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Several Hundred To Go

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i.

Lucien woke with a start.

In the half-second it took for the weight of his breath and bones to settle back in his body he’d already started to lose the shape of Norman Baker’s face, consciousness working overtime to banish the hard edges of his nightmare until only the unsettling ache beneath it all remained.

It was the third night since they’d arrested Baker in the cemetery, and every night since Lucien had been startled awake in fear. They weren’t nightmares as he knew them, not the abstract shapes and screams of men long since gone; instead these dreams crept up on him suddenly, innocuous until the moment Jean pushed her body in front of his own to protect him.

The bedroom was dark and summer air pressed down heavily around him. The cotton sheet he’d been sleeping under had been kicked to the bottom of the bed to tangle at his feet and Lucien kicked at it further, irritated by the contact. Had it only been Baker’s looming face and Jean’s moment of terrifying courage that had woken him? Or was there something more happening? He strained to listen for voices or footsteps but there was nothing, just the quiet of a sleeping house.

He pushed himself up to rest against the bedhead, wiping a hand down his face and across his damp brow. He could still feel the sharp taste of fear in his mouth, his racing heart a reminder of how close he had been to losing her.

There were birds outside the window, and a thin slither of light crept underneath the blinds to tell him it was early enough to rise. The rest of the house wouldn’t be up for hours, but he swung his legs over the side of the bed, pressing them down into the wooden floors until he felt solid. He was used to a quick recovery after waking from nightmares, but the last three nights were something new all together, slippery and uncertain and leaving him shaken.

Jean, something inside whispered. This was the first time he’d dreamt of losing Jean. And not just by proxy of Baker, but by a thousand other little instances. Every moment since he’d posted that bloody letter some part of him had been waiting for her to walk out the door. And then what would he do? She’d told Baker that losing Lucien would leave her with nothing. But without Jean he was nothing; so much of the man he had become was entangled in her.

Their talk from last night was still fresh in his memory and even though it should have settled him it had left him adrift, unable to pinpoint whether they were facing another series of endings or a beginnings.

It was terrifying how someone so close could feel so distant. And he had been the one to create that distance – he understood that clearly now. He needed to see Jean, to hold her. Perhaps that would settle his racing heart. But in the early morning it was impossible, the last thing he wanted to do was upset their fragile equilibrium by waking her.

Perhaps a walk would take the edge off his nightmares and help him clear his mind, and then when he returned they could sit down and talk things out in the light of day, and he could try and figure out if he was doing more harm than good again. Lately his life felt like a never ending series of apologies upon hurting someone – Jean, Matthew, Charlie. He was always realising too late. How long could that last before someone pushed him out entirely?

He stood from the bed with a groan, his tired joints aching in protest. He was getting old, and the walk would do him good. A walk and then breakfast.

And then Jean.

 


 

 

ii.

When he returned the house was quiet.

Matthew’s coffee cup was in the sink and the milk was in the fridge. All other signs of the Superintendent were gone, and Lucien guessed that he’d started the day early, eager to work through the case he refused to discuss at the dinner table.

Lucien’s dismissal was still a sore topic, and he’d learnt it was best to bypass Matthew entirely when he felt the need to ask questions, turning to Alice and Charlie instead. But even they were reticent to indulge his curiosity – Alice going so far as to lock him out of the morgue. Lucien would have been upset if he weren’t so impressed by her resolve.

He pulled a teacup from the cupboard and placed the kettle on the stove, leaving it to boil as he checked for signs of life down the hallway and in the study. Sometimes when Lucien was out early and the day was slow Jean liked to take her tea there to get a start on paperwork, but when Lucien glanced through the waiting room to the study it too was empty.

The rest of house was oddly still.

“Jean?” he called, the unsettled feeling from earlier lingering in his stomach.

Where on earth was she?

There was a sharp knock at the door and Lucien jumped. It was too early for patients or visitors, and it wasn’t a police knock. He opened the door with Jean’s name on his lips and was surprised to find Agnes Clasby on the other side, a deep emerald hat atop her head and a knowing smile on her face.

“Agnes,” he greeted warmly. “To what do I owe the pleasure? Not your blood pressure, I hope?”

She tutted. “Nonsense, young man. I’m here for you.”

“Me?” he frowned. That could many things, all of which sounded like they’d result in trouble. He ushered her inside. “How about a cuppa? In the kitchen?”

She gave him a strange look, and Lucien was once again reminded of the early hour. Had she only intended on greeting him at the door? Nonsense, he thought. Agnes would be here with only one reason, but she’d expect hospitality. When she didn’t offer further protest he led her down the hall.

“Here you go,” he murmured, settling the hot cup before her. She picked up a spoon and stirred her tea delicately, and Lucien found himself at a loss at what to say, eventually settling in the chair beside Agnes quietly.

“Are you certain you’re alright?” he asked eventually, watching as she sipped her tea. There was a slight shake in her hand.

“Of course,” she brushed off, “I wanted to check on you.”

“Oh?”

She reached across the table to pat the back of his hand, and Lucien found himself caught in her gaze. She was always tripping him up with small moments of affection. She’d blustered into the surgery the day after Lucien had first returned with sharp orders to straighten his tie and sober up so she and Nell could look at him properly. He’d felt like a schoolboy again, about to be dressed down by the matrons.

That had been Christmas time too.

“Are you celebrating?” Agnes asked, nodding towards the tree in the living room.

“Of course.”

“It’s a funny old time of year, Lucien,” she mused. Her gaze grew distant, focused on something far beyond the tree, so he waited for her to return. “Nell always preferred the holidays. I find the whole affair quite cumbersome, especially now.”

Now that she’s gone, he finished. He understood that – there were so many lost years and Christmases he had passed without marking the occasion – some he’d missed entirely in a blur of alcohol or the desperate need to move to the next puzzle or location. There were years he’d lost while he searched for Mei Lin and Li, time irrelevant as he tried to piece together what once had been, and the thought of acknowledging Christmas without them had been unbearable.

It had been the same after his mother died. Even when he’d returned home from school for the holidays it had been a quick church service followed by a silent Christmas dinner. The last time he and Thomas had truly celebrated Christmas had been before Genevieve died, and Lucien could remember how it felt to be snuggled into her side, watching the fire dance and pop around the yule log in the fireplace despite the summer heat; chocolate and brandy on his mother’s lips as she whispered Christmas stories to him before bedtime.

Agnes sighed, reaching out to squeeze Lucien’s hand and breaking them both from memories. “Christmas was Nell’s favourite time of year.”

“You know I can remember being a young boy, standing in this kitchen, no doubt bothering my mother as she and Nell tried to make Christmas pudding. Oh they made a right mess, I’m not sure the brandy ever made it to the pudding.”

Agnes laughed, and he knew he’d said the right thing. “You know your mother hated Christmas.”

“She did not,” Lucien frowned.

“Oh yes she did,” she countered. “She made an effort for you, of course, but Christmas in Australia was never up to Genevieve’s standards. She wanted fur coats and snow – and lights on the Eiffel Tower reflected on the river. Not humidity and Christmas ham. Oh don’t look surprised – your mother could be a right nightmare when she wanted to be Lucien, and Christmas set her right off.”

That did sound like his mother.

“Not that your father was much better. But they threw a Christmas party every year and that would always drag them into the holiday spirit”

Lucien smiled – he could remember those parties, his mother a blur of energy as she flitted between guests and Lucien slipping between fancy dresses and under tables to try and steal bites of food from the waiters. There was always music in the air; always the sharp pop of champagne, and Lucien would find a corner of the room to hide in and watch the adults as they grew increasingly tipsy before his father found him and ushered him to bed.

They were always throwing marvellous parties, his parents. All that had stopped with Genevieve’s death, Thomas unable to continue they life they had once led.

“It will be two years this Friday, won’t it?”

So that’s why she was here. Lucien busied himself straightening the tea cups and kettle on the table, but Agnes’s gaze was insistent. Eventually he nodded, “Yes, two years.”

“And where is Jean?”

Lucien paused, the unsettled feeling bubbling again. Where was Jean.

“She’s out I believe – errands to run. Or maybe she’s finally had enough of my antics,” he quipped.

But Agnes was having none of it. “Not everybody leaves, Lucien.”

He sighed. “She has before. With good reason.”

“And she may again, with good reason,” Agnes countered. As always her tone was sharp. “But to anticipate that, Lucien, to expect that of someone – well, you’ll drive yourself both mad if you’re always waiting for her to leave.”

He hung his head – how had she known?

“You forget, Lucien, that for all the people you have lost, very few have made the choice. Your mother, your daughter. Even your father in the end. They didn’t leave you, even though it feels that way. And Jean won’t leave you either – not unless you force her.”

“What if she should?” he asked. “What if no matter how much love exists between two people, they still do each other more harm than good?”

“Nonsense. Love isn’t a scale, Lucien. You don’t tip the balance. And despite your foolishness, I can’t imagine Jean ever seeing it that way. Now I assume she didn’t know about what was splashed across the newspapers lately, even though there are far more important issues to occupy the minds of journalists.”

He couldn’t meet her gaze, but nodded. Agnes hummed knowingly.

“You didn’t listen to her. You didn’t trust her to be part this?”

“It wasn’t like that exactly,” he tried to explain, but Agnes was too smart for weak protestations.

“It was exactly like that, Lucien. Sometimes you are so very like your parents. You’ve gone twenty years without relying on anyone – it’s made you arrogant and insular in many ways. But also lost, and lonely. There are few women in Ballarat as sharp as Jean – you don’t get to decide if you’re doing her more harm than good, only she can know that. All you can do is trust her to make her own decisions, and listen when she does.”

“What if I’m the wrong decision?” he asked. Wasn’t that what it always came down to? The wrong son for his father, the wrong father for Li.

“Nobody is wrong, Lucien. All love is about choosing to accept somebody. Anything more or less is nonsense. Your mother was fierce – a nightmare – but your father chose to love her fire alongside her heart. And your father could be a right bastard when he wanted to be, but he loved her more than anything. She chose that too. It doesn’t mean we don’t try and grow. But growth and change are two very different things, my boy. Don’t change yourself to fit the man you think Jean wants you to be – she loves you anyway. Just grow with her, Lucien.”

Agnes squeezed the back of his hand, and for a brief, wonderful moment Lucien could feel Nell and Genevieve between them.

Grow.

 


 

iii.

Lunchtime, and there was still no sign of Jean.

Lucien swept through the front door full of nervous energy, trying to piece together the clues from last night that may have led to her prolonged absence.

We all deserve a second chance, Lucien. Her words rattled around his brain. At the time they’d been a comfort – the weight of her hand in his own familiar; her soft skin under his lips. But now that it was day and Jean was nowhere to be found all Lucien could do was focus on the unspoken words between them. Everybody did deserve a second chance. But he’d had several hundred already.

Had that been a subtle way of telling him his chances were up?

He did trust Jean. And he knew she loved him. Love had never been their problem. It was all the other things – their quirks and baggage, their stubbornness and set ways. Everything between them had always been complicated, and they’d fallen so quickly from the haze of first love into engagement that sometimes Lucien felt like they’d missed three steps. Somewhere in between they should have learnt how to communicate.

He walked down the hallway to the kitchen and was startled to find Matthew and Alice at the table. He’d thought the house empty, but here they both were, quietly examining papers over tea. They glanced up at the same time and for a moment Lucien felt that he was intruding – had he interrupted something?

“I just came to show the Superintendent the latest pathology results,” Alice explained, standing from her seat as if to leave. Lucien waved at her to sit back down, and Alice obliged happily. Her tea was still steaming.

“I guess I can’t ask what the results are?” he prodded.

“You can ask but we won’t tell you.”

Alice smiled at Matthew’s sharp words and Lucien paused, surprised. Just how much had he missed in the haze of his own downfall? He’d been so caught up in himself he’d failed to see what was happening before him.

“Where’s Jean?” Matthew asked, closing the folder of papers.

Lucien frowned. “Out.”

But Alice was already speaking over him. “She’s at the primary school. Organising hampers for the Christmas drive.”

Lucien’s heart dropped. Of course.

Of course that’s what she was doing. She’d told him so herself.

He’d been a bloody fool.

Alice sipped at her tea and Matthew nodded in understanding, and Lucien tried to stop the thumping of his heart as the truth of the morning slotted into place.

All that energy spent thinking the worst and Jean had been out doing something, working to better the town. Lucien had always spent too much time caught in his own head, but this felt laughable. Of cause she was out helping people while he expected the worst.

“Are you okay, Lucien?” Alice asked. He blinked, glancing up at her. Alice and Matthew were watching him curiously.

Matthew frowned, and Lucien felt the shift as understanding hit him.

“Bloody hell Blake. You thought she up and left you?”

“Well no,” Lucien tried to protest. When everyone kept saying it out loud it sounded ridiculous.

Matthew stood from his chair and made his way around the table, clapping Lucien on the back with force.

“For once in your life just trust that someone else cares for you, would you?”

Lucien chuckled. “I’m trying.”

“There’s mail for you by the way,” Matthew said.

Lucien nodded, smiling as Matthew’s hand hovered at the small of Alice’s back as they left the kitchen.

 


 

iv.


Dear Lucien,

I’m not sure why I’m writing this letter. I’ve written to mum, and to Jack, and to Ruby’s parents. And at the end of that I felt like I should write to you too.

We’re staying in Adelaide for Christmas this year. Amelia is on the move and it’s too difficult to travel. She’s forever getting in places she shouldn’t be. I told mum we’d visit in the new year, and as always you’re both welcome to visit us in Adelaide. It would be nice to see you both.

I hope mum passed on my congratulations for the wedding. I know I’m not the most outgoing of people, but I hope you know that I am truly happy for you both.

When we were kids really young mum used to take us down by the lake to feed ducks. She’d tell us these stories about the lake and the birds, about fairies and pixies living under trees. How they’d come out at night to cause mischief. She said she got the stories from her mother, and her grandmother. And sometimes when things were really good, she’d leave little notes around the house and pretend it was fairies. Jack thought it was magic, and I used to ask mum if it was her, but she’d give me this smile we called it her magic smile.

There were so many bad things that happened when we were kids – even before the war. But as long as dad was there at the end of the day to listen to her, mum had that magic smile. I haven’t seen that smile in years, not until she met you.

We’ve spent so much time caught in the past with no magic I’d almost forgotten what it was like to face our future. But Amelia demands the future from all of us, whether we want to be there or not. And I don’t want my daughter to grow up not knowing the strength, and the kindness, and the love of this family. You’ve brought some of that back into mum’s life.

Mum doesn’t need any of us to tell her what to do, but I feel better knowing that she has someone to look after her, to love her. She deserves that.

Thank you, Lucien, and Merry Christmas.

Christopher.

Lucien placed the letter on the table, picking up the photo of Christopher, Jean and Amelia that had fallen from the envelope. He ran a finger across Jean’s face, his thumb brushing over her brilliant smile.

Magic.

In the photo Amelia was just a babe in her arms, but now she would be up walking and talking. Li had been rambunctious at that age; Lucien could still remember the weight of her in his arms as they wandered through the gardens.

But Christopher was right – the future demanded something more of them now. Matthew and Agnes had been right too.

Grow, she had said. Grow together; tangle your lives with love and hardship and trust.

Lucien stood from the table.

He knew what he had to do next.

 


 

v.

The school hall was buzzing with noise and movement, tables set up around the edges and down the middle and stacked with hampers and cans of food. Lucien paused at the door to watch the commotion around him, seeking out Jean’s head among the dozens.

There, across the room. Sunlight was beaming through the large glass windows and Jean’s smile was radiant as she talked to the other women. She nodded and then laughed in delight at something that had been said, and Lucien felt calm for the first time all day. She was absolutely beautiful.

He walked across the room, careful not to interrupt but eager to be near her. One of the school teachers approached with careful smile, and Lucien tried to look harmless. “Can I help you, doctor?”

“I’m here to help. What can I do?”

She hid her surprise well, only a slight rise of an eyebrow. Was he really that alarming?

“We need someone to help move boxes of tinned food in from the foyer – you look strong.”

“Excellent, point me in the right direction.”

The work was good. He quickly lost his jacket and rolled his sleeves to his elbows to ward off the heat, but it felt right to be doing something, his muscles pleased to be put to work. For half an hour he was lost in the rhythm of moving and unpacking boxes, chatting to the women around him about Christmas plans and learning the best way to glaze a ham. Jean’s would be better, he thought.

As if summoned, there was a tap at his shoulder,

He turned, and Jean’s smile greeted him. Magic. Christopher was right.

Her gaze narrowed. “What’s brought you here? Surely the local Christmas drive isn’t embroiled in murder.”

Was that really all people associated with him? But there was an edge of something merry to her voice, something carefree. Was she teasing him? He felt his cheeks blush.

“No murder, or scandal. Only tinned peas,” he replied, holding up the nearest can. “I wanted to help.”

Jean’s smile was radiant. “Thank you.”

“I’m at your service. We’re almost done with these boxes – what can I do next?”

“Well, you could start loading hampers into the trucks. Or help Audrey with recycling. Or you could come help me?”

As she spoke she nudged her hand against the back of his palm, and Lucien felt something warm bloom in his chest. He flicked his wrist around and tangled her fingers with his own. “You, please.”

He wanted to drag her into the back rooms of the hall and kiss at all the bright, brilliant parts of her smile until she was breathless; wanted to drag them far from the school and take her home to pour out his heart. But more than anything he wanted to be here, beside her.

Tangle your lives, trust your love.

Jean tugged at his hand to lead him across the room, refusing to let go.

 


 

 

vi.

Later that evening; after they’d packed the last of the hampers into the trucks to be driven across town; after Lucien had sat for tea and biscuits with the ladies and listened as they spoke stories in and over each other, tales of grandchildren and Christmas chaos and laughter and woe; after they’d come home and cooked dinner, and Lucien had lit the fireplace despite the warmth in the air so he could tell Jean about his mother burning the yule log; after all that Lucien sat before the fireplace with Jean curled tight in his arms.

With her head resting over his heart he could drift his fingers through her soft hair. It was the most they had held each other in weeks, and it felt right to be close to her.

“You seem different today,” murmured Jean. She rubbed her thumb back and forth over the collar of his shirt.

“I had a good talking to.”

“Oh?”

“From the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future”

Jean chuckled, and Lucien felt her warmth spread through his body.

“Alice is joining us for Christmas lunch. As is Bill Hobart. I think we’ll have to set another seat at the table. We’re collecting strays.’

“Good.”

Her voice had the soft, sleepy lilt Lucien adored.

“Next year we should go to Adelaide,” Jean murmured. “Or the year after, I don’t mind. Plenty of Christmas to come.”

Lucien pressed a kiss to the crown of her head, holding her tighter as she dozed.

“Sleep, love,” he whispered, smiling. “I’ll be here.”