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Thy Own Life's Key

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Will comes home from his date drunk and maudlin. Helen assumes he was looking for Kate or Henry, who would be far better able to appreciate his lamentations about how difficult the job made it to get to know women. Instead, he stumbled into her office and elected, in his inebriated state, to share his concerns with his employer.

“It’s not only that I miss Clara, though that’s part of it, definitely. It’s just—the hours suck, Magnus, and I can’t tell anyone about what I do, and even if I could, no one would believe me.”

She remembers the thrill of bringing people into this world, of introducing James to the wonders of her father’s laboratory, his scientific curiosity and his surprise carrying him through the rooms that held creatures only heard of in mythic tales. Nikola had been more subtle in his enthusiasm, inquiring—seriously, Helen realized quite some time later—about the potential for developing markets for vampires, trolls, and ogres.

Helen nods as Will falls onto the couch. “It’s not like everybody would just get it, I get that. But it would be nice to be able to share some of this with somebody.” His eyes widen, then narrow. “I mean, not that you’re not great.”

She lets herself smile as Will drops his head onto the back of the couch. He’s not wrong, though Helen would never tell him as much. For a little while, she shared the wonder with her father. And then, much later, she shared it with her daughter.

But that is not what Will means, nor what he seeks. Perhaps Helen could have taken up with James—well, she did take up with James, but periodic flings with a friend, no matter how comforting, could never be that which Will, in all his haze, is implying.

Not at all.

Will wants a companion. Someone with whom he can share his fears and his concerns and his joys and all those romantic notions that young men have when they are newly in love. Someone he can shower with flowers and compliments—though Helen suspects that might not be Will’s style, or, if it was, such gestures went out of vogue with the Great War.

Will wants someone he can complain to about his crazy boss, who does whatever she wants with no concern for her safety. Someone who will be able to sympathize because she understands, having met the lady that drives Will around the bend.

It may not be possible for him to remain Helen’s protégé and also find the things he’s so obviously seeking.

Perhaps the Sanctuary should open its doors to—whom? They don’t need more staff, and Helen knows how challenging it can be to find people willing to work with a Bigfoot, let alone a mass murderer or Kate.

Or Helen herself. Helen, who shares her fears and her concerns with the night, alone in her office, not missing—no, never missing—those moments, so long ago, when she could rail to someone who understood her, to complain about Adam’s impertinence or her father’s insistence on propriety or the surgery that took three hours and left her covered in purple goo.

Those moments, here and there in memory, mostly there on the Thames or the Cherwell, beside the river or on it, laughing a day away with a picnic or a poem.

There, circumventing propriety and stealing away, John’s fingers slowly tugging at her corset strings as she groaned in frustration because he would not go any faster, damnable man.

John, no scientist, who had been curious about the wonders hidden in her father’s basement, but more curious about Helen. John, with his lofty romantic notions about a little house and a family and abnormals in the basement.

“But seriously,” Will says, startling Helen, “who could possibly handle all this? We have a mermaid downstairs. And let’s not forget the alcoholic magnet man.”

A mermaid who has been Helen’s friend and confidante. A former vampire bent on world domination who has been an intellectual equal and partner.

Helen isn’t sure she knows how to make human friends. She takes human lovers, men who are not so put off by her age and attitudes that they can’t enjoy her company for a weekend or a few years. Nothing that lasts.

She thinks about suggesting that Will find a nice abnormal girl to settle down with, but Will tried that with Clara. And he would remember such a comment in the morning, come in scrubbing his hands through his hair, muddy-headed but sure, sure that Helen Magnus had simply dismissed the death of someone he loved.

Which is not the case, of course.

She would like to tell him that, after two lifetimes of watching friends and lovers and family die, she can shrug off loss as if it were nothing. Pretend that it didn’t hurt to lose James or her father or Nigel or anyone else. Wipe away those bitter, terrible days after Ashley, because after a century and a half of death, one more doesn’t matter at all.

Helen cannot tell Will such a lie. But nor can she tell him the truth: that after so long, she has learned to take her comfort where she can find it, to find friends among the few who will not judge her. Will would find that dismissive, she knows; surely Nikola’s faults, John’s faults, make them both unsuitable acquaintances.

A megalomaniac. A mass murderer. A mermaid.

Nothing else lasts, because Helen will outlive the rest.

Once, she gave her heart to a man who overflowed with romantic gestures, poetry and laughter. Gentle hands against her skin, giving her his lips, his body, his heart, his life. He would kill for her, die for her. He would give up his sanity, his humanity, in the name of Helen Magnus.

And unlike so many others, he is here. Broken and angry and dangerous, but present.

Beside her friend, a man bent on removing all vestiges of his humanity, because the thought of dying without discovering the great secrets of the universe is unfathomable. Because somehow, he has not yet left a legacy great enough for his ego.

They are all that remains.

She wishes sometimes, almost never, that she could go back and keep them from using the source blood. Let Nikola be a mad scientist in his own right, let James die in obscurity, never the inspiration for anything other than kind affection. Let John be a mediocre barrister and a stern father and a gentle husband.

Let Ashley be a child of the late Victorian era, with her hair in curlers and her body in corsets and dresses, schooled in Latin at her grandfather’s knee. With her intellect from her mother and her kindness from her father.

Her intellect from her mother, her violence from her father.

No, Helen doesn’t want to share her fears or concerns or romantic notions. Such optimism is for the young, and Helen hasn’t been young in a very long time.

She wants to sit with someone who knows her well enough not to say anything at all. To let her take in the empty spaces where people should be, to understand the loss.

She doesn’t know who else could handle it all, the mermaids and the two-faced men, the demons who steal children and souls. Will, without an ounce of abnormal blood in him, has found a place here. Perhaps he will stumble across someone to share it with, if he is willing to make the effort, to be surprised by his choices.

Helen rises, and Will doesn’t move. He will wake tomorrow to find that gentle hands have carried him to his bed, that the morning meeting has been pushed back out of respect for his fatigue. He will not know that his boss stood by as he slept, watching over him like the child he is, wondering how long he will choose to occupy this space.

***