Chapter Seven

It was with no small amount of trepidation that Jules followed Thomas down the hall and a flight of stairs, heading for the room in which his friends awaited him. What words of greeting could he give them, what assurances could he offer them of his continued friendship, particularly since he'd been ready to walk away from them less than a half-hour past? Should he even be willing to offer those assurances? They were the ones who'd agreed to this trial on his behalf, albeit in an attempt to preserve his life. Did he owe them anything? Even now his heart was torn by the thought that they should have known, but the things he felt at the possibility of never seeing them again and parting on such poor terms were beyond bearing.

When they finally arrived at the door, Thomas leaned forward to open it silently, so that only his white gloves would appear past the doorframe. It was certainly a clever trick and Jules turned to tell him so, but closed his mouth and bit his lip when Thomas met his eager interest with a stern stare.

The room was nearly silent; gas lamps had been turned up, giving the light a slightly golden cast. Much to his surprise, Jules realized that it was well past sunset - no wonder he was ravenous.

It was a sitting room, decorated in shades of red, with white lace antimacassars draped over the backs of over-stuffed chairs. Rebecca was standing by the window and gazing out into the darkness, holding the overdrape back from the glass. Fogg was at the decanter, the glass in his hand full, but it gave an air of having remained untouched for some time. Passepartout was in the process of placing a tray upon a side table, picking it up, dusting it, then moving it to another table where it received a slight frown and another wipe of his sleeve before it was moved again. And even Chatsworth was present, the only one of the group who was seated, an unlit pipe clenched in his teeth and a scowl on his face.

That Chatsworth was the first to see him wasn't at all surprising - he was the only one facing the door. He rose to his feet and stared at Jules with an unblinking concentrated look that very much resembled an owl.

The movement set the others into motion. Passepartout turning, spotted him and walked forward, grinning wildly, while Fogg was more reserved, placing his tumbler on the table, then striding across the room with such purposeful movement that it appeared nothing in heaven, on earth, or from hell itself was likely to stop him. Only Rebecca hesitated, turning at the window and not moving immediately, her lips smiling, but the smile turning sad, almost wistful as he met her gaze.

There was time to see no more than that, for Passepartout flung his arms around Jules and kissed him on both cheeks, then grabbed his arm and drew him into the room, the dust cloth in his hand fluttering like a battle pennant. "Master Jules! It is being wonderful to see you."

"It's very good to see you, too," answered Jules, coughing lightly in the cloud of dust descending from the cloth, then spitting a bit into his hand to free the grime from his lips.

That was wiped readily onto his trousers, for Fogg pushed past Chatsworth and Passepartout and grasped Jules' hand firmly as if to shake it - but having shaken it, did not release him at once. "Verne."

"Fogg." Jules nodded, then met Fogg's gaze evenly, remembering the Queen's compliment about his manners. "It's good to see you're real."

"Good to see you're unscathed." His raised his gaze, took in the bruises on Jules' cheeks, then lifted Jules' hand to view the slightly scabbing scrapes along his knuckles. "Mostly unscathed," he corrected, turning a sharp look at Chatsworth before he carefully released Jules' hand.

For his own part, Chatsworth seemed completely ill at ease. He nodded at Jules curtly. "Verne."

Jules nodded in return, a short movement barely acknowledging the man's greeting. "Sir Jonathan," he replied, unwilling to give Chatsworth any further consideration.

And then Chatsworth turned away, replaced by Rebecca, who was wearing that purple dress that he admired so much - he'd once even gotten up the nerve to tell her that he liked how she looked in it. Her hair was pulled to one side with a ribbon and she pressed a quick kiss to his cheek, then took his arm and led him to a chair. "Sit down before you fall down, Jules."

Practical to a fault, but there was kindness in her tone and he didn't much mind the fact that she parked herself at his right shoulder, leaning on the chair back peremptorily as if laying claim to her territory.

Passepartout returned with his silver tray and presented it to Jules with a broad smile - the compass and his watch rested upon it. "Thank you," said Jules, taking the items back with no small amount of gratitude and placing them in his pockets.

"Is that was all being taken from you?" asked Passepartout.

The hair ribbon was missing - he didn't turn his head and look back at Rebecca to note its loss. "My knife," noted Jules, then gazed up at Chatsworth, who was standing at the other end of the room. "Although it doesn't cut much of anything - I used it to sharpen pencils. The police took it from me."

"Little hope of getting it back from the station, I should think." Fogg had picked up his drink and had been sipping it, watching Jules lay claim to his belongings. Setting down the glass, he picked up something from the table behind him, then walked over to Jules. "Just as well I brought this, then."

The small knife Fogg placed in his hand had an ivory handle, with the initials JV carved into the base. Jules looked up, startled at the gift, only to find Fogg offering him, quite solemnly, his journal.

Having been nearly fooled before, Jules opened it quickly; his lecture notes were intact, as well as the notes he'd taken on the various plays he wanted to write, but it was the sketches, tucked here and there across the length or pages, around words, in margins . . . they were the most important. They were complete and undisturbed.

"Took the better part of a week's work to duplicate that book," said Chatsworth, around the stump of the pipe held in his teeth. He took the pipe out of his mouth to gesture toward the book. "Would have taken less time if Fogg had let us have it for more than a few minutes at a time."

"And you'd have lost it, like the knife?" asked Fogg coolly, turning back to his drink.

It was as if a part of him that had been taken away was now complete, with the journal back in his hands. Jules hugged it to his chest, only half-aware that he was doing so, then set it on the table beside him. He turned his attention to the knife, flipping it over in his palm and testing the sharpness of the blade. The gift was unexpected, but perhaps not entirely so when he considered that of the things that had been taken from him that would have proved their existence to his own mind, he had nothing distinctly and conspicuously connected to Fogg. "This is beautiful, Fogg, much better than the old one. Thank you."

Fogg's wave was dismissive as he lifted his glass to his lips, "Just a trifle," but he seemed pleased nonetheless.

Rebecca leaned over Jules' shoulder and whispered, "Your journal's barely left his hands since they took you from us."

The words warmed him. Jules knew that was something Fogg would never admit, that he had taken such care of the journal. And yet . . . Chatsworth's words had indicated that this thing had been done in stages - it would have taken them some time to duplicate his penmanship so well.

The sudden warmth was replaced by the cold calculation of the thing. Swallowing, Jules looked down at the knife in his hand, then took his time settling it into his waistcoat pocket. They'd allowed him to be taken - it was hard to remember that, to keep thinking of it.

They'd had no choice.

The awkward silence grew longer. They were waiting for him to say or do something, yet he had no idea what they expected of him, or even what he expected of them. When Rebecca's hand touched his shoulder, he smiled up at her . . . then paused when he caught sight of someone lounging in the open doorway.

This was no mysterious white glove holding the door open - the gloves were gray and well tailored. It was Gaspar, or the man who'd pretended to be Gaspar, dressed in a coat, waistcoat and trousers that were as impeccable as they were fashionable. Only the bruise running from his chin up the left side of his face belied the complete effect of elegant splendor.

Realizing that he'd been seen - Rebecca's head now having turned toward him as well -he entered, hand tucked into his coat pocket and nodding toward Sir Jonathan before addressing the others.

That seemed odd to Jules at first, until he realized that Sir Jonathan was Gaspar's superior. And not 'Gaspar' either . . . .

"Upton Sturges," announced Fogg, barely pausing between sips from his glass and gesturing briefly toward the newcomer with a dismissive wave. "One of Chatsworth's more promising flunkies."

"Have a care, Fogg," hissed Sir Jonathan.

"It's all right, Sir Jonathan - Fogg's correct on both counts." Sturges bowed toward Fogg on his way to Jules and Rebecca, as if having received a compliment. Ignoring Passepartout utterly, he took Rebecca's hand and made a motion as if to touch it to his lips. "Rebecca."

"Sturges," she countered, withdrawing her hand from his grasp with a slight tug before his lips could touch her. Casting a sidelong glance at Jules as if in apology for abandoning him, she crossed the room, returning to the window.

Sturges watched her pass, his faint expression of annoyance at her reaction disappearing as he reached forward to take Jules' hand, shaking it politely. "Upton Sturges, Mr. Verne. I hope there's no hard feelings about the means by which we were acquainted. I know the Foggs and others--" he glanced over his shoulder toward Chatsworth, "think highly of you. I'd hate to have earned your enmity."

Jules removed his hand from Sturges' grasp as quickly as possible, not even having bothered to rise from the chair in which he'd been seated. For a moment he thought even the merest attempt at civility might be beyond him - he sincerely wanted to strangle this man - but realized that he was too worn to even bother. "Of course, Mr. Sturges. It was only your job, after all. Your French is impeccable. I wouldn't have guessed you were native to anywhere but Paris."

"Thank you, Mr. Verne. I--"

Sturges found himself brushed abruptly to one side as Passepartout delivered a mug to Jules on the same silver tray he'd used earlier. "Something to warm you," announced Passepartout.

Jules took as much delight in Sturges' sudden discomfiture as he did in finding the cup filled with a thick concoction of hot chocolate, coffee, and milk. "Thank you, Passepartout."

Passepartout bowed slightly, grinned behind his hand, then whisked away as quickly as before, leaving Sturges still slightly stunned and without the slightest offer to get him so much as a glass of water.

"You were saying, Sturges?" prompted Fogg, brandishing his own glass as if to remind Sturges of the snub he'd just received.

"Yes, well--" Sturges glanced down at Jules, then walked over to Fogg and helped himself to an empty tumbler and the contents of the decanter. "I must say, you certainly know the horse to back in every race, Fogg. When you wagered fifty pounds that we'd be unable to break your friend--"

"Phileas!" hissed Rebecca, turning at the window. "Is this true?"

Jules glanced first to her - anger racing through him at the thought that Fogg could possibly be so callous as to bet on the outcome of his ordeal - and then to Fogg, whose cheeks had gone bone white at Sturges' comment.

"You didn't know?" asked Sturges, grinning at her. He gestured with his glass toward Jules. "It was all the more incentive to try, I suppose."

Fogg placed his own glass on the sideboard beside the decanter, the fingers of his other hand clenched into a fist. "It had been a casual comment," he announced to the room in general in an even tone, his eyes fixed on Sturges. "I said only that I'd hold for Verne's pluck and nerve against anything Sturges and his lot could throw at him--"

"At fifty pounds, for a minimum," corrected Sturges.

"It was never meant to be taken as a serious wager."

Jules straightened in his chair; Fogg's voice was all but coated with ice. He wouldn't have been surprised to see Sturges wearing the remains of Fogg's drink shortly, or even the contents of the decanter if Passepartout hadn't taken that moment to sweep between the two men and remove it to safety.

"Then you should have said something. I took it seriously enough to have brought your winnings with me or I should have been here half an hour earlier." He patted his upper coat pocket and smiled at Fogg. "I should like to settle with you at the first opportunity, if you wouldn't mind. I don't like to leave open accounts standing."

"I agree with you on that point," said Fogg, downing the liquor in his glass with one shot, indicating to Jules, at least, that Sturges' ability to stand at all might also be settled in this encounter. Fogg gestured toward the doorway. "Shall we go?"

Preferring to stop the matter here, Jules started to push himself to his feet, but Rebecca intervened swiftly, sailing across the room and placing herself between the two men. "Shall I take care of it for you, Phileas?"

Fogg glared past her at Sturges, who actually appeared oblivious to the danger in which he'd placed himself. He touched a knuckle to his lip as if considering the matter, and then met Jules' eyes across the room.

Aware of Fogg's gaze, Jules went still, not wanting to encourage more mayhem - it little mattered to him at this point whether or not a wager had been placed. Sturges or Gaspar or whatever he was called was only one more reminder of the betrayal, the number of betrayals, he'd been dealt this day.

"Very well," said Fogg, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Do as you wish, Rebecca."

"It would be my pleasure." Smiling sweetly, she took Sturges' arm, leading him from the room. "Come along, Sturges."

Jules fought the urge to laugh as the fool blindly followed her lead and nearly lost his fight against chuckling aloud when he caught Passepartout miming a noose and indicating that Sturges was a dead man. Unfortunately, Chatsworth caught the interplay as well and rose to his feet with no small amount of fury.

"See here, Fogg, I won't have you manhandling my agents. It's bad enough that Verne concussed two of them today--"

"Did you, Verne?" asked Fogg, raising his glass in salute and grinning as Jules nodded hesitantly. "Well done. Well done, indeed."

Jules picked up his mug and busied himself with it, hardly sharing Fogg's pleasure at the memory. He was vaguely aware that Chatsworth was continuing in much the same vein when he was startled by a yell from the hallway. Setting down his mug, he rose from his chair, but Rebecca entered the room just as he reached the door.

Completely unruffled and giving him a broad smile, she tossed a clip of pound notes into his hands and then pulled the door closed behind her. "Your account's settled, Phileas. Although I think Jules should have the money - it's his by right."

"But I don't--" protested Jules, staring down at the wad of bills in his hand. He trailed after Rebecca, vainly attempting to get her to take it back. "It's not mine."

"Of course it is," she insisted, turning on him. "They," she gestured toward Chatsworth, "knew the rules and they bent them, if not broke them entirely. One look at you when you walked through the door told us that much. They owe you forfeit for that." Then she brushed closer to him, adding softly, "Better that I take care of the matter. Had Phileas taken Sturges into the hall, he would have settled for no less than a limb."

She turned her head slightly, indicating that he should look at Chatsworth, who was standing not too far from them. When Jules saw the man' sudden pallor, he realized that Chatsworth had heard the comment. The man's nostrils were flared like that of a racehorse and he cleared his throat rather loudly, as if trying to overcome the sudden fear for his own well being by stoking his wrath.

Fogg was at the sideboard still, glass in hand, half-turned from Chatsworth and a faint smile on his face. Whatever was planned for Chatsworth, he was well set to enjoy it.

This had arranged for his benefit, his friends thinking that he needed to see how they would exact their own form of vengeance for this situation, on their behalf as well as his own.

Jules couldn't allow this. He wanted no more of it. Moving directly to Fogg, he caught the man's arm, surprising him. "Let him go, Fogg," he said softly, more than a slight note of entreaty in his voice. "I don't want-- Just let him go. For my sake."

Fogg sobered immediately and placed his glass down on the sideboard when Jules released his arm. His gaze was direct and if there was the slightest edge of concern to it, Jules had manners enough not to take notice. "Is that what you truly want?"

"Yes." Jules swallowed. "I want to go home. It's been . . . a long day."

At the word 'home,' Fogg had started, casting a quick glance over his shoulder at Rebecca across the room, but he turned back to Jules almost instantly. His smile, though faint, was sincere and held none of the implied malice of the earlier one. "Very well." He leaned close to Jules and said softly, "Would you deny me a harmless bit of fun before we leave?"

Jules looked at Chatsworth; the spy-master seemed momentarily too well-mannered to break into their quiet conversation, but was obviously anxious to know exactly what was being said, particularly if it related to him. Remembering the queen's pronunciation of the word 'torture,' he found himself not completely averse to watching Chatsworth be socially discomfited and gave Fogg a barely perceptible nod before heading back to his chair.

"I should think it's time to return to Saville Row, now that we've been reunited." Fogg picked up the empty glass, raising it to Jules as if in a salute, then placed it on the sideboard again. He took a step toward the center of the room, bringing him closer to Chatsworth, his attention still ostensibly on Jules. "We owe Verne a chance to make himself presentable and a decent supper, at the very least I should think."

Passepartout, who had been in process of replacing the decanter on the sideboard, said quickly, "But master, you have forgotten the remodelings?"

"Ah. Yes." Fogg touched his fingers to his forehead as if in mock forgetfulness. "Chatsworth?" He turned toward the smaller man with a predatory smile. "Be a good man and see that everything's back in place by the morning. I can't abide that paper you've placed in the foyer. Positively vulgar. One would think the British Secret Service had no taste whatsoever."

Rebecca cleared her throat rather loudly and Fogg turned toward her. Within two paces he was at her side. Taking her hand gallantly, he pressed a kiss onto her fingers and added, "Present company excepted, of course." "Of course," she murmured, with a wicked smile.

It was Passepartout's turn to clear his throat. Arm folded at the small of his back, he bowed slightly, heels together. "You will be wantings a carriage to be taking you to supper, master?"

"The Aurora, please," said Jules quickly. When they turned and looked at him in unison, he slumped back into his chair, slightly embarrassed. "I'd rather eat aboard the Aurora, if it wouldn't be too much bother, Passepartout."

"For you, Master Jules, is nothing bothersome."

"Very well," said Fogg, clapping his hands together as if the matter had been decided. "Although I think it rather inefficient to send us in circles all night. A destination is required. Verne looks in need of holiday - perhaps Switzerland?"

Rebecca had laced her arm through that of her cousin and was watching him suspiciously - Jules suddenly realized that this was an entirely impromptu performance on Fogg's part. "Is there some reason to suggest Switzerland?"

"The skiing appears to be excellent," said Fogg, far too blandly for the comment to be unimportant.

That piqued Jules' interest and he leaned forward in his chair. "Do you ski, Fogg?"

"No," answered Rebecca quickly, her nose still wrinkled in suspicion as she studied her cousin's face, "but he's been known to wager on it. Any chance there's a race impending?"

"No. Not really a 'race.'" Fogg withdrew from Rebecca's hold on him and walked back toward the sideboard. "More of a short, downhill event, really."

"A 'race'," corrected Rebecca, sharing a grin with Jules behind Fogg's back.

No doubt unhappy at seeing his employer foundering, Passepartout stepped forward, announcing, "I would be very much liking to watch a skiing race."

"That could be difficult," said Fogg, placing a hand on Passepartout's shoulder. "As I intend to wager on your participation in the race."

Passepartout's eyes widened appreciably. "Master?"

Fogg produced his empty glass almost as a distraction and Passepartout automatically retrieved the decanter from the sideboard to fill it. "You did say that you'd skied before," noted Fogg, watching the liquid fill the glass.

"Some," said Passepartout. He placed the decanter on the sideboard and turned his attention to Jules and Rebecca. "A very little some." He made a motion with his hands, indicating a small hill. "Not big Swiss mountain some," his gestures expanded, "with sheeps and goats and men with long horns and der liederhosen."

Jules was hard-pressed to keep from laughing at Passepartout's antics, then looked up when he felt a touch on his shoulder and found that Rebecca had moved behind him again. She seemed to be enjoying the spectacle almost as much as he.

Waving his glass with a dismissive air, Fogg declared, "Nonsense, it's all the same! Gravity, isn't it, Verne?"

"It's not just--" started Jules, with a laugh, but Fogg cut him off.

"Of course it is. Start at the top of the hill, work toward the bottom." He moved the glass in his hand down in a sloping motion, as if to illustrate the procedure to a dubious Passepartout, then lifted it to his lips and drank from it. "Wonderful. Shall we go, then?"

Without waiting for further comment, Fogg set aside his glass and stalked purposefully toward the door, pausing only a moment a Chatsworth's side. "Not one thing out of place," he warned with mock severity, "nor shall I entertain any calls from the service on my cousin's behalf. We will be on holiday in Switzerland until further notice." Fogg turned at the doorway and glanced back inquiringly, his gaze finally resting on his valet. "Passepartout?"

"But we will be needings skis and wooly things and muffles and--" protested the valet, as he hurried after his master.

"I assume we can purchase the lot in Zurich. Those sheep you mentioned - their wool might be particularly efficacious for cold weather, would you agree . . . ?"

The conversation trailed off into the hall. Even as Jules rose to his feet, he found himself faced by a fuming Chatsworth. "Mr. Verne," he acknowledged curtly, then turned and bowed slightly to Rebecca. "Miss Fogg. I shall not tolerate such disrespect from your cousin. I shall not tolerate it!"

"Then perhaps you'd best discuss that with Phileas. I believe you'll find him heading toward Switzerland?"

With a muttered growl, Chatsworth turned on his heel and headed through the door, calling "Fogg! Hold there! Fogg!"

"He'll be lucky not to lose a limb himself," she said softly, staring after them and biting her lip. When she saw the worried expression on Jules' face, her smile widened. "Oh, don't be alarmed - Phileas wouldn't do anything serious to Sir Jonathan. At least, nothing visible that wouldn't heal in a day or two. And - oh - I'd forgotten." Reaching up into her hair, she withdrew the ribbon that had been holding it in place and held it out for him. "I believe this is yours."

When he didn't take it at once, she took his palm and placed the ribbon on it. Cheeks flushed, Jules stared down at the floor. "Rebecca, I didn't - I meant to give it back - I just--"

Her fingers bent around his, closing them around the ribbon. When he looked up, he found she was smiling. "It's very flattering, actually. And I never should have discovered it if we hadn't been forced to--"

Her words stopped in mid-sentence and she looked away from him, releasing his hand. "I shouldn't be surprised if you should hate us for having put you through this," she said softly, still unable to look at him. "We've discussed the matter - if you'd prefer to leave us, we'd understand. You said that you wanted to go . . . home?" Only then did she turn to look at him, her eyes clear and her expression resolute. "To Paris?"

"No, the Aurora."

Her faint smile warmed him, but there was still a sadness in her expression. "You do understand, we tried to anticipate every contingency. We did not expect you to get yourself arrested."

Jules looked down at the floor, grinning slightly at her obvious consternation.

"Nor did we expect you to put up such a fight." He lifted his gaze as her fingertips touched the bruise on his cheek. "Details are lacking at the moment - did you really knock both of Chatsworth's men unconscious with a single blow? And Sturges, too, although I dare say he well deserved it?"

Uneasy with her praise, he nodded hesitantly, then turned away.

"Jules?" she asked softly. When he didn't turn to face her, she touched his shoulder. "Can you forgive us?"

"I think I already have."

Rebecca's exhaled breath on the back of his neck sent a shiver through him. "I suspect there is a 'but' hovering somewhere?" As if realizing that her proximity was making this all the more difficult for him, he felt her step away. "When you stood at the door, you seemed so . . . distant. We all noticed."

"It was relief. Seeing you here - seeing you all here." Now he did turn to face her, needing to meet her gaze. "There was a point today when I was sure that I'd gone mad, that I'd invented all of you, that you were nothing but phantoms."

Her shocked expression laid open the raw truth of his suspicion - they hadn't known. "Jules - no?"

Jules nodded slightly, then raised a hand to ward her off when she would have moved toward him. "It was the only answer that made sense - that I was mad and had been mad for some time. Even now," he glanced around the room, "after all that's happened, I'm terrified that this might be just another waking dream, that I'm back in that cell, chained to the wall, wearing that damned jacket . . . ."

He fought the break in his voice, managed to keep it from falling away all together except at the end. When she moved to him and hugged him tightly, he had no strength left to put her off. Because if this was a dream and he did wake now, he didn't think his heart could bear it.

"We are real," she whispered in his ear. "Incredibly real." Pulling back from him slightly, she took his injured right hand in her own and touched it to her lips, then met his gaze. "Had we known - I never would have allowed this, Jules. Nor Phileas, nor Passepartout. To think that we might have driven you mad in an attempt to save your life?"

He hadn't meant to tell her this, hadn't ever meant to let any of them know, but some of the weight lifted from his chest in the unburdening of it. The note of horror in her voice comforted him and he turned his hand against hers, squeezing her fingers lightly. "I'd decided that if you were all phantoms and that I could only enjoy your company when I was mad, that I'd forgo sanity altogether. That was the worst part of it - that in recognizing my madness as such, I might lose hold of it. I'd lose you. All of you."

Rebecca regarded him thoughtfully and touched his fingers to her lips again, as if uncertain what to say. "I should think that if I must be a figment of someone's imagination, I would prefer to be yours."

He smiled at the compliment, studying her hair, her eyes, the slight parting of her lips as she waited for his reaction. "I don't think my imagination is up to the task of creating something so magnificent as to defy description."

There was, to his surprise a flash of color in her cheeks at his words. Releasing his hand quickly, Rebecca stepped back and then lightly tapped a finger to his lips a single time. "That was a very pretty compliment. And deserving of a favor far in excess of a simple ribbon." Whirling, Rebecca scurried to the armchair, seated herself upon it, and gazed at him with a challenging smile. "Ask me for something."

"What?" He stared at her in bewilderment, then took a step toward her.

"Today's the day I'm settling all accounts. Phileas' accounts. My accounts. I'm in your debt - ask me for something, for any favor you'd like." There was a pixieish gleam in her eyes and she leaned back in the chair quite regally, as if she was the empress of the universe and the world was but a footstool beneath her heels. "Come then - the offer won't last for long. Call it recompense for my being such a fool and not having understood--" She stopped then, the fancy of the moment before disappearing beneath a somber, anxious expression. "Will you - will you permit me to speak of this to Phileas? I won't, if you'd rather I didn't."

Jules didn't know quite what to say. He hadn't intended to tell them at all and yet . . . . "If you think he should know."

"I very much think he should know - this can't be allowed to happen ever again." The sternness of the reprimand was obviously meant for herself and not for him, but then her features softened. "And Passepartout, also. It would help them to understand, I think. We were all so very worried about you." Rebecca closed her eyes momentarily as if to hide something from him. He saw a weariness steal over her features, a worn look that he'd glimpsed only once or twice before, at the end of extraordinarily harrowing missions. When she opened her eyes again, the look had disappeared and her gaze was clear. "Unless you wish to speak to them yourself?"

He thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I wouldn't know what to say."

"You always know what to say," countered Rebecca. "But there are times when you stubbornly refuse to say it." Then she smiled again, leaned back, and was once again empress of the universe. "Ask me, come on. Any favor I can grant you, I will."

Jules wasn't certain which was the more intoxicating, that the offer had been made at all or that Rebecca would, by her own word, fulfill anything within her power that he might ask of her. The possibilities were endless, staggering, almost as boundless as his own imagination.

Yet, for all that he had been through, for as weary as his mind and body might be, he could not bear to ask anything of her that might lose him her friendship, for then he would truly have to account himself mad beyond redemption. There was, however, one matter he'd determined must be settled beyond question.

"Would you--?" Jules hesitated and licked his lips. She raised an eyebrow during his pause, but her smile never wavered. "Would you teach me to pick locks?"

Rebecca appeared, at best description, stunned. She stared at him a moment in wonderment, her lips forming an 'o' of amazement. And then the edges quirked up at the corners in wry amusement. "Pick locks?" she repeated.

Jules nodded. "Yes." When she continued to stare at him, he asked nervously, "Is that too much to ask?"

"No, not at all. Pick locks." Rebecca blinked at him then rose from the chair and took a step toward him, her smile affectionate. She took his arm in her own and turned him toward the door, then planted a quick kiss on his cheek. "I think I shall never cease to adore you, Jules. Pick locks. Of course. We might start with the lock to Phileas' cabin, as it's always been bothersome and there's no sense in beginning with something simple when you can easily master the most difficult. Pick locks . . . ."

They had just entered the hallway when Jules froze in sudden alarm and disentangled his arm from hers. Rebecca half-turned in concern as he headed back through the doorway at a run. "Jules?"

"Go on - I'll catch up," he called. "I've forgotten something." Dashing back into the room, he paused, then spotted it on the table beside the armchair.

His journal. His steps slowed as he approached it. Lifting it in his hands should mean so little, but a knot tightened in his chest. It might have been the feel of it - he ran the fingertips of his right hand over the cover - or the familiarity of it that meant so much to him. Or, it could simply have been that it was so much a part of him, of what he was, or what he had been, and . . . of what he was to be.

"If I am mad," Jules prayed, fingers brushing the cover of the book, "dear God, don't ever let me regain my sanity."

He stood for a moment in the quiet of the empty room, his journal crushed to his chest and his trinkets in his pockets, content in the knowledge that his friends - real or imagined - waited for him in an airship - real or imagined - not so far away on the grounds of this royal estate. There was peace to be found in the certitude of that knowledge, serenity priceless beyond measure.

And, too, was as priceless as the knowledge that if he should need to leave the lamp above his bed burning low as he slept for the next few nights, the matter would not be commented upon by any of his friends aboard the Aurora.


The End


Author's note: I've taken liberties with Jules' audience with the queen, which would never have been allowed to happen, even with royal mandate. You must understand that I'm still on my learner's permit for my poetic license and am not allowed more than one impossible fictional occurrence after dark unless accompanied by a fully licensed writer.