“I thought you were joking.”
Jay stared at Slade as he held the purple jewelry box out to her. It had gilt stamping on the top in an intricate crown crest surrounded by laurels. If she had to bet, she’d say it was genuine gold. It was the kind of box that held real jewels. The kind that came from stupidly high-end stores. The kind she’d always been half-afraid to touch.
He raised a brow. “No, you didn’t.” Knuckles caressed her cheek. “You know I would never have joked about this with you. I know how you feel about them.”
She took it hesitantly. “Where did this even come from?”
Slade turned towards the mirror and focused on his tie, “Oh, you know. Around.”
The omega delicately arched a brow and looked at him. He studiously focused on getting his Eldredge knot just right… coincidently avoiding her gaze. “Funny.” Jay remarked. “I didn’t think Coronam Creations did anything other than custom work.”
He shot her a look, telling her to quit while she was ahead. She silently took the win.
Setting the box down, she put the final touches on her makeup and slipped on her low strappy black heels. Just enough lift to keep the hem of her violet evening gown from trailing on the floor. She fluffed her black curls, making sure the pieces she clipped back were stable. Her white streak had been temporarily dyed for this. It was a little too identifiable. With a last adjustment to the sweetheart neckline of the off-the-shoulder dress, she was ready.
She stared at the box on the table.
Slade looked on in mild amusement as she double-checked her hidden weapons rather than open the box. At this rate, they were never going to get to the party.
“Dao găm,” he murmured as he came up behind her, resting his hands on her upper arms. Jay leaned back into him automatically, enjoying his touch. “It won’t bite.” He soothed. “You only have to wear it for the night.”
She sighed and nodded before reaching over to flip the lid. Jay couldn’t help it, her breath caught in her throat.
Resting on blue silk lay the most beautiful collar she had ever seen. It was a thin band of gold carved with delicate peonies and filigree. In the center, the border of white gold met in an infinity knot, an oval-shaped alexandrite in the middle. At the end of each flourish of filigree, a tiny gem rested, glinting purple in the low light. On either side of the collar rested an earring with the same stone, oval in shape to match the one in the collar.
Like every omega, she grew up dreaming of a collar like this. Of finding her prince and being treated like a princess; draped in jewels and silks and made to feel like she was the most delicate and beautiful thing in the world.
Like every crime alley orphan, she learned harsh and quick, that wasn't ever going to be the life for her. That she had to fight for every scrap of food or justice and that fairytale princes weren’t real. Jewels and silks were ultimately worthless. Strength was the only thing that mattered in this world. If you wanted to live, anyway.
Like Robin, she’d learned that the world was more nuanced than that but came face-to-face with the sexism and hypocrisy of the upper classes. It existed on the streets, of course, but everyone was taken advantage of equally. Just in different ways. Though rarely seen, a collar could mean protection. Someone to avenge you, if nothing else.
But among normal and upper society… Any lingering childish dreams of being collared by her true love were dashed when she’d learned the history of the symbol. The subjugation of omegas through the years. The fights for rights and equality. The struggle to be heard and given a voice both in the house and office and on the political field. What once had held prestige in her mind, the idea of a mate and protection, now crumbled and wilted like ash. It turned her stomach.
The tradition of collaring mated omegas had only died out within the last forty years or so. Only because it was so harshly thrown aside by certain political groups and activists. She shouldn’t be surprised that Slade had bought her one - and he had definitely had this one custom made for her, no matter what bullshit he would try to claim later - It was still tradition while he was growing up and well into his adulthood.
She was surprised at her own reaction to it.
She’d known for weeks that she was going to attend this gala with her mate, be his backup on foreign soil. She knew that if she was going to this party in Kurwic, a country that still followed several traditions that could be considered old fashioned or quaint, that she was going to have to wear a collar.
She’d been dreading having to wear a sign of all that was - and still is wrong - with her culture when it comes to sexual discrimination. Hell, the beauty of a symbol doesn’t change what it stands for.
It was very beautiful.
She needed to focus.
“It’s gorgeous, Alpha.” Jay murmured. Because it deserved the praise. Slade’s taste deserved the praise. She leaned forward to pick it up and thought better of it, picking up the box instead and offering it to her mate.
Just this once, he could collar her.
“Dao găm?” He asked, hesitantly.
“Oh, please.” She teased lightly, “You know you want to.”
He studied her face for a moment before, satisfied with whatever he saw, he took the collar gently from the silk.
With a deft twist that had her wondering just how often he played with the thing, he pulled the pin and opened the two invisible hinges on either side. He carefully placed the collar around her throat and locked it back into place.
She felt herself stand just a tiny bit taller, arching her neck like she was showing it off. The cool metal caressed her skin. It sat perfectly, right at the base of her neck. She wondered, briefly, when he’d taken the measurements.
Graceful fingers adorned her ears with remaining jewels. She carefully closed the box and set it down. Slade traced her clavicle, eyes caressing the gold and gemstones around her neck. Warmth pooled in her stomach at the look in his eyes. Who knew that he would have such a reaction?
It would bother her - really it would - that he obviously wanted so badly to see his collar around her neck. Yet… He had spent the past year showing her exactly how much he valued her and her autonomy. How much he respected her and her decisions. How much he wanted her as a partner and not as a submissive under his command.
Leaning into his space, she kissed him, careful not to ruffle his tie or smudge her lipstick. There would be time for that after the gala. After they got the information they came for. Then, she stepped over to the mirror, making final checks to her appearance.
It was no surprise that her eyes were drawn to the collar. To the way the purple of the gemstone matched her dress and the flash of teal matched her eyes. The expert way the dual metals were blended so as not to clash
It was resplendent.
Her breath caught in her throat as she stared at it. Slade stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her middle, needlessly attempting to soothe her - so rarely did he misread her body language. Lips pressed to her ear and he murmured, “Make it through this and I’ll wear one for you when we get home.”
Visions of her mate on his knees before her flashed through her mind. Black leather twined around his neck above a bare chest, silver hardware glinting in candlelight and complementing his hair. An unexpected wave of desire stirred in her belly. Oh. That… that had potential.
With a low chuckle in her ear, her mate lightly pressed his lips to her neck. “Come, dao găm. We’ll be late.”
Absently, she corrected him, “We should be late. At least fifteen minutes. Only new money or those that don’t belong are ever on time. Or, god forbid, early.” Jay took in her reflection one more time, checking for imperfections, eyes lingering on her throat.
“I love that you know that.” He looked at her fondly.
“I am a Wayne. We are anything but new money.” She sniffed. Not only had Alfred ensured that she was properly educated in everything she needed for American high society (and British, for her own amusement) but Talia had seen to international customs. She was well prepared for any general occasion and usually able to find any knowledge she lacked for unusual ones.
She gathered her last few items, slipping them into the hidden pockets of her dress, and accepted her wrap from her mate. “We’ll tell the driver to take the scenic route since we’d still arrive early.”
“Whatever you say, dear.” The alpha stated, amusement lacing his voice.
She pointedly ignored his comment.
They split up after being announced. (It had only been her training that kept the amusement off her face when they’d announced her mate as Slade Wayne; they followed matrilineal traditions in Kurwic.) Better to gather what they needed.
Jay enjoyed slipping amongst the other socialites. She enjoyed mingling and making conversation. It was light. It was easy. She knew how to talk to these people; she had been doing it since she was eleven. A compliment here, a light quip there, a question about the current business. She’d thrived in Gotham high society.
Bruce had always expected that she would have more trouble. He never understood. Masks were second nature to kids on the street and in abusive homes. Learning how to read others and present what they wanted was a survival skill and she’d always excelled. High society only honed those skills; made them, made her, more lethal.
She laughed charmingly at the joke of a Balinese politician.
It was just another type of battlefield. One where the weapons were manners and tongues. Whispers and information.
Her eyes wandered the set of rooms, taking in the eclectic guests and mixed nationalities. It wouldn’t be hard to ferret out the information they were seeking: a secret auction of metahuman slaves supposedly taking place within the month.
There were several deep black market traders here. Slade would handle them. They were the sexist type. Her job was to hit up their mates and assistants. Child’s play, really. Especially as an American “spare” heiress and low-level entrepreneur. Her relatively harmless reputation was firmly cemented. Never let it be said what people didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.
As she worked, she began to hear stirrings of discontent, especially from the natives of Kurwic. Someone, a guest, was being rude enough that it was causing waves among the party goers. Internally, she grimaced. All the guests were going to want to speak of was the boorish interloper.
“I can’t believe she hasn’t been removed yet.” One member of her current group sniffed in offence; an older omega man with a beautiful rose gold collar. “She’s insulting every omega with a collar she sees.”
That caused Jay to blink in surprise, “She’s doing what now?” Genuine incredulity colored her voice. It was one thing to dislike a tradition but a whole other thing to actively insult the people hosting you.
“Oh.” The man looking at her in distaste, “You’re American, as well? Here to tell me how I shouldn’t let my alpha brand me?” The alpha next to her bared her teeth in a snarl, insulted on her friend’s behalf at the insult given by the offensive guest.
Jay straightened indignantly, “I beg your pardon. I have given you no insult, Lord Mercer. I’d beg you not to paint all of us with the same brush. Am I not conforming to your lovely country’s customs?”
The man bowed his head briefly in apology for the insult but didn’t surrender ground, “You conform but you do not understand.”
“You’re right.” She acknowledged. “I do not understand. There was little information available as to the why of the custom before we arrived. Only that it existed. We no longer follow the tradition in the United States and when we did, it was a symbol of oppression for many. Yet, I stand here, ready to listen if you’re willing to educate me.”
“Well said, amica.” An italian baronet chimed in from her left, joining the small group of three. “In Italia, we also no longer wear them traditionally. Only for special events like this one. I would be interested to learn, as well, why in Kurwic you wear them daily. What they mean to your people.”
Lord Mercer looked briefly flustered, caught out and annoyed at the attention. His friend laid a hand on his arm to calm him and spoke, “I can tell you what it means from an alpha’s perspective. Kenion can take over after.”
Jay listened, attentive, as Abigail wove a picture of mutual respect and the highest commitment. Lord Mercer joined in once his embarrassment faded. Both were passionate about the subject, obviously believing in the cultural significance of the bands. The omega sincerely thanked them for their explanation before moving on. She still had a mission.
Throughout the ballroom, she found similar conversations taking place. Many times with personal stories being shared, accompanied by tears. It was clear the custom was one held deeply within the hearts of the people of Kurwic. Jay found herself moved by many of the tales.
It was beautiful. Jay found her fingers ghosting along her own collar that night. Her mind returning to the night Slade had won her; how sincere he had been. The promises he had made to her. How he hadn’t even questioned creating a full bond.
In the deepest, darkest parts of her, she knew she would have taken a half bond that night. Would have allowed him to claim her as a concubine instead of a mate. Yet, it hadn’t even been an option for him.
Love for her mate, her alpha, warmed her chest and she smiled softly to herself. She hadn’t told him, but she had loved him for some time now. She wouldn’t be surprised if he knew. Like he had known that her pet name for him was “Alpha” specifically because she never thought she’d have one. It reminded her not to take him for granted and reminded her that she had him at all.
She knew he loved her, too. She could see it in his actions. In every warm glance he sent her way. In the way he doted on her when she was injured or sick (no matter how fucking aggravating that was). In the sneaky upgrades to her gear. In the way he was slowing building relationships with her siblings.
A lordling next to her cleared her throat, bringing her back to the present. She smiled and returned to her task.
It was difficult to turn the conversation. Everyone wanted to talk about collars. Either the meaning behind them or the rude American. Jay swore if she ran into the woman she was going to vivisect her.
Strong arms swept her up as she was edging around the dance floor. Outraged at the presumption, she turned to the laughing face of her mate. She relaxed, sighing, attached the dance loop of her skirt and allowed herself to be lead onto the floor. Slade held her close and they traded information. He was having far less trouble. The types he was talking to couldn’t care less about some “idiot socialite and her faux pas.”
She was envious.
She was getting what they needed but it was like pulling teeth instead of the easy flow it would have been. Still… Jay had always enjoyed a challenge.
Slade spun her into a swing-out as the song changed, knowing his mate loved to show off her skills. Jay laughed, giddy as she triple stepped and kicked out. They danced for real, Jay careful of her long gown.
They shared a glass of wine before parting ways again.
She had a little more success this time, her smile more genuine, her laugh lighter. Slade brought out the best in her.
Actually meeting the snotty heiress caught her off guard. She had been weaving her way through the grand room when -
“You! You’re American! Why are you wearing that?”
Jay turned to face the obnoxious demanding woman. The omega that had been the talk of the party. Jay took a moment to study her. From the Louboutins on her feet to the Vera Wang gown to the expertly coiffed hair. The glaring lack of a collar. Such poor manners. “New money” didn’t make galas like this… just poorly raised, perhaps?
Jay arched a perfectly shaped brow and held her head high, showcasing the work of art around her neck. “When I walked through those doors this evening I wore this for propriety's sake.” She acknowledged, gesturing towards the opulent double doors on the foyer. “I was raised properly. To conform to the customs of the country that graciously hosts and welcomes me.” The brunette flushed at the dig. Good. She should know better.
“But throughout this evening, I have learned a great deal about this beautiful country and its stately, honored traditions. And I have learned all of that thanks to you.” Jay toasted the woman and sipped her wine before setting the glass down. “You see, as you bulldozed your way through the gala, giving life to every single negative stereotype of American travellers, you’ve left a wake of conversation and outrage in your path. I have learned what this represents to the people of Kurwic.”
Jay tilted her head, “Did you take the time to listen when someone tried to explain their traditions or did you just try to shove your own ideals down their throats?” There was no response. “To these people, to be a collared omega is to be a cherished partner. An equal. One deserving of the highest protections. It is the greatest honor you can bestow upon a mate. It shows the care and love and devotion you have for the person you intend to spend the rest of your life with. To collar an omega means that you place your life in their hands. Should they leave, the alpha is shamed for the rest of their lives. And they can leave.”
“But slavery-” The interloper sputtered.
“Everything can be perverted.” Jay stated firmly. “What collars came to mean, came to be in America was shameful. But not to everyone. There are still people in our country that treat them the way they were intended to be. And certainly not here where they are symbols of love and honor. I am proud to wear my alpha’s collar. I am honored to be deserving of it.”
The Wayne heiress stared down the interloper, authority shrouding her like a cloak. “I suggest in the future that you refrain from insulting your hosts and imposing on others with your boorish behavior and narrow minded opinions.” A low rumble colored her next words, “Take every opportunity to learn.”
With that, Jay turned on her heel, faltering only slightly when she met the heated gaze of her mate, and gracefully walked into the welcoming crowd.
Information gathering was significantly easier the rest of the evening.
Jay moaned as warm lips pressed along the line of her collar and arms held her firmly on his lap. “Proud to wear my collar, dao găm?” His voice was wrecked.
“Always, my alpha.” She purred, fingers threading through his hair.