InuYasha Fan Fiction ❯ Purity 9: Subterfuge ❯ Understanding ( Chapter 89 )

[ X - Adult: No readers under 18. Contains Graphic Adult Themes/Extreme violence. ]
~~Chapter Eighty-Nine~~
~Understanding~


-< i>OoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoO-

'The lightning flashed as angels
'Rode fiery chargers through the clouds
'That answer scared me into tears
'And all the grownups laughed out loud …'

'Now the years roll on, tired voices have all gone
'Now they ride their thunder through the heavens …'

'There's a world in every drop of rain
'Embracing oceans sweep us home again
'Come along with me, come along with me
'Seek the truth, you shall not find another lie …'

-'The Answer' by Richie Sambora.


-Valerie-


Th e song that Evan started to play was soft, soothing, entirely unlike the brash and flashy guitar playing that was the hallmark of the Zel Roka sound.  He'd been touted in many publications as one of the most brilliant minds in music today.  His riffs were catchy, almost hypnotic, even if his lyrics often kept his songs from being more mainstreamed, but in her mind, the true testament of his particular brand of brilliance were better captured in moments like this one, when the only sound to be heard was the gentle strum and reverberation, completely undiluted by the electric tricks and illusions created by the various distortions that were far better designed to mask an inept player's mistakes . . .

Slipping onto the sofa again, she was content just to listen to his song.  Even without words, he was somehow able to create an ambience with every stroke of the strings, and the almost hypnotic melody smoothed the ragged edges of the uneasiness that gnawed at her, too close to escape, no matter how desperately she wanted to.

What was it about him that had the power to affect her so deeply?  Something about a single look could calm her emotions, the ragged and frayed edges of her psyche.  Of course, he could also get under her skin and raise more unrest, more momentary irritation than any single person really ought to be able to do.  Still, he was her friend—a good friend—maybe even her best friend, and while she wasn't entirely sure how it had happened, over the course of time, he'd managed to insinuate himself in the middle of her life, even if she hadn't really wanted that in the beginning.  He knew more about her than anyone else, really, and he'd never judged her, either.

Standing up, she wandered over to the window, rubbing her arms as she watched the countryside roll past.  They'd made it out of the city, and judging from the deepness of the night outside, they'd been out of the city for awhile.  Oh, she didn't doubt that there were some kids following along behind the caravan since it seemed to happen more often than not, but they'd turn back sooner or later.  They always did.

She hadn't thought that it would be so difficult, had she?  She'd be fine just as soon as they crossed the state line, wouldn't she?  She'd be fine . . .

Behind her, Evan sighed softly, and though the song he was playing didn't falter, he was staring at her.  She could feel it.  "Tell me what's really bothering you," he coaxed, his voice soft yet determined, "and don't tell me that it's nothing."

A sudden sense of belligerence surged up inside her—irritation with herself for letting anything so stupid affect her like this—and she swung around to face him, lifting her chin stubbornly, pinning him with her steadiest gaze.  Hair a tangle of reddish-brown clumps that looked a little scraggly since he hadn't bothered to dry it properly before hopping onto the bus, skin a little pale with trace hints of purplish shadows smudged under his eyes, his gaze didn't falter, staring at her with a frankness that could not be feigned . . . At least, his eyes were familiar, however.  He'd removed whatever colored contacts he'd been using for the day, and the brightness behind those eyes was reassuring to her.

But the concern in his expression was evident, unmasked by any kind of feigned nonchalance, and just as abruptly as the belligerence had surfaced, it melted away again, leaving behind a sense of confusion, an all-too familiar bewilderment, an underlying ache that just never entirely went away—the same emotions that had been a part of her for far too long.  Her eyes slid away; she stared at the rich wood of the table, instead, and she sighed.

"I hate this place," she said, her voice throaty, raw, and entirely devoid of the bite that might have accompanied the words if she'd truly meant them.  "I just . . . I hate it."

The song ended with a harsh twang as Evan shot to his feet and stalked over to put the guitar back on the rack again.  "It's almost over, V," he said a little stiffly, though not unkindly, as he turned back toward the sofa once more.  "Just Rocktoberfest, and then you're home free."

Crossing her arms over her chest in a defensive sort of way, she shook her head quickly.  "Not the tour, Roka," she said, startled by the weariness that punctuated her claim.  "This . . . This place," she insisted, flicking a hand toward the window.

It was evident to her that Evan still didn't exactly understand just what she was trying to say, and she sighed, rubbing her face as she shuffled over to the sofa again.  How irritating was it, really?  She hadn't realized that being here would bother her quite so much.  She'd thought that she was over all of that—if she'd bothered to think about it in the first place.

Maybe that was the thing that threw her for the biggest loop of all.

"All right," Evan said softly, shaking his head as she plopped down beside him.  "I'll admit it.  You lost me, baby."

Picking up the glass of bourbon, Valerie idly swirled the contents, stared at the clear amber liquid.  The ice clinked against the sides, and the sound, while soft, was enough to shear off a little more of the control she held over her frazzled nerves.  "Tell me a story, Roka," she said suddenly, hefting the glass in silent salute.

He looked even more confused by the sudden change in her mood.  "A story?" he echoed.

"Something," she said, sipping the bourbon and wincing as it burned its way into her belly.  "Anything . . ."

He pondered her request then finally shrugged.  "I ever tell you about the one and only time that Maddy and I didn't talk for awhile?"

Valerie blinked and shook her head.  "You mean you two actually had a fight?"

"Not so much," he explained simply then grinned when she raised an eyebrow at him.  "Well, I wasn't mad or nothing.  She was plenty pissed off at me, though . . ."

"Why?  What happened?"

He chuckled and let out a deep breath.  "I beat the hell out of her boyfriend at the time."

Her lips twitched just a little as she set the glass aside again and crossed her arms over her chest.  "Jealous?"

Evan snorted and shot her a dubious look.  "No," he said with an air of finality.  "Not at all.  It wasn't like that."  She must not have looked like she believed him, because he laughed suddenly and downed the rest of the bourbon in his glass.  "He was a big guy," Evan went on.  "Huge, right?  I mean, Maddy's not small, you know, but this guy kind of towered over her.  Jock and all that good shit . . . Anyway, he got all bent because Maddy was hanging out with me, and he starts screaming at her right in front of God and the whole fucking school . . . just . . . screaming like a damn fool.  So I . . . shut his mouth for him."

Valerie wasn't impressed, and she sighed.  "You beat up her boyfriend."

"Ye-e-eah," he drawled with a sheepish sort of grin.  "Maddy wasn't any happier about it than you are."

"Haven't you ever heard the phrase, 'violence never solved anything'?"

"Says the woman who slit her ex's tires and carved 'dick' into the seat . . ."

"That was totally different," she maintained with a stubborn shake of her head.

"How so?"

She shot him a sidelong glance and smiled just a little.  "It just is."  Letting out a deep breath, she turned to face him more fully.  "You know, you suck at storytelling—surprising since you write lyrics."

"I suck nothing, woman," he countered in mock indignation then seemed to stop to consider what he was actually saying.  "Well, maybe . . ."

"Jerk."

His grin widened, which just figured.  "Okay, V, if you know so damn much, then why don't you tell me a story?"

Valerie opened and closed her mouth, ready to tell him to stuff it.  What came out of her mouth, though, was entirely different, and not at all what she'd expected . . .

"I'll tell you a story, Roka . . ." she heard herself saying as she fumbled blindly for the bottle of Jim Beam and gave the cap a rather vicious twist.  "It's about a little girl—a really happy little girl . . . but she was happy in a naïve kind of way like most kids are because they don't realize that they're not supposed to be, right?"

"They're not?" he countered, watching as she sloshed more liquor into his empty glass.  She didn't add more to hers, and she replaced the cap and set the bottle aside once more.

"No, they're not," she insisted as she handed his glass back.  "Let me ask you something."

"Okay."

She stared at him for a long moment.  "Do you remember the stinky kid?"

"The what?" he asked, shaking his head in obvious confusion.

She rolled her wrist as though she were trying to speed up his powers of cognition.  "The stinky kid—you know, the one kid in your class who stank but he never realized that he stank; the one whose stained-up clothes never quite matched?  The one whose face was never really clean or whose hair was never really neat?  Every class has one, right?  So do you remember the name of the one in yours?"

Chuckling in almost an embarrassed sort of way, Evan shrugged.  "Okay, yes, I remember," he admitted at length.  "Gary . . . Gary Norton."

Valerie nodded once and held out her hand.  "See?  Of course you remember because he was nasty, right?  Really, really nasty . . ."

He looked like he wanted to disagree but couldn't.  "Fine, yeah," he muttered with a sigh.  "The kids were all pretty mean to him."

"Were you?"

He blinked and looked like he wanted to claim innocence.  He grimaced, though, and slowly nodded.  "I was a kid, wasn't I?  I mean, I wasn't nearly as mean as some of the others or anything, but I wasn't a saint, either."

She digested that for a moment before letting out a deep breath.  "You want to know what the kid's name was in my class?"

He seemed surprised by the little laugh that had accompanied her question, but he nodded.  "Sure."

She laughed again.  "Valene," she replied with another shake of her head.  "How redneck is that?  Valene Duyer . . ."

"Oh, I don't know," Evan drawled slowly.  "It's kind of pretty."

Valerie rolled her eyes.  "Anyway, this little girl . . . she lived with her parents in this old trailer, see?  At first, her grandma lived with them because her mama was little more than a baby herself—fifteen?  Sixteen?  Something like that when Valene was born."  She waved a hand in blatant dismissal.  "I don't remember, but her daddy wasn't much older than her mama, so when he knocked her up, well . . ."

A strange sort of suspicion lit the depths of Evan's gaze though he remained silent, and for that, Valerie was glad.

"They couldn't get an abortion.  Grandma was a strict Bible-banging Baptist—at least, that's what her daddy said every time he and her mama got into an argument—so they figured it'd be better to have the baby and get married, figuring that no one would think it was odd that these two kids suddenly ran out and got hitched."  Heaving a sigh, she pressed her lips together as she pondered it.  "Then again, I doubt they'd have had the money to get an abortion, anyway, since her daddy had a thing for dope—probably other stuff, too, when he could afford it—and her mama didn't seem to think there was anything wrong with getting a little high from time to time . . . and they did what any teenager would do, I guess: they left the baby in grandma's care most of the time—at least, they did until Grandma died.  But Grandma left her parents the trailer and a little bit of money.  Not much really, and it's not like she was old enough to realize that, anyway . . ."

The suspicion in Evan's gaze was growing steadily thicker, but he still kept his own council even though he looked like he wanted to say something.  He didn't.

"She was happy, though: Valene was.  I mean, why wouldn't she be?  Her parents let her do pretty much whatever she wanted.  Most of the time, they didn't really seem to realize whether she was there or not, but sometimes . . ." Trailing off Valerie reached for her glass, frowning at the distinct shaking in her hand, and she willed nerves to calm as she lifted the drink to her lips and took a slow, deliberate sip.  "Sometimes they'd fight, her parents, and she'd kind of . . . cower in the corner, hide in the bedroom . . . Sometimes she'd slip outside and hide under the wood porch.  It had that lattice stuff tacked to the sides, you know?"  Valerie waved a hand and rolled her eyes.  "What does that matter, right?  It doesn't . . . but part of it was broken, and if she was careful, she could kind of squish herself through the hole . . . She ripped a pair of jeans on one of the bits of wood once, and her daddy got really mad.  They'd just gotten those jeans for her from the Good Will store, and he beat her ass with his belt."  Laughing softly, almost ironically, Valerie shook her head.  "She couldn't sit down for, like . . . a week . . ."

"He hit her with a belt?"

Valerie nodded slowly.  Why did Evan look so . . . so . . . incredulous?  Incredulous and a little sad—and maybe a little pissed off, too . . . "It was okay, though," she insisted quickly, her smile widening by degrees.  "She was okay, and it wasn't as if her parents were always like that.  There was one time that her daddy found some money—well, I don't know how he got it, but he must've had some—and he took her to the county fair, let her ride a couple of those stupid little rides that kids think are so great.  He bought her a bag of cotton candy, and she ate so much of it that she got sick . . ." She laughed again, bit her lip, and it took a moment for her amusement to fade.  "And he bought groceries, too—Valene just stared at those bags from the store.  She'd never seen so much food before, and all that food in the cupboards?  It was . . . It was like heaven.  Of course, she got into so much trouble later when she tried to microwave a box of macaroni and cheese . . ."

"Why'd she get in trouble for that?"

Valerie snorted and tucked a long lock of hair behind her ear.  "Because it was still in the box, Roka . . . I mean, I did say that it was a box of it, right?"

He opened his mouth then snapped it closed again, and Valerie had the distinct impression that he was trying really hard not to laugh.  "I see."

"Well, it's not like she could read," Valerie added a little defensively.  "She just saw the picture of macaroni and cheese on the front of the box, and she knew that her mama stuck food in the microwave when she remembered to feed her, so she figured that it was all the same."

"Wait," Evan interrupted, eyes narrowing as his brows drew together.  "What do you mean, when she remembered to feed her?"

Valerie shrugged as though it should have been the simplest thing in the world.  "I mean that sometimes she'd forget that she had a daughter, is all, and even then, it's not like there was always food in the trailer, anyway."

"Sounds like . . . her . . . mother needed a few lessons in parenting—her father, too, for that matter," Evan muttered.

She let out a deep breath and scowled at him.  "Like I said, she was happy.  She didn't know any better, right?  And when she was really excited, you know, because she was going to start kindergarten, and her mama said that she'd make lots of friends.  That's what school was—like the best party, ever—at least, that's what she thought.  I mean, how could she think otherwise, right?  Make lots of friends . . . Isn't that great?"

"You mean she didn't have any friends at home?" Evan asked mildly, lifting the glass to his lips, but only sipping the drink, very obviously not interested in getting completely wasted.

Valerie shook her head and nabbed a handful of ice to drop into his glass.  "She lived in a trailer park—mostly old people with snotty looking Persian cats or frou-frou little poodles, all perfectly groomed while their roofs were caving in around them.  Anyway, that's why she was looking forward to school.  It sounded like so much fun . . ."

That strange expression was back in Evan's gaze, but he forced a reasonable facsimile of a smile, and he slowly nodded.  "So was it?"

Shaking her head, Valerie frowned at him.  "Was it what? Fun?  Sure . . . She thought so . . . She, uh . . . She got some weird looks on the first day, like the other kids didn't quite know what to make of her.  But she . . ." Swallowing hard, Valerie tried to smile. The expression must've looked as ghastly as it felt, though, because Evan's gaze quickly slipped to the side.  "Well, she was a kid, and she didn't realize anything at all.  She thought that the giggles and sniggers were normal.  She thought that they were being friendly . . ." Giving a halfhearted shrug, she choked out a curt laugh.  "She was kind of stupid."

"I'd have, uh . . . I'd have said that she was naïve," Evan pointed out gently.

Valerie waved a hand in blatant dismissal.  "It's all the same, isn't it?  'Stupid' or 'naïve' . . . There's really no difference."

He sighed.  "And the other kids were mean to her."

She shook her head quickly, and this time, her smile was genuine.  "Not really.  You know, I don't think that kids that small know how to be really cruel.  It's something they learn as they grow up—they learn it from watching the adults.  They see it on their teachers' faces when they stare in horror while a little girl plays with the water faucet in the classroom because she's never really seen water come out of a tap like that before—her parents had trouble keeping jobs, and when they did have money, the bills were the last thing that ever got paid, so, she didn't really have running water at home, and they didn't always have electricity, either . . . or when those teachers pasted on that tolerant little smile that's full of pity that they think masks their contempt when that little girl just wants to hug them, like they're afraid that they're going to get cooties or something from her . . ."

"V . . ."

She ignored his interruption and laughed again—a sad little laugh.  "That's how kids learn how to be cruel," she stated as though it was a foregone conclusion or maybe just a simple fact of life.  "But to answer your question, yes, she had a lot of fun that year, and she loved having her picture taken at school, too.  Her mother was all excited about it.  The week before, she told Valene that she should wear her pretty yellow sundress for the picture—she said that Valene's hair looked nice with that dress, which was funny considering that her hair was kind of a dull, whitish-yellow color—hardly a color, at all.  Granted, there was a Kool-Aid stain on the skirt, and the ruffle around the bottom was coming loose in one spot, but what did that matter when the top of the dress was still okay, right?"  She shook her head slowly, but the ironic little smile on her face didn't really fade.  "Thing about that dress was that her mama had bought it at a yard sale two summers before that, and at the time, it had been a little large on her—large enough that her mama had to pin the straps to make them shorter, but by then, it was a little . . . smaller.  Still, Valene figured that her mama was right; that the dress was perfect to get her picture taken in, so she dug it out of the box in her room where she kept her clothes, and she asked her mama if she'd wash it for her, but her mama was drunk and probably stoned, too.  So Valene took the dress to the creek behind the trailer and tried to do it herself."

Evan tried to smile.  She'd give him that.  It looked more like a grimace, though, and Valerie wasn't surprised by that, either.  "Did it come clean?"

"Sure," Valerie replied with a shrug.  "Kind of.  I mean, she didn't have any soap, and the dress was still damp in the morning, but she put it on anyway, and she brushed her hair—at least the front of it.  What little kid ever actually thinks to brush the back?  If you can't see it, then it's not there . . . Isn't that how it works?"

Uttering a little chuckle, Evan nodded though he didn't look entirely amused, either.  "Sounds about right," he agreed.

"Anyway, her teacher got this frown on her face when Valene got to school, kind of like she just couldn't believe what Valene was wearing . . . Come to think of it, it probably did look really sad: a damp dress that was about two sizes too small with a bright green ribbon in her hair that she'd found in the park under the swings months before . . . and the teacher left the aide in charge and took her into the bathroom . . . washed her face, brushed her hair—she was really gentle.  It didn't hurt at all, and you'd think that it would've since Valene couldn't really reach the back of her head, and no one else really thought to do it.  Then her teacher—Miss Silver, her name was—walked Valene to the office where they found a pink sweater in the lost and found box—the old fashioned kind with the buttons down the front—and she told Valene that she'd look even prettier with the sweater on for the picture."

"And did she?"

Valerie blinked and bit her lip, her gaze falling to her hands clasped in her lap before answering.  "I . . . I don't know," she ventured at length.  "She never saw the picture.  Her parents didn't have any money to buy them, let alone to purchase a yearbook, and why would they?  It was just a stupid, worthless thing, wasn't it?"

He didn't answer, and Valerie peered up at him through her eyelashes in time to see the almost guilty sort of expression on his face, and she knew without asking that he probably owned a yearbook for every year he was in school.

"The point was, she felt really pretty, and Miss Silver said that she could take the sweater home, too.  So, she ran home as fast as she could because she wanted to show the sweater to her parents, but her daddy . . . He was stoned.  Even back then, she could recognize that weird sort of blankness in his eyes even if she didn't understand why he looked like that from time to time.  Anyway, when her daddy was stoned, he tended to be pretty mean, pretty nasty, and when Valene told him that her teacher had told her she could have the sweater, Daddy got really mad; said that they didn't need any uppity woman's charity, and he tossed the sweater into the burn barrel behind the trailer and burned it."

"Charity?" Evan echoed with a shake of his head.  "It was a sweater . . ."

Valerie flinched and quickly shook her head.  For some reason, the idea that Evan would be angry at the little girl's father really bothered her so much more than she wanted to admit . . .

"He wasn't all bad," she said defensively.

Evan sighed and shot her a look that told her plainly that he didn't agree, but he nodded shortly and forced a very tight little smile. "Of course," he allowed in a carefully contrived neutral kind of tone.  "Go on."

Rubbing her forehead, Valerie sighed.  "There was one time, Valene was walking home, and she was really, really hungry.  She'd had a few crackers that morning before school—little packets of two crackers that you get from restaurants?  She'd found them back in the cupboard and broke them up and poured some water from the bucket over them like cereal, and at school, Miss Silver had brought in chocolate chip cookies, too, but she only had two cookies, so she was just starving.  But on the way home was a bakery—Candy Cane Confections, it was called—and every day about noon, they set out the day-old bread at half price, but it was on this rack just inside the door, and the door was open because it was pretty warm—spring, I think . . ." Trailing off, she wondered vaguely why some memories—even rather inconsequential ones—seemed to stick out in her mind better than others.

"And she was walking home alone?" Evan asked quietly.

"Of course," she replied, dismissing it as though it was the most natural thing in the world.  "Anyway, her parents said that taking things that don't belong to you without permission is stealing, but she'd gone with her mama lots of times with this squeaky, rusted wagon that had one wheel held on by chicken wire, and they'd dug through the dumpsters behind restaurants so often that it seemed normal enough, and that stuff wasn't theirs, right?   But her mama told her that it was different; once someone threw something away, it was free for the taking, so in Valene's little head . . . After all, what's the difference between bread that was just going to be thrown out at five when the bakery closed and the food in the dumpsters behind the restaurants?  Was anyone really going to come along and buy all those loaves of day-old bread, anyway?  So Valene just kind of slipped inside the doorway and waited for the girl at the counter to turn around, and she grabbed a loaf and ran."

She laughed suddenly as the memory solidified in her head, and she laughed harder when she saw the look of absolute horror on Evan's face.  Why was that funny . . .?  Why . . .? "And," she went on after she'd finally calmed down a little, "she ran straight into Old Man Rosenburg, the owner of the bakery.  He yanked her back and started yelling—I think it was in German—and Valene?  She wet her pants, she was so scared.  Old Man Rosenburg grabbed her by the arms and shook her and shook her until her teeth rattled, and then he suddenly stopped and stared at her.  I don't know what he thought he saw, but he let go of her arms, and he took her hand instead and pulled her over to the counter and told the girl to give Valene a couple of these really good rolls, like big, soft pretzels with butter smeared all over the insides.  He still looked angry, but he . . . He was kind of nice when he brought Valene a glass of milk and stuck a couple of the day-old loaves into a bag with a jar of peanut butter, and when she'd finished the rolls, he gave her the bag and told her not to steal ever again."  Valerie sighed and shrugged, as if it were of no real consequence.  "And then he sent her home."

Evan looked like he understood why Old Man Rosenburg reacted the way he had, but there was something else, too—something much darker, more menacing in the depths of Evan's gaze.  He looked so intense—too intense—and Valerie had to wonder why.

"Anyway, first grade was when things really got bad," she hurried to say, wanting to go on before she either lost the nerve or ended up angry at Evan for his misplaced concern.  "Three weeks into school, the teacher lined everyone up because someone's mom had complained that her daughter had brought home lice—lice!  How gross is that?  Some bug that lives in your hair and leeches off you?  Disgusting—disgusting!"  She affected a full body shudder at the very thought and tried to keep from scratching the base of her scalp since she couldn't help the invariable itching whenever she even though of that vile word.  "The school nurse was in the room—a grumpy old woman who never, ever smiled—and Valene watched as everyone turned around to let the nurse pick through their hair with toothpicks.  She thought that it kind of looked fun.  They weren't told what the nurse was looking for, so when it was Valene's turn, she just stood there and waited.  She wasn't sent back to her seat, though.  She was sent out in the hallway to wait until after the nurse had finished checking everyone's heads, and when the nurse finally came out there, she took Valene to the office, gave her a really strange comb with really fine teeth, a bottle of what she called 'special shampoo' and a can of some kind of spray.  Then she called the gas station where Valene's daddy was working and told him that he had to come get her."

Sitting back slightly, Valerie didn't dare look at Evan, half afraid of the absolute revulsion she'd see in his expression if she did.  But somehow, she couldn't stop, either, and the words just kept coming, tumbling from her with a fluidity that surprised her—and horrified her, all at the same time.  "He was furious since he had to leave work, and he told the nurse that she had to be mistaken.  His kid wasn't dirty, right?  That was stupid, wasn't it?  So he grabbed Valene's arm and dragged her out of the school . . ." Valerie grimaced and drew a deep breath.  "When they got home, he stripped her naked in the back yard and scrubbed her down in the creek.  Then he . . . he grabbed these rusted old scissors he found in a drawer, and he hacked all of her hair off."  Blinking fast as unwelcome moisture gathered in her eyes, Valerie choked out a harsh laugh.  "It . . . stuck up all over and looked just awful, and when she went back to school, no one really wanted to play with her anymore . . ."

"Shit . . ." Evan growled, setting the glass heavily on the table.  "V—"

"Some of the kids started sticking things like bars of soap in Valene's little cubby hole where she put the pillow case she used for a book bag . . . some of them called her—" Valerie swallowed hard, "—Called her 'Unclean Valene' . . . and other stuff . . ."

Evan reached over and tugged Valerie close beside him, cuddling her against his side though he didn't interrupt.

Valerie sighed again, drew a deep breath as she struggled to shove those hurtful voices away.  Managing a wizened laugh, she forced a smile and sat up a little straighter.  "It wasn't that bad," she insisted with a simple shrug.  "Some of the kids had these really great lunch boxes, you know?  The plastic ones with the pictures printed on them and the little matching thermos inside?  The boys all seemed to have Power Puppies or those Rocco Rangers—do you remember those?"

Evan nodded slowly, idly stroking his chin.  "Sure, I do," he allowed with a wan little smile. "Power Puppies rocked."

Valerie rolled her eyes, not really that surprised that Evan would have liked the Power Puppies.  "Well, Melissa Farmer, the most popular girl in class, had a Princess Sasha lunch box, and Valene thought it was fantastic—all pink and pretty and it even had a little pink plastic box that was shaped to fit a peanut butter sandwich—I mean, it was really shaped like bread . . ." Heaving a sudden sigh, Valerie smiled wistfully.  "She really wanted one of those, and not just because Melissa had one.  If she had any friends at all, Melissa was kind of it.  She was pretty and always dressed so neatly with her golden hair neatly tied back with the prettiest hair bows and ribbons . . . and the first day of first grade, she smiled at Valene and patted the table beside her because no one else wanted her to sit with them.  So, Valene worked up the courage and eventually asked Melissa where she'd gotten her lunch box, she told her that her mama had bought it at Friendly Mart.  Well, Valene literally ran home after school that day.  She had a plaster piggy bank that she'd picked up once on one of the junking trips, and she had some money in it, mostly change that she'd found on the street and a one dollar bill that her daddy had given her when he was just a little drunk, and she thought that maybe she had enough for one of those lunch boxes."

"Did she?" Evan asked, unable to hide the hint of dubiousness in his tone.

"She had almost five dollars," Valerie told him.  "Four dollars and eighty-seven cents, so she took her money and ran back to the store, sure that she had enough, but the price tag said that it was fifteen dollars, so . . . So she left her money on the counter and tried to leave the store, but the guy who owned it was also the town's deputy sheriff . . . and she got caught."

A belligerent sort of light entered her gaze, and she snorted indelicately as she lifted her chin a notch.  "It wasn't like she was trying to steal the stupid thing," she went on haughtily.  "She was going to pay for it.  She just didn't have the money right then—and she did leave the money she had, right?  So she wasn't stealing."

Evan nodded, his expression solemn, and for once, he didn't look at all like he was going to tease her.

"Anyway, when the officer took her home, her daddy freaked out.  Maybe there was illegal stuff in the trailer or something, who knows?  But he . . . He started arguing with the cop, then he dug ten dollars out of his wallet—it was probably all he had—and he threw it at the officer, telling Valene that he was going to tan her hide as soon as the cop left.  The cop told her daddy that would be child abuse, and her daddy . . . jumped on the officer.  By then, another couple officers had showed up, and they wrestled her daddy down on the ground and handcuffed him.  Her mama tried to stop them.  She grabbed a baseball bat and said she'd hit them if they didn't let him go, and Valene watched, terrified, as those police officers arrested her, too. Then the cop who owned the store where she'd tried to buy the lunch box put Valene into his car and drove away with her."

"Jesus, V . . . Yo—She was . . . was just a pup . . ."

Valerie shrugged offhandedly again.  What more was there to say?

Evan sighed and tightened his arms around her.  "So, what happened then?" he asked gently.

Closing her eyes for a long moment, Valerie swallowed hard, choked down the lump that was growing steadily larger, blocking her throat.  "She grew up in foster care," she whispered, unconsciously tightening her fist around a handful of his shirt.  "They didn't want her back . . . So, she graduated from high school, went to college . . . and she took all the money that people sent her as graduation gifts, and she walked into a courtroom, stood before a judge, and she . . . She told him that she wanted to be . . . Valerie Denning . . ."

"Is that right?" he murmured, lips pressed against the top of her head.

She didn't respond for several minutes, allowing herself to be comforted by Evan's proximity, by the warmth of his arms around her.  She still wasn't entirely sure why she'd told him all of that.  Maybe the little bit of bourbon she'd swallowed had affected her mind.  Maybe she was just so tired of carrying it around with her for so long that she just couldn't hold it in anymore . . .

Or maybe the simple truth of it was that somewhere, deep down, she knew—knew—that she could trust him, that she'd realized that he wouldn't make fun of her or toss it in her face . . . Evan kept his own kind of secrets, too, didn't he?  And maybe he understood far better than she wanted to admit . . .


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A/N:
'The Answer' originally appeared on Richie Sambora's 1991 release, Stranger in this Town.  Song written by and copyrighted to Richie Sambora and Bruce Foster.
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MMorg
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Final
Thought from Evan:
Valene, huh …?
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Blanket disclaimer for this fanfic (will apply to this and all other chapters in Subterfuge):  I do not claim any rights to InuYasha or the characters associated with the anime/manga.  Those rights belong to Rumiko Takahashi, et al.  I do offer my thanks to her for creating such vivid characters for me to terrorize.
~Sue~
Chapter 88
Chapter 90
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