Title: The Nature of the Beast
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Author’s Email: email@example.com
Permission to Archive: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG. Major spoilers for "The Victorian Candidate".
Summary: Sequel to "The Victorian Candidate". Self-doubts haunt Phileas in the wake of his ordeal in Scotland.
Disclaimer: Jules and company, and everything that goes with them, belong to Talisman Crest. I’m just having fun with them.
Notes: I really didn’t want to write yet another sequel/postscript to "The Victorian Candidate"; other writers have already done a better job of it than I can. This story had other ideas, however. Multitudinous thanks to Oden, Vita, and the several other people who helped with fact-checking, nit-picking, and general reassurances.
The thunder of the explosion was not enough to wake Rebecca from a nightmare that was real.
Phileas stood impassive, unblinking, a broken toy soldier with empty and distant eyes. She couldn’t take her gaze from his. She refused to believe that emptiness. Somewhere beyond it was her cousin: arrogant and frustrating, extraordinary and magnificent, the one and only Phileas Fogg. And if she broke the contact of their eyes, she feared to lose him forever.
She became aware that at some point, the foreign dignitaries had been herded from the room. A guard was stepping toward Phileas, and this new threat finally forced her eyes from his. "No!"
Her cry was echoed by another voice—a firm, quiet woman’s voice, which carried behind it the power of a nation. Victoria Regina, Queen of England.
She still stood at the end of the long table. Rebecca turned to watch in uncertainty as Her Majesty slowly came to her side; she spoke to Rebecca, but her eyes were on the face of the second man to have almost blown her to bits.
"This… is the same as was done to Reverend Stigley?" With these words, there was a strange tone to her voice, taut and quavering.
Rebecca struggled briefly to find her voice. "Yes, Your Majesty."
The Queen turned to look at Rebecca now. Her tone hardened, her eyes gleaming with something that inspired awe—and more than a little terror.
"We give you leave to do whatever is necessary to render aid to Mister Fogg… and to see that justice is done in this matter."
Rebecca almost sobbed with relief. The Queen did not hold Phileas responsible.
Of course. She had known Reverend Stigley for three decades. Surely, in all that time, she had come to know to the very core of her being that the gentle man of God was incapable of doing harm to anyone.
Phileas Fogg was most decidedly not incapable of doing harm. But—hastily Rebecca searched the eyes of Her Majesty, now solemnly studying her inanimate would-be assassin—yes. The Queen knew just as well that Phileas, the true Phileas, could no more harm her than Reverend Stigley could.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Rebecca breathed at last.
She was free to act. Swallowing hard, she shut away the tears. Later, alone, she would release her emotions and weep for hours—but now it was time to look after Phileas.
Searching the room with her eyes, she found Jules and Passepartout standing near, anxiously watching the events unfold. The two Frenchmen were rather hesitant about the proximity of the Queen, she expected; otherwise they would have been with her at Phileas’ side. She tilted her head toward one of the abandoned chairs at the table, and understanding, Passepartout hurried to pull it out for his master.
Rebecca took Phileas by the elbow, and he pliantly followed her to the chair. It required only a slight nudge to make him sit, almost collapsing into it, and Rebecca’s heart twisted. Apart from the monstrous abuse of his mind, he was suffering from physical exhaustion.
"Come here," she said softly to Jules and Passepartout, and they stepped forward to stand on either side of the chair—no, stepped was not the word. Jules staggered, and Passepartout shuffled.
They were near the breaking point. Phileas had long since surpassed it.
Kneeling, Rebecca took her cousin’s hands in hers and looked up into his eyes. "Phileas, listen to me."
His head turned very slightly, his eyes shifted and met hers. For a brief instant as he recognized her, she saw an unspeakable pain written in his face. It faded swiftly behind that terrible soft blankness, but the sight gave her a bitter thrill of relief. She suddenly knew that her Phileas was not dead within.
"Phileas, we’re taking you back to the Aurora. We’re going to go home. Do you understand that?"
"Home." The word was a whisper.
"Yes, Phileas, home. To Shillingworth Magna. We’re going to take care of you… You’re going to be alright."
He blinked rapidly, sitting up a little straighter. "I… would like to see ’Rasmus."
Rebecca looked away, for if she hadn’t, she would have broken down in tears that very moment. Phileas’ voice, soft and absent-minded, was that of a child—yet there was nothing childlike in his face. Every trace of the weariness, grief and confusion was there, making him look terribly old.
He was the elder; he always had been. He was the strong, fearless elder brother and cousin, able to dispell fears by the mere force of his presence. Now their places were reversed, and she had to be strong for him, to guide his lost and wounded soul back to himself.
She was grateful when Passepartout intervened, taking Phileas by the left arm—his lower arm only, considerate of the injuries they had inflicted on him the previous night, in that hellish battle of mutual self-defense. "You are coming with Passepartout now, Master. We will fixing everything. Master Jules…?" But Jules had already placed a steadying hand under Phileas’ right arm.
"He’ll be better when the drugs wear off," Jules said quietly, but fiercely, as if he was trying to convince himself of that.
Phileas stood by himself with only slight prompting, and he raised his head, taking in first Jules and then Passepartout. He was turned away from Rebecca, but she saw Passepartout’s expression change fretfully when his master looked at him. The valet averted his eyes, glancing toward Jules, and in silent agreement they began to lead Phileas away. Rebecca moved to follow them out.
"Just one moment, Miss Fogg."
Sir Jonathan Chatsworth’s hand clamped down on her arm above the wrist—and between his two guardians, Phileas appeared to hesitate in his step. Clenching her jaw, Rebecca turned to her superior, and surprised herself by not taking his head off.
"You still have a great deal of explaining to do," Sir Jonathan went on, and this time Rebecca knew her eyes did not deceive her. Phileas paused, turning his head slightly, and only continued to walk at a slight nudge from Jules.
Chatsworth annoyed him.
Her baser instincts threatening to explode, Rebecca looked back at the spymaster. His supercilious expression masked something else; this was a token fuss on his part, if only because he saw the look in her eyes. Even that was intolerable. Rebecca tensed to shake off his hand and tell him, in no uncertain terms, precisely what to do with himself; however, she was spared such a problematic incident.
"Sir Jonathan, you will kindly unhand my goddaughter."
Rebecca’s heart skipped a beat. Queen Victoria was still in the room, and if she minded having been overlooked, she wasn’t showing it. She gazed at Sir Jonathan with an expression that would have caused far greater men than him to cower, and the fact that she had spoken for herself alone—"my goddaughter"—made her suddenly far more intimidating as simply a woman than as the leader of the most powerful nation in the world.
Sir Jonathan drew back his hand as if touching Rebecca had suddenly burned him. He turned to the Queen, his jaw working for a moment before he spluttered, "Forgive me, Your Majesty."
"We give you pardon." The Queen allowed her expression to soften slightly. "We wish to have the answers to all of this as much as you do… but not at the expense of the welfare of a loyal subject, whom we know has suffered much." She glanced at Phileas’ retreating back, and then at Rebecca—and it was impossible to tell which of them she was referring to.
"We have given you leave to tend to Mister Fogg. However, we trust you will return here to give us an explanation of this, as soon as he can be left in the care of others."
The gratitude was almost enough to make Rebecca smile. Almost, but not quite. "Thank you, Your Majesty. I will," she promised in a weak voice. She even managed a perfunctory curtsy, if not quite a ladylike one in her clinging leathers.
Before following Jules, Passepartout and Phileas, she unthinkingly paused to gather up her cousin’s discarded coat and walking-stick. Then she turned and hurried from the room, without looking back, lest Her Majesty should see the tears welling up in her eyes.
Aboard the Aurora, Passepartout fiercely insisted upon tending to his master by himself—undressing him, caring for his wounds, and finally settling him in bed. It seemed ridiculous to worry about Fogg’s pride at a time like this, but if duty and propriety were a comfort to the valet, he could hardly be begrudged that. After all, Fogg—or the dull shadow that Fogg had become—was so placidly obedient that Passepartout needed no assistance.
Jules paced the narrow hallway outside Fogg’s cabin, feeling useless and trying not to glance at Rebecca. She leaned heavily against the doorjamb, facing out of the room, looking frighteningly almost as empty as her cousin—but Jules knew better. Rebecca had to go to the Queen and relate this entire disaster, once she knew Fogg would be alright for a while. She had merely shifted to that unsettling mode peculiar to the Foggs when they shut everything down inside, bracing for the blackest of circumstances.
He could almost have hoped that such internal defenses were what gripped Fogg now, if he hadn’t heard the way Fogg spoke of Erasmus.
He counted himself a blind idiot. He should have known something was wrong at Castle Banquo, the minute Rebecca burst half-panicked into his room—for Rebecca Fogg was not a woman who panicked. Instead, he had become absorbed in smug satisfaction that she in her fright had turned to him. Now he couldn’t help but feel that his foolish vanity had condemned his friend to suffer.
Within the room, they both could hear Passepartout moving about, speaking now to himself and then to his master: cajolingly coaxing Fogg to raise his arm to be bandaged, or muttering about where he had left some object or other. At last he came to the doorway and motioned Rebecca and Jules to come in.
Fogg lay in bed, halfway sitting up against a nest of pillows and warmly covered by a blanket. His face remained inexpressive, but the glassiness in his eyes appeared to have taken on shades of genuine, healthful drowsiness. His eyelids lowered slightly, but he raised them again, the slightest trace of a frown playing over his lips.
Rebecca knelt at the bedside, reaching for his hand. "Phileas."
He turned to her, perhaps with a little more awareness than before, and the frown was transmuted into a hesitant, sleepy smile. "You didn’t leave me."
"Of course not." Rebecca stroked her free hand along the side of his head, gently brushing her fingers through his fine black-and-silver hair. "We’re going to go home very soon now, Phileas. You should rest."
Again the frown, mildly puzzled, just slightly afraid. "I don’t want to sleep."
Passepartout, looking suddenly inspired, went out of the room.
"Sleep will do you good," Rebecca answered gently—and Jules couldn’t look at her, because he heard the tremor in her voice. Having to speak to Phileas Fogg as if he were a child was wrong, so terribly wrong.
He’ll get better. Soon. He’ll be better when the drugs aren’t working on him anymore.
It was an uncertain hope, and Jules knew it, even if he couldn’t quite admit it to himself—or to Rebecca. No amount of drugs could have made Fogg do the things he had done, or almost done. Somehow, Sir Nicol McLean and his thugs had pried into Fogg’s psyche, twisting the deepest truths into lies and robbing him of everything that grounded him in reality. There was no other way his razor-edged mind could be reduced to this.
Presently Passepartout returned, carrying a cup which Jules surmised to contain warm milk. Remembering the valet’s explanation of his "antidotal" at Castle Banquo, he knew it would soon make no difference whether Fogg wanted to sleep or not.
"Look what I am bringing for you, Master," Passepartout said lightly as he approached the bed. Rebecca moved out of his way, looking dubious. As for Fogg, he at least reacted to his faithful servant—albeit with a grim, foreboding look.
"See, Master? This is for making you feeling better." Reaching the bedside, Passepartout bent down solicitously, lowering his hand to hold the cup where Fogg could drink from it. Fogg’s unsettled eyes grew a shade more alarmed, and he turned his head away.
Passepartout was troubling Fogg. Jules had noted that much in the strange moment when he had appraised them both, before they brought him back to the Aurora. And if the fact was notable to him, it was even more evident—and distressing—to Passepartout.
"Why for you are looking at me like that again, Master?" The question was almost a wail. For all Fogg took him for granted and at times insulted him, even the thought that he had displeased his master was under ordinary circumstances a cause of near-anguish to the valet. Of course, these were not ordinary circumstances, and no behavior on Fogg’s part could be subject to common rationalization; but natural inclinations were hard to ignore.
With a frown that said she expected to regret it, Rebecca wordlessly took the cup from Passepartout’s hand. "Drink this for me, Phileas. Please."
This put a different complexion on things. Fogg turned his head, eyeing the cup warily, then turning his gaze to Rebecca. After a moment of what must have been very deep thought, for his weak state of mind at least, he finally sat up a little further and put his hand over hers, bringing the cup to his lips. He drank down the milk, then sighed and laid back.
"That’s better." Rebecca gently stroked his cheek. "Will you rest now, for me?"
His eyelids were drooping again, and this time he didn’t—or couldn’t—fight his weariness. "I’ll try," came his meek response, and he closed his eyes.
"Erasmus is dead… isn’t he?"
Jules hadn’t thought Rebecca could grow any paler, but she accomplished precisely that at the soft, matter-of-fact inquiry. Muffling a choked sound into the back of her fist, she looked away from her cousin and swallowed hard.
"Yes," she whispered, after several attempts to answer.
Fogg’s eyes remained closed, his voice becoming dreamy as he drifted toward sleep, yet his words strangely wavered between past and present. "It’s alright. You’re alive, and Jules is alive, and Passepartout is alive. I killed ’Rasmus, but I haven’t killed any of you."
He was asleep.
And Rebecca was already halfway to the door, fingers pressed to her lips to hold in the anguished sob. Jules’ heart ached for her, but he quickly spun out of her way, unwilling to present any sort of target to her enraged grief. She ran past him, and a moment later the door of her own cabin slammed shut.
Passepartout turned a doleful gaze to Jules, and shook his head.
"This is being very, very bad."
I didn’t want to b-be alone…
Phileas sat bolt upright, a cold sweat trickling down his skin as he gripped the blanket with white-knuckled ferocity.
The memories could not be said to have come flooding back. They had been there all along, incessantly, in his sleep. At the instant of his waking, they crystalized for a single moment, then faded slightly—more dreamlike now than when they had entangled his unconscious mind. Only the pain did not abate. Fear, anger, shame… pain was the one word to suit them all.
He had almost destroyed everything that meant anything to him.
The images were dark and distorted, but the physical memory of violence lingered within his body itself, confirming the horrors. Most clear in his mind were fragments of that final ordeal at Balmoral, and strangely, he seemed almost to have two separate sets of memories of it: that of a broken man more dead than alive, and that of a child, confused and afraid. He wasn’t certain which of those had been the one to walk out of that room, after the long struggle up from the darkness, into the sunlight of sanity and Rebecca’s sweet smile.
But he had walked out. He was alive.
Swallowing hard, he finally took note of his surroundings, as the remembered horrors retreated from behind his eyes. He was in his cabin on the Aurora. A blue-black night sky showed through the porthole, the small room lit only by a lamp burning low on the dressing-table—and at the edge of its amber circle of light sat Passepartout, his chin hanging down to his chest as the faintest of gurgling snores emerged from him.
Phileas’ heart turned over, and a few of the memories slid a little deeper into the abyss.
Passepartout was alive, and safe… and with him. His loyalty that knew no bounds had stationed him at Phileas’ bedside. Just this once, he had sensed and understood his master’s need for the comfort of a simple human presence.
Yes, Passepartout was safe. But…
Slowly Phileas rose from the bed, and as he did so, an amazing collection of physical pains caused him to wince and look down at himself. His head ached monstrously, and strained muscles made their presence known within, but the outward injuries were more disturbing. Faded needle tracks marked his forearms; his left shoulder was one tremendous bruise, and his upper right arm was bandaged.
He grimaced as one of the memories stirred above the rest. The pain of a blade sliding across his skin was clear, but the face of his attacker was shadowed and shifting…
He swayed slightly and closed his eyes. My God.
With slow and hesitant movements he began to dress. As he was buttoning his shirt, his shadow fell across Passepartout, and the valet started awake. His mouth popped open for an instant before he lurched to his feet.
"Master, you should not being awake," he said softly—although he automatically began to help with the sleeve buttons.
Phileas’ mind momentarily boggled at the utter simplicity of Passepartout’s actions. There was no reluctance, no hesitation, to render his care to the man who must have almost killed him. Who thought he had killed him.
They understood, then, something of what had been done to him. They knew what it had to have taken to cause him to harm them, even when he knew not what he did.
"Need to see Rebecca," Phileas rasped. "Just… see her."
There was something amiss about his clothes, or rather certain deficiencies thereof. His eyes passed over the end of the bed, in search of his waistcoat.
His hands twitched at the memory of the lead wires they had held. He clenched them into fists, a slight tremor passing through him. Or not so slight; Passepartout evidently felt it through his battle with the sleeve cuffs, and looked up sharply.
"I… am being so very, very sorry to have hurted you, Master."
The words made Phileas flinch, as again his memory cast up darkened visions of violence. He shut them out with a fierce shake of his head. "If you hadn’t, things would have… I might have…" He took a deep breath. "Thank you for it, my friend."
In the act of smoothing imaginary wrinkles on Phileas’ left sleeve, Passepartout’s only response was a brief tightening of his hand on his master’s arm. The grip lingered for merely a second, but it spoke more than words ever could.
Phileas made a small dismissive gesture when Passepartout moved to retrieve a fresh vest and suitcoat. His appearance was ragged by his usual standards, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t sure he would ever care again. All pretense and triviality was gone in the face of the weight within him, the heaviness of his heart and his conscience.
With small, deliberate steps and with Passepartout following closely, he walked out of his cabin and moved to Rebecca’s door. He felt like a child seeking the security of his parents’ bed during a storm, but it just didn’t matter.
In silence he opened the door, and his heart fluttered painfully at the sight of Rebecca laying asleep in her bed. Her face was pale and shadowed with the lingering struggles of the day; even so, it must have been a wondrous feat for Passepartout and Verne to coax her to sleep at all. He knew she would have long refused to leave his side, because had their places been reversed, he would have done the same.
He wanted more than anything for her to be awake, to sit with him and recall to him stories of their childhood—to ground him in his life, in what he was and had been. But he would not wake her.
You’re dead. I killed you. I’m dead, too.
She had suffered enough by him.
He closed the door. She too was alive and safe; that was all that mattered.
Phileas made his way to the spiral staircase. Passepartout did not seem surprised, and followed him down without a word.
The sofa where Verne always slept was empty, and a twinge of alarm passed through Phileas—but then he noticed a silhouette against the forward windows. Verne was standing by the helm, stargazing, or merely lost in thought.
Passepartout discreetly retreated to the kitchen, and Phileas stepped forward to join Verne. The younger man turned at the sound of footsteps, his expression quirking with uneasy startlement in the silver-blue moonlight.
"Fogg…? You should be resting!"
Gravely Phileas shook his head, stepping past Verne to lean on the forward railing and gaze out. The sky was cloudless, but its starlit sapphire expanse offered him no comfort.
Perhaps after a week or two of having Rebecca, Jules and Passepartout in his constant sight, the creeping dread in his heart might be almost bearable. That, however, would be a rather impractical arrangement—and Phileas was a practical man. With his own eyes he had seen each of them alive and well, and intellectually if in no other fashion, he had accepted it beyond all doubt. That would have to suffice.
"Fogg… are you alright?" Verne’s voice sounded as feeble as if he knew how idiotic the question was, but Phileas had no cynical retort to offer.
No pretense. Gripping the railing, Phileas lowered his head and sighed deeply. "No, Verne… I’m not. At the moment… I’m not certain that I’ll ever b-be alright again." Blast. The stammer slipped by, despite his effort to speak slowly and carefully, and he clenched his teeth. Not enough the rest of this horror—must I overcome that bloody impediment all over again, as well?
Verne took a step closer. Surely he had begun to realize that it was more than simply drugs which had ravaged Phileas, chemicals already fading from his system. His mind had been preyed upon in the most calculating and devastating of psychological warfare. Memories, even of lies, could be dulled in time, but their damage was already done.
In that moment, oddly enough, he sympathized with Verne. A dangerous life having made his sleep light and ever-wary, he’d always grumbled with affected annoyance when he was awakened by the soft outcries with which Verne’s too-frequent night terrors sometimes ended—even though he would slip downstairs to stand unnoticed in the dark, watching over him until sleep returned. Now, he felt he understood.
"How do you face the nightmares, Jules?"
Feeling the younger man’s uncertain hand placed for a moment on his back, he raised his head. He needed to move. He pushed himself away from the railing and slowly paced, rubbing his palms together. Wishing that Rebecca were awake.
I didn’t want to be alone…
The remembered words gave him pause, and he shot a glance at Verne. Yes, he had heard those words, and seen the tears of emotions stripped utterly naked by the torments real and imagined. Verne had been witness—along with Queen Victoria and an entire roomful of assembled royalty.
There was no going back now—least of all with Verne.
Phileas sagged against the railing once more, but turned his head to gaze at Verne with a steady if weary eye. His friend was still looking at him as if he were a ghost, but that might not have been so far from the truth anyway.
"Tell me what happened, Verne. What really happened."
Verne gaped, hesitated a moment, then slowly began to speak. His words were too simple to encompass the magnitude of the horrors; but then, he clearly did not know all of it. "It was the League. They… they drugged you very heavily, Fogg. They drugged the rest of us, too, to bring out our fears and trick us. To try to make us all believe that you’d…" He shivered and looked away abruptly.
"I saw Count Gregory’s minions." A shudder ran the length of Phileas’ spine as he forced himself to look into the memories, but with a will he restrained his emotions from his voice. "…It was you, wasn’t it? You, and Rebecca, and Passepartout."
"You didn’t know that," Verne asserted swiftly. "They made you see what they wanted you to see."
"Did they." Phileas’ voice was flat, impassive, and evidently somewhat alarming to Jules.
He raised a hand, breathing deeply. "McLean told me that… that I had b-been… conditioned." The word caught in his throat. At Verne’s look of concerned puzzlement he said, "Not them. My father. Conditioned, to b-be a… a killing machine… in the service of Her Majesty." With a fierce stab of shame, he fought to keep a trace of bitterness from his voice as he spoke the honorific. The grip of the deceit was still powerful.
Even in the washed-out colors of the moonlight, he could see Verne become pale. "Fogg, you know that isn’t true." For a moment, he sounded as if he was saying it as much to reassure himself as his friend.
"Yes," Phileas quietly hissed. He turned away, tightening his hands on the rail, and closed his eyes. "And that is the worst of it, Verne. How could I… b-blame others… for what I myself chose to b-b-become?"
There was an ugly sort of gratification in the silence that followed. Jules Verne, a writer, a man of words, could find no words to respond.
"You are not a killing machine, Fogg." The blunt reply, at last, was spoken in a slow and deliberate tone. Verne believed it.
Verne was a very naïve young man.
You’re not a monster.
The words were Rebecca’s, and the sudden memory of them made Phileas flinch. Rebecca might lie to him about many things, but never about himself.
With a choked whimper, Phileas retreated to the table, where he sank down onto the edge of the sofa and raised his hands to his face. The sobs that wracked his lean frame were deep but silent, fury without sound. Tears had never been enough to release his burdens.
He‘d long ago ceased to count the number of times he had questioned his own sanity. He knew now how foolish he had been each time. Now he had looked into the depths of true madness—perhaps looked at last into the deepest depths of his own soul—and he knew that for him, there was only one road to that particular hell.
I don’t want to be alone…
Light footsteps crossed the deck, and Verne sat down—but only at the opposite end of the table, maintaining a sensitive distance. Good. He was there, and that would suffice.
Phileas found a certain comfort in that respectful space between them. He was as ever untouchable, yet he was never alone—never abandoned by those who knew, who saw past the mercurial affectations, even past the darkness, and saw in him what he would never see. Their sight was his salvation from himself.
I don’t want to be alone.
They knew. They always had.
And Phileas Fogg was not alone.
Rebecca stirred and sighed, feeling like several counties’ worth of bad road. Whatever armies she had been wrestling, she hoped she’d won. Considering that she felt the familiar, comforting vibrations of the Aurora beneath her, it seemed safe to assume that she had.
Then she remembered the previous two days, and all her drowsy indifference vanished.
Giving a glance to the sunlight streaming through the porthole, she ground out some choice curses and began to hurry on her clothes. Only Passepartout’s assurances that Phileas would sleep the night through, and that he would wake her before dawn, had convinced her to sleep. Yet the sun must have been up for at least an hour now.
Dressed enough to at least let others pretend she was a proper lady, she quit her cabin and crossed over to Phileas’ door. Softly she turned the handle, and holding her breath, looked in.
The room was empty, its narrow bed neatly made.
Rebecca’s heart skipped a beat, and she rushed to the spiral staircase. Her anxious footfalls rang loudly on the steps, until some instinct gave her pause; she slowed, and descended the rest of the way in a thoughtful silent glide.
Passepartout was at the helm. Jules was sitting at the table; his notebook lay open an arm’s length away, for once abandoned. Instead his attention was raptly focused on the pale, drawn face of Phileas Fogg, who sat half-reclining on the sofa behind the table—asleep.
Conflicting emotions swept through Rebecca. Despite the anguish that pierced her through when she saw Phileas, thinking again of what he had endured, her heart warmed a little as she looked at Jules. She had more than once seen Phileas when he stood wraithlike in the shadows, watching their young friend settle himself after his nightmares. To find Jules returning the favor unawares touched her deeply.
Jules turned his head, meeting her eyes, and gave her a small, sad smile. Not quite succeeding at returning it, she moved closer with soundless steps. Reaching Jules’ side, she stopped and gazed down at her dear cousin.
Phileas’ face was turned toward the sunlight that poured through the forward windows, warming his pallor and softly illuminating every detail of his features: thinned lips, long eyelashes resting against graceful cheeks, the small and faded dueling scar near the corner of his left eye. Despite his exhausted gauntness, for once in his life, his expression was oddly serene.
He was so beautiful.
Quietly Jules stood up and stepped away from the table, moving to look over Passepartout’s shoulder. Rebecca followed him, speaking in a voice just above a whisper. "When did he wake up? Why isn’t he in bed?"
"It was very late… or very early. He wouldn’t go back to bed, but he finally drifted off. I… don’t think he wanted to be alone." Jules blinked wearily, and on closer examination, Rebecca could see the dark smudges under his eyes; he had sat up all night. She frowned in disapproval. After being drugged, clouted very soundly at least once, and enduring numerous other physical and mental strains, he needed rest as much as any of them.
"You should have waked me," she sighed. Then she glanced back at Phileas, with a darker expression. "Jules… what does he remember?"
The writer’s eyes took on new shadows. "Too much."
Rebecca’s teeth ground together. She wanted to find the men who had caused all this pain and crush them into very tiny particles. Slowly. With her bare hands.
Instead, she mustered a calm tone of voice. "Passepartout, will you see about breakfast? I know we may have no appetites just now," she added quickly, forestalling Jules’ impending declaration to that effect, "but we need to keep our strength up. Besides, Phileas should eat when he wakes."
In full agreement, or perhaps simply in the interest of having something better to do, Passepartout trotted off to the kitchen. Over a steaming cup of the valet’s fine coffee, Jules was soon recounting to Rebecca all the things Phileas had said—about what he really saw when he attacked them, and the lies he had been told. By the time he was finished, Rebecca was pacing, and had to swallow back her tears before she could look again at her cousin.
"It’s unbearable," she breathed, gazing at Phileas’ still figure on the sofa. For the first time in her memory, he looked… fragile. "How they must have torn him apart to make him believe these things, even for a moment."
"Rebecca, he’s going to be alright," Jules said behind her, prompting her to turn. "Without that poison working on him, he’s safe now—and he’s sane." He sighed. "I know he’s been hurt. But he’s strong enough to make it through this. And if I know that… then I’m sure you know it, too."
There it was again, the elusive quiet strength of that dear boy, reminding Rebecca that Jules was not a boy after all—he was a mature and uncommonly capable young man. She looked away, hiding the sudden dampness in her eyes.
"Oh, I want to kill them, Jules. I want to set after them this very moment, hunt them down like the animals they are—"
"But you're not going to, are you?" Her friend looked steadily at her, with a wiser gaze than a man of his youth had any right to possess.
She smiled sadly in response. "No, Jules. I’m not." Her tone was almost defeated, but her eyes were fierce with protective devotion. "Phileas needs me. Sir Jonathan is investigating, and if he turns up anything, he’ll inform me. He knows better than not to."
Jules almost smiled, understanding perfectly well what that meant.
Phileas came awake slowly, feeling warm sunlight on his face.
This was so much nicer, he reflected. Under the sun, one could rest without fear of what might be lurking in the shadows. So why should people sleep at night, when fears awakened, and the world became so much more dangerous a place?
Better, perhaps, to hide from the darkness than to dwell in it.
He knew he was in the salon of the Aurora. He was well acquainted with the contours of the green high-backed sofa; he had slept there at times in the past, when a particularly special guest had been put up in his own cabin, or when Jules was ill or injured and deserving of a private bed. His headache had faded, at least, though his emotions were hardly less troubled.
Voices conversed quietly nearby. On instinct Phileas tensed, but relaxed instantly when he recognized them as belonging to Rebecca and Verne.
"Dreadful as it is to say it… a part of me understands how Phileas could believe that Sir Boniface would do such a thing to him," Rebecca was saying. "I think you have some idea of the way it was between the two of them."
"I thought I did." Verne knew very well the pain of a disapproving father; it was one of the things about him that appealed to Phileas. "But the idea of anyone wanting to make their own son into a… a killer…"
"You didn’t know Boniface." Rebecca paused. "They were both bloody fools when it came to each other. I can’t begrudge Phileas his anger; he did deserve better from his father. But even Boniface could never have hurt him like that."
The two were silent for a moment. Then Jules hesitantly raised a question.
"Rebecca… what did Phileas mean when he said he killed his brother? I thought…"
"Phileas has always blamed himself for Erasmus’ death. Even in his right mind, calm and sober, he blames himself. It isn’t even the first time he’s phrased it that way." Rebecca sighed heavily, her tone becoming more solemn. "He would have been killed as well, if Erasmus hadn’t given up his own life instead. Knowing that someone gave their life for yours is a terrible burden to carry, Jules—and one I hope you’ll never have to bear."
As he listened in his pretended repose, Phileas felt a pang of emotion which he didn’t care to identify, and it centered upon young Jules Verne. As a friend of the Foggs, sooner or later he might experience precisely that burden, if not something far more soul-ravaging. Something such as, say, not being able to give his own life for someone else.
In any event, Phileas didn’t care to hear his past verbally dissected any further. Impulsively he stirred, and with a rather painful stretch he opened his eyes, blinking at the bright sunshine that flooded through the forward windows.
Predictably, Rebecca was at his side in an instant. He didn’t mind that one bit.
"Phileas." She leaned over him and lightly touched his cheek, looking as if she wanted to cry but instead smiling bravely. "How do you feel?"
"Well enough." He left it at that. By observing him, she was going to figure out perfectly well how miserable he really felt, so there was no point in depressing her prematurely. Forced as it was, her smile was comforting, and he didn’t want to lose it just yet.
Before she could press him further about his condition, he turned his head, looking at Verne. "Thank you for telling her the things I told you." When his friend looked startled and abashed, he smiled very faintly. "That was not sarcasm, Verne. I don’t especially care to repeat the lies again… but it’s… best that Rebecca knows."
No stammer… that’s better. Not that it hadn’t taken some effort and careful pauses on his part. To force a change of subject, he sat up, knowing full well that it was an unwise action to take—and found he had still overestimated himself. At once his headache came roaring back, and the injuries to his upper arms throbbed in protest. He let out a muffled grunt and stiffened against the pain.
"Slowly, Phileas!" Rebecca put a hand on his back, the most gentle of restraints against further movement. He hardly had to be convinced.
"I should like to get more properly dressed," he stated blandly. They didn’t care in the least how he looked, and he still wasn’t particularly interested himself, but a small exercise of vanity on his part might at least be encouraging to them—though slightly trying.
Rebecca let out a faint huff of impatience. "Alright, then. I’ll fetch Passepartout."
A particularly ugly and entirely visceral feeling stirred in Phileas, and at the moment, he felt too tired to struggle with it. He caught Rebecca’s wrist before she could turn away. "Thank you, no. Tell me, where is he?"
"Passepartout? He’s preparing breakfast."
"Ah." The feeling became a little darker, but he refused to pay attention to it. "Very good. Don’t trouble him. I’ll manage by myself. Verne, perhaps you would…?" But the young Frenchman was already stepping forward to help him up.
Once on his feet and certain he was steady, Phileas slowly made his way to the staircase and began to climb, feeling as if he had just awakened from a long and near-fatal fever. His mind must have been doing its best to dull the recollection of the horrors it had so recently endured, for the memories had become very dreamlike—or rather nightmare-like. Still, their faded quality did nothing to ease the distress and confusion they had wrought within him.
Upstairs, he paused outside his cabin, his eyes falling on the door of Passepartout’s workshop.
Stuffed with every chemical known to man…
His blood running cold, Phileas looked away and shook his head. No. Of all the lies McLean had woven, the very suggestion that Passepartout would harm him was the most preposterous of all.
He’s the one who was paid to put it into your food.
His reluctant gaze slid back to the closed door, and he glared at it angrily. There had to be some way out of this, the constant threat of springing these abandoned traps in his mind.
Slowly he stepped over to the door and opened it.
Phileas whirled like a startled cat—unfortunately for the pounding in his head. Passepartout stood a step from the staircase, looking at him with earnest concern and slight puzzlement. "Are you looking for something, Master?"
"What are you doing up here?" Phileas winced at the defensiveness and suspicion in his own voice.
"Miss Rebecca said that you coming up for the fresh clothes, and Passepartout was thinking that you might wanting help." The valet’s dark eyes grew worried. "Is alright, Master?"
This would not do at all.
With great care, Phileas shook his head. "No, Passepartout. It is not alright." He sighed, perceiving a rather immediate need to sit down before he started to feel faint, and gestured to the door of his own cabin. "Please."
Looking increasingly perplexed and anxious, Passepartout preceded him into the small room, and at once began to produce a fresh change of clothes. Phileas sat down on the edge of the bed and watched him, rather glumly. He was not looking forward to this talk.
"Just stop that for a few moments," he said wearily. "I owe you an explanation."
He had Passepartout’s immediate attention, accompanied by a frown. "You don’t have to explaining nothings, Master," he answered gently.
"Yes… yes, I do." Phileas shifted his legs and leaned back slightly, staring at the patterns of sunlight on the well-polished deck. "You know something about… what I’ve gone through, in the last two days. The drugs or whatever it was they used must have put my mind in a very delicate state indeed, because I was made to… b-believe the most impossible things—one of which involved you."
Passepartout’s eyes widened. Phileas went on, choosing to ignore his recurrent stammer. He was much too tired to bother about it, anyway.
"One of these… lies which were forced into my head was that you… played a part, in a conspiracy of my father’s. That you were paid to drug my food, with something meant to increase my… my more violent tendencies."
The reaction was swift and dramatic. Passepartout gaped, turned away with an expression of supreme disbelief, and finally looked back at Phileas with an astonishing amount of hurt in his eyes. He spluttered slightly before at last managing to speak.
"You… you would believing this, Master? You would believing that Passepartout would hurt you?" He abruptly turned and paced the narrow floor, in a state of high agitation. When he turned back, there was fury in his face—a fury directed not at his master, but at the League of Darkness, Count Gregory, Sir Nicol McLean, and anyone else responsible for such deceit. Phileas could only marvel, extremely grateful that he was not the focus of that righteous wrath.
His memory flashed an image of Passepartout, a sword in each hand, moving with a breathtaking speed and skill. It was another shadow of that monstrous night in the castle. Unlike the other memories, however, this one inspired Phileas with a rising admiration—and a peculiar sense of reassurance. If the outwardly unassuming and wiry little Frenchman could pose such a challenge to him in combat, then Phileas was not so unnaturally powerful, after all.
"Passepartout, listen to me." Phileas wearily drew himself back to the present. He had drawn some vague conclusions, and while his logic for the time being was probably as full of holes as Verne’s second-best coat, it might at least mollify his manservant. "How old are you?"
The odd and unexpected question gave Passepartout pause. His angry pacing ceased, and he turned to Phileas with a dubious look. "Passepartout is having thirty-six years next month."
The uncertainty in the valet’s face heightened. "Master is being a young man of forty years."
Phileas chortled humorlessly. "Forty-one, actually. In any case, you couldn’t have been involved in a conspiracy dating back to my childhood, because you’re younger than me—and I knew that, Passepartout. A part of me always remembered, and I didn’t believe those things of you. Not really." He tapped a solemn finger to his temple. "I… can’t explain to you the way things got twisted ’round, or why it’s not so easy to straighten them out again. All I can ask is for you to be patient with me, and believe that I know you would never harm me… Unless, of course, I bloody well deserve it." He shrugged his battered left shoulder, giving Passepartout a weak smile of reassurance.
It was a mistake. A tangle of unhappy feelings were still etched across Passepartout’s open face, and now guilt was added to them at the reminder of the injury he had inflicted. "But, Master—"
"Jean Passepartout," Phileas interrupted.
That shut him up instantly. He probably doubted at times whether his master even remembered his first name. Phileas stood up gingerly, putting a hand on Passepartout’s shoulder, and spoke to him in a gentle, honest voice—in French.
"Je te fais confiance avec ma vie."
I trust you with my life.
It was difficult to say what affected Passepartout more—the words themselves, or the fact that the master had spoken them in his servant’s native tongue. He stared in open wonder at Phileas, his dark eyes shining with what threatened to become a most embarrassing excess of emotion. Before things could get that far, Phileas gave him a friendly thump on the arm and steered him toward the door.
"Now, go and finish with breakfast," he said, reverting to English. "I can manage alright."
"Yes, Master." Passepartout paused outside the door, turning back rather sheepishly. For a moment Phileas was afraid he might be in for a dose of unwanted sentiment after all, but that was not quite what he got.
"Of course you could never believing those things… You know Passepartout would not at all wanting Master’s violentness be increased."
First surprise, then contrition, then subtle amusement passed over Phileas’ face. Passepartout fidgeted, bowed his head slightly, and headed for the staircase.
Phileas allowed himself a tired smile. One of these days he would take Passepartout for an evening in London, and get rip-roaring drunk with him. Perhaps then he’d have the nerve to say what his faithful friend and companion deserved to hear. The morning after, if he wished, he might even convince himself that Passepartout did not remember his words—if indeed he remembered them himself.
Turning to retreat into his cabin, he again caught sight of the half-open door of Passepartout’s workshop. Without hesitation, he walked over… and gently closed it.
A while later, freshly shaven and more neatly dressed in somber shades of blue-grey, Phileas returned to the salon. Rebecca and Verne were sitting at the table, and with a gesture for them to remain seated, he carefully lowered himself into a chair. They watched him with badly disguised concern.
"Verne, you look like death," he remarked lightly, turning back their worries with a pale shadow of his usual flippancy. "Did you sleep last night?"
The writer gave him that vaguely startled look which was so common with him as to mean anything. "A couple of hours," he admitted.
"I’m sorry to have kept you up all night and deprived you of your bed." Phileas nodded to the sofa, where Rebecca was now sitting. "After breakfast, you should go up to my cabin and rest."
"The only one resting in your cabin after breakfast is you," Rebecca broke in. "As soon as you’ve eaten, you’re going to go straight back up there and lie down."
"But me no buts, Phileas. I expect I have the majority in my favor." She smiled too-sweetly at Verne, who goggled slightly. Where Rebecca was concerned, the boy would as usual be no help at all—to say nothing of Passepartout, who tended toward a most irritating notion that obeying Rebecca over Phileas was in his master’s own best interests.
The valet—who had undoubtedly heard everything—chose just that moment to appear with a pot of hot coffee, and without a word busied himself serving them. Breakfast followed, and it took only one breath of its savory aromas to make Phileas realize he was famished. The last meal he could remember taking was that damnable drugged dinner at Castle Banquo…
Phileas raised a fist to his lips, stifling what sounded suspiciously like a chuckle.
Verne gave a start, as if he feared Phileas might be choking, and Rebecca shot her cousin a concerned if peculiar look. "What is it?"
"Oh… It’s nothing." Phileas shook his head and tried to hide his expression behind a napkin. "Just the odd memory of Passepartout in a kilt, with the sporran all wrong-end-to like a horse’s tail and supporting a handful of bread rolls."
His companions appeared unsure of how to react to the sudden levity. Rebecca swallowed back a giggle, Verne offered a wincing smile—and the subject of the recollection, in the act of serving scones, paused to frown at them rather unhappily. In the gravest of tones he reminded them, "Passepartout wanted to being inconspicuous."
The long-suffering valet bore the ensuing laughter with a stolid expression, patiently turning his attention to the eggs.
"Yes, well," Phileas murmured at last, "we’ll work on your definition of ‘inconspicuous’ at a later date." He glanced up at Passepartout, with a smile that was very nearly apologetic.
His servant returned the smile briefly, then frowned and hesitated. "Master… may I setting the place for Passepartout?"
Phileas took due notice of Verne’s and Rebecca’s raised eyebrows. Coming from Passepartout it was an extraordinarily forward request, but after the conversation upstairs, he understood. By asking to share in their meal, Passepartout sought to remind him that he would never tamper with his master’s food. It was an unneeded gesture, for within himself, Phileas had already laid those particular demons to rest—but he would accept it for the simple gladness of sharing his table with his friend.
"Yes, Passepartout, of course you may," he replied, with an undertone in his voice which he sincerely hoped Verne and Rebecca didn’t hear. He’d already come close enough to an embarrassing emotional scene for one day.
Passepartout’s face lit up, and with a small bow of gratitude, he retreated to the kitchen to fetch a fourth place setting.
Breakfast was a blessedly tranquil affair. Phileas sated his healthy appetite, which did much to improve his physical state, and spent the time focusing his mind on the fact that Rebecca, Verne and Passepartout were safe and well. Perhaps if he absorbed that knowledge thoroughly enough, it wouldn’t become lost in the nightmares which he knew would still intrude upon his sleep. It was inevitable as the sunset that he should face them—but for now, all was well.
Seeing that he was comfortable and content, Rebecca even relented from banishing him to bed after breakfast, and let him continue to sit quietly with his coffee.
As the meal drew to a close, Verne had produced his notebook, and after the table was cleared he sat with his head bowed over the book. Since Passepartout had retreated to the kitchen with the dishes, and Rebecca had gone upstairs on some unknown pursuit, Phileas found himself once more left alone with the young writer. He stretched his long legs, propping his feet up on the edge of the table, and rested his chin on his hand as he watched that uncanny mind at work.
Verne had exceptional hands, not slender and fluidly graceful as Phileas’ own, but light and agile and relentlessly quick. He held a pencil as if he’d been born with it in hand, and the soft scratching of the instrument against paper lulled Phileas pleasantly. Verne, however, was frowning with something more than his usual effort of concentration, and the fair skin surrounding his hazel eyes was dark with weariness.
"You should sleep sometime, you know," Phileas said gently after a time.
Verne looked up, the anxious creases in his brow smoothing somewhat. "I will. But not yet."
Phileas was not the only one anticipating bad dreams. The realization caused him to sit up slightly with a frown of self-recrimination. In the depths of the fears and uncertainties forced into his mind, it was difficult to remember how much Jules, Rebecca and Passepartout had also endured. They too had been drugged, fed intricate illusions, lured into unnatural convolutions of fear—and for heaven’s sakes, in the blackest of the madness, he had nearly killed all three of them with his own hands.
He was amazed they could stand to look at him.
But they knew.
Ruefully he smiled at Verne’s downturned face, the young man being intent once more upon his book. All the fantastic dreams which Verne had inscribed there, all the wonders and terrors which they had witnessed together—it all faded in comparison to the complexities of the human heart.
"What’s that you’re drawing now?" Lowering his feet to the floor, Phileas reached across the table and turned the notebook around. Verne started to object, putting out his hand to take it back, but he cut off his protest as Phileas’ eyes fell on the sketch.
Coming from the precise hand of Jules Verne, it was an unusually rough-edged work—as if he had pressed the pencil unnaturally hard, or at times his hand had trembled. The object was no less peculiar. It looked for all the world like a clergyman’s lectern, with something like a bellows and an even more churchly arrangement of organ-pipes on top…
Phileas abruptly pushed the book away. He had seen that device, briefly, as he was being wrestled into a strait-waistcoat in the depths of Castle Banquo. He didn’t even know what it was or what it did, but it burned with clear malevolence in his cloudy memories.
He looked away, passing a hand over his jaw, then turned his gaze back to Verne with a carefully blank expression.
Verne’s eyes widened slightly, and he stared down at the drawing for a long moment. Then, with sudden and vehement force, he tore the page from the book and crumpled it. Throwing the wad of paper to the rug, he looked up at Phileas with mingled apology, anger and fear in his eyes.
"I don’t know how I could even think about drawing that… thing." He glared down at the discarded ruins of the sketch. "It’s evil."
For a long moment Phileas sat still, studying first Verne and then the crumpled paper. Then, slowly, he reached down and picked it up from the deck. After neatly smoothing it out with a few deft strokes of his hand, he pushed it back across the table.
"Finish it, my friend." His voice was soft and unaccusing, tainted only with resigned weariness. "There are answers to be had, if we’re to prevent such things from happening again. And I suspect many of those answers lie in… that." He pointed to the drawing where it lay between them, creased and wrinkled but otherwise intact.
Reluctantly Verne dropped his eyes to the paper, and a distinct shudder passed through him. "It’s just…" he began, trailing off feebly with a shake of his head.
The fear was in his eyes again.
He was afraid of the League of Darkness; afraid of the things they wanted from him. He was afraid of the future in his dreams coming true—and afraid of it not coming true. He was afraid of things the human mind was not ready to bear in this day and age, and things such a gentle young heart as his should never have to bear in any age.
It was so unfair.
A familiar righteous anger stirred in Phileas, and for just one moment, he let it come. Leaning forward, he placed a hand on Verne’s arm. He sought the eyes of the younger man and spoke, in the low, steady, steel-edged voice that brought comfort to his friends… and terror to his enemies.
"I will never let them have you, Verne. Remember that."
Verne looked back at him, with an unexpected hardness in his eyes that caused Phileas to draw back his hand. When he responded, his tone was a raw challenge.
"Would you kill me to prevent it, Fogg?"
Phileas could have known that his truthful answer would end their friendship that very moment, and he still would have given it. But he didn’t know; he wasn’t sure. That young heart so full of unnatural fears also possessed an unnatural understanding—and a singular form of courage. Clasping his hands, Phileas leaned back, steadily holding Verne’s gaze.
"If there was no other hope… then yes, Jules. I would."
There. He saw the subtle shift in Verne’s eyes, the reaction not unexpected but somehow still surprising. The tension evaporated as if it had never existed. Their understanding was complete, acknowledged and accepted in a single moment.
I’ll protect you from the dark alleys of the world, my friend, if only you will protect me from the dark alleys of my own soul.
The two men lapsed into a perfectly comfortable silence. Verne tucked away the hated drawing and turned to a different page of his notebook, and was soon scratching away again as Phileas once more propped his feet up and relaxed. Several minutes passed before he opened his eyes and looked at Verne, his casual expression only a bit too studied.
"I suppose you’ll need to be getting back to Paris," he remarked.
Verne looked up, reading Phileas’ eyes and tone of voice. He even gave an almost convincing appearance of thinking it over.
"Actually, I have a little time yet. I’d like to settle down and clear my head. And I thought… maybe… I might stay at Shillingworth for a few days. If you don’t mind, of course."
Another understanding had been offered and received. With proper thoughtful slowness, Phileas inclined his head. "You’re quite welcome always, Verne."
The younger man smiled and returned to his sketching.
It was all very simple, really—which was exactly the way it should have been, between friends.
The Foggs’ return to Shillingworth Magna was greeted by the household staff with the usual concern, and the usual polite pretenses of ignorance. Some matters had called them to Scotland—or so it had been said—and Mister Fogg had for a time taken gravely ill—or so they were told. No one believed it, but no one cared whether anyone believed it. That was the way of things. Besides, there was enough to be concerned about with the good master’s temperament—and not in the usual manner.
In the days following his return home, Mister Fogg did not once berate Passepartout, nor snap at any of the other servants, nor argue with his cousin. For the most part he isolated himself in his study, a common signal that he was in his cups. His mood would brighten just a little when he took meals with Miss Rebecca and his young French friend Master Jules, but apart from their company, he was lethargic and dispirited. Even the newspapers he had once religiously perused went untouched, the daily copies of the Times stacking up on the desk unread. Nothing appeared to entertain his interest.
Only at night would he grow restless. He would get up and walk about the house alone, now and again silently looking into the room of Miss Rebecca or Master Jules. Eventually Passepartout would find him, and without a word exchanged would take him unprotesting back to his bed—yet in the morning he would be tired, and would drowse by himself in his study once again.
When approached about what was ailing him, Mister Fogg would simply give a weak smile and admit that he had not been feeling quite himself. Indeed, truer words were never spoken, for the volatile, capricious Phileas Fogg had become quiet, docile, and entirely non-confrontational—in short, a total stranger. And while this mild demeanor was novel at first, it was simply too unnatural to be comfortable.
Perhaps that had something to do with it when, early on the morning of the fifth day, Passepartout managed to blow off the door of his workshop.
It all happened quite "accidentably", according to the valet, and may or may not have involved the complicity of Master Jules; that part was never quite clear afterward. To be fair, the sound of the blast had brought Mister Fogg at a run from his study. Finding Passepartout and Master Jules in the clearing smoke, however, he had taken each man by the arm and looked him over, with all the symptoms of an unbearable sort of anxiousness.
"Are you alright?" he had asked, with a tension in his voice that was decidedly not anger.
"Fine," Master Jules had mumbled in reply, as Passepartout stared at the floor, nodded sheepishly, and shuffled his feet.
"I see." Mister Fogg’s tension faded to a peculiar resigned neutrality, and after casting a glance around the room, he concluded simply, "I trust you will be so good as to clean this up."
With that he had walked out, primly stepping over the splintered remains of the door, and leaving Passepartout looking as if he were about to break into tears.
It was all terribly strange.
Really, Jules reflected as he irritably swept up shards of broken glass, Passepartout’s idea hadn’t been such a far-fetched one. After all, his concoction probably would have done a fine job of dissolving the rust on the hinges—if not for that little unforeseen chemical reaction.
Still, he found himself wondering if Passepartout had done it on purpose, even unconsciously, in an effort to get some sort of rise out of his master.
Fogg was a walking shadow. The nervous fears only held sway over him at night now, but by daylight they had given way to a desolate sense of surrender and quiet sadness. The ever-shifting energies that once defined him were absent. He wasn’t in a good temper; he had no temper, as the mishap of the morning had proved. He was absolutely immovable from his strange quiescence.
Yet the anger was still in there somewhere. After hearing Fogg open his bedroom door to look in on him two nights before, Jules had crept downstairs and secretly observed the older man in the library. At times he paced, and at other times he sat perfectly motionless in one of the deep armchairs, with his gaze fixed on the fire that burned on the hearth. All of his unrelieved frustrations and doubts had been visible in his face, in that presumed scene of solitude.
His denial of them was surely killing him, and he knew it as well as anyone.
The young Frenchman jumped, dropping the broom and almost tripping over it as he turned around. Rebecca was standing on the threshold of the workshop, smoothing down her cranberry-colored skirts to keep them from catching on splintered bits of the doorjamb. She smiled at him. "Sorry to have startled you. I was looking for Passepartout."
"Uh… he went to get some things. To fix the door." Jules fought the urge to smack himself on the forehead for sounding so provincial and unpolished around Rebecca. At least he had the comfort of knowing that his was not an isolated reaction to her. Glossing over his embarrassment, he bent down to pick up the broom.
"Ah, yes. You two did cause quite a stir this morning, didn’t you?" With delicate care Rebecca stepped into the room, loftily surveying the damage. "Wish I hadn’t missed all the fun. I understand Phileas was… very forgiving."
Something in her tone made Jules flinch inwardly. No one was more concerned than Rebecca about her cousin’s altered personality.
On that awful day at Balmoral Castle, certain facts of life had penetrated Jules’ thick skull, as he stood back and watched Rebecca drag Phileas’ soul from the depths. He had understood then, suddenly, and surprisingly without pain, what he would never be. What no man ever could be to Rebecca, except for Phileas—even if it was something Phileas never did become. There existed a passion next to which any physical manifestation of love meant precisely nothing.
There was no contending with the one soul which would ever be a part of hers.
Slowly Jules set aside the broom, looking into Rebecca’s eyes for the honest answer he knew she would give him. What she was to him was a friend, and that was still worth everything.
"Do you think Phileas is ever going to be his old self again?"
Rebecca lowered her gaze, and for a fleeting moment he saw the pain there—but she looked up again with that soft smile of comfort, and in her eyes there was a real glimmer of hope, or at least determination. "Of course he will, Jules. He only needs time."
Her word would settle anything. Jules smiled weakly, then sighed and started fussing with the broom again. "I have to get back to Paris…"
"That’s something I mean to talk to Phileas about. I expect Passepartout can take you on the Aurora as soon as the day after tomorrow. Would that do?"
"Oh, yes, of course. And I know I’ve imposed too long already, I just… hate leaving Phileas, while he’s still this way."
Stepping forward, Rebecca put a hand under his chin and tilted his face toward hers. "Jules, you are not imposing. You never could. Especially when you’re helping a friend in need." Almost impulsively, she leaned forward and planted a kiss on his cheek. "It means very much to me."
Feeling his face grow hot, Jules smiled dumbly. "Any time."
In his normal state, Phileas Fogg might be anywhere at any time, and to a degree this still held true for his nightly roamings. Now, however, there was only one place where he would be found in the morning. After her brief conversation with Jules, Rebecca went to the study.
Her cousin was standing at the window, his right hand resting on the sill and his left hand on his hip. It was the cocky, dashing stance of the old Phileas, precisely as erect and poised as before—yet somehow entirely lacking the arrogance, the sharpness and energetic tension. Even with his back to her, Rebecca could still read that painful incompleteness. She wondered that Jules, with his clever intuitive mind, hadn’t understood it just as well as she did.
Phileas was afraid of himself.
His was not a quiet soul. His fragile mask of cool, steady control was far from natural to him; it was an acquired skill, born of the hard-learned understanding that he was the master of his passions, and not they his. Nicol McLean had methodically stripped him of that understanding, corrupting those passions by the intricate manipulation of his memories and emotions. And once torn from the brink of that madness, Phileas shrank back from reclaiming his passions as his strength, as the vital part of his being that they were—for fear he might fail to master them again.
The true Phileas Fogg was dying after all. It was just happening more slowly and painfully than anyone had first anticipated.
"It’s a lovely day." He said it like a condemned man’s final statement. He did not turn to look at her, but something in his voice made her realize that he was entirely sober.
"And here you are, just looking at it." Rebecca leaned on the windowsill beside him, looking out on the simple sunlit purity of a blue sky and green grass. "Perhaps we ought to go out for a ride. Or have you had enough excitement for one day?"
It was a deliberate opening. Rebecca knew better than to think Phileas might go off about Passepartout being a clumsy imbecile, and Jules a reckless man-child who would probably help assemble the guillotine for his own execution—but she could hope for a look, a tone of voice, some trace of animation that might slip past his dull façade.
Instead, he saw right through her.
"At the present, I rather think I’ve caused enough excitement for several lifetimes." He turned to look at her with an earnest, almost apologetic expression. "Perhaps later…"
There were layers of meaning in the last two words which resounded in Rebecca’s heart. Perhaps later he would go riding with her. Perhaps later he would surface from his undeserved new depths of self-doubt. Perhaps later he would make that choice, and let himself be the man he was.
He stepped away from the window and went to sit down. Rebecca followed, automatically settling into an armchair opposite his own.
"I was talking to Jules," she began. "I think we should have Passepartout take him back to Paris the day after tomorrow. He needs to be back to his studies."
"Yes, I suppose so." Phileas looked momentarily rueful, then gave her one of his rare and heartbreaking melancholy smiles—the kind he usually reserved for short-circuiting her reproach when he was too drunk to pretend he wasn’t drunk. "The household will be a bit safer, at least."
It was a weak attempt, but a good one. Rebecca returned the smile, but it quickly faded.
"I’m afraid I have to leave shortly. I’ve a meeting… with Sir Jonathan."
Phileas sat up straighter, with an expression of disapproval that was refreshingly normal. "What the devil does he want you for now?"
Yes, that was a slightly demanding note in his voice. It was quite an improvement. She should have mentioned her superior’s name days ago.
"It’s nothing important, Phileas." Rebecca caught herself sounding defensive on reflex, and took a breath. It was strangely good to feel annoyed with him, but the subject of her errand was one she would just as rather not be required to spell out. "It’s just some details of… the investigation."
"Chatsworth…" Phileas’ expression had grown distant, and with barely the effort of a twitched muscle, he was suddenly on his feet. "I’m coming with you."
Rebecca trailed off when she saw his eyes. No more the sad and passive doll’s eyes of the preceding days, they were dark and alive with intent. For this moment, Phileas had come back into his own—passions and all.
Yet Rebecca was suddenly unsure this was such a good thing.
"I’m coming with you," he repeated, and a chill passed through her—for his voice bore the taut, cryptic tone with which he had spoken at Balmoral Castle, when she had knelt on a tabletop and held him to life with nothing more than whispered memories.
It had not been a good day for Sir Jonathan Chatsworth, and the impending prospect of talking to a Fogg did nothing to improve it.
Slouching wearily and irritably behind his desk, Chatsworth paged through the latest report from agents investigating the recent intrigue at Castle Banquo. It had arrived from Scotland seven hours late, giving him barely time to look it over before his appointment with Rebecca Fogg. It was an intolerable situation not to be in possession of all pertinent facts, with all appropriate questions at the ready, when dealing with that… exacting woman.
There was little of note in the report, anyway. Miss Fogg, her cousin’s absurd little valet, and that insufferable young French dreamer had vacated Castle Banquo with all possible speed after overcoming their captors—leaving the enemy agents ample time to escape with any worthwhile evidence. Except for smashed equipment and trace amounts of some exotic drugs, nothing had been left.
Of course, the only concern of Miss Fogg and her companions had been in reaching Balmoral Castle and stopping Phileas Fogg—who had finally gone over the edge in quite spectacular fashion—from blowing Her Majesty to bits. Yet their reckless arrival might have saved only one life, and it was definitely not the Queen’s.
If they hadn’t stopped Fogg, a bullet would have.
Chatsworth was content to keep that knowledge to himself. Really, he was rather glad his reactions had gone unnoticed in the confusion. His life expectancy would probably be shortened by a great deal, if Miss Fogg ever learned he had been a heartbeat away from shooting her cousin in the back of the head.
As it was, she didn’t think him capable of such things.
Fogg had been drugged, they said, and the traces remaining at Castle Banquo at least supported that idea. Rebecca had intimated that certain other methods were used, as well. Chatsworth was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, if not him; all the same, he would just as rather see that Fogg never showed his face in Her Majesty’s presence again. However, knowing both the Foggs and Victoria Regina, he had no expectations of getting that wish.
Then again, Fogg had apparently been quite reticent since his return home, having secluded himself at Shillingworth Magna in a depression. Perhaps this incident had rattled him enough to keep him there, safely out of trouble—and out of the Service’s way.
No… probably not.
The knock on his office door came just as he had turned the last page of the report. Without looking up, he called out perfunctorily, "Come."
He heard the door open, heard the swish of Miss Fogg’s skirts as she strode into the room. What drew his attention, however, was something else—a sudden and intense sensation of foreboding. It was not unlike the tingling one was said to feel before lightning struck.
"Phileas!" Miss Fogg exclaimed, and Chatsworth looked up—straight into the fist of her lunatic cousin.
Oh, not this again.
Reflexively he launched himself away from his desk, recoiling from the worst of the impact, but his jaw still took a solid blow. Furthermore, his chair ignominiously toppled backward, taking him with it.
On his way to the floor, he was halfway aware of some scuffling sounds, and Fogg—correction, Miss Fogg—cursing rather colorfully. By the time he had landed, rolled and bounced to his feet, she appeared to have matters in hand. Her arm across his chest and her sheer force of presence was enough to keep Fogg pinned against the wall, breathing heavily and glaring at Chatsworth with no good intent.
"What in heaven’s name is the meaning of this?" Chatsworth was not capable of roaring, but it was a passable effort.
"Phileas…" Rebecca breathed, reinforcing the question, in a tone that was half plea and half threat.
Her cousin scowled and pushed her arm away, but remained where he stood with his back to the wall. His burning eyes remained locked on Chatsworth’s.
"He sent me to McLean."
Miss Fogg’s jaw dropped as she turned to look at her superior. "What?"
"Fogg, you are out of your mind!" Chatsworth spat, pressing his fingers to his jaw. Though he felt as if he’d been kicked in the head by a horse, he wasn’t bleeding; not only had he dodged it, Fogg himself had pulled the punch. It was merely a tap to get his attention.
"I remember now," Fogg breathed, in a low, icy snarl. "He gave me my instructions. Told me Her Majesty desired my presence at… Balmoral." The catch in his voice was a distinct prelude to a stammer.
The look on Rebecca’s face would no doubt have been quite interesting, but Chatsworth didn’t dare take his gaze from the other man’s. "I did no such thing, Fogg. And if you honestly believe Her Majesty would personally seek your charming company, then you exceed your own standards of arrogance!"
Unhindered by his cousin, if only because he appeared a trifle calmer, Fogg pushed himself away from the wall and took a step forward. "I spoke to you as plainly as we’re speaking now, Chatsworth."
The short, sharp question appeared to catch Fogg up slightly. He blinked, unable to disguise a moment of sudden uncertainty in his eyes, as he was forced to confront the instability of his memory. "The… the night I left for Scotland."
"That was the sixteenth, yes?"
"I—" Fogg began. For a split second, his gaze darted toward his cousin.
"Yes, it was," Miss Fogg confirmed, to either or both of them. Chatsworth didn’t hazard a glance at her, but her tone of voice sounded almost weary. What other delusions of Fogg’s had she been putting up with for the last several days?
"On the night of the sixteenth," Chatsworth said calmly, "I was preoccupied with an intelligence briefing until almost midnight. There are at least a dozen people who can confirm my whereabouts."
A look of mistrustful incredulity on his face, Fogg shook his head. Rebecca stepped toward him, and he almost visibly flinched when she put her hand on his arm.
"It was another deception, Phileas. The message that brought Jules, Passepartout and I to Scotland—we thought it was from you. It was a forgery, and the instructions you thought you received from Sir Jonathan were a forgery as well." She paused, squeezing his arm. "Believe me, Phileas."
Chatsworth would have thought that the sight of Phileas Fogg being convinced he was wrong would be a memory to cherish forever. In reality, it was unsettling, even a bit depressing. Fogg looked from Rebecca to the spymaster, his expression changing markedly as he grappled with the fact that his memory harbored yet another lie. Angry disbelief slowly faded to contrite humiliation, and with a second small shake of his head, he at last turned away and threw himself into a chair by the door.
"I… owe you an apology, Sir Jonathan."
Chatsworth felt a sudden curiosity about the temperature in hell. It went unspoken, however, as judging by her expression, Miss Fogg would happily have sent him to find out. Impossible woman. Angry at him instead of at her cousin, who was in the wrong.
Still, he didn’t fail to notice the precision of Fogg’s words. He owed an apology. It was not expressly given, however adroitly it was implied. Even now, his pride only stretched so far.
Considering the action he’d been prepared to take at Balmoral, Chatsworth decided that they both had broken even… this time.
With a small gesture, he drew Miss Fogg to the other side of the room, and spoke in an angry whisper as he rubbed his jaw. "What on earth did you bring him here for?"
"I felt I had to, Sir Jonathan." Her scowl softened. "I’m truly sorry. I had no idea he would do such a thing. I thought he might be concerned with the investigation, and after everything he’s been through, I couldn’t really deny him—"
"Oh, never mind it." Chatsworth sighed and glanced back at Fogg, who was uncharacteristically resting his head on his hand, and appeared to be regathering his thoughts or his nerve. "Perhaps it’s for the best that we found out this little detail of his hallucinations."
"If it was an hallucination," Rebecca replied, a trifle coldly. "McLean’s people were capable of some striking theatrical illusions. It’s possible you may have been impersonated."
It was an entirely distasteful thought. Making a face, Chatsworth shifted the subject. "Well, I’m sure we’ll find out when we apprehend these conspirators. Which brings me to the report." He glanced significantly toward Fogg. Rebecca looked surprised but slowly nodded, so he went back to his desk. After righting his chair, he sat down and resumed in a normal tone, speaking to both Foggs.
"Almost nothing of value was learned at Castle Banquo. The remains of the machine that allegedly pumped the gas or drug were found, but your brash friend Verne had very well smashed it."
Pointedly ignoring the allegedly part, Rebecca produced a folded and rather wrinkled paper from beneath the green-velvet folds of her jacket. "That’s why Verne created this, with Phileas’ encouragement. We felt it might help in reconstructing the… technique." She cast a delicate glance toward Fogg, who sat staring down at his clenched fists in his lap.
Chatsworth studied the drawing for a moment. Monsieur Verne was a skilled draftsman, that much was true. Still, the contraption he had depicted looked too simple to have almost driven a man fatally insane—even if the man was Phileas Fogg, mad enough to begin with.
"Very good," he said at length, tucking the sketch between the pages of the report from Scotland, and went on. "Other than the machine, evidence of a variety of drugs was found. Fully half of them defy identification." He grudgingly glanced at Fogg. "I’d say you’re lucky you weren’t poisoned to death."
Roused from his brooding, Fogg raised shadowed eyes to the spymaster. "No. Not quite."
It was unclear whether he meant he was not quite poisoned to death, or not quite lucky. Giving Miss Fogg a dubious glance, Chatsworth went on. "We’ve been doing our best to track down the culprits, but without any success so far. We have, however, traced the history of Nicol McLean—he was anything but knighted, by the way—and have uncovered some extraordinarily interesting things."
Fogg straightened slightly, a cold light of renewed and not at all cordial interest appearing in his eyes. It was just as well he was there to listen, Chatsworth decided, even though he was virtually guaranteed another violent reaction.
"It would appear," he began slowly, "that McLean did have a certain roundabout connection with your father. And that the little fiction he spun to you, about using chemicals to alter a child’s development, actually had a basis in fact."
He was treated to another novel view of Phileas Fogg: that of the man turning white as a ghost.
"Oh, not you, Fogg," Chatsworth snorted. "Heaven help us all if it were. No, the experiment was made by a Secret Service agent acting on his own, with the guidance of two… well, they certainly weren’t doctors. I suppose you might call them independent researchers, at best. One of them was Nicol McLean."
"And the subject of this… experiment?" Miss Fogg asked faintly.
"The agent’s own son, as McLean’s tale suggested. It was also true that their intent was to heighten his strength and physical abilities, though to my knowledge, there was nothing to do with making him violent." Chatsworth scowled. "You’ll be interested to know, Fogg, that when your father learned of the experiment, he not only did not condone it—he put an immediate end to it. McLean had disappeared, but both the agent and McLean’s partner in research faced severe consequences. Both of them are long since dead, I might add."
If anything, Fogg had become even paler. He sat still, absorbing the information, with a look in his eye that was more than a little disturbing.
Miss Fogg spoke again. "What about the boy?"
"He never knew about the intrigue that had centered on him. He enjoyed a very normal, happy childhood, and has since become an excellent agent in the Service." When Fogg’s face contorted with astonishment and disgust, Chatsworth added, "Don’t think it, Fogg. He’s by no means a violent man. Quite the contrary, he excels in logic and diplomacy."
The words unlike you hung unspoken at the end of the remark. Fogg heard them anyway.
"Who is he?" Fogg asked, in a quiet, tense voice.
"You know I can’t give you a name, Fogg. The case is twenty-five years old, and it really has nothing to do with you. I only told you this much because of your own experience with McLean, and to… put you at ease… about Sir Boniface’s view of such tampering with human life."
"Thank you, Sir Jonathan." There was a faint note of wonder in Rebecca’s voice and expression. From Chatsworth to her cousin, it was an unusually sensitive and magnanimous gesture—especially after Fogg’s right-cross greeting.
Fogg was silent for a moment more, and then, with effortless fluidity of motion, he rose from his chair and crossed to the desk in two strides. Planting his hands on its surface, he leaned across it to face Chatsworth, with storm clouds gathering in his eyes.
"We’re going to have a long discussion about this, Chatsworth… but not today." His tone was fierce, but it was not the sepulchral, imminently lethal one he had used before. It was sheer, typical Fogg temperament, instead of the cold fire burning in that part of his soul which suffered still from his ordeal; even Chatsworth knew the difference.
With a preposterously polite inclination of his head, Fogg then turned and stalked out of the office, the door slamming shut behind him.
So help him, Chatsworth couldn’t find it in his heart to be angry.
He looked at Miss Fogg, rigidly pretending that he didn’t notice the merest trace of a smile on her face. She cleared her throat and sobered. "I am sorry, sir."
There was a message in her tone which Chatsworth read clearly, and he heaved an irritated sigh. Whether he liked it or not—whether, perhaps, Rebecca herself liked it or not—the Foggs came as a matched set. All his efforts to prove otherwise had been futile. And until Fogg was settled…
He stared stonily at the door through which Fogg had just exited. "Rebecca, you may consider yourself on leave of absence until further notice." Glancing at her, he saw her interrogative expression. Did she want an explanation for a perceived punishment? No, not her. She knew his reason. She required his answer just for the sake of hearing him say he was concerned about Phileas Fogg’s well-being.
"Your cousin is a… singular man," he allowed grudgingly. "Even Her Majesty has recently inquired after his welfare. She’ll have my hide if you’re not free to set him to rights—only see that you do it, for heaven’s sakes!"
"I think, sir… that you may have helped in that direction." The faint smile was back; it was hardly a happy expression, but there was something of relief in it. Rebecca primly stood up. "Please tell Her Majesty that Phileas is much improved."
Chatsworth uttered an incredulous grunt.
He made it look so easy.
There was no nocturnal wanderlust for Phileas that night, and in the morning, Rebecca found him wide awake in his study. He was actually reading the newspaper, though he sat slouching in his chair without his usual crispness of posture. Still, perhaps a little of the old Phileas had come back. To think all it had taken was one good crack at Chatsworth…
"Good morning, Rebecca," Phileas said from behind the newspaper.
She smiled; his tone sounded a little more animated than was usual these days. "Good morning, Phileas. Did you sleep well last night?"
He lowered the paper, looking at her across the expanse of newsprint with a steady, clear-eyed gaze—sober for the second morning in a row, she noted with satisfaction. Perfectly deadpan, he replied, "Not a wink, actually."
"Oh, Phileas." Rebecca seated herself in the armchair facing his.
"I had some considerable thinking to do." He meticulously folded the paper and set it aside. "You know… I was wondering if you might take some fencing exercise with me."
The abrupt invitation sent up an immediate red flag in Rebecca’s mind. Phileas hadn’t touched a weapon since the events in Scotland, and she knew why.
He was afraid of what he might do.
Clarity overcame her suddenly. As a broken bone needed to be set before it could heal, Phileas needed to confront his own lethal strengths before he could heal, and accept them again as part of himself. He had to know that he could trust himself.
After what happened in Chatsworth’s office, she wasn’t so sure he could.
"I don’t think your sword arm is up to it," she lied. She knew better. If Phileas could belt Chatsworth the way he had the day before, then the bloody but shallow slash she’d traced into his arm at Castle Banquo was not a problem.
"My arm is perfectly fine," Phileas predictably asserted. Then his expression quirked; he looked away, drumming his fingers on the armrest of his chair, and turned to her again with a sudden and unnaturally beseeching look. "Don’t make excuses, Rebecca. You know what it is I’m asking."
She looked away from that painfully earnest gaze. "Phileas…"
"Rebecca. Please." He leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees, and switched to a deceptively light tone of voice. "Contrary to common belief about the house, I am not completely unaware that I have been a crashing bore of late. The servants are ready to revolt, Passepartout is absolutely miserable, Verne is afraid to remove himself from Shillingworth and…" He paused suddenly, lowering his eyes.
"…And as I am now, I’m of no use to you whatsoever."
She should have known. It always came back to this; he couldn’t let her alone. Perhaps visiting Whitehall was too much of a reminder that sooner or later, she would go back to her work, regularly risking her life for Queen and country. For so long Phileas had helped, had hindered, had followed her to the ends of the earth whether she wanted him to or not—but he had never been content to let her go into anything on her own. Rather than do that, he was even willing to take back what he had learned to fear in himself.
All for her.
Rebecca resolutely denied the sudden, aching wellspring of emotions within her. "Perhaps I don’t want you to be of any use to me, Phileas." The words were harsh and impulsive. She didn’t mean them, and he knew it.
"In that case, I believe I shall go mad." There was an underlying strain beneath the casual self-mockery, betraying depths of sincerity which Rebecca did not want to hear. He was telling her the truth. She could guide him back to the life he had chosen, the life in which she constantly risked losing him—or she could lose him right now, to something far lonelier.
Oh, she hated it when he was honest with her. Even more than when he lied to her.
The choice was not hers. It was his, and he had made his decision; he only needed her help to follow through. If she didn’t help him, he would find another way—but he had come to her first, because she would understand. Because he was willing to let her see the feelings in him that he denied to all others. Even because he trusted her not to let him hurt her… one way or another.
He trusted her.
"The stableyards, one-quarter of an hour," she said tonelessly.
Phileas stood up, giving her a pert, abbreviated bow. "Much obliged," he answered as if she’d given him the time of day, and calmly strode out of the room.
He made it look so easy.
Fifteen minutes later, clad in her leathers, Rebecca made a small circuit of the grounds and came upon the stableyard from the side opposite the house. Phileas, she knew, would have gone ahead to dismiss any servants in the area, but there was no reason to take chances. Not that anyone would really have been alarmed, or even surprised, to see the master and mistress having at each other with some incredibly sharp objects—but Rebecca did have a reputation to pretend to uphold.
Phileas was there, practice foils in hand. His coat had been laid to one side, his waistcoat unbuttoned and the collar of his crisp white shirt loosened, emphasizing the gaunt leanness of his frame. He looked so much as he had that terrible night—was it really less than a week before?—except that now, instead of confusion, rage and pain, there was calm anticipation in his face.
He was not at all taken by surprise when Rebecca emerged from the trees on the far side of the empty stableyard. Without a word, he thrust the point of one of the foils into the ground and stepped back, positioning himself.
Rebecca uprooted the weapon and followed suit, but her eyes remained on him, watching his gaze slide over his own blade from hilt to tip and back again. There was no discernible expression on his face, but far too much in his eyes. They were his weakness, the proverbial mirror to the soul, ever betraying all that lay within.
She couldn’t look at them anymore.
Evidently resolved, Phileas took up his opening stance. "Ready?"
The last time, it had been deadly earnest. The last time, in the grip of Nicol McLean’s physical and mental poisons, he had looked at her and seen the enemy—and unknowing, she had exacted payment in his blood for the illusion. She owed him recompense.
Bracing herself, she nodded once, and their exercise began.
Thrust, parry, riposte; Rebecca held her ground without advancing, and watched her cousin. Recent events had done nothing to dampen Phileas’ skill. It lay not in his memory alone, but in the very nerves and muscles of his body, trained through the years to act and react until knowledge became instinct—and instinct flowed as naturally as breathing. That was why a part of Rebecca loved to watch him with a sword in his hand. He was magnificent in the fluid steel of his movements, a dancer’s lightness and grace belying the raw power of him.
He made it look so easy.
"You’re not being much of a challenge." The comment was so offhanded, it might have passed for an observation rather than a complaint—if not for his casual sidestep which caused her to stumble forward in an unchecked thrust. The simple action was itself a criticism.
Rebecca recoiled and slowly circled him, taking new stock of the exercise. Phileas was beginning to play somewhat rougher than she would have preferred, and that irritated her, but not as much as her own lapse of attention. She renewed her focus and made a tactical appraisal of him. Unlike her, he hadn’t yet broken a sweat; physically and mentally, he remained cool.
No. He was cold… Too cold.
"Tell me something, Phileas," she said tersely, and lunged at him.
He parried—and drew back a step. "What?"
"Why didn’t you tell me what you believed about Chatsworth before we saw him?"
He executed a quick feint and regained the ground he’d given, his foil meeting hers with a greater impact than before. "With all due respect, Rebecca… you wouldn’t have reacted well."
"Oh, and I reacted well to your walking in and punching my boss in the face?" Her tone sharpened. "Phileas, what were you thinking?"
"I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking anything."
"I think you didn’t tell me because I’d have deprived you of your excuse to hit him," Rebecca retorted, stepping back from a particularly fierce attack on Phileas’ part.
"Piffle. I have no shortage of justification for that. You’re the only reason I haven’t wrung the neck of that smug… bureaucratic… swine." The clash of his blade against hers punctuated the terse name-calling. He was bristling with ill-temper now, breathing heavily, and he had begun to sweat—from the exertion not of fighting, but of holding back.
"Sir Jonathan Chatsworth is not your enemy," Rebecca ground out. She was on the defensive now in more ways than one. "If he were compromised, Phileas, I would know. He’s a decent man, whether or not you agree with the way he accomplishes things."
"Accomplishes what?" The retort was incredulous. "Where is the Secret Service when the League strikes, Rebecca? Where is Chatsworth when Count Gregory is plotting the end of the world as we know it? Where was he when you were strapped to a bloody rocket?"
If Rebecca hadn’t jumped back, the last impact of his foil against hers could well have dislocated her wrist. In hindsight, she decided, provoking Phileas had not been such a good idea after all.
But she owed this to him.
She owed this to herself.
Her foil raised defensively, she backed away, and spoke in a voice that was heated with years of pent-up anger. "The Service is not perfect, Phileas. Perhaps you could have made it better than it is, but you chose differently. So step aside and let me do my job, on my own—because now you have to live with that choice."
From behind her blade, she watched the awesome and frightening surge of darkness that passed over her cousin. Poised to attack, he stared at her with the bleak, dead-eyed gaze that she hated and feared, the one that meant all goodness had gone out of his soul like the tide… letting him be, for a moment, capable of anything.
"Perhaps that is just one choice too many to live with."
His voice was almost a whisper, toneless and lifeless. Lowering his foil, he slowly turned and took two steps away—but Rebecca sensed more than saw the tremors of fury that passed through him, and braced herself for the storm to break.
He pivoted, with a sudden, savage lunge that still caught her off guard. She brought up her foil with both hands, and pain radiated through her arms as the blade met the naked force of his blow. Stifling a grunt, she twisted away from him and went into full retreat. She was too busy defending herself to seek out his eyes, but she was afraid of what she would find there, anyway.
Perceiving an opening that just might let her disarm him, she swept forward in an agile riposte. He was too quick; he sidestepped her, his foil coming down upon hers with a force that threw her to her knees, and her blade was suddenly pinned to the ground by his.
The sunlight and birdsong, the fragrances of fresh straw and damp earth faded away. Her memory dragged her back to a cold, shadowed room in a Scottish castle, and there she crouched on a table with her sword trapped beneath his, tears filling her eyes as she realized she was facing the one man in the world against whom she had no defense.
In the present, Phileas knelt before her, staring at her with his head slightly tilted. Rebecca’s gaze slowly traveled up from his heaving chest, to the beads of sweat sliding down into the hollow of his throat, to the firm set of his jaw… and at last to his eyes. At first glance she thought they were empty of emotion, but instead they were full—and for once, utterly unreadable to her. For a moment, she was uncertain whether he might kiss her or run her through.
At the time, either action may have had approximately the same effect on her.
Something in his eyes slowly changed. Their green embers stirred to life again—and Rebecca decided the former absence of light had been infinitely preferable to this ice-cold flame.
"I’m going after him."
It was that soft, deathly tone again, and Rebecca’s gut twisted at the first idea of him which her mind churned up. "Count Gregory—?"
"Oh, yes. At the proper time… definitely him. But now…" Phileas slowly released his pressure on her foil, his blade sliding away from hers with a hollow metallic ring.
"For now… Nicol McLean."
Rebecca closed her eyes, feeling sick. She hadn’t wanted this. Even Phileas couldn’t have wanted this, when he had challenged her to help release what lay within him. A lust for vengeance was his sense of honor at its most twisted. In lethal measure, it was mercifully rare in him—but when it was aroused, there was nothing that could stop it.
She forced herself to look up at him again. "No, Phileas."
His eyes had softened to a pensive quietude. He blinked a few times and stood up, slightly breathless, but as perfectly calm as he had been when she first came out to meet him. Or rather, perhaps, imperfectly calm. He was not passive, but controlled—in true Phileas Fogg fashion. He had failed at his own test, but he did so on his own terms.
"Are we quite done here?" he asked, in a tone of patience tried. As if the entire idea of the session had been hers and not his.
If she tried to answer him, she would have started screaming at him. Instead, she mutely held out her foil to him, avoiding his fingers as he took it from her grasp. Had he touched her at the moment, something highly untoward would have happened… though what that untoward something might have been was anyone’s guess.
He transferred her weapon to his left hand, its blade jangling unnervingly against his own, then held out his right hand to her. Rebecca ignored it and rose to her feet unaided. For a moment he stood watching her as she dusted herself off, and she had a strange feeling that there was something he wanted desperately to say, if only she would meet his gaze. She didn’t.
At last, with a sigh, he turned to walk away, and only then did she raise her eyes to his retreating figure. "Phileas."
He paused, but he didn’t turn; he didn’t seek her eyes, and the chance to say what she had chosen not to hear. At least he gave her that much.
"Why do we do this to each other?"
His shoulders shifted slightly; nothing close to a shrug, but not a fidget either. A long, aching moment of silence stretched before his reply.
"Because we can’t bloody do it to anyone else," he answered wearily, and started toward the house, leaving her to stare after him in heartsick anger.
He made it look so easy, when it was one of the hardest things he had ever done.
Phileas did not make an appearance for supper that night, and Rebecca dined alone with Jules, who was preparing to leave for Paris the next day. The fact that he had forsaken their last supper with Jules for the time being only increased her lingering anger. She went to bed without tracking down her cousin to wish him goodnight—and then she lay awake for hours, wondering just what it was he had wanted so badly to say to her in the stableyard that day.
She decided she would ask him in the morning.
But when the morning came, Phileas was nowhere to be found.
The little cottage in the Highlands was entirely unremarkable. Its two stories of dull quaintness stood on the outskirts of some backwater village, bordered by a white picket fence and harboring a small, picturesque garden at one side. For an agent of the League of Darkness, left to his own devices after having failed in his mission, it was a perfectly unlikely place to go to ground. The Secret Service could well have searched for a hundred years and never found it.
For the self-appointed angel of death who stole into the cottage one night, it took exactly nine days.
The upstairs bedroom was small and uncomfortable. Paneled with dark-stained wood, the narrow space was gloomy and claustrophobic, especially when lit by just one small candle. The effect was increased by the dominance of a massive four-poster bed, hung with heavy dark-green curtains.
Somewhere in the hallway, a clock was chiming midnight. Phileas Fogg sat on a hard wooden chair beside the bed, his chin resting on his hand, as he silently studied the face of its occupant.
In his sleep, Nicol McLean looked as if he could have been someone’s grandfather, aged and gentle and wise. His breathing was soft and steady, his face a vision of saintly peace. He was a small man, his wrinkles settling most deeply around his eyes and mouth, crafted by years of mirth.
He was a little man, with a cruel wit and a shrewd mind, who took his pleasure in others’ pain.
Phileas thoughtfully flicked his thumb across the blade of the knife in his hand. It was sharp, as McLean’s intellect was sharp. He remembered at least a few of the dry, intelligent jokes, the ironic turns of phrase that brought humor to the most mundane remarks. He remembered the twisted smile of indulgence that looked down upon him as he sat drowning in grief and self-hatred, covered in what he thought was the blood of those he loved.
Nicol McLean was an exceptional man. Exceptionally intelligent, and exceptionally evil—a charming old serpent with venom behind his smile. The venom of words, wielded with the precision of the deadliest weapon, poisonous to the mind and soul.
But not before real poisons had weakened Phileas. McLean was a coward, afraid to match his cunning against a strong, clear mind.
He had no thugs and drugs and illusions to hide behind this time.
Still, Phileas would give him a fair chance. Honor demanded that much.
Leaning forward, he reached out, and tapped the flat of the knife blade against McLean’s nightshirt-clad chest. The old man stirred, faded blue eyes slowly opening… then growing wide with horror, as his vision focused on the face which leaned close to whisper a deadly promise.
"Do I not say… ‘I will be avenged’?"
McLean made a soft, strangled noise… and suddenly clutched at his chest. On instinct Phileas recoiled, poised to defend himself—and watched in astonishment as McLean’s frail body was wracked by spasms and choking gasps.
It happened so very swiftly. A final, grotesque sound emerged from the old man’s throat, and he fell back against the pillows, his mouth agape and his open eyes unseeing.
Untouched by his would-be avenger, Nicol McLean was dead of a heart attack.
Phileas stared down at him, feeling the floodgates of his rage burst open. McLean had inflicted madness upon him, had threatened the security of his country and the lives of everyone he cared about, and forced him unwittingly to do the same—and now, at the last, had even denied him vengeance. The coward had fled to the ultimate refuge, to a place where Phileas could never touch him, never make him feel any part of the pain he had caused. It was impossible, intolerable, unbearable.
The knife clattered to the floor. With a wordless cry of fury, Phileas reached out to seize McLean’s lifeless body, to tear it to pieces with his bare hands.
Surely all men take pleasure in violence, Fogg… It is the nature of the beast.
The remembered words—McLean’s words—stayed Phileas’ hand. The lost memory, a vision of standing on Castle Banquo’s battlement on that chill, misty night of agonies, resurfaced in his mind.
Man is one of the beasts, Fogg, dispute it as one might.
I assure you that my father did not take, and I have never taken, any pleasure in violence.
You're not a monster.
Phileas closed his eyes and breathed deeply, remembering. Truly remembering, letting himself feel and understand without fear. On that morning at Balmoral Castle, with Rebecca’s help, he had made the choice on his own to step back from the edge—from the violence McLean himself had instilled in him. From that moment, he was as free of McLean’s power as he chose to be.
He had been, and was, master of himself.
Opening his eyes, he looked down at McLean’s lifeless figure. His fury was gone. That serpent’s tongue could never harm him again.
McLean had died in fear—fear of Phileas, of his vengeance, certainly. But as he leaned a little closer, studying the staring face contorted in terror, he realized McLean’s gaze in that final moment had not rested upon him. Those open eyes instead had gazed past Phileas, into something infinitely more frightening and inescapable.
Perhaps a higher justice had claimed him, after all.
"You were wrong," Phileas announced to the body, or to McLean’s spirit if it could hear him. "And I have beaten you."
Quietly he picked up his knife, extinguished the candle, and left the room as he had come, through the open window. Balancing on the narrow sill, he reached out to grasp the trellis by which he had ascended, then paused to gaze up and outward. The rain clouds of the evening had been swept away, leaving the sky clear and full of stars.
The night was peaceful again.
With a rueful smile, Phileas swung himself out onto the trellis, and began his descent.
Frustrated and weary, Rebecca threw open the front door of No. 7 Saville Row and trudged inside, with the equally dejected Jules and Passepartout on her heels.
The London townhouse had been a sort of impromptu headquarters in the search for Phileas. Naturally, Jules had once again put off his return to Paris in order to join the search; they had even received the grudging assistance of Sir Jonathan and his resources. Yet the effort remained fruitless after almost eleven days, and Rebecca could feel despair beginning to fray her at the edges.
Perhaps if she’d only listened to Phileas that last day…
Something about the small table by the entryway caught her eye, and she paused. It was one of Phileas’ plentiful walking-sticks, which, instead of resting in the stand behind the door where it belonged, had been laid across the table at an angle. For Phileas to have left it out of place when he was here last, and even more so for Passepartout to let it remain there, was highly unusual.
…And then she recognized it.
This particular walking-stick, a slender spiral of dark wood with an ornately carved handle, was the one which Phileas had carried at Balmoral—the one that had lain between them on the table, as Rebecca knelt there and convinced him that they were both alive. It was the one she had carried from the room when it was over, and the one which, alone in her cabin on the Aurora, she had clutched to her chest while tears streamed from her eyes.
Now it was here, discreetly pointing the way to the library.
Rebecca’s heart gave a sudden leap, and she bolted down the hall. "Jules! Passepartout!"
She couldn’t fault them for being confused, but they hurried after her. At the door of the library she paused, her pulse fluttering wildly, then with slow and deliberate care she turned the handle. The door swung open without a sound.
In Phileas’ favorite seat a pair of long, neatly crossed legs, clad in perfectly pressed grey trousers, protruded from beneath a snowdrift of crisp newsprint. Slowly her cousin’s head bobbed above the paper, one eyebrow arched in a look of almost mischievous impatience.
"Well, it’s about time you three showed up—I’ve been waiting for nearly five hours now. Passepartout? A fresh pot of coffee, if you please."
Passepartout’s face shone with a tremendous smile of astonishment and delight. He moved as if to step toward Phileas a few times, then at last clicked his heels together smartly and made a slight bow. "At once, Master!" he sang out, and with a knowing grin to Jules and Rebecca, he bustled off toward the kitchen. Jules had broken into a smile as well, but Rebecca continued to stare.
Some part of her was afraid Phileas might vanish if she blinked.
Meeting her eyes with a shadow of a smile on his lips, Phileas put away the newspaper and uncrossed his legs. He’d barely managed to rise from the chair, however, before Rebecca almost knocked him back into it, her arms tight around his ribs and her cheek pressed against his heart. Joyfully she listened to its steady beat, breathing in his familiar spicy scent of lavender and sandalwood.
"Phileas," she whispered, first in undisguised relief, then repeating his name in anxious admonishment. "Oh, Phileas. If you ever, ever, ever do such a thing again…"
Then his arms were around her, and the last ten days didn’t matter anymore. "It’s alright, Rebecca," he said soothingly, stroking a lock of her long copper-red hair.
Was it? She had to know. Pushing herself away from him slightly, but not so much that he would let her go, she looked up into his eyes. They gazed back at her not peacefully, but contentedly, and his soft smile deepened a little. At that moment, she was sure. Wherever he had been, whatever he had done, he had not taken the life of Nicol McLean.
"It’s over now," he said gently. "I’ve settled it."
He was clearly not going to elaborate further, but it was enough. He was home, and safe, and he had left his self-fears behind on his mysterious sojourn. What was once a wound to his spirit had become just one more scar, and if perchance it should ever pain him in troubled weather, he would smile and say that it was fine. And she would know better, but it would be alright, because he would know that she knew.
Taking a deep breath, he let his arms drop a little and looked toward Jules, who stood in the doorway with a rosy smile and pretended his attention was elsewhere. "I’m sorry to have delayed your return to your studies yet again, Verne."
The young Frenchman shrugged cheerfully. "It’s alright. I’ll only have to lose about a week’s sleep catching up."
"We’ll see about that. We can have you started off for Paris in the morning." Phileas looked down at Rebecca, demurely taking a step back from her. "As a matter of fact, why don’t we go along? I think we could use a bit of a holiday. I’ll even take you shopping, if you like." His mock-grimace did nothing to obscure the lightness of his tone.
Rebecca laughed. "I’d like that more than anything in the world, Phileas."
"Excellent." He smiled and captured her hand in his, and she watched as a thoughtful warmth came into her cousin’s eyes.
"But before we leave tomorrow… there’s something I intend to do."
Agent Evans was feeling a bit nervous when he strode down the hall to Sir Jonathan Chatsworth’s office. As a general rule, a minor operative such as himself was not called upon by the head of the Secret Service every day—and when one was called upon, it was not usually an auspicious occasion.
Perhaps it had something to do with his father. He had never really known the man, but knew that his career with the Service had been less than distinguished. He’d often feared that one of the black marks in his father’s record would come to tarnish his own somehow. Friends told him it was a foolish worry, but Evans was in the habit of thinking through every possibility in life.
His knock on the heavy door was answered by a curt order of "Enter," and he stepped in. Sir Jonathan was standing at the window. He took his time, shuffling about some of the seemingly irrelevant bric-a-brac on the windowsill, before turning to face Evans. While he didn’t look at all pleased, somehow none of that displeasure appeared to be directed toward his guest.
"Please sit down," he said. Evans obeyed.
The spymaster settled himself behind his desk, then paused to give Evans an appraising glance—and a half-smile tightened his lips. "Don’t look so grim, Mister Evans. I’ve only asked you here about a minor personal matter."
It made no sense at all that Sir Jonathan would have anything to do with a personal matter where he was concerned. Evans shook his head slightly. "I don’t understand, sir."
For explanation, Sir Jonathan pushed an envelope across the mirror-polished surface of his desk. "This is for you, from a gentleman who must remain unnamed. It is, or so he asked me to tell you, a return for a debt which he feels his father owed you."
Hesitantly, Evans reached out and picked up the envelope. It was unmarked and unsealed; he had no doubt that his superior knew what it contained. In puzzled fascination, he turned it over—and his eyes widened at the cluster of banknotes which slid out into his hand.
"A th… thousand pounds?" His voice took on a decided squeak, and his pulse quickened. As the shock subsided, he stared down at the money for a long moment and started going over every name in his mental index, trying to fathom just whom this extraordinary windfall could have come from.
Sir Jonathan watched him with a neutral expression.
Finally, having drawn a blank, Evans shook his head. "Sir, there must be some mistake. There’s no one who owes me money, I’m sure of it."
"That assumes the debt was a matter of money to begin with."
Evans frowned, and slowly replaced the money in the envelope. "There’s absolutely no reason I can think of. Really, sir—I don’t think I can accept—"
"Then give it to some charitable cause," Sir Jonathan answered shortly. He let out a long breath, and his expression softened somewhat. "He won’t take it back, Evans. This is a matter of honor with him. And whatever else he may be, he is… an honorable man."
Evans stared down at the envelope. So be it, then. His conscience could not accept the mysterious gift, but his minister could surely make noble use of it for the orphans he tended.
"Is… is that all, sir?" Really, it was too much, but one didn’t say such a thing to one’s superior.
"Hmm? Oh, yes." Sir Jonathan was already distracted with some of the files laying on his desk. "Yes, that will be all."
"Thank you, sir." Feeling dazed, tightly clutching the envelope, Evans stood up. He took a step toward the door, but his intense bafflement got the better of him, and he turned. "Sir, if I could only know the name of this gentleman—"
"You may not." Sir Jonathan’s tone was final. Only after the stark utterance did he glance up, and he frowned slightly. "You’d better put that away now. You’re dismissed, Evans."
"Yes, sir." Evans sighed and headed for the door. As he reached for the knob with his right hand, his left hand was busy trying to stuff the envelope beneath his waistcoat.
Taking a step out the door, he ran squarely into someone, and the envelope fluttered to the floor.
His heart skipped a beat, but the envelope kept its contents. Catching his breath, he glanced up to offer an apology to the man with whom he’d collided. He was tall, immaculately dressed and handsome, with silvering dark hair and distinctively long, pointed sideburns. One hand rested atop a heavy walking-stick; the other clutched a hat and a pair of fine gloves.
The man gracefully bent down and swept up the envelope, then offered it to Evans with perfect ease. "I believe you dropped this." His voice was rich, smooth, and just slightly taut. Likewise his smile was thin, almost fragile, but appeared to be genuine. He had the look of a man who didn’t smile enough—which was unfortunate, because even when weak, his smile was remarkable.
Once Evans reclaimed the envelope, the man tucked his walking-stick beneath his arm and extended his hand. "Phileas Fogg. It’s a pleasure to meet you."
Evans’ eyebrows bounced. Phileas Fogg, son of the founding father of the Service? "Ah… thank you, sir. Lawrence Evans." He accepted the robust handshake, a bit restlessly. Despite the legends or perhaps the myths regarding him, Fogg was a congenial sort to all appearances, but Evans was uncomfortable simply holding the envelope and its enigmatic contents. The sooner it was in the hands of charity, the better. With a small, hasty bow and a breathless "Good day," he stepped past the older man.
"Mister Evans?" Fogg said behind him.
Reluctantly Evans stopped and turned back. Fogg stood looking at him, with a peculiar hesitant look on his face. He seemed on the verge of speaking, then paused, and Evans thought that almost a ruefulness came into those hazel-green eyes. The wan smile deepened.
"Never mind. Good day, sir; I hope we may meet again." With that, Fogg retreated unbidden through the open door of Sir Jonathan’s office, closing it behind him.
As Agent Evans walked away, he was certain he heard shouting behind that door, and he had occasion to wonder if Mister Phileas Fogg was such a congenial sort after all.
© 2002 Jordanna Morgan