Smoke on the Water
With any luck they’d have the little buggers rounded up within the hour, Tesla thought to himself. Before he realised it would herald an end to this shared venture of theirs, and Magnus’ stay at the Waldorf-Astoria, perhaps even New York, with it. The thought was enough to quieten what had been, until then, a slow but steady trickle of acidic quips and outright complaints that only hinted at the extent of his current boredom with the task in hand. Nikola didn’t much care for the part of abnormal zoo-keeper, but just the same, it wasn’t simply the thought of Helen’s waspish anger at being abandoned in rectifying their combined influence which held him to it. It was the fact that they were together, alone, with no one but each other for company – no Watson, no Griffin, no Johnny… and despite the spectre of tragedy clinging to the corners of her eyes, it felt decidedly right.
He never realised how much he missed her, until he remembered it wouldn’t last. Not in the days she was absent, not when they were reunited, but always now: when he knew their moment would have its end, that they would each depart, and then, back to reality – months, sometimes even years before chance, or fate, or a simple whim (usually his), brought them together again. Not that it ever felt that long. With Helen, the years just melted meaninglessly away.
Magnus closed the lid on what must be the last of the lapillus diaboli, currently munching its way through the bait in the depths of the jar. It reminded her somewhat of that time her cousin had dropped his kitten into her aunt’s priceless Chinese urn, and the poor thing had languished until supper when the butler finally became aware of its presence.
The recollection lifted the corners of her mouth wistfully – goodness, it had been a lifetime ago. She glanced to Nikola, wanting to share her thoughts, but his expression stayed her tongue. In the last fifteen minutes or so he’d gone remarkably pensive she’d noticed. A quiet which typically heralded one of three behaviours – a magnificent breakthrough, a spiteful, derisory remark ushering from another bout of depression, or his imminent and abrupt departure. Which was precisely why she’d not breathed a word; his mind was clearly occupied deeply, and she had a hunch that it had nothing to do with this latest, least-favourite task. The soft pinch in his expression, the tightened jaw – whatever it was clearly mattered to him – and she suspected it wouldn’t be anything he’d care to share. Nevertheless, as a friend, she had to at least try.
“You know,” he began before she could even open her mouth. Breaking the moment, glancing up at her from where he’d been staring into the distance, with something of a smile blossoming on his face, “I bet it was some gypsy carnival heading for Cony Island that brought them over…”
“Yes, because what gypsy doesn’t have the money to stay in New York’s premier hotel?”
“Oh please Helen; they’re all con-artists…”
She shook her head lightly in disapproval, stepping down from the vent opening.
“You mean if you can con them into letting you get away with not paying for it, so can they?” she teased.
He gave her a look back, the tips of his lips edging a smile, but he didn’t seem quite so blasé about her accusations as he would normally, and that put her just a little on edge, “Hilarious. You-” Something made him pause, just as she turned to take the jar to the cage, and it made her stop, worrying that she’d said something wrong. To her relief he had a look of concentration on his face, and not a look of disapproval, “I can hear one in the vents still.”
She sighed in exasperation, “Another?”
“I’m afraid so,” he turned before she had chance to gauge his tone, jacket dragged to one side by a hand on hip before pulling the chair up against a different vent, in the same room.
“I was so sure that would be the last of them!”
Would this day never end! They’d taken a tactical approach, once they’d gathered the ones nearest Miss Marino. Placing some tempting bait in the home-nest, they’d gone about with the help of Miss Florence and one of the boys, blocking the vents at key points to keep the area separate. Then, after sweeping the other floors to make sure – a task Helen had been forced to conduct in a maid’s uniform so as not to arouse suspicions, and would likely never hear the end of – they were quite certain that all of them were now trapped here on the twelfth floor. They had seven so far; were there really eight of the nippy miscreants?!
“Clearly it missed the memo,” he replied distractedly, peering down and seeing nothing… though hearing a good deal more.
“I’ll just put this one away, I’ll be back in a minute – don’t electrocute it.”
Staring into that metallic cuboid structure the broadest smile found its way onto his face. He just couldn’t resist. For once he hadn’t contrived to spend more time with her, and it had all worked out rather nicely.
“Well that should have blocked off the last of its exits,” she asserted, pulling off her protective gloves as she returned to where Tesla was stationed, poised and ready for the last vagrant abnormal to make an appearance.
“I can see it,” he muttered, throwing a little more bait into the end of the vent before promptly wiping his hands in disgust. Helen nearly sniggered at the awkward way he managed to balance the jar under the crook of his arm just for the comfort of hygiene, and maybe she made a sound because his head snapped at her. He was trying to look annoyed at the distraction, but there was a note of curiosity that said he wasn’t really as bothered as he was making out. It made her smile as she drew closer, and attempted to ignore the intense spark of interest in his gaze, following her every move.
There was a noisy shifting sound above her and to the left, inside the mouth of the tunnel, which instantly drew her attention, “Nikola?”
Snapping back to their task he could see the lapillus diabous fumble closer, sniffing timidly, shrewdly one might say, towards the waiting trap. She took Tesla’s concentrated silence for a good thing this time; he was focused, his closed lips impatiently wavering with each change of the creature’s direction, as though willing it to come their way. Slowly but surely it did so, creeping closer, its nose dipped against food so delicious that it didn’t smell them, beady eyes ducked down to the floor so that it missed the face peering directly at it.
The diabolus tottered about the edge of the jar, long enough that Magnus breathed and realised she’d been holding off doing so. Indeed, she realised that Tesla was managing not to take a breath at all, successfully rendering himself completely still as his prey neared. She’d seen the behaviour before, a vampire’s instincts at work, and still could not abate the little chill of fear it sent through her. To see a friend transform so completely into something so lifeless, and honed to kill, however brief the sensation.
It landed all four clawed extremities onto the china as it made a cautious sweep of the opening, before deciding whether it was wise to jump inside. Immediately Tesla wiggled the container, with the aim of sending it off balance and depriving it of a choice, but the creature was more resourceful than he’d given it credit. It clung on determinedly – too far away now, too disorientated, to jump easily for the vent. Nikola frowned as it confounded his efforts, eyes widening a touch as the bundle of mismatched mammals started scrabbling around on the top of his hands.
With it squealing like a piglet in fright, Nikola made the split-second decision to make a grab for it. In a flash he had let go of the jar and snatched, vamping up slightly as he augmented his speed. “Helen,” he had barely uttered her name in those gravelled, vampiric, tones when she saved the falling china from smashing on the floor.
Catching it, she glanced up in concern. Making sure the animal never left her sight.
Squirming in his grip, head locked in the nook of his thumb and forefinger so its feet could do nothing but scratch palm and air, the creature was growing more agitated with every passing second. Struggling with decidedly less vigour than the others had displayed under an empathic assault, Nikola kept it trapped easily. Besides, Tesla didn’t even have time to accuse her of sending off negative emotions, before it bared open its feline jaw and bit down, hard, puncturing his skin in an attempt to escape.
He hissed at the dull searing sensation, instinctively shaking the thing off with an annoyed, stressed sigh, glaring as it fell neatly into Helen’s waiting jar with a rather comical plop. In her haste to close it, the ceramic scraped with a ring, the momentary sound making the abnormal complain with a violent yelp. The sounds was soon silenced, descending into contented munching on the bugs which it had chanced to find in the darkness.
They glanced at each other across the sealed container with the same look, then the same chuckle of relief, and bright victorious smile.
“Nice catch,” he hummed, delighting in her sidelong expression of joy as she steadied the cargo on a nearby surface.
She shrugged at the compliment, smiling at her chance to rile him up, “Might not have needed it if you’d been a little more patient.” Her playful challenge narrowed into concern at the way he was holding his right hand, splayed, as though it were in pain, “Nikola...?”
He was already trying to hide it from her, “It’s nothing Helen, I’m a vampire… rem-”
“It’s not healing,” she interrupted, grabbing his hand with no thought other than to make certain her eyes were not deceiving her, and completely unaware of the fact that this simple, unexpected action had quite literally deprived him of the ability to speak. She took the hasty pulse to be a symptom of the familiar looking bite and nothing more. Looking up at him, her fabulous eyes assessing and commanding at the same time, she only grew more determined, “We must head for the lab – right away.”
The meaningful press of her fingers into his palm woke him enough to respond, “I’ll be fine,” he reclaimed his hand, shrugging her off to reclaim his distance, “just-”
“Oh no Nikola, don’t you even... I am not letting you take that chance,” she asserted, picking up the last of the lapillus diaboli with authority.
“Helen,” he smirked, “I always knew you cared about me.”
She eyed him with annoyance – because of course she did. She was his friend, there was no need to be insufferable about it, besides which… “Don’t let it go to your head Nikola, with your physiology there’s no telling what havoc your being poisoned might unleash.”
He pouted half-heartedly like a kitten deprived of its ball of string, following her lazily as she started taking the weighty package back to their rooms. Bloody hell, she thought, at what point did they become designated their rooms in her mind, and not his? Shaking her head as if it would rid her of that notionally uncomfortable consideration, she tuned in to Nikola’s retort.
“You mean this isn’t some veiled attempt to examine me more closely?”
She felt her stomach lurch like it did just before a fall, making her hesitate, pause long enough that he fell into step just behind her. Rallying with an unladylike scoff, before he came too close for comfort, Helen trooped on: ignoring him, concentrating on the facts and trying desperately not to think about the tone he’d just taken, let alone what he’d said. Dear lord was she blushing? She absolutely refused to blush because of Nikola bloody Tesla… maybe it was just the poison taking effect – God she hoped so, because she was certainly not imagining him naked.