The Tower of Hanoi
Rating: PG (some swearing)
Spoilers: None, really. Vague for the first and second, and no doubt influenced somewhat by the all-pervasive knowledge of the third, but if you've managed to avoid all that, well, you're a better woman than I am. :D
Summary: He's been working on this puzzle for nine long years, and the endgame begins today. He shall not lose. Not this time.
Notes: The Tower of Hanoi puzzle may (or may not) be better known to you as the pancake puzzle from Diabolical Box-- moving pieces of a tower one by one to reassemble it on the opposite side of the board. It is said that there is a particularly complicated version of the puzzle being played by priests in a temple somewhere-- and once they finish it, the world will end. That's more a reference to how long the damned thing takes, I think, but the point stands. ;D
Once, a thousand years or so ago, you heard a Professor chatting about the Tarot deck.
"Oh, everyone's scared of the Death card," she laughed, "but that just means change. It's the Tower you've got to be afraid of."
You've learned to believe it, now. You'd had lessons enough before, but nine years living in the Tower has cleansed you of any childish notions that it was ever a coincidence.
The bell rings; you sigh, imperceptibly, taking up your silver tray. Nine long years.
It will end differently, this time.
The boy's clever, and he's bold, else he wouldn't come up to this haunted place so often. You think you can trust him. You've built up a friendship over biscuits and tea, painstakingly, partly because you both needed the company rather badly, and partly just for this. He has his flaws- he's a bit brash, thoughtless, nothing time isn't likely to cure- but he wouldn't break a promise. Not one as intriguing as this.
"They'll arrive by train at four," you said. "It will be tea-time, so they'll stop outside for tea. You'll have plenty of time to spot them: a man in a top-hat, a girl, and a boy, about your age. They'll head for the hotel; follow them, and find out where they stay. Then late tonight, or very early tomorrow, find a way to sneak these notes to them."
You push the basement door open; Professor Dunning is sitting in front of the mass of brass-gleaming pipes and dials, like a pipe organ run rampant, run infernal, and perhaps the product of an illicit affair with a clock or a train engine as well- all those gears, turning sharply, steadily. It's a miracle- or the opposite- that the thing works at all.
Of course, at the moment, it doesn't, quite. That's why Professor Dunning is down here.
"Ah, Holton..." he says. "Thank you."
"Yes, sir." You place the tray on a blank part of the jury-rigged console, its usual spot. "Will there be anything else?"
"No, thank you, Holton," he says, with a sigh. "Not unless you know how to fix ridiculous machines."
"I'm afraid not, sir," you lie.
"Of course." He chuckles, turns away. You take that as your cue to leave.
In truth, you know exactly how to fix that contraption. You've even done it, once.
You will not do it again.
She is the root cause of all this trouble, and she is beautiful. You can almost understand.
"Thank you, Holton," she says, hands only shaking a little as she lifts the cup of tea to her mouth. It's not a good day, but she's had many worse. "You make the best tea..."
"Practice, Miss Angela," you say, with a smile.
She's a sweet child, green-eyed, with long waves of golden hair. She reminds you of Flora, actually, and she's just as trapped, by a father who adores her, but doesn't, can't understand that what he's doing will break more than it can fix. In truth, you want to save her, too. But- none of this was really to save her. The time loop keeps her alive, in a sense, but she doesn't remember it, doesn't experience it. He's the only one who remembers, who gets to watch her live forever, folding time over and over with his infernal machine.
Birds live longer, when they're caged. But that's not why people cage them.
"It looks so pretty outside today..." she sighs.
"Indeed it does."
"Maybe tomorrow... I can walk around a little. Do you think?"
"If not tomorrow," you say, "then very soon, Miss. I'm certain of it."
Even if she'll die-- she deserves to live free.
Lady Serena sits at the head of an empty table, as usual. Her daughter is too sick, her husband too obsessed with his machinery. So it's just her, her cook, and her butler, standing vigil over an empty ceremony. Her loyal butler.
You are loyal to her, in a way. It just isn't a very straightforward one.
She always stares at her soup more than she eats it. She's never very hungry on Angela's worse days. Her daughter's illness is wearing on her terribly; she's had grey in her hair for years. You know, because you've been 'borrowing' her hair dye for just as long. No one has ever noticed that your hair is the same shade of chestnut. Thank heaven for small favours.
How many times has her husband turned back the hourglass? How many times has he watched her go through this, never saying a word? Never letting them go?
You wonder if she knows, on some level. Can feel that something is wrong. You think, sometimes, that you see clues-- but maybe that was just because you know, because you were looking.
"I... I'm sorry," she says, standing up. "I can't do this. It's lovely soup, Mary, I just- I'm sorry. I can't."
Lady Serena rushes from the room. You step forward, beginning to clear the plates; she'll be hungry eventually, but that will take hours, eating with Mary as late as midnight at times. Mary stays later than she has to, later than she should, just to keep her company. Since her daughter's illness became apparent, she almost never invites any friends over- and no one ever goes out. Evidently she hasn't noticed that yet. As distracted by her grief for her daughter as she is, she never might.
Mary catches your eye over the table, reminding you that she had noticed, long ago. Five years, to be exact. She isn't stuck in the cycle; she can leave the Tower whenever she pleases. And somewhere along the line, she noticed that no one else ever seemed to cross over the gate.
"This elaborate plan that you don't have," she says, because it hadn't taken her too many years to see that much as well. She doesn't know the details, but she knows to her bones something is wrong, so deep you've finally given up dissuading her.
"Ha! I mayn't know what your secret is- but you've got one. No man wears makeup without a reason."
"...Soon," you answer, even though you know you shouldn't. "Very soon."
"...Tomorrow night might be very strange. If the Master asks you to leave early- leave the side door open. For the mistresses."
"...What are you planing?"
"The better question would be, what is he planning. But servants cannot ask such things."
"...There is something wrong with you," she says, and carries the soup back to the kitchen.
She really is terribly perceptive that way.
He comes up to the kitchen at ten, as has become his habit. You are quietly and innocently rummaging through things in the supply closet, as has become yours.
"Damned inscrutable diagrams..." Dunning mutters, as he clatters plates around with unnecessary violence. "Why in God's name did they make them so complicated?"
Because no one was supposed to build that damned thing, you idiot, you think. Though-- you've had occasion to wish they'd made their diagrams just the tiniest bit simpler yourself.
"...God will provide," he mutters. "God always provides."
He has a point, given how many years he's been getting away with this- and that's in the objective timeline; his God only knows how many years he's lived this way himself. It's additionally damning that tomorrow, a concerned academic is going to think of him and send a puzzle-minded professor up the hill. "To check on him," she'll say. "No one's seen him in ages, and he'd so love to hear our keynote speaker..." Since the Professor is a gentleman, he will find himself unable to refuse; and through the gates they will come, he and his apprentices. The potential answer to all his problems, dumped right into Dunning's lap.
Except it hadn't quite worked out as planned, last time. And God as your witness, it won't this time, either.
"Angela..." he whispers.
He doesn't want to lose her. You can almost understand.
But this isn't saving her at all. And it is everyone else who is paying the price.
You wake to the morning light streaming across your ceiling, and steal a moment to think how it will go, for them. It should be just a bit different, with your clues. They won't be up just yet, but it won't be long, and with the notes that you can only hope have been slipped under their doors...
"It's the strangest thing," said the Professor, putting down his cup of tea. "When I was heading out the door this morning, I found a note..."
He held it up, a large blue envelope with 'Professor Layton' printed on the front in large block letters. Luke and Flora exchanged a glance.
"What is it?" Luke asked.
"It appears to be a puzzle. 'When I was on my way to the symposium, I passed three flower shops. I passed no hat shops, and when I came to an intersection, I never went straight. Can you retrace my route?' "
"...This is creepy," said Flora. "Why would someone slip a puzzle under your door?"
"And how'd they know where we were going?" Luke seconded. "Flora's right, this is too weird. I think we should ignore it."
"Ignore a puzzle?" The Professor blinked, unable to process such heresy.
"What if it was Don Paolo or something?" Luke persisted.
"This doesn't really seem his style..."
"But..." Luke struggled for a moment more, then sighed. "Well, I guess there's only one way to find out."
They'll follow it, you think, because not a one of them can resist a puzzle, and because they still think they're immortal. That there's nothing, really, to fear. That every puzzle has a solution.
Well. You still believe that every puzzle has a solution. You've been working on this one for nine years.
You've just stopped believing that every puzzle is worth the effort.
You step into the kitchen and begin to prepare the morning's tea, unhurriedly. Your pulse is pounding in your ears, but you have waited years for this chance: it will not go wrong now.
You watch the tea steep and second-guess yourself. The puzzle wasn't really necessary; it should only lead them along the path they would have taken anyway. It may be dangerous, playing with the timeline too much. As impossible as it seems, you might put wrong what once went right.
But you need them to be suspicious. You want them to be on guard. The first time, expecting nothing but a meeting with a reclusive but brilliant academic, none of you realized the danger until you were suffocating in it.
But no one will die tonight. Except Professor Dunning, if he's stubborn. And technically you, perhaps, but you died nine years ago. You are a patient revenant, and nothing more.
The tea has finished steeping. You take up your silver tray and head upstairs.
"Wait, wait," said Luke, shaking his head, with a nervous bite of his lip. "That won't work."
"Hmm?" The Professor turned.
"That's a flower shop," said Luke.
The Professor glanced over at it. "I'm afraid all I see is a bakery, my dear boy."
"Exactly. A flour shop."
The Professor blinked. "Well. I don't think they actually sell flour..."
"But it's a puzzle; there's got to be some trick to it."
"But homophones don't really work when they're written..."
A sudden sound caught Luke's attention; a car was swerving wildly down the street. "Professor!" he cried, pointing; the Professor turned just in time to see it swerve into a lamp-post, glass littering the street. The horn was blaring, but no permanent damage seemed to be done; the driver stumbled out, at least half-drunk by the looks of him, and Layton couldn't repress a disapproving frown; at this hour of the morning, how disgraceful!
"Oh," said Luke. "Oh, no."
Layton turned; Luke was actually shaking, wide-eyed, and Flora didn't look much better.
"Professor..." said Flora. "You're not the only one who found a note this morning."
Luke pulled a neat blue envelope from his pocket; with a feeling of foreboding, the Professor took it, reading the typewritten message.
'By now you know that many puzzles rely on homonyms,' it read. 'Those are two different words that sound the same, like ''flour'' and ''flower''. They can be the key to correctly solving a puzzle. Insist upon it.'
"What on earth..." breathed the Professor.
"And Flora did, too! She showed me before you came down. That's why we were so sure there was something strange about this."
"Flora, what did yours say?"
She twisted her hands together nervously. "Mine just said- that I wasn't going to be very hungry today. I don't know what it means, but so far, it's right."
"Oh, dear," said the Professor. "This is proving to be more of a puzzle than I had anticipated..."
It's ten o'clock, and Angela is just waking up; rarely a good sign. Sure enough, she asks if you can bring her breakfast up to her, and you are happy to oblige. Lady Serena stays with her, picking up her copy of Jane Eyre. They're a little more than halfway through it; as you recall, the house burns down in the end. Something about a madwoman in the attic, long-buried secrets. But they all lived, in the end, and they were better off for it.
Or maybe that's just another excuse you're weaving to justify your own selfish actions.
You're making tea again, while Mary works on eggs and toast; you're fairly sure tea is what got you this job, your old hobby of matching people with the perfect blend played at the highest possible stakes. Practice paid off, and your position was secured; it's a good thing you've always enjoyed it. You wonder sometimes if you weren't meant to be a butler; you're terribly well-suited to it.
"The little terror's back," Mary remarks, though you'd swear she hasn't looked up from her pan.
"Ah. I'll get rid of him."
"Riiiiight." She figured out that lie even before you did. You'd meant to throw the boy out, each of your first half-dozen meetings-- and yet, you found yourself unable to bring yourself to do it. Unkindness doesn't come easily to you; it's not how you were brought up to behave. But you can change your ways, given sufficient incentive.
"Oi, Jeeves," says Bruce, perching on the garden gate. He immediately proceeds to lean backward so far you're sure every law of physics ought to require his fall. But he's immune, like most boys his age seem to be, staring at you upside-down with a cocky grin.
"You should be more careful," you remonstrate, pointless though you know it is.
"Ha, fat chance of that!" Bruce laughs, dipping a little lower, just to taunt you, before swinging back up. "I delivered the notes you gave me. Very movie-villain, it was brilliant. Hey, am I a pawn in your evil plan? Eh?"
"I do not have an evil plan," you say, with perfect dignity.
"Is it a practical joke, then? Those people look like they could be your family, you know."
"They are," you answer, simply. Isn't it ironic how easily the words come, now. "They are my family, and they all love puzzles. So I thought I would surprise them."
"You have a family?"
"Naturally. Are you really so surprised?"
"Well, yeah... I always pictured you as appearing out of nowhere one day in an old black suit and a silver tray. Like a force of nature or summat. I didn't think you actually had family."
"Ah, all boys think that way." You smile.
"Puzzles." Bruce shakes his head. "And here I was thinking you were an evil maths professor or a German spy."
"I dunno, you're too uptight to be secretly French. No espionage, then. Well, puzzle-pranking is still pretty neat." Bruce grins. "Anything else?"
"Well, as long as you're already playing truant..." You give him a disapproving glare. It is as entirely ineffectual as usual. "You could deliver one other note for me. Though it would have to be this afternoon..."
"Ooh, could I practice my pickpocketing skills?"
"You are not a Dickensian orphan, Bruce. Aspire to it at your own peril. It would be much simpler merely to state that you were given a message to deliver and refuse to indicate its provenance- or would that be insufficient intrigue for you?"
"Straightforwardly? Huh, depends how I do it. Might give me a chance to act really mysterious. Like all those annoying old mentors in the stories who never give you a straight answer..."
"My god, what have I unleashed." You shake your head, drawing a strip of brightly coloured paper from your pocket. "Do promise me you won't embark upon a life of crime?"
"Nah, coppers bore me. Not even enough fun to tease." Bruce glanced at the paper. "More puzzles, huh? Guess that explains the puzzle-book you gave me last year. Why didn't you tell me you liked 'em?"
"Oh, they're bigger fans than I am. I still keep my hand in a bit, though."
"Oh, yes. There's a version of one called the Tower of Hanoi I've been working on for years now."
"Years? What the hell kind of puzzle takes years to solve?"
"Language, young man. At any rate, I must return to my duties, and I expect you have an innocent professor to bedevil."
"Wait, top-hat is a Professor? Is he the evil genius?"
"Bruce, there is no Professor Moriarty, here or elsewhere."
"I dunno, I expect there'd be at least one on staff somewhere--"
"Yes, Jeeves." Bruce rolls his eyes, hopping down off the fence and heading off.
These conversations always cut so close to the bone. It may be masochistic of you to love them so, but at the moment, that is the very least of your concerns.
Lunchtime rolls around; after the family is served, Mary drops a plate of roast beef in front of you, with a penetrating stare. You take up your fork and eat, slowly, calmly; she doesn't take her eyes off of you the entire time.
You put down your fork and knife, meeting her gaze. "That was very good," you offer.
"You," she says, "are a damned lunatic." She snatches up your plate and stalks away. Evidently that wasn't the answer she had wanted.
You rise, pushing your chair back under the table; Dunning wanders through the kitchen, checking the calendar. "Damn," he mutters, before storming off, his angry stomp on the basement stairs reverberating throughout the entire room.
"And he's worse," you hear Mary mutter.
A bell rings upstairs; you know it could only have come from Angela's room, so that is where you go.
"Holton-" says Lady Serena, meeting you at the door. "Could you fetch a dustpan?"
"Of course, madam," you say, with a slight bow that puts you in a position to glance through the crack in the door. There's a broken vase of flowers on the floor, and Angela looks terribly pale.
"He's in such a terrible mood lately," Lady Serena sighs, mostly to herself. "That project of his- there's a deadline, you see--"
No scholarly paper would have a deadline as strict as this, but she's not to know that, doesn't have the mental resources to work on the problem, or even to realize it exists. She is taken up almost entirely by her daughter, and you're almost glad of it; whether you succeed or fail, her husband is long gone.
One side of her face is redder than the other. You are a butler, and ostensibly a gentleman, so you say, "Of course, madam," and go to find a dustpan.
So you will be her champion, too? Quite the hero you've become. Hiding behind a tray for nine long years--
You shake your head. Saving people is just a perk of the job. From the beginning, this was never heroism-- this is survival.
Eight more hours.
"Oh, god," said Luke, "it's a tower."
"Not really, my boy... it's just the tallest building in town. And that's only because it's on a hill."
"But it's tall. And there's a reclusive man in it. How can that end well?"
"Is it strange that I'm almost happy I'll get to meet the vampire this time?" Flora mused.
"There are no such thing as vampires," said the Professor, in his most conciliatory voice. "There wasn't last time, and there certainly isn't now. The man's a Professor, for heaven's sake. He has a family."
"Then he's probably a werewolf," Luke muttered.
"We don't have the slightest reason to suspect anything like that."
"Except the tower, and no one's seen the man in years, and the notes," Luke countered, holding his up for emphasis.
"Yeah, those were pretty cool, weren't they?"
The three turned; behind them was a skinny boy, slightly older than Luke, with dirty blond hair and a thoroughly rumpled school uniform. His hands were in his pockets, and he was wearing a ridiculously smug grin.
"Hello," said the Professor. "You know something about these notes?"
"Oh, yeah, I'm the one who delivered the bloomin' things." The boy stretched casually.
"You?" Luke cried. "But why?"
"I was asked to, of course! Wouldn't do that kinda favour for just anyone, but this bloke just happens to be a friend of mine, so I decided to help 'im out." The boy winked.
"But who is this friend of yours?" asked the Professor.
"Nah-ah-ah-- that would be telling. I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise."
"What surprise?" Flora asked, her eyes narrowing.
"I haven't the foggiest. He's a quiet bloke-- plays 'em close to the vest. Won't tell you anything he doesn't want to say."
"Well, that doesn't sound like Don Paolo," Luke muttered.
"Nah, no way he's a Spaniard. Now, German, I could see..." The boy frowned thoughtfully.
"But do you know why he's sending us these notes?" the Professor tried.
"Like I said, nope. And if I did, I wouldn't tell you. Like I said, he's a friend of mine. But I can tell you one thing."
"What is it?"
The boy reached into his pocket, and pulled out a slightly battered slip of orange paper. "There's one more."
With a grin, he handed the last note to Professor Layton, giving a theatrical bow. "Well, see you around, then," he said-- and ran away.
"But--!" the Professor began, then thought better of it. He hadn't a chance of catching the boy, and clearly stood no chance of learning anything from him if he did.
"That little jerk!" Luke muttered, thoroughly affronted.
"What does it say?" asked Flora, craning her neck to see.
"It's another puzzle," said the Professor.
"What's it about?"
"It doesn't say. But... I think I have an idea."
The Professor looked toward the tallest building in town, his eyes troubled. "I'm not entirely sure," he said. "But... You may be right. Perhaps we should be cautious."
The tension is humming through your veins like a cup of tea too many; you want to fidget like a boy, but you are too in control of yourself for that. Still, the impulse is unmistakable: The final examination is coming. Did I study the right things?
You suspect you should get used to the unaccustomed feeling of youth. A lot of things will be coming back to you tonight.
It's a little past tea-time, and there's someone at the gate. The main gate is too far for you to see from the front windows, but you see shadows, a dark figure; unless this is a staggering coincidence, that would be the Professor. You wonder if you've spooked him enough to leave them behind. It would be so much easier that way-- but Hershel Layton is a difficult man to spook.
The puzzle you gave him is not a simple one: even with their prowess, you knew it should, all-in-all, take nearly as much time as you original half-puzzle, half brute force solution. The main point of the puzzle was to get them to the archives. They've seen the blueprints of the house, now; they've read articles by and about Dunning. They'll pick things up a little more quickly, this time.
There is a sound of something snapping downstairs; Dunning swears just as loudly. "Holton!"
How far you've come from the days when he would never let a living soul into that room. As the fated day drew closer, he's gone from allowing you to bring him tea to drafting you as his unofficial apprentice.
"Layton's apprentice saves the day!"
You shake the voice from your head and go where you are called.
The endgame has begun.
You're holding five rather heavy brass gears in your arms and double-checking a short list in your mind. The box is in the cupboard, the suitcase in the drawer, the syringes taped under the table. You've checked it all, over and over; they were all neatly in their hiding places an hour ago, and if they've somehow been discovered since then-- well, you have any number of plans. One of your favourites is the one in which the knock at the door never comes. That would leave you free to employ an immensely satisfying brute-force solution at your leisure.
The knock sounds; with mild regret, you consign all those plans to the dustbin.
"What in the--?" Dunning halfway disentangles himself from the machinery. "What in blazes is that?"
The knock sounds again. "I believe it is the main door, sir," you quietly suggest.
"The main-- today, of all bloody days?" Dunning drops his tools with a scowl. "Of all the days... hmm. Holton, go and see what they want. See if they'll leave--"
"Yes, sir." You put down the gears, gently, and head up the stairs. This is one order you will follow wholeheartedly.
You brush your hair forward over your eyes, hunching forward, praying it will be enough. It won't fool them forever, but it doesn't need to. Just a few minutes, over a few hours, and nobody ever notices the butler.
You open the door, and Professor Hershel Layton is tugging his hat at you, a boy and a girl looking around nervously behind him. You do not let yourself react.
"Hello," says the Professor. "I'm terribly sorry to intrude. Is Professor Dunning accepting visitors?"
"And who shall I say is calling?" You watch their faces, hoping your voice has changed enough over the years; you see no reactions, so it will hold.
"Hershel Layton, Professor of Archaeology," he answers.
"And the reason for your visit?"
"A lovely woman at this weekend's symposium asked if I could inform him about their keynote speaker. She seemed to think he would take an interest in it."
"I shall inform my master immediately. Excuse me." You close the door, hoping that will be enough of an affront to make them leave. There's a chance of it, but you're not holding out much hope.
You turn, to find Dunning already in the doorway, wiping his oil-stained hands with a rag.
"Lucinda," he mutters- an accurate guess, you happen to know. "Meddlesome little-"
"Shall I tell them to leave, sir?"
"Archaeology..." he mutters. "And that name... No, Holton. I think I shall see what our guests have to say. Escort them to the sitting-room, please... and you know, you ought to warn Mary that we may have guests for dinner tonight. It's not often I meet a fellow academic. And remind her that I asked her to leave early tonight, so dinner will be early as well."
"Yes, sir," you say, and reopen the door.
"The master will see you," you say, to the fools who have not run while they had the chance. "Please follow me to the sitting-room."
"Thank you, my good man," says the Professor, with a respectful nod. Luke is staring up at you as he passes, with a boy's wide eyes; you avoid his gaze, with a flinch, a visible miscalculation. No point dwelling on it now. "Professor Dunning will be with you shortly," you say, and close the doors. Shutting them in.
No one is watching now; you keep your step steady anyway as you walk toward the kitchen. "We'll have guests for dinner," you tell Mary, and rummage around in the cupboard. "One man and two children."
"What?" Mary whirls around, more furious than startled. "Why in the-- wha-- what--?"
You glance back at her; she is, for once, speechless, staring at your hands. "What?"
"T-- tea bags?" she cries.
"Yes... tea bags. I recall you're the one who insisted we keep some around." You say it unkindly, the stress of seeing them again getting to you despite all your efforts, but it is true.
"But... you... tea bags?"
You drop one into each cup, pouring the remains of an earlier, proper pot into the fourth. "The master said to remind you you're to leave early tonight," you say, putting the kettle on.
"Guests for dinner... leaving early... tea bags..." Mary lets out a shaky breath. "I'll... start cooking, then. If I'm to leave early."
"You should," you answer.
"I don't like that butler," Luke muttered. "There's something strange about him."
The Professor didn't answer, too busy looking over Professor Dunning's shelves. Archaeology and arcana, with just a touch of engineering, all well-used and rather old. The periodicals' subscriptions seemed to have lapsed years ago, and few of the books seemed new. He could hardly be properly keeping up with his field; perhaps it was no wonder he didn't wish to show his face at the symposium. Still--
"Ah! Professor Layton, was it?" A man in shirtsleeves and vest walked into the room, beaming. His was a friendly, if angular, face, and his slightly-too-long hair was streaked with grey. He held out a hand; Layton shook it, gamely enough. "I'm Professor Samuel Dunning."
"Hershel Layton," the Professor answered. "This is my apprentice, Luke, and my ward, Flora."
"Ah, how lovely to meet you!" Dunning took the hand of each, pausing over Flora's. "I have a daughter of my own, you know."
"Ah..." Flora managed. "Is that so?"
"Indeed. Her name is Angela. I do believe you might be the same age, as well." Dunning settled down in his armchair; with some hesitation, his guests followed suit. "Holton said you were a professor of Archaeology?"
"Yes, I'm in town for the symposium this weekend."
"Ah, I believe I heard of that! I'm afraid I haven't been able to get out much lately, with my work, and with... my daughter is quite ill, I'm afraid. I do hate to leave her side."
"Oh, goodness," the Professor murmured. Suddenly the man's reclusiveness made a lot more sense; who could devote proper attention to their work under such circumstances? "I'm terribly sorry."
"It's hardly your fault," said Dunning, shaking his head. "But I thank you for your concern. Speaking of which, let me ask... was it Lucinda who sent you here?"
"Well... yes, actually," the Professor admitted. "She's very concerned about you."
"She always did have a kind heart..." Dunning sighed. "I suppose she's right to be concerned, really. It has been a long time since I left this house. But given the circumstances..."
"Of course." Professor Layton nodded. "I quite understand."
The butler came in with a tea-tray, which he set carefully on the desk.
"Thank you, Holton." Dunning picked up the nearest cup. "By the way, I don't suppose you would care to stay for dinner? They never have decent food at those things, given they're always in hotels, and if I do decide to make an appearance, I should probably brush up on the most recent developments in the field... Who knows? You might be able to help me with my own project."
Flora's lips were pressed into a line; Luke was watching the butler suspiciously. Professor Layton knew something untoward was going on, but was it a plot of the Professor's, or a plot against him?
Either way, he simply couldn't leave it alone. And how was he to refuse such a polite invitation as that?
"Certainly," he answered. "It would be very kind of you."
"Damned fool..." you hiss as soon as the door closes behind you, unable to stop yourself. Your hands are clenched into fists; you relax them, quickly. You knew this would happen; you must remain cool and clear-headed or else it may happen again. You will not fail at this task. Not after all this time.
You've already told Mary about your dinner-guests; the only people who remain to be informed are Lady Serena and Miss Angela. It's hardly likely to affect them yet-- they wouldn't come down for dinner tonight, anyway-- but they should know.
You head up the stairs, knocking on the door; "Come in," answers Lady Serena. They're reading again, still Jane Eyre, and you wonder how the madwoman is doing. Lady Serena almost looks normal; she has always been a wizard with makeup. If you hadn't seen her face earlier, you wouldn't have had the slightest reason to think her ill-used.
"Was there a knock at the door earlier?" the Lady asks. "I don't recall that anything is supposed to arrive today."
"Guests, madam," you answer; "there is evidently an Archaeology conference this weekend, and the Master was missed."
"Oh... I had no idea. I suppose we have been rather out of the loop." She sighs. "I hope he isn't damaging his career by staying at home all of the time. He could at least visit the University more often..."
No, he can't; he doesn't dare leave the machine. The field that makes time flexible enough to bend does not extend far. Should he leave, he would either lose half his memories or vanish outright.
"But guests?" She frowns. "How unusual of him to let someone stay."
"He is a fellow archaeologist, madam," you say, with a sort of vocal shrug. "And he brought his young wards with him."
"Children?" Lady Serena's frown deepens; Angela brightens, sitting up. "What could he possibly be thinking?"
"Are any of them girls?" Angela asks.
"One was," you say. "Nearly your age."
"Oh! I wonder if I'll get to meet her?"
"I believe you shall, miss," you answer, because in eighty percent of your plans, it's true. "Surely children will be quickly bored by talk of academia. I can think of no reason they shouldn't visit."
"Oh, that would be just the thing." You had spoken slightly out of turn, but Lady Serena rarely minds such things; she's smiling, now, nearly clapping her hands in delight. "Do send them up if you can, Holton. Angela would love it so."
"Yes!" Angela echoes, eager enough to forget a child's instinctive annoyance at being spoken of in the third person.
"Gladly, madam." A bell rings in the kitchen; you nod deeply and depart.
Mary has the plates ready; "Damned nuisance," she mutters. "Help me set the table; the two plates here are--"
Dunning bursts into the kitchen, bright-eyed. "Ah, it's ready!" he cries. "How wonderful. Let me take out the plates, Mary dear-- you well deserve your day off."
"But--" you protest.
"Sometimes you're far too proper, Holton. Just relax, have some dinner of your own, I'll ring out when I need you." He takes the plates from you, hurrying out to the dining room.
"What in the name of..." Mary breathes. You're clenching your fists again; you relax them, fighting the urge to swear. You'd hoped to avoid this branch entirely. It's too dangerous; there's too much guesswork in it. But that conniving old son of a--
--walks back in, after a suspiciously long pause, for the last two plates. "Goodnight, Mary," he says, with a little wave, as he walks back out.
"Damnation," you hiss, and head for the kitchen table.
"What in God's sweet name is he doing?" Mary cries. "Taking the plates himself-- I-- what are you doing?"
You don't answer, reading the instructions on the vial one more time, though by now you think you could recite them in your sleep. You insert the tip of one syringe into the fluid, raising the plunger, measuring it precisely, then do the same with a second. There are two ways this could go; both must, must be prepared for.
Mary steps toward the door as voices become audible from the dining room, opening it just enough to take a peek. You don't especially care; you're too busy fetching a pen and paper. It doesn't matter if they recognize your handwriting, this time; it would actually help a great deal if they did. You write down the instructions, clear and terse, hesitating a bit at the last. You want to give them some words of comfort. You're not sure you have any anymore.
Mary reels back; she's seen it, of course. She sees everything. "I-- I-- Holton, what in the name of--"
"He intends to hurt them," you say, placing the second syringe on the tray, covering it with a silver lid, leaving the note in plain sight. You slip the first into a pouch, then into your pocket; that is the one you hope to use, if you must use either at all. The other path is far too dodgy. "I cannot allow that to happen."
"But-- you-- that--"
"I have been working for years to prevent it. You know there's something in the basement, Mary. I think you can begin to guess now what it is."
"It isn't possible." She's shaking her head, frantically, but at least she's speaking in complete sentences again.
"I need you to help me, Mary. I need you to get the women out of the house. You need to do this by nine o'clock. I will do my best to help you, but I may be otherwise occupied. My goal is to get them all out of here before he can notice. Then, I am going to destroy his machine. I do not know how he will react to this. As long as the machine is destroyed, I don't especially care. He can run and live, he can stay and kill himself trying to salvage it-- the choice is entirely up to him. But he will not neglect his daughter, he will not savage his wife, he will not ruin five lives tonight with his petulant insanity."
She stares at you, a terrible fear in her eyes. "...A time machine," she whispers, almost inaudibly.
"Why would... Angela. He wants to save Angela."
"No. He doesn't want to lose Angela. There's a difference."
"...Oh," she says, and swallows. "Oh. My God. What did he do to them?"
You shake your head. "Get the ladies out," you say. "Help me. Please."
"...Yes," she whispers. "Yes. Of course."
"Hershel Layton." Dunning shook his head as he put down his cutlery for the last time. "I thought I recognized the name."
The Professor coughed politely. Luke's gaze was flitting between the two of them; Flora was staring at her mostly-full plate, not having eaten more than a couple of mouthfuls all day. It wasn't especially proper behaviour, and he would probably have to scold them for it eventually, but fortunately, Dunning didn't seem to have noticed. "I'm quite flattered," he said, "but I'm really not that illustrious."
He heard Luke scoff, the way he usually protested such statements, but soldiered on regardless. "In fact, I'd wager I'm more famous for puzzle-solving than archaeology."
"Dear lord, man, what's the difference?" He grinned, shaking his head. "Certainly my current project resembles a puzzle more than anything else."
"Project?" Layton queried.
"From my last dig in South America. I used my seniority as leverage to get them to allow me to examine some of the more difficult artifacts here. Translating the language was difficult enough, but now I'm tasked with deciphering what it means..."
"Oh, maybe the Professor could help!" said Luke, wincing almost immediately after he said it. The notes clearly had him on edge; Professor Layton had to admit they still had him a little worried, as well.
"I wonder-- I wouldn't dream of monopolizing your time, and I'm certain you'll have to get back to your hotel soon enough, but do you think you might be willing to give it a look? Any insight you could give me would be immensely useful."
"Well, I don't know if I could actually be of any service," he temporized. "What sort of problem are you having?"
"The translations seem to be fine; it's just they state things in such a roundabout way. It's almost like a logic puzzle, really. They're supposed to be the blueprints for some sort of machine, if I'm reading it right...?"
"Oh? What sort of machine?"
"I'm not entirely sure. It's a fairly obtuse language, and this is roundabout phrasing, even for them. I suspect the only way to truly find out is to make it-- and I admit, I've been working on that as well..."
Professor Layton was intrigued, despite himself-- or, more probably, because of himself. "Well... I suppose I could take a look."
"Ah, excellent! I have a few articles and the translations in my library-- the actual artefacts are in the basement. Shall we?"
"Er," said Flora, "I'm not so sure I-- I mean, I'm not likely to be any help, and I probably wouldn't understand--"
"Well, I'm certainly coming," said Luke. "I'm Professor Layton's apprentice."
"Might I make a suggestion?" said Holton; everyone turned, not having noticed the butler enter the room. "The young mistress was quite excited to learn that we had guests. Perhaps you would like to visit her instead."
"Ah, a splendid idea, Holton!" Dunning clapped his hands. "Yes, that's perfect. Would you escort the young lady up to my daughter's room?"
"Certainly, sir." The butler nodded cordially before turning toward the door; Flora hesitated, looking back, before she followed him. Luke didn't look especially happy-- he still didn't trust the man, obviously. The Professor couldn't really fault him for thinking something odd about the fellow. He found something vaguely disquieting about the man himself.
"You see, the language itself is fairly straightforward--" said Dunning, and the Professor's attention was captured again.
This time, you see it, because you know what you are looking for. Last time, she was gone before the signs even started to show. But now-- now, you have a chance.
Her breath is coming quick and shallow as she mounts the stairs behind you. It could be anxiety, or stress: you know better. You stop on the landing, and turn. "Are you all right?"
"I... I haven't really been eating much today..." she says, pale and shaking. So, that much of your plan worked. That's not the problem, though. "I'm just... feeling a little... woozy, I suppose."
You had hoped to bypass this entirely, but she had been brought up to be a lady; she'd had to eat a few mouthfuls, for appearance's sake at least. If you were right about what this was-- and you had to be; you had researched it enough, with every scrap of a clue at your disposal, and the alternative did not bear thinking about-- a few mouthfuls was enough. "Flora," you say. "I need you to roll up your sleeve."
"I-- what? No." She shakes her head, backing away. She's that much sense, at least.
"Flora." You catch her arms, gently, and look into her eyes.
She looks at you blankly for a few seconds, as her breath comes unnaturally quick-- and then it hitches, as her eyes grow wide. "What...?"
"I know," you say. "I know it's impossible. There is an explanation. But right now, Flora, I need you to roll up your sleeve. Can you do that for me?"
"I... why?" she says, not struggling, not backing away, but not touching her sleeve, either.
"Dunning put some of his daughter's medication in the food," you answer. "He meant only to make you both sleepy, pliable. But you're allergic to it, Flora. Like some people are allergic to peanuts, or shellfish. That's why you're feeling so strange. It may not be quite so bad, since you had less of it this time, but I still need to give you this." You produce the syringe from your pocket, showing her carefully.
"...How do I know you're not Don Paolo?"
"Don Paolo would have simply hit you over the head again. He has some finesse, but no subtlety."
"How do I know you're not lying?"
You open your mouth, searching for a proper answer. Because of who you are? You can't trade on that anymore. Because she knows there's something wrong with her? Yes, that might work--
Before you can say anything, Flora reaches out with a trembling hand, rolling up her sleeve.
"Please," she says, voice shaking, "get this over with before I s-second-guess myself."
You stare at her for a moment, stunned beyond words all over again-- and then hurry to obey, because she deserves that from you, after showing such trust. With practice obtained from years of playing demi-nursemaid to Angela, you swab her arm with alcohol, aim carefully, and slip the needle in.
Flora bites her lip but doesn't say a word; you discard the syringe as quickly as possible, taping a piece of cotton on the wound. "It's all right," you whisper, a lie. "You'll be all right," which you devoutly hope is not. "Thank you."
Flora looks at you, still shaking, for several moments. She's still pale, and the trembling isn't going away, but her breath seems to be coming a little easier, you think. You hope. "Was it you who sent the notes?"
"Yes," you answer. You had meant to lie, but her trust has undone you entirely. You had been trading on it, subconsciously, but you hadn't expected it. You don't feel quite worthy of it anymore.
"So that you would know that this place is a trap. Before it was too late."
"The machine in the basement," says Flora. "It's something to do with that, isn't it?"
She takes a deep breath, leaning against the wall. She does seem a little steadier, now; you're positive it's not your imagination.
"You'll be all right," you tell her. "I'm going to take you up to visit Miss Angela, now. In a little while, Mary, the cook, is going to come up and try to persuade them to leave. I want you to help in whatever way you can. Either way, whether they come with you or not, I need you to be outside the main gates by nine o'clock. At least that far away from this place. Can you do that?"
"Where will you be?" she asks.
"I have to get them out," you answer. "And I have to destroy that machine, so that no one, particularly Dunning, will be able to use it again."
She nods. "Can I help?"
"You already are." You pull her into a hug. "Oh, Flora, you already are. Just get out of this place. Get the women out of this place. I'll take care of everything else."
"...All right," she says. "All right." She steels herself, visibly; you stand back up, heading up the stairs.
"...If you hadn't been here to give me that shot," she says, quietly, not sounding at all sure she wants the answer. "What would have happened to me?"
You open the door to the third floor. You would give her anything in the world, but you have no answer for that.
"...Oh," she says, very quietly, and follows you to Angela's room without a further word.
"Fascinating," Professor Layton murmured. "So that's how you deciphered the language."
"Yes, but for ages, I wasn't certain I had-- I mean, look at it." He gestured toward the translations. They certainly were... unorthodox. But they reminded Professor Layton rather of a puzzle.
"Those might just be references, but this--" The Professor picked up one of the files. "You are correct. This one is indisputably a puzzle."
"Yes! I've worked out the ones that are just veiled references to mythology or literature-- that one with the hero's wives spinning, for instance; it's still a puzzle in itself, but not a terribly difficult one-- but that one--" He pointed at the file Layton had chosen. "I can't make heads or tails of it, and it's clearly a very vital piece. I've tried approximations, but the thing will only work properly with that part."
"You've come that far in building it?"
"Well, I've been stuck in the house so much lately- and I must admit, my curiosity overtook me." He smiled sheepishly; he needn't have bothered. Layton of all people could understand.
"And still no idea of what it does."
In the corner, looking through Professor Dunning's shelves, Luke let out a decidedly ungentlemanly noise. Quite like a strangled squeak; the Professor glanced over, concerned. Luke had a book open- that wasn't very polite, but what on earth could he have read that--
"Well-- some idea," said Dunning. "Would you like to see?"
Professor Layton hesitated. But this was a fellow archaeologist, for heaven's sake. A lost secret, a fantastic machine. He had never been one to let foolish superstition prevent him from getting to the heart of a puzzle.
"All right," he answered.
"Wait, wait, but--!"
"You can stay here, Luke, if you like," he added, just in case.
"An excellent idea!" Dunning cried. "Ah, Holton! Keep this boy company for a moment, would you? And put on a kettle of tea for the good professor and I, too. We'll be in the basement tonight."
Dunning took the Professor's arm, leading him away, and Layton wondered if he was making a horrible mistake.
The idiot lets Dunning lead him off again, though he does seem at least a little hesitant this time. For such a brilliant man, he can be horribly, horribly slow.
Well, that's why you're here.
Luke grabs your arm and yanks; you're startled enough that the move has its desired effect, spinning you toward him, bringing your head down.
"This!" Luke hisses, holding up a book. He's shaking it so hard you can't read the title. "What in-- what in blazes is the meaning of this?"
"The meaning of what, exactly?" you ask, squinting at the book. A slim, dark blue volume--
"I read your notes in this! What the devil could you be planning?" He shakes his head; the swearing almost seems deliberate, like he thinks it will make you take him seriously. "I-- you will answer me, why would you--"
You recognize the book he's holding as an introductory treatise on chemistry, and suddenly it all makes sense. "Oh," you say, with a relieved smile. "It's for the machine, of course."
"The-- oh." Luke steps back, considerably mollified, though his brow furrows in a frown. "I guess I can get behind that. You could blow up this whole house, for all I care."
"I may, at that," you say, feeling terribly proud of the boy. You wouldn't have thought him capable of following your notes in the chemistry book, not at his age. Recognizing your handwriting, yes, but recognizing the formulae as potential explosives? "It's in the basement, after all, and I'm no expert at calculating these things. There are an awful lot of support beams there."
"You sent the notes, didn't you?"
No point in denying it. "Yes."
"It wasn't a trap. It was a warning."
You suppose it should come as no surprise that he understands you so well, but still. You did not expect this. You were hoping that it would be... invisible, that they would go on with their lives and never know how very close they came. Now it's looking like all of them will puzzle it out. Put that way, you really should have expected it. Still-- you are hoping to keep as many secrets as you can.
You had also expected him to be a little more drugged for this conversation. The boy has the metabolism of a hummingbird.
"It's some sort of time machine," says Luke. "Else you couldn't-- well-- you just couldn't."
"Yes," you answer. It's high time you took control of this conversation. "Luke, listen. Flora and the other women are safe; it's just you and your Professor I need to get out now. And I have to do it so Dunning won't catch on. Now, he'll come back, soon; he'll want to chat with you. Act as normally as possible. And then, when your Professor comes back for you, run. Just run; get out of this place and beyond the front gates. Don't look back, Luke. Do you understand?"
He laughs, shakily. "No..."
You smile. "Well, do you understand the plan, at least?"
"Of course I don't."
"Well, do you at least understand you're to run out of this house with your Professor at the earliest opportunity?"
"Don't have to tell me twice." He smirks, and shakes his head. "It's so strange," he says, looking up at you. "You're... such a stranger. And at the same time, you're not."
"...They say that time can change a man," you say.
"Yeah, and that some things never change." Luke is staring at you again, a measuring look in his eyes. You aren't up to it. You are not even remotely up to it.
You turn away, leaving, closing the door behind you. And then you find yourself leaning against it, breathing deep against the unexpected stab of pain.
It doesn't matter. None of it matters. In a few hours, you will never have existed, except as an obscure figment of the paradox machine.
It's time to brew one last pot of tea.
His machine was astonishing- all brass gears and pipes and levers. It took up nearly half of the cellar on its own. And it seemed to be- ticking, like clockwork. And there was the faintest hiss of steam...
"Rather beautiful, isn't it?" Dunning smiled at it, fondly.
"You've put quite a lot of effort into this." It occurred to the professor that he had been manipulated. It could just be the work of a reclusive professor with a pet project, but after this day-- after this day-- he felt like treading carefully.
"Yes, I'll admit to that," Dunning said, with an easy shrug. "It's a fascinating project."
"And what was it supposed to be?"
"Something about a cocoon, or a shield, or a bubble or something... you remember the verse."
"Hmm-- yes, I do." He also remembered that there had been a page missing. "It looks remarkably complete. What is it that's been giving you trouble?"
"This one particular bit." He pulled out a file- pictures of several wall drawings. "A cog in the control mechanisms. I keep making do with replacements, but they always break after the first use, and it's a strain on the rest of the machine. I have no more time for mistakes-- this must work tonight."
"So..." said the Professor, with a sinking feeling. "You would like me to discover the exact specifications of this part for you."
"I have several prototypes; I just don't know which is correct." He held up a box."
"After which you intend to use this part to determine what exactly it is this device does."
"And it has to be tonight," said Dunning, unperturbed. "It's a question of timing, you see."
"What is it that this machine does?"
"Oh, that needn't concern you. What you should be concerned with is solving this puzzle, and quickly. Because I am a father, professor, and I will do anything I have to to motivate you. Anything."
He smiled, clapping Professor Layton on the shoulder, and turned toward the door. "I do believe I will check on that delightful young apprentice of yours. We wouldn't want him to get lost."
Layton had to give him credit. He was more subtle than, say, Anton. But he'd put two and two together now just the same.
The verses had mentioned time, and the bending thereof. They'd got mysterious notes this morning, from someone who knew they were coming; Professor Dunning's daughter was terribly sick. Impossible as it seemed, Professor Layton thought he knew what this machine was for.
He turned to the drawings, though he couldn't in good conscience really give this man the answer; time was not to be meddled with. Parts of it were like a logic puzzle, and others seemed to be tricks of language-- serpents' teeth were probably bits of cogs, but bears'? Ah, bears would have molars, which were more square than triangular-- but these numbers, they didn't work at all--
The butler came in behind him, setting down a silver tray; he thanked him, absently, wondering why on earth the thing was now going on about phases of the moon. Unless-- oh, good heavens, there must be several cogs that made up this part, that would eclipse each other as they moved. He glanced sadly at Dunning's box of prototypes, wondering if any of them were even remotely similar to what he would need.
Then again, he didn't really need to solve this puzzle, did he? Not if he was going to find some other way out of this, which was his obvious intention. Actually solving the thing would hinder his plans greatly...
...So why did he feel compelled to work on it anyway?
He sighed, and poured himself a cup of tea. Dunning seemed fairly reasonable; surely he wouldn't do anything truly mad, or else he'd never get his part. Not to mention, a man so devoted to his daughter would never harm children.
With a sigh, he looked back at the paper, taking a sip-- and suddenly everything changed.
This wasn't the well-brewed but generic tea Dunning had served earlier. This was his tea. This was tea that only three people in the world knew how to make, outside of some outlandish coincidence. And he'd had enough of outlandish coincidence for one day--
-Dunning hadn't sent the notes. He really had been surprised and delighted to find Layton at his door. None of those things had been coincidence, and Luke had been completely and utterly right to be so suspicious of that butler.
The butler, who had orchestrated this entire thing. Layton tried and failed to recall the face-- he wasn't naturally very good at them, and the man had carefully kept to she shadows, with that slightly too-long hair. Three people in the entire world, and it certainly couldn't be Flora.
He turned, something indignant about the impropriety of time travel on his lips-- and then forgot it, as the butler looked up, finally meeting his eyes.
"Hello, Professor," said the other man, quietly. "We don't have very much time. But I will explain to you whatever I can."
"...How could you?" Layton whispered, reeling. "Altering time--"
"I wasn't given a choice," he answered. "He was raving and he had a gun. I could have died, I suppose. He might have given up on this madness and settled down to enjoy the time he had left with his daughter. Or, he might have managed to fix it, and started this cycle again. Or, he might have decided that with three deaths already on his head, he had no reason not to spare his wife and child their inevitable suffering. Yes, I could have died and let it go. Instead, I decided to live, so that I could destroy this machine forever. And yes, so that I could change what had happened. I won't deny that."
He smiled, a small, bitter smile that looked utterly out of place on his face. "Don't try to tell me you wouldn't have done the same," he said.
Layton found himself tempted to smile, too, at the exquisite irony of it. As much as he wanted to deny it, believed he should deny it, the evidence to the contrary was right in front of him. A beautiful little knot. "What had happened?" he asked.
The butler took a deep breath. "The first time," he said, "I didn't suspect a thing. I had no reason to-- no mysterious notes, no unusual puzzles. I was downright eager to see this machine of Dunning's. He brought me down here-- he didn't bother threatening me; there was no need. He was prepared to, though, there was no doubt about that. He left me to it, after a while, to 'check on my wards'-- I suspect now that he heard something, some faint commotion upstairs, that I was too engrossed to notice." He winced, a flicker of loathing there and gone. "You see, he'd had the idea that the children might be a bit more pliable if he dosed them with his daughter's medication. There were three main problems with this plan. First, it is not a narcotic, but an anti-seizure medication. Second, Luke has the metabolism of a hummingbird. And third... Flora happens to be quite allergic."
"'You're not very hungry today'," Layton echoed, hands tightly gripping the control panel behind him. Just how allergic?
"Of course, I didn't know any of this," said the other man, eyes small and dark and hollow. "I was working on a puzzle. An especially recalcitrant one- you haven't realized the implications of the last direction yet, have you? At least one of the prior requirements is false."
"That would be quite a fascinating trick under any other circumstances."
"You see, they didn't intend for anyone outside the religion-- or in it, for that matter- to actually build the damned thing. And I don't blame them. Once I figured that out, the whole puzzle came together." He glanced at the box of prototypes. "We don't have a lot of time."
"You haven't said what happened next."
"Do you really want me to? There are visions I would take with me to the grave." The butler took off his jacket, hanging it on a chair. "Luke saw everything. He reacted badly. Dunning panicked. Flora really is his daughter's age. I think it got to him. He dragged Luke all the way down here, kicking and screaming. He demanded I inform him of my progress. I had little to tell. He was furious. Luke was terrified and just as angry, screaming that he was a murderer and any number of words I always told him never to use, I was trying to understand but I got distracted by the words, of all the ridiculous things, he's speaking of murder and I told him not to swear-- and--"
He looked up, eyes shining like broken glass. "You must understand that I can see it. That I do see it, more often than not. That there are images that have haunted my nightmares for nine years. That have dogged even my waking hours like avenging angels. I will not tell you how it happened. I will not risk passing these nightmares on to you. That you know what happened is bad enough."
The butler closed his eyes. "He was ranting and raving-- of course he blamed it all on me. What I drove him to. That sort of man will blame anything in the world save himself. I wasn't listening. I wasn't-- anything, really. And yet it occurred to me, even then-- the answer to his puzzle. But I didn't really care, until it came to me that it was the answer to mine, as well."
He glanced down at the suitcase. "We can't afford to waste time. Put this on."
Layton took the suitcase, opened it, and understood, as easy as that. "Keep talking," he said, though he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to hear. It was in his nature to seek a solution to everything; and besides, the Catholics had instituted confession for a reason. Whether or not he needed to hear, he was fairly certain the other Layton needed to tell.
"What more is there to say? I pulled the lever, and everything bent-- it's the strangest feeling; I couldn't possibly describe it. Not quite painful, just-- wrong. And then I was in the basement, and nothing had changed, except I was alone. And there were people upstairs. I had the loveliest time sneaking out."
He smiled bitterly, pulling on an orange shirt. It was a bit worn and dirty, but the familiar jacket he put on over it hid it all. "And so, I began to piece it together. It took a long time, but that was all I had. I learned through trial and error that I couldn't pass the main gates, since I was the product of a paradox; the machine allows such things to exist, but only in a limited area. The translations imply that to be a greater trick than the turning back of time. That's also why Dunning hasn't stirred from this house in nine years, by the way; the same effect applies to him. If he didn't disappear outright, he might lose his memories of the alterations, and heaven forbid he forget his machine." He rolled his eyes.
"Nine years?" Layton repeated. "Dear God." He wanted to say he couldn't imagine it, but he could... and he didn't have to.
"Yes. It was much easier once the vacancy opened. I was quite fortunate that it only took a few months. Now, the way it works is, only the person who actually pulls the lever remembers that time has been reset. So there wasn't a chance he'd recognize me. But he did remember the machine, and all the other cycles of this he'd gone through. Because evidently there were indeed cycles before this where we were never involved... maybe he turned us away, or we never came, or Lucinda wasn't quite concerned enough to ask a complete stranger for assistance... I do think people realize, on some level. Slowly, and dimly, but I don't think it's ever entirely forgotten. Come here."
Layton obeyed; the older man tipped his chin up gently, drawing a dark pencil across his face in quick, precise strokes. There was a terrible look of hopeless compassion in his eyes; Layton wanted to help him, but hadn't the faintest idea how.
"So I have plotted, and I have waited," he said, quietly. "I have catered to the whims of a monster and held my tongue. Waiting for this. Waiting for this chance. Because I failed them, Hershel. Failed in the most sacred duty I have ever known, in the most complete way possible. For nine years, I have had to live with that knowledge. Never let it happen to you. Don't learn the hard way that there is nothing in the world that means more."
Layton took a deep, ragged breath, that was really terribly akin to a sob. "Yes," he murmured. "I promise."
The older man brushed Layton's hair over his eyes, lingering just a moment, with a bleak smile. "Then I'm sure you'll be all right, my boy. I'm sure you'll be all right."
And so you are at the end, and it feels even better than you dreamed. There are still things that could go wrong; there always are. You could be saving them only for Don Paolo to derail their train in a week's time. None of that matters. You are done worrying about the future, for the first time in nine years, and it is glorious.
You hear a tread on the staircase, and finally reach for your own old top-hat. Why you've put it off this long, after all of your reminders to Layton about the scarcity of time, you couldn't say. Maybe because it is such a gentleman's accessory, and you haven't felt remotely like a gentleman in years.
It feels like a lie, but you're a liar.
Dunning strides in, without even a backward glance at his faithful butler in the corner, and you know you have won. "Ah, Professor. Any progress?"
"Er. I do believe so," you answer. "But it's a decidedly prickly little puzzle. It will take me some time to work out the particulars."
"You do recall that you don't have a lot of time?"
"Really, Professor..." You turn, glaring at him. It's a decidedly satisfying sensation, to be able to let even a glimmer of your true feelings show. "I am getting quite weary of these vague threats of yours. I am here of my own will, remember. And a man with a daughter of his own would never harm a child; I can't believe you are even tasteless enough to threaten it. A puzzle cannot be hurried, sir. I will finish it for you, but I will not tolerate this ridiculous charade any longer."
Dunning's eyes narrow. "Threats?" he hisses. "Ridiculous threats? Holton! Get the boy. Bring him down here."
Holton nods, a suitably defeated look in his eyes as he gives you one last lingering glance. You don't dare smile or nod, are not sure what message of farewell you would have for him anyway. You just meet his eyes for half a second, and let him take from that what he will.
He turns and leaves; because you are listening for it, you can hear the slightest hitch as he bends to pick up the suitcase with his own clothes inside before he begins to ascend.
"Listen to me," says Dunning, his eyes burning. "My daughter is dying."
"You never said," you gasp. "I'm so sorry."
"This machine," he says, "is my only chance at saving her. I can turn back time, Professor. She can live forever. You will not take that chance from me."
"I don't understand. How can this save her?"
"What are you-- I go back in time! Before all this happened. I turn back time before she can die."
"I don't understand, are you working on a cure? You're an archaeologist, and this has taken up so much of your time--"
"What the hell are you-- why do you even care? Fix the machine, and you all can just leave this place! Don't fix it, and I swear to God, Layton, your little apprentices will be the ones to pay the price!"
The front door is heavy; it's always creaked when it opens, makes a distinctive scrape against the tiled floor. You smile, wickedly, ungentlemanly, not above taking a wild, vicious joy in this moment. "You still think I don't believe that, don't you?"
"What, you think you're too callous to care? Holton!" he roars. "Holton, bring the boy down here!"
You laugh, and to your own ears, it sounds a little bit hysterical, more than a little depraved. Dear god, you have fallen so far. "You idiot, you still haven't seen what's standing right in front of you, have you? Or, to be more precise, who."
"What in blazes are you--"
"Perhaps now you will believe me when I assert that this was never about your daughter. From the beginning, it has been about you."
He shakes his head. "Holton!" he bellows again, and even after nine years, you cannot believe he is this blind.
"Please stop shouting, sir," you answer, quietly. "I can hear you perfectly well."
"What are you--" He's shaking his head, and then he freezes, seeing it. Oh, and this must be the appeal of villainy, to see the final stages of a plan slot into place like a puzzle, to see your hated victim helpless, pinned. You still don't know why Don Paolo hates you so, but you forgive him all his melodrama on the spot.
"You," he hisses, shaken. "But-- but how?"
"You ask me that, while we stand in front of your own thrice-damned time machine." You shake your head sadly. "Oh, how the mighty have fallen."
"HOW?" Dunning demands. "All this time--"
"Yes, all this time. Nine long years. Plotting against you every second of it. Yes. I was Professor Hershel Layton. Until I came to this house. Until you took away everything I had, everything I was sworn to protect. I knew damned well you'd kill the children. I've watched you do it before. Tell me, Dunning, did you truly know?"
"W-watched?" Dunning swallows, actually unnerved for all his earlier bravado.
"It wasn't entirely on purpose, if it helps. But you did. So I have devoted every remaining moment of my life to destroying this damnable machine-- and quite possibly you with it. I don't insist on it, but I cannot say I'd protest."
"What about Angela?" he demands. "You would sacrifice Angela?"
"Sacrifice her to what? She hasn't lived a second longer because of your mad schemes. Cycling forever between four and thirteen-- she doesn't even remember it! Neither does her mother! This isn't about saving her life! This is about you not having to watch her die!"
"And you can blame me for that?"
"When you destroy your daughter and your wife and the lives of strangers to do it, yes! I can!"
"You aren't doing the same damned thing?"
"You think I've never lost anyone before? Do you think I can't understand the temptation of turning back time, even if it isn't for them, even if they'd hate you, even if it's just do you could see them again? Yes! I understand! But it cannot be allowed! You're destroying everyone you love, including yourself!"
"And what you're doing is any better?"
"Do you think I give a damn? They will live! Flora and Luke and Angela and Serena. Even you, if you have the sense. They will live, and I will die, and this machine will be destroyed. I know that's right, and I don't care if it isn't. This is survival."
But... you do give a damn, really. You hate that you had to use this machine; you've long ago accepted your own damnation for it. But still. Looking back, Dunning with a gun in his hand, still wanting to go back, to his wife and his four-year-old child, a mad light in his eyes. Luke lying dead on the floor, Flora in much the same condition upstairs. Angela screaming, Serena calling out her husband's name.
You would damn yourself all over again.
"Leave this place," you say, quietly. The mad joy has bled away from you; you just want this to be over. "Get out of here. Enjoy the time you have left with your wife and your daughter. How long has it been since you really talked to them? You've been so wrapped up in fixing this machine that you haven't even been paying attention to the people you say you're fixing it for. Get out of here. Love them, while you can. Don't have any regrets when they're taken away."
You turn, unable to meet his eyes. This is the last branching point; the very last chance. There are two ways this can go, and despite the horrible, wicked temptation you have faced, you are bound and determined to leave this up to him. Because you do understand, really.
Dunning breaks into a run, sprinting toward the console. "Liar!" he hisses, voice full of glee. "If you were planning to destroy the machine, why did you put the final part into place?"
"Because-" you start, though you don't expect he'll actually let you explain.
Sure enough, he interrupts you with a maniacal laugh. "Goodbye, Professor Layton! I do look forward to meeting you again!"
He pulls the lever. There is a terrible crunching of gears, the whine of overstressed machinery; you squeeze your eyes shut. His choice.
But you can't look, as pipes burst, as steam fills the room, as Dunning screams. You can't look, until it goes quiet again, and you turn to see what you have done.
The machine is half in pieces, a few gears meshing together uselessly, pipes leaking steam. Dunning has been pierced through by shrapnel, prone on the floor, blood bubbling from his mouth.
You start making your way to the control panel, avoiding the bits of metal and rock that litter the floor. "Would you like to know what the answer to the puzzle was?"
"You..." Dunning rasps. "You put in the wrong..."
"No," you say. "I didn't, actually. I did exactly what you asked me to. I solved the puzzle; I put in exactly the part it described."
"Because, as I have been trying to tell you, no one was supposed to build this thing," you answer. "It was a trap, for anyone who was actually mad enough and clever enough to complete it without authorization. Look at the machinery long enough, and you will see. There is no missing part. It was complete the way you had it. How else could I have activated the machine, you a murderer twice over with a gun to my head? You'd never have let me near the lever if you thought the machine was operational. But it was. You had the answer right in front of you, all this time. And you were too obsessed with your own plans to see it."
You take up the wires that lead to your insurance against anyone ever building this abomination again. "I never said I couldn't understand. Because I am a father, Professor. And I, too, would do anything."
You smile, the guilt of years beginning to slip from your shoulders, because finally you can pay for your sins in blood.
"Goodbye, Professor," you whisper, and touch the leads together.
Luke saw through the disguise in an instant, lighting like a bulb the instant Layton entered the room. "Professor!"
Layton smiled, the boy's simple joy contagious. "Come, Luke. We have to get out of here."
"No need to tell me twice!" True to his word, Luke grabbed the Professor's arm, pulling him out of the room. Layton even found himself laughing a little as he pulled open the heavy door.
"Past the front gates, he said," said Luke, pulling the Professor behind him.
"He told you?"
"He had to. I found his chemistry book."
"Chemistry?" He pushed open the rusty gate; it creaked, but gave, and Layton could swear something in the very air felt different outside the manor's walls.
"Explosives," said Luke, eyes wide.
"Oh. Oh, dear. Flora!" he called, cupping his free hand over his mouth. "Flora!"
Layton sighed in relief, "Come, my boy," he said, and they worked their way through the undergrowth to the east gate.
Flora was there waiting for them, waving, with three other women-- a stout brunette in an apron, a willowy blonde in a lady's attire, and a young girl with wide green eyes, shaking in the cold.
"Professor!" Flora cried, eyes bright with relief.
"Holton!" The lady rounded on him. "What on earth is the meaning of this? Mary and the girl said you put them up to it-- you know Angela can't take the cold--"
"Er," said Layton. "I'm terribly sorry, madam. There seems to be some sort of mistake. I'm Professor Hershel Layton, and these are my wards, Flora Reinholdt and Luke Tri-- ton."
Layton blinked. "Oh," he murmured. "And I suppose his given name was-- Laurence, wasn't it?"
"I--" The woman stepped back, confused. "I'm sorry, but-- wait! If you're not Holton, why are you wearing his suit?"
"Er. There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for that--"
Layton was saved from having to provide it by the faint explosion that shook the house.
"What in the-- Samuel!" The lady whirled around-- Layton had to grab her arm to prevent her from rushing toward the house. The aproned woman grabbed her other arm, with a piercing glance in Layton's direction.
"My husband, he's in there! I have to check--"
"It's too dangerous, Lady Serena," said the brunette, firmly. "You've said it yourself, God only knows what he's working on down there--"
"But he's an archaeologist, it can't be anything that dangerous--"
"As an archaeologist myself, madam, I can refute that assertion without the slightest reservation."
The second explosion was spectacular. The first had been a vague rumble that made the earth itself tremble; the second was a fireball, shattering the peaceful evening like a brittle pane of glass-- like it was, really, Layton thought; you forgot how fragile such things could be. You had to, in order to live in peace, but still--
"Samuel!" the lady screamed. "Samuel!" She wrenched free of Layton's grasp, elbow hitting the other woman solidly in the face, struggling toward the house that was already falling apart. For a second, Layton feared she was actually going to run into the flames--
"Mummy." The girl reached out, voice shaking even more than her arm, to grab her mother's sleeve. The lady turned back, a horribly conflicted look in her eyes; she knew what she was being asked to choose between.
The girl looked nearly as confused, eyes flickering with emotion and wild firelight. "I... don't leave me, Mummy. He isn't-- I think it's too-- oh=-"
Her shoulders slumped; she gave up putting it into words. I don't think it's ever entirely forgotten, Layton thought. "Just... don't leave, Mummy. Stay."
The woman closed her eyes, taking a ragged breath. "Of course, Angela," she said, turning away from the flames. "Of course." She dropped down to her knees, pulling her daughter close.
The other woman was still staring at him; Layton didn't know why, couldn't really muster up the energy to care. He looked back up the hill, at the Tower in flames, and wondered where people who didn't happen went when they died.
"Professor..." said Flora, and Layton recalled himself.
"Come here," he murmured, and pulled both the children into a hug. They'd both got so tall; when had that happened?
"Professor," said Luke, "it's all right. It's over."
He chuckled weakly. "Yes, I know." He wasn't shaking, nor crying; he would not, in front of them. In loco parentis, he thought. And, Latin calling to Latin, quam minimum credula postero.
"I care about you both deeply, you know," he murmured, before he could second-guess himself. "I don't know if I say that as often as I ought."
"It's all right," said Flora, and Luke nodded his agreement. "We know."
And Layton thought of the Tower of Hanoi, the end of the world, a tower broken down and reassembled, piece by piece.
Everything was going to be all right, this time. But he would never forget the price that had been paid to ensure that. And he would honour that sacrifice.