....Is you.

"Make my wish come truueee... all I want for Christmas," Jake managed to get out, just before running out of breath.

Then he got moody again and closed up; not even his favorite holiday song was breaking him out of his funk this time.

"What's wrong, man?"

He dumped himself bonelessly on his couch.

"I just wish I could do it like you do."

"Do what?" I asked, even though I already knew.

"Talk to people. Get dates like you do. You make it look so easy - you just walked up to some girl you never met before yesterday and asked her out, and she said yes right on the spot! That never works for me."

"That's because you aren't confident enough, Jake. It's all about the confidence." I'd explained all this before.

"I know. But every time I get near someone like that, I get all tongue tied."

"Look Jake, you agree with me that no one should be alone on Christmas, right?"

I knew he did. He nodded.

I'd have to handle this carefully. "Alright, so how about I swing by Christmas day? We can work on that confidence of yours, over eggnog."

Jake brightened right up. "Sure. See you in a couple days."

"You bet, man."

"Christmas day, I'm bringing your date! You best prepare!" I ran before he could do more than yell a few choice names at me.

It was the twenty-second of December, and I needed to go to work. I hated my job sometimes. And by sometimes I meant when I was awake; working retail sucked like nothing else. I had stopped by Jake's because he texted he needed some holiday cheer; I was his only admitted friend so I was the only option. My sister didn't count, or so he told me.

I hadn't told her that he said that, there would have been blood.

Jake was an old friend of the family, since the earliest days of middle school. The kind of guy you rapidly fell out of touch with past high school when you went to college - except we hadn't. We were still the best of friends, even though more than one of my other, newer friends had not liked him.

It was weird, but they just didn't know him like I did. A quiet introvert, he loved art and music, he painted and sculpted while I stocked shelves. Some of those friends had even tried to tell me he was gay, as if a love for hip hop or boy bands just painted you with that brush. I was willing to bet more guys loved Justin Timberlake or whoever was hot now than would admit it. Not my cup of, well, anything, but to each their own.

I got to the store, our local chain drug store, and clocked in. Of course our manager wasn't here; he'd taken his vacation. But unfortunately for us, he had left detailed instructions on what he wanted done and by which day. Thankfully, I was on unloading our truck today. True, our manage did hate my guts, but at least I wouldn't have to deal with our loving customers if I was in the back.

The other bad news was that it would just be that much harder to get Jake a date in time. Part of the reason the manager hated me was he was a forty year old balding virgin who only saw pin ups in his life, and he didn't like me talking to our young twenty-somethings who came in looking for midol and pregnancy tests.

So I was in the back, jamming to the oldies, working up a massive sweat pulling boxes off the line due to some severe jealousy. Which wouldn't have been so bad, except I was doing the whole thing myself due to call-ins. I bet if I looked out on the floor, everything would be half stocked but the seasonal crap, which would be spilling into the other shelves because we always ordered way too much and no one bought it.

But I wasn't management, so I couldn't talk sense into them about it. If you weren't in a tie no one in the company heard you.

"Hey, Payton."

"Hey, Janice." Janice was a bit older, a bit more lined, weary, and bowed by time than I was. Not to mention far more cynical. She wasn't a looker, never had been, but she had a certain gravity about her. I liked her.

Wait, she might have friends! "Hey, Janice!"

She shut me down. "No, whatever it is."

"Oh come on, you haven't even heard what it is yet."

She leaned back to hold the wall up and lifted a foot to massage it. "Knowing you, it's about getting a date."

Okay, Janice knew me a bit too well. "Kind of? Hear me out, please. I've got a date, but I've also get a friend, and this friend is painfully shy. He doesn't have a date, and finds it really hard to meet girls, so I'm trying to help him out, because no one should be lonely at Christmas."

"Shit, you actually have a point," she told me. "But I don't have any single friends. I'll ask around, and see who might be available and desperate enough. Maybe with more notice...."

I waved her off. "If you don't know anyone, you don't know. I'm just trying to help him out; it's a spur of the moment thing, really. His actual gift from me is a new tablet, but I've always been his wingman, and old habits die hard. If he knew that I was asking around, he'd tell me to knock it off."

Janice shrugged. "It's still a good thing you're doing, if you're telling the truth about it."

Wow, she thought so little of me. "I'm hurt. Wounded to the core, even. I've never once lied to you."

"You called me beautiful once." Janice pointed out.

I grinned. "Meant every word, too."

She snorted laughter my way.

"What did you come in here for, anyway? I can't imagine you missed the heat." It didn't matter how cold it was outside or even in the store, the unloading room was always a bit of a sweat lodge. With enough rain the substandard air conditioning just gave up, and the room became a full sauna.

"Came for a cart of health and beauty," Janice admitted without a hint of self-conscious embarrassment, ignoring the two full carts of health and beauty products next to her in favor of massaging her other foot.

"Good, so long as you're working."

She ignored my sarcasm, grabbed the first cart, and dragged it off.

It was dark by the time I finished unloading the truck, and I was the proud owner of a new hour of overtime. That was fine with me, it meant my Christmas gifts were paid for. It also meant I was in the store well after closing, since I was silly enough to finish up.

Now it was time to drive home and drink beer until I fell asleep. Then tomorrow I'd finish my last minute shopping and get a date for Jake. He had to be sick of hanging out with just me by now, and my parents were in Tahiti this year so we couldn't go there.

Wait, why did we never go to Jake's parents to hang out for Christmas? Or even ever? We almost never did go see them, it was weird. Maybe I'd ask him later. When I cared more.

I hated traffic in this town; even at night there was enough to be annoying, and you had to fight it. It always took at least ten minutes too long to get anywhere. At least the little twerp from 2C wasn't parking in my spot again. I crunched through the snow to my door, opened it, and ducked inside.

And then grabbed my first beer, conveniently left near the door. Jiggling the mouse on my desk woke my computer up. No new messages, and only a few new updates to friend's posts... all girls of course. The same old pictures of food or scenery, or the even more self-absorbed selfie. It worked well for my purposes, even though staring at the food did tend to make me hungry.

......

My phone was going nuts. How many rings had it been? Ten or twenty?

I managed to find it; my eyes took a few more rings to focus on the caller id. It was my sister.

I sighed and clicked the button to accept the call.

"You're an idiot," was the first thing she told me.

"Good morning to you too, sis."

"It's afternoon, dumbass. What possessed you to make another empty promise to Jake?"

"Who said it was empty?" Oh, water. Good plan; I fell over emptying the glass. The messages from last night mocked me with their refusals.

"I did, idiot. You said you'd find him a date, for Christmas... again. He told me."

Right, Jake always told sis everything. Probably because she was scary. She was all of that, and more.

"Right, and?"

Sis sighed loudly over the phone. "Since when has that ever worked?"

I thought a minute. Then thought a minute more. Then a minute more. "Fair point, but I'm an optimist! This time, it'll work."

She sighed again, so I got serious. "You should have seen him, sis. He was so sad. I don't want him staring at knives again that way."

Sis sighed again. "I get it, Pay. I get it."

"Good, so you'll help?"

"Not on your life. I'm not setting up any of my friends on your fool's errand, but... well, if you strike out today, call me back and we'll see."

That was a no, but not a no. She sounded pretty sure I was going to strike out, too.

"Why would I do a silly thing like that?" I mean, seriously.

"You'll do as I ask little brother, if you know what's good for you." With that ominous prediction, she hung up on me.

Well, that wasn't going to be an issue, because this year was the year I came through for Jake. Even though it was closer to afternoon than morning, and I was running out of time. There were bound to be all sorts of last minute lonely shopping ladies out there to harass! Or ask, I mean! After all, if the cops weren't called, it wasn't a crime.

The best place to go was the mall. I threw on clothes and made my way there, braving the truly staggering masses of people. Actually, driving was probably a mistake today. Walking would take longer but it would give me more chances to spot victims... er, potential dates.

All I needed to do was look for the ones shopping alone. Usually that was a dead giveaway, and there were always more of them than people seemed to think.

Like that one, a tall blonde walking down the street, her heels clicking smartly along the sidewalk, in a pantsuit and very expensive looking cashmere jacket and a bag already held in her left hand.

Her perfectly painted face curled up in a snarl as I got close and she said: "Get lost, creep," in a bedroom, come hither voice.

She would have been perfect, but she looked like the type who knew karate, and I know how that scene ended.

Maybe that brunette? No, she had a ring, and some of her gifts were small toys. The learning kind, not the fun kind, so she was a young mother. She wouldn't leave her kids alone to party, and it would be mean to ask.

I was pretty sure Jake liked redheads anyway. Or maybe that was me. Jake didn't really have a preference I was aware of, unless 'alive' counted. There weren't any redheads nearby anyway, so it was a moot point.

The mall was as rich a hunting ground as you could ask for - so long as you could swim upstream of all the old or hefty folks. Or old and hefty folks. It was harder than I anticipated, and having to shout over all the noise ruined my delivery some, but the line 'how about helping me with a Christmas miracle?' at least got some nibbles.

Far fewer were interested when they realized I wasn't the target of this Christmas miracle, and fewer still interested once I showed them Jake's picture, conveniently on my phone for this purpose. And absolutely none were interested when I told them it was for Christmas day. Not even word of how set Jake was for life (lucky sob had much better prospects than me, going to college for computer crap).

This wasn't good, I was running out of time. Where was everyone's holiday spirit?

"Come on, Holly," I wheedled my current target. "He's got no one, on Christmas! You know how sad that is?"

Holly was a mousy little thing that was cute if you were into the slightly frumpy librarian look, and more importantly, judging by the crap she was buying (software and games) she and Jake would get along great.

"I'm sorry, really," was her reply, and she did look it. "But my family expects me home for the holidays, and my brother just got back from his tour, and...."

I held my hand up and beamed my best smile at her, because she really was trying to take the sting out. "Say no more, its' fine. If you can't, you can't. Thanks for your time, and happy hunting."

I pointed to her bag so she knew I didn't mean my kind of hunting. She stammered and blushed and waved goodbye, grateful to be away from the crazy guy no doubt. That was fine, I'd been called worse and to my face.

I refused to be deterred!

......

By nine, I was pretty deterred. Not one. Not one single girl, lady or even otherkin (I'd found two!) was willing to help me help Jake. I was sure if they just got to know him, they would jump at the chance to spend time with him, but I couldn't get anyone interested in doing it on short notice. I did get six numbers - but only after I promised to call after Christmas, not before. I also got another six for me alone, also for after Christmas. Didn't help me of course, but it would come in handy later.

Of course, my phone rang, right on the second of nine-o-one.

"Hello, sis."

"Well?"

"I'm still looking." There was absolutely no defensive whining. That was due to the extremely large woman wheezing in front of me as she checked out.

I might have been forced to buy a few things in order to avoid being thrown out of stores by security. But I admit nothing!

"Stores are closing, little brother. Why don't you just admit defeat?"

Wait, how had she known I was at the mall?

She answered me without prompting. "You always do your thing at the mall when you feel pressed for time."

"Freaking psychic. No, I take that back; if you were psychic you'd know I have had some nibbles, and I'm very hopeful."

She snorted rudely in my ear. "You're always hopeful, that's part of your problem. I'm betting you got no one to say 'yes I'll go on a christmas date with your friend', right?"

"That's true, but the night is young." If I lied to her, she'd just get worse. She always got worse if you lied.

"It's not that young little brother, all the good little girls will be home in bed, with visions of sugarplums yadda yadda yadda."

"Then I better get going."

"Wait! Can you...!" It felt good to hang up on her. She wouldn't call back yet, but of course I'd pay for it later.That was fine, I couldn't be too whipped. She got worse if you had no spine either.

Besides, I wasn't about to buy her crap for her, she was lazy enough as it was, and any time I admitted being near a store of any kind always ended up with a 'could you pick me up a...?' It sucked, because what she wanted was always embarrassing, like the pill or tampons or feminine itch treatments.

If she'd just twist the arm of a friend or two for Christmas, I'd buy her a box of whatever, and pay for it myself. But no, that was plan B. Or maybe plan C. For now, plan A was in full effect, and I got moving.

.......

Plan A was a failure, even with a new mall in the mix. It was officially eleven, and now only Walmart was open. And Walmart was a place more suited to finding Halloween dates than Christmas ones, so that was right out.

And Sis was calling me again. "Yes, Chris?"

"Nice try, but no dice. You struck out, huh?"

"I have. Unless you want to help?"

She surprised me. "I'm going to. I've got a girl all lined up. But you're going to have to be at my apartment bright and early, no later than nine, if you want my help. We're going to surprise Jake this year."

"We? Since when did this gift become an us thing?"

"Since you called me, claiming you were going to screw with Jake's feelings again."

Okay, now that was bullshit. "I never said any such thing."

She sighed. "I know you didn't. Look, just... tomorrow at nine, yes? Or does Alexis need to find out about Jessica?"

Oh, that was low. "Wow, just... wow. Even for you."

"What do you mean, even for me? You saying something about me that will inevitably lead to more pain for you? Is that what I'm hearing?"

Sigh. "No, but you don't need to go that far, I was going to go anyway. I'll come meet your friend."

"You'll come, sure. But will you come early enough?"

She wanted me to say it. "I'll come early, jeez."

"Good, go home and get your beauty sleep. You'll need it."

Going home was even worse than walking out here; there was almost no eye candy to try and redeem myself with, but there were even more people around, the last minute desperate types were now even more desperate as all the chains began to close. Kind of fitting I guess.

I realized I was out of beer only after I got home. Today just wasn't my week, and tomorrow wasn't going to look any better. Falling into bed and letting it swallow me for a month was tempting.

......

My alarm was going off. Not my normal alarm, oh no. The 'omg my sister is an asshole' alarm.

It was eight, which was almost a half an hour after I set the gadget for; it was barely enough time to get showered, dressed, and halfway across town to my sisters apartment by nine. Breakfast along the way was a distant dream.

Five minutes, some mouthwash gargling to take care of morning breath, some jeans, a shirt, and a coat, and my keys later and I was out the door. I'd take the bus since parking today since both the roads and parking today would be even worse.

It had snowed a little during the night, and the white stuff was a beautiful coat of white paint over the old city, turning the squalor 'rustic'. The slush on the roads was dangerous when combined with the traffic though.

There was no one waiting for the bus at this ungodly hour. There wasn't even a homeless guy sleeping it off in the stop. This was Ralph's normal stomping grounds- I hoped he was somewhere warm, we got along. I'd slip him some breakfast money if her were here - that way at least one of us would have it - and he'd laugh at the joke, and show me the receipt later to prove he'd actually gotten food.

I didn't believe it for a second of course, I was pretty sure he dug those receipts out of the same trash he threw the ones he got from the liquor store in, but it was cool that he made the effort.

The bus was number 33, and it wasn't exactly springtime fresh, but the smell of baked cookies and perfume did a good job of fighting off the more normal smells of the cabin. There was also a hint of... febreeze? I made a mental note, this bus driver actually tried. Not that I'd ever be awake this early again, but maybe the driver would get transferred to a better route.

And then I was at the stop, half a block away from my sister's apartment. The bus left before I could climb back on and feign ignorance.

My phone rang.

"Hello, Sis."

"At the stop?"

Again, she did it. How? "Yeah, on my way."

"Good, I'll let Daniel know you're coming."

Daniel was the doorman; my sister's place catered to the college crowd for the most part, and so had a nod or two to security. Cameras, an alarm, and a doorman that looked more than a little like a bouncer in a suit. He was pretty nice though, if you got him alone.

In front of the clientele? He ws pretty much a jerk. Not even the promise of beer would sway him.

He opened the door. "Go right up, Payton. She's expecting you."

Saying useless things was part of the job I guess. Chris's apartment was on the third floor, so taking the ancient elevator was kind of pointless; it was faster just to walk. The building was just beginning to show it's age, but was still much nicer than mine. It boggled the mind, really. Chris's job as a hairdresser didn't pay that much better than mine, and the college discount helped, but it couldn't help that much. Could it?

Maybe I should look into that. Of course, my college was the local, so it was a lot like my apartment. Christine was going to some fancy make-up college, had a scholarship for it, one made for people in the movie industry. She tried to explain the difference to me once - then slapped me when I fell asleep.

Chris pulled the door open right as I was about to knock. I hated it when she did that.

"Come in, hurry up, we don't have all day here," she told me in a nearly breathless voice. Her eyes gleamed. I knew that gleam, and it didn't bode well for me.

That was my first tip off. The second was that her apartment, normally clean to the point of being immaculate, looked like a flea market or a boutique threw up in it. Clothes were scattered all over the couch, wigs were on her coffee table, boxes of crap I had no use for were all over the floor, some with cobwebs and dust on them.

And makeup and jars of crap everywhere, as far as the eye could see.

"Where is your friend I was supposed to meet?"

Chris shrugged, her eyes to the left, at the wall. The wall which held up a picture of us as kids. "She'll be along shortly. There is some stuff that needs to be done first."

That was the third strike, I was out. "You're plotting something."

"I'm plotting something," she admitted, arms crossed.

I headed for the door.

"Not that easy, brother mine. Do you really want your two special friends to learn about each other? I hear they are super vindictive."

Alexis and Jessica both were a little too hot blooded for their own good. They were fun, but if they knew about each other, knives would probably be involved.

"Don't do this."

"Don't make me do this," she replied, her face as open an earnest as I'd seen her. "Trust me for once. It won't even hurt... much, and it's no more than you deserve."

Fuck, she was serious. She really was going to go through with it if I left.

"What are you planning?"

"You already know, don't demean both of our intelligences."

My sister loved to play dress up. As a kid, she was always dressing her dolls, or styling their hair. She even went so far as to do dye jobs with food coloring and sew their clothes. When she'd gotten bored of that, she moved on to the dog. Poor Taco the chihuahua had never been the same after getting stuffed into a pink tutu.

And when she had gotten bored of that, she moved on to me. She had been bigger than I was, and forcing me into her dresses or coating me in face paint had been child's play for her.

Well, at least until Mom had gotten a hold of her. She had not been amused. Well, not that amused; pictures like the one that graced Christine's wall still existed, and Halloween was rarely a time for superheroes and robots for me, but for the most part Mom stomped those urges down.

For Christine's part, after Mom caught her, she had gotten crafty about things, and moved on to her friends. Not that she entirely forgot about me, oh no. But I got old enough and big enough to hold my own so she was forced to stop.

Until now. "Why?"

"I'm sick of you messing with Jake. He's my friend too, and deserves better than you trying and failing to find dates for him all the time. He deserves better than another call from you stating how you're so sorry and you couldn't get it done this year and can you ever forgive me, and Jake spends another holiday alone. This time, he's getting his wish, even if you have to provide it. Or certain jealous girls get certain phone calls. Maybe even more than two."

"Why don't you go out with him then?"

"Because I have a boyfriend, and I didn't make the promise in the first place. So, I'm going to ask you outright. Accept a little embarrassment for your sin of trying to ruin another of Jake's Christmases, and go surprise him at his house with the new you - or get your own Christmas ruined? Which will it be?"

I thought about it. Whatever else, for all her faults, Christine was at least giving me a choice. Was I really ruining Jakes Christmas by trying (and failing) to get him a date?

There was an empty chair in her kitchen, pulled out. It was clear that seat was where Christine expected the magic to happen. I sat down with a sigh.

"Good girl, Patty."

"Don't push it."

Chris smirked and pulled out her phone. It was too early for photos. "What are you doing?"

"Did you think I picked this ungodly hour for kicks? we're going to be using all this time. You're a major project, and I'm going to need help."

Wait, she was calling friends for this? "Why didn't you just ask one of your friends to date Jake?"

"I did," Chris replied. "None of them wanted to date Jake. All of them, however, did want to give you yours. I think that says something about my friends, but I'm not sure what it is."

"I'll give you a few hints."

She pulled me up and started dragging me. "No time for that. You need to shower. Don't hesitate to use my things, you smell like a man."

"That's because I am one."

"Not today you aren't. Oh, and one last thing? shave your legs. Use the razor on the sink, its new."

"I'm not shaving my legs."

Chris grinned. It was not one of her nice ones. "You will, or you'll get waxed. One of my friends, that's this one," she held up her phone, but I couldn't see the name. "Has already offered to hold you down and do the deed. So again, a choice. The easy way, or the painful as hell way?"

"Be reasonable," I told her, hoping against hope.

"I am. Just tell anyone who sees that you've taken up competitive swimming. It has to be done, otherwise you'll never look right in the skirt."

"Skirt!?!" My shock gave her the edge she needed to manhandle me into the bathroom and shut the door. "In this weather? Are you high?"

"No choice," came her muffled voice through the door. "You'd need major work to pull off pants correctly, and we're going all out today. Jake isn't getting Payton today, he's getting Patty."

Again with that name. That was the name Chris used to call me when dressing me up before. I HATED that name. "That isn't my name, Christine."

"It is today, Pay. Just get used to it - you don't want to answer to the wrong name in a skirt."

That - was actually a valid point. I didn't want people I knew calling me by my real name on a crowded street or something.

"Hurry up bro! We're on the clock! and don't forget to wash that mop you call hair!"

"Whatever, ya frickin' slave-driver."

"I heard that! I'm going to add heels to the list!"

Like hell she would.

I got in, soaped up as little as possible, and hosed down. Despite my efforts more than enough of Chris's soap held out, making me stink like flowers and strawberries. The soap added mango and coconut, of all things. what was it with girls wanting to smell like a produce aisle? It was weird.

I mean, I got flowers. I got spices. But some girls, smelling them just made me hungry. Was that the plan? Whatever, it was unimportant for now. Jake wouldn't care what I smelled like, he would be too busy laughing; I could only hope that I'd be able to laugh about this later. Well that and laugh off the inevitable photos.

Either way, once the rents returned, I would earn my stitches. Mom would absolutely hear of all of this, including the blackmail. I had no idea what sis was thinking, but Mom would be VERY disappointed in her. I just had to hold out until then.

"Come on little bro! Let's not keep our company waiting!"

There were four of them; one was a large nubian amazon with hair poofed out to outrageous heights and a stick figure. She looked like nothing so much as an oddly colored dandelion ready to spread seeds.

The second was one I knew; Melissa was the high school hot chick released out into the real world, who finds out the real world isn't the popularity contest she thought it was. Bright, blonde, and vivacious, she had latched onto my sister immediately as someone who was more put together than she was, which had to be a cosmic joke of some kind. She always looked amazing down to the last detail, not a single hair out of place, and you could tell even through the bulky coat she wore, that she was a girl.

The third was a short chubby thing, cute in her own way. She had the most disapproving look of the group; it kind of reminded me of my Mom. Which told me in a few years, she'd probably be a real shrew. She was also the most conservatively dressed, in a very nice sweater and jeans

The fourth and last had bright green hair to rival the first, poofed up then all the way down to the small of her back. She was also on the big side, and that fact was shown off by the tight minidress she was wrapped in. Her stockings were black and had a few holes that looked intentional. Her nails matched her hair, and she had a ring on one of her middle finger. She also looked older than everyone else, to the point that the green hair really seemed out of place. She was also chewing gum like there was no tomorrow - loudly. With her mouth open.

They were all staring at me as if I were a piece of steak or a wiggling fish, or something. I'd seen the look before, this minute inspection, and it never promised good things.

The green haired one smirked, and spoke in a smoker's gravely voice. "Well, you weren't kidding. This one's a regular diamond in the rough. Even better than the last one you brought us."

Chris gave another of her patented smirks. "I know, right? Group, may I present," She threw her hands wide. "Patty."

The chubby girl next door actually took a step forward and squeezed my bicep. Squeezed it! Without a care in the world!

"Good lines here, more bishie than I've ever even seen before. Have you considered cosplay?"

She was looking at me. "Are you talking to me?"

She made a show of looking around. "Sure am. Well?"

"No, never thought about it. Care to introduce yourself?"

That was a pretty blush. "Oh, sorry. I was momentarily overcome by my feelings of jealousy. My name is Sue."

Chris stepped up, and disentangled our hands. "Careful Sue, this one is dangerous."

Sue blinked, and stepped back, shooting me this look. "What? All I did was ask your name."

She was not amused. "Oh, but you're good."

I turned to Chris, honestly confused. "What did I even do?"

Chris shook her head. "If you don't know, I can't tell you."

Fine, I guess I'd stop apologizing then. It wasn't like these women were here to help me at all.

"Alright, butt in the chair. We've only got six to eight hours to work this particular miracle."

Six to eight hours? What in the hell? "I'm not staying put here until five."

"Honey, many a man would love to stay put while a bunch of pretty women have their way with him for hours." The Nubian Goddess said with a smirk.

"I know better, Ma'am."

"Oooh, you do, do you. You can call me Laq, 'Patty'. Ma'am sounds like my grandmother."

"I didn't want to ask, I'd probably get my head bitten off again."

"Not the most well trained one, is he?" The green haired one said, circling around me. "Good lines though, God. The world is unfair. You can call me Judy, by the way."

"I'm not a horse, Judy."

"No you aren't. You aren't just any old anything, are you? Shame you haven't been trained properly."

"Mom always let him get away with whatever he wanted, it was disgusting." Chris told them, then turned back to me. "Sit."

I turned around, and Laq was looming and flexing. If she started something, I had doubts of my ability to finish it. I was a scrappy guy, but I was a small one. It wouldn't do to fight my way out anyway, it would be considered assault. With the biggest most put-upon sigh I could muster, I sat.

Chris organized. "So, makeup first because we dont want it smeared on the clothes. Sue and I will handle that, and Laq you're in charge of hair. Judy, you handle clothes, but ask us too. Sometimes you're a bit too... enthusiastic."

Just what I needed to hear.

"And I'm nails, of course. I do hope you aren't one of those wild animal types." Melissa stated, grinning at me.

I refused to rise to the bait.

Chris and Sue started opening their plastic cases, clucking over paints and ointments and oils, and whatever the heck else was in there. In short order I was being sponged.

"Just need to change your facial structure a little, here." Sue told me.

"Good luck with that, short of plastic surgery."

"Oh ye of little faith," she told me. "Don't worry, we don't need to change you all that much."

I felt like I was insulted. In fact, I was sure of it.

Both Chris and Sue were allowed to look at the small mirrors on the table, but every time I tried to catch a glimpse they blocked it. I didn't mind Sue leaning over to block my view too much, but I wasn't about to tell her that.

My hands were snagged, one at a time, and Melissa sawed at them with a metal file. There really wasn't much there to file, truth told. She even scraped the tops of my fingernails a few strokes worth. I endured it until she started untying my shoes.

"Really?"

"Yep," Melissa nodded. "Toes too."

"But why?" Surely I wasn't going to be forced into sandals or anything silly in the middle of winter, right?

"Because I do full service, and only full service."

"Not true, Mrs. Baum from a few days ago?"

"She asked me not to."

Melissa put an upraised finger over my mouth. "No, you don't get to ask."

Sue shoved her. "Don't smear anything."

Melissa sputtered. "But you haven't even applied the lipstick!"

Sue stared her down. Melissa actually threw her hands up and backed away a step... then dove down and grabbed my foot again. "Fine, but I still need to do these."

"Knock yourself out," Sue said, turning back to my face."

"Hey Chris, we decided on a hair color?"

"We've decided on a look, why?"

"Well it affects what color the nails are, and you didn't decide to tell me." Melissa pouted.

Chris thought, or appeared to think. "Silver. Use silver, it goes with everything, and it'll look a little jazzy."

"Sure! Silver it is." She started painting my fingernails with something that was most definitely not silver anything... and then reached into a case and produced silver colored press on nails.

Oh great, glue then, and I'd probably need a belt sander to get them off.

"Hold still, you don't want me to get these crooked."

I held still.

"Also, you need to let these dry before doing much of anything. It doesn't take any longer than thirty minutes."

I boggled while she snagged my other hand. That long for this crap? And they didn't move for it? What a waste of time!

"What earrings?"

"Silver, of course."

Wait, earrings?!? "I'm not getting my ears pierced for this crap, Christine."

Christine gave me the look - the 'I'm stupid' look. "Of course you aren't. These are clip ons. I'm not stupid, I don't want you bleeding all over my wig or clothes."

"Good." The line had to be drawn somewhere.

"So, what are you thinking, Judy?"

"I think I've got it pegged. Are we going with glasses?"

"Yeah, Patty here needs some help reading, and she loves to read."

Since when did I love to read? I didn't need glasses either. What was the game, here? Well, other than the obvious.

Whatever, I'd know soon enough - I just had to tough it out.

Toughing it out became hard after hour two... Laq did something to my hair which thankfully did not involve scissors or clippers, then put something on it which warmed my head up and made it itch, and started fiddling with it. I saw brown with a hint of curl out of the corner of my eye.

"Careful, Patty. It's clipped in, so a pull will take more than you want. You'll have to pull the pins out to be safe. Don't worry though, you'll be able to find them."

"Gee, thanks."

"Alright, time to work on that voice of yours," Judy told me. "Repeat after me, and try to mimic what you hear: She sells seashells by the seashore."

The voice Judy used to deliver that old tongue twister was low, breathy, and not even remotely masculine. It was also nowhere near Judy's normal voice. Chris gave me a stare, and I realized I was staring. So I tried.

"She sells seashells by the seashore."

Judy whacked me in the leg with a magazine. "Bad Patty! Bad! Try it again, and actually try this time.

"I'm not a dog."

"Good, a bit better, but still, more breath into it. Wheeze it out for me." she said in the same voice she used before.

Of course Chris had to get into the act. "Come on, use some of those old choir skills. You sang soprano, remember?"

"If I do, will you both shut up?"

"Better, again."

She stared at me until I threw up my hands. "Fine; She sells seashells by the seashore."

"Well, you're getting there. Again." I was reminded of Ash in Army of Darkness repeating the wise man's words.

By the time I was sick of seashells, I sounded different and I was being stared at by everyone in the apartment. I didn't think I sounded female, but I was outvoted.

"So natural."

"Could be better," Judy told us. "But we have to work with what we got. The clock is ticking, after all."

"Right, clothes time. I'm thinking the forest green, what about you Jud?" Chris asked, ignoring me entirely.

"Forest green what?"

"Patty, I'm not going to answer you unless you use your new voice. None of us will."

Oh, bullshit! "Come on, there's no one else here, and you've already embarrassed me in front of your friends. Really?"

Judy ignored me. "The forest green is absolutely the best choice."

I was so getting her back for this. "The forest green what?"

Chris turned back to me instantly. "Oh, Patty, there you are; I thought you'd left before the fun began. And the forest green mini dress of course, to show off those marvelous legs of yours."

Well, at least the threatened mini-skirt hadn't appeared. "I do not have marvelous legs."

"Oh Patty, you're far too modest. You have some simply amazing legs. I'm totally jealous." Sue said, batting her eyes at me.

I turned to her, and raised a brutally tweazed eyebrow. "Why?"

Sue blushed and lowered her eyes. "That sounded like a joke, but it's not. You really do have better legs than I do."

Why did she sell herself so short? Her legs went all the way up. Whatever, compliments wouldn't be welcome here.

"Patty, stop flirting with Sue. She doesn't swing that way." Sue blushed even more as Melissa's words washed over her.

Oh, now that was just uncalled for.

"What way are you saying she swings, exactly?"

"She swings away from you," Judy stated firmly. Now stop being a bitch, Patty."

"It is physically impossible for me to be a bitch, Judy."

"That's the spirit!" Judy cried. "Say it enough times, and maybe someone will believe it."

Chris, my own sister, giggled.

"Alright Patty, moment of truth." Melissa said, holding up a dress that looked more like a warm sweater than anything. It even looked like it was made of wool. "We need to see if this dress will flatter your figure while hiding your junk."

"Eloquent as always, Melissa." Sue sniped.

Melissa bowed. "i do try."

They all turned to stare at me, stepford style. And it was just as creepy here as it was in that movie. Melissa held the dress up again.

"I assume I can move now?"

"You assume correctly, little sis." Chris almost overloaded my smug meter.

"Fine."

I snagged the thing and turned back to the bathroom. No way was I going to give them a free show.

"You're forgetting something, Patty."

I turned back and caught something as Judy threw it me. "Good reflexes, hon."

A bra? Some kind of padded sports bra thing, and...panties? Lacy black panties, to match the bra, I assumed. There was something odd about them.

"You do realize these aren't going to do much for me, right?" I asked, holding them up.

"More than you think, Patty." Melissa informed me with a laugh.

"Just do it, Patty." Chris held up her phone.

"Fine." I surrendered again, got into the bathroom and locked the door.

I found myself leaned against the door, my vision graying, breath coming in gasps. Why was I doing this, again? Was saving myself some pain really worth all this? This wasn't me - it wasn't even close.

And above all that, Chris had never been this.. mean to me before. Not even at her worst; why was she doing it now?

"I don't hear dressing, Patty! I'm dialing!"

"Give it a rest already! I'm doing it!" The dress was a pull up one; I shucked off my jeans, and yes, my underwear, and put on the...underwear I was given. The panties had a sleeve or pocket on the inside. I did not like where this was going, but reading between the lines was easy. I didn't break anything at least.

The bra had padded cups, and they felt real enough. Once fitted over my pecs I looked to have quite the rack. A good inspection would reveal I wasn't packing any of it, but the look was what these girl-demons were looking for. With the dress over the arrangement, even I couldn't tell.

I couldn't zip the damn dress up.

"I can't zip this stupid thing up!"

"Then get out here Patty, or you'll be trying the skirt next!"

I stepped out, and immediately the gushing started:

"Oh my God!"

"Wow.. just wow. Always nice to see it all come together."

"Sometimes I amaze even me."

"That is just plain scary, how good that all works."

Chris stepped up.

"Turn around, and be thankful we took pity on you; this dress is going to be super warm outside."

"Outside?" Of course they wanted me to go outside in this. Why else would they do it?

Sue stepped up and trailed a hand down south. "Hate to tell you stud, but in that dress, you don't look nearly as hung as you think you are. It has some surprises that way. But it really looks like we needed more for the hips."

"We didn't have time. Maybe the next time dear Patty gets bright ideas. Is it on?"

We'll see about that.

"Oh it's very much on, and done well enough. Unless sexy here thinks naughty thoughts, everything should be fine."

I stepped back; her hand was still a little too close. "I wouldn't worry about that. You five have done an admirable job of killing those."

Sue smiled. "Sweet talker."

Chris clapped her hands. "Well, now all you need is some nice stockings, Patty, and some shoes. We have both in your size."

Chris grabbed my hand and set black balls of cloth in them. "Thigh highs, put them on."

"Wow, those sleeves even make the arms look less defined."

I unrolled the stupid things and slipped the first on. I knew how to do this from childhood. They were just big overgrown socks. I just had to make sure my new nails didn't cut them up.

"Good, no runs. Come on Patty, you know how to do this part."

Of COURSE she'd tell her friends that. At least they were too busy looking at her to look at me. The tops of the stockings reached under the dress, and my tormentors all watched the show. I smoothed the dress back down in a hurry to where it normally rested, just over my knees.

"Shoes next," Judy told me, bringing out some sort of boot with platforms on the bottom.

"I decided not to be cruel, so you get platforms instead of heels. We don't want you slipping in the slush and ruining your new dress."

I stuck my feet in, and the boots proved roomier than they looked. They also added a good two inches to me, so I was about Chris's height now. My heel was up higher than my toe, so it was a little weird, but I could manage.

Sue whistled. "Those calves, I just knew it."

"Work out more," Melissa told her. "You can get there, you're not that far off."

"Yeah come work in a stockroom ten hours a day, it'll happen."

Sue gave me a large grin. "Yeah, no thanks. I'll stick to salon work, it pays better."

She had me there.

"Alright, the boots fit?"

I nodded. "My toes aren't pinching at least. You remembered my size."

"Excellent. Here." Chris handed me a dark brown duster with a thick lining. "Put it on. Last minute check, team!"

They all took turns staring at me while I fumbled on the coat, each taking turns giving a thumbs up.

Judy snapped her fingers. "I almost forgot! One last thing."

She held out a pair of thin framed glasses. "Put them on."

I did.

"All good then?" Chris asked, back turned while she put on her own coat. It would be so easy... but no, murder was wrong. And there went the flashes; a few of her friends were even recording. Perfect, that just made everything better.

"All good. No smudges, hairs fine, clothes are on right. You finally found one that can dress herself."

Yeah, fuck you too, lady.

"Alright Patty, pay very close attention to me. We're going out, all of us. Going to hit a few stores, do a few things, talk a lot. You'll need to watch me carefully, and do what I do, or you'll get found out. If you get found out, we're all going to abandon you and might throw you under the bus. Do you understand?"

Wow. Even for her... I glanced at Chris, and she was waiting for it. She nodded. "I understand."

We formed a line, Chris leading, Melissa and Laq following her, Judy following them, and I was stuck following Judy and trying to act as she did. Sue followed me, no doubt in place to report anything I was doing wrong. I changed my mind about asking her out once and for all, she was a female dog.

We marched out of the apartment and piled in the elevator; everyone looked at Sue.

"All good so far," she told them.

"The real moment of truth is outside."

I wasn't sure what she meant by that, it was already far too late to run now. I was also more than a little confused; who did she think I would fool? Everyone would know the minute they clapped eyes on me.

Daniel nodded to us as we stepped out, holding the door. He paid no particular attention to any of us, but he told me to "Enjoy the day, Patricia."

So he was in on it.

The people on the street couldn't be, however, and they didn't look at us twice. Well, other than the obvious second looks women normally got, and I had been giving just yesterday.

I was being included in that, right from the start. Knowing what being found out was going to get me, I smiled over clenched teeth, tuned it out, and focused on Judy, as I'd been told. I didn't do exactly as she did because that would be the quickest way of getting caught, but I did relatively the same thing, usually with a time delay so I wouldn't look like I was playing a kids game.

Sue didn't scream bloody murder, so I was probably doing it right. Or at least right enough.

"So, Patty. Cold enough for you?"

Yes, thank you Laq, I needed to be reminded of how my legs had one thin layer. "It's cold enough for me to feel if that's what you're asking."

"Get some more meat on those bones girl, and you won't feel a thing!"

"Says the one here that I know for sure is thinner than me." I was past being totally civil.

Laq only cackled. "Ooo, some fire! Hey!, hey!"

She walked out of line to a man maybe a few years older than me and dressed like a lawyer or some similar occupation, who had been watching us as we walked by.

"She's single, you know," Laq told him with a wink.

And there it was - he was checking me out again.

Laq cackled again and stepped back into line as we whisked on by. I checked, and the guy was watching us go."

Sue caught my eye and smiled.

I turned back, and checked; there wasn't anyone in earshot, so long as I hissed.

So hiss I did. "Are you trying to get me caught? Is that what this is all about for you? If you just want the spectacle I can do that right now."

The smile slid off Laq's face as if it had never existed. "That's not what this is about, Patty. No one wants anyone hurt here. Relax, you're too uptight; just do as we do, and you won't get outed. That guy couldn't tell, that guy to the right can't tell, no one can tell unless you tell 'em. So just relax and take a breath, okay?"

That sounded... almost nice. Or at the very least, neutral.

I looked to the rest of them.

"Just a girl's day out," Melissa said, sounding bored.

"I want to pick up a few things," Judy said.

"I need to get some last minute gifts," Chris told me. "You know me, I always forget someone."

"I want to get a drink or two," Sue told me with clear excitement.

"You always want to get a drink or two," Melissa told us.

"Guilty!" Sue agreed.

"I.. wouldn't mind a beer."

Now, why had I said that?

Sue smiled. "That's the spirit Patty - quit being such doom and gloom all the time."

We all resumed our formation, and it occurred to me, maybe they weren't trying to escort me to my doom so much as give me some protective camouflage. they did seem to be grouping around me a bit, and it was always harder to approach a group of women rather than a lone person of either gender. Maybe they were using that to their advantage.

But still, it was Chris; if she said one mistake would see me thrown to the wolves, then she meant it. Best not to get too chummy with the enemy. At least not yet. Heck for all I knew this could all be a con.

I didn't think so though.

Judy looked at her phone but didn't raise it my direction. "Alright, so Macy's isn't all that far... let's do my thing first. Chris can look for hers too. drinks can come after that."

There was a chorus of assents that I added to after a beat. "Sounds good to me."

There were even more people around than yesterday, which was something I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around. Once in the store, I went from cold to downright hot, almost in between steps. What sort of person cranked the heat up this much? Had to be a psycho or something. I also couldn't hear the Christmas music over the murmur of the crowd, which annoyed me for some reason.

Laq held a hand out. "Coat off, Patty. It's too hot in here for that thing, I'll carry it."

Reluctantly I shrugged out of it; hot as it was, buttoned up it hid but the shoes and stockings.

Before I could start to feel more than a little exposed (or make a break for it) Chris's friends all closed ranks around me.

"Come on, the silly gifts department is this way."

Chris stalked off in the lead, people parting themselves before her as if she were Moses. Somehow people seemed to know she was the type to stomp toes. Or maybe it was Laq's tall form beside her; she looked equally ready to stomp toes... or more than toes.

Soon we found ourselves in the old cheap five dollar Christmas themed gift section, where all the seasonal 5 dollar makeup kits, first aid kits (for cars, supposedly) and other such kits were located. It was also where people took their purchases to be professionally wrapped, which I thought was a gyp, but no one asked my opinion.

I didn't see what Chris grabbed because Melissa snagged my hand and put something in it. "Look, Patty! This kit has all the best shades for you! Well, except for that one... and that one. And maybe that one. Well, eighty percent isn't bad!"

A makeup kit, of course. All darker colors, for some reason. "I'll take your word for it, Melissa, I'm just a wage slave."

Melissa slapped me gently on the back. "Come on girl, you need to get out more. You'll never meet the best guys locked away in that library of yours. And for the last time, call me Mel, okay? We've been friends long enough."

So I worked in a library now? What was she playing at? "But Mel sounds like that crotchety old guy that runs a diner no one goes to."

Melissa winked. "Exactly!"

I don't think I will ever understand women.

Sue wandered over. "Look at this reindeer sweater! It's so cute!"

She held the thing up to me, so I had to look down to see it. The reindeer, complete with a red nose, was made of yarn and sewn on. It looked like just another stupid Christmas sweater to me. The only thing that could make it tackier was if the nose lit up. Thank goodness it wasn't one of those.

"I... guess?"

"Bah!" Sue scoffed. "Patty the Scrooge. No fun in her soul for silly sweaters."

"Ugly sweaters," was Judy's opinion. Now the one to the right, with the tree? that one looks at least passable."

It did look better than the reindeer. "Kind of?"

"What about these?" Laq asked, holding up some silver star earrings. "They are clip ons." She whispered to me.

They sparkled rather nicely in the light. I'd have liked them on someone else. An actual female of the species.

"I like them."

Laq nodded knowingly. "I thought you might." She pressed them into my palm. Here, take them. They aren't that expensive. Go get them wrapped up, alright? My treat for being such a good sport."

That was nice of her, but I wasn't going to be wearing anything like these ever again.

"I know that look. Just do it - they aren't for you. They are for that special someone when you find her."

Well, that was... I didn't have the words. "Thank you."

"Don't think nothin' of it. That's enough mushy stuff for now, eh?"

The others are spread out a bit, putting their stuff back, some disappointment on their faces. Again, I wondered what they were plotting.

"Here," Chris shoved a beautifully wrapped box in my hands. "That's my gift for Jake. You're going to be delivering it later, so don't lose it."

"Still convinced Jake has to see me like this, huh?"

She winked. "Oh absolutely, Patty. Don't worry, you look totally hot right now."

I bit my lip to avoid saying what I really wanted to. I had the feeling she knew anyway.

"Alright, it's been a busy morning. Let's go get some lunch. and yes Sue, lunch will include drinks."

"Alright!"

Weird. "I thought we'd spend more time here?" after all, they had only embarrassed me for maybe a half an hour, tops.

"In these crowds? Are you nuts? I love shopping, but I don't love it that much."

Melissa nodded agreement, but just had to add: "Unless you'd rather stay, Patty? Get a skirt to go with that sweater over there, maybe?"

"No thanks, I'm good. I'm kind of hungry, actually." I guess that stereotype was fully busted.

"Right, let's go then. I know a place." Melissa said, charging off.

It didn't surprise me that Melissa 'knew a place' close to Macy's. She looked like she camped out here at least a few days a week.

Chris strode after and regained the lead as Melissa got bogged down.

"Hey."

I turned at the voice at my shoulder and was surprised to find the man it belonged to looking at me.

He was a bit on the tall side, fit, with a short neatly trimmed beard and mustache that was a shade darker than his wavy brown hair. He was dressed in a dress shirt and slacks but had a leather jacket that looked warm rather than a suit coat. He had a bag in his right hand, filled with only one gift, and when I turned I caught his eyes flick down to my chest before coming back up.

"Can I help you?"

"Yes, I hope so. I'm looking for a gift for someone, I was thinking perfume, but I'm not sure. Can you help me pick something out? Hot chocolate afterward, my treat." He smiled winningly and didn't fumble the delivery.

Without a doubt he was good - but I'd used this exact same line on a hottie yesterday, and I'd used it for years. After the lady picks something out, you give it to her, then treat her to a drink or snack, and by the time you leave, she thinks you're charming and you have her number.

Judy stepped up and snagged my hand. "Sorry, but we're all together here, and we're trying to get out while the getting is good. If you want, I can help you real quick...?"

The man glanced at her, and I could feel his lack of interest; Judy might as well have been a block of wood or a statue. "Surely just five minutes to help me? I'll spring for hot chocolate for all of you."

I don't think he knew what he was getting into, or how many of us there were. Nevertheless, it was time to deal with this. I held up the box which held the earrings Laq had pressed on me. I had to focus here, and not deck this guy. some elegant hand movement and a step back, then:

"I recommend the earrings then, they are beautiful! Sorry, gotta go!"

Judy was good enough to pick up my vibe and mock drag me out of range through the crowd; we lost the guy easily, but Sue kept up. It made me wonder how much practice she had. trying to jog felt more than a little weird.

"Not bad, Patty, not bad. I thought he'd sweep you off your feet," Sue informed me once we made it safely outside."You didn't even forget yourself."

"Please, I'm much more smooth than that guy. And I'm not going to get myself murdered in a Macy's. I refuse to go out that way."

Chris rejoined us. "Well said. Mel took off this way, let's go."

The pace Chris set was a slow and stately one, which I was thankful for, I was pretty sure I didn't like running like this. Laq passed my borrowed coat back and I wasted no time shrugging it back on; my breath was frosting in front of me.

Melissa's spot was a combination bar and bistro tucked away in the basement of an old office building. Both the building and the business itself were older than dirt, the kind of place that screamed colonial tourist trap. The only entrance was in an alley and the sign was small, which explained how it was only busy and not packed.

We were able to get seats at the bar; I'd have preferred a nice dark table, but sitting at all today was going to be a luxury.

The bartender was dressed in a suit with a vest and bowtie, and she wasted no time, popping right up in front of us. "What can I get you?"

The crew (I really needed to come up with a name for them; the Barbie dolls? Nah.) wasted no time ordering drinks I hadn't heard of, which meant they had to be girly drinks, all sugar and sweetness and watered down. No way was I doing that, I refused to go down like that.

The bartender turned to me. "And you, hon?"

"A shandy." I missed summer anyway, and I wasn't about to go full fru fru.

Sue winked at me. "Can you change mine? A whiskey, neat."

"Sure!" the bartender replied, turning to mix drinks. Melissa rolled her eyes at Sue.

Sue leaned in close. "So, A shandy? Really?"

"I happen to like them. At least it's not a Shirley Temple or something." That was what Chris had ordered.

Sue nodded along. "Good point. At least it's a beer."

I found myself nodding along before I remembered I hated Sue.

"Ah, there it is. Yes Patty, don't get too friendly with the enemy. I'd salute you if I had my drink."

"You're a weird one, Sue."

"So I've been told," she informed me. That wasn't a protest of innocence or an admission of guilt, I noticed.

"So, can I interest any of you girls in some lunch? It's not bar food, I swear."

I looked into that disarming smile, then at the menu. "A grilled cheese, please."

I kind of wanted fries, but I wasn't sure I could manage to expand my stomach without the dress ripping.

"Sure thing, and for the rest of you?"

The dolls (really needed a better name) all ordered similar food and in similar amounts. The real surprise there was Melissa ordering gazpacho. I would never have figured her as the type for soup; too messy.

We munched away and conversation thankfully came second to chewing. I was beginning to regret keeping my coat on by the time I finished, but a second beer supplied by my new best friend the bartender chased such feelings away.

Chris ate her last bite and made a show of checking her phone. "Alright, it's been a blast, Patty. but you need to get going if you're going to make your date. You know, bus routes being what they are."

I did not like the sound of that. "You want me to take the bus?"

"Why not? There is a stop near Jake's house, and you're a big girl. Surely you can manage."

And there was that toothy smile again.

I tried to cover the way my heart sank in my shoes. "Fine, fine, I know when I'm not wanted. Have a fun night."

Chris stopped me and pressed the box into my hands. "Don't forget this."

I took it gently. "Sure."

Judy got close and put her hands together. "Remember your training, serve you in good stead it will."

I gave her the dryest grin I could. "Thanks, Yoda."

Then she assaulted my face with a tissue and lipstick. "You had a smudge from the beer; Can't go on a date like that."

"It's not a date, you evil stepmom you."

She cackled at me. "Well, I certainly ain't the good witch. But you just keep telling yourself that; it is too a date, you made it one yourself.

She pressed her purse into my hand. "Take it, it's got all you need to repair anything you screw up along the way. Even a car accident."

"Gee, thanks, Mom." We both knew I wasn't even going to open the damn thing... but I couldn't refuse to take it, not with Chris and her phone both right there. Chris did the eye thing, for her part - I'm watching you - and I believed her. She had a way to know if I went to the nearest store or bathroom and took all this crap off. I'd pay in spades if I did it.

Back out into the cold, I was surprised to find the lighting outside and the rather homey lighting in the bar had caught up. It wasn't that late, but winter was winter.

The bus stop was at the corner, and it was packed. I stood with the rest, checking the latest scores on my phone. A check if my texts revealed a few sent from a few female friends of mine, wondering what I was doing; I wasn't going to answer those, it would be just weird to answer them dressed like this.

There was one from Jake, pleading with me not to send another random woman his way; that one hurt.

And then there was one from Chris, warning me not to send any texts at all until I reached Jake's house... with a link to some cute cat videos involving Christmas gifts. I was not amused.

"Cute." a voice rumbled.

Behind me, leaning down toward my phone was a tall older man with salt and pepper hair. His clean-shaven face lined up in that way very lucky men did; he probably looked better now than he had twenty years ago. He was dressed in a suit, boots, and a coat that looked much like mine, and had a scarf wrapped loosely around his neck.

In short, he looked way too rich to be taking the bus.

I let the video play; he seemed entranced. "My sister has a fondness for cat videos. I'm more of a dog person."

"It's hard to beat a good dog," he told me. "But I can appreciate a cat's ability to take care of themselves."

"Exactly," I gestured, shutting my phone down before it gave me away. "Cats don't actually need you. As long as you keep the food flowing,.you'll never see them or if you get lucky you'll get to watch them sleep."

"True," The man agreed cheerily, then stuck a hand out. "John."

I dropped my phone into the coat pocket and shook, remembering to keep my grip lighter than normal. "Patty. So what brings you to the bus?"

"I'm headed to a party and didn't want to risk the traffic. Alas, the cab I called broke down, so I left it and here I am."

He pointed and I could just make out a smoking yellow car getting kicked by a crusty looking guy who was probably cursing.

"That's got to suck. Well, I can speak from experience that mass transit works; the bus will get us there, wherever there is."

I can't believe he actually used the word 'alas'.

"Well said. And on that note, our bus is here."

Sure enough, the bus pulled up, and I dutifully stepped back to avoid getting a layer of slush over my clothes. Sure, I didn't like them, but I didn't want to pay to get them professionally cleaned; I didn't make enough for that.

John had danced back just in time; he gave me a wry grin. He waited with me until the crush was over and it was safe to board without getting knocked around.

I had no money for bus fare. My wallet was at Chris's, in my jeans. I was an idiot - with no other option, I looked in the small silly green purse Judy foisted off on me, rummaging around the makeup.

There was a bus pass in it; an old and crinkled one, a simple card without a name or address on it, unlike the later debit card-style passes. Old or not, it was still good; the driver barely glanced at it as he clipped it.

Behind me, John just shoved a debit card in.

The bus was like outside, standing room only. I made my way as close to the back as I could; fewer chances to out myself if fewer people were staring at me.

But it felt like everyone was staring at me. It wasn't as bad as out in the street, at least. I grabbed one ring, and John grabbed the other, and we talked about cats while I scanned around.

I may not have been just dreaming it, it was going to be hard to spot Chris's eyes. Men and women both were giving me first, then second looks. The women were the most confusing; I was used to being looked at like a piece of meat on occasion, but the looks I was getting, say from that middle-aged mom over there was... appraising? Was I being judged for something? and of course, I had no idea what I was being judged for. Well, that wasn't quite true, but it was baffling. I didn't really look any different from any other woman.

I should know, I looked for any differences all day and didn't find any.

I knew they couldn't tell because I wasn't beaten to a pulp yet for being a pervert. Sure, most probably wouldn't, but there was always one that would tell or blurt it out.

Enough, no sense thinking about it. I smiled back as pleasantly as I could at the Mom, and she turned away with a sniff.

Whatever. Back to trying not to fall over; these boots had traction normally, but a wet bus floor was slippery to almost any shoe. The worst was at stops, as people had to get around us.

"My stop, I'm afraid," John said with a faint smile and enough regret to hear in his voice.

"Ah, well have fun at your party. Tell them all hi from Patty, the crazy bus woman."

John paused. "You know, I never asked you what brought you out to brave the crowds."

I rattled my box a little, even though it didn't rattle. "A gift for a friend and a promise."

"A promise?"

"No one should have to spend Christmas alone."

"Ah. Then you would not be interested in joining me."

What? "No, I'm sorry, I can't," There, nice and neutral because even if he is older, he could probably still kick your butt. You're scrappy Payton, but at a disadvantage. "Jake is waiting for me."

A little white lie to cap it off, but he'll never know, right?

"Ah," he said again, as if vaguely stricken. Then he appeared to rally. "Well, then there is only one thing to do."

He made no move as the doors to the bus closed. "But, your stop?"

John tutted at me. Tutted! "I can join the party a bit later, and miss nothing. It's far more important that you keep that promise, so I will escort you to your friend's door. That is if you'll graciously allow it."

I was now pretty sure I knew who Chris's watcher was. He couldn't have made it any clearer if he was holding a neon sign, but that made it easy.

"Sure, if you really want to waste your time, I won't try to stop you. But I'll have you know I have a full can of pepper spray and some self-defense training."

John nodded. "Good precautions for a prudent woman to take. You won't need them with me, Patty. I merely want the time to learn more about you. A few questions while we walk, and in return, I get the peace of mind of making sure a promise was kept on the holidays."

John smiled. "I am greedy, you see. I want to write myself into your tale, if even for a bit part."

I shrugged."you're not the worst guy to be around. My stop is in three more, so you won't be too far from your party either."

If worse came to worse, Jake could help me kick this guy's ass.

"Thank you," John replied, then went silent and started gazing outside the windows.

That was fine by me; with darkness setting in, the city was beginning to look pretty, all lit up and white. It was too bad that was pretty much the opposite of how it looked normally.

The proper stop came up, and I waited for the customary five count before dodging my way through the crush, with John right on my heels. I had to squeeze past a few people, but I managed without getting groped or found out. I had to be careful on the last step and grab the railing to avoid going down. I turned and John was RIGHT THERE.

"Sorry, these boots are good in the snow, most of the time."

John waved me off as I gained some distance. "Think nothing of it. It's best not to take a spill in the street."

"Yeah, I guess." I noticed he had no trouble stepping off, even though his shoes didn't look good for the weather.

He turned to me again as the others at the new stop milled, starting their own bus journey. "So, which way?"

"This way, the right here. We're on the right side, it's just a block and a half this way."

"Right, lead on."

We were barely past the bus stop when he asked. "So, where do you work? Do you go to school?"

To keep with the cover story, or tell a version of the truth? Better stick with the cover story. I looked around; there were few on the street here, at least compared to the rest of the city, and those few around weren't paying attention to us.

"The library, city library. I put the books back."

"Sounds quiet."

"Yeah, I like quiet." Take the hint, take the hint...

He grinned, just enough to let me know he'd gotten my 'joke'. "No school?" He prompted.

"No, I'm a bit on the poor side and college is expensive. Even for wannabe librarians.

"Ah, a shame then."

"Not really," I disagreed. "College isn't for everyone. I have a feeling I wouldn't do well there."

"Really? You seem bright enough."

"That's because you haven't asked me a math question."

My math skills weren't really that bad, but they probably weren't occupation ready.

"Speaking from experience, math skills are overrated in most work environments. I certainly wouldn't want to run out of rocket fuel halfway into orbit, but most positions in the world use less math than you'd suspect. Well, less higher math anyway. But surely, the library isn't the only job you've had? The waiting list for any city job is long, after all."

Oh, he was on to me - I think. Oh well, I didn't like lying anyway. "I worked at a pharmacy until recently, stocking shelves. No real change there between jobs, really. just matching numbers and putting items on shelves.

"So if I wanted a book on astronomy, you could help me. And if I wanted a scentless deodorant...?"

"500, pure science, starting at aisle seven. Astronomy should be close to the end of the aisle, going by subject. And depends on the brand. Usually, that's all aisle 5, for men and women both."

I gave him a little mock bow to finish up. A silly test, I'd known Dewey decimal for years, if only to know which sections of books to stay away from.

"Do you live far? The library is a long commute from here."

"I do. I live in an apartment on the other side of town," I left my gesture vague on purpose. Technically there were two 'other ends of town' from here, and I'd included both. "But I own a car. I just didn't want to take it because of the traffic today."

Thanks, Chris. You didn't want me to miss a single second of crap like this. You'll get yours.

"Ah. What kind of car, if I may ask?"

I flickered a frown. This guy was getting awfully chummy, here. "An old piece of crap roadster. I like it, but it's older than I am, and should probably be retired."

"The classics never go out of style, even if the parts become specialty orders."

I winced. "Don't mention repairs, even in jest. Those hurt."

He laughed and was thankfully distracted. We were almost there, just a block to go.

"So, how long have you known your friend Jake?"

And here we went again. Screw it, I wasn't lying about this either.

"Jake and I have been friends since middle school." Girls and boys could be friends that long, right? I mean I had girl-friends (but not girlfriends!) for that long.

"A long time. And you've never done this before, have you? Dressed up for him and surprised him like this." John's face was bland, disarming, but that question. That had to be a dig, right?

"No, I never have. I always tried to set him up with my friends, but I have never done this. Why, is that important?"

Careful, you can't get caught here. If you refer to your girl-friends as such, you will be; that's definitely a guy thing.

"Not really," John shrugged. "I just think he's a really lucky guy to have you as a friend. You'll forgive an old man for prying?"

It was my turn to shrug a question off. "You're not that old. As for Jake being lucky, maybe. He's always been lucky on some things, so why not his choice of friends? By the way, we're here."

John looked at the house I stopped at, taking it in. For a moment, I saw it as he did.

From the age to the slight air of disrepair that the peeling paint and warping front steps gave. To the size - the way there was no real yard since the place was crowded by the street and it's neighbors. The windows were old and a little dirty, and the curtains were pulled. Jake's car was in the drive, however, and that was the best news I'd had all day.

I opened the gate and walked up the cracked sidewalk, ignoring the slightly bent "beware of dog" sign; Jake didn't own one. I was glad he had apparently shoveled his walk; there wasn't any ice to slip on. A quick glance back showed that John had stopped and was waiting, idly playing with the gate.

I knocked on the door - and waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Not good. "He must be in the bathroom or something. He's home."

"Unless he had the same idea regarding driving as you did." John countered.

That.. was actually a very worrying idea. Screw it, it was phone time. Chris surely couldn't ding me for this, I was technically right outside. I knocked again, but before I could send the text, I saw the front room curtain twitch.

I had to remember to keep my voice as I called out; not easy when raising it. "Jake, come on, it's me! Open up, I've got your present!"

The door opened. I turned back and waved to John. See, sucker? now go report to Chris I did as demanded.

The arm coming out and pulling me through the door was a slight surprise, but I managed to compensate well enough with the help of the hallway wall.

"Thanks, man, I was in a bit of a bind there."

I realized what had been wrong with the hand that had grabbed me - the same thing wrong with my own.- Nail polish on press on nails. Press on nails on a hand currently clenched into a fist.

I looked up to find the last thing I expected. A festive red sweater over sweater puppies to rival the set I was currently sporting, a dark gray skirt that was wildly impractical in this weather, leading to shiny leather boots that were more properly classified as fetish wear than anything else. The face I was staring into was made up, but not a well done as mine was, and it was just on the line - hard to tell if the person wearing it was male or female.

What was even going on? Had Chris beaten me here, without her car?

The hands unclenched. "You... What are you doing here? you're a day early. What are you doing here, dressed like that?"

"Don't ask silly questions, man. Chris, this was all her idea. Did she get to you too, somehow?"

Jake sighed and locked the door. "Come on. Might as well tell you, now. Chris has much to answer for."

"That's what I've been saying all day! she'll get hers, though. Blackmail is frowned upon, even in our family."

"You and your girlfriends, right? You know if you just... nevermind, not the time for that argument." Once in the living room, Jake poured himself a shot of whiskey and downed it in a gulp.

I couldn't resist. "So... I was going to ask you for a change of clothes - but I'm not in a hurry to do that anymore. So what gives?"

He turned back to look at me. "So unfair. You know, I've done this for years now, and it takes a hell of a lot of time and effort, and the best thing that could be said about me is I can pass, most of the time. You manage to look natural in a day."

"Wait, you've been doing this for years? Multiple years?"

"Since high school," Jake answered, handing me a shot.

I knocked it back and gave him the glass. "Why?"

He took another shot himself before answering. "Because it feels right."

Huh? "Huh?"

"It feels right," he repeated. "Dressing as a woman, being seen as a woman, acting like a woman, feels right to me. Like Jake is the mask, and Jackie is the real deal."

"Jackie, huh?"

"Yep, Jackie. And before you forget, I know all about the young adventures of Patricia King."

I HATE that name, and he knows it. Wait. Jake did all this, got dressed up, took hours, went out, like this?

"You go out as... Jackie?"

"All the time."

So all that embarrassment, all the fear, the butt-clenching terror, Jake experienced all that willingly?

"So you get dressed up, take hours, and you feel what I felt today? The fear, the..."

"Utter mortification? Yes, though it lessens a bit with time." Jake - Jackie - slumped onto the couch, staring at the rather well turned out Christmas tree.

I joined him, slumping myself. "To willingly go through that... you must feel pretty strongly about this. So, transgender, right? Why not tell me, ever? Why keep it a secret so long?"

Jackie muttered something about strength and turned to look me in the eye. "You, of all people, were the one person I couldn't tell. I hate to say this, but I'm closer to Chris. She knows everything; how I felt, How I feel now, the entire mess. she must have finally gotten sick of my bitching about the dates you kept setting up for me. Tell me, were there others involved in... this?"

Her gesture encompassed my clothes. "Yeah, a Sue, Laq, Melissa, and Judy."

"They helped me get started; taught me the things I needed to know, together with Chris. They are friends of mine, too. the fact that they were all there... well I'm not sure what it means, but it means something."

I looked down at the dress, and the way it was ballooned out. "You could have just told me to stop. I'd have listened if you had."

I was a bit hurt that he thought less of my friendship than my sister's, and maybe that bled into my voice a little.

Jackie sighed again. "You're not getting it. I could tell anyone, really. I could tell Chris, I could tell the dates you sent my way, that was easy. I couldn't... I just couldn't risk you.You're the one person I couldn't risk driving away."

And again, my best friend looked away to the Christmas tree, eyes shining in the lights. He, or she, looked so vulnerable.

I had to ask. "Why?"

"I said it before, so many times, in a thousand different little ways. But I just couldn't find the guts to say it outright. 'Let my wish come true - all I want for Christmas... is you.'"

404, brain not found. "What? You, and me? That way?"

Jake - Jackie - nodded. "It was hell to be with you, but it was even worse being apart. You're the only one I've felt this way about, you silly man-whore."

I reached over and poured us both a shot. I downed mine, and struggled out of my coat; it was getting terribly warm in here.

All this time.

"And Chris knew all this?"

Jackie, the unfortunately masculine looking woman, nodded. "Every bit of it. It might even be why she did this to you today. I have to admit that Patty is less intimidating than Payton is, to talk to. She seems to understand a bit better."

"Payton might have been fine at it if he had been given a chance."

"True. I'm sorry."

That tense, downtrodden, expectant face. I couldn't take it.

I needed a distraction. "What about John? The guy that you saw outside? He was 'escorting' me to make sure I didn't get lost. Is he one of the inner circle of Chris's?"

Jackie cocked her head. Some actions made her easier to see than others. "No, I've never seen him before. Just like you to bring home strays, though."

"Har har. Well, Chris is devious, so we'll just have to see."

How could I deal with this? My hand hit the earring box in my coat, and I knew.

"Look, I can't promise anything here, alright?"

Jackie's face crumbled in an instant, and tears flowed. "I understand."

Jeez, just once, someone needed to let me finish. "Not like that, idiot. I can't promise anything concrete, but I can promise I'll try, alright? I'll try and understand, and... be there for you. Okay?" I brought out the small box and held it out.

Jackie's squeal just about broke my ears. She crossed the couch in an instant and had me in a death grip I was sure would leave bruises. On instinct, I stiffened - but made the effort to relax.

"You know - you're pretty comfy when you're lumpy like this. Even if Patty isn't my type."

Jackie - or Jake in this moment, perhaps... was pretty strong for his size. With him on top of me like this, I couldn't move.

"Don't get too used to her, Patty is going away." I put my arms around my friend who wanted to be more. "She's only here for the night, then Payton comes to stay."

"In that case, we should memorialize the occasion!" Jackie lunged off me and to her phone.

I groaned, but I let her take them.

...Jackie...

It was after midnight, and now Christmas day. I looked at Payton, sleeping on my couch, drunk, and snapped another shot. He looked so cute like that! Life just wasn't fair. Since it was Christmas, I could safely open my present from Chris Payton had delivered. The other box, whatever it contained, could wait until Payton was awake.

It was an empty box with a flawless handwritten note.: "One perfect chance, all gift wrapped. Don't let it go to waste! Merry Christmas."

She couldn't hear me, but I had to say it. "Thank you, Chris."



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