Becca's reaction to her newfound abilities is pushed aside by the discovery that Heather is not alone -- and Becca's faith in the essential goodness of humanity is sorely tested when she meets one of her adversaries face-to-face.
you want it to."-- Xander Harris, "Teacher's Pet," Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I lay there in the bed, holding tight to Miss Abby for comfort. The bear was just a bear once again, and I squeezed her for all she was worth. After the Arbiter had told me I'd been "enhanced," she waited in silence for a while, then left me alone to think. And although thinking was something I had always believed I was good at, I couldn't for the life of me figure out what to do next.
I hugged the bear harder, but it didn't seem to help.
I was better, stronger, and faster than the average girl. Hell, I was probably better, stronger, and faster than the average Olympic decathlon winner. And even though it pained me to admit it, the Arbiters were probably right to do what they did. As The Advocate, I was going to have to put myself between innocents and the creatures who preyed on them. I was bound to be a target, both physically and magically. Anything that stopped the bad guys from doing what they wanted would be an obstacle none of them would allow to exist. Logically, I should accept any edge the Arbiters could give me with gratitude, since it would keep me from being turned into a chipmunk, or a dung beetle ... or a corpse.
Still, it grated on me to be lied to -- to be played with this way. How could they do something this profound without even consulting me? I felt tired and angry and used. Mostly used. Oh, the thought behind keeping the secret was sound. It all seemed reasonable when the Arbiter spelled it out for me -- how I had to feel threatened when Leander attacked, so the threat would activate my magical abilities. If I knew at the time that I have been ... improved, there would have been no perceived threat, no fear -- and my ability to use magic would never have come forward.
I held up the small mirror from the make-up kit Emma had brought, and saw that my body's remarkable new healing ability had reduced the bruise and bump on my forehead to nothing more than a dark smudge. Not too shabby, considering that the high-speed impact that had caused the original injury should have been enough to sign my death certificate. I reached up and touched my cheek. It didn't feel any different. My skin was still soft. Certainly Tommy didn't complain when we kissed.
But what if we decided to make love some day? Would I kill him in my excitement? I shuddered, thinking of Tommy with his back broken from a passionate embrace, or his private parts crushed in the vise of my own super-powered ones, right in the middle of --.
I flinched, imagining his screams, then shuddered all over.
No. Whatever they had done to me, I was going to insist they install an OFF switch. I needed my boyfriends, possible lovers, (and future husband) alive ... and fertile.
I heard voices in the corridor, and my head turned quickly. A little girl in a frilly pink nightgown walked past my doorway holding a pretty baby doll, just a few steps ahead of a man and a woman who were obviously her parents, and a teenager who had to be her sister. The little one couldn't have been more than three years old, if that, walking quickly ahead of the older members of the family.
There was nothing unusual about this portrait, in and of itself. People and their children had walked past that door all day. I had watched them go by, when I hadn't been daydreaming about the vents and pipes on the Annex roof or finding out I had super powers. In fact, normally, I wouldn't have given them a second look.
Except there was a man-shaped shadow hovering over the little girl that only I could see. And the shadow was colored a dark gray that I instinctively knew was profound sadness and despair.
Strangely, the girl's face betrayed none of it. She wore a happy smile under pretty eyes and a turned-up button nose, even though the circles under those eyes showed she had not been sleeping well, if at all.
As I looked closer, I could see the teenaged girl who trailed the pack had a shadow, too. Hers fit like a second skin, and glowed with the deep blue of satisfaction. Every time she looked at the little one, it flashed a green that something in my head told me was pleasure mixed with cruelty. She was smiling up a storm as she trailed behind the pack, watching her little sister skipping along in her nightgown.
It was pretty clear something was wrong. Something in my jurisdiction, too, if I was not mistaken.
Could the teenager be one of the girls who threw Hunter into the girl's locker room and changed him? If so, did she do something similar to the person that little girl used to be? Or was this incident another totally unrelated problem for me to deal with? Was she just another magic-wielding cretin to add to my "To Do" list?
My head started hurting again. It was all too much too fast. I'd only been the Advocate a little over a day, and already I was starting to think a vacation looked pretty good. Someplace warm, I thought with a sigh. Maybe a beach. Someplace I can wear a bikini. Someplace Tommy could watch me wear a bikini. I shivered. Someplace he could help me take it off.
I felt my nipples getting hard and shook my head to ward off the imaginary Tommy's talented hands. Don't go there, girl. You're only thirteen. As much as you want him (and girl, do you ever want him), it's way too early. Maybe not for other thirteen-year-old girls, but for you. Hell, you've only been a woman for a day.
As much as I remembered from the first time I grew up, the thirteen-year-old girls I knew when I was a boy didn't ... mess around.
But if that's really true, why do I want it so much?
Maybe your information is way out of date, I felt myself reply. Or maybe what you thought you knew when you were thirteen was just wrong. No young girl just hitting puberty back then would ever tell the skinny boy you were if she wanted ... it. This is virgin territory for you, Becca, in every sense of the word.
I groaned at myself, and dismissed the train of thought for the moment. I had a job to do, and if that girl was involved with the toddler's dark shadow as well as Heather's plight, I had to handle it carefully.
"The world is out of joint," I muttered wearily. "Oh cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right."
Hamlet, act I, scene i. That's one of the joys of a classical education, boys and girls. Every once in a while, you can have Shakespeare do your whining for you.
I threw back the covers and sat up. My chest bounced and swayed, and my still-swollen nipples rubbed against the fabric of the hospital gown, sending shooting spikes of pleasure/pain through my body. I quickly cupped my breasts and held them, waiting for the sensations to stop. In this body, even fantasies can be dangerous, I thought, cursing the idiot who took my bra off the night before and hid it. What were they thinking? "Hey, let's send the girl with the head injury off on a lingerie scavenger hunt?"
I let go of myself ... slowly ... and reached over to hit the buzzer. A minute later, a slightly overweight black nurse in bright purple scrubs stuck her head in the door.
"Need something, baby?" she asked sweetly.
"Umm, yes, please," I said, a little shaken by the baby reference. "When I came in last night, someone took my bra off. Could you tell me where to find it?"
"Oh, of course, honey. I'm sorry." She bustled over to the closet. "Missing the support?"
"Sort of," I replied, oddly embarrassed. "This gown is a little rough, and ... it kinda hurts ... when it rubs?"
She nodded as she reached up on the top shelf and pulled down a plastic bag. "Oh, I hear you. I wish they'd change those old rags for something softer. Been washed so often with disinfectant detergents, you'd think they'd be worn and soft. Instead, they're like sandpaper inside. Lots of women patients have problems with that. I guess being in pediatrics, they wouldn't think you'd be quite so ... developed and all." As she handed the bag to me, I read her nametag.
"Thank you, Cassie," I said politely. "Uh ... is there any chance I could get a woman's gown instead of a kid's one? This one looks like it's for a nine-year-old, and it's not about to close in the back on me ... uh, ever."
"Especially not with your curves, baby. I guess girls grow up earlier these days." She grinned again, and I blushed. "We might have a bigger one, but if we don't, I'll see what I can steal from one of the other storerooms. They get weird 'round here about every area's inventory."
"Thank you!" I felt a little wave of relief wash over me.
"It's what I'm here for," she replied happily. There was a pause. "Anything else?"
Suddenly I had an idea. "Well ... I'm not feeling awful anymore, but I am bored. And I noticed there are lots of little kids here. It can't be any less boring for them than it is for me. So I was wondering ... could I ... volunteer? You know, to be with some of them, play some games or talk or something?"
Cassie's face lit up, and she smiled wide. "Bless your heart! That is so sweet! I'll check with the doctor and make sure it's okay, but I don't think it'll be any trouble." She reached up and laid her hand on my cheek. "You're a pretty special young lady, to think of the little ones at a time like this."
I looked down and blushed. "Thank you," I said softly. "But really, it's for my own good too. Lots better than looking out at the rooftop heating and air conditioning exhibit all day."
Cassie laughed and bustled out. I ducked into the bathroom right away to peel off my robe and that awful gown and open the bag of the clothes I was wearing when I was brought in. It was yesterday's bra, so it didn't feel quite as ... fresh as it should have. But as I settled myself into the cups and felt the straps take the weight, I was more than happy to admit it was WAY better than nothing. As much as I loved being a girl, some parts required more ... care than I realized from my vantage point as a man.
Definitely NOT complaining, mind you. Just stating a fact.
As long as I was in the bathroom, I sat down to pee and reflected at how much had changed in the past week. Back then, I was just a freelance writer, good at what I did but hardly the best on the planet. I was a good husband and a good Dad, but hardly the paragon of virtue the Arbiters kept trying to make me believe I was. Although after the day I just had, I did have to admit I might possibly have an overdeveloped sense of duty. I can't seem to just let something slide if I can help.
That little girl is depressed, maybe even to the point of being suicidal, I thought as I patted myself dry and stood up. I'm not letting it go. I won't.
When Cassie brought me a new larger hospital gown, she told me that I could go help entertain the children, but I shouldn't do anything strenuous. She thanked me again for being such a good girl, and I felt a little guilty about deceiving her. After all, I did have a hidden agenda. But I really was helping a child ... or at least, someone who was seen as a child.
I was starting to wonder what happened to Heather and my family. Mom still hadn't showed up to see me, which was disappointing -- not that I was looking forward to a conversation about last night in the cold light of day, but I did want to apologize. When I was her husband, I was smart enough to admit when I was wrong and throw myself on the mercy of the wife. And fortunately, I was also lucky enough to have a merciful wife. Now that she was my mom, I didn't know what to expect.
I did know that, from her point of view, I really didn't have a leg to stand on. I disobeyed her and almost got myself killed. You can't really argue with that. And when the person you're apologizing to happens to be a lawyer, you'd be surprised how hard it is to present any justification she can't counter.
In short, I was going to have to admit my wrongdoing and take my punishment like a good girl. As The Advocate, I would have to figure out ways to work around being grounded, but I'd work on that when the need arose. Right then, I had a mystery to solve -- and that beats mea culpas and Oprah reruns, hands down.
I tightened the belt on my robe and opened the door to my room, just in time to scare Heather half to death. She let out a muffled squeak and jumped back.
"Hey, hon," I said with a smile. "I'm sorry I scared you!"
Heather looked at me standing there, and tears started falling down her cheeks. Before I knew it, she had jumped forward and wrapped me in her arms and just hugged me.
"Thank you so much," she whispered, still crying. "You saved my life last night. You gave me time to run, and I did, but I feel so bad because he ... hurt ... YOU --"
"Sssssh." I patted her back gently. "That's why I was there in the first place, remember? To protect you. The whole plan would have fallen apart if anything had happened to you. That's why you had to run. And why I had to stay."
"But you could have died!" She wailed.
"Don't remind me, girlfriend," I said with a sigh. "Believe me, that wasn't a part of the plan. But as von Moltke once said, 'No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.'" She looked confused, and I sighed. "German Field Marshal, brilliant strategist. Never mind. Just the trivia that comes with the job."
I gave her a squeeze. "Heather, you're my friend ... almost a sister now, since we're sharing a bedroom. If I had to put my life on the line for you again, I would. Because that's what sisters do. That's what people do for the people they care about. You're also my responsibility as the Advocate, but that's not nearly as important as being your friend."
She sniffled some, and let me loose a little. I smiled at her, and kissed her forehead. I had to rise on tiptoe to do it, which made me a little wobbly, but it was worth it to see her smile back. Then Heather looked down at her feet.
"Your mom doesn't know whether to be angry or relieved."
"I think both reactions are perfectly acceptable, considering the circumstances. On the other hand, I like me, so I tend to cut myself a lot of slack." Heather giggled, then stopped, her eyes wide. I grinned at her. "Yes, you giggle now, hon. It's standard equipment for us girls, so get used to it for a while. At least until I can change you back." She looked at me with an odd look in her eye. It took a while, but something finally clicked. "You don't want to go back, do you?"
"I'm ... not sure," she said in a rush. "Sometimes it all feels so wrong, but other times ..."
"Like with Jeremy?" I asked.
She nodded. "With Jeremy, it feels perfect. And I don't want to lose him, and I will if I go back, and Dad will probably still be free to beat me senseless, and I won't have any friends because Hunter weas such a jerk, and --"
"Whoa, girl!" I took her hands in mine and squeezed. "Don't get all ahead of yourself. You'll have plenty of time to figure out whether you want to go back or not. I happen to like being a girl, but you haven't really been around long enough as Heather to make a decision like this. Take it slow. If this goes on too long, you'll get your first period. That'll certainly give you something new to add to the mix."
She looked confused, then a little frightened. Without thinking, her legs squeezed together. "Oh, geez."
I smiled. "There's a piece of Hunter peeking out." I gave her hands another squeeze. "Not to worry, hon. I may have found another victim right here at the hospital, and I was just about to follow it up. We may be able to fix this before you need a guided tour of the feminine hygiene aisle."
"Someone else like me? Tell!" I smiled in spite of myself. Heather's inner girl was back in charge, and I noticed she seemed more comfortable that way.
I sat down with her on the bed and explained what I'd seen. Heather was very eager to learn more.
"Could the little girl be someone like me?" She bounced a little on the bed in her excitement.
"It's what I'm thinking," I said, rising to my feet. "Only one way to find out."
Heather froze, and I looked down at her. "What's wrong?"
"Maybe I shouldn't come with you," she said. "Maybe it's like with you and me, and you need to be alone with her."
"Hmmmm. You could be right." I stood next to her, wheels turning. Then I had an idea. "Listen, you can still help."
Heather's eyes widened, and she nodded eagerly. "How? Just tell me, and I'm on it."
"I need you to wander around the floor and look for a girl, about the same age as you and I. Dark hair, smug expression. Like she owns the world and you're just lucky she lets you stay." I walked over and peeked out the door before turning around to face my friend. "She came in with the little one, and she seemed way too pleased that her baby sister was heading into the hospital. I want you to see if you can get a look at her without her seeing you. If she's one of the ones who changed you, it will go a long way towards linking these two events."
Heather nodded. "I'm on it. We may not have a lot of time here, though." I cocked my head at her. "Your mom was downstairs talking to the docs. She might be working on getting you out of here soon."
My turn to nod. "Better get to it, then."
We split up when we reached the hall. I headed left, peeking in doorways to look for the girl and her family. I passed a waiting room when the parents were sitting, speaking to a doctor with a clipboard. The little one can't be far, I thought, and sure enough I found her sitting on the floor in a room nearby, full of kids and toys and games. A video was playing on an older television, but she sat away from the other children, playing with that baby doll. A security guard watched me enter from across the hall and nodded. Apparently, he'd been briefed about my volunteer work.
I walked across the room and stood in front of her. The tag on the front of her gown said, "Hi! I'm Missy!"
Sounds like a name one of those girls would come up with, I thought. Just the right added touch of humiliation for your average guy.
"Hi, Missy," I said softly, with a smile. "I'm Becca."
"Hi," she replied, not looking up from the doll. I scanned the room. There were too many others in here, both adults and kids. If her transformation worked the way Heather's did, Missy and I had to be alone. I was sure the room was as much a holding cell as a play area, and I couldn't just take her hand and walk away without being stopped and questioned.
Or could I?
I chewed on it for a few seconds. I couldn't use magic to spirit her away. It could mess up the matrix the original 'casters used to create "what is" and make it impossible to return things to what they used to be -- or so the Arbiters believed in Heather's case. How could I get Missy out of here without anyone noticing -- in a room full of other kids with a guard on the door?
I sank down onto my thighs in front of her. Missy looked up, slightly startled.
"Listen," I said softly. "I know you aren't what you seem to be. And I think we both know we can't talk here in front of the others. I think I can help. Want to go for a walk?"
She nodded once, still unsure of whether she should trust me or not.
"Good." I gave her a friendly pat on the shoulder. "Just hang on a second, and we can go."
I walked over to the door and looked down the hall. The security guard gave me a nod, and I smiled at him. He smiled back. I saw several water fountains evenly spaced along the corridor, plus several rolling tables full of loose objects.
Perfect. Just what the poltergeist ordered. A little indirect physical manifestation wouldn't hurt Missy's matrix one bit ... I hoped.
I concentrated on reaching inside of each water fountain and raising the pressure. As I did, geysers rose up to hit the ceiling. The guard's jaw dropped, but he didn't move. I reached further down the hall and started tipping over trays, sending bottles and bedpans sliding across the floor. The guard glanced at me. I looked appropriately confused, and he took off down the hall like a shot, searching in vain for a small vandal who wasn't there.
I turned and found Missy standing beside me. I scooped her up and ran down the hall in the other direction to my room.
Nobody noticed, and I wasn't surprised. Compared to the mess at the other end of the hall, a girl carrying a toddler didn't rate very much attention at all.
When I set Missy down beside my bed, she looked around wildly and opened her mouth to speak.
Quickly, I came down to her level and placed a finger on my lips.
"Sssssh," I said softly. "I'm here to help. We had to be alone to talk, right? Otherwise, you can't tell me what happened to you." She froze, her mouth open. I nodded. "Yes, honey. I know something happened to you. I'm here to try and fix it, if I can." Her eyes got very wide. I nodded again. "You're not really a little girl, are you?" She shook her head and started trembling. I put my hand on her shoulder. "What's your real name? Let's start with that."
"Mmmm .... Michael," she said, and stopped. Her hand rose to her mouth. "Shit!"
I smiled. "Bet you couldn't say that five minutes ago." She smiled shyly, and I took her hand. "Please to meet you, Michael." She shook tentatively, then held on tight with chubby fingers.
"How ... how do you know? How can you --?" Her voice was an odd mixture of baby girl and teenaged boy. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.
"Well, that's a little hard to explain, and we don't have much time." I reached up and brushed a stray hair off of her forehead. "The quickest and easiest explanation is that it's part of my job. I'm supposed to track down people who do things with magic that shouldn't be done, and try to make things right."
"But ... but you're just a girl!"
I looked down and shook my head. "So are you, the last time I checked. You of all people should know that appearances can be deceiving. Books and covers and such." She looked at me blankly. I sighed. "Let's just say I'm a lot older than I look." The girl opened her mouth to ask another question, and I held up a palm. "Someone will eventually come looking for you, so we don't have a lot of time. Tell me your story, Michael. Be as quick as you can."
She nodded and began.
Her real name was Michael Elliott. She had been a he, eighteen years old and very much looking forward to going off to college on a basketball scholarship. Both of his parents had been very proud, and all the talk around the house revolved around filling out housing forms, getting dorm room furniture, and planning the trip to college in the fall.
Then one morning he had woken up in a pink crib where his bed used to be. Michael looked down to find himself a three-year-old girl, dressed in a baby doll nightgown, a wet diaper, and a pair of plastic pants. The shock had nearly killed him, and for a while he teetered on the edge of madness.
God, I thought, my stomach twisting with revulsion. How many victims of this kind of reality rape just go into shock and die when their lives are twisted this way? I shuddered, and felt sadness and anger settle over my soul -- such a heavy weight that I felt numb. Heather had been very lucky. Hunter must have been stronger than I thought, to pull himself together when he became a she. No wonder she freaked when she realized I knew who she really was.
When his younger sister Gwen came into the room, she picked him up roughly, held him at arm's length, and smiled. It wasn't a pleasant smile. Then she laughed out loud and twirled the little girl around the room, and Michael realized that somehow, Gwen had done this to him. Her. And she started to cry. Gwen laughed again and gave her a shake.
"This," she said savagely, "is what happens to boys with too much pride, who get too much attention. They need to be taught their place!" She carried him over to the changing table. "And right now, 'Missy,' your place is here."
"Missy" just cried and cried, as Gwen roughly changed her and dressed her in a frilly dress. Then she sat the former boy up on the changing table and looked him in the eye.
"This is just the start," she said with a sneer. "It gets way better ... for me."
Gwen raised her voice. "Mom! Missy's awake!"
Michael's Mom swept into the room, half undressed. "Good morning, baby," she cooed, taking the surprised Missy out of Gwen's arms. Suddenly a chill swept through the former Michael, and she cooed and smiled an open mouthed smile and gave her Mommy a big hug -- all while Michael faded into the background, powerless to do anything but become the toddler he appeared to be.
This all happened in mid-July, and it was October now.
Michael had been Melissa Anne for almost three months.
Three months watching all his dreams die, confined to a playpen and a high chair and a stroller. Three months of diapers and playdresses and bibs and baby food. Three months of watching his sister laugh at all the petty humiliations her former brother had to endure. It was enough to make her cry.
She did. And I cried with her.
When her story had become too much for her to bear, I had held her until she stopped crying, and urged her to continue. Everything Michael had worked for had disappeared, replaced by day care and play dates and this unavoidable compulsion to behave the way Missy should whenever she was with other people.
"I can still be me when I'm alone," Missy said through the sniffles. "Or with Gwen, even if it makes her mad sometimes. Or when I'm with some of the others."
"Others?" I felt a chill clear down to my center.
"Hell, yeah!" Missy looked up at me, wide-eyed. "A bunch of guys I knew had this happen to them too. They all ended up like me -- same age, all girls. Except for Travis. He's Tina now, she's not even a year old yet. Travis's sister really must have hated him." She looked at her feet. "Only ... I don't think Travis is in there anymore. I think it was too much for him, and he just ... gave up. Even when we're alone now, he ... she doesn't even try. She just babbles. You know, baby talk. It's scary." Missy took a deep breath. "That's why I'm here, I guess."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, look at me!" She gestured to herself with her chubby fingers. "I'm too small to be by myself. And too 'cute.' They're always 'lookin' after me.' The only time they leave me alone ... the only time I can still be me ... is when I'm supposed to be sleepin'. So every night I make myself stay awake until everybody's asleep, then I stay up for hours trying to remember who I am, inside. I have a bunch of notes about my old life. I wrote 'em in crayon and hid them in a secret place in my room. I get them out and re-read them, over and over. And I listen to my old music on a cheap radio we used to bring to the beach -- I snuck out of my room one night and stole it from the garage." Her eyes got a faraway look. "THAT was wild, waddling around the house in my nightgown and diapers, hoping no one woke up and found me."
Missy shook her head. "But I guess I screwed up. I stayed awake too much, and started conking out during the day all the time, and got these circles under my eyes, and now everyone is worried there's something wrong with 'the baby.'" She clenched her fists and shook all over. "Of course there's something wrong with me. I want my life back!"
"Hey, Becca." A girl's voice came from the doorway. It was Heather. She took one look at Missy and squealed. "OhmyGod, isn't she cute?" She rushed forward eagerly, arms stretched wide.
"Back off, bitch!" The little girl snapped, blood in her eye. Heather stopped short, reared back, and Hunter burst out in a flare of anger.
"Fuck you, asshole!"
Both girls stopped and looked at each other, shocked, then at me. I nodded. Tentatively, Missy held out her hand.
"Hey, man. Mike Elliot." Heather took it.
"Hey. Hunter Thomas." They shook awkwardly, then Heather spoke. "I'm, uh, sorry about the cute thing. Sometimes ... this body sorta ... takes over."
Missy held up her tiny hands. "No need, man. One time I got totally into a Barney video. Zoned out for a half hour. Scared the crap out of me."
I cleared my throat. "Listen, we have to get you back to the playroom. I need the names of all of your friends who were changed. I'm pretty sure this is more than just Gwen, and it's a safe bet your friends have sisters who are in on it, too." She nodded and rattled them off. I memorized them. "Also, Mike, it's really important that you sleep soundly through the night tonight, and keep playing the perfect little girl for everyone as long as you can."
She looked at me, stunned. "Why?"
I lowered myself to the floor in front of her and looked her in the eye. "Because you need to get home, hon. I think you need that time alone every night to keep your old self intact, and you sure won't get any alone time here." Missy nodded, seeing where I was heading. "And when you do get home, cut down a little. Be sure to get a decent night's sleep each night. We don't want to make Gwen suspicious and have her check on you and ruin things." I paused as a thought hit me. "In fact, think about acting like a baby girl with her all of the time, even when you two are alone. She might think you've become ... like Tina and lower her guard."
"Trust Becca, man," Heather put in eagerly. Hunter was still very much out front, probably because Heather didn’t want to present herself as 'girly' in front of Mike. "She's unbelievable."
Missy looked at us both, then nodded. "'kay. I'll play it your way." She looked down. "I just ... don't want to get lost, like ... like Travis did."
I touched her chin, and she looked up.
"But it's different now," I said softly. "I'm here. And I won't let this go on. Tell your friends when you see them to hang on. Help is on the way."
She nodded, and smiled.
The smile was still on her face when I walked her back to the playroom. Apparently, no one had noticed our departure or our return. As soon as we settled into place, Missy picked up her baby doll and snuck a look at me. I could see Mike looking out from behind those innocent eyes. She got up, waddled over to me, and gave me a big hug, still holding her doll.
"Dan-kuu, Bekkah," she said in my ear.
"Glad to help, Missy," I whispered back.
"Who the hell are you?"
I looked up and saw Gwen staring down at both of us, a scowl on her face.
"I'm Becca," I said, and held up a hand. Gwen ignored it.
"What're you doing with my sister?"
I lowered my hand. "I volunteered to help play with the kids while I'm in here. I met your sister and we hung out a while. She's very sweet."
Gwen got this weird satisfied smile on her face. "Isn't she just soooo cute?" She looked down at Missy and I saw a flash of cruelty rush across her aura. "I wish she could stay this way forever, and never have to grow up."
I gave Missy a little squeeze to remind her I was there.
"I know what you mean," I said, letting Missy go. "All too soon, babies grow up to be brothers and sisters. And we all know how much trouble they can be."
Gwen reached down and swept Missy up in her arms. "Oh, yes," she cooed softly, smiling as she rubbing noses with the toddler. "I know exactly how that is, don't I, Mickey."
"Still, I do love my brother," I went on, letting her slip slide. "And my sister. Things between us are never so bad that I'd ever want them to change."
"You're lucky, then," Gwen replied, still focused on tormenting Missy with her own powerlessness.
"I guess I am," I replied. I rose up from the floor in a single motion. I didn't want to be at this girl's feet. Hell, I didn't want to be in the same room with her.
I might kill her.
Heather was still standing where she had been when Missy and I had left. I came up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. She jumped and turned.
"Mike!" She said, grabbing my shoulders and looking into my eyes. "We have to help him. All of them." I nodded, my lips tight. Heather let go of my shoulders and took a step back. "I did see this girl in the hallway, and I'm pretty sure she was one of the group -- the ones who, well, did things to me ... in the locker room. After I was changed, remember?"
I nodded and she looked away. How could I forget? I thought savagely. The ones who thought it would be a good idea to molest the boy they changed into a girl. The anger finally broke free inside me, welled up and washed through me, like a wave I couldn't stop. Wouldn't stop. I trembled all over and clenched my fists, trying to control it. Heather noticed.
"What's wrong?" She reached out one hand tentatively.
"I hate them!" I hissed, unable to keep it in anymore. "Oh, God, Heather, I hate them so much. I hate what they did to you, and to Missy, and to all of her friends. Part of me wants to take them all and ... and ..."
Suddenly the anger just left me, replaced with a crushing disappointment I almost couldn't bear. I collapsed on the bed and buried my face in the pillow.
"I'm supposed to be on top of all this." My voice sounded dull and empty, even muffled as it was by the pillow. "I'm supposed to be better than this. I can't let my feelings get in the way of my job, or push me to do things I know I'll regret. But right now, all I can do is think about that poor boy, Travis. One of Mike's friends. They turned him into a baby girl and drove him insane ... for nothing. Or Mike, keeping himself awake nights just trying not to forget who he really is. Trying to hang on to his life and his dreams."
I felt Heather sit on the bed next to me, and felt her hand on my shoulder.
"Hey," she whispered, giving me a squeeze. "There's only so much you can do, Becca. You can't blame yourself for not being there. After all, you've only had the job for a day or two."
"It's not that," I said, still looking away. "It's just ... I always thought ... people were basically okay, you know? If you just gave 'em a chance, people would be better than this. But to do THAT ... to your own brother? And for what? Because you're jealous? These girls aren't misguided or confused, Heather. They're evil! I'd say they were inhuman, but I'm not sure I'd be right."
I sat up and looked at Heather. "Is this what most people really are, inside? Give them a little power and watch them turn into monsters? Look at your father. He didn't have magic, but then again, he didn't need it. He had power over you, and over Hunter, and he used it. He was an abomination." I shook my head. "And those girls? They've been doing this for months! Who knows how many other victims they’ve done this to? How many lost lives and lost minds already? How can I find them all? How can I fix this?" I looked down at my hands. "It's just so much. I've only just started the fight. If the world is full of people like her ... like them, how can I hope to win? How can I do it alone?"
Neither of us spoke for a while. We sat there and let the silence pool around us. I leaned against Heather and she put her arm around me, and we just sat. Finally, she spoke.
"Listen. You're wrong. You know the world has more than just evil in it, Becca. There are people like Mike, and Travis, and their friends. People like you and your family, and Amy. Good people, and they need a protector. It's your job to stand between the hunters and the prey and tell the predators NO. And you're not alone. I'm here, too. We'll find everybody they changed and make things right, you'll see."
"I can't drag you into this," I muttered.
"I'm already in it, girl," she replied. "From my long curly hair to the toes of my stylish but affordable boots, I am in it. Hell, sis, I AM it." I couldn't look at her. She put her head on my shoulder and sighed. "You saved me, Becca. Don’t you get it? I would do anything for you, and then some."
I didn't say anything, and Heather shook me a little. "And the odds against us aren’t as high as you seem to think. After all, the bad guys aren't perfect. They made two very big mistakes in the past day alone."
I pulled away from her a little and looked up into her eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Isn't it obvious? First, they messed with me, but I don't think they thought it all the way through. Keeping Mike and his friends in line was easy, since they lived in the same house. But they had no way to control me, once they changed me. I was bouncing all over the place, stirring up trouble, and that led to you finding out what they're doing. I think they're getting sloppy. I think they're starting to think they're unbeatable, and that makes them stupid."
I thought about that for a while, and nodded. "Could be. And the second mistake?"
"The second mistake was ..." She paused and took a deep breath. "Well, they did this to me because they wanted to humiliate me and make me miserable. Instead ... I'm happier than I've ever been. I finally figured out that being Heather is the best thing that ever happened to me."
I just stared. "Where did this come from? Earlier today you were freaked just thinking about your period!"
She smiled a shy smile. "I've been thinking about all of this since last night, Becca. It just kinda came together for me a little while ago." I cocked my head, and she sighed. "There I was, with little Missy in her pink nightgown, and we're both trying to be all macho, like the way I used to be. And then, when you both left, I realized what was happening and almost cried. What was I doing, trying to be Hunter? I HATED being Hunter. Hated my life, hated my Dad. I just couldn't see a way out. I mean, how could you stop being you?"
Heather shook her head and smiled. "Then they changed me into ... well, this. And suddenly everything was different. At first I was scared out of my mind. I mean, come on! I was a girl. I was wearing a frigging skirt! Hell, I was wearing a bra -- and had something on my chest to fill it! But then it got even weirder. In the halls, people I never knew said hello and smiled when I walked by. Girls actually liked me. I had ... friends."
"Then I met you in the street, when I was running away from those jerks I used to hang with. And you saved me. I couldn't believe it! Then, when you realized who I really was ... I was happy and scared at the same time. I mean, you had no reason to want to help Hunter. You could have just walked away and left me, and I wouldn't have blamed you. I was sure I'd be all alone again, lost."
Her eyes glistened. "Instead, you took me home with you. You made me part of a family ... made me feel safe again." Tears just started falling down her cheeks.
"Then you went against your mother, and risked your own life to save me from my Dad. I've never had anyone put herself on the line for me before. I won't ever forget it." She squeezed my hand. "And I found someone special who really loves me -- the me that I am, now. Someone I love. Something I never thought I'd have."
"All this in one day. Just from being a girl. And finding you." Heather hugged me tight. "Really, it was all because of you, sister. You made me see that different didn't have to mean bad. You showed me that this wasn't a curse, Becca. It was a blessing. I know that now."
I gave her a hug, then smiled. "Speaking of curses ..."
Heather looked confused for a second, then smiled back. "I'll deal with ... that ... when it comes ... and I know it will. I'm not turning back. If it's the price I have to pay to be Heather, bring it on. My Dad used to beat me bloody at least once a week when I was Hunter. I'll bleed a few days a month for the rest of my life if it means I get to keep Jeremy ... and you."
We hugged again, and I felt my heart start to melt the ice that had begun to form in those moments of doubt. All I can do is my best, I realized. And maybe that's not so bad.
There was the sound of applause ... a single pair of hands clapping from the doorway. Then a woman's voice, full of scorn.
"Oh, congratulations! Another man sacrificing his birthright for the lure of femininity ... of friendship and love and lingerie. Sisters, rejoice! Welcome the next traitor to his gender into your perfumed and petticoated camp!"
Heather and I turned as one and looked at the person in the doorway. Leander smiled a bright smile, perfect white teeth shining from between ruby red lips. The little black dress and sheer stockings she wore clung to her curves like a Ferrari on a mountain road, and her hair was like spun gold, flowing in waves over her shoulders. She was perfectly turned out, and I was totally confused.
"Hello, Leander," I said dully, not quite believing this vision at my door was the same person who lost her temper when I reminded her she was a woman only a day ago. "So nice of you to come visit."
"Oh, this isn't a social call," she purred, gliding into the room with a model's stride on three-inch stiletto pumps. "Purely professional, I assure you."
"Who the hell is this?" Heather stood in a defensive stance I'm sure she didn't realize she had taken -- legs wide apart, hands at her sides curled into fists. I took up my own stance beside her.
"My, my, how unladylike! Manners, girl, or I'll make you go back to birth and start over."
Heather turned to me, confused.
"Her name is Leander," I growled. "She's one of my teachers -- a magic user who abused his abilities to enslave women. He was made female as part of the punishment for his crimes ... hundreds of years ago. She's supposed to be helping me learn how to be the Advocate. And I'm pretty sure she's going to try and kill me."
"If that's her lesson plan, she picked the wrong career. And she can't have you -- not after all you've done for me." Heather took a step forward, and I grabbed her by the back of her blouse and pulled her back.
"Don't, please," I whispered in Heather's ear. "She's very powerful. This is going to be hard enough as it is without worrying about you too, hon."
"Oh, pull in the claws, ladies," Leander said, smoothing her dress under her as she placed herself on the edge of the bed and daintily crossed her legs at the knee. "Don't get your panties in a bunch." She gave me a penetrating look. "Oh, sorry, Becca. I didn't realize you weren't wearing any." I felt my face go red and she smiled. "Such a naughty girl you are. But I'm sure your boyfriend loves you for it."
"If this is another lesson, you've picked a bad place for it and a worse time." I felt my fingertips flush with energy, and my hair began to rise off of my shoulders from the power that coursed through my body. Leander tsked at me, and fished in her clutch bag to remove a compact. Having her ignore me this way made my anger worse, and I actually began to wish she'd make a move so I'd have a reason to attack.
"Behave yourself, Advocate," Leander powdered under her eyes and surveyed the results in the compact's mirror. "I'm not here to kill anybody -- or hurt your new 'sister,' Becca. This is actually a lesson in diplomacy. I'm here to negotiate -- to offer you something you very much need, if you intend to win against your current foe."
"Oh?" I was curious, in spite of myself. "And what exactly are you offering?"
"Information, dear." She looked my right in the eye and smiled wider. "And ... reinforcements. An ally, if you will." When I didn't respond, she sighed and shook her head. "I'm offering ... myself, Advocate. I want to be a 'good girl' and join the home team ... at least for a while."
It's nice to know I can still be surprised after the week I've had, I thought, half-numb.
Now if the shock doesn't kill me, I'll be fine.
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To Be Continued...
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