Damn! Damn! Damnity-damn! Damnity-damn-damn... Shit!
Leaning against the bedpost, A’eiio had managed to slide the flesh-suit up over her slim legs and up to her svelte hips. But pulling it over the hips was another matter.
"Nice language," cracked her husband, amused at the sight of her graceful fairy body, with its flawless alabaster skin, gyrating in such a comical way. He sat on the bench of the dressing table in their handsomely furnished bedroom, carefully smoothing the special oil onto his wings. They tended to dry out in the northern winters. The delicate musky aroma of the oil wafted through the room, reminding him of home. It was both a blessing and a curse that the Wardens allowed the exiles to the planet to import small tokens of their life before their sentences. For now, he just enjoyed the sensual oiling process and tried to ignore the pangs of homesickness. They tended to intrude, though, like the memory of his mother smoothing the oil onto his wings as a young one. A’eiio’s struggle brought him back from the memory.
"I'm not getting fat! I'm damned well not getting fat!” she exclaimed. “The suit shrunk!" She struggled on, wriggling her behind and yanking until the suit slipped over her hips.
"Suits don't—" he started to say, then thought better of it. "Well, maybe the cellular matrix contracts over time. Anyway, a new one's coming through next week."
"Yeah, and it's aged, so I look even more like an old lady."
"Well, you are old, for this planet's race." He put down the oil and embraced his half-clad wife, stroking her shimmering silver hair. "But for a fairy, sweetheart, you're young as springtime."
He would have spoken the compliment in the melodic, tone-language of fairies, but they had pledged to only speak the local language, to avoid slip-ups.
She paused in her contortions to briefly hug him back. "You’re a good liar. After all, you are a lawyer. Help me get my wings tucked in. I just hate having my wings tucked in. They get cramped after a day."
He gently slipped her gossamer, veined wings, which he had lovingly oiled earlier, into the suit. He helped her pull it up to her shoulders, her smooth skin disappearing beneath the flabby, mottled flesh of the living disguise that was a flesh-suit. She slipped her arms into the suit's arms, transforming them from slim, graceful fairy arms into dumpier appendages.
Now all that was left was the head-mask, which hung limply down from her back. She reached behind her, pulled it over her head, and stretched it into place over her face.
The sagging flab of the face mask, like that of the suit, draped loosely over her body. She reached down to her chest and pressed the invisible button that sent the waves of neural signals through the suit, instructing the mesh of living cells to assume their programmed-in shape.
The suit snugged itself obediently to her body and face, becoming indistinguishable from real flesh. She moved to the mirror, but now instead of the feather-light grace of a fairy, she walked ponderously under the burden of the weights built into the suit.
"Now...," she said, peering at herself critically. "The nose is crooked. The damn nose is crooked." She poked a bit and the flesh-suit nose settled into place in the middle of her face over her own nose.
"The worst is when you have to cover those beautiful eyes," said her husband, moving to the closet to pull his own flesh-suit out of its nutrient canister. He hung it over the container to allow it to drain off the syrupy yellowish liquid of the nutrient solution.
"All fairies have these eyes." She pulled back the mask's eyelids and proceeded to pop in the brown contacts over her glistening sapphire-blue eyes. "You are being romantic tonight."
"I confess, I am feeling romantic. Let's fly together tonight." He kissed her lightly on the now-fleshy cheek.
"Not quite yet. The moon is still waning. When it's dark. A couple of days, I promise." She kissed him back. She slipped on her matronly party gown and conservative low heels and checked herself in the mirror.
“How’s your acceptance speech?” he asked.
She was silent, her expression turning somber.
“What’s the matter?”
“This award they’re giving me. I really shouldn’t accept it. I just don’t feel I deserve it.”
“You deserve the honor more than anybody. You literally saved thousands of this planet’s children … tens of thousands… with the rescue program you created. You traveled the world persuading the leaders to give rescue workers access. Hell, you were almost killed twice by rebels.”
“But I can’t help feeling like it was just to make the Wardens happy. You know, to fulfill their requirement that part of our sentence is to do good works during exile. I feel like a hypocrite.”
He hugged her closely. “I remember when we were home, and you were just as dedicated. Before your sentence. I read about your work with cast-out and orphan fairies before I even knew you. And of course, I read about your crime… if you want to call it that. That little one was abused. Taking her, hiding her, was the right thing to do. The magistrate didn’t want to sentence you, but he had to follow the law. And when I was convicted for my own crime and met you here, I knew you were genuine. It was easy to fall in love with you.”
She shrugged and caressed his cheek, her smile transmitting through the tightened skin of the flesh-suit. The phone beeped, signaling a call, and she answered it. She uttered a terse “Understood. We’re coming,” ended the call, and told him, "Get ready, will you? The car will be here soon."
He moved quickly to slip his own flesh-suit over a more muscular male fairy body. He tucked in his now-supple wings and deftly flipped the head-mask over his own full head of silver hair. Snugging the mask into place, he pressed the activation button, transforming himself into a gracefully aging, slightly paunchy, middle-aged male. He donned his elegant bespoke formal suit, tugged the jacket sleeves to smooth them, and took her arm.
"Okay, now we are Senator Deborah Bright and her very handsome husband Marc Bright." He always made that announcement before they left for an evening, as a way to remind them to fully immerse themselves in their assumed identities. One slip would be disastrous. "Shall we see if we can make it through another night with this species without being discovered?"
Its gleaming black surface reflecting the streetlights, the massive car carrying the Senator and Mr. Bright glided up the circular driveway. It came to a smooth stop under the high, square-columned canopy in front of the official residence of the president of the International Congress of Nations.
The starkly modern mansion sat on an expansive grassy hill on the grounds of the Congress building complex.
The driver quickly swept open the car door, and they both climbed out, to be met by a smiling young assistant in formal dress.
"Ah, Senator Bright, Mr. Bright. So happy to see you," he said. "We are so pleased to be able to honor you tonight."
"See, he knows you deserve it!” whispered Marc to her, grinning triumphantly. “Dear, you are an extraordinary fairy!"
"Shush!" she scolded, thankful that the skin of the flesh-suit did not support blushing.
Marc obediently shut up and shook the young man's hand. They walked together into the stark, modernistic reception hall, where other formally attired men and gowned women chatted amiably over before-dinner drinks.
Given that Senator Bright was an honoree, she and Marc were escorted directly to the president of the international body, who greeted them warmly. He was tall and gangly with wispy, thinning blond hair and a magnificent beak of a nose. He gave a courtly bow to the diminutive middle-aged Senator, and he thanked her again for her good works. She responded gratefully, but there was the unspoken shared memory of his somewhat reluctant support of her ambitious and politically risky plan to save children in conflict zones.
Marc had quickly excused himself and wound his way through the elegant throng to the bar. He ordered drinks for the two of them, in particular a strong drink for himself. He didn't have to be sharp tonight. He was merely decorative.
Weaving unsteadily up to the bar next to Marc came a disheveled-looking young man in a rumpled suit, with a tousled mane of blondish hair.
“Gimme a big one, if you please, sir,” he declared in slurred speech.
Marc had just taken up his drinks and turned to leave, when the young man's drink arrived. He took a healthy gulp and turned to lean unsteadily against the bar. He grinned drunkenly at Marc.
"Got to take advantage of these parties when you can," he said, grinning. "Free drink, free food, y'know."
"I completely agree," said Marc, starting off. But just as he stepped forward, the young man had raised his glass, and it bumped Marc's arm, spilling the drink all over his sleeve.
"Oh, whoa, I am sorry," said the young man. "I'm really sorry." He grabbed a handful of napkins and proceeded to clumsily rub them on Marc's sleeve.
"No problem, my young friend. I've done the same. Just forget it. And maybe ease up a bit on the drinking."
"Yeah, sorry again,” the young man mumbled, ducking his head in apology. “Thank you for understanding. I’m Jack. Jack March. Sorry, not a good day today. Lost my job. My first big break outta school. And my girlfriend's kinda mad at me. That's her over there." He pointed to a pretty, blond woman giving instructions to one of the servers. "She works here, and I didn't want to come tonight, but she works here. And it was important to her. Sorry, again." He held out his hand, but realized that Marc's hands were full with the drinks. He settled for patting Marc on the shoulder.
Marc nodded his head and smiled. "Got to go, Jack. Again, take it easy."
"Yeah... easy… right." But Jack drained his glass and turned immediately back to the bar, to order another.
Marc returned to Deborah's side and offered her the drink, apologizing to her for the somewhat alcoholic aroma of his sleeve. By now, she had finished her tête-à-tête with the president and moved on to a group of staff. The talk had just turned to details of her next project to supply food to war-torn areas, when dinner was announced. The guests strolled into the starkly modern dining room, and took their places at the round tables set with glimmering crystal glasses and gold-rimmed plates. The president and his wife sat at a head table on a dais, flanked by Deborah and Marc.
The salad and main courses came and went in a pleasant progression with convivial chatter; as did dessert, a tasty, light cake. Before the award ceremony and speeches began, Deborah excused herself, finding her way to the women’s sitting room and the adjoining bathroom. She always worried that eating in public would expose some giveaway wrinkle in the face of the flesh-suit that was their only protection against discovery by the local species. That discovery was considered cause for the Wardens to transform exile into a sentence on a prison planet. A minute examination of her face in the mirror confirmed that all was in order—lips, chin, and the sometimes errant nose.
But she was still distracted as she returned to the dinner, opening the door from the sitting room into the reception hall. She collided with a waiter balancing a square serving pan above his shoulder. The pan lurched forward, and its sharp corner slammed into the side of her head, tearing away the flesh-mask, revealing white skin and shimmering wisps of her silver hair.
The waiter had bent to pick up the pan, perhaps not noticing! Deborah’s eyes darted around the room. She couldn’t be sure others hadn’t seen! She clasped her hand over the torn face and backed away as the waiter came up, uttering effusive apologies.
"Oh, madam, I am so sorry. I hope—"
But Deborah was gone, ducking back into the sitting room. She started to go into the bathroom, to figure out what to do next.
No! She stopped herself. If she returned to the bathroom, she would be trapped! She needed to have an exit! Not through the front door... or any door that would be manned!
She leaned against the sitting room door so nobody could enter and took out her phone, squinting at the screen. Her brown contacts were purposely nearsighted to remind her to wear her reading glasses at work. She popped them out, and typed a text to Marc, not risking speaking a message. "Torn skin! I'm leaving. Stay. Make an excuse for why I didn't come back."
There was no reply. No doubt the ceremony had begun, and it would be bad etiquette to take out his phone to read the message. She could only hope he would realize she was not returning, check the message, and make a viable excuse why she was not able to make an acceptance speech. Meantime, she had to escape!
Jack was sloppily, unacceptably drunk, so Anna hauled her stumbling soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend up the stairs to the residence floor. She looked desperately up and down the hall to see if they'd been detected. Muttering curses, she shoved him through a guest bedroom door.
"You are not just embarrassing me! You could cost me my job!" She scolded.
"I'm sorry, Anna, I just—"
"Yes, I know you lost your job. That is not an excuse! Now you have also lost your girlfriend!"
"Please, please, please! I'm sorry. Look, I'll straighten up. I'll take a little time and sober up and come downstairs and be fine." He gestured at the door to the suite's bathroom. "I'll wash up, straighten up. You go on down."
She spat a curse that called him an intimate body part, and turned and left.
"I deserve that," mumbled Jack to himself. He lumbered into the bathroom and closed the door. He pulled off his tie, jacket, and shirt, ran cold water in the sink and plunged his head into it, submerging his face as long as he could. He raised up to see in the mirror the dripping, bleary-eyed face of a drunken young man, sopping hair in disarray. He plunged his face into the water again, coming up. His head was clearing.
He was drying his face, when he heard a faint thump in the bedroom.
Oh, no! He thought. Somebody’s here! Maybe to go to the bathroom. He quietly locked the bathroom door and waited. Nobody tried to enter. There were no more noises. He was safe. He put on his shirt and jacket, not attempting to knot his tie. He was still too tipsy. He cautiously unlocked the door and ever-so-quietly opened it.
He peeked out into the room. Nobody there. He eased out of the door, and was turning to leave, when a flash of movement in the corner of his eye caused him to turn back into the room.
He gasped in shock at the sight. Standing by the window was a slim, naked girl, with creamy, smooth skin and lustrous, silver hair. But she had wings!
The creature had her back to him, struggling to step out of a rubbery-looking pile of flesh-colored stuff on the floor. Beside the pile lay a dress and shoes.
"Damnity-damn!" exclaimed the creature.
"Jeez!" Jack grunted in surprise at the creature's curse.
The creature spun to look at him with brilliant, piercing blue eyes. She let out her own gasp, freed her delicate feet from the fleshy pile, flung open the large double windows, and gathered everything up, clutching it tightly to her chest.
Her large transparent wings began to beat furiously, filling the room with an intense hum. They became a blur, as they lifted her smoothly off the floor. Hovering, she turned for just an instant to look once more back at him with wide, frightened eyes and sailed out the window into the dark sky.
Jack stood unsteadily for a long moment, mouth agape, stunned into immobility by what he had seen. Then, his reporter's instinct kicked in and he lurched to the window, leaning out into the bracing, crisp night, peering upward.
Nothing. He saw nothing but dark sky lit from below by the glow of the city's lights.
But he had seen something. Really something!