It takes less than sixty seconds for Helen Magnus to turn his world inside out and upside down again. He’s anchored the moment he hears her voice, and he’s completely shit out of luck by the time he sees the view. It’s so bright he almost has to shield his eyes.
She gives him a tour of the…whatever this is. The Biosphere. The Dome. The New Sanctuary. It’s incredible. His room overlooks a waterfall and a large pond with eight different varieties of fish.
Will turns at the window to look at her, speechless.
She watches him until he breaks eye contact again, and when he’s not looking, she smiles and lets her hand slide softly down the panelling at the doorway.
Everything is new and everything is the same. This Sanctuary is still, quiet, waiting to be broken in. There’s a feeling in the air here, like each molecule is vibrating with anxious excitement, anticipation for this new chapter. Magnus tells him she needed him, needed to wait until this moment because she couldn’t risk doing more until he was back beside her.
Will wonders how she knew he’d actually come back, after everything she put him through.
Then he thinks about what a silly thought that was.
She bites her lip and watches him throw back a dark beer in the vast kitchen. She brought them especially for him; she hopes it’s a nice touch. There are bay windows everywhere in this place, and the nearly-real sun is setting. She wants to tell him she’s sorry. He knows he’ll forgive her eventually but right now, his heart is unable to keep pace with his head. He spent months wondering what she was keeping from him, if he even meant anything to her anymore, if he was just another expendable part of her plan, and then he spent another month thinking she was dead somewhere amid the ashes of one of the only homes he’d ever known (another promise he thought broken -- I’ll see you when all this is over, Will).
Everything is okay and everything is not okay.
He still aches.
He wants to touch her, make sure she’s actually here. This place is so beautiful, so surreal. He still doesn’t know exactly how it works, why there is sunlight, breeze, ponds, streams, trees. But he thinks he’s starting to understand why she kept it all from him until now.
“How’s Abby?” she asks.
Will scratches the back of his neck. “We kinda had a fight.”
Magnus readjusts. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It happens to the best of us. I’m sure you’ll reconcile.”
“Yeah,” he says. He moves his hand from his neck and scratches at the neck of the bottle instead. “Maybe.”
Magus takes in a deep, even breath, and glances back over to him. “May I ask after the cause of the fight?”
Will meets her gaze, moves his mouth in a funny way. He sets the empty bottle back on the counter top.
They spend the next few days touring the rest of the place, the grounds, the levels, talking about Mr. Fuller and Coober Pedy and the century she spent putting this together, about the new direction she’s steering the Sanctuary, herself, and now him in. He’s overwhelmed and relieved and scared and and excited and her face is so bright, so relaxed, so beautiful. They’re going to start moving abnormals in slowly, she tells him. She also tells him she doesn’t know if she’ll ever go home again.
They don’t talk about them, but Will knows she isn’t ignoring the situation. She’s trying to ease it. She’s trying to ease it, and she’s trying to mend it, and she’s trying to apologize in the way she holds her hand against his back as they peer over blueprints and log books and inventories.
“I’m going to need you to visit the standing Sanctuaries,” she tells him, but it doesn’t sound like she’s talking about business. Her eyes are soft and later, they’ll have dinner on her balcony and she’ll smile at him in a way she’s never, ever smiled at him before. Her eyes will linger on his face and drift slowly across his body and he’ll spend an entire night tossing and turning, trying to steady his heartbeat.
“Hey Magnus, do we want to let the Mokele-Mbembe roam free at the south pond or do we want to convert one of the holding cells on the second floor?”
Magnus’s new office is half library, half solarium. It’s the size of a indoor track and field stadium. Well, it’s his office too, he supposes, because Magnus keeps telling him that it is his as much as it is hers. That all of this is.
“Your call, William,” she says, and the sunlight catches a lock of her hair, gold and mahogany. “And you know, it’s been four years. You are allowed to call me Helen.”
He’ll still call her Magnus, but something is changing. Everything is changing.
She doesn’t keep herself so tightly laced anymore. She smiles all the time. She touches him, she laughs. She seems untethered. Today she’s wearing a red dress. She welcomes his hand on the small of her back, listens to his suggestions, implements his ideas. He supposes this is what happens when a weight you’ve been carrying for centuries is finally lifted, when a battle you’ve been planning for two lifetimes is finally won.
He finds he doesn’t miss Abby. He doesn’t miss the surface. He forgives Helen Magnus a little more with each absentminded brush of her knuckles against his own.
There’s a warm breeze, and he still doesn’t understand where it comes from, but it makes him feel like he could spend the rest of his life here. They’ve taken to sitting on her balcony when they’re not working, when they’re eating meals together. Will has to cross her room, move past her bed, each time to get to the sliding door and sometimes she watches him like she’s nervous about it and every time this happens, a warmth for her that he hasn’t felt in a while coils low in his gut. He wants to take her face in his hands, and the bizarre thing is he thinks she wants him to do it, too.
“I still get caught up in those memories sometimes,” she tells him, because he asks. Because they’ve talked about it before, but it needs to be talked about often, and Will understands this. A hundred and thirteen years is a long, long time, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, Helen Magnus is still human. She needs to talk even if she thinks she doesn’t. “I was so lonely. Busy, but lonely. There was so much I had to be silent about.”
Will refills each of their glasses with bourbon and ice and mint the color of her sheets.
“How did you keep yourself afloat?” This is a question he’s never asked before.
She laughs to herself, and when her eyes meet his again, it feels kind of like he’s just touched his hand to a hot stove. She hasn’t ever answered this many of his questions so transparently before. “I knew everything would go away eventually. John, James, Ashley, Nigel, my father, the wars, each decade would pass me by sooner or later. Even Nikola would disappear for sixty odd years. Honestly, Will, you were what I counted on to remain constant. I knew you’d still be here when I caught back up with the timeline.”
Will tries to keep the corners of his mouth from curling upwards, and fails. “You thought about me, even with everything else you were dealing with?”
Her voice is quiet and he’s not used to hearing it so defenseless, but it is growing on him. “Nearly constantly. You were my future, Will. This,” she sweeps a hand out, encompassing the carefully constructed beauty around them, “and you.”
For the first time Will wonders how it would have affected her if he’d decided he couldn’t come back. If he’d decided he really couldn’t trust her again.
Helen watches him. She knows what he’s thinking. Later, when the time is right, she’ll tell him. She’ll tell him that she’d risked losing him because the price was far too high not to, because she’d had far too many other things on her mind, but that if he hadn’t come back, something inside of her never would have healed. She’d have surrendered him to that eternal, bright-aching part of her heart, somewhere near her daughter and far, far away from John.
The day before Will leaves for the surface again he finds her standing near the east windows in the office, sunshine pouring in. She looks anxious, tired.
Someday, he’ll remember to ask her if the seasons here will ever change.
He comes up close behind her, brushes the curls from her shoulders. She’s wearing a soft grey sweater that folds down gently at her collarbones.
“Worried?” He asks.
“O, brave new world,” she chuckles. “Let’s start at once.”
His fingers rub small circles into her skin, growing wider. When she closes her eyes, he presses a little harder. She’s tense and her skin is warm and she starts to relax.
After a few moments, he begins to pull away, but she reaches up to still his hand.
“Hurry back,” she says, like she’s worried he won’t. There is a lot of work to do but that’s not the postscript she settles on. In her mind, she tells him she wants him to hurry back because she will miss him. She’s already missed him for months and for decades.
“Count on it,” he tells her, like he heard what she didn’t say.
Dinner again on her balcony. The stars are out.
Will points a questioning finger toward the sky, or whatever it is. The faraway curve of the dome.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” she recites, slowly, with a smile.
He grins back at her, and they keep staring at one another until the grins fade away, replaced by something else.
She drains her glass and stands up, moves beyond the sliding door and into the dark shadows of her bedroom. She might have been retiring for the evening but she hadn’t said a word either way, and so Will stays put, watches her from the other side of the glass.
He watches her grasp the hem of her sweater with both hands and pull it up over her head, dark hair tumbling down her bare back. His heart beats faster.
“I’m actually tired for once,” she laughs a few moments later from the other side of the cracked bathroom door.
Will steps in from the balcony and hovers a little inside her bedroom. If he tilted his head, he could see her reflection in the mirror, perfectly centered by the angle of the open door. But he doesn’t, even though he knows that Helen Magnus does nothing accidentally, including leaving a door cracked.
“Blame the wine and the company,” he calls to her as he leaves. “And maybe the fact that finally, we’re calling all our own shots.”
“I’ll do that,” she calls back, and he can hear the smile in her voice.
He’s seen that look before, the one she’s fixing him with now. He’s seen it miles beneath the surface of the earth in a labyrinthine cave system running heavy with magic water, in the moment before she kissed his cheek and told him she’d be back, she wasn’t leaving him because it wasn’t an option.
For a while, after the rubble of the Old City Sanctuary had been cleared away, he’d driven himself crazy trying to figure out what that look meant. Had she been saying goodbye?
He’s got a chance to ask her, now.
“What are you thinking?”
The look slips away as her eyes grow thoughtful.
“Not a thought,” she says. “A feeling.”
He watches her patiently.
“A heaviness, right here.” She touches her chest. Glances out at the pond. “And my hands feel hot, impatient.”
It’s not really an answer, so he asks again.
She smiles and bows into herself like she knows she’s been caught. It’s the first question she’s tried to dodge since he came here.
“You gave me that look once before, down in the caves,” he says. “And then you kissed me.”
She isn’t coy; Helen Magnus is rarely coy. She is far too poised to ever pull off coy, but right now she’s close to it and it is coming off far more devastating than it would have on any other woman.
“I think you’ve just answered your own question, Will.”
He’s never been more grateful to have survived that day.
She’s crying and the tears are hot and wet against his skin.
“You know what I think?” Will says. He threads his fingers into her hair as she presses her forehead to his shoulder. “I think you’ve been holding all this weight for so long that now, as you’re allowing yourself to pass some of it off to someone else, it’s bringing old wounds back to the surface. Wounds hurt as they heal. But they are healing.”
There was another night a lot like this one months ago when he’d been the one crying. So much had happened over the last year, over the last four years, over the last thirty four years, and he’d just fallen apart.
Her hands had been warm and steady and ever-roaming against his body, like that breeze on her balcony. He wondered if this is what it had felt like back when he was a kid, after his mother was killed. If she’d held him in the same way, so he asked her.
“Yes and no,” she’d said. “This time, I know that I’ve caused some of this pain. I never meant it, Will. There was so much at stake. I hope you understand that now.”
She’d done so many hard things in her long life, over and over again. She’d do many more. Will had promised himself that he’d start remembering this, that he’d remind himself when his perspective became too narrow. He mattered to her, he mattered to this work, and he knew it, and that was enough.
“I told you that you were never part of some grander plan,” she said. “But I was praying you’d be part of this one. The catch was that it had to be your choice, just like was at the beginning. I had to have faith that you’d continue to trust me.”
Her thumb slid down his cheek, and the tears stopped coming.
That was the moment he knew everything would be okay.
“You know what I think?” She asks, after she’s stopped crying and they’ve been holding onto each other in silence for minutes, or hours.
“I think you haven’t been my protégé in quite some time.”
She kisses him, and her mouth is the most delicious thing he’s ever tasted.
The Sanctuary is bustling. It’s hard to go back up to the surface and see the turmoil because below, the world thrives.
It’s like living in the tropics. There are co-op gardens and everything is fertile all the time. Abnormals come from the surface and they are expecting another Hollow Earth, but it’s not that. It’s so much more now. It’s whatever they want it to be.
For the foreseeable future, Magnus lets everyone she used to know (save a handful of people; Henry and Kate and the Big Guy are all here, and Nikola visits more often than Will thinks is strictly necessary) believe she’s dead and Will operates as the Sanctuary head above ground, at least until what’s left of the network is choked out by Addison and whoever he works for on any given day (which, of course, will not matter in the slightest, but Will is going to put on a great show for them when the time comes).
It’ll stay this way long after Will’s gone, he’s sure of it, but he’s giving the rest of his life to Helen Magnus to do with as she pleases.
Helen is still as stubborn as ever, but they’re partners now. They share that palatial office and they share her bed. There is something seamless about the transition, something that makes him feel like it was always going to happen this way, eventually. He wakes up most days tangled with her in those mint colored sheets. She still has the final say on everything that happens around here, but he finds that any argument they run into turns irrelevant pretty quickly when he’s buried deep inside of her and she’s rocking her hips against him, always meeting him halfway, slow and deliberate and deep, breathing out his name over and over and over again.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe she’s his, too. One day, he watches Nikola kiss her cheek in the gardens. She slips her hand into his and laughs and there’s something there he will never, ever understand. He watches them and he can’t see anything in color anymore, just flashes of black and red that spark and spit and blind his vision.
He’s calmed down by that evening, but he still holds her hips too hard as he thrusts in and out.
She isn’t fooled. When he finishes she holds him against her for a moment but then she pushes him away, stands and drapes her robe over herself and leaves the room.
Will doesn’t understand what’s happening, and he’s even more bewildered when she returns with Nikola in tow.
“Nikola, darling. Would you mind repeating to William what I told you earlier, in the garden?”
Nikola rolls his eyes. It’s nearly midnight but he’s still in his suit and vest. “Helen, my dignity.”
Tesla sighs. “She’s in love with you, William. I know, I know,” he says, obviously mistaking the look on Will’s face for something it most certainly is not. “I don’t understand it, either, but Helen has never been one to choose the sensible option in any given situation. It doesn’t mean she won’t realize her mistake farther down the line.” He turns to Magnus, grumpily. “He’s a child, Helen, I mean really.”
Helen folds her arms and sets her jaw. “This is my bed, and Will is the only person allowed in it at this time. Do I make myself clear?” She’s looking directly at Will even though it would seem she is speaking to Nikola. It’s only slightly confusing but by the end of the next sentence, Will understands completely. “Because I will not be repeating myself and I will not tolerate any adolescent bickering or petty jealousy. I am far too old for that.”
As soon as Tesla leaves, Will pushes her against the edge of the bed and drops to his knees. He spreads her thighs and kisses his way to the center. She pulls her hands through his hair.
“Satisfied?” She asks, breathy.
“Leap of faith, right?” He murmurs against her. “I trust you.”
“I always have,” he says later, breathing in and out slowly, nose buried in her hair.
“Mm,” she mumbles. Kisses his fingertips. Tomorrow is a busy day, they probably won’t see each other for all the work to be done. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed since everything else did. “Good. I spent a century counting on it.”