a bit of polish
by cimorene
for nicole--sorry it's REALLY late; and also for aubry and cal, who waxed enthusiastic about the idea

Tina could not help liking the new girl. Her name was Brittany, an unusual name accounted for by her being born in America and her parents' nostalgic love for the country to which they had only just been able to return on her sixteenth birthday. With no less charm than consciousness of it, she begged everyone, on being introduced to them, to call her "Brittany," rather than "Miss Spears."

She was not only slender, curvaceous, and amazingly pretty; but she seemed to glow all over with a sheen of gold. Tina sometimes attributed the radiance of her hair, her skin, to the American plantation where she had spent her youth; but the subtler radiance of her smile and the captivating energy and grace of her every movement certainly did not come from the sun.

Brittany's awareness of her charms did very little to lessen them.

By all counts Tina ought to have hated her. The undisputed, celebrated darling of Miss Matheson's Academy for Young Ladies prior to the arrival of the lovely stranger, she might well have been expected to resent the new centre of attention. Brittany's sweetness and even temper were favoured by all the masters from Monsieur Romney, who visited weekly to instruct the young ladies in the steps of the socially necessary dances, to Miss Albertson, who instructed the pupils daily in Geography.

Brittany was neither very bright nor very studious. Her drawing was acceptable, practiced but not striking nor flawless. Her painting was sometimes pretty, but sometimes awkward. Her letters were almost entirely lacking, her sums abysmal, and her skill at the pianoforte middling. But she had a startling, husky and plaintive voice to accompany her playing that drew the startled attention of her audience away from her fingers at the keys. Untutored and unorthodox, it was neither so strong nor so flexible as Christina's, but beautiful. If her accomplishments were superficial or incomplete, Brittany's manners were perfect and unaffected, her charm real and infectious, her every movement powerful and graceful. She had so much friendliness and simple happiness that it was impossible to dislike her. In addition, her dancing was not only flawless, but so captivating that the first time Tina saw it, she didn't look away for the remainder of the lesson.

In summary, Tina could not dislike her--did not, and did not try to.

In the few weeks since Brittany had arrived in her travelling carriage, Miss Matheson's had been turned completely upside-down. The dormitory was full of muffled giggles in the mornings, emanating mostly from the beds of those young ladies fortunate enough to be bedded within whispering distance of the new arrival. Breakfast was an affair of polite conversation and sloppy table manners whenever the instructors' eyes were turned elsewhere like before; but the conversation was now lively, even loud, and even at the far end of the table from Brittany, Tina had learned many a story of the state of Virginia over her morning toast and marmalade.

And where clusters of the younger girls had before gravitated cautiously to Tina on free afternoons, whether she read or practiced needlework or petitioned a school mistress for a shopping trip, they now followed without fail Brittany's footsteps, which almost always led to perambulations in the Park. She had even made Miss Stephenson and Miss Redgrave declare, in the hearing of the entire school, that they thought no exercise more beneficial to the mind or the health.

Tina had never been personally invited by anybody on one of these general, disorganized expeditions, and so she had never gone. She preferred reading anyway, and to practise on the pianoforte in the parlour in the afternoon, when her tête-à-tête with the instrument might remain completely undisturbed (because for those hours, Miss Matheson had given it over wholly to Tina's use, at the request of the music master).

Despite the lack of daily personal contact, it was impossible for Tina not to know about Brittany: what she liked to eat, her favourite colour, her distaste for wearing her hair the same way two days in a row, her partiality for bread rolls. Everybody in the school knew Brittany and everybody watched her, just as everybody knew, and had watched Christina, before the other's arrival.

Christina observed Brittany and learned the rhythm of her movements and the husky overheard timbre of her voice, her stories, and the colours and trim of her dresses, so naturally that it did not occur to her that the reverse was not true--that Brittany did not know, did not like her.

But Tina was, perhaps, the only person in the school whom Brittany did not like; and Brittany liked everybody.

At the start of the new term Miss Matheson had as much as promised Christina the role of Benedick in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, to be formed for the school's-end feast. The competition for male parts was small, and Christina was unusual both in wanting the part, and in her passionate love of the play (and of all the work of Shakespeare).

"Certainly, my dear," had said the Headmistress warmly with an indulgent, stately smile, "no one can question, or compete with, the claim of your years of excellence. The other young ladies must and do look up to you as to a true leader."

But now the term was well underway and the time had come for assigning the parts for the play, after some weeks of studying the text--and Brittany was here. Her eyes lighting up, she put up her hand immediately Miss Fullerton mentioned the casting.

"Brittany?" It was a name no one ever said without smiling.

Tina was conscious, that day, of a sense of warm satisfaction, of contentment and slight anticipation. She enjoyed the study of the play, but she enjoyed even more the rush she felt from being the centre of attention, preferably when performing; and she was very eager to try her hand at being the male lead of the play. Tina got great, wicked pleasure from going counter to the expectations of her little society. She liked to be talked about.

And of course, she liked the play.

While Tina basked in her satisfaction, sitting relaxed with her hands folded in her lap, her eyes half-closed in pleasure as the sun and fresh air from an open window poured over her, Brittany asked eagerly, "Can I please, please be Beatrice?"

Christina sat up straight with tingles racing up and down her spine.

Of course, she thought, nobody was going to say Brittany nay. Nobody but Serena Tisbury even said they wanted the part after that; and after a moment's deliberation Miss Fullerton decided to put the selection to a vote, which was the same as giving it to Brittany, really.

Beatrice to her Benedick? She almost licked her lips as words of fiery passion, anger and romance alike, ran through her mind. All Brittany's grace and energy, focussed on her. Tina was neither prideful nor modest. She knew that together they would rivet every eye, every thought in the room.

"But," said Miss Fullerton, "I had not intended actually to begin the casting today, dears! Brittany, you've got all of us so enthusiastic that we shall be at the dress rehearsal before we've learnt our parts!" Bored and dutiful giggles attended this rather weak attempt at humour, and Miss Fullerton continued hurriedly, "Class is dismissed. I will see you all at tea, and we'll discuss casting our other three main characters tomorrow! Casting will begin next Tuesday. I would like for each of you to give serious thought to whom you believe would be appropriate for each role."

Tina relished her speculation for one day more only. She had barely any time to contemplate her costuming--divided skirts of course, she decided reluctantly, for Miss Matheson would never hear of breeches--and none at all to consider Brittany's before she was robbed of her feelings of felicity.

Once the class had recited the play's cast from their little bound volumes, Miss Fullerton singled out the main players and requested them to share any thoughts they might have.

Hero should be "beautiful," said Serena, and "have a real sweetness," said Agatha Aines, while Brittany's belief was that "the really important thing" about her was that she was not only Beatrice's cousin but "her most particular friend," and she smiled so brightly when she said so, that no one else could discover a desire to break the ensuing silence by other than a giggle.

When Miss Fullerton came to the name of Benedick she spoke a little coyly, for everyone knew the part was rightfully Christina's. Tina herself remained smugly silent; it was only good breeding. Brittany's golden arm was the only one lifted into the air.

"Yes, Brittany?"

"Well--" she blushed. "Miss Fullerton, since Benedick is, I mean Beatrice is, ah, they you know, fall in love--." Her confusion was utterly charming. Every eye in the room was Brittany's as her small hands worried the white muslin in her lap.

"I have every confidence in your acting," said Miss Fullerton encouragingly, while Christina hid her surprise at such uncharacteristic warmth from so chilly a schoolmistress. "Of course, girls, this will be a challenge for you, but I really believe you'll all find the words of Mr. Shakespeare will speak to your own emotions."

"Oh, I--" Brittany said, and blushed very consciously. "It's just, about Benedick, who's going to play Benedick."

Tina watched with narrow eyes. The play, she thought, would give Brittany no trouble. The classroom was still, breathless, and silent as the tomb.

With a nervous, explosive little giggle, Brittany finally whispered, "Well, she kisses him," and Miss Fullerton smiled indulgently through her own blushes as understanding dawned. A shocked ripple of laughter went through the room. Finally the long lashes lifted, and her soft brown eyes fixed on Miss Fullerton. "I mean, who--?"

Miss Fullerton said gently, "My dear, I believe Miss Aguilera has expressed an interest."

She stayed cool, but inwardly Tina dropped her pretence of uncaring. The blood rushed to Brittany's cheeks. "But I couldn't!" She covered her face in her hands.

Tina froze, hardly knowing if she were hurt or angry, almost incapable of ignoring all the glances coming her way from the other pupils.

Miss Fullerton fluttered ineffectually around Brittany at her desk. "My dear!"

"It's just that the meaning! It's, well, so--and when the character--! It's just like you said, Miss Fullerton, you feel the emotions when you speak the words. Shakespeare is the Immortal Bard! And I'm going to--of course it's just art, but in a way, it's so personal. I mean to say, I know how you admire them--since you are in such a position of trust, it's the only way that it could be unexceptionable to--" she appeared in agony, large eyes shimmering though her face wasn't at all flushed. "It's not quite proper! I couldn't act it with anyone but you."

Miss Fullerton was utterly surprised, of course: she couldn't have suspected anyone would fail to admire Christina, even Brittany. Her composure was actually tried. "Well, er, of course, my dear, if you feel that--so that--we don't wish to make anyone--and so of course the Headmistress will consider--will want to carefully evaluate the matter, most carefully; of course you'll want to address your concerns with her. I will bring the matter to her attention." Some strength had returned to her thin voice by the end of this speech. "I will make the necessary representations." She cleared her throat. "Shall we continue?"

Brittany's carriage had arrived late at night, when the lamps were long since extinguished in the dormitory. Christina had been still up and gowned, sipping tea in Miss Matheson's office after the opera in the company of the headmistress and her Uncle Cartwright, who from time to time requested her presence for the evening. Young ladies at Miss Matheson's were required to be given completely over to her care, and weren't allowed to be Out, nor to come and go at the wills of their families unless all the proprieties were observed.

Tina's Uncle David always called on Miss Matheson a week at least in advance, and asked her permission before ever mentioning the proposed treat to Christina. She didn't resent Miss Matheson's strictures, precisely, as she felt that to do so would be a waste of her time; which wasn't to say that she wasn't eager to escape and begin conquering the larger society outside the sprigged drawing-room walls. She was aware she did very well at school, and that never again would she come so easily into comfort and power in a group of people in her life. Perhaps she was sometimes restless at night, dreaming of the greater challenge.

Sir Anybody would be welcome in Miss Matheson's parlor (or at night, when the parlor had been closed up, and the opera recently departed, her office). If he was also Captain Cartwright, distinguished in the Peninsular War, so much the better. And if the tuition he paid her for the application to his favorite niece of some "polish" had contributed substantially to the recent refurbishment of her dining and morning rooms, then in all likelihood he could do no wrong.

Tina sipped her tea and spoke only when spoken to, leaving her Uncle to charm Miss Matheson with an account of the opera. So lost was she remembering the music, her throat tightening and releasing unconsciously, that she didn't hear the commotion of Brittany's carriage arriving until the housekeeper was knocking at the door.

Miss Matheson excused herself, and Tina, blinking out of reverie, was startled by Uncle David's deep chuckle. "Can't sing with me in the room, eh, lass?"

Tina laughed with him. "Now what should I say, Uncle? I call it most uncivil of you to trap a beginner in a conversation with no civil rejoinder. If I tell the truth, I may as well call you a crashing bore; if I lie, I contradict you directly."

"Charming minx. Since you are a beginner, I'll offer you some assistance. You should, of course, avoid the question. --I fear you'll never make a coquette."

Tina smiled mysteriously, reflecting that perhaps another young lady would not have felt the same pride she did at that bald assessment of her character.

The carriage outside transpired to belong to Mr. Spears, and its contents were two menservants, a thin gray woman and the sparkling Miss Spears herself bundled in fur blonder than her golden hair. The furor caused by her arrival wholly swallowed Captain Cartwright's departure, roused every servant in the school, lit a multitude of lamps and pushed Tina's bedtime back by another hour at least. The two girls were trapped a long time amid the bustle in Miss Matheson's office, forced to sit politely until the headmistress should return and provide some direction. Even without a formal introduction Tina might have spoken to the other, except for the constant noise in the hallway and the bustle in and out of trunks and portmanteaux. Conversation rendered impossible, they exchanged curious looks and, on the one side, some of the most intriguing, shy and soft smiles it had ever been Tina's fortune to behold.

When at last they were sent to the dormitory, Miss Matheson said only that "she knew Christina would make Miss Spears comfortable," with what Tina needed not flatter herself to read as specially warm and favorable emphasis.

Later what Tina would remember most strongly were the warmth, the weight, the scent of Brittany's hair uncurling in Tina's hands as she gently extracted the pins. The darkness was thick and muffling, her eyelids heavy, and the room silent but for the secretive music of their breathing blending into one mesmerising sound. Their sleeping chemises glowed white in the darkness, the coverlet cool against Tina's folded legs. She thought their hands touched and lingered, but perhaps that had been dream or fancy, for the next day it was as if nothing of that night had ever been. Still, walking near Brittany always brought Tina the faintest hint of a scent lower and spicier than rosewater, that teased her senses back to that dream state again.

Miss Matheson's private office was comfortably appointed in a conservative, not overly feminine, but markedly affluent style. A massive oak desk and embellished bookcases warred with dainty chairs upholstered in fine needlework. Elegant inlays and rich carpets created an air of luxury to match the scent of polished wood and dried violet. The framed portraits, sketches and paintings clustering on every available wall were framed to the last ingénue, still-life, and hillside in heavy, dark wood like that of the desk. Tina, owing to or at least associated with her special status at the school, was accustomed to regard the room as something of a sanctuary.

Her familiarity there was a mark, a badge, of her status. She had, rarely, been gently "reminded" or regaled with moral stories, but Miss Matheson's estimation of her was evidently hardly lower than Mlle. Lamoreaux's, Miss Fullerton's, Miss Redgrave's, M. Romney's, or, indeed, Tina's own small cousins'. She had never given Tina so much as a frown.

Her manner now came as a very unpleasant shock to Tina. Smiling solicitously, she understood that "they" had some concerns about the propriety of the play. While Brittany was given the teapot to serve and Tina's cold hands lay still in her lap, she congratulated their delicacy, called their judgment in question and dismissed it as easily, thanked Brittany for her courage and fiber and Christina for her grace and humanity, and blithely appropriated the part for herself.

"I know," she told Tina, "that your sense of innate delicacy, Christina, will be satisfied by this decision, however you may have looked forward as a young woman of courage and talent to testing your acting abilities as the character... your position of leadership in this school has weighed heavily on you, however well you have borne it. I think I may say with propriety that I have been never disappointed, always impressed in your pride, gentleness, and leadership of the other girls! The sweetness which takes on itself the burden of a part even only in small part inimical to its own delicacy, overlooking its true wants for others' benefit--! I see, now, that I ought never to have admitted of the idea, Christina. You will have the part of Hero, which none can question that your position, your status, your talent so richly deserve. Though your own selflessness might abhor its acceptance, I am sure that with my urging you need not feel it unbecoming to accede. Have no fear for those whom you know look to you as an example! It is your privilege, your duty, to display your own superiority of accomplishment."

The headmistress beamed upon the completion of this ghastly speech with restrained pride.

Brittany's pretty face was set with a calm, sweetly compliant and innocent smile, those damnable dimples, and wide, alert eyes. There was no flicker of triumph in her expression as she thanked the Headmistress with warmth and just a hint of charming effusion. When she turned the perfect smile on Tina, who had no choice but to smile brilliantly back, the air in the room nearly snapped under the tension. If Miss Matheson perceived it (which in retrospect, Tina could not imagine she could fail to do), she gave no sign capable of intruding on the narrow focus of Tina's attention.

"So considerate," she murmured to Brittany with a simper, seething inside with what she called anger, and only hoped was not really hurt.

It pleased Miss Matheson, dismissing them, to make a complicated hint about appropriate casting, friendships, sisterly love, propriety, and the setting of examples. Tina didn't stop to disentangle it--she had a feeling she'd not be best pleased with the comparison drawn between herself and the girl at her side as they went through the door.

The breakfast served at Miss Matheson's Academy for Young Ladies was the same every morning and always at the same time, regardless of who was in attendance, the temperature, the weather, or the expected events of the day. The younger girls had been often heard to say strawberries and cream were seasonally appropriate, or pudding or chocolate expected given the upcoming holiday--but still they were served porridge and tea, coffee and hotcakes, and toast.

Sugar and honey were expected additions, and butter and orange marmalade were matters of course.

This had not always been the case.

Although Christina had always regarded marmalade as a breakfast staple, Miss Matheson and her cook had not.

Her first breakfast at school had been a frustrating affair of dry toast, scorching hot tea, and disappointing pots which turned out all to contain honey. Her whispered inquiries had not brought happy returns, but Christina had swallowed her discontent without a word or look.

Her second year at school, it occurred to her that she might just mention it--that it could do no harm.

She hadn't asked a teacher, or Miss Matheson, though they were by then on terms of some affection (if neither familiarity nor friendship). She had asked the other girls, every now and then, and one at a time--whether they liked it, whether they had it at home and how often, what was their favorite variety, did they ever think it strange...?

When her uncle gave her a jar as a present, Tina had brought it to the drawing room at tea time on a quiet, rainy Saturday afternoon. She had offered it first to Miss de Lacey, who oversaw the teapot while girls lounged round the room with needlework, books, sketching or sheet music; and then, as they approached the table, to every girl present until more than half the jar had vanished. Overhearing Miss de Lacey express surprise that they didn't serve it, Tina took up the theme herself. "But only," she had said, "at breakfast. I'd never take it for tea, of course, if it weren't my birthday." Tina didn't have a bad smile. She'd practiced it in front of a mirror until it satisfied her perfectly, and she checked it still from time to time. She used it to great advantage then.

Compliments for the dazzling, beautiful, pretty, proper, modest, sweet, shy, warm, friendly, gracious, conscious, and well-bred smiles of Miss Spears had echoed on all sides ever since her arrival. Praise for Tina was never so loud nor so warm. For all the girls who admired--looked to her, as Miss Matheson had said, as an example--Tina was sorely conscious that her friends were few, and far from close.

She defiantly, proudly identified her Uncle as her best friend, though whether she denied convention, expectation, or her own secret inclination was never perfectly clear. Still, almost everyone liked her, and everyone knew what to think of her--of her grace, her in-bred poise--it had been whispered that she had hardly need of any polish from the likes of Miss Matheson's. And she knew that her best smile would always draw an answering smile, from the dirtiest urchin to the Countess de Lieven, from the oldest gentleman to the most jealous young lady. She thought of the small, nearly tentative version of Brittany's smile she had received that night in Miss Matheson's office across a sea of luggage. She wondered if she had smiled in answer and could not remember.

Tina didn't want a rival, but it would have been nice to have gained a friend.

Her first breakfast at Miss Matheson's had brought surprises for Brittany, too. "Orange marmalade in this one too?" She had said, exasperated, replacing the lid on a pot.

But her artless suggestions of strawberry preserves instead met nothing but surprise, even from Caroline and Eileen Fisher, who had gained their places next to her at table not so much through luck as through jostling.

"In England we have marmalade every day," said Serena.

Even Miss Fullerton had suggested helpfully, "Perhaps you're simply not used to the ways of your home yet, my dear. Give yourself time."

And Miss Matheson had confessed herself diverted, to her bosom friend Mrs. King, by the notion of substituting a luxury item like preserves, for a staple like marmalade.

Miss Matheson's young ladies had yet to encounter strawberries, in any form, upon her breakfast table.

It wasn't until after the performance--which, for an amateur affair of its type peopled entirely with gently-reared young ladies, was perhaps no worse than usual--that Tina became truly angry.

While she performed however insipid a part, good breeding and the concentrated attention of all the audience prevented her mind from wandering to the injustice of the situation. To see Miss Matheson perform her part--so grossly, with such self-conscious exaggeration and coyness! To play herself to the wooden recitals of the terrified Miss de Lacey! To play so silent, so colourless a foil to Brittany's smiling, whip-smart, coquettish Beatrice!

Tina fled the upper drawing room and sought sanctuary, as was her habit, in the small lower-story room which contained little else beyond an old pianoforte Miss Matheson kept primarily for the use of the young beginning students, and Miss Alford, the music mistress. The room was dull and gray at the best of times, when flooded with spring light. The wallpaper was drab, ornamentation almost wholly absent.

It was Tina's place when she wanted to sing and practice, and could not get the parlor to herself. It was her hideaway when she feared to allow anyone to see her face. It was her refuge when she knew not what she did, when her feet began moving someplace and her mind returned to find them motionless someplace entirely different. Half-costumed still, she fled with her hair in disarray and closed the door behind her with some violence.

Fortunately for both Tina and Miss Matheson, the small music room (as it was called) contained little of any value, and less that could be broken. Tina's violent impulse was far from exhausted. Only her love of the eccentric, battered old pianoforte kept her from lashing out at it with fists and slippered toes. Instead she sat on the bench, slumped over with the poorest posture she had displayed for some months, digging her fingernails in between the grayed needlework of the seat cushion, and the golden oak of the seat. Hints of discomfort in her fingertips led her to wonder if she couldn't completely pry her fingernails off this way. She contemplated with some satisfaction, and only a small amount of revulsion, the tearing pain--the shrieks of the other girls--the trails of blood on upholstery and ivory piano keys. Of course it was out of the question, since it would disfigure her hands. She took a deep, not even breath, and clenched her fists on the bench next to her thighs.

She was still breathing raggedly, biting her lip, and beating her clenched fists on the bench next to her legs, when the door cracked open and then closed.

Tina hoped, with savage bitterness, that Miss Matheson herself or perhaps the Cook, Mrs. Tidley, would discover her. Tina had been put to bed by Mrs. Tidley with extra scones and tea before, had slept wrapped in the kindly woman's blanket-sized shawl on the kitchen hearth next to a glowing fire and a basket of kittens.

The voice was husky and girlish. "You think no one knows that you come here. You come all the time. I know, Tina."

She knew that voice. Tina raised her head slowly and looked up through the tangled, dangling ringlets of her own hair. She wondered what her face looked like: red, like a screaming baby's, with anger and held-back tears? "Brittany."

The other girl was standing with one shoulder of Beatrice's dress slipping off her shoulder, pale gold curls spilling all over her shoulders. "I know it--you did an incredible job."

"Of an insipid part," said Tina tightly; "anyone could."

Brittany took a step forward and Tina tried to take a step back, but she was on the piano bench--she couldn't move. She could smell Brittany's scent. "I--this is hard, you know, but I--I'm sorry."

Tina watched her bosom heave, as she let out a long breath and took in another, equally long one, as if simultaneously sighing in relief and steeling herself for pain. Her gaze was arrested when Brittany's lashes lifted and the soft brown eyes locked to hers.

She swallowed with difficulty and looked away.

"You're sorry?" Sorry? Did the girl have any idea how rude that was? Tina wanted to tell her in short, stinging words that charm couldn't make up the gap between good intentions and social acceptability with her, that Brittany couldn't manipulate her, perhaps that she wasn't her puppet or her toy or her lackey, but she didn't produce any speeches of the kind, only another, more incredulous, "You're sorry? Now?"

Brittany froze a little, then moved forward again, kneeling in one swift graceful move next to the piano bench. "I was sorry before but I just couldn't. I couldn't."

"It wasn't proper," Tina hissed furiously, but she couldn't gesticulate because Brittany had seized both her hands, wrapped them tightly in neat, plump, warm fingers. "You got what you wanted," she said finally. "To say you're sorry when it's--if you felt the injustice, a hundred times you could have--"

"--And I waited till today. I'm still sorry--"

"You got what you wanted!" said Tina, hands twisting in their prison until it was she who gripped Brittany's little hands, hard enough, she hoped, to hurt. "You got what you wanted! Now go!"

"I didn't get what I wanted," said Brittany softly, moving sinuously after the jerking of their joined hands for a moment until she shifted stance on the floor to resist. Her face was hard, her mouth set firmly as Tina had never seen it. The look was--determined, perhaps. "I didn't get what I wanted," she repeated, this time in a fierce hard voice, "I don't want to be liked; I want to be--brilliant. --I want to be like you."

Tina didn't know what to say. She knew suddenly in her stomach, in her bones, that she had to run; and her sanctuary was invaded. Distantly Tina heard herself gasp, and her mouth was open, and somehow she just stopped herself from responding to this unbelievable pronouncement and flew down the servants' stairs to the kitchen, through the connecting door to the tiny store room filled with flour and sugar, and covered her face with her hands.

They still had red marks on them.

Christina was doing needlework. She was not very accomplished at it. Her imagination always outstripped her skill and patience; and when her stitches were neat, she was slow, while if her work was quick, her stitches became sloppy. She hadn't gotten any blood on her lapful of muslin, but her thumb was sore and she was making distressingly slow progress.

She was a nice girl, and didn't have it in her to resent other pupils merely for their accomplishments, possibly because her own inner conviction of superiority was so unshakeable, so passionate and complete and so very well-founded. It always had been. She didn't know why she was still so upset now, why her hands were shaking with it; she was holding onto her distress and her anger, had balled them up like damp muslin clutched in her fist and clung to them all night, like sleeping with a love letter in her bosom.

She pricked her finger and bit her lip to keep from crying out, raising the wound to her lips to suckle it gently. Her work was still unspotted, even when she turned it over and checked the back.

Tina felt restless in the chair, her legs trembling to be released. She thought longingly of casting the scrap of fabric aside, bolting out the door and down the corridor to the rear garden, maybe scaling that stone wall she'd wondered about all the time she'd lived here and had never dared. It would, perhaps, be unseemly to run out in the grounds so precipitously--to say nothing of the stone wall, obviously the purest fancy. But she could no longer be shackled in the hard drawing-room chair. Leaving her lapful of embroidery behind, she sprang to her feet and walked across the room to the fireplace with such fierce force that her steps rang across the floor.

Serena looked up at her, eyes wide, and said timidly, "Christina, are you quite all right? You seem flushed"; and though Christina turned her head away quickly, it was not quick enough.

Miss Brown, their mistress of maths, had looked up already with her sharp, birdlike stare. "Christina, are you well? You do not look well."

She was forced to stop and give a little curtsey. "I am quite well, ma'am, only the room seems a little close and I felt a bit--a strain." She had not stumbled over her speeches since last she had the 'flu. "I believe I only need a bit of fresh air."

Miss Brown nodded, releasing her, and Christina turned away past the low-burning fire and mantel to the white door to the hallway. The knob turned in her fingers and she stepped aside in haste. If only she had moved back instead, and not found Brittany at her very fingertips, framed in the lamplight of the hall which was golden around her pale hair and white dress, the wide pink satin riband falling like a sash under the round swells of her breasts. A breath of scent reached Tina, and she turned her head away from Brittany's tilted head, bright eyes.

"Is something the matter?"

"Christina is just going to get some air, Brittany, perhaps you will accompany her; she is not feeling perfectly well," said Miss Brown.

It was like a nightmare, thought Tina distantly, opening her mouth and then closing it again on a protest which she realised just in time would seem inexplicable and ungracious.

"Her cheeks are--" whispered someone in the background.

"Is this her needlepoint?" "She does seem a little flushed," "Tina, you have left your work," and "Of course, Miss Brown" floated around her, one over the other like falling leaves, so that she had left the room before she had time to remark or move, anything but go pliantly with Brittany's hand on her wrist.

"You feel like ice!" The other girl exclaimed, "take my arm"; and insinuated herself under Tina's elbow until Tina could not help but lean against her.

Though she knew that she could walk perfectly well, Tina did not say so, but suffered herself to be led solicitously down the hall, offering only in explanation, "It's cold." She had left her needlework behind, but she found she did not care to go back for it.

As they stood on the back patio wrapped in the worn old cloaks from the hook by the door, a cold breeze stirred the crisped brown leaves of the big oak and the loose curls of Brittany's artfully dressed hair. "I have been angry at her these last weeks," thought Tina, "so angry, today, that I have made everyone think I am taken ill. Where is my anger now?" It was gone.

She sighed. She did not want to chase after it.

"Do you not wish to sit?"

Tina turned her head to look at Brittany. She did not speak with the kind of deference Tina found in so many of the other girls. Her tone was soft, her manner cultured, but her words were direct. She was not bound up in politeness, had not put it before her like a dressing screen, to be always peered around or shouted through if one would speak. She was waiting now for Tina to answer, and her eyes moved a little, anxiously or curiously. Tina glanced down. There was a fold in her cheek, the hint, the threat, of a charmingly situated dimple.

She wastes it, thought Christina, and she knows not how to use it. She ought to laugh with it, to flutter her lashes and peek up--.

"I am cold," she said finally, "but I--find I do not wish to return to the drawing room--I want to be alone. I'd like to go to the dormitory."

She did not realize what she had said at first, when Brittany's face fell a little. Then quickly, Tina found herself saying, "I do not feel quite well still--would you--?"

Her sweet heart-shaped face smooth once more and solemn, Brittany nodded once gravely and took Tina's arm again, the touch cold through two layers of cloak. The breath of snow was on the air, swirling round the edges of the door as they closed it behind them. Tina felt awkward, as though caught raiding the kitchen at night for chocolate when she had been too ill for dinner; so she walked a few stiff paces ahead of Brittany down the hall, until the swift taps of the other girl's slippered feet overtook her on the stairs.

"Wait." Brittany stopped her, a scolding wrinkle between her brows. "You overtax yourself."

"I am not ill," said Christina awkwardly, not knowing why she spoke the truth unguarded to this girl, this enemy. She put her hand out on the banister uncertainly; it was smooth and cold like silk.

Brittany looked narrowly at her. "Then you will in any case do yourself no evil walking as though you were. Think of what I must say to Miss Brown": her single dimple, the laugh creases by her eyes, invited mischievous intimacy.

They continued at a much more sedate pace to the dormitory. Brittany pushed the door open and went in, not looking behind her and leaving Tina to sit on her bed with as much, or as little semblance of illness as she pleased. She went directly to the casements and opened two--"It is a little hot in here too, but I will not have you catching cold," she said, and left the rest closed. "You will have to come and sit by the window, if you want your fresh air so very badly."

But Tina was already sitting on her bed, watching Brittany. Brittany's hands moved uselessly around her hips as she spoke, as though through water. She had stopped now, and put her head on the side--a curious and evidently unconscious little habit--and smiled, a little.

Tina expected the smile, but she expected the sunny glow of a grin so familiar to them all, or the small curve of a smile the girl seemed to try on and take off like a shawl or pelisse--not this hesitant, almost pleading thing, hardly half-formed before it painted itself across Brittany's pretty mouth, curving her soft cheeks uncertainly.

Christina reached out. Her hand trembled on the draft of frosty air between them. Brittany knelt again, fell to her knees, really, and the pink ribbon pooled like blood run from a wound in her breast--which rose and fell rapidly under her bodice of white muslin.

The hands which seized hers were cool now from the window-handles. Christina stared into Brittany's wide brown eyes. She could not look away. "It may be a little close in here after all," she murmured. "Perhaps we should--"

"Close the door," said Brittany. "I do not know what I was thinking." But instead of standing, she moved closer on her knees, no doubt catching whatever dust had not been swept from the floor in the fabric of her gown. Christina felt the soft undulating shape of her, warm, pressed against her leg through their dresses--thigh, belly, the soft warmth of her breasts.

"Will that not simply make the air stiller?"

"I do not find it close," said Brittany simply.

"I am not ill," Tina admitted.

"Very good." The answer was lower, almost throaty. The familiar scent she remembered from that dark first night, perched on the bedcovers, rose from the slightly disarranged curls and the décolletage of the gown, which Christina looked down on into mounds of pale, smooth flesh.

Tina's mouth was dry. "Perhaps you had better."

"And you the window," said Brittany with softly. "For we may catch cold, and in any case we must draw the drapes to be comfortable and have a proper coze." She rose gracefully, smiling again, and her gown was barely creased. "For we never have gotten to know one another, Tina--I may call you Tina, mayn't I?--and I have longed to."

Tina stood at the window, closing again the casements which were open and shivering in the colder air from outside which raised gooseflesh on her arms. Brittany's words were not unusual, had been heard in no doubt hundreds of drawing rooms and finishing schools, spoken between scores of schoolroom misses.

They were gentle and measured, though; she spoke so softly and with such meaning that Tina knew--or hoped, or feared--she could not mistake. There was no bubbling animation, nor thoughtless gaiety in her tone. Brittany had spoken thus when rehearsing her lines from the play. "I have longed to."

This time Brittany put her hands out in invitation. This time it was Tina who stepped forward and captured them--and stepped forward again, until with a little sigh the other seemed to collapse forward, easily and painlessly, onto her bosom. The golden head dropped down on Tina's shoulder, warm breath gusting against her neck; Brittany's greater height folded up easily, pliantly, and she moved as close as a familiar embrace; and the secrets of a young lady's blossoming figure, its interesting hollows and swells hinted at, but hidden by the intervening fall of her garments, were all exposed to them both through the luxury of touch.

Brittany shivered.

Tina whispered, "Hush"; and as though she had not heard, as though she were about to weep, Britney clutched convulsively, threw her arms around Christina and hugged her so tightly she could barely breathe.

Gingerly Tina lifted her arms, cradling the golden head in one hand, stroking the soft hair, then daring to slide her hand under it, to the warmth of flesh above the neck of the white gown. Brittany murmured something and moved her head against Christina's neck, like a kitten nuzzling for the mother's breast, until when she spoke her breath came soft and wet on the very flesh of Tina's neck, on the thin skin under which her pulse pounded.

"We can be friends," she breathed in a broken voice which sounded choked in tears. "Can we not?"

The small hands Tina had often admired no longer clutched fistfuls of her gown as though to rip them off. Brittany's hands moved as though to stroke a pet spaniel, and she lifted her head slowly--Tina could feel the damp edge of Brittany's lip catching on the skin of her own throat and caught her breath--

And found her mouth willingly captured, her lips claimed even as they trembled on a shaky exhalation; her breath seized and drawn from her by the deep, sucking breath Brittany took, open-mouthed, when the curves of their lips slipped, and slid, wondering and wet, and rested so that they fitted together like a silver teapot and its lid.

Those warm, firm hands had found themselves on Tina's hips, where they rested gently; but Brittany's shyness must be melting, possibly from the heat of their embrace or the secret heat suffusing Tina's body, pinking her cheeks, boiling wicked and tantalising low in her belly; for she slowly dared to move her hands over Tina's body, and they burned through her gown and chemise as though she was completely unclothed.

"I wish," Brittany murmured throatily in Tina's mouth, against her lips, and the smooth satin brush against her damp and swollen lower lip was--the pink tip of Brittany's tongue, now caught between the pearls of her teeth.

Tina gave into her curiosity, allowed herself to take fistfuls of Brittany's gown and move her hands up and down exploring in more detail the sweet swelling softness of her ripe pale body--

That body undulated softly against her; Brittany's bosoms crushed to Tina's chest deliciously and her slim thighs under their dress moved against Tina's legs, and Brittany breathed, "Oh, yes"; and Tina would not allow her to speak further, but closed her eyes and found the velvet of Brittany's cheek in the darkness blindly, by scent perhaps, and kissed that red mouth and felt it open to her tongue and lips like a rose too long on the vine, falling open, already wet and welcoming.

Brittany's hand had slid up the curve of Tina's waist, over her ribcage, and the backs of her fingers brushed the secret swelling of Tina's breast, the bottom of it, where the falling folds of her gown kept its shape hidden from the eye.

Their two bodies pressed so closely together that Brittany seemed to have some difficulty in insinuating a hand between them; but when she cupped the whole of her hand round one of Tina's bosoms, cold fingertips on the hot flesh above the gown's neckline, and gently squeezed, Tina gasped and her head fell back, and while she hardly knew what happened the shoulder of her gown and its modish puffed sleeve were slipping off her collar-bone, the lace fichet from her décolletage dropped from uncaring fingers, her breasts heaving as more flesh was exposed to the cool air of the dormitory. Brittany eagerly pushed her hand under the fabric of chemise, of gown, till Tina's eyes fell closed in a fury of embarrassment--and her mouth fell open as the soft fingertips described small circles on her breasts and finally found their aching, eager centres.

"That--!" Said Tina, and Brittany gave a low, throaty chuckle and moved her hands, catching the hard peak between two fingers and--

Tina almost choked.

"Shh," said Brittany, and withdrew to hide her face in Tina's shoulder, shuddering, and nestle closer. The arrows of sharp pleasure in her breasts had moved straightaway to low in Tina's belly, and while her breasts felt merely tight with sensation now, the churning centre of her heat had settled low, lower, until it hummed between her thighs more fiercely than it ever had in the secret hours of the long night.

"Come with me," Tina whispered; "we can sit--we are in the dormitory after all--we must make ourselves more comfortable"; and she busied her fingers with the buttons on the back of Brittany's gown. When she seated herself on the bed she found that the soft swollen heat between her legs was very sensitive too, and bit her lip a little as Brittany shook her golden hair forward over her shoulder so that Tina might open her gown and pull it off her.

Brittany turned to face her, breathless, the figured muslin clutched in an untidy ball in her hands. Through the thin, fine fabric of her chemise, Tina could see two dark splashes where her round, heavy breasts strained most urgently at the fabric in two sharp peaks. A shadow shifted through the white material as Brittany moved closer to her, hinting at but not describing the neat hollows of her slim waist, the soft shape of her white belly and the curves of her hips.

Tina held out her hands again: "You must be chilled," she said softly, and found her voice to be low and scratchy, as though she herself had caught some chill; indeed her head felt a little light, her gown unpleasantly constricting.

Brittany murmured, "Perhaps we may share the covers," and instead of taking her hands, slid hers round to unfasten Tina's gown also. Then she lifted the coverlet's edge, and slid under it.

Tina hesitated for a long, long moment, before she lifted the snowy coverlet as well and slid into the narrow bed. Under the weight of coverlet and linens, she could feel their legs pressing close to each other through two layers of thin cotton.

Tina closed her eyes.

And her mouth opened again eagerly to the invasion of Brittany's tongue; a weight came on top of her comprised of softness and hardness, and Tina felt the enticing dip of Brittany's belly against her own, the two sharp points of hipbones and the cradle of her hips, her slim legs separated under the chemise, one from the other. The insides of her thighs were scorchingly hot even through their muslin underlinens when Tina lifted her leg slightly, pressed it forward against the apex of Brittany's thighs.

Brittany jerked in her arms and gasped, "Where did you--". Above Tina her face was suffused with an attractive pink flush of passion, her golden curls in disarray, her bosom unbound against the loose, thin chemise. Her eyes dropped closed, and she moved against Tina again, mouth open, colour high, emitting the tiniest sound, with the most intently concentrated expression on her face, so Tina shifted where she lay and moved her thigh again.

The thin cotton of her chemise was becoming not only heated but slick and wet with what she could feel, too, between her own thighs.

Their bodies pressed so tightly together that hardly any air could have come between. Brittany breathed deeply, great husky breaths and long sweet gasps and sighs which reminded Christina of her uneven, soulful singing voice.

She opened her legs wide and then closed them tightly round Tina's thigh. Finally Tina could feel her fingers fumble blindly under the coverlets, and there was a confused tangle of cloth, both Brittany's chemise and hers hitched up, and up, nearly round their waists and--ah.

What she felt now was naked flesh, so much wetter, slicker, than she had imagined, than she had ever felt with her own shy fingers--a strong, spicy scent emanated from beneath the sheets and Brittany's body rippled, her hips rolling. She clutched at Tina's wrist, her hip, and cried out softly, and took another kiss and another from Tina's open mouth.

Tina lifted her own hips, cautiously, and felt one of Brittany's legs move against her, where she was warm and wet and so hungry. She lifted her hips again, and the slick slide against her teased with a terrifying sensation like more pleasure than could rightfully fit inside her body, making the ache grow greater and more desperate, the pleasure too, like a sharp cut as the blood begins to well forth, and in an instant the wicked, helpless hurt has swept you away.

Brittany strained, now, to press Tina into the bed; Tina's shoulder was wet with perspiration or tears. And she moved more, and more swiftly, until that ache stabbed with desperate want, up from the heat between her thighs to the shallow hunger in her belly, and Tina was almost sobbing with it, her mouth open, unable to speak, clutching at Brittany, opening her legs around her, pulling her close with fingers clutching at the round swell of Brittany's bottom and forcing her closer, as close as she could be.

"Just let me," Brittany said in her ear, "just let me--"; "Yes," sighed Christina, "I--".

She scrabbled desperately, blind beneath the coverlet, as she felt cool fingertips between her body and Brittany's leg, the gentle scrape of a fingernail on tender flesh and then--those fingers found their way further, through slippery soft flesh until they pressed forward, and met no resistance, into Christina's body. She gasped and lay trembling on her back, pressing her legs open, lifting and tilting her hips up and felt the fingers move deeper inside her, one--no, two--withdrawing and pressing back deep, two and then she thought three of them.

Brittany's eyes glowed, golden brown, and she bit her lower lip and whispered, "Oh Tina," one hand stroking inside Christina's thigh, tickling the soft curls between her legs, the other moving in gentle strokes into and out of Tina's body, turning, twisting and crooking and curling with cautious exploratory movements.

Tina bit her lip to keep from pleading--a tiny exquisite explosion she felt, and her hips twisted up against Brittany's clever hand.

Brittany laughed breathily and Christina captured her hand with both her own, held tight to it, pressing it close, her body surging forward brokenly against it, deep, no, deeper. Until Brittany moved and bent forward over her and curved her hand; and deep seizing pulses of pleasure drew her body together in an ecstasy like the climax of an operatic aria; and like the sea her body closed once, twice, again, tightening round the gently moving fingers inside it so that Christina sighed and pushed her hips up softly, Brittany's fingers still moving, still there, until the last note of pleasure left her and she lay passive on the bed.

Then Brittany moved over her, and closed her slim thighs round one of Christina's, lifting it against her with both hands and a slow, shuddering breath, and the movement commenced again. No breaks, no stops were there, only Brittany rising and falling over Christina lost in her own pleasure, with her eyes closed or shining and her red mouth open, her breasts heavy and swollen against her chemise until Christina opened the front buttons of it, pushed her hands inside to hold their flushed roundness.

While Brittany slid against Christina's body, clutching at her leg and panting, Christina felt the taut peaks of those sweet soft breasts in her palms, and moved her hands gently to feel them turn harder until they pressed forward, as insistent as Brittany's ragged movements, the twisting and rolling of her hips given way to a simple rapid rocking of her hips against Tina's thigh.

Tina's hands stole up the lengths of her thighs as they flexed, and curved over the rich swell of her bottom again. One fit in each hand, the flesh firm and pliant in her hands as she urged Brittany closer. Her fingers curved round into the damp crevice; and Brittany's back arched.

Tina was surprised to find a tiny movement of her finger pressed it into softness, and it went easily inside with one stroke. She moved her finger once, in wonder at the heat, the softness, the flesh like wet silk...

Brittany made no sounds, only held herself still for a moment, and then Tina felt her tiny shiver, before the strength left her limbs and she laid herself languidly down on Tina's bosom.

"I ought never to have left," Brittany murmured some minutes later, when Tina's face was becoming cold, and she was just thinking the rest of herself had become unpleasantly warm.

"Why?" Tina inquired.

"I have been too long in America," said Brittany, "to be a true Englishwoman any longer. And I will never be a proper lady."

"That may be true," said Tina, who had not thought to agree, but the point could not be denied. "If a young lady raised in England all her life as I can still be improperly one, I think the danger for anyone, of being other than a proper lady, very great."

"You are a proper lady," said Brittany wistfully.

"If anybody has told you so," said Christina thoughtfully, "I fear she cannot know me well. I don't wish to be exactly, properly a lady, you see: it seems to me far more trouble than it can be worth. Why should you wish to?"

"I only know that no matter how everyone may like me I see they will always look up to you best."

Tina did not know what to say to this; although she acknowledged its possible truth she felt it to be unimportant beside the better part of the school's affection and attention, which Brittany had secured so easily, so swiftly.

Instead she said, "I think that you will find, when somebody says that a young lady is wanting a bit of polish--which is I assure you why anyone is sent to a young ladies' academy such as this--what that person really means, is that she must learn to appear a proper lady. It is here that I have learnt to do so."

Brittany said at last, "That is not what anyone else would say."

Tina turned a little in the nest of warm linens, putting one arm under her to lift her head. She surprised a small frown, a wrinkle, between Brittany's eyebrows, and smoothed it away with her fingertip. "I daresay not," she said, unconcerned. "For I am in truth one of the least proper young ladies here."

Brittany smiled at that, dimples creasing her round cheeks like tiny stars. "Here, at Miss Matheson's Academy, or here, in your bed?"


Brittany tucked her hands under her chin and said thoughtfully, "Perhaps I should stay a while to acquire a bit of polish after all."