~ 13 Paternoster Row, London, England, 15 October 1899 ~
Jenny had gone to the foyer to fetch the post, leaving Vastra sipping tea by the fire. Tea was one of the few human beverages that Vastra had come to enjoy over the years, although she was quite aware that that was due almost entirely to the company. Watching Jenny perform the tea-making ritual – the bustle of poking up the stove to boil water, the calm grace of the measuring and pouring, the delicate way Jenny handled the fragile painted cups and saucers – all of this had come to underscore for Vastra, every time she watched it, the strength and beauty of the woman who had been her mate for over a quarter of a century.
Twenty-five years. Vastra knew the statistics: that was a third, and perhaps as much as a half, of a human's lifespan, but barely a tenth of a Silurian's.
It made her desperate, at times, knowing that the day would come when Jenny would be gone, but whenever that despair boiled up she tried to keep in mind what a good friend had told her: "Well, you can either curl up and fret over something that you can't stop, or you can make each day worthwhile." Vastra gave this counsel great weight, considering that it came from a being who allowed himself to form strong attachments to one human after another, no matter how many he lost. She wished she understood better how he did it: of late she often felt as though she couldn't bear to have Jenny out of her sight. It wasn't just that the signs of Jenny's aging – grey hairs in the black, a slowed response when fighting, inexplicable fluctuations in emotion – made her feel protective, it was that the world around them was changing too, becoming uglier, faster, with less respect for honorable combat between skilled warriors. Vastra was more and more the alien on the surface of this world that had once belonged to the Silurians, but Jenny had always been her sanctuary.
She forced herself to count to three hundred, as the Doctor had taught her – well, he'd said a hundred, but he counted far too slowly – and then she left her warm chair by the fire to investigate.
Jenny was standing at the console table, looking down at the front page of the newspaper. She had apparently been crying, as she hurriedly finished wiping her face with the back of her hand just as Vastra came into view.
"Don't hover," the Doctor had said.
"What is it?" Vastra asked. She looked at the newspaper headline: WAR IN SOUTH AFRICA. BOERS CLASH WITH UITLANDERS. "You're worried about this?"
"No," Jenny said with a half shrug. "Nothing so far-reaching. It's just ... it's the date."
Vastra peered. "Fifteenth October?" Ah, now she remembered. The human male playwright who had been imprisoned for having human male lovers.
"It's his birthday tomorrow," Jenny said. There was a definite quiver in her voice. "And … I wonder if he'll be spending it alone."
"Silly mammal," Vastra said, putting her arms around Jenny and nuzzling her ear. "You're too soft-hearted."
"It's so unfair! Punishing him for what he did in private!"
"I know," Vastra soothed.
"I don't know why they don't send us to prison, too, then," Jenny said hotly. "Or don't they think women are capable of gross indecency?"
"Dearest," Vastra murmured, "I'm sure we could get arrested for indecency, if we tried hard enough."
Jenny sighed. "Oh, I don't mean to rant, it's just … it makes me so angry."
Jenny took a deep breath, and Vastra could see in the mirror that she was putting on her "resolutely cheerful" face. "I know how much you hate the cold and rain this time of year," she said, sliding her hands over Vastra's. "Let's go somewhere sunny for few days."
"Hmm," Vastra said, smiling into Jenny's hair. "I could sunbathe nude. Perhaps in front of a group of Decency Police?"
Jenny laughed. "I'd love to see you stretched out on rock."
"I become very warm-blooded when that happens," Vastra purred.
"Oh," Jenny purred back, turning around enough for a kiss. "I like when that happens."
They pulled out the atlas and tossed around countries – France, Spain, Algeria, Kenya, Costa Rica – until Jenny finally threw up her hands. "I can't decide!" she said. "You pick!"
"You have no preferences whatsoever?" Vastra asked.
"No, as long as it hits the high points."
"Sun. Waves. Beach. Shells. Pretty trees and flowers. Drinks with silly names." She grinned slyly. "Large flat rocks for lazy lizards to lie on."
"Mmmm, all right. I'll see what I can come up with."
She sent Jenny upstairs to pack a bag or two while she telephoned for their ride.
"I didn't pack pack much clothing," Jenny said wickedly as she came down the stairs with two small cases. "When will the taxi be here?"
"It's arrived," Vastra said, trying to draw out the surprise.
"Oh, no!" Jenny said as she hurried to the front door. "Let's not keep them waiting – you know how hideous the rates – "
"No dear," Vastra said. "Not out there. In here." She nodded into the drawing room.
"Please tell me you're not serious." Jenny's comment was addressed not so such to the blue box as to the outfit the Doctor was wearing. Head to toe in Highland aqua: aqua doublet, aqua waistcoat with silver buttons, aqua tartan kilt, and a pale aqua sporran with silver chains. The look was completed by aqua argyle socks, aqua ghillies, and a aqua fez-like hat. "TARDIS Excursions, at your service," he said with a bow.
Jenny looked horrified. "What is all that supposed to be then?"
"An air steward's outfit," the Doctor said, as if mildly surprised that she hadn't recognized this. "I've been told I have a nicely-turned calf."
"We – we're going in that?"
"Of course," Vastra said. "Why not?"
"But ... I mean that thing is notoriously accurate!"
"Accurate?" The corner of Vastra's mouth lifted, teasing.
"Ah, inaccurate," Jenny corrected herself with a half laugh. "Senility encroaches, along with menopause."
"It does not."
"It does," Jenny said, frowning. "The mirror keeps telling me I'm not young anymore."
"Then get a new mirror!" the Doctor said. "One that says nicer things!"
"Seriously," Jenny said. "I'm almost forty. I can't be bouncing around the universe in a time machine! I'm getting wrinkles."
"I love your wrinkles," Vastra said with a sly look. "The more you get, the sexier you look to me. In fact," she said as she sashayed toward Jenny with a predatory smile, "if you ever turned even the slightest bit green, I'd never let you out of our bed."
"Vas!" Jenny blushed, glancing at the Doctor. "Company!"
"Well then," the Doctor said, clapping his hands and then opening the TARDIS door, "while you're pink and not green, let's stop wasting time and get you to the beach!"
They'd been in the TARDIS before, of course, so Vastra didn't chide Jenny for standing just inside the door, her back to the room, stubbornly ignoring the sparkle and flurry. Plus, conveniently, it gave Vastra a chance to discreetly ask the Doctor, "And the other?"
"I'll see what I can do," the Doctor muttered, reaching to flip a switch and then adjusting his precariously-lopsided fez. "Can't make any promises, though. There's not really a convenient window of intersection."
"I appreciate that you're even trying," Vastra said.
And then they were there.
Vastra said to Jenny, "Open the door and go outside."
Vastra had won many battles, defeated many enemies, but none of them had given her the satisfaction she felt at the sight of Jenny's face blooming with amazement at the scene outside the TARDIS.
They stood on a hill, under a binary sun, with three multicolored moons overlapping in the pale violet sky. In the distance impossibly sapphire waves driven by warm breezes lapped silvery-green sand, while towering flower-trees shaped like trumpet lilies provided shade. Nearby, a sea-shell fitted with red velvet cushions hovered, waiting.
"Where is this?" Jenny asked, turning around and around, her eyes wide with wonder.
"Penthesilea-2, in the Simmons Cluster of the Hugo-Locus Nebula," the Doctor said with his usual zest. "And lucky you, it's the dab middle of the off-season."
"Oh, it's ... it's beautiful!" Jenny threw her arms around Vastra.
Vastra made a small pleased sound. "Glad you like it." Over Jenny's shoulder, she looked askance at the Doctor.
"Back in a bit," he said, with a gracious dip of the head as he backed into the TARDIS. "Possibly with additional … surprises."
Once the blue box had gone they boarded the sea-shell, which floated down a road sparkling with birdsong. At the end of the road they were met by two garlanded kentaurides, who opened filigree gates and escorted them to a tiny cottage with a private beach, carried their suitcases inside, and then discreetly withdrew.
As Jenny started to open one of the cases Vastra put a hand on her shoulder. "I don't think we need unpack this very instant, do you?"
Several hours later, after lovemaking and swimming and sunning and napping, the two were awakened by a soft chiming at the door.
Untangling herself from Jenny's languid limbs – it never was never easy to tear herself away from the curves and hollows and inviting bits of rosy skin – Vastra went to answer the door, at Jenny's demur tossing on a kimono.
"Your tea has been set out," the kentauride said softly, "and the Doctor has asked me to tell you that he has returned with your honored guest."
Tables had been set up under a small pavilion midway between the cottage and the beach, and at the sight Jenny stopped and laughed.
"You said you loved shells," Vastra said with a sly smirk. "So shells it is."
The tables were swirls of mother of pearl, while the chairs were nets suspended on turitella legs and half-mussel arms; shell-shaped dishes held shellfish and crustaceans and myriad other things with shells. There were clams, oysters, prawns, a pyramid of eggs of every size and color – from the four huge black kasabia at the base to the tiny blue gleek at the apex – shell-shaped pastries, podded vegetables, and oval fruits and candies. In the center of it all their tea set from London, the silver and porcelain glowing on a mat woven of strands of light.
"Oh," Jenny breathed.
"There's more," Vastra said, and inclined her head to where the Doctor – dressed now in his usual attire – stood by the water's edge next to a grey-haired figure in drab, rumpled bedclothes.
"Who is that?"
"Go and see," Vastra said quietly. She watched as Jenny hurried down to the water, touched the Doctor's shoulder.
The man stood, took Jenny's hand, kissed it gallantly. He was big, taller than the Doctor, large-boned – though even from a distance Vastra's experienced eye saw he was loose-fleshed, possibly ill. When he turned and saw Vastra his initial flash of fear melted quickly to acceptance and a childlike curiosity.
Not the reaction she typically received from humans.
As the three walked up toward the pavilion Vastra drank in Jenny's face, radiant with delight – and yes, shining with tears. Silly girl. Vastra had never understood the evolutionary advantage of crying both for sadness and happiness: it seemed excessive.
"Vastra, meet – " Jenny started to say.
"Sebastian Melmoth," the man said, his melodious voice pleasantly deep. He did not take Vastra's hand but instead bowed in a way that reminded her of a Japanese warrior-monk she had met years ago. "This is truly the most extraordinary dream I've ever had." His large brown eyes were exceptionally sad, even for a human. "Plucked from my bed by a whimsical magician and brought to a tropical paradise to dine al fresco with the goddesses Wadjet and Bastet? I had no idea my imagination was still fertile enough to devise so alluring a scenario!"
"Whimsical!" The Doctor was bouncing a bit and grinning and clearly inordinately pleased with himself. "I'm whimsical!" He held up his hand to stop Vastra's question. "I haven't had any reply," he said to her. "He's rather buried at the moment, but I'll see what I can do and be back as soon as I'm able."
To Vastra's surprise, "Sebastian" was entirely charming. Yes, she'd heard Jenny go on before about his intelligence and sparkling wit and how he was even better in person than on the written page, but she'd thought it hyperbole: now, witnessing it, she could see it was no exaggeration. For him to have such poise when old and in poor health suggested that he had indeed been irresistible in his prime. When he told a story of lecturing on aesthetics to young silver miners in America and then later that evening matching "the dear boys" drinking raw whiskey until a half dozen of them passed out under the table, even Vastra laughed at the vividness of the image.
But surprisingly, he was no selfish narcissist: he was a superb listener as well, absolutely attentive as Jenny told stories of their adventures in London and Egypt.
"You dispatched the Whitechapel Murderer?" he said to Vastra. "You must be frightfully brave."
Vastra dipped her head, feeling unaccountably coy. "I was also frightfully hungry that evening."
"Oh," Sebastian said. "You ate him? I daresay he didn't enjoy being so devoured! Even by such an exotic creature as yourself."
Vastra caught Jenny's eye, and she smirked.
Two of the moons had been replaced in the sky by a small ringed planet by the time the Doctor returned.
"The magical box," Sebastian said as the Doctor opened the door and peered out. "Am I to awake now from this lovely dream?"
"Not quite yet," The Doctor said. He opened his mouth to say something, but then snapped it shut, apparently flailing at something behind him with his free hand. "I've been told that it's your birthday tomorrow, and Jenny thought that you deserved a special gift."
"Oh," Sebastian said. "Is it champagne? I adore champagne."
"No," the Doctor said with exaggerated slowness, "but it is quite … bubbly." He hopped aside and opened the door.
"You could have said intoxicating," a handsome, well-built, brown-haired man said as he stepped out. He was wearing a smile, a very large blue bow over his privates, and little else.
"Oh … my," Sebastian said.
"Couldn't you have dressed for the occasion, Captain?" Vastra asked, slightly piqued.
"Honey," Jack said, "I am dressed for the occasion." He walked to Sebastian, bent over, said, "Happy birthday, you great big beautiful man," then kissed the playwright with gentle ardor.
Vastra, feeling as much appreciative as irritated, glanced at the Doctor.
"There's quite a story there," he said, "Which I can't tell you." He darted inside the TARDIS, and with an audible click locked the door.
"This is your day," Jack said to Sebastian when he let the astonished man up for air. "I am here to do anything you want."
"Just to be clear," Sebastian asked, his fingers tentatively stroking Jack's forearm, "would that include being the Alcibiades to my Socrates?"
"You betcha!" Jack said jauntily, then said with far more respect, "It would be an honor and a pleasure, sir." He held out his hands to help Sebastian up from the chair, then put his arm around the older man's waist as they headed toward the cottage.
"He's almost impressive enough to be made an honorary female," Vastra said.
"Happy?" Vastra asked. Jenny had come to sit across her lap as they watched the waves.
"This place ... and then bringing him here … and giving him joy … It's the best gift ever," Jenny said softly, lacing her fingers in Vastra's.
Vastra was silent. In her estimation, giving the old man a night of pleasurable companionship just to send him back to a grey, lonely life seemed unkind, but Jenny was, had always been, her moral compass in these things. If Jenny said it was a good thing, then it was a good thing.
"Even if he thinks it was all a dream, it's still a wonderful dream to give him," Jenny said, as if reading Vastra's mind. "A beautiful memory to revisit. Better to have loved even briefly, than never to have loved at all." She looked over at the Doctor, who was watching them from the now-open door of his TARDIS. "He's dying, isn't he?" she asked. "Or aren't you allowed to tell us?"
"Ah," the Doctor said somberly. "Well, yes."
"How long does he have?"
"A little more than a year."
"Will he die alone?" Jenny asked. Vastra felt her tremble, and stroked her hair.
"No," the Doctor said, walking across the sand to sit at the table. "His oldest and dearest friend will be there with him through the end."
"Good." Jenny squeezed Vastra's hand tighter. "That's good. That's as it should be."
And at that moment Vastra, meeting the Doctor's eyes, finally understood how he bore it: he treasured each moment when they were with him, and each memory after they were gone. "And alien tears will fill for him," Vastra recited, "Pity's long-broken urn, / For his mourners will be outcast men, / And outcasts always mourn."
"No," the Doctor said. "Not always. Sometimes they find others, and dance. Or have tea."
And then they sat like that, in companionable silence, as the ringed planet set and the three moons rose, while all around them the warm breezes blew and the petals of the lily-trees shimmered like stars.
~ The End ~
Written in May 2012 as a pinch hit for justhuman in the Rare Women Fanfic Exchange 2012.
A heartfelt thank you to ashes and samsarapine for being extraordinary betas.
The lines Vastra recites are from The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Additional author's notes for this story are at my Dreamwidth and LiveJournal.
(10) 11 May 2013