A sigh from the opposite end of the office made Fleet look up. Clara was holding a piece of paper, staring at it exasperatedly. She huffed and ruffled it slightly before glaring at it again, as if she was rereading it.
Fleet didn't notice that he was staring until she glanced up at him. She immediately folded the paper back into its folds gave him a wry smile. "My mother. She sent me her thoughts on my new way of making a living."
"And what are her thoughts?" Fleet asked delicately, although he had a pretty good idea.
Clara rolled her eyes. "Oh, you know, the usual. It's inappropriate for me to be working. It's inappropriate for me to be working with a man. It's inappropriate for me to be in the company of a man I'm not married to. It's inappropriate that I'm not married at my age. Nothing I haven't heard before." She stuffed the letter back into the envelope and shoved into one of the drawers at of her desk, which was facing Fleet's.
He was not quite sure what to say. "Does it bother you, that she thinks so?"
Clara frowned and shook her head. "Not that in particular, no. She's always been rather critical of my choices, and I've always ignored all of her suggestions and orders, so that doesn't really bother me. I'm just growing tired of being told the same thing by everyone around me."
He frowned deeply, and a light shudder ran through him. The urge to punch someone was suddenly very strong. "Who else has said something like that to you? I know about that time in parliament…"
She thought about it. "Well, every time I try to tell someone what I do, they either don't understand what I mean at all, or they start telling me about how I should be looking for a husband instead of working for a living. And people are always so judgemental when they find out that I work with you, an unmarried man. Remember that one time when a cabby told us to get out because we did not have a chaperone? People often act that way when I have to work with them."
She shrugged and gave a slight laugh. "To be honest, sometimes when people assume we're a married couple, it's almost a relief."
Fleet stared at her, perplexed. "I never realised… I'm sorry. I'm sorry that our situation has made it difficult for you."
Clara immediately looked like she regretted saying anything. "It doesn't really matter. It comes with the job, I suppose. I'll become used to it." She broke eye contact. "Forget about it, Fleet. Let's carry on with our work."
Fleet watched her awkwardly shuffle a few papers on her desk. Clearly she didn't like talking about the matter, but he couldn't just forget about it now that she brought it under his attention. It was not something he wanted her to get used to.
He looked down at the paperwork on his desk, but he couldn't focus on it. At last, he pushed his chair out and stood up.
"I'm going to get some coffee downstairs. Would you like a cup as well?"
Clara looked up. "Yes, that would be rather nice, thank you."
Fleet ordered the two cups of coffee downstairs. Nowadays, he and Clara were allowed to take the cups upstairs, as long as they returned them on the same day and in one piece. It was an arrangement that led to an unhealthy amount of coffee being consumed by them both.
As he stood waiting for the coffee, his mind was moving in strange new directions. He couldn't shake what Clara said, but there was a particular sentence that he couldn't stop thinking about.
Sometimes when people assume we're a married couple, it's almost a relief.
No, he told himself immediately. What an idiotic idea. The problem wasn't that Clara wasn't married, the problem was that some people were judgemental bastards who deserved to be punched in the face.
"Inspector! Your coffee," one of the young waitresses called. Fleet walked to the counter and she handed him two cups.
"There you go. One for you, and one for... Miss Entwhistle."
Normally, Fleet would not have noticed something like that, but it was as if the talk with Clara earlier had jolted him awake. He saw the waitress's eyes dart to another woman in the shop and her eyebrows raise slightly with her smile, as if she was saying 'See, I told you, isn't it shameful?".
He grabbed the cups, almost spilling, and headed upstairs quickly.
Clara thanked him for the coffee and he sat down behind his desk again. He was bristling. Both at the girl downstairs with her knowing glance, and at himself for never noticing things like that before. Clearly it was way worse than Clara was willing to tell him.
But he couldn't just punch every bastard who gave Clara a sidelong glance in the face.
His earlier thoughts returned, and suddenly didn't seem so unreasonable anymore. He and Clara worked together for the largest part of every day. They traveled together while working on cases, and they have shared lodgings before while traveling (yes, he knew it was shameful, but it was also very practical). Some of these things would probably cause fewer eyebrows to be raised if they had matching rings on their fingers.
He glanced at Clara and swallowed. She was completely entranced by the article she was working on. Would she be offended if he suggested it, or would the prospect scare her? He knew she lived for her work and that she generally scoffed at the idea of getting married, but did that mean that she wanted to carry on that way for the rest of her life? Or was she planning on marrying eventually? In that case, she'd probably turn his suggestion down. Which would be pretty uncomfortable for both of them.
Fleet felt like he could bang his head against the desk, so he roughly rearranged a stack of paperwork instead.
"You alright?" Clara asked, glancing at him with raised eyebrows from her desk.
He swallowed. "Yes…"
"You sure?" She leaned forward.
"Yes." He grimaced.
"Absolutely sure?" She asked. By now he knew she was teasing.
"Yes!" He said, before awkwardly patting the stack of paperwork in front of him. "Just a bit frustrated. I wish we could have a new case."
She leaned back in her chair with a small smile. "We'll have one, soon enough. Our reputation is starting to precede us. We should appreciate these quiet moments. One of these days, we're going to be so successful, we'll have to decide which cases to take, and you won't have to abuse your paperwork anymore."
"If you say so," he said, rolling his eyes at her.
Clara smiled and went back to her work.
Fleet frowned and went back to his thoughts.
He couldn't let go of the idea. That night he lay awake for hours, rolling around, thoughts rampant. At last, he threw all of his blankets off, lay perfectly still on his back, closed his eyes and forced himself not to move until he went to sleep.
The next few days didn't help. Suddenly it was all around him, and he couldn't understand how he had been so blind before. Nasty glances, little offhand comments, and even an old lady who gave her opinion rather directly. Clara handled that one well. She smiled mirthfully, gave a witty reply, and laughed as they walked away from the subsequently enraged woman. But most people weren't so outright that Clara could ridicule them, and Fleet could tell that she noticed the subtler jabs.
He was pretty angry at himself for not noticing earlier, and even angrier because there wasn't much he could do to fix it. Well, except for… You know.
He was seriously starting to consider it.
A few days later, they finished the paperwork of their latest case early.
"Now that," Clara said, relishing the last sip of her coffee, "is what I call a productive day."
Fleet gave a hum of agreement, but he couldn't sit back with the same satisfaction. He balled his fists, rubbed his thumbs over his knuckles and opened his hands; only to repeat the motion again.
"Are you quite alright?" Clara asked.
He jolted. "Yes?"
She looked at him with her head slightly tilted. "You seem awfully quiet for someone who just successfully solved a case without getting killed, assaulted or kidnapped, for once."
He scraped his thoughts together. "I guess I have you to thank for that," he smiled. "I have never met someone who could talk their way around trouble like you do."
"I guess they are simply overwhelmed by my excellent wit," she jested.
"Quite." He glanced at the office's clock (a recent acquisition). "We finished early today."
"Indeed," she said. "I think I might go home now, I have some extremely boring housework that I've been putting off for way too long now."
"I'll lock up."
Clara started gathering her things. Fleet stared at her thoughtfully. His heart was suddenly hammering in his chest in a way that made him think that his repair mechanics might be faulty.
He wanted to talk to her about it, and if he kept putting it off, he would probably never get to it. Now was as good a time as any, he only had to…
She was almost out of the door already. She stuck her head back into the room. "Fleet?"
"I- uh- wanted to talk to you about something before you left."
"Yes?" she walked back in, set her things down on the desk, turned around and faced him, leaning against the desk. He stood up as well and paced around his desk to face her.
He tried to find the proper words to introduce his topic. "I, well, I want to make a suggestion so ridiculous that you'll probably think I've lost my mind."
Mentally, he kicked himself. She would think he was averse to the idea, but only suggesting it for the sake of-
"Do go on," Clara said, her eyes twinkling mischievously. "Those tend to be the best sort of suggestions."
She had no idea in what direction he was heading. He had to try to steer the conversation towards…
"Do you remember our conversation on Tuesday?" he asked.
"Which one?" She was smiling. "The one about the case of the mysterious levitating fruit, or the one about Sandringham and Balmoral's relationsh-"
"The one about your mother's letter and your marital status and the pressure our situation is placing on you," he interrupted. "I… was trying to think of a way to remedy that."
Her face fell. "Do you… do you want to stop working with me?" She asked quietly.
His mouth fell open and he couldn't find the right words to reassure her quickly enough. "What… No, of course not, I... was going to ask you to marry me!"
Clara visibly jolted and her face paled. She stopped leaning against the desk and stood upright, looking anywhere but at him. "Oh… I…."
He wanted to throttle himself for blurting it out that way. "No, I didn't mean it like that, I meant…" He gaped at her, all his well-thought-through reasons suddenly not making any sense.
"I meant, just to make things easier." No, that wasn't the right way to put it.
"For convenience, you know?" NO NO NO THAT SOUNDED SO MUCH WORSE-
"So that you wouldn't have to be bothered by anyone anymore. And by your mother." He finished weakly.
She was staring at him with her mouth open, blinking rapidly.
The silence stretched on for way too long, but he couldn't find anything more to say.
She looked at the ground. "I, uh, well, I… this is all, rather… unexpected, Inspector Fleet…"
His work title hit him like an ax between his eyes. He stared at her helplessly. Her eyes were trained firmly on the wall just left of him.
The silence lasted an indefinite amount of time.
At last she cleared her throat. "I, uh, will need some time to, well… think it over." She said in a formal voice he had never heard her use before.
"O- Of course," he stammered, nodding furiously.
She started for the door and he followed behind her, not sure if he was being polite or not. Outside she turned around, and he halted in the doorframe.
"Well… Good day to you," she said awkwardly and nodded at him, before turning and heading down the stairs.
"To you… as well," he managed weakly.
He stood there for a few minutes after she had left. Then he turned around slowly and started beating his head against the door.
He sat behind his desk, sunken in his thoughts, until long after dark, without bothering to get a light. Suddenly he sprang to his feet and rushed to the door, locking up in a frenzy. He only touched every fourth stair as he ran downstairs. Outside in the rain, he hailed a cab. For once he didn't argue with the cabby, and her eyes widened at the amount of money he shoved into her hand.
They rattled away into the night.
Clara opened her rattling apartment door to find an out-of-breath Fleet standing on her doorstep.
"I care about you," he said rapidly. "I hate the fact that people shun you and that your mother is disapproving of your situation. I don't want anyone to treat you that way and I was trying to think of how I could make it better, but I don't want anything to change. I've never enjoyed my work this much and it's only because of you, and I don't want you to leave, but I don't want you to be humiliated because of the fact that we work together, so I tried to think of a way for it all to work but I know- I know… I spoke so mechanically this afternoon, and I don't want you to understand my meaning wrong, I really care about you, Clara." He looked at her despairingly.
She looked at his soaking clothes. "You came here in THIS weather?"
"Er… Yes?" He looked sheepish. They both stared at each other for a moment, until Clara couldn't help herself.
"Ever heard of Spontaneous Combustion, Fleet?"
He was visibly relieved when she used his surname like she always did. "Yes, of course." Suddenly it looked like he was waking up from some kind of trance. "It was stupid of me to come. It's probably inappropriate. I'll leave now." He turned to leave.
Her voice forced him to turn back.
"Inappropriate has never stopped me before," she said. "Come in. You're soaked and it's still raining outside."
She stood to the side and he stepped inside hesitantly. She pointed at the kitchen table with its two wooden chairs. "Take off your coat and sit down."
He did as she said automatically. She went to fetch towels and put the kettle on. He took the towels gratefully and dried himself as much as possible. By the time he sat down again, Clara had placed two steaming cups of coffee on the table and sat down opposite him.
"Thank you," he said and pulled his cup a bit closer. The coffee was still too hot to drink. He glanced at her uncomfortably. Now that he was dried off, there was nothing else to talk about, leaving only the obvious. He steeled himself and resolved to speak calmly.
She was fiddling with the handle of her cup, but she looked at him.
"I'm sorry about all of this," he said.
"I don't like to admit things like this," she said, "but you kind of scared me."
He wanted to sink through the floor in shame. "I really can't apologize enough."
She shook her head as if she was waving off the apology. "No… No, I just… I was surprised. I don't think I've ever been so surprised in my life, and I didn't know how to react, and you were just standing there waiting for my response, and I just..." She stared at her cup. "But I'm calmer now. I assume you came here to speak to me about… all that?"
She glanced at him. He grimaced at the thought of his rambling at the door.
"Yes." He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry I startled you earlier. I wasn't making my case very logically. I don't want things to change – I still want to work with you, no matter what. If you prefer it that way, we can just agree this never happened and carry on like before. Whatever you want."
He was looking at her at first, but by the end of his speech, he couldn't stop himself from looking down. He awaited her verdict with his head down.
Unbearable silence. Then:
"Explain your case logically, then."
He looked up at her, surprised. There was caution in her eyes, but she shrugged. "I'm really curious. Explain it to me in a way that makes sense."
Fleet stared at her for a few seconds. Then he started speaking slowly, his hands clamped around the mug on the table.
"The last few days, after you told me about your mother and everything else, I've started to notice how people were treating you. I think their behaviour is ludicrous and I hate it, but I couldn't think of any way to stop it. Except, well, remember how you said that it's almost a relief when people assume that we're married?"
"I wasn't… you know… trying to hint.. imply," Clara said. Her cheeks were red.
"No, I know!" Fleet said hurriedly. "I know. But I couldn't stop thinking about that, and it just, crazily seemed to make sense? People won't question all our traveling for cases anymore, your mother would stop badgering you about getting married and about our situation. We spend almost every day together anyway. Hell, we've shared lodgings before by pretending to be married, so it wouldn't even be such a stretch."
Her eyes widened at the last part, so he quickly returned to his point.
"What I'm saying is, there are a lot of logistic problems that would be solved if we could claim to be married. But it wouldn't work if we only pretended, because-"
"-my mother would weasel the truth out somehow," Clara finished his sentence.
They stared at each other, wide-eyed. Clara, shocked about how much sense it made; Fleet, surprised at her lack of objections.
At last, Clara said, "Theoretically… how would it work? Logistically?"
Fleet stared at her. "I… I, well, I have thought about it a little. We would have to get lodgings to live together, people will talk if we live separately. We'll have our own rooms, of course," he added quickly, "but no one else will know about that. Other than that, we can continue almost exactly like as we do now. Only there will be fewer complications."
He ran out of words. They stared at each other across the table again, and it was as if the room narrowed until it consisted only of them, the table, and the two steaming mugs between them. Fleet swallowed.
"I'd understand, of course," he continued, desperate for something to say, "if you don't want to tie yourself down. You are young and beautiful and a lady, and you still have every chance ahead of you to get married for real, so to do this would… it would ruin all your chances." He gulped. "Come to think of it, this is really a bad idea."
She fidgeted with her cup before looking up, staring into the nothingness past him. "I don't know about that… I love the work I'm doing, and I like working with you. I wouldn't want to marry if it meant that I would have to stop. And I doubt that any man would want me to continue once we get married, except… except for you."
It was almost too much, the way the possibility of it really happening hung in the air now. Fleet was breathless, his eyes glued to Clara, waiting for her next words.
She looked at him. "It would be no worse than when other people marry for status or wealth. A marriage of convenience, just not a conventional one."
Fleet almost choked in his own spit at the certainty in her voice. "You don't need to decide right away," he said weakly. "There is no pressure."
The threatening sense of possibility in the room lifted slightly. Clara nodded at him, but she still looked as if she'd just had an epiphany.
Fleet shifted in his chair uncomfortably. "Also…"
"I don't want you to think that I think of it as just… convenient. You are… I really care about you, Clara. You are my closest friend, and it would be an honour to marry you."
The last sentence nearly cost him his life. His heart was hammering in his chest.
"That’s… a really sweet thing to say, Fleet," Clara's voice was soft.
He looked up at her. The sincerity in her eyes was blinding, and Fleet was immediately, completely, utterly overwhelmed.
"Of course, if the idea of marrying me is repelling to you, we don't have to do it," he blurted out.
"What?" The spell was broken.
"I mean, we would have to seem somewhat affectionate towards each other to sell it, so if it would be unpleasant for you to act in such a way toward me, I'd understand-"
"You don't repel me, Fleet," Clara said, frowning. "Why would you say that? Do you find me repelling?"
"What?" It was his turn to be dumbstruck. "No! Of course not!" He desperately reached for words of assurance. "I could never think of you as repelling. On the contrary – I find you appealing and… and.. very attractive!"
Clara gaped at him. "You… are attracted to me?"
Fleet gaped back at her. "I… Yes."
He had never thought about it consciously before, but it was true. How did this get so out of hand?
She leaned forward in her chair. "So, you tell me this marriage would be convenient, casual, and it would make sense logistically, but you don't tell me that you are attracted to me? What kind of proposal is that?"
Fleet drew a breath to protest. Then he stopped. There was no use. It was true. He was, in some absurd way, busy proposing, no matter how convenient it was and how logical he tried to be about it. Suddenly, it was as if his future was there, right in front of him, and there was no other path he could possibly want to take, no matter how exposed he felt.
He let out the breath he had been holding. "A rather poor one, I'm afraid. Forgive me, I'll try to be direct."
Clara stared at him with wide eyes. He leaned forward slightly and looked right into her eyes. "I think you are the most beautiful and intelligent woman I've ever met. You are my favourite person, and being married to you would make me extremely happy." His voice fell even lower. "Do you, maybe, somehow, think about me that way as well?"
The following seconds were excruciating. Clara's eyes did not leave his, but they were shining with a strange kind of fire he had never seen in them before. She stared at him for one unbearable second more.
Then she abruptly pushed her chair out. She stood up, leaned over the table, grabbed his face with both hands and kissed him fervently.
Fleet's hands rose in surprise and flapped in the air uselessly before he came to his senses. He grabbed her face and stumbled to his feet to meet her in the middle.
Clara kissed him the same way she did everything: With confidence, with everything she had, and with a mischievous smile in the corner of her mouth. Fleet kissed her back with every ounce of his being, every bit of protectiveness and concern he ever felt for her, every bit of humour she ever exposed in him. When they broke apart, their wild grins were mirror images of one another.
"That answer your question?" Clara said breathlessly, and oh, her voice was almost too much for Fleet.
"Yes," he said hoarsely. An intense feeling of happiness flared up inside of him. He was beside himself. "Do you also feel like, like," he tried to convey his feelings with words, "you could do anything right now? I could… we could solve the hardest case, nothing would be able to stop us-"
There was a crash as his excited motions sent one of the mugs from the table to the floor. He looked at her sheepishly. Then they both burst into delirious laughter.
It took them a while to calm down. Clara ruined it immediately. "If you are quite done breaking my mother's mugs-" she started, before they both started laughing again, hysterical.
At last they were able to speak again without laughing. "So, what now?" Clara asked. Her smile and her eyes were so bright, Fleet decided to lean over and kiss her again. She gladly complied, and the second kiss lasted a lot longer than the first.
Fleet broke away after a while. "I should go," he said quietly, cradling her face in his hands. She had a dreamy expression.
"Why should you?" she asked, discontented.
He smiled at her. "Firstly, my love, because we have overstepped the limits of propriety by quite far."
Clara rolled her eyes and Fleet gazed at her fondly.
"Secondly, I think I might have exhausted my entire life's supply of happiness in less than half an hour."
She smiled up at him tenderly. "I've never seen you THIS happy before."
He kissed her forehead. "And I wish I could see you this happy every day of my life."
After a while, they somehow managed to reach the door.
"We still have a lot to discuss," Clara said.
"Yes," Fleet said, suddenly frowning. "I hope all of this still makes sense tomorrow when we wake up."
Clara gently touched the frown on his forehead, and it smoothed away automatically. "It will."
She suddenly reached around him and hugged him. Fleet put his arms around her and held her tightly, resting his head against hers.
At last they let go. Clara opened the door, but before he could exit, put her arms around his neck and kissed him deeply. Finally, she allowed him to pass through. They stood, divided by the doorframe, and gazed at each other again, not knowing how to say goodbye.
Clara spoke at last. "Good night, Fleet."
He gaped at her. "You can't still call me by my surname! We just kissed! THREE TIMES!"
She smiled at him mischievously. "What should I call you then? Archibald?"
He shivered. "Yes. Please."
She hummed thoughtfully. "I'm not used to calling you that. Guess you'll just have to earn it… Fleet."
Unexpectantly, she shut the door in his face, and he could hear her laughing.
"Clara! Damn you!" he called, laughing while he hammered on the door. Suddenly it dawned on him that her neighbours might hear him. He stopped immediately and leaned against the door to listen. He could hear her breathing a few centimeters away.
"Good night, Clara."