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Physician, heal thyself

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☽☉☾ ☉ ☽☉☾ ☉ ☽☉☾

Padua, Italy - 1542

Not many people could say they were familiar with the expression that crossed a man’s face when the core foundations of their knowledge - nay, their entire worldview - had been turned upside down. Yusuf, however, was unfortunately well acquainted with the look, having seen it painfully splashed across his beloved’s pale visage a few hundred years prior when the church’s justifications had lost their sheen. He had not expected to see such a look again, let alone when Nicolò had been in such high spirits these days.

He had been taking the opportunity to study medicine at the Universita di Padova while the Guard danced around the drama of the de Medicis and the French incursions. Each day Nicolò returned to their villa both with valuable gossip from the halls of academia but also with infectious excitement, eager to regale his family with the new knowledge he was gaining.

(Why, just yesterday he had burst in and exclaimed, “Quynh - did you know that men do not have more teeth than women?!”

Quynh had just smiled dangerously, baring her incisors. “That seems rather easy to confirm - would you like to come here and count?” she grinned, and Nicolò wisely did not take her up on her offer.)

Today, however? Today it looked as if somebody had just told him that the earth revolved around the sun instead of the other way around.

“Nicolò, my love, you seem shaken! What is wrong?” Yusuf cried, quickly moving to guide the man towards a chair. He looked unsteady on his feet, as if the firmament of the world had shaken beneath him.

“It is Professore Vesalius,” Nicolò managed to reply. “I know I have spoken highly of him in the past, but… Dio, I question now if he is of sound mind!”

“What did he say?” Yusuf wondered. He had indeed heard his beloved sing the praises of his teacher many times, greatly admiring the man’s philosophical outlook on direct observation; he was surprised that Nicolò would speak ill against the man.

“We continued watching his dissections today, and do you know what he said? He spent the entire time criticizing Galen!” Nicolò cried, throwing his arms up into the air in frustration. Yusuf could clearly see the inevitable rant coming, so he stepped back slightly to avoid the angry waving of hands. “He said that Galen’s expertise on human anatomy must be questioned because he discovered that he did not dissect humans, but rather macaques. As if that would make a difference!”

“Forgive my lack of medical training, my love,” Yusuf frowned, “But is this not the very thing you admire about him? Were you not, just mere days ago, complimenting him on his bravery in making independent observations through personal experience?”

“It is one thing to make independent observations. It is another thing entirely to somehow think those observations will dismantle hundreds of years of medical knowledge!” Nicolò stated firmly. “He thinks this is a strike against humoral theory!”

“How humorous,” Yusuf joked, only to wilt at the sharp glare it evoked from Nicolò. “Ah yes, sorry, no puns.”

“It is heretical!” he protested.

“You criticize the Pope and the Church all the time. I’m sure some would call you heretical as well.”

“Yes, but that is because they are idiots,” Nicolò scoffed. “This is not faith, it is medicine! It is science! It is meant to be carefully reasoned knowledge, it cannot be wrong.”

“It cannot?” Yusuf inquired, albeit tentatively.

“Just think of it - what would it mean that the system upon which all our medical knowledge is based is incorrect? Am I not phlegmatic? Are you not sanguine?” cried Nicolò, only getting more and more worked up. “Next he is going to say that we should not be bleeding people to cure their ills. If there is an imbalance of blood, then the blood must be let - it is common sense!”

“How ridiculous,” agreed Yusuf, nodding fervently, though only because he sensed that was the best response he could offer.

“Indeed. I do, after all, already have medical training,” Nicolò pointed out, referring back to his prior studies a century (or was it two?) earlier. “I am perfectly able to tell the Professore what is what.”

“I think,” Yusuf tentatively suggested, “That if you were to make mention of your previous studies from hundreds of years ago, you may be the unfortunate soul that ends up on the dissection table.”

“You may be right about that,” came a sigh, followed by a petulant (but nonetheless adorable, in Yusuf’s opinion) pout. “But he is wrong. I have a medical degree, I know what is legitimate!”

“I know you do, ya amar,” Yusuf crooned, standing to move behind Nico so he could drop a kiss onto the top of his head. Soothingly rubbing his shoulders, he tried to calm the other man down. “And I know you wish to correct him, but let him play around with his silly theories. Time will prove him right or wrong-” Here Nicolò scowled at him, and he quickly corrected himself. “-time will prove him wrong, of course, and one day you will be able to look back on this and laugh. In the meantime, just continue on as you have and try to take whatever knowledge you can glean from your studies. I’m sure you will be able to take something from this, no matter how foolish your teacher turns out to be.”

Nicolò sighed again, frustrated at the fact that he would be forced to hold his tongue, but he eventually agreed. The next few days did involve some further grumbling, but Yusuf knew all was well and his eager studiousness had returned when Nico bounded in the door a week later.

“Andromache!” he shouted excitedly. “Did you know that your uterus does not wander around your body?!”

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Vienna, Austria - 1847

Vienna in the springtime was lovely, despite the growing rumblings of revolution. After so much time spent travelling and fighting, it was nice to settle - however temporarily - back into city life and at least pretend to be civilized folk.

Yusuf - now József - flitted through the salons and ateliers. Sebastien - now Sebastian (the changing of one letter hardly could be called an alias, the rest of the group argued, but to no avail) - frequented gentlemen’s clubs (that the man could hardly be called a gentleman became another frequent argument amongst the group, though not one Sebastien could defend against very well). Andromache - now Andreja - somehow managed to force her way into the worlds of both serfdom and nobility, with eyes and ears open to news of proletarian unrest and the beginnings of an uprising.

Nicolò - or Nicolaus, for now - took the opportunity to do good in more immediate ways, spending his days working at the general hospital. Sebastian’s forging abilities meant he was easily able to produce credentials that allowed him to practice medicine rather than be forced to attend medical school once again, and while Yusuf missed the excitement on the man’s face that would come from each scintillating fact he would learn in class and rush home to share, he could not complain about the expression of contentment that now settled on his lover’s face after a day of helping patients.

That helping took many forms - from tending to the sick, to attending births, to assisting in post mortem examinations. And so, when he arrived home with blood and assorted bits of viscera clinging to his clothes, the group was entirely nonplussed.

“It looks like you had a busy day,” Andreja noted wryly, briefly glancing over his stained shirt and waistcoat, but the majority of her attention remained on the card game with her two compatriots.

“Indeed,” Nicolaus replied, his voice tired but satisfied. “I was assisting in a post mortem dissection this morning, and then was called away when two labouring women were brought into the obstetrical clinic. I helped deliver two healthy boys.”

“Well done, my love!” cheered József, raising a glass of wine in a toast.

Sebastian did the same, though he did not need to move his glass far from its near-permanent position at his lips. “I hope you tried to wash up before seeing the mothers,” he teased.

“How do you mean,” Nicolaus frowned.

“Only that I do not imagine seeing bits of brain on their doctor would be particularly reassuring,” the Frenchman pointed out with a shrug.

“Ah yes, a fair point. Well, as you can see -” Nicolaus gestured down at himself. “- there was not much time for that.” And then his frown turned to a bit of a smirk as he added, “For a second you were sounding very much like Dr. Semmelweis!”

Sebastian raised a brow, just barely visible as he tilted the dregs of his wine into his mouth. “Oh?”

“Yes, the man is simply mad about cleanliness. He insists on the medical students washing their hands following post mortems, before they head up to see their patients,” Nicolaus explained. “He contends it will reduce the cases of childbed fever somehow.”

“Truly?” wondered József, now more interested in this conversation than his card game. “How would that be possible? I fail to see a connection there.”

“Some nonsense about ‘cadaverous particles’ transmitting illness, I believe,” scoffed Nicolaus. “Can you imagine such a thing?”

“I cannot speak to the soundness of such an idea, but I will not fault him for wanting you to wash!” József pouted, reaching out to touch the man’s sleeve. “Look, your new coat is already stained! I shall have to purchase you a new one.”

“Speaking of washing up, why not go and do so - we have waited on dinner until you arrived,” Andreja said. (Between her words was the message that they were all hungry and were waiting for Nicolò to arrive and be the one to feed them something actually edible.)

“No no, you’re all hungry now, are you not?” he replied, receiving the message and turning to head to the kitchen. “No need to delay.”

“Are you sure?” she called out after him. “Because I brought some meat back from the market earlier, and it is bloody enough - I do not particularly need some corpse’s particles dropping into my meal!”

“You are hilarious,” Nicolaus shouted back at her. “Need I remind you that I am a doctor? I know a legitimate idea when I hear it!”

The dinner he prepared that night was indeed delicious, as always. The bout of puerperal fever the Guard came down with shortly afterwards was blamed on Andromache’s poor choice in meat selection, as was only logical.

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London, England - 1854

To Andromache’s eternal chagrin, the Guard found themselves in London for a time following their adventures in Crimea. Nicolò - now Nicholas - had insisted on officially brushing up on his medical training, his time on the battlefield making it quite clear to him that his knowledge of current medical procedures was slightly out of date. Settling in Soho was an improvement over the muddy and bloody fields of the Crimean War, but only slightly - after all, with the slaughterhouses and cowsheds that lined the streets and the animal droppings and bodily fluids that flowed over the cobblestones, calling the city a cesspool was a kind descriptor.

Still, city life had its perks. Yusuf - now Joseph - had easy access to art supplies, literature, and no shortage of salons he could charm his way into to discuss the latest cosmopolitan ideas. Sebastien - back to the proper spelling of his name once again - barely had to stumble more than a block in any direction to find a public house, and the constant supply of liquor kept him from complaining too much. Andromache - Andrea, for now - at least had plenty to occupy herself with, London being rife with robberies and prostitution rings and smuggling empires. All in all, there was enough to keep each of them busy during their days.

“Did you know that they are doing surgeries under anaesthesia now?!” Nicholas exclaimed upon entry into their home one evening, ready to regale them with his latest university lessons. “What a good idea! Is that not fascinating?”

“It is,” Joseph nodded, honestly more fascinated by the exuberance that graced his love’s face. Even if the current mode of the city’s artistic scene was not exactly to his taste, he would put up with all the snobbery to have his Nicolò exhibit such enthusiasm at the knowledge he was gaining.

He tried to hold onto that feeling, reminding himself that he would do anything for his beloved as he, Sebastien and Nicholas made their way home after an evening at the pub. Despite the lamplighters plying their trade, Broad Street was still shrouded in enough shadow that Yusuf was fairly certain he had accidentally stepped in a puddle of waste. “Shit,” he sighed, both as a curse and an observation.

“Come, there is a pump just here,” Nicholas pointed out, dragging his companions along. “You can rinse off your shoe.”

When they arrived, however, they found that was not an option. “Sir, what are you doing?” Joseph asked suspiciously, taking in a man who looked to be making an attempt at dismantling the pump.

The man jumped and turned to look at them, startled. “Oh! Dr. Snow?” Nicholas cried, recognizing the physician from the neighbourhood. “Joseph, Sebastien - this is Dr. John Snow, he has a practice on Firth Street.”

“Ah, Mr. Smith,” the man replied, a bit more at ease upon spotting a friendly face. “I am glad to see you. I don’t suppose any of you good fellows have any tools on you that would be able to remove this pump handle, would you?”

“And why would you want to do a thing like that?” Nicholas queried.

“I am hoping it will prove a theory I have, actually. You are aware of the current cholera outbreak, are you not?” Then, pulling a folded piece of paper out from his breast pocket, Dr. Snow opened up a diagram to show the men. “Look, I have been mapping the cases of disease - the incidence is highest around this location, and I suspect they can all be traced back to this very pump!”

Joseph was about to make a comment about the map’s artistic merits, but as he was thinking of phrasing that was not overly insulting, Nicholas spoke first. “You… think this pump is causing cholera?”

“Well, not the pump itself, obviously,” Dr. Snow chortled, “But the water it expels.”

“How could the water do that? Everybody knows sickness is a result of bad air,” Nicholas scoffed. “The miasmata is what causes the cholera - why, that is simply science!”

“Oh, Mr. Smith, I had hoped you would be more open-minded than that!” the doctor cried, shaking his head, and Yusuf winced internally - there was no worse way to firmly entrench Nicolò’s opinion against an argument than by insisting he was being obtuse about it.

“I do not like to think I am close-minded,” Nicholas gritted out through a clenched jaw. “But pardon me if I do not merely take your word of this flimsy hypothesis over decades of established medical knowledge. How, pray tell, would water from this pump cause illness?”

“I do not yet know the precise mechanism,” Dr. Snow admitted. “I am merely following the evidence. That is why I am here, actually, to test my hypothesis. I mean to remove this handle and prevent people from drinking from this pump - if I am correct, I expect to see the cholera cases diminish. Now, please, gentleman - I don’t suppose you have any useful tools?”

Strictly speaking, they did indeed have tools upon their persons - though they did not think a variety of concealed daggers and pistols would be of much use to the man, so they each shook their heads in the negative.

“Very well,” he sighed. “I suppose I will return better equipped in the morn and try again.”

“Why don’t you do that,” Nicholas said with a cool gaze.

Joseph saw the doctor shiver and, because he knew the full force of that glare could make lesser men cry, decided to try and temper it by kindly adding, “And perhaps it would behoove you to bring a warmer dress coat as well. The weather is getting colder.”

“Yes, yes, winter is coming,” Dr. Snow agreed, before bidding them adieu with a genteel nod.

They watched him stride off and turn the corner before Nicholas snorted. “The fact that the same university I am now attending gave that man a degree makes me question the competency of the entire institution.”

“You do not think his idea is worth exploring?” Sebastien asked curiously.

“You will recall I have several medical degrees,” Nicholas said archly. “I think I know a legitimate theory when I hear one!”

“So does that mean the pump is safe to drink from, or not?” Sebastien wondered, eyeing it with some suspicion. “I find myself suddenly thirsty, and my flask is empty.”

“Of course it is,” Nicholas replied, his voice full of conviction.

A few days later, after Sebastien developed cholera and quickly died from it, he found it made for an excellent rationalization to drink nothing but alcohol instead of water for years thereafter.

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Heidelberg, Germany - 2019

Andy’s newfound mortality prompted quite a few changes to the Guard’s standard operating procedures. For one, there was a dramatic decrease in the volume of vodka purchased during their grocery runs (much to her dismay). For another, both Nicky and Nile insisted that one of the first orders of business when arriving at each and every safehouse was to ensure it was stocked with a first aid kit.

“I think we need to amend our rule to say modern first aid kits,” Nile said as she pulled out a rusted medical chest emblazoned with a red cross from a closet in their flat. “Jeez, how old is this thing?”

“Hmm, around World War I maybe?” Joe guessed, though his attention was more focused on pulling back the curtains to let light into the space. That only served to highlight the thick coat of dust on every surface, and he grimaced.

“This thing is wild,” she exclaimed, starting to rifle through the contents. “Holy shit, is this mercury? And this has arsenic in it? And cocaine! Like, advertised right on the label, like that’s a good thing?”

“Well, at the time we thought it was,” Nicky told her from the kitchen where he was finishing storing their groceries. “Thankfully medical knowledge has progressed since then. And between your military field surgery training and what I will soon learn updating my medical degrees, I am confident we can put together a proper kit.”

“Wait, did you say medical degrees? As in, plural?” Nile blinked, turning to look at him. “You’re like, a legit doctor? How many times have you been to med school?”

“I’ve lost count, to be honest,” he shrugged. “But there is always something new to be learned!”

“Yeah, something new that shits on whatever idea came before it,” Andy snorted from her spot reclining on the couch, clearly deciding to forego any cleaning.

“You’re just mad because of the time Nicky made you get rid of your pet leeches,” Joe snickered at her.

“No, I’m not…” she protested, with as close as Andy would ever get to a pout. “But in my defense, they’re one of the few creatures that were actually useful to have around!”

It didn’t fool Joe, who winked at Nile and stage-whispered, “She named them. Her favourite one was Vlad.”

Andy ignored him, continuing, “I’m just saying, this would’ve been a lot easier a century or two ago. No need for all those fancy bandages and creams and antibiotics - just slap a few leeches on to bleed me and bam, we’re done.”

“Yeahhhh, I don’t think that would’ve worked, boss,” Joe chuckled.

“Maybe you need some of this,” Nile suggested, pulling out a bottle still half-full of gloopy brown liquid. “Here you go, this should cure what ails ya - Dr. Pierce’s Prescription for Complaints Peculiar to Females!”

“Hilarious,” came Andy’s dry reply, as both Nicky and Joe snickered.

Nile smirked, and was about to throw the bottle into the trash with the rest of the bizarre outdated supplies, but then Joe called out, “Hey Nile - dare you to drink that!”

“What?” she exclaimed, looking at it with disgust. “Seriously?”

“Well, it won’t kill you,” Andy pointed out serenely. “Permanently, at least.”

“Yeah, but who knows what it’ll do to me,” she replied, glancing over the label. It was so faded and partially torn that there was no way to know what the ingredients once were.

“You’ll be fine - trust me Nile, I’m a doctor,” Nicky added with a grin. “It’s legit, as you say.”

“And how many times have we heard that over the years?” teased Joe, throwing a wink his way.

“Yes, well,” he blushed, turning back around to fuss about in the kitchen. “I always operated under the best knowledge available at the time. They say medicine is as much an art as a science, you know.”

“I thought I was the artist of the group!” Joe cried, clutching his chest dramatically. “Or does that make me a doctor too?”

“You do have an excellent bedside manner, I will grant you that,” Nicky smiled back at him.

“Ew, I don’t wanna know,” Nile laughed, and to distract from the flirting, she uncorked the bottle and gamely took a swig. The regret was instantaneous. “Gahh! Ew ew eww! Ohhh my god, if that’s the sort of medicine you had back in the day, you guys are so fuckin’ lucky you heal on your own.”

“We did the best we could with what we had to work with,” said Nicky, a sympathetic expression on his face as she rushed over to the sink to spit out whatever she had just drunk, while Andy and Joe just cackled at her distress. “To be fair, many medical treatments did indeed do more harm than good.”

“Except for my patented treatment,” Joe added, raising an imperious brow and poking Nicky in his side. “Don’t forget, habibi, my method has a perfect success rate.”

“And what would that be?” Nile wondered, turning back around from the sink after drinking straight from the tap for a few seconds.

Joe’s blinding grin distracted her from thinking about her poor traumatized taste buds, at least. “Why, just kiss it better, of course,” he declared smugly, before leaning over to lay a loud smooch on Nicky’s cheek.

“Of course,” she groaned, good-naturedly rolling her eyes in tandem with Andy.

“No, no, he’s right,” Nicky beamed, pulling his husband back in towards his lips. “I’m a doctor, that’s legit.”

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