Alex’s heart pounded in her chest as she stared in horror at Ashe, slowly swaying in a deep trance. It was like the ground had opened up underneath her, leaving her falling hopelessly into despair. How could it have all gone so wrong so fast? Alex could see that Winter, standing next to Ashe, was still talking, but the blood pounding in Alex’s ears was deafening. She was experiencing so many different feelings all at once. Fear. Confusion. Anger. Guilt. Despair. This was all her fault. If only she hadn’t been late, Ashe wouldn’t have had to face Winter alone. What she supposed to do now? Alex wanted to run, but she knew she’d never be able to forgive herself if she left Ashe in Winter’s clutches. But if she stayed and fought, did she even have a chance? Ashe had succumbed to Winter’s hypnotic skills, and Alex had no doubt that Ashe was stronger-willed than she was. Maybe Winter had just been toying with her, all along, like a cat playing with a captured mouse, able to sink its fangs in as deep as it liked whenever it grew bored. Maybe there was no hope.
But she had to try, Alex told herself. She wasn’t going to run. She had to try and fight for Ashe, just like Ashe had fought for her. Still, that just begged the question: how? How was she supposed to fight? She and Ashe had only had one advantage going for them, the advantage of surprise, and now that was gone. After the way Winter had manipulated her for so long, Alex struggled to believe that she could outwit the cold-hearted, smirking goth girl. What did that leave? Alex looked down at herself, and then at Winter. Maybe there was a way. Maybe all these muscles Winter had made her build were good for something. Alex had never been in a fight in her life, but from all the exercise she’d done she knew her body could stand up to a reasonable amount of punishment. Compared to her, Winter looked incredibly small and fragile. Tapping into her own anger at everything Winter had done to her, Alex clenched her fists and started advancing down the corridor towards the goth girl.
“Not so fast,” Winter said calmly. She took a step back, and Ashe stepped forward to place herself directly between Alex and Winter, her expression still completely blank. Alex tried to step to one side, and then the other, but Ashe carefully mirrored her movements to ensure she never had a clear shot at Winter. Alex let her fists unclench as she realized Winter had instructed Ashe to act as a bodyguard—or perhaps a human shield.
“Coward,” Alex growled, her choler rising. “Why don’t you fight your own battles?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Winter answered smoothly. The amusement in her voice only made Alex more eager to punch her in the face. “If anyone saw us now, all they’d see is you assaulting me inside my own home, and my friend here bravely defending me.”
“She’s not your friend!” Alex yelled hysterically, tears of frustration welling in her eyes. “What have you done to her?”
“She and I simply had a small chat. She was so upset at first. So angry. But I managed to help her see things my way.” Winter pressed her body against Ashe’s back, and reached a possessive arm over her shoulder to caress the punk girl’s limp, unresisting body. “Don’t you think she looks happier this way?”
“Let her go!”
“Or what?” Winter rebutted immediately.
“Or I’ll… I’ll…” Through her near-panic, Alex thought as hard as she could to come up with some kind of credible threat. “I’ll walk right out of here and I’ll start telling people exactly what you are and what you’ve done!” It was a bluff, but Alex somehow managed to make it sound convincing.
Winter simply arched one of her eyebrows. “And you think anyone would believe you? Silly Lexi.”
Alex bristled at being addressed by that name, but she resisted rising to the taunt. “I’ll make them believe me.” In truth, she had no idea how she could possibly hope to persuade anyone that her story was genuine, but she couldn’t back down from her threat now.
“I doubt it,” Winter retorted, but then the goth girl smiled. “But perhaps it doesn’t need to come to that. How about we play a simple game? If you win, I’ll happily let you and your friend go, and I give you my word that I will never cause you another moment’s trouble.”
Alex’s eyes narrowed. Her first instinct was complete disbelief, but she couldn’t detect any hint of dishonesty on the part of the goth girl. Her absolute confidence, however, was deeply unsettling. “And if I lose?”
“Then you will both be mine,” Winter answered simply.
Filled with trepidation, Alex weighed the pros and cons. On the one hand, her gut was telling her there was no way she should go along with anything Winter was suggesting. On the other hand, she didn’t see that she had any other choice. She had no leverage, and no position from which to negotiate. She couldn’t fight Winter, and if Winter called her on her bluff then she’d be even more screwed. Alex didn’t trust Winter, but if there was even the slightest chance that Winter was being sincere, it might be the best chance she had. At worst, it would give her more time to think. Alex sighed. “What game?”
Winter’s smile widened. “I’m so glad you’ve decided to play. It’s really very simple. You have to try and wake Ashe here up, using only your words. No touching, only talking. If you wake her up, you win. If, however, you fall into trance first, you lose.”
“First?” Alex asked, confused. “You mean, while I’m trying to wake her up, you’ll be trying to hypnotize me? That’s not fair!” Alex already feared what might happen if Winter whipped out the pocket watch she’d used to hypnotize her before.
“Oh no, not me.” Winter’s smile grew even wider. “I will simply be an innocent spectator in this little game. The one trying to hypnotize you will be Ashe.”
Alex blinked. “What?” As far as she could tell, Ashe was just a mindless puppet right now. How could she possibly be capable of hypnosis?
“You heard me. I know she might seem a little slow-witted right now, but surely that’s all the better for you? Unless, that is, you don’t think you can win.”
“I can win,” Alex shot back immediately. She had to make herself believe it. She had to believe that she could reach Ashe.
“Good,” Winter said approvingly. “For my part, I promise I will not interfere. I will neither attempt to hypnotize you, nor attempt to keep Ashe in trance. Do you agree to those terms?”
Alex couldn’t shake the feeling she was being tricked somehow, but after a few long seconds of thought, all she ended up saying was: “Fine.”
“Wonderful!” Winter clapped her hands once, excitedly. “Well then, go right ahead. I’ll let you take the first shot.”
Again, Winter’s unshakable confidence had Alex doubting herself, but she thrust her doubts to one side in order to focus on the task at hand. She looked at Ashe. Her friend was just standing there, swaying slowly from side to side. Her arms were hanging limply at her sides, and there was no trace of personality or emotion in her face or her body language. It hurt Alex to look at her. It hurt her to know that her friend had been reduced to this, all because of her. But she knew there was no time for self-recrimination now. She needed to save her friend. How was she supposed to snap her out of trance? Alex didn’t have the first idea. She was even more confused about how Ashe was supposed to try and hypnotize her. How was that possible? Alex wasn’t sure Ashe could speak, let alone hypnotize anyone. There was clearly something about all this that Alex was missing. But she couldn’t keep tying herself in mental knots forever. Winter was looking at her expectantly. She had to just give it her best shot.
“Ashe,” Alex began uncertainly, doing her best to pretend Winter wasn’t standing right behind her friend. “I’m sorry. I messed up. I shouldn’t have been late. But it’s OK, I’m gonna fix this. I’m gonna get us both out of this. Just like you did for me, OK? So just listen to me. You just need to, um, focus on my voice, and… um, can you even hear me?”
“Yes,” Ashe replied, taking Alex by surprise. “I can hear you.”
Alex hadn’t really been expecting Ashe to say anything, but what really made her falter was Ashe’s tone of voice. Whenever Alex had heard the punk girl speak before, she’d always seemed a little high-strung, or a little anxious about something. Now, it was as though all that tension and stress had simply vanished. Ashe sounded more relaxed than anyone Alex had ever heard in her life. There was such blissful ease to her voice her words were almost slurring together, and she was speaking at a slightly higher pitch than normal. She sounded like she was in heaven. The worst part was, Alex could remember all the times she’d spoken in a voice like that, when she’d been under Winter’s control. Hearing it again, even from another person, made her body shiver uncomfortably.
“OK. Good.” Alex tried not to let her discomfort show on her face. She didn’t want Winter to know she was getting to her. But what was she meant to say next? Alex tried to remember the way Ashe had talked to her when their positions had been reversed yesterday. Out of automatic concern, Alex asked: “How are you? Did she… hurt you?”
“Oh no.” To Alex’s horror, a broad, vacant smile spread across Ashe’s face. “I feel, like, totally amazing.”
Alex’s blood ran cold at hearing the all-too-familiar bimbo-speak come out of her friend’s mouth. After another moment, Ashe let out a silly little giggle. It filled Alex with horror and put her on edge so bad it was taking everything she had not to turn tail and run. If Winter had managed to do all this Ashe in just a single morning, what hope did Alex have against her? All of a sudden, now that Ashe was smiling, the punk girl’s face didn’t seem so blank and empty anymore. It was worse than that. She was wearing the same dumb, airheaded bimbo expression that Alex knew best from seeing it on her own face in the mirror. It was as though seeing it on Ashe was pulling her back. All the memories of what it had been like came back in a rush. They were horrifying, but unfortunately for Alex, they were far more than that. They were exciting, carefree, happy, and incredibly, incredibly hot. It took Alex a long moment to find herself again. She wasn’t going to run. She was going to fight. She was going to save her friend. As scared as she was, she was also angry. That was something she could hold on to.
“What the fuck have you done to her?” Alex snapped at Winter.
Winter laughed, her eyes sparkling with delight. “I’m sure you know exactly what I’ve done to her. Do you like it? Doesn’t she seem happy this way? Of course, I didn’t have time to give her the same makeover I had you get, so she doesn’t exactly look the part. At least, not yet.”
“Fuck you,” Alex spat.
“I wonder, do you think she’ll look good as a blonde?” Winter’s voice turned sing-song and taunting, and she reached over to idly play with a strand of Ashe’s hair. “I haven’t decided on her name yet. ‘Ashe’ is out of the question, of course. I think ‘Ashley’ could work, but maybe we could go sluttier.”
“You can’t. You can’t!”
“Well, that’s up to you, isn’t it?” Winter stepped back away from Ashe again. “Don’t you think she’s the one you should be talking to?”
“Shit,” Alex muttered under her breath, cursing herself for letting Winter distract her. “OK. Ashe. Listen to me. I want you to, um, just look at me, OK? Keep looking at me. Look into my eyes.” She thought furiously to try and remember all the things Winter had done to her when she’d hypnotized her. She hated that she had to think that way, but this was Winter’s game and she wasn’t going to win unless she at least tried to think like her. “I’m going to wake you up, nice and easy. Right now, you’re in trance. Your mind is at zero. I’m just going to count up from zero to five, and as I count, you’ll feel your mind rising up out of trance and waking up on the number five. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Ashe said blankly, giving Alex a small gleam of hope.
“OK. Ready?” Alex took a deep breath and starting counting. “Zero. One. Feel yourself starting to take the first step towards wakefulness. Two. Your mind starting to rouse and become more active. Three. Your thoughts returning to regular rhythm. Four. Ready to wake up. And, five. Wide awake now.”
Nothing happened. Ashe remained standing there, just as she had been before.
“Are you awake?” Alex asked tentatively.
“No,” Ashe replied. Her voice, still flat and empty, sank Alex’s hopes.
“Shit.” Alex sighed.
“You didn’t really think it would be that easy, did you?” Winter put in.
Alex ignored her. She still had a couple of ideas left. As sudden as she could, without warning, she screamed “Wake up!” as loudly as she dared. No reaction. Then, equally suddenly, she clapped her hands together as loud as possible. Ashe didn’t even blink. Winter laughed softly.
“Why can’t she wake up?” Alex asked out loud, more out of frustration than in expectation of an answer.
“Not can’t. Won’t,” Winter replied simply.
“What?” Alex had no idea what she meant.
“Have you ever heard it said that you can’t use hypnosis to make someone do anything they don’t want to do?” the goth girl asked. Alex nodded. “It’s not exactly true. There are all kinds of tricks you can use to make people want to do almost anything, given enough time and skill. That’s what I did to you.” Alex bristled, but didn’t interrupt. “But there is some truth to it. Making people do things they don’t want to do is an art. It’s manipulation. If you’re too crude, too direct, the mind can be quite resilient to suggestions against its own wishes.”
Stressed and terrified as she was, Alex struggled to make sense of that. “You mean… she doesn’t want to wake up?”
“Why don’t you ask her yourself?” Without waiting for her to try, Winter turned to the hypnotized punk girl. “Ashe, don’t you want to wake up?”
Ashe let another little bimbo giggle that sent a chill down Alex’s spine. “No way.”
“Why not?” Alex demanded, her sense of discomfort growing even stronger.
“It, like, feels good,” Ashe answered vacantly. Alex frowned.
“How the fuck can what she’s done to you feel good?” she burst out.
“Don’t you see?” Ashe asked. For the first time, Ashe’s eyes became focused, and Alex found herself looking straight into them. She was searching for what was left of her brainwashed friend, but all she could see was a vapid bimbo. “It’s just, like, so nice. I don’t have to think any more. Everything’s so simple. Just gotta let Mistress do the thinking for me.”
Hearing Ashe call Winter ‘Mistress’ made Alex want to throw up. “But this isn’t you! This is just what she did to you, against your will. Don’t you care?”
Ashe just kept smiling. “So, like, who am I? What’s so great about me?” Alex blinked, surprised, and found herself leaning in. As much as she hated it, there was something inexplicably compelling and pleasant about Ashe’s relaxed, carefree tone of voice. “You, like, barely know me. Maybe I look tough usually, but I’m like, sad and anxious all the time. It’s so lame. This is way better.”
“H-how can you say that?” Alex whispered, appalled. “No, no! This isn’t you! This isn’t the real Ashe!”
“Isn’t it? Look at me.” Alex looked. She looked as deeply as she could into Ashe’s wide, empty eyes. “Don’t you, like, see how happy I am?”
What Alex saw in Ashe’s eyes silenced any retort she might have had. Ashe was happy. Her friend was happy. Alex realized she’d never seen Ashe that way before. Sure, they’d only really met a few times, but still, it was surprising. She’d seen Ashe nervous, anxious, aroused, confused, determined and worried, but never happy. She looked so incredibly happy, with that silly, vacant grin on her face. She looked like she didn’t have a care in the world. Unbidden, a question popped into Alex’s head: why couldn’t she be that happy?
“Don’t you wanna be as happy as me?” Ashe asked, reading Alex’s thoughts with unnerving accuracy. “Doesn’t it look nice?”
Alex found herself nodding. It did look nice. It was nice. Alex could remember how it felt. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to admit it, but under the circumstances trying to deny it just felt silly.
“Before, everything was like… so confusing,” Ashe continued. Alex didn’t interrupt, although she wasn’t really listening anymore. She was too preoccupied staring into Alex’s eyes. They were so deep. Why had she never noticed how deep they were before? “I was all, like, stressed out about every little thing.” Ashe giggled. It was a pretty sound. “It sucked. Y’know?”
Alex found herself nodding again. She smiled a little smile to herself. It felt silly nodding when she didn’t even know what she was agreeing with. She was too distracted with Ashe’s beautiful, beautiful eyes. Maybe she should listen to Ashe instead. But no, she reminded herself. Ashe was trying to hypnotize her. Listening to Ashe was a bad thing. She should do something to distract herself instead. She should just keep staring. She didn’t want to get hypnotized.
“But now, it’s like… all my thoughts are super light and fluffy.” Ashe giggled, and Alex gave a slight laugh along with her. It was just a natural response. “And, like, apparently I don’t have to make any hard boring decisions any more.”
Alex decided she could let Ashe talk as long as she wanted. Winter hadn’t put any time limit on their game. There wasn’t any harm in it. Alex wasn’t even listening. She was just losing herself in Ashe’s eyes, and thinking about what a hard time she’d had since yesterday. Ever since Ashe had freed her from Winter’s control, everything had been so difficult and complicated and stressful. It was no wonder she was so tired. Alex felt completely exhausted. Unfortunately, staying awake was another thing she had to do.
“You remember, don’t you Lexi?” Alex was so tired she didn’t even notice that Ashe had used that name for her. “How much better it used to feel? It’s totally great, right?”
Alex still wasn’t listening. She was just thinking about how easy it had felt before, when she’d been a bimbo for Winter. She’d been failing at school and she’d been putting herself through a punishing exercise regimen every single day, but somehow it had all felt completely effortless. Why was that? Maybe it was because then, it hadn’t been her choice. It hadn’t been up to her. That horrified her, of course, but maybe sometimes it was easier to cope with things when someone else took control away. That made sense to Alex, but it confused her at the same time. Wasn’t free will meant to be good for her? It was, she told herself. It had to be. But then why had getting her free will back suddenly made everything so hard?
“Don’t you want to go back, Lexi?”
Didn’t she want to go back? No. No, of course she didn’t! The shock of thinking about that snapped Alex out of her reverie. Going back to being a mindless bimbo was the last thing she wanted! Giving in to that temptation—why did it suddenly feel so tempting?—would betray everything about how hard Ashe had fought for her. All of a sudden, Alex became conscious of the way Ashe was influencing her, and realized how perilously close she was to falling into trance. Her whole body felt weak and heavy. Her head was growing fuzzy. Her eyelids had become so heavy she was desperate to let them fall shut. Alex needed to snap herself out of it. She realized that looking into Ashe’s eyes was sapping her willpower, but when she tried to peel her gaze away, she found to her horror that she couldn’t. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t look away. She could shut her eyes, but she somehow knew that if she did that, everything would be lost, and so she was straining with every fiber of her being to keep her eyes open. Alex felt so helpless. Was this it? Had she already lost?
Her dismay must have registered her face, because from off to her side she heard Winter’s distinctive, dainty little laugh. “Oops,” the goth girl said.
“You totally want to go back, right Lexi?” Ashe asked. Her voice, so calm and relaxed, felt like a siren’s song.
No, Alex thought. No, she didn’t want to go back. No, she never wanted to go back. She focused on that refusal as hard as she could, but her body betrayed her. She nodded her head, even though she didn’t want to. She felt like a puppet on strings.
“That’s right, good girl,” Ashe said happily, and giggled. Alex felt an unnerving pull upwards at the corners of her mouth. It was like her face wanted to smile. When Ashe spoke again, her voice was low and hushed, like she was telling Alex a secret. Alex found it impossible not to give the hypnotized punk her full attention. “You wanna know something cool?”
Alex found herself nodding again.
“You can go back, right now,” Ashe told her. “It’s, like, so easy! You just gotta let all that stuff come back to you. It’s still all there, you know? I know I said it was gone, but I’m, like, way too dumb to take care of all that so quickly.” Ashe giggled again, but her words filled Alex with dread. Was that true? Was all Winter’s bimbo brainwashing still lurking in her brain, just waiting to be reactivated. “I just let the boring old Alex out for a change. But Lexi’s still in there somewhere. All you gotta do is close your eyes, and let her out!”
“No,” Alex started muttering fearfully to herself under her breath. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
“Lemme, like, make it easy for you!” Ashe continued. “I’m gonna count, just like you did for me, but the opp… the oppi… the other way around.” Ashe giggled. “Let’s go, Lexi! Five. Four.” The moment Ashe said the second number, it was like Alex was suddenly underwater. Everything slowed to a crawl, and she felt like a great weight was pressing down on her shoulders. “Three.” The effect grew stronger. Everything was so heavy, and heaviest of all were her eyelids.
“No, no, no,” Alex kept repeating, but her words were starting to slur together.
“Two.” Slower and slower. “One.” Heavier and heavier. Lexi giggled. Alex giggled with her. “Almost there! And… zero!”
“No!” Alex screamed. With a tremendous effort, she managed to turn her head and break eye contact. The moment she did, the spell was broken. The fuzziness in her head cleared, and her regular thoughts crashed back into her like a wave. The unnatural heaviness that had filled her body moments before vanished, but she still felt exhausted, and she slumped to the floor like a puppet who’s strings had been cut. For a long moment she just rested there, on her hands and her knees, panting heavily. She’d come so close to losing everything, and she hadn’t even realized what was happening to her. Alex felt more terrified than ever.
“Ooo, almost!” Winter commented. She sounded so happy. It made Alex want to throw up. “This is so much fun to watch. They should put this on TV.”
“Shut. Up,” Alex growled, through gritted teeth. Winter just laughed.
“I have to admit, you’re doing better than I expected. Although, that’s not really saying much.” Alex hated how satisfied Winter sounded. “I wonder, how did it feel, knowing you were about to lose? Shameful? Scary? But maybe it felt good too. Did you start to want it?”
“No,” Alex said, as convincingly as she could.
“Oh, you did! Interesting.” Alex growled again, but Winter ignored her. “Ashe did well. Such a clever girl, for a silly little bimbo. If only you’d done so well when you were trying to wake her up. Still, you put on an impressive display just now. I really thought she had you.”
“N-never,” Alex retorted, but her voice faltered.
“Never? We’ll see. I have to say, I wouldn’t be at all disappointed to see this continue for another few rounds. But… perhaps there’s another option.”
Alex looked up at her. “What?”
“Since you’ve impressed me so much, I’ve decided to offer you a little… compromise. A deal. You could think of it as calling our little game as a draw, if you like.” Alex squinted at the goth girl, trying to read her motives. “It’s very simple. If you, right now, agree to surrender to me without a fight and let me put you under hypnosis, I’ll let Ashe go.”
Alex was stunned by the prospect. “What?” she repeated dumbly.
“As I said, a compromise,” Winter continued to explain. “I only get one of you, while the other goes free. And you won’t need to be troubled with the guilt of knowing poor Ashe sacrificed her mind for your sake.”
Alex felt torn in half. Her instinct was to reject anything Winter suggested but despite that, she was tempted. Right now, what was hurting her worst was knowing that Ashe was brainwashed because of her. If Alex took the deal, at least Ashe would be free.
Winter took a few steps towards Alex. “Between you and me, we can call it a win-win. After all, this is what you really want, isn’t it? To be mine?” Alex threw her a sharp look. “It’s OK! You don’t need to admit it. You can just pretend to yourself that you’re doing it for Ashe’s sake. But I’ll know, and so will you, deep down.”
Alex wanted to shout at her that she was wrong. But she was just so, so tired, and more than that, she felt a sinking pit in her stomach as Winter’s words hit home. The temptation she felt to accept was more than just the desire to see Ashe go free. There was something else. A deeper and more shameful need. Ashe had ignited it in her moments ago, and now she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“You know it’ll feel good,” Winter continued. She was getting closer and closer, and her voice sounded teasing and seductive. “You’ll feel confident again. You won’t have to stress and fight anymore. And you’ll have amazing sex again, to finally quench that need I can see burning inside you.”
Alex looked down at herself and blushed. Somehow, she’d forgotten to wear a bra, and her nipples were so hard they were threatening to poke holes in her top. Her whole body was flushed with arousal, and beneath her pants she could feel herself becoming wet. Why was this happening to her?
“Your body wants this. Your subconscious wants this. You want this—or at least you want Ashe to be free. So why not just say yes, and be my pretty little Lexi once more?” Winter outstretched her hand, offering it to Alex.
Alex froze. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to say ‘yes’ to Winter, not about anything, ever. So why did thinking about it make her body throb so pleasantly? And of course, she wanted to save Ashe. Her guilt was pulling at her, begging her to accept Winter’s offer. More than either of those things, though, was the fact that Alex had almost lost hope. The way that Ashe had almost put her under had taken all her confidence away. She could feel exactly what Ashe had described: all her former bimbo brainwashing, ready and waiting to come roaring back the moment she stop repressing it. With that stuff still lurking in the back of her head, what hope did she have? Her defeat felt inevitable. If she could save Ashe, at least that was something. Wasn’t it? Alex raised her arm, hesitantly reaching up to take Winter’s hand.
But then she thought about what Ashe would say, if she was in her right mind. She knew that Ashe would want her to keep fighting. She knew that Ashe would never accept Alex being Winter’s mind-controlled bimbo slave. Ashe wanted them to be together, free from Winter’s grasp. Alex realized she owed Ashe that same loyalty and determination. Summoning up the last vestiges of her willpower, she slapped Winter’s hand aside and managed, with great effort, to stumble back to her feet. Winter retreated back behind Ashe, looking surprised.
“I’m not giving up yet,” Alex spat, faking the confidence she didn’t feel. “I’m going to beat you.”