Touching wasn't unusual for Clara and Fleet.
On carriage rides, when they sat opposite each other comfortably, their knees would touch occasionally. When they got out, Fleet usually got out first, and then took her hand to help her out. When they walked together somewhere where it wouldn't raise too many eyebrows, he would offer her his arm, and she'd accept it. They'd even been forced to hide in some rather cramped spaces like closets during a few cases.
Sharing personal space was therefore not uncomfortable to them, and touching occasionally was quite natural.
Until one day.
They were about to head out to follow a specific lead. Fleet was holding the office door for her, and she was about to pass, when she noticed that his coat's collar was not folded neatly behind his neck. Without giving it any thought, she reached out to straighten it, like she used to do for her father and older brother.
She did not notice the way Fleet's eyes widened with terror.
Abruptly, he swatted her hands and shoved her away from him violently. She stumbled backward. He retreated in the opposite direction.
Clara gaped at him.
His chest was rising and falling rapidly. "Wha- Why- What are you doing?" he stammered, staring at her with wide eyes and a deathly pale face.
Clara stared back, shocked and confused. "I… I was only going to fix your collar," she said.
He looked at her uncomprehendingly. His hands reached for the back of his neck, automatically.
Comprehension dawned on Clara. It was exactly where his 'off switch" was located. The one he didn't even know existed until Lady Carmichael used it to incapacitate him. Her eyes widened with horror. "Oh my goodness, Fleet. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to..."
He didn't answer her, but stared blankly in front of him. His arms hung limply by his sides, and he was completely still, except for his chest. His breathing was fast and shallow.
Clara watched him helplessly from where she stood. She was hesitant to go closer or to touch or comfort him in any way, because she was afraid that it would worsen his attack or cause him to lash out again. She looked to her left and her right, and grabbed the empty cup from Fleet's desk.
"Stay right where you are," she told him. "I'm going to get you some chamomile tea."
He glanced at her, but didn't answer. She exited the office and closed the door quietly behind her.
She took her time to get the tea. Part of her wanted to rush back up and make sure he was alright, but she restrained herself. She had caused this attack of… whatever it was. Fleet would probably calm down better on his own. Maybe. She wasn't sure.
The guilt gnawed at her. She knew that it probably wasn't her fault, but her gesture had caused it. She had never seen Fleet this way before, and the thought that it was because of her made her insides squirm.
She waited for ten minutes before actually ordering the tea, and then it took a few more minutes to prepare. By the time she walked up the stairs with the hot cup, it was nearly a quarter of an hour later.
She stopped at the door, unsure of how to proceed. At last, she knocked.
"Yes." His voice sounded immeasurably tired. She opened the door and went in.
Fleet was sitting behind his desk, his head in his hands. He didn't look up.
"I brought tea," she said clumsily. "Can I put it on your desk?"
He nodded slightly without looking up. She stepped forward, placed it on his desk, and stepped back again. He didn't react in any way or reach for the cup.
"I'll be on my way," Clara said quietly after a while, not knowing what else to do. She turned towards the door.
"No," Fleet said quietly. "Stay. Please."
Clara turned back. He was looking at her with so much emptiness in his eyes that she immediately walked over. She sat down in the chair they usually reserved for clients on the other side of the desk, and placed her hands on the table, a few centimeters from his own. He immediately grasped both of her hands. He was trembling uncontrollably.
Clara was abruptly filled with rage. "Tomorrow, first thing, we're going to Julius. He promised you he'd take it out, and he will keep that promise. I don't care if we need to threaten him at gunpoint-" she cut short her tirade quickly when she saw how tired Fleet's gaze was.
"I'm so sorry," she said softly. "I don't know how to apologize, Fleet, I should have thought-"
He shook his head. "Not your fault."
"I shouldn't have-"
He shook his head again, and Clara fell silent. She decided to just hold onto his hands until he indicated otherwise.
They sat in silence for a long time before Fleet finally spoke. "I didn't want to make such a fuss. I'm sorry."
Clara wanted to tell him not to be ridiculous, but he seemed like he wanted to continue, so she kept quiet.
"Sometimes I dream about it," he said without looking up. "I… I don't know how to describe it. I can hear everything, feel everything… I hear her knock you out and throw you out of the carriage and drive away, and I can't do anything. I feel myself being tied up, carried, thrown down, but I can't move."
He swallowed. "I can feel my organs slowing down. I can't breathe," he suddenly squeezed her hands more tightly. "I can hear my own heartbeat becoming weaker. And I realise I'm starting to lose consciousness because of the lack of oxygen, and I can't breathe-"
He stopped and took a few deep breaths before looking at Clara again. "And then, just as I think I'm gone, I wake up."
She stared at him in horror, unable to formulate a response.
"When we're out," he continued, "in a busy street, or someplace, I sometimes…" he unconsciously wriggled his right hand free from hers and touched his neck. "I feel vulnerable. I know it's ridiculous, but every moment I feel like someone might come from behind and…"
"Oh, Fleet…" she said at last, rubbing his left hand.
He lowered his eyes, and they sat like that for a long time, until Fleet retracted his hand. Clara looked up at him. He was looking at her with agitation.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I was violent with you. When I pushed you away-" His voice sounded choked. "Did I hurt you?"
"Did I?" he persisted, a desperate tone in his voice.
Clara relented. "No," she said honestly. "But you scared me a little bit for a second. It was… confusing."
"I'm so sorry," he said, looking at her with more guilt in his expression than she could handle.
"You were only lashing out instinctively-"
"And I almost hurt you." He stared at her. "I would not have been able to forgive myself if I did. I apologize. That will never, under any circumstances, happen again. I'm sorry."
They stared at each other for a few seconds. "I forgive you," Clara said quietly. "Please don't think of it anymore."
He nodded. They sat in silence for a while before Clara spoke again.
"I'm also sorry. For causing you pain."
Fleet looked at her, his eyes suddenly burning. "That was not your fault," he said and stood up. "It was purely Lady Carmichael, and maybe Julius and Tilvane as well, indirectly. But not you."
He walked around the desk to her. She stood up as well, looking at him quizzically.
"You were only trying to fix my collar, right?" He asked, and Clara nodded.
"That was very kind of you," he said earnestly, before gesturing at her hands. "May I?"
"Yes…" Clara said, confused.
He took both of her hands in his again, rubbing his thumbs over her knuckles briefly. "I reacted without thinking earlier, and it was unfair to you. I trust you with my life, Clara."
To her great consternation, he lifted her left hand towards him. And he didn't stop at his collar, like she briefly expected him to, but placed her hand carefully on his own neck.
Clara gasped softly. Under her hand, his warm skin throbbed with his sped up heartbeat. She could also feel the regular tickling of the mechanisms inside of him that was keeping him alive.
And under the skin, right under her palm, something round and hard.
Clara looked at Fleet. His eyes were closed and a muscle in his jaw sprang. She was suddenly overwhelmed with tenderness for him. She moved her hand along his jaw to cup his face. His eyes opened.
"You didn't need to do that," Clara said softly. Then she put her arms around him and hugged him fiercely.
He stood still for a moment, before putting his arms around her and hugging her equally tightly. Clara wasn't sure, but she thought she felt him place his lips on her head and kiss her hair lightly.
Either way, neither of them let go for a very long time.