Jillian walked through her apartment yet again, checking cupboards and drawers.
“We got everything,” Flair said patiently. She was dressed, in her cut-off shorts and a bright tie-dyed tanktop, in anticipation of Min needing to hide her appearance in public. Jillian had, in fact, told Gary to arrive a bit later than she expected Min, in hopes of avoiding an awkward moment, though Flair assured her that Min could handle it even retroactively. Perched on the edge of the kitchen counter, she looked calm and sensible—everything Jillian currently did not feel. “We've been through every corner and nook in the whole place. It's going to be okay. I know you said moving usually makes for an exhausting and stressful day, but that isn't going to happen this time. I promise. Mistress and the others won't let it.”
Jillian sighed and slumped against the wall. “I just want it to be over.”
“I know. C'mere.”
Jillian straightened, and obeyed the gesture to come into reach. Flair laid both hands on her shoulders from behind, and began to knead gently. She knew what she was doing—she'd learned from multiple sources, she said, including Nik, and Dagrun's midwife friend—and Jillian felt even what felt like overwhelming tension give ground. Only Flair's massage had gotten Jillian to sleep the night before, instead of being up all night fretting and rearranging and trying to anticipate everything.
The intercom by the door buzzed, and Flair let her hands fall so Jillian could answer.
“Hi! I'm Clara. Dagrun's just helping Madame Min out of the van. We're here!”
Flair leaned past Jillian to press the button to talk. “Hi, Clara! We're upstairs in two-oh-three! Come meet Jillian!”
“That's the idea,” a different woman laughed, as Jillian pushed the Unlock button.
“That was Rachel,” Flair said, backing up a couple of steps. “And Phoebe's supposed to be here too. Plus both giants said they would be, and you and me and Mistress, and maybe others, plus Gary's supposed to be here, right?”
Jillian nodded. She hadn't even asked Kaylee and Christine, suspecting that they'd either be busy or resent the imposition, and she didn't trust her brother to not show up with unpleasant friends, since it was unlikely he'd learned anything. Otherwise, she had depressingly few people she could ask for help.
Or at least, that had been the case. Apparently that had somehow changed.
Flair unlocked the door, and opened it just far enough to leave it ajar, before turning back to Jillian for a hug. “Hang in there. Okay? You'll see.”
“Knock knock!” a cheerful voice said, pushing the door a few inches.
“Hi, Rachel!” Flair said. “This is the place! C'mon in!”
“Your new friend's too tongue-tied to speak for herself?” The woman who said it, as she came in, sounded more sympathetic than accusing. “Oh, goodness, girl, you look like you're inching up on the end of your rope.”
She was, maybe, Jillian's height or a little more, but long-limbed and slender, and her grey-and-pink sports bra and rose-pink mesh tanktop and grey cargo shorts showed off a body Jillian instantly envied. Her black hair, which had substantial silver threading it, had been done in dozens of braids, each with a metallic bead on the end, the colours varying in a bright shiny rainbow that clattered faintly when she moved her head. It looked all the brighter against her very dark skin, possibly the darkest brown Jillian had ever seen.
She offered Jillian both arms. “I'm Rachel. Welcome to the family.”
“I'm not sure I count,” Jillian said, a bit weakly, but she accepted the hug. Rachel smelled pleasantly of as many scents as the colours in her hair, flowers and green things and vanilla and spices.
“Of course you do.”
“Nobody keeps count,” said one of the other two who had followed Rachel in. That one would maybe reach Jillian's shoulder, and her short-cropped red-blonde hair was shaved right around her ears, where half a dozen silvery rings showed along the outer curve on each side. Stockier in build, she also looked like she was in excellent condition, though it was harder to tell under the denim capris and a hacked-up red t-shirt. “As long as the option's open for a second bargain, then it's just a matter of where on the road you are, not whether you're on it at all. My turn, Rachel.”
She smelled more of hand sanitizer and baby powder, when she hugged Jillian.
The third of the trio, slightly taller than Jillian, had her dark brown hair drawn back into a neat ponytail, though jaw-length strands were already loose framing her face. Her blue tanktop left a tattoo visible on her upper arm of a rose and sky-blue butterfly; on the opposite arm was a hand offered palm-up, surrounded by fire. The lines of her face were strong, though not at all unpleasant, and her shoulders broader than Jillian typically expected in women, but her hug was warm. She smelled faintly of lavender and lilacs.
“That's Clara,” Flair said, just finishing a greeting hug from the short blonde. “She works at the high school with Dagrun, she's a counsellor. This is Phoebe. She's a midwife. And Rachel makes amazing soap and lotion and things like that by hand. This is Jillian. Obviously.”
“Uh, hi,” Jillian said, wondering why she felt so out of her depth. These three weren't fae, they were as human as she was. “I really appreciate the help.”
“Any time,” Phoebe said. “Seriously. If we don't look out for each other, who will?”
“This won't be so bad,” Clara said, surveying the boxes and furniture. “It's not all that far, it's only one person's stuff, and we'll get it all in one trip. Sigrun'll be along with the truck any time, we dropped her off at the rental place on the way.”
“Oh, it'll be a piece of cake,” Rachel said. The beads in her hair caught the early sunlight and threw tiny points of light on the wall. “Do you think Madame Min and the giants would allow anything else? Ours don't choose humans to bargain with lightly, they do it expecting it to be a long-term connection, and they invest a lot of resources and time and emotion. They're certainly not going to let anything as straightfoward as a local move become a major thing.”
Jillian's phone chirped at her from its current resting spot on top of her laptop case. She raised a hand to excuse herself, and went to answer it. Her heart sank when she saw that it was Gary calling.
“Oh hell.” She picked up, and then put it on speaker. “Hi, hon. Got people starting to show up. We're going to get going any time, as soon as the friend picking up the truck gets here.”
“That's good. Lots of friends?”
“Half a dozen of Min's friends, actually, I've only met about half of them before, but they all seem pretty awesome.”
“I'm really glad to hear that.”
Jillian sighed. “You got called in to work?”
“Um, yeah. Got a phone call an hour ago about a deadline being moved. I took a look at it and there is just no way I can hit the deadline unless I spend today on it. I explained about you moving, but no dice.”
“I'll do my best to make it up to you as soon as I can.”
“Okay. We can figure that out later. I really can't talk long right now, not with people waiting.”
“'Kay. I'm sorry, Jill. Good luck with the move, and I'll talk to you soon.”
The wall was only a couple of steps away; Jillian planted one palm against it, and banged her head against the painted drywall.
The second time, her head hit only Clara's hand, and Rachel pulled her back.
“You don't look particularly surprised,” Phoebe observed, while Rachel wrapped both arms around Jillian in another hug. “What's he doing? Emergency services or something?”
“Business law. He's hoping for a promotion soon, but they're pushing him hard.”
“And that takes precedence over his girlfriend needing him?” Rachel said. “Hm, well, my opinion of that doesn't matter, that's up to you to work out. But it's not a catastrophe. The five of us, two giants and Madame Min, and whoever else shows up, we got this.”
“So let's get started,” Clara said briskly. “Even if Sigrun's not here with the truck yet, Madame Min can keep an eye on anything we pile out front, and let's not waste a trip.”
“Good idea,” Flair said. “Maybe if we start getting boxes out, it'll be easier to move the furniture.”
“Everybody grab a box or two,” Phoebe said brightly. “And no stupid overly-heavy loads, people. There is absolutely no need for trying to carry more than you safely and reasonably can. Try to stay between Flair and anyone else until Madame Min can do the illusion thing.”
Downstairs, Jillian discovered that Dagrun and Min had wedged the security door open with the block of wood left just inside for that purpose. Dagrun was perched on the picnic table chained to the tree, with Min on the walkway near her, both waiting patiently. Dagrun's distinctive van was parked across the street.
“Looks like it's a girl-power kind of day,” Phoebe said, setting her boxes on the grass. Flair, next to her, already looked more normal again, the exotic appearance entirely hidden.
“Gary can't make it,” Jillian sighed.
“We can manage without him,” Min said. “Don't look so disheartened, dear. Nik hoped to be back in the area in time, but he's currently in Europe and can't be. He says he's arranging a useful surprise for later, however, and he'll let me know as soon as it's confirmed.”
“Probably just as well,” Rachel laughed, the beads in her hair clattering. “Love him, but, distractions and all.”
“Sigrun has the truck,” Dagrun added. “She'll be here very soon.”
“Cool,” Flair said. “But I bet we can get another load or two down here before that.”
“Go ahead,” Min told Dagrun. “I'll watch everything.”
The next time they came down, Sigrun wasn't there yet, but next to Dagrun's van there was a new-looking mini-van that was a watery blue-green, and an unfamiliar man was now leaning against the picnic table to talk to Min. Tall and bulky as he was, Jillian didn't think she could with any accuracy simply call him fat, though that was clearly a factor. His short hair was a muddy dull brown, and his skin was a similarly flat colour, not quite anything in particular. The lines of his rounded face were pleasant enough, though his eyes dominated the rest. Knee-length cargo shorts, a t-shirt, and an unbuttoned overshirt were all muted shades of greens and browns and greys.
Flair set down her load of boxes and pounced for a hug.
“Nechtan,” Clara murmured to Jillian, as she passed her.
Actually, Jillian thought she would have figured that out on her own, but she appreciated the gesture.
Flair wasn't the only one to give him a hug: all three of the other women claimed one as well, with obviously genuine affection on both sides, though Phoebe was positively dwarfed against him. He offered Jillian a hand, smiling, and she took him up on it. While part of her mind remembered being controlled like a toy, another part remembered him sticking up for her.
“I couldn't contribute to your workforce beyond myself,” he told her. “But I did come bearing gifts. Ethan and Cindy and Rill send greetings and apologies that they couldn't come help, and there's a cooler full of sandwiches in my van.”
“Oh, yum,” Clara said. “If Ethan sent them, then we are not talking about generic egg salad on white bread.”
“He started planning them back when I first mentioned it, on the grounds that either they'd bring them personally or ask me to. So yes, proper Ethan-style. Home-made bread, Ethan's seasoned and cooked meats, and so on and so forth. The three of them spent yesterday evening putting them together. There's plenty, so just help yourselves any time you need a break and a snack. There's a cooler with water and juice and sports drinks beside it.”
“Ethan,” Rachel told Jillian, “is, I swear, the most gifted chef ever. Except that, like the rest of us, he wasn't happy with his life. Now he is, and he absolutely loves cooking fabulous meals for his friends. I hope they catch up soon.”
“Rill's family has been a large complication,” Nechtan said. “One I can't fix. A few other smaller issues, outstanding obligations to complete and hand off to someone else, that kind of thing. Barring major unexpected events, everyone who's moving will be moved within the month.”
“Good,” Clara said. “It feels like having the family split in half this way, even though I know it isn't.”
A truck drew up in front of them, the near tires barely missing the curb. The cab and the sides both bore the logo of the rental company she'd called.
Jillian blinked. “Is that the one I reserved? I thought it was a smaller one.”
“You did,” Dagrun said. “This way, there is no question as to whether everything will fit in a single trip, and we can stop and retrieve your things from storage on the way if you like. The size isn't a problem, Sigrun or I can drive it. And manoeuvre it anywhere necessary. We're paying for it.”
“Stop it,” Rachel said in an undertone. “Just go with it.”
That was, obviously, Sigrun who hopped out of the driver's seat and strolled over to join them. Short hair was a blonde so pale it was nearly white, impossible to see any silver strands against, and her skin was extremely fair. The same build Jillian had noticed before, less curvy than Dagrun but promising power, but of course scaled down to a more reasonable human size. Well, at least plausibly so, though she was a little taller even than Dagrun. Her denim shorts, cropped to mid-thigh, were extremely faded, and her midriff-baring halter-top was swirls of multiple shades of blue and grey.
Fae certainly seemed to like wearing things that at least somewhat reflected their true nature. To what degree was their basic appearance in human form under their control?
“Already off to a good start, I see,” she observed.
“Ethan sent sandwiches,” Clara said.
“Something to look forward to.”
“Nechtan,” Min said briskly. “You don't do stairs well, but you are very good at working with three-dimensional space. Why don't you start packing the truck, with a couple of helpers, while the rest keep bringing things down? With trade-offs to make sure no one is spending all their time running up and down the stairs exhausting themselves, we should be through this quickly with minimal difficulty.”
Nechtan gave her a playful salute. “Yours to command.”
“There are more ropes and tie-downs and such in the back of my van than we're likely to need,” Dagrun said. “Help yourselves, use them at will.”
Limited though Min might be physically, she nonetheless took charge. Jillian thought she was counting how many trips upstairs each of them did, and directing them to swap jobs regularly to the somewhat easier one of packing things into the truck. The giants never changed jobs, and showed no signs of fatigue despite carrying the heaviest loads.
Jillian came downstairs with her laptop stand, and found Min with her lap full of sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. She handed the stand up to Flair in the truck.
“Go get a sandwich,” Nechtan said. “Keep your strength up. You've been going non-stop and you need to catch your breath.” He was, Jillian thought, doing such a good job of arranging everything compactly and securely that they might have been just fine with the smaller truck, and she doubted she would find much breakage from the move.
As soon as Jillian approached, Min handed her a sandwich, and nodded towards the picnic table, where Phoebe was currently eating. “Take a break. I'm making sure everyone does.”
Jillian surrendered, and took the sandwich to the table.
Phoebe smiled at her, but her mouth was full of sandwich, and her eyes were half-closed contentedly.
Jillian unwrapped the sandwich curiously. The bread was pale, but more dense than the commercial kind, a compact oval. She could see romaine lettuce creeping out past the edges, and a hint of dark meat.
A bit tentatively, she took a bite.
The bread had flavour, rich and savoury.
She had no idea what seasonings had been used on the roast beef inside, and couldn't put a name to the type of cheese, milky with a subtle tang. There were vegetables too, she thought vaguely, she could taste tomato although somehow the bread wasn't soggy, and there was the crisp texture of the lettuce. Was there mayonnaise on it, or something similar?
Somehow, all the different flavours met and meshed and flowed into one another in perfect harmony. Jillian closed her eyes and gave up on trying to analyze it, just enjoying it.
When she finally swallowed, she opened her eyes and looked at the sandwich in astonishment. It was just a sandwich, right? Bread with meat and cheese and veggies inside.
Phoebe laughed. “No idea how he does it. Somehow, he just magically finds exactly the right combinations that work perfectly together. But he gets bored as hell making the same things all the time, so you never know what's coming, just that it's going to be amazing. Generally healthy, too. He doesn't like big commercial sources for anything, he says there's no flavour and no soul, so he always finds local sustainable sources.”
“This shouldn't be possible.”
“Ethan's as human as you and I, and he did not bargain for a boost to his skills, just for the chance to use them the way he wants. Eat your sandwich, hon.”
It couldn't possibly taste as good as she'd thought it did.
Blissfully, Jillian balled up the waxed paper to toss into the small trash bag at one end of the table, and levered herself back to her feet. Somehow, she thought that sandwich wasn't going to just give her a quick carb high and then a crash.
Trying to get the box spring of her double bed around the corner of the stairwell and onto the stairs, Jillian and Clara ran into a problem.
“I had it delivered,” Jillian said. “I have no idea how they did it.”
Clara studied the situation measuringly. “Probably with enough wriggling and back-and-forthing we could do it. It's obviously possible. But there's a much simpler solution.” She leaned over the railing. “Dagrun?” she called, and a moment later, “Box spring is stuck.”
Dagrun came up the stairs to survey the situation. “That's easy. I'll get Sigrun. You two go back in the apartment and see what's left.”
“Thanks,” Clara said. “C'mon, Jillian.”
“Was she trying to get us out of the way?” Jillian asked, in the hallway.
“Well, yes. And you can expect fae to do that fairly frequently, some more than others. Some of the things that fae do, we literally can't perceive, we just don't have the right senses, and that makes it data that our brains just don't want to process or accept at all. If we miss it entirely, it's okay. But if they're doing something we can't process that affects something we're looking right at, or something, so we see the effects but can't deal with the cause, it's kind of a divide-by-zero error. Brains interpret it in all sorts of weird and unpredictable ways. So our fae, and other responsible ones, make sure the risk is minimized. They always have a reason. It's generally best just to go with it.”
“I'm not so good at that.”
“Not used to being able to depend on anyone else? You'll see. Give it some time. Wow, there really isn't much left up here. Why don't you start sweeping and I'll move the bit that's left over by the door?”
Before much longer, though not before a second round of sandwiches, everything was in the truck. Jillian, with Dagrun, did a final check of every place she could possibly have left anything, then dropped off the keys to the superintendent with a deep sense of relief.
“Ready to go?” Sigrun asked, returning from pulling down the rear door of the truck and latching it.
Min, on her phone, held up her hand, and pressed something on it. “You're on speaker, Nik, and everyone's here.”
“Hi, gang. Got held up with Saturnalia stuff, sorry, I'm in Amsterdam at the moment and I just got done a meeting. I talked to a restaurant that has decent food—it's not Ethan's level, but it'll do. They have a back room they keep for parties. It's yours whenever you finish up, and no one's going to care what you're wearing or what condition you're in. I'm covering it, don't worry about the total. At least I can make sure that everyone gets a solid meal afterwards without having to go home and cook something.”
“Thanks, Nik,” Rachel said. “This isn't so bad, I think we're done the worst, but supper would probably have been pretty basic.”
“Can't have that. Gotta keep you all in good shape.” He laughed. “Be good, or at least wait til I get back to be bad, and if you just can't, then take some pictures for me. Later!”
“That's going to cost a fortune,” Jillian protested, as a chorus of voices said good-bye and Min hung up.
“Not relevant,” Rachel said. “It never is. Just go with it.”
“Do you want to get everything at once?” Min said. “So there's no need to keep making trips to collect it?”
“There should be room at my new place, sure,” Jillian said. “But that's extra work.”
“There are no stairs,” Flair said. “Out of the storage unit and right into the truck. And your new place only has stairs to the bedroom, right? So right out of the truck and inside with most of it. Piece of cake.”
Jillian spread her hands. She wasn't sure when she'd lost control of this situation, but suspected it was when Min and the other fae had arrived. Or possibly long before. “It would be easier, in the long run.”
“Then we'll do that,” Sigrun said.
Flair hopped into Nechtan's mini-van with him and Rachel went with Sigrun, and Jillian joined Clara and Phoebe in the back of Dagrun's van, while Min had the front passenger seat of course.
Transferring everything from the storage locker into the truck took surprisingly little time. While they were getting the last of it, Min sent Jillian to the office to pay off her bill and tell them she no longer needed it.
At the new place, they took the time for another sandwich and to discuss the best approach, considering the bottleneck that could form at the doorway. They decided on a kind of bucket-chain approach, passing things from Nechtan and Sigrun in the back of the truck down to Dagrun and from there the five humans could pass it hand-to-hand inside.
Everything came out of the truck quickly and smoothly, sorted roughly into the kitchen area, the bathroom, the living room, and the bedroom upstairs.
“And that's it,” Nechtan said, climbing down from the back of the truck.
“See?” Flair said, giving Jillian a quick hug. “I told you. All done, and that was hard work but not so bad, right?”
“That's probably the easiest move ever,” Jillian admitted.
“I'm not sure how hungry I am yet,” Phoebe said, “but a place to sit down and have something to drink and just relax would be great, and by the time we take the truck back and get there and order and they serve it, I probably will be. We've been working off a lot of calories today.”
“Agreed,” Clara said. “Time to take Nik up on his present.”
“Suppose I follow Sigrun,” Nechtan suggested, “and we can join you at the restaurant once the truck has been returned. That way the rest of you can go ahead now.”
“You're sweet,” Rachel said, and kissed his cheek.
Last time Jillian had been in Dagrun's van, it hadn't had all the seats installed. Now that it did, it had three passenger rows, two and two and three. That was plenty for five human women, even with Min's wheelchair.
“All over but the unpacking,” Flair said to Jillian. “We'll have supper, and split up whatever's left of the sandwiches, and you can spend the rest of the weekend unpacking and getting settled.”
“Yeah, but I would've been completely screwed alone,” Jillian said. “Thanks really isn't enough.” She was sure she was more tired than she really should be, just from nervous energy and anxiety. But then, after other moves, she'd always been exhausted physically instead.
“Of course it is,” Rachel laughed from behind them. “Flair's right. It's over, you have a really cool new place to live, and you can get on with your life. Not all good things come from fae bargains directly. If something comes up for someone else in the family, we'll yell. But I don't expect anyone to be moving anytime soon.”
“No kidding,” Phoebe muttered. “But hey, there are worse circumstances for first meeting someone, right? One of these days, we'll get you and Flair over to our place just to hang out and talk for the fun of it. But there's no hurry. We'll be around.”
* * *
Jillian knocked on Min's half-open apartment door. “Knock knock.” Min having buzzed her in the outer door, her presence wasn't exactly going to be a surprise.
“Come in,” Min told her. “Flair is wildly excited about helping you with this.” She turned in place to face Jillian, and smiled. “You look wonderful, dear. Not any specific detail. You always dress well for work, but you currently look like you made an effort for yourself, not because it was required.”
Jillian set her purse and shopping bag down, and held her arms out. “Just me. Somehow, I'm just... bored with regular underclothes, I've only been wearing the ones you bought me...”
“Nik bought you.”
“Sorry. And the same thing in other colours that I went back to get. I've been practising with the corsets after work, and I think I'm starting to get used to them and like them. Even if my first introduction was a bit extreme. I guess I'm trying to wear stuff at work that actually makes me feel good, instead of just a textbook minimal office-appropriate kind of approach.”
“I'm glad to hear it. Everyone deserves to feel good about herself, and I like to see you happy.”
“I'm celebrating being all moved by being outrageous, that should count.”
“I think so, yes. I'm glad moving isn't going to stifle this impulse towards learning what makes you feel good.”
“Not planning on it. No reason it should. If anything, I just feel sort of better about things lately, especially with moving not looming over me any more. By the way, I explained to Gary about the corsets and showed him. He's fine with them. Actually, I think he likes them, now he's getting used to the idea.”
“Many men do. A corset exaggerates your shape in the direction of one human brains are hardwired to see as a desirable mate. Possibly it exaggerates it beyond natural possibility, even to the degree of being grotesque. While the harsher corsets in history have done some damage, the basic premise is one I'm fond of. I still have clothes from eras when corsets of various styles were standard. I'll show you one day. Anyway. Not much surprise if he likes it.”
Flair bounced into the room, her arms full of objects. “Hi! Can't hug you, hands full. Are we really going to do your hair red?”
“Well, I know it looks good that way,” Jillian said. “The closest I could find isn't quite cherry and it's a bit brighter, but I think it'll look pretty cool. I've actually never done this, so there's just no way I can do it alone.”
“Neither have I, but I looked online and it doesn't look all that complicated. I mean, I can paint statues and things. I bet hair won't be hard as long as I'm careful. You can't have any flashbacks 'cause we have to use the bathroom on this side.”
“Have fun,” Min said.
Jillian washed her hair, then sat still while Flair added the bleach. Wrapped in an old robe Flair had found, her hair covered in plastic, she relaxed with Min and Flair while the bleach did its work. Bleach removed, they moved on to the vivid red dye.
Jillian inspected her own reflection, her short damp hair definitely no longer brown, and grinned. “Not sure how my boss will feel, not totally sure about Gary either, but oh well. I love it.”
“Me too. It's so much more individual. So much more... you. And it's your hair, not theirs.”
They ordered Chinese food, and the delivery boy, though he didn't know it, was the first outside the household to see Jillian's newly raspberry-red hair.
Afterwards, Jillian went home to her new apartment.
Next time: An urgent and much more personal reason arises for Jillian to make a second bargain. This one is complex enough for Min to involve Nik, and there aren't so many restrictions during the twenty-four hours Jillian will be spending paying for it! Hope you're enjoying the ride so far - stick with us, lots more to come!
Copyright 2018 prysmcat/Steph Shangraw If you share it: 1) I'll be thrilled and flattered and grateful, since word of mouth is the best publicity, and that means you consider it worth sharing; 2) Please include the link back to the source or, alternatively, to my writing site below; 3) Don't post the full text on other sites without my permission, don't claim you wrote it, and don't include it in any paid collection. For more of my work (novels and serials, fantasy and urban fantasy), more about me, or other ways to contact me, check out Prysmcat Books at http://prysmcat.com