Chapter 4

"I'm not trying to say that they were dead, because they weren't. I was just saying that I thought they were dead!"

"Who's dead?" cut in Tintin, sharply.

Calculus was getting irritated. "No, no, not a bit. I just thought they were dead, that's all."

"Great snakes, who?"

Tintin had been edgy all morning. He found himself, not exactly snapping, but being uncharacteristically short with people. He knew it was probably because of those tyre tracks. Thinking about them bothered him half to death. He simply couldn't get them out of his mind...

"Don't worry, I know it now!" said the Professor. "I'm just saying that when I went out this morning—"

"You went out this morning?" interrupted the Captain, with mild interest. He'd just walked in from the breakfast room. He was draped in heavy bathrobes, looking like some over-dressed Greek statue.

"No, to the garden!" Calculus continued. "And as I said, the roses only seemed dead. Very strange for this time of year. They really weren't quite gone… probably in a couple of days, though…" Calculus had responded to the temperature drop by bundling himself a fur coat Castafiore had left in the Charles I suite. It was kind of cute and pathetic, all at the same time.

The blizzard hadn't shown any signs of letting up yet: the mansion was ice cold despite the overworked furnace, and snow cloaked all the windows. Every corner of the old house was darker and colder than usual, and antique furniture was drawn up closer to the fires in an effort to stay warm. Nobody moved from the fireplaces, if possible. The house was silent, drawn in, shut up, isolated.

Haddock breathed onto his raw hands and rubbed them together. "The guests are all taken care of. Taking tea. Sleeping. Or playing cards." It was true; everything was finally calm and organised. Freeh, the German General, was drinking coffee with the American, Vogel. Freeh's chauffer, Bastian Vogt, was playing cards in the staterooms with Hazar Schuuring. The pretty, timid girl— Odette Bienvenue, that was her name— was, as far as they knew, still in bed.

Tintin looked relieved. "Bon, I'm glad." He looked up at Haddock. "Do you want to call everybody together for tea?"

"Good idea. Nestor's trying to fire up the furnace some more, can you make tea?"

He nodded. "Sure. I'll get to the kitchen; you congregate our guests."

/

Welcome to Moulinsart Hall.

She couldn't get the words out of her head. They lingered in her dreams, in her waking mind.

Gingerly raising her head off the pillow, the first thing she noticed was the pale sunlight peeking through the opulent blue drapes, hanging over the paneled bedroom windows. What time is it?

Fingering the circular indentations in her wrists where the manacles had been, mere hours before, Odette staggered towards the windows and opened the curtains. Cold December light flooded the room, all but blinding her for the better part of the next minute. The storm had quieted since last night; however, she was fairly certain they wouldn't be leaving this place anytime soon. Squinting, she pulled open the window just a crack, feeling the breeze bite her face and hands. The snow came thick and fast. She couldn't even see outside; it was as if white sheets had been balled up on the other side of the window.

The cold air was finally waking her up; she made her way to a nearby armchair and collapsed into it, trying to catch her breath. The grandfather clock against the far wall said it was 11 AM. She was tired. Even after all this time, she couldn't sleep well.

The smell of toast slowly wafted up to the bedroom door, and it literally made her stomach hurt. Odette hadn't eaten since the morning of the 19th, right before she'd boarded the train. Now it was the 21st.

Christmas is soon.

She remembered last Christmas. Then, she'd never even heard of him. And she realised that she wished it could've stayed that way.

She heard a knock on her door, and jumped. She found herself glancing about the room, looking for an escape.

Don't be ridiculous! They're not going to hurt you!

"Miss Bienvenue?"

It sounded like that Captain, the English sailor. He had seemed kind, last night, in a gruff way. He had reminded her of her father…

"Miss Bienvenue, are you awake?"

Her voice caught in her throat, but she managed to choke out, "Oui… quoi? I mean… what is it?"

"We're taking tea in the drawing room now. Would you care to join us?"

She glanced down at her shabby grey dress, and felt a little embarrassed. "I'm not… um…" She swallowed. She would have to be seen sometime. "Okay," she finished. "I'll be down in a moment."

"Fine. We'll look forward to you being there."

I doubt it, she thought.

/

Captain Haddock, along with Hazar Schuuring, Odette Bienvenue, Sebastian Vogt, and General Freeh, were assembled together in the drawing room, a roaring fire behind them and a tray of digestive biscuits in front.

"So, how'd you get the place?" Hazar asked, fingering his cigarette.

This was a story the Captain liked telling: it was a good story, or so he thought; it involved explosions and treasure and vast quantities of rum. Settling back into his chair, he took a drag from his pipe and began. "Well, you'd never believe it, but almost two hundred years—"

Tintin was just entering the room, bearing the tea-tray. He quickly realised where the conversation was going, and plunking the tray on the tabletop, he swooped in. "It's a long story," he cut in brightly. "It belonged to the Captain's ancestor, Francis Haddock, who had treasure that we found and bought the house with." Shooting a look at the Captain, he added expressively, "It's a very long story."

Unlike the Captain, who looked more than irritated, Hazar took Tintin's intervention very calmly. "Oh. Fascinating." He stretched a little, staring down into the lit end of his cigarette. "So… you two live here?"

Tintin said, "Oui. Er. Ja." He blushed. "I mean, yes. Sorry, I forgot which… that is…"

Hazar said, "English will do quite nicely, thank you." Show-off, his expression said, which made Tintin redden even further.

Haddock smirked. He'd been peeved by Tintin's interruption, and liked to see Tintin's face turn red like that. Not to mention he always felt a little bit like an idiot whenever Tintin started talking in different languages. It made him feel good whenever Tintin slipped up… not like his self-esteem was lacking, but the boost was still appreciated.

"Anyway." Hazar straightened up a little. "So, you live here by yourselves?"

The Captain nodded sagely. "Sí. I mean, jawel. I mean…" Catching Tintin's glare, he wisely decided to answer Hazar's question normally. "Er, yeah. Well, more or less. My friend Calculus and my manservant Nestor live here too, you just don't, er, see them quite as much."

"Calculus? Cuthbert Calculus? You mean that... that loony who went to the moon? Wait. Wait." He laughed disbelievingly. "You're pulling my leg. You mean, you're Haddock. The Haddock. And you're Tintin. Heilige moeder, you introduced yourselves last night, but I hadn't even made the connection! The two 'Belgian Heroes'." Hazar paused, looking inbetween the two of them, scornful amusement twisting his mouth into a grin. "The baby reporter and the dipsomaniac lush. What a freak show I've stumbled in to."

The entire room went dead silent. A fork clattered, dropped onto a plate, and that was all.

"That's enough," said Tintin. His voice was calm, but sounded strained.

"Don't worry, sweetheart, I know, you're a hero and all that. But honestly, you keep that idiot drunk around the house, why? He's pathetic. I've read the papers. He just gets you into all sorts of—"

"You can stop it right now." He could feel his body going cold.

All eyes were on Tintin and Hazar. Waiting to see what they would do.

"He's pathetic," he repeated, almost apologetically. "He needs a— what, twelve year old?— reporter around to save his skin."

"Tintin, it's okay, you—" Haddock began, but Tintin cut him off.

"I said stop it." He spoke low, through clenched teeth.

Hazar smirked, tilting his head slightly downwards as he took an infuriatingly long sip of tea. "What, what will he do to me? He's a drunk, through and through. You can just see it in his face." Turning to Haddock, he added, shaking his head and grinning, "You're such a drunk. Can you even see straight right—"

His sentence was cut off as Tintin's fist found his jaw.

A muted cry of pain escaping his lips, Hazar fell backwards against the couch, his face the very picture of shock. For a long moment, nobody thought he was going to retaliate, until he leapt to his feet, raised his fists, and went in deep to Tintin's belly with his right hand. Tintin let the air out of his lungs with a large, dry sound; Hazar danced back.

His body was burning, but he ignored the pain with ease that only innumerable fights can give. He shifted position and his feet crossed, left in front of right. Spinning on his left, the right coming up and out, he caught Hazar squarely in the jaw. Hazar tried to throw his wrist at Tintin's solar plexus, but the reporter snaked in and hit him with a short left hook to the head.

They could hear pottery shattering as Hazar flew backwards, stumbling, hitting an end table and upsetting the vase resting on it. Staggering upwards, he made as if to retaliate, but at the last second, fell back against the wall. There was a thin trickle of blood coming from his forehead— not life-threatening, but painful all the same.

"You know, I don't get angry often, but everybody has their limits!" Tintin yelled, his fists clenched and trembling. His quiff seemed to stick up even more, and his face was white with rage. "Vous fluage couché, c'est ma famille!"

"Tintin, Tintin, it's okay," Haddock interrupted, grabbing Tintin by the shoulders, pulling him back. He tried to think of the right words. "Tintin, just… just take it easy…"

The boy didn't try to break free, but he struggled, all the same. "Comment osez-vous insulter!" he shot out. "Comment osez-vous insulter mon ami!"

"Oh, that burns," Hazar panted, painfully crawling into a kneeling position.

"Tintin, sit down!" Haddock hissed.

For a while, nobody said anything. The silence stretched over the course of several moments, the atmosphere growing tighter and tighter, like a rubber band being stretched as far back as it could go. The strain got too much for Tintin; he stormed out of the room. Haddock followed, and after a moment, they could hear the front door slamming.

"This will be an interesting couple of days," Hazar commented dryly.

From the next room, the steady, tapping sound of footsteps on marble came nearer, until they could see Vogel, strolling into the room, a cigarette balanced delicately between two fingers. His face was devoid of any betraying emotion as he surveyed the scene before him, and he took a long drag, letting the smoke slowly curl into the air and fade from inbetween his lips.

"Everybody has their limit," the American echoed.

"I know now." Hazar grinned bitterly, reaching down and pulling a sliver of pottery from his palm. It was a long shard— jagged, and covered with blood. "Heilige moeder… look at that."

"Where were you?" General Freeh asked Vogel sharply. "What have you been doing?"

"You were stupid, Schuuring," Vogel said, bluntly, as he look another long breath from the cigarette. "You pushed him too far."

"Pushed him? What do you mean?" Odette asked, her voice subdued.

"He means nothing." Bastian answered for Hazar, as he leaned back lazily into his chair. "Nothing at all. Anyway, I'm jolly well starving. Tea, anybody?"

Sipping tea and nibbling biscuits, they managed to piece together a friendly atmosphere. Nobody seemed to notice Tintin's absence, nor Haddock's. They acted as if they'd all been guests, invited to tea at the local country mansion.

But they were all very well aware of the tension just beneath the surface.

/

"Tintin, look," Haddock pleaded, gesturing hopelessly at the sky. "Tintin, it's— what Hazar said was true, okay? You save me all the time. And I drink. Who cares? We've both accepted it."

"He was attacking you!" the boy shot back, not facing Haddock, just trudging onward through the snow.

Haddock briefly wondered what he'd ever done to deserve having this bag of nerves in his life. "Look, if anyone should be angry, it should be me, by thunder! You're unreasonable!"

"Do I ever do anything unreasonable?"

Tapping a finger against his chin, he pretending to sound pensive. "Hmm, let me think about that."

"He was attacking you!" Tintin repeated, wheeling around on him suddenly stamping his foot on the ground, an action that seemed surprisingly childish for someone as mature as he. "He—"

"Tintin, I thundering don't care!"

Tintin's face fell; Haddock could see the muscles in his jaw clench. Eyes trained on the ground, he bit his lip, his ginger brows rutted with rage. "But... I hate it when… when they try to do that…" he muttered. "Make it look like you're just… just a…"

He resisted the urge to groan."A what?"

"A tagalong."

So that's what the problem was. The Captain wasn't exactly flattered, but his anger was quelled. He said, "Tintin, look. I appreciate it. And I'm sorry. But he wasn't hurting me." He sighed, sounding somewhat exasperated. "Hazar wasn't being polite, but I wasn't even that offended. They were just words. You didn't need to last out like that, really. Besides, it makes you look bad."

Grumbling, Tintin resumed walking; the Captain resumed following, though it was the last thing he wanted to do. The storm had abated a bit since the morning, but it was bitter cold, and the sky still almost black with storm clouds.

"Look, I'm sorry. I'm just stressed." He stared at the ground as he trudged onward. "Those confounded tyre tracks, I can't get them out of my mind."

"That's no excuse for you fight someone, and then to be tearing out like this, into the stupid storm," he returned, feeling the harsh wind stinging at his nose and ears. He could really use some whisky right now. "What you did was rude, Tintin, and—"

Wham!

He bumped into Tintin with a thud, realising too late that the reporter had stopped walking.

"Non," the boy whispered, sounding strangely shaken. "Non, oh Dieu, que Dieu nous aide—!"

The Captain was thoroughly confused. "Well, you weren't being that rude…" he said falteringly.

Diving to his knees, Tintin dug his hands into the ground, scraping powdery white away from a black shape buried in the snow.

Suddenly sensing something was wrong— horribly wrong— Haddock went to his side, kneeling in the snow beside him. "Lad, what's wrong?"

"Non, non, ce n'est pas possible…" His gloved hands scrabbled frantically through the snow.

The Captain's heart skipped a beat. Reverting to French— that couldn't be a good sign. "By thunder! What's wrong?"

"Que Dieu nous—"

"Tintin!" He reached forward, grabbing the boy's shoulders; he could feel himself sounding desperate. "For the love of heaven, speak to me in English, lad, what happened?"

"Snakes, Captain, what do you think?" Tintin exclaimed, gesturing to the shape he'd been uncovering in the snow. "Look!"

The world seemed to tilt slightly off its axis. With a sickening realisation, the Captain fully understood just what it was he was looking at. He had to grip Tintin's shoulder for support as he slowly stood, backing away. "He's…" He swallowed, almost unwilling to say the words. "By thunder, he's dead."


Author's Note: Yeah, I know. This is a somewhat melodramatic instalment. Bear with me…*sigh*… one has to move the plot along somehow. Also, I think that if had been speaking Spanish, but got really upset, I would revert to English pretty much instantaneously. That's why I did that to Tintin.

Please review! ALSO, out of curiosity, I'd love to know who you think 'dunnit' :)