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The Sticking Place

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“Miss Fisher, I'm not sure I have your full attention.” Dr. Elizabeth Macmillan capped her pen and set it down on a small metal table in her examining room, before turning back to Phryne.

Phryne stood at the grated window, arms crossed over her chest, hand fiddling absentmindedly with the end of her flame-coloured scarf. There was a crease in the centre of her forehead, and she showed no signs of having heard Mac's words.

“Phryne!”

“Hmm? Mac. I'm sorry. Miles away I suppose.” Phryne's voice was smaller and thinner than usual, and Mac, never one to to dance around an issue, decided it was time for frankness.

“Alright, what on earth is going on? You're practically pining.”

That was enough to rouse Phryne from her stupor, it seemed. Her hands dropped to her sides, and she spun to face her friend.

“I DO NOT pine! You're being completely ridiculous.” She paused. “I was just thinking, that's all.”

“Mmhmm. Of course.” Mac busied herself for a few moments stacking the files currently spread on her examining table, files which she and a certain lady detective were supposed to be reviewing for the case of poor Professor Katz.

Mac's hands quieted, and she let out a breath.

“Phryne, darling, I have known you forever. I have seen you through every imaginable situation and several no one in their right mind could have imagined. You are the cleverest woman I know, present company excepted, of course...”

Neither woman could suppress a slight grin.

“But this whole thing with our dear Inspector Robinson is most certainly new territory.”

Phryne was maddeningly aware that a flush had begun to rise from her chest to her cheeks. How dare Mac insinuate... and how dare her own body betray her in such a common way! She allowed no more than a beat to go by before rallying her familiar resources of pride and determination, and plunged forward with as much conviction as she could muster. (The fact that it was not nearly as much conviction as she had planned, or expected, was a terrifying thing, and one she would find haunting in quiet moments.)

“Jack Robinson, as you so well captured, is a coward. He panicked when he thought I'd been hurt - ”

“Killed,” interjected Mac.

“Fine, killed. It was a shock and he panicked. And now he's being ridiculous. He's trying to save face, and teach me a lesson or some such thing, and it's a terrific waste of time! He knows full well his life is much more difficult without my help. I may not be much for rules, but we do excellent work together!”

Phryne huffed a few quick, steadying breaths, and when she spoke again, it was quieter.

“He knows I am who I am and will not change for anyone. He knows I'm going to keep driving too fast and scaling buildings and he'll just have to get past it.” She played once again with the tail of her scarf. “He's just sore, but he'll come around.”

Mac walked around from behind her table, and opened the bottom drawer of the desk in the corner of the room. She removed two plain tumblers, and what appeared to be a very expensive bottle of Scotch. She uncorked it and poured two generous fingers into each glass. She straightened, handing one glass to Phryne before leaning back against her desk.

“You are a fool.”

She kept her eyes on the amber liquid in her own glass, but saw Phryne's head snap up and felt the ferocity in her clear eyes.

“Jack Robinson is in love with you.”

When Phryne spoke, all the fire had left her voice. “He only thinks he is, Mac.”

“What's the difference?”

Phryne laughed a quick hollow sound. “Want is not the same as love. Whatever that is.”

“How do you know he wants you, then?” Mac looked at her friend now, searching her face for answers Phryne herself couldn't say.

“I do know something about want, darling,” said Phryne, a gentle teasing tone back in her voice. “I know that look.”

“Oh yes? And how often has your Jack Robinson accepted your.... invitations? How often has he availed himself of the earthier delights of Miss Phryne Fisher, in spite of all of your considerable efforts in that arena?”

Phryne's mouth opened imperceptibly, and she was flooded with a thousand fleeting images: first, of course, the shocking kiss, but then hours and days and months of her hand on his arm and tiny curled smiles, of fingers barely touching over passed glasses of whisky, of sitting shoulder to shoulder at footie matches, or thigh to thigh on her velvet chaise, of the overwhelming intensity of just meeting his eyes.

“You've never done anything, Phryne, with Jack, have you?”

Phryne's eyes were hidden behind her lowered lashes.

“Darling,” Mac said, her voice gentle, “why do you suppose that is? I don't remember you ever delaying your own pleasure for a day, much less a year. And don't bother denying that you desire him, because I'm not that stupid. God woman, you could torch a small town with the looks that pass between the two of you. It's downright uncomfortable for the rest of us.”

“He rejected me, Mac.” There was a long pause. “He thinks my antics are too much trouble.”

“Phryne, his heart was on the floor.” Mac had never pulled punches with her friend before, and she sure as heck wasn't about to start now. “And I'm fairly sure he believed it was only ever going to be stomped on repeatedly from this point, so he did what any self-respecting mammal would do, and tried to run from pain.”

Phryne's blue eyes swept up to meet Mac's. “I would never....” She trailed off, unable to finish her thought.

“Hurt him?” Mac leaned forward with her elbows on her knees, cradling her drink in both hands. “No?”

“You know it isn't that simple,” Phryne said softly.

“No, it isn't. This isn't about your driving, or your cavalier attitude to Victorian law. He is in love with you. And astonishing as it may seem, he knows you, understands you, ACCEPTS you, and wants nothing but the best life for you. But if he can't be in your life the way he needs to be, perhaps it's better if you aren't in his, either.”

Suddenly, Phryne's eyes were full of tears as she looked down at her friend.

“I can't lose him, Mac.”

Phryne spoke the words, barely above a whisper, and Mac noticed her hand trembled as it held her untouched glass.

Him. Jack. She could love and leave armies of beautiful boys and magnificent men, and this one man, who had never even shared her bed, was undoing her.

“I know.”

“I don't know what to do.”

“Phryne, maybe this feels different because it is different. Maybe you don't need to pull all the strings. Maybe the daring Miss Fisher can be both daring and brave.”

Phryne wrapped both hands around the tumbler and raise the glass to her red lips. Instead of drinking, though, she closed her eyes and inhaled slowly, letting the heady perfume of the whisky sink into her bones. It smelled like cool evenings and leather, of games of draughts, of pomade, and the fireplace in her parlour. And Jack.

Pausing a moment, she let the contents of the glass slip down her throat and felt the warmth reach every cell in her body.

She could be brave, couldn't she? She could try, for him.

Outside the office of Dr. Elizabeth Macmillan, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson slowly raised his head from where it had come to rest on the cool wall of the corridor. His long fingers still clutched the brim of his fedora. He had been steeling himself to enter the room, files in hand, when he heard the two women's voices, and to his shame, he'd been frozen to the spot.

Now, he felt his heart beating out of his chest for a reason other than the fear of being seen.

She cared for him. Phryne Fisher cared for him.

And that knowledge, it turned out, was enough.