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The Proper Care Of Foxes

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    when I have seen you I have waked and slipped from the calendars

from the creeds of difference and the contradictions

    that were my life and all the crumbling fabrications

as long as it lasted until something that we were

    had ended when you are no longer anything

let me catch sight of you again going over the wall

    and before the garden is extinct and the woods are figures

guttering on a screen let my words find their own

       places in the silence after the animals

- from Vixen by W. S. Merwin

 

Jack is cycling when he sees the fox in the road. It’s late in the day and he’s almost at Collingwood; he’ll have to turn around soon, or he won’t make it back to Abbotsford in time for dinner and Mum will box his ears. But he doesn’t want to stop, loves the sweet strain in his calves as he pedals, the wind streaming through his curls. He is a bird on the wing.

 

He almost doesn’t see the fox until he’s upon it. He throws himself sharply to the left, hears the brakes scream, feels the grit of the road tear across his palms. 

 

The fox hasn’t moved. It is a red fox, a small one, little more than a kit. Its nose twitches as they stare at one another. Then he sees it: not one tail but nine, rising slowly into the air.

 

“Hello,” says Jack. 

 

The fox is beautiful. He should be thinking of teeth and claws and rabies - every child in Australia knows this of the wildness in their lives that finds them, that "don't bite me" is nearly always met with "I'll bite you" - but he reaches for it on instinct, puts his hand out to give it his scent.

 

The fox creeps forward. It lowers its nose to the tips of his fingers. Then it licks, quite suddenly, the bleeding scrape on his palm.

 

There’s a high yip from off the road. Jack glimpses another fox, a smaller one, crouched in the brush. It yips again, a frightened warning. Jack’s fox turns tail and darts after it. The brush takes them back as if they had never been.

 

Jack gets up and knocks the dust off himself. Time to turn back, he thinks.

 

Back home, Mum fusses about the state of his clothes and dabs iodine on his skinned knees. 

 

“I saw a fox,” he tells his father. “It had nine tails.”

 

“That fall’s knocked his brains loose,” his father tells his mother.

 

“What pests those foxes are,” says his mother. “They ought to be shot, or we’ll be eaten out of house and home.”

 

Jack is a bird, a bad bird. He falls off things. He stares at his hands. The one the fox licked has almost healed. 

 

*

 

“You are fox spirit,” says Granny Lin. “Fox spirit take man property and waste it.”

 

Phryne feels her hackles rise. She will never not fear discovery; it was drilled into her and Janey from when they were kits. Yet there is a thrill to it, to be so named. And so she looks Granny Lin in the eye, smiles with all her teeth and says in perfect Mandarin: “And what are you going to do about it?”

 

Granny Lin switches to Mandarin too. “I will curse you to your dying day, be that in a thousand years or tomorrow.”

 

“A lot of effort to free your grandson from a woman who does not plan to keep him,” says Phryne. “I would not worry; he has more...property, as you say, than I can exhaust. A most vigorous man.”

 

Granny Lin throws her a look of pure disgust. Perhaps she does have some shaman in her bloodline. Then she spits, abruptly and accurately, on the kitchen floor between Phryne’s toes.

 

“Miss!” cries Dot.

 

“Go slowly,” Phryne calls after Granny Lin as she stalks off down the back way. “Fox spirit,” she says in amused English to Dot, who is wringing her hands. “I like the sound of that.”

 

*

 

Her nose leads her to the little pink packets in the cabinet. The scent is too sharp for her and leaves her reeling; she’ll remember what it is in a second, she just needs time. She is tucking one into her purse when she scents the men coming up the stairs. One is the nervous young policeman she fobbed off in the hall; the other is new, ink and gunmetal and beneath that something else, something that tugs at the tangle of scent memories in the back of her skull. She’ll remember it in a second. She opens the door and there he is. 

 

Phryne is a predator by nature. She knows another hunter when she sees one. This man is a hunter of other men, and the thought of it thrills her more than it should. Foxes hunt alone, but she has always had a very human predilection for company. 

 

“I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher,” says the hunter, who gives his name as Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.

 

Where’s the fun in that?  thinks Phryne. She likes best to hunt the hunters. They never see it coming.

 

*

 

Growing up, they had so many rules. Never hunt livestock, nothing bigger than a rabbit. Never show your tails. Never shift in front of a stranger. Phryne was heedless as a kit, raced wild over sand and scrubland, Janey on her heels. She fought dingoes and raided coops. She lived for the music of running over the hills, of grass and stars and the beating of hearts in flight. Their mother despaired. 

 

It was Aunt Prudence who took them, as children, to the fence in Ballarat, the whole length of it hung with the bodies of foxes shot and strung up by their snouts. Janey was sick. “That’s what happens to careless foxes,” Aunt P informed them, stentorian. Though they were but poor relations, she took a keen interest in their welfare, fox spirits being matrilineal and she herself having only sons. As long as Phryne had known her aunt, she had never seen the fox emerge in the woman, so sunken she was in her human self.

 

Still Phryne was fearless. Then Janey disappeared.

 

They said Murdoch Foyle was a Sinologist, that he was obsessed with the cultures of the Far East and had spent years in China, Japan and Korea. They hinted, but did not explain, the dark things he had done there. He believed that eating a fox spirit would grant him immortality. Nobody told Phryne this; she would glean it herself after years and years, dreaming at night of setting her teeth in Foyle’s throat, of the gush of blood when she ripped out his windpipe.

 

But the law has caught him and caged him, and that is a worse fate. So Phryne tells herself as she watches them lead him, shackled, before her.

 

“I’ll find out what you did to her,” she says. “I’ll let them hang you.”

 

“Oh, Miss Fisher,” says Foyle, his hooded gaze full of a pity that makes her want to hiss. “How will you do that, when you can’t even let them know what you are?”

 

*

 

“Where did you learn to speak Mandarin so well?” Lin asks her one night after their exertions. 

 

“In Shanghai,” says Phryne. “After the war. I wanted to see the Far East.” To see others like me, she does not say: she has often wondered herself if there wasn’t a little Chinese in her bloodline, carried over in the last century on a ship headed for the gold rush or, more likely, in a cage, brought by a settler who wanted something wild to hunt in the new continent. 

 

Phryne learnt her Mandarin from a Shanghai belle named Su Wenli, who also taught her how to recognise the cut of a good qipao and obligingly read to her, in translation over many summer nights, The Investiture Of The Gods - chiefly the parts about Daji, the wickedest, wiliest fox spirit under the heavens, who had seduced a king and brought down a whole dynasty.

 

“There’s a minister who’s on to her. She throws a banquet, you see, and invites all the other fox spirits to come entertain the king, but they get drunk and when that happens, their tails come out.”

 

“I see they couldn’t hold their liquor back in the day.” Phryne drank hard and drank often; it would take a dozen glasses before she would lose enough control to expose herself like that.

 

“You haven’t seen the Chinese drink.” Wenli, when she shifted, was a snow fox, whiter than a blank thought, her tails the sleekest things Phryne had ever seen. “So the minister follows them back to their den, and while they’re sleeping, his men kill them all. They stitch the pelts into a cloak for the king.”

 

Phryne shivered. “And what does Daji do?”

 

“She takes to her bed.” Wenli stretched out languorously on her own. “She feigns a great sickness. She says the only way she’ll recover is if she eats a rare heart, that kind that only one person at court has.”

 

“The minister.”

 

Wenli snapped her fingers. “At once the king has him summoned and asks him for his heart. The minister’s no fool; he has a spell ready. He cuts out his heart there and then and hands it to the king without spilling a drop of blood. Then he walks out of the court without looking back. 

 

“On his way home, he hears a vegetable seller calling: ‘Cheap cabbages without stems! Cheap cabbages without stems!’ His curiosity gets the better of him; he turns around and asks: ‘How can a cabbage have no stem?’ She replies: ‘A cabbage can grow without a stem no more than a man can live without a heart.’ And that’s the spell broken; the minister falls down dead.”

 

“Bit of a rubbish spell,” said Phryne. “Undone by cabbages.”

 

“It’s all about the belief. He believed he didn’t need a heart, so he didn’t, until he was reminded that he did.”

 

“No wonder we foxes have such a dreadful reputation in China.”

 

“You should see what our Korean sisters get up to.” Wenli shuddered. “Horribly messy - no fun in that. I like my men intact, thank you.”

 

“You’ve taken a few hearts in your time.”

 

“And you many more.” Wenli put the book down and got up to open the windows; Shanghai was stifling in summer, even at night. “But what do men know of the hearts of fox spirits?”

 

“Don’t speak of it,” quipped Phryne. “If I think upon it too much, I may fall down dead.”

 

She never means to take hearts. Unlike Daji, she has no taste for them. But she gets careless, she does, and the next thing she knows, she’s got one dripping in her hands. 

 

She thinks that is what is happening now. It’s a pity; she will miss Lin in her bed. She’ll have to give him back his heart soon, before he starts asking for hers. He doesn’t know there isn’t one to give. 

 

*

 

She takes things from them, the men. Nothing so crude as “property”, or whatever Granny Lin called it - not qi or ki or gi. Only little things, just to taste. From Sasha, she takes the memory of his sister spinning on the stage of the Paris Opéra, the slightness of her in his arms as he lowers her into a perfect fish dive. From Lin, the taste of the double-boiled soup his grandmother made for him when he was a boy, scraping together the ingredients from her precious hoard of dried roots and herbs, brought across the sea from the mountain province she still thinks of as home. She takes many things from René, none of which prepares her for what he takes from her.

 

When Jack kisses her in Cafe Réplique, she does not see it coming. She is rolling the last memory she took from René on her tongue - of the first time he laid eyes on her, the fierce rush of a sensation she thought then was love but should have recognised as the desire for a rare creature to pin and skin. She swallows it in shock when Jack turns her mouth to his. The kiss is a window onto a hidden place, so deep and dark she cannot begin to fathom it. The world around her gutters like a candle in the wind. 

 

There are other things that happen afterwards: almost being shot by René, shooting René, watching René die at her feet. It is only much later that she is able to revisit the kiss and what it brought upon her. And he did not even mean it, he says. The nerve of him.

 

“You kissed me back,” he reminds her.

 

Phryne leans in, all the better to catch the warm, dark scent of him. “And I’m not here to apologise.”

 

He is so close she can almost taste him. And just as swiftly, he pulls out of her reach. In the secret of her mouth, Phryne runs her tongue along the edges of her teeth. The hunt is on.

 

*

 

Dot is quiet, but little escapes her. “Miss Fisher,” she asks, “why do we have a cat flap in the back door, when we have no cat?”

 

“We might get one someday,” says Phryne, “and then we’d be sorry we didn’t have a flap to begin with.”

 

Dot clearly finds this dubious, but she absorbs it like all the other fibs Phryne has told her, the better to keep her conscience elastic.

 

Phryne doesn’t go out in the city as a fox often - even she would not make light of the danger - but some nights she feels ready to claw off her gilded human skin, and then she takes off running. She keeps to the shadows, deeper within darkness. 

 

The house is dark when she comes back through the cat flap, but as she slinks through the kitchen, the light comes on and Dot gives a little shriek.

 

“How’d you get in?” she gasps. “Oh, the flap. I told Miss Fisher - ”

 

Phryne sits back on her haunches and watches her flutter.

 

“You’d best be off,” Dot tells her, attempting sternness. “If Mr Butler finds you in the kitchen, he’ll be cross.”

 

Phryne contemplates leaving and coming back later, when she is quite certain everyone is in bed. But something makes her sit where she is, breathing in Dot - lemon zest from the pound cake she made today, freshly laundered cotton, a speck of blood on her thumb where she pricked herself darning. 

 

Dot swallows, looks at the cat flap, looks at the fox.

 

“I’m going to go to bed now,” she says slowly and carefully. “Please don’t upset any of Mr Butler’s food bins.”

 

In the morning, Dot hands Phryne her toast and letters and says: “I saw a fox in the kitchen last night.”

 

Phryne takes a nonchalant sip of tea. “Did you now?”

 

“It must have come in through the cat flap,” says Dot. “Bold as anything. It gave me quite a fright.”

 

“What did you do?”

 

“Nothing, miss. I hoped it would go home on its own.”

 

Dot always reminds Phryne of a rabbit, something that she by nature would pounce on and tear at - and yet Dot inspires none of those feelings in Phryne, who thinks she would kill anyone who tried to lay a finger on her companion. In any case, rabbits are flighty and Dot is steadfast as a pole star.

 

“Most people would call them vermin, foxes.”

 

“Not me, miss.” Dot contemplates her over a slice of buttered toast. “They’re God’s creatures, after all.”

 

*

 

“It wasn’t Mac,” repeats Phryne desperately. “Someone else tampered with the vial.”

 

“And how, pray, do you know this?” demands Jack. “Is it more of that feminine intuition you keep bringing to bear?”

 

Phryne wants to shake him. She can’t say that she scented it on the vial, a third scent that wasn’t Mac’s or Gaskin’s. She’ll need cold hard evidence. She’ll need to sniff every damn person in that factory until she picks it up again, and even then she’ll still have to find a bit of proof that she can brandish in Jack’s face. She feels the rage lengthening her teeth, and gnashes them hard to make them stop.

 

Jack, brow furrowed, offers her a handkerchief. “You’re bleeding, Miss Fisher.”

 

“I bit my tongue,” Phryne tells him through gritted teeth. “That’s how infuriating you’re being right now.”

 

“I’m so sorry,” she says to Mac later in the lockup. “I know it wasn’t you, but I can’t tell him how I know.”

 

“You’ve got to be careful,” says Mac. Trust her to be sitting behind bars under suspicion of murder when a woman she cared for is dead, and still be conscious of Phryne’s welfare. “You’re solving far too many cases together, he’s bound to notice that some of the things you pick up go beyond cleverness. And then what do you think he’ll do?”

 

Phryne tries to imagine Jack turning on her, loosing his revulsion upon her true self like a pack of hounds. “He won’t figure it out.”

 

“He’s not stupid, your inspector,” says Mac, “and I don’t say this about many men at all. Be careful, Phryne. We can’t all have our secrets hanging out now.”

 

Phryne laughs, hollow. “How long have you known me?”

 

Mac sighs. “Too bloody long.”

 

*

 

She has run so far and she is so tired. The wound is leaking badly. She knows she cannot stop, that even in the golden fields of Péronne she is not safe until she has crossed Allied lines, that there are dogs in the woods and they will have her scent. She could have lived to be a hundred, she could have lived to be a thousand, but she will die here in France far from home with a German bullet in her gut and a message clenched between her teeth that will never be delivered.

 

Then she sees it, the medical outpost, and a woman steps out, lighting a cigarette. She is wearing a doctor’s coat and her russet hair catches the French sun like the fur of a fox. And Phryne knows this woman is the last chance she will ever have, and she breaks the last rule her mother laid upon her and shifts.

 

“Jesus Christ,” says the doctor, as one might do if a naked woman clutching at a stomach wound ran out of the woods on one’s smoke break.

 

“Help me,” gasps Phryne, and keels over.

 

When she comes to after hours? days? the woman is there, inspecting the dressing under her ribs. 

 

“The message,” croaks Phryne. 

 

The woman spares her a glance. “It’s been passed on to Command. You’re lucky I even knew what it was. Drink; you were extremely dehydrated when you got here.”

 

Phryne reaches down to touch her wound. The doctor smacks her hand away.

 

“That’s healed faster than it had any earthly reason to,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean you should go poking at it with your filthy fingers. What’s your name?”

 

Phryne’s throat is stoppered, and not just from thirst. All she can think of is the fence of dead foxes in Ballarat, Janey’s hair ribbon lying in the dirt.

 

The woman looks at her face and softens. “Look, I’m not going to tell anyone how you came here, or what you came here as. Only it’ll be easier to return you where you should be, if you tell me who you are.”

 

Phryne swallows her fear and names herself. “Nurse Phryne Fisher, Women’s Auxiliary Ambulance Corps.”

 

Her saviour smiles. There are deep lines in the weather of her face. Underneath the sharp tang of carbolic acid, she smells like smoke and old blood. “Dr Elizabeth Macmillan.”

 

“Thank you, Dr Macmillan.”

 

“Call me Mac,” says the doctor, in the accent that Phryne knows as home.

 

*

 

“What did you do to my sister?” she whispers.

 

Foyle lays her down on the slab, taking care to lower her head gently onto the cool stone. Behind him she sees the glint of knives on a tray.

 

“I took her heart,” he says. “I took her liver. Then I ate them.”

 

Phryne screams. There’s no one but Foyle and his gutless accomplice to hear it, but she howls until the chamber echoes. The potion is keeping her from shifting; she feels her fingertips prickling in vain, her bones shivering sick and hapless.

 

“She felt nothing,” Foyle tells her, as if soothing a child. “Neither will you.” He turns away, reaching for the blade. "She was too young, of course. That was my mistake. But I waited, my dear, for you."

 

Janey was never a good fox. She was too sweet, too shy. She’d hang back in the heat of the kill, eyes wide. She ran where Phryne led her, lurked and leapt, but at the end of the day, she pattered home to their mother and had her hair brushed out as a girl. She could not scent danger, not if it was waiting with a snare outside the ring of light that held her sister enthralled.

 

Jane’s nothing like her, for all they share the same name: quick and sly, snatcher of baubles and loose thoughts, as much like a fox as a human girl could manage. Phryne thinks of Jane bound in the dark, of Janey on the slab. Rage rips through her like a displaced spine. She drags every last atom of strength to her and shifts.

 

When Jack finally reaches her, she’s trying to button her blouse with shaking hands. Foyle is lying at the foot of the slab, his throat torn out. Rhodes is somewhere in the night, though she doesn’t think he’ll get very far, not with half his face ripped off.

 

“Phryne,” says Jack. He cups her bloodied jaw. Over his shoulder, she sees Jane in the shadows, gaping at her. 

 

“I’m sorry, Jane,” she says, vision blurring, “I wish you didn’t have to see this - ” and then she falls into the darkness of Jack’s arms.

 

She digs up Janey’s grave alone. The bones of a foxcub are light and brittle and could fit in a shoebox. Under the willows in the field of reeds, she clasps them to her and weeps. 

 

The report states that Murdoch Foyle was stabbed in the throat by one of the knives he intended to use on his victim, and that Henry Rhodes was found half an hour away and died of blood loss en route to the hospital. It is likely they fought, the report says; the victim, having been drugged at the time, does not recall what about. Phryne signs it without comment under Jack’s steady gaze. Hide fox, and all after. 

 

*

 

She says she doesn’t allow herself to be lustfully compromised during a case, but sometimes one can kill two birds with one stone - or bed one man with two purposes. In Warwick Hamilton’s arms, she rummages through his memories like a bargain box at a jumble sale. There’s nothing in the last few days that flags him as the murderer, so she takes his memory of fishing at fifteen with his brother on the banks of the Yarra and falls back into herself, sated. 

 

“It’s not him,” she tells Jack later.

 

“You sound like you’ve researched this thoroughly.” The thought has displeased him greatly. Phryne smirks. Let him stew.

 

“Keep him on as a suspect, if you like,” she says airily. “I’ll look elsewhere.”

 

This is the longest hunt she has ever been on. When she hunts as a fox, she follows the pull of the earth, sets it against the sound of her prey and angles her pounce just so. Most of the time, she strikes true. She can feel it, the magnetic pull between Jack and her. She knows where he is in relation to her every second they’re in the same space. But he doesn’t stop circling, and she doesn’t strike.

 

Later she takes his hand to read his fortune and feels the sudden, strange urge to rub her thumb across the broad plain of it. The parlour clock ticks out the seconds like a tattoo. She feels all surfaces; he’s all depth.

 

He withdraws his hand, gets up to make himself another drink. She tracks his path across the room. What’s between them pulls taut again. Phryne tips her head back and savours the stretch of it.

 

*

 

There’s something wrong with Sidney Fletcher. Phryne can’t put words to it, only that something about his scent makes a part of her want to curl up and blacken at the tips. 

 

At first she thinks it’s Rosie, because she dislikes Rosie intensely. It has nothing to do with Rosie’s actual person and everything to do with the smile that slid off her face when she opened her door to Jack and saw Phryne standing behind him. Rosie has drunk from the hidden well of Jack Robinson and turned to slake her thirst elsewhere. If Phryne could crack her skull like an egg and suck out the yolk of her secrets, she would. 

 

But no. It’s not Rosie. She smells sharp and clean, like the edges of quality paper. Rosie is probably a lovely person, really. Phryne has never known herself to be territorial, unlike most of her kind; she doesn’t go about marking what’s hers. Not that Jack is hers. Why would she even think of marking him?

 

Phryne would pry more into it, this Sidney Fletcher business, but then Stan Baines arrives at Harry Harper’s funeral and the ensuing uproar drives everything else but the immediate case from her mind. She glimpses Fletcher from a distance at the match, too far to scent. Perhaps she should warn Rosie about her man. Perhaps Rosie already knows what she’s getting into.

 

Jack has looped his scarf around her neck. It’s like being wreathed in the warm scent of him. Phryne lets the cheers from the stands wash over her, inhales deeply. Thinks, suddenly, is he marking me?

 

She looks down. Her fingers have closed around the red and green wool.

 

*

 

In the days after Jack decides to give them up, Phryne goes about feeling the axis of the world has tilted. Everything is several degrees askew. She goes running in the woods to take the edge off, but it’s not enough. She curses him for bringing seriousness into it. She stands in the empty parlour and tosses checkers at the wall.

 

A week later, she passes through the kitchen and sees it heaped with cabbages. Mr Butler is chopping them up, probably for soup. Phryne stares at the halved cabbage heads, at their pale rubbery hearts, and feels something hysterical bubbling up inside her.

 

“Oh no,” she says to the cabbages. “Oh no you don’t.”

 

“Is something wrong, Miss?”

 

Phryne flicks her hand in distress. “Don’t mind me, Mr Butler.”

 

Mr Butler asks no further questions and goes back to his soup. Good man.

 

The cabbages sit accusingly on the sideboard. Phryne flees upstairs.

 

“I don’t need him,” she says to the paintings on her walls. “I don’t.”

 

She collapses onto the bed and does not move for the rest of the afternoon.

 

*

 

The deck of the ship is easier to navigate as a fox. She hides in the shadow of a hawser as Fletcher’s men march Dot, Bert and Cec up the gangplank and lock them in the aft hold. 

 

A fox can do many things, but one needs thumbs to pick locks. She shifts back, spits the picks and pocketknife she was carrying between her teeth into her hand and gets to work.

 

“Miss!” gasps Dot. Bert’s and Cec’s eyes have nearly popped out of their heads. “You’re...you’re not wearing anything, miss!”

 

“Really not the focus here, Dot,” says Phryne through gritted teeth, sawing at their bonds. “Don’t gawp, gentlemen, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.”

 

“Well,” says Bert, “not all of it.” Cec elbows him in the ribs.

 

Phryne rolls her eyes, gives him a hand up. “The girls are locked in the front hold, you need to get them off the ship. I’ll cause a diversion.”

 

“With what, miss?”

 

“Somehow,” says Phryne, “I don’t think I’ll have to try very hard.” 

 

Later she collides breathlessly with Jack on the quarterdeck. “You took your time!” she cries to mask the joy of seeing him. 

 

“Miss Fisher,” says Jack, “might I ask why you are racing around this ship naked?”

 

“I’m causing a distraction.”

 

“Of course you are,” says Jack, firing over her shoulder at an oncoming assailant. Phryne scents the sickly miasma she has come to associate with Fletcher and glimpses him fleeing around the corner. She darts to the forecastle, just as he turns and the barrel of his gun swings towards her.

 

Even as she turns mid-leap she knows there is no time, and so she shifts instead, shrinks the target mass of herself, feels the bullet tear through her side instead of her chest. As she is falling into the water, she hears Jack yell her name, and then the second gunshot.

 

*

 

Her days at the hospital are hazy, filled mostly with Dot’s worried face and Mac’s reproving one. Once she thinks she sees the silhouette of him in the door, but someone calls, “Inspector!” and he turns and disappears.

 

After three days, Mac sends her home. “I ought to keep you here longer for appearances’ sake, but if you’re just going to climb out the window anyway, I’d rather it not be on my head.”

 

“Wise choice,” says Phryne. Her side still twinges when she stretches. She glances again at the door.

 

Mac watches her. “He was here, you know, the first day. Kept getting called back to the station, though. Busy time for them, I imagine.”

 

Clearly Phryne as an invalid is transparent. It’s a state that needs urgent remedy.

 

It’s another three nights before he knocks on her door. He looks worn, like he hasn’t slept since she saw him last. “I’m glad to see you’re back on your feet, Miss Fisher.”

 

Phryne leads him into the parlour. “I’ve had a peaceful convalescence.”

 

Jack does not take a seat; he remains leaning in the doorway. He has removed his hat but not hung it up. “I had to stay away. Russell Street’s interrogating their way through senior command and someone had to explain to the commissioner’s daughter why her first husband shot her second one.”

 

“How is she?” 

 

“She was in shock. She’d no idea, of course. She’s back at her sister’s now.”

 

“She needed you,” says Phryne quietly.

 

“She needed someone,” Jack replies. “She didn’t have anyone else.”

 

Phryne should not begrudge Rosie his company. Not everyone has a nose for whether the men they love are true. 

 

“I’m glad she had you,” she hears herself say. 

 

Jack works the brim of his hat in his fingers. “I didn’t come here to speak about Rosie, Miss Fisher.”

 

Phryne waits. 

 

“I watched you get shot,” says Jack. “I watched you take the bullet, and I saw - ” He stops, swallows. “I’ve had questions, since Foyle. I didn’t ask then, because I didn’t think I was ready to know. But that night on the ship - do you think you could tell me what I saw?”

 

This is it. This is the question that will either bind or break them for good. She thrives on being unknowable, yet she aches to be known, to tell someone the truth of all of it. What else is there in life but to make the most of it, between the dying and the being born? Phryne tries to make herself meet his gaze and finds she cannot bear to. It is exactly like he said: unbearable.

 

“You don’t know what you’re asking of me, Jack,” she says.

 

“You needn’t tell me if you don’t want to.”

 

“But you’ll always wonder,” she says. “Neither of us could ever let a good mystery be. That’s why we are what we are.”

 

“I solve mysteries with you,” he says. “I would never try to solve you. It was all right, I thought, to live with not knowing. But that night, when I thought I saw you die, I realised it didn’t matter if I wasn’t ready to know. There would be nothing worse than never having the chance to ask.”

 

She comes up to him, stalking barefoot over the carpet. “I won’t tell you.”

 

Jack nods tightly. “I’ll go, then.”

 

Phryne reaches around him and pulls the door shut. 

 

“I’ll show you.”

 

In the firelight she strips, sliding the kimono off her shoulders. She turns to see his reaction and notes his eyes have gone straight to the scar on her flank. 

 

“I thought it’d be deeper,” he says, and his voice is very low.

 

Phryne runs a finger over it. “It was. But that’s not what I wanted you to see.”

 

She rolls the joints in her shoulders in an arpeggio of clicks. Then she shifts.

 

She lets it happen slowly, the better for him to see it: the lengthening of her jaw, the sharpening of her ears, the thickening of her tails slipping free. She collapses in on herself until she is crouched on the rug by the fire, remade. She looks up and sees him for the first time through her fox eyes.

 

Jack hasn’t moved a muscle. From down here, Phryne thinks, he looks so far away.

 

“It’s you,” he says roughly.

 

Phryne inclines her head as if to say, yes, it’s me.

 

“No,” says Jack, “I mean, I saw you. A long time ago. Nobody believed me. But here you are.”

 

He gets to his knees carefully, as if she is a wild thing not to be spooked. He puts out his hand.

 

She goes to him and presses her nose into the hollow of his palm. His other hand comes up to stroke her flank, skimming over the scar there, sliding his fingers through the long bright flags of her fur.

 

Later, back in her other skin, she will arch above him and take her first of his memories and she will see what he means: the first time, the fox in the road, the boy with the skinned knees and the outstretched hand.

 

He will catch her as she comes down, gasping from the rush of it, he will press his forehead to hers and say, did you see it? Yes, she will say against his mouth. I saw you see me. 

 

*

 

They ride their bicycles through the night, the road before them white with the moon. It is not enough light for him to see by, but it is more than enough for her, and he follows the peal of her laughter through the dark. 

 

In an open field she stops, scents the wind, lets her bicycle fall. He slows to watch as she kicks her shoes off and walks into the wide silent field, full of silver light, stippled with shadow in stump and hollow. The moon slips free from the treeline. 

 

She takes her hat off, lets her coat slide from her shoulders. Her dress pools at her feet. She turns to look at him over her shoulder, her body silvered by the moon. 

 

“Come after me, Jack Robinson,” she says, and then she shifts, and the fox is running, a dark flame flowing through the long grass.

 

He picks up her bicycle and leans it carefully against his. Then he sets off through the field after the flash of her. He passes beneath the trees. He is in no hurry. He will not be able to find her in the woods. She will find him.

 

The moon drifts over vixen country. Silently, Jack Robinson walks into the dark.