either. My father said that he was bad, and bad people lie. I needed someone else, maybe lots of them, enough so that I would know for sure that I had the right answer.

Resolved to find the answer, I flipped on the light and hopped out of bed. Immediately, I started over to the closet to get dressed. If I wanted to find other people, I would have to go out into the world. It was scary, and I would have to disobey my father again, but there was no other way.

As I started to reach for a dress, I stopped, pausing to look in the mirror. When I was going around with James, I hadn’t seen any children alone. Adults hadn’t seemed to interact much with the children I did see, either, other than their parents anyway. Would I be able to get the answers I needed as a child?

After I left, I wouldn’t be able to come back until I had answers. If I did, my father wouldn’t let me leave again. I couldn’t risk my being a child getting in the way. Ignoring my previous selection, I dug into the back of the closet for my adult dress.

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

Walking down the street was much different than it had been in my nightmare. The main reason for this was that there were no people. I supposed that I should have expected this possibility. It wasn’t even dawn yet, earlier than even I usually rose. My father woke up even later, and he only did so, because I was up so early. It made sense that people would still be asleep.

The lack of people gave me plenty of time to focus on other things. All around me were the neat little houses of the subdivision where my father and I lived with their neat little yards. It was much different than the city where I’d been walking before, lacking the big, marvelous buildings, bright lights, and heavy traffic. It was quiet and peaceful here, so much so that the only sounds I heard were the occasional chirp of birds and the flopping sound of the oversized boots on my feet. Those boots were an unexpected problem with my decision to transform into a grown up to go out. I had a dress that fit, but not shoes, which had required me to sneak into my father’s closet to take some boots that didn’t really fit either. I’d managed to tie the laces tightly enough that they didn’t fall off, but they did wobble around annoyingly.

Outside of the boots, I was very much enjoying getting to be big again. The height and maturity increased my confidence in my ability to see my mission through and get the answers that I needed. There was also the side benefit of just being much faster. To avoid alerting people to my abnormal nature, I had to walk, not fly, and grown up legs were a lot better for that.

The value of speed was not something I had considered before leaving home. I had assumed, quite wrongly, that there would be all sorts of people just waiting outside for me to talk to. Thinking about it as I walked, though, I realized how silly that assumption had been. I’d never walked around the subdivision, but I’d seen it from the car window every day when my father and I drove off to play. There were rarely people out and about, and that was during the day. This early in the morning, there would obviously be even fewer people. That low density of people meant that I would need to cover a lot of ground to find enough people to talk to.

The gray was just about to give way to dawn when I saw movement from down the street, pulling my wayward attention back into focus. The source of the movement was a woman who was jogging along the sidewalk toward me. As she drew closer, I could see she was close to my father’s age, which I took to be a good sign. She would probably know the answers to my question.

“Uhm … hey, excuse me,” I called out to the woman, once she was near.

Giving me a confused look, the woman trotted to a stop. “Can I help you with something?”

I smiled at the woman’s offer of help. That would make this much easier. “Yes, thank you. I have some questions that I was hoping to ask you.”

“Oh … “ the woman mumbled. “You’re not like a sales rep or something are you?”

That question confused me a little, leaving me wondering why she’d think that. It wasn’t important enough to worry about, though. I just needed to get her to answer some questions for me, and since she seemed to not like sales reps I answered with, “Nope.”

My answer seemed to be the correct one as the woman just shrugged. “Alright, I can spare a few minutes then I guess. What are the questions?”

“If someone had special powers that normal people don’t, would you hate them?” I asked.

“Like a mutant?” the woman questioned.

My father had said that I wasn’t a mutant, so I shook my head. “No. Not a mutant.”

The woman shrugged. “I guess it would depend on what they did with their powers then.”

That answer brought a smile to my face. It meant that not everyone would hate me just for who I was. “What if they used their powers to get rid of bad people?”

“What do you mean by ‘get rid of’?” the woman inquired.

“Like cut them in half with a sword,” I clarified, using one of my own acts as an example.

For a moment, the woman’s eyes widened in surprise at my example, but it quickly turned to a look of recognition. “Oh, you’re talking about that story on the news the other day about that drug dealer that cut got in half.”

“Uhm … yeah …” I answered uncertainly. I didn’t know what a drug dealer was, but I assumed that it must be someone bad if the woman had brought it up. “Do you think the person who did that was good or bad?”

“I think they’re crazy,” the woman answered. “We can’t have people going around cutting other people in half, even if they are doing it to criminals. I mean, what if this guy had gotten it wrong and ended up killing an innocent person?”

The woman’s answer elicited a slight wince from me. Crazy meant bad. Crazy meant that my father was wrong. Crazy meant that I was a monster. It was definitely not the answer that I’d been hoping for. It was just one answer, though. I needed more than that to be sure.

“Okay, thanks,” I told the woman.

“Oh, was that all the questions?” the woman asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, that was all of them.”

“Well, goodbye then,” the woman told me, offering a quick wave before she started jogging again.

As she passed me, I returned the wave. “Bye.”

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

“I don’t know. Who cares if someone offs a few bad guys?” the man in front of me, the most recent of many question answerers, responded.

“What if sh-err-he was wrong and accidently killed someone that wasn’t bad?” I asked, having learned throughout the day that this question was important to ask.

The man shrugged. “Then I guess he should get offed too.”

The answer earned a simple nod from me and a courteous. “Thanks for your help.”

“No problem, cutie,” the man replied. “You sure you don’t want to get that cup of coffee now, though?”

“I’m sure,” I answered, wondering why so many people had asked me that question, or something similar to it. What was so great about coffee? I’d had a sip of my father’s once and it had tasted awful. “Bye.”

“See ya,” the man responded, offering a pleasant wave.

After returning the wave, I started off again, walking down the street. I didn’t seek out another person to question, though. I had talked to so many already that their answers ran together in my head. Strangely, even with all those answers, they didn’t actually answer anything for me. There had been a sort of divide in the responses. Many had felt that what I had done was bad or crazy. Many others had seemed to agree with my father, desiring the swift and immediate removal of the wicked from the world. Strangely, some people hadn’t cared at all, completely unconcerned with anything that didn’t affect them. The last type of answer was hardest for me to understand, but the collection of them all as a whole wasn’t easy to wrap my head around either.

Amongst the contradictory answers, I had found one point of consensus to cling to, at least. While no one could agree if it was good or bad to get rid of bad people, everyone I’d asked had agreed that it was against the rules to do so. I knew that breaking the rules was definitely a bad thing. Of course, that just made things even more confusing. If it was bad to break the rules, why did so many people think it was okay to do so to get rid of bad people? It was very perplexing.

As I tried to make sense of everything that I’d been told that day, I walked back toward my home. There was definite trepidation in my weary steps. My father would undoubtedly be furious with me for leaving. I’d been prepared to accept that when I’d left, but back then it had seemed so distant. Now, it was terrifyingly near.

With my focus directed so inwardly, I didn’t notice the car pull up beside the sidewalk, rolling slowly along with me. I didn’t hear the window roll down either. The voice that spoke, though, did manage to penetrate my thoughts.

“Hey there, not-so-little girl,” James greeted. “What has you wandering about on your own?”

Surprised by the words, I came to a stop and jerked my gaze up. That gave me an excellent view of James lurching to a stop in his car. He had an easy smile on his face that made me smile right back. before I remembered my last conversation with my father. The idea of fighting with James stole that smile immediately.

“Hi,” I greeted wanly.

Tilting his head, James peered at me in concern. “You okay?”

I nodded. “Yep, just … tired.”

“Well then why don’t you hop in,” James suggested. “I’ll give you a ride home.”

The idea of getting off my feet was nice, and I was actually pretty tired from all the walking, but my father wouldn’t approve. If I resisted any attempts by James to influence me it would be fine, though. Right?

“Uhm … okay,” I agreed before getting into the car.

As soon as I was in the vehicle, I buckled my seatbelt just like I was taught, only to frown down at my chest. Currently, the strap was dug in between the mounds on my chest in a manner that felt quite weird to me. It wasn’t exactly bothersome, but it was always those things that were weird. They must take a lot of getting used to.

“So, you never did say what has you wandering about on your own,” James remarked as the car took off. “Looking like an adult no less.”

“Huh?” I mumbled as I jerked my gaze up. “Oh … I’m out looking for answers. I thought it would be easier to get them as a grown up.”

James raised an eyebrow at that. “Answers to what?”

“Lots of stuff. Is it okay to get rid of bad people? Is it bad that I have abilities that other people don’t? Am I a bad girl?” I responded. “I really want to know the answer to the last one.”

James chuckled. “You wanted to find out if you were a bad girl, so you just started wandering around asking people on the street?”

“Yeah. Why? Was that wrong?” I asked.

“Well … no, not exactly. It’s just … unusual,” James replied. “People don’t typically ask random people on the street deep questions of morality. For that matter, little girls don’t usually ask those questions either. What made you decide to?”

Frowning, I looked down thoughtfully. “I had a bad dream. In it, people hated me, feared me, attacked me. They said I was bad. I wanted to know if they were right.”

“Why didn’t you ask your father?” James inquired.

“Because Daddy would just say it was your fault,” I answered.

“My fault?” James questioned. “How would that be my fault?”

I shrugged. “I don’t really know. He keeps talking about how you’re trying to turn me bad and use me for bad things.”

“He’s one to talk,” James scoffed.

The odd reply had me furrowing my brow in confusion. “Huh?”

“Nevermind,” James said dismissively. “Anyway, I’m not trying to turn you bad or anything like that.”

“You’re not?” I mumbled in surprise.

James shook his head. “Nope.”

“But then why are you trying to take me away from Daddy?” I inquired.

“I said why yesterday when you were eavesdropping from around the corner,” James told me. “You need to get out into the world to learn before you hurt someone.”

I wasn’t sure what to do with James’s explanation. It certainly made a lot of sense to me that he was just trying to help. He seemed like a good guy. That wasn’t what my father had told me, though.

“What if I already hurt someone?” I asked.

“Have you?” James questioned.

Once again, I had no idea what to do. Should I tell him about the bad people that I’d gotten rid of? He might get angry with me, but maybe he could help me figure out if it was good or bad.

“Yes,” I admitted.

The admission caused James’s jaw to tighten and his eyes to harden. “Who did you hurt?”

Realizing that I’d made a mistake, I tried to figure out what I should say. “I … uhm …”

“Just tell me the truth,” James instructed. “I won’t get angry.”

“Promise?” I asked uncertainly.

James nodded. “I promise.”

In spite of that promise, James’s features remained strained and hard. It was too scary for me to look at, forcing my gaze to my lap. “They were bad people.”

“How do you know that?” James interrogated.

“My father said so,” I answered.

James’s eyes narrowed. “Was he the one that told you to hurt them?”

Briefly, I peeked up to see those narrowed, angry eyes and immediately jerked my gaze back down, nodding shyly. “Yes.”

“Do you know their names?” James questioned.

“Casey Albin, Scarlet Whip, and Darren Glover,” I rattled off the names.

No response came from James as the list of names ended. There was just a painfully tense silence in the car, broken only by the gentle hum of the engine and the occasional noise from outside. At the same time, that silence felt every bit as deafening as if James had been screaming at me. I could feel his anger permeating the entire interior of the car, enveloping me oppressively.

After a few moments, I couldn’t take the silence anymore, speaking up, even though, I dreaded the answer. “Does that mean I’m a bad girl, James?”

“It means your father is a bad man,” James answered coldly.

That answer hit me like gunshot, leaving me shocked. My father was a bad man? That just wasn’t possible. He was always teaching me, playing with me, watching over me. He couldn’t be bad. Could he?

In my state of shock, I only vaguely noticed the shift in my balance that came from the car turning. That was enough to get me to look up absently to see what had caused it. Even then, I almost failed to recognize the intersection and the fact that James was not going the way that he should be. The car was already through the turn and a dozen feet down the new road before it finally clicked in my mind and I turned in my seat to look out the back at the intersection.

“James, you made the wrong turn!” I exclaimed in worry.

“No, I didn’t,” James retorted.

“What are you talking about? My home’s that way,” I countered, turning back around in my chair to point out the direction to James. “I made sure to keep track this time so I wouldn’t get lost.”

James nodded. “Your home is that way, but it’s not where we’re going.”

“What?!” I gasped. “You said you’d take me home!”

“That was before you told me that your father ordered you to murder three people,” James stated. “I can’t take you back to him now. It wouldn't be safe. I’m taking you somewhere that will be.”

Stunned, my jaw just dropped. It was actually happening, just like my father said it would. James was trying to take me away from him. I couldn’t let that happen. I just couldn’t. I had to get away.

The click of my seat belt coming undone got James’s attention. “What are you–Don’t!”

Ignoring that order, I worked the door handle. Fortunately, we weren’t going that fast, so I could open the door in spite of the wind. The moment I had, I hopped out, letting my flight power take control before I could hit the pavement.

Going from natural momentum to powered flight caused me to lurch in the air before drifting quickly to a stop. That served my purposes just fine as it let me easily spin around and take off back the way that I’d come. Behind me, I could hear the sound of screeching tires, but I ignored it, zipping along as fast as I could.

At the intersection, I made the correct turn and then just kept on going. I didn’t bother to set back down or even slow. It didn’t matter how much I was straining in an effort to fly as fast as I possibly could. It didn’t matter that people gawked at me in surprise and terror. I just couldn’t let James catch me.

Between my terror and my breakneck speed, I actually missed my house, zipping right past it before I spotted it. Yanking myself around, I darted back toward the right building. Flying up to the door, I set myself down on the ground and tugged the portal open.

“Daddy!” I called out as I stepped into the house, but there was no reply.

Growing only more frantic at the lack of response, I darted to the garage, dreading the possibility that my father wasn’t home. The car was right there where it usually was, though, which meant that he was still home. There was only one place in the house where he could be that he couldn’t hear well – the basement.

Rushing back into the house, I dashed to the basement door. Not even bothering to knock, I yanked it open and darted through. Beyond was a staircase that I quickly scurried down only to come to an abrupt halt at the bottom.

All around me was a room that I had never been in, but still seemed strangely familiar to me. The place was very sterile looking with harsh white tile covering not just the floor but also the walls. Along one wall near the staircase were five large glass tubes. The space in front of them was mostly empty except for a single clean table. Past that there was much more clutter, including several workbenches strewn with computers, papers, and other equipment. It was at one of those desks that my father stood, looking at me.

“Daddy!” I exclaimed in delight, starting to rush forward to embrace the man.

“What are you doing down here, and why do you look like that, wearing the dress that I explicitly told you to dispose of, no less?” my father questioned, his eyes gazing at me with a look that I had never seen from him, or anyone, before. The look was so cold that I could almost feel icy fingers gripping my heart, forcing me to a shuddering halt.

“I … uhm … I mean …” I stammered, unable to organize thoughts with that terrible gaze upon me.

My father’s look only worsened at my stuttering, adding a sharpness to its icy bite. “Answer me, angel.”

“I … uhm … there … James,” I tried to get the story out. Only the name of my pursuer finally got my thoughts in focus. “He tried to take me away, but I got away from him. I tried to call for you, but you couldn’t hear me so I …”

“You got away from him?” my father questioned, getting a nod from me. “Why didn’t you kill him?”

The question hit me by surprise, leaving me in stunned silence. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of killing James. When I’d realized that he was trying to take me, all I’d thought to do was run away from him.

“He’s a bad person, after all,” my father pointed out. “You do remember how to deal with bad people still, don’t you, angel?”

I did remember how to deal with bad people, or at least how my father would want me to deal with them. I didn’t know if that was the right way to deal with them, though. That was exactly what I’d been trying to learn by going out that day, but I hadn’t figured it out. Was that why I hadn’t considered killing James? Was it something else?

While I thought, my father just looked at me for a couple of moments before he finally asking another question. “Why are you in your adult form, angel?”

“I … to go outside …” I admitted.

“And why would you do that?” my father inquired.

“I wanted to find out if I was a bad girl or not,” I answered.

My father sighed. “Well, I can answer that for you, angel. You are a bad girl, a very bad girl.”

My heart seemed to leap up into my throat as my father said those words. If my father thought I was bad, then I definitely was. There was no longer any doubt in my mind. How could I have let this happen?

“But don’t worry, you’re not completely rotten yet. I can still fix you. I just need you to sit on that stool there and face the stairs,” my father instructed, pointing at a stool near him.

Wanting nothing more than to be fixed, I rushed forward, doing exactly as I was told. Once I had, I sat there on the stool, wringing my hands anxiously. I couldn’t screw up again. This time, I would do exactly what I was told. I wouldn’t question. I wouldn’t get lost. I wouldn’t let anyone trick me. I would be good.

As I sat there, I felt my father tilt my head forward, they slide my hair over my shoulder so that it hung down beside my face. As I told myself all the things that I would do differently, I could feel fingers tickling my neck. As I promised myself that I would be good, I heard a click.

The moment after the click, a burning agony lanced into my neck, gagging me as I clutched my hands to my throat. From there, it shot out, searing through my entire body like I was being cooked from the inside out. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t even tell when I lost my balance and fell from the stool; couldn’t even feel the impact of the floor. All I could do was writhe on the ground.

After a seeming interminable amount of time, the torment finally ended, and I managed to draw in desperate gasps of breath. As the air filled my lungs, sense started to return to me. I could feel and see again, although, all I felt was weak and tired, and all I saw was white. That was when I discovered that I had fallen and was now lying on the cold, hard, tile floor.

“I’m quite impressed that you’re still alive,” I heard my father remark from above me. “I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised, though. You are the first subject to survive having the inhibitor removed. Still, the strain of having it put back on is much worse, and it happened while you were in a shifted state no less. It didn’t even revert you to your normal form, which seems to indicate that your shifts are completely stable. Amazing for an ability I didn’t even intend to give you. It’s truly a shame that you were such a failure in other respects. With better programming, you could’ve have been the perfect daughter. Instead, I’ll just have to scrap you and start over with a new batch.”

Even if I’d had air to spare on making words, I couldn’t have responded to what my father was saying. I couldn’t even really understand what he was talking about. All I could grasp was that I wasn’t fixed. Instead, I was getting thrown away.

“Daddy ... “ I managed to wheeze, while trying to sit up. It took so much effort just to get my hands underneath me. My arms actually shook from the strain as they propped me up at an incline, but that was as far as I could get with my arms. I tried to resort to using my flight, but it wouldn’t work. I just stayed where I was, half laying and half sitting, and straining to even maintain that.

“Please don’t start talking again. The last thing I need is to have to listen to more obnoxious drivel from a defective doll,” my father complained. “Just lay there quietly while I get something to put you out of your misery.”

The dismissive, uncaring tone hurt every bit as much as the searing pain from before. It caused my heart to ache inside my chest while tears blurred my vision. As those tears started to fall, I just did as I was told, waiting there quietly for something to end my pain.

As I waited, I heard a sound like a refrigerator opening, followed by my father mumbling under his breath, “Where is it?” A moment later, there was the clink of glass followed by the refrigerator closing. Then, I heard the sound of my father’s footsteps closing in on me. At the same time, I seemed to hear other footsteps as well, faster ones. It didn’t matter, though. My father’s approach was all that mattered. Once he got to me, at least I wouldn’t be a bad girl anymore.

“Well, at least, you managed to do what you were told at the end,” my father remarked as he bent down beside me with a needle in his hand. “Farewell, angel.” With that, he brought the needle closer to my neck, bringing with it the promised end to my misery.

“Stop right there!” James’s voice cut through the air.

My father’s hand halted as he lifted his gaze to the voice. I looked up as well, seeing James standing at the base of the stairs. He had some kind of gun in his hands that he had pointed at my father threateningly.

Seeing the threat to my father, I tried again to push myself up. My father was in danger. I had to protect him. I couldn’t get up, though. I couldn’t summon a shield. I couldn’t do anything at all but lie there and watch helplessly.

For his part, my father didn’t seem to be afraid. Instead, he seemed annoyed, even sighing in exasperation as he straightened up. “Great, the obnoxious hero is here to be a nuisance once again. You do know that you’re trespassing?”

“What did you do to the girl?” James questioned, ignoring my father’s joke.

My father glanced at me for a moment. “She’s been acting erratically recently, so I put her power inhibitor back on. It is … strenuous for her.”

“Is that true, little girl?” James asked me.

Reaching up to rub at the metal plated collar on my neck, I nodded. I had been erratic, a bad girl doing bad things. Of course my father would want to take my abilities away and get rid of me.

“What’s in the syringe then?” James questioned, returning his focus to my father.

“Supplements to help with her condition,” my father answered.

James snorted dismissively. “For some reason I doubt that.”

“I don’t really care if you doubt it, Mr. Young,” my father replied. “What I do care about is why you are in my home, because as I said you are trespassing. You’re also holding me at gunpoint. Neither of which is legal.”

James’s eyes narrowed angrily. “I’m pursuing a murder suspect.”

“And who is this murder suspect?” my father inquired.

James tilted his head down at me. “Your daughter.”

“Then you should be glad that she is currently in no condition to resist arrest,” my father remarked. “Take her and go.”

With a suspicious look on his face, James lowered his weapon. “Will she be alright?”

“Of course. She’ll recover from the system shock in a few hours,” my father informed James. “The inhibitor is suppressing her powers, though, so she might be a little weak until it’s removed.”

Tucking his weapon into his belt, James slowly approached me, eyeing my father warily as he did. For his part, my father backed away, hands raised to appear as non-threatening as possible. To me, though, he wasn’t the one that was threatening, James was. I didn’t care if it meant I was going to die. I didn’t want to leave my father.

“No …” I groaned as James drew close, trying to scoot away from him. It was futile, though. I was too weak to get more than a couple of inches.

“Shh, it’s alright,” James tried to soothe me as he reached out.

Shaking my head as fiercely as I could, I tried to use one hand to fend James off. “Don’t take me away …”

“I’m sorry, little girl, but I have to,” James apologized before scooping me up in his arms. Once he had me, he turned and started toward the stairs, leaving me to look back at my father as I was carried away. While it made my chest ache, there was no sign of the slightest bit of sadness on my father’s face. If anything, he seemed relieved.

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Chapter 06

All around me was a narrow beam of light, just bright enough to illuminate myself and a small circle at my feet. Everywhere else, there was nothing but darkness, cold, dark, and impenetrable. I couldn’t see even an inch into that icy black, but I still tried to, spinning around to look in all directions. I tried stepping into the darkness, but the light moved with me, keeping me in its blinding beam while showing me nothing of the world around me.

Suddenly, in the dark, another column of light appeared. Within it stood my father, his back to me. I tried to call out for him, but no sound would appear in that stark world of black and white. Unable to speak, I started running.

Much to my relief, my feet did work. The gap between my father and I started to fade away. Soon, I was only a few feet away and I stretched out a hand desperate to get the man’s attention. Just before my finger would’ve touched his back, though, it fell away.

Confused, I looked down, watching as my arm fell right off of me. When it crashed into the ground, it burst apart, becoming nothing more than empty cans, discarded bags, and a half-eaten burrito. A moment later, the other arm followed after, then my legs buckled beneath me, and finally my torso. All of them ended up as nothing but a pile of useless refuse. With only a head remaining, I looked up at my father to see him glaring down at me with a horribly cold look on his face. It wasn’t a look I was used to seeing, but it certainly fit. It was the look of a man that saw nothing but trash and wanted it to get away from him.

A shake of my shoulder yanked from the nightmare. Waking with a start, I gasped for breath as the shadows of the terrible dream faded away to leave behind the interior of a car around me. That brought some relief to my terror, but my heart still thumped loudly within my chest.

“Hey, sorry, but we’re here,” James apologized from beside me.

Hearing that, I lifted my head to look at him. It wasn’t an easy task. My head felt like a lead weight and my neck was stiff and weak. Still, I managed to hold it up, gazing up at the man who had taken me away.

“Where?” I questioned weakly, unable to come up with a location that I was supposed to be going to. All I knew was that I wasn’t back home. Trash wasn’t that lucky.

A look of worry flickered across James’s face. “The doctor’s office, little girl.”

“Oh …” I mumbled disinterestedly, letting my head fall again. Who cared about a doctor?

“Are you feeling up to walking?” James asked, ignoring my obvious despondence.

Unsure how to answer the question, I tried to lift a hand and flex the fingers. The movement was difficult and very slow, like my fingers were far away and numb. They still worked, though.

“I can try,” I offered uncertainly.

“Alright. Let me help you out,” James replied.

A moment later, strong hands helped pull me from the car seat and up to my feet. There, I wobbled unsteadily for a moment, leaning on James for support. My legs managed to hold, but when I tried to push away from James to take a step, I felt myself start to fall.

Before I got far, James’s hands caught me, arresting my fall. “Alright, no walking for you yet,” James remarked before I felt him scoop me off the ground, grunting a bit as he did. “Oof … wish you were in your little girl form.”

“Sorry,” I apologized glumly. How pathetic could I be? I was even a failure at getting carried.

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A weary groan escaped my lips as my eyes drifted open. For a moment, I couldn’t remember where I was or what had been happening. Luckily, the disorientation faded quickly as I looked around.

Surrounding me was the small examination room in which I’d met the doctor that James had brought me to see. That doctor had done all sorts of poking and prodding before excusing himself. James had gone with him to discuss something, leaving me to get some rest. I barely remembered the door closing behind them before I was asleep.

Once I had my bearings, I sat up, groaning softly from the effort. At least, I managed that simple task on my own, though, my body still felt heavy, stiff, and weak in spite of all the rest that I’d had. I wondered if that was just how it would be for as long as I wore the inhibitor.

Absently, I reached up to touch the collar on my neck, as memories of my father casting me aside ran through my thoughts. It was hard to believe that it had even happened, but the collar was the proof. It was the mark of my absolute failure as a daughter.

“What am I supposed to do now?” I asked the empty room. Who would want a useless, rotten girl like me? Certainly, my father didn’t. He’d even let James just take me away.

That name, James, caught in my thoughts. He seemed to want me. He’d even chased after me and threatened my father to get me. Would he still want me? I couldn’t do anything now. Maybe he could get the collar off me, though. If he could, I’d be useful again. I wouldn’t disappoint him like I had my father. I just needed to find him

Suddenly in a hurry, I tried to hop off the examination table that I’d slept on. That proved to be a little too much for me as my legs nearly crumpled the moment my weight landed on them. I stumbled forward a step, luckily catching myself on the wall before I could fall. There, I had to wait a couple of moments to gather myself, panting for breath the entire time, before I could finally get moving again.

Using the wall for balance, I started toward the door. While they were supporting me, my legs moved sluggishly, forcing me to go slowly in spite of my need for haste. Eventually, I did get to the door, tugging it open immediately.

Outside the examination room was a small hub area with desks in the center for nurses to work at. Currently, there were no nurses there. Instead, James and the doctor had borrowed the chairs there to sit while they talked. Whatever their conversation had been, however, it ended the moment the door opened, both turning to look at me.

When James saw me, he smiled kindly. “Hi. How was the nap?”

I returned the smile with a faint one of my own. “Uhm … good.”

Even as I responded, the doctor rose from his seat. “I’ll leave you two to talk,” he said before walking off to one of the other doors and going inside.

Confused by the doctor’s actions, I just watched him leave before turning back to James for answers. The smile was gone from his face, replaced with a serious, unhappy expression. Seeing that filled me with worry.

“Is … is something wrong?” I asked, hoping that the answer would be no.

James tilted his head toward the chair that the doctor had vacated. “Why don’t you come have a seat?”

With trepidation, I did as asked, walking over toward the chair to sit down. With every step, my anxiety grew, until I was actually nervous enough to fidget in spite of how lifeless I’d felt since having the collar put on. That fact wasn’t helped by James watching me the entire time, all the while adopting that sad look in his eyes that I hated seeing directed at me.

“How are you feeling?” James asked once I was seated.

“Fine …” I answered uncertainly.

James nodded absently as if he hadn’t even heard what I said. “Has your father ever told you anything about yourself?”

I furrowed my brow in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Like about where you come from, how you have your powers, or even what your name is,” James offered as examples.

Considering that, I had to shake my head slightly. “Daddy doesn’t really talk about the past much. I did see a picture of my mother once.”

“Really?” James asked, seeming truly surprised by that.

“Yeah, “ I confirmed. “She was very pretty. I used her as a model for what I’d look like all grown up, so I sort of look like her right now.”

While nodding again, James looked me over carefully from head to toe. “I see.”

After those worlds, James and I drifted into silence. He seemed to be lost in thought, and I was sad that I couldn’t tell him more about myself. Stupidly, I hadn’t even thought to ask my father my name after James had taken me back home.

“Your name’s Oria,” James informed me. “In case he never told you.”

Unlike when my father had told me his name, this name did not click in my thoughts. It didn’t feel like it was mine. It didn’t feel like I’d ever even heard it before, either.

“Are you sure?” I questioned.

James nodded. “Yes. At least, that’s the name your father gave when he reported you missing.”

“Kay,” I conceded, committing the name to memory. I wouldn’t forget it again.

“It’s not familiar to you, is it?” James asked.

I shook my head. “No, but if Daddy said that’s my name, then it must be.”

“You really have absolute faith in him, don’t you?” James remarked.

“Mmhmm!” I hummed confidently. “He’s my daddy.”

Once again, James got that sad look in his eyes that I hated so. For a few moments, he held that look, seeming to want to say something. In the end, though, he just sighed and shook his head.

Seeing that returned all my previous anxiety. “Did I do something wrong? If I did, I’ll fix it. I promise. Just don’t throw me away.”

“Throw you away?!” James gasped. “Why would I do that?!”

“Because that’s what happens to bad girls,” I explained.

“You’re not a bad girl,” James told me.

“Yes, I am!” I retorted, tears dampening my eyes. “That’s why Daddy was going to throw me away! I’m disobedient! I’m stupid! I’m rotten!”

Reeling back slightly from the outburst, James just kept looking at me with that sad expression that I hated on his face. That look just made it hurt all the more as I held his gaze. I was certain that he was going to throw me away just like my father had.

“You’re not bad, and even if you were, I still wouldn’t throw you away,” James finally said.

“You mean it?” I asked, daring to hope.

James nodded. “I mean it.”

Something inside me cracked at those words, and the tears started to flow. It was so weird. I wasn’t sad. I was happy. I was even smiling. However, no matter how I wiped at them, the tears just wouldn’t stop. When James embraced me a moment later, it just made it worse.

Several minutes later, I finally had control of myself again. The tears were dry, and my thoughts were drifting while James continued to hold me. His strength and warmth felt so comforting.

“Feeling better?” James finally asked, breaking the long silence.

From within the hug, I nodded reluctantly, knowing that by doing so I was going to bring the embrace to an end. “Yeah.”

Sure enough, James immediately pulled back, smiling down at me. “Good. We should probably get going then. I can’t keep monopolizing my friend’s office.”

Again, I nodded, not bothering to say anything, even though, I really wanted to just stay where I was. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. It didn’t matter what I wanted. Whatever James wanted would be fine by me.

Seeing my acceptance, James straightened up, stretching out his back. “Let me just go say goodbye real quick.”

As James started toward the door, I started to rise from my seat. That action reminded me of the deplorable shape I was currently in. My whole body complained about having to move again. I was useless like this.

“James?” I spoke up softly, not wanting to upset him.

Stopping, James glanced back my way. “Yeah?”

Shyly, I raised a hand to rub it along the collar on my neck. “Can we … remove this?”

“Sorry,” James apologized. “I know it must feel terrible, but after seeing what it can do to you, I don’t want to remove it until I know more about it.”

“Oh … okay …” I mumbled glumly. “I understand.”

A flicker of pain shot across James’s face. “I’m sorry. I promise to remove it as soon as I can be sure it’s safe.”

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

“And you can stay in here,” James declared as he led me into the guest room, the last stop on the tour of his townhouse. “I know it’s not much, but hopefully it’s not too unbearable.”

From the way James spoke, it made me think that there was something wrong with the room, but it looked nice enough to me. It was basically just like my room back home, the same sparse furnishings and neutral color palette. Certainly, it was more than I deserved.

“It’s nice,” I replied politely.

“Really? Well, glad you like it then,” James remarked, rubbing at the back of his head. “Anyway, I need to make a few phone calls, so why don’t you make yourself at home and watch some TV or something. I’ll be upstairs in my office if you need anything.”

There was a tightness in my chest as James announced his plans. He was going off on his own to work, just like my father had been doing day in and day out, right up until he’d thrown me away. Before that, we’d played every day, but I’d been a good girl then. No wonder James was leaving me alone.

“What’s wrong?” James asked in concern.

“Huh?” I mumbled as I snapped out of my thoughts to look up at the man.

“You looked upset, so I thought maybe something was wrong,” James reiterated. “It’s the room isn’t? I’m sorry, but I don’t entertain a lot of little girls as guests.”

I shook my head. “No. I like the room.”

“Then what is it?” James inquired.

That question had me stuck. Good girls told the truth, but could I really ask for him to stay with me, to play with me? I didn’t deserve that. I might even annoy him with such a selfish desire.

“It’s nothing,” I whispered, figuring that I was already a bad girl. What was one little lie now?

My answer earned a skeptical look from James, but he didn’t pressure me for any more than that. “Okay … anyway, I shouldn’t take too long, so we can do something together after I finish.”

I smiled at that news. “Looking forward to it.”

“Yeah … me too,” James replied before turning to go.

Left alone, I looked around my new room while trying not to let my fears fill me with anxiety. James seemed to care about me, at least enough to give me a place to sleep. Things would be okay, even if I was bad, even if I’d been thrown away, even if ...

Sniffling, I shook my head to clear the tears that were threatening to build in my eyes. I wasn’t going to cry again. That would upset James, and I didn’t want that. I wanted him to be happy, just like my father had been before I’d ruined things. I could do that.

Composing myself, I turned to step out of the room, bringing me out to the living room. There, I walked over and sat on the couch before grabbing the TV remote. James had suggested that I watch some TV while I waited, so that was what I was going to do.

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

Somewhere during some boring drama show that I had no interest in I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew, I was waking up to the feel of something touching my shoulder. Jerking with surprise, I pulled away from the touch while trying to blink the blur of sleep from my eyes. When it cleared a moment later, I saw James standing above me while putting a blanket over me.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you,” James apologized. “I was just going to cover you up.”

“Uhn … no, I’m sorry,” I mumbled sleepily as I rubbed at my eyes. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep while I was waiting for you.”

James smirked. “Are you really that excited to spend time with me?”

Pushing myself upright, I nodded enthusiastically. “Uh huh!”

James’s smirk was joined by an amused chuckle. “Alright. What did you want to do then?”

I was just about to blurt out my desire to play a game when I caught myself. It was what I wanted, but what mattered more was that James was happy. To that end, I shrugged, and asked. “What do you like to do?”

“You don’t need to worry about what I like. I’m fine with whatever,” James replied.

Hearing that caused me to frown while I tried to think of a response. How was I supposed to figure out what he liked to do if he didn’t tell me? Maybe I could guess? I had no idea what kind of things grown ups liked to do, though.

While I thought, James spent a couple of moments looking at me in confusion before finally saying more. “Hey, you like games right?”

Looking up from my thoughts, I nodded. “Yeah.”

“Great, because there’s a game I really like that I bet you’ve never played before,” James announced. “Would you like to play it?”

Another nod from me, this time far more eager. “Yeah!”

“Great, just sit there for a sec,” James directed before getting up.

As James walked over to the TV, I did as instructed, sitting there patiently. At the same time, I watched James as he fiddled with something under his TV that looked similar to a DVD player. After he was done with that, he grabbed two small plastic handles and brought them back to the couch with them.

“Here,” James said, handing me one of the handles. “Have you ever played a video game before?”

Looking down at the unfamiliar device in my hand, I shook my head. “Uh uh.”

“Alright, then this’ll be really fun,” James told me, sitting down next to me, so he could point down at the handle in my hand. “A video game is sort of like a movie, but you get to control the characters in it, and you do that with this, the controller. The little stick on the left moves your character around and the buttons tell it to do stuff like punch and kick. Understand?”

“Uhm … I think so,” I mumbled uncertainly as I tried to situate the controller in my hand.

James grinned at my awkward movements. “Don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it. To start off, you need to pick a character, so look at the screen, and use the stick to move to different characters.”

Lifting my gaze, I looked toward the TV which now had a screen like a DVD menu with two selection cursors and a bunch of little character portraits along with two big portraits. When I moved the stick, one of the cursor’s moved, a new portrait replaced one of the big ones with a name written under them. It seemed simple enough, so I started moving on, looking for a character that looked good.

“Ew!” I gasped as particularly ugly portrait appeared on the screen. “Why’s he all green?”

James snickered at my reaction. “That’s just what the creators wanted him to look like. In spite of how he looks, he’s actually pretty fun. You should try him.”

The very idea of trying the ugly green monster had me scrunching up my face and shuddering in disgust. “No way!” I declared as I moved the cursor on, finally finding a pretty blonde girl. “Ooo, I wanna play her!”

“Well fine then I’ll play the green guy,” James decided, moving his own cursor to bring back up the green guy.

“No! Don’t!” I exclaimed, not wanting to have to look at that creature.

Still snickering, James nodded in acquiescence. “Fine, how about this guy. Is he fine with you?”

The new portrait was of a brown haired guy that looked far more ordinary, and as such was much more tolerable to me. “He’s fine.”

“Okay then, just press this button here and we can start,” James instructed, pointing out the button to press.

The moment I pressed the indicated button, the screen flashed and an announcer started talking. After that, there were a couple of short movies followed by a new screen of the two characters that James and I had picked standing there facing each other. They weren’t doing anything, though.

“What happens now?” I asked after it was clear the characters weren’t going to move.

“Now, we have the two characters fight each other,” James told me.

“Why?” I asked.

James shrugged. “That’s just what the game is about. The first person to run out of that bar at the top loses.”

Never one to shy from a game, I shrugged and started toying with the controller. My girl started doing all sorts of flips and attacks in time with my movements. Meanwhile, James’s guy stayed on the ground, while he waited for me to get acquainted with the game. That all changed when I made my girl jumped toward his character and kick. Just before my kick could hit, James’ guy hopped back, leaving my character to land right in front of him, then he threw what looked like a ball of fire right into my girl’s face.

“Hey!” I blurted in surprise and indignation. “What was that?!”

“A fireball,” James stated matter-of-factly.

“How come I can’t throw a fireball?” I whined as I tried all the buttons without getting anything fireball-like.

James smirked. “Well, that character doesn’t have a fireball.”

“What?!” I gasped, feeling cheated.

“She has other cool moves,” James replied. “Getting them to come out is kinda tricky, though. You have to move your stick in a specific pattern then press a specific button.”

Frustrated, I frowned down at the controller for a moment before thrusting it toward James. “Show me.”

James chuckled. “Alright. Here you just do this motion, then you press …”

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

The sounds of muffled voices brought me hazily back to consciousness. Groaning wearily, I rubbed at my eyes to clear the blur of sleep from them, revealing my new bedroom all around me. At the same time, I sat up, groaning again from the effort that it took to move my still weak, tired, and stiff body.

“What … when … “ I mumbled, trying to get my thoughts in order. I could remember playing that game with James, and losing at it a lot, but after that was just haze. There were no memories of me coming back to my room, though. Had he carried me here after I fell asleep? I hoped not. I didn’t want to be causing him trouble like that.

Shaking my head, I cleared out the worries about last night and replaced them with concerns about the coming morning. My normal routine was to wake up at dawn, bathe, change, and then get breakfast. I didn’t have a change of clothes with me, though, which threw the whole thing off.

“Should I take a bath anyway?” I questioned, rubbing at hair that was a little greasy and matted. That would be another problem. I didn’t have a brush for my hair or my teeth or anything else like that. All I had left was the dress that James had given me and a pair of boots that I’d stolen from my father, like the bad girl that I was.

Blinking quickly to keep myself from crying, I decided to skip straight to breakfast for now. I could ask James what he wanted me to do about the other things after that. If he was like my father he’d probably be up …

My eyes widened in surprise as they drifted to the clock by my bed. I was used to times between five and seven being on the clock when I woke up. That morning, the clock said eleven twenty-three. It was so shocking that I checked twice to make sure it said AM next to it, even though, I could clearly see sunlight coming through my window.

“Oh no! I’m late!” I gasped, fighting my way out of bed. My body didn’t like the speed that I was making it move at, but I ignored it, rushing across the room to yank the door open and dart outside. A few more steps and I turned the corner to the kitchen before freezing in my tracks.

“Good morning, little girl,” James greeted brightly from the kitchen table where he and an attractive, brunette woman sat.

Looking down shyly, I mumbled, “G-Good morning …”

“What would you like for breakfast?” James asked. “I’m not much of a cook, but I’ll do my best to make whatever you want.”

“That’s okay. I can manage,” I assured him.

“Nonsense,” James scoffed as he rose from his chair. “What kind of grown up would I be if I made a little kid do the cooking.”

“But I–” I started to protest before realizing that I shouldn’t be arguing. Once I did, I clamped my mouth shut.

James rested a hand on my shoulder. “It’s alright. Really. Just tell me what you want.”

“Eggs … I guess …” I muttered.

“Eggs it is,” James declared. “Why don’t you have a seat while I get those together.”

Nodding, I did as directed, walking over to sit at the small kitchen table. There were only three places, one of which was currently occupied by the woman. I took the one that James hadn’t just vacated which was on the far side, sitting there quietly.

“Hi there,” the woman greeted pleasantly when I sat down.

“Uhm … hi,” I returned softly, not bothering to look up at her.

“I’m Julia,” the woman introduced herself. “I’m a friend of that idiot over there.”

“We’re friends now?!” James exclaimed excitedly from the kitchen. “Hurray!”

Julia shot a glare at the man. “Shut up, James.”

“Sorry,” James apologized, holding his hands up in surrender.

Rolling her eyes, Julia turned back to me. “Anyway, James tells me your name is Oria.”

I nodded. “He tells me that too.”

“You didn’t know before he told you that?” Julia asked.

This time, I shook my head. “No.”

“See? I told you,” James spoke up from the kitchen, ignoring Julia’s order to shut up.

“Well, it’s a very pretty name, so I’m sure he isn’t making it up,” Julia remarked. “He’s not smart enough for that.”

Hearing that I had a pretty name elicited a slight smile from me. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Julia replied, peering at me intensely. “James also tells me that you had a hand in hurting a few bad people, because your father told you to. Is that also true?”

That question got me to lift my gaze, looking over at James uncertainly. I didn’t really want to talk about what I’d done, because I was pretty sure that it was a bad thing. Unfortunately, James gave me a slight nod, indicating that he wanted me to talk about it.

“Yes,” I whispered, letting my gaze fall back to my lap.

My response earned me a sad look from Julia that was a mirror of the one that James had given me a few times. I didn’t hate it any less now. I wondered why people kept looking at me like that, all while wishing that I could get them to stop.

Julia let out a weary sigh. “Alright James. I’ll help, but she can’t stay here.”

“What?!” I gasped, terrified that I was about to be thrown away again.

“Jules!” James joined me in my exclamation.

Julia rolled her eyes. “Look at her, James! She’s a child in the body of an adult with no concept of the situation that she’s in. Plus, she’s following your orders like a slave afraid of the whip.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you didn’t trust me,” James commented sarcastically.

“Look at her!” Julia repeated. “Of course, I don’t trust you! She can’t stay here!”

That damning reiteration proved too much for me. Tears started to stream down my cheeks as I sobbed, “I’m sorry. I know I woke up late. I won’t let it happen again. Please, don’t throw me away. Please … please … please ...”

Instantly, the two adults fell silent. Julia turned to look at me with eyes wide with surprise and confusion. James, however, abandoned his eggs to rush over to me and wrap his arms around me.

“Sh, it’s okay, no one’s throwing you away,” James reassured me while rubbing my back.

“But … but … she said …” I sniffled through the tears. As I spoke, I felt James’s embrace shift to allow him to look over at Julia.

From across the table, Julia sighed. “Fine, she can stay here.”

“You hear that. No leaving,” James told me.

Starting to get my sobbing under control, I looked up hopefully. “Really?”

James nodded. “Really.”

Shaking her head, Julia sighed again. “You’d better be careful, though, James. You don’t wanna end up in the special hell.”

“I’m not gonna do anything!” James insisted forcefully.

Julia shrugged nonchalantly. “Alright, as long as you know that.”

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

A despondent little sigh escaped my lips as lay there curled on my bed. I’d been there ever since I’d finished my eggs, leaving James and Julia to continue their conversation without me. I’d just been in the way, after all.

While lying in my room, I’d heard muffled voices through the walls that I tried very hard to not overhear. Those had eventually faded when Julia left. After that, James had gone upstairs, presumably to work. I’d just stayed in my room by myself, simultaneously both wanting and not wanting to cry.

A soft knock echoed through the room, penetrating into my gloom. I didn’t bother answering it, simultaneously hoping that James would come in and go away. The former seemed to be my fate as I could hear the door opening, filling me with dread and anxiety.

“Trying to sleep, little girl?” James asked quietly.

“No,” I murmured without looking up.

Before responding, James walked over to sit on the edge of the bed near me. “Then why are you lying on your bed doing nothing?”

“Nothing else to do,” I answered morosely

“What? Didn’t you like the game we played last night?” James inquired, getting a nod from me. “Why not play that then?”

Feeling tears start to burn my eyes, I curled up even tighter to hide my face. “Because it takes two people to play and you won’t play with me.”

“What?! James gasped in surprise. “When did I say that?!”

“Earlier,” I informed him.

James furrowed his brow in confusion. “I don’t remember saying any such thing.”

“But you did!” I insisted, sitting up to look at him with eyes that were just about to burst with tears. “You told Julia you wouldn’t do anything with me!”

“That’s not what I meant!” James exclaimed.

“But you said–!” I began to argue.

“I know what I said!” James cut me off forcefully, causing me to wince and pull back from him. Seeing that, he immediately held up his hands apologetically. “Sorry. I didn’t mean … look, Julia and I were talking about … something specific that I wasn’t going to do with you. It’s … uhm …” He paused to rub at the bridge of his nose like he was in pain. “ ...something grown ups do that they can’t do with children.”

Confused, I tilted my head curiously. “What it is?”

“Oh boy …” James groaned, rubbing his hand over his whole face. “Uhm … it’s … uh … hard to explain. You really need to be older to get it.”

“Oh …” I mumbled in disappointment.

“Anyway, Jules was just worried that, since you look like a grown up, I might forget that you’re not one, and do … it ...” James explained, trailing off into a rosy-cheeked groan.

In spite of my disappointment, I nodded in acceptance. If James said I couldn’t do it, whatever it was, I’d just have to be okay with that. “So, you will play with me?”

“What?! No!” James gasped, making me very confused. “I mean ... yes. I’ll play games and stuff with you, just not … y’know … that one grown up game.”

Content with that, I smiled softly, while looking at James. He was very nice, putting up with me like this. Really, he was doing even more than that, always trying to cheer me up and look out for me. Actually, he sort of reminded me of my father before …

“Feeling better?” James asked breaking the moment of silence between us.

“Yeah,” I answered softly.

“Good,” James declared. “Now, let’s go play for a bit, and forget all about this incredibly awkward misunderstanding.”

After a nod from me, James started to rise, but before he got far, I reached out to grab his wrist. “James?”

“Yeah?” James asked.

“Could I … “ I began only to trail off awkwardly, unsure of if I should really ask.

James tilted his head curiously. “What?”

“Could I ... “ I began again only to pause once more. This time, I forced myself to say the end, albeit only at a whisper. “ … get a hug?”

James blinked in surprise. “A hug?”

I nodded shyly, hoping that James wouldn’t be upset that I had asked. It really was impertinent of me. I certainly didn’t deserve one, but I felt like I needed one. It was silly, really.

“Sure, I think I can manage a hug,” James agreed.

A moment later, James pulled me into his embrace. It was warm, and safe, and caring – everything that I’d needed it to be. I returned it as well, wrapping my arms around him to squeeze him tightly as if that would make it so that he would never let go. Of course, eventually the hug had to end and James did let go, but that was fine. The feeling of it stayed with me through the night.

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

Chapter 07

Slowly, I twirled about, led by the strong arms that held me close. All the while, I smiled up at their owner. James seemed so handsome and confident, leading me through the steps of the seemingly endless dance.

A crack of light cut through my vision, interrupting the dance. The next thing I knew, I woke in my bed, squinting my eyes against the light from my window. In my head, the dream faded away, leaving behind only a warm, comforting memory.

“Mmm,” I sighed contentedly, pulling the blankets a bit tighter about me as I rolled over to try to get back to the dream.

That action took the light of the window from my sight and replaced it with a different light – that of a digital clock. It took a moment for the numbers there to register, but when they finally did, I bolted upright in a panic. I was late again.

“Oh, no, no, no, no,” I muttered rapidly under my breath while I scooted out of bed. The rapid movement didn’t get quite as much of a protest from my body as the day before, but I was still sluggish and weak. That just made me push all the harder in the desperate hope that I could somehow move fast enough to turn back time and wake up when I should have.

Once I was up, I hurried out of the room, preparing my apology in my head as I turned the corner to the kitchen. That apology went unspoken, though, as there was no James to apologize to. The kitchen and living room were both empty.

“James?” I called softly, worry starting to fill my thoughts.

Shaking my head, I fought those fears away, focusing on the memory of the night before. James wouldn’t throw me away; wouldn’t abandon me. He’d probably just finished breakfast and started doing some work upstairs. I was worrying for nothing.

“I should just eat,” I told myself, getting myself moving again.

In the kitchen, I found some cereal and milk. Neither were the variety that I was used to, but I put them in a bowl and started munching on it anyway. Breakfast was an important meal, and I wanted to be my best for whenever I did see James.

Midway through my bowl, I heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs, causing relief to wash over me. I looked up in anticipation, listening to the steps growing closer. A few moments later, James turned the corner, and my relief turned into a happy smile.

“Oh hey. You’re up,” James remarked, smiling back at me.

The reminder of my tardiness earned a shy nod from me. “Yes. Sorry, I slept so late. I usually get up earlier than this.”

“Is that so?” James muttered, peering at me worriedly for a moment. After that moment passed, he shrugged and waved off my apology. “Well, it’s fine. Sleep as late as you need to.”

I wasn’t really sure what to do with that response. Part of me wanted to insist that I really was a good girl that got up early and took care of myself. Another part was glad that, if I was going to be sloppy, at least it didn’t upset James. In the end, the only thing both parts would agree to was a nod.

“Oh, by the way, Julia stopped by earlier and dropped off a change of clothes for you. It’s on the coffee table,” James told me, pointing toward a bag resting on the table in the living room. “They’ll probably be a bit big on you, but at least they’re clean.”

Talk of my clothes had me looking down at my dress. The white was starting to get a bit dingy, clearly in need of a wash. Still, it had been a gift from James, so I was a little disappointed that I would have to take it off.

“Kay,” I mumbled in resignation.

James gave me a brief look of confusion before shrugging it off. “Anyway, I need to get back to work, so I’ll leave you to your breakfast. Once you’re finished eating and getting changed, though, come upstairs. I need to take a look at that collar of yours.”

Reminded of the collar, I reached a hand up to run my fingers over it. It sure would be nice to get it off and be able to use my abilities again. Hopeful that James looking at it would lead to exactly that, I nodded. “Kay. I’ll been up soon.”

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

“I guess this is right?” I critiqued uncertainly as I fiddled with my clothes.

The garments that Julia had left me were certainly baggy, but they were also in a style that was quite different from my usual dresses. Well, the t-shirt I was wearing was almost big enough to be a dress, hanging down past my butt while it tented on my frame. That wasn’t too difficult to deal with.

The … I supposed they were shorts were the real problem. I couldn’t remember ever having worn pants or shorts before. What made it even more awkward was that they went two-thirds of the way down my legs, making me think that they had to be far too big for me. The issue was that while they were so long in the leg, they were rather short around my hips. Even pulled up as high as they would go, they were a few inches shy of making it to my waist. Worse, they were kinda loose, causing them to slouch lower and making me feel like they were about to slip right off. I did not like it at all, but James had wanted me to change, so I’d manage somehow.

Giving a final tug on the shorts, I turned away from the mirror and left my room. The stairs weren’t far, taking me up to the second floor of the townhouse. When I’d first arrived, James had only told me what was upstairs rather than showing me, so it was my first time being up there. I wasn’t sure what I expected, but a simple landing with three doors leading off it wasn’t it.

Currently, all three of those doors were open, showing a bathroom, a bedroom, and a final room that reminded me somewhat of my brief time in the basement back at my father’s home. There were desks, chairs, and work tables arrayed around the room, upon which was a considerable jumble of computers, parts, and tools. Amidst that clutter sat James, working away at one of the computers.

Unsure if I was supposed to enter, I stopped at the door and shyly knocked. “James?”

Turning from his work, James smiled at me. “Oh, hey come on in.”

Even with permission, my steps were still uncertain as I entered the room. The last time that I’d entered a room like this had not been a pleasant experience. The memory of that filled me with anxiety.

“The new clothes look good on you,” James complemented, looking me over.

“Uhm … thank you,” I mumbled, fussing a little with the outfit.

James furrowed his brow slightly. “Something wrong?”

“Huh? No … I’m just not used to wearing this kind of stuff,” I explained, forcing myself to stop my fidgeting.

“You know, now that you mention it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you out of a dress,” James remarked. “Well other than that time you tore your dress, but … well … uhm …” He stopped to shake his head, seemingly getting his thoughts back on track. “Anyway … why don’t you come have a seat and I’ll take a look at that thing on your neck.” As he spoke, he got up, gesturing to the chair that he’d just vacated.

“Kay,” I agreed, walking over to sit in the chair.

While I got situated, James grabbed another chair and pulled it over next to me before sitting down as well. Once he had, he leaned in to get a closer look. “Alright, now let me just –”

At that moment, I felt James’s fingers brush along my neck while sweeping my hair out of his way. That slight touch sent a jolt of terror through me, causing me to jump slightly in my chair. At the same time, there was a sharp hiss as I sucked air through my teeth.

Startled by my reaction, James lurched back. “Did I shock you or something?”

In response, I shook my head. All the while, I was clenching my hands so tightly together that my whole body was vibrating from the tension that created. Even my breathing was shallow and rapid.

For a few moments, there was silence as James looked at me. With my gaze on my lap, I couldn’t see him, a fact that I was grateful for. He probably had that look in his eyes, the sad one that made me feel so miserable.

“Let’s do this another time,” James finally announced. “Your condition isn’t degrading, so there’s no real rush.”

Again, I shook my head, not wanting to put this off. As terrified as I was, I was more terrified of continuing to be useless. Without my abilities, I was just a burden. I couldn’t even wake up on time.

“Really, it’s fine. We ca–” James began to reassure me.

“No!” I exclaimed, wincing at how loudly I had protested. When I continued, it was barely above a whisper. “I’ll be okay.”

“You sure?” James asked.

I nodded. “Yeah.”

“Alright …” James conceded uncertainly, leaning back in.

When James touched me this time, I managed to keep my reaction to just a twitch. Even that was silly. I knew that James wasn’t going to hurt me, that he was helping me, and yet, every time his fingers brushed the skin of my neck, I tensed with fear. It was like my body seemed certain that it was going to go through that same agony again, that I was going to be thrown away again.

I couldn’t really say how long James spent examining my collar. At times, he paused to grab tools. At other times, he fiddled with it. Sometimes, he just stared at something thoughtfully. Altogether, it couldn’t have been all that long, but from my perspective, trapped at the edge of fear, it seemed very very long indeed.

“Alright. I think I’ve learned as much as I’m going to about it,” James finally declared, leaning back in his chair. “I was worried it might have some remote functions like transmitting your position or allowing remote control or the like, but it doesn’t seem to have any functions besides inhibiting your power use.”

Relieved to finally have the inspection finished, I let myself relax in the chair and look up at James. “That’s good right?”

“Definitely,” James confirmed.

“So you can remove it now?” I asked hopefully.

James winced slightly at the question. “Well … uhm … no, not exactly. There’s still … unknowns and … well … I just can’t remove it yet.”

The moment I heard those words, my hopes were dashed, leaving me to hang my head despondently. “Oh ….”

“I’m sorry, but I just need a little more time,” James assured me. “Can you please bear with it until then?”

I nodded weakly. “Mmhmm.”

“Good girl,” James replied, giving me a smile.

Hearing that, I couldn’t help but smile as well. Of course, I knew that I wasn’t really a good girl anymore. I was trying to be one, but it was just pretend, like playing house. In reality, I was rotten, and rotten things couldn’t be fixed. Still, it was nice to be called one all the same.

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

Leaning forward in my seat, I watched the movie intently. Beside me on the couch, James had a much more relaxed posture, leaned back comfortably. I would’ve liked to have nestled up with him like I had often done with my father, but to my disappointment, James had not allowed that.

On the TV in front of me, the movie was nearing the end, and it was quite the end. The entire tale had been about a daughter trying to find her lost father, and finally, they were being reunited. Seeing that caused my heart to ache, and tears to fill my eyes, even though, I was so happy for them.

Finally, the last scene came to a close and the movie drifted on to its credits. Smiling at the happy ending, I wiped at the tears in my eyes. It wasn’t just the movie itself that I was smiling for, though, but sharing it with James. It was so like the happy nights with my father from before.

“So did you like it?” James remarked.

Turning toward James, I smiled even brighter and nodded. “Mmhmm.”

James returned the smile with one of his own. “Good. It was one of my favorites when I was a kid.”

Hearing that, my mind latched onto the idea of James as a kid. I tried to imagine what he might have looked like back then. There were some kids in movies that I’d identified as being smart alecs like him, so I suspected that he had probably looked like one of them. They always had these amused grins on their faces with cute rosy cheeks. In fact, looking at him, I thought he still had a bit of boyishness to him, even though he was all grown up. He was still cute too, which made me think he’d probably have cute kids. I couldn’t help but picture lots of adorable little boys running around him, smiling and giggling.

Caught on that thought, I frowned thoughtfully. I’d never seen James with any children but me, and no one else seemed to live in his house. That seemed rather strange to me. After all, he was so nice.

“James? Can I ask you a question?” I asked.

“Sure,” James agreed as he got up to put the movie away.

“Do you have any kids?” I inquired.

James laughed. “Kids? No. I’m not really father material.”

“Really? Why not?” I questioned.

“Well, if you ask my last girlfriend, it’s because I’m still a kid myself,” James answered as he returned to the couch. “Or at least, I still act like one.”

Furrowing my brow, I looked at James, trying to compare how he acted to how my own father had – at least before I’d gone bad. They seemed pretty similar to me. James looked out for me just like my father had. James taught me about right and wrong just like my father had. James played games and watched movies with me just like my father had.

“What?” James asked, looking confused. “I got something on my face?”

I shook my head. “Mmm mmm.”

“Then why were you looking at me like that?” James inquired.

“I was just thinking that you act pretty dad-like to me,” I answered.

Smirking, James let out a chuckle. “Coming from you, I’m not sure if I should be complemented or insulted.”

“Huh?” I mumbled in confusion.

“Nothing. It’s just your only father figure isn’t exactly a role model,” James explained.

That condemnation of my father’s parenting brought a frown to my face. “Why not? He took care of me. He taught me things. He played with me.”

“He also tried to get rid of you,” James pointed out.

“That was my fault!” I blurted defensively. “If I hadn’t let myself become a bad girl he never would’ve done that!”

Taken aback, James’s eyes adopted that sad look that I hated so much. “Good parents don’t get rid of their kids, even if they are bad. Only bad parents, no bad people, do heartless things like that.”

It wasn’t the first time that James had told me that my father was a bad person, but it was still enough to rattle me. I wanted to refute it, but what James had said seemed to be true. In movies, only the bad parents ever let their children go. Good parents did anything to help them. Good parents loved them no matter what. My father hadn’t done that. He’d put the horrible collar on me and then had thrown me away. If James hadn’t come …

Suddenly, tears were burning in my eyes, as I shook my head in denial. It had to be some sort of lie or trick. My father had said that James would do things like that. My father had said bad people were to be gotten rid. My father had said …

A strong arm slid around my shoulders, pulling me close. Before I knew it, my head was resting against James’s chest while his hand rubbed my arm. He didn’t say anything, just held me there comfortingly. In that embrace, I didn’t feel like crying anymore. My heart didn’t ache anymore.

“Feel better?” James asked after a few moments.

Head still laying on his chest, I nodded. “Mmhmm.”

“Good,” James stated. “Shall we do something fun then?”

“Like what?” I inquired.

James shrugged. “Whatever you want.”

That response left me at a loss. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Maybe a game, but which one? Maybe another movie, but how would I choose? As long as it was with James, I was sure anything would be fun. That had certainly been true of everything that I’d ever done with him before.

“James,” I began as an idea caught in my head. “How old are you?”

“Uhh … thirty-three,” James answered. “Why?”

I twisted a little in James’s arms so that I could look up at him. He had a bemused expression on his face as he waited for me to answer his question. That answer came in the form of me pushing myself up to press my lips against his.

Practically the moment that my lips touched James’s, the contact broke as James both pulled his head away and pushed me away. “What are you doing?!”

“Kissing you,” I answered matter-of-factly.

“Agh! I know that!” James growled. “Why are you kissing me?!”

With James seeming to be upset, I frowned. “Because you said we could do whatever I wanted. That’s what I wanted.”

“But … but … but …” James stuttered, momentarily caught in a loop. “You can’t kiss me!”

My frown was joined by a furrowed brow. “I can’t?”

James shook his head emphatically. “Uh uh.”

Now, I was truly confused. “Why not?”

“Didn’t we go over this last time you tried this?” James questioned.

I nodded. “Yes. You said we couldn’t kiss because I didn’t know you, but now I do. I know where you live, how old you are, what you like to do for fun, and if you have a family.”

Stunned, James reeled back a bit, blinking in surprise. “Th-Th-that’s … that’s n-not the reason that we can’t kiss each other.”

“It’s not?” I asked.

Planting his face in his hands, James shook his head again. “No, it’s not.”

“Then what is?” I inquired, wanting to know the hurdle that I needed to overcome.

James spread his hands enough so that he could rub at his temples. As he did, he took a couple of long slow breaths. Only once he was finished with those did he speak. “Alright … look. Little girls can’t kiss grown men.”

“But I’m not little right now,” I pointed out.

“Yes, well, you see that’s why Julia was so worried about you staying here,” James replied. “You might look big on the outside, but inside, you’re still a little girl.”

I scrunched my face up in confusion. “How do I grow up inside then?”

“Time,” James answered.

“How much time?” I followed up.

“Years,” James informed me.

My confused expression turned to a frown. “But I don’t want to wait that long.”

James chuckled. “Little girls never do. That doesn’t meant they don’t have to.”

My frown was joined by a pout as I folded my arms. “That’s not fair. I’m already big outside, so I should get big inside too.”

“That’s not how it works, little girl,” James told me. “You’ll just have to wait.”

“Do I have to?” I whined.

James nodded. “Yep.”

That final confirmation elicited a defeated sigh from me. Kissing seemed like it must be a lot of fun. Everyone always seemed to get really into it. That made it really annoying to me that I had to wait to kiss James.

“Will you wait too?” I asked.

James gave me a confused look. “What?”

“Will you wait for me to get big inside so I can kiss you?” I reiterated.

Smirking, James let out a little chuckle. “Oh. Sure. When you’re all big, you can kiss me if you still want to.”

“Yay!” I exclaimed in delight as I leaned in to wrap my arms tightly around James. Unlike the kiss, he had no problems with that, hugging me right back.

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

“Much better,” I assessed as I did a little twirl in front of the mirror. The action caused the skirt of my freshly cleaned sundress to flutter and swish about me. I liked it much better than the silly shorts from the day before.

Looking in the mirror, I wondered which outfit James preferred. He had said the other clothes looked good on me, but he’d never said that about my current dress. Maybe that meant he liked the other better.

Frowning slightly, I looked myself over, trying to critique my appearance. I thought I was pretty, as pretty as my mother albeit not quite as mature looking. Maybe I was wrong, though. I seemed to be wrong about a lot of things. Once, James had mentioned me changing my hair color. Maybe he didn’t like blondes.

“Stupid that I can’t just change it,” I muttered in annoyance over my current lack of special abilities. At the same time, I toyed with my hair, trying to think of something else that I could do. I’d seen girls tie it up. Some even had pretty ribbons for that purpose. Maybe James had some around somewhere that I could use. I could also ask him if I was pretty or not.

Set on a course of action, I let my hair fall back to my shoulders and left the mirror behind. A few steps brought me out of my room and off on my search to find James. It was a short search as, unlike the day before, James was in the kitchen, eating a sandwich.

Looking up at my entrance, James smiled at me. “Good morning, little girl.”

“Good … uhm … morning,” I mumbled, thrown by the fact that between my late sleeping and the time it had taken me to get a bath and get dressed, it was actually well into the afternoon already.

“Did you sleep well?” James asked before taking a bite of his sandwich.

Nodding, I quickly reorganized my thoughts after their brief derailment. “James, am I pretty?” I asked. The next thing I knew, James was hacking and coughing, seemingly choking on his bite of sandwich. Filled with worry, I raced over to him. “Are you okay?”

Still coughing, James nodded to reassure me. “Yes … *hack* … fine … *cough* … just a little … * throat clear* … surprised.”

“Oh … sorry,” I mumbled apologetically, upset that I had caused the situation with my question. “I didn’t meant to surprise you.”

“It’s … fine,” James assured me, before clearing his throat again. “Why did you ask me that, anyway?’

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I was just thinking about how you said the other outfit looked nice, but you’ve never said this outfit looked nice, so I thought maybe you didn’t like this outfit, but then I remembered you talking about changing hair color, so I thought maybe it was me, even though, I thought I was pretty, because I’ve been wrong a lot lately, so I thought I would ask.”

When my rambling explanation finally ended, James looked a bit lost. “Okay … well, you’re not wrong this time. You’re very pretty. So is your hair color. You don’t need to worry on those fronts.”

“Really?” I asked, smiling happily.

James nodded. “Yep. Oh, I like the dress too. Suits you much better than the stuff Julia got you.”

By that point, my smile was beaming as I walked around behind James’s seat to give him a hug. “Thanks, James.”

“You’re welcome,” James replied, using his free hand to pat my arm.

After one final squeeze, I released James to slip into the chair next to him. “So, are you working again today?”

“No. I finished up everything I had to do this morning,” James answered. “Why? Did you want to do something?”

I nodded excitedly. “I want to go to the playground and play tag again.”

Much to my disappointment, James did not immediately agree, but instead adopted a slightly uneasy look. “You’re a little big for that.”

“I am?” I asked, quite confused by that information. I’d never heard of there being things one was too big for, only too little.

“Yeah,” James confirmed. “Grown ups don’t really do stuff like that.”

That news elicited a pout from me. While I liked being big a lot, being only big on the outside was starting to annoy me. It seemed like it didn’t quite match up with any of the things that I wanted to do.

“How about, after you eat some breakfast, I show you a game that’s better when you’re big?” James offered.

“What game?” I asked.

“Have you ever heard of bowling?” James answered with a question of his own, getting a shake of my head from me. “Well, I think you’re gonna love it.”

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

“Come on … come on …” I whispered as I tilted my head to one side while swishing my hands across in front of me. All of it was in a futile effort to influence the ball that I’d just rolled down the lane.

A loud thunk heralded my worst fears as the ball dropped into the gutter just before it got to the lone standing pin. Seeing that, I stamped my foot in anger. That was quickly followed by an arm fold and a huff of frustration as I spun to storm back to the seats.

“Getting closer, little girl,” James remarked.

“It’s not fair,” I grumbled as I flopped into the seat next to him to input my score of nine. “You have five spares and two strikes and I have none of either.”

Much like in the video game, James was beating me thoroughly at bowling. His lowest score in a frame was an eight, while it had taken me until the third frame to even knock over a single pin. I’d gotten better after that, enough to get two nines to finish out the game, but I wasn’t happy with that at all.

“Well, considering it’s your first game ever, you’re actually doing really well” James noted. “Usually, when I teach girls this game, they have to granny roll it to even hit pins.”

The odd term had me furrowing my brow in confusion. “Granny roll?”

“It’s where you hold the ball with both hands and dangle it between your feet before you roll it rather than use the proper form,” James explained. “It helps new players aim and deal with the weight of the ball.”

When James had first shown me how to bowl, I’d struggled with both of those things myself. Even using a much lighter ball than James was, it was still heavy and awkward, causing me to drop it a couple of times. It hadn’t made doing the movements right any easier either.

“But it’s bad to do it that way, right?” I asked.

James nodded. “Oh definitely. It’s terrible for getting marks.”

“Then I’m glad you taught me the right way,” I replied, smiling.

“And I’m glad you learned it,” James told me, returning my smile. “Now, why don’t we get the next one st–”

Before James could finish talking, the sound of music interrupted him. Holding up a finger to indicate that I should wait, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and answered it. “Hey, what is it?”

After James’s initial greeting, there was a long pause as he just nodded along. That left me to look at him curiously, wondering who he was talking to and about what. He had a serious expression on his face, so I supposed that it was work. Julia had said that she was going to help him with something, so maybe that was it.

“Really? Now? … Da–rn it,” James finally replied to the person on the phone. “I know it’s what I wanted, but the girl and I are out bowling right now. No, I’m not getting her drunk! I’m not drinking either!” There, James paused for a moment to roll his eyes before continuing the conversation. “Yes, I can see how it was stupid of me. I don’t know. I guess you’ll just have to follow him until I can drop her off at the house. Yeah. I’ll call you when I’m on my way. Bye.”

As James hung up, I looked at him sadly. I hadn’t heard the whole conversation, but I knew we weren’t going to get to play another game. Worse, it sounded like he was going to leave me alone while he went off on his own somewhere. I didn’t like that at all.

“Sorry, little girl. Looks like you’ll have to wait for that rematch,” James said as he put his phone away.

Having already expected that, I nodded in acceptance. “Kay.”

“I’m going to have to leave you home by yourself for a bit too,” James continued.

“Can’t I come with you?” I asked.

James shook his head. “Sorry. It’s too dangerous.”

While I’d expected that answer, it still stung. It made perfect sense, though. Without my abilities, I was useless and would just be in James’s way. Even so, I just didn’t want to be alone.

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

Chapter 08

In the dark, street lights zipped by one after another. I only vaguely saw them, brief streaks of light in eyes that weren’t focused. After all, my attention was directed inward as I replayed the last few minutes that James and I had spent in the bowling alley.

There wasn’t really much to those events. James had to go off somewhere dangerous, and I couldn’t come with him. At the time, it had been that last part that I had found upsetting, not wanting to be alone ever again. A new issue had cropped up since then, though. Wherever James was going, it was dangerous, too dangerous for me to come. Undoubtedly, that was true of a lot of places given my current helplessness, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous for him as well. Ever since I’d realized that, I had been filled with an ever growing dread.

Now, the car drew ever closer to James’s home, to the moment that he would leave me behind. Would he be alright? Would I ever see him again? The more I thought about it, the more the answer of no seemed to fit those questions. I’d done dangerous things, gotten shot at, chased powerful men through streets, and many other things. If not for my abilities, I would never have been able to handle it. As far as I knew, James didn’t have such abilities.

As my mind raced, I idly ran my fingers over the collar on my throat. Without that there locking my abilities away, I could do dangerous things. I could protect James from whatever might threaten him. He wouldn’t take it off for me, though, saying that it wasn’t safe to remove it without knowing more. I did know more, though. I knew that James was going into danger, and I didn’t care what happened to me if I could help.

Glancing over at the driving James, I wondered what he would think. Could I convince him to take off the collar? Would he even listen? Probably not. He wanted to protect me, not for me to protect him. I admired that, treasured it even, but at the same time, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand always being seen as a helpless child. What could I do, though? Right now, that was all I was.

Suddenly, something clicked for me. If I wanted to not be a helpless child, then I had to stop acting so helpless. I would have to get my abilities back on my own. Since James wouldn’t help me with the collar, I’d have to find a way to get rid of it.

Surreptitiously, I ran my fingers around the collar, trying to see if there was any way that I could remove it. While the front was smooth, in the back there were several bumps and irregularities around what appeared to be the catch. Without being able to see them, I couldn’t tell what any of them were.

Tugging on the collar, I checked to see if it could be spun around. Apparently, it could as it moved easily with only a slight bit of chafing. That would let me use a mirror to look at the back and figure out what all the bumps were. That would have to wait until James dropped me off, and I would need to hurry. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to follow him.

With my new plan in mind, the trip home became interminable for a whole new reason. I had never had much tolerance for waiting. I wanted to get there as quickly as I could, so that I could get the collar off and help James.

Eventually, James pulled the car to a stop in front of his townhouse and led the way up to the door. “You remember the number I gave you, right?”

I nodded. “Yes, James.”

“Alright good,” James muttered. “Call me if you need anything at all.”

“I will,” I assured him, even though, I had no intention of calling him. I wouldn’t need to once I got the collar off.

Distractedly, James nodded, accepting my word. As he did, he pulled out his keys to open the door and let me inside. Doing my best to mask my anticipation, I did exactly that, entering the house and turning to face him.

“See ya in a little bit, little girl,” James said.

“Bye bye,” I returned with a little wave.

Farewells said, James pulled the door closed, leaving me alone in his house. I waited a couple of beats, giving James time to step away outside before I spun and darted off. The downstairs bathroom, with its vanity mirror, was my destination.

Rushing through the door, I darted up to the vanity, all the while tugging on the collar to get it turned around. With my other hand, I swept my hair out of the way, so that I could get a good look at the thing. It didn’t look like much, just a thin band of silvery plates. The back, though, was far more interesting. Around the catch, were a series of cylinders set into the metal. Each had several faces, upon which numbers were printed.

“Numbers? For what?” I questioned, leaning in as close to the mirror as I could. Proximity didn’t increase my understanding any. The best I could guess was that I needed the correct numbers to be facing out on the cylinders to open the latch. Since I didn’t know what numbers those were, that was quite the problem. Briefly, I considered just trying all the possible combinations, but given the fact there were six of the things each with ten numbers on it, that seemed like it would take a very long time.

Frustrated, I smacked a fist against the countertop, while huffing in annoyance. I didn’t have a very long time. James was driving away even as I stood there and it wouldn’t be long before he got too far for me to catch up to him. I needed the collar off now, even if I had to break it off.

Spinning from the mirror, I rushed off again, this time heading up the stairs. The moment I made it to the top, I turned toward James’s work room. There had been plenty of tools in there. Surely something could be used to break the collar.

Just setting foot into the room that so reminded me of my father’s basement had me on edge with tingles running down my spine. I pushed through that, though, moving in deeper to start looking through the various clutter and drawers in search of something useful. As item after useless item went by, my search grew more desperate, anxiety exchange for fear that I would be too late to catch up to James. I started tearing through things, tossing them out of the way as quickly as I could. I was just about to throw one such thing away when I stopped to look at it.

The item in my hand was fairly long with two, small, scissor-like blades on one end and a pair of long handles taking up the rest of the length. Scissors cut paper, so something like this might be useful for cutting metal. It would certainly be worth a try.

Turning the tool around, I got one of the blades wedged up under the collar. It wasn’t comfortable, but I was long since past the point of caring about comfort. Grabbing the handles, I started to squeeze, but the tool wouldn’t budge. It just ground uselessly into the metal of the collar without cutting through.

“No! No, no, no!” I growled angrily, trying harder. This thing had to work. I didn’t have any more time.

Shifting my grip, I braced one handle against my torso and used both of my hands to work the other one. Once I had it in that position, I tugged on the handle as hard as I could. At first, it seemed no more effective than before, but then, I felt a slight give. Slowly, the handles started to drift closer together as the collar on my neck conceded to the pressure.

Suddenly, a loud snap shot through the air, followed by a painful slash on my throat. At the same time, the tool twisted in my hands, wrenching free of my grasp to fall to the ground. I might have worried about all of that if not for what happened next.

A palpable thud resounded in my chest, joined by a stabbing pain in my heart. Instantly, spots filled my vision as a painful needling sensations raced out along my skin. My legs buckled beneath me, dropping me to my knees as I gasped desperately for air between shrill screams and pained moans.

After several long moments, the pain slowly started to fade, allowing me to catch my breath a little. Still, I remained on my knees, doubled over and barely even managing that. It took several moments more before I could finally lift my head.

“Am I …” I mumbled, reaching a hand up to my throat. The collar was nowhere to be found. There was blood there, though, warm, wet, and sticky.

Worried, I pushed myself up to unsteady feet to go look in the mirror. My neck did indeed have blood on it, but there was no sign of the gash that had caused it. A little water cleared the crimson fluid away, leaving nothing but smooth, unmarred skin.

Smiling at the sight, I tried to focus, imagining myself lifting up. Immediately, my reflection did exactly that as my feet left the ground. I had my abilities back.

The smile quickly vanished from my face, turning to a look of determination. “I’m coming, James,” I told my reflection before spinning away and rushing out of the house.

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

“Where is it … where is it …?” I muttered over and over again as I zipped through the air.

I was really starting to worry. It had been a few minutes since I’d left the house, and so far there had been no sign of James’s car. What would I do if I had missed it, or if he’d gone the other direction, or if he’d gotten too far away before I’d gotten the collar off for me to find him? I couldn’t just go back to the house and wait. I just couldn’t.

Picking up the pace, I searched more desperately, weaving my way down street after street. As each street past, my hope dimmed, until I was at the point of being certain that I had failed. It was at that moment that I finally saw my quarry.

“James!” I squealed in delight as I recognized the car, swooping over to it. I made sure to stay pretty high up in the air, not wanting James to spot me following him. It was definitely his car, though. I wasn’t too late.

With James found, I slowed down to keep pace with the car, mirroring all its turns. As I went, I was vaguely aware that I’d been flying for quite a while, and James was still going. Clearly, wherever he was headed was quite far from his house. I kept pace all the same, not at all worried about how far I might have to go. All that mattered was that I’d be there with James.

As time passed, the area I was flying over changed. Near James’s house, it had been a very nice area, full of beautiful homes and elegant shops. It had drifted into a more mundane area after that, still well-maintained but with more functional architecture and a cramped layout. After that, things had degraded even further, leaving behind ratty older buildings, some of which seemed outright abandoned. The atmosphere in this area seemed oppressive, as if the light from the street lamps was being sucked away by darkness. It was enough to invade my focus on James, filling me with a sense of unease.

Somewhere within that oppressive darkness, James’s car slowed, pulling off the main roads to stop in a parking lot. There, he parked alongside another car before getting out and walking around to the trunk. From within the trunk, he pulled out a rather odd looking contraption that he strapped to himself. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but my best guess was some kind of robot armor or metal skeleton.

Throughout James’s preparations, I continued to hover above him, waiting patiently. I was only there to watch over him in case he needed help. So far, there hadn’t been anything dangerous, but I stayed wary. James wouldn’t be putting on that contraption thingy if he didn’t think he was going to need it for something.

Once he had his gear on, James fiddled with his ear briefly before speaking quietly. I couldn’t overhear him from where I was floating, but I saw him nod and start off at a light jog. It seemed that there was still a bit to go before we arrived at the danger.

With me following from above, James ran over to a couple of nearby buildings and slipped into the alley between them. Going in after him plunged me into darkness, leaving me barely able to follow James’s movements as he darted down the alley. At the other side, he squatted down at the edge of the light to peek around the corner.

Curious, I floated up to the corner to peek out as well. Around the way was a large open area filled with stacks of these big metal boxes. They sort of reminded me of train cars, but they didn’t have wheels on the bottoms. There were a lot of them too, in all sorts of colors, stacked in nice neat rows like giant building blocks.

Caught up in looking at all the boxes, it took me a while to notice movement near the bottom of one of the stacks. There were people there, about a half dozen in all, standing next to a car and a van. They seemed to be talking as well, loud enough for me to hear vague mutterings from where I was floating.

Frowning, I lifted my gaze from the group of men to the surrounding area again. It definitely had a shady dangerous feel to it, much like places that I’d gone when I’d gotten rid of bad people for my father. I also knew that James caught bad people for his job. From there, it was easy to guess that the men that he was watching were bad people.

The part that didn’t make sense to me was that James wasn’t making any move to go catch them. They didn’t seem particularly dangerous, but then many of the bad people that I’d met hadn’t. James also didn’t have my abilities, just that weird contraption that he’d put on. I didn’t know what it could do, but maybe he still wasn’t as good at this as I would be. If that was the case, it would make sense for me to do his job for him. I didn’t really know anything about how to capture a bad person, though, just how to get rid of them. I knew that if I just dove in there and started swinging my sword around, James would be very cross with me.

“I should just wait,” I murmured to myself, figuring that James had to know what he was doing. After all, he was good at everything else that I’d ever seen him do. I could just wait up in the air, and if I saw him in trouble, I could swoop down to help.

Content with my decision, I drifted over to the roof of the nearby building and sat down on the ledge to wait. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a short wait, but a long, dull, tedious wait. Minute after minute ticked by slowly as I slouched forward to rest my head in my hand. My eyes even started to drift shut, forcing me to shake my head every few minutes to try to clear away my sleepiness.

Finally, on the edge of one of my nods, something happened. The sound of a car engine approaching reached my ears, perking me back up immediately. Drifting off my perch, I peeked around the corner again to see the source of the noise driving up to the group of men. Even at that distance, the car seemed familiar, but my mind didn’t supply where I knew it from until it had stopped and the driver got out.

“Daddy?” I squeaked softly. Fear gripped my heart as I saw my father exit the car and approach the group of bad men. Those men were dangerous. They were going to hurt my father.

Before I could come to that conclusion and zip off, I saw my father wave to the men and start talking with them. I couldn’t hear the words, but I could see the amicable expression on my father’s face. He certainly wasn’t afraid of the men, nor filled with his usual distaste for such people.

Confused, I just hovered in place, watching the scene unfold. There didn’t seem to be a lot to say as the conversation quickly ended. Following it, my father tossed a bag to one of the men, who glanced inside. He seemed to accept its contents as he gestured toward a couple of the other men who moved off toward the van. They opened up the back and pulled out some long metal cylinders which they started lugging over to my father’s car. It almost looked like my father was working with them.

“You are under arrest! Get down on your knees and place your hands behind your head!” James’s voice suddenly blared out from underneath me.

Starting with surprise, I looked down to see James rushing out from his cover with a weapon in hand. It was the same one that I’d seen him used to threaten my father when he’d taken me from my home. Apparently, it would serve that function again here.

Across the way, the bad people reacted as well, but not in the way that they had been ordered to. Rather than drop to their knees, they all raced for cover, hiding behind their cars or the stacks of boxes. Rather than put their hands above their hands, they pulled weapons of their own to aim at James.

Shocked, I was still just floating there as thunderous cracks filled the quiet night air. Fear gripped my heart with icy fingers at the sound, but when I looked, James was not hurt. I could see little sparks and ripples around him as bullets bounced away, much like they did when they struck my shield. Apparently, James had access to a similar kind of defense.

Even as James endured the hail of bullets, he fired back with his own weapon. It did not make the same booming sound as the bad people’s weapon, nor did it seem to fire bullets. The projectiles that left its barrel were too slow for that, seeable as little blurs as they cut through the night air. In spite of that, when they struck, their target still fell, jerking and spasming about in rather bizarre manner.

Overall, the entire battle was strange and engrossing, leaving me just marveling from above. In spite of my worries, James didn’t seem to be in any actual danger. In fact, he looked quite confident and heroic as he moved forward, taking down one bad person after another. He was clearly very good at his job.

As amazing as the battle was, my enthrallment with it was short lived. While the men had reacted to James’s commands with battle, my father had not. He had fled toward his car, seeming intent on escape. That escape was cut off as Julia dropped from the sky in front of him, blocking his path. He tried to dart around her, but she reached out to snag him, and just like the bad people, he spasmed in that weird contorting manner before falling limply to the ground.

“Daddy!” I exclaimed, as I watched my father fall. Desperate to save him, I took off, diving toward him as fast as I could and calling upon my sword as I went. Like usual, the air around my hand shimmered, but it wasn’t with its normal pale white light. Instead, black energy extended from my hand, creating a smoky, translucent blade. I didn’t care what color it was, as long as I could use it to save my father.

As I neared, Julia caught my movement from the corner of her eye. She spun to face me, looking up in surprise. That surprise nearly cost her as I flew by, slashing at her with my sword. She barely managed to jerk herself backward out of my range, evading the blade by inches.

“Jesus!” the Julia gasped as she fell back to float a foot above the ground, flying much like I did. “What are you doing?!”

“Protecting my daddy!” I shot back, positioning myself between Julia and my fallen father.

Julia seemed as surprised by my answer as she had been by my appearance. I didn’t care about that, though. She’d hurt my father, and that was all that mattered.

Taking advantage of Julia’s surprise, I darted forward again, using my flight to drive my sword forward in a lunge. This time, Julia reacted promptly, twisting around my blade as she lashed a hand down to grab my wrist. Having seen what her touch could do, I knew better than to let her near. My shield was up before she even got close, surrounding me in a smoky sphere that her hand could only bounce off of ineffectually.

With Julia’s counterattack spoiled, I continued on the offensive, dropping the shield. As I did, I spun, turning the failed lunge into a powerful cross slash. It cut nothing but air, though, as Julia shot straight upward. She didn’t just clear the blade, but flew up a good dozen feet to put some distance between her and me.

“Oria stop this!” Julia ordered when she finally stopped her ascent.

“No! You hurt Daddy” I retorted, glaring up at the woman. I did more than glare, too, thrusting out my free hand.

A moment later, I felt the kick as a beam of black energy shot out. Julia was already dodging before I even fired, a fact that saved her as the beam clove the air where she’d been floating. With no target to hit, the beam kept going, but not for long. It clipped the top of one of the stacks of metal boxes. A loud boom echoed through the area as the top of the stack vanished into black flames and smoke.

Furious that I had missed, I was just about to take off and chase after Julia when I heard James’s voice from behind me. “That’s enough, little girl. It’s time to stop.”

Hearing the cool, stern tone of James’s voice, caused me to stop and cringe. Gingerly, I turned around to see the man standing there, looking at me with that sad look that I so despised in his eyes. It made me feel so small and terrible.

“But she–” I started to protest, clinging to the idea that what I was doing was right. Julia was the bad one.

James was already shaking his head. “Julia was just doing her job, capturing a bad person.”

I wanted to protest that claim. My father wasn’t a bad person. It didn’t matter that he seemed to be working with bad people. There had to be an explanation for that. It didn’t matter that he’d thrown me away. I had been bad. It didn’t matter that …

“Your father’s fine by the way. Just a little out of it after that shock Jules gave him,” James remarked, interrupting my thoughts. To prove that fact, he nudged my father with a foot. “Isn’t that right Mr. Jenkins?”

“Ugh …” my father groaned weakly at the prodding.

Relief flooded me at that sound, the proof that my father was going to be okay. My anger vanished, taking my sword with it. Instead, I rushed toward my father, intent on embracing him happily.

Before I could get more than a step, James’s hands snared me, pulling me to a stop facing him. “No, little girl. You need to leave.”

“What? Why?” I questioned, tugging weakly at James’s grip in my desire to get to my father.

“Just trust me,” James told me. “Please.”

Ceasing my struggle, I stepped back to look at James curiously. He had a strange look on his face, seeming almost desperate for me to listen to him. I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal if I stayed, but I supposed that I had disobeyed him by coming, even if I had meant to help.

“Kay …” I conceded uncertainly.

That desperate look melted into a happy smile. “Thank you. You know where my car is, right?”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

“Just go wait by it. I’ll be there in just a couple of minutes,” James instructed.

Nodding again, I turned toward the alley and took off, flying back toward James’s car. As I went, I started to worry a little bit. I hadn’t just disobeyed James by following him, but I’d also attacked Julia, his friend. She’d deserved it, but James couldn’t be happy about that. Maybe he’d told me to leave as a punishment for being bad.

Landing by the car, I looked down at my hand, bringing forth my sword once more. It sprang forth, black and smoky, nothing like the pale white that I was used to. It was perhaps the most damning evidence that I could ever see. This was the sword of a bad girl.

Filled with fear, I spun back around, dismissing the sword in the process. Waiting there was the alley that led back toward James, currently very empty. I couldn’t help but think that it would remain so, that I had been sent away for good. Part of me wanted to just take off back to James and beg for forgiveness, to promise to be good, but that would require me to disobey him again, to be even worse than I already was. I had to wait. He’d said he’d never throw me away no matter how bad I was. I had to trust in that.

I couldn’t have waited more than a couple of minutes before I saw movement in the shadows of the alley. It felt like far longer than that, so long that I’d given up hope, regained it, and been on the verge of giving it up again. It had been torturous, and that movement ended my pain.

“Hey, little girl,” James greeted as he stepped into the light that lit the parking lot.

The very sight of him brought a happy smile to my lips. “Hi.”

“I see you got your collar off,” James remarked as he drew closer. “How’d you manage that?”

Worried that I would be in trouble for removing the collar without permission, I let my gaze fall to the ground. “I … uhm … found these big, scissor things upstairs and … cut it off.”

“And how do you feel?” James inquired.

“It hurt at first, but I’m fine now,” I answered.

After that, there was a moment of silence before fingers found my chin and lifted my gaze up to James’s. His eyes were serious and concerned, but strangely warm. “I’m glad for that, but you shouldn’t have done that, just like you shouldn’t have followed me here. You understand that, right?”

Even with my chin held up, I managed a slight nod. “I’m sorry.”

James continued to stare into my eyes. “I appreciate the apology, but it doesn’t undo what you did.”

Once again, the worry came back. James was mad at me for what I’d done, and he was right to be. I’d clearly been bad, even if I hadn’t meant to be. That was the problem, though. I never meant to be, but it kept happening.

“I need to be able to trust you,” James continued. “That means no more doing reckless things like going to dangerous places and doing dangerous things, especially when I tell you not to do them. Can you promise me that?”

I nodded emphatically. “I promise.”
That nod seemed to be good enough as James released my chin and smiled. “Good. Now, get in the car. It’s time for us to go back home.”

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

Epilogue

“I don’t see why I need to be little again,” I whined as I stood in front of the mirror, taking one last look at my grown up body.

“Because you’re still little in here,” James told me, tapping me on the head. “The rest of the world needs to be able to see that.”

I let out a heavy sigh. “Fine …”

Closing my eyes, I focused on my ability, imaging my little kid form. Immediately, I felt my body start to shift and shrink. When I opened my eyes a few moments later, I was once again a little girl, wearing a far too large dress that was only barely being held on by my hands.

“I hate being little,” I grumbled, pouting at my reflection.

“Oh, come on. Don’t pout. It’s not like it’s permanent,” James responded, resting a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Besides, this way you and I can go play tag in the park.”

Displeasure forgotten, I perked up excitedly. “Really?!”

James nodded. “Yep. You just gotta get changed first.”

“Yay!” I cheered before racing off toward the bed where a bag of new, appropriately sized clothes waited.

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

Epilogue 2

“Oof,” James huffed as he flopped onto the park bench.

“She wear you out, old man?” Julia teased from beside him.

Slouching forward to rest his hands on his knees, James managed a weary nod. As he did, he kept an eye on Oria who was in the midst of clambering all over the jungle gym. Even after several spirited rounds of tag, she was bursting with energy and smiling brightly.

Seeing James’s exhaustion elicited an amused chuckle from Julia. “Still can’t believe you decided to keep her.”

“What else could I do?” James asked as he shifted to laying against the backrest. “Let the system have her?”

Julia nodded. “Yep. That’s what we usually do in situations like this.”

“Yeah, and usually the kids are normal, too,” James retorted. “Not that the system works all that great for them, either, but it definitely wouldn’t work for her.”

While rolling her eyes, Julia shook her head. “First that wind girl and now Oria. You’re too soft, James, even for a hero.”

James shrugged. “I guess I’m just a sucker for weird girls. I mean … I put up with you, after all.” Julia’s fist lashed out to punch James hard in the shoulder. “Ow.”

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

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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