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Brief Harbor
A bit of Sanctuary fic, set in the immediate aftermath of John's unmasking.  Warnings for discussion of abortion and, of course, Jack the Ripper. 

It wasn’t late by James's standards, especially not these days, but it was late for anyone with pretensions to respectability — though Helen had always scorned convention.  He poured a second glass of brandy for her, noting the pinched face, the thin gloves, and reached for the bell.  His manservant appeared after an interval only barely decent, eyebrows just slightly elevated above his bristling ex-grenadier moustache. 

“Hudson,” James said.  “Ask Emily to find a late supper for Dr. Magnus.  It doesn’t need to be fancy, but — something hot.  Soup, perhaps?”

“Yes, Doctor.”  Hudson withdrew in majestic silence, and Helen looked up from her place on the sofa.

“I’m not really — well, no, actually I am hungry.”

“I’m not surprised,” James said.  “You haven’t eaten since your breakfast in Cambridge.”

She didn’t ask, just nodded, and knocked back the brandy in a single swallow.  James refilled her glass, noting further signs of her disquiet:   frayed gloves, silk stockings above practical boots, her hair pulled tighter and smoother than her habit.  God knew they both had cause to be unquiet, after John, but this was more —

She looked up then, as though she had sensed his thoughts, and gave a rather wry smile.  “I’m also in trouble.”

James did blink at that.  It made sense of half a dozen physical changes he had noted and filed provisionally as facts as yet without explanation.  “In the, ah, colloquial sense, I see.”

She inclined her head, regal as ever.  “Exactly.”

He didn’t ask who the father was.  He didn’t need to, not if she was here on his doorstep.  If it were not John’s child, the matter would be simpler, though not entirely easy:  marriage, followed if necessary by a polite separation.  Helen Magnus could carry that off without a blink.  But, John’s child….  A trip to the continent, perhaps, and a discreet sanitarium.  He could certainly find a suitable couple to take the child, though he could not easily imagine her giving it up completely.  But she could be an aunt, or a godmother, and the adoptive parents would fear her influence, no matter what she did.  Or Helen Magnus could vanish, and a golden-haired widow could arrive from — America?  the Antipodes? — eager to bear her child in her late husband’s homeland.  He could arrange for that, too, but it would cost her her life’s work, and he definitely could not imagine that, didn’t want to imagine it.  Or — he was a doctor, capable of performing the small operation that was required.  Yes, from her stance, the way she held herself against the warm velvet, that was her decision, and he took a swallow of the brandy.

“How far along are you?”

She met his gaze squarely.  “Seven weeks.”

Seven weeks.  Yes, it could be done safely still, even by someone who had never planned to practice gynecology.  Though John had taught him more about female anatomy than he had ever hoped to know….

“Very well,” he began, and the door opened to admit Hudson and his young wife.  She carried a tray, which she set on the table, and Hudson produced a bottle of claret.  James nodded at it, and the ex-soldier worked the corkscrew while his wife laid the table.

“There’s soup and a chop,” she said, “which I hope will be enough.  And a bit of bread and cheese for after.”

James nodded again, and Helen dredged up a smile from somewhere.

“Thank you.”

“Will that be all, sir?” Hudson asked.

“Yes,” James said.  “We’ll wait on ourselves.  Oh, and Dr. Magnus will be staying the night.”

“Very good, sir,” Hudson said, without a blush, and he and his wife disappeared down the stairs.

Helen gave him a look of weary amusement.  “I will destroy your reputation, James. I’m sorry.”

“I never had one worth mentioning,” James answered.  “In any case, if Sherlock Holmes can have ‘The Woman,’ I can — admire — Helen Magnus.”

“That was almost gallant,” Helen said.  “Thank you.”

She pushed herself to her feet and started for the table.  James pulled out her chair, poured wine for both of them — she had finished her second brandy, too, he noted — and seated himself opposite.  After the first hesitant bites, she ate eagerly, and he was pleased to see that she still had a good appetite.

“That’s delicious,” she said, somewhat indistinctly, and he smiled.

“Mrs. Hudson is an excellent cook.”

“I suppose you know why I’m here.”

“You want to terminate the pregnancy,” James said.

Helen blinked.  “No.”

James’s eyebrows rose.  “Then I can’t — I really can’t imagine.”

“You’re not wrong,” she said hastily, and there was a flash of mischief in her eyes. “It’s just — I have another idea.”

“Of course,” James said, and returned her smile.  This was why he loved Helen, that indomitable spirit.  She would neither bend nor break, but would always find another path.  Another woman, unmarried, pregnant, the father of her child the most dreaded murderer of the century — well, he’d seen what other women did, facing lesser dilemmas.  Most sat in his consulting room and wept; one in twenty spat and raged; one in fifty struggled to find options they could weigh.  And Helen — Helen made her options.  “What had you in mind?”

Helen gestured with her fork.  She had finished the soup, was now dissecting the chop.  “The plans are in my case.”

James rose to fetch the leather portfolio, too plain and worn to be entirely suitable for a lady.  He brought it back to the table, opened it to reveal a sheaf of what looked like engineers’ plans.  But the writing was Helen’s, and he unfolded them, moving books and dishes so that he could lay them flat.

“Start with that one,” Helen said.

James pinned two corners with the salt cellar and a volume of Blackstone, and pulled out his magnifying glass.  It seemed at first glance to be a plan for some kind of Dewar flask, except that the flask’s central volume had been adapted for the storage of living tissue.  “You’re not serious.”

“Never more so,” Helen answered.

“Do you actually think you can freeze the embryo?” James asked.  “And — what, thaw it and carry it to term at some future date?”


Oh, Helen.  He swallowed the words, since he had no right to them, and doubted they would do any good in any case.  Of course she would try to temporize, to put off the decision by whatever means possible.  And the choices were cruel:  bear the child and give it up, or give up your life instead.  Bear the child of the man you loved, who turned out to be a madman and a murderer, or let it die, the last good thing John Druitt might ever have the chance to make.  Impossible choices, and every one of them would cost some terrible piece of her self, her soul.  No one, least of all Helen, should have to pay that price.

She had taken his silence for doubt, was watching him with a slight frown creasing her forehead. “You will help me?”

“Yes, of course.”  James looked at the plans again.  “Have you tried it?  At the Sanctuary, I mean.”

“The theory is sound,” Helen answered.  “But we haven’t had any actual successes.”

“What was the problem?” James asked, and flipped to the second page of plans.

“The freezing process,” Helen said. “As you’d expect.  If ice crystals grow beyond a certain size, they damage the cell walls and the tissue dies when it thaws.  Father and I were working with various liquids that lowered the freezing point, but most of them were cytotoxic, and we haven’t yet found the right volume to use.  However….” 

She carried her plates to the sideboard, came back and poured them each another glass of claret.  “The more I considered the problem, the more I thought we might be going at it backwards.  If we freeze the tissue very slowly, allowing the water to evaporate naturally, then I believe we can avoid cellular damage.” 

Just for an instant her hand flattened against her stays, just below her fashionable belt.  She wants the child, James thought, or at least she doesn’t want to cause its death.  John’s child.

“That’s what this device is for,” she went on briskly, “and I’ve worked out the timing already.”

James nodded slowly, studying the drawing.  “I — we — can certainly build that.”

“In less than two weeks,” Helen said.  “There are certain time constraints involved.”

“Yes,” James said.  “It can be done.”  He flipped back to the first page, the modified Dewar flask.  “And this completes the freezing process?”

“Yes.”   Helen took another sip of wine.  “That’s what I went to Cambridge for, to arrange for the liquid nitrogen.”

It might work, James thought, and if nothing else, it spares Helen the knowledge that she chose to kill the possibility of the child, her child and John’s.  That alone is worth trying.  He reached for a pad of paper and began to jot calculations. 

They finished the bottle of wine as the clock struck one, stood looking one last time at the plans and the sheaf of James’s notes, and then Helen yawned as though it had taken her by surprise.

“I’m sorry —”

“No, no.”  James looked around the cluttered room as though he might find something useful there.  “I’m afraid, however, that I don’t actually have a spare bedroom.”

“And I’m afraid,” Helen said softly, “that I don’t want to sleep alone.”

They lay chastely in each other’s arms that night, too tired to do more than take comfort in each other’s warmth, and woke to make love in the dull light of a London fog.  James had no French letters, of course, but when he would have pulled away, she laughed softly and held him tight.

“I can’t get pregnant twice,” she said, and he obeyed her wishes.  And then there was only the plan, her devices to build and the cottage to rent — I will not sacrifice my sheets, he said, only half in jest, and Helen had laughed and agreed.  And finally it was done, the modified Dewar flask sealed and chilled to its final temperature, and James was sure he’d heard the last of it.

When he received the birth announcement — old-fashioned engraving, no pink-or-blue nonsense — he was still amazed it worked.  But that was Helen:  the world gave way, in the end.  He bought a dozen of the best port he could find, to be laid down until Ashley came of age, and dispatched it to  the Sanctuary.  With it, he sent a single bottle of the 1889 Quinta, bottled in the year of Ashley’s conception, and opened its twin himself.  It had aged well, too, and he lifted a glass to the west in silent appreciation.

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Oh! They are very, very dear. Sometimes.

ETA: More thoughts on re-reading in the morning -- I love the calm way they deal with this insane situation, and the genuine strength of their friendship. They are very likable mad scientists.

Edited at 2010-11-19 01:40 pm (UTC)

Thank you! I think once you've become one of the Five, pretty much all you can do is deal with the insanity. And both Helen and James are definitely in the mad science category - she probably could have used Nikola's help, actually, to set up the power source, but didn't want to deal with the inevitable drama. Though I'd bet she got help from him eventually, to come up with a truly reliable power source....

Dear James. He doesn't think it will work, but he helps anyway. And what's the harm in trying? Might as well, and it makes Helen feel better.

This works because of James' very dry tone, of his lack of emotion about this. Of what he doesn't say.

And I love the birth announcement, old fashioned engraving. That's so Helen. As is James' gift.

This is hurty, but so good!

Thank you! I suspect James was never precisely demonstrative, and after John's betrayal, he's even less so. And he's never going to articulate his own feelings, especially not to himself. So he'll do it for Helen, and never say he doesn't think it will work.

No, because saying he doesn't think it will work is cruel. If she's escaping from that, what is the point in pointing it out?

Gallant, and definitely old-school!

Very, very old-school. I really do think John had a point about his being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

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Thanks! I love how utterly indomitable Helen is - I can see how it infuriates James at times (that line about her jumping off a cliff and expecting to sprout wings!) but when the chips are down, the two of them work so well together. And they do love each other, I think, even if they both desire John more.

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I think it was the Ripper who provided the object lessons....

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