Grace was only even at the stupid experiment because Erica was going along. Erica always had a line on the craziest, best parties, and that made her the kind of woman Grace wanted to be friends with.
She was hoping to buttonhole Erica once it was all done, see what might be happening later. Grace took her time at college very seriously; it was too precious to waste much of it not having fun.
Admittedly, when the headphones came out, Grace had perked up somewhat. Music was a good sign, wasn’t it?
She hadn’t really paid attention to what this experiment was actually about, of course - but then, why would she? That wasn’t what she was here for, and it’s not like she needed to understand to get the money. She was a bit disappointed when what she heard through the headphones was lo-fi chillout trash, but mostly because she hadn’t been prepared. If she’d known what she’d be doing, she’d have brought something along to change her tempo down so she’d actually enjoy it.
Grace glowered at the monitor in front of her with what one of her instructors had sometimes referred to as “the precise absence of her namesake.” She felt like she was daring the experiment to surprise her, to interest her, not to be a complete waste of her time.
“OK, ladies,” one of the idiots running the experiment said, his voice piped through the headphones. Grace recoiled almost immediately; she suddenly placed where she thought she knew him from. He’d bought her a drink at the club, once, and not stopped trying to talk to her for two hours. Other men, more interesting men, hadn’t come anywhere near her because the little creep was so repulsive; that couple of hours were entirely written off. Grace would probably have been better off abandoning the club, but she didn’t want him trying to follow her. Eventually he’d got the hint and gone off to stalk some other woman for the night.
“We’re about to begin,” the creep continued. “Remember, you’re going to need to watch the screen. You’ll hear a variety of sounds from these headphones, and that’s part of how we’re collecting data on recall. Don’t worry about them.”
Whatever that meant.
Grace sat back, fixed her gaze at a point just around the top of the monitor, and prepared to tune out. It was a technique she’d used many times, always to her own benefit, in lectures, where a lecturer or a TA would see her as paying attention. In the meantime, she was off in a world of her own. She figured that might actually be something this chillout BS was actually useful for - there had to be something, right?
She half-closed her eyes and started pondering the best way to capture attention if she could get back into Gino’s. The bouncers had seemed kind of pissy that she’d gotten into one of the dancer cages, but the way she looked at it, they’d had something unique that night. Something which got people talking.
And frankly, that meant she should, by rights, be getting in for free next time. And if she did (or if she got in at all, she privately admitted to herself) she needed to give them an even bigger show. Something that would persuade Gino himself to let her in more often, fake ID or no fake ID.
At least the audio wasn’t too bad, but she was determined not to give them the satisfaction of watching the video.
Harmony was really glad to have recognised Felicity in the crowd waiting for the test. She and Jenni had worked so hard to encourage Felicity to make friends outside the LGBT society; it was hard for her to believe she had a chance, but it was so important she learn to have confidence in herself. Showing up here, to be publically acknowledged, even implicitly, as a woman, was a great thing.
(She was also happy at the potential for some wider LGBT representation in a psych experiment. Too often they weren’t considered part of ‘normal’ by the scientific crowd, or so she’d heard from Cecily when the two met through their sorority.)
Mostly, though, she’d spent the first few minutes eavesdropping on the conversations around here, soaking up the ambiance. She always loved moments like these, where she was brought face to face with students she didn’t really know.
It was interesting to her to get a glimpse of how the psych department worked, too; this wasn’t really something she knew much about, wasn’t a world she understood.
Harmony was always happy to add new experiences to her list. Putting on the headset, she peered at the monitor curiously even before anything showed up on screen.
When the music began she was excited to hear it, fascinated by the screen in front of her. She risked a glance out of the corner of her eye and caught sight of Cecily, who seemed just as eager and excited. It was good to see a friend so happy in their own area of expertise.
Harmony made a mental note to talk to her later. Get her opinion on what was happening.
Then she looked back to the screen and, almost immediately, felt a strange fuzz tingling just under her scalp.
This wasn’t something she’d ever experienced before, and she found herself enjoying it much more than she’d expected. It had this weird distorting feeling, like her consciousness was being pulled into the screen, her identity left behind in her head where she didn’t need it so much. She felt suspended between the two points, lost without her identity, supported, cherished, welcomed by the pleasure she was finding in the screen.
Even the music seemed to be helping. She almost imagined she could hear words in there, an electronic voice muffled and almost muted by the rest of the sound around it. Harmony felt herself hang in the balance between… between…
…between herself and the words? That was, somehow, what it felt like. But what would that even mean?
Harmony hung suspended between realities, and then the music shifted, and she fell helplessly into a new truth.
When he sat down beside her, Nick found himself far from convinced that Grace was fully under. He even reached out, about to wave his hands in front of her eyes, but stopped. No, he decided, that would be a stupid idea, just in case her eyes were on the screen - he wasn’t at all sure they were; they might just be staring at the top of it, or they might be fixed above the top.
This was something they’d prepared for, discussed a few times, tried (and mostly failed if he was honest) to plan for; the idea that someone might recognise what was happening to them, find a way to resist, become a problem.
Nick bit his lip thoughtfully. Resolving this was going to be difficult. He couldn’t tip his hand too far.
It did have to be said that Grace was, at least, twitching; most notably, her shoulders and her wrists were twitching. Nick read that as some level of engagement.
Gingerly he reached out and took a light two-fingered grip on one of Grace’s wrists. Watching carefully as he was for a reaction, he didn’t see her flinch.
That was… good, right?
He lifted her wrist higher, not feeling any resistance. Somewhat reassured, he started guiding her wrist across to her chest, where it latched on with a sudden eager urgency, squeezing, fondling, groping. Nick held his breath for a moment, still watching for reaction. There was the eagerness there, the programmed need - but was it enough?
Then Grace’s other hand suddenly jerked into life of its own, drifting toward her body. Nick watched keenly as she finally started to pleasure herself, much later than the others had begun. He fleetingly though that he wished he could say his attention was purely about checking she was under, that his libido was enough under control that he only got distracted by pleasure when he was comfortable to be.
(Like many students, Nick carried with him an inaccurate image of just how little control rational adults had over emotional impulses.)
Grace began to moan softly and Nick’s breathing quickened in sync with her own increasing pace. It looked like it was alright, but he was still a little worried she hadn’t received a proper dose. At least she’d been early in the list, right? He’d got to her before the process was too far done.
At least there was that.
He reached out again, this time taking her chin gently between thumb and forefinger. Very slowly, with as little pressure as possible, he pushed down, hoping to tilt her eyes down through her head, but instead her lips gently parted, a soft o of surprise forming before he realised this wasn’t working.
Nick changed tack once again, this time placing three fingertips against her - one on the bridge of her nose, one on each cheekbone - and from there he easily angled her unresisting face down, down, deeper down, until he was confident her eyeline rested at the very centre of the screen, where she would absorb the most programming.
“I’ll come back to you,” he murmured to himself, and rose to move further along the line. Grace could be indoctrinated later.
“Name?” Joey asked as he plugged into the headset.
Like all the other women to date, Harmony answered obediently and promptly, words spilling out from her in fluent answer.
“So far, which word is uppermost in your mind?”
There was an awkward pause. She took a few moments more than usual to answer, and Joey tensed. Were they finally about to lose one?
“Accommodating,” she answered at last. Joey made a note, nodding thoughtfully to himself. Accommodating was one of those words which Nick had insisted be added to the spread, but which Joey hadn’t really seen the use of, like ‘traditional’. Sure, it might make it easier to implant at least some programming, but how did you use it?
“Favourite sex position?”
Another pause, shorter this time. “Dual strap-on.” So maybe this pause was less a decision, more a hint of embarrassment that the system was only slowly ironing out. Joey contemplated this for a while.
“Your boyfriend lets you peg him with the same strap-on you’re riding?” he asked eventually.
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Harmony replied.
Joey pondered a little longer, then remembered how little room to interpret questions the subjects had in this state. And then he realised that his assumptions could be wrong. (He didn’t dwell on how often they were. That wasn’t the way Joey went about life. It got in the way of having fun.) “Are you… bi?”
“Damn.” He considered for a few moments. “Oh, shit, wait. Are you an exhibitionist?”
“Yes you are.”
Another fractional pause, much shorter than some of the others. “Yes,” Harmony agreed. “I am.”
Joey grinned broadly. It took another few moments before he realised he had no idea who she was dating, nor how he’d get them in front of the screen. But…
Joey let off another of his high-pitched giggles of excitement. Maybe someone accommodating could help.
And then he’d have plenty of opportunity to enjoy himself and watch their show.
Harmony, meanwhile, continued to stare at the screen, still lost in its motion. She felt her mind stretched wide open, full of gaps where new ideas could drop in. She felt different, somehow, already changed, even if she hadn’t consciously registered a thing Joey had told her. She still entertained the idea of reclining on her bed, braced with one arm, thighs wide, grinding against her girlfriend as their mutual pleaser rode them both. But now, she found herself imagining someone else watching them, touching herself, riding a wave of desire that Harmony and Jenni’s bare bodies and passion had created.
By the time she was consciously aware of her surroundings again, she would believe she’d always had that desire, just as she would always go out of her way to be accommodating to the wishes, needs, and desires of others.
She was already a changed woman, but she might never find out she’d ever been different.
The rest of the experiment kept Nick busy throughout, and despite his best intentions, he didn’t get back to Grace before it ended. In fact, she’d passed entirely from his thoughts, so preoccupied was he with the debrief and his own notes. It wasn’t until after he’d finished collating his notes and integrating Joey’s - in fact, not even until he’d started calling through their test subjects and testing the treatment had ‘stuck’, at least so far - that he realised he didn’t have a full set.
Nick’s stomach lurched abruptly as he remembered his decision to come back to one of the women later. Had he? He must have, surely, but -
And he’d done it because he’d been less sure she was conditioned. He’d left her to soak in some more programming. Which… probably meant she was going to respond to it, didn’t it?
He had their names. Taking those was just a useful cross-check, making sure records matched up. For the most part, though, he didn’t have clear contact information unless they’d directly reached out to him ahead of time, like Felicity. Grace hadn’t been one of those.
Nick sat very still for a long time, staring at the entry on the screen in front of him. Two emotions were churning around in his stomach, vying for supremacy; fear that it had all gotten out of control, and heated embarrassment that there’d been an issue with the experiment and it hadn’t been caused by Joey hotdogging.
(Of course, in just a few days, news about Beatrice would turn that emotion around entirely.)
He chided himself for the error again, but decided that trying to track her down that night wasn’t the right way to go about this; it would only make her more suspicious. He’d shelve the problem of finding her for the next day, and come at it with a fresh mind. That was much less likely to go wrong - and what were the chances she’d take action on the same day, when her head would probably still be foggy and unclear about what had happened?
Harmony put down her phone after the call from Nick finished. Her eyes blinked three or four times rapidly and the expression returned to her face. She closed down the Paypal window in front of her without looking at her new recent transaction, not even registering that it had happened.
Sometimes the tone someone uses tells you they’re repeating themselves, even if you never noticed. Indefinable as that tone may be, we all know it when we hear it, and Harmony heard it. She blinked again and looked up and off to her side, where Jenni knelt on the bed in Harmony’s dorm room, feet tucked under her, her laptop open in front of her knees and a heavy textbook beside it, laden with yellow notes stuck to different pages with reference information scribbled on each.
It was the way Jenni most liked to study, but she wasn’t looking at her screen, wasn’t deep in her book. She was looking at Harmony with an expression Harmony wasn’t used to seeing on her face. It was so unusual, in fact, that it took Harmony a moment to place it.
Jenni was concerned, and Harmony didn’t even know why.
She blinked again and smiled. “What’s up?”
“Who were you just talking to?”
Harmony didn’t even register that she didn’t know. Her lips promptly responded “A guy from work,” without her mind being involved anywhere in the transaction, except that when she’d said it, her memory adjusted smoothly to believe her own lie.
If Nick had been able to watch, he would at once have been frustrated by how badly he’d timed his check-in call and delighted by how well Harmony had taken to the programming.
“Did you send them some money?”
“It’s going to be Danny’s birthday soon,” Harmony continued, her mind following along behind her words to accept them as a story. “We’re organising a present.”
Danny’s birthday had been last month, but whatever part of Harmony’s hindbrain was following Nick’s programming was pretty confident Jenni had no idea. They so rarely mentioned each other’s co-workers when they weren’t venting about their bad sides.
Jenni looked vaguely suspicious, which Harmony almost resented, but she let the matter drop and, after Harmony smiled at her, Jenni smiled back. The warmth in each other’s affection was undimmed; everything was going to be fine.
Grace danced around the kitchen of her shared apartment with a song on her lips and a half-full glass in her hand. The party was some while away, but the pre-drinks had begun, and her bluetooth speaker was playing her preferred party preparations list.
She paused at the doorway, as she almost always did; with the kitchen door open and the door to her room angled correctly, she could see along the short hallway to the full-length mirror in her room. Standing in the doorway, she watched her body move, watched the way the fabric of her dress clung to her body, and smiled appreciatively as she took another sip of her drink.
Nose-deep in a book, Elliot came out of his room and made his way toward the kitchen; as if she was making a generous concession, Grace moved out of the doorway and back into the room herself. Her housemates had complained about her pre-drinking in the shared rooms sometimes, but as she’d pointed out to them, it wasn’t as if she had space to dance properly in her bedroom. Public areas were the only option.
“Drink, E?” she called over her shoulder.
“Sure,” he answered, then rounded the corner and she heard his footsteps stop short.
Grace winced. Oh, yes. That.
It wasn’t that she expected other people to do the washing up. It was more that she hadn’t really gotten to the point where dishwashing was something she automatically remembered to do. It could rack up, over a few days. And while she wasn’t the only student in the apartment who did the same thing, even she would admit she was the worst offender.
She’d promised Elliot that morning, before setting off for that experiment, that after one experiment and one lecture she’d get the washing up done, and when she got home, she’d completely forgotten about it. And now, already dressed for the party, she was in no position to. Any dirty dishwater got on this dress and she’d look absolutely frightful in the club.
Still with her back to him, she closed her eyes for a second, counted to five, and then finished pouring him his drink.
“I’m really sorry, E,” she said as she turned around, holding out his glass. “I just-”
“Forgot. Again.” Elliot put his book down on the edge of the table, where there was a little space, and surveyed the crammed countertopful of dishes awaiting washing.
Grace did feel a little guilty. She didn’t mean to let him down, and she certainly didn’t expect him to do everything for her. It just ended up that he had to, sometimes, to be able to cook for himself.
He took the drink she offered and stood there again. The silence was uncomfortably awkward. Elliot heaved a sigh. “I don’t suppose you’d take a night off from partying?”
OK. Grace had been wrong. Now the silence was uncomfortably awkward. What she’d thought was awkwardness before had been cheerful, easygoing chat compared to this.
“Right,” Elliot said, and Grace winced again at the tightness to his voice.
“Just do enough that you can cook,” she said. “I’ll do the rest of mine tomorrow morning and I’ll do yours, too. You can wake me up ahead of lectures to make sure of it.”
Neither of them would look at the other.
“It’s not like I’m asking you to be the apartment’s obedient washerwoman,” Elliot said, and something went click in Grace’s head.
“That’s OK,” she said, and was surprised at how meek and gentle her tone suddenly was. She felt somehow lighter, almost dizzily so.
“…What?” Elliot asked.
Grace turned and - so far as she could feel - floated toward him. “I can be obedient,” she said softly. That click seemed to happen again, a little more quietly this time.
Elliot stared at her, eyes wide, something she’d never seen before in his expression. It was like he couldn’t believe he was hearing what she’d said.
“Wh - what are you trying to tell me?” he asked.
“I… don’t know,” Grace faltered.
“It, uh,” Elliot started, then paused. “It seems like maybe you’re trying to tell me something?”
Grace’s head was still whirling. That didn’t sound quite right. She wasn’t so much wanting to tell Elliot anything. She was just…
“I’m waiting,” she said.
“For you to ask me if I’m obedient.” Grace blinked. Why would she be waiting for that? What did that even-
“Uhm. Are you obedient?”
Suddenly that panicky, nervous whirl, tinged with the guilt she’d felt before, was gone. The light buzz the alcohol had built up in her system was gone too. Grace felt a strange peace, with no tension, no worry, and no urgency about anything. Her posture shifted.
“Yesss,” she breathed.
Elliot gave her a strange look, head tilted, like he was waiting for something.
“What, and this makes everything better?” he asked.
“No,” Grace said. “Would you like me to?”
“Would you like me to make everything better?”
She watched him take a step back. He almost seemed scared. That was awful, of course, and she wanted to help. But she needed to know what to do.
“What’s gotten into you, Grace?” Elliot asked. She stood awkwardly, still awaiting something to obey.
“What does ‘make everything better’ mean?” he tried after another few moments of silence.
“Whatever you want me to.”
There must have been something new to her tone, or Elliot must have been into her in a way she’d never realised, because his reply was “Do you mean, like, sex?”
“If you tell me to.”
“Is this some fetish thing?”
“…Would you skip your party for this?”
“Would you do the washing up?”
“Yes.” Grace’s peace now took on an edge of mild frustration. Why wouldn’t he give her anything to obey?
“Would you… do both?”
Elliot paused. “So if I felt you up, you’d let me?”
“If you tell me to.” She hoped he’d take the hint.
Elliot looked at her for a long time, his eyes darting from one of hers to the other. Grace’s inner peace reigned, where her previous self, somehow snared into these same circumstances, would have burned with the need to know what his struggle was.
“Kiss me,” Elliot said at length. Grace took another step forward and went up onto the balls of her feet. Her lips met Elliot’s, and a moment later their mouths opened. Grace mirrored Elliot’s hunger with her own, not knowing nor caring whether she was driven by true hunger or her new urges. His hand came around and rested on her rear for a moment; as they continued to kiss, passions growing, he squeezed her ass and she squirmed under his grip, driven by reflexes and programming beyond her awareness.
His other hand found its way to her breast, squeezing and groping in turn. She moaned into the kiss, unable to help herself. He made a noise in his throat in response that sent a shiver down her spine.
They broke from their kiss. He stepped back, his eyes still studying hers. Whatever he was looking for, he found it, or at least enough confidence in it to cast caution to the winds.
“Wash the dishes,” he said, “then dry them, then put them away, then come tell me you’re done. You’re going to cook for me tonight, but I can tell I’m going to have to supervise.”
So many commands… it felt like she might never run out of opportunities to be obedient. And that suited her down to the ground, right then.
She turned and hurried to obey, heedless of the dirty water that would soon stain her outfit.