Icy rain pelted down from the dark fathomless heavens, drenching the earth and frosting the breath of the soldiers settling down for the night.
But James could barely register the chill—his body burned yet from the abuse it had suffered at the hands of first John, then Korba. Helen had tended to him some time ago, before accepting his reassurances and finally going to check on the soldiers who'd survived the assault on the bunker.
She'd told him to stay put and rest, but she should've returned by now. His concern had spurred him out into the elements in search of her. Perhaps, a few days earlier, he wouldn't have given her delay a second thought. But not now, not with his nerves and constitution the way it was—not after coming face to face with John.
He found her away from the others, but still within the perimeter the soldiers had established. She was alone, half-leaning and half-sitting on a craggy boulder. She was facing away from the heart of their camp, but rather than looking out into the forest, her head was bowed.
Slender hands rested atop her lap, her shoulders were slumped, and her newly darkened hair spilled down over her neck, hiding her features from his view.
James knew something was wrong even then, and his suspicions were confirmed when she did not look up at his approach. She heard him, no doubt—his heavy limp ensured his lack of stealth. But she didn't look at him even when he knelt as best he could in front of her.
Her hair, now short in front, was plastered to her forehead beneath her beret. In the dark, her eyes were shadowed and stormy—but undeniably and heartrendingly devastated.
He was the loss that had brought them both together, and the one thing they never spoke of. James had tried, certainly, in the months following the revelation of John's activities in Whitechapel. She'd grown so cold, so withdrawn, that James had feared for her. And then Gregory had disappeared—another love that had been torn from her already shattered heart.
If not for her work, the Sanctuary, James suspected she would not have survived those frozen years.
She'd recovered some, in the decades that followed, but it wasn't until they were in the thick of the Great War that something changed. She'd returned from the front softer, healed, and she'd let James get close again. This time, she let him get closer than he'd ever dreamed.
He was blessed, he knew, that she had bestowed him the honor of intimacy, but he held no illusions that she was unaffected by John's abrupt reemergence in their lives. James himself certainly wasn't, and he hadn't been the one betrothed to the man, once upon a time.
He'd meant his voice to act as a comfort, but instead of bolstering her, it seemed to cut through the last of her control. Her lips quivered, then parted to suck in a lungful of air, the slight sound almost a hiccup from the effort of keeping calm. Her hand came up to cover her eyes, but it didn't matter. James knew the watery rivulets dripping down her cheeks were not from the rain alone.
"I'm sorry," he murmured, his hands reaching out to tentatively skim the top of her knees. He wanted to take her hand, but feared in his heart of hearts that she might refuse him.
His words were not an apology—if it were, he didn't know what for. He wasn't the cause of her distress. John held that singular pleasure. And if there was fault to be found in being the one to have slid into John's place in her bed, he would not apologize for it. She'd needed him, and he'd needed her. Together, they'd fulfilled the need for intimacy they'd denied themselves for too long.
But now he was faced with the possibility of her pushing him away again, cutting him out of the life they'd somehow created from the ruins of an unspoken history. And the thought of returning to the way things used to be—of being denied access to this veritable goddess of a woman—terrified him.
Almost as if she'd heard his thoughts, a cold hand reached out and cupped his cheek. A surprisingly calloused fingertip brushed across his skin, rubbing the rain away with a touch that seared his soul. He looked up again, and this time blue eyes looked back at him undauntedly.
They were too calm, too careful to be a good sign—she was suppressing everything, as she did so well. But she wasn't banishing him just yet.
"I'm the one who's sorry, darling," she told him gently, her voice schooled even through the pounding rain. "You shouldn't be out here—and you certainly shouldn't be kneeling with your leg the way it is."
She stood, and wound his arm over her shoulders to help lever him back onto his feet.
"Come now," she continued, her voice melodic. "Let's get you back under some better cover." She began to guide him back to the old hunting blind they'd found, and were using to house the worst of the wounded.
James went along without protest for half a moment, before he stopped on a dime and turned to face her, cupping her shoulders with both hands. His lips parted to speak, but the shadow that flickered over her gaze the instant he turned gave him pause.
She didn't want to talk about it. Not here, when they should both be as objective and professional as possible, if they had any desire to return to England by any means other than a body bag.
But James needed the opposite; he needed to talk about it, rationalize it… To hear from her lips that she doesn't hate him for trying to fill the void that John left in her heart.
"I love you, Helen."
The words were not what he'd intended at all—they slipped out before he even realized the voice was his. They'd never said those words, beyond the half-joking deliverance of them in the loose calm after a round of coital passion.
They had the pet names: sweetheart, darling, love… But it was never said so directly, or so forcefully. He hadn't, because he didn't want to make more out of it than what she seemed to want from him. He figured that she found the utterance far too vulnerable.
But the moment he said them he knew that he meant them. He could feel it, deep in the pit of his chest, beneath the metal machinery and plastic tubing that slowly sucked away all that kept him human. No matter the reason, or the cause, they'd come together, he knew that he loved her with all his heart.
Blue eyes blinked in shock at him through the rain. He'd floored her, and the wry part of his brain noted that he'd for once managed to render Helen Magnus speechless. But then the tension seemed to evaporate from her features along with the rush of air she released; a breath neither of them had realized she'd been holding.
And then the next thing he knew, frozen hands were framing his face, and icy lips pressed against his own. He tasted the salt of her tears, but was surprised when he felt those lips curl into a tremulous smile. She didn't pull away for a long moment; when she did, she pressed up against him, her arms encircling him in as fierce an embrace her shivering frame could deliver.
Her face buried into the crook of his neck, and he felt her nod against him, deliberately at first, and then more rapidly as she began to tremble once more, though from emotion or the cold, he wasn't sure. She clutched him tightly, and she continued to nod… But she didn't say it in return.
He waited long moments for her to utter those words he so desperately needed to hear, but when none were forthcoming, he pulled back, just enough to look her in the eye. Her blue eyes, usually so sharp and collected, were clouded with guilt, but she continued to nod.
Slowly, he realized that the motion was not the rejection he feared. Meeting her gaze, he could see she wanted to say the words, to return the sentiment that had so unexpectedly slipped from his tongue. She was trying, he knew—that's what the nodding was. And her jaw twitched, as though she was trying to speak, but something kept her mouth latched firmly shut. Her fear, her vulnerability, was nearly tangible.
And with that realization came a rush of relief. He would not always be in her life, he knew as a near certainty; the plate on his chest was a very real reminder that he would soon be more machine than man in the years to come, if he lasted much longer.
But she would always be in his, and that was more than enough.
Without a word, he pulled her close once more, wrapping his arms around her shoulders and bringing her close to his chest. Her head buried itself in his shoulder, and he felt a sob wrack her exhausted body.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, her voice breathless in his ear. "I'm so sorry—"
"No," he countered firmly, his voice rumbling through the both of them. "I know…"
And he did.
John had betrayed them both, and his reappearance—wearing the colors of the Reich, no less—had shaken them. John loved Helen, and Helen still loved him, no matter how damaging it was to her mind and soul. They were magnetic; polar opposites in a constant state of attraction.
John would show up again, James had no doubt. Then they would all stare history in the face once more. And when John disappeared yet again, James and Helen would be left to pick up the pieces.
But for now, they had each other. Together, they embraced the future.