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

In the aftermath of September 11, Victoria turns the corner showing that even the darkest of clouds can have some silver in it's lining. Then, a new student arrives and Miss Victoria strives to become the best big sister ever, throwing Jane Thompson yet another curve!

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Seasons of Change
Book 12 - Part 2 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 2
 
 
Chapter 13: Moments in Time; Seasons of Growth
 
"Marie?" Jane Thompson called as she entered the kitchen following breakfast. "Did you give Victoria something that cleans away the deep-dye cosmetics? She looked lovely this morning."

The smile that answered Jane was weary. "Nothing like that. Just a little magic with ordinary make-up."

"You mean she learned that from your session with her yesterday?"

The petite French woman half snorted, half laughed. "Not hardly. She was knocking at my door this morning before sunrise, and begged me to teach her how to deal with too much color."

"_Before_ sunrise?" Jane asked in disbelief. "The student who has been disciplined at least once a week since she first arrived here for being discourteously late for breakfast? Our hibernating little bear-cub? Up before sunrise? On her OWN?!?!"

"Surprised the heck out of me, too, Jane," Marie assured her.

"My goodness. Well, that says something about her intentions for the rest of her stay, wouldn't you say? So, that make-up job was your work?"

Marie shook her head and settled heavily onto one of her stools. "What you saw at the table this morning was all her own effort," she said and then grinned. "It was her fourth try, but all her own work."

"You sat through four complete make-up jobs when you should have been sleeping?"

"Six, actually - I had to show her how twice."

"You poor dear," Jane said. She was about to tell her friend that she'd take care of the breakfast dishes when the door opened to admit Victoria, heavily laden with dishes, silverware and other breakfast detritus.

"Marie?" Victoria said with a smile. "Look, you go relax, okay? I'll take care of the clearing up and seeing to the dishes." Then she saw Jane. "Oh, I'm sorry, Ms. Jane. I didn't mean to interrupt."

"You are offering to take care of the breakfast clean-up?" Jane asked carefully.

"Oh, yes, Ma'am," Victoria replied cheerfully. "Ms. Marie helped me. . .well, helped me and I saw how tired she was this morning. I mean, I do it often enough so it's no big deal." Turning to Marie, she continued. "Would you like me to make you some tea or something, Marie?"

Jane watched the exchange. *No big deal, except that you've never offered to do it without being told before. Of course, you may feel that you owe Marie, but still, you didn't have to be asked or told. Points to you, child.*

"Tea sounds lovely, Victoria," Jane interjected. "Please serve it in my study in say, an hour? Marie and I will be in there. Oh, and bring three cups, please? You will pour. Marie?"

"Coming, Jane, and thank you very much, Victoria. I do need a break."

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

"Jane Thompson speaking."

"Jane? Carolyn Beale."

A frisson of concern ran through Jane. She'd made the decision to have Marie drop Victoria off at the Chalet today instead of escorting her student personally. It was in the way of being a test. Would the child behave without the 'wrath of Jane' being nearby? "Problems with Victoria, Caro?"

"No, at least I don't think so, but she came in here alone and told us that you'd said she could pick her own look. Is that right?"

Jane stifled a sigh of relief. "Yes, Caro, that is true, so long as the look is suited to Victoria and not Victor, of course."

"Well, then that's okay, I guess. . ."

"You guess?!?!"

"Well, she did ask to have her hair changed - nothing inappropriate," Carolyn hastened to add, "Just a bit of a surprise. She wants longer extensions."

"How strange. I was sure she'd want her natural hair color back, but longer hair? What did she ask for, specifically."

"Well, get this, Jane. She actually told me that if she can't sit down on them, they're not long enough."

Jane nearly choked on her tea. "That's . . . unexpected."

"It's sure unique in my experience with your kids, Jane. What do you want us to do with her?"

*The longer hair won't be a problem for my plans - might even be a plus in the future. What is going on inside that child's mind? Can't help wishing she had a big sister. She obviously has no idea how much trouble she is taking on with that request though.* "As long as it's age appropriate and feminine, I think we should let her try it, Caro. We can always cut it later if it becomes a problem. I need to see if she's ready to become a big sister."

That caught Carolyn's attention. "You have a new one lined up?"

"Yes, and it will be a very hard one, Caro. This new child has grave issues. I need to know if Victoria is ready for that challenge."

"Awfully sudden turnaround, isn't it?"

"That's why I'm testing her, Carolyn."

"How hard do you want her tested, Jane?"

"What do you mean, Carolyn?"

"Sandy," the other woman said quietly. "She's scheduled to work with Victoria and well, you know how she is with your students."

Jane considered that and again wished she could be there, just in case. *But no, I either believe in my own, Marie's and Michael's assessment of this child, or I don't. If Victoria is ready for this new challenge, then she will have to up to dealing with Sandy, even at her worst.* She sighed. "Let me speak with Sandy, Carolyn. This will be just one more test she needs to pass before she can guide a little sister through your Feminine Inquisition."

"Jane!" Carolyn laughed accusingly. "I don't even like Monty Python! See you soon, dear. Wait one while I get Sandy to pick up in the office."

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

"Hi there, cutie," Sandy cooed as she wrapped the protective apron about Victoria's neck. "So, we're going to change your hair color today, eh? Add a little length and fullness, too."

"Yes, Sandy," Victoria answered warily.

"Well, that's great. Say, riddle me this, Victoria. What's the mating cry of the wild redhead?"

"Huh?"

"You know, it's like a blonde joke except about redheads. What's the mating cry?"

"I, um, really don't know, Sandy."

"'NEXT'."

The blush on her victim's face told the beautician that Victoria understood the 'joke' only too well. She smirked. "You are going to look just sooooo cute as a big-haired carrot-top, kiddo."

"That's not what I asked for! I want nice long hair, but brunette, so that I look right for my skin tones again!"

"Sit still, sissy, or I will tie you to that chair," Sandy hissed. "And you're puny enough for me to do it without even working up a sweat!"

"You wouldn't dare," Victoria snapped angrily.

Sandy went nose to nose with her. "Don't challenge me, girly-boy, or you'll regret it. And I will enjoy every damned minute of your humiliation. Go ahead, sissy, make my day!"

"Jane will be angry. She said I could do as I pleased today."

"Big deal. She needs me more than I need her. And that won't help you if your hair is already orange, or maybe I'll do it up pink. Won't that go nicely with that almond complexion of yours, eh? Now shut up and let me work or the next thing you hear will be me having a very loud panic attack about the little cross-dressing pervert sitting in my chair with a hard-on."

That threat worked, and Victoria did as she was told. The extensions were handled easily enough. "Now, we'll add color and body," Sandy smirked as she worked foul chemicals into her victims hair. "The boys are going to see you coming for miles, girl."

"What will your clients think if you screw up my hair?" Victoria asked, trying to find some way out of this before it was too late.

"Dearie," Sandy told her condescendingly, "With the hairstyles young people want today, you'll probably look cutting edge. Stupid and ugly, but cutting edge. I'll just tell them it's what you asked for. And you won't contradict me, or I'll tell them a few other things that will prove you're weird enough to want flourescent hair. And since I can prove those 'other things' by simply pulling up your skirt and pulling down your panties, I think they'll believe me about you choosing the weird hair color. Don't you?"

"Jane will make you fix it!"

"She can try, sweetie, but it won't happen soon - not for a couple of weeks, at least. These chemicals are pretty harsh. Any sooner than that and your hair will be damaged. Now, get over under that dryer so the chemicals can cure in the heat."

The hour under the dryer while her hair was dried passed in a fog for Jane's student. Only the hope that Jane could do SOME-thing to fix this sustained her.

The dryer snapped off and Victoria looked up to see Carolyn smiling down at her. "Come along, Victoria. Sandy went out for some coffee so I'll comb you out and get you on your way. Lovely color, by the way. Good choice."

"What?!?"

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

"Lord, Jane, but you should have seen the look on her face when she saw herself in the mirror. I'm sure she was expecting to look like that stupid male comedian who does the phone commercials. Finding herself with a lovely head of shoulder-length sable waves brought her up short. Nearly gave herself whiplash with that double-take."

"Shoulder-length? She changed her mind at the last minute? What happened to sitting on her hair?"

"We didn't have any natural hair extensions that long that were the right shade, so we went with what we had on hand. Looks great on her."

"But she handled the stress, right? Without threatening Sandy?"

"You were the only threat she tried, Jane. She believed you'd come down here and make Sandy do it correctly. Other than that, she tried to point out that messing her up that badly might scare off clients. All in all, she was cowed and frightened, but controlled. Sandy said it was pretty clear she spent the entire time trying to figure out what to do next."

"Well, that's a relief. And tell Sandy thanks for a good job. I needed to know if Victoria could stand up under that kind of stress."

"Sure thing. You know what? In a way, it's too bad the extensions we had on hand weren't bun-length. How about a Lady Godiva production at the children's theater, Jane?" Caro giggled. "Victoria wouldn't need a wig. Should I look into ordering some of the long-long extensions for her?"

"Hell NO! Excuse me. I mean, thank you, dear, but no thank you. I think shoulder length will do very nicely, thank-you-very-much! Now, I have to run. See you next week for Victoria's session with your afternoon makeup class."

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

Victoria was just putting the finishing touches on her nail enamel when a soft knock sounded at her door. The softness of the summons and the fact that the door did not immediately open told her that the visitor was not Jane, which left only, "Miss Marie? Come in, please."

The little domestic bustled into the room. "You will help me with the dinner tonight, oui?" she asked, looking just a bit harried.

"Sure," the girl replied easily. "Is something the matter?"

"Non. Oui. Oh, I don't know. Jane changed the plan for tonight at the last minute and I am not sure why."

"Oh? What's up or is that something I shouldn't ask and put you on the spot?"

Marie shrugged. "Nothing like that, petite," she said with easy affection. "Jane just told me that we would be dining simply tonight, en famille, and that I was to be at table instead of serving the meal."

"Is that a problem for you?" Victoria asked. "Do you prefer to eat alone?"

"It is a problem, but not that way, silly. Non, the problem is that the meal I have planned is a multi-course affair unsuited to being served by passing dishes about the table. So, you will have to help me prepare something else between now and. . ." she checked her watch, "Six p.m. - which is when Jane says the meal must be served."

"Sounds like another of Ms. Jane's little tests for me," the teen said with a saucy giggle. She checked her nails, finding them dry. She walked to the large armoire and rummaged about it until she came out with a pair of strappy, pink spiked heels.

"A test, cherie?"

"It hasn't escaped my attention that I have been given . . . a number of opportunities to fly solo of late, Miss Marie," Victoria sat back down on her vanity stool and slipped into the extremely tall heels, "Opportunities that have all included rather new challenges, if you take my meaning."

"Challenges, you say? Such as?"

The girl rose, unsteady for only a second and then looked at her bedside clock. "Oh, like being told that you have to prepare a meal, from scratch and without a pre-approved menu, suitable for My Lady Jane Thompson's table in forty two minutes?"

Marie had the grace to blush which made Victoria giggle. "It's okay, Marie. I won't fuss and I won't cheat. Truth to tell, I like cooking with you." The girl then turned so her profile was to the mirror. "Don't you love what these shoes do for my legs?" she asked seriously. "And I really like the way the color matches my new nail lacquer and makeup. Especially now that the grownup stuff has finally worn mostly away."

The French woman goggled a bit at that. "Uhmm, cherie, you know that even at Jane's table, dining en famille is not quite so formal. Those shoes, well, they are a bit much for such an occasion and you will be on your feet non-stop while you cook. Surely there is something more comfortable that would suit your lovely outfit?"

"Oh, no, Miss Marie, I really like these, and they won't cause me any trouble. Besides, none of the other pairs match my dress so nicely, and I don't have time to re-polish my nails to match any of them. What do you say we make pasta for dinner. With some of the tomatoes we canned last month? And fresh hot garlic bread? Then all we'd need is a salad. Would that be okay?"

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

"Jane Thompson speaking," Jane said into the receiver of her telephone.

"Jane! How are you? This is Edith White." How the woman could make one syllable words sound snooty had always mystified Jane, but it was one of the traits that made the socially prominent Newport matron useful to her. That, along with her near-sightedness and inability to see beyond what she expected to see.

"Edith," Jane replied warmly. "How are you? And how is your charity drive going?"

"I am very well, thank you," which came out "I am veddy well, thenk yew," when Edith said it. "And our little clothing and food drive for those *poor* wretches in New York is going swimmingly."

*Lord above, swimmingly??!? Don't you DARE giggle, Jane Thompson!* "That's wonderful, Edith. I do hope Victoria has been of some assistance. The poor girl was just devastated by what she saw on the television."

"Oh, that's one of the reasons I called, dear. She has been MARVELOUS - an absolutely tireless tower of strength. She has been on the phone constantly. Why, she's gathered more contributions than any three other volunteers. Very dedicated my dear, very dedicated. Not what one expects of young people in this day and age. Well, except . . . "

"Is there a problem, Edith?"

"It's her voice, Jane. I swear she practically coos into that phone. I listened carefully, and she never actually says anything . . . improper, but the *way* she says it. In *my* day, girls didn't, well, make love over the phone. There, I've said it. That's what she's doing. It's scandalous."

Jane choked back a laugh that just would *not* go away. After a moment, she said, "But effective, right?"

"With the men she calls, certainly," Edith sniffed. "I don't expect she gets much from the women she talks to like that, though in fact . . . well, sometimes she seems to chatter and giggle like a much younger girl, and that seems to work quite well, too." Then the older woman remembered another complaint, "And WHY you permitted that lovely child to color those pretty blonde locks like that, I will NEVER know."

"Sometimes, Edith, you simply have to allow children to grow up, make their own mistakes and suffer any consequences. Well, I'm glad she was so successful in accumulating donations for you, and I'll talk to her about her phone manners." *And I will make MY donation directly to the Red Cross so you and your nose-in-the-air club members won't get the credit for it!* "Well, I do have to run, dear. Thank you for the call. Ciao." and Jane hung up with far more delicacy than she would have preferred. "Bitch!" she snarled and headed for her brandy decanter.

*Thank goodness Victoria is at the Style Shoppe under Brenda Franson's eagle eye. It would not do for a student to see me quite this. . . angry.*

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

"Jane promised me there would be no recurrence of the disgraceful behavior you exhibited the last time you were in my store, young man," Ms. Franson hissed the moment they were alone in the Style Shoppe's elegant fitting room. "THIS time I will not save you. THIS time I will be as appalled as everyone else that a *boy* is parading around my store impersonating a girl. There are laws in this state against peeping toms and voyeurs and I am SURE you'd find the company in central lockup not to your taste. Do we understand each other?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Victoria said softly, her eyes lowered. "And I am very sorry for the way I acted last time. You have my word that I will be a very good girl this time around."

Brenda momentarily goggled at this new and unexpectedly submissive Victoria Denato, but recovered quickly. "Very well, see that you do. Now, I have laid out a variety of outfits that meet Ms. Thompson's requirements. You are to try them ALL on, and then make your selection. She said that you could pick whatever you liked, but that you must try on everything I have picked out. I assume that you have on *suitable* lingerie, Miss?" The heavy emphasis on the word 'suitable' would have been obvious to even a casual observer, but only Brenda and Victoria understood the older woman's real meaning. She was asking about the dancer's gaff Jane had taken to including in her protegee's ensemble for outings like this.

"Yes, Ms. Franson," the boy-girl replied, "The same as last time."

"Excellent," the shopkeeper said with evident delight. "Ah, and here is Sally to help you with your dressing. Sally, this is Ms. Thompson's latest student, Victoria." The two girls exchanged greetings under Brenda's watchful eyes. "All right, dear, why don't you go undress down to your undies while Sally collects the dresses and accessories for you. Sally? I will be in the shop. Call me for each presentation, please? I promised Ms. Thompson a full report."

"Be right back, Victoria," the shop girl, a pretty strawberry blonde with a figure that showed off The Style Shoppe's wares very nicely indeed, told her. "You just go on in there and get ready, okay?"

Sally's back was turned so she missed what Brenda, looking back into the room from the arched doorway, saw - a look of anxiety bordering on fear on Victoria's perfectly made-up face. With a self-satisfied smile at her decision to include her cute salesgirl in this game, Brenda headed for her phone. Jane wanted regular reports on this outing.

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

"Wow, between you and me? Those other dresses Ms. Franson picked out made you look like a girl's dress-up doll, but that outfit really looks great on you," Sally bubbled as she studied Victoria with professional interest. The off-the-shoulder, knee-length evening dress was in a spectacular color of red that did marvelous things for Victoria's dark looks. "A bit bolder color for your lip-gloss and a touch brighter rouge and you'll be devastating. And I wish my legs looked half so good as yours do in the split hem. I can see now why you don't wear pantihose, girl. If you've got it, flaunt it."

"Actually, her teacher doesn't approve of such things," Brenda Franson said as she entered. "The total feminine experience is what she preaches and what she insists upon for her students, and they wouldn't have it any other way once they've gotten a taste for it. Isn't that right, Victoria?"

"Yes, Ms. Franson," Victoria said, looking at her reflection in the mirror over shoulder. "I do like the way the hosiery looks with this dress and I don't think high-fashion stockings come in a pantihose, do they?"

"No indeed. I must say that I agree with Sally's assessment of that dress, dear. Wear that to a cotillion and you won't be allowed to sit out a single dance. The boys simply wouldn't stand for it," Brenda assured her 'client' and saw an embarrassed flush color the girl's face. "Sally, go fetch that wrapper off the manikin in the front window, would you? I'd like to see how that looks with this dress."

"Be right back, Brenda," the girl smiled and hurried off on her task.

"Beautiful girl, isn't she?" Brenda asked off-handedly.

"Very," Victoria agreed, far more at-ease than the older woman had expected. "Love her suit, but the color is all wrong for me. You wouldn't have one in a shade more suited to a brunette than to a strawberry blonde, would you, Ms. Franson?" she asked wistfully.

"Uh. . n. .no, I'm sorry, we don't."

"Too bad."

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

"So, there were no problems today?"

"No, Jane," Brenda replied over the phone, "And I was rough with her, just as you asked. I even sprung my prettiest sales girl on her as a 'helper' including in the dressing room. Sally has no idea that it was a boy in there with her. However it came about, the change in Victoria's poise and deportment is amazing. Heavens, I almost forgot what I was dealing with in there. I mean, it was like she. . . I mean he was really a girl."

"So, no qualms about how she handled herself? No concerns about how things would be if Victoria were the big sister shepherding another student about?"

"None that I can see. Although I was surprised to see such a strange combination of clothing picked out."

"Oh, why is that?"

"One of the dresses was really stylish and flattering - downright sexy if you want to know the truth of it. I actually included it so that I could jerk her chain a bit, but I never expected her to select it. A real eye-catcher, and if Victoria didn't realize that fact, my sales girl Sally told her."

"Goodness, I've never had a boy do that before. You're sure she didn't think she HAD to buy something like that?"

"Don't think so, and even if she did think that, she could have chosen one of the more 'middle of the road' gowns' I set out for her, but she left all of those behind."

"I see. Wait, you said that it was the combination that was strange?"

"Well, yes. The other things she picked would have given YOU pause, even on a student's first trip to my shop. Lord, Jane, but the other dresses she picked were spun sugar too sweet to wear outside a Disney movie. Sally called them 'dress-up doll things'. What's going on with her?"

"I'm really not sure, Brenda. I told her to get what appealed to her."

"Well, I have to agree with Sally that the girl went a little overboard with the very formal frou-frou. Lots of white, lots of pastel colors - no primaries. Except for that red number, the rest of it makes her look young, no, that's not it. Prissy is more like it. I sort of figured that she was buying things she thought would please or at least not displease you."

Jane sighed. "I guess I should have expected her to be cautious. Anything else, Brenda?"

"No, Jane, except that you'll get the bill in a couple of days. Three "perfect-priss" dresses, the sexy red evening dress, all with shoes being dyed to match and some few carefully selected accessories for each outfit."

"I can hardly wait. Thanks again, Brenda."
 
 
Chapter 14: Season of Promotion
 
Before she had taken more than three steps, the phone rang again. For just a moment, Jane considered not answering it. *I DON'T want to talk to anyone else! I need to think this whole Victoria situation over and somehow make some sense of all this!* Unfortunately, the phone was not at all afraid of Jane Thompson and continued to ring. Sighing, Jane returned to her desk and reached for the phone. *Think nice thoughts, Jane Thompson. Besides, it might be Marie with news of Victoria. Or a multimillion dollar investment opportunity.* "Jane Thompson speaking."

"Oh, hi, Ruth. What's on your mind? . . . .No, I haven't made any firm plans for that one yet. My understanding was that he was stable and still in detox for a while longer so I had some time to reinforce Victoria's recent progress."

Jane listened for a few more moments and felt the blood leave her face. "Oh. . . my. . . god. He didn't. Is he all right?. . . .yes, yes, of course. You want to send him to me NOW? After THAT? But, Ruth, I already have a student, and she's at a very delicate stage right now. . . Oh, I see. This is very different, Ruth, from anything I've ever taken on before, and I'm not alone in this. Victoria isn't ready to go home, and while I was thinking she was just about ready to be a big sister, this situation is so far beyond anything I thought she'd have to deal with in that role. I'll have to think about this. What? All right. I'll give you my decision by tonight. Thanks, Ruth. Give my love to Kenneth, too. Bye."

This time, Jane reached her decanter, but at the last moment, didn't pour. *I need to think very hard and very clearly about this,* she mused, and then went to the kitchen to brew a pot of tea. *I hope Marie has some cookies in the cookie jar. I feel a sugar attack coming on.*

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

"You wanted to see me, Ms. Jane?" Victoria asked from the front parlor's door.

Jane looked up from the dossier she'd been rereading for what felt like the hundredth time in the past two hours, a grim expression on her face. "Yes, Victoria. Please come in and sit down. Would you like some tea and cookies? Marie tells me you made the shortbread this morning and they are excellent."

The girl glowed with pleasure at the off hand compliment and taking her seat, accepted the offered treat. "Thank you, Ms. Jane."

The older woman took a moment to regard her student. Victoria was dressed in a mint-green, knee-length linen frock that went well with her new hair color. Opaque hose, matching pumps and simple yet elegant jewelry completed the picture. *My, but she's got the essentials down now,* Jane thought, *She even has her hands on her lap and her ankles demurely crossed - she could be posing for a Town and Country layout - 'Debutante at the Brink'. Well, I guess that answers the question of whether she can handle the mechanics well enough.* "We have to talk, Victoria," Jane began. "I have some decisions before me - decisions that will directly affect you."

"Yes, Ms. Jane?"

"You've come a very long way in a very short time, Victoria," Jane told her quietly. "I wish I could wait a while longer before raising this issue, but circumstances force my hand."

"Are you going to send me away?" the girl asked, a slight quaver in her voice.

"No, nothing of the kind, dear," she was hastily reassured. "The key decision I have to make is whether you are ready and just as importantly, willing to take on the task I may have to lay before you."

That surprised Victoria. Up until now, her willingness had not been a consideration. Jane ordered, Victoria did as ordered. That was the way of the world at Seasons House. "I did give you my word to do as you ask to the best of my ability, Ms. Jane," the primly dressed teen said with quiet dignity. "I know I didn't always keep to the letter of that promise before, but I've been trying very hard ever since."

"I know that, Victoria, and I am very pleased with you of late. Under ordinary circumstances, you would be ready for the next stage of your training with me, but what I have been asked to do is anything but ordinary. You know that you are not the first boy upon whom I have . . . imposed this particular form of discipline, correct?"

Victoria blushed at that reminder of her true gender and looked away for a moment. *So, she still reacts to that. File that for future need.* The boy-girl returned her gaze to meet her teacher's and nodded. "You told me as much when you . . . when I agreed to . . . well, when I became Victoria."

"It's all right to say that I maneuvered you into being Victoria, child, because that is precisely what I did," Jane admitted with a candor that surprised her listener. "What you have to understand now that this discipline, this petticoat discipline as the Victorians called it, is what I have done with all of my students."

"ALL? As in, every student you've ever taught?"

"Well, since coming to Seasons House. With a great deal of success, I might add."

"You said that, too. Is this next phase of my training part of this?"

"Ever hear the phrase 'Each one, teach one'?" Jane asked. At her pupil's negative head shake, she elaborated. "You are relatively unique because you have been here as an 'only-student'. Normally, my program is based on having two students in residence here - a junior student undergoing initial training and indoctrination in the feminine arts while at the same time learning new coping mechanisms for whatever problems brought him to me. The fear of giving themselves away as boys dressed in girl's clothing forces my students to think before they react in some inappropriate or destructive manner."

"I'll say," Victoria could not help but mutter.

"Just so," Jane responded, a trace of a grin momentarily softening her stern school-mistress persona. "The other student is one who has been here for awhile, and who has assimilated those lessons in dress and deportment and who has developed those new coping mechanisms and behaviors."

"Dress and deportment?" Victoria asked suddenly.

"Ah, you caught that. Yes, the 'big sister' or senior student is also kept in skirts and continues to act the part of a girl. In fact, the 'little sister' or junior student must think the mentoring student really IS a girl. In many cases, the presence of another apparently feminine student in residence acts as a brake on the little sister's unacceptable behaviors while permitting the big sister to act as mentor and teacher in the feminine mysteries. For you, Marie tried to fulfill that function, although not as successfully as we might have hoped."

"I see," Victoria replied. "So, am I to become a big sister?"

There was something wistful in the girl's tone, almost as if she wanted the opportunity, Jane thought. *Probably wishful thinking.*

"That's what we must decide. Recall your own early experiences here, Victoria. I was very hard on you. Everything I did with you will happen to the new student. You will have to be willing to let me do those things without trying to help him get around me. You will have to help me set him up so that I can force him into the petticoats and frillies. And you'll have to inform on him, telling me what he thinks and what he says, even if that seems like tattling. What I do is take the student to the edge, psychologically-speaking, and I need to have absolute assurance that I know what is happening inside that child's head."

Victoria thought that over for a few moments without saying anything. She thought about how she felt about herself once she'd seen Victor for what he was, and how she felt after she'd helped Edith with the fund-raiser and clothing drive. How she'd felt after giving blood. *Worked for me, didn't it? Now, it's payback time.* "I will do those things, Ms. Jane." she assured the older woman.

"Before you agree, there's more," Jane warned.

"More?"

"The student I have been asked to take on has. . . well, special needs. He has a severe drug dependency and is currently in a detoxification program."

"So he won't be coming soon?"

"That's what I thought, but that has changed. The boy attempted suicide last night."

"SUICIDE?!? Why?!?"

Jane closed her eyes and tried to center herself. "He blames himself for the suicide of a classmate. He was part of a clique that teased this insecure girl, rather unmercifully from what I can gather. She took pills and died. Benjamin, that is his name, holds himself completely responsible. He started drinking to deal with that pain, then graduated to drugs. His parents put him into the center for treatment. Apparently, he couldn't handle the pain once the drug-induced haze wore off and tried to kill himself. So, if he comes here, your duties will include being part of a suicide-prevention watch."

"But what if I fail?" Victoria whispered. "What if he. . "

"That's what you have to tell me you can cope with. I have no intention of letting that child hurt himself further, but I am not all-powerful. He might slip our collective leash long enough to injure himself, or worse."

"That's. . . that's a pretty heavy load, Ms. Jane."

"I know, but the psychologist thinks my kind of shock treatment might help where the other things they've tried haven't."

"And if I don't think I can handle that?" Victoria asked.

"Then I will tell them I cannot take him on. You are my first priority, Victoria. Our bargain takes precedence."

"How long do I have to think about this?"

"Not very long, I'm afraid. I have to tell them my decision tonight, or they will have to make other arrangements. If you agree, he will be here before the end of the week. If not. . " Jane let that hang in the air.

"And even if he doesn't come here, he still might . . might hurt himself."

"Yes."

"This scares the hell. . I mean, this really frightens me, Ms. Jane," the young teen told her teacher. "You're sure this is the best thing to do?"

"The doctors think so, Victoria. I wish I knew, but I don't know the answer to your question."

"All right. I promise to do my best, but you'll have to tell me what to do. I don't know anything about stuff. . I mean, issues like this."

Jane nodded, and then reached across the tea table to take Victoria's hand in hers. "I don't either, truth to tell, so we'll just be very, very careful. All right?"

Nodding, the girl made to rise, but Jane held on to her hand, staying her. "I'm very proud of you, Victoria," Jane said softly. "It takes real courage to face the dark unknown. I'm very glad that you've found yours."

"Thank you, Ms. Jane," the girl-boy whispered, obviously on the verge of tears.

"Oh, and now that you are being promoted, you should start calling me 'Aunt Jane'," she ordered with a small smile. "It will strengthen your position with Benjamin if he thinks you're my niece, and besides, I like being called 'Aunt Jane'."

"Oh hel. . heavens," the teen blurted before pulling her hand free and fleeing the room.
 
 
Chapter 15: Advancement Exercises
 
The powerful automobile took the New England traffic circle without losing speed or with nary a shimmy. Jane wondered if there was anything psychologically significant about her decision to drive her new Audi A8 Quattro instead of her beloved Lincoln Town Car for this pick up. The power and handling of the German import certainly satisfied something deep inside the control freak she only admitted to herself. *And I will need all that and more with this one,* she thought ruefully.

"So this is out of the normal way of things for your program?" Victoria asked, interrupting Jane's uncomfortable bout of self-analysis. "All your other students come by train, like I did?"

"Yes. The long trip in a crowded train coach tends to make the student tired and irritable, both of which usually suit my purposes. Unfortunately, we couldn't allow this student even that much freedom. He had to be escorted and his parents could not afford the time to take the train all the way from his home in the Midwest. So, we're picking him up at the airport in Providence. Probably makes no difference since I cannot really go strongly on the offensive with him until I've got a handle on where his head is at psychologically."

"So why am I here?"

"You've never seen one of my big sisters work, but basically, you are to be the role model of exemplary good manners and breeding today which I will then use to find him significantly lacking in those graces."

Jane glanced at her ward's outfit and stifled a grin. If her hair had still been blonde, Victoria could have been costumed to play a slightly older Pollyanna in a remake of that Disney classic movie staring Halley Mills. *Only slightly older is right. And I thought Darla had the 'prim and proper Victorian miss' act down to a 'T'.* From her head to her toes, Victoria was rigged out in stark white. White dress, white hat, and white gloves with an abundance of lace, topping legs sheathed in white hose and last but not least, white, two-inch high-heeled pumps. She'd dressed her sable hair into an old fashioned pageboy, the dark tresses setting off her powder-pale face like a mahogany picture frame. *Heavens above, put a lace veil on that glorious mane and she'd look like a good little Italian girl dressed for her First Communion.*

"So I just stand around looking perfect, eh?"

Jane couldn't quite stifle the snort of laughter. "As close as you can manage, Victoria."

They had just merged with traffic on Interstate 95 when Jane uttered a mild epithet. "What?" Victoria asked, surprised by both the word and the emotion behind it.

"I forgot my gloves," Jane fumed.

"It's not that cold, Aunt Jane. And you'll be inside at the airport for the pickup anyway."

"Feminine armor, Victoria. A woman becomes more powerful when she is in tall heels and sleek black gloves. Something about a woman's hand swathed in skin-tight black leather sets off warning bells in the male psyche."

"I'll remember that for future reference," the younger woman said very seriously, "But that does not solve your problem."

Jane was already moving into the deceleration lane. "Well, we'll just have to make a quick stop at the mall so I can buy a pair. It will just take a minute and we have plenty of time."

"Mall?" Victoria asked, suddenly wary. "_That_ mall?"

"Hmmm?" Jane asked, distracted by the traffic pattern surrounding the mall. "Oh, that's right," she said, grinning. "You've been here before, haven't you?"

The look on the girl's face was all the answer Jane needed.

"Well, if you don't feel up to facing that place again, I won't force the issue. You can wait in the car if you'd prefer."

Out of the corner of her eye, Jane saw her student's back straighten and her chin jut out. *Gotcha, girl,* she thought with a hidden smile.

"A little stretch of the legs sounds very nice right now, Aunt Jane," the girl said almost casually.

Quietly approving, Jane allowed Victoria to lead the way into the mall. *Wonderful! At last she is facing up to the things she fears instead of hiding or worse, attacking the innocent. That is real progress.*

They went to a small, very pricy, leather-wear boutique off the main corridor. "I'll just be a minute, Victoria."

Victoria treated herself to a little window shopping, checking out the adjacent stores's displays while waiting for Jane. She was just about to turn back toward the leather goods store when she heard, "Listen, sissy-boy, give me your money or we're going to mess up those pretty looks of yours and take it anyway!"

A cold frisson of fear ran up her spine. Had she been caught out? Victoria spun on her heel only to see a group of young toughs cornering a much smaller boy in one of the mall's very narrow service corridors. Then she recognized the ring leader - it was the same boy who had cornered Victor only a few short days ago.

Fright warred with anger as she watched the scene unfolding before her. The leader struck out at the boy, knocking him to the floor with an open-hand slap, then signaled two of his accomplices to pull their victim back to his feet. With arrogant indifference, the lead punk backhanded the boy viciously. Only the support of the two gang members kept him from collapsing back to the floor. "Give me money, bitch," the leader hissed.

Victoria saw red. Not even realizing what she was doing, she pushed her way through the circle of milling males and planted herself between the now-bleeding boy and his tormentor.

Her tormentor.

"Leave him alone, you big bully!" she snarled.

"Get out of here, bitch, before I hurt you, too."

Too outraged to realize her own danger, Victoria took a step toward the leader instead of retreating, but she didn't say anything - couldn't say anything.

The leader now had to go through the girl to get to his prey. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out why she didn't seem to be afraid of him. She was only a girl - a prissy, fussy LITTLE girl. Hadn't she just seen him hurt that little pansy? Hadn't she just seen his power? "Last chance, bitch," he growled and tried to step around her only to have her cut him off again.

"Okay, you asked for it," he hissed, cocking his arm for another backhand, this one aimed at Victoria.

"DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!" a commanding voice cut through the tension of the moment. "Strike my niece and I will have you in jail so quickly it will make your head swim!"

Victoria turned to see Aunt Jane striding toward them, eyes flashing, lips set and pulling an incredible pair of gloves onto her hands like a knight donning gauntlets.

"YOU!" the leader snarled. "You're that damned truant officer. Well, we aren't cutting school right now, so you can go straight to hell, woman!"

"You two," Jane ordered pointing to the pair holding the injured boy. "Let him go, NOW!"

They did.

"Now, the rest of you have about twenty seconds to disappear before the security officers I have summoned arrive. If you wish to continue this. . .exchange, I am certain that they will be more than happy to escort you downtown to the police."

Just then, one of the boys shouted, "Oh shit, it's the cops!" and they all took off.

Victoria smiled her thanks to Jane and then turned to the boy. "Are you all right?"

"We'll take care of him, Miss," one of the grey-garbed security guards told her as he strode up. "Davis? Escort the boy to the clinic across the road and see that he gets home from there. Ma'am?" he continued turning to Jane. "Thanks for the call. Those punks have been getting away with murder lately because our surveillance gear has been down."

"So they'll get away with this?" Victoria insist on drawing herself to her full height. Jane saw there was fury sparkling in the girl's dark eyes.

"No, Miss, not this time. I said it 'has been down'. It's been up and running since noon. Everything, including ID-quality pictures of them, is on tape."

"Then why didn't you get here sooner?" she asked, still furious.

"Wrong time in the scan cycle. The guards on the monitors get a rolling scan of all our cameras. This lady's call got our attention sooner."

"I have an appointment to pick someone up at the airport, officer," Jane interposed. "Do you require anything further from me? A statement?"

One of the security officers turned to look at Victoria. "Miss, did he strike you? Harm you in any way?"

She shook her head. "No, sir. He was ready to, when Aunt Jane arrived, but he never touched me."

He studied her for a long moment, as if trying to decide whether there was more. Jane was pleased at how well Victoria stood up under his scrutiny. "Okay," he finally said, and then turned back to Jane. "And Ms., uh, Thompson, did you do anything other than call us? And talk to them of course, before we got here?"

"No. Your men arrived in the proverbial nick of time."

"Very well, then. With the surveillance tapes and the testimony of the boy who was struck, I don't think we'll need formal statements from you. I have your name and address, Ms. Thompson, and I can get back in touch with you if need be. Thank you for acting responsibly." The cop then turned a very stern eye on Victoria. "Except, young lady, if you feel the need to stand up to a bunch of hoodlums again, please let us be there to back you up *before* you read them the riot act, okay? I mean, it certainly took a lot of ba . . bravery to stand up to those punks, but you could have gotten badly hurt doing something like that."

"Yes, sir," she said, eyes down and cheeks blushing.

"Thank you again for arriving so promptly, officer, but we must hurry off," Jane said with a gracious smile. "Victoria? Come along. We'll be late."

Once outside, Jane rounded on her student. "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING IN THERE?!?!"

Victoria sighed and shamefacedly stared at the toes of her shoes. "I wasn't thinking," she finally admitted. "When they kept hurting him, I just reacted - did the only thing I could."

"By shielding him with your own body? I don't know if that's bravery, bravado or stupidity!"

"Stupidity, probably, Aunt Jane," the girl said solemnly. "I just couldn't think of anything else to do. It never would have occurred to me to call security."

Jane considered that for a moment. "So you just counted on what?"

"I figured if he hit a girl, particularly a small girl, he'd lose face with his gang and that he knew that."

Finally, Jane nodded. It was not the solution she would have preferred, but it did show that her student had come even further than she had thought from the bully who had first entered her tuition those long months ago. "Next time, you'll think of calling security first. Now come along. We must hurry or we really WILL be late."
 
 
Chapter 16: A Time to Sow
 
"Aunt Jane?" Victoria said, just a little breathlessly. "I think we should check our faces if we have the time. If I look like I feel, my mascara probably looks like a Louisiana bayou chart. I don't think I have that 'ladies glow, they don't sweat' thing down pat just yet."

"We did walk rather briskly getting up here from the parking lot, didn't we?" Jane responded. "Well, your make up is fine, but perhaps a stroke or two of the hairbrush wouldn't go amiss for either of us. Ah, the lady's lounge is right over there."

It was only after they were side by side in the restroom, fixing their hair and repairing non-existent cosmetic faults that recognition hit Jane. Victoria hadn't so much as flinched at walking into the lady's room. Nor had she gawked at anything or anyone while they were in there. The girl had simply gone about her business as if strolling into a women's public restroom were something she did every day.

*Good Heavens! Is she THAT comfortable with the feminine role? Even Michael and Darryl balked at entering the lady's convenience those first few times in public, and Victoria just nonchalantly takes it in her stride. Oh, my.*

Jane was still mulling that over in her mind when they reached the now-secured waiting area where they would meet her new student. She was glad that the FAA had resumed limited flights in and out of T. F. Green Airport. The new boy's parents had wanted, since they had been forced to accompany him on the trip because of the suicide risk, to take him to Logan International in Boston, or perhaps Bradley International in Hartford, but Jane had vetoed both. She wanted this boy safely under surveillance at Seasons House as quickly as that could be arranged and a two-plus hour drive combined with the larger crowds of the bigger airports just increased the already too great a risk this boy posed to himself.

*Besides,* Jane admitted privately, *I'm still just a little annoyed that they couldn't find the time to escort their son by train. What is the priority here?*

A gentle tug on her sleeve broke through Jane's reveries. Turning in the direction Victoria indicated, she saw a group of people enter the waiting area from the direction of the concourse. She began to wonder if her student has missed the flight when three people arrived - a tall, ungainly boy, his arm firmly gripped by a rather grim-looking woman, her face lined with fatigue. They were followed by a tall, wan-looking man, his eyes fixed on the younger man in front of him. *Clearly, the trip has been difficult for them,* Jane realized. *Perhaps the train wasn't such a good idea after all, if they are that drained from their time getting here by plane.*

She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. *God, don't let this be a mistake. Help me to help this poor child find worth in himself again.* "Ready, Victoria?" The girl nodded solemnly. "Remember to speak only when I invite you to speak. Other than that, just keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut."

Jane marched up to the trio, her carriage regal, her head held high. "Mr. and Mrs. McQueen?" she asked. At their weary nods, she inclined her head in greeting. "I am Jane Thompson. Welcome to Providence." She then turned 'the eye' on the tall slender young person, still firmly in the grip of his Mother. *It will be a challenge to get this one to pass,* Jane thought with some resignation. *Even without heels, the she he'll be will draw a good deal of attention. Six foot tall women do tend to stand out in a crowd.* "And you are Benjamin? Benjamin McQueen?"

Eyes dulled with an emotion that tugged at Jane's hidden soft heart momentarily looked up and then returned to the floor. "Yes, ma'am," was the almost inaudible reply.

"Benjamin, I am Ms. Jane Thompson. You may call me 'Ms. Thompson' or if you prefer, 'Ms. Jane'. You will be staying at my house, and attending my school."

Not waiting for a reply, Jane turned to the young girl at her side. "Victoria, this is Mr. and Mrs. McQueen and their son, Mr. Benjamin McQueen. Benjamin, this is Victoria Denato, my niece."

Victoria bobbed a smiling little curtsy to the two adults "Hello, Mr. McQueen, Mrs. McQueen. It is indeed my pleasure to make your acquaintance," before turning to smile shyly at the new student. "Hello, Benjamin."

"Um, Benny will do, if that's okay with you," Benny interjected softly.

*Now what brought that on?* Jane wondered. *How many of my boys willingly called themselves ANYTHING that ended in a 'y' when they arrived here? Well, it was the first thing he's asked for and it won't hurt to give in here. Might simplify getting him to the house. "Very well, as you wish." Jane turned to the two adults. "And what are your plans? I would like to get Benja. . I mean, Benny settled in."

Mr. McQueen shrugged and Jane thought she saw him reel momentarily. "Not much we can do, right now, Ms. Thompson. There's no chance of even trying to get home before tomorrow afternoon. The national flight schedule is still a mess after the Trade Center disaster - planes in the wrong cities, extra stringent security. And we, ah, left the moment we could get reservations and unfortunately, they were one-way. About the only thing we have going for us is that we didn't have time to pack, other than what we brought for our son."

"I see," Jane murmured.

The elder McQueen tried to smile and didn't quite succeed. "I just hope we can find a room until we can get a flight back home. All of the nearby motels were listed as being full-up when I tried to make reservations from home. It'll be a long night here at the airport if we can't find a place."

*They're exhausted on every level, and yet, I can't afford to have them at Seasons House. Knowing what I plan for their son and seeing it happen are two very different things. The next two days. . .heavens, the next few hours will be especially critical for this one. I can't take the chance that Mom or Dad might interfere! I know.*

Reaching into her purse, Jane withdrew a credit card which she handed to Victoria. "Go to the Courtesy Counter and make arrangements for Mr. and Mrs. McQueen to stay at the Roger Williams Hotel. If they give you any trouble, ask for the managing director and use my name - he owes me several favors. Use that card to pay for the rooms. The hotel is in downtown Providence so have them send the courtesy limousine here to meet the McQueens. Inform the concierge that I want them provided with a change of clothing, also at my expense, please."

"That's not necessary," Mr. McQueen protested, only to stop short when he saw the near longing look on his wife's face. "We'll be even more in your debt, Ms. Thompson. Thank you."

"You're more than welcome," she told him before turning back to her student. "After you've set up the hotel accommodations, go find a Redcap and have him collect Benny's suitcases at the baggage stand. Escort him and the luggage to my car. Use this," and Jane handed over a small wad of bills, "for the tip. We will be in the coffee shop when you're done."

"Yes, Aunt Jane."

"Now, you three look like you could do with a sandwich and something to drink. I feel just a tad peckish myself, so if you would care to join me for a bit of lunch?

Only after they were half way back to Seasons House, Benny riding in the front seat beside Jane and Victoria watching him like a hawk from the back seat, did Jane realize what she had done. She had put her American Express Gold Card in Victoria's hands, which was the same as giving the girl a free ticket anywhere in the world, and nothing had happened. *Nothing except what you ordered her to see done,* she amended thoughtfully.
 
 
Chapter 17: Welcome to Seasons House
 
Benny McQueen prowled the strangely decorated room, dressed only in his day-old skivvy-shorts. He'd intended to make this inspection following dinner the previous night, but he'd crashed instead. His body still hadn't recovered fully from the trauma caused by the drugs and his subsequent detox at the rehab center. As a result, he tired easily and very suddenly - one minute he'd be awake and at least fairly alert, the next he'd be out cold. If not for the damned dreams, that wouldn't be such a bad thing, but sleep brought him entirely too close to Janey.

That was why he was awake now, before the late fall sun was even a false glow in the eastern skies. Janey wouldn't let him stay asleep a moment longer. That was one of her more successful reprisals. Feeling guilty was bad enough; feeling guilty and dog-ass tired was pure hell.

*Sure is a strange room,* he thought trying to ignore both the guilt and the fatigue. The room's peculiarity owed to more than just the pink satin and white lace he saw throughout. First, it was odd for what wasn't there. There were none of the usual oddments of civilized life - no bottles, no combs, no books, no knickknacks - nothing of what he'd expect to find in a room that was obviously intended to house one of that woman's girl students. On careful inspection, there didn't seem to be anything light enough that he could raise it above his head, either. Second, it was odd for what was there - such as wire-mesh reinforced window glass and heavy vinyl cushions lining the rim of the bathtub. Finally, except for the large, wooden storage closet, *Is that what they call an armoire?*, every single door, window or drawer was locked against him. That included the door that opened onto the main corridor.

The freaking room was a very plush, very luxurious combination of jail cell and rubber room.

*Well, they got that right, anyway. I ought to be in either one of those if not both,* he thought with a sigh of resignation. *Whoever set this place up knew what they were doing, though. Offhand, I can't see a single thing I could use as a weapon, unless I count that big pillow on the bed, which I don't. I don't think death by self-smothering has much potential. Even if I could hold that thing to my face hard enough to cut off my air, I'd just pass out before I could finish the job. Wonder if this place does a lot of business with suicidal maniacs? Not how I'd want to earn my living, that's for sure.*

Giving up on the search for a suitable weapon of self-destruction, Benny turned toward the armoire. *Don't know what is planned for today, but I'd prefer to face whatever that is dressed in something other than my shorts.*

A quick check of the large antique's interior surprised him. *Where are my clothes? Did they mess up and put me in the wrong room? Or maybe, this is their only jail cell/rubber room, and they didn't have time to move this stuff out of here before moving me in. But where are my things?" he asked himself again as he idly ran a hand up and down the skirt of a brightly colored, silky robe that hung on the inside of one heavy door.

The sound of a key turning in the main door lock preceded the unannounced entry of the woman into his room. For only a moment, anger at this invasion of his personal space cut through his malaise and he locked eyes with her, but it was only for a moment. Then he broke eye contact, and stared at the floor between them.

"We need to talk about what is to become of you, young Benjamin," the woman said firmly.

"Benny," he replied. "I asked you to call me Benny."

Since his head was still bowed, he didn't see the lines that momentarily furrowed the smooth forehead, but rather only heard, "So you did, *Benny*. My apologies, but I would have thought a young man of your inches and maturity would have preferred a more. . . adult form of address. In any case, please come with me so that we can decide what is to become of you."

*Like I get any choice,* he thought. *Not that I deserve any.* "My clothes," he replied instead. "They were evidently sent to the wrong room. All I have to wear are these shorts."

"Were they?" she asked. "Ah, so they were. Well, that robe will do for the moment until we can make appropriate arrangements for you."

"That's a girl's robe," he observed, but without any emotion Jane could detect.

"Obviously," the tall, auburn-haired woman replied dryly. "However, it will serve to cover you for the nonce. Now, please put it on and follow me to my office. We have much to discuss and many decisions to make before breakfast."

Benny thought about that for a few moments, then shrugged into the silky confection and trudged toward the door.

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

Benny McQueen stood before Jane's desk like so many before him. *I won't be able to buy anything off the rack for this one,* she thought, making a mental note. *I knew he was tall, and had Marie stock the armoire accordingly, but even so, that robe is about five inches too short on him. Obtaining custom-made clothing will surely delay our first public outings. Looks like it is short skirts and loose sweaters for the rapid change exercises. Well, I'm not sure just how hard I dare push this one just now in any case. Perhaps taking things a little slower is the better strategy in any case. And I am very much afraid that Benny will not make a particularly attractive girl, although with the right clothes and makeup, he could be, I don't know, striking? How about quietly dignified, Jane? We'll just have to see what Marie, Caro and Sandy can make of him.*

"Please stand straight, Benny," Jane quietly ordered. "Hunching over like that is unattractive and bad for your spinal column. Good posture is essential for good health and good deportment."

For a moment, Jane wondered if the boy would balk. Thus far, he'd taken everything she'd thrown at him without comment and without changing that awful look in his eyes. Then, he slowly unfolded his body and drew himself erect, but still he kept his eyes lowered. "Why are you here, Benny?" she asked firmly.

Clearly, he had not expected that question and it surprised him. When he didn't immediately respond, Jane asked again, more insistently. "I guess, well, because of the drugs, and the. . the . . ." his voice failed.

"The attempted suicide?" Jane asked, striving to keep any tone or inflection from her voice. He nodded. "I see. The rehabilitation clinic reports that your body is clean of the drugs - was clean, in fact, at the point when you attempted to kill yourself. What should I infer from that?"

"Huh? I. . . I don't know what you mean."

"Oh, I believe you do. As soon as you no longer had the drugs to numb you, you attempted to kill yourself. Now, why did your parents send you to me?"

The satin-swathed shoulders shrugged again. "I guess they think you can help me."

"And if I interpret your body language correctly, you obviously don't agree."

"The only way you can help me is to let me die."

"Very melodramatic, young man, and not very convincing. You had many opportunities to kill yourself on your way here and you elected not to make the attempt. Walking on airport runways, going through checkpoints with armed guards who are on edge already. Diving off the airplane gangway to the concrete below. I will concede that those may not have worked, but you might have gotten lucky. Why didn't you so much as try, eh?"

For just an instant, anger flashed in the boy's eyes. "Because my mom had a death-grip on me from the moment we left my hospital room. Anything I might have tried would have endangered her and I couldn't do that!"

"Why not?"

"Because I love her!" and there was a world of pain in that admission.

Jane nodded. "And your father?" The shoulders hunched again, and began to shake with the sobs Benny could no longer hold inside. His head shook up and down in an exaggerated affirmative. "They sent you to me so that I could help you. If I fail, and you do . . . injure yourself here, it will hurt them - quite badly in fact - because they love you, too."

"My decisions have nothing to do with them. . . or you!"

"That is where you are wrong, Benny. I don't know them well enough to say this for certain, but I sincerely believe that if I fail and you do manage to injure yourself or worse, then they will see that as their failure and something deep inside them will die, too. Do they deserve that fate? Do you want them to suffer like that?"

"No."

*thank GOD!* Jane let that negative stand in the growing silence for several long moments before speaking again. "You don't like yourself very much, do you, Benny?"

Something that might have been a laugh rasped from the boy's throat. "Saw that, did you? I hate myself, Ms. Thompson."

"Because of the girl? Janey?"

"Isn't that enough?!"

*You are not ready to listen to that argument, young man,* Jane thought. "As you will," she replied almost casually. "But perhaps you are too close to Benny to be able to judge that fairly."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"I propose that we, for a time, at least, kill Benjamin McQueen."

"Huh? For a time? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Simply, that you cease to be Benjamin McQueen and instead, live a life of my choosing so that you can take a more objective view of Benjamin, as an outside observer."

"You have some magic wand or medallion that is going to make that possible?" the teen asked sarcastically.

"Not quite," Jane said, purposely ignoring his tone. "And at the same time, I want you to learn some things about the young lady who died, some things that you, as Benny, have not had the need or perhaps more correctly, the opportunity to learn."

"I have no idea what you are talking about."

"You agreed to come here, Benny. Agreed to try whatever I proposed. Is that not correct?"

"My mom. . .my mom cried," he whispered. "I hate it when my mom cries, and it's worse. . .worse when I. . I. . " he broke down again.

"When you cause the tears?" Jane asked, ruthlessly. At the affirmative nod, Jane continued. "Very well. Here is what you will have to do to keep your word to your Mother." That got his full attention and for the first time, his eyes met and locked with Jane's. "You will give me your word to follow the program I lay out for you. At the same time, you will promise not to harm anyone in this house, including yourself, for the entire time you are in my home."

"That is awfully open-ended."

"And your promise to your Mother wasn't?" Jane challenged.

"How long?"

"Did you place any time limits on your promise to your Mother?" Benny looked away, but then shook his head no. "I thought not, but I am not your Mother. Very well. You will give me your word for a period of not less than six months and not more than twelve months. If I cannot help you to my satisfaction in that time, I will send you back, and will do so in any case at the end of one year." *God help me help him, please!*

He was silent for what seemed like a very long time, but was in reality only a few heartbeats. When he finally spoke, all he said was, "I give you my word."

"Very well. Now, if you will go back to your room, my maid, Marie, and my niece, Victoria are waiting to change you into someone else."

"Your . . . your maid? And your niece? But they're both girls. . .I mean, women? They're going to change me?"

The 'Jane Thompson' grin threatened but was held in check. "Why yes. I did say you'd learn some things about Janey that you had not had the opportunity to learn before, did I not? For the foreseeable future, Benny, you will become and live as Penny in this house. Unless your word to me and to your Mother has no value, that is."

"PENNY?!?!"
 
 
Chapter 18: What Do You Do with a Problem Like Victoria?
 
"Can you explain her behavior, Marie? One minute she's helping you in the kitchen, without being ordered to do so, I might add, and the next, she is watching over her little sister like a broody hen."

"Jane, you're the one with the psychology degree. All I know is that child is working as hard or harder than any student I can recall, except perhaps Darla. It's like she is really trying to learn to be a girl, not just learn to act like a girl."

"But every time you turn around she is a DIFFERENT girl, Marie. I have NO idea what she'll do next. For example, when she got here she was terrified by just the thought of riding. Now? She's facing her fear of the horses like some Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farms clone."

"Fear?" Marie choked out a laugh. "Janey, you don't know the HALF of that one. That girl has fallen in LOVE with those four-legged manure-makers. When she's not watching Penny, reading the fashion magazines and newspapers for your next mealtime quiz, studying her school lessons or keeping house, she's down at the stables subverting your livestock."

"It was a good deal easier to deal with her when she wasn't quite so brave. Have you seen those hideous polyester stirrup pants she wears when she is going to see the horses?"

Now Marie did laugh, a big, bold laugh totally at odds with her usual role in Seasons House. "Seen them? Jane, I *gave* them to her. She'd tried going down there in skirts, but that didn't work. She laddered three sets of hosiery, including a pair of silk stockings before going bare-legged. Then the straw and hay made her break out into a rash. She came to me because she figured that you might really have a fit if she ruined a pair of those Armani slacks mucking about down there because she doesn't have any jeans!"

"Armani to muck out a horse stall. Lord above," Jane sighed, shaking her head. "Well, if she stays, we'll buy her some jeans. IF she stays.

"Is that really a possibility?" Marie asked, once again serious.

"We've never had a child react like this, Marie. On the one hand, I'm rather proud of her for standing up to the things she fears, but on the other hand, her sudden unpredictability poses a very real and dangerous threat just now."

"Danger? Aren't you overstating the situation? I mean, we both think she's made the big turnaround, so where's the problem?"

"Penny is the problem, Marie, or at least, the root cause of the problem," Jane said simply. "Our new student is TRULY unpredictable because none of the old rules apply to her. Why should she worry about being exposed publicly as a boy masquerading as a girl? She's already decided to kill herself once, and still isn't sure she shouldn't try it again. I can't trust my past experiences to foretell how she will react to my lessons. I have to able to give Penny my full attention at all times so I MUST know how Victoria is going to react and behave for the simple reason that I have no idea how Penny will."

"Then I think you need to explain to Victoria, very carefully and very precisely, just what you are doing and what you expect of her each time. I mean, it is not like you dare to play this one by ear, is it?"

Jane shook her head sadly. "That's just it, dear. Even if I plan everything, I HAVE to wing it with Penny because I am always guessing with her. Suppose a situation with Penny gets. . .well, violent and it very well could unexpectedly. If I anticipate Victoria acting like the prissy-missy and instead get the tough as nails warrior queen from the mall, things could go from worse to terrible very quickly."

"I see," Marie said. "So what do you propose to do? Graduate her?"

"It might be the best thing," Jane sighed, rubbing her knuckles against her temples. "For Penny, at least. Unfortunately, I told Victoria all about the 'big sister' function and she is now determined to be a great big sister."

"You're afraid Victoria might feel she'd failed you and Penny if you sent her away just now?"

"There is that," Jane agreed. "And if I could just trust her reactions, three pairs of eyes to watch Penny is certainly better than two pairs. I only wish I had more information on which to base my decision."

"Maybe if you got the whole group together? Laid out the issues and got their collective insights? They might be able to help you piece it together better."

"I've talked to them individually already."

"But they haven't discussed it among themselves," Marie replied. "Aren't you the one who told me that sometimes it is the interaction that is important, not the dialogue?"

"It is a thought," Jane murmured.

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

"Well, I don't know why you think there is anything special about Victoria, Jane" Sandy grinned as she reached for another cheese cube. "She reacts to me the same as your other girls do. She tries to sink into the salon chair and hide."

"That's true enough," Carolyn Beale agreed, as she nibbled a sweetly frosted cookie. "Even after all these months, Victoria still gets very quiet and demure once she walks into Sandy's cubicle.

"And that's all?" Jane asked, "Nothing unexpected?"

"Not that I can tell," Sandy shrugged.

"Well, there was the make-up club. . . " Caro reflected.

"Yes?" Jane pounced.

"Now that I think about it, that was really unexpected. You know how the boys usually are when the girls are all there? Like Sandy said, they sort of try to melt into the woodwork only we won't let them. Not that they're at any risk so long as they do as they're told. As the model, the girls aren't seeing them so much as analyzing them, so they're actually safer than if they were part of the class group. Still, getting them to interact at all during those sessions is always like pulling teeth without novocaine. Painful and difficult."

"And Victoria was different?"

"She sort of, I don't know, grew into it. In the beginning, she was stiff as a board and just as responsive, but then she began to loosen up. I just thought she was getting used to the game, kind of like Darla, you know? Anyway, before the end of the session, she was chattering like magpie with the other girls."

"She whaaat?" Jane goggled.

"It was rather surprising because I never knew she acted like that. I mean, she really was kind of , well, kind of a ditz. You know, like one of those teenage sitcom actresses or one of those teen pop artists. Everything gesture and speech pattern really exaggerated," Caro demonstrated by swinging her hand about in broad, sweeping gesticulations, and then giggled. "Lord, that was funny, because some of girls were really put off by that act. Oh, and some of the things she said," Caro shook her head at the memories. "I particularly remember that one of the girls asked why she didn't have pierced ears. She said that she was waiting until she could talk you into letting her pierce her navel at the same time. I believe her exact words were 'My aunt would have a cow. . .'. I was going to offer to do the dirty deed for her during our next session - you know, as a class demonstration - but Marie showed up to whisk her away before I could say anything."

"Over my dead body!" Jane snapped before she could stop herself. "Pierced navel, indeed. What is it with these young people today. Anything else? Brenda?"

The sleek shop keeper frowned as she stirred her tea. "Nothing I haven't already discussed with you, Jane. You saw the dresses she chose when she was on her own. Sweet Polly Purebread and the 'Lady in Red'. Nothing in between. Pure Priss and Pure Sex."

"Did you notice anything out of the ordinary about the way she interacted with the shop girl you sprung on her?"

"Sally? What do you mean?"

"Like what Caro just said about how she behaved with the girls in the makeup class?"

"Oh, I understand. Now that you mention it, Victoria seemed rather comfortable with Sally, or at least, as comfortable as any girl can be when she's stripping and dressing while a stranger watches. I didn't have to prod her once to get a move on. It was almost like. . . well, like she was your basic teenaged girl enjoying the experience of trying on all those clothes and seeing what she looked like wearing them."

"Oh god," Jane groaned as Marie reached over to take her friend's hand. "Another Caitlyn?"

"You think she wants to be a girl? A real girl?" Carolyn asked.

"I don't know. What you've all just confirmed is that she's trying out personalities that are inherently feminine, but not necessarily the one I've tried to teach her. Part of the very fussy clothing and over-the-top girlish affectations is that those behaviors tend to isolate the student, even among girls her own age. I don't want my students learning to like the masquerade too much."

"Well, does she behave like your other students here at the mansion, or does she seem to emulate someone else?" Brenda Franson asked.

"Marie." "Jane." the two women of Seasons House said in unison, each pointing at the other.

"Oh, my goodness," Carolyn said wide-eyed as she selected a cookie from the plate Marie offered. "Both of you?"

"She doesn't emulate me," Jane snorted. "When she's not being 'the perfect Victorian Seasons House student', she's Mother Marie in miniature. You should see Victoria when she's trying to help Penny. I can tell you, watching her try to mother a student who has more than six inches height advantage on her is something to see. Sometimes, I swear, Victoria wants to diaper Penny, stick a pacifier in her mouth and rock her to sleep. Like me, indeed."

"Hah!" Marie shot back. "You don't see her as I do, then."

"Oh really? And who baked those lady-fingers this lot is so greedily scarfing down? From scratch, by the way, and we both know that baking is not among MY great accomplishments."

"As if you'd let any of our girls escape without learning how to cook, bake and properly present food. As to the other, why, just yesterday, during the dress up exercises following the 30 minute bubble bath from hell? In walks MISS, emphasis if you please on the *MISS*, Victoria, in a navy blue power suit no less, complete with three inch matching heels and that dark lion's mane of hers up in a killer chignon. And you should have seen the way Victoria ripped a piece off Penny when our new little sister blurted out a bad word. All without using a single profanity herself, I might add, and in such a 'more in sorrow than in anger' mode that even Penny felt she must do better, rather than becoming even more depressed. I wish I could have taped that lecture."

"Jane to a 'T', eh," Caro asked, grinning.

"Exactly," Marie replied fervently. "PERFECT diction, POINTED critiques - heavens, Jane, she even had your vocal inflections down perfectly. And let me tell you, she got Penny's attention when I couldn't."

"It sounds," Jane said finally, "as if she is trying very hard to behave like whatever girl best suits the situation. Almost as if she were practicing."

Brenda nodded. "Or trying them all on in turn and seeing how they fit?" At Jane's dark glare, Brenda took another sip from her tea cup before continuing. "But back to what Carolyn asked. Does that mean you think she wants to be a girl?"

"Harmph," Sandy snorted. "Well, if that kid is planning on being a girl, she'll be a lot different in one key respect than Caitlyn, I can tell you that much!"

"How so?" Jane asked, almost hopefully.

"THIS kid likes females - a LOT! You know that Taylor girl, Caro, the blonde who's, ah, developed so suddenly in the last year?" Sandy's partner nodded. "Well, just last week I had old Vickie-babe in my chair and Miss Whole Milk 2002 went bouncing past my cubicle on her way to the tanning booth, wearing her very-brief bikini. I thought I was going to have to pour some ice water on to Victoria's lap. I'll tell you what, if Victoria is going to be a full time girl, she's going to be a lesbian."

"Will she indeed?" Jane asked, more than a touch of frost in her tones.

Sandy blushed, but continued. "Look, Jane, she doesn't act like Caitlyn, at least not THAT way, okay? I never got a single rise out of Caitie - not once in all the times I had her in my chair, and THAT makes her damned unique in my experience. Now, Victoria, well, she still, umm, gets horn. . ., I mean, well, aroused!"

"The sheets, Jane," Marie said softly. At Jane's cocked brow, the petite French Canadian blushed too, but held her gaze. "I still have to change Victoria's sheets quite regularly." She swallowed delicately. "Spotting. Her nightgowns, too."

The other three women figured out what Marie was hinting at and began to laugh. "Such involuntary emissions are usually," Jane said haughtily, "very reliable indicators that a boy has become comfortable in the feminine role and is therefore ready for my more demanding and public training situations."

"You mean he's no longer so terrified that he can't get a hard-on from all that satin rubbing up against him, right?" Sandy grinned.

Jane's scathing look did nothing to quell the irrepressible bottle-blonde stylist, so she simply nodded. "Just so. However, I still don't know what is going on in that child's mind. I can't have her changing personalities on me like this. One minute she's Pollyanna, the next Britney Spears, and the next who knows?"

"Is she still dangerous?" Carolyn asked. "Victor was originally sent here because he beat up smaller children, right?"

The Mistress of Seasons House considered that and then shook her head. "I don't believe Victoria is still a public danger. The way she walked into that confrontation at the mall the other day proves that. In the very unlikely event that the old Victor would have involved himself, he would have gone in swinging, and hit those punks from behind. Victoria, on the other hand, just marched into the middle of those hooligans and tried to stare them down."

"Gee," Sandy said, her merrily twinkling eyes locked on Jane. "Wonder where she got the idea for THAT strategy?"

"*I*," Jane said with great self-assurance, "am somewhat more imposing than a five foot three inch tall teenaged girl in a First Communion dress. She nearly got herself hurt!"

"But she saved the boy," Marie pointed out gently. "And as you just pointed out, dear, that is not something *he* would have done a few months ago. I think, Jane, that if you are still worried about her predictability as big sister, we can safely send her home so that you can fully concentrate on Penny. She's changed and it is all to the good."

"And if she goes home and decides to become a girl?"

"Then perhaps, dear friend," Marie told her friend, "that is what was really wrong with her all along. Maybe being a girl is what she found here that was missing in Victor."

"At least the kid has grown a pair of balls," Sandy noted as she reached for and took the last two cheese cubes from the tray. "Or whatever it is girls grow for courage. Took guts to do what she did in that mall."

"Yes, that's true. The cowardice that led to Victor's bullying does seem to have come under Victoria's firm control. Ever since she insisted on donating blood. Well, ladies, thank you for coming. Please excuse me. I have to go relieve Victoria on the Penny-watch."

The four women sat quietly until Jane had left the room. "She's really upset about this," Brenda observed.

"She's afraid that she's made some kind of error in Victoria's program; an error that has led Victor to only THINK he wants to be a girl," Marie said.

"He doesn't seem at all like Caitlyn," Carolyn reflected. "A little more 'rough and ready' than Carlton, if you know what I mean."

"Boy or girl," Sandy put in, "I like this Victoria a lot more than I liked that snot Victor."

"I think, Sandy, that is part of what is bothering Jane," Marie observed softly. "She likes Victoria, too, and is afraid that is clouding her judgement in this case. She's afraid that her preference for the girl is influencing the boy."

"Oh."
 
 
Chapter 19: A Big Sister's Big Sister
 
Victoria slipped out of her room and into the hallway. Jane had the 'Penny-watch' for the next few hours and they'd be working on grace and movement again today. By all accounts, poor Mr. Webster was getting as bad a bruising with Penny as Seasons House had ever seen.

"Has yet to make two complete circuits of the library without the book sliding off Penny's head," the older woman had muttered when she'd come to the music room to relieve Victoria.

*It's strange, but Jane almost never uses feminine pronouns with this one. Oh, she calls her student by that girl name, Penny, and sometimes 'that girl', but almost never just 'she' or 'her'. I don't remember much from Victor's first few days in Ms. Thompson's silk-gloved, iron-clutches, but I do remember her gleeful use of all those really girly pronouns and adjectives for me whenever she got the slightest chance. Come to think of it, she doesn't say very much to Penny at all.*

The suicide watch was real - Victoria knew that - and damned scary when she let herself think about it. More than just about anything, she wanted to be anywhere else but in Seasons House watching Penny when it was her turn to take that onerous duty, but she wasn't about to admit that. She had responsibilities now. She was the big sister. That was important and Victor Denato had never really felt important before.

Still, the whole idea of suicide really bothered the be-skirted youngster. Sure, Victor had talked about 'killing himself' in those awful early days, had even fantasized about how his death would screw up Jane Thompson's nasty little setup when the cops and all the reporters arrived, but that had only been just that - talk and fantasy. *What had Marie said? Only cowards took that way out of their troubles? Wonder what Penny fears so much that she'd really do that? I mean, not even Victor took that route, did he?*

That thought surprised Victoria for she had gotten used to thinking of her masculine alter ego as the coward she now refused to be herself. *And yet, old Victor had hung in there through the dark times - through all the hair changes, outfit changes, makeup lessons and high-heeled strolls with Mr. Webster. Not to mention the blistering, soul-shriveling reprimands by one Jane Thompson. He had been a pig about almost everything Jane tried to teach him, but he'd hung in there and hadn't taken the easy way out. He'd fought, and he'd eventually lost, but he hadn't just quit. Maybe that meant old Victor wasn't quite the utter coward she'd thought.

Still mulling that revelation and its implications over, the girl headed down the stairs. Lunch would probably be late again as it had been the past three days since Penny's arrival, but Victoria was hungry. *Well, if my nose is any indication, Marie was making her world-class lemon-bars earlier this morning and the cookie jar should be ready for slaughter! After that, I'll take an apple or two down to the stables. Won't have time to stay, but it'll be nice to get away from this for a while.*

Marie was off doing the weekly shopping, so the kitchen was deserted when the girl peeked around the door. Her quest, however, was successful for the cookie jar had indeed been fattened that morning. Victoria was soon seated on one of Marie's kitchen stools, a glass of milk and a plate of cookies close to hand. Her eyes closed in something akin to sensual ecstacy as she took the first bite. *The woman is a GODDESS!* she thought as she chewed the delicate morsel, letting the smooth, tart-sweetness of the lemon custard fill her senses.

She was just reaching for her second cookie when the doorbell rang. "Now who could that be?" she wondered, and then realized that there was no one else to answer the door. With a wistful sigh, she blotted her mouth with a napkin, checked for crumbs and left the kitchen, promising herself she'd come back and clean up after she'd dealt with their unexpected visitor. She did remember to check her face in the hall mirror and was pleased to notice she hadn't chewed off her lipstick eating the cookie.

Reaching the door, she asked herself *Who answers? Young Lady of the Manor or the junior housekeeper?* and suppressed a giggle. She opened the still chained door and peaked out. Standing there was a man wearing the winter green dress uniform of the United States Marine Corps. Twin silver 'railroad tracks' decorated the epaulets of his dark green tunic and the collar points of his khaki shirt.

"May I help you?" Victoria asked politely, and then she realized who this had to be. "YOU'RE JANE'S STUDENT!" she squealed before slamming the door so she undo the chain allowing her to fling the heavy door wide open.

"Captain William Decker, at your service, Ma'am," he said in a surprisingly soft Southern-accented voice. "Is Aunt Jane to home?"

"Come in, come in," Victoria gushed, all but pulling the now-grinning man into the foyer. "JANE!! MS. JANE!! COME QUICK!!" she shouted up the stairs, her hand still gripping the Captain's arm.

"VICTORIA!" Jane snapped as she ran to the head of the stairs. "I'm busy with. . . Omigod. . . WIL . . LIAM!" she shouted as she tore down the stairs in very un-Jane-like haste.

"I'll go watch Penny, Ms. Jane," Victoria said, remembering what her teacher had been doing at that moment. "See you later, Captain Decker. Hope you'll stay to lunch, at least." she called as she hurried up the stairs to the library.

"Oh god, Will," Jane whispered as she walked into the young man's strong, open arms, and wept.

"Hi, Aunt Jane," he said, in an even softer voice than the one he'd used to greet Victoria. "It's good to be home."

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

Somehow, a feast was served within thirty minutes of Marie's return from shopping, one where all the residents of Seasons House were at table. Afterwards, Jane excused herself and Penny to resume the girl's interrupted training and asked Victoria to entertain their guest for an hour or so. Victoria immediately suggested her new favorite thing to do at Seasons House - visit the horses. Will agreed readily enough.

"I've missed ol' Stars 'n Garters," he drawled in the rich South Carolina accent as he stroked the big saddle-bred's nose. "She was just 'bout the only thing that kept me sane those first few weeks here. Now, I just wish I had more time here."

"You're leaving soon?"

"Day after tomorrow I ship out to a place they won't even tell me yet."

"Jane said you were in reconnaissance? Like, going behind the lines?"

"We call it 'Force Recon', and yes, that is what I do."

"You're going after the animals that killed all those people, aren't you?"

"Like I said, Victoria. They haven't told me that, yet. I do have my little fantasies, though," William's voice became wistful. "Do you think there'd be time for a ride?"

Victoria thought about it. "Not tonight, at least, not with me. I'd have to change into my riding clothes first, and I go on duty. . .I mean, it will be my time to tutor our new student in an hour."

"Oh yeah. I forgot about that. Jane mentioned it at lunch. Well, how about tomorrow afternoon?"

"That would be great, only, I'm still learning. I never sat a horse before I came here."

"We'll go easy," he assured her. "I just want to see the beach again. Where ever they're sending me, there won't likely be a lot of waterfront."

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

"God, but this is just as beautiful as I remember it," William sighed as they reined in to overlook the rocky beach below. "This used to be my 'I have to get away from Jane' place when I was here."

"So, Ms. Jane hasn't mellowed since you were here," Victoria asked cheekily.

"What do you think?" he grinned. "You ready for some of that picnic Tante Marie packed for us? I know I am. That rock over there looks like a great place for lunch."

They ate in companionable silence, the husky crewcut man and the petite feminine creature. They'd just finished a double helping of Marie's fried chicken when William turned to look Victoria in the eyes. "Jane's worried about you, bro'. She's afraid you're planning on hiding in those skirts for the rest of your life."

"Bro?!?!" she yelped, and then started to demur only have will cut her off in mid-denial.

'Ease off, Vic, okay? I know who you really are, what you really are, and I know why you are here in Aunt Jane's Girl's School for Boys."

The last words threatened to freeze Victoria's blood in mid-pump. *He does know,* her mind screamed even as she managed to squeak aloud, "You do? How!!?!"

A small grin lit the young Marine officer's face, a grin that somehow softened facial features that just moments before had seemed rather stern. "Damn straight, kid. My name was Wilma - given to me by an Irish fella named Finn whose Jane-Name is Fiona. As to how? Well, all I can say is been here, done that, got the lace teddie to prove it!"

"My god. You're telling the truth, aren't you?"

"I am an officer and a gentleman, sis. So, answer the question. *Are* you hiding in skirts? Suppose Jane said, right now, that you could go back to being Victor. Would you?"

The response was quick and positive. "No."

"Why not?" he asked, without any note of censure in his voice. "Have you decided you're really a girl? There are guys who feel that way. From what she told me, even one of Jane's students once."

"What if I *do* want to be a girl?" Victoria retorted, her chin coming up stubbornly. "What business is that of yours?"

William stretched out on the rock without taking his eyes off Victoria. "Point taken." he shrugged. "It isn't any of my business, if it's for the right reasons. If it's for the wrong reasons, meaning reasons that reflect poorly on Jane, then I'm making it my business. Hell, bro, you can screw your life up anyway you want, but Jane matters to me. I wouldn't want to see her hurt."

"I don't want to hurt her either!"

"Good enough! So, prove to me that your desire to continue in this admittedly unusual lifestyle that was admittedly forced on you by Aunt Jane is really the best answer for you."

Shame colored her face and she could no longer meet William's eyes. Finally, she whispered, "Victoria doesn't beat up on little kids."

"Okay. I can see where someone Aunt Jane has helped would think that was important. On the other hand, Victor hasn't beaten up any little kids for months. Why should he start that up again when he leaves here?"

"Because Victor is . . . a . . . coward!"

William snapped upright to stare at Victoria. "Whoa, there, bro. I heard you faced down a gang of thugs in a mall. By yourself. That doesn't sound like cowardice to me."

"That was Victoria, not Victor."

"Same difference, Vic."

"No it's not," Victoria replied sharply. "Jane knows the difference. She praised *Victoria* for being brave - by NAME. She's proud of *Victoria*. She thinks *Victor* is a coward and has said so on several occasions - again by NAME."

"Hell, bro, that don't prove anything. She still calls *me* Wilma most of the time. It's now her special nickname for me. She knows you're Victor. And neither one of you is a coward."

"You just wouldn't understand," she responded bleakly, blinking hard against the tears of shame prickling at her eyes. "You're a Marine, and you've been in combat. You're brave and tough. Victor is a coward, and Victoria doesn't have to convince anyone she's tough."

"Well, that at least is true. Victoria doesn't have to convince anyone she's tough, that she's brave. But at the same time, neither does Victor. Hell, courage isn't something that you vote on. No one else's opinion matters but your own. It's all internal, man. If I learned anything in the Corps, that's it."

"What do you mean?"

"Tough is not giving up. That's it, pure and simple. You don't give up while you're still breathing. You have that attitude, and the biggest bully in the world will back down."

"There's got to be more to it than that," Victoria asserted dubiously.

Will grinned at that. "Of course, you may get your ass handed to you a few times. Lord knows I did. Drill sergeants are the fiends from Hell, believe me, and they *live* for unarmed combat practice against shave-tail officer candidates, or as THEY called us, officer candy-asses. But it doesn't matter whether they can beat your body. Tough means they can't beat your mind. Nobody comes out of Marine boot camp without that sort of toughness. The REAL sort of toughness."

William paused, and then pointed back up the hill toward the old Victorian mansion. "And nobody comes out of Miss Jane's Girls' School for Boys without the same kind of fortitude. Trust me, kid, you got it."

"No I don't. Jane just put you up to this."

"Nope, she didn't. Look, kid, you took off on your own, didn't you, dressed like a sissy and with that infernal long-lasting makeup of hers so that you could donate blood. What did you think was gonna happen when you got there?"

"It didn't matter. It was just something I had to do."

"Bingo! As good a definition of tough as I've ever heard," he said before laughing at himself. "Oops, not quite. Standing up to Miss Jane, now *that* takes guts, man. But you did that, too. And you did them both as Victor, right?

"For all the wrong reasons."

"And now you recognize that they were wrong, but that doesn't mean you weren't tough."

"Just pretty dumb, huh?"

"You said it, kid, I didn't, but I will say something, man-to-man, okay?"

"Yes?"

"I think you'll find old Victor to be a pretty good guy if you ever decide to give him another chance. As great a gal as Victoria has become, he couldn't be anything else. I know I'd be proud to call him friend, or go into a tight spot with him guarding my back."

The primly-dressed equestrian looked at the trim Marine with wide eyes. The idea that a warrior, a hero, would consider *Victor* someone valuable to have around when courage was called for was . . . a lot to consider.

The young man noticed her confusion, and grinned easily. "Let's be heading back. As I recall, it takes a while to bed these hay-burners down after a good ride."

"Um, fine. Whatever you say," the distracted brunette replied.

"Need a leg up?" William asked easily.

"Yes, please," Victoria replied, accepting his aid to get back on the tall horse. They rode back in companionable silence, Victoria's horse following William's mount without conscious guidance on her part.
 
 
Chapter 20: A Time to Rest
 
When they got to the stable, William helped remove the tack from the horses, but as Victoria reached for the brush to groom them, he asked, "Um, Vic, would you do me a favor and finish up? I need to go talk to Aunt Jane about something."

"Of course," she said politely. "I don't mind anyway. I love working on them."

"Thanks, bro, see you up at the house."

When Victoria had completed caring for the horses, she strolled up the path to the house with a combination of distraction and anticipation. She wanted to talk to William some more, about what he had said, but it wasn't something that could be discussed at Miss Jane's formal dinner table - not with Penny there, too. When she reached the door into the kitchen area, Marie met her with a broad smile.

"Ah, cherie, you smell like horses. Again."

"Sorry, Marie. It happens."

"I know, child, but you need to go get cleaned up. However, Miss Jane wants to see you first. She's in the library with Penny."

"Before I shower?"

"Yes, ma petite, right away."

When Victoria reached the library, the door was open and she saw Penny, carefully navigating the room in her latest pair of high heels, one hand tucked into crook of William's elbow and the ever-unwelcome Mr. Webster perched atop her now-blonde head. *My goodness but those make her so tall! Like she is all leg from down there to up here! She must have four, maybe five inches on William in those spikes. Her ankles are going to KILL her tonight.* She was raising her hand to knock politely on the door's frame when Jane saw her standing in the doorway.

"Come in, Victoria," she called, amusement rather than distaste in her expression, despite Victoria's smudged face and . . . distinct aroma.

William smilingly excused himself from his 'companion' and turned to greet Victoria. Jane moved around the still-marching Penny, and faced her diminutive charge. "I just wanted you to know, that William has my permission to make his request of you, but how you respond is your choice."

"What request?"

Jane's eyes twinkled, but she shook her head. "That is for William to explain."

Just then there was a thud behind them, and they both looked at the sound to see Penny bending down, picking up the dictionary that had fallen from her head.

Jane sighed, and said, "Perhaps you should go get cleaned up now, Victoria."

"Yes, ma'am," Victoria dutifully replied. She retraced the familiar path to the top of the second floor, but before she could reach her room, she was again intercepted.

"Vic, can I talk to you for a minute?" asked William.

"Of course," she said politely.

"How long has it been since you've seen a movie?" he asked.

"A movie?"

"Yeah. Or, in the terms of upper-crust snobbery, a 'film.' You're not a snob, are you?"

"No! At least, I hope not."

"Good. So, let's go see a movie. We'll get a little dinner first, okay?"

"I, uh, you mean, go out together?"

"Sure. Why not?"

"But I'm a . . . I mean, you know I'm a . . . "

William laughed and said, "Sure I do and you know that I'm married - quite happily as a matter of fact. But you're still mighty decorative so it's not like it would be a hardship to spend some time with you. And unless you intend to throw me down and rape me - which I don't think you're quite big enough to do, besides I've been trained in hand-to-hand combat by experts - we'll just be two friends hangin' out, having a good time. Do you have a problem with that?"

"Uh, no, I guess not, I mean, no, not at all. Heaven knows I haven't had much in the way of 'hangin' out time' since I first arrived here at Jane's place."

"Great, see you in - hmmm, you *will* need to take a shower - say, an hour?"

Victoria nodded, her mind whirling with the unexpected development. It was all right, really. William could spend an evening with Victor doing exactly what he described, so why not Victoria? Yet, it was . . . different, too. But Miss Jane had said it was okay, so . . .

"That would be, um, fine. What's playing?"

"Well, there's where you've got a choice. There's the new Mel Gibson war movie, a Jim Carrey comedy and a, uh, well, I guess you'd call it a chick-flick."

"Chick-flick? What is that?"

"My wife loves them. Romantic, usually with at least two scenes guaranteed to make the ladies cry, one of them happy tears, guys being made to look foolish at least three times by their girls and a happy ending, which usually means marriage with the bride meeting all criteria to wear white."

"Oh. Umm, have you seen any of the movies?"

"Nope."

"You don't have a preference."

"Not fair, Vic. I told you to choose."

"Oh. Well, could we go see the war flick, but if asked, sort of hint we saw a, what did you call it? A chick-flick? He is a favorite of the ladies, isn't he?"

"I think we could tell her we saw a Mel Gibson movie without lying."

"Good. And I want popcorn! A bucket with LOTS of butter and salt. I am so bloody tired of Marie's low-salt, low fat healthy snacks. I think she does that to encourage us to learn to bake!"

"Go get cleaned up, Vic, and I'll meet you downstairs."

Victoria hurried into her room, stripping off her riding clothes and hoping Marie wouldn't be too angry that she just left them lay. But she had more important things to worry about. What was she going to wear?!

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

The Armani pants suit was just what she wanted - elegant and dressy enough to suit Aunt Jane, but not 'dress-feminine'. Somehow, both factors had been important to the teen when faced with the problem of selecting her outfit. Suiting Aunt Jane was important because, well, she was Aunt Jane. Victoria wasn't quite so sure about why the second factor she was important. *Maybe because it is hard to guard somebody's back in spiked heels and a hobble-skirt?* she thought as she slid into the seat of William's Mustang.

"Still want to see the Gibson?" he asked as he pulled onto the private drive leading to the main road. At Victoria's nod, he grinned. "Look, Vic, relax, okay? I know about Penny, and Jane felt you had earned a little decompression time. If there's something you'd rather do than go to the movies, tell me. Think of it as a 'guy's night' if you want, instead of as a date."

"A guy's night?"

"Sure. Feel free to cuss like a sailor and far. . .I mean, pass gas if you want. Or, if you prefer, we can go to the country club - Jane arranged a guest membership for me - and do the guy and gal on a date thing. You like dancing? It's the one thing Jane made me learn that I really did like, even if I did have to let her lead."

Victoria laughed and felt herself relax. "I think I'll pass and the swearing and gas-passing, and I don't feel like dancing. The movie sounds perfect. But I WAS serious about that popcorn, mister!"

"Okay, but you figure out how to keep the grease stains off that silk suit. *I* am not explaining to Jane and Marie how it got messed up."

"SILK?!?! Oh, Shi. . sugar!"

"I thought we weren't swearing tonight, Vic?"

"Shut up, Wilma."

"Yes, Aunt Jane."

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

"I'm so glad you came, Will," Jane told her student as she and Victoria escorted him to his car the next morning. "I just wish your wife could have come, too."

"She's tied up with the emergency recovery stuff, but she insisted I come up to see you before I. . .before I ship out."

"Tell her I'm very grateful," Jane said, pulling him into her arms for a tight, loving hug. "I'll write. So will Marie." The little maid was inside supervising Penny in the cleanup following breakfast.

William nodded, then smiled down at Victoria. "Will you write to me, too?"

"Me?" she squeaked in surprise.

"Sure. Include a picture, and spritz it with perfume. I'll be the hero of my battalion. Maintaining the most honored traditions of the Corps - a girl in every port."

"Oh, you!" Victoria snorted, playfully swatting him on the arm. She had him figured for the 'hopelessly in love with his wife monogamous' sort since he'd spent their entire meal the night before regaling Victoria with stories of his wife and family.

"Well?" Will insisted, cocking a brow in challenge.

"Well what?" she sniffed, beginning to enjoy the flirtatious banter.

"Are you gonna write to me, too? I'd like to hear from you. Really."

Jane watched as her student blushed, and then nodded.

"And a picture?" William wheedled, earning himself another blush and another hesitant nod. "Great. And tell your twin that I'd like to hear from *him*, too."

"Okay," she said quietly. "I'll make sure he gets the word and that you get your letter."

There was an awkward moment as the pair, both students of Jane Thompson stared at each other, unsure what to do next. Jane looked around and made sure they were alone. "Look, you two, if you were both in trousers, you'd probably hug. If you were both in skirts, you WOULD hug. Let's not be foolish here!" she snapped in her best school-marm voice.

William grinned at Jane, then opened his arms in invitation. With only a moment's hesitation, Victoria stepped inside their strong circle and returned the embrace, her head resting on his strong chest. "Hang in there, bro," William whispered just before letting her go, "You're gonna be one of Jane's great ones."

Jane and Victoria stood at the head of the circle, watching, long after the little red sports car was no longer in sight. Finally, the fall wind whipping about their hair chilled them enough to break through the reveries. "Come along, Victoria. Penny's new clothes arrived yesterday and we have a great deal to do so that she will be ready for her first salon visit day after tomorrow." With that, the Mistress of Seasons House offered her hand to her senior student, and then led the way back to the mansion's door.
 
 
Chapter 21: A Time to Fight
 
Jane cut the engine of the Lincoln and then turned a cocked brow to the girl seated beside her. "I believe I win our little impromptu wager?" she asked. "Safely parked with no damage to either my car or the other two cars. So YOU have the entire cleanup tonight after dinner. I'll ask Marie to make sure it is something sticky that requires all the pans in the kitchen."

Victoria smiled sheepishly. "Don't know how you got this huge boat of a car into that little bittie space, but you did it, Aunt Jane."

Jane smiled approvingly at her senior student. While she normally squelched such games, the touch of humor eased the almost stifling tension that had pervaded the car since their departure from Seasons House. She was more than a little anxious about this outing and Victoria's "No way you're going to get this monster in that parking space," followed by her mischievous "Wanna bet, Aunt Jane?" had helped. A quick check in the rearview mirror revealed that even Penny was a little less grim. *Or is that wishful thinking on your part, Thompson?"

"All right, I'll be back in a few minutes. I just have to drop these papers by at my attorney's office. Victoria, you will introduce Penny to the ladies," she ordered before turning to face Penny directly. "You will obey Carolyn and Sandra as you do me. I have already given them their instructions and I will be back in no more than an hour."

"Yes, Ms. Thompson," the tall junior student murmured, refusing to meet Jane's eyes.

"Come on, Penny," Victoria chirped. "Or we'll be late for our appointments."

Jane watched from the curb as the new boy-girl not-quite-gracefully followed her diminutive big sister into the Marisha Chalet. The two inch tall heels of her new shoes were still challenging for Penny, but with her already impressive height, Jane did not think public outings wearing anything more extreme would be very likely.

She sighed to herself as they slipped inside the ornate storefront door. Jane was sorely tempted to wait on going to the attorney's office, and be there in the shop for this entire session, but that would put a very large deal she'd been working on for months at risk. For herself, Jane didn't much care, but the Pediatric Oncology Clinic at Children's Hospital would benefit greatly from the outcome of this particular deal.

Sighing, she restarted the engine, signaled her intention to pull back into the line of traffic, and checked behind her. *Besides, you've already talked to Caro about the special care and feeding needed for this one. Maybe, if she gets through this appointment and then one next week without incident, we can get back to a more 'normal' salon routine. Please.*

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

Victoria greeted Carolyn Beale with a big smile and a quick hug, much to the surprise of the taller brunette. "Well, hello there," she said, returning the hug. "And how are you, today, Miss Denato?"

"Very well, thank you, Mrs. Beale," Victoria returned pertly. "Are you and Sandy ready for us?"

"Sure are," Caro replied. "We cleared the decks for your two and are ready to work our fingers to the bone. Sandy?"

The yellow-haired, voluptuous-to-almost-the-point-of-being-considered-plump stylist came out of a cubicle in the rear of the shop, wearing smock that was emblazoned with the Chalet's highly stylized trademark. "Yes, Carolyn?"

"Are you ready for Miss Penny, here? I'm going to TRY to do something with THIS one,"

Sandy gave a bark of laughter that sent chills down Victoria's spine. "Sure, send her back. I've been looking forward to this."

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

Victoria listened to Caro's stream of chatter with only half an ear - the true focus of her attention was squarely on what was going on in the next cubicle where Sandy was in the process of creating a hair weave for Penny. Jane wanted the new student to be able to dispense with the wigs.

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

"Oh, my, your hair is going to be *sooo* pretty when I get done with you. I just love deep, dark hair, and you're going to look like you dipped your head in ink. It's going to swirl around you like a dark cloud, mysterious and eye-catching."

"Umm, thank you, umm, Sandy, is it?"

"That's my name, Penny. And when I'm done with you, you're going to remember it, too! Now, hold still while I get this weave set."

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

There was really very little to be done for Victoria which gave Carolyn the freedom to take care of some other shop business while Sandy worked on Penny. Thus, Caro had been in and out of the cubicle several times, in response to the ringing of the door bell or to answer the phone. This gave Victoria the chance to concentrate fully on what was going on with Penny and Sandy.

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

The work on Penny's head essentially complete, Sandy lifted the cape that draped her client and looked at the body beneath. Penny's new outfit was relatively simple - a white cotton blouse under a sleeveless cotton sweater in dark red with a matching kilt-cut skirt that was hemmed to show about five inches of thigh on the very tall girl.

"My goodness, sweet-cheeks, but you have such loonnngg legs. They are definitely your best feature, though they are a bit bony. We're going to have to have Jane get you some tighter, tinier skirts to show off those legs. Boys just go crazy for the leggy types. Why, it almost makes me jealous."

"I . . .I never thought about it. . .that way."

"Well, start thinking about it, girl! When you're stalking the male of the species, you have to have your weapons ready! Tell you what! I'm going to treat you to a leg waxing, right now! Good thing you didn't wear stockings."

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

Victoria frowned at that last exchange, particularly at the hitch she'd heard in Penny's voice. Sandy was starting to really get to the taller girl and the senior student was beginning to worry. *I really wish Jane was here,* she thought unhappily. *I know she talked to these two about Penny, but I just don't trust Sandy. She likes playing the ball-busting bitch too much and dammit, Penny is still too fragile for that stuff! Where IS Jane? Her hour was up twenty minutes ago!*

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

The leg waxing had been hard on the young person in the salon chair in more ways than just the sensation of hair being jerked out by the roots, and Sandy was feeling very good about herself. Lifting the girl's skirt to get "all the way to the bikini line," had been a stroke of genius, if she did say so herself. Talk about threat of exposure. Now, however, it was time to break the really bad news to Jane's newest pupil.

Sandy's smile became feral, and Penny felt herself recoil at the sight. "Well, sissyboy, we're ready to work on your face. That *will* be a challenge."

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

Both stylist and unwilling client went silent, and for the first time in her life, Victoria understood the concept of things being 'too quiet'. If her ears had designed with muscles, she would have strained them trying to hear what was going to happen next. *JANE!* her mind screamed, *This feels wrong - VERY wrong and I have no idea what to do!!*

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

"C'mon, sit still and act like a woman. Plucking eyebrows doesn't hurt *that* much. Stop those silly tears or you'll ruin your mascara and THEN I'll have to do it all over again!"

With a look of utter disgust, Sandy threw the tweezers down onto her work shelf. "I just don't know what I'm going to be able to do with you, sweetcakes," Sandy said in saccharin-sweet tones.

"Ma'am?" Penny asked, her choked-back tears suddenly clogging her throat.

"Usually," the stylist said, taking Penny's chin in one overly firm hand and twisting her face side to side, as if examining her client's feature in profile, "You *boys* that come in here like this USUALLY have SOME redeeming features that I can embellish, but I just don't know about you. I don't think Mary Kay herself could make you pretty."

"B. . .boy? I. .I . . I'm not a . . "

A raised hand cut her off in mid-denial and the smile Penny got was as frightening as anything that had happened to him since his parents had turned that Thompson woman loose on him. "Oh, I know what you are under those silkies and frillies, sissyboy. You think I didn't notice your, ah, sudden growth when I did that waxing? Too bad you're so small there and so big everywhere else. Guess that's why you want to be a girl, eh?

"I don't want to. . "

"I don't care what you want, sissypoo. Now you look here, okay? YOU came into my salon and sat down in MY chair. That means YOU get the full girl treatment, even if it won't do you much good. HOWEVER, girls LIKE being pampered, sissy. Unless you start smiling, I might just have to let the rest of my shop know what a pervie little boy I have in my chair. Start looking happy!"

"I. . .I.. don't understand," Penny all but whimpered.

"I will be happy to explain it to you, pussyboy! You're not the first girly boy I've had in here. Unfortunately, it's my job to make you look pretty and worse, I think it is going to take all my considerable skill to get YOU to the level of wolf-ugly."

"Wolf. . .ugly?"

"Yeah, that's where if a guy wakes up and finds you sleeping on his arm, he'll gnaw it off at the shoulder to escape." Pleased with that shot, Sandy turned her back on the girl so she missed seeing the full impact of her next barb. "God, it's a good thing you aren't a girl - you'd die a bloody virgin because no man and certainly no woman would want the likes of you!"

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

Victoria heard the first sob and then Penny's complete emotional breakdown. The anguished outpouring was overlaid by Sandy's hissed out threats and curses, but all that did was increase Penny's volume and distress. Without another thought, Victoria was out of her chair and into Sandy's cubicle. One look told her all she needed to know.

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

Jane hurried into the shop and came up short as the shouting from the back of the stylish salon registered.

"I don't care what you think, Sandy, you come one step closer and I will put you on your as. . backside."

"Get out of my way, you silly little bitch! That's my chair and Jane told me to take care of your playmate. You won't like it if I have to let everyone out in the waiting room on your little secret."

"What, you're going to tell them that I am really a boy under this little disguise? Go right ahead, but you're not laying another hand on Penny until Aunt Jane gets here, now BACK THE HELL OFF!"

"Come on, Victoria," Caro's softer, more reasonable voice cajoled. "You know Sandy. Just let her do her job."

"Like she's done already? No way, Caro! I've spent over a week trying to help Jane get this girl ready and I am NOT going to let that blond bit. . that blond partner of yours destroy what we worked so hard to accomplish because she wants to play 'Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS' in a salon smock!"

Now afraid, Jane rushed to the back cubicle and was stunned to see Victoria, one hand behind her back holding a starkly pale Penny's hand. Sandy was trying to push her way past the small brunette to get to her chair while Caro was literally wringing her hands as she looked on in wide-eyed disbelief.

"WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!?!"

"Jane," all three unseated women said with varying degrees of relief and victory. Sandy moved in first. "Get this stupid little fool of a girl the hell out of my way, Jane. She's interfering with my program for Penny."

"Victoria?" Jane asked, very quietly.

"Sandy browbeat her into a breakdown, Aunt Jane. I don't know precisely what she said that did it, but there was a scream and then Penny was crying really, really hard. I came running in and she looked like she was going to be sick."

"Oh for god's sake, Jane," Sandy fumed. "You know what we do, and you know how we do it. What's the big deal with this one? So she started blubbering a little. Didn't you tell me that learning to cry was part of the deal for your students? Penny's learned to cry, okay? Get little Miss Florence Nightingale out of my way so I can finish what I've started!"

"Don't leave me, Victoria," Penny begged, nearly hysterical, her grip making Victoria wince, "Please don't leave me."

Jane watched as Victoria reached around her back with hand to pat the Penny's clutching hand. "I won't, Penny," the senior girl promised softly yet firmly, all the while keeping her level glare locked on Sandy.

Jane also saw the abject terror that lined her junior pupil's face, and worse, the renewed haunted look in her eyes that had not been so much in evidence the past few days. *I should have been here,* she railed at herself. "Sandra, I would like to speak with you in the back, please. Carolyn, if you would clean Penny up for me, we will be leaving as soon as I've had a few words with Sandra."

"Jane!" Sandy all but whined.

"In the BACK, SANDRA!" Jane bit out each word and even the aggressive blonde knew she'd gone too far. "I'll only be a moment, Victoria."

Carolyn checked to see how far Sandy had gotten and nodded. "Not much to clean up. I'll just brush out her hair and she can get out of the chair," she told Victoria who still held her little sister's icy hand in hers.

"Guess I really let the cat out of the bag," Victoria said so softly only Caro heard her. "Announcing to all your customers and helpers that I'm really a boy, but it was the only thing I could think of to convince Sandy I was serious and willing to go to the mat on this one."

"If there had been any of those here, you would have," Caro whispered back as she finished the brush-out and removed the protective cape from Penny's shoulders, "but we opened early for you two, and none of my other customers or helpers are here yet. Just the four of us and Jane. Jane warned us that Penny was fragile. I guess I didn't realize how fragile."

"And Sandy didn't care," Victoria finished sourly as she helped a stiff and shaking Penny down from the salon chair.

Just then, the door to the back room burst open and a rigid-spined, stone-faced Jane Thompson burst from the room followed by a now-weeping Sandra. "We're leaving now," she said quietly. "Victoria, please help Penny to the car. Carolyn, I will call you later." And then she followed the two students out the door without a backward glance or another word.

"Oh god, Carolyn, I knew that one was like Michael," Sandy sobbed. "I knew he was suicidal, but I thought that telling him he wouldn't be a pretty girl would *help* in the end, not hurt! I mean, all those other guys Jane brought in here would rather have *died* than have their masculinity questioned by saying they look pretty. How was I supposed to know that was *exactly* what bothered him?"

Unable to think of anything else to do, Carolyn Beale took her longtime partner and friend into her arms and let her cry.

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

"How is she?" Victoria asked when Jane and the nurse from the storefront clinic came down the stairs. Jane had called the woman on her cell-phone during the drive back from the beauty salon.

"Asleep. Nora gave her a mild sedative and Marie is with her."

"I have to get back to the hospital, Jane. I think you'd better call in your experts now because that child is going to need some serious help. Michael's closest, but if Eric Davis can get free, I think you should consider asking him in on this one. Crisis intervention is his specialty."

"Michael's on his way," Jane said, rubbing sharp knuckles into her temples. "Thanks for coming, Nora. I'll keep you informed."

Jane saw her friend to the door and then returned to the sitting room where she found Victoria laying out a simple meal of tea, sandwiches and fruit. She wasn't hungry, but knew she should eat, if only to keep her blood sugar in the normal range.

"You did very well today, Victor," Jane said finally, drawing a startled look from her student. "You put yourself between another and a fate truly worse than death, and sacrificed your greatest secret to protect her."

"No one was there to hear," the weary teen retorted.

"You didn't know that," Jane smiled gently. "Caro made sure I knew that - that and to check on Penny is why she called. "I've never had a boy sacrifice the masquerade for another before. That was incredibly brave of you."

"It's not really my greatest secret, you know," Victoria replied before she quite realized what she was saying.

"Oh? How unusual. One of the key assumptions of my program is that a boy will do almost anything to keep from giving himself away while dressed as a girl. If you don't mind my asking, what is a bigger secret than that? You don't have to answer, by the way. As far as I'm concerned, you graduated with flying colors today, my lad."

"How strange to hear myself described in the masculine tense again," the boy-in-girl's clothing said. Carefully made up eyes looking up into suddenly gentle ones owned by Aunt Jane. "My great secret? You already know it. I'm a coward - Victor is a coward."

"I thought that Wilma, I mean, William had helped you get past that bit of self-compartmentalization. I have not thought you a coward since the day you asked, no, DEMANDED to give blood. Since then, you have at times displayed more courage than good sense, but you are NO coward. Unless. . ."

"Unless what?"

"Unless you decide remain Victoria for the sole purpose that you can hide in her skirts."

"Guess I can't very well do that, can I?"

"Oh, you could, but it would mean a great deal of sacrifice - sacrifices I don't think you should make because, unlike another of my students, you don't really want to be a girl. So, my lad, show some courage. Be a man, in the finest sense of that word."

Victoria/Victor considered that. "I'll try. What happens now?"

"We get Penny professional help and go from there. I don't think we can safely proceed with what I had planned now. Not until the experts say she is out of danger. DAMN Sandy. Damn me for not being there."

"Aunt Jane?"

"Yes, dear?"

"I don't know how you handle. . . well, graduation? But if there's any chance I can help? With Penny, that is? I'd like to stay. I could continue my lessons here. I'd like to move into a more science-oriented program, or at least, find out if I have what it takes to do that. I figure I can do that here as well as back home. Probably better because you're a better teacher than anyone I've had before."

"Why, thank you, dear. As to graduation, I usually send the senior student off when the junior is ready to become a big sister. Because of the delicate nature of things with Penny, I was considering sending you home tomorrow - as soon as Michael arrives to give us added support here in the house. You want to stay?"

Victor/Victoria shrugged, and felt the thick mass of dark hair dance about her face and shoulders. *Odd that it feels so strange now.* "Yes, Ma'am. She's. . .he's my little sister, you know?"

Jane smiled at that. "She is indeed that, even if she does tower over you by half a foot. All right, if Michael and Eric agree, we'll keep you on, for a while longer at least. And you want a tougher science curriculum, eh? Now what ever for?" Victoria blushed deeply, eliciting a tired grin from Jane. "All right, give. Why the change in attitude about school work?"

"The horses," Victoria told her. "I, ah, umm,. . "

"What have I told you about speaking clearly and succinctly, Miss Denato?" Jane demanded in a fair imitation of her usual brusk acerbity.

"I want to go pre-vet in college and become a large-animal veterinarian," she got out in a rush.

Pleased, Jane put her hand out to run her fingers down her student's cheek. "Excellent choice. And I just happen to have some influence with the best private high school in the country. When it is time for you to leave here, I should be able see you provided for at Saint Andrews Academy. Assuming you do as well as I know you will, we will have no trouble getting you into a first class pre-vet program. It will be my pleasure."

"You mean that, don't you?" and there was wonder in those words.

"I never say anything I don't mean. You should know that by now."
 
 
Chapter 22: A Time to Grow
 
Victor did stay, but as Victoria. Michael, she was surprised to discover, was the same doctor who had taken her blood donation, Dr. Michael Nash. He was ALSO both a former student and semi-adopted son of one Jane Thompson.

Not only that, but he made one heck of cute blonde as Michelle. Drop dead gorgeous, in fact. Victoria had initially been a little upset by the discovery of Michael/Michelle's connection to Aunt Jane. Since Michael and Nora had already been in on Jane's little secrets, that meant Victoria's 'courageous revelation' at the clinic had really not in any way endangered to Victoria's future reputation. She'd been moping about that, and feeling more than a little guilty for those feelings, until Jane, being Jane, had set things straight.

"Courage, my dear, is being afraid and facing what you fear without backing down. You had EVERY reason to be afraid at the clinic. Whether the threat was real or not, you were certain that is was authentic, as I intended. I said I was proud of you, did I not?"

And that had been that. Jane did not lie about such things. In fact, Jane did not lie. *She simply fails to tell the whole truth or tells the truth in a deceptive way when it suits her purposes or plans for a student's education,* Victoria realized.

Dr. Eric Davis, clinical psychologist, was also now in residence, but his arrival did nothing to change the totally feminine environment of Seasons House. The good doctor was yet *another* of Jane's 'boys' who had at one time been one of Jane's 'girls'. If Erica wasn't QUITE as cute as Michelle, she was still a fox, but then, Victoria had recently discovered within herself a partiality to tall, sleek redheads. Especially since her alter ego, Victor, had come under Aunt Jane's guidance.

Seasons House remained a bastion of the gentler sex because the two doctors felt that the presence of men in the house might be more threatening to their patient. So, after consulting with Michael's "Momma-Jane" upon their arrival, both had quickly and easily changed into their female personas. Penny's round-the-clock suicide watch was back, but now there were trained professionals watching the patient in addition to the ladies of Seasons House. Essentially, the plan was that Jane, Marie and Victoria would interact with Penny as before, while Michael and Eric kept her under surveillance using Jane's monitors and security cameras.

It was a plan that worked well enough, until that is, one day about a week after the abortive trip to the Marisha Chalet.

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

Victoria felt a sharp edge of excitement curl through her gut as she entered Penny's room. The room, which had been barren of bric-a-brac before, and which had some of the strangest furnishing and design touches Victoria had ever seen (those windows with the steel mesh inside were downright ugly) had been given a ruthless going over by the two doctors. Things she'd never have thought could be used as weapons, like the heavy satin comforter, the thick wall curtains and the vanity stool had been removed along with every bottle, pot and tube. *Heavens,* she thought still amazed, *They went so far as to take Penny's toothbrush away, giving it to her only after eating and then taking it back again after use.*

Even the food and 'serving set' she carried on her tray were special 'suicide-proof' selections. There were no utensils at all - everything was finger food - something which Marie had taken as a personal challenge to her powers in the kitchen. Lunch was a salsa-laced salad wrapped in a flour tortilla, soft steak tacos and a rice and bean burrito. Beverages were delivered in unbreakable sealed cups, much like the safety cups designed for cars, but with no straws and no sharp edges. Dessert was a selection of fruit, cookies and cheese nibbles.

Penny had taken to living in underwear since returning from the salon. With her hair now long, but unkempt, her face devoid of any cosmetics and an obviously boy's body, she was not a pretty sight. *Odd that I still think of her in the feminine tense,* the petite brunette thought, *Guess I really am fully indoctrinated into the 'Aunt Jane Method' as Michelle calls it. Penny's in panties so Penny's a girl. Simple as that.*

'The girl' stared balefully at Victoria, hurt and anger sparking in the dark-circled eyes. *Well, if Michelle is to be believed, that is a positive sign. At least she's not ignoring me.*

"Luncheon is served, m'lady," Victoria said cheerfully.

Penny did not immediately respond, but did get up off the bed and come over to stand face-to-face with the other girl. She simply stared at the smaller girl; examining her with the focus and detachment of an entomologist examining a particularly new and rather disgusting dung beetle specimen. It took the cumulative grace and composure built by hours of Jane Thompson exercises for the senior student to simply stand there and not flinch under the tall girl's scrutiny. Finally, even her patience reached its limits.

"Its impolite to stare," she said quietly.

Penny stared for a moment longer, just to show how little Victoria's reproof had meant to her, before saying her first, unforced words in over a week. "You told that bitch you were a boy."

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

"ERICA," Michelle Nash called out from the surveillance station hidden in Jane's private apartments, "JANE!". The call awoke the psychologist who was sleeping on a nearby cot, and brought Jane hurrying in from the private office she kept in her suite. "I think it's show time," she said when the other two arrived. "Penny just more or less asked Victoria if she's a boy or a girl."

"Victoria knows what to say," Erica said quietly as she slipped in beside Michelle. "Let's just hope Penny is ready to listen."

"I still don't like this idea," Jane muttered as she, too, took a seat in front of the desktop monitors. "Even if it works, there's no guarantee she'll do anything more than simply go through the motions of 'doing the right thing'."

"AT least she will be alive to go through the motions, Aunt Jane," Erica said quietly. "Trust me, if she dies, we lose for certain. With these types of trauma, the only guarantee is that you can't possibly win if the victim is no longer alive to be helped."

"I want Benny to be happy!" Jane growled.

"Easy, Momma-Jane," Michelle soothed. "So do we, okay?"

"And if this grand scheme fails?" Jane demanded archly, aware that she was being unreasonable but unable to help that reaction. Benny was one of HERS, by god. "I won't have him institutionalized."

Erica stifled a sigh. What did she expect from Aunt Jane? The word 'quit' wasn't even in her dictionary. "He'll be more of a danger - to himself - here than at the hospital. Do you think you'll be able to help him as much as they can? It will take long-term, high-intensity treatment, by specialists.

"I'll bring them here." she retorted.

Michelle put her hand on Jane's. "Momma-Jane, you know better than that. What about group therapy sessions? That's a major and effective tool - particularly with young people with her. . .his problem. Do you honestly think you could bring all the other patients here, too?"

"I'll turn the bloody manor into a center for young people like Benny," she muttered, aware that she actually half-way meant just that.

"Shhhh!" Erica hissed. "I have to be able to hear what's said!"

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

"You told that bitch you were a boy."

Victoria took a deep breath, set down the tray and mentally told herself, *It's show-time, folks!*

"Did I? I think what I said to her was something to the effect that 'Are you going to tell them that I am really a boy under this little disguise?'. I never really said that I was a boy."

"Are. . . you. . . a boy?" Penny ground out each word.

For a long moment, the shorter brunette only stared back at the tall, nearly nude figure before her, then she shrugged. "Before I came here, my name was Victor, not Victoria."

"Are you here for something . . . something like. . like what I did? Is that why you're dressing and acting like that?"

"More or less. I was a bully - a real bastard who would go hurt kids, little kids smaller than me, because I didn't have the guts to go after the people who were actually messing with me."

"Why the skirts then?"

Victoria giggled nervously. "Well, it's pretty hard to beat somebody up in a skirt and not draw attention to yourself, if you know what I mean. Jane likes to say it makes me stop and think before making a knee-jerk decision. Kind of like what you tried to do back in the hospital - make a real stupid decision that doesn't solve the problem because you didn't think it through completely."

A vivid flush suffused Penny's face and torso at Victoria's words, and. "Janey died, you bitch, because of ME! Because of the awful things I SAID to her, okay?" Penny snarled, emphasizing each word by poking her index finger into Victoria's chest. "Don't tell me about stupid decisions. I already KNOW!"

Her own temper beginning to light, Victoria pushed her little sister back a step with a double hand shove. "Look, Penny, what you did to this Janey was wrong, all right? We can all AGREE on that, but at the same damned time, I think she was stupid to kill herself over it. Besides, this is NOT about her. This is about YOU. Why are you so damn selfish?

That question brought the taller girl up short and for a moment, she gaped. "Selfish? What the hell does that mean? I hate myself, but that has nothing to do with being selfish. What the hell do I have to be selfish about?"

"Good question, but so far, everything you've said? It's been all about you. You're willing to do whatever it takes to be the center of attention, to make others around you spend all their damn time thinking about you. You're so wrapped up in yourself you don't give a shit what you're doing to those around you."

"If I just died," Penny stormed back, really starting to lose control now, 'Then no one would have to worry about me, would they? How is THAT selfish. I am FREEING them."

"Oh for shit's sake. Are you really that stupid or are you fucking working at it? Hellooo! You think Aunt Jane would just throw a little dirt on your coffin and walk away? Cripes, Penny, you've gotten to know her yourself in the past few weeks or so. It would *kill* that lady if a student in her care offed himself. Maybe not physically, but something very important inside her would die, and she for damn sure would never, ever forgive herself. And a bunch of other kids like ME and yes, like YOU will have lost their chance to crawl up out of the mess they are making of their lives because she won't trust herself to help another kid. And while we're at it, I met your parents, okay? You think they feel the same way as Aunt Jane? Damn straight they do, pal. Hell, *you* feel the same way about Janey! Don't try to tell me that killing yourself wouldn't hurt anyone else because we both know that's BULLshit!"

Penny started to open her mouth, but the furious Victoria cut her off before she could get a word in. "And more than that, you have a lot of life left ahead of you. You could do a lot of *good* out there, if you set your mind to it. As far as I'm concerned, if you have that capacity and don't use it, then you are just as responsible for every kid in the future you could have helped who kills himself, or starves to death, or gets hooked on drugs, or just plain suffers through a miserable life, as you are for that one girl in the past. Get off your fuckin' ass, girl, and TRY to add enough value to the world to make up for whatever you've taken away. You *owe* us, Penny!"

"Oh, and just what the hell does being her wearing these stupid dresses have to do with that supposed debt, what did you say your name was? Victor?"

"Victoria will do right now, thank-you-very-much. The dresses have NOTHING to do with that as you damned well know, Penny. They're on the outside and Jane did that to help you - to give you some emotional distance from the guy you thought you were. What you do for others you'll do because of something on the inside. Call it heart. Call it guts. Call it whatever the hell you want, but call on it! A friend of mine told me that it's what's inside you that tells you to keep going when everything outside tells you to quit. Don't quit, Penny. Don't you EVER fucking quit! Start making things right for a change!"

As quickly as it had flashed, the temper went out of the taller student's eyes, and she slumped wearily into a nearby chair. "Janey's dead, damn you," she almost whimpered, "I can't make that right."

"Then dammit, make it BETTER," Victoria hissed intensely. "Make something, ANYTHING better than it is because you are here. Start seeing OTHERS' needs instead of your wants for a change."

"You're awfully damned cold-blooded all of a sudden. Aren't you supposed to change my mind for me?"

Victoria tossed her head defiantly and shot a disgusted look at her fellow student. "How am I gonna do that? It's your mind. You know that killing yourself is a fucking stupid thing to do. It's also fucking selfish. I don't think you're that stupid, and you've got no right to be that fucking selfish. Oh, the hell with it! I tried." and with that, the furious brunette swept out of the room.

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

The three eavesdroppers watched in silent fascination as the diminutive brunette went nose-to-chest with the tall boy-girl, lashing out with words and emotions that seemed to charge the very air.

"Goodness," Jane finally managed. "Was that my cowardly bully in there?"

"Bully, maybe," Michelle chuckled softly, "At least I'm sure Penny thinks so, but cowardly? Lord above, the only time she could get nose-to-nose was when Penny sat down. That's one tough big sister you've got there, Momma-Jane."

"I'll say. Now. . " Whatever Erica was about to say was interrupted by a wail of unmitigated anguish coming through the speakers. As one, Jane, Michelle and Erica turned back to the monitors and saw Penny, seated in her chair, weeping.

"That's it for now," Erica murmured. "Her adrenalin-rush just petered out and she's crashing from the residual traces of the sedatives we had to administer. At least Victoria got through the whole scenario before Penny hit the wall."

"Thank god," Michelle breathed.

Erica sighed softly. "Don't be too thankful yet, Mike, because we don't know yet WHY she's crying. But at least we know that she wasn't unmoved by Victoria's little speech."

"There's hope?" Jane asked as she prepared to go in to see to her student. Even now, she almost afraid to hope.

"There's hope," the two doctors said in unison.

"Michelle and I will start some one-on-one therapy sessions with her just as soon as she regains some composure. We'll know more after we talk with her, but there is hope now. Go take care of your student, Jane. The two of us will start when the sedatives have completely worn off."
 
 
Chapter 23: A Time to be Reborn
 
Victoria slipped out of Penny's room and then had to lean against the corridor wall to keep from falling over. *God, I hope I didn't mess that up! As soon as my legs work, I'll go find Michelle and find out the worst.*

"Victoria!" a concerned voice snapped out, "What is the matter? Are you all right?"

Aunt Jane was suddenly at her side, supporting her senior student's spent frame. "I'm okay. . .just. . just a bit shaky, is all. That was dam. . awfully hard. . .umm. . difficult."

"I know it was," Jane said warmly, "Michelle and Erica are cautiously optimistic now. But you did it nonetheless, and you did it superbly - with one exception."

"Exception?" Victoria yelped, trying to pull herself to her feet. "I KNEW I messed something up. What did I do? How can I fix it?"

Jane felt the girl reel again and held her grip. "I'll tell you after I see to Penny, but first, let's go find you a place to sit down before you fall down. I'll have Marie bring you a snack while you wait."

"O. . . okay, Aunt Jane."

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

Sitting on her bed, dressed in a cotton flannel nightgown, Penny scratched her head as she stared at the still-blank journal that pretty Doctor Nash had given her. She was supposed to 'reflect' on how she felt about the incident at the beauty parlor so that she could then discuss it with Dr. Nash and the other one, Dr. Davis.

One of the problems she was having with that task was that she'd completely lost track of time. There were a few very clear memories - that awful Sandy woman, Victoria protecting her, Victoria again, this time in Penny's room first admitting that she was also a boy and then chewing her out for being SELFISH. The memories were just there, all jumbled together with no sense of time to set them apart from one another. It was like those events happened one right after another, with no time between any of them.

Except that, according to Ms. Jane, the beauty parlor trip had been four days ago, and the confrontation with Victoria had been two days ago. The wonders of modern medical science.

The sound of a key rasping in her door lock had her setting the journal aside. She looked up just in time to gape in shock at who entered. "Victoria?" she asked.

"Yes'm," the girl replied as she entered the room.

"What is THAT?!?!" Penny asked, eyes wide with disbelief.

'That' was a full up, floor length, historically-accurate Victorian housekeeper's dress done in traditional black bombazine. From wrist to throat to floor, Victoria was covered in the heavy black material. It was topped by a starched cotton apron and with a white mobcap.

"I'm being taught a needed lesson, Mum," Victoria said shamefaced as she set the tea tray down on Penny's bedside table.

"For what?"

"Umm, well, Aunt Jane heard us yelling at each other - you know - when I brought you that food two days ago?"

"That's for YELLING at me? Good heavens, Victoria, I yelled at you first."

Victoria blushed bright pink. "She, ah, heard me use very unladylike language, and she is using this to remind me that I am always accountable for my behavior. I am getting a crash course in remedial ladylike behavior."

"She hasn't punished me."

"I wasn't impaired, and was therefore expected to keep control of my tongue. I'd be careful from now on, were I you. I don't think Jane would let you off now."

"But, but why THAT?"

Victoria giggled. "Goodness, back then, you couldn't even admit that a lady had 'legs' - they were 'limbs' instead. That's why they had to wear huge skirts that buried their . . . um, maidenly virtue beneath yards and yards of heavy skirts. The ultimate in demure femininity, don't you think?"

"You don't mind?"

"Well, the corset and period underwear are a bitc. . .um, are bothersome. Marie took three more inches off my waist lacing me up this morning so breathing is a challenge. Not to mention that the unmentionables, the starched pantilettes, wool stockings and muslin chemise, ITCH and ladies do NOT scratch," Victoria said with some asperity before giggling again. "Sure does remind me to act like a lady, though. Kind of hard to forget, if you know what I mean."

"Hell yes, I mean, goodness, yes."

"That's a freebie, Penny," Victoria told her seriously. "Please try to curb that language. If you start, I might forget and get my time in this outfit extended. At least it's not August. I couldn't handle this if it the weather was still hot."

"Serves you right. Lord knows I got the lecture on bad language when I got here - and needed it. I'm glad to see that Miss Jane's and Miss VICTORIA'S standards apply to everyone."

"I was sort of hoping you wouldn't remember that," Victoria mumbled, blushing even more vividly. "I don't suppose you could just chalk this up as an opportunity to learn from someone else's mistake?"

"Okay. Umm, Victoria?"

"Yes, Penny?"

"Thank you. For standing up for me with that Sandy person, and. . " she took a deep breath, "And for telling me the truth as you saw it the other day."

"What are you going to do?"

"Well, the first thing I'm going to do is go to the bathroom. No way I can drink any of that tea until I, ah, make some room. Wait for me? I need to talk to you if you have time."

"Sure," Victoria smiled. "According to Aunt Jane, I am your maid for the time being, anyway."

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

Victoria was setting out the tea when a soft sound from the bathroom caught her attention. It was a sound she'd heard often enough to recognize recently - it was the sound of someone crying.

Hurrying as quickly as her restrictive garb permitted, she rushed to the door and knocked. "Penny? Are you all right? May I come in?" The last question was for form, because none of the doors in a student's room could be locked.

The door opened and a red-eyed Penny stood there, looking forlorn. Victoria went to her and embraced the taller girl, letting her cry.

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

"MIKE? Get ready to go in there," Erica Davis ordered. "We may have a situation here. Penny just broke down and I have no idea why!"

Michelle pulled on her white lab coat and moved to get a good look at the monitor. "What happened?"

"Victoria went in there in Jane's punishment gown. They talked about it and then Penny went to the bathroom. Next thing I know, Victoria is pounding on the bathroom door, it opens and Penny's a basket case again."

"You think she's reacting to Victoria's discipline?"

"I have no idea, pal. I didn't see anything that would have indicated that before she went to the head."

"Okay," Michelle donned a ear-plug radio. "I'm wired. I'll be outside her door, ready to go in when you give the word."

"I'll call Jane," Erica said, reaching for the intercom switch.

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

"It. . .it just struck me, you know? I saw myself in the mirror."

"And?"

"I'm so . . . so ugly. I thought of . . of the things I said to Janey, and how they fit me so much better than they ever fit her."

"Umm, I suspect, Penny, that after what happened, if you were to tell Jane that you can't handle being Penny, she'd let you go back to Benny. The transformation to Penny was something to help you deal with your memories, not make them harder for you. You want me to go get you some jeans and a t-shirt until we can talk this out with Jane?" *Thank you, Michelle, for anticipating something like this. Fortunately, a complete 'boy' wardrobe in Benny's sizes is just down the hallway.*

"NO!" Penny sobbed out before muffling her next words in Victoria's apron-covered shoulders. "Ms. Thompson was. . was right. I. . .I need to understand what Janey went through, if I can, so that I can do what you said - help others like she wasn't helped. But it's going to be so hard looking like. . . like I do."

Victoria let her eyes go closed in momentary relief, then patted the still-sobbing girl on her back. "Hey, you think I was always this beautiful?" she teased. "You just haven't had the advantage of several months of, ah, intensive training by Jane Thompson and Tante Marie. Heavens, you've been here only a couple of weeks. Want me to show you some tricks? I'm pretty good with hair and makeup, although not nearly in Marie's class."

"With what?" Penny asked, gesturing at the empty vanity table where once just about every cosmetic known to woman had once resided.

"Oh, I can go get some stuff - if you're up for it. Heck, I could see if Tante Marie is free. She's been really worried about you, too."

"Okay. If you don't think she'd mind."

"Just wait. I'll be right back."

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

Jane watched as Victoria hurried out of the room and Penny went to stand in front of the vanity. She picked up the intercom and dialed the kitchen. "Marie? Victoria has gotten Penny to agree to a dress-up session. She needs you up there right away. Make her shine, okay? She's seeing her dead friend whenever she looks at herself in the mirror. Thanks." She put the phone back in the cradle and sighed. "Now what?" she asked Erica.

"We watch and wait. It's all we can do."

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

Victoria, Jane and Marie sat on the bed and watched as Penny examined herself in the mirror. Her hair was up in a simple ponytail, but had been brushed to a lustrous chestnut and teased into fullness. Marie's cosmetic artistry had added depth and a hint of mystery to the eyes that were Penny's best facial feature, had filled out the thin-lipped mouth and had highlighted her pale cheeks with just a touch of color. Jane had personally wielded the razor on her student's face while a cream depilatory had smoothed out the long legs. Faux nails with a shell-pink enamel brought an unexpected elegance to her slim hands. The simple pastel blue dress showed off her slim figure to perfection.

*She's not truly pretty,* Jane thought objectively, *but she's slender enough, her face is . . .interesting with a clear complexion, and those legs will draw the eye provided we play them up well. More than enough, I think, for us to work with. She'll do, and quite nicely, in fact. Now, if we can just get her to see that.*

"You look GREAT, Penny." Victoria cheered.

"You're much prettier," the flat voiced replied.

"And so she is," Jane said briskly. "But she has advantages, both natural and trained, that you don't. The former is luck,"

"Bad luck, if you ask me," Victoria put in pertly and earning a shy smile from Penny.

"Which no one did, Miss," Jane said sternly, at the same time surreptitiously squeezing Victoria's arm approvingly, "And you will wear that so-very-ladylike outfit for another two days for interrupting me. As I said, Penny, our Victoria has natural gifts that make the masquerade easier for her, but the skills to make the most of what you have are things she knows and you have yet to learn. She is right, however, you do look very nice right now. Don't you agree?"

"I'm very tall," Penny protested.

"So are super-models," Jane replied. "Understand this, Penny. I've done this with boys in the past, and very few of them turned out as pretty as this one. As for you, you're not as attractive as some, more attractive than many. You'll carry this off easily enough if you give it your full attention and effort. Looks are only a small part of being perceived as a woman when in public. Manners, mannerisms and attitude are far more important than mere looks."

"And you think I can do it?"

"I know you can do it, if that is what you want."

"It was part of our deal, wasn't it?"

"Yes, it was, but I am not going to hold you to that deal. Sandy's behavior endangered you, even though that was not her intent. I think you've made a transition since then. I believe that I can help you whether you are Penny or Benny. That said, it would be better if you came to those training and learning experiences I plan for you without reservations. If you have reservations about continuing to live as Penny, as a result of your experiences at the Marisha Chalet, then let's discuss them."

"And if I say I can't handle this - being Penny - anymore?"

"If you say that, and mean that, then you will be Benny again within the hour, and we will structure your program for that contingency."

"Which do you think would be. . .I don't know, better? More effective?"

Jane smiled sadly. "I can't answer that, my dear. I have preferences, but only you can decide how you really feel. You are very different from the other boys I have done this program with, and therefore, what made my program effective with them may not apply with you. If you fight me every step of the way, that helps neither of us."

"I see. When do I have to decide?"

"Not right away. Dr Nash and Dr Davis want to work with you a bit more, first. You should probably discuss this with them before reaching any decisions.

"What about that beauty parlor? And that Sandy woman?"

Jane shrugged. "Not much point taking Benny there, is there? As for Penny? Well, we'll play that by ear, but I doubt there's much there for you to learn now. If that is the only reason not to be Penny, and if there are reasons for you to be Penny, then we won't go to the Chalet. This is about helping you, Penny. As for Sandra? I understand that Dr. Nash has told you her reasons for her behavior. Be that as it may, she's no longer a part of my program." And there was an awful finality to Jane's voice. "Now, you must excuse me as I have some calls to make. If you need me, Victoria will know where to find me."

"I must prepare dinner," Marie said, and rose to follow Jane.

"Well, I know you used your deodorant," Victoria said snippily. "I guess mine must be wearing off the way those two cleared out of here."

"Just as well," Penny said, yawning. "I'm suddenly very tired."

Victoria was up in a flash. "Oh, I'm sorry. Here, let me help you out of those things so you can lay down."

Minutes later, Penny came out of the bathroom, again in her nightgown, with her face cleansed of Marie's makeup. She saw that the bed had been turned down and that all the makeup was again on the mobile cart that Victoria had wheeled into her room a couple of hours earlier.

The senior student saw her little sister's pensive look and blushed. "I'm sorry, Penny, but Jane said that I had to take them back until. . well, until. . "

"I understand, Victoria," Penny said solemnly. "Until she is more certain of my commitment to atone for what I did. That's fine."

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

Erica watched as the two girls said their goodbyes. She was encouraged when Penny specifically made the effort to clasp hands with Victoria before getting into her bed. It was the first gesture of what might be affection she had seen her patient offer another. Things were looking up.

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

Victoria closed Penny's door behind her and carefully checked the hall. Once she was certain she was alone, she looked at the thing Penny had covertly pressed into her hand.

It was a wadded up piece of paper - a note. Quickly, she smoothed out the paper and scanned the message. Then she groaned.

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

"Dr. Davis?" Victoria called from the door. "May I speak with you, please?"

"Sure, Vic. C'mon in. What's up?"

"You know Jane told me to do whatever was necessary for Penny's recovery?"

"Yes, I do. So?"

"So this," the girl said, holding out a badly wrinkled sheet of paper. "Penny palmed that to me just as I left. In it, she asks me not to tell Jane. Now I am well and truly stuck."

Erica read the note, and carefully considered the possibilities. "Keep faith with Aunt Jane or with your little sister, eh?"

"That's about it. I can't see how to do both."

"Let me talk to Michelle and see what she thinks. Then I'll get back to you, okay? If it becomes necessary to bring Jane into this, I will do it, and make sure that Penny understands that it was my doing, not yours. That it was a medical decision all the way, which in fact, is precisely what it is in this case."

"Thanks, Dr. Davis."

"Erica, dear, at least, when we're alone. After all, I'm just another of Jane's boys, too."
 
 
Chapter 24: A Time to Heal
 
Victoria knocked on Penny's door and waited to be invited inside before turning the key that undid the special lock. "Hi," she said as she slipped inside.

Penny looked up from the book she was reading and almost smiled. "Free at last, free at last?"

The shorter brunette pirouetted, showing off the modern skirt and sweater set she wore. "I won't finish that quote as Aunt Jane might overhear me and decide I was being flippant."

"Flippant? You?" Penny asked, her dark eyes wide with overstated disbelief.

"I know - it boggles the mind, doesn't it?" Victoria said, laughing. "I just can't imagine how Aunt Jane comes by those unfair opinions about me, but I'm not too excited about giving her any further ammunition right how. Those wool stockings were about to drive me IN-SANE!"

"At least they were wool stockings and not wool panties," Penny offered, all solicitude.

"Was that a tease, Penny?" Victoria demanded, her right brow cocked.

The girl's sudden blush was her only answer, but Victoria made a mental note to pass that along to Aunt Jane and the doctors later. "Well, if you're going to be mean, I won't tell you the good news!"

"Good news?"

"Yes, good news," she teased, only to become increasingly frustrated when Penny didn't say anything more. "You're supposed to beg, darnit!" Victoria whined, exaggerating a foot-stamp.

"Oh, sorry. Please tell me the good news, Victoria," Penny said, without much inflection. "Pretty please?"

"Oh pooh. You're no fun. The good news is that Jane said we could go for a walk outside today. If you want, that is."

"That would be very nice," the taller girl said softly. "When?"

"Now?"

"Yes, please."

"Well," Victoria gave her little sister a quick once over. The rose and cream dress was simple in design, but showed nicely on Penny's long frame. *Skirt's a bit short for Seasons House, but I suspect Jane has her reasons.* "Nice outfit, Penny, but those strappy heels are not suited for going walk-about. Go run a brush through your hair and freshen your lipstick, girl, while I raid your closet for decent walking shoes. Then we'll blow this joint. At least until dinner. Tante Marie is making pot roast tonight!"

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

"It's really pretty out here," Penny said later as they walked around behind the stable. "All the fall colors."

"There's a really good place over here," Victoria said, pointing the way to a small copse of trees.

Penny, as she had done since the beginning of her time with Jane, allowed herself to be led where others told her to go. The pair went off the shell-lined trail and crossed the autumn-dry grass and into the small stand of trees.

Whereupon Penny stopped short, unable to hide her surprise.

"Hello, Penny," the figure seated on the marble bench said. "Victoria told me you wanted to see me," Sandra Kash said quietly.

"I. . .I didn't think you'd come, actually," the tall girl said, still staring.

Sandra stood up to greet the two girls, her rounded figure poured into a pair of skin-tight jeans with a loose, cowl-neck sweater on top. Her short blonde curls were squashed under a decrepit Boston Red Sox ball cap and her eyes were hidden behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses. She shrugged. "I don't know what you want to say to me, Penny, but I fuc . . messed up badly with you. I know that, and if telling me to go to hell or worse gives you closure, then that's what I want you to do."

"That's not it," Penny said, averting her eyes. "Telling someone else to join me in hell does not have any real appeal to me."

"Then, what do you want? Why ask Victoria to sneak me in here behind Jane's back. It's no skin off my nose if Jane catches me here - I'm already on her shit list, but Victoria took a helluva risk contacting me and an even bigger one getting you out here."

"I want the truth, please," she replied, a touch of steel ringing in her voice.

"I won't lie to you," Sandy said evenly as she slipped off her sunglasses to reveal tear-reddened eyes. "If I don't think I can answer a question, because it involves someone else - another of Jane's students - I will tell you that, but I won't tell you any lies."

Penny considered that, sneaking furtive looks at the woman out of the corner of her eyes. *She looks like she's ready to bolt,* Victoria thought, and moved to support her little sister so she felt, rather than saw when Penny took a deep breath and turned to face Sandy directly.

"Why?" she asked in a harsh, gritty whisper. "What reason could you have for treating me like that? For. . .for saying those things to me the way you did."

Sandy's eyes went closed and she turned her back to the two girls for several seconds before, without warning, spinning back around. Penny jumped backward in fear, only to be stopped by Victoria. "Sorry," the blonde stylist surprised both girls by saying. "I didn't mean to spook you. It's just that I decided that if I'm going to say this, I won't take the easy way out. I'm going to face you, person to person, when I tell you what you want to know."

"O. . okay."

"The answer, Penny, is that there isn't a good reason, not in 20/20 hindsight. Guess there rarely is a good reason for something that stupid. What happened, I guess, is that I was too damn sure of myself, too arrogant for my own or your own good."

"I don't understand what you mean."

Sandy gave the two girls a self-deprecating smile. "I don't suppose you do. Look, Caro tells me Jane has explained what she does here, right? Normally, anyway? What she does with boys like Victoria, right?" Penny nodded. "Okay, she needs the boys to be afraid - usually, anyway. Afraid of giving themselves away. She's very careful to make sure that doesn't ever actually happen, but the boys can't be allowed to see her taking care of that. My function in all this is two-fold. First, I am very good at my craft. I could take Hulk Hogan and make him passable as a girl, if not actually attractive."

"Who's that?" Victoria chirped in drawing a exaggerated look of disdain from Sandy.

"You're not THAT young, Missy," Sandy chided the smaller girl. "However, to continue? As good as Jane and Marie are at this game, I'm that much better, so they bring their boys to me for the big transformations once they're mostly passable. Okay?"

"I can understand that, but that doesn't explain. . . all those horrible things. . ."

"I said I served two functions in Jane's program. It's my job to threaten them with that exposure they fear, and I'm damned good at that, too. I make them believe that they are two seconds away from it at all times - even though they're not. Hell, when you were in my chair, the only people in the shop already were in on the game. You were never in any danger. Same with the other boys."

"But, I wasn't there to be controlled. I was there to learn about . . .about how Janey felt."

"I know that now," Sandy said, her eyes again closed against her pain, "I knew that then. I thought, what the hell, it bothers Jane's other boys to be told they're cute, and I'm not supposed to bother this one that way. So I told you how ugly you were, even though that was a lie. I figured that would, I don't know, make you less upset. Where I made my mistake was going on automatic, not listening to what you were really saying, not seeing how you were really reacting, and I went way too far. I sincerely apologize for that."

The tall girl said nothing for several moments. "I see," she finally said before going on in a flat, unemotional voice, "You are forgiven. I accept your apology."

Now it was Sandy's turn to gape in surprise and she looked to Victoria who shrugged uncertainly. "Well, umm, thank you, Penny."

An uncomfortable silence ensued, during which none of them so much as moved. Sandy gave a weak laugh. "So, what are you going to do now, Penny? Will we be seeing Benny again soon?"

"I beg your pardon, Ms. Kash?"

"Call me Sandy. Ms. Kash is my Mom. The question is will you be going back to being Benny soon? Jane also told Caro that she was thinking of letting you out of the skirts. Try something else. In fact, she said that it will be your decision after the fiasco at the salon. Have you made your decision?" she asked again and then went on before Penny could answer. "Of course you have. Don't know any boy of Jane's who wouldn't jump at the chance to be out of her skirts and petticoats."

"Why do you want to know?"

Suddenly, something broke inside the normally acerbic blonde and tears began coursing down Sandy's cheeks. "Because I don't want my mistake to drive your decision. Look, I know it sounds strange and maybe even unnatural, but dammit, what Jane does with her boys here at Seasons House works! Regardless of how I behaved, or what you think of me as a person, I want you to have the best chance possible. You and Jane will make that decision, but I don't want my fuc. . screwup to mess up your thinking. Look, if going to the salon as Penny and having to face me there is going to be a deal killer with Jane? I promise that I will make sure I am not even in the shop whenever Jane brings you in, okay? I'll be sick or out shopping or out of town - anywhere but where you are. You have my word."

"Why?"

"Huh?" the blonde asked. "Why what?"

"Why make that kind of offer? It's your shop and besides, if I understand how Ms. Thompson operates, there can't be that many other shops she can safely use for that kind of thing."

Sandy snorted at that. "There isn't ANY other shop she can safely use - at least not in the first few weeks when the boy doesn't have the act and the look down pat. As to why I'd offer to make myself scarce? Because I want the best for you and that is whatever Jane can come up with to help you. She's that damned good at what SHE does! Look, I can be, and often am a bitch. I'm certainly not the nicest person in the world, but until you, the stuff I do for Jane has been the one part of my life where I actually, really help people. That's why I do it. I'm the bogey woman and I admit that I DO enjoy that part of it. I LIKE being the witch that Mothers and Aunt Jane use to put the fear of god in their kids."

"Sure did with me," Victoria murmured, thinking that a bit of distraction was called for.

"'course I did," Sandy smiled with something approaching her usual mein. "Penny, one of the boys once told me that I am. . .was the 'big gun' in Jane's program. I'll admit to getting off on it when the boys almost pee their panties in my salon chair when I get in their face and they KNOW that *I* know, okay? But the reason I'm PROUD of what I do is because it helps turn kids around. I can't be proud of what I did to you and the only way to make that right is by doing whatever it takes to keep you working with Jane. IF that means dropping out of the picture, then I am gone. Simple as that, end of statement. I really, really am sorry, Benny."

The girl straightened, and for the first time, she looked Sandy directly in the eye. "It's Penny," she corrected the older woman, "And I'd rather you stayed. I mean, if I have to suffer this to atone for what I did, why should I let you get off that easily? Penance is supposed to be good for the soul."

"You mean that? Really?"

"I don't lie either. Tell me, Ms. .um, Sandy. Are you really as good as you said you are? That's not just tooting your own horn, is it?"

Offended, Sandy growled, "If anything, girl, I was being unduly modest."

"Very out of character for her, too, Sis," Victoria put in, "but there is no doubt that Sandy is the best hair and face-glop artist in the area."

"In the state, Missy, maybe in all of New England!" Sandy corrected, grinning.

"Then I need to talk to Ms. Thompson. I am going to need all the help I can get."

"If you're serious, Penny," Sandy said in much gentler tones. "You're not now, and never will be classically pretty. Certainly not like this little hussy, but all the same? On those few moments while we've been here, when you forgot to quite so self conscious? You've got this, I don't know, aura of sad dignity about you that is, well, very appealing. If you were a real girl, every chivalrous male within ten miles would be clamoring to slay your dragons for you - even some not-so-chivalrous males. I can help you build on that."

"I'm not interested in having men 'clamoring' for me," Penny retorted stiffly.

Victoria saw an 'old Sandy' grin flash momentarily before Sandy could bring it fully under control. "I didn't say you would be, but I can make you look good enough that men will *think* you're an attractive girl. That's what you were asking, wasn't it?"

"I guess it was," the girl murmured. "How. . . unsettling."

"Be careful what you wish for, sis," Victoria put in, still trying to lighten the mood. "Sandy might just see that you get it."

"Whatever I can do, Penny," Sandy assured her.

Penny only nodded before turning back to Victoria. "I'm starting to feel really tired," she said quietly. "I think I may have overdone."

"Let's go back to the house, then. Marie will have my guts for garters if you get sick over this. See you later, Sandy."

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

Sandy slipped the sunglasses back on as she watched the two girls disappear behind the stable on their way up to the main house. At the sound of leaves crackling underfoot behind her, she turned to face the figure that stepped out of the shadows. "Good job, Sandy," Michelle Nash said. "I think we made points today."

"You think she can talk Jane into letting me back into the program?" Sandy asked, wistfully.

"If she can't, I will. You won't screw up like this again, and you are an asset. Like you said, you're the best at both roles."

"Benny or Penny?"

"Right now I think it's pretty clear she'll stay as Penny. Probably for the best, too, although Erica isn't really sure. The eminent Dr. Davis doesn't like the fact that Penny's in martyr mode - taking the worst of everything because she deserves it in her mind, like atonement. She'll convince herself that being Penny is the tougher penance."

"Isn't she?"

"Erica doesn't think so. Benny's the one she has to face eventually because Benny is the one she blames for Janey's suicide. Right now, she's not strong enough to face that. Our mission is to keep her around until she is strong enough."

"By around, you mean alive, don't you?"

Michelle only nodded.
 
 
Chapter 25: A Time to Grow
 
 
Vignette: MiLady's Closet - The Private Viewing Room
 
"But, Vic-key," only audible separation in the two syllables indicated how truly unnerved the tall student was. "She's a REAL girl!"

Victoria smiled gently at her friend. Penny was standing just inside the dressing room with only her head sticking out and the door curtain draped protectively around her long, lean frame. *She looks like an actress in an old slapstick movie - right after her clothes got stolen. The outraged comedic heroine except she's not feeling very funny right now so wipe that grin off your face, Denato!*

"It's NOT funny, Denato!" Penny fumed, echoing her big sister's own admonishment.

"I know, I know, and I'm sorry, but what did you expect in a women's clothing and lingerie store, Penny? Male attendants?"

"But, but, she'll SEE, Victoria, that I'm. . "

"None of that," Victoria cut in sharply. "What she has SEEN is what she has said - that you are a very tall girl with great legs and good bones, if a bit broad in the shoulders. That swimmer-cover-story Jane came up with is working well, isn't it?

"Don't change the subject, Victoria."

"There isn't any problem unless you make one, Penny. She's already accepted you as a girl. Just go with it and I'll be here to distract her if she starts poking around where she shouldn't."

"Who's going to distract ME?" the wide-eyed teen demanded.

"From what?"

"Not what, you ditz, who. From HER! In case you haven't noticed, she is, well, really cute! And. . . and well, things are getting a bit. . .hard for me."

Without thinking, Victoria's eyes dropped down and then snapped up and felt her face go hot. "Oh, well, it isn't, uh, showing."

"Only because this curtain material is heavy duty stuff, Victoria. My panties aren't. And I didn't know we were coming here so I'm not wearing the gaff."

"Dam. . ummm. . darn. Okay. I'll be right back."

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

"I don't know why you think you need that silly panty girdle, Penny," Sally, Brenda Franson's shop girl commented. "It's not like you have a poochy tummy or a saggy bottom.

Penny momentarily glared at Victoria's reflection in the mirror before smiling down at Sally. "It nips me in just a bit and makes me look like I have a figure," she managed in an airy tone. "I'm just a little self-conscious about being quite so. . .umm. . .flat. At least the long line smooths things out for me so I don't look quite so bony and hard."

"I suppose. Personally, I love the athletic-girl look. Someday, after you graduate from Ms. Thompson's finishing school, come back here and I put you in some clothes that will REALLY make you shine."

"Gee, thanks, Sally. Sounds like fun."

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

"Once she got over having knicker-fits at having been caught without her gaff, she settled down and carried it off with no trouble," Victoria reported to Jane. "Very poised; good presentation and deportment, too."

"The girdle idea was well done of you, and she won't forget her appliance in the future," Jane smiled. "So, she found the pretty Sally attractive, in a . . . physical sense?"

"AUNT JANE!" Victoria squawked.

"Well, did she?"

"I thought nice girls didn't talk about such things!" Victoria sniffed.

"Victoria, you have learned the arts of being a girl about as well as any student I've ever taught save one or two, but let me tell you a little secret I have not shared with any other student."

"Yes, Aunt Jane?"

"Nice girls DO talk about such things. What makes them NICE girls is not getting caught DOING such things."

"Oh?"

"Oh," Jane said definitively. "Now, answer the question."

"Let's just say that I think Tante Marie is going to have to change Penny's bed linens after tonight."

"Ah. Excellent. I will have to make sure that Sally is always there when I bring Penny in for future fittings. It is too bad I do not know the girl well enough to bring her in on the masquerade. She could do a great deal for Penny if she were briefed and willing."

"If you did and Penny found out, she'd freak, Aunt Jane. It was bad enough when she remembered that Brenda knew. It's a good thing Brenda went easy on her."

"Brenda has good sense. Do you think our Penny enjoyed the experience today at all?"

"Unrequited lust is hard on a guy, even if he's a girl, Aunt Jane."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it, young lady."

Victoria giggled at her little victory, then became serious. "As much as she lets herself enjoy anything. I think that is why she picked Sandy as her stylist - she wanted to atone for having too much of a good time at the dress store."

"Did Sandra step over the line again?" Jane's voice was ice cold and hard. She'd been reticent to allow Sandy to resume her duties, but when both Michael and Penny had approached her, she'd relented.

"Not really, at least for Sandy. She gave Penny about the same ration of grief as she always gives me when I'm in her chair, and she knows I'm onto her. It wasn't all that bad and besides, Caro was keeping an ear on her."

"Is that the way it is always going to be with this child?" Jane asked rhetorically. "Bad to balance every good? Every pleasure to be followed by some self-inflicted symbolic flagellation?"

"She is no longer determined to kill herself, Aunt Jane. You have time, now."

"You're right, of course, but it is just so hard sometimes, especially when I see what she does to herself."
 
 
Vignette: The Kingston Country Club - The Ladies Club Room
 
"Sit up straight, girl," Edith White ordered. "If you're going to have all those inches, sit up and have them counted. Just because Victoria is a pocket venus is no reason to hunch over. Just draws more attention to what you aren't and she is."

"Yes, Ma'am." Penny murmured.

"So, Victoria is about to finish her time with you, Jane, and you're proposing this one as her replacement?"

"Just so, Edith," Jane said as she lifted her tea cup to her lips. "Victoria is going to a boarding school where she will rub elbows with others of . . .our class and acquire a finer social polish. An enrolled student at the school had to drop out - illness or some such thing - and we couldn't turn down the opportunity when my dear friend called to offer us the slot."

"Looking forward to it, are you, gel?" Edith inquired. "I loved my time at boarding school. Was a prefect, too, don't you know."

"Were you really, Ms. White?" Victoria gushed. "Oh, I think that sounds ever so interesting. Do you have to be perfect to be a prefect?"

"I'm sure Edith will be happy to talk to you about it later, dear," Jane interrupted her mischievous student smoothly. "but we have business to attend to after this little tete-a-tete. As I was saying, Edith, Victoria has to leave us shortly after the holidays, but I knew how you were counting on her helping out with the upcoming telethon, and did not want to leave you short handed. So, when Penny volunteered. . "

"Penny? PENNY?," the old woman's eyes bulged at the offending student with affronted dignity. "What type of name is that for a well-brought-up young woman of our class? Jane? Why-ever do you tolerate such. . .such informality? Why don't you call her Penelope? Young people these days, not having the courtesy to use their real given names."

"My name IS Penny, Ma'am," Penny put in with what Jane thought admirable sang froid, "Not Penelope. My. . . Mother," and Edith missed the quick look Penny shot Jane, "named me Penny."

"Named you Penny? NAMED you PENNY?!? Unbelievable. Should have named you Penelope - that's the correct name - it's in Homer's Odyssey, you know. No Pennies in Homer's Odyssey. I don't suppose you'd mind being called Penelope at the telethon? Much more dignified. Will sound better on television, as well."

Jane watched her oh-so-submissive junior student seem to grow taller before her eyes. *Eyes straight, shoulders back, heavens, if the child was any more dignified, she'd be running for Parliament, and she's not even British.*

"Penelope is not my name; Penny is, Ma'am. It would be disrespectful of me not to honor my Mother's naming of me."

"Just so," Jane repeated.

Disappointment and annoyance, the former due to her failure to cow this upstart young female and the latter due to Jane's failure to support what Edith thought was a perfectly reasonable requirement, warred on the old woman's face. "Oh, very well. At least I won't have to worry about you flirting with the male contributors like I did with this one!" she offered in what passed for humor in the humorless old biddy.

"Just so," Jane said, her voice going cold as she stood up. "Well, we must be going, Edith. I have to take Victoria and Penny shopping. I will have Penny at the PBS station by seven p.m. next Saturday for the required training. Say good bye, girls."

"Good bye, Ms. White," Penny and Victoria said in childlike unison.

They were outside at the car when Jane said another word. Penny wasn't sure what she has said, but it has sounded remarkably like 'bitch'.

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

It was all Victoria could do not to howl with laughter as she recounted their afternoon tea for Marie's benefit. "I thought she was going to call for a judge right then and there, and demand Penny's name be legally changed to what SHE considered appropriate."

"Oh heavens," Marie choked. "I can just hear her with those clipped, Brahman accents, telling Penny her name isn't dignified. How did Penny handle it?"

"As if listening to a senile old fool pontificate on proper naming was the most normal thing in the world," Jane answered evenly. "She never spilled a drop of tea, or spread crumbs."

"She even ate one of those horrid, dry scones the club serves without so much as flinching," Victoria finished.

"High marks for deportment, eh, Jane?" Marie asked, her eyes twinkling.

"True enough, Marie, and Penny has proven her willingness to do whatever she's asked to my satisfaction over the past two months. I agree she's ready to be a big sister. I called Judge Ruth just an hour ago, telling her we'll be ready for our next student shortly."

"What do Michael and Eric think of that plan?" Marie asked.

"Don't tell me you haven't asked them," Jane teased. "They think she'll be fine. She's ready to be the responsible one. And just maybe, if she's concentrating on someone else's needs, she'll let her guard down enough to find a little joy in her life again."

"So, does that mean we call for the breakdown crew on this one?" Marie asked.

"Breakdown?!? I'm fine, thank you very much," Victoria protested. "I am not broken."

"Non, petite, you misunderstand. Breakdown is Jane's word for turning you back into a young man."

"It might be useful for Victor to have a couple of weeks in boys clothing before heading to Saint Andrews Academy. You need to relearn to swing your shoulders instead of your hips when you walk, you hussy," Jane said in a creditable imitation of Edith White. "All right. Invite the Beales to dinner tomorrow night, Marie. Tell Carolyn to bring her Breakdown Kit."

"How about Sandy, Aunt Jane?"

"You want Sandy?" Jane asked, her tone suddenly cooler.

"She did help me, Aunt Jane, and she did apologize to Penny."

"I know," Jane sighed. "Please invite Sandy as well, Marie. No, wait, on second thought, I will invite her. She might not come if the invitation does not come directly from me."

"Thank you, Aunt Jane."
 
 
Chapter 26: A Time to Reap, A Time to Sow
 
The winds of January howled their fury, blowing snow across the Kingston train platform. Four figures huddled together, backs to the wind, awaiting the train.

"I still say you should let me drive you up there, Victor," Jane said. "It would only take a day.

"Unless it snowed and you got stuck up there, which the weather report says is likely. I'd rather have you here and know you're safe, Aunt Jane," Victor shouted to be heard above the wind. "besides, you need the time to finish up preparations for the arrival of Pretty Penny's little sister. Last I heard, she was supposed to be here day after tomorrow unless the snow stops train travel. You need to be here."

"Don't try to confuse my emotions with logic, young man. I am having a "mother with a chick leaving the nest" moment here."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Victor Denato took a lingering look about the wind-blown station house and it's quaint New England setting. For all the cold and snow, it no longer had the feeling of dread about it that he'd sensed on arriving here so many months ago. As it had for so many young men before him, Jane Thompson's Seasons House had become a second home for him, and she had become like a second Mother. Marie was the loving and doting aunt he'd never known before coming to this place, while Penny had become the sibling he'd never had.

At the thought of Penny, Victor smiled. She'd come a long way in the last three months, he thought as he gave her a thoughtful inspection. She just stood there, straight and determined, as if the sub-zero chill factor did not exist for her. *Heck, even Jane is shivering, but Penny just stands there unmoved and unmoving.*

Her deportment was now excellent as were all her skills and mannerisms. The only problem she faced on a daily basis was her beard. Naturally dark haired, Penny's beard had started to become something of a nuisance. Five o'clock shadow on a sixteen year old girl is a bit of a giveaway in terms of the Jane Thompson masquerade. The answer had come in the form of a special bleaching depilatory designed for facial use. Victor had tried it once, and had felt like his face was being scorched although it had not left behind any marks or rash. Still, it was one more facet of her new life in which Penny truly did suffer for her looks and thus worked to atone for Janey's death.

*Please help her forgive herself and learn to laugh again,* Victor prayed silently.

The lonely wail of a far off train whistle called to them through the snow. "Now, I expect you to apply yourself to your studies, young man," Jane said firmly. "This will be a tough semester for you, but if you do as well as I expect you'll do, I am sure that I can arrange for you to be accepted into the pre-veterinary program at Brown this coming fall."

"I'll do my very best, Aunt Jane," the young man said as the train chugged up to the platform. "God, I'm gonna miss you all so much!" he rasped, even as he reached out to pull all three women into his arms.

For several not-nearly-long enough moments, they stood there, sharing a warmth far deeper than merely physical.

"BOOOARRRDDD!!!" the conductor called, intruding on their connection.

"I have to go," Victor said finally.

He went to Marie and hugged her close. "Send cookies!" he begged shamelessly before turning to Penny.

With an ease that pleased Jane greatly, Victor put a brotherly arm about Penny's shoulders, and pulled her close. "Each one, teach one, sis," he quoted softly. "Help Jane make it better for your little sister. It will be tough on you both, but I know you can do it. You got heart, Penny."

"Thank you for being here for me," Penny whispered as she hugged herself close to him and rested her head on top of his.

*Mutt and Jephinia,* Jane thought as she watched the quiet farewells. *And yet, there is no doubt which of them IS the big sister. . . or brother.*

His arm still securely about Penny's back, Victor turned to smile up at his beloved teachers. "Aunt Jane, if you ever need any help - mine or Victoria's - with some other menace to society like this big stringbean, just let me know, okay? Like the song says, just call out either of my names and you know that I'll be there."

"Thank you, sweetheart. That means a very great deal to me," Jane said, feeling the prickle of wet heat behind her eyelids.

Victor grinned and then hugged Penny again. "I wouldn't have missed knowing you for the world and all that's in it."

"I'll miss you, big sister," Penny whispered shyly.

"So will we, Victor," Jane said, getting her hug in as they walked up to the train car.

"Ummm, Aunt Jane?"

"Yes, dear?"

"It won't bother me if you slip up and call me Victoria, you know - in fact, I'd kind of miss it if you didn't."

"Really?"

"Really. If Captain Wilma can handle it, so can I. Besides, Victoria's me and I'm she, if you know what I mean. I don't want to leave her behind with her skirts and petti's."

Jane smiled, a bit tearfully, and nodded. "Call often, Victor/Victoria."

The train left the station slowly, and the three women were able to keep up with Victor's window by walking until they finally ran out of platform. They stood there, on the edge of the concrete platform, simply watching, until the train had rolled out of sight.

Finally, Jane sighed. "Well, ladies? Shall we go celebrate Victor's graduation and Penny's promotion? Dinner at the club, I think. Tomorrow is soon enough to finish the preparations for Jesse's arrival, don't you think, Marie? Penny?" Both women nodded their agreement. Jane put a hand on the elbow of her two companions and began to walk back to the train station parking lot.

And tonight, she promised herself, she would fully savor the ceremonial entry of Victor Denato's name into the 'success' column of Jane Thompson's Rogues' Gallery of Seasons House.


 
 
End of Season of Terror - Victoria's Story



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