“Flair,” Mistress said. “Could you do one last thing? After that, you’re free to go to your own room.”
“Help Jewel get changed?” Flair asked.
“Of course, Mistress. Where will you be?”
“Hm. I think the living room would be a good place.”
“Right. C’mon, Jewel, dressing room.”
The towel-wrapped toy was no longer in evidence in the dressing room. Jewel wondered what had happened to it.
“Let’s get you undressed,” Flair said briskly. “I bet it’s going to be a relief to get out of this.” She unfastened the small hooks down the back of Jewel’s uniform and helped her shimmy it downwards so she could carefully step out of it. That left her only in corset and stockings and boots. At Flair’s command, she sat down on the long bench.
A remote part of her mind made note of the fact that when Flair dropped to one knee to unlace one boot, that put her face quite close to Jewel’s de-furred mound, and there was probably a reason that was bad, but she couldn’t currently bring it to mind.
The thought was chased away by the deep sigh that escaped when Flair drew that boot carefully off for her. Her foot cramped, not wanting to straighten out entirely, but Flair wrapped her alabaster-and-metallic hands around it and massaged it gently until the muscles released.
“Thank you,” Jewel said gratefully. “At least there’s no blisters or anything from pressure points.”
“Nothing made by fae, or even altered by fae, will ever do that,” Flair said matter-of-factly, starting on the other foot. “When they size things to someone specific, it’s seriously sized exactly right. But even a perfect fit doesn’t change pure human muscle strain. Try to stay off your feet tomorrow as much as you can, but keep flexing them so they don’t stiffen up.”
“Don’t stand up, I can reach you from there.” Flair planted one knee on the bench behind Jewel so she could reach the corset laces. “Brace yourself. You know how, when you get out of the water and suddenly gravity catches up, it’s a bit of a shock? This is going to feel sort of like that. Just keep breathing and it’ll pass. Once it’s off, it might feel better if you lie down flat on your back for a minute.”
“Are you kidding? It’s going to feel goo… ugh.” Jewel heard herself groan as the lacing began to loosen. Flair was right, it did feel similar to stepping out of a swimming pool and suddenly having to fight gravity on her own again.
Flair moved around to quickly undo the simple clasps down her front and whisk the white satin prison off entirely. Jewel took her up on the suggestion and let herself fall backwards. At least that way, gravity was pulling her, and her internal organs, in a better relative direction, while the outraged muscles of her belly and lower back struggled to readjust. She didn’t even care right now that she was lying here naked except for her stockings, with someone else in the room.
“Take your time,” Flair said, bustling around—Jewel turned her head to watch her hang the discarded uniform in the wardrobe and set the boots on the floor under it, then lay the corset in a drawer next to it. She crouched to unlace both of her own boots, pulled them off, and added them to the closet, then her stockings in a drawer. With that improbable flexibility, she undid the little fastenings up her own back and wriggled out of her uniform as well so she could hang it, once again her naked alabaster-silver-and-gold self. The pearl earrings and choker she tossed onto the vanity.
With one hand pressed tightly to her belly, Jewel made the effort of sitting up, which was surprisingly difficult with uncooperative abdominal muscles. It felt wrong: recent memory said she should be feeling constricted curves, heavy layers of satin and boning between her fingers and the skin of her torso, not bare and depressingly un-sexy skin. Carefully, she peeled off the black stockings and removed the pearl earrings, both of which Flair took and put away. With gentle fingers, Flair unbraided the black and white hair ribbons that Jewel had largely forgotten about.
“Doing okay?” Flair asked.
“I feel like a beached whale, but yeah.”
“Just a quick shower, and you’ll be back to your old self again.”
“Do I want to be? Wait, why did I say that?”
Flair just smiled. “Whether you want to or not, it’s going to happen, until or unless you make another bargain with Mistress.”
“Fuck. I don’t think I could survive that.”
“A few hours ago you were certain you couldn’t survive this.”
Flair stayed protectively close on the way to the tub, and steadied her as she got in.
“Wash your hair with the purple one, it doesn’t have to stay in, and wash yourself all over, face and all, with the green one.” Flair set a bottle of something vividly purple beside the jar of pale green from before on the ledge. “It doesn’t feel like the pink one, remember, it’ll just feel like ordinary soap but also it’s okay around your eyes, it won’t do any harm and it won’t even sting if it gets in them. I think I’d better stay in the room, but pretend I’m not.”
With only an echo of nervousness, Jewel turned on the water, let it run over her, and took a palmful of purple liquid to work into her hair. It was much thinner, more like the consistency of regular shampoo. Before she’d even finished, she began to find clumps of long cherry-red hair in her hands. Figuring she’d better check before she panicked, she investigated by touch, and found familiar-short hair remained. When she finished and rinsed it thoroughly, she was entirely back to the short practical style she was used to.
The pale green stuff behaved like thick body wash, frothing somewhat as she scrubbed herself. Washing off her own scent and anything left by the repeated contact all night. Blemishes didn’t come back, but otherwise, her skin began to look more like its normal self: moles darker, scars visible, without that youthful tone to it, though she didn’t see any sign of hair reappearing. She used it on her face, and the white cloth turned black and brown and green and red as the makeup came off. Just to be sure, she went over herself a second time, more quickly, and rinsed thoroughly before turning off the water.
Somehow, she felt much more naked and self-conscious now than she had before stepping into the shower. Something to think about.
As soon as she drew back the curtain, Flair was there with huge fluffy towels to wrap around her.
“There, see? All washed away. They aren’t allowed to leave any changes. Humans have tried to talk fae into releasing them without undoing something, but if a man wants a bigger penis or perfect abs or a woman wants bigger breasts or a flat tummy, that’s really another wish and it’s not fair to try to sneak it in as a bonus. So the rule is, no exceptions, no leaving anything. I have your clothes here once you’re dry.”
Panties and bra, pantyhose and grey skirt and sky-blue blouse, all felt like they belonged to another lifetime, one with only the most tenuous connection to where she currently was. Flair handed her shoes to her, but putting them on was a painful thought at the moment.
“I’ll take care of the towels after. Come on, Mistress is waiting.”
In the lounge was a trio of doors… the two humans came out of the large centre one, and turned to one of the others. Flair opened it and stepped back.
“This way back to the human world,” she said lightly. “You can get to the living room, I’m sure. I’m going to go clean up the bathroom and myself, and head for my room to rest. Parties are fun but they do take a lot of energy even if you’re used to them.” She pressed a kiss to Jewel’s cheek. “Bye.”
“Thanks. For being patient and, well, everything.”
Flair smiled. “You’re welcome.”
On the other side, the hardwood floor felt different under nearly-bare feet than the stone did. Only a few steps and she was in the familiar living room—though there was no statue in the corner to draw the eye.
Mistress was on the couch, leaning into the corner. No long snake tail shimmering like the scales were dusted with gems, just legs in shiny dark-green tights drawn up beside her, though the sleeveless shiny black top remained, and the gold and diamonds as well, and her lips were still dark metallic green. She gazed at nothing, lost in thought, but looked around quickly, smiled, and patted the couch beside her.
“Come sit, Jillian. I’m not sending you off in your current state.”
Jillian. Right. That’s my name. I’m not Jewel, I’m Jillian. Because Mistress had said it, everything inside shifted again, encouraging her to see herself accordingly.
Rather numbly, she set her shoes down and joined Mistress on the couch; Mistress moved her legs out of the way so there was room for Jillian to be close to her, and right now, she found she wanted that badly.
“Poor dear.” Mistress ran a gentle hand over her hair. “We’ve certainly pushed you hard tonight, haven’t we? For any practical purpose, it’s over. I’m taking a little while before we technically run out of time to make sure that you’re going to be all right, but there won’t be anything else. Debt paid, and paid very well, in fact. You made my friends, and me, and Flair, very happy tonight, and I think it wasn’t always so onerous for you. You can put it all behind you and get on with your life.”
It was as embarrassing as anything else that had happened that Jillian broke down into tears she just couldn’t seem to stop.
Mistress handed her a box of tissues, and resumed stroking her hair soothingly. “It’s all right. You’ve been through considerable physical and emotional strain. Crying is quite understandable.”
Jillian surrendered, and curled up leaning on Mistress’ leg, where she was easy to reach, not fighting the sobs. She wasn’t even sure what she was crying over. Was it relief? Loss? Something else? Mistress continued to stroke her hair and back, murmuring things that all meant the same thing, and that was reassuring for no reason she could easily name but she was grateful for it.
It felt like forever for the storm to pass, but probably she didn’t have the stamina for it to have been all that long before she wound down to sniffles.
“It’s all right,” Mistress repeated, with no trace of impatience in her voice. “I’d be more surprised if you didn’t have a lot of tangled emotions. It’s around four in the morning, and once that last dose of elixir wears off, you’re going to sleep very deeply for longer than normal. Physically you’ll be back to normal when you wake up. The emotional impact may take longer. I want you to be gentle with yourself for a day or two. Spend Saturday in your pyjamas and order out for supper, and just spend the day reading or watching TV. Pamper yourself. You deserve it. You just bought your brother’s safety at the cost of giving twelve hours of your time to fae. It is not being selfish to allow yourself time to recover from it. All right?”
Jillian nodded, dragging herself reluctantly upright.
“And you know how to reach me if you need to talk. I’ll assume we aren’t having coffee this weekend, because you’ll be home resting, but I’ll see you next weekend unless you tell me otherwise. There is something you need to make a decision about now, however.”
“Would you find it easier to forget? I can remove the memory of the past twelve hours, so you’ll know that you made a bargain and that you paid it fairly but not how that was done…”
“That would drive me crazy,” Jillian said instantly. “I’d be constantly worrying about what I couldn’t remember.”
“Or you can forget the bargain entirely, and the existence of fae. Life would once again be what it was, and you would no longer have to look at the world knowing that there is a great deal to which most humans are oblivious. That will not change what happens with your brother. Whether you remember or not, your debt is paid. I’m offering this because I want you to be well, and experience has taught me that some humans cope very poorly with knowledge and memory. I don’t believe you’re among them, but the choice is yours.”
The future wouldn’t involve looking at people and wondering whether they were more than they seemed. Or looking at statues or full mannequins and wondering whether they were looking back. Or looking at the news and wondering how many unlikely events had fae influence.
It wouldn’t include memories of feeling so humiliated, and aroused, and helpless, and the three feeding back and forth. Or of Zipporah’s threat, Roshanak’s cold words, Eluned and Owain’s spite.
But it also wouldn’t include any memory of Flair or the fae who had been… playful… but friendly and, in their way, kind. If she sacrificed any of it, she sacrificed all of it.
Slowly, she shook her head. “I don’t want to forget. It happened. I can cope with that. It just might take a while.”
Mistress smiled. “I’m very glad to hear that. I will not remove those memories. However, I’m going to ask you to trust me in this. Human reaction to the first emphatic contact with fae is partially cultural, and yours doesn’t really offer much of a foundation to make it easier to accept. I think it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be the sort to have a breakdown, otherwise I would not have taken the chance, but you are under several kinds of stress right now that could deplete your resilience. I don’t want to risk your safety, and I don’t want you unable to do what you need to do in order to get safely moved and deal with your family. So I’m going to… soften the edges somewhat. You’ll still remember in general, but the details of the past twelve hours will feel fuzzy to your conscious mind, and it will be difficult to focus on it for long—although more vivid memories may slip through during some moments when you are open. It will fade on its own but I’m hoping that it will remain at least mostly intact until after you move. If you feel like you need to talk, rant, just have company who understands, I’m here. It may not entirely feel like it from where you are, and it may feel less like it in a couple of days, but your wellbeing is very important to me, and ultimately, I want you happy with as little stress and anxiety in your life as possible.”
“Do I have a choice?” Jillian asked with a sigh.
“I’m afraid not, dear. In my experience, even under ideal conditions, it’s rarely wise to leave anyone to adjust without some provisions made. Even once the barriers are gone and you can access everything freely, you will still find you cannot tell others—not my choice, part of the rules. This is an invitation-only world. It will be entirely your decision whether you ever wish to make another bargain. Now. I’m going to call a cab to take you home. The collar will come loose at the moment the twelve hours officially end. I’m sending you with food and a heating pad. Turned on low and laid over your stomach, it will help with any lingering soreness. When you get home, turn off your phone and sleep. All right?”
“Good. Go wash your face, while I call.”
The journey home, her purse on her shoulder and a large shopping bag in her hand and money from Mistress to pay for the cab, felt weirdly dreamlike. How could this exist alongside the reality she’d been in for the past twelve hours? It was like monochrome Kansas existing beside Technicolor Oz, or the real world beside Wonderland. Had Dorothy and Alice felt deeply relieved to survive the adventure and disoriented by the need to switch back to an old frame of reference after struggling to adjust to a new one?
She locked the door of her apartment behind her, stepped gratefully out of her shoes, and went through the step-by-step instructions Mistress had given her while waiting for the cab. Put the food in the fridge. Turn off her phone. Plug the heating pad in beside her bed, with the provided towel to rest between it and her body. Wrapped in the pristine white towel, clean but familiar, was the bubblegum-pink toy that said Jewel near the base; she tucked it into the drawer of the table next to her bed, not wanting to think about it right now. Get undressed and put on a favourite comfy nightshirt. Brush her teeth and use the toilet. Lie down in bed.
She was still awake, though not by much, when something she couldn’t name shifted, and things were different.
She checked the collar, and it unbuckled easily, so she shoved it in the drawer with the toy.
It was completely totally utterly over.
Just in time for her to fall asleep.