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a cup of tea and a slice of cake

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Edith has never regretted her association with Eudoria Holmes, who is—for a gentlewoman—genuinely committed to the cause of women’s rights and self-aware enough to know what her limitations in experience are. But, by Christ, her children are a challenge. Enola isn’t too bad, just young and a little naive, but those sons of hers are a right pain.

Especially Sherlock Holmes. Mycroft is objectively the worst, and if Edith could solicit some sort of guarantee that she’d never have to bear his presence again she’d sign up to it in a heartbeat, whatever the consideration; but Sherlock is more of a problem, mostly because he thinks he’s better.

But: sometimes you need to take one for the cause. And in her case, taking one seemed to be having Sherlock Holmes pop up in her shop every fortnight or so, allegedly to look at the latest pamphlets and quasi-legal offerings, but mostly to follow her into the kitchen and talk to her about whatever property crime he’s in the process of solving. Enola’s own stories, which usually also include a slice of cake that neither she nor Edith has baked, are more likely to be about convincing men that they desperately needed to take a job at sea at short notice, and so are frankly much more to Edith’s tastes. But try telling that to Sherlock Holmes—she has, and all she’s received for it is a vaguely horrified look and a stilted speech that loosely acknowledged the potential dangers of the married state as it pertained to women.

*

She’s serving pound cake and black tea to the customers today, along with crisp cucumber sandwiches and shortbread. The shop is quiet: it’s late October, cold and dreary, slightly smoggier than usual for the time of year and with the sort of miserable drizzle that will work its way through however many layers of clothing you’re wearing. Given her own choice, she would have stayed at home and read in front of the fire; there’s a volume of Irish essays she’s particularly keen to finish, so she can write a review for the copies in the shop. Instead she’s here, keeping a careful eye on the coins as they drop into the till and worrying—as always—about her rent.

It’s not a good day for Sherlock Holmes to wander in. He’s wearing an oilskin cloak and a warm-looking hat, and there isn’t a spot of water on his coat jacket when he takes off the cloak and hangs it on the rack. “Miss Grayston,” he says. “Good afternoon.”

“Mr Holmes,” she returns flatly. “May I help you?”

“You wouldn’t have happened to see my sister lately?” he asks.

Edith shakes her head. “I think she was going to Kent with that boy,” she says. “She said she’d be back by Wednesday.”

For once in his life, Sherlock Holmes looks flustered. “By God, what on Earth for?” he exclaims, and flushes. “My apologies for my coarse language.”

She stares at him. “I... forgive you,” she says slowly. It’s not that men haven’t apologised for taking the Lord’s name in vain in front of her before, but frankly they haven’t usually been rich white men. It’s not that she thinks it’s sweet or anything, but it is something. A genuine respect, perhaps. “At any rate, she went down to Kent because a customer of this store found herself in a difficult situation, and she took the boy because it was one of his chums who caused the difficulty.”

Sherlock Holmes nods his head. “I see. The girl’s parents?” he asks.

“Not in Kent, as I understand it,” Edith says. “But Enola seemed to think she had arrived at a solution.”

He takes a deep breath. “Thank you for the information. Enola does not appreciate it when she thinks I’m interfering in her decision-making.”

“You’re quite welcome,” she says. “Can I help you with anything else?”

“Er, a cup of tea and a slice of cake sounds lovely,” he says. “If you would.”

She doesn’t quite roll her eyes at him, but it’s a struggle. “Coming right up, Mr Holmes.”

*

It is dark even by the standards of alleyways generally, and Edith is kicking a scrawny blonde man in the thighs as hard as she can while he swears profusely both at her and the street walker he’s trying to rob. “You owe me sixpence!” the girl is shouting, slapping him around the face and neck. “You had your fun! And give me back my purse!”

Normally, Edith wouldn’t involve herself in streetfights between girls and johns—not unless the woman looked in danger of her life—but she’s just walking home from a meeting and feeling even more enraged by the state of the world than usual. She’s aware of her limitations, most of the time: she can teach women self-defence and she can give them access to the best revolutionary thinkers out there, but she can’t fight every man who wants to take a bigger share of the world than the world wants to give him.

However: this guy. This man’s been around the shop, has chatted up Edith’s coworker Sally with big words about the rights of the working class, has bought pamphlets that Edith’s had to sneak into the country. And now he’s robbing a working girl, won’t even pay her what she’s owed fair and square.

“You better pay her,” Edith says, and he hisses and pulls out a knife. She boots it out of his hand as hard as she can and he yells, grabbing at his wrist and stepping back from her, the knife flying out to clatter across the cobblestones behind her. “You better pay her and I better not see you in my shop again.”

He buggers off, throwing his coinpurse at the girl and swearing under his breath. She straightens up and nods at the girl. “You alright?”

“Yeah, thanks,” the girl says. “I’m Annie. Annie Barker. You’re that one from the naughty bookshop, aren’t you?” She squints, tilting her head and looking behind Edith. “You saw that, Mr Holmes?” she asks.

And of course when Edith turns around, there’s Sherlock Holmes, never able to mind his own business, holding the knife in one gloved hand. “Hello, Miss Grayston, Miss Barker,” he says. “Are you quite alright?”

“I’m fine,” Edith says. “I wish I’d kicked him harder.”

“Understandable,” Sherlock Holmes says. “Can I escort either of you anywhere?”

Annie grins at him. “Nah, I’m still working. Can I have the knife, though?” Sherlock Holmes gives it to her without a pause, and she strolls out of the alleyway, tucking the villain’s coinpurse in her bodice and adjusting her skirts.

“Miss Grayston?” Sherlock Holmes asks again, and, yeah, maybe Edith can stand to give a little bit of credit to a toff who doesn’t blink twice at giving a stolen knife to a working girl. Maybe he’s a kind man, underneath all the fancy manners and awkwardness.

Maybe she’ll let him walk her home.

*

Edith realises that she is being courted by Sherlock Holmes when he takes her for a walk in Hyde Park in May. Ostensibly she’s assisting him in tracking down a jewel thief, but he stops to buy her a posy from a flower girl and doesn’t even ask if she’s seen anything, so the game is up. “I understand you have a new shipment of materials in from New York,” he says, holding her arm a little firmer as he steers her around a puddle.

She does. Two-thirds of it is lewd material of the sort that profitably sells to men who keep their coat collars up when they’re inside her shop; the other third is largely devoted to the usefulness of the guillotine as a means of social change. “I do,” she confirms, chancing a look up at his face. “I’m not sure it would be quite to your taste, though.”

He obviously understands that she’s not talking about the revolutionary thinking of young rich men enjoying a year or two in Paris, and flushes slightly. “I confess I haven’t much experience in such matters,” he says. “Not being of a very, er—”

“Radical mindset?” she asks, still looking up at him. She trusts him, she realises, not to let her walk into anything.

“Quite,” he says, lifting an eyebrow slightly. They walk on.

*

It goes like that for a good six months, evening walks and tea together after the shop has closed. He meets her mother for the first time with a bouquet of hothouse flowers and his usual charming smile; her mother, who didn’t raise any fools, is charmed. He is endlessly generous and faultlessly polite in all of the ways that matter, albeit slightly too graphic in his descriptions of human flesh. He never seems to notice the stares as they walk arm-in-arm around London, and it slowly dawns on her that that unconcern is in fact genuine incomprehension.

It’s frustrating, in a way her life often has been, and painful, like a stone in her shoe. And like all such things, it needs to be dealt with.

“I enjoy our walks,” Sherlock informs her, stepping her over a patch of ice in late November. It’s a crisp day, frosty and still, the smog sitting above London in a haze. “I’d—if you weren’t opposed, perhaps one day they could be much more frequent?”

It’s not a marriage proposal, but he’s not the sort of man who would offer her a carte blanche, so perhaps it’s his idea of the next step towards an eventual ring on her finger. “You realise I’m Black?” she asks in response. “And that you’re not. And that you’re, well. Your brother has an estate, Sherlock,” she says.

He is silent for a very long time. She gives it to him only because he’s earned it. “Yes,” he says eventually, resolute. “I have never enjoyed walking with another person more than with you.”

“And that, for as long as we go on walks together, I will always have to face those things more than you?” she asks.

He is quiet again. The gaslights go on as they slowly meander along the Victoria embankment. “Yes,” he says, and it’s somehow both a concession and a promise. He closes his eyes. “I realise I am not an easy man, but I will always fight for you.”

“I can fight for myself,” she says. She can.

“Fight with you, then?” he asks, and that’s enough for her, at least for now. She leans up and kisses him, gently; and he holds her carefully, making sure she doesn’t slide on the cobbles.