Chapter 1: Xander
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“Hey, Xander!”

I looked up from the track to my friend Roger. He and a few of our triathlon teammates were standing near the starting line, some twenty metres away from me. “Yeah?” I replied.

“We’re hitting the showers, and then we’re going to grab a few drinks,” Roger called to me. “Wanna come with?”

“Nah, man,” I said. “I still have a few strides to run, and I have work after that. I’ll take a rain check.”

“Alright, see ya in class tomorrow!” he said, then the group turned away from me and headed for the changing room, leaving me alone on the track. Just as well. I wasn’t as fast as them, and I liked to train alone. I was on the team in name only anyway; I didn’t care about racing or results, I ran (and swam, and rode) because I really enjoyed it. I’d started doing it a few years earlier, just on a lark, and found out that I liked it. Now it was my only distraction from my drab, everyday life, made up of classes, homework, and my part-time job.

I walked to the starting line, took a deep breath, and started my final drills for the day.

An hour later I got in my car and headed to my workplace. My ride of choice was an old Crown Vic, first generation, a former cop car; I’d bought it cheap at auction a few months prior. It was… Serviceable. It made a worrying clunk whenever I put it into drive, and I knew that sooner or later the engine would crap out on me, but for the time being I saw no reason to spend more money to buy a new car. Since I only needed to drive three days per week, to head to my part-time job half an hour away from home, the one I had was good enough.

Speaking of my job, that night I was a bit worried, because I’d forgotten to bring a change of clothes. I was a waiter at a fine dining restaurant, and like all employees I’d been provided with two uniforms, which were made up of a white shirt, black trousers (or, optionally, a black knee-length skirt for girls), black non-slip shoes, and a burgundy apron. The head chef insisted that the waiters’ clothes be immaculate at the start of service, so we all kept the spare uniform in our lockers.

Except the previous time I’d been at work I’d spilled some coffee on my shirt, and brought it home to get it cleaned; but I’d forgotten to bring it back along with me that night. But things would be fine. Bad luck is just a myth.

I just had to think that, didn’t I?

“Evening, folks,” I said as I walked through the kitchen on the way to the dining room. I’d changed into my work uniform, and tied my long hair in a low ponytail; thankfully the chef didn’t mind hair length, as long as it was kept neat and out of the way – I’d been growing it out since junior high, for no real reason except that I liked it, and it would’ve been a shame to cut it now.

“Good evening, Xander,” Francis, the sous-chef, greeted me. “How are you tonight?”

“Oh, you know, same old, same old,” I replied. “Bit tired, ran track today. You?”

“Same old, same old,” he smiled. “How’s your sports career shaping up? You gonna be the next Bolt?”

I scoffed. “As if, I’m not nearly that good. And besides, Bolt’s a sprinter, I do triathlon.”

“And what’s the difference?” Francis asked.

“You see, triathlon is--”

Talking with Francis, I wasn’t paying enough attention to where I was going, and I ran right into Stefan, another chef, who was carrying a big pot full of a meaty-smelling concoction. We slammed into each other, and just barely managed to keep our balance; instinctively, I grabbed the pot to prevent it from falling to the floor.

“Ah man, sorry Stef,” I apologised. “My bad. You alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Stefan replied. “Be more careful next time, ‘kay? Had this been hot, it could’ve been ugly,” he chided me.

I nodded. “I will. Sorry.”

Once I was sure Stefan had a good hold on the pot I let it go, and as I did so I noticed a brown stain on my right sleeve, near the wrist: some liquid had sloshed out of the container as I caught it, and dropped on my arm.

I excused myself and rushed to the bathroom, where I used soap and hot water to scrub the cloth, but to no avail: while it was less visible, that stain clearly wouldn’t come out completely except in a washing machine.

And my spare shirt was still at home.

Figures. Maybe the chef wouldn’t notice.

By then it was getting late, so I hurried to the dining room, and lined up with the other half-dozen waiters for the usual inspection. The chef was a stickler for perfection, and gave all of us a once-over before allowing us to work for the night.

“Good evening, everyone,” said chef Belletti as she walked into the room.

“Good evening, chef!” we replied in a chorus.

She nodded. “Good. You are awake.” She looked over a list she held in her hand. “We have some reservations tonight, but nothing out of the usual. Just do your job as always, and everything will be fine.”

She fell quiet, and she ran her gaze over us, as she usually did before each service.

Please don’t notice, please don’t notice, please don’t notice, please don’t notice…

“Xander.”

Fuck.

“Yes, chef,” I said, not meeting her gaze.

“Show me your sleeve, if you please,” the chef said.

I raised my left arm.

“Your other sleeve. Do not be cheeky with me, young man.”

Silvia Belletti was a stunning, statuesque woman. Forty-four years old, with light blue eyes and raven-black hair, at six-foot-two she easily towered over my five-foot-four frame, even in flats. But that meant she could easily intimidate me, even without meaning to. I sighed, dropped my left arm, and raised my right. She took a few steps forward, and inspected my sleeve closely.

“What is this stain?” she asked.

“Gravy, maybe? I had a small run-in with a pot earlier in the kitchen.”

Chef Belletti shook her head. “No good. Go change.”

I gulped, and replied, “I… Don’t have a spare shirt. I left it at home.”

“Can you not borrow one?” she asked.

I looked left, then right, at the people lined up with me. All the boys were at least five inches taller than me, there was no way one of their shirts would fit me. “No, I don’t think so,” I said.

“Then you are excused for tonight. We will call for a replacement.”

I felt my stomach churning. “Chef, please. I’m already here. Let me work, I need the money, please.”

That wasn’t exactly true. I didn’t really need the money: I still lived at home, with most expenses paid. But I was trying to save a bit of money to try and pay off my college loan early, so I really wanted to work.

The chef shook her head again. “Xander. We both know the rules. While an accident may happen during service, I will not allow someone to start their shift in dirty clothing.” She looked straight at me. “Go home.”

I sighed, and slumped my shoulders. “Yes, ch--”

“Chef, if I may.”

Me and chef Belletti both turned to look at Molly. Long blond hair (not as long as mine, I noted with a bit of pride), green eyes, freckles, she was standing next to me in line. She’d started working at the restaurant a couple weeks earlier, and I’d chatted with her a few times, but I couldn’t really say I knew her.

“Yes, Molly?” said chef Belletti.

“I think I have an idea, which will allow Xander to work tonight. Do you mind if I try it?” Molly said.

The chef considered it. “How long will it take?”

“Not long. We should be back before service starts.”

After thinking a bit more, chef Belletti nodded. “Okay. Go ahead.”

Molly thanked the chef, took me by the hand and dragged me out of line, through the kitchen, and towards the changing rooms; as we entered the girl’s changing room, she closed the door behind us.

“Alright. Strip,” she commanded, looking at me.

I gave her a blank stare. “Excuse me?”

Molly huffed, and explained. “The problem is that you don’t have a spare shirt, right? Well, you can have my blouse. I mean,” she motioned at me, then at herself, “We’re about the same size, it should fit.”

“Oh. Thanks, really,” I said. I unbuttoned my stained shirt and took it off, while Molly opened her locker and pulled out her blouse. I put it on, buttoned it up (not without a bit of trouble, since the buttons were on the wrong side), then took a step back. “How do I look?” I asked.

Molly put a finger to her chin and gave me a thoughtful look. “Hmmmmm… Nope,” she said.

“Nope? What do you mean, nope?”

“You can’t wear that blouse with those trousers. The overall shape is just wrong.”

I was taken aback. The shape was wrong? “Come on, who’s going to notice?”

“Chef Belletti will,” Molly replied. “You know she has a keen eye for these details.”

“So what do we do?”

Molly considered the question a bit, then marched over to her locker, pulled out a black knee-length skirt on a hanger, and handed it to me. “Here, put this on.”

“You want me to wear a skirt?!” I asked, bewildered.

“The trousers are no good, and you can’t well work with your underwear showing, can you,” she said, matter-of-factly. “So it’s either this, or going home.”

She had a point. “Fine.”

I unhooked my belt, unbuttoned my trousers, and started to pull them down, then I paused, and I looked at Molly.

“What?” she asked.

“Can you turn around?”

“Oh, someone’s shy,” she said, in a halfway-mocking tone. But she turned her back to me. I took off my trousers, put the skirt on, and pulled the zipper up.

“I’m done,” I said.

Molly turned back to face me, gave me a critical look, and said, “No you’re not.”

I sighed. “What now?”

“Well, to begin with,” she said, taking hold of the top of the skirt, “Your waist isn’t down there, it’s up here.” She yanked the skirt up a few inches, and I yelped in surprise.

“That’s better,” she said, smoothing the blouse and the skirt. “Now, tights.”

This was going beyond what I’d imagined. Even if I had no idea what I’d imagined in the first place. “Can’t I go bare-legged?”

“No, you can’t. In a professional environment such as this restaurant, it would just be bad manners,” Molly replied, rooting around in her locker. “I think I… Ah yes, here they are.” She turned around and handed me a new, unopened pack of black matte tights. “That goes double if you’ve shaved recently,” she said, motioning to my legs.

Which were shaved. Because of course they were. I did triathlon, which meant swimming, running, and cycling, and especially in swimming and cycling, shaved legs are the norm. I don’t know whether Molly knew that, though.

“By the way, boxers or briefs?” Molly asked.

It took me a few seconds to realise what she meant. “Ah, briefs.”

She nodded. “Good. Boxers are no good with tights, you would’ve had to change your underwear.”

I shuddered at the thought, and sat down on a bench to put on the tights. As I did so I almost caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, but Molly chided me and told me not to look until we were done.

“What about shoes?” I asked.

“You can wear yours,” she replied. “Non-slip black shoes are all the same in the end. Now, make-up.”

Make-up?

“Yes, make-up. Again, not wearing it would be unprofessional. Now, sit still and look at me.”

In a flash, she’d pulled out a small bag full of cosmetics, and sat in a chair opposite me.

“You’re lucky you’ve shaved recently and have a really light beard, we can spare the foundation this time.” She painted a bit of my eyelid with a black pencil, and then took out a tube of what I later learned was mascara, and put the small brush she produced out of it right in front of my eye, under my eyelashes. It took all I had not to flinch.

“Blink. Slowly,” she said, and as I did so, part of my eyelashes were covered in the black substance. “Good.” She moved the brush slightly. “Blink.”

Then she did my other eye, and after putting away the mascara, painted my lips a bit with what looked like a pink crayon, and added some light-pink lipstick on top of that. She was looking like she was having entirely too much fun.

“This is so much fun.”

Well, that pretty much confirmed my suspicions. “And… We’re done,” she said, pulling my hair up into a high ponytail and securing it with a scrunchie she produced seemingly out of thin air.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. “Molly, what is happening in there?” came chef Belletti’s voice. “It is almost time!”

Molly walked to the door and opened it. “Ta-da!” she said, stepping aside so the chef could get a good look at me. “Don’t she look cute?”

She? Cute? Me?

I shrank under the chef’s gaze, almost expecting her to cuss at me and order me out of her restaurant, but after a few moments she just nodded.

“Yes, she does look cute,” she said.

She? Cute? Me?

“But I do think there is something missing, probably,” the chef said, and she leaned in to look at me more closely. Then she nodded again, removed her cap, pulled a hairpin studded with crystals out of her hair, and showed it to me.

“Pietro Giovanni,” she said.

I blinked at her. “Excuse me?”

She blinked in return, then gave a brief laugh. “Oh, I am sorry. Sometimes I forget I am not in Italy any more.” She smiled at me. “It is a saying we have, it means I will want this returned with no damage once you are done using it.” I nodded, and she brushed my hair away from my forehead, and used the hairpin to hold it in place.

Molly set her hands on my shoulders, and turned me around to face the mirror.

My heart skipped a beat, and I gasped.

There was a girl in the mirror. She was wearing a white blouse, black skirt, black tights and shoes, her makeup was subtle but enhanced her features, her chestnut hair was held in a very good-looking ponytail, and the hairpin complemented her hazel eyes.

She was beautiful.

And she was me.

That instant I realised something, with a sinking feeling.

I’d found something I loved more than sports.

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