The Taken: After A Fall, Chapter 1

Synopsis:
"You should have done this sooner"
Story:
***

“Jane?” Marie’s voice cut through Jane’s reverie. How long had she been watching her coffee? She looked up at the two concerned faces across the table. Iridescent midnight blue and purple glints danced off Valerie’s black hair where the sunlight fell across it. Jane schooled herself to meet the girl’s eyes; intense deep blue and no less striking than her hair.

Marie, a comfortable long-accustomed presence, sipped her black coffee quietly. They were sitting at the simple rustic table in the large slate-floored kitchen.

Jane suddenly realised this would be her last breakfast in this lovely cosy kitchen for a good long while. As long as there were students in the house meals would have to be taken in the formal dining room. She sighed regretfully. The table sat in the leaded glass bay window, offering a view of the garden. The trees in the overgrown orchard were laden with apple blossom. Where the morning sun shone through the petals one could see a faint tint of green in the brilliant white. ~It will be glorious here in the summer,~ Jane thought, distracted for a moment by the sight.

“Nervous?” Valerie offered. Jane nodded. No-one had to ask why. She was about to take on her first new student since the disaster the previous year. ~Nearly a whole year,~ the thought looped in her head. ~Ten months. When was the last time I went so long between students?~ She had meant to take a break for Darryl’s sake, until he went to college. Something always seemed to come up, some confluence of circumstances which sent another wayward child into her care with another good reason why she shouldn’t decline; just as it was happening now.

But this time she was thinking, ~I’m not ready for this.~

“You should have done this sooner,” Marie answered, as if hearing her thoughts.

“Not possible,” Valerie countered. “It couldn’t happen at the last place, and we’ve barely finished settling in here. It’s pushing it as it is.”

Jane sighed. It was going to be hard. Without Caro, without Sandra, without Betty Franson. There just hadn’t been the time to sound out all the nearby establishments and find enough suitable potential co-conspirators. The network in Westbury had been years in the making. Indeed, most of the recruits had been accidental, or opportunistic. It would have to be the housebound course, regardless of how the new boy might look. There just wasn’t the availability of known-safe opportunities to terrorise her charge outside. Of course, there’s no reason for him to know that. Let the fear that she might actually carry out veiled threats to take him out in public eat at him a little.

More than everything else, there was no-one to be the ‘big-sister’ to the new student this time. No peer mentor. No spy on the inside. Marie would have to substitute as best she could. What a shame Valerie wouldn’t countenance it.

“We should have waited another year,” she murmured. “It’s too soon.”

“It’s too late to back out now,” Marie said gently. “He’ll be on his way.” Jane nodded; she could feel a headache coming on. “And Reggie said this boy needed us,” Marie continued, and rested her hand on Jane’s for a moment. “We will manage, Jane. By the seat of our pants if we must.” She grinned. “We’ve done it before.”

It was true enough, Jane thought. ~In twenty-oh-how-many years? I must have taken everything these mons– children could throw at me, and sometimes in harder conditions than this. I’m just nervous because…~

She sighed, seeing the two youngsters in the police lights again, and the slick of blood, the cloying smell of it, and the mess of the exit wound across Julia’s face. She looked up at the two pencil portraits drawn by Eugenia, hanging framed on the wall near the table, and shook her head slowly. ~This is against my better judgement,~ she reminded herself, but Reggie had been so insistent. ~Dear man; of course he’d turned to me, and had been quite clear about what would happen to the boy if I refused. It wasn’t fair of him, and he knew it, but one can be excused a little unfairness to turn around a young life.~

She missed Art terribly. He’d come instantly if she called, of course, but like a fool she had insisted he stay and serve out the summer semester rather than let down his students. But then he’d come. Then he’d come, and maybe stay at last. So too would Diana. She wanted Art in her bed (this minute, for preference!) but she had to admit Diana was more fun to spend time with, easier with the children; even Valerie seemed to relax more easily around her.

She realised she had just been spoken to. “Sorry Valerie, I was–”

“Woolgathering?”

She smiled apologetically. “What were you saying?”

“I said, if you like, I could come to the station with you. I’m not doing anything else today.”

“Oh, would you? I’d take Marie but she needs to finish getting the house ready.”

Valerie grinned. “I’ll even dress up nice.” Jane recognised the gesture, and forgave the grammatical shortcoming. Valerie was still in the leggings, baggy overshirt and thick socks that seemed to have become her usual breakfast attire when she didn’t have to go in to college first thing. Her black hair was still curled and damp from a shower. That, too, would have to change while there was a student present. Standards had to be maintained, and Valerie had already agreed as much.

“Aren’t you seeing Mary today?” Marie teased.

“No, They’re going to Sunday dinner at her grandparents.” Valerie replied. Then she belatedly noticed the amused look in Marie’s eyes. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“We’re not–” Valerie started to protest, then gave up and concentrated on her breakfast. Jane saw a blush forming on the girl’s cheeks.

~Oh-ho? That was sharp of you, Marie,~ Jane thought. She’d been so preoccupied with the impending new arrival that she clearly hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on with her adopted daughter lately.

Valerie changed the subject. “Besides, I sorta wanna see this guy first, before you start taking him apart.” Valerie’s ambivalent feelings regarding Jane’s techniques were well known to her. “I’m kinda hoping he’s an asshole so I can feel good about it.”

“Valerie,” Jane remonstrated, letting her other voice in, “I hope you don’t intend to take that tone of voice around my students. I know you can speak with proper grace and decorum, is it too much to ask that you do so? And take your elbows off the table.”

“Attagirl,” Marie whispered into her coffee, not quite quietly enough.

“Yes, Jane,” Valerie answered contritely, placing her hands demurely in her lap. Then she ruined it by passing a wink to Marie.

~Damn the child,~ Jane thought fondly, ~she still underestimates my powers of observation.~ “And bless you both,” she added, aloud.

***

Valerie sat with Jane on the northbound platform of Cheltenham station. They were surrounded by the neglected beauty of Victorian ironmongery and worn creamy-white painted brickwork. It was surprisingly dingy under the canopy; the sun having to fight through years of ingrained dust on the skylights. A large faux-LED clock clacked away the seconds. An inactive information monitor stared blankly down at them. Everything was just a little run-down.

She felt a little of the old self-consciousness, sitting there in her notional ‘Sunday Best,’ seeing girls her age in jeans and sweaters, as she would have been normally were she to go out in this weather. She had a feeling they were watching her behind her back. She noticed her fingers absently tracing the relief pattern of the blue flowers embroidered on her dress, and forced her hands to instead lie still in her lap. It wasn’t a feeling she was used to any more.

In all fairness, Jane was no less conspicuous, once again back in governess mode. ~They probably think we’re God-Botherers,~ Valerie thought, remembering her own first impressions upon first seeing Jane and Charlene on the platform in Westbury. They had looked quaint and churchy even by American standards. Here, Valerie realised, in this far more secular country, their choice of clothing stood out even more like a costume. She wondered if Jane noticed it too.

She took out her Palm and started making notes. It had been a present from Art, and it fit in her smart handbag, unlike the Libretto, but in truth she hardly ever used it; only at times like this when her backpack wasn’t really appropriate attire. She was thinking about the paper file on the new student she’d scanned during the drive. It turned out he was a hacker. She wished Jane had warned her about that earlier. She was already making notes about the network security audit she now had to do when they got back home. Just in case. She reckoned her systems secure, but with what Nathan had been caught doing, she knew he was no script kiddie, and certainly not the kind of Neanderthal she had been expecting. She was prepared for an external attack, should one squeeze through the puny dialup connection, but she wanted to make sure that if he got his fingers on a keyboard inside the network, it wouldn’t get him anything. She’d already lectured Jane twice on not leaving her Powerbook unguarded and unlocked. Ever.

The train was late. This, to go by the faces of the passengers waiting to join it, was only to be expected. A machine had already apologised for the delay twice.

“So what’s with the train thing anyway?” Valerie asked. “It made some sense back home when you had to get halfway across a continent, but this kid’s folks could have driven him straight to the house and be back home for dinner.”

Jane smiled. “It accentuates their separation from home, and gives them some time to think on things on the way, such as why they’ve been sent to me. It encourages a level of introspection, as well as anticipatory fear, that would not be present if they were brought to my door by their parents in air-conditioned automotive comfort. It starts their symbolic journey with a literal one. There’s an added benefit in that it’s unfamiliar and tiring, especially as I make sure their parents don’t buy them first class tickets. It would work well enough if they arrived by air, but there’s a certain old-world charm about arriving someplace by train.”

“Or should be,” Valerie agreed. “This place is a dump. Admit it.”

Jane sighed, looking around again. “It’s such a shame. It really could be quite lovely, if they just took a little care. Even a few hanging flowers–”

“I think I hear it–”

“The train now arriving at platform two,” the loudspeaker blared suddenly, “is the eleven twenty-three Virgin Trains service for Glasgow Central, calling at Birmingham New Street, Stafford, Crewe…” Valerie found she was holding her fingers to her ears. The noise was intrusive, the announcement obviously assembled from pre-recorded parts, with slight pauses between each variable component. The train thundered into the station with a rush of air, blanking out the remainder of the announcement, and stopped. The engine noise subsided to a basso rumble. “I apologise for the late running of this service,” the recorded announcement finished. ~They made a machine to feel guilty for them,~ Valerie thought caustically, and stood to join Jane. They scanned the passengers as they disembarked.

“Well–” she began.

“Cheltenham Spa. This is Cheltenham Spa. The train now standing at platform two is the eleven twenty-three…” Valerie gave up and put her fingers back in her ears, to wait for it to finish. It didn’t look like anyone else was listening to it anyway. She watched the passengers on the platform politely waiting for those leaving the train to finish doing so, before they attempted to get on. The passenger-exchange complete, a platform guard checked along its length for any open doors, then raised a paddle where someone else could presumably see it, and blew hard on a whistle. The engine noise built up strongly again and the train started to move off; slowly, but rapidly picking up speed.

“Where is he?” Jane fretted as the disembarking passengers bunched around the exit. “Can you see him yet?” The train’s rear engine passed them, already moving quite fast, in a deafening howl of wind and a stench of diesel. Valerie grabbed the wide-brimmed sun-hat she was wearing to prevent it sailing away. ~I am failing to see the old-world charm in this experience,~ she griped silently to herself.

“There,” Valerie nodded in the direction she meant. Jane would think it unladylike to point, and now the new kid was in sight, she had to be an example. Right down the far end of the platform, a lone figure ambled slowly towards them, wearing a loose-fitting drawstring jacket with the hood down and baggy jeans and a woollen hat, with a carryall bag slung over his shoulder. ~He must have been in the frontmost carriage of the train.~ She caught the glint of glass or metal. “Dammit,” she swore, “he’s got glasses. That’s not in the file.”

“Details,” Jane muttered.

“Okay,” Valerie sighed. “Guess we’re on.” She noticed Jane seemed to be steeling herself. “Show no fear,” she added as they walked to meet the oncoming teenager. He looked even more underweight to Valerie than the photograph had implied; a little gangling and fragile. Her earlier rough conversion was right; he was, she reckoned when they came level, about her own height; maybe more if you accounted for his poor posture. Jane would make short work of that, she thought wryly.

The glasses suited him, she decided. Silver, round, thin-framed; they made him look studious rather than just nerdy as she would have expected. His hair, if anything, was even longer than it had been in the photograph in his file, scraped back into a ponytail tied at the nape of his neck. He eyed them approaching and stopped, warily.

“Excuse me,” Jane began, “are you Jonathan Shaw?”

He nodded, suspicion all over his face. Valerie found he was looking at her suddenly. Maybe interested, or just curious. She returned his gaze evenly.

“Jonathan Henry Shaw?” Jane asked carefully. Valerie was pleased Jane had remembered her exhortation to verify the kid’s full name.

“Uh, yeah.” He fumbled in a jacket pocket and produced a small dark red booklet. “Lindsey said to show you this.” He passed it across to Valerie.

“Remove your glasses please,” Valerie directed, looking at the picture in the passport. Nathan complied.

“Yeah, sorry. I’m only supposed to use them for reading anyway.” He smiled at her.

“And your hat.” It was cool, she thought, but not that cold. He complied with that too.

Valerie decided the picture was a match, and a match with the one she’d seen in the file. She nodded at Jane and handed it back to him.

“Excellent,” Right on cue, Valerie noted, Jane’s voice had stepped into a more authoritative tone. “I’m Jane Thompson, and this is Valerie, my daughter. You are to be staying with us this summer.”

“Yeah, I know. Er, hi, Miss Thompson” he said awkwardly, then stuck out his hand as if it was an afterthought. Valerie remembered to curtsey as she laid her hand in his. He was watching her, she realised, a little too intently for her liking. “Yeah, call me Nathan.”

~Not for long,~ Valerie thought, and tried to hide the grin. “Hello, Nathan,” she said aloud, nicely as she could manage.

“Look, um,” he started hesitantly, looking between them, “we’re not going to church are we?”

Valerie dipped her head so the hat brim would cover the sudden grin she couldn’t stop. She almost had to like him for that.

“I hadn’t planned to,” Jane replied, just as Valerie expected, giving her a slight jolt of déjá  vu. “But if you feel it necessary–”

“God no,” Nathan exhaled with relief. “I just thought, you know…” He visibly quailed under Jane’s cool regard. It was that look she had, that supernaturally steady ‘thought what, my dear boy, what other possible apparel would be appropriate?’ look that needed no utterance. Valerie forced her face under some sort of control and tried to match Jane’s expression. “I thought,” he struggled on, “I mean, this isn’t a religious school is it?”

“It is not,” Jane confirmed. “Do you have any religious observances of which I should be aware?” Nathan shook his head. “Is that all your luggage?”

“Er, yeah, this is it. The letter said not to pack much,” he added uncertainly.

“Indeed,” Jane said. “Very well, come along then,” She turned peremptorily to lead the way back to the exit. There were no porters to be seen, Valerie noted. Another black mark against the British railway system. Naturally, in Jane’s world, a girl would not carry a boy’s luggage, so she left Nathan to carry his own. He didn’t seem at all put out by it. He grinned at her behind Jane’s back as he hoisted up his bag again. Valerie chose to ignore it.

***

“I’ll show him up to his room if you like, Jane?” Valerie offered, coming round to Jane’s side of the car.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. Sooner you get to the sherry the better,” she added softly, then brightened her expression as Nathan stood up out of the car, still looking up at the second — ~no, zero-based indexing,~ she reminded herself — first floor windows. “If you’ll follow me,” she offered. “I’ll show you up to your room.”

They headed in through the large oak doors. “Jane will want to talk to you shortly about your stay here,” Valerie continued. They went through the entrance hall and up the wide staircase. She noticed he was only half paying attention to her, and mostly looking around at the fine Classical hallway. She led him down the landing and stopped, opening a door. “This is your room.”

Nathan walked slowly into the room and looked around. Valerie followed him in discreetly, getting a first look at the room herself since it had been redecorated. Marie had certainly done a job on it, she now saw. It made her want to run screaming, but then she knew what was coming. The walls were now a soft off-white pink; the tied-back curtains a rich, satiny pink with white lace detailing, a motif repeated on the double bed, its bedside tables, the dressing-table, the chest of drawers and wardrobes, and pretty much everywhere else that Valerie could see. A vase of sweet-peas sat sun-drenched on the wide windowsill, and a pastel of a ballerina in a long pink tutu looked down from the wall opposite the bed. The turned-down sheets on the bed had embroidered pink flowers on the hem. There was a teddy-bear on the pillow. With a bow.

Valerie waited for it.

“Are you sure?” Nathan finally asked.

“Yes, she was very particular. Leave your things here, she’s waiting for you now.”

Nathan took a few more moments to gaze around the room, his expression unreadable, then he unshouldered his holdall and let it drop by the side of the bed, unzipped his jacket and twisted out of it, draping it carelessly on the bed itself before turning back to her. Underneath the jacket he had a baggy dark grey sweater. “Okay. Where do I go?”

“Follow me.” She stood aside to indicate he should leave the room, and he did so. And that was it. He’d made no attempt to stow the bag, no pretext to get her out of the way so he could do so. Not that she would have left him unattended, but he hadn’t even attempted it. Either he wasn’t as smart as his reputation, she thought, or he simply wasn’t trying. The latter was more worrying: it probably meant that whatever kit he needed or wanted to keep wasn’t in the bag, but about his person already. ~And I bet Jane won’t let me search him properly,~ she thought. ~Where’s Marie? Making lunch, of course. Jane, you haven’t thought this through! If this kid’s half the hacker I was, you can’t leave him alone for a second.~

***

Marie crossed the open entrance hall and smiled briefly at the worried-looking boy sitting on the bench next to Valerie and knocked on the parlour door, waited a moment, then entered and closed the door behind her.

“Well,” Jane started, “he took the ultimatum.”

“They always do,” Marie answered smugly, taking one of the comfortable seats. It was almost true. “Lunch is all prepared,” she continued. “Valerie offered to serve and I accepted. It will be a great help. I’d forgotten how many more places one has to be at once with no big sister around to help.”

Jane nodded. “Indeed. I wonder what brought this on though. She was so adamant she wanted nothing to do with the new student.”

“Oh, Valerie believes he should not be left unattended for a moment. She’s outside now, standing guard over him in the hallway.” Jane’s eyebrow rose at that news. “She says, and I quote, ‘I want him out cold and out of those clothes a.s.a.p. so we can neutralise the threat potential.’” Marie rolled her eyes and returned to her normal accent. “Anyone would think we haven’t done this before.”

“Quite,” Jane nodded again, sharing a smile full of memories with Marie. “Valerie has yet to learn the art of finesse, it seems. However, I think I see her point. The boy is an expert with computers and electronics. I believe she sees something of herself in him, and of course she knows what she would do in his situation.”

“Or did do.”

“I’m probably better off not knowing,” Jane agreed. “So, I’m prepared to take her counsel on this — short of taking such extreme measures as to defeat the purpose of having him here. Very well, you had better bring Nathan into lunch and keep an eye on him. If you would show Valerie in as well; I sense she’s itching to tell me something.”

Marie smiled and got up.

***

Valerie looked up as the door opened again. “Jane will see you now,” Marie informed Valerie, apparently catching on to the appointment fiction. “So,” she addressed Nathan directly for the first time, as Valerie rose from the bench, “you must be Nathan.”

“Yes,” Nathan assayed, bobbing his head. Valerie knocked once and entered, shutting the door on the conversation behind her.

“Marie will keep a close eye on him,” Jane reassured her before she could speak, and indicated the comfortable chair Marie had just vacated. Valerie sat. “Need I remind you that she and I have been doing this since before you were born,” she added gently.

Valerie bridled at that and was about to retort vociferously, but remembered in time who she was talking to. She composed herself and counted off on her fingers: “One: ATM card. Two: Fake ID. Three: Big pile of Vivarin. Four: Cosmetics and a blonde wig. Five: Key-making kit. Six: Telephone linesman’s kit. Seven: Modem. Eight: Laptop computer. Nine: Various networking cables and adapters and tools. Ten: Security chain. I could go on, but I’d have to start counting toes.”

Jane looked at her, aghast. “Good Lord! He brought all that with him?”

“No. I did, last year, and you never found any of it. By the end of the first night I had a key to my own room. By the end of the third I’d emailed home. By the end of the fifth I was on the loose and listening to your phone conversations.” Jane looked appalled, giving Valerie a bad moment of déjá  vu. “So please don’t patronise me, Jane.”

“So,” Jane said calmly. “What did you find in his bag?”

“Nothing,” Valerie admitted unhappily. “Clothes, basic toiletries, letter from a girlfriend, I think. Nothing. That’s what scares me.”

“Oh?”

“The security I put in was meant to stop the kind of kid you’re supposed to get here normally, not a serious hacker,” Valerie explained. She had taken charge of the physical security arrangements since the move. The doors had proper locks these days, tied into an integrated house security network. “Luckily I believe in overengineering, but anyone can design a system they can’t break themselves.” She still wanted to get downstairs into the server room in the basement and check everything over again. Just in case. And maybe pull all the dark cable out of the patch panel while she was at it. “I don’t think I could defeat my own security now, and I know me-a-year-ago couldn’t have gotten away with it. I should have found something. I should have caught him out already. There’s something I’ve missed that he’s going to find because he thinks differently to me.”

“Perhaps not,” Jane said gently. “It’s entirely possible he’s brought nothing at all.”

“No,” Valerie shook her head. “It’s still on him. Either that or he stowed it in the car on the way back. I’ll check that later.”

“Valerie,” Jane pressed, “consider. Just consider, that he might not have brought any hacking equipment at all.” Valerie just sighed impatiently. “You said yourself he’ll think differently to you. Just consider the possibility that this extends to not coming prepared for an escape. Think about this: You thought you were going to a boot camp.”

“So did my parents.”

“Yes, but the point is, I’m sure you felt that would be a very hostile environment, so you came prepared for that. There’s not such a tradition here of sending one’s children away for the summer. I’m certain boot camps or anything like them are almost unheard of, except as the sort of crazy thing ‘Yanks’ get up to.” She smiled wryly. “If anything, I think Nathan is expecting this to be no more than a specialist school; an impression no doubt reinforced by this still being term-time, as you know.” Valerie nodded at that. The British three-term system took some getting used to.

“So?”

“So, without knowing what he’s getting into, or expecting worse than classroom boredom, why would he go to such lengths as you? Not to mention that he lacks your rather singular upbringing.”

“You mean my parents were nuts?” Valerie challenged.

“I would never say such a thing,” Jane protested. A smile teased at the corner of her mouth. Valerie couldn’t help but chuckle. “I’m asking you just to consider the possibility he came with nothing, before this becomes an obsession with you. For my part, I hear what you’re saying, and Marie and I will take every reasonable precaution. Do we have an agreement?”

Valerie thought about it, and nodded finally.

“Very well then. Shall we go through?” She stood. Valerie matched her, starting for the door.

“Did Marie say? I’ll serve lunch. I know how busy Marie would be otherwise.”

“Yes, she said, and that it was much appreciated, thank you.”

“Just don’t use me as an example, okay? I’m not doing the Big Sister thing. This is just ’til you get him separated from his stuff.”

“All right,” Jane conceded. “I’ll try to remember.” Valerie opened the door. “Oh, and Valerie,” Jane called lightly, “don’t forget: the blue glass.”

Valerie frowned. “Oh, didn’t I ever tell you? I’m red-blue colourblind.”

With that she dived through the door before Jane could answer.

***

Jane sniffed at the sherry in the red glass Valerie had placed before her. She hoped the gesture looked appreciative rather than suspicious. “Thank you, Valerie,” she remembered to say. ~Red-blue colourblind indeed,~ she tried to reassure herself. ~No such thing, I think. Even if it did exist, colourblindness only affects males, doesn’t it?~ She watched as Valerie placed the blue glass by Nathan’s right hand. ~Anything is possible with that one,~ she had to concede. ~And did she notice that time I pointed something out about her behaviour to Nathan? It was just old habit…~ “I welcome you to my house,” she continued, forcing herself to calm. ~She wouldn’t. Surely. Not really.~

~Would she?~

She took a sip. It tasted excellent, as usual. She waited until Nathan, too, had taken a sip, trying to tell herself her more mature, experienced palate would be able to tell the difference. ~Onwards, then.~ “May you find it educational, and ultimately rewarding,” she added, and drank again. He took another sip, and still didn’t thank either Valerie or herself. Well then, it was time for a short lecture. Already her thoughts were moving ahead, with delicious anticipation, to the moment of putting him in petticoats for the first time.

She talked on, having extracted a word of gratitude on Valerie’s behalf, gradually flattening her voice as she did so towards a soporific monotone pitched just so to help the youngster across the table drift towards sleepfulness. He didn’t look like he needed much help. On about Nathan’s third yawn, she caught herself attempting to stifle a yawn of her own. ~She did it, the little monster,~ Jane thought suddenly. ~She doped both glasses.~ “Jonathan, you seem tired from your journey,” she said, fighting back another yawn. “Why don’t you go up to your room for a short nap, and we’ll continue later?”

Nathan yawned again and mumbled. She thought — wonder! — that it might have been a thank you. Then he stood, unsteadily, and tried to leave the room. When he actually staggered at the doorway Valerie dashed forward to help him, and disappeared with him.

“He hardly touched his food, you know,” from Marie, surprising her. She was collecting up the dishes already. She came back down the table, showing Jane the cheesecake in Nathan’s dish. It looked almost untouched.

“Yes,” Jane answered, frowning. “I did notice–” She had to interrupt herself with a yawn. Marie looked at her curiously.

***

By the time they reached the top of the stairs Valerie was almost carrying Nathan. She was glad she’d decided against exceeding the sedative dose that Marie had specified. If the normal dose was hitting him this hard, that could have been a serious mistake. His weight was surprisingly easy to support. He was dopey and still trying to make his own way, rather than actually out cold, so she lost no time steering him to his room.

“Bin drugged,” he slurred. “Where you takin’ me?”

“Bed, that’s all. Come on, nearly there.”

“Scared. Don’ drug me.”

“It was just a glass of sherry. You’re too skinny, you know? You can’t take your drink, is all.”

Nathan shook his head violently, and would have fallen over without Valerie to stop him. She guided him into his room and straight to his bed. “Pink,” he muttered in apparent disgust. “Fuckin’ put me in a girl’s room.”

“Shush. Sit down.” She had him by the bed. He sat heavily.

“Feel sick.” He tried to get away from her.

“Oh no you don’t,” she said, catching him.

“Not drunk,” he insisted. “Drugged. Oh shit. Oh shit.” She tried to shush him. “What was it?” he demanded. “What’re you gon’ do to me?”

“Nothing. I’m going to help you get into bed and you’re going to sleep it off. That’s all.”

“Don’ lie to me! What was it?” He was edging into real panic.

Valerie made a decision.

“It’s just a light sedative. That’s all it is, I swear it, just to help you take a nap. It hit you harder than it should have ’cause you’re underweight and you didn’t eat much, okay? You hearing me?” She waited until he nodded. “You’ll wake up in a couple of hours and you’ll be right here.”

“Don’, don’ leave me?”

Valerie sighed. She didn’t need this.

“Please?” He was fighting it, hard.

“All right.”

“Promise.” Like a child.

“Yeah, I promise. Arms up,” she directed. She was trying to get his sweater off. Nathan obeyed sluggishly.

“What’re you doing?”

“Getting some of these clothes off you. You’ll be more comfortable.” It was true, Valerie told herself, even if it also gave her a chance to frisk him lightly and get the clothes with the most potential for concealed stuff away from him. His fingers were clenched, she found, nails digging deeply into his palms.

“No!” he wailed, slightly belatedly. His head was in the upturned sweater, the T-shirt he had on underneath riding up. She could see ribs and a narrow waist. His belt was loose about his hips. He tried to resist, yanking his arms down, but Valerie had babysat seven-year-olds, and Nathan didn’t have her strength. “NO!” he managed again, more forcefully as his head came clear. Pulling his head backwards through the sweater’s neck had dislodged his ponytail. “STOP!” His hair clouded down around his face, crackling with static. As soon as his hands were free, he grabbed the sweater and hugged it to his chest, like a teddy-bear. ~Such thin arms…~

“Hey!” she got his attention, “what do you think I’m going to do?” He didn’t reply, but his look told her he expected it to be bad. “You know what it’s like when you sleep with all your clothes on; you’ll be rank.”

Nathan wavered, adrenaline starting to lose the battle with the sedative and the alcohol and Valerie’s logic.

“So are you going to help me take your pants off now, or am I going to have to do it myself when you’re asleep?” He gave her another panicked look. “Trousers!” Valerie corrected, remembering where she was. “Just your jeans, okay?” She thought she might be on to something. He seemed really not keen to let these clothes out of his sight. ~Told you, Jane. He’s got stuff on him.~

But Nathan fumbled at his belt, undid the button and zip, then tried to get up, turning away from her, supporting himself on the side of the bed as he ineffectually pulled at the sheets. Valerie turned him back to sit him down again. “Shoes first,” she muttered, and pulled his trainers and socks off, then helped him get the jeans down his legs and away. He turned immediately to the bed again, and tried to crawl under the covers. “Man, I see what you mean,” Valerie quipped, seeing his garishly patterned underwear. “Those boxers are hurting my eyes.” The tie-dye T-shirt wasn’t much better but was at least in a more muted clash of colours. Nathan ignored her, curling up on his side into a ball, his back towards her.

Asleep.

Valerie dropped the jeans on the floor and watched him for a few moments, then reached over him and rearranged his limbs into a proper recovery position, tugging his sweater free and by the way taking a moment to finger the elasticated belt of the boxer shorts for anything concealed. His skin was smooth and cool to the back of her hand. ~Really out,~ she decided. The way he’d been panicking a minute ago, she was sure he’d have objected to her doing that otherwise. Then she pulled the covers up over him and tucked him in.

Once that was done, her attention could turn to the clothes on the floor. “Right,” she said grimly. “Got you.” But the jeans only held his passport, a creased up train ticket, and his wallet, and that didn’t contain anything it shouldn’t. The sweater was, on inspection, just a sweater, and the trainers, similarly, didn’t appear to have been modified by anything other than time and use. She almost threw the whole lot at him in disgust and frustration.

He was deeply asleep, snoring lightly. She watched him for a few more moments, then went to her room and returned quickly with her Libretto and a first aid kit. She didn’t like how hard he’d gone down to the sedative and the epinephrine that were supposed to be for her gave her the option of bringing him up again in a hurry if she decided he needed it. She plugged into the RJ45 under the window-seat and settled in to do that network audit.

***

Marie appeared in the doorway. “Oh, Valerie, you’re here. Jane was wondering.” She carried a sheer satin gown draped over one arm. “She thought you might have drugged her sherry too.”

Valerie pretended indignation. “Would I do such a thing?” Marie just chuckled. Valerie nodded towards the bed. “He went down too hard. I thought I’d better keep watch.” She raised the first aid kit and waved it. “Got Eppys, in case.”

“Is he all right?”

“Just sleeping. I don’t think he’s waking up any time soon.”

“Hmm.” Marie deposited the gown on the bed and bent to pick up Nathan’s discarded clothes. She watched Nathan’s sleeping face for a few moments. He had turned in his sleep a couple of times, which was a good sign, Valerie supposed. He seemed so small and delicate amidst the bed linens. One thin arm rested outside the covers, pale almost to blueness. “He’s so thin. We might have problems finding things to fit.” She touched the back of her hand to his shoulder for a moment, then quietly lifted the covers and eased his arm under.

“Have you and Jane had an anorexic before?”

“I wouldn’t jump to conclusions, Valerie. There’s more than one explanation for a child being underweight.”

“Yes, I know. But have you?”

Marie nodded, still watching at Nathan sleeping. “In retrospect,” she elucidated. “Back then most people didn’t believe it happened to boys, ourselves included.” She sighed. “But all’s well that ends well, and it did. Don’t worry, Valerie, we know better than to try bullying him into eating.” Valerie nodded doubtfully. Marie must have seen her hesitation, because she sat down on the bed, clutching Nathan’s clothing in front of her. Nathan reacted slightly to the shift in weight-disposition in the bed, but didn’t wake. “I’ll admit it was difficult for a while. We didn’t really know what we were dealing with, and if it hadn’t been for Antonia we might have done some real harm. You know how Jane can be when she thinks her student is just being stubborn and wilful.” Valerie smiled ruefully.

“Antonia?”

“The big sister.”

“Ah.”

“She stood up to Jane and won, believe it or not.”

“It’s been known to happen.”

Marie smiled. “Well, yes. In this case it was agreed Jane would stop pressuring Annabel to eat more than she was able to, but simply to accept that and go on with the programme.” Valerie nodded. “It would be nice to say that Annabel started eating more from that day on. Of course it wasn’t that simple. But I think overall we did some good there.”

“The patented J. Thompson miracle Anorexia cure,” Valerie said waspishly. “She’d make a mil– Oh wait, she doesn’t need to.”

Marie smiled. “Oh, it wasn’t a cure. As I said, it wasn’t until later that I think we understood what had been the matter. But if Anders left us feeling he could take control of his own life, and wanting to get better, then maybe it was a start.” She shrugged.

“So you don’t think he shouldn’t have been there at all?”

“Well, we’ve had a number of students who probably shouldn’t have been sent to us. Somehow it always seems to turn out that they were exactly where they needed to be, doesn’t it, Valerie?” She smiled knowingly and stood to go. “Could you let Jane know when he’s awake?”

“Sure.”

“Thank you. And don’t worry. Jane won’t continue the programme if she doesn’t feel it can do any good.”

***

Jane leaned back in her old, comfortable leatherbound chair and looked across the desk at Nathan. He didn’t meet her eyes. It would be uncomfortable for him to do so anyway, she knew: The large palladian window behind her chair would see to that. She had chosen the upper-storey room for her study for that specific reason. It looked out from the front of the house, over the front door, to the line of poplars that marked the start of the old, now overgrown, straight driveway to the front gate; a relic of a more classical sensibility.

“It is time we began your lessons,” she began, steepling her fingers in a manner that came easily from familiarity. The gesture helped to steady her against the surge of anticipation rising inside her, like a vibration she could almost feel through her fingertips. ~It’s been too long,~ she thought, warningly. “You have had an opportunity to think about our earlier conversation. I might add I found your behaviour at lunch quite unmannerly, but that merely confirmed my earlier impressions.”

She would have said that almost regardless of his actual behaviour, of course. It would be almost impossible to not appear unmannerly in comparison to the standards of behaviour she would soon be demanding. At least he hadn’t wolfed his food down at the table. Rather too much the opposite.

“But,” she continued, “I am convinced we will have it out of you by Tuesday. Two days hence,” she reminded him. “That is the last day I will tolerate poor conduct from you. After that it is, as I said, out of my hands.”

He just sat there, silently, seemingly subdued already by having been made to wear that robe. He still, maddeningly, would not look at her, glancing down and to the side. She wanted to upbraid him on that, but, for now, that would be a sign of weakness. He was listening, she knew, and she would have his undivided attention in a very short time now.

Her heart almost skipped at the thought.

“Now, I am going to give you a brief overview of the routine, Jonathan, and you will hear me out. That promise of compliance I exacted from you earlier is decisive and final.” The words flowed out automatically, almost without her needing to think about it, so rehearsed it had become over the years. She could give almost her whole attention to watching Nathan’s reactions. “After you have heard me you will choose either to comply, utterly and without fail, or you may leave now. As you are.”

Nathan sighed then, and looked at her briefly, then nodded. He was shivering.

“First of all, that garment you are wearing: You didn’t like putting it on, did you?” He shook his head, still mute. ~I can’t have subdued him that much already,~ Jane wondered, almost disappointed. ~It’s almost too easy.~ “Tell me, how does it feel, wearing that gown? It feels nice, does it not?”

He looked at her again, hard and bitter. “No. I want my own clothes back.”

“They have been put away until such time as I decide you may have them,” Jane said with practiced certainty.

“Why?”

“Because I wish it,” Jane said shortly. “Describe to me how you are feeling, wearing that gown.”

He just stared at her, mouth working for a few moments as if he would object more forcefully. “I’m cold,” he said, eventually. She could see his shivering in the shimmer of the sheer fabric, although he seemed to be trying to hide it, hugging himself tightly, as he had since putting the gown on. She experienced a moment of hesitation. He was so clearly underweight, and May afternoons here weren’t as warm as she was used to. His physical discomfort would be pushing out other considerations right now– “Look, what’s going on?” he started up, belatedly. “First you, you take my stuff, and you put me in that girl’s room and you say that’s my room, but it’s full of girls’ stuff, and girls’ clothes, and you make me wear this stupid thing and I’m freezing!” Now, at last, she was seeing a proper reaction.

“That is your room,” Jane said carefully and deliberately, “and those clothes are all for you.”

He went very still. He even stopped shivering, then he looked up at her; pure hate in his eyes.

Jane regarded him coolly. “Well,” she said, “here we are at the heart of the matter. You heard me mention petticoat discipline before lunch; I have decided this is the approach I am to take with you. While you are here you will be wearing those clothes, and such other feminine attire as Marie or I select for you, and you will learn to comport yourself in all respects as a young lady of my household.”

Nathan’s eyes had widened as she spoke, staring at her with growing dread. Jane smiled pleasantly and waited.

“You’re joking.”

“I assure you, I am entirely in earnest.” Jane held in a slight feeling of disappointment. She had expected more of a protest than that. “In fact, less than an hour from now, you won’t recognise–”

Nathan propelled himself to his feet with such violence that the chair toppled sideways. By the time it clattered to the floor he was at the door, struggling with it for a moment before opening it and escaping through.

“Tally-ho,” Jane said to herself quietly. “That’s more like it.” She heard his bare feet receding across the landing and down the stairs. She swivelled in her chair to put herself in reach of the security console and, quite unhurriedly, opened the facia panel and locked down the internal doors. The front door she left unlocked. Then she got up and followed Nathan out of the study.

She found Nathan sitting at the bottom of the stairs, staring morosely at the front door. “That was an extremely poor show of manners, Jonathan,” she called down calmly as she descended. “I did not dismiss you.”

He stood to face her. She paused a quarter of the way up. “I want my things back.”

“You won’t be needing them here.”

“I’m not staying here!” he protested. “You said I could leave. You said I could leave!”

“And so you may. By all means attempt to make your way home, but you will have to do so dressed as you are. I will courier your ‘things’ home to your mother on Tuesday.” Monday being a bank holiday.

“She’s not my mother!” he screamed back. “Are you fucking insane? It’s freezing out there! I haven’t got any money!”

“Well then, this is the choice you have before–”

“What’s she told you about me?”

~Interesting…~ Jane thought. Aloud she only said “Enough, Nathan.”

“What did she say about me?! Did she put you up to this?”

“I assure you, Mrs. Shaw and I discussed your needs at great length.” ~Carefully, Jane,~ she told herself. ~There’s something here you don’t know.~

“I don’t need nuffink!”

“Among them an improvement in your spoken grammer,” Jane snapped rather tartly. “You write well enough–”

“Fuck off, you cunt!”

~Oh, you’ll have to try harder than that to shock me, young man,~ she thought. “Really, Jonathan, is that the best you can do? I had hoped someone with your grades in English would be capable of a little more invective flair.”

He looked at her, nonplussed for a moment. “Plough thine own dusty furrough,” he said after a little thought.

Jane blinked once, then she had to laugh out loud. She turned it into an applause. “Very good, Nathan, that’s much better. Do you have any more?”

He stared hate at her. “Yes.”

“Then please go on. I’d like to hear them.” He stayed silent. Exactly as she’d intended. “Well, much as I’ve enjoyed our petite plaisanterie sur l’escalier we really must get on.” She sighed dramatically. “Very well,” she said, as if making a concession, “if you wish, I shall have your things brought down and you may change into your own clothes. I shall have to report that you have refused my programme. On your first day here, I shall add. The rest will, I suppose, be up to law enforcement.” As she spoke she had watched the expression on his face shift through relief to stark fear. “Come to think of it,” she pressed, “we might as well drop you off at the station.” She held his gaze. “Now, if you’ll excuse me I have some phone calls to make.” She turned to go back up the remaining stairs to her study.

“Wait!” he called. She ignored him. “You can’t do this!” His voice raised to a nervous shout. “It’s not fair!”

She stopped and turned back to him, surprised to find him halfway up the stairs between her position and the bottom, still clutching the gown around him.

“I have been doing this for many years, Nathan. I have a long and successful record of bringing order and discipline to confused, chaotic young minds. I have — indeed I insist upon — a great deal of latitude in the techniques I may employ.” The remaining colour drained out of Nathan’s face at her words. “I have decided on the technique I shall use with you. This is not a matter for negotiation. You will either submit to my instruction in every detail, or you will be in police custody before the day’s end. Now, I will hear your decision shortly in my study.”

She didn’t wait for an answer, but continued up to the study, closing the door and leaving it unlocked.

***

There was a quiet knock on the study door. Jane smiled to herself and waited a full fifteen seconds. It would seem a lot longer to the child on the other side of the door. “Come in, Jonathan,” she called.

The door opened only enough to admit Nathan. He stopped just inside, his hand still on the door, as if keeping the option to run away again.

“Have you decided?” she asked.

“I’m… I’m not chaotic,” he said.

“Really?” ~Odd that he should object to that in particular,~ she thought. “And what do you have to say to the behaviour that resulted in your being sent here?”

“I…” He swallowed. “I don’t deserve to die,” he whispered.

“Of course you don’t.” ~He’s afraid of going to jail then,~ Jane thought. ~Well, that’s not so surprising.~

“You want me to dress up like a girl,” he accused.

“That is what I said, yes.”

“You’re going to… You’re going to make me be a girl?”

~Ah,~ Jane thought. “Is that what you’re afraid of?” She chuckled aloud.

“It’s not funny!” he protested.

“Jonathan,” she said, almost kindly, “you give me too much credit. That is not within my power. No, you, dear young man, are going to be a delightful and winsome little boy in skirts. You are going to learn to make yourself pretty for me, and to comport yourself with grace and decorum as would befit a young lady of my household.”

He blinked at her. “That’s it?”

Jane arched an eyebrow. “I’m sorry if it’s a comedown from whatever murderous fantasy you were entertaining, Jonathan, but I assure you it will be quite challenging.”

“But…” he stammered, “but that’s stupid. What’s that supposed to achieve?”

“Your rehabilitation into society. Complete this course to my satisfaction and your slate will be wiped clean. You already know the only alternative open to you. And I frankly don’t care if you think that it’s stupid or pointless, or if you believe me or not. All I require from you at this time is your obedience.” During her speech she had gradually moved up to join Nathan at the doorway. Now she was standing immediately in front of him. He hadn’t run. With deliberate presumption she brought his head up with a finger under his chin, to make him look at her. “You agreed to as much before lunch, if you recall. I’ve been more than patient with you. It’s time to begin.”

“N-Now?”

“Now.” She took control of the door. “Come with me.” She placed a hand firmly on his shoulder and began to direct him back out towards his room.

***

When Jane knocked once and opened the en-suite bathroom door, Marie was already inside, changed into a white uniform and running a hot bubble bath. Nathan baulked and backed up against Jane. If she hadn’t been barring his exit, she thought, he might have bolted again. “Now then, Jonathan,” she said, resting a hand on his shoulder to stop him trying to run, “before we begin you will bathe. I want you spotless for your first lesson. Cleanliness is the rule in my house. Now–”

“I had a shower this morning,” Nathan began.

“Don’t interrupt me.”

“Is she going to stay in here?” he demanded.

“I should certainly think not. Although if you fail to finish in the time allotted, or if I find you have been less than thorough, we will finish the job properly.”

“Like hell.”

“The best way to prevent it is to do the job properly yourself. Now, as I was going to say before you rudely interrupted me,” she started leading him to the bath, just as Marie leaned over the other side and turned the taps off. “I want you to scrub thoroughly from head to toe, including under your finger and toe nails.” She grabbed his hand and raised it, to point out the small amount of grime that had found its way under his fingernails. “This is entirely unacceptable. I also want you to shave closely…” She dropped his hand, to catch his chin again. “Hmm.” She turned his face to the side briefly, and stroked his cheek, seeing him blush under the scrutiny, but he wasn’t bolting. ~A fine, delicate bone structure,~ she was thinking, ~under not enough flesh.~ But she was already picturing how its potential could be brought out by make-up, especially once those too-strong eyebrows were dealt with, and something done with his hair, which was long, but straight and lay flat against his scalp, pushed carelessly behind his ears. “You haven’t started shaving yet,” she observed, matter-of-factly. He shook his head angrily, using the movement to break free of her hand at his chin. ~Yes,~ Jane was thinking to herself, ~quite underdeveloped; which on a practical level makes things easier for us, of course, but can indicate other problems for which we need to be alert.~ She had not missed his curt, angry reaction to what she’d said. Narrow shoulders; thin arms and legs and neck. “Very well. However, your legs are suffering some unsightly hirsutism,” she exaggerated. “This is not acceptable. You are to shave them carefully, and any other exposed hair on your body. There is a razor and shaving gel provided. Do you need instruction on how to use them?”

“No.” Just that, curt and defiant still.

~Well, he’ll be able to figure it out,~ Jane thought, unconcerned. “All right, then I’ll assume you won’t need any more time. Furthermore, you will wash your hair using this shampoo,” she pointed to one of the two plastic bottles on the bath shelf, along with the paraphernalia of shaving, “and this conditioner. I want you to be quite clear: you wash first with this,” she pointed at the shampoo again, “then rinse, then with this.” Nathan sighed impatiently. “You have thirty minutes. If you dally, I assure you, Marie and I will be coming in here to finish the job. Now,” she turned him slightly to face the heated towel rack. “You see on the towel rack there is a pair of panties. After you finish bathing you are to put those panties on before returning to your room. I don’t really care if you don’t put that gown back on, but you will wear the panties, am I understood?”

Nathan looked at the delicate-looking feminine underwear draped on the towel rack next to a large fluffy towel. His expression told her he understood all too well. Nevertheless, she could not have him ignoring her. “Am I understood?” she asked again, firmly. He nodded and tutted angrily. “The response is ‘yes Mrs. Thompson,” she reminded him.

“God, can’t we just get this over with?”

“‘Yes, Mrs. Thompson,’” she insisted. “And your half-hour starts now.” She noted Marie checking her watch, but made no move to leave the room, not until he said it. He soon got the idea.

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson,” he singsonged rebelliously.

“Not like that,” Jane said. “I will not tolerate your sarcasm, Jonathan. It’s a deeply unpleasant, unbecoming trait of which I mean to cure you quickly. Your thirty minutes are ticking by, but I’m not leaving until you say it properly, without that nasty whining tone in your voice. It’s your choice, if you prefer that we remain here while you bathe rather than answer me in a civilised manner, I’m quite prepared to oblige.”

He was almost shaking with fury. ~Good,~ she thought. But it had been the second time he’d tried to fight her with sarcasm and that wouldn’t do. ~Just don’t let him be an exhibitionist now…~

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson,” he said again, his voice flat and quiet.

Jane nodded, affecting disappointment. “Indeed. I suppose that will have to suffice for now. Come along, Marie.” She swept out, knowing Marie would be at her back.

“I thought for a moment he was going to call your bluff,” Marie said quietly after the door was closed.

“What bluff?” Jane murmured, and smiled her most predatory smile. “Now, time’s pressing on.”

***

“Nearly thirty minutes, Jane,” Marie observed. “He’s cutting it fine.”

Jane nodded. She was starting to think Nathan might become the second student to test her threat to come in and finish bathing him when she heard the heavy gulp of the plug being pulled and the sloshing of someone getting out of a bath. Any further sounds from within were drowned by those of the Victorian retrofitted plumbing moving the used bathwater. “All right,” Jane said. “Two minutes grace.”

Marie nodded.

Nathan only needed one more minute. The door opened and he was standing there, back in the same gown, which was clinging to his still-damp body in places, looking in startlement at seeing her waiting for him outside the bathroom. His long hair was slicked-back and darkened by water, but it looked as if the lightener in the shampoo had done its work and it would be a softer, lighter red once it had dried out.

“Oh, you waited for me. How nice,” he said snidely. “If I’d known I’d have given you a– holy shit!” He stood agog in the doorway, staring at the transformation of his room. Jane smiled to herself. If the room was excessively feminine before, it was almost laughably so now. That was almost the point; if the boy laughed at being faced with this sight, instead of being horrified…

Nathan didn’t laugh. He stared with something approaching shock. There was lace everywhere. The effect was that of some extraordinarily organised lace bomb having been detonated in the room. There was lace covering the now-lit dressing table, lace on the chest of drawers, on the wardrobes, even the legs of the bedframe. The bed itself had been re-made with laceworked sheets and the teddy-bear once again placed on the pillows.

“Well, you seem to have recovered your sunny disposition, I see,” Jane retorted. “Show me your hands.” He tutted and held his hands up at her. “Stop that,” she said.

“What?” Aggrieved.

“You know very well what. Need I remind you of your agreement not to insult my intelligence?” She inspected his fingernails quickly. “Hmm.”

“Hmm what? There isn’t any dirt there! God!”

~The sooner I move on the better,~ Jane thought, sustained by the prospect of the transformation to come. “Come with me,” she merely said, and took hold of his upper arm to lead him to the dressing table.

“Ow, that hurts!” But he came.

“No it doesn’t. Don’t overdramatise.”

“It does! You’re going to bruise me. I get bruised easily.”

“Sit here.” She indicated the dressing table. In addition to the lace, its top surface was now also covered with the paraphenalia of make-up. Nathan swallowed and approached, looking askance at the make-up itself. “Come along,” Jane said, letting a little impatience show.

Nathan sat, and sighed. He stared at the arrayed cosmetics with barely-veiled horror. Jane smiled.

***

By the time Jane completed Nathan’s make-up, Marie was ready. She had already laid out a pretty pastel green dress on the bed, a pair of lacy white stockings and a white Court Royal overbust corset, laced back in a Victorian style. Jane stood Nathan up and deposited him where she wanted him and turned to find Marie already holding one petticoat towards her. She took it. “Thank you, Marie. Now then, Jonathan,” she turned back to address the youth, approving the appalled expression on his face. “You heard me mention petticoat discipline earlier. It is from this garment that the term derives.” She was aware of Marie behind her placing the others on the bed and lifting another one free. “There are few articles of lingerie that are more juvenile.” She turned it for him, seeing how his eyes followed it. “Don’t you think it’s pretty?”

“Um…”

“This charming, girlish article is also a symbol of your newfound status in my household, Jonathan. I shall greatly enjoy putting you into it. In fact you are to be favoured with four layers of these tonight. Now, remove that gown so we may begin.” She found the hem and prepared for him to step into it.

“No.”

“That isn’t a word I like to hear, Jonathan,” she said warningly, looking across at him. He was clutching the gown close in his folded arms. “Did you put those panties on after your bath as I instructed?

He tutted. “Yes,” he said.

“Well then, what have you got to be concerned about?”

“You said I’d have to wear girl’s clothing, right?”

“Yes, Nathan, that’s right. But we can’t begin if you stay in that gown all evening, can we?”

The logic of that statement crashed across Nathan’s face. “I’ll…” he began.

“Come along, Jonathan. Do you think you have anything under there we haven’t seen before?” She advanced on him.

“No wait, look,” he said, a little panicky. “No. I’ll… I’ll do it myself, all right? I’ll do it!”

“Oh nonsense–”

“I’ll do it!” he said, louder. “Leave me alone! I’ll do it myself!”

She laughed at him. “You are not competent to dress yourself, Jonathan,” she started back at him, almost snarling in disdain. “Not even as a male, judging by your slovenly appearance at our first meeting, and certainly not in the manner I require.”

“Then I’ll learn!” Nathan snapped back, the anger failing to conceal the tremor in his voice. “That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?”

“Be quiet!” She put enough force into her voice to make him flinch. “You will not address me in that tone, young man, is that clear?” Nathan opened his mouth to retort, so she continued. “In fact, you are not to speak at all, unless you are explicitly invited to do so. I am frankly becoming tired of your voice!”

“Jane,” Marie said behind her, a conspiratorial rise in her voice, “maybe he wants to show us how he can get dressed all by himself like a big girl. Isn’t that right, chá¨rie?” Nathan’s wide eyes glanced past Jane’s shoulder momentarily, and he nodded.

Marie’s instincts were not to be lightly ignored. She had been Jane’s companion and assistant on this programme almost from the beginning. The first day or so was a process of quick calibration: The course necessarily involved crossing certain lines of propriety. It was important to quickly identify which lines were not to be crossed with each student. Marie thought they’d found one, and was warning her back.

And besides, it would be an opportunity to demonstrate to him his own incompetence in such matters. “Very well, Jonathan,” she said, allowing her amusement at that thought to enter her voice, “if you insist, then yes, you may dress yourself tonight in these garments.” She turned away from him to drape the petticoat she held over the side of his bed. “Mind you,” she said as she did so, “I shan’t tolerate any sign of slovenliness or carelessness. I will inspect you when you are done, and if I’m not satisfied we will be starting again, and this time Marie and I will do it correctly. Is that understood?”

“Uh…” He nodded. “Yeah.”

“Then you have fifteen minutes. You may begin.”

“Fif–” He looked at her, back at the clothes, back at her again. “You have to leave me alone. Or…” he hesitated. “At least turn your backs or something. Give me some privacy.”

She regarded him.

“Please,” he tried.

“All right,” she conceded, as he’d said the magic word, and went to sit at the dressing table, aware of Marie following with her. The dressing table mirror afforded an excellent view of the room behind her. She watched Nathan gingerly picking up the corset and turning it around, trying to figure out what to do.

“Oh wait, I got it,” he said quietly to himself, identifying the clasps that would hold the busk together. He started to shrug off the robe, then looked up at her suddenly through the mirror and froze. Jane nodded, accepting the small defeat, and pushed the mirror above its pivot point so it was pointing at the ceiling.

After a few moments she heard the quiet swish of satin as, presumably, the robe fell to the floor, followed quickly by the light swish of clothing, then a different sound. After that there were faint sounds of a struggle going on, and laboured breathing. This went on for some time. She glanced at the bedside clock. Four minutes already.

“How’m I supposed to…” she heard him mutter.

“Anything I can help you with, Jonathan?” Jane asked archly. She would have preferred to have seen what was going on behind her, but the sounds plus her imagination were supplying an amusing enough picture.

“How do I get the other, um, petticoats on over the first one?”

“Why, Nathan, I thought you knew!” She grinned at Marie.

“Didn’t say I knew, just wanted some fucking privacy,” she heard him mutter quietly. Evidently, she hoped, less quietly than he’d intended.

“What was that?” she asked aloud.

“Nothing,” he sighed. “I’ll figure it out.”

“I’m sure you will,” Jane lied.

“Aha! I know…” Nathan muttered again behind her, followed by a sound of a lot of swishing chiffon. “Er, you wanted me to wear all four of these, right?”

“Yes, Jonathan, that’s correct. What seems to be the problem.”

“Uh… what?”

“Don’t say ‘what,’ say ‘pardon me,’” Jane instructed. “I asked, what seems to be the problem?”

There was no reply, except for Nathan’s shallow, laboured breathing, and no sounds of clothing being moved.

“Jonathan?” Marie asked suddenly, sounding concerned. Jane looked around, sensing that Marie had already done so. Nathan was standing by the bed looking down at himself in apparent horror. Left to himself, he’d work himself up into a genuine panic attack, Jane recognised. She had her own role to play, however.

“Marie, would you bring him back around here. We shall complete the ensemble.”

Oui, Madame,” Marie replied, and went to join Nathan. She said something to him, too soft for Jane to hear. He nodded, then followed her meekly back to where Jane was standing to meet them.

He had managed just a single petticoat and the corset, worn loosely over a simple camisole top that if anything accentuated his thin frame and narrow bony shoulders.

“Well, I think you made your point,” she began, almost gently. “It’s not necessary to belabour it. You’re not expected to know how to don these clothes immediately. Indeed, you need to learn by example the proper manner for doing so. Are you ready to co-operate now?”

He looked up at her momentarily, his eyes wide with trepidation, then down again, and he nodded.

“Aloud, please,” she reminded him.

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

“Excellent.”

“Marie said–”

“You will address her as Miss Marie,” Jane corrected him. “Is that understood?”

He started to nod again, then stopped. “Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

“Good. Now, what did she say?”

“She– Miss Marie said I’d be doing this by myself, normally?”

“Yes, that’s correct. However, there are many garments here with which you won’t be familiar. You must learn to accept, by instruction or demonstration, their proper handling and care, as well as how to wear them. For instance, how did you intend to put on your stockings after your petticoats?”

“Er–”

“Don’t mumble. Speak, or hold your peace. Marie, you had better put them on him.”

Oui, Madame.” Marie quickly retrieved the hold-up stockings. Jane worried for a moment that they would be too small — indeed, she wondered where Marie had kept such a small pair — before noticing how thin his legs were beneath the short, stiff petticoat he was wearing.

“Take my hand, dear,” Jane invited, as Marie knelt at Nathan’s feet. He got the idea and, after a worried hesitation, took Jane’s hand for support and stood on one leg to allow Marie to put the first stocking on. Marie herself guided his foot back down once she was past the ankles and efficiently fed the stocking out up his leg and under the petticoat. Nathan blushed and glanced at Jane and, seeing she was already looking at him, looked quickly away. “Pay attention to what she’s doing,” Jane instructed him. A movement of her hand, holding his, directed him to lift the other foot, and this time he tried to look down to see what Marie was doing. Naturally the petticoat obscured his view, and he nearly overbalanced, trying to see, and had to lean more of his weight onto Jane’s hand than he probably meant, or fall over. Marie worked the stocking up and stood.

Nathan took his hand back, diffidently.

“What do you say?” Jane prodded.

“Th-Thank you Mrs. Thompson.” He didn’t sound very grateful.

“Not me.”

“Thank you, Miss Marie,” he said, with a little more enthusiasm. It was a start.

“Marie, would you see to his corset, please,” Jane instructed. “It’s too loose at the moment. He will be chafed.”

Oui, bien sá»r.” Marie curtseyed and moved around to the boy’s back and began re-lacing the corset. Nathan just stared away into the space in front of him, as if he was simply beyond caring what happened. Marie soon brought his attention back to his immediate surroundings, as she tensioned the corset laces once, then a second time, making him stagger slightly. “That’s better now,” she said, sounding satisfied. She turned him to face her, with a gentle hand at his shoulder. Jane marvelled at how easily he turned at such a touch. “If you wear it too loosely it will slip and chafe, and believe me that will became painful.”

He nodded, attentive now. “What about — my ribs?” he asked, his breath short. “Won’t they — get deformed?”

“Certainly not,” Jane said. Marie turned him again — another featherlight touch, this time just below his waist. ~Fascinating,~ Jane thought. ~He offers practically no resistance to her at all. It’s almost as if it’s beneath his notice. Whereas when I tell him to do something, he balks and panics and objects.~

“I remember — seeing something — about it — on telly,” he said, practically gasping. “They used to — have their bottom ribs — removed. You’re not going to–”

“I should think not,” Jane answered. That practice almost certainly only ever existed in the popular imagination in any case, she knew; tales encouraged by doctored photographs and exaggerated illustrations and, presumably, a few excessively tight lacers; but she didn’t need to tell him that.

“Nathan, breathe up here,” Marie was saying. She’d stepped around in front of him, almost next to Jane now. “Don’t try to breathe down into your stomach. Bring it up into your chest.” She breathed, to show him. He emulated her without question, until the expression on his face showed he was getting it. “Come along,” she enjoined. “I haven’t laced this nearly tightly enough to give you real breathing difficulties; you just need to learn to do it differently.”

~That’s the point. To do everything differently. No automatic behaviour. No bad old habits. Think about everything you’re doing. Re-learn everything.~

~Even how to breathe.~

Marie went to the bed and picked up the second petticoat Nathan was to wear. Jane felt her excitement building; with everyone’s attention focussed for a moment on Nathan’s breathing, she became aware of her own, how it came quicker now, matching his. ~Oh, it’s been a long time,~ she agreed. “Corsets are like many other things in life, Jonathan,” she explained. “Perfectly safe in moderation. In your case I’m using it as a training aid, to correct your frankly execrable posture habits. Have you noticed how much taller you are?”

Marie was ready with the petticoat. If there was a ritual which, for Jane, marked the true start of the programme, this was it: The literal petticoating of the new arrival.

For modesty’s sake she usually let a new student put the first petticoat on themselves, if they wished, as Nathan had done. She’d make a show of relenting under duress, but she enjoyed watching them deal with choosing between standing before her in lacy girl’s panties or voluntarily donning such a feminine garment as a petticoat to cover themselves. They usually chose the petticoat. The sheer sensuality of the panties would, by itself, often produce a certain physical response of which a macho young man would be entirely embarrassed to have in front of two older women.

But the second, third and more petticoats were for Jane and Marie. By this time the new arrival had expended his first flush of angry rebellion and was resigned. Oh, he’d tell himself it was just for now, just until he could get his bearings, regroup, and do something devastating; but it was already too late. She had him now. If he let them do this, and they always did, he was hers.

She felt herself growing silent, which is a different state from merely not speaking at a given moment. Settling into a space where words were irrelevant. Marie held the petticoat out to her, and she took her side of it, feeling the diaphanous ripples and folds of fabric against her skin. A moment for their eyes to meet, then they lifted it together in front of Nathan, and up over his head. His eyes followed its path curiously. ~Will he need to be told to raise his arms?~ Jane wondered; then, ~No!~ as his hands ascended. ~Like a prayer. Oh, the darling boy.~ And, ~He didn’t forget to shave under his arms.~ His hands came down after it, clasped together in front as the petticoat settled lightly over the first, and he watched it do so with placid curiosity. Jane, wanting to experiment, lightly turned him towards her with a finger at his waist, so Marie could tie the drawstring at the small of his back. He was being so good she actually graced him with a real smile, but his eyes were averted, still curiously watching the play of chiffon.

In the meantime, Marie had finished with the tie and had fetched the third petticoat. The slightest directional touch, and he turned again, so he was facing the petticoat as she and Marie lifted it over his head, and again, let the ruffled loop almost seem to float down around him like a cloud. She could hear him breathing, as if he, too, had caught the beauty of the moment. She could not keep her eyes off him. He waited, motionless, while Marie tied the back, and Jane moved around him, just here and there lifting the material with the back of her hand to let it fall a little differently, where it should be, or indeed, simply because she wanted to. The corset was already shaping his posture, lending his back a pleasant, feminine shape, so preferable to that slope-shouldered slouch he’d employed at their meeting. She put a hand to the back of his shoulder and just applied a light pressure as she stepped around, so he turned on the spot. He glanced around at her, and at Marie, a note of concern on his face, but he didn’t resist. Marie looked on impassively. A full circle he turned, under her guiding hand. There was no purpose to it, other than to see if he would, and to enjoy his almost-unknowing compliancy. There would be time enough to provoke, and thus overcome, his resistance later. This was sweet.

As she brought him to a stop, pausing her hand just a moment on the top of his shoulder, Marie was ready with the fourth and, tonight, the last petticoat. She joined Marie in lifting it over, and let it down. ~Nearly done,~ she told herself, with just a little regret. It settled perfectly. Marie tied the small bow at the back and it was done. Jane stood back to admire the result. The petticoats had had the desired effect, of course, in making him look even smaller, and ever more childish, and a little sad. It was an effective enough illusion even when used on larger boys.

Marie, standing at his shoulder, caught her gaze suddenly and held it. A warning gaze. Jane became aware of her own breathing, the heat in her cheeks, and the deeper pulse of her desire pushing at her body from the inside, so strong she wondered that Nathan couldn’t see it. The warring impulses of guilt and power, the dark place, and the leashed monstrosity.

She nodded minutely, took one last big inhale and let it out in a sigh, knowing what she must do. “Marie,” she started, aloud, “I have some other business to attend to downstairs, which I can’t put off any longer.” Another breath, to calm herself. “Could you finish dressing him and send him down to me when he’s ready? I shall be in the parlour.”

Oui, Madame,” Marie replied demurely, the image of obedience, as ever.

Jane got through the departing admonishments and removed herself as quickly as she could to the parlour. ~Oh, I shouldn’t have left it this long,~ she thought, sitting by the window. For the first time in years she felt real fear.

Notes:

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