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Finding Comfort in the Darkness

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The thin strip of light visible underneath Jack’s door was the only sign of life inside the darkened station, and Phryne followed it to his office. They were investigating the disappearance of a young girl who had gone to her best friend’s eighteenth birthday party, apparently never to be seen again. The driver had seen her off, but there was no evidence that she had ever made it to the party. Any speculations that she was staying with a secret lover were rapidly dismissed by the distraught family.

 

Although it broke her heart , their conversations had turned from places they might find her to discussions about corpses and ransom notes. What little hope they had crumbled when a constable found the girl’s gold necklace—a family heirloom—in a ditch several miles from where the party had taken place.

 

They had both thrown themselves into their investigations, re-interviewing who they could and going over their witness statements with meticulous care. They had fought several times in their frustration, their words bouncing off each other as their theorizing ended in dead end upon dead end. But they always found their way back to one another in their mutual inability to accept their helpless situation. It was precisely that feeling that had brought her to his office. The pit in her stomach threatened to swallow her whole if she paused long enough to acknowledge it. Returning to her empty bed after her failed interview with the gardener was entirely out of the question.

 

“Did you find anything we missed?” Phryne asked as she threw open Jack’s office door. She was ready to put the day’s events behind her but willing to entertain the illusion that things had miraculously improved in her absence.

 

“Nothing. You?” Jack looked up wearily from his paperwork, clearly knowing her answer.

 

Her heart broke for him as she noticed his tired eyes. The room was almost completely dark. If she was honest with herself, she wasn’t surprised to find him working himself to death in the soft glow of his desk lamp.

 

She shook her head at his question, regret welling up from the dark chasm inside of her. “No. Dot’s finished with the girl’s diary and I only just got back from interviewing the gardener. Naturally, he had the day off and he wasn’t even on the property,” she all but spat the words at him in her frustration. “Do you want to come home with me for a nightcap? There might even be sandwiches,” she made the suggestion for her own benefit as much as his.

 

The wound that had been ripped open by the girl’s disappearance refused to heal now that she was probably dead. In this situation more than ever, she craved the warmth and security that their late-night talks always provided them.

 

“No.” He shook his head. “I want to keep going for a while longer and see where we went wrong.”

 

Phryne frowned in confusion. “It’s past midnight,” she reminded him, torn between the urge to hug him and to shake some sense into him.

 

“Don’t worry. It’ll likely be midnight again before I can leave here.”

 

“Jack, you can’t be serious.”

 

“Believe me, I am. The girl is probably dead, and we still have no leads.” Jack pinched the bridge of his nose, pushing her more firmly in the ‘hugging’ direction when he looked at her with eyes devoid of any motivation to go on. All she could see in them was a roaring emptiness, too far in his own head to make out anything of the real world.

 

It took only an instant for her to realize that he couldn’t actually see her. The witness statement on his desk could be a shopping list for all he cared. While their present case had triggered it, it had awakened something far more serious.

 

She knew she couldn’t rid him of his underlying trauma—it wasn’t a coincidence that this particular case had rattled her. The ample similarities to Janey’s disappearance made it difficult not to imagine how this would end, another family ruined over answers that never came. But she had gotten her answers—in no small part thanks to him—and she wholeheartedly believed that they could replicate those results.

 

She couldn’t banish his demons, but she could unravel tonight’s case from the failures of a past life. She could stop him from punishing himself under the guise of being thorough, when this was really about the remnants of a failed marriage and whatever horrors he’d brought home with him from the war.

 

Mentally bidding farewell to the promise of a quiet evening, Phryne pushed off the doorframe and dropped unwaveringly into his visitor’s chair. “Alright. Where is your tea?”

 

“What?”

 

“I’m not leaving until you do. And if I am to spend the night in this less than comfortable chair when I could be sleeping, then I’m going to need tea.” She stared defiantly at him from across the desk, hoping he could see how ridiculous he was being when their positions were reversed, even as her soul continued to hurt for him. She knew he wouldn’t take kindly to being coddled; what she hadn’t expected was how easy it was to be blunt with him. She wouldn’t allow anyone to hurt the people she loved. It didn’t make the slightest difference if they were doing it to themselves.

 

“Phryne, this is ridiculous. There is really no need to torture us both.”

 

“But torturing yourself is fair game? You can’t bully yourself into becoming a better officer, Jack.” She surprised them both by rising to tower over his still-seated form. “Not that I think you’d need to, but the point stands. And if I truly believed that there is anything we can do tonight, I would be the first person out that door and running to the girl’s rescue.” She channeled the energy of every longing look, every too-gentle touch and stolen moment into her words, hoping to stoke the same fire within him that his sudden vulnerability had kindled within her.

 

To her considerable surprise, her calculations were correct. He slumped a little in his chair, his fight slowly trickling out through the small crack she had created in his walls. “So now what?” he asked, and Phryne let out a small sigh of relief. Jack was obviously tired, but she thought his willingness to lean on her in his time of need boded well for the future.

 

“Do you have any more work that can be done in five minutes or less?” She gave him a final out before making her own suggestion of what to do. She thought he might like the reassurance that the final decision was up to him, but he simply shook his head.

 

“No.”

 

“Then I’m taking you home,” she decided, her skin tingling pleasantly at being able to make that statement. His willingness to let her in, to pass off some of his burden to her and be confident that she would carry it, meant everything to her. 

 

The station remained silent as she waited for him to get his coat and they walked silently out the door. Once they were safely in the Hispano, Jack nodded off in the passenger’s seat and it made her want to give him every good thing the entire universe had to offer.

 

Once she’d pulled up in front of the house, Phryne allowed herself a moment to study his features. His head had lolled in her direction as she drove, and she positioned herself so their faces were mere inches apart. His breath ghosted over her in an unintentional caress, and she shuddered, too softly for him to hear. If they were about to sleep in the same bed, she needed every moment of preparation she could get.

 

She reached out a finger, hovering just above the corner of his wide mouth and his smooth brow, his serene face so unlike the Jack she knew. When she finally woke him, she found comfort in the fact that his return to the waking world was only temporary. She would do everything in her power to ensure that he got a good night’s sleep.

 

She gently touched his shoulder after retreating to a normal distance. “Jack? We’re home.”

 

“What?” He looked up at the house, shaking his head in resignation when he realized where they were. “Oh, of course.”

 

Phryne ushered him into the dark foyer, careful not to turn on the light so as not to wake Dot and Mr. Butler—just because he didn’t mind her seeing him like this didn’t mean he extended the same courtesy to the rest of her household. As he went through the notions of taking off his coat and hat, little hints of his earlier misery appeared to cling to him like specks of dust. It was most noticeable in the way he moved; his movements seemed stiffer, as if his body hadn’t known peace in years.

 

Just as she considered wrapping him in a blanket right where they stood, the scent of chocolate drifted over from the kitchen and gave her a better idea. She directed a slightly lost-looking Jack into the parlor before heading towards the kitchen, where she scribbled a quick note for Dot and Mr. Butler to alert them that they had company. Then she poured the still-warm cocoa Dot had left out for her into a cup.

 

When she reentered the parlor, Jack was seated on the chaise, his elbows on his knees as he intently studied the floor.

 

“Here, drink this. The sugar will do you good.” Phryne pressed the steaming mug into his hands, fighting the urge to sink to her knees and look up at him from between his legs as all of her protective instincts kicked in at once. She knew he wouldn’t want her intimacies if he believed them to be attributed to his less than ideal state, so she settled for glaring at him when he tried to return the mug to her.

 

“I… Alright.” Jack’s resolve wilted under her stare and he finally took a sip. He made a show of glancing up at her as if waiting for her approval, and Phryne rolled her eyes, giving him exactly what he wanted.

 

“Can I leave you here while I get changed?” she asked, her cheeks reddening at the fondness in her own voice. The thought made her glad that she hadn’t bothered with the light switch. It was one thing to pine quietly for him while he was in such a state, but she wanted tonight’s focus to be exclusively on his recovery. “The rest of the household is in bed, so there’s no need to worry that you’ll run into anyone against your will,” she justified her willingness to leave him to his own devices.

 

“Sit here and drink cocoa. I think I can manage that.” He smirked, and for the second time that night, she could see a hint of her Jack and it spurred her into action.

 

Upstairs, Phryne quickly started a fire before changing into her peach pajamas and a robe, the combination of a top and trousers much more suitable for sharing a bed with him than her customary short nightgowns. After taking off her makeup, she darted into the guest bedroom and placed his navy pajamas atop the immaculately made bed, then placed a fresh toothbrush by the sink of the nearest bathroom. She wanted to keep an eye on him and she believed that he’d be better off in her bed, but she would give him privacy if he truly felt that he needed it.

 

When she crept silently down the stairs, she found a man whose heart had long decided what it wanted while his mind was at the other end of the street and running back towards the deserted station.

 

“Oh, you didn’t run off,” she commented happily upon seeing that he hadn’t moved.

 

“Did you expect me to?”

 

She considered his question seriously. “Yes. Maybe—I can never be sure with you. Did you want anything else or are you ready to head upstairs?”

 

“No, I’m good,” Jack told her noncommittally, confirming that he was ready but unwilling to reply to the second part of her inquiry.

 

“I’m glad,” she told him sincerely, before reaching out a hand to playfully help him up. “I left your pajamas in the guest room down the hall from my bedroom.”

 

Having directed him to the guest room in question, Phryne slipped back into her own room in an attempt to quiet her rapidly beating heart. Over the course of their shared evenings, they’d spent many comfortable hours lost in their own thoughts in each other’s company. The thought of falling asleep in his presence appealed to her far more than she wanted to admit. They were both shaken up by the same case, and seeking comfort in each other when they were at their most vulnerable felt simultaneously monumental and like the most natural thing in the world. 

 

Delighted to take their partnership to this new level, she was attuned to his every movement and she instantly perked up when she heard him enter the bathroom. She waited a few more minutes before following him down the hall.

 

“Jack? Can I come in?” she asked, a soft knock on the door accompanying her words. When no shouts of protest were immediately forthcoming, she gently pushed it open to find Jack—beautiful in pajamas and with a toothbrush in his mouth—looking at her in the mirror.

 

“Do you want to sleep in my bed tonight?” She politely averted her gaze when the question made him splutter and he spat his toothpaste into the sink.

 

When he turned back to face her, his lips were shiny with moisture and it was all she could do not to imagine how he might taste, whether her toothpaste or his own flavor would be the dominant one if she kissed him.

 

“I’m not banning you from your own bed.” He looked almost offended by the suggestion.

 

“Who said anything about banning me?”

 

“Miss Fisher—”

 

“I thought you might want company. It is a reasonable question, Jack,” she justified her question when he still didn’t look convinced. “You no longer seem at risk of tearing all of your hair out in a fit of desperation,” she observed his reddened yet significantly more relaxed face with a pleased smile, “but my room has a fire going and Mr. Butler is asleep, so the same cannot be said for the guest room unless you’re in the mood to go wood-chopping.”

 

The corner of his mouth quirked, and that drew her attention right back to his lips even as her own parted in a grin. “Sounds like a good excuse to get some exercise.” His teasing, a sign that he was improving, had never mattered more than it did tonight.

 

“Jack Robinson, do I need to drag you down the hall or are you coming willingly?”

 

He followed her down the hall and into her bedroom, his smirk firmly in place as a result of his returning happiness. The sound of her door closing behind them felt oddly final. They both paused a few steps beyond the threshold, standing shoulder to shoulder as they surveyed the room with its glowing bedside lamps and a crackling fire.

 

“This is your bedroom.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And your bed.”

 

“Mm-mmmh.” Phryne eyed him suspiciously. “You weren't nearly so stubborn the last time you were here.”

 

The comparison to his past self made his competitive streak flare up, and he took a hesitant step towards the bed. They mirrored each other’s movements until they stood on opposite sides of the luxurious bed and stared at each other across the doona. Not wanting to wrinkle her robe, Phryne slipped it off before climbing onto the bed, her heart beating wildly as Jack did the same and she got her first glimpse of how it felt to share a bed while they were both conscious. Not wanting her own feelings to get in the way of his recovery, she kept a respectable distance between their bodies as they both sat back against the headboard.

 

“If you need anything, anything at all…” she began awkwardly, using her own voice to suppress her thoughts.

 

“I know where to find you.” Jack gestured teasingly at her from the other side of the bed.

 

She huffed at the realization that he’d picked up on her nervousness and was trying to comfort her when he should be the one on the receiving end of such efforts. Thankfully, she knew how to use his playfulness to her advantage. Yanking on the blanket, she turned off her bedside lamp and pretended to fall asleep. She thought she could absolve him of the responsibility of turning away first, but a full minute passed and she reconsidered his needs.

 

“Miss Fisher?”

 

“Mmmh?” She gave him her full attention only to find that he was still sitting against the headboard, staring off into the distance and blushing in the low light of his bedside lamp.

 

“There is one thing, actually. Do you have a book? Any book. I like to read before bed if I can manage it. It has been some time since…” His lost look returned as if it had never left, but she brought him back to reality with a well-placed hand atop his right forearm.

 

“Since you felt relaxed enough to be able to read?”

 

She knew his cases followed him home even under the best of circumstances, and this one in particular must have done a number on him. It was easy to imagine him pouring every waking moment into his investigation, drowning in his determination until every minute of overtime felt like a punishment for his past failures.

 

His gaze flickered down to her small hand as he nodded. “Yes.”

 

“How's this?” She pulled a new copy of Antony and Cleopatra out of her nightstand, hoping the mystery of why it resided there would sustain him until he got tired. “Everything else is in the library across the hall,” she added, but Jack looked delighted like he was ready to snatch the book from her.

 

“Thank you,” he said, his voice gravelly with emotion as he took it from her like a talisman. At a time when he was unable to treat himself with respect, the small act of kindness was everything he could wish for and more.

 

“I’ll just…” She clutched the doona to her chest once more, giving him the chance to make another request without drawing attention to his vulnerability.

 

“Yes.” Jack nodded, his thumb already opening the book as if he couldn’t wait to lose himself between its pages. That, more than anything, convinced her to turn around. 

 

“Just turn off the bedside lamp when you’re done,” she reminded him as she made herself comfortable. She’d spent all evening fantasizing about spending time with him. She could only hope that her presence beside him would have the same calming effect on him that falling asleep with her nose full of his scent had on her.

 

She did her level best to fall asleep. But as the minutes ticked by and she was sure it must be well past one, her protective instincts reared their head again. It wasn’t her place to decide that he needed sleep more than he needed to read, but it was getting late and they needed to return to the station eventually. She wouldn’t put it past him to pull an all-nighter and use his considerable willpower against himself. Whether the culprit was their case or the awkwardness of their situation, she needed to outsmart his thoughts and she began to fuss furiously with the covers.

 

“Do you need more of the blanket?” He shifted to give her access to a few more inches of the doona.

 

To her credit, she managed to keep a straight face despite her sudden desire to smooth the furrow in his brow with her lips. “No, no.” She shook her head dramatically. “It’s just that I’m a little cold. There’s too much space underneath the blanket. The gap keeps the warmth from getting trapped inside,” she explained, hoping to appeal to his battered yet fiercely protective heart.

 

To get him to accept her comfort, she had to trick him into thinking it had been his idea all along. Her boudoir at night created enough of a safe space that she didn’t mind showing him that she needed him, knowing that the feeling went both ways.

 

“Do you want to…?” Without putting the book down, Jack indicated the person-sized gap between their bodies with his free hand.

 

Phryne frowned; this wasn’t what she had intended. Instead of wanting to kiss him, she was suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to wrap her entire body around his and let her soft weight carry him into sleep.

 

“You wouldn’t mind?” It was hard not to feel hurt by his insistence to stay awake, but she was willing to lead by example and show him that it was safe to embrace his vulnerability.

 

“Whatever you need to get comfortable,” he told her sincerely, not letting on if he knew what those words, spoken in that voice, could do to her.

 

Though it felt like a massive step, she cuddled up as close as she could without actually touching him. The position brought her face to face with his outer thigh. She tried not to be too obvious about discreetly breathing him in. Above her, Jack quietly turned a page, and the sound of his breathing up close lured her to sleep almost immediately.

 

She hadn’t felt so comfortable, so at ease in her own skin, since before they’d been informed about the missing girl. While their discussions over drinks had helped ease some of her tension, it was nice to let down the last of her guard and trust that he would keep watch for her. Better yet, they could be that person for one another. She hoped they would continue to explore this side of their relationship in the future.

 

It almost didn’t surprise her when, the sound barely penetrating her sleepy mind, she heard the book snap shut and he carefully placed it on his nightstand. In a heartbeat, the realization that he was finally going to sleep morphed into something far worse when the mattress rippled beneath her and he stood up. She felt instantly more alert and far too heartbroken for her liking, but something told her to keep her eyes shut and see how he would proceed.

 

Time seemed to stop as he moved slowly around the bed. The mattress dipped again as, silently lifting the covers, he hesitantly slipped in behind her and pulled them around them like a cocoon. After a brief moment’s hesitation, he spooned against her back with enough distance that she felt his body heat more than his actual touch. Her heart was in her throat, but she didn’t make a sound as his hand found her hip, a comforting weight tethering them to each other more than it tethered either of them to the bed. When she finally fell asleep, it was with the knowledge that they were both safe and she couldn’t imagine anything better.