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To Begin With

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to begin with, there's the two of us

 

“Can I hail a cab for you, sir?” the desk sergeant says, when Jack leans tiredly on the counter to clock out. “It’s right cold out there, this late.”

“No, thank you, Braithwaite,” Jack says, though it is cold, even this early in autumn; the wind had come whistling in through the loose pane in his window, this last hour. “The cold will wake me up, I expect.”

“All right, sir,” Braithwaite says, and slides Jack’s timecard neatly out from under his heavy fingers. “See you tomorrow.”

He had meant, truly, to go back to his flat, but the cold cuts straight through his good wool coat and the air is damp with fog, smelling of salt and petrol, and it is with the barest sense of resignation that he finds himself turning onto Baker Street.

It’s long past decent visiting hours by the time he knocks at her door, the end of a long day and a longer week, but there is a dim glow of light in the window of the parlour, so he rocks back on his heels on the doorstep, tugs at his collar, and waits for Mr. Butler to let him in. In the shadows of the garden, the wind is rustling the leaves.

It isn’t Mr. Butler who answers the door, though, but rather Phryne—Miss Fisher—(oh, blast it) Phryne, herself: Dot and Mr. Butler are both gone, Jack remembers, suddenly, he to his family and she to a church retreat. “Jack!” she says, and swings the door wide. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“A momentary lapse of judgement, I’m afraid, Miss Fisher,” Jack says. “I find I need some Dutch courage to face the prospect of my empty flat, tonight.”

“Lucky for you, then, Inspector, this household is well supplied in that regard,” Phryne says, grandly, gently, amused and laughing and arch as she always is, and gestures him in. “Shall I take your hat and coat?”

“Please,” Jack says, and let himself be shepherded into the turquoise parlour, let himself be divested of the armour of his profession, glad and warmed with the familiar pleasure of her gaze upon him, her entirely too-knowing gaze.

“So, then, Jack,” she says, eyeing him appraisingly once he is installed by the fire, heavy crystal tumbler a cool weight between his palms, “tell me: does your bachelor’s flat require courage in general, or is there a specific reason you need the fortification tonight? Surely you’ve learnt to fend for yourself in the cooking line, at least, by now?”

“I don’t know why you think I ought to fend for myself in the kitchen, when you don’t,” Jack says, mildly. “Between Mr. Butler and Dot’s skill with baking, I don’t quite think you have room to throw stones.”

“I’ve never known logic or inconvenient facts to stand in the way of people’s abilities to object to others’ glass houses, in general,” Phryne says, dry.

“Point to the lady in indigo,” Jack says gravely, tilting his glass towards her in salute. “I assure you, however, I learns to make a passable omelette long before I stepped foot in France; you have no need to be worried on my account.”

“Not that you’ll starve, at any rate,” Phryne says. “I do seem to recall rather a number of irate criminal types shooting you, coming at you with knives, or otherwise making threatening gestures in your general direction.”

“Ah, but none of them are likely to be lurking in my flat at half past eight,” Jack says. It is familiar, this rush of pleasure that these exchanges always arouse in him: their quick banter, the lush infuriating quirk of her smile.

“Point to the gentleman in the corner,” Phryne says, grandly, writing an invisible mark with a finger on an airy scoreboard. “And I don’t suppose I want to encourage you to feel that you need an excuse to visit me, after all, Jack, so do feel free to come up with some utterly frivolous dissolute reason that you’re here.”

“Frivolous and dissolute, is it?” Jack says, taking a measured sip of the whisky, which is at significantly lower tide (he notices distantly) than it had been when poured. “All right. So the excuse that I’ve neglected to have the coal-men round, and so my flat is nearer the Arctic in temperature than one might expect from Melbourne, is hardly likely to do, I suppose.” It’s true, but he shan’t tell her that; he likes to pretend to competence, at least while he’s in her presence.

“Coal-men, Jack?” Phryne cries. “I ask for frivolous, and you give me coal-men. Come, now: I know you have more imagination than that, surely.”

“Oh, surely,” Jack murmurs, and let his gaze linger (oh, too long) on the shape of her collarbones beneath the drape of her frock. “Let me see. Perhaps I should have arrived on your doorstep, tie all askew and hat in hand, and gasped desperately that I am being pursued by some smugglers from Yarraville.”

“Much better,” Phryne says. “And you needed a place to lay low—”

“I needed a place to lay low,” Jack agrees, and stretches out his arm for the decanter: the whisky gold as amber in the firelight, fumes sharp as an electric shock in the back of his throat. “Where else should I come, but here?”

“Ah,” she says, only that, cat-in-cream smug, and the silence stretches. Don’t dare so far, Jack, says his brain to itself, but her eyes are holding his, unwavering across the scant feet that separate them, and so it is distant, a warning unheeded.

“Why else should I have come, then?” he asks, smiling into the vibrating silence, letting her play out the game. Why else? Why else indeed but the pleasure he takes in her company, the sharp knife-edge joy of their conversations, the almost-too-vibrant curve of her cheekbone in the firelight? Perhaps you wanted to see me, she’ll say, and raise an eyebrow, and he’ll take a swallow of fine Irish whisky and lick the taste of it from his lips, and he’ll nod in agreement: yes. Yes.

“Perhaps you needed my help on a case,” Phryne says, lightly, and what can he say to that but, also: yes? Yes, he needs her help; no, he no longer begrudges her assistance. Her insight enriching his cases, her keen incisive brain, her wide expansive heart: should he object to them, when she’s brought so much to his life, professionally and personally, both?

There was a time he resented her meddling presence, her sheer effrontery—but that time is gone, and with it that particular Jack Robinson; he’d like to think he’s learnt, now. “Yes,” he says, and tilts his glass towards her. “Perhaps I needed your help on a case. A difficult one, and I had no idea where else to turn, and so I arrived on your doorstep.”

“So it’s flattery, then, Jack?” Phryne says, teasing, but her cheeks are flushed now: and not, he doesn’t think, from the heat of the fire.

“No, Miss Fisher,” Jack says, and wets his lips with whisky. Swallows, watches her gaze drop to his lips. “Not flattery, honesty. Or perhaps,” he says, and lets his own gaze linger, too (the way he doesn’t let it do, at any other time outside of these hazy, gilded hours at her fireside) on the sleek shine of her hair. “Or perhaps I wanted to see you.”

He desires her. He knows it—has known it, for longer than he’s wanted to acknowledge it to himself. Oh, it was easy enough to realise he wanted her, after Rosie: what man wouldn’t want her, with her narrow hips, her long waist, her tempting crimson smile? Easy enough: and yet harder, to acknowledge he wants her for more than that, wants her sharp mind, her bright wit, her fierce independence. What kind of man, he’d thought, unwilling, could want a woman like her—could want to be wanted by her: a woman who could want a man, but would never need him?

He could, apparently, and can. He is a conflagration of longings, a bonfire of desire in the body of one man, soaking in the warmth of her gilded turquoise parlour, and he finds he doesn’t mind at all.

And she: she is a sea of contradictions wrapped up in the body of one woman, always more infinite and varied than he anticipates. She could take this as merely the continuation of their game, and meet him with another verbal sally; she could turn it to her favourite pastime, and take his words as an invitation to seduction. She does neither. “I am, you’ll find,” she says, simply, “quite happy to be seen by a man of your calibre, Jack,” and smiles.

He could take her words as an throwaway compliment, a balm to salve the wounded ego of a man who has recently endured an undeserved public pillorying courtesy of the pens of Melbourne’s finest newsmen. He does not. He knows her too well for that.

“Tell me, Miss Fisher,” Jack says, and swallows a healthy sip of whisky. “How are you coping, with Dot and Mr. Butler both gone? Should I be asking you if you’re going to starve?”

“Nonsense, Jack,” she declares. “I’m perfectly fine. I have an orange tree in my backyard, and there’s a lovely bakery just down the street.”

“Oh, bread and oranges, is it?” Jack says, straight-faced. “Very poetic. Though I suppose it is rather too cold for roses, it being winter.”

“Come now, Inspector,” she says, hint of bright laughter in her eyes, “that’s what hothouses are for.”

Jack glances at the sideboard, where, as advertised, white roses are spilling from a fortune in verre français vases. “Quite right,” Jack says, and lets a smile lurk at the corner of his mouth. “How could I have forgotten about the hothouses? Good French bread, and oranges from your backyard; hot water in your bath, and—” (he gestures at her end-table, where a pile of books is making a precarious home)—“books to your heart’s content; surely a woman needs nothing more.”

“Most people’s needs are relatively few, I find, women included,” Phryne says: a riposte. “Wants, on the other hand?” she, with a wicked tilt of an eyebrow, and this, this is why it’s dangerous for him to be here, at past nine in the evening, winter wind rattling at the windowpanes, the two of them alone together in a little bubble of warmth and golden light, because Jack is only a man, after all, and Phryne—well. Phryne gives him a long dark look through lowered lashes, and Jack can’t but help feel a thrill when it lingers in the air between them, heated and wire-tight and singing. “Wants are harder, or at least more numerous.”

“True,” Jack says, through his dry throat. “What wants would you add to the list, then, Miss Fisher?”

Want? his traitorous brain suggests, airily, in her voice, I want to kiss you—but then, knowing her, she’d be much more likely to suggest something provoking; kisses would be far too straightforward. It’s rare she can make him blush, policeman that he is, but she does seem to delight in trying.

The Phryne outside of his head rarely does what he wishes she might; Jack probably should give up on anticipating her at all. “Hm,” she says, humming a little, thoughtful. “Normally, I’d say good company, and a handsome man,” she says, “but as you’re here—” and apparently it turns out she can embarrass him after all, but mercifully she ignores it. “Mm, no,” she says. “Right now, I think my wants are as few as my needs: a pain-killer, and another drink, and I’d be nearly quite content.”

“The drink I can help you with,” Jack says, rising and crossing to the sideboard to pour her another dram, “and—” he tilts his head to the doorway, inquiring, towards the hallway and the lavatory beyond—“I’d fetch you an APC powder, if it would help you go from ‘nearly’ to ‘wholly’…?”

“Ah, Jack,” Phryne says. “How could I forget what a gentleman you are?” and smiles, a smile full of such fondness Jack nearly fumbles the decanter. “Alas, however, I’ve already tried an APC powder or two, to no avail, and Mac has forbidden me opiates, so I shall have to satisfy myself with alcohol,” she says, and tosses the drink back in one go, with a swooping gesture, flamboyant.

“Are you well, Miss Fisher?” Jack says, ignoring her theatrics; he’s known Phryne long enough that he can mostly tell, now, when she’s being dramatic out of obfuscation rather than sheer pleasure in perversity, and he tries not to indulge her.

Phryne sighs and sets her glass on the end table. “And if I weren’t, Jack Robinson?” she says. “What would you do, if I weren’t well, and I told you there wasn’t anything to do about it?”

“Is that what you’re telling me?” Jack asks, alarmed. He’s seen her shrug off being shot at and knife-grazed, being kidnapped and left for dead, and nearly always (with the exception, perhaps, of Murdoch Foyle) she approaches every circumstance with the same breezy confidence and sangfroid; he has a hard time imagining a situation in which she’d simply give up and say there was nothing to be done. “I’d do my best to help, Miss Fisher,” he says, gravely, and means it. “Regardless of the circumstance.”

“Ah, Jack,” she says, and smiles at him, a fond curve of her lips, the gleam of red lipstick in the firelight. “So gallant. It’s nothing you need fear: I’m simply—” and her mouth quirks, in amusement or irony, Jack can’t quite tell, “joining Bert and Cec in their red-ragging cause, shall we say, and it’s causing me grief.”

“Bert and Cec—” Jack says, not following, and Phryne laughs.

“Suffering the curse of Eve, if you prefer, or, if you’d like me to be scientific about it, Inspector Robinson,” she says, and tilts her head, gazes straight at him: “undergoing my menses.”

“Ah,” Jack says, after a second’s thought. “Well. Yes. I suppose alcohol’s certainly not a bad solution.”

He’s startled her; Jack may not always know how to read her moods, but this is fairly evident: her gaze is thoughtful, her eyes steady and dark, examining him. “Why, Jack,” she murmurs, and her gaze doesn’t leave his face. “You blushed when I called you handsome, and yet when I mention my menses, you don’t react?”

“I was married,” Jack points out. “The mention of a woman’s natural biological functions is hardly likely to bother me.”

“Jack Robinson!” she says, but she’s pretending shock, rather than meaning it; her expression is entirely too open and curious to let her get away with feigning disinterest.

Jack tilts one shoulder in a half-shrug. “You might try a hot bath; Rosie used to swear by that.”

Her gaze sharpens at the mention of Rosie, but she doesn’t pry. “No luck there, either, I’m afraid,” she says, casting her eyes towards heaven, or perhaps towards the luxurious sanctum that is (he is sure) her bathroom, upstairs. Her eyes are as bright as they ever are, but it’s deceptive; he can see the marks of pain in the tightness at the edge of her lips, now that he knows to look, and hear it in the ringing tension of her voice, despite her light tone.

“Not,” he adds, and takes a sip of the (excellent) whisky, “but that I’m sure you didn’t enjoy the attempt, hedonist that you are.”

“Sensualist, surely, Jack,” she says, lips quirking. “A hedonist wouldn’t be concerned with anything outside himself, and I think whatever else you might say about me, at the very least you’d admit I’m motivated by some concern for justice.”

“Sensualist, then,” he says, conceding the point, for he can say many things about her, it’s true, but anything that impugns her motives is not one of them—or, at least, anything that reduces her actions to one simple motive. “And the whisky? Surely it was a pleasurable endeavour, regardless of its efficacy.”

“Oh, yes, very pleasurable, the bath and liquor both,” she agrees, and takes a sip from her own whisky; her lips are as red as ever, but her lipstick doesn’t smudge the glass. He’ll never understand how she does that. “But little help, so I’m resigned to it; it’ll pass, it always does.”

Maybe it’s the late hour, maybe the whisky, maybe her presence, but he feels lightheaded, daring, caught by the gleam of her eyes in the dim light, the ripple of silk across her thigh when she moves. “Well,” Jack says, and let his gaze settle on Phryne, curled on the divan with her cheek resting on her knees like a child. “There is one thing you haven’t tried.”

If he were a man in the habit of lying to himself, he could tell himself that he says it because he hates seeing her hurt, because he simply wants to help; Jack isn’t, however, inclined to such self-deception, and while he is glad to spare her pain, his motivations are, he can admit, much more complex: he wants to shock her, wants her to look at him with the kind of penetrating curiosity she trains on their most challenging suspects—wants, if he’s honest with himself (and he always is) to let her know that he’s not blind to this game they’re playing, the two of them. He drains his tumbler and sets it, precisely, on the ring of condensation that’s gathered on the fine oak table.

“Why, Jack,” Phryne says, regarding him over the rim of her glass. “I had no idea you were so familiar with the remedies available to women.”

Jack tilts his head. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Miss Fisher,” he says, solemnly, and lets his gaze linger, for a long moment, at the sharp line of her collarbones under her frock: more things, indeed, than perhaps she’s dreamt him capable of.

“And a richer world, too, since I’m no philosopher,” she says, in rejoinder, and he laughs, he can’t help it.

“Epicurus would disagree, surely.”

“Well, what would a girl from Collingwood know about Greek philosophers?” she asks, and waves it away. “No, don’t answer that, Jack, don’t make me suffer. Do you need me to beg?”

“Never, Miss Fisher,” Jack says, and means it. “It’s only, there are some things gentlemen don’t tend to say to ladies, and while I suspect there’s little I can say that will shock you, my telling you that la petite mort is a remedy for that particular pain might be an exception.”

In truth, he doubts the idea is new to her; nothing he can say will truly shock her, he’s certain, modern woman that she is. That he’s saying it, though: that’s a different story.

“Jack!” she says, and he has startled her, because she’s silent for a full three seconds, blinking at him before she laughs, a peal of laughter, bright and delighted in the small warm island of firelight surrounding them in her parlour. “Jack Robinson,” she says, cheeks flushed, and then her lips curl up in a smile. “I always forget,” she murmurs, “that you—” and she lets her gaze flicker over him, blatant—“have such an excellent French accent.”

Jack tilts his head in acknowledgement. “One can learn a great deal,” he says, “on the Continent,” which is true, though not actually where he learnt this particular lesson; still, he’s not so honest that he feels obliged to confess his schoolroom was much more prosaic than some Parisian bedroom, respite in medias bellum.

“Indeed,” she says, and sets her empty glass next to his. The little clink is loud in the silence.

“Well?” he asks, and lets it hang in the air. “And shall I bid you goodnight, Miss Fisher? I’m not nearly gallant as you accuse me of being, but I’d hardly linger, if I knew you were in pain and there was a remedy to hand.”

He rises, and looks down at her, at the pale column of her neck limned in firelight, the wings of her eyebrows. He should go, no matter—no matter what she might do once he’s gone. It’s late, and—he should go.

“Jack,” she says. “And if I asked you—to stay?” It hangs, delicate, in the air between them, a spun-glass question.

Her gaze is wide and dark and steady, and Jack feels caught by her eyes. If, indeed. How many times has he imagined her saying this, in how many ways? “Phryne,” he says, and it comes out rough even to his own ears. “Would it help?”

Two years ago, when he barely knew her, he’d have expected she’d meet every situation (even one so improbable as this) with a flirtatious comment, something sly and outré. Oh, he’d known she was bright, and witty, and quick, but he’d thought her nothing more than that: pretty but shallow, playing at detective for the scandal of it. Two years ago, he was a fool. Now, he knows her, knows the fierce, steady heart of her, wide as the ocean and as deep. “It always helps,” she says, simply. “Having you here.”

Two years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to say it, but he’s a different Jack Robinson now, rather more comfortable with desiring and being desired, more familiar with the gravity of his own longing. “Well, I did say,” he says, and lets his gaze rest on her openly, doing away for once with pretence. “I did say I’d do my best to help. So come here, then,” he says, and holds his hand out to her.

Her fingers, in his, are cool and slim, the touch of skin shocking without gloves; her eyes are luminous. She lets him tug her to standing, and for a moment they stand there looking at each other, until Jack steps back a pace, putting a little space between them. “I think,” he says, low, and doesn’t take his eyes off her, “that if I had you in your bed, I wouldn’t want to let you out of it again, and I’m not sure that that’s a good idea, so if you don’t object, we might—” he swallows, and her gaze follows the bob of his Adam’s apple—“you might let me give you a helping hand right where we are.”

Phryne gazes at him, lips parted. “I—” she says. “Yes. Yes, of course,” and then, with the return of her usual bright humour, “lucky for me that Mr. Butler and Dot are gone, then, I suppose.”

“Yes,” Jack says. “I suppose. Come, then, like this,” and turns her around in the circle of his arms and pulls her down to sitting, so they’re back to front in the deep armchair where he’d been sitting before. She huffs a little surprised laugh, but settles against him easily enough. This close, he can smell her perfume, and the scent of her hair.

“Jack Robinson,” she murmurs, a thread of teasing in her voice, “you shock me. Having your wicked way with me, in the parlour?”

“Oh, yes,” Jack says, mildly. “Very dissolute of me indeed. And I’m going to do it without taking a stitch of clothing off, too.” He tucks a stray strand of her hair behind her ear and drops a kiss there, tugging her back against him so her bottom is between his thighs. “You’ll have to tell me how you like it, and if it hurts,” he says, and rucks her skirt up just far enough that his hand is resting on her knee, his bare hand on her bare skin. “May I touch you, Phryne?” he says, feeling obscurely as if he ought to ask permission, even though she’s hardly the type of woman who’d have any trouble making it clear if she were unwilling.

Phryne strokes her fingers along the back of his hand, and Jack shivers. “Please,” she says.

Her thighs are surprisingly muscular under his hand. Her underthings are silk, and when he strokes a finger against her, she sighs and shudders out a breath. “Jack, are you—are you sure?” she says.

“I’ll stop if you tell me to stop,” he says, “but, Phryne, you hardly think I’d do this if I didn’t want to? I’d do a great deal more than this, to spare you pain.” It’s somehow easier to say it, now that he’s not looking at her, to murmur it into her skin.

“No, I don’t suppose you would,” Phryne says, and tilts her head to press a kiss to the underside of his jaw, feather-light. “Well, then, Jack—” but subsides into a sigh without finishing when he slides the tips of his fingers beneath the edge of her knickers.

She’s blood-hot against his fingers, a little slick, but if it weren’t for the cottony pressure of her sanitary napkin nudging his knuckles, he’d hardly know she was menstruating. It’s just enough that his fingers slide easily against her, and when he sets a the slightest rhythm, a delicate nudge of his fingers, she sighs again. “Like this?” he says. “What feels good?”

“This is—gentle, like this, this is good,” she says, and shifts against him, gripping his wrist. “It’s always—sore, this time of the month, I—it hurts, if it’s too hard.” She lets her head fall back against his shoulder and closes her eyes; from this close, he can see the scattering of freckles on her cheekbones, the faint lines at the corners of her eyes.

“All right,” Jack says, and presses a kiss against the soft side of her neck, and, because he can’t resist her, cups the curve of her breast with his free hand. Her nipple rises to a peak under the thin fabric of her blouse. “I’ve thought of this, you know,” he says, confessional, letting the words fall between them. “Touching you like this.”

“Did—oh, Jack—did you?” she says. “And what did you imagine?”

“Well,” he admits, “this wasn’t among any of the scenarios I’d dreamt up, I confess.”

Phryne laughs, and reaches up her hand up to cup the back of his neck, tangles her fingers in his hair. “Mm, I imagine not.”

And yet the vividness of it is better than a thousand fantasies, all the tiny details he’d not have thought to include: the flex of Phryne’s fingers clenching and relaxing on his forearm, the way her cunt ripples around his fingertips, the shocking heat of her. Now he knows the low throaty hum she makes when he slides the edge of his thumb over her clitoris, and he thinks he may die of knowing it; he feels scalded with desire.

Phryne notices (of course she does, Jack thinks, dizzy with it), and writhes back against him; Jack supposes it’s no surprise she’s unfazed by the evident proof of how much he wants her. “And—ah—in these scenarios of yours, Jack, did I get to touch you, as well?” she asks. “Or am I meant to content myself with my own fantasies?”

He must make an abrupt gesture, because she winces; Jack immediately stills his fingers. “No, don’t stop,” she says, and cranes her neck round to press a lopsided kiss to the corner of his mouth. “Just—like this,” she says, and brings her hand down to tangle with his, showing him how she wants it: tiny, subtle motions, a barely-there slide of his thumb, and she sighs and goes boneless and supple against him.

“I would,” Jack says, and has to stop and clear his throat, “I would be more than willing to have you touch me, believe me,” and turns his head to bite, very lightly, at the fleshy curve of her earlobe. “But right now I want to make you feel good.”

Her orgasm, when it happens, is subtle: her whole body tenses and her breath catches in her throat, high and stuttery, and her cunt flutters around his fingers. This, too, feels like something that will strip his mind down to pure, unalterable fact: he now knows what Phryne Fisher sounds like when she comes.

“Oh,” she says, laughing. “Oh, Jack,” and he should have known she’d find joy in the act of sex, but it somehow feels like a gift, all the same. It’s been—a long time, since Jack has felt that delight.

He lets himself gather her tighter against him and buries his face in her hair. “Phryne,” he says, and she turns her head, languorous, to bite at the edge of his jaw.

“Jack,” she says.

She sucks in a little breath when he pulls his fingers out of her, pleasure or pain he can’t quite tell.

"How are you?" Phryne says, after a moment. She slides sideways off his lap and curls up next to him. "May I give you a hand, now?"

"You may not, "Jack says, though in truth he would like nothing better then to gather her up in his arms and carry her upstairs to her bed. "You," he says, and presses a kiss in a tangle of her hair. "You may take yourself straight upstairs in hopes you might sleep."

"I just might," she says, and yawns. "And you, Jack?"

"I, as you so sensibly said, can take care of myself," Jack says.

"I meant in terms of feeding yourself when I said that," Phryne objects, protesting, and Jack smiles.

"Yes," Jack. "But this, too."

When he lets himself out, some time later, the wind is cold and the stars are bright overhead. Jack can still feel the press of her lips against his. He smiles.