Seasons of Change - Book 12 - Part 1 of 2 - Victoria's Story

Victor was a bully sent to Aunt Jane Thompson's Winsome Girl's School for Wayward Boys. Victoria is a trial to Aunt Jane - a student who has figured out too early that she is protecting the secret of the girlish masquerade even as she tries to convince him Victoria is in constant danger of being unmasked.

Then, September 11 changes their lives.

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Seasons of Change
Book 12 - Part 1 of 2
Season of Terror
Victoria's Story

by Tigger

Copyright © 2002,2013 Tigger
All Rights Reserved.

 


 
Author's Note: This story was written in conjunction with, and is the prequel to Brandy Dewinters marvelous Tales of the Seasons: Jessica's Story. ~Tigger

Legalities: Archiving and reposting of this story *unchanged* is permitted provided that: 1) You must have contacted the author, Tigger, and have asked permission first and received said permission to host this particular work. 2) No fee be charged, either directly or indirectly (this includes so-called "adult checks") or any form of barter or monetary transfers in order to access viewing this work *and* (3) PROVIDED that this disclaimer, all author notes, legalities and attribution to the original author are contained unchanged within the work. 4) The author of this work, Tigger, must be provided free account access at all times the work is hosted in order to modify or remove this work at his sole discretion.

This work is the copyrighted material of the respective author.

Based on the characters and situations presented in "Seasons of Change" by Joel Lawrence, Copyright 1989. ~Tigger
 


 
Part I
 
 
Introduction: A Moment of Crisis
 
Her lips set into a fine, hard line against the emotion burning in her throat, Victoria Denato started to stride out of her pastel-and-chintz-decorated bedroom only to catch herself at the last moment. If her plan was to have any chance of success, she had to have Jane Thompson's full cooperation - and she was absolutely certain that cooperation would not be forthcoming if she failed to be ladylike in any way. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, she stepped across her room's threshold and walked with carefully measured gait down the hall that led to the main staircase.

*Maybe I should have worn the taller heels,* she thought, *They would have made my walk more ladylike, but they don't go with the outfit. Remember, toe-to-heel, toe-to-heel. . * she mentally repeated like a marching cadence.

New and hard-learned habits had her checking her appearance one last time before venturing down to the main floor of the huge old house. The floor-to-ceiling mirror that dominated the second floor landing revealed no flaws to her now-experienced eyes - as should only be expected for Victoria had selected this outfit and dressed with equal care. After all, this Laura Ashley skirt and sweater set, combined with the opaque, white stockings had actually been praised by Marie, and barely commented upon by Ms. Thompson the previous time she'd worn it. *Although I can't think of any other girls who'd actually dressed in this kind of stuff, unless they were going to church or something,* she mused at her reflection.

Her hair and makeup were as close to perfect as she could manage - though like her outfit they were too formal for morning. But Marie hadn't shown her how to cope with some of the color effects yet. Victoria resisted the urge to pat her hair to see if it was real. The bright golden shade clashed with the olive skin tones that were a legacy her Mediterranean ancestors. Sandy, drat her, had actually cooed over the look, assuring Victoria that it made her look 'exotically sexy'.

With a sigh, Victoria squared her shoulders and headed down the stairs.

At the bottom of the stairs, Victoria headed for Jane's study, the plush Persian carpet muting any sound from her modest heels. She was surprised to find the thick door slightly ajar as she approached it. A small sound caught her notice as she raised her fist to knock. Surprised, Victoria hesitated and listened, not sure if she believed the evidence of her ears - and then she heard it again. It was a noise with which she had become only too personally familiar in her months living at Seasons House.

Someone was crying - except this time, it was someone other than Victoria Denato doing the crying.

Cautiously, Victoria peeked around the edge of the door, not sure what to expect, and was utterly shocked to see that it was the indomitable Jane Thompson herself who was in tears, the receiver of her old fashioned phone held shakily in a white-knuckled fist.

Some dark, malicious part of Victoria wanted to revel in whatever had driven her tormentor to display such emotion, wanted to savor the older woman's pain. Well, didn't the woman deserve some payback for all the humiliation she'd inflicted on Vic Denato?

The part of Victoria that was still that rebellious hooligan - that rebellious MALE hooligan - wanted to shout aloud in the affirmative, wanted to relish in full measure this woman's grief. But for some reason, she just couldn't do it.

*Whatever is bothering her must be pretty awful for her to break down like that,* Victoria thought. *Heck, she didn't even make sure the door was closed so she could cry in privacy. Now what do I do?* She thought for a moment and recalled her determination to see her plan through.

Before she could change her mind, Victoria knocked sharply on the doorjamb and stepped into the room without waiting for permission. "Is there anything I can do to help, Ms. Jane?" she asked softly.

Jane's head came up with an almost-audible snap, her eyes going wide as she saw her latest student standing in the open doorway. "Vic. . Victoria," Jane stammered even as she tried to bat away the evidence of her crying, almost hitting herself in the face with the telephone. "What are you doing here?" the older woman managed as she carefully settled the phone back in its delicately scrolled gilded cradle.

Her 'high-heel marching cadence' still playing in her head, Victoria stepped carefully into Jane's sanctum. "That's why," she said, pointing to the televised scene of devastation as she moved toward Jane's desk. "I need to talk to you about something I heard on the radio."

Jane seemed to consider that for a few moments before moving to her desk. "Sit down, Victoria, and tell me what you want," she ordered as she took her own seat, although with something less than her usual brusque authority.

Victoria took her seat, doing her best to perform that maneuver precisely the way she'd been taught, and turned to face her guardian. "The radio said the Red Cross needs blood donations," Victoria began quietly, "They especially need O-negative - the Universal Donor blood-type because of the emergency stuff they're having to do at. . .at . . . the, well, at the Towers." She actually shook herself to keep from babbling and forced her eyes to meet Jane's own violet ones. "I'm O-negative and I would like to give."

Jane literally gaped at Victoria, momentarily stunned. *Obviously,* Victoria thought, *Whatever she had expected to be on her student's mind, donating blood had not been it.*

"I see," and then she finally managed was to ask, "Why?"

"Because they need the blood," Victoria repeated, again pointing back to the television, "for them."

Reflexively, Jane's eyes followed Victoria's gesture and then closed as tears started to gather once again at the sights, this time of the Pentagon, she saw on the glowing screen. "It really hurts you," Victoria noted, "What's on the television. Did you. . I mean," she faltered as she realized who she was talking to and what she was about to ask.

"Did I what?" Jane asked.

"Know someone who might. . might be in there?"

The older woman considered Victoria for several long moments. For her part, Victoria struggled not to fidget under that steely gaze; an effort that brought the momentary and unnoticed twitch of a smile to Jane's lips. "One of my gir. . uh, students, works in the Pentagon," she finally admitted. "I haven't been able to reach he. . him or . . . his family. The phone circuits are overloaded and I couldn't get through. Now they're asking non-essential calls to New York and Washington be curtailed."

Victoria considered that and then remembered something she'd heard on the radio. "They said that the part of the Pentagon that was damaged was mostly empty - on account of it being renovated," she offered hopefully.

"I hadn't heard that," Jane admitted, too focused on her worries to notice, let alone correct Victoria's grammatical error. "Are you certain of that?"

"As much as I can be. I know I heard that at least twice on the radio." Jane nodded and Victoria wondered if who this student was - another of Ms. Thompson's manners projects? "Was. . . your student, that is, in the Army?"

"No," Jane answered with a shake of her head. "Marines, actually."

"There's a difference?" Victor asked suspiciously, only remembering to use Victoria's voice for the last few syllables.

"According to the Marines, there is a world of difference, child," Jane replied, a single brow lifted to show she had not missed THAT verbal gaff. However, she did not specifically call the girl on it.

Silence grew between the two as the repetitious and unchanging reports of destruction, terror and growing anger sounded from the television. After several minutes, Victoria could wait no longer. "Ms. Jane? About my request?"

"To give blood? I must ask you again, why do you want to do that? Is this some scheme to get out of your skirts, Victoria?"

The steady gaze that answered her question surprised Jane. "No," her student replied firmly. "It's not a scheme or anything else. I just need to . . . to do. . SOMEthing!"

"Really? Well, I am sorry, but I'm afraid that is out of the question," Jane replied sharply.

"But the newscasters said they really need the blood!" Victoria slipped and it was Victor's voice that protested.

"As I told you after our little trip to the mall, you're in skirts until I decide you've earned the privilege of trousers." The vivid blush on her pupil's cheeks spoke volumes about just how clearly Victor/Victoria remembered that recent experience. "A stipulation, I hasten to add, to which you agreed quite readily just this very Saturday, in fact."

"I know that, Ma'am," the girl said softly. "That's why I dressed so carefully. I don't think anyone would question me dressed like this. We could go and give blood right now. No one would have to know that I'm. . .that I'm anything other than what I appear to be."

"I see," Jane said in what Victoria thought was a very odd tone, "but I don't think that will work. I'm fairly certain that they, that is, the people who would be taking and using your blood, would need to know you are really a boy under that girlish finery. When they will test your blood, they'll find male hormones instead of the female ones they expect. The Red Cross might well have to discard otherwise perfectly acceptable blood. That would be a sad waste."

"So?" Victor's voice cracked through again, but he pressed on as Victoria. "We just tell them who and what I really am once we're inside the clinic where they take the blood. I can do that. I WILL do that, Ms. Jane!"

Shaking her head, Jane replied, "No, you will not. I do not choose to have it become general knowledge that some of my students are . . . 'troubled.' That would cast unwarranted aspersions on prior students and those to come after you. We must solve your problems without harming others in the process. And I believe your experiences this previous weekend demonstrated the futility of you trying to appear masculine?"

Victoria felt her hackles rise and glared at the woman seated across the desk from her. "If that's what I have to do, Ms. Jane, then that's what I'll do!" At Jane's challengingly lifted brow, Victoria continued. "I'll go to a clinic, dressed just like I am right now. I'll tell them I am a really a boy who's being punished by being made to wear girl's clothes, but . . . "

"But?"

"Well, I sort of figured you must know someone in the medical field - in case I got hurt or sick, you know? Someone who could take my blood, fill out the paperwork correctly, but not give away my secret?"

A thoughtful look crossed Jane's drawn features, but "I'm not sure that would work," was all she said.

"Couldn't you at least check, please? And if that won't work, then I still want to donate the blood they need, Ma'am, even if it means admitting to. . .," and despite the best will in the world, Victoria had to swallow hard before continuing, "to being a boy who likes to wear girl's clothes and stuff . . . or to being a boy who's being punished by being made to dress up like a girl."

"You'd break your cover just to donate blood? Again, I have to ask why?"

For the first time since she'd stepped into the room, the emotion that Victoria had been fighting since staring in mute shock at those first televised images started to roil up out of control. Swallowing hard, she fought the tears, but knew it was a losing battle. "Because. . . because. . ."

"Because why, child?" Jane prompted as she handed the girl a tissue.

"BECAUSE I DON'T WANT TO BE LIKE THE ONES WHO DID THAT!!" she burst out and then bolted from the room, slamming the door behind her.
 
 
Chapter 1: The Beginning - Again
 
*Lord above, but I am glad women don't wear feathered hats anymore. The plumage would definitely be drooping right now,* Jane mused as she once again stood upon the train station platform. The oppressively humid heat of late July in New England beat down on her and Jane's black 'power-suit' only made it worse. *It's a wonder I'm not drooping, and of course, this is the day the infernal train is late, too,* she thought as she cast her eyes down the track in hopes of seeing the electric locomotive appear in the heatwave-distorted distance.

She was alone today because there was no other student in residence at her little school. That meant that Marie would be pressed into the 'good cop' role against Jane's 'bad cop' persona with this student. That was not optimal for the student or Jane's program, of course. Marie had other duties that would get in the way of her becoming the new resident's confidante, but using the deeply caring French Canadian had worked out well enough in the past and should serve again this time.

*Perhaps, given this student's particularly belligerent history, the lack of a 'big sister' might be all to the good. Marie and I can take care of ourselves, well enough. Besides, we will know not to turn our backs on a teenager with a tendency toward violence, particularly when we've pushed him to the very edge of his emotional control. Another student, no matter how well we prepared her for her role, might get hurt.*

The sound of the train's whistle sounded in the distance. Jane checked her appearance in the station's plate glass window, and then moved purposefully to the center of the platform. It was show time!

Most of the train's passengers were obviously headed for Providence or Boston, and few of those wanted to leave the air-conditioned comfort of the passenger cars so Jane's new student stood out immediately. His Italian ancestry showed clearly in his dark hair and olive-toned skin. She studied him with professional objectivity as he gathered his bags from the porter. He was short, even shorter than she'd pictured from his file description, and while he wasn't slight of build, he wasn't bulky either. *Good skin,* she thought, *and no sign of any significant beard growth yet. Smooth facial features, too. We'll have to select his garments carefully, and a good corsetting will do wonders for _her_ figure, but we'll have no trouble getting him out into public en femme.*

With that confirmed in her own mind, Jane moved to intercept her quarry. "Victor Denato?" she said in her sharpest tones.

"Yeah, I'm Vic Denato," was the sneeringly insolent reply. "I suppose you're the warden here?"

"I am," Jane said in icy tones, "Jane Thompson, your court-appointed guardian for an as-yet indeterminate period of time. *YOU* may call me Ms. Thompson."

Something akin to humor, but darker and unpleasant, glinted in the boy's dark eyes. "Sure thing, Mizzz Thompson," he said flippantly. "Whatever you say."

Jane knew better than to allow a confrontation between them to escalate in public, so she changed the subject. "Is that all of your things?" she demanded. A head movement that might have been a nod was all the answer she received. "Come along, then. It is nearly noon and we have much to accomplish today."

"Yeah, sure. Get one of those porters over here for my stuff, then."

"I beg your pardon," Jane retorted. "Were you speaking to me, young man?"

"Who else, bit . . ., I mean, Mizzz Thompson?"

Raw anger pulsed through Jane's heat-frayed self-control, but she managed to hold her composure. "From your record, I understand you are QUITE the, uh, physical young man, Mr. Denato. I think you can and WILL handle your own baggage. You will ALSO treat me and anyone with whom I direct you to work with absolute courtesy and respect or you can get back on that bloody train right now. You might make it to Boston before the police show up to cart you off to that reformatory. Your choice, Mr. Denato."

If anger was sparking from Jane's violet eyes, violent fury was blazing in Victor Denato's. For just an instant, Jane thought the boy was going to try to strike her and prepared to deflect him. However, he backed off under her steel-hard glare. Slowly, with ill-concealed dislike, the boy reached down to gather his three large bags. Straightening unsteadily beneath their weight, he scowled up at the taller Jane. "Lead on, Mizzz Thompson."

She did, thinking as she walked, *A bully, indeed, but I can handle that. Like all bullies, beneath all that male braggadocio he's also a coward. Well, young man, I will have no compunction at all pulling out the big guns with you! In fact, I am going to enjoy making you squirm and cry.*
 
 
Chapter 2: Vignettes - A Program in Disarray
 
Jane tapped her finger on her calendar as she dialed a familiar phone number. *I'll need to change that to August tomorrow,* she thought.

"Marisha Chalet. Carolyn Beale speaking."

"Caro! Jane here. Ready for another opportunity to excel, dear?"

"So this newbie didn't take you up on your offer to leave in one of your frilly nighties, either?"

Good humored satisfaction colored Jane's tones. "Not hardly, dear. He caved and gave his word to follow the rules, just like they all do eventually."

"And you think she is ready to venture out into the cold, cruel world? What are you calling him. . .her?"

"I think she's suitably cowed now, and we named her Victoria - what else? I don't have the imagination some of my students do when it comes to naming. Besides, I think there is additional impact to a girl's name that sounds like his real one."

"Well, you'd know, Jane. So, what's the plan? Actually, I sort of thought you'd be bringing her in earlier. He's been with you, what, a week already?"

"The usual first day at the salon experience with you and Sandy."

"How does SHE look? How are her girl-skills?

"Adequate, I think. After one week in the program, she's well into the initial indoctrination phase."

"Any issues with behavior?"

Jane paused noticeably. "I don't think so, at least for this trip. The removal of his male clothing and their replacement with the very frilly, exaggeratedly feminine wardrobe I use during the first weeks of a rehabilitation did result in an angry confrontation between Victor and I."

"How angry?" Carolyn demanded.

"He attempted to become physical with me," Jane admitted equably. "Without any success and to the detriment of his ego, I might add. You won't have any trouble with THIS one, I'm sure."

~----------~

Carolyn examined the figure seated at her station with a professional eye. Like Jane, she saw both the flaws and the possibilities in the face and form of her subject. That her subject was a genetic male was not a significant issue - she had transformed far more masculine boys into passable young girls. Most were even attractive - once she relented and allowed them to be, that is. The little monsters had to *earn* that privilege first. Until they had, Carolyn and Sandy followed Jane's orders which required that the students be caricatures.

*Oh, my, but has Sandy done a job on you, Victoria,* Caro thought as she considered frizzy blond ponytails, more suited to an eight year old girl than an adolescent woman-child. *I'll have to brush it out before the girls arrive for class, but even so, she's going to have more curl and body than any of the others. And those nails - she'll poke her eyes out before she learns to manage them. You must have really pissed her off, Victoria.*

"Well," she said finally. "Aren't you the pretty child, Victoria. Having fun, dear?"

Caro had expected to see the boy-girl's face color with embarrassment, or at most lighten with fear. Victoria's face did flush, but what she saw in those eyes was anger, perhaps even rage. *Well, it is not the usual reaction, but nothing I haven't seen and dealt with before with one of Jane's girls.* "Ah, ah, ah, dearie," she chided in a soft, barely audible sing-song. "Don't want to lose your temper and blow your masquerade. Unless you want all my customers and consultants to know that you are a pretty little sissyboy under that pretty school uniform."

She saw his struggle to school his features and control his anger. *Have to watch this one,* she mused. *Jane was right about that temper of his.* "That's better. Now, Jane tells me you've been given basic training by Marie in cosmetics. She is good, but I'm better. What I want now is for you to do up your own face so I can see what you know, and what you don't. Then, I will use you as the demonstration model for my girls' club."

Shocked, he sat up and stared at Carolyn, his eyes wide. "You'll what? What girls' club? Me?"

*Gotcha!* "Didn't Jane tell you?" Carolyn asked with a sly smile. "She said I could use you to demonstrate make-up tricks to a group of girls I work with every Wednesday."

"But, I can't, I mean, they'll figure out that I'm a. . .No, that's just not going to work!"

"As I understand it, you've agreed to follow Jane's orders, and her orders were that you're supposed to follow mine. You'll do what I say or the whole deal is off, Missie!"

"But all those girls. . . "

"Will not notice a thing, other than that you are the 'new girl' and more than a little shy. Just do as I say, and play along and nothing will go wrong," she ordered as she began to undo ties holding the pigtails in place.

"But I'm a boy!" Victoria hissed out as Caro began to brush out the expertly installed hair-extensions Sandy had woven into Victor's own locks.

With a jerk, Carolyn spun the salon chair so that Victoria was facing the mirrored wall. She gripped her subject's cheeks between strong fingers so that Victoria had no choice but to stare at her own reflection. "But dear, you don't LOOK like a boy. In fact, you look nothing LIKE a boy, and so long as you don't ACT anything like a boy, no one is going to know you're a boy. So unless you WANT that fact to become common knowledge, you will be a good little girl - keep your mouth shut, do what you're told and SMILE!! Got it, sissy boy?"

In the mirror, she could see Victoria swallow hard, then close her eyes and nod.

"Excellent. Now, make up your face for me. All my girls are supposed to show up for class with their faces already done up so that I can critique their efforts and show them a few tricks to correct any errors. You, I suspect, will make a lot of errors which is why you'll be my model today." *And so that I can keep you out of TOO close a contact with the girls before you are really ready.*

~----------~

Marie accepted the glass of sherry Jane offered. "Well, I must say that Caro continues to impress me with her artistry. Victoria's face was lovely."

"Yes," Jane smiled. "And our little girl was VERY ready to run home to Seasons House after the make-up club meeting was over. All in all, a very successful first outing, I think."

"Sandy got carried away," Marie said frowning. "I've seen dustmops with less bulk than that hair-do she foisted off on Victoria."

Jane shrugged. "It's what she does, and very well."

"I just think we should keep an eye on her, is all. That hairdo is not going to be easy for us to deal with and it certainly doesn't send the message we usually want our girls to get."

"I see your point. Well, I think we will hold off on Brenda Franson's shop for a few more days - let Victoria learn a few more hard lessons before she has to keep her cool in her silky undies in Betty's changing room."

~----------~

There was a wicked grin on Jane's lips as she listened to the phone ring on the other end of the connection. That grin only grew wider when she heard the line pick up followed by "This is Mrs. Edith White speaking, how may I help you," in the old lady's Brahman accents.

"Edith, dear, this is Jane - Jane Thompson. How are you today?"

"Quite well, thank you. Dare I hope that this call heralds the debut of another of your delightful young ladies to our little social set?"

"In a way, Edith. I do have a new student in residence, but I'm afraid she not very ladylike. Why do all the children nowadays seem so . . . coarse and crude?"

"Overly permissive parents, my dear, which is why ladies such as you and I must set proper examples and maintain certain standards."

Jane struggled not to giggle at that bit of pompous foolishness, but could not quite repress the smile. "True, Edith, sad but oh-so-very true. In any case, I could surely use just such an example of impeccable manners for this one's benefit, and of course, I thought immediately of you. Could you come over for tea tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow?" Edith responded, sounding uncertain. "Let me check my calendar. . . let's see, tomorrow is Friday, the tenth of August? Yes, I could make tea tomorrow afternoon. What time?"

"Three p.m.?"

"That will be fine. You do recall we are having a bit of a musicale on Sunday at the country club. A little food, some socializing, a bit of proper ballroom dancing for the young people. If your student performs adequately tomorrow, perhaps we could reward her with an invitation to the gathering."

"Thank you, Edith - I'm sure that will do the trick, and oh, I almost forgot - it will be a formal tea. I'll have her wearing the right clothes, at least. Together, I'm sure we can teach her proper manners."

~----------~

"She did WHAT?" Marie demanded.

"She spilled hot tea in Edith's lap - all over that antique crocheted shawl the woman is so proud of. And Marie? It was on purpose."

"On purpose?"

"She mocked us every minute we were there. Aping mannerly behavior, mimicking Edith's accent to the point of hyperbole, putting lemon AND cream into the same cup of tea so that the cream curdled." Jane shook her head. "It was as if she was TRYING to infuriate me. Then she 'tripped' and spilled the tea on Edith. Thank God there had been time for it to cool a bit."

"That's never happened before. Edith is a very scary lady. Now what?"

"Keep trying. She starts dance lessons tomorrow. We'll see how that works."

~----------~

"Ms. Thompson?"

"Yes, this is Jane Thompson."

"This is Allison, the dance mistress?"

"Yes, dear. What can I do for you?"

There was silence on the other end of the line, and Jane could practically feel the woman gathering herself for something unpleasant. *And since there is only one thing we have in common that is likely to be unpleasant. . .* "Is this call about Victoria, Allison?"

The woman's sigh of relief was audible, even across the phone line. "Yes, Ma'am."

"That bad, eh?"

"She just doesn't want to be here, and frankly, it's affecting the rest of the corps. She doesn't pay attention, and so she makes mistakes. On the dance floor, mistakes can get other dancers hurt."

"Other students have been injured?!" Jane was aghast. *She was probably afraid to bring it to my attention since I underwrite a significant portion of her operating budget. DAMN!*

"Not badly, Ms. Thompson. A couple of ankle sprains and a pulled hamstring. The problem is that puts three of my five male dancers out of commission and with a performance coming up, I just can't afford to lose male leads for any length of rehearsal time. Besides, no one wants to partner her anymore."

*Precisely her intention, the nasty little bitch!* Jane's mind snarled. "You don't. . .the injuries. . . they were really accidents, weren't they?"

"Carelessness and inattentiveness, Ms. Thompson," Allison responded with a hard edge in her voice. "Ma'am, until Victoria learns some discipline, well, I just can't have her in the class. It's not fair to the ones who come and give me their all. I'm sorry, and I know you do a lot for the troupe, but. . "

"But nothing, dear," Jane interrupted. "I understand, and I will continue to support your efforts. It is not your fault my niece refuses to be accountable for her actions. Thank you for your call. Yes, good bye."

Jane set the phone down on it's cradle, very, very carefully.

And then pounded her desk with both hands in frustrated anger. It was becoming clear that unless the girl was watched like a hawk, nasty little 'accidents' tended to happen to those around her.

*Oh god, and tomorrow is the big Labor Day picnic in town. And I *HAVE* to attend.*

~----------~

"Go to your room, Miss!" Jane snarled as she herded her student into the front foyer of Seasons House, "And don't leave until I personally permit it!"

"Yes, Mizzz Jane," Victoria replied in a sing-song voice before sauntering up the grand stairway toward her room.

"I just want to THROTTLE that girl!" Jane fumed to Marie as they both went into the music room.

"Get in line," Marie growled as she beat Jane to the brandy decanter, pouring generous portions of the fragrant amber liquid into two crystal balloon snifters. "You should have known better than to force her into the egg toss."

Jane sighed as she accepted her share of the distilled wine. "I'll replace that blouse, dear. Even you can't get dried egg out of silk. I just wish I could prove it was intentional so I could really lay into her for THAT. Unfortunately, as she has so often, her visible behavior was impeccable until we were two miles down the road on our way home."

"And then the little . . . bitch went snotty on us yet again.

"And there is no reason to believe her compliance with any orders we give her here will be any less maliciously precise than it has been in the previous six weeks. I must tell you, Marie, I am getting bloody tired of doing in-depth rhetorical analysis on any order I decide to give this one."

"She has me doubting my instincts, too."

"Join the club, Marie. Heavens, I don't know why I bother to use feminine pronouns with this one. I just wish I understood what was behind that dichotomy. It isn't courage - I'm very sure of that. Thus far, I've seen nothing to indicate she possesses that virtue, and besides, if the boy really doesn't fear my games, why would going to the beauty parlor or to any other public venue have any effect on his behavior?"

"If I knew, I'd tell you, Jane. And you know I've tried to get her to talk to me about it, with very little success. The only thing she's let slip is that, for some reason she wouldn't share with me, she has concluded that so long as nothing happens outside of this house to reveal his true nature, whatever happens inside Seasons House doesn't really matter.

"So we must conclude that it isn't so much Sandy, Caro and their antics that reach Victoria, but the public nature of the trips to encounter those women. Victoria is clearly more careful with her behaviors and mannerisms when she knows she is going to be on display or in public - with her cosmetics and dress, too."

"At least she's learned those lessons well enough not to endanger the program when she's out in public," Marie sighed. "She's learned to be rather attractive when her attitude isn't getting in your face."

"Unfortunately, the outings are only a threat, a bluff, as you will know. We can't permit a break in the student's feminine persona while we're out - only while we're at home - and we need such 'failures' on her part. They provide us with the psychic wedges we use to break down the resistant male ego."

"So where does that leave us? With a student who has somehow figured out that he really is safe?"

Jane nodded morosely. "How he has reached that conclusion, I have no idea. Unfortunately, the fact that he is correct only makes my problem more difficult."

"Difficult?" Marie snorted "Try impossible, Jane. That attitude can not continue or we will never make any progress with the boy. In fact, you and I both know we're *that close* to having to give up and return him to the juvenile criminal justice system.

"Like Hell we will!" Jane snapped furiously, and then blushed. "Sorry, dear."

"That's all right, Jane. I hate the idea, too."

"Somehow," Jane thought aloud, "we have to shake his certainty that he is safe so long as he doesn't break cover outside the house. The problem with that is that it necessitates putting him squarely in the public eye and breaking the masquerade in front of witnesses."

"JANE! You're KIDDING!"

"Not really, but that concept does pose several problems, not the least of which was that if it does not work, it's all over. If public unmasking, even though it's in the limited sense I'd dare attempt, fails, nothing else will have any beneficial outcome. Eventually, the terms of the court order that sent him here will force us to send him back, and let the juvenile detention system have its way with him."

"You said there were problems - plural. What else?"

"The second problem, of course, is that he has already been exposed to most of our fellow-conspirators as a cross-dressed male." Jane rose and went back to the sideboard for a bit more brandy. "There isn't anyone else we can use to set up a 'safe' - read that, not real - public unmasking. He is, by now, only too aware that Sandy, Caro and Betty Franson are in on the masquerade. I think he would very probably conclude that any other local establishment I try to use for that purpose were also in on the game. He has to believe that he really has been unmasked. That requires some truly public location."

"Are you thinking of what you did to Michael?"

Nodding, Jane resumed her seat. "Yes. It is chancy and it might as easily backfire as work, but for the life of me, I cannot think of any other choice."

"How will you set that up? You usually do that far earlier in the program when the student still thinks you might actually let him go and while he is still reeling from the sudden change in his lifestyle. This one has already figured out too much."

"And I don't have a big sister to tease him into it, either," Jane admitted. "I think there is a way, though. I just hope I understand his psyche now well enough to predict how he will react if his male pride is put on the line."

"You're kidding," Marie burbled as she finally understood. When Jane only shook her head, the little French Canadian could only laugh. "Amazing. The only way to feminize him is to challenge him to prove his masculinity and then call upon his sense of male honor. All right, then, what's the first step?"

"I call Caro. I will need her help, but she needs to know why first. We cannot forget that he does have a history of violence and we are about to push his buttons about as hard as we can."

~----------~

"Caro? Jane, here. Is Sandy there? Are you two available for a quick conference call?"

"Hi, Jane. Sure. Let me get her on the other phone. We're just about done for the day here, anyway. Just a sec. . " Jane heard Caro's muffled yell for Sandy to pick up the phone, probably through the other woman's palm over the phone's mouthpiece.

A click heralded Sandy's arrival. "Hey, Jane! What's up?"

"Obviously, I need your help, ladies, but I must also warn you that the plan I have decided to follow is something that could really backfire on us."

Sandy snort of disgust was plain, even across the New England phone lines. "Victoria still being a little piss-ant for you out there?"

"Crudely put, Sandra, but unfortunately, also highly accurate - and we're running out of options with this one - running out of time, too. If we don't reach her soon, it's all over and she goes into the loss column."

Carolyn's own husband was a Jane Thompson success and she didn't even like thinking about her life had Jane not been able to turn his life around for him. "What do you want to do? What do you want from us, Jane?"

"I want to pull out all the stops," Jane said in a rush. "For what I have planned, I need to make it impossible for him to look at all masculine, regardless of how I permit him to dress."

"Okay, I understand the goal. What have you got in mind?"

"Oh, not much. Hair coloring, I think. Something audaciously brazen and utterly blatant."

"More than we've already done with her?" Carolyn asked, surprised.

"More than we've ever done - period. As I said, pull out all the stops."

"We can do that," Sandy said confidently. "When I'm done with the little witch, her hair will light up a dark room. What else?"

Jane let out a frustrated breath, and refocused herself. "What I'd *like* to do is inflict a big-hair hairdo on her that would embarrass Dolly Parton, but we can't do that. He has to agree to this ploy, and I'm sure he'd decide I was cheating if we augmented his coiffure more than we already have done. No, whatever we do, we're stuck working with just what he has now. Unfortunately, even with the current extensions, that collar length hair just won't cut it for big hair. Dammit!"

"Wow, you are bedeviled if you're reduced to making bad puns and cursing, Jane," Caro chuckled.

"Umm, Jane? I think I know what you're planning, and I may have an idea on that," Sandy put in.

"Really? Let me hear it, please . . .oh, and before I forget. Sandy? Those new, special nail-tips you told me about a few weeks ago? Those, too."

"They're expensive, Jane. Very expensive," Caro warned.

"I can afford it, Carolyn, and I am afraid this might be our last chance. I won't be penny-wise and pound-foolish with a young man's future in the balance."

"You're the customer, Jane. When do you want to come?"

"Tomorrow's our regular day for the Chalet, and that's fine, but I think we might want to have the salon . . . well, the fewer real customers in the house, the better. Just in case."

"I see," Caro said with a sigh. "Okay, I'll open an hour early just for you two."

"Thanks, Carolyn, and Caro? I will be there for the entire appointment this time. Just in case. Now, then, Sandra, tell me what you had in mind."
 
 
Chapter 3: A Student Challenged - The Laced Gauntlet
 
Jane got out of her chair and walked over to the sideboard. She poured herself a glass of mineral water which she sipped contemplatively as she considered her student's intentionally inept heel-walking exercises.

They'd just returned from the Marisa Chalet where Caro and Sandy had outdone themselves. Parade-polished Marine Corps brass didn't gleam like that hair, and then there had been a trick or two to that manicure as well.

Jane had immediately started in with lessons as soon as they'd returned. As Jane had anticipated, the moment Victoria was back inside the house she had reverted to the obstreperous, obnoxious little snot she'd been since day one. Oh, she followed 'orders', to the letter, but that was all she'd do.

After several failed attempts to gain some measure of compliance with the meaningless exercise, Jane gave an exaggerated sigh.

"Victor," she began, intentionally addressing him by his real name for the first time in weeks, "this is not working, and it's because you're not trying to work with me - as you promised you would."

"I am SO trying, Ms. Jane," Victor rejoined, with obvious insincerity, "but, well, I'm just too much of a man to look like a convincing girl. It's not my fault."

Which was exactly the response Jane had anticipated from Marie's conversations with the student. "Oh? I think you do quite well if you'll just look in the mirror. It's only when you fail to put forth the necessary effort that your portrayal falls short of satisfactory."

"No, Ms. Jane. It is the standing still part that does it, in these clothes that are clearly girl's clothes.

"You're not going to give me that 'clothes do make the man' nonsense, are you?" Jane scoffed.

Victor grinned at that. "No, but let's be honest. First, people see what they expect to see. Somebody sees a skirt, and they figure, so long as it isn't something really draggy, that's a girl wearing the skirt, right? Second, you, Marie and those two bit. . errr. . women at the salon are experts at this stuff. I think you could make the Rock look like a girl, provided he didn't move or talk. That's what I do when we're out, because I just don't want to deal with that, but I can guarantee you this - as soon as I do anything active, or if I wore pants, then I'd be all man and you know it," he finished with a hard nod of his head in emphasis. "And so would anyone looking at me."

*An excellent analysis,* Jane thought. *And too close to the truth by half. Still, You've just offered me an opportunity if I play this correctly. "You think so?" Jane asked with heavy disbelief coloring her tones.

Her student turned to the mirror and gave the reflection a quick look. One hand went up to the now-shoulder-length hair and palmed the curls flat before he turned back to face Jane. "Sure," he replied confidently. "A little of that mousse-stuff to slick down this wavy hair, a shirt that buttons down the right side, throw in a pair of jeans and some flat shoes and I *WOULD* look like that model guy Sandy mentioned yesterday. Heck, if it was a little longer, I'd look like a younger, better looking version of that Fabio-guy all the girls are goofy over."

"Then how about a test?" Jane offered with studied nonchalance.

Now suspicion flared in the dark eyes, "What kind of test? And why should I even try one of YOUR tests?"

"Because you said you'd follow my program, and in fact, gave me your word on that score?" Jane replied off-handedly, "But perhaps being a MAN, you need more than that to give your best effort."

"My word, MIZZ Thompson," Victor hissed, "WHEN it is freely and fairly given, is solid. . . *gold*! You have NO call to say OTHERWISE!"

"So you say, young man. Forgive me if I believe you have given me cause to think otherwise. In any case, I am willing to accept your word, assuming we can reach an agreement."

"An agreement? What kind of agreement?" Victor demanded, suspicion dripping from every word.

"A very simple one, and one you should have no trouble at all winning - if you are correct and I am wrong, that is. You work with me for one day, tomorrow, that's Thursday, doing whatever I require to the very best of your abilities. On Friday, I will provide you with pants, a shirt and casual shoes and we'll go to a shopping mall. If you are sufficiently masculine, you will find the minor things I've had you do so far - plucking your eyebrows and so on - to be inconsequential. Surely, no fair and objective observer will see you in any way other than as you see yourself. In that case, I sign off on your release forms the moment we get back here, and you are on the next train back home - a free MAN. With me so far?"

"Sounds great to me, but I have figured you out a bit in the past weeks, Ms. Jane. Nothing you do is what it seems to be at first glance. What's the catch?"

"Well, if your appearance remains sufficiently feminine to be an issue, either for you or for the people we encounter at the mall, then will you agree that the problem is not your appearance, but your attitude? And agree to do your VERY best to comply not only with the letter of my program, but with what you very well know is the intent of that program."

"Hah! Fat chance. It won't be any skin off my nose, but sure as you're standing here, one or more of your bit. . .buddies will be there to make it look like I failed."

"My word of honor, Victor, that no one associated with me or my program will be involved except for you and me. We will even drive to a distant mall so that you can be assured no one associated with my program will be there." *And so that no one will recognize either of us and associate you with Victoria.* "So," Jane continued, direct challenge in her eyes, "Do you have the courage for such a public test? Do you have the personal honor to comply with my conditions, regardless of the outcome?"

The jibe hit him squarely in his overblown male ego, just as Jane had intended. "I can do ANYthing, Ms. Jane. Anything *I* WANT to do, that is," he snarled belligerently. "No one will mistake me for a girl, not in pants and, well, other reasonable clothes."

"Very well, then. Tomorrow we will redo the dressing exercises and you will show me what you have really learned."

"No weird clothes!" he put in quickly. "None of those tricky things that change color when you wear them or anything like that."

"What was it you said? Jeans, a shirt with buttons down the right side, by which I assume you mean not on the side a woman's blouse buttons? Oh yes, and some flat-heeled shoes? I can do that, but in return I expect you to be 'fair' with your voice."

"Fair? What do you mean by that?" Victor asked, obviously dropping his voice into an artificially deep register.

Jane smirked. "Just that," she retorted sardonically. "You need to speak with no attempt either to force a strongly masculine, deep voice, nor the feminine voice you have learned to use. That is not to be a factor in this challenge, since you have demonstrated an ability to speak either way and so it is not an unavoidable problem with a feminine portrayal. Agreed?"

"How do I do that? I'll have to speak to someone," he insisted, still affecting the gruffly bass voice.

"If it's required that you speak, you will use a normal tone of voice, but speak softly and politely. I will abide by the results of using your normal speaking voice, neither artificially deep and harsh, nor light and animated as a girl would use."

"That it?"

"I can't think of anything more just now. However, once you step out of my home, the game is on, and our agreement is in force, and regardless of the outcome, we agree to fairly and fully comply with the terms of the challenge, young man!"

"Oh really? Like how, Mizz Jane?"

"If you back out, or if you catch any grief at the mall, then you come back here, go straight into skirts and lose that idiotic macho-jerk attitude!"

"If you say so, Ms. Jane," was the flippant, self-satisfied reply. "But *when* I win, we come back here, I get my own clothes back, along with my freedom and a ticket on the next train home."

"Oh, I do say so, and you've agreed. As to the final outcome of our little wager, well, we'll just have to see, won't we? So, I will see you later at dinner. I need to tell Marie that for tomorrow, at least, you've graduated to . . . adult makeup products instead of the more youthful ones you've been exposed to thus far. She'll ensure that you have a complete assortment in addition to your more age-appropriate products. Perhaps the seemingly-overwhelming difficulty you have in behaving like an adult will be simplified if you can at least look the part," Jane paused to let the jibe sink in before continuing. "Yes, I think we'll try for that tomorrow, once we're certain you're complying with that part of our deal, as well."

Jane watched the skirted teen leave the room and took a deep cleansing breath. He'd taken the bait. If she could just get him out of the house on Friday, she had a better than fifty-fifty chance of winning their bet. If he wouldn't leave the house after he saw how he looked, maybe she could make that work, too. "So, pants AREN'T enough, eh?" It wouldn't be optimum because one thing Jane had come to respect about this student was the value he put on keeping his word - at least the letter of his word.

"I wonder if Marie knows who this Rock person is?"

~----------~

The boy had done well, Jane admitted as she watched him stomp down the stairs from his room, given the tools she had provided him. *A bit TOO well!* "I think NOT, young man," Jane said sternly as she moved to block his way out the front door of Seasons House.

"Huh? What?" he asked, his head down and angled away from Jane's accusing glare.

"That!" Jane replied directly, running a finger down his cheek. "Using cosmetics to fake a beard you don't have falls outside of our agreement."

"Hey, guys have beards," Victor told her in as off-handed a tone as he could manage knowing he'd probably already lost.

"Some *men* do, but they are not created with dark makeup. This exercise is about the masculinity of your basic appearance. You will clean your face as thoroughly as you are able - an area, I might add, in which you seem not to have paid appropriate attention to your lessons. A *lady* always pays attention to the cleansing of her skin, and you *agreed* to follow those lessons completely. That *is* the agreed-upon basis for this test, correct?"

"But. . . a beard is legitimate. . ."

"Or, I am willing to put off our trip until tomorrow or even Sunday," Jane offered, all sweet reason in her voice, "Except that you will have to work just as hard for me today and up until the day of the trip as you did yesterday. Except I won't insist that you shave. Just to be fair, of course."

Jane could see just how little the thought of one or two more days like the intentionally hellish one she'd put him through yesterday pleased her student. *Heavens, I am surprised he can walk without a limp after all that walking in heels practice,* she thought.

Finally, his shoulders drooped and he turned back toward the stairs. "I'll go clean it off. I want to get out of this place as soon as possible," he mumbled before adding, "It was just a final 'make sure' thing anyway - the last straw."

"I'm sure," Jane replied, her face deadpan. Then a thought struck her. "Oh, and Victor?" The boy stopped mid-step up the stairs and turned to look down at her. "Use the other powder-room facilities while you're cleaning up? I would consider you slipping into the men's restroom at the mall a cheating trick to make people THINK you were a boy."

"But. . but, what if I *have* to go?"

"That's why I'm telling you to take care of that matter now. I don't imagine we will need to be there long, but if it becomes a REAL problem? Either find a unisex bathroom or concede our challenge."

Anger flashed momentarily in the boy's dark eyes, and for a moment, Jane thought she might have pushed too hard. Then, Victor nodded, stiffened his spine, and headed back up the stairs.

Only then did Jane think, "Oh lord, I hope Marie remembered to remove all those color-fast cosmetics last night. It would really make things difficult if he couldn't clean away that fake beard."
 
 
Chapter 4: A Student Challenged - A Day at the Mall
 
Fortunately, he had used the washable cosmetics in the creation of his beard, Jane mused an hour and a half later. She watched with satisfaction as Victor slipped out of her car. Everything, so far, had gone perfectly, at least from Jane's perspective. The clothes, which in the blatantly feminine background of Seasons House had seemed innocuous, no longer seemed so middle of the road. In fact, against the more gender neutral environment of the mall parking lot, the total package portrayed a subtle, yet clearly feminine image.

The jeans were so tight through the groin as to emulate a dancer's gaff, thus giving the wearer a decidedly girlish profile front and back. The shirt was particularly devious. At first glance a pirate's shirt - regular collar but soft, top button fairly low in front, with wide sleeves that gathered down to tight cuffs - it was fitted rather tightly about the waist and lower rib cage, but just a little loose about the shoulders and chest. The brightly colored magenta fabric was opaque in direct natural or incandescent lighting, however in the harsher, fluorescent lighting of the mall's interior and stores, the fabric would appear sheer and would give subtle indications of a budding, pre-adolescent bosom. No particular feature was 'wrong' in that shirt sported a real collar, real cuffs and buttons on the 'male' side of the shirt (though they were hidden in the folds of the material), but the net effect was effeminate - VERY effeminate.

When combined with androgynously styled 'penny-loafers' and scalloped white socks, well, Jane suspected that once Victor got a good look at himself inside the mall, he would no longer think his outfit met his definition of 'reasonable'.

Unfortunately for her student, he had accepted them when they'd first been presented to him at the house. *Next time, he'll try wearing them on before making any snap judgments. If there is a next time.*

However, even more important than the outfit was Victor's face and hair. The gel-like substance he'd used to slick his hair down before leaving Seasons House was not really styling mousse at all, but an alcohol-based product. Thanks to the heat of the Indian Summer day, that ersatz 'mousse' had completely evaporated away during the drive from Kingston to Providence. If anything, the permanent wave Sandy had applied was even 'fluffier' than it had been before Victor had applied the mousse. And his face, despite the ruthless scrubbings he'd inflicted upon himself in the vain attempt to remove the "adult" make-up, was still well and distinctly colored, emphasizing the delicacy of his feminized features.

But la piece de resistance was Sandy's miracle-of-modern-science uncuttable manicure. Just during the short drive to Providence, Victor had already forgotten to keep those girl-claws hidden in his fists at least five times that Jane had seen.

*It's going to work,* Jane thought relieved. *Taken as an integrated whole, Victor's presentation literally shouts 'GIRL' to any casual observer, except to the still-over-confident boy himself. I'll have him back at Seasons House and in skirts before tea time.*

"To review our agreement, Victor," Jane said as she came around the car to join him. "You will make at least two full circuits of the mall on your own. I will follow, but at a distance so that you will face the world on your own. You must make two stops at stores and buy at least one thing with the money I've provided. No knives, male clothing or girlie magazines. Something simple, not associated with either sex. You may then leave the mall triumphant. If however, you are challenged, or questioned directly about your sex, then you will agree that I have won."

"Yeah, yeah," he snapped, trying without success to hide his taloned fingers in the too-tight pockets of the jeans. "Let's do it."

"All right, young man. Let's," Jane agreed. "Good luck," she called after him as he hurried away. *He doesn't believe I meant those good wishes,* Jane sighed inwardly. *It's just that our definitions of what 'good' luck would be in this case are diametrically opposed. Lord, please let him fail here so he can succeed later in my keeping.*

~----------~

The mall was of an older style, essentially a strip-mall with a roof, and had few of the more-spacious amenities of the modern super-malls. The concourses were relatively narrow, and for the most part, ran in straight lines so Jane had no difficulty keeping an eye on her pupil as he bull-rushed his way through the first circuit of the mall. That strategy had the advantage of shortening his time in the mall, but the distinct if unrecognized disadvantage of drawing attention to the speeding teen.

By the time he'd reached the far end of the mall, Victor was being examined, covertly by some and overtly by others, by nearly every shopper he encountered. The increasingly amused and wondering looks on each passerby's face assured Jane that her ploy was working. *Hmmm, I'd say my little program of studies has been more successful than I thought. Those are some rather effeminate mannerisms and postures he's exhibiting. Seems almost second nature to the boy, too. Excellent.*

The first circuit of the mall, however, went without incident, but Jane was not worried. *At the rate he's going, he might just make it out of the mall without anyone challenging him,* she mused, *but I accounted for that in our negotiations. He cannot pass the test without going into at least two stores and he will have to stop completely in order to buy whatever it is he elects to purchase. That pause in his headlong charge should be his undoing. I hope.*

Jane decided that his first loop of the mall was in the way of reconnaissance - looking for the least 'dangerous' place to make his required stops. 'Less danger', she was sure, meant few people in the area and in particular, no young people. Actually, there should not have been any young people at the mall - school was back in session and it was a Friday, after all, but Jane had accounted for that in her selection of this mall for her little test. The shopping center was located just a short distance from a local high school and was a favorite lunch stop for the older students who considered themselves too mature for their school's cafeteria.

*And isn't it fortuitous that it is just about lunchtime,* Jane grinned to herself as she saw a large group of teens enter the mall's main concourse heading for the food court. Unfortunately for Victor, their point of entry was by then behind him so he did not see the newcomers until he turned to begin his second loop and found himself face to face with a cluster of rather boisterous teenaged males. Recognizing the threat at last, Jane watched as he tried to evade them by changing direction, but that only served to catch their full attention . . . and whet their curiosity. In short order, Victor had at least half-a-dozen of the boys following him down the mall.

*Full marks for strategy and quick thinking,* Jane chortled silently as he suddenly dove into a lingerie store - a maneuver that served satisfied half of his store-stop requirement while bringing his pursuers up short at the storefront door. *And that counts as his first stop. Too bad there's only one entrance to that store,* Jane thought. *Because unless he escapes soon, one of those under-employed sales ladies are going to attempt to sell him some frillies."

As Jane predicted, Victor emerged from the store moments later with two of the sales staff bearing down on him. He tried to dodge the phalanx of still-waiting boys, but the exit was too narrow and he found himself quickly surrounded.

Jane suddenly found herself in something of a quandary. If she closed the group to a distance she could hear what was being said, she might scare off the boys too soon. On the other hand, if she couldn't hear what was being said, she'd have only Victor's account for what happened. *Would that be enough?* she wondered. She had come to believe that this student possessed an innate honesty that would preclude him lying to her, but she wasn't one hundred percent sure. *And a boy's future hangs in the balance,* she reminded herself.

She was close enough that she could make out voices, but not the words being exchanged. Victor said something to which the largest of the boys replied. *At least he's keeping his word about not using an artificially deep voice,* she thought. *I just wish I could understand what was being said!*

It was the look of growing fear on the still-cornered Victor's face as the boys closed in on him that made up Jane's mind. *This is wrong,* she thought and then moved decisively to intervene. *I'll find another way to gain his cooperation, but this test just came to an end!* Regardless of the greater goal, she wasn't going to let one of HER boys be hurt or worse by this scheme.

She'd just started to close when Victor suddenly gave a panicky squeal and bolted, knocking over one of the boys in his headlong flight. "VICTOR!" she called out to him, but he evidently did not hear her, or if he did, chose to ignore her.

He ran past Jane before darting down one of the mall's side-halls. Following as best she could, all the while cursing her modestly-heeled shoes, Jane barely made it to the hall in time to see him slip into a restroom.

A men's restroom.

*Gotcha!* she thought in relief as she settled on a bench to await his return. *All I have to do is be here when he comes out.*

Twenty minutes later, however, she was still waiting for her student to emerge and was beginning to grow anxious. *Is there a window in there? Or another door? Where IS he??!?*

Another fifteen minutes passed with no sign of Victor and Jane was very worried. *Why isn't there ever a security person or reliable-looking male around when you need one?* she fumed, scanning the mall concourse, and only then did she realize that the boys who had frightened Victor so badly were still there - waiting. *Well, I can do something about THAT, by God!*

Jane Thompson rose to her full height and strode purposefully over to the end of the hall where the six teens congregated. Her head high, Jane gave them each 'the look' before asking, "Isn't it time you gentlemen returned to your classes?"

Three of the boys looked abashed while another two looked expectantly to the obvious leader of their group. Jane recognized the cocky air and smug grin even before he opened his mouth. "What do you care," he said with a dismissive smirk.

A mental picture of that somewhat overweight, pimple-faced fool squeezed into one of her corsets and colored by Marie's cosmetic artistry brought a chilling smile to Jane's lips. Each boy literally took a step backwards. "Oh, I don't care," she assured him sweetly. "But I do enjoy my truant officer job with the school district. Did you know that every teen I catch cutting classes loses driving privileges for six months? Now, if I might check your id's, gentlemen? Just to make sure you're over eighteen, you understand?"

Their hasty retreat did a great deal to lighten Jane's mood as she turned back toward the restroom. A man was just emerging from the door and Jane was wondering if she might ask him about Victor when the boy burst from the restroom, nearly bowling over an older woman in his flight.

Relief poured through Jane as she hurried towards her student, only to pull up short as she realized the woman was busily berating Victor.

". . . The very idea," the white-haired woman fumed as Victor literally cowered from her wrath, "running about like that - heedless girl! And from the BOY'S bathroom. The very idea," she repeated, the 'finger of Mother' shaking furiously in Victor's face.

*Wonder if she's related to Edith White?* Jane considered amused.

After the outraged woman finally stormed away, Jane sidled up to the thoroughly shaken boy. When he didn't make any move to escape or continue the test, Jane knew she'd accomplished her objective - Victor was hers for the duration. Just to be sure, however, she asked "Do you want to try again?" as she approached. "Do you think you can make, say, four circuits without having any MORE people accost you for your, shall we say, unmasculine appearance?"

"No. . please, no more. You. . you win," he told her in a thin, almost breathless voice. "You win, just please, get me out of here!" then he hiccuped out a sob, "Please."

Nodding sternly, Jane offered him her hand as she would a small child and was surprised when he took it. "Very well. Let us leave, and don't worry about THOSE ruffians," she added. "Like all those who bully others weaker than themselves, they were decidedly lacking in any real fortitude and ran as soon as I challenged them."

The allusion to bullies and their lack of personal courage also struck home, Jane saw, again precisely as she had intended. In the final analysis, and despite the uncertain moments, it had been a most successful excursion.
 
 
Chapter 5: Recognition - Phase 1
 
Morning sunlight shone bright and clear through the old glass windows of his Seasons House bedroom when Victor sat down at the little vanity table to 'dress' for breakfast. And it had been 'Victor' who sat there in those private, early-morning moments before Ms. Thompson or Marie came to enforce their feminine tyrannies on him.

Or at least, it always had been until this morning.

Before when Victor Denato had looked at himself in that mirror, his mind's eye had seen what he'd wanted to see reflected there, regardless of how he was dressed or how he was made up by the women of this house. This morning, however, even he had to admit the reality of the very feminine picture that stared back at him from those silvered depths.

He'd fallen into Ms. Thompson's trap so easily, he thought sadly. Fallen, hell, he'd jumped at her so-very-carefully-worded challenge without a second thought, so cocksure that he could handle anything she might dish up to him - because *he* was a *man*!

Right.

Memories, still painful and vivid, of the previous Friday's mall disaster brought his attention back fully to the reflected image before him. Whatever it was he saw gazing back at him from the other side of the mirror, it was NOT a man.

With a critical eye for detail that had been beyond him as little as a week earlier, Victor examined the entire package presented before him. Now, he could see how the vividly blond hairs softly curled and curved about his face, in a sleekly feminine shape that no amount of brushing or slicking down could make appear in any way masculine.

*Too bad I used the adult cosmetics in that last session on Thursday instead of the washable kid-stuff Ms. Thompson gave me for practice,* he mused ruefully. Although Marie had ensured that every speck of make-up that could be removed had been ruthlessly scoured away before going to bed each night, his face still appeared elegantly made up. Nothing he'd done in the last four days, including his just completed morning shower, had done anything to cleanse those resilient cosmetics from his face. In point of fact, if he were completely honest, what slight fading there had been in those dyes since last weekend served only to gentle their effect on his looks, making his face somehow subtly more girlish, more pretty. Certainly, the fine, highly arched brows Marie had formed with her infernal tweezers did nothing for his masculine self-image. Perhaps if he'd tried to fill them in using that eyebrow pencil, like he'd tried to do with his beard he mused, but then, he hadn't thought of that. Besides, Jane would probably have called him on that as she had with the fake beard.

Idly, he brought up his hand to touch one plucked and sculpted brow, and froze. He'd almost forgotten those damned nails Carolyn Beale and her witch-friend, Sandy, had stuck him with - literally. Designed to be 'bite-proof', these artificial tips were an epoxy-based composite material - like the wings of the Stealth Fighter, only clear and natural looking. And impossible to cut off. Short of pulling his own out at the roots, the only way to remove these was with some special kind of solvent - something that was only available at the salon. Even without the lacquers and polishes Jane made him apply and remove on almost a daily basis, the nails made his hands look, well, really sexy - like they belonged to one of those 'hand-models' he'd read about in the women's magazines that were now his only literary entertainment.

Taking his appearance as a whole, given his already small stature, then there was absolutely no way that anything other than what had gone down at that mall should have been expected. It was now so clear to him - as clear as the reflected image in his mirror.

He looked like a girl.

Actually, he looked like a pretty damned pretty girl!

*Too bad you were too stupid and too blind to see that before last Friday,* he thought with a sigh, *but you were so damned sure, so damned tough. No way Jane Thompson was going to win that bet, was there?*

It should have been a 'done deal'. Apply himself to his lessons on Thursday, she'd take him on an outing as a male the next day. After all those weeks in Jane Thompson's Fortress of Satin, THAT alone should have been a welcome respite. More important, however, had been the rest of the deal. If he carried himself as a male after 'giving his best effort to her lessons', then Jane would admit that he was too masculine to learn anything from her program and would release him to go home with no further threats of jail hanging over his head.

*A 'done-deal'? HAH! I should have known better,* he thought with a rueful smile. *Or at least, I should have looked harder for the gotcha.*

Oh, he'd been 'got' all right - big time. More than the Thompson woman realized, too, he reflected ruefully. *At least she doesn't know the worst of it. Twenty minutes hiding in the bathroom stall, afraid to come out because there were other guys in there with me using the urinals. She'd never let me live THAT down. Thank God it wasn't any worse than it was.*

With a sigh that equal parts gratitude for small favors and resignation for large trials, Victoria Denato slipped into character and carefully selected a foundation makeup from the selection on her vanity. And for the first time, noticed something was missing. *Odd, all that adult stuff is gone, after I only got to use them the one time,* she mused. *Guess Ms. Jane figures I need more practice with the 'age-appropriate makeup'. Am I supposed to regret failing that 'test', too?*

Victoria considered that for a while, and then shrugged when no ready answer to that question came to her. *Actually, I am still wearing them, aren't I? And that is something of a problem, too.* She sighed gustily. *Maybe if I can't wash away those grownup cosmetics, I can at least cover them up a little. Who knows? I might even get a few brownie points for effort.*

After all, Victor had given his word in making that deal with Jane Thompson. It was up to Victoria to do her best to keep the bargain.
 
 
Chapter 6: Breaking Fasts, Breaking News
 
There was a spring in Jane Thompson's step and a barely suppressed grin on her lips as she entered the breakfast room to greet her waiting student. Two factors were primarily responsible for Jane's excellent mood - the glorious sunrise she'd watched astride her favorite mount, and the heady success of her latest stratagem to bring this student finally to heel.

She was especially pleased to find Victoria (not Victor) standing demurely beside her chair awaiting her teacher's arrival.

*Actually,* Jane amended with a certain degree of self-congratulation, *she's looking about as demure as she is capable at this particular moment in time - which isn't much. Well, that is, at least indirectly, the child's own fault. If she hadn't been such a little bitch, I wouldn't have needed to resort to such tactics with her.*

Of course, the lack of a big sister for this student was a contributing factor, and that was one problem Jane could NOT lay at the girl's door. Marie had attempted to fulfill the 'spirit-guide' role for Victoria, but unfortunately, without much success.

*Maybe Marie is just old enough these days not to be considered 'trustworthy',* Jane thought as she pulled her own chair out from the table. *Certainly, a real student has always been more effective as my agent-provocatuese, but this is the first time in recent memory that Marie hasn't been able to make a close connection with a student. Or maybe Victor is just harder-hearted and more suspicious than our other students.*

"Do sit down, Victoria," Jane ordered briskly as she unfolded her own napkin, and then added, "Are you feeling all right? Your color seems a bit . . . high today."

As intended, that comment served to add other vivid, more natural hues to the artificial ones the girl had used, without much success, in her attempt to mask the brightly colored, resilient cosmetics. "No, I am fine, really," was the quiet response.

"Then it is your makeup. It is inappropriate to the occasion. Do attempt something more subdued for breakfast and day-wear in the future. It will help you. . . draw less attention when we are out on the town again, eh?"

"I TRIED," was the femininely turned out boy's knee-jerk reaction to Jane's barb, but the recovery was just as quick. "Sorry, ma'am. I'll try to do better. Perhaps Ms. Marie can show me a few more tricks today."

Inwardly pleased with both the initial reaction and the speedy retrenchment, Jane nodded. They could accomplish a great deal of teaching in the week or so it would take those colors to completely fade, particularly if this change of attitude on Victoria's part continued. "A capital plan," she agreed briskly. "I think we will have you spend the morning working with Marie, first on your cosmetics application and hair arrangement, and then you will help with the luncheon preparations. Then, this afternoon, I will give you your first riding lesson. You will need to become a proficient rider since I fully intend you to participate in our local Thanksgiving Parade this year as one of the equestrians."

"Riding?" Victoria looked horrified. "Rider? Equest. . . ? You mean RIDING? Like on a HORSE?" The last word was a squeak.

"Yes indeed. A very ladylike exercise," Jane replied as she poured coffee into her cup. *And one that you apparently fear. Which means I will have you precisely where I want you - teetering on the emotional precipice with only Marie and I to hold the safety line. Excellent.* "Yes, I think you will look simply superb in a Victorian riding habit seated side-saddle atop a tall, powerful stallion. A side-saddle is a little less . . . stable than riding astride, but it's really not all THAT dangerous."

The slightly green-about-the-gills look on Victoria's face clear showed how little that appealed to the younger person, but this time, her control didn't break . "Coffee, dear?" Jane asked, all sweet solicitude.

Suddenly, the mood was interrupted as the kitchen door slammed open, a stricken Marie stood there obviously bracing herself against the jamb. "Jane, something horrible has happened. . .the television. . . oh god, do we know anybody who works at. . . you've got to see this to bel. . .it's UN-believable . ."

Jane was instantly out of her chair, everything else forgotten as she went to tend her best friend. She was only dimly aware that Victoria had also moved to Marie's aid as they each took an arm to help the badly shaking woman to a chair. "Now, tell me, Marie," Jane said in a softly caring tone of voice that Victoria had never heard from this stern woman before, "What has upset you so?"

"New York, Jane," Marie rasped out, "Oh God, there's been a terrible accident - the World Trade Tower . . . a plane just hit it."

~----------~

Sadly, by 9:30 that morning, it was painfully clear that the first crash had not been an accident. Jane, Marie and Victoria joined a shocked world in watching as another plane crashed - this one into the second World Trade Tower.

And then came the report of yet another aircraft suicide attack - this one into the Pentagon.

Although numbed by her own shock, the empathic Marie still saw the change in her old friend at seeing the video that accompanied the verification of the Pentagon attack. With that recognition came understanding. Struggling at least to appear calm and in control of herself, she rose and placed a gentle hand on their student's shoulder. "I think, Jane," she offered softly, "that I will take Victoria up and begin her lessons for today. You'll be all right, won't you?"

For a moment, Jane gave no response other than rapid eye movements from Marie to Victoria and then back to the grim pictures playing from the small television monitor. "Jane?" Marie asked again, more firmly this time.

"Ye. . yes, of course," she finally managed, and then made the effort of will necessary to put her student first. "She needs to learn how to correct. . .unfortunate color selections. Her cosmetic choices today are not appropriate for informal day-wear." If Jane's voice lacked its usual steely power, only she and Marie recognized that deficiency.

It was only after Marie had led the suddenly-acquiescent child from the room that Jane recalled she had not discussed her plans for Victoria's morning with her partner before that moment.

Then Jane made a frantic grab for the antique phone on her desk.
 
 
Chapter 7: Lessons Learned Hard
 
Anything, Victoria told herself, any distraction at all was better than listening to by now repetitious drone of the talking heads on the television and radio stations. "Ms. Thompson said you'd help me with my face?" she prodded the older woman after Marie's attention had slipped away yet again.

"Your face?" Marie asked quizzically in the absent tones of distracted.

Frowning, Victoria resisted the urge to snarl. *Like I really want to play this game anymore,* she thought before pointing to the starkly rendered highlights on her eyes, cheekbones and lips. "Remember? According to Ms. Thompson, I, uhmm, was a bit too colorful for the breakfast table this morning," she added with what she hoped was a self-deprecating grin.

"Oh. . .OH, I see," Marie finally managed after following the student's gesture and recalling Jane's use of the special deep-dying cosmetics. She gave Victoria a more careful examination and then nodded in understanding. "Yes. You tried to paint pastels over the brighter colors, didn't you?" she asked. At Victoria's nod of admission, the Frenchwoman smiled gently. "Full marks for trying, dear, but you can't cover up such intense colors with lighter ones, anymore than you could cover up dark colored walls with plain white paint - you make just the tiniest mistake and the dark shows through like a sore thumb."

"So what SHOULD I have done? Would any of this stuff," and Victoria waved her hand over the tube-and-pot-covered vanity table, "have done me any good this morning? Or was this just another of those unpassable tests of hers?"

The sharp edge in the young person's voice brought Marie back to her role in this drama directed by Jane Thompson - that of apparent guide/companion to the student. "No such thing," she retorted more briskly. "You simply needed to take a different path to achieve your goal. Instead of hiding the color, you need to use more color to shade, blend and ultimately tone-down what you already have on. That way, any mistakes are not so obvious. Like this."

Almost operating on automatic now, Marie stretched her hand out to make her first selection only to freeze in place when yet another announcer began yelling over the radio, announcing the catastrophic collapse of the second World Trade Tower and conjecturing on the potential loss of human life. It was the last straw for the very softhearted woman, and she broke down into wracking sobs. "I. . . I can't do this," she finally whispered. "I just can't."

With a gentleness that would later surprise both of them, Victoria reached up and took the hand that still hovered over the ornate vanity table. "Why don't we let this go until another time?" she asked, her own voice cracking with emotion. "I don't think I'd remember much of these lessons anyway."

Suddenly, the two were locked in a tight, grief-sharing embrace; offering and accepting comfort in ways that neither would have believed possible mere hours ago.

When they finally broke apart, both knew that something fundamental had changed between them, although neither could quite describe how or what. For several more moments they regarded each other through tear-damp eyes, their hands gripping the other's forearms, their bodies still close, as they sought to maintain that comforting physical and emotional contact just a while longer. "Well," was all Marie could manage as she finally broke eye-contact with Victoria.

"Why?" the young person managed to get out.

"Why what, dear?" Marie asked. "Why did I fall apart?"

"No. .. no, not that . . I mean, why did whoever did that. . .," and her eyes went to the radio before coming back to stare starkly into Marie's own dark ones, "Why did they do such a horrible thing?!?"

Marie sighed. "I don't know why," she admitted. "Some might say they have issues with the United States and that justifies them striking at us anyway they can."

"But they didn't strike against the people who make the decisions, or who they have issues with," Victoria replied. "The people in those towers were . . were just ordinary folks. If they wanted to fight us, surely they could have picked a better target."

Marie's eyes flashed black with anger. "Ha! They're not after a fight, they're after fear. They know they can't really fight us because they'd lose and they can't allow themselves to appear weak. Other people's fear makes them SEEM powerful, makes them FEEL powerful, but the truth is that they're just cowards. That's all they are - coward, plain and simple. They think that someone has hurt them, and okay, so maybe that is true. Perhaps by not giving them something they wanted but did not really deserve - whatever - but they are too cowardly to strike back at the ones who have 'harmed' them, even by their own idiotic definitions of 'harm'. So they strike at the innocent and helpless instead.

"But . . that makes no sense."

"Who said something this. . . abominable has to make sense?" Marie snorted. "Someone, I think it was Stalin, said that the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize - to make ordinary people more afraid of the terrorists than the terrorists are of the ordinary people. They seek to make the normal everyday life too frightening; they want to deprive their victims of something they value in order to elevate themselves and their cause."

"But you called them cowardly," Victoria countered. "They - the ones who flew the planes into the buildings - they just died for their cause, didn't they? I mean, they had to know they would die when they crashed the plane directly into the buildings, right?"

"Phaugh!" Marie gave a derisive toss of her dark hair. "Suicide has often been considered the 'coward's way out' and for a very good reason. A quick death is a *lot* easier for THOSE types than truly working to solve the *real* problems we face. Those animals didn't suffer, and knew they wouldn't. Don't tell me that showed any courage."

"Still. . . "

"Still, nothing, child," Marie interrupted firmly. "I don't care if they all want to kill themselves. But taking out their anger at someone THEY fear, by committing mass murder on defenseless third parties just because those people are easier targets, well, that's just plain cowardice."

"I. . . I see," Victoria finally managed to grit out. Swallowing hard, she eased further back from Marie, at last letting go of the other woman. "Ummmm, Ms. Thompson said I was also to help you in the kitchen - for lunch preparations."

Marie considered that, and then shook her head. "Let's take a pass on that for today, Victoria. I need some time by myself for a bit, and besides, lunch is going to be very simple today. I'm not up to preparing anything more complicated than Campbell's soup and a sandwich." At the surprised lift of the younger person's brows, Marie felt a grin twitch. "I'll tell Jane it was my idea. You try to rest until lunchtime. I think we'll all need some time to deal with this. . .this horror."
 
 
Chapter 8: Recognition - Phase 2
 
"Cowards," he repeated the word for what had to be the tenth time since the older woman had left. The taste of it on his tongue seemed to become more bitter each time he said it. Lord, but he wished he'd never asked Marie anything, that he'd just kept to his plan to follow whatever orders the Thompson woman gave to the best of his ability - to do whatever the hell it took to get out of this pink-and-satin-madhouse and back to his real life.

It was the second instance where 'cowardice' and 'lack of intestinal fortitude' had come up in just the past few days. The first had been during the challenge that had ultimately led to his decision to get with the program here at Seasons House.

Victor wondered if HE would ever be able to let himself live that down.

"Coward," he said again, his eyes filling. How had Marie defined that term? "Hurting innocents because you've been hurt and can't or won't try to do anything about the real problems. Just hurting to make yourself seem more important."

Victor had never felt so alone nor so unhappy in his entire life. The memory of Marie holding him, of him holding Marie swamped him and then he remembered the comfort that moment of sharing had given him. Except, he thought as hot moisture began to trickle down his cheeks, Marie wasn't here, and besides, why would SHE want to . . . do THAT with him, anyway? Thoroughly miserable, the teen rose and began to wander aimlessly about the frill-bedecked room.

And then his eyes fell upon the bed, and on the bed in it's place of honor was Pooh. Victor had never so much as touched that teddy bear in all the time since arriving at Seasons House. Victoria had only handled it when ordered to do so by one of the two older women in conjunction with one of their exercises. After all, cuddling a stuffed bear was not something a teenager should do, particularly a teenaged boy. However, Victoria found it impossible to pull her eyes away from good old Winnie.

Suddenly, appearances no longer mattered to the distraught youngster. Victoria let out a barely-stifled cry and hurried over to the satin-quilted bed and the large furry stuffed toy. Without considering her clothes, the girl-boy threw herself upon the bed and wrapped herself about the oddly-comforting toy.

*God, what a horrible day!* she cried as she hugged Pooh to her, *What a horrible, horrible day!*

How long she cried, Victoria did not know - only that the tears helped - at least a little. Still clutching the comforting toy to her stomach, she rolled over so that she could see the glowing numerals of the digital clock radio. Lunch would be served soon, and her face was a mess. *Ms. Jane would have a coronary,* she thought. *And my clothes and petticoat are so badly wrinkled and bunched, I'd be lucky to be let off with just one of her killer lectures.* On top of everything else, that seemed to be a small concern, but Victoria decided she'd just as soon not face THAT, too.

Much to her surprise, she realized she felt better - the stifling tension, at least, had eased. *Is that because I cried?* she wondered as she disengaged herself from Pooh's now more-than-slightly-damp clutches, and then decided she wasn't ready to know the answer to that question.

Stiffly, she arose from her bed, carefully settled her new friend in a place of honor on the vanity and considered just how she was going to repair the damage her mirror revealed. "I just wish there was something more I could do, Pooh," she said as she began to cleanse her face. "Something that would really help, you know?"

Pooh, unfortunately, had no ideas to offer either or at least, none that he chose to share with the wan-looking teen. Sighing, Victoria reached over to turn on her radio, unable to resist the urge to 'know the worst'.

". . . and now a message from the Red Cross," the radio announcer excited tones grated through Victoria's rattled emotions.
 
 
Chapter 9: Student at the Brink - Opportunity and Crisis
 
First, a piercing, three-pitch tone, several decibels above the threshold of pain, nearly deafened Jane, then an oddly metallic feminine voice added unnecessarily, "Your call cannot be completed as dialed. All circuits are currently busy. Please hang up and try your call again later."

For several moments, Jane could only stare at the receiver clutched tightly in her white-knuckled hand. "Damn them," she finally whispered at no one in particular before repeating the words again, louder. Then, she felt herself crack and she began to sob. "Oh, god, Will," she cried, not even hearing the electronic beep that signaled a phone too long off its hook.

"Is there anything I can do to help, Ms. Jane?" a soft voice asked, breaking through Jane's misery. She looked up to see an elegantly dressed vision standing in the doorway, looking at her uncertainly.

*My God, is that Victor. . .I mean, Victoria? Why, she's . . . she's lovely.* "Vic. . Victoria," Jane managed to get out before adding, "What are you doing here?"

Jane watched as her suddenly different student glided into the study. "That's why," the girl said, pointing one pink-tipped finger indicating the devastation pictured on the small television Jane had been watching. "I need to talk to you about something I heard on the radio."

Jane considered that for a few moments and then moved over behind her desk. "Sit down, Victoria, and tell me what you want," she ordered. *Whatever this is, I don't want to deal with it right now,* she thought. With an extreme effort of will, Jane settled herself in her chair and focused on her student. Obviously, Victoria wanted something quite badly if she would willingly brave the study to seek her teacher out. *But I have no choice, do I? Perhaps dealing with whatever is bothering her will give me something else to think about - for a few moments, anyway.*

The girl sat, quite properly, too, Jane noted, and turned to face her guardian. There was something different about her, too, an openness in her eyes that Jane had never seen before. "The radio said the Red Cross needs blood donations," Victoria began quietly, "They especially need O-negative - the Universal Donor blood-type because of the emergency stuff they're having to do at. . .at . . . the, well, at the Towers." She paused for a moment and Jane watched the girl gather herself. "I'm O-negative and I would like to give."

Jane felt her mouth fall open in shock. She hadn't known what to expect, but even so, that had been the last thing she would have anticipated from this student. *Heavens, from ANY student. 'Hey, Aunt Jane, let's go down town and give blood, okay?' WHAT IS GOING ON INSIDE THAT BLONDE HEAD!?!* "I see," and then she finally managed to ask, "Why?"

"Because they need the blood," Victoria repeated in a tone Jane thought was just a bit sharp, "for them."

Jane followed Victoria's gesture only to feel the tears burn anew as scenes of a smoking Pentagon wall filled the screen. "It really hurts you," Victoria said with a perception that surprised Jane, "What's on the television. Did you. . I mean. . ."

"Did I what?" Jane asked softly.

"Know someone who might. . might be in there?"

Jane wondered why the girl would even care, but smiled when she saw the discomfiture that bespoke the girl's own surprise and real interest. *Maybe she really does want to know. Why not tell her? That much isn't a secret.* "One of my gir. . uh, students, works in the Pentagon," she finally admitted. "I haven't been able to reach he. . him or . . . his family. The phone circuits are overloaded and I couldn't get through. Now they're asking non-essential calls to New York and Washington be curtailed."

"They said that the part of the Pentagon that was damaged was mostly empty - on account of it being renovated," Victoria said, offering encouragement as best she could.

"I hadn't heard that," Jane admitted, too focused on her worries to notice, let alone correct Victoria's grammatical error. "Are you certain of that?"

"As much as I can be. I know I heard that at least twice on the radio." Jane nodded, and then Victoria asked, "Was. . . your student, that is, in the Army?"

"No," Jane answered with a shake of her head. "Marines, actually."

"There's a difference?" Victor's voice asked.

"According to the Marines, there is a world of difference, child," Jane replied, a single brow lifted to show she had not missed THAT verbal gaff. *Given everything that is going on today, I'm surprised she is doing as well as she is. We can let that one slide, I think.*

Silence grew between the two as the repetitious and unchanging reports of destruction, disbelief, terror and growing anger sounded from the television. After several minutes, Victoria did begin to fidget in her chair. "Ms. Jane? About my request?"

"To give blood? I must ask you again, why do you want to do that? Is this some scheme to get out of your skirts, Victoria?" Jane demanded baldly, her eyes fixed on the girl to see how she reacted to the question.

"No," her student replied with an aura of calm that surprised Jane even more. "It's not a scheme or anything else. I just need to . . . to do. . SOMEthing!"

"Really? Well, I am sorry, but I'm afraid that is out of the question," Jane said with what she hoped was some semblance of her usual sharp tones. *Mostly because there is no way you'd be anything but very effeminate, even in your trousers and I won't have you humiliated when doing something that selfless,* she added mentally before continuing.

"But the newscasters said they really need the blood!" Victor's voice protested.

"As I told you after our little trip to the mall, you're in skirts until I decide you've earned the privilege of trousers." The vivid blush on her pupil's cheeks told Jane just how clearly Victor/Victoria remembered that recent experience. "A stipulation, I hasten to add, to which you agreed quite readily just this very Saturday, in fact."

"I know that, Ma'am," the girl said softly. "That's why I dressed so carefully. I don't think anyone would question me dressed like this. We could go and give blood right now. No one would have to know that I'm. . .that I'm anything other than what I appear to be."

"I see," Jane said, somehow keeping the utter shock she was feeling out of her voice, "but I don't think that will work. I'm fairly certain that they, that is, the people who would be taking and using your blood, would need to know you are really a boy under that girlish finery. When they will test your blood, they'll find male hormones instead of the female ones they expect. The Red Cross might well have to discard otherwise perfectly acceptable blood. That would be a sad waste."

"So?" Victor's voice cracked through again, but he pressed on as Victoria. "We just tell them who and what I really am once we're inside the clinic where they take the blood. I can do that. I WILL do that, Ms. Jane!"

*Amazing,* Jane thought shaking her head, *I really think she means that. She'd most likely recant at the last moment, but right now, she actually believes she means it. That alone heralds a change in attitude that can only be positive.* However, Jane replied, "No, you will not. I do not choose to have it become general knowledge that some of my students are . . . 'troubled.' That would cast unwarranted aspersions on prior students and those to come after you. We must solve your problems without harming others in the process. And I believe your experiences this previous weekend demonstrated the futility of you trying to appear masculine?"

A stubbornly determined frown lined the prettily made-up face. "If that is what's required, then that's what I'll do!" At Jane's challengingly lifted brow, Victoria continued. "I'll go to a clinic, dressed just like I am right now. I'll tell them I am a really a boy who's being punished by being made to wear girl's clothes, but . . . "

"But?" *ah- HA! Here it comes. 'Couldn't Miss Marie hide the girlish parts, Ms. Jane? Just until we get back?' or some such plot. I'm almost tempted to accommodate her, but I'd have to watch her like a hawk. And she still might slip away. I just cannot risk it.*

"Well, I sort of figured you must know someone in the medical field - in case I got hurt or sick, you know? Someone who could take my blood, fill out the paperwork correctly, but not give away my secret?"

A thoughtful look crossed Jane's drawn features, but "I'm not sure that would work," was all she said.

"Would you at least check, please? And if that won't work, then I still want to donate the blood they need, Ma'am, even if it means admitting to. . .," Jane saw the child had to swallow hard before she could continue, "to being a boy who likes to wear girl's clothes and stuff . . . or to being a boy who's being punished by being made to dress up like a girl."

*There is someone,* Jane thought of Nora Bedford, her nurse friend who was part of her little circle of helpers, *But she may be too busy for such things just now.*

"I see," Jane finally managed as her own emotion-fogged brain tried to make some sense of this unanticipated development. *Hyperbole or truth? Can Victoria actually realize what that would mean to her future? The potential harm she might suffer if it became known she crossdressed? Surely not.* In the end, all she did was ask, "Why? You're telling me that you would break your cover just to give blood? Again, I have to ask why?"

For the first time since Victoria had stepped into the room, her emotional control slipped and having slipped, shattered altogether. Jane watched as the girl-boy again swallowed hard and closed her eyes tightly to fight against the need to cry, but it was a losing battle. "Because. . . because. . ."

"Because why, child?" Jane prompted as she handed the girl a tissue.

"BECAUSE I DON'T WANT TO BE LIKE THE ONES WHO DID THIS!!" she burst out and then bolted from the room, slamming the door behind her.
 
 
Chapter 10: One Small Step for a Cross-Dressed Boy
 
For several moments, Jane could only stare at the still vibrating door. Her emotion-overloaded mind struggled to make some sense of that confrontation. "Damn!" Jane sighed finally, "Why now, Lord? How am I supposed to deal with a student's major transition crisis point when I am having a crisis of my own?"

Jane allowed herself to wallow in a few more seconds of self pity before literally shaking herself. She would deal with her student's crisis because that was what she did - helping her boys when they needed her help. And because this cusp looked to be the culmination of everything she had worked for since the moment she'd first met him at the Kingston Train Station - heavens, since the moment she had first read through the record provided by his social worker.

"Might even take my mind off. . .Wilma. . . I mean, William," she whispered to herself.

Jane took one last look at the smoke-dominated New York skyline before switching her television off. Squaring her own shoulders, Jane strode off to the kitchen to find Marie.

~----------~

"Amazing," Marie murmured after Jane had described her session with Victoria. "And you think he'd really do that?"

Jane let out a frustrated breath and sat down heavily on one of the kitchen stools Marie used when teaching cooking to a student. "I really don't know. After his behavior at the mall, I'm surprised he'd offer to go out anywhere in public, let admit publicly to being a cross dressed male. I'm almost tempted to try setting something up just to see what the child would do."

"Well, Victoria certainly surprised me during our lesson this morning, let me tell you," Marie added as she began to prepare Jane's favorite tea.

"Surprised you? Do tell me how, please."

Marie quickly gave Jane the highlights, concluding with a description of their emotional-charged hug.

"Amazing, indeed," Jane replied pensively. "And you're quite convinced that was not part of some type of deep ploy on Victoria's part?"

Marie's rude snort would have shocked their student. "Not a chance, Jane. I know real emotion when I see it and feel it, and that child *needed* to be held; needed to hold someone else in return. I can't say she needed to hold me because she sensed my own need, but there was nothing devious about her. Heavens, no child is that Machiavellian."

"Let us hope not," Jane smiled as she accepted the fragrantly steaming cup Marie proffered her. "I must say, though, that if this is the critical point in Victor's first phase, it is unique."

"Never had a boy want something so badly that he was willing to admit being dressed as a girl to a stranger to get it, have we?" Marie said with a hint of the mischievous grin she usually took care to hide from Jane's boys.

"No, we haven't, which leads to the key question. What do we do about it? If we ignore this opportunity, or do nothing with it, who knows when or IF we'll get another chance with this one. Lord knows but he's been a royal pain in the. . . he's been rather difficult to date."

"Oh, I know precisely where this one has been a pain, dear, but couldn't you set something up? I'm sure Nora would be willing. How about Michael? He's a medical resident now, so he's a licensed physician, and depending on how you set it up, he could be either Michael or Michelle."

"Michael or Michelle?" Jane asked aloud even as she mulled over the possibilities presented by Marie's idea.

"Michelle, if you think keeping this 'just between us girls' is still the best idea, or Michael, if you decide that forcing the issue of having our dainty young tough admit to an unknown adult male that he is a boy underneath all that lace and satin might have some benefit. We've never tried anything like that before."

"And therefore have no idea what might happen if we tried."

Marie gave a Gallic shrug of her shoulders. "So, have Michelle attend him, and then later, if you think of some way to further your aims in that direction, have Michael appear on the scene, admitting to having been Michelle."

"Let me think about it," Jane said, finishing her tea and rising to her feet. "In the meantime, I will call Nora and Michael to see if they can even help with this little project."

"Ask Michael about Michelle versus Michael. After all, he is a psychiatrist now," Marie put in.

"ONLY a *resident* psychiatrist," Jane retorted before smiling. "But I will ask him anyway. Thanks, dear."

~----------~

An hour later, Jane was back in the kitchen. "Marie, have you seen Victoria? I just got off the phone with Michael and Nora and I think we have a workable plan in place. At this very moment, in fact, Michael is heading for that clinic he volunteers at on weekends. Nora will meet us there, in her 'nurse-role' at about four PM - just before the clinic's doors close for the day. She'll escort Victoria back to the examining room and take her personal information for the record, whereupon our little Miss will have to decide whether or not to divulge her little secret."

"What if she doesn't?" Marie wanted to know.

"Nora will correct the personal information per my direction. Victoria is correct that there is a real shortage of the O-negative blood type and it would be thrown away if the indicated sex of the donor did not match the blood chemistry. Then I'll figure out some way to get our student to admit she wimped out at the critical moment - again."

"And if she tells Nora the truth?"

"Then Michael will come out and interrogate her a bit, just to see what she'll say, and call me into the examining room to question me."

"Isn't that pushing the child a little hard?" Marie asked. "After all, as we both agreed earlier, we've never gone this far before."

"My money is that she won't admit to being a boy, anyway, so what we're really doing here is setting the stage for the next scene in our little drama of Little Red Riding Victoria and the Big Bad Jane. I'll go get dressed while you find Victoria and help her dress. Something feminine, but not prissy. There ought to be some reward for at least offering to go so far. Still, with any luck, there still might be a patient or two in the waiting room when we arrive."

"I told her to rest before lunch, Jane. She is probably in her room."

A frown creased Jane's smooth brow. "I already went there first," she told her friend. "Actually, I was rather surprised she wasn't down here helping you with lunch."

The shorter woman gave a Gallic shrug. "Maybe she went for a walk - to escape the radio and TV coverage. Lord knows I wish I could stop watching and listening."

"I'll go check outside," Jane said striding for the kitchen door. Moments later, she was back, a very worried frown marring her handsome face. "Old Tom said he hasn't seen her all morning - nor has Young Tom. Help me look for her, Marie. Maybe it's just nerves and tension from the awful things that have happened today but I have a bad feeling about this."

A quick search of the mansion turned up no sign of Victoria until they began a second search through the girl's room. "What's that?" Marie said looking at the vanity's table top. "That wasn't there this morning. . . "

Jane watched as Marie picked up an unsealed lavender envelope and extracted from it a matching sheet of scented stationary. The dark-haired woman's eyes went wide as she scanned the note before passing it towards Jane.
 
 
"Dear Ms. Thompson and Marie," Jane read aloud,

"I understand your concerns about my wanting to donate blood, but this is something I have to do. I promise I will return once I've finished. I know you have no reason to trust that promise, but one sin I've never committed is to break my word of honor once I've given it.

I will, of course, accept whatever punishment you decide this deserves, even if that means going to juvie. I should be back no later than seven o'clock. I have your phone number and will call if I get into difficulties. You can decide if you want to help me out of those.

Yours Sincerely,

Victor/Victoria."
 
 
Jane let the hand holding the note drop limply to her side and for a moment, could only stare at Marie. "The little fool," she finally managed. "What if she. . he gets hurt?"

"There's not much traffic this time of day," Marie put in. "She can't have reached the main road yet, even if she left right when you first came into my kitchen."

"You're right," Jane said, thinking quickly, "especially if she didn't change because the two-inch heels she was wearing when she came to my study will make for hard walking."

"Those two-inch heels?" Marie asked, pointing to a carelessly discarded pair partially hidden beneath the make-up table.

"Damn!" Jane breathed. "Well, if she took the time to change, she still can't be all the way to the road. I'll follow in the car while you. . ."

A single palm came up in the 'Stop' signal as Marie shook her head. "I'm going with you, Jane."

Jane wanted to argue that it would be better if someone was by the phone, but could tell that her friend would not be put off. Rather than waste anymore time, she simply acquiesced. "Oh very well. I will get the car - you set the phone to automatically forward any incoming calls to my cell-phone. I will meet you out front in two minutes."

~----------~

Two and half minutes later, Jane's beloved black Lincoln roared out the gates of Seasons House, heading down the scenic country road that led to the nearest main thoroughfare. Another four minutes and two miles later, they found their quarry, jog-walking down the berm of the macadam-paved roadbed in the direction of the main road to Kingston.

"My god, I don't believe it," Jane breathed as she pressed down on the car's accelerator.

"Can't believe what?" Marie asked, her eyes locked on the now-aware and sprinting figure.

"I can't believe how he's dressed," was the answer. "After what he went through Friday, I thought he'd never put those things on again. It's why I didn't tell you to remove them from Victoria's armoire. I thought they'd be a useful threat down the road."

"Guess he found another use for them," Marie said sardonically as she too recognized Victor's mall-outing ensemble. "Although *he* doesn't look much like a *he* in them."

"That was the point, dear, now get ready to jump out - I'm going to cut him off. It's time to put an end to this farcical chase scene."

~----------~

"What a DAY!!" Jane cried as soon as Victor had gone up to Victoria's room to change and she and Marie were again alone in the study. "It's enough to drive a sane woman to drink and I am beginning to doubt whether I am particularly sane or not."

"What will you do next?" Marie asked quietly.

Eyes, stark with concern and still red-rimmed from more than one bout of tears, stared back at Marie. "I just don't know, Marie," Jane finally admitted after a long pause. "On one hand, what he was attempting to do was . . . I don't know, incredibly stupid. Suppose he'd gotten picked up by some. . . some pervert out there? Dressed as he was? Made up as he is? Oh, god, Marie. . ."

Instantly, Jane found herself enveloped in Marie's arms. "It didn't happen. Nothing bad happened."

"But it could have!"

"But it didn't, and now you have to decide what to do next. It was a rather noble thing to attempt, you know," Marie added. "After his rough experiences last weekend in that very outfit, no less. I'd say that bodes rather well for the next stage of his program, eh?"

"If he'd managed to get there and if he'd actually submitted himself to the scrutiny and potential humiliation of so public an appearance," Jane sniffled into Marie's comforting shoulder.

Marie patted Jane's shoulder comfortingly. "Well, you could always see what he'd really do - see if he really meant what he said."

Jane went very still before pulling back so she could see Marie's face clearly. "How?" she asked, one brow quirked in challenge.

"Well, you haven't told Victoria that you've set anything up, right?"

"There hasn't been time. So?"

"Well, come into my kitchen, and let me tell you my devious little scheme."
 
 
Chapter 11: Blood Will Tell
 
It was strange, Victoria reflected as she sat in the antiseptic-perfumed ambiance of the storefront clinic's waiting room, to feel both hot and cold at the same time. The 'hot' part was relatively easy to explain - that the room's air conditioner was either broken or turned off as a money-saving measure. The stuffy, small, windowless room with its stained pastel walls and cracked-vinyl furniture had to be over eighty degrees - WELL over eighty degrees. The cold she sensed, however, came from inside - from that freezing knot deep in her gut that seemed to grow bigger every moment she sat there.

Waiting.

*At least we're alone now,* she thought with some relief. There'd been a young mother with a cranky baby waiting for the doctor when Ms. Thompson had ushered her into this room. Thankfully, the woman had been too busy trying to calm the child to look too closely at Victoria, and the infant's loud wails had made conversation, even lectures, impossible. *Every silver lining has a cloud,* she mused ruefully.

A nurse entered the waiting room and looked down at her clipboard. "Victoria Denato?" she asked.

"Yes, Ma'am," she answered softly.

"If you'll come with me, please," she ordered, turning on her heel.

Victoria rose to her feet and straightened her skirt. "Ms. Thompson?" she asked hesitantly, looking down at her guardian who made no move to rise.

"Just go and get it done, Victoria," Jane ordered, her features stony.

"Yes, Ma'am," the girl repeated and then turned to follow the nurse. *Guess it's not surprising she is still pi. . .I mean, upset,* she thought. *She sure was angry when she got us home and there hasn't been all that much time for her to calm down since. Well, at least I'm getting my chance.*

Jane had ordered Victor to Victoria's bedroom immediately after they'd arrived back at the house following his abortive attempt to get to Kingston. A short time later, she had entered into her student's bedroom with Marie in tow.

"So, you want to donate blood, eh?" she'd stormed at him. "So badly that you break your promise to stay here and obey my orders? Your promise to stay in skirts until *I* decide you've earned the privilege of trousers once more? Well, we _could_ have worked something out that didn't put your secret identity at risk - _could_ have arranged for you to donate time at the blood bank helping prepare the donations of others. That would have been just as helpful. Or you _could_ have helped collect blankets and clothing for those who lost their homes. There are a lot of ways you could help those poor people that would not require you to break your promise to me by running away."

"I'm sorry, I . . .I couldn't do that . . . I mean, I couldn't help in the blood bank, . . .but . .but, well, I just had to give blood back to make up for . . I mean, giving blood was just the right thing."

"Well, right or not, it is certainly the thing you're going to do now - today, in fact. Unless you chicken out at the last minute and faint at the sight of the needle or do something equally girlish. As to how you deal with the truth of your identity, you're going to have to decide for yourself just how to address that little problem, but you ARE going to the clinic. Understand?"

"Yes, Ms. Thompson," Victoria had answered, her voice very small.

"Very well. Marie will help you dress. Do TRY and at least LOOK like a young lady, if you please? I would prefer not to be humiliated by a student yet again this day."

After that scene, Victoria had fully anticipated being rigged out in one of Jane's 'Raggedy Anne/Shirley Temple' abominations, but the outfit wasn't all that bad. Actually, all things considered, Victoria reflected as she entered a cramped examining room, Marie's selections were really very attractive. A white blouse, tailored skirt and blazer, hosiery complemented by matching heels and coordinating jewelry completed her presentation. *If my hair were auburn instead of this bleached blonde, I'd look almost like a mini-Jane,* she realized, a thought that was oddly pleasing to the confused teenager. *Look, Ma, I'm a growed up girl - just like you!*

"If you'll take off your blazer, Miss Denato, so I can take your blood pressure and pulse, we can get the paperwork filled out so you can donate. I must say, you are a very brave girl to be willing to do this, and we do need your type of blood just now. . . well, you know why."

"Yes, Ma'am. . umm. . Nurse Bedford," she said, reading the name tag pinned to the woman's uniform lapel, "I had to do something, you know?"

"Well, if you will fill out this form for me," Nurse Nora Bedford said with a smile, "I will get set up for you in there. Be just a minute."

The nurse left and Victoria scanned the form - and stopped. *Sure didn't have to read far, did I? Third block after I fill in my name - Sex: M or F. I could get away with just putting 'V. Denato' down for my name, but if I leave the sex block blank, they'll just ask, and if I lie, Jane said that they will have to discard the blood.*

The mocking look on Jane's face when she'd told him he could go 'girly' came back to him, followed by the darker memories of that morning's disaster in Manhattan. Swallowing hard, Victor/Victoria picked up the pen and boldly marked the form.

Moments later, the nurse returned to take her into the room where the donation rig was set up. "You just take a seat, dear," she told Victoria and pointing to a chair. "The Doctor will be with you for the final checks before we start. Since you are still a minor, we need both your guardian's and the doctor's okay before we draw your blood. Only be a minute."

~----------~

Jane looked up from her conversation when Nora walked into the small office. "Well, Michelle," the nurse began with a grin, "You ready to go on, dear?"

"Doctor Nash, puh-lease, Nurse," the other person in the room said with exaggerated hauteur, "You don't want to slip up when we go in there, do you? Or are you telling me that 'Plan XX' is on for tonight?" Michael Nash, MD asked as he walked over to the table where a wig-stand held a blonde wig attractively done-up in a tight, professional-looking French braid.

"Well?" Jane demanded. "How did she fill out the form, Nora? Does Michelle unmask Victoria, or does Victor explain to Michael why he is here in skirts?"

Nora grinned again, and passed the completed medical form to Jane who looked at it, and then repeated herself. "Well."

~----------~

Victoria had wanted to run at least four times since the nurse had left the room, but in the end, had stayed where she was. For one thing, she wasn't going to give in this time. She'd made her commitment and she would see this thing through. For another. .

Her thoughts were interrupted when a slim, not-very-tall young man in old-fashioned horned-rim glasses entered the room followed by the nurse. He had a stethoscope hanging about his neck and a frown on his face. "Excuse me, Miss Denato," the doctor whose name tag marked him as 'Dr. Nash', but we need to clear up a mistake on your form here. You must misread the 'sex' question because you 'x'ed the block for males."

Victoria swallowed hard, *I seem to be doing a lot of that lately,* she thought numbly. "Ummm. . .it. . .it wasn't a mistake. I really am a boy. My name. . . my name is Victor. . Victor Denato."

Light blond eyebrows went high on the doctor's forehead. "Victor? Pardon me, Miss. . umm. . Vic, but you don't look like a Victor. I think you need to explain this to me."

Closing his eyes, Victor stifled yet another urge to flee. He'd known this was coming, and had done little but think about his answer ever since Jane had come into Victoria's room to order her to dress for this excursion. It had occurred to him, right from the beginning, that he could get the Thompson woman in very deep trouble if he played this scene out right. Bleeding heart doctor, the kind who worked in a knothole storefront clinic like this, would probably be willing to believe the worst about Victoria's situation. Probably go running off to social services so fast it would make Jane's head swim.

But he wasn't going to do that, which didn't leave him a great many options. There just were not many reasons a boy could use to explain wearing girl's clothing - not without the person receiving the explanation concluding that either Victor or Jane or both were in serious need of a headshrinker's help. He'd even thought about hinting that he was considering that operation he'd read about - the one where they made a guy into a girl - and was practicing - just to find out if that was what he wanted. But there were dangers there, too.

*When all else fails, tell the truth, right?* Victor almost had to force his voice down to his 'normal' range. "Well, Doctor, I have this problem - with my temper?"

The doctor simply stared at him, giving no indication of what he thought about that. *You'd almost think he'd taken 'stone-face lessons' from Ms. Jane,* Victor thought resigned. "Well, it's like this. Ms. Thompson thought, and I have to agree, now anyway, that being. . . well, dressed like this, sort of forces me to stop and think before. . .well, before I do something bad."

"Bad?" Doctor Nash asked. "What do you mean by 'bad'? And how does looking like a young Britney Spears stop you from doing that something bad?"

"I beat up people, Doctor, all of them smaller than me, when I get mad," Victor admitted in a very quiet voice, and for the first time, felt ashamed of that particular fact. "Or I used to, that is. I'd get upset at someone. . .someone I couldn't. . .someone I didn't think I could take because he was bigger than me, and so I would take my temper out on someone I could take. Ms. Thompson thought being in a dress, having to act like a girl, I couldn't, you know, do that without people figuring out I'm a guy. If I got picked on for being small, that would be nothing to what I'd get if people thought I was a, well, a sissy."

"That's the truth?" Dr. Nash pressed, "You're sure you are not being abused here by that woman? Just give me the word and I'll call Family Services. You'll be out from under her control in five minutes."

Victor felt himself go very still. Here it was - his way out, and he hadn't even tried to make it happen. He could probably pull it off without even saying a word just by looking really worried or scared.

*. . . .'That would cast unwarranted aspersions on prior students and those to come after you. We must solve your problems without harming others in the process' . . .* he remembered Jane saying. Did he want to be responsible for that? After all, who were those people to him? *No, _I_ must start solving my problems without harming anyone else in the process.*

Victoria schooled her features and smiled tremulously up at the doctor. "It's not abusive, sir, and it IS working. For me, at least," she said with as much confidence as she could muster. "Ms. Thompson was right about thinking first now. This is my choice."

The young doctor remained impassive for several moments and it took all of Jane's hard-taught lessons for Victoria to keep herself from squirming or from looking away from the steady gaze. Finally, he shook his head. "All right, then. If you say so. Nurse, let's pull this pint and let _Victoria_ get on with her business."

Nurse Bedford pushed a rolling stand with a clear plastic bag and an attached tube hanging from it. "Ummm, Doctor? I, uh, don't have to see the blood, do I?"

A smile softened Dr. Nash's face. "No. We can hide it behind you. Got a problem with blood?"

Victoria grimaced. "Last guy I hurt fell and cut his scalp," she admitted with a shudder. "God, but I thought he was bleeding to death. It was everywhere."

"No problem. Just relax and it will be over before you know it. Nurse? If you would do the stick, please? I need to check on our other patient."

"Yes, Doctor."

~----------~

"What on EARTH were you thinking in there, Michael Nash?" Jane snarled when the young man she thought of as her first son reentered the office. "Don't you think you took a terrible chance with that last offer to go to family services?!?!"

"Eavesdropping, were you?" he asked, unrepentantly.

"Suppose he'd told you to make that cursed call? What then?"

"_SHE_ wasn't going to do that," Michael replied confidently. "I've been a Big Sister often enough to tell when a kid has turned the corner, Momma-Jane. All I did was make HER realize that fact, too."

"I almost had an old fashioned attack of the vapors," Jane muttered darkly before walking over to embrace his slim frame. "Thanks."

"De Nada, Momma-Jane. I'm just glad I didn't have to play the outraged Doctor Michelle who 'discovers' he's a boy. I wasn't really comfortable with Plan XX, mostly because you have never really 'outed' one of your students. From a psych profile, we just don't have any history with which to predict how he might have reacted to that type of shock. Public unmasking has always been the biggest stick in your arsenal, but it's always been only a threat. He could have decided that there just wasn't anything worse you could have done to him after that."

Jane shrugged. "I suppose, but then again, I didn't think a direct untruth on the form was likely. Whatever his faults, Victor Denato isn't a liar. He's a bully, but that's more a sign of cowardice than outright deceit. IF he didn't follow through and admit his masculinity in order to donate blood, he would have taken the other option I teased him with - having a very girlish, very loud panic attack and chickening out altogether. *Before* he filled out the gender block in your form. Having said that, I agree that it appears we've turned a big corner today, and for that, thank you again, dear."

"Most fun I've had since. . . well, since Michelle visited the nursing dormitory showers at the hospital."

"MICHAEL!" Jane half growled, half laughed. "You didn't."

Before Michael could reply, the door burst open. "Michael? Come quick - Victoria just fainted. I, uh, made the mistake of letting her see the full bag. I guess she really doesn't like the sight of blood."

~----------~

Victoria was on edge the entire drive home waiting for Jane to poke at her for fainting - 'just like a girl.'

But to her surprise, Jane did not utter a word from the moment she helped her student into the car at the clinic until they walked through the door of Seasons House.

Marie met them in the foyer. "Marie? A snack, please. Victoria needs to take in fluids and some carbohydrates. A light tea would go well, I think, in the music room. Join us there?"

"Just a few minutes, Jane. I just need to brew the tea."

In the music room, Jane turned to face her student. "I owe you an apology, Victoria."

"Huh? I mean, I beg your pardon?" her student blurted, eyes wide with surprise.

Jane nodded. "I questioned your personal courage and commitment to your proposed course of action, today. No coward would have done what you did today, my girl. You did a very good thing today and I am proud that Victoria Denato is my student. I am prouder of you."

For several moments, all Victoria could do was stare at her teacher, and then, "Ex... excuse me, Ms. Jane," she squeaked and then rushed from the room, one hand to her stomach, the other covering her suddenly burning eyes.
 
 
Chapter 12: Just the Bear Facts, Ma'am
 
A cool breeze rustled through the lacy curtains as beams of silvery moonlight cast soft shadows about the darkened boudoir. Lost in thought, Victoria Denato sat cross-legged upon her bed's satiny comforter, not realizing that her right arm was securely wrapped about Poohbear's thick, fuzzy torso. The elbow of her other arm was planted in the crook of one knee, her chin resting upon that upraised hand. It had been a very long day, an incredibly awful long day, and yet, she felt oddly at peace. That was, she decided, a very strange way to feel, given her current circumstances and worse, the truly horrific events of that very morning, but she had also concluded that she knew the reason for how she felt.

Ms. Jane was proud of her.

And no one had ever said those words to her before. Always before it had been, "Why are you always in trouble?" or "Why aren't you getting better grades?" or "Mrs. 'Thus-and-so's' boy did 'such-and-such' and why can't you?" Or more recently the hated "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" That one he had been asking himself only too often of late.

Whatever those questions indicated, it wasn't pride, and Ms. Jane had said she was proud. Maybe, for the first time, Victoria Denato had something really to be proud of. *Ooops, watch your grammar, young lady* she reminded herself in mental tones any former Seasons House student would easily recognize. *Ms. Jane would have your as. . .umm, rather, Ms. Jane would correct you instantly and emphatically for ending a sentence with a preposition.* And then she laughed at herself.

So, Ms. Jane's pride in her made her feel good - proud of herself, truth to tell. Why was that so different? Hadn't that been one of Victor's biggest problems? Pride?

"What do you think, Pooh?" she asked, suddenly aware of the furry body cuddled up close to her silk-clad self, but even then didn't move to break the contact. "Maybe it's because back then, I really didn't have anything about which I should have been proud? How's that for finishing a sentence without a preposition, silly-old-bear? I almost said 'proud of' again, but caught myself at the last second."

She thought about that for a while longer. *Yes, I think that is it. I feel good because this time the pride means something - the thing I am proud of having done is worthwhile - unlike knocking over a some undersized kid and making him bleed. 'Course, both have blood involved. So, what do I do next?*

She never answered that question because in the next moment, Jane's voice, raised to shrill, piercing scream, rattled Victoria's door.

"MARIEEEEE!!! MaRIIIEEEE!!! He's OKAY!! I just TALKED TO HIM! MARIIIEEEE!!!"

Victoria was off the bed and out her door before she quite realized how. In the hallway, she found a nightgown-garbed Jane, a wildly smiling yet tear-streaked Jane all but skipping about at the foot of the stairs that went up to Marie's third-floor apartment.

"Ms. Jane?" Victoria asked, "What is it?"

"He's all right," Jane half laughed, half sobbed. "I just got through. He wasn't hurt at all."

"Your student?" Victoria asked. "The one you were so worried about earlier today when I came to your study?"

"Yes, Victoria, that's precisely who I mean," Jane replied joyfully. "Wilm. .. liam is well and truly all right."

Without thinking, Victoria reached out to Jane who more than met her latest student halfway.

~----------~

Marie had paused only to grab and throw on a wrapper before hurrying down the stairs to answer Jane's summons. Every breath was another prayer as she ran down the steps to burst into the hallway of the second floor.

And stopped in her tracks at what she saw . . .

There, in the middle of the hallway, locked in an embrace and dancing some unnamed primal dance was Jane Thompson, Victoria Denato, and Winnie the Pooh.

"He's okay, Ms. Marie!" Victoria crowed when she caught sight of the dark-haired woman just standing there and gawking. "Ms. Jane's student didn't get hurt today. She just talked to him! Isn't that GREAT??!?"

"Just great," Marie whispered and then, after a moment's thought, cut in to join the odd circle of merrymakers.

~----------~

"She's asleep," Marie said as she entered the parlor in Jane's private parlor, a tea tray in her hands. "I checked when I went down to brew the herbal tea." Then the Frenchwoman's dark eyes crinkled into silent laughter. "She's still cuddled up to that bear, too."

"She needs comfort," Jane said quietly, "and thank Providence she's now opened up sufficiently to accept it where she finds it. A week ago, even perhaps a day ago, that bear would have slept on the floor as it has every night since Victor arrived."

"Until now. So, giving blood was more important to him than hiding his true nature," Marie observed as she poured the tea. "I wasn't sure he'd grown quite that much."

"Michael was the one who saw it first," Jane replied. "Our family doctor grown a great deal, as well. Lord, but I nearly fainted myself when Nora burst in there to tell us Victoria had fainted."

"Bet that was grist for your millstone on the way home," Marie grinned.

"Actually, I don't think I said a word to her the entire trip until we were back in the house. Stunned, I guess," Jane said, shaking her head. "I suppose, all my confident words to the contrary, I really did half-expect her to mark "F" on the form, and then throw a hissy-fit to keep from giving blood."

"But she didn't, and you rewarded her by not using her little lapse to torment her further?"

"Hardly be fair, would it, after what she put herself through today? And I am fair, you know, by my own standards and rules, at least."

"Of course you are!" Marie agreed. "So what else happened?"

"You know? I'm not really sure, but something did. She broke down soon after we got home, and I think they were happy tears. I said I was proud of her, but. . ."

"But what, Jane?"

"I don't know what, Marie. I just have this niggling feeling that there's something more to it than just me giving a student an attagirl."

"We'll figure it out, Jane. So, are you going to take on that new student you mentioned the other day? Now that Victoria seems on track?"

"Maybe. That one isn't time urgent so we don't have to rush into it. I want to make sure that we are right about this one, first."

"What's on for tomorrow?"

"Victoria wants to do some volunteer work - to help the families and rescue workers. I thought I'd call Edith and see what the good ladies of the Kingston social set are doing in that regard."

"Going to really test her resolve, are you?"

"I think she's ready for a truly demanding test now, don't you? Besides, if she's not, it's better to find that out now and not later when there's another needy child here who needs my full attention."

Marie sighed and then stood. Picking up the tray, she blew a kiss at her long-time friend. "Well, I think I'll put this in the sink and go back to bed. You should try to rest, too."

Jane smiled warmly. "Good night, Marie. I'll go to bed as soon as I finish my cup."

End Part I


 
 
To Be Continued...
 



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