Fair Trade 3.2 Resilience: Clearing the Air

Beep. Kaylee and I made appointments to do the hair and nail thing Saturday. They're keeping a spot open for you, but only if you call to confirm by five o'clock today. We haven't seen you since the mall two weeks ago, and you aren't answering most of your messages. What's gotten into you? Tell me you're coming and make sure you confirm! Beep. To save this message...”

Delete. On to the next. She'd told Kaylee she was busy with moving-related commitments on Saturday. Clearly they hadn't paid attention—any more than to the fact she'd been saving Saturday afternoons for cofffee with Min for several months. Around her, the usual bus noises were just a background buzz, not worth noting.

Beep. Jill, please let me know you're okay. Even just a quick text message that tells me the truth, because a couple of two and three word replies and a text that you have to cancel again to move some things to storage are not very convincing. I don't want to intrude if you need time to yourself, and I know you're busy, but I'm worried about you. Please? Beep. To save this message...”

Delete. It wasn't the first message Min had sent her, though they didn't come so frequently she could honestly call it harassment.

She'd cancelled her usual Saturday get-together with Min the past weekend, and again this weekend coming. Possibly it was understandable that she found herself feeling vaguely uncomfortable about the idea of seeing Min, but it was also a bit ridiculous. Time with Min usually managed to reduce her stress levels, and she was at least sure nothing had happened she hadn't consented to for a good cause.

Sooner or later, she was going to have to tell Min something. She didn't particularly want it to be, “I never want to see you again, leave me alone.” When she tried to be rational, she could understand Min's concern: she was fairly sure they'd never in their friendship gone this long without at least a texted or emailed conversation. The problem was, she had no idea what to say.

Fae were very into truth. She was sure she remembered having been pushed repeatedly into telling the truth, the uncomfortable sort that would normally lay hidden under a muffling blanket of acceptable behaviour rules and her personal perception of herself.

Well, maybe that would work.

She texted Min back with, «I have no idea what I want to say or how I feel.»

The reply came promptly. «Thank you for answering. I think you believe that. I'm not sure I do. I suspect that there is quite a lot you want to say and feel like you shouldn't or can't, but it's eating at you.»

That was followed by a second text. «Why don't you come here, so we have privacy, and you can say everything that you're waiting to say? All of it, I won't be upset with you no matter what it is. Come, say whatever it is, and you can leave or we can order pizza, your call at the time.»

That would be easy enough. She could just take a different bus at the upcoming transfer point, and be at Min's apartment in about the time it would take for her to get home. She wasn't expecting to see Gary tonight.

Did she want to? Was Min right, that there really were things she needed to say that she wasn't admitting even to herself? Would it help?

Go home, or trust Min?

She stared at the phone, struggling to decide.

As the bus pulled up at the transfer point, she sent back a single word, «Coming,» and joined the line leaving the bus.

The last time she'd been on this bus, she'd been wearing a collar, with no idea what was in store for her.

She made her way to Min's apartment; when she buzzed, the lobby door clicked open without a word. The apartment door itself, as before and often, was ajar, so she pushed it open.

“Min?”

“Come in and close it,” Min called back.

She did, and a few more steps took her to the living room.

Min, in her usual corner of the couch, greeted her with a smile, though it faded into a more sympathetic expression. “Oh dear. You don't look like you've been sleeping well. Come talk to me.”

And say what?

Something was missing. The connection snapped sharply into place: Flair's corner was empty.

Min followed her gaze. “I asked her to stay in the villa for the moment, so we could talk alone. She understands.”

Everything crystallized around that one statement. “What, you sent her off to her kennel?”

“I'm sorry?”

“How can you treat her like that?”

“Like what?” And, when Jillian faltered, “I gave you my word not to be upset with you. I do think there's a lot you need to say. So, by all means, say it, but you need to tell me exactly what it is that's making you unhappy. If I guess, it will not help either of us.”

“She's a bloody slave! You let how many party guests use her for sex, just in one night? And how much time does she spend as a fucking statue? She even looks like one—at the moment, at least, and god knows what she'll look like next, but she certainly can't walk down a street looking like that! She can't leave and has no say in anything about her own life, and it doesn't look like it's for a set length of time! And somehow she's not just okay with this, she's happy about it? All on her own?”

Min regarded her calmly. “All right, so you're concerned that I'm not acting in Flair's best interests and that I'm abusing her, is that about it? I can hardly fault you for being concerned for her, but there's quite a lot to her history that you have no way of knowing. Why don't you sit down and let me explain?”

Jillian considered staying on her feet to keep pacing, but she yielded to the extent of following the suggestion to sit and dropping her purse at her feet. An excuse for slavery? Seriously?

“In shortest terms, Flair has been living with fae nearly her entire life. Her father traded her to a fae who finds human children irresistibly cute and charming, not in any sexual or abusive way. I'm not going to get into the rules around such bargains, they're archaic and many of us dislike them. Flair could not have been more than eight or nine years old, probably less. Her earliest memories are of an angry and violent man, presumably her father. That fae takes excellent care of the children she adopts, but she has a bad habit of losing interest as they reach adulthood. I believe Flair has been passed through two fae households between the first and me. One of them left blank spots in her memory, which makes parts of her history uncertain. I believe she's around your age, but that's an estimate. When her previous master started asking around for anyone interested in taking her, an acquaintance got in touch with me. I will not hand her over to anyone else. She's been through that enough.”

“So let her go!”

“To do what, exactly? She has been a fae pet since she was a small child. She's unquestionably bright and curious, but she has no formal education—her first mistress taught her to read, among many other skills, and my friends and I encourage her to learn, but that is not the same. She has no experience with what you consider normal life, and I don't only mean the tasks one can learn, I mean how to deal with day-to-day stress or interactions. She has never learned any form of inhibition about her own sexuality or any self-consciousness about her body. She has access to books, movies, television shows, the Internet, and correspondence and online courses, but I won't apologize for the fact that I monitor what she's doing and I've forbidden some because they contain material that distresses her. She is not even remotely stupid, but she is extremely innocent in some ways. Do you think the world would be kind to her?”

Jillian tried to think of a response to that, but couldn't. The world wasn't all that kind even to the people who had learned basic survival skills. It would be merciless to someone lacking them.

“Jill, if Flair were unhappy, I promise you, I would look for alternatives. I care very much for her. As things stand, she feels safe and loved and useful. She sees sex with my friends as an enjoyable game, and she is always free to refuse—they're very fond of her and would not want her to feel forced any more than I would permit it. She learns whatever interests her, and I do my best to make sure that she doesn't get bored or restless. She has a few good friends among the humans who are beholden to my friends, although sadly she has been alone more often since my other pet Maggie died of extreme age that I could no longer fight, which in part has been her own grieving. She loves being frozen for up to a day or two at a time, and when I do that here, she can watch and listen and feel like part of my human life without having to be directly involved in ways that could stress her.”

“And the changing thing? You don't think that's, well, dehumanizing?”

“Ah, yes, the body artists. For safety's sake, given human tolerance, they can create their changes with a minimum span of three years between. Flair has been through it so many times, before coming to me, that it's no longer possible for them to unravel how she would naturally look. The deal is, every three years or so she goes back, and the artists and I discuss possibilities so she can have a pleasant surprise. She spends roughly three to four months in an entirely human form, although she gets to choose several details, and during that time I encourage her to take local classes that interest her and to socialize. Then she gets a new form to learn about and experiment with, and she takes so much delight in it that it's positively breathtaking. Changing her name each time was her idea, not mine. So. Do I own her? Yes, absolutely. But there are factors involved beyond the obvious ones. Would she be more free if I tossed her out to fend for herself and she found herself doing things she hated in order to stay fed?”

How many people had Jillian ever met who stayed in appalling jobs or abusive relationships because it was the only alternative to being homeless and hungry? “Fine, so you rescued her and she's a spoiled pet and you didn't make her that way. Which owner was it that brainwashed her into being happy with it?”

“To my knowledge, no one, though as I said, there are missing pieces. The first she lived with has created a child's paradise, and keep in mind that healthy loving families rarely sell off their children under anything like normal circumstances. Anyone leaving blank spots would probably not bother with more subtle approaches, and possibly is unable to do so. The last one I know of is a satyr, not Nik, and they typically have only a single approach. With no socially conditioned inhibitions and her own responsive nature, Flair did not find that traumatic at all.”

“And you?”

“Are you expecting me to say that I have never done anything at all to her mind? That would be a lie. But it is at her request, or with her consent, or, rarely, when I believe her wellbeing is at stake and I see no other choice. I am certainly not forcing her to be happy living with me. Why are you so certain that someone must have? Is it only an assumption that no one could possibly be happy with her life of their own free will?”

“So, what, she's already cooperative and doesn't need it, unlike me?”

Min's forehead furrowed in puzzlement. “You were entirely cooperative, dear. Far more so than some. No one did anything to your mind.”

“I thought you couldn't lie! There was a lot in my head that should not have been there! What's with the little voice rewarding me for thinking about being obedient and pushing me away from any thought about disobeying? Great way to condition someone, that! And your bloody satyr making me get all turned on by things that I didn't want? I got to the point where I couldn't tell what was me and what wasn't anymore!”

“Oh, Jill.” Min's expression turned from perplexity to compassion. “I see. How can I explain this briefly? The laws behind the bargain have, at this point, a sort of independent existence. Not sentient, but it enforces the terms on both sides—more gently for human than fae, enough so that some humans ignore it entirely. It serves only to guide you... in essence, it flashes a green light when it picks up indications that you are firmly on the road, and a red one if you are straying towards the edge. It does not act on the reward centre of your brain, nor anything else that is a direct reward stimulus. If it felt like it was, that is your own associations with approval, clarity, or some other aspect of it. It is not, in itself, a conditioning device.”

Jillian stared at her, completely unable to process that. It wasn't her. It couldn't be her.

Could it?

“As for Nik... first and foremost, a satyr's mere presence stirs human libido. That is unavoidable and nearly impossible to mute, although humans regularly exposed to it and aware of what it is do usually develop some degree of resistance to the passive form. When he tries, he can ramp that up—to a far higher level than you experienced, in fact. A writer beholden to Nik's brother referred to an abrupt high-level surge as a satyr bomb, and the name amuses many satyrs and strikes many humans acquainted with them as appropriate, so it caught on. That might give you some idea how overwhelming it can be, even for those who are expecting it and somewhat resistant.”

“Yeah, that's kinda scary in itself.”

“Fortunately, the majority of satyrs are at worst mischievous but not malicious, and many are actively kind and friendly. So while they are very enthusiastic about anything involving sex, they are typically not into rape. Nor can they convince someone that they want anything they genuinely do not want to do. They cannot force desire into any particular form. Any fantasies, any specific turn-ons, any attraction other than an overwhelming one to the satyr, are amplified but not created. If he picks up on them, and Nik is very good at that, he can verbalize suggestions that turn your thoughts in a particular direction, but they only work if they are in harmony with what already exists. And it is purely a temporary form of influence. Even with substantial effort, he could not make it last more than a few days away from him, unless it had some kind of ongoing stimulus sustaining it. It would be against the rules for us to leave anything of the sort even if we wished.”

Jill shook her head in denial, or maybe a wish to block out Min's gentle, sympathetic, and utterly ruthless voice. “No. That can't be right. I'm not... not like that. I'm just me. I'm ordinary. I do what I'm supposed to do. I'm the good girl.”

“Yes, dear. You've made yourself as ordinary as you possibly can.”

Jillian let her shoes slide off and brought her knees up towards her chest, wrapping her arms around them. “I'm normal, damn it! I'm responsible and independent! I'm not a slut who gets off on being humiliated and touched and bossed around! That wasn't me!”

“Did I say that you are? Humans are not straightforward stimulus-and-response creatures. You are complex and contradictory. You can be a dozen different people in a dozen different contexts, with each of them entirely real, each believing wholeheartedly in ideas that are mutually incompatible with the beliefs of other aspects, and see no conflict in this. Your senses limit your perception of reality, but you are endlessly creative in your interpretations of the slice of it that you can perceive. Delicate brain chemistry affects your moods, and your moods influence your interpretations, and your interpretations alter your brain chemistry. There are few labels that can be applied to any human that are valid in every context. If there is a part of you that finds surrendering control in some circumstances to be erotic and can appreciate sensual pleasure, that is neither unusual, nor shameful. Nor is it a sign of weakness or an inclination to self-destruction. And it does not mean that you must pursue it. It means only that the potential is there, given the opportunity for expression under the correct conditions. If you do not like it, then do not put yourself in situations that will evoke it.”

“What, like making bargains with fae?”

“That would seem to be one situation that does, yes.”

“You could have warned me that it was going to be a fucking borderline orgy. You know me well enough to know I wouldn't want to go along with being turned into a bloody sex toy!”

“It was nothing like an orgy. At least, not for anyone but Flair, and we covered that. And you were certainly not turned into a sex toy. That was, if you recall, precisely what you were not. I did not have to promise you that there would be no sex. You were dressed in a highly sexualized way, no question. You were treated as a toy, but aside from Nik and Henry being unable to keep their hands to themselves, that was far more about power and control than it was about organic hydraulics and squishy noises. And even Nik and Henry obeyed the rules, correct? They looked, they touched, but they did not penetrate to the slightest degree. Yes?”

“Yes,” Jillian admitted reluctantly. “But if I'd expected it... I mean, I wouldn't go work as a stripper for a day or two on even an absolute guarantee that it would have kept Doug out of jail!”

“If I were someone else and offered you a bargain, and I told you in advance that the price would be twelve solid hours of brutally hard physical labour that would mean being utterly exhausted and in great pain by the end, would you have accepted it? Honestly?”

“Maybe.”

“Why?”

“I don't know. It feels more... honest, maybe? Respectable?”

“If you had the option of spending a single hour having sex with someone to whom you had no emotional attachment at all, someone you would never see again, with no risks of health issues or public shaming, but who could and would guarantee Doug's freedom, would you?”

“No!”

“Why?”

“That would be completely dishonest! I won't cheat on Gary!”

“Then tell Gary about it. That it has no meaning and will never happen again, but that it involves family obligations. Then it is not dishonest.”

“He'd still be furious and dump me! Rightfully!”

“A single naughty naked photograph that obscured your face? Taken by Gary, or even by yourself with a webcam? No one else present to touch you?”

“No! And Doug wouldn't want me to! At least, I hope he wouldn't!”

Min sighed. “Your culture's value system, dear, is rich in righteous condemnation and poor in reason, among other things. Had you been turned into a sex toy, then considering the guests in question, you would most certainly have been thoroughly and unmistakably used as such. You were not. Is there anything else?”

Jillian rested her forehead on her crossed arms. “That wasn't... it wasn't fair.” It probably came out a bit muffled, but Min heard it anyway.

“What wasn't?”

“Letting me walk into that with no idea. That's not what friends do.”

“Do friends help each other find solutions to problems that seem to have none? I do care for you. I want only the best future for you. In anything purely of the human realm, I am simply your friend. But when it comes to bargaining and anything associated with that, I am fae. Many things fae do, we cannot explain within your frame of reference. Flair simply accepts that and trusts that I do have a reason. Unfortunately, it is not easy for you to do that, I know.”

“What the hell can be that hard to explain?”

“How would you explain 'blue' to someone who has been blind from birth? And comes from a blind culture whose language lacks any terminology even for bright or dark, and whose worldview accepts a fundamental assumption that the sense of sight is impossible and visible light does not exist because they have no evidence for it?”

“I...” Jillian considered that. “I don't know.”

“That is not a failing on the part of the blind person, that there is something beyond their perception. You could have a friendship with someone blind and simply accommodate that fact—going to a dance performance might be less than a bonding moment, but going to a musical one can be just as enjoyable as with a sighted friend. Perhaps more so, since a blind friend might hear something in the music you could miss. The difference is significant in some contexts and negligible in others, although it would nonetheless shape your respective worldviews. Quite a lot happens all the time that humans simply do not have the senses to perceive, and so you have no frame of reference. That makes it extremely problematic to explain some things we do.”

“Am I supposed to believe there's some sort of grand metaphysical reason for dressing me up as a fetish toy and letting your boyfriend grope me?”

Min sighed again. “I know that question seems to make sense, but it really doesn't. I'm sorry, Jill, I would explain if I could, but several hours from now, you'd only be more confused and I would probably manage to offend you by one analogy or another and we'd both be exhausted. Can you please try to give me the benefit of the doubt, at least, that perhaps I was not simply being cruel to you or trying to make your payment harsh? Would it help to think of me as two different people? Your friend who greatly enjoys tea and a chat with you, and the fae who has made one bargain with you and is amenable to another, but is otherwise not part of your life?”

“I... maybe.”

“Then consider it done—with no bargain involved. For the moment, however, is there anything else you would like to say, ask, accuse me of...?”

Jillian heaved a sigh. “No, I think I'm out of things to say. But you were right that there were things there wanting out that I didn't know about.”

“Experience, dear. Do you need to get home, or would you care to split some pizza?”

Jillian didn't move for a moment, weighing that. She wanted badly to regain the comfortable relationship she'd had with Min before her brother, or at least her desire to save her brother, had ripped the world apart. Would it be awkward?

Probably. And there was one thing she needed to do that would pretty much guarantee that it would be impossible to have a normal non-fae conversation, but she'd feel unforgivably guilty if she didn't.

“Flair too?”

“Well, you can't currently go to my villa—the rules don't allow it—but it would take much less time for me to go invite her to join us than for the pizza to arrive.”

“Please? Gary's working late, and the company would be nice.”

Min nodded. “There's money on the fridge. My treat. I'll be right back.” Carefully, she stood up, and settled herself in her wheelchair.

“Doesn't it get frustrating? Needing the chair?”

Min glanced at her, shrugged, and smiled. “If I want to blend into the human world, it's a tolerable compromise. Modern wheelchairs are an infinite improvement over most other options—having a pair of strong pets to carry me in a litter is pleasant but a little awkward these days.” The smile turned mischievous. “Given how many humans have an inexplicable phobia of even small snakes, it's best not to be seen in my own form.”

“You're lucky I don't.”

“I ascertained that early on, dear. How would you have known at that point that I was watching your reaction to a casual reference or two to snakes?” She turned the chair neatly and headed for the bedroom door. “Extra-large,” she called over her shoulder. “Sausage, bacon, onions, and mushrooms on half, and whatever you want on the other half.”

Jillian fished her phone out of her purse, scrolled through to the pizzeria she and Min agreed was the best in the area, and called them.

So she couldn't go to Min's villa while she was free? That probably pretty much ruled out seeing any of the fae in their real forms. The two giants couldn't be comfortable in a normal-sized room, especially. But that was okay... right? Did she really want to encounter any of them at all?

Well... The intimidatingly large giants, spooky midnight Sati, hairy short Henry, and slimy amphibious Nechtan had all, despite first impressions, been friendly. More so than beautiful un-strange Roshanak, the small delicate pixie-ish pair, and the eagle-woman who could have passed as a fierce angel. It wouldn't be so bad, running into the former again. Presumably she could expect Nikandros to be around sooner or later, if no one else, especially once Min's house was finished, and that was... scary, but not entirely disturbing.

Just to stay in contact and in case he dropped by her place on his way home, she texted Gary to let him know that she was having supper with Min and promised to let him know when she was done. He replied a moment later wishing her a good meal and inviting her to his apartment Saturday evening for take-out supper, after they were done moving things to storage. She accepted immediately. He was working late so often, hoping for a promotion, that she wasn't going to pass up the chance.

She heard the bedroom door, and seconds later, Flair wrapped both alabaster-and-metal arms around her shoulders from behind her chair in an enthusiastic hug.

“Hi! Are you doing better now? I'm glad you're here. This is much better than reading. I can do that anytime.”

“I... sort of. Saying I'm okay would probably be pushing it, but I just got some answers that'll probably help.”

“That's good. Information definitely helps when you're dealing with something new and strange, and I think if you grew up without knowing about them, the fae would be about as strange as possible.” Flair dropped onto the end of the couch opposite Min's usual one. “Although I suppose strange is all relative. Stories about life without fae seem pretty strange to me, after, um, my life.”

“It's all right,” Min said, settling back into her corner of the couch. “I think Jillian's a safe person to talk to, don't you? But go slow, for both your sakes.”

“Okay. I think so too. That might make it easier to explain things if there's more questions, and what are the odds Jillian won't have more questions?”

“I agree. I think it's very likely.”

“But I don't think I can possibly explain how strange life without fae looks to me.”

“What were you reading?” Jillian asked.

“Virginia Woolf. Orlando. I read it before, but I've done more thinking and reading about history and gender since then. Besides, I like it. It's sort of playful. I mean, a character starting as a man who just wakes up one day as a woman and then lives for at least another three centuries? Written almost a hundred years ago?”

“I normally don't get around to reading anything that wasn't published within a couple of years of me reading it. Not since my last English class. That pretty much took all the fun out of reading classics. But I don't think the average school would dare touch that one.”

“I don't know why. There's nothing nasty in Orlando. Obviously, or I wouldn't be allowed to read it. All right, I guess I sort of know why, intellectually, but I don't really understand it. Why do you only read new ones? Some new ones are okay, but I've tried some bestsellers that've been really terrible. Some older ones are good. Not all of them, some have nasty stuff or they're just boring, and they usually have such closed minds about sex and women, but some are fun anyway. Like, oh, Jules Verne.”

“Honestly? I suppose it's easier to read the same things my friends are reading, so we can all know what we're talking about. Although sometimes I wonder why I bothered. I re-read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass very recently, and a couple of the Oz books.”

That made Flair giggle. “I wonder why. What about Narnia? That's the same kind of thing, stumbling through into another world with different rules.”

“Huh. I didn't think of those ones.” She had not been expecting to have her literary knowledge challenged by a woman who looked like something from an old sci-fi movie poster and whose behaviour suggested that she was in her teens.

Min chuckled. “It's a common theme, and has been for hundreds if not thousands of years, even if these days it's often seen as something for children's tales.”

“How often are they based on real experiences with fae?” Jillian asked.

“I don't know. I don't keep track of every bargain made. Any given instance might be, or might be inspired by earlier stories, or might simply be fancy. But I can point out that no fae villa is the size of a world, even a communal one, and it is, to say the least, improbable for even the most wayward of lost humans to find Narnia or Oz between villas.”

A buzz on the intercom announced the arrival of the pizza.

“I'll get it!” Flair said brightly, and giggled.

“You will duck down below the back of the couch and stay out of sight,” Min said, though she was smiling. “Jill? Could you? Please?”

Flair obediently curled herself up, lying on her side, where she wouldn't be visible from the doorway—although she wasn't far from it, Jillian noted, while she buzzed the delivery person in, paid, and accepted the delicious-smelling box. As soon as the door was closed, Flair uncoiled and sat up again, sniffing at the air. She bounced to her feet and over to the kitchen to help Jillian serve it, taking the first slice to Min.

Flair didn't just challenge Jillian on her literary knowledge, she surpassed her handily. With classics especially, at least those she found interesting, she seemed not only to have a capacious memory for details of the text, but also for context and history, and for noting and evaluating differences between originals and movie versions.

Jillian paused, chewing a bite of pizza, to look at her thoughtfully.

“What?” Flair asked.

Should she say it? Well, sooner or later she'd say something like it without thinking, so might as well find out if it would get her in trouble. “I'm wondering whether you're really a robot with a wi-fi connection to get all this stuff.”

Flair, far from being disturbed, giggled. She sat up straighter, stiffening her joints, and made her expression neutral. “This unit comes with BookGeek data app installed,” she said in a flat measured monotone. The whole impression was almost disturbing, given her appearance, but she shattered it utterly by breaking up into laughter, falling over sideways onto Min's lap and nearly landing on her plate as well. Min moved it and her own to safety and ran a hand over her hair affectionately.

That, Jillian had to admit, seemed unlikely behaviour for someone being relentlessly abused.

Far earlier than usual, Jillian caught herself yawning.

“You haven't been sleeping well,” Min said gently. “Why don't you head home to bed? Maybe you'll sleep better tonight.”

“I hope so. I'm spending tomorrow after work packing, and then Saturday Gary and I and a guy with a truck I hired are taking a load out to a storage unit so I have room to pack the rest. I'm running out of time on apartment hunting and to finish packing and I just don't seem to have the concentration. Or the energy.”

“Can I help with the packing?” Flair offered. “I have energy, and I can be extra hands if you tell me what you want done. I mean, I didn't have all that much to bring with me when I came to live with Mistress, but I helped with packing the parts of this,” she gestured around them, “that came from BC, and I helped some other friends with theirs, mainly humans beholden to Dagrun and Nechtan, or at least the ones who wanted to come instead of staying. Sati's artists mostly helped each other but I did a bit.” She grinned. “I'd offer to help with moving, I'm pretty strong, but unless Mistress is there, I think Gary would start to wonder. And I haven't the faintest idea how one hunts a new apartment. Are they stealthy and do they run fast?”

“Good ones you don't want to leave as soon as the lease ends are alarmingly good at hiding,” Jillian said ruefully. “It sounds like this whole moving thing was a massive project. And I thought just moving here and building a house and waiting for your husband to catch up was complicated.”

“It's difficult for fae to remain in the same area indefinitely,” Min said. “Eventually, even if we tweak illusions gradually and it may take years to happen, someone will notice that we've been alive and active for too long to be plausible. So, every now and then we move, and since we and our closet friends prefer to live near each other, that means relocating eight fae and generally several times that many humans, most of them with individual homes and jobs. We will not force anyone to move, and often they retain the option of bargaining in the future even if they choose to stay behind. Those with deeper connections often choose to come with us, and for those with careers and independent lives, we do all we can to arrange for it to be as smooth and low-stress as possible. That's a significant factor in the new location we choose, in fact.”

“Moving, what, thirty? Forty? That many people from BC to Ontario would be one hell of an undertaking.”

“It can be. In ways, it's more complicated these days. There are many different sets of needs to fulfill, and the preparations started months before. But my friends and I will not abandon those who have come to depend on us, in varying ways. We're actually still mid-move, since Nik is finishing up a few details, as is my old friend Hyld who could not come to the party, and a handful of humans have yet to get here. In particular, Hyld's favourites, and a trio all in long-term bargains with Nechtan. One is unravelling some final family issues and the others stayed to be supportive.”

“No way would Ethan ever leave the other two,” Flair said. “He's way too into being protective. I hope they can move soon for real, I miss them. But it was sweet of them to come here long enough to do the food for your fundraiser dinner thing.”

“It also gave them a chance to check out the new bistro location. But yes, I'm very grateful. Back on topic, packing and moving have been ongoing tasks for the past year or so.”

“It's easy to get overwhelmed alone, I think,” Flair said earnestly. “Putting everything you own into boxes is a big concept. Please? Let me help?”

“I think you'd be safe in Jillian's apartment,” Min agreed. “And that's a thoughtful offer. Jill, I can hide her appearance directly while I'm nearby, and she has an amulet Henry gave her that does the same. That lasts for a little less than an hour and needs twenty-four hours to recharge, so either I'll be involved one way or you'll have company for a full day.”

“If I'm packing, I can certainly just lock the door and turn off the phone,” Jillian said wryly. “Help would be awesome, but it can be kinda hard work. And if we get into cleaning places that haven't been cleaned since I moved in a year ago, it can get a bit dirty.”

“I don't mind,” Flair said. “You can have me for as long as you want me or as long as Mistress will let you, whichever comes first.” She tilted her head to one side, cobalt-blue eyes fixed on Jillian's sternly. “And no thinking bad things. I'm offering, just like I did with other friends. Mistress is giving me permission, which she'd only be likely to withhold if there was a risk to my safety. That's not the same as Mistress lending me to you like, oh, I don't know, some kind of tool to use. Okay?”

Jillian spread both hands. “I surrender. I promise to try to remember that there's lots I don't know and not make assumptions. And yes, I'd appreciate the help, but I can't promise a time right now.”

“Just leave it open for the moment,” Min said. “And let us know when will work. I can bring Flair to your place, and leave her with the money for a cab home, and she can stay however long the two of you decide that won't involve her having to interact with anyone else.”

“Sounds good,” Jillian said. “And,” she stifled another yawn with poor success. “Thanks. But you're right, I need my bed.”

“I'll clean up,” Flair said. “Don't worry about that.” She rolled off the couch fluidly, straightened, and offered Jillian a hand to her feet; when Jillian rose, Flair hugged her. “I'm glad you decided to come talk to Mistress.”

“So am I.”


Next time: A sudden change of moving-related plans might not be as catastrophic as it first appears.





 

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