Equine Audition

Equine Audition

By Paul Calhoun

The centaur concept is one I've been bouncing around in my head for longer than the unicorn story. It's one of the oldest ideas I've had that hasn't already been written out. It started with just a guy who buys a centaur costume with a mechanical back end for a party and finds a very realistic female top to go with it. I added bottoms later and planned on there being some seduction. Then I had the idea of the centaur being a guy in a girl costume with a machine back claiming to be TWO girls in a suit and that the rear girl was shy and getting people to interact with the shy girl while the front one had sexy times eventually leading up to tricking people into taking the shy girl's place because she'd 'gotten embarrassed.' All of this is still possible with the current ensemble, but I wanted something more. And so came the story that went about 10,000 words over what I'd planned.

Actual synopsis: An actor is invited to a costume party to audition for a prestigious theater and ends up going as a cute centaur dryad.

William buried his fingers in his brown hair and thought again about how strange life was. The theater troupe he’d been auditioning for had sent their top ten choices a card the week before inviting them to a costume party they were throwing to celebrate the end of the season. Their intent was clear: the best performers would not necessarily have the most elaborate outfits, but they would be creative and have character. The troupe prided itself on not only being great performers, but also for writing and directing their own work. Most of the members performed in at least six of their own works over their careers. It was a dream for William, but a daunting task to impress them.

The theater they’d founded had brought in economic development and a cottage industry in thespian goods had sprung up in the vicinity. One of the costume suppliers was well known for having an inventory of higher quality, more interesting items bought over time. Sometimes it would be a wealthy socialite with a full closet or a professional in need of some quick money. She’d even somehow netted examples of Takagi, ChinChilla, VeraTech and Falkner technologies as well as retired Soviet spy gear without going broke buying them. Whatever the source, Gina was always ready to haggle both directions and had a soft spot for wannabes who weren’t luvvie, diva or stupid. William would never be able to afford to buy one of her acquisitions outright, but he was sure he’d be able to talk her into a reasonable rate for a week’s rental. He’d spent months already in town renting a small flat while he made his overtures to the troupe and had gotten to know the proprietor, a red haired thespian who was too old to be bubbly and too young to be jolly. What she was, was loud and her voice boomed through the store the moment she caught sight of him. “Willie, my boy!” She called with a faint Scottish brogue. She shook him warmly by the hand. “Fast off the mark, that’s the lad. Every time there’s an opening, they invite all the little declaimers to their yearly do and most of them realize it’s old Gina who’ll give ‘em a good start. You must have come running the moment you saw the letter, my boy. Good on you!” She had produced a measuring tape by then and was sizing William up.

“And good morning to you, Gina.” William said, letting the warmth flow over him. “If you’re so wise and all knowing, then you’ll have picked something out, figured out what I can afford and wrapped it all up so you can press it into my arms, take my money and turn my ears red with all the things you’ll do to me if I don’t bring it back cleaner than I got it.”

“Oh, aye, you’ll be hanging by your little toes from my marquee if you don’t treat my babies right.” Gina agreed. “As to having picked one out already, I wouldn’t do that to you. Choosing the right thing is half the fun and as you’re the first one in, you’ll have to tell me what the year’s theme is.”

William took the oft-folded page out of his pocket. “It says fantasy.”

“Whose fantasy?” Gina took the invitation. “Nay, you mean classical fantasy. Western mythology, boy. Warriors, wizards, dryads, nymphs.” She winked. “Would you like to be a nymph? Lots of work, but it’ll impress them if you pull it off.” She laughed at her own double entendre. “Or perhaps you’d like to be a warrior, get the nymph and never mind the job.” Her eyes danced. “Come on, then. I haven’t got all day. The next one’s liable to come in before you’re done and snatch away the very item you have your eye on.”

She took William’s elbow and pulled him into her gallery. The space in the front of the store was where the everyday costumes — superb but not unique - were kept. The gallery was for the acquisitions and each item had its own place with a stand, a description and a story. William tried not to stare at the rows of mostly humanoid figures on either side. Most would not have fit the theme, though he wished they were. A futuristic cybernetic warrior outfit had him slowing down before Gina pulled him further in. How he wanted to go in as a machine man and act the part of an iron warrior.

“How about this, then?” She asked, gesturing at a mannequin wearing what looked like dragon-shaped leather plate. “A dragon human hybrid. Very popular as the real reason dragons were always stealing virgins. I got that from a furry who said he wanted something softer and more cartoony. I snapped it up fast, I can tell you. Look at this quality. The suppleness of the scale — each one handcrafted from faux leather - and these red lights that make it look as if the dragon is about to flame. The tail is even poseable. Very flexible in terms of backstory.”

“I don’t think so,” William said. “The claws on the hands and feet could get in the way. I’m also not really a reptile person.”

“Right, right.”

They passed what looked like a blonde woman built like an amazon and wearing leather armor that wasn’t much more that an X over her chest, a leather bikini bottom, boots and a sword. William slowed to look and Gina said. “That one came from a manufacturer that thought that they could mass-produce high quality costumes. I think they’d reverse engineered some Takagi. There was no market, so they were all limited runs and the company went out of business after a short time of trying to sell identical costumes to people who could afford custom built. Though of course, you’re likely ogling rather than interested. Go on and feel her if you want. She’s very well made.” Gina reached back and demonstrated that the female in the armor was as much part of the costume as the armor itself, then demonstrated some of the costume’s ‘realism’ by giving it a judicious jiggle. “She might fit you,” Gina said, eyeing William speculatively. “I scored three or four of these, so you might end up having to improvise when your twin and triplet come to the party. The price is lower, naturally, but it could get awkward.”

“No thanks,” William said. “If it’s all the same, I think I’ll skip that. Bad enough if I botch being a transvestite, but imagine by embarrassment if I do so and someone in exactly the same drag pulls it off!” He shuddered. “No, I’ll stick to less risky gambits. I’m not interested in getting into a catfight with another hopeful over who is the better warrior queen.”

“Very wise.” Gina said with absolute gravity as she re-dressed the skinsuit.

They moved through the gallery, William dwelling on an ensemble based on Hephaestus that had been made by a member of the Sick Pups and then sold for charity before finally reaching Gina’s hands. After a long discussion, he decided he didn’t want to have to manufacture a limp the whole evening or have to explain that he was not a dwarf.

“This one looks interesting.” He said, pausing in front of a centaur. The plastic mannequin stood six inches above them on the stilts in the forehooves. The horse body was detailed in a smoky perlino color with striking bright green highlights.

“Another one from the mass production debacle.” Gina said. “A relaunch where they lowered the quality but added a lot of options to the kit. I’m dead sure there’s VeraTech mixed in and maybe a touch of Falkner. They were terrible at original research and marketing, but their manufacture and creativity of application were superb.” She picked up something that looked more like a refrigerator box. “They made this into a sort of a mix-and-match concept where they made a few different colored horse sections and then a trunk full of extras to make it your own style.” She patted the horse flank. “I only ever got one of these when they had their clearance. The rest were mostly snapped up by theme parks and faires. I was lucky, really. This was their ‘fairy’ version. A sort of dryad centaur mix. Very druidic. Very mythic.”

“What kind of mixed parts?” William asked.

“This and that,” Gina replied. “It’s very versatile. The perfect item for someone wanting to put their own spin on a costume. I take it that you’re interested?”

“I am.” William said. “How much?”

“Well, let’s see now.” William sighed inwardly. That was Gina’s ‘Rancid Crabtree’ voice. It meant she was thinking about her margins. “The soirree is next week and you’ll want this now so you can get in a bit of practice. Going about with four legs isn’t as easy as with two. Yeeerrrsh.”

“Speaking of which, how can one person wear this?” William asked. “This doesn’t seem like the sort of party I would invite a date to, or the kind of costume I’d stick one in.”

“Oh, that’s simple.” Gina replied airily. “I told you it was high class even if it wasn’t the best they ever put out. There’s a very advanced mechanism in the back legs. Like I said, stolen straight from the VeraTech toybox. Removeable, of course. It has a bit that wraps around each thigh and tracks your movements. It’s really quite a clever piece of work, software and hardware. It’ll make some impressively natural motions as you walk and even if you just fidget a little, the back end will move like the rear of a horse would when it’s shifting its balance or feeling restless. As for the amount, I think four hundred would be around the right price.”

William sucked air through his teeth. “I think I’m going to have to hunker with you a spell on that one.”

Gina immediately fell down into the hunker, one arm resting on her knee and the other out with her pen in her hand, acting as the stick. William joined her and soon the negotiation was in full swing. When William left with the two enormous boxes, he had the price down to two-fifty, but was going, “Ooh-ahh!” With every step.

Back at his flat, William was too excited by his new purchase to wait to try it. He set aside the box of extra parts, focusing first on the horse body before he thought about how he’d change the basic idea into something that would fit his strengths. He laid it out on its side and first examined the horse body with eyes and hands. He didn’t know what a horse ought to look or feel like up close since he hadn’t had riding lessons since he was a child. It seemed real enough to his untrained senses, though with a little bit of work he could feel the track that ran around half the body near the back where it could be unzipped for the machine part to be removed and a person to enter. There didn’t seem to be anything similar in front; just a hole where a person would slip in and become the human part of the centaur. Feeling a little perverted, he looked closely at the horse’s rear, but though the rump was detailed as far as buttocks, there was nothing between the legs. He felt a little relieved at that. He didn’t want the novelty of a completely anatomically correct equine costume to take attention away from his performance.

He splayed out the legs and stepped into the opening. His first attempt to get his legs down into the hooves resulted in him throwing his pants into the corner and his second led him to put a pair of the tights he’d picked up during a play he no longer remembered. With a layer that wouldn’t catch insulating him from the scratchy interior of the costume, he finally strapped his feet onto the sharply sloped tops of the stilts in the foreleg and hiked the forelegs up and the front part of the horse up just over his hips. He fished around until he found a strap which tightened around his waist to hold the heavy horse costume up and a semi sheer, fuzzy ring of fabric which went over his bellybutton and up to the base of his ribs that started out thick and opaque and became almost completely transparent at the top, making the horse part of the centaur’s body transition smoothly to the human. In the process, he’d gotten the forelegs under him so that the front half of the centaur was standing on its hooves, though the rear still appeared to be sitting down.

Realizing his oversight, William unrolled the midriff and loosened the belt. He almost fell several times as he twisted around and fished in the vicinity of his rear until he found the straps connected to the mechanism in the back end and wrapped them around his thighs. He hiked the costume back up and walked in place for a few seconds. The rear end didn’t stir and, annoyed, William picked up his left leg, shook it until he’d gotten it to bend at the joint in the knee until he could fold it over and — holding on to the wall — did the same with the right so that he could slip out of the foot straps and extricate himself. He flipped the costume over and unzipped the belly so he could get a better look at the robotic back half. There was a folder with an instruction booklet inside and a broad, flat remote control. William flipped through the manual, sighed and after a few seconds of looking for it found an opening he’d missed between the buttocks. The machine had a retractable plug which the literature claimed would charge the battery inside for six hours of careful use or three of continuous movement. William didn’t want any more interruptions, so he left it to charge overnight and went to bed with the booklet and the remote so he’d be ready the next morning to give it a proper test.

After breakfast, William was back in the centaur costume, sure that this time he had thought of everything. He pressed the red power button on the remote and almost lost his balance when the back end of the horse clattered to its feet in an eerily lifelike way. He’d gone through the labeled presets on the remote and had settled on starting with the one he’d most likely be using. ‘Automatic heuristic — Detects motion from wearer and alters stance, gait and idle to best fit predicted intent.’ He tapped that and slid the remote into the sleeve on the side of the costume near his left leg. In theory he could change settings by pressing the buttons through the costume, but he didn’t know the remote that well.

He stepped in place, watching closely in the mirror as the forelegs bent at the knee where his feet were held in the sloping slipper and the back legs made similar movements. It looked as if he was prancing in place, either nervous or energetic. His first steps forward were hesitant and he was surprised at how the back half mimicked the walk of a skittish horse. He’d never had to walk on stilts before and the difficulty was increased by the costume having slim, equine forelegs at the cost of a sharply sloping platform for his feet. It gave him a new perspective and while he was up there, he changed a light bulb he’d been meaning to get to, which gave him time to get used to standing still. One of the features that he spent the longest time getting used to was the fact that since horses start walking with their hind legs first, the machine would often take a step while he was still preparing to do so, propelling him forward. Luckily, this meant that he could stop easily since they also ended on front legs.

As he grew in confidence, the back half’s gait also smoothed. His flat was small and he soon found himself in need of more space in which to practice. Luckily it was midmorning so most of the tenants would be at work and there was a walled yard behind the building where children would go out to play in the afternoon. It was empty at that time of day, perfect for seeing how well the machine — and the man — could adapt to softer ground or higher speeds. He had to bend low at the doors and when he reached the back stairs, the rear end followed him in a few sideways hops as he got his nerve up. His stomach jumped with each step down and the machine had far less difficulty than he did. The sunlight struck green waves along the ash body and honey tail, the padding inside shifting with each step, not quite rippling like skin over muscle but a good approximation.

Once back on flat ground, William started to increase speed. He’d watched a few videos the evening before and could feel when the back end decided his jog was quick enough and smoothly inverted its leg order into a trot. The skip-like canter and gallop didn’t go quite as well, though he suspected his own inexperience was as much to blame. He knew he’d be spending most of the week working on that and more. There were occasions where he felt like he’d gotten it and the back end had given him such a powerful push that he was sailing through the air. Most of the time, though, he couldn’t get more than a trot out of the machine, which was proving to be quite the perfectionist about its human partner’s gait. Once the initial balance difficulties had been overcome, William had begun to trust that his hooves would move as he wanted them to even if he ran, skipped, jumped or hopped. The joints seemed to always orient so that when the leg came down, the hoof would plant squarely on ground and give him the support he needed.

He’d gotten so comfortable that he continued to walk as he pulled the remote out again to try some other settings. ‘Flirtatious’ had jumped out at him and he giggled when he pressed it and the rear end started to sway back and forth in a salacious impression of a woman wiggling her hips, made all the more inviting by a sassy swish of the tail. He’d already found that the machine had some kind of control over that appendage as it tended to swish impatiently when he pranced in place.

‘Pantomime’ was even funnier, a setting which caused the back half to make a series of mistakes that made it look like an inexperienced partner in a double act. ‘Mirror’ meant that the back legs did exactly what William did in front, which almost tripped him after being used to the organic motions of the ‘automatic’ setting. ‘Dresage’ was an education as William tried to keep up with the showy performance going on behind him. When ‘Steeple Chase’ almost launched him into the air, he decided to skip ‘Bronco’ and go inside. He didn’t want to have to tell an EMT how his costume had reared up and thrown him out of it, though it made him wonder how he could rear and paw in ‘automatic’ mode. If the party had a high ceiling, it would make a good entrance.

Going up the back stairs was easier than descending and soon William was back in his flat, massaging his spine. The costume had proven to be easier to wear than he’d anticipated, but it demanded a posture he was unused to and bounced him around as if he were riding an actual horse. His back wasn’t the only part of him protesting; his feet hurt, his ankles ached from taking part of the burden of supporting his heels-up position and his legs hurt from the different way he had to walk. A week suddenly didn’t feel like long enough to get used to it, but he consoled himself with the resolution to wear the centaur costume as much as possible. He made good on that immediately by clopping through his kitchen to make lunch without taking it off and then sinking to the costume’s knees and settling back in a semi-relaxed crouch in front of the television.

Two days later he was trotting — and cantering when he could get the leg movements down right — around the yard when he saw Jackie sitting on the stoop. They’d said a few words to each other in the hallway and all he knew about her was that she lived alone and worked in a finance office twenty minutes down the highway. She’d said she preferred the offbeat theater town to closer, suburban living. “Hey,” she said when he stopped in front of her. “I hope you don’t mind me watching. I saw you out here yesterday but I only got up the nerve to come down for a closer look now.”

“I don’t mind at all.” William said. “I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”

“That’s a really neat costume,” she continued. “You two really work well together.”

William laughed. “Thanks. It’s actually a robot,” he patted his horse flank. “Amazing what technology can do.”

Jackie nodded. “I wondered since I never saw anyone going into your flat.” She laughed self-consciously. “Do I sound like a stalker? I’m sorry.”

“No.” William said. “I’d be curious too. Uh…”

“Yeah,” Jackie replied.

“The machine can be removed, though.” He said. “So another person can take its place.”

“Neat.” Jackie rubbed her arm. “Listen,” she blurted. “Could I ride you?” She flushed. “I mean on the costume’s back. Not ride you like, oh!” She turned redder.

“I don’t know how strong the robot is.” William said. “Why don’t you come up to my flat and we can look at the brochure I got with it? If it says it can take riders, I’d be happy to give you a few turns ‘round the yard.”

“That’d be great!” Jackie said. “I must sound like a total ditz, though.”

“Really, it’s fine.” William laughed. “To be honest, I was wondering if I ought to offer to let you try taking the robot’s place.”

“Hey, take a girl out for dinner before you ask her to be your back end.” Jackie laughed back. “I’m glad I’m not the only one having ideas.” She admitted as she followed William down the hall.

“This may be the most original way a young lady has ever been enticed into a man’s home.” Jackie said as he unlocked his door. “By the way, your tail is a mess of tangles.” She opened her purse and took out a brush. “Do you mind?”

“No.” William said. When he had the manual, he tried to stand as still as he could so she could brush his tail.

“I hope you don’t think this is too odd.” Jackie said, moving in broad strokes. “I can’t stand messy hair.” She pet the horse’s side. “You ought to get some proper horse brushes if you intend to show this anywhere.”

“It’s a little weird,” William admitted. “I’m not really used to being … uh … paid attention to like this.”

“You mean like my little horsey pet?” Jackie giggled. “I’m sorry to be so forward, but how often will something like this happen? Does this costume belong to you?”

“No, I’m renting it.” William replied.

“See? Limited chance.”

When they were satisfied that the machine could take it, she led him back out and climbed up on the broad stone railing on one side of the stoop while he stood next to it on the ground. The machine bent its legs a moment — as did William — when she swung her leg over him. She clambered forward so that when William began to walk, she could steady herself by wrapping her arms around him. Putting her chin on his shoulder she said, “Now you didn’t expect to have a young lady in such a familiar position this morning, did you?”

“Not at all,” William said, going into a trot.

“This is fun,” Jackie whooped. “I’m a little concerned that you’re only speeding up so I hold tighter.”

“Is it working?”

Jackie kicked the costume’s belly gently. “Faster! Hyah!”

“I got this for a party.” William said, slowing down so he could converse more easily.

“I know. You told me you want to be a member of the Aethers. I’ve lived here long enough to have heard about their audition parties.”

“If you want to come, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”

She patted his shoulder. “I’m touched that you’d be nice enough to invite me, but I know that’s not something you bring a date to. Not if you want to win. I’d just get in the way of your performance, even if I was just a rider.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’ll wait up that night and you can come to my place for coffee to tell me how it went.”

“I’d love that.” William said. “I didn’t expect this thing to be such an icebreaker.”

Jackie laughed. “I told you I liked offbeat. Not that I didn’t think you were cute before. It’s a little unfair,” she admonished. “I always liked horses and here you are playing on my girlhood desire for a talking pony. Oh, and remember to get those brushes. You don’t want the Aethers to think you’re neglecting your hygiene and it’ll make you all shiny for them.”

That night, William lay awake thinking about Jackie. It was a little weird for her to be so aggressive, but it was also weird for a neighbor to be running around in an animatronic centaur costume. His anxiety over whether she was interested in him or in riding him as a centaur while she had the opportunity carried him to sleep. The next morning as he was climbing in, he realized she’d invited him to her flat after the party and called him cute, so her eagerness to ride him had probably just sped up a natural progression. Sure it was normal to meet once or twice in the laundry room, invite each other to home cooked dinners and bump into each other in the hallway as a lead up to romance, but he was an actor. He wasn’t normal.

He felt like he’d gotten used to the costume, so after a quick trot out to tell Jackie he’d be spending the day in — and assuring her he’d be back the next couple of days — he put the other large box on the table and opened it up. The item on top looked useful, a long necked horse head that would go over his body and turn the centaur into a regular horse. By the look of it, he guessed that he’d have to lean forward quite a bit to make the resulting horse appear close to normal. Curious, he lifted it and let it fall over his body, finding a pair of straps he could put his arms through inside. The front of the neck was mesh and the mouth was slightly open. When he pulled on one strap, the mouth closed. He went to look in the mirror and spent half an hour figuring out how to bend forward far enough to maintain the illusion without falling out of the costume.

Returning the horse head to the table, he took the next piece out, a blonde wig with green highlights that matched the coloration of the rest of the horse. It was shoulder length with a crown of leaves. That might come in handy, thought, as would the beard underneath which had the same coloration and the pointed, pixie ears. A few bows, leather ties and a saddle followed, along with a curry comb and a dandy brush. Then came what looked like the top half of a man.

The mask had a beard and hair like the wig that William had taken out and the body was proportioned like a classical god with a broad chest and shoulders, muscular arms and a wide, serious face. William shrugged and tried to put it on, finding that the padding inside chafed and there was a very restrictive inner lining around the chest that didn’t seem to make sense. His arms barely fit inside the body’s and it took him ages to get the face on right. When he looked at his reflection, he decided against using it. He’d do better with just the beard and wig. The top body was too restrictive of his movements and he didn’t really like the face. Besides, the skin was a little too smooth and shiny as well as feeling a touch silkier than it ought to. He preferred to be a youthful centaur with a believably human physique to a classically built one. It took longer to remove and he was breathing hard when he set it aside and looked at the next. It seemed to be a companion piece to the previous, a set of legs and feet with realistic genitalia hanging between. The inside of the penis had a dildo sticking out and William realized that what he’d felt on the chest of the torso was a breast band, meant for a woman to pass as a man. He supposed the lower half was in case she wanted a partner and desired to maintain the illusion inside and out.

He wasn’t too surprised when he lifted out a short, textured wig swept back at the sides with a silver circlet, a more slender pair of ears and a crystal pendant on a silver chain. Nor was he shocked by the appearance of a female torso and mask with attached ears and wig like the ones he’d taken out and an oval face with a small upturned nose, soft cheekbones, almond eyes and small lips. What he was surprised by was the weight caused by fact that despite being a pixie, faerie type in every other way, this girl had serious knockers. They seemed a little out of place on the slender, willowy woman skin he held in his hand. Playing to desires, he thought. The silicone filled chest bespoke the expectation that this would be worn by a man, who might want to be a nature spirit but still expected a rack. Or maybe he was overreacting, William thought as he laid the skin down. They weren’t truly out of proportion, he thought, and maybe he’d been taken by surprise by their heft and immediately assumed they were oversize because of it. In fact, he thought, trying not to think that he was staring at the breasts too much, they weren’t more than a little bigger than they ought to be and if it was really meant to be a sex pot, the mask would have been made to look like a porn star rather than a new age dryad. Maybe boobs really were that heavy. There was really no polite way he could think of to find out.

Unfortunately, it didn’t look like these breasts were getting much support. Unlike the male torso, the female did some with a top, but it just a band of some soft green material with a leaf pattern worked in that just covered her up from the bottom of the swell of her bosom to just above the nipple, producing as much cleavage as could be arranged without risking a charge of indecent exposure. Beneath that was the bottom half which a closer look was intended to be filled by a male physique. Again it was all just a little too uniform in color and not quite the right texture. He had to be fair, though, he thought, and try it on. He’d tried the male upper and so it was only right to explore all options. The erection that was pressing into the padding of the centaur costume had nothing to do with his half hour struggle to wiggle, push, roll and squeeze himself into the feminine mask, chest and belly. The mirror soon showed William a female centaur / dryad mixture whose hand was pressed against her heaving chest as she recovered from the long, hard labor of squeezing into a skin that was two sizes too small. It was worth it, though, he thought. The upper half had compressed him nicely, giving him a nipped waist and slender arms. The mask took a few extra minutes to adjust but when that was done, its expressions mirrored his just as well as the male’s had if not better. The nose had grown a little since there was only so much the mask could do about that, but it didn’t dominate her face, making it seem more mature. He tied the top around his chest and dropped the pendant down into the waiting space between his breasts.

The longer he stared at the result, the more he warmed to the idea. It seemed silly, but if he could make it work, coming as a faerie centaur woman would be an act with a great deal more flare and technical difficulty. Being a straight centaur felt too easy and relied too much on the machine. He’d rather they pay attention to an eighty percent good drag act than a one hundred percent good centaur that drew half its effectiveness from an autonomous prop. He knew he was talking himself into it and didn’t care. This would be fun and the Aethers were always saying it was important to have fun on stage and not take things too seriously. The dryad smiled and said to herself in a masculine squeak, “I’m going to need some really bright green contacts to set off these highlights.” She grimaced. “And a much better voice.” He said, dropping the act.

She crossed her arms, thinking hard. Going to get the contacts meant taking the costume off. William didn’t want to reveal anything before he had to and going out in the centaur costume would attract too much attention no matter how he wore it. He also needed to practice not only feminine behavior and voice but also how to walk in the centaur costume with the changes the torso made to her body shape and center of gravity. She paced up and down the small apartment. She could go out and run around a bit before shedding all the costume items and going for the contacts, but Jackie would be certain to see and ask questions. Or worse, see and simply jump to a conclusion. It would have made a nice joke, but William didn’t know Jackie well enough to feel comfortable pulling something like that on her and besides, she might be able to help. Resolute, he opened his door and before he reached hers, she’d heard the sound of hooves and opened her own. William wondered if she was on vacation or what, but was grateful for the help and for her friendship in the last couple of days.

“Oh,” she said, looking up at the dryad in the revealing costume. “I thought-“

“Correctly,” William said before she could feel any worse.

“William!” She choked. “That’s really good makeup.”

“Most of it isn’t. Hey, that reminds me.” He trotted back and upended the box. As he’d hoped, a pile of cosmetics fell on the table. “Would you mind coming in?” He heard Jackie locking her door and turned to see her closing his. “I wouldn’t mind a lesson or two on how to put this on either.”

“Start from the beginning.” Jackie said. “Why do you look like a wood nymph had a daughter with a centaur?”

William gave her a quick explanation about the mix and match box and its contents. She picked up the male torso, then saw the male bottom. She flushed. “Wow. A couple could have an interesting night with all this stuff and never mind the horse.” She held the horse neck and head piece and squealed, “This is adorable! Part of my price is that when this is all over, you are giving me my talking pony ride.” She coughed. “So, we’ve only just gotten to know each other and you want me to do the whole ‘be a man’ montage but in reverse and in four days.”

“Now that you say it, it does sound silly.”

“It’s a challenge!” Jackie said, grinning. “If we’re going to do this, we’ll do it right, though. We’ll start with the basics and that means you hopping out of that, putting these on,” she lifted the female bottoms, “and getting to know femininity from a bipedal perspective before you do it as a centaur. It will help with the attitude at the party and besides, I can’t help you with makeup if I have to stand on a chair to reach your face.”

William obeyed silently, unstrapping himself from the centaur costume, turning it off and plugging it in. Jackie handed him the female bottoms. “OK. You put these on while I go and see if I have anything that will fit you. I may have to duck out later to get something better but I want you to learn a few things first so that you can practice while I’m out and not lose any time.”

“Yes, ma’am.” William said.

Jackie snorted. “You asked for help, bucko, and you’re getting it. I don’t do anything if I can’t do it right, so get a move on!” She clapped her hands.

By the time William had squeezed his legs into the bottoms and figured out where everything went, Jackie was back with a pile of clothes. “No, I don’t need to see just how anatomically correct you are,” she said as he opened his bathroom door. “Just put these on and then you can come out.” She handed a pair of panties and a bra around the door along with jeans and a loose sweater top. “I think the bottoms will fit you, the bra will probably need a lot of adjusting and will be too tight and the top’s the biggest I’ve got. You’re a bit of a big girl in a few parts, so it’s all going to be tight. I’ll have something better for you by tomorrow.” When he’d put the clothes on and come out, she nodded shortly. “Good. It’ll do.” She reached under the sweater and hiked it up. “Sorry. You wouldn’t know how to adjust one of these.” She moved them over to the mirror. “Watch. The straps aren’t too hard to figure, but you have to know what to look for and what kind of support you want. There. Like so.” She fingered a space around William’s middle where the bottoms on the costume didn’t quite meet the torso. “Is that as high as they’ll go?” She tugged and William yelped. “I guess so.” She pulled the sweater down. “Where to start, where to start. I’m guessing you’ve done voice training.”

William nodded.

“So you can practice that on your own. Given your profession, you ought to be a quick study of the rest. Let’s do makeup. There seems to be a copious amount included and it will give you something to experiment with while I’m down at the shops getting you clothes you’d be willing to be seen out in public in.”

“Sounds like a good plan.”

“I’m glad you’re not squeamish about going out in all this.”

“It would be a bit of a problem if I was.” William said. “I’m glad you’re suddenly taking charge. You seemed a bit shy yesterday.”

“You remember how I said a talking pony was one of my childhood desires? So was having a little sister to boss around.” Jackie laughed. “You’re so vulnerable that I feel like I can be the big sister I never got to be.” She touched William’s arm. “Now that I get a good look, this stuff isn’t exactly convincing close up, but for people in the street, you’ll pass as a bit of an odd lady.” She flicked the wig back over the ears. “Who’s had elective surgery.”

She sat him down and showed him how to apply all the items that had come with the costume including the green lipstick with green glitter, green eyeshadow, foundation, five colors of green on a palette, shiny green blush, eyeliner, mascara and body glitter. “Cripes,” she commented as she laid it all out, “I don’t think you’ll need all of this. Not unless you want to look like you have the taste of a teenager. I’ll let you experiment to see what kind of look you want, but if you take my advice you’ll keep it simple and classy. Very light on the liner, a tiny sprinkling of glitter and maybe a hint of color on the cheeks and forehead. Maybe red lipstick to create contrast. In fact,” she said, gathering it up, “I can’t let you have these in good conscience. I’m going to go buy some things that will go with your tone and the outfit and be back in a few. We’ll start with the basics and you can go wild with the faerie stuff when you’ve gotten good at that. Is there anything you want me to pick up?”

“Bright green contacts,” William said. “Oh, and this ought to cover everything.” He said, digging some notes out of his pants.

“I’ll pay half. I’m taking you on as a personal hobby,” she smiled. “Good idea, though. I’ll find a color that’ll pop, if you pardon the word.”

While Jackie was away, William shed the clothes she’d let him borrow and looked more closely at the faerie girl costume. The mask was the most detailed part and though he had detailed nipples, nails and looked reasonable between his legs, the costume was a flat color and had he seen someone else that looked like he did he’d think her a woman in very good doll makeup. He twisted in the mirror, noting that he was shapely enough that in the right outfit he’d at least be able to go outside without being too worried about second looks. He sat on the carpet, spread his legs and tried to slide his finger between the vaginal lips. He got as far as the first knuckle and struck his restrained penis. So he might be able to get as far as a strip tease, but sex would be out of the question. He wasn’t very disappointed. This was all for show anyway and he couldn’t think of a situation in which he’d be wearing the bottom half at the party nor why he’d want to have sex in the suit or even have someone looking at him naked below the waist.

He was dressed and practicing feminine motions and speaking when Jackie returned with both hands occupied with plastic bags. “How’s it going, sis?”

“Great!” William chirped.

“Good.” Jackie said, emptying the contents out. “Your voice is coming along better than I thought it would. Here.” She held out a box. “The contacts. It says to wash them first, so you’re stuck with those boring, beautiful brown ones you’ve got now. In the meantime,” she continued, setting out the items of makeup and clothing, “let’s see about making you look pretty.”

Jackie spent the afternoon teaching William about everyday makeup, how to use the costume makeup that had come with the centaur costume and how to wear the simple articles of clothing she’d gotten for him. He conversed with her in his ‘female’ voice, practicing it and getting suggestions from Jackie. By supper he was wearing a bra that fit, cotton panties, a sun dress and open toed high heeled shoes. After applying and removing his ‘normal girl’ makeup several times, Jackie told him he looked good and led him by the hand out into the hall. When they passed her apartment, William asked, “Where are we going?”

“I thought we both deserved supper out,” Jackie replied. “I’ll drive of course.”

“Do you think I’m ready?”

“Sure you are! If anyone asks, you’ve got a bit of a cold. As for the skin,” she fingered his unnaturally smooth arm. “I don’t think they’ll notice. You look pretty and you’ve got a nice figure.” She squeezed William’s arm. “The women will wonder how you got so smooth and the guys will be looking at the parts of you that are covered and wish they weren’t. Anyway, it’s just a diner. If we get into any trouble, it’s not like they’ll know who you are.” She saw William’s hesitation. “I’ll take care of everything. You need to work on your confidence if you’re going to impress the troupe, right?”

William nodded, belatedly pulling a lock of blonde and green hair back when it fell into his face. “Right.”

“Good. I can’t call you William, though, can I?”

“I hadn’t thought of a name.” William admitted.

“Even if you had, it would probably have been a character name. That’s fine for when you’re a centaur nymph but right now we need something that’ll work for everyday use. How about Nelly? Or maybe Ellie…”

“Nelly sounds nice.”

“So do you,” Jackie said unlocking her car. “I wouldn’t be going out like this if I didn’t think your voice was good.”

“Can I say that I feel weird that this is our first date?” Nelly asked, trying to find a comfortable way to latch the seatbelt.

Jackie laughed. “I honestly never thought it would be anything like this. And yes, that does mean I thought about it. You’re cute and you’re my neighbor and I think I’ve said all this already.”

William smiled and touched her shoulder. “It’s nice to know I wasn’t imagining it when I saw you looking at me. When all this is over, I’d love to go out on a date wearing my own face.”

“Can you do something for me on our third date?”

“What?”

“Wear flavored lip gloss. It won’t be very noticeable, but I’ve wondered for the longest time what it’s like to kiss someone wearing flavored lip gloss. I did when I was a teenager and I used to think about what my boyfriend back then experienced.”

“I doubt he was paying much attention to the flavor of your lip gloss.”

“You’re sweet, but he was shallow.”

“Fine,” William smiled widely. “I hope I can make you forget about the flavor of the lip gloss I’m wearing. In fact, I won’t tell you what flavor it is. We’ll see if you can tell me what it is after we’re done.”

“Challenge accepted.” Jackie said. “I hope I lose.”

Jackie held William’s hand as they went up the short stairway in front of the diner — he’d begun to wobble on the narrow heels. At first he’d looked down at the floor when the hostess was seating them, but a nudge under the table when they sat down got him to look her in the eye and say, “Thank you.”

“See? She didn’t even look at you oddly.” Jackie said.

“She didn’t have any reason to.”

“Exactly!” Jackie said. “Yes, there are peculiarities, but they aren’t noticeable unless someone is looking closely. Heck, she didn’t even notice the ears. I wouldn’t suggest a long conversation with anyone just yet, but you’re fine for just going out. You’ll never fool the troupe, but that’s not the point, is it?”

Nelly shook her head. “No, you’re right. I want them to know it’s me, and a performance is more about the performer than the prop.” She smoothed her skirt. “That’s why I went with the female angle.”

“Really?” Jackie asked.

Nelly nodded. “It seemed like I was relying on the centaur costume too much as a novelty. I wanted to prove that I could perform a wholly different part. Without this,” she brushed her face, “I’d be too much me in a centaur costume. This way I have to be in a character who can’t fall back on their normal self. That is, ‘normal self’ in this case is another performance. I drop my guard into another act.”

“Actors.” Jackie said. “Speaking of which, why’d you become one?”

Nelly started to lean forward, felt and saw that her neckline would be giving an indecent view to people passing, settled back in the booth and half-smiled as Jackie smothered a giggle. “I sort of grew into it,” she replied, brushing back her hair again with annoyance. “I loved playing dress-up when I was little, got into all the school plays and by the time I was in high school I was deep in the drama department. It seemed natural to just keep going. I was good and nothing else felt right for me. Maybe I would have been better at or enjoyed something else more, but since I love acting I don’t care.”

“That’s it?” Jackie asked.

“Would you prefer me to give the more traditional story?” Nelly asked. “How I was a little girl who saw Peter Pan one day and wanted to be Wendy? How my parents thought it was cute that I was in plays right up until I started dating a guy with more piercings than dollars and finally ran away with a beatnik rather than continue training to be an orthodontist. Or perhaps the story about the shy outcast who befriended a goth and was thrust into the wide world of alternative culture. Respectable during the day, but with a closet full of Lolita and Elvira dresses for when the sun goes down. Oh, I have a good one! The story about the cute girl whose parents refused to let her be in the pageant because it was against their beliefs, so she tried out to be a sheep and told them she was staying late to tutor younger students.” Nelly put her hand to her brow and mock-swooned. “Oh, it was dreadful, darling! I had to go through this ghastly English degree before taking an absolutely banal job as a receptionist. I worked for ever so long before saving up the money to come here. I know I’ll be good because Sir John Gielgud — he absolutely insists I call him Johnny — told me I had it.”

Jackie fought well, but the laughter came in gales when William switched from the feminine version of himself to the over-the-top Luvvie ‘Duchess’ voice. “You win!” She brushed the tears from her eyes. “I guess I am a bit used to actors giving long, dramatic stories about themselves. I’d gotten so used to it living near the theater that I was surprised you told the truth.”

“As far as you know,” Nelly’s eyes danced. “Maybe I knew that a very normal sounding beginning would sound odder than what really happened.” She crossed her legs, painfully aware of William’s penis held in the bottoms, but refusing to break character. She could also feel the occasional air pocket when William’s facial muscles moved away from the shape the mask took when she talked. William would have to pick up some cosmetic adhesive later. She became even more self conscious of that as she ate and asked Jackie if she’d noticed.

“No, but now that you mention it, I can see what you mean.” Jackie replied. “It sort of makes you look like you have really defined cheekbones.”

“So what is it that you want?” Nelly asked. “I mean, what’s your dream?”

“I’m not sure I have one.” Jackie said. “I just want to live and have fun. I don’t have a big life goal I’m chasing like you are. I’m not precisely thrilled with my job, but it pays well enough and I don’t know what else I’d do. I guess I’m just sort of waiting around to see if something happens.” She shrugged and smiled. “So here I am. You’re the most interesting thing that’s happened in years.”

“I’m blushing under the mask.” Nelly replied.

“Is it hot?”

“No,” Nelly shook her head, then brushed at her hair again. “Do you have something to hold this back with? I’ve never had long hair before and it’s getting annoying.”

Jackie reached into her purse. “I have plastic combs, but you don’t know how to use those. You’ll have to settle for this.” She gave Nelly a red scrunchie. “You really don’t have enough hair for that, though. I mean, that style isn’t that long. It barely covers your ears.”

“Why do you even have this?” Nelly asked, pulling her hair back despite Jackie’s comments.

“Maybe I like to feel like a teenager occasionally.” Jackie said. “Or maybe I’ve had this pocketbook for so long that it’s been there since I was a teen.”

“So much better,” Nelly said with feeling, pulling the scrunchie tight. “Oh, so the mask isn’t that bad at all. It’s a little tough around the middle when I take a breath and I’m glad you got me a bra. Oh, and my bits downstairs are not happy at being crammed in like this, but it’s not a very rough outfit overall. It’s a little weird to be noticed, though. Even with this short outing, I’ve seen a few men taking a longer look at me than anyone did when I was a man myself. Except when my fly was open or I had a bug on my arm or something like that. I was afraid they’d seen through the costume at first, but now it’s kind of nice to be seen like this.”

“It gets old sometimes.” Jackie said. “Being looked at as an object.”

“Maybe later we could put you in that bloke suit and see how you like not being looked at.” Nelly riposted.

“I’d rather do the lip gloss taste test if it’s all the same to you.”

They continued amiably until it was time to go. Jackie insisted on paying the entire check. A little later, Nelly stood naked in front of her full length mirror, playing with the seam where the belly of the costume didn’t quite cover all of William’s midsection. She made a duck face, laughed and then danced away from the mirror and towards the bathroom. After showering, she took the bottoms off — there was no facility to relieve himself with them on — but left the top half on. Jackie had bought her a lacy nightgown and William was curious to see if the costume would get itchy with long wearing. That was the rationalization and he knew it. The real reason was that Nelly looked cute in the bed attire and couldn’t help hauling out one of the big stuffed foxes William had from when he’d gone on a fox kick as a boy and posing with it, hugging it to her chest with her legs under the covers. By strategic placement of the fox, Nelly could hide the stirring beneath the sheets as her masculine lower half watched her feminine upper role play.

The next morning William was itchy and both he and the costume got a thorough cleaning. He chalked it up to trapped skin and sweat and went down to the shops to find some glue for the mask. When he got back home, he put the female top on and applied the glue by pulling the mask away from his cheeks and placing a little bit of adhesive in. It only took him two tries to do Nelly’s makeup in a way that made him happy and when he put the now clean contacts in, Nelly looked back at herself with luminous green eyes. Smiling cheerfully, she put on a bra and a loose top, climbed into the centaur costume and went for a walk in the back yard. Jackie was at work that day and as usual the centaur went unremarked. William didn’t know whether his neighbors saw but didn’t care or were all out. Either way, after a couple of hours of getting used to being a centaur with female proportions, Nelly was ready for lunch and some time to practice being herself. She rolled the female bottom half on, found a pair of slacks that matched the top, decided she was in the mood for flats and went to a sandwich bar with seating.

The man at the counter was friendlier to Nelly than he’d been to William and Nelly thought he not only paid more attention to her than he did to William but also put more on her sandwich. She was putting the receipt in her purse when she saw the hand written phone number on the back. She giggled and then paused, thinking ‘I can’t be that attractive. That guy must do that to all the women who come here.’ Her chewing was more energetic than it had to be and she was satisfied that the cheeks of the mask were firmly stuck to William’s. She walked around town, but couldn’t think of anything to do, so she went back to her house, took off her pants and put on one of William’s old T-shirts to clean the house in. She was vacuuming when someone knocked. Not wanting to miss whoever it was, she only took the time to put on an elastic topped skirt before opening the door.

“Hey Nelly.” Jackie said, still in her working blouse and pencil skirt.

“Jackie! Come in.” Nelly stepped aside.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you…” Jackie trailed off, looking Nelly up and down.

“Like this? Yeah, I was cleaning and didn’t want to get anything dirty.”

“You know what I mean.” Jackie said when Nelly closed the door.

“It’s best to stay in character if someone can see me.” Nelly replied. “Seriously, I needed the practice, so I spent most of the day as Nelly. If you haven’t got any plans, I could make dinner.”

“OK.” Jackie said.

“Just let me put on something more sociable.” Nelly stopped short of the bedroom door. “You don’t mind, do you? I mean, having an evening in with me as Nelly.”

“No. No.” Jackie replied. “I don’t mind at all. I’d like a date with William eventually, but a girls’ night in sounds a lot more relaxing. No offence to either of you.”

“None taken,” Nelly replied from the bedroom. She emerged a moment later in a longer skirt and a cotton top.

“You look like you’re getting used to it.” Jackie observed as Nelly took a bottle of wine out of the fridge.

“I am! You know, I think I might have flirted with a guy today. I didn’t mean to, but he was behind the sandwich counter and I was feeling really pleased with how things were going. Anyway, I got his number and extra meat — on the sandwich.” She finished quickly.

Jackie took the glass of wine from her and smiled as she sat down. “It’s not that hard when you’re as attractive as you are.”

“Am I?” Nelly asked. “I didn’t think so.”

“It’s not exactly a glamour girl thing.” Jackie said. “More of a quirky cheerfulness. A lot of guys these days go for it.”

“Aw.” Nelly said. “I was going for dryad and people are seeing me as a pixie.”

“You’ll just have to adjust your act.” Jackie replied deadpan.

“That’s what I’ll have to work on tomorrow.” Nelly said. “It’s too bad there’s no one to practice it with, but you’re at work and I don’t know anyone else I can trust.”

“I’m sure you’ll be a perfectly believable woodland spirit.” Jackie replied. “Though you’d better work hard. The party is what, the day after?”

“Yeah.” Nelly said. “Not much time to prepare and I’ll want to rest the day of so that I’m fresh in the evening.” She tucked her legs under her skirt.

“I’m surprised you’re cold with that on.” Jackie said.

“I’m not, but it’s something I’ve observed.” Nelly admitted. “What I’m really surprised by is that the sandwich guy didn’t notice that my skin isn’t right.”

“He probably thought you were wearing a lycra bodysuit or something.” Jackie said. “You’ve done your face so well that I can only tell because I know what to look for.”

Nelly closed her eyes and let her head fall back. “I hope I impress the Aethers.”

“You will.” Jackie said with feeling. “Listen to us for a moment. For all that I’m discussing your costume with you, we’re doing it like two ladies unwinding after a long day. Right now you look like any young woman who’s had a long day, right down to the dust bunny still clinging to your hair and the wine glass in your hand.”

“Dust bunny?” Nelly sat up and started brushing at her hair.

“I was kidding about that. You don’t need me to tell you that you’re as good as you’re going to be and the best thing you can do is relax into it. Isn’t that what you actors always say? Have fun?”

“Yeah,” Nelly smiled softly. “Thanks, Jackie.”

“Just doing what a big sister ought.” Jackie replied. “Now what’s for dinner?”

It was the night of the party and William had spent over an hour carefully applying makeup, adjusting the fit of the centaur costume and making sure it was working properly. Nelly had decided that her dryad name would be Illiana, a name that wasn’t too fae but not very common either. Her blonde-green hair shone with washable highlights that added more green shading, her cheeks were lightly frosted with a hint of glitter and her lips were the dark red of ripe apples. She’d dusted a pinch of glitter over her skin and the fur of the horse body. Not so much to leave a trail wherever she went, but enough to add a little bit of accent to the smooth, solid skin color and some glitz to the already colorful horse section. She’d considered the adornments provided and decided to use only a single green bow on the horse tail.

She wrapped the leaf-patterned breast band around her chest, dropped the pendant into the resulting cleavage and placed the circlet on her head. She was glad to find that the circlet held her hair back quite effectively. The bottom half of the female suit was laid around the mechanical back half of the centaur body in an invisible layer. She didn’t expect to need it, but she didn’t want to be left without it either. Wearing it under the centaur costume seemed excessive and distracting, so it rested in the back.

Nelly looked unhappily at the horse head, sighed and picked it up. She’d thought hard about it and decided that a scantily clad young lady walking alone down the street in an exotic costume even in a nice town like this one sounded like a bad idea. Even small towns had bad apples. Hoping it wouldn’t disturb her hair or makeup too much, she raised her arms over her head and let the horse head fall over her body, her arms sliding into the straps and the whole thing settling as she lowered her arms. The smoky green perlino horse took a few steps and stopped at William’s flat door. “Oh mice!” Illiana swore. Nelly knew better than to rush and possibly work up a sweat or worse and it was ten minutes later when the green perlino was finally out of the apartment complex.

Illiana enjoyed the sound of her hooves on the pavement and the second looks she got from passers-by. The Aethers were on the other side of town and she didn’t have a car, so she took it slow and savored the crisp autumn air that filtered through the mesh or into the horse’s mouth. She had plenty of time and wasn’t worried about being late. She wasn’t worried at all, in fact. She was floating on the blissful feeling of doing it. She was in the middle of the performance now. No more rehearsal, not more worrying about how good he was. William was going to pass or fail that night. Illiana-horse was trotting on air when she heard the shouts. The horse’s head swung around in time to see four young men trailing her. She sped up a little and they did too. They didn’t look friendly and Illiana looked around for help. No one else was around as she’d crossed through the busiest part of town and into the outskirts. It wasn’t much further to Eric’s house — the current troupe leader and host of the party. “Hey, horse! Let us ride you!” One shouted. The men were getting close and Illiana spotted possible salvation. There was a large civic park she’d have to go around to get to Eric’s, as it was enclosed by a four foot high fence and only open on the opposite side.

With the hooligans on her heels, she broke into a gallop, blessing the mechanism and her own preparedness. This time it had caught! She could see the ground passing under her hooves with each explosive push. The back end was doing most of the work and Nelly hoped it was up to the challenge. She’d never had a reason to try, but she had seen the functionality described. She tensed her legs and bent her knees just so and leapt. The rear half propelled her up and forward and to her amazement she cleared the fence without even brushing the horse’s belly against it. In her surprise, she stumbled on the landing, but recovered and shakily cantered away, safely ahead of her pursuers.

She shed the horse head as she trotted down the path towards the house. The knocker was chrome plated and gave her a chance to check herself. She tucked a few wisps of hair back, but otherwise seemed merely out of breath. Relieved, she knocked and was greeted by a very classical image of Zeus. The muscled, bearded man bowed and Illiana bent her forelegs and head in reply, offering the invitation she’d tucked into her waistband. Zeus — Eric — read it and the mustache moved with his warm smile. “Such an image of sylvan beauty should not wait upon the step. Enter and be welcome. Might I be favored with your name?”

“Illiana, your mightiness.” She replied. “I hope that my beauty is not too marred by my lack of wind, but I was pursued here by knaves bent on mischief.”

Zeus frowned and closed the door. “In truth?”

“Aye, they sought to waylay me on the opposite side of yon town meadow.” Illiana continued. “Luckily they did not know me for a sprightly spirit and I leapt over and left them behind.”

“These environs grow ever more perilous.” Zeus said sadly.

“Wait, seriously?” A severe elven looking woman with a crown of leaves, bark armor and a black skirt partly covering greave-clad legs asked. Looking beyond the prosthetics that gave her a more pointed appearance and the long black wig, William thought it might be Laura, another member of the Aethers. “Dropping character for a moment, were you really chased here?”

“Partway, yes.” Nelly replied, dropping down one level from dryad to ‘woman in costume.’ “They started trailing me about a block back from the park and I got away by jumping the fence.”

“Is that one of Gina’s?”

“It is.”

“Lawsy but she does have some good stuff. I mean,” The Sidhe cleared her throat. “The witch has many interesting artifacts. Thy form has the strength of a horse as well as appearance. I’m going to have to check her out again. She’s gotten some fun looking new stuff.” Laura finished under her breath.

“Ah, but the important thing is that you have arrived safely.” Zeus said effusively. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I must see to the other worthies who have made the journey here. If you wish, there is an alcove there to put your horse hame. Perhaps later we can get to know each other better,” he added, looking at her suggestively.

Illiana smiled. “The king of gods is kind to show an interest. I, too, would like to learn of your … regal properties.” She started towards the alcove, swinging her hips and the rear half shifted to ‘flirtatious.’ She looked back and saw that Zeus was watching her flank wiggle invitingly while her tail swished. Staying in character as the deific lech, William thought, had benefits.

Illiana was carefully making her way towards the food table when a furry goblin with oversized bat ears and horns approached her. The image of a frightening beast was spoiled by the tall clerical miter on its head. “I’ll bring you a drink if you let me ride upon your shapely back.” The Alp said in a wheedling tone. Illiana thought it was a guest rather than a member.

“That would be a fair trade, good sir, were I to trust your intentions.” Illiana replied. “For the crowd makes it difficult for an equine to make progress.”

“I promise,” the Alp said eagerly. “On darkness and blood that I shall be nought but proper. No monkey business.” It added in a smooth, urbane baritone.

Nelly snorted. “All right, but only for a couple of minutes.”

“Hooray!” The Alp cried, and was back in a moment with two cups. Illiana took them both as the Alp scrambled on to her, and one its arms were around her middle, she gave one back. “Tally-ho!” It squeaked in a mixture of a British accent and its own Germanic wheeze.

The Alp didn’t get much of a ride, though, as it still took quite awhile for Illiana to reach the drink table. It wasn’t so much that the room was crowded as that she was quite large and was being careful not to bump into anything. By the time she arrived, both their drinks were empty and the Alp slid off, apparently satisfied. After putting a sandwich on a plate and refilling her cup, Illiana chatted with a few more people and gave a ride to a heartbreakingly charming Gorgon with green braids, patches of scaled greenish skin amongst the solid grey and slit-pupiled eyes who she both suspected and hoped was Ryan from the Aethers. If the Gorgon wasn’t and was angling for a spot, she was doing really well based on how friendly everyone was with her. Illiana wasn’t sure, though, because she kept throwing sidelong glances at a man dressed rather badly as Jason who was himself in deep and intimate conversation with a warrior princess who Illiana recognized as being one of Gina’s batch of Amazons. When ‘Stheno’ departed - humming cheerfully despite being forced to drag ‘Jason’ away from the princess - Illiana was approached by a minotaur whose stilt legs allowed him to have the appearance of reversed knees as well as a frighteningly realistic axe and hands that ended in hard pads that looked like a cloven hoof when he pressed them together. “Excuse me,” he said, his mouth moving with his words, “might I be granted a word in a more secluded locale?” He must have seen the doubt in Illiana’s expression because he snorted — producing a puff of steam from his nose — and said, “Fear not. I am an emissary. We like to do a quick interview during these shindigs and I was lucky enough to get to talk to you.”

“Oh,” Illiana said, putting her hand to her chest. “In that case, lead on, proud warrior.”

The minotaur cleared their path efficiently and Illiana crossed the room far more quickly than she had with riders. They passed down a hall and into a room with mirrors and racks of clothing. “Eric’s dressing room.” The minotaur explained, locking the door. “He’s got this thing about getting his appearance just so before doing dress rehearsals.” He took his bull mask off and Illiana recognized Lawrence. “Much as it would be fun to conduct this in character, you’re the one being tested. Just for the record, I really was looking forward to this. I like that you went with a double layered characterization and from what I’ve been told, you’ve never broken more than one layer yet.

“I do most of these because I’m curious and like to get to know people. I’m working with you especially because I’m the only one here who can look you in the eye. So, Illiana,” he said, deliberately using her dryad name. “What does a sylvan centaur do with her days?”

“Uh,” Illiana thought furiously. “These days it seems like I spend most of my time avoiding picnickers. My usual job is that of a medicine woman, but we do so much walking to keep away from hikers and the like.” She warmed up to the topic. “Forests have shrunk so much where we live. So many get broken winded just from the smog, not to mention all the things people throw away that cause abscesses in the hoof. Still, it’s not all bad. Modern medicine means we don’t suffer nearly as much from colic or fistulous withers and I haven’t seen a case of husk in ages.”

“So you didn’t write a backstory.” Lawrence said.

“It was that obvious?”

“Achem.” Lawrence coughed and laughed at the same time. “Most of that came straight from James Herriot, except that parasitic pneumonia is more of a cattle disease than equine. Not a bad effort, though, for an off the cuff response and you sounded properly outraged about the loss of forests. So, William, why do you want to join?”

William had been in character so long that he had to clear his throat to talk normally. “I’ve been around the circuit a bit and I heard that you’re a fun, creative team. I wanted to be part of a group that is so … engaged.” William shrugged, then adjusted the leaf wrap self-consciously. “Despite my lack of preparedness, I like to write and I think I’m good. I also think I’m a good actor and want somewhere to belong where I won’t be mocked for both acting and writing. A lot of people don’t take actors’ other creative efforts seriously.”

Lawrence nodded approvingly. “Now, Nelly. Tell me why you’re confident you’ll be a good fit for us.”

Nelly couldn’t resist the opening and replied in her most histrionic ‘luvvie’ voice. “Well, darling, it all goes back to the time I met Sir Gyles Brandreth. Oh, but I should go back a little. I was in this marvelous off-off-off-off-off-below Broadway production of Othello. Naturally I played Lady Othello.” Nelly paused to let Lawrence recover from the spittake he’d done. “Anyway, the other actors were perfectly divine people, but none of them had any talent at all. I was exiting after a superb performance in which I did eighteen encores when I got in a cab and who should be driving but Gyles Brandredth? Well, Sir Gyles said he’d been to see me six times! When I told him where I was staying, he said an actress of my caliber shouldn’t be in such an absolutely dull hotel, so he sat there and forced me to have my baggage sent to this place he knew. He pulled up and my god was it just the most marvelous place, but I had no idea how I was going to pay. Luckily I didn’t get very far in before a blue police box appeared right between me and the front desk. The Doctor said he’d seen my performance as Lady Othello and I simply had to do it for Shakespeare. Well, wouldn’t you know it but that silly billy took me back to before the play was written and I ended up giving him the idea! So Billy — Shakespeare, the lovely duck — let me have this play that he said I’d be perfect in as a Rhinemaiden. It turns out he wrote Der Ring and Wagner had stolen it later on. I’m glad he said Rhinemaiden and not Fricka, though I gave him a piece of my mind for not suggesting Freya. Do you know what he said? He said I wasn’t skinny enough. Cheek!”

Lawrence put up his hand. “OK! I can see that you take the ‘spunky sense of humor’ part of your Nelly character very seriously. Can I get the version that doesn’t involve time travel?”

“Oh, well, I think I’ve already told you.” Nelly said playfully. “You like to have fun and so do I. I don’t take myself too seriously and like to make up entertaining stories. I love acting. When I was a little girl-”

“Oh no! Not another story.” Lawrence said. “So, Illiana. No, never mind. I think we’ve established you can ad-lib. Much as you’re a lovely centaur, I’ve learned all I need to. William, then. It’s obvious from the way you carry yourself that you don’t have a lot of experience — sorry, but there are things that show that though you’ve rehearsed well that you haven’t lived female for very long. So why add so much work? Why do drag rather than come as a centaur alone?”

“I felt that just being a centaur was too weak.” William said. “This costume is almost too good, you see. It detracts from my performance if everyone is looking at how well the back half moves. This way, their attention is focused on how I behave as well as the centaur part. It forces me to have a character beyond that of the centaur, one which I stay in even when I’m talking ‘out of character.’ Would you mind telling me, by the way, what you think I need the most work on?”

“Sure. Off the top of my head, your voice is the most problematic. I can tell you’ve worked hard, but you aren’t comfortable with it yet. It’s too high and not smooth enough in the delivery. You’re getting better, but you’ll need to immerse yourself for months before it comes out without any hints of artifice. You cross your arms occasionally and when you do, you almost always touch your breasts with your forearms and then quickly adjust the way you hold yourself, so it’s plain that you’re not used to having them. The centaur angle hides how new you are to feminine proportions and gait, but I can still find the mistakes if I look for them.”

Nelly’s mouth was a diagonal slash. “Darn. I already knew most of those things, but I hadn’t noticed the arm-chest thing. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Let’s flip the previous question. Gina’s got non-equine costumes that are female and fit the theme. Why not come as the warrior princess, for instance? If you were better than the guy who did, then wouldn’t that give you an advantage?”

“To answer the first part of your question, I had decided on the centaur before the female. I hadn’t actually known about this,” he lightly touched the mask, “until I got the centaur home, though I suspected. True, the warrior princess would have been a very good second choice. She’s a strong female role with a lot of room to add definition as well as being very different and affording me many of the same benefits I have in my dual role as Nelly and Illiana. However, the second question frames part of why I didn’t go for her. First off I didn’t want to potentially be a twin. That would be unfair on both me and the other man or men. Furthermore, it makes it into the sort of competition that I got the feeling you didn’t want. If you wanted a straight up comparison like that, you would have required us all to wear the exact same thing. So it’s also unfair on you. Finally,” he said, quirking his lip, “there was no guarantee I’d be the best. It would have been interesting to see us interact with each other, but I wanted to be as sure as I could be that I wouldn’t have to worry about someone else doing the same act. In the end, I’m glad I went with the centaur anyway. I think it shows off more of my talents.”

“Doesn’t that suggest a lack of confidence? That you in fact know that you’re not the best cross gender performer here?”

“Not at all.” William paused to think. “Only that everyone has a different take on a character and I might be good, but not what you want in that particular role. An actor can be the best, but still not see a character the way the director needs him to.”

“Well said!” Lawrence replied. “Also good reaction to a blatantly untrue insult to your ability. I needed to check to make sure you weren’t the sort who lost their cool over criticism. Actually, Illiana, I did think of something else I wanted to ask you. How do you feel about letting people ride you? I saw that you allowed at least two people to sit on you and I was wondering whether that was something centaurs normally do.”

“No,” Illiana said. “It’s not something we like to do except when we have to. It is not uncomfortable to have someone as light as the twain I took, but we do not like to be thought of as beasts of burden. I shouldn’t say we only do it in emergencies, though. For our friends and if we are not going to be seen by any who do not know us well it is a joy, for it means they may keep up with us when we allow ourselves the joy of unrestrained speed and they may know that speed as well. The company here seems respectful, so I was not unduly concerned by carrying the Alp — who seemed quite innocent for his kind — or the Gorgon — who seemed the sort who loved life in a way that makes me happy.”

“It’s a shame we don’t have the space here for you to stretch out.” Lawrence said. “That rear end is very good.”

“Oh, sir!” Illiana said. “My flank is not so unusual for my kind. You are too generous.”

Lawrence smiled. “You’re too polite — and too engrossed in being an adorable centaur dryad — to ask, so I’ll tell you. I can’t make a judgment until later and we’ll probably be arguing well into next week. You have a strong case, but I’m sure you’ve seen that there are a lot of good people out there.” He put the minotaur mask back on. “Allow me to escort you back to the main floor.” Illiana held his hand as he led her back to the room where most of the people were still mingling. He pressed his nose to the back of her hand and blew a small amount of steam onto it. “It was a pleasure talking to you.”

“Likewise.” Illiana said. “It is good to meet another human-herbivore mix.”

Illiana talked to a few more people and had another sandwich as the party wound down. It seemed as if she had been one of the last to be interviewed and with the serious business over, people were filtering out. She decided to wait to leave until the group was small enough that her path to the door would be unimpeded. The smaller group seemed to embolden a faerie whose scintillating colors spread out from her diaphanous minidress onto her skin and butterfly wings. Illiana consented to allow ‘Yasin’ to ride her and the squealing fey was the first person to balance on Illiana’s back so well that she didn’t need to touch the human part of the centaur. The group was light enough that Illiana was able to give her an almost unbroken circuit around the room and the faerie thanked her by brushing out her tail and combing the little bits that had stuck to her over the course of the party out of her fur. “You’re absolutely lovely,” Yasin gushed as she worked. She even marveled at how horse and human parts shifted together in embarrassment at her praise.

Illiana had just finished speaking to a creatively made up Cyclops when the Gorgon reappeared. “If I may impose upon you,” Stheno said quietly, “I am in some distress and would be glad of your aid.”

“If I may give it, consider it granted.” Illiana said.

“It is a matter of some delicacy and so I would like to retire to a place where none may observe us.”

“Lead on.” Illiana said. She’d gained confidence from her meeting with Lawrence and followed the Gorgon gladly. Her traditional style toga made the view from behind quite pleasurable and William was eager to impress and to get a closer look at the well made costume.

Stheno led her through a door into what looked like a guest bedroom. “All right,” she said, dropping the Gorgon act. “It’s like this. You may have noticed that my boyfriend is being a pig.”

“Uh, well, I wouldn’t…”

“Don’t worry. He is. I don’t want to let him see me leave because I’m afraid he’ll try to follow. I only brought him because I wanted to give him one last chance.”

“So you’re not a hopeful?”

“Neither hopeful nor member. Just a friend of the group. That’s why I brought a date. I love to strut my stuff and this is more than just an audition after all. Anyway, the point is that if you could take the machine out of your back half and let me get in, I’d owe you a huge one. Please?” She finished, turning the full might of her bright, Gorgon eyes on Illiana. “I’ll make sure to call Eric the moment I get home and tell him that I’ll pick up the machine for you tomorrow. I really just want to get out of here without trouble.”

“Sure. It’s fine.” William became aware of his male half beneath the horse skin. “Just let me get it out alone. I’m … uh … not wearing anything underneath.”

“I’ll wait outside.” The Gorgon said. “I’m Nicole, by the way. Thanks so much!”

William wiggled out of the centaur body, unzipped it around the midsection and with literally eye watering speed he put the female bottoms on. Feeling a little safer — though he wouldn’t know how to explain the band of different colored skin where the two halves didn’t meet — he pulled the back leg machine out. Not wanting to take any risks, she hiked the front part back up over her legs and up to her navel before calling out, “Ready!”

Nicole re-entered. “That was fast.” She looked at the mass of empty horse rear hanging off of Nelly. “I think you’re going to have to lie down or something.”

“I hope I can get up afterwards,” Nelly said, carefully bending the front half’s knees so that her feet were touching the ground, kneeling and finally lying on her side, presenting the centaur’s belly to Nicole. The Gorgon lay down in front of it, put her legs into the costume and slid backwards until her feet were in the straps on the rear legs’ stilts. She inched upward, pushing against the carpet and pulling on the costume until she was most of the way in and then arched her back, gave a final push and straightened out inside. She flipped the zipper around and closed it.

“Can you see?” Nelly asked, craning her head to look at the expanse of perlino green back.

“Yeah, there’s a mesh down here,” Nicole said, her voice coming from both the belly and up from the hole where Nelly’s body was. Nelly felt Nicole’s hands reach up to her, her palms on Nelly’s upper thighs barely an inch from her butt. “I hope you’re not shy about where I put my hands.” Nicole said. “I can’t reach any higher.”

“No,” Nelly squeaked. “No problem at all. Let’s try to get up.”

Nelly had a little practice at this and Nicole seemed naturally graceful as it didn’t take more than a few tries and ten minutes for the centaur to finally scramble to her hooves. In the process Nicole’s grip shifted several times, passing from familiar to very fresh and finally settling back over Nelly’s upper thigh. Nelly automatically took a few steps, forgetting her partner was now a human being and was shocked when Nicole followed her almost as well as the machine had. “You’re good.” She said.

“With friends in a well stocked theater, it’s only a matter of time before you get roped into being part of a horse.” Nicole said. “I won’t be as amazing as that ro-butt, but I won’t let you down. I’ve never been in one that was so invasive though.” The centaur’s tail swished.

“Is that sticking into your —“

“I’d rather not get into details.” Nicole said.

The hours William had spent training himself to give physical clues worked just as well with Nicole, and they made swift progress back to the party room. Not wanting to force her partner/contraband to spend more time than she had to bent over and swathed in the thick horse body, Illiana made a beeline for the door. “Wait a minute.” Nicole whispered. “I forgot my purse. It’s in the coat closet near the horse head, so could you could sling it over your shoulder before you put the head on?”

“No problem.” Nelly said. She looked around. ‘Jason’ was nowhere to be seen. She almost fell out of the costume bending to get it, but snagged the purse and had it on her shoulder before picking up the purse. Zeus was at the door and lightly patted Illiana’s withers. “It was a pleasure to have such a gem of equine womanhood here.”

“It was a gathering that I would have greatly regretted missing.” Illiana replied. “Your majesty knows how to host a celebration.”

“It would appear as if you have taken on a new spirit to share your mortal frame.”

“Don’t worry, Eric, it’s me.” Nicole said. “I asked Nelly to take my purse and let me leave with her. I’ll pick up her mechanical back half tomorrow.”

“Oh, all right Nicole. I hope that yutz didn’t ruin your evening.”

“Oh, no! Nothing could do that.” Nicole replied.

“Thanks for the compliment.” Eric said. “I’ll let you both get going then.”

Illiana ensconced herself again in the horse head when they were out the door. “Where are we going?”

“I don’t live far away.” Nicole said. “Oh! There’s a bit of a draft in the back end.”

“That’s where the plug comes out for the robot. Maybe you should have been in front.” Nelly said doubtfully.

“Don’t worry. Just go left at the gate and up four blocks. Then another left and down two. I live on the corner of Chau and Maine.”

“You mean the blue one with the star outside? I love that place!”

“Wow. My decorating pays off.” Nicole said.

It was late and they met almost no one on the road until they were close to Nicole’s house. “Oh great.” Nelly sighed. “Them again.”

“Who?”

“Those guys who chased me up near Eric’s. They must just wander around town.” Nelly said. “Don’t worry. They’re not close enough to cut us off, but we may have to hurry a bit to keep ahead of them.”

The centaur broke into a semi-coordinated trot and though it looked strange, they made a fast, clopping progress to the corner. The young men were got on their haunches. Nelly remembered that Nicole’s yard had a low fence and said, “How well can you jump?” When she saw that the gate was closed.

“I think I can be motivated to jump pretty high.”

“Good, because your gate is closed.”

“Dammit!” Nicole said.

This time there was no machine to aid her and Nelly only made it halfway up the fence. It hurt her armpits, but she got her hands out far enough to get a grip and push herself over. That left Nicole hanging on the other side, the rear hooves of the horse scrabbling ineffectively at the closely spaced wooden slats. Nelly shed the horse head entirely and with a few heaves pulled her partner up and over. Not wanting to wait to see if the young men would follow — and trespass — Nelly picked up the horse head and they got to their hooves, stumbling up the steps. Nicole’s keys were clipped to the outside of her purse, so it only took a moment for them to get inside and for Nelly to lock the door behind them. The centaur gratefully lay on her side on the soft carpet. When she’d gotten her breath back, Nicole unzipped the belly and crawled out. “I’d call the police, but I think we’ve had enough excitement for one night. I’m sure they’ll chase the wrong person one day and get shot anyway.”

“Probably,” Nelly agreed, sitting up and gathering the costume around herself. “Though I think they might have just been on something and wanted to pretend to be cowboys.”

“Make yourself comfortable,” Nicole said, getting up. “I need to wipe off some of this and put the scales away.” She rubbed her eyes. “Not to mention these contacts. And maybe find something to wear that doesn’t trip me every few steps.”

“Uh,” Nelly looked down at herself. “I’m not wearing anything under the costume.”

“Oh right. I should have known since I’ve had my hand on your bum so much.” Nicole laughed. “I’ll find you something to wear. It’s the least I can do.” She left and returned a moment later with a loose sweater and a pair of leggings. “These should fit you. Sorry I don’t have anything better, but I’m a bit smaller than you are.”

“That’s all right,” Nelly said, taking them. “I’ll change while you’re taking your makeup off.”

“I wish I had some men’s clothes,” Nicole said, walking off. “But I’ve never had a live-in boyfriend.”

“I wasn’t sure you knew.” Nelly called to her through the door she’d closed behind her.

“Oh yeah. You weren’t really making much of a secret about it. Besides, hand on bum remember? While we were getting going, I felt the seam where that body mask doesn’t quite cover everything.”

Nelly had the leggings on and was shedding the leaf wrap when she answered. “Yeah, I didn’t really have much choice.” She looked at the centaur costume. “Speaking of which, I’m going to get in so much trouble if that leap hurt the horse body.”

“No you won’t. I’ll tell Auntie Gina what happened and I’m sure she’ll be too grateful that you did so much for me that she’ll let it go.” Nicole said, sticking her now human-hued face framed by long black hair that had been piled under her wig around the door. “Sorry, I didn’t have much of a chance since I was in a hurry, but I’m a bit more than a friend of the Aethers. I’m one of their makeup artists and Gina’s my aunt. In fact, I’ll make it up to her and give you a little something too. That bodysuit’s actually pretty well constructed. I bet if you have an hour or two then I can make it look a lot more realistic. Auntie won’t mind doing a bit of repair on the horse if she’s got a photorealistic female suit to go with it.” She disappeared back into the room and came out a few minutes later in jeans and a T-shirt, all traces of her Gorgon makeup gone.

“Wow.” Nelly said. “That would be fantastic!”

“Glad to help.” Nicole replied. “But first we have to get all that junk off of you. I need you clear of all other products from head to toe before I work. However, I think we could both use a drink.” She went to a side board. “I personally enjoy bourbon and I don’t have many female friends that do too. You’re not all the way to being a gal pal, but you’ll do.” She poured and gave Nelly a snifter.

“I can’t usually afford good liquor.” Nelly said, sitting back in an overstuffed chair next to Nicole.”

“Then drink and enjoy.” She held up the glass. “Slanj!”

“L’chayim!” Nelly replied.

“Ah.” Nicole smacked her lips. “I needed that. Thanks again for letting me get in with you and for helping me out back there.”

“And thank you in advance for the new paint job.” Nelly replied.

“It’s no big deal.” Nicole said. “I sort of want to do it to see if I can. Nelly was aware that Nicole was staring at her. “You know, you look really comfortable. Not at all like you’re a guy in a costume pretending.”

“The Aethers’ interviewer found a few mistakes.”

“Feh, that’s their job. There’s such a thing as too good.” Nicole replied, putting her hand on Nelly’s. “Although maybe some of that is the liquor talking.” She smiled. “To be honest, painting you up to look more real is partly an excuse to get an even better look at you. I never paid much attention to these outfits when I visited Auntie Gina at her store, but now I’m really curious.”

“This one isn’t the best.” Nelly demurred.

“No, I do remember seeing some that were already well colored.” Nicole agreed. “If this one was from the best group, Auntie Gina would have had it on display with the others and I know I’ve never seen your face on a mannequin. That threw me at first. When I was riding you, I almost thought you were real and I was imagining it. That you’d put on some liquid latex layer for another reason.”

“Wow! Thanks!” Nelly said. “I just don’t want to disappoint.”

“You won’t. I may go in and have a gander at Gina’s best now that I’m interested. Right now, I have you and I want to see you. Maybe we can have a little fun at it too, since we have to get that glitter and stuff off of you.” She got up. “Shower time!”

“Um.” Nelly said as Nicole blithely started taking her jeans off. “Guy, remember.”

“You think girls strip off like this around each other?” Nicole asked. “Not usually. Don’t worry,” she said with a grin, “I’m a professional. And you’re clothed head to toe in a costume, so I don’t see a problem.”

“If you’re sure.”

Nicole’s bra fell to the floor. “Absolutely.” She frowned and bent over. “Sorry, but I have to put this away.” She hung the pile of clothes on a hook on the outside of the bathroom door. “Better. I’m a little compulsive, so you’ll have to put yours here too. Come on, I haven’t got all night!”

Shyly, Nelly took the sweater and leggings off, hung them up and followed Nicole into the already running shower. She tried not to look anywhere but Nicole’s face as she scrubbed at Nelly’s cheeks. “Here, you can help.” She said, giving Nelly a long handled bath brush. Between the two of them, it wasn’t long before Nelly was satisfactorily clean. “See, not erotic at all.”

She helped Nelly wash her hair and then had to do another check for stray bits of glitter. “Is it naughty,” Nicole asked as she brushed Nelly’s hair while Nelly played the hair dryer over her scalp, “that I really want to see how far I can push you before your voice goes male?”

“Yes, but don’t let my moralizing stop you.” Nelly said eagerly.

Nicole whacked her lightly with the brush. “I don’t think either of us are that kind of girl. Though there is one thing.” She bit her lip. “Darn it, I have to know.” She knelt and before Nelly knew what was happened, she’d run her tongue all the way from the back of Nelly’s fake vaginal opening to the front and Nicole was trying to get her pinky into it. “It doesn’t taste of anything,” she murmured.

“You’re very close to making me lose my voice,” Nelly squeaked.

“Oh dear! You can feel that.”

“Yes!” Nelly said in an even higher pitch when Nicole’s finger brushed at the maleness inside.

“It doesn’t go very far in. What’s that - oh!” Nicole removed her finger quickly and was blushing when she went back to Nelly’s hair. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I got carried away.”

“Yeah, well.” Nelly said breathlessly. “If you’re going to, you ought to go all the way next time.”

“You were that close.”

“Nicole,” Nelly said in a more normal voice. “You’ve been washing me naked for almost half an hour and no matter how hard I try, I can’t help but look. You’ve just licked and touched my dick. Yes, I was close.”

“Sorry,” Nicole said again. “I was way out of line. It’s just - when I get curious or something sticks in my mind, I have to do something about it. It’s why I don’t go to museums anymore. I get this compulsion to feel or smell the art.”

“I bet you’re a riot at parties.”

“I don’t know, you tell me.” Nicole said, regaining most of her bold tone.

Nicole put her clothes back on — and Nelly heaved an over-the-top sigh of relief — but Nelly had to remain naked. Nicole had a room dedicated to her craft, at the center of which was a table that could be turned into a chair, rotated and inclined in any direction. Nelly lay down, Nicole tied her hair back and put it in a protective shower cap and then Nicole started spraying her with an airbrush. “We’re going to be at this for at least two hours.” Nicole said. “Probably longer.” She let the silence grow for a few minutes. “So… did you see that ludicrous display last night?”

Much later, Nelly stood in a circle of mirrors salivating over the attractive pixiesh young lady that she could view from any angle. Nicole had gone as far as adding color to the band of real flesh that the suit didn’t cover, and had given Nelly strict instructions on how to remove it along with a small supply. “Satisfied?” Nicole asked in a smug tone when the wide-eyed Nelly stepped down from the mirror platform.

Nelly’s reply was a bone-cracking hug. “So happy!” Nelly squealed.

“Fantastic.” Nicole said, her face buried in Nelly’s chest. “Now if you could afford me a more pragmatic salute.”

“Oh yes.” Nelly dropped her.

“If that’s your reaction, I think Auntie Gina won’t be mad.” Nicole said. “It was a fun project. I’ve never gotten to do someone head to foot before. I might try to convince the Aethers to do a play where I get to completely make someone up. Of course, now that you look more like a woman than a doll, you might consider putting on some clothes.”

“Oh, yes.” Nelly smiled and rubbed her head. “I guess I’ll have to borrow some of yours to go home in.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Nicole smile back. “You can bring them back and I’ll trade you for all the centaur parts. Come as a man and we can have coffee or something. You seem like an interesting guy.”

“Ah, sure.” Nelly said, shrugging into the sweater.

“You have a girlfriend, don’t you?”

“Not exactly. A neighbor who was really helpful when I was getting ready. She sort of called dibs on dating me, though.”

“Hey, who says you have to be exclusive?” Nelly looked at Nicole in disbelief. “Oh, not what I meant! I mean … bring her with. She sounds interesting too.”

“Are you bi, then?”

“That’s for me to know, and the two of you to find out.” Nicole said salaciously. “I hope the image I’ve put in your head keeps you warm all the way home. Good night.” She held out a pair of flip-flops that wouldn’t have been enough if Nelly’s feet hadn’t included a layer of thick material.

“Good night.” Nelly replied, half of William’s mind already on the possibilities Nicole suggested.

William’s body and ardor cooled in the autumn air and by the time Nelly reached her apartment building she was wishing she had yet another layer around the band that had only a sweater between it and the air. She didn’t go straight for William’s apartment — it was locked and she didn’t have the key. Instead, she went to Jackie’s, where she’d slid the key under the door and knew her neighbor was waiting.

Jackie was waiting with more than a key. She had a full supper laid out and despite Nelly’s lateness, it appeared warm and fresh. “You must have had a successful evening.” Jackie said. “Where’s the costume? And why do you look so — um — alive? I hope this isn’t some sort of Cinderella situation.”

“It’s a very long story.” Nelly said with heavy emphasis. She sat down and Jackie poured red wine into her glass.

“Let’s hear it!” Jackie said, leaning forward eagerly.

Nelly started with her trip to the party and being chased by the hooligans…

“Oh my god!” Jackie whispered, squeezing Nelly’s hand.

Then the Alp and the Gorgon…

“I’ve never heard of them. Sounds like a cross between Gollum and the Krampus.”

Her interview…

“Everyone thinks of a few things they wished they’d said. It sounds like he really liked you, though.”

The faerie…

“You are so giving me another ride when you get the costume back.”

Nicole’s request and being pursued again…

“That was a really nice thing to do. It’s too bad you were in a situation that you’d rather not explain to someone else, though.”

Finally Nicole’s offer, her relationship and behavior…

“Wow.” Jackie said. They had made their way through supper and she was slowly sipping at her second glass of wine. “She sounds very quirky. I really like what she did with you, though. The makeup, not the groping. I’m glad you feel comfortable enough to tell me about her.”

Nelly gazed into Jackie’s eyes. “I didn’t want to hide anything from you. So, um, what, I mean have you thought about…”

“Her offer?” Jackie laughed. “Sure, I’d love to meet her. I’ll go with you when you pick everything up from her place and take her stuff back. That way I can get my horseback ride on the way back. I’m not the kind of person who jumps right into bed and I’ve never thought about another woman that way, but at the very least she sounds like an interesting person to know. You sound like you had fun with her and not just because she almost got you off. It also sounds like you were willing to give up a quick score because you wanted something deeper with me. Thank you.” Jackie took a deep breath. “I bought you a present and what with what happened, I think there will never be a better time for it.” She took a box out from under the sofa.

“Oh my! It’s so… sexy.” Nelly said, holding up the dress. It had a knee length satin skirt, plunging neckline and was gathered in the front with straps would leave her sides bare from her armpit to the bottom of her ribcage. It was also very red.

“I thought with your complexion and those striking green eyes that it would work. You’ve got more color now that you’ve had work done, but I think you can pull it off.” She smiled as William was obviously blushing at the lingerie that looked like it had come from Victoria’s Secret‘s racier pages. “Well you have to have something to go underneath. I’ve also got matching shoes. I hope they fit.”

Nelly got up and gave Jackie a deep hug. “Thank you.”

“It’s not over yet.” Jackie grinned. “I’m going to change into something of my own while you try that on and then I’m going to further your feminine education. You’re going to learn how to look like the sort of woman who accepts drinks bought for her while never promising anything in return.”

“Isn’t that a bit dishonest?”

“Probably. But we’ll be friendly, just not inviting. Most guys won’t mind.”

“And a bit sexist?”

“Not if we get some from the ladies and buy a few in return for everyone. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see a guy you won’t mind flirting with. I’ll bail you out if you go too far.”

“I don’t know.” Nelly said.

“If you don’t want to, I won’t make you.” Jackie said. “But it would be a waste of a great makeup job and a really amazing dress.”

“Promise you’ll watch out for me?”

“Of course.” Jackie smiled. “What else are big sisters for?”

“Come in! Come in!” Gina said effusively. “Let me take that.” Before William could say a word, she’d effortlessly pulled the boxes he’d labored to carry back from his arms and was bustling back to her gallery.

“Nicole told you what happened.”

“Of course she did, Willie. Now don’t you worry about anything. A few scratches are to be expected given the way you had to pull my Nicole out of danger.”

“I hope she didn’t exaggerate anything,” William said, rubbing his hand over his trousers unconsciously.

“Nicole does many unusual things, but strangely enough she was never much for embellishment.” Gina put the boxes down and opened the accessory box. “Let’s see. Oh yes. She does do good work.” Gina pulled out the female top and bottom. “I could display these now.” She looked sidelong at William. “Although… Nicole tells me you were quite a hit last night.”

“I wouldn’t say-“

“Don’t play coy with me, Willie. I wasn’t sure you’d plump for it, but apparently you were cute as a button.” She held up the two parts. “Here. You can keep them for now. You’ll need the practice. I’m sure you’ll be able to pay me for them later on and as long as you don’t rip anything, it’s not like I can’t ask you for them back if I need them for something. They don’t really match the centaur box anymore anyway.”

“It’s too much.”

“No more argument. Take it, enjoy it, have fun.” She smiled secretly. “Trust me. You’ll have more need than you’d think.”

William swallowed. “Thank you.”

“It’s so fun to drive an actor to speechlessness.” Gina said brightly. “You’ll do just fine.”

“Come on, open it!” Nicole said, almost bouncing in her booth seat across from William and Jackie.

“We should make you wait until dessert.” Jackie said. Nicole stuck her tongue out. She’d become close friends with Jackie and William over the course of the previous week and only occasionally made suggestions about the other two opening their relationship up a bit to let her join them. In truth she didn’t miss out on much. Apart from the occasional date or after work dinner at the apartment building, she was included in most of the things they did together. She especially enjoyed when they went out to clubs with Nelly. She seemed to think it was great fun to explore all the ways she could get Nelly into situations Jackie would have to rescue her from and then look all the more self-satisfied on the occasions — growing more frequent as William gained experience — that Nelly extricated herself without aid. The marks left by the Nelly suit’s tightness had also begun to fade as his body got used to wearing it, though he’d been thinking of wearing it less after several days of stomach cramps.

“I don’t think I could wait that long either.” William said, placing the envelope on the table. “Besides, we need to know what it says so we know what drink to order.”

“I’d drink whiskey either way.” Nicole said.

“Peckerwood.”

“Fancypants.”

William opened the letter, read it and a slow smile crept across his face. “First line understudy.” He looked at Nicole. “You didn’t say anything, did you?”

“I’d never!” Nicole said, getting up. “But congratulations. Oh, well, Auntie Gina might have. You know that if she hears about something she tells everyone about it.”

“Is that good?” Jackie asked as Nicole got up and slapped William on the back.

“As good as he could have expected,” Nicole said.

“They actually only had one opening in their ‘inner circle.’” William explained. “Someone would have to click with them really well to get that spot without working for them first. First line means I learn all the parts I’d fit and usually have a permanent leading part in matinee performances as well as taking over if someone has a chandelier fall on them or something. I’m also in a good place to become one of the big names if I work well with them.” He kept reading. “Oh. They think I’d do well to work with Ryan to start.”

“He’s the cutest.” Nicole said.

“He’s also the first choice if they’ve got one too many female parts and one too few male.” William added.

“Like I said, he’s cute.” Nicole said with a satisfied smile. “Hey, he might be able to get you a costume that fits so we won’t have to listen to your guts rumbling all the time.”

“Well, Will,” Jackie said, fighting down laughter, “you did introduce yourself as a transvestite. Apparently they thought you were good.”

“Ryan’s amazing,” William said. “I didn’t even recognize him.”

“Oh, he was that really colorful faerie.” Nicole said. “I did his makeup that night.”

“Wow.” William said.

“Yeah, you’ll learn a lot from him.” Nicole said. “And I’m sure they’ll let you do guy parts too.”

“Exactly.” Jackie added. “If you’re good enough, you may one day appear on stage in one.”

William put his face in his hands while the two ladies laughed.



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