Well I guess that push has come to this
So I guess this must be shove
But before you throw those stones at me
Tell me what is your house made of?
-Ani DiFranco, "Glass House"
The past six years had not been easy.
When she had stepped from Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters that July afternoon – a lifetime ago – Aeryn had sworn to herself that she would not look back, that her entire future was ahead of her, that something exciting and glorious was waiting ahead. She had promised herself that although one door had closed in her life, another would open. Eventually. Something good would rise from the ashes of what she had endured.
She had returned to Surrey, to Little Whinging, back to the life she had once considered to be normal. Her landlord had raised his eyebrows when she entered his office to pick up the key to her flat, but he had said nothing more than to remind her that her lease was almost up, and would she be signing on for another year? The flat had been dusty with disuse, and she had attacked it with her cleaning rags and mops, and tried once again to fit into the rooms that suddenly seemed so drab, so shabby, so bereft of life.
Hogwarts – the wizarding world – her friends – all these she forced herself to push from her mind, to lock away in her memory. Just for a while, she consoled herself. Until she could settle back into normalcy, until she could find her bearings in a world that suddenly pitched and heaved beneath her feet.
Old employers had been contacted, and she found several who were willing to take her back as a housekeeper. And so she tried to settle back into the old, familiar routine, which should have been as easy to fall back into as a hand slipping into an old glove. But the glove, though once so comfortable, no longer fit, and stretched uncomfortably against the new shape of her skin.
Just for a while, she told herself when the glove chafed her, when it constricted around her so tightly that she could scarcely breathe. Until I get my feet back under me, and then I'll move on. I swear it. And then she would open her battered old trunk and leaf through spellbooks until the constricting feeling subsided. Then, and only then, would she draw out her map of Europe and pore over it until her eyes burned from following the black tracks of highways and roads. London. Edinburgh. Barcelona. Paris. Geneva. Places she would visit, places she would go, places where she would try and start over. Hope, no matter how faint, illuminated the horizon.
And then, sudden as a flash of lightning, it had all changed.
The mutant threat exploded across the globe. In most major cities, 'recommended' mutant registration was a part of life, as were protective collars that – it was said – kept 'accidents' from occurring. And Aeryn was aware of this, had been aware of this, had watched the news diligently each night until she was physically ill. Once, in a state of panic, she had considered registering – but a moment had been all she needed rebel from the thought of being collared like an animal. Though a little wary of her solitary insurrection, she had been reassured by the fact that the supposed threat had not changed, and soon the news moved to other issues, to other stories.
But then the Moderators of the Mutant Registration Commission descended upon Little Whinging with their blood testers, their DNA analyzers, their slick grins, and their cold, hard eyes.
Suspected mutant terrorist group lurking, exclaimed the television announcer when Aeryn flicked on the news and kneeled before the glowing screen, wrapping her trembling arms around herself. Necessary precaution. Indefinite amount of time. Cooperation is essential.
With fevered haste she had packed, throwing some clothes and food into a knapsack and tucking her wand into her belt. She had slipped out the door of her flat and had gotten all the way to the main road when they caught her. A multitude of bright torches beamed into her face, blinding her, and all she could do was stand there, blinking stupidly until a middle-aged man wearing the pea-green and black uniform of the MRC stepped forward.
"'Scuse me, miss." His voice was brusque as he flashed his badge. "I'm gonna have to test your blood."
She should have run. She should have lashed out with her powers and fled. She should have drawn her wand, turned the man into a toad, and stepped on him. But all she could do was stand there dumbly as the man stepped forward and lifted her limp hand. With practiced ease, he slipped a small device onto her index finger. A stab of pain bit into her fingertip; an instant later, the device began to whir and chatter.
Instantly, there was the soft click of guns being cocked all around her, and she suddenly sensed the encompassing wall of figures surrounding her on all sides.
The man's gaze glittered suddenly upon her, and Aeryn shrank back at the menace in his eyes.
"Well, well," he murmured coldly, his face going hard. "It's looks like we've got another drifter, men."
And before she could react – before she could even twitch – a thick metal collar was clamped around her neck.
They had taken her into town with a gun barrel jammed into the small of her back, and pushed her through the warren halls of a building and into a small, windowless room.
She only tried to lash out once with her powers, when a grim-faced woman stripped Aeryn's clothes off and discovered her wand. Along with her pendant, Aeryn's wand was her most prized possession, and the only thing that linked her with the life she had all too reluctantly left behind. She was not about to just let it be taken from her. Not without a fight.
She had lunged for it with her mind, but reeled backwards suddenly as her mental powers met a hard, blank wall. When a heavy pair of hands slipped around her neck to remove her pendant, she attacked physically, her fists flying and her teeth bared. A cattle prod to her back had taken her down, and when she had the strength to raise her head, the wand and pendant, as well as her clothes, had disappeared from the room.
The grim-faced woman had stuck countless needles into Aeryn's naked body, drawing blood until she was light-headed and nauseous. Then came the questioning, and the fingerprinting, and more needles, and then more questioning, until all of Aeryn's thoughts blurred and congealed together into one huge, painful, confused mess.
And then she was suddenly standing before a desk, dressed, her muscles shaking as she signed her name to a paper filled with miniscule writing. Not that she had any idea what was on it – they had made certain of that. Two men, each of them half as large as Hagrid, flanked her shoulders. The thick collar she wore pinched her throat. She could feel her wand in her belt, yes, they had returned her wand with her clothes, but her pendant was missing. Even the weight of her collar could not mask the sudden nakedness she felt around her neck.
One of the men spoke. His voice was gruff, and his eyes glazed to a spot on the wall somewhere just over the top of her head. After a moment, Aeryn realized he was speaking to her. She had just completed registration, he said. She would have to pay a fine for not coming forward of her own free will…another fine for living in non mutant-accepted housing…she would return to her residence this evening, but in the morning, patrol members of the MSC would escort her to a suitable living area…her collar could only be removed by a special key belonging to the MSC, but herself she was never to remove it, under the penalty of jail time and another fine…if for some reason the lock mechanism was tampered with, it would sound an alarm and release a capsule of poison gas attuned to her body chemistry that was embedded in the collar, which would immobilize her until the MSC responded….
His mouth continued moving, but Aeryn had long stopped listening.
When he had stopped, she had asked, as politely as she could manage, for her pendant back. The request earned her a hard slap against the back of her head, and a few moments later she found herself thrust outside onto the street. The scattered streetlights cast ghostly shadows that pooling in the lengthening cracks of the asphalt.
Aeryn swallowed hard, her head still woozy from the loss of blood. With clumsy movements, she turned back to look at the door she had just come from, noticed the two green-and-black garbed guards standing on either side of the entrance, and then slowly turned and limped away into the shadows behind the streetlamps.
Had the guards' eyes been able to follow her into the shadows, they would have seen her bent form suddenly and halt jerkily in mid-limp, like a marionette stilled by the hand of its puppetmaster. They may or may not have heard the strangled, quickly-silenced cry that tore from her throat, but they would have seen her folded body slowly uncurl until she stood to her full height, her shoulders thrown back as if the pain had dropped from them like an old garment. She turned, and what might have been a soft chuckle echoed from her lips.
The soldiers, had they been watching, might have seen the brilliant, malevolent grin that split her face, but hidden in the shadows as she was, they would not have seen that her eyes had inexplicably lightened from slate-blue to the color of forget-me-nots.
For one wounded, she moved lightning-quick. Her fingers wrapped around the slender shaft of wood in her belt, yanked it free, and leveled it towards the building. Her lips moved and she spoke something under her breath.
An instant later, the building erupted in a blinding ball of flame.
The sound of the explosion split the night, masking the girl's sudden, agonized shriek, and no one was there to see her straightened form crumple, see the frenzied gleam in her eyes flash once and then dissipate as she gasped in pain. For an instant she stared into the flames, her face a mask of disbelief, her slate-blue eyes wide with horror. She took a hobbling, pained step forward, but then stopped.
There was nothing she could do now.
Her eyes fluttered shut, and she drew a deep, struggling breath. Then, lifting her gaze, she licked her lips and raised her wand again, pointing it towards the towering inferno.
"Accio pendant," she whispered, her voice breaking on the last syllable.
A flash of silver ricocheted through the flickering flames and snapped into her waiting palm. It was slightly warm and she curled her trembling fingers over it. There was a sparkle as she slid it into her pocket, and as sirens began to wail in the distance, the young mutant spun on her heel and sprinted away.
* * *
The collar with the gleaming red stone that kept her mutant powers at bay also marked her in the new population of outcasts. That night she fled to London, but as soon as the residents saw her collar, they shunned her. Doors shut in her face; stores that were hiring turned a deaf ear to her requests. Exhausted and hungry, she collapsed on the streets to sleep among the brethren of her kind, covering herself with newspapers atop sewer grates.
In her dreams, the explosion of the building played again and again.
She did not know how she retained her magical abilities while her other powers were locked from her, but she was too thankful for this one small blessing to ask why. Her wand kept her alive. She could Summon food from store windows when the shopkeepers weren't looking, which was enough to keep her from starving. A few well-placed spells and her years of karate training protected her from the street thieves, and simple comfort charms gave her a modicum of relief when she slumped to the sewer grates at the end of a long day. But no alohomora could remove the collar, nor any illusion she could cast hide her from the detectors stationed on the entrances to every building. And even if she could have somehow hidden the collar away, the obligatory blood testers everywhere, on the subway, in the stores, would have belied her disguise.
She knew that she had to move on, and fast.
Mutants required a plethora of papers to travel outside the country, but one wave of the wand provided ones that passed even a rigorous examination. Paper Muggle money was required as well, but Aeryn found to her dismay that her wand was incapable of creating it. She drew all that remained from her nearly-depleted bank account, praying that it would last her until she could find someplace to stay. She boarded the train in London, shuffled to the mutant section in the back, and sat there until she arrived in Geneva, Switzerland a day and a half later.
Several miles outside of Geneva, in a tiny neighboring town, she had found employment – an elderly shopkeeper, nearly blinded by cataracts, had needed an extra pair of hands to sweep up and close the shop. He spoke no English and she spoke no French, but one surreptitious wave of her wand rendered them able to understand each other perfectly. The pay was hardly anything, but it was enough for her to rent a cheap room and feed herself once a day. The Mutant Registration Commission had not yet sunk its claws completely into Switzerland, and so Aeryn lived there for six months, the quiet of the small town a peaceful relief. But when the MRC began to tighten its grip around the town, Aeryn wished the shopkeeper a fond farewell, gathered the little money she had earned, and hopped a train out of town.
Next it was Germany, in the small village of Netphen. Aeryn worked in a bakery, helping the baker in the back rooms with the rising dough, and working the counter from time to time. The stoic people were kind in their own way, smiling when they spoke to her, and only occasionally letting their eyes flick to the collar around her neck. She kept to herself and a year went by. She had grown comfortable enough to send word to her friends and receive letters from them in return. They had been concerned about her, they said – Hermione in her wordy, logical, fact-spewing way as she breathlessly discussed what she had heard from the Muggle papers; Ron in his short, hesitant sentences so like his awkward, hesitant way of questioning that it brought a smile to Aeryn's face; and Harry, who did not question, did not probe, but merely wrote about his life, what had been going on at Hogwarts since she had left, slipping in It is so good to hear from you, and then later, I miss you, and finally, Be careful – I think of you often.
It had seemed, for a while, that she had found a place where she could stay. But when the town residents began to stare openly at her and point fingers, and would not meet her eyes when she spoke to them, she had packed her few belongings, took what cash she had, and moved on.
It had worsened from that point on. Luxembourg, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam…it was all the same. She would be employed for a short amount of time, and then unexpectedly she would be fired and find herself on the street, a small amount of cash in her hand as she blinked back the painful tears that welled, unbidden, in her eyes. And she was not the only victim. In every city, in every place she visited, she saw fellow mutants on the street, their clothes in tatters, their lean faces dirty and haggard with resignation. Every time she moved on, she felt her heart sink a little bit lower. Letters came from her friends, but she had stopped answering them. Eventually, the correspondences faded away entirely.
There were other alternatives beside petty jobs to make money. When dusk fell, Aeryn had seen the mutants standing on the street corners, their lifeless eyes not quite focusing on the cars that would stop before them, their faces expressionless as they opened the car door and stepped inside. It would have been easy, much easier than pounding on closed doors, than speaking to deaf ears. But she turned her head away from those cars, recoiled away from the offers, pulling her mind away from the churning knot of memories writhing within her, trying to shut out the quiet, sneering voice within her that laughed mockingly.
Nearly four years after she had left Hogwarts, Aeryn stepped off the train into the city of Moscow. Had anyone who had known her before seen her, they would have not recognized her. Her reddish-brown hair was overgrown and hung in dry clumps. Her slate-blue eyes were dull and were startlingly prominent in her face, which was hollow-cheeked and wasted from lack of food. Her dirty clothes hung on her like a tent, and she was as grimy as the last city in which she had slept. She had straightened, thrown her ragged knapsack over one shoulder and marched resolutely from the station.
Moscow's opportunities were depressingly slim, but at least her collar did not stigmatize her – it merely made her invisible. Often her fingers went to the pendant at her throat, and she would toy with it vacantly, her eyes staring off into the distance. She had not sold it in all the years because the thought of not having it was even bleaker than her empty stomach. Now she could not risk selling it, for fear that the buyer would think she had stolen it and turn her in to the police. Instead, she kept it hidden beneath her ragged clothes, lest its glimmer betray her to the street thieves.
After a week, she had found a position in a twenty-four hour kiosk as the night clerk, selling vodka, cigarettes, snacks, and phone cards. It was in the worst section of town imaginable, with deals occurring outside the store doors and druggies shooting up in the back alley, but Aeryn no longer cared. The money was hardly enough to keep her alive, but it was enough, and so she stayed. It was not long before the griminess, the abject misery, and the starkness of it all became nothing more than a slightly uncomfortable reality.
* * *
An average of two thousand rubles a week was far below the Russian minimum requirement of four thousand rubles a week, but as a mutant, Aeryn had resigned herself to taking what she could get.
She had been working at the kiosk for several months when the man working second shift – Ivan – had fallen ill, and Aeryn was called in to fill his position as well as her own. She had been elated at the thought of making a few extra rubles. Her hours had been cut over the past few weeks, and eating had become more of a luxury than a necessity. It was by the skin of her teeth that she had been able to pay her rent that week, and her landlady had made it perfectly clear what she would do if Aeryn didn't pay in full for this week.
The kiosk had been quite empty for the entire shift. A Moscow newspaper was sitting on the counter, and Aeryn had been tracing the Cyrillic symbols with her eyes when the door opened, sending the bell into a jingling dance. "Zdrastvoyte," she muttered without looking up.
Red-varnished nails clicked on the counter beneath her nose. "Gde Ivan?" demanded a low, female voice.
The heavily accented Russian words, mangled almost to incomprehensibility, jerked Aeryn's head up. A tall, slender woman leaned over the counter, her flaming-red hair twisted into a knot at the top of her head. Her features were strikingly beautiful, with full, pouting lips and fine, high cheekbones. But Aeryn's eyes were immediately drawn to the woman's neck. She wore a thin collar of burnished silver with intricate patterns etched into it, and in the center smoldered a thumbnail-sized red stone, a twin of the one embedded in the collar around Aeryn's neck.
The woman's hazel eyes flickered to Aeryn's throat and then back up to her face. "Gde Ivan?" she asked again, but the demanding edge had fled from her words.
"Ivan went home sick," Aeryn blurted in English.
The woman started, and then her face lit in a brilliant smile. "You're American!" she exclaimed in a bright Midwestern accent. "Thank God! I can't speak a lick of Russian, and Ivan was the only person working here who spoke English. Where're you from?"
"M-Michigan," Aeryn stammered, her tongue tripping over a language she had not spoken in three years. Her eyes remained fixed on the woman's delicate collar.
"Nice state. I'm a farm-raised Iowa girl myself." The woman stretched one arm out and pointed a slender finger at the rack of cigarette boxes behind the counter. "Grab me a pack of Marlboros, would you?"
With clumsy fingers, Aeryn plucked a pack from the shelf and handed it to the redhead. "What—" the words were hard to find, and she had to scramble through her memory "—what's an Iowa girl doing in Moscow?"
The woman's eyes rested pointedly on the metal ringing Aeryn's neck. "Same reason as you, pet." White teeth flashed in a grin as she dug in her large purse and pulled out a wallet.
Dumbly, Aeryn rang up the price of the cigarettes, her mouth suddenly very dry.
"You got a name?" the redhead asked, extricating two fifty thousand ruble notes and laying them on the counter.
A smile, rusty from disuse, twitched Aeryn's cheeks as she began to make change. "It's Aeryn. Aeryn Blake."
"Frieda Flannery, but call me Flann, everyone does." She waved away the change that Aeryn handed her. "Keep it," she exclaimed, tapping the cigarette package sharply against her palm.
Aeryn blinked and stared down at the money. It was a little over four thousand rubles. "But—" she started, torn between the sudden gurgle of her stomach and the lurch of her stubborn pride.
"No buts, Aeryn Blake," Flann said breezily, ripping open the package and pulling out a cigarette. "See you around." And with another grin and a wave, she ducked out of the kiosk, leaving a very confused Aeryn in her wake, who stared down at the handful of rubles as an emotion she had not allowed herself to feel in years began to stir inside of her.
Ivan had been sick for the rest of the week. Each day Flann had returned to the store, bought a package of cigarettes, and left the change with Aeryn. She waved aside Aeryn's protests, smiling oddly each time she did so. Then her gaze would cool, and her eyes would sweep over Aeryn in a hard, almost appraising way. She would laugh, take her cigarettes, and head out the door.
Although Aeryn enjoyed the kindness, it was beginning to make her feel more than a little uncomfortable.
* * *
"Do you know how to dance?" Flann had asked abruptly one afternoon.
Aeryn glanced at her oddly as she grabbed a packet of Marlboros. The redhead was gazing at her with an unreadable expression on her face.
"You've got muscles," the other woman said, pointing at Aeryn's arm. "At least, you used to. Were you a dancer?"
"No." Aeryn handed her the cigarettes. "I did karate."
Flann nodded thoughtfully. With one smooth motion, she ripped open the package and pulled out a cigarette. "Did you learn karate quickly?"
Aeryn shrugged as Flann put the cigarette between her lips. "Why?" she asked, watching the woman flick her lighter and turn the end of the cigarette into smoldering cinders.
Flann took a long drag and blew a cloud of smoke into the air, her hazel eyes narrowing. Aeryn glanced around the kiosk, shifting her weight back and forth between her feet. Through the grimy front door, she could see the local bums shuffling back and forth along the trash-strewn street.
"I think you'd do," Flann murmured.
Aeryn's attention jerked back to her. "Do what?"
Flann blew another smoke ring into the air. "Ever heard of Rappaccini's Garden?" One red-varnished nail scratched her temple.
Aeryn shook her head. The bell jangled as the door opened; a ragged man meandered into the store, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his heavy coat.
"I work there," Flann said, flashing a quick smile at the man and then turning her gaze back to Aeryn. "You should, too."
A job! For a second Aeryn's heart leapt, thinking of her dwindling monetary resources. But then she saw Flann's collar, the fine cut of her clothes, and the way she slapped enormous notes on the counter without a second thought. She bit her lip, glancing at the tall redhead warily.
"What sort of work do you do?" she asked cautiously.
Flann was silent for a moment, her face blank as she regarded Aeryn through a cloud of smoke. She tapped her cigarette, sending a rain of ashes to the pitted floor of the kiosk.
"I'm a hooker." Her voice was neutral.
A sickening thud echoed in the pit of Aeryn's stomach, and she felt her cheeks flame as blood rushed into them. Saliva filled her mouth and she swallowed hurriedly, the gesture difficult by the sudden lump knotting in her throat. Blindly, she turned to the cash register and began ringing up Flann's sale.
—can't escape it, can you, pretty bird—
"No," she choked finally.
Flann put a hand on her shoulder and Aeryn almost flinched. "But you don't have to do that." Her voice was eager, almost too eager. "We've got plenty of hookers, but Charlie's always looking for dancers, especially if they can pick up stuff quickly." She let go of Aeryn's arm and started rummaging in her bag. "Look, you should at least go to see him – I've mentioned you to him – depending on what powers you have, I mean, you could make a killing, and we could really use you –"
"Powers?" The word tore from Aeryn's lips, as rough and ragged as a scream. A bubble of hysteria was welling in the back of her throat and she drew a shuddering breath. With one trembling hand she motioned violently to the thick, heavy collar around her neck. "I'm wearing this," she said, feeling her voice waver on the edge of laughter. "I don't think – my powers – will be much use to anyone – when I can't use them –"
"But we take them off," Flann insisted. "Inside. When we work. That's why they want us, hon, that's why the Garden makes so much money. Because of what we are." She leaned further over the counter, her face very close to Aeryn's. "Because all the collarless think we're dangerous, and they'll pay good money for that, to test their luck with us."
Something resembling a sob escaped Aeryn's lips, and she punched the buttons on the register wildly, and felt a stab of pain as one fingernail bent and broke.
The hand disappeared from her shoulder and a small white card was thrust under her nose. "Here." Flann's voice had softened. "Look, I'm not forcing you or anything, but you really should go and talk with Charlie – Charlie Brodman. The address is on this."
Aeryn carefully looked up at her. The redhead's face was set in a mask of pity, the hazel eyes glowing sympathetically. Sudden anger twisted inside her, and she slammed the change down on the countertop, feeling her gaze harden.
"Thank you for your concern," Aeryn growled stiffly. "But as you see, I already have a job."
Flann's face went blank. Her lips tightened slightly, and with one hand, she picked up the change and slid it back into her purse. "Yes, you do," she murmured. Without another word, she turned on her heel and stalked out the door, the bell jingling in her wake.
The next day, Ivan had been well enough to return to work. Aeryn ceded the second shift and went back to her regular night hours. Several weeks passed without incident. Every once in a while, Ivan would mention that the kalancha, the tall woman, had asked after her, but Aeryn had no messages to pass back to her. The money from her extra work was swiftly depleted, and it was not long before she had returned to just scraping by.
And then one evening she came to work and there was an older woman there, the woman from the first shift, a collarless woman who glared at Aeryn and turned away. With a plummeting feeling in her stomach, Aeryn had gone into the back room and found her boss waiting for her, his face expressionless as he held her paycheck in his hand. He was sorry, he had said, but sales had been slow, and he had to cut someone…he hoped she understood…and she had been firmly but gently helped onto the street, the door swinging shut behind her.
She had searched, pounding the pavement until she collapsed each night with feet that felt as if they would detach from her ankles. She had searched grimly, despairingly, and when the last of her money had finally disappeared and she had been evicted from her room, she again slept on the streets and continued to search doggedly for employment, all to no avail.
While passing a window one afternoon, she had caught a glimpse of her reflection and stopped, staring dumbly at the image of herself. The emaciated face, the filthy clothes – and the eyes, hollowed by shadows, and so completely lifeless that she choked, turning away hurriedly and ducking her head so that passers-by would not see the tears starting to roll down her cheeks.
That evening it had rained.
Huddling in a doorway, Aeryn had scrunched up into a tiny, shuddering ball, clutching her softly glowing wand to her chest to try and warm herself.
On the street grate across from her, wrapped in newspapers, was the thin figure of a young boy, his face turned up to the sky, the sheeting rain splashing across his slack cheeks, his matted hair, his thick and rusting mutant collar.
Aeryn had stared at him for five full minutes before a crackle of lightning split the sky, illuminating the two dark sockets where carrion birds had picked out his eyes.
For a long, long time, Aeryn sat there, staring at the boy's corpse. The thunder roiled overhead. Then slowly her limbs uncurled and she stood shakily, pushing her soaked hair out of a face that had suddenly grown as hard as flint. One hand dipped into the pocket of her ragged jeans and fished out a small card, sodden and beginning to tear. Her eyes darted across the streaky writing, and then, with a final glance at the dead boy, she stepped from the doorway and started walking down the street.
The address on the card led her deep into the worst section of town, but in the blinding rain she passed through unmolested. Her fingers wandered over the letters painted thickly onto the door. Back went her shoulders, up went her chin; she drew a deep breath and rapped sharply on the splintering wood.
There was no answer. She knocked again, louder this time.
The door suddenly flung itself open beneath her knuckles, revealing a towering, muscular figure that glared blackly down at her. Instinctively, Aeryn shrank back, biting her lip. The man's eyes raked cursorily across her and he snorted, his lip curling in a sneer.
"We're not open on Tuesdays, little mouse." The sneer deepened. "Not that you got the entrance fee anyway." One beefy hand caught the door and started to close it.
"Wait," Aeryn pleaded, shoving one arm through the doorway to keep him from shutting her out. "Ch-Charlie Brodman. I need to see him."
The muscular man's thick black brows shot up and he snickered, showing even, white teeth. "Charlie don't give handouts, mouse." He caught her hand in a crushing grip and pushed it out of the doorframe.
"Flann sent me," she cried, but the door slammed shut in her face.
Just as she was about to sink to the ground and wail despairingly, the door jerked back open and the huge man squinted out at her, his brow knitting. "Flann sent you?" he asked, his thick voice incredulous.
"Yes," Aeryn exclaimed quickly. Before he could shut the door on her again, she dug the rain-wrinkled card from her pocket and thrust it under the giant's nose. He took it, glanced for a long moment at the writing, and then stepped away from the door, motioning that she was to step inside.
Almost ready to weep with relief, Aeryn entered. The warm air inside the building enveloped her like a blanket. There was a stairway leading downstairs before her, but the man opened a side door on one wall and ushered her through.
"You're lucky we ain't open tonight," the man grumbled as they ascended a narrow flight of stairs. "The krysha, the boss man, he don't see no one on a show night."
At the top of the stairs he opened another door, and Aeryn hesitantly stepped into a large room. It was lavishly decorated with framed art and Oriental rugs. Large potted plants with enormous multicolored flowers bloomed in the corners of the room and next to the mahogany furniture. In the brick and brass fireplace burning logs crackled merrily, filling the room with a comfortable heat. A corpulent man wearing a red dressing gown was seated at the desk on the far wall; at their entrance, he looked up from the paper he was holding and frowned.
"Sorry, krysha," the muscular man muttered apologetically, motioning to Aeryn. "It was Flann what told her to come here."
Charlie Brodman's ice-blue eyes fixed on her, and Aeryn suddenly felt about two inches tall. Rainwater was dribbling down her legs onto the expensive rug, and her dirty hair was beginning to dry to her cheeks, leaving her skin uncomfortably itchy. She squirmed inwardly, feeling like a grease spot on the elegant carpet, but forced her chin to stay up and tried to keep a pleading look from her face.
To her surprise, a genial smile split beneath Brodman's black handlebar moustache. "So you're the Aeryn Blake my precious Flann keeps telling me about," he spoke in perfect English. "My, but aren't you a little thing – and you must be chilled through in this weather! Max –" he turned to the giant, who was just slipping from the room "—have Cook send up some coffee, please, and something to nibble on as well."
The door swung shut. Brodman heaved himself out of his chair, gracefully slid around the desk, and clasped Aeryn's hands in his.
"Mr. Brodman, sir," Aeryn began, but was cut off as the heavy man made a noise of disgust.
"It's Charlie, pumpkin. We're all on a first-name basis here." His ice-blue eyes flickered across her face, to the collar on her neck, and up and down the length of her body.
"Flann said –" The words caught in her throat, and she had to swallow hard before continuing. "She said that you were hiring. Dancers," she stressed, feeling her cheeks flame beneath the scrutiny of his gaze.
"That depends," said Brodman, twitching his moustache and winking. "If I like what you have to offer, we may be able to work out an arrangement."
Aeryn nodded and swallowed again.
The large man's lips pursed and he dropped her hands, taking a step back. One hand went up to stroke his moustache.
"Right, then." He flicked a hand at her. "You wish to be a dancer. If you would, please, remove your clothes."
Aeryn's breath wheezed from her as if someone had punched her in the chest. She stared up into Brodman's open, smiling face, and felt her stomach knot within her. Suddenly the room was cold, oh so very cold, and she couldn't seem to stop herself from trembling.
Flann never mentioned anything about this, a corner of her mind whispered.
At that moment Max re-entered the room, carrying a tray of coffee and scones. The delicate silver service looked absurdly fragile in his huge hands, but not a drop was spilled as he moved to the table in front of the fire and laid it down.
"Max, come here," Brodman said, motioning to him. "I want you to tell me what you think of her."
Her hands were knotted so tightly in her the grimy fabric of her shirt that her knuckles went white. She gaped at the two of them, a very faint buzzing beginning to ring on the edge of her hearing. She couldn't speak, couldn't move – couldn't breathe – and oh, how dry her mouth had become –
Brodman cocked his head to one side. "Well, go on, dear."
Her eyelids screwed shut, and she bit her lip violently, her breath gasping from her chest in sudden, short spurts. She heard Max shuffle against the carpet, heard a bemused cough from Brodman, but she couldn't – she couldn't –
"Aeryn, love?" The heavyset man's voice was muffled by the ringing in her ears. "Pigeon, I'm afraid that if you don't take your clothes off, I won't be able to see if you're hirable or not."
She almost ran. She almost jumped from the room and hurtled herself down the stairs, through the door, back onto the streets where she could escape the sudden bands tightening around her chest.
And then the picture of the boy's corpse floated before her eyes.
"No?" Brodman's voice was condescending, almost laughing, and something flared up within her.
Clamping her teeth down so hard on her lower lip that she drew blood, Aeryn grabbed the bottom of her shirt, tore it over her head, and flung it to the ground. Her ragged shoes and socks were kicked off. The baggy jeans peeled from her legs and she stood in her underwear, keeping her eyes tightly shut.
"Oh, my." His voice was impossible to read. "If you would, pet, I need you to take the rest off, too. You understand, I'm sure."
Only the image of the dead boy and the teeth drawing blood from her lip kept Aeryn from passing out. She drew a deep breath; an instant later, her bra and panties slithered down to join the rest of her clothes on the floor.
Silence filled the room like smoke. She kept her eyelids screwed shut, her toes curling against the carpet as Brodman paced around her, his steps as slow and slinking as a jungle cat's.
She tried desperately not to think.
"Well, Max," Brodman exclaimed thoughtfully after Aeryn thought she could bear the silence no more. "What's your take?"
Max grunted. "She's kinda pretty," he muttered, but the words were doubtful.
"A little skinny," Brodman mused, "but a few good meals in her and those solid curves should fill right back in again…can you dance, pet?"
"I can learn," Aeryn choked between clenched teeth.
Soft fabric was suddenly thrust into her hand. "Put this on," Brodman said, and Aeryn opened her eyes to find herself holding his dressing gown. Trembling, she slipped into the voluminous fabric and tightened it around her body as she turned to look at him. He was fetching something from the desk drawer, and as he straightened, she saw he was wearing a pair of red silk pajamas. In one hand he held a flat piece of metal the size of a credit card, and as he stepped towards her, she drew back slightly, glancing at him warily.
He moved faster than she. In one swift movement he grabbed her by the collar, stuck the strip of metal into the catch, and snapped it open.
The loose robe forgotten, Aeryn's hands flew to her bare throat and clapped around skin she had not felt for four years. A tingling rush flooded over her, and her powers – her powers –
A large oil painting trembled and a paperweight on Brodman's desk skidded from one corner to another.
"A telekinetic," Brodman exclaimed, his round face lighting up. "Excellent … we don't have one of those yet…."
Aeryn's vision blurred as joyful tears started to pour down her face. They were back, they were back, she could feel, she could see…emotions buffeted her, swirled around her, and she sobbed, clasping her hands over her mouth and smiling so hard that she felt her face would tear apart.
After a second, she realized that the two men were also wiping their eyes, their features set in surprise. Belatedly, she realized that it had been so long since she had used her powers that she had forgotten what a surge of overwhelming emotion would do….
"I'm sorry –" Her words were thick, and she cleared her throat hurriedly "—I forgot – when I get excited –"
"Don't be sorry, precious," sniffed Brodman, dashing the tears from his eyes. Max, sitting on the couch, was rubbing the base of his palms into his eyes, and his mouth was set in a firm, annoyed line. "Telepathy, too. My, what a package!"
Aeryn dragged a deep breath into her lungs, forcing her heart to slow down, trying to think a bit more clearly. "That's not all I can do," she said. "I can cast illusions, too, and –" she cleared her throat "— I can absorb things. From people. When I touch them…."
Her voice broke away as Brodman collapsed suddenly into a chair. She stopped, her jaw clenching reflexively. He did not move for a moment, and then, as she started to be slightly worried, he raised his head and she saw the rapturous expression on his face. Beaming, he stretched his hands towards her.
"My new star," he whispered blissfully. "My new, beautiful flower. The men will line up in droves for you, poppet. Pay the price, risk a kiss – she will steal your heart and mind." His ice-blue eyes twinkled. "You need starve no longer, my pretty. Rappaccini's Garden will be honored to house such a lovely blossom."
Aeryn's hands went back to clasp her open robe. Her neck felt bare, naked, and the sensation was so delicious that goose bumps trickled up and down her arms. Her head turned and she stared at the pile of dirty, grimy clothes wadded in a heap on the Oriental carpet. The red silk she wore was smooth and cool against her skin. The smell of coffee, black and hot, wafted through the air, and her stomach gurgled.
Her eyes met Brodman's, and a tiny smile flickered her lips.
"Okay," she said.
* * *
As she had promised, Aeryn was quick to learn.
She had moved into the upper stories of the building, where lived the other flowers of Rappaccini's Garden. During the days and evenings when the club was closed, she had rehearsed the dance routines until her weak muscles had trembled and she was soaked with sweat. She ate again and her form filled out, her eyes losing their hollowed appearance. She learned to glamour her body with illusions, to use telekinesis to make her body move in fluid, unearthly ways, to direct her telepathy into men's minds and make them desire her. And she learned how, with just a kiss, she could suck enough energy from a man to make him crumble at her feet, if she so desired.
It had been Oleander, a slender, ebony-skinned man with the ability to lift any object no matter how heavy, who had given Aeryn the epithet Lily-of-the-Valley.
"Small, pale, sweet, lovely, and delicate," he had murmured to her one day. "But containing one of the most potent poisons in the flower kingdom."
Charlie had loved the new nickname, and so it had stuck.
Her old collar had been replaced with a beautiful, delicate one that accompanied the lines of her pendant perfectly. If she went outside the Garden she wore it, and clasped it on before she went to bed – a safety precaution; all the 'flowers' did the same, for powers could behave irrationally in the throes of dreams – but for the rest of the time her neck was bare.
Especially when she danced.
A year had passed. Her wand she had stuffed into the bottom of her dresser. The Lily-of-the-Valley had become one of the most popular dancers at Rappaccini's Garden. Men, wealthy and powerful men, fought to claim her for private dances, for her smile, for one glance of her slate-blue eyes.
And always, always when she danced on the grand stage, the club was packed, and spectators paid dearly for the chance to risk the Lady Lily's kiss.
Only seldom now did she awake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, her breath gasping shallowly in her throat as she drowned in a flood of memories that she thought she had locked away, while a mocking voice she had thought long dead whispered to her.
And in this way six years had passed.
~*~*~*~*~*~Author's Note: I've been floored by all the reviews and letters I'm getting from all you readers. You like me! You really like me! I'm so pleased that you're excited about the sequel. I'm enjoying it, too, but alas -- working on this story means my original novel gets pushed to the back burner. But I'm working out a plan so they both get the attention they deserve. This chapter is still a work in progress…I'll replace it with the 'polished' version later, but you all are so vocal about your desire for me to update that I thought I'd whet your appetite. Plus, I don't know when I'll be able to update again…I have two job interviews next week, and I may be moving to Albany, NY within two weeks if the second interview goes well. Expect the next chapter in…let's see…within three to four weeks. I hope. And FYI, my guidebook still is not in publication yet, but I hope it will be by September.
Thanks always to my wonderful beta readers Rosmerta and Kwinelf (whose stories you can also find here), who keep me on track and let me know how horribly I'm getting out of character or messing up canon facts. You should also check out Lunalelle's stories on Schnoogle, and in particular Dangerous Games at the Dark Arts.
Charlie Brodman is inspired by the character of Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge. 'Charlie' was the original name that Baz Luhrman chose for Zidler's character, and 'Brodman' is my bow to Jim Broadbend, the actor who played Zidler in the movie.
Cigarettes, especially American cigarettes, really cost that much in Russia. Please note that since this story is set in 1999, the Russia of which I write has not yet undergone its currency change, so the ruble is still about 4,500 to the dollar. Thanks to my ever-watchful beta Rosmerta for picking up on that fact !
I received many replies about the "Lily-of-the-Valley" question raised in the last author's note…kudos go to swampblossom for figuring it out first! The lily-of-the-valley is one of the most poisonous flowers in North America. Check out Anne Perry's novel Weighed in the Balance if you have any doubts. Second place goes to musicmage for finding the oh-so-interesting press release stating that sperm are attracted to the scent of this flower. That fact is DEFINITELY going to appear in this story somewhere!
Oh, and Arie Tarou…I would be most flattered if you wished to write Aeryn into your stories. ;D
Ta, darlings. I hope you enjoyed the chapter. –AKB