Dancer for Money

by Dice

Chapter 1 - A Deluge in a Paper Cup [Next]

We sit across from each other, coffee cups empty. I've passed this place almost every day for the last two years and never gone inside. He shakes another cigarette out of its case. It's a small silver case; a gift from the missing and yet practically tangible participant in our conversation. He lights it and I pretend not to choke on the sharp smell as he blows the smoke across the table and it drifts into my face. I could never stand the brand he uses.

I've run out of things to say. He's quiet too. It's been so long since we talked and we never really had anything in common, except for him. Neither of us has brought up his name.

I look out at the rain. It hasn't shown any signs of letting up since we came in here. I fiddle with my coffee cup and I study him in the grey afternoon light coming through the window. He's smartly dressed as always, neat grey dress shirt underneath a blue pullover, expensive like the coat hanging from his chair. But there're lines on his face now that weren't there before and a strained smile tugs at the corner of his mouth as if he wants to reassure me but can't really force his heart into it.

"So... that's what you do now, is it, dance?" he asks to break the silence. It's a minor modification of a question he's posed twice already.

"I guess," I reply, still shirking the issue, he doesn't have to know what kind of dancing.

"Pays well?" he continues, I shrug slightly.

"Covers the bills... and you... I heard you quit..." I stop talking, his face grows dark and he looks out at the rain, away from me. He wouldn't want to talk about that I guess. It's history, their history.

A passing car sends a wave from the gutter up over the pavement. Muddy droplets trail down the window. I fiddle with my cup again, but keep my eyes on the road outside. God, I'm so late, I shouldn't have taken him up on the coffee, should've gone straight to the club.

"Damn rain won't let up, will it?" I laugh nervously, my stomach filling with ice at the thought of having to face Guy. "I should get going..." I make to stand up and he pushes his chair back.

"Do you have some place to be? We can share a taxi..." he says quietly, I watch him as he stands, giving me another of those strained, would be friendly smiles while shrugging into his coat and against my better judgement I smile weakly and nod.

I decide, as we get into the taxi, that I'll ask him to let me off at the park, the club's not far and if I run...

"Waterby Road," he states before I have time to speak. I stare blankly ahead as I sink into the seat, wishing it would swallow me up, my throat is dry - the club's on Waterby Road.

I don't have to ask how he knew. I never took him for the type to set foot in a dive like Guy's, but he's obviously seen me there. He knew all the time while he watched me avoid his questions. I can't look at him.

I don't want to feel ashamed. I rarely do. I rarely let myself dwell on it to be honest and most men I find myself with has had their convictions well soaked in alcohol and wallow in their own degradation deep enough to reserve judgement. But it's different with him. His opinion always worried me, not that he ever explicitly expressed any views on me back then. Back then it was all about Alex.

Alex... something begins to stir inside as his name rises to the forefront of my mind... Alex... lucky, carefree, gorgeous Alex, dazzling, enchanting, dangerous, dumb, crazy...

"He always did say I looked best with my clothes off..." I say, no I snap, angry. I push back against a swell of emotion from inside.

"He said many things..." he agrees with me. I wish he had reacted more, become angry, thrown me out of the car... anything but the quiet sadness I see when glancing at him. "He wasn't often right," he adds quietly.

I can't reply. I don't know where to go with that. I grit my teeth, working the anger into its own entity, trying to turn my shame into resentment of him. He has no right to do this to me. I glare at the car floor, feeling my eyes glaze over, I blink the heat away and focus my gaze on a faded candy wrapper, shrivelled and torn.

We sit there, the air thick with unspeakable words. Neither of us brave enough to delve into the chasm that awaits us beyond the one thing that brings us together.

He doesn't drop me off, he walks me in. I can't bring myself to stop him and Sam just grins a little and nods us through. The brawny, dark skinned man is used to seeing me with older men, he teases me about it in his taciturn way in the afterhours when we have a smoke together, waiting for the bus, says I should go home with him sometime.

I give Nick a shrug when he asks where the hell I've been and then there's Guy. There's no shrugging him off, he sticks his face up close to mine and spews a garlic stinking lecture all over me. I take it, bowing my head, inserting a few grumbling apologies when he lets me have a word in edgewise, but can't forget about my silent shadow waiting close by, melting into the assembled regulars and sticking out like a sore thumb with his well mannered request for a whiskey. Guy looks him over from over my shoulder and sneers at me.

"I told you, no boyfriends!" he snarls, but leaves it at that, only a last sarcastic smirk my way and an order to get ready, before he stalks off towards the bar. I let out a breath I didn't realise I was holding.

My eyes go to the stage, there's always someone up there, shaking his ass to the music. The smoke in the darkened room blurs the edges of the two boys who're on right now, not two of the more popular. Besides, it's Nick and I who do the proper shows, bringing in the cash. I'm guessing Nick's covered for me, but the crowd is restless, hungry. I listen to them jeering, and someone's throwing bottle caps; Dean doesn't bother going over there, he's chewing on an unlit cigarette and waiting for Guy's order that doesn't come.

I cringe inwardly, I don't want to do this tonight.

Nick is waving frantically for me, his face telling me exactly how sick of my shit he is, but I can't go yet. I walk up to the table in the back where my uninvited guest sits, a tumbler of whiskey untouched on the sticky table top.

"You staying?" I ask quietly, my voice more challenging than I expect.

"Do you mind?" he returns, a warning in his voice as well.

"You know I do..." I whisper.

"Why?" he raises an eyebrow.

"Why?"

"Yes, why? I've obviously seen you before, hell I've seen you dancing on my living room table..." he seems to be getting me back for my snide remark in the car.

I pick up the glass and throws the whiskey in his face. He jumps back, the chair clattering to the floor behind him. He wipes his face with his hand, giving me a look that's a mix of anger and disbelief.

"Get out!" I growl and he shakes his head beginning to say something, I feel more than see Guy heading our way. "Just leave! I don't know what the fuck you want?! I don't need this!!" I shout at him and his jaw sets.

"Do you really think this is what Alex would've wanted for you?" he asks heatedly and I physically flinch back, a burning like an acid at the back of my throat. I throw the tumbler at the wall behind him and it explodes against the bricks, glittering glass showering us both.

He grabs my arm and though I see it coming I can't escape the painful smack he lands on the back of my thigh. I gasp, it hurts, but the pain is nothing. I stare at him, feeling the anger and resentment break apart, letting through a deluge of raw emotion as I'm overwhelmed by memories.

We were running away together... just for a night, just the two of us... no one telling us what to do, no cares, no worries... Blinding lights, stars twirling in a distant sky... we were so drunk... and high... high on life and stolen freedom as much as on whatever those pills were that Alex kept popping like candy... They'd had a fight, another fight and Alex was plotting his revenge. Walking on the ledge...

'I'm immortal, Jamie, look at me!'

Guy is screaming at me, but I'm lost. There's no turning back now, the floodgates are opened and I can't even catch my breath. My voice is hollow and it frightens me, I can't hold back. Then strong hands on my arms, someone is picking me up from the floor, I struggle before I realise it's Sam. He helps me up and and I turn my face into his tight black t-shirt. I don't want him to let me go but he wrests my clinging hands from his shirt and pushes me towards Guy who grabs me and drags me into the back.

He shoves me down on the sofa; if he says anything I'm beyond hearing it, I barely notice him leaving and then Nick is beside me, stroking my hair from my face. He kneels by the coffee table, handing me a glass of water, then quietly makes a thin, white line on the coaster.

I try to drink the water, but cough most of it up again. I look at the table, eyes fixed on the white line calling to me to take the easy way out. I know I shouldn't, know Nick's already waiting for me to pay him... know how easy it would be...

"No... Nick..." I hear my plaintive voice and he gives me a hard look.

"I ain't covering for you anymore tonight! Want Guy to fuck you up for that mess out there? For fuck's sake, you whinging cunt! Just get over yourself!"

He gets up, holding the straw out towards me I take it from his hand before the doubts win out.

"Oi," Sam gives a nod as I sit down beside him on the bench at the bus stop. A corner of the plastic seat has been broken off for so long the frayed edge is nearly smooth and the rest is covered in faded tags and rude shapes. The streetlight gutters.

"Got any?" I drive my hands into my armpits and shiver; there's a chill in the air. The hood of my sweater is pulled down low over my face. I don't look at him.

He takes a crumpled pack from his jean pocket and sticks out a cigarette for me. It hangs limp between my fingers as he lights it for me. I take a token drag and then I just hold it in my hand. I'm coming down and fast.

I stare at the stacks of wet, brown leaves on the pavement, the rain's let up at last. Predictably depression's setting in. I rock slowly and take another drag. I have to get home and sleep it off. I have to pretend I'm stronger than this, but I'm swirling into a black cesspit of despair and I won't make it home.

"All right there, mate?" Sam's voice is a quiet rumble next to me.

"I'm good," I lie and put out the cigarette, handing him back the remains.

"You're not," he shrugs.

I nod. Slowly my head falls down on his shoulder and after a moment his arm comes up around me. He smells of sweat and smoke and vaguely of liquor and vomit. We sit there until the bus arrives and when it does, he stands, shrugging out of his jacket and placing it around my shoulders.

I go home with him.

It's rushed and feverish; neither of us in a mood for subtlety. He tears his t-shirt off and pushes me down on his narrow bed, ripping my jeans off me in one quick pull while I fight to be free of my shirt. Every muscle on his body is defined and bulging, mine is lithe and sinewy.

There's a moment of complete still while his trembling hands work the rubber onto his straining cock. He bends over me and I wrap my arms around his shoulders. It's a little bit awkward, but intense. He fucks me hard and deep; there's pain, but I relish in it, drink it down and let him own me.

I fall asleep with my arm resting on his chest.

The morning outside his small window is bleak and wet when I wake up, promising another rainy day. I'm alone. My jeans and my sweater lie folded on the swivel chair by his desk; the computer screen is black, but the hard drive is humming slightly.

I slip into the outer room. I make no sound and for a moment I watch him move in the small kitchen, unaware of me. He is wearing an unbuttoned, short sleeved shirt and my stomach jolts when I get a glimpse of his muscular abdomen as he takes the pot from the boiler and pours water into two mugs. Then he snatches the hot toast from the toaster, juggling it slightly and blowing on his fingers; I catch myself smiling.

"Oi," I say and he looks over at me, a funny little half smile on his lips.

"Toast?" he asks, holding a slice up as evidence, I shrug and nod.

Slipping into a kitchen chair I watch him pop a couple of more slices into the toaster before he sits down opposite to me, handing me my mug. He smiles at me as he butters his toast, the melting butter drips onto his fingers and he licks it off absently sending another jolt through me. My face flushes and I look away, sipping at the tea. Hot and sweet. I rarely stay for breakfast, part of me always wary of seeing my actions exposed in the stark daylight. But this is nice. I could get used to this.

I shake the thought, but there's already a sense of unease building inside me, a formless disquiet I can't quell. I set the mug down rubbing my eyes.

"Tired?" he says and I give a vague nod. "That shit ain't you, you know?"

I put the mug down and take another slice of toast, not responding, pretending that he didn't bring it up. I look out into his flat, it's bigger than mine, but older and slightly more worn, the wallpaper dating it a few decades. His bookshelf is brimming with books, knickknacks and framed photos, there's a blanket tossed onto the sofa in a rumpled pile and a bowl of left over popcorn tucked into it. It feels lived in, comfortable... safe...

"Right!" he says when he gets no response. He rises abruptly from his seat.

He makes too much noise washing his mug; his movements are hastened and rough, muscles flexing under the tight sleeves of his shirt. He seems suddenly as intimidating to me as he might to the unlucky bastards who get on the wrong side of him at the club.

I get up and head for the door. I don't say anything and he doesn't look up.

As my hand closes on the door handle another closes over mine. His breath is on my neck and I feel him press against my back. A tremble runs through me.

"Always clear off when you get uncomfortable, eh?" he says, his voice a soft rumble against my skin and I let my hand drop slowly, his stays on the handle. It's quiet for a moment my breathing short and his heavy, then he sighs, straightening slightly. "You worry me, all right?"

"Ain't yours to worry about," I bite out.

"Fuck you, Jamie. God, fuck you!" the muscles in his arm bunch as his fist clenches in front of me and I wonder absently if maybe he will hit me. I wonder how it might feel.

"You already did!" I push.

"Go to hell, you little shit!" he sounds more weary than angry and I nod my head slightly and then rest my forehead against the door in front of me.

"Sorry..." my voice is dull, distant. "The sex was good though..." I hear him snort behind me and then chuckle in a slightly cynical tone.

I turn around, still slumped against the door with him still leaning over me, his breath smells of toast and jam. I give him a half smile and trail a hand up to the collar of his shirt, holding on, he shakes his head, but his eyes light up.

"That guy...?" I give my head a sharp shake and feel my face harden, my hand drops from his shirt, he rolls his eyes. "OK, I won't ask, you're not seeing him again though... right?"

"Never saw him in the first place, he's..." I begin, then shake my head again and shrug. "I should..." I nod at the door behind me; for the longest moment he just watches me, eyes soft and searching.

"Later," he says finally and steps back. I swallow and just stand there wanting to speak, but there's nothing to say. He reaches out a hand and nudges my chin up giving me a grin, one that strikes a cord in me and I straighten up and kiss his cheek, just brush against it with my lips before I turn and leave.

*****

The car's too new. I watch it absently as I walk the street up to my block of flats. Silver, spotless, windows intact... it's out of place. From the alley ahead some familiar faces are eyeing it with keen interest; local troublemakers, teenagers only a bit younger than myself.

I turn my back to it and walk up the steps; the car door slams.

"James!"

The voice shoots ice into my stomach. As I turn around I feel myself shaking, my body feels out of my control and for a moment I have a sense of vertigo that I fear will send me crashing down the steps. I grit my teeth and force my eyes up to the face of the man standing on the street below me.

He has his car key in hand and locks the doors with a beep as he moves towards me, stopping just below the stone steps, watching me with a stranger's eyes.

"Tel...?" my mouth is dry and I don't know if he hears me.

"God, look at you..." the disapproval fills his voice with a familiar undertone. "I didn't half believe Bolton..."

"What the fuck did he tell you?!" I feel the panic rise, but try to keep it out of my voice, try to find an edge.

"Enough," he says, looking at me hard and I shudder, but the anger is there now, smouldering and I give him a bitter smile that he meets with a deadpan glare which will not budge. "Are you going to invite me in?"

I look him over, letting my smirk grow and shake my head.

"I wouldn't leave my car if I were you..." I say opening the door behind me, knowing he would never bother to wait for an invitation and wouldn't care if I told him no.

"It's insured," he replies while following me inside.

I ignore him as we come into the stairwell. It's not a very old building, but the upkeep is lacking and the landlord rarely around. While I fumble with the lock I hear the rattle of the chain as the door across the hall his pushed ajar. I don't need to look to know the pinched face, pale and wrinkled that appears in the gap, eyes squinting, suspicious.

"How are you, Mrs. Dreher?" I say loudly as I've gotten in the habit of doing and the door closes swiftly with nothing but a whisper.

As we enter my flat I step deliberately on a big cockroach that scuttles past my bathroom door and kick a beer can across the floor; it clatters against the wall and leaves a trace of beer on the hard carpet.

My place is small, one room and a kitchen you can barely turn around in. If not for the mess of old magazines and cans, you'd think it was abandoned. I don't own much; there's the foldaway bed, as always unmade, an old worn arm chair that the previous tenant left behind - I think he died in it - and an empty bookshelf.

I bend and pull out a duffel bag from under the bed, whipping out a t-shirt. I look it over and smell it - it'll do.

"This is where you live?"

There's no need to look at him to know the level of disgust that must be on his face, his voice is unmistakable. I shrug into the t-shirt and drag my hand through my hair, it's still stiff from yesterday's hair gel.

"Home sweet home," I say in a mockingly cheerful tone. "What's it to you?"

"It's little better than a cardboard box!" he insists, his eyes sweeping our surroundings, I bristle, but his criticism hits me like a punch in the stomach all the same. "When did you last clean this place?"

"Well, I'm sorry! I gave the housekeeper the day off," I counter scathingly, "I wasn't expecting such discerning company."

He levels me with a glare that I can't believe I'm able to meet and as our eyes stay locked he raises an eyebrow. Then his stance shift, a slight motion that sends ripples of fear through me, but I don't look down, I don't yield.

"It's been awhile," he offers, tone suddenly pleasant, conversational, but I know what it means. "Your manners have deteriorated," he points out and I feel my face flush.

"Piss off!" I snarl. "The fuck did you come here for?"

"Bolton told me you needed help," he says, half rolling his eyes and for a moment I can only look at him, torn between objection and disbelief. "Seems he wasn't wrong," he adds with another dismayed look around the room.

"Why the fuck would you give a shit if I did?" I ask quietly, sounding bitter more than anything, he pins me with a sceptical glare.

"Why wouldn't I?" he counters, I shrug and I try not to seem as if I'm avoiding his gaze.

The room is quiet again.

I wish he'd take a hint and leave, but he's on a mission it seems. I wonder if he thought I'd be happy to see him, grateful that he came all this way to save me from myself.

I wonder if I am.

All this time, so many reasons to stay away and yet here he is, standing in my shabby flat in his crisp grey suit, because he thought I needed him. Bolton must've lain it on thick about my miserable state of existence for him to come running to my rescue.

"I don't need anything from you!" I say, stressing the last word enough to be insulting.

"Bolton told me about yesterday," he says, ignoring my attempt at rejecting him. "He was afraid you'd hurt yourself."

"That's..." I don't know how to respond, don't know what the truth would've been without the drugs... without Sam... "I was fine!" I look away, out at the bricks of the building across the alley, the faint filter of car fumes covering my window panes are specked with rain.

"That's not his version," he disagrees with that annoying calm, he can tell I'm straddling honesty like it's a knife's edge.

I don't ask what his version is, I don't want to know, but he's not waiting for me to ask. He circles me with an affected air of indifference that I've long since caught on to. I know he's about to let me have it; I used to hold my breath, waiting for him utter those first cutting words that'd set the tone of yet another stinging lecture.

But I'm not his to lecture anymore.

"All right! So I bawled like a girl when he brought up Alex!" his name catches in my throat, I feel like I've swallowed a piece of glass. I shake the feeling back in the dark where it belongs and sneer at him. "But I'm not a fucking baby, I can wipe my nose and get on with it!"

He isn't expecting me to take the offensive and he has to take a moment to regroup, I can see it in the tilt of his head as he watches me quietly, the tiny purse of his lips lets me know when he has formed a response and I attack before he can speak.

"I told you, I don't need your help! I'm not about to slit my wrists because Stephen Bolton shows up and reminds me my best mate died and if I did, you'd be the last person on earth I'd go to!" I've rattled him and I feel a small jolt of satisfaction when the barb hits the mark.

He shakes himself, a look of a man sobering up crossing his face. He looks around and tugs idly at his cuff. I see insecurity in him that I've never seen before, that he either never allowed me to see or that I was too blinded by his presence to ever notice. I feel uneasy.

"I deserved that," he says coolly, catching me off guard. I watch him suspiciously and he shrugs a little. "I should've been there for you, I..." he tastes the words he was planning to say and discards them, "...I didn't know what to do. I was blind and..." he catches my eye and I want to turn away, I don't want to hear those empty words, I don't want to have to react to them, but they drop into the silence and hang there like little pins of guilt piercing my conscience. "...I'm sorry..."

I feel my lip tilt into a sarcastic little grin and shrug, shaking my head. I want to hurt him, but know it isn't fair. Maybe he doesn't deserve for me to turn my bitterness on him; arrogant, self-righteous bastard though he is, it's not him I despise it's what it made me into, trying to be what he wanted.

He never understood, couldn't have then and I watch him now, knowing he still has no idea.

"I'm not," I try to keep my voice steady.

"I suppose I've wasted my time," he says and I look up at him, feeling suddenly sad that I'll never have him as I once did, that everything we had really was a waste of his time because it was never what I wanted.

"I didn't ask you to come!" I return and grasp the edge in my tone with both hands and fan the flame. "Really, why did you?!"

He looks at me, steely eyes cutting straight to my core, I rarely riled him to a point where he showed me genuine anger, but now I have, it makes me take an involuntary step back and I braze to attack before he can have a go at me, but it's him who cuts me off this time, spite in his tone.

"Isn't that rather obvious, James? I came to see you hadn't jumped off a bridge last night!"

I stare at him. He chose to say that, every word a deliberate cut and I swallow, tears forming in my eyes. Then I hit him, fist clenched tight; I strike at his shoulder and then his chest, I clench both fists and pound on his pristine lapels with both hands, the tears burning lines down my face. He lets me for a moment and then he grabs me by the arms and gives me one rough shake.

"Stop it!" he snaps.

"Bastard!" I snarl back, heat forming at the back of my throat, I struggle and he lets go immediately. "You've no fucking right!"

He backs off, turning a little away, refusing to look at me. He straightens his clothes with studied care, as if every crease is a problem to be solved. I slowly regain my composure, such as it ever was and wipe my nose with my hand. I feel as if I've been beaten raw, my whole body hurts.

Neither of us can meet the other's eyes again, but at length I finally manage to stop myself from choking on my own voice and ask him to leave.

"You need to go," I whisper and he nods.

"I know," he says without turning towards me. "I..." he falls silent, he doesn't offer an apology, no more meaningless words.

I don't watch him leave, couldn't if I'd wanted to, my eyes are too clouded by tears that I won't let myself shed. I'm stronger than this. I can fight it, I will not fall to pieces again. My stomach turns and I can't hold it back, I head for the bathroom and barely manage to crash to my knees on the tile before I sacrifice Sam's toast to the porcelain god.

Chapter 2 [Top] [Next]

"Hullo," I look up at Sam and he gives me a nod. He's inside tonight, traded with Dean for some reason.

"Hey," I say awkwardly, I hadn't been sure I'd be able to look him in the eye tonight, but now that he's standing there, leaning casually against the wall at the backstage door it feels good to see him.

I tilt my head and give him my usual wicked grin and wink as I walk past him. He follows me with his gaze and just as I'm about to open the door he slips a hand around my arm and applies enough pressure to stop me dead. I check his face quickly, but he just looks at me quietly.

"What?" I swallow, he's too bloody strong for my comfort.

"Don't do nuthin' stupid tonight, all right?" he says and then lets me go and, taking his eyes off me as if he neither expects or cares whether he gets a response, he moves away to make the rounds and I stare after him for a moment, then look down at my feet.

I know the feeling that's creeping up on me. It's familiar enough, although I used to tell myself that it was a useless emotion, one that would just pull me down and drown me, only...

I decisively shake it, it doesn't matter, nothing matters. I swing the door open, then slam it shut behind me, working myself into anger.

"What?" Nick says.

"Sam," I return as if it was answer enough.

"Oh?" Nick gathers his things. "You owe me..." he continues without looking at me.

Damn it. Of course he'd pull that shit on me, why wouldn't he? It's not as if he grows the stuff in his backyard. I cringe and begin forming a response, but none can really end with me giving him money.

"Hell, Nick, my rent is due... fuck..."

"Find some trick then, fuck if I care how you get it!" he says and gives me a look before he gets up and pushes passed me. Then he stops and turns, the look on his face changing to a calculating one that sends chills down my spine. "Or... if you're interested... I'll let you have it for free if you do me a favour."

Shit, shit, shit. Favours for Nick, that would be one of those stupid things Sam was talking about. But I really don't have the money, doesn't matter what meagre tips I earn tonight, Nick will want more than what Guy lets me keep and the damn rent really is due, late actually if you want to be picky about it.

Caught between the unspoken threat of Nick's associates and the less than appealing idea of being homeless if the landlord catches me without cash, I finally shrug and nod my head, he doesn't say anything more, just leaves for the stage.

I'm up next, I swallow the acid in my mouth and start to change.

*****

Dean hauls the last shitfaced loiterer up from his chair, dragging him towards the exit. I stare dark eyed after them, another night over. Nick brushes past me, squeezing my hand as he goes past without even a look back and heads out. I slip the small key into my jeans pocket and roll my head, listening to the crackling of my neck.

I'm in no way up for this.

Letting myself out through the backdoor I find myself in the back alley, the stench of old trash from the dumpster curdling my insides. It's dark, the light over the door long since broken, I move to stand just out of reach of the streetlights, not certain what I'm waiting for.

The door slams behind me, startling me and I turn to the sound of a lighter, the quick flare lights up Sam's face. He doesn't seem surprised to see me, obviously saw me leave. He comes towards me and I can't take my eyes of him; a prowling predator bathed in darkness and mist.

He stops beside me, tilts his head and takes a drag of the cigarette before passing it to me, I take it, feeling the tremble of my hand as our fingers meet.

"Are you hustling?" he takes another cigarette out and lights it.

"What if I am?" I hold the cigarette between cold fingers, trying to make him look away, but he simply returns my glare until I'm the one who turns away.

"Me and Dean threw some real arseholes out tonight, probably still around," he says.

Fair enough, good of him to warn me, I've had my share of disturbing encounters with the dregs who can't even measure up to the low standards of the dive Guy runs.

"I'm not hustling," I assure him.

"So what are you doing?" he counters and I have another try at staring him down, but fail and resort to rolling my eyes instead, sneering.

"None of your business, is it?" I say.

He draws closer, leaning his dark hand on the wall behind me and I press my back against the bricks looking up at him. He doesn't speak at first and I am about to tell him to get off my back when he leans in and catches my lips in a relentless kiss. I kiss him back without thinking and feel my head reel with the sensation, I close my eyes and drown in it.

Then he pulls away, breathing heavily.

"I think I'm making you my business," he says and I snap back to reality and give him an angry shove.

"I'm nobody's business but my own!" I snarl and turn to walk away, but his hand is around my arm turning me around again and I glare at him. "Look, I like you, Sam, let's keep it that way!" I say warningly.

"What good will that do me if you're dug out of a dumpster tomorrow morning?" he returns and I snatch my arm out of his grip.

"Fuck off!" I hiss. I really don't have time for this; the key in my pocket feels like a lead weight and I need to go now. "Just leave me the hell alone!" I back away and this time he lets me go, only his eyes following me into the night.

*****

I still feel as though Sam's watching when I get off the bus at the last stop on Eastern, the driver turns the engine off and snaps open a newspaper. He gives me a glare in the rear view mirror when I hesitate at the door and I jump out. The doors close even as I'm still touching them. I feel an urge to kick a dent in the side of the bus, but it wouldn't be clever being noticed out here.

I pull my hood down a little more and shove my hands into my pockets. I try to walk calmly as if I'm on my way home, but I sense the nervous spring in my step and the twitch in my neck every time I have to prevent myself from turning around sharply at a noise.

There are mainly businesses and warehouses in this area. I've worked here on odd jobs and know my way around, even waited tables at a small café for a few weeks before I gave it up, didn't even stay long enough to get paid.

It doesn't take long to track down the place where Nick has asked me to pay a visit. It's a small building squared away in the corner of a large parking lot, an unremarkable sign over a dark window with a metal grate pulled down across it spells out the equally unremarkable name. I draw a shaky breath and grip the key in my pocket - it's not for the front door.

I skirt around the edge of the parking lot, ending up at the entrance to a narrow ally where someone has parked a muddy van. I press against the wall and clamber over a couple of crates and then I'm standing in front of a backdoor with a large padlock. I squeeze the key. My teeth are rattling now - there's still a chance to go back, catch the next bus and tell Nick... tell Nick what?

I pull out the key and wrap the sleeve of my sweater around my hand as I grab the lock. I will the key not to fit as I fumble with it, but it slips right in and I turn it; the click echoes in the silence. I stiffen, a car passes somewhere in the distance and then nothing again.

I still keep my hand inside my sleeve as I push the door open. Just in and out, lock the door and no one will ever know I was here. The storage room is pitch black and I obviously have no torch and no lighter. I let the door close behind me and then I stand in the dark until my eyes adjust and I see the shapes of shelves and boxes. Then I edge forward and exit the backroom and come into the front. The grate across the window casts jagged shadows on the tile floor.

Nick's instructions left me with little doubt as to what to take and where it is and I steer my steps towards the manager's office, but as I turn the handle the door refuses to budge. I nearly laugh out loud.

I back up and look around. Entering a building with a key is one thing, breaking into a locked office is another. I stare at the door and then close my eyes.

The kick breaks the doorframe and I wince at the noise, but the door fly open, slamming into a filing cabinet. I wait tensely for some evidence that my actions has dropped me in it, but there's nothing. I move forward and walk behind the desk, careful not to touch the knobs with my bare hands as I open the drawers. Bottom left I find what I'm looking for, a green and blue plastic bag with a tin box in it. I didn't ask Nick what was in it and I won't; perhaps he doesn't know either.

I pull the office door closed behind me, surprised when it snaps in place despite the broken frame. Then I make my way through the unlit storage area, knocking my knee into a shelve, I curse under my breath and then I'm finally out the backdoor.

The van was gone.

Standing there immovable, my mind races. I know I have to act and quickly before anyone notices me - whoever moved the van could be coming right back. I unhitch the lock from the latch and lock it, then realise I touched it and hurriedly wipe it with my sleeve.

"Oy! You! What the fuck are you up to back there?!"

I drop the key on the ground, frantically snatching the plastic bag up. Backing into the wire fence behind me I watch as the shape of a man move towards me vaguely backlit from the lights in the parking lot. There's no way to get by him, he is hefty and the narrow alley isn't wide enough for me to dodge him. I press harder against the fence and suddenly feel it give behind me. I fall onto the asphalt on the other side, my jeans shredding on the metal fence and my foot catching in the narrow gap. The plastic bag is ripped open and the tin box clatter to the ground.

The man lurch forward, cursing and hollering and I tear my foot loose from the fence, my shoe coming halfway off. Grabbing the can I stumble down the street, pressing my foot back into the shoe, not caring where I am or if I'm going the right way I run blindly, the box pressed against my chest.

I've probably run for half an hour before finally my lungs give out and I see only black swirls before my eyes. I lean forward against an anonymous brick wall, panting with my head resting in the crook of my arm and my chest aching with every indrawn breath. My muscles burn and I want to throw up.

The tin box dangle in my left hand, miraculously unscathed. I realise, looking at it from the corner of my eye, that it has a lock, which was why it didn't open when it fell to the ground. I place it under my arm and turn to slump heavily against the wall. Sweat is dripping off me and the cold early morning air chill me to the core, but I know that isn't why I'm shaking.

When I finally manage to force myself to move again I feel a stab of pain in my leg. I look down and see that the tear in my jeans is dark with blood, I grit my teeth. I look around; practically alone but for a truck being unloaded across the street and further down some people are moving into a building that just opened.

I set the box down and slip my sweater off, then my t-shirt which I rip in half and tie around the bloody gap before pulling the sweater on again and the hood down over my forehead. Then, the box tucked securely into my armpit, I start walking.

*****

The knocking is getting to me. A steady hammering that just won't stop. I finally lift the pillow off my face and roll out of bed. My legs are wobbly and I steady myself on the dead man's chair and then on the bookcase and then the wall. I stumble to the door and open it, it's caught and pulled out of my hand, safety chain long since torn off in a row with someone I should've paid back before I had to pay interest in bruises.

"Where the hell have you been?" I wince and lock eyes with Sam, startled by his presence and by the evident anger in his voice. I don't know what to say so I shake my head vaguely, it's not the answer he's looking for. "Are you gonna let me in?" he asks, I shake my head again. "Right."

He remains where he is, looking at me so hard he might as well be smacking me upside the head. My nonexistent resolve weakens and I step back, letting him by. He hesitates for a moment and then moves past.

The apartment holds no interest for him and he doesn't appear to see any of it, he only turns to look at me, his arms folding across his chest and his muscles flexing unnervingly under the black leather jacket; I try to swallow, but my mouth is dry. I don't even know what time it is, only that it's dark outside and my head is pounding.

"Want a beer?" I ask, hearing how vapid I sound even as I see his face darken.

"Oh, for fuck's sake!" I flinch back as he throws out his hands. "Where the hell have you been at, you little shit?"

"What's it to you?! God, leave me alone!" I respond in kind. "What the hell right do you have..."

"You haven't shown up at the club for two bloody days!" he shoots me down and I stare at him not quite sure I heard right.

I remember coming home and I remember putting the box... I drop to my knees and dig through the duffel bag under my bed until my hands close around the hard, cold tin box, I don't take it out, just shove it back under the bed. Sam's hand on my shoulder tighten around the fabric of my sweater and he pulls me up grabbing me around both arms and then he shakes me once, hard.

"Where were you?" he barks at me and I want to tell him to fuck off, but faced with his overpowering strength I can't get the words out so I just look at him.

"None of your business..." I trail off, he lets me go with a small shove and a sound of disgust and then moves back.

I can't look at him, shame burns in my stomach like battery acid and my head is still pounding. I want him to leave and I want to crawl back into bed and just die. I can't get my head around losing two days, it doesn't make sense. It's not like it never happened before, but usually there have been vast amounts of alcohol or something stronger involved, just sleeping away two days shouldn't happen...

Fuck, I probably lost my job too! I'm about to ask Sam when he steps up past me and pulls the covers off my bed.

"The hell is that?" he says and I turn around to look at the bed.

At the lower end of it the sheets are stained nearly black and I look automatically down at my leg where the t-shirt covers the tear in my jeans, it's soaked through. His eyes follow mine and he lets out a grunt, grabbing my arm. He pulls me over to the armchair and stands me in front of it.

"Take off your jeans!"

"What?"

"Just fucking do it, or I will!" he orders and my hands obey despite their trembling. I slip the jeans off, as usual I don't wear underwear, but he doesn't pay attention to anything above my knees, he simply shoves me into the chair and kneels down beside me. "What did you do?"

He examines the gash, it's long and deeper than I thought, although it seems to have closed under the dried blood. It makes me a little sick to think I've been lying in my bed bleeding for two days. I don't answer him. There's nothing to say that he'd like to hear or that I'd like to share.

The sting on my bare thigh is so sudden and startling I cry out and nearly jump up, but he holds me back and I take an angry swipe at his shoulder that he barely acknowledges.

"Just fucking tell me!" he says.

"I hurt it on a fence!" I answer coldly.

"On a fence? Where?"

"Somewhere..." he looks at me with those hard eyes again. "I was doing Nick a favour!" I bite out in a muffled voice.

He looks at me, his eyes still hard, but filled with disbelief; then he gets up. For a second I think he'll walk out, but then he leans over me and I only have time to see the purpose in his eyes before he roughly turns me on my side against the armrest and cracks his palm down on my unprotected arse.

I fight unsuccessfully to get up, but he's holding me down with his weight and a strength that allows him to toss grown men into the street at will. My slight built has nothing on him and I know it, but can't stop myself from trying to get away from the searing pain he's inflicting.

"Ow, ow, Sam! Don't! Damn you!" I try to hit him, try to make myself angry instead of miserable, instead of frightened and vulnerable, but all he does is force me higher up on the armrest and spanks harder.

He doesn't hold back, he delivers one firm, deliberate smack after another while I squirm and thrash. I'm fighting myself more than him now, trying not to cry out, but tears are welling up and I hate myself for it, it's childish, weak.

"Sam! Stop!" I'm desperate enough to plead. "Please, you have to stop! Please, Sam!" He doesn't respond and he doesn't stop. A sob escapes and then a gasp and then I come undone, burrowing my head into the upholstery, silently letting the tears flow.

He stops. His hand rubs at the back of my neck for a moment in quiet recognition and he relents, backing off. I stay where I am, hiding my face and letting the tears dry up. My stomach keeps convulsing even after I stop sobbing, but I get myself under control and sit back up, wiping my runny nose on my hand and sleeve.

"I thought you were smarter, Jamie," he tells me and I nod my head mutely in agreement. He crouches down in front of me, a hand stroking my thigh, I wince and he lowers it to my calf and the messy cut. "Do you have anything to treat this with?"

"Like what?" I mumble and he rolls his eyes, letting out an exasperated sigh.

"Like bandages, antiseptics... nothing?" he frowns and stands up again. "Right. OK, suppose you're coming with me then," he resolves and fetters me with a grim look when I begin to squeak a protest, I sink deeper into the armchair and stare at the floor.

The antiseptic stings like fire down my leg and I twitch aside and thump him with my fist, he snatches my wrist as he sways backwards and glares at me.

"Do it again, I dare you!" he growls.

"Fuck you!" I return.

"You already did," he throws my own words back in my face and I fight the temptation to stick my tongue out at him.

He cleans the gash in my leg carefully, it starts bleeding as he's working and he asks me to hold a towel against it while he gets some strips, I raise an eyebrow and he shrugs; he uses them to close up the gash and then he wraps a bandage around my leg. It's evident that this isn't the first time he's done this.

Gathering up the remaining bits and pieces he takes the bloody towel from my hand and then he vanishes into the bathroom again. He doesn't close the door and I hear him move around.

The apartment looks no different today from the night before, the same pale green and brown tile in the kitchen and the same drooping flower on the windowsill behind the couch, but all the same everything has changed. I roll down the leg of my only other pair of jeans and then lean back in the kitchen chair, allowing the twinge of pain in my buttocks to carry over into a duller sensation that is still painful, but which I feel better for being able to bear without cringing.

I wait. He washes his hands and I hear the water running for a long time and then it's quiet. I wait a little while longer, rubbing my thigh with a hand that's beginning to sweat. I shift my feet under the table to prevent them tapping tensely.

When he comes out he stays across the room from me, leaning his shoulder against the wall with folded arms, simply watching me with an impenetrable look in his eye. My foot start tapping again.

"You hungry?" he asks and I take my eyes off him and look at my hands in my lap. I nod without looking up, I'm not really hungry, but well aware that I haven't eaten for over two days. "I could go for that beer 'bout now, you?" I nod again.

He warms some leftover stew with noodles and nods me over to the couch as he places the plate and a beer on the coffee table, sitting himself down in the other corner, dangling an arm over the back of the couch and opening the beer with one hand. I don't move, looking at him my stomach quiver at the sight of his bare forearm, swung out as if inviting me in, the shirtsleeve rolled up casually.

I slowly stand and purposely take the route that forces me to brush against his legs when I sit down, he doesn't budge, but I see a glint in his eye and the slight twitch of his lip. I wet my lip and chew absentmindedly on the lower left side of it, he lifts the beer to his and drinks unhurriedly.

I give him a sharp push with my knee so that he spills some and then, as he wipes his chin with a stifled curse, I slip down in the couch, pulling a leg up in front of me in defence. He gives me a glare that's completely ruined by the grin he can't prevent.

"You're really asking for it!" he says and I grin back.

"Uh uh, don't get any ideas!" I deny the accusation passionately.

He relaxes back into the couch, propping up an elbow so he can rest his head in his hand, he's watching me again with that look I can't read. I pick up the fork and dig into the food, it's spicy and tastes of curry, which I don't really like, but I eat anyway.

"Not the first time, eh?" it's not really a question and I can't think of a response so I just shrug and keep eating. He's still watching me.

"Why?" I say indifferently when the silence begins to get to me.

"Am I wrong?" he returns and I sneer a little; he laughs. "So?" he prods for more information, but that I'm not willing to give, so again I just shrug vaguely and turn my attention back to the now almost empty plate. "Right."

That curt little word says an annoying lot. I give him a tired look, he wouldn't even begin to understand if I told him. I set the fork down. The beer remains unopened on the table.

"I should go..." I state and start to get up.

"Right."

There it is again, now with a slight sarcastic tone that grates on my temper. He takes another swig of his beer and then holds the can with both hands looking at it, his head shaking slowly as if in response to his thoughts. I stand up completely, wiping my hands on my jeans. Now it's my turn to lean over him, eyes hard and jaw set, I place my hand on the back of the couch and tilt my head.

"Fuck off!" I say slowly when he meets my eyes. "It's none of your business!" He looks at me quizzically and then turn away as he sets the beer down. I know I'm pushing my luck, but stay where I am.

"I thought I told you, you little shit," he says and the last words roll off his tongue softly like they're an endearment, "I'm making you my business."

His hand on the back of my neck is like a vice, refusing to give when I try to pull away, but his lips as they close on mine are gentle. I reluctantly find myself melting into his firm hold.

Chapter 3 [Top] [Next]

Morning is a gray haze outside the window as I ease myself off the bed. I check my bandage, stroking my hand down it carefully, but it seems undisturbed despite our abuse of it a little while ago. I grab my sweater off his swivel chair and then I bump my knee on the side of the bed as I scramble for my jeans on the floor.

I look around wildly, but Sam only moves restlessly in his sleep and gives a light snore. I look at him for a moment longer; I hate myself for doing this to him, but I can't stay.

There's no scrap of paper, but I'm not sure what I'd write if there were. I let myself out and jog down the stairs, ignoring the pinch in my leg as I run.

Walking downtown I realise just how sore I am. My whole body is sore and I doubt it's from Sam's spanking, even though the feel of his hand still lingers. Thinking about him makes my steps slow down. I feel the hesitation pull on me, but I know I just can't do this.

I have my bus card and end up grabbing the first bus I see heading my direction. I sit down as far back as I can. Not many people on the bus at this hour and I get the seat to myself. Dragging my feet up beside me, I huddle into my sweater, pulling the hood down over my nose. I drift off to sleep for a few stops and then wake up as some people get on.

I look around trying to get my bearings and decide I'll get off at the next stop. The weather has turned sour as the morning's worn on and a chilly drizzle seeps into my clothes as I walk the last few streets towards my apartment.

There is a cold empty feeling in the room when I enter, the type of dismal damp you get in an abandoned building. I fling my wet sweater to the floor and undo my jeans, they cling to my thighs and I peal them off slowly. I toss them over the back of the armchair to let them dry.

The bandages are only bloody on the area closest to the gash, I put them on the edge of the sink and examine Sam's work, the wound looks neat and clean, only dry blood in a thin line between the strips. I pick at a scab and a few drops of blood appear, so I leave the rest be and get up to turn the shower on.

I'm hit by a jet of icy cold water and pull back, turning the faucet to red, it doesn't do anything and I grit my teeth, no hot water again. I turn it off and sit back down on the toilet lid, my head sinking into my hands, I drag my fingers through my hair and let my hands bunch into fists. What the hell am I doing with my life?

"You can't even keep a job as a third rate stripper!" I don't recognise my voice, it's hollow and grating.

My hands come away greasy as I straighten up, I need to wash my hair, cold water or not. Even though I'm quick about it I leave the bathroom shuddering and try rubbing the cold out of my body with the towel. I bring the bandages with me and sit in the armchair to put it back in place. Sitting my bare bum down on the coarse upholstery doesn't fail to remind me what happened last time I was in this chair and I stop what I'm doing for a second and let the memory hit me.

Sam...

I shake my head and pick up the towel, gently wiping the water from my leg, it comes away slightly discoloured, but there isn't much bleeding. I carefully wrap the bandages over the gash until it's almost as neat as before and then I pat the jeans hanging behind me, they are still as wet and cold. Instead I crouch down under the bed and pull the bag out, I find a pair of pyjama pants that will do for now.

The grey daylight reflects off the tin box and I feel as if it glares at me from the bottom of the bag. I know I have to get it to Nick, but I dread having to go back to the club and maybe run into Sam.

I stuff the bag back under the bed and then turn to look at the sheets in front of me. They're stiff with blood and I let my hand run across the hardened stain. I check the covers, but they only have a few brownish smudges of blood on them and I throw them aside.

The sheets stick like a band aid to the mattress as I pull them off, the mattress underneath is equally stained and after rolling the sheets into a ball I flip it over, turning the stain towards the floor.

I walk out into the stairway with the sheets still bundled into a ball in my arms. As I open the garbage chute the door across from mine open and a woman comes out, she's carrying a little girl and dragging along another behind her. She looks at me with the eyes of a startled deer and I take my eyes off her quickly, but not before noting the badly concealed bruise on her left cheek.

I dispose of my burden and close the chute with more force than is necessary - the sound echoes loudly around us. The woman hurries down the stairs as quickly as the toddler by her hand will allow for. She looks up at the turn of the stairs and our eyes meet again and then she's gone.

*****

There's nobody outside the club when I arrive. For a moment I waver, but then Dean appears, dragging along a cursing and struggling man by the scruff of his neck. The man is thrown callously onto the pavement, falling backwards and tumbling down on his side, he staggers drunkenly as he's getting up and takes a few would be threatening steps towards Dean before the futility dawns on him and then he sticks two fingers in the air and comes stumbling towards me across the street.

I pull out of the way and let him pass before I hitch up the bag on my shoulder and begin walking, ahead of me the building looms like a prison, the tall industrial windows boarded up from the inside and covered by metal bars on the outside. Dean's eyes are unreadable as he watches me approach and I stop a few steps away as he folds his arms, I wonder if Guy's said to keep me out. I give him a nod and he spits on the ground.

"Oi, didn't you die?" he says with a sneer. "Guy's got some new butt boy on tonight," he adds and I shrug, feeling myself relax. It's almost a relief, hearing that I've been replaced, but I'm surprised Sam hasn't told Dean anything.

I don't want to ask, but the question draws itself from my lips and I'm unable to prevent the words as they tumble out.

"Sam's not here yet?" I can't look at Dean and I try to seem as if I don't really care, but I feel heat flood my face.

"Won't fuckin' be here!" Dean frowns and his mouth contorts in a sneer as he spits on the ground again. "Bloody wanker quit day before yesterday!"

He quit? I look at Dean and start to ask another question, but then change my mind; I remind myself that I made my choice - he has nothing to do with me and that's the way I want it.

"So, what are you doing here? Came to blow Guy for your job?" he leers at me and I can feel the revulsion showing on my face, he barks out a hard laugh.

"Nick here?" I say coldly and he sobers up, something contemptuous flitting over his face as he nods me through without as much as a word.

I go in; the place is dark and the music, which I always find too loud is a dull throbbing at the back of the room. On the stage I see a boy writhing while he struggles to loosen a tie in an even remotely sexy way. The dark blue blazer and round little cap is on the stage, already discarded. I've worn the outfit, I would bet it fit me no better than him, in fact his pale face and large, naive eyes make him pull the look off far better than I ever did... despite being a public school brat growing up.

I keep to the wall and keep my eyes on Guy who is leaning on the bar, watching his new find with a disparaging glower. I know the look; I used to feel it burning its way into me when I was on stage and dreaded facing him afterwards. He'd had me bullied into shape by the end of my first week.

The door to the dressing room is slightly ajar, Nick's probably listening to the crowd to see how they're taking the new arrival. I slip inside and close it, shutting out the music and the whistling and sordid commentary. Nick looks up; on the table in front of him there's a magazine and on the cover is a half naked man whose face is obscured by two white lines.

Nick looks at me for a moment, clearly surprised to see me, then he leans back, a smirk spreading across his face. He holds out the straw, a small piece of red plastic.

"Couldn't stay away, eh?" he says and I swallow, my eyes staying fixed on his hand, but it's the lines on the table that has my attention.

Then Sam's voice strike out of the back of my mind "that shit isn't you, you know?" God, how I wish he was right. I close my eyes. I'm not going to do it. I'm going to hand over the box and then leave, never looking back. My head reels. It'd be so easy, so good and then what? Get stuck in Nick's pocket like a fucking puppet on a string?

"Go fuck yourself," I say light heartedly and he sneers at me, he doesn't doubt what's going through my head, but he doesn't push or coax. "Here!" I hold the bag out and his eyes light up.

"No shit?" he says, he takes it and puts it on the table. I don't get a thank you and he doesn't say anything else, instead he bends over the magazine and snorts up one white line... I watch him for half a second longer and then I turn and walk out.

I walk straight into the bony form of my replacement and he looks up at me with panicked eyes, the bundle of clothes pressed to his chest. The crowd behind him is loud and I hear them calling for more. He seems to see something on my face that frightens him and he pulls back.

Guy is behind him and his eyes lock with mine, a sneer on his face that sends shivers down my spine. I have to remind myself I don't have to take any of his shit tonight.

"Get in there and tell Nick he's on!" Guy gives the boy a shove without taking his eyes off me and he slips past and vanishes into the dressing room behind me. Then Guy gives me a nod to the side and I reluctantly follow. Nick comes out, he doesn't appear to see us. I catch the look in his eyes as the lights hit his face, they're glazed over, strange. He's far gone.

"What do you want?" I turn to Guy, he's leaning on the wall, we're a few steps away from the nearest table, it's empty, but it wouldn't have mattered, nobody sees anything but what's happening on the stage. I wonder absently if the kid is throwing up, I know I was my first night, he'll be on again in little while though... I wonder if he'll make it.

"Here to get your job back?" Guy drawls, I don't hide the glare. "No? Too bad, see I'd be willing to hire you back... for half the pay, that's what I'm paying him," he nods vaguely at the door behind me. "So, I'd get two scrawny arsed wankers for the price of one, not bad business if you ask me."

I don't know what I'm supposed to say to that. If he wants to piss me off, have a chance to beat me up, or what, so I just shrug. He pulls a face, maybe he's disappointed he couldn't bait me, maybe he's mocking me. I don't care I just want to be out of here now. I move to walk away and he gives my arm a yank.

"Oi, tell your boyfriend he can come pick up his last pay check up!" he drawls and lets me go, turning towards the dressing room door.

"Who?" I stare at his back in confusion and he turns back to me again cocking his head with an unfriendly sneer.

"Who the fuck do you think? Ain't you fucking that big ape?" he snarls.

I don't realise what I'm doing before my fist actually connects with his mouth, I feel his head snap back and his teeth cutting sharply against my knuckles. Blood spatters onto my sleeve and I feel it on my face. He staggers backwards, tumbling against the wall. I stumble back myself, the anger seeping away quickly, being slowly replaced by dread. He's given me reason to stay clear of his fists before and I swallow as he presses his hands over his mouth.

The whites of his eyes have grown huge in disbelief, then they narrow and a bloody hand stretches out to grab me, but I recoil just out of his reach. He snorts out blood through his nose into his hand as he lumbers towards me, behind me the crowd is cheering at Nick's grinding and no one hears or sees the racket. Dean is still outside.

The door creak behind Guy and, for a split second, his attention is divided. I don't hesitate any longer and take off into the throng, shoving a chair over behind me, but he doesn't seem to be following me.

I realise why when I nearly crash into Dean, who suddenly materialises out of the shadows. He almost makes a grab for me, but then looks behind me at Guy and I turn, choking on my fear, but he shakes his head and Dean steps out of my way. I back away catching Dean's sneer for a heartbeat before I'm out the door.

The air outside is cold and wet, it clings to my face and I find myself shaking. I don't stop to catch my breath. The street is empty and I cross it blindly, fleeing into an alley and then I keep going.

*****

I step onto the last landing before reaching my floor. I'm staring into the brickwork with unseeing eyes. My head is throbbing dully and my chest feels as though I've breathed sand. I lean heavily on the railing, each step stabbing pain into the cut on my leg.

An out of place shape catches my attention from the corner of my eye and I flinch hard, my hand gripping tightly at the bars of the railing.

My eyes meet Sam's and my stomach turns over.

The silence grows thick around us and the persistent flickering of the fluorescent light sends shadows dancing across his face, making his features hard to make out.

"Oi," I hear myself whisper, the sound drifting into the silence.

He moves then, from leaning on my door to standing above me at the top of the stairs, I feel my face shape itself into a mien of regret and I look away from him.

"One word and I'll go," he says, voice flat; when I don't respond he lowers his voice even more and speaks with a crisp edge that shakes me to the core: "Say it to my face, Jamie! Say you want me gone and I'll go!"

A shiver runs through me and I turn away from him, sinking down on the stairs, my hand still clinging to a single iron bar as if trying to keep me from being torn away. I feel my shoulders shake, but I'm not crying. I force my fingers to relax and my hand falls heavily into my lap.

He sits down next to me, his warm shoulder brushing against mine and I feel colder still. He says nothing, just leaves the ball in my court and waits. I can't speak, my throat tightens around the words and they sit there, like stones. I lean into him, my head coming to rest on his shoulder. It's familiar, safe.

I breathe in his smell; there are no vague reminders of the club, only the smell of him. His hand comes up around me to gently stroke my arm, as if he's trying to rub warmth into my chilled form. My hand rises to clasp his shirt.

We sit there quietly.

After awhile he takes my hand from his shirt and laces his fingers into mine, turning my hand so that he can look at my knuckles. He runs his thumb over the abrasions and I wince.

"Fight?" he asks. I shrug. "Who?" I don't respond, just tilt my face further down. "Are you all right?" I nod briefly, he leans back from me and his eyes rake over the rest of me for signs to disprove it.

The hand on my arm slips up to the nape of my neck and he forces my head up with a slight pressure of his fingers. He looks steadily at my face and I feel like a mouse caught by a lion.

"Did you eat today?" his low voice is a smooth rumble; I hear the warning in the tone and my heart skips a beat. My stomach churns uneasily, reminding me that it only had some cheap crisps and a coke around noon.

I try to free myself from his other arm which is still wrapped around me, but he keeps me seated. I give a token struggle and then slump back into his grip.

"None of your business!" I shove him and he finally lets me go. I turn away slightly, refusing to meet his eyes again.

"Right. I'll take that as a no," he says tersely.

He stands up. Even though he's a couple of steps below me on the stairs he towers above me where I sit and as he leans down I shrink back against the railing, suddenly afraid to take my eyes off him.

"You look like a bloody ghost! You're anaemic you dumb, little shit!" I look at my knees, they've drawn themselves up towards my chest defensively; as I look back up at him I can feel a burn at the corner of my eye.

"I'm not stupid! I'm fucking broke!" I snap, my voice coming out much weaker than I would've liked.

Sam shakes his head slowly and then extends a hand with a sigh. I watch it suspiciously and he gives it an impatient shake.

"Let's go, my treat!" he says.

"I don't need to be rescued!" I refuse his hand and pull myself up by the railing, I still press against it, his looming form still seeming somewhat intimidating to me.

His eyes turn hard; I recognise the look in them from the other night and carefully back away from him. He follows purposefully until he has me backed into the corner of the landing. There's a moment where the silence threatens to drown me and then his hand grasps my jaw and he stares straight into my eyes.

"Can't you see you're a train wreck waiting to happen, Jamie?" he speaks calmly but intensely. "I know maybe I can't keep you from crashing, but I can step on the brakes and I bloody will."

Chapter 4 [Top] [Next]

I pull out one oily chip from the newspaper wrapping and bite off a discoloured piece that I spit into the grass, the rest I put whole into my mouth and chew absently. My mind is skipping between half formed thoughts; I refuse to let it settle on any single one, afraid of what I will be forced to recognise if I do.

We're alone in a small park, a children's playground. I'm perched on the backrest of a bench, he's sitting on the seat below me, his warm shoulder against my hip.

No one's said much since we left the stairs outside my flat. He doesn't ask any of the questions I'm waiting for.

The night air is seeping into my bones and I am shaking. At least I tell myself it's the cold. I eat the chips one by one, while Sam has already finished his and crumples the paper into a ball that he tosses towards the waste bin.

It bounces on the side and falls into the paved walkway. He looks at it for a moment before getting up and putting it into the bin. I hide a grin behind my own wrapping.

He sits down heavily beside me again.

I continue to eat slowly. Licking the grease off my fingers and finding every last piece until there isn't a single crumb left to justify my stalling. My ball lands neatly in the bin and he grunts. I'm close to laughing, but somehow it won't come out. I shiver from the cold, digging my hands into my armpits.

He stands and shrugs out of his jacket, but I dodge away when he leans in to place it around me, looking up to meet his eyes.

"I should go..." I say quietly and slip down off the bench.

He says nothing, but when I turn, the jacket suddenly falls on my shoulders, his hands grabbing hold of my arms from behind.

"You're not pulling this shit on me, Jaime..." he mumbles into my ear, his warm breath sending tingles down my back. "Got that?" His voice is a low hiss with a threatening edge that I'm finding myself responding to with a frightening sense of longing.

I have to grit my teeth not to give an automatic `yes, sir' in reply. My body tenses up under his grip. I will not let him to do this to me, he will not make me want him like that! I fight the tremble in my stomach and try to turn it into anger.

"Let me go!" I snarl; the grip tightens and I feel a hint of panic before he releases me and steps back, the jacket still hanging off my shoulders. I can't bring myself to shrug it off, nor turn around and face him.

"Keep it," he says quietly behind me and then as I try in vain to make myself respond, I hear him walk away, his steps vanishing into the sounds of the city.

Before I can force myself to move he's gone and I'm standing alone, my hands pulling the jacket tightly around me, his warmth still clinging to it. My breath hitches in my throat.

What is wrong with me? A surge of anger wells up and I aim a hard kick at the waste bin, the rattle filling up the quiet of the park and frightening a flock of birds from the surrounding shrubbery. I glare at the bin, the metal twisting inwards in a deep dent.

Sam's jacket is now on the ground behind me. I leave it there and take a few steps away, but then I go back and gather it up in my hands, burying my face in the lining.

*****

Back in my flat I sink down on the foldout bed and sit there, staring blankly out into the room. The weariness is making me feel numb, but there's no ignoring the dull sensation in my bum, not quite pain anymore, but nonetheless there. I shrug out of Sam's jacket and take off my shirt, then I kick my jeans off and wrangle my feet in under the unruly covers, clothes dropping to the floor. Only Sam's jacket is still on the bed and I pick it up, holding it in the air above me, my hands digging into the leather.

It isn't even twenty four hours ago. The memory of him pinning me down, his hand cracking against my skin is vivid, but distant, it doesn't feel like only yesterday. I bite my lip, I'm growing hard thinking about him and my stomach trembles. I lower Sam's jacket over my face and breathe in his smell.

Lying alone in the dark I can't deny it anymore; I want to fight it, but the relentless reality is catching up with me and as much as I want to refuse to feel like this I can't remember how to shut it off.

It's been a long time coming, I can see that now with that irrevocable clarity that only comes to you on sleepless nights.

Our brief chats, a few drags on the same cigarette, the quiet banter as we sit waiting for the bus, I suddenly realise that it's gone and it's like a knife twisting inside me. I roll over on my side, hugging Sam's jacket close and feel a sob tear itself free from my chest, making my whole body jerk.

*****

The faded gleam of morning light is streaming in through the window when I open my eyes. I don't know how much I've slept, just enough to know it's not enough. I start to get up then remember there's no point and my head falls back on the pillow, it's throbbing painfully. I don't know when I stopped crying or when I fell asleep, but it feels like it was only minutes ago.

There's a sudden sharp rap at my door and even before I can fully form the thought, I know it's Sam and I fly out of bed, grabbing my jeans. I stumble into them in a rush and then stop, snapping myself out of it. What the hell am I doing? I shake my dully aching head.

Another knock comes, sharp and decisive, I give the door a hesitant stare, there's one more, harder.

"Open up! Police!"

It's like two hands slip into my chest and squeeze my heart until it feels like it will explode. I stare at the door in terror, unable to move my feet. The command is repeated, impatiently and I wonder if they'll bust my door in. My eyes dart around the room, but there's nowhere to go.

My hand close around the handle, slick with sweat, I'm fighting to keep my face blank, but my hands are shaking.

They look at me slightly surprised, as if they'd given up, I swallow and try to open my mouth, but it doesn't happen.

"Are you James Merrin?" the officer levels me with a calculating glare and I wet my lips, still not able to make a sound I feel my head dip in a nod, I don't take my eyes off him. "We'd like to ask you a few questions, may we come in?" he looks vaguely as if he might care whether I agree, but takes a step over my threshold even as I'm releasing the door.

They trudge into my apartment, smoothly positioning themselves on opposite sides of me, the policeman who spoke to me stands between me and the door, the other scan my apartment with seeming casual disinterest. I still have only my jeans on and staring into the bulky jacket in front of me makes me feel small and exposed.

"Were you home last night?" he begins, I give a shrug and nod, he's expecting more so I clear my throat and force myself to speak.

"Yeah, just out for fish `n' chips with a friend..." I mumble.

"Colin Davidson? Name familiar? Might go by Davey..." he sees my confusion and even as I respond he's fishing a picture out of his pocket. It's a photo of a summer garden, in the middle a bright eyed, blond boy playing with a dog and flirting with the camera, he reminds me of Alex, but I don't know this boy, I shrug and shake my head. "No? He was found this morning, in an alley off Waterby Road?"

Then I know who it is, the new boy, the skinny, gaunt brat that Guy hired for half of what I cost him. They found him in the alley. They don't have to say dead, they don't have to say anything else, I know. Sam's quiet words of caution come back to me as does his frustration with me for never listening.

"Know who he is?" the policeman asks as he snaps the photo back from my limp fingers.

"Yeah," I whisper, "I mean no... only saw him for half a second yesterday, never seen him before," but I see him now, on the stage, a frighten rabbit thrown out in front of the wolves. "Shit! Poor kid!"

The policeman's features soften and he glances over at his partner. I see the look they exchange, but can't read it. I'm still numb, the apartment and the events seeming to drift away from me, unreal, like a bad dream you can't wake up from.

"We're looking for Nicholas Dunham, you don't happen to know where we can find him?" the other policeman says, stepping a little closer to me, his voice is sharp, it coils around me like barbed wire. I shake my head.

"Why would I?" I ask, trying to force confidence into my words. I feel torn open, his eyes lock with mine, telling me he knows something, everything, they can see right through me and I can't run from him, I can't stop the shiver that runs through me. He raises one eyebrow.

"You've had dealings with him, we understand," the first policeman continues behind me, I shoot him a quick look, unwilling to turn my back on those knowing eyes.

"I knew him from work, that's all..." I don't have time to say more, I sense him close the gap between us even as I turn back and his hand lands heavily on my shoulder.

"Don't waste our time, mister Merrin," he states flatly, tone low and threatening, I stare up into his face, feeling a cold rill of sweat run down my forehead, his tone makes the word mister sound like complete mockery. "I'm in no mood to drag you in to piss in a cup when we both know what our boy Nicky does when his clothes are on, so tell me where he is and we'll be out of your hair, all right?"

"I don't know!" I try to make my tone as flat as his, I meet his eyes, though I'm sure he can feel the trembles going through me under his steady grip on my shoulder. The grip hardens and I catch my lower lip between my teeth. "I only ever saw him at the club! I don't even know where he lives!"

He squeezes my shoulder hard enough to leave a dent and I cringe, my eyes dropping from his, I'm about to buckle under the pain, but then the other policeman lays a hand on his and he lets me go without a word, they exchange a look again and my unlikely rescuer tilts his head, catching my eye with that knowing look of his.

"There was a tin box, green, lock broken, seemed to have been something in it. The bouncer said you were there to see Mr. Dunham last night, did you happen to see that box?"

My heart flies into my throat, I'm sure he sees the recognition flashing in my eyes before I can hide it, his mouth forms a thin line as he waits for my response. I swallow and look down. Lie with the truth my dad used to tell me, the only way to get away with it. I look up at him and nod.

"It was Nick's, don't know what was in it," I feel myself chewing my lip again, but he's satisfied and nods his colleague towards the door.

"Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Merrin, we'll be back if we have more questions," he says quietly as he releases the door into my hand, the look he gives me is unmistakeable, he expects them to have more questions and he's as good as telling me not to leave town.

*****

I count the bills in my hand, there's one missing, but I don't turn around to see if he's waiting for me to complain and I don't try to stop him when I hear his steps against the wet pavement. My eyes stare blankly at the bills, the crumpled paper, worn and used, their worth nothing but a flighty idea that suddenly seems ludicrous. I stuff them in my pocket and feel them crumple even more in my fist.

My throat is sore, a cold coming on. The steady drizzle has been coming down for days now and my breath turns to mist when I wheeze into the cold air. I huddle into Sam's jacket as I start heading back home, it doesn't fit me, but I don't mind, I feel as if I can vanish inside it. The hood of my sweater is pulled out from under it and pulled down over my forehead.

I regret not fighting for that bill.

Part of me still can't believe what I've done, the denial goaded on by a threatening sense of nausea. The money feels filthy against my skin and I pull my hand out of my pocket and shove both hands into my armpits. You've done worse things I tell myself, but can't quite make myself believe it.

Tears threaten suddenly, burning against my eyelids. What have I done? I stop in the middle of the pavement, holding up the flow of the passersby for a moment before they adapt and go around me. The rain keeps falling.

It was the one thing I thought I would never sell, the one memory I had left that was untainted, but it's lost now and any vestiges of teenage innocence is gone with it.

I take a deep breath. I'm being stupid, childish! Selling it was the only sensible thing I could do! I have to pay my rent! I have to eat! It's not as if people are lining up to hire me on the spot. I'd even tried another strip club, but they only had to hear I'd worked for Guy and their interest waned significantly.

The pain stays dully in the hollow space inside me. I try to swallow the tears and feel the burning at the back of my throat. My head is beginning to feel heavy; I'm probably getting a fever. I pull out the sleeve of my sweater and wipe my nose on it, but it immediately begins to leak again.

I suddenly want chocolate, hot chocolate. It used to be my dad's token effort to nurse me back to health, a cup of chocolate and maybe a story, if he had time.

I slip into the café and then merely stand quietly just inside; someone else comes in behind me and I let them pass me, pulling into the corner next to the door. There are a lot of people, but no one looks at me. A man is reading a newspaper at one of the high tables near me, he looks up once, but doesn't seem to notice me.

The line is short despite the many guests. The girl behind the counter dances between the register and the espresso machine like she's following a strict choreography. A quick, bright eyed little smile and a have-a-nice-day is passed along with every cup.

"You've got chocolate... hot?" I ask, my voice strange to my own ears, grating and shaky.

"Sure! Anything else?" I just shake my head and dig out the money from my pocket. As she hands me my cup and my change she turns her bright eyed little smile on me and I find myself waiting for the have-a-nice-day, but instead she tilts her head and her nose crinkles slightly. "Cheer up, it's not going to rain forever!" she says and I feel a small, self-conscious laugh burst like a bubble from my chest, I'm surprised at how good it feels.

I sit for a long while, sipping at the hot chocolate, watching the rain through the window. The man near the door has left, leaving his paper behind on the table. I sidle out of my seat and snatch it before someone else has the same idea.

I glance at the front page and skim the headlines, then flip through to the work ads. I look at the page for a long time until I finally realise I can't remember a single word I read and let it fall on the table in front of me; who'll hire me anyway? I take another sip of my chocolate, letting the hot liquid relieve the soreness in my throat. My eyes roam the front page again catching the date, it's the 18th. I sniff and take a napkin I got with my cup to blow my nose.

The 18th... It hits me like a fist in the gut. My hands, still holding the napkin, fall like dead weights into my lap. I stare blindly out into the café; it seems suddenly cold and the chatter is distant as if there's a ringing in my ears.

It was today.

My chest feels so tight I can't breathe. It hurts, as if my heart is being torn into pieces and even if I tried, even if I wanted to I can't cry; the tears seem to have been swallowed up by the hollow, empty space inside me.

Someone taps my shoulder and the sounds around me come rushing back, a woman asks if I'm done with the paper, I barely nod, only shove it her way. Then I drink my chocolate, I drink it all, choking on it and coughing.

*****

When I get off the bus the rain has stopped, but the wind is still chilly. There are no leaves left on the trees by the road here. I walk across to the other side and stop. The low stone wall runs the length of the road, only broken once by a gate. Beside the gate there's a board with notices that I don't bother looking at.

My hand closes around the heavy black iron of the gate, I push lightly and it gives, opening smoothly with only a squeak to protest the action. A gravel path leads up to the small parish church, its tall, narrow windows gleam black in the bleak light, like empty eyes watching me.

I haven't been back here since the funeral and still my feet take me across the grass as if they'd walked this path a million times. His grave is marked with a small, simple stone. A little marble dove, nestled at its base, is the only decoration.

I crouch down on my heels in front of the grave, wrapping my arms around my legs. I sit there, reading the name and date carved into the stone, making it everlasting, making it unchangeable.

"Hello, Alex," I whisper to the cold stone. "It's Jamie."

Then I'm quiet.

"I..." I start, the words sticking in my throat. I try to clear it. I feel worse than before; my ears ache and my jaw. I wipe my runny nose and close my eyes. "I sold your comic book." Saying it out loud loosens something inside me and I draw a shaky breath, but I can almost see him raise his eyebrow and shrug. "I know, I know, what do you care, right? You said it was mine so..." I trail off.

I hug my knees tightly to my chest and watch the silent stone in front of me. I remember us lying in his bed, the covers pulled over our heads, him holding the torch in one hand and the other wrapped around my waist. I was turning the pages, carefully, slowly, well aware this wasn't just any comic book, it was from his uncle in New York, mint condition. He'd never let any of our other friends touch it, but he let me.

"He's going to spank him," I remember looking at him, his face so oddly intent as he met my eyes. "Who?" I asked, my cheeks flushing hotly though I didn't quite know why. "Batman, there, look!" he flipped the page. I looked, feeling odd, embarrassed and as if my heart was standing still in my chest. Then I looked back to him and he smiled that smile that was my smile. We were twelve.

Years later, when I asked if he still had it, he tossed it to me across the room and told me to keep it. I had, until now. Now... now I'd sold it. The last piece I had left of him, there's nothing real now, nothing solid to hold in my hands. Nothing to tie him to me.

"I miss you... I can't do this without you..." I rock back and forth, tears welling up, I feel myself about to let go, about to let my grief pull me along.

Then there's a rustle in the grass behind me and I look over my shoulder, startled. One knee hits the gravel hard and I stagger to my feet, eyes blurry with tears and my head hazy and throbbing dully. I find myself shaking, unable to stop.

Their eyes are trained on me, their faces pale and hard, filled with doubt and shock. She looks away first, turning her face into his coat and hissing something to him while intently tugging on his arm. My insides turn over as I stare at them, I feel like I'm tumbling down a hole, the ground sways underneath my feet. She looks old, dry like a leaf and frail. He looks much like he always did, like how I always knew Alex would look when he grew older. His eyes seek mine out, but I stare beyond him.

"Why, Jamie?! Why were you up there?! Where did he get the drugs?! What were you thinking?! Why didn't you stop him?!" I don't remember now who asked which of all the questions I couldn't answer. I just remember how she clung to me, shaking me and how he pulled her away, angrily telling me to go home. Go home, while my best friend lay dying beyond those doors that were closed to me.

And I remember how they looked at me at the funeral, as if they wished it had been me instead. I can't breathe and I can't move. Around us is quiet, a cold wind shifting the branches and the low hum of traffic from the main road; nobody speaks.

They turn away from me as someone comes up behind them and she says something I can't make out. Bolton looks over at me, a frown deepening; he pats her shoulder and takes a step towards me, but that breaks the spell and I flee, sticking my hand in my pockets and walking purposely away from them. His voice follow me, but I don't stop.

Then there's a bark and before I know it a small bundle of fur is jumping up against my leg, yipping happily, tail whipping back and forth. I blink down at the dog, a small cairn terrier, Alex's dog. I find myself kneeling in the damp grass, my hands digging into the sand coloured fur, he paws at Sam's jacket and climbs up to lick my face.

"He misses you," Bolton's voice is quiet, but I start as if he'd shouted.

I let Biscuit go and stand up, ignoring the sense of guilt the dog's obvious disappointment causes me. I turn and look at Bolton, our last disastrous meeting a vivid memory. I wipe my nose and cough a little, it's painful and I try to swallow, but my mouth is too dry. His face is solemn, sad and on his jaw is a partly faded bruise. He notices me looking and rubs at it with a tilted grimace.

"Courtesy of your friendly bouncer, big black fellow, very adamant about my leaving you alone," he says, still speaking softly. Biscuit has finally stopped bouncing and lain down on my feet. Sam never told me he threw Bolton out, but then again I never asked. "I didn't expect to see you here."

I shrug, looking away.

"Tel said he went to see you..." I shrug again, I don't want to talk to him. I want to go home and curl up in my bed and cry until it kills me. "Look, Jem..." I wince, Alex sometimes called me that, it sounds odd coming from someone else.

"Don't... don't call me that..." I say, my voice is gruff and choked, it comes out harsher than I might've meant.

"We're lighting a candle... won't you join us?" he asks and I shoot him a doubtful look, does he think they will welcome me?

I feel my head shaking a slow no as I bend and lift Biscuit up. I hug him and he makes every effort to get closer, trying to lick me. I bury my face in his fur for a moment and then I hand him to Bolton, who takes him. The sound of Biscuit's whine haunts me as I turn and walk away. I don't say anything and Bolton doesn't call me back.

TBC

~ Dice

Send warm fuzzies to Dice.

Read more of Dice's writing.

Return to the Stories page.