"Oh, shit," comes Ginny's voice from somewhere behind Hermione. The panic in the redhead's voice is audible on the crowded deck, even over the sharp sea breeze. "I mean, er, oh gracious, I'm so sorry. Here, let me clean that up –"
Hermione closes her eyes for a second, not daring to turn around just yet. Ginny's fingers must be made from melting butter; otherwise, there's no physical way she could drop, spill, destroy, and generally muck up as many things as she has already on this voyage's short duration. God, who's the victim of the minor disaster this time? It'd better not be one of the passengers from first class, Hermione prays, though luckily, it's unlikely that they'd be back here in the first place –
Hermione turns. Mentally, she releases a string of curses. Ginny's victim is definitely first class, judging from the way he's dressed: brief-lapeled coat over a dark waistcoat, with long creased trousers – trousers that now wear an aggressively unappealing stain in the general crotch region.
Shaking her head, Hermione strides over to the scene of the disaster. "I'm so sorry," she chokes out, trying not to stare at the stained area, "my friend hasn't quite got her sea legs under her yet."
"No problem at all," says the young man smoothly. He looks every inch the gentleman, with impeccable posture and alarmingly perfect hair – a brown so dark and smooth it reminds her of polished wood. Hermione fumbles her extra handkerchief from her pocket and hands it to the man, who takes it with the tiniest nod.
Always prepared, Hermione, says Ron's voice in the back of Hermione's head. Ron has been in America for a year now with their best friend Harry, waiting for her to join them. Ron would probably laugh at this entire situation. Hermione can practically see him sniggering behind his freckled hands, Harry stoically restraining laughter at his side.
She still hasn't told Ron how she feels about him, how her heart beats just a bit faster and her cheeks tingle when she thinks of his smile, how the lack of him this past year has ached dully like a half-healed cut. A bit of a romantic at heart, Hermione has been picturing rushing off the ship when it docks, running into Ron's arms and kissing him. That should tell him all he needs to know, really …
In a rush, Hermione realizes how awkward the silence is. She gives the young man a pained smile as a farewell, but just as she's about to steer Ginny away, a lanky man with black hair approaches them. His face holds none of the aloof blankness of the other's – this man is livid. "Tom," he says, not so much a greeting as an accusation. "I've been looking for you for – why are you here? What on earth have you done to your trousers?"
"Bit of a spill, Cygnus, nothing to worry about," Tom says mildly.
Cygnus glares down at Hermione and Ginny as if they've sabotaged the ship. "Well, I rather think you owe Tom an apology, don't you?"
The condescension in his voice is enough to make Hermione's toes curl with rage, but she collects her simmering temper and forces a demure smile to her lips. "Yes, sir. We did apologize. Sorry again, though. I'm sure those trousers cost a fortune."
The man gives a snort so colossal that Hermione's frankly surprised his nose doesn't pop off. He turns on a heel and beckons to Tom with one blasé gesture. "Our spot in the dining room won't wait forever."
Tom dips his head to Hermione and Ginny and heads after Cygnus. After they're safely out of earshot, Ginny says, "I'm so bloody stupid. Sorry, Hermione, I just slipped."
Hermione purses her lips. "Well, at least you're not seasick anymore. We've done enough hard work to be able to afford tickets onto this bloody rowboat."
A nearby woman in a wide-brimmed hat gives Hermione a scandalized look. Hermione ignores her.
"Don't insult the ship," Ginny says, like the thing has feelings. "You know how lucky we are? This trip is going to go down in history." She rubs her small freckled nose and looks up at the plumes of steam rising high into a blue sky, brazen joy on her face.
"Yes, I'm sure; it'll go down in history when you accidentally break a hole in the hull," Hermione says. "Come on, let's go belowdecks."
As they trot down the steps, Ginny shoots a grin Hermione's way. "At least it was just water."
"Honestly, though," Ginny mutters mutinously, her expression swinging a swift 180, "it was his fault for being there in the first place."
"I'm just saying. First class has a bloody swimming pool and a gymnasium and whatever else, and our old chum Tom wants to take a stroll down the poop deck? Why would –"
"It's none of our business why he was there," Hermione says, her voice tightly controlled, as they turn a corner. Ginny stews in silence until they reach the third class common room, which is altogether too long a trek, given the size of the appropriately-named RMS Titanic. The labyrinth of halls below the deck wear warm electric lights that cast honey-colored shadows on the walls, but the common room is dimmer, the light dispersed across a large, cheerfully loud crowd. The walls are paneled, the light pine wood and white accents playing contrast to the dark teak wood of the furniture. Third-class accommodations aboard the Titanic are comparable to the experience of second-class passengers elsewhere, it's said, and Hermione can't help but feel pampered, soaking in the lively but contented atmosphere.
A few children playing cards sit cross-legged on the floor. Others playing chess face each other down across tables. Ginny and Hermione settle down on a pair of stools in a corner, their patched skirts pooling around their seats' wooden legs. Hermione withdraws pen and several sheets of folded paper from her bag, smooths the paper over her knee, and begins to write.
"I'm sure I shall die of boredom before we land in America," Ginny sniffs in her snootiest voice, rocking back on her stool.
"Well, make sure you don't stain anyone else's trousers doing it," Hermione replies absentmindedly.
Ginny blows her hair off her forehead. Her sharp eyes move to the beer flowing from tankards in nearby hands.
"No," Hermione says without even looking up.
Ginny lets out a weary sigh. "I'm starting to think you've no idea what 'fun' is."
"Something we can't really afford."
Ginny folds her arms and leans back against the wall.
"Quite a shame that Morgan couldn't make it," Cygnus says. "I meant to compliment him on the ship."
"He's a financier, dear; he hardly built it himself," replies his fiancée, Druella Rosier, with a look of light amusement that – given her dramatic features – doesn't look as light as it should. Her cheekbones dip low, carved and rouged, and her eyebrows soar, painted over black-stained lashes. "The design is quite something, though, isn't it, Mr. Riddle?"
Tom nods once. "Exquisite."
"High praise from the prodigy architect," Cygnus says, with a tight-lipped smile. "I'm sure Andrews would love to discuss it with you."
"Naval architecture isn't particularly of interest to me," Tom says. "Not that I would decline, of course."
Cygnus shrugs. "You have plenty of people to meet regardless. Morgan may have been detained in England, but at least the Thayers are aboard. I've arranged for us to dine with them this evening." Cygnus sips from his crystal glass and glances Druella's way. "Wear the green dress; won't you, dear?"
Druella releases a much-put-upon sigh. "Just for you, love."
Tom restrains a sigh of his own. High society mingling has never intrigued him as it seems to intrigue others of his social status. He's not exactly interested in standard ways of networking, after all – there are more efficient, more absolute ways to acquire and retain respect. He'll suffer it, of course, as he suffers through many of the more irritating platitudes required of him … but that doesn't mean he has to like it. Admittedly, though, he has a soft spot for the drama of it all, the costume-like designer clothing that the wealthy coterie fawns over, the fact that a mere word or look in the direction of an available young woman could have rumors of courting spread within the hour. It's all an incubator for self-importance, and no demographic is more easily manipulated than those who are self-important.
Tom has to restrain himself from checking the time yet again. These lunches always seem to drag during the sleepiest hours of the early afternoon, and his attention tends to sway listlessly, a wobbling pendulum.
He tunes back in to the conversation just in time to hear his name. "And of course," says Cygnus, a measured look of exasperation on his pale face, "there Tom is, standing there dripping, quite appalled but obviously too well-mannered to say anything about it. You should have seen them staring. As if they'd never seen anyone well-off in their lives."
Though he has no interest in recounting this anecdote, Tom half-smiles. The resultant expression is exquisitely menacing.
"Really. You'd think the liner would keep the rabble out, with the amount we're paying," says their corpulent blond companion across the table, dabbing a bead of rosé wine from the corner of his mouth with a crisp napkin. He clears his throat in a rumble. Tom finds himself almost impressed that Abraxas has managed, at the young age of nineteen, to adopt mannerisms more befitting of a mustachioed middle-aged man with a monocle. Half the time Abraxas opens his mouth, Tom half-expects a good hearty harrumph to come out.
"Well, keeping the rabble out would have been fairly … well, we weren't exactly …" Cygnus clears his throat. "That is to say, Tom had … he, er …"
Oh, speak English, would you. Cutting short Cygnus' verbal vomit, Tom says briskly, "I was on the stern deck."
Abraxas stares, the napkin wilting in his pale stubby fingers. "Whatever for?"
Tom hates being questioned. He gives no response, choosing instead to fold his napkin in a perfect square atop his porcelain plate.
"… idle fascination?" Cygnus supplies, breaking the silence.
"Idle is not in my vocabulary," Tom says. He surveys Cygnus, then Abraxas, challenging them to reply with anything other than compliant silence. He doesn't bother surveying Druella; well-cultured women are used to knowing when their silence is implicitly demanded.
Abraxas steers the conversation to the quality of the quarters, but the damage is done. Tom has sunk into a vivid memory of the Great Spilling Event of noon. The only thing worse than an urchin is a clumsy, loud, obnoxious urchin.
Of course, it's not so much that Tom hates specific poor people; it's that poverty itself disgusts him on a deep, personal level, as he had to suffer through years of it before his brilliance elevated him to a different social circuit. The existence of poverty is abrasive to him, wears away at his sensibilities. Unfortunately, as its eradication is something beyond the goals of one man, removal of the poor to an appropriately invisible sector of society is the only thing Tom can really hope for.
While he's been in transit to America, the presence of the poor has been obvious to an upsetting degree. It's not that he doesn't understand why they're here; this voyage has to make money, and of course he understands the desire for profit. But the third-class denizens that creep across the stern deck like mold during the day are off-putting, to say the least. Even seen from afar.
Tom's venture to the realms of that deck – well outside the boundary of the glimmering first-class areas, past even the pleasant enough second-class promenade – was something of an attempt to establish mental supremacy over the aft section of the ship, too. But apparently its citizens are well-armed with liquid weaponry. During the altercation, it briefly occurred to Tom to get that redhead arrested for destruction of property, but he supposes his case would be diminished given the fact that he was technically in their area. Which is a preposterous notion, as the entire ship should be his to roam, but … well, there you are. The world is a flawed place.
Tom sighs. Thinking about the ship's lesser occupants, he's lost his patience. "Pardon," he says quietly. "I'll see you later, Ms. Rosier, gentlemen." He gets to his feet, leaving Cygnus and Abraxas to the remainder of their meal.
Servicemen bow out of his way as he sweeps through the dining room, the civilized atmosphere stirring around him pleasantly like a breeze. He strolls through the smoking room, the acrid scent of which agitates the back of his throat. He heads down endless hallways. Eventually, he finds himself back in his private quarters.
He instinctively straightens the carved wooden chair at the corner of his drawing room and retires to the polished table of his bedroom, where a small stack of books awaits his attention. There, he cracks the spine of his sketchbook open and starts to draw: angular balconies; dramatic gables; soaring glass monoliths. He builds worlds from nothing, and around him, the afternoon wears down like a burning stick of incense.
Hermione peeks around the door to their room. They're lucky enough to have snagged a two-berth cabin, its two stacked bunks cozy if snug – private, as opposed to having to share a room with other women. They even have their own sink, protruding from the wall in a sweep of porcelain. Hermione cranes her neck, but it doesn't look like Ginny's up there.
"Ginny?" she says anyway, fruitlessly, as if the word might summon her from nothingness. "Dinnertime …"
Hermione shuts the door and hurries back down the hall, folding her arms, trying not to look too thunderous. Honestly – it's enough of a luxury that they're having their meals prepared by an actual kitchen staff. What does Ginny want, service on silver platters? Why can't she just be where she's supposed to be?
Really, at its heart, it's just inconsiderate. Ginny knows Hermione can't help fretting; she knows she's on the brink of giving Hermione a bloody stress disorder as it is. After all, Ron is trusting Hermione with his little sister's safety. And yes, granted, Ginny's practically a grown woman at seventeen and knows perfectly well how to take care of herself, but still.
Hermione grabs the handrail and heads up the stairs for what feels like the millionth time. The size of the ocean liner has offered so much exercise that Hermione thinks wryly that she might well take up track and field once she's off the ship. She can run the mile in her skirts, sweat through her blouse. Lovely.
Really, though, the Titanic is unlike anywhere she's ever been. She's fascinated with the mechanics of the place – the massive engines sequestered and maintained far below; the sixteen watertight compartments that make the ship all but sink-proof; the sheer colossal size of it. Nearly a kilometer long. Sixteen and a half thousand tonnes. Truly a masterwork of engineering. Hermione has a burning need to know the scientific details, but it's hardly as if the third class has anyone to ask about these things. And it's hardly as if her dream of becoming an engineer is anywhere in the realm of feasible.
The ship swoops a bit, and Hermione's stomach soars in response. She clasps a hand to the railing and glances around the poop deck, scanning for a glimpse of fire-red hair or a freckled complexion shielded by that newsboy cap Ginny's grown so fond of.
Well, then, where is she? Hermione just came from the common room, for goodness' sake. If she's not there, in their room, or up here …
Hermione's stomach twists again, this time not for any reason having to do with the ship's motion. Either Ginny's gone down to the bowels of the ship – the engine room or the boiler room or the cargo holds, none of which are exactly appealing prospects – or she's somewhere she's definitely not supposed to be.
Knowing Ginny, it's almost certainly the latter.
Hermione sinks back against the rail, her mind working furiously. Ron will never forgive me if she gets arrested.
Still entertaining a feeble hope, she runs back down the steps for the millionth time, but this time she keeps going past the entrance to the halls, heading instead for the fireman's passage to the engine rooms.
The Widener family has joined the Thayers in their dinner party, to Tom's pleasure. The elder Widener son, quite apart from being the inheritor to his father's streetcar business, is quiet and bookish, attributes which Tom appreciates in a person. The younger son is less reserved, with amused eyes and a pleasant degree of bite to his conversation. The daughter, though, is more interesting than the pair combined, with darting eyes and a cool, non-participatory regard for the conversation. She is twenty-one and engaged. Tom makes one subtle pass at the girl, and she gives him not a shocked look of reprimand, but a dark and laughing glance. Not enough daring for outright flirtation, let alone active engagement in conversation, but it's something, by the standards of proper young ladies these days.
The Wideners are much more interesting, indeed, than the Thayers, who, unfortunately, are important and wealthy and therefore worth a time investment despite their utter lack of anything approaching personality. Tom, of course, makes a wonderful impression on everyone at the table, Thayers included. He shows off his impeccable manners with the same flair that others might have when showing off a rare jewel, he is ever-gracious and even deferent when appropriate, and he never gives anything less than rapier-sharp commentary when asked to speak on the effectiveness of the Taft presidency or the state of the New York economy. He doesn't bring up British affairs. Americans, he's found, rarely take it upon themselves to know anything of foreign politics.
It's predictable. Not stimulating, but Tom chalks it up to good practice for the dinner he actually cares about, the day after tomorrow, when he'll be meeting – and hopefully making a good impression on – the steel magnate Albus Dumbledore.
As time passes, Tom eyes the younger Widener as a possible recruitment prospect. When the men have retired to the smoking room and tossed around important names for long enough, the three Widener gentlemen depart, and the party disperses.
"The food was lovely," Druella says, when Tom, Cygnus, and Abraxas rejoin her in the lounge. "Don't you think, Cygnus?"
"Passable, I suppose," Cygnus grunts with seeming reluctance, though Tom notes that his stomach has a telling bulge beneath his waistcoat. "Shall we take a turn about the promenade?" Cygnus says, standing and smoothing down his jacket. "Lovely evening."
"Regrettably, I'll have to decline," Tom says.
"Oh, come now, Tom," Abraxas says, his cheeks stained red by too much Cabernet. "The air outside is delightful. Brisk. Alive. Clean."
"I've planning to do," Tom says curtly, standing. "You may find me in the library if you need to speak with me. This entire voyage will provide me with plenty of air. Work does not wait."
"Have a good night, Mr. Riddle," Druella says with shielded respect, and Tom gives her a single nod, wishing – as he does not infrequently – that women held more power in society. Feminine conniving is, frankly, so much more his style than the insensitive jackhammer approach that so many magnates these days favor. There's intelligence in knowing how to coerce, how to conspire quietly, how to trick someone into making a complete arse of him or herself, and Tom has no end of appreciation for it.
Of course, the fact that women have been cursed to complete inaction places them on a subordinate plane. Tom's never actually bothered with women, and he doesn't plan to start anytime soon.
He turns, the tails of his coat flipping out behind him with satisfactory flair, and makes for the library.
Hermione splashes her face with water from the sink. Don't panic. Don't panic. Damn it all, you're panicking. Stop that.
She takes a slow breath, wiping her handkerchief across her forehead. She bundles her hair back.
Metal grills, waist-high, separate the third-class areas from the second- and first-class areas, but Hermione wouldn't put it past Ginny to have distracted a steward long enough to be able to hop one of those gates … or to have found another way altogether. This is, after all, the sister of Fred and George Weasley. Ginny has a nefarious streak half as wide as one of the twins', and ingenuity to spare. Ginny would want adventure. Ginny would want to see the exciting parts of the ship regardless of the consequences … damn and blast. Of course she'd find a way to the boat deck.
Wherever Hermione searches for Ginny, she'll have to do it quietly. Luckily, there likely won't be as many sharp-eyed crew about, since the evening has turned into night already. She spent far too much time mucking about the engine rooms. She's sure she smells horrendous, though if Ginny dares complain when she finds her, there will be a reckoning.
Hermione shuts the door to their cabin and strides down the hall. Navigating through this ship is just another puzzle, just another test to beat. Nothing she can't handle.
Of course, the moment she sees the first steward standing before a waist-high gate, a shock of adrenaline sets her whole body buzzing, and it becomes hard to see this as any sort of test rather than outright insubordination. This sort of off-the-cuff rule-breaking is Harry's jurisdiction and always has been, regardless of how acclimatized she's grown to it over the course of their friendship.
Hermione's steps falter, but in the end, she bites her lip, keeps her eyes fixed on her shoes, and continues on. There must be another way around this, rather than making some underpaid crewmember liable to be fired for not doing his job. This ship is a bloody maze – logically, the planners could have gotten away with making class mingling incredibly inconvenient rather than impossible.
Hermione turns a corner and nearly walks headlong into a pair of children who burst from a doorway in a flurry of raggedy clothes and long hair.
"Honestly," she mutters, as they dash down the hall, yelling at one another. The door they came from rotates slowly on its hinge, but Hermione catches it, glancing at the dark passageway beyond. Maybe … She ducks through and shuts the door behind herself, her pulse quickening. The crew is supposed to stay out of sight of the passengers. Surely they have their own way of getting around. Maybe this is it.
Hermione turns a few corners. This passage is mostly metal – definitely not for the average passenger – and splits up ahead. One side of the fork leads down a hall to a room filled with echoing voices and clangs. Perhaps that's one of the kitchens? The fork's other end is a few feet ahead, another door.
Hermione avoids the kitchen passageway, cracks the other door, and peeks out. Her heart hiccups in her chest – the room beyond is the beautiful a la carte restaurant, its furnishings plush, its lights extinguished. It's deserted, any debris from dinner long since cleared from the crowd of immaculate tablecloths.
She creeps out and through the room, but surrounded by the swirl of silks and linens, by the carvings and mirrored accents of the décor, her mind indulges in a fanciful whim. For a moment, she imagines herself, Harry, and Ron, surrounded by the people they love, all tucked into suits and gowns, laughing across these tables. Her heart aches a bit to picture it. Hermione is grateful for all the small comforts she's earned over the years, but to brush this closely with true opulence still feels a bit cruel.
Shaking the thoughts, she slips out of the restaurant and into a hallway. As she scurries down the hall, she glimpses an adjacent room where groups of gentlemen are hovering around, smoking. Hermione hopes they don't see her. She'll stick out like a sore thumb, even to the second-class passengers.
Hermione takes another flight of stairs downward. She's thoroughly lost now. She has no idea where Ginny could be, or where any of this is in relation to the third-class landmarks, but as long as she remembers her way back to the restaurant, she supposes she'll be all right. She mentally prepares excuses for if she gets caught. I was trying to follow some children, trying to tell them to go back to the common room … they took a turn and I followed …
Then, as she walks down yet another hallway, her mind stops completely.
Through a crack in a great door, she sees stately wooden columns. Sleek paneled walls, the same fine wood. A dangling beacon of light and crystal. And books.
Hermione bites her lip, realizing she's come to an involuntary halt. She tastes temptation, dark and heady like rich chocolate. Books, probably rarer ones than she's likely to encounter in her whole life. … And she's here already, isn't she? Nobody will be in the library at this hour of the night. It's not as if Ginny's waiting for her somewhere, either; she obviously wanted to lose Hermione altogether.
Stick to the goal! screams a small voice in the back of Hermione's head. She shouldn't indulge. She shouldn't.
But to be honest, sometimes she tires of being selfless. She slips through the crack in the door, gives the room a quick once-over, and – just to be safe – shuts the door behind herself. The shelves ahead seem to whisper to her, reaching out dusty fingers to beckon her.
Hermione hurries across the room, her throat tightening. She runs her index finger down the spine of a large, elegant-looking tome. Gold filigree laces its beaten black leather binding.
But her eyes eventually settle on a slim, underwhelming-looking book at the end of the shelf. Despite its plain appearance, she feels drawn to it. She tilts her head to read the title and finds that it's a history of the Revolutionary War. Hermione's read up on American history in preparation for her arrival, of course, but her reading time tends to be awfully limited. It's been doubly so for the last three months, the majority of which she spent at the factory, going hungry some days in order to complete the payment on her ticket aboard this ship.
She wipes her sweating hands on her dress and slides the book out of its place breathlessly, inch by inch.
"Good choice," says a voice right in her ear.
She shrieks and jerks. The book flies right out of her fingers. A hand snatches it out of the air.
Hermione whirls around as her company places the book carefully on an end table. Her heart bangs as if seeking an exit from her chest. She considers running for it, but then her companion turns from the end table to face her, and she freezes. It's that man, the one Ginny spilled water on this afternoon. His expression doesn't betray a hint of recognition, though, which makes Hermione wonder if he even realizes he's met her before. Maybe all third-class passengers look the same to him.
"Evening," he says, dipping his head in a slight nod. "Lovely night for a theft."
Her body goes cold. "What? How dare – I wasn't stealing."
"Really," he says, his voice liberally coated with something approaching disinterest.
"In that case, may I enquire as to what you were doing with Eaton's War and Independence?"
"Well, as you might expect with a book, I intended to open the front cover and read the words inside." The sharp remark is out before her brain can tell her mouth to stop moving. Impertinence isn't a good idea with the wealthy. She knows that. What in God's name am I doing?
Tom replies calmly, to her surprise. "Reading it would be an improvement on dropping it. That particular book is markedly not the book you'd like to drop, if you had to pick one. It's possibly the most valuable book on board."
She finally musters up the courage to look at him, but his attention is firmly fixed on the book's tan cover. Hermione frowns. "Besides The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam."
"Yes," he says, "though that won't be in the library."
"No, I'd suppose not," Hermione says. She's heard the book is encrusted with over a thousand jewels, all set in gold. "Hardly light reading."
"Neither is War and Independence. That book is as much war theory as it is history book."
"I love war theory," Hermione says, unable to stop herself. "I've read Giles' annotated translation of The Art of War three times now."
For the first time, an actual emotion dares to touch the young man's stubbornly immobile features: mild surprise. For an instant, Hermione feels a strange sense of success, but then he finally looks up and meets her gaze. A shock runs down through her body into her toes, and all she can think is that looking into his eyes is like drowning in ink.
"As have I," Tom says slowly, not even bothering to shield the interest in his gaze. "'Maneuvering' is by far my favorite section."
It sounds like a test, as if he doesn't believe her. Restraining a scoff, she turns her attention back to the shelves. "Mine's 'The Attack by Fire,' though I also really enjoy 'Tactical Dispositions,'" she says, and then she realizes what she's doing. No conversing, Hermione! She has to stop this now. He seems to be acting reasonable enough. Maybe he'll just let her go quietly …
They both start speaking at the same time.
"I'll just be going, th –"
"If you weren't stealing, may I –"
They fall into abrupt silence. After a second of Hermione clears her throat. "Sorry, what was that, sir?"
"Please, call me Tom," he says, stunning her.
"Oh, come now, don't look so surprised. No need to stand on formality – we've known each other for nearly twelve hours," he says smoothly, arching one eyebrow in an oddly impressive demonstration of facial control.
So, he does remember her.
Hermione swallows. "Well, I – I'm Hermione Granger," she says.
"Tom Riddle." He extends a hand.
Hermione takes it with the intent to shake, but he lifts her hand and presses his lips to her knuckles, his eyes still fixed on hers. The kiss burns. She goes embarrassingly weak at the knees and scolds herself instantly.
He lets go her hand and clasps his own behind his back, the smooth dark fabric of his tailcoat creasing across his narrow shoulders. "Well, Ms. Granger, I meant to ask: if you aren't stealing War and Independence, how exactly do you plan to read it? Under the cover of night? I'm sure you don't need reminding, but this area of the ship isn't actually your jurisdiction."
"I know, yes. Finding that book wasn't planned," Hermione says, her eyes darting around the room. "I was initially trying to find my friend."
"The one with questionable coordination."
"Yes. Ginny." She sighs. "It's a slim chance, but you don't happen to have, erm, seen her wandering about? Red hair, about this tall?"
"Regrettably not. I've been in the library since before sunset."
"Doing what?" Hermione asks, and instantly worries she's gone too far. Nothing within spitting distance of this room is remotely her business, not the least of which is Tom himself. He is none of her concern.
A tiny smile touches the corners of his lips. "I was working," he says. "Much to the chagrin of my companions, I have responsibilities to attend to, many of which include actual thought."
Hermione snorts ungracefully and covers her mouth. "Er. Sorry."
"Sorry for what? Laughing at a joke?" He tilts his head. "Don't be apologetic, Ms. Granger. It doesn't become you."
She stares at him. What exactly could be becoming about her in the first place? Does he want something from her?
He starts pacing past the shelves, his hands brushing over leather spines with an audible hush. "Your friend led you across the barrier to these forbidden fruits, then?"
"Yes. I've no idea where she is, actually, and it's –"
"Not personal volition?"
"I – excuse me?"
"You only came here because the situation required it."
"Yes, of course."
"Although clearly a library is where you'd rather be, if given the choice."
"Then why not seek it out? Can't muster up the courage?"
She tries to keep bafflement and indignation alike from her expression. Tom's stopped pacing, and now leans over the back of an uncomfortable-looking sofa. His fingers are splayed on the maroon cloth, white bones on wine.
"I'm sorry," she says, uncomfortable with the turn in conversation. "But I'm not fond of the idea of getting arrested, which – may I remind you – you could arrange in a heartbeat if you were so inclined."
He sighs, straightening up. A strand of his hair falls across his forehead, which proves irritatingly distracting. Hermione's eyes keep darting back to it.
"I suppose you're lucky that I'm not so inclined, then," he says.
"Yes. Very," she says shortly, not liking the haughty edge to his voice. She supposes she's been lucky to avoid the superiority thus far. "Thank you for not turning me in," she says. "And it's … er, it's been … interesting, but I have to go find Ginny before she gets into trouble."
She heads for the door, but before she reaches it, his voice says, "I can show you The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, if you would like."
She stops and turns slowly. He stands by one of the carved wooden columns, arms folded, a cut-out picture of high-class life. Is this some sort of trick? What would someone like that possibly have to gain from showing an invaluable book to her?
"It's kept under security in the cargo hold," he says, "but I could make a few inquiries. Have it extracted for private perusal."
"No," she says, feeling as if she's entered some sort of dream state. "I don't … why would you do that?"
"Because I can," he says, almost petulantly.
"Well, I've already read it, and it's the words that are important to me, not some fancy covering. Gold and jewels, it's just … it's just metal and rocks, isn't it?"
One corner of his mouth lifts. It doesn't suit his sharp features. It makes his eyes look cruel.
"So … thank you very much for the offer, but I'll have to decline," she says.
Tom inclines his head slightly. "Best of luck with finding your friend."
She half-turns away and lifts a hand to the door.
From behind her, his voice says slowly, "My parlor suite is A14, if you find you can muster up the courage after all."
Her palms heat up, and her face flushes bright red. She doesn't turn back to look at him. She flees, her heart suddenly beating in a stampede of adrenalin.
She wanders aimlessly for an hour before giving up on the hunt. Exhausted, she sneaks back through her passage, and when she finds Ginny back in their cabin, sound asleep, she can't even muster up the energy to be properly enraged.
Notes: the jewel-encrusted Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyan was indeed cargo on the Titanic, and J.P. Morgan did indeed book a ticket but not get on board. Both the Thayers and the Wideners are real (wealthy) families that traveled on The Boat.
Thanks very much for reading!