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Sanctuary - Karma Chameleon
A bit of Sanctuary fic in answer to amenirdis's Abnormal.  Set at the London Sanctuary sometime in the 1980s...

James repacked his personal medical kit, taking his time so that he could keep an eye on the person curled in the wing chair opposite him.  She — she had mostly kept the pronoun she was born with, despite the more than occasional incongruities — gave him a somewhat tremulous smile, and turned her hands to look at the neat bandages covering both palms.  They were typical defensive injuries, James thought, and mercifully her particular abnormality and the way she’d fought meant the worst of the damage was already healed. She had needed a few stitches, and she’d be sore and clumsy for a week or so, but there would be no permanent harm.

He closed the medical kit and rose to tuck it beneath the sideboard, in the space where, legend said, the Georgian gentlemen had concealed their chamber pots so as not to miss a moment’s drinking.  His own array of decanters stood atop the board, and he glanced over his shoulder, remembering what he had seen her drinking in the club.

“Gin and tonic?”

“God, yes.”  She grinned at him, a more natural expression this time, and he mixed her drink, finding ice in the concealed freezer, then fixed himself a whiskey and soda and returned to his place opposite her.

“Feeling better?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Try not to get the bandages wet. You should be able to take them off tomorrow night.”

“Yeah, right.”  She took another long swallow of the drink, but he noticed she was careful to hold the glass in the tips of her fingers.  “Cheers.”

“No other hurts?”

She shook her head. “Nah. You and your friend, the big bloke — where is he, by the way?  I’d like to say thank you.”

“Probably in bed by now,” James said, with perfect truth.  “He doesn’t like late nights.”

“He’s not your —?”

James shook his head. “He works for me here.”

“At the Sanctuary.”

“Yes.”  James took a swallow of his own drink.  It had been a near thing, even with Alistair to back him up, and he’d been afraid he was going to have to shoot one of the attackers.  Thatcher’s London was a hard place to find yourself down and out, and too many young men retaliated on anyone weaker than themselves.  “You’ve heard of us.”

She shrugged one shoulder.  In the mellow light of the study, she looked like some sort of unusually colorful Abnormal, dead-white face and heavily made-up eyes, her hair teased up and back into a ragged mane— scarlet as an autumn leaf, not a color that sprang naturally from most people’s heads, though James guessed she needed neither bleach nor dye to achieve it.  Her over-sized tunic was slipping off her shoulder, and her striped tights were tucked into boots that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Robin Hood.  “Everybody has, at Harry’s.”

James nodded.  The Prince Hal had been a theatrical pub when he was a young man, dropped down in the world until it catered only to abnormals and older homosexuals, and now had a strangely mixed clientele of abnormals like himself who could not entirely pass for normal, a rowdy gay-liberation crowd, and glam punks who pretended not to notice that not everything they saw was costume and makeup. There were drag shows again on the weekends, and music on Thursdays and Fridays, though it was the new electronic music rather than the bands he remembered from the war years. He had taken an American friend there once, on a full moon night when an air raid seemed unlikely, remembered sex in the back room while the trio butchered It’s Only A Paper Moon on the other side of the wall. “It occurs to me that I don’t know what to call you.”

“I’m Jess.”  She started to hold out her bandaged hand, then thought better of it.  “I mean, that’s really my name, though I’m thinking of changing it if the band takes off.”

“I’ve heard you sing,” James said.

“You don’t have to pretend to like it,” she said, with a wink, but James thought there was a touch of hurt beneath the attitude.

“I like your lyrics,” he said.  “The music itself — takes some getting used to.”


“I like some jazz.”  That was a simpler answer than going all the way back, naming singers she would never have heard of, evenings at Prince Hal’s when a lamia sang ballads and the occasional aria from a cushioned divan while gentlemen and the occasional lady flirted discreetly in the shadows, though never with each other.

“Is this for real? The Sanctuary?” Jess set her drink down and leaned forward, interlacing the tips of her fingers since she couldn’t clasp her hands.

“We exist,” James said, cautiously.

“I mean what they say.”

“It depends on what you’ve heard.”

“Well, I have heard that you eat babies, but I’m betting that’s not true.”

“Indeed not.” It was James’s turn to stiffen, and she made an apologetic gesture.

“Sorry, I know that’s not — it’s just, how likely is the rest of it, I ask you?  A place for freaks like me?  Safe haven, no questions, no preachers, just — come as you are?”

“Sanctuary for all,” James said.  “For the last hundred years.”

“They say you’ve been studying us all that time, too.”

“We’re Abnormals ourselves,” James answered. “And, yes, we want to know what we are.”

“You ever seen anything like me?”  Just for a moment, her shape flickered, the edges wavering, blending, only the teasing smile remaining the same.

“Once.”  He stamped the memory down ruthlessly, the body in the coffin, his own searing failure.

“Really?”  She looked up sharply, her eyes wide beneath the paint.

“You’re what we called, for lack of anything more imaginative, a true chameleon.  You can take on any shape you want, male or female, any race, any age.  It’s very rare, but not unique.”

“I thought I was the only one.”

James winced.  “You’re the only one I know of now.  The other died in 1911.”

“Damn it.”  She looked genuinely stricken, and tried to cover it with a shrug.  “And here I was hoping we could swap shape-changing tips or something.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What happened to her?  Him?”

“Him.”  James took a careful breath, debating whether to lie.  “He committed suicide.”  He saw her eyes narrow, and went on, keeping his voice remote. “He took poison and then kept himself from changing shape until it was too late.  I believe his system would have rejected the poison had he done so, but — I wouldn’t rely on it.”

“Bloody hell.” She shook her head.  “Why?”

“He wanted to be normal.  He came here to be cured.”  In spite of himself, James’s voice was bitter. “The one thing we couldn’t do.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

Her voice was casual, but every muscle in her body was tense, and James chose his words with care. “At the moment, we can’t.  Particularly an abnormality like yours, which has such global effects — it’s not like there’s some extraneous organ we could remove the way we take out an appendix.  In the future — it’s possible.  It may become possible.” Perhaps it was the whiskey on top of the adrenaline, but the words spilled out and he found he didn’t want to call them back.  “I really don’t know what would be the ethical thing to do. If an Abnormal wants to be normal, and I can do that for him, do I have the right to refuse?  Do I get to say what’s best for him?  I simply don’t know, and I’m craven enough to be grateful that it hasn’t arisen.”

Jess looked at her bandaged hands.  “I get that,” she said softly. “I know what he must have meant — it’s exhausting, sometimes, getting up every single morning and deciding who you’re going to be today.  Nobody else has to make that kind of effort — I thought there’s never been anybody else in the world who had to do it, and now you tell me the only other one you ever heard of offed himself because he couldn’t take it, and — yeah, I can see it.  There are days.”

James sat frozen, not daring to interrupt. Things are different now, he wanted to say.  Look at how the world has changed — look at Prince Hal’s, Harry’s, the crowd that meets there, as safe and open as any place in his lifetime. But he didn’t get to make that choice for her, either.

She shrugged then, and looked up with a crooked smile. “And then there are the good days, and I can be anybody, right?  I can be all the selves I ever imagined. It’s like that song, yeah?”  She sang the words half-voiced, smoky contralto husky in the quiet room.  “Who do you want me to be, to make you sleep with me? I can be what you want, what anybody wants, and myself besides.”   Her form shimmered, her shoulders broadening with her cheekbones, chin growing stronger as her hips narrowed, and suddenly she was male, a glam prince curled in his chair.  Her hair went from red to black to Bowie-blond, her hands narrowing and lengthening to accommodate the bandages. “And it’s all me.  It’s — I don’t want to give it up.”

It’s power, she would have said.  James nodded.  “You shouldn’t have to.  You don’t have to.”

“I’m not going to.”  She — he — glared at him. “We’ve got the band, you’ve heard us.  We’re good, and we’re getting better.  It’s all smoke and mirrors and makeup, yeah?  Except when it’s not.”

James nodded again.  “In the meantime, we do have part time hires here.”

“Doing what?”

“Exceedingly dull clerical work, I’m afraid, but I believe it’s better than the dole.   And — though I would expect it’s obvious — we have no dress code.”

Jess grinned at that.  “I’m shocked.”

“Sanctuary for all,” James said.

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Thank you. Thank you for the hope in this.

The marvelous will always be there, and the people who want it will find it. I needed to remind myself of that, after a somewhat wearing few days. :-)

Dear James. Always so dear. I do love him so.

I love the description of Harry's, how it's changed and transformed as Jess does, and how at the core it hasn't changed at all. That's such a skillful metaphor, and so well done. It reminds me why yeah, you're that good.

And hope. Maybe this time it will be different. And Jess is different. She may have hard days, but with her band and Harry's she doesn't idealize "normal." She doesn't want to be normal, mostly. Maybe she wants to be Bowie, but that sure isn't normal!

" your mama in a whirl. She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl. Rebel, rebel, your hair's alright...."

There will always be people who want this, and it will always be there. I just have to keep reminding myself of that.

I think Jess's band had some small successes, including a homemade video that includes her changing (and everybody wanted to know how they managed to afford those special effects), but they were too out there to be picked up by a major label after AIDS hit. Jess worked for the Sanctuary for a while, and now she's a studio musician working for a HAP producer, and she still wakes up in the morning wondering who she wants to be today.

Oh, dear James. Lovely.

Thank you! James is trying very hard, and maybe this time it will be all right....

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Thank you! And, yes, I expect James had Opinions about Thatcher. (Someday I will send him and Helen to the performance of Serious Money that I saw in London then, where the cheap seats and the expensive seats laughed at entirely different things through the entire play...)

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