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Memory is a Stranger

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Doctor MacMillan held the tiny light up to her eyes, moving it from one to the next and back again, noting the way her pupils responded.

“I don’t see any further signs of damage,” she explained to a worried Prudence Stanley and a teary Dot Williams.

“Clearly she isn’t right, though, Doctor!” Mrs. Stanley proclaimed.

Mac bit down on her teeth. “Could you follow me outside?”

Out in the corridor she continued, “I don’t think it’s helpful to say such things in front of her. As far as she knows, she’s fine. We should treat her as such and not try to force anything on her.”

“But she isn’t fine.”

“What I mean is, there’s nothing medically wrong with her. There are no signs of a concussion or anything more serious from the accident. Her memory seems to be the only casualty, and the brain works in mysterious ways. It will simply take time, but her memories should return to her. In the meantime, it’s best if we continue on as normal.”

Mrs. Stanley acquiesced and sighed. “I’ll take her home with me.”

“Actually, she needs to be amongst her own things right now. I’ve arranged for her to be transported back to Wardlow, accompanied by Dot. She will be in the constant care of her staff, and I’ll be checking in on her twice daily, and on call for any emergencies.”

Mrs. Stanley shook her head and grumbled something about modern medicine, but didn’t put up a fight.

“I’m sure she’d love for you to stop by for tea tomorrow.”

“I’ll do that,” she agreed, then made her way back to her driver.

Mac rolled her eyes and turned back to the room, where she could see Phryne still in the bed, looking more alert than she’d been the past two days. She pushed the door open to hear Dot saying, “...and then she’ll be home this weekend to see you.”

Phryne bounced slightly in the bed and clapped her hands together.

“Who’s visiting?” Mac asked Dot, wanting to make sure Phryne wasn’t exposed to more new people than necessary.

“She asked after Miss Jane.”

“Janey’s coming home this weekend,” Phryne infomed Mac excitedly.

Mac felt her stomach drop. She wasn’t entirely sure where Phryne’s memory lived at the moment, but this gave her a good clue.

“Er... Dot. Could you get Phryne ready to go? Bert and Cec are outside.”

“Yes, Doctor,” Dot agreed, then went about helping Phryne into her coat, hat, and shoes for the journey home.

After they got her settled into the car, Mac pulled Dot aside. “Dot, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but I don’t think it’s Jane that Phryne’s asking after. She’s looking for her sister.”

“Her sister? But she’s…”

“Yes, and we know that, but Phryne’s memory has some gaping holes in in right now. I think it would be best if we could avoid having to tell her the truth. Let’s say she’s off on an adventure if she asks again. We can stall with that indefinitely.”

“So she thinks she’s still a child?”

“She seems to know she’s an adult. But she definitely doesn’t remember anything after Janey’s death. It doesn’t make sense, but not much does in cases like these.”

“That’s why she doesn’t remember me?”

“Correct, but she won’t question you or Mr. Butler. I’ve told her you’ve both been hired to look after her.”

Dot nodded bravely.

“Where am I going, Mac?” Phryne asked, her head out the window.

“To a house. Your house. Dot and Mr. Butler and Bert & Cec have set it all up nicely for you.

“Lovely!” Phryne announced, not the least bit suspicious that all her affairs had been arranged for her and she was no longer living in the small, ramshackle apartment in Collingwood.

Mac turned back to Dot. “Call me immediately if anything seems concerning.”

Dot promised to do so and joined Miss Phryne in the car. “Let’s get you home, Miss.”

###

So far, Dot felt that the most abnormal behavior from Miss Phryne was the sheer amount of time she spent sleeping. She took a nap upon her arrival home yesterday, retired to bed early, and then slept in late, which was followed by another nap. However, she had shared her concern with the Doctor and Mac had chalked it up to her body’s need for recovery after the hard whack she had received to her head by one of Melbourne’s murderers. So it was no surprise that Miss Phryne was fast asleep at 3 o’clock in the afternoon when the Inspector knocked on the front door.

Dot led him into the parlor, where they sat side by side in the velvet armchairs.

“How is she?” Jack asked.

Dot took a deep breath. She was doing her best, but it was rather upsetting to see Miss Phryne lost within herself.

“She’s…” How could she describe it?

“Have you seen any improvements? Any changes?”

Dot shook her head. “She hasn’t done much though. Mostly she’s been sleeping.”

“Sleeping?” Jack asked with a grimace.

“Doctor Mac says her body is probably trying to heal itself. But she sleeps all the time. She’s sleeping right now.”

“Right… would you mind if I looked in on her?”

“Inspector, she doesn’t know you. She doesn’t remember anything after the age of fourteen.”

“Maybe I could be… your brother? Here for a visit?”

Dot relented. After all, she figured if anyone could get through to her, the Inspector could.

“She’s in her room.”

Jack made his way up the staircase he’d only journeyed up a couple of times in their entire acquaintance. And at least one of those times, he’d been knocked out by a nerve tonic.

He knocked on the door softly before pushing it open. The soft beam of light from the hall lit a dim path into her room, but he could see her clearly from where he stood, buried beneath the duvet on her bed.

“Miss Fisher?” he whispered into the space, not wanting to frighten her if she was on the edge of wakefulness. When no response or movement followed, he crossed the room to her.

It didn’t matter that she didn’t remember him. He hardly thought himself a memorable type, after all. But he still wanted to feel her warm and breathing. To know she was okay. He had nearly died himself when he saw the shadow appear behind her and heard the crunching sound of the the pipe making contact with the back of her head. She’d fallen to the ground instantly and he’d had to leave her there for the longest three minutes of his life as he apprehended the suspect and cuffed him to the backseat of his car.

When he returned for her, Phryne’s breathing was slow and shallow. He picked her up and carried her to the passenger seat of his car, not worrying one bit about the blood seeping into his upholstery. Then he’d rushed her to the hospital, to Mac, before bothering to call for backup and assistance with the criminal still detained in his backseat.

The thought of her cold and still, only days ago, still filled his body with fear. She was only human and it could have been much, much worse. He reached down and and placed his hand lightly on the top of the cover where he imagined her shoulder would be, needing to feel her breathing and alive.

When his hand melted into the blanket, never meeting anything as solid as a shoulder, he panicked, bile rising from his stomach. He yanked the duvet back to find a pile of feather pillows in her place.

Jack looked around the room frantically. Did she do this? Had she been taken? He saw no sign of her. “Phryne?” he called out. “Are you here?”

He looked under the bed and behind her bathing screen and checked the windows for any sign of damage. She was nowhere to be seen. He moved toward the closet in a last ditch effort to find her before he sounded the alarm to her household. His pulse hammered as he reached for the knob, willing her to be there.

At first glance there was nothing but rows upon rows of dresses and shoes. He brushed a few of the dresses aside, checking behind them and was about to give up when he saw one of the pairs of shoes slide a centimeter forward on their shelf below the dresses. He let out the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

“Phryne,” he whispered. “Can you come out of here?” Nothing. He reached in and gently pushed apart the section of dresses above the shoes and was met with two bright eyes full of determination and… fear.

He backed up immediately and held his hands up in surrender. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he promised. “We were worried when you weren’t in your bed.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “Are you a copper?”

Jack figured there was no good that could come from lying to any version of Phryne Fisher. “Yes, I am. A Detective Inspector.”

“Are you here to arrest him?”

“Who?”

“My father, of course.” She moved toward him, out from behind the clothes to the middle of the closet.

“I’m afraid he isn’t here,” Jack replied.

“He’ll be back,” Phryne assured him. “What do you have on him? Fighting? Gambling?”

“I -- uh. I am just here to make sure that you’re okay.” Jack backed out of the closet and into her bedroom, flicking on the light when he saw her following.

“What’d you hear?” she demanded. “He can’t hurt me. And I’d never let him hurt Janey, I swear. He doesn’t touch her.”

Jack widened his eyes at her response. He’d heard this type of defense before, from many kids he had come in contact with throughout his career. It was never a good sign. But this was Phryne and her father was in England and it wasn’t his place to pry into her childhood.

“I believe you, Phryne. May I ask why you were in the closet?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You won’t tell him, will you? When he returns?”

“I swear it.” Jack promises, using her own term back to her.

“It’s safest in there. If he can’t find us, he can’t… well, it’s just best if he doesn’t know where I am.”

“Won’t he think you’re sleeping? With this clever cover up?” He gestured toward the pile of pillows on the bed.

“He usually leaves me alone if I’m sleeping. I’m less bothersome unconscious,” she parrots as if it’s something she’s been told countless times.

Jack sucks in a breath at the easy way she says those words. “I can’t imagine you being bothersome at all.”

She grins at him. “I really can be, sometimes.”

Jack smiles back at seeing the spark behind her eyes. It’s the Phryne he knows, buried under all this pain. “Only when you want to be, I’m sure.”

“So… will you wait for him? I can’t guarantee he’ll be back today. But if you’ve got something on him, it’s the only way to catch him. How long will he’ll be locked away this time, do you think? More or less than a week?”

“Which would you prefer?”

She knit her eyebrows together in mock confusion as if it really should be obvious. “You can keep him forever, Inspector.”

“You’ll be all right here without him?”

“My mum will be back soon. She’s never gone as long as he is. And Janey too. They said she’s away this week on a school trip, but she’ll be back this weekend and it would be the best surprise ever if he wasn’t here for it.”

“I’ll see what I can do then.”

Her eyes brightened in genuine surprise this time. As if she’d never expected to be heard or receive help at all.

“In the meantime, would you go downstairs and keep Dot company? I’ll stand guard outside, so you have no need to pretend to sleep or hide in the closet.”

“For as long as it takes?”

“For as long as it takes. He won’t be coming back in this house.”

Phryne’s whole face lit up as she bounded out of her room and raced down the stairs toward her parlor. Jack took one moment to squeeze his eyes together tightly, holding back the tears, before he followed.

He stood guard where she could see him all throughout the night and into the morning. Then he created a timetable and assigned various constables to the task for the week following. He would have continued it indefinitely. Anything to give peace to this woman who had already fought and won it for herself. Anything for the woman he loved.

But it wasn’t necessary to continue. One morning as Hugh stood guard outside, she opened the door and asked what he was doing lingering there. She asked if he was waiting for Dot. Hugh stumbled over his words as he tried to make sense of it, but luckily that reaction was so common it wasn’t cause for suspicion. Phryne just rolled her eyes and pulled him inside where he asked if he could use the phone.

“Her memory is back, Sir!” he announced once she had left him alone in her entry.

Jack called Mac and they raced over to her home, needing to see for themselves. Phryne didn’t remember the accident or her memory loss whatsoever. And in the end she was only told the barest bones of the details.

Jack was glad for it. She had come so far. She had fought so hard. And it was wholly unfair that she should have to be reminded of all she had suffered and all she had lost. But he would never forget it. And next time he happened upon a case with a child who seemed fearful or defensive, he would stand guard. Not because they couldn’t fight for themselves, but because they shouldn’t have to.