Word Count: 2,062
Disclaimer: John owns me. I own nothing.
A/N: Aside from filling me with giddy pride at having actually finished a fic after ten years in fandom, this serves no real purpose. It's certainly not where I ever imagined my fic-writing career would begin. But here we are. I guess it owes something to the phone conversation between Jack Bristow and Dr Danny in Alias 1x01, even though a) I've only watched it once, and that was five years ago, and b) it has nothing to do with anything. I myself owe a great deal to grav_ity, who was brave enough to read this and made me brave enough to post it. She also came up with the title.
By anyone’s measure, John's audience with Gregory Magnus requesting permission to ask for his only daughter's hand in marriage could not have got off to a less auspicious start.
(Well, almost anyone’s. "Oh, you do exaggerate," Helen chided him, when he woefully recounted the tale after their engagement had been announced. "What if you had set him on fire? Surely that would have been worse." Pointless as it was to rail against such unassailable logic, John was forced to agree, but maintained that it was a near thing.)
He arrived several minutes late, looking hopelessly dishevelled and dripping rain all over Gregory's carpet. Gregory seemed to accept his repeated apologies in the spirit in which they were offered.
After John had dried off as best he could with a towel brought by the maid, he and Gregory settled in the drawing room and brandy was poured.
John could not recall being so nervous since the first time he had asked Helen to walk out with him. Helen, though, was possessed of a natural, relaxed charm that instantly put people at their ease. He could only assume she had inherited this trait from her mother.
He stumbled through several minutes of polite but stilted conversation about the progress of his studies. He even summoned the wherewithal to enquire about Gregory's most recent advancements at the Sanctuary, informed by Helen's frequent updates. (John would never tire of the gleam in her eyes, the breathless excitement in her voice as she recounted every detail of some new discovery.)
But when Gregory cleared his throat after a minute of awkward silence and asked the reason for his visit, John's carefully prepared speech flew right out of his head.
"Well, Dr Magnus, I..."
Talking suddenly seemed like an exotic pursuit, something John had tried a few times in his youth but never quite got the thrust of.
"I came here to...I was hoping..."
"Yes?" said Gregory expectantly. He seemed to be on the verge of smirking.
"I want to marry your daughter." What it lacked in eloquence, it made up for in brevity.
Gregory's expression sobered. "I see."
"As you know, we have been...courting for some time now." With the air well and truly cleared by his outburst, words seemed to flow more easily, though John vaguely hoped he was not shouting. The roaring in his ears was making it difficult for him to hear himself talk. "I would like to ask Helen for her hand, and I came here to ask for your blessing."
Gregory remained silent, his expression unchanged. Clearly, he was expecting something. John would have gladly provided it, if only he knew what it was.
A crucial excerpt from his speech suddenly came back to him. "I will give her a good life." ("Will" had replaced "can" during one of his many revisions, on the grounds that it sounded more definitive.)
When Gregory still did not react, John felt compelled to somehow justify his existence, but nothing he had ever achieved seemed worth mentioning. His Winchester upper sixths cricketing trophy was probably not up to the task.
This meeting was, of course, merely a formality as far as John was concerned. One had to make certain concessions to the proper way of things. He was reasonably confident that Helen would accept his proposal, and even more confident that, if she did consent to marrying him, Gregory’s views would make no difference one way or the other. She willingly deferred to her father in matters of science, but affairs of the heart were her bailiwick and not open for discussion. But form was form, and he did not want to take any chances. He had no intention of whisking Helen away to Gretna Green as if their union was something of which they ought to be ashamed. More worryingly, he was well aware of the damage that could be inflicted on his person by some of the creatures Gregory had at his disposal.
In any event, Gregory was not the only issue. The Five, not being the most common or inconspicuous crowd at Oxford, were already the subject of more than their share of speculation around the town, and people needed very little provocation to draw the most far-fetched and startling conclusions. At the very least, they would assume she was pregnant. As much as John's insides did a pleasant little dance every time that image crossed his mind, it was not something they had yet talked about, and he would never allow his flights of fancy to undermine Helen's reputation.
No, this audience with Gregory had had to be borne. For Helen's sake. Anything for Helen's sake.
John was just beginning to question his mettle’s capacity to keep pace with his good intentions when Gregory finally, mercifully, broke the silence.
"I assume you are aware that my opinion is of no practical consequence, that Helen will marry you or not, as she chooses, regardless of anything I have to say."
John inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. At least Gregory was under no illusions. Still, there was a right way and an emphatically wrong way to respond.
“Of course, we would both much prefer to proceed with you on our side, sir.”
Gregory gave a short nod, apparently in approval. John felt as though he had just passed some kind of test.
"You may also be aware that I believe Dr Watson would be a far better match for my daughter."
John barely managed to choke back a bitter laugh. Yes, he was aware. Painfully aware. It was difficult to find a person who knew all three of them and did not hold with this opinion. Lord knows James did, try as he might to hide it. Even John, in his most brutally honest, Lagavulin-fuelled moments of self-reflection, had privately conceded the point more than once. In fact, the only person who did not seem to think that Helen would be better off with James was Helen herself. (And Tesla, of course. But Tesla had ideas all his own, most of which were best left unmentioned in any situation.)
“James Watson is a fine man. My dearest friend." The words were the honest truth, but the smile that accompanied them was somewhat forced.
Gregory raised his eyebrows briefly, clearly hopeful of something more colourful, but John refused to be drawn.
With that out of his system, Gregory turned to a more routine line of questioning, and John at last felt himself gaining a foothold. There were questions of income, housing, future career aspirations, nothing that caught him unprepared. Yes, his present funds were sufficient for them both to live comfortably. Yes, he wanted children. Yes, of course he wanted Helen to continue her work, for as long as she wished in whichever capacity she chose.
But Gregory had, of course, been saving the best for last.
“Do you love her?”
John felt a considerable amount of consternation could have been avoided on both sides if the exchange had only begun and ended with this question. After all, his world began and ended with its answer. He knew it more surely then he knew his own name. When he looked at Helen, it was all he knew.
"More than my own life."
There was a long moment's pause while Gregory searched John's eyes for something - shame, doubt, artifice, perhaps some combination of the three, something intangible that only the widowed father of a headstrong daughter would ever think to look for. Emboldened by the strength of his own convictions, John did not flinch under the scrutiny. He knew what he said was true, and if Gregory could not see it, then...by God, I hope he sees it.
After what felt like days to John, the interrogatory scowl slowly faded from Gregory's countenance, leaving no particular expression in its place. He certainly did not jump to his feet to shake John's hand with a warm smile and a "Welcome to the family, dear chap!" He took a leisurely sip of his brandy, seeming determined to remain enigmatic for as long as possible. John's heart sank. He had known from the outset that he was not Gregory's first choice, but still, he had been hopeful. He reminded himself again that this meeting was nothing more than a token gesture of propriety, the outcome of which would have no effect on his relationship with Helen one way or the other. It brought him little comfort.
As the days of silence lengthened into weeks, John was suddenly gripped by panic over how to respond to the refusal he was by now certain of receiving. To affect cowed acceptance would be disingenuous, but honesty would be unforgivably rude. What, then, to say? And how to tell Helen? She may be wilful, but surely she would still be hurt by her father’s reaction? Perhaps she would be affronted that John had sought Gregory’s approval at all? This was, of course, assuming she had any intention of saying yes. Oh, Christ, what if she says no?
Through a fog of indecision, John became vaguely aware that Gregory was at last opening his mouth to speak again. Forcibly dragging himself back to the present without having reached any firm conclusions, John composed himself and braced for the worst.
It was with no small amount of surprise, then - rather, with something akin to the sensation John had always imagined one might experience immediately prior to taking a fit - that he found himself listening to Gregory Magnus's blessing.
“Druitt, I will not pretend that you are the man I would have chosen for Helen if it were up to me, but you’re a decent sort, and I know you care for her. And, of course, it is not up to me. Nor should it be. I’m not marrying you, after all.”
John felt as though he were viewing his own life through the wrong end of a telescope. “N-no. Quite.”
“Helen is the most important thing in my life, and I’m not stubborn enough to risk losing her over this. She has a good head on her shoulders, and if she believes you’re the man for her, then I shan’t be the one to argue with her. You have my blessing.”
John knew there was something he should be saying. He fought to marshall his wits. Of course, that was it.
“Thank you, Dr Magnus. Really, thank you. You have no idea what that means to me. To both of us.”
Gregory smiled then, and John answered with a wide, honest smile of his own. He felt a great weight leave his shoulders.
“I appreciate you coming to me about this,” Gregory said.
“I would never risk Helen’s good name by doing otherwise, sir.”
“No, I see that. I also appreciate you not taking me for a fool.”
“Any man who did would surely only do so once, sir.”
Gregory laughed warmly. “You might have got to the point more quickly, though. When we started talking about the schematics for the new infirmary, I thought you might have lost your nerve.
John must have looked nonplussed.
"Druitt, I've known your intentions since the moment you asked to meet with me. I gathered this day would come sooner or later, and you're not in the habit of popping round for tea and biscuits."
"No. No, of course." Life with this one for a father-in-law was going to be a rare treat.
The rest of the conversation passed in a haze of ecstatic relief for John. Gregory wanted to meet John's father, and there was something about carnations at the ceremony because Helen's mother had loved them. John could still hardly believe his luck, and he was eager to make his escape and propose to Helen before something prompted Gregory to change his mind.
They shook hands as John prepared to take his leave, and Gregory's expression became serious once more. "Look, I know the two of you are going to go ahead and do whatever suits you. I would only ask that, whatever promise you make to her, you keep it."
At the time, it seemed the easiest request in the world to honour. As easy as breathing. "I will, sir."
Well, I did try, John would muse bitterly countless times over the ensuing century. Surely that ought to count for something.