Rating: PG-13, not really R, but my ideas of rating are kinda sucky…
Summary: Friendships are never easy.
Warnings: Sexual sitches, some language issues, and it possibly goes all melodramatic at one point but I'm a sucker for the angst.
Pairings: Jules/Rebecca (I sometimes worry I'm the only one who sees this…), Jules/other
Disclaimer: Concept, characters, historical-personages-as-characters, everything belongs to someone else. I borrow, I toy with, I mess up, and then I put back, possibly a little different but hopefully only for the better. Or at least not so worse they'll never recover.
Notes: Uh…I don't really know where this idea came from, but I've been wanting to finish it for about eighteen months now at *least* and finally I found a suitable ending. Which was kinda cool, really.
He was a pretty boy--the eyes she noticed particularly. She enjoyed holding his gaze, toying with him teasingly as he stammered out his request to her. It was obviously his first time, surprising in a way. He had the clothes and stained black fingers of a bohemian artist or writer but the air of an innocent country boy, an interesting combination indeed. She hesitated only long enough to make him exceedingly uncomfortable and then agreed to his proposal. She didn't always like first-timers, poor-looking ones at that, but his eyes intrigued her and there weren't any better prospects out tonight.
They went up to what she assumed was his own room--he was too poor to afford a room at an inn and too embarrassed to borrow a friend's room for the evening--and she went immediately to the bed while he firmly closed the door. When he turned around, he looked for her in confusion, and spotted her already making herself comfortable on his bed. He started and blushed, quickly averting his gaze as he hurriedly dropped down the steps to the main of his room.
"W-would you care for a drink?" he asked, heading for his desk and picking up a bottle with shaking fingers. His voice was surprisingly deep for such youth, deep but still soft and pleasing. It went well with his eyes. His entire face conveyed his nervousness with laughable ease.
If she was going to get anywhere with him, she would have to make him relax. She sighed inwardly--this was one of the reasons she disliked first-timers. They required so much effort. "Mmm, please," she said in a practiced murmur with a slight smile, curling up more on his bed.
He half-smiled politely for an instant before looking down at the bottle in his hands and the glass still on the desk. A frown of concentration centered on his face as he put his whole attention into pouring the drink. She watched, fascinated that anyone could expend so much intensity in such a simple thing. Perhaps he was just trying to delay the inevitable.
He brought her the glass and carried the bottle over for himself. "Thank you," she sighed after he handed her the glass, and then he sat down next to her, on the very edge of the bed, back perfectly straight, still wearing coat and cravat and shoes. He stared straight ahead, hesitated a moment, then took a gulp of the cheap wine from the bottle.
She hid her scowl of impatience with the experience of years and threw back her own drink before setting the glass on the bedside table. She allowed him one more gulp of wine before wrapping her fingers around the bottle and gently pulling it away from him. He allowed her to do so; his fingers appeared to have gone numb. She set the bottle on the table next to the glass, and then turned back to him, putting her hands on his lapels and turning him toward her without any roughness. He allowed her to move him--perhaps his entire body and mind had gone numb--and stared somewhere over her shoulder.
"Not much of a talker, are you?" she said in her warmest, lowest voice--she was proud of her voice, proud of how it could relax even the most tense of customers. She started trailing her finger down his chest, slowly and deliberately allowing her finger to catch on each button of his waistcoat and flick it surreptitiously out of its buttonhole. "And yet I was sure you were a writer when I first saw you. You have that air," she smiled seductively, her fingers reaching up again to delicately loosen and untie the cravat at his neck. She slipped the scrap of fabric around and off his neck slowly, tickling the short hairs at the back of his neck.
He stayed absolutely still as she did this, his hands loose at his sides but not moving or responding at all. He was holding his head up at a slight angle, a pained look on his dark face, and he seemed to be biting his bottom lip. He had a small body, but wiry--a very pretty boy, again at odds with that masculine voice he was refusing to use. And yet the combination was not at all displeasing. Really, even if he was a first-timer, she was lucky to get him.
She pulled his jacket off, one sleeve at a time, after unbuttoning the shirt beneath his waistcoat. At last she looked into his eyes again and said in a calm, low voice, "Don't you want to undress me?"
He swallowed and nodded, and she turned around so he could reach her back. She felt gentle fingers fumbling behind her and smiled secretly in minute triumph. At least she'd got him started, prompting him that way so that he could hardly refuse. She allowed herself to enjoy the tickle of his light, unknowing caresses as he dealt with her buttons and stays. He was almost a complete novice, she could tell. She wondered why he was doing this now--he'd been in Paris a while, she instinctively knew. Perhaps he simply couldn't wait any longer.
"I think I've got them all," his voice croaked in her ear, and she turned back to him, her sleeve provocatively falling down to expose her shoulder. He gulped again. She smiled reassuringly. The young ones always brought out her protective instincts, made her intuitively more gentle with them, though she'd never let anyone know that. She could take her time with this one--it was an awful night, freezing rain and blustery wind; there weren't going to be many customers out. She could afford to move slowly. He seemed sweet; she felt he deserved a bit of extra attention. At least it was a little warmer in this room than it was out there.
"Where shall we begin?" she softly asked, trailing a finger down his chest between the barely-opened halves of his shirtfront. He shuddered infinitesimally. She looked up to catch his eye and gave him a teasing smile. "A kiss perhaps?" she suggested and leant forward to nip quickly at the exact center of his chest. He laughed nervously, his hands clenched once more at his sides.
"Your turn," she suggested and waited patiently, glancing at him coyly. She could play shy and innocent if that would make him more comfortable. He looked thoughtful for an instant, then leaned in to kiss at her neck before leaning back again slightly, glancing up to meet her eye questioningly. She nodded and smiled approvingly.
"Are you a writer, monsieur?" she asked, trailing a finger down his cheek now, running it across his lips, watching the movement of her finger with her eyes and occasionally flicking a glance upward at his own eyes to gauge his attention. "Would you write me a poem, perhaps?"
He smiled shyly, the first genuine smile she'd seen on his face, and she was surprised to find her heart beating faster, her face warming, at the sight. You're going soft in your old age she told herself sternly, knowing she had a year to go before she reached her twentieth birthday. "I'm no good with poetry," he told her softly, "or else I would, mademoiselle. I am a playwright." He hesitantly brushed a curl of light brown hair away from her naked shoulder so that he could kiss the smooth skin there laid bare.
He took his lessons well, she grinned to herself, or perhaps he had more practice than he was letting on. She reached forward to run her own hand through his longish brown curls. Treat it like a game, she knew, an innocent game to disarm him. What he'd come to her for would come soon enough.
They carried on in this way for a little longer, taking turns exploring each other, he becoming more comfortable with touching her body. At last she ran her tongue over his lips, one arm snaked around his neck. "You are a beautiful young man, monsieur," she told him huskily, looking directly into his pretty hazel eyes, so close she could see the pupils widening. "You have beautiful eyes."
"So I've been told before," he told her wryly, though she could hear the shake in his voice and feel the tension run through him like an electric shock. He knew what was coming next. She rubbed the back of his neck, the meeting spot between hair and skin, with her thumb to ease his anxiety even while arousing him in other ways.
"And what else have you been told before, monsieur?" she asked, running her tongue over his chest again as her free hand reached for the buttons of his trousers.
The door burst open. "Jules, did you know your door was apparently locked? I didn't think it could actually do that, I practically had to--oh."
"Oh my god." The pretty playwright's face was terrified, and he was clutching his shirt closed, shrinking away from her into a corner of the bed as if to hide. A woman stood at the door on the upper level of the room, a handsome lady in a gorgeous dress with an enigmatic look on her striking face.
"Jules, I don't believe I've met your friend." The lady had an unpleasant undertone to her words that made the boy flinch. "Won't you introduce us?" The acid bite in the lady's voice was enough to make her flinch.
"Go," he whispered without looking at her, his hazel eyes still locked on the newcomer in horror and mortification. "Please, just--go."
She looked at him for a moment pityingly, seeing the humiliation and desperation in his pretty eyes, and gathered her few things together, pulling her sleeve back over her shoulder. She artfully slipped half the money he'd already given her back onto his bedside table--it seemed only fair--before leaving the room, having to duck past the lady in the expensive dress, who obviously had no intention of moving to allow her room to pass. The door was firmly closed behind her, but even as she tripped down the stairs, reaching around awkwardly to button her dress again, she could hear the lady's cultured foreign accents shaking with suppressed rage. "Just what the hell are you doing, Jules?"
She found herself feeling even sorrier for this Jules.
* * *
"Just what the hell are you doing, Jules?!" Rebecca stayed where she was, as far away from him as she could get in this cramped room, and yet still too close for his comfort.
"What does it look like?" he snapped back, trying to find some way to look or sound in control and uncaring and knowing he failed miserably. He could feel her cool appraisal on him as he fumbled to rebutton his shirt. He was blushing furiously, he could feel the heat burning the blood back into his cheeks, which had suddenly leached into white coldness the instant he'd heard Rebecca Fogg's voice, the instant the door had burst open and he'd almost literally been caught with his pants down. He was glad he'd hardly gotten anywhere with the other woman. On the other hand, it was another lost opportunity. At this rate he really would die a virgin.
"Why?" Her voice was still all steel and diamond, and he flinched again. But some resentful anger was at last coming to his aid.
"Why do you think?" he asked, and his voice was almost as cold as her own. "You have no idea how maddening it is--"
"But with a common--whore?!"
Jules's head snapped up at that and he met Rebecca's gaze truly for the first time since she'd entered his room. He noticed the disarray of her hair, blown by the wind; the wetness of her cloak and dress. He couldn't even ask her what the hell she was doing in Paris right now, apparently without the escort of cousin and valet. "Who else would have me?" He kept the words clipped, tightly under control.
Rebecca's eyes blazed with anger. "Just about any of your woman friends I should think," she retorted. "You're a beautiful young man, Jules, a wonderful man who can offer a woman a great deal. You don't need--"
"What can I offer anyone?!" Jules yelled back, almost leaping off the bed in his frustration. Rebecca blinked in surprise, her mouth snapping shut mid-sentence. "I cannot get married, Rebecca, even if I wanted to--which I don't, not yet. I can't ask any of my friends--no!" He shuddered in disgust at the very idea and then stared at his friend, hazel eyes boring into blue ones. "What does that leave me? What? Other than a common whore as you so delicately put it," he bit out, almost strangling on his own words in his efforts to keep from screaming. It was all so unfair.
Rebecca didn't move or say a word. Jules realized how drafty his room was in only shirtsleeves and still-unbuttoned weskit, but he didn't feel like putting his coat back on. It wasn't as if the threadbare material would be able to do much more for keeping the cold out, after all.
She was refusing to meet his gaze, refusing to give him a reaction in any way. He sighed in defeat and turned away, falling into his desk chair in a sorry heap. The embarrassment and humiliation were creeping over him again; it was his turn again to avoid her gaze. "Just--go. Please, Rebecca," he unconsciously repeated the phrase he'd used to send away the prostitute. It looked as if this little adventure had been even more expensive than expected--more than he could afford. He didn't see how he'd ever be able to look Rebecca Fogg in the face again. "Please just go," he whispered.
He heard her feet descend the few steps to the main part of his garret, and he almost felt like sobbing in frustration. "Just go Rebecca," he repeated through clenched teeth. He couldn't face her disappointment or pity or sympathy or whatever she might throw at him right now.
"Jules...why are you doing this?"
He stared out the window rather than look at her. Cold black sky, moaning wind. Perfect. "What do you mean?"
"Do you think you need to prove something?" She was starting to sound angry again. "Do you feel some need to--to--"
"Yes?" He swung around to glare up at her, knowing he was blushing down to his collar, but the look was nevertheless enough to make her stop speaking. She was standing right over him; he hadn't realized how close she'd come. She had a troubled look on her face as she gazed down at him. After a moment the look cleared and she scowled.
"Men," she spat out, pacing away from him. He frowned, uncertain how he could respond to that. She turned back to him, leaning against the small bookcase on the other side of the room. "Why are you all alike? Having to prove your masculinity, always having to prove something--"
"Oh, you're a fine one to talk!" Jules retorted, exploding out of his chair to stand next to his desk, confronting her. "You're worse than I am when it comes to proving yourself!"
"Perhaps," she snapped back. "But at least I don't feel some need to--to--to give myself away just because everyone else has--"
"Now who're you calling the whore?" he asked her acerbically.
That stopped her. She stared at him, wide-eyed, hurt. He was shocked. She looked hurt. She took a step toward him, stopping only because he flinched and took a step back. "I would never--don't you understand?" Her face was pinched with pain. "You don't need to do this, Jules. You're beautiful, wonderful the way you are--"
He flinched away again. "Please," he interrupted her confused rush of words, "don't say anymore. I don't need to hear it, I know it already." He collapsed back into his chair and looked up at her with hooded eyes. "I'm tired of being the--pretty--boy. Don't you understand that?" He sighed, the breath escaping loudly through his teeth. "I was...curious. And tired of waiting." Unfair. "What's wrong with that, Rebecca? What's so unusual about that?" He shouted the word over and over in his mind. Unfair!
She seemed incapable of articulating whatever it was she wanted--needed--said. "You're not Phileas," she said at last, desperately. "You're not even Passepartout--"
"You don't need to change," she carried on regardless. He didn't think he'd ever seen her so flustered, clutching for articulation, basic and meaningful communication. "Jules. You're Jules."
"Yes, thank you, Rebecca," he told her sarcastically, not wanting to hear anymore, not wanting to see her anymore. He was tired. It had been an emotional evening. "You've made your point. Go. Please--just go, Rebecca. I'm...sorry."
"Don't be," she told him angrily. "Don't ever be sorry for who you are, Jules." He was horrified to see tears glimmering in her eyes. She turned and went up the stairs. He looked away with a grateful sigh, planning to get abominably drunk the instant she was out of the room. He would pass out in a couple hours and have no dreams if he was lucky. And then...then perhaps he would feel capable of figuring out how he was going to keep living tomorrow and the day after that and the next fifty years. The thought was utterly depressing.
He felt a gentle touch on his shoulder, a warmth at his side. He looked over his shoulder at her. "What?" he asked tiredly, wishing she would just go away and leave him in peace.
"What if I made you an offer?" she asked quietly.
He had no way to respond to that.
* * *
"What if I made you an offer?" she asked hesitantly, her hand still on his shoulder, almost supporting herself entirely through that human contact. She couldn't quite believe she was suggesting this. She didn't know how she'd gotten here, how she'd arrived at this point, had never seen it coming, yet here she was. And she wasn't sure she knew what she wanted his answer to be.
She watched the expression drain from his face as he stared up at her blankly, taking in her delicate suggestion. Then he scrambled away from her, backing toward his bed. "Rebecca!"
"Hear me out, Jules--"
"No!" He was horrified, perhaps more horrified even than when she'd walked in on him and his 'lady' friend, his face completely white. "No! Rebecca, that's--"
"You wouldn't have to pay me," she said the cruel words deliberately to shut him up. It worked. His jaw snapped shut audibly and he stared at her wildly. She felt like she'd slapped him. "I'm your friend," she told him gently. "I know you're not apparently sanguine about that idea, but--but I'd rather your first time be with someone who cared about you." Who could protect you she added fiercely to herself but didn't dare say aloud as she knew that was the one phrase that would instantly drive him away from her, possibly forever. Pretty--boy, the words echoed in her head, and her heart ached for him.
He was shaking his head, an unconscious and involuntary movement of negation. "No," he said, "no, absolutely not. How could I--how could you still be my friend after-after that?"
She took a single, careful step toward him. "I'm offering this as your friend, Jules," she responded quietly. "For one time--just tonight, I will be your lover. To satisfy your curiosity. To stop you hurting yourself."
He scowled. "I don't need to be protected all the time!"
"Oh no, of course not," she snapped back at him. "That--woman--could have robbed you; she could have given you some disease--why would you possibly need my protection?"
He faced the opposite wall, but she could still see his face working. "Thank you for your concern. I'll see you later, no doubt."
She wasn't about to leave him now, not with all this hanging between them. The next time they met, Phileas would instantly know something was wrong and probably almost as instantly be able to figure out what. He was, after all, an observant man. She crept closer to Jules, laying a gloved hand on his arm. He violently threw off her touch, stalking away. "Please Rebecca!" He turned to face her, one of the most pained looks she'd ever seen on a human face crossing his delicate features. "Don't--do--this."
She stopped, facing him silently. She was in the midst of a quandary she had never faced before, and she had no idea how to get either of them out of it. But she wasn't about to let him drown himself in alcohol and his sorrows after she left tonight; and she was damned if she was going to let him be driven to find somebody else again tomorrow night. Not Jules.
"Promise me, then," she said quietly. "Promise me you won't do this again, won't look for someone else on the streets."
"I don't see how it's any business of yours," he said with the scowl he usually reserved for Phileas in his more infuriating moods.
"It is my business!" she cried back. "You're my friend, Jules! No matter what you say or feel, I must protect you. Just like I would protect any of my other friends." She stepped up to him again, laying a hand against his cheek. He didn't move, but she had the unnerving feeling that she had just trapped him with that simple touch. She hated thinking she had so much power over him. It almost frightened her, somehow contrived to make her feel helpless.
"Don't do this, Rebecca," he whispered without looking up to meet her gaze. "You don't know what you'll destroy."
Her heart ached with pity and something that almost felt like grief. "You don't know what you'll destroy," she pointed out quietly. "I can't let you be hurt, Jules. You must understand that. I'm sorry! But you must understand that."
He finally looked up at her, turning his head slightly to do so, so that his cheek was nestled even more firmly in her light touch. God, he was beautiful. The thought was almost impersonal. She returned his look, then leant in and kissed him on the mouth, firmly. She broke the contact off after a moment and leant back enough to take in his reaction.
He was singularly failing to react, in fact, not even having responded to her kiss. "I offer this as a friend," she said very quietly, very steadfastly. "Tonight only. We will never speak of it; it will in no way reflect on our comradeship. Is that perfectly clear?"
He was shaking his head, the smooth skin brushing back and forth against her glove. She raised the finger of her other hand to his lips, and his movement stilled immediately as if she'd hypnotized him. Trapped. She hated that, hated it, but she wasn't about to back out of it now. "Is that perfectly clear?" she repeated distinctly and waited.
He held her gaze, and it was a moment of infinity. And then he leant in and kissed her on the mouth, firmly.
It was a hot shock to her. She closed her eyes and dived into the kiss. And then she pulled back from him, to look him in the eye and seal the bargain.
"Do you want this?" she asked.
"Do you want this?" she asked, her arm around his neck, his arms around her waist. She was achingly close, warm and in his arms and his, all his, if only for the moment.
"Yes," he breathed out simply and briefly shut his eyes, in that moment a feeling of such profound self-hatred overcoming him that he almost immediately recanted. But it was done. He had damned himself, she had damned him by leading him to this. But no, he couldn't blame her. It was entirely his fault. From start to finish, this entire damnable godforsaken night would be his fault.
She took his hand, and he opened his eyes. She led him to the bed. They both sat down. She began with her left hand to pull at the fingers of her right glove, but Jules stopped her with a light touch against her fingers. They looked up and met each other's eyes, and then he began gently to pull the gloves off for her.
She sat and waited patiently, as still as if she were conducting surveillance on an enemy spy. When he finished, she leant in to kiss him softly on the lips, and he began to unbutton the short coat she wore over her shirtwaist. She kept kissing his face, lips roving from mouth to cheek to forehead to nose, as he worked on her buttons.
It should have felt wrong. It should have felt very, very wrong to be doing this with Rebecca Fogg. But he had somehow achieved a state of sublime numbness; his actions felt sluggish and unreal. He was sure he would wake up with a pounding headache and a dry mouth any moment now. And then he would nurse his disappointment once again with more cheap wine.
She was tugging at his weskit, pulling it off his shoulders. He'd already pulled off most of her top garments and had found himself instinctively nuzzling her neck, nibbling her shoulder. Not quite as sluggish as he thought, he told himself, trying to find the humor in the situation and dispel his sudden return of tension at the realization of what his body was doing even while his mind wandered dazedly. She got his shirt off, and he shivered in the draft of his room, the window shutters no match for the cold merciless wind and freezing rain outside. She pushed him down on the bed and lay down beside him, graceful despite the narrowness of the bed.
He automatically wrapped his arms around her and for a moment simply...hugged her. It felt warm and safe in her embrace. She hugged him back and then began to slip out of her full skirts. She was wearing the leather rope ladder underneath. He was surprised to find the temptation to laugh too strong to resist. She grinned back ferally and leant in to give him another hungry kiss on the lips. He could feel her tugging at his trousers.
He reached up and ran a curious, hesitant hand through her beautiful red-gold curls. She looked down and met his eyes, blue eyes seriously regarding hazel as she propped herself up on one elbow.
"Well?" she said.
"Well?" Rebecca waited for his confirmation, studying his face on the pillow, studying his almost-naked body beneath hers with her peripheral vision because she couldn't let her gaze leave his at this important moment. He looked very innocent and very boyish, and she knew if she told him that he'd push her away and never look her in the eye again, and despite feeling that this was very, very wrong, she knew it was the right decision. She had to take care of him.
It should have felt very, very wrong, but it didn't. It should have felt very, very wrong in that alternative reality where Jules was king of France, but it hadn't then either. She'd fallen into this naturally, easily, and couldn't bring herself to regret it. Not even the thought of Phileas made her pause; he was elsewhere, in England, and this simply didn't concern him. It did concern Jules, though, and she was vaguely worried at the back of her mind what he would think of her after this night--what he would think of himself after this night. She had the feeling they had gone too far to stop now, but she had to make sure.
He nodded vigorously, completely failing to hide his nervousness. She could take care of that. She would take care of everything. She loved him dearly.
And then instinct took over coherent thought for both of them.
She was asleep in his arms.
Jules ran his hand through the long trail of hair that fell down her back and told himself he should be happy now, he should be sleeping as well. She lay on her stomach, nestled in the crook of his arm, her face turned toward him, those powerful blue eyes for once closed. She was so very beautiful. And she was asleep in his arms, body warmth commingling with his own, keeping the outside cold that was a constant threat at bay, so that it was almost spring inside the bedcovers.
But he couldn't feel happy. He--had--felt happy, then, bliss and ecstasy, but now, when he was thinking again and apparently sober and wide awake, he only felt that numbness again. And a sneaking hint of self-disgust that he felt would overpower him if only he dwelt on it for too long. So he made sure not to dwell on it.
He had gotten what he wanted, what he had fantasized about many times before. But he had no right; he had no right to ask this of Rebecca--
She asked you first, he reminded himself.
But only after he forced her into the position to ask.
Manipulative little bastard, aren't you? the voice in his head went on slyly.
Well, that was a lie of course. He'd never expected Rebecca to come waltzing in right then when she had; if he had, there was no way he would have asked that other woman back to his room.
But if Rebecca hadn't come in, you would have found a way to stop it before it got anywhere, and you would have found a way to let Rebecca know what you'd almost done, and she would have taken pity on you, just like she did tonight--
Jules stopped that thought in its tracks and resolutely turned his attention back to Rebecca. She was still asleep, but shifting slightly and murmuring, as if his own disturbed mind was communicating its unease to hers. He ran his hand through her hair again, soothing her.
How many times had she done this before? he considered to himself. He didn't want to know. He had no right to know, and it was a very ungentlemanly thought. But he found himself wondering how many times she'd woken up in somebody else's bed, beside somebody else.
No. He didn't want to know. It was mean, repulsive, and not at all his business. This was Rebecca Fogg. She would always have his respect no matter what. And it shouldn't matter. It didn't matter.
How would he ever be able to look Phileas again in the face?
She murmured in his arms and opened her eyes to look up at him steadily.
Rebecca woke gently, in stages, instinctively knowing that wherever she was she was safe and didn't have to be instantly alert. She felt the bed shift beneath her and murmured wordlessly, opening her eyes to see what was going on. She looked straight into Jules's hazel eyes and paused, simply holding his gaze for a long moment.
He had an odd look on his face. Tender and afraid, wildly young and shockingly mature. He'd always had an expressive face. He raised a hand to her face and brushed a curl away from her eye.
"Good morning," she said.
"Good morning," he replied. His voice was hushed, but steady. She stared at him suspiciously, then kissed him lightly on the lips before sitting up.
"Well," she said.
He looked up at her from his lying-down position, and then smiled slightly. It was a bitter smile, ill-suited to his open face. "Well," he agreed.
She regarded him with still more unease. Sensations from the night before filtered through her thoughts, and she suddenly and surprisingly--to herself in any case--found she wished she could stay in this bed all morning, asleep in his arms.
"I should go," she said. "I have to go back to London; I have a report to make Sir Jonathan."
The bitter smile drained from his face and he nodded, whatever emotions he felt carefully put away behind an impassive facade. "Of course," he said quietly.
"Stop that," she snapped. "We agreed last night."
He pulled back, watching her. She couldn't read his expression, and their roles felt reversed; he was the one entirely in control. "I know," he said. "I'm not stopping you; hadn't you noticed?" He laid his head back on the pillow, staring across his room. "I know you have to go."
She rested her palm against his cheek; for a moment, she thought he was going to brush her away, but then he relented, his hazel eyes looking up to meet hers. The look there almost broke her heart, a look of resignation, acceptance, distance. He was so breathtakingly young and beautiful.
"I do love you, Jules," she said before she could stop herself. Something slammed down in his eyes, and he shifted his body so that he lay on his back, pushing her hand away in the process. She looked away as well, despising herself, then stood and slowly began to dress.
She heard the bed rustle and creak behind her, and then felt gentle fingers on her back, helping her with her undergarments. She stiffened, disliking and not trusting this intimacy, and turned to face him. He looked up at her seriously.
"You have to go now," he said calmly. "I'm only trying to help."
She wanted to hug him, but she was afraid of how he would react. He always brought out her fiercest protective instincts. She ruefully thought to herself that he made her positively maternal at times. She wanted to hold him and make everything better. But that wasn't her right, and it wouldn't help him, and he probably wouldn't appreciate it at the moment anyway.
"Thank you," she said and had to clear her throat. She turned around again and silently allowed him to help her dress. She turned around once more when she was fully clothed and found she didn't want to meet his eye. So she forced herself to. "I have to go now," she said. Stupid, really; they'd already established that. But she knew it meant more than just a temporary good-bye.
He looked like he desperately wanted to say something but couldn't find the proper words. It must have been a horrible feeling for the writer. At last he took her hand in a loose grasp. "Thank you," he said, then stepped back, releasing her.
"You're welcome," she said, managing a businesslike tone. She gathered her things and walked out the door, firmly keeping all thoughts of last night out of her mind. She could consider it later, when she was safely in London and away from him. But not before then. Not for a long time yet.
The wind was harsh, the rain cruel, when she found herself outside.
* * *
"Rebecca," he said in almost formal tones, but he gave her a sweet smile as he took her hand gently in his. Passepartout had just let him into the parlor and was watching them with a grin plastered across his expressive face.
"Jules," she replied, her own smile barely flickering, as she accepted his hand. Phileas was no doubt observing them from behind his screen of a newspaper. "Lovely of you to join us in London, it really is. We haven't seen you for ages."
"Indeed, Verne," Fogg added from behind his neatly-ironed Times. "We were beginning to wonder if we'd ever run into you again."
"I couldn't keep away, Fogg," Jules smiled dazzlingly at the paper, releasing Rebecca and turning to Passepartout. "But surely you've been keeping busy?"
"Of course, Mister Jules!" said the valet enthusiastically. "Master with his gambling, Miss Rebecca with her spying, I with my inventioning."
"And you, Jules?" Rebecca asked, gliding across the room to elegantly seat herself on the edge of an overstuffed chair. "Have you been spending your hours in scholarly application and thoughtful reflection…?"
A small, amused laugh deep in the back of his throat, swifter and shorter-lived than she was used to. "Something like that, yes," he admitted, and when she glanced up quickly, he still wore the same easy, boyish grin.
"So glad to hear you've been taking care of yourself, Verne," said Fogg lightly in his usual mockingly sardonic tones. "Passepartout, would you be good enough to bring us some tea? Verne must be in need of refreshment after his journey."
They took tea in the parlor, sipping carefully, Jules attempting to discreetly dip a biscuit in the warm, heavily sweetened liquid. Afterward, Rebecca suggested a walk outside, and Jules readily agreed to accompany her. Fogg declined.
Rebecca allowed Jules to take her arm, and he was almost the perfect gentleman, missing only his stick and hat (and his cravat had been badly knotted). She was categorically refusing to retie it for him, flatten down his lapels, notice the threadbare texture of the coat under her black fingerless gloves. It was the height of summer in London and looked like a summer storm might hit in the evening. The street was empty save for them.
"We did miss you," she said, her words carefully controlled for pitch, structure, tone, intonation, clarity. "You hardly ever wrote."
"I…I couldn't," he answered, and there was none of the confidence, the ease, the boyish affection and delight at being in the company of his friends again, that he had displayed in Phileas's Savile Row townhouse. "I didn't know what to say. There was nothing to say."
"Perhaps not then," she agreed quietly. Her fingers had tightened on his arm as he spoke, and now she made them relax their hold again. "Perhaps not right away. But now?"
"Now," he said, and released a breath, "you are as beautiful as ever, Rebecca." She turned sharply to glare at him, and he shook his head, not even bothering to meet her gaze. It made her feel strangely petulant. "There's no need, Rebecca. I remember our agreement."
Again, the convulsive twitch of her fingers, and he laid his free hand upon hers, and she was dizzily unsure how much of a liberty on his part that was. He wore no gloves, and perhaps it was good he carried no stick, or else it would have been singularly awkward for him juggling her and his props. She didn't want him to remove his hand. It was strangely comforting.
"I—I wanted to…thank you." He was blushing, and Rebecca had to restrain herself from laughing out of unexpected joy, for that expression on his face was all too delightfully familiar amidst this strange new maturity he'd gained in the passing months. "It sounds awful when said aloud, and this is so embarrassing, but…I never properly thanked you for you—for what you…we…did."
She ferociously bit back the smile that threatened to overwhelm, the laugh that wanted to bubble up from the very bottom of her stomach, and contained herself by keeping her voice as richly warm as she could. She found the urge to kiss him soundly somewhat startling, but perhaps she shouldn't have by now. "You are welcome, Jules," she told him.
The blush seemed to somehow intensify, and they walked on a while longer in silence. The humidity was almost physical, a blanket covering them, and slowly the silence surrounding them turned from comfortable to introspective.
"How long are you staying?" Rebecca asked quietly. The sky was grey, not dark, but not light either, merely a uniform weathered grey. She glanced sideways at her companion.
"As long as you and Fogg will have me," Jules replied readily, "or until it becomes vitally necessary I go back to Paris. Don't worry," his smile was bittersweet, "I'm sure I won't be here more than a week or two. If I stay away too long, my landlady will give my room away to someone else, never mind I paid the rent for the rest of the month while I had the money."
"Stay," Rebecca said impulsively and paused in the middle of the road. Jules stopped with her, dropping his head so that she couldn't read his expression. She knew he did it deliberately, and suddenly she felt desperate, and some small part of her was angry that he could so affect her emotions so easily. "Stay as long as you like, Jules. Phil has been moping, and Passepartout misses having someone with whom to babble on about his toys…" She tried to laugh, but it was weak, and she hated that too.
He shook his head. "A week or two," he repeated quietly. "I…you know I can't. Not longer, not without good reason." He looked up, and she wanted to take his face, frame it in her gloved fingers, wanted the delicate scrape of his soft skin against her own skin. She was surprised when her arms didn't move. "But you can visit me in Paris, all of you. I'd really like that, Rebecca."
He looked so earnest and young and desperate himself that she found herself smiling and nodding in the more maternal (sisterly, sisterly) manner she reserved solely for him. "Of course we will, Jules. You're not rid of us as easily as that, you know."
He looked relieved, and finally it started raining. A very light, gentle, summer rain, which caressed their cheeks and lips and arms, and tasted of regret. Jules looked up, long, thin neck stretching up, to look at the cloud cover or feel the rain more fully upon his face, and she watched him. "We should go back," he said without looking at her.
She nodded wordlessly and took his arm again when he offered it. They moved slowly, letting the rain drip down them. They weren't far from the house when Jules spoke. "I love you too, Rebecca."
Her eyes closed, and she resisted the urge to pull away from him and run, sprint away from London itself into the wilds. Surely the factories hadn't taken over all the wilds of England yet? But she merely stopped moving again, and he stopped with her.
She looked at him and nodded, and they kissed one last time, never mind that they were in the middle of the street and Passepartout might open the front door at any moment. And then they went inside as if everything were the same.
His mouth had tasted like the regret of a summer rain.