1.1 Invitation: Coffee-shop

Jillian pushed open the door of the coffee-shop with her shoulder, still trying to put her phone away in her purse without dropping that or the shopping bag in her other hand. A quick scan of the interior located her friend instantly, and she hastened across the tiled floor to her, gratefully depositing the bag on the chair and her purse on the table and peeling off her jacket to hang on the chair. That late spring wind was cold, and the weather forecast threatened a further snowfall even.

“I’m sorry I’m late, Min…”

The woman across the table laid an embroidered ribbon bookmark in the trade paperback she’d been reading, without lowering her gaze from Jillian’s. “Bad day?” she asked sympathetically, moving the book to the edge of the table—and managing it without spilling her tea, her hands apparently acting alone.

Jillian sighed. “Give me a sec to grab a coffee. I desperately need one.” She fumbled in her purse for her wallet.

Min held out a ten-dollar bill, although Jillian hadn’t seen her reach for her own wallet, tucked on the inside of one arm of her wheelchair. “Here. Go.”

“I owe you.” Jillian accepted it and headed for the counter, returning a moment later with a large sweet mocha coffee and a handful of change. Moving the bag off the chair, she sat down, feeling her stress levels starting to drop.

Min often had that effect on her. She’d seen Min on her feet, and was certain she must be six feet tall—though a congenital weakness meant she spent most of her time in her wheelchair. Though she could probably afford a powered one, she’d told Jillian she preferred her simpler one that kept her more active, which must account for Min looking surprisingly fit despite her limitations. Her flawless skin was a warm cream, with minimal signs of aging, only fine lines at the corners of her eyes. Her long hair, typically drawn back into a very long smooth braid of one sort or another, was a rich gold threaded with thin streaks of silver. Jillian had no idea how old she was—she could have been close to Jillian’s late thirties, or twenty years older.

Today she was wearing a close-fitting skirt down to mid-calf, this one in blood red vinyl, with black stockings and ankle-height flat shiny red pumps, and a high-necked sleeveless top of matte black with red lace adorning it, and a shiny black vinyl jacket. Ornate gold earrings dangled from both ears, winking with red stones that might well be rubies, and a matching choker circled her smooth throat. Her eyes were minimally darkened, but her lips were the same red as her clothes. Min liked clothes that were shiny, or glossy, or metallic, Jillian had discovered over the few months they’d been friends. Somehow, her regal air of confidence kept it from ever looking, well, how it would look if most women tried that.

Next to Min, Jillian typically felt rather boring. Her office job restricted what she wore day to day to a respectable and conventional range—unlike in TV shows and online fiction, a woman wearing something excessively revealing would not become the office darling or the office tart, because she’d be looking for a new job. She kept her dark brown hair cropped in a short style that was easy to deal with hastily in the morning before work. How any of her co-workers found time to get up early and hit the gym was a mystery to her, though the softness of her abdomen often made her resolve that she would begin to do so. Tomorrow. Maybe next week.

“Bad day?” Min repeated.

“Bad week. Bad month. Too much to do, not enough hours to do it all in. Trying to get my apartment cleaned up and packed so the landlord can show it, apartment hunting, enduring the supervisor who insists on using pet names for me despite requests to stop… I’m not at all comfortable with how he looks at me, though I can’t imagine why he does.”

“Because you’re a beautiful woman, dear. They aren’t all into silicon blondes. And I’m sure you could find another job, probably a better one.” Min’s pleasant low voice had a hint of a French accent, perceptible on some of the vowel sounds and now and then in her phrasing, though she spoke English so well that someone unobservant might not even notice. Better than many native English speakers, really.

“Maybe. It’s making me feel stressed all the time, trying to avoid him, and sometimes I can’t. But they’re definitely gearing up for another round of layoffs, so I don’t dare complain. I’m not a child or a pet, and I don’t like him just assuming he’s entitled to treat me as one just because of what’s between his legs.”

“Compensation, maybe, for what is not between his ears.”

That made Jillian smile, rather ruefully. “Too true.”

“Preparations to move, worries about work… these are everyday things. You know they’ll pass.”

“Yes, I know. But they aren’t much fun now.”

“Would you like to tell me what’s troubling you that is not an everyday thing?”

“You are way too observant.”

“Practice.”

“Family thing. According to my mom, my brother is hanging around with a new crowd, and she’s afraid of what kind of trouble that’s going to lead to. Apparently she’s found that things have gone missing in the house since he started bringing them home. She’s not actually saying that one or more are making her feel unsafe, but she’s hinting at it. He’s over thirty and living in her basement, for god’s sake. If he were disabled or something, then okay, but he’s perfectly able to work part-time reliably and then go blow it all on partying, without helping my mom with bills or, for that matter, housework and maintenance. She should be telling him to get his own place, not letting intimidating friends steal from her while he leeches off her.”

“If I recall correctly, you’ve said before that your parents rarely disciplined him in childhood.”

“Mmhmm. I’ve had people tell me that parents are usually more intense with a first kid and relax more on the later ones, but in this case, I’m pretty sure that it has more to do with the fact that they finally had a son. Total double standards on what he was able to get away with and what I could. So why am I bothering to worry about him?”

“Culturally, blood ties are often seen as important.” Min looked into her tea thoughtfully. “Since you don’t know the whole story, you don’t know how bad the situation is or whether you can help.”

“Nope. But Mom doesn’t usually get this hysterical. And odds are I can’t help no matter what it is. It isn’t like he listens to me, and it’s not my house. Dad would probably toss him, but Dad’s not living there anymore and has about as much say in anything as I do.” Jillian heaved another sigh, and shrugged. “What can y’do? Families can be a pain.”

“I know. Believe me, dear, I sympathize deeply. My daughter is a joy who takes after her father strongly, she is kind and playful and generous. She’s currently in Indonesia on a charitable project. My son, unfortunately, takes after my family to a disturbing degree, and values only power and wealth, and does nothing that does not benefit him. But then, my own parents are very disappointed with my priorities. Families can, indeed, be difficult.”

Min having children old enough to be independent really didn’t say much about her age, although unless she’d had them young, she was probably a little older than Jillian.

“I didn’t know you had kids.”

“Sophia you will likely meet in time. Anselme, it is unlikely. He disapproves of us. Families are, after all, a collection of individuals connected by ties that are do not necessarily include common values or beliefs, though some try to force that to be the case.” Echoing Jillian a moment before, Min shrugged and sighed. “But that is of no relevance, beyond giving me grounds to understand.”

That sounded like a cue to change the subject, not a lead-up to wanting to discuss it further. “At least you aren’t going to call me crazy. So, how about your life lately? What’s new?”

The conversation flowed into the sort of comfortable chat that so often made Jillian bless her good fortune in meeting Min. In a life of trying to figure out and live up to the expectations of family, employer, boyfriend, and friends, with Min she never felt judged, and the fear of having somehow overlooked expectations she was unable to meet had faded quickly.

Min’s satisfaction at negotiating, on behalf of the board of directors of a local mental health organization, a larger office space under terms that made everyone feel they’d gotten a good bargain, sounded far more productive than anything Jillian was doing. So did her persistence in pushing the board of the local sexual assault centre to be in name and fact accepting of transgender, apparently a population at extremely high risk—as both a board member and a significant benefactor, she was hard to ignore. A gifted chef who had catered charity dinners for her in her previous home in British Columbia had agreed to come to town for a few days, so she needed only to find an appropriate site for a fundraising event to help a local women’s shelter cover the costs of some maintenance and upgrades. She was on that board, too. Clearly well-off with no need to work, Min certainly kept busy.

A house for herself and her husband, who remained in BC handling business for the moment, and possibly unspecified others which might include her daughter, was well underway, and Min was clearly looking forward to moving out of her one-bedroom apartment when it was finished. Though it was a ground floor unit, it wasn’t specifically designed for accessibility, which must be difficult at times, and while comfortable, it wasn’t really big enough to be ideal with her chair.

“I’m going to have to go,” Jillian said finally. “I’m supposed to meet Gary and his parents at the restaurant for supper, and I want to stop by home first, and I can’t do that until I finish the last couple of things Gary asked me to do.”

“More errands?”

“He works on the other side of town. It’s easier for me to do it.”

“Hm. Stay for just a minute. I want to tell you about something. It will be hard for you to believe, but it’s the truth, I promise.”

“Okay. I have no reason not to believe you. You’re one of the more sensible people I know.”

“You have several sources of stress right now and they’re combining to make you anxious and unhappy, largely because you feel helpless to do anything about some of them.”

“Yeah.”

“There are old stories across much of the world about asking for help. Prayers and vows, bargains with the devil at the crossroads, things like that. Where I come from, tradition says that it isn’t gods or devils, it’s the Fair Folk, the Good Neighbours… supernatural beings with many names. You might recognize ‘fairy’ best.”

“What about them?” Jillian asked sceptically. This was certainly an odd track for a conversation to take.

“They make bargains with humans. They use their considerable power to grant a request, but the human pays a price for it.”

“What, their soul?”

Min chuckled. “What use would that be? No, it’s paid for with time in the service of the fae who granted the request. Not so much of it. For a first wish, it’s only twelve hours. The length of time increases for subsequent bargains—doubles, in fact. The rules state that there can be no physical trace afterwards and no lasting harm done, which means the human will walk away with memories usually more or less intact but no evidence of what happened. What the fae chooses to do during that time, well, that depends on the fae.”

Jillian couldn’t think of a reply. This was just too strange. Yet Min was so matter-of-fact about it. Had she somehow missed a deep vein of madness in her friend? Was this a joke at her expense?

“It’s easy to do,” Min said. “The only part that can be difficult these days, with seven billion humans on this poor groaning planet and not nearly so many fae, is to attract the attention of a fae who might be interested in bargaining. Once you have that, it’s a simple matter. Approach that fae with respect, make your request, and offer some sign of good faith, some indication that you understand what you’re asking and that you intend to pay the price without having to be chased down and forced. Even though some fae quite enjoy that sort of thing, it tends to be unpleasant for the human once they catch up. Traditionally, it should be done by moonlight in a place with trees, but these days, as long as the spirit is clear and there’s some effort made, it’s near enough.”

“And how does one go about attracting the attention of a fae?”

“Being your own lovely, genuine, personable, and charming self, perhaps?” Min met her eyes.

Jillian froze, fascinated. Min’s red lips still curved in a smile, and she was still absolutely recognizable as the friend Jillian spent so much time with. But Min was, all of a sudden, impossibly beautiful. Surely human hair had never been such a lustrous unadulterated gold, and what humans called green was drab and bland compared to the vivid depths of Min’s dark-lined eyes, glittering like a many-faceted gem. No mere artifice could turn skin so flawless a shimmering cream with no hint of age. Unable to look away, she nonetheless registered the change in Min’s hair, coiled into a crown with a tiara of gold and ruby nestled into the plaits, and that she was now wearing a high-necked dress of black and red brocade in some sinuous design she couldn’t make out.

Min closed her eyes, slowly and deliberately, and Jillian found that she could finally drop her gaze. Shaking, she raised her nearly empty cup to finish the last swallow. When she lowered it, Min simply looked the way she always had.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of, dear,” Min said. “If you choose to, you can dismiss everything I just said. Humans are very good at deleting or overwriting things mentally that don’t fit with their perception of reality. I won’t be upset at all, and I will still be your friend. But I wanted you to know that you do have options and you are not helpless. The rules about fae using our, mm, call it magic to help are very clear in the subject of bargains. As much for your sake as ours, there always has to be one. But some don’t find it a high price.” Min pulled her bag from its temporary resting place hanging on the arm of her chair and tucked her book into it, then twisted agilely in place to hang it on the back of the chair, swapping it for her fitted black leather-and-suede jacket. “Off you go. You have errands to run for Gary, remember. I’ll see you next week, unless you have time before then.”

Jillian blinked. “Right. Always more to do.” Min had, she thought, just told her something important, or showed her something… why was it slipping out of reach? Well, she could think about it later. She pulled on her jacket, scooped up the bag with Gary’s repaired dress shoes in it, and slung her purse onto her shoulder. “I really need to make more time to spend with you, y’know, not just a couple of hours on Saturday.”

Min smiled. “I’d be delighted.”

Not until late that night, lying in her bed with Gary asleep beside her, did Min’s singular revelation come back to Jillian’s memory after having inexplicably dropped below her consciousness for several hours.

It had to be insane, right? The human mind was notorious for playing tricks.

No matter how hard she tried to rationalize it, she could not convince herself that what she’d seen had been her own imagination.

Which meant this bargain thing…

No. It was all crazy. And even if it were real, who in their right mind would make a deal that would mean twelve hours of unspecified “service”?

In reality, anyway. Fantasies were one thing, but they should be kept locked tightly away inside, not allowed out into the bright sensible real world.

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