° ° °
He always came the same day. Like clockwork.
When Ms. Gainsborough hired new girls to work at Mythril, her boutique, she would give them a run through of their regular customers, and how to properly indulge them. Male customers had to be coddled on principle, as most of the time they wouldn’t buy or even enter the shop if they felt the slightest twinge of discomfort. Aeris would tell her girls: men initially view lingerie shops as high end sex shops rather than proper luxury boutiques. So it’s imperative to make them feel just as they would feel when buying expensive jewellery: maintain a veneer of professionalism at all times. Don’t flirt with them. Don’t be coy unless they give you obvious conversational cues signaling that they want that sort of attention. If they buy multiple items of different sizes, or ask to try something on themselves – do not make any commentary on their lifestyle. Just smile, and help them find what they need. If you have any trouble, I’m always around. And when he comes – the man with the silver hair – send him to me directly.
The girls would be immediately intrigued. Seeing as Mythril was part of a big luxury shopping centre, it had been granted a very spacious floor and needed at least twelve girls at a time to manage it – there were different stands for different lingerie brands, and each girl would stand for six hours a day in her heels, greeting customers and offering sizing and brand advice. Every third Sunday of the month, which was his date, they would come to open the shop early, and chatter excitedly among themselves as they reviewed stock and prepared lists of what to order. Aeris would stride in once the doors were open, check each girl’s outfit to make sure they were pristine – name tags, sharp tailored suits, red lipstick, hair-sprayed buns – and then go to prepare the till.
There would be the usual trickle of couples, wealthy ladies and wide-eyed schoolgirls who giggled and never bought anything. Then, during the dead time of early afternoon, he would arrive. Usually he’d be wearing the same sharp overcoat and glittering silver scarf tucked into the collar. He rarely took either item of clothing off, as though he wanted to maintain a degree of anonymity even though his silver hair defeated the purpose. The girls would welcome him, and one of them would immediately wave over the stands at Aeris. She would go over to him, never breaking into a run as that would be unladylike and unbefitting of her position. He would wait, looking at her coolly as she made her way through the stands and approached him. Then, his eyes would glisten – the only indication that he was smiling, as the scarf hid his mouth – and they would shake hands, her manicured nails almost glaringly colourful against his grey leather gloves.
‘What can I do for you today, Mr Crescent?’
He constantly kept an eye on their online catalogue, so that he was almost more up-to-date on their history of products and new arrivals than the girls themselves. Quietly, he would ask to see the latest collections – always dropping brand and product name, as the connoisseur that he was – and Aeris would lead him to the appropriate stands. She’d show him the lingerie, open drawers and let him feel the dainty, expensive fabrics. He would make his choice, then politely comment on the latest lingerie fashions or the weather as they proceeded to the till.
He was interested in every type of item except the bras, which had initially led her to believe that he liked his women bare-breasted, and she’d have all of these erotic images in her head as he put the outfits together. Over the past few months, however… she had noticed just how intently he would rub the fabrics between his fingers, or run his hands into the silk stockings just to feel the textures. He would never make a single comment about the supposed girls he was buying them for, beyond the sizing prompts. And if the sizes were wrong, he would simply bring the items back without making a fuss. Aeris had thus developed another theory. But out of professionalism, she would never allow herself to ask.
One Sunday, there had been such a ruckus that Aeris hadn’t even had the time to think of her peculiar customer. First of all, a woman wearing a big yellow fox fur had come storming in, waving receipts in the air and shouting about how they were enabling her husband’s affair. Aeris had confronted her, telling her calmly that no, she couldn’t offer her a refund, and she was very sorry but the affair had nothing to do with them – the woman had kicked and hissed until the shopping centre’s security guards had forcibly extracted her. The girls had straightened out the shop, and Aeris had made herself some tea and tried to calm her nerves. But then a big family had come in, looking around with their hands in their pockets, and when the girls had diligently tried to keep an eye on them, the family had pestered and whined about being treated like thieves – after them, a lady came in to buy lingerie for her daughter who she was trying to convert back from lesbianism – and after her, a woman came in with armfuls of lingerie and dumped them on the till before the girls could stop her. Aeris calmly finished writing an order into her files before looking up.
‘My husband – I – I found all of this in our home,’ the woman said. She was red-faced, practically about to explode.
The woman searched in her handbag and chucked photos onto the pile. Aeris looked down to see pictures of a stocky woman in a dress and stockings. She frowned, looked a little harder – and then she realized it was actually a man. She promptly took the photos and turned them all face-down.
‘He’s a sissy,’ the woman hissed. ‘You – you knew this and you – ’
‘We don’t presume to know or judge what our customers do with our products,’ Aeris said in clipped tones. These people were really trying her patience today. ‘And what exactly is the problem, if your husband is wearing the lingerie? At least you know he’s not gifting it to another woman.’
‘Yes, but – you’re not going to tell me that that sort of behaviour is natural,’ the woman said. Then, to Aeirs' dismay, the woman actually started tearing up. ‘I mean, what comes afterwards? Is he – is he some kind of closeted homosexual? I can’t go on sharing my bed with someone who – ’
‘Ma’am,’ Aeris said, ‘I see plenty of people in my shop, and let me tell you. What your husband chooses to wear isn’t a product of his sexual orientation. Or his romantic inclinations. Why shouldn’t men want to wear lingerie for the same reasons we do? The fabrics are amazing against the skin, the visual effects are stunning. Sometimes that’s all there is to it.’
‘But it’s not natural,’ the woman went on, and then talked about how her husband’s father was in politics and good golly gee what on earth what people think if it ever got out, and Aeris sighed. It was too much in one day. Just too much.
‘Look,’ she said, and she came around the till, hooked an arm around the woman’s elbow and began steering her towards the doors. ‘Leave it all with us, I’ll keep it for you in our warehouse in case you change your mind and decide your husband should have it.’
‘Oh, that won’t happen,’ said the woman. ‘I want you to refuse service to him. Understand? I’d like you to know, miss – if I ever see another piece of your lingerie in my house – if I ever – you’ll be hearing from me.’
‘I can’t refuse service to someone on that basis,’ Aeris said. ‘However, I can refuse service on the basis of rudeness. And disrespect of other people’s privacy. And blatant homophobia. Like what you’re displaying right now.’
She pushed the woman out of her shop, who started saying how dare you, how daaare you young lady, do you know who I am – but Aeris stood in the doorway with her legs planted firmly apart to state her position.
‘You will be hearing from me!’ the lady cried. ‘Mark my words – I will close you down for enabling these sick, perverted people – ’
‘Don’t you ever set foot in my shop again,’ Aeris all but snarled. Then she let the doors swing shut, slamming together as a final fuck you.
When she turned around, some of her girls who had been cowering behind their brand stands let out whoops of glee. Aeris sighed and shook her head.
‘That was one too many. I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t apologize, Ms. Gainsborough, that was awesome!’ said the girl in charge of Lise Charmel.
As she made her way back to the till, the girl in charge of the Bordelle stand rushed up to her, wide-eyed. Aeris stopped, and the girl whispered in her ear – he's over there, look!
Aeris turned around, and her heart stopped as she realized her peculiar customer had been in the shop the whole damn time. He was over by the new Agent Provocateur corset collection, blending in quite well with the black and white colour scheme of that section. Aeris glared at the girl, whisper-shrieked why didn’t you tell me straight away?! before patting her hairstyle down and making her way over.
‘I’m sorry about all that drama,’ she called over to him. He looked at as she approached, an unusual glint in his eye. ‘All of Midgar’s homophobes have decided to have a field day today! Oh, sorry,’ she checked herself with a blush – she was never supposed to talk about her views with customers. ‘Don’t mind me. What can I do for you?’
Mr Crescent watched her as she came to a standstill, composing herself as always. She held out a hand, and he took it. When she felt the unusual warmth and smoothness of the contact, she looked down – and realized he’d taken his gloves off. His naked fingers locked firmly around her hand, and it would’ve been an absolutely mundane occurrence if he hadn’t always taken care never to touch skin. She looked up at him, momentarily dumbstruck.
‘I suppose you get a fair amount of problematic clients, Ms. Gainsborough,’ he said.
‘Thankfully I get far more open-minded people than idiots,’ Aeris said with a smile. He let go of her hand, and she tried to stop thinking about the implications of it – he was probably just hot. Especially with all those layers on.
‘I came to see the new Carine Gilson autumn sets, but these caught my eye,’ he said, gesturing up to the black leather corsets. Aeris reached up, looked for the size that he usually purchased, and unhooked one for him to see it better. He felt the silver-thread patterns on the leather, the slightly coarse laces that were meant to hold and not slide like the usual commercial satin.
'Maison Moginot. Very good quality,' she said. Then she added, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever sold you a corset.’
‘You haven’t, no,’ he said. ‘I’ve been intrigued by them for a while, but...’
‘It does usually require trying before purchasing,’ Aeris said. ‘I know your lady friend is shy of changing cabins. As you know, you can always bring it back later if the size is – ’
She waited, but he only frowned slightly instead of elaborating. Fingers fiddling with the ends of the laces, his eyes stayed resolutely on the corset when he next opened his mouth:
‘Would it be improper if… I asked you to help me?’
Her heart soared. She’d been hoping for this moment – without realizing it, she’d been patiently waiting for him to include her in his intimacy as she skirted around his excuses and half-truths. She smiled up at him.
‘Of course not!’ she said. Then, just to maintain some professionalism while they were out in the open: ‘If you’d like one of our girls to model for you –’
‘No. You’ll be just fine.’
Bowing her head so he wouldn’t see her blushing, she gestured to the changing area ahead.
‘This way, sir.’
Ignoring the glances of the girls, she led him into the changing area and closed the door behind them. It was fashioned to look like a boudoir, with baroque chairs and a chandelier above their heads. It had four changing rooms, each one wide enough for two people. She slid a pair of curtains open, revealing a floor-to-ceiling mirror and a little baroque divan.
She looked up at her client, who seemed hesitant.
'So, would you like me to try it on for you?’
‘My – lady friend,’ he said. ‘She’s a bit wider than you.’
‘Alright,’ Aeris said. ‘You’ve told me about her body type. Tall, muscular, hardly any waist. You know what I think?’
He looked at her, and his withdrawal was somehow so transparent to her. She smiled encouragingly at him before ploughing on;
‘I think you should try it on.’
The corner of his mouth curled into a grin, and he looked at her with such a mixture of different emotions – like he was glad, but shy, and slightly outraged that she would propose such a thing. Acting on intuition, Aeris took the corset from him and hooked it up on the changing room pegs. Then she held her hands out.
‘Take your coat off.’
His smile widened. ‘What?’
‘You heard me. Take it off.’
He hesitated. Then looked over at the door, which was still shut. Then, finally, he stepped into the wide changing room with her, and shut the curtains behind him. Her heart faltered as the curtain hoops raked across the railing, sealing them into this bubble of intimacy. Still, she kept her head up, trying to remain composed.
Mr Crescent turned around to face the mirror, looking everywhere except towards her as he wound the scarf from around his throat. There was a light sprinkling of classical music coming out of the speakers, making the silence bearable as he handed her the glittery fabric. She hooked it up, then tried not to openly stare as he unbuttoned his coat with one hand.
‘I suppose this isn’t unusual for you?’ he asked in that deep, rumbling voice of his. She could feel her cheeks growing hot as she watched those sensual lips forming the words – he had such smooth white skin, and such an elegant, clear-cut jawline... she looked down at his hands. It was so hard not to stare.
‘Well, I aim to preserve client confidentiality. But yes, this is definitely something that happens quite often.’ She was lying – but she wanted him to be comfortable.
His hair swept down the back of his royal blue shirt, so snowy and soft-looking. She was almost overtaken by the urge to run her fingers through it. It was much longer than she’d imagined, as she’d only ever seen it tucked into his scarf. He started unbuttoning his shirt, so she kept up a light banter about the Gilson sets he’d been previously interested in. He gratefully contributed to her attempts at easing the tension. Then, he shrugged out of his shirt and handed it to her. His chest and abdomen was the same milky white as his face – he had such a lean, muscular frame that Aeris couldn’t help looking, if only for a few seconds. His shirt gave off a musky perfume, and she bit her lip as she hooked it up, feeling heat pooling in her lower belly as she breathed in that intimate scent.
‘Right,’ she said, coming behind him with the loosened corset. ‘Arms up, please.’
She had to stand on her tiptoes to pull the corset down his arms – then it settled around his slender waist, and she asked him to pull his hair out of it. He hooked an arm around the snowy length, bringing it around one shoulder. Aeris drew out a few stray strands, heart pounding as her fingers brushed his naked skin.
‘I’ll tighten it just so that it clings to you without modifying your body shape,’ she said. ‘This is a real, steel-boned bustier that you can use for waist training, if you want to deepen the curve. It’s a very progressive thing – the goal is to get your body accustomed to the tightness, as the organs have to shift around a bit.’
He stared at her in the mirror, so she added in a stammer – ‘I mean – your lady friend, of course.’
The black leather covered his body, stopping under shoulder blades and pectoral muscles, with only slight inclinations on either side instead of the round breast-shapes. She expertly pulled at the waist laces, one at a time as he absentmindedly stroked his thick coil of hair. He stood, hardly moving even as she pulled at the laces; she could feel the hard resistance of his body, the strength of it as it stood firm. The black leather was startlingly dark against his pale skin, and she found the contrast far more erotic than she would’ve thought.
One thing she hadn’t brought up yet were the four garters that sprouted at the hem of the corset, touching the front and backs of his thighs. Each one had a black satin bow on it, discreet but elegant.
‘Will you be needing stockings with it?’ Aeris asked. And then, kicking herself; ‘I mean, would your lady friend need - ?’
‘You don’t have to correct yourself,’ he said.
She looked down at the laces, the heat rushing back to her face. He said it. He said it!
‘To answer your question – you know me well enough,’ he went on. ‘Where there are garters, there should always be stockings following. It would be sacrilege to leave them dangling against bare legs.’
‘I agree,’ she said with a wide grin. ‘If this tightness is comfortable, I can go and pick up some stockings for you?’
‘I would be much obliged,’ he said. Those feline eyes of his caught hers in the mirror, and even Aeris couldn’t deny that there was more than simple customer-advisor formality there. ‘If you could also find me something to go with the rest...’ He gestured towards the hips, suggesting underwear. Aeris nodded.
‘I’ll be right back.’
° ° °
When she came back out of the changing area, the girls all shot glances at her – some were with customers, but the ones who weren’t came charging up to her.
‘What’s going on?!’
‘Did you give him a show, or – ?’
‘Is he trying – ?’
‘If you ask one more inappropriate question, I’ll have you fired,’ Aeris said – but she couldn’t contain her smile. They scuttled back to their stands, grinning wildly at each other. Aeris strode over to the Bordelle stockings, tried to focus enough to choose some even though her mind was whirring. She had to stay cool. She was the damn manager, Gaia be damned – it wouldn’t do to just – just flirt.
She found some thongs with delicate black lace, some with velvet and satin, and chose a few of each. Then, arms full of slim lingerie boxes, she rushed back to the changing rooms, glaring over her shoulder at her tittering employees.
She sat in the squat armchair just outside her client’s changing room, taking the products out of their boxes. Then she called out, ‘May I come in? Or would you prefer me to hand them to you through the curtains?’
‘Hand them to me, please.’
She slid an arm into the curtains, felt his fingers brushing hers as he took the impossibly delicate stockings and underwear from her. She sat outside, wondering if he would be uncomfortable at how present she was making herself. But he didn’t seem to be complaining. He handed her back some of the underwear straight away, and then she heard the whisper of silk against skin as he busied himself with the items he’d kept.
‘Ms. Gainsborough,’ he called after a few minutes, ‘I wonder if you could tell me what you think?’
Heart pounding, Aeris stood up and went to the curtains. Her cheeks were so hot, it wouldn’t do, it wouldn’t do for him to see how – how much she was enjoying this – she tried to think of the grossest clients she’d had, and then breathed in before slipping between the curtains.
He was. He was wearing the entire ensemble. He was standing side-on, and she couldn’t help looking him up and down – the black leather bustier deepened the curve of his waist, black satin thong enclosing his bulge intimately, black garters with golden clips holding up the gorgeous lace heights of the stockings he’d chosen. The lace had turquoise threads outlining the flower motifs, matching the colour of his eyes, and his white rope of hair came down over the front of the corset as though complementing the black and white theme. Aeris forgot to breathe. Then, her eyes met his and she realized he knew exactly what effect it was having on her. His eyes were heavy-lidded and devastatingly knowing.
‘I – I – ’ she stammered, and she wanted to slap herself so badly – ‘I think you look beautiful. I mean, the ensemble you chose, sir. It looks beautiful. Very good choice.’
He smiled at her as she babbled like an idiot. Her eyes kept getting attracted to one garter on the front of his thigh – it was twisted, and clipped on the wrong way around. But he was a connoisseur. He knew exactly what he was doing, judging by the sheer amount of garter belts and stockings he’d bought from her. He couldn’t have made that mistake. It couldn’t be... intentional, could it? She was reading too much into it again, like the lack of gloves earlier.
‘You just – you have a – ’ she said, gesturing towards the garter. Mr Crescent looked down.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Sorry. I had a bit of trouble there.’
He didn’t move to fix it.
Trying her damnedest not to bite her lip to shreds, Aeris came forwards.
‘If I may?’
She waited for him to stop her. He didn’t. So she reached down and slid her fingers around the buckle. He stayed insolently silent as she unclipped the garter and turned it around. Her fingers slid between the silk stocking and his warm, firm thigh as she stretched it up to meet the clip.
‘There,’ she said as she straightened it. Then she looked up – they were standing far too close for professionalism, now. He returned her gaze with an intensity that was going to make her legs buckle. Then, he lifted a hand and brushed her bangs away from her cheek.
‘Thank you,’ he purred.
Her pulse pounded madly between her legs. She couldn't think straight. And... she had the strangest impression that he wasn't just thanking her for the garter.
‘I’ll – I’ll just – call me back in when you want to take the bustier off, OK?’ she stammered, and then she rushed out, closing the curtains behind her.
She sat in the armchair, pressing her thighs together as she imagined him sitting and rolling the stockings down those long lean legs. She took in several deep breaths, reminding herself despairingly of her own rules. Don’t flirt with the clients. Don’t. Flirt. With the clients.
When he called her back in, he had mercifully pulled his trousers back on. She loosened the laces easily and pulled it up, and they both laughed as the bustier got stuck around the muscular breadth of his shoulders. Then she was clipping it back onto its coat hanger while he slid his shirt back on. He had made little piles – he told her which to take to the till, and which to put back out. She took the till pile first, and left him to put his clothes back on.
He was all wrapped up in his coat and scarf once he came back out onto the shop floor. Aeris was at the till, glaring at her girls to remind them not to openly stare at him. He made for the till, hands in his pockets. She had folded the items into their boxes, and was fitting them all into one of her golden gift bags when he came up to the till. She smiled at him, her mind still full of images of him wearing that ensemble – she had no idea how she’d manage to flush that out of her brain the next times she’d see him.
‘That’ll be one thousand, one hundred and twenty five Gil, please,’ she said.
He swiped his card, and took the bag from her, fingers brushing her own. He smiled back at her.
‘Thank you for your assistance, Aeris,’ he said.
Her mouth parted as he pronounced her first name – that deep tone made it sound like some kind of claim, something far more intimate than it should’ve been.
‘My pleasure,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you next month?’
He only raised an eyebrow at her, as though to say, who knows? And then he turned to leave, golden bag hanging at his side.
° ° °
The next day, there was a great big bouquet of flowers on the till. The girls greeted their Ms. Gainsborough by pouncing on her and teasing her about the client – there was such hilarity in the shop that Aeris should’ve told them off, but her heart was pounding too hard at the sight of the flowers to think of etiquette. They were white roses, interspersed with glittering shoots and tiny golden flowers, a proper fancy arrangement. In it, a small card was propped – there was a phone number, and a name scrawled in golden ink:
She bit her lip, unable to stop smiling. One of the girls teased her about the kiss – ‘what did you do in that changing room?’ – but she waved them all away, hands in the air.
‘Back to your stands,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to hear another word about this.’
She put the bouquet away in the staff room, then brought the card up to her nose. It smelled of roses, and of that musky, masculine scent of his. She tucked it into her bra, then straightened her shirt, and walked back out to face the day.
° ° °