Some stories persist across cultures, across time. And there are a hundred thousand retellings and variations already, some of which I really enjoy, and some of which I despise. (The latter often break the story in order to make it “modern” or fit the moral they wish to tell, instead of the universal truth underneath.)
But I never thought I’d end up writing one. And then… then I was stuck hard on the WIP. (With a little distance, I can see that I have structural weakness to it that will require an edit severe enough to almost be a new draft from scratch, and I don’ wanna. Not so much writer’s block as writer’s pout, really.) So, I decided to free-write just to get some words, any words on a page.
And what comes out? Beslan meets a ballroom. Really, brain? Can’t do something cute and funny, or sweet and sappy? *sigh*
And then when looking at it more, I realized.. it’s a Cinderella story fragment. Upon grumbling about such to my husband, he perked up, and teasingly asked me if I was going to have a Gunny Sergeant for a fairy godmother.
My muse said: Challenge Accepted.
So here’s a snippet, of something completely unfinished and currently in progress.
“What’s got you looking like you’re about to run a course under fire?” The voice at Lizzes’ back was close enough her skirts caught against his suit pants in a swirling puddle as she turned. Twitch, the redhead from the smoker’s patio, surveyed the banquet table and the rest of the room, then looked back at her with the same small smile. “I wouldn’t trust the punch, but the food isn’t that bad.”
“Long story.” In the bright light of the banquet room, she could tell his suit was worth more than she made in half a year, and he’d foregone a boutonniere in favour of a small gold pin that looked like a dagger piercing the heart of their world, braced by wings. Below it, a small medal dangled from a striped ribbon. She didn’t know what either meant, but she didn’t want to whine at strangers far higher up the social ladder from her.
He was clearly not buying her attempt at casual dismissal. Instead, his smile crept up another notch, as his eyes met her, studying her intently enough she could feel her face get warm. His voice was low, gentle, and completely implacable. “I’ve got all night.”
“So, ah, I’m a grad student in the geology department. Specializing in petrochemical-bearing strata.” She shrugged, trying to ignore the way her face was getting hotter under his intense, direct stare. “Terribly boring to anyone outside my specialty.”
“Petro? You specialize in finding oil?” His voice dropped to almost a whisper. “Lizzes, that’s what we fight wars over, thanks to our hasty terraforming. Trust me, I’m not bored.”
She looked away from the challenge in his stare. “My department had some, ah, upheaval recently. Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small, you know?” When she looked back with a weak smile at the old joke, he met her eyes and nodded. “My advisor left to work in the industry, and I’ve been shunted to an environmental remediation prof, since it’s petro-related. Who is very clear that I’m a drain on his time and the resources of his department compared to the grad students who specialize in undoing all our work, or preventing exploration.”
Twitch made a low noise in the back of his throat, and it wasn’t exactly neutral. “Go on.”
“So I thought, if I came here tonight, I could make some contacts, network, and find a job in the industry myself…” She trailed off, blushing hard and feeling her shoulders start to slump under the magnitude of her failure. “I didn’t realize how very many people there would be.”
“So, you’re bailing from the ivory tower before you’re sabotaged and kicked out? Good plan.” Twitch looked out at the room again, eyes flicking from point to point. When he finished, he looked back at her. “Do you have any holos of your targets? If you point them out, we can make a plan to network and execute it.”
“Right. All I have to do is get past… nevermind.” Lizzes shut her mouth, and picked up a small, delicate cracker piled with something light green and minty.
“Oh, I don’t mind. Who are you half-hiding from behind this set of pillars, trying to dodge?” He was smiling faintly again, and there was nothing faint about the teasing tone.
“The bit… ladies… over by the edge of the dance floor, at the flowers, in the blue dresses.” She replied, carefully not looking at them.
Twitch looked. “Third column on the left, bottle blondes, two out of three with fake tits?” At the noise she made, he looked back to watch her struggle not to choke on the mouthful of cracker. “Sorry.”
The thumps on her back weren’t helping, but she got the crumbs and herbed cheese swallowed. “No, you’re not. You’re not sorry at all.” But she was laughing herself, the awful tension washed away by his grin. “Those are the grad students in the terraforming remediation program. They’re vicious little… persons, with a bad case of status. If they spot me here, they’ll go out of their way to sabotage me, if not get me tossed just because they can.”
“I get it. We’re the redheaded stepchildren.” Twitch was anything but intimidated, as he tossed her a wink. “Gotta stick together.”
“Thanks.” She felt better, despite everything.
“Now, if I were oilfield services, where would I be? Bet they’re just as far away from the gliteratti as they can get. Shall we reconnoiter, madam?” Twitch offered his arm, and Lizzes took it.
“I don’t know why you’re being so helpful, but I really appreciate it.” She smiled at him, trying to coordinate heels, swirling skirt, and change of direction.
“Oh, I could tell you it’s because you’re very cute in that dress. Or I could admit that I’m very, very bored, and I’m not allowed to leave or get disgracefully drunk until midnight.” He replied, and carefully steered her through a wall of people. He had enough muscle hidden under the fine tailoring to easily move her and make it look graceful. She also noticed that the men in the party looked at the winged dagger pin and the medal on his chest, and made way for him.
As they worked toward the main staircase, past a bevy of giggling women, Twitch said softly, “May I ask you a question?”
“Of course, sir?”
“Oh, don’t call me sir. I work for a living.” He was smiling, and she felt like she was missing a joke. “There’s no way a grad student could afford the dress you’re wearing.”
“Ah, no.” She was blushing again, even as he steered them past the long queue for the elevator and toward the stairs. “Um, my landlord, Gunny Halvorsen, it belonged to his wife. When I told him I wished I could go to the ball, he arranged the carriage, the tickets, and even this dress.”
Twitch stopped abruptly, and turned that intense look on her again. With careful diction, as if each word were an unexploded bomb, he said, “Gunny Halvorsen?”
“His first name is really Sven, but everyone calls him Gunny.” She was about to try to describe her grizzled bulldog of a friendly landlord when Twitch shook his head.
“His first name is Gunny. Yes. He granted your wish to attend the…” Twitch stopped, and looked away at the crowd, his lips rippling with barely suppressed mirth. “I’m sorry.” His eyes were shining.
“Sorry for what?”
“It’s just…” Twitch’s voice was strangled with barely-suppressed laughter as he looked back at her. “I’m picturing Gunny as a fairy godmother.”
“Ah, well, no, I don’t think anyone would ever mistake Gunny for that!” She had her free hand pressed against her lips, trying to hold back the belly laugh that threatened to double her over at the mental image.
Twitch suddenly straightened up, scanning the room. “Is he around?”
“No, no, he said he’s gone to far too many of these over the years.” She reassured her escort, and recalled the gruff voice muttering that she needed to be kicked out of the nest and to learn to fly. Lizzes really wished he’d come anyway.
Twitch patted her hand where it was nestled in the crook of his elbow. “Guess I’ll just have to look out for you for him, then.” Despite the smile lingering on his lips, his eyes were completely serious.