Copyright © 2013 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.

I’ve never been able to figure Halloween out. I asked my mum what it meant once and she told me – All Hallows’ Eve; the night before All Saints’ Day.

One day of the year set aside to celebrate all the pious and devout people throughout history who’ve made such amazing sacrifices in their pursuit of God, who’ve shown such kindness towards the less fortunate of our world, and pretty much nobody even knows it exists anymore.

Instead we focus on a pagan festival celebrating the end of summer; one that’s often associated with the influences of malevolent spirits. Mind you that last bit may just be medieval Christian propaganda.

Anyway, zombies and vampires, ghosts and ghouls. Yay! Party on, dude!

Mind you, we celebrate weirder things.

February fourteenth, in memory of a guy who married young members of a persecuted religious group, against the wishes of the imperial rulers, and who was later arrested and beaten to death when he tried to convert the emperor.

November the fifth, because it’s a good and wholesome thing to celebrate the execution of a Catholic terrorist who was attempting to blow up the king of England, along with a significant proportion of his government.

None of it seems like a particularly great reason to party. Not that most people need much of a reason these days. And not that I have much reason to join in with them.

You get this way after leading to much of a shit life. Work hard to make ends meet, never feel ready to settle down and start a family, one dead end job after another, leaching away at your soul year after year, until there’s nothing left to celebrate with.

Hey it doesn’t bother me much. They pay me time-and-a-half for working while everyone else is out partying or sleeping it off. It pays the bills.

So apart from the depressing reminder that the days are getting shorter and colder, I can’t complain too much about the thirty-first of October. While eighty percent of the population is drinking itself into temporary oblivion, I’m usually pushing a broom down a deserted corridor somewhere, or stoking the boilers to keep out the autumn chill from spoiling everyone’s revelry. Not that time-and-a-half on a grunt’s wage is much to write home about – probably would just about pay for the stamp.

Wouldn’t be worth it anyway. Nobody at home really wanted to hear from me. I was a disappointment; a waste of potential, to use my dad’s last words to me. An image of his disapproving scowl and Mum’s lips pursed in sour agreement looking at me over his shoulder was all I really had of my family.

So how does a guy like me end up as a dust redistribution technician? Call it stress management and leave it at that… No, really, I don’t want to talk about it… Okay, let’s just say that there’s a level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that he forgot to put in, and that’s the one I can’t get past.

You know? Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs? Physical, safety, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation? You operate at the level of lowest unmet need? Basic psychology?

I guess it doesn’t matter. Let’s just say that there’s always been something about me – probably fits in between my need for belonging and my need for need for others to accept me as I am – that I just can’t resolve. I can’t do both at the same time, so I keep flitting from one to the other, which means anything else I try to do with my life doesn’t get the attention it needs, so it barely holds together for a while and then falls apart.

Janitorial work keeps me warm and fed and happily anonymous. Well I say happy. I do have a longing to be part of the world around me, to join in and laugh with everyone, but not as me. Not as this slightly overweight, middle-aged, doughy lump of a human being.

I already tried making more of a go of things; once when I was less overweight, less middle-aged, less doughy. It was like a kind of madness – hysterical, manic, eventually disastrous. Burn out they called it. I’m happier like this, or at least less sad.

It’s a costume party tonight. Halloween usually provides the opportunity of the year to dress up, and tonight is no exception. I could go; I could climb into my fantasy for the evening, and have some fun. The boilers will look after themselves for the most part, as long as I’m nearby and available if they start to play up. I’ve done it before, when I was feeling just a little more desperate than I am tonight.

Thing is, it didn’t end up being my fantasy at all. I went as Cinderella and ended up looking more like one of the step-sisters. Everybody laughed at me; thought it was a great joke. And I got away with it because there were other guys dressing up to look ridiculous. The following day quite a few people gave me a friendly slap on the back; told me how great my costume had been, how hilarious.

Nobody saw that I wasn’t trying to be funny. Nobody saw how much it hurt me to be laughed at – which was just as well, otherwise they’d still be laughing today. They’d thought they were laughing with me. If they’d figured me out, they’d have been laughing at me, and that joke wouldn’t have ended so neatly. So be thankful for small mercies, as my mother used to tell me. Not easy to do when the big dream lies in tattered shreds.

I stared out through the small basement window at a particularly large star in the sky. Where was a fairy godmother when you needed one?

So I decided to give it a miss tonight, to stay in the gloom and keep my broom company. The party was already getting going upstairs. Steady thump, thumping of the music and the occasional tinkle of laughter making it down through the ducting. A quick check of the gauges let me know that even the boilers didn’t need me to be here. At that moment I didn’t even fit into my own little private world.

I stabbed the broom angrily at the floor. I hadn’t swept the boiler room for some time so at least I could do that and be useful. I needed to sprinkle some water on it first though, otherwise all I’d succeed in doing would be to kick a shitload of dust up into the air for a while and the place would be just as bad once it had settled.

I had a spray bottle near the sink by the door. I turned to fetch it which meant I missed what happened next. The swirling motes stirred up by my one angry sweep drifted into the beam of starlight streaming in through the small window, started to glitter, to glow, to coalesce into a distinct shape.

-oOo-

Spray bottle in hand, I turned back to my filthy floor and the figure of an elderly woman standing where no-one had been a moment before.

I looked behind me at the only doorway into the basement then back at the old woman. There was just no way…

There had to be a rational explanation, but in all truth I wasn’t really that bothered.

“You shouldn’t be down here,” I told her. “The party’s upstairs. Just follow the noise.” I nodded towards the door and stepped to one side so she could get by.

“I didn’t come for the party, Cole,” she said in a kind and gentle voice that reminded me of my grandmother.

“How did you get in here anyway?” I asked. If she was going to engage me in conversation I figured I might as well get some answers out of her. “And how do you know my name?”

She smiled indulgently. “I’m answering your wish, Cole. How could I be anywhere else? How could I not know you?”

“Listen lady, I don’t know who you are, and I’m not in the mood for games. Whoever put you up to this, you can tell them it’s not funny.”

Maybe someone had seen through me last year after all. Maybe some arseholes in the building had figured out my little secret and decided to have a bit of fun with me. Well I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction.

The old lady gave me the gentlest of looks. Either she was an accomplished actress and a heartless bitch rolled up in the same bundle, or she was seriously demented and believed what she was saying to me, or…

No, the world doesn’t work like that.

“Actually it does sometimes.” Her smile was enigmatic, like a cat about to impart the secret of dairy farming.

“What does what sometimes?” You can’t blame me for being confused. It was hardly a valid response to my last comment.

“The world,” she explained as if to a slow child, “does work like that sometimes.

“Summer’s end has always been a time when the doorway to the Otherworld opens. It isn’t often that anyone passes through, but sometimes, when the call is strong enough, one of us will answer.”

“One of us?”

“I felt your pain Cole. I’ve come to offer some ease for your soul.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m from the Otherworld, Cole, and on tonight of all nights I can give you what you’ve been longing for all your life.”

“You’re shitting me, right?” I couldn’t quite decide if this was funny or sad. “You’re telling me you’re my fairy godmother?”

“Well fairy, yes. Godmother has more to do with the New Religion, and I’d rather distance myself from that.” For the first time a sourness entered her calm disposition, but only for a moment.

“I thought fairies were supposed to be cute little things with diaphanous wings.”

“I can do that if you prefer,” she said, and the old lady disappeared in a glittering cloud, to be replaced by a minute creature, no longer than my finger, hovering in the air about level with my eyes, a blur of movement filling the air behind her tiny back.

I held out my hand and she alighted onto my palm. She barely weighed enough for me to feel. Blond hair and a dress made from tiny green leaves, translucent insect wings now that they had stopped moving, Disney’s Tinkerbelle could easily have been the template.

“This is insane,” I said to no-one in particular.

“I can take any form that works for you, Cole. The shapes come from your mind as much as my knowledge of your name and your pain. Tonight the magic of my world seeps into yours and I can give you what you’ve always wanted. All you need do is ask for it.”

“I’m assuming there’s a catch; there usually is. I mean there’s no such thing as a free lunch, so what do you get out of it?”

“If you accept my gift, the magic binds me to you. I will feel your happiness for as long as it lasts. I will feel what you feel for all your life.”

“So this is more than just for tonight?”

“I’m sorry Cole, but no. The doorway is only open till tomorrow evening. After it closes, the magic can no longer come through, but the memories will remain. You’ve had few enough happy memories in your life, wouldn’t you like some to help you through the coming years?”

“I’ve heard it said that if you can be king for a day, you’ll spend the rest of your life wishing you could be again.”

“But if you pass up the chance, you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting it.

“Besides, I’m not offering you the chance to be king. Wouldn’t it be so much better to be…”

“…a princess?” I finished the question for her as she knew I would. She knew my insides well enough to know my name, what had been eating me up for all my life, why I was finding it so particularly hard on this particular night. Maybe I would regret this, but I knew she was right; I absolutely knew I would regret it if I said no.

Live for today; live for now. No regrets. Seize the moment and squeeze every ounce of goodness you can out of it. This was my chance and I just… couldn’t… say… no.

“Okay,” I breathed, committing myself before some part of me overthought it all and persuaded me to pass it all up.

-oOo-

There was a glint in her eyes, a turn to her mouth, an arching of her eyebrows. It was hard to see for sure in such a small face, and before I could put a name to it – triumph? Selfish delight? – she had launched into the air and was flying in tight circles in front of me, leaving a trail of shimmering, golden dust that filled the air, eventually dissipating to reveal, floating a few inches above the ground, the most exquisite of dresses.

A long, full skirt reached to the floor, cinching in to a tightly waisted bodice, low, scalloped neckline, puff sleeves and long slender white gloves. Accompanying it was some equally attractive, underwear, a pair of tights, a diamond tiara and the inevitable glass slippers.

“I’m not sure about those,” I said, pointing at the shoes. My costume from the previous year had included heels made from transparent plastic. They’d had some give in them, but even so they had been painful to wear.

“We could try the alternative,” the diminutive voice of my benefactress said, swirling round the levitating clothing. This time when the golden cascade had ended, the shoes were lower in the heel and more normal looking, lined with reddish brown fur. The dress had equally changed into a deep russet, decorated with a soft white ermine or mink.

“How do you suggest I fit into this lot?” I asked, holding up a dress that had been designed for someone half my size.

“You don’t have a lot of faith, do you? If I can conjure a costume like this out of thin air, don’t you think I can find a way of fitting you into it? Get changed, see what happens.”

“Er…” I looked at my male body and across the very female little fairy floating in the air in front of me.

“By the sacred circle!” She swore in frustration and waved a hand. My overalls disappeared, along with my socks, underpants and boots.

I held the dress in front of my embarrassingly naked body and glared at her with a mixture of mortification and outrage.

“Look, it’s not as if it’s going to matter in a minute, is it?” Her wings fairly buzzed with her own sense of exasperation. She turned her back to me. “If it really means that much to you.”

I let go of the dress, which, obedient to the magic that had created it, settled back where it had been hanging a moment before. The first priority was to hide my maleness, so I grabbed the pair of frilly knickers out of the air and pulled them up my legs. There was no way they should have fit over my thighs, but something happened to me as I pulled them on. Wherever the underclothes were as I slid them up my legs, there the flesh seemed to melt away temporarily, until they sat over a much reduced pair of buttocks and settled on a very flat front.

I pulled the elastic forward and gazed in at where my meat and two veg had recently been.

“It’s all fully functioning, inside and out,” the fairy said, her back still to me. “This isn’t simply about making you look the way you want to be you know.”

I plucked the tights out of the air and slid them up my legs. They were a modern, footless variety which I’ve never found that appealing, but I’d already complained about the glass shoes and I didn’t really want to come over as ungrateful by mentioning such a little thing. As I drew them on, my legs became smooth and slender, and I couldn’t help sighing at the pleasure of the sensation. Next was the awkward bit. I had something of a broad chest, so I had no idea how the bra was going to fit, but as I wrapped it round my front, my chest seemed to collapse in on itself, just as a pair of ample, but not overly so, breasts sprang out to replace the hair and flabbiness that had been there before. Reaching back to attach the clasps seemed easier than the times I’d tried cross dressing too; my shoulders seemed to have an increased flexibility which enabled me to contort my arms more easily and slip the hooks into place with little difficulty.

Next was the dress. Dozens of buttons at the back, fortunately all undone for now. I spun it around and stepped into it. My rather grotesque stomach shrank away as the narrow waist wrapped around me. I managed to do a few of the buttons up, but they were awkward in ways I couldn’t begin to describe.

“Er. Would you mind giving me a hand?” It was still my gruff, male voice, but slightly changed somehow. I wasn’t sure I could put a finger on exactly what was different, but different it was.

My fingers were too. Long and slender and delicately painted in a light shade of pink that was just brownish enough to match the dress. Similarly, my hands and arms were slimmer and more delicate, shorter too. Probably part of the cause of my difficulty with the buttons.

“So you’re female enough to ask for a bit of help now are you?” the fairy chided with mock severity. She didn’t wait for an answer, but ducked behind and made short work of the buttons. By the time she was done, the dress fit like a glove. Tight around my waist, supporting my breasts and pushing them up enough to give me an attractive cleavage. I was shorter too, the skirts reaching all the way to the floor.

I pulled the material up and out of the way, and stepped into the shoes. Again there was no way they should have fit, my feet being a full two inches longer than the fur lined footwear, but as with the rest of my body, I shrank to the exact size. There was just enough of a heel to lift the hem of the dress off the ground, and I had to lift it out of the way to admire the way my feet looked wrapped in squirrel fur.

“Just a last few details,” the fairy said, snatching the tiara – now golden in colour – and a few pieces of jewellery I hadn’t noticed out of the air. My head felt unusually heavier the moment she put the thin band of metal in place. Darting across in front of my face, the little, green-clad figure attached tiny weights to my ears, and a slim chain and pendent about my neck.

She gave a final flourish and I was standing in front of a full length mirror. My breath caught in my throat as I stared at my reflection. Beautiful beyond measure; more beautiful by far than any woman I had ever seen, and twenty years younger. A mountain of hair bound into an elaborate style grew out of the top of my delicately featured head – accounting for the added weight – which in turn perched on a long and slender neck and an exquisitely gorgeous body. And it was all me.

I didn’t have words. Years of life had eroded my dream until all the remained was an aching certainty of what could never be, and here I was, so suddenly, so completely living what I had always wanted. How can mere words describe such a feeling?

“You’d better get going.” The fairy’s smile was the same friendly, generous expression the old woman had worn when she first appeared. I found myself dismissing the brief instants of unease I’d felt earlier.

“Thank you doesn’t begin to say it,” I told her, and gasped in surprise and delight at the liquid silk my voice had become.

Her smile broadened into a deeply satisfied grin. “The party upstairs probably isn’t quite you,” she said. “There’s one in the penthouse that might suit you better.”

It had been part of the morning briefing from the hotel manager. Some foreign royalty was in town and they had ensconced themselves on top floor of the hotel. They had announced their intention to hold a fairy tale ball, to which all the local dignitaries and posh nobs were coming.

“It’s invitation only,” I said, trying to keep the disappointment from my voice.

“Have you looked in your purse?”

There was a small bag attached to one of my wrists by a short golden strap. I hadn’t noticed it until then, but obediently unzipped it to find a piece of card inside. Gold, curlicued lettering inviting one Gemma Harris to the ball.

Harris was my genuine surname, but…

“Why Gemma?”

“All the names meaning diamond sounded too pretentious.”

“So it’s a cheap joke about putting coal under pressure?”

“Something like that. Hey, I do magic, not comedy.”

“It’s a lovely name, thank you. And as long as the magic is this good, I don’t mind the humour.”

“Well, like I said, you should get going. You don’t want to waste this evening.”

“Do I have to leave before midnight or something?”

“You shouldn’t believe everything you read in fairy tales you know. The doorway remains open till tomorrow evening, so stay out all night if you wish.”

I took a last look around my musty basement with its dust and pipes, its heat and shadows. I didn’t belong here. Not tonight.

Gathering up my skirts, I made for the door and climbed the stairs.

-oOo-

I couldn’t help feeling nervous as I stepped out into the foyer. Whatever the mirror had shown me, whatever I had felt or seen, on the inside I still felt like the same me I had been all my life, and some instinct in me was on the full alert, looking for any signs of recognition, of the ridicule that would follow.

I drew attention; no hope of doing otherwise. I felt nervous at first until I noticed the envy in the eyes of many of the girls, and the genuine, salivating lust in the faces of pretty much every guy I passed. By the time I reached the elevators and pressed the button, I was beginning to relax and enjoy myself.

I loved my new clothes; the way they hung and the way the moved. I loved the feel of my new body, the new distribution of weight and how it affected the way I walked. The lift door opened and I stepped in, automatically sweeping my skirts in behind me to make sure they didn’t get caught in the doors. It was a small enough gesture, but so natural, so much the me I had always been inside, now out in the open and taking her place for the first time.

By small degrees the part of me that had resigned itself to the impossibility of my dreams, was slowly unfurling, embracing the new experience like a flower opening up to the sun after a long dark winter.

The lift door opened and I stepped out into a large hallway. A uniformed flunky solemnly reached out a hand to me and I passed him my invitation. He led me to an even larger room, decorated as a dance floor. Dozens of people milled around in small groups, chatting away, sipping drinks and looking half as elegant as I felt.

The men, for the most part, wore very similar knee breaches and white stockings, buckled shoes and long tailed coats. The women were in ball gowns of all colours and styles. If I had gone with the silvery dress first offered me, I would have outshone them all. As it was, I still held my own.

“The Lady Gemma Harris,” my guide intoned in a voice loud enough to be heard above the general hubbub and a roomful of eyes turned in my direction, curious about this unknown new arrival.

I held my head high, confident in my bearing and fully aware that, looking as I did now, I belonged here. I allowed a nervous smile to flicker across my features as I gazed out at all the upturned faces, my eyes eventually coming to rest on…

He was young and handsome, possibly about the same age I appeared to be, and dressed in a white, brocaded uniform with a modest selection of medals. He wore a sabre at his side and his own eyes were wide and staring, directly into my own.

I hitched my dress and took careful steps down to the dance floor. By the time I arrived, my new interest was by my side, offering me a glass full of golden bubbles.

“Welcome, Miss Harris,” he said, his voice a deep baritone with just the slightest of accents. “I don’t recall your name from the guest list.”

“I believe I was a late addition,” I said. “I’ve only just arrived in town.”

“Well, that would explain it. In any case, you are a most welcome addition to this crowd. Have you eaten yet?”

He placed a large hand firmly in the small of my back and guided me across the floor towards the buffet. Where his fingers touched, cold tendrils snaked through me, turning my knees weak and my insides to gooey mush. I gasped, barely able to breath, and felt myself going faint.

“Are you alright?” he asked turning to face me.

I managed a nod and forced a deep breath into my lungs, clearing my head and revelling in the sensations his closeness were bringing about in me.

“I’m fine.” I swallowed and straightened my shoulders, only vaguely aware as I did so that it caused my breasts to swell a little. From the way his eyes bulged, I suspected he must have noticed too.

From the bobbing and bending people were doing as we swept through, it didn’t take much to guess he was one of the hosts.

“So, should I call you, Your Majesty?” I asked, just a little playfully as he passed me a plate. The buffet was startling, and I had to remind myself I was a well-bred young lady with a modest appetite and not the ravenous, couldn’t give a shit, pile your plate high embarrassment I usually was as Cole. I picked out a few things that looked particularly tasty, but left the plate mainly empty.

“No, that would be my mother and father. I’m a ‘Your Royal Highness’, though I’ll be extremely disappointed if you call me anything other than Michael.”

“Michael’s a lovely name,” I said, not quite sure where to take the conversation.

“So is Gemma. Is it short for Jemima by any chance?”

“Ooh gosh, I hope not. Jemima Puddle Duck, and Benjamin Rabbit, I never could stand any of those stories. No, it means a gem or a jewel.”

“In which case it is entirely suited to you, except that it barely does you justice. Is that all you are going to eat?”

I looked down at my plate, which I’ll admit looked a little bare even by my tighter standards. I allowed myself another vol-au-vent and stepped with him away from the table.

“I’m rather worried you wouldn’t stay as interested in me if I gave my appetite free reign.” I smiled up at him over my shoulder. How was it that simply looking at a guy could be so magical? I mean I know I’m confused about who I am, but I’ve never found men interesting in that particular way. Yet even so, right here, right now, all I wanted to do was melt into his embrace.

His hand was on my back again, guiding me out onto the balcony and sending the most delicious shivers up and down my spine. There were other couples out in the open air, but each disappeared with a bob and a bow the moment we appeared. A couple of hefty looking guys in dark suits positioned themselves either side of the doorway, assuring us of some degree of privacy.

“You are far too fascinating for me to lose interest in you over a few pastries.”

“You say that now,” I picked up an amuse bouche from my plate and waved it playfully under his nose, “but it wouldn’t take many of these before I wouldn’t fit this dress anymore.”

He guided my hand to my mouth, all the while staring deep into my eyes. “Then please eat your fill, because that’s something I would be most interested in seeing.”

I’m not sure if I was more surprised by the unexpected coarseness of his humour or the explosion of flavour that erupted onto my taste buds. The morsel of food was fantastic, and under more normal circumstances I might have been tempted to take up his dare. As it was I allowed the pastry to melt on my tongue and stood in silent rapture with my eyes closed and a half smile on my lips until it was gone.

“You know,” I said at long last, “I had always imagined royalty to be a little more refined.”

“In public one does what one must,” he said in a deliberately plumy voice, “but in private one has been known to break wind and scratch one’s nether regions, in the exactly same manner as one imagines the common folk doing.”

I couldn’t help it, I giggled. Between the champagne and the prince’s intoxicating presence, I felt all the carefully built self-control of decades melting away. A little too late, I fought to regain control.

“I’m sorry, you must have simpering idiots giggling around you all the time and I certainly didn’t mean to join their number. I’m afraid I‘m not used to all this attention.”

He lifted my chin gently until I was looking into his eyes. His own were large and smiling. He was shaking his head, and all the while this delightful, deep chuckle rose in his throat.

“You are truly amazing, you know that? I can’t believe you’re not used to this sort of attention. I’ve never seen a woman as beautiful as you. You have a regal confidence and bearing, and yet underneath it all you’re unassuming and as unaware of your own charms as it’s possible to be. I don’t know who you are Gemma Harris, and neither do I care. I don’t believe there’s another woman on the planet quite like you.”

Well that was definitely the understatement of the century, though I’m sure he wouldn’t have been so happy if he knew what set me apart. I tried to find some witty rejoinder, but I was so lost in his hypnotic gaze, all words escaped me.

“Your Royal Highness,” the voice was deep and respectful, and came from one of the black suited bodyguards on the other side of the doorway. “I’m sorry to disturb you, sire, but the King and Queen are asking for you.”

-oOo-

Michael’s face turned hard and expressionless, like a door shutting, leaving only winter behind. All the effusive, boyish abandon I’d seen there was gone, and in its place, an unreadable mask. He turned to me, and for a moment I thought he was going to excuse himself.

“I must apologise Miss Harris,” he spoke with an oddly stilted formality. “Duty calls, but I wonder if you’d be so good as to accompany me.”

I put my plate down on the balustrade, the amazing food forgotten, and took hold of his arm. As Cole I doubt would have lost my appetite so rapidly, but the intense emotions coursing through me were a feast in themselves. I smiled up at him.

“It would be both a pleasure and an honour Your Royal Highness,” I said, putting just enough pomposity into my voice to bring a curl to the corners of his mouth. We set off together towards a raised dais at one end of the ballroom where a distinctly regal couple sat side by side.

I tried to disengage as we approached, but Michael held my hand in the crook of his arm.

“Father, Mother,” he began. “May I present the Lady Gemma Harris? Gemma, my parents, the King and Queen.”

I bobbed my first ever curtsey and managed to come up from it without losing my balance. I knew enough about such situations that I shouldn’t speak unless spoken to, so I kept my head bowed and my mouth closed.

“Yes, very nice. Charming to meet you my dear.” The King’s voice was twangy and nasal, and moreover, impatient and dismissive. I took an instant dislike to it, and wondered how he had ever won the favours of so beautiful woman as his queen. “Michael, you know the purpose of this evening. Your mother and I would appreciate it if you would do your duty.”

I risked a sideways glance at the prince and caught a hint of his anger, expertly covered up. The look of defiance in his eyes didn’t subside as he bowed to his father. When he straightened, there was a smile on his face that had little to do with kindness.

“Certainly father.” He turned towards me. “Miss Harris, perhaps you would care to join me in the first dance?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, either from me or his parents, but swept down from the dais with me in tow. Once out in the centre of the dance floor, he took my right hand in his left and placed his right on my waist in the classic pose for a waltz, before glancing up at the orchestra.

“Michael,” I hissed, as quietly as possible in the sudden hush that fell over that hall, “I can’t dance.”

A raised eyebrow was all the surprise he showed. “You’ll be fine,” he murmured back. “Rest your free hand on my shoulder and follow my lead.”

I did as he instructed just as the music struck up. I’ve never known what it meant to follow someone’s lead in a dance, but it turned out to be quite simple. Strong arms eased me gently in all the directions he had in mind to go, and I allowed myself to be guided. Our steps fell in with the natural flow of the music and we spun and glided our way across the floor. I think I may have trodden on his toes once or twice in the beginning, but I soon fell into his rhythm, and after that, the dance was a new sort of magic.

It wasn’t just that I stood facing the most charming man I’d ever met. It wasn’t just that I was in his arms, and he in mine. It wasn’t just the sense of delicious surrender I felt being totally in his control. It was the music too, the glorious flowing rhythm of the dance. I was caught up in it as much as in the dark eyes opposite mine. The last of my inhibitions crumbled and I gave in utterly to my feelings.

In the back of my mind, a voice clamoured to be heard. “What about tomorrow?” it cried. “What happens when you change back? What happens to you and Michael then?”

I was too far gone by then though. Tomorrow could take care of itself. For now I had this moment, this dance, and I would savour every second of it. Later I’d slice up each moment into tiny little slivers of the past and store them where I could draw on them and relive them over and over. Trouble would come soon enough, but for now I would abandon myself to the dance.

Before I’d come, I’d had no idea what to expect of the ball. Let’s face it, until my fairy god-knows-what had suggested it, I had all but forgotten it was going on, and I would never have dreamt of attending if I had. Now I had not only met the prince, but I was dancing with him. And he wasn’t the spoilt boorish non-person I had come to expect from the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful. There were so many reasons why this was all impossible, and yet here I was, being swept around a gigantic dance floor to the strains of a majestic waltz, and in front of so many people. This was a realisation of a dream I had never dared allow myself, and yet it was coming true.

The music reached its conclusion and I fully expected Michael to excuse himself and go off in search of another dance partner, but he didn’t. He held on to me as the floor filled with couples, and as the next waltz began, he spun me into a second dance. After that was a third, and then a fourth. From time to time we passed the king and queen seated on their raised platform, and the fleeting glimpses I caught of them showed they weren’t happy. There was anger in the king’s eyes and worry in the queen’s.

As the fifth waltz started up, I begged exhaustion, a need for fresh air and some relief from my shoes. Squirrel fur they may have been; low heeled and more comfortable than just about any lady’s shoe I knew of, but they still managed to torture my virgin feet. I made my way out onto the balcony with Michael close behind me.

-oOo-

“Don’t you have any other girls you need to dance with?” I asked him, not unkindly.

“None that I wish to. Gemma, I only want to be with you tonight.”

“And what of your parents? They don’t seem so happy about the way things are turning out, and if you’re using me as a way of getting at them, I will say I don’t take kindly to being so used.”

“Using you? Gemma, things couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ll admit my father and I have a disagreement about how I should conduct myself at these affairs, but I never would use you as a means of goading him.”

“They are expecting you to dance with more than one girl though, aren’t they?”

“Yes. They have some mad idea that by introducing me to so many girls in one evening, I might one day settle for one. What they don’t seem to realise is that I already have.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that after enduring one long and tedious party after another, I have finally met someone with whom I wish to spend some time. Right up until the moment you stepped into the room I had no greater expectations of the evening than I might simply survive it relatively unscathed.”

“I don’t understand. Surely every man alive would give his right arm to be in your shoes right now.”

“If that’s true, it’s only because I’m with the most beautiful woman who ever lived.”

I couldn’t help smiling at the way that made me feel, but I wasn’t about to let him off that easily.

“Even were she not here, isn’t it enough to be surrounded by such finery and such fair faces?”

“You might think so.” You might call the expression on his face a smile, but there was no joy in it. “It is magnificent, isn’t it? The place looks amazing; the music is wonderful; the food exquisite. Above all the young women here are beyond beautiful, and let’s face it, they’ve spent enough on being just that with their fine dresses and elegant coiffures, and heaven alone knows what else they might have done to themselves. From the perspective of almost anyone looking in from the outside, this is the perfect party.

“But look at it for a while through my eyes. Each and every young girl in this room – present company excluded of course – has come with a single goal in mind: to become my future bride. And they each have their different strengths and techniques.

“Some are vacuously simple in their approach. They flutter their eyelashes, they – what was the term you used? – simper and giggle in the hope that I might be taken in by their exquisite charm and good looks. Others are predatory and calculating, and frighteningly so at that. You’d be surprised at how many of them have researched my interests, then studied them until they are better acquainted than me with what I like.”

“Don’t you find that attractive, that a girl would go to such lengths to be with you?”

“I would, but that it is only ever a pretence. They’re very good at what they do, most of them, but a leopard cannot hide its spots any more than it can change them, and it never takes long before their true nature shows through.

“I am tired of such games, and until this evening I had begun to doubt that there might even exist a young lady somewhere who considered me to be more than a means of their becoming a princess. Then you walked in with your proud independence, and your charming individuality. You are the only real person in this place to my eyes. I know we only met a little more than an hour ago, but I feel as though you are a part of me already, and now that I’ve found you I don’t want to waste another moment of my life away from you.

“I know I’m rushing into this, and I can see that it frightens you more than a little. I’m sorry for that. Until now I have avoided speaking of feelings or expectations, in part because I find it so refreshing to speak with someone who isn’t solely guided by the goal of making me her husband, but also, and in larger part, because I wanted things to grow naturally between us; something which I have perhaps ruined now by laying my heart bare.

“Gemma, to say I have enjoyed your company thus far this evening would be to understate matters in the extreme. I don’t want this night ever to end, and I don’t want there to be anyone else in it but you. Since the moment I first set eyes on you, I have felt truly alive to such a degree that I wonder I even had the wit to breathe before, and I can only hope that your feelings are somewhat akin to my own.”

He stopped talking and silence rushed in on the heels of his words. There was chatter in the room next door, but it didn’t touch us in our little bubble of togetherness.

“Please say something,” he said when it became apparent that I wasn’t about to reply.

But I couldn’t. His words had just hammered home what was happening. I was falling in love with him just as much as he was falling in love with me. Until that moment I’d never believed love could grow so rapidly, but it had blinded me, and I had been so caught up in the feelings Michael stirred up in me that I had even forgotten I had ever been something other than the girl he saw.

Realisation washed over me like a cold shower. The fairy’s gift to me was the chance to be a girl for a night, and I’d taken it intending to have fun. Instead of carefully enjoying the whole girl experience and building up a stock of happy memories to take with me into the dark times ahead, I had dived headlong into turbulent waters and immersed myself in feelings I was unable to control.

It took an effort to remember what life had been like before this costume had changed me. It took an effort to accept the realisation that after tomorrow I’d go back to being plain old Cole.

The best of falling in love, I realised, was just that abandonment to the unknown. It was exhilarating, intoxicating, and just a little terrifying. It hoped for the best, and believed that somehow the wonder and glory of it all would last forever.

But that was the point. This wasn’t going to last forever.

I wanted with every measure of my being to give myself over to the feelings we so obviously shared, but it wouldn’t be fair – not on him, not on me – to do so unless we had the hope of a future.

And I didn’t have a future after tomorrow.

I felt something give inside as the realisation settled on me, crushing my spirit as it made its slow and inexorable decent. Fairies there may be, but no happily ever afters; not for the likes of me in any case. I’d closed myself off from the reality of my situation – or perhaps unreality, such as it was – and allowed myself to hope and believe in a dream come true, but it was a dream that had never been promised.

There was only one thing I could do.

“I have to go,” I said.

“What?”

“I’m sorry, Michael, but things aren’t as they seem. You’ll never know how much I wish things were otherwise, but this won’t work, what we have here and now. I never expected to feel this way, but it can’t last, and I won’t hold on to a false hope, nor will I be so cruel as to ask you to do so as well.”

I caught sight of the hurt and confusion in his eyes before my own blurred with tears. I turned to leave but his two burly bodyguards blocked my exit. I hadn’t noticed him give them a signal, but somehow he must have.

“Gemma, please.”

“No Michael, I’m sorry. It’s better this way. Please ask your men to stand aside.”

The one on my left reached out to grasp my arm with his massive hand.

“Actually, Miss, it’s the king who wishes to see you. Please come with us.”

-oOo-

“What the hell? What is this?” Michael’s indignant voice asked from behind me, but I’d already been pulled through the door and was being propelled across the dance floor towards the king and queen’s thrones.

I stumbled, felt myself step out of one of my shoes, tried to turn and pick it up, but the big man’s grip on me was unbreakable. I might as well have been a mewling kitten for all that my efforts achieved. The other guard on my right reached out and took hold of my other arm and I was completely helpless.

Without my shoe I might have stumbled, but they all but lifted me bodily off the floor and carried me to where their Majesties waited.

I was lowered back to the ground. Underneath my skirts I could feel something odd about my foot, but with the two men continuing to hold my arms, there was nothing I could do to investigate further.

“How did you get in here?” the king asked, his manner less than gentle.

“I’m sorry?” I managed by way of response.

“This party. How did you get in?”

“I have an invitation.”

“Show me.”

I fumbled for my purse. Not easy with two muscular giants holding me on either side, but I managed it and withdrew the richly decorated ticket. I passed it across.

The king glanced at it then passed it to a man standing beside him, who proceeded to examine it closely. Michael appeared in my field of vision, looking like a volcano ready to blow. His mother stood and held out a conciliatory hand, which somehow held him in check.

“Erm, yes,” the man beside the king said after a short while. “It’s very good. Identical to a real one I’d say. Where did you get it?”

“I was given it,” I said. “What do you mean identical to a real one? It is real, isn’t it?”

“There’s a guest list,” the king said, staring mercilessly into my eyes. “It’s a list of everyone to whom an invitation was sent. Your name does not appear on the list, so no, it is not real. Where did you get it?”

A strange old woman, who was really a fairy, gave it to me; about the same time she gave me this amazing dress which turned me into a beautiful woman. Not exactly the sort of explanation that was likely to go down well in a situation like this, regardless of whether or not they believed me. I dropped my gaze; couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Gemma?”

Michael’s voice was tainted with uneasy suspicion. I looked up at him helplessly. Everything was turning sour and there was nothing I could say that could make it even the least bit better.

“Take her away,” the king said. “Have the hotel’s security keep her somewhere safe until the police arrive.”

I didn’t even try to resist as the two bodyguards whisked me off towards the entrance and the elevators. Every eye in the place was on me, not that I cared. Everything had gone hopelessly wrong, and I would probably end up in prison for something or other. Exactly what, I couldn’t imagine, but neither could I bring myself to care. All I heard, echoing around in my head like a cracked record, was Michael’s betrayed and hurt voice saying my name over and over again.

We used the staff elevator, which descended to the ground floor and opened onto a small corridor where two smaller but equally capable men waited to take charge of me. The bodyguards released me and I stumbled out of the lift, limping awkwardly without my shoe. The two newcomers, who I recognised as hotel security, led me down an empty corridor, eventually indicating a room for me to enter. I didn’t resist.

The door closed behind me and I heard a key turn. The room was small and wholly unremarkable, painted a utilitarian grey and furnished with a single table and chair. A single light bulb hung from a bare light fitting. Other than a small air vent at the top of one wall and a security camera in one corner, that was it.

I sat on the chair, keeping my back to the camera, and lifted my skirts to investigate the oddness in my feet. The one without the shoe was fully two inches longer than the other, and looked, for all the world, like it had before this whole misadventure had begun.

I dropped the long folds of fabric back down, hiding my mismatched extremities. It crossed my mind to remove the other shoe, but I had no idea what might happen and I didn’t want to take any chances. I only knew it wouldn’t go well for me if any other, more noticeable, change occurred with a camera watching.

I looked up at the lens. A red LED glowed back at me dimly, suggesting that I was indeed some luckless guard’s source of televisual entertainment for the foreseeable future.

However long that was going to be. My watch had disappeared with the remainder of my clothing when my fairy friend had undressed me at the beginning of the evening, and there hadn’t been a replacement amongst the other accessories that went with my current outfit. The little bare room had no clock, so I had no idea what time it was. Michael had talked of knowing me for just over an hour before things had gone awry, and it had probably been around eight when I arrived at the ball, so ten o’clock seemed a fair guess.

That was early enough that it probably wouldn’t take the police long to come and fetch me. If they took me away to lock me up, it would mean undressing somewhere in full sight of the authorities. If I continued to change back as readily as my foot had the moment I lost my shoe, the questions could turn interesting.

Not to mention that the whole story would make its way back up to the penthouse suite here, and if Michael felt hurt and betrayed now, how would he be affected by the discovery that the girl he’d fallen for so hard was really a man, and not a young and attractive one at that?

I couldn’t let that happen. When they came back for me, I’d insist on being allowed to go to the toilet. I could argue time of the month troubles which should make any male cops uncomfortable enough to let me go, and should hopefully elicit some sympathy from any WPC they sent along to chaperone me.

Once in the loo, I could lock myself in a cubicle and undress.

Except I would then be male, naked, and locked in the ladies’ toilets with a dress belonging to a missing prisoner. More awkward and unanswerable questions.

It wasn’t a perfect plan, but unless I could come up with something better, it would have to do. I wasn’t that far from the boiler room which was my usual domain. If I could figure out a way of getting there…

I’m not sure how long I’d been sitting, brooding when the sound of a key fumbling its way into a lock roused me. It didn’t interest me much. The only individual who could possibly help me out of this fix wasn’t likely to use the main door.

The door swung open to reveal one of the hotel security guards who’d taken custody of me at the lift. He smiled sympathetically and placed a steaming mug and a plateful of sandwich on the table. It wasn’t champagne and truffles, but it was offered in kindness which made it all the more welcome than any of the fine food they had on offer upstairs.

“Thank you,” I said, managing a half-hearted smile.

“You’re welcome.” The voice was gentle and kind. Certainly unlike anything I’d experienced in all my old life as Cole. Never underestimate the capacity of a pretty face to charm, even in extreme circumstances like this. Maybe I could implement plan A without drawing unnecessary attention to myself.

“Is there any chance I could visit the ladies’?” I asked, hoping for a little more sympathy. I got it, but not in a way that helped me any.

“I’m sorry, Miss. I’m under instructions not to let you out of this room. I can bring you a bucket, but that’s about it.”

“What, pee into a bucket in front of a camera? Thanks anyway, but I guess I’ll wait.”

He smiled again, a little ruefully this time, shrugged and closed the door on me. The key turned and I was alone with my thoughts once more.

The tea was a welcome relief from the boredom. The sandwich was the sort of stale that’s peculiar to a certain low quality of vending machine, and I didn’t manage more than a couple of bites out of it before giving up. I wasn’t that hungry anyway. Little girl stomach successfully overriding years of overeating tendencies. I didn’t drink more than half the tea either, conscious of my little girl’s bladder and inefficient plumbing arrangements.

Time dragged by, even to the extent that I was bored enough to stand up and start pacing, at least for as long as it took me to remember my half-shod state. I sat straight back down, frustrated, and focused on the conundrum of the day. I mapped out the ground floor and levels in my mind. Access to the boiler room was one level below this one. I didn’t usually have much reason to spend time on the ground floor, so figuring out the fastest route to where I wanted to go proved challenging in no small way.

My guard reappeared, looked disapprovingly at the unfinished sandwich and half mug of cold tea. I shrugged and turned my back to him as he collected the debris. I waited until I heard the door close before turning back.

The unexpected sight of her startled me. I hadn’t seen her behind the guard when he came in, and I certainly hadn’t heard her, but there she was standing quietly in front of the door.

“Your Majesty.” I stood and managed a clumsy curtsey, finding my mismatched feet and lack of one shoe something of an awkwardness.

She waved away the formality with an impatient gesture – apparently sharing her son’s disdain for ceremony – and stood still, giving me a long appraising stare. After a while, she walked around me, examining me from every side. Given the size of the room and the bulk of our skirts it would have been easier if she’d asked me to twirl, but she managed it somehow.

Eventually she stopped at the chair and settled into it.

“So who are you?” she asked quietly.

There was something about her manner that was different from the king’s. He’d been all about the pomp and circumstance, looking to marry his son off to some well-heeled heiress, and disliking the idea of him being enamoured of an unknown gate crasher. She was curious and open, genuinely seeking to know more about me. I felt I had a chance with her, but I also felt she wouldn’t have much patience if I tried to lie. I looked up nervously at the camera behind her.

She turned in her seat and stared pointedly at the camera until, a few seconds later, the red light on its front went dark.

“I’m, er, I’m the janitor here at the hotel.”

She stood again and resumed her circling of me.

“You don’t look much like a janitor. A girl with your obvious charm and intelligence could make so much more of herself, I would have thought.”

“I had quite a bit of help.”

She arched an eyebrow, but otherwise stood looking up at me. She was a short woman – a little shorter even than my reduced size – but she had a bearing that gave her a powerful presence.

I glanced up at the camera again, noting the light was still off, and sat back on the chair. Lifting my skirts, I showed the queen my feet.

“Do you believe in fairies?” I asked.

-oOo-

She stooped to examine my feet, her eyebrows raised in surprise but no other sign of emotion showing on her face. She placed them side by side, lifted one then the other. It tickled, but this was hardly the time to complain.

“May I?” She indicated my one remaining shoe.

I’d more or less committed myself here. Even if the shoe wouldn’t go back on, the change in my foot would gain me an ally. I nodded.

She slid the shoe off. We both watched as my foot expanded like a balloon; not quite gross, but definitely unusual.

“Well that’s something you don’t see every day,” the queen commented, staring down at my two large, but now matching, bare feet. “Will it go back on?”

I shrugged and lifted my foot in invitation for her to give it a try. The foot shrunk to fit as my toes slid into the shoe.

The queen stood and so did I, but she pushed me back onto the seat.

“No, it’s alright,” she said. “So what would I see if you were to undress completely?”

I told her. I told her everything, starting with my lifetime of being neither one thing nor the other and the struggle it had always caused me, then describing the appearance of the fairy, the changes she’d made, the magic of the evening and the sheer unexpected wonder of the feelings that had grown between Michael and myself. I told her how I had become lost in my emotions and only just realised how badly it would all end when the bodyguards had grabbed hold of me and brought me before the royal couple for a second time.

“The rest you know,” I finished.

She stood silent and still, giving me an appraising look for a long while. She outlasted me.

“I suppose you think I’m some sort of a pervert. Most people would.”

“Don’t presume to try and define me, young lady. I’m not most people.”

That shut me up. I folded my hands into my lap and bowed my head waiting for her to speak again. Had she called me young…?

She seemed to make a decision, turned and knocked on the door, which opened for her. She half turned to face me, evidently intending to include my jailor in her words.

“A lot of what you’ve told me matches the things my son had to say on this matter. I don’t think you meant any harm, and I believe you were trying to do the right thing at the end. If I allow you to go free, will you give me your word not to try and see Prince Michael again?”

I discovered it was possible to feel both relief and despair at the same time.

“You have my word, Your Majesty,” I said in a dejected voice. “Thank you.”

The guard looked worried. The queen turned towards him.

“You have something to say?”

“Er, no Your Majesty. That is, the er, the police have been called. What should I tell them?”

“Tell them that we acted in haste when we asked you to call them. Tell them that the king has calmed down a little and we’ve decided we don’t wish to press charges after all.”

“Er, the king was quite explicit in his instructions, Your Majesty.”

“As am I with mine. Let this be an issue between him and me. Right now you can let Miss Harris go free.”

He didn’t seem happy about it, but neither did he look quite ready to argue with a queen. I took my chance and stood.

Bobbing a curtsey, I thanked the queen and made my way out between the small woman and the medium sized guard. By keeping on the ball of my bare foot, I managed to walk away from them without limping too openly.

All the while I expected the guard to call me back, or for someone else to step in front of me and bar my way, but I made it to the end of the corridor and stepped around the corner. As soon as I was out of sight, I lifted my skirts and sprinted as best I could for a nearby stairwell. Through the door, I paused long enough to remove my remaining shoe, and scurried down the stairs barefoot.

The basement level was my domain and mine alone. Tonight, with most staff either out partying or working extra shifts upstairs, the corridors were deserted and I made it to the boiler room without anyone seeing me.

I closed the door behind me and leaned back on it, breathing hard. This was home, this place of dusty floors and exposed pipes, of dark shadows and hidden corners. It was just another part of the hotel, just a place where I worked, but right now it was familiar and safe, and that made it home.

Beside the door was a shabby, melamine desk and a cheap chair, into which I collapsed, dropping my unpaired shoe onto the worktop. With the immediate danger gone, I had no strength to hold back the floodwaters, and I buried my face in my tiny hands and let the dam burst.

Tears are often cathartic, but not always. I had thought that, now this was over, they would bring me relief, but each sob carried with it a new stab to my heart and an increasing heaviness to my spirit. I was no stranger to such feelings, but the intensity of these outweighed anything I had experienced before.

My mind’s eye filled with images of Michael, of us dancing or chatting on the balcony. The memory of the way he made me feel brought no pleasure though, but rather increased my sense of aching loss.

Eventually I ran out of tears and when the last was shed I sat listlessly, staring at my hands. It was as though I had been crying out my emotions in liquid form; I was left without energy or feeling. I don’t know how long I sat there, but neither did I care. I was an empty shell aching at the void inside me, and nothing mattered. In a vague way I was aware of my surroundings – the sounds of the party still going on overhead, the sight of my hands folded on the desktop, even the faint smell of dust and grease – but I didn’t react to any of it.

I can’t say how long I sat like that, but when I came back to myself the party noise from above had subsided, with only the occasional strain of slow dance music echoing through the ventilation. I still had no idea of the time, but it must have been late – or early depending on your point of view.

I was bone weary and decided I’d had enough of tonight. A quick check of the gauges showed everything working normally. It hadn’t been that way when I’d started the job, but patience and persistence had paid off in the end, and moments like these made me glad of all the work I’d put in to get things running smoothly.

I pushed open a door hiding in the shadowy corner of the boiler room and stepped into my private space. It was smaller than I imagined Michael’s closet to be, but it was enough for my purposes. A narrow bed running along one wall, a single width wardrobe tucked in one corner, and a small cubicle at one end with a toilet and a cramped shower stall. Oh and a night stand by the bed as well.

I took off the tiara, earrings and necklace and dropped them on the nightstand. The weight disappeared from my head prompting me to look up at the mirror in the wardrobe door. My usual face looked back at me from under cropped hair. I tried my voice and it was back to being me, sort of. The rest of me under the dress still looked like the petite girl I’d so delighted in being. There was no pleasure in the sight now though.

I reached behind my neck and managed to unfasten the hook and the first few buttons holding the dress closed. I changed tactics and started working from the bottom up, managing another dozen or so at the small of my back. That still left more than a dozen that I couldn’t reach. I twisted and contorted my body every which way, tried to shrug the loosened dress into a different position, but despite my efforts I couldn’t quite reach any more.

In anger and frustration I took a deep breath and strained against the clothing, hoping to snap the thread holding the remaining buttons on, but either I was much weaker in my current form or fairy dresses are magically strengthened in some way.

Plan A wouldn’t have worked then.

I didn’t want to sleep in the dress. For one thing it would be uncomfortable, for another I’d really had enough of what the evening had brought me, and for yet another there would be a staff briefing early in the morning, and I could hardly appear looking like this.

Where was a fairy godmother when you needed one?

I caught sight of a twinkling in the mirror and turned in time to see my fairy coalesce in the air in front of me. She took the smaller Tinkerbelle form, which was as well given the lack of space.

“Hello Cole. Did you have a good time?”

There was something off in the way she said it. Something slightly forced in her manner, and possibly just a hint of malice in her expression. It wasn’t enough to be certain though, and I’d been raised not to judge too swiftly. I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

“Actually no,” I said. “It started off well enough, but it ended badly. Could you undo these buttons?”

I turned my back to her and she dutifully flew in to help.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Whatever happened?”

There it was again; a subtle condescension, but unmistakable now that I was listening for it. I waited for her to finish unbuttoning me before I answered.

“I think you know, don’t you? Wasn’t this your plan?”

I slid the dress off my shoulders and stepped out of it, laying it as best I could on the bed. My flabby stomach was back, but I still had breasts inside the bra, smooth legs under the tights and all the other differences inside my knickers.

“What are you saying, Cole?” There was an edge to her voice now; an anger at my accusation.

I unhooked the bra easily enough and my cleavage submerged back into my chest. My shoulder’s broadened, hairs sprouted down my front. Maleness returning.

“My name wasn’t on the guest list,” I said dropping the bra on the bed beside the dress and stooping to slide the knickers and tights off. “Surely it wouldn’t have been too much more of an effort to add it.”

Charlie and his two mates reappeared dangling between my legs and the hairs sprang out everywhere again. I had grown back to my normal height as well. I turned to face my visitor, too tired to be self-conscious at my nudity.

“You forget what I told you, Cole. Tonight’s events tie us together for the rest of your life. Whatever you feel, I feel from now on.”

She had said that, and there was a sincerity in her voice now that couldn’t be contrived. I bowed my head in shame.

“I’m sorry. I thought… I don’t know what I thought.”

“It’s alright, Cole. I’m sorry things didn’t work out for the best, but at least you’ll have some memories.”

Yeah, some memories. Every one reminded me of Michael, and every thought of Michael brought a renewal of pain.

“Where are the shoes?” The dress and other things had disappeared and my little visitor was whizzing around the room, searching all its hidden corners.

“Oh, one of them’s on my desk in the boiler room next door. The other I lost I’m afraid.”

“You lost a shoe?” The fairy’s anger was out of proportion to her manner up until now. She flew so close to my face I had difficulty focussing on her, and I could swear her eyes had a subtle red glow to them. Certainly the rest of her face was raging fury.

“I was being manhandled by a couple of very burly bodyguards at the time. I tried to stop and pick it up, but they wouldn’t let me.”

“You lost it at the party?” The fairy was barely listening. She flitted around the room like a hummingbird in desperately searching for its next sip of nectar. She whizzed back into my face. “You idiot!”

It was the last I saw of her that night. She disappeared so abruptly I wondered if she’d ever been there at all. I stepped cautiously out into the boiler room in case she was in there, but all was quiet. The shoe was gone from the desk.

-oOo-

After she left, there had been little more to do than go to bed. Even tired as I was, it took me a while to get to sleep; my last encounter with the fairy had stirred up all sorts of confused thoughts and they didn’t settle for some time. Eventually exhaustion took me though and I drifted into a sleep, filled with dreams of Michael and me dancing through the night. The dreams turned to nightmares as I found myself turning back into my real self in front of my beloved, and I woke in a sweat with the memory of Michael’s shocked and betrayed face staring at me.

It was early – still early enough to be dark outside. I climbed out of bed and went in search of my watch. Best first guess would be the wardrobe, and sure enough my missing overalls were hanging up along with my other clothes, my boots beneath them and my watch in one of the pockets.

I slipped it onto my wrist and looked at it. Half past five. If I went back to sleep now, I’d most likely not wake till after morning briefing. I showered and dressed in my usual work clothes, then gave the boilers a quick check over before heading upstairs to the staff canteen.

It was a small enough room, and empty at this time in the morning. I could hear the clatter of the catering staff in the kitchen next door as they prepared breakfast for the guests. I stuck my head through the door long enough to attract someone’s attention and put in an order for bacon and eggs. One of the perks of working in this place, even if in in the menial jobs, was the food. We didn’t get all meals, but things like breakfast were laid on.

I grabbed a set of cutlery and sat down to wait. It arrived five minutes later along with a steaming mug of fresh coffee. The guy who brought it in left without so much as a good morning, and I set to eating in silence.

Thoughts of Michael still crowded my mind. I had hoped it would be easier now that I was back to being me, but it was just the opposite. Now I didn’t just miss him, I missed being Gemma. Yesterday had been hard enough simply being aware of everyone around me enjoying their lives when mine was such a mess; now I had a whole new perspective of how good my life could have been, and never would be.

It was so crushing I couldn’t eat. I faltered with the first forkful of egg halfway to my mouth, dropped the ironware onto the plate and buried my face in my hands. Sometime during the night my body had replenished its supply of tears and now they came flooding to the surface all over again. I rarely cried as a man, but the sobs came deeper and more painful than ever. In the end I stood and walked out of the room before anyone else came along and found me in such a state.

I needed somewhere different, somewhere away from my usual haunts. The gardens at the back of the hotel should be deserted at this time, apart from maybe a gardener or two. I headed for the back door.

The sun had climbed above the horizon by the time I made it outside. Not that you could see it. The cold, grey drizzle of the previous day had given way to a drier, but no less grey start to November. Dew sat heavy on what leaves and flowers remained, which somehow put me in mind of where I wanted to be.

I made a bee line for the rose garden. In summer the place was a veritable rainbow of soft velvet petals in all shades from the palest gold to the richest scarlet, but now at the beginning of winter, with all the bushes cut back, all that remained were beds filled with black, thorny twigs.

The greyness and the deadness of the place appealed to me. I felt an easing of the pain I had been carrying, as though the emptiness inside me found a home in this barren place. I found a quite bench, sat and closed my eyes.

-oOo-

“I don’t care, mother. It doesn’t matter who she is, I love her.”

The voice startled me, for its familiarity as much as its closeness. I could hear footsteps coming closer and stared around me, looking for somewhere to hide.

“But you don’t know anything about her, Michael.”

“I… Don’t… Care! I know enough. I know she’s charming and witty, intelligent and beautiful. More than anything, she cared about me for the person I am, not for the title I hold. You and father set up these parties so I could meet my future bride, and I’m telling you I found her.”

It was too late. Michael and his mother came into the rose garden not twenty yards from where I was sitting. They stopped talking – and walking – the moment they caught sight of me, and stood in silence looking across at me.

I stood nervously and managed something approaching a bow, though it started as a curtsey for some bizarre reason known only to my unconscious mind.

“I’m sorry Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness. I thought the garden would be empty.”

I made to leave but Michael put his hand out and stopped me.

“It’s alright, you have as much right to be here as we do; probably more since you were here first. You should stay. We’ll find somewhere else to take our argument.”

“Actually,” the queen said, giving me an appraising look, “I think we’re done. It’s cold out here and, since I obviously can’t make you see reason, I shall leave you to your moping.”

She spun on her heels and walked away, leaving Michael and me standing awkwardly in one another’s presence. Michael was holding my shoe from last night and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

“This is kind of embarrassing,” Michael laughed. “I suppose you’re wondering what I’m doing wandering around the grounds holding a lady’s shoe.”

“It’s not my place to wonder at the affairs of royalty, Your Highness.”

“Look, can you drop the ‘Your Highness’ bollocks please? I’m an ordinary guy just like you. My name’s Michael, and I’d appreciate it if you addressed me as such.”

Michael’s a lovely name. I nearly said it, but caught myself in time. It was hardly the thing one guy would say to another, and I could do without complicating and ruining my life any more than I had.

“Cole,” I said, holding out my hand. “I’m janitor here.”

“Well it’s a pleasure to meet you, Cole,” the prince said, taking my hand in a firm but friendly handshake. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a young lady around here, have you? She’d be short and slim, about yay high,” He held a hand at about the height of his shoulder, “blond hair. She was wearing a dark red dress when I last saw her, and a golden tiara. And one shoe, like this one.”

He offered the shoe for me to examine and I took it from him. I didn’t speak, just sat down staring at it.

“Are you okay?” He joined me on the bench.

“Not really,” I said. “I had a rough night. I… haven’t seen anyone matching your description this morning, sir, but I could take this to the front desk if you wish.”

“No, it’s alright. I was hoping to return it to her myself.” He took the shoe back out of my unresisting hands. “Perhaps you’d like to talk. They say a trouble shared is a trouble halved.”

“You’re very kind, sir…”

“Michael.”

“You’re very kind, Sir Michael, but even halved I don’t think my trouble would be any easier to bear.”

He laughed at my continued refusal to use his name. “It’s about a woman, isn’t it? It usually is.”

“Something like that,” I agreed. He was making me nervous. I obviously couldn’t tell him the truth. For one thing I’d promised the queen I’d stay away from him, though this was hardly my fault. For another, nothing good could come of doing so.

But he obviously needed to speak to someone. He was hurting, perhaps as much as I was. However much I wanted to run away from this situation, I couldn’t leave him on his own.

“Perhaps you’d like to tell me about your own troubles, Michael.”

He’d apparently been waiting for just such an invitation. He told me about the previous night and this amazing young woman who’d come into his life. It should have been painful, but somehow, because it was him telling me, it was delightful. I relived the evening through his eyes, and for a while I felt the girl inside me come back from the edge of despair.

“After she was led away,” the prince said in closing, “I realised that I didn’t care who she was. So what if she crashed the party? So what if her invitation was fake? She definitely wasn’t. She was the most amazing thing to happening in my life, and I have to find her again.”

I wish you could, I thought. I wish there was some way you could get back together.

He glanced up at me, and there must have been something odd in the way I looked at him, because he sat up and edged away from me.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m sorry,” I said fighting to control my confused feelings. “It’s a very moving story, but you shouldn’t pin all your hopes on this one girl.”

“You don’t understand. She felt the same way about me as I do about her.”

“Maybe so, but sometimes these things are only given to us for a short while.”

“I can’t believe that. I won’t believe that. She’s out there somewhere, and I’m going to find her.”

“I wish you luck with it then, si… Michael, I really do.” I stood, checking my watch. Briefing was in about fifteen minutes, but this seemed like a good time to take my leave. “I’m afraid duty calls though.”

“Yes, of course.” He stood too. “I hope I haven’t put you to any trouble. If I’ve made you late for anything, please tell them you were helping me. I’ll corroborate. And thank you for listening; I had no idea how much I needed to talk this through.”

“You’re very welcome, sir.” I bowed a little and made to walk past him, but faltered at what I saw over his shoulder.

The last time I’d seen that face was in a mirror. She wore the same red, fur-lined dress I had worn, the same tiara, the same necklace and earrings. She was the exact same girl I had been the previous night.

Michael noticed my hesitation and turned to look.

“Gemma?” The renewed hope in his voice was like a fresh stab in the heart to me.

“Michael?” It was the same smooth and melodious voice that had been mine the previous night. She broke into a run towards him.

He met her halfway and took her into an embrace that should have been mine. It wasn’t selfishness that took me, though I’ll admit the green eyed monster was in there somewhere, but rather concern for Michael. Whoever this imposter was, I doubted she had his best interests at heart.

“Michael, you have to come away with me now,” she said urgently. “We don’t have much time.”

“What? I don’t understand.”

“Your father tried to pay me off. He doesn’t want us to be together. Our only chance is if you come with me now.”

“Michael, it’s not her”, I said.

“What?”

“This isn’t the girl you were with last night.”

“And just who are you?” the false Gemma asked.

“Shouldn’t the question be who are you?” I replied.

“This is the girl I was telling you about,” the prince said, still confused.

“No it’s not. She’s an imposter. I’m Gemma.”

“What!?”

I hadn’t intended to say anything, but if this was who I felt certain it was, then Michael was in danger. I had to say something.

“Michael’s a lovely name.”

“What?”

“It’s how I replied when you first told me your name last night. You called me proud and independent, charmingly individual. You said now that you’d found me, you didn’t want to waste another moment of your life away from me.”

“Don’t listen to him, Michael, she’s just trying to confuse you. I mean how could he ever have been me?”

“Do you believe in fairies, Michael?” I asked.

“What?” It seemed to have become the limit of Michael’s vocabulary.

“I do.”

The new voice spoke from behind Gemma’s form. She spun on her heels as the queen stepped into view.

“Ariel!” the Gemma lookalike exclaimed.

“Hello Titania,” the queen replied calmly, and threw a handful of white powder into the young girl’s face, then in almost the same movement, she tossed a small canister to me.

It was salt. The gardener used it to get rid of slugs.

“Quick,” she said, “make a circle round her.”

Enough strange things had happened to me in the previous few hours that I didn’t even think. I upended the canister and poured out a stream of white crystals in a closed circle around the newly named Titania’s feet.

She recovered from spluttering over the face full of salt, and lunged at the nearest person, which happened to be me. I flinched back, but didn’t need to as she rebounded from an invisible barrier above the line of salt.

“You were trying to steal my son,” the queen accused the captive.

“Hello brother,” Titania said. “You’ve change a little since I saw you last.”

“More than I can say for you, sister. You haven’t changed in the slightest. Still trying to steal children and ruin mortal’s lives.”

“You were no different once.”

“Until one of them saved me. They are deserving of our respect sister.”

“Is that why you became one of them?”

“I fell in love. It was the only way I could be with him.”

“You sicken me,” she said, her face turning to a snarl. “You all sicken me.”

“Then go back where you belong, sister.”

Titania’s face contorted with fury, twisted and warped, and settled into something inhuman, almost insect-like, but still bearing enough resemblance to the face she had worn in her Tinkerbelle form the previous night for me to recognise her. She raged against the invisible barrier that imprisoned her.

“Oh, that’s right,” the queen said, taunting her. “You can’t, can you? A salt circle holds you captive. Only the person who drew it can release you. I wonder what conditions she’ll make for your release.”

I’d caught Titania’s slip earlier and had thought little enough of it, but this had been deliberate. The queen had even emphasised the word.

As if I needed the hint anyway.

“I want the body you gave me last night. I want it to be mine for the rest of my life, regardless of what I’m wearing.”

“Is that all?” the fairy snarled at me from within her invisible cage with enough threat to bring something else to mind.

“No,” I said. “I want you to return to wherever you’re from and never come back. I want you never to come after the queen or anyone in her family.”

She glowered at me, at Michael and at the queen, but she didn’t have much choice.

“You know what it means for you to be this side of the door when it closes,” the queen said.

“Alright,” she snapped. “You have my word.”

“There’s an oath,” Ariel reminded her.

“Our two lives interchained by this oath, be it as you say for you have my troth.” The words were reluctantly given, but the queen seemed satisfied. She nodded to me and I reached out a booted toe to scuff the salt circle.

The moment it was broken she stepped out of it, dissolving into her smaller form or something like it but altogether more otherworldly. At the same time I felt myself shrinking and changing. My clothes remained the same, my feet shrinking in my boots, my body shrinking and swelling in different places inside my progressively more loose fitting overalls. A weight of hair cascaded down my back, and I couldn’t help but put my hands on various places on my body to ensure that I was fully and appropriately changed.

Titania snatched the shoe from Michael’s grasp, causing it to disappear into the nothing that had taken the rest of Gemma’s clothes. She then flew up to my face as she had the previous night.

“You think you’re so clever, but you didn’t ask for protection for yourself, did you? You can be sure that even if I can’t return, I’ll send someone to you next year at this time, and they will bring such misery to you as you have never known.”

She flew up into the sky until the last hint of her winked out.

I turned to Michael shyly. “Hello,” I said in the same smooth, musical tones I’d been able to use the previous night.”

Michael stared at me in complete incomprehension. “What?” he said.

-oOo-

The queen led us over to the bench by the rose beds and sat us down.

“This has to be kept a secret between us,” she said tucking her long hair behind a slightly, but obviously, pointed ear. “I am, as my sister said, one of the fair folk. At least I was.

“A long time ago a witch imprisoned my spirit in a tree, and I was trapped there for so long I can’t even count it in years. I slept for most of it, I suppose, but about twenty five years ago a logging company was given permission to clear the forest, and the closer they came to my tree, the more the other trees reacted in fear, until even I was woken from my deep slumber.

“For some months I was aware of the trees being cleared by their growing absence, and I saw my own demise growing inexorably closer. I was terrified. It’s in the nature of immortals to fear death. I know that sounds contradictory, but we are only immortal for so long as we spend most of our time in our own realm. My imprisonment took place during the day in each year that we are permitted in this world and, though I became mortal the instant the portal closed on me that year, I still had the long and lethargic lifespan of an oak tree to live. It was only with just a few days or weeks remaining until my trunk was due to feel the bite of a chainsaw that I faced my mortality.

“The rising terror within me gave me the strength to manifest in the form of a young woman, and in that form I searched out a solution to the dilemma facing not just me but the entire forest of which I was a part. Fortunately for me, I encountered your father,” she nodded at Michael, “and persuaded him to save the forest.

“He was never aware of my true nature, but there was a kindness inside him, and for my sake he bought what remained of the forest from whoever owned the land, and withdrew permission for it to be cleared. It cost him a considerable amount of money, but he paid it readily enough.

“I fell in love with him at that point, and when I returned to my tree after we were safe, I remained aware of him. He wouldn’t stop searching for me, and I could feel the pain within him. I still had several hundred years of life before me as a tree, but for love of the king, I chose to take this form and spend a shorter span with him.

“I can’t say I’ve regretted it.”

“So what can you tell us about Titania?” I asked. Michael was too shocked by all these unlikely revelations to think.

“She was my sister, and yes I was her brother Michael. There is more to being a man or a woman than the body into which you were born.

“For many hundreds of years we competed with each other to find new and more inventive ways in which we could taunt mortals. The days of Samhain have always been ours to revel in this world, and any mortal unwary enough to trust us has been our prey. Many of the fairy tales and legends of old are based on our exploits, and I can only say I am deeply ashamed of how I used to behave. We see mortals as little more than you see insects – short lived and of little consequence – so we didn’t think much of doing the most appalling things to your kind.

“Titania began to take matters a little far though. She started to look for ways to taunt me, and I must admit I joined in the game, but only so far. I believe it was her who gave the witch the power to trap me in the tree. Perhaps the witch was even my sister in disguise, though usually I would be able to sense her. By trapping me so that I couldn’t return to the immortal realm, she turned me mortal though and, such is her nature, she learnt to treat me with the same disdain she showed to other mortals.

“It may even have been her who arranged for the forest to be destroyed, because there is no doubt she wanted me to suffer in the ways she wants all mortals to suffer. When the deforestation was stopped and she found my tree empty of my spirit, she turned her attention to finding me. It’s taken her this long with only one day in every year to find me.”

“She said her spirit was joined to me by the actions she took. I believe she was sincere when she said it. Is that part true?”

“Oh yes, except that she finds pleasure in mortal pain. It was never her intention for you to find happiness. She wanted you to taste it, then regret it forever, and your particular condition made you all the more ideal for the purpose.”

“What do you mean?” It was Michael’s first words since his mother started the explanation.

“I mean the girl you fell in love with last night and the man you met this morning are one in the same person. Cole the janitor has lived his life as a man, but spent most if not all of it wishing he was a woman. It’s a condition with which I can sympathise to some degree because of the choices I’ve made in the last quarter century. Certainly I find that my temperament is more suited to life as a woman, and I think the same will be true of this young lady.”

“But is she a woman or is he a man?”

“What do you think? You spent time with him or her in both forms. When you think of both last night and earlier this morning, do you have a sense of someone more like me or your father?”

“But you yourself said you used to be male.”

“And yet have you ever questioned whether or not I was female?”

“Well, no, I suppose not.”

“And you have known enough women in your life. Not just the debutants your father has seen fit to inflict on you, but their mothers, your aunts, cousins, and grandmother. Do your experiences with any of them – individuals who were born female, mind – lead you to think that either of us are any less female than them?”

“No. Probably more the reverse if anything.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I don’t know. I suppose because most of them are trying to be something they’re not. You two both seem to be content to be just who you are right now.”

“And Cole earlier?”

“I see what you mean, I think. I don’t suppose my comments helped your mood much did they?”

I smiled and shyly turned my head. I didn’t need to say anything.

“So what happens now?” I asked, directing my question more at the queen than anyone.

“Well, I suppose that depends a little on Michael here. He seemed quite adamant about wanting to see more of you earlier, but men can be odd about such things. I don’t know how he feels now.”

We both turned expectant eyes on the young prince who shuffled uncomfortably.

“I’m not sure what to think. I mean you were going to walk out on me last night, even before my father threw you out.”

“Michael,” the queen said, “you can be so dense sometimes.”

“What do you mean?”

“Titania only gave me one evening as a woman,” I said. “It was sort of a costume party plus for me, or it was supposed to be. I didn’t count on falling in love myself, but when it came down to it, I knew the more we allowed our feelings to carry us, the harder it would be in the morning when I couldn’t be the girl you fell in love with anymore.”

“And now?”

“Well I assume I get to be like this for the rest of my life?”

The queen nodded. “It’s what you asked for and Titania took the oath.”

“In which case I’d very much like spend more time getting to know you.”

“We owe her in any case,” the queen continued. “She made part of her agreement with Titania that she should leave our family alone, now and for always, but she didn’t ask for protection for herself. Why was that?”

“I didn’t really think. She was trying to take Michael away, so I knew he needed protection. There was something of a family dispute going on so I assumed that it would be as well to protect your children and grandchildren as well. It didn’t occur to me that she would transfer her hatred onto me.”

“Well if you become part of our family you’ll be protected by the second part of the agreement. All that remains is to see how we do so, and that depends on my lummox of a son here.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well fairy godmother I can’t do, but fairy step mother is a possibility. Of course I’d prefer fairy mother-in-law…”

It finally sank home. Michael’s eyes went round with realisation. He looked at me questioningly.

“You have to ask, lummox,” Michael’s mother said.

“Is it what you want?” he asked.

“What I want is to know what you want.”

“I thought I told you that last night.”

“But that was before this morning.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” the queen interjected. “Will one of you please put us all out of our misery?”

I could see Michael was still vacillating. I took a deep breath.

“Michael, I’m in love with you. I started falling in love with you the moment I lay eyes on you last night, and I haven’t stopped. I can’t think of anything I could want more than to be your wife. Not your princess, but your wife. At the same time I can’t think of anything I’d want less than to be your wife if you only agree to marry me through a sense of duty.

“If you ask me to marry you out of love, I will say, yes, yes and wholeheartedly yes. If you offer to marry me because it is the right thing to do and for no other reason, then the answer will have to be no.

“I’m aware that things have changed significantly since we spoke last night, and I will fully understand and accept if what you know now causes you to change your mind in any way from last night.

“If Your Majesty would be kind enough,” this I addressed to the queen, “I feel like I’m drowning in these clothes and would be most grateful if you could help me out in this regard. I think the prince could do with a little time to think on matters.”

Michael withered under the onslaught and even the queen looked a little surprised. She recovered quickest though, as I’d felt certain she would, and stood to her feet.

“Of course you’re right. Michael, you’ll excuse us. We shall see you in a while at breakfast.”

It was awkward walking in boots three or four sizes too big for me, and in overalls where the crotch was flapping around my knees and the underpants I was wearing under them slipped almost as far, but with the queen’s help I made it to the elevators.

I checked my watch, now hanging loose on a very slender wrist. Most staff would be in the morning briefing now, and the managers would be wondering where I’d gone. The desk staff looked at me oddly in my oversized clothes, and I worried that we might have a visit later.

The queen pressed the button for the top floor and that became yet another problem for later.

-oOo-

“What’s she doing here?” the bathrobe clad king said on sight of me as the queen led me out of the lift.

“She’s here as my guest,” the queen retorted equally rudely, “and if you have a problem with that, then you have a problem with me. Is that what you want?”

“Why the hell’s she dressed like that?”

“Because you’re standing in my way preventing me from finding her some more appropriate clothing. Now why don’t you go and make yourself decent and I’ll do the same for the young lady here.”

With that we swept past him and into the royal chamber.

The queen and I weren’t too dissimilar in size, although she was a little smaller. She did have a large wardrobe though, and it didn’t take long to find a pretty white dress with a loose enough bodice. It would have dropped below her knees, but on me it just about reached knee level. Her underwear was a little tight, but it would do in the short term until we could buy some to fit. Shoes were likewise a little tight because, though my feet were dainty, the queen’s were even more so. In the end we settled on a pair of backless slippers that just about worked.

The queen sat me at a dressing table and set about brushing my hair. I’ve always wanted long hair, and my golden tresses were just about as near perfect as I could imagine. Having them brushed out was a new and unexpected pleasure.

“You handled yourself well in the garden,” she told me as I lost myself in the delightful sensation. “If I were to choose an adjective, I would say your manner was quite regal.”

“Thank you. I suppose it comes naturally to you though, doesn’t it?”

“What do you mean?”

“If I remember correctly, Titania is queen of the fairies, so if you were her brother…”

“What counts for royalty among the fair folk is quite different from what you find here. I had to learn to be a queen.”

“The king doesn’t seem to like me much.”

“You leave the king to me. If his son wants to marry someone from beneath his social station, then the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.”

I turned to look at her.

“As far as he’s concerned, I’m nothing more than a peasant. Most of the people in our country are simple enough folk.”

“What do you think Michael will decide?”

“He’s a good boy, and you’ve been honest with him. It may take him a while, but he’ll come round.”

“We should get our story straight you know.”

“Yes, I’ve been thinking the same. Do you have any ideas?”

“Well you had the hotel security let me go last night. What if I was attacked and robbed after I left?”

“No that wouldn’t work. A pretty girl like you in a place like this would be taken advantage of, and I don’t want a matter like that to be raised. Why not keep it simple and unexplained? You don’t remember any of your life before this evening. You were found in the garden without any clothes of your own, so the janitor lent you some of his.”

“So what happened to him?”

“Not our problem. Since we were responsible for putting you out last night, we take responsibility for what happens to you next, but we know nothing of Cole. There’s no evidence to lead to an answer, so your appearance and the janitor’s disappearance become unsolved mysteries in the police archives. For the most part we have told the truth, so all is well.”

“I suppose it’ll work,” I said uncertainly.

“It will. And since we get to reinvent you completely, why don’t we give you a new name too. Gemma’s not really you, nor is it a great queen’s name, and you will be queen my dear.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“I’ve always liked Coraline. Gemstones may be beauty formed under pressure, but coral is a beauty that grows. Whatever your past, I’d like to think of this as a name that describes your future.”

I rolled the name around inside my mind for a while and decided I liked it.

 -Fin-