Tuck Squared - part 4

"This is bad blood."
Tuck
SQUARED
Chapter 4

by Rachel Greenham


 
Chapter 4

***

The treehouse is on fire! The dream was still too vivid in Mike’s mind. It had pulled him sharply into wakefulness in a second, but somehow hadn’t stopped. The black bird, glinting in the firelight. The treehouse is on fire, and Tuck’s trapped inside. And he wasn’t helping. He wasn’t sure if it was because he couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Either way…

Either way he was in his car within a minute and gunning the engine. It was just too vivid to be ignored. This was no simple dream, he told himself. Tuck’s hand in flames.

He screeched the car to a halt, and was running round the side of the house almost before the engine had shuddered to a stop. There was firelight… inside the treehouse, yes. Not the treehouse on fire. Still… There were footsteps leading to the tree, softened by more recent snowfall. He scrambled up the steps, lost his footing once and carried on more carefully until his head came above floor level and he could see inside. There was Tuck, kneeling by an open fire and staring into the flames, his right hand in a newly-applied bandage. And there was…

“Come in Mike,” said Tuck’s double. Or near-double.

“Uh,” was all he could say.

“Think of me as a vision, if it helps you to accept me. But come in.”

Tuck still did not move or look up. Mike hesitated a moment longer, staring at Valerie, then clambered into the treehouse. Besides, it was warmer inside, and off the precarious steps. Valerie waited for him to settle, then she held out her hand to him, palm-upturned. Mike looked between her intense blue-eyed gaze, her black hair glinting in the light of the fire, and Tuck, beside her, diminished and still not looking up. Vision or not, at such close range, in a confined space barely able to contain the three of them, Mike felt the physical reality of her. Tuck hadn’t imagined her then, he thought. Or I am. Mike nodded then, and unhooked his athame, still sheathed, from his belt and handed it to her. Valerie drew it from its sheath, but then just placed it on the floor, next to the fire, where it gleamed in the flickering light. Mike noticed Tuck’s slight start as he saw it there.

“Tuck,” she said gently. “Bring out the weapon.” Tuck jumped again, slightly, and glanced fearfully between the two of them, then he twisted where he sat to scrabble in his backpack. Finally he brought out the small paring knife. Valerie pointed to the floor next to the athame, and Tuck carefully put it down. It was an ugly, utilitarian thing, squatting by the graceful elongated cruciform of the athame.

“Pick it up, Mike,” Valerie directed. Mike hesitated, then did so. What is she up to? He wondered. “Take it back,” she commanded. “Strike for strike, blood for blood, as you were struck.” At Mike’s hesitation, Valerie reached over the fire and drew his hand forward until the blade was inches from Tuck’s cheek.

Tuck held his breath, looking first at the blade, almost too close to focus on, then up at Mike.

Mike’s hand trembled, at full extension, as he paused.

“Take your due, Mike,” Valerie insisted.

Tuck’s eyes seemed to plead with Mike to do it, for the release. Mike just felt… revulsion, suddenly. No, he thought. This is just bloodletting.

“No,” he breathed, finally, and lowered the knife. Its single milled edge reflected the firelight dully. “I won’t do it.” He was surprised then by a sigh of relief from Valerie, even as Tuck looked crestfallen.

“You understand then,” Valerie said softly. Mike nodded.

“This is bad blood,” Mike replied. He placed the knife on the floor again.

Valerie nodded in return. “Blood has always bound you, now it divides you. Tuck,” she turned to her other-self, “bring them out now.”

Tuck nodded slowly and reached back into his backpack.

“Mike,” Valerie continued, “more than your blood was spilled.”

Tuck placed a small cardboard box by the two knives. Mike looked at it, uncomprehending. His eyes flicked back up to Tuck, who was staring back at the fire, and at Valerie, who nodded at him to continue. Mike gingerly lifted the lid from the box.

Inside, scattered, were what looked at first glance to be a large number of small folded pieces of thin card. He picked one out, realized it was sealed shut and opened it carefully. A small steel shard dropped into his palm and gleamed there. Barely an inch long, with a delicate, keen edge that curved up to an exact point, and a slot at the rear where it would… A scalpel blade, he realized suddenly, glancing back up at Tuck and Valerie. What the hell? There had to be a hundred of them in the box at least, and it didn’t look newly-opened. He glanced back up at Tuck and Valerie. Tuck was rocking back and forth slightly, he realized, still staring into the fire.

“I don’t understand,” he got out then, feeling stupid.

“Tuck,” Valerie said again, ever gentler than before. “Show him.”

It was a long while before Tuck responded at all. He hadn’t looked up from the fire or stopped rocking.

“Do I have to?” he asked eventually, in a tiny voice.

Mike watched Valerie put her arm around Tuck, for an answer. It looked so strange, the two of them, the same, yet not. Tuck’s rocking stopped and he sat more upright to look in Valerie’s eyes. He had tears in his, Mike saw. In that moment Mike realized Tuck was beautiful. The revelation surprised tears from his own eyes. It had nothing to do with sex, or attraction, or Tuck’s gender, he knew, it just was. How could I have gone away? He berated himself. Never, never again.

Meanwhile Tuck had come off his knees and brought his legs round to his front and he was starting to roll up one leg of his pants. What Mike saw uncovered nearly stopped his heart.

From ankle to knee Tuck’s leg was covered in a tracery of fine scars. Some were recent — there was even a dressing still attached just below Tuck’s knee — others were older, some almost faded away. Tuck was rolling up his other pant leg to show more of the same. Mike just stared. The scars seemed to be arranged in little groups, he realized, of parallel lines, like claw-marks, or, he thought, almost like some kind of ritual scarification. Sometimes newer scars cross-hatched older ones. It seemed to be a work of maniacal obsessiveness. He glanced up at Tuck’s face, but Tuck wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“You see why you can’t use the blood-rite?” Valerie asked into the shocked silence. “Blood can’t heal this.” Mike nodded. He was appalled.

“How long has this been going on?” he asked, eventually. Valerie remained silent, but watched Tuck.

“Since start of October,” he whispered. “Occasionally. Now it’s most days.” Tuck rolled his pants down over his legs again in shame. He still wouldn’t meet Mike’s eyes.

“Tuck, why?”

It was a long time before Tuck answered that one. “It keeps me real,” he murmured, eventually. Mike didn’t understand him. “It keeps me in my body.” Mike was still confused, but saw Valerie nodding in agreement.

“You’ve got to stop this, man!” he exclaimed. “I mean, this isn’t right!” He found he had tears in his eyes again.

Tuck dipped his head. “Okay Mike.”

“No,” Valerie cut in suddenly, “he can’t. Not until he’s ready. Mike,” Valerie’s voice was actually plaintive, “don’t ask him to make promises he can’t keep, okay? If he stops this now he’ll have to do something else, and it won’t be as safe. We didn’t show you this because we thought you could fix it. We showed it to you because you need to know.” Mike nodded in understanding. “Tuck,” she continued, “You take this to Sheila, okay? She’ll earn her keep with this one, I promise you.”

“I just know anything that’s making you do that to yourself is wrong in principle,” Mike complained.

“Anything that makes me cut you is wrong in principle,” Tuck replied. “Mike, tell me I’m not making a huge mistake?”

“Which one?”

“You know which one.”

Mike sighed and stuck his head in his hands. He tried to think back, as he had been trying ever since Sunday, to pin down where it had all gone wrong. He glanced at Valerie, as she bent to feed more wood to the fire; she was calm and, in some way he couldn’t define, she was powerful. She was just so herself. Whereas Tuck…

It really wasn’t a surprising conclusion, he thought. Just that it had been danced around and ignored for so long that it had almost been forgotten out of habit.

How to get it across to Tuck, who had been dancing more furiously than anyone, and always right on the precipice?

“Ever since they put you on those shots,” he started, “you’ve been getting weirder. Not in a nice way either. You know, out of control.” Tuck nodded. “What happened on Sunday… I realized afterward, it had been building up for a long time.” Tuck nodded at that too. “I don’t think they’re doing you any good.”

“What shots?” Valerie asked suddenly. Ah, she doesn’t know it all then, Mike noted with some satisfaction.

“Tes… Testosterone,” Tuck answered her. Valerie’s eyes widened.

“And they think that’s going to make a man of you?” she asked, incredulously.

Tuck smiled grimly. “That was the general idea, yeah. I think,” there was just an edge of hysteria in his voice as he tried to make light of it, “I must have got a bad batch ’cause they’re just making me into an asshole.” He sighed. “They keep saying I need this operation too, before they can stabilize my regime.”

“Fucking with you, Tuck,” Valerie muttered.

“You want that operation?” Mike asked, full-knowing the answer. He wanted Tuck to say it though.

Tuck shook his head. “No. I don’t.” He looked into the fire for a few more moments. “Gonna stop the shots too,” he decided finally. “Next one’s on Thursday. God, I’ve got to tell Mom and Dad,” he said into his hands.

“It’s not just the shots though, is it?” Mike prodded. Tuck looked at him quizzically. “Don’t be dense, Tuck, this has all gone to hell since you started phasing Val out. The Pack’s gone cold on you, right?”

“They said they’d still be friends,” Tuck complained.

“And they are. But. Well, you know.”

“They’re friends with Valerie, not her geeky brother,” Valerie offered. Mike nodded firmly.

“That’s the heart of it yes. Oh they’re trying, but they’re having to try, follow me?” Tuck nodded. “Then there’s the babysitting. You don’t say so, but I know how much you miss those kids.”

Tuck nodded glumly. “Yeah, but I shouldn’t’ve got so attached to them anyway,” he said. “It’s not as if they were mine.” He sighed. “Not as if I can have any of my own after all,” he finished sullenly.

“Three. Travis. You’re still seeing him aren’t you? As Valerie, I mean?” Tuck nodded. “Have you even told him what’s going on yet?” Tuck shook his head.

“I know, Mike,” he interrupted before Mike could get a head of steam up. “I know. And before you ask, no, things haven’t been too great with Travis either. Something’s making him unhappy and he won’t say what and I’m not asking ’cause I think I know. I know, it’s pathetic. I just… I just wanted to hang on to that a little longer, okay?”

***

Tuck sat for a long time. “I thought this was what you wanted,” he said finally.

“What?”

“Well, you kept saying stop this and slow down and this isn’t normal and…”

“Whoah there,” Mike interrupted. “No. Yes, I wanted to you think about what you were doing, Tuck, that’s not the same thing! That doesn’t mean I disapprove!”

“Well you sure made me think you did,” Tuck protested.

“Well I shouldn’t have. That wasn’t what I meant. I just — You were always getting yourself into these situations out of your control, and I don’t think you really wanted to be in control. That’s what scared me.”

Pause.

“Besides,” said Mike, after he had calmed down. “I miss Valerie too, you know?”

“What?” Tuck asked, surprised.

“I do. I miss her. As much as anyone does.” As Mike said it, he realized how true it was. “I thought you were doing the right thing,” he admitted, “about the shots and phasing Valerie out and all that. But now I’ve seen you trying to become something you’re not. It’s different. You being Valerie was not you being something you’re not.” He grimaced at his syntax. “Never has been. Not even in the Age of Tape,” he added, for the cheap thrill of seeing both of them wince.

“I don’t know,” Tuck sighed. “It just seems like no-one wants me, you know? They just want Valerie.”

Mike shook his head. “But you are Valerie,” he explained. “It is you. You couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t you.”

“But it’s not all of you,” Valerie — the other Valerie — added suddenly. “You’re split in two. Valerie is part of you and Tuck is part of you and there’s some blurring in the middle, but neither is complete.”

Mike nodded. “’S true. Can’t recall Valerie ever pulling together a righteous hack for da boyz,” he said with a smile, “or joining in the game.” He shrugged. “For instance.” Valerie chuckled, he wondered at what memory.

“Can’t see Tuck taking Travis out on a date,” Valerie added, “or telling him it’s okay to cry, or getting down on the dance floor with Jack.” She grinned. “For instance.”

“Or wiping a baby’s ass,” Mike contributed helpfully.

“Guys do that baby stuff too!” Tuck protested.

“Yeah, but when’s Tuck done it?” Mike countered.

“They wanted a girl…”

“There you go again,” Mike accused, “making excuses. Eugene Tucker, hacker élite, second-generation geek, Jester of da Boyz — taking a babysitting job? But you,” he pointed a finger at Tuck, “wanted it. Just like you wanted all the rest, all that other life Eugene Tucker can’t have.” He was pushing now, and he knew it. Tuck just sat there, very still, with this look in his eyes as if… he’s actually thinking now, Mike realized. “And that’s okay,” he continued, more gently. “It’s okay by me, Tuck, it really is. And it’s okay by all your friends, and it’s okay by Travis, and it’ll be okay by your folks, I guarantee you,” he glanced at Valerie, “right?” Valerie nodded. “Tuck, What we couldn’t stand was the bullshit you were feeding yourself, and the rest of us, about why you were doing it!” Mike noticed Valerie nodding at that, looking inward.

“But…” Tuck stammered, “but what about what I want that Valerie can’t have?”

“Like what?” asked Valerie.

Tuck sighed. “Being a dad, for one…” he trailed off, already, Mike thought, aware of the hole in his argument.

“Wasn’t gonna happen anyway, Tuck,” Valerie said, a little harshly. “Bzzt. Try again.”

“You’re just trying to push me,” Tuck protested, “you’ve decided what I should be and now you’re pushing me as well!”

Mike sighed. So close!

“No,” Valerie answered. “You do what you have to do to be yourself, remember?” Tuck nodded. “Maybe you’ll figure out a different way to do it than me, maybe you just need more time, I dunno Tuck. This works for me. Whatever the hell you’ve been trying lately doesn’t, that’s obvious. On the gripping hand you seem to have a better tolerance for doing all that double-life shit than I did after the summer. If that works for you, it works. It doesn’t work for me, but we’re not the same any more.” She sighed. “I’m just saying — we’re saying — stop with the bullshit about why you’re doing it. It’s not like anyone believed it anyway.”

They were all quiet for a long time.

***

“I remember being afraid of seeming geeky in front of the pack,” Valerie replied. “I remember trying to hide it most of the time.”

“And now?” Tuck asked.

Valerie shrugged. “Turns out geek girls are cool,” she grinned. “Or should that be GEEK GRRLS R KEWL?” she enunciated. Mike could practically see that on a T-shirt.

“Only to geek guys,” Tuck protested, but he was already smiling.

“Oh I don’t know,” Valerie replied mischievously. “I’d go down on a girl who can build me a Linux box from scratch.” She winked at Mike.

“I’d settle for one who could pronounce Linux,” Mike said, play-mournfully. In reply, Tuck slapped them both, gently, with his unwounded hand. “You’re right,” he admitted. “She doesn’t have to be able to pronounce Linux…” Tuck slapped him again. “Hey, hey,” he yelled, “I get this from the girl who put Windows on her boyfriend’s box?”

“Ewww!” Valerie cried, “No self-respect city!” She giggled.

***

They had talked until the wood for the fire ran out and it started to get seriously cold, at which point it was either go home or start stripping the treehouse for fuel. Mike had called bedtime. That was fine for Mike, who only had about twenty yards to go. Tuck and Valerie had to walk home. It was snowing, but it had decided to be nice snow at last. Big fluffy flakes falling into the light of the streetlamps and almost no wind at all. The world sounded dead, but for their feet crumping through the settled snow.

Tuck was happy. Mike had suggested they go shopping tomorrow and had said, specifically said, he wanted to go with Valerie. Meaning me. Mike had always gone along with Valerie, or resigned himself to her, always with a sigh, or a look as if to say this is a bad idea. Tuck always had had this sense of guilt about being Valerie around Mike, so it was as if being Valerie was always something he had to do for one reason or another, something with a momentum of its own.

Mike had been right. It had been outside his control and that, he realized, was exactly where he had wanted it, where it wasn’t his fault.

Two words Mr. President. Plausible deniability.

I miss Valerie, Mike had said, and the world changed.

“But you hate shopping,” Tuck had replied, after Mike had suggested it. Mike had lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

“I’m a guy. It’s in my contract. I gotta make a good show of it — and I will, tomorrow — or They’ll invoke the Gay penalty clause.” They had laughed at that. “Besides,” Mike had added, “it’s never dull shopping with Val.”

Tuck noticed Valerie looking pensive. “Whatsup?” he asked. The night and the snow seemed to swallow up his words, but she did hear him, apparently.

“Oh, just wondering if now’s when I get to leap back,” she replied, sounding wistful.

“Leap? Oh,” he realized. “Haha.”

“Jane said,” Valerie continued, “maybe I’d been sent for a purpose. I thought maybe that was it. To get you and Mike back talking to each other.” She looked around at the snow as they walked, her hands stuffed into the pockets of her bike jacket. “Guess not.”

Tuck silently put his arm through hers and they walked on in silence.

She’s quite different from me, Tuck was thinking. Like she’s older, even though she’s not. Sad, somehow. He figured maybe that wasn’t so surprising, given the events of the last few days, but he thought there was more. She’s afraid, he realized. Afraid she’ll never see her Mike again. Or her Debbie. Her Mom and Dad. He wondered if he’d cope so well in the same situation. And she seems more grown-up. Is it because she’s made those decisions I’ve been scared to make? What was I trying to hang on to? Except of course, he remembered, he had made his decision. Wrong one. Clearly. If it leads to me cutting Mike, it’s wrong.

He wished he could make her happy. Or not-sad at least.

They rounded the last corner. Ahead, down the street was home, pristine and comforting. “Oh no,” Tuck chuckled at what he saw next. “Your poor bike.”

“She’ll live,” Valerie smiled. It looked very dejected, seeming to have a hang-dog expression, laden down as it was with the snow that had settled on it.

“We can put it in the garage,” Tuck offered. Valerie shook her head.

“Too noisy, this time of night. Besides, what would Mom and Dad say when they saw it there in the morning?”

Tuck shrugged. “Suppose so. Front door this time?” Valerie nodded tiredly, as Tuck released her arm to get the keys from his pocket.

They got through the front door with the minimum of noise, which was not, unfortunately, the same as none at all. They quickly removed their boots in the darkness of the hallway. Valerie picked hers up to carry upstairs as Tuck hung up his ski-jacket and led the way.

“Is that you Eugene?” Sarah’s voice made Tuck jump. She was at the top of the stairs. Glancing behind momentarily, Tuck saw Valerie move smoothly back into shadow.

“Yeah, Mom,” Tuck thought fast, then went up the rest of the stairs quickly, making Sarah back off round the corner as he got to the top. “Mike came back,” he explained, realizing he didn’t need any lies. “He’s okay. We were round at the treehouse, talking. You know, stuff.”

“You sure he’s okay?” Sarah asked. She didn’t really seem fully awake.

“Yes. He’s fine. We had a lot to talk about, you know?” He smiled for her. “We’re fine now. Go to bed, Mom.”

“What happened to your hand?”

Tuck almost screamed. “Nothing. I… We had a little fire going, and I put my hand down wrong, that’s all. It’s okay.” Don’t ask how I happened to have the first aid kit with me. “Come on Mom, go to bed.” Go to bed, he beamed, imagining Valerie was doing the same below. Finally she buckled under the combined psychic assault.

As soon as the bedroom door was closed, Tuck went to his own door and keyed in the code. Valerie must have heard the quiet confirmation tone, as she suddenly appeared at his side and was through the door before he was. He closed it and ensured it was locked.

“Oh God,” Valerie was breathing hard, “I thought I was done with these damn French farces!” Tuck sat heavily on the bed.

“What a night,” he muttered, happily though. Valerie dropped her boots and shed her jacket before sitting beside him.

“You think you’re going to sleep tonight then?” she asked.

Oh yes.” He squirmed out of his sweater. When he’d got free of it, he realized Valerie had gone all the way down to her panties and was clambering into bed, shivering. He finished getting ready himself and got in.

He could feel the heat of Valerie’s body next to him. She moved, suddenly, to reach over him and switch the light off. The room was illuminated only by the moonlight reflecting off the snow outside. Valerie was still up on one arm leaning slightly over him. Watching him, he realized. He looked back, admiring the curve of light that was her arm and shoulder, the fall of her hair against the light of the window.

Suddenly, Valerie grinned and punched his arm lightly. “G’night Tuck,” she whispered, and rolled onto her back and away from him. Yeah, he agreed. It would be weird. And I’m just getting my head unfucked thank you very much. It was more simple curiosity than actual desire anyway, and he knew it.

“Go to sleep, Tuck,” Valerie said softly. “I can hear you thinking from here.”

Tuck grinned. Of course she couldn’t. She was just thinking the same things.

She had a point though.

And he was terribly tired.

***

“You know, it’s going to get confusing around here, with us both being Val,” Tuck said, sleepily. He was enjoying the morning sunlight on his face. He’d woken to find himself nuzzling Valerie’s breasts, which produced a briefly embarrassing moment, but Valerie had understood. “One of us was going to do that,” she’d said. It was sort of like having Amy there, Tuck thought, or Susan. My long-lost identical twin sister, he thought, smiling. It wasn’t a bad way to think of her, all things considered. Maybe it’d be nice to have a sister who really understands.

Valerie shrugged, which jogged Tuck’s head slightly as it was lying on her upper arm. “’S your homeworld, you take it,” she said. She didn’t sound much more awake than he did. “Not as if I’m going to be around long.”

“Yeah, but it actually is your name now, you know, properly,” Tuck replied. “And I’ve hardly even used it recently.” Tuck thought, and rolled to face her. “Got an idea: What’s your middle name?”

Valerie grinned. “Ah. Now that would be telling.”

“Well, tell me then!”

“I asked Mom and Dad to come up with one,” Valerie said softly.

“And?”

“And. Find out for yourself.”

“…” Tuck recovered his voice. “You bitch! That’s not fair!” Valerie’s grin was way too smug, so he tickled her, where he knew she couldn’t resist. Valerie yelped loudly before she could stop herself.

There was a tapping at the door. “Eugene? Are you all right in there?” It was Dad’s voice. Tuck was creased up with laughter, so badly he couldn’t speak.

“Yes Dad,” Valerie called out then, making Tuck laugh even harder. He was trying really hard to keep it silent but he felt like he was about to explode.

“Is there someone else in there with you?” Dad’s voice called back suspiciously.

“No Dad, just talking to myself,” Valerie continued. Tuck was almost back in control so he put a finger over Valerie’s mouth and finished, “It’s my duty as a certified nutcase, ask Sheila.” It was Valerie’s turn to giggle. She buried her face in the quilt to muffle the sound.

“Well, all right.” Dad sounded doubtful, but a few moments later Tuck heard the bathroom door close, so guessed it was okay.

They fell silent again.

Tuck gazed at Valerie’s so-black hair. Where the sunlight fell on it, it shattered into iridescent greens and purples, shimmering with every breath. Tuck was fascinated.

“You’re really not going to tell me, are you,” Tuck said eventually. Valerie shook her head. “I’ll sneak a look at your driver’s license when you’re not looking,” he challenged.

“Shouldn’t have said that. Now you won’t get a chance.”

Tuck thought about that. “Shit.”

“Think of it as an incentive,” she answered mischievously.

“Oh yeah, great. So I get to find out right before being pounded to death in school?”

Valerie turned her face to his, serious now. “I’m alive,” she said simply.

They were silent again for a while. Tuck watched Valerie’s face, fascinated, for a while. “What was it like?” he whispered.

“Don’t wanna talk about it now. I’m in too good a mood.” Tuck huffed at that. “Ask me later, okay?”

“Okay.” Tuck snuggled closer, basking. “This is nice,” he murmured. “I keep thinking it should be weird or something.”

“Yeah, I know.” Valerie ruffled his hair. “You feel like Amy.”

“Was thinking the same thing.”

“Well duh,” Valerie smiled.

“Except, she’s bouncier.”

“You mean she has bigger boobs for you to stick your nose into, you perv,” Valerie teased.

“No!” Tuck poked her to emphasize. “I mean she bounces around a lot. You’re, well, graceful.”

“Am I?”

“Yeah. The way you walk, the way you talk and move around, the way you move your hands. Just… graceful. You know, elegant?”

Valerie shrugged.

“Did you learn that at this Jane’s academy thing?”

“Guess so. Hadn’t realized how much of it sunk in.”

“D’you think she’d teach me?” Valerie laughed softly at the idea. “What? What’s so funny?”

“Never mind.”

“You’re being unfair again,” Tuck complained.

“Oh, I was just thinking, how adorable you’d look in petticoats,” Valerie giggled.

“I bet you did,” Tuck retorted. Valerie didn’t have an answer for that. Tuck could tell, even from his snuggled-in position, that she was blushing.

Valerie sighed. “We should get up.”

“Yeah.”

Neither of them made any move to do so.

“I don’t want you to go,” Tuck said softly. Valerie sighed deeply and hugged him closer.

“I know. But I need to go home. I can’t stay here, this is your life. I can’t live skulking around in the shadows.”

“We’d think of something,” Tuck protested.

“Okay, what about Christmas, just for example? What, are you going to smuggle me aboard the plane in your suitcase?”

Tuck shook his head. “No. We’d figure something out. Properly.”

“Invent a long-lost sister out of the blue?”

Tuck shrugged. “Something like that, I guess.”

“I want to go home, Tuck!” she almost cried out, suddenly. “I miss people. I want my life back, you know? I want Debbie and I want Mike and I want my phone to work and to have people on the other end that know me. I want Charlene to be happy, I want Teresa to be alive! I want to go on a ride-out with Jill, I want…” She stopped, unable to continue. Tuck just held on, sobbing himself now.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Valerie found her voice again. “I can’t be stuck here.” She sounded almost panicky. Tuck held on closer.

“I hope you weren’t sent to help me, like you said,” Tuck continued. “’cause if you were it’s my fault you’re here. For getting so fucked up in the first place.”

“Isn’t your fault. You’re not going to do the guilt-thing over this, okay?” At Tuck’s silence she insisted, “okay?”

“Okay.” Meekly.

Valerie sighed again. “If I am stuck here,” she carried on, “Jane’s made an offer I’ll probably accept.”

“Oh?”

“Well, she’s still owed a big favor from someone in the Witness Protection Program.” Valerie waited for it to sink in.

“Ahhhh. She can do that?”

“Apparently. And Jane said she’d formally adopt me or something. I’d get papers, I’d get the rest of my education, I’d get a life, basically. A life, at least.”

“Sounds good.”

Valerie made a doubtful noise. “I dunno. I’m hoping it won’t come to that. It’s just, you know, there. In case. It makes a lot of sense I guess. After all it’s not like I could stay here. It wouldn’t work, Tuck,” she added before he could protest. “Think about it.”

Tuck gave in. “Well, at least we could still visit.”

“Well, yeah. Except Jane said she might move to England.” She shrugged. “Maybe, she said. Of course,” a mischievous note came back into her voice, “you do realize that if you do visit, you’ll be expected to behave like a lady and dress like you’re going to a prom all the time?”

“Of course,” Tuck giggled, “just like you always did, I’m sure.”

“Bah.”

“Besides, you’ve got me curious. I want to meet her now.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Valerie warned, jokingly.

“We really should get up,” Tuck muttered after a little while longer enjoying the sun. “Mike said he’d come and pick us up at ten.”

Valerie moaned. “What time is it now?”

“Dunno.” Neither made a sufficient effort to find out. “But he knows the code to the door, so he could come right in any moment and you know what he’s gonna think if he sees us like this.”

“You worry too much about what Mike thinks,” Valerie admonished.

“And you don’t?”

Valerie thought about that. “No,” she said, simply. “Not too much. Come on,” she started clambering over Tuck to get out of the bed, “we’re getting up. We gotta figure out a way to get me out of the house anyway.”

***

“Tuck,” Valerie complained, “these need to be hanging up!”

“Oh, and where am I going to do that?” Tuck retorted. Valerie sighed overdramatically and carried on rummaging. At least they’d been folded carefully, like they weren’t going to be worn again for a long time, she realized.

“Jeez. Get a lock for the closet,” Valerie answered back. She saw Tuck pause. Heh, he never thought of that, she smiled to herself.

“Used to keep a lot of it at Rachel’s, where I could change,” Tuck replied, as if in explanation. Valerie was already shaking her head again, looking at the clothes available. Not as extreme as Jane, but:

“God Tuck, you’re so femme! I never noticed before.”

“Eh?”

“Never mind,” she decided on an outfit. “Wear something easy to get out of. We’re shopping for clothes today.” Same for me, she decided. “Gotta get you some attitude, girl,” she added. “Hats. Have you got any hats?”

Tuck grinned.

***

Valerie froze as she was putting foundation on to watch in the mirror in astonishment as Tuck proceeded to put another set of clothes over the ones he’d already dressed in. Then she rolled her eyes and carried on what she was doing.

“Do you have any idea what that looks like?” she said, casually.

“Huh. Gets me past the parentals. Speaking of which,” Tuck pointed at her. Valerie shrugged.

“Wait for Mike to get here,” she said. “Two can smuggle a third out easier.” She sighed. “I should get a room or something, if I’m gonna be around a few days.” She had the money, thanks to Jane. The thought depressed her. Only a few days though, she thought, planning to be back at Jane’s for Christmas if she was still here… Oh shit the party! She suddenly remembered. The surprise Christmas party for Jane being organized by the old boy-girl network. Charlene and Teresa are gonna be there, I’ve got to get back!

She couldn’t stop herself thinking she wasn’t going to.

***

Mike thought about it. “I let myself in,” he said eventually, “and your Mom was the only one to see me at all, and I just waved through the doorway at her.” He looked at the two of them. “I say we just walk out. You,” he pointed at Valerie, “came in with me, just no-one noticed. Just don’t let anyone get a good look at you.”

“Sounds good to me,” Valerie nodded.

“We ready then?” Nods all round.

So that’s how they played it, and their luck held out, because no-one accosted them on the way out. In the car, Tuck occupied the back seat, sloughing off outer layers of clothing, while Valerie rode shotgun. “How come you were so late anyway?” Valerie asked Mike. He hadn’t turned up until closer to eleven in the end.

“Guess,” he replied. “I was away three nights. Folks were understandably a little put out,” he understated. “Had to talk them out of grounding me.”

“You’re such a smooth talker when you want to be,” she teased. “Huh. Even if I do get home, I’m going to be in so much trouble. Hey, you done back there yet?”

“Nearly!” Tuck seemed to be shoving something down his front. Valerie rolled her eyes and looked out the windshield. Bras, she committed to her cranial notepad. Some that fit me. Tuck’s were all of a size to accommodate those damn forms and were useless to her, so she was going without until the first lingerie department, she promised herself. Nice silk blouse, this, she added, not entirely without relevance.

“Okay,” Tuck called from the back, “Parking lot.”

***

As they got out of the car they both put on the matching hats that went with the — until now hidden — matching clothes, and turned to Mike as one. Looking up from locking the car, he yelped in surprise, or horror, or something. Tuck wasn’t sure, but the look on Mike’s face had definitely been worth it.

“Don’t worry Mike,” Tuck reassured him, “we won’t take advantage.” They had both worn their hair so that the hats would cover it, just to make things harder.

Mike had calmed down from the shock. After a few moments looking at both of them, he nodded. “You’ve got pierced ears,” he said to Valerie.

They both turned slowly like marionettes to look at Tuck. “No,” he said. “Absolutely no. Oh no! No way!” Both of them started to grow evil grins. In unison. “I can’t!” he protested.

It was Mike that broke it first. “Come on mallbunnies,” he invited. Valerie took his left arm. After a moment Tuck took the right and they hiked off towards the entrance.

“Why aren’t all these people at work? Tuck complained.

“Lunch break,” Mike replied.

“Ooh yeah,” chimed in Valerie. “I’m starved!” Tuck realized he was hungry too.

“What am I gonna call you two anyway,” Mike asked.

“We were talking about that earlier,” Tuck replied.

“And?”

“Didn’t decide,” from Valerie.

“How about V-1 and V-2 then?” Tuck offered.

“Once ze rockets are up who cares vhere zey come down,” sang Valerie and Mike in unison, “zat’s not my department, says Werner von Braun.” Tuck stuck his tongue out at them.

“Vx and Vy?” suggested Valerie.

“Vi and Emacs,” Tuck shot back.

“Valhalla and Valinor.”

“Something helpful would be good,” Mike reminded them.

“Well, I thought she should have Valerie,” Tuck explained, “as it’s her real name now. I thought I’d borrow her middle name for the duration, but she won’t tell me what it is!”

“Mom and Dad chose it,” Valerie told Mike.

“She says I should wait and see,” said Tuck, sulking.

“Nah,” Mike replied. “It’s probably just embarrassing. Look what they gave you the first time around.”

“Yeah, guess so.” Just then Tuck noticed Valerie leaning sideways and whispering in Mike’s ear. Mike’s eyebrows went up, then he nodded, resuming his usual blank-but-smug expression. “Hey!” Tuck cried.

“Shush,” said Mike. “It’s so’s we can compare later. See if they choose the same thing twice, you know?”

Assuming I even ask them to,” Tuck sulked. “Assuming lots of stuff, as it happens,” he finished.

Mike said nothing.

***

“Ooh!” Valerie sang out almost as soon as they’d entered the mall, and disengaged from Mike to dive into the Games shop. This was not what Tuck had in mind, and he hauled back as Mike tried to follow.

“What?” Mike asked.

“Mike! I can’t go in there!” Tuck squeaked. “They know me…”

Mike shrugged. “You gonna wait out here then?” he asked, unravelling his own arm.

“Mike…”

“Tuck, the Angelic Player’s Guide should be in by now. They said they’d got it on order…”

Tuck sighed and let Mike go, then felt an irrational surge of jealousy as he watched Mike follow after Valerie. It was so strong that he’d actually closed half the remaining distance to the shop’s opening before stopping. He could see Mike and Valerie talking. Valerie looked up just then, making eye contact, then moved decisively, putting down whatever she had in her hand and coming out of the shop straight towards Tuck.

“Come on silly,” she breezed. “You wouldn’t want Mike to feel guilty would you?” She was teasing him now. Tuck tried to restrain a surge of anger. Valerie’s hand on his, suddenly, did the job a lot better.

“They know me in there,” Tuck explained.

“Of course they do,” laughed Valerie. “Look, there’s Sebastian,” she waved at the tall one behind the counter, the one with the ponytail and the nose-ring. He waved back, smiling. “Come on Val,” she admonished. “They won’t bite and you know it.”

“Only ’cause he’d get bits of me stuck in his tongue bar,” Tuck muttered, almost smiling despite himself. He saw Mike waving a copy of the APG through the window like a trophy. Tuck took another involuntary step forwards.

“Come on Val,” Valerie repeated. “He said he wasn’t going to get it until you’d had a look, and he daren’t put it down in case someone else grabs it. And straight after this we’ll go get something to eat ’cause I really am hungry.”

Oh what the hell, Tuck finally gave in and went through the open doorway, Valerie close behind. Yeah, I know it’s a set-up, but wasn’t this kind of the point? It was strange, being in that shop as Valerie. He felt a blush starting to rise, but just then Mike came over with a “hey Val, look at this,” and all three of them were soon deep into it, flipping through and scanning quickly.

“Think we can use it?”

“Dunno. Probably too late to incorporate this stuff into the current game. It’s all for In Nomine, but it should be adaptable. I’ll have to think about it.”

“Kinda different power-levels involved.”

“Yeah. Thinking about that.”

“Gonna get it anyway?”

Mike nodded. “Oh, and I need a favor?” Uh-oh. “They got a new GURPS Magic edition and mine’s literally falling apart.” That much was true. The inside of Mike’s schoolbag was an extremely hostile environment for the printed word. “XP in it for you if you get it,” Mike bribed.

“Yeah, okay.” They wandered back to that section to pick it up, and from there carried on browsing. “Are people looking at us?” Tuck asked after a while.

“Two girls, hot girls, in a games shop? Are you kidding?” Mike replied.

“They’re probably wondering if they’ve slipped into a parallel dimension,” Valerie added with a giggle. “Well, if I ever wanted a group of people who weren’t going to have a problem with that…”

“Hey, I don’t have a problem with it,” Mike piped up.

“You shop here, Mike,” Valerie countered. She had him beat with that one, so she flounced off triumphantly to the AD&D section, or wall, to be more precise. Tuck giggled quietly, leafing idly through a shelf of secondhand scenarios.

Are you okay with it?” Tuck asked Mike when Valerie was out of earshot. They hadn’t had a chance to talk in private before.

Mike nodded. “Yeah. I mean, you can’t just go on sitting there wibbling about how impossible it is when she’s right there, you know?” Tuck nodded at that. “And I’m sorry I doubted you before.”

Tuck shrugged. “’S’okay. I would have.”

“Besides, it’s not like she’s exactly like you. I mean it would be spooky if you two were identical, but there’s all these differences.”

“Like a twin, not a duplicate,” Tuck offered.

“Yeah. Something like that. Except she’s got a lot of your memories, right?” Tuck nodded. “Isn’t that weird?”

“A bit, yeah. But it’s kind of nice though. Not having to explain stuff. Not being able to bullshit either, of course, but… It’s nice.” Tuck gave up pretending to look at stuff and leant back against the shelving-unit. “I like having her around, Mike. I wish — I wish we could find a way to make it work.”

“She needs to go home, Val,” Mike reminded him. “That’s what she wants.”

“Yeah, but what if she can’t? We have no idea how this happened, where do we even begin to figure out how to send her back?”

Mike sighed. “We’ll think about that, okay? Later.” Tuck saw his eyes flicker at something behind him, and guessed that Valerie was on her way back over.

“Come on guys,” Valerie said breezily, “don’t you know it’s rude to talk about people behind their backs?” She grinned at them both knowingly. “I’m hungry, there’s nothing new in TSR Country, let’s blow this joint and get some fooood!”

“Okay, we just got to get these then,” Mike waved the APG and headed off to the counter. Tuck hesitated, clutching the Magic book. Oh well, in for a penny, he decided and followed Mike. Maybe Seb won’t recognize me like this…

“Oh hi!” Sebastian was smiling as Tuck approached the counter. So much for that then. “Whatcha got?”

“Oh, just the new one of this,” Tuck managed not to stammer, putting the book down on the counter.

“Mmm, yeah,” Sebastian glanced at it. “Not much that’s new, just fixes really.”

“Yeah, I know.” Tuck tried to breathe normally. “But Mike managed to kill his old one so…”

“Know how it goes.” Tuck handed over the cash and Sebastian put it through the register. “I’m sorry,” he admitted as he handed back the change, “your name escapes me.”

Nicely done, Tuck had to admit, blushing hugely, knowing that other people were in earshot. “Val, er, Valerie.”

“Well, hi again, Valerie,” he stuck his hand out again. Huh? Oh, to shake. Tuck took it and shook, timidly. “Good luck, y’hear?”

“Er, thanks,” Tuck managed, blushing again almost before the previous one had gone down, and fled the store.

Valerie was waiting outside with Mike. “Well?”

“You set me up!” Tuck tried to keep an anger running, but there wasn’t much fuel.

“Well duh,” Valerie replied. “You needed it. Went okay didn’t it?” Mike was grinning too. Bastard, Tuck thought. It’s a damned conspiracy’s what it is.

“Might not have done,” Tuck tried indignation. It just came out petulant.

“Nonsense. Seb’s a sweetie and you know it. Come on, I’m HUNGRY!” She grabbed Tuck’s free arm and started marching off to the food court, scooping up Mike with her other arm as she went.

“Guess we’re along for the ride,” Mike observed. Tuck managed to laugh at that.

***

“No,” she admitted, “school will not be that easy.” She wolfed down some more fries. Tuck thought she must really have been hungry, and felt a bit of guilt about that. She was kind of my guest after all. He’d bought the food they were eating though, at least. “Look,” she said when she next had a free mouth, “most people — most people, don’t have a problem, okay? May take them a little to get used to the idea; may have to explain things a few times, y’know? But most people basically don’t give a shit. They’re too wrapped up in their own problems and you’re just local color.” She grinned.

“It’s just the congenital assholes you got to worry about. But that’s not really different from now is it?” Tuck shook his head. “Same kind of asshole. Some interesting personnel changes, and they get to learn some lovely new words, but basically the same kinda shit from the same kind of asshole. Just be careful. Take precautions. Don’t be alone between classes, y’know?”

“We already do that,” Mike said darkly.

“Well then. Mmm. Burgers.” She took another bite. Tuck picked at his nachos, disconsolately. Just listening to her talking about it was getting him depressed again. Is there really no other way? He wondered, and tried to think.

“You got to be more careful though,” Valerie continued suddenly. “You’ve got good friends, okay? Really good friends. But they’re gonna be targets too. That’s the worst thing about it. When they realize they can’t get at you, they’ll try and get at your friends. Try to cut them away from you. George…” She stopped suddenly, collecting herself. “George ended up in the hospital, defending me.”

“What?” Mike demanded. Tuck just sat there, aghast.

“I can’t do that!” he said. “Not if it’ll put people in danger! I can’t do that Val!”

“Well, yeah,” she sighed. “I came closest to giving it up right there too. George said don’t you dare. ‘Don’t you dare,’ he said. ‘Not after this. You’re not going to let the bastards win this one.’”

“Yeah but it hasn’t happened here yet. It doesn’t have to…”

“Val, listen to me. That was the worst thing, the absolute worst thing that happened, okay? And George is still a friend. They couldn’t touch that. Just consider yourselves forewarned. Your friends are targets too, so be careful. George got hot-headed, he said it himself. He went in without backup when strategic withdrawal was the right thing to do.” She took some more fries. Tuck and Mike looked at each other, thinking.

“Look,” Valerie carried on, “it’s not as if it was just us against the whole school, you know? It was us against a few assholes who really aren’t that bright to begin with. Isolation and containment, right? Situation under control. We dealt with ’em. You can deal too.

“Then there’s the other kind of asshole. The grown-up kind. Questions from the school board asking whether I was a suitable student. Religious-Right types threatening to take their own kids out of school if I stayed, that kind of crap.”

Tuck put his head in his hands. “What did you do?” Mike asked.

“Turns out we didn’t have to do anything, almost,” Valerie replied. “You guys got Dobson for Principal this year?” They nodded. “Wasn’t sure if Nickerson had been dealt with here.”

“Oh yeah,” Mike confirmed, “He had to go.”

“Cool. ’Cause he — Dobson I mean — really came through. It was amazing. I mean, when the fundies were threatening to take their kids out, he just kind of went ‘go ahead’, you know? ‘If you keep harassing one of my top students I’d have to suspend your kids anyway.’ Took the wind right out. He really went out on a limb, I heard. I mean, he made promises to the board based on my behavior.”

“Shit!”

“Yeah. And then he gave this talk, to the parents and all. I wasn’t there, but Mom and Dad were impressed, I mean they were impressed, right? Said he’d obviously really done his research. So there was this talk, and a QA afterwards, and at the end he held a vote, which was kinda sneaky ’cause he hadn’t said anything about that beforehand, but it was just an informal raise-your-hands type thing apparently. And the vote was overwhelmingly, and I mean overwhelmingly in favor of me staying.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah,” she nodded. “That really felt good actually.”

“He was probably waiting to see how it went before deciding to do the vote,” Mike mentioned.

“Yeah probably, but it’s still good that it went that well, right? I just thought it was amazing, that Dobson of all people should turn out so cool about it all.”

Tuck grinned. “I have something on Dobson.”

“Yeah? Well I don’t,” Valerie replied. “What?”

“Yeah, what?” Mike joined in.

“Ahhht! You both know the rules.” Valerie pouted. “Doesn’t matter anyway. It’s nice to know I didn’t need it, I guess.”

“Yeah, guess so. I’m just saying, it’s doable, right? It’s not the automatic death sentence I know you’re thinking it would be. There’s some nasty stuff, yeah, but there’s also some really nice surprises along the way.”

“Yeah?”

“Let’s just say, not all the asshole parents have asshole kids, and not all the asshole kids have asshole parents?” She shrugged. “It’s probably all going to be different for you anyway. I mean, the starting-conditions are way different now. Chaos applies. I’m just saying, it’s doable, okay? Just keep your wits about you, but keep an open mind as well.”

Tuck nodded.

“Hey,” Mike agreed, “open minds are the main advantage we’ve got, right?” Valerie chuckled at that.

Notes:

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To Be Continued...



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