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Messengers and Forfeits

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Jack wondered about their next conversation and of how it could salvage them. It would take place in her parlor after their next case. He’d be standing at the mantle, as he often did, with a drink in hand. She’d be sitting relaxed on the chair closest to him. No, that isn’t quite right. He would have just arrived. She would be sitting on the chair closest to the fireplace and he would be accepting a drink from Mr. Butler on his way over to the mantle. He would be nonchalant.

Now, tell me Miss Fisher, does that new furrow in your brow have anything to do with your telling me that you love me the other night?”

“Jack, I never said that I loved you. I was being affectionate. I was following instructions.”

“All in the line of adhering to the forfeit?”

“Well you did say “making love”. I wanted to be complete. I’m sorry if you think I took a liberty.”

“Phryne, you told me you loved me. Let’s call a spade a spade”

“You said you loved me, too.”

He did say it. Many times. So did she.

In this fabrication, neither would have to apologize for anything they had said or done. They would get back to solving crimes with the odd flirtation and, occasionally, more. Eventually, or perhaps never, they would be able to say those words again.

He lit the stove to put the kettle on and slipped into his sweater. He belatedly registered that his parlor chair contained a demure blue puddle that he hadn’t expected to be there.

She hadn’t left.

He returned to the doorway. She was tucked in the chair overlooking his garden. Her dress was unzipped at the side, revealing a fold of skin at her waist. Her heels were snug against her hips. Her forehead perched on her knees, which was also covered with the tangled mop of hair he so wanted to see as he awoke. Her neck curved gracefully into two arms, from which her fingers dripped. In another place and time, he would have expected her to emerge in dance if, perhaps, Swan Lake started playing on his gramophone.

She must be freezing.

Jack covered Phryne with the throw from the couch, but he ended up waking her as well. She looked at him with the confused, bleary eyes one gets from rising from an uncomfortable sleep.

“Jack.” It wasn’t a greeting as much as it was an acknowledgement of the man in front of her.

“What are you doing down here?” He sandwiched her toes between his hands. They were icicles. The whistling kettle saved her the trouble of providing an immediate response.

“I’ll make some tea.”

He made some toast with marmalade to accompany the tea and brought these to the other room on the breakfast tray. He had heard her shuffling about the house for a brief morning routine. By the time he carried in the tray, her eyes were open. Just. Stretching her spine, catlike. Painted toes and fingers splayed like claws. He glanced away upon noticing the shape of her nipples, hard in the cool morning air, visible through her dress. He felt he was intruding.

At the same time, it was his living room and he had no idea what else to do. So, he poured tea. And he sat down as a gentleman might, with upright posture and crossed legs. He was holding the saucer in one hand and tipped the tea into his mouth with the other.

She picked up her teacup just under the lip with her fingertips and put her little finger under its ridge to support it and to get her hands warm. She brought it up to her mouth. She blew gently across the surface and took her first sip. That’s the thing with those deeply schooled in manners. She maintained her elegance all the more for knowing how to break the rules.

They hoped the other would speak first. One glanced over as the other demurred. They might hold eye contact for a few moments. Jack raised his eyebrows and leaned forward. “Phryne, what happened? Why were you down here?”

“Jack, I…,” she didn’t appear to have the words. Her mouth hung open as if she were urging something to come to her.

“Whatever it is, Phryne, I’m a grown man and I’m sure I can handle it. But, I am thinking a lot of different things right now. I don’t know what to do or to say. I can’t …we can’t figure it out if you won’t tell me.”

“I know.”

“Are you sorry about last night?”

She glanced back from looking into the garden. “No, Jack. No.”

Her own toast was in front of her. Nevertheless, she spied his. He offered his plate. She stole the top piece and delicately munched into it.

He wanted to say something to put her more at ease. But, what would he possibly say? Should he bring up that word? Should he acknowledge this thing that hung in the air or is it better to pretend it doesn’t linger about them? The thing that he meant completely but knows it was perhaps said too early? He was certain she meant it at the time. They finish their toast in silence.

“Jack, we both said some things last night...”

“Are you sorry about that?”

“Are you?”

“Only if it means that something between us might end before it ever began.”

There it is. Ballast. “Me, too.”

What have they just told each other? Jack collected the empty plates and cups on the tray to bring back to the kitchen. An obscure thought escaped from his throat before he could stop himself from speaking. “Maybe, you just need more practice.” He chanced a parting look from under hooded eyes and departed to the kitchen.

She was on his heels. “What do you mean by that?”

He put the tray on the closest counter.

“Jack!”

She was right behind him. He turned, put his hands on the edge of the counter behind him and stood to his full height.

“Phryne, my master brings me to you.”