Sleeping in was one of the many luxuries Holly missed.
Not that she slept in all that much before the war, but never had she been woken by the loud clunk of a breaker being switched, panel lighting flickering on in quick succession, working its way down the corridor, the hum of electricity all but drowning out the small groans of the cells' inhabitants.
She kept her eyes closed an extra few seconds, silently hoping that she'd been having one long, very convincing dream. Then she finally opened them in response to a nearby metal clanging.
Holly pushed herself up on the hard bed, flexing her fingers to approximate claws, upper lip rising to display her teeth, and rumbled deep in her throat.
The human on the other side of the bars just laughed. He slammed a metal rod—it looked to just be some piping, nothing too specialized, and something he probably brought in on his own initiative—against the cell bars once more, the sharp tones making Holly wince, her elven ears unable to cope with the noise. "None of that, unseelie."
Instantly, Holly stopped growling, lips coming together in a simple frown, hands balling to fists.
"Get out of bed."
She hopped down from the top bunk, her cell-mate—a smallish sprite with braided hair down between her wings to her ankles—giving her an annoyed look for the jostling of the rickety frame. Or perhaps for the man's continued presence. No fairy enjoyed drawing human attention. Despite rumors about her past with Fowl, Holly didn't, either, but she never could convince her companions otherwise.
"There's a girl," the guard crooned, but he grumbled when Holly turned her back on him, breaking the valuable eye contact.
"Well, aye, be that way," he muttered, shifting closer to the bars.
Even if it as only a few inches closer, Holly felt her skin crawl. He could reach through those bars so easily. Touch her and...and she wouldn't be able to...even as her body now screamed to shift her weight back and snap her foot between the bars, deep into his groin, it was utterly impossible.
"Just remember, unseelie, it's in your best interest to behave tonight. Even the worst-behaved, ugliest stock here gets a buyer. Just her own...special buyer."
Holly turned to send a suitable return insult at the man, but he was already making his way down the corridor, waking the other reluctant inhabitants. Slowly, the cells came awake as forty fairies sat up in their beds, some stretching or shrinking in on themselves as they returned to consciousness. Many were frozen, and had to be spoken to very precisely to get them to leave their beds and relieve themselves in time for their handlers to come and escort them out.
Holly was in one of the first cells, so she had very little wait. They came for her cell-mate first, however, giving her a precious minute alone to think.
Every warning in the ship was screaming in Holly's ears. Some were voices—most recorded by Lieutenant Frond years ago, when the LEP still had time for such frivolities, and the Frond herself to indulge them—ordering her to do things to mitigate the oncoming disaster. Too many voices, and too many orders, many contradicting one another. With that chaos, she couldn't do anything but go manual, pulling up the nose of her ship as it approached the Earth not too far below.
"Eject!" Trouble was screaming. "Eject, Short! I've got it!"
Behind them, through the cockpit doorway, the fairies they were transporting had stopped wailing. Holly hoped it was just the violent motions of the craft which had knocked them out, and not a malfunction in the emergency air masks that had deployed after the shuttle depressurized. Her own mask was painfully suctioned to her mouth, muffling her voice as she screamed back at Trouble. "Not a chance, Commander! I've almost...got us...down!" The ground was now just a minute away. She leaned back, hands wrapped so tight on the controls that her bones ached, the vibrations of the craft rising up her arms, making her very brain buzz.
"That's an order, Major!" Trouble looked Holly in the eyes, reaching out to grab the steering column, though he had his own set in the co-pilot's chair. "Someone needs to report back. And I'm the CO here." He pushed at her hands, forcing them off the wheel.
Holly stopped focusing on their rapid fall. Just for a few seconds. Long enough to turn her head and look into Trouble's eyes, their faces so close together that their masks were bumping, breaking the airtight seals. Yet somehow, so long as her eyes were on his, she didn't feel the violent motions of the plane.
"Go, Holly," Trouble said in a normal volume, which seemed like a whisper in this moment and among the tumult. "For me."
Holly blinked, leaning away from the Commander. Her eyes stung, so she closed them. "D'arvit."
Reaching down to the side of her seat, she grabbed a lever, thumb flicking up a clear plastic cover and resting on the red button beneath. She took a bracing breath. "Sir! Yes, sir!"
She just remembered to clench her jaw before the hydraulics launched her seat free of the aircraft, sending her far above the descending plane. Below her, the LEP craft shot away, followed by four screaming black shapes, their wakes and the fire coming from their engines slamming into her chest, sending blue healing magic all across her body.
With almost perfect synchronicity, her parachute deployed and the shuttle's left wing exploded in a ball of white-hot flames. The blast knocked the wing off entirely, and craft and wing continued to plummet, but now in opposite directions.
From the new rent in the side of the plane, strange shapes began to tumble out. Not metal. Far too loose, too changing. Holly's visor zoomed in on the flopping bodies and body parts just a split-second before she closed her eyes. Unable to see, she still felt the final heat wave of the shuttle's impact with the Earth.
She kept her eyes closed when she heard the cell door open. Even without the tromping of heavy steel-toed boots, she would have felt the advance of the human into what little "home" she'd accepted as hers in the last few weeks.
"Look at me, Fairy."
Holly raised her head and pointed it in the general direction of the of the voice, but did not open her eyes. She smirked a little, though she knew how little she'd be pleased in a moment.
"Fucking—" The speaker's rage was cut off as he stepped forward to stand before the elf, his hand wrapping around her throat. An easy feat for a human. "Look at me!"
Holly's mouth opened, struggling for air. For a scream. But her eyes remained squeezed shut.
From the cell door, another figure sighed. "She won't sell if she's injured, Dolohov."
"Bitch like this," the attacker snarled, putting his other hand to the side of Holly's face, fingers spread apart, "don't deserve one owner."
Holly gagged, fingertips half tingling and half numb, heart racing and ready to explode. Maybe if she could keep her eyes closed long enough, she would pass out and miss tonight, stuck in the human's makeshift fairy hospital.
What felt like an enormous—though only human-sized—thumb pressed to her eyelid, pushing up. "Open your eyes." When she managed to squint the lid back down, the pressure increased, white and blue bursts forming in half of Holly's vision. "Open your eyes. Open your eyes!."
A bare slit of light came through.
"Open your eyes!"
Holly's eyes shot wide, the human's thumb briefly touching one sensitive orb. Holly jerked her head back, wanting to blink and spread tears over the surface, but finding herself unable to do so.
The hand about her neck relaxed. "There's a girl. Good." The guard—different from the one this morning, but indistinguishable from his fellows in principle—stepped back. "Now. Look at him." He pointed behind himself.
Holly's head snapped to the man at the cell door. He was dressed in the height of fashion, his hair dyed black and red, done into inconceivably numerous spikes, his clothes all white and tight-fitting, giving an easy view of each muscle and other such bulges. "You may blink," he said, showing he knew the fairies rather well, "but keep looking at me until I say you can look away," he said, voice unnecessarily flat. Humans always seemed to think that the geis required a lack of emotion. Not true. Though the will to use the geis often coincided with that condition. "Now, follow me." The man turned his back on Holly and walked down the cell block, long legs taking enormous strides.
Holly jogged after, her legs screaming in pain and joy and the stretching. Even movement on her peripheral vision, which made her heart rate spike in anticipation of a sidelong attack, did not take her eyes off the man's back.
He led her to a bright room lined by mirrors and counters, a dozen adjustable chairs bolted to the floor, in two rows. A few were already filled, including one with her sprite cell mate. Instead of sitting, Holly was instructed to stand before a mirror, lock eyes with her own reflection, and not move.
They began by cutting away the blue scrubs that had been her only clothing for the past few weeks, putting the scraps in a plastic bag marked with a bio-hazard symbol. Her hair was combed and parted several times, and she was pronounced free of vermin, and the same was repeated on her pubic hair. Then she was blasted with a water, rough sponges taken to her skin, rubbing until at least one full layer epidermis was stripped away, leaving her pinker, prickles going all across her new skin. Soothing lotion smelling faintly of lavender was rubbed across her body, between her toes, over breasts, her buttocks parted to get all the way down. She was told to stand and let herself dry, and she complied, limbs held akimbo as if she were in the middle of jumping jack. Her jaw clenched, eyes burning, and only partially from the bit of lotion that had worked its way to the tender membrane at the corner of a lid.
When she was dry, they directed her to a chair situated next to a sink, and told her to sit and close her eyes, and open them again on orders. Once her eyes were closed, she really didn't have to comply with such an order, but the pain in her left eye socket would make her leery of another struggle.
The chair tilted back and her hair was scrubbed and conditioned several times. As she lay back, she felt cold steel next to her ears, and heard the snick snick of scissors and the gentle touch of a brush sweeping the groomed hair away.
What were the humans thinking, with all their hair products? Rank chemicals were slathered on her head and left to sit for half an hour before being rinsed again. She was tilted back up, opening her eyes on orders, and moved to another chair, a new fairy—this one male, though just as naked as Holly—taking her place at the sink.
Her hair was dried as her hands and feet soaked in mineral water. She yelped and writhed away as a human began working on her softened toe nails, cutting too deep, but was immediately stilled upon orders. The rasping of the file on her bared nerves sent electric jolts up Holly's leg, her eyes again watering until the makeup specialist told her to stop. And then all she could do was feel the file.
Holly's red hair—now striped by thin bars of black and gold, done with a simple rinse-out dye—was only grown to her shoulders, and the stylist bemoaned the lack of materials, mooning over the sprite female's long locks. He again used the scissors, but sparingly, only taking off split ends. Holly's nails were finished quickly—a soft pink, false set with tiny gold spirals on her thumbs—leaving her hair and makeup specialists to spend another good hour more at work. Holly's eyes were shaded a soft bronze, lips glossed a gentle red, while her hair was flipped out in a way that made the makeup girl squeal, "She's like a fairy Farah!"
Holly thought everyone was done when they stepped back to examine her, but they took another ten minutes making tiny adjustments. Blush was applied between Holly's breasts, creating false cleavage. Henna was discussed, but decided against. All looked thoroughly disconcerted, as if something about their charge was wrong. Deformed.
Finally, the manicurist snapped her fingers. "Ears!" She looked at her comrades. "I'm thinking silver. Spiral cuffs, down to something dangling. With...amber!"
The staff cheered, and a box was brought out and sorted through. The sets were designed for fairies, the intricate whorls of cuffs fitting along the long outside curve of her ears, leaving the ultra-sensitive tips free. A piercing gun was brought out, the sound of it's firing, so close to her eardrum, more painful than the tearing of her flesh. The dangling silver and amber hearts were slid into place and wiped clean of blood until the wound coagulated on its own.
Then, someone new was summoned. He was tall and very thin, with hair that had once been bright blonde, made all the lighter by gray. His long, hooked nose easily held a small pair of glasses, though the rest of his body seemed to have a hard time supporting a long white coat and black trousers, creating sags in all the wrong places.
The man held a chart in one hand, which he consulted briefly before looking into Holly's eyes. "You will sleep for the next ten minutes," was all he said.
And Holly knew no more.
When Holly awoke, she was in a new cell. This was smaller than her old quarters, and had no bed. She'd been placed in a bowl-shaped chair, her head hanging off the back, preserving her hair, though not her neck muscles. The tough major put no effort into hiding her groans as she sat up, squeezing her shoulders and the top of her spine with a hand made clumsy by its recent manicure.
Moving utterly silently, a new human appeared before the bars of her cell, speaking before Holly had a chance to close her eyes. "Get dressed. Do not damage your hair or makeup. Stand on the X on the floor and look out of the door until you are summoned." He didn't even wait to see if she complied, instead moving on to the next cell, giving the same orders a few minutes later to another, unseen fairy, and moving on again.
Holly considered putting on the clothes in the wrong order—the geis allowed small rebellions, after all—but she could still feel that thick hand on her neck. Cowed and hating herself for it, she slipped on a matching set of ludicrously lacy pink underthings. The bra straps crossed each other, pushing her breasts high. She felt like she would be asked to balance a beer on them. For the first time in her life, she thought she might be able to do so.
The rest of the clothes were similarly terrible. A white skirt with deliberate rips, making it look closer to a loincloth than a real item of clothing, though a fashionista like Frond might have been able to claim it as legal attire. The shirt was the same bleached color, though "shirt" may not have been an accurate description. It was one long length of fabric, about a hand's length in width. The ends were joined to make a loop, and then further stitches enforced a figure-8 shape. It took Holly some time to work it out, and longer to adjust her breasts into the slings made by the X of fabric. She understood the strange bra construction, now, though both top and bottom couldn't be arranged in any way that avoided revealing hints of pink. Probably the point.
As the shirt finally settled and she ran her hands along her body to investigate, the elf finally felt something cold and thin on her neck.
Holly grabbed at it, heart hammering. She tugged, and felt pressure on the back of her neck. She tugged harder and harder, but it wouldn't move. Wouldn't let her go.
Holly looked about the cell frantically. She needed something reflective. Anything. Finally, she noticed the high-heeled shoes she had been given, and their definite silver shine. The sole was curved and would bow the reflection, but it was good enough. She grabbed one and looked.
Tight about her neck was a red choker. Or, perhaps more accurately, a collar The underside was lined in satin, the weight so slight that she hadn't noticed it until now, though her increased breathing now made her aware of its every small shift at the hollow of her throat. A true masterwork of design.
And that thought made Holly laugh hysterically, dropping the reflective shoe to clatter on the concrete floor. Her fingers wrapping around the width of the collar, tugging it until her neck ached. She angled her eyes down until they also hurt, and just caught the glint of a green light at her throat, blinking, unconcerned with her struggles.
Holly only had a few more seconds to pull before her orders came back to her, and she let the collar go, biting the inside of her cheek. She slipped into the shoes, wobbling to the X made of duct tape. Free of the compulsion to dress and position herself, she went back to inspecting the collar. There was enough space to get three fingers under the edge, and she took advantage of that, twirling it about, searching for seams or buttons or anything she could take advantage of. Eventually, one of the many guards came by, noticing her work, and barked out an order to let it go and stand still.
Holly did so, though her muscles seemed to crawl under her skin. About her neck and shoulders, the tension increased until she began to cramp. She was almost crying with pain when a door at the end of the hall opened and the spike-haired man from hours ago entered. He went to one of the other cells, letting his accompanying guard open the door for him, looking inside.
"Follow me. Do not make a sound until you are told to do so."
When he began to walk away, a sprite female followed, dressed in the same short skirt and sarong Holly sported. Her wings were clamped to her back, and she flinched when the door opened again, but walked through without breaking stride.
Holly heard voices on the other side. Dozens of murmurs. The occasional shout. Even a few howls, entirely animalistic, sending shocks across Holly's hands as she tried to make fists to protect herself. Above all was one voice, louder than the rest, though the cacophony garbled the words. After a few minutes, there came a relative silence, full of anticipation, which seeped into every cage. The fairies who hadn't been given such strict orders as the major shifted and whispered.
Then the voice came again, louder, words unmistakeable.
"Let us start the bidding!"