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A moment to breathe

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Sara Howard blows in thirty-two minutes before midnight, with her nose red from the cold and a dusting of snow on her hat and her coat. “Dr. Kreizler,” she says, giving him a quick peck on the cheek. “I was pleasantly surprised to receive your message.”

He smiles back. The Japheth Drury case was closed in July, and the months since then have been a blur. He can hardly believe that 1897 is less than an hour away. “It has been far too long, Miss Howard, but I trust you have been quite busy with your police work.”

“Oh, there’s hardly been an idle moment,” she agrees as she slips out of her coat and stamps the snow from her boots. Even with the cold wind at her back, she does not shiver. Sara Howard has thoroughly mastered the art of remaining still. “Commissioner Roosevelt has seen fit to transfer some of my duties to the detective team, so I continue to see a great deal of the Isaacson brothers these days. Although truthfully,” she adds after a thoughtful pause, “I do not think the commissioner will remain with the department for long. He has his eyes set on a higher prize. Of course, I only speculate; he has shared none of his plans with me.”

“The commissioner has both ambition and talent, so it would not surprise me in the least should he seek a higher position. But I am pleased to hear that your contributions to the department are being recognized. Certainly no one deserves it more.” He gestures for her to follow him into the parlor, where he pours a glass of whiskey for each of them. She raises her glass to him and takes a sip, and he disguises his grimace and does the same. They have had their share of disagreements, the two of them, but it is only because they are too alike in certain ways—too stubborn, too headstrong, too eager to be proven right. They do, however, diverge when it comes to their taste in drinks.

“And yourself? Have you been well?” she asks, after she has adjusted her skirts and settled in on the couch. It is not his health she is inquiring after.

“Sometimes” is the most truthful answer he can muster. Seven months have passed now since they buried Mary. His household has adjusted as best they can. He has kept himself busy with his work, writing late into the night until his hand cramps and his vision begins to blur, until he realizes that six hours have passed and he is ravenous—exactly the sort of thing that Mary would never have tolerated, John occasionally reminds him. He’s right, of course. But Laszlo can’t quite seem to help himself.

Her Bible now sits on the desk next to his bed. Some nights he will flip through it when he is unable to sleep. Mary never made any marks on the pages, but he can tell which parts she read over and over again from the weakness in the spine and where the paper has grown worn around the edges. Every time he picks it up, he finds himself turning to the same place: Though that prophesying fail, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge vanish away: yet love falleth never away.

“I still miss Mary terribly,” he admits. “I think I will never stop.”

“It was plain to me that she loved you very much,” Sara says gently. “She would not have wanted you to suffer.”

She is sitting with her hands folded in her lap, watching him from across the room, and he can’t help but remember the last time she was there in that same spot. She had grasped onto a thread of the truth and tugged until the shame that he thought he would always have to live with finally unraveled all at once. My father had two sides. My father, your father. Our fathers. He had not quite understood it at the time, but in a way, they had shown each other how they could both become free. For that, he is immensely grateful.

None of this is anything he can put into words, however. He manages to give her a small smile before he hears a sharp knock on the door and John calling his name.

“You’re late,” he informs his friend as he steps into the hallway.

“I’m—” John stares at him, checks his watch, and then crosses his arms. “It’s still twenty minutes to midnight, Laszlo, so I hardly see how I can already be late.”

“John Moore, he is teasing you,” Sara calls from the parlor. She sweeps in to give John a kiss on the cheek, and Laszlo does not fail to notice how her hand lingers on his shoulder, or the slow, silly smile that spreads across John’s face when she whispers something in his ear. He allows himself to feel a brief flash of jealousy and then lets it go. His friends are happy: good, let them be happy. To his knowledge, John has not proposed yet. Laszlo thinks he is afraid Sara will turn him down—not because she does not have feelings for him, but because of what that would mean for her career, especially now that she is beginning to advance in the department. He is not unsympathetic; he can imagine what giving up his own work would do to him.

But that inquiry will wait for another day. The clock is ticking closer to midnight, so he ushers his guests back to the parlor. He pours a second glass of whiskey for Sara and offers John a cup of hot cider. “A toast seems to be in order,” he says as he lifts his glass. “To you, my friends, in this new year.”

“Here, here,” John chimes in. He raises an eyebrow at the drink in Laszlo’s hand. “Why whiskey? I thought you abhorred it.”

He suspects Sara is stifling a laugh, and he clears his throat. “The high ethanol content of the drink contributes to its bitterness, but it is possible to condition oneself to the taste with repeated exposure.”

Now the mischief in Sara’s expression is unmistakable. “If I were to play your role for a moment, doctor, I would point out that you are addressing the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’ of John’s question.”

“You remain perceptive as ever, Miss Howard,” he says, shaking his head ruefully.

She nods in acknowledgment and does not press the issue. “I would like to offer a toast as well,” she declares. “This past year has tested all of us almost to the breaking point, and yet I am glad it brought us together. I cannot think of anyone else that I would rather begin the new year with.”

John takes his turn next. He looks down at the cup in his hand, and then raises it. “To our loved ones who are absent,” he says quietly. “May we honor their memories by being better men and women ourselves.”

Laszlo raises his glass and takes another sip of whiskey. Although the first taste burned his throat, this time it goes down easier. He can feel the warmth spreading through his body and the beginnings of drowsiness. He watches fondly as Sara takes a seat on the piano bench and starts to play while John joins in with song. They complement each other beautifully. He will have to tell John later.

At some point, he dozes off, and when he wakes he finds the lights have been dimmed and someone has covered him in a blanket. John is sleeping in the armchair with his head tilted back and his mouth open while Sara is stretched out on the couch. Laszlo checks his watch. It reads nearly half past two o’clock, and he realizes they missed midnight entirely. The new year arrived without them even noticing.

January 1, 1897. In no time at all the next century will be upon them. From a logical standpoint, he knows there is no real difference between one day to the next, or one year to the next—yet it still means something, to set aside last year’s burdens and start anew. Only a few months ago, the loss of Mary still fresh in his mind, he had been unable to think of even what the next day would bring. It is still hard, of course. Time only dulls the pain around the edges; it does not erase it. Grief had taken him in her suffocating embrace and he would surely have drowned if it hadn’t been for his friends. In their own ways, John and Sara stretched out their hands to him and led him out of the dark, even when he pushed them away, even when he had done nothing to deserve their kindness. And yet here he is; here they are. He still can’t quite picture it, the shape of the future, but that does not alarm him as it might have in the past. He will not have to face it alone. In truth, he never did: for love takes many forms; for love never falls away.

Laszlo shifts to make himself more comfortable, takes a moment to breathe, and drifts back to sleep.