Jack felt like someone had cut open his chest and yanked out his heart. His stomach was in his throat as he sat in the driver's seat of the car. His eyes had been glazed the whole drive over; he had no idea how he hadn’t—
He closed his eyes for a moment and swallowed with great effort, steeling himself to put on what he hoped was a neutral expression as he stepped out of the car. His steps were probably a bit mechanical, but it was the best he could do.
Collins started talking when he got near, saying something about how he knew it wasn’t their department, but how could Jack focus on responding appropriately when just beyond the constable was the car, smashed against a tree with its driver covered with a sheet? He waved off Collins’ inappropriately normal worries with a shake of his head and hand.
“I just want to see her,” he managed.
Collins’ unnecessary response of “She’s still in the vehicle, sir” was muffled in Jack’s ears. His chest squeezed as he approached the car. He stopped right next to the covered driver, stomach clenching at the sight of the blood seeping into the starkly white sheet. He lifted a hand to his mouth, eyes glued to the stain.
No. His mind strained to reject the situation for a moment. No. I won’t— I can’t—
Every self-preserving instinct in him told him not to pull back that sheet, just to refuse to accept it and drive far, far away from the tree and the car and the blood—but then he had the horrifying thought that this might be his last chance to see her, and he couldn’t give that away. Every moment with her was precious to him.
He took off his hat, holding it in his hands for a moment before setting it behind the covered driver. He pursed his lips hard to stop the trembling of his chin and the burning in his eyes, and reached to pull back the stained sheet.
And there she was, ruby lips and round cheeks and short black hair and too-pale skin and blood, dripping dark and thick from the wound on her head and Jack couldn’t breathe. Bile leaped up his throat. He shook his head in almost imperceptibly small movements, pleading in between gasping breaths.
“No, no, no, please Phryne, no...” He’d started out whispering, but his voice broke as he started to sob and his words burst into full volume. Her absence sliced through his chest like a red-hot knife.
“No, no, no...” His desperate cries sounded far away. He stumbled backwards and dropped the sheet so it fell partially over her, a new blossom of blood appearing on it as it smeared and soaked up the drops on Phryne’s forehead. The horrid color swam across his vision, mixing with hot tears and too-pale cream and deep, empty black as another bout of nausea engulfed him; his hand landed with a smack on the hood of the car as he reached to steady himself and—
Jack’s eyes snapped open to the dark of his room and his stomach rolled. He kicked the damp sheets away from his body and quickly fumbled his way to the bathroom, where he crumpled to the floor, his hands found the sides of the toilet and he started to retch.
The whiskey he’d drunk at the station that night forced its way back up his throat until all that came up was acid, burning his throat raw. A clammy sweat clung to his smalls and undershirt as his muscles quivered and hot tears squeezed from his tightly shut eyes.
After a few minutes, body too thoroughly exhausted to continue, Jack spat into the toilet one more time and flushed it. He moved to lean his back on the wall and took in a deep, shuddering breath. As soon as he allowed his eyes to close, the image of a bloodied and ashen Phryne appeared again in his mind and in that moment, he decided in his delirium to simply avoid sleeping for as long as he could.
And so he sat there on the cold floor into the hours of early morning, too tired to move but knowing sleep would just lure him back to the horror of what almost was—and even worse, what could still be, someday.
Walking into the station the next morning, Jack felt like a zombie. He’d slept for maybe four hours total before the dream, and spent the remainder of the very early morning on the cold, hard floor of the bathroom, trying to focus on the foul lingering taste of stomach acid in his mouth rather than the image that had brought it there. He’d been more afraid to fall asleep than he’d been since he shared a bed with Rosie, when sleep just brought him back to the trenches in France.
He’d gone through the motions; he’d bathed, brushed his teeth, tamed his hair, and donned his suit, coat, and hat, taking some small comfort in the familiarity of his armor despite the way everything had changed so quickly. His chest was heavy with grief, fear, and dread as he made his way out of his modest home and towards the station.
Everything felt all wrong. But there was still a case to be solved.