Leo Fitz’s day, which had started out so bright and full of promise, was quickly turning into a disaster.
“I’m telling you, sir, I’m meant to be here with the guarantee group,” he insisted. “Please, just let me board.”
The officer who blocked the open door leading into the ship shook his head. “I’m sorry, but you’re not registered with the crew, and without a ticket, I can’t let you aboard the ship. That’s just how it is.”
It was a gorgeous, sunny April morning, and the sailing day for the maiden voyage of the White Star Line’s crowning achievement, Titanic. The pier was already bustling with activity: motorcars, horse-drawn carriages, and lorries moved slowly through the swarms of people crowding the dock, carrying passengers, luggage, and supplies to the ship. More people stood near the water’s edge, saying their farewells to relatives and friends or waving up at those who already lined the decks of the ship above. Porters, seamen, and other officials hurried about, making last-minute preparations and ensuring everything was in order before the great ship’s departure. A general sense of excitement and wonder pervaded the air, no doubt generated by the presence of the greatest man-made feat of the modern era.
Until recently, Fitz had been among those so excited. He’d spent the previous day and a half making the long journey from his home in Belfast to Southampton, and had spent the night at a hostel in the city. Earlier that morning, he’d risen with the sun and put on his new jacket and tie, purchased specially for the trip, and set out for the docks, sure his life was about to change for the better. Through a stroke of good luck, he’d received the opportunity to shadow the guarantee group from Harland & Wolff, the company that had built Titanic, for the ship’s first trip across the Atlantic. It seemed all of his time spent hanging around outside the shipbuilder’s offices and making the acquaintance of the engineers and craftsmen had paid off, and that a poor orphaned riveter from Glasgow might finally have the chance to rise above his station in life.
But when he’d gone up the gangway to board through the second class entrance as he’d been instructed to do by his contact at the shipyard, Fitz had found his name wasn’t on the list for the guarantee group as had been promised. There must have been a mistake. He knew he’d been a late addition, but everything was supposed to have been in place to make sure he could board. Now, all of that was falling apart.
Desperate, Fitz pulled a folded piece of paper from the inner pocket of his jacket. “Listen, I’ve got a letter from Samuel Collins, one of the draftsman at Harland & Wolff, stating that I’m to follow the guarantee group. He’s a personal friend of Thomas Andrews, you know, the man who designed this ship? I’m sure if you could find him, he could vouch for me--”
The officer shook his head, holding up a hand to stop him. “I can’t leave my post to go find him. And Mr. Andrews is a very busy man, as you’ll no doubt agree.” The man’s expression was not unsympathetic, but it was firm. “I’m sorry, lad, but if you don’t have a ticket, you can’t come aboard. Now I must ask that you please step aside, so that the other passengers may enter.”
Fitz nodded dejectedly. Turning, he hiked his bag up higher on his shoulder before making his way back down the gangway, past the other people lined up to board, many staring at him curiously. He had no idea where he would go now, or what he would do; having put all of his hopes and dreams into getting on Titanic, he had very little money left.
Shoulders slumped, Fitz walked away from the ship and allowed himself to be absorbed into the crowd, feeling as though all his life’s plans had just been dashed.
Elsewhere at the pier, two sleek, shining motorcars slowly cut through the throng before coming to a stop near the first class gangway entrance. The driver of the first car got out and hurried around to open the door, offering his hand to the passenger inside--a young woman dressed in a stunning blue and white traveling suit, her chestnut brown hair carefully pinned up beneath a wide-brimmed hat.
Jemma Simmons was eighteen years old, inquisitive, and in possession of an intellect that had caused her mother a great deal of grief on more than one occasion. Her expression was bright as she took in the massive ship before her, but her eyes were wistful. She knew her father would have been nothing short of impressed by Titanic’s size and presentation and eager to discuss it, but sadly that was no longer an option.
Behind her, a tall man dressed in an expensive, well-fitted suit emerged from the other side of the car, blinking up into the sun at the ship. In contrast to Jemma, he looked aloof and detached.
“I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” he said dryly. “It doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauretania.”
At just twenty-seven years of age, Grant Ward was poised to inherit his father’s substantial railway and shipping fortune. He was handsome, with a square jaw, dark hair, and piercing eyes, and he exuded the confidence of a man who knew just how rich he was and was not afraid to show it.
Jemma glanced back at him over the top of the motorcar. “It’s well over a hundred feet longer than the Mauretania, and much more well-furnished. The amenities can’t even compare--there’s so much to do. There’s two libraries--two!--a squash court, a Parisian cafe, even Turkish baths--”
“Someone’s memorized the pamphlet.” The smile Grant gave her was likely supposed to be fond, but to Jemma it just looked patronizing. “Of course, you would know all of this, darling.” He turned to offer a hand to help her mother out of the car. “Is there any subject your daughter isn’t knowledgeable of, Edith?”
Edith Simmons stepped down from the car, straight-backed and regal of bearing. “No, I’m afraid there isn’t a subject we’ve found yet that Jemma isn’t already acquainted with.” But where one might have expected pride in her voice, there was only resignation. She gave the ship an appraising look. “So this is the ship they say is unsinkable.”
“It is unsinkable,” Grant said confidently, brandishing his walking cane. “God himself couldn’t sink this ship.”
Privately, Jemma didn’t think it was wise to deal in absolutes like that, but she held her tongue, choosing instead to roll her eyes where they couldn’t see. She had long since learned that most people, men especially, didn’t much care to hear her thoughts on almost anything, no matter how well-informed and educated her opinions were. It only made her miss her father even more; he had always championed her love of learning, and encouraged her to speak her mind whenever possible, but that had all come to an end when he had passed away. She often forgot her place, eager to share her knowledge, but all it took was a sharp look from her mother or Grant to remember that she was supposed to be seen, not heard. It was always a bitter pill to swallow.
Her mother came around the front of the motorcar to join her while Grant had Giyera, his silent and stone-faced valet, direct a porter to have their luggage taken up to their suite on the ship. Once that was settled, Grant breezed toward them, checking the time on his pocket watch before dropping it back in the pocket of his vest.
“We’d better hurry,” he said, nodding toward the ship. “Ladies, if you’ll follow me…”
He led the way into the crowd, heading for the first class gangway. Jemma and Edith fell into step behind him, followed by Abby, Jemma’s maid, carrying some bags that were too delicate for the porters to handle. Jemma glanced back at her, making sure she didn’t fall too far behind; Abby nodded with a quick smile, skipping to catch up, and Jemma smiled back at her before turning forward again.
They wove in between packs of well-wishers and vehicles, frequently stopping for people pushing handcarts, and made a wide circle around a line of steerage passengers waiting to board. This was packed in tight and moving slowly, as they were each being examined by a health officer to ensure that they were well enough to enter the United States at the end of the voyage.
Edith didn’t bother hiding her distaste at the sight of them, their tweeds and wool shabby and worn in contrast to the finery in which she was dressed. “Honestly, Grant, if you weren’t forever booking things at the last minute, we could have gone through the terminal and maintained our dignity instead of running along the dock like some squalid immigrant family,” she chided, lifting her skirt to step gingerly around a puddle.
“Oh, this is hardly my fault,” Grant replied cheerfully, turning to look at them over his shoulder. “It was my fiancée’s love of periodicals that made us late.”
Jemma felt her cheeks flush. “I only meant to read one article,” she said defensively, aware of her mother’s eyes on her. “I had Abby see about fetching some from the newsstand so I could have something new to read while we sailed. But one of them had a paper on the seminars held at the Conseil Solvay, and I simply couldn’t wait to read it, and… I…”
She trailed off as she looked over and met her mother’s disapproving stare. “You know how I feel about your reading habits, Jemma,” Edith said sternly.
Jemma swallowed and looked forward again, her heart sinking with a twinge of frustration. “Yes, Mother, I do.”
When they finally reached the gangway leading up to the first class entrance on D deck, Grant stepped back to put a hand on Jemma’s arm and escort her up to the door. He walked with his head held high and an assurance to his step, with all the confidence of a king advancing toward his throne. But as they approached the ship, with its massive, black iron hull blotting out the sky and the sun, all Jemma felt was a vague sense of dread.
Titanic was dragging her away from the only home she had ever known and taking her to a new country, plunging her into a world full of strangers. She would be forced to attend party after endless party in anticipation of her upcoming wedding to Grant, surrounded by people she neither knew nor cared about and who almost certainly didn’t care about her--even if they would pretend to for appearances’ sake. And once she was married, her fate would be sealed: All of her hopes and dreams would become secondary to being the perfect wife, docile and doting and demure. Grant would be expecting a beautiful accessory to carry on his arm, and just the mere thought of trying to fill that role for the rest of her life made Jemma’s stomach turn.
Everyone else might have viewed Titanic ’s maiden voyage as something glorious, a new opportunity, or a chance to start over. But as Jemma stepped over the threshold onto the ship, she could only see it as an ending, the last dying breath of the life she wished she’d had.
Adjacent to the docks was a lively little pub, Titanic’s funnels still visible through the windows. Inside, beneath a haze of cigarette smoke, the tables were filled with dock workers, ships’ crew, and other working class folk, all enjoying rounds of beer or good conversation. Near one of the windows, a group of men crowded around a table, their faces set in concentration. A very serious game of poker was in progress.
Fitz sat calmly in his chair, surveying his cards. He’d found his way to the pub after leaving the pier, despondent and without purpose. He didn’t want to return straight to Belfast, not after having traveled so far, but he needed money. He had been relying on the promise of the guarantee group to get him to New York and back, but now that was gone, he needed a new plan. Seeing the pub and hearing the spirited hubbub of chatter spilling out from its open door had been a welcome diversion from his spiral of self-pity and despair, and having a pint or two while mulling over his options didn’t sound like such a bad idea.
But one pint had turned into three, then four, and suddenly--without meaning to be--Fitz was fairly inebriated. It had certainly lessened the sting of having everything he’d staked his life’s hopes on crumble to dust at his feet, but it wasn’t doing much for the state of his wallet. He had been considering giving up and heading for the train station when he had noticed the card game taking place behind him. A sizable sum of money in various currencies was in the pot at the center of the table, but that wasn’t what had caught his eye.
Someone had just bet a ticket for Titanic.
Ordinarily, Fitz wasn’t a betting man, but the alcohol had warmed his blood and sparked his bravery. He’d always been extraordinarily good with numbers and sums, even as a young lad, and he was confident he could keep track of where all the cards were in his head despite being slightly sloshed. There were risks involved--the ticket was only good for one way, so he would have to bank on the additional winnings being enough to secure him passage back across the Atlantic, home to Belfast--but he could worry about that after he won. Which he was certain he would. And at this point, he thought, what do I have left to lose?
So Fitz had, perhaps unwisely, used the last of his money to buy his way into the poker game. Now he looked across the table at his opponents: two burly Swedish men who sat glaring at their hands--it was their ticket at stake--and a dark-haired Italian whose expression betrayed nothing. He drew a single card from the deck, pursed his lips at it, then inserted it into the hand he was holding before nodding at Fitz.
Fitz turned his gaze to the Swede sitting directly opposite him. “I’ll take another, Sven,” he said, his voice slurring a little.
The man grudgingly took a card from his hand and passed it across the table to Fitz, who slipped it into his own hand with a slight smile, carefully calculated to further unseat the other man’s confidence. Outside, Titanic ’s whistle blew, signaling her departure warning.
Fitz looked over the cards in his hand, then at his opponents. “Gentlemen, I believe this is it. Time to lay down our hands and see what we’ve got.”
Both of the Swedes shifted uneasily in their seats, one of them mopping at his sweaty brow, while the Italian narrowed his eyes at the pile of prize money. After a moment, he laid his cards down and sat back in his seat, folding his arms. The Swedes exchanged glances, muttered to each other in their native tongue, then both laid their cards down at the same time. Fitz took a moment to peer over his hand at them, then shook his head, feigning regret.
“Hmm, let’s see,” he said slowly. “Bruno, you’ve got nothing.” The Italian scowled. “Olaf, neither have you. Sven… two pair. Hmm.” The Swedes looked even more disgruntled. Fitz merely smiled, feeling terribly pleased with himself and no longer able to contain his glee. “That’s very disappointing for you lot, because--” He laid his cards down with a flourish. “Full house, lads! I’m sailing on Titanic!”
Their little corner of the pub exploded in a flurry of activity. Fitz jumped up from his seat and punched the air, whooping in victory; the alcohol had also made him overzealous. Meanwhile, the onlookers their game had attracted burst into applause, shouting their approval and clapping him on the back in congratulations. Bruno shook his head in defeat while Sven and Olaf argued in rapid-fire Swedish. Someone ordered a round of beers for them. Grinning ear-to-ear, Fitz leaned forward over the table to gather all of his winnings, the precious ticket perched right on top.
Suddenly Sven loomed back into view, his hand raised menacingly in a fist. Fitz froze in the midst of opening his kit bag, his jaw dropping, suddenly terrified that the larger man was about to take his ticket back by force. But instead he swung around to punch his cousin square in the jaw, knocking him to the floor where he sat, dazed, as Sven started yelling at him in Swedish again. Fitz breathed a sigh of relief, and the patrons of the pub broke out in laughter, amused by the losing men’s misfortune.
Fitz swept his prize money into his bag and pulled the drawstring closed before snatching up the ticket, holding it aloft for all to see. “My day may have started out rotten, and I thought all hope was lost, but not anymore!” he cried, riding high on a flush of triumph, spirits, and alcohol. “Because I’m headed to America!”
Another chorus of cheers and applause rose up among those gathered in the pub, men raising their pints in salute and taking healthy swigs. The man next to him passed him a mug, and he grinned madly as he tried to take a drink. Outside, Titanic’s whistle blew again, and with a start, Fitz’s eyes sought out the large clock hanging behind the bar.
It read five minutes until noon. Titanic was scheduled to depart at the top of the hour.
Fitz nearly spat out his mouthful of beer. Instead, he swallowed quickly and swiped the back of his hand across his mouth as he set the pint down on the nearest table. “Oh, bloody hell,” he muttered, grabbing his bag and swinging it up over his shoulder. “Right, I’ll just be off, then. Ah, excuse me--sorry--excuse me--” He made hastily for the exit, several of the men pounding his back and calling cheers as he went, and as soon as he was outside on the pavement, he started running as fast as his feet would carry him.
He tore through the crowds milling next to the terminal, shouting apologies as he elbowed slow-moving pedestrians, and dodged piles of luggage and handcarts, ignoring the angry yells of the men pushing them. When he made it out onto the pier proper, he broke into a dead run, heading for the same gangway he’d used earlier. He reached it just as an officer detached it at the top; it started to swing down and away from the ship.
“Wait! Wait!” Fitz shouted as he ran up the gangway, waving his ticket. “I’m a passenger!”
The officer, who Fitz recognized as the same man who had turned him away earlier that morning, squinted at him. “I say, weren’t you here before?”
“Yes, sir, I was,” Fitz said as he came to a stop at the top of the gangway, out of breath and panting. “But I’ve got a ticket now, you see?” He held it up. “I’m fit for boarding.”
The officer looked unsure, but the pressing need to be underway decided for him. “Very well, come aboard,” he said, and gestured for the quartermaster standing next to him to reattach the gangway. He did so, and Fitz came over the threshold with a little hop. He handed his ticket to the officer, who barely glanced at it before passing it off to the quartermaster to enter into the passenger list. He did a double-take, looking from the ticket to Fitz, taking in his Scots accent and curly mop of sandy hair.
“Ah, yes, Mister... Gunderson,” he said, lingering suspiciously over the Nordic name on the ticket.
“That’s me,” Fitz said brightly, nodding with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm. The quartermaster looked unconvinced, but handed the ticket back anyway. Fitz thanked him and, grinning, turned to walk quickly down the white-painted corridors in search of his berth.
Titanic was a maze, he soon learned, at least down in the third class accommodations. The narrow corridors were filled with people arguing in several different languages or trying to read signs translated from their guidebooks, luggage blocking the way. Fitz edged past the others as politely as he could, even stopping to help a few--though he wasn’t sure how helpful he actually was, considering he wasn’t the least fluent bit in German or Russian, and was in fact still slightly drunk. Finally, he made it to the berth listed on Sven Gunderson’s ticket and pushed the door open.
Inside were two tall, well-built men who looked remarkably like Sven and Olaf. One was sitting on one of the two lower bunks and paging through a dog-eared book while the other stood at the porcelain sink by the porthole window. Both looked up at Fitz as he entered.
Fitz inhaled and did his best to put on a friendly face. “Er, hello. Leo Fitz,” he said, dropping his bag on the other lower bunk and stepping forward to offer a hand to the man at the sink. “I’ll be taking Sven’s spot.”
The man took his proffered hand and shook it, looking puzzled, and exchanged a glance with the other man sitting down. Fitz gave them a bracing smile when the silence stretched a beat too long. “I’m just going to, ah... I’m going to go up on deck. You know, to watch the launch and all.” He sketched a tiny salute. “Cheers.”
As he turned to leave, he heard one of the men mutter, “Vad hände med Sven? ”
By the time Fitz made it up to the well deck, the ship had cleared the pier and was sailing away down the River Test, leaving Southampton behind and heading for the English Channel. Although there was no one left to wave goodbye to, passengers still lined the rails, looking out at the scenery, and the air was one of festive cheer.
Fitz found it infectious, and he smiled as he strolled across the deck, hands in his pockets, taking in the sights and sounds of the ship. Two young boys shrieked as they chased each other under the watchful eye of their mother, and a father held his young daughter up against the rail so she could better see the view. Two older men sat nearby on a bench, smoking cigarettes and discussing something in a language he didn’t understand, their hands waving emphatically as they spoke. Behind him, a cluster of young ladies discussed their plans for when they disembarked in New York.
It may have been a fool’s errand, attempting to win a one-way trip across the Atlantic when he had a home and a job to return to in Belfast, but Fitz was feeling optimistic and self-assured. Since he was supposed to have been with the guarantee group for Titanic , his bosses at the shipyard weren’t expecting him back for two weeks. By his estimation, his winnings from the poker game would be more than enough to afford him a day or two in New York to see the sights and then secure passage back home on the next steamer. It would be an adventure, his own little glimpse of the high life, something he never would have dreamed possible just a few years before.
And he would get to do it traveling on Titanic, the most well-appointed, luxurious ship in the world. Granted, his accommodations would have been nicer had he actually been with the guarantee group--they were traveling second class instead of third, and would have full run of the ship for feedback and note-taking purposes--but seeing as how an hour earlier he had been certain he’d completely missed his chance, Fitz wasn’t complaining. He was on the ship, he was going to America, and for the first time in quite awhile, he felt... hopeful.
If only his mum could see him now.
Up on B deck, in the so-called “Millionaire’s Suite,” Grant and Jemma were getting settled into their staterooms. Abby stood in the wardrobe, hanging up Jemma’s clothes, while Jemma looked through the contents of one of the trunks the porters had brought into the sitting room. Grant had wandered out onto their private promenade deck, sipping a glass of champagne. Tiring of the view, he came back to lean against the doorframe that led into the sitting room, looking dispassionately at the trunks spread out before Jemma.
“What have you got in all of these, anyhow?” he asked, gesturing with his champagne flute.
Jemma looked briefly at him as she plucked something up from within the trunk: an old, dusty tome, worn and well-loved. “Books,” she said. “It’s most of my private collection. I thought I’d go ahead and bring them with me now instead of waiting for the rest of our things to be shipped over from England.”
Grant frowned. “Good god, all of these trunks have books in them? You’ve got more than the entire Boston Public Library! Did you have to bring all of them? Or couldn’t you have put some in the cargo hold? All they’re doing is taking up space. It’s not like you can read them all while we’re sailing, anyway. We’ll be far too busy.”
“I read quickly,” Jemma said defensively. She clutched the book to her chest. “And many of them were gifts from my father. They’re very precious to me.”
Grant sighed. “Well, in that case, I guess I’ll have to make do.” He looked up as a porter brought in a large, heavy safe on a handtruck. “I’ll have that in the wardrobe,” he said, directing the man through.
Jemma picked up a few more books and carried them into her bedroom, setting them down on the dresser with a smile. They would do well for a bit of light reading before bed each night. Abby grinned at her as she walked past, carrying a few more things to set out on the vanity.
“Isn’t this exciting, Miss Jemma?” she asked, her eyes bright. “It all smells so brand new, like they built it just for us. Just think... tonight, when I go to bed, I’ll be the first person ever to sleep there!”
Grant reappeared in the doorway, his gaze locked on Jemma. “Yes, there might be a lot of firsts happening on this ship tonight.”
Jemma’s head snapped up. The corners of Grant’s lips were turned upward, his smirk vaguely suggestive. At the vanity, Abby’s eyes darted back and forth between the two of them, her cheeks coloring.
“Excuse me, miss,” she said after a moment, ducking her head and beating a hasty retreat past Grant, back into the sitting room.
Feeling trapped, self-conscious, and no longer desiring to be alone with her fiancé, Jemma looked around for an escape. “I, ah... I was thinking it might be nice to get a bit of fresh air,” she said with as much cheer as she could muster. “What do you think about going to the promenade deck?”
Grant’s smirk collapsed into something approaching an annoyed scowl. “Why bother leaving the suite when we’ve got our own private promenade?”
Jemma looked past his outstretched hand to the windows and the expansive deck beyond it in question, with its potted plants, ivy-covered trellises, and sliding glass windows. “Oh,” she said, fumbling. “Yes. Right. Well. It’s only half past noon, not even tea time yet. Perhaps some of the other ladies are out for a walk and could use the company.”
Grant peered at her. “I’ve never known you to be so eager for other people’s company.”
He was right--she normally eschewed socializing on the rare occasions when she could get away with it. Jemma refrained from biting her lip, instead giving him what she hoped was a small, disarming smile. “First time for everything, I suppose.”
It seemed to work. Grant shook his head and pushed away from the door, moving to turn and go back into his, toward the sitting room. “I have to see that the rest of our belongings make it here securely. I won’t have a greedy steward deciding to steal any of our things. Maybe your mother might like to join you.”
Jemma felt a tiny plume of triumph rise in her chest as she watched him go. Maybe her mother would like to join her, or maybe she wouldn’t ask her at all. Then she would finally have a few blessed moments of peace to herself.
“She is the largest moving object ever made by the hand of man in all history…”
It was early in the afternoon the next day, and Titanic was finally headed out into the open ocean. Jemma, her mother, and Grant were taking lunch at the Palm Court with J. Bruce Ismay, Thomas Andrews, and Daisy Johnson. Ismay was the managing director of the White Star Line, the company that owned Titanic, while Andrews was the architect who had designed the ship. Daisy was an American millionairess who had struck it rich by patenting a safety mechanism widely used in automobile manufacturing. She was considered “new” money, something Jemma’s mother and social circle in England looked down upon--along with some of the company Daisy chose to keep--but Jemma found her to be absolutely delightful. These were just some of the many luminaries onboard the ship with whom she would be expected to spend time and make courteous conversation.
Currently, Ismay was extolling the great ship’s many virtues. He’d already covered her swift speed and lavish accommodations; now he’d moved on to size. He gestured to his right. “And our master shipbuilder, Mr. Andrews here, designed her from the keel plates up.”
Andrews smiled modestly, looking a little uncomfortable under such praise. “Well, I may have knocked her together, but the idea was all Mr. Ismay's. He envisioned a steamer so grand, so luxurious in its appointments, that its supremacy would never be challenged. And here she is--” He slapped the edge of the table. “Willed into solid reality.”
Daisy grinned. “I’ve never understood why ships are called ‘she.’ Is it because you men think some women look like ships and need to be weighed like one, too?”
Everyone laughed politely except for Jemma, who was only half paying attention to the conversation. Instead, she was allowing herself to daydream about what her life might have been like if she’d been allowed to go to university, rather than being married off to the first wealthy suitor who came knocking. It was an oft-visited fantasy, and one she’d made no secret of to her mother, who had disposed of any notion of it actually happening before her father had been barely cold in the ground. Though Jemma knew it would never come to fruition, not now that she was to be married, she still liked to entertain the idea; it helped to get her through long dinner parties and endless teas, through interminable conversations about fashion and the tedium of social gossip.
Easter term would be starting at Cambridge soon. That was her school of choice, where she had wanted to study the natural sciences, against the advice of almost every advisor and professor to whom she had spoken. Learning the intricacies of biology, chemistry, and especially anatomy was just too potentially upsetting for her delicate feminine sensibilities, she’d been told. She had been adamant, though, as she had always been fascinated by the human body, as well as all other plant and animal life, and she wanted to understand how they worked. Cambridge was the best place for her to learn such things, having a few colleges that permitted women. Even though she would not be able to hold a degree, by virtue of her gender, she would still be able to attend lectures and sit examinations in those hallowed halls. It was one of her heart’s deepest desires.
Noticing that her daughter’s thoughts were clearly elsewhere, Edith squinted at her. “Jemma? Jemma, are you even paying attention?”
Jemma blinked, looking back at her in mild surprise. She'd gone a little too far inside her own head this time. “I'm sorry, Mother,” she said quietly. “I must have been distracted.”
Her mother frowned her disapproval. “You know I don't like it when you go on your little flights of fancy, Jemma,” she said, indicating she knew full well the content of her daughter’s daydreams. “It's very rude to our companions.”
“I’m sorry,” Jemma said again. “I was only thinking that--”
“She knows,” Grant cut in, giving Jemma a flat, displeased glare from where he was sitting next to her.
Jemma folded her hands in her lap and looked down at the table, chastened, angered, and embarrassed. If only she were able to show that she was capable of holding her own in a conversation, that she was just as knowledgeable as men on a great many subjects, that she could even outdo them on a good deal more...
A waiter appeared at Grant’s elbow. “We’ll both have the lamb,” Grant said, indicating himself and Jemma. “Rare, with a little mint sauce.” The waiter nodded before moving away, and Grant smiled at her--such a different look from the one he'd worn only a moment ago. “You like mint sauce, don't you, darling?”
Jemma gave him a tight smile. She loathed mint sauce.
Daisy looked between the pair of them with a glint in her eye. “So, are you gonna cut her meat for her too, Grant?” she asked with a smirk, leaning forward slightly over her plate. When Grant didn’t answer, electing to ignore her, she turned her attention to Ismay. “So, who came up with the name Titanic? Was it you, Bruce?”
Ismay nodded as he delicately speared a grape on his fork. “Yes, actually. I wanted to convey sheer size. And size means stability, luxury... safety--”
Something in Jemma’s well of composure snapped. Turning in her seat to face Ismay, she put on her most polite face and said, “Tell me, Mr. Ismay, have you ever heard of Dr. Sigmund Freud? I think his ideas about the male preoccupation with size might be of particular interest to you.”
Ismay’s jaw dropped slightly. “I beg your pardon?”
Across the table from her, Daisy’s eyes lit up in undisguised delight while Andrews moved to smother a grin behind one hand. Edith, on the other hand, looked at Jemma in horror, her eyes as wide as the saucers on the table in front of them.
“For God’s sake, Jemma,” she hissed, “what’s gotten into you?”
Feeling a tight pressure building in her chest and the urgent need to get away, Jemma placed her napkin on the table. “Excuse me.”
She stood awkwardly, avoiding everyone’s eyes, and walked hastily to the exit of the Palm Court and out onto the promenade deck, acutely aware of their gazes following her every step of the way.
Outside on the weather deck, Fitz was sitting on a bench with a leg crossed over one knee, taking advantage of the afternoon sunlight. Around him, other passengers were enjoying the pleasant day as well: two boys ran up and down the deck, kicking a ball back and forth between them; on the far side of the deck, a matronly lady worked on some knitting while talking with her daughter; and a young immigrant family stood together near the railing, looking out over the ocean.
In his lap, Fitz held a worn, leather-bound sketchbook, one of the few possessions he valued. All of his best ideas, sketches, and designs lived within its pages, and he took it with him whenever he went by the Harland & Wolff offices, because he never knew who he might run into while he was there. He’d decided to spend his afternoon tweaking some existing sketches and outlining some new ones. He might be off on an adventure, but that was no excuse for laziness; fortunately, seeing Titanic for himself had left him feeling particularly inspired.
A sudden patter of feet caught his attention. He looked up in time to see a member of the crew pass by, walking three fine-looking dogs on their leads. He watched them go for a moment, and was about to turn back to his paper when a derisive huff made him look back up. The young man sitting on the opposite end of the bench was watching the dogs, too, shaking his head.
“That’s just typical,” he muttered, scowling. “First class dogs come down here to take a shit.”
Fitz smiled. “Are you really surprised?”
The man turned to look at him with raised eyebrows, clearly taken aback by Fitz’s response to his grousing. “No,” he retorted, grinning in spite of himself. “They’ve got to remind us of our place in the rank and file, yeah?” He leaned across the bench to offer his hand in greeting. “Lance Hunter.”
“Leo Fitz,” Fitz replied, shaking his hand. “But just Fitz is fine.”
“Ah, another man who prefers to go by his surname, excellent,” Hunter said, leaning back against the bench and propping his elbows up along the top of it. “So what brings you to the good ship Titanic?”
Fitz reached up to scratch at his eyebrow. “Well... I was originally supposed to travel second class, but those arrangements, um, fell through, so... I ended up winning a third class ticket in a very well-played game of poker.”
Hunter eyed him over. “Oh, really? Second class? And you’ve been forced down here with us peasants in steerage? Rotten luck, you.”
“Oh! No, no.” Fitz laughed, looking down at his worn brown shirt and plucking at it. Once he’d gotten settled on the ship, he’d traded out the nicer jacket and tie he’d bought for the guarantee group for his regular day-to-day clothes. “No, believe me, I’m as regular as the next man. Second class would’ve been a luxury for me.”
“Ah, gotcha.” Hunter took a swig out of the silver flask he held in one hand before offering it to Fitz. He politely declined, and Hunter withdrew the flask with an amicable shrug.
“And you?” Fitz asked.
Hunter smiled. “I'm headed all the way across America to the great city of San Diego.”
Fitz let out a low whistle. “That's a really long way to go. What's in San Diego for you?”
Spreading his hands, Hunter’s smile turned rakish. “Bit of a gamble of my own, I s’pose. What else drives men to go long distances or do very stupid things they definitely shouldn’t do?” When Fitz stayed quiet, looking at him expectantly, Hunter smacked him lightly on the arm. “Love, mate! I’m going to meet a lady.”
Fitz laughed. “Must be some lady if you’re willing to travel halfway across the world just for her.”
Hunter’s expression turned distinctly fond. “You haven’t met Barbara Morse.”
Movement on one of the upper decks beyond their bench suddenly caught Fitz’s eye. He looked up without thinking--and promptly had his breath stolen away.
A young woman in a pale green dress overlaid with layers of intricate white lace had just strode up to the rail overlooking the well deck that separated her where Fitz and Hunter sat. She was slim and pale with delicate features, her dark hair swept elegantly back from her face. Without a doubt, she was by far the most beautiful woman Fitz had ever seen. But that wasn’t what had caught his attention, not entirely. The expression on her face was deeply troubled, mouth set in a frown and posture stiff. She came right up to the rail and curled her hands over it, gripping it tightly; then she inhaled deeply, as if she couldn’t quite breathe.
Hunter, noticing that Fitz’s attention had shifted, turned to follow his gaze. His smile turned knowing and he twisted back around in his seat, shaking his head with a chuckle. “Ah, forget that, mate,” he said. “She’s way out of your league. Pigs’ll fly and I’ll get an audience with the bloody King before you’ll ever get next to the likes of her.”
But Fitz kept staring. She looked so sad, isolated from the other people out on her deck. They moved around her, hardly sparing a glance in her direction, as if her misery--which was so apparent to Fitz--didn’t exist to them at all. He wondered what could possibly have happened in her life that had brought her such great sorrow, that she was unable to keep it carefully hidden away behind the veil of social propriety.
It was then, as her morose gaze drifted across the view before her, that her eyes happened to meet his. Fitz’s heart stuttered in shock, but she looked quickly away again. A moment later, though, she looked back... and held his stare.
Were he to be questioned, he couldn’t have possibly explained it. He had never seen this woman before in his life. Yet Fitz had the sudden inexplicable feeling that he recognized the melancholy in her eyes--that he could identify it, that the loneliness that seemed to envelop her like a shroud echoed the sense of solitude that had plagued him his entire life.
Beside him, Hunter waved a hand in his face, laughing quietly as he tried to catch his attention. It was to no avail. Fitz was absolutely captivated, unable to look away, drawn to the unhappy woman on the higher deck despite both the physical and social barriers between them. And maybe he dreamt it, but judging by the way she stared intently back at him… perhaps she felt the same way.
Just then, a well-dressed young man came up behind her and wrapped a hand around her elbow. She startled, tearing her eyes away from Fitz, and glanced up over her shoulder at the man. He spoke to her, appearing irritated, and whatever it was he said only made her pull her arm away from him, turning to look back over the water. But the man took her arm again, turning her to fully face him and speaking even more insistently than before. Fitz felt his ire raise as he watched the man scowl at her while he spoke, as her chin lifted defiantly before her shoulders suddenly slumped in defeat. The man nodded, looking sickeningly smug. Then he tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow and led her away, back toward the double doors leading into one of the ship’s fancy restaurants.
Fitz watched them go, a pit of unease forming in his stomach. It lasted well into the late afternoon, past his continued conversations with Hunter and his unfocused scribblings in his notebook. He knew the chances of him ever seeing that woman again were highly unlikely, but she wouldn’t leave his thoughts. Something had been very wrong with what he had witnessed, and a part of him--the part that recognized the haunted expression on her face--wanted to try and help her somehow, impossible though he knew it was. Hunter had been right when he’d said that Fitz, as poor as he was, would never get anywhere close to the social circles she moved in.
Still, he found himself thinking of her more as he went to the dining saloon for dinner that evening. Try as he might, he couldn’t stop picturing how dark and sad her eyes had looked as she’d watched him, or how the sun had made her hair shine, or that even though the afternoon had been bright, she still managed to seem lost. What had happened to her? Why was she so distraught? Why had that man treated her with such disregard? And why could he focus on nothing else?
That evening, Jemma went to dinner with her mother and Grant in the ritzy first class dining saloon. They sat at one of the largest tables with several of Grant’s friends from New York high society, along with the captain of the ship himself, which was considered a great honor. Champagne was poured, food was served, and everyone was in high spirits--except for Jemma. Around her, people were engaged in lively conversation, talking around and across her, either not noticing that she remained silent or simply not caring. She’d been in a sour mood ever since lunch, her thoughts swirling around a conclusion that deeply troubled her.
When she’d first met Grant, she’d initially thought that being married to him might not be so awful. He was easy on the eyes and clearly had the approval of her mother; what did it matter if she had very little interest in him otherwise? As long as he left her alone, as many an upper-class husband seemed wont to do, and let her keep up with her reading and experiments as she wished, she could easily see the two of them coming to a mutually satisfactory agreement as to how their married lives should be led. He could go to his club and do whatever it was that rich men without any cares did with their time, and she could do science.
But as their engagement wore on and the wedding drew closer, Jemma was slowly starting to realize that perhaps she’d been frighteningly naive in that assessment. Grant was rather strict about how she spent her time whenever they were together, and he had very little patience for her interests and hobbies, just like her mother. He’d also insisted on attending every society function on the calendar when he’d come to visit them in England. It seemed he was far more invested in having a socially-engaged and presentable wife than she’d thought. His behavior toward her since they’d boarded the ship had only seemed to reinforce that notion.
Maybe she was being a bit harsh in her judgments, though. Perhaps if she tried to meet Grant more on his level, they could find some common ground. Bringing herself back into the moment, she listened in to what he was talking about and realized that Grant and the man sitting on his other side were discussing working conditions at the railyard Grant’s father owned. Jemma smiled. This was something she could offer an opinion on, having done some reading on the subject after first meeting Grant in the hopes of having a topic she could talk to him about.
She waited for a natural opening in the conversation, then politely cleared her throat and leaned in. “If you want to improve working conditions, I recently read a paper that suggests--”
Grant glanced back at her, his expression turning irritated. “Not now, Jemma,” he said, waving a dismissive hand at her.
Jemma blinked. “But I really think--”
“Not now,” he repeated firmly, before turning his back on her, facing his conversation partner again. “Anyway, as I was saying--if he really wants to up production…”
Jemma sat back in her seat, feeling stunned and hurt. Grant really didn’t want her to speak at all, had no interest in her whatsoever outside of using her name to elevate his social status. It all crashed in on her at once, and she feared she could see the rest of her life spread out before her. She would marry him and become Mrs. Jemma Ward. She would be expected to attend an infinite number of parties and polo matches, cotillions and cocktail receptions, where she would be expected to lean on Grant’s arm and smile, to look beautiful and do little else. It would always be the same narrow circle of people and the same mindless chatter, over and over, never changing. There would be nothing to challenge her mind or expand her horizons. She would be forced to give up all of her hopes and dreams, everything that made her Jemma Simmons, in order to fit the mold of the perfect society wife.
She had made a horrible mistake in agreeing to marry Grant, but now it was too late to back out of the wedding. Too much was riding on her shoulders; her mother wouldn’t let her break the engagement off. The weight of her error made Jemma feel like she was suffocating. Looking around her, her breathing going shallow, she saw that everyone was still deeply engaged in their dinner conversations. There was no one to help her, no one who even cared. They were all far too self-involved to see that she was floundering. The sudden sense of isolation and hopelessness pressed in on her until her vision blurred and she could barely breathe. Her hands clenched into fists beneath the table, fingernails cutting into the skin of her palms. She had to escape. She didn’t know where she could go; she just knew she needed to get away. With a flimsy excuse about needing the lavatory, she stood and rushed out of the room.
Jemma went back to their staterooms first, but even that was still too close for comfort. Grant would come back eventually, asking questions and demanding answers that she couldn’t give, not now, not when her hold on her emotions was so paper-thin.
As she turned to leave the stateroom again, she caught a glimpse of herself in the vanity mirror, and loathed what she saw. The elegant silk dress, the expensive jewelry, her hair carefully arranged just so, her face perfectly painted and set--it was all a mask. Everything about her appearance was a façade, and she was so tired of pretending. It had always been a struggle for her to conform to the strictures that society had set out for her, but now it felt unbearable.
A few tears slipped out and rolled down her cheeks, and though Jemma tried to contain them--Jemma Simmons did not break down, she simply didn’t--the dam had burst. Soon she was crying uncontrollably, with great shuddering breaths wracking her body and her arms crossed over her stomach, as though she were trying to physically hold herself together. In her panic, the walls of her stateroom felt like they were closing in on her, trapping her inside. She couldn’t stay.
Jemma straightened, her gaze blurred by tears as she fumbled for the door. At last, she found it and slipped through, letting it slam shut behind her as she hurried down the corridor. She went through the reception entrance and out onto the B deck promenade, taking no notice of the chilly night air cutting at her exposed skin.
Then she ran, heedless of the sight she made: a well-to-do girl in a dress and heels with tears streaming down her face, her hair coming loose, moving far too fast for what was deemed proper. She pushed past several couples out enjoying an evening stroll, ignoring their shocked faces and huffs of indignation. When she reached the end of the promenade, she fumbled with the gate to the well deck’s staircase for a second before pushing it open and stumbling down it. She was dimly aware that she was now in a section of the ship normally reserved for third class passengers, but she didn’t care. All she wanted was to put as much space as possible between herself and the life she’d doomed herself to--to escape somewhere she couldn't be found.
Fitz stretched out on one of the benches on the weather deck, staring up at the clear night sky above him. The deck was largely deserted now, with most of the other passenger eschewing the cold night air to stay indoors in the ship’s common areas. He didn’t mind the solitude; in fact, he found it, the salty sea air, and the noise of the ship’s propellers churning the water below to be quite peaceful. And the stars above him were a sight to behold. This far from land, there were no city lights to block the starshine, and they burned with a brilliance that he found breathtaking. Fitz was intellectually aware of the vastness of the heavens, but out here, with the Milky Way a clearly defined band running across the sky, space was magnificent.
Contemplating the stars was almost a suitable distraction from thinking about the woman from the upper deck. Fitz still hadn’t been able to rid his mind of her, unable to shake the way her lonely eyes had fixed themselves in his brain. He knew it was pointless to continue thinking about her--they were of two completely different worlds, and it was almost certain they would never meet--but he couldn’t stop.
His thoughts were interrupted by the clatter of heels on the wooden deck, and he cut his eyes over just in time to see a dark shape rush past his bench, headed for the fantail. Curious, he sat up, and saw that it was a person--a woman--who had just crashed up against one of the capstans, her shoulders rising and falling quickly. He frowned, watching as she collapsed into sobs, terrible, gut-wrenching cries that shook her slim frame and echoed across the deck.
Fitz looked around, concerned. There was no one else nearby, no other witnesses to the sad display in front of him. He wanted to help; it felt wrong to stand idly by and do nothing while someone wept, especially as wretchedly as she was. She cried as though her entire world was lost, or like she was desperately grieving a loved one. It was a completely unrestrained outpouring of emotion, and it tugged at Fitz’s heart to hear her sound so disconsolate.
Standing up from his bench, Fitz walked around it and slowly made his way toward her. She was still bent over the capstan, clinging to its rim, her body shaking with every sob that tore from her throat. Up close, he could see that she was wearing a silk dress overlaid with thin netting and intricate beadwork--almost certainly a first class passenger. Under different circumstances, he would have wondered what she was doing on the third class promenade, but at the moment he could only focus on one thing: she was unhappy, and he was there to help. Stretching one hand cautiously out toward her, he said, “Excuse me--miss--are you--”
“Oh!” the woman yelped, jerking up from the capstan. She startled violently enough that Fitz jumped a step back, too, holding his hands up to show he meant no harm. She’d automatically looked over her shoulder at him, but had turned away again just as quickly; now she was standing up straight, taking in deep breaths and trying to compose herself, smoothing her hands repeatedly over the front of her dress. “Oh no, oh no, oh--no, no no,” he could hear her mumbling under her breath. “Oh no.”
He watched her for a brief moment. “Miss, are you alright?” he asked carefully.
Her shoulders hunched as she took in a shaky breath. “Yes. I’m--I’m fine, I’m just f-fine,” she replied without looking at him, her voice thin and wobbling. “I just--I just need a moment.” She betrayed herself then by letting out another tiny sob. She quickly pressed a hand to her mouth to try and muffle it, but it was too late.
Fitz frowned and took a small step closer, trying to see her face, but she was still turned resolutely away from him. “Begging your pardon,” he said, as kindly as he could, “but you don’t sound fine. Is there someone I can get for you? Someone--”
“No!” she cried sharply, making him jump again. She crossed her arms over her stomach and looked down, sniffling. “No,” she repeated, quieter. “There isn’t anyone. They’ll just…”
She trailed off, her breath hitching, and Fitz suspected that she was crying again. He wondered who ‘they’ were, and what it was they would do that would make her hide from their company. As he debated what to say in response, he noticed her shoulders shaking again, but with a start, realized that it wasn’t necessarily due to her tears. She was outside in the cold North Atlantic air wearing just a thin, short-sleeved dress with no coat. She was probably freezing.
Without thinking, Fitz shrugged out of his jacket and moved to drape it over her shoulders. “Here,” he said.
“Oh!” she said again, and tried to step away. “Oh, no, that’s--that’s not necessary, I’ll be fine.”
Fitz settled his jacket more firmly around her. “No, really,” he replied. “You need it more than I do. You’re freezing.” She stopped moving and, satisfied that she wouldn’t toss it away, he nodded once to himself. “There.”
She clasped the lapels of his jacket in her hands and pulled it closer around her. “Thank you,” she murmured wetly. Then she turned slowly around and looked up at him. The stern’s running lights illuminated her pale face, tear tracks visible on her cheeks, and Fitz felt his heart drop through the floor. It was her--the sad, lonely woman from the upper deck.
“What’s your name?” she asked quietly.
Fitz stared at her; it took him a moment to find his voice, stunned as he was. “Fitz,” he said at last. “Uh--Leo Fitz.”
“Mr. Fitz. Thank you.” She nodded, then looked at the deck for a moment, as if gathering her thoughts. If she recognized him from earlier in the afternoon, she made no show of it. She swallowed before meeting his eyes again, a cautious look on her face. “I’m Jemma Simmons.”
He smiled softly, hoping to put her at ease, and tucked his thumbs into the pockets of his trousers. “Nice to meet you, Miss Simmons.”
She smiled back, a faint, meager ghost of a smile, and looked away. Fitz thought back to how she’d been crying, how awful her sobs had sounded, and the way her eyes still glistened. Her tears had smudged her makeup. He reminded himself that whatever had been troubling her hadn’t magically disappeared just because he’d given her his jacket and she’d managed to stop actively sobbing--that whatever ailed her was likely chronic, and tied into her miserable air on the deck that afternoon. Remembering how much he’d wanted to help her, Fitz realized he had his chance now. So he took a risk.
“Look, Miss Simmons, I don’t mean to pry,” he said gently. “You can tell me to sod off if you like, but... what’s got you so upset?” She looked up at him silently, her face unreadable. “It’s just,” he rushed to add, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone sound so upset before. And whatever it is that’s hurt you, it’s got to be big... I know it’s very rude of me to ask as I bet it’s very personal, and you look like a very smart woman who can handle herself, and you can, I’m sure, but--you were alone, and crying, and I--I--”
She was still staring at him, and he was making a gibbering mess of himself, and he figured: in for a penny, in for a pound. He might as well go ahead and say everything.
“I--I saw you earlier today. Up on the deck,” he said, the words tumbling out. “You looked so sad, and lonely, and I... well, I know what that’s like. To be lonely. And I just... I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I wanted to help. That is, if you’ll let me. I could--just be a friendly ear, if that’s all you need.”
Jemma continued to stare at him, her eyes searching his face. He wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but whatever it was, she eventually seemed to find it, because her posture relaxed a little--but only a bit. She still looked guarded. “You’ll think I’m mad,” she said.
Fitz shook his head earnestly. “No, I won’t. Promise.”
She sighed, her shoulders slumping, and for a moment Fitz was afraid he’d pushed too far. But then she pulled his jacket tighter around her, snuggling deeper into the wool, and looked up back at him. “Have you ever felt... trapped?” she asked, haltingly. “Like you’ve made a terrible decision that you can’t back away from, or--or like your whole life has been decided for you, without anyone asking what you might like, and there’s nothing you can do about any of it? Like there’s no way out?”
He took a moment to seriously consider it. “Not... so much exactly like that, no, but trapped in general--yes, I guess you could say I have,” he said, thinking of his struggles to be noticed at the Harland & Wolff offices.
“Really?” Jemma breathed, and the hope in her voice was heartbreaking.
“Really,” he echoed, nodding. “I mean, our situations are different, but the feeling’s the same, isn’t it? The helplessness, the frustration--”
“The feeling that nothing is ever going to change,” she cut in.
He nodded again. “Right.”
“And you’re suffocating, but no one notices, or even cares,” she added, her voice rising with passion. “They think they know what’s best for you, but they don’t! All it would take is one person to ask, to care, just one, but no, they can’t see past their own silly noses!” She stopped suddenly, her cheeks flushing slightly. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she said, wiping at a few more tears that had escaped. “I don’t even know you, you’re just a stranger.”
Fitz smiled at her, resisting the sudden urge to reach out and wipe away the stray tears she’d missed. “Maybe not so strange,” he said quietly.
A slow, soft smile spread over Jemma’s face as she looked back up at him, a light coming into her expression, and it was like watching a flower bloom in the morning sun. Despite her red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained face, Fitz was still certain she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen--and now, he was also certain that all she needed was for someone to just listen to her.
“Would you like to sit?” he asked. “There are some benches, just over there.” He pointed toward where he’d been lying down earlier. “Maybe--”
A shout from across the deck interrupted him.
“Oi, what’s this? Here, is this the lady you’ve been looking for?”
Fitz looked over to see a member of the crew coming toward them from the direction of the well deck stairs, followed by three men in fancy dinner suits. Next to him, Jemma’s entire posture went stiff, and she drew in a sharp breath. Fitz turned to her, concerned, but before he could say or do anything, the lead man in a suit stalked right up to him, looking furious.
“What do you think you’re doing here with my fiancée?” he raged, coming toe to toe with Fitz. Wide-eyed, Fitz took a step back, his hands raised in defense, but the man followed. “Answer me, you rat!”
“Grant!” Jemma cried.
The crew member, a quartermaster by the looks of him, stepped forward, trying to get in between them. “Here, now,” he said, “no need to make a fuss, Mr. Ward. Let’s just ask the lady what this is about. I’m sure there’s nothing amiss.”
He looked to Jemma, who nodded quickly. Glaring at Fitz, the man in the suit--Grant--took a step back, while the other two hovered behind him, looking on in interest.
“Jemma, we’ve been looking everywhere for you,” Grant said severely. “Why didn’t you come back to dinner?” Then he tilted his head at her, as if only just noticing the wool jacket around her shoulders. “And what is that you’re wearing?”
She straightened slightly, drawing it tighter around her. “I was cold, Mr. Fitz let me have it--”
“Who knows what diseases it might be carrying? Take it off right now.” He reached forward to rip it from around her shoulders, then threw it at Fitz as if it had burned him. Fitz barely managed to catch it, feeling flustered and more than a little insulted.
“Grant!” Jemma cried again, even more aghast.
“If you’re really that cold--here,” Grant said, unconcerned by her protests, and pulled her to him, roughly running his hands up and down her arms. Jemma, Fitz noticed, did not relax into his hold. “Now, tell me what you’re doing out here alone with this--this man.”
Jemma gaped up at him, struggling to form words, appearing to crumble under the weight of everyone’s stare; her eyes flicked briefly to Fitz. Then she swallowed thickly. “I--I needed a breath of air,” she said, clearly nervous. “So I decided to go for a short walk, and before I knew it, I was out here... and--and I decided to--to see... the propellers! Yes, the propellers.” She looked at Fitz again. “And I happened to run into Mr. Fitz here, who said he could tell me all about them--”
Grant frowned in disbelief. “What would he know about the propellers--?”
“Quite a lot, actually,” Fitz muttered, putting his jacket back on.
Both Jemma and Grant looked at him in surprise. “I helped build the ship,” he added, lifting his chin defiantly. He’d be damned if he let some rich dandy insult his intelligence.
Jemma stared at him with something like wonder, but Grant just sputtered. “But that doesn’t explain why you’ve been crying,” he said, ignoring Fitz and tucking a finger beneath Jemma’s chin. “Look at you, you’re a mess. What has he done to you?”
“Nothing!” she cried, exasperated. “He lent me his coat because I was cold, like a gentleman.” Her words were very pointed. “And, well--when he explained the propellers, I--well, I... all I could think of was--was how much my father would have loved to see this ship, and I--I just became very emotional, I suppose, because I do miss him so very much.”
Fitz stared at her. She was lying, to a man who was apparently her fiancé, and he wasn’t quite sure he understood why. It was obvious that Grant was arrogant and callous and had no regard for people less fortunate than he, but that didn’t explain why Jemma would lie to him--unless he was a part of the problem... one of people who had made her miserable enough to end up hiding on the deck, sobbing her heart out. Seeing how she tried to separate herself from his grasp, Fitz was willing to bet that he was.
But more than Jemma simply lying to her fiancé, it was very obviously a lie--Fitz wasn’t sure he’d ever seen anyone who lied as terribly as Jemma Simmons did. The other men seemed to take her at face value, though. Grant looked heavenward, sighing as if greatly put-upon.
“My God, Jemma, it’s been four years,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t you think you’ve grieved enough?”
“Women and machinery do not mix,” the older of the other two men in suits murmured, raising the brandy snifter he’d brought with him to take a drink.
The quartermaster looked at FItz. “Was that the way of it?”
Fitz looked at Jemma. Unnoticed by the other men, she was giving him a pleading look with her eyes, begging him not to reveal what she’d confided in him. He silently seethed, irked by the way Grant was treating her and how he’d casually dismissed her grief over the apparent loss of her father. He had half a mind to take him to task for it, but Jemma had trusted him, and he wasn’t about to break that.
He looked back at the quartermaster and nodded. “Yes, sir. That was it. Just as she said.”
Jemma’s shoulders finally relaxed a little. “Ah! See then, no harm done,” the man with the brandy said. “The boy was a gentleman, good show. Back to our drinks then, eh?” He raised his glass, then took another sip.
Grant nodded, putting his arm possessively around Jemma’s shoulders and leading her away down the deck. The other men followed. But Jemma looked over her shoulder back at Fitz, almost desperately. “Wait,” she said. “Shouldn’t we--I mean--Mr. Fitz was very kind, maybe we should--”
“Ah, yes.” Grant stopped and turned to the third man in a suit, who hadn’t uttered a word the entire time and seemed vaguely menacing, at least to Fitz. “I think five ought to do it.”
Jemma’s jaw dropped. “Grant! You can’t just buy him off like that!”
“And why not?” At Jemma’s answering glare, Grant frowned thoughtfully. “No, I guess not, then. Hmm. What to do?” He turned to look back at Fitz, giving him a coolly appraising look. It was clear he found nothing to recommend, but Fitz kept his shoulders squared and his chin high, determined not to look cowed. Finally, Grant seemed to seize upon an idea, and he held a finger up. “I know.” He let go of Jemma and strode back over to Fitz. “What do you say to joining us for dinner tomorrow, to tell us all about how you built this magnificent ship?”
Fitz swallowed, surprised, then nodded once. “Of course.” His eyes slid past Grant to Jemma. “I’d be glad to.”
“Good. It’s settled then.” Grant turned to go back to his group, putting his arm around Jemma once more to make their exit. Jemma looked back at Fitz again, but was led down the well deck stairs and out of sight, leaving him alone to wonder what exactly he had gotten himself into.
Later, back in her stateroom, Jemma sat before the vanity in her nightgown, preparing for bed. Her mind was mostly blank as she brushed out her hair, watching it fall in loose waves over her shoulders. Replaying the events of the evening left her feeling tired and weary, and she wanted nothing more than to crawl beneath the covers and pretend that most of it had never happened.
A noise interrupted her thoughts, and she looked up to see Grant leaning against the doorway, reflected in the mirror of the vanity, clad in his dressing gown and slippers. He was watching her with a subdued look on his face.
“I know you’ve been feeling a bit down lately,” he said. “I have a few guesses why.”
Feeling herself instinctively tense, Jemma set her hairbrush down and folded her hands in her lap as Grant came forward into the room. She didn’t look up until he sat against the edge of the vanity facing her, and presented her with a black velvet jewelry case. “I know you aren’t happy about leaving England,” he said. He nodded down at the case. “I’d meant to save this until the engagement gala next week, but I thought that perhaps I should go ahead and give it to you now. Maybe it will cheer you up.”
He opened the lid of the box. Lying on the plush pillow inside, was a necklace set with dozens of tiny, glittering white stones. Three larger stones hung from drop pendants at the front, catching in the light from the electric lantern. Jemma blinked, bringing a hand to her chest. It was opulent, even for what she was used to. “Grant,” she murmured. “It’s... I don’t know what to say.”
Grant smiled. “You don’t have to say anything. Just know that this is but a taste of what I can give you. I know you’d prefer to bury yourself in books, but that’s not the life you’re meant for. We’re royalty, Jemma--well, the closest thing America has to it--and as my wife, you’ll have nothing but the best. You’ll never want for anything. I know you guard your heart, but if you would just give me a chance... I can give you everything you want.”
Jemma looked at him, his expression more vulnerable than she’d ever seen it, before looking back at the necklace. He had no clue how wrong he was. She wondered what it said about her that his gift left her feeling empty and cold, completely unmoved; and what it said about him, thinking that the way to her heart was through extravagant presents.
And she also wondered what it meant that all she could think about in the presence of her fiancé was how kind Leo Fitz had been, and the way he’d so earnestly asked to let him help her.
The next morning, all Jemma could think about was Fitz. His kindness and compassion toward a complete stranger, a mad woman sobbing at the back of the ship, had struck a chord with her. He could have just kept to himself and not intervened, but he’d seemed genuinely concerned about what was troubling her, and had even hinted that he might understand. He was the first person who had truly listened to her in ages. She didn’t think anyone had showed her that level of thoughtfulness since her father had died, and being shown such kindness after years of going without it left her wanting more. She had to see him again.
Jemma knew he would be joining them that evening for dinner, though she didn’t know how; perhaps Giyera would be sent down into steerage to collect him. But she wanted to see him before that, to have a chance to talk to him outside the rigid confines of a formal first class dinner, where Fitz would undoubtedly be sat well away from her, and where the curious, judging eyes of everyone else would be upon him.
So as soon as she was able to slip away from her mother and Grant after lunch, Jemma made her way toward the well deck to an entrance to the third class section of the ship. She got a few curious looks as she unlatched the gate to go down the stairs, and on the well deck itself a few third class men stopped and outright stared at her as she passed by, but she tried not to pay them any mind.
She was more cautious as she came down the stairs into the third class general room. It was unlike anything she had seen before--far less opulent than the first class lounges and smoking rooms, almost Spartan in appearance, filled with simple benches and tables, and a raised dais in the center. It was filled nearly to capacity, a veritable hubbub of activity: people talking and laughing and shouting in multiple languages, children chasing each other around the benches, men playing chess, women doing needlepoint. There was even an upright piano in the corner that someone was plinking around on, much to the amusement of a few others who had gathered around it. It was so unlike the staid, stiff environment she was used to that Jemma had to stop and take it all in for a moment, amazed by the vibrancy and freedom of it.
But as she descended the stairs and people began to take notice of her, the room began to fall quiet. They stared at her as she walked past, a sharp contrast to their simple wool and cotton clothes in her fine silk dress. Men doffed their caps and women ducked their heads in deference, as if she were a princess in their midst. Even the piano fell silent. Some looked resentful; others watched in awe. Jemma fought the urge to shy away from the attention, feeling self-conscious. But she kept her head up, looking for Fitz, hoping to see any sign of him in the room.
Finally, she did. He was sitting on one of the benches with his back to her, focused on a leather-bound drawing pad in his lap. Next to him, a young man with a short, scratchy beard was looking through some loose leaf sheets of white paper, studying them with a faint frown on his face. He saw her approaching first and a double-take before tapping Fitz’s shoulder to get his attention.
Fitz looked around, then up, and his eyes widened when he saw her. Then he stood, setting his pad aside on the bench, awkwardly aware they had an audience.
“Hello, Mr. Fitz,” Jemma said quietly when she reached him, giving him a small smile.
Fitz nodded bashfully. “Hello again.”
Jemma swallowed. “May I... may I speak with you?”
He nodded. “Yeah.” Then he glanced down at the man he’d been sitting next to, who was staring up at the both of them with interest, and frowned. Jemma frowned too; she’d been hoping to speak to him alone.
“In private?” she asked, hoping she wasn’t overstepping any bounds.
Fitz blinked. “Oh. Yeah. Yeah, ‘course.” He bent to pick up his pad, taking the loose sheets from the other man and slipping them in between the pages before shutting it. Then he gestured for her to lead the way out. As she turned to leave, she didn’t miss the way Fitz smacked the man on the arm with his pad, as if admonishing him for something.
They didn’t talk as they went back outside to the decks, and Fitz followed Jemma without protest as they walked up into areas where third class passengers weren’t allowed. It was only once they were on the boat deck, walking slowly side by side, that Jemma finally spoke up. “Mr. Fitz, I--”
Fitz shook his head. “Just Fitz, please.”
Jemma gave him a curious look. “Not even Leo?”
He made a face. “Ugh, no. I don’t really like my name.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I was named after my German grandfather,” Fitz explained. “Leopold? It sounds like--like the name of some rich, old, poncy blowhard.” He looked aside at her and winced, as if just remembering who he was talking to. “No offense.”
Jemma laughed lightly. “You’re right, it does, a bit. No offense taken.”
He smiled back and ducked his head, looking pleased that he’d made her laugh. “But, you were saying…? I’m sorry.”
“Oh.” Jemma’s smile faded as she sobered a bit, looking down at her feet. “I... I just wanted to thank you, for your kindness last night. And--and also for your discretion.”
Fitz nodded, as if helping distraught women was an everyday occurrence for him. “You’re welcome, miss.”
Jemma stopped in her tracks. “Oh, no. If I’m to call you Fitz, then you must call me Jemma.”
He stared at her for a moment before his mouth twitched up into a smile, and he gave her another small nod. “Right. Jemma.”
“But, I know what you must be thinking,” she continued with a hint of self-deprecation as she started walking again. Fitz took one long stride to keep pace with her. “What would I know of misery? Me, a rich girl, with everything handed to me, wanting for nothing. I couldn’t possibly know anything about suffering.”
“No, no, not at all,” Fitz said earnestly, shaking his head. “I told you--I just wanted to know what it was that had you so upset that--” He looked away and rubbed at the back of his neck. “Well, that you’d cry as if you’d lost everything.”
Jemma sighed. “It was... well, everything that I told you, really. I feel so--so trapped, and powerless, and unhappy, and no one cares. No one’s asked me what I want from my life. They’ve all decided it for me. It’s just... do this, do that, go here, be seen….” She trailed off, looking down again. “Marry this man.”
Fitz looked at her closely. “That guy from last night, Grant? You’re marrying him?”
She inhaled sharply, doubt washing over her. She’d revealed too much. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No, it’s fine,” Fitz said quickly. “But that’s him?”
“He’s from a very well-respected family in Boston,” Jemma replied. “His father owns a large railroad shipping company that he’s set to inherit. We’ll be very comfortable and provided for.” It was a well-rehearsed recitation, but it still sounded hollow to her own ears.
Fitz snorted. “Well, that shouldn’t matter,” he said. When she kept looking forward and didn’t answer, he continued, “Do you want to marry him?”
“I don’t have a choice,” she murmured after a pause.
He looked out across the water for a moment before turning back to her. “Seems to me like you should,” he said. “If you don’t want to marry him, you shouldn’t. I wouldn’t. If last night was any proof, he’s a right arsehole.”
She smiled despite herself at his frank assessment, then shook her head. He didn’t get it. “You don’t understand,” she said, worrying at the large diamond ring that adorned her left hand. “I don’t have a choice. My mother is counting on me to go through with this. If I don’t, she’ll lose everything.”
Fitz gave her a wry smile. “Well, she’s not the one marrying him, is she? It’s you. And it’s you who’ll have to spend the rest of your life with him, so you should get a say in it.”
Jemma frowned. “I wish it were that simple.”
He gave her a pointed look. “I think it is.”
She sighed again. She knew it would be difficult to make him understand just why and how she was trapped the way she was, and she wasn’t sure she had the energy to try and explain. Eager for a change of subject, she cast about for a moment until she noticed the leather-bound book he was carrying, and pointed to it. “What’s this?”
He held it up. “This? Just some, ah, designs, some sketches. Nothing spectacular.”
Her eyes lit up. “You’re an artist? May I see?”
Fitz grimaced. “Ah--no, not an artist--” But Jemma had taken the portfolio from his hands and carried it over to an empty deck chair, sitting down to open it up on her lap and take a look inside. Fitz drifted over to stand next to her, looking a little embarrassed, especially when her eyebrows went up at the contents of his drawings. “More of an engineer, really,” he muttered, scratching at an eyebrow.
Jemma flipped through a few pages, then went back to the beginning. “These are--engines?” she asked, squinting up at him. “And ships?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Mostly. I, um... there’s a design for a rocket in there, too, but it needs a lot of work before it will be anything close to…” He trailed off as she looked up at him again. “Stable.”
She went back to flipping through the book. Page after page was filled with intricate cutaways and detailed diagrams of engines, close-ups of their inner workings and components, recommendations for how they might fit into ships and automobiles. One page even had the rocket he’d mentioned, though she couldn’t make much sense of it. Scribbled notes and suggestions filled the margins in cramped shorthand; she had the thought that they would be fascinating to study in further detail, if he would allow it. It was a pleasant surprise, albeit a strange one: that Fitz, who seemed to be such an accomplished engineer, would be traveling in steerage. Hadn’t he said he’d helped build the ship?
“Well, I’m no expert,” she said, smiling up at him, “but these all look very advanced. Forgive me, though, I’m confused... you said last night that you helped build this ship. If you’re one of the engineers, why are you traveling third class? Surely they’d want to have you in first class.”
Fitz’s face flushed. “Oh. Well--I’m--I’m not--well, I want to be an engineer--and I did help--but I’m--I’m just…” He swallowed and raised his chin. “I’m a riveter.”
“Oh, I see,” Jemma said, though she wasn’t quite sure she did. “But you’ve done all of this--” She gestured to the portfolio, now closed in her lap.
He nodded, still looking oddly defiant. “I do it in my spare time when I’m not at the shipyard. I’m--I’m self-taught.”
Her eyes went wide. “Self-taught? Really? You mean you’ve not gone to school for it?”
He huffed a laugh, scoffing. “How could I? Look at me.” He gestured at himself and his plain, worn clothes, before taking a seat across from her on the next deck chair. “Couldn’t afford it. My mum, she worked herself to the bone, but public school was out of the question. She could barely afford to support us as it was. You see, my dad... he died before I was born.”
Jemma’s expression softened in sympathy. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
Fitz shrugged. “It is what it is,” he replied. “But... it was just me and my mum. And we were struggling, so when I finished school at fourteen, I had no choice but to go to work to help. My teachers said it was a waste, that a bright lad like me needed to go on to secondary and even university, but…” He shrugged again. “There was nothing for it. Couldn’t go to university without my exams, anyway, so... after my mum died and I came to Belfast, I thought if I couldn’t become an engineer the traditional way, maybe I could find another route.”
Jemma’s heart had twisted at hearing that Fitz had lost his mother, too. He looked to be her age, and she couldn’t fathom being all on her own so young. She tapped the portfolio in her lap. “Is that when you decided to teach yourself?”
He nodded. “Started going to the library whenever I had a chance, looked up everything I could on engineering, mechanics specifically.” He pointed at the book in her lap. “Engines, that’s where I think the future is. Part of it, anyway. And I figured I might as well learn ships, too, while I was at it. I work at a shipyard, I should know more about what I’m building, yeah?” He smiled at her, and Jemma found herself smiling back. He was starting to warm up to his subject, and she found his growing excitement contagious. “And when I thought I’d learned enough, and had something to show for myself, I started going by the drafting offices at the shipyard, hoping to catch someone’s attention. It hasn’t been easy. I mean…” He gestured down at himself. “There’s not a lot of people willing to take a poor riveter from Glasgow seriously. But it’s worked. Or, it’s starting to. I’ve made some friends at the offices.”
“Have you?” Jemma asked, leaning forward in interest.
“Yeah, I have,” Fitz said, smiling again. “Some of the draftsmen, a few of the engineers. It hasn’t been enough yet to get me a meeting with the managers or anyone who could give me a job, but someone must have slipped my name through, because I got a notice that I’d been granted permission to shadow the guarantee group here on Titanic for experience. And if I did well, it might get me an in with the managers.”
“What does a guarantee group do?”
Fitz steepled his fingers in his lap. “They go around a new ship while it’s in service and take notes on how it runs, what might need improvement, design changes, poll the passengers, things like that. Titanic’s designer himself is aboard to oversee the group for this crossing.”
“Thomas Andrews?” Jemma asked. “I had lunch with him yesterday.”
Fitz’s eyes brightened. “Did you really?”
“Yes.” She smiled. “He’s a lovely man, even if the lunch itself was dreadful. But nevermind that!” Uneager to discuss the events of the previous day, Jemma waved off Fitz’s attempted questions. She was much more interested in talking about his aspirations of becoming a bona fide engineer. She clasped her hands together happily, her smile widening. “What a wonderful opportunity for you, Fitz! You must be very excited.”
He looked away, his expression falling. “Well... it would have been... except when I arrived in Southampton to board, my name wasn’t on the list for the group. They wouldn’t let me on the ship.”
Jemma’s mouth dropped open. “What? No! That’s terrible! What happened?”
Fitz shrugged, as if he were trying to make light of the incident, but doing a poor job of it. “Dunno. Something must have gone wrong. My name didn’t get sent to the right people, or put on the proper list in time, or it got lost along the way. But, either way, it just didn’t work out.” He shrugged again. “Suppose I shouldn’t have hoped for it too much.”
He looked so dispirited that Jemma felt her heart tug for him. “Oh, Fitz, don’t say that. I’m sure you’ll get your chance.” She nodded at his book. “Your work in here is extraordinary, and I’m sure the managers at the shipyard would agree if they could see it. Don’t lose hope.”
Fitz smiled slightly. “I’ve always got hope. Sometimes it just takes a beating.”
“And you’ve truly got no way of finishing your schooling?” Jemma asked.
He shook his head. “Haven’t got the means. I’ve just got my talents to get me by.” He tapped his temple with a lopsided smile that she found quite charming. “We riveters don’t exactly bring home a handsome pay. Unless you happen to know of someone with a large fortune willing to sponsor me, it’s just not going to happen.”
Jemma toyed with the edge of the leather binding to Fitz’s book. “It’s a shame I wouldn’t be able to convince Grant to pay your way; he’s got more money than he knows what to do with. Unfortunately, paying for someone’s education isn’t quite his idea of ideal philanthropy,” she said darkly. “He certainly won’t pay for mine.”
Fitz perked up a bit. “Oh? You want to go to university as well?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Is that such a surprise?” she asked defensively.
He sat back and held up his hands, eyes wide. “I--no, I--I didn’t say that. It’s just that--well--” He made a face, obviously trying to choose his words carefully. “I just meant that I’ve not met many women who had much interest in going. That’s all. So I guess it is a surprise, but... a nice one. Really.”
“Oh.” Jemma’s shoulders relaxed. She was so used to her dreams of academia being belittled and ridiculed by everyone around her that she’d become overly wary of anyone commenting on them, and had automatically assumed Fitz meant to do the same. Feeling a little guilty for snapping at him, she gave him a soft smile. “Well... it’s been my dream to go to university ever since I was a little girl and learned I could go.”
Fitz had relaxed as well, his hands dropping back into his lap. “But Grant, or your parents... they won’t allow it?” he asked, frowning.
Jemma laughed bitterly. “They wouldn’t hear of it. My mother was far too concerned with sending me to every society ball imaginable, trying to marry me off to the first available wealthy man who came knocking at our door as soon as I came of age, and Grant... I think he sees me as more of a china doll to display in a glass case rather than a woman with thoughts and feelings of her own. He barely tolerates my reading as it is.”
Fitz grimaced. “At least I can visit the library as I please.” He paused. “What about your father?”
Her expression turned rueful. “My father encouraged my love of learning when I was young. He was always bringing me new books to read, finding puzzles for me to solve, taking me to some of the museums in the city. I think, if he were still alive, he might have been able to persuade my mother into allowing me to attend Cambridge like I wanted. But, he died a few years ago from a heart attack. I... I miss him terribly.”
“Ah, that’s right. He did say you were grieving,” Fitz murmured to himself, scratching at his chin. Then he looked up at her with soft eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Jemma shrugged one shoulder delicately. “It’s alright. As much as it can be.” Then she laughed a little. “We’ve both lost parents, and you’ve got the ambition to attend university but lack the means, and I’ve got the means but lack the blessing... what a fine pair we make.”
Fitz smiled warmly at her. “See? Maybe we really aren’t such strangers.”
She beamed at him in return, feeling a light spark in her heart at the familiarity of his words and the openness of his expression. He’d said much the same thing to her the previous night, just before Grant had arrived; it had felt true then but even more so now that she’d had the opportunity to really talk to him.
From there, they fell deep into conversation. Fitz asked her what she wanted to study at Cambridge, and when she said the natural sciences, specifically biology and chemistry, he made a face that she found amusing and turned away, looking distinctly green about the gills. When she laughed and asked why he looked so ill, he said, “Oh, dissections and all the guts and gore of biology... I don’t have the stomach for it. Never have.” He shuddered. “Nasty stuff.”
Jemma laughed. “But it’s science, Fitz!” she said. “We have to dissect, sometimes! It’s crucial to our understanding of the human body and how other fauna function. It’s critical. We’ll never learn if we don’t.”
Fitz waved a hand at her. “You’re more than welcome to it, but I’ll be staying well away,” he said, shaking his head but smiling in spite of himself.
She opened his book again and asked him to explain his designs to her. Fitz moved to sit beside her on her deck chair so they could both see the papers in the book, and began expounding on the different things he’d come up with. Most of them were engines, as she’d seen, and he explained that they were all designed to run off gasoline or diesel fuel, built for automobiles and intended to make them more efficient, faster if desired, and more economical. Some of them were even more fanciful, enormous contraptions meant to power ships the size of Titanic.
When Jemma expressed her doubts, saying she didn’t understand how such a feat was possible, Fitz became very animated, saying he knew that the idea seemed very far-fetched and impossible now, that no one would ever be able to build a combustion engine that size and have it work, but he thought it was very possible and he intended to be at the forefront of developing that technology. Jemma found that she quite liked it when he got enthusiastic, his hands gesturing as he spoke, his eyes bright and expression energetic. Everything about him was vibrant and alive.
It was fun to debate him, too, as their conversation moved to other topics of science and technology and current affairs. Fitz didn’t mind that she could outspeak him on some subjects, and in fact seemed to take great delight in trying to come up with opposing arguments to counter hers. They grew rather spirited in their attempts to outdo each other, raising their voices and drawing curious and disapproving looks from some of the other passengers. Jemma thought she should probably be concerned about the attention she was drawing to herself, but ultimately found she didn’t care.
Talking with Fitz was like a revelation. He was kind and seemed to genuinely care about her thoughts and feelings, which was more than she could say for Grant--or most of the other people in her life, for that matter. He actually listened to her, and talked with her instead of at her. He never admonished her for the level of her voice or her language, but instead let her speak freely. It certainly didn’t hurt that he was an intellectual peer, either, able to keep up with her quick mind and rapid-fire thought processes in a way no one else ever had before. She felt such a palpable sense of relief at finding someone who let her be herself without judgment and didn’t scoff at her hopes and dreams, who was so easy to be around, and so interesting himself to boot, that Jemma found herself wanting to spend the whole day with him.
So she did. They stayed out on the boat deck for hours, talking about everything that came to mind. Fitz told her about growing up in Glasgow with his mum, who worked as a seamstress, and how she had fallen ill with influenza and died when he was sixteen. Jemma spoke of growing up as the spoiled only child of a British peer, schooled at home by a governess and never wanting for anything--except someone who understood her. Her precociousness and odd hobbies had not won her many friends among the children of the nobility, and she’d been very lonely. She’d dreamed of becoming the next Marie Curie; they were more concerned with social politics. Fitz explained that he’d led a similarly lonely childhood, with not very many people in his working class neighborhood understanding what he was on about half the time.
Jemma also declined to leave Fitz when teatime rolled around, deciding to eschew social custom in favor of continuing their conversation. She should have left him, letting him go back to his section of the ship while she went inside to join her mother for whatever insipid group she’d managed to pull together for their afternoon refreshment, but Jemma didn’t want to. Instead, she had a steward bring them tea to drink out on the deck. Fitz marveled at how fine the teacups were, and how much they differed from the plain ones they had in third class. He made a show of sticking his pinky finger out and lifting his chin as he took a sip. It made Jemma laugh, and she had to set her teacup down on the saucer in her lap to keep from spilling it as her shoulders shook. The way Fitz smiled at her, as if making her laugh was the high point of his day, made her stomach flutter.
Later, when the sun started sinking low toward the horizon, they went down to stroll along the A deck promenade.
“If you could choose your perfect life, if you could pick anything for it, what would it be like?” Jemma asked, looking up at him curiously.
Fitz blew out a breath and drew his hands from his pockets, turning to lean his arms against the balustrade as he looked out over the water. He pressed his lips together as he considered her question. “I dunno, really,” he said at length. “I guess I’d have both my parents with me, still. I’d actually get to know my dad, know what it’s like to have one. And I’d see my mum happy.” He looked aside at her and smiled a little. “And then I’d have finished school, gone to university. Glasgow or St. Andrews, maybe. Or even Oxford. Beyond that, I dunno.” He shrugged. “I’d be working somewhere that I could build my designs and make them a reality. Where I could make a difference, and help people.” Then his expression turned a bit bashful. “And maybe... maybe there’d be a girl, too. A woman, I mean. Someone nice who understood me, who didn’t mind me going on about everything I set my mind to, who I could talk to and... share everything with. And we’d make a home together. Nothing too fancy, you know, but... someplace nice.”
The tips of his ears had gone pink, which Jemma found terribly endearing, and the way he glanced at her from the corner of his eye, as if afraid she might laugh at him, only made her grow more fond of him. “I think that sounds lovely,” she said sincerely, folding her arms over the top of the balustrade next to him. “A nice, quiet life, if that’s what you wanted--though it could be very exciting professionally, of course.”
Fitz nodded. “And you? What would you like?”
Jemma thought it over. There were so many things she wanted, many of which she was not sure were polite to say in mixed company, if at all; but Fitz had been honest with her, she thought, so she could be honest with him.
“Well, obviously, I’d like to go to university too,” she said. “I can’t hold a degree but I’d like to at least be able to say I’ve had the formal education and training. From there, I would love to go into research, or to study some advanced fields more closely, to debate theory and use what I know to further our knowledge of how the world works. It’s my life’s ambition, honestly.” She sighed. “And I’d have my father back too, of course. And…” She looked down at the diamond ring adorning her left hand, feeling slightly ashamed at what she wanted to say next. “I wouldn’t be engaged. Not now. Not yet. I think I’d quite like to be married someday, to the right person, but…”
Fitz was watching her closely. “But Grant isn’t the right person.”
She took in a deep breath, swallowing thickly. “And I think I’d like to live in a nice cottage in the English countryside, instead of moving to America,” she said quickly, sidestepping any further mention of her impending marriage. “I think that would do it.”
“That sounds nice,” Fitz said, mercifully dropping the subject. “I think you’d make a brilliant scholar.”
Jemma looked at him hopefully; his opinion suddenly meant a lot. “You really think so?”
He nodded, as though it were plain to see. “Well, you’re obviously very smart,” he said. “Even smarter than me. You’ve talked me in a circle at least three times today, and that’s never happened before.”
She laughed, the teasing grin on his face suffusing her with warmth. “I’m glad I was able to provide you with some amusement.”
Fitz’s smile widened before his expression turned thoughtful, and he looked out at the ocean for a moment; then he elbowed her gently. “Do you think,” he asked quietly, “in these perfect lives of ours... do you think we still would have met each other?”
Jemma looked at him with surprise, not having expected so direct a question. Her natural instinct was to hedge around it, because their lives were so very different and their meeting so unlikely that she didn’t think it would ever have occurred under different circumstances... but then she thought about how much she had come to enjoy his company over the course of the day, and decided that she most definitely knew what she wanted her answer to be.
Straightening her shoulders and looking him in the eye, she said, “Yes. I think we would have, Fitz.” At his surprised, unabashedly pleased smile, she added, “Definitely.”
“Yeah?” Fitz asked, still smiling, turning to face her.
Jemma smiled back, nodding, and mirrored him, clasping her hands in front of her. “Maybe we were meant to become the best of friends, or perhaps we were meant to combine our separate geniuses to create something entirely new that the world has never seen before.” Her face lit up as she considered the possibilities. “Think of what we could do if we put our minds together, Fitz! Oh, you have to give me your address so I can write to you. We absolutely must keep in touch.”
Fitz looked delighted, but a second later he paused and raised an eyebrow at her, frowning. “And--Grant would allow that? Us working together? You, uh, mentioned before that he doesn’t really seem to like you working in a laboratory.”
Jemma huffed in frustration but refused to acknowledge the restrictions placed on her by her fiancé. “I may be marrying him, but I refuse to let him control me,” she said stubbornly. “He can’t choose my friends. I’ll talk to whomever I wish, and that means that I’ll write you as I like.”
Fitz’s expression brightened at that, as if her assurance that she truly intended to keep in contact with him meant as much to him as it did to her. “I’ll look forward to it,” he said, grinning. “Though, will you be able to get by without a laboratory to work in? Or…” He hesitated. “I’m sure your house will, uh, will have plenty of rooms--maybe you could use one of them as a space to work in?”
Jemma huffed again. “Hardly. Grant wouldn’t stand for it. I’ll have to see if one of the local schools wouldn’t mind me using one of theirs during off hours. Oh, my mother will hate it. I can hear her now.” She drew herself up to her full height, tilting her chin up imperiously and pitching her voice into a caricature of her mother’s prim, refined accent. “No man wants a woman who smells like a laboratory, Jemma,” she quipped. “And besides, once you give Grant children, you won’t have the time.”
Fitz boggled at her, horrified, before breaking out in laughter despite himself. “Is that all she thinks you’re good for, then?” he asked incredulously. “Bloody hell.”
Jemma rolled her eyes. “Oh, it gets even worse than that. Once, she even--” She swung her arms out, intending to mimic another gesture of her mother’s, but stopped cold when she saw something just over Fitz’s shoulder, her face blanching. Fitz, seeing her expression change, sobered immediately and wheeled around to see what she was looking at.
It was her mother, standing a short distance away, flanked by three other women, including Daisy Johnson. Jemma didn’t know how long they had been standing there or how much they had heard, but judging by the cold look on her mother’s face, it had been enough. Swallowing down the sour taste that had risen in her throat, Jemma composed herself and stepped forward, up next to Fitz.
“Mother, ladies,” she said evenly, “may I introduce Leo Fitz? He was of great assistance to me last night.”
Fitz tipped his head slightly, giving them a small smile and a murmured hello.
The other ladies introduced themselves politely, but Edith remained aloof, looking over Fitz with clear disdain on her face. Fortunately, before she could say anything cutting that might embarrass him, a bugler came out to sound the meal call for dinner. Fitz jumped slightly at the noise and looked to Jemma with a question in his eyes.
“Time to go dress, Jemma,” Edith said, her tone brooking no argument.
Jemma bit her lip and looked at Fitz. “I’ll see you at dinner, Fitz,” she said quietly, turning to follow her mother down the promenade toward the first class reception entrance, two of her companions trailing behind.
That left Daisy Johnson alone with Fitz on the deck. He had turned to watch Jemma leave, a faint smile on his face, and Daisy was watching him thoughtfully.
“Hey,” she said softly. Fitz jumped again, startled despite her friendly tone, and turned to face her. “You’re coming with us to dinner tonight?” she asked. When Fitz nodded, she said, “Do you have any idea what you’re getting into?”
Fitz shifted his weight from one foot to the other and rubbed a hand at the back of his neck. “I, ah--um…” He gave her a sheepish look. “Not really.”
Daisy frowned. “Well, you are in for it, then. These people are ruthless and won’t wait to cut you off at the knees. You need to be ready. Trust me, I’ve been where you are right now and it is not fun or easy.” At Fitz’s apprehensive look, she gave him a reassuring smile. “But don’t worry. All you need is someone in your corner.” She gave him a look over, much the same way that Jemma’s mother had, but her gaze was more carefully considering rather than cold. “What’re you planning on wearing?”
Fitz looked down at himself, taking in his worn corduroy trousers and plain brown shirt. “Well... I’ve got a jacket and tie with me that are a bit nicer than this…”
Daisy shook her head. “That’s what I thought. Come on.” She turned, motioning for him to follow her. “I think I’ve got just the thing for you.”
Inside Daisy’s stateroom, Fitz stood in front of a full-length mirror, critically inspecting his reflection. He was dressed in well-fitting black tuxedo pants, a starched white shirt, and a crisp white vest. He’d never worn such fine clothing in his life, and he felt strange in it--stiff, uncomfortable, almost alien. He barely recognized himself.
Daisy came up behind him, also dressed for dinner, a wide smile on her face. “See? I told you I’d have something that would fit.”
“Who did you say this belongs to, again?” Fitz asked, fiddling with his cufflinks.
Daisy moved to dig through some of the open garment boxes strewn across her bed. “A friend of mine, Robbie Reyes--he’s an automobile designer out in California, maybe you’ve heard of him?” Fitz shook his head. “He asked me to purchase some suits for him and his brother while I was in Paris. And you’re roughly the same size as his brother, so…” She looked back up at him and grinned again. “It worked out perfectly. And I don’t think he’d mind you wearing it. Or, at least, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. I can have it cleaned and pressed before having it delivered.” She winked, then gestured at his feet. “Mostly I’m just glad you turned out to be the same shoe size, too.”
Fitz looked down, wiggling his toes inside the shiny, black patent leather shoes he was wearing. “Yeah, me too,” he said with a quiet laugh. “I don’t think my boots would have gone with this suit.”
Spying the white bowtie lying on the chair next to the mirror, Fitz picked it up and held it in his hands with a frown. He had practice doing neckties, and could probably manage a cravat if he tried, but he had absolutely no experience with bowties. Looking in the mirror, he draped it around his neck, then picked up the ends and stared at them, but he couldn’t make heads nor tails of it.
Daisy noticed his confusion and joined him in front of the mirror again. “Here, let me do that for you.” She turned him by the shoulders to face her, then took the ends of the bowtie and began deftly tying it. “Trip’s been doing this for years and he still can’t do it right.”
“Trip?” Fitz asked.
Daisy smiled. “My husband.” She pulled the ends of the bow tight. “Perfect.” She stretched to pick up the black dinner jacket folded over the back of the chair. “Let’s get this on you…”
Fitz turned so she could help him shrug the jacket on; then he grabbed the lapels to pull it snug over his shoulders, settling it over his lanky frame. He looked back in the mirror again, exhaling as he took in his appearance in the full tuxedo. He really did look like a completely different person; the expensive clothing made him appear much more severe, and he worried that Jemma might find the transformation off-putting. But Daisy was beaming at him again, looking very pleased with herself.
“Well, look at you,” she said, hands on her hips. “You really do clean up well. I bet they won’t even recognize you.”
Fitz pressed his lips into a line. “Really? You think so?”
She tilted her head. “Well, all the blowhards probably won’t. But Jemma will.”
He smiled despite himself, her words giving him a dash of confidence and hope. Then he frowned and tugged at the neck of his shirt a bit, unused to wearing something so constricting.
“I’m not sure we can do much about your hair, though,” Daisy added, giving him a thoughtful look. “I don’t have any pomade and water might only make it worse.”
Fitz grimaced. “I’m sorry,” he said, reaching up to pull self-consciously at one of his curls. “It’s always, um... always kind of had a mind of its own.”
Daisy waved his concerns away. “Don’t worry about it, you’ll look fine. I’ve got a comb you can use to help.” She quickly located one from her vanity and handed it to him. Once he’d gotten his hair mostly under control, she clapped her hands together. “There! You look great.”
He gave himself one last look in the mirror before turning toward her a bit awkwardly. “I don’t know how I can repay you for… all this. For your kindness.”
Her smile turned softer, more warm. “You don’t have to. Like I said, I know what it’s like to be where you are, going in feet-first without a clue what to do and everyone ready to judge you. So... are you ready?”
Fitz blew out a breath and shifted his weight as his nerves sprang to life. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess,” he muttered, feeling his palms go clammy. After a pause, he extended his elbow out toward her.
Daisy laughed in delight. “Charming! See, you’re a natural at this already.” She slipped her hand into the crook of his arm. “Let’s show them what you’re made of.”
Once they were outside in the corridor, she leaned in close and quietly said, “Just remember, the only thing these people respect is money, so act like you’ve got a lot of it, and you’ll be set.”
Fitz nodded tightly. “Right. Lots of money. Understood.”
He fell silent as they approached the reception area, and he tried to swallow his nerves and put Daisy’s advice into practice. He lifted his chin a little, squared his shoulders, and put some purpose into his stride. Perhaps if he attempted to exude the confidence of a rich man, he would actually appear to be one.
But his façade was hard to keep up in favor of gawking when they walked into the reception area and he got a good look at first class opulence. Spanning several levels, a wide, wraparound grand staircase opened up before them, all solid oak and carved with intricate detail. Above them was an enormous, domed glass and wrought-iron ceiling, lit from outside to give the illusion of natural light even at nighttime. All of the walls were paneled wood, and expensive Persian rugs dotted the tiled floor. It was far more lavish than anything Fitz had ever seen, especially compared to the ascetic furnishings in third class, and he couldn’t help but feel like an imposter in his borrowed suit.
Daisy gently squeezed his arm as they neared the foot of the stairs, and he clamped his jaw shut. “I need to go make the rounds and say hello to all of the important people before we go sit down,” she said. “Will you be alright if I leave you here alone to wait for Jemma?”
No, I will absolutely not be alright, Fitz thought, panicking slightly at the thought of being left alone, but willed it down--he had already promised himself that he would not show any weakness. “No, I, ah--I’ll be fine,” he said, letting her drop her hand away from his arm. “I can just--stay out of the way, over there, where I won’t cause any trouble.” He nodded in the direction of one of the pillars that supported the balcony above them.
She smiled. “Good. I’ll see you soon.”
He watched her walk away, greeting an older couple with a wide smile and open expression that looked very practiced. Then he made his way to the pillar he’d chosen. At first he leaned against it, more out of habit than anything else, before remembering that well-to-do first class gentlemen likely didn’t lean. So he stood up straight again, flexing his hands a bit, and tried to look as unassuming as possible--but unassuming and rich. Glancing surreptitiously at all of the other white tie men around him, he hoped he was mimicking their posture and manner without being too obvious, and hoped it would be enough to pass muster in front of Jemma’s family and friends.
As Jemma followed Grant, who was escorting her mother, down to dinner, she felt herself experiencing a fair amount of apprehension. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see Fitz again--she very much did--it was that she was nervous for him. She knew this crowd, and she knew they wouldn’t take kindly to a simply-dressed, working-class young man joining them for their white tie formal dinner. They might not be outright hostile, but there would doubtlessly be enough casually cruel barbs thrown around to demoralize anyone, and she didn’t want that to happen to Fitz.
Surely that was why Grant had invited him to dinner--because he wanted to see Fitz humiliated for his personal amusement. The thought made her blood boil. She knew her fiancé could be arrogant and callous, but this kind of maliciousness was low, even for him. She hadn’t dared object in the moment, unwilling to either insult Fitz--lest he think she didn’t want him there--or accidentally insult Grant, who had been even worse than usual since the ship’s very first whistle. But Fitz had accepted the invitation, and there was no way around it now. He would just have to do his best to survive the evening, and she would do whatever she could to help him.
Jemma couldn’t help but wonder how Fitz would even get to dinner; perhaps Giyera had been sent to escort him in from third class. She hadn’t seen the valet since before they’d left their suite. But as they entered the reception area and she cast her eye over all of the well-dressed ladies and gentlemen milling about, talking and greeting each other, she found her answer.
Fitz was hovering by one of the pillars near the staircase, dressed--her breath caught in her throat--in an expensive dinner suit, just like every other man around him. He looked a little lost and mildly uncomfortable, but that wasn’t what had drawn her eye. It was his mop of curly hair, standing out from the severe and slicked-back styles of the other upper class men. She fought to contain a smile as she watched an older couple walk by him, nodding a hello as they went, and he stiffly nodded back. Whoever his benefactor was (she strongly suspected it was Daisy Johnson--given her background and history, it wouldn’t be unlike her to have taken pity on Fitz and helped him out), they hadn’t been able to tame his curls.
Jemma hung back a little as Grant and her mother approached the side of the staircase, aiming to go around and down to D deck and the first class dining saloon--sending them straight toward Fitz. He looked over as they came near, and she saw him inhale as he recognized them, obviously trying to prepare himself for whatever they might say to him. Jemma found herself holding her breath as well, wondering what their opening salvo might be--would they try to cut Fitz down right from the start? Or would they play a longer game? She honestly wasn’t sure which would be worse.
But, amazingly, they walked right past him to greet some friends of theirs standing closer to the stairs. Jemma wasn’t sure if they hadn’t seen him--unlikely--or if they’d simply taken him for another gentleman of their ilk, waiting for his dinner company. Regardless, it was worth it for the utterly perplexed look on Fitz’s face as he watched them go. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head, looking away, and that was when he saw her.
His eyes lit up, but they were immediately tempered by a soft sort of awe as he took in her elegant dress, with its layers of silk and beaded chiffon, and the intricate headband she’d woven through her hair. It was different from the way Grant looked at her, admiring rather than possessive, and Jemma found herself ducking her head slightly and smiling as a light blush warmed her cheeks. Walking toward him gave her the opportunity to fully appreciate Fitz in his suit; whoever he’d borrowed it from, it fit him rather nicely, and she had to admit that he cut a rather dashing figure. He would have looked just fine wearing his regular clothes, of course, but this was an unexpected treat.
Fitz’s smile had turned somewhat nervous by the time Jemma stopped in front of him, and she let her own smile grow warmer in the hopes of putting him at ease.
“Hello,” he said, his eyes fixed on hers. He swallowed. “Um... how do I--ah--” He fumbled for a moment, as if he wasn’t sure how to properly greet her, before settling on giving her an awkward little half-bow.
Jemma’s smile widened, and she laughed softly as she inclined her head at him. “Hello, Fitz,” she replied. “You look very nice.”
“Oh.” Fitz pressed his lips together as he fought and failed to contain his grin, standing a bit straighter and pushing his shoulders back. “Thank you. Um--so do you. I mean... you look beautiful.”
She couldn’t stop smiling. Fitz’s earnestness and utter lack of guile made her truly feel beautiful in a way that Grant’s hollow compliments never did. “Thank you,” she said in return. “So. Do you think you can brave this?”
He sighed. “I’ll do my best to power through.” Then another small smile crossed his face as he offered her his arm, as though he could think of no greater pleasure than escorting her down to dinner.
Jemma accepted, beaming, and led him over to where Grant and her mother were still talking to their friends. As they came close, Jemma reached out to lay a hand on Grant’s arm, getting his attention. “Grant,” she said as he turned around to look at her, “you remember Mr. Fitz, don’t you?”
Grant did a double-take and blinked at Fitz in shock, clearly not having expected him to show up properly dressed for the occasion. Then he laughed. “Mr. Fitz! I barely recognized you,” he exclaimed, giving him an appraising once-over. “Amazing. You almost look like a real man.” Grinning, he cuffed Fitz on the shoulder and turned to lead Jemma’s mother down the stairs toward the dining saloon.
Fitz watched them go, his eyebrows raised to his hairline, and Jemma got the distinct impression that if it weren’t inappropriate, he’d be telling Grant exactly where he could shove his nicely-tailored suit. She, meanwhile, glared daggers at her fiancé’s back. “Don’t listen to him,” she whispered, gripping Fitz’s arm tightly with both hands.
“Don’t worry,” he said lowly, “I’m not.” Then he sighed again, and put on a smile for her. “Shall we?”
They stayed a fair distance behind her mother and Grant as they descended down the staircase to the dining saloon. As they went, Jemma allowed herself a moment to imagine what it would be like if it were Fitz with whom she attended parties and dinners and balls. She’d have a much more engaging conversation partner, at the very least. And--she was struck with the realization--she would be happy, too. She’d be fiercely proud to be seen with him, just the way she was now.
That thought put a renewed smile on her face as they entered the dining saloon and joined the other passengers who were mingling, waiting on their dinner companions, or engaging in a quick conversation before being seated.
As they waited for the rest of their party, Jemma kept Fitz amused by pointing out several notable people in the crowd, those known for their extreme wealth, extramarital affairs, odd quirks, and other various social scandals. She even introduced him to a few of them. They were all gracious and polite, even though they had no idea who Fitz was; they just assumed he was one of them. New money, perhaps, but money all the same. Fitz, for his part, was as warm and kind as he’d proven himself to be since she’d met him, and seemed to make a good first impression on everyone he met.
All of it gave her hope that perhaps the evening would go better than she had initially feared it would, and that maybe Grant wouldn’t be too hard on Fitz, for her sake at least, and that they might even make it through the entire dinner without a major upset.
Fitz was disappointed that he wasn’t seated next to Jemma when they were finally shown to their table, but perhaps that was to be expected--after all, he wasn’t her fiancé. But he was right across the table from her, which he supposed was the next best thing; it meant he didn’t have to crane his head or look around other people to see her, and the smile she sent him as he took his seat instantly warmed him to his core and lifted his spirits. And he was sitting next to Daisy, which he considered a great boon. He’d been introduced to a few of the people in the large party they were dining with, but he didn’t know them, and he would take all the allies he could get.
Dinner started off quietly. Fitz made small talk with Daisy, glad that the lady seated to the other side of him was engrossed in conversation with someone else. Jemma stayed mostly silent, occasionally speaking to the other man seated next to her, a lightly greying middle-aged man who was busy writing in a small notebook. On her other side, Grant hardly paid Jemma any attention at all, talking instead to the men nearest to him, which Fitz thought was tantamount to a crime. He’d spent hours already talking to Jemma earlier that day and hadn’t gotten his fill yet; he felt like he could spend several more hours with her and still not run out of things to say. She kept shooting him glances and small smiles across the table, though, which gave him the hope that, just maybe, she felt the same way.
A waiter came to fill their glasses with champagne, followed shortly by another who brought out the soup. Fitz went along with Jemma’s example and took his napkin off his plate, unfolding it and setting it over his lap. Then he looked down at the complicated place setting in front of him and felt a brief wash of gratitude that there was only one spoon from which to choose. He would be spared the potential embarrassment of selecting the wrong fork for his fish a little while longer.
Once he’d been served, he went to try a taste, but a sudden discrete elbow to the ribs from Daisy made him stop, his spoon dipped partway into his soup. Fitz looked askance at her and she nodded subtly down at her own bowl before very pointedly spooning up a bite of soup, angling the spoon away from her. Ah, that was it. He was about to eat incorrectly, and apparently that mattered. He switched directions with his spoon, Daisy smiled in approval, and he started his dinner without further incident.
Fitz had hoped they might make it to the main entreé before Grant said anything demeaning about his class status, but they’d barely tucked into their soup when the first comment came. Surprisingly, it wasn’t from Grant, but instead Jemma’s mother.
“I’m curious, Mr. Fitz,” she said, resting her spoon against the side of her bowl and looking at him from across the table, her chin lifted imperiously. “What are the accommodations like in steerage on this ship? I’ve heard they’re quite good.”
Fitz swallowed down a spoonful of soup and looked back at her, willing himself not to quail or stammer or look weak. Around the table, everyone had paused eating to look at him curiously, wondering what she meant by her statement; what would a well-dressed young gentleman such as he know of steerage?
Grant took a bite of his soup and set his spoon down, smiling. “Mr. Fitz is joining us this evening from third class,” he said, looking insufferably smug. “He was of some assistance to my fiancée last night.”
Now everyone had gone from looking curious to judgmental, a few of them whispering to each other, no doubt speculating on how he had even come to be in their midst in the first place. Fitz clutched his spoon even tighter, trying not to flush under their scrutiny. Across from him, Jemma was glaring into her bowl.
Determined not to be cowed, Fitz smiled pleasantly. “It’s nice, yes,” he replied. “Very comfortable.”
Edith looked like she wanted to say more, but was interrupted by the man sitting on Jemma’s other side, who peered at him. “Fitz, did you say your name was?”
Jemma brightened suddenly, her angry stare forgotten as she straightened and turned to the man with a smile. “Oh! Yes!” she said. “Fitz, this is Thomas Andrews, to whom I believe you need no introduction. Mr. Andrews, this is Leo Fitz.” She looked back at him, her eyes sparkling. “I believe the two of you might have a mutual acquaintance.”
Fitz forgot where he was for a moment and almost boggled, hardly able to believe his good fortune. After everything that had gone wrong with trying to get in with the guarantee group, here he was, sitting right across the table from the very man he’d been trying to meet and impress with his designs for well over a year. He’d only ever managed to catch glimpses of Andrews at the shipyard offices, and hence hadn’t recognized the man when he was right in front of him.
Andrews raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh?”
Ignoring Grant’s look of baffled shock, Fitz nodded with a smile and cleared his throat. “Yes, sir. Samuel Collins, at the drafting offices, with Harland and Wolff? He, ah--” He hoped he didn’t sound too presumptuous. “He said he’d pass my name and some of my work along. I thought he’d gotten me a spot with the guarantee group for this crossing, but something must have fallen through. It didn’t work out.”
Andrews squinted at him for a second longer before recognition passed across his face. “Ah, Leopold Fitz!” he exclaimed. “I thought I recognized your name. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Yes, Samuel spoke very highly of you. He said you’re quite the promising young engineer.” He smiled warmly. “Once we’re all back in Belfast, please, come by the offices when you have time and see about making an appointment. I’d be glad to go over your work in person and see if we can perhaps come to a satisfactory arrangement for you.”
Fitz felt certain his smile was stretching off his face. “Of course, yes sir, thank you,” he said sincerely. “That’s very kind of you.” He was slightly flustered, overwhelmed by Andrews’ graciousness and his offer of a portfolio review, and the prospect that it could possibly lead to a job or an apprenticeship. This could put him on the path toward seeing his dreams come true--it could very well change his life.
Next to Andrews, Jemma was beaming. Based on their conversations earlier in the day, she knew what this introduction would mean to him, and she’d been thoughtful enough to make the connection. Fitz felt another rush of affection for her, this kind, bright girl who was so unlike the callous family with whom she’d been saddled. He smiled back at her as a way of showing his thanks, and the way her expression was excited and pleased--for him--was the best response he could have imagined.
Predictably, Grant didn’t look impressed. Having recovered from his initial surprise that Fitz could possibly have any connection to a man of Andrews’ stature, he said, “I wouldn’t expect much. He probably hasn’t had the necessary training to be of any worth.” Catching Fitz’s eye, he smiled at him as if at a child. “I only assume you haven’t had the schooling. I wouldn’t think someone like you would have the funds.”
Fitz looked steadily back at him. “University hasn’t been an option for me, but I’ve taught myself what I can through the library.”
Grant’s upper lip curled. “That’s no match for a proper education.”
“I bet he wouldn’t have to buy his grades at Harvard,” Daisy muttered.
Grant looked over at her, his eyebrows raised. “Excuse me?”
Daisy smiled sweetly at him, touching her napkin to the corner of her mouth. “Nothing, excuse me. Just clearing my throat.”
Fitz grinned to himself as he took another bite of his soup. Jemma, however, was shooting Grant another dark look. “Fitz showed me some of his designs, and they’re quite remarkable,” she said. “I should think any company would be proud to have him working for them.” She shot Fitz a reassuring look, and he felt another burst of fondness for her, that she would openly defend him to her fiancé. “And he has some practical experience, too,” she added before looking at him again. “Didn’t you say you helped build this ship?”
“I did, yes,” Fitz replied, nodding. “Titanic and both her sister ships.”
Andrews looked up in interest. “Really now? How long have you been at the shipyard?”
“Two years, sir.”
“And what is it exactly that you do for a living, Mr. Fitz?” Edith asked coolly, delicately spooning up more soup from her bowl.
Fitz lifted his chin. “I’m a riveter,” he said proudly.
Grant scoffed. “A noble profession,” he shot back derisively.
“It’s honest work,” Fitz replied, with no trace of shame. “And I earn enough to support myself.”
“Here, here,” Daisy said, saluting him with her champagne glass.
“It’s a skilled trade,” Andrews added seriously, “and very crucial indeed. But Samuel Collins has never led me astray before. If he says Mr. Fitz here is a worthy talent, then I take him at his word and look forward to seeing his work.” He turned to Fitz. “I’m going to be leading the Simmons ladies, Mr. Ward, and a few others on a tour of the ship tomorrow after the morning worship service. It would give you a chance to see what you might have missed out on with the guarantee group. I’d be delighted if you could join us.”
Fitz nodded eagerly. The opportunity to see more of the ship while spending time in Jemma’s company was just too great to pass up. “I’d be honored, sir. Thank you.” He turned to look at Grant, who was doing little to hide his displeasure, and smiled serenely. He felt victorious. Grant had done everything he could to belittle him, make him feel small and look inferior, but he’d kept his cool and rather felt as though he’d come out on top. The way Jemma continued to smile at him, looking just as pleased as he felt, only added to that feeling of triumph. Grant scowled and looked away.
Waiters reappeared at the table to clear their soup bowls in preparation for the next course of the meal, thankfully taking the focus off of Fitz. From that point on, dinner went fairly smoothly. Fitz talked mostly to Daisy, asking more about her friend Robbie’s automobile business in California, and listening to her talk about her husband Trip’s exploits in the American military. He liked her a lot and was once again thankful he’d been seated next to her; he found her brash opinions and forthright attitude a refreshing departure from the uptight tempers of most everyone else at the table, and he was very glad she had decided to offer him the use of a suit.
He spoke a little more to Andrews as well, at Jemma’s gentle encouragement. He didn’t want to seem starstruck, or too eager to go into the details of talking business at a formal dinner, but it turned out that the little book in which Andrews had been making notes was part of his work on Titanic. Prior to the start of dinner, he had been brainstorming proposed design changes to the ship, and he shared his thoughts on a few of them. Fitz was more than happy to listen and learn, fascinated to hear a master speak about his craft. Jemma joined their conversation where she could, and when Andrews fell silent, Fitz spoke to her about the books she was currently reading.
He noticed that whenever Grant mentioned Jemma or tried to draw her into his conversations, it was always to direct attention to himself or to make himself look better--as if she were little more than a valued accessory. Jemma’s face would go a bit tight, carefully trying to maintain a mask of cool composure, and she always answered him politely, but Fitz could sense her underlying unhappiness. He wondered if this was what her life was like every day: keeping up appearances for the sake of civility and familial harmony, all while suffering desperately on the inside. It was no way to live, he thought, imprisoned by invisible but impenetrable social constructs.
Dinner ended up being a longer affair than Fitz had anticipated. There were ten courses total, with far more food served than Fitz had seen in one sitting in his life, and with selections much more unique in taste than he had ever experienced. He actually found himself longing for the simpler fare of the roast beef and potatoes served in third class; at least with that, he knew the exact contents of what he was eating. It turned out he was not a fan of foie gras at all, and the creamed carrots and cold asparagus left much to be desired. The filet mignon was good, at least, but the real treat turned out to be the chocolate and vanilla eclairs served for dessert. Fitz wished he could spirit some away in a napkin back to his bunk to save for later, but didn’t want to ruin the suit Daisy had been so kind to lend him or do anything that might embarrass him and thus lose Jemma’s good graces.
When the meal finally ended, one of the older gentlemen at the table invited all the men present to join him in the smoking room for cigars and brandies. It was clear that Fitz was included, but he privately felt it best that he not attend. He obviously wasn’t welcome anywhere that Grant Ward happened to be, and the thought of being somewhere with him that didn’t also include Jemma wasn’t very appealing at all. But he stood with the rest of the men and went to talk quietly to Andrews. The older man gave him the name of his secretary in Belfast and urged him to make an appointment once they returned, and also promised to have a steward come fetch him in the morning for the ship tour.
As they spoke, Fitz noticed that Jemma wasn’t paying attention to the other ladies left at the table, but rather watching him with a wistful expression on her face. It made his heart stutter, the thought that maybe she wasn’t eager for him to leave filling him with a curious emotion that he couldn’t quite name or place. He knew he wasn’t ready for their evening to end either, wishing he’d had more of a chance to talk one-on-one with her over dinner. Feeling suddenly bold, he asked Andrews if he could have a leaf of paper from his notebook, then asked to borrow his pencil. After writing a quick note, he folded the piece of paper up and returned the pencil, bidding Andrews a good night. Then he made his farewells to Daisy, promising to return her suit in the morning.
Jemma looked up as he approached where she sat, her hands folded in her lap and her mouth twisting into a small frown. “Are you really leaving?” she asked, and his heart tugged to hear the disappointment in her voice.
He nodded, sighing. “Probably for the best that I do. I don’t think I’d be very welcome company with the men... well, one of them, at least, anyway.” His mouth ticked up in a grin as Jemma rolled her eyes. “I don’t think I’d be welcome with you ladies, either.”
“You’d be welcomed by me,” she said.
His smile softened. “And I’m glad for that,” he replied. “But I’d better be heading back.” He reached out to take her hand in his and, where no one else could see, slipped his folded note into her palm. She glanced down and her mouth started to open, a question on her lips, but he squeezed her hand to stall it. “I’ll see you tomorrow for Andrews’ tour,” he said. When she looked back up at him, he smiled again and nodded once before turning to leave the dining saloon. That wasn’t so bad, he thought as he headed for the stairs. Not bad at all.
A few minutes later, Jemma walked up the Grand Staircase headed for A deck. Her heart was racing, and she felt very much like a rebel stealing away for a night of clandestine thrills. All she could think of was Fitz’s smile and her hand in his, and the note he’d passed her, which she’d unfolded to read under the table as soon as he’d walked away. The words were now burned into her mind like a promise.
If you are willing and able, please meet me at the staircase clock in ten minutes.
She hadn’t even questioned it. She’d made poor excuses to get out of post-dinner coffee with the ladies and now here she was, sneaking off to meet up with a man she barely knew. She was aware that her behavior would be considered nothing short of scandalous, that running off with one man while betrothed to another would cause talk if she were found out, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. She wanted to see Fitz.
Jemma trusted him, and felt certain that his intentions toward her were honest; he wasn’t going to let any harm come to her. He was the first person she felt she could call a friend in a very long time, who appreciated her just as she was, who sparked new, creative ideas in her mind, who actually cared. Was it really so wrong to want to spend time with him?
As Jemma rounded the corner of the stairs on A deck and the top level of the balcony came into view, she saw Fitz standing in front of the clock above her. He was half-turned away from her, eyes cast down, his fingers tapping nervously against his thigh. She smiled, a pure happiness she wasn’t used to feeling suffusing her body at the sight of him, and she lifted the hem of her skirt to walk up the stairs.
Fitz caught sight of her when she was a few steps away, and his face lit up as his posture straightened, not unlike when he’d seen her before dinner. It made her cheeks unexpectedly flush. “Jemma,” he said happily, his hand curling over the staircase newel as he turned to face her. “I, um... I wasn’t sure if you’d come.”
Jemma smiled brightly. “Of course I came. It’s not every day I get the chance to escape one of my mother’s terribly boring after-dinner conversations. And if it means I get to spend more time in your company, well... all the better.”
Fitz’s smile widened, and he looked distinctly pleased. “Right. Well. I know I wasn’t very clear in my note, and you have no idea why I’ve asked you to come here,” he said, “so you’re being awfully trusting. But I figured, the night is still young, and since you were nice enough to let me join you for dinner, I thought I’d ask you the same.” He swallowed. “Would you do me the honor of accompanying me to the third class general room, to see how we common folk entertain ourselves after dinner?”
Jemma had to bite her lip to keep her smile from stretching across her entire face. “You do remember that it was Grant who invited you to dinner, not me, don’t you?”
He gave her a faintly exasperated look. “Well, he’s not the reason I came,” he said pointedly. Her heart did a pleasant little flip inside her chest. “Anyway, I’ve gotten a look at your life. I think it’s only fair that you get to see a bit of mine. But only if you want to.” He seemed to shrink a little then, looking almost shy. “I’d understand if you’d rather go back to your room.”
Jemma let her smile bloom, charmed by his sweetness. “Oh, no. I’ve already said I’d like to spend more time with you,” she replied. “I’d be delighted to go.”
Fitz brightened again, his expression turning excited. “Excellent! Right, then.” He extended his elbow out to her with a sly smirk. “Shall we, my lady?”
She laughed at his exaggerated pomp and wrapped both hands around his arm, letting Fitz lead her out of the staircase entrance and onto the promenade.
They didn’t talk much as they walked aft, heading for the entrance to the third class general room. Jemma leaned into Fitz a little, taking what warmth she could from him against the cold night air--she hadn’t expected to go outside after dinner, and as such didn’t have a coat with her. Fitz didn’t seem to mind, even briefly covering her hands with his free one before they took the stairs down to the well deck.
She heard the noise coming from the general room before they actually reached it. Lively music and loud, boisterous crowd chatter floated up the staircase toward them, promising something much more informal and energetic than the staid, rigid dinner they’d just left. She wasn’t quite sure what to expect--and the uncertainty rather thrilled her.
Fitz paused at the top of the stairs, looking at her questioningly. “Ready?” he asked. When she nodded, he smiled and led her down the stairs, opening the door so she could go in ahead of him.
She paused just inside, taking everything in with a touch of amazement on her face. The room was packed with people, even more so than had been there that morning. They crowded the benches, talking and laughing, or were seated at tables, drinking and smoking. Even more danced around the dais in the center of the room to the upbeat tune of the group playing traditional Irish instruments off to one side of it. A haze of cigarette smoke filled the air, and Jemma’s eyes watered slightly as it hit her, but she didn’t complain. Everyone looked happy, alive, and present in the moment. It was unlike anything she’d ever been to in her overly sedate upbringing, and she loved it already.
Fitz lowered his arm and took her hand in his, then pulled her into the crowd after him. Jemma held on tight, not wanting to lose him, but also because holding his hand was giving her a funny sort of thrill, making her palm tingle. They wove their way through the press of people, heading for the benches that lined the side of the room. Their fancy dress drew them a few curious looks, but no one stopped them; Jemma wondered if it was because they recognized Fitz, or if it was due to the way he moved through the crowd with ease, like he belonged there.
They were almost to the benches when a shout drew Fitz up short.
“Fitz! Oi, mate!”
The bearded man she’d seen with him that morning was waving them over to a table near the edge of the dais. Fitz grinned and changed direction; the other man stood to greet them as they approached him, a wide smile on his face.
“What the bloody hell are you wearing, mate?” he laughed, talking loudly to be heard over the din, and gave him an obvious once-over. “You look like a ruddy penguin!”
Fitz laughed in return, glancing down at his tuxedo. Jemma was happy to see him look so relaxed and cheerful, the way his face brightened and his eyes crinkled at the corners. “Well, I couldn’t wear my corduroy and cotton to a fancy first class dinner, could I?” he said. “I had some help.” Then he gently tugged Jemma up next to him by the hand; he hadn’t let go. “This is Jemma Simmons. Jemma, Lance Hunter.”
Jemma smiled in greeting as Hunter took her free hand and brought it up to place a kiss on the back. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Simmons,” he said, a hint of a friendly tease in his voice. She liked him immediately. “So what brings a fine lady like you down here to revel with us in steerage?”
“Please, call me Jemma,” she said. Then she turned to smile up at Fitz. “He invited me. We’d had quite enough of being all stodgy and proper and boring upstairs, so he said he’d bring me down here for a bit of real fun.”
Hunter grinned. “Well, we can definitely give you that. Here, I’ll go fetch us some drinks.” He winked and turned to disappear off into the crowd, leaving them alone at the table.
“Speaking of proper--ugh--” Fitz dropped her hand to reach up and tug at the stiff collar of his shirt, before starting to shrug out of his jacket. Then he paused and looked at her, his expression making her think he’d just been caught doing something naughty. “Do you mind?” he asked, nodding at the jacket.
She shook her head with a smile. “No, of course not. We’re not at dinner anymore.”
Fitz slipped his jacket off and carefully folded it over the back of one of the chairs, then undid his bowtie and fumbled with it for a moment before stuffing it in his trouser pocket. Finally, he loosened his collar and undid his cuffs so he could roll up his shirtsleeves a little. Once he was finished, he gave a sigh of relief, then looked at Jemma somewhat sheepishly. “I feel a lot better, but--I’m sorry that there’s not really anything you can do,” he said.
Jemma smoothed a hand down the front of her dress, feeling the stiff boning of her corset beneath it. “I’m used to it, I suppose,” she replied with a shrug. He gave her a sympathetic look and then started, as if just remembering something. Raising a finger, he came around the table toward her and drew out a chair, gesturing for her to sit.
“I’m sorry, I forgot my manners,” he apologized.
She laughed as she sat down. “You’re too kind. Thank you.”
Fitz was just taking his own seat across the small table from her when Hunter reappeared, setting down a large glass full of a dark, foamy liquid in front of each of them. Fitz thanked him and immediately picked his up to take a long drink, but Jemma only looked at hers. “Is this... beer?” she asked curiously.
“Aye, that’s Wrexham lager,” Hunter said, flipping his chair around to sit in it backwards, propping his arms up on the back of it. “What, have you never had beer before?”
“No,” she replied, a little defensively. “I suppose Grant and the other men might have it occasionally at their club, but it’s not something we ladies would ever have served to us.” She regarded the glass. “My mother would likely have a fit if she saw me drink this.”
Fitz grinned, leaning one elbow on the table as he took another sip of his beer. “Go on, then, try it,” he said. “I think you might like it.”
Next to him, Hunter nodded, leaning forward over the back of his chair. “Yeah,” he added. “You can’t go wrong with a basic lager. Give it a go.”
Jemma found herself momentarily distracted, taken in by Fitz’s sunny smile and the way he looked at her, as if she were the most interesting thing in the room, and how he appeared to be so much more at ease here than he did in the dining saloon. His posture was relaxed and open in comparison, and it made her feel instinctively more comfortable. Biting her lip, she looked at her pint again and decisively reached out to pick it up, barely hesitating before taking a long drink.
The liquid tasted heavy and bitter on her tongue, and she nearly spat it out, but forced herself to swallow. Her expression must have betrayed her dislike, because Hunter whooped, leaning forward excitedly, and Fitz grinned, his eyes dancing. “What do you think?” he asked.
She shook her head, determined not to be foiled by a simple drink. She didn’t want them to think she was too dainty to handle it. Licking her lips, she looked Fitz square in the eye and took another sip. This time, she was ready for it and the taste wasn’t so much of a surprise. She swallowed it easily, and set her glass down with a smile. “I think it’s an acquired taste, but it’s not so bad,” she said airily, answering Fitz’s question. “I like it.”
“Excellent,” Hunter said with a laugh, looking pleased.
Still grinning, Fitz held his glass up in salute, and Jemma realized he wanted to toast. She quickly picked her pint back up and held it out so he could clink their glasses together. “Cheers,” he said, and took a long swig, before setting his glass down with a satisfied sigh.
Soon, Jemma was entertained by listening to the music, happily clapping along and watching the few couples dancing, and listening to Hunter talk about his fiancée, Barbara. They had met at the U.S. Embassy in London; Hunter was there on some business that he was rather evasive about, involving contract work for some unnamed part of the British government. Barbara--or Bobbi, as he said she liked to be called--was there as an attaché to the U.S. Army. He wasn’t very specific about what she did, either, except that she had spent some time down in Central America recently, and her letters had been filled with vivid descriptions of the tropical climate and wildlife.
Fitz perked up at that. “Did she talk about any monkeys?” he asked eagerly, his beer forgotten.
Hunter laughed. “Maybe?” he said, scratching at his beard. “She might have, I can’t remember straight away. Why the big interest?”
Fitz ducked his head a bit, wrinkling his nose and rubbing at the back of his neck. Jemma was coming to recognize that it was one of his nervous tics, but it only endeared him to her more. “I dunno, I’ve been fascinated with them ever since I was a boy, when I read about them in a book at school and saw pictures.” He shrugged. “I think they’re wonderful little creatures. Always wanted to see one with my own eyes.”
“Oh!” Jemma reached across the table to lay a hand on Fitz’s arm. “I’ve been to the zoo at Regent’s Park in London several times and seen the monkeys there. You would adore it, Fitz,” she said brightly. Then she clasped her hands together. “If I’m ever back in England again, you must find a way to visit. I’d love to take you, and you could spend as long at the monkey enclosure as you like.”
Fitz stared at her in response, and his expression was odd, almost sad. She wondered what she’d said wrong to cause him to look at her with a strange mixture of thinly-veiled regret and longing, or the inexplicable way his look caused her to feel a vague sense of loss, too.
“That would be nice, Jemma,” he said, smiling weakly.
Hunter glanced between the two of them, frowning slightly, before sitting forward and stretching to flick his fingers against Jemma’s nearly-empty glass. “Look, she’s almost done with her beer, and you promised her some fun. You can’t sit here talking all night.” He nodded toward the crowd around the dais. “Why don’t you take Jemma out for a dance or two?”
Fitz’s eyes went almost comically wide as his jaw dropped and he sputtered, “What? No. No,” while Jemma flushed in alarm, looking from Hunter to the couples nearby who were dancing to the quick, upbeat tempo of the music being played.
“Oh--I--I don’t know this dance,” she protested, feeling a little silly.
Hunter laughed. “It’s not really a dance, not a formal one like you’d know, you just--you go with the music. It’s fun.” He reached out to rap his knuckles against her forearm. “I think you’d like it.”
Jemma looked back out at the people dancing. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to; she actually did, quite a bit. But she felt woefully inadequate looking at how fast the dancers in front of them were moving. She was afraid of bungling it up.
But she was there to try new things and live a little, wasn’t she? Turning back to Hunter and Fitz, she fixed them with a small smile. “Alright. I’ll do it. What do you say, Fitz?”
Fitz crossed his arms and shifted uneasily in his seat. “I, um, I… I don’t… no. No thanks.”
Jemma’s heart dropped in disappointment as Hunter laughed again, booing at Fitz. “Oh, why not?” she cried. “Are you afraid of missing a step, too?”
“No, I’m not afraid,” Fitz huffed, shifting again and looking distinctly disgruntled at being thought of as less-than. “I’m just… I’m--I’m not a dancer, that’s all.”
“Please?” Jemma cajoled, leaning forward and giving him her most charming smile. “I’m not the best dancer either, so you won’t have to worry about looking bad. We can learn together.”
“Right,” Hunter added, nodding encouragingly. “And you don’t want to disappoint the lady, do you? You’re here to show her a good time, go on!”
Fitz looked from them to the couples dancing around the dais, chewing on his bottom lip. “Eh… I don’t know,” he mumbled.
“Please?” Jemma said again, holding her smile. She was wearing him down, she could tell. “Just for a bit? I promise, we only have to do one song, and if you don’t like it, we can come sit back down.”
Fitz’s eyes flicked to her, and he sighed. “Oh, alright,” he muttered, sounding resigned, but there was a faint smile ticking up the corners of his mouth. He pushed to stand up from his chair as Hunter cheered, clapping him on the arm, and came around the table to hold out a hand to her. “Let’s go, before I change my mind.”
Jemma slipped her hand into his with an excited smile, and he pulled her to her feet and led her closer to the dais. Once there, he dropped her hand and they turned to face each other just as the band started up a new, uptempo jig. Jemma took a deep breath and held up her arms, ready to assume a traditional dance position, but Fitz gently laughed at her, shaking his head.
“Oh, no, no no,” he said. “That’s way too formal. We’ll, um--we’ll have to get a bit closer. Here.” He took one of her raised hands in his and carefully wrapped his other arm low around her waist, pulling her in against him. Her breath caught in her throat as she looked up at him, her heart suddenly racing in her chest. He was so close--certainly closer than Grant had ever been while dancing with her--and she could feel the heat radiating off his body, and see the striking blue of his eyes. The way he was looking at her, suddenly steady and intense, left her feeling flustered, but she couldn’t look away. She didn’t want to.
“Are you ready?” he asked, arching an eyebrow at her. Not trusting herself to speak, Jemma nodded, and with that Fitz tightened his arm around her and stepped off.
Jemma immediately yelped in surprise, holding tightly to Fitz’s hand and shoulder as she nearly tripped over her feet trying to keep up with his fast pace. She was stiff and rigid at first, too focused on not falling as they moved back and forth across the floor, but as she got used to it, she began to relax, until she was fully invested in it. It was almost like a race, a euphoric rush, and she laughed giddily as they bounced in place once before switching directions. Fitz looked down at her as they dodged the other couples around them and skipped across the room, and she was surprised to see a wide smile lighting up his whole face. Jemma had the thought that he was beautiful like this, flushed and excited and full of life as he held her close.
They danced until the song’s final note died away on the pipes. As everyone on the floor clapped and cheered, Fitz and Jemma took a step apart, panting with exertion. Jemma felt her hair was starting to coming loose from her elaborate twist and headband, and Fitz’s own hair was slightly damp at the temples from sweat, but he looked positively exhilarated, and she was sure she looked much the same.
“It’s absolute madness, Fitz,” she cried, feeling near to bursting with joy. “I could barely keep up! But I loved it!” She laughed, still struggling to catch her breath from within the confines of her corset. “What did you think?”
His hands on his hips, Fitz tried to affect a casual air, but the brightness of his eyes gave him away. “Eh, it was alright,” he said, grinning.
Jemma’s smile widened as she laughed again. “Oh, you loved it,” she teased. Behind her, the musicians started up another number. “Want to go another round?” she asked, raising her voice to be heard over the music.
To her delight Fitz nodded, holding his hands out to her, and she stepped eagerly back into his arms. A tingle of excitement ran through her as Fitz’s hand curved around her hip, and with a shared manic grin, they were off again.
As they danced back into the crowd in a whirlwind of laughs and smiles, Jemma thought that she hadn’t ever felt so free or so happy in her entire life, and that she never wanted the night to end. She wanted to stay exactly as she was in that very moment, swept up in the music and dancing, without a care, forever--and she would give anything to be able to stay with Fitz, where responsibility, obligation, and expectation could no longer torment her.
Much later, the still night air was broken up by laughter as two lone figures strolled slowly along the empty boat deck. Jemma had Fitz’s dinner jacket draped over her shoulders, but the cold didn’t seem to bother Fitz, who was gesturing wildly as he talked, his face animated as he recounted the story of his first and only practical engineering endeavor.
“...And the whole thing capsized in under a minute!” he said, grinning despite the fact that he was describing a failure to launch. “It was bloody embarrassing, really, because I showed my arse in front of my mates from the shipyard, but funny looking back on it, I suppose. They hauled me off to the pub like that, looking like a drowned rat!”
Jemma burst out laughing again, holding her sides as her shoulders shook. “Oh, Fitz! You men are all the same when it comes down to it. You let your ego get ahead of your brain, and you make critical mistakes in your calculations. Hubris will be your downfall, every time.”
“Hey! I take offense to that!” Fitz protested. “My calculations were sound! And it should have worked, in theory. It was my materials that were shoddy, I think. Either that, or the fact that I’ve had no experience sailing on my own. Next time, I’ll do it properly, even if it takes longer.”
Jemma smiled sweetly at him. “See? I told you. Ego before brains.”
Fitz huffed and looked away, grumbling good-naturedly. Damn her if she wasn’t right, but she didn’t have to look so adorably smug about it.
She skipped over to lean into his side, hooking her hands around his elbow and beaming up at him. “If you ever build another boat, you must take me sailing,” she said earnestly. “Even if it capsizes again. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
Riding high on the excitement of the evening, of dancing and laughter and the drinks they’d had, it was easy for Fitz to believe Jemma would eventually come back to England, and that she would be able to make a trip to Belfast to visit him without interference from her husband. The knowledge that she would be married by then to that awful git threatened to settle a sour feeling in the pit of his stomach, but he pushed it aside. Those emotions had no place there at the moment, not with the way Jemma was smiling at him with prettily flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes.
“Of course,” he replied, eager to indulge in the fantasy. “We’ll go downriver first so you can see the city, and then once we turn around and go back, I’ll show you the harbor.”
Jemma sighed happily. “I’ve been on yachts before, and rowboats on ponds--and of course ocean liners like this--but never a small sailboat like yours. It’ll be like an adventure.”
“Especially if we capsize,” Fitz joked. Jemma snorted another laugh, which was most unladylike, but Fitz found himself laughing right alongside her. The mental image of the two of them struggling ashore on the banks of the River Lagan was simply too amusing for him not to laugh.
Their merriment carried them along until they reached a door leading back into the ship, the brightly-lit sign above it proclaiming “1st Class Entrance.” Jemma looked up, her laughter dying and her smile slowly fading from her face. Beside her, Fitz frowned and looked away. He could accompany her no further; this was where they would have to say goodnight, putting an end to a truly wonderful evening.
Her head bowed, Jemma slipped his jacket off her shoulders and handed it back to him. Then she stood still for a moment, hesitating, clearly reluctant to leave him and return inside. Fitz was about to break the awkward silence himself, ready to wish her a good night’s rest and force himself to head back to his bunk, when she sighed and brushed past him, heading for the rail opposite the door.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she said quietly, looking up at the starry night sky.
Fitz hummed, folding his jacket over a nearby davit and coming to stand next to her, leaning his arms on the rail and joining her in looking at the stars. “Yeah,” he agreed. “It is. You can see so much more out here than you can in the city.”
Jemma smiled slightly, her eyes scanning the heavens. “When I was a little girl, my father used to take me out to the garden at night to pick out the constellations. He’d have a star map and a little lantern, and he’d quiz me on all of the major star names, and their positions in the sky. And then I would try to count them.”
Fitz laughed softly, looking askance at her. “You tried to count all the stars in the sky?”
She shrugged lightly, still staring upward. “I wanted to know exactly how many there were,” she said. “When I was young, counting them all didn’t seem like such an impossible goal. With my father’s encouragement, I believed I could actually do it.”
He gave her a sympathetic smile, knowing what it was like to lose a beloved parent. “You must miss him very much.”
Jemma looked back down at him, her own smile turning melancholic. “Every day,” she said quietly. “It felt like he was the only ally I had in the world. I often think of what my life might be like if he were still here to... curb my mother’s more ambitious social aspirations.”
Fitz pressed his lips into a thin line. He had his opinions of Jemma’s mother, few of which were kind. She didn’t seem to recognize or care for her daughter’s good heart and brilliant mind, and he hated that she was forcing Jemma into a marriage that she didn’t want. Her “ambitious social aspirations” were trampling Jemma underfoot. But it wasn’t his place to say anything of that sort, so he kept his thoughts to himself and looked back out at the sky, feeling somewhat helpless and wishing he could do more.
Suddenly Jemma gasped as she pointed towards the sky. “Look! A shooting star!”
He followed the direction of her finger and looked just in time to see a bright speck of light zip across the sky toward the horizon. He grinned reflexively, glancing at her and feeling his heart warm at the way Jemma’s face had lit up with childlike wonder and delight. The moment felt perfect, crystalline and suspended.
“You know,” he said, “my mother used to tell me that whenever you saw a shooting star, it was a soul going to heaven.”
Jemma turned to look up at him, smiling gently. “That’s sweet.”
He smiled back at her. “She said they brought good luck, too, and that you were supposed to wish on them. I know what I’d wish for.”
“Oh?” she asked, tilting her head. “What’s that?”
For a brief moment, Fitz considered deflecting, or perhaps telling a small lie--he knew that Jemma expected him to say he wished he could get a job as an engineer, or patent one of his designs, or go to university, and it was tempting to answer as such. But right at that moment, his one wish was fairly simple and completely altruistic, and he felt compelled to be honest. His gaze softened. “I’d wish for you to find happiness,” he said.
Jemma’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh,” she breathed, looking surprised. “I--er--that--that’s very kind of you.”
Fitz smiled a little bashfully. “I mean it,” he replied sincerely. Seeing how stunned she looked, and fearing he’d accidentally made things too serious, he tried to bring a little levity back by sliding his hand along the rail until it bumped up alongside hers. He rapped their knuckles together. “What about you? What would you wish for?”
Jemma had glanced down at their hands resting on the rail next to each other, but when she looked back up at him, her eyes were clouded with emotion. She looked almost lost, yearning, searching, as if he was the only person who could bring her back ashore. It made his heart thud heavy in his chest with a wild sort of hope, that maybe she might feel the same way he was beginning to realize he felt about her, however impossible those feelings were. She looked on the verge of saying something, something vitally important, but in the end she only sighed.
“Something I can’t have,” she whispered. Then she smiled sadly at him and stepped away from the rail. “Goodnight, Fitz.”
Ducking her head, Jemma hurried away from him. Dismayed, Fitz went to follow her, her name on his lips; but the door leading back inside the ship had already swung shut behind her, leaving him alone on the deck, wondering what it was he had done to upset her.
Sunday morning dawned bright and beautiful as Titanic continued on her way across the north Atlantic toward New York. Sunlight spilled through the windows of the private promenade of the Millionaire’s Suite, dappling the wooden floor and lighting up the ivy-covered trellises. The room looked warm and cheerful, and should have felt as such, but the atmosphere spoke to a very different mood.
Jemma and Grant were sitting at a small wicker table, eating their breakfast in silence. The air was thick and tense, both of them using their cutlery with rigid, practiced movements, without looking up from their plates. Grant hadn’t spoken a word since he’d given her a brief, cool greeting in the sitting room earlier before escorting her out to the promenade, and his entire being now radiated displeasure. Jemma didn’t know what had gotten him all worked up, but she had chosen to remain quiet instead of provoking him into an even worse mood. It all made for a rather uncomfortable meal, to say the least.
Abby came out to pour the tea, then went back inside. Jemma added sugar and cream to hers, while Grant sliced off a bit of tomato to eat with his eggs.
“I was hoping you would’ve come to see me after dinner last night,” he said quietly, after he’d swallowed.
Jemma glanced at him as she picked up her cup and saucer. Grant’s voice was low and flat, his eyes still trained on his plate. Her stomach turned a little at the unspoken implication in his words, at what he’d obviously wanted from her. Even though she was engaged to be married to him, she couldn’t imagine herself sleeping with him; in fact, she had been dreading it, because while he was certainly good-looking, she felt no deeper attraction to him. A strange mixture of guilt and defiance flooded her as she recalled how she had spent her evening away from him--laughing, dancing, and radiantly happy in the arms of another man. Fitz.
Jemma took a sip of her tea. “I was tired,” she replied, keeping her tone noncommittal.
She refused to feel shame for following her heart, for doing something for herself for once and allowing herself to feel joy, for spending time with someone who appreciated her for who she really was and not who she was supposed to be. She was sure she would treasure the memory of her night with Fitz for the rest of her life. The guilt came from knowing she was dangerously close to falling for one man while promised to another. Jemma might have felt little love for Grant Ward, but she had a lifetime of strictly-taught customs telling her that what she was doing was wrong.
When she’d returned to her stateroom in the wee hours of the morning, there was no light coming from the bottom of the door to Grant’s room, and Jemma had assumed that he’d already gone to bed. Having no desire to see or speak to him, she had quickly undressed and gone to bed herself.
Grant hummed as he cut a sausage in half. “Yes, I’m sure your little trip below decks in steerage left you very tired.”
Jemma went stiff, her cup rattling slightly as she set it back down on its saucer. “You had Giyera follow me,” she said numbly, staring at Grant in horror. She felt violated, like he’d intruded on something precious to her and sullied it. “You sent that awful man after me like--like I’m some sort of dog.”
Grant set his utensils down and looked up at her, his expression a mask of cold anger. “You will never behave like that again, do you understand me?”
A flush of indignation rolled over Jemma as she set her cup and saucer back down on the table, her ire rising. She refused to be spoken to like that--so much for not provoking him.
“I’m not some worker in one of your father’s railyards that you think you can order around!” she said sharply as her shoulders went back. “And I’m not your property--I’m your fiancée!”
“My fiancée,” Grant huffed sourly, glaring at her. “My fiancée... my fiancée! Yes you are!” Suddenly his moody retort turned into an explosive shout, and in a fit of rage, he stood and swept the entire table to the side with a resounding crash. Jemma cried out in fear and shrank back, her hands held up in a meager defense, but Grant crossed the space between them in one quick step, gripping the sides of her chair and trapping her between his arms.
“And you are also my wife,” he snarled, leaning threateningly over her, “in practice, if not yet by law--so you will honor me, the way a wife is required to honor her husband! I’m tired of it--your books and your ‘experiments’ and sneaking off with beggars. No more--you will not make a fool out of me. Is this in any way unclear?”
Trembling in shock and anger, Jemma could barely shake her head “no.”
“Good.” Straightening up, Grant turned and stalked away, brushing past Abby, who had stopped short in the doorway bearing the orange juice and was now staring at the scene in front of her in surprise.
As soon as he was gone, Jemma crumbled, letting out a sob that she tried to muffle with one hand as the fear and adrenaline rushed out of her all at once. Abby quickly set the pitcher of juice down on a side table and ran to her, trying to catch her hands between hers.
“Abby!” Jemma gasped as she blinked back tears. “I’m--I’m so sorry, we--it was just an accident, I’m--” She slid out of her chair and sank to her knees, shakily reaching out for the shattered china that littered the floor. Abby knelt beside her, trying to still her hands again.
“It’s alright, Miss Jemma,” she said. “I can take care of it.”
Jemma swallowed and shook her head. “No, no, I want to help. Please--”
Abby finally succeeded in grabbing Jemma’s hands, saving her from cutting herself in her haste. She looked at her with kind, sympathetic eyes. “It’s alright, miss,” she repeated gently.
Overwhelmed, Jemma broke down crying.
Later, after Abby had helped her back to her room and calmed her down, she’d helped Jemma get dressed for the day. Grant was nowhere to be found, evidently having gone elsewhere to cool off his anger, which was more than fine with Jemma. His outburst had left her shaken to the core, and she didn’t know how to feel about him or anything else anymore.
She had just finished pinning up her hair and was starting on her makeup when her mother walked in from the direction of the sitting room. Jemma glanced up at her in the vanity mirror’s reflection as she shut the door behind her with a firm click. When she turned to face her, Edith’s expression was severe, much like Grant’s had been before he’d lost his temper.
“You are not to see that Fitz boy again,” she said quietly, but her tone brooked no argument.
Jemma swallowed and looked back to her own reflection, anger and resentment swelling within her. There was frustration over being controlled and told what to do, and bitterness from always being denied even the slightest bit of happiness. Rather than answer or acknowledge her mother, Jemma set her jaw and focused on powdering her cheeks.
“Jemma?” her mother said, her voice turning sharp. “Do you hear me? Do not see him again! I forbid it!”
The despair she felt rose acrid in her throat, and Jemma couldn’t hold in her emotions any longer. “So you’ve come to order me around too, now, have you?” she muttered tartly. “I’m a grown woman, you can’t treat me like a child anymore!”
Edith stepped forward to snatch the powder puff and tin out of Jemma’s hands and slap them down on the vanity. “Then stop acting like one!” she snapped. “This isn’t a game, Jemma! You know the money is gone!”
Jemma stared up at her mother, her resentment blooming until it was a vise gripping her chest, choking her, making her feel sick to her stomach. “Of course I know it’s gone, Mother,” she retorted defiantly. “You remind me every chance you get.”
Edith glared at her, her gaze furious. “Don’t take that tone with me, Jemma Anne. You know how precarious our situation is. Your father was a good man, but he left us nothing but a legacy of bad debts hidden by a respected name. It’s the only thing we have left to carry us, but we cannot survive on our name alone.”
“I know that,” Jemma said, looking away.
“I don’t understand why you’ve been so difficult about this,” Edith continued. “It’s a fine match with Grant. And it’s a miracle you managed to catch his eye at all, given that your reputation and unfortunate pastimes earned you no suitors in England. This is our only chance to ensure our way of life.”
Just like that, Jemma’s anger gave way to hopeless grief and sadness. She knew she had never been able to measure up to her mother’s ideal of what a proper lady should be, and always fell short when it came to pleasing her, but it still hurt every time her mother disparaged the things that made her happy. Even though Jemma was used to it by now, her mother’s casual barbs and dismissals still stung. And even more than that, there was also the injustice she felt over her mother’s insistence that she be the one to save the family name and fortune.
Feeling the telltale prick of tears, she shook her head. “How can you put all of this on me?” she whispered.
Edith looked as though Jemma had slapped her. “Do you want to see me working as a seamstress?” she asked, gutted. “Do you want to see us humiliated, all of our possessions sold at auction, our family home taken away from us, our memories scattered to the wind like dust? Is that what you want? How can you be so selfish?”
Jemma’s jaw dropped, her heart cut to the quick. “I’m selfish?” she gasped. “I’ve done everything that’s been asked of me! But not once has anyone ever asked me what I want! It’s completely unfair.”
“Of course it’s unfair,” Edith replied, her face softening. “We’re women. Our choices are never easy.”
And that, Jemma thought bitterly as her mother bent to place a kiss on her forehead, was the problem. She wasn’t making any choices at all. They were all being made for her.
“...And here we have a few of Titanic’s lifeboats, built to carry up to seventy men apiece,” Thomas Andrews said to the group following behind him, gesturing at a row of four lifeboats that were covered in tarpaulin. “In keeping with the White Star Line’s vision of modernity, the lifeboats are operated by these new, state-of-the-art Welin davits. They are the height of safety and practicality, and can quickly launch a lifeboat in any numbers of conditions. Not that we’ll have to worry about that,” he added with a smile, causing a ripple of polite laughter to wash through the group. “In fact, these davits could hold even more lifeboats, but the decision was made to cut back. Didn’t want to clutter the deck and impede this lovely view.”
Another titter of laughter broke out, but Fitz barely heard it. He was trying to pay attention to Andrews’ ship tour, he really was. It was fascinating, and the man was clearly knowledgeable about every facet of the ship right down to the individual rivets. But he couldn’t focus because something was wrong with Jemma.
She hadn’t looked at him once since he’d joined their party for the tour. He’d so been looking forward to seeing her, riding high on the flush of the excitement of their dancing despite the confusing way she’d left him the previous evening. Having her completely ignore him now was something of a punch to the gut. Instead, she stayed up at the front of the group, her hand on Grant’s arm with his own closed possessively over hers, her expression blank and eyes downcast. It was such a contrast to the way she had laughed and smiled in his arms mere hours before, enthusiastic and alive, that he couldn’t help but hear warning bells in his mind. Something must have happened to cause such an abrupt turn in disposition.
But he couldn’t catch her alone to ask what was wrong. Grant had a firm grip on her, and any time Fitz tried to sidle up close to her other side, Jemma’s mother magically appeared in between them to block the way. It was frustrating, and definitely felt purposely orchestrated to keep him away from her, but he didn’t know what he could do that wouldn’t cause a scene.
He finally found an opportunity when Andrews was showing off the gymnasium, and Grant finally let go of Jemma long enough to try out the rowing machine. Edith was too busy talking to one of the other ladies on the tour to notice him as he carefully crept up beside Jemma where she stood, some distance behind where the gym instructor was showing Grant how to work the oars.
“Jemma,” he said quietly, not wanting to attract attention to them. “Are you alright?”
She took in a short breath and swallowed, but didn’t look at him. “I’m fine,” she replied shortly.
Fitz frowned and followed her gaze. She was watching Grant glide back and forth on the rowing machine, her eyes hard. “You, um… you don’t seem fine,” he said after a moment, looking back at her. “Did--did something happen?”
Jemma closed her eyes briefly. “I’m--sorry, but I can’t be seen speaking to you.”
Fitz reeled back. He knew something was amiss, but this outright dismissal--after the way they had so easily connected and she had stubbornly insisted that she would keep in touch with him no matter what her family said--wounded him deeply. He exhaled shakily and looked down, nodding. “Okay,” he said, unable to hide his hurt.
At the dejection in his voice, Jemma finally turned to look at him, and her expression was filled with anguish. “It’s--” she said, her voice trembling, “It’s just that Grant--”
She looked away again just as suddenly, her jaw clicking shut, like she had almost divulged some terrible secret.
Fitz looked at her in alarm. “What?” he asked. “What did he do? Jemma?” When she didn’t answer him, instead staring straight ahead with her lips pressed down into a thin line, his concern only grew. He glanced over at Grant, who was standing up from the rowing machine and grinning, to the cheerful applause of the gym instructor, and briefly saw red in his vision. He looked back at her. “Jemma, did he--did he hurt you?”
When she still remained silent, he took her by the elbow and gently but quickly pulled her behind the electric camel, partially shielding them from view of the others. As he did so, the others started to follow Andrews back outside onto the boat deck. The two of them wouldn’t have long to themselves.
Not caring that it wasn’t proper, Fitz took both of Jemma’s hands in his and gave her an imploring look. “Jemma,” he repeated, terrified, “please... did he hurt you?”
Jemma stared back at him, clinging to his hands, her eyes wide and her face distressed. “No,” she replied, her voice wobbling, “he--he didn’t--but--” She cut herself off again, and Fitz felt sick. What she left unspoken told him everything. Whatever had happened must have been because she’d gone to steerage with him. The knowledge that he might have placed her in danger simply by asking her to spend the evening with him left him nauseated, and he cursed himself for ever feeling like he had the right to her company. But his feelings could wait.
“Jemma,” he said again, squeezing her hands and taking a step closer, “you can’t go through with the wedding. I didn’t think it was a good situation for you before, but now--it’s not safe. You have to get out."
“I can’t, Fitz,” she whispered, distraught. “I have nowhere to go. No other family, no friends. And I... I can’t leave my mother. She…” Her breath caught as her voice faltered. “She needs me. We’re nearly penniless and no one knows. If I... If I don’t do this, she’ll be cast out on the street.”
Fitz shook his head desperately. “You can’t let her live your life for you,” he said, gripping her hands tighter when Jemma started to protest. “I know that sounds cruel, but you can’t. You have to make your own choices, for you, not just her. They’re going to snuff the light out of you if you stay, or--or even worse. Look...” He took in a shuddering breath. “I know I have no right to speak like this, but I... I care for you, Jemma. And I can’t turn away before I know that you’ll be alright.”
Boldly, he lifted a hand to settle against her cheek, caressing lightly with his thumb. Then his heart stopped when Jemma leaned into his touch, covering his hand with her own. Her eyes fluttered briefly shut, and she looked torn--as if there was so much she wanted to say, or do, but was being held back. Perhaps it was fear, or a misplaced sense of duty, or obligation; Fitz didn’t know. But she took his hand away from her face and held it between both of her own, and as she looked up at him, her expression changed to one of intense regret and sorrow.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “They’ll... we have to go, I can’t be missed. I’m so sorry, Fitz.”
Jemma squeezed his hand once before dropping it and brushing past him to walk quickly away, out of the gymnasium. Fitz watched her go, feeling a horrible sense of déjà vu. This time, she might be walking out of his life for good, and it tore his heart to pieces. She was trapped in a gilded cage that was slowly suffocating her to death, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
“I just don’t understand why she won’t leave. She’s miserable, I know she is, and she looked afraid. But she still went back. I don’t get it.”
Fitz sat on one of the benches in the third class common room with his arms crossed and his shoulders slumped, staring blankly out at the hubbub of the other passengers going about their leisure time. Next to him, Hunter was barely paying attention to a book he’d brought with him from his bunk. He’d been patiently listening to Fitz talk without much comment for some time, letting him air his grievances and work through his thoughts aloud on his own, but at that statement, Hunter set his book aside and gave Fitz a serious look.
“I know you want what’s best for her, mate,” he said, “but you can’t force her to do anything. If she’s going to leave, that’s a decision she’s got to make on her own.”
Fitz gave a frustrated huff. “She wants to. I know she does, I could see it in her eyes. She just... won’t. I think she feels she owes something to her mother to stay.”
Hunter turned to face him on the bench, leaning his arm on the back of it. “Bobbi and I had an awful row once,” he said. “I felt like she was keeping things from me, sneaking about, being shifty. She said she was only doing what her work needed her to do, and was being as honest with me as she could. But I didn’t believe her. I thought she was lying to me.” He shook his head, a faraway look in his eyes. “She left to go to Honduras and didn’t write to me for weeks. I thought we were through.”
Frowning, Fitz rubbed a thumb thoughtfully over his chin. “I, um... I’m sorry to hear that. But, sorry, I don’t see what that has to do with Jemma.”
“Patience,” Hunter said with a slight grin. “I’ll get there. You see, I had to learn to trust her. Bobbi forgave me, but only after I accepted that she’d open up in her own time, and that there were some things she just couldn’t tell me. She had her reasons for keeping things close, and I had to respect that.”
Fitz’s frown deepened. “I’m still not sure I follow.”
Hunter sighed. “What I’m saying, mate, is that Jemma has her reasons for staying where she is, and you’ve got to respect that,” he said. When Fitz started to protest, he held up a hand to stop him. “Whether it’s for her mum, or that smarmy twat she’s marrying, or anything else, it doesn’t matter. They might not be the best or the right reasons, but they’re hers, and you don’t have to understand them, but you have to accept them.”
Fitz shook his head, agitated, as his expression soured. “I can’t accept the thought of her staying with him. He’s an absolute bastard, doesn’t care a whit about her, and he treats her like--like--”
He saw once again the fear in Jemma’s eyes, the way her hands had shook in his. She’d said Grant hadn’t hurt her, but something must have happened to make her so afraid, and the thought of her spending even a minute more beside him made Fitz sick to his stomach. Groaning in irritation, he pounded a fist against his knee.
“She shouldn’t have to live like that,” he said passionately. “No one should. She deserves to be happy. And--”
“And you’re the one who can make that happen, eh?” Hunter asked, raising an eyebrow at him. Fitz swallowed and looked away, folding his arms across his chest again. Hunter’s face turned sympathetic. “Look, Fitz, I know you want to be that bloke who sweeps in and rescues the lady in distress like some sort of hero, but that’s just not the way the world works. Definitely not for men like us.”
Fitz stared at the floor, feeling his chest grow tight. “I’m well aware of that,” he muttered.
“If she’s going to leave,” Hunter added, “she’ll have to do it herself.” He made a face. “If she even can.”
Fitz let out a slow, measured breath. Despite his protests, he knew Jemma was in a difficult situation where her options were limited. He also knew how lucky he’d been to have met her and spoken with her in the first place. That was all it was, luck and happenstance--simply being in the right place at the right time. He would likely never see her again. The thought filled his heart with a profound sadness. Jemma was the most beautiful, amazing, brilliant woman he’d ever met--but she was completely out of his reach.
Hunter watched him for a moment, as though trying to divine his thoughts, then reached out to clap him on the shoulder. “Come on now,” he said, clearly trying to lighten the mood. “It’ll be time for dinner soon. What do you say? I think they’re having roast beef on again, but it’s still a sight better than what you can get down the pub back home.”
Food was the absolute last thing Fitz wanted to think about at the moment. He shook his head. “I’m not hungry,” he said. “You can go on without me.”
Hunter laughed. “Oh, come off it. I watched you eat enough for three this morning at breakfast, don’t tell me you’re not hungry.”
Fitz leaned forward, pinching the bridge of his nose. “No... no, I just don’t think I can stomach it.” He pushed to his feet with a heavy sigh. “I’m going to go out on deck and get some air, try to clear my head. I’ll be back... sometime.” Hunter didn’t say anything as Fitz left, and he supposed there was nothing the other man really could say. He was a fool in love with an unattainable woman. The only thing he could do now was try to accept that she was gone from his life and move on.
In the first class lounge, Jemma sat with her mother and a few of her friends around a small table, taking their afternoon tea. Edith was rambling on and on about the preparations for Jemma’s wedding to Grant, and the ladies gathered were listening with rapt regard, but Jemma wasn’t paying any attention. Her mind was elsewhere, and the still, practiced composure of her face as she pretended to listen belied the tumult of her thoughts.
She felt much the same as she had her second night on the ship, when she’d suffered her breakdown: trapped, isolated, helpless. It was even worse now, because she’d found a brief, shining glimpse of happiness and acceptance in the form of Fitz, but now that had been snatched away from her, too. She’d known that Grant and her mother would disapprove of their friendship, but she’d been determined to hold on to it, to finally keep something in her life that brought her joy. But Grant’s outburst that morning had changed everything.
Jemma had seen a terrible side to her fiancé. Now there was a new layer to the life she feared was ahead of her: marriage to a man who ruled over her with an iron fist, who lashed out in anger and violence if she ever dared to step out of line. She had always fiercely valued her independence and freedom, but what if the consequences of such things were too great now? She didn’t want to provoke Grant into actually striking her--or her mother.
Despairingly, she thought of Fitz again. It was pointless, but she indulged herself in imagining what it would be like to have a fiancé who actually took an interest in her; a man who was kind and good and funny, and incredibly smart to boot. She wanted that life so much it hurt. They’d only just met, but Jemma had already fallen for him, and she ached knowing that they could never be together. If only they had been other people under any other circumstances; perhaps then they would have had a chance.
Fitz had made leaving Grant sound so easy, like she could simply just walk away. The concern he’d shown for her, and the care--oh, he’d said he cared for her, and she knew he meant it--the mere thought of that made her want to cry. She’d wanted to seek the shelter he’d begged her to take, but she couldn’t leave her mother behind to suffer.
She’d always had a difficult relationship with her mother. Jemma had long since accepted that her motives were entirely self-serving and that she’d never had Jemma’s best interests or wishes at heart, but her actions since they had set sail had put it into sharp relief. Rather than realize that her daughter was miserable and unhappy and take steps to ease that, Edith had chosen to reinforce it and side with a man whose possessiveness had been shown to have a nasty, violent edge.
Once again, Jemma thought back to what Fitz had said in the gymnasium. You can’t let her live your life for you. If she didn’t have her mother to worry about, would she be able to leave? Could she try and set herself free?
A tiny voice buried deep within her heart said yes.
But where would she go? She had no friends dear enough that she could trust, and no close relatives left that would take her in. There was no one she could think of who wouldn’t turn her away or take her right back to her mother and Grant.
But that same, small voice said that was untrue. There was someone. There was Fitz.
It was a completely mad idea. They barely knew each other, and she didn’t know if Fitz was able or even willing to take her on. It would be absolutely scandalous, running off with a man so far below her station. But Jemma had never put much stock in the trappings of social strata, and where she would be going, the gossip wouldn’t matter anymore.
The more she thought about it, the more it caused a faint spark of hope to light in her chest. She knew Fitz cared about her, and had said his wish was for her to be happy. What he didn’t know was that he made her happy, and a chance to seize that happiness was enough to give her courage. She could leave everything she knew behind, take a leap into the unknown, and trust him to catch her. Even if he couldn’t take her in himself, he would certainly be willing to help her find someone who would.
Just the thought of being free, of being able to live her life by her own choices--hopefully beside a man who truly cared for her rather than under the thumb of a controlling, abusive cad--left Jemma feeling dizzy and breathless, and she struggled to keep her composure. Blinking, feeling like she was coming out of a dream, she turned to her mother.
“Of course, the invitations had to be sent back to the printers twice!” Edith was saying, primly holding her teacup and saucer in her hands. “They misspelled Jemma’s name both times. It’s Jemma Anne with an ‘e’, I told them, but they must not have written it down. I threatened to take my business to someone who didn’t have simpletons working for them, but they finally got it right. And, oh!” She shook her head, looking greatly put-upon. “The bridesmaids’ dresses! Let me tell you what an odyssey that has been…”
Jemma frowned. She hadn’t been allowed any input on either the invitations or the dresses--or any other aspect of her own wedding, really. Her mother was directing all of it. She was simply expected to show up on the day and play her part. The knowledge that her mother viewed her wedding as more of a theatrical production to be managed rather than a cause for celebration was bitter and painful, and yet this realization made her decision very easy.
Without a second thought, Jemma calmly turned her teacup over, spilling her drink all over her lap. She flinched and gasped as the hot liquid hit her legs, and her mother stopped talking mid-sentence as she and the other ladies looked over at her in surprise.
“Oh--I--how clumsy of me,” Jemma stammered, setting her cup and saucer down and patting at her sodden skirt with a napkin. “I should go change. Excuse me.”
Ignoring her mother’s disapproving stare, she stood and walked out of the lounge as quickly as she could.
Fitz leaned against the rail at the very back of the weather deck, morosely staring out at the white seafoam Titanic’s propellers left in her wake. The churning water felt like an apt if pointed metaphor for the jumble of his thoughts. He had hoped the chilly air would help to clear his mind and bring him some measure of peace, but the solitude had only allowed him to get inside his own head, leaving him even more miserable than before. The knowledge of what he would never have with Jemma was weighing upon him too heavily, making his chest ache in mourning.
Sighing, Fitz looked up at the sky that ran to meet the sea at the horizon. It was a brilliant sunset, the sky and clouds painted in brilliant hues of red, gold, and orange. His mum would have said the display was an example of God’s splendor smiling down on them, but he could just as easily hear Jemma explaining that it was simply light from the sun filtering through dust in the Earth’s atmosphere. Both explanations made him smile a little, though it was bittersweet.
He was still moping several minutes later when he heard a voice behind him.
He nearly fell over as he turned around in shock. It was her.
Jemma stood a few paces behind him, her hands clasped at the waist of her deep pink silk and velvet dress, a few stray wisps of hair blowing in the wind. Her expression was open yet timid, as if she wasn’t sure how he would receive her presence. Fitz blinked a few times, not certain she actually was there. “Jemma?” he asked.
She smiled hesitantly. “Hunter said you might be up here,” she said. When he didn’t reply and just gaped at her in disbelief, she swallowed and took a step forward. “I changed my mind.”
Fitz shook his head to clear it. Jemma was there, she was really there in front of him. He wasn’t dreaming. “You... you what?” he said faintly.
Jemma’s smile widened a little. “I realized that I can leave. That I don’t have to stay with--with them any longer. And that perhaps I do have a place I can go.”
Fitz let out a breath and sagged against the railing, feeling like a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “Oh, that’s--that’s amazing, Jemma,” he said earnestly. “You have no idea how glad I am to hear that. Really. I was so worried.” He smiled, a genuine smile for the first time all day. “I hope it’s not rude to ask, but--where will you go?”
Jemma looked down briefly, twisting her hands together before raising her eyes to his again. She looked nervous. “Ah, well, yes… that’s just it. You see, I was hoping… I wanted… if it’s alright with you, of course… I… I would like to come with you.”
Fitz stared at her, hardly daring to believe his ears. She wanted to come with him, of all people? She was willing to give up her posh, comfortable life to go with him? And even more... was it possible that she returned his feelings, that she felt the bond that they’d formed went deeper for her, too?
Obviously mistaking his stunned silence for reluctance, or even refusal, Jemma flushed and looked down again, wringing her hands even more. “Of course, you’re under no obligation to accept,” she said quickly. “I understand that taking me on would create a burden for you, and it would be unseemly, bringing an unmarried woman into your home, and we’ve only just met, but, well, it’s just that--I felt that you and I--that we--”
“No,” Fitz blurted, stepping forward. “I don’t care about that.” Jemma looked up at him, her eyes wide. He took a deep breath. “You really want to come with--with me?”
She nodded, biting her lip, and slowly walked forward to cross the last of the distance between them. “When the ship docks in New York,” she said quietly as she came to a stop in front of him, “I want to get off with you.”
Fitz swallowed, unable to look away from her eyes, shining a warm amber in the dying rays of the sun. “What about--um... what about Grant?” he said. “You’re engaged... and your mother? I thought you said you couldn’t leave her.”
Jemma’s shoulders went back. “I disavow them,” she said firmly, emotion cracking the edge of her voice. “My mother doesn’t have my best interests at heart. She never has. And Grant…” A shadow passed over her face. “He doesn’t love me. Nor I, him. Once I thought clearly about it... my decision wasn’t very hard.”
Fitz nodded as he absorbed that information, turning it over in his mind. The enormity of what she was doing wasn’t lost on him, and he didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what he could say that wouldn’t make light of her decision, or sound completely self-serving. In the end, Jemma rescued him by smiling, her posture relaxing as she tilted her head.
“You said your wish was for me to be happy, yes?” she asked.
He nodded again. “Yes,” he said.
“And you meant it?” He nodded again. “Yesterday was the happiest I’ve ever been,” she explained. “Spending the day with you, getting to know you, just being able to talk... it was unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. I’ve never connected so well with another person, and I--I thought you might have felt it too.” Her expression turned admiring. “I know you must have been terribly uncomfortable at dinner, but you never showed it. You were absolutely magnificent, even when Grant and my mother were horrid to you. And then when we were dancing…”
The look in her eyes changed to longing, and Fitz inhaled.
“Fitz, no one has ever cared about how I feel the way you have, not since my father died,” Jemma said. “You said you want me to be happy, and I realized… you’ve made me happy. And…” She gave a shaky little laugh. “I know it’s mad, that running away with you is insane, but if there’s even the slightest possibility of achieving that happiness, with you… then I want to try and take it.”
Fitz’s heart felt like it had expanded near to bursting inside his chest. Jemma did return his feelings, and she was willing to give up everything in order to have a life with him. Perhaps the cosmos weren’t so cruel after all, and were actually granting him a boon for once. Funny how he’d been so sad only moments before, and now he was the happiest he’d ever been. Smiling, he moved to take Jemma’s hands in his, squeezing them tightly.
“Jemma,” he said fervently, “I will do my best to make you as happy as I possibly can, for as long as you will let me.”
Her face lit up like the sun breaking over the horizon, and she let out a breathless laugh of delight as she squeezed his hands in return, stepping in closer to him and beaming as if he had just made her the happiest woman in the world. And perhaps he had, if her testimony was anything to go by. He couldn’t believe it: they were actually going to have a chance to be together. They could worry about the particulars later.
Fitz’s smile mirrored Jemma’s as he lifted her hands to boldly kiss her knuckles, and her cheeks flushed prettily. He was struck by how beautiful she was in that moment, smiling, blushing, and incandescently happy, all because of him--and he was seized by the desire to kiss her properly.
He’d wanted to kiss her the night before while they’d been dancing, but he’d been painfully aware that she wasn’t his and he had no right to do so. Now, however... maybe he could.
Fitz let go of Jemma’s hands to reach up and cradle her face in his palms, gently stroking his thumbs over the apples of her cheeks. Her skin was indescribably soft, and he couldn’t help the way his breath skipped at the feeling of it beneath his fingertips. She looked up at him, her expression suddenly open and vulnerable, yet completely trusting--as though she knew what he wanted, and she wanted it too--and he couldn’t resist.
He stepped in close to her, his gaze dropping to her lips, and her eyes fluttered shut as she tilted her face up to his. Fitz hesitated only briefly before leaning down to press his lips to hers in a soft kiss.
At first it was light, careful, a question. He lingered just long enough to register how warm and soft her lips were beneath his, but he’d barely pulled away before Jemma leaned in again, her mouth capturing his in a slightly firmer, more sure kiss. Her answer was a resounding yes, her fingers curling into his shirt a sign that she didn't mean to let go.
They gradually fell into each other, the slow, exploratory slide of their lips together turning more heated as they became more confident in themselves and each other. Fitz’s arms dropped to wrap around Jemma and pull her closer against him, and her hands crept up to wrap around the back of his neck and slide into his hair.
Everything else around them fell away until the only thing left, the only thing that mattered, was the two of them. The class distinctions that separated them were gone, their fears of never succeeding were gone; even Jemma’s mother and Grant Ward were gone. Fitz and Jemma held tight to each other, kissing over and over, losing themselves to the possibility of a new future together as Titanic steamed into the sunset.
M rating ahoy!
Jemma led Fitz by the hand into the sitting room of her suite, bubbling over with excitement.
“I’ll have to leave a letter explaining what I’ve done,” she was saying as she locked the door behind them. “I don’t think I could disappear entirely on my mother. Grant, yes, but my mother... I feel she at least deserves an explanation before I cut off all contact.”
Fitz was looking around, taking in the dark wood paneling on the walls, the plush carpet and seating arrangement, and the ornate fireplace mantle. He looked slightly awed, still unused to being among such grand appointments. Jemma let go of his hand to head for the writing desk, intent on finding paper and pen so she could quickly draft her farewell note. “Of course, I’ll keep it hidden until just before the ships docks in New York, when I’ll give up my pretense of good behavior to sneak away and join you, but I want to write it now while I know I won’t be disturbed.” Fitz didn’t reply to her rambling, however, so she stopped to look back at him.
He was standing next to the round table in the center of the room, fingers resting on the edge of it, his entire posture radiating uncertainty. Jemma felt a small sliver of worry lodge itself in her heart. “Fitz?” she said. “Is everything alright?”
Fitz reached out to gently touch one of the trailing fronds of the extravagant floral centerpiece sitting on the table before him, then looked up at her. “Are you sure this is want you want to do?” he asked. “Leave all of this? Just to run away with me?”
“Of course it is,” she frowned. “Why?”
He shrugged lamely, glancing away. “Oh, I... well... we were a little emotional, you and I, outside. I wouldn’t want you to make a rash decision because you weren’t thinking clearly.”
“My mind is as clear now as it’s ever been,” Jemma said, a little hurt that he thought she was being irrational or hasty. “And I made my decision before I came to find you.” Suddenly, the thought struck her that maybe he didn’t want her to come with him, despite what he’d said outside on the deck, that perhaps he was having second thoughts and reservations. The worry in her heart blossomed up to lodge in her throat, and she struggled to take in a deep breath. “Have you changed your mind?” she asked, fearing his answer.
“What?” Fitz’s eyes snapped up to hers. “No! It’s just…” It was his turn to breathe in deeply, and he looked around again at the finery surrounding him. “Jemma, I hardly have anything to offer you,” he said beseechingly. “You know I haven’t got any money, and I want to be able to give you everything, but... it won’t be easy, if you come with me. I have a comfortable life, but it’s simple. It’s not anything like this.” He gestured at the centerpiece. “I just want you to know what you’ll be in for.”
Jemma’s worries melted away as he spoke. “Oh, Fitz,” she murmured, “haven’t you realized by now that none of this means anything to me? It hasn’t brought me a shred of happiness.” She crossed back over to him and took his hands in hers, giving him a reassuring smile. “But you have. I’ve got your support, your loyalty, and--and your faith, don’t I?” Fitz nodded, staring intently at her and looking very serious. “That's all I ask for.” She lifted a hand to press her palm to his cheek, still smiling. “That's all I need. I don't want any of this. I just want you.” She stroked her thumb over his cheek, briefly reveling in how dear and precious he was to her, before taking his hand again.
“I want to go sailing with you, on the river,” she continued, looking earnestly up at him. “I want to go with you back to Belfast and see you meet with Mr. Andrews and get an apprenticeship, and watch your dreams become a reality. I want to find a laboratory that will let me work and conduct my research... I want to read whatever books I please, and learn about anything I wish, and stay up long into the night discussing all of it with you. I want to explore new ideas and create inventions with you. And maybe, one day, if we can both manage it... maybe we can both go to university. Just like we dreamed.” Her smile widened. “I want to do all of those things, and more, with you.”
Fitz sucked in a shaky breath and reached up to cup her face in his hands, looking deeply affected by her words. “You’re amazing, you know that?” he murmured fiercely. When she started to protest demurely, he cut her off with a shake of his head, stepping more into her space. “No,” he insisted, “you are. You're brilliant, and… I'm so lucky to have met you. It could have been anyone out there on deck that night who found you, but it was me. And I've never been so glad for anything.”
Jemma felt her eyes threaten to mist over at the naked emotion writ across his face. She, too, didn't know how she'd been so fortunate as to have met someone as good and kind as him. “Oh, Fitz,” she whispered, leaning her cheek into his hand; but anything she might have said was cut off by him leaning down to capture her mouth with his in a firm, passionate kiss.
She sank immediately into it, fisting her hands into his shirt over his chest and kissing him back with equal fervor. It felt like an affirmation of their newly-acknowledged feelings for one another, alongside the freedom to finally express it. Gone were the restrictions of class and propriety, the watchful eyes of people who would keep them apart, and old commitments reluctantly given. They no longer had to hold anything back.
A shiver of longing ran down Jemma’s spine as Fitz wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in against him, his mouth on hers ardent and insistent. She’d never been held and kissed like this before, had never even dreamed of letting Grant touch her in such a fashion, and she was quickly finding herself overwhelmed in the most incredible way. Every slide of Fitz’s lips against hers filled her with warmth, an effervescent tingle spreading through her limbs that left pleasure pooling soft and steady in her stomach. She couldn’t get enough of it. The softness of his lips was addictive, and the pressure of his hands against her back, holding her close, drew in her in until she was nearly breathless.
Then Fitz parted his lips slightly, and Jemma felt the brush of his tongue tracing against her bottom lip. She gasped, the sensation new and unfamiliar, and he took the opportunity to press forward, gently slanting her mouth open to deepen the kiss. His tongue stroking over hers took the warmth that had been spreading and ignited it into fire, heat flooding her veins with potent desire. It made her moan softly, sliding a hand up into his hair to keep him close as she eagerly matched his movements, and his arms tightened around her.
Jemma had never given herself so completely over to such a display of passion, and to have Fitz respond in kind was liberating. She’d never wanted anything the way she wanted to be with Fitz; the thrill of having that future within reach coupled with the euphoria of being able to freely express her love for him left her giddy and light-headed. She wanted to be closer to him, wanted to touch him and learn him and be touched, held, and caressed in return, wanted him to see and have her in ways no one else ever had. It made her press even closer to him, kissing him with even more urgency, until she thought they might combust from their combined fervency.
When they finally separated, it was only to catch their breath. They stayed close, foreheads pressed together and chests heaving, both a little dazed. Fitz was the first to smile, lifting a hand to brush his knuckles over Jemma’s cheek with an awed reverence that made her heart clench in her chest.
She reached up to catch his hand in hers and pulled away just enough to bring it down to look at, turning it over in her hands. She’d admired them already from afar, liked how he gestured with them while he talked and how they never seemed to be still, but now she wanted to see them. She could feel his eyes on her as she traced over the veins on the back of his hand with a finger, following them down to his wrist, where they disappeared beneath the cuff of his shirtsleeve. Then she turned his hand over and traced the lines on his palm, noting not only the calluses he’d gained from his work in the shipyards, but also how soft and fine his skin was in spite of them.
Smiling to herself, Jemma raised his hand up to press a kiss to each of his fingertips, one by one. She went slowly, taking her time, though she felt her heart start to race at the intimacy of her actions. When she was done, she placed a soft kiss to the center of his palm and another to the inside of his wrist; in the quiet of the room, Fitz’s sharp intake of breath was like a shout.
Jemma gently curled his fingers down into a fist, closing both her hands around his, then looked up at him. Fitz’s eyes were dark, his pupils blown wide, and his lips were slightly parted, flushed and swollen from being kissed. His intent stare made a hot sliver of desire thread through her, and she took a deep breath to steady herself, sure her cheeks were turning red.
She knew what she wanted, and was sure Fitz wanted the same, but she feared being too forward. After all, their mutual promises of the future notwithstanding, neither one of them had ever mentioned the customs or commitments that usually came before the very thing that she longed for. But if this was the last opportunity they would have to spend any large amount of time together before the ship docked in New York, she wanted to be with him.
Slowly, giving him time to react and stop her if he wished, Jemma slipped out from between him and the table and--still holding onto his hand and keeping eye contact with him--took a few steps backward in the direction of the bedrooms, tugging him along with her. When he came willingly, making no move to protest, she threaded her fingers through his and turned to lead him properly through Grant’s bedroom and the walk-in wardrobe, all the way to her bedroom.
Jemma was grateful for the moment to hide her face from him, acutely aware of the terror seizing her heart and the pounding of her pulse. Grant had been in her rooms before, and seen her in her nightclothes and robe, but she had always been sure to keep things chaste and within the bounds of decency. She’d never purposely invited a man into her room before, and certainly not with the intent she had now.
She came to a stop next to her bed and dropped Fitz’s hand before lifting her eyes to look at him. He immediately stepped in close, settling his hands on her waist and gazing down at her with an expression that made her breath catch, solidifying her decision. Still, it took her a moment to find her words, out of her depth and unused to speaking of such things, a part of her still afraid he would turn her away.
She sucked in another deep breath, twisting her hands together, and took the plunge. “Make love to me, Fitz,” she whispered breathlessly.
His eyes widened, their brilliant blue somehow turning even darker, and he swallowed thickly as his fingers curled into the silk of her dress. “Is, um... are... are you expecting Grant to come back anytime soon?” he asked quietly, his eyes flitting around the room like he expected to be overheard or seen.
Jemma shook her head, feeling lightheaded and relieved that he hadn’t refused her outright. “No. He’ll be at dinner right now, and then in the smoking room for however long the brandy holds out… which could be quite a while.”
Fitz nodded, as though that were a matter of course, and licked his lips. Then he met her eyes again, reaching up to cup her jaw. “And this is really what you want? You’re sure?”
It was her turn to nod, leaning her face into his touch. “Yes,” she whispered. “More sure than I’ve ever been.”
His gaze dropped to her mouth, and Jemma had a second to feel a flash of heat curl through her belly before he leaned down to kiss her again.
It was heated, passionate and eager just like their kisses in the sitting room had been, but now they had a purpose, an awareness to them that left Jemma feeling nearly giddy with anticipation as she ran her hands up Fitz’s chest to his shoulders, excitement settling in alongside her nerves at what was to come. He kissed her like it was the only thing in the world worth doing, the only thing he wanted to do, as if he wanted to learn all the perfect ways in which to fit their mouths together. It wasn’t long before he’d rendered her breathless again, his arms wrapped around her as they kissed over and over, desperately trying to drink each other in.
He broke away to trail his lips along her jaw to her ear; then he pressed hot, open-mouthed kisses down her neck to her pulse point. Jemma gasped as sharp, heady pleasure bloomed at the contact, and she threaded her fingers through Fitz’s hair, cupping the back of his head to encourage him to continue his attentions. He was more than happy to do so; her breathing sped up the longer his mouth worried at the hollow of her throat, and her eyes slipped shut as her head tipped back, exposing more of her neck to him. He tightened his arms around her, pulling her flush against him and using his weight to press her back into the side of the bed behind her.
The soft, wet heat of his lips and tongue against the tender skin of her throat was driving her mad, making her entire body shiver with need. “Fitz,” she sighed, tugging at his shirt.
He groaned quietly against her neck, his arm snugging closer around her waist, and a second later she felt his hand trailing up and down her spine, his fingers questing. It took her a beat to realize what he was doing: he was searching for the fastenings of her dress. Her pulse spiked at the discovery.
“There are,” she said, her breathing uneven, “there are snaps all down the back. If you look for them.”
Fitz pulled away from her neck--she whimpered slightly at the loss--and pressed his forehead to hers. “Oh,” he panted. “Right. Of course.” He shook his head, swallowing, then swooped in to kiss her again, as if he couldn’t bear to be parted from her for even a second. She returned it with zest, and he let it spin out for an endless, wonderful moment before he took her gently by the shoulders and turned her to face away from him.
Jemma fancied that her sense of touch was somehow heightened by being unable to see him; her skin felt hypersensitive to the warm puffs of his breath on the back of her neck and the faint whisper of his fingertips as they traveled from her nape down to between her shoulders where her dress began. She tried to compose herself as Fitz began to undo the first of the snap buttons, but gooseflesh still rose at the contact, and she was very aware of the fabric of her dress coming loose the further down he went. He undid the bow of the sash at her waist, then stepped in close as he parted the open sides of her dress over her back. Jemma inhaled; she could feel his body heat at that distance, and the intimacy of him removing her clothes was making her head swim.
Looking over her shoulder, his cheek nearly pressed to hers, Fitz slipped trembling hands beneath her dress to slowly push the sleeves down her arms. Jemma let out a shuddering breath; his palms were warm against her skin, and his touch sent tingles skittering along her nerves. She pulled her sleeves the rest of the way off as the bodice of her dress pooled around her waist, and Fitz stepped back to pull it down and help her step out of it--her corset prevented her from doing so herself. She toed off her shoes as he folded her dress over the back of her vanity chair, and when he turned to look back at her in just her corset, chemise, and stockings, his face was inscrutable.
“I’ve never understood how you breathe in those ruddy contraptions,” he murmured, his eyes lingering on the boning of her corset.
Jemma laughed a little self-consciously. “Practice,” she replied, fighting the urge to shy away from his gaze. She’d never been in this state of undress in front of a man before, and it was both thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time.
Her response brought a smile to Fitz’s face, and his expression was affectionate as he came forward to kneel down in front of her. The question of what he was doing died on her lips as he carefully unhooked her stockings from her corset. Glancing up at her, he leaned in to place a single soft kiss on her thigh, just above her knee, before rolling her stocking down her leg. Jemma’s breath caught, the unexpected tenderness of it making her heart swell. He repeated the action on her other leg, then set both stockings aside with her shoes and stood back up.
“How--” He nodded down at her corset, looking adorably befuddled. “How do I--?”
Jemma’s eyebrows rose in understanding. “Oh--the hooks here in the front come loose.” She reached up to grasp the top of her corset with both hands. “It’s probably best if I--”
Fitz’s hands came up in a flash to cover her own, stopping her. She looked up in surprise, her lips parted; his expression had changed from confused to determined in a way that made her knees feel weak. “Show me?” he asked, his voice low.
Jemma stared at him, stunned into speechlessness and hopelessly turned on. “Oh,” she breathed. “You--you just press in a bit and pull, and it--it comes open.” She demonstrated, moving her hands beneath his to pop open the first couple of hooks.
They both looked down, at the pale, creamy expanse of her chest and the upper swell of her breasts, just barely exposed by her chemise and corset. Fitz inhaled, then leaned in to kiss her, firm but sweet. They were both reluctant to pull away, but ultimately he did in order to rid her of her corset. His hands fumbled at times as he tried to navigate the hooks, but eventually he pulled the last one free and tossed the entire thing away rather inelegantly. Jemma, now wearing only her loose chemise, relaxed and let out a sigh of relief.
“Now, that’s much better,” Fitz murmured, pulling her back to him even as she reached out for him. Their mouths met in a kiss that was just as passionate as any of the others they’d shared, but as his arms went around her, Jemma felt a shock of pleasure go through her at the sensation of her body pressed to his with so little clothing between them. His hands felt like they were burning her skin through the thin material of her chemise, and the solidity of his chest against hers made her moan softly with longing, wanting so much more--or less, rather--between them. When Fitz leaned her back against the bed again and she felt the evidence of his arousal nudging low against her stomach, desire flared molten hot in her blood and she knew she couldn’t wait anymore.
Without relinquishing the taste of his lips, Jemma made short work of Fitz’s jacket, getting it off of him faster than she’d expected. Then she turned to his braces, pulling them off his arms and tugging his shirt out of his trousers. He groaned into her mouth as she started undoing the buttons, blindly seeking them out one by one. When the last one was open, she was quick to push his shirt over shoulders and down his arms, letting it flutter to the ground.
She gave herself a second to admire his arms--lightly toned, no doubt due to his work at the shipyard--before reaching for the buttons on his trousers. Fitz hissed as she undid them, her fingers brushing over the bulge beneath the fabric, and cupped a hand around the back of her neck to pull her into a fierce kiss. He had to break it a moment later, though, to bend over and pull off his boots and woolen socks.
Jemma couldn’t help the surge of affection that briefly overwhelmed the lust and desire coursing through her as she watched Fitz hopping on one foot, half undressed, struggling with his boot. She caught him by the elbows to steady him, suppressing a giggle; he glanced up at her as he finally succeeded in pulling the boot off. He dropped it to the floor with a muttered curse, followed by his socks. Then he shucked off his trousers before straightening up, his hands automatically going to the button at the neck of his union suit.
“Let me,” Jemma said softly, stepping forward.
Fitz quirked an eyebrow at her, but he let his hands fall to his sides--though she didn’t miss the way his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat as her hands crept up his chest.
She wanted to kiss him just as hotly as he had done a moment ago, but she restrained herself to going up on her toes and pressing a tender kiss to his lips, then the underside of his jaw, followed by his neck and the hollow of his throat. Then she undid the first button, parting the fabric to reveal the pale skin of his chest, and leaned in to press another kiss to his breastbone. Fitz shivered, his hands curling lightly into fists at his sides. She continued that way down to his waist--one button, one kiss to the center of his chest--feeling a sharp thrill go down her spine and her heart speed up with the knowledge that she was about to have Fitz bared to her, able to touch and feel him as she pleased, and that he could do the same to her.
When she reached his waist, Jemma looked up to meet Fitz’s gaze. He was watching her with dark, hooded eyes, his breathing shallow. She gave him what she hoped was an enticing smile as she pushed his union suit off his shoulders, then held his gaze as he shrugged his arms out and slipped it over his hips before stepping out of it.
She’d desperately wanted him bare, but it still took Jemma a moment to summon the nerve to look at him, and when she did, she felt her entire body flush with heat. How could she describe the pastel perfection of his skin? How could she put voice to the way his appealing leanness made her mouth run dry, consumed with the need to feel his body against hers? And then there was his erection on full display, flushed and rigid. Jemma had studied diagrams and a few photographs of male anatomy in the various texts she’d had available to her--she’d frustratingly been denied access to cadavers in the lab due to her gender--but they still hadn’t prepared her for the real thing. But her natural curiosity was made for a situation like this, and she wanted to reach out and touch him, to see how he would feel in her hand, how he might react. Before she could summon her nerve, though, it was Fitz’s turn to hover his hands at the buttons of her chemise, a question in his eyes.
“May I?” he asked quietly.
There were two spots of pink high on his cheeks, and though his eyes were still dark with desire, there was a faint gleam of panic about them. Jemma realized that he was nervous, and her heart softened.
“Yes,” she whispered, stretching up to brush the tip of her nose against his, hoping to soothe him.
He swallowed thickly and nodded, then carefully began undoing the buttons going down the front of her chemise. When he reached the last one, he looked her in the eye before parting the thin fabric, letting it slip over her shoulders and fall down to the floor.
Jemma forced herself to stand tall and keep her chin up as she stepped out of the garment and toed it away, watching for Fitz’s reaction as he took in her fully nude form. His mouth was hanging slightly open as his eyes roamed over her, looking faintly stunned. After a moment, he let out a shaky breath.
“You’re beautiful,” he said, his voice hoarse.
Jemma felt her confidence waver at his unfiltered praise, and she ducked her head shyly, feeling her cheeks warm. He was being far too kind. “Oh,” she murmured, “I--”
“You’re perfect,” he blurted. “Beautiful and perfect.” His hands came up to skim over her shoulders, curling lightly around her arms, and she inhaled at the softness of his touch on her bare skin. “I can’t believe someone like you would... ever want me.”
Jemma gently pressed her hands to his chest and looked up at him, her heart aching with how much she adored him. “I want you in every way possible,” she said quietly. “I want this. Please…”
At her whispered plea, heavy longing came over Fitz’s face, and he molded his body to hers, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her into a kiss that took her breath away. They both moaned at the sensation of their bare skin finally meeting, her breasts against his chest and his cock trapped against her stomach; hearing Fitz’s pleasure echo her own only made Jemma cling to him tighter, kiss him harder.
Stumbling a bit in their eagerness and passion, they made their way back to the bed, stopping every step or two for more kisses, more touches, more exploration of each other’s bodies. Fitz fumbled blindly behind them with one hand to push the sheets back, holding fast to Jemma with the other; then he guided her onto the bed, laying her back against the pillows and crawling up after her on his hands and knees.
Jemma reached up to pull Fitz into another kiss, then slid her hands down to tug at his hips, wanting to feel his weight on her, but he resisted. Instead, he settled in against her side, slanting her mouth open to stroke his tongue over hers as he ran his palm flat over the front of her body. She gasped when he cupped her breast, his thumb brushing up over the peak; then she outright moaned when he tentatively took her nipple between his fingers and gently rolled it, sending hot bursts of pleasure washing through her. Fitz groaned and pressed his hips into her side, grinding his hard cock against her.
They lost themselves to each other, sighs and moans brought out by fervent kisses and hands that sought to learn, excite, and give. Jemma discovered that a simple rake of her nails through Fitz’s hair would make him gasp, his fingers clenching into her skin, and Fitz found that flicking his tongue over the hollow of Jemma’s throat would make her arch up into him with a moan, her arms tightening around him and begging for more. After worrying at her pulse point long enough to have her gasping breathlessly, Fitz trailed his lips down onto her chest, feathering kisses over the swell of her breast. Jemma’s breath hitched as his mouth drew closer to her nipple, her sensitive flesh responding to the softness of his touch, suddenly desperate for him to be bold and tease her further.
Then his lips brushed over the pebbled nub, and she inhaled sharply. When he closed his mouth around it, swirling his tongue in a circle, she moaned loudly as pleasure rippled through her, arching up into him again and fisting her hands into his hair.
“Oh!” She couldn’t keep a shocked cry from tumbling from her lips. “Fitz--”
Fitz made a low noise in the back of his throat. Her response encouraged him to apply himself in earnest, and he began licking and sucking at her breast with a heated urgency. All Jemma could do was cling to him, her hands in his hair keeping him close and the arch of her back demanding more of what he could give her. The pleasure he was bringing out in her, white-hot and heavy, was unlike anything she had ever felt before in her tentative explorations of her own body, filling her from the inside out, creating a sweet building ache in her core that became increasingly impossible to ignore.
She felt positively wanton, gasping and writhing beneath him the way she was, and a distant part of her worried that Fitz wouldn’t want a woman who was so brazen with her desires. She had been brought up to believe that good, decent women didn’t act this way, and that intimacy required her to set aside her wants and needs to focus on her husband. But Fitz didn’t seem bothered; after all, he’d set about lavishing attention on her first, and the more she moaned and clutched at him and sighed his name, the more he devoted himself to driving her higher. Perhaps what she had been taught was wrong--or maybe it was just that Fitz’s good heart extended to the bedroom as well. Either way, she wasn’t complaining.
He’d driven her to such a state of mindless, consuming pleasure that Jemma didn’t notice his wandering hand until his tentative fingertips hit the thatch of hair at the apex of her thighs. She moaned even as she tensed slightly, not having expected Fitz to be so daring as to touch her in such an intimate spot. Fitz released her breast with a quiet pop , looking up at her with panicked eyes. “Jemma?” he asked hoarsely. “Did I--?”
Jemma shook her head quickly as her cheeks flushed. “No,” she rushed to say, “no, you just surprised me.”
Fitz swallowed, his hand still frozen. “Can I--can I touch you?”
A hot something swooped through Jemma’s stomach as she realized she wanted him to, just as she wanted everything else he could give her, and she relaxed as she bit her lip and nodded. Fitz leaned down to kiss her again just as his hand slipped lower to cup her.
She cried out softly against his mouth, tensing again at the bolt of pleasure that sparked through her, and instinctively parted her legs slightly to give him more room.
Fitz pulled away again, his forehead dropping to hers. “Christ,” he groaned as his fingers slicked carefully up through her folds. If she’d been capable of rational thought, she would have found him invoking the Holy Ghost at a moment like this amusing, but all Jemma could do was breathe and struggle not to tilt her hips into his touch. “Jemma--can I--”
Jemma didn’t know what he was asking this time, but she knew her arousal had been brought to a near-torturous peak. She desperately wanted him, and was ready to take the final leap, to be with him completely and wholly, in every way possible. A tug at his shoulders made him lift his head slightly; their eyes met, and then he pushed up to lever himself over her, sinking on top of her as she drew her knees up, inviting him down into the cradle of her thighs.
They moaned in unison as Fitz kissed her deeply, relishing the press of their bodies together and the feeling of being so close. A roll of his hips brought the head of his cock to nudge against her center; Jemma whimpered as he rolled his hips again, slowly forcing the slide of his shaft through her folds. Fitz choked on another moan and leaned his forehead against hers, breathing hard as he repeated the motion once, then twice more. Somewhat impatient, Jemma ran her hands down his sides to his hips, guiding his cock to notch against her entrance.
“Please, Fitz,” she whispered.
He looked down at her, his eyes clouded by love and lust, and gave her a tiny nod. Then he leaned down to kiss her, incomparably sweet and simple compared to the others they’d shared, and curled his hands around her shoulders. Then he canted his hips into hers, slowly pushing inside her.
In the course of her study on human anatomy and biology, Jemma had managed to secret away a few books on sexuality and the marriage bed, unbeknownst to her mother and Grant, both of whom would surely have been scandalized if they’d found them. As a result, she had an idea of what to expect, and although she was a little nervous, she trusted Fitz. She was prepared for the pinch of pain as he entered her, though she couldn’t stop herself from gasping and going tense at the sensation, her hands clutching at his hips. Fitz noticed, freezing immediately. “Am I--”
She quickly shook her head. “No--don’t stop.”
Sucking in a shaky breath, Fitz continued to carefully thrust into her, pressing soft kisses to her cheeks, nose, and lips, until his hips pressed flush to hers. Then he stopped, panting, and rested his forehead on hers again, swallowing thickly.
Jemma took a moment to process, overwhelmed by her emotions at the feeling of having him inside her, her inner muscles clenching as her body adjusted to his size. She could feel Fitz trembling, and looked up at him; his eyes were closed, his mouth bowed open, but she didn’t know if he was shaking from pleasure or restraint. Needing to touch him, she framed his face with her hands, tilting her face up to brush a kiss over his lips. Then, hesitantly, she rolled her hips up into his, telling him without words that it was okay for him to move.
Fitz groaned low and hoarse in reply. Just as hesitantly, he pulled out slightly before pushing back in, starting a rhythm that was slow, tender, and easy as they both found their way in moving together.
It was a long moment or two before Jemma felt anything but discomfort, the pain of his entry still biting sharp on every thrust. But once it started to fade, she became aware of a new sort of pleasure taking its place, a kind that turned the fire simmering in her blood molten, made it swell up to consume her until she was purposefully arching up into him, her head tilted back against the pillow and her hips rolling to meet his.
“Fitz,” she breathed, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. “Oh, yes, Fitz--”
“You’re beautiful,” he groaned against her neck, pressing hot, uncoordinated kisses against her skin. “Christ, Jemma, you’re so beautiful.”
He sped up the rhythm of his hips, snapping them into hers with more force, and Jemma keened sharply at the way the pleasure rising within her blossomed, every stroke of his cock hitting something amazing inside her. She felt transported, swept up in emotion and sensation, brought right to the edge of exquisite ecstasy. A pressure was building inside her, almost painful in its sweet intensity, and she wanted, needed, to find release. She’d never imagined it was possible to feel this way with someone else.
“Fitz,” she gasped again, “Fitz, I--I’m--oh, god--I’m--”
But she didn’t know how to put words to what she was feeling, and wasn’t capable of asking him to give her what she needed. But it seemed that they were in tune, entwined as they were, because Fitz moaned her name like it was sacred--“Jemma, Jemma”--and wrapped a hand around her thigh to hike it higher along his waist, changing the angle of his thrusts.
The shift put more pressure on her clit as he bottomed out inside her, and it was exactly what she needed. It only took a few more thrusts before her pleasure rose to a crescendo, and Jemma cried out as she came, her limbs seizing up around him as she shook with the force of her orgasm. A moment later, Fitz followed, burying his face in her neck as the rhythm of his thrusts turned uneven, grunting through his own release.
He stopped, still buried deep inside of her, both of them panting heavily as they struggled to catch their breath, hearts thumping wildly in their chests. Feeling limp and boneless in her afterglow, it took Jemma a moment to lift a hand to run weakly through Fitz’s hair, needing the contact to soothe herself just as much as she wanted to soothe him. After another moment, she felt his lips press against her neck in a clumsy kiss, and then he lifted his head from her shoulder to kiss his way over her cheek to her mouth.
They stayed that way for a few moments, indulging in soft, slow, lazy kisses, easing themselves down from their high. Then Fitz pulled away, and when Jemma opened her eyes to look up at him, the way he was gazing down at her with such love and artless happiness made her stomach flip.
“Alright?” he whispered, reaching up to brush a strand of hair away from her face.
She nodded, unable to keep a smile from breaking over her face. “More than alright.”
Smiling back down at her, Fitz gave her another kiss before carefully pulling out and away from her. Both of them hissed slightly at the separation, and Fitz winced as he settled himself down on his side next to her on the bed, reaching out to pull her into his arms. “I hurt you, didn’t I?” he said. It was less a question and more a statement of fact.
Jemma smoothed her hands up his chest, privately delighting in how warm his sweat-damp skin was, and smiled. “Only a little. But it was to be expected. It’s natural for there to be pain.”
Fitz didn’t look comforted. “I hate that. That I caused you pain,” he added, when she gave him a questioning look. “Because--” His cheeks flushed, and he glanced away. “Because you were amazing.”
She reached up to stroke her palm over his cheek. “You sweet man,” she murmured affectionately. “You were lovely. Truly.”
If anything, his face turned even redder. “Right.”
A comfortable silence fell over them, Fitz’s hand drifting slowly up and down her back while they drank each other in, memorizing all the tiny bits about each other they could only see up close. After some time, Jemma sighed regretfully.
“We can’t stay,” she said.
Fitz’s lips pursed. “I know,” he replied quietly, almost sadly. “But maybe just for another minute? Let me hold you. Please.”
Looking into his eyes, Jemma knew she couldn’t deny him. “Just for a minute,” she agreed in a whisper.
Fitz rolled onto his back, bringing her with him, and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, snugging her in close against his side. Jemma pillowed her head on his chest, wrapped her arm over his waist, and then closed her eyes. They still had a couple of days before the ship was scheduled to dock in New York, and this would likely be the only moment of peace they would have alone before they could put into motion their plan to run away together. She didn’t want to waste a single second of it.
Jemma stood in front of the vanity mirror in her stateroom, brushing out her hair. Once she and Fitz had finally managed to pull themselves out of bed, she’d gone to the wardrobe for a new dress to wear. She’d chosen the simplest one she had, a plain silk dress with few snaps and a single sash in the back, knowing Fitz would have to help her into it. She’d eschewed a corset in favor of an ordinary stay as well, not wanting to confuse him with the complicated lacing.
Once she was dressed, he’d taken his clothes into the attached bathroom to clean up and finish dressing as well, and she’d turned her attention to her hair. It had become hopelessly mussed during their lovemaking, and she spent a few moments removing all the pins to let it down and carefully run her comb through it, easing out all of the snarls and knots.
Just as she was working her comb through the last tangle, Jemma looked up to see Fitz come back into the room, fully dressed and hooking his braces over his shoulders. He smiled as their eyes met in the mirror, and came over to wrap his arms around her waist from behind, nuzzling his nose into her cheek.
“You look lovely with your hair down,” he said, pressing a kiss there. “It’s too bad you can’t wear it this way more often.”
Jemma smiled in return, setting her comb down and relaxing into his hold. “But it’s not very refined, is it?” she teased, turning her head to kiss him properly. Then she sighed. “I’ll have to pin it back up before I can escort you down to third class. I’d catch stares if I didn’t.”
Fitz’s expression turned morose as he set his chin on her shoulder, watching their reflection in the mirror. “I wish you didn’t have to.”
She knew he wasn’t talking about her hair. “I know,” she said quietly, threading her fingers through his where they rested over her hips. “But it will only be a few more days. I just have to keep up appearances until we reach New York, and then I can leave with you. Any moment I can steal away to see you, I will.”
He nodded, but still looked a little glum. Feeling her heart go out to him, Jemma turned in his arms to face him, reaching up to rest her palm against his cheek.
“Come on, now,” she said warmly, smiling. “It’s not so bad, is it? Just think of what we have to look forward to.”
That brought a new smile out of him, and he leaned forward to press his forehead to hers. “I can barely believe it’s even possible, much less accept that it’s real.”
“It will be,” Jemma replied confidently. “You’ll see.” She went up on her toes to kiss him again, long and sweet, hoping to reassure him through actions where her words could not.
When they parted, Fitz stepped back to pick up his jacket from the vanity chair and put it back on. “I know you haven’t had dinner yet,” Jemma said, “and neither have I. It’s not safe to stay here. Maybe I could sneak a bite to eat when I take you back down to third class.” She paused, thinking. “Do you think that would cause too much trouble?” She gestured at her fine silk dress; her appearance had caused quite a stir on her first trip belowdecks the previous morning.
Fitz frowned thoughtfully. “I’m not sure,” he said. “No one seemed to pay you any mind last night, but--”
Suddenly, their attention was caught by the sound of the lock turning in the sitting room door, followed by it opening. “Miss Jemma?” a voice called.
Jemma froze, horror flooding her veins. It was Grant’s valet, Giyera. “Oh, no!” she gasped, grabbing Fitz’s hand and pulling him toward the door leading to the corridor. “We have to go!”
She tore open the door and rushed out into the corridor, Fitz hot on her heels. Hand in hand, they hurried as fast as they could toward the B deck foyer, without any real plan in mind beyond knowing they had to get away. They were halfway there when they heard a door shut, and looked back to see Giyera entering the corridor from the sitting room. Seeing them, he raced to catch up.
Fitz swore under his breath. They broke into a run, startling the few people who were out and about in the foyer. Her heart in her throat, Jemma led them past the staircase and around to the elevator bank, making a beeline for the first open one she saw. They dashed inside, surprising the operator.
“Take us down, quickly!” Jemma cried, as Fitz rushed to close the steel gate. “As far down as you can!”
The operator nodded dumbly, scrambling to comply. The elevator car had just started to descend when Giyera ran up in front of it, slapping a hand against the grate. Jemma and Fitz stared up at him, out of breath, as he glared impotently at them. Safely out of his reach, Jemma allowed herself to relax slightly, while next to her Fitz propped his hands on his hips as he regained his breath.
The elevator stopped on E deck. As soon as the operator let them out, Jemma turned to Fitz, her hands going up to his chest. “I’m afraid we need a change of plans,” she said, feeling her nerves buzz with fear and anxiety. “Giyera will tell Grant he’s seen me with you. I...I can’t go back to him now.” She leaned further into him as a shiver ran through her. “I don’t want to think of what he might do.”
Fitz had curled his hands around her shoulders, but his eyes were on the other empty elevator banks, watching the moving cables inside them. “He won’t be far behind,” he warned quietly. “We better go. This way.” He let go of her to take her hand again, then led her around the elevators and down a corridor a short distance before making another turn. His face lit up when they found another, smaller stairwell that led them down another flight to F deck. The area they emerged into was much more sparse and utilitarian than the first class areas, with plain white walls, steel doors, and exposed pipework. Jemma thought it looked more like where the ship’s crew might go, and breathed a sigh of relief, leaning back into Fitz.
His arms immediately came around her, holding her close, and he brushed a kiss against her forehead as he rubbed a soothing circle over her back. “It’s alright,” he said. “I know you’re worried, but it won’t come to that. The ship isn’t full. I’m sure we could find a berth for you close to me, or some of the women would be willing to watch you. We’ll think of something.” He tucked a finger beneath her chin to tilt her face up to his, and smiled at her before sobering. “Who is that guy, anyway?”
“He’s Grant’s valet,” Jemma answered. “His father hired him while Grant was at university, to make sure he always made it home with his wallet and that he didn’t make a spectacle of himself when he went out to the... less reputable parts of the city. Couldn't have him tarnishing the good family name, you see.”
Fitz gave her a bracing look. “Upstanding guy, your fiancé.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Quite. But Giyera is very good at what he does, all without hardly ever uttering a word. Frankly, I find him rather frightening. I've never liked the way he looks at me. It's as if he's calculating the best way to make me divulge all of my deepest, darkest secrets.”
Again, Fitz made a face. “Charming,” he said. Then, his eyes flicked to something above her, over her shoulder, and his entire body went stiff. Turning, Jemma saw Giyera himself framed in the narrow window slat set into the door opposite them on the far side of the corridor. Their eyes met, and his face hardened as he started to charge toward them.
“Shit,” Fitz hissed, fumbling to push her ahead of him, urging her to run. They sprinted down the corridor, speeding up as much as possible when they heard heavy footfalls behind them, and took the first turn they came across. Jemma cried out in dismay when the hall immediately dead-ended on a door marked “Crew Only,” but Fitz dodged past her to push the door open anyway, reaching back to pull her through before slamming it shut and deadbolting it, plunging them into darkness.
For a moment, the only sound was their labored breathing, unnaturally loud in the near-black of the unknown room. They stood still, listening for any noise outside the door. Save for one heavy thud just after they’d locked it, signaling Giyera trying (and failing) to come through, there was nothing. When another moment passed and nothing else came, they exhaled, turning to each other.
Fitz wasn’t quite sure where they’d ended up. He could see very little around him, and could barely make out Jemma’s face in the darkness. There was a dim orange glow coming from their right, and when he turned to look, he saw that it came from an open hatch in the floor, into which a ladder disappeared. The light was flickering almost menacingly; he had the faint thought that it looked like the mouth of Hell.
“Where are we?” Jemma whispered, staring at the light.
Fitz shifted, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “I figure that goes down into one of the boiler rooms,” he said, pointing at the hatch. “That light’s coming from the fires in the boiler furnaces. We’ll have to go through there if we want to get out of here.”
Jemma’s jaw dropped. “What?!” she cried, taking a step away from him. “No! We can’t! This door, it’s--it’s marked crew only! We’re not allowed to go down there!”
Fitz boggled at her. “Do you really think we should go back out there and take our chances with Giyera? We can’t, it’s too risky. He thinks he has us cornered here. He’ll just wait us out and grab us the moment we open the door.”
“But…” Jemma looked at the hatch again, her face apprehensive in the fiery glow. “We don’t know what’s down there. We don’t know the way out. We could get lost, or hurt... or the men down there could just as easily report us and then we’d both be in trouble.”
He shook his head. “Most steamers are built the same. I can guess the lay of the ship--I’ll be able to find the way. And the men will be too busy working to care about us.” When she still didn’t look convinced, he added, “I appreciate that you like to obey the rules, but this isn’t the time for it.”
“I like following rules,” Jemma mumbled, looking down. “They make me feel nice.”
Fitz smiled, reaching out to take her hands in his. “I don’t believe that,” he said kindly. “I don’t think you’ve followed a single one since you’ve set foot on this ship.” When she looked back up at him, there was a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips. He nodded encouragingly, squeezing her hands. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” he continued. “Do you trust me?”
“Of course,” Jemma replied immediately.
Fitz went down the ladder first, sliding down the last few rungs and stumbling slightly as he dropped onto the solid floor beneath him. Then he reached up to help Jemma, catching her about the waist and steadying her as she landed beside him. Blowing out a breath and dusting off their hands, they looked around them.
His first thought was that his initial assessment hadn’t been too far off the mark: they really did look like they had arrived in some version of Danté’s hellish Inferno. Dark, indistinct figures moved back and forth through the hazy gloom surrounding the roaring furnaces in front of them, lit from within by coal fire. The heat was instantly oppressive, making the air around them shimmer; he could already feel his shirt sticking to his back. The noise of the furnaces and the steam they generated made it nearly impossible to think straight. Fitz was no stranger to fire and brimstone through his work with riveting, but this was a whole new level.
Turning to look at Jemma, he wrapped his hand around hers. She gazed up at him, her expression nervous; he gave her hand a squeeze, then pulled her after him into the chaos.
True to his word, at first they went mostly unnoticed. Many of the stokers and trimmers were too busy shoveling coal and tending to the fires to notice two out-of-place passengers running in their midst. But one of the foremen happened to glance up just as they went by, Jemma a vision in flowing pale silk and loose hair, and started.
“Hey!” he shouted. “You’re not allowed to be down here!”
Jemma cringed, gripping Fitz’s hand even tighter, but he just laughed awkwardly, tossing a wave over his shoulder. “Right, don’t mind us!” he yelled back. “We’re just passing through!”
They dodged another group of crewmen before ducking through the watertight door into the next boiler room. There, they were met with more shouts and protests, from one end of the room to the other. Fitz tugged Jemma into the space between the last two boilers, ducking away from the last stoker who’d tried to give them chase. They stopped, Jemma still clinging tightly to Fitz’s hand, and tried to catch their breath.
“I told you they’d try to catch us,” Jemma said, just loud enough to be heard over the din of the furnaces.
Fitz rolled his eyes, but there was no malice or ill will behind it. He looked at her; she was still panting, the heat of the boiler room making it difficult to breathe properly, and a fine sheen of sweat covered her face, neck, and chest. Her hair, so recently combed, was limp with perspiration, and her cheeks were flushed a bright red. Even so, she still managed to look ethereal in the warm glow of the fire; and in that moment, with the memory of their lovemaking still fresh in his mind, Fitz found her absolutely irresistible.
He pulled her to him, wrapping an arm around her waist as he pressed his mouth to hers in a fierce kiss. Jemma responded immediately, curling her fingers into his jacket and parting her lips; he felt rather than heard her moan as he deepened the kiss, slipping his tongue into her mouth to stroke over hers.
Jemma gave just as good as she got, until Fitz broke away to slide his lips hotly down the column of her throat, tasting the salty tang of the sweat on her skin. Caught up in the tide of sensation, Jemma tipped her head back, running her hands up into Fitz’s damp hair to hold him close as he mouthed at her chest. But they both knew it was unsustainable; they were stealing a moment, and it was neither the time nor place for anything more.
With clear reluctance, Jemma pulled Fitz’s face back up on level with hers and pressed their foreheads together. “We should go,” she said, breathing hard.
Fitz nodded, squeezing his eyes shut and taking a moment to get himself under control. Then he leaned in to sneak one last, lingering kiss before taking her hand again.
“Come on,” he said, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. “There should be a way out on the other side of this boiler.”
Sometime later, Fitz and Jemma spilled out of a door onto the forward bow deck in a burst of laughter, clutching their sides and stumbling into each other in their mirth. They had just evaded a couple of stewards who had clearly been sent out to look for them, and while it was worrisome to Jemma that Giyera--or Grant--was having the ship searched, successfully shaking their tail had made her feel like they were daring spies, or adventurers from a dime novel.
“I can’t believe we did it!” Jemma cried, eyes bright as she clapped her hands together. “I thought we’d be caught for sure! But that door was unlocked--”
“And I pulled us in and they walked right past,” Fitz finished, grinning widely. “You’d think since we escaped Giyera by going through a door marked ‘crew only’, they would bother to check the pantries. But no! Not the brightest lot, are they?”
Jemma shook her head, laughing again; then she quickly sobered as a thought occurred to her, and she stepped in close to Fitz, her hands hovering at his chest. “You know this means they’ll be searching third class for me, don’t you?” she asked, a line of worry creasing her forehead. “They can’t find me. I don’t want to be forced to go back to him.”
Fitz took her gently by the shoulders, rubbing his hands up and down her arms. “If they do come looking for you, you don’t have to go with them,” he replied. “You have your rights, too.”
“I could make a scene,” Jemma said, a small smile coming back over her face. “The White Star Line wouldn’t want that, now would they? A passenger creating a fuss--a lady, and a first class one especially, even if she’s decided to stay in third class instead.”
Fitz smiled back at her. “No, I imagine they wouldn’t. But don’t worry--whatever comes, I’ll be right there beside you. We’ll face it together.”
Jemma’s smile widened. Taking heart from his reassurance and loyalty, she leaned up to kiss him, firm but sweet, and sighed happily as his arms wound around her, pulling her close. She couldn’t wait to finally be free of her fiancé and her mother, to not have to worry about all the restrictions and expectations they placed on her life--and she would be free to live as she wished, and love Fitz openly without fear of reprisal.
Just as she was thinking how nice it would be to stay in his arms for a while, and how Fitz’s kiss could warm her even on a cold night such as this, a bone-jarring crash suddenly shook the ship, forcing them apart. Jemma cried in out in surprise as Fitz reached out to grab her; she clung to his arms as they both found their balance again, looking around for the source of the disturbance. A second later, they turned to see a giant tower of ice slide by on the starboard side of the ship, far too close to the hull for comfort. As it passed, it sent a shower of loose ice cascading down onto the deck in front of them, forcing them to skitter out of the way.
Shocked, Fitz and Jemma, along with a few others who were out on deck, ran forward to the side rail to lean out and try to get a better look at what had just happened. They watched as the iceberg scratched down the length of the hull before disappearing back into the night, and the ship slowly ground to a halt.
“We struck an iceberg,” Jemma said, stunned, unnecessarily stating the obvious.
“That we did,” Fitz murmured, leaning even further over the rail and looking up and down the side of the ship. Around them, more passengers had gathered and were talking quietly amongst themselves, also very clearly in shock.
Jemma took a step closer to him, following his gaze and frowning. A collision couldn’t mean anything good. “You don’t think we’re in any danger, do you?” she asked.
He shook his head, still looking down. “I don’t see any visible damage. It doesn’t look bad, but we can’t see below the water’s surface, either. We’ll just have to wait and see what official word comes down from the crew.”
They stayed out on deck for quite some time, watching as curious passengers--some of them only wearing greatcoats over their pajamas and slippers--came out to see what all the fuss was about. A few young men even started up a game, running about and kicking chunks of ice across the deck between them, laughing spiritedly. Despite the general air of lightheartedness and cheer, Jemma couldn’t quite bring herself to share in it. Not even Fitz’s arm, snug around her shoulders to help ward off the chill air, could chase away her ill ease. When she glanced up at him, he didn’t look concerned, and she thought that perhaps she was just being silly to worry. After all, Titanic had been touted as being unsinkable. And while she knew that nothing was impossible, she also knew that the ship had been built to high standards and could likely withstand a small brush with an iceberg. Surely that was all it had been.
After some time had passed, Fitz squeezed his arm around her. “I think if they’re going to tell us anything, it’ll be in the common room, or they’ll go door to door,” he said, taking another look around at everyone gathered out on the deck. “And we should get you inside, out of the cold, anyway--you’re not dressed for it. Come on.” He turned them toward the stairs leading down to the third class common room entrance, his arm dropping away from her shoulders so he could take her hand in his.
As they crossed the deck, they saw a small group of men coming toward them from the direction of the stairs to the upper decks. Jemma immediately recognized Thomas Andrews; one of the others was the ship’s captain, whom she had met at dinner her second night on the ship. She didn’t know the third man. The three of them were deep in conversation, the low, urgent tones of their voices carrying to Fitz and Jemma as they hurried past them to parts of the ship unknown.
“Can you shore up?” the captain was asking.
“Not unless the pumps get ahead,” the third man replied, sounding harried.
Fitz’s steps slowed as he and Jemma turned to watch them go, and then he stopped, swallowing and giving her a grim look. “That doesn’t sound good,” he said. “If we’re taking on water, faster than the pumps can clear it out…” He trailed off, leaving the obvious conclusion unsaid: the ship would likely sink.
Jemma gripped Fitz’s hand tighter as a wave of cold fear swept through her. “We need to tell my mother,” she said abruptly. Fitz looked at her, surprised, and she stepped in closer to him. “Please,” she added imploringly. “If... if things really are that bad, and we’re truly in danger, then we should tell her. She should know.” When Fitz still looked wary, her expression turned pleading. “I’ve made my decision to stay with you, and I stand by it,” she reassured him. “But she’s still my mother. I don’t want her to be in danger.”
Finally, Fitz sighed and nodded his head. “Alright, if you’re sure. Let’s go, then.”
She gave him a small smile and leaned up to press a kiss to his cheek. “I am,” she said. “I promise we won’t stay long.”
They walked hand in hand up the stairs and through the gates into the first class promenade area, going past other passengers who had come out to see what was going on, until they reached the B Deck entrance foyer. There, they ran into none other than Giyera, who was standing tall and straight near the elevator bank. “Miss Jemma,” he said congenially, stepping away from the wall as he caught sight of them, “we’ve been looking for you.”
“I’ve come to speak with my mother,” Jemma said haughtily, breezing past him and going into the corridor with Fitz in tow.
“Of course,” Giyera replied, turning to follow closely on their heels.
His polite manner didn’t fool her for a second. She knew he was Grant’s man through and through, and would turn her back over to him in an instant if he could. She didn’t trust him at all, and his very presence in the foyer--almost as if he had been waiting on them--raised the fine hairs on the back of her neck. He brushed past them as they walked down the corridor, but didn’t go into her suite. Instead, he waited by the door and watched them approach.
Jemma eyed him warily as she stopped outside her mother’s stateroom, her free hand poised to knock on the door, but Giyera shook his head. “Your mother is here, in your suite with the others,” he said.
Jemma and Fitz looked at each other, frowning. Her mother was awake at this late hour, and in her rooms with Grant? And what ‘others’? Well, Jemma had gone missing, after all, and Grant had sent stewards out to search for her. Perhaps it wasn’t so unusual that they were all gathered together. But Jemma hadn’t counted on having to face her erstwhile fiancé, and the thought settled an uneasy dread in the pit of her stomach. It must have shown on her face, because Fitz took a half-step toward her, his expression melting into concern.
“It’ll be alright,” he said, low enough that Giyera couldn’t hear, and squeezed her hand. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Jemma let out a slow breath and nodded, looking past him to where Giyera stood waiting, silent and still, watching them. She shivered, then pulled Fitz down the corridor next door to the suite she’d shared with Grant. She took a second to gather her courage before she opened the door.
Inside, her mother was sitting in one of the armchairs while Grant paced back and forth behind her. Two stewards and another crew member stood near the fireplace, heads ducked in conversation, but they all stopped and looked up when Fitz and Jemma entered. She was acutely aware of how everyone’s gaze focused in on her hand in Fitz’s, and even though fear darted through her veins in anticipation of Grant’s reaction, she refused to be cowed. Before anyone could say anything, she lifted her chin and let go of Fitz, ignoring her fiancé and crossing the room toward her mother.
“Mother,” she said, addressing her directly, “something very serious has happened.”
Edith looked up past her to Fitz, who was still near the door, and opened her mouth as though to speak, but Grant beat her to it.
“Yes, something has,” he said severely, coming around the side of the center table. “We’ve been robbed.” He nodded at the crewman standing with the stewards, then gestured to Fitz. “Search him.”
Jemma’s mouth dropped open just as Fitz took a step back, bewildered, and squawked, “What?!” But Giyera, who had come in behind them, took a firm hold of his arm as the crewman--the Master at Arms--began patting him down and searching his pockets.
Dismayed and confused, Jemma turned to look up at Grant. “What are you doing?” she cried. “You’re being ridiculous! We’re in the middle of an emergency and you’re--”
She stopped as her attention was caught by the Master at Arms pulling a glittering object from the pocket of Fitz’s jacket: the expensive diamond pendant necklace Grant had gifted to her their first night on the ship. She gasped as Fitz’s eyes widened and his face paled in shock.
“Is this it?” the Master at Arms asked.
Grant nodded, folding his arms across his chest. “That’s it,” he replied as Giyera leaned forward to take the necklace, bringing it forward to put it back into its velvet-lined box.
“Right then,” the Master at Arms said grimly, producing a pair of handcuffs from his pocket. “Don’t make a fuss, now.” He made to pull Fitz’s hands behind his back, but Fitz yanked himself away.
“This is horseshite!” he cried furiously. “I didn’t do this! It was you--” He spat this accusingly at Giyera, who calmly looked back at him, unaffected by his outburst. “You did this, it had to be you. You planted it on me, you bloody bastard--”
The Master at Arms grabbed at Fitz’s arms again, trying to wrestle them behind his back once more, but Fitz wasn’t looking to go quietly. One of the stewards came over to help, and together they were able to snap the cuffs around his wrists, locking them in place even as Fitz continued to struggle. “Come on now, lad,” the Master at Arms said. “Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be.”
“But I didn’t do this!” Fitz said desperately, then looked at Jemma, his eyes beseeching. “I swear! Jemma, you know I didn’t do this! I couldn’t have! What would I want with a silly necklace?”
“It would fetch a handsome price that would allow a poor man like yourself to live comfortably for a good while,” Grant said smoothly. “I believe that’s motive enough. You certainly had the opportunity.”
Jemma, who had been watching the whole exchange with mounting panic and disbelief, finally found her voice. “No, he didn’t!” she cried, looking up at Grant in distress. “I was with him the entire time!”
The look he gave her in return was cold steel. “Perhaps he did it while you were putting your clothes back on,” he murmured, low enough only for her to hear.
Jemma reeled back, her face going slack with horror, and looked back over at Fitz. It was true that she had left him alone in the bedroom for a moment while she went into the wardrobe to select a new dress. The necklace had been in its box, sitting on her vanity where Grant had left it that first night. But she’d only been gone a moment, and when Fitz had joined her in the wardrobe to help her with the dress fastenings, he hadn’t put his shirt on yet, much less his jacket. It simply wasn’t possible for him to have taken the necklace. Even if he’d had the opportunity, surely he wouldn’t have bothered. Fitz was a good man; he wasn’t a thief. He loved her.
The Master at Arms was trying to steer Fitz toward the door, which Giyera held open, but Fitz continued to struggle. “Jemma!” he cried as he was manhandled to the threshold. “Don’t listen to him! It wasn’t me! You know it wasn’t--”
Jemma stared at him, torn, knowing in her bones that what was happening was wrong, but hating that Grant had managed to put even a sliver of doubt into her heart. She looked between the two men, then back to Fitz, and started to take a step toward him, but Grant’s firm hand grabbed her arm and stopped her. She was forced to look on helplessly as Fitz was dragged out into the hall.
“Jemma, please!” he shouted. “It wasn’t me! You have to believe--”
Then Giyera slammed the door shut, cutting off Fitz’s protests and leaving her, stunned and heartbroken, alone with her family.
The silence that followed the Master at Arms’ departure with Fitz was cut short by a curt knock on the door and another steward stepping through, looking apologetic.
“Excuse me, please,” he said, “but I’ve been told to ask all of you to please put on your lifebelts and come up to the boat deck. Captain’s orders. And please dress warmly, it’s quite cold tonight.” He sketched a little bow before turning to leave, and his knock on the next door down the corridor could be heard as he moved on to alert more passengers.
Edith looked at Grant and Jemma, then stood from her armchair. “I’d best go put on my coat,” she said quietly, and left too, shutting the door behind her, leaving Jemma alone with Grant.
Acutely aware of the thick tension between them, Jemma’s only desire was to leave and get as far away from Grant as possible, but she couldn’t--not after what he’d just done to Fitz. She didn’t know how Giyera had managed it, but he’d somehow managed to slip the necklace onto Fitz in the corridor. She just knew it. She didn’t care what Grant said, or how things appeared; she knew Fitz hadn’t stolen the necklace. He simply had no reason to. This was Grant’s method of exacting revenge, of getting Fitz out of the way for good, and she couldn’t let it stand. Not when Fitz was innocent. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, turning to face him.
“This is an utter farce,” she said. “You’ve got to go back to the Master at Arms and have him let Fitz go, you know as well as I do--”
She was cut off as Grant suddenly lashed out, striking her hard across the face. Shrinking back a step, she raised a hand to her stinging cheek, tears springing to her eyes from shock and pain, but he advanced on her, radiating a hard fury.
“So you’re a little whore now, are you?” he hissed, eyes blazing. “You think you can humiliate me by bringing that filth here, to my room, and give him what is rightfully mine? I thought I made myself clear this morning, but obviously I wasn’t clear enough. Well, now the problem has been fixed, and you will never--see him--again. And you will obey me. Am I understood?” When Jemma didn’t answer, merely stared at him, shaking like a leaf, he grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. “Answer me!”
“Yes!” she blurted, terrified that he would hit her again if she said no, even as shame curled in her gut for giving in so easily.
Grant narrowed his eyes at her, clearly disbelieving, before shoving her in the direction of the wardrobe. “Go get your coat,” he said coldly, turning away from her. “We don’t want to keep your mother waiting.”
Still shaking and on the verge of sobbing, Jemma ducked her head and walked hastily to the wardrobe. Trying to put as much distance between herself and Grant as she could, she wondered how in the world she could escape now.
Down in the depths of the ship, the Master at Arms was leading Fitz in handcuffs to his office, followed by an ever-silent Giyera. Fitz had given up struggling once he realized that Jemma could no longer hear him and that she wouldn’t be coming to his aid. The look on her face as he’d been pulled from her suite still burned him--the doubt, the uncertainty. She actually believed he was capable of betraying her, of stealing that necklace and putting material goods above what he felt for her. He’d thought that after everything, all the things they’d spoken about and promised and shared--God, what they’d done together--that they understood each other and just knew. But if Jemma truly thought he was the kind of man who would sleep with a woman in order to get close to her possessions and steal them, then perhaps he’d never really known her at all. They had, after all, only known each other for a little over two days.
The thought left his heart miserable and aching, rendering even the fact that the ship was in the midst of a crisis secondary.
Finally, the Master at Arms steered him into a small utilitarian room outfitted with a desk, a set of chairs, and a small cabinet, with a large exposed pipe running from the ceiling down through the floor next to the porthole window. Fitz was led over to the pipe, where the Master at Arms uncuffed him long enough to get his hands in front of him and wound around it before he locked the cuffs around his wrists again. He had just made sure they were nice and tight when there was a noise at the door. They looked up to see another crewman standing anxiously at the threshold.
“You’re wanted by the Purser, sir,” he said quickly, speaking to the Master at Arms. “It’s urgent.”
The Master at Arms nodded before looking to Giyera. The valet stood aside, motioning for him to go ahead. “I’ll make sure things are taken care of here,” he said placidly.
“I’ll leave this in your good hands, then, sir,” the Master at Arms said, giving Giyera the key to the handcuffs. Fitz had to fight the urge to scoff; there was nothing good about Giyera at all, save maybe his ability to look cold and calculating with a mere glance. The Master at Arms left with the other crewman, leaving the two of them alone.
Fitz watched as Giyera very calmly and deliberately set the key down on the desk in front of him. Then he pulled a small revolver from his inner coat pocket and set it down on the desk as well, the barrel facing Fitz. He inhaled, his eyes widening in alarm, and tried to discreetly shuffle around to put a bit of the pipe between him and the gun, but there was little he could do. Surely Giyera was just grandstanding, he didn’t actually mean to use the gun on him--
Looking up, Giyera met his eye as he sat down in the desk chair and crossed a leg over his knee, with the same care that he had set down the key and revolver. Then he held Fitz’s gaze without blinking, looking for all the world as if he had no other care than to sit and stare at him in stony silence. It was unnerving.
If he was trying to intimidate him, it worked. Fitz looked away, swallowing thickly, and trained his eyes on the floor--anything to keep from having to look back at Giyera’s eerily blank face.
Jemma walked up the staircase to the A deck entrance foyer, trying and failing to ignore Grant’s hand tightly gripping her elbow. She’d attempted to sneak away after she’d gotten her coat from the wardrobe, desperate to go find Fitz and set him free. But Grant had been waiting in the sitting room for her; he’d taken her arm then and hadn’t let go since. Afraid of sparking his anger again, she’d stayed silent while her thoughts raced, trying to think of a way out of her predicament. She was trapped, just as much a prisoner as Fitz was, only without the visible physical effects to show for it. She knew Grant and her mother would never let her out of their sight now, and that her chances of getting back to Fitz were slim.
Her heart ached at the thought that she might never see him again, that her last glimpse of him was of him being dragged away in cuffs, without a chance to say goodbye--without a chance for anything. If she couldn’t get away from Grant before they reached New York, her situation would be even more dire. The wedding would go ahead as planned, and she feared that once she was married to Grant, she would never be able to leave. Her one true chance at happiness was in jeopardy, all because she’d wanted to alert her mother to the news of the collision.
She should have just stayed with Fitz down in third class.
Of course, that was assuming they all survived the coming hours. She still couldn’t believe Grant had gone to the lengths to have Fitz arrested while the ship was under a direct emergency--surely passenger safety was a higher priority to the crew!--but she supposed she should never be surprised at the things money could buy, even in a crisis.
As they entered the foyer, Jemma took in the crowd of first class passengers that had gathered, many of them still in their fine silk gowns and suits, all wearing warm coats and scarves. Very few, even including Jemma and her family, were wearing their life vests; instead, they were holding them, looking grumpy and annoyed at having been pulled from bed or their card games or whatever it was they’d been doing at this late hour. There was hardly anyone outside on the boat deck, either--it had been deemed much too cold to wait about when the crew hadn’t even started loading any lifeboats yet.
A familiar figure caught her attention; Thomas Andrews was walking amongst the people standing near the doors. Hope flared in her chest. Jemma knew she couldn’t escape her family, not right at that moment, but Andrews would surely believe the best of Fitz, and he would have the clout necessary to free him. If she couldn’t do it herself, she would try everything she could from afar to help him.
Taking a step toward him, she called out, “Mr. Andrews? Mr. Andrews--”
A sharp tug on her elbow brought her back to Grant’s side, cutting her off mid-sentence. But Andrews had heard her and was walking toward them. Desperate to seize her chance despite quite literally being in Grant’s hold, Jemma tried again. “Mr. Andrews, I--”
But Grant stepped in front of her as the other man drew close. “We were just wondering how long all of this will take before we’ll be allowed to return to our rooms,” he said smoothly, his grip on her arm tight enough to be painful. “Surely there’s no real cause for concern.”
Andrews looked even more grim than he had when Jemma had seen him on the well deck earlier, and his expression had taken on an almost haunted quality. “I’m afraid the situation is indeed very serious,” he said, low enough so that only the two of them could hear. “The ship will sink. In an hour or two, at most.”
Grant blinked. “My god,” he murmured, looking stunned.
Andrews nodded. “Tell only who you must,” he added. “I don’t want to be responsible for a panic. But please get to a boat as quickly as possible.” He looked down at Jemma. “You remember what I said during the tour yesterday, don’t you? About the boats?”
Jemma sucked in a breath as horror dawned over her, eclipsing even her concern for Fitz. She did remember what he had said, talking to them about the brand-new davits installed outside the gymnasium--that there had been room for the ship to carry so many more lifeboats, but the White Star Line had opted to cut the number onboard down--and how there weren’t enough to carry everyone aboard the ship. There was no way to save everyone, not unless they’d managed to radio another ship, assuming there was one nearby that was willing and able to help, but the chances of that were slim.
People were going to die.
Seeing that they fully grasped the gravity of the situation, Andrews gave them another terse nod. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to make sure the evacuation is proceeding swiftly,” he said, and pushed past them to head for the staircase.
Just then, Edith appeared behind them. “I think I should go back to my room for my brooch,” she said, her hand grasping at the high lace collar of her blouse. “I forgot it, and I simply can’t bear to think of leaving it where a greedy steward might take it. It’s a priceless heirloom.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Grant shook his head. “We don’t have time for that,” he said firmly, steering both her and Jemma toward the outer foyer door. A small commotion had arisen near it; some of the passengers were streaming outside at the behest of one of the ship’s officers. “I think they’re loading the lifeboats now. We’ll want to get ahead on one as soon as possible. You heard the man.”
Jemma went along because she had little choice, but her thoughts were back with Fitz. Would he have time, wherever the Master at Arms had taken him, to get to a lifeboat? Would he even have the opportunity, and would there even be one left for him? She wanted nothing more than to break away from Grant’s hold and run to find him, so much so that she physically ached with it, but she didn’t know what she could do. She tried one more time to pull her arm out of her fiancé’s grasp as they neared the door, but he only redoubled his grip and pulled her closer--as though he knew that if he gave her even the slightest amount of leeway, she would bolt.
Outside, the noise from the steam being vented from the ship’s giant funnels was so loud it was nearly painful; Jemma saw many of the passengers wincing and looking up at them, as if looks alone would silence them. The officer who had brought them outside was directing them to the nearest set of davits, where members of the crew had worked to swing the lifeboats out over the side of the deck, ready to be loaded. Turning to face the assembled crowd, he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled.
“Women and children, please! Women and children only!”
The escaping steam abruptly cut off, leaving the officer’s shout echoing in the sudden silence that followed. Hesitantly, a few women stepped forward, and the officer took their hands to help them over the gap and into the waiting boat.
“They’re not letting men board yet,” Grant said quietly, almost to himself. “We may need to check the other side of the ship.”
Jemma looked up at him, feeling a sort of hollow numbness overtake her. A time like this, and he was concerned only with himself. And her, so far as it protected his public image, at least. It only served to put the differences between Grant and Fitz into a stark light; she was convinced that if Fitz were there, he would be trying to find a way to help, not only her but everyone around them. But Grant had seen to it that Fitz was shut away, separating them for good, and she had no idea how she could escape to find him again.
Fitz wasn’t sure how long it had been since the Master at Arms had left, but he was fairly certain that in that entire time, Giyera had not so much as moved, looked away from him, or even blinked. It had gone on long enough that Fitz was beginning to feel paranoid that the other man could somehow see inside his mind, possibly into his very soul, and discern every dishonest, dark thought he’d ever had. It was seriously unsettling, and it made the atmosphere in the room feel thick and oppressive.
Unable to escape Giyera’s penetrating stare, Fitz had taken to watching water steadily creep up outside the porthole window next to him, which didn’t help his growing worry at all. If the ship had already sunk low enough for their window to be dipping below the water line, then they needed to evacuate up to the boat deck immediately instead of sitting around enacting another man’s petty idea of justice. He’d tried to count the passing seconds while watching the water rise up the window to calculate an estimate of how fast the ship was sinking, but the progress was too slow for him to formulate a proper guess. That didn’t mean they had much time left, though, and he was thinking of finally breaking the silence to appeal to Giyera’s sense of self-preservation when he heard a soft click.
Fitz looked over to see that Giyera had picked up the revolver and opened the chamber, inspecting the bullets inside. Then he looked up, past Fitz to the window and the water lapping at the glass, studying it intently.
“I do believe this ship may actually sink,” he said after a moment, as though he were merely discussing the weather. He snapped the chamber of the revolver shut before standing and straightening his waistcoat. Then he came around the side of the desk, toward Fitz. He tensed, wary of Giyera’s intentions. “I’ve been asked to relay a small token of appreciation,” the valet said. Before Fitz could react, Giyera lashed out, striking him across the face with the revolver, then grabbed him by the shoulder and delivered a harsh, swift punch to his stomach.
Fitz doubled over in pain, coughing violently as the wind was knocked from his lungs. “Compliments of Mr. Grant Douglas Ward,” Giyera added coolly. Through the haze of black creeping in at the edge of his vision, Fitz saw him turn to leave, and as he passed the desk, he picked up the key to the handcuffs and slipped it into his pocket. Struggling to catch his breath, Fitz was unable to call out after him.
Now he was trapped alone in the depths of a sinking ship, and no one knew he was there.
There were a great deal more people outside on the boat deck now, as the tilted angle of the ship became more pronounced and people realized that it was actually sinking. Still, many women were hesitant to board the lifeboats. The officers were still only allowing women and children on, and they didn’t want to leave their husbands and family behind.
Jemma watched in a detached haze as women tearfully kissed their husbands and fiancés goodbye, as fathers hugged their crying children and tried to reassure them that they would only be separated for a little while. But she could see the grim worry hiding in the men’s eyes, a fear they were trying so hard to hide behind a front of stoic bravery: they knew this might be the last time they ever saw their loved ones. It was devastating to see, lovers and families torn apart, and it drove home the terrible reality of their situation. Not everyone was going to make it out alive.
As with everything else, it only brought Jemma’s thoughts back to Fitz. In her own despair over being separated from him, she could only think that even if he hadn’t been taken away from her, if they were both out on the deck now waiting on a lifeboat, perhaps they would have ended up being forced to part anyway. It was a scenario that she didn’t want to contemplate; with how bleak things looked, the only image of Fitz she wanted to cling to was one where he was safe and happy and whole.
Next to her, Grant made an impatient noise and looked up and down the deck through the crowd. Clearly, the officers’ continuing refusal to let men board lifeboats was starting to grate on him. He had already taken them across to the other side of the ship to see if men were being allowed on there, but when he found they weren’t, they’d circled back to where they started. In a rare display of selflessness, and knowing that time was at a premium, Grant had told Edith to go ahead and prepare to board a lifeboat as soon as possible. They had slowly been inching forward in line ever since, and were nearly at the front.
Ahead of them, Daisy Johnson already stood in the lifeboat, a life vest tied tightly over her silk evening gown and fur coat, encouraging women to come forward and board.
“That’s it, come on,” she said warmly, beckoning a young woman forward with a smile. “Just take his hand there, and he’ll help you in.” The lady accepted the outstretched hand of the officer in charge of loading the boat, and he guided her across the gap into Daisy’s waiting arms. “There now, see? That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Daisy said lightly, helping the woman sit down.
Next to Jemma, Edith craned her neck to see into the boat. “Will the lifeboats be seated according to class?” she asked. She huffed a short laugh and looked up at Grant. “Oh, I do hope they’re not too crowded.”
Her mother’s casual, callous arrogance was enough to pull Jemma from the stupor she’d been languishing in ever since Fitz had been carted off, and she looked at her with dismay. “Mother, will you stop?!” she snapped.
Edith’s mouth dropped open in shock.
Righteous anger flooding her veins, Jemma clenched her fists, and--ignoring Grant’s sharp stare of disapproval--barreled on. “Don’t you understand?” she cried. “Don’t you remember what Mr. Andrews said about the lifeboats? There aren’t enough for everyone, not by half, and the water is freezing. Half of the people on this ship are going to die.”
Her mother stared at her, blinking, but it was Grant who spoke, low and flat. “Not the better half.”
Jemma whipped her head around to look up at him, her anger crystallizing in her throat as she took in the full weight of what he’d said. There was a smirk curving up the corners of his mouth, the surety of his conviction plain for all to see. It made her stomach turn.
“You absolute monster,” she whispered, her entire body going cold.
She’d long known that Grant was arrogant and insensitive, and that he held a certain disdain for those not in their social class; today, she had also learned that he was violent and cruel. But even she hadn’t thought him capable of being so blatantly heartless, of showing such complete disregard for the lives of his fellow human beings, as if they were worthless. It was like a veil had been lifted from her eyes, and she was finally seeing everything and everyone around her for what they truly were. In that moment, Jemma knew that she would rather die fighting to stay with Fitz than spend another moment with her family.
In front of them, Daisy had managed to coax Edith into the lifeboat, and was now holding her hands out to Jemma. “Come on, now, Jemma,” she said, gesturing. “It’s your turn.”
Giving her a steely look--her remark had not gone unnoticed--Grant guided Jemma toward the boat. But this was her moment--her chance to break away. So she drew on her anger and her newfound resolve, and wrenched her arm free of his hold, taking a large step away from him.
“No,” she said firmly, her jaw set.
Daisy gaped, dumbstruck, while Edith looked stunned. “Jemma, get in the boat!” her mother ordered.
“No,” she repeated sharply, and turned to walk determinedly away. She felt Grant’s hand grasp at her arm, but she pulled it away and kept walking. She didn’t get more than a few step further, though, before he caught up to her and grabbed her by the shoulders, turning her roughly to face him.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, his expression a mask of fury. “Are you going back to--to him?! To that complete waste? I forbid it, I won’t let you--”
“You don’t own me!” Jemma shouted, her eyes blazing. “And I won’t allow you to control me anymore!” Then she jammed the heel of her shoe down into Grant’s foot as hard as she could. He cried out, recoiling in pain, and she took the chance to escape from his hold and flee into the crowd, as fast as she could.
Knowing he was alone, and that the section of the ship he was in had likely long since been evacuated, Fitz had taken to trying to free himself from his handcuffs. His time was running dangerously low; the water outside had climbed up past the top of the window some time ago, and the room had taken on a discernible tilt. If he didn’t find a way out soon, he would be in a world of trouble.
Unfortunately, there was very little he could do. The pipe that his hands were chained around ran from the floor directly to the ceiling, so he couldn’t pull the chain around anything. The chain itself was strong and sturdy; no amount of pulling or leaning his weight on it against the pipe would snap it--it only made the metal of the cuffs bite painfully into his wrists.
He looked around the office, desperate for more options. The desk was too far away for him to reach, as was the little cabinet. The only thing close enough to be useful was a chair, which he could drag towards him if he stretched far enough and hooked his foot around one of its legs, and another table, pushed up against the wall behind him. Despite their proximity, he really didn’t see what advantage either would bring him..
Fitz’s shoulders sagged as he tipped forward to let his forehead rest against the pipe. He knew just how dire his situation was, though he didn’t want to think about it too closely. The only person who knew where he’d been taken was Jemma, and he wasn’t even sure she cared anymore. He kept seeing the doubt in her eyes, over and over, and he hated that Ward had placed it there, making her feel uncertain of his intentions toward her. All he wanted was a chance to clear his name and make things right. But he couldn’t do that until he’d escaped his prison, and there was very little chance of that happening at present.
A faint gurgling noise broke the silence, and he lifted his head to look toward the door. Fear lanced through him. To his horror, water was pouring in from the corridor, spreading rapidly across the floor toward him.
“Oh, no,” Fitz groaned. “Oh, bloody hell. No. ”
He instinctively backed up against the wall, but there was nowhere for him to go. The water splashed against his boots as it continued to fill the room. Distraught, he started pulling at his cuffs, trying to work his hands through the metal rings. He tugged with all of his might, until the pain blinded him and his skin was rubbed raw and he cried out in agony, but he still couldn’t free himself.
At his wit’s end, he clanged the handcuffs against the pipe as hard as he could, causing a loud racket. “Help!” he shouted. “Can anyone hear me? Please, help!”
His voice echoed out in the corridor beyond, but there was no answer. There was no one there to hear him.
Jemma had initially run with the intention of putting as much distance between herself and Grant as possible, but now that she was certain she had lost him in the crowd out on deck, she needed to find a member of the crew who could help her. But there were hardly any to be found among the passengers who were milling around on the deck, waiting to load lifeboats or taking shelter inside where it was still warm. Any crew members she did find were too busy loading lifeboats or lowering them to the water to bother with her.
Increasingly desperate, she’d headed for the passenger cabin corridors, hoping to find a steward or someone of the same ilk. She’d run down a few hallways without any success, her hopes increasingly dwindling, when she came across an unexpected boon.
As she turned a corner, she saw Thomas Andrews down the hall ahead of her, going door to door and knocking on them, making sure that no one was left in their cabins. Her determination surged when she saw him, and she picked up her pace as she ran toward him.
“Mr. Andrews!” she cried as she approached. He looked around in shock, his expression turning to one of concern when he recognized her. “Mr. Andrews, thank goodness I found you!” she continued. “Where would the Master at Arms take someone under arrest?”
“What?” Andrews asked, baffled. “Miss Simmons, what are you doing here? You need to get to a lifeboat, right away!”
Jemma shook her head, her eyes wide. “No! I can’t, not yet! It’s--it’s Fitz, sir, he’s been--” She shook her head. “Please, I have to find him, and you’re the only one left who can help me.” She bit her lip, feeling close to tears. “Please.”
Andrews studied her for a moment, then sighed. “Take the elevator to the very bottom, E deck, then go left--down the crewman’s passage--then make a right.”
Jemma nodded, frantically committing his directions to memory. “E deck, left, then right. Yes, I’ve got it. Thank you--thank you so much!” She turned to rush back down the corridor toward the foyer.
“Hurry!” Andrews yelled after her.
She ran all the way to the foyer and the elevator bank. When she reached it, the operator had just stepped out and was starting to close the gate. “Wait!” she cried. “I need to go down!”
The operator shook his head. “Sorry, miss. I’m afraid the lifts are closed.”
Something hard seized in Jemma’s chest. She would not be denied in her quest; not here, not now, when she was so close. She would find the stairs and take them if she had to, but it would be so much quicker to the take the elevator. Fitz’s life depended on it. Setting her jaw, she strode forward and slammed her hand into the metal gate, preventing the operator from closing it.
“Listen here, you, I need to go down, and I need to go down right now!” she stormed, with every ounce of high society fury she could muster. “It’s a matter of life or death! Now get in the lift and take me down this instant!”
The operator stared back at her, wide-eyed. “Y-yes, miss, right away,” he stammered, and turned to open the gate and go back into the elevator, sufficiently cowed.
Jemma followed him inside, turning around to help him close the gate. “E deck, please” she said impatiently, but with considerably more politeness than she had just shown. The operator merely nodded, and turned the lever to set the elevator in motion.
She tapped her foot anxiously as they descended, silently willing the elevator to go faster. Every moment was precious now. She counted the decks as they passed, and as they approached E deck, the elevator began to slow down.
Suddenly, freezing cold water was pouring into the elevator, swirling quickly around their feet. Both Jemma and the operator screamed in shock, jumping against the back wall of the car. E deck was flooding, and they had just landed in a foot of ice-cold seawater. The operator reached for the controls in a panic; but before he could reverse their course, Jemma lunged forward and pushed the gate open, splashing out into the corridor. Behind her, the operator muttered something that she couldn’t make out and closed the gate, immediately putting the elevator back into upward motion and leaving her behind.
She was on her own.
She took a second to get her bearings, hiking her floor-length skirt up out of the water so she could walk. The water was so cold that it felt like dozens of tiny, sharp knives were stabbing her feet, but she needed to move. The flooded corridor meant Fitz had very little time left, and she had to hurry.
“Left,” she said to herself, glancing down the hallway in that direction. “Left, down the crew passage. Right, then.”
Making sure her sodden skirt was well out of the way, Jemma began slogging her way down the corridor. It was unsurprisingly deserted, the crew having long since gone up above decks, and eerily silent save for a distant, ominous creaking. It felt like something out of a Gothic horror novel and chilled her to the bone, but she pressed on, determination overcoming any fear she felt. She walked as fast as she could through the water until she came to a cross-corridor, then stopped, looking both ways.
“Right,” she murmured. There were rows of doors lining the hall on either side of her. “He said right…” She faced right, then took a step forward. Realizing she might have to search every room, she chose to yell instead. “Fitz?” she called out, taking another step forward. “Fitz?”
She taken a few more steps when she heard a faint cry.
Her heart surged painfully in her chest. “Fitz?!”
A metallic clanging sound echoed down the corridor. “Jemma! Jemma, I’m in here! ”
“Fitz!” Galvanized into action, Jemma picked up her skirts again and charged down the corridor, following the sound of his voice and the metal racket until she found the room he was in. When she appeared in the doorway, she found him crouching on top of a small table pushed against the back wall, his hands chained around a small pipe next next to it. She had to lean against the doorframe, her breath leaving her in a whoosh, she was so relieved to see him.
He looked up, ceasing the rattling of his handcuffs against the pipe, and his eyes went wide. “Jemma!” he cried. “It wasn’t me, I swear--”
Jemma pushed away from the doorframe and splashed her way across the room toward him, holding out her arms. “Fitz, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry--”
“--I didn’t take the necklace, it was Giyera--”
“--I know, I believe you--”
“--I would never do something like that--”
“--I know, Fitz, I’m so sorry.” Jemma took his face in her hands and leaned up to kiss him, hard and firm. He pressed into it, almost desperately, and when she pulled away there was an anxious crease to his brow. She smoothed her fingers over his cheeks in an attempt to calm him. “I’m so, so sorry that Grant did this to you,” she said. “But we’re together again now, so everything will be just fine. Yes?”
Fitz inhaled and nodded, his expression serious and his eyes trained on hers
Jemma gave him an encouraging smile and leaned in for another brief kiss before she stood back, dropping her hands. “Right. So,” she said, looking him over. “We need to get you out of here. Where is the key to the handcuffs?”
“Giyera took it with him, that bastard,” Fitz replied nastily, pulling the cuffs against the pipe. “But there might be a spare in that desk, there, or the cabinet. Look inside. It was a tiny brass thing.”
Jemma had already turned to the desk and was searching through all of the drawers, rifling past papers, pens, books, and other odds and ends--but she didn’t see any keys. “I don’t see any in here,” she said, then turned to the cabinet. She tugged the doors open, then stood back in surprise as they revealed a wealth of keys, of all shapes and sizes, hanging from hooks attached to cork nailed to the back of the cabinet. She looked over at Fitz, nonplussed. “Do any of these look…?”
Fitz craned his head to see into the cabinet, his eyes rapidly scanning over the keys. “I, er, I’m not sure… they could be for anything on the ship… see that one, on the bottom row, on the end?” Jemma nodded. “Try that one.”
She snatched up the key in question and brought it over to him. Fitz held up his hands and she tried to insert the key into the lock on the handcuffs, but it didn’t fit. Her shoulders slumped. They tried a few more, but none of them worked, either, much to Jemma’s dismay.
“You’re going to have to go find help,” Fitz said bravely, sitting back on his haunches on the table.
“But where?” Jemma turned out her hands despairingly. “There’s no one else down here, everyone has gone up to the boat deck. And I’m afraid that in the time it would take me to go up there as well, find someone willing to help, and come back…” She looked significantly down at the water that had risen even more in the short time since she’d entered the room, and was now pooling around her shins.
Fitz sighed, his shoulders sagging slightly. “Then you’ll need to find something that can break through this.” He gestured with his hands, indicating the short chain that linked his handcuffs together.
Jemma’s eyes widened, her heart sinking into her stomach. “Where--where would I even find something like that?” she asked hopelessly. They were on a passenger liner, not a cargo ship. Tools weren’t readily available.
Shaking his head, Fitz tried to keep up his brave front despite his clear anxiety. “I don’t know. Just... keep your eyes open, yeah? We’re in a crew area, you should able to find something.” He gave her a bracing smile. “I believe in you.”
Breathing in deeply, reluctant to leave him, Jemma made her way back over to Fitz and kissed him again, a lingering kiss that took advantage of time they didn’t have. “I won’t be long,” she said, more to convince herself than anything else. “I promise.”
Fitz nodded. “Hurry, Jemma.”
Taking a last look at him, Jemma turned to plow through the water and back out into the corridor.
She decided to go back the way she’d come, in order not to get lost. She tried peeking into rooms as she went, hoping to find tools of any kind, but either the doors were locked or the rooms didn’t hold anything of use to her. When she reached the elevator bank without finding anything helpful, she looked around, at a loss. Then she spied a stairwell going up off to the right and headed for it, grateful to be out of the freezing water.
Up in the new corridor, she looked around, committing the location to memory so she could find her way back. It looked like she was in a passenger cabin section again, steerage most likely, with doors dotting the brightly-lit hallway at regular intervals. Abandoned luggage littered the floor and that, along with the continued groaning of metal as the hull of the ship sank in the water, only served to frighten Jemma even more.
She started to run, able to move freely now without water impeding her, and cast her eyes about as she went. Surely there was something she could use, something for repairs or accidents… she recalled something Andrews had told them during his tour of the ship, something about Titanic being well-equipped for emergencies--aside from the lifeboats, of course--and the passenger berth areas being stocked with tools to aid in the event of a fire.
When she came to a cross-corridor, she paused to look both ways. In one direction, the floor sloped down into encroaching water--that obviously wasn’t an option. She had just turned to go in the other direction when suddenly the lights flickered out.
Jemma froze with a gasp as she was blanketed in complete darkness. All she could hear was the sound of her breathing, now unnaturally loud in her own ears, and the sinister creaking of the ship. How would she ever get back to Fitz now?
Just as panic was close to overwhelming her, the lights blinked back on.
She looked around hesitantly, waiting to see if they would stay on, but when several seconds passed and the corridor remained lit, she felt herself relax. Then she continued on down the hall.
Ahead of her, a steward suddenly appeared from another cross-corridor, laden down with life vests. He made a displeased noise when he spotted her, instantly changing his course to head in her direction.
“What are you still doing down here, miss?” he called out. “Come on, then, let’s get you topside.”
“No, wait,” Jemma pleaded. “I need--”
But the steward ignored her in favor of grabbing her arm and pulling her along after him, away from the direction she’d come--away from Fitz.
“No need for panic miss,” the steward said, an almost manic quality to his voice. “Come along.”
“Wait!” Jemma protested, digging in her heels. “Let me go! There’s a--no, you’re going the wrong way, please, stop!”
The steward continued pulling her, nattering on about not panicking and keeping calm. She rather thought he was the one who was panicking, but that was neither here nor there because she’d had quite enough of men dragging her around without her consent, and he wasn’t listening to her.
Without thinking, her hand closed into a fist and she struck, punching the steward square in the nose. “Stop!” she yelled, furiously yanking her arm away from him. “Stop talking and listen to me!”
The steward staggered away from her in shock, one hand going to his bloody nose. Jemma looked down at her own hand in disbelief, surprised that she’d done such a thing, and even more surprised that she didn’t feel sorry for it. The steward looked her once over before shaking his head.
“To hell with you,” he muttered, and turned to run off down the corridor.
“Wait!” Jemma cried. “There’s a man who needs your help--”
But the steward didn’t look back. He turned down another cross-corridor and was gone.
She slumped in defeat, sighing as she turned to look back the way she’d come. Then her eye caught on something: a glass case mounted on the wall nearby, with a fire-axe inside. Hope seizing in her chest, she ran over and inspected each side, trying to find a release mechanism. When she didn’t find one, she looked around for anything she could use to smash the glass. A small abandoned suitcase proved ample for the job, and she carefully picked the axe out from between shards of broken glass. Then she ran down the corridor, back toward the stairwell to E deck.
When she reached it, Jemma was horrified to see that it was now flooded up to at least the bottom five steps. She hesitated for a moment, uncertainty gripping her heart, before gritting her jaw and determinedly wading down into the water. She couldn’t help but cry out; it was up to her waist now, and so cold it was physically painful, immediately setting her teeth to chattering. Holding the axe aloft, she took a few steps forward, but quickly realized that her heavy coat was weighing her down, making movement in the water slow and cumbersome in a way she couldn’t afford.
Turning back to the stairwell, she set the axe down on the first dry step and shrugged out of her coat, letting it sink down into the water behind her. She knew a brief moment of remorse, as now her arms were exposed to the biting cold air, but she needed the extra mobility. Picking the axe back up, she made her way down the corridor as quickly as she could.
When she made it back to the Master at Arms’ office, Fitz was still crouched on the table and hugging the pipe, staring anxiously at the rising water, now just a few inches below the lip of the table top. He looked up at the sound of her splashing into the room, relief passing over his face. “Oh, thank God,” he said, straightening up.
“D-do you think this w-will work?” Jemma asked unsteadily, brandishing the axe with shaking arms. Her shivers had taken over her whole body.
Fitz eyed it, and her, warily. “It should,” he said, and stretched the chain out across a pipe that ran from the main one over to the adjacent wall. Jemma looked at him apprehensively; the chain was very short, with his exposed wrists on either side. There was very little margin for error, and she was shivering too much to be dependable for any sort of accuracy. Reading the uncertainty on her face, he said, “Ah, why don’t--why don’t you try a few practice swings? On the cabinet there.” He nodded at the cabinet full of keys.
“Right,” Jemma muttered, her jaw trembling. She waded over to the cabinet and shut the doors, then hefted the axe in both hands. Making sure she had a strong grip on it, she picked a point in the center of the right door and swung. The blade sank into the wood with a dull thunk.
“Brilliant,” Fitz coached, nodding encouragingly. “Now see if you can hit the same mark again.”
Jemma struggled to work the axe free of the cabinet, then lifted it again and readied herself. She concentrated on the spot she’d already hit and flexed her fingers around the handle, but her hands shook and the axe wobbled in her grip. When she swung again, the axe hit the cabinet a good few inches to the side of her first mark. She swallowed thickly.
“That...might be enough practice,” Fitz said uneasily. Then he cleared his throat. “Come here.”
She sloshed back to him, cautiously holding the axe in front of her. Fitz fixed her with a stare that was far more calm and reassuring than she felt he had any right to be.
“Look, Jemma,” he said. “You can do this. It’s just one swing.” He settled the handcuff chain across the pipe again, and smiled at her. “I trust you.”
Shivering, her teeth chattering, Jemma smiled weakly back at him. At least he had faith in her, because she wasn’t entirely convinced she wasn’t about to cause serious irreparable harm. He nodded, then sat back and clenched his hands into fists. She couldn’t help but notice, though that as she raised the axe, he screwed his eyes tightly shut.
She couldn’t blame him. She focused on the tiny length of chain in front of her, her heart pounding wildly, and drew up every ounce of courage she had, trusting herself to aim true and get it right. Anything else meant… well, she didn’t want to think about it. Gripping the handle tightly, she swallowed down her fear and swung--and at the very last second, looked away.
She yelped as the axe struck the metal of the pipe. And then--silence. No yelling, no scream of pain, just silence. Gingerly, she looked back up, and saw Fitz grinning madly with two separate cuffs, his hands free. She dropped the axe into the water with a small splash, all of her strength leaving her as adrenaline rushed out of her body.
“You did it!” Fitz cried happily, reaching around the pipe to pull her forward by the shoulders and press a fierce kiss to her forehead. “Brilliant show, Jemma. You’re amazing.”
Jemma could only lean into him slightly, her nerves buzzing and twanging as complete and utter relief coursed through her. She’d freed him, and he was safe. But now they had a whole new set of concerns.
“Time for us to be off, then,” Fitz said cheerily, making light of the fact that they were in a flooded room in the depths of a sinking ship. Bracing a hand on her shoulder, he shifted to slip off the table into the water--and immediately let loose a string of expletives.
“Oh, holy Christ, shite, bloody hell, that is cold!” he yelled, his face caught in a grimace. “And you’ve lost your coat!” He shook his head and took her hand, pulling her toward the door, creating tiny waves as he slogged through the water. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Jemma followed, unspeakably thankful that she’d managed to rescue Fitz, and eager to get back above deck and hopefully into a lifeboat--both of them--so they could leave this nightmare behind
She tried to ignore the nagging voice in the back of her mind reminding her that the odds were completely against them.
In another section of E deck that hadn’t flooded yet, stewards were busy herding third class passengers toward the aft end of the ship. No one paid any attention to a door set into the corridor wall that was rattling in its frame, seemingly subject to heavy blows from the opposite side. Finally, the frame splintered as the door flew open with a great crash, bouncing off the adjacent wall.
Fitz and Jemma stumbled out into the corridor, Fitz rubbing his sore shoulder where he’d rammed it repeatedly into the door. They took a second to look around and get their bearings, then linked hands and started following the other passengers down the corridor.
“Wherever they’re headed is good enough for me,” Fitz muttered as they went, leaning in close to Jemma’s shoulder. They received a few curious looks along the way, due to the snapped handcuffs still latched around his wrists and the way Jemma’s soaked skirts clung to her legs, but for the most part everyone was too preoccupied with getting themselves to safety to pay them much attention.
Jemma thought they might need to reconsider Fitz’s assessment when they reached the end of the corridor and found the main stairwell leading to the upper decks. It was a madhouse. A large crowd was gathered, packed in between the walls and pushing at the steel gate that blocked the head of the stairs. On the other side, a few stewards were struggling to keep the crowd contained, only letting the gate open wide enough to let a few women slip through.
“Women only!” one of the stewards yelled, straining to be heard above the din of the panicked crowd. “No men!”
“This is insane,” Fitz muttered, squeezing Jemma’s hand tightly between his own. “Why aren’t they letting everyone through?” Craning his neck to scan the crowd, his eyes suddenly lit up. “Hunter!” he shouted.
Amidst the fray, Hunter turned around at the sound of his name, and when he saw Fitz and Jemma standing at the bottom of the stairs, he fought his way back down to join them.
“What the hell is going on?” Fitz cried when he reached them. “Why won’t they open the gate?”
Hunter shook his head, looking supremely agitated. “I heard one of them say the lifeboats are gone. And half the people down here don’t understand English, don’t know what they’re saying, and they’re just scared. They’re ready to riot.” He cast a worried glance back up at the gate. “It’s a powder keg.”
“The other end of the deck is already flooded. They can’t possibly keep us here,” Jemma said, feeling some of the panic of the crowd creeping into her bones. She looked back and forth between Fitz and Hunter in desperation. “Can they? The ship is sinking! We’ll all die if they don’t let us up!”
Hunter only then seemed to take in their bedraggled state, their wet clothes and the fact that they were both nearly blue-lipped and shivering, but any questions he might have had was cut off by an uproar from the crowd. As one, they all turned to look. Confused and terrified, many of the men were rushing the gate in an attempt to break through, and the stewards on the other side were fighting to shove them back again.
“I say, women only!” the lead steward yelled, pulling out a small revolver and brandishing it threateningly. “Get back! Back, you lot! Back!” When the crowd refused to listen or back down, he directed the other two stewards forward. “Lock it!”
They wrestled with the gate, forcing it shut against the tide of people fighting to get through, and finally locked it. An angry cry rose up from the crowd, and they surged forward, pounding their fists against the gate. The stewards backed up, their eyes wide with fear, realizing they had completely lost control of the situation.
Hunter’s jaw set, his eyes going hard. “We don’t stand a bloody chance here,” he said. “This can’t be the only way out.”
Fitz looked around them, casting his eyes about over the crowd and the corridor, as if searching for answers. “No, it can’t be,” he replied. “Come on.” He took Jemma’s hand again. “We’ll find another way out.”
They left the chaos of the main stairwell behind, going back into the labyrinth of steerage passenger berth corridors, trying to find another way topside. Jemma was horrified by the number of people still wandering the halls, seemingly lost, and by how little order there was, especially compared to how she’d been treated in first class at the start of the emergency. There was a man trying to console a hysterical woman, an immigrant family trying to find their way through all of the abandoned luggage, and another older couple arguing heatedly in a language she didn’t understand. On and on they ran through the maze, dodging other passengers, and Jemma began to fear that they were well and truly lost.
Finally, Fitz found a narrow stairwell tucked at the end of a cross-corridor, and quickly ushered Hunter up ahead of them. They made it up two decks before they were stopped by another locked gate, where a small group of passengers were pressed up against it. It was the same scenario as before, just on a much smaller scale: The passengers were yelling, begging to be let out, while the steward on the other side staunchly refused.
“I said, just go to the main stairwell with everyone else,” the steward said with exaggerated patience, standing well out of reach of the steerage men’s swinging arms, shoved through the gate’s bars. “It will all get sorted out there. You just need to wait your turn.”
“This is bollocks!” Hunter suddenly bellowed, his face going red with rage. “We’ve got women and children down here! You can’t keep us caged like bloody animals! This is--” Clenching his hands into fists, he turned in place in frustration. Then his eyes landed on a wooden bench near them on the landing, and he charged over to it. Grabbing one end, he started pulling with all his might, trying to tear it away from where it was bolted to the floor. Realizing what he was doing, Fitz moved to help, along with another man who had turned to look after Hunter’s yelling.
Jemma watched with morbid fascination and a swelling sense of pride as the men worked together to rip the bench free of its mooring. With a great snap and splinter of wood, it finally broke loose, and they lifted it up. Startled back into action, Jemma turned to dart up the stairs, clearing a path between the group of passengers clustered around the gate.
“Move aside!” she cried, shooing them away from the gate. “Quickly now, give them some room!”
The others all did as they were told, moving to the sides of the stairwell. Jemma joined them, returning to the rear of the group and pressing herself flat against the wall. Then she looked toward Fitz and Hunter, who were waiting with the bench, aided by the man who had helped them break it free.
Clearing the group had given the steward a direct path down the stairs to see what they were about to do, and his eyes went wide. “What are you doing?” he demanded, fear creeping into his voice. “You can’t do that! That’s White Star Line property you’ve damaged, you’ll have to--”
“Go!” Hunter shouted.
With something akin to a battle cry, the three men ran forward and rammed the bench into the gate as hard as they could. It shuddered beneath the force of the blow, bending outward but not quite coming loose. “Again!” Hunter cried, over the protests of the steward. Backing up, they rammed the gate once more. This time, it buckled and crashed to the floor, narrowly missing the panicking steward. A shout of victory went up among the passengers, and they surged forward, streaming around the bench and the remains of the gate to escape upstairs.
Exhaling with relief and exertion, Fitz and Hunter dropped the bench to the side of the next landing, ignoring the steward’s outraged sputtering. Jemma lifted her skirts to step over the mangled gate and join them
“Look here, you lot!” the steward exclaimed, following them. “You’ll have to pay for that! You can’t just go tearing the ship apart--”
Fitz stopped in his tracks, turning to face the man. “Oh, shut up,” he snapped, his patience gone. “The ship is bloody sinking, what does it matter anymore?”
The steward blinked at him, momentarily stunned into silence. “Well--it’s still White Star Line property you’ve vandalized--”
“Shove it, will you?” Hunter scowled, standing a few stairs above them. “Sort your priorities, man!” When the steward fell quiet again, Hunter gestured for them to follow him. “Come on. Let’s leave this poor sod to file his damage report. We’ve got more important things to do.”
Despite the severity of their situation, Jemma couldn’t help but give Fitz a small, soft smile as she took his hand and they hurried up the stairs after Hunter. Angry and at their wit’s end, he and Hunter had taken matters into their own hands and given both themselves and many others a fighting chance to survive. She was rather proud of him.
When they finally burst from the stairs out onto the boat deck, they found more chaos. Gone was the ordered, sedate boarding of the lifeboats that Jemma had been a witness to earlier. Now, panicked crowds filled the deck, a mix of all three classes, in a mass of confusion, alarm, and desperation. Jemma paused in the doorway, clutching Fitz’s arm as she looked around with wide eyes, scanning the deck for any sign of a lifeboat. She found none.
“All of the boats are gone!” she cried, her hopes falling in dismay. So Hunter had been right--no lifeboats were left, and with them all of their chances of survival.
Fitz swallowed and scanned the deck as well, his face grim. “That can’t be all of them,” he said. “There must still be some left. We just have to find them.” He curled his hand around hers again and shot her a fleeting smile. “Come on, let’s head to the forward end and check there.”
He took off running, leading Jemma with Hunter close on their heels. They wove in and out of the crowd, past throngs of angry men and frightened women and crying children, pausing once so they didn’t trip over the dogs suddenly underfoot--someone had released the animals from their kennels. They even ran past the ship’s band, who was still persevering in playing bright and upbeat melodies in a futile attempt to bring a semblance of peace to the frightened passengers around them. That drew a derisive scoff from Hunter, but he didn’t have time to say anything cutting. He was hard-pressed to keep up with Fitz and Jemma, trying not to lose them in the mayhem.
Much to their relief, they found a couple of lifeboats remaining on the port side of the ship. There was a large crowd surrounding them, mostly men, barely held off by the crewmen loading the boats. It appeared that only women and children were still being let on.
“They’re still not letting men board,” Fitz observed, looking at Hunter. “You’d better go check the other side of the ship.”
Hunter nodded. “Right.” His eyes lingered on both Fitz and Jemma for a moment before he smiled tightly, then took a deep breath and clapped Fitz on a shoulder. “Good luck, mate.” Then he turned and disappeared into the crowd, looking for a way across to the starboard side of the ship.
Jemma watched him go, wondering if it would be the last time she ever saw him. It made her heart twist, but there was no time to linger on those thoughts, because the press of the crowd around them was threatening to crush them.
Fitz wrapped his arms tightly around her from behind, holding her against his chest to try and shield her from the cold. Her breath was coming out in little puffs of vapor in the freezing air, and she was shivering in her thin dress without the aid of a coat. It was also to keep them from getting separated by the crowd: The people around them were pushing and shoving, desperate for a spot on a lifeboat, and the crew members loading them were barely able to keep the throng at bay. The officer in charge of the boat closest to them even had a revolver out, waving it at anyone who dared to get too close.
As they slowly inched forward toward the front of the crowd, watching the crew load women into the boat, Fitz leaned his face over Jemma’s shoulder and pressed his cheek to hers.
“Jemma,” he said, “you’re going to have to get on the boat without me.”
She tensed in his arms, her blood running cold as her very breath seemed to stall, the noise of the crowd around them fading away. Intellectually, she had known that this was coming--the officers still weren’t letting men board, and she knew that Fitz would insist she get on a lifeboat if she could. But she rejected it instinctively because the thought of leaving him was anathema to her, not after everything she’d risked to save him. Not when she’d finally found the one person in the world who understood her and loved her for who she was.
“No,” she blurted, panic rising in her throat. “No, I’m not leaving you.”
“Jemma.” His arms tightened around her, a hint of desperation coloring his voice. “You have to get on the boat. Please? I need to know that you’ll be alright.”
It was an echo of what he had told her in the gymnasium, when he’d pleaded with her to leave Grant and save herself. It had only happened that morning, but it felt like a lifetime ago. So much had changed. Covering his hands with hers where they were wrapped around her middle, she clung tightly to him.
“No!” she cried again. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m--I’m not going without you. I just won’t.”
She felt Fitz take in a deep breath and exhale shakily, and he turned his face to press his forehead to her temple, his nose and lips brushing against her cheek. “I’ll find another way,” he said, and it was clear he was trying to be brave for her. “Alright? I’ll go find Hunter on the other side and maybe there’ll be another boat for us there. But--” He squeezed his arms around her again. “I need to make sure that you’re safe first. Please, Jemma.” His voice cracked. “Please.”
Jemma shook her head, a lump rising in her throat and tears pricking at her eyes. Needing to see him, she turned in his arms to face him and lifted her hands to his cheeks. Fitz’s eyes were round with worry, his brows drawn together in concern, and the depth of the emotion and care for her in his expression made her heart both swell and break. Perhaps she should listen to him and not let her devotion overrule common sense, but if there was one truth she knew now, it was that she couldn’t bear to be parted from him.
“I won’t leave you,” she said fiercely, staring into his eyes and stroking her thumbs over his cheeks. “Not for anything. Whatever comes, we’ll face it together.”
Fitz stared at her for a moment, his eyes searching hers, until he huffed and looked away, shaking his head and looking almost defeated. Then he surged up to press a hard, fast kiss to her forehead. “Jemma,” he said fervently, ducking his head to look at her again, “Jemma, I promise you--”
The crowd around them pushed forward again as a call went out for more women, and someone shoved Fitz hard from behind, knocking Jemma loose from his arms. She cried out as she stumbled backward a few steps, then stopped abruptly as she bumped into someone.
“Oh--excuse me,” she mumbled, her social training kicking in instinctively, and started to move back to Fitz. But firm hands curled around her shoulders and pulled her back, and she looked around sharply to see that she’d been stopped by the officer loading the boats.
“Into the boat with you, now,” he said briskly, tugging her toward the gap.
Hot panic lanced through Jemma’s gut. “No,” she blurted, wide-eyed, pulling back on the officer’s arm. “No, I don’t want to go--” She looked back desperately toward Fitz, who was just realizing what was happening. “Fitz!”
He immediately rushed forward, reaching an arm out to her. Just as their fingertips brushed, the officer whipped around, pointing his pistol at Fitz and the other men who had taken advantage of the opportunity to push forward. “Stay back!” he ordered. “Keep order! Women and children only!”
Fitz stopped in his tracks, holding his hands up in a gesture of surrender, his face a picture of pure anguish. Jemma struggled against the officer’s hold, but his grip was firm.
“I don’t want to go!” she cried again, trying to push past him. “Please! Fitz!”
But Fitz, who was staring down the barrel of the officer’s gun, could do nothing.
“I’m sorry, miss, there’s no time to argue,” the officer said tersely, and bodily lifted her over the gap and into the lifeboat. Then he took a step back and looked at the crewmen manning the falls. “Right, she’s the last one for this boat. Lower away!”
“No!” The scream that ripped from Jemma’s throat caused the other occupants of the boat look up at her in concern, but she didn’t see them; all she could feel was her heart tearing into pieces. The boat gave a jerk as the crew began to lower the ropes through the pulleys that would send them to the water’s surface, and she stumbled where she stood; someone behind her--another officer--put his hand on her shoulder and gently said, “Sit down, miss.”
“No,” she repeated brokenly, but the pressure of the officer’s hand pushed her down to the wooden slat beneath her. If she struggled further, she would be putting every other person on the lifeboat in danger, and although she might risk her own life for Fitz’s sake, she would not risk others’. As the boat continued to slowly drop, she sat numbly and looked back toward the deck, desperate to find Fitz.
Now that the lifeboat was leaving, people had crowded up against the balustrade next to where it had been, and Fitz was right in front. It was only when they locked eyes that Jemma realized tears were streaming unchecked down her face, his figure blurry against the backdrop of the ship’s lights behind him. She blinked, trying to bring him into focus; he was staring down at her, his hands curled over the lip of the rail. His shattered expression only made Jemma’s tears come faster. Desperate, she looked around. The lifeboat was crowded to capacity. There was no way for Fitz to somehow jump and save himself, and no room in the boat even if he could, and she had no way of jumping out to get back to him. The boat was descending at a steady pace, taking her farther and farther away. There was nothing left to do except look up at him and hang onto the last precious seconds that she had with him, and realize that this was it. This was likely the end, and this time it would be final: She would never see him again.
“Fitz,” she whispered, as tears continued to pour down her face. She kept her eyes on him, unwilling to look away, even as he grew smaller the lower the boat dropped. It felt like her entire world was crumbling, but she was certain she would never forget the sight of him, somehow looking completely alone amongst the tumult surrounding him, standing frozen at the railing of the ship.
Jemma kept watching him, unable to let go, until Fitz was little more than a faint silhouette against the lights of the ship. Then the lifeboat touched down in the water, the crewmen detached the falls, and they began rowing away to join the other boats that were escaping the foundering ship.
At a distance, the disaster was even more terrible to behold. Nearly a third of the ship was completely underwater as the hull continued to fill, causing the stern to rise at an angle. Passengers were visible making their way aft on the upper decks, trying to escape the rising water, but some had already jumped overboard and were struggling to swim away from the ship.
As much as Jemma wanted to look away, she found that she couldn’t, knowing that Fitz was still aboard and fighting for his life. She didn’t want to think about him alone in the chaos with barely a chance of survival. She had been prepared to stay with him, possibly even die with him, but she wasn’t prepared to sit helplessly and watch him perish. She’d been snatched away against her will once again, and the pain and unfairness of it all, like a vise grip squeezing her chest, was unbearable.
Nearly paralyzed with grief, Jemma barely noticed when someone wrapped a woolen blanket tight around her shoulders. For the briefest second she was transported, back to the open deck on a night just like this, except the ship wasn’t sinking, and it was Fitz pulling his jacket snug around her--
Looking over, she saw that it was the officer who had forced her to sit down. “So you don’t catch a chill, miss,” he said.
She couldn’t summon up the words for a proper thank you, or to tell him that she was already freezing from the cold air anyway, so Jemma simply turned back to look at the specter of the dying ship they’d all thought to be unsinkable.
Water was flooding over the bridge and onto the uppermost deck, washing scores of passengers overboard. As it crept up on the first of the ship’s funnels, the metal started to buckle and crumble. One by one, the wires lashing it to the deck snapped, flying into the water like giant whips. As the people in the lifeboat watched in horror, the funnel toppled into the sea with a loud groan, instantly crushing everyone in the water beneath it.
“My God,” someone in the boat muttered.
Jemma huddled deeper into her blanket, trying desperately not to think of Fitz caught beneath the funnel. Surely he was still on the ship, well away from the water boiling up the deck. She had to tell herself that, because any of the alternatives didn’t bear consideration. He had to be alive.
Hardly anyone in the boat spoke as the stern of Titanic continued to lift into the air, pitching the ship at an ever-increasing angle. They could only stare, transfixed and speechless, as the disaster continued to unfold in front of them. It was still hard to fathom that a ship so grand and seemingly impervious as Titanic was truly lost, and terrible to think of those still trapped aboard, desperately clinging to anything they could to keep from falling into the icy water below. Everyone hoped help would arrive before it was too late--but they knew, deep down, that it wouldn’t come.
As the massive bronze propellers rose out of the sea, the lights of the ship--which had stood out brightly like a beacon in the black of the remote north Atlantic night--blinked erratically a few times before winking out completely. Someone near Jemma gasped. The darkness that suddenly enveloped them felt claustrophobic, made worse by the unsteady rocking of their boat on the water, and she struggled not to panic. Blinking rapidly, she peered through the night and was just able to discern the outline of the ship, lit by pale moonlight and starshine from above.
Suddenly, a terrible sound unlike anything she had ever heard before rent the air. With a shuddering, guttural groan and angry cracks and snaps, the great ship began to split down the middle. Several people in the boat cried out in alarm and fear, and the crewmen manning the oars rushed to pick them back up and row them farther away, desperate not to get caught in the fury. It was a horrific sight, watching the decks buckle apart like twigs breaking, the remaining funnels toppling as the stern crashed back down into the ocean, sending up a huge wave in its wake.
Even at their distance, the wave managed to rock their boat, but Jemma barely noticed. Fresh tears had sprung to her eyes. All she could think of was Fitz, still fighting for his life, living a nightmare. Were he alive at all, that is. And she was powerless to do anything about it--all she could do was watch, impotent, knowing the man she loved was being dragged down into the frigid sea.
For a moment, the remaining portion of the ship bobbed on the surface of the ocean like a cork, sparks spitting out of the jagged end and pieces breaking off and plunging into the water below.
“Look, she’s floating,” the woman sitting next to her said, her voice cautiously optimistic.
For the briefest instant, hope swelled within Jemma that the stern would stay that way, that it would miraculously float and keep all the remaining passengers aboard safe until help arrived. But water was rushing into the open wound that the split had created, and the end of the ship began to rise again, faster and faster, until it stood nearly vertical in the water. Then, as everyone watched with stalled breath, the ship slowly sank down until it slipped completely beneath the waves with barely a splash.
No one in the lifeboat said a word. It didn’t feel right. It was absolutely unbelievable that the world’s most majestic sea vessel had simply vanished, broken into pieces, just as fallible as any other ship even though she had been deemed unsinkable. And they had watched it happen.
But in the void that the great liner left behind, a new, even more horrific sound arose: an unearthly wailing, loud and heart-wrenching, that chilled Jemma to the bone. It was the sound of hundreds of people now adrift in the icy Atlantic, all crying out for help.
Panic and helplessness rose like bile in her throat, and she clutched at her blanket as she looked around frantically. Fitz was out there. Fitz, who had no life jacket, who might not even be a strong swimmer. And the water was freezing. There was so little time left.
“We have to go back,” she blurted.
“What? No, you’re mad, absolutely not,” one of the crewmen snapped. She twisted in her seat to look at him; he was sitting two rows behind her, clutching the post of his oar.
“We have to,” she insisted, desperation lacing her tone. “They’re--can’t you hear them?! They’re dying!”
“And we will too, if we go back!” the crewman countered sharply. “They’ll swamp us! The boat is nearly full as it is. We should stay here.”
Around him, several of the boat’s other occupants murmured in agreement, sounding frightened, and Jemma wanted to scream. How could they simply sit and do nothing when their fellow passengers, their fellow people were so close by, suffering and in dire need of aid? How could they bear it, hearing them yet choosing to ignore them? Even though she knew the chances of finding Fitz amongst those stranded in the water were astronomically low, at least they could save someone . Maybe they could even save a few people. It would be worth it; it had to be.
A sharp, piercing sound came drifting across the water in long bursts over the sound of shouts and screams. It was the shrill blast of a whistle.
“That’s one of the officers,” the officer sitting behind her said grimly. “He’s calling the boats back.”
“You see?” Jemma cried, looking back at the others. “We have to go back now. It’s--it’s an order. We have to help them.”
The crewman shook his head. “I told you, they’ll swamp us the instant we arrive, and drag us down with them. It’s too dangerous.” This time, there was much more vocal agreement from the others.
“But--” New tears of frustration filled Jemma’s eyes, and the only thing her mind could focus on was Fitz Fitz Fitz. “That’s--that’s your men out there! Your husbands, your brothers, your... my...” Her voice cracked. “Please. ”
Someone else on the boat, a woman, was crying softly. Jemma could hear her, the quiet hitching breaths and tiny sobs ringing out over the silence of the others. Their refusal to support her felt damning, and she looked up at the officer behind her in despair. She could barely make out his face through the darkness, but his expression was sorrowful. Despite that, he was clearly unwilling to go against the wishes of the majority and put them in possible danger.
Burrowing back down into her blanket, shivering against the chill that it couldn’t keep out, Jemma let the tears flow freely down her cheeks again. As the minutes ticked by, the agonized cries of those cast into the sea gradually began to fade away. She knew what was happening: no one could survive long in freezing water. Shock from exposure would overtake them, leading to fatal heart attacks, or hypothermia would set in. Those without life jackets would drown. Slowly, every person not in a lifeboat was dying.
Eventually, even the whistle grew quiet. That more than anything drove home the sheer horror of all that had happened. The absence of the whistle, and the complete silence that shortly followed, was the final blow to Jemma’s hope. Titanic was gone, and Fitz with her; there was nothing left to do now except wait for a rescue that might not ever come, and wonder if they could somehow also salvage the pieces of her devastated heart.
As the hours wore on after Titanic slipped beneath the waves of the North Atlantic and the survivors had nothing to do but wait for rescue to come, a deep, numbing chill settled into Jemma’s bones that had nothing to do with the frigid air around her. She felt as if her very soul had become frozen, almost desensitized to the horror she had just witnessed. A distant part of her mind registered that perhaps she was in shock, that she couldn’t yet come to grips with everything that had happened, but she let the thought slip from her mind and instead stared blankly out across the ocean. If she examined her feelings too closely, the realization of what exactly she had lost might come crashing down on top of her, and she wasn’t ready to face it.
Sometime later, when the pale gray of pre-dawn light first began to creep across the sky, someone in the boat spoke, shattering the quiet that blanketed them.
Slowly, her movements feeling stiff and heavy, Jemma lifted her head to look in the direction the woman was pointing. On the horizon was a row of twinkling lights, a plume of steam just barely visible, silhouetted against the brightening sky. Help had arrived at last.
A rush of low murmurs and thankful whispers broke out among them, but Jemma barely heard any of it. Behind her, the officer quickly reached beneath his seat to rummage through a box of supplies and pull out a signal flare. He stood, lighting it, and Jemma blinked against the sudden hiss of bright green sparks it emitted, the light exceptionally harsh after so many hours of darkness.
It took some time for the ship to reach them, and the sky was shot through with the pinks and golds of early sunrise by the time Jemma’s lifeboat--the first to be reached by their rescuer--approached. As their skiff pulled alongside the hull of the larger steamship, she looked up at its lone funnel, the scattered passengers she could see gathered at the rail of the deck above, and the letters painted just above a row of porthole windows: Carpathia.
A rope ladder had been lowered from an open gangway door, and there were men there waiting to help them up. When it was Jemma’s turn to go, she reluctantly relinquished her woolen blanket. Without it, she shivered so much that she could barely hold on to the ladder, much less climb it. But strong hands reached out to pull her to safety, and she took her first steps onto the new ship on shaking legs. A stewardess was waiting to wrap a new blanket around her shoulders, while another pressed a steaming mug into her hands.
“Come, dear,” she said gently, guiding Jemma further into the ship. “Let’s get you inside to the saloon, where it’s warm.”
Jemma’s breathing hitched, and she looked back toward the gangway door. Beyond it, she could see other lifeboats approaching on the water outside. “I c-can’t,” she stammered through chattering teeth. “I h-have to see--”
Because she still had a shred of hope left. There was still a scant possibility that Fitz had made it onto a lifeboat, that he was alive and out there waiting to be reunited with her. All she had to do was be patient until he was brought aboard.
The stewardess gave her a long look, as if she were considering whether or not to take her to the saloon anyway, but finally she nodded. “Alright,” she said. “Come with me.”
She took Jemma up a flight of stairs and out onto the wide open forward deck, where a few women from her boat were already gathered. Stewardesses were tending to them as well, distributing blankets and hot drinks, and taking their lifejackets away.
“You can wait here,” the stewardess said. “I think they’ll be sending everyone through here at first, at least until we decide how to sort everyone. You can wait for…” She trailed off hesitantly before giving her a sympathetic smile. “Whoever it is you’re looking for.”
Jemma gave her the barest of nods before drifting toward the other women, clutching her mug and walking with slow, unsteady steps. Lifting her drink to her face, an exploratory sniff told her it was coffee. She took a small sip, and was immediately thankful for the heat of the liquid as it warmed her from the inside out.
None of the other women made much of an effort to speak to her or to each other. They were all too focused on who was coming through the doors.
As time went on and the deck slowly began to fill with survivors, more and more people joined the waiting group, until there was a veritable throng lining the path outside. Mothers stood clutching their children, women young and old huddled together looking disheveled and worn, all of them anxiously watching the new arrivals. Very few men came through. The ones that did were largely either first class gentlemen or crew members. There were almost no reunions; only tear-stained women begging everyone who came along, asking if they’d seen their husbands, their sons, their fiancés. If she had been a mere observer, Jemma would have said it was the saddest, most tragic scene she had ever witnessed, seeing the palpable grief of women made widows by disaster. But she could hardly feel anything. All of her energy was directed toward the fleeting hope that Fitz was still alive.
But her hope was flagging. Making her way to the rail, she could see only one lifeboat left, just a little ways out from the ship and steadily rowing closer. And there was still no sign of Fitz. Jemma had watched everyone coming through the door onto the deck like a hawk, but he hadn’t been among them. There had been one or two times her faith had spiked--she’d seen a brown wool jacket, or a mop of sandy hair--but every time it had turned out to be another man who wasn’t him, and her spirit had crumbled just a little bit more, the disappointment acrid and sour in her throat. Looking at the lone boat out on the waves, her heart sank. That boat was her last chance.
A shudder ran through Jemma as she leaned heavily against the rail. Her strength was waning, too. She had been out on deck for a few hours without any rest, and everything was beginning to take its toll: the trauma of the sinking, a sleepless night, braving the elements, and the agonizing anxiety of waiting. She blinked a few times, her vision swimming with exhaustion, and drew her blanket tighter around her. Below, the last lifeboat drew closer to the side of the ship. She had to stay awake.
But she was so very, very tired, her heart was bruised and battered, and holding on to her tenuous grasp of alertness was suddenly extremely difficult.
Jemma sighed, her hand slipping off the rail, and as the deck tilted sideways, the last thing she thought was that she hoped Fitz would forgive her if she closed her eyes for just one, brief moment.
When she came to, Jemma was lying on a bench outside the saloon, her blanket folded beneath her head and a stewardess brushing her hair back from her face. She blinked her eyes open, swallowing thickly as the room swam into focus. “Where…” she mumbled, glancing around groggily.
“There you are,” the stewardess said kindly, smiling down at her. “You’ve overdone yourself. The stewards are busy preparing beds for everyone, so as soon as one is ready, we can get you some proper rest. You’ve had a long night, and you’re in sore need of it.”
Jemma breathed in slowly, still trying to get her bearings. The last thing she remembered was looking down at the final lifeboat to come in alongside the Carpathia , knowing it was her last chance to find Fitz.
She gasped, a jolt of adrenaline running through her, and struggled to sit up. “Oh!” she cried. “I have to go back outside--”
The stewardess pressed a hand to her shoulder, urging her to lie back down. “I’m afraid that’s not the best idea, miss. You’re very weak, you need rest and a bite of food to eat--”
“But--” Jemma struggled against her, pushing fully up. “I need to find Fitz--”
The other woman relented, helping her sit up and giving her a patient, understanding look, though it was tinged with sorrow. “Is this Fitz your... fiancé?” she asked, her gaze drifting to the ring Jemma wore on her left hand.
“He’s my--my…” Jemma faltered. They hadn’t discussed exactly what they were to each other, not while she was still technically engaged to Grant. She supposed she’d been waiting until they’d safely reached New York together to give their fledgling relationship a label. He wasn’t her suitor, fiancé, or husband; at best, in all technicality, he was her lover, and she couldn’t very well say that. Not when he meant so much more.
In the end she could say nothing at all, just merely stared beseechingly at the stewardess. The other woman took her silence as confirmation, thankfully, and nodded. “Alright, then,” she said, sounding as if she was going against her better judgment. “I’ll help you find him. But then I really must insist that you rest. You’re not well.”
Jemma sniffled. “Thank you,” she said, feeling the absurd urge to cry in relief, at being granted the opportunity to do as she wished. The stewardess guided her to her feet, picking her blanket up and wrapping it securely around her shoulders.
“Right this way, miss,” she said, leading her toward the doors going into the saloon. “What does your Mr. Fitz look like?”
“Oh, he’s--he’s--” Just conjuring up a mental image of Fitz made Jemma emotional. “He’s of average height, fair skin and light, curly hair... he was wearing a brown wool jacket and corduroy trousers…” As they entered the saloon, she realized that it seemed to be full of well-dressed people--first class passengers, then--and froze, panic seizing her heart. What if her mother or Grant were there and saw her? “He, ah--he wouldn’t be in here,” she said, backing up. “He was--he’s third class.”
The stewardess gave her a curious look, no doubt wondering what a lady in a fine silk dress like hers was doing with a man in third class, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Instead, she simply nodded, steering Jemma back around in the direction of the outside deck.
They separated at the stairs leading onto the deck, with Jemma assuring the stewardess that she would be fine and that she could manage on her own. The sun was higher in the sky now, shining down on what was left of the third class passengers: women huddled together in clumps beneath blankets here and there, some of them worrying over children, and very, very few men. She took a deep breath as dread settled deep in her chest, and started forward.
She went slowly, eyes alert, making sure she didn’t leave an inch of the deck unexamined. She asked nearly everyone she passed if they had seen anyone matching Fitz’s description, and every time, she received the same answer. I’m sorry, miss. No, I haven’t. I’m afraid not. No, I haven’t seen him at all. The farther she went, and the longer there was no sign of him, the deeper she sank into despair. When she finished a circle around the deck and she hadn’t found him, denial forced her to search again. There was simply no way that Fitz hadn’t made it out alive. It wasn’t possible that they would be ripped apart so cruelly, not before they had a chance to seize their happiness together. Her last sight of him couldn’t be his face, forlorn and devastated, watching as she was carried away from him.
There were so many things she wanted to say to him, and there was so much left for them to do.
So Jemma went around the deck again, this time with a gloss of tears over her eyes and a vise around her heart. She double-checked every spot she might have overlooked the first time, behind every pile of discarded lifejackets and every bench. She once again asked her fellow survivors if they had seen him, her voice thick with barely-contained emotion, and the sympathy and pity in their eyes as they repeated their earlier words told her what she didn’t want to acknowledge. Everywhere she looked, she kept hoping to see Fitz’s face--tired and exhausted, cold maybe, but alive. Maybe she’d just missed him, maybe he’d gone to fetch a blanket or a mug of soup; if she doubled back, she’d find him where he hadn’t been a moment before.
When her second trip around the deck turned up nothing, Jemma went to a steward manning the stairs leading toward the entrance to the ship’s interior.
“Sir, please,” she said, her composure hanging on by a thread. “Is there anywhere else third class passengers would be?”
The steward shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not. Third class is all out here until accommodations are finished inside.”
“You’re sure?” she pressed, wringing her hands. “Absolutely sure? Nowhere at all?”
“I’m sorry, miss.” The steward shook his head again, and the pity in his expression burned her. “Anyone who was in third class would be out here.”
Distraught, Jemma turned to look back out across the deck. “But--”
But deep in her heart, she knew the truth, even if she wanted to deny it with every fiber of her being. The evidence was right in front of her, all pointing to one inescapable conclusion. She knew that if she went to look a third time, Fitz still wouldn’t be there. He was nowhere to be found.
He hadn’t made it onto a lifeboat, and he was gone. The ocean had claimed him, ripping them apart, and she would never see him again.
The harsh reality of her loss hit Jemma like a crushing physical blow, and she curled in on herself as the tears that had been brimming in her eyes finally spilled over. She could hear the steward speaking to her, could vaguely register the concern in his voice and his hand at her elbow as she swayed on her feet, but she couldn’t understand what he was saying. All she knew was that Fitz was dead, that he was gone, gone gone gone, and it felt like her entire world was shattering. He was the only person she’d ever met who truly cared about her, and now he was lost forever. The pain was too much to bear, a yawning black hole of despair rising up to swallow her whole. Fitz was dead, and Jemma would never be the same again.
Jemma spent the rest of the journey to New York in something resembling a fugue state. She was trapped in a dark haze of grief, barely leaving her makeshift bed except to attend to her basic needs. She had no interest in seeing or speaking with anyone else. Instead, she relived every moment she’d spent with Fitz, combing through her memories and clinging to them one by one, desperate to fix them permanently in her mind and make them immovable, so she wouldn’t forget them--so she wouldn’t forget him.
They’d only had two days together--two beautiful, glorious days--and it somehow felt both like a lifetime and not nearly time enough. Now every glance, every touch, every word Fitz had spoken was precious, warm and soft and bittersweet in her living memory, and Jemma was tearing herself apart trying to reassure herself that he had loved her.
Fitz had loved her, hadn’t he? He had. His actions had said so: everything he had done, from his selfless wish for her to be happy to his worry when she had tried to push him away, spoke to that truth. Logic said it was impossible to fall in love in just two days or less, but what she and Fitz had found together on Titanic was undeniable, and could have been something magnificent if only given a chance.
But she had never told Fitz how she felt. She’d been so caught up in the moments between them that she had let her actions speak for her when words hadn’t felt necessary. After that, there hadn’t been time, and then it had been too late. What if he hadn’t known? The thought that Fitz might have gone to his death not knowing that she loved him haunted Jemma, plaguing her with doubt, with what-ifs and might-have-beens, with thoughts of everything she could and would have done differently in those final hours. She cried herself to sleep every night for the remainder of the voyage.
Although her grief kept her isolated from the other passengers, she was also trying to hide from her mother and Grant, as well as anyone from their circle of wealthy friends who might recognize her. After all she had been through, the very last thing she wanted was to be forced back into that restricted, controlled life and to have to pretend that nothing had happened. Most of all, she didn’t want to marry Grant. She couldn’t. Not after he’d shown his true colors, proving himself to be the worst kind of man: Cold, callous, and abusive.
Fortunately, staying with the third class survivors made remaining hidden relatively easy. She’d caught a glimpse of her mother as she’d initially been brought aboard the Carpathia from her lifeboat, and she’d looked pale and disheveled, her wide eyes scanning the gathered crowd. She was clearly looking her for daughter, but Jemma had ducked behind another survivor as she passed, a twinge of guilt sliding through her stomach. She hadn’t seen her mother since.
Grant had been harder to avoid. On that first day, after her initial breakdown, Jemma had been sitting on the deck near some other third class survivors, staring blankly out at the ocean. A smear of black among the browns and beiges of lower class wool caught her attention, and she glanced over to see Grant coming down the stairs onto the deck, his gaze alert and searching.
A jolt of fear had lanced through her, startling her from her grief, and she had pulled her blanket tighter to shield her face from view. Grant wasn’t stupid; he’d obviously come to search what was left of third class for her, knowing that if either she or Fitz had made it out alive, they would be there rather than with first class. He’d come to take back what he viewed as his rightful property. A shudder had run through her, a deep revulsion of everything he stood for taking root in her stomach, and she had been prepared to make a scene. But, blessedly, he’d passed right by without spotting her, and had left shortly thereafter. She hadn’t seen him again either.
The Carpathia finally sailed into New York Harbor late in the evening of April 18th under heavy rainfall. Looking out the windows of the library, where she and many of the third class women had been given makeshift beds to sleep in, Jemma could see that a crowd of thousands packed the brightly-lit pier, undeterred by the hour or the weather. She had no doubt that there were just as many members of the press eager for a story as there were curious civilians or family members desperate for news of their loved ones. It looked like an absolute circus and she found she wasn’t eager to brave it at all.
It took some time for the ship to dock, and even longer for Titanic ’s passengers to be allowed to disembark. First class got to go first, naturally, and Jemma spent the time huddled into the coat that had been graciously given to her by one of Carpathia’s passengers. She had no idea where she would go once she got off the ship, and even less of an idea of what she would do. Without Fitz, and having given up her family, she was now homeless and penniless, and her outlook was grim. Looking down at her left hand, she slowly twisted the gaudy engagement ring that adorned her third finger. If she went to the right place, she could fetch a handsome sum for it--enough to live on for a little while. It might raise questions, but it was likely her only option.
At long last, she was finally permitted to exit the ship, and she got in line with her fellow passengers from third class. At the gangway door stood an officer, ledger and pencil in hand. “Name, please?” he asked when she reached him.
Jemma paused, her lips parting as she came up blank. If she gave her real name, it would show up on the list of survivors, and then her mother and Grant would surely see it and find her somehow. She couldn’t bear the thought of it. She fumbled for a moment, her nerves buzzing with anxiety, before a solution presented itself.
“Fitz,” she said, the rightness of it settling in her bones with a bittersweet ache. “Jemma Fitz.”
“Thank you, Miss Fitz,” the officer said, writing the name down in his ledger. Then he indicated that she could go. For a brief, mad moment, she thought about correcting him--it should be Mrs. Fitz--but the idea only made her nauseous with longing.
She walked down the gangway and out into the misting rain, pulling her coat tighter around her. At the bottom awaited a swarm of reporters hiding beneath a ceiling of umbrellas, all of them thrusting their notepads at her, demanding she give her account of the sinking, offering her money for tales of the doomed liner. Somewhere nearby, a flash lamp went off as someone took a photograph of people leaving the ship. But Jemma passed them all, keeping her head ducked and her eyes averted. She had no interest in selling her story or telling anyone what had happened to her while aboard Titanic . Fitz belonged to her alone now, and she was resolute that he would stay that way, locked away safely in her mind and heart for the rest of her life.
Once she made it past the thick press of journalists and curious onlookers, Jemma noticed a large group of women gathered beneath an overhang near the exit to the street, busy handing out coats and other assorted clothes to passengers who had disembarked before her. One of them, an older, matronly sort, saw Jemma hesitating by herself, and beckoned her forward.
“Come here, darling,” she said, and Jemma winced at her use of Grant’s preferred term of endearment, though of course the woman couldn’t possibly know how the word had been soured for her. She approached the woman cautiously, timid and unsure like a mouse. When she was close, the woman reached out to tug her into the dry sanctuary of the overhang, fussing over her damp hair and coat. “Oh, you poor thing, look at you,” she said, squeezing Jemma’s arms. “We’re here with the Council of Jewish Women, providing aid for those souls affected by this terrible tragedy. What do you need? Clothes, transportation, shelter…?”
Jemma hesitated. “I need…” She didn’t know what she needed, truthfully. Once again, she was struck by, the bleakness of her situation: She was alone in a foreign country, with no money, no family, and no friends. She had nowhere to go. Surely these women could provide her with immediate relief, but what would become of her when that ran out? Beyond her intellect, she had very few skills that could support her, and as a woman her opportunities were even more limited.
No money. No family. No friends.
She took in a shaky breath, feeling her world and her strength wither away.
No friends... except for one.
The realization lit the faintest spark of hope in Jemma’s heart. “I need transportation,” she said at last. “A cab, please. I need a cab.”
The woman nodded, looking quite serious, and took her elbow. “Come with me, then. I’ll make sure you get wherever you need to be.”
Taking an umbrella, the kind woman escorted Jemma away from the docks and to the busy street, which was still filled with motorcars and carriages even despite the late hour. A line of cabs were waiting at the curb, taking advantage of the activity surrounding the Carpathia’s arrival to catch any business they could. She led Jemma right up to the first one.
“My good sir, please see that this lady makes it wherever she needs to go,” she said to the driver, reaching into the little silk purse she was carrying and pulling out a few small bills. “This should be enough to cover her fare, plus a handsome tip.”
The driver took the money, counting it over before nodding and stuffing it into his coat pocket. “Of course,” he replied. “Right this way, miss.” He stepped down from his seat to open the door of the cab proper and help Jemma inside.
Jemma turned to her benefactor before the cabbie could help her inside. “Thank you,” she said, her voice wobbling. “Thank you so much.” It wasn’t a lot, but the kindness of this stranger spoke to her bruised heart in ways she couldn’t adequately convey.
The woman smiled. “No need to thank me, darling. It’s our calling to help those in need. Now, just get home and rest your poor bones.” She squeezed her hand before turning to head back for the pier.
A shudder ran through Jemma, her knees feeling weak with unbearable sorrow. She’d resolved to make a home with Fitz, but now he was gone and that dream was dead, and--
She couldn’t think of it. It was too painful to dwell on. So she let the cabbie help her into her seat, and gave him a ghost of a smile as he made sure she was secure and settled.
“Where to, miss?” he asked as he climbed back into his seat ahead of her.
“Ah... the Johnson mansion,” she said hesitantly, hoping she was making the right decision. “Where Daisy Johnson lives. Do you know where that is?”
The cabbie laughed cheerily. “Everyone knows where Daisy Johnson lives, miss. I’ll take you straight there.”
He engaged the motor of the car and eased out into traffic. Jemma looked out the window at the buildings and lights passing by, dimly noting how different it was from London. Everything was taller, brighter, more cramped, and made of newer brick instead of old stone. Even though she was trying her best not to dwell on her grief, she couldn’t help but imagine the cab ride under different circumstances: Fitz beside her, her hand in his, both of them looking out the windows and possibly discussing the architecture, or even their immediate plans for their future together. He would have been so excited, Jemma thought, his eyes bright and his grip on her hand sure, and she could picture the way he would have looked at her--hopeful, awed, adoring.
It was enough to bring tears to her eyes, and she swiped hastily at them as the cab continued to bump along. In an effort to keep herself from breaking down completely, as she didn’t want the cabbie to turn around and find her a sobbing mess, she tried to redirect her thoughts toward her destination and again hoped that her gut instinct wasn’t leading her astray.
She didn’t know if Daisy would even give her shelter or just take her right back to her mother and Grant, but Jemma had a good feeling that she wouldn’t. Daisy didn’t come from old money, and she had always held a certain sort of careless disdain for the strict rules under which the upper echelon of society operated. Jemma had always liked her and found her to be refreshingly honest and forthcoming. Besides, Daisy had been kind to Fitz. If there was anyone who could understand what Jemma was going through right now, it would be her.
Jemma hadn’t expected anyone to even be there--perhaps Daisy hadn’t gone straight home, or maybe everyone was asleep, given that it was nearing midnight. But when the cab pulled to a stop outside a large, ornate stone mansion, most of the windows were still brightly lit, projecting a cheerful warmth out into the gloom of the rainy night.
The cabbie hopped down from his seat and stepped around to open her door, reaching in to help her out. “Here we are, miss,” he said as she stepped down. “Should I see you to the door?”
“Oh... no, that’s quite alright, thank you,” Jemma said, looking at the house rising up above her. Then she gave him a bracing smile. “Thank you for the ride.”
He tipped his cap at her. “My pleasure, miss.” He turned to climb back up into his seat, and Jemma wrapped her coat more securely around her before walking up the front walk toward the front door, nerves setting in.
When she reached the door, she hesitated before ringing the bell. As she heard it chime inside, she took a deep breath to gather her composure, running a hand self-consciously over her loose, rain-damp hair. There wasn’t anything she could do to save her disheveled appearance, but hopefully she could at least maintain some dignity.
But when the door opened, it wasn’t a maid like she had expected; it was Daisy herself, still dressed in her traveling clothes. Her mouth dropped open, one hand going to her chest in shock as she took in Jemma, wet and shivering on her doorstep.
“Jemma?!” she breathed. “Oh my god! How--we--we thought you were lost--”
“I’m sorry,” Jemma said, her fragile poise crumbling in the face of Daisy’s clear surprise. “I--I didn’t know where else to go--”
Daisy shook her head as if to clear it. “Come in, come in.” She reached out to bustle Jemma forward over the threshold, bringing her inside and shutting the door behind them. Then she wrapped an arm around Jemma’s shoulders and walked her further into the spacious foyer. Sighting a maid hovering at the head of a hallway, she said, “Mary, please go fetch some dry blankets, quickly.” The maid nodded and hurried off down the hall in a swish of skirts.
Leading Jemma over to a richly upholstered settee adjacent to the entrance of the sitting room, Daisy gently sat Jemma down and ducked to look into her face, her expression the picture of concern. “Jemma, what’s going on?” she asked. “No one could find you on the ship, we thought you’d been lost, your mother’s going crazy--”
“Don’t tell her,” Jemma blurted, grabbing onto Daisy’s forearms and holding on tight. “Please. I can’t go back to her. To--to him. Please, I beg you.”
Daisy leaned back slightly, watching her with wide eyes. For a moment, Jemma feared that she would go for the telephone and call her mother straightaway, but then Daisy swallowed and nodded, easing her arms out of Jemma’s grip and taking her hands between her own.
“I understand,” she said softly, even though it looked like she didn’t, not fully. But her seeming willingness to keep her secret meant the world to Jemma, and eased her fears somewhat. “But,” Daisy added, frowning and looking like she had a million questions, “why... what’s wrong? What’s happened?”
Jemma paused, searching for words. Then she looked Daisy in the eyes as her face crumpled. “He’s dead,” she whimpered, and saying the words out loud brought the full devastation of it crashing back onto her heart, the tears she’d barely been keeping at bay spilling over again. Now it really was final; there was no coming back from the truth.
Again, Daisy was silent as Jemma wiped at her tears, her mouth slightly open and a question in her eyes, but Jemma knew she didn’t have to ask who she meant. “Fitz is dead,” she said anyway, as her tears began to fall harder. “He’s gone and he--he--” She broke down into sobs, burying her face in her hands, unable to continue on.
“Oh, Jemma,” she heard Daisy murmur, and then she felt the other woman’s arms go around her, pulling her up against her shoulder, heedless of her wet clothes. Daisy held her as she sobbed, stroking her hair and whispering comforting nothings, as she grieved for the good, kind man that she’d loved and lost, who had been taken away from her before they’d even had a chance, and for the future she would never get to have.
Several weeks passed, and Jemma slowly began to adjust to her new life.
At Daisy’s insistence, she stayed on with her at her home in the Upper East Side, but Jemma didn’t want to rely on charity. She wanted to earn her keep. At the first available opportunity, she sold the expensive engagement ring Grant had given her and used some of the money to furnish herself a new, modest wardrobe, since she had arrived in New York with nothing but the clothes on her back. The rest she set aside to start paying rent for the use of a bedroom in the large mansion, the payment for which Daisy only reluctantly accepted.
Once that was done, Jemma set about trying to make herself useful. She decided to get back in touch with the Council of Jewish Women, who had been so kind to help her upon her arrival in New York, and through them found work as a teacher at a public school. It wasn’t the laboratory research of which she had always dreamed, but it was a start, and she hoped that with time and experience, she might one day work her way up to more creative scientific endeavors.
When she wasn’t teaching, Jemma worked to learn more practical skills in order to be more sustainable on her own. She took the embroidery skills she had learned as a child and, under the patient instruction of one of Daisy’s maids, learned how to properly sew. She also learned how to wash and properly fold clothes, and even asked the cooks if they could teach her how to prepare simple meals. The household staff all seemed gently amused by her--a proper daughter of the English nobility in self-imposed exile--but were more than willing to indulge her and help once they saw she genuinely wanted to learn. Bit by bit, Jemma started to pick up skills that would come in handy and help support her for a life on her own.
Even though Jemma had chosen to live a life more akin to the working class, Daisy still treated her like an equal, and over time they became very close friends. They ate lunch and dinner together most days, when Daisy didn’t have society functions to attend, and often spent hours talking about everything and nothing. Daisy’s husband Antoine also let Jemma take over the care of the rooftop terrace garden that he had cultivated, but had regretfully let fall into neglect due to his increasing time away in the capitol. Daisy was many things that Jemma was not: vivacious, talkative, outgoing and brash, and theirs was an unlikely friendship, but Jemma was unspeakably grateful for it. It helped to stave off her loneliness and the pain of her grief.
There was still a jagged, raw wound in her heart where Fitz had once been, and Jemma wasn’t sure if she would ever fully recover, even with time. The future they had envisioned together had been so bright and hopeful, brimming with the promise of love, and its loss had taken an irreplaceable piece of her with it. Daisy was sensitive to her grief, giving her space to process while still being supportive, even going so far as offering to purchase a small memorial plot for him at one of the cemeteries in Queens. Jemma politely turned her down. With nothing tangible left of Fitz to mourn, she didn’t see the point, and she doubted he would have wanted anyone to make a fuss over him anyway. She would be just fine keeping him alive in her memory.
Eventually, the routines of her new life kept Jemma sufficiently occupied enough that she almost didn’t have time to think about how much she missed Fitz or wonder where their relationship might have gone. Sometimes, though, the life she had chosen for herself made those thoughts unavoidable. Daisy hosted the occasional dinner party or afternoon luncheon, and in order to stay hidden and keep her survival a secret, Jemma would confine herself to her room on the second floor of the house while the guests walked about downstairs. She whiled away the time with books or needlepoint, but often found herself sitting in her wingback chair, staring out the window at nothing and daydreaming about the life she and Fitz should have had together. It wasn’t the best way to cope, perhaps, but she couldn’t fault herself for a few moments of weakness.
The strangest experience of all, however, was when Daisy reported that a memorial was being held in Boston for Jemma herself. Daisy’s lack of invitation was a pointed social snub; though she was a prominent figure amongst the elite and publicly considered a friend of the family, her low class origins and choice of husband meant she was occasionally held at arm’s length by high society. It didn’t seem to bother Daisy, though. She confessed that she hadn’t wanted to attend in the first place.
“It would have been very strange,” she said. “Being there, knowing that you were perfectly fine, alive and well here, probably learning how to roast a duck with Grace in the kitchen.”
Jemma smiled slightly into her teacup. “I imagine so. How would you have kept up the pretense?”
Daisy smiled back. “I haven’t survived this long in high society on my good looks alone, you know.” When Jemma laughed, she took a careful sip of her tea. “I would have just kept thinking about those who really need to be mourned.”
Jemma sobered immediately. She knew Daisy was referring to Fitz, and Thomas Andrews, and Lance Hunter, and all of the other good people who had perished in the disaster.
Daisy watched her for a moment before sighing thoughtfully. “I’ve been told your mother is devastated,” she said quietly. “You’re sure you won’t contact her?”
Jemma looked down into her teacup again, as if it held the answers to the mysteries of the universe. “Are you sure she really misses me , and not just the fortune she was marrying me off for?” she asked bitterly.
“Well, since you’re officially dead on the books and were still engaged to him when you ‘died,’ Grant is technically a widower,” Daisy said. “I don’t know if this is how things work in England, but I’ve gotten the sense that there’s been some social pressure for him to take care of her. She’s staying with him at his home in Boston.”
“How selfless of him,” Jemma muttered.
Daisy was quiet for another moment. “Did he actually love you?” she asked at length. “Even if he wasn’t good at showing it?”
Jemma stayed silent, watching the tea leaves in the bottom of her cup. She doubted it. Daisy didn’t know about the yelling, or the threats, or the physical violence. She didn’t know if she could ever tell her.
When another moment passed and Jemma still hadn’t answered, Daisy said, “I guess it doesn’t matter. That wasn’t the kind of love you wanted. Or the life.”
“No,” Jemma replied shortly, quietly. “It wasn’t.”
Spring rolled into summer, and the school holidays afforded her some free time, which Jemma spent in the kitchens and the garden. A hot morning in early July found her out on the rooftop terrace, tending to the flowers and herbs she’d coaxed back to life. She was moving through the potted roses and watering them when a voice broke through the distant hubbub of city traffic.
“See you’re still taking great care of my garden, Miss Simmons.”
She looked up to see Antoine Triplett standing at the edge of the row of plants, hands folded behind his back and a smile on his face.
“Trip!” she exclaimed, setting down her watering can and smiling brightly at him. “What a lovely surprise! I didn’t expect to see you here until the afternoon.” She strode down the row to meet him. “I trust your journey wasn’t too boring?”
Trip’s smile widened. “Not at all. I had a good book to keep me busy, and the promise of seeing my two favorite ladies at the end of my travels to,” he replied, eyes twinkling.
Jemma’s nose scrunched up as her smile grew. “Oh, so I’m one of your favorite ladies, yet you still call me by my last name?” she teased. “If I’m allowed to call you Trip, then surely you can dispense with the formalities and call me Jemma, yes?”
Trip laughed lightly. “Have I earned that right? I don’t want to be too forward.”
Jemma smiled. “Anyone who is as near and dear to Daisy as you are has more than earned that right. Please, call me Jemma.”
“Alright. Jemma,” Trip said with a grin. When she beamed at him, pleased, he nodded at the roses. “So, tell me… how’re they doing? Have I done enough damage? I hate that I had to leave them to ruin, but--duty called.”
Turning to walk back down the row to her watering can, Jemma shook her head. “It’s not so bad. They were all a bit dry and wilted, for sure, but nothing a little undivided attention and care couldn’t fix.” She picked the can back up and bent to water the next pot in line. “Do you have a lot of experience tending plants?”
Trip nodded as he watched her. “My grandfather was a freedman and he taught me all he knew about planting when I was a boy. I started this garden hoping it was something Daisy and I could enjoy together, but she…” He trailed off with a chuckle. “What’s the opposite of a green thumb?”
Jemma laughed as she moved on to the next pot. “I believe that would be a black thumb,” she said. “I confess I can’t see Daisy being very good at this. But I don’t mind doing it at all. I rather enjoy it, actually. It keeps me busy.”
“And how are you doing?” he asked. “Keeping busy?”
She looked back up at him, her smile faltering slightly. But before she could say anything, she was saved by the door leading back inside to the house opening, and Daisy coming out. “Jemma!” she said brightly, coming toward them. “I thought I might find you out here. There’s a lady from the Council downstairs to see you.”
“Really?” Jemma asked. She’d had ladies from the Jewish Council of Women come calling before, but it was almost always by appointment. She wasn’t expecting anyone that day.
“Yes, really,” Daisy affirmed, smiling. “Come on, she’s waiting.”
“I’ll handle this,” Trip said, reaching out to take the watering can from Jemma’s hands. “I promise you’ll come back to find the garden in better condition than when you left it.” He winked at them.
Smiling back at him, Jemma let Daisy link their arms together and lead her back into the house. On their way downstairs, she wondered what the lady from the Council wanted. Perhaps she had a new offer for a better teaching job, or even a lead on a position at a laboratory in the city that she had been quietly inquiring about.
“I was speaking to Mary earlier,” Daisy said amiably as they descended the front staircase to the foyer. “She said you did a wonderful job on the dress she sent you last week. You’ll be a fully-trained seamstress before you know it.”
“I only took up the hem,” Jemma replied modestly. “Quite a small task, all things considered.”
Daisy tutted. “Considering that all you could do when you arrived here was stitch a sampler, I think you’re doing great,” she said. “And on silk, no less. Though--ah, here we are.”
They’d arrived at the entrance to the sitting room. But when they stopped in the doorway, Jemma saw not a woman, but a man in a brown suit standing in front of the fireplace, his back to them, holding a cap in his hands. He turned around at the sound of their entry, and Jemma felt all of the blood drain from her face.
It was Fitz.
He stared at her for what felt like an endless, extended moment, seemingly speechless, before swallowing thickly and licking his lips. “Hello, Jemma,” he said quietly.
Jemma stared back at him in something akin to confused horror. It wasn’t true; it simply wasn’t possible for him to be standing there in front of her. She’d waited, searched everywhere for him, combed through the survivors’ list four times over, and there had never been any sign of him. He had died. She’d mourned, cried herself raw, spent countless hours trying to piece her broken heart back together. She’d accepted that he was gone. It was beyond all rational thought and hope for him to be standing in the middle of Daisy’s sitting room in broad daylight, looking at her like she was the ghost.
It wasn’t real. He wasn’t real.
She felt her breathing stutter and pick up speed as her vision tunneled in on him, going spotty around the edges, and suddenly her legs felt dangerously weak. In front of her, Fitz’s forehead creased in a frown.
“Jemma?” he said again, worry tinting his voice.
But the room was swimming out of focus, a loud ringing in her ears, and the last thing Jemma heard as the floor tilted up to meet her was Fitz and Daisy both calling out her name in alarm. Then everything went black.
“You should’ve told her as soon as I wired you.”
“I didn’t think she would react this badly! I thought there’d be more... joy .”
“You didn’t think…” A soft scoff. “She--she looked at me like…”
A pause. “I didn’t think it would be right for me to tell her. I... I wanted her to see with her own eyes.”
“Well. Now we see how well that turned out.” A deep, heavy sigh.
Jemma struggled to pull herself out of the darkness, a dull ache in the side of her head making her skull throb. She could hear two people speaking, their voices sounding distant and muted as if she were underwater, but couldn’t quite pinpoint who they were or what they were discussing. All she knew was that she felt terrible, and that the wounds in her heart that she’d been trying so hard to carefully heal over had been torn afresh. As such, it was tempting to let herself slip back under, where the pain of her grief couldn’t reach her, but something stronger compelled her to wake up instead.
When she opened her eyes, she was lying on a sofa in the sitting room, several pillows stuffed behind her head. Daisy was perched beside her, leaning over her with a concerned expression that eased when Jemma looked up at her. “There you are,” she said gently, smiling. “I was beginning to think I might need to ask Mary to fetch some smelling salts.”
Jemma blinked a few times, getting her bearings; then her face crumpled as she remembered what had happened. “Oh, Daisy,” she whispered, tears welling up in her eyes. “I must have spent too long out in the sun. I--I’ve had a funny turn, it made me see things... I--I thought I saw Fitz…”
She sniffled, deeply ashamed that her subconscious was still so tightly fixated on him that overtaxing herself had caused a hallucination. Was this the beginning of a spiral into madness?
An odd look passed over Daisy’s face, and she frowned slightly before reaching out to take one of Jemma’s hands. “You weren’t seeing things, Jemma,” she said quietly. “Fitz is really here.”
She twisted to look back over her shoulder, and Jemma followed her gaze. She’d been so focused on Daisy that she hadn’t noticed the man standing at the edge of the sofa, watching them. And it really was him: Fitz. Dressed in a slightly shabby brown wool suit, still clutching his cap tightly in his hands, worried eyes fixed on her face. Healthy and whole and very, very much alive.
Jemma stared at him, unable to comprehend it. “How?” she croaked, her tears spilling over. “I--I searched, I looked everywhere for you, I--” Her voice cracked and she faltered, barely able to speak past the lump that had risen in her throat. “I asked everyone, but you were gone.”
Fitz’s face twisted in anguish, and she saw that his knuckles where he gripped his cap had gone white. “I could ask the same of you,” he said hoarsely, but there was no accusation in his tone--only deep sadness and loss.
Jemma let go of Daisy’s hand to sit up. “What do you mean?”
Fitz swallowed, the same way he had when she’d first walked in the room, and took a step forward. “I saw you safely away on a boat, so I... I didn’t understand why--why I didn’t see your name on the survivors’ list. Daisy--” His eyes flicked briefly off to her before snapping back to Jemma’s face. “She said you gave another name.”
“I did,” Jemma whispered, her heart pounding in her chest. “I gave them yours. Jemma Fitz.”
Fitz gaped at her, his jaw going slack as his expression turned stricken. Next to her, Daisy rose from the sofa.
“I’ll let you two have some privacy,” she said quietly, turning to leave the room. They barely noticed her go. The doors shut behind her with a soft snick , leaving them alone.
In the silence that remained, Jemma pushed herself to her feet and slowly walked forward to close the gap between them. Fitz watched her, looking almost apprehensive, but didn’t object when she reached out to take his cap from his hands and set it down on the side table. Then she picked up one of his hands, and held it lightly in hers, staring down at it. It was warm between her fingers, solid and real, his skin just as soft as she remembered it being. That she was even able to hold his hand brought on a fresh wave of tears, and she looked up at him as they slipped down her cheeks.
There was so much she wanted to say to him, to do; she wanted to fling her arms around him, to cry and let all of her emotions out; she wanted to hug him and kiss him, to feel his arms around her and tell him how much she’d missed him--but she felt paralyzed. She was trapped under the weight of the grief she’d been carrying for three months, and having him here in front of her so unexpectedly, alive after all, left her feeling rudderless. She didn’t know what to do.
Taking in a deep breath, Jemma squeezed his hand between hers. “How, Fitz?” she asked again, her voice wobbling. “How did you survive? There were hardly any boats left, and--I saw the ship break apart with my own eyes…”
For his part, Fitz didn’t look much better than she felt. His eyes were red-rimmed and he seemed to be struggling to hold himself together as well. When she spoke, he watched her for a moment, looking hesitant. “It’s a bit of a story,” he mumbled at last, and Jemma didn’t miss the shadow that passed through his eyes.
“I can listen,” she urged, squeezing his hand again. “Please.”
Fitz nodded, glancing down. Then he shifted so that he was holding her hands in his own, and ran his thumbs across her knuckles before looking back up at her. “Once your boat was gone, I knew that I had to focus on myself,” he started. “If I had any hope of making it back to you.” He smiled grimly at her. “I found a group of men working to get one of the collapsible boats down from the roof and decided to help. But it didn’t go right, and the boat ended up crashing to the deck, bottom up. We tried to get it turned over, but... the water was coming up the deck too quickly and we were washed overboard.”
Jemma vividly remembered seeing scores of men being swept into the water as it advanced up the deck, and could still hear the echoes of their cries for help. The knowledge that Fitz had been among them left her horrorstruck.
“The boat came with us,” Fitz continued, looking down at their entwined hands. “It floated out overturned. There were so many men trying to climb on top of it, just to get out of the water... anyone who could find purchase did. It was madness.” He frowned. “I ended up sitting rather uncomfortably with my feet jammed between the slats and someone standing on top of me, but I didn’t care. I was exhausted and frozen to the bone. All I could think about was how glad I was you were safe.”
Jemma’s gaze caught on his face, the stiff line of his jaw, his softspoken words, the way he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“As the night went on, we started to lose men. They just... gave up they couldn’t hold on. Succumbed to the cold. We’d hear a splash, and that was it. I thought I was going to be one of them, honestly.” He gave a short, dry laugh. “The boat couldn’t carry our weight and it started to sink low in the water until it was up to my knees. I couldn’t feel my legs. When I wasn’t so bloody consumed by the cold I kept telling myself to keep strong, just a little longer, that help would come and then I could see you again.”
New tears fell down her face as she imagined how harrowing Fitz’s experience must have been. “Help did arrive,” she continued for him, her voice thick.
“Eventually,” Fitz replied, nodding. “We’d been put into another boat before the ship got there, and I think we were the last brought on. I remember seeing the ship, and the ladder... but when I tried to stand, I couldn’t. It was agony. They were telling me to stand, to grab onto the ropes…” He shook his head. “That’s the last thing I remember.”
Jemma blinked rapidly, trying to quell even more tears. “I waited,” she sniffled, squeezing his hands. “I watched them bring everyone aboard, looking for you, I tried--but I fainted before the last boat.” Her breath hitched. “If only I’d waited a little longer--”
Fitz shook his head again, finally looking up at her. “You wouldn’t have seen me. They took me straight to the ship’s doctor. When I woke up, I was in a proper bed with my feet in bandages and a terrible fever. My ankles were badly sprained from being,wrenched about on the boat, and I’d gotten frostbite in the water. I was very sick.” He gave her an apologetic look. “I was taken to the hospital when the ship docked here in New York, too. And... and that’s where I was when I read an announcement for your memorial service in the society pages of the paper.”
Jemma’s heart sank. “Oh no,” she whispered.
He sucked in a shaky breath, looking terribly pained. “I couldn’t leave the hospital, I hadn’t heard from you, and I had no idea how to find you... so I started looking through the paper for anything. I was desperate.” His eyes begged her to understand. “And one day, there it was: ‘We regret to announce the death of Miss Jemma Anne Simmons, young bride-to-be of Mr. Grant Douglas Ward of the Boston Wards, who tragically perished in the sinking of the great ocean liner Titanic last week.’”
Fitz said it as though the words had been permanently burned into his memory, like they had haunted him and kept him awake at night. It was only then that Jemma fully took notice of the faint shadows smudged beneath his eyes and the pale cast to his skin--a reflection of what she saw on her own face every day in the mirror. He’d thought she had died, too, and he’d clearly suffered for it, just as she had suffered mourning him.
“So as soon as I was released from the hospital, I went back home to Belfast,” Fitz said with a sad, lame shrug, finishing his story. “And…” He sighed heavily. “I--I tried to go on with my life.”
Jemma felt the urge to hug him again, to take his sorrow away, but something about the way he was holding himself--hesitant, shut off, and withdrawn--kept her from doing so. Instead, she asked the last questions she had.
“But--then why are you here? How?”
His eyes flicked up to hers for an instant before darting away again, an emotion she couldn’t read passing across his face. “I, ah... well... Daisy had shown me a great kindness, on the ship,” he said, rubbing one hand at the side of his neck. “I felt that perhaps I could trust her, and... after an appropriate amount of time had passed, I sent her a telegram. I thought--I felt--well, she’d been a friend to your family, so she might know... where you were buried. Or if there was a memorial. And if it was in England, I thought that maybe, someday... I might visit and pay my respects.”
Jemma’s face crumpled all over again as she fought to keep from completely dissolving into tears once more. She was never going to stop crying, not at at this rate. It was all too much. Fitz’s tale of narrow survival, his clear heartbreak at learning of her death, the pain in his voice as he recounted asking about her grave... it tugged too harshly at her, reminding her of all the ways she had struggled to pick up the pieces and move on in the wake of losing him. And there was despair, too, at the futility of it all--if only she had managed to stay awake just a little longer on the Carpathia , then she might have seen Fitz in that last boat as he was brought aboard, and spared them both months of unbearable heartache.
“She immediately replied that you were alive,” Fitz said, awe and disbelief tinting his voice. “Then she wired me a month’s rent and wages and booked me a ticket on the first steamer here. And... well, here I am.”
Jemma took a deep breath, shaking her head as the full brunt of the story hit her, and took a step away to try and clear her mind. “I wish Daisy had told me,” she said, bitterness creeping into her tone. “Then I would have known , and I--I would have had time to prepare, and this wouldn’t have been such a... a shock.”
When she looked back at him, Fitz’s face had turned grim. “I... see,” he said carefully. Then he inhaled, looking back down. “I know my absence has caused you a lot of pain. I… I would understand if you no longer wanted to see me.”
“No longer wanted...” she started, trailing off. She swallowed and took in another deep breath before stepping forward and grasping his hands tightly between hers. “I never want you to leave me again.”
Hope flared in his expression, but his brows furrowed as he studied her face. “But you said it was--a shock. To see me. I wouldn’t--”
“It’s because I never dreamed that I would see you again,” Jemma said, struggling to hold back another wave of tears. “There was nothing I could do to make it stop hurting. Not even for a second.”
Fitz’s expression became tender then, and he reached up to gently brush away her tears with his thumbs. “I won’t lie, it was--” He swallowed. “Terrible, but we’re here, now. Together.”
She nodded, tilting her cheek into his touch, finally starting to believe that this was real--that the future they’d envisioned together wasn’t lost. It had just been delayed a little.
“I love you,” she blurted, dizzy relief coursing through her at finally being able to say the words. “I’m so sorry I never said it, before. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, how I never got the chance, and the thought that you’d died, not knowing that I loved you... it tore me apart.”
Fitz smiled, surprise shining from his face as much as joy. “Oh, Jemma. I knew. I promise, I knew. And I love you, too.”
Then he tilted her face up and leaned in to press his mouth to hers in a sweet kiss. Jemma immediately sank into it, sliding her hands up to curl around the back of his neck as the embrace quickly turned more fervent. Fitz wrapped his arms around her back, holding her close, and Jemma let herself get lost in the sensation of his lips moving over hers, the warmth of his body, the overwhelming joy of finally being home. This was all she had wanted in his absence, to be held by him again, to taste his kiss. Now that she had it back, the cobwebs of her sorrow were quickly being swept away by effervescent happiness.
When they finally broke apart, slightly breathless, Fitz rested his forehead against hers. “Do you think you can give me another chance?” he asked, eyes bright. “Will you come with me back to Belfast? Without Mr. Andrews and my designs, I don’t have an apprenticeship, but... maybe we can still try for the things we dreamed about, you and I. Together.”
Jemma was smiling so widely her cheeks hurt. “Of course I will, Fitz. You’re alive! If you asked me to, right now I could fly.”
His smile lighting up to match hers, Fitz kissed her again, short but firm and giddy. Then he said, with a touch of nerves, “And... perhaps we could make the name you took honest, too. If you like.” When she gave him a questioning look, he released her and reached into his inner jacket pocket to pull out a small, knotted white handkerchief. Undoing it, he plucked a small object from the center and held it out to her: In his palm lay a shining gold ring.
“It was my mother’s,” he said, watching her closely. “You don’t have to accept, but--I think she would want you to have it. I know we’ve had so little time together, but you know I love you, and--you’re brilliant, and beautiful, and amazing and kind and witty. Nothing would make me happier than for you to come home with me as my wife.”
There were tears brimming in Jemma’s eyes again, but this time, they were tears of joy. “Oh, Fitz,” she breathed, her voice catching, “ Yes . A million times, yes.”
She threw her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly, and Fitz let out a soft laugh of happy disbelief as he hugged her back, the ring still clutched in his hand. When she let go, Fitz took her hand in his and carefully slipped the ring onto her finger. It fit nearly perfectly. They both looked at it for a moment, the gold glinting against her pale skin, before looking back up at each other and smiling.
“We should go tell Daisy,” Jemma said, feeling excitement twine through her. “She’ll be so thrilled. She did like you, you know.”
“I’d hope so,” Fitz replied, shifting on his feet and ducking his head bashfully. “She took care of everything so I could come here for you.”
Jemma nodded. “She’s been a good friend,” she said quietly, thinking of how Daisy had been so thoughtful and attentive to her needs while she’d been healing. But no matter--the time for grieving was past. She had Fitz back, and a world of possibility lay ahead of them now. It felt like both an end and a beginning: A final end to the unhappy life she had led and the sadness and grief that had punctuated her days after the sinking, and a beginning to all of the hopes and dreams she and Fitz could finally set out to accomplish together.
“Well.” Jemma held out her hand and smiled. “Shall we go find her, my husband-to-be?”
Fitz smiled back at her, bright and dazzling, and the way it transformed his face took her breath away. “Yes, I think we should,” he replied, taking her hand. “My wife-to-be. Let’s go.”
With that, they walked hand-in-hand to the door and out into the entryway, heading toward their future and all of the days they had now promised one another, eager to see where life and love would bring them--together.
And here we are! You made it to the end! Thank you all so much for reading and for your lovely reviews, they mean a lot.
On a historical note: for anyone curious about Fitz's tale of survival, it is absolutely a thing that really did happen. The story of Collapsible Lifeboat B has always been one of my favorite bits of Titanic lore, and in planning this fic I immediately knew that was how I wanted to get Fitz off the ship. It was actually depicted in the James Cameron film, if you know where to look--both in the final cut of the movie (here, here, and here) and in deleted scenes. I borrowed Fitz's injuries from junior wireless operator Harold Bride (shown here being carried off the Carpathia with his feet in bandages), who survived the sinking atop Collapsible B and whose account of the night I used as inspiration for Fitz's story.