a gentleman's agreement

In many ways, it was done spontaneously. Jules was never sure very much in advance when he would happen to be in London, and even when he was, he never knew if he would have free time between visits to editors, translators and publishers, and research-trips to the various museums and libraries of which the capital was so full.

Whenever he found he had free time in London, he would send a short note to the Reform club, mentioning his presence.

Of course, the moment the note came into Phileas Fogg's hands, things would turn into the usual well-ordered routine. Fogg lived his life along well-worn paths, and dealt with the bizarre and outrageous far more phlegmatically than he would with a two-degree variation in the temperature of his shaving water. The provision of Darjeeling rather than Assam tea at breakfast, for example, would perturb him far more than the sudden appearance of a fully-grown elephant in the morning room.

Thus, once he had received Jules' note, Phileas would meet him at his temporary lodgings within twenty-three minutes; he would bring with him a hamper from Fortnum & Mason's, which always contained a quarter-wheel of stilton, a large quantity of smoked salmon, a selection of biscuits (both sweet and savoury), several kinds of dried fruit, a bottle of excellent champagne and a bottle of even more excellent vintage port; and they would take the first train north from King's Cross.

They would always have been welcome at Shillingworth Magna, of course; but the longer Phileas spent at his childhood home, the more withdrawn and snappish he always seemed to get. And they could, of course, have stayed at a hotel; but Fogg had yet to find a hotel which could even be trusted with polishing his boots, let alone brushing his silk hats.

And in any case, even though they'd had a few rather unpleasant missions to the Scottish highlands, there was no reason to write off the whole country on that basis. Not when the Fogg family had such a fine hunting lodge up there, with a permanent and very discreet staff of three.

"I've had an idea for my new book," said Jules, conversationally, scooping up a generous mouthful of venison paté onto a small biscuit and popping it into his mouth.

"My word," said Phileas, leaning against the wall amidst a small mountain of cushions, head resting against his crooked arm, watching, smiling ever-so-faintly. The curtains of the four-poster were pulled back to let the warmth and light of the fire in, but the heavy scarlet drapes at the windows were pulled tight closed against the night. "Is this your second or third of the year?"

"I think it's going to be my first one of next year, actually," said Jules, either not noticing the gentle mockery or simply allowing it to sail over him, as he attacked the grapes, carefully packed with ice and an insulating barrier of hay. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was thinking about ways that the efficiency of the insulation could be increased - the interpolation of a vacuum layer between the walls of a double-walled metal flask, perhaps - but he had grown better over the years at storing up ideas for when they were useful, instead of just reaching for a pen and starting to draw on the nearest flat surface.

Phileas Fogg's sheets were always the softest of brushed cottons, immaculately laundered, and immaculately pressed. It would have been very bad manners to start drawing on them. Especially when one happened to be sprawled over them in a decadent sort of way, reaching down from the edge of the bed to pick at the remnants of the supper tray, with only a small end of sheet preserving one's modesty.

Phileas, of course, wasn't even attempting to preserve his modesty. Jules strongly suspected he didn't have any. He could be as fully armoured and buttoned up when completely naked as when in formal evening dress. He had the sort of disdain which could cut diamonds.

He could feel Fogg watching him. It made his skin tingle.

"Well?" Phileas prompted, taking a mouthful from the glass of champagne which still stood on the bedside table. "What's it going to be this time? Colonies on Mars? Undiscovered islands full of prehistoric beasts?"

"Not this year," said Jules, propping himself up on his elbow to look back up the enormous bed at the older man. "It's going to be a story about an eccentric English gentleman, who spends most of his time at his club, playing whist. He's got such a set routine he's pretty much worn grooves in the pavement. But he can shoot, and fence, and ride, and he's got the coolest head in England. And secretly, he's a bit of a thrill-seeker, and if someone says something's impossible, that's just exactly the thing to make him do it. Then one day his friends bet him that he won't be able to travel around the world in eighty days - so of course he's got to do it." Jules grinned. "He's also got a slightly eccentric manservant. Great at keeping his collars and cuffs starched and pressed just so - not to mention being a linguist, an acrobat, a singer, an inventor, and half a dozen other things - but with a tendency to get them both into scrapes just when they can least afford it."

"Sounds terribly far-fetched," said Phileas, looking at Jules over the rim of the champagne-flute with dark and dancing eyes.

Jules shrugged, which wasn't the easiest of movements from his position. "That's why I had to leave out his beautiful cousin, the secret agent. I didn't think the readers of Le Temps were ready for her yet."

"And tell me," said Fogg, putting down his glass with care and precision. "Does he also have a young, handsome and brilliant French author in his entourage, to act as scribe, occasional Boswell, and not infrequent damsel in distress?"

Jules lay down and began to pick at the supper again. "No, I'm afraid not," he said. "He does get a young and lovely wife by the end of the story though. An Indian princess, who's brilliant, loyal and devoted, and an excellent match for him in every way."

"And no doubt beautiful, with hair the colour of a raven's wings and eyes that are deeper than the depth of waters still'd at even," said Fogg. His voice was desert-dry.

"Oh, definitely," said Jules. "I can already picture her."

There was a faint, slightly annoyed sigh from behind him. "Verne..."

Jules rested his head on his arms, looking into the fire. He began idly swinging one of his legs. "It's okay. I know she's out there somewhere, whether she's an Indian princess, or a Russian countess, or - or an American estate owner. It's just that sometimes I wonder if - well. Whether I'm one of the routine paths you walk down, or whether I'm an elephant in the morning-room who has to be walked round carefully until you work out what to do with it."

"There are frequent occasions when I have no idea how your mind works."

"Sorry. I meant - "

"Verne, I really don't much care what you meant."

He felt the mattress shifting, and then Fogg was there, pushing him onto his back, pressing him down amongst the rumpled sheets and embroidered coverlets, and kissing him with the sort of precision, care and dedication with which he did everything. His fingers were cold from the champagne glass, against the heat of Jules' skin.

Verne pressed upwards, as much as he could, as all that strength and hardness bore down on him, and it was never quite close enough.

It wasn't really an answer, of course.

The closest he came to an answer was much later, when the fire had burned down, and he lay beside Fogg in the darkness, the sharp curve of Phileas' shoulder close enough to turn the gusts of Jules' breath back against his lips.

Fogg's voice was quiet, but as matter-of-fact as ever. "I don't know how to say it any more clearly," he said.