A/N: I'm still alive! Sorry for the delay... Thanks emeraldeyes412, SassyCop, and Rugbygirrl for reviewing the last chapter. :)
Claudia slumped into the seat, feeling… well, she wasn't really sure how she felt. Frustrated. Defeated. Drained. Lonely. Confused. Tired. Under the wing of a cousin she barely knew, but was quickly discovering had some ruthless streak. Could Claudia expect the same treatment if she actually did her journalism degree and became a reporter like Novak? She let out a long sigh. Australia seemed light years away.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Dr Durant and a Hispanic kid about Claudia's age hurriedly burst into the room. "What's going on?" Claudia wondered aloud.
"Another cluster of patients in Dover, Delaware," Durant responded absently. "Ernesto works at the diner. He brought some swab samples that Dr Connor took."
"Hey," said Ernesto, still puffing slightly. He'd evidently been running to get to Durant at the hospital, which made sense of course, considering one man was already dead from… whatever this was. Claudia quickly poured a cup of water from the cooler in the room and handed it to Ernesto. "Thanks," he said, taking a big gulp.
"No problem. I'm Claudia." They shook hands.
"You a doctor?" Ernesto asked, as they both watched Durant test the samples.
"No, I'm just… observing their work for a while." For how long? Claudia wondered. She didn't know if she could handle the brutality of this environment indefinitely, didn't know if she could live in America with her father, didn't know…
"What?" Durant exclaimed.
Claudia turned around. "What's up?" she asked.
"Nitrate poisoning," Durant murmured almost to herself before getting on the phone to Connor.
Durant was in the isolation ward getting increasingly frantic and frustrated when Eva returned to the office. The two cousins had a minor stare-off before Claudia asked quietly: "So, are you going to tell me where you've been?"
"I'm sorry about before," said Eva. "You were right in a way. We all have our jobs to do. Even Mr Novak." She picked up the hospital layout and pointed at what appeared to be some kind of basement area. "This is where I left him. I didn't want to resort to that, but my loyalty is to NIH and when Stephen Connor says no press he means it. Mr Novak will be fine. When the time comes, I'll make sure he gets this story before anyone else."
Claudia blinked and dragged up a half-smile. "I think I'm beginning to understand why there's such a love-hate relationship between journalism and public relations."
Eva grinned and pulled Claudia towards her embrace. "I know it's been hard for you getting caught in the middle of your parents'…"
"…Shit?" finished Claudia.
"You love that word. You said it to me earlier."
"It's a great word. I can swear a little in front of my cool American cousin, right?"
Eva laughed. "Sure. Anyway, I know it's been hard and we don't know each other that well yet," Eva continued. "But you're family and I want you to know that I'm always going to be here for you. Professionally and personally. And if you ever want to talk about it…"
"It worked!" Natalie interrupted them brightly, almost sprinting into the room with the good news. "Connor was right!"
"Connor's always right," said Eva, smiling. She squeezed Claudia's shoulder. "Guess we'll be flying back soon. Was that enough excitement for your first day?"
Claudia smiled back. "Shit yeah."
Connor and Frank soon returned to the hospital, and Claudia noted that Connor seemed… well, not relaxed, but certainly not as ice cold as when he'd left. She thought he might even have looked at her and kind of smiled, but she couldn't be sure.
Frank was immediately on the phone to chase up one last piece of the puzzle, while Connor and Durant began to explain to Eva and Claudia what had connected all the blue patients. All of them had ingested large doses of sodium nitrate in the form of saltpetre. They had all eaten the same breakfast and used the same salt shaker at the diner, which had been unwittingly filled with the saltpetre. They also all had alcohol in their system.
"Sodium nitrate deprives cells of oxygen, so does alcohol," Connor explained. "Put the two of them together, they were literally suffocating from the inside out."
Claudia shuddered to think that something so innocuous could make someone so sick. And in the case of Wes Douglas, dead in less than a day.
"The bag of salt came from the Greggson & Mann Food Plant in New Jersey," Frank announced, as he got off the phone. "They also process saltpetre. Somehow the two got switched."
"They ship it to the Dover site?" asked Connor.
"Plus a hundred other cities on the east coast."
"Get a list of Greggson & Mann customers now," Connor told Eva. "The story's spent the last 12 hours trying to stop, let it roll."
"Got it," said Eva. She looked down at Claudia. "Now you get to learn about press releases! But first I gotta go pick up Mr Novak. I think you should stay here again." A sly smile escaped her lips. "You never know, you might have to work with him someday and I wouldn't want him to see you and think you were in on his unlawful imprisonment."
Claudia nodded with a smirk, not objecting this time. "You did good work today, by the way," Eva added on her way out.
Claudia was about to sit down, when Connor approached her. "How was your first day, Ms Alessio?"
"Uh, yeah, good thanks," Claudia replied, taken by surprise – partly because Connor was actually acknowledging her existence, and partly because he'd remembered her name. "Very interesting."
Connor smiled – a definite smile, for the first time. "Just another day at the office," he said. "I'm sorry there's not a lot of sightseeing involved. Maybe Eva can show you around sometime. Do you have any plans for the weekend?"
"I don't know. I only flew in a couple of days ago. Might catch up on some sleep."
"That's a good idea. It only gets more exciting and tiring from here."
"How about you?"
"Well," Connor began thoughtfully, "Hopefully I'll get to spend some time with my family."
For some reason, Claudia hadn't imagined Connor with a family. "Do you have kids?" she found herself asking.
"A son. Jack. He's 12."
Connor turned away slightly. "Separated," he said.
"Sorry to hear," said Claudia. "My parents are, too. I'm really only in the US right now because of my dad."
Connor looked up. "What's it like for you? With your parents being apart, I mean."
Claudia shrugged. "It's fine, but I'm not exactly a kid anymore. But… I miss my mum, y'know."
"Yeah…" Connor gave her a completely unexpected pat on the shoulder before going out to check on his now-healthy coloured patients one last time.
Claudia pulled out her phone and scrolled down to her father's US number, staring at it for what seemed like an eternity. Then she put it away. She was probably going to see him again this weekend anyway. There would be plenty of time to talk, or not, then.
A/N: Thus concludes episode 1 (You're Not Alone). Not sure how many episodes Claudia's story will run for, but I do need to rewatch the next episode (In Bloom), figure out which scenes Claudia would be in, and fill the gaps. I'll also be able to write Miles into the next lot of chapters. Meanwhile, reviews are love.