Volunteered

Title: Volunteered
Time Period: March 26, 135 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

Summary: One of Algernon's secrets isn't.

Late afternoon light filters warm across a half-made bed somewhere past 4:00 PM. At 4:30, Algernon has finished ironing. He's shaved and he's eaten and he's a ways into the process of being dressed, a loose button frowned at in his cuff before the open gawp of his wardrobe.

Also having eaten, Forge — lies stretched out in a square of sunlight in the center of the bed. Occasionally he slits his eyes open after a rustle or bump only to have them roll inexorably back into his skull. Button plied at, Algernon frowns at him too.

The sound of someone ascending the stairs produces both rustles and bumps, and isn't all that unusual; if it isn't one of the other guests at the Albatross, it's one of the inn's staff collecting dirty linens for the wash, or a girl from the Dovetail come to pay someone a house call.

Cause for alarm comes when the footsteps stop outside Algernon's door and the person on the other side takes a few moments to compose his or herself before tapping the tips of their fingers against the wood, the sound much softer than the kind made by knocking with knuckles or a bunched fist.

"Mr. Fogg?"

Forge lifts his head first, ears swung around to fore and tail stilled mid-curl. Fogg is slower to follow, looking twice to the door only once the footfalls that paused there fail to continue on their way after a beat.

His next look is to the lay of his belt across his pillow, replete with leather holster and .44.

Hardly necessary. At the sound of Aislinn's voice, his brows bunch bafflement at his familiar, who tilts an equally blank look back up at him, one ear turned uncertainly back to the window. Mute confusion between them thus firmly established, the taller of them nods out a directive that the other follows without argument.

Algernon waits until he's certain the blunt tip of his tail has vanished into the shadows beneath his bed before he moves to open the door. Dress shirt less white than he'd like, slacks pressed and socks — possibly in need of replacing, he looks down at her as if he expects she might be looking for some other Mr. Fogg.

Algernon looks down. Aislinn looks up. She holds a folder with a calfskin cover hugged to her chest, fingers curled around the edges — the weather outside isn't yet warm enough for the people of Dornie to shed their winter coats, but she seems to have left her gloves behind this afternoon. A scarf knotted under her chin protects her hair, worn in a loose bun at the nape of her neck, from the blustering wind outside and the ever present threat of rain.

She wears a sprig of lavender pinned to her wool shawl like a broach. "May I come in?"

"Of course."

The pause that precedes (what sounds like) easy allowance is subtle enough to be missed by someone not finely attuned to such things.

He pulls the door back to make room and pans a look down the hallway after her before he closes it, bolt and chain left unfastened. As they already were.

For all that it doesn't show on his face, awkward perplexion keeps him fixed near the door where it might be more natural to tail her in, uneasy curiosity for her intent too pressing to be easily overcome.

Aislinn's feet, clad in flat leather boots, come into Forge's view and track the smell of damp moorland and heather even if they don't leave any visible tracks. Horse hair sticks to her stockings.

"I'm sorry to bother you," she says, seeking out a chair with her eyes, then her feet, though she chooses to circle around behind it rather than adopt a seat. "I know how busy you are, but I've been working on this piece for the last month or so— " Her thumb slides under the folder's cover, fanning it halfway open. "I think I finally have it the way I want it, only— I'm at a loss for what to call it, and I'd very much like your opinion."

The wooden chair belongs to the desk, which in turn belongs to the inn. The heavy trunk set beside it is Algernon's, as is the robust locking mechanism that buckles top to bottom.

Forge and Fogg mark her progress with eyes only, the latter's rendered a hawkish blend of amber and green by wintery sunlight to the former's brimstone orange. Is there anyone else? he asks, as she slips into the folder. There is an unsettling breath of silence before Forge can answer, No. with certainty.

Meanwhile there's no real reason to pretend that this isn't odd. A married woman who he does not know well visiting him alone in a room that has seen only three visitors since he took up residence there. With something that she wants to show him.

Algernon's air of muddled tolerance is genuine, then, when he crosses flat-footed in his socks to see.

Only when she's sure that Algernon gives his consent does Aislinn open the folder the rest of the way, and she's careful not to meet his eyes as she does. Local merchants who sell paints and the type of paper that best soaks up their colours know she's an artist, but the charcoal caked under her nails and the occasional stains that show up on the sleeves of her dresses go either unnoticed or unrecognized by the general population.

She is a physician first and a Rowntree second — apart from her magic, she's given the people of Dornie no reason to believe that there's much more to her than that.

Inside the folder is a single piece of stiff, textured paper marked up with feather-light strokes from a pencil and painted over in earthy, dilute shades, with the exception of two bright jasper circles staring out from under a whiskered brow.

The cat in the watercolour sketch bears an uncanny resemblence to the one lurking under the bed.

That's probably no coincidence.

Ah.

Right hand lifted to tip the folder she holds gently into better light once he's seen what it is, Algernon regards pencil and paint down the point of his nose without any easily discernible reaction. He remains upright; his brow remains lax. He doesn't hold his breath, or quicken it. He isn't even quiet for overly long, although he might seem so, standing so close with his hand near hers.

"You've done him a service," he judges, finally, jaw hollowed across a swallow. "He's tends to be a little wider," paired fingers indicate the middle region, "here."

Beneath the bed, Forge's eyes narrow.

"I think that may be your imagination," says Aislinn, more in Forge's defense than her own. "My husband tells me I have a very fine eye for detail." She risks a smile, however small and faint, because while there's no nice way to accuse someone of hiding the fact that they have a familiar, his outward reaction tells her that he isn't as offended as she was afraid he might be.

It doesn't last. Her lips thin back out before she chances a glance up at Algernon again, her expression serious and pinched. "Does anyone know?"

One of his brows does move when she disagrees. To lift. But that's the extent of his argument. Fogg looks to her and then back to the painting, the hand that he had used to adjust her hold turned on default back into the process of buttoning his opposite cuff. "Clearly," he says. Clearly, Forge echoes, tail pulled in thick across his paws.

Algernon isn't looking at her when she looks to him, eyes cast elsewhere at a distracted fade while he finishes the one cuff and starts on the other. A slight shake of his head is her answer.

Aislinn removes the sketch from the folder and lays it down on the desk, mindful not to crease the paper or bend its edges. Whether or not Algernon desires to keep it, it's for him— or for Forge. She hasn't made that entirely clear. "I thought I could hide what I was when they brought me here," she tells him, lowering her eyes to the now empty folder when it becomes apparent that Algernon is looking elsewhere, "but it always comes out.

"Donagh will go easier on you if you volunteer what you can do." She closes the folder. "If you don't, well— I respect it. You have my silence."

More or less immune to suggestion, however well-intended, Algernon continues on as she continues on, a tie selected from his wardrobe, inspected and traded for another that looks the same, which he loops around his neck. The look he gives her once he's turned back to face her somewhere in the process of tying it is difficult to mistake for anything less than level, patronizing cynicism.

It's surely no coincidence that he didn't bother to turn around at all until she made mention of Donagh's idea of 'going easier.'

"I have 'volunteered' myself into his militia, where I 'volunteer,'" his diction is elegantly precise in its double edge, "what I can do every night from eleven to seven." There's a scuff when he stiffs the knot to his throat.

"Do what you think is right."

In general, women have an easier time recognizing patronizing cynicism than men; they are faced with it more often, and it has a tendency to cut just a little deeper, especially when the woman on the receiving end is as sensitive to these things as Aislinn. She knows well enough that she should be offended, but living under the same roof as Duncan has taught her how to more or less keep the disappointment off her face and contained to her gut.

It's the breathy sigh that slips with her next exhale that betrays her, and she knows the moment she hears it.

"I hope to never do otherwise," she assures him, tucking the folder under her arm. "You haven't given me a name for my painting."

Algernon is sorry.

Or he knows he should be, at the very least — a blunt exhalation follows her sigh by a matter of seconds, but he is better at grinding his heel than he is apologizing for it. Compromise comes reluctantly in wildcat form, nose, then ruff, and finally hindquarters easing slowly out from beneath the bed (which is a ridiculous place for a familiar to hide in the first place, Fogg acknowledges with a weary glance). His tail lifts the bedskirt after him, then it's up onto the bed, where Aislinn can get a proper look at him. And see that she was right.

"His name is Forge."

Aislinn does not, as tempted as she is, check to see whether or not Algernon is right about the familiar's proportions in comparison to her depiction of him. It isn't hard — in the daylight, her focus is drawn to things the glow of the apothecary's candles missed. The pieces taken out of his ear. The scar tissue scratched across his flank.

This makes her sadder than Algernon does, at least. "That's a good name," she says. "It takes a lot of strength to shape steel."

Forge is less polite about eye contact than Algernon, who finds himself glancing away again more uncomfortably than before once he realizes what she's looking at. The cat stares plainly and with an affect well-suited to his species. Unruffled, as he settles himself into a sit, all driftwood bands of grey and brown and black.

"Yes," Fogg agrees in the background. "It does. Thank you," he adds, "for the artwork. I know his ego appreciates it."

"Then he's very welcome." Meanwhile, Algernon is probably not the only one to observe the strangeness of Aislinn coming to visit him in the privacy of his room; she has respect for his choices, but also for her own reputation and the reputation of her husband. It would be unfortunate for all three of them if people began speculating.

The best way to keep quiet any whispers that might arise is to show herself to the door, which she does. But to be safe— "If anyone asks, will you tell them I heard a rumour that you'd fallen from the saddle?"

Algernon wasn't aware that his reputation was so scandalous as to incite rumor quite that easily, but beyond a flicker of bland (possibly self-impressed) surprise, he nods. The 'self-impressed' fades as quickly as it threatened to show. Forge's doing, deftly silent to Aislinn's ears.

Anyway. Her suggestion is practical at the rate he's been going — but now (he considers, with a probing glance that's almost out of place) is probably not the time to ask about where his horse is being held and under what conditions. Instead he trails after her for the door, where his silence behind her is a natural byproduct of his sincerely wishing that she not walk out of this room with one of secrets.

And yet this is exactly what she does.

"Have a safe watch, Mr. Fogg," she says as soon as she's on the other side of the threshold and tucking a stray piece of golden hair under her scarf and behind her ear. "God be with you," and with Forge, presumably, but she's smart enough to omit the familiar from her farewell now that she's out in the hall and their voices more audible to anyone who might be listening.

She steers for the stairs.

Algernon watches her go.

Then he closes the door behind her.

He stands there for a time, as he did when she initially entered, right hand traced from brow to beard before pulling long at the creases around his eyes. "We'll be fine for a while," he says aloud. "Several weeks, at least."

Forge sits silently on the bed with his scars, where Fogg has to find him with his eyes when he finally turns around.