Out From Underneath
"Seven lifeboats, one emergency boat," a stalwart northerner testified, "which is on the same principle as the lifeboat, practically, only it is a smaller and handier boat, and two collapsible boats."
"The one that was in the tackle was the last boat that was attempted to be lowered…"
Tesla phased out at the mild hint of Great Lake accent, deciding from tone alone that the man was the sort to check his tools, then double check, the double check again before finding the manual and following it… to the letter. Infuriatingly dull. The other character, it seemed, was far more astute.
As he came into view he could see the testifying officer's impenetrable stare. Two immovable stones waiting for something that would succeed in shaking them. He wasn't challenging his questioners in the sense of lying, but in the sense of daring them to disbelieve his righteousness. It was the kind of look Tesla could remember in the eyes of his father at a Sunday sermon.
"And sixteen of another type?"
Assessing the room, head by gentleman's head, he caught sight of her, over on his right; the only skirt there, naturally. From where he stood, he couldn't make out Helen’s expression. She was watching over someone's shoulder, keeping herself unobtrusive – hiding, one might say. It matched the way she clutched her own arms against her body, her shoulders raised defensively, with feet rock-steady and a shoulder's width apart.
"You must have been painfully aware of the fact that there were not enough boats there to care for that large passenger list, were you not?"
That titbit caught Tesla's attention. What idiot didn't supply the ship with enough lifeboats for the passengers? He frowned, paying momentary attention as they moved onto how they were released from deck.
It was a new design. Any inventor knew that if there was something that might go wrong, it probably would, at some point. Why ignore something you actually had the foresight to plan for? His disdain for such idiocy caused an involuntary sneer. People. He hated people. Helen didn't classify. He'd known her too long. Which is why, despite himself, he'd come home earlier than his usual six p.m., and been somewhat disappointed to find nothing but a few boxes in his room.
They could've been sent up at any point of the day, but when she had failed to appear for an entire hour, he'd begun to suspect she'd forgotten him… and the fact that he always dined at eight. It wasn't a huge leap to figure out how. After all, the glitter of a New York shopping spree wasn't going to distract a woman who spent more time eying up medical equipment than shoes.
No, it was this morning, whilst impatiently waiting to send Griffin and Watson news of Helen's survival from the unusually busy Telegraph Office, that he'd overheard. Two journalists ahead of him had been muttering about an Inquiry at the Waldorf-Astoria, for the Titanic… naturally. To say that knowledge had been distracting was an understatement. Should he inform her, keep her away, avoid the topic, go back now and make sure she wasn't rocking back and forth in a corner? It had literally been on his mind all day. Not even three rather expensive bottles of Margaux could quite convince his frontal lobe to snap out of it, and focus on converting electric energy into controlled pulses. He tried rationalising it, and every time returned to the inescapable observation that his affections for Magnus had become completely, entirely irrational. A progression – a fact – he realised grimly, that he had simply been avoiding, ignoring, and escaping from, for the last twenty years.
"Of course, I saw Mr. Murdoch there when finally I had finished on the port side."
"You went to the starboard side?"
There was movement as a few of the people near the door decided to leave. Whether it was from boredom, emotional turmoil, or a simple desire to eat, Tesla wasn't bothered. Food was something he fancied procuring sooner rather than later, of course – the thought of forgoing his routine was making him antsy. Taking advantage of their departure Nikola shifted a little further into the room, easing his way through the crowd to sidle up to Magnus.
"And you saw him there?"
"I saw him there."
As he moved the men around him started to take note of their surroundings, and realise, to their surprise that there was a woman in their midst. Their shock completely failed to distract Helen however, which was unusual. No matter what she said, Nikola knew she was painfully aware of all the little ways men challenged her right to move amongst them, to think for herself.
She didn't even glance to see who, or what, had moved into her peripheral vision.
"No, sir;" the survivor replied, "except for boat drill of course, that was not boat drill."
"I thought we had a date," Tesla murmured ironically, finally turning to look at her properly.
The concentration on her face was intense; more absorbed than even the most fascinating of abnormal dissections, more gritted and grim than the night they'd lost Mr Hyde himself in the South African nightscape.
Perhaps dinner in the restaurant would be a bad idea. She was barely there, her presence of mind clearly disrupted by the situation, and without so much as a glare from her he was already regretting the smart-arsed comment.
"Helen?" he probed, but she was particularly slow to respond.
When she did, it was only to flash a frown at him for the disturbance.
"I take it you're not hungry then?"
Another frown – this time more of a death glare, "Nikola. Be quiet."
He sighed, rolling his eyes to the ceiling as if for mercy. Automatically he opened his mouth to start an argument, but stopped himself just short of speaking. What could he say to make her leave? He knew that look. It was hell or high-water. Stubborn as she was, if this was where she wanted to be, he'd have to have a better reason than food, or routine, to argue with. Telling her that reliving that night wasn't a good idea so soon wasn't going to cut it, even if he had the anxious feeling that it was true. She wasn't going to go anywhere until she wanted to – and he knew it.
Irritated, but resigned, Tesla settled back against the wall, arms crossed. He'd put money on her talking in her sleep tonight (again) after dredging up such fresh trauma.
"You only had nine seamen to seven boats?"
"Well, I have only been telling you approximately. As far as ever I could I put two seamen in a boat. If I didn't have a seaman there I had to put a steward there."
As the line of questioning steered away from the mundane minutia of lifeboats and towards the subject of the sinking itself, Tesla found himself genuinely interested. Brief flashes of experience, of truth, popped and crackled from the man's matter-of-fact testimony. The confusion on the deck, the lack of officers, the recruitment of stewards who'd been directing passengers to the dining room hours before, to man the rafts as crew… it was something of a revelation.
The vampire found his eyes flicking, constantly, to Magnus. Observing her expression for any hint of what she'd been through as Mr Lightoller, second officer, told the US Senators how thirty crew members huddled on an overturned boat. How others were plucked from the water by those lifeboats which had generously decided to turn back. The shocking statistics elicited many a shaking head; out of 900 crew members, only 210 survived, many of them having given up their chance for the women and children first.
"Why did you do that?" Senator Smith enquired, as though such a notion could have had some kind of ulterior motive, "Because of the Captain's orders, or because of the rule of the sea?"
The Lancastrian visibly bristled at the suggestion, "The rule of human nature."
"The rule of human nature?" Smith didn't sound half as disbelieving as Tesla would've in his position, at the notion of human nature being anything but a selfish desire to survive, "And there was no studied purpose, as far as you know, to save the crew?"
Helen's eyes cast down at that, eyes moistening but never daring to betray her, her breath hitching slightly at a memory she would likely never wish to share. Tesla could hear her heart pick up a pace, like many of the others in the hushed room.
The tale continued; a sad litany of disasters growing more direct as the minutes wore on and their stomachs began to growl. It was baffling, how concerned the Americans were with their countrymen's behaviour, Smith enquiring as to how well they had acquitted themselves as if their nation somehow had the duty of showing the world how. Gradually, however, the Senator's questioning grew less nit-picky, and Lightoller's descriptions became more shocking to the ears.
With the steadiness of a sailor, the officer explained how the ship tilted forwards, until the crow’s nest was level with the water, and the bridge submerged. Some 2,000 people still on that boat as it went under, Smith estimated aloud: engineers, firemen, trapped below deck, the roaring engines at searing temperatures hitting the freezing water. Tesla closed his eyes at the thought, knowing full well what kind of effect that might have, and struggling to reconcile the cold facts with the knowledge that Helen had lived every minute of it.
Lightoller had been pulled under himself, the suction yanking him down, holding him against the grating as water rushed inside, into the belly of the ship. He'd been trapped, in that icy prison, saved by the grace of the boilers exploding, blowing him out like a whale. Barely thrown away from the ship, the officer had ended up alongside an upturned lifeboat, only to watch helplessly as a funnel fell upon it, and crushed the survivors clinging on. At that point, the ship was still only half submerged, the stern at an angle, which he colourfully demonstrated with his hand.
Yet, without a drop of abnormal blood in him, without any super-healing abilities, with nothing, it seemed, but the grace of God, he had survived all that. Luck. It elicited the same sensation in Tesla as it did Magnus: a terrified disbelief that she stood here at all.
"You had better give their initials," Smith instructed the officer, and the tiring task of locating the living and dead disrupted the captivated silence.
It was only then that Helen looked away from Office Lightoller, as if waking from a trance, and despite her best efforts she couldn't avoid Nikola's gaze for long. The look of concern on his face nearly dissolved her façade, threatening to offer a comfort she wasn't ready to receive. Clearing her throat, with an authority she didn't really feel, she blinked away the tumult of sensations and exhaled.
"Come on, I suppose we had better-"
"Right," he interrupted, which meant there was something he really wanted to say, but instead there was only a pause. A silence in which it was hastily deleted from the conversation. In its place, the more familiar, if slightly hesitant version of his smile emerged, "I'm famished, how about you?"
She was going to kill him. Trapped in the middle of a bustling restaurant, where every eye, it seemed, eventually turned her way, was not her idea of recuperating. All it took was one short silence, to hear the mutters of conversation to her side, in front and behind. The number one topic of conversation: every uneducated opinion on the tragedy and drama of something their pampered noggins couldn't even begin to comprehend. It put her back up, made her skin crawl.
Barely as far as the starters, and she was already fuming: it was a record, even for Tesla.
"Relax Helen," The clever smile faded somewhat, as her more than hostile stare amped up a few degrees at the suggestion. He began making a study of the wine glass sat on the table at his hand.
"Relax?" she bit archly.
His eyes flashed to her in all seriousness, knowing full well what he was putting her through, and why. Still he managed to shrug nonchalantly, before avoiding her eyes again, "No one knows."
"All they see," he smirked at her languidly, "is a beautiful woman, in a beautiful dress."
She scoffed instantly. None of this would have been half as bad if it hadn't have been for the damn dress.
As they'd returned to the apartment she'd agreed with his logic. It was true, she should make an effort not to shut herself away, but finding a dinner dress already laid out on the bed was a step too far. Finding out that it looked positively spell-binding on her was even worse. His presumption was beyond infuriating, and quite how he'd managed to corral her down here in the first place, she was still trying to figure out.
Her smile wasn't a happy one, "This isn't funny Nikola."
"Am I laughing?"
Her resolve not to cause a scene and draw attention to herself was slowly slipping, yet somehow she managed to lower her scathing voice; "Do you really think my idea of a perfect evening, right now, includes sitting beneath the world's scrutiny and stroking your ego?"
"Well," he tried not to appear ruffled by the comment, "one, the world isn't in this room, and even if it was, it wouldn't know what it was looking at. And two," a finger in the air as usual, "this isn't about me, for once… but you."
"Oh? Really? How gracious of you."
"Snap all you want Helen, but it won't change the fact that you need to face this, and I'm just trying to help."
"And making me beyond uncomfortable is a successful tactic is it?"
"I was attempting the very opposite," he smarmed.
"Alright," the flirting disappeared, replaced with a far more palatable combination of frustration and determination. It was the same look he gave a highly annoying scientific problem that had proven unsolvable, for far too long, an expression that Magnus knew well. "But consider for a moment, why it is you feel uncomfortable. Is it the dress, or the thought that they pity you: their attention, or mine?"
Magnus pressed her lips together in annoyance, but something held her back from arguing. Behind her stern blue eyes the cogs were turning, whirring away. He was right, damn it, and she wasn't sure what worried her more. Being this emotionally compromised by that damn ship, or that she wasn't as bothered by Nikola's haphazard flirting as she'd been making out… and he knew it.
Quietly the waiter removed their plates in preparation for the main. Neither of them blinked an eye.
No, it was the ship. She could trust Nikola to put their friendship, their camaraderie before any other personal feelings. Just like he had when they'd been forced to cooperate with John not four years ago. That night, on the other hand… could it really have been less than a week ago? She still couldn't quite grasp it.
When she'd walked into this room, decked with beaded embroidery like a midnight sky, pale silk gloves reaching over the elbow, she couldn't have felt more exposed. It felt as though every eye had landed on her – the gentleman two tables down with the dark, mid-parted hair, the ladies to the left muttering behind fans in between courses. It couldn't have been her appearance, surely? Someone must have recognised her, perhaps one of them had been there too, or seen her at the inquiry? They were going to realise that she was a survivor – and her stomach had flip-flopped at the thought of what they might ask, what they might say… what she might reply with in return. She knew it wouldn't be pleasant. New York socialites, by and large, were atrociously probing gossips compared to their London counterparts, something Magnus wasn't known to abide for long. At least in England they'd have left well enough alone… and now she was trapped here. Among the sharks.
As much as she didn't want to be prodded like a specimen at the dinner table, however, she had no desire to be mollycoddled, or handled with care: a situation which, if she felt that vulnerable simply walking into a room, would become unavoidable.
Better face it then, she reminded herself, steeling her heart and twitching her hand around the cutlery as the main course arrived. She still wished she had a gun though. The cold weighty metal would have been… reassuring.
Tesla had picked up his cutlery too, but his eyes were still fixed on her, waiting for a response: preferably one with an apology or expression of thanks attached. Eventually she sighed. He always had had a flair for dramatics. Silently, but unwaveringly, she dug into the main course with slightly less venom than the first, and the moment dissolved into quiet, dinner-fuelled contemplation.
The sirloin was delicious, the mushrooms and creamed carrots slid across the palette. Even after devouring their first course not minutes ago it felt like months since she’d tasted real food. Her tongue resuscitated at each flavour, her stomach welcoming the nourishment with a twinge of complaint at her neglect. Breakfast had been a basic affair, and lunch… she wasn't entirely sure whether or not she'd skipped lunch entirely. After ship rations on the Carpathia her insides had become accustomed to small portions of tasteless food but this, this was, almost hedonistic in comparison.
She reached greedily for the burgundy, remembering herself in time to chew and swallow before gulping down the fine red and letting it dance amongst the juices. She risked a glance across the table as she did so, and realised he was still watching her. Beneath Nikola's stare, unrelenting even as he tipped his own glass and sipped at the wine, she could feel the overwhelming pressure to say something in return.
"It would have been appreciated if we'd stood out a little less," She muttered in surrender.
He chuckled at that, sounding somewhat relieved, "We've always stood out from the crowd Helen. Besides," his eyebrow rose, "since when did you become so demure in your sartorial choices? I seem to remember a preference for red when we were at Oxford."
Magnus smiled faintly at the memory, the autumnal leaves and wide-eyed stares of the new bachelor scholars that first time they'd met. It was true. She'd never been the shrinking violet, the wallflower, the ghost in the room; to start being that woman now would be like denying who she was. Helen Magnus did not shrink from danger, did not hesitate to challenge what she knew to be wrong, she did not fear the eyes and tongues of men who thought themselves clever. If she did it today, tonight, tomorrow… well, it was a slippery slope to becoming a person she would no longer respect.
"And last I checked," she remembered, "it was still particularly forward of a man to present a woman with a dress she's never tried on."
"Well, I take it from the minimal number of boxes upstairs you didn't get particularly far with your wardrobe today."
"Hmm, you could say that," She replied distantly, a faint look of confusion as she zoned into the conversation at another table. Just a few hushed lines and nothing more, of a discussion on Mr Ismay's cowardly behaviour.
"And, I didn't see any evening dresses."
Magnus' attention snapped back to the Serb with amazement, "Unbelievable." How dare he go looking through her clothes, "Do you have any regard for other people's privacy?"
He couldn't resist the cocky grin despite the fact that he hadn't, in fact, looked. Thought about it, yes, plucked up the courage, no. The pleasure he expressed was more for the ease with which he'd pushed her buttons, and caused that fabulous intensity in her eyes. She might be glaring, true, but her attention was here, and not there, languishing in the depths of a maritime disaster.
"Remind me to shoot you later."
"Oh not that old chestnut. Can you at least make sure you don't destroy the suit this time?"
She grinned, evilly, relaxing into their usual banter with another sip of wine. Minx. She had no idea what that oh-so-superior confidence could do to a man.
"I'll take it off if it helps," He insinuated.
Helen nearly choked on the drink, actually blushing. She couldn't remember him ever being so bold as to suggest that before. "I'm not sure that will be necessary Nikola," She eyed him with amazement – was this just for her benefit? She hoped so. Last thing she needed was for him to have actually meant it.
Feigning disappointment, despite feeling it just a little, Tesla smiled to himself, recalling the way she'd flirted with him that time in Peru. Back then, he'd been the one surprised, with the ease with which she drew out his barely voiced allusions into fully formed innuendo, before briskly batting them back. Until then, it had been a game they'd never indulged in, and ever since he'd been plagued by the notion that perhaps she had regretted it. She'd never once mentioned the intimacy of that delightful evening, or the ancient cave, or the stupid multi-headed shark they'd completely failed to capture. Then again, in those ten intervening years, they'd not once had time alone to themselves.
Perhaps tonight he could remind her, recall the conversations which had made him feel so close. Maybe, with a little encouragement, she wouldn't run away this time.
"So, go on," he continued, leaning across the table, wine-glass perched in his hand, "bore me with the details of your day."
"I spent most of it at the… hotel, actually."
He could see she was thinking about the ship again. Not good. "When did you get back?"
"Early." She polished off her food, "I couldn't stand it for long."
"Ah, let me guess, the triviality of white or pale green, silk or satin, was driving you mad."
She gave a dry chuckle, "Partially. The assistants were rather grating."
His lip curled at the thought of a simpering sales pitch, "Hmm. No doubt."
"One of them spoke to me like I had never seen a fur coat before! Honestly, I was this far away from giving her a do-you-know-who-I-am speech," she grimaced at the thought of how much she would've regretted it if she had.
"Seems they brought out the pensioner in you," He teased.
She didn't rise to the bait, "Something like that. I didn't stick around for long; even carried the boxes back myself."
The thought of her taking umbrage in such a typically Magnus fashion made him laugh, "They must have been positively scandalised."
Helen felt, bizarrely, proud of herself at the suggestion.
It had felt good, hadn't it, striking out on her own without paying heed to their old notions of civility? The notions she'd put up with, worked around, and tolerated all her life.
The conversation moved seamlessly after that, studiously avoiding the ocean in favour of the expedition she and Nigel had been on last month in the south of France. Then from the Midi to New York, and Tesla's latest inventions – his on-going spat with Marconi over the radio patents. Helen mentioned James' latest discovery in the Peridax species, and discussed their ideas for expanding overseas: a line of thinking which clearly pleased Tesla no end.
By the time they left the dining hall Helen could almost have forgotten the last week, and presumed she'd been here the whole time. It was a nice fantasy, but in the hallway she experienced a sound thwack to reality.
"I understand that; but I am not prepared to meet that request," Senator Smith's voice had taken a more resolved tone, as it echoed through the partially open door of the conference room.
Tesla looked at her the minute she paused, his stomach plummeting. Of course, the inquiry was back in session again, and naturally enough she was drawn to the sound of it. After all that time, painstakingly rebuilding some sense of normality, and she was going to throw it away. He tugged on her fingers a little, forcing her to look at him – but she didn't scowl as she might've two hours ago.
Please, that look on his face said, don't go back in there.
Still, he had to say it just to be sure: "Helen?"
"I…" she paused, overhearing the other male voice complaining as politely as he could that he couldn't keep tabs on everybody, all the time. The tension in that voice rattled with his despair, the pain and suffering. She shuddered, her body already moving away from the door… which happened to be in Nikola's direction. "I don't think it would be wise," She managed, muttering as though to herself.
Tesla couldn't really hide the sigh of relief.
"Quite enough for one day."
"My thoughts exactly," he replied, moving his hand thoughtlessly to the small of her back.
It took all of about five seconds before she smacked it away.