It began with a kindness. A cold winter's night, bundled against the cold that somehow found a path through her many layers to reach her scaled skin. Silurians were decidedly unsuited to cold environments, but England was her home. Vastra's lips peeled back against her teeth as she pushed onward. Her home in Cheapside was barely better than being outdoors, but at least there were walls and lanterns she could coax into a flame. She had oil and blankets thick enough to absorb the brunt of the bitter winds that threatened her.
She passed the girl, as so many had, without even noticing her. She was shivering as well, her face pink from the cold. A bonnet was pushed low on her forehead, tied under her chin so tightly that her jaw barely moved when she extended her arms forward. The box was cradled against her abdomen, arms curled around the front edge like she was embracing it.
"Matches? Just a tuppence."
Vastra held up her hand in refusal. Even if she had the money she would not have stopped. Any delay would keep her from the relative warmth of her den.
"You just look so cold, ma'am." She stopped but didn't turn around. The wind seemed to sense her stillness and closed around her. She heard the sound of the girl's footsteps in the snow. Snow made the world silent and sharpened sounds so that the slight child's footsteps sounded like crunching snaps. "Please, ma'am."
Vastra looked back and saw the girl was holding out a book of matches. She longed for it, for the heat each stick would promise, but it was pointless to fantasize.
"I have no money. Shill to someone else."
"It's free. Ma'am, take it. Please. I'll tell the foreman I dropped it or someone stole it from me. Please, ma'am, you look so cold."
Vastra remembered the Doctor's words in the Underground tunnel, his admonishment that sometimes people could be kind to one another for no reason. They had good hearts. And this girl, this shivering girl with her lips cracked by the cold, was offering to suffer a loss just so Vastra could have warmth. She hesitantly reached out and closed her leather glove around the girl's hand.
The girl smiled. "Try'n stay warm, awright?"
Vastra dipped her chin. "I am grateful."
Jenny did her best to curtsey considering the weight of her coats and the fact her arms were otherwise occupied. She smiled despite her obvious discomfort and moved back to her position in front of the tavern. Vastra watched her for a moment, cradling the book of precious matches in her palm before she turned. The tail of her coat swept the ground in a wide arc as she continued on her way.
The book contained eight matches. One snapped when she tried to light it, her eagerness causing her to bear down with too much pressure. She cried out in anguish at the sight, determined to be more careful with the next matchstick. She struck it carefully across the coarse strip on the book's face. A small yellow light bloomed, and Vastra pinched the stick between her thumb and forefinger. She cupped her other hand around the back of the flame and carefully brought it toward her face.
She closed her eyes as the warmth washed over her. It was tiny and nowhere near enough, but it immediately made the night bearable. She wanted to sigh, but she didn't dare risk a puff of air which might extinguish her savior. So she crouched on the ground, match held as close to her face as possible without burning, and savored the rareness of warmth.
"Matches?" She turned to follow the man in the bespoke suit, who kept his head down and a finger on the brim to avoid the sight of her. "Matches?" she asked the next person to enter her orbit. "Just a tuppence. Please, ma'am, it's quite cold. Perhaps your--" The stern refusal tossed over one shoulder shut her up, and Jenny resumed pacing. If she was pacing her feet wouldn't freeze. If she was pacing, blood was still moving through her extremities. She shivered as another gust of wind raced down the street, whipping around her. Sometimes it felt as if the cold got into her clothes and did a few laps before finally fading away. Her entire body was like ice, but she stomped her feet on the pavement and exhaled a plume of air.
She jumped at how close the voice was. She turned and saw a man wrapped in shadows, smoke curling from a cigar in his left hand. He reeked of cinders and alcohol and she resisted the urge to wrinkle her nose. She hefted the box in her arms.
"Matchbook, just a tuppence, sah."
"Don't need a matchbook," he said as he got closer. "How much?"
Jenny backed away from him, suddenly aware of how solitary she was in the night. "Not for sale."
"Oh, come on. Everything's for sale these days. You just gotta know how to bargain." She continued to retreat, but suddenly bumped into something large and immobile. She gasped and looked up into the face of another man. He smiled and her heart pounded in her chest. His hands dropped to her upper arms as the first man drew closer. "Gimme what I want, and I'll pay with letting you walk away when I'm done."
Jenny could feel the moisture crystallizing in the corners of her eyes. "Don't..."
"You drive a hard bargain. Hold her still, Vin."
He reached for her and Jenny cringed. Her eyes were still open when the stick swung down in a wide arc between her and the vicious man. It made the sound of dry twigs cracking when it met his wrist and he howled, rocking back on his heels as he spun toward the direction the blow had originated.
"I believe the young woman's plea was in regards to the transaction you posited, not the price. But then again it seems as if you were deliberately misunderstanding her. Am I correct?"
The man holding Jenny said, "Sounds like we got us a two-fer-one offer on the table."
Jenny stomped on his foot and Vin shouted. She pulled away from him, spilling her box of matches on the ground as she scrambled forward bent over at the waist. She spun, her boots skittering on the ice as she faced the men in the event they gave chase. They were too focused on the woman in a long black overcoat and tricorn hat. She swung her walking stick around once, twice, then aimed the end at the first man.
"You'll find me a much stronger negotiator than my young friend."
"Hello, dear. One moment."
The two men lunged toward her at the same time. Vastra thrust her cane forward so that the tip poked against the leader's throat. As he gagged, she dropped into a crouch and swung her leg out to trip up his partner. While the second man was still crashing to the ground and the first was gagging, Vastra straightened and grabbed the leader by his lapels. She swung him around, helped by the ice, and let him fly. He met his doubled-over friend and crashed onto the pavement.
Jenny saw movement from the alley and her eyes widened. "Vastra!" The taller woman didn't have time to react, so Jenny stepped forward. Her shoulder brushed the back of Vastra's coat as she stepped between her rescuer and the third man. He was moving with a club raised over his head, making himself even more top-heavy than he already was, and Jenny dropped down and kicked his ankle. The man's battle cry transformed into a yelp as he fell forward, releasing his hold on the club. It clattered once on the pavement before Jenny grabbed it and bopped the man on top of the head with it.
"Masterfully done, Jenny."
"Thank you, ma'am," Jenny said, breathless. She looked to see the fate of the other two men and saw that Vastra's walking stick had changed into a length of gleaming, dangerously sharp metal. "What are you going to do with them?"
"First, I will have them pick up your matchbooks." She gestured with the sword. "Quickly, gentlemen, before my hunger overtakes my compassion."
The men scrambled to gather the spilled matchbooks, collecting them in Jenny's fallen box. She looked up at Vastra, the mysterious woman's features barely visible through her scarf and veil. But the profile was telling enough. Jenny squared her shoulders to disguise the shudder of fading adrenaline and tightened her grip on the end of her club.
Vastra used the tip of the sword to open the nearest man's jacket. When she found a pocket weighted down by the money within, a flick of her wrist cleanly sliced the material. A coin purse fell to the ground with a musical thump, and Vastra used the side of her boot to push it closer to Jenny.
"I believe that will cover your lost wages."
Jenny crouched and scooped it up. She stuffed it into the pocket of her coat without bothering to look inside. "I'd say so, mum."
When the last matchbook had been recovered, Vastra smiled. "Now, gentlemen. Leave this block. Quickly now... I plan to eat the slowest of you."
The men remained frozen for a moment, perhaps alarmed by the odd threat, but then the leader got up. He shoved his friend back down and ran as fast as he could on the icy cobblestones. Jenny watched as the man she'd hit got onto rubbery legs and shuffled after them. She watched Vastra from her periphery, and Vastra tracked the third man's slow progress.
"Are you really going to eat him?"
Vastra considered the question and then sighed heavily. "No." She stooped and gathered up the refilled box. She held it out to Jenny and then pulled it back when Jenny tried to take it. "You've certainly made your evening's quota with that young gentleman's purse. Perhaps you would prefer to spend the next few hours somewhere... warmer?"
Jenny didn't have to be asked twice. She nodded quickly. "And you can take the matches. Can't really show up with 'em if I claim they've all been sold. A reward f-for savin' me."
"That was to repay your earlier kindness. Perhaps you don't remember. One night many months ago--"
"I remember you, ma'am." Jenny smiled and lowered her head. "A'course I remember you."
"Well, then. Shall we?"
Jenny took off her bonnet slowly, marveling at the foyer. It was a grand space, elegant and so warm. She couldn't imagine there was a rest of the house when the entry hall was so grand. "Blimey," she whispered. "I think you owe me a tuppence, lady."
Vastra laughed and touched Jenny's arm as she moved toward the coat pegs. "At the time I didn't have two pence to rub together. Your charity was much needed... and very much appreciated." She stood with her hands near her veil, half-turned away. "Perhaps I should prepare you for what you are about to see..."
"No." Jenny was still admiring the architecture. She had taken off her gloves and was currently undoing the top buttons of her coat. For the first time since the first frost she was actually too warm for all her layers. She stopped with the coat halfway off the shoulders and saw Vastra staring at her through the thin lace of her veil.
"What do you mean, no?"
"Veils and scarves and hats pulled down low and high-collared jackets. People hide their faces every day, ma'am. They don't want to see me as a person so they can ignore me, walk by without buying a matchbook from me. But I see 'em. I see all of 'em, I look for the person they're hidin', see? So I can make the appeal to the person instead of a strip of cloth. I don't know what you look like, Miss Vastra, but I know you wear that veil for a reason. Can't wait to see what it is."
Vastra considered the answer carefully and then nodded. She lifted her veil, letting the hood of her overcoat fall back. She unwound her scarf and then stood, barefaced and without apology. Jenny stepped closer to see her better. What Jenny had taken for a tricorn hat was in truth the bony crown of her skull. Her face was covered with scales in a varying pallet of green. Olive and forest and jade.
"Not many do," Vastra said sadly, starting to turn away.
"Didn't expect you'd be... quite so beautiful."
Vastra paused and then her lips relaxed into a smile. "Beautiful. That is unexpected."
"I'll tell you again, often as I can, 'til it becomes commonplace."
Vastra smiled, showing her teeth, and Jenny allowed herself to smile as well. She helped Vastra out of her heavy cloak and hung it on the wall, and they adjourned into the parlor. Jenny volunteered to build the fire, claiming it was the least she could do since Vastra had supplied the abode and the fireplace. She lit the kindling with one of her own matches, identifiable by the small JF she stamped on the back of each booklet. There were only two left, but the book appeared battered and worn.
"Is this the book I gave you way back when?"
"Yes." Vastra had settled on the rug, her legs folded up underneath her. "For a time it was the only possession I had that I considered precious."
Jenny hoped that the blush in her cheeks would be attributed to the flames. Once the fire was strong enough to survive on its own, she moved back and knelt on the rug near Vastra. She sat on her folded legs, hands on her knees, and closed her eyes as the warm air filled the room. Sometimes she forced herself to forget what warmth felt like, just so she wouldn't pine for it. She lifted her chin and felt the bitterness of the season seep from her skin.
"If you become too warm, you may make yourself more comfortable."
Jenny looked at Vastra and saw that she was loosening the ribbon at her collar. After a moment's hesitation, Jenny began to undo hers as well. The heat would be welcome, but in time her layers would become stifling. She doffed the two outer layers, leaving her in a boys' undershirt that was her last bit of protection against complete nudity. She relaxed her posture and stretched on her side, propping her head on her hand with her feet extended toward the fire. Her socks were wet inside her boots, so she reached down to take them off.
They discussed Vastra's change of fortune, her ability to deduce the strangest truths from the scantest of evidence. She told of working with Scotland Yard, of the bumbling detectives who relied on her for the most confounding (and most unusual) crimes that came their way. She told of Doctors, both human and alien. She talked about her friendship with the writers of fantastic fiction. Her consultancy afforded her the ability to move into a small house where she was able to hide away from the cold winds of winter.
Vastra eyes Jenny thoughtfully. "You were remarkable back there."
Jenny's smile wavered. "Don't mock me."
"I'm not." Vastra shifted her weight so that she faced Jenny more fully. "You saved my life from the third man. I hadn't even seen him, but you stopped him from turning the tide. We work well together."
"Now that I agree with." Jenny smiled. "I just wish I could have been more help."
"Ah. You only lack the training." She suddenly sat up straighter and looked toward the back of the room. "Oh. Where on earth are my manners... would you like something to drink?"
"No. Don't get up. I'm fine right here."
Jenny closed her eyes and nodded.
Vastra sighed and relaxed next to her again. "What I need is a chambermaid who can remember all the things I forget before I forget them."
Jenny held her hands palm-out toward the flames. "This feels so wonderful," she whispered. "Can't imagine what it's like to you. All that cold out there... You must be half-froze from August to March."
"I have methods of remaining warm."
Jenny smiled at that.
She stayed as long as she dared, reluctantly turning away from the fire when the clock struck one. "I have to be getting back. They'll wonder where I am, and they'll be cross."
"I'll see you to the door."
Jenny bundled herself up again, although the cold that awaited her outside now seemed as impossible as warmth had been only a few hours ago. She followed Vastra to the main hall and waited as Vastra took her coat off the hook. She turned, feeling silly as this stately woman helped her arms into the sleeves. She tugged the collar up, then let one ungloved finger trace the shell of Jenny's ear. Jenny closed her eyes and dropped her head to the side, presenting the ear to her new acquaintance. Vastra hesitated but completed the circuit, brushing her thumb over the lobe before she rested the back of Jenny's neck.
"You're so warm," Vastra whispered.
Jenny swallowed hard and forced her eyes open. She turned around, close enough that they could have embraced if they chose to. Instead she took Vastra's left hand in both of hers and brought it to her face. She exhaled softly, letting her breath pool in Vastra's cupped palm before it expanded out to her fingers. Vastra inhaled sharply but didn't pull away as Jenny carefully folded the fingers down as if to grip the warm air.
"Whenever you need it, ma'am. You know where to find me."
"Yes." Vastra's voice was sleepy, relaxed, and she squeezed her fingers into a tighter fist. "Thank you, Jenny. That was incredibly kind of you."
Jenny smiled, clutched the collar of her coat, and turned toward the door.
"I could train you."
"Pardon?" She kept her eye on the doorknob. She knew that her life, the life she'd long ago resigned herself as being hers, was just beyond that threshold. All that remained here was uncertainty and danger. Certain death; the question was only when death would find her. But when wasn't that true for lesser mortals? She chewed her bottom lip. "Train me? In what?"
"You have the raw talent to protect yourself, but you should never have allowed yourself to be caged like that. Those men would have been no match for you if you had the proper training."
She wanted it so badly that there were tears in her eyes. "I can't afford that, ma'am. Thank you, you've no idea, but... I can't."
"Perhaps we could work out an exchange of services."
Jenny finally turned. "Exchange?"
"As I said earlier... I could do with a chambermaid to help me keep my head on straight. And when you aren't working, we could see that you receive proper training." She stepped closer, hands clasped in front of her. "Please agree, Jenny. I cannot in good conscience send you back out into that hellish cold."
Jenny smiled. "But... th-the match company..."
"I will deal with them. I have a feeling they'll agree with me." She pondered for a moment, then shrugged. "And even if they don't, a little indigestion never killed anyone." She let the comment hang for a moment and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "If you were smart you would be frightened right now."
"Oh, I am, ma'am. Absolutely terrified." She began undoing the buttons of her coat again. "When do I begin?"
The match flickered to life in the darkness beside the couch and Vastra turned her head toward it. She lifted her pipe and the match was lowered to the cup. Puffs of smoke rose and plumed around Vastra's head and she smiled sleepily. "Thank you, darling. Where is Strax?"
"Declaring war on the milk man, last I saw him."
Vastra made a noise of disapproval. "I suppose I should intervene before there's bloodshed."
"You have time. He's still in the planning stages. So how long were you smoking a snuffed pipe this time?"
"It depends on what the hour is now." She looked back into the flames of the fireplace. "Have I kept you from bed?"
"Poor thing," Vastra said softly. "Come sit beside me, my love."
Jenny crossed in front of the couch and straddled Vastra's lap. She had undone the top four buttons of her uniform, the material sagging open to reveal the lace underneath. She lifted Vastra's hand to guide it into the material, settling her weight just above Vastra's knees. Vastra closed her eyes as her palm slid over the marvelously warm, smooth skin of her wife's breast. Jenny cooed quietly as Vastra found a nipple and teased it with her fingers.
"The Sanctuary case?"
"Mm. I do so hate to fail Helen." She pinched and Jenny hissed. "She brings me the most delightful cases."
"As long as you're only interested in her mysteries."
Vastra grinned and looked up at Jenny. "You're my darling, my only love." She leaned in and rested her forehead against Jenny's. "You are my warm girl."
Jenny smiled and bent down. Their lips touched, and Jenny exhaled softly to warm Vastra's face with her breath before they kissed. Vastra slid her other hand into Jenny's uniform, and Jenny slid closer to her.
"What about the case?" Jenny whispered when they pulled apart a few moments later.
Vastra decided the case could wait.