Fair Trade 6.3 Modulation: Alienation

Jillian went home after work Monday only long enough to change into her favourite little black dress, fix her makeup, and toss together a few things for the next day into her overnight bag, before she hopped the bus to Gary's apartment.

He let her in, but without a kiss of greeting, or any actual attempt at contact of any kind. Puzzled, she decided he was probably just tired. That was a hard thing to avoid, after working weekends and evenings so much.

“Sorry, I didn't have time to cook anything,” she said apologetically. “I thought maybe we could just order something. The Indian place down the block from me is good and they'll deliver.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Is something wrong?”

“Why?”

“Something just seems... off. Would you rather just cancel for tonight?” She didn't want him to. It had been close to a week since she'd seen him at all. But if he was going to spend the evening wishing he were alone, it would be better to leave it.

He dropped heavily into his computer chair, looking at her; suddenly uncomfortable, she began to wish, herself, that he were alone and she weren't here. What was going on?

“Where were you Saturday night?” he asked abruptly.

“What? Min's husband decided to take her and me and another friend out to dinner and to an 80s bar to hear a live band. He knows someone in the band. Just friendly company. Why?”

“How come you never mentioned anything about Min being married until just recently?”

“Because until recently, she mentioned him a couple of times but I'd never met him. He travels a lot for work, and they were still wrapping up the move here from BC, he's been dealing with some stuff there. They don't even live together right now, technically, but they're obviously really good for each other when they do get time together. What does Min's marriage have to do with anything?”

“One of the guys I work with saw you Saturday night.”

“Then presumably he also saw Min and Flair and Nik. So?”

“From what he said, you were all over the guy on the dance floor. And kissing another girl.”

Jillian rolled her eyes. “Oh, for god's sake. You're pissed at me for having fun dancing and getting a little carried away? I might've misjudged exactly how much I had to drink, I wasn't drunk but I might've had a bit more than usual, I remember feeling really relaxed and a lot of things being funny.” She didn't like lying, but she could hardly explain about satyrs.

“From what I heard, it wasn't just dancing, you were just shy of public sex.”

“Oh, we were not!” That much she was sure of. Playful though Nikandros was, he did respect boundaries, and wouldn't have allowed it. Besides, Min would unquestionably have intervened. And Flair would have told her.

“Seriously? With the way you've been about sex lately—all that stuff about wanting to explore? Decided to try something different? Or is he the one who got you started on that whole kick?”

Jillian blinked, struggling to catch up. “Are you honestly accusing me of cheating on you? With my best friend's husband?” She tried not to think about paying debts. That was different, and she'd been desperate, first to save her brother, then to keep herself safe. On any real, human, everyday level, she'd been faithful, despite her growing sexual frustration and feeling of disconnection and the available alternatives.

“Or your so-called best friend, or both of them and this other chick too... that's sure as fuck what it looks like from here. You spend more time at her place than you do at your own.”

“What do you expect me to do?” All the resentment and disappointment she'd been so carefully rationalizing away was, she discovered, still there, and the accusation was enough to make it boil to the surface. “Sit at home every damned night by myself, waiting to see whether you'll actually have time for dinner and sex, and for that matter, whether you'll cancel at the last minute even then?”

“You think I'm having fun working all these extra hours? I'm trying to get that promotion so I can actually have a stable future to share with someone special... someone who appreciates it!”

“Oh, bullshit. Anyone who wants your money and your stable future and doesn't give a crap about being left alone all the time is lying to you and is either going to cheat on you or be secretly miserable. Or she's just as obsessed and you'll have to book time for sex a month in advance. You want a stable future with someone, maybe you should try putting even a fraction of the energy into your relationship with her that you put into working. Sixty or more hours a week working... maybe twelve hours a week, tops, with your girlfriend, and part of that is sleeping... I should have noticed weeks ago exactly where I stand in your priorities.”

“I have a career, damn it! One a lot of people would love to have, in a seriously competitive field!”

“Enjoy it.” She fumbled in her purse for her keyring, her hands shaking with anger, and wedged a nail into the split ring so she could get his keys off it. The nail cracked, but she got them free. “Give me the key for my place. Now. And I hope you and your career have a long relationship. Maybe you can find yourself someone who'll be happy to fuck once a week if you buy her some pretty presents, but don't count on monogamy.” She dropped his keys on the floor and held out her hand, palm up, waiting.

Savagely, he pulled his keys out of his pocket and freed hers from the others. “I'm not buying this injured self-righteous innocence shit. Fine, go be the tramp you've been acting and dressing like lately. Fucking someone else on the side is just way too believable. You are not the person I thought you were.”

“Apparently you thought I was a good little fifties bimbo who always puts her man above all else. I am obviously too much for you to handle. I need someone who's actually going to be part of the whole relationship. Someone who wants to spend time with me instead of grudgingly finding it here and there, someone who doesn't call me a tramp for trying to feel good about myself, someone who doesn't ask me to put on a show for their family like being me is somehow an embarrassment, someone who doesn't keep breaking promises, and someone who's interesting and creative in bed!”

“Good luck with that. That's what guys are like.”

She smiled sweetly at him, closing her hand around her key. “Maybe I'll try a girlfriend. I bet I could find one who'd be able to satisfy me in bed and treat me like a real person outside of it. Have fun with your own hand and your fantasies about me and Min and her husband and Flair. With how much time you spend at work, don't hold your breath that you're going to find a new girlfriend anytime soon.” She spun around, scooped up her overnight bag, and stalked out the door.

From the sidewalk in front of the building, she texted Min. «Can I come over? Need friends.»

Min replied promptly. «Yes, of course. Did someone hurt you?»

«Sort of. Calling cab. There soon.»

The cab felt like it took forever to arrive. Walking would take her an hour at least, and she wasn't dressed with that in mind; she saw the bus go past, but made no effort to catch it, reluctant to pen herself into close quarters with a lot of other people.

An eternity later, the cab delivered her to the front of Min's building. She paid, climbed out, and shouldered her bag.

The instant she buzzed, the door clicked open.

The apartment door wasn't just ajar, it was open, and Flair was right there, paying little attention to anyone else who might happen through the lobby, her expression all anxiety. It was sheer good fortune there was no one in sight, though Min was probably nearby.

“Jill, what happened?” Alabaster hands slid the overnight bag off her shoulder while drawing her inside. Hands both occupied, Flair nudged the door closed with one hip.

“Yes, dear, what did happen?” Min asked from the couch.

“Gary just...” Jillian let Flair guide her towards the couch; she needed it, because her vision was beginning to blur with tears, the numbness of shock thawing in the warm safety. “He said a coworker saw us Saturday when we were out... he accused me of sleeping with Nik and with you two.” She heard her voice break. “Said that's why I'm here so much. Said I've been dressing and acting like a tramp.”

“Oh, sweetheart...” Min wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and Jillian crumpled against her, gave up on fighting her sobs. “I'm sorry. I hate to see you hurting.”

Flair wriggled herself into whatever space was available on Jillian's other side, cuddling close, but practical enough to have a box of tissues in her free hand.

Neither offered advice or platitudes or promises, but they stayed there with her while she cried herself out.

Sniffling, she blew her nose, and looked morosely at the tissue. Her black eyeliner was running, turning a rather pretty blue. “Oh god. I must look like a raccoon on LSD.”

“You're a bit of a mess,” Min admitted. “But that hardly matters. Only how you feel. You went to his place expecting dinner and an evening together, and walked into accusations?”

Wearily, Jillian nodded. “Technically, he's not completely wrong,” she said reluctantly.

“Yes he is,” Flair said. “Fae bargains are not part of normal life. It's not like Nik's been dropping by your apartment to play for fun or anything, or you've been messing around with Ethan on the side. And really, he left you on your own with moving, and when you told him about your boss being scary he said that you should just complain to his boss and then never brought it up again, and he really doesn't seem to care what you want or even if you're okay.”

Jillian sighed. “He wanted me when I was tying myself in knots trying so hard to be absolutely ordinary. I don't seem to be so good at that anymore. I think I'm happier with myself now. But that isn't want he expected or what he wants.”

“If terms change and people grow apart,” Min said firmly, still stroking Jillian's hair reassuringly, “there are more gracious and mature ways to deal with that or even end it than flinging around hurtful accusations with no evidence to back them.”

“Maybe. I guess. Damn. I think I left things at his place. I think some of his stuff is at my place.”

“Hm. What's his address, dear?”

Jillian recited it, automatically, then frowned. “Why?”

“I'm just going to ask Sigrun to drop by and fetch your things. Would you mind if she took a look around your apartment for anything of his? There are ways to recognize ownership.”

“Um, that's okay, I trust her. But he might not listen to her.”

Flair giggled. “I bet Sigrun can handle him. Don't worry about that.”

Min picked up her phone, scrolled through her contacts with one elegant finger, and tapped the screen before picking it up. “Hi. Could I ask a small favour? Jillian's boyfriend just said some cruel things to her and accused her of cheating. That relationship, safe to say, is over. He has been... rather inattentive for some time, so I doubt there is anything to repair.” Jillian shook her head vehemently. “Jillian believes there are still possessions of his at her place and of hers at his. I'd like to keep Jill here where Flair and I can look after her. Would you be willing to see to the loose ends?” A pause. “Thank you. I appreciate it.” Another pause. “I can order take-out, but if you're inclined to pick up cheesecake from that lovely little shop on King Street, I suspect it could make any day better. It's a shame Ethan's Seahorse is closed today.”

“In the back of my closet,” Jillian said, “there's a cotton-candy pink dress with white lace. And a pair of shoes that match, very low pumps. Feel free to shove those down his throat.”

“Did you hear that? Mm, yes. He insisted she wear something like it for a family wedding, so she bought it and the shoes, even though they are not flattering and not reflective of her own tastes.” Another pause. “Jill? What takes your fancy for supper, dear?”

“Not Indian,” Jillian said with a sigh. “I don't actually know. Something seriously junk-food-ish.”

“Pizza? Burgers?”

“Um... actually, a ton of fries sounds really appealing.”

“Burgers and fries, then. Classic cheddar and bacon, I think... what toppings do you like?”

Jillian supplied the list of her preferred way to have burgers.

“You remember my preferences and Flair's? Wonderful. Thank you both, very much. I'll tell her.” She disconnected. “Both giants send their love and sympathy and support. Sigrun is going to take care of everything with Gary, and Dagrun is off in search of supper. Why don't you go get cleaned up, dear? It might help you feel better. You're staying here overnight, of course, and we'll see how you're feeling in the morning as far as work.”

“I don't like my job but I can't just not go.”

“We'll evaluate in the morning,” Min repeated firmly. “Flair, do you have anything comfortable Jill can borrow?”

“Sure,” Flair said, setting down the box of tissues and getting up, then offering Jillian a hand. “I'll have to go look in my room, so you might as well come use the villa bathroom so you're closer.”

“Take your time,” Min said. “If a shower would feel better than just washing up, feel free.”

Jillian let Flair draw her to her feet. She felt drained, more exhausted than she had after twenty-four hours as a toy, and the villa bathroom might as well be miles away.

Once through the doorway and into Min's villa, though, some of the internal knots loosened. Gary wasn't entirely wrong, but that was only by accident. He knew nothing about Jewel's exquisitely intense existence, and had remained oblivious to her attempts to transfer some of that magic to their relationship.

“I wonder if he's been sleeping with someone else?” she mused, on the way down the hall. “Actually, I doubt he has. Being too wrapped up in his precious career to remember about relationships needing work is more plausible for him than trying to juggle two lovers. Not dishonest, just clueless.”

“I'm not sure that's much better,” Flair said doubtfully. “He's been neglecting you for as long as, well, as long as you've known me, and then some, and breaking promises to you, and wanting you to not be you. Like those friends of yours.”

“Kaylee and Christine? They gave up on me, I guess, I haven't heard from either one in a while. Huh. I didn't even realize that until now. Obviously I didn't miss them much.”

“I really don't think Mistress had any intention of disrupting your friendships and relationships and all. I know she wants you to be happy and feel good about your self and your life. Some things aren't completely her choice, but she'll do whatever she can to look out for you. You know that, right? And you do have friends, for real, even if some friends disappear when you aren't what they want?”

“I know,” Jillian said. “My first reaction was to call Min and come here, remember?”

“Good. And I'm glad you did. It's not something I have any experience with, but I'm pretty sure being alone wouldn't be the best thing right now. Okay, you get clean, however you want, and I'll go find something comfy to wear.”

Jillian tried very hard not to think while she was getting cleaned up, focusing intently on each action as she did it. It worked much better than she expected, but possibly that was because of her associations with this room.

Flair returned with pyjamas, pants and a pullover top, of a wonderfully soft jersey knit, creamy in colour with a print of tabby cats.

Not terribly long later, Jillian found herself curled up in the corner of Min's couch, a fine crochet afghan over her lap, with Min at the other end of the couch. Dagrun, in her human form, had arrived while Jillian and Flair were in the villa, and was perched on the edge of the chair, unpacking a brown paper bag of food that smelled delicious. A second one waited on the coffee table.

Flair brought two mugs of tea, gave one to Min and one to Dagrun, then scooted back to get two glasses of root beer and ice for herself and Jillian before settling herself on the floor by Jillian's feet.

“Isn't that the gourmet burger place?” Jillian asked, studying the logo on the bag Dagrun was unpacking.

Dagrun nodded. “It is. They're a bit stingy with the fries, however, so I got those up the street where they're fresh-cut and served more generously.”

“I was expecting basic fast food. Um, I didn't mean that as a complaint, just that it's a lot of extra trouble and a lot more expensive.”

“Not so much trouble,” Dagrun said. “I bought the cheesecake that is waiting in the fridge, ordered and paid for the fries, went to get the burgers, and returned to pick up the fries. Quick and simple, and more than worth it. Now, let's see which is which, shall we? The fries are all the same.”

The various burgers got sorted out into the appropriate hands, and fries were distributed, with Sigrun's set aside for the time being. For a few minutes, attention centred mainly on appreciation of the burgers and a certain amount of sharing to try different exotic options, though Jillian decided she really did prefer her old-school cheddar and bacon beef. The distraction helped, and by the time they wound down to nibbling on excellent fries and sipping drinks, much of Jillian's tension had drained away, leaving her, if not energetic, at least less disheartened.

“Is Sigrun going to be okay?” she asked. “He might not let her through the security door, even, let alone believe her. And I probably should have given her my key.”

“Don't worry,” Dagrun said. “When I left, she was arranging to meet Henry. There is no space I'm aware of that he can't get into, and he's fond of you. And you never need to fear for Sigrun's safety. These days, she works security, but she has trained a number of human warriors who became leaders and celebrities in their day, and she could hold her own against many if necessary. Nor is any appeal to the police likely to succeed against any fae.”

“Mm. That's good. She is, but you aren't?”

Dagrun shook her head. “I'm a norn. It's difficult to explain in your culture, especially since Classical mythology and Christianity began to influence the northlands. We try to see the patterns in the tapestry of life and find ways to moderate the tangles that happen. The human favourites and protegees of norns have had several names, but typically they were both respected and feared as seers, priestesses, wise women, and witches.”

“I'm guessing there aren't a lot of priestesses and wise women around these days.”

That made Dagrun chuckle. “Names change and evolve. That doesn't mean that what they describe no longer exists. What else do you call Clara, supporting adolescents through a difficult phase of growing up, and Rachel, who understands the uses of the earth's bounty far beyond a few cosmetic applications, and Phoebe, who helps women bring new life into the world safely?”

“That makes sense, I suppose. Hadn't thought of it that way.”

“They still want you and I to come to their house someday,” Flair said. “Just for a pot of tea, or whatever, and to hang around and talk and stuff.”

“They don't live with you?” Jillian asked Dagrun.

The giant shook her head. “They share a house between the three of them. Sigrun and I have one not far from them, and we're in frequent contact, but the independence works better for us.”

“Fae interact with humans in countless ways,” Min said. “What sort of fae is part of it. Individual preference is another. My way horrifies my family.” She smiled. “It was likely inevitable that, with a fire giant norn as a best friend since we were quite young, I would absorb a less arrogant and unforgiving set of values. Not that forbidding us to be friends would have been likely to succeed. Once Hyld joined us, there was no stopping us, though it's just as well Henry was around to help minimize the consequences several times. Before you ask, Nik and Sati have been friends for a very long time, as Nechtan and Sigrun have, and Henry has known them for as long as he has known us. Even the newer friendships have become valuable and strong. And, in many circumstances, any of us will watch over those humans important to one of the others.”

“But sometimes,” Dagrun said, “the humans in question can be important in their own right to more than one of us. Friends who know what we are and accept that and remain friends, as opposed to learning what we are and thinking only of fear or personal advantage, have never been common. Those who fear, we avoid for their sakes. Those who try to manipulate us tend not to fare well. But for the special ones who become friends, we'll do anything in our power. By we, I mean the group of fae you know as friendly. As you discovered with Zipporah, there are fae with other philosophies.”

“Sigrun will not harm Gary, dear,” Min said gently. “But it will not surprise me at all, if she and Henry make it very clear to him that his behaviour is unforgivable and that even if he sees the error of his ways, he is not to contact you by any method. They will not want you distressed by him in the future. Possibly they will frighten him, to be certain he pays attention.”

Jillian contemplated her fries while she thought about how she felt about that. Did it bother her? Angry and hurt as she was, a small voice whispered that it was vindictive and petty to be pleased about it... but another part was simply relieved that she wouldn't have to fear a phone call or email in the future that would dredge things up again. Sigrun would make sure that, as Min had said, all loose ends were tied up. That relationship was decidedly over, and quite likely, all things considered, it was better that way. There would be no lingering threads binding her to Gary.

“Good,” she said. “And thank you.”

“Bad relationships happen,” Dagrun said wryly. “To fae as well. Being unable to lie directly does not make manipulation impossible, and truth can be a very subjective thing. At one time, I came close to marrying a mountain giant. Believing what was said, without looking for what was not said, turned out to be a mistake, and I doubt I could ever have untangled myself had it gone much further. Fae marriages can't easily be dissolved while any debt or bargain or commitment remains outstanding, since all are considered mutual. It was Nik and Sati, in pursuit of an unresolved issue, that made me take a second and third look and ask Henry to investigate. The least of it was bragging of having successfully snared a norn—we're what you might call a good credit risk, we typically find unpaid debts uncomfortable. I was too young to think about the uses someone less scrupulous might have for that reputation, or to believe that someone I liked and admired could have ulterior motives. It was... painful. But it did bring Min that unrepentent deviant of hers.”

“That does not,” Flair said to Jillian, “mean that Dagrun doesn't like Nik, when she calls him things like that.”

Dagrun chuckled. “It's hard to insult a satyr with sexual slurs. They tend to take it as an observation or even a compliment. I don't always like his behaviour, but he has the good taste to adore Min, and I trust him.”

“That sounds like a really difficult breakup to get over,” Jillian said. “Like it would make it hard to trust anyone.”

“It was, for a while. But friends are a good reminder that trust can be real and deserved, and that one bad experience doesn't justify blanket assumptions about the intentions of all people. And I'm very glad I realized that in time.”

“The string of suitors proposed by my family do justify some blanket assumptions,” Min said dryly. “They were invariably recommended by this grandparent or that uncle because an alliance between families would be useful. Unlike a human marriage, it would not commit me to sex or offspring, but I fail to see the point of such a partnership if a long list of terms and conditions regarding expectations need to be established in advance, and will not include even companionship.” She smiled. “I'm a bit of a hopeless romantic, I'm afraid. I resisted marrying for politics or wealth or family advantage, and had largely given up before I found my bad boy who understands me and wants me for myself, not my family connections. But the various boring or offensive individuals I found myself politely tolerating under family pressure... I'll spare you the details.”

“Tolerating until the first moment each was unkind or thoughtless towards your pets,” Dagrun said. “That was always the end of any tolerance for any reason, no matter how angry it made your family.”

“Anyone unable to treat my beloved pets with kindness and courtesy forfeits any right to kindness or courtesy from me. Nik, on the other hand, arranged for me to meet a wonderful bright young woman whose abusive husband had abandoned her with two small children. She was unable to keep them fed with any honest work she could find, and was stealing what she could and walking the streets intermittently. She came from a more sheltered and comfortable background and wasn't very streetwise—Nik saved her from a trick who had more than sex in mind, and he thought she and I might be a good match. She was my pet and friend for many years. Sati fostered her daughter, and Hyld raised her son, and both grew up to have good lives, though her son never quite understood why she preferred to stay with me and tried several times to convince her to come live in his house.”

“Men often fail to understand what life can be like for women in sexist cultures,” Dagrun said. “Even those who mean well.”

Jillian sighed. “Yeah. I keep running into that. And I think Gary honestly believed that I would be okay with hardly seeing him, if eventually he'd have a promotion and a higher income and all the material goodies that come with it. I guess standing by him was supposed to earn me the right to share in it later and be grateful for it, even if I still got left alone a lot staring at the walls of my lovely expensive house? Or something like that? And my wanting life and company and fun and, for that matter, sex right now just isn't in his plans so I did something wrong, or something? I don't know. I'm confused.”

“I think you have it,” Dagrun said gently. “The cultural ideal lives, of a man who provides and a woman who supports unconditionally. The better he is as a provider, the more eager she should be to subordinate her own wants and needs to his. There are both men and women who still feel that way. Which is fine, as long as they can pair up with someone who has compatible expectations. But it isn't a comfortable fit for everyone.”

“Even within that,” Min said, “there is an immense range among men, from neglectful and oblivious through protective and nurturing to controlling and autocratic. Women similarly range from manipulative vamps through satisfied and fulfilled to clingy and insecure. Possibly, dear, you could be happy with a man who enjoys authority and control when it is offered willingly, but only one who understands and appreciates the gift and uses it wisely.”

Jillian started to protest, then stopped. Wasn't that exactly what she'd been wishing Gary would do, at least at moments? “Maybe,” she admitted. “Not all the time, but maybe sometimes.”

“Don't despair. They do exist.”

“Maybe, but I don't think I'm going to be in much of a hurry to look for another relationship. Especially if there are whole big subjects that I can't talk to him about.”

“Which simply narrows it down to those humans who are already quite aware of fae,” Dagrun said. “It isn't hopeless. But with a pleasant apartment, a job that pays well enough even if you don't much like it, and friends who may be a little unusual but do care for you, I agree, there's no hurry.”

“Don't forget, a frighteningly versatile toy that doesn't get tired or tell me I'm a tramp. There are things I wish it could do that it can't, but it does plenty. And I've been getting more satisfaction from it than from Gary for a while now. Which I haven't dared point out to him, and not because I'd never be able to explain how it works. Men and their damned egos. Everything's about that magic friggin' wand between their legs and whose is bigger. Even Gary's job is. There are no women at the upper levels. Total boy's club.”

“As with many things,” Min said, “a loud and obnoxious minority who are highly visible can create an undeserved bad impression of the majority. Which does not make the loud minority any less obnoxious or potentially destructive.”

With excellent fries and, later, cheesecake, and the sympathetic company of other women, some of the raw edges began to soften.

The sound of the outer buzzer jolted her sharply; Min paused in a story about a man who had learned the hard way about the consequences of trying to take advantage of one of her favourites, and Flair bounced to her feet to go to the buzzer.

“Hello?”

“It's just me.” The voice was distorted by the speaker, but recognizable. Flair pressed the button to unlock the outer door.

Sigrun joined them a moment later, perching on the arm of Dagrun's chair.

“All taken care of. Your things are at your apartment, his are in his. Henry sends love and also this.” She pulled her phone out of the back pocket of her jeans, swiped a few times, then turned it so Jillian could see.

She blinked. “Is that seriously Gary wearing that ghastly pink dress?”

“Yes. Henry was pissed at him. I wasn't much happier. He was about halfway drunk by the time we got there. He, ah, wasn't entirely cooperative, but Henry thought the pics might cheer you up.” She offered Jillian the phone. “Swipe to the left, there are a few more pics there.”

Not entirely sure how to feel about this, Jillian accepted it and looked.

By the fourth, she couldn't help starting to giggle. It wasn't that he was wearing a dress. It wasn't that the dress fit so badly—she doubted it would really be flattering on anyone. It was his expression of outraged disbelief.

“He won't phone you, email you, drop by, send messages via friends or social media, or try in any other way to get ahold of you,” Sigrun added. “He struck Henry as the type who would get lonely and horny in a couple of weeks or a month and try to convince you to either try again or have sex for old times' sake, because that would be easier than trying to find and get to know someone new. You shouldn't have to put up with that. If he's stupid enough to try anyway, don't reply to him, just tell me or Henry and we'll remind him.”

“What on earth did you tell him about how you got in and why he should listen to you? And what did he say?”

“Don't worry about it, little one. Just take my word for it. You don't need to spare another thought on that self-absorbed, cowardly, thankless clown. You deserve better, if you want anyone at all.”

“Your burger and fries are in the kitchen,” Dagrun said. “And there's still cheesecake in the fridge. You have to work an early shift and I have class, so we can't stay as long as I'd like, but we don't need to run away immediately.”

Nonetheless, eventually, it was just Jillian and Min and Flair remaining—though the giants had each given Jillian a hug before they left. And, before much longer, Jillian began to yawn, though she tried not to.

“At least you can still stay here,” Flair said. “It would be harder if your bargain were complete and you couldn't come to the villa. I think I might be glad I really have no experience with romantic relationships, but I still don't like it when you're sad or hurting. Let's go get you settled in bed, okay? You look exhausted.”

“Listen to Flair, dear,” Min said.

“What about work in the morning?” Jillian said.

“I'll come wake you in time to get ready and we'll decide then whether you're in any condition. I can arrange a doctor's note to cover a few days off work with one phone call—one of Nik's long-standing favourites is a local doctor. Charming and open-minded woman originally from, hm, somewhere in the Middle East, I can't recall more precisely. Iran, possibly. It might be worth arranging an introduction and for you to consider switching to her as your primary care practitioner, since you'd be able to speak to her more freely. She makes a point of accepting any patient referred to her by Nik's fae friends.”

“Maryam's really nice,” Flair said. “And she tells some of the funniest stories.”

“Small things like that, dear, are a matter of networking, and do not require any bargain. At most, at some point in the future I might ask you to do a similarly small favour that will help a favourite of one of my friends. Nothing like helping Sati with a year's taxes for the gallery, more like giving someone thoughts on a resume. As debts go, it's on a level of swapping nickels and dimes. I want you to be well, and if a little time off work will help ensure that, then I will arrange it. Off you go and get some sleep, and I'll see you in the morning.”



Next time: What to do with sudden freedom?



 

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