The Taken: Prologue

Synopsis:

"Don't ever let her back."

Story:

Prologue

***

There was no such person as Jane Thompson. There never had been. All the events of the past year were a delusional fantasy, a symptom of her illness.

So Valerie had been told, and told, and told again, ever since Val had disappeared. It was as if the people who had seen them both together had just got together and agreed that because it couldn’t have happened, it didn’t happen. She couldn’t blame them: who else but a Tucker would be dumb-stubborn enough to insist on a story in defiance of obvious reality, and keep insisting until they got time on a psych ward?

Mike. That’s who else. Mike knew he’d lost his Tucker. Mike felt the same gap in his soul that she did. That’s why they didn’t let her near him any more. They said he had been “supporting her delusional construct.”

At least they’d let her ‘home’ again, eventually. Or rather Val’s home. Val’s things. Val’s family. They said it would be better if she were surrounded by familiar things and familiar people in a home environment.

Familiar, yes. Achingly familiar. Home? Almost. Not quite. No-one else seemed to notice, but it smelled wrong. It might have been the cat. It wasn’t that Cheddar was smelly; rather that she could smell the effort to make sure the house didn’t smell of cat. At least she thought that was what it was.

Most of the differences were subtle like that. Sometimes so subtle she couldn’t describe them. The way someone could be almost exactly like your own father, or mother, or brother, but you just knew they weren’t.

“Mom says dinner’s ready,” Brian said at her — Val’s — bedroom doorway.

“Thank you Brian, I’ll be down in one minute.” She was just finishing her make-up at the dressing table; it being Jane’s preference for her girls always to show themselves at table with a little colour on their faces, a pretty dress, and the finest, the finest, of refined manners.

No-one could explain where she’d learned such refinement of behaviour, or how she’d apparently done so overnight. That was the only thing they could never explain away, and she knew it drove them nuts so she kept it up. Her last defiance, in memory of people who had suddenly never lived; even though it wasn’t really her style.

She supposed it was becoming her style: winsome, feminine, elegant from an extreme economy of movement; efficiently but self-deprecatingly well-spoken and too well-mannered to offer an opinion unasked. Perfect, like porcelain. Curtsey, smile, say thank you Miz Tucker, always offer to help and always try to be the perfect houseguest.

How strange to become this person after all. How ironic.

But they couldn’t take it away from her. Not even with the medication she was still on. It stopped her being able to think straight. She’d had to quit programming; she couldn’t get into the Zone any more. But Jane’s teachings ran deep (which of course had been the first surprise upon coming home the previous summer). These manners were always there for her. They were the mantra that held her to herself, her history and her own lost world.

“Debbie’s here,” Brian added. Valerie almost hiccuped. She’d lost track of his still being there. Another thing to lay on those damn meds. Her awareness rolls had gone to shit.

“She’s early!”

“I think Mom invited her for dinner.” Brian hovered diffidently for a few more seconds, watching her like a zoo exhibit, and went.

~She could have warned me,~ Valerie thought. ~Must’ve been a last minute thing.~ She looked herself over one more time. One minor benefit of living life by Jane’s rules: one was always ready to receive special visitors. She grinned at her reflection and headed downstairs.

Debbie flowed warmly into her arms. It was a while before either of them had any time for speaking.

They broke. Debbie’s hands on her waist. “Happy birthyday, Valerie,” she said. Valerie chuckled, looking down, then back into Debbie’s eyes. Searching. She was so nearly the right one. Valerie wished she could forget. “You all set for tonight?” Debbie asked.

“Yes. Are you still not going to tell me where we’re going?”

“Nope.” Debbie grinned and pulled away, keeping hold of a hand. “It’s a surprise.”

“Valerie,” Sarah called from the kitchen, “would you set the table please?”

~Why can’t Brian do that? I’m busy!~ “Yes, Miz Tucker.” Brian was out in the garden turning in tight circles with something on the end of a string, a darting, tabby shape at his feet. That was clearly more important.

“I’ll help,” Debbie offered.

“I take it the surprise doesn’t involve dinner then,” Valerie remarked. Debbie just grinned mysteriously.

***

There was some confusion on the way out to the car as Valerie made for the driver’s side.

“Ahem?” Debbie said, popping the lock and proceeding to get in behind the wheel herself.

“Sorry,” Valerie blushed. “Thinko.” She went round to the other side and got in, troubled. It had made no sense. For a moment she’d got it backwards.

It was another warm evening in spring and Debbie had put the top down. Cerys was singing on the stereo.

It was strange glue that held us together
While we both came apart at the seams.
She said, ‘Your place or mine
While we’ve still got the time.’
So I played along with her schemes.

Valerie didn’t know Debbie had a soft-top. ~Must’ve upgraded and not told me.~ A lot of things went on without her being told these days. Presumably D&E was going well without her. Debbie was beautiful; and for the moment unconscious of it, concentrating as she was on navigating a left turn. Her skin, in the low sunlight, seemed to glow. Valerie started to cry at the beauty of her. She couldn’t understand why Debbie still wanted to be with her. The famous neighbourhood fruit-loop. She could not stop crying. Debbie looked over at her, and smiled encouragingly, as if she wasn’t crying at all, and took her hand, but it was remote, far away.

But I don’t have the right to be with you tonight
So please leave me alone with no saviour in sight
I will sleep safe and sound with nobody around me

***

Debbie was kissing her. It was late and they’d just got back to Debbie’s place. Debbie’s body pressing against her own. “Oh,” Valerie heard her own voice say. “Oh no.” She didn’t feel ready for this, for the way her own body responded.

Jane had taught her how to say no to Debbie. Indirectly anyway. But there being no such person the lesson must have been a false one, because she was paralysed in the face of Debbie’s desire. She wanted to say ‘stop,’ but instead she played the part. She never could say no. It was an insane dream, a delusion, for her to think otherwise. It was all a delusion. She understood now. Faced with a real Debbie, here, now, on her, over her, taking her the way she always did. Valerie had no power to stop her. “I’m not…” she managed to say. “Not…” She couldn’t get her head straight. It was the drugs. Always off-balance. Always on a tightrope in a dream, her head ten miles from her feet.

“I know,” Debbie whispered in her ear. “I know you’re not her.”

The words were like thunder. Valerie’s heart thumped. ~She believes me?~ Hope. Long-abandoned hope. ~She believes me!~

~The photos!~ “The photographs,” she managed to say aloud. “You’ve got the photographs.” The ones of her and Val together. The negatives. Proof. Sure you could Photoshop it, but not well enough for a real expert to tell the difference. She’d just have to get them to find such an expert. She gasped, distracted, as Debbie took her in her hands and played her. She tried to get her head clear. “Debbie! Where are they? I need those!”

Debbie mumbled unintelligibly. She was too busy kissing Valerie’s neck at the time.

“Debbie…”

“She would never come back to me,” Debbie said, eventually. “Never never never.” Valerie felt the tears sting her eyes. Of course, she thought. Of course there were no photographs of herself and Val together. There never had been. “Never forgiven,” Debbie was continuing, in between kissing her. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you. I never wanted to hurt you.” She sat up, pushing Valerie down against the pillows. “I only ever wanted a chance to make it up to you. One chance to make everything good again, like it used to be. Like it used to be between us. Do you remember?” She stopped still, totally still, except for one finger caressing Valerie’s cheek, and her heavy, aroused breathing. “So beautiful.”

“Debbie, I–” The same finger was placed over Valerie’s lips, silencing her.

“Shhh. Shhhh. It doesn’t matter any more, my love, my lover. It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter any more.” Her finger moved down to Valerie’s breasts and stroked a nipple. Valerie gasped at the touch, unable to stop her, unable to stop her own body’s response. “You’re beautiful, and you’re here, and you love me, and nothing else matters.”

A little while later she put her mouth to Valerie’s ear again. “Don’t let her back,” she whispered. She was holding Valerie on the brink. “Don’t ever let her back.” Valerie felt her own body remotely, arching, trembling, blindly seeking the fulfilment of her touch, promising anything, anything.

She couldn’t stop her. She let Debbie take what she needed.

***

Valerie lay curled up near the side of the bed. The duvet felt clammy and tangled around her feet. She tried not to make any noise, for fear of waking Debbie, but she was crying and every now and then an audible sob escaped.

Wait.

In the distance a church bell rang four times. She could hear a few forlorn birds and no sound of traffic at all. If you listened very hard, you could just find it; it was like a pressure on the edge of hearing.

“Eyes open, Tucker.” She obeyed. The grey lightening of the sky slipped into the room through a gap in the curtains. Tall many-paned sash windows and a cushioned window-seat. “Bad one, huh?”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “Could’ve woken me out of it sooner, you chink bastard.” She hadn’t actually finished crying. Deep, broken sobs that clenched her whole body.

She wasn’t sure if she preferred it when her dreams would wake her screaming and drenched in her own sweat and puking into a toilet bowl until it hurt. Those dreams had been horrible, but they didn’t leave her feeling like this.

Desolated. Alone.

Amputated.

She worked her legs out and over the edge of the bed and sat up stiffly. Arching her back straight made something pop. “What a shitty birthday,” she told the empty room.

She stood and pulled the curtains open one by one, tying them back, so she could sit in the window seat and watch the sun come up. She snagged up her Libretto from where she’d left it there the night before, still trailing its power lead and an ethernet cable, and woke it up. The first thing to show itself as the screen brightened was the email she’d received from Debbie and her own abortive reply. She cancelled it in disgust. What could she possibly say?

She addressed her email client.

R
I dream about being with you and wanting her. You deserve better than that. I had to leave, if would have driven us both insane if I'd stayed. We'd both just be standing in for our doubles, becaues I'm not the one you really want either.

It came out in a rush. She stared at it for a minute, then went back to correct the typo.

<ctrl>X <ctrl>C Y
Q

She sent it quickly before she could change her mind. Actually, she reminded herself, it wasn’t flagged as urgent so it wouldn’t trigger a dial-up to be sent immediately. She’d have —

~ $ date
Fri Apr 3 04:06:46 BST 1998

- about ten minutes before the next scheduled mail-exchange to go into the outgoing mail spool on the house server and pull it out.

She let the minutes pass.

There would be no beautiful sunrise today. It was a cool, dreary morning, as if the whole countryside wanted to cry but couldn’t. Wind rippled the treetops, its pink noise eventually soothing her. There wasn’t much of a dawn chorus in that gloom, but a solitary crow, somewhere in the trees out by the lake, called to her hoarsely. It mocked her, but it was lonely as well. A light mist had settled over the sheltered lake and then trickled around the garden, teased out into long tentacles by the gathering wind.

The end of the night never comes too quickly for me.

***

A friend in need’s a friend indeed,
A friend who bleeds is better.

Placebo. Very loud. Just what she needed to wipe out the last of the song that had been stuck in her head from the dream. Valerie was singing along, full throated, and could barely hear her own voice.

A friend with breasts and all the rest.
A friend who’s dressed in leather.

People called Brian shouldn’t be that cute. It was just wrong and it was doing her head in.

My friend confessed, she passed the test.
And we will never sever.
Day’s dawning, skin’s crawling…

Funny that Jane hadn’t understood at first why Valerie wanted a room on the opposite side of the house.

***

“Happy birthday Valerie,” Marie greeted her when she breezed into the kitchen. It was warmer in there.

“Thank you Marie.” She bent, almost without stopping, to kiss the older woman’s cheek and continued on her way to the fridge.

“My, aren’t you chipper today,” Marie observed dryly. Valerie grinned.

“I get to ride my bike again,” Valerie sang, lightly filking Freddie Mercury, “I get to ride my bike.” Remembrance of that fact alone had cheered her up enormously. “I get to ride my bike again,” operatic high note, “I get to ride it where I like… Well, other than just around the grounds anyway.” The last part was spoken.

One of the less-stupid laws they had in this country involved not being able to drive or ride a proper motorcycle until she was seventeen, even though she had her full Rhode Island driver’s license. And her Ohio state one too, of course; the real one, as far as she was concerned, with her real name, which now was of no more use than a keepsake. Worse than that, she’d have to take the British bike test anyway within a year and that was well-rumoured to be a nightmare due to quaint old-world ideas about requiring licensed riders to be competent. And don’t even mention the power restriction thing, she wished herself. It would just break the mood, and she didn’t have to do that yet anyway. According to the interpretation of the law she was using…

“Don’t you have school today?”

“’s not a school,” she said automatically. “It’s a college.”

“Whatevrrr,” Marie’s Valley-girl emulation was perfect.

“It’s important.” Schools were places to be afraid. Valerie found a Dr. Pepper in the fridge and ripped its top open. “Ah, stims.” She drank. Marie shook her head, smiling, and continued with the proper breakfast preparations. “And yes, I do, but I don’t need a riiide!” Valerie barely avoided breaking into song again. “Shame it’s such a grey day.” With any luck it would be sunny over the weekend and she could get some serious hoonage in. She needed the practice. “Need me to set the table?”

“Please.” Without a student in the house Jane didn’t stand on formalities, but she did insist on sitting down together for meals as a household; even for breakfast. Something about tangible health benefits. Valerie didn’t have a problem with that, but it had taken her longer this time to adjust to the early mornings it required.

Valerie got on with setting the table.

More than any other part of the house the kitchen had become Marie’s particular domain. She had overseen its transformation, from the rather drab and dingy room they had found upon moving in, into a haven. Whitewashed walls and age-worn rustic wooden furniture, like the dresser with the good china on display, and the large kitchen table with upright wooden chairs and a long, cushioned bench with a high back along the side closest to the wall. This eating area was separated from the cooking area of the kitchen by a spur of worktop supported on the one side by cupboards and the other by shelves containing a collection of cookery texts and all manner of small knick-knacks. The floor was red tiles, partially strewn with woven, patterned mats in kindness to bare feet on cold mornings.

It was the original kitchen, situated in the basement underneath the dining room — the proverbial ‘downstairs’ of Upstairs Downstairs, Valerie supposed. Only, the house was built at the summit of a low hill, so while it would have been underground at the front of the house, at the rear where the earth had been landscaped to provide a wide flat lawn overlooked by a terrace, it had windows and a double glass-panelled door opening onto the old walled garden, which Marie was in the early stages of restoring.

Despite her own expectation to the contrary, it was probably Valerie’s favourite part of the house. Jane’s predilection for classical formality stopped at the threshold, and it had simply become a pleasant, homely place to relax and be social at the same time. Cooking tended naturally to become a social activity as well, which was nice, and Valerie was glad to take the opportunity to learn from Marie whenever she could. It was also where Valerie did most of her class assignments — coursework, she corrected her idiom — sitting at the kitchen table, her Libretto trailing leads to the nearest ethernet port and power socket. And sometimes she just liked to curl up cosily in the rocking chair and read a book. It was always warm.

The irony was that, by her own admission, it was also Jane’s favourite part of the house. There were often evenings when all three of them were collected in the kitchen, talking or quietly engaged each in their own activities, while the rest of the large house stood empty. “I shall miss dining in here,” Jane had said suddenly, just the previous night, after dinner. Valerie understood immediately what she meant, but she still gave Jane her best ‘you only have yourself to blame’ look.

With Jane planning to start taking students again, meals would have to be taken in the proper dining room, with stifling formality, and poor Marie left out of it of course, relegated to serve, that being the role she chose to assume. Valerie had yet to figure out what she wanted to do about that, whether to eat with Jane and her students or out in the kitchen with just Marie. It was the least of the disruptions she foresaw with the resumption of Jane’s ‘school.’

Here and there Marie had put up pictures in frames. Typically they were small watercolour landscapes of the local Cotswolds countryside that she’d found in some local village gallery. However, in the corner behind the rocking chair, and to the side of the comfy bench, two pencil portraits had been framed and hung. Eugenia and Julia, who, in Valerie’s absence, had died the previous summer. Eugenia had drawn both portraits. The one of Julia was somewhat idealised; her flashing, Hispanic features softened fondly. Eugenia’s self-portrait was more honestly drawn, possessing the intensity commonly found when artists draw themselves in the act of observing themselves so minutely. Even so, Jane and Marie had both spoken of her beauty, and assuming the portrait was trustworthy, Valerie had to agree it was true.

Valerie had thought it was morbid of Jane to hang the pictures there, when they first went up, and for a counterpoint had printed off a copy of one of Eugenia’s cartoons of Jane — the one where she lay dead at the feet of a spiky-haired petticoated figure toting an improbably large anime gun — and stuck it to the fridge. “It’ll have to go when my first student arrives,” Jane had said, almost regretfully. “We can’t be giving them wrong ideas.”

“What wrong ideas?” Valerie had quipped back, grinning.

In time, however, Valerie thought she understood why Jane wanted those portraits in daily view. Yes, they’d remind her, and Marie, of the tragedy, but it also reminded them of the people, not merely the manner of their deaths, and in being so everyday, would condition them to no longer mind remembering.

Despite the French country style, and the old working black range occupying the wide alcove in the forward wall — under the centre of the house — the cooking-area of the kitchen was fully equipped to Valerie’s satisfaction, to the extent of an old Mac Classic in a corner that she’d rescued and got working again and turned into a terminal onto the recipe database which, she was unsurprised to observe, only she used. Val had smuggled the home database to her for the purpose. Since the initial setup it had become trivial to set up some replication to keep the two databases in sync; which was good, because Val had entered in a lot of new recipes in the last year, and they were still coming in at about one a week.

“Is Jane sleeping in?” Valerie asked, not-seriously.

“Not at all. I think she’s in her study.”

“Still cramming the National Curriculum?”

“Probably.” Smile.

“She did get to bed last night, didn’t she?”

Marie nodded. “I bet she took a book with her though.”

The house had been abuzz ever since Jane announced she was going to start taking students again. Valerie had been peevish about it for a while, but couldn’t escape the inevitability of it.

Fine. As long as she, Valerie, didn’t have to get involved. She suspected Jane had wanted to ask her to play the big-sister for the first student. As if. She made her feelings plain about that early on, before she’d have to be rude and refuse a direct request.

There was so much else to get ready though. Jane had built up the network in Westbury over two decades, and would be starting now from scratch and in a hurry. “I believe after breakfast she’s heading into town to Anastasia’s.” Valerie paused, a blank look at the name. “Dressmakers,” Marie prompted.

“Oh yes.” You couldn’t exactly get the kind of clothes Jane wanted for her young protégées in Miss Selfridge. For that matter even Marks & Spencer weren’t that old-fashioned.

“That’ll probably take most of the day. Plus we’ve got the bathroom fitters starting this afternoon.”

“On a Friday?” she queried. Marie just rolled her eyes. “Anyway, no fair. Why can’t I have an en-suite bathroom?”

It was a familiar complaint, already advanced to the status of an old joke. “I believe it was something to do with not needing one, because you won’t be locked in at night.”

“Bah.”

“I’m sure if you gave Jane the key to your room-” Marie produced an uncharacteristically evil grin.

“I don’t think so,” Valerie demurred, keeping in the spirit of the joke. “It’s really not that far to the main bathroom, and it’s good exercise.” Besides, the new electronic locks were going to be tougher to pick than the ancient mechanical ones in the old house. She’d built the new security system herself, and she wasn’t sure she could break it. Part of the point of doing it that way was to make sure there weren’t any hidden back doors.

And you don’t put back doors into your own code. That’s basic. Because nine times out of ten someone else will find them long after you’ve forgotten about them.

“That’s the spirit,” Marie agreed.

“And I’m down to forty seconds in the dark,” Valerie added. Dark was dark out here in the middle of the countryside. There was a genuine antique chamber pot in the bottom of one of her wardrobes. She’d found it in the attic after the move, and she’d made a pointed show of bringing it to her room. Thankfully she hadn’t — yet — had to make use of it in earnest. Yes, living in an old English country house possessed certain underreported charms.

“Mrs. Lawrence is going to be here for dinner again,” Marie continued. Valerie made a face. “You really don’t like her, do you,” Marie observed.

“Oh, she’s okay I guess.” She’d finished setting the table for breakfast and sat in her usual spot at one end of the bench. “I just really didn’t want to go to an all-girls’ school. Especially where the headmistress is a friend of Jane’s. Does that sound all that unreasonable? Really?”

Marie smiled.

“I’m sure I’ll get on with her fine now I don’t have to worry about that,” Valerie finished. “It’s just…” she sighed. “I thought tonight…”

Marie nodded, then came over to the table and sat at the adjacent corner to Valerie. Jane’s usual seat. “What are you doing, Valerie?” Valerie looked at her sharply. This was a different mood. “Is everything okay at school? College, I mean?” before Valerie could correct her.

“Yes, everything’s fine.”

Marie looked at her.

“Really. I like it. I mean, it’s hard. A-levels are a bit of a shock after high school at home, but… It’s good. Really. I’m doing okay.”

“I don’t mean the work. How are you getting on with the other students?”

Valerie sighed. “Fine. No problems.”

“Have you talked to any of them yet?”

“Yes, of course I have.” Marie was still looking at her. “We have to work in groups a lot in Music. It’s not a problem. Why should it be?”

“You tell me,” Marie pressed.

“Well, it isn’t. I’m doing fine, okay? What do you want me to-” She stopped herself. She hadn’t meant to snap, and Marie didn’t deserve it. “Sorry.” She gave Marie a look to back that up. “Old habits. No-one’s giving me a hard time, if that’s what you mean.”

“Not entirely.”

~Well, that’s what you’re getting,~ Valerie transmitted at her. Marie nodded, as if hearing the thought anyway.

“Valerie…” She waited until she had Valerie’s full attention again. “It wouldn’t be disloyal of you to make new friends.”

It stung, and Valerie just stared hurt back at her for a few seconds, then she collected herself and stood. “I’ll… I’ll go tell Jane breakfast’s nearly ready.”

She barely heard Marie’s quiet sigh behind her as she left.

***

She had to get out of the kitchen. What Marie had said made her angry. She knew Marie had only the best intentions and she didn’t want to lash out at her, but her mood had been broken.

The old school bench had reappeared outside the parlour. That must have been brought down the previous day, she guessed; she hadn’t registered it before now. She knocked on the parlour door before going in. Unshakeable habit.

“Marie says if you even think about bringing Key Stage Three notes to the breakfast table she’ll leave us forever,” she lied outrageously.

“Four,” Jane said. She was sitting at the writing desk, her new Powerbook open in front of her. The narrow old Colonial chair had reappeared out of storage to its place in front of the desk as well.

“Excuse me?”

“Jonathan’s in Key Stage Four. There’s a lot of project coursework involved, which is almost ideal.”

“Whatever. Leave it. Pain au chocolat doesn’t keep.”

“Correction: it doesn’t last with you and Marie around.” Jane looked up at Valerie and smiled. “Actually I’m just finishing an email to Reggie,” she explained. It looked to Valerie like she was copy-typing from handwritten notes.

“You wrote it on paper first, didn’t you,” Valerie accused.

“Don’t nag me, Valerie–”

“Jaaaane!” Valerie keened. It was agony to watch.

“I simply prefer not to be worrying about how to use this infernal machine when I’m deciding what I want to write.”

Valerie turned and hit her head on the open door. This was a mistake, as it was made of solid oak and had more inertia than her head had momentum. She reeled back into the room. “And there’s no call to be patronising either,” Jane remonstrated behind her. “I’m not an idiot.”

“I know.” Valerie sat down onto the nearest available chair to let the room stop spinning. “If you were I could understand it.” It had always mystified her how otherwise perfectly intelligent people could devolve into helpless protoplasmic lumps as soon as a computer was placed in front of them.

The seat was hard and cold. Familiar. She noticed belatedly that she’d shifted and straightened into a prim, attentive posture, hands in lap, feet together, only nagging at her attention at all because it felt incongruous in the black jeans she was wearing. She swore silently at her own programming. She already knew there was no more comfortable way to use that chair.

Jane swivelled around in her chair to face Valerie. “You’re right, this can wait. Reggie won’t even be awake for another eight hours.” Pause. “Actually I need your help anyway. Reggie says he needs me to send him something called a public key?”

“Oh, yes, I’ll set that up for you.”

“What, no lecture?”

“Oh, you’ll learn about public key crypto before I let you use it. It’s something you’ve got to understand conceptually or it’s worse than useless. But I’ll do the initial setup for you. It’s nontrivial.”

“All right.”

“Is it urgent?”

“No, it can wait.” Pause. “Happy birthday, Valerie.”

Valerie managed a smile. “Thanks. I’m working on it.”

“You’re still resolved to take that machinery of death out onto the roads, I presume?”

Valerie grinned.

“Remember to drive on the wrong side.”

She chuckled. “Yeah, I know.”

“And should you survive to the evening your main present should be ready by then–”

“I didn’t want you to get anything big–” Valerie protested.

“Did I say it was big?” Jane smiled. “Anyway, I’d like you to have a little something to keep you going until then.” She picked up a small giftwrapped box from the desk and proffered it to Valerie.

“Jane–”

“Oh, shush and open it. For one day of the year I’m allowed to spoil you. Maybe two days,” she amended.

“Ooh, broadband!” she squealed, and let it dissolve into a snicker.

Jane chuckled. “You never give up, do you?”

“Nope!” It was a long-running argument. A leased line to such a rural location would be expensive enough that Jane insisted Valerie make a compelling business case for it. Valerie had been unable to do so. Amusing as Valerie found the idea, Jane’s academy had little need for its own website (and co-location would be cheaper anyway), and she’d done too good a job of minimising the pain of a metered dialup connection. Valerie grinned and took the box, started ripping into the gift wrapping.

It was jewellery. That much she got from the embossed gift box. She got the lid off and dug through the crá¨pe paper packaging inside until she got to the article itself. Or themselves, as it turned out. “Jane, it’s…” Her breath caught in the mix of emotions. “It’s beautiful.” Opaque, rich, deep blue striated stones set in silver. A matching set of necklace, bracelet and earrings. It was beautiful; she hadn’t lied about that, but she would never have chosen it herself. “Lapis lazuli?” she asked.

“Yes. I thought it would complement your eyes.”

“Don’t you think it’s… too much?”

“Of course not. You dress too plainly as it is. Anyone would think you were trying to make people not notice you.”

The black jeans and plain grey top she was currently wearing made that a hard charge to answer. So did the simple ponytail tying her black hair away from her face. ~It’s a ninja thing,~ she edited out, saying only, with an air of wounded pride, “I like to call it ‘classic understatement.’” She gingerly lifted the necklace out of the display box. It was surprisingly heavy, and widened at the front to frame a central teardrop-shaped stone that would lie at her throat. The teardrop motif was echoed, smaller, on the bracelet and earrings. “Jane, this must have cost a fortune.” She couldn’t even guess.

“That would be none of your concern.”

Back home it wasn’t the family tradition to buy extravagant or expensive presents for birthdays or Christmas. The synthesizer keyboard she’d received the Christmas before last — Val still had one just like it, of course — was atypical, and the family had pooled their spending budgets to get it. She’d received nothing else that year.

She had a queasy feeling that this jewellery was more expensive than that keyboard had been. And Jane had said it was just a little present, a tide-you-over present before the ‘main’ one in the evening.

“I,” she habitually omitted the ‘er,’ “it’s lovely, Jane.” It would be useless to protest further; she knew Jane well enough for that, and didn’t really want to get another lecture on receiving gifts gracefully. “It is lovely. Thank you.” She put the necklace down. “I really don’t know when I’d wear it,” she heard herself say quietly.

Jane smiled. “Maybe tonight. Who knows?”

Valerie felt her eyes narrow. “You’re up to something.”

“Whatever makes you say such a thing?”

“I’ve no idea,” Valerie said, deadpan. “Probably the stomach cramps and sweaty palms I’m suddenly getting.” Maybe Marie had a point about getting friends, and a plausible reason to be elsewhere.

Jane laughed. “Is it really such a bad thing to want to see you as pretty as I know you can be?”

“Now I know you’re up to something.”

“I must have seen you wearing a dress all of three times since I met you, and I don’t think Marie’s seen you at all.”

“Hasn’t she?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Weird, sometimes, to be reminded that these weren’t the people she lived with the previous summer. This Jane had no recollection of what had gone on between Valerie and that other Jane, and that was just the way Valerie wanted it. Jane — both of them — had been changed by the events of the previous summer, but in different ways. This Jane might openly envy the other for not having endured the deaths of two of her students, but Valerie wasn’t convinced she’d got the worst of it. Somehow she couldn’t — quite — imagine that other Jane offering a home to a homeless kid with an impossible story. It was too courageous a thing to do. Too heartfelt and impulsive.

This Jane, Valerie had sometimes to remind herself, had never attempted to drug her, or imprison her, or humiliate her, or take her clothes and force her to wear stuff she didn’t want to wear, do things she didn’t want to do. Oh, she would have, had Val fallen into her keeping the way Valerie had, but it hadn’t happened that way.

Because Val’s Mom and Dad hadn’t given up on Val. They hadn’t sent her across the country to get ‘fixed’ by strangers. They hadn’t been disappointed with her.

She didn’t want to go there today.

Jane was continuing, “You wouldn’t be trying to prove something, would you?”

“Excuse me?”

“By all this unremitting drabness, I mean.”

“No,” Valerie protested. “I have to wear something that can go under bike gear,” she improvised, hoping Jane wouldn’t remember that that only applied from today. “Anyway, no. I just… I haven’t really gone out anywhere, so there hasn’t been a reason to dress up nice.”

“Nicely,” Jane corrected, reflexively. “And yes, that’s what I thought. We should go in to breakfast.” Valerie tried to stare her down. It was hopeless, of course. “Why don’t you take those upstairs? You can surprise Marie with them tonight.”

Valerie held the look for a few more seconds, then she smiled and threw her hands up in the universal ‘I give up.’ Something to do with grace again, she thought, and having the wisdom to know what you can’t change. What was the harm in dressing up nicely for an evening out? After all, there was no reason any more for her to be nervous of anything Jane might do.

No reason at all. Haha.

***

“Why are you always trying to impress her anyway?” Valerie asked at breakfast.

“Who?”

“Mrs. Lawrence.”

Jane’s hand paused halfway to her mouth. “Is that what you think?”

“I don’t know. I thought it was just that you were trying to get me into Malmsbury, but if it was that it isn’t any more.”

“Well.” Jane put her pain au chocolat down. “It was never a question of ‘trying to get you in,’ Valerie. If you’d wanted to go there, you would have gone, as simple as that.”

“If anything, I think Jane was trying to impress you with Mrs. Lawrence.” Marie interjected.

Jane smiled. “That’s as may be. Harriet was a dear friend when I did a year of teacher training here as a student, and I’ve been very pleased to make her reacquaintance.” Only Jane seemed to call her ‘Harriet,’ Valerie noted. For everyone else the woman seemed to be one of that curious breed to whom a first name never seemed quite appropriate. Oh yes, you could tell she and Jane would be friends. “Of course our careers followed a very similar track for several years, but she chose to remain in formal education.” Valerie knew that. “Anyway, for one reason or another, she never came to the States to visit me, so she never saw firsthand what it is I do. She won’t come out and say it, but I believe she’s desperately curious.” Valerie chuckled. So did Marie. Valerie took another bite of her own pastry. “In any case she seems to be appointing herself to the role of watchdog. She wants to monitor Jonathan’s progress; ensure that proper educational standards are being met and make sure he isn’t suffering cruelty at my hands.”

Laughing unexpectedly, explosively, is never very ladylike behaviour. Especially when one’s mouth is full of food. Trying to keep said mouth shut during the process barely improves matters. “Sorry Jane,” she said automatically and reached for her napkin. Jane looked on patiently, her face reposed in either disingenuity or genuine naívety.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you find so amusing,” Jane said archly, confirming, as if it were really needed, that she was in on the joke. She smiled. “In all seriousness, this is a subtly different culture to the one we’ve left behind; and in some ways not so subtle. There’s a significantly greater chance of misunderstandings, and Harriet’s insights have already proven invaluable. She’s also agreed to tutor Jonathan twice a week on his GCSE work; not least as a pretext to observe his progress and well-being of course.”

Valerie had more or less recovered. “Why not just send him to Malmsbury,” she suggested mischievously.

“We shall see,” Jane replied. It was the voice she used when she had something planned. Valerie shook her head and drank some more coffee. “Anyway, this is why I’ve been spending so much time with Harriet lately,” she explained.

“I see.”

Valerie continued eating, hiding her dissatisfaction. She thought she saw a glance pass from Marie to Jane, but Jane made no sign of having noticed it.

***

Valerie thumbed the ignition. The anticipatory pulse of the engine rewarded her, already making her heart rate rise a little. She could feel it. Helmet on, chinstrap, then gloves. The new gloves, like the rest of her new summer leather gear, still felt stiff; not yet worn in or shaped to her body. Good, though. She could feel they were good. Better than the old summer gear she’d left behind. Apart from having more money to spend, as Jane would not countenance compromising on safety equipment, she’d had the benefit of more riding experience than she’d had the first time around. She knew better what to look for. Simple, unmarked black leather; two-piece, but when worn she could zip together the pants to the jacket so the latter wouldn’t ride up and expose her abdomen while she was sliding along the tarmac. Pockets. Enough pockets, where she wanted them, and kevlar in the knees, elbows and shoulders. Kevlar down her spine too, and protecting her kidneys, but that was probably superfluous given she wore a dedicated carbon-fibre back protector underneath it anyway.

Emma Peel it wasn’t; there were far too many concessions to practicality and safety. It was commensurately bulky. While it was not shiny, like patent leather, it was embarrassingly new and pristine-looking. Something, she decided, would have to be done about that. In the meantime at least it wasn’t in the mode of oily, sweaty, Hell’s Angels types that she knew Jane had been fearing. Jane still disapproved, of course. Motorcycles and the associated safety gear were incompatible in Jane’s mind with a delicate, ladylike presentation.

Good.

Valerie swung her leg over the seat, pushed the bike upright and nudged the sidestand back, revved once and released the clutch. The bike surged forwards impatiently, eager to be out onto the road. Second. Third. Fourth. Touching ninety and she won the sound of the howl from the vortices in the exhaust by the time she had to brake for the gates. She’d done that short run almost to death waiting for her birthday, but this time she wouldn’t have to turn around at the gates and come back. Look both ways, then out, out, onto the empty country road. Suddenly a little nervous, feeling exposed riding on the left side of the road, expecting to turn a corner and find something heading right for her on the same side. She picked up speed again, more carefully now, and in a couple of minutes slowed back down to thirty for the village. (Black “30” in a circular sign with a wide red outside and white inside, and “Please drive carefully through the village” underneath the sign with the village’s name.) Nervous again, she obeyed that sign. A car pulled out of a side-street ahead of her, turning left to head towards her. She’d been a car passenger here for months now, but this time she was the one that had to not screw up by doing something unthinking out of habit. It was simple enough in theory. She kept to the left, the car passed her on her right. ~Hey, it works.~ High Cotswold-stone walls, like Jane’s house; sandstone that turned to almost luminous honey-gold in the sunlight, but on a grey morning like this just became a dull grey-brown. Turn the sharp, blind corner, down the steep, twisting hill further into the valley, through the main broad street of the village which, historically, would have been host to a weekly market. Now the central area was car park, empty in the off-season, awaiting the tourists later in the summer.

Another sharp turn at the end, left, over a picturesque stone bridge and out through the straggling end of the village and open road. White circle with a black diagonal stripe meant National Speed Limit, which on a road like this meant sixty miles per hour, which on a bike should be good for at least ninety, once she was back up to full confidence. Today, the posted limits would do. Only, slight pressure on the throttle-grip and she was already there. ~Sod it.~ The road ahead was straight, with trees on one side and a view falling on the other across fields and hills. Twist further. Surge. She laughed.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a shitty birthyday after all.

***

Valerie had not been entirely honest with Marie. She paused on the threshold of the cafeteria, reflexively evaluating the threat-landscape. No-one paid any attention to her. “Clear,” Mike concurred. “Table at two, by fire exit.”

“Copy.”

It was a small table apart from any of the larger groups of students, next to the alarmed fire exit and not too far from the main door either, in case of a more orderly withdrawal. She headed directly over and sat, then busied herself with extracting her packed lunch.

She had planned to take the bike and go somewhere else for lunch, possibly up to one of the city’s grassy parks, where she could see people coming a long way off and she could relax.

That had been the plan, cherished in the month, give or take, since she’d started college here, but the rain had started just after she’d got in, which was luck of a sort because her summer gear would not be waterproof. It sat in her locker, dry, and she preferred to keep it that way for the ride home, by which time she hoped it might have stopped raining. She didn’t have any coat with her other than the bike jacket, and in this weather going down into the Centre and sitting by the waterside, which she’d done a number of times, was also uninviting.

The cafeteria windows had steamed up on the inside and the place was getting crowded with the regulars plus everyone else who usually took lunch elsewhere. It was noisy with footsteps and conversation, and the harsh clatter of cutlery and crockery and the scraping of chair-legs on the cheap linoleum floor. There were no raised voices, except, occasionally, someone would laugh loudly for a moment. It was crowded, but people just muddled in and found the pace of it and got through to where they were going and the friends they were meeting, and no-one seemed to get impatient. People complained about the crowding and the waiting in line, without real rancour. There were a lot of small jokes and laughter that was at once polite and unforced.

The college cafeteria served food, but it was an insult to the palate with Marie’s cooking to come home to, so Valerie had taken to bringing a packed lunch. However, this had the unexpected bonus, at a time like this, of giving her an advantage in finding a table; a small one she could spread some things out on and take to herself.

“Twelve o’clock, empty. One-over, male and female, no threat,” the commentary continued while she set up the shield wall. “Eleven: four females, one texting, three checking out guys on next over. No threat. Ten: two male, two female, one unsure, drama-types–” the dogeared, annotated scripts they had out helped with that identification “– one of the females in your Music class.” Karen, she pulled up. She’d not had anything to do with her. “No threat. Nine…” ~No threat, no threat,~ it kept coming in. ~No threat. I’m safe here.~ No-one knew anything, no-one had any reason to give a second glance to the quiet dark-haired girl in the black jeans and grey sweater sitting alone by the fire exit.

Part of her would have preferred to have found some empty classroom, but she didn’t need Mike to tell her that would be Stupid. The library or IT lab would have been better still, but didn’t allow food, and she was hungry; or she had been, before she’d got here and the tension hit her. She tried nibbling at her salad, but it tasted grey in her mouth. She was pumping out adrenaline, and for no logical reason, it seemed, but a terrible force of habit.

“Check your six, Tucker.”
She glanced behind, the movement gaining a flicker of interest from the blonde girl in glasses sitting on the next table behind her, reading. “No threat,” she subvocalised.

“’Scuse me, is anyone sitting here?” The voice came from almost right in front of her, giving her a startle. “Sorry, didn’t mean to make you jump. You okay?” She nodded. It was the ‘unsure’ from the table at ten; the drama-students.

“Um, no,” Valerie answered. “Go ahead.” The voice had been light and musical. The person was tallish and slender — if not actually underweight — with short, dark hair in elfin curls close to the scalp, and wore a black polo-neck sweater under a brown suede jacket, and baggy cargo pants, so she couldn’t check out an adam’s apple or crotch bulge, or the absence of either.

“Thanks,” The figure smiled brightly and withdrew, whirling the chair expertly in the small space into an empty slot on the side of their table in time for another girl to join. Valerie knew her from Music: Mary. Fair-skinned, freckled, long curly red hair, slightly hippy-ish clothing. They’d been in the same group for a performance project up until a week earlier. Mary waved across to her briefly before accepting the gallantly-offered seat. Valerie had been a little slow on the response. Safely ignored again, she surreptitiously observed that table, and the person who’d interrupted her.

“Girl.”

“Boy,” countermanded Mike, simultaneously.

“Girl,” Valerie insisted. “And I should know.”

“Oh sure, like you figured out Charlene right away.”

“But–”

“And then of course you saw right through Darla, first time you–=”

“Don’t remind me–”

“Oh, and what about Dia–”

“Shut up!” ~God, why couldn’t I forget how annoying he could be?~ She could imagine him snickering somewhere and thought fondly of temporal lobe lobotomies performed with kitchen implements.

“It’s none of my business,” she decided firmly. That was all she had ever wanted, back home; for everything to have been no concern of anyone else. She knew there was a reason why she liked it here: ‘Mind your own business,’ could have been written on the flag.

Honi soit qui mal y pense,” Mike reminded her. Oh yeah.

Whoever it was was in an ‘animated discussion,’ with one of the definite-boys. And a rather handsome one at that, Valerie thought distractedly. Tall, floppy dark hair, blue eyes, cheekbones, the lot. Definite matinée-idol looks, had he been born into a different decade. “No fucking way, Jo,” his voice raised about something-or-other. His choice of words incongruous with his elegant looks and aristocratic voice. It sounded like they were discussing a stage-effect idea, from what Valerie had caught. “Think about it, people are going to be slipping all over the place in the third act.”

“No they won’t, ’cause I’ll be on a raised platform, remember?” Jo again. Or Joe, Valerie conceded. It nagged at her that she couldn’t work it out, and she felt hypocritical for even trying. Besides, it was rather delicious not knowing. She was able to admit that to herself. It made her feel less lonely. “Fuck’s sake, Aid, we’ll put a sheet down or something…”

“I’d never have dared to be so…” Valerie sought the word.

“Ambiguous?”

“Yeah. Not on purpose anyway. Not here, in school.”

“’S not a school.”

She shivered and tried to hold down her panic. “I know.”

Kingsdown College didn’t have any students who didn’t want to be there. That, Valerie thought, was probably the biggest single differentiator, given the architecture of the place was standard municipal school fare.

In Britain compulsory schooling stopped at sixteen, with GCSEs. The so-called ‘sixth form,’ the two years for A-levels, which were the standard University-entrance qualifications, was entirely elective. Moreover, not all high schools had a sixth form, so pupils who wanted to go on to A-levels had to go elsewhere. The need was filled partially by high schools in the area that did, and partially by what were colloquially known as ‘sixth form colleges’ and more formally as colleges of further education, such as this one. Its main purpose was the full-time A-level courses it ran, but it also ran a number of part time adult-learning courses.

It didn’t have a sports faculty at all. It shared some sports facilities with the nearby university and a couple of local schools, and there were a few sports clubs, but that was all. No-one came here because they were good at sport. That had been a major factor in Valerie’s determination to go against Jane’s wishes and come here, to a state school, rather than to Malmsbury Girls.

“Valerie?”

It should have been paradise.

“That’s you, blockhead,” Mike said.

“Hmm?” She tracked onto the speaker. Mary, leaning back in her chair away from the group to speak to her, the chair tipped onto its hind legs. “Hi, Mary.”

“Mind if I come over? I just wanted to ask you something.” Mary had worked with Valerie before, so she’d already found out that surprising her wasn’t a good idea.

Errr, “Of course.” There wasn’t a socially acceptable reason to refuse, and thanks to Jane she would now need a socially acceptable reason. “What’s up?”

“Nothing, nothing.” Mary tipped the chair back upright and scraped it back across nearer to Valerie’s table. “I just wondered if you were in a group yet for the next ensemble project?”

“No, I’m not.” ~Is this an invitation?~ For the next one, groups had to come up with and perform a piece in the Baroque style. Valerie was petrified. She hadn’t been able to figure out the mechanism by which the groups got formed. They just seemed to coalesce somewhere out of her vision, and then she’d, perforce, get attached to one. ~Maybe this is it.~

“Great. Look, I heard your singing the other week and I wondered if you’d mind pairing with me?”

“Er…”

“I’ve got an idea for an aria-sort-of-thing, like from an oratorio, but it needs someone who can sing, and, well, I can’t. You’re an alto, aren’t you?”

“Contralto.”

“I’m sure there’s a huge difference.” She grinned. “Anyway, would you be interested?”

Valerie felt a little flustered, put on the spot. “Who else is in?”

“No-one. I just thought us two. It would work great with just a harpsichord and your voice, I thought.” The music department had its own harpsichord, and Valerie was sure her new synth could emulate one, Jane having been persuaded it was necessary for her studies.

“Can you do that? Just two people?”

“Two or more. We were in a big group last time, and I thought…”

Valerie grimaced.

“Yeah,” Mary agreed with the expression. Peter had dominated that group. It had been quite discouraging. So the so-called ‘ensemble’ was really nothing of the kind; everyone was in service to Peter’s grand concept.

It was some compensation that the guy did actually have talent. The actual performance had been pretty cool, it was just everything else, all the power dynamics that went on, had been pretty unpleasant. Valerie had been too new to it all to really protest, so she’d gone along with it.

Mary had protested, Valerie remembered suddenly, and Peter had talked her down, and talked over her and around her, and… It was a kind of bullying, Valerie realised belatedly. Not the kind she was used to, and she hadn’t been proud of the way she’d kept her distance and let it happen.

Valerie’s brain was racing, trying to get back onto its music profile. She had some idea what that might sound like; she’d been listening to a piece that might be similar for an essay. “We might use a third on cello or something to give us a bass line,” she suggested. Safe to talk inside the subject.

“Great, you’ll do it then?”

“Um, I’m thinking about it,” she prevaricated. ~Yeah, like you’re rolling in offers.~

“Maybe we can talk about it some time?”

“Now’s good,” Valerie suggested.

“No it isn’t, I’ve got to go in a minute, but we’ve got a class this afternoon anyway, we could talk about it then?”

“Okay.”

“Great. See you then, then.” She got up to address her friends at the other table. “Got to go, guys. See you tonight.”

There was a chorus of ‘bye’s. The one called Jo, or Joe, slid off the chair onto one knee, the better to importune her, “Wherefore does thou depart, sweet lady? Tarry a while, let my words beguile you!”

Someone threw a scrunched-up paper napkin.

“I can’t. She’s going to be missing me as it is.”

“A kiss, a kind glance, your favour…”

They had an audience by now. Conscious of it, Mary made a show of considering it. “All right. Close your eyes.” She waited for obedience. “Now open your mouth.” Her hand snaked into a pocket of her own backpack and came out holding a tube of lipstick, This she showed around to the audience, a finger across her own lips to warn them to silence. Then she knelt and, with practiced speed, applied the lipstick to Jo/Joe’s lips. Her victim started protesting before she had finished, but Mary grabbed the hair on the back of Jo’s head with her free hand and got it all on. “I’ve wanted to do that all year,” she announced, standing to a scattered applause.

“It burns us! It burns us!”

“Now, I’m going,” Mary pronounced, and without further delay hooked up her backpack and left. Jo, who now looked unmistakeably feminine, blushed down to her throat and got back on her seat.

“What’s she done? What colour is it?” she demanded. She was fighting a smile.

“But wait, who is this strangely attractive girl at our table?” the one she’d been arguing with earlier, said.

“Shut-”

“Who is this super-hero?” the other one added.

“Fuck off, Danny. Has anyone got a mirror?”

Valerie was looking around the rest of the cafeteria, to see if anyone was paying any special attention to what just happened. She could hardly believe it herself. Everyone who had been distracted by the little show seemed to be getting back to their own business though.

“Fucking give me a mirror!” Jo insisted at someone.

“Leave it. It could grow on you,” from the other girl at the table. Valerie didn’t know her name.

“Yeah, like herpes.” But Jo didn’t make any immediate moves to clean it off. She seemed to be enjoying the attention.

Valerie discovered she was shaking slightly. ~I’m not hungry,~ she decided, needing to get out of there. She started packing her things away, most of her lunch remaining untouched. She wanted to get to the IT lab anyway, to do some downloading on the college’s connection. There was a new development kernel available.

“Girl,” Mike conceded. “Just butch, or like Jill.”

“I don’t care.” She got up, stuffing the last of her things into her backpack, and fled, trying not to let it look too much like that was what she was doing.

***

“Hi-”

“Aah!”

Valerie literally jumped a little way and twisted, landing with her back to the doorframe ready to push off.

Mary. ~No threat.~

“Sorry! Sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you! Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” ~Just got to metabolise this adrenaline.~

It was a little after three, and the end of Valerie’s classes for Fridays. It was still a little strange how they didn’t ring a bell or otherwise mark the time classes should start or end, and it had overrun by a few minutes.

“We were going to talk about the project, remember?” Mary offered. “Look, I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you like that.”

~Joke.~ “That’s all right,” Valerie squeezed out, “I needed to wake up anyway.” ~You shouldn’t have been able to sneak up on me like that.~

“Oh thank God, I wasn’t the only one bored out of my skull in there!” ~That wasn’t what I meant.~ Valerie just smiled, as if in agreement. “Baroque must have been invented to torment us.” Valerie’s smile turned real for a moment.

“Actually I think I’m getting it,” Valerie admitted. It made conversation. “It’s clean, like Math.”

“Listen, we’re running late and I’ve got to go and get the sprog. Have you got another lesson today?”

Valerie shook her head. “No. Just going home.” She was mystified as to what a ‘sprog’ might be.

“I’m going that way,” Mary pointed one direction down the corridor. “Where are you going?”

Valerie paused, then pointed in the same direction, choosing honesty. That way was her locker and the side entrance that led out into the student car park.

“We can talk going then.” She started off, obliging Valerie to keep with her. “Okay, look, I admit it’s not much of an idea, I’ve just got a few phrases in my head, but I reckon that’s probably just as well. Last thing you want is someone coming to the project with a complete score. Again.”

The talk progressed strictly about music. Valerie tried to keep her attention on what Mary was saying as they walked down the busy corridor. It made her nervous, so she was at once glad of the distraction and trying to not let it distract her from her vigilance. Mary seemed completely oblivious to her nervousness as she talked.

“Anyway, what do you think?” Valerie opened her mouth ready to speak. “Sorry, I’m going on and on here. I’m sure you didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.”

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Valerie responded. It was a conditioned reflex.

“Our chief weapon is surprise!” Mary lobbed back. ~She actually knows it!~ Valerie thought. She guessed Mary might be thinking the same thing.

“Surprise… and fear!”

“Fear and surprise!”

“And ruthless efficiency!”

Mary laughed. “Et cetera. Oh, I’m glad we got that out of the way. Aidan was betting you wouldn’t have a sense of humour.”

“What, ’cause I’m American?” Valerie hadn’t attempted to hide her accent at college. Keeping that up with the concentration she needed in class would just have been asking for trouble.

“If I said yes, would you be terribly offended?”

“I might have to launch a pre-emptive air strike.” Dry.

Mary processed that for a moment, then started grinning. “Okay,” she chuckled, “this is my stop. Look, all I’ve done is talk at you so far.” ~Fine by me.~ Valerie looked around her, found they were outside the college crá¨che and playgroup.

“You’ve got a kid?” Valerie said aloud, startled.

“Oh, didn’t I say?” She opened the door to go in.

“You said you had a sprog,” Valerie commented. “I didn’t know what-”

A small child broke away from the pack and ran to meet Mary. “There you are!” Mary exclaimed, and picked her up. “My little sproglet.” She straightened, the little girl finding a familiar position astride her mother’s hip. “Not so little any more,” she muttered. “Lizbeth, say hello to Valerie.” Elizabeth just stared, one hand clinging to Mary’s cardigan.

“Hello Elizabeth,” Valerie tried, and smiled. The child was practically a miniature of her mother, such that Valerie briefly wondered if someone had got human cloning working in this timeline.

“Mummy are we going to the cough shop?” The playgroup supervisor came over with Elizabeth’s things.

“Was she okay?” Mary asked.

“Fine, weren’t you Lizbeth? You did some painting, didn’t you?”

Elizabeth nodded, then was occupied for a moment by Mary putting her down to get her coat on. Valerie got down to her level. “What did you paint?”

“I painted… A flower and a… lephant.”

“An elephant?” Mary asked.

“Did you make a big mess?” Valerie asked. Elizabeth grinned.

“I could have told you that,” Mary commented. “These aren’t the clothes she had on this morning.”

“Ah.”

Elizabeth was in blue jeans and a bright yellow sweater with one of the Tellytubbies on the front. The red one. Po, she dredged up from the zeitgeist.

“Mummy are we going to the cough shop?”

“One track mind,” Mary muttered. The supervisor had disappeared, to settle some dispute that had bubbled up on the far side of the room. “Well, we could. Do you have to go back straight away?” she asked Valerie. “We could go and get a cup of coffee?”

“I, um…” She had to get back. Back to whatever it was Jane had planned. Back to do the pretty thing. She sighed. Elizabeth was staring at her again, with the look of someone who was figuring out that Valerie could swing the vote.

“Well? Are you coming?” she demanded of Valerie. Bossy little child.

“Now now, dear, that’s no way to ask,” Mary told her. “And anyway, how do I know you’re going to be good, hmm? The coffee-shop’s a grown-up place. Remember last time we had to come back and sit in the studio because you were naughty?”

“I promise!”

“Yes, but will you remember, eh?” She tousled her daughter’s hair affectionately.

Valerie had an idea and slid her backpack off to dig around inside. She made a show of it, so Elizabeth would get interested. Finally she brought it out.

“Do you know what this is?” She showed Elizabeth the red marker pen she’d retrieved.

“Pen!”

“Oh, but this isn’t an ordinary pen. This is a special pen. This is my special Promise Keeper pen.” She now had Elizabeth’s undivided attention. “Come here and stick out your hand.” Elizabeth moved towards her, intrigued. “See, what you do is this. When you make a promise, and you really really want to keep it, you put a mark on your hand like this, stick out your hand,” she said again. Elizabeth complied, and Valerie popped the cap and drew a small red spot on the back of her hand. “Then you put another mark on the person you’re making the promise to. Mary?” Mary had caught on and came up. “Here,” Valerie handed the pen to Elizabeth. “You do it. Just a little dot, like that one.” Mary stood still while Elizabeth carefully drew a spot on her hand. “There,” Valerie said when it was done. Elizabeth handed her the pen back without being asked and before — miraculously — she’d been able to get any of it on her clothes. “Now, the promise is sealed, and if you forget, or you want to do something naughty, all you have to do is look at it and it’ll help you keep your promise.”

Elizabeth just watched her while she put the pen away and zipped up her backpack.

“So you are coming then?” Elizabeth queried, and gave Mary a huge self-satisfied grin. Mary chuckled.

“She has you there.”

~Outflanked by a child, a–~ “How old is she anyway?” she asked Mary.

“Four.” Elizabeth reported.

“It’s all right, she does this to everyone. And I know where she gets it from, too,” she added darkly. “Do you really want to come? You don’t have to…”

“Where is it?”

“Oh, it’s not far. Out of the college gates, turn left, then it’s on the right, on the high street. It’s not a Starbucks.”

Until the day before, Valerie had been driven right past it twice a day. She thought she knew the place Mary meant. “It’s got a piano?”

“That’s the one. In fact I play there sometimes.” She shrugged. “It’s a little extra money.”

“Okay.”

***

It was a good time to get to the coffee-shop. Judging by the décor it was mostly frequented by students anyway, but it was too early for most of them, and certainly too early for the office-drones. Elizabeth scampered straight to the table in the window with two big comfortable old sofas. “No! Not the comfy chair!” Valerie imagined Mike yelling. She couldn’t help but smile.

Elizabeth clambered up onto the sofa immediately in front of the window and looked out. “Bus!” There was the grand piano near the centre of the room. Valerie caught one of the baristas waving to Mary and figured this was a regular hangout. They sat on either side of Elizabeth. She was giving a running commentary on something, but it was presumably in her own language, as Valerie could not understand a word of it. The barista came over.

“Hi, Mary. What can I get you?”

“Oh, hi Jill. Just a filter for me, and an orange juice for little one?”

“Okay.”

“Valerie?”

Valerie longed for caffeine, but thought better of it. “Actually, do you have any smoothies?”

“Yes we do. We have strawberry, coconut, banana, um, peach…”

“Could I have a strawberry smoothie?”

“Sure, no problem.”

“’Spresso!” interjected Elizabeth.

“Oh you are so not getting an espresso,” Mary admonished her, and to Valerie, “she likes the sound the machine makes.” Jill beat a retreat. Elizabeth started imitating the sound. “Who always orders espresso?” Mary asked, a transparent ploy to get her daughter to make some other sound.

“Jo!”

“Yes! Now, are you going to sit quietly, like you promised?”

Elizabeth nodded, but she soon turned around and knelt on the sofa so she could look out of the window again.

“So, where did you get her?” Valerie started.

“Oh, there’s this lovely little place down next to the market,” Mary replied, catching on quickly. She turned towards Valerie, making herself comfortable, one knee brought up onto the sofa, her elbow on the back. “I was fifteen and a total idiot with the first boy that came along.”

“Jeez…” Valerie had almost forgotten that sort of thing still happened.

“I got better. Believe me, I do not need the lecture.” She leaned towards Valerie slightly and lowered her voice. “You won’t tell anyone I’m a mature student, will you?”

“Your secret’s safe with me.” Valerie chuckled.

“Good. I think Aidan’s starting to guess.” She lowered her voice even further. “His maths isn’t very good.”

“Which one’s Aidan?” She kept the whisper going.

“The pretty one.”

Valerie knew exactly which one she meant. “Right. I’m with you.”

“So anyway, yes,” Mary continued in a more normal voice, “luckily my parents have been stars, or we’d probably be stuck in some horrible bedsit by now. But they’ve got their own careers and I don’t really want Lizbeth being brought up completely by her grandparents anyway; and then I found this place had its own playgroup, and she was getting old enough that I could leave her here, so I was able to pick up where I’d left off, if you see what I mean.”

“I guess.”

Mary shrugged. “She’s starting proper school in the autumn anyway, just down the road. It should be easier then.” She sighed wearily.

“So, you decided to keep her,” Valerie continued. Keep asking questions and being a good listener, and you won’t have to answer so many. “Did you have the choice?”

“Oh yes, I had the choice.” She rolled her eyes. “God knows how many times I was reminded I had the choice. Isn’t it funny how when people are telling you you have a choice it’s really because they want you to choose what they want. Have you ever found that?”

“Oh yes.” Valerie nodded.

“It was my choice.” She stroked Elizabeth’s hair briefly. Elizabeth was talking quietly to herself. Valerie couldn’t make out any of the words. “Who are you talking to, love?”

“Abbie.”

Mary smiled back at Valerie’s confused look. “Abbie’s her ‘little friend,’” she explained. “So what have you been talking about?” she addressed her daughter.

Elizabeth fidgeted. “Things.”

“Have you been telling her about Valerie?” Elizabeth nodded. “And what you’ve been doing today?” She nodded again. “And what’s she been doing? Anything exciting?”

“Riding a pony.”

“Really? Isn’t she a little small for that?” She rolled her eyes at Valerie.

“She’s bigger than me,” Elizabeth admonished. “Silly Mummy.”

“Silly Mummy,” Mary agreed, and cuddled her daughter again. “They’re so imaginative at this age, aren’t they?” Valerie smiled noncommittally. “It’s all very sweet until she’s naughty and then tries to tell me Abbie did it.” She sighed. “Did you have any imaginary friends when you were little? Can you remember?”

“She’s not ’magin’ry!” Elizabeth protested.

“Of course not, dear.”

“She’s not!”

Valerie shook her head. “No. I don’t remember anyway, and I’m pretty sure Susan wouldn’t have let me forget it.”

“Let me guess: older sister?”

“Uh-huh. Had a brother too. Younger.”

“That must be so strange… I was an only child, so I never had that.”

“You didn’t miss much,” Valerie said automatically. The drinks arrived. “I should check in,” Valerie said, and produced her mobile, speed-dialled home. Elizabeth stood between them, watching Valerie, entranced by the phone.

“Thompson residence?” Marie’s voice.

“Hi, it’s Valerie. Is Jane back?”

“No, Valerie, she’s not. She called to say she’s running a little late. Is anything the matter?”

“No. I’m just… I’m running late too, I guess.” Smile.

“Am I the only one who’s on schedule today?” Marie demanded.

“I have an excuse though. The Teenage Inquisition finally caught up with me.” She winked at Mary, who laughed out loud.

“Who’s Jane?” Elizabeth wanted to know.

“Is it bad?” Marie asked.

“They put me in the comfy chair.” Marie’s laughter matched Mary’s. “They’re using children!”

“Who’s Jane?” Elizabeth insisted with more force. Mary shushed her and spoke to her in low tones.

“Yes, I can hear. Will you be back in time do you think?”

“I wasn’t given a time,” Valerie reminded her. “That’s why I’m phoning. I think I’m going to be — about an hour later than expected. If that’s a problem she needs to call me.”

“All right. I’ll let her know.”

“It won’t be any later than that. Actually thinking about it, I might be back at the normal time anyway. The journey’s so much quicker on the bike.” She’d arrived nearly three quarters of an hour early at college in the morning, and that had been with her taking it very gently.

“I’ll see you then.”

“Okay. Bye.” She hung up.

“Who’s Jane please?” Elizabeth tried again, having activated a different protocol.

“Aunt Jane is who we send naughty children to, to teach them manners,” Valerie told her, putting her phone away.

“I’m not naughty. I promised.” Elizabeth brandished the spot on her hand.

“Yes, you did, didn’t you,” Mary said, and swept her into a hug. Elizabeth squirmed until she was sitting half-curled next to her mother, in the loop of her arm. Valerie retrieved her drink. “You’re living with your aunt?” Mary asked her.

“No. No, er…” She chuckled. “Long story.”

Mary gave every impression of settling in to hear it. Valerie chuckled again, tightly.

“Why don’t you live with your mummy?”

“That’s… a longer story,” Valerie told Elizabeth.

“Were you naughty?” Elizabeth asked in the loudest conspiratorial whisper Valerie had ever heard, grinning over her orange juice.

Valerie froze in remembrance. ~I ran away. I scared everyone. I wasn’t growing up right. I was turning into something no one expected. No one knew what to do with me. I was so afraid. Does that count?~ She felt a touch on her hand and recoiled from it as if she’d received a shock.

“Valerie, are you all right?”

~Recover. Reorient. Breathe.~ “Yes, I’m fine.”

“You just sort of… stopped,” Mary said, withdrawing her own hand. Elizabeth was looking at her as well, her worried face mirroring her mother’s.

“How long?”

“Just a few moments. Are you sure you’re okay? Was it something I said?”

“No, I’m fine. Really.” She took a long breath. ~Shit.~ “I’m sorry if I alarmed you.” ~Drink something. Stop the shakes.~ She tracked onto her smoothie and picked it up. Took a sip. Began to feel better. ~I’ve got to not do that,~ she remonstrated with herself. ~If I go in too deep, he’s not going to be there to bring me out again.~ That scared her. Really scared her. Just the ~he’s not going to be there,~ was a fear like death itself.

“It’s okay. Look, I’m not going to push, but if there’s anything you want to talk about, you can, okay?”

“Thanks, but…” She stopped herself. ~No, don’t make it worse.~ “Thanks,” she said again, leaving it at that.

“We’ll talk about something else. Or would you rather just be quiet for a bit?”

“Quiet.”

Mary nodded and sipped her coffee. Valerie cradled her smoothie and slowly sat back, leaning against the back of the sofa. ~Now you know one of my pressure points,~ she addressed Mary in her thoughts. ~Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.~

Soft canned jazz, and the traffic sounds from outside. Quiet conversation from the few other customers also in the shop. She felt Elizabeth shifting restlessly, then leaning suddenly against Valerie’s side.

“Liz-” Mary began.

“It’s okay,” Valerie said, not opening her eyes. She put her arm around the little girl, let her take hold of her hand.

Valerie exhaled. “Anyway. Where were we?” She opened her eyes.

“I was asking how you do that with your hair?”

“No you weren’t.”

“I am now. I was going to.”

“Anyway, how I do what with my hair?” She already knew.

“You know, the way the light-”

“Oh, that.” Valerie tried to fight down a blush. It didn’t work now better than it ever had. “Classified.”

“Please. I must know.”

“Get used to disappointment.”

Wide smile. “Okay.” That’s how the script went.

“Gentian violet,” Valerie conceded. She took another sip of her smoothie, then stopped and lowered the glass to her lap where she could hold it still.

“Really.” Mary sounded doubtful.

“Just a little, mixed in with black. You’ve got to be careful or you end up with bright purple hair.”

“Mmm. I’ll have to try that.”

“Let me know how you get on. Bet you get it wrong first time.”

***

“I think I made a mistake,” Valerie said. Something — something else — she didn’t want to admit to Jane.

“What? Music?”

“Am I imagining it or did everyone else start when they were three or thereabouts?”

Mary smiled. “I was six. Piano lessons. But you’ve got a point. I’ve got little one on the piano already.”

“I started last year. And it shows. Don’t lie.”

“All right, I won’t lie.” Valerie braced herself. “I heard your first composition piece. The piano one?”

“Oh God.”

“It was beautiful.”

“It was naíve. Simplistic. One cliché after another-”

“Don’t listen to what Peter says. He’d tell Mozart he’s using too many notes.”

Valerie snickered at that.

“It nearly made me cry,” Mary continued. “I thought it was really good.”

Valerie cradled her drink, looking at it. “It was the first thing I’d ever even tried to compose. It wasn’t going to be any good. Anyway, the essays are what’s killing me.” She sighed. “‘Choose any one work by Purcell to illustrate his effective setting of the English language.’ I don’t know where to start.”

“I thought that would be an easy one for you,” Mary said. “What with your singing.”

“Yes, but-”

“Have you chosen the piece yet?”

“Uh. Yeah, I thought Dido’s Lament?”

“Oh, right. I was thinking of one of the sacred works. Um. Have you got it with you?”

Valerie thought. “Sure. Hang on.” She pulled open her backpack and eased the Libretto out. The libretto’s in the Libretto, she realised. Haha. “Here it is,” she said, displaying it full-screen. It was actually the manuscript score. She handed the Libretto across.

“Cool. How’d you do this?”

“I could tell you, but it’s severely geeky.”

Mary smiled wanly. “Take your word for it,” she admitted. “You’ve got the whole score?”

“Yes.” From when she was trying to choose what to use. All scanned in and traced into EPS and turned into a single PDF. Too bad there wasn’t a Gutenburg Project for music, or even a standard musical notation file format. It would take a lot less space.

“So, okay, the Lament. Oh, you’ve got the right page already. ‘When I am laid in the earth, May my wrongs create,’ etc.”

“That’s it.”

“Hm. Come on,” She stood up suddenly, taking the Libretto with her.

“Where–?” Valerie began, but Mary’s destination was rapidly obvious. She headed for the grand piano in the centre. “Er…” Valerie checked behind. Elizabeth was quite happy where she was, chattering quietly to herself or whoever. Abbie, presumably. She wouldn’t be out of sight. “Fancy them having a piano here,” she said, wryly.

“Yeah, funny that,” Mary said, deadpan. “Wondered why I liked the place.” A nod to Jill behind the bar, who waved a quick thumbs-up. This, again, seemed to be a semi-regular occurrence. The canned jazz faded and disappeared. “Not performing,” Mary called across to Jill. “Working on something.”

“’Kay.” The place was quiet anyway.

Mary settled down. “You ready?” She sat the Libretto up on the music stand. “Can you see?”

“What, you want me to sing?” Valerie squeaked, suddenly catching up. “Here?”

Mary just glanced around at her and started playing the long bass accompaniment. “Like I said, we’re just working stuff out. No-one’s expecting a performance. Would you rather I sang?”

Mary could hold a tune with her singing voice. That was about the kindest thing you could really say about it, but Valerie knew it wasn’t an idle threat. She’d sing, if Valerie didn’t. Mary played the few notes of introduction.

When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create,
No trouble in thy breast.
Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate!

It was a bit rough. Valerie had sung it once or twice before, at home by herself where she didn’t have to feel so self-conscious, and that helped. She’d got over being self-conscious about Jane or Marie overhearing her at singing practice the previous year.

She lost the third ‘Remember me’ a little due to nerves and trying not to sing too loudly. The part was written for a mezzo-soprano, but this aria was subdued, down; the character was about to die of, well, feh, as far as Valerie could tell. Terminal shortage of feck. So it was all easily within reach of her own contralto.

“Meh,” Mary agreed. “Let’s go back a bit. The recitative just before this.”

“You know it then?”

“Did it at my old school last year. Yours truly hidden away safely in the chorus. How do I go back on this thing?” she wondered, poking at the Libretto. Valerie took over and paged up a couple of times.

“It was written for a school,” Valerie said, to make conversation.

“Yeah.” Her fingers descended onto the keys. “Thy hand,” she prompted, and a nod-

Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,
On thy bosom let me rest,
More I would, but Death invades me;
Death is now a welcome guest.

Long, slow phrases, descending, slowing. It was tired, Valerie thought. “That’s beautiful. She’s just tired of it now,” Mary said, echoing her own thought. “That long ‘darkness,’ literally.” Smile. “Hear how it just keeps falling,” she played the voice part, one-handed, on its own, for the third line, and started singing it quietly until Valerie took it over again. She’d forgotten the rest of the café. “It just… That’s called a dying descent. I mean, the words are almost nothing. It’s hardly Shakespeare,” she grimaced. “The words are just carrier. Like a scaffold to hang the music off, and the music, the sound is where the heart of it is.”

“It’s low for a soprano,” Valerie said. “I could belt it out,” not that she did, or would, “but a soprano couldn’t put a lot of air through this.”

“But it’s written for soprano, so why did he write it like that? Can you imagine Puccini on this? Soprano death-scene, she’d be singing to shatter the windows, and never mind she’s dying of Consumption.” Valerie chuckled. “It’s quiet.”

“Breathless,” Valerie hazarded. “Long notes right at the bottom of her voice. She’s going to run out of air, like that long ‘darkness’. Well, not really,” she amended, “’cause obviously it’s written within limits, but you know what I mean.”

Mary turned with a satisfied look. “No, I don’t. Explain it to me. In the essay.” She grinned.

Valerie nodded. “Right.” She had a way in. “Thank you.”

***

“Jo!” Elizabeth sang, and squirmed off of the sofa to run to the new arrival almost as soon as the tall, lanky figure had entered the building.

Valerie immediately recognised the one whose sex she couldn’t figure out at lunch. She felt her stomach clench up again. They’d finished at the piano and were once again occupying the sofa. Valerie had been feeling reasonably back to normal. Jo dropped to one knee as the child approached, hand-on-chest, and called “Your Majesty!” The lipstick had gone, Valerie noticed.

“Who’s Queen?” Elizabeth challenged.

“Why, I don’t know, your Majesty,” Jo did a creditable Stephen Fry impression.

“Who’s Queen?” Elizabeth repeated, stamping her foot. Then she laughed.

“Why you are, of course!”

“Oh shut up, Melchie.” It was perfectly intoned, and far too much for Valerie, who had to put her drink down quickly to stop spilling it as she laughed aloud. It was raucous, and she immediately felt self-conscious and shut up. She’d not laughed as freely as that for… months, she supposed. Jo bundled Elizabeth under an arm and walked the rest of the way to the table. Elizabeth squealed, her legs kicking air behind Jo’s back.

“Put her down, Jo,” Mary begged. “She’s been so good up to now.”

“Oh, that won’t do at all,” Jo replied, but spun Elizabeth around and set her down, tousled and slightly dazed, then flomphed into one of the armchairs. “Hoo, she can’t have put on weight since last week, can she?” Long, thin legs, one ankle resting on the other knee as she almost lay in the armchair.

“It’s possible.”

“You’re a lump, you know that?” Jo told Elizabeth. “You’re a big little lump. A little big lump. The battle of the little big lump.” Elizabeth’s reply was to charge at the chair and clamber over on top of Jo. “Hey, careful, you know I bruise easily.”

“Sorry,” Elizabeth said, and sat in Jo’s lap.

“Wow, you are being good today, aren’t you.”

“I promised. Val’rie’s got a magic pen.” She showed her spot again.

Jo looked at it, and up at Mary, mystified. Mary showed her own spot. Jo looked at Valerie and quirked an eyebrow. Valerie smiled. “A magic pen?” Jo asked Elizabeth.

“Yeah.” Elizabeth grabbed onto the lapel of Jo’s jacket and hooked a finger through a buttonhole. “Keeps promises.”

“Oh, I wish I had one of those,” Jo said wholeheartedly. “Bloody boyfriend.”

“Bloody boyfriend,” Elizabeth echoed.

“Jo…” Mary admonished, despairingly.

Jo ignored Mary. “Yeah. You’re going to grow up to be a big hairy dyke, aren’t you?” she said to Elizabeth.

“No!”

“What’s he done this time?”

“Forgotten our anniversary, the pig!”

“Pig!”

“Yeah. All men are pigs.”

“Yeah.”

“You cleaned that lipstick off, I see,” Mary observed dryly.

“Damn straight. I’ve got my reputation to think of after all.”

Mary laughed.

“Hi, Jo, what’ll it be?” Jill had reappeared.

“’Spresso!”

“Guess so,” Jo agreed.

“Okay. Coming right up.”

Elizabeth laughed and clambered down to run to the bar to watch.

“Anyway, you know, we haven’t been properly introduced,” Jo stood, addressing Valerie. “Hi, I’m Jo.” She stuck her hand out to shake. Man-style, Valerie noted, confused all over again.

“Valerie,” she replied neatly. She didn’t get up, but laid her hand in Jo’s delicately and Jo actually bowed.

“Enchanté.”

“Thank you,” Valerie managed, as formally as she could.

“So what scurrilous lies has Mary been telling you about me behind my back?” Jo asked, falling back into the armchair.

“None at all,” Mary replied, saving Valerie from the moment. “We didn’t even mention you.”

“You mean you haven’t been talking about me? Why not? Ah, forgotten in my own lifetime!”

“Jo,” Mary started.

“Yes, sweet lady?”

“Shut up, there’s a good chap.” Mary affected an aristocratic accent of her own to deliver the line.

“Is that the time already?”

“Yes.”

Jo sulked.

“You love me really.”

“Yes.”

Elizabeth led Jill back to the table, looking very pleased with herself. Jill set down the coffee. “Aha,” Jo worfed. “A warrior’s drink!” Elizabeth clambered back up between Mary and Valerie.

“Is it that bad?” Valerie asked, relaxing a little.

Jo sipped, grimaced. “Exquisitely vile. But uneasy lies the head that fails to entertain the queen.”

“If you hate it that much–” Mary began, but Jo just waved to dismiss the thought.

***

“Bugger me, it worked,” Mary said quietly to Valerie. They were walking back through the campus, towards the student entrance of the main building. Elizabeth was riding Jo’s shoulders ahead of them.

“What?”

“That pen trick you did.”

“Oh, that.” Valerie was no less astonished, but she just said, “Use sparingly.”

“Yes, of course. I’d better get a marker pen.”

Valerie handed it over. “And make a thing of it. Some little ritual.”

Mary nodded. “How did you just happen to have one on you anyway?”

“Ah.” Valerie grinned. “Electronic engineers never go anywhere without their coloured pens.” Mary chuckled. “Hmm. If I were you, I’d wash it off when you get inside. The promise was just for the coffee-shop, and she discharged it. Let her know it. Don’t try to stretch it out to more than she promised to.”

“You’ve worked with kids before?”

“Not much. I did some sitting last year.” Only a little, before she was sent away. She envied Val her longer experience with the Parker children. She’d been looking forward to that, before her life got turned upside down — again.

It was funny; she hadn’t really given the Parker kids a lot of thought back home. A vague sense of disappointment, certainly, but the loss of the income had bitten more deeply; at least until she got paid for the security systems installation work at Jane’s house. That and a new laptop she didn’t have to pay for did a lot to assuage her disappointment. No, it wasn’t until she’d come here, and heard Val talk about Ricky and Stella and heard how involved she’d become in their lives that she began to feel she’d really missed something.

“It’s nice when they put the charm on, isn’t it?” Mary commented. Valerie laughed quietly. Jo and Elizabeth were waiting for them by the door, Elizabeth back on terra-firma.

“So, you and Jo seem close,” Valerie observed.

“Yes, I suppose we are, in a strange way,” Mary agreed.

“How long have you known each other?”

“Oh, only since September. But, well, shit happened.”

“It always does,” Valerie agreed.

“You may not believe it now, but there’s a real person under all that performance.”

“I’m sure there is.”

“I trust her with my daughter,” Mary said firmly. Valerie nodded, understanding. They closed the rest of the distance.

“I have to get back,” Valerie said. “I’ve just got to get my gear.” She took a breath, hesitating at the thought. She didn’t like going to the lockers when it was quiet like this. When she looked up she found Jo watching her.

“I’ll walk you to the lockers,” Jo offered.

“They’re just around the corner…”

“I know. I just thought you’d like the company.”

Valerie found herself looking up into Jo’s steady grey eyes. Jo had three, maybe four inches height advantage over her, but she was thin. There seemed to be a frailty about her that her exuberant personality belied. Valerie remembered what Mary had said and nodded, finally. “Okay.”

“Sure you don’t want to stay and watch the rehearsal?” Mary asked.

“Like I said, I have to get back-”

“I know, but you look like you wouldn’t mind having an excuse. I think we were planning to go and get something to eat afterwards.”

Valerie chuckled. “Oh, I’d just get in the way and make people nervous,” she said. ~Besides, I don’t want to chance being roped in.~

“Mummy I need to go!”

“Well, that’s my cue,” Mary said with a lopsided grin.

“Lizzie go plop-plop?” Jo queried. Elizabeth just gave that the look it deserved.

“So we’ll see you Monday, right?” Mary addressed Valerie. “At lunch? You can meet the rest of the posse.”

“I’ll…” She prevaricated. “I usually go out for lunch when it’s not raining,” she began. “Maybe.” She could always bug out on the bike somewhere if she changed her mind, she thought.

Mary shrugged. “Well, I’ll see you in Music on Monday anyway.”

“Mummy!”

“Come on then, my little dá¦mon.” They led the way inside. Valerie and Jo went off in the other direction, to the lockers. Jo was humming a tune Valerie didn’t immediately recognise. It was familiar though.

“So are you going to come to our play?” Jo asked suddenly.

“I don’t know. What is it?”

“Blood Wedding. I’m the Moon. Only get one proper speech, but it’s a good ’un.”

“Ah.” It meant nothing to Valerie.

“The whole yeargroup’s doing the three plays together next term. They’re on our course texts. You should come.”

Valerie thought about it as they walked. For a moment she thought she might suggest it as a torture for Jane’s new student, before she realised what she was doing. These two worlds she wanted to keep very separate. “Maybe. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing by then though.”

“There’ll be posters up nearer the time, so there won’t be any excuse if you are around.” Jo grinned, and resumed humming. They were at the lockers anyway. Valerie opened hers and busied herself getting her back-protector on, followed by the leather armour. Somewhere nearby a locker door slammed shut and she reflexively scanned the area, catching sight of a figure walking away down the corridor. “You are a startly little thing, aren’t you,” Jo observed, from where she was leaning against the window-frame opposite.

“Watch who you’re calling little,” Valerie warned, but flashed a small smile back anyway. A group of students burst out of the male changing-room at the end of the corridor, kitted out for rugby. Valerie felt another full-body flash of adrenaline. They were boisterous and jeering amongst themselves, the studs making a strange, plastic, multitudinous crunching sound on the linoleum as they passed behind her and out towards the playing field. None of them paid her or Jo the slightest attention.

~This is ridiculous,~ she berated herself harshly. ~I’ve got to get over this.~ Somewhere between the last time she was at high school and starting at this college she seemed to have lost the knack of not showing her fear. That was probably what was scaring her more than anything, she thought. ~If I could go home tomorrow,~ she wondered, ~would I be able to go back to McAllen’s? If I’m going to be in this state?~

There was the sound of a body leaning against the lockers close to her. She looked up into Jo’s grey eyes again. “It’s okay,” Jo said. “No-one’s going to hurt you here.” Her words gave Valerie the second flash of adrenaline within a minute, making her actually feel wobbly. ~How did you know?~ she wanted to demand. Jo’s small, secretive smile was its own reply, and Valerie only had to look at her to guess how she might have recognised what Valerie was flinching from. She forced herself not to avert her eyes, and nodded slowly.

“I know,” she said, eventually. “It’s just a belief-deficit.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m okay.” She finished pulling on the leather trousers and zipped up the jacket. “Really. Don’t you have a rehearsal to get to?” She sat down on one of the plastic chairs bolted to the wall to put her boots back on.

Jo smiled again. “If you’re sure.”

“Yeah. Go on.” The armour she was now wearing helped. She could take a swing or several from a baseball bat in this. ~kevlar++;~

Jo pushed off. “Okay. See you at lunch Monday then,” she waved and turned, dancer-like, and headed off back the way they had come. “I’m a creep,” she sang, the same tune she had been humming earlier, “I’m a weirdo-o-o-whoah!” as she nearly bumped into someone coming round the corner the other way. Valerie grabbed her helmet and gloves and locked up and headed for the car park. “What the hell’m I doing here?” Jo’s voice echoed through the empty corridors. “I don’t belong here…”

“Fuck, shit, fuckity-shitshitshit,” Valerie swore as she stomped out to where her bike was parked. She didn’t have far to go; one of the benefits of not using a car. It was the only full-size bike in the bike area near the door; most being 125cc learner-legal or motor scooters or bicycles, but at this time of evening her bike was almost alone. “Shitty shitty fuckity-fuck!” she screamed. “Mike!” She almost ripped the disc-lock off.

“Calm.”

“Is it fucking written on my forehead?”

“It is when you go round acting like a victim, Tucker. You know better than that.”

“Yeah.” She couldn’t stop shaking. At least now it was from anger, directed at herself. She put her keys into the ignition and put her helmet on, struggling with the chinstrap. “Come on!” she berated her fingers. “I do know better than that. So what the fuck is wrong with me?” He didn’t have an answer for that, of course, because neither did she. She fought her fingers into her gloves and got on the bike. She sniffled. Maybe Malmsbury Girls’ School wouldn’t be so bad.

“Uniform’s kind of cute. If you’re into preppy tentacle-bait.”

“You’re not helping,” she lied, finding a stray chuckle. She punched the starter.

“You can’t ride like this, Tucker, you’ll get yourself killed.”

So she just sat astride the bike and cried and let the engine run. Without her really noticing, her hands dropped to her side, turned outwards and grasped at empty air.

***

“There’s a package for you,” Marie said, more or less as soon as Valerie came in through the garden. The ride back had cheered her up again. It had a way of doing that. ~I love my bike.~

“Oh?”

Marie pointed. It was sitting by the side of the table; a cardboard box about two feet on each side, more or less, and a Fedex waybill. She sat down next to it, starting to take her boots off while peering over at it. “Wonder who it’s–” She stopped. It was from home. Val. It had better be Val anyway. “Oh, God, what’s she gone and done? I only got her some CDs.” British indie stuff she had reason to think Val might like.

“Open it and see?” Marie said, coming to sit nearby. Curious, presumably.

Valerie looked at her for a moment, sighed once, then produced a penknife and cut through the parcel tape. “Is Jane back yet?” she asked as she worked.

“Not yet. I expect it’ll be all-hands-to when she is,” she added.

~She’s got me a new dress,~ Valerie knew. Jane’s appointment at the dressmaker’s to review arrangements for her new students was just too convenient a cover. ~Remember to be nice. And surprised. And it will be gorgeous of course.~ She got the box open. There was an immediate smell of… ~Home.~ “Oh my God.” She reached down into the box. “Oh Val…” Her hand came up clutching her US first edition Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. It used to be Dad’s — it was older than she was, of course — but she’d read it and read it until the cover was hanging on by a few paper fibres, and at some point it had just ended up parked in her room.

About half the box was full of books; mostly old paperbacks with yellowing pages and frayed covers. The smell hit her in waves. She hadn’t noticed until now how American books seemed to smell different from British ones. Presumably some difference in the printing or paper-making process, she didn’t know. She pulled more out, to see what there was. The whole Hitch-Hiker’s Guide series. A couple of Pern, several of the Darkover. “Oh I don’t believe she did this,” Valerie breathed. A couple of Asimovs, Robots stuff. Some Niven, some early Heinlein. And Bradbury. Here a section in The Silver Locusts had come adrift from the perfect binding, just as she remembered it.

The box didn’t only contain books. Some of the printed T-shirts that Susan had auctioned off before going to college were in there, including the subliminal one and the Disaster Area tour dates one. The facehugger toy from Alien. It went on. Valerie had to stop. She thought she’d cry, but her eyes stayed dry. “I…” she began. “I don’t know what I think about this.”

“These are all things from your childhood,” Marie observed. It was redundant. Social noise. Valerie nodded.

“God, look at this. Such a geek.” She chuckled, pulling out one of the larger, hardback books near the bottom. It was an old popular physics encyclopá¦dia for children. “I bet some of these theories haven’t been superceded yet.”

Haven’t been?” Marie checked. Valerie grinned and flicked through to find a particular page.

“Here it is,” she leaned forward with it to show Marie. A description of black holes, and someone had written ‘QUANTUM SINGULARITYS OFF THE PORT BOW’ in blue ballpoint along the top margin. “I remember doing that,” she said. “I don’t know, I must have thought it was funny at the time.”

“I don’t get it,” Marie admitted.

“Doesn’t matter.” She stroked a finger along the handwritten words, feeling the indentation in the paper. “It’s just strange. I remember doing this.” She raised the book to her nose and smelled it. “But she did it, to this one. This copy.” She put it down. “It’s hers. This is all her stuff. Oh my God!”

Valerie’s hand reached into the box again and came out with a video cassette. “I can’t believe she sent me this!”

“What is it?”

“Uh…” She’d recognised the label immediately. Dan had done a nice art job on it. “It’s um, pop videos.” She laughed unexpectedly and tried to explain; “Mike and I used to make these a few years ago.”

“What did you do on them? Dancing?”

What? Oh no.” ~As if.~ “We’d cut together footage from anime, mostly, and other films or TV and edit it in with the music. Something brilliantly inappropriate of course.” She smiled at a memory. “God, I’d forgotten about these. We did it all on a couple of VCRs and some fancy cable-work.”

“Can I see them?”

“Oh no, you won’t want to…” Valerie stopped up against a new thought. “Oh, she’s an idiot.”

“What?”

“They won’t play here.” She dropped it onto the table, slumping back against the back of the seat. “NTSC. They won’t play here. You’re saved the torment.” She pulled out a wry smile. “I’d have to get a dual-format player, God knows how much they cost.” ~Maybe they have one in the college AV department,~ she wondered. ~Get them encoded to MPEG or something–~

Marie’s hand touched hers. Valerie turned her hand over to grasp it.

“I’m okay. Really. I just don’t know what she was thinking. I don’t know what she thought this would achieve.” She gave Marie’s hand a final squeeze and let go, bending to finish taking her boots off. “Maybe she just wanted to get rid of some old junk.” I ~didn’t mean that.~

“If I understand correctly,” Marie said carefully, “these are all from before you and she… diverged?”

Valerie nodded, straightening. “Yes.” She stood to get the leather trousers off. “As far as we know.”

“Then surely this is all yours just as much as it is hers? Don’t you think?”

Valerie stepped out of the leather trousers, down to her jeans, and wriggled free of the jacket. She sat down again and dumped the gear on the bench next to her. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

“I’m sure that’s what she thinks,” Marie continued. “Haven’t you talked to her about this?”

Valerie sighed. “Who owns what? Not really.” She shook her head. “She’s indigenous; it’s hers. All my stuff is — somewhere else.” ~How long will they keep my room intact in case I return?~ she wondered. ~Would they have cleared it out yet?~ She counted it up. Four and a half months. That was all. ~They probably think I ran away again. They probably think I might just turn up on the doorstep one day. Or that a police officer will, to say they found the body.~

She looked again at the stuff she’d already taken out of the box and strewn on the table. She tried to find some sense of connection to it. They didn’t seem right, out of place like this. Not where they should be, on her shelves back home.

“You have a past, Valerie,” Marie pressed.

“Actually that’s a matter of conjecture,” Valerie said, hearing her own voice sounding more caustic than she’d intended. “I have memories. They’re not supported by reality. There’s no evidence I even existed five months ago.” She sighed. “Everyone very kindly pretends otherwise,” she finished.

Marie looked at her for a few more moments, then got up. “I got you something,” she said. “Shall we get that over with before Jane comes back and things get too busy?”

Valerie sat straighter. “Sure.” ~Don’t be a depressive fuck,~ she reminded herself. ~People are going to get bored of it. People you need.~ “Whatcha got?”

“Oh it’s just something little. I wouldn’t get too excited.”

“Sounds perfect already. Jane’s…” The word-buffer emptied.

“I know.”

“So, do you think I need to go up and do something nice with my hair in a minute?”

Marie smiled, returning to the table with a giftwrapped package. “I think that might be a good move. Would you like me to help?”

Valerie chuckled. “Sure, why not? Old times’ sake.” She caught the hesitation, the falter in Marie’s smile. This Marie had never done such a thing. ~Damn.~ “Sorry.”

“It’s all right, I understand.”

Valerie took the present and ripped it open. Two books. “The Little Prince,” she murmured. “Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.” It looked like a book for children. Childlike illustration on the cover. ~What was she thinking?~

“Don’t worry, it’s not in the original French,” Marie explained.

Valerie looked at the other book. “Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaardner.” She knew she sounded nonplussed.

“You haven’t read them have you?” Marie queried.

“No, no I haven’t.” At least the second book didn’t look like it should be given to an eight-year-old. She turned it over to read the blurb. “Philosophy?” She tried not to sound like she’d just found herself holding a dead fish.

“This one,” Marie tapped the first book, “only looks like it’s just for children. I know they seem like strange gifts right now, but I hope you’ll read them.”

“I will,” Valerie said quietly. “I’m intrigued. It’s so not what I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?”

“I don’t know. Something on cookery, I guess.”

Marie chuckled.

***

The dress was gorgeous, from the silver brocade in the black velvet bodice to the iridescent black of the full skirt; a match for her hair. If you were going to spend a lot of money on the Gothic Princess look, Valerie thought, it would probably end up a little like this. And Jane seemed to have spent a lot of money, and still seemed to hint that the ‘real’ present was yet to come, tied in somehow with wherever she was taking them this evening. She tipped her head forward to fasten the lapis lazuli necklace at the nape of her neck. ~There. Protected.~ She found a smile at that thought, and recorded the sense-memory, so she could replay it at will during the rest of the evening. She had already donned the earrings and bracelet. Together the flashes of blue from the jewellery had the effect Jane had wanted. “Heh,” Valerie said to her reflection’s intense blue gaze, “Not too shabby.” She’d done her own make-up too, and felt she’d done the rest justice.

“Give in to it once in a while.”

Valerie nodded. “Yeah.” She laughed. Only a small laugh, but it felt good. Marie had dressed her hair up into an elegant French braid with a pretty silver clasp and a couple of pins that were long and sharp enough to possibly come in handy in a tight corner. “Yeah, pretty damn good-looking there, Tucker,” she said aloud. “Whodathunkit?” Last time I dressed up like this was for Debbie. That was a familiar, sad thought.

She sighed. On an impulse she put the smaller of the books Marie had given her into her smart handbag and let herself out of her room.

***

A little earlier, Marie had been genuinely taken aback when Jane had also produced a new dress for her, and instructed her to go and get ready.

“Jane, this isn’t fair,” Marie had protested. “I’m not some pretty young thing that can get dolled up in five minutes.”

“Nonsense, dear. You get upstairs immediately. We’re on a schedule.”

“But what about Mrs. Lawrence?”

“What about Mrs. Lawrence?”

“I was about to start dinner, that’s what about Mrs. Lawrence!” Marie snapped. “Why do you always have to do this?” Valerie, pausing at the door bearing her own new dress in a box, enjoyed the show. Her hair had been done already, before Jane returned. Marie didn’t talk like this to Jane when there were students around.

“Oh, yes,” Jane appeared genuinely to have been reminded of something she’d forgotten. Valerie wasn’t fooled for a moment. “You’re quite correct. Dinner shall not be required tonight as we shall be dining out. Harriet sends her regrets but she is quite unable to free herself from her commitments.”

“I swear if you’d sprung this on me five minutes later I would have been…” She ran dry, in the face of Jane’s amused, patient look.

“But you’re not. Now, there’s no time to lose, so get about it, both of you.”

Long inward breath. “Yes, Jane.”

***

Valerie knocked on Marie’s door. “Come in!” She went in.

“How’re you doing?”

Marie, at her small dressing table, shook her head. “That woman is impossible.”

“You noticed already?”

Via the mirror Marie’s eyes turned to the heavens. Then she did a double-take and turned around in her seat to look at Valerie properly.

Alors,” she breathed. Valerie blushed. “I forgive her everything.”

~As usual,~ Valerie heard it unspoken.

“You like?” She did a twirl.

“Oh Valerie, if I was thirty years younger–”

“Marie!” Valerie blushed more. “I didn’t think you were that way inclined.”

“Nor did I.”

Valerie blew a raspberry. “So, need a hand? Hey, get up. Let me see yours.”

“It’s no contest, I assure you.” She stood up to show her dress to Valerie. “If I was thirty years younger,” she said again, “I still would have looked frumpy,” she admitted, smiling.

“You do not look frumpy!”

“Now you’re being kind.”

“Marie–”

Marie chuckled. “It’s all right, Valerie. I’m just not used to all this finery on myself for once. But now I see you, I know everyone’s going to be looking at you all evening and no-one will notice me, and that’s just how I like it.” That really did sound heartfelt. “I can relax and enjoy myself now.”

“Aw, Marie.” She impulsively hugged the older woman. “I’m not that pretty. I just had some really good teachers.”

“Seventeen beats forty-six under any circumstances,” Marie pronounced. “Unless you’re Jane, maybe. We can’t all be built like a goddess.”

“Which one? Kali?”

“You can help me with my make-up.” Marie was perfectly capable of doing that herself. That wasn’t the point.

~Seventeen. Yeah. Wow.~ Valerie caught herself in the mirror again. The image of elegance. The make-up was part of it, and the way she held herself in these clothes, but she could allow herself to see how her face had lost its vestiges of puppy-fat and acquired the definition and grace of an adult woman in just a year. It had been a very busy year–

If you can bear to tear yourself away from the mirror,” Marie chided her vanity.

“Sorry, Marie.” She directed Marie back to the chair. “So do you have any idea what Jane’s got planned yet?”

“Not a clue.”

***

Marie had gone ahead on some pretext, so Valerie descended the wide stairs alone. She could admire the way the dress moved as she walked. The soft swish of the skirt material. She rounded the corner into the parlour. “And there she is, finally,” Jane said. “Valerie, you look truly lovely tonight.”

“Thank you Jane.” Smile. She did the curtsey, just to remind Jane that she could, and because she’d like it. “It fits perfectly. How did you do that?”

“Aha.” Jane, from her seat opposite Marie across the card table, beckoned her in. “Let’s just say I had a co-conspirator and an excellent source of information. Let me see you do a turn, dear.”

Valerie thought about it while she turned. “Val?” Jane smiled. “Val gave you my — I mean her measurements? I don’t believe it! You contacted her?” Fear.

“No, Miss Tucker contacted me in the first instance.”

What?”

“So this was all partially her idea. She also approved the final design of the dress. She said you’d like it.”

“She did what?” Valerie felt she was starting to repeat herself.

“On condition that we send her photographs. It’s all in hand.”

“I’m going to kill her!”

“You’ll have your opportunity. She’s due to fly in the day after school ends. Don’t do that, dear, you’ll catch flies.”

Valerie closed her mouth. Opened it. Closed it. Opened it. “How?”

“You mean how has this been arranged with her parents’ consent?” Valerie nodded. “I’m given to understand that it’s a long story. I’m sure she’ll tell you all about it tonight after we get back, when you go online. Suffice to say, even though I still consider it a mistake to keep them in the dark, they have not been alerted to your existence, so you can rest easy about that.”

Valerie hmmed. “Okay. I’m still going to kill her.” Her brain was racing. “Oh, I’m still going to be stuck at college until Jul– Wait a minute, the new kid’s going to be here by then.”

Jane mocked surprise. “Why, so he is.” Deadpan. “Well, I’m sure we’ll find ways to keep Miss Tucker suitably occupied.”

“Oh no. Not a chance. You’re not going to do to her what you did to me!”

I?” Jane queried archly. “I did nothing to you. I don’t leave a job half-done!”

“Ha-” Valerie stopped. “I see,” she said aside to Marie. “I think I’ve just been insulted.” Marie was trying to hold in her giggles. “Anyway, you can’t do Val. It’s too late, it won’t work.”

“Well of course I can’t. Goodness me, that wasn’t what I meant at all.”

“Good.”

“No, no. Miss Tucker is quite lost, I assure you. I can have no hold over her.”

“Even better.” Valerie grinned.

Jane stood. Marie joined her on her feet. “On the other hand,” Jane continued to Valerie, “I hear she has a younger brother who is becoming quite unmanageable at home and in school. I should think he’ll respond very well to correction and gentle feminine guidance, don’t you? Shall we go?”

Valerie was about to object, loudly, until she saw that amused glint in Jane’s eye. It was a look she hadn’t seen for months. If she’d had any doubt that Jane was getting her Evil back, it was gone. Valerie brightened.

“Oh, in that case, what do you need to know?”

“Everything, my dear. Everything.” Jane swept out into the hallway. Valerie waved Marie through as well and took up the rearguard.

“Are you still not going to tell us where we’re going?” she asked.

“No. It’s a surprise.”

“Do we need coats, do you think?” Marie wondered aloud.

“It’s looking a lot nicer now,” Valerie observed.

“We shall bring them,” Jane determined, “I believe the rain will hold off, but it might get chilly later.”

“We’re talking about the weather,” Valerie said, putting the accent on. “How terribly English of us.” She accepted her coat from Jane, draping it over her arm. Jane opened the double doors. Jane’s new Mercedes waited gleaming in the evening light.

“Do you mean to wear that voice all night, Valerie?” she asked.

“Do you know, I think I shall. Miss Marie, would you do me the pleasure?” She offered Marie her arm.

“Why, thank you kindly Miss Thompson.” Marie positively preened at Jane as they went out.

Valerie supposed it was becoming her style: feminine, elegant from an extreme economy of movement; efficiently but self-deprecatingly well-spoken and too well-mannered to offer an opinion unasked. Perfect, like porcelain. Curtsey, smile, say thank you Jane, entertain her guests, be kind, always offer to help and always try to be the perfect daughter.

How strange to become this person after all. How ironic.

Notes:

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