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93.22% The Daily Grind. / Chapter 55: Chapter 055

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Chapter 55: Chapter 055

"So what now we have to do something with him right?" Alanna asked, still caffeinated, knees firmly pressed into Frank's back. The man under her was struggling furiously, but despite his efforts, Alanna kept him pinned.

James stood up, dusting off his hands on his knees. His whole body ached from the hits he'd taken fighting the paper pushers. Despite the fact that he was getting tougher, building muscle, and learning how to block or counter most of what was thrown his way, it still left him feeling like one giant walking bruise after a fight like that. Especially since 'most' wasn't 'all', and double especially when he was getting punched by five things at once.

As it turned out, when a starving, mistreated, demoralized stuffed shirt landed a punch to the jaw, it still hurt like hell. At least they were underfed, as indicated by the fact that they dropped greens and not yellows, much like the last paper-pusher that had ambushed them at the apartment. Though James could have told you that they were underfed from the fact that his bones were still bone-shaped, and not impressionist artwork, after getting punched a few times.

"Well, we're not killing him." James said to start with. "I'm not really sure! This hasn't come up before." It really was an unexpected problem for him. Dungeon monsters tended to either fight to the death, retreat deeper into the dungeon, or... no, that was it, really. Well, except for Rufus. But he was an exception.

Frank himself butted in, grunting in pain as Alanna kept his arms pinned. "What... urgh... what're you gonna do with me then, you fucking cu..." That got cut off into a howl of pain as James stepped on Frank's head. Lightly. Well, sort of lightly.

"Calm down, Frank." James said condescendingly. "Man, I was honestly hoping that you were just aware of the problem, but not a psychopath." James looked around the bar, at the toppled chairs and smashed glass across part of the floor. "So, really though, how do we handle this? I really don't want to kill him. I don't want to kill *anyone*. But if we let him go, he's just going to try to murder us and feed our corpses to the dungeon, right?" James looked down again, and noticed something else worrying. "Holy shit, you're bleeding." He said to Alanna.

She winced a bit, but didn't let go of her pin on Frank. "Yeah, turns out, I'm not bulletproof, and this hurts like fuck, and I think there's a bullet in my hand. So, part of me is screaming that we should shoot him before he shoots us first, but the rest of me is with you that I don't want to actually murder someone." Alanna was surprisingly magnanimous for someone who'd just been shot; even if it was because she'd grabbed a gun as it was firing.

James bit his lip in thought. "Okay, options. We could take him prisoner?"

"Where, in your spare bathroom? Or do you have a sex dungeon in your apartment that I'm unaware of?" Alanna asked sarcastically.

"Like, a dungeon dungeon? Or just a BDSM thing?"

"Why do you need me to clarify that?"

"Don't worry about it." James grinned before going back to the problem at hand. Ignoring Frank's snort of derision from under his boot, he tried to think of other choices. "We could stick him in the dungeon? Though that might just be a death sentence on its own. I could... ah..." He got Alanna's attention, and made a gesture to his own head, trying his best to mime out unleashing Secret on the man that they'd subdued.

Alanna glared at him. "No, that's basically just killing him."

"We could always..." James started to say.

But then Frank twisted his head and barked out some words before James could think to gag him again. "You owe me, Jim!" His voice changed cadance, almost like he was reciting rather than speaking normally. "Four uses of door number three, two uses with a guest. No payment made. Established rate of payment..."

"Frank, what the hell are you...?" James jumped backward, startled, a prickling cold running up his skin. Out of Frank's torso, from beneath his jacket, a glowing greenish-blue arm was dragging itself out onto the floor. The arm had translucent spikes running down its outside, ending with a long one on each of the two elbow joints. It didn't seem to be coming from anywhere, and was clipping through the jacket, and a second later, it was joined by a second limb pulling itself out as well. "Fuck! Alanna!"

She looked down, at a talon clawed hand that was groping at her leg. The phantasmal arm was becoming more and more solid by the second, and after a brief moment of confusion, she felt a burst of pressure as it tried to rip her off of Frank. Or perhaps just rip into her. As the arm clipped her cargo shorts and shredded them, Alanna became more glad than ever that her skin was hard as hell to actually breach.

Alanna wasted no time rolling off Frank, kicking out to catch him with a solid strike to the balls as she left him lying in pain on the floor. "What the fucking fuck is that fuck?!" She yelled at James as more and more spectral arms started burrowing out of Frank's chest, pulling themselves along with clawed hands across the floor. As they extended out farther and farther, they didn't show any signs of actually being attached to anything, instead just having more and more elbow joints and increasingly complex patterns of spurs and spikes along their exteriors. Alanna didn't bother to wait for an answer, instead flipping over and crawling across the floor, ignoring the shards of glass that lacked the ability to damage her, and lunging for the first handgun that she'd taken from Frank.

Watching the creature pull out of Frank's chest like an unfolding fractal of arms and hands, it clicked in James' head what had just happened. "Oh, I get it!" He said, as the realization dawned. "It's name is Debt, or something, yeah?"

But Frank didn't answer right away, as his face contorted in a wordless mask of anger and pain, and the arms started to get long enough to lift him off the ground like a puppet, the old man's legs dangling beneath him limply as the ghostly spined limbs took over the burden of moving entirely. "Should... have taken... your chances... through the door... Jim." He gasped out as the tenth arm started to burrow its way out from his lower back.

James backpedaled until he bumped against the bar, knocking one of the stools over as he tried to get away from the thing that Frank was playing host to. "Oh, Frank. This one doesn't look friendly at all. But that's okay. Because I know something that you do not know." He said the last bit in a lilting voice and with a bit of a laugh alongside the fear that was stuck in his throat. Find authorized novels in Webnovel, faster updates, better experience, Please click <a href=""></a> for visiting.

"What's... that?" Frank said, pausing in the forward motion of his manifested meme-enhanced form.

The pause was perfect timing. James and Alanna, who was now behind and off to the side of Frank, finished the line in unison. "I am not left handed."

Frank cocked his head to the side in confusion. And just like that, James and Alanna opened the path for their own meme. A shared joke from a favorite movie that no one else in the room had seen? It was the perfect public secret.

With a lot less pain than it seemed like Frank was feeling, the dusty blue glow of Secret's scales and teeth started to uncoil around James' legs and torso. Dozens of feet of ancient sea serpent began to pile up in the material world, his tails twitching and knocking aside barstools.

"Round two, Frank?" James asked with a confident smile that was a lot more stable than he felt in his heart.

Frank didn't bother answering, instead lurching forward on the ghostly arms, landing on his feet, and throwing a physical straightarm punch right at James' face. Startled at the burst of motion from someone who he thought wasn't in control of their own body, James took the hit on his cheek, rolling away from it as much as he could as he felt his teeth rattle. He got his arms up in time to take the next punch that Frank threw, another jab that crunched with a lot more force than James would ever expect from someone with grey hair and a desk job.

Shuffling backward, James, with some momentum assistance from Secret, grabbed the bar behind him and threw himself over the counter, crashing through a stack of mugs and knocking over a soda sprayer. Around him, the shadow of Secret snapped at the half-dozen arms that splayed out of Frank's torso and darted in at random to try to separate James from his precious limbs.

"We must strike first." Secret whispered to him.

"Working on it!" James barked back as he slammed a bottle of whisky snagged off the back shelf into one of the approaching hands. A solid thud deflected it away, and the unbroken weight of the bottle surprised James. A lifetime of movies told him that these things didn't usually stay so intact.

He and Secret ranged back across the rear of the counter, while Frank stalked the front, the myriad multi-jointed arms striking out to grab and rend without regard for if there was an opening to strike. Some of them started grabbing up bottles, ashtrays, coasters, whatever was convenient, and flinging the makeshift projectiles at James. These objects passed through Secret's still not fully real flesh without pause, but after the first heavy stone ashtray nailed James in the stomach, he started watching for the tactic, and slapping them away or dodging when they came in.

Alanna, meanwhile, was having her own trouble. James saw her on the other side of the room, leaping off a table as one of the hands came down on it after her. The arm splashed against the tabletop, joints bending like a wave to carry it after her in a bouncing trajectory. Alanna landed on another table in a crouch, surfing it as it slid across the floor slightly. She braced herself with one hand while the other brought the gun up, and cracked off two shots into the arm.

The bullets trailed out of it almost in slow motion, contrails of green plasma following them, before the substance was sucked back into the construct. James caught a screamed "Fuck!" from Alanna before she was rolling off that table, and he was forced to focus back on Frank, as he ran out of bar and once again came face to face with the old man.

Frank didn't say anything to James as he closed in, now wielding a serrated hunting knife that James hadn't seen him pull out of anywhere. James caught the first swing, but then took a nasty gash to his shoulder as one of the claws cut through his shirt and skin with equal force.

Panicking, he kept trying to put distance between himself and Frank. The arms were expanding farther and farther, taking up more and more space in the bar, and the pinball machine that James ducked around wasn't going to hold them off for long. "How much is *this* costing you, Frank?" He yelled over at the man. "It's Debt, right? Or Accounting, or Owed, or Account Payable? I don't know what you call it, but it's not gonna let you get this for free!"

James ducked as the front of the machine exploded into wires and plastic shards, one of the clawed hands scything through it. Near the ground and around a small corner of one of the bars support pillars, James tapped Secret's muzzle, then tapped the ground and pointed to the front of the bar where Alanna was trying to avoid the majority of the limbs pouring out of Frank. The meme nodded, and slithered off him.

Standing back up, James saw Frank circling around him from the other side, through the bar's pool hall. "It doesn't matter." The security guard turned person salesman told James. "As long as you're dead, there won't be anyone left to get in the way of paying it off."

So that was it, James thought. Frank fully intended to just kill him, and dump his corpse over a pool table. "Not planning to sell me to the dungeon anymore, Frank?"

"It was never going to work. It only takes people with talent." Frank shot back, along with a lunge with the knife.

James grabbed the arm that came at him with the blade, and threw Frank forward a bit, landing a knee to his side as he did so. But then one of the arms was coming around, more graceful than anything with that many joints should be, and James had to duck back before he could follow up with more strikes. "Doesn't seem in character for you! Too much work!" James taunted as he darted backward. He just had to regroup with Alanna, buy Secret some kind of opportunity, kill the hostile infomorph, and then... James' brain fizzled out. That was too much to ask already. Maybe just running for the car and hoofing it was a better plan.

"Alanna! Secret!" James yelled out for her as he raced back to the front of the building. "What's the plan?" He slid into place next to where Alanna and Secret were trying to come up with an option for dealing with Frank, while dodging or snapping at the multiple four meter long arms boxing them in. "And why is the plan 'just fucking run'?" James asked as he slammed a jabbing punch into the palm of one of the hands that was trying to reach for Alanna's back.

Alanna glanced behind her. "The door's armed." She said simply, and James bit barked out a laugh as he realized what she meant. The door was indeed covered in hands and arms, their spines forming a barricade holding them in. It kept the thing from unleashing it's full might on them, but also left them with no easy escape.

It was Secret that answered him, speaking from the mouth that wasn't currently biting an arm from Frank's pet meme. "It is as you said. It is What Is Owed To Me. It draws its manifestation from Frank's belief that you truly did owe him a debt. Take that away and -" Secret was cut off as another pair of arms wrapped around his head, the claws trying to break his scales.

Alanna also had a thought to share, as she grunted under the impact of an errant swing. "Or I could shoot Frank."

"Try that one first." James said, as Frank came around the corner. Alanna didn't hesitate, raising the gun and firing off a shot. But one of the arms grabbed it as it passed; and while the bullet ripped through, it was held back by the web of green plasma that trailed after it, eventually stopping it about a foot from Frank's face as the arm healed itself. "Okay, plan B." James muttered. "Frank!" He raised his voice. "Did you know that under Oregon law, debts cannot be assumed post hoc?! Made illegal in 1965!"

Frank didn't respond, instead just sending another claw in to try to grasp at James' throat, all while steadily advancing with his knife up. Frank was winded, and being old had as many incidental pains to go with the extra wisdom in a fight, but he wasn't done yet. These damn kids thought they could take away everything he'd worked for? No. Not even close to the truth.

"Okay, that didn't work. I don't think he gives a shit about laws." Alanna muttered. "Secret? Options?"

The ghost leviathan shivered as a pair of hits raked scales off it. He was too small, too weak. Frank had been feeding his meme a steady diet of greed, resentment, and a bitter desire for *more*, and Secret didn't have the conceptual sources of power to tap into to fight back effectively. So, he hissed back at James. "I need something else. I cannot fight through my opposition without more power."

In Alanna's head, there was a brief moment of doubt about whether or not finding a way to hand something that felt a lot like an artificial intelligence even more power was a good idea. But that thought got quashed by her trust, both in James, and Secret himself, who had been losing pieces of himself to keep her safe while she failed to do any reasonable damage to the hand monster that was trying to tear her skin off. So, what she said out loud was, "How?", while she grappled one of the green claws, keeping the phantasmal appendage pinned. Apparently, while bullets and thrown chairs phased through it, she could hold it down just fine with her own hands. "So you need more secrets?" Alanna asked the serpent.

"I need stronger secrets." He replied, chomping down on another arm. His other mouth spoke, "I need the breaking of things hidden."

"Doesn't that... OOF." James grunted as one of the hands flattened itself, and slipped past what he thought was an accurate grab, to clock him in the ribs. He reeled back, recovering quickly enough to punch the appendage away. "Doesn't that remove your power, if we share secrets?"

Secret made a motion that was simultaneously alien, and obviously a shrug. "I am of secrets. There are many aspects to a secret, some of them - " James and Alanna both stopped listening as Frank finally closed the gap, circling around their barricade of toppled tables.

They were having a hard enough time fighting one nightmare. The second, human-shaped one was going to make it quickly lethal.

For Alanna, it was pressuring her mind to try to think of a secret that she even could share with James. She was an almost impossibly blunt person sometimes, and that left her without a lot of options. Added to the time crunch of being clawed apart shortly if she didn't come up with an answer, her brain just locked up. She didn't stop fighting, but she didn't see a way down any new mental pathways that were useful. So she trusted in James to get Secret what he needed.

James had an answer.

He hated it.

But as he kicked a chair at Frank, and bought them about twenty seconds while the ghostly arms that were now emerging in a pair of matching rings from Frank's torso propped him back up, he knew exactly what he could open up to give Secret what he asked for.

Reaching out one hand to grab at Alanna's shoulder, he spoke softly, but firmly enough to be heard even over the grinding noise of spines on the wall and floor. "Hey." He said, swallowing his anxiety. "I think you should know that I'm furiously in love with you." Almost instinctively, Alanna wanted to make some kind of reply about how this wasn't the time for that, or simply go with the Harrison Ford answer and say 'I know'. But she held her tongue, and instead opted to go for grabbing the claw that was moving in to try to string James up by his own ponytail. Again suppressing the spike of anxiety and emotional turmoil in his chest, James looked up at Secret who was now being hemmed in by a dozen claws, and added something to his statement. "And also Anesh. And I'm terrified to tell either of you out of absolute terror that I'll fuck everything up."

Secret felt the rush of that most powerful part of a hidden truth; secrecy's dramatic end.

Alanna turned to James with a smile on her face, the look made slightly creepy by the twin lines of blood running down her cheek. Her own heart leapt, high on adrenaline and combat. "Aw, buddy." She said. "You never needed to wo-" Her words were cut off as, with her guard down, one of the claws lashed in from the side, grabbed her around the throat, and threw her across the front room of the bar.

"Fuck!" James screamed, slamming a punch into one of the gaps between the spines in the arm. His fist connected, and left a divot, but didn't damage the appendage, and he started to feel the last bits of hope he had in this fight drop away.

From behind him, he heard Frank chuckling.

And then, from around him, he heard a roar like rushing water.

An impossibly enormous serpent crashed through the forest of arms and hands and claws in front of James. From the comparatively tiny tail coiled around James' leg, Secret rose up. And up. And up. Miles and miles of neon fangs and scales and eyes, so many eyes now open. And staring in rage at Frank and the creature growing out of him. He was a leviathan; a creature from an age that never was, brought back to life here and now, to strike down the monster that his friends found themselves faced with.

Around James, a haze settled into solidity, as his own arms became wreathed in scales, his fists ending in fangs feet in length. He found himself balanced on a dozen tails, and suddenly seeing through extra eyes that peered into the same spaces with different contexts.

And all of a sudden, Frank seemed very small in front of him.

The old man hesitated, and then took a small step back. "Now, Jim..." He started to say.

But James wasn't listening anymore.

James stepped forward, and the wood panel floor of the bar cratered under the force of his step. A trio of arms bent at right angles and moved to intercept him, flowing toward his face more aggressively than any before. He didn't hesitate, swinging a wide roundhouse punch that, empowered by Secret's shell layered on top of his arm, left the incoming strikes not just countered, but torn to shreds. He screamed something incoherent at Frank, and a roar that thundered through the air joined him in battlesong.

The arms abandoned holding the door and windows, and a legion of them flooded toward James to try to stop his advance on Frank. But Secret, unbound and empowered by the cracking of a secret of the heart, intervened. His miles long body, flowed past in an endless loop, each toothy maw on it snapping one of the assaulting arms into broken residue that dissipated before it hit the floor.

And then James reached Frank, and slammed a normal human fist into his face, sending him tumbling back into the floor.

James looked up at the surviving arms, and spoke with a cold voice that he didn't know he could manage with this much rage inside him. "You can leave now, and I think whatever you owed Frank is more than paid off. Or you can die here. Your call."

What Is Owed To Me didn't have to think twice; with Frank down for the count it was already burning energy fast just to stay manifested physically. And it wasn't a hard call to throw its employer under the metaphysical bus.

And then the bar was silent. Secret shed his massive form, returning to the smaller serpentine shape that was snugly wrapped around James' torso, his head positioned right by James' ear in a classic vision of the snake whispering to a man. Though with fewer lies, in this case, hopefully. James didn't have time to think about it, instead letting the scales and claws shed off his body without trying to hold them in place, and rushing over to check on Alanna.

"Fucking ow." She coughed out, sitting up with his help. "Let's not do this on our next date." Alanna somehow managed to turn out a joke.

"Deal." James said as he got her to her feet. "Should we get out of here?"

"Frank first." She said, stalking over to him, and pulling out her phone while she also picked up the handgun off the floor. "One left. Perfect. Secret! Can you hide something on the security camera footage?"

"That camera is not connected to anything storing information." Secret politely told her.

"Perfect!" Alanna walked up to Frank's prone form from behind, and raised the gun, ignoring James' increasingly frantic 'no's in the background. Then she shot him in the leg. Then she pushed 'dial' on her phone, and waited for the automated 911 system to put her through. "Police please." She spoke into the phone. "Maybe ambulance? I think someone just shot themselves. I was walking by a bar and it looked like some guy in there was trashing the place." A pause, and James almost burst out laughing. "Yes, I have the address." She told the operator.

Three minutes later, police were on the way. "What about the gun with your prints on it?" James asked.

"That one's mine now. Frank obviously shot himself with the *other* gun." Alanna said.

"And the dead paper pushers?" James was trying to figure out if they could shove all five bodies in his trunk before the police arrived.

He and Alanna were outside with a few precious minutes before the police showed up, with Alanna going to be absent when they did so there weren't any questions about the cuts on her head and bullet wound in her hand. "Target dummies, obviously. They're made of paper. If anyone recognizes them as dungeon mobs, so what? That'll make it even less likely that we're involved."

"I feel like this is still crazy risky." James said.

Alanna just shrugged. "I admit, I was kind of hasty. But I wanted to shoot Frank somehow, and at least this way he's probably not going to be an issue for a while."

"Fair. If we had more time we could have found drugs to plant on him or something." James mused.

"Know any drug dealers?"

"Good point."

"Okay, I'm gonna be a ways away for a while. Call me after they get done, so you can take me to the hospital." Alanna said, heading off away from the main road. She got about four steps, then turned around and walked back. James gave her a raised eyebrow look, and she just smiled, leaned in, and gave him a small kiss. "Don't think Secret ate the words you said." She told him, and then waved over her shoulder with her good hand as she actually made her temporary exit.


Of all the things James hated most in life, he was quickly coming up with 'answering police questions' and 'emergency care waiting room' as the contenders for the top two.

No, he wasn't the person who called it in. No, he didn't do it. No, there was no evidence, and yes, he was covered in bruises, but that wasn't related. No, he couldn't explain what had happened, he was just here because his friend had to leave, and he had witnessed the same things she did. No, he didn't know why the safe in the back was open, or why there was a giant package of cocaine in there. Though he wasn't complaining, since it was the half of a plan that they hadn't really had time to form, falling into place. If nothing else, now Frank was going to have to spend a lot more on bail if he wanted to seek petty revenge.

At a certain point, he wanted to just yell at them that if he'd know about the fucking safe, or thought to go into the back office at all, he would have stolen everything that wasn't nailed down. Like the eight identical black briefcases that they brought out that looked alarmingly familiar to James. Or the stacks of money, some of which he was almost sure had come from him.

He had to wonder what else Frank had stashed away back there. Did the police find any orbs, and just leave them? Maybe after Alanna had fewer holes in her, they could come back and scour the place. How long did crime scenes stay active, anyway? James figured that if Frank was going to be in some kind of lockup for a while, that they'd have the time to look through the bar. Frank seemed to have driven away all the actual clientele; maybe with a magic effect, or maybe just firing all the staff and putting up a closed sign. But either way, this place was nondescript, unused, and may contain answers and/or hidden wall safes. Maybe JP and Anesh could check it out over the week while they waited for the door to open again.

But while he tried to keep his cool through the questioning, and get through it, it felt like there was a mountain of uncomfortable suspicion on him. James fidgeted with his keys in his pocket while the officer that had been talking to him went over to another cop, and the two of them kept looking his way. Then his fingers brushed against the small blue orb in his pocket, and he figured there was no harm in trying it out.

[+1 Skill Rank : Flute]

[Problem Solved : Recognition]

Almost out of nowhere, another cop car with its red and blue lights throwing more harsh shadows on the wall showed up. And this one, by some absolute coincidence, happened to contain one of the officers that recognized him as the guy from the convenience store fight the other day, which helped to give justification for the bruises. Of *course* James was in a martial arts class; that made perfect sense and he should have just said that.

He almost ground his teeth into powder waiting for them to let him go. But they did, after that, let him go. The new arrival even have him a friendly pat on the shoulder that caused his stiffened and bruised arm to tense up in mild pain. But James grinned and got through it.

After that imposed wait, he met up with Alanna, who had found a food cart that sold her a massive burrito and didn't ask stupid questions about whose blood that was, and took her and her food to the hospital.

And then three god damned hours later, they finally got out after Alanna started telling nurses that she was going to leave under her own power if they didn't get the discharge paperwork right this second.

James did, while they waited and Alanna dozed under the influence of painkillers, have time to bring everyone up to speed on their group chat. Which meant that he didn't need to look forward to explaining it all over again when he got home.

Which was good. He reminded himself, there was still the matter of trying to save someone's life tomorrow. And he was already exhausted, and looking forward to bed.


When the two of them stumbled back into the apartment, they did so just in time to see a crumpled ball of paper sail across their vision and into the garbage can in the kitchen.

"The fuck are you clowns doing?" Alanna asked.

JP waved at them. "Hey, welcome back. Good to see you too, I'm glad you're okay!" He winced as he saw the bandage on her hand. "Hope that doesn't hurt too much, eh? Anyway, um, it turns out that Anesh is 'good' at basketball, and I'm making him prove it. And also mad at him for squandering basketball."

From the kitchen, Dave nodded. "Yeah, he missed one so far. Out of twenty six. It's impressive, it's a great thing to be 'good' at." He said. "Also welcome back. Are you guys okay?"

"Yeah, that. That's important, not basketball." Anesh said. "Please, get me out of this. Also, for real, you look like hell. Do you need anything? I've got some leftover painkillers from when my arm broke."

"Nice passive voice." James said with a grin at his friend. "But no. Also, why are you guys saying 'good' in that weird tone and not just that he got a skill-" Everyone in the room that wasn't Alanna, who had thrown herself face down onto the couch, shushed James. "-Okay. Why." He said with a dry tone and a roll of his eyes.

From down the hall, he heard the toilet flush and saw the bathroom door in the hallway open. A second later, his brain caught up and realized that everyone who was supposed to be here was already in his living room.

"Hey!" Came the shouted, cheerful voice of a young girl from the other side of his apartment. "You're back!"

James took a deep breath and tried to hold back his frustration, to little effect.

It was Anesh who answered his earlier question. "Yeah, so, your younger sister showed up. I hope you don't mind, we let her in, and can't get rid of her. That's... not a huge problem, right?" He spoke in a tone that informed James that he knew it was a huge problem, and didn't have much choice in the matter.

But James wasn't about to get angry about it. A brush with death left him more than a little immune to petty grievances like this. "Yeah, it's fine. Though, hey, could you maybe put this with wherever you hid the other... things?" James said, slinging the grocery bag with the five green orbs in it toward Anesh. "Because that's one conversation I don't want to have right now."

"What's a conversation you don't want to have? Tell me!" James let out an *oomph* as his younger sister, Kayle, all of seventeen years old and somehow unearthly annoying, slammed into him in a hug.

"Hi, welcome to my apartment. Why are you here?" James bluntly threw the words at her.

Kayle let out a teenage sigh; enough angst in it to level a small building. "Mom and dad are going out of town and they dropped me off to stay here with you. Mom said you'd have to be okay with it because they pay your phone bill, and so you owe her. Forever. Because you're her son."

James looked around at his friends for support, but found nothing there. "Well, look at the time." JP said, checking an invisible watch. "Dave, I'm your ride, you ready to go?"

"Yup. Nothing suspicious for me to do here." The two of them both shuffled around where James was standing, avoiding eye contact, to get their shoes on.

"Smooth." James muttered to them.

"Good luck." JP said back with a smile. And then, more seriously. "I'll see you tomorrow. Good luck. Really."

James let out a small groan and massaged his temples as his sister started bombarding him with questions about where he'd been and what he was up to. "Tell you what; I'll talk to you tomorrow about it, okay? For now... Anesh, can you help me get Alanna into a real bed?" Anesh nodded, smiling but still keeping a concerned eye on James as he jumped over the back of his armchair to maneuver with James around the couch to try to pick Alanna up.

"Do I have to sleep on the couch?" Kayle pouted at him, trying out the puppy dog eyes that she'd found to work so well on the boys, and some of the girls, at school.

"No," James said, half surprised as he thought of the answer, "you know, I have good news!" His grin turned a bit sharkish. "Wouldn't you know it, we have an extra bed here? Let me show you to your temporary room."

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