Despite Min’s promise of protection, she remained apprehensive on her way to work. Brett would still be there, still be creepy, and she needed to act normally.
She couldn’t let on that the collar he couldn’t see meant that the clock was ticking on his freedom to behave badly.
That collar was also a pledge of protection, though.
Broken toys are no fun. You’re valuable to us.
Min was her friend, and on a colder note, they’d want her able to pay her debt. Flair had assured her that the fae got something precious to them out of bargaining, though she couldn’t explain exactly what—only that it was something much deeper than she’d yet been able to work out. The superficial theme varied, and she thought that sexuality and gender were common largely because humans in many cultures attached so much importance and complexity to them. She’d seen one person, who’d made only two bargains and then fled, whose religious fanaticism had been challenged and tested, and another was a poet with rather arrogant ideas about True Art, and she thought she remembered one with a previous owner whose obsession with honour and pride and social standing had been called into question. She’d warned Jillian that themes tended to continue, though, so hers would almost certainly continue to be sexual—but while some fae delighted in pushing humans into complete self-destruction, Min and her closest were not among them. As evidence, she’d offered Dagrun’s trio, who had at least three bargains each behind them and were unquestionably not broken.
Flair had also promised her fervently and repeatedly, in response to Jillian’s apprehension, that absolutely nothing that happened during a debt payment could interfere with their being friends. Since the alabaster-and-metal fae pet had become a trusted and valued friend, even if as much of that was by phone as in person, Jillian very much hoped that was the case. Flair might be able to disregard things, but could she?
The collar gave Min greater power to protect her. She needed to remember that.
The morning went smoothly: Brett was in a meeting.
As lunchtime approached, she contemplated her options. Too nauseous with anxiety to stomach breakfast, she knew she needed to eat something. She had a microwave dinner in the break room that she could have for lunch, but that left her here and accessible. She could flee the building before he reappeared…
Someone set a large, pleasantly-fragrant paper bag in front of her.
Startled, she looked up.
Those eyes weren’t yellow now, though they remained an unusually light warm brown. No horns, and he looked more mature, less the perpetual youth, with fine lines on his face and traces of silver in his black hair. Black leather jeans, a short-sleeved silky black shirt that was open two buttons too far to be office-appropriate, with a single gold chain supporting a black and gold pendant—the V-and-squiggle she’d learned was Capricorn, the same one that was on her toy…
And her panties were suddenly wet.
“Min’s worried about whether you’ve been eating right,” he said cheerfully. “Chinese from your favourite, and she told me what to order. My treat.”
“What… how did you even get in here?” The contents of that bag did smell good.
He smelled better.
“I’m persuasive.” He spread a hand, expression innocent. “What can I say, people like me.” He leaned a hip on the edge of her desk, and the frivolity melted into gravity. “Min asked me to help out on this one. That’s completely within the rules, since her debts are mine and mine are hers and there are no debts between us. Plus she knows that I really dislike men who pull this kind of thing. And I do mean intensely ferociously passionately dislike.”
Jillian blinked. That was unexpected, and derailed her attention from the warmth between her legs. Which was just because he was a satyr and that was what they did, right? “You do? Why?”
He smiled. “What, because I’m a satyr? That’s exactly why I detest force and intimidation. Y’see, in my experience, and I have a lot of it, women are at least as strongly sexual in nature as men are. Wildly generalizing trends, here, of course. Give me someone any day who’s enthusiastic and gives as good as she gets—fuck of a lot more fun than someone terrified of her partner and her own sexuality. Betcha your boyfriend loves it, the more obviously you’re really into what you’re doing. Or he’s doing. Or whatever.”
Jillian felt herself blush. “Um, yes, usually.”
“The problems start when you’re punished for it. I’ve noticed that women who feel genuinely safe and know there won’t be any penalties for it very often enjoy dressing in ways that make them feel good about themselves. Not all, not always, but a lot. And they tend to be more sure of themselves and what they want, and not afraid of it. If they won’t be in danger or shamed, they’re more inclined to agree to or invite sex. Now, I personally think it’s win-win all around if as many women as possible are dressing sexier and more open about wanting sex and feel safe indulging in it. Assholes who figure they’re entitled to just claim a woman who appeals to them, or otherwise harass, threaten, assault, shame, insult, blame, blah blah depressingly long list of variations, spoil things for everyone. Less confident creative sexy self-expressive eye candy to appreciate, and less awesome uninhibited sex for everyone. All because some assholes can’t be bothered making an effort to be appealing and respectful and give women a reason to feel they’re worth time and trust, and then blame women that they’re alone. Believe me, no matter who you are and what you’re into, no matter how you look or how rich you are, there is someone out there who will think you’re wildly hot, although they’re harder to find if people don’t feel safe. There is just no need for this crap, it’s lazy and selfish and self-entitled and sulky, and I have no patience for it.”
“You’re probably right,” Jillian reflected. “But we’re also in a society that says that women, ideally, are supposed to all be sexy eye candy all the time.”
“True, but that’s not about feeling comfortable in your own body and expressing that, it’s about putting on a show for men, even if that means brutalizing your body instead. And then choosing whether to be shamed as a slut or guilt-tripped as a cock-tease with no other options. That is not safety. And telling women that they’re only beautiful or sexy when they’re young or only a single ideal body type is just ridiculous. A mature and confident woman with real honest curves… yummy.” He licked his lips and grinned.
“You’re pretty free with your hands. Among other things.” At the next desk, she noticed Ben watching her guest. Ben was about as blatantly and aggressively straight as anyone she’d ever met—he was divorced, possibly more than once, and always seemed to be talking about a different girlfriend.
“Only when invited. Without an invitation, my hands, among other things, stay strictly to themselves. Your food is getting cold, by the way, and you don’t have forever to eat.”
“Right. Sorry. And thank you.” Jillian opened the bag and took out the containers within. Seriously, the sex-mad satyr perched on the edge of her desk was more into sincere respect and consent than many human men? After what he’d done to her and seen done to her for twelve hours, he was still better at treating her like an intelligent equal? How did that logic work? Although, when she thought about it, his philosophy actually did make a strange sort of sense.
“You’re very welcome.” The grin came back. “I have multiple reasons for wanting you to stay healthy.”
Ben got up and approached them. Approached Jillian’s desk, at least, though he paid no attention to her. What was he doing? For all he knew, Nikandros had every right to be there, so he wasn’t going to object to his presence, was he?
“Excuse me for just a minute, Jillian.” Nikandros focused on Ben, body language completely relaxed, inviting even, though an invitation to what, she dared not pursue. “Hi. Can I help you?”
“Have we… do I know you?” Ben asked.
Jillian blinked, odd shadows catching her eye. Did Ben seriously have a hard-on? One he was making no effort to hide, although presumably he was aware of it?
“I don’t think so,” Nikandros said, though his tone stayed friendly and casual. “Which is a shame, you look like a fascinating guy. I’m a bit busy right now with my wife’s friend, but maybe I can catch up with you later. But if not, when you’re alone you could let yourself fantasize about me and all the fun things we could do. No harm in that, and I’d be flattered, not offended.”
“Um. Right. I’ll do that, for sure. I really hope you get time.”
Nikandros’ gaze ran along his entire body, head to toe, appreciatively. Jillian didn’t personally consider Ben notably appealing, even on a purely physical level, but satyrs seemed to be more open-minded. “Definitely. Why don’t you go get yourself some lunch, so I can talk to Jillian, okay? And if anyone asks, you know it’s perfectly fine for me to be here. Security wouldn’t have let me in otherwise, right?”
“Yeah, of course it’s fine. See ya around.” There was nothing at all unusual about Ben’s expression or speech or even his body language, apart from that ignored hard-on, but the content was more than a little bizarre. He headed for the break room.
Nikandros sighed. “There was a time when he would have approached naked without any shame and offered that as a gift… sometimes I miss those days.”
That had probably not been any time in recent history—although given the goings-on she’d heard happened in some Victorian secret societies, anything was possible. “That was weird,” Jillian said. “Was Ben really…?”
“Thinking about sex with me? Of course he was. So are you, you’re just aware of it and you’re determined not to. Satyrs can’t help it, and humans can’t help it, it’s just how it works. He’s fine. He’ll have some masturbation fantasies about me, and if it doesn’t find anything to resonate with, it’ll be just once and he’ll find a way to rationalize it until he forgets.” He looked thoughtful. “Homophobia is as annoying as that whole misogyny thing we talked about already. Transphobia and rigid gender roles, too.”
“You loved the whole hippie flower child free love thing, didn’t you?”
That made him laugh. “Make love not war, baby.”
“You came all the way here to bring me lunch?” All her favourites from that restaurant—and far more than she was going to be able to eat right now. She’d have enough leftovers for supper. This was comfort food, not just something to fill her stomach.
“No. I need you to point him out to me, and he and I are going to have a chat in private, so I can get some idea just how big a project we’re looking at and how deep we’re going to have to go. Afterwards, I’m going to stay in sight to make sure that our chat doesn’t have bad consequences for you, and then I’m going to see you home. A comprehensive and permanent attitude adjustment is more complicated than dropping a few ideas and tweaking a bit of paperwork, and it’s going to take time to do right. Maybe he honestly was in the area for innocent reasons and isn’t contemplating violence, but we’re not going to risk your safety on that.”
“Oh, please tell me I’m not going to have someone around constantly for weeks. That’ll drive me bonkers.”
“We’ll find ways that won’t be so bad. But believe me, you are extremely well-protected. Short of one of us being in the office all day every day shadowing you, unfortunately we can’t do a lot immediately about his behaviour here. But anywhere outside of here, he’s not going to get near you.”
“That’s reassuring. I was half expecting to end up, at best, in a courtroom having my entire sexual history dragged out to prove I wanted him to rape me, and at worst being found dead in a ditch somewhere.”
“Not going to happen. Try to trust in that. I brought you one other present.” He fished a small object from the pocket of his jeans and held it out on his palm. Warily, Jillian picked it up. A silver ring, a spiraled serpent, with glassy green eyes. “Once you put it on, leave it on. Taking it off will… ah, think of it as sounding an alarm that any fae within range will recognize. And since Min spread the word already that she values your safety, believe me, most fae will respond. Just because humans don’t see or recognize fae, treasure, that doesn’t mean there are no fae there. Lots of fae have no interest in humans. But they will be very interested in earning a favour from Min. You can take it off once this is all sorted out.”
That sounded like a useful kind of gift. Fae didn’t lie, so it must do what he said. She slid it onto the middle finger of her right hand. For an instant, she thought it was too tight, but after she flexed her hand, it fit quite comfortably. It struck her as improbable that it would turn her finger green or anything like that.
“It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to need to use it, but no harm in having a backup plan. Or in you having something tangible. You just went tense. Him?”
“Him. Coming this way.”
“Saves me the trouble, then. After I spend a while talking to him, we’ll be able to come up with a much more effective plan for how to handle him. You said not to kill him, so if all else fails and he’s just too warped to fix, we’ll castrate him, wipe chunks of his memory, and dump him so deep in the middle of nowhere that it’ll take him twenty years to find a phone.”
“You really don’t like guys like him.”
That grin showed his teeth. “You abuse it, you lose it. Aggressive animals should be neutered.”
“Excuse me,” Brett said, his tone noticeably curt. “Can I help you?”
Nikandros stood up and turned to face him. “Oh, just dropping off lunch to a friend.”
“Security let you through? Nevermind. I’m sure that’s very thoughtful, but this is a workplace, and part of my job is making sure no one’s bothering my people.”
He’s jealous, Jillian realized suddenly. Nikandros is an unknown quantity but just radiates sex. And Brett figures I belong to him, and this is a threat.
How fucked up is that?
Nikandros just smiled at him. “Of course it is. Which is why I’d like a chance to talk to you. Somewhere alone, so no one will interrupt. Just you and I. A bit of a man-to-man chat, hm?”
Oh my god, Brett’s getting a hard-on.
Every guy in the office is going to be walking funny and a lot of skirts and slacks are going to have damp spots, if he’s here long.
Brett shifted gears visibly. “What about? No, nevermind, but it needs to address barging into this office and hassling my staff.”
“If you want it to. Shall we? There’s somewhere private we can go, I hope.”
Jillian watched them go, then tried to concentrate on eating before she ran out of lunch break. Finally, she packed it up, labelled the bag with a magic marker and stapled it shut, put it in the break room fridge, and got back to work.
It was some time before she spotted Nikandros wandering casually around the office, not really interfering much with anyone in particular for long—amusing himself while she finished up, she thought. No one objected to his presence, and everyone seemed perfectly willing to indulge him in conversation. Still, she definitely got the sense that he was keeping an eye on her. Once, she was sure the satyr intervened. She emerged from the bathroom cautiously, since Brett had used that to contrive bumping into her a couple of times, only to see him from behind as he walked away. Nikandros, nearby, winked at her and continued listening with apparent interest to a co-worker she knew was a heavy anime fan.
When people began to gather up their things and leave, Nikandros managed to casually be at Jillian’s desk before Brett got anywhere near her, without any impression of having hurried. Brett scowled and changed his route.
“Ready?” Nikandros asked. “I promised to see you home safely.”
“Sure. Just let me grab the rest of the food.”
Conversation on the bus was intermittent and shallow, other than Nikandros gently dealing with two women and a man who approached him with no idea what they wanted to say, clearly just wanting to get close to him.
“Coming in?” Jillian asked him, unlocking her apartment door.
“Since you asked.”
“What, you can’t come in uninvited?”
“You’re thinking of vampires. I just consider it rude, personally.”
“Hm. Are there really vampires?”
“I have genuinely never heard of anything that sparkles and likes the taste of blood.” He followed her inside, and closed the door.
Jillian looked around, setting the food and her purse on the small table near the door, and frowned. “Someone’s been in here.”
“Mm, well, I said I consider it rude. Not everyone does.”
“This was a friend?” She stood back to look at the door. Tacked around the frame in an unbroken loop was a narrow cord. It was the red of fresh blood, but she saw glints in it. On closer inspection, the glints were hair-thin strands of metal that looked like gold, and the red part was very soft and glossy and felt vaguely damp, tightly spun together into what could be thick thread or thin yarn.
“Henry. He’ll have done the windows, as well. Nothing that means you harm can pass through, and nothing outside can see in. It won’t last forever, but it should for long enough.”
“I shouldn’t ask, right?”
“Correct. I can’t think of any circumstances in which asking would have any point, even if you’re asking those of us who will tolerate from our own what would otherwise be unforgivable—and remember that outside of Min and I, Henry, Dagrun and Sigrun, Sati and Nechtan, and another friend you haven’t met yet, that is a real danger.”
Jillian spun around, and started to stammer an apology. Was she getting too comfortable with the weirdness, was she going to get herself in trouble?
“Stop,” he told her firmly. “You’re already stressed enough by other things, and I’m not going to add to it. Just be careful who you ask questions of even obliquely, please. Although in this case, even if I chose to try answering and had any hope of successfully translating, I don’t know enough about it. Henry was bargaining with the tribes in Germany long before Min or I were born and long before there was anything like a German nation. His skills are very primal and very powerful. And he likes you. You impressed him.”
“I what? But I didn’t…”
Nikandros chuckled. “Now how can you hope to know what would win our respect or our pleasure when you don’t know the goal or the rules, and when we can’t even begin to explain them? All you can do is surrender control to us and do as you’re told. Trust that we have reasons and that as long as you let us, we can make sure you only do what’ll please us. If you fight us, then there is a distinct chance of absolutely no one getting anything they want. It has happened, almost always the first time which is also the last. You, however… you are genuinely a treasure, and I’m looking forward to next weekend.”
She blushed scarlet as the thread, and looked down.
He chuckled. “So we need to make sure you’re safe and sound, not exhausted from looking behind you constantly or faint with hunger. Now that I know you’re home in one piece, I should leave you to unwind, undress, and generally shake off the day.” Black eyebrows rose. “Unless you’d like some help with any of that. Especially the undressing part. I gather my gift to you was sexy lingerie. Do I get to see it?”
Jillian hesitated. The tone was playful, and she didn’t think he’d be upset by refusal. On the other hand, he was the reason she had the underwear that felt so good and was subtly making such a change in her self-image. She believed him that he wouldn’t touch her without consent.
And it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen her most private parts up close, and used her juices on vegetables as flavouring.
And even if she did know what was causing it and was fighting it, she’d been in close proximity much longer than anyone else today, and it was making her feel giddy and reckless.
So she smiled at him. “Fair’s fair.”
He leaned against the door, watching with flatteringly intense interest, as she unzipped the back of her black skirt and slid both hands under the waistband to wiggle it down over her hips, allowing the red of her garter belt and the top of her black stockings to come into view under the bottom of her blouse. She stepped out of it delicately, without removing her once-favourite black strappy heels, and bent down to pick it up and toss it on the table. The buttons on her blouse took a moment to undo, and she kept it closed until she finished so she could let the whole thing slither off her shoulders, baring red bra and red camisole and black corset.
“Technically I bought the red ones,” she said. “I liked the white and the black that Flair talked me into so much I couldn’t resist getting red and pink too. If they had more colours I’d get them. Or if the corsets came in anything but white and black. I think I’m thoroughly hooked.”
“And since you’re adding to the overall beauty of the world… wow, that was a purchase that was more than worth it.” She saw his nostrils flare, catching some scent, but she couldn’t tell whether his expression changed. “Thank you. And if you find you need more, please let me know. Encouraging that is a gift to everyone around you.” He offered a hand; when she laid hers in it, he raised it so he could press a gallant kiss to her fingers. “And with that delightful image in mind, I’ll take my leave. Rest, relax, and feel safe.”
* * *
Tiredly, Jillian unlocked her apartment door and dumped her overnight bag on the floor.
She’d have far preferred her usual Saturday with Min and Flair.
The three-hour drive meant leaving early on Saturday morning for Gary’s cousin’s wedding. Because of his grandparents, he’d wanted her to dress conservatively, which she would have accepted as natural a few months ago but now found herself labelling as ‘boring’ and ‘unflattering’—which edged towards ‘uncomfortable’ when he asked her not to wear a corset or a bra with quite so much lift. She normally wore one of the lightweight corsets from the time she got up until she undressed for bed, and sometimes longer if Gary was there and she fell asleep in her underwear. Even when she had her period, most days she only laced it more loosely to go out, and only left it off if she had the option of staying home in pyjamas and goofing off. She tried hard not to let herself think of it as ‘insulting.’
Knowing no one at the wedding left her restricted to inane small talk and polite smiles and nods for much of the time, any possible attempt at being outgoing derailed by feeling frumpy and subdued. Her demure pale pink dress and low heels felt like a disguise, though she was aware of the odd comment about her raspberry-red hair behind her back from more elderly relatives. She started to wish, before long, that her collar was visible to them, just to rebel and give them something to whisper about.
The booze had been flowing freely Saturday night. Since, as usual, she limited herself to an occasional drink that didn’t greatly interfere with her faculties, she was able to watch the chaos. It seemed that the more strait-laced and traditional an individual was, the more likely they were to lose control completely when an outside force disrupted inhibitions.
Insufficient and poor-quality sleep after the party wound down was capped off by a family brunch before they could start the drive home. At least she’d been able to toss ordinary jeans and a creamy t-shirt into the car to wear today, which was an improvement but an inadequate one.
She’d refused to let Gary stay with her tonight, pleading fatigue. But it was as much mental as physical. She didn’t want to be that person. She didn’t want to pretend to be.
She kicked off her pink pumps and stripped off the jeans and t-shirt on the way to the stairs. The least Gary could have done was pay for the dress and the shoes, since she had no desire to wear them ever again and she’d bought them for this, rather hastily, only a couple of days ago after he nervously made his request about her wardrobe.
She stopped in her tracks at the top of the stairs. In the middle of her bed was a large cardboard box with a note taped to the top.
Hadn’t Nikandros said nothing hostile could get in?
So it must be friendly, right?
Cautiously, she pulled the note free to read it.
Dropping this off at Nikandros’ request, pretty thing. – Henry
Abandoning caution for curiosity, she used the small scissors from the top of her dresser to slit the tape sealing the box and open it.
Satiny fabric, a treasure-chest of colours, and another note, in a different hand, neat and flowing and maybe a bit old-fashioned.
You gave me a gift by choosing freely to let me see how appetizing you look without your workday camouflage. I’d consider it an honour if you’d accept this – with the ulterior selfish motive of encouraging you to dress in ways that make you feel and therefore look as sexy as possible. These jewels seemed better-suited to a living treasure than the cold hard sort confined in metal.
It was, of course, signed Nikandros.
She started scooping out the contents onto her bed, exhaustion and stress forgotten as she pawed through the collection of fabric. Probably not real satin, it had the stretchy feel of the bras and panties she’d bought at the lingerie store. The styles matched perfectly, as well, but the store didn’t have these colours! Not only complete sets of bra, panties, garter belt, and corset undershirt/camisole, she found as she sorted them into piles. There were corsets too, identical to the lightweight underbust ones she was in love with… but they weren’t just white or black, there was one to go with each colour, and a rose and a red one as well to match her other sets. Deep amethyst, rich forest green, a vivid royal blue that she suspected matched the dress in her closet, a mellow honey-yellow, and, of all things, shiny metallic silver. And there were three pairs of stockings, sheer and fishnet and lace, to match each and every colour, including her pink and red.
At the very bottom was a zippered silver-grey nylon bag. She unzipped it, peeked in, then tipped out the contents to sort.
Nail polish, liquid lipstick, liquid eyeliner, and single eyeshadows, all ultra-saturated colour, and each was in every single colour that matched her new lingerie—right down to white and black. She didn’t recognize the name of the company, but she’d have been willing to bet it wasn’t drug-store quality.
That wasn’t just supporting her in keeping on as she was, which was amazing enough. It was encouraging her to be creative. How would her little black dress look with blue stockings, and her lips and nails sapphire to match? Playful, unconventional… fun. What about denim capris and a semi-sheer white blouse over, say, green or red?
What else could she devise, especially after a shopping trip at through the local thrift shops for the unusual with this in mind?
After a weekend of pressure on all sides to be as small and plain and unremarkable as possible, this was nothing less than rain in the desert.
She ran back downstairs to grab her phone. Since she had no way to contact Nikandros directly, she texted Min.
«Please tell him I said thank you x50! I SO needed this after the last 2 days!»
It occurred to her belatedly that she hadn’t specified which him. Apparently, Min knew anyway.
«I’ll pass that on. The best thanks is to wear it and enjoy it. He does love helping women feel and look sexy!»
«Believe me, I will! Henry too for delivery. Will tell you about it later. Right now, want a shower, maybe curry down the block so I don’t have to cook, then my bed.»
To go out, of course, meant getting dressed, and even if it was only long enough to walk there, sit and eat, and walk back, it would still feel wonderful to reassert her own identity. She could take one of the books Flair assured her was good, rather than a current bestseller, and just… be her.
Next time: it’s hard to fight the instinct to hide until it’s over, even with a promise of protection, but a rebellious streak can help… and there might be an unexpected payoff.