Tuck Squared - part 5

"What am I going to do without him?"
Tuck
SQUARED
Chapter 5

by Rachel Greenham


 
Chapter 5

***

Next stop was a lingerie department. Valerie declared herself in need of basic supplies, nothing fancy. Panties, bras, pantyhose. It brought Tuck’s attention to the fact that Valerie didn’t wear any forms; even though he’d seen that of course, it just hadn’t registered before now. It wasn’t like she had any more up top than he did; she just considered it enough, obviously.

“Look, they sell my bra size in nonspecialist stores,” she explained as she modelled. “I reckon by definition that’s normal enough. I still got ’em for special occasions,” she added, pointing at Tuck’s chest and grinning. “You know, when you want to make an impression? I just got fed up with them for everyday. It’s not me, you know?”

Tuck supposed he did.

“Come on then,” she said, taking the bra off right there outside the changing-room stalls, and tossing it at him so he had to catch it or it would have landed on his face. “You try it.” She disappeared back in the stall.

“Me?” he gulped.

“You don’t need ’em any more than I do,” she called through the curtain. “It’s another crutch.”

Maybe I just like the shape!” Tuck protested. “That’s allowed isn’t it?”

Valerie re-emerged, wearing a different bra. “Are you saying you don’t like my shape?” She posed pointing an imaginary gun at him, making him laugh, then frowned and took that bra off too, heading back into the stall as she did so. “Pinches,” she explained as she went. “Happiness is a bra that fits. Hey, we should get you a proper fitting. You should at least try and see what it looks like,” she called.

“I can see what it looks like,” Tuck reminded her, just as she was coming out again.

“And?”

He looked. “It looks okay,” he admitted.

“Oh I live for your approval,” she answered sarcastically. “Hmm. Think I’ll wear this one out. And I want that one,” she pointed to the one Tuck was still holding, “and a couple of the others. They’ll do me for a while. You sure you don’t want to try?”

Tuck nodded. “I just feel more comfortable.” Valerie shrugged and started putting her blouse back on.

“You’ll have these ones anyway, when I’m gone,” she said. “Come on, Mike’ll be getting bored out there among the panties with nothing to do.”

***

“No. Absolutely not.” They were outside the piercing parlor.

“Oh come on Val,” teased Valerie. “It only hurts for a moment and then it’s over. You don’t even see any blood.”

“Like that’s the point,” Tuck protested.

“I will if you will,” Mike said then, surprising them both.

“What?”

“I’ll even go first, how’s that?”

“Isn’t there some gay-man’s code about earrings or something?” Valerie asked.

“Oh Val,” Mike laughed, “that’s so 1980s.”

“Yeah but come on Mike,” Tuck said, “your parents’ll go ballistic if you… Hell, my parents will go ballistic, yours are gonna hit escape velocity.”

Mike grinned. He could be infuriating when he was like this.

“You’re serious aren’t you,” Valerie said. Mike nodded.

“Sure. Been sorta thinking about it for a while anyway.”

“Mike you don’t have to do this!”

“Didja know you can actually get those Bajoran ear-pieces?”

“Mike!”

“Come on Tu-Val, stop being such a prude,” Mike giggled. “It’ll be cool, trust me.” At that he turned away and went into the shop, so Tuck had to follow him, or he knew Mike would go right ahead with it anyway. He realized then they were standing in a line for the counter.

“I can’t believe there’s actually a line,” Mike was saying, annoyed at the absorption of energy.

“You going for both ears or just the one?” Valerie asked him.

Mike thought about it. “I’ll have the same number as Val, but maybe both on the same ear or something?” He grinned. “Or somewhere else.”

“Stick with just the ears for today Mike,” Valerie suggested. Mike nodded.

“Seriously Mike, you don’t have to do this,” Tuck said again. “Look, I’ll get my damn ears pierced, okay? You don’t have to do it as well.”

Mike just took both Tuck’s hands, right there, standing in line, and they stood, heads almost together. The line of people just faded out, along with other-Valerie, the shop, the mall. They were back in their place. A place of stillness and perfect understanding. This one little thing I can do with you, my brother-sister. This one little step I can take along your path. Tuck nodded, and they parted. “Uh-oh,” Mike said, almost immediately. “She’s gone.” Tuck looked around quickly, wondering for a moment if that had been some sort of trigger to send her home. He doubted it. He thought he knew what it was. “I’ll hold our place,” Mike suggested, “you go look for her. She won’t have gone far.”

“Two minutes,” Tuck replied and moved off.

Mike was right, he didn’t have to go far. Valerie was just outside the shop, but hidden round the corner where she’d sat on the floor to cry. He knelt beside her to wait, but this time didn’t take his eyes off her. “Please don’t run off like that,” he said, knowing it sounded lame. She looked at him.

“What am I going to do without him?” She asked suddenly. Tuck sighed.

If it comes to that, you’ll have us,” he promised, and held her. “You’ll have us,” he repeated. Valerie just cried.

After about a minute she shifted, signalling she was done. “Thanks,” she said, wetly. “Oh God, I must look a mess.”

Tuck smiled grimly. “It’s pretty bad,” he agreed, and got a tissue out of his purse, started dabbing at her face. “No,” he changed his mind. “Better off just starting over.” He stuffed the tissue away and got out the cleansing wipes.

“That bad, huh?”

“Yeah, that bad.” He made short work of most of the make-up she had on. She’d gone lighter than he tended to, even now. “We’ll re-do it in a restroom when you’re feeling better. Or should I pull Mike out of that line?” He grinned.

“No! Don’t you dare, you don’t get out of it that easily. Go back in there, I’ll be in shortly.” Tuck nodded. “Just leave me another wipe.” Tuck handed her another wipe and stood up.

Mike had reached the front of the line, and actually given up two places to people behind him, Tuck saw when he returned. “There was I thinking you two had eloped,” he grinned at Tuck. Tuck hit him.

“She’ll be in in a moment,” he replied. He’d tell Mike what he’d promised later, he decided. Their turn was up.

They were led further back into the shop and put into two adjacent chairs. Guess that makes sense, Tuck thought. They probably have people doing this in pairs all the time, egging each other on.

“What’ll it be then?” The voice, male, was friendly but sounded a bit strange, like he had a speech impediment. It came from the large bald man washing his hands at the sink. Tuck looked up and gasped out loud. The guy’s face was full of metal. He cracked a wide, metallic grin. Mike, who had seen him coming, was clearly enjoying himself at the expense of Tuck’s reaction. “My name’s Paul, by the way,” he added. He didn’t offer to shake hands, having just washed them, Tuck supposed.

“Uh, just the ears I guess,” Tuck managed. “Just the ears. That’s it. Nothing more. Just the ears.”

“In one ear and out the other?” he grinned at them. Tuck gulped.

“Um. One in each earlobe please?”

Paul made a disappointed noise and spoke to the ceiling. “Just the ears, she says. I am totally unappreciated in my time. You too I suppose,” he added towards Mike. Mike nodded. “Okay, who’s first?”

Mike raised his hand, gingerly. Just then Valerie showed up, and actually took a step back at the sight of Paul as he busied himself getting the gun ready. “You want plain studs?”

“Er, what’s the choice?” Mike asked. Paul picked up a sample tray and showed it to him.

“Think about it. You’ll need to keep them in for four to six weeks at least before you can take them out and put something else in.” Mike nodded and pointed. “The black ones?”

“Yeah,” Mike said, wearing his if-we’re-gonna-do-it-let’s-do-it grin.

“Okay. And you Miss?”

Tuck looked. “Do you have anything non-allergenic?”

“Sure. Gold, or titanium?”

“Um,” Tuck hesitated. “The gold ones then?”

Paul nodded and went to put on latex gloves and load up the gun. He returned to Mike’s chair.

“You sure now?” Mike nodded. “Which one first?” Mike pointed at his left ear. Paul dabbed at it with antiseptic lotion and made a little mark with a purple marker pen. Paul bent towards Mike and positioned the gun, there was a sharp, loud click and it was done. Paul put the gun aside, shooed Mike’s hand away and dabbed at his ear with a Q-tip. He picked up his gun again.

“Her next,” Mike said, then.

“Taking turns, eh?” Paul asked, grinning. Mike just nodded. It was Tuck’s turn to enjoy Mike’s discomfiture. It wasn’t often he got to see Mike intimidated by anyone.

“I should stop and wash up between treating each of you, you know,” Paul said.

“It’s okay,” Mike explained blithely, “we share antibodies anyway.”

Paul stared long at him, raising an eyebrow laden with metal. “That’s more than I needed to hear, kid.” Mike went redder than Tuck had ever seen him. Valerie was hard-pressed to keep her feet under her with laughing.

“That — didn’t come out the right way,” he said meekly. Valerie fell over.

“Mike,” Tuck suggested, laughing, “Mike, if you’re in a hole, stop digging? Please?” Mike put his head in his hands.

“You ready then?” Paul asked. Tuck nodded. “You sure about this?” He nodded again. “Okay.”

Tuck waited, nervously, while his ear was daubed, then there was a loud pop and it was done. The pain was fading almost before he had registered it. The post-piercing ministrations to his ear felt somehow distant. I’ve done it now, he thought, dimly. Paul was already preparing Mike for his second.

Less than a minute later they were all done. “Any more for any more?” asked Paul, brandishing the gun. Mike actually seemed to be considering it; seeing that, Valerie stepped in.

“No, Mike. Don’t start the machismo thing.” She bent close so they could both see the old healing piercings she had in each ear. “Trust me, you will change your mind about it,” she said directly to Tuck.

“Once you start down the dark path,” Paul added, the store lights glinting off the metal in his face, “forever will it dominate your destiny.” Tuck could swear his mouth clanked as he spoke.

“Er, yeah, okay, that’s it.” Mike said.

“Okay then, you’re done,” Paul finished. “Get some cleaning-fluid and Q-tips on the way out, they’ll give you the right stuff. It’s included in the price you paid. Clean the area and turn the studs twice a day for four-to-six weeks, then you can start wearing other things. There’s an after-care leaflet in with the cleaning-fluid.”

Tuck and Mike nodded, their ears throbbing. Tuck looked at Mike. Mike had a half-desperate look on his face, like his brain had finally caught up with what he was doing. Valerie grinned at them both.

***

“Stop fiddling with it Mike!”

Mike didn’t bother looking up to see which one of them said it. “It itches.”

“I know it itches. Leave it alone.”

“Man I’m gonna get killed…” He looked up then, to see both of them giving him such a look. “What?”

***

Valerie decided she was satisfied with the day’s work, then grinned at herself. That almost sounded like Jane thinking, she thought. Having her ears pierced seemed to have worked wonders for Tuck’s attitude, though she recognized it as a kind of jollied-up fatalism. Okay, she’d argued a bit about the braid, she smiled, but had fought less than she’d expected over the cargo pants and Doc Martens.

Yes, she’s coming on nicely, she thought, noting without surprise the pronoun change in her thoughts. Making some room for the geek in the girl.

“Valerie?” Someone called from ahead. She looked up and saw — oh no — the Pack. All of it, by the looks of it. Including Debbie.

“Sabrina!” Tuck was running forwards before Valerie could react. Hasn’t she seen Debbie? Valerie wondered. Got the impression they weren’t on speaking terms. “They’re turning me into a tomboy! You’re the only one who can save me!”

Valerie didn’t wait around. She stepped aside naturally into the oncoming flow of shoppers and turned to drift away with them, hoping she’d done so before her presence had been registered. She didn’t need this. Behind her, receding, she heard Jill laughing out loud, helplessly. She skipped to another shopper-flow that would bring her closer to the restrooms where she planned to hide out for a while and catch her thoughts.

***

Tuck was just recovering his wits after belatedly noticing Debbie amongst the rest of them, when he noticed someone missing. Not again, he moaned inwardly. He scanned around quickly, found only Mike, hanging back slightly.

<Restroom> Mike signed, and pointed. Glad someone’s on the ball today, Tuck thought and ran off in that direction, almost tripping at the unaccustomed weight of the DMs, until he found a loping gait that kind of worked.

***

Debbie sighed as Valerie had run off practically at the sight of her. This was getting tiresome.

“Guess when you gotta go…” Kim said after Valerie’s retreating back.

“That’s it,” Debbie decided, “I have had enough of this.” She moved off at a quick walk towards the restrooms.

“Where are you going?” Kathy demanded, easily catching up with her.

“To have a talk,” Debbie explained, not slowing. “I know, Kathy. I’ve been as bad as her about this, but it’s been half a year. It must be driving you guys crazy keeping us apart. We can at least learn to be civil to each other for your sakes, don’t you agree?”

Kathy hung back, making Debbie pause. “Well?” she asked, “Aren’t you going to come and protect the little squirt in case I go psycho?”

“It’s not like that,” Kathy protested, looking hurt.

Debbie sighed, and replied more gently. “Yes it is, but I’m not saying you were wrong, okay?” She looked at Kathy, looking unhappy. “Look, come along, please? It probably is a good idea you being there, thinking about it. But I’m not planning to hurt him, okay? Her, I mean.”

Kathy nodded, and caught up in a couple of long strides.

Debbie pushed open the restroom door. It was quiet inside, which was a small mercy. She was about to call Valerie’s name when she heard her voice, coming from a cubicle. “No, I can’t just go out and meet them. Think about it Valerie — It’s all right, they’ll be cool — No, they’ll freak - Mike didn’t freak — Mike halfway believes this stuff anyway. Look, I can’t be around her, okay?”

Debbie and Kathy slowly made their way through the restroom, trying to move quietly. She’s finally flipped then, Debbie was thinking. She’s lost it completely.

“Why not? I thought you — Look, Valerie, you two may have split up months ago, but I was with her, Friday night, okay? I cooked breakfast before leaving for Sheila’s. Think about it!” There was a single muffled sob. Debbie looked at Kathy, worriedly. Kathy mouthed what? Debbie shrugged. “What if I go out there and make nice and then forget that she’s not the right one?”

Debbie could stand it no more. The cubicle the voice was coming from was pushed to, but not locked, so she reached forwards and pushed it open.

There was Valerie, sitting on the toilet lid, just looking up in surprise. She had black hair, longer, and was dressed in smart casuals. And there was Valerie, kneeling by her, looking round with an identical look on her face. That one was the one they’d greeted a few minutes earlier. The one with the braid and the cargo pants. Debbie found she couldn’t move. Her brain wasn’t working.

“Shit,” the dark-haired one said simply, and got up and strode straight out of the cubicle. She brushed past Debbie as she did so, and Debbie felt a sudden tingle as she did so. Pheremones, she figured, feeling embarrassed about the way her body responded immediately after all that time.

“Wait Val!” the other one called, getting up in one agile motion, but the first was already leaving the restroom. Valerie, the one remaining, just slumped onto the toilet lid herself.

Kathy found her voice first. “Who the hell was that?” Valerie just keened over and banged her head against the cubicle wall a couple of times, making it rattle. “Who was that?” she demanded again, more insistently.

“Who did it look like,” Valerie snapped back, then sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m having a really strange week, okay?”

“I can believe it,” Debbie managed to say, with a level voice. Valerie smiled back, quickly; she was embarrassed, Debbie reckoned.

“Look Debs, I wasn’t running away from you back there, okay? I just — she keeps panicking and running off into the crowd. I need to go after her,” she added, standing and moving out of the cubicle.

“Not before you explain what’s going on!” Kathy protested, stopping her with an arm that might as well have been an iron bar.

“Yes, Kathy. Before.” Tuck shot back. “I’ve got to find her. Let me go!” Kathy didn’t budge. “Look, I’m not bailing. We’ll meet back here, okay? Then I can tell you all at once.”

“Kathy,” Debbie interrupted, “let her go.” Kathy looked at her. “She said she’ll come back, so she will. Let her go, Kathy.” Kathy sighed and released Valerie.

Valerie took off.

“You really think so?” Kathy asked her, as the restroom door swung shut. “Va-Tuck’s been acting pretty strange lately.”

“From what we’ve just seen, I think he might have had good reason!”

Just then the rest of the Pack burst in, full of questions.

***

They were only waiting for about ten minutes when Valerie and Mike returned, with — Valerie. The dark-haired one was looking downcast and resigned, Debbie thought, and wouldn’t meet her eyes. The two Valeries were holding hands, she noticed. This is going to have to be a really good explanation, Debbie decided.

“Well, I’m starved,” said Mike, by way of suggestion. There was general agreement all round. Milling around in the path of the constant stream of shoppers wasn’t a good place for this sort of conversation.

“Mike, what happened to your face?” Kim asked suddenly, reaching reflexively towards the new scar.

Mike turned his face away, avoiding the touch. “Nothing,” he muttered.

***

“Table for — uh — can you do ten?” Debbie asked. How do these things always get so big? She guessed she’d have to put this on the credit card.

“Sure!” Cheesy smile. “Be about five minutes?”

Debbie nodded. They stood around not saying much. She thought perhaps the other Valerie had brightened somewhat, and was looking around her now rather than at her shoes, but still not directly at Debbie. Debbie took a moment and reviewed what she could remember of that conversation she’d overheard in the restroom. With two people involved, it made more sense. But not much. This new Valerie seemed to think they were still in a relationship? But She’s not the right one?

It would have to wait for the explanation, she decided.

After a subjective age they were taken in and seated. There was a bit of a jumble around the table and Debbie found herself sat opposite other-Valerie, as she was starting to think of her. She thought it was probably accidental, but with the Pack you could never be sure of such things. Our-Valerie stayed next to other-Valerie, and they kept hold of each other’s hands under the table, she could tell. People busied themselves with menus, so they could order and get left in peace for a while. Mike’s idea, though with Mike it might just mean he wanted his food sooner. There seemed to be something different about Mike…

“You’ve pierced your ears!” she cried out suddenly, pointing at Mike.

That’s what it was,” Kim agreed. “I couldn’t figure out what was different.”

That turned the conversation for a while.

“I had to or she wouldn’t do it!” Mike protested, pointing at Valerie. Attention swung back to that end of the table.

“You did that today?” Jill asked. Valerie just nodded.

“Place here in the mall, downstairs.”

“Oh, you met Paul then?” Jill grinned. Valerie nodded again, slowly. Jill laughed.

“I think it’s so sweet you did that for Val,” Sabrina was saying down at the other end, teasing Mike, and reaching over to tousle his hair, then twisting deftly presumably to avoid a kick under the table.

“Well at least they’re a good conversation-starter,” Mike observed.

“Are you guys ready to order?” Came a friendly voice from next to the table. “Or shall I come back later?” Cheesy smile.

“I’m ready!” Mike yelled predictably. So, it turned out, was everyone else. The orders were taken, and attention turned back to Valerie.

“Okay, Val,” Kathy said, with authority. “Dish.”

Valerie sighed. “Okay. Um. Look, this is kind of weird, okay? Um…”

“Start by telling us who your new — friend is?”

“My name’s Valerie Tucker,” the other Valerie said into the quiet.

“And until about seven or eight months ago,” Valerie continued, “we were the same person.” Valerie looked at the blank faces around the table. “Yeah, I know.” Valerie sighed.

Debbie listened, along with the rest of them, as Valerie spoke. It was somewhere between “uncollapsed probability waveform” and “fractally dimented universe” and somehow something concerning a cat in a box that she realised she’d lost track. She didn’t think she was the only one, but to her surprise it was Mike that rescued them.

“Tu — Val, sorry. You’re even losing me with this, and I know it all already.”

“Well, where would you begin, smartass?”

“Executive summary?” Debbie quipped.

“I’m from an alternate reality,” the other Valerie replied. “We think.”

“Oh, like in Sliders?” Jill perked up.

Valerie fell forwards inexorably until her head impacted the table.

“What? I have brothers, okay?”

“Yes, Jill, like Sliders. Why didn’t I just say that in the first place?” Valerie was speaking into the table-top.

“Because it sounds too stupid to say straight out?” her counterpart suggested. “I seem to have lost my timer,” she added to Jill.

“So you’re saying this is you, from another dimension?” Jill persisted. Valerie nodded, sitting up. “So you just need an Einstein-Rosen bridge right?” she continued, betraying far more knowledge of Sliders, Debbie thought, than could be explained by just having brothers.

“Oh sure. We’ll just knock one up in the basement out of spare computer parts. Jill, this is a theory! It’s — it’s a thought experiment. It’s the kind of joke quantum physicists and cosmologists tell each other at parties, okay? It’s one of the oldest science-fiction clichés going! No-one really believes they exist, and if they do exist there’d be no way to move whole human beings between them!”

“But here she is,” Debbie interjected. Valerie nodded.

“Here she is,” Valerie nodded, “and we have no idea how she got here, and no idea if she can go home again or whether she’s stuck here. But she is definitely here.” She squeezed Valerie’s hand again, and smiled at her. “And we can either say ‘this is impossible, she can’t be here so I’ll ignore her,’ or we can say ‘okay, we’re wrong about what we thought was impossible because she clearly is here and we’ve just got to get on with that.’ And this alternate realities thing may not even be close to what’s really happening, but it makes more sense than anything else right now.”

“Aren’t there any other possible explanations?” Kathy asked.

Valerie shrugged. Mike spoke up. “Messenger from God, spirit guide, demonic possession… Supernatural stuff like that.”

“Not that I’m aware of,” other-Valerie added to that.

“Well, how come your hair's black?” Kathy persisted.

“Got it colored back in the summer,” other-Valerie replied, with a private grin at the memory.

“Secret military cloning experiment gone wrong,” Mike was continuing, “UFOs, replicants with gifted memories…”

“Mike,” interrupted Kim, “shut up.”

“No,” other-Valerie said. “That’s the point. That’s how far-out weird this all is, okay? The alternate realities thing isn’t any less far out than any of those — other ideas. It’s just — less likely to make me go nuts thinking about it,” she admitted.

“It’s the best approximation we have,” Valerie nodded. “It’s a working theory. I say we go with it unless we get new data.”

“Okay,” Debbie slipped into the executive thing, making a call. “We go with that. But you say she’s you, how do you know that?”

Valerie sighed. “You can see she looks and sounds like me? Well, we’ve checked, and she’s physically identical to me, except for little stuff over the last seven months.”

“Like you losing weight, and she’s got fitter,” Kathy observed.

Valerie looked surprised for a moment. “Uh, yeah, see what you mean. Have I lost weight?” she asked, surprised. Everyone round the table nodded.

“Yeah,” Kathy confirmed. “A lot of weight.”

Valerie frowned in thought for a while. “Anyway,” she continued eventually, “we have the same memories up to about seven months ago…”

“What happened seven months ago?”

“My parents,” the other Valerie said, “decided it would be a great idea to send me to boot camp, after that little escapade in April.” There were gasps drawn in all round the table.

“Whereas mine,” Valerie continued, “asked my Uncle Lanier about the idea and he told them where to stick it. That’s as close as we can make out to where it started.”

“You went to boot camp?” Kathy asked sympathetically. The other-Valerie grinned suddenly. It was a grin they were all familiar with.

“Never got there.”

“It’s a long story,” Valerie said, “and if you think what I just told you was unbelievable, wait’ll you hear it. OW!” she yelped suddenly at an under-table kick from her double. “Anyway, point is, a decision was made and things started happening differently than they did for us. By now, things are a lot different.”

“What sort of differences?” Jill asked.

“Well, for instance, you know when she just said her name is Valerie Tucker?”

“It really is,” finished the other Valerie. “That’s my legal name now.” There was a collective ‘ahh’ around the table as the implications of that sank in.

“You two must have had a lot to talk about,” Kathy observed. Both Valeries nodded their heads in unison.

“You could say that, yeah,” other-Valerie said. Into the quiet that followed, the starters arrived, and dealing with that occupied everyone’s attention for a while.

“There’s getting to be far too many Valeries around here,” Sabrina muttered softly. A giggle rippled around the table.

“Yeah, we’ll have to call you Bruce or it’ll get confusing,” Mike added. He was grinning again.

“Val,” Sabrina said suddenly, pointing at Valerie, “and Valerie,” she finished, pointing at other-Valerie. “Can we manage that? That okay with you two?”

Val and Valerie nodded. There was general agreement, and not a few relieved looks.

Then people were eating, and thinking, so there wasn’t much talking going on, and what there was was mostly directed at Val.

Debbie had been doing her own thinking, remembering the overheard conversation in the restroom. She studied other-Valerie — just Valerie, she corrected herself, as she ate, noticing the delicacy with which she did so compared to Val, even though Val was hardly male-gross. She was still avoiding Debbie’s eyes.

Seeing something, Debbie leant forwards without thinking to take one of Valerie’s necklaces in her fingers to look more closely in the light. It was the half-pendant. She was surprised out of her thoughts by Valerie’s hand covering her own, making her glance up straight into those clear blue eyes. It was as if a small electric shock had gone through her. She felt her color rising. She knew arousal when she felt it and actually gasped in surprise.

The moment passed, and Valerie dropped her hand, and her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Debbie stayed motionless for a moment, until she could breathe again, and she brought her hand back to her side of the table. “No, it’s all right,” she replied. Damn it I thought I was over him. Her. She turned off her internal monologue for a while, it didn’t have anything useful to say. “We’re still together then, in your — where you come from?” Valerie just nodded. “How did we do it?”

Valerie seemed to be thinking about it, then met her eyes again, which made Debbie’s heart jump again. “I think — I learned to say no to you. And you learned to trust me. Um, she did, rather.”

“I did…” She stopped, on the start of an indignant response, and smiled apologetically. “I guess that didn’t happen overnight.” Valerie shook her head, grinning.

They ate for a little while in silence.

“Don’t blame yourself for what happened to — Val,” Valerie added, suddenly.

“Sorry?”

“Just — it wasn’t your fault, okay? You didn’t cause the — medical situation.”

Debbie just looked at her for a moment. “I know that,” she said softly. At the same time something seemed to unclench inside her. Valerie was nodding.

“Up here,” Valerie pointed at her head, “you know it. In here,” to her chest, “you’ve doubted.”

Debbie nodded. “I did have a thought actually. I thought maybe it was the glue for the forms, you know? Maybe it had estrogen in it, was acting like a HRT patch or something.”

“Sounds unlikely. Wouldn’t have altered my chromosomes anyway, unless it was lethally radioactive.”

“Well, yeah, I checked, and no. When did you get so perceptive anyway?” She teased.

Valerie just smiled. “About the time I realized I’d been missing stuff that was going on all around me? Important stuff? Figured it was time to start paying attention to people. Besides, I’ve known you a lot longer than Val has.”

“Guess you have at that.”

“We’ve been this way since we were born,” Valerie was continuing. “It was chance you came along just before it became obvious. What you did — what you started — gave us choices we wouldn’t otherwise have thought about.” She smiled wryly, “I don’t know, maybe I’d have figured it out on my own eventually. I think it would have taken a lot longer though.”

Debbie shrugged, feeling embarrassed by the compliments. “Bet she misses using her boyfriend as a model for the demos,” she said, trying to lighten the moment. “Your Debbie I mean.”

“Oh,” Valerie caught the cue, “she found another willing victim for that. Well, I say willing…” They laughed.

“Who?” Valerie had just put something in her mouth, so in answer she merely angled her head towards the end of the table. “Mike?” she almost spluttered. “Mike?!”

“What?” Mike called back.

“Nothing,” Debbie replied, looking at him anew, thinking.

“Hey!” Val interrupted. “Leave Mike alone! Whatever you’re thinking, he doesn’t deserve it.”

“Who said I’m thinking anything?” Debbie asked innocently. Both of them just looked askance at her, at once, in exactly the same manner. She got a rush of goose-bumps.

“I know that look, okay?” Val had a grin on her face, so she guessed she wasn’t mad at her or anything. “To my cost, I might add.” Could it be we’re actually tolerating each other’s company? She wondered. She glanced back at Valerie, who wore an identical grin.

“I was out of town,” Valerie explained. “He was in a weakened state and you took advantage.” Debbie nodded, smiling herself now. Just then she heard the familiar snap of Sabrina’s omnipresent cellphone shutting. Who was she calling? We’re all here…

“Everyone!” Sabrina announced. “Emergency sleepover, my place, tonight?”

“Oh man!” Mike complained.

“Oh come on Mike,” Sabrina retorted. “We’ve missed Val, okay? And we need to check out her twin sister too.”

“Pleeeease?” begged Pam and Amanda together, getting a nice dissonance going.

“Okay, okay!” Mike gave in. “I’ll sit at home in my lonely geek bed and read my new gaming books.”

“Oh?” Jill perked up. “Whatcha got?” Mike bent to pluck the books out of his shopping bags and passed them over the table to Jill.

“Anyway, Mike,” teased Sabrina, “you can come if you want to. You know the rules.”

Mike looked at her. It was a very old-fashioned look, Debbie thought. “I’ll sit at home,” he repeated slowly, “and read my books.”

“You’re a prince, Mike,” Sabrina smiled sweetly. Like she meant it.

“Mike,” Val called. “Tomorrow, okay? We’ll do something tomorrow.” Mike nodded.

“Who’ll be coming?” Mike asked pointedly.

Me of course,” Val smiled. Mike grinned back.

“Good answer. You haven’t forgotten what you’re supposed to be doing tonight have you?”

Val looked blank for a moment, then remembrance crashed back in. “Oh shit, yeah.” She looked round at the questioning faces. “I’ve decided to stop taking those shots,” she started to explain.

“Oh thank God,” Kathy let slip suddenly. Val looked at her, then at the rest of the table and the identical expressions arrayed there.

“Did everyone think they were a bad idea except me?” Everyone nodded. “Well why the hell didn’t you say something?” Val burst out in exasperation, more than a little pissed off.

“You seemed to want it so much,” Kim answered. “We thought — we thought it would be interfering if we said anything.”

“They weren’t doing you any good,” Kathy continued.

“I thought we were supposed to look out for each other and tell each other if we’re about to do something stupid?” Val complained, unmollified.

“Thing is,” Pam added, “we weren’t sure if we were thinking that more because we didn’t want to lose Val, than because it really wasn’t right for you.”

“We didn’t want to pressure you…”

“Like there wasn’t a ton of pressure the other way?” Val muttered. “Yeah, well,” she sighed, accepting the explanation, “I figured it out eventually, I guess. With help.” She smiled at Mike and squeezed Valerie’s hand again. “But the next one’s due tomorrow and I gotta tell my parents I’m not doing it.”

There was silence round the table for a moment. The waiting staff took that as their cue to come and clear away the starters. No-one said anything while this was going on.

“They’re gonna want to know why,” Kathy said when they had been left alone again. “Are you planning to tell them the rest of it?”

Val shook her head. “Not tonight, for sure.”

“Ever?”

Val squeezed the Valerie’s hand again, and looked at her for a moment.

“I don’t know yet,” she admitted. “It’s still an awful big step.”

“What’ll you tell them then?”

Val sighed. “The truth. They made me ill, they were driving me nuts, they kept giving me rage and panic attacks. And I was okay before I started taking them.”

“You think that’ll be enough?” Jill asked.

The main course arrived.

***

“Okay guys,” Debbie called as they collected outside the restaurant. “See some of you tomorrow I guess.”

“Debbie, wait!” Sabrina called back and ran over. “Aren’t you coming tonight?”

The question surprised Debbie. “I didn’t think — you’ll have Val over right?”

“Yeah, but, you two have been cool today, haven’t you? I thought…”

Debbie sighed. “I don’t know, Sabrina.”

“Look,” Sabrina suggested, “I’ll ask Val. If she’s okay to try it, are you?”

“Um, guess so…”

“Hold that thought then!” Sabrina disappeared back towards where Valerie — both of them — were standing chatting to Kathy about something. They were still linking arms, Debbie noticed. Like they were hanging on to each other in case one should fall. Hope you’re not going to get too used to her being around, she wished. Sabrina was talking to Val now, who looked up, then said something softly to Valerie, unlinked arms and came over. She stopped just out of arms length, suddenly diffident, like she didn’t know what to do with her hands, until she just stuffed them into her deep pockets. That confused Debbie for a moment. That was such a Tuck thing to do, but at the same time not at all unfeminine, now.

“We should get over this,” Val said, uncertainly. Debbie nodded. “I mean. Our friends… They’ve put up with a lot. It’s not fair on them.”

“That’s true,” she agreed.

Valerie kicked her booted feet a little in doubt, not taking her hands out of her pockets. “Sabrina really wants you to come, and I’m pretty sure the others would love it too. So, I’m prepared to try if you are?”

Debbie thought about it. “Okay,” she said eventually. “We’ll give it a try.” She stuck out a hand. “Friends?”

Val nodded and smiled briefly, wiping her hand on her pants before extending it. “Friends it is.” Debbie realized suddenly that Val’s hand was trembling. How much did that cost you? She had some idea; she wasn’t feeling terribly composed herself right now. They took their hands back after a moment. “Um, Valerie’s going back with Sab now,” Val was saying. “Mike’s taking me home, but I’ll be along later. See you there then?”

Debbie nodded. “See you there.”

As Val was walking away, Debbie realized that she’d felt none of that — electricity — she had felt when Valerie had touched her.

She didn’t know what to make of that.

***

Tuck sat on his bed. He was tired, and the emptiness was waiting for him. No, he insisted.

“You okay?” Mike was being solicitous.

“I’ll be okay in a bit. Mike, why don’t you go down and make nice. I’m — I’m kind of wound up, you know? I need to calm myself down.”

“Um, yeah, okay.”

“I won’t be long. I just need to — I need to clear my head, okay? I’ll be down in a bit.”

“I’m going, Tuck,” Mike smiled to take the edge off it and stood up to go. Tuck reached out suddenly and took his hand, looking up at him for a moment in gratitude, then dropped it.

Mike left, and the door swung shut behind him. Tuck took a deep, ragged breath, opened the top drawer by his bed, and lifted out the box of scalpel blades.

Notes:

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To Be Continued...



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