He meets Tesla first, because the universe has no good sense of narrative. Tesla has a brilliant mind, which serves as a thin veneer disguising his voracious ambition. James enjoys his company immediately and without reservation, because Nikola Tesla has good taste in wine, and a good head for the sort of innovative thinking that complements James' methodical nature. James has never needed to like someone in order to enjoy them.
Tesla's roommate at the college is a quiet boy, Nigel Griffin. James tolerates him, with cordial disinterest. But Griffin knows someone who knows someone who would be interested in joining James and Nikola for an evening of wine and vigorous philosophy.
That is how he meets John Druitt.
There is nothing particularly remarkable in him, not at first glance. He is more urbane and solicitous than Tesla, less ambitious, and only mild, though precise, in his opinions. Druitt, James discovers, is a man who must be savored and examined, preferably over a game of chess or a walk down at the Botanic Garden. They discuss everything, at length, and if Druitt is not as knowledgeable as James, he can still hold his own in an argument long enough to be a worthy opponent.
Still, there is a place in Druitt that James cannot touch. Druitt comes as part of a set, even if he doesn't know it yet. His orbit is hers; she is his favourite topic of conversation. His other half is a girl with elaborately curled hair and an intense passion for knowledge. She audits the classes at Oxford, though generally not Druitt's courses on the Classics, instead attending the same lectures on anatomy and physiology that James is taking for his degree. James does not fault Druitt his near-worship of her; Helen Magnus is a wonder.
James accompanies her home on the train to London over the spring holiday, aware of the flush on her cheek and the darkly jealous looks his friends shot him when she asked him first, and he wonders how he might disabuse them of this foolish notion that he's after any of Helen's charms save those of her mind. In the end it doesn't matter; he spends a holiday in pure fascination in Gregory Magnus' laboratory, both he and Helen speaking to her father more often than to each other.
In the end they are six, not five, though Dr. Magnus only receives the same grace from the vampire blood as does his daughter. James sets aside his jealousy as an irrational, unproductive thing, and sets to work devising plans for an alternate method of achieving immortality.
"I hardly find it fair," Druitt comments of an evening, while James sketches the latest designs for some fanciful apparatus and Druitt poaches the last of Tesla's good '46 from an armchair by the fire. "If I ever had any hope of besting you at chess, I've lost it now."
"I hardly find it fair," James murmurs, not looking up from his paper, "when I think of all the combined shillings and pounds you will save by never needing to take a train or cab again."
"I can't very well materialize in the middle of a station," Druitt says, laughing. "Think of the commotion it would cause."
"Yes." James flickers his gaze upwards to meet John's. "I think it would amuse you."
Druitt's mouth curves wryly. James takes a strange sort of pleasure from it. In Druitt's catalogue of expressions, most of them are public, honest, and haughty; of his private ones, most are tenderly affectionate and meant for Helen. But this particular piece of silent amusement belongs to James.
"Helen thinks she can recreate it," Druitt says, after a pause. "Make her blood viable."
"The elixir of life in the veins of a friend." James sets his pen down and shakes his head. "And Tesla might do the same, if he could think of us as anything but rivals. No. Each of us must find his own way."
Druitt is silent for a long moment, watching him. "I'm thinking of asking Helen to marry me."
James laughs at the non-sequitur. "She won't say yes. She will take your honorable intentions, my friend, but not at the price of her freedom." He takes a peculiar sort of double satisfaction from the words. Yes, every one is true; and yes, it means Druitt will never belong to Helen and Helen alone. Jealousy is something James abhors, but possessiveness, of those few precious friends he has, is rational and, perhaps, even attractive.
"I suppose you're right," Druitt sighs.
"Of course I am."
Druitt shakes his head and finishes the wine. A comfortable silence descends. James is just starting to drift, idly thinking of air pumps and preservatives, when Druitt speaks again, in a low, serious register just at the edge of hearing. "Don't even consider leaving this world before the rest of us."
An unexpected feeling blooms low in James' belly, part shock, part joy, part inexplicable hunger, all unnamable. He closes his eyes and breathes deep, savoring it. "I don't plan to," he says.
It is the first honest conversation they have.
James toasts Druitt, somewhat ironically, with a glass of wine. It is of a lesser vintage than Tesla might have provided, but then, if Druitt and Helen are to be believed, Tesla is dead of a very uncomfortable fist through the abdomen. James would be lying if he claimed he'd derived no satisfaction from the news.
He would also be lying if he claimed to be doing anything now but playing an elaborate part. From two feet away, Druitt meets his eyes, and his mouth twitches into that familiar accursed slant of a wry smile. They both know that young William Zimmerman is watching them, and they are performing to perfection: Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, the confounded detective, the penitent criminal, the pair of old Oxford chums met to take up their banter. William is in awe.
He also saw far more than he knows. When William accompanies James on his mission to see Druitt and say hello, he unwittingly volunteers himself as confessor, a willing ear for their collective grievances, no matter how lightly couched.
Not so lightly, James knows. Druitt was all but pleading, no matter the offhandedness of the words, and James is no better; you gave the lie to all my bravado; you shattered my belief are not words he wants to have said. But there they both are. James threw down the challenge of redemption like a gauntlet. Druitt confessed his guilt. And young William, bless him, stumbled in with earnest grand notions of fate.
So Druitt says that he's here to save the world, says, "And, time allowing, reassert my superiority in our battle of wits," and they toast one another, perfect in their steps, refined with age. William never suspects a thing.
James drains his glass.
"Now, however," he announces, gathering up the complicated apparatus of his exoskeleton's life support, "is not that time. I expect Magnus wants us both back in the war room. Shall we?"
Druitt's face is, for a bare moment, naked. James can see hell written there, etched in the lines wrought by his subtle rejection. Good. He smiles and follows William.
Helen and Druitt never do marry, whether for Druitt's lack of trying or Helen's own reasons, it makes no matter. At the very least they are lovers, but to James' mild surprise, that is all. On the mornings when he calls on Helen and spends a blissful day in her laboratory, dissecting and cataloguing alongside her, she is as dedicated and enthusiastic as he. Sometimes, when they are bent over the same examination table, James can smell Druitt in her hair; but she is never the distracted one.
And Druitt has dinner with James, more often than not. Once or twice James has to decline his invitation, when Sir Arthur is in town and wants to question him thoroughly on his methods. But those are his only pressing social engagements: Sir Arthur, John. It is a good life, and one James relishes. On the weekends he even relents and goes to watch Druitt bowl for his cricket team of the moment, just as he did at Oxford. He doesn't care one way or another about the cricket, but he cares for the sweep of Druitt's arm, the dark smudge of his hair, the way he leaps with youthful triumph at each run they score. James doesn't examine it too closely. It simply is.
Five years on, Druitt's father dies.
He is the first of any family member of the Five to die. Or he is the first one that counts: Tesla's father is dead, but Tesla, it seems, has always extended his family the same warmth, love, and honesty that he shows his friends, which is to say that he has been all but estranged for years. Druitt Sr., on the other hand, had been at least mildly beloved to his son. James and Helen both attend the funeral with him; Helen pays her condolences to Druitt's mother and sisters, and all through the service, Druitt holds tight to James' hand.
After that, things aren't the same. Druitt might have gone on, but his poor mother sinks into a black depression, and Druitt's mood echoes hers, though only with a mild melancholy. James and Helen keep a close watch on him. After a time, Druitt seems to gain some new energy, and comes back to life, but he takes a greater interest in Helen's corpses. Still, it seems harmless.
Then comes the godsend. James knows, with intellectual dispassion, that he should never think of murder as a blessing -- it certainly isn't for the victim -- but Sir Arthur is not too far off the mark with his fictional counterpart. James is a machine where other men have softer parts, and the Whitechapel murders are precisely what he needs: a challenge for himself, and a thrillingly ongoing conversation with Druitt.
He takes no interest in the death of Mary Ann Nichols, common prostitute meeting a common end that she is, but with Annie Chapman's similar demise, both James' interest and that of the press are piqued. He reads the newspaper to Druitt over supper, derisively, and feels that old, familiar bloom of warmth at Druitt's laugh. He studies the evidence. "I need more," he tells Druitt in frustration. "I certainly won't go down to the Yard; with something this sensational, they're bound to be mired in well-meaning citizens. But an emergent pattern, and enough released to the press; yes, that I could work with."
"Perhaps the killer will oblige," Druitt says.
A letter comes to the papers at the end of the month, just before killings three and four. The letter is signed Jack the Ripper; James and Druitt pour over the newspaper reproduction late into the night. "An uneducated hand," James says.
"A tasteless prank," says Druitt.
Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes are next. Stride only had her throat cut; Eddowes had missing organs, in the same manner as the others. The murders happen so near one another, and with such similar flare, that the papers, if not the police, are willing to conflate them. James paces the carpet in front of the fireplace, wearing down the rug one shuffling step at a time. "We may have a copycat killer on our hands," he says, "but I find it doubtful. Our Jack the Ripper takes pride in his work; you see it in his precision. There is a ritual to it, like clockwork."
And later: "John, sometimes the bodies are still warm!"
Druitt watches him, with the small, satisfied smile he has adopted so often lately. James tries not to dwell on it. He relishes the pleasure Druitt clearly takes in watching him work; it must be very like the look he has worn so often, watching Druitt play cricket in years past. "And what do you make of it?"
"Professional thief; professional killer; Abnormal with the ability to quickly disappear." James throws himself in the chair opposite Druitt. "And every time the third possibility comes to me, I discard it for narcissism, and I second-guess myself, and so it goes around until I lose all trace of logic."
"Start by eliminating the others," Druitt suggests. "It won't be a professional thief. You know that. No thief so good at escaping would risk himself for a spectacle of slaughter. And what does a whore have, worth stealing?"
"Organs," James says, with a hollow laugh.
Druitt reaches out and sets a warm, heavy hand on James' knee. "You'll solve it. You always do."
But the seventh girl doesn't fit the pattern. James has built up a good profile, forensic, psychological, accounting for many, if not all, the factors worth considering in the wide, strange world. And the seventh girl shatters them. The papers mention her somewhere on the third or fourth page, an unconnected murder under a bridge near Whopping. But her throat is slit and she is neatly eviscerated, and that is more than enough confounded evidence for James to know that she is one of his adversary's kills.
"Why change the rules?" he asks Druitt miserably, over brandies at the club. "It's playing hell with my deductions. I thought he was too damned arrogant to get so clever. Do you think he did it simply to throw me off the scent?" He knows it's terribly narcissistic, but he can't help feeling this like the personal affront it is.
But Druitt merely shakes his head, looking thoughtful. "Perhaps," he says, "the old boy's losing his taste for the sport."
It brings James up short. It's damned thoughtless of him; all of London -- indeed, by this time, all the world -- can talk of nothing but the sensational case of Jack the Ripper, and he is no better than the rabble. "I can talk of something else, if you wish," he says. "How is Helen these days?"
"Dedicated to her work as only Helen can be," Druitt answers, with a fond smile. He looks James up and down, thoughtfully, his fingers playing with his tumbler of brandy; and though they have sat in this club many times before, and Druitt has looked at him just this way as many times too, there is something different now. James Watson is not for nothing famed for his deductive skills. A frisson of heat goes down his spine.
"Walk with me," he says, lightly, lightly.
They end up back at James' rooms. Druitt is very pale and earnest, just as James cherishes him to be. Helen's name hovers for a moment on the edge of James' tongue, while he banks the fire, lights the lamps, hangs his hat, does the dozen small rituals of returning home. But Helen is like him; and just as he has never begrudged her when Druitt sought her company, so she has been gracious to him. In that way, they are safe. In others ...
James' hand is trembling. He turns up the gas on the final light and steadies it. His heart pounds up in his throat, and his limbs are heavy. He turns. "John," he says.
John Druitt goes to him. They have both rehearsed this moment a hundred thousand times in their minds; James has seen it, in the line of Druitt's gaze, in the restless twitch of his fingers, in dozens of small tells that have been there for years. They have never acted on it because James has only ever wanted it, idly, and it is tonight that, after all, Druitt needs it. They kiss. James holds Druitt's face gently in his hands, and Druitt hangs hard to James' shoulders. There is no hurry, not for James, to this inevitable slide of heat and friction as their mouths and bodies align; but Druitt, to his faint shock, is trembling, overwhelmed with emotion James cannot decipher.
He pulls away gently, thumbs stroking over John's cheeks. "What is it?" he whispers.
"I didn't think I'd ever do this," Druitt says, with straightforward shattering honesty, his eyes shining. He doesn't look afraid. James doesn't know how he looks. Transcendental. It frightens him -- as, he realizes, with the incongruous, ubiquitous flare of satisfaction at his insight, it has always frightened him.
"Yes," he says. "But now we are."
And they do. It is shattering. It is addictive. It is ordinary, and familiar; he already knows Druitt intimately. And Druitt's face, transformed by ecstasy, is his, all his.
In the morning, Druitt is gone. But James expected that.
They stand outside two doors at angles in the rock wall. Latin inscriptions taunt James from the doorframes, elusive; if he could only think for a moment, he could see Druitt safely inside the true chamber. But he cannot think.
The apparatus of his life support thrums a faltering rhythm against his throat. He half-suspects that immortality is psychosomatic, a grand illusion, one Helen pulls off with grace, Druitt with flair, Tesla with subtle ease; one Griffin had not the wits to try at all. His mouth tastes metallic; his mouth always tastes metallic these days, but here, now, in the dusty catacombs of an ancient ruined city, the metal tastes ominously of blood.
Druitt stands behind him. James wants to kill Gregory Magnus, for devising such a refined torture, and James wants to kill Druitt, for daring to be hurt by James' fury with the good doctor. Old friend, Druitt says, half-pointed, half-pleading. But James can't let go of the bright anger of betrayal. If he lets go ...
If he lets go, there is nothing left.
If he doesn't let go, every Abnormal in the world will perish. James may be selfish, but he'll stop before crossing that line.
"The seventh girl you murdered," he says. He can't help it. He keeps his tone light, conversational, disaffected, the standard he has tried to set to stay sane, the standard Druitt thwarts at every turn. And still, he can't help it. "Why taint your calling card, why change the rules?"
Druitt says, with the passionate, choking repetition of a man driven to justify himself a thousand times to his own soul, "My actions were not of my own, but thrust upon me, by an irresistible force." And his face changes, minutely, from pleading to mocking. James has never seen that look. He catalogues it, hoarding it away, another look on Druitt's face that belongs to him alone. He loves its subtle venom. "It must have been quite a blow to your ego," Druitt says, "when you finally learned the truth."
"It was not," James says, "just that I failed to see the clues laid out before me." Oh God, no. But it's already too late. It's been too late since he raised a toast with Druitt back in the Sanctuary; it's been too late for more than a hundred years. He never learned how to lie to Druitt. "It was that it was you, John."
John's face changes again. His mouth goes aslant, his eyes bright with pain.
"For God's sake!" James snarls. "It was you!" But the final barbs are perfunctory. Druitt already knows. In a flash, another insight comes to James: Druitt has always known. Without conscious thought, James had brought up that seventh girl for a reason, and it wasn't really for the answer he'd already suspected; no, it was what had followed that conversation. And he'd wondered --
But Druitt knows exactly how he'd hurt James. And that is enough.
He turns on his heel and raps out the Latin. Truth lies; lies truth. Time to save the world.
He hears, later, that John Druitt was dismissed from his post at the boys' school where he taught part time. The cricket club for which he was treasurer and secretary reported that he was removed for having gone abroad. His body was pulled from the river. A note was found in his rooms: Since Friday I felt that I was going to be like mother, and the best thing for me was to die.
There are no more Whitechapel murders.
James doesn't go to look at the body. He already knows it's not Druitt, whatever anyone, including the man's own family, might have to say about it. It's clever. It's clever, and very neat; the note was a nice touch.
After a week, he forces himself to go visit Helen. She answers the door at once, in a black dress, her eyes very bright, her face chalky-pale. One glance tells James she hasn't cried yet. She lets him in without a word. They sit together in the parlor.
"I don't know why," she whispers finally. It isn't quite a plea.
James can only shake his head helplessly. Source blood or no source blood, his higher powers of thought have deserted him. Nothing he has ever observed in Druitt has prepared him for this, for all that he knows, without a doubt, that Druitt is their killer. He meets Helen's eyes, if only because she deserves his honesty, and something in her face shifts, from blank grief to horrified compassion.
"Oh," she breathes. "You too?"
Yes. James is so grateful, that she spoke it for him, that it does not need to be said aloud, this feeling that his heart has been ripped straight from his chest. Jack the Ripper's last evisceration leaves his victims breathing. "Yes," James says, and chokes on the word, and to his shock, he starts weeping. He doesn't know what he's mourning for. He doesn't know if he'll ever cry again.
Helen holds him until he's done. He busies himself with his handkerchief. Helen matter-of-factly goes into the next room and makes tea. By the time she's done, James is composed once more. They drink tea together, the room thick with silent, unhappy empathy.
"James," Helen says, as the tea dwindles. "I'm pregnant."
He's losing his touch. He should have known. James nods numbly. "How far along?"
"A few months." Helen twists her hands together. "What do you know of cryogenetics?"
"Not much," James says, understanding. "But for you, I would be more than happy to learn."
Then it is his turn to hold her while she cries.
His deduction was accurate, of course. Druitt holds one of the five keys that will save them. James' limbs hiss gently. There is a terrible flaw in Gregory Magnus' plan. It would be no flaw if they were, after all, still friends. But what they are has gone beyond words in any of the languages James knows.
He says it. There is no reason to leave it unspoken. "You might leave me here to die."
"Yes," Druitt says, as though considering the facts. "I might." He circles James.
"Well why don't you?" James asks. It comes out in something near a plea. The problem comes from not knowing how he pleads. If Druitt saves him, he may well shatter.
"As I once said." Druitt comes up to him, crowding into James' space, forcing him to look. He says, with gentle, thorough deliberateness, "I have lost the taste for the sport."
James squeezes his eyes shut, ducking his head. There is not enough air in the stone vault. There is not enough air in the world. And he can feel a whisper of movement; he looks back up, and there, Druitt is settling a big warm hand hesitantly on his shoulder. The hand curls, gripping him tightly, connecting, closing the circuit, erasing more than a hundred years. James is right; he is going to shatter after all. It's too much to bear, and their faces are inches apart.
He sways in, and John meets him halfway.
This is their first kiss. This is the real apology that Druitt couldn't give. James hardly has a body anymore, but he lights up with joy despite it, and Druitt cradles him close and careful. They relearn each other in the language of kisses, and what James reads is simple and pure.
This time, too, he is the one to pull away. "The keys," he says. "There isn't time." And when John would argue, James holds a finger up to his lips. "John. I'm dying."
"The suit --"
"Failing." James shrugs. "I arranged it all before I left; I didn't expect to come back."
Druitt looks lost. "But why?"
The reasons are many, and Druitt would hate him for all of them. James has no stomach for poetic justice. "Because I always plan for this contingency," he says, "and I didn't plan as thoroughly as I would have liked. If I make it back to the Sanctuary in time, perhaps ..."
"I'll take you," Druitt says.
"No," James says firmly. "I'm not risking all your lives for mine; Gregory may still have some surprises in store for us. Besides ..." He reaches up and strokes Druitt's cheekbones softly with his thumbs. "I want to be able to say my goodbyes honestly."
Druitt drags in a breath. "All right." And he shifts them.
In the single weightless atomic moment between physical spaces, they are one. In the next, James is back in an aching, metallic body, slowly shutting down, and nothing will ever be quite mended; but for that one moment, it is enough.