Alterations: Kathryn’s Confidence
The bell jingled on the door, and Kathryn walked into the room. She looked around. Soft blue walls, with silvery patterns running through them, catching and reflecting the dim light. A little on edge, the decor itself was calming, even somewhat evocative. Behind a small counter in the corner, a blond-haired head looked up from the computer screen it had been pointed at, evaluating her with a friendly, questioning smile.
“Ah, bienvenue, mademoiselle!” came the voice of the man behind the desk in a light French accent. “We were just about to close for the evening, but you are more than welcome here, assuming of course you are looking for Antoine’s Alteration?” A click of a pointing device and the screen illuminating his face, showing only the first permanent lines of that smile, dimmed quickly. “Or are you waiting for someone, one of our clients, perhaps?”
She returned his greeting with a carefully-practiced smile, warm, but not too warm, in contrast to the cool late-autumn wind that flooded in to the warm office. The door banged shut as Kathryn pulled her jacket a bit tighter, still shivering from stiff winds, and glanced around the room, appraising, clinical. Satisfied, she stepped up to the counter, unslinging her small bag from her shoulder. “No, I’m here for myself. There’s enough time for an appointment this late?” Her voice was crisp and clear, proper, matching the sharpness of gaze and attire.
Antoine watched her mannerisms, listened closely to her voice and words, and modulated his response accordingly. He nodded, once, business-like. “There is always time for an appointment, if you don’t mind leaving here after dark. I have plenty of paperwork to take care of, and a few programs to tweak, and of course there is never enough time, so it would be more than a pleasure to help you with your...” he looked her over, up and down, “Let me guess... nerves before a college exam?”
She laughed, taken aback, unable to tell if the proprietor was kidding or serious; certainly the look on his face gave nothing away. “You’re too flattering. I haven’t been in school for years now.” She put her bag on the counter, opening it and filing through while speaking. “It’s for an evaluation at my company. Promotion is riding on it, really.” She pulled her wallet from the bag and produced a card. “What are your rates like? I’ve heard good things, but I’m new in town. I haven’t had the chance to shop around.”
“Then, mademoiselle, I assure you that you will be the youngest, and no doubt, prettiest recipient of a promotion.” He gave her a wink. “Nerves for a performance evaluation. Nothing could be simpler.” He smiled, placing his palm on the desk, activating a screen on the glass top, and scrolled through some options and information with his fingertips, selecting a few with quick taps and sliding past others. Despite her interest, Kathryn couldn’t make much of the information on the screen, due to Antoine’s practiced scrolling, the orientation of the text, and most of the options being coded in some sense.
“I would say,” the Alterist concluded, not looking up, “A hundred twenty, certain for one evaluation and good for a few others besides.” He met her eyes and smiled. “And if there’s any doubt about the rates beforehand, I guarantee that you will find them extremely palatable afterwards.”
Haven’t heard that one before, Kathryn thought to herself, while supplying the expected polite chuckle and eyeroll. She handed over her credit / ident card, glowing with an up-to-date image of her face, and the name “Kathryn Finch” inscribed in standard government text. As expected, her Fingerprint data started to appear on the countertop screen the moment his hand touched the card. Biometrics, birthdate, BMI, all confirmed. He tapped a button and the text on the screen flipped to face her, a standard release form. She swiped a finger along the glass; confirmation and consent approved. He handed back the card, which went in to its precise spot in the wallet, which itself went to its proper place in the bag, which was shouldered just so on her left shoulder. “When do we begin?”
He smiled as the payment went through. “Mademoiselle Finch. Is this your first ...” A soft bell sounded. “Oh! Pardonnez-moi, s’il vous plait.” He gestured towards an empty chair in the waiting area—one of a half-dozen identical soft chairs. “I have a client whose treatment is just finished, I will be but a moment. Normally I would have an assistant to help, but he has gone home ill, so I must beg your patience.”
He headed down the hall as she sat in the indicated chair with a sigh, loosing the bag again from her shoulder. She could hear two voices coming from the back, but the words were unintelligible, almost certainly an intentional design feature of the office space. Why do these places always have their gimmicks? she wondered. Does anybody really prefer the fake Frenchman over Captain Cartman’s Changing Centre or Polymorphist Peter’s? Whole thing’s a racket anyway, but what else am I supposed to do, really?
“A million apologies,” Antoine said as he returned, making his way to the waiting area and sitting across from her. “Now, would this be your first alteration, Mademoiselle Finch? And you may call me Antoine, or, if you prefer, Tony.” He gave her a friendly look to match his friendly tone.
She met his gaze with the same apparent friendliness, but both of them knew that it was merely a pretense for business. “No, I’ve had them done before. Seven times, but one was a fix for a botched job.” She relaxed back in to the chair, pushing her small frames up her nose. “It’s my first time in a year, though, so there shouldn’t be any conflicts from them?” Her tone and raised eyebrow indicated a question.
Antoine affected a look of concern. “Hm, professionalism would demand that I ask about the botch. Seven alterations, you say?” He nodded casually. “And an unfortunate error. Certainly that must have been, how might you say, a trauma? Do you have concerns about this change, Mademoiselle?”
She paused, thoughtful, not wanting to give offense. “Speaking frankly, there’s always concern when visiting a new parlor for alterations, isn’t there?” She shrugged lightly. “It’s nothing crippling. And nothing I’m truly concerned over.” She sighed. “The botch, well, that did come in visiting a new establishment. It should’ve been routine, fixing a nervous tic I’d developed in school, simple. But, as I said, botched. It only got worse, and cripplingly so at times. By the time I’d gotten my head on straight and realized the mistake, the shop had boarded up, likely for good reason.”
He gave a sympathetic nod. “I, too, know the pain of a failed alteration. It is what inspired me to open my own business—properly accredited, completely professional, and, I assure you, entirely prepared to correct any faux pas.” He stood. “I am more than pleased to have you here, and that you would trust us with this even after your ... unfortunate event.” He gave a slight wave down the hall. “Are you comfortable in those clothes, or will you need a change room? I would hate to damage your fine attire.”
She stood, unbuttoning her grey jacket to reveal a white blouse underneath. “These will be just fine, I think, if you would take my coat and bag, sir?” She held them out, glancing briefly down the corridor.
“Of course, mademoiselle.” He took the offered items, taking the opportunity to look her over more closely, hiding the glance behind a nod of his head. “I have designed our programs to be not only effective, but quite pleasant, too. I found that this was the best way to make them, how you might say, powerful. Potent.” He turned to the first room of several, indicating a comfortable, highly adjustable armchair with an assortment of audio-visual equipment nearby. “Do you prefer to sit, or to lie down?”
She looked in to the room with a critical eye, despite being unable to make heads or tails of any of the electronic implements in the neat, dim space. “Lying down has always been my best, helps me to relax...” She turned back to the proprietor with another small smile. “Though, it is your establishment, whatever you think would be most successful.”
“We aim to cater to the needs of la clientèle, of course,” he replied with a grin. A tap or two on a hidden panel just inside the door, and the armchair folded back on itself to make a very comfortable-looking, very secure cot. “Now, Mademoiselle Finch, I must give you a final chance to refuse our services—for a full refund, naturellement—but just to show you that it is legitimate, what we do here...” He pointed to the pad on the wall he’d just been tapping. “If you would, please, look here.” The colours on the panel began to dance and swirl a little. “It is an iris scan, but also...” He chuckled.
She nodded along with his pitch, then paused. A brief, wary look passed as she turned from his face to the panel, but still she lifted her glasses to her forehead, smiling as she leaned in close, both eyes focusing on the center of the digital screen. “What is the scan for?” she asked. “You already have the information from Fingerprint, no?”
He chuckled again. “Ah, well, first, the new laws require biometric confirmation before you can be treated, but there’s no reason that it has to be uncomfortable or unpleasant, mademoiselle. I’ve often found that this is an effective way to get the client relaxed, calm. The dancing colours distract most wonderfully, do they not? Even as you focus more and more closely on the scanning point in the centre of the screen. We all have our own proprietary methods, mademoiselle, and mine are no different, and so you know you do not remember exactly how the alterations worked before, but of course this feels familiar, I know. Very familiar.”
Her head nodded in time with the lights and his patter. The law had changed in the past year, for a second set of biometric confirmations. Of course this made sense, he’d only taken a fingerprint from the screen and sampled her voice pattern, but now he could test her eyes, eyes that were flitting ever so slightly to try and follow the lights, lights that danced in erratic, unpredictable patterns. Patterns her mind wasn’t used to. Randomness was always a conflict. A problem. Unpredictability could, and would, make or break. And now her eyes were struggling to ignore the randomness, to not find the pattern, to just relax and focus on the center like they should, like they know just how to. A sigh slipped from her lips.
Antoine continued talking, watching her closely. “Of course, you know right now, that if you wish to refuse treatment, you may, with no consequences, and if you accept treatment you will be subject to a brief course of augmented reality hypnotism designed to cure your nerves for your speaking engagement. Because of the secure and proprietary nature of our practices, you will remember nothing of them, and by agreeing, you agree to this, as well.” A touch on a second panel started some soft, relaxed music. “If you wish to refuse, Mademoiselle Finch, merely close your eyes and tell me so.”
Her eyelids twitched, hesitating for a moment, before opening wider, focusing closer on the center of the light, no longer distracted by the motion of the dancing colors, merely taking it all in, absorbing it, accepting it all along with his words. A faint mutter of approval did emerge, too, though by now the deal was sealed. She swallowed, fully aware at the front of her thoughts, for a moment, with the knowledge that she had been made aware, and given final consent.
“Wonderful, mademoiselle.” With that, he left the room for a moment to lock up the shop and turn off the ‘open’ sign before returning with a small folding chair. “My methods are a little unorthodox, you will find, but of course, they get great results. If you would be so kind as to ignore my presence here, and remove as much clothing as you are comfortable with, then you can sit here in this chair and continue to stare at the panel, just as you are doing.”
Her eyes gave a slow, heavy blink as her hands began to act. Her dark slacks fell away, revealing functional white panties, before her hands continued upwards, undoing each button of her blouse in turn before it, too, dropped to the floor, exposing a comfortable white cotton bra. Near-naked now, and hardly aware of anything but the distracting light, the simple instructions, and the cool, calming breeze against her skin, her body seated itself in the chair, sitting straight upright and proper, tilting her head up just enough to leave her eyes trained on the center of the panel. This is pleasant, so far, she thought, smiling to herself.
Antoine knew that subliminals in the sound file would be starting to work their way in to her ears as the hidden text in the pulsing lights started to creep in to the edge of her vision. Knowing it’s not the least bit of a risk, his hands slipped in to her dark hair and gently stroked her scalp. The programming was doing its work, nothing he did short of deliberately interrupting it would stop it.
Her body reacted to the touch, even as her mind remained oblivious, relaxing a bit from its perfect posture. No need to be so proper. She could relax. She could enjoy the process. She should enjoy the process. Her smile grew as her breathing deepened, waking thoughts drifting further and further in to the growing fog of pleasantness behind her eyes. Easy, simple, nice. Just a little taste, just staring in to the monitor. No sense in being guarded. No worries, no cares. Just a scan, a simple check, an easy and comfortable confirmation like any other.
She blinked again.
“When you have reached a proper level of comfort, Kathryn,” Antoine said softly, a hand slipping down her shoulder. She blinked. “You will of course remove your bra. And as you do, you will imagine yourself at your evaluation, fully clothed, and feel yourself growing more and more confident.”
She swallowed again, hesitating. She blinked. She needed to be more comfortable for the evaluation. She had to. Her hands rose, reaching behind her back, undoing the clasp. She blinked. Her body slouched even lower into the seat, neck almost craning to stare into the light, her whole face illuminated by the shimmering, dancing colors, the near-plainly visible words. She blinked. Comfort. Relaxation. Focus. As her nipples were exposed to the cool air of the Alteration room, she let out a long, laborious sigh, already picturing the meeting, sitting there, dressed, ready, staring them all down with a smile. In the room, her expression grew both more cheerful and more vacant. She blinked. More confident. The corners of her mouth twisted in to a cocky smirk. She blinked.
Antoine took in the sight of this gorgeous woman, beautifully hypnotized, mostly nude, absorbing every suggestion being made, both by the program and by his own voice. He felt a need starting to stir. He took a reluctant step away, to the secondary panel, and input some commands, subtly shifting the suggestions she was receiving. Her gratitude for his good work will bring her back. She wants to take him to dinner to celebrate. She will want to take him home, after. He stood there, watching her breathe. She blinked. Another ten minutes, and the treatment would be complete.
He turned the timer up to twenty. She blinked.
Images started to spin up in her mind, without warning, without concern. Naturally-growing images. Seeing the interview succeed. Seeing her own triumphant grin in the mirror. Seeing his smile as she expressed her thanks, those deep brown eyes in candlelight. Seeing her bed, warm, deep, inviting—and shared. She blinked. A shiver ran through her body, the breath on her lips went hot. A job well-done deserves proper thanks.
He watched as the new thoughts he planted worked their way into her programming, as she became so confident as to plan a victory party. He idly wondered about her other Alters, what had been done, who she saw to fix the botch. He wondered if any of them would take the sort of advantage he was taking, changing the intensity of the subliminals just to watch her body react.
And react, it did. She blinked. Her mind, occupied with the image of success, ignored the world around her, but it was clear that her body was aware. Her skin became sensitive to the cool air, goosebumps emerging on her arms and legs, arousal evident in a deep flush on her face and the growing hardness of her nipples. Her legs pressed together, squeezing gently, barely rubbing back and forth against one another. A moan escaped her lips. She blinked. She needed this promotion. She would have this promotion. She would love this promotion.
“Parfait,” Antoine muttered to himself, watching her, engrossed. Should he cross the line? There was no one else in the office. His assistant had gone home. It was a legal, and ethical, violation, but the way she sat, moaning, gasping, clearly turned on, she was an endless temptation. Another subtle shift could be made... She blinked. He decided to at least pretend to ethics. If she were to accept that she would drop to her knees and fellate him when the primary function of her programming finished, she would strip off her panties right then and start touching herself.
Of course, he justified to himself, she would remember none of it.
It took a few moments for the shift to take effect, but not long. Her waking mind was so far gone, lost in the fantasy, the glow of success and the reward for doing well, that she didn’t even register the feeling as she stripped panties off, quickly, needily. She blinked. A first touch sent a gasp through her, putting her mind into higher gear, tying pleasure to success, comfort to confidence, and all of it so, so evident to her employer. She will be a great candidate, the perfect candidate, the only one for the job. She blinked. She would have to reward him. He would have to reward her. She would have to fuck him, no, need to fuck him. A moan on her lips and in her mind. She blinked, fingers quickening, neck straining to keep the light in view.
Antoine casually stepped out of his pants and underwear as he made the last necessary modifications. Her main programming would solidify when she orgasmed. Then she would come to him. Then she would wake, and dress, and the moment the last button was done up, the memory goes away—as she had agreed—to protect his methods. Whatever state of undress he happened to be in at that time would seem perfectly normal. She blinked. He watched her in the throes of hypnotically-induced passion as he cross the room to sit on the cot, removing his shirt to lie naked, hard, stroking himself lightly.
Kathryn’s thoughts, meanwhile, were dancing back and forth between visions of successes, money flowing in to her accounts, the hardness of his cock, looks on her friends’ faces when they heard the news, the strength of his body and deep stare of his eyes, all the power contained in the room. All the power that would be hers, by right, easily, perfectly; she was the perfect candidate, the only one for the job. And he was the only one. She blinked. The only one. “The only one, the only one...” her lips moved, repeated, while her fingers and hands kept roaming, working, closer and closer until she was barely on the edge, thoughts drowned out by feeling and light and sound and the words.
Antoine couldn’t help but imagine those lips, that tongue, that body under, and over, and around, those eyes, beautiful eyes lost in his transformative programming, and his light stroking turned more vigorous. Sometimes, he reflected, there are good reasons to violate ethics and the law...
Her body seized, the fantasy stalling out, melting into an explosion of pleasure, noise escaping her lips as she quaked throughout, eyes still fixed and held as though under some impossible spell. Moans grew louder, and louder, then falling to simple, heavy breathing. She blinked. Her slumped, heavy body straightened itself, drawn up by the light, into the light, into the words pulsing directly into her mind. Look. Drop. Kneel. Suck. She wanted it, needed it. She knew it was time now to look away, ready for her reward, for his reward.
Hearing the change in Kathryn, Antoine stopped to watch, sitting up on the edge of the cot to experience the amazing sight of her ecstasy. His hand rested, not daring to hope that what he knew was to come would actually happen. “Kathryn,” he whispered.
Her body perked up, sitting up straighter at the sound. Her thoughts drifted towards the cot. Someone was calling her name, and she had to answer, to go to them. “Yes.” Her mouth opened, closed, quickly, the professional tone drowning in want and arousal.
She blinked again. The spell of the lights was broken. She stood, turning towards the sound of Antoine’s breath, heard over the soft music urging her to step forward. He was there, naked, ready, needing reward. Closer, she walked, and closer still, her body before him, panting, wet, sweating from activity and arousal, brown eyes focused, staring without distraction.
She dropped to her knees.
Antoine felt a warm, deep breath against his skin as she leaned in, close, her expression similar to when she had been leaning ever closer to the panel, into the lights. She blinked, mesmerized, now, by a different vision, as her mouth opened, slowly taking in his stiff member, feeling him moan and twitch.
His hands gripped to the side of the cot with a shiver, and he uttered a plea. Kathryn was too far gone to really hear, lost in the fantasy, lost in the reward, her body obeying his suggestions completely. Down and down, taking him fully, gently sucking as her head bobbed, up and down, up and down, with growing enthusiasm.
Antoine freed a hand to guide her head as the music and light panel shut down, timer expired. Kathryn’s body followed every motion, every urging, every direction, pulling away to tease and taste with her tongue before sliding down again, dreaming of pleasuring him the same way in more familiar surroundings, comfortable, surging with pride and accomplishment.
It wasn’t long before gasps give way to moans, and then to movement, uncontrolled, unstoppable. “J’vais... I’m... going to...” he gasped. Her body refused to stop. She knew what was coming. Reward. Satisfaction. Pleasure. Glow of success, needed and deserved. She could feel it. She could almost taste it.
His body erupted forth, then, with the pleasure of the moment. He gripped tight to the chair-turned-cot as he exploded in her mouth, gasping deeply for air in the cool treatment room. She swallowed eagerly, happily, hungrily, drinking in her power, pleasure, success, in one long moment, until her body pulls back, breathing deep, slow, still kneeling, staring into nothing.
She blinked, waiting.
Antoine pulled on his undershirt and quickly cleaned himself before starting to put on his underwear. “You should dress, Kathryn, I think,” he said with a quick smile. “You no doubt have a busy night of preparation ahead for your evaluation.”
Kathryn swallowed again and nodded briefly. Her thoughts were spinning as she stood and walked across the room. She stepped back into her panties, and one hand reached for her forehead as she bent down to pull them up. “Yes,” she said, slowly, quietly, “I do.”
He nodded, grabbing the rest of his clothing and moving just outside the room. “Perhaps you’d feel better if you lay on the cot. I’ve placed your coat and bag beside it for you.”
“Oh,” she said, sounding confused. She pulled her pants up, and carried her other
clothes to the cot. “Okay.” She sat, fastening her bra, a perplexed look in her eyes.
Antoine finished dressing and waited. Kathryn would come out of it soon enough, or at least, out of the trance enough to be coherent and capable, and he would be there to coach her through her waking. Meanwhile, his client lay down, buttoning up her blouse with both hands, mechanically. The last button slipped in to place and her arms fell to her sides as she gave a heavy sigh.
He reached around the corner and tapped the wall panel, eliciting a small bell tone—the same that had drawn him away from earlier—and walked fully in to the room. “Mademoiselle Finch?” he asked, perhaps a little too casually.
Kathryn blinked. She swallowed, and her eyes widened, still breathing deep and slow, turning her head to the doorway. “Hello?” she murmured, eyes fluttering, unsure.
“The treatment is, I think, a success, Mademoiselle.” Antoine favored her with a smile. “How do you feel? I know it is disconcerting, to walk in to a room and then to have it be half an hour later.”
She propped herself up on her elbows and nodded, slowly, assessing herself. “I feel... great. I think you’re right. I have a really good feeling about this evaluation...” She found herself looking him over, up and down, admiring for perhaps a little longer than she should have before looking away.
For his part, Antoine pretended not to notice. “I cannot say for sure whether or not my methods are truly unorthodox—trade secrets and such—but I know that most of my customers wake up happy and leave satisfied.” He stepped closer, deeper in to the room. “Do you need help? Oh, and, did you drive?”
Kathryn pulled herself to the side of the cot and stood, stretching out for a moment. “No, thank you, I’m alright.” She turned and picked up her coat, putting it on over her shoulders. “I walked, none of that driving trouble for me.”
“Excellent, mademoiselle, I hardly thought that I would have to ask, since you know about...” he waved his hand around, indicating the room. “I cannot tell you how many people I’ve had to inform that, no, I cannot give you your car keys.”
She chuckled and nodded, shouldering her purse with a smile, sleepy and friendly. “Once was enough of that for me. I take it I’m free to go?”
“In a moment. I know everyone hates this, but, right hand, on your head, please.”
She paused for a moment, then lifted her hand to the top of her head, perfectly perfunctorily.
“Ahem. Right hand, mademoiselle.”
She blinked, glancing at the hand now in front of her face. “Oops.” She giggled quietly, then lifted her right hand, instead, placing it on top of her hair.
“Are you dyslexic?” he asked, a note of concern in his voice. “Please lace your fingers together. I will do my best to make this quick and painless.”
She shook her head quickly. “No, no,” she said, removing the hand from her head and weaving fingers on both hands together. “It’s just been a while...”
“And, locked,” he said, moving forward and putting his hands on her wrists. “I’m sorry, but it’s part of the new law. Some tête de merde wandered in to traffic after an adjustment and now we all have to make sure of competencies.”
Kathryn’s hands were held together, tightly, unmoving. She looked from the Alterist’s face to the hands holding her wrists, strong and firm. She could feel goosebumps running up her arms, under her jacket, and a light blush appeared on her cheeks. “That makes sense to me.”
He gave a light pull, enough that she could feel the pressure, but not enough to hurt. “Fantastique. There is just one more.” He held up a green card. “This is red.”
She blinked. An eyebrow rose. “It is?”
“Well, what do you see, Mademoiselle?”
“I, I see that it’s red.” She nodded. “That’s red.” She glanced at his eyes. “It is red, isn’t it?”
“Ah, non, Mademoiselle Finch.” His eyes showed worry. “Please, sit. And you may unlace your hands.”
She frowned and flushed with embarrassment, sitting down on the cot. “Oh. Oh no.”
“No, no, it is nothing to concern yourself with.” His smile was practiced, too mechnical. “It is just some lingering aftereffects. Have you experienced this before?”
Her eyes widened. “I think so. Maybe. I...” She studied her feet and gave a shrug. “I don’t know. Is everything alright?”
“It is really nothing to worry yourself with, but you are in an advanced state of suggestibility. If I were to let you go, now, and someone were to take advantage of that, I would be held liable—and rightly.” He sat next to her on the cot. “I had hoped, when you used the wrong hand, that this would not be the case, but unfortunately, I will have to keep you here a few moments longer. Or do you have someone you can call, that I can release you in to their care? It usually only lasts at most a half hour.”
She shook her head. “No, no one. No one that I would trust. I’m fairly new in town.”
“I would very much like to be done for the day,” he continued, “but here we must remain. Would you be upset if I were to order a pizza? Would you like to share?”
“Look,” Kathryn said, standing up. “I have a lot of work to do tonight. Preparation. You want to get home. How about we just forget about this little glitch and I just walk carefully.”
Antoine shook his head. “Mademoiselle Finch, it would be unsafe. Besides, how can you go anywhere when your feet are stuck to the floor?”
“What are you...” she tried to take a step, but couldn’t muster the strength to lift either foot. She rounded on him as best as she could. “Let me go!” she demanded.
“It would be a violation of my license, mademoiselle.”
“Fuck your license, I have work to do!”
“Consider my position, Mademoiselle Finch.” His voice was calm, even. “Consider it. You do not want me to lose my license. You do not want to suffer unnecessary harm. I do not wish these things either. And so, since these are things we both do not want, you can listen to me and calmly put yourself in my position.”
She opened her mouth to object, but no sound emerged. Her eyes narrowed as she thought, visibly calming as she reflected on his words.
“And so, until you can tell me what color this red card is,” he said, once more holding up the green card, “I am obligated to keep you here, and keep you from being exposed to harmful suggestion.”
“Of course,” she nodded, calmly. It just made sense. “It’s red. It’s... red, isn’t it?”
“For now, it is.” He agreed, pulling a device from his pocket. “What do you like on your pizza?”
“Never been my favorite...”
“I will order the pepperoni. You can believe that it’s the best you’ve ever had.” He smirked, opening an app and tapping to place an order.
Kathryn nodded, then paused and looked at Antoine. “Did you just...” she began.
He chuckled. “If you are going to suffer such suggestibility, why not use it to your best benefit?”
Despite herself, Kathryn laughed back. “I can see the value in that. If there’s nothing to be done...”
“And indeed, there is, mademoiselle, but to wait.” He tapped the cot again. “Sit.” She did. “So... we can make the small talk, perhaps, since we are trapped with one another’s company? Or if you wish to be alone, I can return to the front...”
“No, please,” she said, a bit too quickly. “I would like you to stay.”
“Of course, Mademoiselle Finch.” Antoine smiled a genuine smile. “What would you like to talk about?”
She thought a moment. “You said you were inspired to learn Altering by a bad experience...” she began.
“Ah, oui, of course!” He nodded. “This accent, it was not what you might call, original, to my speaking.”
“The accent?” She gave a sardonic grin. “Never would have guessed...”
“Mademoiselle Finch, you wound me!” he replied, hand over his heart, in the throes of melodrama. “When I was in college, I was part of an amateur dramatics club, you see? And I was studying French. There was a member of the cast who’s father was an Alterist and so he got all of us a little free help staying in character. And malheureusement...” He shrugged. “At the time, his father was unlicensed, and uninsured, and I was but a poor, humble student and could not afford a fix, and even so it was something of the, what would you call it, wild west at the time...”
She nodded. “So you never got it fixed?”
He chuckled, standing and pacing a little. “By the time I could afford it, well, by then it had become something of a signature. And by now, well, it is part of what a marketer might call my brand, do you not see?” He stopped and nodded his head slightly in her direction. “Some of the ladies find it charmant, after all.”
She laughed aloud at that. “Some do, I’m sure.” She smirked. “Some find it cheesy, and affected.” But, she had to admit, it could grow on a person.
“Mais bien sur, mademoiselle! It is just that!” He laughed in reply, eyes dancing. “But after eight years of it, there is now nothing that can be done.”
“You have all this equipment, couldn’t you...?” She waved a hand around.
“Small problems which have been around for weeks or months, I can repair, but this, well, is far, far beyond my capacité. It would take a légende of the craft to fix me, and well, Mademoiselle Finch, I am but a humble shopkeep. I simply cannot afford a légende!” He chuckled again and sat beside her on the cot.
“Naturellement,” she said with a wink. “And at this point, you just don’t want it fixed.”
“Non, I do n...” his mobile device made a noise, and he slipped it from his pocket. “Ah, our dinner is here. Mademoiselle, pardonnez-moi s’il vous plait. I am afraid you must remain here for your safety, but...” he grinned. “I assure you that you will hardly notice my absence.”
“What does...” she blinked, and Antoine walked back in to the room carrying a box of pizza. “... oh.”
“Dinner is served, mademoiselle,” he said with a flourish, placing the box on the cot where he had been sitting and opening it dramatically. “Après vous.”
It was hot, and fresh, but Kathryn found that it was decidedly not the best she’d had. She also noticed, curiously, that the red card had become green at some point during the meal which ensued. After two slices, and several questions, Antoine said that she was free to go.
Kathryn stood, then paused. “This was a lovely... celebration,” she said. “It’s not the dinner I would have liked to offer you, when I’m successful tomorrow, but after such a nice supper, even under the circumstances, I should like to take you home with me, Antoine.”
After sharing a meal with him, she would invite him home. Antoine swallowed. Well, he had made the bed, they might as well enjoy lying in it. “I would be more than delighted, Mademoiselle.” He stood, closing the lid of the pizza box. “This will be fine tomorrow. Well, I think you will have to lead me, Mademoiselle Finch.”
“Kathryn, please,” she corrected, her business-like demeanour softening some. “It’s not far,” she said, almost apologetically.
“Then we shall walk,” he replied, offering her his arm.
She took it with a smile. “Allons-y,” she said, as they left the treatment room.* * *