Magnus was attempting to supress a yawn, much to Tesla's amusement. It reminded him of those nights spent revising exams last minute in the Bodleian library, and occasionally their rooms. He could have cursed his younger self for allowing her that intimacy without the threat of emotional strings attached, but he just hadn't been able to resist it. Her presence was simply too illuminating, too brilliant to deny and he had always considered it better to live with just a little of her attention, than to remain bereft of it all his life. Besides which that younger, less experienced, and all-too-human version of himself, had been too focused on his work, too controlled, and even more suspicious of the barbs of human contact to realise what he was feeling for her. It had taken him four years to work it out, and by then things had gotten complicated.
"What time is it?" she asked as they removed their coats in the safety of the hotel suite.
Tesla automatically glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece, a little surprised at the hour, "Nearly midnight."
She humfed thoughtfully, "I fear our excursion has tired me out. I can't remember the last time I was this fatigued after nine hours sleep!"
He was looking at her with an unreadable expression. As though he wanted to point something out, but had decided to err on the side of caution and keep his mysterious thoughts to himself.
"I think I shall retire to bed."
"To my bed you mean," he smiled cheekily.
She paused before she reached the door, eying him with a guarded but slightly curious smile, "Ye-es," she drew out the word, casting a side-glance as she tried to figure him out, "The bed you have so kindly leant me use of."
He surprised her, moving closer in a way that threatened to make good on some kind of unspoken promise, and yet never made contact. It sent an unconscious, unbidden spark through her gut, her heart picking up without any logical reason. She started watching him like a hawk.
"I'm starting to miss it," he mused aloud.
Helen nearly chocked in surprise. He knew what he was saying, the quirked eyebrow was as laden as the statement was supposedly innocuous, and yet he remained at arm's length, his demeanour as unthreatening as he could've made it. What was he playing at?
As she attempted to puzzle it out, her eyes narrowing, Nikola decided to relieve her from the more startling conclusions she might have conjured: "Well… the sofa's not exactly soft on the back."
"And what, exactly, would you propose?" she dared to call his bluff, steeling herself for any number of come-backs she had just set up.
His expression quirked with excitement at the audacity of her response, whatever had first sprung to mind quickly suppressed as his electric eyes started drifting to her lips. Something she'd never really noticed him doing before.
"Well," his voice was softer too, hesitant even at the prospect of what he was about to suggest, though his grin grew wider, "we could share."
"Nikola Tesla!" She was too tired to slap him; righteous indignation would have to do.
"Come on Helen," he argued, all teasing set aside in favour of a more practical tone that was less likely to end with her slamming the door in his face, and not talking to him for a week, "we've known each other nearly thirty years. When have I ever given you cause to doubt my-"
"Do you really want me to answer that question?"
He gave her a pointed look to match her own, "Okay fine. But I promise, I mean nothing untoward… I just want to get a decent night's sleep."
Her suspicion was evidently mounting, and he knew then that the game was almost up. "Since when did you ever need a decent night's sleep? You barely sleep for three hours as it is." It was there, in the way she stood to face him, the tilt of her head, the squint in her blue eyes, "Nikola?"
Yep, busted. Instantly he began to shy away from her scrutiny. It was barely perceptible, but she'd known him too long not to detect the slight recoil, the shiftiness that came before his admissions of truth.
"Out with it," she stood more sturdily, arms crossed like a parent might approach a naughty child.
"Out with what?" he quizzed unnecessarily, barely even stalling for time.
"There's something the matter…"
Magnus wasn't so sure it was as simple as him wanting to ogle her or take advantage. Aside from the fact that he'd never done so, never even attempted to before, and that for so much of his life Tesla had expressed nothing but great disdain towards physical contact, it just didn't fit. She just couldn't shift the sensation that he was trying to distract her from something else.
"What's wrong?" she tried again, a little softer, arms slipping down to rest against her sides.
It took a moment, but eventually Tesla sighed. He turned away, so she missed the look of consideration as he worked out his response; one which was true, but not entirely honest. His hand swept back his jacket to perch on his hip as he so often did when cornered, stepping back into his own space, and taking a collecting breath that hissed through his vocal chords like an engine.
"I found out about Astor."
Magnus' lips pinched with guilt, her eyes full of sympathy. Of course he'd be acting out of sorts, and of course he wouldn't want to bring it up when she was around, push her for answers – but it was clearly preying on his mind. Perhaps that's why he'd been so willingly distracted from his work for a cause he'd been so quick to criticise… and she'd been too wound up to question it. Or remember to give him the news herself.
"I'm sorry Nikola."
If he'd picked up on the depth of that statement he didn't show it. His shoulders slumped a little, his whole countenance depressed a little at the thought, and he started to wander towards the sideboard.
"I literally walked past the headlines, for days," he explained, "and I didn't even notice." Uncorking a bottle of wine he let it breathe, twisting towards Helen momentarily, "Didn't even know he was on board."
That guilty feeling began to build up again inside Magnus' chest. She'd robbed him of that, and if she was honest with herself, it was because she'd been scared of bringing up that night again to her own mind. Otherwise she wouldn't have spent the morning indulging in something so inconsequential as Tesla's homework. She'd have gone straight to his lab and let him know.
"But that was Jack for you," he continued bitterly, "never one to pass up an opportunity to marvel at feats of engineering he could only just comprehend."
He was only being prickly about it because he cared, she knew, it was the same sarcasm that accompanied his most bitter disappointments. Besides which he had obviously regarded J.J's intellectual capacity with enough sincerity to tolerate his input into their projects – and to purposefully obfuscate the purpose of Colorado: a measure which would hardly have been necessary if Astor had been quite as dim-witted as he now claimed.
She watched him pour out a glass of wine before turning to her, "Night cap?" He offered her a short glass of it, which she took, even though she'd have preferred a cup of tea at this point.
It would be a little sad to let him drink alone, she thought, despite the fact he physically couldn't drink himself to a stupor, "Thank you."
"And now what?" he plonked the bottle back on the table with a sigh, finally taking up his own glass and leaning against the sideboard as he spoke with her, "That kid of his wants to go into publishing," he pulled a face, lips pulling back from a sip on his own drink, "The little worm probably wouldn't even recognise a filament from a transformer if it electrocuted him – so now all my innovations in turbine engines is going to just – phwp – fall into a hole of legal bureaucracy."
And there was the rub. Magnus' expression hardened a little at Nikola's selfishness. Not that she didn't understand his concerns, but somehow she knew that the thought of losing his funding had not only been the first thought to cross his mind – it was also the one he cared about most.
"So I take it you and J.J. hadn't completely made amends then…"
He looked at her with a raised eyebrow of genuine surprise, "Why'd you say that?"
She shook her head. Honestly, sometimes she wondered if he'd been born on another planet; one where humanity had clearly never existed and compassion was an alien concept. She blinked slowly, "Never mind."
"We'd been getting along quite well actually, before he skipped off to Europe with Mary, Margret, May…" he wafted his hand around.
"Yeah, that one. We were making good progress too…" that sour look crept in again at the thought of missing out on another Nobel Prize.
Magnus knew she needed to distract him, before she had to put up with a full-blown sulk. "Is that what this is…" she pointed in the direction of the window, and the contraption sat on the table beneath the sheet, "progress?"
He followed her singular digit, realising that she wasn't just pointing at the furniture. "No," he smirked between sips on his drink, and feeling no small amount of pride in the fact she'd taken an interest, "that's just a side-project. The turbine work is all in the lab."
That was all he said on the matter. No more, no less. Which was puzzling to Magnus; she had been certain that once she'd gotten him started on such an interesting invention he'd be engrossed for a good hour explaining it to her, and how he'd come across the genius idea.
She wasn't going to push her luck though. Not when it had been the reason she'd not gone out to find him sooner... there it was again, that niggling guilt.
"Nikola I…" she stared at the middle-distance as if she was about to bore a hole in the furniture, "knew about Astor." Her remorseful expression finally managed to look him in the eye at the admission, though it wasn't without a hint of apprehension. Then it was his turn to look away, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner," she shook her head, concerned that the silence was one of genuine rejection, "It, honestly, I, didn't even think about it, it didn't occur to me until today. I was just so relieved to be on land…"
"Don't," he coaxed softly from across the room, until she met his gaze, "be sorry."
"But I should have said something. It would've been better coming from me, instead of the daily papers for God's sakes. Astor was your friend."
He half laughed, half-snorted in a reflective manner; recalling those few days where it had truly felt that way. Bent over blueprints explaining the next stage of development to Astor's eager ears, the aviation demonstrations, the after-dinner Cognac where the younger man would ask excitedly for an explanation of the theory of space travel. The millionaire had remained an insufferably optimistic and trusting man, but Tesla had never actually disliked him, whatever his past actions might've indicated.
In a way, Helen was right; it may have lessened the sharpness of reality to hear it from her tender lips. To hear it from someone who'd played witness, even if only from a distance… to a fate that could've well become her own. Nikola studied Magnus a little, and hesitated. He almost asked. Almost asked what had happened to Astor, but in the end it wasn't worth reminding her any more than he already had, of those terrors before she laid down to sleep. He felt that twinge of concern again, at the sounds he'd heard her utter in her dreams, of the frightened gasps, and keening whimpers. The most un-Magnus like sounds he'd ever heard in his life. They were more like the cries of a child than the strong woman he adored, and how he wished to chase them away.
Helen could tell, however, that it had crossed his mind to ask after Astor's final moments – recognising the look of consideration right before he dashed it.
"We met…" she offered into the peculiar silence, understanding somewhat the morbid curiosity which stirred in these situations, "quite by accident actually." Her voice went quiet, "He seemed like a lovely man. Certainly didn't deserve the cold shoulder everyone was giving him over the scandal – they loved each other very dearly, I think. Despite her age, rather than because of it."
Tesla remained unnervingly quiet, offering no comment to her observations. Not that Helen was particularly surprised by that alone. He was often tight-lipped about the few meaningful acquaintances he'd cultivated outside of The Five. She had read about his friendship with Mark Twain in a magazine! Long before he started recalling aloud how Samuel Clemens used to potter around in his laboratory – marvelling at his genius and providing him with the best study-company he'd ever had the pleasure of. Present company excluded, he'd been quick to add, but Helen was a scientist, so of course she'd understood the nuances of his method. Clemens had been more of a Renaissance man, and from the rare warmth Tesla described him by, she was aware that despite losing touch as life dragged the writer to its inevitable conclusion, the two had been close.
Of course, that revelation hadn't been nearly as much of a shock as when she'd met Katherine Johnson after the 5th Avenue fire… it was moments like that when Magnus wondered whether she really did know him after all. It was as though he lived a double life, one that he had always seemed strangely reluctant to involve her in. Whereas, if he had so much as expressed an interest in her work at the Sanctuary, Helen would've had no hesitation involving him in her world... their world, really. The world The Five had built together. There would always be a place for Tesla there, and she hoped she'd never given him cause to think otherwise.
It was strange though, how his silence covered those barely veiled glances in her direction. It made her wonder if perhaps he was less worried about Astor and his impending financial situation as about her… it sounded bizarre even to her inner monologue after their conversation. Yet she couldn't shake the feeling that despite the self-contemplative appearance, he was watching her closely, assessing her, searching for even a hint of her own inner thoughts.
Uncomfortable, suddenly, she put down her wine, having barely tasted it, and broke the wordlessness with a sigh. "I don't really feel like wine after all," she admitted, about to turn away.
"We can spend the morning building you an impromptu lab, if you like," he sprang to life again, alert with the prospect of a new project, "So you can run your tests on Mr Mystery."
She smiled genuinely, "Thank you. That would be a great help. I'll have some money wired from London… to cover the costs."
Shrugging he stood and came closer, "Well…" his grin slowly elongated into something more cavalier – always the first sign that he was about to say something he knew full well he shouldn't dare to, "you know, I'm already getting something out of it if you're there, aren't I?"
She almost sniggered at the loaded compliment, finding her smile to be as irrepressible as her amusement. He noticed, despite the rather obvious roll of the eyes in his direction, and it encouraged him just a little.
"Good night Nikola."
Though she turned for the bedroom he did not lose his mischievous expression, it had been too much fun to tease.
Hanging back before the unlit fireplace, he just had to get in the last word. "Enjoy my bed," he threw out cheekily over his reclaimed glass of wine. He sipped, taking in the sight of her retreating form, and delighting, above all, in the brief, barely audible, chuckle which surreptitiously slipped passed her lips.
Everywhere was a commotion, like ants scrabbling to combat the destruction of their nest, arms and hands deployed to shift the huge weights of two remaining lifeboats. Rounding the corner she could see the starboard side was much further ahead in getting the collapsible craft to the deck. The men heaving in time to bring it down a make-shift slide of oars and wooden planks in one piece. She wanted to help but there was barely room to move between them all.
The ship gave out an almighty shudder and she clung automatically to the railing, the bow suddenly lurching down, threatening to take the small craft beneath the sea. It was only then she realised, with terror clawing up her throat, and eyes wide to the revelation, how close they were to the water. Glancing behind her she could see the deck was already tilting, the gradient growing steadily higher. They weren't going to make it.
Swallowing tightly as two men leapt to action, cutting the lifeboat free from the ropes in which it had become ensnared, she realised it wasn't going to make a clean break. Already the waves were creeping into it, washing people away and sucking them into the icy water with screams and gasps, as their grasping hands gave up on them. The water swirled like a whirlpool, sucking, growling as it gulped them in.
Heart hammering with growing panic, flooding her veins with adrenaline and fear, Magnus found her feet already clawing backwards, scrabbling up the deck to stay in the dry. The minute she hit that water she'd be facing a ticking clock, she knew, before her body succumbed to the exposure. She'd seen it before, in the Swiss Alps, when they'd lost their eager assistant to the unseasonable cold. His whole body had turned blue.
Shrieks filled her ears, the music replaced by the growing clamour as everyone still on board shifted towards the now-rising stern. Magnus tripped, scrambling to stand, and saw, out of all the things in the world, an abandoned sack of food in her eye line. The angle let the contents slip out, tins and packets moving towards her. A pack of lard slid like a toy and her brain fired in all directions; vague memories of Nigel's experiments with his invisibility providing a moment of fevered inspiration. Grabbing for it manically she managed to propel herself further up deck, ripping off the wrapping, until the soft white fat was plied in her fingertips. One hand trying to loosen her upper garments and the weighty life-preserver, the other lathering her neck with the disgusting substance, her feet somehow carried her upwards with everyone else. She smeared as much as she could against her skin, trying to create a layer beneath her clothes as she glanced desperately, left and right, for the nearest water-tight boat to her position.
The bizarrely clear thought crossed her mind that she had been a fool for giving up the chance. It was every man for themselves. Even then, there hadn't been time for anything else. Now she was faced with the knowledge that this was literally a last ditched attempt, and still, she could not stop herself.
A man grabbed her roughly by the strings of her jacket, making her jump out of her skin, grunting, clawing to remove the open life preserver hanging loosely around her body. His wild features frantically tearing as she fought to hold her ground, twisting and clinging desperately, to keep it firm in place. The lights flickered. She hefted an elbow into his eye-socket with a great big thump, following it with a punch that further tenderised the delicate flesh. The man recoiled, bleeding, keening into his hands and she didn't have a moment to feel sorry.
He came at her again with a heart-tearing squeal, and with her slippy hands gripped around the revolver in her pocket she pointed it towards him and squeezed. Against the noise the crack was indistinguishable from the almighty heave of a funnel collapsing, but she had scared him off without hitting him; her shaky aim off-put by the slide of her finger against the metal.
A false sense of control slid through her. Her clothes flapped at the openings where she'd been so desperately applying the fat to her epidermis, the chill hitting her as if a wind had stirred. Tying herself back in and doing up her clothes before anyone else got the same idea she realised the water had gained on her. Starting to slip along with the debris, she was soon losing her footing. Just in front of her people were already grabbing for support.
In the fray she had ended up on the port side, and as the lights finally gave way to the darkness of the crystalline sky, she knew she had to get clear, before she ended up at the mercy of a metallic leviathan.
A deafening crack of thunder ripped through her feet, up ankles, legs and hips, into her very heart. Cries and shouts of fear accompanying the boom of metal tearing under pressure, ripping like flesh, with cables and glass and splintered wood. Terror flooded, her stomach dropped again, like a stone, her limbs feeling leaden as her mind worked faster than her body to move. The metal railings felt sharp as they shook in her grip, the damp cold slipping through her petticoats to her legs as they swung over the slowly dropping side, then all there was, was falling. The sight of the water coming towards her, dark and bottomless, as it rippled around the object behind her with an almighty rush.
Then cold. Freezing, bone shattering cold, seizing her lungs and crushing the air out of her. She gasped upon the surface, her arms flailing wildly, legs kicking desperately away. Never had she been gladder for the unconventional upbringing her father had given her. She swam away toward the last boat she'd seen, bobbing in the water, hoping, praying: concentrating on the sensation of moving through the heavy weight. Every fibre against her body grew cold and heavy, like a clammy hand of death reaching up for her from the sea, and still she swam like a madman, whilst others floundered and cried like sitting ducks bereft of wings. Her breath steamed in the air as her limbs began to ache, as her muscles began to sag with utter fatigue.
Her eyes were wide, fixated on the boat up ahead, but it seemed to float further and further away. The current pressed against her, she was sure of it. This is how it was going to end. Her body dragged down to the ocean floor in an icy heap to lay in the black. Until the fish had seen fit to pick away at her flesh.
She kicked again with renewed strength, concentrating on the pound of her legs so hard that the sounds of the catastrophe in her wake became obsolete. Still the boat got no nearer, still she felt the press of exhaustion, of her flesh being worn away by the coldest saline solution she'd ever experienced.
It was too much. She slowed – her arms nothing but deadweight. She treaded, and then she could tread no more, her feet slipping as though searching for a surface to rest on. Her eyes grew heavy, and all she could think was that she needed to rest. She really, really needed to rest.
The water rose up, the cold rushing to surround her ears and nose and mouth, until it sucked, and pulled, and eventually succeeded in dragging her down. The last thing she saw was the boat up ahead, still too far away, before there was nothing but the press of water on her crown, the hard hands of fate grasping her leg, drowning her, pulling her deeper and deeper into darkness.