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Tales Told at Bedtime

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On that first night at Mr Carrisford's Becky stayed awake as long as she could, hardly daring to close her eyes in case the glory of her new surroundings vanished as quickly as they had come. She might still be in servants' quarters, or at least that was what the kind young man who said he was the master's secretary, had told her, but the floor was covered in a plush new carpet that sank beneath her shoes, and the fire in the grate (her very own grate) burned with the fierce heat and absence of smoke that marked only the best quality coal. She'd crept into the bed in her shift, hanging her shabby work dress from a hook on the wall ("We'll get you something more appropriate tomorrow," the secretary had said, as if she was someone like Miss Sara who deserved better) and the bedlinens were soft and cool on her skin, and the mattress - well, Becky didn't have the words for it. Like a cloud, or a dream of a cloud. The flames flickered in the grate. A piece of coal shifted, sending out sparks, and Becky jumped, opening her eyes wide; but nothing followed it; no scuffles in the walls from mice or rats, however friendly. Becky's eyelids drooped again, despite her best intentions. If only she could tell herself a story, to keep awake... and, as she thought that, her door swung slowly open and Sara, in a long white nightgown, was standing there holding up a candle, half-shielding the light with her hand.

"Becky?" Her voice was quiet, but clear.

Becky sat up abruptly. "Miss Sara." Relief and gratitude flooded through her.

Sara snuffed her candle and set it down on the floor before advancing into the room, the firelight flickering in her bright eyes. She sat down on the bed next to Becky, her weight a familiar presence in this unfamiliar place.

"You don't need to tell a story tonight, Miss." Becky gestured around them. "Everythin' came true."

Sara's answering smile was brief. She dropped her gaze to her lap, looking at her own hands, and Becky, unsure, followed suit. Sara's fingers were thin and elegant, but her nails were worn short rather than clipped, and her palms calloused from hard work. Greatly daring, Becky put one stubby-fingered paw on top, feeling her own callouses rasp against Sara's skin.

"Jest like you said." Becky wanted to reassure Sara, but neither her words nor her gesture seemed to have done so. Sara kept looking at her hands.

"As I said." Sara's voice, when she finally spoke, sounded distant. "A princess. A princess suffering under unfair treatment, in durance vile, almost alone - "

Becky squeezed Sara's hand, responding to the growing intensity in her voice. "Waiting to be recognised. Reinstated." Sara sounded distraught. Becky started to remove her hand, but Sara grabbed at her, her fingers clutching tightly at Becky's.

Becky felt lost. "Miss. D'you want some water?" But she felt reluctant to leave Sara alone to get it.

"I want," Sara said distinctly. "I want what I never thought to wish for, and what I can never have. Oh, Becky, I ought never to have hoped for fortune, when I could have hoped for my father."

The last word was a sob, raw and painful, and then Sara was weeping, in such a state as Becky had never seen. She patted Sara on the back, not knowing what to say. Part of her, the part that through fear would listen to Miss Minchin as a voice of authority, wanted to tell Sara that she should stop making such a fuss, that her father had died long ago and she was now wealthy beyond her wildest dreams, with everything she could possibly want - but another part of her, one that had existed barely as a shadow before Sara had come to the Seminary knew that would be wrong and would only hurt more.

Becky put her arm around Sara's shoulders - a few days of good food had yet to make any impression on her bony figure - and held on as Sara wept. As the storm began to die down, that shadow part of Becky grew bolder too, in that bedroom where the dancing firelight made all shadows friendlier and more brave.

"When I were a girl, Miss." Becky knew she didn't have Sara's talent with words. She couldn't make up a story, but, for her friend, she could try to tell one that was true. "Me Ma raised us kids, as best she could. Me Da - " Her father had been her father, not the father to any of her worn-out mother's older three children she only dimly remembered. Becky knew this was something to be ashamed of, the more so because none of the men in her mother's life had ever "been married proper", but telling Sara was more important. The shoulders she held had stopped shaking, and she could feel that Sara was listening. "He died when I was small. But I remember him. Not much. This one time I was skippin' in the street, and he was coming home from work - labourin' or summat - and I saw him, and ran straight to him. Nearly got my head knocked off by the butcher's cart, I was that bent on getting there, didn't look left nor right. He saw me coming, and caught me in his arms and swung me up." She could still feel that swoop in her stomach, that dizzying excitement. "He said he was pleased to see me too, and to watch my feet and the road the next time. An' he put me up on his shoulders and took me home." The afternoon sun had been particularly brilliant in her memory, striking gold through the grey haze of the East End, and everything had looked strange and new from that height. It was the first glimpse Becky had had of how the world could be different for different people.

"I don't remember if he did take me home again. I don't remember much else. The funeral, mebbe, but Ma's was so close I get them mixed up in my head. But that was my Da."

Sara's grip was still tight on Becky's hands, her knuckles white with strain.

Becky twisted her hands to grasp Sara's.

"You're not alone." She couldn't find the words she wanted, but these were the most important. "I'm here."

"You are." Sara's voice was low. "My comrade in adversity." She looked up, finally, and Becky was caught in her intent gaze, Sara's grey eyes as always seeming to see right down inside her. "Thank you."

She leaned in, her lips brushing Becky's cheek in a quick kiss, and Becky felt that dizzying swoop in her stomach again. Sara let go of Becky's hands.

"Thank you." Her breath was warm against Becky's skin. "You don't mind if I keep telling you stories, then?"

"Mind?" Becky quite forgot to give Sara her title in her surprise. "I love your stories."

This time, Sara's smile lingered. "And I loved yours. I'll come back then. For you." She slipped off the bed and was at the door in a moment, turning back one last time at the door to nod to Becky. A promise.

It was a promise Sara always kept.