bethbethbeth: Turtle with 4 elephants on its back - and on their back is Pratchett's Discworld (Discworld Disc (perkele pixeljoint))
[personal profile] bethbethbeth posting in [community profile] disc_fest
Author: woldy
Title: Tea and Octarine
Characters and/or Pairing(s): Rosie Palm/Esk Smith
Rating: PG-13
Word Count (if applicable): ~4000 words
Possible warnings and/or enticements - highlight to view (may contain spoilers): *[time travel, references to prostitution, very brief and indirect references to torture]*
Summary: Transporting weapons is a dangerous job. Especially when you're wearing high heels and there's an Unmentionable behind you.
Author's Notes: Written for the prompt "Rosie Palm/Esk, "and when I say the earth moved..." Many thanks to my beta readers O and F.




People say that not a mouse moves in the city without Lady Meserole knowing about it. It's not exactly true, not yet, but it's close enough to make her opponents anxious. Most of what Lady Meserole does know is due to Rosie Palm.

What few people realise is that the essential skills of Rosie's job are about psychology, not sex: judging from a glance what someone wants, what they can afford, and whether or not they're dangerous. She makes her living by knowing where she should and shouldn't go after the bars have closed, when she'll get away with breaking the law, and when not to push her luck. The actual sex is almost an afterthought.

Tonight, it doesn't look as though she's going to have any clients. It's raining in the grey, persistent way that lasts for hours, and Rosie watches cigarette butts and better-not-look-too-closely debris swirl past in the gutter. Wet nights are always quiet.

She lets the curtain fall back over the window and calls out, "Sandra?"

"Mmm?"

Rosie walks across to Sandra's room, where she finds Sandra bent over a jumble of fabric with a row of pins in her teeth.

"I'll make our delivery."

"Mmmm-hmm-mmn," Sandra replies, pulling a face that Rosie interprets as fine.

"I'll need your basket."

Sandra angles her head towards the corner of the room, and after a moment Rosie sees the basket hiding in plain sight beside the boxes of ribbon, thread, and buttons.

"I shouldn't be long," Rosie says, crossing the room to pick up the basket, which is heavy enough that she has to square her feet and shift her weight to lift it. Sandra must be stronger than she looks.

Sandra watches her lift it, and a slight crease appears between her eyes.

"It's fine," Rosie tells her, wedging the basket on her hip. "I'll be back in an hour."

Balancing carefully in her four-inch heels, Rosie walks back to the front room and hesitates at the sight of her cloak hanging on the door. A cloak would make her drier and more comfortable, but it would also make her less visibly a seamstress. A cloak would mean a weaker cover.

She sighs, shifts the basket a little higher on her hip, and after a moment of one-handed struggle, she opens the door and walks out.

Within seconds she's damp, rain seeping into her neckline and soaking her legs. Rosie keeps her chin up, her chest out, and walks as fast as she dares.

"Nasty weather for it, Rosie," mutters Shithouse Bob, the local bouncer, as she passes.

"A girl's got to work," Rosie trills, without slowing. "If you get lonely, you know where to find me."

"Come payday I might take you up on that. My seams are fair bulging." Bob replies, and Rosie flashes him a smile over her shoulder.

Rosie isn't inclined to euphemisms, but the term seamstress is a tradition in the city. She suspects that men feel better about visiting a seamstress than a prostitute, because the word sounds neater and more domestic. Rosie's paid to make men feel better and so she's not going to argue, notwithstanding the occasional confusion. Once a man asked her to repair his trousers while he waited and Rosie had his cock in her mouth before she realised that he really did want his trousers fixed.

The end of the road is the edge of the Shades, and the boundary is marked by the appearance of street lamps. Rosie discretely adjusts her skirt so that the hem falls a few inches, and then steps out into the light of a hundred candles. There's no mistaking her profession, but she doesn't need to show quite so much thigh in this neighbourhood, especially when she has other business.

As she passes the junction with Cable Street, Rosie looks straight ahead without changing her pace. She tries to keep her body language as neutral as possible, but she can't stop her heart beating a little faster. The Unmentionables know better than to bother seamstresses, but still...

They can smell the fear on you, too, she tells herself. Her ears strain for the sound of someone following her, but she only hears her own heels clacking on the cobbles and the steady drum of the rain.

It's not a long way from the Shades to their meeting place, but these shoes weren't designed for walking. The water has seeped through her wig to her hair, and it's dripping unpleasantly down her back. If Sandra hadn't wrapped their packages in in oilskin then the basket would have been awash by now.

A fierce gust of wind on New Bridge hits her, and Rosie picks up her pace. Her stiletto heels spark across the stones as she hurries across to Holofernes, steps out onto the street, and is almost knocked flat by a carriage. She stumbles, one heel catches between the paving stones, and the weight of the basket throws her off balance. It's in that instant as the world tilts around her that Rosie sees the dark figure step off the bridge and slide into the nearest patch of shadow.

Her arms windmill as she stares at the too-dark shadow, and the sickening moment seems to last forever. Then, with a jolt, Rosie catches her balance. She squares her hips, steadies the basket, and sucks in a breath.

Neither the thieves nor the assassins ever bother her, and Shades-dwellers know better than to mess with Dotsie and Sadie's friends. Keel is the only man in the Watch who can melt into a shadow like that, but it isn't him. It must be someone from Cable Street.

Just for a second, Rosie freezes. Perhaps I can drop the basket over the edge of the bridge? No, that would mean walking back towards him and besides, even iron takes minutes to sink in the Ankh. Perhaps I can toss it into the water where the river loops around the next street? Perhaps I can dump it in a doorway? Perhaps—

An instinct of self-preservation kicks in, insisting Keep walking! and Rosie finds herself moving again.

The meeting place is only a couple of minutes from here, but she can't lead an Unmentionable there. She could head towards Hen and Chickens Field and hope to lose him in the park, but the city is almost deserted tonight and every sound is muffled by the rain. It's easy work to track someone. Rosie can't outrun anyone in these shoes and her dress is too distinctive to hide in. Dropping the basket would mean taking the risk he'd find it and trace the contents back to her and Sandra. No, she has to let him follow her and find somewhere to lead him.

The dome of the University library is visible at the end of the street, the Tower of Art looming lopsidedly behind it, and inspiration strikes — the university's rubbish heaps! Anything left there for more than a few minutes changes shape, so it's the only place she could risk leaving the basket. It's the one place he might not follow her.

It's the longest five hundred yards Rosie has ever walked. She can't hear the man's footsteps over the rain, and though she daren't look back, she knows he's there. The basket feels like a ball and chain hanging from her elbow, as she skitters along the street beside the university wall.

The sky ahead is a sickly purple-green, but the sight of octarine has never been so welcome. Twenty feet... then ten... then two... Rosie reaches the piles of magical debris, plunges into the rubbish dump, and suddenly there's the sound of running footsteps behind her. Well, if the Unmentionable is stupid enough to follow her in here then he deserves what he gets.

Rosie dives down a narrow pathway between two rows of glowing oddments, steps into the shadow of a precariously-angled wardrobe, tucks the basket into the mess behind her, and holds her breath. Faintly, under the patter of the rain, she can hear the gentle splish, splish, splish of the man's feet as he approaches.

Soundlessly, Rosie reaches into the folds of her dress and pulls out a dagger. A knife fight with an Unmentionable had never been on the list of things she's wanted to do, but needs must. She waits, poised, and when a shadow falls in front of her she lunges.

The ground beneath her disappears with a nasty sucking noise, and Rosie falls into darkness, landing in a wet muddy heap. The situation is not improved by the basket thudding down on her ankle.

"Sorry about that," says a cheerful female voice. "That thing must be heavier than it looks."

"Who are you?" Rosie pants, feeling around for the dagger in the mud. Her fingers close around the handle, and she raises it in front of her.

A match flares, and then a lamp sputters into life. For a second there is only dazzling light, and then Rosie sees an unfamiliar female face, white-blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail.

"I'm the person who just rescued you. Can you walk?"

"Where are we?"

"I'll explain, but not here," the woman says, extending a hand.

After a moment's hesitation Rosie takes the outstretched hand and lets the woman pull her upright. Gingerly, she tests her ankle, and then reaches for the basket, which is as heavy as ever. Well, that's a blessing of sorts.

"I can carry that."

"No," Rosie snaps, then draws in a breath and forces herself to say, "I'm sorry. No, thank you. This... isn't turning out to be a very good night."

"I guessed that. But if you follow me, I think it'll get better."

The woman moves away, lamp receding into the distance, and Rosie follows. The progress is painfully slow because her high heels sink into mud and twist on the gravel, but after a few minutes the woman pauses. A doorway opens to reveal a small, brightly lit room.

"Come in," the woman says, stepping inside and holding the door open. "Make yourself at home. I'll get the tea."

***

One of the ineffable laws of the universe is that everything seems better after a cup of tea.

"Well," Rosie says, after gulping down several sweet, scalding mouthfuls, "I never expected the earth to move like that."

The woman's eyes twinkle and Rosie thinks that she sees the beginning of a smile.

"I'm Miss Smith. Do you like cupcakes?"

"I'll, er... yes," Rosie says, bewildered.

The woman turns away for a moment, and then produces four brightly coloured cupcakes arranged on a plate.

"I could have sworn there were only three. Well, you win some, you lose some around here. They're lemon, raspberry, vanilla, and mysterious purple flavour, I think."

Rosie takes the yellow one, bites into it, and the instant sweetness is followed by a tang of lemon. It's really very good, and also a reminder that she hasn't eaten since breakfast.

"Thank you," she says, when her mouth is no longer full.

"Have another."

"It's very kind of you, Miss Smith," Rosie says, ignoring the issue of cupcakes for the moment, "but who are you? And where are we?"

"Well, it's a bit complicated," Miss Smith says, taking a dainty bite of the pink cupcake. "We're underneath the Unreal Estate. There's a lot of magic bubbling around, which makes this a good place to hide away from things. And, of course, I'm a witch.

"Why did you help me?"

"Why not?" Miss Smith asks, taking another bite, and Rosie tries not to show her impatience.

"Let me put it this way, then. What do you want in return?"

Miss Smith chews meditatively for a moment, takes a sip of tea, and then places the cup back in the saucer. "The short answer is: nothing."

"And the long answer?"

Miss Smith glances at her, holding Rosie's eyes for a moment, and she has a sense of being stripped bare. It's not a comfortable feeling, especially since Rosie's efforts to read Miss Smith have drawn a blank. She's used to being able to read someone within seconds, but Miss Smith is... unorthodox and enigmatic. Rosie can't help being curious.

"How much do you know about magic?" Miss Smith says, after a long pause.

"Even less than wizards know about sex," Rosie replies, and sees that twinkle of amusement in Miss Smith's eye again.

"Well, time is a bit...messier than it seems. People can move backwards and forwards for short periods. Of course, things can get tangled, but if you're careful about it—"

"When did you come from?" Rosie asks, and Miss Smith smiles.

"Let's just say that I'm a lot younger in this timeline. Although you looked nearly as beautiful when we first met."

"You knew me?" Rosie's words almost trip over each other in the rush.

"A little," Miss Smith agrees, a cautionary note in in her voice. "You're smart enough to know that I can't tell you what happens."

Rosie is dying to know what happens, but the little she's heard will have to be enough for now. She exists in the future. That means she survives this and if she's still beautiful then presumably the Unmentionables didn't catch her. It's better than she expected ten minutes ago.

"You still haven't explained why you're doing this," she says, and Miss Smith looks away, fiddling with the half-eaten cupcake in her hand.

"Once upon a time, there was a little girl who came to a big city. It had wizards, and assassins, and beggars, and an infamous lady named Rosie Palm who was kind to women from out of town. It wasn't perfect, but it was a good place to grow up. A better place than this one."

Realisation dawns, and Rosie says, "You're making sure that the right future happens."

"That's a very good way of putting it," Miss Smith says, taking a large bite from the pink cupcake.

"So you know what I'm doing?"

"I don't meddle in politics. Magic is quite complicated enough for me," Miss Smith says calmly, licking a smear of pink icing from the corner of her mouth. "But I know that man was from Cable Street, and that your basket isn't full of mended trousers. I can take an educated guess about where you're going and on whose behalf."

"And you don't want anything in return?"

"Is that Rosie Palm the revolutionary asking, or Rosie Palm the seamstress?" asks Miss Smith. Her tone is teasing, but her expression is perfectly innocent.

"Are witches allowed to marry?"

"Oh, yes, sex and marriage are both absolutely allowed. One of the benefits of being a witch as opposed to a wizard. Although, in a manner of speaking, I'm both."

Rosie raises her eyebrows questioningly, and Miss Smith pops the rest of the cupcake into her mouth. If you don't look at Miss Smith's eyes, then her face is polite and neutral. Her eyes shine with a thousand secrets.

Leaning forward, Rosie says, "Miss Smith, I'm guessing you're the sort of wizard who fucks."

She's gratified to see that Miss Smith doesn't choke on the cupcake. Instead, she raises the teacup, takes a sip, and places it neatly back in the saucer.

"Yes. But if you're going to continue that line of enquiry then I think it would be more appropriate to call me Esk."

"Esk, then," says Rosie, reaching out to lay a finger on the back of the woman's hand. She lets her voice go smooth and seductive, as she asks "There's really nothing you want in exchange for rescuing me?"

"Nothing I want you to trade," Esk says carefully. "Besides, I suspect your night is quite exciting enough already." She pulls her hand away, and Rosie is surprised at the surge of disappointment.

"Did I say thank you, yet?" Rosie asks, after a moment.

"No, you didn't."

"Thank you very much, Esk. If there's anything that I can do to...Well, obviously you don't want a tuppenny upright. But if you ever need a favour then let me know."

"I'll remember that," Esk replies, giving her a wide, natural smile, and for a moment Rosie gets a hint of the warmth this woman is hiding beneath her reserve. It's tantalising.

If there's one thing Ankh-Morpork teaches you, it's that everyone has a price and everyone expects to be paid. In this city, there's no such thing as a free canapé, let alone lunch. This woman is the first exception to that rule she's ever met.

"Once you've finished your tea, I think it's safe to go back out," Esk says. "No doubt they're still sniffing around, so we'll leave a different way."

Rosie's tea is lukewarm now, but she drinks it anyway and takes the opportunity to puzzle at the story behind those wise eyes and white-blonde hair. Meanwhile, Esk watches her.

"Well," she says finally, putting the cup back in the saucer. "Shall we?"

"It's a bit of a walk. Would you like me to do something about that ankle?"

"What can you do?"

"Well, I can't go zap glingle glingle and make it better, but I've got some cream that should help."

Rosie shrugs her assent, and Esk rummages in a box for a few seconds before pulling out a jar.

"Give me the ankle," she orders, and Rosie obediently slips off her shoe, raises her ankle, and lets Esk guide it onto her lap.

Rosie watches as Esk unscrews the lid, dips her fingers into the jar, and then smoothes the cream over her ankle. The hot ache dims as the cold cream touches her skin, and Rosie sighs.

Esk glances up through her eyelashes. "I thought you'd like that."

"You should sell that cream," Rosie says, letting her head tip back. "I could use it on clients."

"I'll bear that in mind," says Esk, in a tone with a laugh in it.

Rosie leans back in the chair, closes her eyes for a moment, and lets her muscles relax under those stroking fingers. The pain in her ankle is easing fast, so clearly there is magic in either the cream, or in the fingers applying it. Rosie is in no hurry for it to finish. She lets Esk stroke around her calf and down her foot, smoothing over the bones. Then Esk's finger slides from the inside of her ankle up towards her knee and Rosie's hairs stand on end.

"There, you're done," Esk says, releasing the ankle.

Reluctantly, Rosie opens her eyes. She knows her cheeks are pink, and when she looks at Esk she sees a matching flush.

"Follow me," Esk says, getting to her feet and picking up the basket. This time, Rosie doesn't argue with her.

The way out is a longer walk in near-darkness, and Rosie is glad her ankle has stopped aching. At intervals Esk pauses to test the air in the tunnel ahead and at one point they have to hurry along holding their breath, which would be tricky enough if Rosie wasn't wearing stilettos. Finally, Esk pauses under a grating and Rosie can see faint light above.

"Here you go," she says, gesturing upwards. "I'll give you a boost."

"Thank you," Rosie says, and on impulse she leans forward to press a kiss to Esk's mouth.

It's a chaste kiss, at least by Rosie's standards, because her lips are closed and their bodies aren't touching. Somehow, it's far sexier than she expected. She lingers a moment, inhaling Esk's odd mixture of scents — lamp oil, raspberry cupcake, herbal cream — and then a soft palm cups her jaw. Just for an instant Rosie melts into the touch, and then the hand is gone and Esk steps away.

"Perhaps another time," Esk says. Rosie doesn't think she's imagining the tone of regret.

"You're always welcome," she says, savouring the final smile, before Esk pushes aside the grating, takes Rosie's knee and lifts her up to the street level. A second later the basket arrives beside her, the grating slips back into place, and there's no sign Esk was ever there.

Rosie straightens up, lifting the basket, and finds herself in a deserted alley that is only a few feet from her meeting place. An hour later she's pushing open her own door, soaking wet and longing for the heat of the fire.

Sandra is waiting in the front room, looking worried. "You took your time."

"I had some trouble," Rosie says, bolting the door and kicking off her shoes.

"What happened?"

Rosie crosses to the fireplace and extends her hands, feeling the heat seep into them. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you," she says.

***

It's years before Rosie sees Esk again, and then it's in a form that she didn't expect: a little girl standing next to an elderly woman in black. Renting out bedrooms for non-sexual purposes isn't something she's ever done, or intended to do, but there's just enough similarity between the stubborn set of the little girl's shoulders and the woman she remembers that Rosie can't say no.

She instructs her employees to be polite to them both, keep their clothes on in the public areas as much as possible, and not to teach the child too much that she oughtn't to know yet. Still, she now understands why Esk seemed unshockable.

That night, Rosie inspects herself in front of the mirror and recalls Esk saying you looked nearly as beautiful when we first met.

"Rubbish," she says, turning this way and that in the candlelight. "You, Esk Smith, were just a flatterer."

There's a disturbance in the air and the candles flicker wildly for a moment. Rosie spins around, sees a figure in dark trousers step out of the shadows, and her hand is halfway to the dagger before she notices the white ponytail.

"I was wrong," Esk says, moving towards her. "You're even more beautiful now."

"I've heard enough bad compliments for a lifetime," Rosie says, heartbeat racing.

"Have you had enough kisses too?" asks Esk, and Rosie sees that twinkle in her eyes.

"Not so many that I'd turn down one more."

Esk takes another step closer and raises a hand to cup Rosie's cheek. Her hand is soft, warm, and it smells of lamp oil, herbal cream, and ever so faintly of raspberry icing.

"We're even now," Esk says quietly, "so you're not repaying me, or trading, or anything involving obligat—"

Rosie kisses her. She's been hoping for this a long time and has no intention of waiting any longer.

It becomes clear that Esk is not only the sort of wizard who fucks, but that she does so enthusiastically and in a whole range of positions. That herbal cream turns out to be just as versatile as Rosie thought, and feels even better the second time around.

There's only one inhibition between them that night, when Esk is splayed on the mattress, Rosie's hands are busy, and Esk moans loud enough to be heard at the far end of the hall.

"Shhh," Rosie says, pressing a kiss beneath Esk's earlobe. "There's a little girl sleeping."

Esk laughs, loud and dirty, and then her hands catch Rosie's face and pull her in for another kiss.

Date: 2012-08-03 08:23 pm (UTC)
musyc: Silver flute resting diagonally across sheet music (Default)
From: [personal profile] musyc
Oh, very nice. This was a delightful story.

Date: 2012-08-09 03:28 am (UTC)
woldy: (ook)
From: [personal profile] woldy
I'm glad you liked it! I was thrilled to see the rec, too. Both these ladies deserve more love in my opinion :-D

Date: 2012-08-29 03:00 pm (UTC)
oliphaunts: (Default)
From: [personal profile] oliphaunts
lovely, and memming. mind bent a bit with two Esks in one place, but eh!

Date: 2012-09-02 06:13 pm (UTC)
woldy: (ook)
From: [personal profile] woldy
Glad you enjoyed it! It took me a while to work out the chronology of this story too :-)

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