“It's nice that they can have a little time to themselves.” Nellie says what they are all thinking as they wave to Jenny and Vastra's train. She pauses as they turn from the platform as their employers chug merrily away on an extended trip to plan their nuptials. “You don't suppose they'll not want to have anything to do with us? Once they're married and settled down, I mean.”
Henry chuckles. “Can you imagine the two of them standing still for more than a few days at a time? They'll be running us more ragged than ever once they get back—assuming that aliens don't decide to invade the Lake Country while they're passing through. It just isn't in their nature.”
Anaya snorts, privately glad to let her hair down in front of her friends. “No, and their work as detectives buys them a certain amount of immunity from scrutiny. They're too useful to throw in jail. And it doesn't hurt that their personas are somewhat eccentric—I don't think that their true selves would last very long as proper ladies.” For that matter, she thinks, none of us are really the cream of society.
Henry touches his cap in acknowledgment of her point while Nellie takes up the conversation.
“Lord knows I've seen enough proper ladies and what they can do to last me a lifetime.” She smiles impishly. “Though that leaves open the question of what the three of us will do with them out of town. I suppose I can always spend some time trying to get things properly set up at the laundry.”
Henry nods. “I really should spend some more quality time with my brothers,” he admits. “What about you?”
Anaya blushes. “I suppose Mirabelle and I will find something to do.”
"That's alright, then,” Henry reassures her. He is about to turn away when he realizes what they have said. “Not that I don't like spending time with the two of you,” he says in a spurt, his eyes flickering to Nellie. Anaya notes the glance, and realizes that a year or two ago she would have minded it much more. She smiles at the thought and at Henry's sentiment.
“Of course,” Nellie says, clasping his hand, then Anaya's. “I expect the three of us will never stop being friends, come what may, after all we've seen. After all, it's not as though any of us are planning on going traveling through space and time with the Doctor—we'll always be on Earth, I expect.”
The other two are just about to nod and agree, Nellie thinks, when an ancient man lurches into their midst with a moan, and falls to the floor. “Please,” he croaks, “help!” She stammers uselessly as she sags to her knees to try and comfort the obviously dying man as Anaya and Henry shout for a doctor. With a lucid shine in his eyes, he draws Nellie's ear close to his mouth. “Burn my body,” he whispers. Nellie blinks at the unusual request, but nods. She stands, dry-eyed but shaking, as Henry and Nellie return with a doctor and a constable.
They are just in time to watch the old man expire, and the two young people cannot help but shiver. “What killed him, then?” the constable asks dutifully. “Mite strange, this is, bloke just keeling over in the middle of the train station.”
“Apart from his advanced years, he appears to have been healthy and uninjured,” the doctor observes. “At a glance, I would suggest that his age was the primary cause.”
The policeman half-nods, still skeptical. “And did he say anything, before he passed on?”
“He wanted to be cremated,” Nellie relates.
“Have to ship him over to Woking,” the medical man says, frowning. “Still, if it was his last wish, it should be easy enough to comply.”
“Queer business, but nothing criminal,” the constable notes, sense of duty evidently satisfied. He shakes his head and leaves, glad to get back to his usual routine, thank you very much. Nellie, Henry, and Anaya, by unspoken covenant, leave the body in the doctor's care, and go their separate, soundless ways.
“Come on, out with it,” Bert says as a still-shaken Henry returns home. “The Henry I know doesn't just let me tease him from the minute he walks in the door.” The words show his concern, but his tone still holds a hopeful, teasing note.
“Have I?” Henry asks himself aloud. “I doubt you'd believe me.”
“You might be surprised,” Moses tells him squarely.
“I don't need any more surprises today,” Henry says with a quarter of a laugh, but he sits at the table anyway and begins mechanically peeling an orange. Well, he thinks, he has always promised himself that, one day, he would tell his brothers what exactly he did with his days. May as well be today, he decides, and starts to talk.
“Well?” he asks, almost an hour later, mouth dry despite the sweet juice of the orange.
“Time to call the loony bin,” Bert announces.
Henry winces and his eyes turn to Moses. His eldest brother's face is paralyzed with indecision where he had hoped for support, and Henry angrily pitches the rind into the rubbish bin before storming out of the house. He hadn't exactly known what he should expect, or what he had hoped from them, but he had at least expected to get a weight off of his chest, to have some sort of truly honest conversation after deceiving them for so long. But now, since they certainly didn't believe him (and why should they? He reasoned. He would scarcely believe what he had done if he hadn't done it), it was worse than saying nothing at all. He scowls and turns down a street at random.
“How was your day?” Mirabelle asks brightly. “I finally had the new carpet put in!” Mirabelle had earned a small fortune as the Gelth's resident medium, Anaya recalled. Which was good, she knew, because repairing the building and retrofitting it into a salon was going to cost about that much.
“A bit rough,” Anaya admits. “Watched a man die today, right in front of me.”
Mirabelle gasps, but pours tea. “Merciful Heaven... What happened?” Anaya had encountered violence before, more than once, and tea usually helped matters.
“That's all there was,” Anaya says with a shrug. “He just...died. And according to Nellie, he asked to be cremated. If there's something alien or supernatural about the whole business, I haven't got the foggiest idea of what it could be.”
Mirabelle hums quietly to herself for a moment. “What about your employers? Why don't you ask them?”
“Jenny and Vastra are out of town for a few weeks,” Anaya says with a blush. “They're planning their wedding.”
“How charming!” Mirabelle laughs. “Like Gentleman Jack.”
“Indeed,” Anaya agrees, glad that the conversation hasn't turned to their own long-term relationship. It isn't that she doesn't fancy Mirabelle—good heavens no—but that there are certain costs to making the arrangement permanent. She grinds her teeth with frustration; she can barely even think about the matter in anything but the most abstract terms. “I suppose Strax is still here,” she muses. “Perhaps I'll pay him a visit.”
“Later, my love,” Mirabelle commands coyly, setting down her tea. “At least give us a kiss first.”
“What, just the one?” Anaya teases in reply, thinking nothing more of Strax and the mysterious corpse for the moment. Costs be dammed, she thinks, and cups Mirabelle's face in her hand.
Nellie wipes sweat from her brow as she finishes helping nail together a partition. The flimsy wooden wall is going to help provide a bit of privacy for the girls' dormitories, breaking the long rows of beds up into groups of three or four. She knows this sort of manual labor isn't considered particularly ladylike, but as far as Nellie is concerned, that ship has long since sailed. Not to mention that it's cheaper than a hired man.
She is wavering between starting the next partition and taking a short break to play with Neville and Jim when a woman catches her attention. “Your sister's come to pay you a visit,” she says.
“Thank you, Daisy,” Nellie beams. “Come on downstairs, lads!”
“There you are,” Allison says. “I've come to pick up the little ones and the washing.”
“Thank you, and thank you,” Nellie replies as she does a bit of arithmetic in her head and makes change.
Allison smiles. “You know, I hardly recognize you among all these women, instead of chasing after the menfolk all the time.” She winks, and adds, more quietly. “Is there something I should know?”
Nellie blushes at the allusion to Jenny, Vastra, Anaya, and Mirabelle, all of whom Allison has met. “You're dreadful, you are!” she giggles. “See if I give you the family discount next time.” To be fair, Nellie thinks, she hadn't given her sister the family discount this time; Lord knows the laundry needed every penny—and the discount wasn't hers to give. The laundry belonged to all of its residents.
“Then you're still fancying that boy you work with then?” Allison retorts archly. This notion of taking some time to oneself was not like her sister at all, Allison thinks. And if anyone deserved a happy relationship to make up for a bad run, it was Nellie. If that relationship was with a girl...well, she'd help explain that to their parents if and when the time came.
“Oh, go bother Albert or Peter for a change!” Nellie says, playfully shooing Allison away.
Henry can't help but chuckle when he finally stops to see where his ramblings have taken him: he is a half-block from Nellie's laundry. He thrusts his hands back into his pockets and strides over, reasoning that perhaps they will have some work that needs doing, something simple and physical to help him clear his mind. He is almost there when he bumps shoulders with an older woman. “Beg pardon,” he mutters, but, as fate would have it, he gives her a second glance. “Ma'am?” he asks, for she is obviously in poor condition. “Do you need help? A ride to the hospital?”
“No, no,” she says, shaking her head. “They can't help me...” she trails off as Nellie steps out of the laundry, and her eyes brighten. “Don't know where else to go...”
“Can we help you?” Nellie asks patiently, as she and Henry let the older woman brace herself on their arms.
“No, no...” She looks up to the sky for a moment. “Make sure they burn my remains, when I die.”
“We're taking you to Strax,” Nellie decides peremptorily, and Henry flags a cab. Two elderly people, both wanting to be cremated, on the same day? “Come on, ma'am, it isn't far.”
Nellie's suspicions are confirmed when the woman starts at the mere sight of Strax, gasping “Sontaran!.. here?..”
Nellie responds by sitting the woman forcibly in a chair. “Yes, he is, and you shouldn't know that word.”
“You don't have to worry, very much,” Henry's voice drops a few decibels there, “as he is a nurse.”
“Perfectly capable of treating over three thousand forms of life,” Strax practically trills. “And slaughtering all of them.”
“Strax!” Henry hisses as Nellie takes a closer look at their guest.
“I know you...your face, your eyes...” She snaps her fingers. “You were at the laundry! You were one of the first ones I snuck out. Tilda, wasn't it?” She pauses to let Tilda nod. “But you were younger then, barely thirty...” Naturally, she does not deny the impossibility of such a transformation, but she looks expectantly at Tilda.
Tilda nods again. “I remembered your kindness, poorly though I repaid it. And when I became ill, I knew not where else I could turn. And so I came back to you.” She smiles sadly. “I hope you forgive me for not doing more to find you, but I was already carrying a clutch of eggs.”
“I remember you were pregnant,” Nellie recalls. “I had hoped you would raise your little one in safety,” she concludes with a forgiving air. “But please, tell me how we can help you.”
Tilda closes her eyes. “My condition is the result of a parasite within me.”
“It aged you?” Henry guesses.
“No; it kept me alive,” Tilda corrects him. “My kind has a short natural lifecycle, aging from egg to what you would call middle age in a few months, passing away soon after. Even now, I expect—I pray—my offspring are dead of old age; I have not seen them or my other relations for some time, lest the parasite spread to them.”
“Hang on a minute,” Henry interrupts, “I don't mean to sound selfish, but could we catch this from you?”
Tilda shakes her head. “The damnable thing is the curse of the Nihenian people to bear alone. If it were contagious to other races, we would not travel among the stars. It prolongs our lives for many months, but does not preserve our youth. As a result, our bodies break down, growing weak and painful, though the parasite heals most other injuries.” She frowns. “Otherwise I should have tried to end my torment many weeks ago.”
They nod somberly as Strax runs a scan on the woman's body. “I can destroy the invader with ease,” he tells her confidently, “and devise a chemical weapon—” (“He means medicine,” Henry interjects.) “—which will prevent your allies from contracting the same disease.”
Tilda looks at Strax with wary skepticism, but nods. “Do it, please. And take the medicine to the Running Horse Inn; many of my people live there, and they can make more and distribute it to the rest. Thank you,” she concludes as they nod. They help her downstairs and onto the operating table. Nellie holds her hand as Strax works, deftly excising the parasite. There are an awful lot of sharp, bloody things in medicine, she thinks, half-dazed.
When she looks back at Tilda's face, her eyes are closed and her mouth hangs limply open. “She's not breathing?!” Nellie notes, alarmed.
“Correct!” Strax replies, noting her time of death. “As this creature,” he brandishes the parasite like a grenade launcher, flicking a drop of unmentionable fluid across the room, “was the only influence keeping her alive, it follows quite naturally that she must perish without it. If you will excuse me, I have an antidote to synthesize.” His eyes are arrested by Nellie's as he is about to turn. Oh dear, he thinks, the boy (girl?) is going to speak in emotions again. At that moment, Anaya walks into the operating theater, sparing Strax for the instant.
“Strax? Are you down here?” she calls as she walks down the steps. “Something funny happened this morning and—what's going on?” she asks, fingering the scarf around her neck and idly hoping that it conceals the hickeys. “Good God, is she dead?”
“It's a long story,” Henry begins.
Henry and Nellie relate Tilda's story to Anaya, with Strax interjecting periodically to clarify some of the technical details. Nellie sighs as they finish. “It all seemed so easy at first!” she ejaculates, exasperated. “You meet someone with a disease, and you try to cure it.” Henry, with some trepidation, places a comforting hand on her shoulder. “I didn't realize it was going to kill her!”
“It did sound as though that was what she wanted,” Anaya offers.
Nellie bites her lip. “I know,” she says lamely. “But it was a bit of a shock.”
“I don't know what I expected either,” Henry admits. “But it does seem as though things are more ethically complex than I might have guessed.”
“Yes,” Anaya agrees. “First, what are we going to do with Tilda's body?”
“I had rather hoped to incinerate it,” Strax offers, smacking one hand against the other for emphasis. “The smell of burning flesh brings back such wonderful memories. And it is what we usually do with specimens that do not warrant further study. Or that Madame declines to eat.”
“That was her wish,” Nellie agrees. “Though I don't know that that would have changed, once you removed the parasite.”
“It might have eggs, or spores,” Henry cautions them.
“And Lord knows we can't just give her body to the authorities—there'll be an autopsy,” Anaya adds.
“That's settled, then,” Strax observes gleefully, rubbing his three-fingered hands together as Nellie nods. “Shall we withdraw to someplace more comfortable to discuss further arrangements?” he asks, butler's training (enough to pass, Jenny had hoped) reasserting itself. “I shall be along momentarily,” he assures Nellie, who spares one last look at Tilda's corpse. He inhales deeply as she follows the other two upstairs.
“I do hope they're managing well enough,” Jenny notes as their rented bicycles rattle down the road.
Vastra blinks. “Usually you don't fear for our associates' safety even when we are sending them on dangerous missions, my dear. Why the change of heart?”
“It's not so much them,” Jenny laughs, “as it is them trying to keep Strax in line.”
“If Strax causes a big enough headache, I am certain that word will reach us,” Vastra decides, determined to enjoy their outing.
“Unless he destroys the telegraph lines,” Jenny points out, more seriously than one would like. They laugh anyway, if only to break the tension.
Vastra reaches under her veil to pinch the bridge of her nose. “One week,” she mutters. “I expect they can go one week without killing anyone.”
“We've hit on two major objections,” Anaya informs Strax as he joins them in the parlor. “First, if we vaccinate all of the Nihenians, then the parasite will die out.” She shrugs. “I know it looks disgusting, but seeing it like that reminded me that it's a living being, and may in fact be a thinking, feeling being, same as any of us, but one with which we simply cannot communicate. We've certainly seen some strange things that turned out to be harmless, and I'm sure we look strange to some species.” Strax cannot help but nod. “And generally, I don't like the idea of eradicating an entire species—sounds a bit too much like the Daleks to me.” She shudders at the memories roused by the name. “Especially given the number of humans who want to kill off other groups of humans based on nothing more than the way they look.”
“A worthy critique,” Strax admits. “And there may be environmental effects as well, though these are less likely if the only species the parasite affects is the Nihenian.”
“I can't say it bothers me as much,” Henry admits. “If a person inflicted the kind of pain that the parasite did on Tilda, then I'd say he deserved to die. That sounds more like a Dalek to me.”
“I'd still rather be better than that,” Nellie says, shaking her head. “But it does lead nicely into our second objection: we would be drastically shortening the lives of countless people, which are already short enough.”
“While saving them months of pain,” Henry counters.
Anaya rubs her chin thoughtfully. “Perhaps I seem dispassionate, not having seen Tilda suffer or die, but it does seem that the two issues dovetail, to a certain extent—if the parasite is more bad than good, then eliminating it is less problematic, though not entirely fraught. But if the parasite does more good than harm, then keeping it would be the wiser course of action.”
“If I may expound upon the subject?” Strax asks in what appears to be a rare frisson of politeness before he continues speaking with barely a pause of breath. So close, Nellie thinks, but just a little more training. “Any Sontaran would be prouder to die gloriously than live to a cowardly old age. But even so, we had trained medics, myself among them. The duty was considered shameful not because we were saving lives, but because we had fewer opportunities to take them.” His eyes mist over for a moment as if remembering past heroics. “Die, Rutan scum!” he bellows before continuing. “But on occasion, we were asked to end the suffering of those who were too hurt to live, a task which we performed as within our duties.”
“That settles it then,” Henry says. “If the medically ethical thing to do is end the Nihenians' pain, then that's what we must do.”
“I hardly think a Sontaran can be taken as typical!” Nellie retorts. “You heard what Strax said about the glory of death and all that.” Anaya coughs, interrupting what could easily turn into a shouting match.
“Might I suggest another course of action?” she offers. “Why don't we give the medicine to the Nihenians, and let them figure out what to do with it themselves? It sort of feels like we've been arguing about what we would want to do for ourselves, but we aren't the ones who are sick. And as it seems like reasonable people could differ as to what do do, why don't we let the Nihenians, who I assume are just as reasonable, make their own decision?”
“Sounds suspiciously like a compromise,” Strax says, eyes narrowed, tone making it clear that this is not his preferred solution.
“Sounds suspiciously like a cop-out,” Henry notes, crossing his arms over his chest.
“You're right,” Nellie says, “that there's no sense in compromise for the sake of compromise. But this is a genuinely different option; Anaya's right. We don't need to—we shouldn't decide for all the Nihenians at once. As short as their lives are, it seems like they're fully grown. I know I wouldn't want someone making decisions for me—not such important ones.”
“No, I suppose not,” Henry agrees. “I guess I did get a little carried away.”
“We did, it's true,” Nellie corrects him subtly.
Anaya smiles, glad that her friends aren't at each others' throats. “And that will decide the fate of the parasite as well; if there are those who would prefer to live with it, then the species will survive. And if it is truly as bad as all that, then I suppose I won't shed too many tears over it.”
Strax claps his hands. “If we are all quite finished, we have some medicine to deliver.”
Nellie smiles as she reflects on how happy the innkeeper had been when they gave him the formula for the medicine and the sample vial, glad that they had seemingly done the right thing. The Nihenians had insisted on throwing a party, and for an hour or so, they hadn't a care in the world. She supposes the festivities had felt longer to their hosts, but it is still daylight as she and Anaya stroll along the cobblestones. Did it really matter how long your life was, as long as you were happy, she wonders? After all, look at Vastra! She would outlive all of them, everything else being equal, and that was really the worst of it for her. All those years alone, without her wife. And there was another happy day to look forward to, come to think of it. And perhaps Vastra would remarry, later, once the scars had healed. Which reminds her...
“Anaya,” she begins. “You used to fancy Henry, didn't you?”
“I did, it's true,” she begins hesitantly. Why is Nellie bringing this up now? “But I'm quite over him, thank you.” She looks about furtively before loosening her scarf enough to show the love-bruises, just for a few seconds, then replacing the garment with a shared giggle.
“I was just wondering what you saw in him,” Nellie begins, pausing herself. “And why you fell out of love with him.”
“Handsome, of course, even with the scars—maybe because of them. And brave, and perhaps cleverer than he lets on.” She bites her lip. “But a bit more violent, confrontational, than I might choose. Though I think he may be growing out of that, slowly but surely. And I'm quite happy at present, of course.”
Nellie nods, looking at some far-distant point. “You might be right.”
Anaya blinks. “You don't fancy him, do you?”
“It's entirely possible,”Nellie says quietly, face flushed. “But then again, perhaps not.” She struggles to suppress a laugh. “Oh, just don't tell him anything!”
“Never,” Anaya vows, joining Nellie's laughter.
“It's just that, well, life is short, you know.” Nellie fidgets.
“I know,” Anaya agrees. “And here I am home,” she says, giving Nellie a hug goodbye.
“What was all that about?” Mirabelle asks, eyes twinkling, once Anaya is inside. “Haven't got competition, have I?”
“Of course not,” Anaya laughs, still in good humor, and kisses Mirabelle. Her lover spins her around, and they settle on the sofa with a thump. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life with me?” she asks, suddenly grave.
“Maybe,” Mirabelle replies. “Do you?”
“Maybe,” Anaya responds, not trying to make light of the matter. She chuckles nervously. “I feel too young and foolish to say.”
“That's all well and good, then,” Mirabelle says, unburdened by the day's events and smiling easily. “We can be young, foolish, and gorgeous together,” she decides, and pulls Anaya happily into a kiss.
Henry squints as a sunbeam catches him in the eyes, and raises his hand to shade his face. Time to head home, he thinks, just as a hand claps him on the shoulder. “There you are!” a familiar voice calls.
“Moses.” Henry says simply.
“Been looking for you, both of us.” Moses shifts his weight to his other foot. “Wanted to apologize.”
“Nothing to apologize for.” All this walking, he muses, and it still stings a bit.
“Yes, there is,” Moses tells him sternly. “Bert knows he should have trusted you, and I should have backed you up when he questioned you. That's what brothers do.”
Henry shrugs. “For telling a load of whoppers like that, you should have thrown me in the madhouse.”
Moses shakes his head. “I always figured you were up to strange doings,” he begins. “What with a pair of lady detectives and all. And you never did explain those scars, the first time you brought them home. Just figured you'd gotten in a fight.” He runs a finger under his collar. “Can't say I expected that you'd be sorting out aliens and metal men from beyond the stars, though.” His awkward smile soon makes Henry laugh in spite of himself, and Moses joins in.
“Go home and make dinner, then, brother?” Henry asks.
“I reckon so, brother.” Moses halts as he walks. “Forgiven?” he asks.
Henry nods. He's gotten worse at holding a grudge, for all he knows why. But it does seem a bit silly, when there are only so many hours in a day, and only so many people in the world who care about him. “Forgiven.”