Jillian turned the object in her hands over and over, emotions numb but mind flooded with thoughts spinning too quickly for them to be coherent or useful.
Somewhere in the chaos was one thread she’d seized like a lifeline, and she hoped fervently that it didn’t snap.
The faint breeze wasn’t the reason she was shivering. Outdoors at night, in a relatively deserted park, one that had irregular lighting that allowed for patches where the moonlight wasn’t entirely washed out… this wasn’t the most rational thing she’d ever done, and certainly not the safest, although it wasn’t yet warm enough for it to be a high-traffic area after dark.
Over and over in her hands, conscious of the texture and the weight, wondering vaguely how it would feel. A waste of money? Or a pledge that would get her the favour she needed?
She looked up quickly, hearing Min’s voice, though the wheelchair had made no sound on the asphalt path.
Currently in dark pants and a pale long-sleeved t-shirt and a shimmery brocade vest, all close-fitting, Min halted next to the bench. Her expression in the moonlight was grave.
“What happened?” she asked gently.
“My stupid brother got himself in a real mess this time. Charged with trafficking, right along with his new friends. And they’re investigating whether he’s involved in an assault that a couple of his new friends did. He’s an idiot, but he’s not violent. I talked to him. He swears he wasn’t selling anything. I actually believe him. It would be like him to be too focused on what amuses him right now to think about, well, anything. He’s terrified. My mom is a mess. My dad is a mess.” She sighed. “I seriously doubt he’d survive in a prison. At least, not without major trauma.”
“That seems sadly likely.”
“I promised myself I was done with trying to bail him out of trouble. I’ve told myself a million times that he got himself into this and it’s up to him to face the consequences, and that it might be the best thing possible for him in the long run. But, idiot or not, he’s my brother, and none of that is working. So I guess, at least once more, I’m going to do what I can.”
Min backed the chair up and turned it at the same time, then flipped aside the footrests and stood up, taking two steps away from it. Her simple clothing changed, melting in the moonlight to a low-necked gown of glossy black that hugged her upper body, dropping into an extremely long skirt that formed a puddle of shadow on the ground around her, hiding her lower body completely. The same glossy black covered both arms nearly to her pale shoulders, though leaving her long-nailed fingertips exposed. That golden hair fell loose now, glimpses of it visible passing her waist.
“Propose your bargain.”
Jillian swallowed, hard. There wasn’t exactly a lot of dependable information available about the courtesies of dealing with supernatural forces, but there was an ongoing theme, and it echoed something Min had said: show respect. Err on the side of too much, rather than not enough.
And at the moment, she wasn’t sure at all how much she could depend on several months of friendship and Min’s apparent goodwill.
So she knelt on the thankfully dry grass, in front of this improbable woman who was too beautiful to be real, and kept her eyes down. “I don’t want him to go to prison. Anything else, well, he really did ask for it, and maybe it’ll help? He probably doesn’t deserve a get-out-of-jail-free card. But if there’s any way to keep him from actually spending time in prison, without anyone including him dead or anyone innocent suffering for it…” She trailed off, knowing that it wasn’t the smooth request she’d been running through her mind for hours.
Min chuckled. “You’ve been doing research on wishes in folklore. The price, as laid down by laws centuries old to protect humans from excessive interference and to protect fae from excessive demands, is that for twelve hours, beginning when I’ve fulfilled my side of the bargain, you belong to me. At the end of that time, you will be free—alive and unharmed. But during that time, I can do what I wish with you.”
Jillian nodded. Fatigue was catching up with her rapidly, after several nights of poor sleep, trying to cope with the family crisis around work and packing and everyday life. Right now, all that mattered was that this was for real, that it wasn’t going to turn out to be an elaborate hoax with someone recording it to put on YouTube. She lifted the thing she’d been clutching like a talisman since arriving in the park.
The heavy dog collar was shiny, with a snakeskin texture, black with green mixed in. It had looked… right, somehow, given Min’s tastes. She’d checked that it reached all the way around, but hadn’t had the nerve to actually buckle it in place yet. Aware that her hands were less than steady, she raised it to her neck, fumbled it through the buckle and fastened it, then let her hands fall to her legs.
Min stroked her cheek gently with one hand, the tips of her nails playing along the skin and making Jillian shiver for a whole new reason. Fae magic, or something. She wasn’t doing this because she wanted to. She was just desperate to deflect the worst of the consequences from her younger brother. That hand moved downwards to her jaw, tilting her head aside so the collar was more clearly visible.
“That will do very nicely indeed. Well done.” She was sure she heard approval in Min’s voice, and it made something inside feel tight and warm. She felt a touch on the buckle. “You know where I live. You’ll know when I’m finished and it’s time to come to me. It will not take me more than a day to make certain that your brother stays out of prison, so you can expect to join me late tomorrow. I suggest you go to work as usual and plan to be off Friday.”
Jillian nodded. “Thank you.” She heard her voice break, and winced.
“Go home. Go to bed as early as you can. Sleep soundly.” Min rested a hand lightly on the top of her head for the span of a heartbeat.
Then the glorious lady moved back towards the wheelchair, an odd fluid motion that really didn’t look like a step and made the long skirt shift in unexpected ways. Jillian blinked, and it was familiar Min, seating herself carefully.
“Go home and sleep, dear,” Min repeated.
Exhausted, Jillian nodded. At least home wasn’t far.
She managed to remember to lock the door behind her, and to brush her teeth, before she stripped off her clothes and, extremely uncharacteristically, fell asleep naked except for the collar.