(17th and final story in the Building to Last universe)
Victoria did a slow burn in the passenger seat of the Rover as I drove her home. Every inch the well-bred lady, Vicky waited until we were behind the doors of her flat before she turned and belted me a good one. And I don't mean a lady-like slap. No, it was more of a left- cross, and it had every ounce of her weight behind it.
"How... Dare... You!" Vicky is one of those rare women (or men, for that matter) whose voice gets quiet with extreme rage.
"I'm sorry," I said softly. "I'd no right..."
"None at all," Victoria agreed. "Whatever possessed you?"
"Temporary insanity?" I said flippantly. Then I sighed. "I don't really know," I admitted as I watched Vicky pace back and forth across the floor of her lounge, her long blonde mane almost bristling with rage.
Hazel eyes glared at me. "Don't lie to me, Michael!"
"I'm not..." I protested.
Victoria snorted. "Worse, then. You're bloody well lying to yourself."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I saw his face when you announced our engagement." The scorn in those sea-changeable eyes nearly scorched me.
"Who's face?" I whispered.
"That blond fellow... Cameron, I think his name is." Vicky's voice acquired a hard edge of sarcasm, "You're partner."
"I imagine the news came as a bit of a surprise.." I started to say before Victoria gave me a hard shove in the chest. At five foot ten inches, Vicky is not a small woman. I had to take a backward step to keep my balance.
"Oh, yes!" Victoria bared her teeth. "I imagine it was rather a shock! Particularly to the purported bride-to-be!"
"I'm very sorry about dragging you into this," I apologized.
Vicky shoved me again. This time my back hit the front door. "Not as sorry as you're going to be!" she promised. "Keep me out of your quarrels with your boy-friends, Michael! And make sure that everyone knows that the engagement was never on in the first place! Do you hear me?"
"He's not my boy-friend," I protested.
Victoria just stood there and stared at me. I had the uncomfortable feeling that she could see straight in to my heart and soul. "But he wants to be your boy-friend, doesn't he?" she said at last.
I leaned my head back against the door and looked at the ceiling rather than stare into those too perceptive eyes. "I don't know," I admitted. "He's never said..." My voice trailed off into an uncomfortable silence.
Vicky's a master strategist when it comes to prying open emotional oysters. It's the reason she became a psychiatrist. She waited until the weight of our silence forced me to meet her eyes. When I did, I was sorry because I found impatient pity staring back at me.
"What you mean is that you've never allowed him to tell you how he feels. You've been holding him off with both hands while you wallow in self-pity."
"The truth hurts, doesn't it Michael?" Vicky was pitiless. "Go home. Don't ring me; don't write me; don't contact me in any way for at least a month. It will take me at least that long to forgive you."
I just nodded and turned 'round to open the door. Vicky's hand on my arm stopped me. I didn't turn to face her.
"You can't let what happened with Chris poison the rest of your life. This fellow Cam must mean an awful lot to you..."
"What makes you think...?"
"My dearest Mickey!" Vicky's voice was gentle and her use of my childhood nickname meant that she was almost ready to forgive me. "Announcing to all and sundry that you're going to marry me was an extreme move, even for you. After all, it was as good as admitting that you are contemplating incest!"
"Ah," I tried to think of a way of breaking the news without it leading to my demise, but gave it up as a bad job.
"What is it, Michael?" That ominous note was back in Vicky's voice.
"Well, you see... I didn't exactly tell anyone that you're my step- sister." I braced myself for a blow that never came.
Instead Vicky gave a tired sigh. "I had already figured that out. Oh, Mickey. What am I going to do with you?"
I turned to face my sister.
"You really need to talk to your partner. The two of you have a lot of issues to work through." Vicky raised one hand to silence me when I tried to speak. "Your job is much too dangerous for the two of you to be playing these childish mind-games with one another. You will talk to the man, or I will talk to your Mister Cowley." Victoria was in full-blown older-sister mode, her voice dictatorial and inflexible. I knew an ultimatum when I heard one. "You will talk to Cameron and the two of you will resolve your differences, or I will ensure that you do not remain partners."
"We're not children any more, Victoria! You can't run my life..."
"Stop acting like a petulant child and run your own life, then!" Vicky said in the quiet, deadly voice that told me just how serious she was about this whole matter. "Find a less dangerous job. Transfer out of the Action Squad. Ask for a different partner. Talk to the partner you already have. Get professional help. Do anything except what you've been doing! Denial can kill you. And I will not stand by and let you commit suicide."
I turned 'round to look into my sister's eyes. "It's not that bad." I could see the doubt in her hazel eyes. "Really, Vicks. I've no desire to die. And I am seeing a counselor."
One of Vicky's mascaraed eyebrows rose in that I-don't-believe-you semaphore. I smiled at her. "Not one of the government shrinks. I don't want to lose my job, thank you very much. But, I realized a while ago that I was having some problems, particularly with... denial... and anger." It was incredibly hard admitting that to my big sister. "I've been seeing someone privately. If it makes you happy, he's been telling me the same things that you are."
Vicky hugged me and I could feel her sigh of relief. "I'm glad, Mickey," she said gently. "I've been so worried about you."
"I know, Vicks. You aren't the only one."
Vicky drew back to look at me inquiringly.
I grinned ruefully. "Cam is a world class nag, though he's not quite ready to give Marian a run for the title." Vicky's eyes lit with laughter as I mentioned our oldest sister and her most notorious attribute. "What's worse is that he has enlisted the aid of a couple of my friends. I have told you about the Bisto Kids, haven't I?"
"Bodie and Doyle?"
"Yes. You met them at the party tonight," I replied.
"Mmm," Vicky wrinkled her nose. "Tall-dark-and-broody, and the fellow who's all teeth and curls."
"Which is which?" Vicky asked. "I get them confused."
"They come as a matched set, so it's easy to do. The one with the curly hair is Doyle," I informed her.
"Matched set?" Vicky asked not-so-innocently. "As in attached at the hip?"
"And by various other parts of their anatomy," I said dryly.
Vicky laughed. "Ah, the Love Birds."
"What d'you mean?" I asked blankly.
"All those letters you sent me while I was working in Australia. You kept mentioning this pair of agents--not that you said that they were agents, but it was obvious. Anyway, I mentally dubbed them The Love Birds. I guess that it was all the courting behaviour you described."
"Uh-huh. The billing and cooing followed by trying to peck each other's eyes out," Vicky said.
I stood there with my mouth open. Vicky shut it gently. "You sounded quite envious of them. After meeting them, I can understand why. They are more together than most couples who've been married fifty years."
My eyes closed. For a moment I felt like crying--yet another sign (not that one was necessary) that I needed professional help. "Yeah," I sighed an opened my eyes. Vicky was looking concerned again. It was definitely time to leave... before I made an even bigger fool of myself.
I gave my sister a small smile. It wavered a bit. "Wish me luck, Vicks."
"Are you all right, Mickey?"
"Yes... I have an early day tomorrow. And an appointment with my psychiatrist," I told her.
Vicky bussed me on the cheek and gave me another hug. "Luck, Little Brother. And if you ever need a shoulder... or anything else..."
"Thanks, Big Sister." My smile this time was genuine. All the way to the motor I could feel concerned hazel eyes following me. It was almost a relief to drive away where they couldn't follow.
That had gone much better than I'd any right to expect. I still felt like doing a runner--leave the country, change my name, leave my troubles behind me. But I know that I'm not built that way. And I knew that it wouldn't really help. We all carry our problems with us, where- ever we go.
Tonight I'd realized just how much I'd allowed Chris' betrayals and self-hatred to colour all of my other relationships. I'd been hurt and I was using that as an excuse to hurt other people--my sister, my friends... my partner. It was time for Michael Francis Murphy to grow up, face facts and go on with his life. It wasn't going to be easy, and it wasn't going to be comfortable. I had a long way to go, and tonight I'd taken a giant miss-step. Fortunately it wasn't irretrievable, although I was not looking forward to all the explanations concerning my false announcement. I wanted control of my life back. The memory of Chris Atwood would no longer be allowed to haunt my relationships with other people. It was time to let go of the pain and hurt; it was time to start building my future.
-- THE END --
Originally published in Chalk and Cheese 18, Agent With Style, 1998