Chapter Thirty-Four: Appearance
Francesca briskly walked through the streets of Shift. Behind her, she dragged Seon along by the wrist. The elf had long since stopped trying to drag his heels into the dirt to stop her.
“I don’t need a makeover...” Seon grumbled yet again.
“Yes, you do,” Francesca said firmly. “You look like an escaped prisoner.”
“...If you think about it, I technically am one.”
They finally stopped at the front of La Jolie Fleur. Francesca could feel a wave of something akin to nostalgia while Seon only felt dread.
He sighed and yanked his arm out of her grasp. “Look, I don’t want to be poked and prodded while everyone’s staring at me. Remember, I was there the whole time so I saw what happened with Victor.” He gestured to himself. “And I don’t exactly pass as ‘cute.’”
Francesca’s expression softened. “He has a private room, remember?”
"He’ll still be staring at me.”
Francesca’s eyebrows went up. “You don’t mind when Baudouin and I are looking at you.”
Seon scoffed. “I’m going to feel really self-conscious around my childhood friend and... you.”
Francesca felt indignant for only a moment before she realized his point. “Touche.”
Seon’s eyes went back to the front of the store. He inhaled a deep breath. He grabbed Francesca’s wrist and went inside.
The cascade of rose petals and bell over the doorway alerted the shapeshifters to their presence. Every pair of eyes turned to the doorway. Francesca felt Seon’s hand shaking. After a moment, everyone went back to whatever they were looking at before.
Francesca saw Maze skipping over to another chair. When they briefly locked eyes, the girl gave her a wave. Francesca politely returned it before she went back to business.
“Cecil?” Francesca asked. “Which one of you is Cecil?”
Nearly every hand pointed to the furthest chair from the door. The client stood up and the shapeshifter standing over her chair mimed dusting of his hands. At the moment, Cecil had a lithe figure and dark hair that nearly brushed the floor. Once he and Francesca locked eyes, his face spread into a smile.
“Oh! It’s you again!” he said cheerfully.
When Cecil walked over to them, he started shifting mid-step as he did the first time they’d met. His hair flew up from the floor and stopped at shoulder-length. It lightened from a brown, to a beige, and then finally settling on a golden blonde. A slight bit of stubble sprouted from his chin as he rearranged his facial structure. Francesca had looked away long enough for Cecil to finish while Seon was taking in every uneasy second of it. When he was done, Cecil was standing before them in his “most popular” form.
“I will never get used to that,” Francesca sighed.
Seon merely eyed Cecil over before asking him “Doesn’t it hurt?”
There was a chorus of laughter from all of the shapeshifters in the room, the loudest being Cecil himself. Seon shifted uncomfortably and looked away. Cecil changed into a full-figured woman and put his arm on Seon’s shoulder.
“Would you ask a bird if it hurt to fly?” Cecil asked. He sounded like he was reciting a poem. “Or a dragon if it hurt to breathe fire? Or if it hurt a fish to swim? My dear, this comes as naturally as breathing.”
Francesca cleared her throat. It was then that Cecil felt the radiating waves of loathing coming from the elf. He changed into a small boy close to Victor’s age and held his hands up.
“Sorry! Sorry!” he stammered. “I got a little carried away! It was a cute question; I wasn’t expecting it.” He changed back into a blonde man and rubbed his neck. “So, um, who might you be? You look familiar for some reason.”
“Seon,” the elf said bluntly. “I’m... I guess, I’m related to Victor.”
Cecil’s eyebrow went up. “You guess?”
“It’s complicated,” he snapped.
“Okay, okay, I won’t pry.” Cecil’s expression grew sympathetic as he eyed Seon. “Would you like to go to our private room? You seem... ill at ease.”
Cecil walked them to the back room, waving Maze over as they went. The other shapeshifters seemed to take this as a signal for their break. They leaned against the chairs and started chatting with their clients. Right before they went in, Cecil changed into the broad black man that was his most comfortable form.
“So,” Cecil said smoothly. “How have you been, Francine?”
“...It’s Francesca,” she correctly.
“Oh, sorry, I’m pretty bad at names,” he confided. “Bad at faces if I haven’t personally worked them. Plus, it’s been so long, dear.”
“It’s been two months,” Seon said dryly.
Cecil’s brow furrowed in confusion. “How-?”
“He was invisible,” Francesca explained. “He was with Victor and I the whole time.”
“Ah, that explains...” Cecil vaguely gestured to all of Seon.
“Hey!” he said, indignant.
“But, don’t worry, I am a professional. Maze, if you would.”
Maze walked up to Seon with her hands out. When the elf started backing away, she gave him a puzzled frown.
“It’s, uh, best if you don’t,” he explained. “Considering what happened last time.”
Cecil gave him a fond smile. “Thank you for the concern but she wasn’t going to look through your memories. She was just going to see how you wanted me to change you.”
Seon shrugged. “I don’t even know. Could you just give me a haircut and make me look older?”
The shapeshifter’s eyebrows went up. He turned into an elderly human with thinning grey hair and more wrinkles than smooth skin. “Older?” he said teasingly.
Francesca failed to suppress a laugh and even Maze let out a giggle. Seon wasn’t amused.
“No,” he said firmly. “You know, um, mature looking. Make it so that no one confuses me for a kid anymore.”
“That’s hard to do for elves,” Cecil said with a sigh. “Especially... How old are you?”
Seon sighed. “Five hundred and fifty.”
Cecil looked offended. “Shut up.”
“No, really! I’m over five hundred!”
Cecil turned into a small girl around Maze’s age. He dramatically used her for support as he placed a hand to his head.
“Maze, darling, if this is what five hundred looks like then... I’m old,” he whined.
Francesca had her face in her hands from the second-hand embarrassment. Honestly, Cecil was too much.
Maze, however, just silently pat his back and shook her head.
“No, Maze, don’t flatter me. I’ve already lost count of the years. I think it’s safe to say that I’m, in fact, ancient.”
Francesca rolled her eyes. “Could you tone it down a little? Or a lot?”
Cecil’s melodramatic mask fell and he crossed his arms. He changed into the blonde man again. “You’re no fun,” he said with a pout.
“Remember, we’re here for business,” Seon added.
“Right...” he sighed. “Excuse me for trying to have fun with my job. Maze, check what his parents look like so I can at least make this accurate.”
Maze walked up to Seon and gently placed her fingers on his temple. He looked like he was ready to retreat before he reluctantly accepted his fate. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
Francesca leaned over to Cecil with a mischievous smirk on her face. “I will pay you triple if you don’t change his height,” she whispered.
“Just let me fix you up a bit and we have a deal,” he bargained.
“Deal.” Then they shook hands on it.
Maze finally removed her hands from Seon and opened her eyes. Seon finally gasped out the breath he’d been holding. He looked almost embarrassed and pointedly looked away from the girl.
“I apologize for literally everything you saw in there.”
She put a hand on his shoulder and smiled. Then she lightly stepped over to Cecil. She held his hand with an odd smile on her face.
Cecil seemed like he was trying to hold back any comments. Something akin to empathy flashed in his eyes. Then he turned into a spitting image of Seon. Well, nearly spitting image. The copy still had Cecil’s drooping eyes and his appearance was much more kempt.
“This is what you’d look like if I just made your hair shorter.” Cecil made Seon’s face and torso fill out a bit. “This is what you’d look like if you had a more... healthy lifestyle.” Then Cecil made Seon’s frame broader and gave his face a slightly harder look. “This is what I can guess you would look like if I were to try to make you look ‘older.’”
Seon’s lip curled back in a sneer. “Ew. Please tell me I won’t look like my dad.”
Cecil reversed the last alteration. “I told you, it was just a guess. Here’s my other guess.”
Cecil changed into a version of Seon with a much kinder aura to him. His face was smooth and heart-shaped. There were a few light streaks of grey in his hair that just barely lay on his forehead. It barely looked like the elf it was supposed to be.
Seon stood there stunned before he shook his head. “No thanks. It looks too much like my mother.”
Cecil changed back and shrugged. “Again, these were just guesses. I can’t see the future. You might have just stopped aging earlier than one hundred so you’re stuck like that.”
Seon sighed. “Figures. Just fix me up then.”
The change was brief. Seon’s hair went from a hopelessly matted black mane to a simple cut, just long enough to pass a hand through. While before, he was looking better due to having a steady supply of food; now he looked as if he were never starved in the first place. He would have looked almost handsome, were it not for the frown still marring his face.
“Aaaand we’re done,” Cecil said. “Go take a look at yourself in one of the mirrors. See if you like it.” The shapeshifter then turned to Francesca with a grin. “Your turn.”
Francesca rolled her eyes and walked up to Cecil. With the grin still in place, he turned into a copy of Francesca. The eyebrows were much thinner and defined into rounded arcs. The hair seemed much smoother and tumbled down the shoulders. The skin, while barely noticable, was clearer and free of scars. The overall figure seemed much more feminine and curved.
It was a bit unsettling.
“Uh...” Francesca stammered. “You do realize I’m just going to somehow mess this up in a week, right?”
“We made a deal,” he purred.
Francesca tensed under Cecil’s touch and she closed her eyes. After about a minute, she realized... nothing happened. Cecil realized it too, much to his frustration.
“Now what?” he almost growled.
“I don’t kn... Oh.”
Francesca reached into her pocket and pulled out the Stone of Void. Cecil stared at it curiously.
“I think this is what’s stopping it.”
“Alright then,” he said. “I’ll just put this over-”
The moment that Cecil had touched it, from the second that he lifted the gem out of Francesca’s hand; his eyes widened. His guise of Francesca dropped. In his place was a stranger that they’d never seen before. Francesca was only able to get a glimpse but she was able to register mousy hair and a crooked nose that had probably healed wrong.
He let the gem drop to the floor and changed back into his form of a broad black man. Then the blonde. Then the woman who looked like Maze. He shuffled through several forms until he settled on the long-haired waif they’d seen at the door. He sneered at the stone as if it had bitten him. He took a step back from it.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” he said with a slight crack in his voice. “That... That doesn’t usually happen to me.” When his attempt at a joke didn’t land, he turned into Francesca. “Let’s... try this again.”
His fingers left her temples as quickly as they came. The most she had felt was a slight twinge. Francesca reached up to feel if Cecil even did anything. Her eyebrows were practically nonexistent beneath her fingers so clearly he did.
“Okay, at least that worked.” He sounded relieved.
Francesca bent down to pick up the Stone of Void. When she felt the same twinge, she furrowed her brow in confusion. After she put the gem back in her pocket, she turned to see Cecil’s expression fill with annoyance.
“Are you kidding me?” he said.
Francesca reached up. Her eyebrows had returned to normal.
“Uh, should we try again?” she asked.
He dismissively waved a hand. “Don’t bother. You technically filled your end of the deal.”
“What deal?” Seon asked.
“Nothing you have to worry about,” they both replied.
Seon frowned a bit before he shook it off and went toward the door. Francesca soon followed suit.
“You’re leaving so soon?” Cecil asked.
“Yeah,” Seon answered. “We’ve got places to be.”
“Thank you for your services though.” Francesca dug into her bag and pulled out three gold coins.
“Anytime,” the shapeshifter said. “Although, I have to say, I’m a little offended.”
That got the two of them stopping in their tracks. Maze looked up at Cecil with a growing smile on her face. Cecil mirrored her with a slight smirk of his own.
“What do you mean?” Francesca asked.
“I mean, you brought royalty over to Shift and you didn’t so much as invite me for tea with him?”