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Strife at Methodist Ladies'

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Elizabeth MacMillan was not having a good day. First, her calculus prep had somehow gone missing between her front door and Mr Simmons’ morning class. Then, not only had old Simmy used that as an excuse to give her (yet another) lecture on the folly of girls who had unnatural ideas about going to university, he had also assigned her to oversee the afternoon’s first form detention. And now, on top of all that, her one and only detainee was in the process of escaping out the window.

Elizabeth muttered several curses not-befitting-a-lady under her breath, considered taking the dignified (but much longer) route out the door, and then decided that losing a little bit of dignity was far preferable to losing her charge and sitting through another of Mr Simmons’ dressing-downs. Besides, given that the window backed onto a small alcove at the back of the school, it wasn’t as though there was that much dignity to lose.

The escapee was almost away by the time Elizabeth pulled herself out the window: a disused trellis had helped her to climb safely from the second storey, and the girl moved with a cat-like grace in spite of the ridiculous dresses they were forced to wear in this place. Elizabeth doubted that her own sense of balance was quite equal to this child’s, but she also knew that she could make up for that with sheer grit and determination -- that and her willingness to let herself fall the final few feet to the ground.

Ignoring the jolt to her knees, Elizabeth set off after the girl who was disappearing around a corner. Fortunately, Elizabeth was fast. She also knew how to spot a feint, so when the girl began to veer toward the right at the next corner, Elizabeth lunged to the left instead, and that brought her just close enough to grab the girl by the arm. The girl struggled, and she was wiry enough, but you had to develop a fair bit of muscle when you were frequently tasked with taking care of near half a dozen younger brothers and sisters, and Elizabeth had the advantage of being more-or-less fully grown.

“Now,” said Elizabeth. “I have no intention of letting you make this day any worse than it already is. So we are going back to that classroom, where you will finish your lines, and then we can both escape without getting into any more trouble.”

To Elizabeth’s surprise, the girl grinned at her. “You’re quite good, you know,” she said. “No-one’s been able to catch me for months.”

“Hmph,” said Elizabeth, as she tried not to look as though she was suppressing a smile. “Fisher, isn’t it?”

“Phryne Fisher,” the girl confirmed, her back straight enough to please any mistress of etiquette.

Elizabeth had heard of the girl, of course, though she was smart enough not to let on just yet. A rich aunt apparently paid her fees for Methodist Ladies', but she’d been close to expulsion more than once in less than a year. Family (rich aunt excepted) apparently quite disreputable thanks to a drunken father. Mother who did the washing for some of the other families in the school. And some terrible tragedy last Christmas, a sister going missing at the circus, which only confirmed certain people’s opinion of the family.

Well, Elizabeth was hardly going to worry about respectability. She was a scholarship girl herself, and although her family was not exactly poor, she was hardly considered reputable by some, in spite of an almost-flawless behaviour record and excellent marks in all her exams.

“You’re Elizabeth MacMillan,” said Phryne, pulling Elizabeth away from her thoughts. “Mr Simmons doesn’t like you much, which means you’re probably all right.”

This time, Elizabeth smiled before she caught herself. “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”

“Are you really going to make us go back to detention?” asked Phryne.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

Phryne looked up at her, considering. “Because I saw the girl who took your calculus paper this morning.”

“What -- how do you even know -- ”

Phryne shrugged. “I notice things.”

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know her name. She must be a nice girl who doesn’t get spoken about much, I think. Light brown hair, fairly slim, not too tall.”

“That could be half the girls in the fifth form.”

“I’ll bet you my Aunt Prudence’s best china that if we break into Simmy’s office, we’ll find her name on your paper.”

“And what if he’s in his office?”

“He won’t be. Miss Charlesworth called a staff meeting this afternoon.”

Elizabeth paused, which proved to be a mistake. Of course, she wouldn’t go along with this girl’s ridiculous plan, she told herself. It would be completely and utterly insane. But, allowing herself time to formulate that thought also gave Phryne just enough time to break free of Elizabeth’s grip.

If Phryne had run for it again, Elizabeth felt certain that she would have remained steadfast in her resolve. But Phryne didn’t run -- she simply sauntered off in the direction of the Mathematics rooms. That, of course meant that a brisk walk was more than adequate to catch up to the girl, and without the distraction of running came the wayward thought -- Why the hell not?

There were all those sensible, respectable reasons why not, of course -- but none of those reasons ever stopped the whispers behind her back, from some of the teachers as well as the other girls. And while being led astray by a first former was hardly something that even the silliest of fifth formers would normally -- but no. Elizabeth was not being led astray. She was making her own damn choice, because there was only so much a reasonable person could take.

Still, best not to let the girl think that she was in charge.

“Wait,” said Elizabeth, taking Phryne by her upper arm again. “I go first. If someone sees us, I’ll say I’m escorting you to the convenience.”

Phryne nodded. “Yes, that will work, I think. At least until we reach the staff rooms.”

“At that point, I say I’m reporting you for misconduct,” Elizabeth told her. “You’ll have to be willing to take that risk.”

“Fair enough,” said Phryne.

Elizabeth very much doubted that she would actually let Phryne take the fall like that -- she had no desire to bring about the girl’s expulsion -- but there was no harm in keeping her alert to the danger of what they were doing. (Elizabeth had rather formed the impression, over the last twenty minutes, that Phryne wasn’t particularly alert to danger -- either that, or she didn’t care, which was… something that Elizabeth would have to consider further, really.)

Fortunately, they had no cause to test either story; they saw no-one from the moment they re-entered the school building to the moment they arrived at the mathematics staff room. As Head of Mathematics, Mr Simmons had his own small office adjoining the staff room, which Elizabeth thought must be quite a relief for Miss Hume and Miss Dunford, who would otherwise be forced to endure his company.

The staff room door opened easily enough, but when Elizabeth tried to open the door to the office, the knob refused to turn.

“Damn,” Elizabeth muttered. “I don’t suppose you know how to pick locks, do you?”

The question was supposed to be rhetorical, but Phryne responded with a look that said, Of course I know how to pick locks. Elizabeth passed her a hair pin without a word.

Elizabeth was slightly relieved (and somewhat ashamed to be relieved) to find that Phryne didn’t manage to pick the lock perfectly on her first try. But she did manage it on her third try, which was rather impressive enough.

It occurred to Elizabeth, as they stepped across the office threshold, that Mr Simmons might still have the papers about his person. Certainly, they weren’t in an obvious position on his desk. Still, no point getting cold feet now.

“You look in those files over there,” Elizabeth instructed Phryne. “I’ll take the drawers.”

After half a minute of searching, Elizabeth began to wish that she’d taken the files. The drawers seemed to be filled with useless detritus; receipts, broken pencils and chalk, pieces of string and -- Elizabeth heard a sharp click as she probed the back of the drawer.

“Hmm,” said Elizabeth, “that’s interesting.”

Phryne looked up, then crossed the room, a file still in her hands. “False bottom?”

Elizabeth nodded. She lifted the false bottom carefully, and then all at once wished she hadn’t. A wave of heat coursed through her body, and Elizabeth hoped that she wasn’t blushing, because that would just be embarrassing in front of a first former.

Oh,” said Phryne.

Scattered throughout the small compartment was a series of drawings depicting multiple ladies in varying states of undress. Elizabeth picked one up carefully -- the woman had a hand between her legs and it was… difficult to look away.

“One day,” said Phryne quietly, “I shall have French underwear like that.”

That was enough to pull Elizabeth back into herself. “Not particularly sensible,” she managed to say, shifting her gaze to Phryne.

“It’s beautiful,” said Phryne. “It doesn’t need to be sensible.”

Elizabeth risked another look at the picture. “I suppose not.”

“I should probably mention,” said Phryne, “I think I found something.”

She passed the file she was holding onto Elizabeth, who saw that it was marked, “Fifth Form Prep, September.”

Letting the tantalising picture fall from her hand, Elizabeth opened the file. She immediately recognised the paper her class had been assigned to complete last night, and five sheets down, she recognised her own handwriting -- though her name had been crossed out and replaced with --

Something cold twisted in Elizabeth’s stomach.

“Who’s Sarah Gracechurch?” asked Phryne.

“As you said,” Elizabeth said quietly, “she’s a nice girl.”

The problem was, Sarah was nice. Or Elizabeth had thought she was. She wasn’t one of the girls who whispered cruel things behind other people’s backs, or one of those who sneered while they pretended to smile. She sat next to Elizabeth in two of their classes together, and Elizabeth liked her… an awful lot, in a way that she did not wish to examine too closely.

“It’s quite obvious,” Phryne observed.

Elizabeth froze. Had her thoughts been so transparent that this girl had seen...

“She didn’t even bother to match your hand when she wrote her name at the top,” Phryne continued.

Elizabeth released her breath. The paper. Phryne was talking about the paper.

“Simmy won’t care about the handwriting,” said Elizabeth. “He’d prefer to mark me down for not doing my work.”

“Yes, that sounds like him,” Phryne agreed.

“It’s not like Sarah though,” said Elizabeth. “Except…” There was something she’d overheard last week. She’d dismissed it at the time, and hadn’t spared a thought for it since.

“What?”

“A couple of the girls were saying -- I thought they were just being malicious ninnies -- they were saying that if her marks didn’t improve, her parents wouldn’t let her stay in school to matriculate next year. Maybe even send her to an aunt with too many babies in Ballarat.”

Phryne shuddered. “My father wanted to take me out of school earlier this year,” she said, “so I could earn some money in a factory, which would let him get drunk more often. But even he didn’t threaten me with babies.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “You’re a strange one, Phryne Fisher.”

Phryne grinned. “So are you.”

“Be careful,” Elizabeth said with a wry smile. “I could still turn you in for truancy.”

“The question is,” said Phryne, “how are you going to turn Miss Sarah Gracechurch in for stealing your prep, without incriminating both of us?”

“Not something you considered when you suggested this plan?”

Phryne shrugged. “I find a solution usually presents itself.”

“Well, there are those pictures,” Elizabeth said. “Though I don’t normally hold with blackmail.”

“Me neither, normally. Though in this case...”

“Yes, if anyone deserves it, it would be old Simmy. And I’d only be asking for justice, nothing else. But…”

“Still too honourable?” Phryne asked.

“No,” said Elizabeth. “If it were just about him wanting to punish me for being the wrong sort of girl, I’d do it. But it’d be a shame if Sarah was sent to Ballarat. She’s quite good in English, you know. I don’t want… she should be allowed to stay here if she wants it.”

Phryne looked at Elizabeth, her head cocked slightly to one side. Then she nodded. “I think you’re right.”

“That’s settled then,” said Elizabeth. “We let Sarah get away with it, and forgo the pleasure of making Mr Simmons back down, this time, at least.”

“Yes,” Phryne agreed. “There will be other opportunities to get Simmy back,” she continued, which made Elizabeth wonder what she might already have in mind, though she was a little afraid to ask.

“Of course,” Elizabeth said instead, “he's still going to ask to see your lines.”

“Ah,” said Phryne, “I thought of that.”

“Oh?”

“One of the other files I looked through was marked ‘Detention’. I did lines for him two weeks ago. Changing the date from the first to the fifteenth will be quite easy. Though as we know, he isn’t too fussy about handwriting.”

“I suspect,” said Elizabeth, “that he might be fussier about handwriting with people like you and me. You find your lines from the first while I put this drawer to rights.”

When Phryne turned away, Elizabeth paused just for a moment before retrieving several of the pictures from the drawer and stowing them in the pocket that her mother had sewn into her school dress. After all, who could Simmy tell if he discovered them gone? And they were most… anatomically interesting.

Elizabeth slid the false bottom back into place just as Phryne retrieved a sheet of paper from the detention file with a satisfied, “Ah-ha!”

“Jolly good then,” said Elizabeth. “Come along now.”

They left the office together, locking the door behind them. As they made their way down the corridor, back towards the classroom, Phryne linked her arm with Elizabeth’s.

“You know,” said Phryne, “you really are a good sort, Mac.”

Elizabeth blinked at the nickname, which really worked rather well, and she smiled. “Yes,” she agreed. “I rather think I am.”