The Taken: After A Fall, Chapter 4

Synopsis:
"That's not in keeping with your role."
Story:
***

Jane curled up with the phone receiver between her head and the pillow. The CCTV monitor was the only illumination now, showing the grainy image of a bed and a sleeping form under the covers. She knew she ought to either turn it off and get some sleep or get up and stay awake properly.

“Well, that’s wonderful news.” Her husband’s voice was lagged from the distance. “I’m so glad she feels able to do this. Have you met this girl yet?”

“No. We were just discussing earlier when it would be prudent to arrange a visit, now we have Natasha here.”

“Oh, I’d have thought if Valerie was to be in a relationship with this girl, she’d have to know the truth.”

“Yes, in time. Valerie has her own bombshell to drop, of course. We don’t know if this new relationship will even survive that.”

“Oh dear, yes of course. The poor girl, it must be very hard.”

“I think she’s very brave.”

“Hmm,” Art murmured thoughtfully.

“So how’s my other little waif and stray and when is he going to come visit his dear Momma-Jane?” Jane amused herself with her emulation of motherly behaviour.

“Didn’t he tell you? He’s going on vacation with Angie once the semester ends–”

“Oh yes, he did say.” She researched her memory. “Angela. Isn’t she the one who keeps threatening to get him to dress up as a girl?”

Art chuckled. “And made good on the ‘threat’ on several occasions, I’m told. Apparently now she’s daring him to dress for the entire vacation. He’s making a big show of being reluctant and having to think about it.”

“And winning no end of incentives in return, I’m sure.” Jane laughed aloud. “It sounds like Darla’s going to have a lovely–” she started, then broke off as she caught sight of the CCTV monitor again. “Oh my goodness!”

“Jane?”

“Art, I’ll call you back.” She was already getting up, awkwardly, still holding the phone to her ear. “We’ve got a situation.” Her feet found her slippers by reflex as she sat up out of bed. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, she reminded herself; that was why she had been staying awake watching the monitors in the first place. She hung up and grabbed her dressing gown off the back of her bedroom door.

She picked up the keycard and pulled her own door open, hurrying along the long landing while still tying the waist-band of her gown. She heard the racket as she approached, slapping the light switch for the landing without stopping. Natasha was crying or shouting something in desperation, banging on the other side of her door, making the door-frame shake with the impact.

She saw a strip of illumination appear underneath the door of Valerie’s room. Natasha’s room was in darkness. She rapped hard on the door. “Natasha,” she called. The banging stopped.

“It’s coming!” his voice came back through the door strained by fear. It sounded like the voice of someone who didn’t dare scream. “It’s coming under the door!”

Valerie’s door opened and she was standing there, looking at her accusingly, her own eyes red-rimmed and her face tracked with tears. Her camisole and boxers were sodden with sweat. Without a word, she went past Jane and down the landing towards the bathroom.

It sounded like Natasha was hyperventilating, so Jane had to ignore Valerie and swipe the card through the lock and tap in the code. She pushed the door open.

Natasha got a sight of her and backed away towards the bed, her fingers tangling in the front of his nightdress. “Oh no. Oh no.”

“Natasha, calm down. Look at me!” She took his face in both her hands and turned it to look into her own. “Look at me! You’re having a bad dream. Wake up now.”

“I could hear her crying! I could hear her crying! I couldn’t reach her!” She took a deep breath between each phrase. “I couldn’t–” She retched. Jane thought for a moment Natasha might throw up over her arm, but — unsurprisingly perhaps — there wasn’t anything for her to throw up anyway, but a thin string of spittle as she retched again and doubled over. She sank to her knees and Jane followed her down and supported her while she retched again.

“Who’s crying, Jonathan?” she asked, relenting on the name, but he was crying himself now; proper crying instead of hysterics. ~Valerie?~ she wondered suddenly.

“I’m sorry, Missus Thompson,” he burbled.

“It’s all right.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“Shush, dear, it’s all right. I know you didn’t mean anything.” She held his shoulders awkwardly as he lay, hunched over from his last attempt to retch. She was busy thinking anyway. ~Valerie had a nightmare last night as well, and it looks like she’s just woken from another. Is he being set off by her nightmares?~ she wondered.

Valerie herself was a sudden presence, kneeling at her side and pushing a glass of water into Jonathan’s hand. She gave Jane another look, as if to say ‘you see now?’

Jane nodded. “Thank you Valerie.”

“Thank you Valerie,” Jonathan echoed, and raised the glass trembling to his lips, using both hands. “’M sorry.”

“It’s all right. Can you get up now?” Valerie asked when he’d drunk a little. He nodded. “’Kay, let’s sort out your bed again. Jane, could you get some spare sheets please?”

Jane nodded and went. ~Gracious, he’s not a bedwetter, is he?~ she thought, worriedly. But apparently not; there had been no smell of that, nor sight of it on his nightgown or on the sheets. Nathan had merely sweated heavily into them during his nightmare. It was no pleasure getting back into a clammy, sweat-drenched bed, she reflected. By the time she returned the two young people had stripped the bed ready. She contented herself with watching Valerie and Jonathan re-making the bed.

Nathan seemed already to be a lot brighter, and did his full share of that small chore. “We must stop meeting like this,” he joked as they worked. His voice was still a little shaky.

“Funny,” Valerie merely said, but she flashed a smile across at him.

“Well, at least I’m getting lots of practice making beds the old-fashioned way, if I ever wanted to be a nurse.”

They finished making the bed. “Why don’t you go and have a shower,” Valerie suggested, and passed Jane a look. Jonathan followed the glance.

“You want to talk about me,” he said, sounding worried.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. Go on.” Valerie touched his shoulder to direct him and gave him a quick pat on the bottom to send him on his way, and he went, pausing only to pull his bathrobe off the door on the way through.

That motherly pat had been so quick Jane almost missed it. She had shied off such a presumptively maternal gesture in Jonathan’s case. Sometimes it was an effective tool against machismo. Sometimes, she sensed, it would be beyond effective. Much of that negotiation was subconscious on both sides; one merely sometimes recognised after the fact that it had taken place at all, as now: it had simply not come to her attention that she wasn’t going to use such a gesture with Jonathan until she saw Valerie do it. And Valerie’s action had been so casual, so unmarked by either of them, that it was in a different class of behaviour entirely. She wondered, if challenged, if either of them would even remember it having happened.

“So you see,” Valerie said, sitting wearily on the bed.

“Yes. I misjudged you this morning, and I’m sorry.” She heard the now-familiar sound of the old house plumbing wrenching itself into activity. “I suppose I’ve been so anxious about starting again,” she said. The excuse sounded weak, spoken aloud.

Valerie shrugged. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper. I’m supposed to have learned better.” She gave a little wry smile. Not for the first time, Jane wondered what Valerie must have been like before.

“Well, I certainly do know better,” Jane admitted. “Isn’t it funny how old patterns of behaviour can re-assert themselves in an instant, given certain stimuli?”

Valerie pulled her foot up onto the bed and hugged her knee, thoughtfully. “The cookies were my idea,” she explained. “I told him they’d soften you up so he could ask you nicely about not locking him in at night and you might consider it. But then we argued, and I guess after that he couldn’t find a good time to ask.” Jane sighed and nodded, accepting the point. “He’s obviously got a real problem there. He said if Mr. and Mrs. Shaw had known about the door-locks they’d have warned you themselves. You may want to check that out with them.”

“I will.” She also noted that Valerie didn’t seem to make the connection with her own nightmares.

They listened in silence for a few moments. Jane thought suddenly how tired Valerie looked.

“I’m in the way.”

“No you’re not–” Jane countered.

“You said that too quickly. You’re not thinking.” She looked away. “I am. As long as I’m here I can’t not be involved. I thought I could, but I was wrong. I’m not stupid, I can see what’s happening.”

“Have you considered letting it happen?” Jane asked, a tacit admission.

“I can’t be the big sister,” Valerie replied firmly. “You want me to be his friend, fine, he seems a nice kid, I’ll be his friend, but I can’t be your agent as well.” She held Jane’s gaze for a long moment. “I won’t set him up for your games, and I won’t report what he tells me in confidence. I don’t think that’s the kind of friend you need him to have right now, is it?” She closed her eyes and sighed. “Because you’re right. I’d make it too comfortable for him. I have too much power here.”

It was devastating, and being delivered in Valerie’s low, sad voice made it all the more so. If she’d been angry, or hectoring, the way she could be sometimes, her words would have been easier to dismiss. Those compelling blue eyes were looking at her again.

“I should leave,” Valerie said simply.

“Oh, Valerie, absolutely not!”

“No, hear me out. I don’t mean leave as in leave, I just need to get out of the way for a while. Because otherwise this is just going to go on and you’d have to send him home–”

“Then I’ll send him home.”

“No you won’t. You said if he flunks this course he’s going to end up in jail. Were you bluffing?”

Jane hesitated, then shook her head. “For once, no. If he’s lucky it might only be youth custody but…” She shook her head again.

“Look what happens when he’s locked up for a few hours, Jane! And look at him. Look at his face! It would be a death sentence. You’re not doing that just because I’m a problem.” She took a breath. “I’ve been thinking about this, and… I think I should move into the gatehouse for a while, at least until things have settled down. Tell me I’m wrong, Jane,” she added quickly, forestalling Jane’s objection. “Convince me.”

Jane didn’t have a reply.

“It already has plumbing and power, and it’s dry. It just needs to be swept out and stuff moved in. In the meantime I can camp.”

“I don’t like the thought of you out there by yourself.”

Valerie actually chuckled. “God, you sound like Mom.” She smiled. “No, it’ll be fine. Mary might be moving in anyway.”

“Mary?” Jane heard her own voice, surprised.

“We haven’t talked about it exactly. I only thought about the gatehouse after I got back this evening, but she’s been talking about wanting to move out, too. There’d be a lot to work out, but…” She sighed. “I know, like what I’m going to tell her about… Oh God… Anything. But I think it could be the best thing for all of us.”

“At least wait a few days,” Jane negotiated. “And I can arrange to get the place fixed up properly. You’re at college all the rest of this week anyway, and I won’t work him into the evenings.”

“Except tomorrow.”

“What’s happening tomorrow?” Jane went blank for a moment.

“Mrs. Lawrence and Mark are coming for dinner, you said?”

“Oh, of course.” Jane nodded. “I haven’t slept yet; it’s still yesterday.” Valerie chuckled. “All right, Wednesday, because that was already arranged; but after that it should settle down, as–”

She stopped, as Valerie raised her hand. “He’s finished,” Valerie said. The sound of the shower had stopped. “I’ll sit up with him again tonight–”

“You’ll do no such thing. You need to get some sleep. I will–”

“That’s not in keeping with your role,” Valerie pointed out, dropping her voice almost to a hiss.

“What do you think my role is?” Jane asked back, surprised. Valerie looked away awkwardly. “Was I so heartless toward you?”

“No.” Valerie’s turn to answer too quickly. She wouldn’t meet Jane’s gaze. “I’ll stand watch tonight. I’m not getting any more sleep anyway. So much for Marie’s herbs.”

“Oh, Valerie–”

The bathroom door opened. Jonathan was at the door looking in with trepidation. His water-darkened hair was slicked back from his forehead behind his ears, his face still a little flushed from the shower. The scent of pink peony talc billowed before him invisibly and reached them, and Jane smiled almost reflexively.

“You’re all clean now?” Valerie asked brightly. Nathan nodded. “What’s up?”

“Um–sorry,” he corrected himself immediately, looking guiltily at Jane. “You know how women wrap their hair up in a towel?” he asked Valerie.

“Uh-huh?”

“How do you do that? It keeps falling off.”

Valerie sneezed.

***

“They seem to be playing a board game,” Jane related to Art, back in her bedroom. “I can’t see what it is.” Valerie must have left Jonathan long enough to fetch it from the dresser in the playroom. Now that the light in his bedroom was on, the picture on the CCTV was much clearer, and from a different viewpoint. Jonathan was lying on his front across his bed, his feet swinging idly in the air. Valerie sat decorously across the board from her. “She’s right,” Jane said, unhappily. “With her around, Jonathan’s too comfortable for such an early stage.”

“She claims she wants nothing to do with him, but she keeps finding reasons to spend time with him?” Art mused.

“Indeed. I do wonder how much she sees of herself in him. She seems quite protective.” She sighed. “She would be an ideal Big Sister for him, if only she would do it. I’d almost forgotten just how much I depend on someone in that role. Someone who can get close and truly understand his fears and speak to them in a voice he can trust. Darla filled it so well the last few years. Marie’s doing her best, but–”

“There’s a generational gap, of course,” Art supplied.

“He speaks a little French already. I’m having them converse between themselves only in French, as an aid to bonding; although I fear he’ll be taking his oral exam with a Quebecois accent.” She smiled at the thought, and heard Art chuckle lightly at the other end. “Dear Marie. Her French is terribly rusty, but it’s lovely to hear her really using it again. That reminds me. She’s noticed he has a little gynecomastia.”

“Ahh.”

“It would explain his body-shyness, certainly. It’s nothing we haven’t encountered before. I’ve emailed Mrs. Shaw about it this afternoon, asking if they’ve already taken it up with their doctor. Just in case.” There had only been the Shaws’ answering machine when she’d tried phoning, and this hadn’t been a message she felt comfortable leaving on a machine.

“Good. Assuming she already knows about it, of course.”

“I have a letter from her exempting him from school sporting activities. I suspect this may be what’s behind it, as she carefully didn’t mention a specific health concern that would justify missing out on physical education. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had problems at school. Marie thinks it might be why he under-eats as well.”

“He’s restricting?” Art asked, to be sure.

“Apparently, yes.” She listened to Art’s silence. “I seem to recall it’s not uncommon in boys with the condition.”

“No, you’re quite right.”

She sighed. “Anyway, I’m not going to point it out to Valerie.”

“No, I think that’s wise. You’re right, most boys will just grow out of it; a very few will need reduction mammoplasty, but there’s no need to risk an upset with Valerie unless we learn differently. In the meantime it must make things easier for you.”

“You’d think so, but actually it’s quite delicate. Marie’s going to have to modify the dress I’ve got for him to wear when Harriet and Mark come. And we can look forward to dealing with his reaction when he finds out he actually has a bra size.”

“Oh dear, yes of course,” Art said. “Yes, I can see that would require some delicacy.”

“It does, and in these cases I prefer to leave it to Marie to talk to him in private about it. Later, as he becomes used to it… yes, then it’s easier, and more comfortable for him than wearing forms and padding.”

“It sounds like you have it well in hand,” Art offered.

“I don’t know. I can’t help feeling some sense of… I suppose it’s foreboding. I feel like I’m stumbling towards disaster again.”

“I think those feelings were inevitable after last year,” Art said. “That’s why you needed to do this. You need finally to lay those ghosts to rest.”

“The first thing one must do after a fall is get back in the saddle. It’s axiomatic, I know.” She sighed. “I wish I was sure that’s all this feeling is.”

“Don’t underestimate the power of these feelings. To borrow your analogy, it was a bad fall, Janie.”

Jane’s chest tightened at the memory. “It was a bad fall,” she agreed, almost down to a whisper. “Nevertheless, some… instinct is gnawing at me. I’m missing something.”

***

Valerie’s head jerked upright at the sound of a pigeon cooing in the eaves above Nathan’s window. She had been about to drop off. A quick check of her surroundings confirmed Natasha was still asleep. No change. She glanced the other way, at the curtained window. It was backlit in blue. ~How long have I been watching him sleep?~ She yawned and went to the window, pushing the curtain aside slightly with the back of her hand.

It was no longer possible to deny that it was morning. ~I must have slept then,~ she thought, angry with herself for allowing it to happen. However long it had been, it hadn’t been enough. She felt the deep tremulous fragility in her body, the slight crawling in her peripheral vision. She was running another sleep deficit. The sun was going to be too bright today. She wanted a shower. She was clean, she just wanted a shower to get the ants off.

***

“Good morning, girls,” Jane said on her way into the dining room. Valerie and Natasha had clearly been talking about something Valerie found amusing.

“Good morning, Jane,” Valerie replied, apparently in good enough humour to play along. Jane didn’t miss the sardonic look Valerie passed to the other girl. Nor did she miss a certain fragility about Valerie’s demeanour. She was covering a lack of sleep.

“Good morning, Mrs. Thompson,” Natasha echoed, a beat behind.

“Do be seated,” Jane invited, and took her own seat. She watched Natasha observing Valerie, then copying her in the way she sat. ~Good. I was told Jonathan was a quick study.~

“Are you feeling any better today, Natasha?” Jane asked, interrupting as she took one of the pastries.

“Yes thank you, Mrs. Thompson,” Natasha replied, and even returned with a smile. ~Perhaps too quick a study,~ Jane mused. ~He can’t be getting too comfortable already, surely?~

~She must have put on her own make-up.~ It was a passable effort, given the short time she had been using make-up; but it was far too much for breakfast, of course. Marie wouldn’t have left it like that. Jane raised brief thanks that she could find something to criticise, and did so. Not too harshly; she calibrated. She needed to keep it light. Natasha had made the effort, and Jane wanted to see what she would do with that pastry, and raising the tension at mealtimes was something she wanted to avoid more than usual with this particular student. There’d be ample opportunity for that away from the dinner table.

“It is a little dazzling for seven-thirty,” Valerie joined in, bless her, taking any remaining sting away. Natasha even flashed a wry little smile.

“I’m sure Marie would be pleased to instruct you further should you ask her,” Jane said. “Or you may choose to further experiment on your own initiative.”

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

Jane nodded, satisfied, and let breakfast continue by itself for a few moments. “How are you progressing with that solo performance assignment?”

“It’s good. It’s… slow,” Valerie admitted. Jane was aware that Valerie was struggling with Music at college, but at least it was something with which Jane could be of some help, if Valerie would have it. Jane’s knowledge of Mathematics and Physics was so far outstripped by Valerie’s that she could only offer encouragement at best.

“Have you chosen a piece?” Jane queried.

“Oh yes. Debussy, Sarabande Pour le Piano. I’ve been practicing at college.”

“Oh!” ~That is ambitious for her,~ Jane thought. “How lovely.”

“It is when Mary plays it.”

“Ahh.” They shared a smile. “Did she put you up to it?”

“She said I could do it, if that’s what you mean,” Valerie returned. She caught Jane’s eye and flicked hers sideways momentarily at Natasha. Jane followed the glance, seeing that Natasha, having finished her first pastry, was reaching for another. ~Well. Today she has an appetite. Maybe she was simply ill before.~ “She seems to be under the impression I have talent,” Valerie continued.

“Perhaps you should listen to her. She sounds like she knows what she’s talking about.”

“Or she’s just as deluded as you are,” Valerie quipped. “I’m not talented. I just try harder.”

“I’ll heed my own counsel on that,” Jane said. “Of course, if you need some help with it–” Jane started.

“I do. Thank you.” Valerie smiled again, admitting the humour of the situation.

“–You only need to ask,” Jane finished, wryly. She enjoyed working with Valerie on her music. She’d come to it late, but she was already a sensitive instrumentalist, and a ferociously quick study herself. “All right.” Natasha was clearly enjoying her second pastry, and apparently oblivious to their conversation. “Perhaps you might also like to reconsider having regular individual lessons. To be frank, you’re approaching the limits of my own ability to teach you. I think you would benefit from some more specialist tuition if you mean to take this further. Someone who can correct all the bad habits I’m sure I’ve taught you.”

Valerie nodded. “Mary was saying. Not… about the bad habits.” Smile. “She said I should get proper piano lessons again.” A surreptitious look told Jane that Natasha was paying attention to their conversation again.

“She sounds like a very sensible young woman,” Jane said, and let Valerie take what meaning from that she wished. Valerie had the grace to blush slightly. Jane had difficulty keeping her face straight. “I look forward to meeting her soon. Natasha, dear, do help yourself if you’d like some more.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Thompson, but I’m full.”

“Would you like some pink grapefruit juice?”

“I-I’ll try it.”

“You’ve never had it before?”

Natasha shook her head. Jane intensified her look to Natasha for a moment. “No, Mrs. Thompson,” she amended.

~Good at taking nonverbal cues, as I thought.~ “Valerie, would you pass it to Natasha?”

“Of course.”

So it went.

***

Valerie pulled shut the door of the garage. Behind her, her bike chugged and coughed on its side-stand, trying to warm up.

Two nights sitting up with Nathan after nightmares. This was not sustainable. There was going to come a time when caffeine wasn’t sufficient; and for riding a bike, that time was going to come sooner than she used to be able to count on.

“Yes all right, I’ll ride carefully,” she muttered, and mounted up. Pulse on the throttle. Upright, kick-stand back. Check, check, check, check, check. And rolling. ~Seeing Mary at lunch,~ she reminded herself, and found a smile, then a flutter of nervousness. ~She’ll have thought things through and decided she was just being silly yesterday. Still, yesterday was nice. I have that.~ She looked at the gatehouse again as she passed. In the daylight it looked a little shabby. Doubts, like the ants in her peripheral vision. She shook her head, hard, and turned out onto the road. ~Put it together, Tucker. You need to focus now.~

***

Marie, still carrying an arm-load of dishes, opened the side-door into the music room, the one closest to the kitchen stairs, making Jane look up. “Listen to that,” she said. Jane could hear Natasha singing some pop song as she washed dishes.

“Well, she sounds quite at ease,” Jane observed. “That won’t do at all.” Marie grinned. “Nevertheless, I intend to go easily today, and give her stomach a good chance to recover fully from whatever bug she might have. She won’t be able to use it as an excuse, then.”

“Do you think she would?”

“I think we’re seeing a lot of little delaying tactics, don’t you?” She smiled. “Go on, and see that she comes directly to me when she’s done.”

Marie curtseyed habitually and left. ~Sweet Marie. Always seeing the best in people. Even Valerie seems quite taken with Natasha, in as big-sisterly a way as I could have hoped for.~ The singing stopped. Jane paused, listening to the conversation resuming in French. ~I suppose she’s right. She has to get some distance.~ She felt the disappointment keenly. Valerie was sometimes a prickly presence in the house, but it was more than made up for when she was in her more companionable mode. ~I was just starting to get to know her,~ Jane thought. ~I know she’ll only be in the gatehouse, but it won’t be the same.~

~My fault. For taking a student.~ She sighed, and set her mind back to preparing for Natasha’s first voice lesson.

***

Jane played a G major chord on the piano, followed immediately by the arpeggio. The same notes as the chord, but played in turn, from the bottom to the top and back again. “Now, I heard you singing earlier, so I know you can.” Natasha looked embarrassed at the memory. “So I want you to sing the notes after I’ve played them, and we can find your range. Are you ready?”

“I-I’m not very good.” Natasha stood by the side of the piano, where Jane had placed her to the right of the keyboard.

“That’s all right, we’re here to learn. Now,” she played the chord again, and the arpeggio. “And…” She looked to Natasha. “Try it.” Natasha tried to sing it. Her voice was weak and reedy and she ran out of air before reaching the end.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Thompson.” Breath. “It’s the corset.”

“Here, let me see.” Jane stood and came around the side of the piano. “Turn around.” She tested the tension at the sides of Natasha’s waist, and at the top of the corset, through the over-dress. “Yes, this is too tight. Did you put it on yourself this morning?”

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

“Just as with your make-up, I commend your initiative, but you’ve been a little over-zealous. It’s a wonder you were able to eat anything at all at breakfast.” She made quick work of opening the buttons down the back of the dress and loosening the stays a little. “In time you’ll develop a sense for what is appropriate. Is that better now?”

“Y-Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

“Good.” She re-fastened the buttons and returned to her place on the piano stool and played the G major chord again, then “Aaaa,” she sang to the G, to start off. Natasha sang the arpeggio. “Better,” Jane granted. “That was easier, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”

“A properly worn corset is no impediment to most day-to-day activities. Now.” She played the G major chord again, then moved up a tone, to A. Then the arpeggio.

Natasha sang it without needing to be told. ~Good. But weak at the bottom. And cracking at the top through excessive constriction. Too inhibited to sing it properly.~ She stopped for a moment, resting her hands in her lap. “Natasha, at school, do your classmates make fun of you because your voice hasn’t broken?” Natasha’s eyes widened in alarm. ~Goodness, did she think I hadn’t noticed?~ “Do they?” She kept her voice gentle. Natasha nodded and swallowed. “Are you the only boy in your class whose voice hasn’t broken?” Head-shake. “Speak up.”

“No. Um, no, Mrs. Thompson.”

“Indeed not. It’s not so unusual at your age. It will happen in its own time. Now, that said, for reasons I hardly need enumerate this works to our advantage should it hold for the duration of your stay. There is certainly no call to be shy about using the full range of your voice for me, is there?”

A faint smile for a moment. “I suppose not,” Natasha admitted.

“Very well then. Let’s see what it can do.” She skipped a tone and started from middle-C. Again, first the chord, then the arpeggio. Natasha sang the arpeggio. “Good. But you’re still inhibited at the top, and you don’t have enough breath to come all the way down the other side. I think this is a question of breath control more than anything. Again.” She played the arpeggio, and Natasha sang it again, this time hitting the top note with a little more boldness. “Do you hear what you’re doing?”

“I-I’m not sure.”

“You do the same thing when you speak. You punch out the first few syllables with such force that most of the air is gone from your lungs almost immediately. I want you to be conscious of keeping an even note for the duration of the exercise.” She played E. “We know how long we have to budget our air for:” She played the arpeggio. “One two three four five six seven,” she sang along, then played E again. Natasha took a breath and sang the E. “No, you’re still attacking the front of the note too hard. Again. Just let the sound come.” She played, and sang “Aaaaa.” Then the chord, to signal the arpeggio. “One two three four five six seven,” Jane recited. Natasha had still run out by the end of the note, but there was a measurable improvement. “Better. Again, and,” as Natasha sang, “one two three four five six seven. Much better. Did you feel how much better that was?”

Natasha nodded. “Yes.” Her breathing was a little elevated.

“Good. You’re learning quickly.” She played the C major chord once more, then up to D major, and the arpeggio. Natasha followed. E was better still, as Natasha relaxed and let her voice work unimpeded, then Jane skipped to G. The top note was a little desperate.

“Sorry,” Natasha said.

“That’s all right. We’ll do that again, but this time, when you sing the top note, I want you to sing ‘air’ instead of ‘aah’, and sing it…” She turned to look over her other shoulder. “Yes, sing it to that picture behind me over there, you see?”

“Yes.”

“The lower notes to me still, then throw the top note up. All right.” Chord, then arpeggio. Natasha sang it, and the top ‘air’ note rang clearly around the room. In surprise, Natasha stopped singing. The piano hummed its own sympathetic resonance of the top note as it faded.

“What was that?”

“That, my dear, was your true singing voice,” Jane said warmly. “What a shame nobody discovered it sooner. Had there been time to develop it…” She sighed, and shifted to speak to the youngster more comfortably. “It’s said that a boy’s voice reaches its finest peak of refinement just before he loses it. In days gone past, if a boy with a particularly beautiful voice was approaching puberty, they might castrate him in order that he might keep that voice into adulthood. The voice was seen to be a gift from God, of course, and as such the sacrifice required to keep it was considered a worthwhile one. Perhaps even holy.”

Natasha stared at her, wide-eyed.

“Of course, in these enlightened days, such a practice is wholly unethical, and is banned everywhere, so very few people alive today have heard a such a voice in its prime, but in their day castrati were féted and adored for their performances, especially by young women.” She smiled at the look on Natasha’s face. “Which strikes me as fascinating. Does it you?”

“Um…”

“Um?”

“Sorry, Mrs. Thompson.”

Jane chuckled gently. “Oh don’t put on so. I merely bring it up for historical interest. History is replete with examples of extraordinary sacrifices being made in the pursuit of artistic excellence. Sacrifices that are unacceptable by any modern standards including my own.” From her face it looked like Natasha needed that reassurance. “These days castrato parts are generally sung by a contralto. One can only speculate upon what unique sounds might have been lost.”

She turned back to the piano. “Do it again.” She played the chord, and Natasha tried the arpeggio. Her voice had cooled a little during Jane’s lecture, for which Jane silently berated herself. It took a couple more iterations until Natasha hit it again. This time she wasn’t surprised, and came down the other side. “Very good, Natasha. Now, when you hit that top note, you’re using what’s called your ‘head voice.’ Do you know what I mean by that?”

“No…”

Jane went up a tone. A major. She played the chord and, unbidden, Natasha sang the arpeggio. “What do you know about how the voice works?”

“Um–sorry. Not much. I know there’s vocal chords.”

B major. Natasha was coming off the arpeggio breathlessly. “Do you know why you feel so exerted afterwards?”

“No.” Breathing.

“One more.” C major, starting an octave above middle C. “This time use ‘air’ from the third note.”

Natasha did it, and came off the bottom, panting slightly. “You just hit a top C, Natasha. Well done.” She played the note on its own. “All right, now the science bit.” Natasha chuckled at that. “Go bring a chair over from the side of the room and sit down next to me.” Natasha went to obey.

~Top C. Oh my,~ Jane thought while Natasha returned with the chair. She couldn’t quite restrain a soft chuckle. ~I wonder how long it will last.~

“All right,” Jane said. “First of all, I take it you know how sound is produced?”

Natasha nodded. “Yeah we did that in physics–”

“‘Yeah?’”

“I mean, yes.” Quick, apologetic smile. “It’s when something oscillates it creates vibrations in the air. It’s… changes in air pressure, isn’t it?”

“Yes. So when I play a note on the piano,” she pressed the A above middle C and held her finger down. “The hammer strikes the strings, and they’re tuned to oscillate, in this case, four hundred forty times a second.”

“That’s Hertz, right?”

“Yes. Now, sing the note.” Jane played it again, and Natasha ‘aaah’d it. “When you do that, what you’re doing is pushing air past your vocal chords, which the muscles in your larynx have tightened to vibrate at…” She stopped for Natasha to finish the statement.

“F-Four hundred and forty Hertz?”

“Exactly. Why did you doubt it?”

“Um– Sorry.” Another apologetic smile. “It seemed almost too easy.”

“Sometimes it is.” Jane smiled back. “Now, you hit the second C above middle C a moment ago.” Jane played the note.

“Y-you don’t want me to do it again, do you?”

“Not for now, dear. But can you guess what frequency that is?” Natasha shook her head. Jane waited.

“No, Mrs. Thompson.”

“That’s over a thousand vibrations a second. Let me check a moment…” Jane plucked her notepad from the top of the piano and consulted her notes. “Yes, one thousand forty-six point five Hertz, given a perfectly tuned piano, and this one’s close enough.” She looked at Natasha. “To get your vocal chords vibrating at that frequency you had to pull them so tight, and push so much air past them to make enough sound, that it’s no wonder you found it tiring.” She smiled, and meant it. “Now, it’s not just about your vocal chords, of course. Your voice needs a resonating chamber, and you have several in your own body…”

***

‘One-on-one he’s a delight to teach,’ Jane wrote in her journal. Valerie would nag at her for doing so on paper in the first instance, but there was no help for it. The laptop computer rested by her side for when she was ready to type it up.

She was sitting comfortably in the private living room. Marie had taken Natasha upstairs, after a successful conclusion to the morning. ~Perhaps too successful.~ ‘He is attentive, curious, and extremely quick on the uptake. I don’t need to tell him anything twice, nor to cajole or insist upon his attention. It would be easy, very easy, to allow this uncomplicated teacher-student relationship to develop and quite forget the reasons why he has been sent to me.’

She put down her pen. “And why not, after all?” she asked the empty room. ~Why not just be a teacher, this once? I don’t need to be so hard on him as I am with most of my protegées in these early days. He’s well enough behaved already that I can afford to take this slowly.~ The boy seemed to have adapted already to the feminine attire, and the feminine name, and modes of address with only a few brief moments of worry and panic. ~The nightmares certainly seem unrelated. I suspect if I had put him in the room next to Valerie, and locked his door, and otherwise left him with his own clothing, the outcome would have been the same.~

~I shan’t lock his door tonight,~ she decided. ~Let’s see where that takes us.~ Valerie had assured her already that sensitive areas of the house could still be locked away from inquisitive eyes. ~His behaviour justifies the show of trust at any rate.~

‘Were I back home, I would’ Jane stopped writing and struck through that thought, firmly, three times with her pen. ‘Were I back in Westbury I would not hesitate in bringing him to Caro’s at the earliest possible opportunity. Today! Tomorrow at the latest, and maybe Betty too. Let them fuss over him and prettify him, and engender mortification and indignation in him in precise measures.’ ~I miss them.~ ‘Tomorrow Harriet and Mark are coming. Mark has been schooled in how to compliment and embarrass our charge. Harriet need merely be Harriet. We will make it work. I can afford to allow him to be comfortable today.’

The door from the kitchen opened. Marie. “I’ve put Natasha down for her nap, Jane.”

“Very good. How did the dolls go down?”

Marie looked thoughtful. “Not well, I’m afraid–”

“Sit down, dear.”

Marie shook her head. “I need to go to the farmers’ market. I meant to go earlier, and if I don’t go now, I’ll have to go all the way into town to get some decent groceries.”

“All right. You can tell me what happened with the dolls later.”

Marie nodded. “Anyway, it left her anxious and she wasn’t going to go down like that, so I gave her the usual sleep blend.” Jane nodded at that. Marie always had some prepared, for when any one of them had difficulty sleeping. She’d given the same to Valerie only the previous evening. It wasn’t the certain knock-out that was used on the students’ first day; just something to reduce anxiety levels and help one to relax. “She accidentally offered to help me fit tomorrow’s dress, so I want to take her tonight to do that.”

“Before bed?”

Marie nodded. “Hopefully I can get some better measurements as well.”

“Good. All right. You’d better get going.”

“I’ll be back in, oh, an hour and a half at most.”

“Valerie’s home early anyway on Tuesdays,” Jane reminded her.

Marie left.

Jane turned the last full stop into an ellipsis. Then, ‘but to allow him to be too comfortable too soon would preclude the necessary challenge to his way of thinking. Gina’s Geekettes.’ Jane chuckled. Reggie had coined the term himself, a number of years ago. ‘Why can’t even one of them be straightforward?’ That had started with Reggie himself, of course. Jane could still see that freckled, slightly pudgy boy wearing the Return of the Jedi T-shirt, and giving not the slightest hint of the uproar and confusion that was going to ensue. She had underestimated him badly, and had nearly lost him as a result. Her ‘Academy’ had only been running a few years, and he had been Jane’s first serious test; the first real puzzle she had to solve. ~And now Valerie has read his books.~ Jane allowed herself a momentary glow of pride. Valerie would have been a baby when Gina was her student. ~Time.~ A flutter in her gut when she allowed herself to think about it.

She heard Marie’s car outside faintly, on the far side of the walled garden, idling while Marie got out and closed the garage door. Then the slam of a car door, and the receding sound of the car.

‘He’ Jane started writing, and stopped, distracted, thinking of Jonathan– Natasha upstairs, asleep in the playroom. She shook her head and returned her attention to the page in front of her.

‘waits’

“He waits,” she murmured. Then she crossed out the words, and kept crossing them until the ballpoint had worn a hole in the paper. “Where was I?” ~Too comfortable. He needs a shake-up.~ But she wrote, ‘He has a fine unbroken voice, and some genuine musicality, I suspect, although I don’t know if it’s ever been recognised by another, let alone encouraged. There can surely be mere months before his voice breaks. Not enough time to develop it to the potential it might have achieved had he started sooner.’

Her pen hovered over the paper, unable to find anything to add to the verbiage. She felt her glance turn upwards, towards the ceiling, as if she could see through it to the playroom and the sleeping boy. She became aware of holding her own breath, and let it go, deliberately.

She returned her gaze to the notepad. ‘He waits for his lesson, wondering what I am going to do next. Curious, yet unafraid.’

“Perhaps a little afraid,” she whispered aloud.

‘Perhaps a little afraid, but trusting. He knows whatever I do will be for the best.’

Jane could hear nothing but her own breath. She pinched the bridge of her nose and massaged under her brow, against the headache that was coming on. ~I should phone Marie and tell her to return immediately,~ she thought. ~She has a cellphone now. She would do so. She wouldn’t ask for an explanation. None would be needed.~

~I’ve made a terrible mistake.~ She put the notepad down, closed, and rested the pen on it. Her hand was shaking a little. ~I wasn’t ready. I’m not strong enough.~ She ran her hands through her hair, unbinding it as she went. ~Such vanity to keep my hair so long at my age,~ she thought, irrelevantly, trying to distract herself. Her long hair fell forwards. She combed it back again with her fingers and found, at the end of the movement, she was looking at the ceiling again, imagining it transparent.

~I should go check on him.~

She shook her head. ~He doesn’t need checking up on every five minutes.~

~Just a quick look, to make sure he’s all right.~

***

“I don’t know, Valerie. It’s awfully sudden.” Mary stood with Valerie outside the Drama block. Everyone else had gone ahead. “I mean… I thought you were joking about the second date!” She tried to make light of it. The attempt was echoed in Valerie’s smile. She looked really tired, Mary thought, but when she’d said so earlier Valerie had just brushed it aside.

“I don’t mean to pressure you, really,” Valerie said. “I was joking. I only just thought of this last night. I thought it might solve both our problems.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s just…” Mary ran a hand through her hair. ~This is happening too fast.~ A day ago she hadn’t even kissed a girl since she was twelve, and now she was being asked if she wanted to move in? “Well, it’s right out in the country, and I don’t have my own car, remember? And Lizbeth has her friends in the playgroup too…” She trailed off doubtfully. ~And what about rent?~ Valerie didn’t mention that.

“I know. There’s a lot of stuff needs to be worked out. I know that. There’s a lot of stuff on my end too. I just wondered if, you know, assuming everything can be worked out…” Valerie smiled. She was charming when she did that, in that raffish, sardonic way of hers. “Do you want to do it? That way we know if it’s worth even trying to work everything out.”

Mary hesitated. She was late for Drama workshop as it was. Everyone else had gone ahead and would be started. “I don’t know,” she said eventually. “It’s awfully sudden,” she said again. And, seeing Valerie’s face, “That’s not a no. It’s an ‘I don’t know,’ okay? I can’t… I have to think about it. I have Lizabeth to think of.”

“Okay, I guess.” Valerie nodded. “Yeah.” She brightened. “I’m moving in first anyway. Maybe you can come visit? See what you think?”

“Yeah, okay.”

And Valerie was kissing her again. Just for a moment. It still felt like being plugged into the mains, but in a good way. A very good way.

“Dammit…” she managed, when they broke.

“Tell me you hated it,” Valerie began, so Mary hit her shoulder again.

“People are going to see!”

“Let ’em. ’Sides, there’s no-one here.”

“What happened to Little Miss Secretive all of a sudden?”

She grinned. “Guess there’s no room for this secret.”

“That’s supposed to be reassuring?” Mary said sarcastically. Then, “I’ve got to go in.”

“Go on then.”

“I can’t go into Workshop in this state.”

“What state?”

“You know.” She leaned against the side of the door and sighed. “Distracted. Frustrated.” She smiled at Valerie. “Grinning like an idiot. Dammit, where did you learn to kiss like that anyway?”

“I had excellent teachers.”

Then Valerie leant in and kissed her again, more slowly. No ambush. Just her attention, like feeling there was nothing else in the world for Valerie at that moment but herself. Mary’s hand rested on the leather-covered kevlar of Valerie’s shoulder, then they parted, and Valerie, deliberately, took Mary’s hand and moved it inside her open bike jacket, and onto her breast. Mary tried to remind herself how touching another girl’s breast like this was supposed to feel strange; but it didn’t feel strange. It felt right. Her hand played Valerie’s small breast, through her T-shirt and bra, and Valerie’s breathing quickened, and this time Mary put her hand behind Valerie’s head and pulled her in for a kiss, and then Valerie kissed her cheek, her brow, the top of her ear, her neck…

~Oh God this is new…~

~I haven’t been seduced before,~ Mary thought as they parted. The feeling was delirious. She still hadn’t caught her breath. ~I’ve been ‘pulled.’ I’ve ‘got off with’ someone. Fucked a riceboy in the back of a Vauxhall Nova like–~ She was struck by the epiphany. ~Like I was trying to prove a point.~ Then the pregnancy, and knowing, deciding, she couldn’t be that person any more. She was going to be a mother, so she was going to be that. ~Oh, but not only that, after all. Not only that.~

Mary watched Valerie walk away: A little boyish, but you’d never mistake her for a boy. Slim and athletic in leather, she walked like she might take it into her head to dance at any moment, like she was in a musical. The way her hips moved… ~Who would have thought I would find that sexy?~

***

~This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.~

Jane approached the open playroom door. She could see the muslin curtains billowing in the breeze from the window, and she could hear the ting … ting of the mobile, like a clock forgetting the purpose of time.

~Is it such a terrible thing to take pleasure in the sight of a sleeping child?~

~No, monster, it is not. So be satisfied.~

With one hand she grasped the door-frame. ~There he is.~ His head was turned away to the window. ~Such darling abandon in the way his hand rests on the pillow. His pale wrist upturned, his smallest finger curled in his hair. Oh Jane, this is sweet.~

She watched his breath move the muslin coverlet, and found herself matching her own breathing to it. It made her feel faint; not enough oxygen to be awake and standing.

~Yes. Oh yes, monster. It is sweet.~ Her fingers dug painfully into the unyeilding door-frame. Blood rushed by her ears.

She missed her horses. She missed their mass, their warmth, their muscular power, ready at her command. She could ride, and ride, and ride, and return feeling exhausted and smelly but, somewhere inside, clean, purged and safe. Loose-limbed and satisfied.

~When was I last without my horses?~ She had to think about it. ~Paris. It must have been Paris. Oh, has it been that long?~

A memory shook loose. Turning her back on the door; turning into the apartment; clutching the telegram. There was Marie, standing by the open window, lovelier than she would ever believe, her long blonde hair shining as if she had caught the sun itself. ~I thought that summer would never end.~

Il est mort,” she’d heard her own voice say, a long way away.

Qui, Mam’selle?”

Mon frá¨re. Chris.”

~I’m sorry, Chris.~ But now she could take one step into the playroom, not letting go of the door-frame, to grasp the porcelain handle, and silently and carefully pull the panelled door closed.

And now she could breathe.

***

“Oh yes, life is good today,” Valerie breezed, coming into the kitchen from the patio door.

“Oh, do tell?” Jane asked brightly from behind the Powerbook’s screen. That meant she had to have plugged it into the network wall-socket herself, and it didn’t look like she was typing from written notes this time. Wonder of wonders. Valerie could smell fresh coffee, and tracked in on the source, dumping her helmet on the counter.

“How about if I bring Mary here next week sometime?” Valerie asked.

“That should be ample time,” Jane agreed. Valerie poured herself a coffee. “If today’s voice lesson was anything to go by, even this weekend may not be too soon.”

“Really?” Valerie brightened even more.

“And in case I neglected to say so before, I’m happy for you.”

Valerie grinned.

“Did you still want some help with that Debussy?” Jane asked further.

“Oh, yes please. I need to shower first, though. Where’s…” She looked around curiously. “Where are the others?”

“Marie’s still at the farmers’ market. Natasha’s upstairs having a nap.”

Again? Doesn’t that kid do anything but sleep in the day? Ahh, caffeine.” She felt it enter her bloodstream and came to join Jane at the table. At the same time, she thought sleeping in the day may not be such a bad idea, if doing so at night was being a problem again.

Jane chuckled. “I’ll have you know we had a very productive morning, but she’s still recuperating from that stomach bug or whatever she had.”

“Mmm.” Valerie sat back, her eyes closed. “Sorry, just zoning in from that ride.” It had been a little quick.

“We need to discuss your moving to the gatehouse,” Jane said. Valerie opened her eyes and met her gaze. “Are you still set on it?”

“I think so. Are you going to try to talk me out of it?”

“I only wish you didn’t feel it was necessary. I had no idea you felt this strongly about my taking a new student.”

“I didn’t.”

Jane only looked a little sad. “I’m sorry you’re finding it hard to feel more at home here. I had thought with a little more time… and Natasha will be settled in better soon. I don’t need you to be out of the way for her sake, and I hold that to be false reasoning. Please, let me finish,” Jane asked, as Valerie was about to interrupt. “I remember when I was your age how much I wanted to get out of my mother’s house and have a place of my own, with my own tastes, and able to keep my own times, and be able to have friends come and go without needing to run the gauntlet, as it were, as well as those that were more than friends.” She smiled. “Believe me when I say my mother was neither as informal nor as flexible in the running of her household as I.” She smiled at Valerie’s incredulous stare, acknowledging the irony in that. “Well, yes, she was an inspiration to me, but I hope you understand by now that the show we put on for the new students is a show.”

“It’s not easy to live in a show,” Valerie said. ~And that’s the first time I ever heard her talk about her mother,~ she thought.

“I know, but it does settle down. And you’re of an age now, Valerie. You’re fledging, my dear. You want to try your wings out. I do understand. I had merely hoped you might stay in this house another year until you go to university.”

Valerie flashed momentarily to Luke Skywalker being implored, ‘It’s only one more season. You can go to the Academy next year.’ She promised herself she wouldn’t be the whiny bitch in this scene.

“I don’t want this to be a point of conflict between us. I’ve stated that I would — strongly — prefer you to stay, but I’m not going to stop you.”

“It’s only to the gatehouse,” Valerie reminded her.

“Indeed. And this is as good a reason as any to get the place fixed up sooner rather than later. I’ve spoken to George, and he can have someone come and start clearing it tomorrow. Then even if you change your mind, it will be available as guest accommodation. Or indeed as a comfortable bolt-hole any time you feel you need to get away from the ‘show’ for a few days. I suppose what I’m saying is, we don’t need to be talking about you ‘moving out’ in any absolute sense, for you to have access to the gatehouse as a resource.”

Valerie sighed tiredly. She had been expecting a huge fight, but it was hard to be angry with Jane when she was trying so hard to be reasonable about this. Valerie wished she could understand why. Everything depended on it. Jane had done no less than give Valerie her life back after she had been taken from everything she ever knew. She’d given her a home, a school to go to, a future, but without being able to understand — deeply — why she was doing it, it felt fragile. Jane could take it all away on a whim.

So she nodded and said “All right, Jane.”

Jane regarded her patiently, looking like she wanted to say something more. “You will remember to be back tomorrow before dinner, won’t you?” she only asked. Valerie nodded. “Mark needs you to sign the Covenant papers.”

“Yes yes, I’ll remember.” She sighed again. “I’m sorry Jane. I’m tired.” The lift she’d got from kissing Mary, and from the ride back home, was dissipating.

“When did you last get a full night’s sleep?”

She thought back, and got lost.

“I thought so,” Jane said. “You’ve been having nightmares again.”

“It’s all right. I’ll sleep when I’m tired enough.”

“I’m worried about your being too tired to ride safely. Marie can give you a ride to college tomorrow if you–”

“I’m fine!” Valerie snapped. “I know when I’m too tired to ride. I’ll be okay. I…” She stopped and forced herself to her feet. “I need that shower,” she excused herself, and took her leave.

***

Tu es trá¨s silencieuse ce soir,” Marie observed as she and Natasha tidied the last of the dinner things away in the kitchen.

Oui, Mam’selle.”

Tu vas bien, chérie?”

Oui, Mam’selle.”

It was more than that. Natasha wasn’t meeting her eyes any more. It was as if some spark had left her. ~I wonder if the dolls upset her more than I realised,~ Marie worried. She hadn’t had a chance to talk to Jane about that yet, either. Natasha’s reaction had certainly been unusual. She had been expecting indignation, affronted male pride, but instead–

“Hey you two,” Valerie said from the door. “Need a hand?”

“With perfect timing,” Marie said lightly. “We’re about done, thank you Valerie.”

“Sorry. Jane wanted to talk Money Stuff.” That sardonic smile of hers. Natasha was lurking by the dresser as if hoping not to be noticed. “Tasha, you’ve been quiet all evening. Are you okay?” ~She noticed it too,~ Marie thought.

“I’m fine, Miss Valerie,” Natasha’s voice came back quietly. “Thank you for asking.”

“Look, if there’s anything–”

“I’m fine! Okay? Leave me alone.” She hesitated, then fled the kitchen, almost shoving past Valerie to do so.

“Hey, wait–”

“Valerie,” Marie said, stopping her at the door. “I’ll go to her.” She heard Natasha’s footsteps thumping up the back stairs, and saw Valerie’s impulse to follow. It also meant Valerie was blocking her way out. “If you wanted to be the one who’s there for her…”

She didn’t have to finish the thought. Valerie’s gaze turned on her. Those intense blue eyes glittered with restraint. “Tell me everything’s fine,” she said. When she was like this, Marie found her if anything scarier than Jane. She knew Jane’s limits. “Tell me you two have this all under control.”

“Everything’s fine, Valerie,” Marie said, meeting her gaze. “We have it all under control. She had an anomalous reaction to the dolls this afternoon,” she explained. “I have some concerns I want to discuss with Jane before we proceed in that direction.”

“And he’s still upset about that?”

“I think so, yes. Everything’s under control,” she said again. Valerie pursed her lips in thought. “No student is entirely standard. It’s very early days with Natasha. We’re still learning about each other. She’s still learning that she’s safe here.”

“Hasn’t anyone explained that to him?”

“I’m sure Jane has. She’ll have told him what’s going to happen on the first day, remember? He won’t believe it from us until he finds out for himself. Normally the big sister can reassure…” She stopped herself with a sigh. If she continued it would only come out like an accusation. Valerie just looked doubtful. “I need to go to her,” Marie pointed out.

Valerie made a gesture. ‘Whatever.’ Marie moved past her and left, relieved to be away from that inquisition. ~Is this what it’s going to be like, now?~ Marie wondered as she quickly ascended the staircase. ~Do I have to justify everything to her? What happened to her anyway, to make her so suspicious? She should know us better.~

She had to let the irritation go, or Natasha would pick up on it, like she seemed to be picking up on everything. She sighed, pausing for breath at the top of the stairs. She would talk to Jane about it later. Jane would know what to do.

She had hidden it from Valerie, but behind her irritation she was worried about Natasha. She knocked on the girl’s bedroom door. There was no answer, so after a few moments she opened the door anyway. The room was in near darkness. Natasha sat on the edge of her bed, her back to the door, facing the window. She didn’t move or speak to acknowledge Marie’s presence.

Marie moved around the bed and turned on the bedside lamp next to Natasha and, not gaining a reaction from that, seated herself next to the girl on the bed. The view through the window was still impressive, even in the twilight. The lawn and the grassy parkland were in shadow now, and the trees were mere silhouettes, becoming hard to make out against the reflection of the inside of the room. There was a yellow-orange glow in the distance, over the horizon, from some town. ~Is that the right direction for Malmsbury?~ she wondered. ~Or is that a bigger city further off? Bath?~ Her own bedroom faced to the north of the house, and when she was up she rarely had time to stop and look. The sky was still light high above, darkening towards the horizon and slashed almost in two by the contrails of an airliner at high altitude shining gold in the last of the sun.

Marie’s focus shifted closer, suddenly, and she saw what she thought Natasha was looking at. The reflection, now of the both of them, as ghostly half-lit figures against a dark background.

Still not a word, or a look.

Nous ne sommes pas obligées de continuer de jouer aux poupées,” Marie said, taking that decision upon herself. Jane wouldn’t countermand her on that, she was sure, once Marie had explained.

Maybe the tiniest of shrugs. Then a movement as Natasha seemed to inspect her fingernails.

Dis-moi,” Marie said quietly. “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?”

Natasha became completely still again. “Rien,” she whispered.

~Nothing she wants to talk to me about,~ Marie thought sadly. ~Perhaps Valerie could–~ The thought died. “Veux-tu m’aider avec ta robe pour demain soir?” Marie asked aloud.

Nothing for a while, then another tiny shrug.

Je vais aller la chercher,” Marie said, rising.

boydoll,">Je suis son poupé,” Natasha said behind her.

Sa poupée,” Marie corrected without thinking. Then, ~No!~

It was too late. Natasha howled and threw the bedside lamp to the floor, knocking the clock and some ornaments with it, and stood trembling in the mess. Shocked by the sudden violence, Marie had to sit for a moment to calm herself.

Tu es son étudiante, Natasha,” Marie said calmly. Natasha seemed to crumple in place, until she was sitting on the floor, hugging her knees to her chest. Marie followed her down, dropping to her knees in front of Natasha and tried to take her hand. “Tasha, chérie, qu’est-ce–” Natasha batted her hand away irritably. “Tu n’es pas une poupée. Ne le pense pas!”

Natasha just rested her forehead on her arms folded over her knees and ignored her. Marie sighed and started picking up the fallen lamp. The plastic of the light fitting had cracked, and it dangled by its wires. She switched it off. The room was dark without it, darker than it appeared when Marie had first entered.

“Leave. It.” Natasha murmured, without moving.

“It’s broken,” Marie said.

“Get me some Superglue and I’ll fix it.”

“I’ll take it downstairs–”

“I’ll fix it!” Natasha insisted, raising her head just enough to glare at her. “I just need some glue. She doesn’t have to know about it, does she?”

Marie nodded slowly. “No, she doesn’t. We’ll fix this.”

***

“Did I hear a noise?” Jane asked, emerging from the living room as Marie came to the bottom of the stairs. “What happened?”

Rien, Madame,” Marie replied, not stopping on the way to the kitchen. “Un petit accident.” She was aware of Jane following her down the stairs. “Oh,” Marie sighed, entering the kitchen. “Listen to me.”

“Taking his side?”

“What side? There’s no side.” Marie went straight to the drawers to find glue. “It’s nothing important. He’s just frustrated and…” ~And a little afraid.~

“Well,” Jane said thoughtfully, then decided to accept that, nodding. “All right. I think I shall turn in. I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, and I’ve had a headache all afternoon.”

“Would you like me to get you something?”

“No thank you. I’ll get myself some aspirin. You’ll see to Natasha this evening?”

Oui, Madame, after the dress-fitting. I’ll take her into the sewing room to do that.”

“Oh yes.” Jane nodded approvingly and went to the cupboard to get a glass. “Was there something you wanted to talk to me about, from this afternoon?”

“It can wait until tomorrow if you’re tired,” Marie decided.

“All right, but remind me then. I’m still waiting for a reply to the email I sent Mrs. Shaw. Oh, and…” She paused, turning from the cupboard to the sink. “I remember. I’ve decided in view of the last two nights’ drama to experiment with leaving her door unlocked tonight.” Marie raised her eyebrows. “Would you see to it, and make sure she understands what a privilege she’s receiving, and so forth? You know the speech, it’s just a little early.” She filled the glass from the tap. “I’ve discussed it with Valerie, and you just need to give the system your usual nightly lock-down code when you go to bed. She’s doing the settings now.”

Oui, Madame,”

“I’ll bid thee goodnight, then,” Jane said fondly, and departed with her glass of water.

***

Marie brought the glue back to Natasha’s room and left her with it to fetch a little paraphenalia from her stillroom. By the time she returned Natasha was finishing the repair, using a couple of ponytail bands to lash the fitting together while the glue dried. The room was bright, with the other bedside lamp, the dressing table lights and the ceiling light all having been switched on. It signalled, she supposed, a change of mood, or failing that, at least a desire to change the mood on Natasha’s part. Either way, it was welcome. She smiled encouragement and crossed the room to draw the curtains. That alone made the room seem so much cosier and warmer. She started setting up the vaporiser and a tea-light on the dressing table.

“What is that?” Natasha asked.

Marie ignored her and added the base oil and a blend to the ceramic bowl and lit the tea-light.

Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

Un peu d’huile essentielle, pour que ça sente bon,” Marie replied. “Viens-t’en,” she invited. Natasha came and leaned over the vaporiser to smell the fumes being given off. “Tu aimes?”

Natasha nodded. “What, I mean, qu’est-ce que ce faire?”

Rien,” Marie answered truthfully. “Juste pour donner une senteur agréable.” She got out of the way to let Natasha sit for a moment at the dressing table, and seated herself on the side of the bed nearest her. “I just spoke with Jane,” she said, deliberately switching to English. She wanted to be sure she was being understood. Natasha glanced quickly at her, nervousness in her eyes again. “Concerning your nightmares, Jane’s decided to take you at your word and leave your bedroom door unlocked tonight.”

“Oh,” Natasha said, as if there was nothing remarkable or interesting about that at all.

“She asked me to make sure you understand this is a privilege and it depends on your good behaviour. You’ve been very good so far, for the most part, that’s why she’s giving you this chance.”

Natasha nodded. “Enough rope to hang myself, eh?”

Marie smiled, glad that she’d picked up on that. “Something like that. This isn’t an excuse to run riot over the house, making a noise or breaking things. You’re still expected to remain in your room until morning unless you have a genuine reason to be elsewhere. You’re just being trusted to do that by yourself.”

Natasha nodded again.

Trá¨s bien,” Marie concluded. “Tu m’aides avec la robe maintenent?” Natasha didn’t look enthusiastic. “You promised, remember?”

Natasha sighed. “Okay.”

“It’s in the sewing room– Actually,” Marie interrupted herself, changing her mind. “I’ll bring what I need in here, shall I?” she decided. Natasha seemed fragile enough, and with the fitting and the measurements she wanted to take, things were going to be delicate enough. At least her own room would be familiar now, and the aroma from the vaporiser would be doing its gentle work. The ambience was vastly improved already from how it had been when she’d first come up.

Natasha just shrugged.

Notes:

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