Fair Trade 4.3 Quandary: Defiance

A drawback to this apartment, one Jillian had considered a reasonable trade compared to how much she otherwise liked it, was that there were no laundry facilities in the building. That meant a short walk, only about four blocks, to the nearest laundromat.

Right at the moment, however, it felt like the safest place to be—aside from with Min or Nik—was behind her own locked door, with Henry's protective cord around it and the windows. A block or so to a quiet little curry place wasn't so bad, but a longer walk, to sit in the relatively exposed laundromat, felt more alarming.

Jillian paced around the apartment, deeply unsettled. She hated the idea of cowering indoors, but...

Did that mean Brett won? Did it matter, since a moral victory could still be an ultimate loss if she got hurt? A passing comment or two from Min on the phone made her strongly suspect that whatever Nik had learned, it wasn't something Min liked, and that was worrying.

On the other hand, Min had repeatedly told her that she should go about her life and not be afraid, and she didn't believe Min would say that unless she could back it up. She had the silver serpent ring on her hand...

She strode over to the kitchen counter and picked up her phone. She spent so much time on the phone with Flair these days that she'd set Flair's number as one of the shortcuts.

“Hi!” Flair said brightly. “How'd the wedding go?”

“Oh, it was awful. I'm not actually sure it was much better than being at work. Less scary, at least, but oh-my-god boring and uncomfortable.”

“That sounds pretty bad.”

“Yeah. I'll give you the details later, if you really want them. But Nik sent a present that helped enormously.”

Flair giggled.”Something sexy, hm?”

“A huge box of lingerie, matching the stuff we got downtown but in way more colours. With makeup too.”

“Oh, he would think of adding the makeup. That sounds fun, and I bet they're gorgeous colours, he has a good eye for that.”

“Definitely. But right now, I have a bit of a dilemma.”

“Mmhmm?” Faintly, Jillian picked up what she thought was a feline purr. Flair must be cuddling her cats.

“I need to do laundry. To do that I have to go out. But I'm finding that going out, especially alone, is making me feel really anxious. I don't like feeling like I'm hiding. I could skip it for today, but how long?”

“Hm, yes, you saw him close to your apartment. And I overheard Mistress and Nik a bit, I think he isn't a very nice man. Well, I could check with Mistress. It isn't something I've seen before, but I think until both sides of the bargain are met you might be in fuzzy territory and you could come to the villa. But I don't know for sure. And anyway, then you might still feel like you're hiding.”

“Possibly. And Min's not expecting me.”

“She'd like you coming over, I promise. Really, though, you aren't in any danger, even if you feel like you are. I know Nik gave you a salvation ring. Echo isn't the only one who directly owes Mistress allegiance of one kind or another. And even with the complicated family stuff Mistress has an awful lot of respect and influence, so fae who don't, still like doing favours for her. Even the ones who are young or not very powerful in fae terms are more than a match for any human. You might not see who's protecting you unless you need them, but I bet, outside your apartment, someone's there. And will be until Mistress tells them to stand down.”

“That should feel creepy. It sort of does. But sort of reassuring, too.”

“Go with reassuring. That's the intent behind it, anyway. You honestly don't need to be afraid. It's safe to go do laundry or go shopping or whatever you need to do. It's safe to do it dressed however you like, comfy or sexy or anything else. Okay?”

Jillian sighed. “That's a hard thing to just have faith in. Logic says one thing, but there's this little animal voice somewhere in my brain that's jumping at everything.”

“That doesn't sound very pleasant. But try your best to listen to logic and experience and keep trusting Mistress. You think she's never stepped in before when a woman's in danger? She knows what she's doing. And you matter to her.”

“All right. I'll try. And thank you for putting up with me.”

“I wish your life didn't have so many bad things in it. But I'm always here.”

Farewells said, Jillian disconnected.

The brief conversation had helped, though that deep-down gnawing core of apprehension lingered. Without the fae, she could potentially be in real danger. With them, the rules changed, even if she hadn't yet gotten her head entirely around this new reality.

The fear surrendered as far as going out or cowering at home, but changed tactics: if she was going out, she should at least wear her least form-fitting jeans and an oversized T-shirt, to avoid drawing attention.

No.

Just, no.

She climbed the stairs to her bedroom, unbuttoning her work blouse. This was ridiculous. Her fundamental sense of security had been violated, but she didn't have to give in to it. She didn't have to give anyone that much power over her actions and even how she dressed.

She stripped off her work clothes and investigated her closet. Too much of it felt too ordinary, too boring, despite recent efforts to rebuild her wardrobe.

In a back corner, she found a top she'd bought in a thrift shop as part of a Hallowe'en witch costume. It had a zipper up the back and faux corset lacing up the front, and no sleeves to speak of, just little flouncy off-the-shoulder ones. The whole thing was a heavy shiny-on-matte black brocade. She hadn't been entirely happy with the effect in practice, but with even a lightweight corset underneath, that might be different.

And it might pair well with a deep violet skirt she'd recently bought but hadn't had the chance to wear yet, one that was knee-length at the front but ankle-length at the back.

She swapped to her amethyst-coloured lingerie, which wasn't exactly the same hue but reasonably close, enough so that the bra straps showing didn't look at all out of place. Black lace stockings, for contrast under the skirt. When she added the skirt and top, she regarded her reflection in satisfaction. The corset beneath helped create the kind of outline that looked right with the top, and the flare of the skirt was pleasant inverted symmetry. She wondered briefly how it would look with a heavier corset like the white satin one she'd worn under her maid uniform.

She turned her lips metallic amethyst, and after a moment's thought lined her eyes with liquid black and shadowed them with silver towards the inner corners but amethyst towards the outside. Scrubbing off the muted plum nail polish and replacing it with the one that matched was oddly calming. No one could see her collar, but she needed something to break up all the exposed skin of throat and collarbone; she decided on a faux silver one that had several rows of loops, with little discs along the edges, and a pair of dangly earrings that were close enough to more-or-less pass for a set.

If it was all too much for doing laundry... so what? She felt like wearing it, and it felt far more true to her real self than what she wore to work every day. More true than heavy jeans and a baggy T-shirt would have been. It was sort of sexy and sort of playful and in this neighbourhood of this city, it would attract attention.

It's okay to feel sexy. It's okay to want to look sexy. It's okay to like other people looking at me.

Downstairs, with two bags of laundry stacked in the wire cart she'd picked up for this, she put on her angle-height black boots with the decorative silver chain, the heels higher than her work shoes but not so much she couldn't walk a few blocks. She tossed necessities from her everyday purse into a smaller black leather one, slung that on one shoulder, and manoeuvred the cart out the door.

The walk to the laundromat was uneventful, even though two blocks away from home, Jillian had a bad moment of wondering what on earth she was doing—if she had to go out, why hadn't she chosen something to wear that was at least somewhat more subtle? But she was already out, and she'd probably feel deeply disappointed in herself if she bolted for home. She took a deep breath, reminded herself to at least pretend to be confident, and kept walking.

An older man held the door for her so she could pull the cart inside, and she thanked him, smiling. The cart wasn't glamorous, but cars were expensive and she really had little need for one, and taking a taxi four blocks each way felt like an absurd thing to do. This was practical, and that was, or at least had been, the only thing that she cared about. Right now, she found herself vaguely uncomfortable with the apparent clash between the prosaic little cart and her not-so-prosaic look.

She found two machines side by side and began to load her laundry into them.

“Oh, man, I'd so hit that.” Judging by the volume, she was intended to hear it. It was followed by quite a lot of snickering.

She finished with that handful and turned around, her hands braced to either side on the washer behind her. Oddly, nothing in the back of her mind registered it as a threat, only as an annoyance.

On the hard plastic chairs set up for customers while they waited, she saw two boys. She couldn't dignify them with the term 'men' even though they were plausibly legally adult, as they nudged each other, both grinning as they looked her over with a total lack of tact. Or maturity.

Normally, Jillian found herself at a loss for how to respond to insults. She wasn't sure where the response came from—it sounded in her head a lot like Min's voice, when Min was at her most acerbic. Maybe she'd just internalized a lot of what Min said.

“Should I be flattered? I imagine you'd be willing to 'hit' a sheep if it had a heartbeat and would stay still long enough, and the heartbeat might be optional.”

The snickering stopped. “Geez. Stuck-up old bitch. Take a compliment already.”

“I have yet to hear one. Just as well that my interest in your opinion of me is equal to the odds that I would ever let you touch me.”

The mouthy one flushed. “So don't dress like you're advertising!”

“News flash: it's my body. It's not about you. I can dress it, enjoy it, and share it however and whenever I choose, and you are not entitled to an opinion.” This whole exchange was stupid, and she had better things to do. She wasn't even quite sure why she'd continued this long. She was irritated with this pair in particular, and angry at the whole social system that reinforced it. It wasn't like she'd never had unwanted attention before, starting with a regular customer at her high school retail job who had interpreted her at-work friendliness as meaning she was interested. It was starting to feel, though, as if caring how she looked and dressing to please herself translated to some men as meaning she was available, maybe even that she'd welcome it.

Sadly, she suspected that when approached, Kaylee and Christine would act outraged but secretly be pleased. How messed up was that, on all sides?

Right now, it wasn't like these two were going to listen to logic. “If you want to look, I can't stop you. If you want to masturbate tonight to fantasies about making me follow the script in your head and act properly grateful that you consider me worthy of having any bit of your anatomy shoved inside mine, I can't stop that either. But I promise, I won't be thinking about you. You just aren't that interesting or important. But then, until you learn to treat women with respect, you'll probably get that response a lot. You are literally not worth any more of my time.” She turned her back on them and resumed pulling laundry out of the bag and shoving it in the machine.

She heard a few muttered insults, but she was fairly sure they had no idea how to respond to that. They slunk off in the direction of the drink machine, possibly unable to leave yet.

That left Jillian wondering where her response had come from, since it was so unlike her. It wasn't quite like Min, either, but definitely more like Min. While Min was by no stretch of the imagination any kind of Amazonian man-hater, she had no tolerance for male assumptions of superiority and entitlement. There were echoes in it of Nik's philosophy too. It might have been worrying, had Jillian believed that Min or Nik had any interest in messing around with her mind. As it was, it was something to be curious about, no more.

She got both machines working, and found a chair other than the ones the adolescent-minded pair had been in. She pulled out her phone, planning to catch up on a couple of emails, but her mind kept wandering. Despite feeling intensely self-conscious, she also felt oddly confident—was that where her retort had come from? But where did the confidence come from? It wasn't because she knew she had value to Min and Nikandros and their fae friends, was it? That wasn't all that much of an improvement over being considered sexually appealling by random men, even if it was more selective and they had higher standards. Was the confidence because, despite the self-consciousness, her current clothes felt far more like a reflection of who she was than the clothes she'd been wearing all day?

It's okay to feel sexy. It's okay to look sexy. It's okay to want to look sexy. It's okay to like other people looking at me.

And at least a couple were. The corset made it uncomfortable to slump in the hard chair, so her back was straight; the height of the chair meant she had her ankles crossed but tucked back so she wouldn't be tripped over by anyone passing. Her posture was distinctly different from those around her, who were mostly slumped, bored or tired or both, and most of the fashion choices suggested either just-done-work or just-don't-care. Drawing some attention was inevitable, but it was non-intrusive and she didn't mind if they got some pleasure out of it, even though that wasn't the reason for it.

The two rude boys, snickering together again, wandered back over in her direction. She ignored them. Like online trolls, any response would encourage them, and she probably shouldn't have bothered earlier. One was holding a can of cola, obviously still closed given the rather careless way he was gesturing with that hand.

Quicker motion made her glance up, just in time to see him give the can a couple of violent shakes and then tip it in her direction and crack the top.

Except that somehow, the can was tilted the other way by the time the spray erupted, all over the two boys, the floor, and the nearest machine, but completely missing anyone else.

“Jesus, can you not aim?” the empty-handed one snarled.

“I did! Something bumped the can!”

“There was no one near you!”

Jillian saw unexpected movement not far behind them, and focused on the door of one of the big industrial dryers. Her own reflection in it was laughing merrily, if silently.

If makeup effects Echo created in the mirror existed in the real world... could she nudge the bottom of a can in the mirror, and have it tilt for real? That would certainly explain this.

The laundromat attendant looked less than pleased as she fetched a mop to clean up the mess. “Was that on purpose?”

“Who, me? Waste of pop.”

“Uh-huh. Y'think I'm deaf? Quit harrassing other customers or you'll have to leave, doesn't matter if your clothes are done or not. And if your little stunt worked, I'd've banned you.”

“But she...”

“Don't care. She can wear pjs or a ball gown, as long as she's not being a nuisance. Only nuisance right now is you. Bathroom's that way, try not to drip on the floor more than you have to.”

Jillian's reflection caught her eye, waved cheerfully, and went back to being just a normal reflection again.

She could ask Min later about how that worked—could Echo inhabit any reflection she chose? Only Jillian's? And what did that mean in terms of Jillian's privacy? Although she couldn't really muster up any genuine apprehension about Echo's presence. She'd never seen her or had a conversation with her, but nonetheless, she had to admit that she liked the mirror fae. Presumably Echo wasn't the only one, since presumably Echo had her own life as well and besides, many places had a shortage of shiny reflective surfaces, but it was a comforting thought. How many other fae owed some sort of allegiance to Min, anyway? But one way or another, Min clearly had no intention of allowing any harm to come to her human favourite, and possibly that extended to bad behaviour that would be discouraging.

While she was folding her clean, dry clothes at a table, a man around her own age approached. “Excuse me?” He waited until she looked up, then smiled at her. “Um, please don't think I'm being rude, but... is there any chance we could maybe go out for coffee or something sometime? Just to talk, maybe see what we have in common?”

The blue jeans and black Alice Cooper t-shirt were casual, but they were clean and they fit him well, which seemed consistent with the rest of his appearance: well-groomed and neat and fairly fit, beard trimmed very close to his jaw and hair long enough to draw back, which at moments looked brown and at others looked blonde, either way with the occasional thread of silver. Both ears were pierced, with thick-looking silver horseshoes that had black balls on the ends. What she almost missed was the moderately-heavy necklace chain of flattened links—ordinary enough, except that the ends were tiny handcuffs that linked together. Around both forearms, blue tattoos spiralled like snakes, a long line with many shorter lines crisscrossing it in some sort of pattern. On second thought, considering the creases at the corners of his eyes, he might be a little older than her first estimate, but if so, he looked after himself.

Under most circumstances, she'd have taken him up on the offer immediately, though the necklace, if she'd even noticed, might have made her cautious about what his interests might include.

Her life already involved a mostly-absent boyfriend that she couldn't tell about an increasingly large aspect of her life. The last thing she needed was to increase the complexity any further.

“I'm sorry,” she said, with worryingly real regret, “I have a boyfriend already.” Although she was less and less sure where that relationship was going.

His gaze couldn't possibly have flickered to the collar. Min had hidden that.

He smiled again. “Fair enough, although I'm selfish enough to wish you didn't. But does that have to rule out coffee? I promise, I do understand boundaries. I just moved here not long ago and I don't have many local friends yet, and I'm always up for meeting interesting people.”

“And I look like interesting people?”

“You look like someone with a mind of her own and the confidence to be herself. That's about as interesting as it gets, as far as I'm concerned.”

“Mm. You sound like my friend's husband. All right. Coffee, but it might take me a few days to figure out when. The immediate future is looking a little cluttered.” She picked up her phone, opened the Contacts list and created a new entry, and offered it to him to fill in.

“At the moment, I don't have a rigid schedule, but within the next week or two, I'll be working. At that point, I'm free all day Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and done work at five on Thursday and Sunday, but I work late Friday and Saturday. And, like I said, not currently a very active social life around that, so I'm flexible. Whenever works for you, around all that clutter.” He gave her back her phone. “I'm Ethan.”

“Jillian.”

“A name I'm hoping to see on my phone soon. I'll let you get back to finishing your laundry.” He inclined his head, and turned away, striding down the room to flip open a washer that had finished its cycle.

All that, and he hadn't once made her feel like prey to be stalked or meat to be bought, Jillian reflected. That was a nice change, and it was a shame she hadn't met him before her life got so... complicated. Then again, from the sounds of it, he wouldn't have noticed her before, in the jeans and loose t-shirt she typically wore for doing laundry.

Still, going out for coffee couldn't hurt.

She gathered everything up, stowed it back in the buggy, and when she saw Ethan glance in her direction, she smiled at him before heading for the door.

At home, with her laundry put away, she faced the full-length mirror in her bedroom. Would this even work? Would she be disturbing Echo if it did? Interrupting something? Or was it more like a phone call? But she did want to say this personally, not just pass it on via Min.

So she said, “Echo? Are you busy for a minute?”

It took several seconds for her reflection to blink, then smile and look at her quizzically, head tilted to one side.

“Thank you,” Jillian said. “For helping me earlier, and doing it brilliantly. No scene, just them getting what they asked for.”

Echo gestured dismissively, but said, and even Jillian could lip-read it, You're welcome.

“I'm not going to keep you, I just wanted to say that. I really appreciate it. And I really want to do something in return one of these days.”

Echo's smile broadened. You are. She blew Jillian a kiss, and her reflection went back to normal.

Jillian turned away from the mirror and went downstairs to the kitchen to see what she could put together for supper. Possibly she was going to have to go back out and visit the grocery store.

Next time: Friday evening. Time to pay off Jillian's side of the bargain!






 

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