Despite the fact that he hadn’t yet decided what he was going to do, Jack Robinson had driven to Phryne Fisher’s house without even thinking about it. It was the end of the case. He was supposed to be here, having their usual drink.
He had waited in the station as long as he could, determined to let the clock run until it was too late for him to go over, so he wouldn’t have to make this decision. But eventually habit took over, and he couldn’t stop himself until he was right outside of her door, already having knocked.
Immediately, there was a part of him that wanted to do the childish thing—sprint back to the car or hide behind bushes. Let Mr. Butler think it was some prankster knocking on doors and running away. But no, he was an adult. He’d been so utterly miserable the past few days; he had to make a decision, or he would stay this way for the rest of his life.
Mr. Butler opened the door and, if he could see the anguish on Jack’s face, he didn’t let on, other than the fact that he didn’t make any move to take Jack’s coat. Only the usual, “Good evening, Inspector.“ Jack wanted to ask him what to do. What do you do when you’ve spent four days mourning the death of someone you knew wasn’t dead? How do you make that pain stop?
Phryne turned her glowing smile to him and set aside her book. “Jack, I was beginning to give up hope.” She got up, that energy she always seemed to be full of brimming over. He could almost feel it spill onto him as she swished past him with a “Whiskey?”
Hat in hand, he didn’t know if he’d ever felt this impotent before. He still, STILL, didn’t know what to do, and he needed to decide in this instant. Once she was back, looking at him with those sparkling eyes, he wouldn’t be able to think clearly.
But even without her gaze, he couldn’t think clearly. That was the problem. He hadn’t been able to think clearly for months now because she had slowly invaded first his mind, and then... well, that was the real problem, wasn’t it?
He hadn’t known until that seemingly endless drive to the accident a few days ago (had it only been days? It felt like weeks.) that he—no, he couldn’t get himself to say it, even in his own head. The idea that she wasn’t in this world anymore had made him want to crawl under his desk and never leave. He wanted to turn around and go back, as far in the other direction as he could, because if he never saw her, it would never be true.
He hadn’t felt this since the war. Not even in any of the worst moments with Rosie. Every time they didn’t get pregnant, the moment he realized she didn’t love him, the moment he realized he didn’t love her, the day she moved out, the hour they decided to get a divorce. Even all added up together, it would never touch this.
He had known he had feelings for Phryne before then. Had let himself acknowledge that he wanted her the day he got his divorce. Had admitted just how much he wanted her when she gave the damn fan dance. Had realized he wanted to be with her, not just sexually, at the football game after their last case, when he hadn’t been able to control the impulse to throw his scarf around her neck and pull her toward him. But that was just caring about her. Now he knew that what he felt was—
Terrifying. But could he really give her up? This routine that had slipped into place over the past year. He glanced around the parlor. Could this really be the last time he saw it?
He looked back over at her. He was still wearing his coat. Somewhere, subconsciously, he had known that he wouldn’t be sitting down. They weren’t going to do their post-case routine.
She brought the whiskey over to him and his hand jerked away. That was his final answer. If his mind couldn’t decide, his body had.
“Uh, no.” He wished he could be a little more coherent, but she was standing too close for that.
She slowly walked the glass over to the table, giving a tiny shrug as if convincing herself that she didn’t care. Or was he just projecting his own feelings onto her? She set down the glass and turned back to him.
“You’re not indulging tonight?” And they both knew she wasn’t asking about the whiskey.
He didn’t know how to form the words to answer that question quite yet, so he instead pulled her burnt stocking out of his pocket. “I came to return something of yours, you left in my car.”
She forced a look of confusion onto her face. This, he didn’t think he was projecting. She was trying to pretend this was a normal conversation. This was about the stocking. “You didn’t wash it?”
“I didn’t see much point. The exhaust pipe burned right through it.” He didn’t want to be having this conversation, he realized. He just wanted to say his piece and get out. This room felt like it was choking him. Her presence felt like it was choking him.
She smiled, this time a natural expression. That coy smile that always spelled trouble for him, that he always loved seeing regardless. “It was only a small delay.”
He tried to ignore that feeling he got from that smile. “Engineered, by you, once again, to your own advantage.” He was trying to convince himself that there was a bigger reason that he needed her out of her life. He wasn’t leaving because his heart wasn’t strong enough. It wasn’t because of fear. It was because of her, the self-serving nuisance she could be.
“I know we have some minor points of contention, Jack, but we enjoy uncovering the truth together, don’t we?” Her voice and expression were light again. She was clearly convinced that she knew what his strange behavior during this case had been about. She thought she could solve this.
But no. No matter how actively he tried to convince himself otherwise, he would gladly put up with everything about Phryne that frustrated him. Honestly, he loved doing so. But he couldn’t. He could be brave in war and brave at work, but he couldn’t be brave when it came to his feelings.
“Therein lies the problem.”
As soon as his words came out, he knew there was no turning back. Again, he felt that need to get through this conversation as quickly as he could. He didn’t care what he said, he didn’t care if he admitted his feelings for her, if he yelled or cried. He just wanted to hide from this. Be done with it.
He tried to look at her, but he couldn’t—his gaze immediately slipped to a different direction when he tried, as if their eyes were opposing magnets.
“What do you mean?” He hadn’t seen that look on her face often, genuine confusion. She honestly didn’t see this coming.
“When I thought it was you, in that wreckage...” He held her eye contact this time, hoping she could somehow see in his gaze what that had felt like. So she would understand. He ignored the fact that he knew that even if she felt his exact feelings, she would never make the same choice. She would never be as afraid as he was. For a moment, he lost his words.
When he finished this sentence, was she going to know how much he cared about her? He had just told himself that he didn’t care, but of course he did. Just like he cared that he would never drink that glass of whiskey on the table or be greeted by Mr. Butler again. His gaze dropped to his feet.
“... I found it unbearable.” He tried to make it sound as casual as possible, keeping emotion out of his voice. As if that would prevent her from seeing why it was so unbearable to him.
“Sounds serious.” Was she acknowledging that this was a serious situation? That it would have a serious impact on their relationship? Or was she talking about his feelings for her?
No matter what, it was the same answer. “It is.”
“I am who I am, Jack. I can’t give that up.” Her voice was strong and steady now. This was the Phryne Fisher who put her stocking in his tailpipe. She knew the right thing, to her mind, and wouldn’t back down from it.
“I’m not asking you to give it up.” It was the first reply in their conversation that came right after the other person had finished. Because there was no question here. He was almost offended. As if he would ever want her to change. As if she could ever think that he would want that. He needed her to never give up who she was. “I would never ask you to do that.” Whether he ever saw her again or not, he needed her to exist as she was because she was the best thing this world had ever had. Her sometimes infuriating presence in his life would always be the thing that had mattered most to him.
“So you’re... giving up me instead.” Her answer started out strong, making sure she understood. But it ended on a question, on disbelief. How could he do this? He had to look away.
“What we do best, us, together...” We, us, together. They all would have sent tingles down his spine just five days ago. “...you’d sacrifice that?”
Because I love you too much. He looked at her. He had to look at her. He’d always thought that sentiment was ridiculous. But four days ago, the moment he had realized she wasn’t dead, he had finally understood it. He loved her too much to be around her. He felt himself nod, maybe just to himself.
“If you did that, Jack, I would feel--“ Please don’t finish that sentence. Whatever you’re going to say, please don’t. This is already too hard.
“--I would feel like it was you lying in that wreckage.” He hadn’t realized how much she would care. Of course, she had invited him up for the nightcap after the fashion show, a clear invitation for something more. And she had smiled back at him when he held that scarf around her neck. He knew he meant something to her. But he could count on one hand (just two fingers, actually) the number of times he had seen her cry before. He had never realized their partnership meant that much to her, and he wished he had never realized it. How was he supposed to walk away now?
“Please, can you think about that?”
I can’t. I’m not as strong as you. I can’t feel you die again. But how could he say that?
“I will.” He tried to look at her and nod, but he barely managed, courage failing him. He didn’t want to see her for the last time.
He immediately turned and headed out the door, trying not to think about the woman he’d left behind, the parlor he’d never see again, or the two full whiskey glasses sitting untouched on the table.