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Meeting in the Middle

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The case itself had been a success. Fleet and Clara had been called to a suburban estate near Faversham to look into the disappearance of an heirloom emerald ring, and had discovered in short order that the elderly countess’s excitable terrier had been the author of said disappearance and would likely be passing the jewel in the next twenty-four hours. That should have left them plenty of time to return to London Central well before evening, save that the countess’s officious steward had decided that the matter of their fee was the hill he was prepared to die on. It would require hours, most of Fleet’s sarcasm, and all of Clara’s charm to finally convince him to part with the money they were owed.

So it was under a twilight sky that they boarded their train back to London Central. “Finally,” Fleet grumbled, flopping peevishly into his seat.

“He was terribly protective of his mistress’s finances, wasn’t he?”

“Probably stealing from her.”

“Do you think?”

“Call it a detective’s hunch.” He heaved a morose breath. “It’ll be midnight before we get back.”

“Probably.” Clara withdrew a notebook from her reticule; her big one, the news notebook. Fleet felt a twinge of guilt. This was not the first time working a case with him had kept her from filing a story in a timely manner. It was only the excellence of what she did file that kept her from Augusta Bell’s considerable wrath, but he privately worried that sooner or later that goodwill would run out, and it would be his fault.

If Clara was worried, she gave no indication of it. She sat serenely, jotting away, occasionally flipping back to some other page, then hastening back to what she was working on. Fleet took another deep breath. At least one of them could always keep their center. He’d come to rely on that. If there was one thing Clara Entwhistle was, it was unflappable. And Fleet knew himself well enough to know that he was, on occasion, easily flapped.

Of course, that unflappability came as a package deal with a complete disregard for boundaries, a profound indifference to consequences, and a determination that if the glass wasn’t half full, she’d find something to fill it with, and God help you if you got in her way. She was, essentially, a steam roller in petticoats. Fleet liked that about her. Normally he didn’t care for people who were pushy, or chipper, or self-assured, but she had so efficiently battered her way past his defenses that it had already happened by the time he even noticed it.

The sky darkened outside the drawn blinds of their rail carriage as the vastness of Even Greater London slipped by. And Fleet and Clara sat in comfortable silent; she wrote, and he watched her. It was very relaxing.

Then the train ground to a halt. “Oh dear,” Clara said, looking up. The carriage intercom crackled to life.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced a voice whose tone indicted the speaker did not feel themselves properly compensated, “we will be experiencing a delay due to an ice fall on the tracks.”

“A delay? How long a delay?” Fleet asked, straightening from his slouch.

“As this is the last train of the day from Faversham, this delay will last until 7 am,” the voice continued, still woefully underpaid.

“Ugh, the suburbs,” Fleet muttered.

“So what does this mean?” Clara said, tucking away her notebook.

“Ice from the glacier blocking the tracks. It happens sometimes on the older lines. But what it means is we’ll have to find another way home.” The train began to move again; the lurching, off-kilter movement of backing up.

“Oh. Well, I suppose it can't be helped.”

“Not unless you want to go move a few tons of ice.”

“Not this evening. These gloves are brand new.”

The train returned to the most recently passed station, spilling its disgruntled passengers into the streets, where the few cabs plying their trade at that hour were quickly snapped up. “Perfect,” Fleet muttered as the last rattled away.

“We could always try to find a place to spend the night.”

“We didn't make that much from this case.”

“I know, but it's beginning to look as if we're out of options.”

“Two rooms will be expensive.”

“We can share.”

He peered at her blankly. “We can?”

“Of course. Mr. and Mrs. Theesby have been married for nearly three years, you know.”

“Have they?” He shook himself. “Clara, you're not serious.”

“I'm perfectly serious.” She gave him a steady look. “Fleet, I trust you with my life. Why wouldn’t I trust you with the rest of it?”

He had no idea how to answer that. She bustled off in search of a porter who could direct them to the nearest inn.

That establishment proved to be Greer’s Inn, which occupied a corner two streets up from the station. Fleet stayed out of the way as Clara blithely unraveled the string of falsehoods that was Mr. and Mrs. Theesby, and a room was purchased.

It wasn’t a bad room either, if small, being almost entirely filled by the large four poster bed. Fleet stood in the doorway for a moment, trying to work out how it could have even gotten in there in the first place. “Well, this isn’t bad at all,” Clara said, setting down her reticule on the small chair next to the tiny wash basin crammed in the corner.

“They must have assembled it in the room,” Fleet muttered to himself. “But how did they fit the mattress…?”

“Is everything alright?”

“Yes, fine.” Fleet rubbed his eyes. “Not much floor space, but I suppose you’ll tell me that’s fine too.”

“It’s a big bed,” she shrugged.  He did likewise. A complete disregard for boundaries, a profound indifference to consequences, and a stunning blind spot for propriety. She kept on daring the world to think poorly of her, and somehow, it never did. Maybe it was afraid to.

Now that he thought about it, Clara Entwhistle was an extremely dangerous person. Good thing she liked him.

Propriety blind spot or not, they still undressed with backs politely turned, and settled into their respective sides of the bed with the lights out, leaving a nice, wide, empty strip of mattress between them.

Morning found them in an entirely different configuration.

Waking returned not in a rush, but as a slow tide. Fleet was vaguely aware of lying on his side, a warm, pleasantly soft shape beside him, of breath against his neck and an arm draped across his waist. His own arms seemed to be involved somehow as well, one tucked under shoulders and the other hand resting on a hip.

On her hip. That was when he truly woke up, just as that realization became the sole thing he was sure of in all the universe: His hand. Was on. Clara’s hip.

She seemed to wake up and come to the same understanding at roughly the same time he did, and they both scrambled for opposite sides of the bed, clothing, and the door. They barely looked at one another on the way back to London Central, and said less. In a way, it was something of a relief. At least Clara was flapped too.

And it was a relief that instead of accompanying him back to the office, Clara instead went to the Morning Chronicler. But if Fleet had thought that solitude would help, it didn’t. He sat at his desk, staring at nothing.

How was he supposed to feel about this? It wasn’t as if they’d never touched before; they did, all the time! But as friends, as colleagues, as partners, not-

He squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to think about where his hand had been.

Eventually, he heard her step on the stairs and steeled himself. They were going to have to have A Talk, he just knew it.

“Hello!” she said cheerfully. “Any calls while I was gone?”

“…no.”

“Oh good, then you don’t have anything in the queue, do you? Only Lester had a tip on a really interesting series of robberies, and I was thinking about going down to the Pleasure Coast to find Janet and see if she knows anything. Want to come along? I’ll buy you an ice cream.”

He opened his mouth, closed it, and opened it again. Was she really going to try to pretend that this morning hadn’t happened?

“Clara…”

She saw the consternation in his face, and her expression softened. “Sometimes,” she said quietly, “if I’m really lucky, when I wake up in the morning, everything’s just right. I’m perfectly warm, and comfortable, and safe. It’s the best feeling in the world. This morning was like that.” She shot him a small, shy smile. “It was nice.”

He swallowed. “It was nice,” he agreed.

Then someone knocked at the door, and they didn’t speak about it anymore.