"Yes? What is it?"
"Who do you think you're going to marry, once you're grown up?"
"What? I don't know. What kind of question is that?"
"Come on! Surely you've got a crush on someone around here…"
"No one at all?"
"Who do you have a crush on, then?"
"Wellll… do you promise you won't tell anyone else?"
"Yeah, yeah, I promise. Who?"
"Okay… it's prince Enrique."
"That is one extreme long-shot."
"Don't tease me! You don't even know what it's like to want someone!"
"Of course I do."
"Yeah? Who is it?"
"I mean, there's lots of people I find attractive. It's difficult picking just one, you know…"
"Do you like my sister?"
"Your… your sister?"
"Yeah! She's a year older than me."
"What makes you think I'd like her?"
"Well, it's just… you two are sooooo alike!"
"Yeah! Really similar!"
"How are she and I similar?"
"Well… you're both really refined, and elegant… and I know you both trained with a sword…? And…"
"Alfonso? Are you alright?"
"It's nothing. Tell me more about your sister."
Alfonso lay awake in his chambers, staring up at the ceiling of his bedroom. He didn't come back home often, but every time he did, this happened. He had a bad habit of getting lost in the past when he was away from the Grand Fortress. It was one of the main reasons he'd stayed in the Armada for long enough to become an admiral.
Deciding that he wasn't likely about to get any sleep, he sighed and sat up before stepping over to his dresser and throwing on a dressing gown. As he flicked on the moon stone-powered light in his room, he glimpsed himself in the tall mirror by the dresser. He was tall and impressive-looking, but his normally haughty and superior air was somewhat dampened by his current outfit and the slightly mussed state of his hair.
He rubbed at his chin as he leaned closer and looked himself in the eye. A tiny scratching sound reached his ears as his fingertips brushed over the fine hairs starting to grow out there once more, and he grimaced. He'd need to attend to that soon. He had a lot to attend to before he could head back to the Grand Fortress. It wouldn't do for him to be seen as anything less than perfectly composed and above it all.
But he had until midday to worry about that. He put on a pair of slippers and headed downstairs to the kitchen to make himself something to drink.
If there was one thing he liked about Ixa'taka, it was chocolate. He didn't know how Valua had gotten by before they'd learned about it from the people of the new world, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know. He sipped idly at a cup of hot chocolate as he lounged in the quiet sitting room on the first floor of his family's manor, listening to the faint ticking of the clock and trying not to think too much.
He was in the process of considering looking for a book to read when a woman's voice caught his attention from the door to the foyer. "Alfonso? What are you doing up at this hour?"
Alfonso set his cup down on the corner of the table in front of him before offering a tight smile to his mother. "I couldn't sleep."
She shuffled over to the couch nearby before sitting on it, leaning on the armrest to loom closer to him. He resisted the urge to lean away from her. "You should've told me! The chemists over in upper Navarroa have perfected this delightful little-"
"I don't want to hear about more of your miracle pills, mother." Alfonso interrupted her, now feeling tired mentally as well as physically.
She froze for a moment before glaring at him. "Being an admiral in the armada does not give you the right to back-sass your own mother, young man."
Alfonso took a deep breath as he closed his eyes and reined in his frustration. "I'm sorry. I am, mother, I'm sorry. It's just… all you talk about since I got back is the chemists and their new wonder pills, and cosmetic treatments, and…" A little twinge in his chest briefly stopped him. "I just don't want to talk about those things, you know?"
His mother waved to him dismissively, evidently quick to forgive. "Yes, well, you never tell me these things anymore, Alfonso. You spend all your time holed up in that fortress, then lock yourself in your room when you come back to visit. What happened to the days you'd go out on the town? I remember when you were still in school you'd be visiting a different show with a different girl every week."
Until I realized they'd never stop asking me for more than that. He opened his eyes slowly and lifted his head to regard her evenly. "Work keeps me busy."
"Even here? I've not seen you do any work since you got back…" She protested.
He lifted a hand, pleading her silence. "I know. But I've been trying to get over a very stressful week, and I'm very tired right now, so I think maybe I should head back to my room and try to get some actual rest." He said as he stood up, taking his cup with him.
His mother seemed a little baffled. "Are you sure you don't want some of those sleeping pills? Doctor Fernandez says they're guaranteed to work!"
Alfonso kept the acid he felt out of his tone as he headed for the kitchen to clean his cup. Doctor Fernandez was a quack. "I'll be fine, mother. Don't worry about me."
Alfonso was back to pristine form when he returned to the Grand Fortress that afternoon. His handsome face was clean-shaven, his hair immaculately styled, and his uniform spotlessly arranged. He looked every bit the noble he was, which was exactly the image he sought to maintain. The rail car pulled into its station at the west end of the fortress, and Alfonso disembarked as the double doors slid quietly open.
Two soldiers in grey armor awaited him, each snapping off a salute when they saw him. "Admiral, sir! Did you bring any baggage?" One of them asked.
"No." Alfonso said as he passed them by. Everything I needed was at the estate, he thought, before smiling faintly to himself. Well, almost everything.
The Grand Fortress seemed to be bustling more than usual that day, and when Alfonso returned to his office near the top, he found admiral Belleza waiting for him expectantly. "I was wondering when you'd show up," she said, looking sour.
Alfonso put on his best condescending smirk. "You know I like to be fashionably late. As our resident spymistress, you should know this."
She caught the subtle twitch in her eyebrow and mentally declared himself victorious. "Lord Galcian is sending you on a special patrol of mid ocean soon. You'll be in charge of training exercises today, starting in two hours."
He smiled to himself, closing his eyes and brushing a single strand of golden hair from his forehead. He let it dangle like that just so he could brush it aside at moments like these. "Of course. Who other than me has the necessary expertise?"
He could hear the eye-roll in Belleza's tone. "Right." She'd turned away from him when he opened his eyes again. "Don't be 'fashionably late' to this one." With that, she walked away down the hall again, leaving him alone.
Alfonso waited until she'd disappeared around a corner to let his smirk fade. A special assignment in mid ocean? He wasn't sure what that might involve, beyond putting a few pirates in their place. Still, that didn't sound so boring after all. It might even be fun to send a few of the miserable rats plummeting into deep sky.
He stepped into his office and soon began busying himself with paperwork, but quickly began to grow bored. He'd been getting listless more and more often lately, on top of getting more confrontational. He wasn't sure it was good for his health, but at the same time, he wasn't sure he cared much about that anymore, either. So it was that as he stared at yet another report on troop movements, he decided he desperately needed a proper distraction.
Of course, he knew just where to find one.
De Loco's lab took up a sizeable portion of the lowermost section of the Grand Fortress. It had been custom-designed to suit his needs, or so he'd bragged to Alfonso on one of his occasional visits to the place. Alfonso didn't particularly care about what went on in this technological workshop of wonders, but he did know that De Loco was the easiest admiral to rile up out of all of them.
Which was why he found it rather disappointing when he discovered that the lab was curiously empty that day. Even De Loco's office in the back proved to be unoccupied, leading Alfonso to speculate on where the tottling little admiral could've gotten off to. Had he been sent out on some assignment while Alfonso was back in upper city?
He liked arguing with De Loco, but not so much that he was willing to scour the entire Grand Fortress for information on his whereabouts. Belleza might know, but I hate her attitude almost as much as I hate her good looks, Alfonso mused as he looked around the deserted lab. Maybe I'll just poke around and see what kinds of gizmos he's been working on.
One wall of the lab seemed to be lined with an array of different engines in varying sizes. The smallest looked like he'd be able to lift it easily in two hands, while the largest was easily twice as tall as he was. He didn't know just what De Loco needed so many designs for. "Moon dust prototype…" He read off a label hanging from one of them. "What the hells is moon dust?" He said, furrowing his brow.
He quickly lost interest in the engines and moved to the tables in the center of the room, across which were strewn various parts and devices at various stages of completion. There were papers scattered here and there with schematics, descriptions and test results scribbled onto them in tiny, precise handwriting that Alfonso could only assume was De Loco's.
"What is this koketa-scratch?" Alfonso grinned to himself as he picked up one sheet of paper, squinting at it as he tried to make out the text. "Black-and-silver… moon stone… experimental device?" he managed to make out, pursing his lips in thought as he tried to picture what it would look like. He shrugged, his imagination failing him, before peeking at the device's experiment reports. "Operates unpredictably… has both thermal and trans… transformative properties?" He read, arching a brow.
Transformative properties? What did that mean? He was intrigued, and scanned the log until he found where it noted the device's storage location. "Locker R34…" He nodded to himself before setting the paper down and heading into the next room over, where De Loco seemed to store every one of his old inventions. Locker R34 was near the floor, on the wall at the far end of the room.
It was unlocked. He swung the small door open to discover a truly curious-looking device. He picked it up, cradling it in his hands as he looked it over.
It was remarkably light, despite being made primarily out of metal. It looked like a gun of some sort, with a clearly-defined grip extending from one side of what looked like a tapering barrel made out of some greenish alloy. His finger settled on the trigger instinctively as he continued to look it over.
What stood out most about the device was the chamber opposite the barrel. It was made of glass, and inside he could see what looked like two small moon stones that had each been split in two and fused together. One was silvery-white, no doubt a silver moon stone, and the other was… black?
I didn't think black moon stones existed. Is there a black moon somewhere I don't know about? Alfonso scrunched up his face in confusion, wondering briefly if he should have paid more attention in his classes when he was younger. More likely it's something De Loco created, he thought.
"So it's a gun." He said aloud lifting his arm to look down where the sights would normally be on a pistol. There didn't seem to be any on this thing, though. It seemed like maybe De Loco had abandoned this toy of his before it had been completed. He stared at the gun, then at the locker it had come from.
Transformative properties. That's what the document said. He pointed the barrel of the gun at the open locker, now empty. He wanted to see what it did. If De Loco had abandoned it, it couldn't be that dangerous, could it? If anything went awry, he knew his family would protect him.
He pulled the trigger, and a flash of silvery light filled the room as a high-pitched noise quickly reached his ears. He saw a bolt of energy go flying at the back of the locker…
And then bounce off of it, flying right back at him.
"I need to ask you something, and, uhm… I need you to promise me that you won't tell anyone I asked."
"Uh, sure. What is it?"
"...Alfonso? Are you going to ask me your question or not?"
"...Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a girl?"
"Eh? Maybe once or twice. Why?"
"I mean… wouldn't it be kind of nice?"
"I don't know. I'm pretty comfortable with who I am right now."
"Right, I mean, who isn't? But maybe there are some things you could do as a girl that you couldn't do as a boy."
"Heh, I'm not sure that applies to you, Alfonso. Your family is so rich, you could probably do anything and people wouldn't question it."
"I don't know about just anything…"
"C'mon. What are you moping about?"
"Exactly! You're the most popular guy around, without question. All the girls love you, and with your family, you're destined for greatness! What's not to be happy about?"
"...You're right. Thank you. I think I… needed to hear that."
Alfonso's eyes slowly opened. Immediately the cold of the floor registered against against his back, sending a shiver down his spine and making him sit up. As soon as he did, however, he began to feel groggy. A weight settled in his chest, and he took deep breaths to try to calm himself.
But as he calmed down and the dizziness faded, the weight in his chest remained. He slowly glanced downwards.
And froze as he realized that his body had changed.
His coat and close-fitted shirt had grown considerably tighter to accommodate two prominent new additions to his chest. His hips looked wider, and his dark pants now went past his ankles to partially cover his shoes. As he glanced at his hands, he realized the sleeves of his coat now halfway covered his palms as well.
As he slowly stood up, it dawned on him that the reason his clothes now fitted him so poorly was that he'd grown shorter. Not De Loco short, but several inches shorter to be certain. His golden hair now hung conspicuously in his eyes, where before it had been cut short enough to barely even touch his forehead.
Time felt like it had stopped while he'd made these observations, but now that the realization was setting in, the dizziness started to come back as his rational thoughts faded to be replaced with raw panic.
"W-what the hell-?!" He shouted, only to immediately silence himself and slap his hands over his mouth as his voice came out much higher-pitched than he'd ever managed before. He shivered as he reflected that it had sounded almost exactly like one of his old girlfriends. The dizziness persisted as Alfonso let his hands fall away from his mouth to slowly rove down his figure through his clothes. There was no mistaking it.
I've been turned into a girl.
Now that he'd confirmed it, his brain was going into full-fledged panic mode. He stared down at himself in complete and utter shock.
He lifted a hand and slapped himself across the face. He heard himself make a remarkably cute squeak as he did so. Focus. Think. Where is the gun? He asked himself, doing his best to get ahold of himself.
The gun wasn't in his hand anymore, nor was it in the locker. He'd fallen down, so it must've been somewhere on the floor. He spun around and quickly discovered the device sitting on the floor. He picked it up in trembling hands as he stared at it with newfound appreciation. "This thing turned me into a girl." He said, again pausing at the sound of his own voice. He kind of liked it, and yet… it was so unfamiliar to hear a woman's voice echoing his thoughts.
He was getting distracted again. He slowly turned the gun in his hand until the barrel pointed towards his chest. I just need to shoot myself again to turn back, right? That's how this should work? He wondered, swallowing nervously. His thumb hovered near the trigger for nearly a full minute before he slowly set the device down again.
I don't need to turn back right away, do I? The lab is empty. And nobody's expecting me for at least another hour…
Alfonso straightened up from where he'd set the gun down before looking around, grimacing slightly as the motion batted his hair back and forth in his face. He hooked his now lengthy bangs behind his ears as he stepped out of the storage room and back into the main area of the lab, looking for a mirror of some sort. He didn't find one in the lab area, but he did find one in the closet where various lab gear seemed to be stored.
Turning on the light, he stared into the mirror, getting his first glimpse of himself. He was definitely shorter than he'd been as a man. He guessed he was around five-foot-five. His expensive, carefully-tailored uniform fit him rather loosely now, except around the chest area. But what drew his attention was his face.
He looked beautiful, with soft and full lips, a delicate, slightly upturned nose, and long eyelashes that accentuated his blue eyes. He pressed his hands to the mirror as he leaned closer, taking in every detail of his new features, utterly enamored. "By the moons…" He whispered, his voice coming out distinctly huskier than it had before.
He looked down at himself, then back at the mirror, then at the door to the closet. It didn't seem to have a locking mechanism, but… he was willing to take the risk.
His coat fell to the floor with the faint flapping of fabric, soon followed by the rest of his outfit. He tossed his gloves aside last before slowly turning around to regard himself in the mirror once more. Almost immediately he felt his cheeks start to burn as he confirmed that he had, in fact, been made entirely female by the device's effects.
He ran his fingers along his arms, his shoulders, his stomach, his legs. It all felt like soft, smooth skin. This wasn't fake. This wasn't a dream. This was real. The girl in the mirror looked nothing like him, but when he reached out his hand, she followed suit. This was his body.
Dark and shameless thoughts swelled in his head. Moments later, they were eclipsed by a thousand discarded memories that began rushing back to him. He shuddered where he stood as he tried to process everything that was going through his head in that moment.
And then he heard footsteps in the room outside. He froze up completely as his thoughts went into red alert. He needed clothes and he needed them now. He looked down at his discarded uniform before quickly deciding against it and kicking it into the corner, where he hoped it wouldn't be found. It was too recognizable. It'd be suspicious.
He rummaged hastily through the closet for anything that looked like it'd fit him. A pair of black slacks here, a white long-sleeved shirt there, and a lab coat on top of it all. He couldn't find any shoes, though, and ended up putting on the ones that went with his uniform. He could only hope they wouldn't stand out too much. He finished off the outfit with a pair of spectacles that someone had apparently left behind at some point.
He glanced at himself in the mirror as he forced himself to calm down. There was no reason for anybody to suspect he was anyone other than the girl he appeared to be. He would be just fine as long as he acted like he knew what he was doing.
Unless they know about the device, he thought grimly. The girl in the mirror looked terribly pale as he felt a pit form in his stomach.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath to steady his nerves. To hell with it.
Alfonso stepped out of the closet. For a moment, he thought that whoever had been in the lab had left, as he didn't spot anyone with a cursory glance. He soon realized, however, that the room's sole other occupant was rather shorter than the usual Arcadian, and was halfway hidden behind the long table that occupied the center of the room.
De Loco glanced up from where he sat at the table, poring over his notes. The long moment it took him to speak led Alfonso to be fairly certain of the fifth admiral's surprise. "Who are you?" De Loco asked.
Shit, Alfonso thought, I forgot to think of a name. "Me?" He said, pointing to himself and trying to ignore the bubbly feeling his own voice stirred in his chest. "I'm, uh, Al... Allllice!"
De Loco hopped off the stool he'd been sitting on and sauntered over to him, looking intensely inquisitive. "I don't know an Alice, and I take care to keep track of everyone who I hire into my division." The engineer's lips creased into a thin line. "Who are you?" He asked again, his voice dangerous.
Don't stutter. Act with authority. Alfonso briefly wondered what "authority" looked like before straightening up and matching De Loco stare for stare, trying to cow him. "I was sent by Lord Galcian to evaluate you."
The fifth admiral still didn't look entirely convinced. He folded his arms over his chest. "Rrrreally."
Alfonso shrugged and lifted a hand, palm upwards, in a gesture of mocking concession. "I mean, if you really don't want to submit to evaluation, you can toss me out. But I highly doubt the Lord Admiral will be pleased to learn that you were uncooperative." He channeled all the smugness, all the condescension he could into his words. "You're already on thin ice with how often your creations malfunction, little man."
He thought he saw De Loco's eyebrow twitch and his posture stiffen. Nonetheless, his tone as he spoke moments later was decidedly more conciliatory than it had been when he'd first spotted "Alice". "You can take a look around if you must, but don't you dare touch anything. I can't afford to have you breaking my inventions."
Alfonso let out a self-satisfied little huff as he brushed some of his golden hair off his shoulder in a habitual gesture of triumph. "I'll touch as I think I need to, thank you very much. I'll not have Lord Galcian's inspection hampered by your compulsions."
De Loco was giving him an odd look, and Alfonso began to realize that he was still acting very much like his usual self, especially with the hair-flipping and all. Might need to dial it back before he gets suspicious. "Anyways, you can resume your work. I shouldn't get in the way unless I have questions for you." He tried not to let the awkwardness he was suddenly feeling slip into his tone.
"If you say so…" De Loco muttered in reply, giving him a last, confused look before strolling back to where he'd been working before the interruption.
Alfonso did his best to keep any further celebrations off his face and out of his gestures. Guess I need to look busy. He strolled slowly along the line of engines he'd inspected earlier, pretending to give each of them a thorough once-over, leaning forward and squinting at some of them through his glasses as he rubbed thoughtfully at his chin.
"That's the Tormenta engine. It's designed specifically for trips through South Ocean. I don't think it's ever been used, though." De Loco explained from behind him. Alfonso glanced back to find the smaller man's attention on him again, evidently having set his work aside.
"I see." Alfonso said, nodding, before gesturing to the larger engine beside the Tormenta. "What about this one?"
He thought he could see a tiny smile forming on De Loco's lips. "That one's just a regular moon stone engine that I modified to be faster and more efficient. It's a bit delicate for repeated use, though."
It was odd to be having a fairly normal conversation with him. But not unpleasant. Alfonso furrowed his brow at the two engines, side by side. "It seems like a lot of your inventions don't see actual use."
"Yes, well…" De Loco sighed. "That's the lot of an inventor. I create and I create and I create, but there's only so much innovation the armada actually needs. The rest just goes into storage, or the scrap pile."
Alfonso felt a pang of sympathy at the engineer's tone. "That doesn't seem right."
"Not every invention is going to be a winner. At least I'm paid to keep inventing, even if it doesn't always produce useful results. I imagine Galcian sees just enough success from me to merit keeping me around." De Loco drawled as he shuffled through the papers on his desk.
Alfonso had caught the slightly worried look the fifth admiral had shot his way. He gave De Loco what he hoped was a reassuring smile. He didn't have much practice with them. "I'm sure Galcian will continue to find your work satisfactory, admiral."
There was a pause as De Loco simply stared at him, and Alfonso started to wonder if he'd said something to incriminate himself. Finally, however, De Loco spoke again. "Weren't you threatening me just a minute ago?"
Alfonso stiffened as he considered that fact. He'd never been this friendly with De Loco before. It was actually quite enjoyable. His "normal" behavior that he'd demonstrated minutes ago to secure his safety was starting to feel a little alien. "Well… it's just business, you know. I had to make sure you understood this was official."
De Loco drummed his fingers on the table for a moment before nodding. "Very well, miss Alice. Carry on. I didn't mean to keep you from your work."
Alfonso turned away from the little admiral to hide the exhilarated expression on his face.
Why was being someone other than himself so much fun?
Eventually Alfonso wound his way back to the storage room where he'd left the wondrous little device that had brought this situation about. It was just where he'd left it, and he knelt to pick it up, smiling a little to himself as his hair fell into his peripheral vision when he did so. His smile faded slightly as he straightened up and examined the device in his hand.
How am I going to do this? He wondered to himself. He couldn't change back while in the lab. De Loco would figure things out for sure. He'd need to smuggle the gun out, then.
Or I could leave it.
A little quiver ran through Alfonso's legs as he considered that. He could just leave the gun with De Loco. Admiral Alfonso wouldn't show up to the training exercise, but there would be no admiral Alfonso to punish, anyways. Just… Alice. His breathing quickened as his eyes fluttered.
Why did that sound so damn appealing?
I can't shirk my duties like that…
He ignored the little part of him that screamed "why not?" as he hid the device in his lab coat before heading back out of the storage room and into the lab.
De Loco was still there, scribbling notes into a journal of some sort. He looked up at Alfonso expectantly as he re-entered the room. Alfonso gave him a nod and a smile. "Everything seems to be in order here, admiral. I'll be sure to let Galcian know you were cooperative."
De Loco gestured his understanding. "Good. I'm not in the mood to have my work interrupted by further… inquiries." The little man looked sour as he considered the prospect.
Alfonso nodded and headed for the closet. "I'll return this lab coat now."
"Oh, Alice?" He stopped in his tracks as De Loco's voice singled him out again, slowly turning around to face the admiral once more.
"If you are actually interested in my work, I wouldn't mind if you visited again in the future. Not enough people care about it these days." He saw that faint smile appear again. "Just please do knock before entering the lab in the future. It's not very polite to barge out of the closet unannounced."
Alfonso chuckled awkwardly and rubbed at the back of his head. "Of course, De L- er, sir. I'm sure I'll be back some time soon."
"I'll try to have something interesting to show you by then." De Loco nodded before turning back to his paperwork. Alfonso hurried back into the closet before breathing a shaky sigh of relief.
He leaned against the wall by the door and stared up at the ceiling as he decompressed. De Loco is being friendly with me. De Loco. Beyond even that, though, what alarmed him was that he actually liked it. It felt good to have an actual conversation with him as "Alice" where he'd never felt comfortable conversing as himself.
He didn't want to let go of that. It was tiny, so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But it felt terribly precious in that moment.
He slid the device out of its hiding place in the lab coat, turning it over and over in his hands. What a curious effect this little thing had had on him. Maybe… maybe once he'd gotten somewhere safe and turned himself back to normal, he would keep it. Maybe "Alice" really would visit De Loco again sometime.
What am I thinking? Alfonso's shoulders sagged. I have enough difficulty maintaining one life without adding another into the mix.
He set the gun and his thoughts aside for a moment as he rummaged through the closet for some sort of bag to carry it and his clothes in. Eventually, he found a modest shoulder bag that looked big enough to fit all of his belongings. He hoped whoever had left it wouldn't miss it. He hung up the lab coat he'd been wearing before slinging the strap of the bag over his shoulder and dumping his discarded clothes into it. He gently set the device on top of them before turning to the door and opening it.
De Loco gave him a brief nod as he passed by the table, and he returned it on his way out. Alice disappeared into the bustle of the Grand Fortress.
Alfonso stood in his office, staring at himself in the mirror as he held the device in his hands. He was still wearing the clothes he'd stolen from the laboratory's closet. He wanted to see himself as "Alice" for these last few moments. The barrel of the little gun pressed into his gut, a firm reminder of what needed to happen.
You have to go back to normal. People are depending on you. Your family's name depends upon you.
He realized that a part of him wasn't swayed by that argument.
What will all your work have been for? What are you if not the sum of your achievements?
His thumb twitched against the trigger, but didn't quite depress it.
This isn't real.
Alfonso grit his teeth and pulled the trigger. Warmth and light filled his office in a blinding flash, and again the device tumbled from his fingers as he was overcome with dizziness. He didn't fall down this time, at least.
Once his senses recovered, he righted himself and glanced at the mirror. Alfonso, first admiral of the Valuan armada, stared back at him. Perfect hair, a handsome face, tall and noble in bearing.
He wanted to punch the mirror until it shattered.
His fist clenched at his side, but he restrained himself, instead kneeling to pick up the device from where it had fallen on the floor. The temptation to use it again immediately was strong, and he bit down on it as he headed to his desk, opened one of the drawers near the bottom, and dropped the device inside before closing it.
"That settles that." He said, taking a deep breath. "It's done. I'm me again."
He stood there with a hand on the corner of his desk, looking around at his sparse and quiet office. It felt empty, just like his family home back in upper city did. Not nearly as alive as De Loco's lab had been. The only people who ever came through here were gone within minutes, once they'd delivered their news.
He wasn't sure how long he stood there, adrift in his thoughts. A knocking on the door drew his attention, and he stepped forward across the room to open it without further consideration.
"Alfonso, the training exercise is in twenty minutes. You need to get down there." Belleza chastised him from the other side once she came into view.
Alfonso grabbed the door frame nearby, leaning his weight on his hand. "I know."
Belleza blinked at him, evidently having expected more of a quip than that. "I… good. Please do make sure it's a proper exercise and not just something thrown together at the last moment, too."
He nodded at her. "It won't be. I'll make sure it sticks."
She stared at him, canting her head to one side. The gesture draped her dark red hair over her shoulder like a cape. "Alfonso, are you feeling okay?"
She was so pretty. So casually beautiful without even trying. His hand gripped the doorframe tightly. It hurt, but it also helped to keep him calm as he put on a smile. "Never better."
Belleza furrowed her brow with concern. "You seem a little off."
"I've just been deep in thought, is all." He explained. The next words left him before he'd even thought them through. "Do you know how to do makeup?"
The fourth admiral blinked again, having trouble following his train of thought. "Uhm, yes, I do. Why?"
Alfonso's hand clenched painfully tight around the doorframe. May as well ask now. He grit his teeth through another smile, keeping his voice even through some miracle of the moons. "I need you to teach me."
Belleza hesitated before nodding. "Sure…? I'm a bit curious as to why you want to know about it, though." A bemused smile was spreading over her lips.
He stared at her ruby-red lips as he imagined what his own would look like in a similar shade. "Call it an experiment."
Belleza pursed those lips of hers in thought, but smiled a moment later. "Sure. An experiment. Sounds fun. I'll come back here after you've finished the exercise." With that, she gave him a wave and departed down the hallway. "I'll see you later, Alfonso." She seemed a little surprised to be saying it.
He shut the door behind him and turned to his office, scrambling to get things ready as he processed what had just happened in the back of his mind. Even Belleza seemed easier to get along with now. And she was going to teach him how to do makeup. He didn't know why he'd asked her that - or rather, he did know why, but he never would've expected himself to have the nerve to do so.
Alfonso was excited.
The exercise went by in a flash, and afterwards, Alfonso ended up pacing nervously in his office. He hated how anxious he was. He hadn't felt this way even during his first date. He wasn't even interested in Belleza that way.
He cast an accusing glance towards his desk as he considered just why he might be feeling so uncomfortable. Almost immediately that sent him down a train of thought he was even more uncomfortable pursuing, and he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to drown out the ensuing avalanche of problematic thoughts with anything he could. He settled on white noise.
A knock on the door cut through the white noise and pulled him out of his head for the second time that day. He took several breaths to steady his nerves before putting on his best, most confident smile and opening the door.
Belleza stood on the other side once more, carrying what looked like a briefcase. "Hello again, Alfonso. Did you still want to do the, uh, makeup thing?" She asked. She looked genuinely worried that he'd changed his mind, especially as she saw the familiarly cool look on his face.
Alfonso did his best to soften his smile as he nodded. "Yes, I'd still like that." He opened the door the rest of the way and extended an arm towards the room at large, welcoming her in. Belleza gave him a small nod of thanks before stepping inside. He shut the door behind her as she looked around.
"Your office really is rather sparse." She noted as she turned towards him.
"I try not to spend a lot of time in it."
An odd little smile appeared on her lips. "Yes, I've heard a little bit about the… exploits you've gotten up to in the past in the process of avoiding office work."
Alfonso grimaced and shrugged, suddenly very much wanting to change the topic. He gestured to the case she'd brought with her. "What's in there?"
"Makeup, of course!" With that, she sat down on the carpeted floor of his office before plopping the case down sideways and opening it to reveal a truly daunting array of cosmetics. Afterwards, she pat the floor in front of her with one hand. "Come on. Sit!"
"I'm not a huskra, you know." He muttered, but sat down cross-legged across from her all the same.
"Not for me, at least." She winked.
"Not for anyone!"
"That's debatable, but I'll let it slide for now." Belleza leaned close to him, her eyes narrowed slightly. Alfonso flinched back ever so slightly, but she shook her head and beckoned him with a curled finger. "Scootch close. I need a good look at your face."
Alfonso swallowed his discomfort but leaned closer. He could see her eyes slowly roving over his features, picking out each little detail she could. "Like what you see?" He joked, hoping to break some of the awkward tension he was feeling.
"Very handsome. Not really my type, though." She said matter-of-factly before leaning back. "Honestly, I'm not sure how much you'd really need to change to catch the eyes of most women, though. I hate to admit it, but you're a good-looking fellow, Alfonso."
Alfonso looked confused for a moment before the meaning behind her words finally dawned on him. He quickly shook his head. "That's not why I want to learn."
She arched a delicate eyebrow at him. "Why do you want to learn?"
He offered her a cryptic smile in return. "Perhaps I'll tell you once you've taught me. Quid pro quo, as they say."
Belleza rolled her eyes. "As old men like to say, maybe. Whatever." She shrugged, before reaching into her assortment of cosmetics and picking out one that looked vaguely cream-colored. She held it up to him as she explained. "This here is foundation. It helps to give your face a uniform color that hides blemishes and discoloration." She leaned close again, looking at his face from the left, then the right. "Not sure how much you need it, though."
"Try me." He challenged her.
That put a smirk on her face, and she nodded as she reached into the box again to procure a small brush. She dipped it into the little jar she held in her free hand before leaning closer still. "Now, hold still for me." Alfonso did his best to stay motionless as she began applying the brush to his skin. It tickled, and the concoction it left behind was slightly cold, but he didn't react outwardly as she continued.
She applied it to much of his face before pulling her hand away and examining her handiwork with a critical eye. "Looks good." She said, rinsing her brush in a bottle of water. "Take a look." She gestured to the mirror.
Alfonso glanced to one side at it to examine his reflection. It didn't look very different at all. He just looked like himself. "I don't see the difference."
"That's kind of the point, most of the time. If I can see your foundation, you've applied it poorly." With that, she put the foundation away and pulled out a silvery stick tipped in red. "Now, this is lipstick. I'm sure you've encountered it before."
He nodded his understanding. She held it out to him. "Do you want to try applying it yourself?"
He blinked in surprise as he accepted it from her, staring at the little tube and its deep red contents. "Are you sure?"
She smiled at him. It looked a lot more reassuring than any smile he'd ever pulled off. "It's not that hard. Learn by doing. Use the mirror."
Alfonso sighed deeply before glancing towards the mirror and lifting the stick to his lips. He applied the tip to the center of his bottom lip before slowly tracing it left along the shape of his lip, eventually transitioning to his upper lip. "Part your lips a little. You want to get the undersides, too." Belleza suggested. Alfonso grimaced at the thought of getting any on his tongue, but did as she prompted. A minute later he was done, and he opened and closed his mouth a few times as he adjusted to the odd feel of the mixture on his lips.
"Feels funny." He muttered.
"You get used to it the more you use it." She winked at him. "Looks great, by the way."
Her gave her a flat look. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it." She took the lipstick back from him, swapping it out for a thinner tube of something black. "Now, this here is mascara. It's going to make your eyelashes darker, which will help them stand out." She unscrewed the cap, revealing a thin brush attached to the other end of it, already lathered with dark liquid. "Fair warning - it's going to feel weird when I apply it, and weirder still applying it to yourself. But it's hard to overstate the effect it has."
Alfonso wasn't sure what to say to that, so he nodded and swallowed awkwardly once more. "Close your eyes and lean forward." She instructed. He did as she said, letting his eyes slide shut. He heard a the slight shuffling of the carpet as Belleza repositioned to be closer to him. "Hooold still…" Something cool and wet brushed against his eyelash, disturbing his eyelid. He resisted the urge to pull away, forcing himself to stay still. The brush moved slowly, deliberately in Belleza's fingers, applying the cosmetic evenly.
It felt like it took ages, but Alfonso knew it hadn't been much more than seconds when Belleza spoke again. "Open your eyes." He did, and immediately turned his head to look at himself in the mirror.
He stared at himself in mild shock as his eyelashes now popped out at him, more so even than they had when he'd been transformed. "That… is rather prominent."
"Hard to miss." Belleza agreed with a grin. "There's a couple other items you can use to, ah, beautify. Eyeliner is good for accentuating your eyes, and rouge can help emphasize your cheeks." She gestured to one bottle after another as she spoke. "But I think you're starting to get the picture, right?"
Alfonso kept staring at himself in the mirror as he nodded slowly. "Yes, I am. This seems like quite a powerful tool."
"It is!" She leaned close to him so she could see herself in the mirror alongside him. He saw her grin reflected in reverse as she looked him over. "You look kind of girly like this, but… it's not bad." She mused.
Girly. That word sent a small flutter through Alfonso's chest. "It's nice," he understated.
He realized she was still staring at him, and he turned to look at her questioningly. "What?"
"Are you going to tell me what's up with this sudden change of heart?" She looked intensely curious all of a sudden.
"Wanting to try something new is a change of heart?" He asked, feigning a wounded look despite the smile on his face.
"It is when you're the most pompously self-inflated man I've ever known." She said bluntly.
Alfonso's smile faded. "That stings."
"It's the truth. This is the first time I've seen you… open, like this. Makes me wonder why you were bothering with the act."
He looked away from her with eyes downcast. "Who says it was an act?"
"I'm not the armada's spymistress without good reason. I know when I'm being lied to." She gently set a hand on his shoulder. "What I'm seeing right now is no lie."
Alfonso was silent for several seconds as he processed this. She was just too sharp. "I'm not sure I like the truth."
"And what truth is that?" Her tone was expectant.
"I hate who I am."
The hand on his shoulder squeezed. "Then change who you are."
Alfonso smiled bitterly as he turned his head to face her. "I don't think I can afford to."
She shrugged at him. "If something's telling you that you can't afford to change, then maybe it's time to reassess what really matters to you."
He wasn't sure he could do that. "Maybe."
Belleza took the hint. Her hand left his shoulder as she leaned back. "Why don't you keep the makeup kit? I can get another pretty easily."
His eyes widened slightly. "Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure, or I wouldn't have said it." She chuckled to herself as she slowly stood up, stretching as she did so. "Keep it. I think I need to make the rounds and ensure nothing is blowing up in my absence, anyways, and a makeup kit would only bog me down along the way."
Alfonso stared at her, then at the kit, then at his reflection. "Thank you, Belleza. And… I'm sorry for how I treated you before now."
"No apologies needed." She said. "Just don't start pretending to be a smug little shit again or I'll break your nose."
He laughed, a single sharp exhalation through his nose. "Duly noted."
She stopped at the door as she opened it. "You don't have to be anyone you don't want to be, Alfonso. Remember that." With that, she left, shutting the door behind her before he could respond.
Alfonso kept staring at himself in the mirror as he weighed her words.
Alfonso went most of a week without touching the device again. He briefly entertained the thought that he could just bury all the feelings it had brought up within him, that he could learn to be content with who he was.
He kept on practicing with Belleza's makeup kit, though, and the urge to see the fruits of his efforts slowly outweighed his fears. It had been long enough that he'd just started to forget what that… other version of him looked like.
It was mid afternoon when Alfonso opened that drawer of his desk and withdrew the little gun-shaped device. He'd exchanged his usual outfit as admiral for a soldier's uniform designed to fit a range of body types. He'd deliberately chosen one slightly smaller than he normally might have worn. The black and red fabric clung tightly to him as he stood in front of the mirror with the barrel of the device pressed to his stomach again.
Let's hope I don't drop it this time.
His thumb depressed the trigger with a palpable eagerness, and that now-familiar flash of light filled his office. His head spun again, but less so this time. He managed to maintain his grip on the gun, and he leaned the hand holding it on the edge of his desk to support himself as he looked at himself in the mirror.
"Alice" was exactly as beautiful as he remembered. She stared at him with blue eyes full of life that contrasted the emptiness in his own. Her golden hair fell freely to her shoulders, unlike his, that stayed perfectly-maintained at all times. She looked relaxed and at ease in her clothes, instead of stiff and awkward.
She looked alive.
Alfonso set the gun aside before pushing off the desk to straighten up, smiling excitedly as he turned slowly around, admiring himself from every angle, making sure everything was as he'd left it. Once he'd satisfied himself that this version was still just the way he remembered it, he hurried to the closet to pull out the makeup kit.
He carefully applied the foundation to his cheeks, his chin, his nose. The lipstick went on in a smooth, confident motion to accent his lips in an appealing shade of red. Delicate brushes applied first a layer of eyeliner to make his blue eyes pop, then mascara to bring out his lashes. He wrapped up by tying his long hair into a ponytail. It took some doing, considering he'd never tried it before, but within a few minutes he had an acceptable result.
He stood before the mirror once more and took it all in. This was more than what he'd seen the last time he'd transformed. Where previously he'd seen a natural, unkempt beauty, now he saw a visage of pure womanhood. A girl in every sense of the word, who could make heads turn and hearts flutter with a single bat of her eyelashes.
Alfonso felt amazing.
He spent a good ten minutes posing in front of the mirror, enjoying himself, reveling in what he'd become, before it slowly dawned on him that he didn't need to keep this beauty of his hidden away. He didn't need to hole up in his office.
In fact, he knew just where to go.
A knock sounded on the door to De Loco's lab, echoing through the cavernous room and disturbing the little admiral from the formula he'd been working out. His face scrunched up in confusion as he hopped off his stool and ambled over to the door to answer it.
It opened to reveal the somewhat familiar figure of Alice, though now she'd exchanged her casual clothes for a Valuan uniform that fit her snugly. She'd apparently done herself up, too, based on how much color had been added to her face.
What did she think this was, a date?
"Hello, De Loco." She greeted him with a smile and a slight wave of her hand.
He nodded to her as he stepped aside to allow her in. "Alice. I was wondering when you'd return. I think I might just have something to interest you, but you'll need to give me a moment to clean up, first. You caught me in the middle of some calculations."
She was staring at him. It made him slightly uncomfortable. He was about to ask her if something was wrong when she finally responded. "Oh! Of course. Go ahead, I can wait."
He furrowed his brow at her before nodding and tottling back to his table to clear away some of the papers he'd been scribbling notes into, gathering them up into a neatly-organized stack and setting them on the corner. Once they were out of the way, he gestured to the stool next to his. "Please have a seat." He said, and thankfully she seemed to respond faster this time, moving over and sitting down with an expectant look on her face, now pointedly avoiding her earlier staring.
Such an odd girl, De Loco thought as he headed over to a set of lockers that extended out of the storage room, fumbling with some keys from his pocket before opening one of them.
"What were you working on before I got here, anyways?" Alice called to him.
"Eh?" He turned his head slightly towards her as he paused with the right key hovering just in front of its corresponding lock. "I was designing a special cannon that uses moon stones for extreme power."
He went back to fumbling with the lock as she seemed to process this. "A moon stone cannon?"
Finally he got the locker open, cursing under his breath at how stubborn it had been. "That's right. That's, uh, also the working name. I'll probably give it a more appropriate title once I've worked out the kinks."
"That sounds pretty powerful…" Alice trailed off. De Loco took the opportunity to assemble his surprise in his arms before nudging the locker shut with his torso.
"Heeeere we go." He walked back over to the table, carrying his prize, and hopped back up onto his stool before setting it down in front of both of them.
Alice immediately leaned over the table to give it a closer look. It was a slightly bulky collection of spare parts that had been reshaped into vague representations of human body parts and assembled into the figure of man. Two glassy eyes peered out of its head, and a pair of moon stone cables extended from a bulge on its back that somewhat resembled a backpack.
"A statue?" She guessed.
De Loco grinned to himself. This would be a treat. "Not quite." He took both the cables and led them to a set of ports installed into the table. A faint humming emanated from the figure once he'd plugged both the cables in, and in his peripheral vision he could see his guest's eyes widening. Once he was certain the power flow was in order, he extended a hand and pressed a tiny concealed button on the bottom of the figure's pack.
The figure whirred and clicked once before turning its head jerkily to the side, its glassy eyes seeming to regard both of them for a moment before it took a single step to the side to face them properly. It then lifted an arm and waved it back and forth in an awkward approximation of a wave.
"It's alive?" Alice gasped.
"Well, not quite. It's designed to recognize Arcadians, though. At present it can respond to a few commands and has a handful of idle responses. It's not nearly as sophisticated as some of the machines I've got set up in the mines back in Ixa'taka." He explained.
The woman beside him seemed to be in awe as she lifted her hand and waved back at the little animatronic man. Once again the figure lifted its arm and waved back in an exact repetition of its previous motion. Alice seemed delighted by this, grinning and giggling to herself. Finally, she turned to him. "You've got fancier machines than this back in Ixa'taka?"
De Loco beamed proudly as he returned her gaze. "Oh, yes. Lord Galcian had me send most of my prototypes there, and I've been improving them ever since. Some of my designs include intelligent mining machines, automated security personnel, and a couple automatons to keep the workers in line." He coughed once, awkwardly after mentioning the last group. "The, uh, last ones don't work quite as intended, though. The miners seem to have an easy time confusing them."
"Even so!" Alice said, veritably bubbling with excitement, "That's really impressive! I can't even fathom how you managed to make them intelligent."
The little inventor could feel a faint heat in his cheeks. He'd not been praised this highly in what felt like ages. "Well, maybe intelligent is too impressive a word for them… but I am proud of them." He waved a hand vaguely towards the miniature machine still standing on the desk, which now seemed to be pacing about in a survey of the area. "This is the smallest design I've made so far. It was quite difficult to make it so compact, but I think I've learned a lot about how to compress their information processing systems."
"Information processing systems…" the girl's voice trailed off, her brow furrowed in thought. "So, a brain. You gave this little guy a tiny brain." She reached out with a finger extended, and the miniature man turned towards her before extending his arm to set a hand over her fingertip. The smile she wore at that moment lit up her face, and De Loco found himself staring.
Thankfully, she didn't seem to notice when she turned her attention back to him. "You're a genius."
De Loco cleared his throat and turned away from her as much as he could without being outright rude. He badly needed to splash some cold water on his face. "As the head engineer of the armada should be." He muttered.
"Mhm!" Alice's voice was enthusiastic as ever. "So, are there any other nifty inventions you can show me?"
The admiral took a deep breath to calm himself as he nodded, still avoiding her eyes. "I think I can probably find something, if you've got the time to stick around."
"I've got time aplenty." She confirmed.
"Then… I guess I'll go take a look."
Alfonso hastily shut the door to his office behind him after he stepped inside, having made sure nobody would see him enter. As soon as he did he leaned his back against it, arms crossed over his chest as he did his best to control his breathing.
De Loco was so damned cute when he got into talking about his inventions. How had he never noticed before?
He hadn't wanted to leave. But he'd been in the lab for hours, and he'd known he was starting to impose on the fifth admiral's time. He'd just have to visit again soon, some other day. He closed the distance to his desk before picking up the device where he'd left it on the desktop. He was grateful that nobody had barged into his office and discovered it while he was away.
I should probably change back now. It's been hours.
His hands didn't move to aim the gun at himself, despite that thought. They felt frozen by the very idea of going back to his "normal" self.
I mean… I guess all I have to do today is paperwork. As long as nobody comes by to visit, I should be fine.
He slowly, carefully set the gun down on the desk once more before sitting down in the chair behind it. Everything looked just a little bigger from his shorter perspective. He had to sit up straighter to lean over the desk properly.
He grabbed a pencil from a cup nearby before starting to write something into one of the reports on his desk. Is my writing neater? Prettier? My hand feels like it's shaking a bit. He managed to write out a paragraph and set the report aside before putting his pencil down and staring at the next report in the pile.
Distractions abounded in his head. He didn't want to be staring at reports. He wanted to go back out and keep being Alice. There was nothing for him in this office. Though he picked up his pencil to continue writing out responses to his reports, he soon found himself distracted again, this time with the effort of drawing his female self on to the back side of one of the papers in the stack.
He'd never been an incredible artist, but he'd drawn women enough times as a boy to know the basics. He smiled down at his recreation as he flashed back to memories of his schooling days, drowning out boring lectures by trying to capture his mental image of the perfect woman.
How strange that he had never found her until now.
Gradually it occurred to him that there was, in fact, something for him in this office of his. He stood up from his seat and headed over to a cabinet nearby, opening it and sweeping some old books aside before grabbing a green bottle that had been hidden behind them. He shook his pencils out of the cup before uncorking the bottle and pouring himself a drink.
He sat back down and took a sip. Gerdin loqua was considerably more bitter than the ever-popular Mur loqua oft-touted by taverns in mid ocean, and that bitterness combined with its dark green hue often led most people to avoid it. But Alfonso had long preferred it for how much more potent it was. It got him drunk quickly, even once he'd started developing a tolerance for the alcoholic content of lighter loquas.
He savored the bitterness on his tongue as he drained his cup, filled it, then drained it again. Within fifteen minutes he was starting to feel the hazy, familiar warmth blooming in his chest and clouding his thoughts. This was faster than it usually worked for him. Maybe being smaller had something to do with it. He'd oft observed that the women he knew tended to get drunker, faster.
He leaned back in his chair as he slowed down with his third cup. His work lay forgotten, scattered somewhat haphazardly across his desktop, as he shut his eyes and let memories wash over him.
The awkwardness he'd felt once he'd started to mature. He'd asked his father if he was going to be as big and hairy as he was someday. The answer had not pleased him one bit.
Becoming a well-groomed teenager. Going out with girls all the time. How popular he'd been. How pretty they'd all seemed. How utterly wrong it had felt when they'd asked for private time in his room some nights. That one in particular made him chuckle.
And then he'd learned that none of his peers felt this way. They were jealous of him, even. They wanted to be him, when he wanted more than anything to be someone else. He'd slowly built up a shell of false bravado as he'd grown into an adult, having long ago come to the conclusion that he would never be anyone other than Alfonso.
"Who am I kidding?" Alice murmured into the empty room, her voice slightly raspy as she bit back the tears that burned behind her eyelids. One hand settled on the soft skin of her cheek, a reminder of the realness of the face she now wore.
"This is who I was really supposed to be."
And like that, all her preconceptions shattered. The life she'd been trying to live up until that point had been nothing more than pretense. "Alfonso" had been wishful thinking from the start.
It was so simple, she thought with a sniffle, and I never understood it until now.
She quickly refilled her cup and starting drinking again as she fought not to let the tears spill down her cheeks too quickly. One question still plagued her, amidst the sea of answers now cascading onto her.
What am I going to do?
She wasn't sure when she'd fallen asleep, but when her eyes snapped open again, the clock hanging on the wall told her that it was morning. Someone was banging on her door, likely having woken her up. She rubbed at her eyes, then her forehead as the distinct headache of a hangover nagged at her. Must've fallen asleep at some point after the third drink, she thought as she glanced at her half-empty bottle of loqua. She sighed as she corked it once more before returning it to its hiding place on the shelf.
That left her visitor. She half-considered grabbing the device and turning herself back into Alfonso, but that idea now filled her with a revulsion that made her stomach turn. To hell with it, then. She paced as confidently as she could over to the door and opened it.
Admiral Belleza stood on the other side, and her expression was frozen in surprise as she regarded the blonde woman who now stared at her from within the office. "Can I help you?" Alice asked.
"I'm… I'm looking for admiral Alfonso," she replied. "Do you know where he is?"
Alice furrowed her brow at the red-headed admiral. "He's not here anymore."
"Well… okay, but I still need to find him. I've got important messages to relay to him, and…" She trailed off again, evidently feeling awkward in her confusion. "I'm sorry, miss, but who are you? I don't think I've seen you around the fortress before."
Alice's breath caught in her throat as she considered how to answer that. She could just lie, and Belleza wouldn't have much choice but to believe it.
But there was another option. She'd been vexing over what to do all of last night.
Was it worth the risk? Was she willing to this? To shatter everything she'd built over the last twenty years of her life?
Half-formed, drunken memories of last night came rushing back to her, answering that question for her. Of course she was.
"Belleza… I need your help." Her shoulders shuddered slightly as she said it, and she cast her gaze to the ground.
"My help? I'm still not sure who you are, miss." Belleza protested.
Alice slowly shook her head as a single tear fell from her eye to splash inaudibly against the floor below. "You know who I am."
Belleza stood stock-still, silent in the hallway as she considered that. Alice heard the lady admiral's breathing falter for a moment as she took a step closer. "Alfonso?"
"That's… not my name anymore." Alice muttered weakly.
"You need to tell me what happened." Belleza said. "I need to know what's happened if I'm going to help you."
"I understand." Alice replied, nodding her head in a tiny, jerky motion. "Please come inside."
"Forgive me. I'm still… having a little bit of trouble processing this." Belleza admitted.
Once again, the two of them found themselves sitting on the floor of the office. Alice smiled half-heartedly at the red-headed girl across from her. "I know it's unusual. But it's the truth."
"And you want to leave the Grand Fortress." The question was implicit in Belleza's tone.
Alice rubbed at her face with both hands. She was still nursing her hangover headache from earlier. "I don't… I can't keep living my life as admiral Alfonso. It's not happy. Not compared to this." She gestured vaguely to her own body, still outlined by the close-fitting Valuan uniform she wore. "This… for the first time in my life I feel truly alive. I don't want to let go of that to go back to the armada."
"Alf-... I mean… Alice. I'm happy for you, I really am." Belleza said, trying her best to give the frantic-looking girl a reassuring smile. "But are you absolutely certain you want to do this? You'd be giving up an awful lot."
"No more than I'd be giving up if I stayed."
Belleza stared searchingly at Alice. "You're really and truly serious about this, aren't you?"
The blonde girl took a shaky breath inwards. "Absolutely." She said, though her voice wavered.
Belleza shut her eyes as she considered her options for a long moment. She had an obligation to Galcian that could not easily be forsaken. She didn't doubt he'd be displeased if his first admiral turned up missing out of nowhere.
But then she opened her eyes again. Before her sat a woman who looked nothing like the first admiral of the armada. She had none of Alfonso's regal bearing, none of his haughtiness, none of his arrogance. She looked lost, and afraid, and desperate. She looked like someone in need of help.
Could she really force Alice to carry on being the admiral she now knew had been nothing more than a facade, on so many levels?
She didn't want to disappoint Galcian.
But she couldn't turn away from this.
When her green eyes opened once more, they were lit with determination. "I'll help you. I think I can get you a convincing fake passport that'll get you past the checkpoint at the gate. I might also be able to keep your disappearance quiet, at least for a little while."
Alice shuddered again, sniffing loudly. "Thank you, Belleza. It means the world to me."
"You're not out of the woods yet, though. You need a ship. You could try hitching a ride on a merchant ship, but that presents its own problems. It can't be an armada ship, either, or you'll raise some red flags from the checkpoint guards."
"Where am I supposed to get a ship of my own, then…?" Alice wondered, starting to feel hopeless again.
"Honestly?" Belleza sighed, "Your best bet is De Loco. I don't doubt he's got a few personal ships that aren't flagged as armada property. I know you hate him, but…"
She trailed off as she realized that the girl's shaking had gotten worse. "Alice?"
"I'm going to have to tell De Loco the truth," Alice murmured. "What if he hates me for it?"
Belleza arched an eyebrow. "Hates you for it?"
"I really… really like him, Belleza. I don't hate him at all. But I think he might hate me if he finds out I've been lying to him ever since he met… Alice."
"I think maybe you're mistaken." Belleza warned.
"Huh?" Alice stared at her, uncomprehending.
The red-haired admiral gave her a warm smile. "If what I understand is correct, this last week or so has been the first time you've ever shown him the truth."
Alice's lower lip quivered, and for a moment, Belleza was worried she was going to start crying all over again. Somehow, however, she managed to hold it back. "Thank you, Belleza…" She said, softly. "You're a good friend."
Belleza felt a little embarrassed. "Don't mention it. I'm just doing what I think is right." She stood up slowly as she made a mental checklist of things she'd need to get in order for Alice's departure. "I need to go get started on this plan of yours. Go talk to De Loco." She offered the girl one more smile. "I'm sure he'll be willing to help you."
When the girl's blue eyes tracked back up to hers, they were still slightly red from crying. But they carried a strength that she'd never once seen in Alfonso.
De Loco was in his lab again when Alice returned, stepping inside without knocking this time. She'd exchanged her uniform for the casual outfit she'd stolen from the lab's closet, coupled with a light coat that fell slightly past her hips.
The little admiral glanced up from his work when she returned. "Alice? I didn't expect to see you again so soon."
Alice smiled apologetically. "Sorry if I'm intruding."
"I'm a little busy," The admiral admitted, "but if I can set it aside if you need something."
Alice nodded her thanks as she closed the distance to him to stand across from where he sat, her hands in the pockets of her coat. "I need your help, De Loco."
De Loco tilted his head slightly to one side. "How may I be of assistance?"
"I need to get out of Valua. I've got a passport, but no ship."
De Loco seemed to hesitate. "Why… why do you need to leave? Will you be coming back?"
"Maybe… maybe someday… but not anytime soon." She hung her head as she spoke, her blonde hair momentarily forming a veil that hid her face.
"I don't understand." The engineer seemed genuinely crestfallen. It made Alice's heart hurt.
"I don't know if I can explain it…"
"Well try, damn it! If I'm going to help you, I at least deserve an explanation!" Even De Loco seemed surprised by the anger in his voice, if the expression on his face when Alice lifted her head was anything to go by. All the same, he didn't recant his demand. "Tell me why you are leaving."
"De Loco…" Alice's voice was just barely above a whisper. "Are you absolutely certain you want to know?"
There was a pause as De Loco seemed to deliberate on his answer. "Yes." Came the reply at last.
Alice said nothing as she withdrew one hand from the pocket of her coat. In it she held a familiar gun-shaped device, which she set on the table in front of De Loco.
He stared at it for a long moment before picking it up and looking it over. Recognition flashed in his eyes behind the sheen of his goggles. Alice watched the gears turn in his head as he looked back and forth between the device and her, first slowly and methodically, then frantically.
De Loco's hands trembled as he carefully set the device back down on his table, turning away from Alice to brace himself on it. He rocked slowly back and forth as all the pieces came together in his head. "Why did you do this to me?" He finally asked.
"It… it was fun. So much more fun than I'd expected." Alice mumbled pathetically. "I never realized how much I could like you."
The engineer clasped his hands together, resting the dome of his outfit against his balled fists. He seemed deeply shaken, but to her great relief, not angry. "And… there's no way you can stay?"
A sliver of ice slid into Alice's heart. She hadn't expected him to still want her here after learning the truth. In that moment, she desperately wished her feelings, her conclusions, were otherwise.
But they weren't. "I'm not happy here. And… I don't think I'll be accepted as who I am now."
A mirthless smile appeared on De Loco's lips. "No. You won't." He leaned back away from his hands as he took a deep, shaky breath. He sounded a bit like he wanted to cry. "Then it's settled. A ship you shall have."
Alice's heart didn't leap with joy quite like she'd expected it to. Instead she felt a solemn determination that didn't offer her much comfort. "I'm sorry…"
"Nothing to apologize for." De Loco said quickly. "Nothing at all. I need to go check my ship inventory and figure out which one is best."
"Will you be okay?" Alice called after him as he hopped off his stool and hurried over towards a door on the far wall.
He glanced back at her over his shoulder as the door opened before him. "I'll be okay once my part in this is done."
A short few days later, Belleza, De Loco and Alice found themselves gathered near the entrance to the docks in upper city. They stayed close to a shady corner where they wouldn't draw attention to themselves.
"Here," Belleza said as she offered Alice what looked like a perfectly normal Valuan passport.
She accepted it, and flipped it open to the first page. It was full of falsified details, but there at the top was her new name. A small smile cast dimples over her cheeks as she took it all in. "It's perfect."
"Of course it is. You should expect no less from the armada's master of intelligence." Belleza said with a smirk.
Alice closed the little booklet and deposited it in the pocket of her coat. "Thank you, Belleza."
The red-headed admiral winked at her. From off to her side, De Loco's voice came out somewhat robotically as he seemed to recite his part from memory. "You'll be taking the green-and-brown ship docked at pier seven. It's a modified phantom-class that shouldn't arouse too much sus-"
He was cut off as Alice knelt down and wrapped her arms around him in a hug. De Loco stared at her in stunned silence through his goggles. Slowly, hesitantly, he put an arm around her and hugged her back. "Thank you, too, De Loco." She whispered to him.
"O-of course." he stammered.
She let go of him reluctantly and straightened up before casting her gaze out towards the docks. A checkpoint had been set up at the entrance, ready to check the passports of any who came by looking to board or disembark a ship coming into or going out of Valua. This would be where she said goodbye.
"I'm going to miss you both." She said as she turned back to the two admirals.
Belleza's shoulders sagged slightly, and she suddenly looked very tired. "Yeah, and I'm going to miss having some peace and quiet around here. Things are going to be positively uproarious once you're discovered missing." The tired expression faded slightly as she put on a good-natured smile. "But I'll miss you too. Even if I did only know you for a few days."
"Please, uh… do try to come back someday." De Loco said, almost too quietly to be heard.
Alice smiled down at him. "I'll do my best. Maybe once things have quieted down." She giggled a little. "I do have a passport and a ship of my own now, after all."
"Then you're all set." Belleza said.
Alice took a few steps back and away from the two of them, out of the shade. She gave them a small wave of her hand. "Goodbye, you two."
Belleza raised a hand in goodbye, and a moment later De Loco followed suit.
Alice took a few steps further back, keeping her eyes on both of them and imprinting them into her memory. Then she spun and hurried off in the direction of the checkpoint.
"I sure hope she knows what she's doing." Belleza sighed.
"She'll figure it out." De Loco replied.
"Passport?" The guard standing at the entrance to the docks said, extending a hand.
Alice reached into her pocket and pulled out the passport Belleza had given her before handing it over.
The guard took it and opened it to the first page, scanning its details carefully. Alice felt her heart pound in her chest as she waited, but was careful not to let her nerves show on her face.
"Alright. You're clear to go." The guard finally said as he handed the passport back to her. "Safe travels, miss."
She gave him a grateful smile before hurrying past him and out onto the docks proper.
Pier three, pier four, pier five, pier six… Eventually Alice came upon pier seven and the ship that hovered there, moored to the posts that ran along its length. It fit De Loco's expression perfectly. It wasn't very large or impressive, but it looked like it could handle sailing through mid ocean just fine. She could reasonably get just about anywhere under the silver moon with a ship like this.
She felt a slight stinging in her eyes as she considered just how lucky she was. Then she went to work untying the moorings before hopping aboard and familiarizing herself with the ship's controls.
Minutes later, it drifted away from the pier and out into the closed sphere of sky that formed the gap between upper and lower city, between the grand fortress and the palace. Alice watched out the front-side window as upper city grew smaller and smaller, and the great gate of the Grand Fortress loomed nearer and nearer. A loud crack sounded through the massive causeway that served as the main thoroughfare through the fortress as the great door at the other end began to turn, slowly opening the way out into mid ocean.
All around her were other ships of various makes and models. They looked like they'd come from all over the world. She felt a little glimmer of hope as she wondered briefly how much of that world she would see as she in the coming days.
The door finally opened all the way, and she kicked the engines back into gear, setting the little ship on a course out of Valua and into the wide-open expanse of mid ocean. In the distance, she could see the dark, bleak clouds of Valua's yellow moon give way to the clear skies of the silver moon.
The Grand Fortress disappeared behind her, out of her line of sight. She made sure her course was correct before letting go of the wheel and leaning back to take in the moment.
She was free. She could go anywhere she wanted and be who she wanted to be.
She reached into the other pocket of her coat and withdrew a small mirror. De Loco had given it to her once he'd settled on the ship he'd have waiting for her. In it she could see herself reflected, smiling behind dangling tresses of golden hair. Her blue eyes sparkled in the sunlight that was just now beginning to stream in through the windows of the bridge.
This is me.