The Fathoms Below
At this time of day, the light out of her impromptu lab’s window was glistening on every surface. It was a spectacular sight, but one she couldn’t dwell on. Half the experiments and analysis Tesla had been conducting on Miss Marino’s blood were left out from the other day, his notes scrawled on the end of her own findings from Mr Kent. She’d immediately instructed him to sit on one of the high chairs, hand where she could see it, and stay there. He didn’t protest, at first, so that Magnus wondered whether perhaps it was starting to go to his head already, and picked up the notes in a spurt of constructive panic to figure out how to ascertain the presence of the venom – and destroy it.
“My God Nikola, if your handwriting was anymore cryptic you’d be giving da Vinci a run for his money! And he was doing it on purpose.”
“Well then,” he smirked, “perhaps I should read it to you out loud?”
She hesitated, how did he manage to make that sound somehow… devious? Was this a side-effect of the poison on vampires… or was she going crazy? Then she realised he’d presented her with a perfectly logical solution, and threw the notebook across the table in front of him, avoiding his patiently waiting good hand, with a measure of annoyance. His grin only grew, his stare hanging on her momentarily and appreciating the sight of her wound up and stormy looking, before getting down to the useful business of helping out.
Doing her best to ignore him, she checked on the experiments and cultures he’d already prepared, tuning in as he read out the results of his moonlighting in the biological sciences. She found the pattern of his voice oddly reassuring, just like their earlier days in the lab together, the soft inflections of his tone coming through, punctuated by the odd surge of interest or excitement along the way.
Magnus found the research was entirely adequate, though it still needed a little tweaking – he’d missed, for instance, that the formula he’d proposed wouldn’t break down the compound quite enough to render the by-products harmless. Not to mention the fact that she now had to take his accelerated metabolism into account.
Every now and then she glanced his way to check he was holding out against it, hoping she was right about her theory as to the trigger for the fits, and knowing every second counted. Reading seemed to keep him in the here and now, but once that was over they came across another challenge…
“Do I really need to be here Helen?” he sighed in complaint, causing Magnus to drop the liquid from the pipette a moment earlier than she’d intended, and surprising herself in the process.
She sped up to make sure the procedure went correctly, soon responding as she did so, “I am not letting you accidentally rampage through New York the minute it sets in!” And get yourself killed, she thought to herself.
“I didn’t mean here as in the building,” he wrangled. “Can’t I just go next door for a little while? I could be in the very next room, working on something useful instead of just... sitting here,” and watching you.
Watching the way rays of light illuminated the odd strand of gold in her hair, the expressions she pulled in her concentration, her delicate yet steady hands creating a symphony in microscopic biology. God he needed a distraction.
“You’ve been sat still for less than fifteen minutes-”
“Half an hour.”
“Nikola…” she ignored him for a second like the child he was clearly pretending to be, preparing an empty syringe and rounding to his place on the island on which she was working. Giving him her best no nonsense stare, he got the picture, shrugging off his jacket and rolling up the sleeve of his bad arm where, on the extremity, his puncture wound was slowly, very slowly, healing: “I need to keep an eye on your condition.”
He sighed, eying her for the way she’d described it, “It’s not like I’m pregnant or anything, it’s just a bite.” Going back to pouting at his predicament, he hushed up; watching as she abruptly claimed his elbow and withdrew a sample of blood, “The least you could do, is give me a glass of the Bordeaux in the other room.”
Fingers pinching against his slightly cold skin, Helen’s eyes narrowed a bit, “When was the last time you took your medication?”
He noticeably tensed at the mention of it, which is why they all did their best to avoid the topic whenever they could, but this was important. She looked him in the eye, and he held her gaze defiantly, “The night you got here.”
She inclined her head slightly, “Nikola that was four days ago.”
“Well I’ve been a bit distracted,” she’d touched a nerve, and he was stung enough that what could’ve easily been a compliment came out like a petulant accusation.
To his great surprise she smiled as she withdrew the syringe, “I didn’t realise I was so distracting,” she teased.
As barely veiled an attempt to cheer him up though it was, Nikola, quite predictably, pounced on the opportunity to pass comment – though she had fully expect him to make some charming but over-done allusion to her beauty or wits and instead… “I can think of ways you could be more distracting.”
She snapped her head on him then, the cheeky leer he was sending her way sent a shot of excitement through her, just as it put her on edge. He was mocking her, teasing her, gently, nothing new there. Except he had become awfully brazen of late, and she still wasn’t entirely sure that she didn’t like it. She pursed her lips, and even managed a retort, “Would you rather I wasted time for your personal amusement, or save you from dying in a rabid fit of panic and fear?” she challenged.
He hummed, pretending to think about it, which she caught out of the corner of her eye. Tucking her head behind the lens of the microscope she managed to hide her smile behind the flimsy façade of analysing his blood.
“Your right Helen,” he admitted as though it were big of him to do so, then he was grinning at her across the lab table, “presuming of course that you’re not just over-reacting, because you can’t bear to see me injured. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t gotten run over and fallen from a twelfth story window before, is it?”
She scoffed for the umpteenth time today, sparing him a glance, “Please, this creature might not have even existed when Vampires ruled the earth – we can’t take it for granted that you’re immune system will cope.”
“And is it?” he asked, arm on the table as he leaned across.
She sighed, because it was, in fact, reacting to the poison – she could tell from the proliferation of antibodies and antitoxins – still… “It’s too early to tell Nikola, but it’s not as fast off the mark as it normally is – clearly.” She punctuated the last with a pointed finger at the still seeping wound that was just about scabbing over.
It chastened his argument a little, and he inspected it with a stirring of concern that he wouldn’t dare admit. It was nothing. After all, give it a few hours and it would be gone, damn it. As great as it was having Magnus’ full and concentrated attention on his physiology, he’d much rather be taking her to Central Park, or dinner at Delmonico’s, before she flew away again like the pigeons that accumulated near his windows. Anywhere, so long as he wasn’t left to stew over his own, uncomfortably, annoyingly romantic thoughts in the midst of her elegantly silent company. Still, her concern was looking more and more vindicated with each passing second, and at least this way she couldn’t get away from him when she wanted to... He grinned at that, thinking of how best to make use of this opportunity.
When she reached over for the vial on her left she noticed he was staring, a ghost of that grin still lingering in his eyes, and paused long enough to raise an eyebrow, “What?”
“Nothing,” he shrugged, remarkably reticent for a man who seemed to have something he wanted to share. She watched him for a full minute to no effect and, convinced he was done disturbing her, carried on.
She should be so lucky!
“I always wondered what the attraction was.”
She didn’t stop this time but frowned in irritation, about to ask whether he wanted a cure or not, when he continued explaining what he meant.
“Astor wrote no less than a page on it in his last letter,” he carried on airily, as though this was any other conversation. Only his expression, watching her closely, belied the gravity of his intent, “I mean, it was only a ship…”
That made her stop, her entire body rigid, as though she had just felt the floor give beneath her, and was about to drop however many storeys to the ground. Lips pressed tightly together, unable to look anywhere but the mid-space dead ahead, she wondered whether he was being purposefully ignorant of her feelings, or testing her on purpose, perhaps out of some waspish desire to get his own back. Knowing it was almost certainly the latter she made an effort to exhale normally and carry on with her work, as though nothing had really happened. Sadly this also meant formulating a response to what he’d said or else the game was certainly up.
“The largest and fastest of its kind Nikola, it was quite a fea-” her voice wavered, ever so slightly, as she coughed passed the lump forming in her throat, “…a feat of engineering… I’m not surprised Astor found it so intriguing.”
The quiver in her voice gave the line of his mouth a grim set of worry as he observed the pain lingering beneath the surface, but it did not deter him. It only made him more honest, “What happened out there Helen?”
He’d asked. This time, for real. His tone gentle, coaxing, but he’d actually dared to ask. She snapped her head at him with a violent expression, ready to tell him that it wasn’t any of his business – but his face held none of his typically obnoxious self-assurance. In fact, she could see the genuine concern written in no uncertain terms upon it, the openness he usually kept locked down, now exposed to her fully for the first time in decades. He hadn’t looked at her like that since… since John.
She blinked, the air caught in her lungs, as she struggled to come out of the other side of this mental fog and reassert her presence here, in the real world. Her fingers came down lightly upon her equipment as she continued best she could, and slowly, quietly, she managed to speak. “It sank,” was all she said, at first, and Nikola was just about to demand she say more than two words when she did just that. “And when it disappeared…” she closed her eyes momentarily, biting the inside of her mouth and trying to keep breathing as she remembered the inky black expanse of water and sky. Littered with bodies and splinters the same size, all screaming across the wide, windless sea – she couldn’t keep the water from glazing her eyes; “it took them all down with it. Women, infants, young men… old.”
He felt a chill at her words that didn’t physically exist, and he would have been lying if he’d said she hadn’t scared him slightly. He reached over the divide, pressing his hand against hers, struggling to find the words. She smiled sadly up at the touch, understanding instantly and, somehow, drawing some strength from that.
“But… how did you…” he struggled to phrase it, because part of him was just so glad that she had. When he looked into her eyes he had no idea how she managed to express such warmth and acceptance at his invasive curiosity, but she did. “It doesn’t matter,” he said with a smile that came out wistful and half formed, releasing her hand and looking away. It really didn’t matter – not as much as the fact that she had survived.
She watched him retreat for the longest moment, and, had he pursued the matter she would’ve no doubt clammed up, shut down, threw up the walls she had so deftly constructed over the years. The ones which Watson so dearly loved to pointlessly rail against whenever something mattered. But the day James stopped digging like a blood-hound for a bone every time she shut him out was the day she’d know she’d lost him… not so with Nikola. One would be a fool to believe that Nikola backing off meant he had surrendered; it was merely a matter of time before he found another way around.
Perhaps that was why, as she made the final adjustments to the antitoxin, she began to open the metaphorical door. “I didn’t hear it, when it struck,” she smiled bitterly to herself, keeping her hands busy and avoiding the sight of him, even as his ears pricked up and his attention fell on her completely, “the ship just seemed to slow down…”
“Martha?” Helen had asked, tying up her dressing gown, her hair in a fly-away mess from the pillow. The maid appeared in her line of sight as she entered the small sitting room, “What’s going on?”
“No idea ma’m.”
“She shrugged. Not that she could’ve known. I went to find out what had happened, but no one seemed at all concerned... not even when I got out on deck.”
A great big wall of ice, right before their eyes… it was magnificent up close, bizarre, but beautiful. Children were playing with chucks which had fallen on deck, a few of the men joining in as though it were a game of football. Everyone else had their eyes on this wonder of the Atlantic, and Helen started to feel like maybe she was the only one even slightly worried by the fact that it had come so close. In fact, she glanced at the angle of the ship, relative to the glacial structure and did the math – they must have collided surely?
“It made sense then. I supposed that we had slowed down to avoid the worst of it, check for damage…”
Then she blanched, noticing the ship was ever so slightly slanted to the side she was on, even as the iceberg itself slipped away from them.
“I sought out the Captain, but the crewmen stopped me before I could even get that far, doing their best to reassure me – except it was obvious, they didn’t actually know for certain themselves.”
“So you watched them.”
She looked to her friend as he listened intently, hand resting against his mouth and chin as he often did when his thoughts were knotted and problematic.
Her lips twitched upwards in response, “Just a little... long enough to see when the crew members started gunning for the lifeboats.”
She stood there frozen in the dark alcove she’d tucked herself into, straining her head around so her wide eyes could see she wasn’t imagining things. Dear God. They were sinking.
She swallowed, moistening her dry mouth, “I started helping them round up the passengers from their rooms. No one asked me to,” her voice was quiet, “I just did.”
“Ma’m please, this is our job – please, do not alarm our guests so-”
“Am I causing a panic? No. And we cannot pretend as if this is not a serious matter.” She looked to the confused occupants, “Excuse me, sir, madam? Ready your children for the outside and go up on deck immediately.”
“It was… once they realised and I - I tried to help as many people as I could, to convince them,” she laughed humourlessly, the disbelief still strong, “we had to convince them to go on deck. Steerage was just a comple…” she couldn’t say it, just shook her head, the words teetering at the edge of her tongue and fighting within her, until she gripped hold of herself and clawed back to the surface. “It was hell,” She finally uttered, hollowed out by the thought.
For a moment, he thought she had finished her tale, his eyes lowered, unsure of what he could say and feeling guilty, even, for making her relive it. Then, as if remembering that there was more to the story, she spoke up again, her voice more assertive than before, more like her usual self.
“I got back on deck, and the last of the boats were being lowered… the ship was half-under.” She closed her eyes and breathed in through her nose, shaking her head slightly at the memory of a funnel coming down and crushing the people desperate to escape. Her lips were pushed together so tightly they were pale, and when she spoke again, eyes flying open, Tesla could literally see the colour rushing back, “So I jumped.”
Hanging on her every word, Nikola could’ve sworn his heart stopped beating. The words were dead and hard, devoid – as if to share even part of those emotions would be to open the flood gates. The enormity of what she’d been through… he tried to imagine it – and failed. All the ships he’d sailed on, he’d never once felt the floor dip at an unnatural angle, as water gurgled relentlessly to swallow it up, to deprive every soul of air and suck them down to the lightless depths. He couldn’t summon the terror of knowing, knowing that your chances of survival were slim to none, that this is where it would end, in the middle of the Atlantic – because with his vampirism he wouldn’t have needed to worry.
“I swam, as far as I could for the nearest lifeboat. Until I couldn’t. The cold... God it saps you so fast. I felt myself sinking, could see them, just twenty yards away…” the fragile pause belied the determination which had managed to spark in her eyes, like two flints striking against each other, “something kept me going. One minute I was slipping fast and then I realised I was within spitting distance. I’d been convinced I was…” she took a shuddery breath, trembling, desperate not to cry, her voice tightening, “dying, then suddenly there were voices, women reaching out to me, hauling me on board like a fish, with the first signs of hyperthermia. It was Margaret Brown who spotted me…”
Tesla raised an eyebrow at the name, recognising it instantly as the veritable battle-axe who had caused such a stir in society three years ago when she’d separated from her husband. He’d met James Joseph Brown only once at the Johnsons’, and taken quite a shine to the self-made man, though he’d always pegged Maggie as a rather over-bearing shrew, packed full of Irish bluster. Still, for saving Helen’s life, he wouldn’t hesitate to give her the biggest handshake known to man should he ever see her again. From Tesla, that was saying a lot.
“She grabbed my hand…” another sad smile, barely holding back the throttling grief that wanted to pour tears from her eyes, “And to think, not two hours before I’d been knocking on her door, telling her to get out while she still could.”
As she finished his mind finally processed what she’d said. He’d – they’d – come so close to losing her. The drop of fear in his gut grew leaden, even more palpable than when he’d first heard the news that her ship had sunk, or that more than half its occupants had died with it. Now he was confronted with the facts, the reality: that she had been within a breath of death in a way she never had before… alone, without a hope of any of them coming to her rescue – not even Druitt could’ve teleported in on a fit of romantic nostalgia and swept her away.
Was it luck, or divine intervention? Ultimately it remained a stone cold reminder that though she could theoretically live as long as he, she was still as vulnerable as any human. In the end it was still Nikola who was most likely to outlive them all, and the thought was a terrible one… of being alone at the end of time, of having taken this for granted all these years – that she would always be there. That somehow she would always know how much he cared for her and that would be enough, because she would be there. Always. And now he was faced with the truth. That Helen was exceptionally good at surviving, but one day – however many centuries away that might be – she would not. And she would die; maybe never knowing for certain… and he wouldn’t have kissed her like he wanted to, or felt her heart beat against his – skin against skin – out of fear… a fear which meant nothing next to this one, or the one she’d felt staring death in the face.
A sudden dread seeped through his arteries to the base of his skull. It crept up into his frontal lobe, until he closed his eyes at the sensation, gritting his teeth against the headache as it cracked sideways through his grey matter with the force of a bullet.
He could hear her, but it was distant, tinny, barely making it through the searing sensation. Shaking his head only managed to make it worse, causing him to groan at the spike of pain and accompanying nausea as the venom started to react. Desperate for something to hold onto, he gripped the lab table with all he could manage.
There was a clatter on the floor as Helen rushed round, urgently trying to prepare the syringe and apply the antidote, before the fit took hold and drove him mad. His claws were out, digging into the surface in front of him, his hands and arms shaking as they clung on, sharp vampire teeth bared as he tried to shake off the feeling and clearly failed. He gasped; the effort of trying to fight against it, reign in this loss of control, written all over him. He was hanging by a thread.
She didn’t think about her own safety for one second, roughly gripping his arm and injecting him in a single, practiced movement. The liquid went in as he grunted with the pain, leaving behind the needle protruding from his elbow as she tried to scrabble away. Realising too late that he’d caught her arm, Helen felt herself held, then tugged towards him. He snarled at her, with blood-darkened eyes that didn’t recognise her, just as they had that autumn, when she’d discovered what he had become. Her heart leapt into her throat without her wanting it to, eying him warily yet determined not to show her fear.
She could feel him shaking right the way through his body, even as she tugged as far away as possible. His temperature was rocketing as in the grip of a fever too.
Wide-eyed she watched, for any sign that he meant to bite, praying the serum would work as his claws pricked into her skin and drew small amounts of blood. Magnus hissed at the sharp sensation, the sound of her pain like the cry of the wind to Tesla’s ears. His grip loosened instinctively, enough that she managed to get out of swiping distance before she could draw his attention again. She couldn’t take her eyes off the internal battle going on in front of her – vampire, venom and antidote, competing inside one body. She could feel the effort it took, as much as see it, as he gradually reasserted control over himself, and began to feel the benefit of her medicine.
The shaking slipped away, along with the claws which had scored into the woodwork, and even so he continued expelling uneven breaths, audibly riddled with pain. Managing to open his eyes again, in little more than a squint, he seemed shy of her – only sheepishly glancing her way to make sure he hadn’t done anything he would regret. Once he’d glanced, of course, he couldn’t look away, because she was staring at him with a nervy smile which expressed all the terror and relief, all the disbelief and exultation that he was alright, she was alright, and they were fine.
She breathed out a shaky half-laugh, at the look of exhausted awe on his face, smiling that brilliant genius smile of hers, that exhilarating twinkle in her eye. Even if he had the wherewithal to say something right then she would’ve stolen the breath from his lungs. He smiled through the pain in return, hearing her next question as though it were underwater and wincing at the hammering still going on in his head.
“Do you have any of your medication here?” To business, the unusual cheeriness of it the only sign that something might’ve gone wrong.
“Top draw,” he managed, hunkering in on himself, swallowing the air whilst gesturing towards it, trying to catch his breath. He felt as if he’d been run into by a coach and four… and then a motorcar… repeatedly.
She wandered over, searching two draws before she found the familiar leather-bound case and opened it out to reveal the vials of plasma-based liquid. Each of the tubes had a letter on, she realised, Greek numbers to indicate the order in which they were prepared. The last one left empty was gamma… so, she presumed the next must be… delta? Her Greek was a little rusty, but she was pretty sure there wasn’t a delta in there, and while it wouldn’t make a great deal of difference to his recovery, Nikola would never stop complaining if she messed up the system so she really preferred to keep to it. Then she realised what he’d done and flashed him a frustrated sigh, “Really Nikola? In threes?”
Picking up stigma, which had been sat next to the right of it anyway, she shook her head in playful admonishment. Honestly, some things never changed, and as he didn’t have a great deal of strength for witty repartee she got to mock him without repercussions.
Even by the time she managed to find a clean syringe to administer it, he was still looking worse for wear; his breathing just about even whilst he leaned over, fingers pressed against the surface of the table. He could’ve swallowed the medication, but it took longer for him to feel the effects than if it entered the blood stream directly, and besides, as far as she knew, Nikola still hadn’t gotten over his severe disdain for drinking the concoction.
Tapping the bubbles from the liquid she drew in again, moving to the side which hadn’t been bitten. The other needle was still in his arm, she noticed, he’d barely moved at all, so she plucked it, gently, garnering a wince from him as she did so. She sympathised, but he didn’t glare at her as she might’ve expected. Instead he seemed rather browbeaten by the whole experience, watching her in a bit of an injured daze, realising, to his own surprise, just how very close she was.
Reaching across him like that had brought her face almost in line with his; he could smell a hint of the soap from his bathroom, mingled with her own unique smell. Then she started rolling back his other sleeve, in a manner that was so careful and caring he looked at her with something bordering on astonishment, and made her cheeks redden ever so slightly. Her weight leaned against his leg where she stood, the soft pads of her fingers brushing against his vein, waking every cell of his skin with the echo of her pulse, and then, gently, she took his arm in readiness to strike.
As she pushed the plunger down she made the mistake of looking him in the eyes, now no more than a hands-width away – catching a fathomless look that caught her completely off guard. Was it tenderness? Her stomach fluttered nonetheless. She glanced away the stronger it grew, landing on the sight of his half-parted lips so near, so ready to kiss.
He didn’t act fast enough. Before she even self-consciously checked on the progress of the blood-serum being forced beneath his skin, the moment for action had come and gone, and he had been too caught up to even realise it. He could feel the heat radiating from her, as an actual blush found its way onto her flesh, his heart skipping forlornly as he realised that she was already drawing away and nothing could prevent it. Nothing he was willing to risk, at any rate.
He watched her fingers, and the needle, slowly withdrawing from his body, lingering longer than perhaps they should. God why was she so…? Why her? Why couldn’t it have been anyone but her?
She could feel his attention, daring a glance to see if her mind was playing tricks – but it wasn’t. No sooner did her eyes shift than he pretended not to look, and she, likewise, found herself looking awkwardly askance at the metal sheeting so carefully ordered and stacked on the other side of the room.
“Thank you,” he said quietly, his attempt at blasé falling a little bit flat to the ears, “for overreacting.”
She turned back, holding his completely human gaze with complete understanding, and that slight, coy smile of hers. The kind only Magnus could give. The one which, having just performed wonders before your very eyes, took a modest step away and simply said: don’t mention it. As if all that mattered was that you were okay.