Quickfinger House

AN: A bit longer than usual, I think...

ME: Did I tell you that I'm writing a story about prostitution and thievery?
FRIEND: No, you didn't.
ME: It actually appears to be primarily het.
FRIEND: -leaves in disgust-
ME: Well, the third character I introduce might end up being a lesbian...
FRIEND: -far away, ignoring your het depravity and writing slashfic-

ME: Noooo! I can change!

So, in case that slipped by you: yes, the two (sort-of) main characters in this are both straight, although I make no guarantees for any of the other characters. This story is mostly me playing with description. Originally is was being written in an entirely different style, which I then decided I despised. Hopefully I've edited out any awkwardness, but if it remains, you'll know why. Please REVIEW if you liked it or if you have any constructive criticism.

NOTE ON THE STORY: This was written as a companion / background piece to my longer fic Midnight Stranger. It is not at all necessary to have read that fic, as these events are taking place a good five or ten years earlier and with only a couple of recurring characters (John and Richard). If you liked this, please feel free to go read Midnight Stranger, available via my profile.

WARNINGS: This story contains VIOLENCE, PROSTITUTION, and CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES. It has no graphic sex, but plenty of the more discreet kind; it has many references to NON-CONSENSUAL SEX. It is not primarily slash, but has MANY HOMOSEXUAL REFERENCES, both m/m and f/f.

John's earliest memory was of being slapped by his mother for the crime of stealing a ha' penny piece. He couldn't tell you where he'd taken it from; perhaps he simply found it on the ground, but he doubted that. His wasn't a neighbourhood where even the smallest coin would go unnoticed for long. Years later, though, he still remembered the warm weight of the copper, and the way the edges of the cheap metal disc bit into his four-year-old fist as he clenched his chubby fingers determinedly around it ("It's mine, it's mine, no, I want it, it's mine!")Even at that youthful age, he'd already realised something precious few ever do; that lawful ownership is just writing on a piece of paper, when all's said and done. If you want something, why shouldn't you own it? Does the poor man have any less right to riches than the wealthy? And if the only way to even up the balance is to steal, well, that's between you and God.

So it was that with this happy philosophy, a positive trail of tarts and sweets went missing from the bakery ("If I see you stick your nose in here again, I'll tan your hide, you little rat!"), beads were snatched from a market stall ("What do you want with these, boy?" "They're pretty, that's all, they're pretty! Let me go!"), and once a bright red ribbon found its way to his mother's hand - but she was a good, honest woman, and her lips just went tight with anger. No thanks did he get from her for the loving, childish gift; no, instead her fingers tightened on his ear like a vice as she dragged him back to return the thin strip of scarlet cloth to its rightful owner. A sound thrashing taught him early on that fingers were best kept out of the church collection plate (because apparently it wasn't between you and God even if it really was just between you and God.)

When he was eight years old, his parents couldn't think what else to do with him, and so they pressed him into service at the local lordly estate, as a stable boy ("He's a good boy, sir, and a willing worker...") And for a while, it seemed as if this was the right thing to do; with a new trade to learn (for he was learning it well), enough clothes to cover him, and enough food to nourish him, John had very little reason to steal.

Still, while John didn't have a quick brain, he had a solid one, and it wasn't long before his solemn eyes started noticing the differences between the rough cotton worn by him and the satins and velvets sported by the noble family he served. He wasn't jealous, though, oh no; eight year olds are a practical people, and he thought that the frills and ruffles they wore were utterly ridiculous. Still, he did think it was rather unjust that he'd be lucky to get a scraping of dripping on his bread where Roger (his age) dined on the finest cut of beef, and that little Persephone (all big eyes, blonde hair, and pretentious lisp at six years old) was led around the garden on her tubby white pony, and he was relegated to cleaning stalls. He didn't mind the work, not really; he just thought it was a little unfair that the nobles had more money than they could want or use, but they didn't deign to share it.

So the kitchens became a source of adventure (see how many cakes you can steal from Cook without being caught!), and he learned quickly enough that if one of the gentlemen was out riding, got hot, and asked a willing boy to hold his coat, well, a quick slip of the hand here and here and a smart lad could end up with far more than one copper's payment. When he got old enough to be intrigued by the bottle some of the older grooms and serving men occasionally passed around, he took a stab at gleaning some of that, too - he found the cheap brandy they gulped rough and harsh to taste, but he knew that far finer beverages were available within the keep walls, and started to try his hand at liberating a bottle or two.

He got caught, of course - oh, many times. Cook was used to thieving boys, so all you got from her was a sharp whack around the ear, with fist, the flat of a knife, or a wooden spoon - or if you'd really tried her patience, you got a brisk expulsion from the kitchens at the hands of the burly woman herself. It got more serious, later: when he was caught with half a bottle of fine whiskey inside him, at the age of thirteen, he had a bucket of water hurled over him and was dealt a few sharp licks with a bit of old harness. It was the harness again - harder, this time, for his presumption - when he was found quietly stuffing up his sleeve the silk handkerchief young Persephone had lost. He wasn't caught with his hands in the gentlemen's coat pockets, though - he knew better than to be careless where actual coin was concerned.

It wasn't easy, seeing as stableboys weren't often allowed inside the house proper, but John's prizes grew and grew. The housekeeper's pin-money, left carelessly on a table while she turned her back for just a minute - the simple loop of silver that her father gave Persephone, a ring to wear on her twelfth birthday - a pearl ear drop, fallen loose from young Lady Julia's ear as she tripped from the stables to the house after a particularly energetic hunt - they all found their way into his possession in the end. He still slept in the hay loft, like he had as a stableboy, but having been made an under-groomsman at the age of fifteen, he garnered a certain amount of respect: just enough to privately stash his stolen treasures in a niche between two old wooden beams.

The purse, though - that had been a mistake, he'd known it even at the time, but he'd received word of his mother's ill health (his father had died long ago, and John's meagre wages mostly went to support her). It was more a sense of duty than any undue affection that locked his eyes on the pouch abandoned so carelessly in a saddlebag, and these both, rather than greed, that poured the gold into his own pockets - but motives make no difference to the crime or to the victim when the hue and cry goes up. He should have known that the first place they'd look for the missing coins would be in the hands of the stable-folk, and they found it, right enough, before he was able to hide it away.

He didn't have a good record, not after all that boyish pilfering ( "That lad's trouble, my lord, getting brandy from who-knows-where, drunk at any hour of the day... he's always pinching things from Cook, my lord..." ), and there was no defence he could make worth listening to. He was dealt a whipping in place of an arrest - seeing as they were too far out in the country to find the Watch, and there was too little money in his pockets for them to give a damn anyway. That beating was harsher than any before; the scars stuck forever on the skin of his back, and years later you could still make out the mark of the buckle that they didn't take off the harness, driven deep into the skin like a brand.

He was turned out with no character, no wage, and just the clothes on his back. But John wasn't easily daunted; he slunk away like a kicked dog, but when night fell, he knew how to slip the lock on the stable-yard gate. The dogs knew him, and the horses too; they didn't raise the alarm. The boys and youths sleeping in the loft weren't going to question a shadowy figure sneaking in, either - it was likely one of their own returning from the inn down in the village, and if you called out on him, he'd call out on you the next time you wanted a drop of ale or a friendly girl. No one had figured out his hiding place yet, and John reclaimed his forgotten jewels and his stashed away coins with relish, before turning his attention to his fellows.

It stung him to do it, it really did - they had only a little, after all. Still, he knew who the deepest sleepers were, knew how Sam kept his wages folded in a strip of cloth under his belt (all it took was steady hands and quick fingers in the dark), knew that Derry's own coins were shoved into the toe of an unlikely-looking old boot, awaiting his day off. And so when John left the manor again, he kept his head high and his step light, and his pockets jingled with ill-gotten wealth.

He went back to his mother's house; a shambling cottage now, and no longer home for him. She was all hunched in bed, wrapped in blankets - far older than she should have been, but she still spoke sharply enough, and she didn't like what he'd been doing one bit. ( "You've brought shame on me, shame on yourself! God have mercy, we should have beaten it out of you long before it got this far. This is a place for honest folk; I can't be having a thief in my house!" ) John looked at her as critically as if she was a spavined horse, and with that cough and that thin face he knew there was nothing he could do to save her from dying. So he just cleaned up the house, bought some food to fill her cupboards, kissed her on one turned-away cheek, and he was off on his way to London.

It was a long, weary road, and it cost money to travel on the stage - too much for one thrifty lad with stolen goods burning a hole in his pocket. But John was quick, and strong, and as the stagecoach rattled by, he was up and behind it, clinging on the back, travelling by night in the hope of going unseen and unstopped. Sleeping in haystacks, in ditches beside the road - not his favourite way to travel, but it got him there in the end.

London town was a big shock for John; he'd been a country boy all his life, after all. Still, he didn't need the glares of the watchmen to speed him on his way; he had a good head on his shoulders, and it was guiding him away from the neat houses and swept streets, deeper and darker, into the black, worming heart of the city. Where the roads became alleys, too twisted and narrow for anything but a dog cart, where the miasma of soot and sewage never faded entirely, where the river flowed its murkiest and muddiest through the town, that was where he went. Where blouses were worn low and skirts were worn high; where everyone was in it just for themselves.

Half-naked women and all-naked children; shrieks and shouts and curses. A man staggered past, blood from a stab-wound staining his torn shirt, and no one gave him a second look except to step away, like bad luck was a curse that might be catching. It was a new world, and John was overwhelmed enough that some brat even managed to slip a hand into his pocket in search of easy coin - no more than that, though; he realised a split second later, and the boy reeled away, spitting out teeth along with swear words.

He had nowhere to sleep that night, but John made do, curling up in a doorway with his coat pulled close around him. There were no honest jobs to get, either; when he woke up, he instead made cautious forays into the business areas of the slums, where lecherous men in garish clothes came prowling down to stroll among the scantily clad ladies and lads of the night. He hadn't the same skill as most of the pickpockets in the area, not yet, but he made do with the drunker and stupider of the easy marks. It was enough - barely - to scrape up the coin to buy food, rather than trying to steal it from the sharp-eyed stall keepers and their ready fists.

His experiences as a thieving stableboy hadn't prepared him for this. Oh, he could snatch some kind of a living together, on good days, but the first time he'd been challenged for his paltry takings he'd been beaten to the ground. He'd wrestled with the other lads, of course, back in the country, but that had been for play as children, and later it had been for anger or for honour: not for violence, not for hunger, and never for desperation. Stableboys are far more genteel than their masters would ever give them credit for; it's bad play to rip out hair, to slam your knee into someone's crotch, to bite and scratch, and so the servants don't do that in their scuffles. They're civilised. The street-rats, however - they're a different species entirely. They'll use anything they can, any weapon they've got; they'll gouge eyes, kick shins, stab if they can afford a knife.

John never forgot the first street-fight he won; he'd been kicked easily to the ground at first - too inexperienced, then, to fight dirty. But then one scrabbling hand had found a loose cobblestone in the surface of the poorly maintained road, just as the other boy pulled a knife to end the battle. He'd only had a moment to fix his grip before slamming the stone into the shoulder of his attacker, numbing and bruising, making the other youth roar with pain and beat a hasty retreat.

After that, he'd known: he still lost fights more often than not, but he wasn't just a pigeon for plucking, not anymore, and the wolves were starting to learn caution. He got better, and then he got good; he got his hands on a knife, once, and it fit his hand like it was made for him. John learned to move like a snake; when you live on the street, quick fingers aren't just the difference between coin or no coin, they're the difference between your life or theirs.

He was mistaken for a boy-whore, once. He never really knew how that mistake was made; he was neither as slender nor as youthful in appearance as the lads who worked the grubby streets with one eye always out for the law, and nor did he paint his face, rouge his cheeks, the way they sometimes did. He figured that the man had had one too many shots of brandy that night, and one boy was much like another to him. John found the mistake degrading and horrifying, but he'd been caught with his hand on the drunk man's belt, and he had no other excuse. He might have tried to wriggle free, but the man's hand was tight on his wrist, and times had been desperately hard, lately. It was unpleasant and painful, and it left him with bad memories, a new respect for whores of both genders and a disgust for those who use them so callously. He accepted the black money he was paid, but it wasn't enough to compensate him; he followed the drunk man a street or two, and took the rest of the purse as well.

At least he could eat, that night.

Later, he thought about the experience more: he could understand where the fun came in for the giver, however little it appealed to him, but he didn't know how it could ever be pleasurable for the receiver. He couldn't see the point, even if you did prefer men to women, of subjecting yourself to that. No wonder the boy-whores were as popular as they were, for who would choose to do it if they weren't being paid?

Poor boys. Still, John didn't set his distaste in stone; however little he understood or sympathised, he was wise enough to know that there was little the same in prostitution and willing copulation. He'd seen the way the working girls would glare and hate as soon as their clients turned their backs, and he knew that Lucy, the pretty farm-girl he'd experimented with once, before he'd come to the city, had only had smiles for him.

It was this brush with prostitution, he knew, that made him charitable when a few months later he saw the mark he'd just neatly relieved of all his coins take a street-girl into an alley; unable, afterwards, to pay her for her time and effort. Tears and threats did the girl no good; he simply had no coin to give her. Guiltily, John followed her as she stalked away, and poured her price into her hand.

"I took the man's money before he went with you," he apologised. "Didn't mean to have you shorted."

She just scowled. "Don't think I'll let you have a go just for the sake of charity," she warned, snatching the coins and prowling off in search of her next customer.

John grinned, appreciative of her sharp ire, and watched her speculatively as she walked away. Three days later he spotted her in a bar, bought her a shot or two of brandy, and had his way with her then instead, when it wasn't just business. Instead of a price (because everyone was in it for themselves, but there was such a thing as decency) he'd paid for her to eat well that evening. Her name, she said, was Nancy.

Time passed: John stored up as much success as anyone else, with his fighting skills honed and his fingers as tricky as ever. He learned where all the best fences lived, discreetly trading occasional jewels for cash, and at one stage half-apprenticing himself to one shrewd old man, finding out who to sell the goods to at a higher price, how to fix up the jewellery to make it untraceable, and finishing by briskly appropriating the old man's clientele and his tumble-down shop when he finally breathed his last. He did well; even if he didn't have silken shirts and delicacies every evening, he had leather and linen and wool to wear, enough to eat, and plenty of coin to rent himself some willing company of a night or purchase the occasional frivolous luxury. Who could say better than that? He'd never wanted anything more. He had a good business going, and he had Nancy to keep him young.

Nancy was a girl made for times of plenty; older than John, she would have been lush of hip and breast did she ever have more than (just barely) enough to eat. As it was, instead of soft, tempting curves her body was full of compromises; she was buxom, yes, but underneath her breasts her ribs were too stark for luxury; her hips were wide, but the bones in them stuck out a little too sharply, and her stomach was neither as waif-ishly trim as many of her peers nor the smooth, rounded curve her form dictated it should be. "I was pregnant, once," she confided to John, when he mentioned this, brushing a speculative, weathered-brown hand across the pale skin of her belly. "I went to an apothecary, and he helped me lose the baby. Never got pregnant again, so I figure I'm barren, now. Good thing, too; the street's no place for a little one." He tangled his fingers in her long red hair instead, pretending not to see the moisture in the corner of her eyes.

She'd told John her story, once; he'd technically brought her to his little, shabby shop to sell her some jewellery, but after she'd picked her choice of the trumpery flash he kept aside for the working girls and sealed the deal on his cot, they'd stayed curled together on the narrow bed, covered only with his cheap blankets, drinking vinegary wine and talking.

Nancy had had a brother, Tom, a year younger than her. Their mother had been an ordinary working class woman, all tired eyes and rough hands, and their father had never been around. ("Mam said she was a widow. The neighbours all thought it was nonsense, that she'd gotten knocked up twice out of wedlock and was just trying to hide it. I don't think so; after she died, I found a wedding ring, gold, on a golden chain. If it hadn't have meant something special, really special, she would have sold it long before.") Her mother hadn't just worked in the mills, though; to make ends meet and to feed her two children, she'd go out at night, her face all painted up, and sell herself to any comer. She'd kept it a close secret: Nancy had only discovered the truth when she was fifteen, and Tom had found out two years later, at the age of sixteen.

The revelation had been too much for Tom; the boy had run off to the army, giving a false name and never coming back. ("Probably died. The foot-troops don't live long wherever they go, and it was most likely India. Fever takes them fast, or so I've heard.") This may have been what sapped her mother's will to live; certainly she died less than a year later, leaving the eighteen year old Nancy on her own. The girl had had no job, no prospects ("To the neighbours, I was nothing better than the bastard daughter of a whore, after all,") and when the landlord had thrown her out, claiming that all her possessions were now his as a consequence of unpaid rent, she hadn't been able to fight him, not so that anyone would believe her ("That lying bastard.") In the end, she'd had no other choice, and had taken, like her mother, to the streets.

Nancy hadn't meant to remain there for long ("Just to get enough put aside to get myself some honest profession, maybe -"), but once you're part of that life, it's hard to leave again. Singers and dancers - 'loose' girls - they were a class apart, impossible to win into without connections or training. The professional mistresses were all delicate, sylph-like creatures, and all of them had money to start with, to deck themselves out charmingly in order to catch the eye of the gentry ("You need money to make money. That's the way of the world.") And what man would be willing to marry a street girl?

Still, she didn't do too badly. She had a living, at any rate, and could even afford to pay out rent on a pitiful cubby of a room. And as time wore on, she did better and better; well enough to finally attain some of the pillowed curves she'd been meant for. It was this sultry figure that finally won her the coveted place in a House.

It was every working girl's dream to get into a House, somehow, anyhow. You had a place to live, food to eat, and if for this privilege you gave the Madame or Master a percentage of your earnings, at least you were safe; the clients weren't likely to beat you bloody or slit your throat when there were burly men with truncheons and knives to keep them in line, and nor would any of the men try to skip out on payment, as so often happened to the unwary street-wench.

"I'll be a Madame, someday," she told John dreamily, clinking together the pair of crystal goblets that he'd been holding for sale, but which had been dug out to celebrate this lucky break of hers. "And you can sell the House-girls jewels to keep us flash, and in return you can have the prettiest of my lasses to tumble once a week."

"That'll be you, then," he told her, laughing, and kissed her.

So they lived their lives, and made their money, and drank wine together in bed on lazy afternoons. And when Nancy had her dress half ripped off her shoulders by a pair of louts looking for a hidden purse, it was John who went after them, knife and fist, to teach them how to treat a lady nice. And when he came back with a knocked out tooth, a black eye, and a cut across his shoulder, it was Nancy who bandaged him up, berating him all the while.

"You sound just like a wife," he teased her.

"Say I sound just like a friend." She rolled her eyes. "Girls like me don't marry, John."

John was well over thirty - and still hadn't caught up to Nancy in years - when first he met Sara. He was just walking down the street one day when he felt the old feeling of ghostly fingers plucking at his belt. There'd be no telling him it was some working lad or lass trying to get a little attention; he knew a lightfingers when one tried to pull a trick on him, and he grabbed the tricky fingers and bent them back. He would have broken them, too - he had the strength to do it - but a cry stopped him: it wasn't no youth cried like that, but a child or a woman, and John wouldn't hurt either of them unless they gave him no choice.

It was Sara. A pretty girl, with big brown eyes and dark hair that curled endearingly around an elfin face - but John knew, just from looking at her, that she'd never be able to make it as a whore. There was something in her face, a stillness; something in her eyes, a blank calculation that she couldn't hide, over an even darker wildness, that would drive away men who just wanted mindless pleasure. There was nothing mindless about Sara. Something in the way she moved, too briskly: Sarah was a business girl, not a working girl. The men who came here didn't want business.

But John had liked Sara, admired the way she tried to run as soon as he released her hand, admired her restraint when she simply froze when he grabbed her arm, rather than fighting when she didn't have a chance. Liked the graceful way she moved, like a dancer or a cat; this was a girl made for the shadows. So he bought her dinner, assuring her up front that he wasn't a procurer, and he preferred busty redheads to scrawny brunettes. She'd looked at him like he was mad, but had been far too much the calculator to turn him down. Far too hungry to turn him down, either.

Sara was too thin: he could have encircled her wrists nearly twice with each hand, and the bones in them pushed out far too much. She was too pale: if she wasn't ill, she would be soon. John knew why; she was a good pickpocket, or good enough, but where it was difficult for a boy alone on the streets, it was harder for a girl, and near-impossible for a girl who wasn't dealing in flesh. Girls were easy marks, easy to rob and take down, and where the whores banded together for mutual aid, a girl-thief was an outcast and treated as such.

John gave her a sympathetic ear, and found out that she was only fourteen, and had been living on the streets for two months. Sara's mother had worked as a chambermaid in an inn, and Sara had been the unfortunate result of one of her dalliances with the customers. She'd been the bastard-brat, maid-of-all-work, no pay, very little food; she'd led a hand to mouth existence, snatching food from the kitchen to live and coins from the customers to pay the innkeeper back, lest he beat her. When the inn-keep had noticed the scant curves granted her by the onset of puberty, he'd made a few attempts to see more; enough, or so Sara said, to give her reason to go.

"I didn't know it would be worse on the streets," she whispered ruefully, and John felt sorry for her as he wondered how many times that lesson had been driven into her, thus far.

"You need to be in a House, Sparrow," he told her, using the name he'd privately dubbed her with, for the sake of her sharp chin and dark, equally sharp eyes.

She laughed bitterly. "What kind of House is going take in a stick-girl with no other abilities or experience than standing against a wall and crying?" she asked him. "And even if they would, I don't want to be a whore; I want to be a thief. I'm good at that. What kind of House will take a thief?"

"A clever one would," John had told her, lost in thought, and led Sara back to his shop.

When Nancy walked in that evening, humming a bawdy ballad, she smirked to see Sara perched nervously by John's tiny fireplace. "Want me to come back later?" she asked suggestively, but John just kissed her soundly as she came in out of the cold. Nancy wasn't jealous; she had no reason to be. They weren't sweethearts - the very thought made John want to laugh. They weren't lovers, either; that was a term meant for couples far younger and more innocent than them. Yet they had never been merely prostitute and client, not even the first time. They were friends, certainly: perhaps even, as he had joked, the closest thing to a married couple as an aging whore and her thieving paramour could come

"Nancy, meet my new friend Sara. Sparrow, this is Lady Nancy."

"You should know full well that I'm no lady, John," she smiled, shaking all her red hair away from her face. "And what's all this about, anyway?"

"I want you to take Sara in, your first girl, when you start your own House," John told her, all seriousness.

Nancy protested that she wasn't a Madame, not yet, but John had his arguments all sorted out. The Page-Boy House was being shut down; a brothel dealing solely in males went against the law, even if it could profit with its exclusive clientele. Nancy should take it over. The Master of her current House was harsh; half the girls there would follow her, should she choose to leave, and there were a hundred more lads and lasses just waiting for a chance like this. And true, Sparrow was a pickpocket, not a whore, but what did that matter? Thieves needed just as much protection from the cold as prostitutes did - more, in fact, as a pickpocket's job was unlikely to ever place her in a bed, or indoors at all. And it could be for the same deal; half the takings went to the Madame for her kindness. It could work. And that way no girl or boy who didn't want to would be forced into whoredom, just to earn shelter and sustenance.

"But I know nothing about pickpockets!" Nancy protested.

"I can teach you. Give the idea a chance!"

Nancy gazed at him for a while. "I'll give it a chance," she agreed. "But on my terms. And my terms say, you'll be the equal partner; Master to my Madame, you'll help me buy up the Page-Boy. You'll manage your thieves, and I'll manage my whores. We could do right well, on those terms." The deal fixed, she'd turned to Sara, and smiled. "Well, girl, looks like you're in a House."

Sara had burst into tears, and flung her arms around the older woman, all calculation lost.

When Nancy left again that evening, Sara begged her to take her, too, gazing at her with muffled desperation in her eyes. But she was resolute; she had clients to see that night, and a youthful thief trailing wistfully after her would only be dangerous for them both. John, spurred on by some half-mocking chivalry, offered his bed to the girl, advising her that she would be far safer in the shop, but Sara declined, huddling in a corner by the small fireplace, a blanket cuddled close against her like a shield. It did occur to him that she could raid the shop while he slept and flee with his hard-won money, but he decided against locking the door: Sara, like the sparrow he'd named her, would beat her wings to breaking against the bars of a cage, but could maybe be coaxed to stillness with an open hand.

When he awoke the following day, her eyes were just as round, dark, and wary as they had ever been; he doubted that she'd slept at all. Still, he held his tongue: he'd had his own share of sleepless nights, held breathless with fearful nightmares. Such things weren't worth dragging into the light; better left forgotten.

Sara watched him, wary and quiet, darting out onto the street after she'd eaten, coming back with a tiny cache of coins that she gave to him, insisting that he take it, refusing to be indebted to him lest he try to even up the balance at some later date. When Nancy came over again that night, Sara flew to her side, hovering like an attentive shadow. Her eyes were not like one watching a mother, had not that faithful certainty, but like a child following a beloved but capricious elder sibling with adoring eyes: worshipful but timorous, never knowing whether the crook or the flail would be extended.

Nancy had arranged it all; all the gold she'd been saving, all she could beg or borrow from everyone she knew. She had to promise John's tiny shop as surety, but the Page-Boy was now hers, along with as many of her former fellows as had agreed to follow her, and all of the previous workers who had escaped the harsh lash of the law. "It needs a name," she reminded them, as John passed around goblets of wine to toast their success.

"'Lightfinger's Haven,'" he suggested puckishly.

Nancy brushed a fond hand through Sara's curls, but shook her head. "I think we'd lose customers," she smiled. "How about 'Quickfinger House'? I'll be the Madame, and look after my ladies and lads. You can be the Master, and find stray, quick-fingered birds for me to take in."

Quickfinger House prospered, right from the beginning. Just the right mix of young men and women to call all the right clients; Sara's activities within the brothel discreet enough to make no trouble, but outside robbing the clients blind as they slipped, drunk and sated to unwariness, back to their homes. Loyally returning every second coin to the pair that had rescued her.

John's meeting with his next stray bird was heralded by the sound of blows. It wasn't a fight, oh no; no battle cries or shouts of rage drifted, high and fierce, to his ears. Yet nor did it sound entirely like a beating; there were no curses, pleas for mercy or oaths of dire vengeance. No groans. Just the sound of flesh landing heavily on flesh, broken with the occasional involuntary gasp. A few snatches of words, too - just a few.

"You robbed me, you pickpocket bitch! You'll pay me back all of it in blood!"

"Please, m'lord, but I wouldn't," the voice was feminine, low and throaty, blurred at the edges as if she spoke through pain. "I'm not that kind of girl, m'lord, I deal with a different coin." Sultry, now; John was impressed as he started to round the corner into their secluded alley. "Why make me pay in blood, when I could pay you well in far more pleasant things?"

John was a disgusted witness to the blow that was her only answer, a punch that sent her reeling into a wall, making dusty brown hair tumble down around her face from where it was clasped behind her head. His eyes raked over the unknown girl, who resolutely did not cower, and for a moment snagged on her hazel eyes, which lost their flirtatious spark to show, for a moment, her true desperation. "Why, if it isn't Lisa!" he interrupted them brightly. "If you aren't doing business with this man, have you got time for me, my girl?"

'Lisa' pulled free from the grip of her aggressor, and darted to the relative safety of John's arm, pressing an easy kiss to his lips (a kiss that tasted of blood, tin and salt tangling in his mouth). "I've always got time for an old client," she managed to gasp, and let him lead her away.

They entered Quickfinger House via a back door that John had appropriated for his own purposes, the room beyond holding much the same merchandise as his previous shop, and the girl obediently sat at his counter. "My name's Amy, by the way," she told him. John dropped a basin of water and a cloth before her, and gingerly she began to clean the bruise-cuts on her face. "Why did you rescue me?" she asked then, giving him a coquettish look from under lowered lashes. "Want to have a go?"

John shook his head, saddened more than anything else by this heavy-handed seduction. "I was just curious as to whether you'd really cut his purse."

A smile was his reply. Amy had, and that almost surprised him; he had rarely seen someone who would be more successful as a whore ("But if I steal and screw, I can make twice as much,"). Where Sara was made of fear and thought, she was made of soft flesh over steel; Sara wouldn't be able to give a suggestive smile if you painted it on, but Amy could give come-hither looks from a blackened eye, and blow kisses with bleeding lips.

Amy's father had been a vicar, but come to religion late in life, after the untimely death of his wife. Amy had spent the first six years of her life in the home of a kindly, indulgent, and ultimately clueless young aunt before her father summoned her to his side once more. The damage, however, had already been done; Amy would never bow her head to religion. She had learned reading writing and figuring under her father's stern tutelage - all to a far higher level than had ever been taught to John: she could even quote much of the Bible by heart ("And I'd spit on every hypocritical word if I thought it would do any good.") However, nothing she could ever do was enough to satisfy her parent, and he had grown increasingly angry with her shortcomings as years went by. Amy believed this to be the cause of him taking to drink, but felt no guilt for it, only anger.

Drunk, the vicar had seen even more errors in her ways than he had sober, and it worsened with a hideous suddenness when she hit her adolescent years. She was a pretty girl even in repose: perfect oval face, with a cream and pink complexion that should have made her look like a dairymaid rather than a whore, a face that was improved and depraved by pouting lips and heavy eyelids over her hazel eyes. This prettiness had attracted the attention of young men.

And that, Amy said bitterly, was where the trouble had really started.

The first time she smiled at a boy in church, her father had hit her, an open handed blow that snapped her head back hard enough to give her whiplash. But it did nothing to quell her, simply making her defiant; when she met the boy while out shopping a few days later, she was angry enough to let him walk her home. The result was another two blows, delivered with a Bible-heavy lecture on the promiscuity of women. That had pressured the cheek kiss had caused the next punishment had spurred on a slow experimentation with lips and mouths and tongues ("He thought he could make me see reason, but I wasn't ever going to give in. I did it all to spite him.") The beatings worsened, as did Amy's gradual depravities, until at last she was led to her final revolt, and seduced her innocent, shy young man into bed.

"He wanted to marry me," she commented, sipping the hot tea John poured for her. "Poor boy, I had no intention of that. I was just using him as a pawn in my battle with my father. After I got away from home, I never wanted to be under the thumb of any man again."

'Got away', however, was probably the wrong term. Say rather 'thrown out', for that was the result when her father came home, drunk, to find his daughter reclining in a bed of sin. Apparently the shouting, along with the last, final beating, had been a sight to behold; certainly by the end of the argument, there wasn't a man for streets around that could doubt the vicar's daughter's sluttish nature. Her young man had fled in total terror; Amy had, after demonstrating to her father that her vocabulary as well as her actions were far from Godly, worked her way from the innocent suburban areas into the squirming sinful depths of the city. ("My father said London was a den of vice. I thought that sounded wonderful.") She didn't know what strictures her young man had faced, but had always hoped they weren't too heinous ("He probably felt it was all his fault, when I ran; he would never have understood that it was another clash in that long war. Poor boy.") She was sixteen.

Amy wasn't in a House, not yet, but John knew it was only a matter of time before someone snapped her up: only a matter of time, too, until the Madame or Master realised that she was picking pockets as well as satiating desires, and she found herself back on the streets. Not that that would bother her hugely; she was making her living far better than ladies of three times her experience ("And three times my age.") John would be a fool to pass her up, and she'd be a fool not to accept this offer of shelter: since neither of them were fools, Quickfinger House gained another member that night.

At first, Sara resented this interloper; for John's sake, Nancy looked more indulgently on her than she did on the rest of her ladies and lads, and she hated the thought that any of the attention might be taken from her. The other workers in the House somehow sensed that the pair were different - given more leeway, scheduled fewer clients (in the case of Sara, scheduled no clients at all). The fact that they paid in their percentages like everyone else, producing just as much coin as everyone else, could not completely quell the jealous mutterings that followed them, and so they were thrown very much together: still, the resentment didn't fade, and while both developed a fierce loyalty to the House, an easy friendship failed to grow.

The weeks wore on, and Amy won herself a home in the House - far more successfully than Sara, despite her later arrival. This may have been partly due to their choice in clothing; Amy favoured a short-silk dress in an eye-catching red, kilted up almost to her knees and cut very low across her chest (Sara had blushed to see it at first, despite having long been acclimatised to Nancy's equally exposed and far more voluptuous form; blushed far more, even, than she ever did when she strolled indifferently through the parlours at the height of the business hours.) Sara, as soon as she'd been able to, had rejected skirts entirely in favour of clothing she'd stolen from the boy-whores; well-fitting trousers and a shirt that buttoned smoothly over her trim frame. Dressed like this, she could almost be mistaken for a youth, but for her long tangle of curled, dark hair and her too-fine face. That, and the cool, angry glare she levelled at those foolish enough to mistake her, and the lectures that she used to distract marks while she raided their pockets and purses.

John's little birds, and Nancy's fondest protégés. As the evenings slipped by, they began to resemble more and more the family none of them had ever had, with quiet meetings in Nancy's snug boudoir, with a tiny fire and glasses of cheap wine; Sara perched attentively and adoringly on the floor by Nancy's chair, Amy swearing softly at the sewing she hated but refused to ask the more skilled Sara to do for her, regarding each other with the careful suspicion of rival siblings. John could almost forget, sometimes, that the safe little room, with it's sham-comforts of worn velvet and silk, nestled in a house of sin.

Sometimes, however, it was impossible to forget, like the time John walked in to find Nancy pacing frantically, biting off all the nails that she cultivated so assiduously to give her a veneer of elegance. "What's wrong?" he asked, and she flew to his arms, full of apologies, remorse, and self-recriminations.

"I didn't know," she said, half weeping. "I didn't know." The client had been rich, very rich, and had offered her many times the usual fee for her 'best girl'. She'd sent him to Amy, and meant it as a kindness, only to find out from one of her other employees - too late to stop it - that he'd been banned from most of the neighbouring houses for half-killing a couple of the whores. "And if we stopped it now, she'd get no money and still would be hurt," Nancy finished futilely.

But John had no time, for once, for his old friend: he pulled away from her and began to hurry down the hallways as quickly as he could with the dancing light of the cheap tallow candles, the not-so-even flooring, and the occasional danger of an amorous couple to avoid. The rich man with the quick fists had left, or so it seemed, by the time he arrived: when he ran in, he found only Amy, lying face down on the floor, weeping helplessly.

John gently grasped one bare shoulder, and lifted her gently over. Her heart squeezed as locks of blood-knotted hair peeled wetly away from her cheeks, swollen and misshapenly purpled. "He just wanted me to cry," she whispered brokenly, her words slurred with pain from her swollen mouth, more tears dripping from her face, taking blood with them and sending macabre reddish streaks over the purpling bruises mottling Amy's torso and breasts. John retrieved the ragged remains of her ripped dress-front from the tangle around her waist, and lifted it to cover her exposed body, jaw clenched with rage for his little bird. "If he'd only said he wanted me to cry... If he'd only said... I wouldn't have tried so hard not to!"

"We'll send the boys after him," he declared, voice low and fierce. "We'll kill him for this, Amy. Just say the word."

But she shook her head thickly, making the matted tails of hair swing. "It's alright," she said, more sobs shaking her shoulders as she held her torn clothing close to her chest. "He paid me well, so it's alright, it's alright. I don't want the Runners chasing you up because of me. It's alright..." She rocked back in forth, huddling from the pain of her many injuries. John wanted to hold her, but didn't dare to, remembering Sara's too-wide eyes as she huddled in the corner of his shop.

The door opened: Amy flinched, but it was only Sara who walked in, face pale, eyes dark and wild. She dropped to her knees before the shaking whore, and dug her hands into her belt pouch, letting coins pour through her fingers, fat and gold or glinting silver, spilling to the floor or caught in her cupped hands, like homage to some almighty monarch. "His, all his," she whispered, voice burning with anger and a mad grief.

Amy touched one trembling hand to Sara's turned-down cheek. "Sparrow..." she whisper-wailed the nickname, and fell into the younger girl's arms.

When John left the room, Sara's dark head was bent over Amy's dusty, bloodstained brown, her arms protectively around the older girl who she'd been so jealous of, taking over her mantra. "It's alright," she whispered, tears slipping over her own cheeks. "It's alright. I'll look after you. It's alright."

After that, their quiet evenings were different; Sara did Amy's mending without being asked, and Amy leaned her head gratefully on the slim shoulder of her friend as they sat together in a near embrace on one sofa, the Sparrow's adoration of Nancy negated by the subdued, desperate quality of the backhanded love between the girls.

The next person to enter Quickfinger House through John's artifices was Robbie, although he would have rebelled at the thought of being called one of John's strays.

Robbie was famous - or rather, notorious - to the point where no House with a lick of sense would take him anymore. He was good: in fact, he was probably the best, with a string of devoted clients who followed him from brothel to brothel. But he was a liability, with his arrogant ways; after a few months at a House he would routinely demand that he be allowed to pay a smaller percentage, as he brought so much custom that the House would make the same amount, or his routine drunkenness would emerge more savagely than usual - and when drunk he had a mouth like a gutter-minded sailor, turning it ruthlessly against his fellows or the clientele, alienating everyone he saw. Or he'd steal, and clumsily, from the Lords who patronised him, and the House would leap gratefully on the excuse to turf him to the street.

Not that Robbie needed the Houses for shelter; he was skilled enough to survive on his own. But protection, maybe -

John first saw Robbie in a bar; only a boy, but drinking with the steady ferocity of the accomplished alcoholic. His eyes might once have been blue, but now they were the colour of bruises, stained and bloodshot. Someday, John predicted, and probably not too far in the future, they'd turn yellow, the bruises aging, as all the drinking Robbie did started to hit his liver. He'd just been expelled from his latest brothel, and began to work the streets around Quickfinger House, enough that John saw him more and more, on his knees in the alleyways at dusk, or one of the moaning figures in the dark that you never went too close to.

It was the aftermath of one of these sessions that John inadvertently witnessed, on his way home before business hours hit their peak. The sound of a slap and a soft cry slowed his curious footsteps, and he looked over in the gathering gloom to where a thin figure struggled in the certain grip of an older man. "Bloody little thief!" the man said disgustedly. "Just for that, you can give me another go." There was a leer in his voice. "I've heard tales of your clever mouth, pretty one."

John might have stepped in, but the boy obeyed the guiding hand on his shoulder easily enough, and the hand that tangled tightly in his indifferently cleaned, pale blond hair. Robbie's reputation was well deserved and his clever mouth well received, or so it seemed from the depraved noises that hit the sulky air (just another night in the back-end of London), and he finished the business with creditable speed for a client who'd already been seen to in the not so distant past.

Done, the man shoved him away: off balance, he fell, and came to hit feet spitting in disgust and muttering curses, watching balefully as the man re-adjusted his clothing and strolled away.

John walked over. "I hear you're a thief as well as a whore," he said by way of greeting.

Robbie gazed at him, hatred burning in his eyes. "What do you know about it, old man?" he sneered.

"I used to be a pickpocket, too," he replied simply. "I could teach you to be better, if you wanted."

Robbie glared. "Who said I needed teaching?"

"You got caught," was the answer. "If you get caught, you need to improve."

So Robbie followed him home that night, and arranged a contract with Nancy: he'd pay in a third of his takings to the House, a non-negotiable sum, considering that it was already less than all the others paid and the fact that he would also be receiving teaching from John. He was not a willing student, however; he hated being a whore with a passion that astounded John and Nancy in one so skilled at it, but he hated having to be taught even more, and he lacked Sara and Amy's natural skill.

He never had the same connection to John and Nancy that the two girls did. John had thought that his hatred for his job might stem from a disgust of the male gender, but he proved them wrong by declining the invitations Nancy extended to join their fireside group, instead entangling himself by turns with all his fellow rentboys - but although no coins changed hands for the time they spent together, he seemed to loathe them no less than his clients. Nor did he voluntarily confide his past to his new guardians, although it all came out when he was drunk, anyway.

Robbie had once, it seemed, been a boy filled with starry-eyed idealism. He'd been born in Plymouth, the son of a shopkeeper, brought up with tales of adventure and India and America. Far off lands and treasure. His father had his older brother to be his pride and joy, and his mother a baby daughter to take up her attention, and Robbie had been let to run wild, constantly playing out his future adventures. He'd learned, a little, how to pick pockets from the boys he knew in the less conventional areas of the city, and had increasingly leaned away from his prosaic family ("There's more to life than bloody vegetables,"), towards a gleaming horizon.

He'd had a rough awakening.

When he was thirteen, in the spirit of mischievous adventure, he'd stowed away on a boat going (or so he fancifully decided) towards the Indies and a life of wonder. In fact, it was a routine trading voyage to Italy, stopping en route at France and Spain. He'd been discovered just after leaving the first French port, when sailors came down to rearrange the cargo.

They hadn't thrown him off the ship. Instead, they'd demanded that he pay his way home.

After he'd experienced the form this payment would take, Robbie had tried to escape, but the sailors had liked having a little kept whore, and had each time thwarted his efforts ("Fucking, fucking bastards,"), and he hadn't made it off the ship until after it had docked at Plymouth again.

The month long voyage had changed him; the wild, adventurous boy was gone, replaced by a shattered, half-mad adolescent, clothes all gone to rags and skin to grime. He'd gone home, but when his brother opened the door ("Never liked him anyway,") he had at first not recognised him, and then, sanctimoniously perfect, refused him entry, bidding him go back to the streets where he so obviously belonged. Robbie had done so, but in that moment his budding hatred of the world had crystallised.

His month at sea had given him one marketable skill, at least: he perfected his skills and his loathing by the docks, and made it to the rather more profitable London slums at the age of fourteen. When he joined Quickfinger House, he was only fifteen years old.

Then there was Dolly, who John had seen carefully working a crowd in one of the local marketplaces, acting the flirt but not quite the whore with a delicate touch and a deft hand that impressed him. She had masses of extravagant brown curls, and matching eyes that laughed at joyful odds to her profession and her past. She was the second oldest of a large family, she told them: her brother had taught her to pick pockets and shoplift casually ever since she was a child, in order to relieve the poverty of their street-working mother and many siblings. Her brother was in the nick, she said guiltily ("He took the fall for my slip,"), and all but two of her younger siblings had succumbed to Typhoid following an outbreak that had weakened their mother too much to work. She joined Quickfinger House on the promise of minimal whoring work, as long as she could pay her way, and she still visited her family on Sundays.

Dolly's black wit endeared her far more to the group than Robbie's sulky arrogance ever had, and she fell into their 'family' with pleasure that was only lessened by having a real family to love as well, and by the days on which she gleefully abandoned them to gamble with the boys instead. It was she that taught John how to cheat at dice, beating him soundly three times before he noticed her quick-flicking fingers and demanded that she pass on to him all the tricks her brother had shown her, and her that laughingly defused the situation when Sara, sparked to a mad anger, started a fight with one of the boywhores who made a sneering remark about her and Amy.

Time passed: Dolly had an affair with one of the few boys who had consistently resisted Robbie's impecunious advances, making the blond insanely jealous for a brief while: one of Robbie's clients was forced to flee the country when the purpose of his slumming was discovered. One of the true whores, Emily, taught them all to dance on one winter's day when the cold had reduced their clientele - although Sara refused to learn, and sat watching with dark, jealous eyes as Amy waltzed uncertainly with John. Spring came, and Sara and Amy disappeared for a day, coming back, laughing like truant children, with sprays of white cherry blossom to present to Nancy as a gift.

It was in spring, too, that John found Richard, at last another chick to join his growing flock.

John wondered, later, why he rescued Richard, for the boy was neither pickpocket nor whore. What he was was in trouble, John knew that right away. Richard's features shouted good breeding: the smooth contours of his face, the aquiline line of his nose, the fine bones of his fingers all gave him away, and the clothes he wore had once been rich, despite their ragged state and desperate grime. The bruises and dirt could not mask his elegant face, nor could hunger and fierceness in the eyes disguise it entirely. His hair was still too fine under a fresh layer of filth and grease, and his now-broken nails had perfectly kept cuticles. What would a boy who was clearly Quality be doing living rough in the backstreet slums unless he was in some kind of insurmountable difficulty?

He hadn't any skill, in stealing or screwing: what he had was desperation. He reminded John of himself, when he first came from the country; not knowing how to fight off the three burly lads who waylaid him, throwing punches when he should have been using nails, teeth, elbows, anything. He did get a couple of good kicks in, and knee blows, and maybe that was what made John stop, and break up the fight: most of the aristocrats he'd seen had no more notion of how to fight with anything but their fists than a baby. Perhaps, too, it was some holdover from his servant childhood, that suggested the gentry should be protected and succoured.

Whatever the reason, he beat the louts off, experience and weapons giving him the clear advantage, and offered the fallen youth a hand.

Richard didn't take it, pushing himself to his feet and wiping a trickle of blood from his mouth with the back of one hand. "I don't want a pimp," he said flatly as he faced John warily. "So if you're a procurer, go look elsewhere."

His voice, too, gave him away, with his refined accents and clipped, elegant words. John laughed, impressed by his chill calm, even as he inwardly rued the boys lack of street smarts. He looked as if he hadn't eaten in days, and a pimp would at least have fed him, even if Richard would have to pay for that charity later... But John explained to him the secret of Quickfinger House, and offered him training in the ways of criminals, rather than the ways of the bedroom. Richard agreed, with a readiness that bespoke his anxieties for living rough, and followed John back through the streets.

It was the wary way he darted glances at every passer by that gave John the next hint as to his past. "Is someone after you?" he asked, and when Richard wouldn't answer, added, "Boy, you won't find any sympathy for the Watch down here. Tell me, and maybe I can help."

"The Runners will be looking for me," was the soft reply. "I - I killed a man."

John had never killed. Wounded, yes, and often, it the street-scraps that left everyone with a few scars, and even a few deaths here and there, but he'd never killed. He might have left the boy there, having learned this news, but there was a deadness in his voice and a pallor around his lips that suggested the experience had not been a welcome one. So instead he took the boy home, and gave him into Nancy's keeping.

"What's a rich-boy doing here?" Robbie asked with an almost sneer as he inspected the newcomer. "Is he a whore, too? He's not pretty enough to make it big, although I suppose some people would pay more to fuck Quality than they would for a gutter rat... All those hidden lusts, you know..."

Richard's face went faintly pink, but he said nothing, keeping anger and shame at bay, knowing already that they did nothing. John shook his head, but it was Dolly who came to Richard's defence, with a smile and a wink that he didn't respond to. "Well, even if he wouldn't be a success as a boywhore, he needs to look like one," she said practically. "Or he'll be noticed." The girl tossed him an armful of clothes she'd gathered.

"Where do I get changed?" he asked, catching them, and looking around the room.

Dolly raised her eyebrows at John and Nancy. Nancy shrugged and left the room, but John remained, a silent witness. "Here," she said flatly. "Any embarrassment you have about nudity, lose it. You're a runaway. If you don't learn to cope, you will be caught."

Amy smiled at him. "We won't look," she promised him, weaving her fingers around Sara's.

"I will," Robbie contested, gazing at Richard with lust in his eyes.

He gazed at Dolly for a moment before nodding, and methodically stripping off, ignoring Robbie's heated gaze. When he was wearing nothing, he dressed again, pulling the scandalously tight trousers that he'd been given, ones that aped the style of the fashionable pantaloons, over bare skin with a tight expression of distaste. The shirt was no better, being made of faux-lace and air, designed not so much to cover as to entice, falling open over the pale skin of his chest. It was Sara who painted his face, rouging cheeks and lips, and smudging lines of soot around his eyes. "Don't worry if it smears," she told him. "It'll just look more genuine."

"He still doesn't look right," Robbie said thoughtfully, slipping closer, until he was nose to nose with the unflinching Richard. "You don't look nearly debauched enough, rich-boy." With that, he leaned in, capturing Richard's lips with his. Richard's eyes went wide, and he stepped away, his lip paint now artistically smeared. Robbie smirked at him. "Get used to being kissed by strangers, rich-boy," he said. "You'll be lucky if that's all that happens."

Richard's story came out piece by piece, as he grew harder and colder and gaunter, and more suited to his new life. He never said his full name, or anything about his family, but he did mention the balls and parties, and how insipid they all were, and how no one ever spoke the truth. He'd been in love was what he never said, nor did he say he was broken-hearted. He did say that his lover had betrayed him, crying rape when they were found together ("Never spoke anything but lies to me,"), and forcing a desperate Richard to shoot the man who'd found them. ("Only doing what he thought was right, why wouldn't he listen?")

John liked Richard, for the reasoned chill of his demeanour that seemed to increase every day he spent away from his former life. The boy's pickpocketing skills never reached the standards of Sara or Dolly or even Amy, but he could outdo Robbie any day, and beat them all in ruthlessness. That callousness was the only thing John ever tried to train him out of: the first time he ever stabbed a man, John stopped Richard from walking away, making him look at the moaning, wounded man as his friends cared for him. "You did that. Accept it," the old thief said, furious with him. "Take responsibility for it. He may be a drunk old bastard, but he's still a human being. Never treat another human being lightly."

Emily propositioned Richard, and he turned her down coldly, while following Robbie's form with keen, half-obsessive eyes. John sighed over it, but Robbie enjoyed it, spurring him on with leisurely kisses in secluded corners, or come-hither eyes when he dallied with clients. Nancy ignored it, giving her attentions to Amy, Sara, and Dolly, who at least returned her affections, rather than the cold-eyed youth who just gazed at her so blankly when she tried to reach out.

The year after his arrival at the House, when he was eighteen, gave Richard had his greatest success, and his greatest downfall. He picked the right pocket, the best pocket, and came out of it with a much larger prize than the few guineas he'd expected - for his victim had been ferrying stolen gems, worth at least a hundred pounds. He'd been speechless, and John had been so proud of his protégé, his pupil; he'd shown him the hidden away treasures he'd stored, taught him how to hide the jewels on his person so they wouldn't be stolen again, and trusted him, with his fine education and good wits, to trade them for coins at the various fences he knew around town.

When he left, Richard was too pleased even to wonder why Robbie followed him, and responded with damning eagerness to the kiss offered him. "Maybe you do belong here, rich-boy," the blond purred. "We can go and celebrate your achievement with a drink, afterwards."

Richard hated lies, especially those that excused the self, and so he didn't try to blame the alcohol for his foolishness that night. He'd been protected from the clients at Quickfinger House, aside from a few rough caresses in the dark salons and corridors, but he wished for no protection when Robbie seduced him, and forgot about anything like duty or time as he spent an amorous, ignorant night with a whore who could only ever hate and deride him.

When he woke in the morning, Robbie was gone, as were all the well-hidden coins, gold and silver worth more than a hundred pounds, that he'd hidden in his clothing: his punishment for liking and trusting the boy no one had ever liked or trusted.

He hadn't wanted to go back to the House with empty hands and the account of his stupidity, but where else could he go, with no money and a face that could all too easily gain him a noose around his neck? So he returned, to find John enraged at his own thoughtless confidence in the loyalty of his wildling boy, and Nancy cursing the happenstance that had lost her the money needed to refit the House.

John didn't wait for explanations or answers; he demanded them, and when they weren't sufficient to dull his anger, he taught Richard a few things about cause and effect, with the convenient medium of his fists. It was probably the fifth or sixth furious blow that broke Richard's nose, and he might have hated John for that - if he could have gained the strength - but it was also John who knelt next to him afterwards, and set the nose again, and John who helped him up to his cubby of a sleeping space, and spoke to him wearily, saying that they'd need the money, so Richard would either have to steal three times as much, or start working in the bedrooms as well. Robbie was gone for good, or so it seemed, and so they'd lost his income as well as their savings.

"I'll never trust anyone again," Richard said flatly, staring at his ceiling.

"Well, good," John told him, unmoved. "At least you've learned something."

Richard didn't service the clients more than a few times, and only when the pay was good; the rest of the time, he worked the streets. John suspected he'd expanded from just pickpocketing, as the goods he turned in - a larger percentage than his fellows, now, with the debt he had to pay - began to be as much jewellery as coins, but the old thief knew better than to ask, even after he noticed that Richard had taken to carrying a pistol he'd stolen as well as the more utilitarian knife. "Be careful, boy," was all he said one day as Richard left. "If someone important dies, you'll have the Runners coming down, and no one needs more trouble right now."

Times were getting harder, even within the shelter of the House. Nancy noticed the first few grey hairs in her red hair, and took to plucking them viciously out, not wanting the expense of a henna rinse. John's hair was too liberally salted now with premature grey for that to work on him, and both of them had dark rings under their eyes. "We need more money," Nancy confessed to him, as they lay together in bed, huddling together for warmth, not wanting to waste money on coal for a fire. "Not for refitting the rooms - not now. But the gangs..."

John didn't need to hear any more than that. The gangs had always before been tiny things, packs of bullies banding together for strength - much like the groups of streetwhores - but in recent months they'd gained in popularity, power, and viciousness. They had found a new tactic; extorting money from the shady-shopkeepers and brothel owners in return for 'protection'. Their increasing presence was another reason why he both worried for Richard's escapades and refused to put a stop to them, for the sake of the profit they brought.

"We need some new little birds, then?" John surmised. "I'll look for you, Lady Nancy. I'll look for you."

In fact, it was Dolly who found their first new bird, coming to John with a shy request for a favour. Her brother was coming out of prison at last, and didn't want to stay as a drain on the household of their increasingly poor mother. Could he come here instead? He'd be willing to pay his way, of course, the same contract as anyone else.

John was dubious, until he met Chris himself. Their separate fathers were clearly indicated by their colouring: in contrast to Dolly's brown curls, Chris had waves of messy gold framing his face, the only point of similarity being their slender build and the brown eyes that were rather more solemn in Chris's face. Richard's jaw dropped when he saw him, and that was enough to decide John: when someone was handsome enough to turn that cool boy's head, he'd be a success in whatever he turned his hand to, even if he was in his twenties rather than his teens.

And Chris, it seemed, had gained enough 'experience' during his stay in prison to have lost all compunctions about interactions with other men. ("At least I'll get paid, here.")

For a while, they managed to forget the worries outside, in the evenings when John would dice with Dolly and Chris, seeing who could cheat the most without being caught; evenings when Nancy worked on the accounts with Richard's help, him gazing longingly at Chris and cleaning his pistols by the fire, in preparation for more dangerous excursions, while Amy rested her head on Sara's lap, the younger girl stroking her hair. Evenings that were only worrisome when you noticed how drawn the once unstoppably seductive Amy looked, the lurking anxiety in Sara's eyes, the restless twitch of John's fingers when he threw the dice, or the grey hairs in Nancy's hair that were beginning to catch up with her.

The worst day came, the day when Amy, who had been increasingly headachy and restless, her weight loss more and more apparent as her cheeks lost their roundness, finally didn't get up one day, tossing uncomfortably in her bed, in the grip of a draining fever. Sara was beside her, weeping softly as she bathed her friend's forehead in water.

"It's just a cold," Dolly said, clutching her brother's hand as they came to inquire after her. "It's just a bad cold, isn't it?"

But Amy tossed her head, then, so that all could see; John caught at her chin to look in horror at the sores that seemed to crawl out of the corner of her mouth, even as Sara, shaking, caught at one blanket-tangled hand and showed her fellows the rash that adorned the palm. "God have mercy," Nancy said weakly. "It's the Pox."

John stood again, slowly. "It doesn't get like this overnight," he said heavily. "How - how long has she known?"

The first sores had appeared two months ago, Sara told them, but Amy had hidden them from them all, hoping that they would simply pass in time. They did, but had lately returned, all over the inside of her mouth and across the soles of her feet, too widespread to hide from Sara, even though she kept up the charade with her clients. "I wanted to tell," Sara said softly, her eyes flaring with the same crushed madness that they had on that night so long ago when she'd spilled gold at her rival's feet. "But... she said we'd need the money. For medicines. For... housing and food, when we leave here."

"You aren't going anywhere," John said fiercely. "You're my girls. You're my girls, and we'll keep you safe."

"If they know that the Pox is here," Dolly said tremulously. "They won't come. No one will. We'll be destroyed, you know how it frightens people." She looked wretched, torn between her friends and her sense of practicality. "What about our livelihood?"

"We can't turn them out to die on the streets!" John said loudly, and his words rang in the silence with Sara's gasped weeping.

"John's right," Nancy said wearily at last. "He's right, Dolly. There are more important things than money. We'll... get by somehow. We won't say that she's sick, we'll keep it to ourselves. She..." Her voice faltered. "A friend of mine lasted six years, with the Pox, before... her mind went. Amy might do as well, and the sores, the fever... They'll come and go. She'll be able to pick pockets, she'll be able to get by, even if she can't see clients." She swallowed. "I'll send for the doctor, and see... and see. We'll get by. We'll get by."

It seemed to pass, sometimes: the sores pulled their tentacles back from the edges of her lips, and sometimes Amy would seem almost normal. None of them mentioned the occasional doctor's visits, or the way Sara would weep in secluded corners, even when John followed her and hugged her, whispering "Sparrow, Sparrow," softly into her ear, her arms so frail around his shoulders. None of them mentioned the increased anxiety with which Nancy and John hovered over the accounts, while Chris and Dolly diced alone, and the way no one talked, not even when Richard pushed Chris up against the wall of an empty room and kissed him, not even when Chris kissed back.

Winter was nearing, and as it did, things became a little more grim. One of the boywhores also started showing signs of the Pox - probably caught from a client who liked both boys and girls - and there was no keeping it quiet this time: it was all over the House before Nancy was even called. One or two of the whores began to quietly pack up their meagre belongings, take their savings, and leave; full of regrets, but not wishing to stay in a House afflicted with the Great Pox. As this was noticed, their income lessened by more than the exodus alone would account for, and Nancy cursed the wagging tongues of her fellow House-masters, blackening her name and stealing her custom. Emily was badly beaten on her way back from a walk one day, and when she came back, crying, it was to deliver a threat from the gangs that payment was due soon. She and three others left that night.

"It's all gone wrong, hasn't it?" Nancy asked John, voice muffled against his shoulder.

"Nothing's certain but the grave, love," he told her sadly, stroking her still-vivid hair. "And we've had a good run. Five years is as much as many Houses last."

Dolly and Chris decided to leave a few weeks later. "Sorry," Dolly whispered. "But - Mother's sick. She needs someone to take care of her. And -"

"And you don't want to be caught on the ship when it sinks," Sara said miserably. "Rats! Fleeing like rats, both of you!" She was half-hysterical, but Amy put a hand on her shoulder, and she quieted, shaking. Chris came over, and kissed Richard goodbye - but Richard had learned not to care as well as not to trust, and to him it was just a kiss.

And so Quickfinger House was left with its dregs; the whores who had nowhere else to be, the customers who didn't care, Amy and Sara, who were living in a sick twist of disease and depression, and Richard, lounging on one of the shabby velvet sofas and drinking cheap wine while he stared out of the window and thought of ballrooms.

"You could leave too, boy," John told him tiredly. "No one would blame you."

Richard shrugged. "I'll leave someday," he said indifferently. "But I may as well stay till the end."

But the end dragged, like the tail-end of winter, showing itself in the brick-smashed windows and flung stones when anyone ventured out long before it actually arrived. The day the local gang leader came to the door, his lieutenants at his back, might have been the end but for few, stored guineas that Nancy gave him, gave and then wept for fear behind the closed door.

"My dream House," she whispered. "My dream House," and Sara and Amy offered her the money they'd been saving for the doctor, which she wouldn't take, and Richard didn't even offer her the money he'd been saving away, because he knew it wouldn't stave the death off for long.

The end came in the early hours of the morning, just after their last client had gone home. John wondered if they'd been waiting for that, just so no one but the locals would get involved. There was a bang as they slammed the door open and came pouring in. The bouncers had mostly left with the whores and clients, but the two loyal boys they still had tried to stem the influx of ragged louts. One went down quickly, a cudgel blow to the head, before John could reach the scene and pull his knife to join the defence.

A couple of the boys reached the stairs, and climbed: there was a scream that could only have been Amy, and a shrill cry of rage that had to be Sara. But John didn't have time to think about that, because he heard Nancy shouting in the next moment "There's nothing! Nothing! I haven't been holding back, you bastards!" and then there was a sharp crack, crack as Richard, dressed in a compromise between his whore-boy and footpad clothes, fired two pistols into the melee. One of the ruffians menacing John dropped with a yell, clutching a bloody thigh, and another staggered towards the doorway, holding his shoulder. John spared a glance for the boy, who was quite casually leaning against a wall as he reloaded the pistols, not hurrying himself at all. John found himself admiring his cool, and his aim.

"Pull back!" someone was shouting, "It's not worth it, pull back!" and John faltered as he tried to see who it was. Another crack from behind him seemed to suggest that Richard had loaded another pistol at last, but he was paying more attention to the retreating mob that had invaded. Had they won? Had they? Why were they retreating, when they outnumbered the defenders five to one?

His answer came in the form of the oil filled bottle with the flaming rag in its top that came sailing through the window, smashing on the ground, flames licking everywhere. With a cry, John tried to smother it with some of the cushions, but they simply caught alight themselves, with a hideous scent of burning feathers. Coldly, Richard pulled him back. "It's not worth it," he said sharply, unconsciously repeating the gang members' words. "They'll have thrown others, and this house is half rotten anyway." He turned to the bouncer, waving to their fallen comrade. "Get him out. Tell the boys out there that you'll do whatever they want if they'll spare your lives. Live for now, get out of trouble later." The few whores who had stayed in the house were fleeing, now, but Richard ignored them utterly. "John, the girls are still upstairs." With that reminder, his delivery indifferent, almost bored, the youth climbed up to the first floor.

For one incredulous moment, John thought he'd go after the girls himself, but instead he turned into his own tiny bedroom, and began quite calmly packing his possessions, ignoring the smell of smoke that rose steadily from the lower floor. The old thief ran himself to the room that Sara and Amy shared, tripping over a body on the way. One of the gang members, stabbed furiously in the chest...

Sara knelt with her back to the door, holding Amy to her chest. Her lover's hazel eyes were blankly, glassily open, drying blood cascading over her breasts from the cut across her throat, staining the red taffeta of her dress a rusty brown. Sara rocked back and forth, keening; their was blood all over her hands, smeared across her cheeks. John caught at her shoulder. "Sara, we have to go," he said quietly. There was no reply. "Sara!"

When she turned to look at him, her eyes were empty of anything but grief and the madness that had always lurked within her. "I'm not going without her," she gasped, oblivious to the smoke that rasped her voice. "I'm not leaving her."

"Sara, she's dead, there's nothing we can do!" John said, shaking her shoulder. "You've got to come!"

"I'm not leaving her," she repeated. There were tear tracks through the bloody traces on her face, and she shook her head without reason. "Not leaving her, ever."

There was no time left: John had no choice but to surrender. He kissed her on her forehead, although she didn't respond, and whispered, "Be well, Sparrow," in her ear. Hopefully, the smoke would kill her before the fires could reach her - but hope was thin on the ground.

In the hallway, he passed Richard, who had a bag over his shoulder. "Hurry, if you want to get out alive," he said flatly, hurrying down the stairs, to a hallway that was still free - just - of the fires devouring the rooms to either side. John couldn't reprimand him for making his own escape: he'd helped all he could, and he'd warned them already that he was only staying to see the end. He didn't necessarily want to be a part of it.

He reached Nancy's boudoir. It was no longer the safe little evening retreat it had once been: the drawers were yanked open, their contents flung on the floor, and her account book, so painstakingly kept, was flung across the room. In the centre of the mess lay Nancy, her red hair blessedly free from blood as he ran his fingers through it, one last time. He straightened her clothes around the stab wound that had ripped the front of her dress, and tried to close her eyes, an impossible task without coins to hold them. "Well, we had a good run, didn't we, love?" he murmured, and left the room.

He began to run as he reached the corridors, not stopping by Sara's door to see if she still embraced Amy, or if she slept. Flew down the stairs with a stumble, ducking past a door as it exploded into the hallway, scattering burning debris. The smoke was so thick here that he could hardly breathe, and beams from the ceiling above crashed down as he hit the front door, and burst out, coughing and choking, falling to his knees in the open air, crawling away from the House, looking back to see flames flickering about it like the ragged skirt of a dancer as she twirls.

Tears filled his eyes, until he couldn't see the gang members who surrounded him. "Your whore is dead," the leader told him with satisfaction. "As will you be. This is our territory, and we won't take any crap from scum like you."

It was too late to reach for his knife, even if he'd had the strength or youth left to fight them. The knife swept over his chest, from a dig in the shoulder hard enough to scrape bone to a nasty gouge in the abdomen beneath his rib cage. John's vision greyed as he fell the short distance to the ground.

The bastards. They'd not even had the decency to kill him clean.

It was raining, and the dirt beneath him turned to muck as he lay beside his Lady Nancy's burning dream. They'd always told him he'd die in the gutter, but he'd never thought it would be true...

He felt hands beneath his shoulders, and groaned. They'd come back to torment him, had they?

"Be quiet, old man," a familiar voice told him. "I'm only doing this on the condition that you aren't aggravating." He was carried, like a baby or prized toy, in someone's arms. This was never Richard... Which meant he'd paid someone to... what? Dump his body? Surely not...?

"Awake, still?" a resigned voice said. "Stubborn old man." And then John knew no more, for a long time.

Richard hadn't stayed by his bedside, or even in the doctor's house, getting a room in an unobtrusive inn near by. John heard nothing from him - not even a message or a note - while he recovered, though according to the cantankerous old surgeon, his bills were still being paid. He healed, somewhat, although his left shoulder would always be stiff, and he'd never be able to twist his chest again into the street fighter's agile movements. "I think you'd be better off in another line of work," the doctor told him.

"There's one opening," Richard said dryly to his old mentor, arrogantly gesturing for the doctor to leave. "My man of all work. Groomsman, ambassador, liaison, and agent. You know far more of the fences than I ever will, and what's more, you know how to speak to them, to get you introductions. Being a footpad is dangerous in a city, when there are watchmen all around. Being a highwayman, though..." His face curved into a smile that might have been pleased, if it wasn't so calculating. "It's safer, plus it's more profitable. But I could use your expertise in getting started."

John coughed out a dour laugh. "You just want to get back at all the nobles who screwed you over."

Richard looked at him for a moment, and shrugged. "You have nothing to stay for," was all he said before leaving.

And a few weeks later saw them both on horseback, heading out of the city, mounted on rough horses, with equally poor clothing. "But it'll get better," Richard said serenely. "I was born for finer things."

"You were born an arrogant brat," John contradicted him sourly. The man's temper had taken a swing towards the more taciturn since the burning of his life and livelihood, a change that Richard accepted with unruffled composure. "I never went back," he said softly after a moment of silence.

"There's nothing to go back to," Richard said simply. "Burnt timbers, charred ruins, a couple of beggars sleeping in the remains. That's all that's ever left. You can't go back, John, no one ever can. You have to find a way to live today, instead."

Silence reigned for a moment.

"But first," Richard decided, "I'm going to steal a better horse."