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Sanctuary - Encounter in Berlin
stillhouse
dbalthasar
A very dark piece, from the late '20s, in which James and John have an unexpected meeting in Berlin. Warning for potentially disturbing content, and, seriously, Jack the Ripper in Weimar Berlin.


It’s a street he has been avoiding since he came to Berlin.  He’d avoid it still if it weren’t for the paragraph in the morning paper, another lustmord reported in discreet but titillating detail, details that are painfully familiar.  He refrains from pulling his collar tighter, even as the wind plucks at his hat, and sets his face to his most unrevealing mask.  A pair of schoolboys giggle from a doorway, coatless despite the cold, bare knees revealed in tight shorts.  One wears a shirt with a sailor’s collar, the other a striped blazer and tie; sailor-suit is a girl, a thin moustache penciled above her lip with the same kohl that rings her eyes.  The other actually is male, despite the rouge and the heavy mascara, and James firmly buries the thought of what the prefects would have done to such a specimen back in his day. 

“Pardon me,” he says, and the pair exchange a quick, knowing glance.  His German is fluent, but the English accent is unmistakable, and the boy flutters his eyelashes.

“And what can we do for you, my dear sir?”

“Not that,” James says firmly.  The very idea makes him cringe, and so he adds, “Thank you anyway. I’m looking for a man —”

“You’re on the wrong street for that, darling,” Sailor-suit says, with a grin.

“I’m well aware of where I am,” James says, and know he sounds grim.  “And it’s — more important than you know.  A very tall man, with a long face.  Have you seen him?”

There is a hesitation, and then the boy shakes his head.  His pupils are dilated:  heroin, James thinks, and automatically calculates the dose.  “Not tonight.”

The girl frowns.  She’s not drugged, at least not at the moment, and something in his tone has gotten through to her.  “Is this — it’s about last night, yes?  About poor Magda?”

He owes her that much.  “Yes.”

She swears under her breath.  “He was here, the tall one.  Maybe, oh, twenty minutes ago?”

“Did you see where he went?”

She shakes her head.  “West?”

“He went with Nikki,” the boy says, and both James and Sailor-suit give him a dubious look.

“Tonight?” James asks, and the boy nods.

“Yes.  I think so.”

He’s not lying, but whether he’s clear-headed enough to tell the truth is another issue.  Sailor-suit is obviously thinking the same thing, but she shrugs.  “If your man went with Nikki, then west is the way to go.  There are a lot of little alleys there.”

“Thank you,” James says again, and starts off in the direction she’s pointed. 

Twenty minutes is more than enough time for John to have done whatever he wants.  More than enough time to have killed and to be gone again, vanished into smoke.  More than enough time to have carved a living body into pieces.  James lengthens his stride, scanning streets and doorways.  There are no clubs here, and far fewer streetlights; there are dark alleys in plenty, as Sailor-suit promised, but most of them are shallow, and lately John has taken more precautions with his sport.

Then, a little ahead and to the left, there is a deeper opening, a true alleyway between two blank-walled buildings, and there is the hint of movement in the dark.  James draws the pistol he carries in his coat pocket, knowing that Helen has tried this already, that it didn’t end well.  But that’s no excuse for failing to make the attempt, and he slips quietly into the shadow.

They are there, all right, frozen in tableau, the girl in shorts and blazer held pinned against the wall, at arms length so that her frantic kicks fall short even as she claws at his hand.  There is blood on her cheek, the long line of a cut shallow enough to bring the blood up in beads, but she’s otherwise unharmed.  Drugged half out of her mind, James amends, which may be why John has hesitated— he wants her aware, at least for the moment of her death — and he lifts the pistol.

“John.”

Whatever he was expecting, it wasn’t this.  John vanishes in a curl of smoke, something strikes his hand, knocking the pistol away, and then there’s an arm like a steel bar across his throat, the point of a knife against his ribs.

“It’s my lucky day,” John says, breath soft against James’s ear, and tightens his grip painfully.  “Run away, little girl, I’ve found better game.”

The girl in the school uniform scrambles to her feet, mud on her hands and knees, blunders past them  into the street.  Her shoes are loud on the concrete, and James can feel John’s smile.

“I wonder if she’s sober enough to call the police?”

“I rather doubt it.”  James shifts his weight a fraction, looking for leverage, and the knife bites deeper, enough to draw blood through the layers of shirt and vest. 

“Still,” John says.  “No point in taking chances.”

The air twists, and they are falling, landing abruptly in a room lit by jagged streaks of neon from the street outside.  There is a bedstead with a bare mattress, and an electric fire glows in the grate, casting a hellish light.  Mary Kelly, James thinks, with a shudder he can’t repress.  There’s nothing here, no sign John intends this place for anything but a killing ground.  He’s lost his hat, and John is pressed hard against him, holding him pinned.

“What were you thinking?” John murmurs in his ear.

“Of stopping you,” James says.

John laughs.  “Well, you’ve done that, old boy.  For the moment.”

“Not quite the way I intended,” James says, with perhaps more honestly than is entirely wise.

“I daresay.”

There are a thousand things James would like to say, a mad cacophony that ranges from fury to bewildered pain, and none of them will do the slightest good.  He swallows them all, because the worst thing would be for John to know just how deep that hurt still goes, and shifts his weight again, seeking any slight advantage.  John blocks him easily, the knife sliding almost gently along his ribs, slicing fabric and trailing pain.  Point and edge are freshly honed, ready for the night’s work.  The leather strap of the machine on his chest checks the movement, and he feels John cock his head.

“What’s this?”

James has a second to anticipate the movement, to make his own move, but John is still bigger and stronger than he.  They grapple for a moment, and then John’s arm is across his throat again, the busy knife opening his shirt. 

“Now that’s interesting,” John says, and James kicks back at his shins because it sounds for a moment like the John Druitt he loved.  John evades the blow, and pulls back just enough to cut off James’s air. James flails for an instant, but he’s gotten the message, and lets himself go limp.  John nods once, the point of the knife hovering just above the grille that gives access to the clockworks.  “An artificial — heart?”

“Of a sort.”

“You should give up the cocaine.”

“It’s a harmless vice, at least,” James answers, and he thinks maybe the shot has gone home.

“A novel experience,” John says.  The point of his knife toys with the grille, with the edges of the case, cutting tiny knicks in wood and leather.  “To kill someone by stopping the movement of a few gears.”

“It doesn’t quite work that way,” James says.  It’s only partly a lie:  losing it won’t kill him, at least not quickly, but he can’t do much without it.  “I can survive without it.”

John smiles as though that’s made him happy.  “So I could break this — or this — anything, really, in all this intricate mechanism — and then take my time with you.  How thoughtful of you, James.”

“Go to hell,” James says.

“Why, this is hell,” John says, “nor am I out of it.”

“Save the poetry for Helen, she was the one who appreciated it.”

The knife slips, just a little, and James feels a certain savage satisfaction.

“You’d have made quite a good prefect,” John says, and only James could have heard the catch in his voice.

James flinches in turn, and John shifts his hold just slightly, so that James is pressed full against him.  James still can’t move, can’t get any kind of purchase, not with John’s arm across his throat and the knife point hovering above the machine on his chest.

“After all, we’re in Berlin,” John says.  “Anything goes.  There’s a whole street of whores who specialize in playing schoolboys.  Don’t tell me you never thought of showing one of them how it’s really done.  You could pay any one of them to answer to — any name you chose — and then you could show them a proper caning.  Two dozen of the best, and make them thank you for it.”

James clenches his teeth to keep from making any sound.  John is hard against him; he’s hard himself, in spite of himself, the pictures too clear, the kohl-eyed heroin boy bending with his trousers down, the soft whistle of the cane and the bright hard pain, red welts on pale skin, the taste of semen in his mouth.

“God, John, please —”

And John is gone in a curl of smoke, leaving him shuddering, afraid to know what he might have begged for.  Somehow he makes his way back to his hotel, and in the warmth and bright electric light he fumbles in his shaving kit for syringe and needle and the vial of morphia he carries for emergencies.   His hands are still shaking, but he finds the vein on the second try, presses the plunger home.  He doesn’t have to know.
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I still really like this, even though it is dark as dark can be. God, James.

Thank you. It is about as dark as it gets, and, yeah. A mess.

Dark dark dark! This is so good!

Thank you. There's not much else left for them at this point.

Oh ouch. I love the darkness, the subtle viciousness of them - to each other, to themselves. James' wants and desires, and the way he hides them.

John really knows how to carve his friends up - emotionally, rather than physically.

(I even have a Druitt/Watson icon for this!)

Thanks. At this point, this is about all they have left, but they're both very good at it. Though John wins this round.

(And I covet your icon!)

This is so dark and so good.

Thank you. They're... twisty.

(Deleted comment)
Thank you. this is probably my favorite piece so far, because I think I've caught how terribly intimate their connection is - I'm taking off from their conversation in the second part of Revelations, when they finally do, I think, resolve those old hurts. (And then James dies. But that's another matter.) But at this point, nothing's been said - maybe nothing can be said - that will make anything make sense, and all they can do is this.

I'm riffing off artaxastra, too, quoting Dr. Faustus again, because I'm betting John and James read it together in school. And on her Kills, because once again James is deferring the bill.

And Weimar Berlin....

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