Well, thought Clara Entwhistle as she tumbled over the railing onto the terrace below, that could have gone better.
She landed forcefully on her right side, and everything hurt immediately.
What followed was an hour or so of intense activity, very little of it her own. Her flight had been witnessed, which could be dangerous in a place like Even Greater London (and especially in the neighborhood she had found herself), but fortunately for her the witnesses had been a constable who knew Inspector Fleet and a chimney sweep automaton repairmen who was a fan of the Morning Chronicler. Between the two of them, they whisked her off to the nearest hospital (which, in a continued stroke of luck, was not St. Bernadene’s) where her dislocated shoulder was set, her cracked ribs wrapped, her badly sprained wrist splinted, and a delightful quantity of morphine provided.
Then Fleet arrived.
The constable had probably called him. Clara didn’t know for certain how he’d found out where she was or what had happened, only that he was there, and he was furious.
Fleet’s typical aspect was one of a man kept from throttling others only by his general belief in law and order, so the average spectator could rarely spot the difference between his usual lack of charity for the absurdities of the world and genuine anger, but Clara, even in her somewhat addled state, could. Which was why she kept quiet as he bundled her into a cab and tersely directed the cabbie to her lodgings. He simmered the whole ride, saying nothing, and remained silent until he had her ensconced, under a lap blanket, on her sitting room sofa.
“What the HELL were you thinking, Clara?!”
There it was.
“I had a lead. I had to follow it.”
“So who pushed you off that balcony? Was it Morrison, or one of her lackeys?”
“The big one,” Clara said tiredly, rubbing her forehead with her free hand. “Jessup, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, God.” Fleet paced around her tiny sitting room. She could almost see the cheap carpet wearing under his feet in real time. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“There wasn’t time.”
“There’s always time to let your partner know you’re going into a potentially dangerous situation! You could have been killed, Clara!”
“But I wasn’t,” she said placatingly. “I’ll be fine. Right as rain in a few days.”
“I know that part of the city. I know those row houses,” he retorted, refusing to be placated. “A little to the left and you would have dropped thirty feet instead of eight or nine.”
She swallowed. Today had been her lucky day, it seemed, and it was ending with a dislocated shoulder. Which was starting to throb again. She rubbed her forehead again. “Archie, I’m sorry.”
He stopped short. “Don’t,” he said tightly. “Don’t ‘Archie’ me. I’m still angry with you.”
“I was trying to be genuine!”
He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. “Alright, alright. But dammit, Clara, when they said you were hurt, that you were in hospital...” He started pacing again. “I know I can’t keep you safe, but I want to. I care about you. We’ve been through everything together, and you matter to me. And as many times as you’ve rescued me, I couldn’t rescue you, because I didn’t know you were in danger until it was too late. Do you really think so little of me you’d put yourself in harm’s way without even telling me?”
“Now just a-”
“But I’m just as angry at myself,” he continued hotly, “because I know that trying to protect you, in this world, in this line of work…it’s impossible. But it doesn’t matter. I can know it’s true, and it doesn’t matter.”
“Because I bloody love you!” he shouted.
“Well, I bloody well love you too!” she shot back.
“Good! Fine! Would you like some tea?”
He turned, about to head for the kitchen, but halfway through his about face, he stopped. “Wait. We just-” He scrubbed his face with both hands. “Isn’t this sort of thing supposed to be a moment or something?”
“We never can do anything the normal way, can we?”
“Apparently not.” He looked at her a silent moment, that little smile in his eyes, the one that was just for her. “I’ll get your tea.”
“Remember to wait until three Menelaus before you pour.”
“I’ll pour on two, and I hope wherever he is right now, Julius Bell breaks out in a cold sweat.”
She laughed, and her ribs hurt.
In a few minutes, he was back with the tea. “Can you manage with just your left hand?”
“I’ll be alright.”
“I don't just mean the tea. I may need to stay here until you're mended.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Why, Inspector, what will the neighbors think?” The question feigned shock, but the surprise was real. He shrugged.
“I think your neighbors care more about the fact I’m police than anything. Well, was police. Sort of police.” He sat down next to her. “This is weird.”
“We just said ‘I love you’ to each other and…everything still feels the same.”
She thought about that, carefully taking a sip of her tea. Doing it left handed required concentration. “Well…it’s not like it’s magic words. Just a more direct way of saying what we’re already been saying all along. At least…it is for me.”
“More direct,” he murmured to himself thoughtfully. “Right.”
He leaned in and kissed her.
Clara had never been given to romantic fancies, much to her mother’s despair. She’s always dismissed descriptions of fireworks, bells ringing, birds singing and all that other poppycock as just that. And maybe the only birds were hers, chirping softly in their cage, and maybe the only bells belonged to the parish church a few streets over, but she finally understood the fireworks.
“Oh,” she managed breathlessly when they finally parted. He was smiling a little. He looked pleased with himself.
“I love you, Clara.”
“And I love you. Am I allowed to call you Archie or are you still angry with me?”
“I am absolutely not angry anymore, but you can only call me Archie if you promise me something.”
“If you're going to do something incredibly dangerous and ill-advised, at least send me a telegram or something. Because if I lost you, I’d have to find another journalist to work with, and it would take me a lot longer than a day or two. I don't think I could. You're irreplaceable.”
She smiled. That deserved another kiss. “I promise.”