Phryne's voice normally carried well, but the immensity of the cave seemed to swallow the sound, turning it into a whisper. She stared at the scene in front of her in rapture. The underground lake was a dark mirror, and not even the faintest ripple was visible in the weak beam of her torch. She raised the beam to point at the roof, from where a cluster of white stalactites spiralled downwards like a chandelier in an ancient, silent ballroom.
Phryne glanced over her shoulder at the lack of an answer from Jack. His body was a just vague outline, blocking the weak light from the match he had struck to provide light. He was studying a dome-like stalagmite intently. Phryne smiled as she imagined the look of fascination she knew would be on his face.
“Jaaack,” she called.
“Coming.” He tore himself away from the formation, waved out the match, and strode over to her. She could see the exact moment he saw the lake.
His eyes lit up and he stopped. “Oh! That’s...” His words seemed to fail him, and he ended his sentence with a vague gesture of his hands, meant to convey his awe.
“Breathtaking? Magnificent?” Phryne supplied, sidling into his space with a grin. “I told you it would be worth it!"
The discovery of an entrance to a cave during their walkabout had been a pleasant surprise, but it had taken all of her (unparalleled) powers of persuasion to convince Jack to come on this impromptu cave-expedition.
Now, he hmmm-ed beside her, leaning closer confidentially. "I should never have doubted you, Miss Fisher,” he husked into her ear.
Phryne also leaned closer and tilted her head upwards. "I hope you remember that on our next crime scene."
He smiled at that, and Phryne considered closing the distance with her lips to kiss that downturned mouth, dust and sweat be damned, until he completely forgot himself and moaned into her mouth. That she could do that freely – well, as freely as was possible without Jack having to arrest himself for indecency – was still a relatively new development between them. And now that they had a weekend just for themselves, away from any complications, she intended to do it often and thoroughly.
Before she could act on the impulse, a dark corner caught her eye over Jack’s shoulder. She stepped past him, grabbing his arm and tugging him with her.
The dark passage swallowed her torch’s beam completely.
“This could be interesting,” she spoke, releasing Jack’s sleeve slowly as she peered into the darkness.
Jack glanced at the passage before he turned to face her. “Absolutely not.”
She tilted her head at him. “Where’s your sense of adventure, Jack?”
“Every moment with you is already an adventure –” (flatterer, she thought, preening at the compliment), “– and I don’t want to get lost in here.”
Phryne lowered her voice. “It might be more fun than you think...” Her eyes swept down his body and back up, peering at him through lowered lashes. “The two of us, trapped together... Whatever shall we do with ourselves?”
“As much as I’d enjoy that,” he said, looking as though he was giving the thought its due consideration, “I don’t think it would be very comfortable.” His perfectly straight face was only belied by the affectionate rumble of his voice.
“Must you be so sensible?”
His lips twitched (victory! she thought) before his expression grew contemplative. “If you really want to explore, we could come back tomorrow with a ball of twine. Tie one end near the entrance… unspool it as we go, so we can find our way back...” He looked at her in question, gauging her enthusiasm for the plan.
Something inside of her wobbled, in stark contrast with her playful mood. Dear Jack, always keeping up and surprising her, despite his misgivings about some of the adventures she dragged him into and despite all the boundaries she pushed. The niggling fear that she’d push too far one day reared its head, as it did on occasion. She resolutely shrugged it off.
“Always the man with the plan,” was all she said. She anchored her hands to his chest, playing with the material of his shirt thoughtfully.
“Tomorrow, then?” he asked.
“Tomorrow,” she confirmed. “And don’t you dare have second thoughts!”
He tilted his head at her, the suggestion of a smile back on his mouth. “So, what do you want to do now?”
Phryne curled her fingers into his shirt, knowing he could feel her nails, and delighting in the way his breath caught slightly. “I seem to remember that we have a lovely lunch waiting for us in the backpack...” She smiled at the way he perked up. "How does that sound?"
"Excellent," he said, the ever-lurking smile deepening at the corners of his mouth. "Shall we climb back out, then?"
"Yes," she said eagerly.
Jack followed her to the rope they had used to sail down into the cave, still feeling the small smile adorning his face.
He watched her quietly as she reached the rope. She tugged at it sharply with one hand, testing it, before she looked up at the length of it to where it disappeared from view into the darkness.
One of her hands came up, tucking her hair behind her ear. The unconscious, familiar little gesture made the ever-present adoration in his chest swell.
He smiled quietly. She would probably object to his description of ‘familiar’, with her preference for being unexpected and exotic. It was still slightly mystifying to him that they had actually embarked on this new relationship together while managing to keep their partnership and friendship intact. It was certainly a different dance than either of them was used to, but he considered himself lucky to be by her side. Especially if being by her side included impromptu cave-expeditions. Being with Phryne was a never-ending source of adventure, and he relished it.
This little cave-expedition, though, he had resisted a little longer than necessary before relenting, both for the sake of seeing her lovely pout and to lay some of his real safety concerns to rest. In reality, he had been just as intrigued by the cave as she. Besides, he had packed their backpack for the day with some eventualities (for example, murder) in mind, hence the convenient rope, torch, and matches. The ensuing adventure hadn’t disappointed.
Still, he would be relieved to get out of the cave’s stale air and back into the daylight.
“Ladies first,” Phryne broke him out of his reverie. She handed him the torch and grasped the rope with both hands. “Will you give me a hand?”
The question was innocent enough, but of course, she topped it off with a salacious little smirk.
He returned it with one of his own and gestured with his head for her to go ahead.
“Wait until I reach the top before you start climbing,” she said, gripping the rope.
He boosted her from below until he couldn’t reach her anymore. Then he followed her progress with his eyes until she was out of reach of the torch’s light as well.
Climbing up was harder than sailing down had been. Phryne went hand over hand as she pulled herself up the gruff rope and her feet scrambled for purchase against the rock wall.
Halfway up (or what she guessed was halfway) she paused to catch her breath. On the way down, she hadn’t realized how deep the cave was. It was just hair-raising enough to suit her tastes: the drop down would certainly be lethal. She started climbing again.
The rock wall started sloping outwards slightly. The rope was spanning tautly over a slight ridge, and Phryne let go of the rope with one hand to grab onto it. It was sharper than she had expected.
“Ouch,” she said, removing her hand.
“Everything alright?” Jack’s concerned voice came from below.
“Yes,” Phryne grimaced. “Just be careful, the rocks are quite sharp.”
The rest of the way was slow-going, with the small cut on her hand annoyingly positioned right where she gripped the rope. She reached the top and pulled herself over the edge into the small cave they had stumbled upon earlier that day. She took a moment to catch her breath before she followed the rope to the pillar they had tied it to. She tugged at the knots, testing their integrity.
As much as she didn’t like to admit it, their little adventure had been riskier than she had initially anticipated. The danger would never stop her, of course. It only meant that she would be the first to brave it, insisting on climbing up before Jack. She was lighter, after all. If the knot at the top had somehow loosened during their descent, it would have been less likely to slip if she climbed up first.
The rope was still securely fastened. Phryne smiled, her worry dissipating. She shook her head at herself for doubting her own knotwork.
"Your turn," she called down to Jack.
"Coming," his voice echoed upwards hollowly, and the rope snapped taut as he started hauling himself up.
She leaned back against the wall and examined the cut on her palm. As she had suspected, it was barely more than a paper cut. Still, it stung. She put her hand against her mouth and sucked while she turned her eyes to the jerky motions of the taut rope.
The rope shivered with each of Jack’s movements. Phryne’s mind jumped to another kind of shivering, also caused by Jack. Her imagination easily supplied her with delectable images of Jack hauling himself up the rope… the muscles in his forearms shifting and contracting…
She was wrenched out of her daydreams by a dull snapping sound, followed by a shout.
In front of her, the rope slackened.
"Jack!" Her voice ricocheted from the cave's walls. She propelled herself to the edge and fell to her knees to peer over.
"Jack? Jack?" She realized that the echoes of her voice drowned out all other sounds and forced herself to stop and listen. There was a scuffling sound some way down, but she couldn't see anything.
"I'm alright," came his familiar voice, breathless.
"Jack!" Phryne nearly cried with relief. "Where are you?"
"I'm hanging onto a small ledge, but I can't see much."
She peered more carefully into the darkness, but she still couldn't see him. There was a ridge in the way - a rather sharp ridge. The frayed end of the snapped rope was resting just above it, clear evidence of what had happened.
Phryne swallowed down her fear.
"Can you climb up?" She called down.
There was a short silence.
"I don't think so," came Jack's voice. "The ledge is too narrow for me, and I can't… can’t get a grip anywhere."
Jack tried very hard to ignore the strain of his arm muscles and the sound of his heartbeat thudding frantically through his head. He focused on Phryne's voice instead.
"The top part of the rope is still tied up here, but I can retie it with a different knot and to add a little more length," she called. "Hopefully it will be enough to reach you."
"Alright," he grunted.
It was quiet for a while. Jack forced his mind into a state of well-practiced blankness and focused on his breathing as he held on.
"I'm lowering the rope now, Jack,” she spoke from above. “Can you say something, so I know where you are?"
He breathed a sigh of relief at the return of her voice. "Here," he panted. "I'm here, uh..."
Speaking was exerting. He paused and took a few gulps of air into his strained ribcage. "Are you lowering the rope yet?"
"It's as far as it can go," she said. He could hear the controlled panic in her voice. "Can't you reach it?"
He steeled himself and lifted one hand from the ledge to grasp through the air above him. There was no rope. He grabbed onto the ledge with his hand again.
"No," he said with gritted teeth. "I think it's still too short."
His arms were starting to feel numb.
"That’s as far as it can go," her voice came. It was beginning to become difficult to hear her over the rush of blood that came with the pounding of his heart. "I can run back to the town, find another rope – "
His fingers cramped. "I don't think I can hold on that long," he called to her. He could hear the desperation in his own voice.
She didn't answer. He hung suspended in the darkness, every muscle in his upper body burning with the effort, for what felt like an eternity.
The dark nothingness started to get to him.
"Phryne," he gasped, "could you say something, please?"
Her voice came immediately. "I'm here, Jack. I'm lowering the rope again. See if you can reach it."
To his surprise, he felt the end of the rope graze his knuckles almost immediately.
"Got it!" he called, grasping it with one hand.
The rope's tension yielded slightly in his hand. A rush of terror seized him.
"Is it tied to anything?" he asked, scared of what her answer would be.
There was a short silence.
"Just trust me, Jack."
There were tremors shaking through his arms and his muscles were screaming. He couldn't hang on for much longer.
"Jack? You can grab on to the rope. I won't let you fall."
Her voice cut through his fears. He grabbed the rope tighter in his hand and let go of the ledge to grab on with his other hand as well.
The rope held.
It took painstakingly long. His arms were shaking, and it was difficult to keep his grip with his cramping fingers. At last, it grew lighter around him and he risked a glance upwards. The edge was in sight.
He gritted his teeth and climbed the last few meters until he could grab onto the edge and hoist himself over.
The first thing he saw was the soles of Phryne's shoes, kicking back against a large rock near the edge to keep her from going over as she held on to the rope. He dragged the rest of his body to safety and collapsed on his stomach next to her.
"Jack..." Her voice was half a sob.
"I'm alright,” he heaved, his eyes closed.
Part of him expected to feel her hands all over him right away, reassuring herself and him, but she didn’t seem to have moved at all.
He took a couple of deep breaths to recover before he rolled over.
Her back was turned to him and her head was bent. She was uncharacteristically quiet. Jack frowned. He pulled himself onto his still shaking legs and took a step closer to see what she was looking at.
She was staring at the palms of her hands. Her torn, bloody palms.
He stumbled to her side, horrified. "Phryne? What..."
He couldn't look away from her hands. The coarse fibers of the rope had rasped through the skin of her palms, turning her soft hands into a ragged mess. Jack swallowed. He was not a light man, and he hadn’t been gentle as he hauled himself up. Phryne’s hands had carried his full weight.
The whites of her eyes were too large in the dimness of the cave. Was it shock or pain?
"Are you..." he started to ask.
She shook her head and got to her feet abruptly, brushing past him to the cave entrance. He followed on her heels.
In the light of the afternoon sun, he could see the tracks of some involuntary tears down the dust on her cheeks. She noticed his glance and turned her head away.
"Did you take the backpack?" she asked, her voice small.
Jack halted, taken aback. He glanced over his shoulder at the cave's entrance. The backpack was still in the upper chamber they had just emerged from, he remembered. "Ah, no. I'll..."
He rushed back inside to get the backpack, mentally reviewing the first aid-content inside. Despite all his preparations, there wasn’t much.
When he came back outside, she had straightened her shoulders and turned around, awaiting him.
His eyes automatically drifted down to her hands. She held them near her chest as if she wanted to hug them to herself, with the palms faced upwards and fingers splayed.
Now that it was lighter and he could assess the damage properly, Jack noticed an angry red mark snaking around her right wrist as well.
"Did you tie the rope to yourself?" His voice sounded horribly cracked in his own ears.
He sought out her eyes, at a loss for words. She would rather have fallen with him than to accidentally let the rope slip. If he had been a bit too rough in his climbing, he would have pulled her down along with him. "Phryne...” he said, knowing he had nothing to apologise for but unable to resist the urge.
Her eyes skirted away from his again. "Let's just get back to the guest house."
The walk back to the guest house was deeply unpleasant. Phryne’s hands throbbed painfully the entire time, while even the slightest brush of air made them burn like hell.
She gritted her teeth and sped up, determined to get the walk back to town over with as fast as possible. Behind her, Jack’s footsteps also picked up speed.
The town came into view. Phryne walked even faster. She wanted to get to the guest house, to shut herself in the room and have a good cry.
Except, of course, that when they reached their room at the guest house, Jack was still there with her. He closed the door behind them and turned his worried eyes to her. His gaze was too much. She wanted to curl up in her bed and be left alone, but he was there, his relentless concern focused only on her.
“How are you feeling?”
He stepped closer to her, lightly grasping her elbow in what she knew was supposed to be a comforting gesture, but she had to suppress the urge to shake him off impatiently.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a too-gentle voice, pulling back. “What can I do to help?”
It made her feel even worse.
“Could you… drop by the chemist and get some arnica? And bandages?” She tried her best not to sound as if she was dismissing him, but from the way his eyes lingered on her for a second longer, she knew she hadn’t succeeded. But they really hadn’t brought any medical supplies, so she simply stared back at him until he nodded in acquiescence.
The palpable sense of relief she felt in the moments after he closed the door behind him made her feel a twinge of guilt.
Jack cared for her deeply, and she knew he tried his best to love her like she wanted. Was she too stubborn to let him care for her in his own way? He had been used to taking care of his wife when she was in pain, after all. That much had been clear that night after the Pandarus.
But I’m not his wife, she thought vehemently. Determined, she walked over to the small bathroom.
The tap was difficult to twist open with the backs of her hands. She braced herself before holding her hands under the small stream of water.
Her own hiss of pain was audible even over the gurgling of the tap. The water burned over her raw wounds, and she bit down on her lower lip as she forced herself not to pull away. She focused on the blood-tinged water dripping into the basin instead of the pain. It was oddly satisfying to watch, knowing that the water also washed away some of the particles that could cause infection.
Closing the tap with her elbows was hard. Her hands burned more severely after she’d taken them from under the tap.
Even more unpleasant was the direction her thoughts were taking. It was one thing to be self-sufficient, but rejecting help when it’s available and offered with kindness? She was being unreasonable, and she hated it.
She groaned and went to sit on the chaise. Her hands throbbed and she wished that she’d asked Jack to bring painkillers too.
Jack slowed his brisk walk as the guest house came into view again. She wouldn’t want him to be back from the chemist so soon; she had wanted to be left alone. Jack knew that much from the way her voice had gone up when she’d asked him to go.
He understood that she was used to taking care of herself, without him hovering nearby. Still, the knowledge that his presence was unwanted when she was in pain gave him an unexpected little jab in his chest.
The brown paper bag from the chemist crinkled in his grip.
You’re being unreasonable, he told himself. But that didn’t help. He couldn’t help feeling what he felt, and he felt useless.
The image of her bloody hands, hands that had held his life in them, danced before his eyes again. A strange mix of guilt and gratitude crept over him. Those wounds had been self-inflicted. A trade for his life.
He entered the guest house at last, completely lost in thought.
Was it really so strange that she wanted some time alone, to collect her thoughts? If she didn’t want him to see her while she was in pain, he would back off, he decided. He didn’t have a right to her vulnerability. If he felt the secret wish to be needed by her, he could keep it to himself.
He reached their door, hesitated, then knocked softly. After a few moments, he entered.
He looked around the room before his gaze settled on her, her head thrown back against the backrest of the chaise.
She looked utterly drained. He couldn’t decide if her eyes were resigned or apprehensive as they met his. “Hello,” she said without moving.
“Hello,” he replied. He walked closer and placed the paper bag from the chemist next to her. “Arnica and bandages, as requested. The chemist also added painkillers.”
Something in her gaze changed at that. “Thank you,” she said in a low voice.
She’d washed her hands, he noticed. He didn’t even want to think about how she had managed to open a tap, but he resolutely kept quiet. Not his place.
“Will you help me?” her voice tore him from his thoughts. “To bandage my hands, I mean.”
Her request took him by surprise. “Do you want me to?” he asked carefully.
“I can’t exactly do it myself,” she said, a hint of humour flitting over her face. Jack decided not to mention that had fully expected her to insist on attempting it herself, painful and impractical as that would have been.
He sat down next to her on the chaise and rummaged through the chemist’s bag, producing the arnica and bandages.
She offered him one of her hands. He let it rest gently in one of his own, while he dabbed the index finger of his other hand into the arnica. She closed her eyes.
When he applied the first dab of arnica, she hissed in pain and her eyes shot open again.
“Sorry,” Jack mumbled.
“Stop apologising, Jack,” she said, an edge in her voice. “None of this is your fault.”
Her words gave him a pause, but he refrained from commenting. He focused his attention on her hand again.
Now that the excess bloodiness had been washed off, he could judge the severity of the wounds for the first time. He did his best not to flinch at the small rags of skin surrounding the angry red cuts inflicted by the fiber of the rope.
He kept the sweep of his arnica-covered finger gentle. The cuts weren’t very deep, but the surrounding skin was swollen and red. Not even soft parts at the insides of her fingers had been spared, he noted as he methodically applied arnica there. Then he moved to her wrist, following the angry red chafing where she had tied the rope to herself.
When he had finished, he rummaged in the paper bag again until he produced some gauze. He carefully padded the arnica-covered parts of her hand with gauze before he reached for a bandage. He wrapped her hand lightly and carefully lowered it to her lap. She offered her other hand before he could ask.
He went ahead with his task methodically. By the time he was winding the bandage around her second hand, he had noticed that she was staring at him from under her lashes. Her lack of comments during the entire time had been decidedly uncharacteristic, and he found himself wondering what she was thinking.
At last, he placed her bandaged hand next to the other and sat back, unsure if she expected anything else from him.
Her eyes opened fully and she finally lifted her head from the back of the chaise to inspect her hands. She raised her eyes to his. “Excellent job, Inspector,” she said, but the teasing tone in her voice sounded slightly flat.
Jack appreciated her attempt nonetheless. “Satisfied with your care, then?” he attempted to volley, but another idea was busy forming in his mind. Phryne Fisher might not appreciate being coddled, but she would never object to being spoiled.
Phryne watched, slightly apprehensive, as a thought seemed to flicker behind Jack’s eyes.
“Yes,” she said, hoping that he would at least pretend to let the events of the day rest. “My care has been excellent, thank you.”
"Good," he said. "Good." He sat back on the chaise and gestured at her feet. "May I...?"
She nodded, puzzled. He bent down and lifted her feet into his lap, turning her, before he began to untie her walking boots. She stared at him, uncertain of what he was thinking.
"I've never been so glad to see your feet," he spoke down to her boots, "than I was when I reached you today."
"Jack," she said plaintively. "This really isn't necessary."
He paused and looked pointedly at her bandaged hands before meeting her eyes and raising his eyebrows. Then he continued to loosen the laces of one boot.
She sighed and leaned back. "Fine."
"I thought you liked it when I undressed you," he quipped.
Phryne was painfully aware that he was deliberately redirecting her attention. It reminded her of another time, with his fingers against her throat after Archie Woods’ attack, feigning just enough indifference for her not to brush off his concern. He was too damn good at that, distracting her in order to take care of her. The fact that she made it so difficult for him settled uncomfortably inside of her, along with her already jumbled emotions.
His fingers were firm as he wiggled off her first boot and placed it on the floor. Before he continued with the other boot, he took her sock-clad foot in both of his hands and rubbed it. Phryne didn’t know whether to squirm or sigh under his hands. Her foot was sweaty and dirty, after all. But he ignored it and continued for a while, until he placed the foot back in his lap and started the same procedure on her other foot. His steadiness made something inside her crumble.
When he was done, she pulled her feet from his lap and sat up straight. She saw his gaze drop to her lap, where her bandaged hands lay.
He held out his hands, palms up, and made eye-contact with her. Reluctantly, she placed her hands into his again.
He dropped his head and placed a kiss on each, so featherlight that she couldn't feel the press of his lips through her bandages.
"See, I'm alright," she told him. "You can stop fussing now."
"I'm not fussing, I'm admiring," he spoke to her hands. "These are incredible hands."
She rolled her eyes.
"I’ve always been in awe of you," he continued. He looked up at her, and his face turned serious. “But I get to see all your wounds and scrapes up close now, and it’s terrifying.”
She looked down without answering and let out a shaky breath.
“Are you in a lot of pain?” he asked carefully.
“It’s not that,” she said. He looked at her quizzically, and she felt her heart constrict. “Jack… if you had fallen today, it would have been my fault.”
“What?” He looked genuinely shocked. “Phryne, you saved my life!”
“It was my idea to go into the cave. I knew it was risky but I pushed you to do it, like I always do.”
He huffed. “You hardly forced me. I could have refused. Besides,” he said, attempting a smile, “the risk is always worth it if it’s you.”
She swallowed the unexpected lump that had formed in her throat. “Not if it’s at the expense of someone I love,” she said quietly.
Jack opened his mouth to refute her before he paused, processing her words.
She tried to fill the silence his lack of response had left. “Dammit, Jack. When I thought you had fallen, I...” She shuddered, unable to finish her sentence.
He was suddenly in front of her, kneeling on the ground next to the chaise. His hands stroked her knees, but she didn’t feel the urge to shake him off like she had earlier.
On the contrary.
She leaned forward and he met her halfway. The kiss was a reassurance she hadn’t even realised she wanted. She stroked her tongue into his mouth, memorising and relishing the feeling of his beloved lips at the same time. The pent-up fear of those moments in the cave, when she’d thought he’d died, spilled over and suddenly she was crying.
Jack started to pull away when he realised, but she placed her arms around his neck, holding him close with her forearms while keeping her bandaged hands out of the way. Then she kissed him until a lack of breath forced her to pull away.
He moved his hands from her knees to her hips and gently held her. She sniffed and wiped at her eyes before she leaned back in. He rested his forehead against hers.
“I know I make it… difficult…” she spoke against his lips, “for you to care for me, sometimes. Thank you for doing it anyway.”
He pressed his lips tighter against hers briefly before pulling back. “You should know by now,” he whispered roughly, “that I enjoy the trouble of caring for you. But I should have given you space. I know that you don’t like being – ”
She kissed the apology from his lips. “We’re still figuring each other out, aren’t we?” she said when she pulled back.
He nodded sincerely. His eyes were smiling at her. “Good thing we’re both detectives.”
She huffed out a laugh and wiped her eyes again. Of course, this man, this lovely man, knew just how to restore her equilibrium in the least noticeable way. She could feel a slow, wide smile starting to stretch across her face.
“That is good,” she confirmed. “But it will take even the best detectives some time to work it out, won’t it?”
His eyes twinkled at her. “I dare say so.”
“It might take them very long,” she emphasized. “Years, even.”
His eyes turned slightly misty at that. “I… really hope so.”
She touched his cheek, bringing him back to the present. “And in the meantime,” her voice turned sultry, “there are some other…. logistics… we can figure out.” She let her eyes rake over his body. Her tongue darted out over her lips and she saw Jack’s eyes follow the motion.
“Hmm,” he hummed, and the smile in his eyes turned into a smirk. “Miss Fisher, would you like me to assist you out of those clothes?”