• Published 27th Mar 2019
  • 1,326 Views, 195 Comments

Five Score – A Prench Tale Vol.1 - Alsey



Getting a cutie mark for my birthday was already strange enough, but what will I do now that my body has suddenly decided to take a Prench leave..?

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Part 1 | 1 – Marking the Occasion

Ambre's View

I complete the journey to Sarah's flat on foot; fortunately it's not too far from the station, and it'll give me time to collect myself, even if I'm running a little late.

It's been... how many years, since anybody invited me to a party? And a birthday party to boot? I suppose it's what you get, cutting yourself from all the people you cared about, and thought cared back...

I remember the last birthday party I attended... How could I not remember..? My best friend's... Raphaël and I had our birthdays just two days apart, we were inseparable... until I came out to him, after the party, when it was just the two of us. He was the only one I felt comfortable enough to talk about that, I felt safe with him, and yet... Yet my parents heard about it, and it all went to hell...

I had just turned twenty-one. So four, that's how many years... It was only four years ago, almost to the day, though it already feels like a lifetime away... I suppose it is, from a certain point of view.

Whatever. It's all in the past now. I'm just going to enjoy this evening spent with a friendly acquaintance! No strings attached, no consequences.

I arrive in front of the apartment building. I check my phone to confirm the flat number, and I press the button on the entryphone with the little 'S. Mokrani' sticker. Not a second later I hear the electronically-distorted voice of Sarah inviting me in as the entryway unlocks, and I climb up to the fifth floor.

The door is already half-opened, feisty music and warm light spilling from the inside. There's a little paper taped just above the buzzer, reading 'Sorry about the noise! 3 birthdays in progress!' in colorful lettering.

'Three'..?

The door swings wide before I have the time to reach for the handle, revealing a beaming Sarah:

“Ah finally, the third girl of the hour! Come in, come in, mi casa es tu casa and all that jazz!”

She all but yanks me inside, shutting the door with a backward shove of the foot and herding me to the living room. There's already six other people here, talking and sharing drinks, two-thirds of them being men. I stand here, a little awkwardly under their collective gaze, as Sarah fastens something around my left wrist.

“Everybody, meet Ambre, our last birthday girl! Ambre, meet Ben, Sébastien, Laurence, Thomas, Saïd, and Marine!”, she proclaims while pointing at each in turn.

There's a chorus of 'happy birthday'. I barely have time for a general 'thank you' and a little wave before Sarah leads me towards the couch and the woman she identified as Laurence. She looks pretty diminutive in stature, at least compared to me, with long black hair kept in a practical ponytail, and sits quite close to the Antillean-looking guy Sarah called Sébastien – her boyfriend, maybe.

Sarah grabs Laurence's left arm, unconcerned by the indignant squint she receives in the process, and holds the limp appendage closer for my inspection: “Look, they're matching!”

Laurence sports a nice-looking handcrafted bracelet, made of pink twine and shiny dark purple beads. I then notice that Sarah has one in the same style, green and dark red, and when I finally look at my own wrist, I see a yellow and black one.

“That's... really nice Sarah, thank you.” And I mean it; it's been... a saddening long time since anybody has gifted me anything. “You did these yourself?”

“Yep! A hobby of mine, though I've grown a little rusty. I'm glad you like it!”

“Oh by the way,” I say as I pull out of my backpack a bottle of non-alcoholic cider, “thanks again for inviting me.”

“Aww that's nice, you didn't have to! I'll put it in the fridge right away, feel free to mingle!”

Sarah sauntering towards her kitchen, I allow myself a little look-around. The living room is quite spacious, with a bed-couch and a wide coffee table over a gaudy carpet. Besides the dated television set and music center, there's a lot of little knickknacks and mementos displayed on shelves or pinned to the walls, giving the impression of a lived-in, if slightly cluttered interior: a large swath of family photos, often depicting Sarah surrounded by three younger boys; two pennants, one of the French national soccer team, the other of the Algerian; a host of scented candles and other examples of her self-made jewelry... I note that books are conspicuously absent, except for the one I lent her, tucked in a corner. Just thinking about the fully-stocked bookcases I could fit in here... Gosh I miss having my own place...

I refocus my attention on the other guests, either standing or sitting on the couch or poufs. Laurence, my fellow 'birthday girl', seems a bit withdrawn. Another reticent victim of Sarah's enthusiasm I would guess; I can certainly empathize... She clings to Sébastien like a lost puppy while reading something on her phone, thoroughly uninterested in the party itself. The others look more the part for what I would expect from Sarah's social circle, and the snippets of conversation I catch aren't terribly engaging – sports, clubbing, reality TV...

As the guy Sarah called Ben gets up from the couch to join the other would-be socialites to guffaw at something playing on Marine's phone, my eyes meet Sébastien's. In a simple look, he manages to convey a silent invitation to claim the couch's open spot at his side, without the slightest hint of sleaziness – just compassion for the girl who's been wordlessly standing here for the last minute or so.

Do I really look that lost..?

I guess I do... And I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

I plop on the comfortable couch just as Sarah comes back from the kitchen, holding plates of scrumptious snacks:

“Okay people, let's get this party rolling!”

– — –

To my pleasant surprise, behind his waggish façade, Sébastien proves to be an engaging conversationalist, and Laurence, if a specific subject holds her interest, can actually be quite talkative. Between that and Sarah's top-notch cooking, including a savory chocolate cake with one color-coded candle for each of us three, I have to admit I'm really having a good time!

Most of the other guests, for their part, have left after dessert for continuing the night in a club. This left Laurence, Sébastien and I talking on the couch, and Sarah and Thomas sitting on the floor, playing an inscrutable game where the winner has to drink a shot and the loser has to strip... unless that's the other way around...

“But that's the thing,” argues Laurence, bringing my attention back to our lively debate on the limits of transhumanism, “there's no empirical evidence confirming or infirming the existence of an immaterial soul, so the whole argument leads nowhere. Even if consciousness is an emerging property of neurology, there's no objective, a priori barrier for the same emergence to occur in silico.”

“I don't say that an artificial consciousness couldn't develop, given the right circumstances”, I counter, “just that it doesn't mean it's possible for consciousness – even if we forgo the principle of a soul – to be transferred from one container to the next.”

“This transfer doesn't necessarily need to be a discrete process. If you start by artificially extending the bounds of the container, to the point that the individual's thought processes can be supported by this external, or even internal apparatus, you assure a continuity of consciousness even if the original neurology is lost.”

“Well,” remarks Sébastien, “at this point it becomes a variation on the ship of Theseus.”

“Exactly.”, I concur. “Taking your proposition, if your containers, one original, one artificial, are separated, but both able to sustain a consciousness, they can both claim continuity of consciousness. However, in this situation you wouldn't contest that the consciousness of the artificial container is a copy, and then ho—”

“Aaah-ah!!”, Sarah shouts in victory, making me jump out of my skin, and thoroughly derailing my train of thought...

“Birthday Girl #1 wins the game! Woohoo!”, chants our inebriated hostess as she cavorts through the living room with abandon, and without pants.

At least she seems to have fun...

“Wow Sarah, nice tattoos... Really... vegan and stuff...”, her drinking partner blurts out, laying quite wasted on the floor.

Sarah actually stops her wild careening for a moment, looking drolly at her friend: “No more drinks for you Tom, it's probo– probla– it's no good when you start seeing things...”

“Uh, Sarah”, Sébastien interjects, “I think he's talking about your thigh tattoos. 'Interesting' design, by the way.”, he adds with a chuckle.

“Wha—”, begins the fuddled woman, until she takes a look at her thighs. “Oh my gosh, did I get so bombed I didn't even notice them doin' it..? I'm just a bit muzzy! I don't even know what it is! Why d'you let me do it!?”, she bemoans at nobody in particular.

Sébastien snickers at Sarah's reaction to her odd predicament. Even Laurence seems to find the thing smirk-worthy.

I can't share their mirth.

The uneasiness I had managed to keep at bay returns full force. I thought I could at least try to enjoy a little birthday party, to put the issue out of my mind for a handful of hours.

It wasn't to be, obviously.

I get up and embrace the confused Sarah:

“Don't worry, it's going to be alright. We'll figure it out, and it'll work out.”

“I... I don't understand...”, she mumbles in her daze.

“Me neither,” says Sébastien with sudden seriousness, “but I have the feeling we don't have all the terms of the equation here. Ambre?”

I'm tempted to deny it. Sorely tempted. But that would be callow, and unproductive. Besides, they proved to be intelligent people, drunkard now snoring on the carpet notwithstanding, and they could help. I should try to trust them. Come on Ambre, you know that's the right thing to do...

I sigh in defeat, and unbutton my jeans, slowly pulling the waistband down on one side to reveal the tip of one of the strange marks now drawn on the skin of my outer thighs. The golden motif is unnaturally crisp, and unmistakable compared to my dark flesh.

I forestall their inevitable questions:

“There's one on each side, mirror images of each other; same as Sarah, even if the symbols themselves look completely different. I don't know where they come from either, or when exactly they appeared. I noticed them late this afternoon, as I was preparing for the party. It didn't hurt, so I didn't go to the hospital, though I booked an appointment with my doctor for Monday. I... I think that's all I have.”

“... And I suppose you didn't both go to the tattoo parlor earlier today and conveniently forgot all about it?”, wonders Sébastien in a halfhearted attempt at humor, while Laurence stays silent, seemingly deep in thought.

“I know how new tattoos look, and it's nothing like that. There's no skin irritation, and I'm not even sure it's possible to do a surface this large in just one go. It should take hours, at the very least, and I know I don't have this big a gap in my schedule. Oh and it doesn't wash out, trust me I tried.”

“You certainly studied the question...”, Sébastien mutters as he stands to come get a closer look, making me quite uncomfortable from the focused attention so close to my crotch. “It doesn't even look like a tattoo... The lines are too regular, the colors too uniform... Actually that's...”

He doesn't finish his sentence, so I do it for him: “Yes I know, it's freakish. I have no explanation. Even less, if it was possible, now that there's two of us...”

“And what 'bout you, Grumpy Pants?”, Sarah asks all of a sudden, pointing at Laurence. “Got your own surprise tattoo for you birthday too?”

All eyes fall on the petite woman, who squirms under the attention.

“I would have noticed if I had!”, she argues with some vehemence.

“I didn't though, and Sarah clearly didn't either.”, I reply, keeping my voice calm and, I hope, somewhat comforting. “It wouldn't hurt to check, in any case. Thinking about it, right now I don't see any other similarity between my situation and Sarah's, except for the birthday thing. Maybe this way you could help us refine our working hypothesis?”, I add, trying to appeal to her obvious scientific inclinations. “For example, even if it is linked to our birthday, are we even the same age? I turned twenty-five today.”

“Me too...”, provides Sarah.

Laurence still shows no sign of wanting to contribute, but I catch Sébastien's look, and it's not hard to guess that being twenty-five-year-old is another thing in common between us three. Maybe in an attempt to cajole his friend into helping, he pulls down his own pants, showing to all his unblemished thighs.

Laurence hesitates, scratching at her knees, until she gets up stiffly, walks to the bathroom, and locks herself within.

I use the interruption to pull my jeans back on, and I help a haggard Sarah into her own pair, while Sébastien has the good idea to place her passed-out friend in a recovery position. We begin to clean up the remains of the party, until Laurence finally comes out. Her expression is... pretty telling.

“Séb, please, let's go...”, she almost whimpers, trying to keep tears from falling.

Sébastien is uncertain at first, but at her pleading eyes he gathers their things, and heads for the door. As they're leaving, though, Laurence stops, addressing Sarah and I in a wavering voice:

“We... we should meet back here, tomorrow morning, after... after a good night's rest. We'll... discuss things.”

“Okay,” I answer. “Sarah, is tha—”

She grabs my hand, almost desperately: “Please..! Don't go...”

That's... not really what I was planning on, but... Looking at Sarah like that, all despondent, I just can't bring myself to say no...

Resigned to the situation, I nod to Sébastien and Laurence: “Be safe.”

“We will”, he concludes as they close the door behind them.

Laurence's View

I slam my door shut, and let myself crumble against it. I promised Séb I would be okay, when I dropped him off at his apartment, but...

Who am I even kidding..?

Sainfoin comes trotting to me and rubs his head against my legs, oblivious to my despair. Or maybe he knows? I've read cats can be perceptive like that... I cradle his not-so-little fuzzy body in my arms, scratching the nape of his neck to the regular and comforting resonance of his purring. I feel we could stay like this for an eternity, just forgetting that the rest of the world even exist...

My blasted bladder begs to differ.

Stupid Sarah and her stupid drinks and stupid Séb and stupid Amber for making me talk so much I had to drink and stupid me for...

*sigh*

Yeah, 'stupid me' encapsulates things nicely...

I have to let go of Sainfoin to pull myself back to my feet, battling against the slight lightheartedness of sitting too long then getting up too fast. I stumble across the house, letting my shoes and jacket and bag land wherever they see fit. I check the cat's bowls, refilling his water. I open the fridge, confirming I'm decently stocked. I do the same with the cupboards. Hmm, the counter could use some cleaning...

... I'm stalling, aren't I?

Be pragmatic, Laurence. Avoiding the problem does not change anything – or it certainly does not improve the situation, at the very least. And this is not quantum mechanics, performing an observation will not make reality collapse into a different possibility...

I compel my reluctant body to carry me to the bathroom, and I enclose myself in its soothing confines. I only need to drop my pants, and take a look. That's what I was planning to do at Sarah's, but... I didn't. I tried, but doing that, in a stranger's restroom, with everybody waiting outside... Now I'm safely home, I'm not pressured, it's just a matter of exposing a little skin, and checking.

It would be easy.

It should be easy.

It's not easy.

I could just... go to sleep, with my pants on. I can hold myself for a full day, I could manage a night...

... and the same issue would arise in the morning. Plus, Ambre was right – to understand a phenomenon, we need to collect enough data. As... far-fetched as this whole thing is, proving someone did not mistake my thighs for a whiteboard would help Ambre and Sarah in realizing that this 'birthday hypothesis' is plain rubbish. For their sake, for getting back at those who played this nasty joke on them, I should check.

...

Fuck it.

I close my eyes, unfasten my trousers, and make them slide slowly down my legs.

I don't look. Not right away.

My cold, shaking hands roam along my upper thighs, but I don't feel anything special, except maybe a slight differential in body hair concentration. Nothing to be worried about, huh? Just a little shave, and it'll be gone, easy as pie!

... Why can't I look, then?

I... I don't... I just...

... Stop.

Just, stop.

I refuse.

I refuse to let this foolish fear win! This is beneath me! I won't yield so easily!!

My eyes snap open, and I look.

I see the thing. Large, white and cyan.

I cry.

Ambre's View

Sarah's fork makes its last trip from plate to mouth, bringing a swift end to the pile of scrambled eggs. She was a little miffed about missing her usual morning jog, but I convinced her she should see to herself first. Now she looks quite a bit healthier with solid food in her stomach, and I suppose the paracetamol is also doing its work in abating her headache.

Reminds me, I must take my meds first thing when I get back... Thank goodness she at least has decent coffee.

Thomas left earlier this morning, not even waiting for the eggs to finish cooking, as he was already late for something or the other. Not that he would have been of much help I suppose; when we talked about it he thought the whole 'surprise tattoo' thing was some sort of practical joke or publicity stunt. He even had the gall to make a fuss because we 'refused' to direct him to the artist. Actually, none of the other guests had any idea of what we talked about when we reached them...

“Well that sure hit the spot!”, Sarah declares with a smile. As she moves for the sink to wash the flatware, she turns to me instead, chewing at her lower lip: “I really want to thank you, Ambre. For breakfast, but mainly for staying last night... I was really... I wasn't in a good place, between the booze, and... and you-know-what.”

I grab the plate and fork, before they fall out of her fidgeting hands: “It's okay Sarah, I understand. I wasn't feeling so great either when I noticed these things on me...”

“Still, you didn't have to, but you did, and for me, that counts for something.”

“Well that's what friends are for, right?”

“Friends?”, she repeats, her expression quickly shifting from surprise to playful smirk.

I... I did say that... Do I really see her as a friend? So soon? The awfully-loaded word got out without even me noticing it... It just felt like the right thing to say... And now Sarah's looking at me, expecting confirmation...

Oh whatever, I could certainly use a friend these days...

“Yes, friends.”, I assert with a timid smile.

She smirks all the wider, and go right for the hug. I'm a little put off at first, always a bit mindful of physical contact, but I slowly relax into her firm and affectionate embrace.

We're interrupted by the entryphone buzzing. Sarah goes to answer, leaving me to ponder why I feel so disappointed that the hug had to end so soon, and a couple minutes later she opens the door for Laurence and Sébastien.

The petite woman looks tired, dark circles underlining her reddened eyes, her long hair barely brushed into submission. I don't think she spent a better night than ours...

“Howdy girls,” Sébastien greets us with forced jolliness, “ready to crack this mystery?”

Sarah snorts: “Eh, that's one way to look at it. Come in, make yourselves comfy. Coffee?”

“Tea, if you have some?”, replies the brown man as he escorts his friend to the couch.

While Sarah goes for the kettle, I sit on a pouf in front of her latest guests, smiling tentatively: “Hey.”

“Hey, Ambre, was it? I hope things went okay on your side? Laurence had... some sleeping issues.”

I nod. “Just some bad dreams on our side. So...”

“We need to do something.”, states Laurence with more firmness than I expected from her worn looks. “It's driving me crazy, feeling this... this helpless! I tried to come up with something, but nothing I could think of and could test worked! We need a clearer idea of what's going on.”

“On this we agree.”, says Sarah as she sets two mugs on the coffee table, and takes a seat. “So let's recap the situation. Three girls, same age, same birthday, knowing each other—”

“We've never met before last evening.”, Laurence cuts in while pointing from herself to me; I nod in confirmation. “In fact we wouldn't even have, if you didn't bring us together for this party...”

Sarah gives her a bit of the stink eye: “... As I was saying, three girls born the same day, who each found themselves with a mark on their thighs, and well before they even set a single foot here... None of us have any idea of who put these marks on us, of course, or we wouldn't be talking about it right now, and we just know that they're high-quality tattoos, or close enough... Satisfied?”

Sébastien holds his hands, before looking at Sarah and I: “Recap done, so, before we start flinging increasingly crazy ideas left and right, I'd just like to check with you two: it's not just a prank, right? Because if it is, I'd rather have a good laugh than keep worrying about nothing.”

I actually bristle a little at that: “Excuse me Sébastien, but what proves us that it couldn't be a prank from your friend, as long as we're finger-pointing?”

Laurence squints in offense at the implied accusation, and I can't help but wither just a little under her gaze... For looking so diminutive and tired, she can muster quite a bit of presence!

As could be expected, Sébastien jumps to his friend's defense: “Well you two I don't know so well, but this kind of silly trick, from her? 'A Wizard Did It' would be more realistic.”

“Yeah, we don't call her Miss Grumpy Pants for nothing...”, adds Sarah with a lopsided smile.

That gets Laurence to almost leap from the couch in outrage, fists clenched: “How am I grumpy!? I'm not grumpy just because I do not revel in drowning myself in alcohol at the flimsiest occasion!”

“Exhibit A, folks…”

“Seriously, did someone forget to inform me that wanton alcoholism was a requirement for working in IT!?”

“I wouldn't exactly qualify the after-work Friday drinks as 'wanton alcoholism', but we're getting off-topic...”, Sébastien points out. “Anyhow, if—”

“And what if it was you?”, Sarah asks him. “After all, you're the only one here not affected.”

Laurence puffs at the very idea: “He would not.”

She seems so certain, I'd be tempted to trust her word; Sarah isn't so convinced: “You're sure?”

“Yes. He would not do something like that to me. He would never hurt me without reason.”

He smiles at that, and squeezes her shoulders fondly with his arm. The heartwarming display seems to put an end to this tense discussion, for now, so I use the opportunity to get things moving back in a productive direction. Taking hold of my phone, I display the picture I took of my thigh earlier today:

“So, this is what my symbol looks like in full.”

I relinquish my phone for each one to get a proper view of the thing. The best way I could describe it would be as three golden arrowheads, arranged like a three-pronged star around a central point of the same color. The design doesn't look familiar, and I would be hard-pressed to decipher any credible meaning behind it... The others don't look especially inspired either.

“Well, my turn I guess, though I'm sure y'all already got a pretty good look at it...”, says Sarah as she gets up and simply pulls her sweatpants down, exposing her own marks. Hers are clearly less abstruse, depicting a trio of plants or vegetables with bright green leaves and inflated roots, one whitish, the other two more reddish. For future reference, and with Sarah's implicit permission, I snap a quick picture before she dresses herself back.

We turn to Laurence, who just frowns, sipping at her tea. We wait a bit for her to do, well, something, until I just ask the question:

“Do you have a picture?”

“I... had not the foresight to take one.”, she replies with some frustration, slamming her half-drained mug down on the table.

“Weeeell you knoooow what needs to be doooone...”, sing-songs Sarah with a wink. Laurence huffs, ready to object, but Sébastien stops her by poking playfully at her ribs:

“Come on Laurence, show us your butt, for Science!”

This earns the poor guy a belligerent squint, prompting him to backpedal a little: “Uh yes, sorry... But we do have to look at all the evidence, you know it. You could go take a picture in the bathroom?”

Laurence moves to do just that, but Sarah's smug looks stop her. Squint versus smirk, the petite woman rises up to the unspoken challenge:

“... Fine!”, she all but spits as she shoves her jeans down, revealing her symbols for all to see: on each thigh a stylized vortex, light gray and white, surrounding a small cyan star. I hold my phone, and apart from a quiet grumble, Laurence doesn't prevent me from taking a picture, though she immediately pulls her pants back up once it's done.

Looking at it, displayed on my screen, I notice that the skin is bruised in places, from her 'experimenting' I suppose, and could these be... nail scratches..? The image is a little too low-res to be certain. At least the elaborate design is still clear enough for the picture to be useful... Its sharp curves are quite pretty, I must admit.

Between Sarah's and Laurence's... “Now I feel kind of undermarked...”

“What d'you mean?”, asks the former.

Wait.

... Did I just say that out loud!?

Put on the spot, I blurt the first excuse that comes to mind: “Well, er, I mean, yours at least looks like something... Mine's just, like, boring abstract geometric shapes.”

“Oh if you're so eager to look like a walking advertisement for the produce aisle, we can trade anytime. Laurence's looks pretty badass though, I'm jealous.”

The badassly-branded just grunts in response.

“Meh, would look cooler without the star.”, Sébastien comments with a chuckle.

“Could we just maybe get back on topic please..?”, Laurence groans.

Her friend is happy to oblige: “Well, we still don't have any idea of the 'how', except that it's too big of a coincidence that you three would gain these marks roughly at the same time without it being related.”

“But again, you didn't get one. None of the others did.”, Sarah points out.

“Indeed, which could suggest that it's gender related, maybe?”

“Then this other girl should have gotten one, and she didn't. I don't think this is related to the party itself anyway; I noticed mine hours earlier, so that doesn't help us very much...”, I argue. “Why these specific marks? There has to be some kind of hidden meaning, at least in the eyes of the person who 'gifted' them to us...”

No-one has an easy answer to that...

“Sarah's could be the easiest to interpret..?”, chances Sébastien.

“... I guess so, yeah... So what does they mean then? It doesn't ring any bell, and I'm the one with them...”

“Well, uh, it's...”, Sébastien gestures vaguely “Well it's plant-related, definitely... Like, uh... Three seeds... onions... vegetable things..?”

This earns him a derisive snort. “Wow thank you so much Sherlock, I never could've reached this amazing conclusion just by myself... And these aren't onions, have you actually ever seen an onion in your life?”

Not onions, no... I check the picture again. It's a bit stylized, but... “Isn't that beetroot?”

Sarah cringes at the word. “... Beetroot?”

Sébastien pulls out his own phone, and performs a quick search. “Hey, good eyes Ambre, beetroot it is! I knew it was some kind of arcane greenery of some sort.”

The confirmation draws a frustrated grunt from Sarah. “Oh come on, seriously..? I hate beetroot... So what, 'the joke's on me', that's it?”

“That makes one connection, at least. It's still progress, no?”, reassures Sébastien. He then turns to me: “Does yours mean anything to you, Ambre? I don't know, likes or dislikes, past history, special talent..?”

Come to think of it... “The arrowheads could hark back to the time I practiced archery, but...”

... But that would imply that the person who did this knows who I am, and my deadname, and about my pre-transition life... Whoever it is, they must have performed an extensive background check...

I shiver at the thought, and from the looks of concern around me, I suppose my anguish shows...

“Could I get another look, Ambre?”, Sébastien asks with a gentle smile, as I feel Sarah patting my shoulder. I provide my phone, and he and Laurence peer once more at the symbol I've been branded with, looking for another explanation.

“To me it looks more like the reticle of some FPS weapon than anything else.”, states Laurence with a raised eyebrow.

“Mmh, that is very true.”, her friend agrees.

“'FPS'?”

Sébastien stares at me as if I'd called the Earth flat, while Laurence just sighs: “First Person Shooter. It's a genre of video game where you control a character in first-person perspective, and usually shoot people with all manners of guns. The reticle, or crosshair, indicates where the gun's aiming at.”

“Seriously, never heard of Half-Life or Halo or Destiny or whatever?”

“Er, maybe in passing... My parents weren't big believers in video games...”, I admit.

“Then rejoice my child,” Sébastien intones with a beatific smile, “for I am an ordinated priest of the Great Church of the Joystick, and I would gladly convert you in the name of the Holy Pixel!”

“... Maybe some other time, okay?”

“Aww...”

“Focus, Séb...”

“Hey, look what I found!”, exclaims Sarah, who must have kept searching on her side. She holds me her phone: “Pretty close match, don't you think?”

“Really?” I take a look at the webpage... “'Wikivoyage'..? Seriously?”

“It's not identical, but the likeness is still uncanny.”, Sébastien confirms after looking it up himself.

“But... What does it mean?”

“Uh... That you've been branded as a, uh, free travel guide agent..?”

That earns him three deadpan stares.

“For all we know, the three prongs could represent body, mind and soul, unified around the individual they make up.”, Laurence proposes with a dismissive flick of the hand.

More stares.

“What? It's no more silly than Wikivoyage.”

“You play far too much RPGs, Laurence.”

“There's no such thing as too much RPGs.”

“... Okay, this is really getting ridiculous.”, I grumble, taking my glasses off to rub the bridge of my nose. “We still don't know what's happening, or why, and spending our time looking at pictures on the Internet is getting us nowhere!”

“I agree... I spent most of last night searching, and didn't find any clue either.”

“Yeah, but... What can we do?”, asks Sarah. “There's still no explanation! No reasons! No nothing!!” She surges from her seat with an angry huff and starts pacing through her living room, restraining herself from lashing out more directly.

Sébastien clasps his hands in defeat: “... I guess we'll have to wait and see, as long as butt marks are the only symptom I don't think there's too much cause to alarm. If I remember well, Ambre will see her doc Monday, right? And if there's some kind of tattoo fairy making the rounds, I suppose it'll make the news sooner or later anyway.”

That's a... disheartening conclusion, but I'm afraid he's not wrong.

“If we are finished for now,” declares Laurence as she gets up, “I'll take my leave then. I'm tired, and I have other things to do this morning. You coming Séb?”

“I guess so... You'll be okay, girls?”

"... Yeah", mutters the still sullen Sarah. I nod in confirmation.

“Then off we go. We will keep in touch.”

“Sure we will.”, assures Sébastien. “Sarah, we'll see you at the beach party this evening?”

This snaps Sarah right out of her funk: “Oh my gosh I almost forgot! Yes, yes, I'll be there, I kinda have to take care of the catering... Hey Ambre, it's not employees-only, technically, so, wanna come?”

“Oh, er, I'd love to, but I can't, I'm working tonight.”

... At least this time I didn't have to fish for an excuse. Still... and to my own surprise... I'm not too eager to be alone.

Should I risk asking..? I feel like I should:

“But... Until then, I could help, maybe? I just have to drop by my place beforehand.”

“Thanks, that would be quite appreciated! Well then, there's no time like the present! Let's gear up and hit the stores!”, Sarah exclaims as she jumps into fresh clothes.

I gather my belongings, and soon enough the four of us leave the apartment to pursue our respective goals, the strange marks and their implications put aside for the time being...

Laurence's View

I pull up in the closest parking spot I can find, about a half-a-minute walk from the gymnasium. Sport bag in hand, I stride to the main entrance – and find it closed...

My phone confirms that it is precisely a quarter to eleven. The session begins at eleven o'clock, but usually the professeur is already here twenty to fifteen minutes earlier and keeps the doors open for me. This way I can get dressed and started serenely before the other tireurs get here. Is there a problem today? I did not receive any information pertaining to a cancellation. Maybe he's just a little late.

I hope it is just that... I really need something to clear my mind right now. It's not the best thing to do before strenuous physical activity, but I don't care, a quick cig will be good for my nerves...

Pff... Smoke smells even worse than usual. It's still soothing in a way, even if it doesn't help much in straightening my thought processes.

All this worrying and discussing and still no definite answer in the end? For all we know, aliens could have branded us, like livestock to be later harvested, or just for the laugh of seeing poor clueless earthlings trying to figure out the hows and whys...

I feel so... so... violated!! It's just so unfair! My body is mine and mine alone! If I ever wanted a tattoo I'd have decided the when and how!

When I find the bastard who's responsible for this he'll know PAIN! I'll...

I will...

*sigh*

... Breathe in, breathe out...

I didn't even notice when I let my half-smoked cig fall to the ground...

Come on Laurence, get a hold of yourself! Letting your temper get the better of you makes you weak and prone to mistakes. I'll not accept this kind of behavior. There are still many options to pursue, and I must stay clear-headed for that. There must be—

Ah he's here, thank goodness!

The tall bald man nods at me when he reaches the doors, and I answer in kind. Curt and to the point, just as I like it. Neither of us feel the need for all this fioriture that most people seem to be so fond of. Once inside, I leave him to his own preparations, and enter the locker room. Just a minute to hang my jacket, putting on mittens and the required footwear, slipping on the mouthguard, and I can begin stretching.

I feel my body warming up through the repetitive movements, even if for some reason I feel slightly off-balance, and soon I switch to actual exercises. As I strike the punching bag, the exhaustion of a sleepless night is pushed back. The tensions in my heart are transformed into kinetic energy, by the pulls and jolts in my muscles and joints and bones. Other tireurs start to arrive, but I don't care anymore. I'm in my own little world. I am calm, and my thoughts are freed from the tumult of the past twenty-four hours.

When almost everything triggers your anxiety... When you're afraid of everybody... It's easy to grow into hating the whole world. You constantly feel attacked. Attributional bias – you feel like it's all on purpose, like it's all against you, even if, logically, you know it's not true.

So you have to weather it all, gritting your teeth. Keep it all inside.

Here?

Here I can canalize all my hurts and fears and rage into my fists and feet, lose control against an inanimate object specifically designed for this purpose, and then claim back that control over my body and my impulses once I pull the gloves off.

Even the one-on-one parts aren't as off-putting as they could be. Everybody must follow clear, inalienable rules. It's an exercise in restrain and discipline, technique and speed above instinct and strength.

I tried competition, to please some of my former professeurs, but I found the performance pressure distasteful. Boxing is my egress from the inescapable anxieties of life, it would have been foolish to turn it into another source of stress and mental fatigue. I'm not that good anyway, and I'm not trying to be.

I just want to punch things, and feel better for it.

Suffice to say, it works. Sometimes I even wonder if I couldn't just drop pregabalin completely in favor of more punching, though it's just the adrenaline talking. There's always this kind of high, after a good workout, when I feel I could take on anything... But I know I've found my equilibrium, and it would be unwise to upend it.

Feeling my confidence swelling is still quite appreciated, to say the least. As the session comes to an end, I'm sure, now, that this sordid affair that has been forced on me – or more accurately on my thighs – will not bring me down, not without a fight. Whoever is responsible, they have it coming. And those buffoons at work too, they will see... They don't know who they're up against!

So I keep on training with a slight smile, alone then with the assistance of the others. I barely notice the passage of time – the session comes to an end too soon to my taste, even if objectively I know it's already been two hours since we started.

As I finish my warmdown and get back to the lockers for my things, still dribbling with sweat, I notice a new message on my phone... Séb reminding me there's this stupid beach party this evening.

That had slipped my mind, I admit...

The idea still sounds tiresome, but, thinking about it now...

... What better way to show them that they can't defeat me so easily, huh?

Sarah's View

It's a little windy, granted, but at least there's none of those pesky clouds to ruin the picturesque view: beautiful reddening sky over the wavy sea. A friend of the bosses is letting us use his beach house, the patio leading directly to the sands – can't get better than that! The air is still cool, on this second day of May, but it pushes people to either huddle on the patio around the barbecue and talk, or join the volleyball game to warm up, so that's also a win!

Honestly, considering how the day started, that's pretty refreshing. It's a shame Ambre couldn't be here, she was so helpful in getting everything ready... I'll have to do something nice for her, for this and also for staying last night. For all her shyness she proved to be really dependable, not like some of my regular friends... And she's much better company than Grumpy Pants.

Speaking of, I'm still amazed that Laurence actually came! I bet we'd have to thank Sébastien for that, even if I don't think that most of the other guests would be exactly 'thankful'... She's not making a mess or anything, far from it – just standing there by her lonesome self, reading on her phone – but I can't miss all the disdainful looks she gets from our coworkers...

“Hey Sarah, heads up!”, one of my teammates shouts.

Wha— Oh!

I jump just in time to bash the ball out to the other side of the net – still got some reflexes, ah!

Though I really should bring my thoughts back to the game... There'll be no losing for this team, not on my watch! It feels soooo good to pump those muscles! We'll say it makes up for ditching jogging this morning, right? 'Cause even without a good night's sleep I sure feel sprier than usual! The points keep tallying up, and we win set after set!

Mmh, actually... Let's give others a chance to shine, as long as there's still enough light to play. Don't want to bruise too many egos, after all!

I wait for the perfect opportunity...

The other team's on the offense, their setter tosses the ball towards the net, their attacker is about to jump...

Now!

The attacker spikes, hitting the ball down towards our court, but I'm already in motion.

I lunge, smashing bodily against the sandy beach...

... but I still manage a dig, by a hair's breath!

“Okay guys, that's enough for me!”, I laugh as I get back on my feet, dusting myself off. I walk back towards the barbecue, someone else taking my place, and the game resumes quickly. Hehe, that's how you bow out with a flourish!

“Nice one, Sarah.”, Charles says as he hands me a beer.

“Yeah but it's my last, I'm beat!”, I lie as I take the bottle. I notice the cap's off, and even if I'm among friends at best and coworkers at worst, it still sets off a little alarm bell in the back of my mind. Officially Charles's 'only' lead developer, but in practice he's really one of the bosses: he and his friend Kevin founded Sensaz together. He's alright, more or less, but since the New Year he's been trying to get into my pants...

Sure I was flattered at first, even if I wasn't interested. He didn't really accept 'no' as an answer though... He tries to be subtle, mostly, but I'll not forget any time soon this time he implied that spreading my legs would be good for my 'professional future'...

I try to put some distance between us, walking back towards the beach, but he follows:

“I didn't notice you did a dye job. Looks pretty cool!”

“Uh..? Oh, uh, thanks I guess..?” What the hell is he talking about?

“Say, I was thinking... Kevin and I were talking about expanding a bit the scope of Sensaz's activities. We made some plans, but before we make a move, maybe you could give it a look, as you already have a good view of how the company's running? I have all the details on my personal computer, so once things die down here, we could move out to my place, have a look together?”

... 'Tries' to be subtle... How to get out of this trap..? I hate being so self-deprecating, even more so when I don't think it's true, but right now I don't see another way to push him back diplomatically: “You know, I just do my job, I don't think I'm fit for any kind of decision-making. Thanks for thinking of me, really, but that's not really my thing.”

He doesn't look too pleased: “That's a shame... The market is so competitive, and you know the numbers better than anyone. Without new revenue sources, we fear that sooner or later we'll have to lay off some employees... We're all friends at Sensaz, that would really be unfortunate to have to part ways just because of this, don't you think..?”

Okaaaaay, so that's how it is, you smug prick... I would slap some sense into you, but I really, really don't want to lose another job for something so petty...

And yet...

“Listen, Charles...”, I answer slowly, “I'm flattered, really, but I'm just not interested.”

“I don't think you understand what I'm saying...”, he begins in an insufferably condescending tone.

“Oh I do. I'm just. Not. Interested. Thanks but no thanks.” I move to get away from the creep. How to ruin a good evening... Why is it always th—

“Hey wait a minute!” He grabs my arm as I was leaving. For a worthless rich white guy, he has a pretty strong grip. I try to pull away, but he only squeezes harder: “We're not finished here!”

Someone suddenly pushes Charles away from me. In his surprise he lets go of my arm, and my would-be savior stands between us:

“She said no.”

... Laurence!?

I... I don't know what to say.

“Get lost,” Charles snarls, “this doesn't concern you!”

The petite woman is not impressed.

Charles glares something fierce, but Laurence stays still as a rock. It's only when he notices that the others are staring at us that he finally relents, storming away while muttering what I think is 'freaking lesbians'.

Well with guys like this, I sure could be convinced...

Anyways... I'm afraid the party's over for the two of us. Or make that three, as Sébastien is coming towards us, looking quite disappointed.

“Hey,” I whisper to Laurence, “uh, thank you.”

She turns to me: “Least I could—”

She stops, gawking at my face.

“Sarah, did you put contacts?”

Contacts? “No, not at all. Why?”

She activates the flashlight on her phone: “Could I get a look at your eyes?”

"... Yeah, sure." She's worrying me...

As Laurence blinds me with her light, Sébastien reaches us: “What's happening? Did he drug her or something?”

“Please Séb, tell me what you see.”

It's his turn to stare.

“Enough of that!”, I snap, waving the light away. “What's the big deal?”

“Your eyes are not supposed to be magenta.”, Laurence states bluntly.

“... And I'm pretty sure your hair was significantly less green an hour ago.”, Sébastien adds.

What!? I pull my own phone and activate mirror mode.

... Damn. They're right. My brown eyes are now some light purple, and my short curly black hair is streaked with long dark green strands.

What the hell is going on..?

As I lower my phone, dumbstruck, I notice something else. Laurence's hair has changed too, now sporting light red locks.

“Laurence, I'm not the on—”

Wait.

I raises my phone again, directing light at Laurence's face. She squints in annoyance, but I can still see.

I can see her light gray irises slowly changing color to purple, progressing like a wave from the pupil, right before my eyes. Sébastien sees it too, and Laurence quickly understands what it's about.

She sighs in defeat: “... What color?”

“Purple...”, Sébastien mumbles.

The three of us share unnerved looks, but there's at least one thing that's certain.

I need to text Ambre.