Archibald Fleet had experienced many things that, he was willing to bet, most people never would. These rare experiences included, but were not limited to, discovering the frozen headquarters of a secret cult, being framed as a terrorist because he listened to a raven, uncovering a dangerous conspiracy, being pulled to his death by the Chief Beefeater, coming back from the dead, accidentally freeing a serial killer, accidentally becoming a saviour figure for a new religion, uncovering another dangerous conspiracy, and being the target of a rescue attempt by a flying circus. However, Fleet had not experienced some things that every other person seemed to experience. To be specific, he had never fallen in love, or felt romantic attraction.
His family had always treated his unwillingness to court anyone as an instance of stubbornness. "You shouldn't be so picky," his mother had told him. "If you wait too long, all the suitable women will be married, and you'll be alone." When he'd said he didn't know if he wanted to get married, his mother told him not to be silly. "Everyone wants to get married. It's the greatest happiness a person can have."
His sister was kinder about it. "Don't worry, Archie. There'll be someone out there for you. You just need to find them." For years, he'd hoped desperately that she was right. Perhaps he would feel romantic attraction when he met the right person. Perhaps one day he would meet someone perfect for him and then he'd know what everyone else is on about.
But then he'd met Clara Entwhistle. And she was smart and kind and courageous and, by all accounts, beautiful. She saved his life multiple times. He liked being around her. They worked well together. She made him laugh. He felt connected to her in a way he hadn't with anyone else. She was perfect for him. If anyone was his soulmate, surely it was her. And yet the thought of being romantically involved with her made him feel sick.
When she'd told Mrs Hampshire at the boarding house that they were eloping, he'd put his intense unease to the fact that he'd only just met her and she was interfering in his investigation and the whole pretense was definitely against police protocol. On their next case, Clara had used a similar cover, in which they posed as a married couple: Mr and Mrs Thesby. He hadn't protested that time, but there was still the same squirming feeling of wrongness in his stomach. He had the sense that the lie was too big to even contemplate.
When Fleet's dissection at the hands of the Prussians had felt inescapable, Commodus Bell had asked him whether he had any final messages to convey home. It had occurred to Fleet then that, if he was in love, now was the time to declare it. Nothing to lose, just a chance for pure unfiltered honesty. Yet, he'd hesitated. Even if the guards hadn't charged in, he wasn't sure what he would have said.
He didn't have a chance to attempt to understand any of this until after the Salik and Vidocq cases had both drawn to a close. After that, given Fleet & Entwhistle: Private Investigators' distinct lack of clients, he suddenly had a lot of time on his hands to wonder about the state of his heart. Not his literal heart, of course. He knew the state of his original physical heart: stopped. He also knew the state of his current physical heart: mechanical. Despite the strangeness of both of these facts, it was the state of his metaphorical heart - the one that poets like Tyberius Bell wrote about so dramatically - that troubled him the most. Fleet was desperate to understand whether his metaphorical heart (like his literal one) worked differently to those of other people; could his heart fall in love?
Clara never seemed to notice his long silences as he pondered this question. Nonetheless, Fleet was pleased to discover that, even when they weren't investigating a mystery together, he enjoyed her company. Their relationship had been forged through adventure and excitement, but it was equally well-suited to more mundane days.
Despite them having no cases, Clara spent most of her time in the office with Fleet. She had an office at the Morning Chronicler now, but she preferred to type up her stories in the office she shared with Fleet. When she wasn't working, they found plenty of ways to pass the time. They played cards (at first Fleet tended to win, but after Clara noticed the particular way his mouth twitched when he was lying, she was unstoppable). They discussed her column on detective work (Fleet recounted old investigations since his private practise had yet to yield any cases). They spent an inadvisable amount of money on coffee (ordered by Fleet) and ginger buns (ordered by Clara) from Mrs Pombligans downstairs. Clara told Fleet about her previous life in Yorkshire and the cases she was working on for The Chronicler and how her birds were doing. She also tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to get him to tell her about his life.
Sometimes, when she was engrossed in writing an article, he stared at her, willing himself to fall in love. If he tried, he could almost convince himself that the swell of affection he felt towards her was romantic love. But when he tried to imagine marrying her or kissing her or even just referring to her as his sweetheart, it felt wrong. His relationship with Clara was already exactly what he wanted it to be. He was happy with her as his detective partner, rather than his romantic one.
And if he didn't want romance with her, maybe he would never want it with anyone. He was old enough by now that if he was going to feel romantic attraction, surely he would have felt by now. Despite his mother's voice in his head, the thought that he would probably never fall in love came as a relief. If he accepted his lack of romantic attraction, he didn't have to worry about it anymore. He didn't have to sit there dissecting his feelings towards Clara. He didn't have to question how he would identify romantic attraction if it came. He could just be himself. He could just love his friend in a way that was no less powerful for being purely platonic.
But a little while after that question was settled in his mind, another worry occurred to him. He knew he wasn't in love with Clara, but what if Clara was in love with him? The first time that the idea popped into his mind, he dismissed it immediately as absurd. Yet, other people kept assuming something was going on between them. And from time to time Clara herself would ask him questions about his love life (questions that he always managed to avoid). He still didn't really understand what romantic attraction looked like- what if he had missed the signs of it in her? What if she felt something for him that he could never feel for her?
He felt certain that if Clara knew he was a freak - robotic in more ways than one - she wouldn't want to work with him anymore. She certainly wouldn't want to be his friend. On the other hand, he didn't want to keep pretending to her that he was normal, that he understood the feelings other people felt. And if there was even a possibility that she wished for a romantic relationship with him, it wasn't fair to let her hold onto that futile hope.
The only thing worse than the thought of losing her was the thought of hurting her. And so he had to tell her. Besides, having made this discovery about himself, he wanted to tell someone. Telling someone might make it feel more real, as if it was a fact that existed outside of his head. And who would he tell except her?
He tried to raise the topic a few times but the words always stuck in his throat. He couldn't think of a way to bring it up that didn't sound clumsy and awkward. It was so easy to keep putting off opening his mouth and saying 'Clara, I've got something to tell you'. It was so easy to keep delaying the moment when she would surely lose respect for him. It was so easy to let things stay as they were, comfortable, amicable, with Clara not knowing the truth about him. In the end, it took press coverage on Fleet's romantic feelings for the topic to arise.
One morning, Clara came into the office brandishing a newspaper, grinning mischievously. "You'll never guess what the headline in The Tribune is today," she said. He was about to make some quip about how she ought to stop buying papers she didn't work for, when she threw the paper down in front of him on his desk.
The headline read Exclusive: The Dramatic Love Story of Resurrected Detective and his Charming Assistant. Beneath it, there was a picture of the two of them walking side-by-side. He started to skim the article, groaning the more that he read. They'd interviewed Mrs Pombligan, who claimed to have carried love letters for them. He was going to kill her, Fleet thought to himself. (It was true that he'd once or twice asked Mrs Pombligan to post a letter to Clara, but those had been tip-offs for her crime reporting, rather than anything romantic.)
The journalist also claimed to have spoken to various people Fleet was pretty sure neither he nor Clara had ever met, all of whom claimed to know intimate details of their relationship. A few of the interviewees might have witnessed them posing as a couple for the sake of a case, but most of it was pure fiction.
"This sort of nonsense is exactly why I hate the press," Fleet complained. "Present company excluded, of course." He threw the paper back at Clara, who caught it gracefully.
"Oh, it isn't all bad. They did call me charming. Bit annoyed that I've been relegated to your assistant though." She sounded like she found the whole thing amusing rather than mortifying.
Fleet suddenly realised that this was the moment to tell her. He tried to memorise the fond look she was giving him- it might be the last time she looked at him like that.
"Clara…" He took a deep breath. "You know that this isn't what's happening, right?"
"Yes, I am actually aware that we didn't…" She looked through the article for a quote, which she read in a melodramatic tone. "... kiss passionately on the battlements of Westminster Palace before you fell to your death." She scoffed. "I don't know where they've got that from seeing as I wasn't even there!"
"I want you to know that will never happen," he said firmly. Why was this so difficult to explain?
"Well, I sincerely hope that you aren't going to fall to your death again. That would be most inconvenie-"
"For God's sake," Fleet interrupted. "I'm trying to tell you something!" Clara looked slightly hurt and he cursed himself for his rudeness. He lowered his voice and looked down at his desk. He didn't want to see her reaction. "I'm sorry. I'm trying to say - me having a love story with you - or anyone! - that will never happen. I've never felt that way about people. I don't think I can. I don't think I can feel romantic feelings." There was a brief pause in which Fleet continued to focus his gaze on the pattern of the grain in his desk.
"This is wonderful!" Clara exclaimed. Fleet looked up cautiously. To his surprise, she looked delighted. She started scribbling something in her notebook, the one she used to record facts about him.
"What's wonderful?" he asked. She must have misunderstood what he was trying to say.
"You just gave me a piece of personal information completely unprompted! Without any interrogation strategies!" Then something else seemed to occur to her. She flipped back through her notebook and, cleanly but decisively, tore out a page from near the beginning. She scrunched it up and threw it towards the wastepaper basket. Fleet was bewildered. This was not how he expected this interaction to go at all.
"What was that?" he asked, nodding towards the ball of paper, which had landed just beside the bin.
"That was where I wrote my speculations about your romantic life," she answered. "Any decent investigator needs to be prepared to abandon theories once they have been disproved," she explained in the tone of a schoolteacher, clearly echoing something she'd learned from Trilling.
"You believe me?" Fleet said, realising that his heart was racing.
"Of course I believe you Fleet! You wouldn't lie to me!"
"You don't think it's odd?" he asked hesitantly. Clara shrugged.
"It's unusual, perhaps, but, all things considered, it's probably one of the least odd things about you." Fleet gave a shaky laugh.
"And you don't mind? I mean, you're still okay to work with me?" Fleet said, unable to keep the hope out of his voice.
"It'd be a pretty stupid reason to abandon an excellent investigative partner," Clara declared. After a pause, she added more softly, "or the closest friend I've ever had." She reached across the desk and squeezed his hand.
In that moment, Inspector Archibald Fleet felt the complete opposite of lonely.