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  Tarnish

 

Notes: You should really, really buy Fingersmith, because it's breathtaking in every way. This is no more than tributefic; I own and earn from nothing herein.

Thanks to Lazulus and Lobelia, for encouragement and soothing my frenetic punctuation.


The rest was upstairs, asleep probably, Mr Ibbs smacking the back of my head for smacking the back of Dainty's and sending her off bawling, stupid bitch that she is. Stupid bitch, deserved it twice over - she was fluffing over Gentleman like a great worm, and then she spills all the beads she's counting when I hit her and I'm the one Ibbs charges to pick 'em up. Late, it is, and the house's got bigger with shadow, like it always does. Don't bother me.

Bothers me what I'm doing, though. It's girls' work this, me down on my knees, beads tripping over my fingers and sneaking down between the floorboards, so what's left of my nails near rip with trying to squeeze 'em out. Don't care for beads, me. Don't see why anyone'd care - tiny scraps of glass - but that's girls for you, squalling like babes without gin over bits of shiny that roll away soon as look at 'em.

I get a spoon. It's easier, herding them onto that, than pinching up every stubborn little bastard on its own, but it's still slow going. Once or twice, I get the angle wrong or something, and the spoon catapults them across the dark room. It'd be funny in the day, with someone to aim at.

I think about girls some more, their liking of stupid things. If they like beads so much they should be down here, I says to meself, licking them up. Stick to a tongue, this lot would. Especially a girl's tongue, squirming between the floorboards in the dirt, like I bet they would, prising out every last little ball. Find a lot more down there than pretty beads, I can tell you.

And that's how Gentleman finds me, hands and knees, glaring at my spoon, thinking about Dainty or, ha, Sue with her great tongue hung out all parched green-black grimy and studded with beads round the tip. We could string her up on the wall for Christmas, is what I'm thinking. Gentleman comes up behind me on thief feet. I'm not thinking about him at all.

"Hullo," he says, in that way of his, and then I'm thinking about him all over, and what I'm thinking is this: I want to bloody his face on my hand. Makes me tingle, a thought like that, but I keep my hands on the floor and stay looking at the beads I'm shepherding, even press down until the spoon makes a couple of my fingers go white. He says, "Lost something?"

That whips my head round sharp, the voice on him. Don't care if he's highborn, got no right to look down at me like I belong down here, like if he kicked me I'd be charged to scrape at his feet and thank him for it. "Get stuffed," I say, and I mean it, and let him see the spark in my eye that Sue hates so much. "Stuffed with red-hot iron."

He laughs in my face and I lose it; I surge to my feet and at him, spoon brandished and crunch of beads underfoot, and then he hits me. He does it almost neat-like, a silent hard sideways shove of his palm at my head, up near my eye. The rage in me splits, half of it leaping up to the ceiling with my stupid yelp, like a fucking dog. The rest bubbles down and sits sour in my stomach, bad milk getting worse in the sun.

"Fuck you," I say. I don't think I'm bleeding; I'd have felt the wetness by now. My head just feels like I moved without thinking and rammed my temple into a cupboard corner. It's ringing, but there's no blood, and I don't need nothing.

He don't seem anything except amused, though his fingers are busy at the part of his hand he caught me with, pinching and stroking. It's a queer thing to do with his face all gleaming with laughter, and I touch the hot part of my head where he got me and show him the black of my eye again.

"Why ain't you gone?"

"Not yet tired," says he, and it comes up clear in my head how pretty it would be to do him in, get rid of the itch in my fingers once and for good.

"I meant out my house," I say. It's more mine than his.

He smiles, and I see his teeth. "Not until little Sue can caper about like a proper lady's maid," he says.

I give a bark of laughter, and the sourness in my belly makes it a nasty, sickly sound. "You're here for ever then," I tell him, and a cold slime goes over me at the thought. "She's a fucking rabbit, not a maid," I say quickly. "Needs skinning." I don't know why I care if he thinks I'm shivering. I do.

"Rabbits come up sleek some days," is all he says, and there's some humour in him that he's keeping high above my head. I want to rip it down.

"Better for eating straight up, fat rabbits," I say, wanting to catch him soft on Sue, and he says,

"yes," hunger in his eyes like we really was talking about game. That cold slimes over me again, and this time his eyes follow it, clammy touch all over my shoulders and neck, makes me want to rub at the skin with my hands.

Could be the room, the dark hour, making me shiver. The fire's long out, and I was picking up them beads by candle, letting the flame swagger this way and that, the better to surprise the tiny shiny out of hiding. That flame's low, now, sat on the table. I can smell the smoke of its guttering.

He sees me glance at it, and goes all sly. "Cold?"

"No!" I'm showing him the hard edge of my eyes again, but he still doesn't take at it like the others do, just picks up Mrs Sucksby's own blanket from Mrs Sucksby's own rocking-chair and tosses it casually round his shoulders. He don't even check behind him, just goes ahead bold as brass. "Put that down," I order, enraged.

He touches the faded old wool carelessly with one hand, smiling like it's fresh and warm off the baby sheep. "This?"

"I'll take it off you," I threaten, and there's blood running in me now, rubbing at my skin and my belly until they're both burning, until I fancy my eyes are quite red. "You take that off or I'll cut you up."

He looks, all cool, at the skin by my eye, and it takes up throbbing again, remembering his hand. I hate my body for being obedient to him. He says, "I'd like to see you try."

I want to fly at him and I don't. I'm not stupid. He's got the reach of me - he'd have his knuckles mashed into the hurt bit of my head before I'd even scratched him - and I'm dizzy, suddenly, with how much I hate his being in the room.

He sees that, too. He rubs the back of his neck under the blanket, then slides the hand round and strokes his chin, nudging his thumb through his whiskers. "You're shivering," he says.

Of course, that makes me worse. "Don't try and sport with me just because you're kicking your heels upstairs instead of dropping off like the rest of 'em, or doing away with yourself like I wish you would. I'm busy." I almost drop to my knees again to dismiss him, going back to the beads, but I don't want to show him the back of my neck. —It's pink, I can feel it's pink and blazing. "I don't want you down here," I say.

"I'm thirsty."

"Get a bloody drink then," I snarl, the blind red feeling I've got for him making my words lurch. "Get me one an' all."

I'm a bit surprised when he does. I don't show it. He crosses to Mr Ibbs' cupboard, the blanket still round his shoulders. He's got a nerve. The wind of his movement makes the light dance, slapping the flame about. One minute he's there, bigger than ever as he reaches for the brandy; the next he's black-invisible, even with the pale wool about his shoulders.

He comes to the table and puts down two cups and the glass bottle. The stopper scrapes. His snide rings flash. He pours himself twice as much as me, chases his with a sip of mine, then hands it to me. I press my mouth where his was to show I don't care, and I take the gulp of it all at once. It's hot sour water racing to my belly. He watches me grit my teeth as the wave of it shudders over me, then reaches for the bottle again.

It's like I come out of one of them trances: "No, you don't," I say, and my voice is game, hits just the right tone that he turns back. His mouth is shiny in the dark fuzz of his whiskers.

Without looking, he lays his hands on the bottle like he owns it. "I don't?"

"You'll get me thrashed, drinking more of that," I say, and then I see in the glint of his eye that he means to, that he's having a play and my branded tongue's his alibi. "You fucking cunt," I hiss, and he smiles as he pours, his attention on the flow of it. It's thick as a stream from a tap turned on full. The bottle, when he puts it back, is half a fist down.

I'm going to feel that fist, tomorrow.

I want to tear the blanket off his back and choke him with it. "That's not fair," I say instead. It's bad to hate tricksters in a house of them, but I do.

He comes over to me and picks the cup out my fingers. All I can smell is brandy, but I bet he stinks like the devil he is. He compares my empty cup with his full one, sizes leaping in the unfaithful candlelight. "Fair," he says, in his posh voice, the one he uses to put Sue's wind up. "You're a fine one to talk about that." His face is all hard, and then it melts a bit, like he's trying to win my attention with his eyes as he palms me a bad shilling. "Want me to even things up a little?"

"I don't want no more," I says quickly, and he shrugs.

"You're done for in the morning anyway." He flashes his teeth. "No body is going to come trying to sniff my breath."

He weighs the cups again, catches my eye sideways, and this time I nod because I'm not stupid and I know that I'd rather get beaten for that what I've done than that what I've not.

He pulls the same thing with the drink, sipping mine before he gives it me, and I don't bother showing I don't care this time, but he watches my mouth like I might. I finish it in two grim swallows. Brandy runs down my chin, catching and stinging in the cut Mrs Sucksby made yesterday when she forgot she was wearing a pointy ring, and I wipe at it quick. He takes his own drink back slowly this time, in bits, watching. I don't like it. The brandy makes shivers go over me again and again, and some reason it seems to get worse not better as he keeps his eye on me.

"Them beads ain't collecting themselves," I say eventually, when he don't look like he's going to finish up and leave any time soon - except I don't want to go down on the floor in front of him, not with him in this playful mood, so I don't know why I says it. I get angry all at once. That's how drink goes with me, in stutters. I hiss like a cat: "You're not down here for no reason but to muck about with me." I set the cup down hard on the table, and he don't even bother saying I'm wrong, the snake. "You earned me one beating already," I add, rushing on, and he shrugs.

"I'm... restless, tonight," he says. Something in his manner puts me starkly in the mind of coupling, and I hit on a new way to get rid of him, one a bit more likely to work.

"If you're so restless," I say, half suggesting, half telling, "why not do something about it? Why not go fuck one of them sleeping ones upstairs - fuck Dainty," I say, because I know she'll hate it, and that'll be funny in the morning even if I'm black and blue. "Go on, go off and find her."

He scrunches his nose. "I don't want her," he says, and his half-smile invites my own smile out, and I half let it.

"No, probably good idea," I say. "She'd bite it off anyway," and he grins that queer grin of his again, and grabs my wrist, fast as a thief catching me reaching for his poke. "Hey," I protest, twisting, and he jerks me closer, and I brace for a thrashing when his mouth touches the soreness of skin by my eye.

"Would you, John," he whispers, and I brace harder but start to tremble anyway, blood running everywhere twice as fast as it should. "Would you bite it off?"

That makes me shake. "What?" I say faintly, "what?" and his whiskers against my bruise are awful, horrible— too late I realise that I'm moving my head a bit, pressing my temple harder against his mouth, hard enough that when he smiles the muscle of his lips crushes some swollen tissue and I make a noise because it hurts so bad.

He smiles wider, harder again. "Would you?" he repeats, and pulls my hand down by the wrist, and presses my fingers across the front of his trousers. There's a bulge there that I don't want to know but it seems I will. "Will you bite?" he whispers, sort of nuzzling my hand with his hips, and I fit my palm to his stiff cock like I've got no choice. "I don't think you will," he says, and I shake more, and it probably gives him all sorts of right nice feeling - and even if it don't, he presses harder and holds my hand there, and I know that must feel good.

"You... fucking..." I say, but I'm already trailing off at the beginning of the words. I want to call him a— what he is, scare him, but he bares his teeth against my bruise and I gasp instead, and he makes a noise in his throat like that bloody laughter again.

"Ah, good boy," he mutters, and quick as a flash lets go of my wrist to touch my cock instead, and when he finds it he hums, dirty pleased posh noise, and puts his other arm round my neck. I hate him. I wish he was dead. I wish I'd been the one to kill him.

I wish he wasn't holding my cock so it sings.

His arm tightens round my neck, drawing me closer, and I think he's going to kiss me. I don't want that, don't want his tongue in my mouth, don't want it sliding in like a bully and licking the brandy from inside me and crushing his face against mine so much the whiskers will leave marks - but I open my mouth anyway because I know he must do that, because that's the way of these things.

He just uses his arm to push me down. For a moment, my mouth is uselessly-yearningly open, and then I snap it closed because fuck, fuck, he's pushed me to my knees, and I'm not stupid, I know what that means. He wants from me what priests want from city-pretty sinful girls, and that thought makes me shut my trap closed tight.

His hand grips my shoulder as hard as a copper would. His fingers float over my lips, testing and trying, then he gives a little chuckle, and strokes my hair. "Changed your mind?"

"I never said—!" I splutter, and he slips his finger in quick as lightning, and I start to bite down and then freeze, his fingertip a weight against my tongue. I don't need any more bruises, what with what I've got coming tomorrow, I tell myself. I tell myself that's why I start sucking, and I'm hoping he won't try anything of that truly criminal nature, because if he did then this room would be a hell of his cock up my arse every time I came in. Every breakfast, back here in my head, shadows and spit on his hand and splitting me... I don't know much, in this instant, but I do know that. And I'd squeal like a pig, wake up the whole house to see Gentleman have his way with me. I don't know much about nancies, but you don't have to know much to see it would hurt.

Plus men pay for it, for white-skinned thin boys in the street - I heard them whisper like, "I'll make you scream," as I lifted the purse from their pocket as was going to pay the screamer with.

It's fucking frightening, to want it, knowing all I do.

I don't.

I don't.

"Good boy," Gentleman says again, and pulls his finger out, and I lean forwards to follow it and then flinch back when he laughs again. Some beads grind under my knee, little scraping ones, and I shift until I've sent them rolling, then realise I'm closer than I ever planned.

His hand's pulling open his buttons now, and I realise he's leaning his arse against the table when I hear it creak. It occurs to me like in a dream that that's our kitchen table, and over there is our fireplace, and all over the room are tiny bits of Dainty's that I'm supposed to be concerning myself with. I'm not supposed to be kneeling before Gentleman as he takes out his cock and touches the end to my cheek.

I'm not supposed to be shivering at the warm wet pressure of it, and listening to him sigh.

The candle starts spluttering, and I hear the sizzle as he pinches it out, then a moment later he's pushing the ends of his finger and thumb in my mouth and I suck off the wax. I mould it with my tongue and think about his snide rings, and if they'd leave a tarnish inside me if he forgot to take them off when he— but he won't, I won't let him. Any of that.

Then I catch myself and spit out the little ball of wax, and he gives that chuckle again, but dirtier this time, or maybe it just seems that way because he's put his damp fingers under my chin and he's tilting, tilting.

My eyes close because I can't bear to look. It's not as dark as I thought it would be, without a candle. I wish the shadows were a lot heavier. He's let go of my shoulder because he needs his hands here, between us, and a lot later I realise that at this point I could've run. Instead, it gets so I think he's teasing me, so I keep my eyes closed and I reach with my tongue.

"Fuck," I hear Gentleman say, or maybe I imagine it. The world's swirling, the brandy's tumbled in my stomach until there's nothing in me but heat and salt. I lick at the air: nothing, and then a tiny moment of bare skin, and then— nothing.

I sway a little, moving my tongue.

I hear Gentleman take a sip of air, then he breathes hoarsely, "Ah, you perfect little pup," and I feel my cheeks darken. I quickly close my tongue back behind my teeth. It feels too big, and I work my mouth to make it wet again. "No," he says sharply, and moves his fingertips under my chin, like tickling open a choked lock or a good girl's thighs, "come on, put it out again."

My cheeks get hotter. I keep my eyes closed like they've been welded; I keep them closed so tight, I feel like I'm floating, my knees someone else's knees, just the brush of his fingertip beneath my chin to keep me in this world at all. And that's so strange, I might as well be in a different house altogether.

There's another brush, this time hot, a little sticky, and against my lower lip. I know exactly what it is, and sort of relax - ah dear, it's certain now. He's going to force me, useless to fight. I swipe my tongue, collide with fierce salty naked skin— then open my mouth indignantly, sort of gasping, when the touch melts away.

It's later that I think, sort-of? sort-of? because it wasn't that. It was a relax, and it was a gasp, and it's only later that I let that be known, even to me. Of course, Gentleman knows. Gentleman knows me better than I think, and that's why he teases me with this, why he sports to take whatever he can get where other men would settle for my mouth.

He slips his hand round the back of my neck, spreads his fingers in my hair, then closes them and holds carefully tight as he presses the hard-soft end of his cock against my mouth again. It makes a mess there this time, and I slide my lip into my mouth, sucking away the slick. My mouth gets wetter.

"Come on," he says.

I tell myself I don't know what he's asking. He presses again, and everything's slipperier now my lips are licked, and I hold my breath as I open for him. He pulls back. I breathe out hard. My cock aches against my underpants, and I touch it with my open palm.

He goes again, pressing, daubing; I open readily, he pulls back. I hear a noise in the back of my throat.

"Put your tongue out," he says, from so far away that I almost do, but his voice earlier comes back to me, perfect little pup, and I don't - do - don't want to hear it again. I probably did look like a puppy, hungry street dog, pink tongue, eager, open...

I press my palm hard against my cock and breathe slow.

"Come on," he says, and tugs his fist down, so my scalp tingles and my face is upturned. "Come on, sweet-heart. Do what I want."

I lick my lips, and he twists his fist, pulling the hair tighter until I'm gasping and having to grope for balance. I don't want to fall back, have him come down on top of me, do— do all sorts of things.

As a threat, it seeps into my mind and expands there. He could fuck me, he could use me - this is nothing, nothing. I wind up wrapping my hand round a table leg, and then I steel myself and put out the tip of my tongue.

He makes a noise I'll remember for the rest of my life, as tiny and uneven as a bead skittering across a wooden floor. Then it goes impatient. "Don't tease, Garibaldi," he says, and I didn't realise til now that's his nickname for me, and the thought makes me come over all strange.

He tugs my hair again, and runs his cock over the little bit of my tongue what I've got stuck out. The world rocks round me, and it's like being in a boat someone stepped off too fast. I grab myself, squeezing hard, and put my tongue out as far as it will go.

The tip of his cock rests on it straight away, like he's been waiting, and my whole body gives a little flex. I grab myself harder, get a rhythm going. "And your mouth," he whispers, "open your mouth," and I've got a terrible freedom now - anything, so he won't fuck me. anything - so I behave like I can guess he wants me to, open my mouth and tip up my face to him and open my eyes.

He curses.

A thousand thoughts hit at once, like a beating. His dick's on my tongue - that thought, that circles like a wasp, stinging me in tender places again and again. His curse was loud enough to bring someone, I think, but no body what comes would believe this. They'd believe themselves dreaming, nightmaring, take off back to bed straight away.

It's light enough that I can see the red of his mouth but not so light that I can make out the colour of his eyes. They could be brown, green, yellow, red, striped - probably not striped, I think, in a wave of what in a girl might be called hysterics. The look in his eye, whatever colour it is, makes my blood run wrong. It's got fondness in it, and violence, and a certainty that's the worst of all. There's another bead under my knee, but I don't know how it got there.

At a dizzy loss, I start licking, and he groans and lets go of my hair. The sudden freedom makes my head swim, and I dart forwards ahead of his palm and take the inches he gives me, then the other inches he pushes in when his palm catches up.

I close my eyes again, and immediately adore the dark for cradling me and shutting out Gentleman's gaze. I let my mouth tell that to the darkness, let it work out my appreciation. I don't care, and I suck to show it. Gentleman's cock is made of solid darkness, in the pictures behind my eyes— long darkness, sliding thick and stifling into my mouth, full of the tastes of the night. Dark gets everywhere, of course it does.

His fingers push through my hair again and again, and I'm smiling, crazy wide smile around the skin-on-skin sliding, and I take more inside to hide it, but don't stop. I'm happy. Because, um— I'm happy because he's not fucking me, yes. Happy with a spiralling pounding pleasure that draws my hand tight against my own cock. I press my forehead into Gentleman's damp stomach and feel the cool top corners of his fly brush my cheek, and I smile, and I smile.

My hand has worked its way along the underside of the tabletop, to Gentleman's hip. Bitter salt is so strong in my mouth I wonder if I'm bleeding, and I try to swallow it all down and move my tongue to see if I can trace the wound - but I can't swallow properly, like this, and nothing hurts except my head where he struck me earlier. Every time I feel a pulse across my tongue, he finishes the pulse with a little jab, and after a while I realise that that's when the salt gets stronger, so I just concentrate on not letting my eyes stream.

Fuck me, though, he'd probably like that.

Wait, I think. Don't fuck me.

His breath's faster, and the table starts talking to us in little whispers and squeaky groans. It gives a detailed account of how fast he's pushing into my mouth, and it natters about the force of it, and it threatens to call the rest of the house, or at least reach out and splinter a babe. One starts, I think - almost choking as he thrusts too deep and then holds me there with that stern strong palm - and they'll all start.

The table hisses that Gentleman's had his cock pressed against that bit that makes my belly lurch for far too long, and then it starts muttering that Gentleman's started again, little jagged inward shoves of his hips and his palm at the same time, until the air's all been huffed from me, and it's like I'm choking on brandy.

"Ah, come on, pup," Gentleman says softly, then curses and lets off long enough for me to get my breath, and I almost swoon and then he's pushing back inside, and says, "take it for me," and I don't know what to do.

He knows, or else he knows how to get what he wants, and that amounts to the same thing when you're playing under the rules what we're using. He pushes his fingers through my hair again, cupping my head, and then he pulls down and pushes his cock along my tongue to the end. It's enou— it's not enough, and you know how it works, and that's how it worked, a steady push at one angle and a hard nudge at another and then a slide.

Forget breathing; I was crying brandy, now.

"That's it, that's, oh fuck," Gentleman whispers, and the table tells of a couple of short sharp pushes, and then he's just grinding his hips and making this low noise like I'm hurting him, though how hurting him would work right now I don't rightly know.

My hand's changed on my cock, though I haven't let myself notice. It's rubbing, now, instead of stroking. Rubbing like a throat might, if I was a certain other person.

"Saw you through the door," he starts muttering, gasps taking on shapes. "Crawling about, ah, fuck. Oh you sweet— Yes. Saw you, through the door, down by the fire. Crawling, your little... pup... tongue, sticking out. Had to come in, try..."

He trails off, just working his hips, hands running over my head like he's blind or something, and I rub and rub with my mouth and my hand until the very skin of my eyelids starts to go silver.

"...oh, perfect, ah," he says, and that pours through me like hot water, "perfect— little—" and my head just makes up that he says that third word, chants it as my hand goes lunatic, and then his voice splatters sparkles that may or may not shape out that one short word, painting over the darkness as my cock pulses hard and wet.

He pulls right out when he feels that, or maybe I give him a spot of teeth, I don't know. He draws back though, with a sort of breathless laughter, and touches my crotch with his toe where it's soaked through, and I think about falling over. I don't care who finds me now.

"Aw!" he says, all husky, when he sees me wobble, "No, come on," and coaxes my mouth open with his thumb. "John, please, you can sleep after," he promises easily, and I want to sleep now but I sway on instinct towards his cock, and suck like I'm simple and he told me it tastes good.

He didn't have to tell me nothing like that, and I'm shamed to say it does. He mutters again, framing my cheeks with his hands, pressing his thumbs over my eyes and giving me a few hard jabs, then smoothing his hands down my face and under my chin.

"Give me your hand," he says, and I lift them both, back in the dream world, and he arranges my fingers around his cock and covers them with his own. We stroke together, like shining up sovereigns, silk rubbing fractionally over hard metal, just that one tricky spot so you press it harder, again, again—

He pulls back when he's quaking and I've guessed enough to open my mouth and put out my tongue, and after I've swallowed and lapped I sway forwards again, my fingers slipping from his and sliding down his legs, his hands going back to my hair. I rest against his belly, panting against it, swallowing again and again until my mouth feels nearly like my own, rubbing my cheek against the hot firmness of him like a cat come in from the cold.

About the time his hands grow still on my head, I realise I'm hugging his knees. He tugs one lock of my hair, almost playful, and I smile against his belly and then catch it and hope he didn't feel. He tugs another lock.

Some beads skid away as I find my feet. I get up, and the tiredness slithers from me like the run of oil off gold, leaving just traces. My pulse natters in my chest, making me a bit giddy.

I meet his eye jauntily, expectant, because now he'll kiss me, now, with my mouth all salty and wet. He doesn't, he gives me the cup from the table instead, and I swig hard and swirl it gratefully round my mouth before I swallow, and then he presses his mouth to mine the moment my throat moves. I can barely feel his tongue move because I'm smarting so hard.

He keeps it there until I feel it. He keeps going, in fact, until I suck and gasp, until I'm pressing forward hard enough for him to grab a fistful of my hair and hold me back - and then he pulls away, holding me just off him by the hair, and slowly wipes his mouth with his free hand.

I can hear me panting in the darkness, and he's completely silent, but with that breathless fond look again.

"I should fuck you," he says, and I shake my head a little under the constraint of his fist in my hair, and he sees me and smiles wider. "I should," he says. "You want it."

He can think what he likes. I don't. "I don't."

"You do, it's coming off you, the wanting to be bent in two," he says, and relaxes his fist and runs it down my back, and then he rubs a finger as far up between my legs as it can go with clothes on. I sort of chafe at it with my body, trying to push it away. He laughs. "Little cat."

"I'm not!"

"I should fuck you now," he says, like I never spoke. "But there's thief waking hour coming, and believe me," and he pauses, and looks me direct in the eye, little play of an evil smile round his teeth, "there is not time before then for me to finish with you."

I shudder at the thought, and he squeezes my thigh, then my arse again.

"Mmm," he says, when I squirm. "I can't, but I should."

It's a vinegared jewel that, so help me, I can't but reach for. "Why?" I'm disgusted with my own soft voice.

"We're gone in two days," he says, and doesn't ask me to go with him - not that I'd expect to be asked, or want to be asked, or had even considered it before that moment when he doesn't. He smirks like he can hear me. "We're gone a long time, could be. And a lot of things can happen to a boy like you in a place like this."

"They won't when you're gone!" It's supposed to be hostile, accusing. It comes out perfect, exactly like that, almost.

"What, you think Phil never looks at you? Mr Ibbs? Al—"

"They don't," I interrupt, though we both know I mean that I won't let 'em.

"They're missing a treat," Gentleman says, and I choose to think that what's in his eye says he means it, but it might be the easy niceness of bad blood that's soon off the premises.

I don't say anything, and he looks and looks and eventually tells me to get some sleep. Tomorrow night he's got to have final words with Mrs Sucksby, he says. No time for games.

"Keep your hair like this," is the last thing he says to me, and knocks his knuckle under my chin before he goes, and I twist my head away, but like a grinning baby brother might, pleased at getting his hero's attention. I keep that thought well shoved down in the moss, don't let it see daylight til well after the drama's been and gone.

The next day he's busy behind a closed door with Mrs Sucksby, and I've got work to do. I find half the beads and kick the rest of them into dark corners, and they soon lose their shine. The day after that, I don't get up til some past noon, and of course they're long gone. I tell myself I'm not sorry I missed him, tell myself I won't look forwards to him coming back, except for the money, of course.

It's not until a week later, Mr Ibbs getting out the brandy and pouring a finger each, that I realise the damn thing's full and me without a bruise.

It's a long time til I see him again, though.—And of course, by then everything's different.

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code to link to this page: <a href="http://www.yearningvoid.net/stories/calico/000043.html">Tarnish</a> by Calico