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Sanctuary - Rehearsal
Another school story, in which James Watson and John Druitt are cast in the fourth form's annual play, and James learns something new.  (No warnings, except for Victorian attitudes.)

It is an annual rite from which, James Watson thinks, age and seniority should make him exempt.  But the play is The Merchant of Venice, and one look at Stapleton — who has never liked him since he demonstrated that Stapleton’s Parisian codex was in fact English and a forgery — and he knows his fate is sealed.

“Watson for Portia,” Stapleton says briskly.   There is a ripple of amusement, titters and nudges, and James looks down his long nose at Larkin, who should know better.  John gives him a quick glance, half sympathetic and half amused, and then frowns at Crowley Minor to be sure he understands that certain comments are off limits if he wants to remain one of the First Eleven. 

“Larkin for Jessica,” Stapleton continues — and, really, Larkin should have known that was coming.  “Maudsley for Lorenzo, and Druitt for Antonio.”

James hears his friend’s soft groan, and hides a small smile of his own. At least he won’t suffer alone, though it’s only some consolation.   At nearly sixteen, he should be too old to be saddled with a girl’s part.

He says as much to John as they make their way back across the quadrangle, but John just shrugs.  “Stapleton doesn’t like you, and the more fuss you make, the more amusing everyone is going to find it.”

It’s good advice, James knows, but still unpalatable.  “It ought to be Smythe.  Or Jenness, he can even speak verse and walk at the same time.”

“Spotty scrubs,” John says.  He puts his hand on James’s arm, his expression suddenly serious.  “It’s you, James.  Try to take it lightly.”

“There’s nothing light about it.”  School has never been fair or just; he should be resigned to it by now, but the rank reminder galls him.  “You’re not going to be known as Portia to everyone who thinks they’re halfway clever.”

“You’ll show them,” John says.  “You’ll take half the prizes and you’re a safe First already.”

“I want to be done,” James says, and the vehemence surprises even himself.

John punches him in the shoulder.  “I don’t want to do this, either, you know. Look on the bright side, it’s my pound of flesh you’re saving.”

“You could stand to lose a pound or two,” James says, rubbing his arm, but the thought is unaccountably comforting.  They part at the edge of the quadrangle, John heading for the athletic fields, James to his room to study, and on the way James resolves to follow John’s advice.  If he can.

After the shock wears off, the rehearsals aren’t too bad.  He knows he has a good voice, and he enjoys using it; there’s a part of him, too, that rather enjoys playing at being someone else, his real self looking out from behind the mask of stance and gesture and verse.  He’s not a poet, doesn’t have John’s instinct for the rhythm of the lines, but at least he understands what they mean.  He’s not unaware, however, of the not-so-stifled giggles that the idea of him in a dress provokes, and in all fairness, he can’t really blame them.   He knows perfectly well that he is tall and gawky, and that his nose is better suited for Shylock than for Portia.  Carruthers, his house prefect, is first to point this out, and as Carruthers passes for a wit, the remark is repeated ad nauseam.  The courtroom scene will not be a problem, he’ll wear one of the masters’ old gowns and a wig from the property box, but the Belmont scenes….  He is going to look ridiculous.  He hates looking ridiculous.

He perches on the windowsill in his narrow room, peering out into the dark.  It is well after lights out, and the air is finally cooling, making it possible to sleep, but he doesn’t move, one knee balancing in empty air.  His only real option is to brazen it out, and that means he will have to walk in skirts as though it’s effortless.  He still winces at the memory of A Midsummer Night’s Dream two years before, when Peter Sinclair stepped on his own hem at the curtain call and went tumbling into Theseus and Hermia and Helena and Titania, mowing them down in a flurry of fabric and unladylike yelps and curses.  Sinclair was known as Skittles ever after — still is, according to John, who knows a boy whose brother is up at Oxford with him. 

The answer is obvious enough. He will have to practice, and that means that he will have to gain access to the box room where the costume trunks are kept.  He doesn’t think this will present any real difficulty:  the College locks are nearly as old as the College, and he traded his silence for a most enlightening course in locks over the previous summer. Nonetheless, he is, in fact, nervous, and that sends him into a flurry of movement, extricating himself from the windowsill, finding the picklocks where he’s hidden them behind a loose bit of paneling, He checks the courtyard, noting the few lamps left in the masters’ chambers, and lets himself quietly down the stairs.

The box room is in one of the attics above the dining hall. He lets himself in by the side door, where a generation of boys have kept the latch well-oiled, and as he closes it slowly behind him, he hears a footstep on the buttery stairs. James flattens himself against the wall, shrinking into the shadows, shallows his breathing to nothing.  He sees the glow of a candle, and then a shadow, and then John, candlestick in one hand, a bulging napkin in the other.  He hisses softly, and John jumps, then relaxes as he sees who’s there.

“I could have brought you something —”

“I’m not hungry,” James says.  Now that John is here, he thinks it might be convenient to bring him along.  Girl’s clothes are as complicated as they look, or so he’s been told, and John has sisters.  His help would be useful.

“What are you doing here, then?”  John shields the candle, tucking his bundle into the crook of his arm. 

“I’m going to try on Portia’s costume,” James says.  “I don’t want to make an ass of myself in front of the others.  You could help me, if you want.”

“James —”


John sighs, as James knew he would.  “All right.  But the box room is locked.”

James flourishes his picklocks, rather enjoying the look of shock on John’s face.  “It won’t be a problem.”

He lets them into the storage room, John still shielding the candle until they’ve made sure the shutters are closed tight, and then John lights another lamp while James uses the picklocks on the trunks that lie in neat rows against the wall.  He finds the dresses after a couple of false starts, and hauls them out into the wavering light. He doesn’t know which costume he’ll be assigned, but he doesn’t think it will really matter.  They’re all more or less the same, though the underpinnings defeat him.  He sits back on his heels, looks over his shoulder to see John sitting on the edge of the sewing table. The napkin is open beside him, and he’s eating bread and dripping, watching curiously.

“A little help, here,” James says, more sharply than he’d meant, but John just stuffs the last of the bread in his mouth and comes to join him.

“What?” he says, indistinctly, and James frowns at the clothes he’s unearthed.

“Bloomers, corset, undershirt, petticoat, skirt and bodice.  Am I missing something?”

“Skip the bloomers, your drawers will do, but you’ll need a hoop for Portia,” John says, and rummages.  “Strip off.  I’ll find it.”

James does as he’s told, folding his clothes neatly on top of his shoes, and turns to find John holding out the undershirt.  James glares as he ducks into it, but John makes no comment, just hands him the corset and laces it closed.  The petticoat next, and then the hoop, and finally the heavy brocade skirt and bodice.  John fastens the buttons for him, dozens of them up the line of his spine, and James turns, the skirt swaying precariously. 

“Slowly,” John says.  “Careful —”

James lifts the skirt just a little, just enough to keep from tripping, pads barefoot into the center of the room, feeling the clothes settle onto him.  The corset changes his posture, makes him feel both brittle and armored; he lets the skirts fall and shortens his step, until the bell of fabric barely sways.  He can feel the new shape, the new self enclosing him, Portia the Lady of Belmont, rich and clever, so very clever, and he lifts his chin as he turns and walks back toward John.  He thinks he’s getting the hang of it, and then he sees the mirror leaning against the back wall.  He walks toward it, watching himself, adjusting his stride, the position of his hands and the lifted chin: he’ll never be pretty, but he will be imperious, and that’s right for Portia. 

He stops beside the sewing table, studying himself.  He doesn’t look like anything but a boy in a dress, but there’s something odd and compelling about it — the way he holds himself, he thinks, and then he sees John wide-eyed behind him.  He turns, still Portia, and hears John draw a breath, harsh as though he’d slapped him.


“You look —”  John stops, shaking his head.  “You look like Queen Elizabeth.  One of those portraits.  Gloriana.”

James turns back to the mirror, not displeased with the comparison.  He will not make a fool of himself, at least, and if he frightens the masters — and he will — he can’t say he minds.  He turns back to John, holding out his hands, and John takes them as if mesmerized.  James smiles.

“Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”

He’s quoting, but he means it, too, and John bows as though he’d kiss his hand but doesn’t quite dare.  “I would,” he says.  “You know I will.”

“I know,” James says.  I’d be Portia for you, I can be clever and get you out of trouble, any trouble —  The words tumble over themselves in his mind, but he cannot quite say them, cannot make a promise so extravagant except in silence.  “I know,” he says again, and lets that stand for all.

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Thank you! (I pretty much suck at summaries, so I'm glad you clicked through, too. :-)

I admit that I'm drawing on Sherlockian canon when I say that James Watson is a good actor - and I'm holding to the thought that it was him accent that tripped him up in Normandy, not his acting - but I think it makes sense? It feels to me as though the persona we see in Revelations is partly armor, even if it's also mostly real...

Oh, boys! I really like this -- James's lockpicking! And what they can't quite say, at the end.

Thank you! James and the lockpicks - I have this image of him not turning in a burglar in exchange for lessons. I suspect the parental Watsons would never have noticed.

I love this with a deep and burning love!

I particularly like how John is fascinated by James in drag but doesn't even have any words for it. He's just speechless. "Like Gloriana" indeed. John has a thing for Queens!

I love James' touchy pride. And his transformation.

Thank you! I'm so glad you like! John doesn't have words for this at all, even though it's hit him like a ton of bricks. (I think in his secret daydreams he wants to be Sir Walter Raleigh - already the courtier and consort, not the king.) While James has found words, but they're not yet the ones he needs.

James is so touchy, even now, at a point where he's sort of come to terms with school. You can see why he got thumped regularly, even with John to defend him.

I can see the Sir Walter Raleigh thing. Aren't these just endless permutations of The Consort? :)

Totally. From John's point of view, Raleigh gets to be an explorer and a scientist and have fabulous adventures, all in the service of his queen, whom he is permitted to adore. And I think that's exactly what John wants in life.

You know, being Raleigh has its points! I can see that's what he'd want exactly.

James is going to terrify the masters and they aren't even quite going to know why. All that force and focus channeled through Shakespeare's words, oh my.

Interestingly, during the whole getting dressed part, with the way James is aware of how the garments shape him - affecting posture, all that - I was going to the later device & the exoskeleton, and how easily he wears them.

Plus, as a costumer, this was all just lovely for that. Now I really want to draw that, and I'm not at all sure I have sufficient skill to do what I want. May have to try anyway.

Thank you very much! I think you're absolutely right about the exoskeleton - in Revelations, he almost flaunts it, which I think is both preemptive and also another part he's playing, one more mask to hide behind.

And, yes, he's going to frighten the masters. Again. :-)

Eee, this works so well - they're both so fraught and nearly adults. And I love how James is so frustrated with the pointlessness of the exercise, then caught up in his own transformation. Awesome.

Also - bread and dripping! It's toast and marmite for the Victorian teenager.

Thank you! Almost adults, but not quite, and at this point without words for half the things they're feeling.

Oh, this is adorable and breaks my heart all at the same time.

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