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Penumbra (Series Two)

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Penumbra 2-1 Do You Dance title graphic 2

~~~o0o~~~

Some mornings I ache more than others.

I increased the force of the water, turned slowly and let it pummel me. I winced a bit.

The culprit we had pursued over stone walls and down cobbled alleyways that I’m fairly sure no longer exist, had left me with scrapes and bruises, and a deep sense of satisfaction. We had caught up with him amidst the shuttered stalls and iron hooks of the meat market. It had taken the two of us to hold onto him while we waited for Lestrade to catch up. I’m sure the irons he clapped round the scoundrel’s sinewy wrists when he arrived did not met health and safety standards this side of the last century, but I doubt anything less would have held him.

He tried to take a bite out of you.

But he failed.

With some gelatinous substance Sherlock had concocted, I soaped my shoulders and the aches receded. There had been tree climbing; some of the garden walls had been high. I anointed myself afresh; my abraded palms tingling and the aroma of the lather filling the room.

Sherlock had been wearing the same scent for the past few days. For the longer days and brightening skies, he’d said.

I raised my hand to my nose and smiled. What soreness our antic pursuit had not inflicted, our later exertions had provided. I inhaled more deeply and the last grogginess of sleep left me. I could feel his mouth at my neck, the teasing drag of his teeth over my skin. I lathered my throat and down my chest. How well we had celebrated our success.

I stretched, joints cracking, water drumming on my face and chest. We were coming closer, Sherlock and I. Each melody I mastered, each book I read, each chase on which he took me, especially those, shrunk the distance.

He doesn’t always take you.

I’m not trained for everything yet.

Slacking off on the studying, Watson? It’s been more than a year.

I didn't qualify to be a doctor in a year either, no amount of studying could have made it so.

With a little too much vigour, I took the brush to my back and a muscle in my arm cramped. I swore and kneaded my biceps. It was easy to let the time flow by, lost in a book or a song, distracted by the thrill of the chase or that greater pleasure we shared. The cramp eased. I swung the arm forwards and back, felt the blood flow freely again.

But there was yet a barrier between us I hadn't breached and I longed to reach the other side. I knew there was more to him and I wanted it. Wanted all that he was, the dark and the light and the infinite twilight.

Does he know that part?

He should. I’ve shown him.

Are you sure?

I’ve followed him wherever he's led me, defended him, tended him, held his body against mine. I’ve met no one’s passion as I've met his. He must know.

There is something you haven’t done.

My hand stopped, dripping soap, above my heart. I could feel its beat.

I’ve given him my blood, freely, happily.

Getting warmer, Watson.

He’s never asked me to take his.

He never asked you to give him yours.

I remained still. It was true.

Afraid of what you might learn?

I had no clever comeback for that, but hoped it wasn’t true, because if somewhere, deep down, it was, Sherlock would know and he’d never ask.

Steaming, the water continued to flow over me. Pensively, I finished washing.

A cloud of fragrance followed me from the bath to my room. The curtains billowed in the breeze and on my desk, the pages of the autopsy report I had been studying before our steeplechase across Camden curled away from the file folder in which it was secured. I seized on it – on its distraction. I smoothed the brittle paper down, eyes running over the headings. Near the bottom, there was an annotation I had overlooked. The writing differed from the back-slanting script of the doctor who had signed and dated the post-mortem examination report. In pencil, almost faded away, someone had printed ‘blackthorn & wild rose’ next to the entry about the splinters broken off beneath the skin of the deceased’s hands. Who had made note of the detail was unclear. I grabbed a sticky note and jotted down yet another theory that might explain the scant facts about this old, cold case Sherlock had given me to study.

A gust of mild air pushed the balcony doors further open. It carried the faint spring scent of the flowers in the courtyard mingled with the stronger smell of the roses that had bloomed all winter long around my balcony. I closed the file, the corner of the sticky note a splash of colour dividing the length of the folder’s age-bleached cover. Hopefully, I would have a chance to tell Sherlock my theory during the day; perhaps some physical evidence survived on which we could test it. I tugged the towel from around my neck and rubbed it over my hair. Clothing or a bit of jewellery maybe? I didn’t know how long such things were kept; perhaps the paper record was all that remained. Such basic questions. Despite how much I had learned, I was still a novice, well, an apprentice perhaps, but it would be another chance to show him how I was taking every opportunity he gave me to learn more.

Go find him.

Easier said than done. I dropped the towel over the desk chair and drifted towards the balcony.

I heard a faint click. I turned with a smile to find Wiggins standing near the hall door, a number of garments draped over his arm and a large serving tray in his hands wafting the smell of breakfast towards me. My smile disappeared. He stood still, as he so often does. He gets a lot done, but I rarely catch him at it. He regarded me unabashedly.

I had not bothered tying my dressing gown and he appeared to be taking in all that there was to see. I am not shy and stared right back at him. He looked far less scruffy than usual. His typical stubble had grown in and been neatly trimmed into a moustache and goatee. His hair, too, looked longer and shinier. It had been pulled back. I’d never seen it like that and considered how long it had been since I’d actually laid eyes on him. His clothing, too, was unusual, a black suit that didn’t hang off him and a button down grey shirt with just the collar button open. He looked like he’d come from a job interview. I glanced at his jacket pockets to see if a hastily removed tie was half hanging out. I might have laughed at the idea, if his eyes weren’t still roving over me.

Who was he really? How well did he know Sherlock?

Jealous, are you? Of scraggly old Wiggins?

Shut up. You started this. And he’s not so old. Or is he? After all these months, what did I actually know.

“They should fit,” he finally said and moved to the desk and set the tray down. “But we need to check now. There isn’t much time, if they have to be altered.” From inside his jacket he slid out a thick envelope and set it upright against the teapot on the tray. “Since you ain’t dressed, it oughtn’t to take long.”

He turned to the bed, which was rather a mess. His eyes flicked over it. I didn’t want to think what he could glean from it. He smoothed out a portion of coverlet and set the clothes out.

They were dark, too, but a beam of sunlight pierced the haze above the courtyard and evaded the waving curtains to reveal an array of textures ranging from brocade to satin and silk, all in shades of green with glimmers of gold thread. A cloud passed in front of the sun and they turned dark again in the shadows of the room.

I strode to the desk, still not bothering with the sash of my dressing gown. I’ve never felt shy in a locker room and I wasn’t going to start now in my own bedroom. The envelope was sealed and the writing looked like Sherlock’s, the kind he used to label anatomical diagrams or write out chemical formulae. It was sealed with silvery wax and stamped with an ‘H’. I was using a knife from the breakfast tray to slit the envelope open when I felt hands at my collar.

“We usually have more lead time for dos like that,” Wiggins said and I relaxed the grip that had tightened around the knife.

I set the envelope and blade down and let him slide the dressing gown off my arms; its hem brushed against my legs as he turned away. I slipped the card out from the envelope. It was engraved in pointed letters. “Dos?” I scanned the ornate script framed by a border of vines and fruit and flowers. “On the 20th, here? Where?”

“In the ballroom,” Wiggins answered from just behind me. “If you could step into these.”

I looked over my shoulder and found Wiggins kneeling near my heels and holding out some creamy-coloured cloth with both hands in such a way that a clear opening gaped, ready for my foot to step through it. I stepped obligingly and when he held open another circle of cloth, I did it again. “What are thes…”

He had them up around my waist and was drawing a ribbon snug at my side an instant later. Neatly, he tied a bow. It was by then obvious what they were.

They were the softest things I had ever had round my nether regions and I had played a bit with the lingerie of some of my girlfriends, but however wispy those had been, elastic had always been involved and none had ever been as comfortable as these.

“If you would raise your arms,” said the voice of Wiggins, who had apparently retreated to the bed and returned behind me while I was lost in contemplation of my new undergarment.

How easily you are distracted, Watson.

Silence, you.

I complied. Over my head and along my arms fell a cloud of cloth. It was as soft as the drawers, but bleached to a whiteness.

“Arms down,” he said and I admired the snowfall that drifted from my shoulders when my head emerged.

I felt him securing more ribbons at my wrists. I was going to be quite the maypole by the time I was dressed if we kept on at the same rate. I stretched out the arm whose sleeve ribbons had been tied and noted the drape of the very full sleeve. They’d be great for gesticulating while delivering a speech I supposed, but not so grand for climbing trees or vaulting fences. I examined the long ruffled cuff closed by the three bands of ribbon and the small opening below where the sides of the cuff had been drawn together.

Good for hiding weapons.

It was an interesting observation.

Both garments looked to be made of linen, but were more supple than I thought linen had any right to be. That, however, was not the matter uppermost in my mind. Rather, it was their anachronous nature that piqued my curiosity. I reached for the card, considering the words more carefully. There was to be a ball at Holmeswood Manor, no further address was specified. The Master and Mistress of the manor requested the honour of my company at it. The hour the festivities commenced: 10 in the evening; the day of the week: Moonday.

I doubt that’s a typo.

I did not disagree.

The date and the month: the 20th day of March. No year.

Bulk printing for multiple years.

The first day of spring doesn’t always fall on the 20th.

Green garments.

Skipping that quibble, are you?

Carriages at dawn. My brows went up.

Are you ready to dance all night?

I narrowed my eyes at the information ornately set forth on the card. What made me think it might be necessary?

The rustling of the foliage along its edges? The sly faces among the flowers?

“These will be easier if you sit,” Wiggins said and pulled out the desk chair.

I sat, a careful eye on the card still in hand and extended a foot when he tapped it. A pale green stocking, the colour of the new buds on the plane trees in the park slipped up my leg and his hands almost fluttered as he tied an equally pale silk ribbon just below my knee then tapped the other foot where he repeated the process.

“Garters? Seriously?” I was going to say more when the image of Sherlock’s long legs in similar attire rose before my mind’s eye.

If it’s fancy dress, he could come in some other fashion, as a monk, for example.

I barely stopped myself from snorting at that idea. I would be sorely disappointed though.

“There’s another pair for the thighs, but it’ll be easier to tie them when you’re standing again.”

I shifted towards the edge of my seat and he patted my knee.

“Not yet.” He took a folded sheet of paper from his jacket and placed it beneath my foot. “Put your weight on that,” he said. I stood. A pencil appeared in his hand and he traced the outline of my foot with it, muttering to himself. “Sit.”

He eased the paper away and tapped my other foot. We began again.

I shifted my weight and he cursed. “Up,” he said and marked an ‘x’ through the shape he’d half-drawn in green. “He’ll have my head if these aren’t just right.” He produced another piece of paper and I put my weight on it for him and didn’t move a muscle until he indicated I should lift my foot once more.

He? Sherlock?

A tunic tumbled over my head, the nap brushing past my ears, smelling of sunlit grass. It settled on my shoulders, heavier than the linen, and blocked the faint chill the breeze had left across my chest.

Many’s the night I’ve slept across Sherlock to chase the chill out of him.

The velvet clung to me. It was the colour of ivy.

When Wiggins had set the garment to hanging just right, he clasped a leather belt tooled with intertwining vines about my hips, its thick brass buckle polished bright.

It was weighty at my side. I felt a smile lifting my lips. There was another weight I often felt at my side.

Last night not enough for you, Watson?

Apparently not.

Near the buckle hung an empty scabbard with chunks of green and gold amber studding its length. I lifted the stiff leather, peered at the stones. There was a tip of uncurled fern in one and an insect’s wing in another. “For your dagger,” Wiggins explained and from the corner of my eye I saw him across the room at my night table. I blinked and he was back before me again. He held the hilt out to me.

I would have objected to his holding it at all if it hadn’t so quickly been back in my grasp. Sherlock had given it me and it had served me well. My fingers tightened around it.

Writhing tentacles spewed dark blood as I slashed. My lips pressed tightly together at the memory.

I slid the silver blade into the new sheath. It whispered its approval and the moonstone atop its hilt turned the sunlight that touched it into moonbeams for me.

‘The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor…’ I hadn’t thought of that poem in years.

Wiggins draped a short cloak over one of my shoulders. It was lined in padded silk, trimmed with twisted green and gold threads. Its folds exuded the same fragrance as the balm in the bath. There was bluebell and violet and rose, always rose...and something else. I study his methods. Most of the smells of his gardens and his laboratory are familiar to me now.

And of his skin?

Yes. And his breath and blood as well.

I lifted the edge of the cloak. A border had been begun in gold threads, a pattern of leaves and flowers, ivy and oak, wood sorrel and holly, foxglove and rose.

Always rose.

I admired the long thorns that seemed to rise out of the cloth, sharp and golden.

I blinked.

The cloak was whisked away, the belt unbuckled, the tunic lifted over my head.

“You should eat your breakfast,” Wiggins said. He untied the garters, rolled down the stockings. More bows unravelled and the shirt seemed to drift away. “I’ll have these back to you in time.”

“But they fit well,” I protested, missing the softness and the scents already.

“It’s still a-broidering,” he explained, handing me my dagger. “It’s best to watch that carefully. They can get carried away if someone doesn’t keep an eye on them.”

“They?” I was retreating into monosyllables, it seemed.

“The stitchers,” he said. “He gave them strict orders, but they can be too enthusiastic sometimes, especially if they haven’t had any task but mending in a long while.”

I had an image of manic elves on the model of those of the shoemaker and put my hand to my brow.

“They mind him,” Wiggins said, “but an occasion like this doesn’t come along every day. They’re buzzing, I can tell you, excited and a bit alarmed by the shortness of the deadline. We usually have more time to prepare.”

Somehow my arms were slipping into the sleeves of my dressing gown and Wiggins was arranging it on my shoulders.

“Eat.”

He began gathering the garments. He had left me with the drawers though. He looked at them now and I pulled my dressing gown closed. “I’ll bring more of those since you like them so well,” he said with a smirk. “They don’t chafe, do they?”

He’s a cheeky bastard, is Wiggins.

I turned my attention to pouring a cup of tea, but I think I was flushing. They certainly didn’t chafe. It was a bit more like they caressed.

What was in that bath gel?

I shook my head gently.

Wiggins was by the door, arms full of clothing. “Don’t bring your tray down; I’ll come back for it. They’re mad in the kitchen now, knives and pots flying about.”

“I’m surprised they could spare the time to make my breakfast,” I said and took a sip of the tea. It was red and, my god, it was good. I think I felt it in my toes. Rose hip, I realised.

Always rose.

“They’d just got your tray ready when the messages arrived. Besides, they’d never forget to feed you. Especially now.”

What does that mean?

Well, Mrs Hudson and Mrs Turner do seem fond of me.

“Messages?” Back to the one word questions.

“The invites and all the instructions. You should have seen the uproar as they were reading them.”

“My tea’s still hot,” I said aloud.

How could all those clothes have even been taken out of a wardrobe, much less tailored to size before the tea got cold?

“Like I said, it’s a frenzy in the kitchen and all over the Manor, really. There hasn’t been a ball here in years. Unlucky in the lottery, I guess. And three days is nothing for what needs to be done. No choice but to up the pace. But stay clear of the kitchen if you can. Mrs Hudson’s using words down there I ain’t never heard.

I doubted Sherlock was taking kindly to all the disruption.

Yet he addressed your invitation.

What did that mean?

“Do you know where Sherlock is?”

“He almost knocked me over heading down to the firing range as I was coming up.” Wiggins opened the door. “Might be the quietest place in the Manor about now,” he added from the hall. The door shut and I was alone.

I picked up a warm piece of toast and stared at it.

That’s not possible, is it?

Apparently, yes.

I finished the toast and raised the cover from a steaming plate of scrambled eggs, rashers and sausage and fried tomato and mushrooms.

I’m not objecting, mind. But it sort of underscores how much we still don’t know.

“'We' now, is it? I know enough,” I murmured aloud before tucking in.

But you might ask a few questions.

I might. Such as what on earth the costume is supposed to be. It’s too grand for Robin Hood, although the archery connection would have been pleasing, and I’m too long in the tooth to be Puck or Peter Pan, although my mirror reflected surprisingly flattering images when I gave it a good hard look. Still, boyhood was too far behind me and besides, I didn’t feel lost anymore.

I poured another cup of tea and re-read the invitation. It didn’t specify fancy dress.

***

Even with a jumper over my shirt I shivered. There was a cool draught flowing through the brick-vaulted tunnels as if doors that were normally closed had been opened. I walked faster.

Doors to the canals?

The air’s as fresh as over a country river.

I paused at a place where two corridors crossed. Down one, I could hear the slap of water against stone, a thump, then another, footsteps. I pressed against the wall as two of the older Irregulars strode past, each with a wooden case balanced on one shoulder. I glimpsed a word in an alphabet I did not know as they disappeared the way I had come.

“Right,” I murmured and turned towards the firing range.

A younger Irregular was mounted on a box next to a wheelbarrow brimming with ivy. He drew out a long vine and looped it over the wrought-iron sconce on the wall. Its ends dangled almost to the floor. He glanced at me when he stepped down. “Good day, sir,” he said and I recognised Kit. He lifted the box and placed it the other side of the barrow under the next sconce.

“Quite the task you’ve got there,” I said.

“Oh, yes, sir,” he said. “Mr Billy said I have the knack for it though.” He draped another length of young ivy over the back of the sconce and stepped off his box.

Kit was one of the few Irregulars who liked to talk over a meal in the kitchen. He always had a tale of some injured bird or stray cat he had rescued. The Manor had no rats as far as I could tell and that may well have been Kit’s doing. One of the bigger boys was his older brother, but I’d never made so bold as to ask him which one.

“I’m sure you do,” I said. “Carry on, Corporal.” I called him that sometimes.

“Yes, Captain.” He gave me a solemn salute then a smile and trundled his barrow towards the next sconce.

As I passed his box a black cat separated itself from the shadows and trotted after Kit on its three legs.

I hadn’t heard the story about that one.

In front of the door to the firing range, I stopped and listened. I heard a faint thud and then another, but no report. I considered knocking, but the echo it would set up in the tunnels deterred me. The light flickered. I glanced at the sconce by the door and saw that it held a thick candle, whose flame was moving with the current of air. The lamps in this section had been electric the last time I’d been down, like the ones Kit had been decorating. I looked closer at the garland of ivy below the black iron and realised that it was growing down the wall. I gave the vine a gentle tug and felt how firmly its vine was clinging to the brick.

Maybe the guests will be coming this way.

Not the real issue here, I don’t think. I glanced behind me at the tender shoots of ivy growing along that wall between the sconces and wondered how much time separated this end of the passage from the part where the corridors crossed. And when sunlight had last shone down into them.

I considered asking Sherlock as I pushed the door open.

Thump.

Halfway down the long room, a knife quivered in a plank of wood. The hilts of several more protruded from the board which was roughly the size of a person standing with their arms at their sides.

With hardly a pause, Sherlock plucked another knife from a box on the wooden counter. He didn’t pause to aim. The dagger sliced through the air and joined its brethren deep in the grain of the wood. He grabbed another, a longer one this time, and drew his arm far back, almost as though he threw a javelin. I heard the wood crack when it hit home. He took up yet another.

His shirt was clinging to his back. He had clearly been at it for some time and it worried me because he doesn’t perspire much, unless he’s ill.

The next hit broke the board in two. It fell away and I saw there was another plank behind it. He took up a black knife and held it in his palm as though checking its weight.

I pushed the door closed with my foot.

He whirled round, blade pointed towards me. “John,” he said.

“Bad day?” I asked.

His eyes flashed over me, lingering a little below the waist. “You’ve had the invitation, I see. And a fitting. What do you think?”

“That you’ve invited me to a ball.” He raised an eyebrow. “I know your handwriting,” I said.

He flipped the knife and held out the hilt. I stepped close enough to take it. It was unusually heavy.

“I have no choice but to attend and I can’t do it alone. Not anymore.” He turned back towards the target.

I followed and stood next to him.

“Not your routine ball, then?” I asked as though ball attendance was an everyday matter for me.

You’ve been to a few.

True enough. In dress uniform, no less.

He grabbed a handful of knives and threw them rapid fire at the pristine piece of wood. Near the top of the plank, they formed the outline of a head. He gestured at me with the tip of the last blade. “Care to try?”

I moved over to centre myself in front of the target and he stepped aside. I shifted the knife from one hand to the other, unsure which I would use. When it comes to throwing things, I’ve always been ambidextrous. I chose the left and threw. The blade struck within the outline, a little to one side, where the left eye would have been. I glanced at him. I thought he might smile; it had been a very good first throw. Instead, he scowled.

“Who’s going to be at this ball, then? Hydra, golems?”

“Nothing so straightforward,” he replied and handed me another knife.

I gave the head another eye.

“I’ve had…you’ve been here for more than a year now.”

It was my turn to raise my brows.

Sherlock leaned across me and helped himself to more knives. “My parents are usually oblivious. At least they give the appearance of being so.” He leaned back and started tossing the daggers into the air and catching them. The polished metal caught the firelight. Their rising and falling arc glittered. “It’s not a path many take. People are so impatient. I thought my parents might overlook what we’ve been doing…taking the long route as we have been.”

I scowled now.

See what I mean about his not telling you everything?

“The longer you stay, the closer our bond,” he continued, eyes on the turning blades. “Before it becomes too firm, others must be given a chance to woo you away from me.”

My brows must have hit my hairline.

He didn’t see.

“Or me from you,” he finished.

‘Seeing red’ is an expression I’ve heard all my life. I’d never actually seen it before though. Woo him away, would they?

“Who are these cocks?”

He caught all the knives and looked at me then. “I probably should have mentioned this possibility, but my parents haven’t been in touch for years. That suited me.”

I kept my eyes on him. The shade of red was getting brighter, but through its haze I could see him, every detail of the tension around his eyes and the way he was drawing in his lips. He has knowledge and abilities that I am certain I haven’t seen even the half of, but there is something else, too, and I was seeing a hint of it. Who knows how old he is, but he seems very young sometimes and he appeared that way now and a little afraid. I hoped it wasn’t of me.

I reached out for the long, thin blades. He let them go as my hand closed about them. I held his gaze, hoped he could see that the rage in mine wasn’t at him. Reluctantly, I turned my eyes away; his expression was hard to parse. I focussed on the target, imagined these interlopers and let loose - hit the imaginary throat, heart, groin.

As though I had punctured it, the crimson haze began to fade. I let out a long breath and looked at him.

This time there was the merest hint of an upward curl on one side of his lips. He had understood.

“How many of these cocks are there?” I asked and grinned at him.

“Three at least. Possibly more.” He held out his hand to me and asked, “Do you dance?”

I was back to scowling. “Do we really have to?”

He inclined his head slightly.

“I was thinking brawling might be more the order of the day.”

He shook his head. “Dance is the mode of combat. There are several types of dances, some done in a group, some in pairs, some involve very complex patterns and some involve blades.”

“Seriously?”

His nod was curt. “So, do you dance?”

“It’s not one of my stronger skills.”

“We have three days to raise your game then.”

I nodded decisively and took his hand.