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What Brings Us Together

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“What do you miss most about marriage?” Phryne asks.

Jack pauses for a second, glass raised halfway to his mouth for a drink, but she rests her chin on her hand and meets his gaze calmly. She’s not fishing for salacious details or trying to pry where she’s not wanted; she’s merely curious.

They hardly ever speak of his marriage, and his reticence would drive her mad if she didn’t respect it so much, if she didn’t know that the secrets of their own deepening relationship weren’t guarded with the same devout care.

Whatever Jack reads on her face must reassure him. He takes a sip, the amber liquid and crystal in his hand glittering with reflected firelight, and considers the question, a frown slowly forming, lips tightening and a furrow appearing between his eyebrows.

“If you’d asked me when we first separated, I would have said that I missed living together with someone,” he says slowly.

“You were lonely,” Phryne surmises.

Jack hums low in his throat: an agreement.

“And what would you say now?” she asks.

He pauses again, and Phryne waits quietly. For him, she can patient.

“I suppose I miss…” He chooses his next words with great care. “When you’re that close with someone, you see all the pieces of them that they don’t let others see. Metaphorically speaking,” he adds wryly, as if realizing his words came out just the way he’d hoped to avoid.

She grins but doesn’t interrupt with a ribald joke, tempting as it is.

“And I don’t mean that you have no secrets,” he continues after it’s clear she’s going to behave.

“Our work is evidence enough of that,” she murmurs.

“Exactly so.” He acknowledges her point with a brief tilt of his head. “But you learn small details and see moments that are private, that no one else will ever be allowed to see. I suppose I miss that…” He makes an aborted reaching gesture, unable to find a word to fit.

“Intimacy,” she supplies.

His eyes cut to her sharply to look for jest or a double entendre, but when he finds her sincere, he nods.

She takes a sip of her own drink and thinks about his answer, and when she looks up it’s to find him watching. She quirks an eyebrow in question.

“Hugh and Dorothy are going to be perfectly happy, Phryne,” he says, and even if that comment misses its mark, she must admit that her concern for Dot has been weighing on her.

“Of course they are,” she says, forcing her voice to be cheerful.

Jack sets aside his glass and tangles his fingers with hers, squeezing reassuringly before pressing a warm kiss to the back of her hand, and well. She’s been watching him toy with his glass all night, and having that touch on her skin leads her to irretrievable distraction.

*****

“And how is married life treating you?” she asks Dot at a later date, sipping tea and waiting for Cec and Bert to deliver what she hopes is a key piece of evidence.

The fierce look Dot gives her is quite at odds with her idle inquiry. “I’ve had quite enough people judging our marriage, and I’ll thank you not to start as well.”

Both of Phryne’s eyebrows disappear beneath her fringe. Gently, she says, “I have no intention to meddle. I asked to be sure that you were happy.”

“Oh,” Dot says, and her lower lip trembles. She tucks the needle of her embroidery away and abandons it entirely, covering her red face with her hands. “Oh, Miss, I’m so sorry. That was so rude. It’s just that my mother is horrified that I’m still working for you, and Hugh’s mother has decided that our marriage isn’t legitimate since it was a Catholic service. I’ve heard nothing but-” Dot cuts herself off and sighs enormously.

“I’d offer to talk with them, but I doubt that would help the situation,” Phryne says.

Dot’s eyes appear between her fingers, wide with horror. “Oh, please don’t, Miss.”

“Of course not,” Phryne says, “But come now. I’m a friendly ear, and I want to hear all about it. How is the new Mr. Williams?” Dot shifts so her eyes are covered and her face goes even redder. “I didn’t mean that!” Phryne protests, because for once she genuinely hadn’t, and then reconsiders. “Although.”

“It’s wonderful,” Dot interrupts before Phryne can say anything further, dropping her hands and smiling, shy and happy. It’s the first one, Phryne realizes suddenly, that she’s seen all day. “Hugh is… And I. I really love him.”

“Good,” Phryne says decisively. “I’m glad to hear it. And I’m always here if you do need help.”

“I know, Miss,” Dot says, picking up her embroidery again. “He offered to do the washing up, you know.”

“Oh?” Phryne asks carefully, but Dot’s still smiling.

“He said since we both work, it was unfair that I do all the chores,” Dot reports.

“How very forward thinking of him,” Phryne says.

“He’s trying very hard,” Dot says. Her needle slips in and out of the fabric with a quick ease. Dot looks over, conspiratorial. “He’s quite rubbish at it.”

“At household chores?” Phryne asks, and Dot nods, giggling. “Well, you’ve very high standards, Dot. I doubt I’d measure up, either.”

“Good point, Miss,” Dot says.

Phryne grins and tops off their tea.

*****

“But why do you care?” Mac asks, reclining with proprietary ease in the armchair she’s claimed as her own in Phryne’s sitting room. “It’s not like you’ve decided to marry the man.”

Phryne looks at her as if Mac has suddenly grown two heads, and Mac laughs loudly at her expression.

“As I said,” Mac repeats with a smirk, “It’s not like you’ve decided to marry him.”

“Naturally not,” Phryne says emphatically.

Mac shrugs, an easy roll of her shoulders. “So it doesn’t matter how he feels about marriage.”

Phryne knocks back the dregs of her drink and tries to ignore Mac’s calculating gaze.

“You’re not normally insecure about men,” Mac says.

“I’m not insecure about Jack, either,” Phryne protests at once, but winces when she hears how high and airy her voice emerges, a dead giveaway that she’s lying.

“You don’t usually care about them, though, so it makes sense,” Mac continues, ignoring her outburst completely.

“I always care about them, Mac,” Phryne says, heavy with sincerity.

Mac waves her hand carelessly. “Yes, I meant, you don’t usually care about keeping them.”

Phryne says nothing.

Mac says, “But you’re quite gone on this one.”

Phryne fills her glass, a little higher than the first one in light of Mac’s amusement.

“No argument?” Mac asks, surprised.

“You hardly seem to need my contributions to this conversation,” Phryne retorts tartly.

“I still don’t see the appeal, of course,” Mac says, picking back up once she’s satisfied that Phryne’s listening, “But by all accounts, he’s a good one. And given how long the two of you danced around this whole thing, he’s hardly going to cut and run now.”

“I know,” Phryne says, because she does. Jack has decided to be with her, which means she can rely on him, come hell or high water. That’s not in question.

Mac eyes her again, the silence stretching out between them. “You know, the real problem with this conversation is that you’re having it with the wrong person.”

Phryne nods. “That’s been very clear to me since you started talking.” She manages to keep a straight face for a few seconds, but when Mac’s lips twitch up, she can’t help a giggle escaping, and then they’re both laughing. Phryne keeps going until her stomach’s sore with it, and Mac looks no better, shaking so hard she splashes her drink on her hand and then laughs some more as she licks it off.

Some time later, when they’ve both finally sobered, Mac says, “Well, even if he proves to be an idiot, you’ve always got me.”

“For all the good it does me,” Phryne replies, but her smile is wide enough to hurt her cheeks.

*****

“Mr. Butler informs me I’m early?” Jack says, words lilting up into a question as he knocks gently on her open door.

“For a dinner at six? I’d say so,” Phryne replies, knowing very well she’d told him dinner was at half past five.

He doesn’t call her on it, though. “Shall I wait in the parlor?” He tries unsuccessfully to hide a smile, anticipating her answer.

“No,” she says, “You can keep me company.” She waves a hand toward the edge of the bed next to her vanity. “Close the door.”

“I’m beginning to feel that I’ve been brought here under false pretenses,” Jack teases as he comes around the bed and sits down where she’d indicated.

Phryne picks up a large fluffy brush and her compact of foundation powder and starts to apply it with practiced motions. “Are you feeling ill-used?” she asks. She picks up a smaller brush for a more careful application around her eyes.

“Merely confused,” Jack replies as she critically examines the results. “If you want me to arrive at a particular time, you only have to ask. Surely you realize I am quite at your command.”

Her reflection smiles back at her, unable to contain the thrill she hears at him stating it so plainly. “I’ll remember you said that the next time you order me to stay behind at a crime scene,” she says and picks up her tin of mascara, dipping the thin brush into the creamy, black cake.

“That’s different,” Jack says absently. She can feel Jack’s gaze on her, see him in the corner of her eye.

She can’t talk while she applies it to her lashes, jaw dropping slightly open. She blinks carefully once, twice, and retouches her lower lashes until she’s satisfied. Then she packs her mascara away carefully and glances at Jack to see his reaction.

He’s watching, as she knew, but the rapt, open expression on his face is something she’s only seen from him in bed. It feels fragile here, with the space between them, small though it is, and she feels her pulse tick up. She reaches for her perfume and sprays the barest hint of it on her wrists and throat.

His voice is rough and lower than usual when he speaks. “If you keep up this show, we’re going to be late to dinner, even if it is at six.”

“Aunt Prudence will be so scandalized,” Phryne says, “She mistakenly thinks you’re a good influence on me.” Another brush circles rouge into the hollows of her cheeks. “And it’s not a show.”

“My apologies,” he says, “May I ask what we’re doing then?”

“I’m getting ready for dinner,” Phryne says, “And you’re keeping me company. I thought you might enjoy it, but I had no idea it would have such an effect.” She manages to keep her eyes from flicking down and seeing how much of an effect, but only just.

“Enjoy it,” Jack repeats, thoughtfully, and then corrects himself, voice suddenly steadier and knowing. “Enjoy the intimacy of it.”

She glances at him as she fishes out the particular shade of lipstick she needs to match her dress, but he doesn’t look upset with the realization of what she intended. “Yes,” she agrees.

He’s silent as she paints her lips, taking more care than she might usually. She blots them together and closes the lipstick, dropping it into the small clutch she’d picked out earlier, already stocked with her gun and a clean handkerchief.

“Phryne,” he says, and she turns to him instantly. He bridges the gap between them and takes her hand. “I told you when we started this: you don’t need to change for me. I don’t want that.”

“This is how I always get ready, so it’s not a change at all,” she says lightly, “And it’s no hardship to share it with you, if it makes you happy.” Jack doesn’t look convinced, so she continues, cutting to the heart of the matter.

“You’ve given up a lot to be with me,” she says, and it’s true. He’s given up an entire sacrament for her, along with exclusivity and social conventionality, and any number of other related items. The fact that they aren’t things she values doesn’t make the sacrifice any less. She licks her lips, tasting the slight bitter tang of the lipstick. “If there’s something you want that I can give, I want you to have it.”

“I’m greedy when it comes to you, Phryne,” Jack says, “I want everything you’ll give me.” He raises her hand and kisses the back of it like he had before. “But only if it’s freely given.”

He holds her gaze until she nods, in understanding and agreement, the exhales of his breath against her skin making her shiver. “And Phryne?” he asks.

“Yes, Jack?” she replies, practically whispering.

“Anything I gave up to be with you pales in comparison to what I gained.” He turns her hand over and presses a kiss to her palm, his lips hot against her skin.

“I must speak with Mr. Butler,” Phryne hears herself say as if from a distance once Jack has moved back.

“Oh?” he asks.

“He needs to call Aunt P,” she explains, “Because we are going to be so very late to dinner.”

Jack smiles, crooked and mischievous, and she falls all over again.