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How to Bag an Asshole

Midnight-chan Mar 2nd, 2019 308 Never
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  1. Ch.1 Customer Service
  2. ----------------------------------
  3. “My account’s been hacked!”
  4. The woman shrieked so loud my headphones popped, earning smirks from my few coworkers still left in the office. Bloody ingrates. I surreptitiously hit ‘record’ on my phone. When life gives you lemons and all that.
  5. “I’m sorry Ms. …Feldt,” I said, keeping my voice carefully neutral as I skimmed the case info on my screen, “but I’m going to need to go through a few steps so we can find the problem. It says here you had a problem with billing?”
  6. “You’re God damn right I have a problem with billing! Some THIEF racked up THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS of charges on my account, and your store REFUSED to give me a refund!”
  7. “Yes. Well it says here that you use our WonderPay system with ManaID. That should prevent any normal credit card thief. Has your phone or tablet been missing any time in the last month?”
  8. “No you moron, that’s why I said HACKED! I paid good money because JCN is supposed to be secure and this is what I get?”
  9. Damn. Once, _once_, why couldn’t I end the day with an easy case? “Well let me ask, Ms. Feldt, what exactly were these charges?”
  10. “You know damn well what the charges! Now stop fucking with me and give me my damn refund or I’ll file a complaint with your manager!” she cried, growing if possible even louder.
  11. “No, ma’am, actually I don’t. Part of the security is that we can’t see your charges, some people prefer it that way.” _And if you’d read even the big-print plain English part of the license you’d know that,_ I thought but didn’t say. Honestly, we might as well just leave it in legalese.
  12. “Hrmf. It says here ‘In-app purchase – Bapho Int.’ a ton of times.”
  13. Oh hell, not the social games!
  14. I gingerly asked, “Alright Ms. Feldt, I think we can help, but I need to ask one more question. By some chance is there anyone else you’ve authorized to make payments? Family perhaps?”
  15. I shuddered. The thought of this gorgon having kin was just one more thing sapping my faith in humanity. Scratch that, I’d met an actual Gorgon once, snake hair and all, and comparing her to this lady was an insult. Still, the pause on the other end of the line told me I was probably right.
  16. “We-ell, little Jimmy does use the tablet,” she grudgingly admitted before quickly returning to form. “But that’s crazy! What the hell would a nine-year-old buy with three THOUSAND dollars?”
  17. “Games?”
  18. “Excuse me?”
  19. “Games. A nine-year old buys games. I don’t know if you’re aware, Ms. Feldt, but Bapho Interactive is known for its, shall we say, predatory games. Your little Jimmy probably has a whole virtual castle full of goodies by now. And that’s consistent with our records, which show no unusual access to any of your devices.”
  20. “That’s ridiculous! Who ever heard of a game that costs three thousand dollars? If you don’t give me my damn refund right now I’m switching to your manager. Star-5-9, fucker!”
  21. Ah, hell. *59 was the extension to switch a call directly to my boss, which would ding me in the system and probably piss her off. And as much as I hated the job, I liked having medical benefits, and a roof over my head for that matter. “I’m sorry ma’am, I hastily apologized. My manager can’t authorize this either, but that being said I might have a way to get you your money.”
  22. That wasn’t exactly true, but to ‘encourage joint solutions’, reps like me would lose 10% of any refund we gave. I couldn’t afford a 300-quid hit this month, especially not for something this bloody stupid. As a precaution I moved my headset from my ears just in case this woman knew.
  23. I was in luck. She warily grumbled, “Fine, but this had better be good.” _Now if only you were_ I thought. Only the knowledge that this was my last call of the week kept my voice level.
  24. “It is, ma’am, and I’m sorry if you’re unhappy. In fact I’d love to help, but this is between you and your credit card company. Issue a chargeback before the month ends and you should be set. In the future, you can set a spending limit or notifications with your phone’s voice assistant.”
  25. Ms. Feldt grumbled again, but didn’t protest. That mean I passed the call metrics. Time for just a small bit of revenge. Keeping my voice cloyingly cheerful, I add, “Oh, and you might want talk with your son about money so he doesn’t end up as a profligate. Have a _wonderful_ day.”
  26. “GOD DAMMIT YOU COCKSUCKING JEWNUKI SON OF A—”
  27. I slammed down my headseat and close the support app. Free at last! Or I would be, except a message from my boss flashed across the screen. “Mr. Miller, see me in my office regarding your latest ‘performance’.”
  28.  
  29. Ch.2 Corporate Grind
  30. ----------------------------------
  31. “Kieran, please, shut the door and have a seat.”
  32. My boss Vivian sat across from me, her gray eyes impassive. Though short, she exuded steely authority, impressive considering her raccoon ears and tail would typecast her as a mascot. No accounting for tanukis I guess.
  33. I complied, and as soon as I’d taken a seat she fired off another question. “Kieran, do you know why I called you here?”
  34. Not good. Usually she’d make a bit of small talk to set the mood. I swallowed hard and thought back, trying to figure where I might have actually broke policy. “Couldn’t say, unless snark’s illegal now,” I answered, hoping to lighten the atmosphere.
  35. She permitted herself a tight grin. “I’d be the first one behind bars in that case, trust me. But no, this is a bit more serious. What are the JCN core values?”
  36. After all those brain-free training sessions how could I forget. “Simplicity, security, integrity,” I intoned.
  37. “Right. People trust us not to be creepy. That’s the money pump that keeps us from being washed away in a landslide of Google bucks. You know what’s creepy?”
  38. “What?” I asked, not liking where this was going.
  39. “Recording customers, no matter how assholish, so you can post it on some failblog to laugh at.”
  40. Fuck. No, wait, stay cool. She may just be fishing. “Right,” I answered, “what exactly are you getting at?”
  41. Viv sighed and rubbed her temples, brushing back her short brown hair in the process. “Look, Kier, I don’t have time for this. Remember the last training?”
  42. “About ‘serious security’? Yeah?”
  43. “Kier, I know you just click through that shit. Which would be fine, _if_ you’d bother to at least skim the important bits, like _hooking AI to the call center monitoring system!_” she hissed.
  44. “Ah, hell.”
  45. “Hell is right,” she said, rising and slamming her hand on the desk. “That system is above above my pay grade, violations go right to the Boss!”
  46. “THE Boss?” I asked with trepidation.
  47. “THE Boss,” Viv confirmed. THE Boss was the ‘J’ in ‘JCN’, Jabberwock Crypto Networks. And given her messy divorce and blackmail case, right now she was more prone than usual to go for some snicker-snack.
  48. “So what are my options?” I asked, having trouble processing all of this.
  49. “Well if you like having a job there’s really just one. I happened to hear that the AI uses a machine-learning driven ‘merit’ system. Good deeds cancel bad ones, it’s a one-track point system.”
  50. “So if I get a ton of points—” I said, seeing where she was going.
  51. “Bingo!” she said, slapping the table for emphasis. She then turned to computer and started typing while she continued, “Bulk alerts go out sometime Sunday, so you have the weekend to cash in.”
  52. “And I take it you have an idea for that?”
  53. For a minute the tanuki said nothing, tail swishing as she typed. “Here,” she said finally, swiping a dongle from the machine and slapping it down before me.
  54. “Priority support, just came in today. The sysadmin for the Elect Kate Duran campaign defected to the opposition, system’s in shambles. But it’s a JCN system and it’s under contract. Turn that around and our department security and integrity scores should be through the roof.”
  55. Marvelous. Two days for an installation that would usually be a week at minimum. I must look like a bloody mouse, fun to bat around and toy with for a spell instead of just going for a clean kill. I took the stick and downloaded the info to my phone. Still, I wondered about one thing. “Kate Duran, is that the web TV star who’s had people canvassing the city all month?”
  56. “That’s her,” my boss answered. “Apparently her big points are accessibility for monsters and sticking it to big online companies, so if you meet any campaign staff, try to not to piss anyone off too much.”
  57. “C’mon Viv, surely I’m not _that_ bad?” I protested.
  58. “Oh?” she asked, arching a brow at me.
  59. “What?”
  60. “Kier, you’re a literal black hole of cynicism. No deed escapes unsnarked.”
  61. “Like you can talk. Half the time you’re worse than me!”
  62. “Yeah, and I used to be worse all the time, that’s exactly how I know you’ll shoot your fool mouth off and fuck things up. Also, I’m not on point, you are.”
  63. “Fair. So what turned you around?”
  64. “I met my better half.” She spared a tender glance at the family photo on her desk. Typical. Should’ve guessed. Too bad that’s not in the cards when you’re a wiry geek instead of a shortstack raccoon lady. I hid my annoyance by looking at the data which downloaded. Pity for me that was no better – I was faced with the bold red type, ‘immediate dispatch’. As in be there tonight.
  65. “Anything else?” I asked, handing back the stick, slipping my phone in my pocket, and resigning myself to misery.
  66. “Yeah. Think positive,” she said, strangely earnest for her.
  67. “Why on earth would I be positive? I’m stuck working nights and weekends against the clock so I don’t get canned. There’s literally nothing positive here!”
  68. “Kieran, do you know why I’m even giving you this chance?”
  69. “Misplaced pity?”
  70. “No, pity is what assholes dangle when they don’t think you’ve got a chance. Why I don’t do charity. You? You can turn this around. You’re not stupid, you actually know shit. But you hold that over people, push them away before they’ve got a chance.” She shot me a wry grin, “Reminds me of myself, when I was young and stupid.”
  71. That she seemed sincere surprised me. That I halfway bought it surprised me more. Viv was the one person here I respected, she’d done a rough turn on the streets just like me and then clawed her way here. And really, she didn’t owe me a damn thing.
  72. I sighed and rose to leave. “Well, thanks for the vote of confidence. Knowing my luck I’ll be in bloody jail by this time tomorrow.”
  73.  
  74. Ch.3 Sweet and Sour
  75. ----------------------------------
  76. Ten minutes later I was at the campaign headquarters. The place was a hole. Past the peeling paint of the façade and an indifferent security guard I found myself in a maze of beige halls and meeting rooms, walls yellowed with age or perhaps the accumulated smoke of various backroom deals. Second floor, she said? At least the signage was clear, along with every scuff and shab on the tiling. The sickly LED bulb glow made sure of that. Tired as I was, I was still vaguely amazed that what passed for politics stateside would fit right in at a Manchester pub.
  77. A low hum wormed its way into my consciousness as I walked the hall, uneven and a bit unsettling. Unconsciously I slowed to listen. Then, CRASH! The sound of glass shattering pulled me from my reverie. I rushed round the corner and found the shards of a coffee mug, then turning, the culprit. The red-headed fox woman leapt back when she saw me, her four tails puffing out nearly as large as her body. For a moment neither of us spoke. Then, cheeks burning as she processed what happened, she lamely asked, “Um, I— Want some coffee?” indicating the pot on the counter.
  78. “Sure, thank you,” I offered uncertainly, scanning the room. It was definitely the place, the big JCN rack in the back confirmed that. A computer desk was pushed next to it, the terminal providing the only source of light besides a dim ceiling light in the attached breakroom, where the kitsune woman rushed to fill another pair of mugs. On the table beside her was a bowl of ramen and a half-eaten quart of what looked like bloody chunks of meat.
  79. “Sugar?” she asked, turning to look at me with glowing green eyes.
  80. “Please,” I said, coughing hide my discomfort as my eyes wandered back to the table.
  81. Following my gaze, her brows furrowed. “Oh, uh, sorry about this,” she said, putting the mugs down and starting to clear the table. “I’m Rina, by the way. You’re the JCN guy, right?”
  82. “Kieran,” I muttered as I stood unmoving, trying to figure a delicate way to ask about that quart and coming up blank. Rina saw me staring and paused.
  83. “Wait, did they send you over without a dinner break?” she asked, concern creeping into her voice. “You can have some if you want, or there’s more noodles over here.”
  84. “What _is_ that?” I finally blurted out, pointing to the bloody quart.
  85. “Why, squeamish,” she teased, cottoning on to my unease. “Don’t worry, foxes stick to small prey."
  86. Didn’t help then that for the second time tonight I felt like a mouse in a trap. Is it instinct with these monster women?
  87. “It’s borscht,” she admitted, looking a bit disappointed at my lack of response.
  88. “Oh. Well, still an..unusual..meal,” I said, choosing my words to not make an even bigger fool of myself. _Probably a little late for that now_ I chided myself.
  89. If Rina noticed either way, she didn’t show it, smiling as she continued, “Yeah, I get that a lot, but it’s seriously good, mom’s recipe. She and dad were in town this week and stopped by, I have like six of these at home.”
  90. “Lucky,” I commented, taking the lull to really look at Rina now that my nerves had calmed. Her clothes were nerd chic, black jeans and vest over a red retro tee. Pretty basic, honestly, but she made it look good. Curves in all the right places, gracefully long hair, and a real smile, neither ironic nor smug.
  91. “Yeah,” she said, mood turning dark, “yeah, lucky to have my system fucked by a crazy stalker who’d been lying to me for years, but it’s all okay, I’ve still got home cooking.”
  92. “Whoa, look, sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”
  93. “Yeah, I know,” she apologized. “It just gets to me, you know? Like I thought we were friend, he wanted more, but he never _said_ anything until he just up and trashed everything.”
  94. “There’s no one else?”
  95. “Nope, it was me and him. Or just me now.”
  96. “Real bastard to leave you in the lurch like that. Can you tell me anything about the system? The reset mode on these things is pretty good if nothing else, with luck I’ll turn things around.”
  97. “Sure. Whatd’ya want for food, if you’re stuck with me now you might as well eat while we talk?”
  98. I eyed the borscht dubiously despite her endorsement. Beets, I think it was. Never liked them, even as lad. “Noodles are fine,” I said. “So the system?”
  99. “Not much to say, we had a pretty basic setup,” she said, taking out a second bowl and another ramen pack. “Three main modes on it: a CMS for the Kate videos and blog posts, an event scheduler for the campaign team and supporters, and a vote/contact list for online campaigning. Funds were through WonderPay, so fortunately they’re still safe.”
  100. “And what’s the damage?”
  101. “Content was backed up, but the voter list and scheduling is _gone_. Not much chance for the campaign without those. I _hope_ we can get the paper forms for most of them, if we can fix things tonight the volunteers’ve said they’ll come tomorrow. New user IDs, so they won’t sync with the old comments, but with elections next week I don’t think anyone cares.”
  102. “That would make it difficult,” I admitted, feeling sorry for the lone kitsune. She’d been done hard, not unlike me really. To make smalltalk as she prepared the noodles and soup, I asked, “So what’s your angle in the campaign here? Got a cause, or just a job?”
  103. “Definitely the first,” she said with conviction.
  104. _Oh hell, not a SJW,_ I thought. More diplomatically, I simply asked, “For?”
  105. “All of it. I mean I have it easy, but think about other monsters. If you’re a centaur or bullspider public transit’s useless, and if you’re a gorgon or slime even stairs are a serious issue. And well, even for humans, healthcare and data privacy are both a mess sold to the highest bidder!”
  106. “Oh, don’t I know it,” I said.
  107. “Really?” she said, ears pricking up. I think she was expecting pushback. Little did she know my cynicism ran far deeper.
  108. “Sure. Like how a minor flu that’s paid in full by the jolly old NHS will cost me more than three hundred dollars here. Or how by joys of capitalism I’m forced to buy an eight hundred dollar WonderPhone because anything less is considered too cheap to protect my data, which the bloody free market makes clear is worth at least a quart of that every year to Facebook, MonConnect, and friends. Take my money, please, not like _I_ have any use for it, no!”
  109. “So you’re a supporter?” she asked hopefully.
  110. “No! With all the graft and slush money in politics I’d be better off fellating a shotgun.” I pointed my fork at her for emphasis. “This ‘Kate Duran’, what is she, a Hollywood starlet? In bed the producer probably. Change? Just a brand to sell the rubes!”
  111. With each accusation Rina shrank further back, ears flattening, until she meekly asked, “You really think it’s that bad?” The damnedest thing was I actually felt sorry for her and whatever was left of her youthful optimism. Or maybe that was the food talking, had to admit I’d been hungry. I sighed.
  112. “Look, don’t let me get you down if _you_ believe it’ll work, hell is other people’s opinions. But I came stateside hoping to ‘make a difference’ and strike it rich in tech, and here I ended up, working a call center after a stint on the mean streets. And if I don’t fix things here, back for another.”
  113. “I didn’t know,” she said frowning. She thought for a moment while she cleaned her dishes. Then, resolving herself, she walked right up to me, placed her hand on my and declared “Don’t worry though, we’ll get this. For you, for me, and for everyone counting on the campaign.”
  114. Too close. I pushed my chair back for breathing room. She’d smelled good. Really good, good enough that if I valued my professional distance I’d put it out of mind. “Right,” I cleared my throat. Let’s get to work.
  115. The work was intense, but mostly tedious. Reset the system, reinstall the software, check the dependencies. It helped that Rina was on point. Whenever I had a question about the system specs, she knew what I meant and usually had a sane, cogent implementation, not some abomination of a database coded in Excel. What bothered me most were the leftover files, many of them recoverable, but some with strange encryption. It didn’t match the keys Rina had, which made me suspect a cryptovirus. Hours slipping away, I ignored them to focus on other tasks. Mostly we passed the time with banter.
  116. “You should cheer up,” she said, “have a bit of fun once in a while.
  117. “Fun? Fun in America is a lot like genocide in Rwanda. Lot of guns and tits out in the open, and nary a competent administrator in sight.”
  118. “Well if you hate it that much, just imagine we’re still a British colony.”
  119. “Oh good horror no. The queen would be so disappointed.”
  120. “Drama queen, we’re not _that_ bad.”
  121. “No, no you’re far worse. We gave you an empire with half the world’s resources 80 years ago and this is what you make of it? If this is the price of burgers I’d have waited for Germany to make them.”
  122. In the wee hours of the morning the end was in sight, just those few files left. The time had flown, talking about various things. Apparently she was from Russia, or her parents were anyways. And she seemed more fascinated by tales of my streetside years than she had any right to be given the grim nature of tale and subject. On break we kept talking.
  123. “So what about you, you expect me to believe you cosplayed as some League of Legends character in front of hundreds of horny fanboys?” I asked incredulously.
  124. “It’s easier than you think,” Rina said with a grin. “One of the perks of being a real kitsune. All I needed was the costume, and even that’s a lot easier with a quick illusion spell.”
  125. “Oh? Try me.”
  126. She took out her phone and called up a video. ‘Kate Duran: Serious About U”. The image was a busty foxgirl with glowing blue anime hair flowing in the wind as she stood atop a building in cosplay clothes. “Watch this,” Rina said. There was a glow, and in an instant she had a total makeover, the spitting image of the girl on the screen. Her, ehem, assets had accumulated, and even her eyes changed blue with nary a contact. “Well?” she asked, tails swishing pensively, “how do I look?”
  127. “Utterly ridiculous,” I said. Her ears fell. “Honestly, I think you look far better without the illusions.”
  128. Immediately she dropped the façade and leaned in. “Yeah?” she asked. “What about me do you like?”
  129. Too close, again. Trying and failing to gain a coherent train of thought I blathered. “Well, uh, you’re not fake, for one. Ah, you’re smart, your funny, your tits—”
  130. “My tits?” she asked defensively, but didn’t back off.
  131. “Well it’s hard not to look, they’re right in front of me! You keep running into creepers, but these would make anyone a pervert!”
  132. “You’re not just saying that?” she asked, eyes wide and glowing. “My first boyfriend told me they were too small, he like my transformations better.”
  133. “Well fuck him and his limp dick!” I shouted, keenly aware of how my own little Kieran was reacting. Brain, do your thing!
  134. “Kieran, I—”
  135. “Listen, Rina,” I managed, extricating myself, “not that I object, but shouldn’t we finish the system?”
  136. She relented, returning to her set, and I mine. To distract from that last part I asked, “What’s so good about me then?”
  137. We hadn’t known each other long, but even still she caught my intent. “You think the answer’s nothing, don’t you?”
  138. “You said it, not me.”
  139. “No, that’s not my answer! Seriously, you’ve got such a jaundiced view of things it’s no wonder you’re stuck. Think. Rationally, you’ve helped me do in a night what would take most teams tens times that. You were hungry, pissed, and fearing for your job, and you still found it in you to cheer me up any time I was feeling down tonight. And, well, it’s nice to find someone who’s okay with just me.”
  140. “FUCK!” I shouted. While I’d been listening with my damn dick I’d missed a virus cleanse on one of the files I’d gone over. In restoring it, it activated. “Virus!” I cried, “isolate the machine!” Rina leapt into action, pulling the physical network cable from the box and opening diagnostics there. I did the same on my end, but it wasn’t looking good. The seconds it’d taken are an eternity in computer time, thousand on thousands of operations. I traced the damage, but it’d made its way around, hitting several other machines and sending _something_ to the internet at large.
  141. I sucked in a breath and recalled my past hacking experience, looking through the system for hidden files and putting up every backstop I could. True, I could reset the system again, but that would blow any chance of recovering the campaign in time for the election. Chump change to me, but going by our earlier conversation Rina would be crushed.
  142. “How’s it on your end?” I asked.
  143. “Not good. You have a fix, or is this another reset?”
  144. “Well, I think I have one,” I offered, explaining the technical details, and she implemented them quickly, practically beaming with joy. She stood and stretched. I didn’t like that we’d been hit on the reset system, too many default passwords and the like. But it wasn’t encrypting anything new, which was a good sign. If it had done something I didn’t revert I’d failed to trace it. I almost admitted my fears, but I hesitated. Was it really worth ruining this, ruining everything, for a doubt that was probably just paranoid cynicism? In the end I couldn’t justify it.
  145. “Rina, I still don’t like this. I want to at least run another set of diagnostics. If that passes, I’ll greenlight the volunteers. Get some sleep.
  146. At that the foxwoman stubbornly sat back down, shooting me an annoyed look. “Kieran, we’re in this together good or bad. This is my system, and if you think there’s still a risk it’s on me to make the call.”
  147. I had nothing to say to that. After a moment, she continued in a softer voice. “Still, I do appreciate this. Tomorrow, if this passes, if everything’s running at noon when the volunteers get in, if we really make it, you want to out to dinner?”
  148. Not expect that, I considered. One by one the checks were coming back green, so it was a real possibility. She gave a small laugh and hastily added, “On me of course, no pressure. We’ll bill the time as ‘consulting’.”
  149. I grinned. That much money didn’t really change the calculus, but it was such stereotypical politics. That and it struck me funny that _I_ was the one being asked out. Finally the last light was green. “Sure,” I chuckled, “here’s my number.”
  150.  
  151. Ch.4 Hot Date
  152. ----------------------------------
  153. Noon came and went with nary a call, not that I notice – by the time I woke the sun was setting. I checked my messages. Just one, from Rina fifteen minutes ago. Meet at Tostada’s, half past seven. I was officially in the clear, and with a couple hours to get ready. Hard to believe I’d found a woman who’d date me. Even more incredibly, she was cute and with no glaring character flaws. Maybe a little optimism wasn’t bad once in a while.
  154. That left one pressing problem: what exactly makes a good date? Thinking back to uni with a few online columns for advice, I came up dry. With snow threatening flowers didn’t make much sense, and since she set the place and time I’d lost the element of surprise.
  155. I looked up a few Kate Duran videos looking for inspiration. Rina’d been so earnest about the campaign last night that they might offer _something_ to go off of. The general thrust of them was definitely not my thing, sickeningly naïve politics and games I didn’t have time to play anymoer. One thing did catch my eye though. Across several videos she had a moon motif in the background, a lot like the one I’d seen on Rina’s login. Well, she said she did video editing, maybe it was hers?
  156. Time running low, I threw on a dress shirt and pair of nice khakis, sandy to match my hair, which I hastily combed so it didn’t look like a mess. That done I left for a nearby trinket shop, plentiful on this side of the city. Turned out not to be so easy. Most moon jewelry was either hippie crystal trash that so fascinated the fuzzy left or pro stuff well out of my price range. Six shops later I finally found a piece that tickled my fancy, a silver ‘cloudy moon’ pendant where the inside of the crescent narrowed to a blade. Morbid, perhaps, but with a weirdo attach rate like Rina’s it seemed fitting, and the whole time I was shopping I couldn’t shake the feel I was being watched. Stress, probably, but in the leaner years my instincts had served me well. Luckily the rest of the trip passed without incident.
  157. Rina was waiting at the restaurant, dressed in a nicer version of her previous ensemble. Leather jacket and pants, red blouse, and hair brushed ‘til it shined. Pity it wasn’t fancier, she’d look amazing in a cocktail dress. “Kieran!” she waved.
  158. “Wait long?” I asked.
  159. “Don’t worry about it, come on, let’s eat!” Which was a yes.
  160. Pleasantries and orders out of the way, Rina was on her second glass of red wine and chatting away happily, but I still felt ill at ease. Looking around for a moment to gather my courage, I asked the question eating away me: “Look, so we’re clear, is this a ‘thank you’ dinner for last night, or a date-date?”
  161. Suddenly quiet, Rina couldn’t meet my gaze. At length, she whispered something I couldn’t make out.
  162. “What was that?” I asked. Again I waited.
  163. Shyly, the kitsune leaned closer and asked, “What do you want it to be?” She looked at me, searching.
  164. _Of course a date!_ I almost said, but stopped myself when I considered her past two ‘admirers’. That made it tricky, I didn’t want to torpedo my chances by coming off like one of them, and for once I regretted my tendency to snark on reflex. I suddenly felt exposed, vulnerable, and I didn’t like it.
  165. “Rina,” I started, weighing my words, “last night was the best time I’ve had in years, and that’s _despite_ fielding calls that would make a Twitter troll blush before I met you.” The kitsune blushed a bit herself, encouraging me. I put my hand on her and continued “I won’t press you like an ass, you’ve dealt with enough of that. But if it’s me, I want this to be a real date.”
  166. “Kieran, that means a lot to me,” she said, leaning closer. “I also had a great time last night, and you already know how the rest of my Friday went. So for me too, let this be a ‘date-date’, and we’ll see just where—”
  167. She closed her eyes, lips parting as I guided her closer, leaning in for a kiss. Then—flash! The sudden light was small, but after all those training sessions I was well acquainted: it was the WonderPhone minimal exposure light, otherwise known as the anti-creepshot light. Seeing me turn, the covert photographer dashed off down the street. Maybe it was just a shot of Rina, bad enough, but if it had me, well, can you say tabloids? ‘JCN rep caught in inappropriate client relationship’ flashed through my mind.
  168. “Bastard snapped us,” I said as explanation to Rina as I dashed out after him. Luckily thanks to the weather there weren’t many people out, and I managed to glimpse him turning down a sidestreet. I followed one turn and then another, lungs burning from the exertion as I closed in. It’d been far too long since I’d done this sort of thing.
  169. “Gotcha!” I cried as I turned a blind alley to corner him…and his three friends. Two were clearly hired muscle, one bald and goateed, the other sporting a mohawk and a chain, both easily over 100 kilos of bulk. Behind them stood the apparent ringleader, sneering as he took the phone from the runner. In stark contrast to the others he was short and squat, though probably no lighter. His trenchcoat and fedora completed an ensemble of which I could only think ‘Amerifat’.
  170. He nodded, and before I could will my rubbery legs to flee Goatee splayed me on the ground with a gut punch. Sneering, Fedora trundled over and laughed in a nasal voice. “Pah-thetic,” he spat out. “Making moves on Kate and this ahll you got.”
  171. I gasped, trying to formula a response. Before I succeeded, he nodded again, and Goatee kicked me back against the dumpster.
  172. “You think you can just walk in an take her?” Fedora said, face contorting with rage. “Fuck! You’re not good enough for her!” he kicked me. Compared to Goatee I barely felt it.
  173. “What are you on about? …Kate?” I wheezed.
  174. “You mean you don’t even KNOW?” He tried another kick, but I managed to twist enough to shield myself from most of the blow. “Imebecile! How could you get a date with her and not KNOW?”
  175. “Wait!” I cried, mindful of the thugs still looming. “This is some sort of mistake. Rina’s just the IT girl!”
  176. “Just the IT girl!” he rumbled, incredulous. “JUHST THE IT GIRL!? Kate’s as close as we have to a goddess! How DARE call her just an IT girl? Paul?”
  177. Mohawk whipped his chain across my back. I screamed.
  178. “I’ll spell it out, since clearly your tiny call center brain can’t handle it. E-KATE-rina DURova. Stage names, dumbass. I suppose I should’ve expected as much after you went and opened my cryptovirus.”
  179. “You!” I said, realization dawning, “you’re the sick bastard who snapped all those nudes, then slagged everything!”
  180. “Ex-ahctly,” he whined. “I spent months supporting Kate, and she would barely even look at me. Then you came and she’s all over you in a day. What have you got that I don’t?”
  181. Safety be damned, this Amerifat was insufferable! “Well,” I said, propping myself up on one elbow, “I’d say the biggest thing is not being a stalker who feels entitled to wank fodder and sex for doing his bloody job. But there’s always option B, that I’m not a greasy manchild who can’t keep himself up.”
  182. Fedora’s scrunched up with rage, turning red and then purple as he sputtered before finally roaring “FUCK! HIM! UUUUP!”
  183. I closed my eyes and tensed for the inevitable blow, but instead a flash of heat washed over the alley and when I looked again my attackers were slumped against the back fence. A soft hand grasped mine, and a moment later warmth flowed over me and washed away my pain. From behind a familiar voice sounded. “I’m going to go with both.” I turned to see Rina, leaning over me in concern and clearly sporting Kate Duran’s trademark cyan hair and eyes.
  184. “Thanks,” I smiled, squeezing her hand. She breathed a sigh of relief and helped me up.
  185. “Glad I wasn’t too late,” she muttered.
  186. “I—” I started when a force slammed into my back, sending me spinning to the ground.
  187. “Kieran!” Rina shouted. Beyond her, Fedora sat with hand outstretched.
  188. He then rose and dusted himself off, grinning like a goblin. “You see, Kate? Your little date can’t do anything. But I, I am now worthy.” He took out his phone and waggled it, glowing with mana. “You wanted a real man? I’ve got power that can make most men trehm-ble.”
  189. Rina’s eyes glowed, and another wave of heat surged out as blue fire shot towards the bastard only to dissipate as a translucent magenta shell appeared around him.
  190. “It’s not about power, Carl,” Rina growled, “it’s about you being a slimy fuck who thinks I’m yours to ‘win’ in the first place!”
  191. Carl blinked and was silent for a long moment, mouth half open. Then he let loose an ear-grinding shriek of rage as roaring magenta force shot towards us. Rina briefly held on, then turn to me and said three words I couldn’t hear. The next instant everything went dark.
  192.  
  193. Ch.5 Captive
  194. ----------------------------------
  195. I awoke in a dimly-lit room, bare save a computer desk a few meters away. A warm glow suffused my limbs, and I tried to shift in my seat. No joy, my arms were tied behind me, feet bound at the ankles with metal wire. Everything felt somehow hazy. Some fresh hell taunted by code?
  196. “Kieran?” Rina’s quiet voice snapped me back to reality. I could feel her tailfur behind me.
  197. “Rina? Are you okay? Where are we?” I asked in a low voice to match hers. I scanned for any mics, but didn’t see any, unless the laptop was recording.
  198. “I’m fine, and I wish I knew. I presume it’s Carl’s, but it doesn’t look like a house.”
  199. “Probably whoever has it out for your campaign. I couldn’t trace it before our date, but it must be one of the big players. You stuck too?”
  200. “Yeah. You’re not burned, are you?”
  201. “No, why?”
  202. “I, uh, might have tried a little fire. Wires got _really_ hot.”
  203. “Well there goes my next question,” I said wryly, hoping to lighten the mood, “would be useful in bath, though.”
  204. “Ha, that the ticket! Vote for me, get a free hot tub!”
  205. “Yeah, vote,” I chuckled, but it sounded hollow even to me. “So, Kate Duran, huh?”
  206. “Yeah. It’s not like I was going to hide it forever, it’s just that once we hit it off I kept thinking how it would change things, and well—”
  207. “Carl.”
  208. “Carl. Carl and like a few hundred other crazy fans online. That and, I guess it was nice to feel special, a real star and not a lanky nerd.”
  209. I paused, once again struck by how familiar it felt. “And in politics here I suppose das Russki would never do. But, if I had to pick, I’d rather spend time with Rina the quirky, earnest nerd and not Kate the impossible perfect person. Kinda of a relief, really, that behind the mask you’re not an extremist or a druggie or a bloody abuser.”
  210. “Does that mean a second date once we get out?”
  211. “What about this situation makes you think we’ll—you know what, sure. Let’s go with poptimism. Horror knows I’m out of other options. Unless—” I patted my hand against my back pocket. Yes, we were in luck! Carl and his pair of Neanderthals hadn’t bothered search us. I tried to grab the charm I’d gotten her, but the wire was right above the hem lines and I couldn’t lift my hands quite enough.
  212. “Rina, can you reach my pocket?” I asked. She shifted and I felt her tails rubbing against my back. Nice, but not what I needed.
  213. “Sorry, not a lot of room here. Why?”
  214. “Got a little charm there. Was going to be a gift for you actually. It’s got quite an edge, maybe enough to use as a wirecutter.” I explained. Then a thought struck me. “Could you burn it free?”
  215. She thought for a moment. “Yeah, but let’s not. I can put out my foxfire, but your pants would keep burning.”
  216. “Right. I’ll pass on the wiener roast.” I tried bending forward to make more room to reach. Closer, but not quite.
  217. Rina felt me moving and asked, “What if we move the chairs?”
  218. “Worth a try. Alright, on three. One, two, go!”
  219. We both tensed and then sprung up at once as much as our binds allowed. We managed to twist the chairs halfway around. Unfortunately their metal feet ground across the flooring with a terrible screech. Wasting no time, I strained my arms, wires cutting into my writes. Just a little more, and yes! I pulled the moon pendant from slacks. I tried to curl up and saw the wire. Too high, no good – for me. “Got it, can’t reach the wires,” I said, “can you?” More rustling on Rina’s part.
  220. “Yeah, barely”
  221. “Alright, here,” I said, feeling for her hand. I felt her hand and gave it over and.
  222. “Oww!” Rina cried. Edge, right. The trinket clinked to the floor. I swallowed hard. Freedom seemed a lot farther away. Maybe if we knocked the chairs over? We’d be stuck on the ground, but—
  223. “Someone’s coming,” Rina hissed.
  224. Our luck had run out.
  225. Our captors might have been sloppy, but they weren’t stupid enough to miss the moon charm on the floor. Rina could fry the muscle, but not Carl. How do we deal with that little shit? He was obsessed with the Kate persona, but I didn’t have a lot of options without Rina. Unless.
  226. “Rina, can you transform other people?”
  227. “Maybe. Never tried,” she said, not quite seeing my angle. Which was expected given I hardly believed it myself. “If I did it’d be more of an illusion. Why?”
  228. “Swap us!” I said triumphantly. “Make _me_ Kate Duran. If I keep Carl’s attention, you’ll be free to act while he’s distracted.”
  229. “What—”
  230. The lock clicked on the other side of the door. “No time, do it!” I whispered angrily. I felt a surge of warmth run through me as the door swung open.
  231.  
  232. Ch.6 The Trap Springs
  233. ----------------------------------
  234. When I looked down, I had breasts. “What?” I said, taken aback by how real they looked, complete with jiggle when I moved. My voice too was changed, I noted, thankfully with USian accent included. This could work. I shifted experimentally. The bindings held fast, my real dimensions hadn’t changed. But the illusion covered over all that, which was all I needed for a con job. I held my breath as Carl swaggered into the room.
  235. “What are you planning, scum!” Rina shouted before either of us could get a word in. The voice was mine, or close enough, but not wording.
  236. “Shut up, _Kieran_,” I ordered. Looking meaningfully at Carl, I continued, “A real man is here now.”
  237. Carl broke into a delighted smile, “Well said, Kate!” He circled round, inspecting me from all angles. Did he suspect? He walked to my front again and stared. Then, nodding, he broke into a lewd grin. “Magnificent, my dear. But relax. You’re so much more beautiful when you smile.”
  238. I summoned my best customer service smile, praying the illusion would at maintain its practiced fakeness. “But Carl, how did this happen?” I said, pressing on, “I never remember you having this kind of _power_.”
  239. Chortling, he answer with more than a hint of condescension, “Dear Kate, it was a triumph of the ihn-tellect. You ignored so long for more ‘manly’ types that I took matters into my own hands.” He waved a chubby hand for emphasis. “Of course a normal human would accept a lack of magic, but I searched and searched. You know what I found?”
  240. I shook my head, putting just enough force in to give Carl a jiggle of fanservice. Rina was doing something behind me and I needed his attention on me.
  241. “I found that unlike you, _some_ monsters appreciated my type. Bapho Interactive was more than willing to front a mana router if I could test it. I just needed ack-cess.” His voice grew bitter, “Access that your stupid boy toy was dumb enough to provide on system reset, with your supporters as my unwitting contrihbutors!”
  242. “You devious fuck!” I said before a hard jostle from Rina led me to continue, “But I like a clever man.”
  243. “Do you?” he asked, eyes narrowing.
  244. “Of course,” I went on breathily, “I always wanted a man who was…capable, and I see now that it’s you, not the weakling behind me.”
  245. “Rina! What the hell!?” the kitsune behind me shouted to underscore the point.
  246. “Quiet you,” Carl said, loosing a zap of energy strong enough to make Rina flinch. I grit my teeth and kept my eyes on Carl’s portly frame, earning a grin from him.
  247. “Wonderful, Kate! I knew you’d evehntually come round. Now perhaps you’d be willing to show it.” He patted his crotch with one hand for emphasis. Fucking hell! I bit my lip to keep from gagging. Only a reassuring rub from Rina’s tail kept me from bailing then and there. Then I felt the tail snake down towards the ground.
  248. A faint clink sounded a second later, drawing Carl’s attention as well as my own. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. I made a show of squirming in my seat a bit, then in my most obsequious call center voice said, “Oh Carl, it’s hard to get in the mood all tied up like this. Tell me, what do you like best about me?” It was a terrible line, but with touching a no-no it was the best I’d got.
  249. Fortunately Carl was an obsessive stalker _and_ a blowhard. He beam and waxed prolix, “Of course, my dear, no one knows you as well as I do. You see I was there for your very first podcasts, drawn to your enthusiasm over our shared pursuits. Unlike so many thots, you’d clearly played the games you reviewed.”
  250. I felt fur and then metal against my wrist. I flinched as it nipped into my skin. I leaned forward a bit to give more room, still smiling up at my captor, who continued to bloviate. “When you switched to video, though, I saw you were also the embodiment of beauty. The electric hair, the wild outfit, and best of all your ideal curves,” he said, curving his hands down from his chest for emphasis. “And so I worked my way closer, first in your fan club, then your campaign.”
  251. The wires round my wrists pinged off, leaving just my ankles. I felt the tails against the back of my leg. “How clever. What did you think when you saw the real me?” I asked.
  252. “I tohld you not to talk about yourself like that!” he chided. “With your magic there’s no need to be anything _but_ Kate, the beautiful, charming Kate we all love. Me most of all, of course.”
  253. The wires on my legs went slack. Showtime. “I never knew you had such resourcefulness,” I told Carl, batting my eyelids like the bad porno this felt like and choking down my revulsion. “I think that’s worth a reward.”
  254. “At last!” he said, stepping forward and fumbling with his fly. “I’ve always dreamed of this, Kate.”
  255. “Oh, I am sure!” I said, pushing off my seat and ramming my knee into his groin. The troglodyte let out a squeak of surprise and collapsed. I’d seen enough brawls in my street years to know that once wasn’t always enough. I stood and kicked him in the jewels twice more for good measure, until he was curled in a fetal ball. Not a moment too soon, his phone was still in his hands. I snatched it away and clocked him across the back of the head with it. He jerked once and then stopped, out like a light. I rushed to Rina and felt around the invisible mass of fluff for the charm, cutting the wires still binding her.
  256. “You okay? I asked.
  257. “Fine. Let’s go.” She stopped over Carl. I paused, curious what her revenge would be. I was disappointed when she simply reached into his pocket, fishing out a set of keys and tossing them to me. Oh, right.
  258. It didn’t take long to find the one matched to the heavy industrial door locking us in, and we were off, Rina leading for obvious reasons. Goatee and Mohawk were at the door as expected, then writhing on the floor before they could react. We ran following the exit signs, coming out in a large warehouse room stacked with crates. The exit was on the far side, but what drew my attention was the room’s other occupant, a little girl with hooves and horns standing at the center.
  259. Seeing us, she let out a giggle that echoed with a chilling edge. “Hee hee! I figured Carl would mess up, but wow, this has got to be a record.”
  260. “What are you doing here?” Rina asked, “did Carl get you too?” She took a step forward.
  261. “Rina, no!” I shouted, recognizing a Baphomet from my training vids. I tackled the kitsune just as a volley of ice arrows flew past where we’d stood.
  262. The Baphoment giggled again. “You could say that. Or you could say that I got him.” Rina launches fire at the demon, but it vanished as soon as it got near. In response the girlish demon waved her hand, and lighting bolt arced into Rina. She hunched over in pain, and I swiftly pulled her behind a crate line and started crawling behind them.
  263. “Hiding won’t help you know,” the Baphomet’s voice echoed. The first crate shattered, spilling a pile of screws and washers across the floor. “I’ve invested too much here to let a couple flies ruin it.” Another crate exploded and I covered my face with my arms as bits of metal rained down. Rina and I exchanged a look, then split so it was harder to track us. Good thing, too. A third blast struck where we’d just been standing.
  264. “Why are you doing this?” Rina called, leaping behind a tall stack of crates to gain some cover. She launched fire from another angle, still to no avail. I made my way behind a forklift and hunkered down to consider my options. It could probably do some damage if I could hotwire it and get close, but right now that seemed suicidal.
  265. “Hee, mainly because Carl’s an idiot,” the Baphomet replied, followed by the sound of more explosions. “Your little man recognized me, which means you know too much. Though I must say your illusion was hilarious.”
  266. That’s it. I thought to Carl, then pulled his phone from my pocket. Locked. With fucking ManaID. Back to Carl, then. I needed a distraction. As Rina sniped at the Baphomet I worked my way through the keyring. Finally finding the one, the forklift whirred to life. The demon’s attention immediately focused on me. I pointed the lift at a tower of crates, flipped on the cruise control and let loose. Ice and lighting both slammed into it just as I dived out. One ice lance jabbed into my side, but for now the adrenaline overpowered the pain.
  267. “Rina, hold her!” I shouted, rushing back to our cell in the shower of bolts and splinters and the forklift knocked the crate tower asunder. I could hear zaps of magic being exchanged as I turned the corner down the hall. I had to hope Rina could play it smart.
  268. In the room I wasted no time, pressing Carl’s fat thumb against the phone screen and scrolling through the apps. Tortuous seconds later I found what I wanted, ‘BaphoMetrics’. The child-demon’s cheeky grin on the icon confirmed it was the app, and a few more taps revealed the setting I wanted, mana routing. I hit it, calling a prompt, “Please confirm target’s ManaID.” I grimaced. It couldn’t bloody well be me, I had zero training and even Carl’s level was nothing compared to the goat girl in the other room. It had to be Rina. I sprinted back, silently cursing my poor shape and tapping the screen to keep it awake.
  269. In the main warehouse, now a shamble with half the crates gone, I saw Rina in a corner laying low. The Baph was clearly frustrated, popping crates like popcorn, but luckily not finding her mark. I motioned to Rina. Her face screwed in concentration as she summoned fire from a far angle. It worked. The demon turned, giving Rina enough time to scramble toward me before her foe realized the ruse.
  270. “Grab this!” I wheezed, thrusting the phone forward. She did, and with a chime magic energy flowed from the device into the foxwoman. Blinking back her own exhaustion, Rina clasped her hands together and stared at some point far ahead of her. A vast fireball gathered above her, mercifully hidden by the crates. She finished and stepped out.
  271. “This is for both of us!” she shouted at the surprised Baphomet, hurling the fireball forth to a huge explosion on impact. I hugged Rina close as she slumped over, clearly spent. I heard a clack in front of us and rose, straining my eyes to look into the smoke.
  272. Clack, clack, clack. A horned shadow strode from the wreckage, holding a phone. “Hee hee! Not bad, almost got me. But really, silly, did you I’d give CARL something I didn’t? I made that app.”
  273. I felt Rina’s tails wrap protectively around me as she tried to summon another spell. It didn’t matter. A force blast knocked her away like a doll. A second slammed into me. I felt a few ribs crack.
  274. “He was right about one thing, though,” the demon gloated. “Power is what matters.”
  275. I reached into my pocket for my own phone. The glass was cracked, but the tiny bleep told me it was still good. I pressed the one button that could matter: record. “Where?” I grunted.
  276. “Oh, the power, you mean? We-elllll, since you’ll be dead soon anyway, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to tell. Kids.”
  277. “Huh?”
  278. “Kids. Those lovely little bundles of joy who play my apps. Of course there are some adults, like Carl, but the ManaID doesn’t care, you just need to know your way around it. Any more questions? Or should I say last requests?”
  279. Finally it made sense. Carl had maybe a few thousand people in his hookup, the super-motivated political types. This Baphomet had millions. Rina never stood a chance. That made me mad. I could almost accept how fucked I was, beaten, bloody, and before an elder demon, but the fact that my fuckup and some ManaID security flaw got her here too was _wrong_. One last roll of the dice, I thought.
  280. “Smile,” I said, pulling my phone out for the Baphomet to see. Just once, I hoped the JCN AI was on point.
  281. “You,” the demon fumed, her sudden rage clashing with her childlike visage. “You tricked me! You..you..that’s it, you die first!” The building itself trembled as a great mass of dark mana rose from the floor. Rina was screaming, but I turned to her and winked before looking back, bracing myself. Then…nothing.
  282. The Baphomet looked back and forth, her initial shock turning to horror as a violet-haired, winged figure stepped walked in from the exit, clapping. The Boss.
  283. “Bravo, Mr. Miller. Your loyalty to JCN truly outgraves. As for you,” she narrowed her eyes at the Baphomet. “Come quietly I’ll leave you to the civil authorities instead of the Queen of Hearts.”
  284. The Baphomet shouted “Never!” and hurled another bolt of dark mana. To everyone’s horror, the Jabberwock’s wing’s curled back at a sickening angle to reveal two mouth-tentacles, which greedily _ate_ the bolts.
  285. “Naughty girl,” the Jabberwock tsked, “You might have figured out routing, but I’ve had mana drain all along. Also, consider you dev ID revoked, effective immediately.”
  286. As she spoke, the accumulated energy of the mana routing sucked out of the Baphomet and to the Jabberwock, leaving the smaller demon trembling on her knees before finally collapsing unconscious.
  287.  
  288. Ch.7 (Not an) Ending
  289. ----------------------------------
  290. With the Baphoment beaten, it didn’t take long to clean up. The police came, and the boss lady made sure we were spared the brunt of questioning. I was still hurt, but Rina managed one last heal so I wasn’t in danger. After recovering and giving my deposition, the first thing I did was look for Rina. She was still being interviewed, which left only one other thing to do, much as I was dreading it. In a lull in the commotion I walked up to the Boss.
  291. It was hard not to be intimidated. Almost three meters tall and more dragon than woman, her mere glance felt more dangerous than a whole gang of chavs.
  292. “So, uh, Miss J, does this mean I still have a job?”
  293. “No.” Just like that, it was out. No give, no room to argue. Final.
  294. “Can I ask—”
  295. “Media.”
  296. Right. With this scandal now on the down low, not much chance I’d be featured in the headlines, internal or otherwise. On top of that half the internet probably still thought _I_ was the stalker. “And that article?”
  297. “Will be discredited in court. People love a villain, and Carl’s perfect. Oh, and you’ll get the JCN trauma benefits plus severance. Use them well.” Her face betrayed nothing, but one of the tentacle-mouths gave me a grin. It was more than a little disquieting, and having my answer I excused myself as soon as another aide came by.
  298. After that it wasn’t long before Rina emerged. Illusion gone now, she looked terrible, clothes all frayed and hair a mess, yet I still found myself smiling at the sight of her. “Kieran! You’re okay!” she said, wrapping her arms around me in a warm embrace.
  299. “Oof, easy there!” I said, wincing as pain shot through my ribs.
  300. “Sorry,” she apologized, hopping back and lightly tracing a hand across my chest with concern.
  301. “It’s fine,” I hastily explained, “just a bit of a bruise.” She sighed in relieve and smiled. I couldn’t rightly be mad with her a smile like that. “So what happens now?” I asked, waving my hand vaguely in the direction of the police.
  302. “The devil-girl’s app is dead, and your boss’s techs confirmed Carl was the one who hacked our system, so business as usual I guess. Might need to show in court, but with all this plus his phone they shouldn’t need much from me.” She was still smiling, but it didn’t reach her eyes.
  303. “You alright?” I asked.
  304. “Yes. …No. Ahh, I don’t know. I mean I should be fine after making it through this, but I keep thinking, if I stay public, what if something like this happens again? Hate threats online are one thing, but this was _real_.”
  305. “It was, wasn’t it?” I wracked my brain for something to say that was actually comforting and not some half-cocked platitude. “I, ah, if it would help I could stay with you.”
  306. “What about your job?” she asked.
  307. “Well that’s not an issue now either I suppose, but I meant you and I personally. Going out, you know? If you’ll have me” I wanted to slap myself for how _bad_ it came out. Rina notice too, her brow furrowing.
  308. “Kieran Miller, do you know that’s the worst confession I’ve received since high school? Of course I will!” She leapt and hugged me again, and this time I returned it, then leaned forward into a kiss. Rib pain be damned, this was worth it.
  309. When we finally parted Rina looked thoughtful a moment, then broke into a sultry grin. “Oh, and about the job? My campaign just got an opening for a new sysadmin. Full salary, and if you happen to know Kate Duran I hear it has excellent _benefits_.”
  310. “Well, that’s an intriguing offer Miss Durova,” I played along, “but it sounds like if I take it, it might be detrimental to Miss Duran’s filming schedule.”
  311. “Not at all,” she said, wrapping a tail around my waist. “In fact after the campaign you could even help with the next script. Something about a modern-day knight saving his fair lady from creepy techno-stalkers.”
  312. “I can see it now,” I intoned, my voice deadpan, “‘Coming to theaters this holiday season: How to Bag an Asshole.’”
  313. “Pfffft!” she laughed, leaning into me for support. “That might be,” she chuckled, tails wagging, “but your mine now.”
  314.  
  315. ~fin~
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