The intercom by the door buzzed; Jillian pressed the talk button. “Hello.”
“It’s us!” Unmistakably, Flair’s voice.
“Coming!” She grabbed her keys and headed quickly downstairs.
Beside a full-sized metallic orange-red van with a narrow crimson stripe down the side, Min’s chair waited on the sidewalk, while a large woman with pinned-up copper-and-silver hair, in jeans and a white t-shirt, steadied Min down from the front passenger seat.
A light-skinned young woman, in cut-off denim shorts and a neon yellow tanktop and sandals, a yellow and black scarf tied over her black hair, pounced on Jillian for a welcoming hug. More on reflex than thought, Jillian returned it. She only looked like a normal human: during hugs, the unusual resilience of her flesh and the different give of the silver and gold gave her away as Flair. Knowing that, Jillian was able to see that the only thing that had changed, really, was the very surface. The lines of her face, the shape of her body, those remained the same.
“I’m glad you had enough sense to call and let us help!”
Min looked past her companion and smiled. “Good morning. I hope you slept well.”
“Better than most nights lately,” Jillian admitted. “It was enough of a relief, knowing I had help, that I actually managed not to spend half the night with my mind spinning.” Or caught in erotic fantasy scenes. “Thanks so much for this. Helping with moving can strain long-time friendships, even.”
“Don’t worry about it, okay?” Flair said. “We’ll spend a while doing some work, then have a wonderful relaxing afternoon downtown, then you can get some sleep knowing you’re that much closer to being done, and if you want, I’ll stay overnight and I’ll be all yours for packing for as long as you can put up with me.”
“As Flair says,” the big redhead agreed, turning around once Min was safely in her chair. That was, beyond any doubt, Dagrun. The lines of her face, the powerful build, the voice… but probably not much more than six feet tall, and the copper of her hair was threaded with silver instead of mingled wildly with gold and crimson, and she no longer looked ageless. She remembered Dagrun’s hands, impossibly large, cradling her with infinite care after scooping her out of a danger Jillian scarcely realized she was in. “Sigrun says I’m to apologize that she couldn’t be here as well, but she has to work. Hospital emergency room security has less predictable hours than a high school history and French teacher. Let us know what other days you need her and she’ll make sure she’s free.”
“That would be amazing.”
“So. Shall we start bringing down anything that would travel better in the van? There’s still some space even with four of us and a wheelchair. Min? Could you hold the door and watch for the truck?”
“Oh, I believe I can manage that,” Min said, wheeling herself into position. “Incidentally, I’m supposed to pass on Nikandros’ apologies, as well. He’s currently out of the country entirely on business. He’s hoping he can be around the day you move, but we’ll see. He did ask me to buy you a gift from him, both as an apology and as an early housewarming present, and specified that it should be something that he would buy for you if he were here.”
“Degenerate,” Dagrun muttered.
Jillian considered arguing, but decided that she could tackle that later. She had no intention of allowing anyone to buy her anything. Instead, she unlocked the security door, let Min take it, and showed Flair and Dagrun to her apartment.
Dagrun, Jillian discovered, was extremely strong, and Flair seemed to have the energy of a chipmunk on caffeine. Jillian spent a lot of her time on organization, especially once the handyman arrived with the truck. Those items she did move herself, she was quite certain weighed less than they should have. And everything fit into the space Tetris-like with much greater ease than she recalled from previous moves, though she couldn’t for the life of her see how.
The apartment looked much larger once they’d filled the truck as well as the van. There was actually going to be space to work on the remainder of her packing, with some of her bulkier furniture out of the way. Her laptop, on its wheeled and minimalistic stand, took up little space, and she could use that while in the one comfy chair she was keeping or while sitting on her bed, instead of using her computer chair. She didn’t desperately need her couch, since Flair was amenable to sharing Jillian’s bed. She could skip sitting at her small kitchen table to eat. Plus some boxes were already packed up and marked as being things she wouldn’t need immediately, so they could go as well.
It took even less time to unload at the storage facility, since there were no stairs to run up and down, and it was a simpler job. Everything fit surprisingly compactly, with more free space than she’d estimated for everything else she wanted to put away. Possibly the facility owners would have been astonished at how much capacity it had.
Jillian paid the handyman and thanked him, checked the key and snapped the padlock onto the door, and joined the other three women at the van.
“All done. That’s going to make the rest of the packing a lot easier. Two weeks from now, I’m hoping to get as much as possible of the rest in here, because I move the weekend after and the more that’s out of my way, the better. Then I can retrieve things as I go.”
“A good strategy,” Dagrun agreed. “I’ll make certain Sigrun and I are free to help, and I’ll ask a few friends whether they might be available—for the day you move, if not before.”
“Are we on for downtown wandering and picnic, then?” Min asked.
Flair gave Jillian a hopeful look, lips parted and eyes wide.
“I suggest,” Dagrun said, “that you do not dwell on thoughts of fae or pets or bargains, and you allow yourself to relax. You’ve been tired and under a lot of stress. We accomplished a lot this morning, and there are times to work and times to celebrate work done, even if it’s not an entirely completed project. That allows you to gather the energy for the next stage. Choosing your new home is up to you, but you do have more of a community than you might expect who will support you through the rest. You are not facing this alone, but either way, it’s important to look after yourself. But that is only my advice, not a command.”
Flair edged up beside Jillian and whispered, “It’s usually smart to listen to Dagrun. Even Mistress does.”
Jillian weighed options. She probably did need to unwind before she snapped, and the whole fae thing was an enormous subject she wasn’t sure she had the resources to cope with right now anyway. A casual afternoon downtown was a pleasant kind of idea, really.
To go out with Kaylee and Christine, she’d have had to shower and change and generally put as much time into her appearance as to go to work; shorts and a t-shirt that she’d just done some physical labour in, with no accessories or make-up, would be out of the question. But she didn’t feel like wasting the time, and her companions clearly had no issue with the very casual look they all currently shared.
We aren’t going downtown to be looked at. There’s a time for that, but it isn’t now.
It’s okay to look sexy. But that isn’t the same as having to.
“Sounds like an awesome afternoon,” Jillian said.
“Good,” Dagrun said. “Everyone in.”
They parked in a downtown lot and took to the sidewalks on foot—and wheels. Flair skipped eagerly from window to window, fascinated by the displays; Jillian tried to keep up with her, but the sudden darts and halts were a challenge at moments.
Dagrun kept pace with Min, the two of them always somewhere in sight.
They stopped in a number of stores. Some time was spent in the new bookstore, and even longer in the used one, both resulting in purchases by Dagrun for herself and Flair together. The game and gifts shop made some sense, the various clothing and shoe stores came as little surprise, but the army surplus store seemed to be purely curiosity on Flair’s part and they weren’t there long. The pet store was perplexing.
“I want to see if they have interesting toys for my cats,” Flair explained, and, when Jillian stared at her in astonishment, “What?”
“You have cats?”
“I told you I do, I’m sure I did. Two sisters. They were orphaned, only a week old. I bottle-fed them and everything. Now that was hard work! They have their own big room linked to mine and everything they need. I got pretty lonely when Maggie died, even with other friends, and they helped a lot. I’d take you to meet them but I can’t, you’re all the way anchored in the human world now. Maybe I can get some video of them to send to you. If you like cats. You do like cats, right?” Her brows drew downward in sudden apprehension—possibly it had only now occurred to her that liking cats was not universal, despite the Internet obsession with them.
“I like cats,” Jillian assured her. “My experience is limited, but I like them.”
“Oh, good.” She giggled. “Yes, I’m a pet who has pets. Oh, I bet they’d like that!”
Everything purchased went into an ordinary-looking familiar black and green tote bag on the back of Min’s chair. The less-ordinary aspect was that no matter how much went in it, it still looked nearly empty from the outside, and seemed not to increase in weight.
Just don’t ask any questions.
Two doors further, Flair wanted to stop in a lingerie shop.
“Since when do you wear underwear?” Jillian muttered.
“You do. And we’re supposed to buy you something that Nik would. And he would definitely buy something here.”
“No one is buying me anything!”
“It’ll make him feel good. C’mon, let’s just see what there is.”
Bras, panties, a small selection of garter belts and stockings…
“Wouldn’t those be more practical?” Flair wondered, contemplating that last. “Instead of pulling everything up and down and messing with skirt waistbands and all?”
“I… well, you do have a point. They’re mostly associated with sex these days.”
“If it’s underneath your skirt, how will anyone know? I bet your boyfriend would like that as a surprise.”
“Probably.” She hadn’t thought of Gary all day, she realized. She didn’t even know whether he was still at work. Well, after leaving her stuck, tough luck. “And you might be right about being a lot easier.” And it was okay to feel sexy, right? No one needed to know. She chose a white garter belt that appealed to her, one with a minimum of lacy frills, and contemplated the stockings in their various colours and textures.
A few seconds later, she heard Flair squeal her name. “Come look!”
One corner had several styles of corsets.
Something inside twisted itself up tightly, memories rousing with sudden vibrant multi-sensory life, of white satin wrapped around her torso, confining and supporting at once, creating extraordinary curves. It was not, Jillian thought morosely, a fear reaction that made her suddenly wet.
Flair was examining them with interest. “Plastic… plastic… plastic boning isn’t very useful, it warps. Here, this one has steel!” She picked it up and held it at arm’s length. “Hm, simple under-bust, pretty thin steel, wouldn’t work for much heavy use and not the best support, but it’s kinda pretty and I bet it would be comfortable for getting used to one and deciding what you think.”
“How do you know that much about corsets?”
“I’m pretty sure I told you. But you were a bit overwhelmed at the time. I like them. I wasn’t always wearing one that’s literally part of me, y’know. And Mistress has been around for kind of a long time. You do realize it wasn’t that long ago, in their terms, that any respectable woman wore one? She taught me. Hold up your arms?” Flair took the corset off the hanger and wrapped it around her. “Hmm, pretty close, but a bit too small for around your ribs. Where’s the next size… there, that’s better. Stop twitching. These are commercial generic off-the-rack. It wouldn’t lace all that tightly even if you tried. I really think we should get you this. Hm, black or white? Let’s get both. Do you have a really good bra in both colours that doesn’t have any wires?”
“What? No, just a couple of sports bras that aren’t exactly new these days. Why?”
“Because underwire bras and under-bust corsets won’t cooperate, of course. We need to find those.”
“Look who’s talking about underwires.”
Flair glanced down at herself, where the gold and silver spiralled around her breasts was hidden by both neon yellow ribbed fabric and fae disguise, and giggled. “You need something for underneath, too, a close-fitting stretchy camisole or tank-top. Corsets don’t clean well, and you don’t want it right against your skin. Mm, don’t ask about then, different rules.”
“Flair, no one is buying me any such thing!”
“What size, for the bra? Nevermind, most people wear the wrong size and this is a nice place, they can tell you what you should be wearing.”
Min and Dagrun had joined them in the shop, though they were mostly lingering by the door.
Jillian escaped Flair and ducked around a mannequin modelling a negligee to reach them—the thought flitting across her mind that, the mannequin in question being a full-body one, it just might be more than it seemed.
“This is silly. You aren’t buying me anything, let alone half the bloody store.”
“Why not?” Dagrun asked reasonably. “Money is not an issue. Flair is having a wonderful time. What you get will make you feel good.”
“And I can do as Nik asked,” Min concluded. “It would be… uncomfortable, if I didn’t. Not a lie, as such, but not properly truth. I’d be grateful if you’d allow it. Flair is right, this fits Nik’s rather loose conditions perfectly.”
“But…” Jillian protested, weakly.
“Something to remind Gary that there is more to life than work, and that he has a lovely and loyal girlfriend patiently waiting for him?”
“There you are,” Flair said. “I found something you can wear underneath. Come see.” She looked at the mannequin thoughtfully for a couple of heartbeats, then at Min.
“Just plastic,” Min said. “They all are.”
Flair shrugged, losing interest. “Come on, Jillian!”
“There are moments,” Dagrun said, “when the best thing you can do is surrender and accept a gift graciously.”
Well, she didn’t have to actually wear any of this that she didn’t want to. And it could be fun, surprising Gary.
It’s okay to feel sexy. To want to feel sexy. To want to look sexy.
Shut up. I told you to go away.
She went with Flair to look at tops to go under the corsets.
Flair bounded off to fetch Min to pay while the helpful young woman who worked there rang in the pile of items that had collected on the counter.
Min picked up the white corset, inspecting it, and set it down. “If, at some point, you decide you want to upgrade, let me know. I can suggest a few corsetières in this part of the world who do excellent custom work for reasonable prices.”
Jillian didn’t bother saying that she was not going to want to upgrade because she probably would rarely even wear these ones.
Outside, those bags went into the one on Min’s chair as well.
“Food?” Dagrun suggested. “We’ve been at it quite a while. Late breakfast, no lunch.”
“Yes, please,” Flair said promptly. “Can we get junk food? Please?”
Min chuckled. “I think that would be fine, and easiest as well. There should be something down in the park by the water. It’s warm enough that the early tourists are starting to show up, along with those working in the area seeking lunch.”
This street, the heart of downtown, ended at right angles to the street that ran along the outer edge of the waterfront park. They paused at the lights to wait for it to change.
“Oh, Ms Vauquelin!”
Jillian winced at the pronunciation of Min’s last name. Obligatory French classes through school should at least make it possible to recognize a French name as such and pronounce it in something approximating the right accent, instead of dropping a syllable and mangling what remained.
The two fae turned, unhurried, to see the speaker; Flair spun around with a muffled squeak that possibly only Jillian heard.
“Ms Hammond,” Min said, inclining her head in gracious acknowledgement. Her faint French accent changed the name to something subtly more exotic. She waited expectantly for the other woman, more stocky with greying hair cropped to her shoulders, neatly dressed in a navy blue and white calf-length dress, to speak.
“I just wanted to thank you. I really have no idea how you persuaded Monica to agree to the alterations to the constitution. She was so completely attached to the belief that it would be catastrophic.”
“I can be very persuasive,” Min said, with a smile. “I shared with her several of my own thoughts on the subject. Despite the undoubted presence of racist beliefs among some women seeking shelter, the centre does not decline to help, hire, or train as volunteers based on skin colour. Nor does the centre discriminate by religion, sexual activity, marital status, or other criteria that could be offensive to some service users and some segments of the public. Considering the violence and homelessness transgender women often suffer, it is hypocritical, heartless, and bigoted to refuse to admit transgender women to the shelter and insist that they should seek out a men’s shelter.”
“To say the least,” Dagrun said dryly. “One of my most beloved friends is trans. I hate to think of her needing help. I hate more to think of her needing it and being refused because of the same prejudice that led to her need. I could say the same about my students—I teach in high school, and I’d like to think they are all equally entitled to safety and to help when that fails.”
“Yes,” the unfamiliar woman said. “I was a bit unsure at first, but you do make an excellent case. It was looking like Monica was starting to sway a couple of others in her direction, though, and I was absolutely shocked when she suddenly spoke up in favour of the revisions being done immediately and openly. I knew you intended to talk to her, but I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Min can talk anyone into anything,” Dagrun chuckled. “Ever since we were kids. Fortunately, she uses her powers only for good.”
“Well, I’m grateful, and impressed. I’ll see you at the next meeting? There’s a draft of the revisions already in progress.”
Min nodded, still smiling. “I expect to be there. If you’ll excuse us, lunch is calling. Have a good afternoon.”
“Um, yes, of course.”
Jillian wondered whether the other woman realized she had just been dismissed—tactfully and graciously, but as firmly as a queen dismissing a subject.
They’d missed the green light, and had to wait for the next, while the woman strode off along the street.
“Needed to deal with an obstacle, hm?” Dagrun murmured.
“She was blocking a measure that will offer shelter to some of those at the highest risk of needing it,” Min said calmly. “She claimed that it would be destructive to non-trans women to have trans individuals residing at the shelter, that it would interfere with their sense of safety—and there is so very much wrong with that statement. She also brought up, repeatedly, public support. There was a serious danger that she was going to persuade enough members of the board that they would have voted against it. You know how I feel about the vulnerable suffering because it is inconvenient for those with authority to take notice. She might have had a vivid dream or two, after we had coffee alone together.”
“I bet she did.”
“I considered asking Clara to get involved, but I decided to have pity. And I don’t mean on Clara.”
Dagrun laughed. “Ah, yes, a moment to record and post online, that would be, telling her to her face that she doesn’t deserve equal access. I’m sure she’ll be very grateful to hear how much progress you’re making locally there and the sexual assault centre. Clara,” she added, in an aside to Jillian, “is one of my own human friends and favourites, a high school counsellor who unfortunately started off with male anatomy. She’s a ferocious advocate for others who do not have a protective fae friend watching over them.”
“Not a subject I know much about,” Jillian admitted, “but I bet she’s seriously lucky.”
“Her first bargain, and she makes no secret of this so I can tell you, was for a home and living expenses so she could finish high school. Her parents threw her out when she came out to them at fifteen. She lived with Sigrun and I. Further bargains were for tuition with living expenses, and then for the necessary resources so she could transition the normal way, including surgery. Asking for a trip to the body artists, she says, would have made it impossible for her to relate properly to those she’s trying to speak for and support. I would say that she has had good fortune, in that she was one of my students at the right time and I spotted potential and need there, but also that she’s earned it all fairly.”
“Clara’s wonderful,” Flair said. “So are Rachel and Phoebe, Dagrun’s other two human friends. We need a way for you to meet them.”
“I intend to ask whether they’re free to help with moving,” Dagrun said.
“Oh! That’ll be fun. I bet they’ll try to make sure they can. There’s sort of a thing, Jillian, humans that are beholden to family fae, that means anyone who’s done at least one bargain and has the option of more with any of Mistress’ friends, tend to sort of step in to help each other out. And those three are a lot more down-to-earth than some of Sati’s artists. Nik’s are all either busy a lot, like Maryam, she’s a doctor, or didn’t move here, like Emmy, or, um, they’re not very helpful. And Nechtan’s and Hyld’s haven’t caught up yet.”
Jillian did a quick mental count. “Sigrun and Henry?”
“Henry does his own thing,” Min said. “He watched the rest of us grow up.”
“Sigrun doesn’t currently have anyone she’s personally involved with,” Dagrun said. “She is, at heart, a warrior who believes in honour and courage, and she finds the modern version of war rather… impersonal and indiscriminate. She does at times find someone who interests her. The last was a martial artist, and the one before was a police officer. But it may be some time. Until then, she watches over the humans who are important to me and our friends.”
Oddly, Jillian found herself wondering just how many people who would happily and fairly bargain weren’t getting the opportunity. Then she wondered when she had decided that bargaining with fae was necessarily so positive. Although she was here with two fae…
“That was really disrespectful, though,” Flair muttered, as they stepped off the curb to cross on the green light. “That woman couldn’t even get your name right and use the right title? It isn’t like you’re asking her to remember the whole thing.”
Min chuckled. “What would it gain to insist she use Madame, not Ms, and correct her pronunciation? A show of respect with no substance, at the price of bad feelings that could lose me an ally I might need later.”
“The whole thing?” Jillian echoed. “Did I miss something?”
“My family has a fondness for pretentious and ostentatious gestures,” Min said with a sigh. “And for blatantly sucking up to more powerful individuals by naming things, including children, for them. It adds up, in my case, to something like twelve names in total, depending on how you count.”
“It’s not that hard to remember or pronounce,” Flair grumbled. “I can. Madame Mireille-Nyraise Léontine Ophélie…” Jillian quickly lost track of the rest, though they all had a distinctly French sound. “… Guiscard Vauquelin,” Flair finished.
Min laughed and caught Flair’s hand for a quick squeeze. “Yes, dear. But you have had time and a good reason to want to learn it all, and you’re clever with an excellent memory. There is really no need for so many names. It serves only to make my relatives feel important.”
“Playing at power politics with melusines,” Dagrun reflected, “is like playing Snakes and Ladders. No matter how many ladders you climb, you will encounter the snakes, and they will make certain you lose the ground you gained and more besides. They do have a large-scale impact on human life, but I doubt it’s ultimately in the best interests of most humans.”
“Thus, they are scandalized by me,” Min said cheerfully. “And I have every intention of continuing to scandalize them with more or less everything about my life. Now that we have finally made it across that final barrier between us and the food, let’s get back to the more important matter at hand, shall we?”
Min’s bag turned out to hold a pair of brightly-striped blankets they could spread on the grass in the park on the water’s edge, enough space for all four of them. They ate sausages in rolls from a cart and fries from a chip truck, and watched the early tourists and the seagulls.
Flair stretched out on her stomach in the afternoon sun, relaxing with a happy sigh.
Jillian laid down beside her and closed her eyes, just absorbing the warmth and the peace. Normally, she would never let her guard down in such a public place. Her purse would vanish, if nothing else. But with two fae nearby, she was quite sure she was safe from anything so mundane. With no air of awkwardness or being forced, the conversation simply faded, the two fae continuing to talk quietly in their own language but it felt less like trying to shut the humans out, more like making sure there was no pressure to be involved.
“Are you going to let me come help with packing and cleaning?” Flair asked, on the unhurried stroll back to the van.
“If Flair spends tonight and tomorrow with you,” Min said, “she could come home for the week before her cats miss her excessively. You can spend the week focused on apartment-hunting. Then Friday night you and I and Flair can have dinner or Saturday we can have breakfast, and I can see her safely to your place and leave her with money for a cab home when you’re ready. I’m sure you can get enough packed to make it simple the following weekend to move the remainder to storage.”
Jillian sighed. “All right. I’m behind and I’m desperately grateful for any help I can get, and that sounds like a feasible plan.” Anyone else was just going to have to understand about packing.
That made Flair giggle. “Yay, I’m the lesser evil.”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“I know. Don’t worry so much. Echo’s going to look after the cats for me, she has fun playing with them and they like her. They have everything they need including each other, they’ll be okay for a day or two, and I can do it again next weekend.” Another giggle. “Dedicated labour, at the cost of keeping me fed and hiding me from your friends.”
Dagrun dropped Jillian and Flair at the former’s now less-crowded apartment.
On the way up the stairs, and while she unlocked the door, Jillian realized that she felt genuinely and deeply relaxed. Would she have been, if she’d gone out with Kaylee and Christine? Having someone play with her hair and do her nails felt good, true. And the food would have been healthier, but mostly because that was trendy. Relaxing? If she had to be honest, then probably not.
Flair surveyed Jillian’s apartment, the chaos of boxes full and empty and halfway between, the stacks and piles of things that needed to go into them in some sort of order or be put aside to find new homes, and shook her head.
“You,” she pronounced, “need a maid.”
Jillian rolled her eyes, and Flair giggled.
Whatever Min had been doing to keep her looking human had begun to fade when they’d parted from Min downstairs, and at this point, Flair was her usual alabaster self. It looked odd to see her dressed, and the fact that it was odd to see someone dressed was odd in itself.
Flair pulled her top off over her head and, at Jillian’s sideways look, shrugged cheerfully while unbuttoning her shorts. “Why get them dirty? So. What do we need to do?”
“Give me a minute to get my bearings.”
Flair shrugged and settled herself in the comfy chair, legs crossed, her brightly-coloured backpack on the floor at her side.
Jillian locked the door, kicked off her shoes, and contemplated what to do with the bags of lingerie. For the moment, she left them on the dresser.
Her phone held a message from a very irritated Christine, lecturing her on the courtesies of friendship, and one from Gary, letting her know that he was done work and going home to sleep.
She deleted the first one, then paused to think about the second one.
She texted him instead.
«Your place or mine Monday?»
Even if she didn’t work up the nerve to wear one of the corsets, she wanted someone to touch, someone to feel close to.
She ignored the little voice that said, Someone to fuck me, and turned her attention to Flair and packing.
Next time: a quick run through Jillian’s week, including experiments with Nik’s various gifts, and her Friday-night solution to being alone and frustrated and horny – but still needing to get her laundry done.