Jillian woke up confused. This wasn't her bed. She was quite sure she'd never been here before, though she was still tired enough that it was possible she was wrong.
She rolled over, suppressing a groan—so many muscles felt stiff that she couldn't immediately identify them all.
Curled up on the far side of the rather large bed, though on top of the multicoloured blankets, was Flair. Clearly she'd been reading, though Jillian now had her attention.
“Well, very early Sunday morning. You've been asleep for about twelve hours. I wish you didn't have to go to work tomorrow, so there'd be longer for you to relax and recover, but at least I can look after you for today. Are you hungry?”
“Why don't you drop by the bathroom and then come back here, and I'll go make you something breakfast-ish? How do scrambled eggs and bacon and toast sound?”
“Heavenly. But you don't have to...”
Flair laughed. “Humour me.”
Jillian surrendered. “Thank you.”
“Mistress and Nik are still asleep, I think. Everyone else has gone home. Robe's hanging over the foot of the bed.” Flair flipped her book upside-down and rolled off the bed to her feet. “That's the door to my cats' room, over by the bookshelves. The one by the mirror is the one out to the hall.”
Moving more slowly, and feeling old and decrepit compared to Flair's energy, Jillian sat up and groped for the fuzzy peachy-orange robe.
This room was as large as her entire apartment, she thought. The bed was in the middle of the room, but off-centre, displaced in the direction of the door Flair used. The opposite wall seemed to be all enormous arched windows, right from end to end, though the darkness beyond hid the view. One corner had multiple well-filled bookshelves, as well as an antique-looking couch with sloped scrolled arms that just invited one to lounge and read, a small table at one end and a stand for a closed laptop at the other; there was a closed door in the side wall nearby. The other corner under the windows had sturdy-looking tables and a couple of large cabinets, and judging by the tools and such she could see, that had to be where Flair worked on the clay sculptures Jillian had heard about but not yet seen. In the corners flanking the door, Jillian could see a wardrobe and dresser and vanity similar to the set in the dressing room, and a full-length three-panelled mirror, and a couple of sets of shelves that held, well, probably just about anything that wasn't books or art supplies.
The floor was something smooth and brown-black without any visible seams, warm and comfortable under her bare feet, and the walls were a soft cream trimmed with the same rich honey-brown wood that the furniture was all made of. Everything else was a riot of colour and texture, from the bedding and the curtains on bed and windows to the rugs on the floor and the upholstery of the furniture. The walls bore framed small paintings and plaque-mounted prints and outright posters and blown-up framed photographs, a mixture of adorable cats of all varieties, fantasy scenes, old-fashioned drawings that might come from inside books, and erotic paintings and photos.
Wrapped in the robe, she made her way to the bathroom, passing the kitchen where Flair was industriously gathering things from the fridge.
She tried not to look at her own reflection. Her own fairly short brown hair looked bland and boring after the long dark blue ponytail; her face, without Echo's makeup, looked rough. It was just as well the robe hid most of the contours of her body, because she was sure she'd be no happier with them. Even her ears looked bare, and the world seemed flat and silent, without the soft silver chimes.
She used the toilet and washed her face in the sink. The box sitting on the counter made her smile: the same bleach and hair dye she'd used to turn her hair red before. Flair, looking out for her in small quiet ways.
She stopped in the kitchen door. “Can I help?”
“Nope. You can have a glass of orange juice while you're waiting, but for today, I'm going to pamper you, so you can take it and go right back to bed.” While she spoke, Flair turned away from the stove to fetch a large glass, filled it with juice, and handed it to Jillian. “What do you want on your toast?”
“Um, just butter's fine.”
“Go on, shoo. Help yourself to my books if you want. Or the laptop. It's probably best not to peek at the cats until I'm with you, they aren't used to strangers.”
“Is their room as big as yours?”
“Yes, and it has all sorts of climbing things and beds and hidey-holes for them, and tons of toys. They sleep snuggled and groom each other and play together, so they're just fine even when I get busy for a day or two. Most days I get lots of time to spend with them. Off you go.”
Jillian went back to Flair's room, glad she'd left the door open so she could find it. She settled herself back on the soft bed, sipping at her juice. She still felt tired and sore, which meant that in a way it was a relief not to have to do anything, but she wasn't entirely happy about Flair doing extra work because of her.
But friends could do that, right?
There was no fuzziness in her memories this time. Min must have decided that she was able to cope on her own. She could remember now that she had met and spent time with Nikandros and both giants and Nechtan in human form, though that had been missing for twenty-four hours. She couldn't really complain about that one, since those connections could have interfered with letting go the way she had.
Could Flair being there, seeing Jillian act like that, even the sexual contact they'd had with each other, interfere with friendship? Flair had insisted beforehand that it couldn't, and she'd probably had better grounds to anticipate the sorts of things that could happen; if Flair thought any less of her, odds were against Jillian waking up in Flair's own room with breakfast coming.
Was it going to mess up Jillian's feelings about their friendship?
After some reflection, she concluded that it would be stupid to allow it to. Normal social rules didn't apply with fae bargains involved, so it shouldn't be significant any more than she'd been really cheating on Gary. Besides, who was she going to find that she could talk to as openly as she could to Flair?
And she certainly had a lot to think about, and having someone understanding to talk to was probably going to help enormously. Even if Flair really had little real grasp of why Jillian found so much so difficult to accept.
Oh sure, why should it be difficult to accept that I seem to be turning into two different people? One ordinary and normal and sane, and the other one a shameless kinky nymphomaniac? Why should it be difficult to accept that I can get into a headspace where what I want becomes totally about what others want and the more I have to push myself or the more helpless I feel, the more crazy turned on I get? Hey, nothing to it, perfectly straightforward to get my head around. Argh. Not.
But Sati led me into thinking about consent and trust being important, and Henry made me realize that I get clarity and certainty I don't have in real life, and Nikandros redefined everything into a vacation instead of a 24/7 lifestyle. Those are really seriously big concepts, and I think I'm going to have to figure them out before I can figure out how I really feel about yesterday, or the future, or fae, or myself.
Other than being seriously bloody embarrassed, anyway. Dear god, some of what I was doing...
Flair returned with a tray. “Here we go. It's no big surprise you're worn out. Eat up. You can fall back asleep if you want to, anytime today. Well, except while we're doing your hair.” She waited for Jillian to rearrange herself, then set the tray on her lap before joining her.
As promised, scrambled eggs and bacon, in generous quantity, and toast. Simple enough, but it tasted like ambrosia right then.
“You aren't hungry?”
Flair shook her head. “I wasn't using Mistress' elixir, and I was under a lot less physical and mental strain. I think I slept more, too, I learned a long time ago to be pretty good at sleeping when and where I can. I'm all right. I got you tucked in and cleaned up everything and then had a decent supper with Mistress and Nik. Although I did fall asleep pretty soon after that. Anyway, today is for pampering you. And as long as you still have that collar on, you can come back here after work.”
“That kinda sucks, that I can only be here if there's still an outstanding bargain. 'Cause I don't think I'm going to be in a major hurry to sign up for forty-eight hours.”
“There... there is another way, but it's not quick or simple and it's up to Mistress to offer it. And they usually don't until after a third bargain. I know it looks like absolutely everything is on their side, but they do put energy and time and resources into pets and favourites. And feelings, too. But unlike them, humans can lie and try to cheat or just get cold feet and try to change their minds. That makes things difficult for them. Any fae who likes that sort of thing isn't one you want to bargain with. So they offer more, the more certain they are that they'll get what they want in return. Just like any other relationship, right?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“I know they're really happy with you, 'cause you keep promises and do your best even when it's hard for you.”
Jillian blushed. “It's getting really hard to not admit, at least to myself, that part of me is liking it.”
“I know. They know. And that only makes it better. So why are you blushing?”
“Because it scares the hell out of me.”
Jillian sighed. “Let me think about that one for a bit. Sati and Henry and Nikandros all pushed me into thinking about things in different ways and I want to see if I can put some pieces together. But I'm probably going to want to talk it through eventually.”
“You know where I am. And I certainly hope you know I'll do anything I can and I'll try to understand.”
“Yeah. And I am really grateful for that.”
“Me too. So it works out nicely, hm? I bet you're still exhausted. Eat up, then doze back off, 'kay? For today, you've got nothing at all to do except eat, sleep, meet my cats, maybe soak in the tub, whatever will feel good.”
* * *
Going to work Monday morning felt discordant and unreal.
Spending Tuesday night at Gary's place was, possibly, even worse. Still holding out hope that she could get her increasing sex drive grounded back in her real human relationship, she'd considered bringing up anal sex, but given his mood, she was reluctant even to suggest things they'd already done, like her being tied up. The result was unsatisfying, more dutiful than enjoyable—and yet, lacked the fierce arousal that she knew could come from doing things regardless of her own desires. Some part of the equation was missing. She consented, but Gary seemed to have little desire to accept whatever was on the other side of that coin. There was no reassuring certainty, no clear way to tell what he wanted, since even verbal communication was limited when he was in this sort of mood, so she had to make educated guesses, all too often without being quite sure whether she was on the right track or not.
What she wanted was someone who would—within the boundaries—restrain her and use her, let her hand over power and responsibility, let her stop over-thinking and just obey and put him first, tell her without ambiguity what he wanted and whether she was succeeding. What she had was someone who showed little interest in any of that. So much for men being innately dominant and adventurous. Odd little thoughts crept in about giving that power to a woman instead, but she banished those. She really did not want to cope with re-evaluating her orientation on top of everything else right now!
At least at work, Brett's harassment was no longer contributing to her stress levels. But for some reason, that wasn't making her any less reluctant to drag herself to the office every morning.
Especially since, aside from her evening with Gary, she went directly to Min's apartment. Flair was so delighted to have her around that she kept making delicious meals, the sort of thing Jillian typically lacked the energy or motivation to prepare after already working all day. As wonderful as the food was, it was more the peace and warmth and company that kept bringing her back.
Next to the kitchen, accessible through a sliding door she'd noticed but hadn't bothered to ask about, was a dining room, and much wider sliding doors offered access between dining room and living room. Like the rest of the villa, they were spacious and luxurious, no question, with a rather old-fashioned slant that still allowed for modern conveniences, but they were also clearly designed more for comfort and ease of use and an idiosyncratic kind of beauty than as a display of wealth or style. But then, this was Min's private domain—only she and Flair lived here, and only Nikandros had ongoing unrestricted access. She discovered that occasionally close friends were invited in specifically for dinner or to relax in the living room, but outside of that, it was Min's kingdom and she could arrange things to suit herself.
Min wasn't always around, but Flair was, and welcomed her enthusiastically. Even the cats, tabby-and-white sisters who were shy at first, got used to Jillian's presence and let her pet one while Flair had the other.
Both Min and Flair avoided the subject of bargains and the tangled feelings associated with them, not with any sense of awkwardness or dismissal, but whenever the conversation drifted that way, Jillian got the feeling that they were deliberately giving her space and taking care not to corner her into talking before she felt ready. For that, she was intensely grateful. Without it, her evenings with them would have been far less relaxed.
They spent one evening with Flair, under Min's supervision, taking a long list of detailed measurements of Jillian's body, while Min brought up the websites of several corset-makers she considered worth the expense and offered suggestions about style. Between them they narrowed it down to one corsetière in particular, and then to one style that was meant to be worn on a regular basis. Min recommended discussing the choice of fabrics before ordering it, to make certain that it could be made of something that could tolerate being under clothing frequently, apparently not a given with some finer outer layers.
Next time: a Saturday out with Min, Flair, and Nikandros - Nik's treat, and he has a surprise or two planned.
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