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Fic: A Bleak January

Author: clonesgirl
Fandom: The Sinking of the Laconia
Rating: PG-13 for some violence and death
Pairing: hartenstein/mortimer
Timeline: 1943 A/U
Word count: 4,855
Warnings: Historic and fictional characters, some violence
Spoilers: None
Disclaimer: Characters borrowed from BBC strictly for playing with, not profit. No offence intended. This is purely a work of fiction.
Summary: A difficult rescue affects Mortimer deeply.
Beta: None. If you find goofs please let me know.
A/N: Sequel to "The New Assignment".



January had arrived and conditions in the Atlantic had deteriorated considerably. Lowering clouds and high winds now prevailed with seas to match. This also meant that for the vessels of the International Rescue Fleet of the Fourth Realm there were times when the worst of the weather conditions could not be avoided as war in the Third Realm did not stop for winter. It was also apparent that the war in the Atlantic was not going well for Germany as the rescue vessels were increasingly finding half-sunken U-boats and other Kriegsmarine craft.

U-156, escorting Titanic once more, was on another rescue mission. They had found yet another half sunk U-boat. Several pairs of binoculars were trained on it.

Hartenstein frowned.

Mortimer peered at it, attempting to identify it. "Looks like U-174."

"Indeed."

"You know it, sir?" Mannesmann queried.

"Indeed, Mannesmann."

Mortimer did not miss the grim note in Hartenstein's voice. Not for the first time that day he had that sinking feeling in his gut and now he noticed his commanding officer rubbing the back of his neck, a sure sign of trouble.

"You're familiar with her commander."

"Only by reputation. He is Anton Schussler, a stubborn man if ever there was one."

And plainly you didn't like him, Mortimer decided.

"This may take some time," Hartenstein added.

"He's a fanatic?" Mortimer inquired.

"Indeed he is, Mr Mortimer. Indeed he is."

Mortimer remembered the last time they had dealt with a fanatic, one Captain Steinmann, and the tragic outcome of that encounter.

"Then I would suggest, sir, that we are armed."

Hartenstein sighed. "A sensible precaution, Mr Mortimer." He turned to Mannesmann. "Issue arms, Mannesmann, and see to it that they are well concealed."

Mannesmann acknowledged the order and disappeared below.

Titanic, as always, was standing some ways off awaiting the signal from the U-boat that it was safe to lower a boat. Her officers, too, were utilizing binoculars in an effort to ascertain what was taking place as the U-boat hailed the stricken craft which had some fifty men clinging to her listing deck.

Utilizing a megaphone Hartenstein identified himself and his vessel stating that he was there for the purpose of rescue.

Captain Schussler, who did not have a megaphone, shouted back that he did not recognize U-156's colours.

Hartenstein responded that they were the colours of the International Rescue Fleet. This elicited a pause as the men of U-156 observed him conversing with his officers.

"I do not recognise this organization and do not require rescue at this time."

"And I can assure you you do," Hartenstein countered. "We are an entirely peaceful organization. Our only purpose is to rescue those like yourself who are at the mercy of the sea."

"On the contrary you are an Allied vessel in disguise as is that ship. If you were Kriegsmarine you would have sunk it. Come any closer and we will open fire."

With that the man pulled out a pistol as did several of the others, aiming them at the men in the conning tower on U-156.

Hartenstein sighed. He knew this would be a difficult affair.

"Come, mein colleague, you know me. We have met before at headquarters three years ago. I am sure you have not forgotten."

"You cannot be the same Captain Hartenstein I met three years ago. His boat was lost."

"Clearly, your information is incorrect. I invite you to come aboard so we may discuss this in person."

So saying, Hartenstein climbed down onto the deck and walked to the bow. "I give you my word as an officer that you will not be harmed in any way. I ask only for your trust. Give me thirty minutes of your time."

He watched and waited as Schussler spoke with one of his officers.

"You may approach."

Subsequenty, he put away his weapon, his crew following suit.

Hartenstein signalled the conning tower and, carefully, U-156 manoeuvred closer to the listing craft until Schussler was able to pick his moment to jump over whereupon the U-boat backed off some metres.

Schussler promptly offered the Nazi salute, Hartenstein the traditional naval salute.

"It is good to see you again, meine colleague," Hartenstein greeted.

"I... confess that I had not expected to see you again," Schussler began. "When the news came of your fate I understood that it was certain. But now...?"

Hartenstein smiled. "This can be explained, but come below and let us get out of the wind. Alas winter is upon us. Your gun?" He held out his hand.

Schussler, a small, slim man with a pencil moustache and dark eyes that seemed to dart everywhere, nodded reluctantly before handing over his gun.

Mortimer, who had been alarmed when his commanding officer, in the face of Schussler's open hostility, had jumped to the deck thereby exposing himself unnecessarily, had drawn his own gun. Now, he watched keenly as his captain pocketed the weapon and turned to walk toward the conning tower. Schussler also turned but as he did so Mortimer was alarmed to see that he drew a second weapon and deliberately lagged behind. In horror, he realized that the man had carried two guns!

"That will be far enough, Hartenstein. You are now my prisoner," he declared.

Mortimer did not hesitate and, as Hartenstein began to turn around, he fired, hitting Schussler squarely in the upper chest.

As Hartenstein whirled to catch the falling man the crew of U-174 opened fire and he was forced to fall flat to the deck while attempting t drag the wounded Schussler behind the forward gun as bullets bounced off it.

"Do not return fire!" he shouted. "Take us out of here! We must get Captain Schussler to Titanic." The U-boat's engine, which had been idling, now burst into life as they swiftly turned.

Mortimer ordered Fiedler to inform Titanic that they had a wounded man in need of urgent medical assistance.

When U-156 was out of range of the U-boat crew's guns, pressure and a dressing were applied to the wounded man who was unconscious but still breathing although losing considerable blood.

Once alongside Titanic, her crane lowered a stretcher and the wounded man was securely strapped to it before being raised high onto her forward deck.

When Captain Schussler was safely aboard Titanic Hartenstein and Mortimer repaired to their quarters for a stiff drink.

Hartenstein paced before turning to his first officer, for the first time noticing the pain on the man's face.

"Komm, my guardian angel," he offered, setting his drink aside and holding out his arms. Much as he was loathe to kill now, he sometimes forgot that for Mortimer, a soul who belonged in the 4D realm, it was far worse and affected him deeply.

As they embraced, Mortimer felt the anxiety he had felt all day draining from him but not the disgust at having to shoot another human being, quite possibly ending the man's life. The fact that he knew the man's spirit would simply go elsewhere and that he, himself, was merely doing his duty and protecting his commanding officer did not absolve him of the guilt he felt.

"I thought he was going to kill you," he whispered, comforted by the scent of old leather jacket and eau de cologne.

"I fear much worse; I believe he intended to take me hostage and force you to allow his crew to board and take over the boat. Next they would have attacked Titanic. You did the right thing, Mortimer - you saved me. You saved all of us, possibly many on Titanic as well."

At his captain's words of comfort Mortimer dissolved into tears as the other man hugged him.

"Shhh, my Britischer," Hartenstein soothed, feeling the other shaking in his arms. "Your soul is gentle. You are not used to having to shoot. It is foreign to you." He felt Mortimer nod. "It will pass, meine liebe. It will pass." He leaned back and, grasping Mortimer's chin, forced the troubled blue eyes to meet his own. "You saved me," he repeated, kissing wet cheeks and tasting his lover's salty tears as he rocked them.

Mortimer managed to nod. "What happened?" he asked as Hartenstein let him go and they sat down, Mortimer blowing his nose.

Hartenstein shook his head. "I thought I had convinced him to come below. I had intended to ask him for his weapon but..." he shrugged. "I suppose he considered me a traitor."

This brought a smile to Mortimer's face. "And he hadn't even met me!"

"Ja. Probably thought I'd faked my own death and been sitting out the war in the South Sea Islands." Hartenstein refilled their glasses, pleased to see that his words had elicited a somewhat damp chuckle from his lover. "You did what you had to do," he insisted.

Mortimer nodded.

Abruptly, Hartenstein put down his glass and rose from his seat, pulling his companion to his feet. Without further ado he wrapped his arms around him and kissed him thoroughly until they were breathless and more than a little aroused.

Mortimer smiled, the taste of scotch on their tongues quite intoxicating.

"What was that for?" he panted.

"To remind you of what you saved."

Mortimer stroked bearded cheeks. "How could I ever forget? Besides, you were damn lucky you didn't get yourself shot."

"But now we disarm the crew!"

Mortimer grinned. "Aye, aye, sir!"

As U-156 returned to U-174's position several members of the crew including the captain and first officer were in her conning tower, weapons drawn in a show of force. The other U-boat's crew also had guns drawn, however, they held their fire.

"Listen carefully," Hartenstein began. "Your captain is receiving medical attention. He made the mistake of believing that he could dictate terms and he paid the price. You are not in any position to dictate terms. I am here to rescue you and I will not tolerate any more interference. This is an order: You will dispose of all weapons by throwing them into the water - schnell!"

He waited as the crew looked to the first officer who nodded somewhat reluctantly before disposing of his own gun. One by one each followed suit.

"All weapons!" Hartenstein demanded.

Several knives were also thrown overboard.

He nodded. "Sehr gutt. Now, First Officer...?"

"Waldheim, sir." The man saluted, balancing carefully on the listing deck.

"Over here."

U-156 drew closer and Waldheim jumped over.

"I trust that your behaviour will be civilized."

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Come."

In his quarters Hartenstein offered the young man a drink, which the latter gratefully accepted.

"Sir, may I inquire about Captain Schussler?"

"No word yet. However, I can assure you that Titanic's doctors are the best. If he can be saved they will save him."

"Ti... Titanic, sir? Surely that is the ship that sank many years ago."

"The very same."

"But...? But I don't understand. How...?"

"Waldheim, how did your vessel sink?"

"Uh, but it didn't sink, sir. I mean it's out there now."

"What do you remember?"

"We were attacked by Allied planes. Bombed. We dived..." He shook his head. "I remember there was an explosion but after that... I can't quite remember." He shook his head. "The next thing I knew we were on the surface but the boat was badly flooded. I confess I can't understand how it's still floating at all."

"Waldheim, listen to me carefully. You are no longer in a war situation. You and the rest of the crew have made the transition to the Fourth Realm. Here, there is no war and never was."

Waldheim appeared bewildered. "The Fourth... Realm? Forgive me, sir, I know not of which you speak."

"Your boat and all aboard her sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, a casualty of the war in the Third Realm. A great many U-boats come here as I, myself, did last year."

Waldheim stared at the man sitting opposite him. "Captain Hartenstein, if... if I understand you correctly, you are saying that I... that we... all... died? But surely not. I mean we are very much alive. Even the boat is still floating."

"You said yourself you can't understand how it's still floating. It's flooded from bow to stern, is it not?"

"Yes, sir, but... I confess I don't understand it... I mean how it's still floating."

"This is the Fourth Realm. Most vessels float. Not for nothing is it known as the realm of lost ships."

"‘Lost'...? Uh, excuse me, sir, but you said Titanic?"

"Exactly. The one and only, original Titanic."

"The same ship that hit an iceberg and sank?"

"The very same. You will all be transferred to it for the voyage home. A salvage vessel will retrieve your boat."

The young officer was shaking his head. "I... I cannot believe this. You say that we all died...?" Hartenstein nodded, "...and now we are in another realm?" Another nod. "But how is this possible? And what of heaven and hell?"

"Of hell I know not, but I can tell you that this is a most peaceful realm and you will be pleased to be here."

"If I may inquire, sir, you said that you came here the same way?"

"Indeed - sunk with all hands."

"If you will forgive me, sir, this is a lot to... to understand."

"This is U-156, the boat that I always commanded. It has been rehabilitated and renovated with the latest modern equipment."

"I... I hope you will not mind my saying so, sir, but I could not help but notice how clean it smells. The air is... most fresh."

Hartenstein smiled. "The engine uses renewable fuel that never runs out, so no more refuelling."

Waldheim's eyes grew large as saucers. "That is... amazing, sir."

"There are many amazing things in this realm. You will enjoy it. And now I would like you to meet my first officer. Do you speak English?"

"Some."

He sent for Mortimer.

Waldheim wondered just why Hartenstein seemed to be making a point of introducing him to his first officer, that is until he met the man.

"Mortimer, this is First Officer Waldheim of U-174."

Mortimer offered his hand. "Thomas Mortimer. Pleased to meet you."

Waldheim, after a moment's hesitation, shook the offered hand before turning to his host once more.

"Your first officer is British?"

Hartenstein merely nodded.

"That I am," Mortimer confirmed with a smile.

Waldheim was shaking his head. "But... But this is surely impossible. A Kriegsmarine vessel cannot have a Britischer serving as first officer. He would be a prisoner of war and you would be a..." He faltered, not wishing to accuse his host of treachery.

"I would be a traitor to the Third Reich and I would be executed. Now you understand that there is no war here." Hartenstein's voice was gentle. "Mr Mortimer is an excellent first officer even if, god help me, he's British."

Mortimer winked at his commanding officer, Waldheim noticing the byplay between them. Clearly, these two men shared a well-established friendship.

Waldheim swallowed, rapidly coming to the conclusion that, no matter his commanding officer's intentions, he had no choice but to believe Captain Hartenstein.

"I understand now, Captain Hartenstein, and I will do my best to explain all that you've told me to the crew."

"Sehr gutt. I will inform Titanic to send a boat for you. One more thing: What was your captain's intention with regard to my boat?"

Waldheim hesitated, clearly not wanting to betray a confidence.

"He... uh..."

"Come, come," Hartenstein chided. "He intended to take over my boat, did he not?"

"Uh, yes, sir."

"And Titanic?"

"He said that it was an Allied vessel and it was our duty to sink it and that, forgive me, sir, but, you were a traitor because you had not - sunk it I mean," he clarified.

Waldheim could not help but notice the knowing look exchanged by the other two men.


By the time Titanic's boat arrived to pick up the crew of U-174 Waldheim had lived up to his word and they willingly boarded it to be transported to the huge liner.

Later, the ship's senior medical officer contacted Hartenstein to report that, in spite of operating on Captain Schussler to remove the bullet, all efforts to save him had failed.

As Hartenstein thanked the doctor for his efforts Mortimer, who had overheard enough of the conversation to understand what had happened, walked out of the room.


Later that evening Captain Andrews telephoned to report that all was well with the U-boat crew on Titanic and they were mingling with all the other passengers.

"About Captain Schussler, I'm sorry he didn't make it."

"It's all right, my friend. It was not your fault."

"Is Mortimer with you?"

"Nein."

"How is he?"

"Do not worry, my friend. He will survive."

"Well you can tell him that, to everyone aboard Titanic, especially me, he's a hero."

Hartenstein could not help but smile.


It was well after midnight when Hartenstein awoke to find that Mortimer was not in bed beside him. All evening he had been quiet and had even eschewed the evening meal which they normally enjoyed together after the crew had eaten theirs. Hartenstein had been able to get little out of him when they had been on duty and now he was missing from their bed.

Swearing, he got up and dressed. On the bridge he checked with the radar operator to see if there were any unknown vessels in the area, however, the answer was negative. In the conning tower the cold air hit him the moment he climbed up. All appeared normal as the surprised night crew greeted him. A three-quarter moon was shining overhead and the sea was considerably calmer.

To stern, Titanic was following smoothly in their wake, her bright lights illuminating the surrounding ocean. Hartenstein could not help but contemplate, as he had many times before, what an inviting target she made for any newly arrived U-boats or other vessels belonging to the Axis powers. At least she could count on her speed and her sophisticated radar system which could fool an enemy vessel into thinking she was far from her exact position though that was of little use when she was in plain sight.

Werner Hartenstein's eyes fell on the lone figure standing at the stern. Jumping down to the deck he made his way to the stern.

The fact that Mortimer did at least acknowledge his presence and turn to him afforded him some relief.

"Cold out here," he began softly, rubbing his hands to keep them warm.

Mortimer shrugged, the icy wind of their passage whipping at his hair. "I hadn't noticed." All that he had been able to see was the moment he pulled the trigger that ultimately ended a man's life.

Hartenstein placed a warm hand on his cheek. "Like ice." He was also concerned as his first officer was not even wearing a jacket, merely a shirt and trousers.

"Komm, meine Britischer," he coaxed soto voce so that the men in the conning tower would not be able to overhear. "Come back to the warmth."

Mortimer took one last look around at the silvery vastness of the empty ocean. His eyes fell on Titanic from which faint strains of music could be heard - ragtime, he thought, imagining the scene.

"They always have a good time on Titanic," he murmured somewhat wistfully.

Hartenstein waited, wishing that they were both on the huge liner.

"Komm, meine liebe."

Finally, Mortimer nodded, stepping away from the railing and allowing his captain to throw a comradely arm over his shoulders.

It was only in the warmth of their shared quarters that Mortimer finally began to shiver. Hartenstein, worried for him, fetched him a brandy and found an extra blanket, wrapping it around his shoulders.

"I'll find you something hot."

Mortimer merely nodded, sitting down at the table, the blanket wrapped around him. He still felt numb.

Shortly, Hartenstein returned with hot tea for them both which Mortimer gratefully accepted, warming his hands on the steaming mug.

"I will find you some supper."

He returned with a bowl of steaming, hot porridge.

"There. I've put honey and cream on it for you."

Mortimer, finally beginning to warm up, thanked him and began to eat.

Hartenstein sipped his tea, relieved that his companion was at least eating.

"Good?"

Mortimer nodded. "Very good. You know I like honey on my porridge."

"Some toast?"

Smiling, Mortimer nodded, as his captain went to fetch toast and marmalade.

Satisfied, he watched as his first officer ate the last toast crumb and poured himself a second cup of tea.

"Better now?"

"God, yes!" He gazed into his lover's concerned eyes. "And thank you." He sighed. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to worry you. I... I don't know what's wrong with me."

"Whatever it is we will find the answers," Hartenstein stated with confidence. "There is nothing that we cannot do - together."

"You have such faith in me."

"And why should I not? I know you. Yesterday you saved all of us. I offered Captain Schussler my trust but his actions were cunning and deceitful. Because of you he failed in his desire to take over the boat which he would have used to attack Titanic. So you didn't just save me but many others as well, and Captain Andrews says you are a hero."

He stood, pulling Mortimer to his feet. "You are also my hero," he murmured, embracing his first officer. "You bring out the best in me."

Embracing warmly, they stood for long moments, Mortimer revelling in the other's solid strength.

"Come, let us go to bed," Hartenstein urged.


In bed they lay quietly, Hartenstein gently stroking his companion. After a while he whispered, "Shall we share a dream?"

"Yes! Yes, I'd like that."

"Swimming? Flying?"

"Swimming!"

They kissed for a bit and drifted off, their thoughts merging, their senses soaring as they swam together in warm, tropical waters throwing a ball around and playing with dolphins.


In the morning both men awoke with headaches, especially Mortimer who was clutching his head in pain. Hartenstein, who recovered more easily, fetched a wet cloth and placed it on his forehead.

"Lie quietly, meine liebe. It will pass soon, we know this."

Finally, after some five minutes, Mortimer gave a sigh of relief.

"Going away?"

He nodded.

"Sehr gut. Shall I excuse you your duties this morning?"

Mortimer shook his head. "I can manage. I feel better already."

So saying, he removed the damp cloth from his forehead and took a deep breath.

"Come on, let me up. I'm all right."

"Very well, but if you feel dizzy don't hesitate to tell me. Promise me?"

"I promise."

When he got up Mortimer realized that the boat had somehow worked its magic on him because he really did feel so much better than he had yesterday. He still regretted having to shoot Captain Schussler and that the wound had proved fatal, but the feeling was no longer painfully sharp as it had been the previous day. It was not even a dull ache in his chest anymore; instead it seemed to have been replaced with an acceptance of that which he could not change.

Throughout the morning as he had gone about his duties he had occasionally caught his commanding officer's eye on him, the man's care and concern obvious.

At lunchtime Hartenstein informed him that he had spoken to the chief surgeon on Titanic.

"He told me that he had operated before on men with such wounds and in every case they pulled through easily."

"But Captain Schussler didn't."

"Indeed. The good doctor was of the opinion that the man did not wish to live. He died on the operating table and they tried for twenty minutes to revive him, to no avail. The doctor was quite firm in his belief that, although you may have been responsible for the initial wound, it was not you that killed him; the man simply gave up. He said he has seen it before with certain types of people whom he has come to understand do not belong in this realm and believes the cause to be... He called it a darkness of the spirit. He said that one way or another souls like that will not stay here for very long."

Mortimer appeared doubtful. "You're not making this up to make me feel better?"

"Mortimer!" Hartenstein chastised.

"Sorry. Sorry, I know you wouldn't. I just..." He shrugged.

"Mortimer, if you doubt my word you may speak to the good doctor yourself and he no doubt will tell you the same thing he told me."

Mortimer managed to look suitably contrite. "Forgive me. I know you wouldn't lie to me."

Hartenstein reached out to him and their hands met in the middle of the table.

"You look much better today," Hartenstein observed.

"I feel better. The boat must have done quite a job on me last night."

"And you're eating once more."

"How could I not when you are so persuasive?"

"It's your British influence. Thanks to you we're half British on this boat."

Mortimer grinned, quoting his own captain's words right back at him. "You can always tell when there's a British officer aboard."

Warm hazel eyes met his own, their owner's rock solid belief in him the anchor of his world.


In Homeport, the Admiralty had surprisingly little to say about the incident involving Captain Schussler.

Admiral Strong perused Hartenstein's report.

"Captain Hartenstein, you praise your first officer for his actions in saving you. Was there no other alternative?"

"No, sir, there was not. Captain Schussler would have taken me hostage."

"Yes, I read that. You believe that his crew would have taken over your boat and used it to attack Titanic and perhaps other ships too."

"Indeed, sir. Once in possession of U-156 there would have been no stopping them and they could have caused great harm to this realm."

"Hm. I happen to concur. An unfortunate incident but it seems that these things happen now and then. This was not the first such incident and, sadly, will no doubt not be the last. However, I would like to commend you and especially Mr Mortimer for his actions. I have no doubt that he saved you, your crew and undoubtedly Titanic as well."

All agreed and the meeting was adjourned.

Strong subsequently called Hartenstein to a meeting.


The Admiralty may have had little to say but Dr Cora Benson had plenty to say to Mortimer as he kept an appointment with her.

She had encouraged him to describe his feelings at the moment he pulled the trigger.

"I was relieved that I had saved my captain."

"And later?"

"Guilt. I felt terrible that I'd had to shoot the man. I felt sick at heart. I had thought that he'd do the honourable thing and come below to allow Captain Hartenstein to explain his new circumstances and tell him about this realm, but..." He shook his head.

"But he chose to attack instead. It seems to me you were all fortunate that more were not injured."

Mortimer nodded. "Nevertheless, I..."

"Mr Mortimer, you are a gentle soul from a higher realm. You know this. You know you belong in the 4D realm and that is why situations involving violence of any kind, especially the ending of a life, are abhorrent to you and always will be. Therefore it is only natural that you would feel great remorse. Unfortunately, as long as you are in this realm, especially as long as the war in the Third Realm continues, such events may arise. You are fortunate in that your boat seems to have done an excellent job of healing you of the immediate pain you experienced, is that not so?"

He nodded. "Yes. Yes, it made a big difference."

"You had a headache in the morning?"

"Quite a bad one."

"Then your boat is doing its job and doing it well. I hope you remembered to thank it."

"I..." He shrugged, feeling somewhat awkward. "I suppose I should."

She smiled. "It might seem odd to you but they do like to be appreciated."

"I'll try and remember in future."

"Good. Just remember should such circumstances arise in the future and you find yourself having to shoot to defend either yourself, your vessel or your commanding officer, that your soul belongs in a realm where no such events could ever take place. Once you accept that and allow your boat to heal you, that, combined with the strength of the relationship you share with your commanding officer, will serve you well."

When Mortimer said farewell to Dr Benson it was to find his captain waiting for him. Together with Captain Andrews, they went for a drink. However, it was not long before the U-boat officers were spirited off by a large group of their fellows to a soccer match.

Much later they were finally able to relax in their apartment and celebrate in their own way, knowing that their collaboration was safe.

* * *