The Taken: Nathan's Story, Chapter 6.

Synopsis:

"Don't be such a boy."

Story:
***

“Mark, why don’t you escort Natasha in to dinner?” Mrs. Thompson suggested, just as she said she would. “I’ll go with Valerie.”

“It would be my pleasure,” Mr. Kingsley replied, and was on his feet again, in front of Nathan smiling and extending his hand, just as Mrs. Thompson had shown him. “Miss Shaw, would you do me the honour?” Nathan froze for a moment; then glancing to his side saw Mrs. Thompson’s nod of confirmation. Valerie was, for the moment, out of sight behind the mass of Mr. Kingsley’s body.

He laid his hand in Mr. Kingsley’s, just as Mrs. Thompson had shown him. Then he was being guided to his feet. Then there was some movement of bodies he didn’t quite understand, but it included a discreet guiding hand at the small of his back from Mrs. Thompson for a moment to hurry him into position. Then his hand slid under Mr. Kingsley’s arm. Then they were walking, through the door by the side of the fireplace into the dining room. No volition, all clockwork, just like Mrs. Thompson had said. He tried to recall the muscle-memory of the practice he’d done in the morning. He discovered that if he just gave himself over to Mr. Kingsley’s direction everything went smoothly. Maybe that would stay true, he hoped, feeling unreal as he did so. Mr. Kingsley seemed to know what he was doing anyway. They followed Mrs. Thompson and Valerie, who were walking slowly, their heads close together, talking quietly, into the dining room. Mr. Kingsley guided him to a chair — not his normal place — and seated him.

“What do you say, Natasha?” Mrs. Thompson prompted.

“Um–” Damn. “Th-Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome,” Mr. Kingsley said, taking his own seat opposite. Mrs. Thompson went to the head of the table. Valerie went through the other door towards the service stairs to kitchen. “And may I say again how pretty you’re looking this evening.”

Nathan felt the heat in his cheeks. Was he supposed to say something?

“Do you really think so, Mark?” Mrs. Thompson asked. Marie came with the first of the starter dishes.

“Absolutely, Jane. I think she looks charming,” he added, with a smile directed at Nathan. He ducked his head. The blush in his cheeks had to be visible surely, even through all the make-up. He bet his ears were almost incandescent. He wanted to cover his face, or preferably just not be here.

“Natasha, kindly share with us what is so interesting about your place setting?” Mrs. Thompson queried.

Nathan looked up, trying to avoid Mr. Kingsley’s eyes.

“That’s better dear. There’s no need to hide your pretty face.” He was distracted for a moment by Marie, at his side, serving his starter. She surreptitiously squeezed his hand in reassurance as she finished and moved on. “Of course, she’s quite shy, and still desperately untutored, poor thing, but we’ll soon have that gaucheness driven forth.” She seemed to savour that word: Driven.

“Well, I hope you won’t be too hard on the girl this evening,” Mr. Kingsley said, almost sounding kind. “She looks nervous enough.” No, that was just it, he did sound kind. Nathan clamped down on that errant thought. “I only wish my own girls were so well-mannered when we have guests for dinner.”

Valerie had returned with a bottle of wine and a corkscrew. She did the wine-waiter thing, uncorking it and pouring a small amount for Mrs. Thompson to taste. When Mrs. Thompson approved, Valerie poured her a full glass, then Mr. Kingsley, before coming around behind Nathan’s place setting. Finally, she poured for herself, put the bottle down on the table and sat.

“Thank you, Valerie,” Mrs. Thompson said. “Would you like to propose?”

Valerie looked up at her, startled. “Me?”

“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Thompson said warmly.

Valerie’s eyes sparkled. “I’m sorry, Mark, I couldn’t possibly marry you.” She sighed deeply. “My heart belongs to another.”

Nathan laughed out loud suddenly, surprising himself. Mr. Kingsley chuckled as well.

“Come on, dear, do it properly now,” Mrs. Thompson said sternly, but she had a little smile to show she wasn’t really angry.

“Oh all right,” Valerie conceded. She looked like she was thinking about something. “To Einstein and Rosen?” she suggested.

Mrs. Thompson raised her glass. “Einstein and Rosen,” she said, with a smile for Valerie.

“Wherever they may be,” Valerie finished.

“Einstein and Rosen,” Mr. Kingsley agreed, and they all drank. The wine was smooth, Nathan thought. Smoky. “Although I don’t understand the significance,” Mr. Kingsley admitted. “I’ve heard of Einstein of course, but…”

“Physics joke,” Valerie explained, setting her glass down. “Don’t worry, normal humans aren’t supposed to get it.”

“I see.”

Nathan stared at his glass of wine. There wouldn’t be sherry this time, she’d said, but there’d be wine. If he was good.

“Valerie’s hoping to go to Cambridge next year,” Mrs. Thompson said.

And he’d been good, hadn’t he?

“Oh? To study physics?”

So she could be kind, and give him something to help him through this.

Valerie nodded. “I’m going to sit the entrance exam in the Fall,” she explained.

“I’m sure you’ll excel,” Mr. Kingsley replied.

“Thank you.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Thompson,” Nathan said aloud, to Mrs. Thompson, and smiled at her. She looked at him oddly, but he turned and said “Thank you, Miss Valerie,” to Valerie as well, and raised his glass. “Cheers everyone,” he said brightly, and drained the glass in two big gulps.

“Natasha!” Mrs. Thompson scolded. He grinned and put the glass down, feeling the alcohol hit his head. ~Wow, that’s strong wine,~ he realised belatedly. Mrs. Thompson actually seemed a little lost for words, for a few moments. She soon rallied. “What did you think you were doing? That’s no way to behave at the dinner table. If you can’t be trusted to…” He tuned her out. His face had flushed red to his ears, and down his throat, he could feel it. He felt warm and reckless. He tried not to giggle. Perhaps he shouldn’t have done that, he thought — finishing the drink in one go. He didn’t want Mrs. Thompson to be angry with him.

***

Dinner wore on, and thankfully no-one upbraided him on hardly eating anything. He was sorry to disappoint Marie, but putting food in his stomach was simply impossible. He couldn’t take his eyes off Mr. Kingsley eating with every appearance of hearty relish.

Conversation flowed around him, like he was a rock in a stream. He imagined himself drifting, going nicely distant, where nothing had to touch him. It was out of his hands now. He just had to wait, and there was no need to feel that anything that happened from now on was his fault or had anything to do with him at all.

He watched Mr. Kingsley, willing drowsiness into his eyelids, feeling a half-smile forming on his lips, which he got by imagining Valerie on her motorcycle, even though he’d never seen it.

~Any minute now. Distance.~

***

~How long is it supposed to take anyway?~

***

~Am I supposed to take the initiative?~ he wondered, and looked at his dessert, so far untouched. It looked like some kind of fruit pie with double cream. He tried to imagine what it would taste like; the hot fruit, the crumbling pastry, the coolness of the cream, then remembered stupidly that he didn’t have to imagine it. He picked up his spoon and navigated a spoonload of cream-drenched pie into his mouth. ~You’re not responsible. Go with the flow. Don’t resist.~ “Mmm,” he heard himself vocalise. An explosion of peach, and sweet shortcrust pastry, and cream like silk. Marie was a goddess– ~No, wait. I made the pastry!~ Marie should have her own restaurant, or TV show, he thought. Instead she was here. He couldn’t guess what that was about, what hold Mrs. Thompson must have over her to keep her here.

“So what do you do, Mark?” he asked boldly. ~Out of control,~ he reminded himself. ~I’m not here. This isn’t happening to me.~ He willed it to be so, this once. It would be easier if he still felt drunk, but the alcohol had been wearing off. It had only been one glass, and since then Mrs. Thompson had insisted he only drink water. That was probably a good idea anyway, he thought. He remembered something about that. Something Gray said once. He took another mouthful of the peach pie, slowly, languorously taking in the taste.

“Ah–” Mr. Kingsley seemed to hesitate, looking at him. Nathan smiled; cream still on his tongue, fresh and luxurious. “Well, I’m a financial planner, mostly. I advise Jane on her UK portfolio and on the trust funds she’s set up on Valerie’s behalf.”

“Really? That sounds very tedious.”

“Natasha!” from Mrs. Thompson. It was too late; Mr. Kingsley was already laughing.

“You have no idea,” Mr. Kingsley replied, leaning forward to address him alone, as if letting him into a confidence.

“You two still haven’t convinced me it’s not a black art,” Valerie observed.

“Would that it were,” Mrs. Thompson remarked dryly. “You might have been a more apt student.”

“Meow.” She grinned. Mrs. Thompson returned the smile.

“I would have thought you’d have few problems grasping the subject, Valerie,” Mr. Kingsley said. “Given your background in Maths?”

“They’re nothing alike,” Valerie put down her fork. “Math is fundamentally rational, even if some of the actual numbers aren’t,” her mouth twisted into a smile. “But everything can be worked up from first principles. Every theorem is true because that’s how the axioms fit together. There’s no choice. Because this is true, therefore this, this and this must also be true. All this investments stuff… It might as well be Voodoo. It’s all law and custom and tradition, and you don’t really know why one thing’s a good investment and another thing isn’t, you just guess. Happen to guess right more than the other guy and suddenly you’re rich and everyone’s calling you a guru, but it’s just… it’s just intuition! Doesn’t that even worry you?”

“I understand there is much interest in stock markets from mathematicians investigating chaos theory,” Mrs. Thompson observed.

“Yes, and what they’re finding is that markets are chaotic systems. So specific predictions are impossible!”

While Valerie held forth, Nathan scooped up a small amount of cream with his finger and licked it off, his eyes fixed on Mr. Kingsley’s. He saw Mr. Kingsley’s eyes widen slightly, and a blush come to the older man’s cheeks. Nathan winked, then he had to pretend nothing was happening, as Mrs. Thompson was about to look his way again. ~I can’t believe I just did that!~ he wondered at himself. ~That just happened. Is that how it works then? You just start doing things?~

Louise taught Jack that one in a coffee-shop just off Oxford Circus. It was a Saturday afternoon in August, and it was hot. It was going to be a busy night, she said. She had one of those posh coffees with whipped cream on top, and she bought him a milk shake. She’d taken him along to buy clothes. Bags of them sat clumped around their feet. New outfits for him too, so he didn’t look so much like a street kid. Look like someone’s looking after you. Look like someone’s kid the cops would actually get off their lardy arses for, or have the reporters and TV crews around asking why not. Besides, it was nice having clean clothes to put on again. He couldn’t believe how much money he’d seen her hand over. But it wasn’t as if she could put it in a bank and it would only get nicked if she tried to hide it somewhere, “So why not just spend it an’ ’ave a good time?” she’d asked, rhetorically.

She fingered up another blob of cream and deposited it on the end of his nose. “Can you reach it with your tongue?”

He couldn’t, but the sight of him trying made her laugh, so that was good.

Picking up a song being played out of a shop as they passed, afterwards. Walking hand in hand on the way back to the squat, singing it together.

Deeply dippy ’bout the curves you got.
Deeply hot, hot for the curves you got.
Deeply dippy ’bout the fun we had.
Deeply mad, mad for the fun we had–
Oh my love, I can’t make head nor tail of passion
Oh my love, let’s set sail for seas of passion now…

“May I say, you don’t look like someone who sits behind a desk all day. You look very fit, if I may be so bold, sir.” Flattery. Yeah. Jane Austen style. That seems to be what she wants.

“Thank you, although I’m afraid it’s one part good fortune to two parts down to my daughters’ ponies.”

“What have they got to do with it?”

“Someone has to catch them and bring them back to the stables.”

“What, your daughters?” he asked, deadpan.

Mr. Kingsley looked at him for a blank moment, stunned. To his side, he could hear Valerie trying to suppress a laugh. It came out as a surprisingly ungenteel snort. “No, their ponies,” Mr. Kingsley said slowly. Valerie gave up the struggle and laughed out loud.

“Valerie,” Mrs. Thompson remonstrated. It was no use. Valerie was lost to it.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Nathan said, grinning. “You must think me very stupid, I’m sure.”

“Well, you say that, but it can be the devil’s job getting the girls in in time for dinner as well. I’m sure they would sometimes rather become bedouins and let their ponies sleep with them in their own tents.”

Valerie had more or less recovered.

“That is, should they ever deign to set foot inside a tent that didn’t have a phone or a television installed,” Mr. Kingsley continued. “I’d thought letting them join the Brownies when they were younger might inure them to such privations in advance, but… evidently not.”

“How now, Brown Owl,” Nathan muttered.

“Were you in the Brownies when you were younger, Natasha?” Mr. Kingsley asked. Nathan froze, staring at him. There was a moment’s stunned silence around the table. Mrs. Thompson’s face was a mask.

~What has he been told?~ Nathan wondered. ~Is that what you want, family man? Is there a little brown costume waiting for me upstairs?~ “Dib dib dib,” he said dryly, and tried to down the remainder of his water, finding his glass already empty. He reached for the water jug.

“What? Oh, yes. Dib dib dib. How foolish of me, I almost forgot.” Mr. Kingsley said. He at least had the grace to sound embarrassed at his mistake. Perhaps even a little flustered. ~Well, that answers that,~ Nathan thought, and just pressed his lips together and poured some more water.

“You should ask Valerie to take the girls on one of her hiking expeditions,” Mrs. Thompson offered brightly.

“Wh– I mean, pardon?” Valerie asked, looking apprehensively across at Mrs. Thompson.

“That sounds an excellent idea, Jane,” Mr. Kingsley joined in enthusiastically, possibly meaning it, or possibly just grateful for the conversation moving on. “Although I suspect it would be easier to get them to agree to a pony trekking holiday.”

“Ah, sadly Valerie doesn’t ride.”

“Oh?”

“Allergies,” Valerie explained, then more quietly, and urgently, “Jane…”

“Oh, that’s a shame. Is that why you haven’t got horses again since the move?”

“Oh dear me no,” Mrs. Thompson said. “I simply haven’t found the time to arrange the stabling and other facilities they require yet.”

“I thought the original stable-house was still here…”

“Oh yes, it is, but it looks like it hasn’t been used in forty years. It needs a great deal of renovation work.”

“Ah. Well, I hope you get around to it before too long. Certainly by the autumn, I hope. It’s beautiful in this area around then. Miss Shaw, do you ride?”

“Um–sorry Mrs. Thompson,” he stumbled. “Not, like, since I was little.”

“The word ‘like’ was superfluous in that sentence, Natasha,” Mrs. Thompson rebuked. “You rode as a child?” she asked more gently.

“Only once a week.”

“Did you enjoy it?” Mr. Kingsley asked.

He nearly shrugged, but he caught it in time. “It was all right. It was more Sar–” He stopped himself roughly. ~Shit. Shut up, idiot.~ He blushed and concentrated on not eating his dessert.

“Well, if Jane is amenable I’m sure we could arrange a few days for you to ride one of our horses during your stay,” Mr. Kingsley offered. “We don’t live so far away, after all.”

“Mark, that’s…” Mrs. Thompson seemed genuinely taken aback by the offer. “That’s extraordinarily generous of you,” she finished. “Are you sure?”

“If it doesn’t interfere with your plans, of course,” he added.

“Natasha, thank Mr. Kingsley for his kind offer,” Mrs. Thompson said, but she already had a distant look in her eyes, as if she was planning something, or visualising it.

“Th-Thank you Mr. Kingsley.”

Louise rated clients. She awarded them ‘Perv-points’ according to what they’d wanted to do. Some of them just wanted the control, the power, and the young flesh. They might hit you around a bit if that was their thing, if that’s what they needed to prove they were boss, but they understood it was business. Mostly. Louise always made out like she was really in control. She had rules, she said. She was in charge, she said. Nathan remembered holding her that morning while she cried.

Then some of them kidded themselves about what they were doing. They’d want to do weird shit like take you to the zoo or a restaurant or want you to wear their kids’ clothes and to stay until breakfast and sometimes they didn’t even want to fuck you. They paid better than the other sort, but they were the ones who’d kill you in the end, she said. Safer not to go there, but the money was good, which Louise said might be a guilt thing, and then might be just ’cause most of the foreign kids couldn’t do those jobs ’cause they couldn’t talk proper, meaning they didn’t sound English, so the prices stayed high, and clothes were expensive, and so was smack.

Nathan couldn’t work out which sort Mr. Kingsley was. He’d thought, maybe he was one of the first sort, until that offer to go… well, to his stables, but possibly to his house as well? What was going to happen there?

And where was Mrs. Kingsley? Was he divorced? Did he only see his own children at weekends? Or ever? ~Is he going to want me to wear their riding clothes? Ride their ponies? Wear a brownie outfit and bake him cookies? Do I get a fucking badge for that?~

He almost laughed aloud bitterly at the unintentional pun. He was shaking again. ~If only the bloody roofie would take over so I can stop thinking about it.~ He just wanted it done, so he didn’t have to be afraid of it being still to come any more. The second time, he told himself, would be easier.

The others were finishing their desserts. Nathan had only managed some of his, but they expected that of him, and besides, he didn’t want any more bulk in there to work against the drug.

“That was excellent,” Mrs. Thompson said, to murmured agreement from the others. “Mark and I have some business to discuss now. Valerie, can we leave you two to clean up? I don’t want to leave all this to Marie.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Natasha, after you’ve finished helping Valerie, you may go upstairs and get ready for bed.”

~And then…~

He swallowed dryly. “Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

~And then what? Do I come back down, like a kid being allowed to stay up late? Is that what they want?~ He wished someone would just tell him. ~Would they think it was cute if I was holding the teddy bear?~

A fly landed on the remains of his peach pie. He wondered irrelevantly how that had got inside. One of the sash windows was slightly open. The fly took a few steps around, then stopped to suck on a slice of peach.

There was another movement of chairs, and Nathan found himself suddenly the only person still sitting, but Mr. Kingsley had already come around the table to help him out of his chair, so he stood too. Disturbed, the fly took off and swung up towards the ceiling. Mrs. Thompson and Mr. Kingsley withdrew out of the dining room; not back to the parlour, but through the door that led into the music room.

“You did pretty well for a first time,” Valerie told him, gathering up the dessert bowls. “You want to get the glasses?”

“Er, yeah.” He started picking them up, carefully. He’d misread the pace again. He should have known, the way Mrs. Thompson insisted on perfect manners all the time. Everything had to be according to the same rules of decorum, to fit into their little role-play. “I just wish he’d get on with it,” he muttered quietly.

“Excuse me?”

Nathan didn’t feel in the slightest bit woozy or unsteady like he had the first time. He didn’t even feel tired; no more than usual anyway, and it had to be almost an hour since he’d drunk the wine. “Oh God,” he breathed in realisation.

“What?” Valerie queried.

“There wasn’t anything in the wine, was there?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Stop fucking about!” He cast a nervous glance across at the dining room door through which Mr. Kingsley had left with Mrs. Thompson. “I ain’t done this before, okay? I just… I just don’t want to care, you know? When he does it.”

“Does wh–” She stopped and stared at him. “What exactly do you think Mark’s going to do?” she asked, very slowly.

~She’s going to make me come out and say it,~ he thought. “Fuck me. What do you think?” There, he’d said it. “That’s what this is all about, in’t it? I’m not here to go fuckin’ horse riding, am I? Mrs. Thompson said if I was good… if I was good… An’ I’ve tried. I really have! Please. I ain’t done this before. I need something to do this, like what you put in that sherry the first day.” Valerie’s eyes widened in alarm. “I don’t care. Roofies, Special K, whatever you got–” Valerie looked stricken for several long moments, then her jaw set into something Nathan thought might be anger.Please! I’ll pay you back. I’ll owe you. Whatever you want just don’t make me do this straight. Not the first time–”

He stopped at the look on Valerie’s face. She put the plates she was carrying back down on the table with exaggerated care, as if they might explode. Or as if she might explode. But she only held out her left hand to Nathan. “Put those down. Come with me.”

He realised he was still holding the wine glasses. He complied as quickly as he could and put them down. He took Valerie’s offered hand and she immediately pulled him out of the dining room and down the service stairs into the kitchen, then surprised him by going all the way through it to the patio door. She unlocked and opened it in a single fast move Nathan didn’t quite catch, and dragged him out into the deepening evening. His hand hurt, she was gripping it so hard. He had to run a little to keep up, abandoning everything he’d practiced earlier, and scared of twisting an ankle on the flagstones with the heels he was wearing.

Valerie led him straight up the old stone steps along the upper-tier path that led along the garden wall at the front of the house. “Where are we going?” he asked her, starting to worry again. She didn’t answer him straight away. “Where–”

“Safe place,” Valerie said curtly. He looked back at the house, dark and looming, apart from the lights from the private living room.

“Oh God, you’re taking me to him,” he realised suddenly, and stopped. His sudden stop yanked his hand out from Valerie’s grip. ~He’s waiting for me in the car. He’s going to take me now–~ He knew at least the ride would be quiet. He wouldn’t want to make a mess on the seats of his nice sports car.

“What? We’re going in the other direction–”

“His car!” He blurted out.

She got the idea. “No! No, I’m not.” Valerie grabbed for his hand again, but he held it close to his body. “Look, we’re going over there.” She pointed, but he couldn’t see anything, just the garden wall, and a small locked doorway. “It’s just the garage,” she explained, pronouncing it like an American — sometimes he almost forgot she was, because her accent was kind of intermediate, then she’d say a word wrong like that and remind him. “That’s the back door, okay?” He still hesitated. “Natasha– Nathan,” she amended. “Nathan. Listen carefully. Whatever you think is going on here, you’re wrong. Oh man are you ever wrong!”

~I’m wrong?~ “But–”

“I can’t believe they let you believe that!” Valerie hissed, really angry. He backed away from her one step. “Listen.” With a fast movement she grabbed both his hands at once and held them tight. Her grip hurt his fingers. “You’re wrong. Listen to me. On my life. On my oath. You got the wrong idea. No-one, no-one is going to fuck you. That’s not what’s going on here.”

“But he–”

“I swear to you, if Mark so much as lays a bad finger on you, the only reason Jane won’t kill him herself is ’cause she’s slower than I am.” There was a deep anger in her voice. It frightened him. “And it wouldn’t happen anyway, ’cause Mark’s not that kind of guy. Mark’s good people.”

“But you… You went off with him!”

Valerie stared at him, not understanding for a few seconds. “You thought I–” She dropped his hands. “You thought he was fucking me?”

“Y-You were crying. I thought–”

“Oh God! No! He’s not here to fuck me, or you, or anyone, okay? I was crying because… Well…” She looked at him intently. “It’s kind of personal. But it’s not… It’s not what you were thinking, okay?”

She was still scaring him, so he just said “O-Okay.”

“I had forms to sign. Really. Stuff about trust funds Jane’s setting up in my name. That’s all.” She smiled suddenly. “He may be an accountant but I don’t think even he gets a kick out of that.”

Nathan almost found a laugh. Not quite.

“Do you believe me?”

He hesitated. He wanted to. He started shivering. Badly.

“Do you?” Valerie asked again, insistently. He backed off another pace, instinctively, still shivering. “What?”

“You’re scaring me. A bit,” he admitted. It was an understatement and he guessed his face showed it.

He watched the quick passage of expressions on her face for a few moments. “I’m scaring you?” she asked, quietly now, just to be sure. He nodded and she slumped her shoulders, suddenly seeming small and sad again. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” she said in a small voice. “Touched a nerve I guess.” And a quick smile, her manner utterly changed from before. “Look, I thought, I thought I’d just get you away from the house for a while and we can hang in the garage until Mark goes home. I can put some music on and we can talk about it.” Her gaze into his eyes was intense again, reflecting deep violet from the house lights behind him. “Get you calmed down. You okay with that?”

He nodded.

***

The fluorescent light flickered a few times, then came on. The door in the garden wall led directly into the back of a garage. The Mercedes in which he’d been driven from the station was there, as was a Peugeot hatchback, and a motorcycle, leaning on its side-stand near the Mercedes. Valerie went ahead of him to the workbench behind the motorcycle and pulled out an electric heater from underneath it. He spotted a grubby-looking PC on the workbench. “Come here. Heat.” She plugged it in and turned it on. The fan rattled quietly. Nathan moved closer, edging around the motorbike, to avoid getting oil on the dress.

“Here, put this on,” Valerie offered, passing him a leather jacket. He obeyed. It smelled of her, faintly, and of leather and wind. He felt the stiffness of the armour across the shoulders and back, and at the elbows and felt very protected. “Feeling a bit better?” she asked.

He nodded, still shivering. “Are you warm enough?” he asked.

“I’m fine. I’m not the one coming off an adrenaline high.” Smile.

“Oh God.” He found a quiet laugh lurking in the corner and used it. He felt himself starting to shake even more and tried to control it and damp it down. “I feel like such an idiot.” His voice shook.

Valerie was shaking her head. “Don’t. It’s not your fault.”

“I’ve been so scared.”

Valerie looked like she was stopping herself from saying more, but Nathan could tell she was still angry. He understood now, she wasn’t angry at him.

She had produced a mobile phone, and now leaned back against the workbench and started tapping something into it. Nathan took the opportunity to look around. His eyes returned to the grubby PC on the workbench behind Valerie, a single power LED was lit. Some computer speakers.

Valerie’s phone beeped, twice, and she put it down on the workbench.

“You get a signal out here?” he asked, needing to hear conversation.

“Barely. There’s a mast covering the village down the road. We’re just about on the edge.” She picked up the phone and showed the display to him. One pip on the signal meter. “We lose it in bad weather.”

“Who were you messaging?”

“Marie. Just bringing her up to date.”

“Oh God, did you have to?”

“Would you rather have everyone panic when they find we’re missing and come looking for us?” Valerie pointed out. He just glared back. “It’s okay.”

He sighed.

She turned to the old PC, hitting a key to bring it back to life. It asked her for a password on an otherwise empty VGA console screen. Her fingers hovered over the keys, but she paused and turned her head to Nathan.

“Step over there, please,” she directed him with a nod to a space next to the workbench by the wall.

“Why?”

“Because. I haven’t forgotten why you’re here. I want you where I can see you.”

He understood. She was worried he might scope her password. He shrugged and moved into the space she indicated.

“Turn your back,” she said. He obeyed, then heard a rapid crunch of keys; a well-practiced password sequence. “Okay.” He came out of the space, unable to resist a look at the screen. Valerie was still entering commands, quickly, expertly, at a bash prompt.

“Oh cool, you’re running Linux.” ~Could be BSD,~ he amended quickly, but Valerie nodded.

“Uh-huh. So don’t get any ideas.”

“I wouldn’t–” The screen layout turned into a music playlist. It started playing instantly, and loudly, making him jump, until Valerie turned the volume down. Something by Manic Street Preachers.

“What distro is it?” he pursued.

“Deestro? Deestro? Wee don’t need no steenking deestro!” Valerie proclaimed proudly.

“You built it yourself from scratch?” Valerie grinned, then laughed at the expression that must have been on his face at that time. “How come?”

“Only way I can be sure it’s mine.”

“Cool.” He nodded. She moved away from the workbench. “I knew you had to be a hacker or something,” he said, wishing his voice would stop shaking, trying to sound normal.

“How? I mean, before now. I kind of get the idea I just blew my cover on that one.” Half a grin.

“Er…” Now he thought about it, he wasn’t sure. “Okay, I guessed. But it fits. Kindof. Stuff you knew.”

“Such as?”

“You’re too good at looping up Cat5,” he explained. She looked at him for a long moment, then chuckled.

“I, guess I am at that,” she admitted.

“So… What are you called?”

“Me? Valerie,” she answered, deadpan.

“Come on, you know what I mean. Online.”

She looked at him coolly. “That’s classified.”

That made him laugh a little.

“What?”

“Nothing. I know someone else who says that a lot.”

“Where? At home?”

He shook his head. “Online. That and ‘you are not cleared for that information,’” he intoned. “You know, like out of Paranoia.”

“Oh really?” She looked genuinely interested. “So who is she?”

He grinned. “That’s classified,” he said, enjoying it.

Her phone went off. Incoming message. “All right, smart-ass,” Valerie said, opening the phone and reading the SMS.

~How did she know Jester’s a she?~ Nathan wondered belatedly. Assumption usually went the other way. He reviewed what he’d said in case he’d actually said it, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t.

Valerie looked back up from the phone at him. “Did Mark do anything to you? Anything inappropriate, I mean?”

He was back in the nightmare. Mr. Kingsley looking at him. Complimenting him. Taking his arm to go in to dinner. “Um–” He scanned through his memory of the evening, trying to see if anything fell into the gaps. He was alone with him in the hall, after Valerie ran upstairs. Was there anything missing there? He probed the memory, one moment to the next, reliving the fear, looking for a discontinuity, a memory of going distant. ~Did I miss something?~ Mr. Kingsley had just showed him straight to the parlour door. It was over in a few seconds. He was sure of it.

“We need to know, Nathan.”

He shook his head.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” He nodded, and took a deep breath. “He kept looking at me though.”

Valerie nodded and started texting again. “You’re a lot better looking than he expected,” she explained. “He told me, while I was signing those forms.”

“Yeah?” Actually he’d said something like that at dinner too.

Valerie waited until she’d finished sending her response. “How do you feel about that anyway?” Valerie asked.

“What?”

“Oh you know. People saying you look good as a girl.”

“Oh.” He shrugged. “Dunno.” She looked like she was expecting more of an answer than that, so he thought about it for a few moments. “I thought everyone was just saying it, you know, to wind me up. Not like they meant it or nothing.”

“What did you think when you looked in the mirror?”

He thought about that too, and finally just shrugged again. “It reminded me of someone else,” he said.

“Who?” Valerie wanted to know.

He looked back at her. “No-one,” he said, eventually. “Long time ago.”

“In a galaxy far far away,” Valerie finished. He could smile at that.

The song ended, leaving them with a moment’s quiet. He felt the heat from the fan heater on his legs. He was starting to warm up now. He still felt shivery anyway.

The next song started.

“You were going to do it, weren’t you?” Valerie said quietly. “You were going to go through with it. With him.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” He thought he’d start shaking again if he did.

Valerie nodded.

“I didn’t think I had a choice!” he protested, belying what he’d just said. “I thought, you know, it was either that or I was going to go to prison. I can’t go to prison, Valerie, I’ll die! I thought… I thought I’ve got to or I’m going to end up dead in a pile of rubbish somewhere, like Gray–” He stopped himself going further in that direction. “I thought… if I co-operated, like, she’d make it easier, you know, than it had to be.”

He was right. He was shaking again. He tried to cover it by turning away to look at something else. Her motorcycle was in his way. That would do for something to look at.

“Who’s Gray?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said again. “Doesn’t matter. He’s dead.”

“Is that who you were reminded of?”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it!” he snapped, then belatedly realised he’d answered her question anyway. ~Shit.~

“Oh man,” Valerie whispered to herself, behind him. And, mercifully, she didn’t press him further.

“Wasn’t just him anyway,” he admitted, after a moment. “God. Haven’t thought much about any of ’em for years ’til I came here.”

“I’m sorry,” Valerie said to his back.

He shrugged and looked at her bike. It was something to look at.

“Did you want to talk about it?” Valerie tried.

“I said I didn’t.” ~Three times already.~

“Okay.”

The music played.

You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what common people do

“Nice looking bike,” he said.

“Out of this world,” she said quietly.

“Does it go fast?”

“Oh yes. You want to get on?”

“Can I? I mean may I? Oh God…” Even he had to laugh.

Valerie just snickered and came forward and round to the side towards which it was leaning. She put a key into the ignition and turned it one one stop to unlock the steering; then, with a practiced action, she pushed the bike back upright, kicked up the sidestand, then turned down the centre-stand with her delicately-shod foot and heaved the bike up onto it. She looked quite incongruous doing that in such a practiced way while in her evening dress. The front suspension forks stretched, but both wheels stayed on the ground.

“Okay, climb aboard. Don’t mess up your pettis.”

That took a little thought, but he managed it, standing on the footpeg, one hand on the nearest handlebar, and swinging his other leg over the back of the bike, like mounting a very small horse, then sitting with a kind of modified boomps-a-daisy, which was surprisingly difficult with his legs astride the bike. It gave Valerie a giggle anyway, but it did the job. The skirts settled around his thighs and the petrol tank and the pillion seat. Valerie gave him a little round of applause. The seat was cold on the backs of his thighs, and through his knickers.

“Thank you, thank you, you’re a wonderful audience,” he said, his other hand automatically landing on the opposite handlebar. “Cool.”

“Okay. Twist this, it goes fast.” Right handlebar. “Pull this,” right handlebar lever, “it slows down. Front brake. Step on this,” pedal just forward of the right footrest, “it slows down. Rear brake. Okay,” she moved around the front of the bike to the other side. Nathan was paying close attention. “Clutch,” left handlebar lever. “You know what a clutch does?” He nodded. “Okay. And gears,” the pedal-thing in front of the left footrest. “Click down to change up, put your foot under and push up to change down. Indicators, lights, speedometer, rev counter. That’s it. Easy.”

“Easy,” Nathan agreed in irony.

“Ohhh…” she said, looking at him.

“What?”

“Stay right there!” she directed, and headed towards the rear door again.

“What? Where you going?”

“Just getting some–” She stopped and diverted to the workbench and entered a short keystroke sequence to lock the screen. “Just getting something from the kitchen,” she finished and made for the door again. “Wait right there.” She let herself out.

Nathan heard her shoes tapping away and sat upright and stuck his hands in the jacket pockets. It was more comfortable with the corset on than leaning on the handlebars. He let his knee bounce in time to Blur playing on the speakers.

Street’s like a jungle
So call the police
Following the herd
Down to Greece — on holiday

“Oh I don’t believe it,” he muttered aloud, remembering the chorus. He chuckled and hitched up the pettis far enough out of the way to drum on his thighs and sang along when it came.

Girls who are boys
who like boys to be girls
who do boys like they’re girls
who do girls like they’re boys.
Always should be someone you really looooo–

Flash! “Augh, you cow!” he protested, seeing Valerie at the door with a camera to her eye. She’d caught him in full voice, God knew what kind of a dork he looked like. Or worse, sounded like. Valerie just cackled and made another flash. “Hey!”

***

“Listen,” Valerie said. She went to the workbench and turned the volume down to nothing. Nathan was still astride the motorbike.

“I don’t–” Yes, he did, he realised. Faint voices outside. Mrs. Thompson and Mr. Kingsley. Despite everything Valerie had said, he still felt the knot in his stomach again. The fear that they would come this way and open the door and find him there, with no-where to go, and that Valerie had set it all up and was just keeping him occupied until it was time. Then there was the sound of some last goodnights and a car door closing, followed almost immediately by a deep-throated growl of an engine being started. Light from the headlamps shone in briefly under the old wooden garage door, then the sound receded.

“You see?” Valerie said.

Nathan nodded and let out his breath. He hadn’t realised he’d been holding it. He stuffed his hands in the jacket’s pockets, using them to hold the jacket closed around him.

“I hope Jane didn’t tell him what you were thinking,” Valerie mused. “Poor Mark, it would kill him.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault,” she said firmly.

“But I–”

“You were put into a completely unfamiliar setting, that’s the point. You made the best sense out of it that you could. It’s Not. Your. Fault. They should have explained it to you. They should have made sure you knew you were safe here.”

Nathan looked at the dials on the handlebar. He tried to stop himself shaking. ~Safe here,~ rattled in his brain. He tried to catch it and nail it down. ~Safe here. Valerie said so.~

“We don’t have to go back to the house right away if you don’t want to. I imagine Jane will want to talk to you when we do.”

He shook his head. Not yet. The shaking was getting worse and he couldn’t stop it. Like a pressure wave rising up his throat, like he was going to be sick. He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and tried to stop.

And felt her arms coming around him, or trying to, and her leg against his, holding him awkwardly. He tried to shove her off. “No,” she said, very close to his ear as he struggled. “You need to. Come on, off the bike.”

“Leave me alone,” he mumbled, not trusting his voice.

“Oh don’t be such a boy,” she accused.

“Oh f-funny,” he muttered, but it did make him chuckle a little. Then he was laughing and he couldn’t stop. It was horrible and hysterical.

“Sh-sh-sh-sh,” Valerie said, still keeping an arm around his shoulders. He could only feel it remotely through the leather and armour. “Come on. Left leg over the tank.”

He sniffed wetly. “I’m such a fuckin’ crybaby,” he complained. Sometimes it felt like he’d done nothing else except cry and try not to cry since he’d arrived here. But he started to obey, bringing his leg up over the tank. Still wearing those white stockings.

“You’re allowed,” Valerie said. “Think of it as a perk of the school uniform. Got to be something it’s good for, right?”

“Heh. Boys don’t cry.” He sniffled again.

“Which is bullshit, by the way.” Valerie actually hooked her arms under his and pulled him the rest of the way off the bike and into her arms. Once there it was the most natural thing in the world to just hang on tight and cry, hard. His chest hurt with it. “You know there’s an old saying,” Valerie said into his ear. “‘Only men laugh, only men cry, only men dance.’ I’m not sure if it’s in that order,” she admitted. “Boys get such a lot of shit about that growing up, don’t they?”

He nodded against her shoulder. He couldn’t answer her any better than that. All the fear and confusion of the last few days blocked his throat. He hadn’t been so out of control for a long time. “I was so afraid!” he cried. He didn’t want to hurt her by gripping too tight but he couldn’t stop now. “I was so afraid!”

“I know,” she said into his ear. “I know.” She was holding him too tight as well.

“I was trying to be good. I was trying to do what she wanted. I thought… I thought…” ~I thought she wanted me.~ Her eyes on him. Her hands. Her attention. And him liking it, flattered by it.

“Shh.” Valerie rocked him slightly as he cried. It was almost like dancing.

***

“Guess what?” Valerie said.

“What?”

“Your make-up’s a mess.”

He snorted derisively.

“You feel up to going back inside yet?”

He glanced automatically towards the door. He shook his head.

“Okay,” Valerie said, nodding. She looked thoughtful for a moment, then returned to the workbench and retrieved her keyring and pressed the button that unlocked the Mercedes. Nathan jumped slightly at the chirp and the flashing lights.

“Where–?” he began.

“No-where. Just getting…” She opened the passenger door and reached into the glove compartment. “… This,” she finished, backing out again clutching a pack of cleansing wipes. “I thought you might want to get most of the goop off.”

She offered him the pack and he took three or four wipes and started scraping the muck off his face, just remembering to say “Thanks.” There was always more of the stuff than seemed plausible, when it came to trying to get rid of it. His face felt smeary and greasy for a while, but eventually he got it feeling fresh, and he couldn’t see much more colour on the wipes after he used them.

“You done?” Valerie asked.

“Think so.”

“Let me see?”

“Um…” He looked up as she came close again. She used a finger at his shoulder to turn him slightly towards the light and his heart pounded, remembering Mrs. Thompson doing the same thing.

“You okay?” Valerie asked.

“Um…” He shrugged. Valerie examined his face and got a fresh wipe and started on the bits he must have missed, and used her other hand to hold his head still. What she was doing was suddenly very familiar. ~She’s done this to me before,~ he realised, and made himself not jerk in startlement.

“You okay there?” she asked again.

He nodded.

“Still a bit jumpy, huh?”

He shook his head. “I just remembered something.”

She stopped and looked at him. “You left your machine at home dialled into a BBS in Japan?”

“Hah!” It made him grin.

“I gotta tell you, I think there’s a cute-looking fella under all that goop.”

“Don’t make fun of me.”

She looked at him seriously. “I wasn’t.” She smiled and pulled him into another hug. He didn’t have a problem with that at all. Hugging girls was nice, he decided.

***

Do you remember the time I knew a girl from Mars?
I don’t know if you knew that.

“But…”

“What?”

“Uh… that’s it?”

“That’s pretty much it, yeah.”

“But…”

Valerie’s laughter was the only sound, apart from the quiet music. She had pulled some blankets out of the boot of the Mercedes and laid them down on the concrete floor so they could sit down; Nathan cross-legged, Valerie more elegantly, supporting herself with one hand.

“No come on, be serious,” he pleaded.

“Sorry.” Grin.

“I mean, that’s stupid,” he protested. “She actually believes making me dress up like a girl is going to stop me being a hacker?”

“More to the point, the guy who caught you trying to get into that defence network and persuaded Mr. and Mrs. Shaw to send you here knows she can do it. Now, how do you think he knows that?”

He thought about that for all of three seconds.

“Holy shit!”

Valerie laughed again.

“You’re kidding?”

Valerie shook her head, still grinning. Then she turned serious. “I’m telling you this because I think you need to know. You don’t need to know anything that could identify him, so don’t waste time asking. He’s betting his career on Jane making it okay after the fact that he’s covering your ass, because he thinks you’ve got a lot of potential and he doesn’t want to see you go to jail, ’cause you’re going to be a reformed character, right? And he can think like that because of the times Jane’s done it before.”

~Oh.~ He felt his mouth almost form the word.

“And now it’s all gone horribly wrong and it’s not your fault. It’s just the perfect storm. If the stakes weren’t so high for you, or if I thought Jane was bluffing, I’d be taking you home right now and not sitting here trying to convince you you’re safe to go back in there. You understand?” He nodded. “You need to do the big thing here, Nathan. You’ve got every right to freak out and do the victim thing and no-one would think badly of you, but it’s not going to get you what you need. You need to stay and make this work.”

He nodded. “I-I guess.”

“You were supposed to be afraid,” she explained. “Not like this. It’s too much, and it’s all wrong. You weren’t supposed to be afraid of that.” He was shaking slightly again, but she shifted around suddenly to sit on her heels in front of him and took both his hands in hers. “It’s okay. Things aren’t always what they look like, okay? Sometimes in a good way.” He nodded, trying to stop the panic coming up again. “Oh…” she said sympathetically, and started to move to pull him into a hug again.

“No I’m okay,” he said, and sucked in air a couple of times. “I’m okay.” Much as it was nice to get hugs from pretty girls, it was kind of undignified in the state he was in. He wondered if thinking like that meant he was feeling better.

Valerie sat back again and nodded approvingly.

***

Valerie quietly led him back into the house and up the service stairs to his room. She went to get something from her own room, she said, and while she was gone, Nathan stood near the foot of his bed for a few moments, just trying to still his breathing again. Then he went to open the window. He noticed again how quiet the night was in the country. A moth came in and — well — moth-lined to the light, he supposed; which meant of course flitting around and bouncing off the furniture and the ceiling and the lightshade in pure mothish frenzy. “I’ll turn it off in a bit,” he promised quietly. ~And leave a little gap in the curtains so it can find the moonlight, when the moon rises.~

“I have here,” Valerie announced, coming back in through the open doorway, “the latest in organic-fibre home intrusion prevention technology.”

“Wha–?” She grinned and held up a wedge-shaped piece of wood. “Oh.”

“It’s a door-stop.”

“Yeah.” He reached for it. She tilted it up quickly out of the way.

“You gotta promise me,” she said, dead-serious now, “You’re not going to hurt yourself or do anything stupid.”

“Wh–? No of course not! I mean, no I won’t. I promise.”

She still held it back. “I’m trusting you. If you do something that means we need to get in here and we can’t, no more cookies.” He laughed at that, and her little wry smile. She was still serious.

“I’m okay,” he promised. “I don’t do that stuff anyway. Really. Never have.”

“You know what I’m talking about though,” she said. A statement, not a question.

He nodded. “My friend. He-He cuts.” He saw Valerie’s mouth twitch. “It’s horrible. I feel sick when I know he’s doing it. I’ll never do that.”

She looked hard at him for a long while, her intense blue-eyed gaze holding him transfixed. Finally she handed him the wedge. “Sleep well,” she wished him and turned to go.

“Do you think I really need this then?” he asked, to her back.

Valerie stopped. “If you mean do I think someone’s going to come in here and ravish you in your sleep, no.” She looked at him. “No, not a chance. But we haven’t earned that much trust from you yet. Clearly.” Her eyes showed a little of the same anger she’d shown earlier in the evening. “I want you to get a full night’s sleep. Things are always better when you’ve had enough sleep.”

“O-Okay.”

Her face softened again, one more smile. “Goodnight then, Natasha.”

***

They were still arguing when he came out of the bathroom and climbed into bed. He sat up in the dark and listened, his knees drawn up to his chest inside the nightdress. He couldn’t make out the words. Sometimes it would even fall silent for a while, and then he would hear their voices raised again. Gradually the silences stretched longer. He imagined they were just talking more quietly then, too quietly to hear anything.

Finally the silence lasted until he heard Valerie’s footsteps pass by his door towards her own bedroom, and the sound of her door closing quietly. He shuffled himself down under the sheets and let the weight of them press him down comfortingly. And he slept.

Notes:

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