Christmas Eve morning
They woke, the stirring of one waking the other and they stretched together, almost shy when their eyes met. They lay still and quiet for several minutes, limbs and skin pressed close. They knew they'd reached another turning point, one where they weren't simply in love and lust with each other, but were something even closer, even more intimate, and it was completely new for both of them. Jack kissed Phryne so softly it was almost thought rather than touch, whispering I love you against her lips, reveling at her returned whisper against his lips.
Since they still weren't quite used to outright declarations of love in the bright light of day, Phryne lightened the mood by squeezing Jack's bottom and declaring first dibs on the bathroom. Jack responded by tickling Phryne's ribs and declaring he'd race her there.
There was a lot of noise coming from downstairs, far more noise than was usual for a normal morning. Jack was still in the bathroom, so Phryne pulled on her dressing gown and went out on to the landing to investigate.
The front door was wide open. Bert and Cec were muttering loudly at each other.
Mr. Butler was directing the two men as they maneuvered the Christmas tree up the front path and into the entry hall. The tree had been standing in a bucket of water in a shady spot outside the kitchen for the past week and it was time to bring it into the house. Cec was nearly hidden behind the branches. Bert was not particularly happy to be carrying the wet end of the tree.
Phryne went back to the bedroom, astonished to see Jack was already dressing, tucking his shirttails into his khakis, a concession to keeping something more casual than a suit in her wardrobe. He had combed his hair but hadn't shaved.
“I thought you needed to get to the station,” she said.
"I looked out the window and saw the comrades coming up the path with the tree,” he replied, rolling up his shirtsleeves. “You don't think I'm going to let them have all the fun, do you?" he asked. “Collins can handle things at the station for a while.” He pressed a slightly scratchy kiss on her cheek and then grinned and headed downstairs.
She heard him ask "What can I do to help?" as he reached the bottom of the stairs.
"Good morning Inspector" Mr. Butler responded. He thought fast. The appearance of the Inspector, casually dressed and obviously willing to insert himself into the morning's domestic proceedings, was something of a surprise. Not that the Inspector wasn't capable of helping, just that he was offering to help where the cabbies were already involved. Hmmm, Mr. Butler thought, how can I orchestrate this? "I think the best course is for two of you gentlemen to move the chairs and tables in the parlor out of harm's way while one of you holds the tree."
While Bert wasn't averse to taking the easier task of holding the tree, he certainly wasn't going to stand there passively while an oppressor of the masses took on a harder job. Bert lowered the bottom of the tree to the floor with a quick, "You hold it" to Cec, leaving a surprised Cec to grapple with the added weight and struggle to stop the trunk's slide across the tiles.
Bert gave Jack a long look, almost challenging but not quite, and the two men each grabbed an armchair and moved them to beside the loveseat. Then they moved the two small tables to the wall by the drinks cart and added the piano bench to the mix.
While Jack and Bert were doing the preparation in the parlor Mr. Butler brought the tree stand into the hall. He thought it would be more efficient to put the tree in the stand here where they had more room to work than to try to wrangle it into the stand in the corner of the parlor.
Since Cec was still holding the tree Mr. Butler asked him to lift it up a bit so he could slide the stand into place. Cec took a few seconds to get a better handhold on the trunk and lifted. Unfortunately, his position didn't give him quite enough leverage to lift the tree high enough. Jack and Bert gave each other a look and Bert moved to help Cec lift a little higher while Jack knelt and finessed the stand under the tree. He called out, "It's in – hold it up straight" and tightened the bolts to hold the trunk firmly in place.
Phryne was positively enchanted by the happy Jack who bounded down the stairs. It would be fun watching and listening to Bert and Cec and Jack work together, she thought. Household chores like getting the tree in the house usually happened when she wasn't home, so this would be a first in more than one way. She pulled on trousers and a blouse as quickly as possible, and then ran her brush through her hair and swiped some color on her lips.
"Good morning Mr. B," she called gaily as she skipped down the stairs. "I see you've chosen the wise course in letting the Inspector and Bert and Cec strong-arm the tree. I'll just…" She stopped short when she realized all four men were looking at her. "Don't mind me," she said, smiling at them, "Mr. B, perhaps we can all breakfast together after the tree is in place?"
Jack, Bert, and Cec turned back to the tree, examined the results of their efforts, and breathed a sigh of relief. The tree was standing straight and seemed perfectly stable in its stand. They sized up the tree’s width, and peered into the parlor, figuring out how to fit it into the corner by the piano.
"Let's move the furniture back a bit more – give us extra room to get the tree into the corner" Jack said. Bert nodded in agreement and they headed into the parlor. To their surprise, Phryne was seated on the loveseat, feet up, queen of all she surveyed.
Jack and Bert looked at her and then at each other as if they were wondering which of them was going to ask her to get up. A mischievous look passed over Jack's face. He jerked his head at Bert and leaned down to grab the heavy end of the loveseat. Bert's look of surprise quickly turned to a conspiratorial grin and he grabbed the other end. "One, two, three," they said in unison and lifted the piece of furniture with its occupant in situ and moved it closer to the bookcases. Then they each moved an armchair further back too.
Phryne grinned. "Gentlemen, there was no need for you to exert yourselves. You could have asked me to get up."
Jack cocked an eyebrow at her. "What and disturb your repose, oh queen?" His reward was another delighted grin and a quick squeeze of his hand.
Bert watched the exchange between Miss Fisher and the Inspector with a great deal of interest. He rarely had the opportunity to see them at such close quarters, much less such casual, intimate close quarters. This was an interesting development indeed. He wasn't sure whether he liked it or not.
Cec also watched the exchange with interest. The Inspector had offered to help and hadn't butted in to take over, instead letting Mr. B direct all their efforts. He didn't seem to expend much effort picking up the loaded loveseat. Cec gave Bert a 'Maybe the Inspector isn't so bad for a copper' look. Bert responded with a 'You must be joking.' look.
Mr. Butler brought in the box with the lights and suggested Bert test the lights first and the other two string them on the tree. Phryne watched with amusement as Mr. B subtly changed the dynamic between the men and deftly circumvented any quibbles over how the job should be done.
Besides being prescient and supremely discreet, it seemed her butler might be quite the diplomat. It looked like he was using the Christmas tree to bring about a hint of détente between her oppressor Inspector and her Communist cabbies.
Confident the men were stringing the lights to his satisfaction, Mr. Butler turned to his mistress and told her breakfast would be ready in a few minutes.
Aromas of sizzling bacon and browning toast wafted through to the entry hall as the lighting crew finished their task. Jack held out a hand to help Phryne up from the loveseat, and the two of them followed Bert and Cec to the kitchen. As soon as the cabbies were out of sight Phryne stopped and tugged Jack close. "I had no idea you were so enthralled with Christmas trees, Inspector," she purred as his arms slipped around her waist.
Jack smiled and hugged her closer. "Ever since I was a boy, Miss Fisher." His smile faded just a little and she felt a tiny pang when she heard what he said next. "I've missed the whole business of bringing them into the house and setting them up."
"Then I'm doubly glad you're here this morning," she whispered as she returned Jack's hug.
The smell of eggs frying joined the other delectable scents coming from the kitchen and the quiet moment passed. Jack relinquished Phryne's waist and took her hand. "Come on. I'm sure you worked up an appetite watching us work. And I need to shave and dress and get to the station."
Mr. Butler set Jack's and Phryne's plates in front of them as soon as they took their places at the kitchen table. Bert and Cec had already tucked in to their breakfast.
"Mr. Butler, please join us," Phryne said. "Supervising is hard work."
"I will, thank you, Miss," Mr. Butler replied as he prepared a plate for himself. Before he took his first bite he said, "I had such willing workers it was an easy job. Cec managing the tree on that slippery tile, the Inspector and Bert moving the heavy furniture…" his voice trailed off as he took a bite of egg and bacon.
"I was quite impressed with the display of brute strength involved in moving the love seat with me on it." Phryne quipped and took a sip of her coffee.
Bert puffed up just a little. "Nah. The furniture was easy. Wasn't heavy at all."
Jack shrugged nonchalantly. "I like a challenge that requires some thought and strategy as well as physical prowess."
Cec laughed. "That was a good strategy – picking up the loveseat with Miss Fisher on it."
Bert stopped mid-chew, ready to give his friend a 'Whose side are you on anyhow?' look. Then he grudgingly admitted to himself that picking up the loveseat, with Miss Fisher still seated on it, and the resulting fond glances they gave each other, meant the Inspector really was a long-term fixture in the household. He might as well get used to it.
Jack busied himself with spreading jam on toast, not even blinking as he felt Phryne's foot curling around the back of his calf.
Mr. Butler took another bite of egg and bacon. When he looked up his mistress was gazing at him with the tiniest hint of an approving twinkle in her eye. He did enjoy it when his efforts were appreciated.