[Occult Shop, French Quarter, New Orleans]
A soft jingle interrupted the soft cadence of jazz music playing through the shop speakers, causing the old woman sitting behind the counter to peer briefly over her shoulder and rise slowly to greet her customer, seeing a figure move into the shop. It was still early enough in the day that the sun’s rays still slanted through her display cases and across the entrance, making it hard for her to tell who had entered. However, the figure seemed to head directly to the wall of herb tinctures, telling her that the customer wasn’t a tourist, as they usually headed for her display of commercial voodoo dolls in the center of the shop.
“I’ll be right with you…” She called as she wiped her hands on the loose cotton apron she had tied over her clothes. When she didn’t hear a reply, she frowned and moved the small bags aside where she’d been working on the latest set of herb poultices for the celebrations coming up in a few days, some of her biggest sellers.
“Can I help…” She started to call, moving towards the silhouette of a tall man standing against the far wall, but found herself letting out a whoop of laughter and opening her arms when the man turned and grinned faintly in her direction.
“Niall!” She laughed and kissed each of his cheeks as he scooped her up as if she weighed nothing, swinging her lightly around the room. She teasingly swatted at his back and he chuckled, setting her on the ground.
“It’s good to see you, Bembe. You’re as beautiful as always.” Niall grinned and returned the kiss against her temple when the older woman laughed and motioned for him to help her to her seat.
“Still such a tease, I see. Come, help me to my chair. These old bones can’t keep up with you like they used to.” Niall laughed softly and helped her settle back into her chair behind the counter and he in turn leaned against the other side of it, studying her as she situated herself.
Once settled, she had a good look of him and snorted faintly at his human glamour. “Feh, you’re here to cause mischief, I see.” When Niall raised an eyebrow in feigned innocence, Bembe raised a gnarled finger in his direction. “You only use that glamour when you’re up to mischief.”
“Oh? Do I? I never noticed...” Niall drawled, grinning faintly as he closed his eyes and seemed to shift, his face turning older, a little more weathered, his hair a little more grey. He opened his eyes again and winked at the shopkeeper. “Is this more to your liking?”
Bembe laughed and shook her head but her eyes sparkled slightly, indicating she was pleased. He grinned again and tilted his head, looking around the shop. “You’ve done well for yourself here, Bembe. I’m happy you have found your place. Are the locals treating you well?”
Bembe shrugged and wet her fingertips with her tongue, going back to completing her poultice bags. “As well as can be expected. Some believe, others do not. It has always been the way of things.”
Niall stared around the room, allowing the jazz music to softly fill the shop again when their silence drifted for several minutes. He seemed interested in what she was doing and she allowed him to watch.
“Love charms? Really, Bembe. You know those don’t hold long.” She could hear his amused tone from behind her as she worked. She chuckled but remained focused on her task, finishing off several small bags and setting them aside before starting another set.
“They work long enough for what people intend, old friend. Love is often not the aim, as you well know.” His laughter made her lips twitch in amusement and she once again concentrated on finishing up a few more bags.
After several minutes passed, Bembe looked over her shoulder again, meeting his gaze. “You have come for the masks.”
Niall nodded. “I will also need another one of these.” He reached into his pocket and set a piece of a shattered tube on the counter. Bembe frowned, glancing up sharply.
“You already had to use it?” She asked, mildly curious and concerned at the same time.
Niall simply shrugged and stared at her with knowing eyes. As he stared, he reached into his pockets again and set some small bags on her counter, looking back over his shoulder and moving to look out the shop windows at the tourists strolling down the street, window shopping in the early hours.
Bembe stood and shifted on her feet, opening the bags and peering inside. She sniffed each and even tasted the powdery substance of one against her tongue before nodding. “This shall work. It will take a few days to prepare. The masks are ready. Come, see.”
Niall moved back to the counter and waited as Bembe leaned down and grabbed something from behind the counter. She moved and set a small wooden chest on the countertop and gestured for him to open the lid.
Smiling up at her, he unlatched the lock and his hand briefly hovered over the latches, feeling the tingle of power meet his fingertips. His eyebrows rose as he lifted his gaze to meet his old friend’s and she smiled, motioning him to open the chest.
“Open it,” She urged.
He lowered his gaze and opened the small chest, staring in awe at the pair of half-masks that met his gaze. One was masculine and black, carved into a convoluted shape that seemed to dance halfway between a satyr and an owl, a silver thread allowing it to be tied to the wearer’s head. The other was much more feminine, a carved white masterpiece that seemed both beautiful and fragile at the same time, etched with mother of pearl, various jewels embedded in a raised ivy filigree that covered the mask, a fat black satin ribbon against the sides to hold it in place. However, it wasn’t the beauty of the masks that shocked him, it was the amount of infused magic in each of the items. It must have taken the old priestess months to complete the task.
“Bembe, I…” Niall stared, at a loss for words. The shopkeeper smiled and reached across the counter to squeeze his wrist.
“A friend of yours is a friend of mine. Your letters were quite dire. These will work for one night and then the magic will fade, it is too unstable otherwise. Keep them in this chest and present them to the wearers within one hour of removing them for the charm to last the longest.” Niall nodded and closed the lid of the chest, feeling the tingling against his fingertips fade as the magic was shielded.
He leaned over and kissed her temple, turning her chin slightly so her eyes met his gaze. His smiled deepened as he studied her weathered face, lightly caressed her cheek with his fingertips before pressing the faintest kiss to her lips.
“There are days I wish you’d said yes to me,” he murmured, making her laugh faintly and pull back.
“And I am forever thankful you accepted my answer of no. A mortal witch and a fae do not have the makings of a suitable marriage. We are better as friends and you know this,” she replied softly with a soft smile. Niall returned the smile and dropped his hand, nodding slowly in his way of admitting she was right.
“Now, go and help your friend. Perhaps she’ll have a different answer for him than I did for you.”
Niall chuckled faintly at his dismissal from her shop, taking the chest and moving towards the door, shifting back into the glamour he wore when he arrived.
“I’ll be by in a few days for the other item,” he reminded her, glancing over his shoulder.
Bembe nodded and watched him leave, moving back to her workspace to continue with her work.
[Royal Sonesta Hotel, Sarah’s Suite, French Quarter, New Orleans]
Staring out of the double doors leading onto the balcony from her spacious room, Sarah felt a little thrill race up her spine as she took in the sight below her on the street. Despite it still being early afternoon, people were out in force as it was nearing the date for the parade in two days’ time. She had to admit, while the initial flight and drive to the quarter had made her question her decision to tag along with Caitlin to New Orleans, once they had stepped into their rooms and looked outside at the infectious atmosphere, Sarah was glad she’d chosen to come.
Staring down at the growing street crowd, Sarah smiled and shook her head at the antics of both the tourists and the natives, rather excited to go out and have some fun for the evening. Still, she couldn’t help but feel some nervousness for what to expect, looking back at her large bed and the short flirty dress Caitlin had picked out for her.
Pulling back and closing the double doors, Sarah stared at the dress and then her reflection in the mirror. She was still in her bathrobe from her earlier shower and her hair was still wet, beginning to curl in the humid air from outside.
Remembering Caitlin’s words that she should have fun on this trip, Sarah steeled herself and moved to get dressed and finish her makeup.
[A Private Residence, French Quarter, New Orleans]
Jareth blinked and jerked to a sitting position, grunting as his head swam slightly with the quick movement. His fingers clenched, feeling a soft feathery mass under his hands. “Where…” He began, registering he was in the middle of a large bed, only to be interrupted with a blinding light in his eyes, making him hiss and roll onto his side, shielding his face.
“Blasted light! Close the damn curtains!” He growled, squinting and trying to sit up again, his irritation growing as his body refused to cooperate. Just what in the hell had he been doing last night?
“Good morning to you too, sunshine…” Came the amused baritone reply to his right. Still, the blinding light didn’t fade. Jareth groaned in reply, forcing one eye open to peer over at the faint smiling visage of his friend standing by the window, sipping on what appeared to be a cup of coffee.
“Close the blasted curtains, you bastard. I’m half blind and my head is killing me…”
Niall smiled and pulled one of the curtains back into place, reducing the amount of light pouring into the room but not enough to soothe the pounding at Jareth’s temples. Still, he forced himself to roll back into a sitting position and pull his legs to the floor. Rubbing a hand over his forehead, he grunted a soft noise of thanks as he felt Niall press a cup of hot coffee into his hand.
Sipping it tentatively, he sighed as he felt the dull roar of his headache fade into the back of his mind. Glancing over questioningly at his friend as the headache instantly eased, Niall shrugged. “A little something extra to help with the hangover, as it were. You were into your cups last night.”
Jareth looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings and slowly stood, testing his feet. Moving to stand beside Niall, at least thankful he was dressed in loose pants and a nightshirt, he tensed as he stared out the balcony doors at the streets of the French Quarter.
“Why are we here?” He grit his teeth, looking over at his friend sharply. He didn’t remember them making a trip. In fact, he remembered he’d been adamant on not joining his friend for his usual mischief Aboveground at this time of the year. He winced as something powerful jerked viciously in the back of his mind, making the dull roar of his headache return with a vengeance as he tried to concentrate on the elusive sense that something was off.
Niall simply stared, raising an eyebrow as he sipped at his coffee, not realizing something was amiss. He moved away from his friend and lowered himself into a chair on the balcony, motioning for Jareth to join him at the small table but Jareth refused, still trying to ease the pounding of his temples and the odd sense of uneasiness that skirted at the back of his mind. The harder he thought, however, the worse his headache seemed to grow and after several seconds, he finally dropped it. He faintly heard Niall talking and turned his focus on his friend.
“We came Aboveground as you promised me, but not without a few of your favorites, namely drink. It seems you might’ve had a little too much indulgence last night. I practically had to carry you to bed, like a child. Really, Jareth, it’s not very becoming of a monarch to allow himself to become so lost to drink.”
Jareth stared at his friend with narrowed eyes, doing his damnedest to remember the last several hours. A dark nothingness stared back and he sighed, slightly embarrassed at his actions, vowing internally to make it up to his friend, remembering a time when he’d been a good one to Niall. Grimacing and rubbing a palm over his face, he dropped into one of the chairs and sipped at the cup of coffee almost forgotten in his hand.
“I….apologize. You shouldn’t have to play my nursemaid.” He forced himself to say, looking over in time to catch Niall’s surprised expression at his apology. One side of his mouth kicking up in amusement, he sipped again at his cup of coffee and looked back down at the tourists in the streets. The sun still made his head pound and he closed his eyes and leaned back, draping a hand over the upper half of his face. “I feel like death.”
Niall relaxed his grip on his coffee cup, his shoulders slightly shifting as the barely perceptible tensing in his frame eased. He could tell his friend was pushing against the bindings of the spell Bembe had weaved but he had given up before the weavings would snap and the spell dissolved.
Smiling as soon as Jareth looked back his way, he chuckled and motioned for him to finish his coffee.
“I’ve a surprise for you,” he spoke suddenly, drawing Jareth’s attention back towards him. His friend simply raised an eyebrow in question and Niall produced a pamphlet in his hand, tossing it over to Jareth.
Jareth read the pamphlet, glancing over at Niall in amusement. “A ball?”
“Not any ball,” Niall replied with a grin. “A masquerade ball. You’ll come? I’ve arranged something special for you. To lift your spirits.”
Jareth smiled, sipping his coffee, surprising Niall. He was wise to keep the surprise out of his facial expression, simply watching Jareth as he stared down at the street below.
“I was always fond of balls…” He finally replied, glancing back at his friend with a smile.
Niall returned the smile and nodded, glancing down at the street. Now only one last thing to do…
[Royal Sonesta Hotel, Caitlin’s Suite, French Quarter, New Orleans]
“Holy shit. Who are you and what have you done with my friend?” Caitlin gasped, grinning from ear to ear as Sarah blushed and did a quick turn at her friend’s request in her room across the hall.
Sarah laughed and shook her head. “Oh, stop it. This is your dress, after all!” Sarah felt both embarrassed and slightly elated at the way her friend stared with a happy smile. She smoothed her hands over the silver toga-styled sequin dress, still slightly nervous at the small straps that barely kept the top in place and the plunging neckline in both front and back, making her feel horribly exposed. The dress was also short and rather thin but Sarah did note it kept her mostly hidden, mostly teasing instead of exposing. A glittering choker graced her throat and chandelier earrings glittered from her lobes as her hair remained in the rolling curls, waiting until they were ready to wander out to finish styling it.
“Oh no, girl. That’s alllll you, baby. I can’t believe you took my advice! And you look amazing! Ugh, I’m so jealous! I can’t wait to see what a hit you’ll be at the bars.” Caitlin grinned, standing beside her and looking at the pair of them in the floor length mirror by her bed. Her friend wore something slightly more risqué in a rose gold number that looked like she’d been poured into, but Caitlin had the confidence to pull it off.
Sarah grinned as Caitlin posed with her in the mirror. Shaking her head, she joined in on the fun and made a quick sexy pose with her friend as she pulled out her phone and snapped a few pictures.
Sarah laughed and moved to finish styling her hair in the adjacent bathroom. As she was removing the rolling curls from her hair, a knock startled them both. Looking over questioningly at Caitlin, she watched as her friend shrugged a shoulder and moved to the door.
Caitlin moved aside as a man entered the suite and bowed faintly to them both, dressed in the suit and colors of a member of the hotel staff. Sarah moved back towards her friend as she looked amusedly between the two. “What’s this?”
“Good evening, ladies!” The man smiled with a wide grin. “You both have been invited as guests to the Crystal Moon Masquerade Ball, held in the silver banquet hall this evening. As is custom with the invitations, these masks have been procured with your invitations.”
The two friends exchanged amused looks and took the small wooden chests handed to each of them. When Sarah moved to open her container, the man reached out and stopped her. “Ah no, mademoiselle! You must wait until the ball starts to unveil the mask. It is part of the surprise.”
Sarah found the request odd but shrugged a shoulder and smiled, deciding to go with the odd request. “Alright.”
The man bowed once more and left after handing them thick envelopes with their names addressed on the outside. Looking at each other, they both laughed and set aside the boxes containing their masks and read through the invitations after opening them.
“Holy SHIT!” Caitlin screamed at an ear-piercing decibel, making Sarah wince.
“Damn, Cait! What the hell?” Sarah complained, staring at her in shock.
“Do you know what this is!??!?!” She continued, ignoring Sarah’s complaint. Sarah rolled her eyes and shook her head and Caitlin continued on. “Only the MOST COVETED PARTY IN THE QUARTER! I’ve been trying to get into this thing for YEARS! They pick random guests to attend each year as the tickets are crazy expensive and I’ve never won in all the years I’ve been coming. You must to be my good luck charm! AHHH! I can’t believe it!”
Caitlin screamed again and began to jump in place, making Sarah laugh. “We’re going to the Crystal Moon Masquerade Ball!”
Sarah chuckled as Caitlin seemed to come back to herself, ushering Sarah into the bathroom. “Come on, we gotta make that hair look epic. Tonight’s the night! I can feel it! You’re going to slay this party and find someone to drag back to your room and have your naughty way with!”
Sarah turned crimson as Caitlin pushed her into a chair and began to unroll her hair, hushing her protests.
“Oh no, no. Let the master work. By the time, I’m done, you’re going to look like a goddess.”
Caitlin winked and started to comb through Sarah’s hair and Sarah had no choice but to lean back and watch her friend get to work.