Great Neptune's Ocean
Catherine Marino was indeed a Little Italy native, nineteen years old and still in the flush of youth. She hadn’t had a sick day since she'd started as a domestic servant at thirteen, and never come out in a rash. No one among the staff could vouch for any former medical history, or precedent for what had befallen her today, so Magnus had insisted that her mother be contacted, despite the Head Maid's reservations. She was due within the hour, and although she was going to ask the woman the same searching questions, Helen had a feeling that she already knew what the answers would be.
Tired, concern etched on her face, Helen brushed aside the lock of hair that had spread across the maid's forehead, and felt the clammy sweat of the fever which had broken out. Having stabilised Catherine, and finally convinced all involved to let the girl rest, she was left with the sinking suspicion that there was nothing more she could do now, except wait.
The door to the bedroom burst open, throwing a shaft of light into Helen's eyes that she hadn't been expecting, though she recognised the shadow well enough.
"Nikola? I thought you weren't coming back until dinner."
He shrugged, moving into the room and leaving the door ajar to see what, exactly, was in his bed, and confirm what he'd already overheard in the lobby.
"I couldn't get back into it – are you collecting patients now?" He asked, his expressive, directional finger doing something of a dance over the bed, "It's not the Sanctuary you know. My suite isn't a hospital for abnormal strays."
Despite the insincerity of his tone the words smarted a little: that disparagement he’d always expressed about her family's work, as if he thought it was beneath him… or her. She resented it, particularly when the Five had lived and breathed for the very knowledge which the Sanctuary continued to provide them with today.
Giving him her best hard stare Magnus pointed to Catherine's arm.
The girl had been dressed down to her undergarments when they were getting her into bed, and in so doing they had revealed a rather familiar looking bite. It glared back, swollen and raw, the same size, same shape, only this time located a little below the elbow. Another limb. Tesla looked at her inquisitively and she could tell he'd had the exact same thought. Another bite from a creature on the defensive, and another rather disturbing set of nerve-wracking symptoms. Only this time, at least, she hadn't run into an untimely death.
"I managed to convince her employers to allow me to tend to her. As I offered my services for free I can only presume they saw it as something of a bargain."
Tesla laughed humourlessly, shortly, "Has she deteriorated?"
She shook her head, "Stabilised, actually. I'm rather hopeful she might fight it off..."
"Whatever's in this bite," she sighed, shaking a little test tube with a swab inside just in front of her, "it might not leave much behind. I might be completely wrong, maybe it will start attacking her other organs over a longer period as well as her brain – but it is affecting her nervous system, and I'm not sure what the long-term damage may be if she manages to pull through."
"Like a snake bite."
"Yes, only instead of a speedy paralysis or organ failure, its causing acute head pain, followed by disorientation, convulsions, and then fever-like symptoms. So the question is; if she doesn't start to improve, how do we treat her?" Magnus looked towards her patient again, "I've already done what I can, and it will keep her within a fighting chance, but she needs to be kept under twenty-four hour observation until we can administer an antidote."
Tesla's eyebrows were high as he sighed a little, "So I guess that's Delmonico's out."
"I think this girl's life is a bit more important than an evening in a luxury restaurant Nikola – don't you?"
"Okay," he started defensively, "let's, just, take a moment… I wasn't-" her glare was unrelenting, "Look," he took the test tube from her hands, clearing his throat a little as he did, "how about, I go back to the lab to find out what this is, and then I'll take the later watch so you can catch some sleep?"
She eyed him suspiciously, "And you're just offering to do all that out of the kindness of your heart."
"What?" He shrugged innocently, a pretence he could never quite pull off for all the shiftiness in his eyes, and the slight glimmer of a grin that always ghosted his face whenever he felt clever. "I can't be altruistic?"
Magnus was losing the will to argue, if he wasn't going to be serious about all this anyway. She merely rubbed her eyes, "Fine. Just… be careful with it. We have no way of knowing how virulent it is, or whether it would affect you."
"So nice to know you care Helen," He jibed coyly.
"Don't let it go to your head," She managed a little more light heartedly, "If you start experimenting with that sample and it's not to create an antidote I swear…"
"Don't worry," he insisted, "you have my word. I will not look into the practical applications of this toxin, until we've figured out how best to cure it."
The shark-like grin was both trying and reassuring at the same time. She shook her head at him, remembering, rather suddenly that she'd taken the girl's blood sample as well. "Here," she leant over and retrieved it, placing it into his cold hands, "might be an idea to compare her sample to our first bite victim. And… thank you…" her voice grew softer, "for offering to help."
Tesla's heart had quickened at that temporary touch. He found himself lagging a little behind with the conversation, and had to take a moment to close his fingers round the second glass container, to return to reality. Bite sample, blood sample, find out the nature of the toxin. Right.
"If this turns out to be a garden variety snake…" he joked.
Magnus finally began to look a lot less grim, "Believe me, I will be the first to jump for joy."
"Liar," he pitched before leaving.
She watched him retreat with a knowing smile. He was right. It just wasn't the same when something had already been discovered. Nevertheless, she would have been glad of a chance to tell the girl's mother she could be treated and recover within the week – an infinitely more plausible situation if they knew the lay of the land. She checked the pulse again; vaguely aware that the wind was picking up from the metallic sounds whistling through the vents. She should have probably mentioned that to someone, she thought distantly to herself, remembering the sound she'd heard yesterday morning. There might be something loose and flapping about.
Making a quick note of Catherine's heart rate and temperature in a notepad, Helen settled back into her seat and tried to keep her eyes open. The mother would be here soon, and if that scraping, clunking noise carried on nagging at her consciousness like it was, she might just manage to greet her with some kind of alertness.
Frustrated, Magnus actively barged her way into the next room, ignoring the hapless servant trying to bar her from the first class suite, and suddenly recognising the occupant was none other than Margaret Brown.
"Mrs Brown," she addressed the long faced woman, "get dressed, quickly, we need to evacuate the ship."
Helen grimaced, "Please, we don't have time to argue. The ship is sinking. They're readying the lifeboats as we speak."
One of the servants with half a brain returned from having taken a look down the corridor, "She's right ma'm," he corroborated, "the order's gone out to congregate in the Lounge."
Magnus had seen it with her own eyes as the crew had started the scrabble for the lifeboats. "Find everyone you can," she insisted for good measure, making for the next room before she heard another barrage of first class twaddle about it being cold outside! The first few rooms she'd reached the servants had been unconvinced and prevented her entry – until the stewards appeared and informed them the same. It was only a few more doors before it became obvious that the ship's staff finally had things in hand. The bizarre and worrisome sound of the engines did somewhat help in moving people along.
As though the shock were wearing out a little, Magnus had a clear thought and knew, in an instant, that she'd be of more use below deck. She ran back to her own rooms, grabbing extra layers and throwing them on. For all their complaining, the passengers had been right – it was a perfectly crisp night and they needed to stay warm. Finding her medical bag, she threw in her journal and her father's revolver from the top draw, knowing it would be all she could save. There wasn't time for anything more.
Tugging on her lifebelt, she was soon out of her room again, urging everyone she saw to get out and onto the boat deck. Descending the ship, the situation only got worse and worse. Stewards about the second class rooms might not have had time to personally escort their passengers, but they were moving nonetheless – responding to the increasing commotion with good sense for the most part. It was the third class accommodation on G Deck, where Magnus' heart stopped with dread.
Down here people were just starting to stir, the few stewards who'd noticed what was happening slamming half-heartedly, abruptly, on doors with a cursory shout. Not unlike prison wardens on a morning call. As though a guttural shout was going to make the occupants realise the danger they were in! Magnus almost instinctively started encouraging the few who had poked their heads out to get to the stairs, to put on their life-belt, and go get their children, fast.
Every time the ship groaned her bones shook. She could feel the terror starting to shine in her eyes. It was the thought of the children not getting out which scared her the most. They scuttled past, tripping on their own feet as the ship slowly listed. She was doing her best to direct them, keeping a hawk's eye out for anyone who'd been injured.
Then she reached a closed gate, completely unmanned, barring the way for the passengers beyond. Those passengers who had realised something serious was going on, baying and calling for her help.
"What's happened?" Magnus asked, checking it over, noticing the lock and wondering if she could just break it off.
"It is to separate," One of them offered in broken English, "We go to America. To live!"
"The bastards have locked us in!"
"Hold on," Magnus commanded, using her sternest tone so as not to increase their panic, though she herself could feel it bubble inside. She was sure no one had done this on purpose – forgotten about them, maybe, but on purpose? That would've been beyond cold. "I'm going to try and break it off."
"What are you doing?!" called a desperately high-pitched voice behind her.
She span on the steward, a dishevelled and panic-stricken man of thirty, "You've got to go Miss, get up to top deck immediately."
"Do you have the key?"
He grabbed her arm, and she slipped out of his grip, "There's no time," he tried to grasp her arm again, "come on."
"Answer my question."
"If you want to die - fine!"
She could see now, the dread in the man's eyes, as if he'd seen something further down the corridor and sanity decided to take a holiday. He started to leave, not even sparing a glance at the angry people still trapped.
"Give me the key," She demanded, but he wasn't listening. Helen didn't think, she merely did – reaching into her bag for the revolver and pointing it at his head as she dropped the safety. "I am not going to ask again."
He paused at the tone in her voice, spinning round to investigate the heavy threat in her words. At the sight of the gun he gulped, audibly, hands trembling as he held them out defensively before him.
The corridor felt as though it were narrowing in on her, but she couldn't ease off on the intimidation now. She wasn't entirely sure where this had come from, or how she wasn't babbling, offering platitudes and alternatives in order to convince him to do as she had asked. The entire corridor was hushed for what seemed like forever, but all she did was stare determinedly down the barrel and into the steward's eyes. It was like Worth all over again. Except this man was innocent; misguided, but innocent, and she – Helen Magnus – was threatening him with a gun. The thought made her feel sick to her stomach.
"Where is it?!" She reiterated.
At the sight of those bright blue eyes deadening in his direction he reached, quickly, into his waistcoat pocket. Then the boat gave an eerie whine all around them and the people behind her began to shriek.
Magnus snapped awake with a jolt, as if her mind had opened up an emergency escape and let her out of her nightmares. She was still sitting in the same seat in which she'd drifted off in, after Mrs Marino had gone home, next to the feverous Catherine in the dim bedroom light. How could she have fallen asleep! She instantly checked on the girl, making a note of her vital readings and more than relieved to see there had been no change in the… however long she'd been asleep. It felt like hours.
Only then, as she relaxed back into the chair, did she realise Nikola was standing right next to her.
"Oh God, Nikola," she tried to calm her nerves but they'd shot a mile in her surprise, "don't sneak up on me like that."
He was looking at her with unveiled concern, "I hardly snuck up on you." In fact, thinking about it, Helen thought he looked rather like he wanted to offer her some kind of comfort.
To her great relief he was tactfully restraining himself from broaching the now obvious, but unspoken, acknowledgement that her memories were clearly haunting her. Still, she watched him momentarily, waiting for that observation to come, expecting the considering look upon his face to blossom out of hesitation, into outright kindness.
Part of her anticipated the reprieve of being able to tell someone, but the other, louder, part of her psyche was tying itself into terrified knots at the prospect of being unstable, weak, dependent on somebody else. She was almost relying on him not to break character. To resist reverting back to the reserved, wry, yet generous student she'd first met at Oxford, and maintain that bold indifference, that sarcastic selfishness which had dominated him since they’d injected the Source Blood. Just as long as she kept ignoring that look, maybe they could carry on as normal.
She turned away from him, concentrating on the patient – though it was clear her attention was anywhere but on the girl. She hadn't even bothered to snap back a retort. He'd tried distracting her, giving her space to breathe. Clearly that wasn't enough.
Nikola knew he would have to tackle this head on, but something held him back from asking the obvious question. Cornering Magnus on her state of mind after what had clearly been a terrifying nightmare was a foolish gambit. She'd only throw up walls ten times higher, accuse him of underestimating her, and send him out on his ear. It might get them somewhere eventually, but in the meantime, Tesla would be dealing with a rather peevish and uncooperative Helen, throwing endless barbs in his direction and treating him like the villain. As entertaining as that might be from time to time, this was serious. If she wasn't going to open up willingly, he would have to bide his time… wait for the opportune moment – and this wasn't it.
"Go," he told her neutrally, eying up the patient and the notepad still lingering under Helen's fingers. She seemed momentarily confused by the instruction, so he elaborated, "It's my turn to keep watch, remember?"
"Did you get any results?" she remembered to ask, looking ten times more alert than she had just seconds before as she stood from her post.
He nodded slightly as he explained, "I'll let you know in the morning."
Some kind of objection was already mustering on her lips.
"No arguments," he insisted, sweeping into her place with one movement, "it can wait. You need to rest… unless you plan on falling asleep on the job again," he teased flatly, for good measure.
She narrowed her eyes at him, but she was so tired and thankful for the dismissal, that she didn't bother rising to it. Not that she'd manage to get back to sleep anyway! Right now the very thought of it, of going back to that place, terrified her, but she'd be damned if she was going to let it on when Tesla was around.
"Thank you," she responded quietly, heading for the lounge and sighing as though the world was weighing on her shoulders.
It was a sobering sound; one which made Nikola wonder, yet again, what on earth she had been through to be quite as shaken as this.