ALL CATCHES ALIGHT
Kent's never going to trust the weather app on his phone again.
He huffs out a breath and leans away from where he's propped himself against a low stone wall, the branches of the hedge digging in even through the wool of his coat, and he isn't entirely sure if he's damp or just cold. He doesn't really want to know, not at this point. There's nothing he can do, now, apart from deleting the bloody app in a fit of retroactive anger, except he's already tried that and it can't be done. Which is a lot more annoying than it should be.
They've been having a surprisingly warm spell, for November. Well, it can't really be called warm. Just… not as cold as usual. But trust it to be the night when they're all loitering outside a well-known villain's house, waiting to see if anything goes on, that the weather turns. Actually, it would be just their luck that tonight was the night the universe decided it was time for an encore of 1987, so they're probably getting off lightly.
Kent glances back over his shoulder and through a particularly bare patch in the hedge. Only twigs obscure his view towards the front window and he reckons he can see Davis making small talk, although that could very well be Jones. The two of them are similarly built, after all, and similar enough in style and stature to make this undercover operation work. Davis had come to them with recommendation from the Commander, the reassurance that he wears a wire just as well as Chandler wears a suit (because apparently that's the word round the nick at the moment), and off they went. Peter Norwood's death has all the hallmarks of a hit: neat, efficient, an in-and-out job. Strangely professional—not an ounce of personal spite in it, Miles had said, and he's seen enough of them to know. Or, well, enough of them to convince the rest of them it was worth looking into.
Chandler had done a course, apparently (Miles had huffed a gruff laugh at that announcement), and it took him an evening of poring over the collection of letters and numbers they'd got from a small notebook left at the scene to conclude that they were names and dates, occasionally a location. Kent still doesn't understand it—well, all right, he can accept that the letters are most likely initials, but he's less convinced by the idea that since none of the numbers go above 2400 those are times—but apparently it's enough to get the next couple of rungs up the ladder on board for a covert operation.
(Or maybe that's just Chandler. He's remarkably good at convincing other people; it's just a pity he doesn't seem to be half as efficient when it comes to himself.)
Still. Kent's tempted to think they've done nothing to warrant this particular punishment—he's pretty sure he can't feel his ears anymore. What have they ever done to the weather?
The radio in his hand crackles to life, awakened by Miles' disembodied voice. 'Anything your end, Kent?'
'Apart from a parked car that looks like it's had a fight with a blowtorch recently? Nothing.'
'Same this end, skip,' Mansell cuts in, his muttering clear despite the traffic noise at his shoulder. 'How long d'you reckon one of these deals takes?'
Chandler's voice joins them. 'Can we keep any speculation off the radio, please?'
Kent lowers the device and quirks a smile at the edge of the pavement. They all must do the same, because there's no further discussion, and Kent watches his breaths condense in the newly-minted autumn air.
Chandler doesn't have to be stern anymore, just exasperated (and he's good at that, ridiculously good) to get them to obey orders. It doesn't help that he sounds as put-out about the cold as the rest of them, another small inkling of him settling back into their usual pattern of whinging about the weather when they've exhausted whinging about the case. He wouldn't have stood for it, that first year, citing some lapse in professional standards. Now they know that the edge to his voice isn't him getting short with them, it's evidence of fellow feeling.
Mansell, however, is not easily dissuaded as the rest of them. Kent's phone vibrates in his pocket, and although strictly speaking he shouldn't be answering anything other than his sergeant's questions, he retrieves it anyway. He's supposed to look nonchalant, like someone who's waiting for a friend, and answering a text fits that image. The top left window of the building opposite's been illuminated for ages, too, and it's making Kent a little jumpy.
Mansell's name is attached to the oft-repeated question of When you gonna ask him out again? There are at least three other instances of this vein of pestering in Kent's message history, so he tuts, types back what he hopes is a brisk When I ask him out again that manages to capture the irritation he'd include if he was saying it to Mansell's face, and shoves the phone and his hand into his deep coat pocket, out of the wind. It buzzes again, after a few moments, but he ignores it. It'll just be another of the same questions as before with a few words swapped, even after everything; Mansell seems to think he's involved now, or it's his duty, because he'd been the one to suggest escalation in the first place. Not that Kent hadn't thought about it. He'd just stayed firmly in the realm of the theoretical. He's always been more comfortable there. Or, well, he had.
It's just that they've slipped a little closer, since. Not in the first few days, when they'd all been shell-shocked and frazzled, but afterwards when the world had resettled in its new configuration and they'd all got used to the new guilt and the extra eyes on them, watching for the first fumble. Maybe he'd found a little more confidence—stolen it from Mansell, who'd egged him on, like some Robin Hood of self-esteem—after that breath of a pause, the moment's silence that had seemed to stretch for years before I'd love to, like a mirage in the desert, a blurry afterimage of promise.
It helped that, for some unknown reason that Kent's tried to muddle out a hundred times since, he and Chandler have seemed to resettle into that comfortable friendship they'd struck up between the Ripper and the Krays, between 1888 and 1968, the eighty-year gap condensed into a few months and a handful of bog-standard muggings gone wrong (where had the time gone?).
Kent nuzzles his chin into his collar, watching a cat slink across the opposite pavement, pausing for a moment at a lamp post. It's mangy, but he can only tell because of the spill of yellow light. The cold hasn't deterred it from roaming, from rubbing itself up against the wrought-iron posts of the fence and meowing, loudly, at a shadow. It balks a little when the pop of a cork and a cheer spills from the open window they've all got one eye on, and turns to glare at Kent with its amber eyes as if he disturbed its activities.
He's never been good with cats, so he scuffs at the kerb again, a nervous habit. It's bloody ridiculous, really, them all standing around listening to their suspect guzzle champagne when the best they can hope for at the station's Christmas do is to be handed a warm glass of cava. Half-flat, if they're especially unlucky, and they always are.
Speaking of drinks: God, he could go for a large coffee right about now.
A dog barks in the distance, snapping at the edges of the quiet, and suddenly the cat scurries away, rounding the corner impossibly close to the brick. Kent jumps a little at the sudden movement, automatically on alert; the only other people about are a couple walking along the opposite pavement, heads down and hoods up, and Kent relaxes in stages as their steps fade into the distance. He watches and waits, listens as a blackbird burrows between the twigs and leaves of the sparse, suffering hedge, wrinkles his nose as the wind picks up and the laughter from inside warms.
The problem is, it doesn't stay that way. Kent spent far too much time in his youth at parties where the sound suddenly trails off like that—it's never a good sign. It's the harbinger of that sinking feeling when someone says something they're not supposed to, something they're not supposed to know. The last time Kent had heard that, it'd been his mate Tim joking about a couple of their friends having a supposed drunken fumble, only to find out that it'd really happened. It wouldn't have been nearly as bad if neither of their respective partners had been there, but it had been bad enough. What makes Kent turn and watch through the ailing branches is the way this feels just as ominous as that.
'Sir,' he says into the radio, still looking over his shoulder. 'I don't like the look of this.'
'I think something's kicking off.'
It doesn't take long before Kent realises that's probably the understatement of the year. There's a shout and the sound of a window shattering, then the tense quiet of the dark is truly gone. Everything happens at once and yet very far apart: Kent turns to see Chandler launch himself through an unsecured gate at the same time as Mansell runs up to his back. If Kent had enough time to process he'd probably jump at that, and he definitely would at the hand on his shoulder, but there's no time for that sort of thing.
'God knows,' Kent says, quickly, moving along the fence to fumble with the latch on the closest gate. 'Something—come on, bloody thing—'
The iron gives under his grip just as something else happens—though, again, God knows what. The cold must have slowed down his reaction times, suppressed his nervous system, narrowed his blood vessels, or something, because he's trained for situations like this and yet it keeps getting away from him. Maybe it's all the movement in the dark, the shifting of shadows across every trembling surface, but it's too easy to miss things—because what he and Mansell find when they cross the obscured lawn is Miles crouching over a prostrate Chandler, his head dangerously close to the decorative stone edge of the struggling flowerbeds.
'Ambulance and backup,' Miles barks into his phone, rattling off the address without a breath's hesitation. 'We have a man down.'
Shock turns in his gut and Kent vaguely wonders if he's got time to vomit into that rose bush, because Chandler's so still and everything else is a blur. This was supposed to be easy, in-and-out, get some information then come back in the morning with too-straight faces and a warrant—
'You lot,' Miles says, not quite looking up. 'Keep on after him. You're a younger and fitter than us, go on—'
They go, programmed to obey orders posed like that, though not before Kent hears Miles say, 'Joe? Joe, stay with me,'
He swallows down something bilious and breathes hard through the imaginary taste of something warm and ferrous in his throat, hauling himself through the cast-iron gate. Rust sticks to his hand as he lets go of the metal and he should care, but Mansell follows and the footfalls are nothing compared to the feeling of knowing Jones is in sight somehow. That's a bloody miracle, and madness, and it's enough for Kent to dig a little deeper and catch up with Riley and Mansell as they sprint off.
They clatter around the corner of the street—Kent narrowly avoids scraping his shoulder against the brick but almost loses his footing in the process— and that one's no wider. A moment's dread of running around London's hodgepodge of Victorian backstreets shoots through him but it's precisely that that works to their advantage. There's always a dodgy paving stone to be relied on.
As usual, it all happens a little too quickly. His instinct, intuition, whatever it is—that's usually enough, but this time something's not slotted into place right. He almost trips over Riley and Jones because he suddenly doesn't remember how to stop running. Even when he does stop he can't move to help Riley; he leaves that to Mansell and bends over instead, hands on his knees, and breathes. His harsh breaths drown out Jones' indignant ranting, snippets of which make it through when Kent pauses long enough to swallow.
'You all right, mate?' Mansell asks once they've got Jones to his feet.
'Yeah.' It comes out more like a gasp than Kent would like. 'Just—wasn't expecting that.'
Mansell doesn't say anything, although he should. Kent knows he should have been expecting that, it's why they're there and didn't just let Davis go in on his own. They were insurance—coverage for the unexpected. But as much as Kent hopes he thinks the comment's more a reflection on the fact they haven't had to do a sprint like that in a while, Mansell's not as stupid as he sometimes looks. He'll know.
Swearing's the only thing Kent can think to do; he's not going to have time to catch his breath until all this is done and dusted. He returns to his full height and looks to the sky, feels the stretch in his throat. The night's clear, distressingly so, and there are no stars. There's another scuffle from Jones' direction and Kent squeezes his eyes shut for a moment and reminds himself to breathe.
'Come on, the skipper'll think we've run off to the Home Counties at this rate,' Mansell says, clapping him on the shoulder.
Kent doesn't jump. He almost does, but he covers the urge with a cough and nods.
'Look—Riley's got it all under control.' Mansell scoffs a laugh to himself as they start walking. 'Course she has.'
And she has. For once, Mansell's not lying. But judging from how he can't soothe his pounding heart (spurred on by more than adrenaline, it must be), it's a bloody good job he's not.
Miles takes on the case; he's senior enough to head the investigation on his own and it's easier for him to step into the breach than it is to brief another inspector. Besides, the only other on-call DI available is Dawson, and as far as Miles is concerned that man couldn't lead a conga line, so that's the matter settled before they're even back to the station. Kent just nods, barely taking the information in. He can't tell if it's adrenaline or distraction that's making him fall back on procedure.
They go through the motions, packing Jones into the back of a patrol car and weaving back through London's labyrinth of streets. It starts raining, and the only reason Kent can hear the splatter against the windshield is because Mansell's oddly quiet, lacking in his usual bad taste in jokes and reckless optimism. They catch up with Miles in the holding cells, the weakening yellow light flickering as the bulbs start to give up. Kent blinks hard, twice, because he's never quite sure if his eyes have gone funny or not when that happens, and Miles claps him on the shoulder on his way out.
'You know what he's like,' he says, misinterpreting—or, well, perhaps not. 'He's too proud to die.'
Kent wants to stutter out something along the lines of, 'I don't think that's how it works,' but he doesn't trust his throat to work so he nods instead. Miles goes on in his usual way, muttering about how it isn't as if he's any nearer to meeting Saint Peter today than he was yesterday, and maybe if Kent hadn't seen Chandler go down he'd be able to believe him the way everybody else is. Instead he feels unmoored, tugged along by the current, his skin snagging against rocks until the rush of water is tinged pink; he'd heard something crack. Something's broken, then, and he daren't think of what.
He bites his cheek, chews on the inside of his lip until he tastes metal, scrapes the chalk until it spells Jones on the wall and walks away from the holding cells, ducking through the dark concrete doorways until he's back in the building proper, all glass and tile and iron. London glares at him before he can escape to the incident room and start on the paperwork, check in and see what Miles wants them to do next. On any other day he would have been on tenterhooks wondering if they'll ask him to sit in this time, if they're going straight for an interview, but he can't keep his vibrating thoughts still enough to do any of them any good.
Miles looks to him first but doesn't argue when Kent inclines his head; Mansell goes, instead, as the man in the second chair. Kent and Riley debrief with Davis, filling in some of the blank spaces on the whiteboards, and although he nods at the right times and asks questions and chases clarification, he can't help but feel as if he's just going through the motions.
Ideas, each worse than the last, sink their teeth into his mind and draw blood so dread pools in his skull, lapping at the back of his mind, omens in the mist. It's the same as when he sat in waiting rooms as a child, a suffocating sense of something on the edge of going wrong, except adult logic doesn't help because he can put names to what he fears, knows that the scale of the panic isn't that far off the mark because there are so many ways to break somebody beyond repair.
Miles sidles up to him just before nine, when they've had their hour with Jones before he asked for a solicitor and forced them to leave the rest until morning. Kent's straightening the last of the night's papers and trying to figure out how he's going to calm down enough to sleep; he jumps as Miles claps him on the shoulder.
'You all right, lad?'
'Yeah.' Kent rests his hands on the paperwork. 'Yeah, just about.'
'No, you're not.'
'Daft sod.' Miles squeezes his shoulder. 'He went down on his shoulder, not his neck. Collarbone's buggered. And it's not the first time he's had a bit of a bang to the head, is it?'
No, it's not. Kent shakes his head to indicate as much, and Miles doesn't let go.
'Thought you'd have been well chuffed. He finally got himself to a hospital for a head injury.'
'And I thought you said there wasn't a serious head injury.'
Miles tuts, though it's not unfriendly. 'I said not his neck, actually, if you were listening. He's got a bit of a concussion; that's why he's there and not at home tucked up in bed.'
Kent nods. It's ridiculous, it's absolutely bloody ridiculous and he can see that clear as day, but he still feels it all. He should be able to step back and look at it all objectively, like they do every day, and tell himself that a broken bone is nothing to worry about, really, in the grand scheme of things, but he's been overinvested for years. Chandler could give himself a papercut and Kent would probably worry. Well, maybe not, but the point still stands.
It doesn't help that some hint of disaster is lingering in the air. Chandler's conspicuous absence is stunningly clear; the others have always joked that Chandler doesn't leave a footprint, that he could be in and out of a room and nobody would notice, but what all that fails to take into account is that presence isn't just leaving a mess in your wake. They notice when he's not there.
Miles jostles his shoulder again, as if trying to shake something loose. 'Not the worst of scrapes we've had, eh?'
Kent doesn't say anything; he hasn't been keeping track. There's no point. If there's one thing they can rely on, it's that something shit's going to happen to them sooner or later.
'You're in so deep it's unhealthy, son.'
Miles' tone startles a single laugh out of Kent's chest, a leftover one from earlier in the evening. God, doesn't he know it. This is not how you should react when your boss takes a tumble and knocks himself about a bit. This is in no way proportionate. Yet he can't seem to stop the feeling from coating the inside of his lungs, clogging up some valve he needs to function, and he turns to Miles because there's literally nothing else to do.
He fully expects to be told to buck up and get on with it, that there's things to be done here (and God knows he's aware of that, it feels as if they're all staring at the back of his neck, waiting). Except Miles shakes his head in a way that doesn't say he's not going to put up with this, just expresses a gruff recognition of the ridiculous.
'I suppose someone should check the idiot's not discharged himself already,' he says, smirking when Kent frowns in confusion. 'The Royal London, Acute Admissions. You might be able to sweet talk your way in for five minutes, if you hurry.'
Kent looks at his own watch, then the clock on the wall, and sighs. 'Skip, there's still half an—'
'Go on.' Miles jerks his head towards the doors. 'Go and hold his hand.'
There's probably something in the handbooks that says he should argue more, or something in those unspoken rules of the force, but Miles is only half-joking with that comment and Kent doesn't want to argue. Instead he hands over the just-organised files and mutters something like Thanks, skip, I'll make it up to you but Miles makes a gruff sound and waves him out before he's really even got his coat on properly. He passes Mansell in reception and, on any other day, he'd have had to stop and think about the fact his face is sombre.
He doesn't quite trust himself with the revolving door so he slips out the side of the building, bundling his coat around himself without removing his hands from the pockets to do up the buttons. The temperature's dipped as the hours have climbed closer to midnight, though they're not there yet, and the rain's stopped. Well, actually it's still spitting, but Kent doesn't do anything about it.
Kent walks past the facade of the old hospital building on the south side of the Whitechapel Road, the white face of the clock glowing almost green in the scant moonlight, and he heads towards the main entrance on East Mount Street. The traffic whirs along the road beside him until he passes the lights, the hatched area of the pedestrian crossing; he doesn't spare a glance for the junction and turns down the opposite corner, greeted by the blue glow of the modern building before him. The car park's near enough to empty, as he'd expect at this hour, and he marches past the concrete benches and highlighter-yellow checkerboard ambulances until he's inside and the automatic doors sigh shut behind him.
If he thought he'd calm down a little, faced with the familiarity of the hospital foyer—they've all trekked in and out of here for one thing or another, appointments and interviews and even one or two arrests—then he's wrong. Just being there isn't enough to make his mind shut up, because there might still be a regulation that his warrant card can't get him past. But the receptionist doesn't look up and Kent walks, with as much purpose as he can muster, in the directions the signs point him. If there's anything he's learnt as a policeman it's that a warrant card can get you almost anywhere, and if that doesn't work, confidence'll probably do it. Look like you're supposed to be there and no one asks any questions.
He passes a few people, but none spare a second glance for him; something's working, then. As he waits for the lift, Kent wonders if it's too late to turn religious, invoke some venerated saint for their patronage, place hope in something more than his own pessimism and the doubt the job instills in them. It shouldn't be like this, their day job is trauma, but there's something different about this time and he can't put his finger on it. Or, he can but he won't, because doing that would defeat the purpose of a secret.
It's when the doors to the ward are within his sight that he runs into a nurse-almost quite literally. Maybe it's an exaggerated startle response, maybe it's the lateness of the hour, but she looks kindly upon him as he looks far more caught-in-the-act than he'd like.
'How can I help you?'
'I'm looking for a Joseph Chandler.' He might as well be upfront about that, at least. 'He was admitted earlier this evening.'
'Ah, yeah.' She glances down for a moment to her hands, as if she expects to find a chart there. 'Yes, he was.'
Kent detects a faint northern accent, not quite Newcastle—maybe Durham, or Middlesborough. Except it doesn't matter, and he's got a strange feeling that he's being assessed, and he's in the sort of mood that means it won't be long before he starts squirming under scrutiny.
'What relation are you, then?'
Answers get stuck in Kent's throat, each pulling back the next before one can make it ahead. Police hierarchy makes him a possession, someone's constable, and although that would probably work it feels disingenuous, because it's not really why he's here. Saying he's a friend doesn't seem like it'd do him any favours, either, because it's late and Miles already told him Chandler's not in mortal danger and yet, here he is. It's a bit more than friendship that's stopping him from going home. And no matter how close they came, they aren't involved. Not in the way he'd like.
Kent looks back, ready to assign himself any connection that'll get him through the next set of doors, but there's already comprehension settling on her face and he wonders if, inadvertently, he's let slip that he's police.
'What's your name?' she asks.
He swallows and finds that his mouth's gone bone dry. 'What?'
'Well, when he first came in, he was a bit disorientated. It's not unusual—' She says, quickly, with a reassuring smile that must be to soothe the unease that makes its way onto Kent's face. 'But he said "I didn't want to make Kent cry at my funeral."'
'That's—um, well—' Kent doesn't know what to say; his capacity for stringing words together seems to have well and truly fucked off. 'I don't—'
'It's not the strangest thing I've heard today,' she says, saving him from tying his own tongue in knots. 'Come on, I'll take you through. You're only just outside of visiting hours.'
Kent knows he's actually an hour late—probably closer to an hour and a half by this point—but he can't stop the wide, relieved smile that breaks onto his face as she motions for him to follow her. His feet move of their own accord-and it's a good job, too, because he's reached that point in the day when he's switched to autopilot, or perhaps he's just prioritizing which thought function is most necessary. He stops looking where they're going, just matches the nurse's steps, and in one lucid moment takes a swift glance to read her name badge: Lucy Norris.
'How is he?'
Kent asks because he has to, and now's the last chance to be forewarned.
'Patients with injuries like his would usually just be sent home from A&E,' Lucy says, turning to down a side hallway. Kent follows, suddenly able to loosen his death grip on the lining of his coat pockets. 'But we're keeping him in. The collarbone's not a bad break, as breaks go, but with his age, history, and the concussion, it's worth monitoring.'
He says it but Kent's not entirely sure that the news is entirely comforting, though perhaps it's not supposed to be. He's been told worse, after all, with more on the line. More immediately, too, with surgery and complications bandied about in the space above his head and his deep cuts. But somehow that feels very distant now-the experience of eons past, not a couple of years-and they're approaching a pair of double doors.
'There doesn't seem to be any major nerve damage, but it can be difficult to tell in trauma patients,' she continues, reaching for the handle; Kent braces himself reflexively although he promised himself he wouldn't. 'Just a stretch is likely, if that. It's a relatively rare complication, but it does happen.'
She looks mildly surprised as she holds the door open, midway between concerned and pleased. 'You're familiar with it?'
He shrugs. It's his usual method of deflection. 'I've got a bit of experience, yeah.'
She doesn't ask. Kent's grateful; he doesn't want to explain it again.
He almost doesn't recognise him as they approach. But why would he? He's never seen Chandler out of suits, or cashmere; he's seen him a bit scuffed and bruised but not bundled up in bed, propped up for an approximation of comfort with an arm immobilised in a sling. He looks... well, it makes Kent's stomach lurch in both relief and horror to see him, because it's him (it has to be him, it's his name on the patient record on the end of the bed) but it doesn't seem like him. Not yet.
'He's been awake, a little earlier on,' Lucy says under her breath, coming to a gentle stop. 'It's best to let him sleep when he can. A lot of patients find it difficult to get comfortable enough to drift off.'
Kent nods lamely, his mind preoccupied with the patched-up scrapes.
'Looks like he'll be sleeping long hours for the next few days, though,' Lucy says, indicating the empty chair. 'You're welcome to stay for a bit.'
He nods, again, and sits without removing his coat. He feels a bit stupid as soon as he does it, but he's familiar enough with that not to be bothered by it any more.
'D'you want a cup of tea, love?'
He really shouldn't, because he's got a feeling it's not in her job description to offer him hot drinks, but maybe there's something in his face that betrays the fact that he feels a bit like his insides have been scrambled around and then scooped out. It's not just Chandler; it's the hours between then and now, the way his brain's got a tight hold on his throat, the fact he's sat voluntarily in a hospital when he usually goes out of his way to avoid any part of them save the morgue. That thought sends another jolt through his system, and he decides he really would like a cup of tea.
'If they're going,' he says, trying for flippancy.
She smiles; she must know, or at least suspect, because she pats him on the shoulder and says, 'It's not technically my job, but we've lost our work experience chap and we're gasping.'
'Just milk, then.'
'Since it's quiet,' she says, leaning a little closer and feigning secrecy, 'I'll even get you a mug.'
Kent smiles at that, weaker than the last but at least it's honest and grateful. It's probably as much of a precaution as it is a kindness, because they've had enough problems at the station with drinks ending up in places they shouldn't be when they make do with paper cups. Kent's never liked them—they're reminiscent of waiting rooms, somehow mirroring how disposable life sometimes is. (It shouldn't be.) But he's always been susceptible to symbolism, to suggestion, and he's suddenly aware of how loud his thoughts are in the silent room. The rush of pulse under his skin is thudding, someone knocking on a door. How loud the body is, even when it's quiet. More so.
He takes a deep breath—in, count to seven, out—and finds that he's gone hot after being out in the cold, that sort of damp flush that comes with the combination of rain and walking at speed. And yet it doesn't bother him enough to get up and shrug off his coat; he's doing everything the wrong way around (to say the very least) and he's glad to be feeling, if not calm, then at least numb for the moment. He's pretty sure he's not even bothered about being seen here anymore. If he even is at all.
The first thing he learnt during his spell was that the people in the next beds don't give a toss. They've got their own things to worry about, and their neighbour's visitor is the least of their troubles. Or maybe that was just him, because he couldn't have pointed out any of the patients who'd been on the ward with him if his life depended on it. Either way he doesn't really care, because even though he looks a bit like he's been through the wars that's Chandler, and he's in (more or less) one reaches, delicate as eyelashes, to brush the hair that's fallen forward out of his face. It's a small thing, but something that'd bother Chandler, and Kent would like to think it'd soothe him even if what he's actually doing is calming himself.
Against his better judgement, Kent rests his shaking fingers in Chandler's slack hand and strokes his knuckles once, then twice when there's no sudden flinch. He hadn't meant to take Miles' instruction so literally, yet there he is. He shifts the touch after a long moment, gently settling two fingers against the artery in Chandler's wrist just under his thumb, and presses slightly. He doesn't count the heartbeats to measure them, just to reassure himself that they're there. The grip relaxes the longer he listens until the side of Kent's hand brushes the hospital wristband, resting against the gentle heat of Chandler's skin.
Kent pulls his hand away when he hears the rhythm of approaching steps; he sits forward and braces his elbows on his knees, waiting, worrying his own fingers.
'Here you are, love,' comes the same voice as before, with the same kind smile.
He murmurs a thanks and cradles the mug, letting the heat seep through his fingers and welcoming the eventual sting. It gives him something to focus on that's not the smell of hospital and the fact that he has to be here at all.
'I fetched this for you, too,' Lucy continues, holding out a badly-folded newspaper. 'Thought you mind need something to distract you.'
Kent accepts it with a faint smile. 'Yeah, thanks.'
He may or may not read it; it depends how far away he wants to be from his own thoughts. Either way, it's something, and he can fold the fine paper between his fingers until the crease is worn and frail and his fingertips are pewter. Chandler would hate it—he'd hate the thing even being here, he only just about tolerates all the cuttings Ed trails into his office—but it's something and if there's anything Kent needs now, it's something.
Chandler had stood at the threshold of the mythic in Kent's mind, seemingly immune to everything except his own thoughts; Kent knows now and knew then that it wasn't healthy to think of him that way, but it wasn't conscious. Chandler just was—he was like that, solid and a force to be reckoned with when he put his mind to it. Their villains are usually no match for him. Luck may be against them as a whole but it's been on Chandler's side until tonight. He's dared the universe enough, coaxed enough fists and bullets in his direction. Yet it's the accidents, the slip in the mud and the shove, that bring him down. Not even to his knees. Lower than that.
And it makes Kent more the fool, with his words stuck behind his tongue and his pride, all his questions unanswered thanks to a fear that pales in comparison to the way he'd felt when he'd seen it all happen. Everything he has and hasn't said had suddenly been brought into frightening focus. It's over now, settled back into its usual nebulous haze, but something's still churning in Kent's chest and even a sip of tea doesn't quell it. Maybe another'll do it.
He sits forward, pulls his coat from his arms, and shakes out the paper as quietly as he possibly can.
The clock slips beyond ten and Kent still sits in the uncomfortable hospital chair, a biro between his teeth as he peers down at the crossword. He's never been that good at them—he's not Morse, never has been—but it's something to do besides just watching Chandler sleep. He's always thought doing that's a little creepy so he won't if he doesn't have to. He's happy enough sat there with the paper, his half-filled in (and probably very wrong) answers, and the last of his tea. He's not entirely calm, because this is a hospital and he's never been all right with that and Chandler's very still, but when anxiety wells up and threatens to spill over the cryptic clues keep his mind busy. Once or twice they're the cause of a small chuckle. He's put down Buchan for eleven across: Game show host detailed elephant's place in history. It doesn't fit—far too short—but it sounds like something Ed would do.
Every now and then he looks up and watches, just for a few seconds, until he can see the gentle rise and fall of Chandler's breathing. He knows he's not at death's door but it's like when they'd got their family dog—Patch, she'd been called, lollopy and soft—and his mum used to sit up in her armchair and peer at the pup as she slept in the basket at her feet, watching for the dream-breaths, just in case of disaster and despite all the evidence to the contrary. But Patch had grown and lolloped and dreamt until she was fifteen and three quarters, positively ancient, and Miles is right. Chandler's pretty hard to take out, so Kent returns to the paper, pondering whether or not it'd be funny to write Miles in for Possibly sergeants (not social workers) going after major promotion prospect?
(He decides that yes, yes it is, and that no matter how solid someone looks he's still allowed to worry because all it takes is the right angle to splinter bone.)
His stomach swoops a bit at the sound of Chandler's voice, and Kent's glad he's sitting down. It doesn't even matter that it's more gravelly than usual, or that there's such a lilt of confusion in the pronunciation of his name. He's just thrilled he's hearing it again. Which is probably an overreaction, because he knew an hour ago that Chandler would be all right, but there's something more certain about this.
'Hello,' he says, sitting forward a little and leaning his elbows against the paper on his lap, not bothered about whether or not the newsprint gets on his shirt. 'You all right?'
'No,' Chandler says, and the admission's sleep-slick. He looks surprised at his own pessimism.
Kent quirks a small smile. 'Skip said you'd buggered your collarbone.'
'I'm not sure that's the official line.' Chandler shifts slightly, or tries to—he ends up wincing more than anything else. 'What happened, after?'
'We booked him,' Kent says, smiling wider as Chandler's expression grows pleased. 'Riley caught up with him, and you know what she's like.'
'And who's taken on the investigation?'
He must know he's out of it for the long run, then. Kent feels for him, feels for the ache in his voice; Chandler's a man who works. He'd heard him at the christening: I don't really have any interests outside of work. Kent's not entirely sure that's true, because a man like that wouldn't be able to show up the next day and make references to Keats and say It's just poetry, Miles, not some weird fetish, like it's something he believes in. But it doesn't matter because Chandler's the first in each day and the last to leave and Kent decided long ago that he's probably one of those people who doesn't know what to do with themselves when they're doing nothing.
Chandler sighs. 'That's something, then.'
Kent nods, because it is. No other officer would have given him permission to bunk off early to come and sit here, to keep vigil for someone who, strictly speaking, should be a periphery in his life, just a colleague. But they're coppers, and it's a documented phenomenon, their closeness, so when Chandler moves and inadvertently reveals the previously obscured side of his face, the way Kent's stomach jumps to his throat isn't entirely unwarranted. He hadn't seen, not in the mottled moonlight and the weak spill from the open window. Maybe there'd have been nothing to see, then, but Miles' hand had come away damp and Kent's suddenly inordinately glad that he didn't see that and he only has to look at the lingering abrasion, the beginnings of a wretched bruise that's going to be infuriatingly sore. He can gladly go the rest of his life without seeing Chandler's blood.
Chandler looks at him again, although something about it makes it feel like the first. His face is soft—softer than Kent's ever seen it—and yet it isn't. Kent tilts his head a little; this isn't the pillow talk he's imagined.
'It's in good hands, sir.'
Chandler huffs gently, only a shadow of how he might have sounded yesterday, and says, 'Miles would tell you to say that.'
The corner of Kent's mouth lifts in a smile, because Chandler's right, Miles would do that, but they both know that he's their skipper in more than name and he's the only name that would have come out of Kent's mouth and actually made Chandler relax a little about his responsibilities. He'd come straight back in from being knocked out and left for dead in the middle of Wapping Forest, urged on by either a lack or an excess of self-preservation (Kent hasn't been able to decide which), and he'd probably do the same now if there was still the threat of another Cazenove taking over his cases.
Chandler moves his head slightly, shifting with such wariness that it looks as if he's frightened of his own bones, and reveals another scrape on the hinge of his jaw. Kent's chest tightens, his skin aching in subconscious sympathy (he hasn't forgotten the yellow of his own cheek, the sharp smell of metal and rust that he hadn't been able to shake for days), but he's saved from unravelling himself to find words by Lucy arriving, her warm face bright in the dim light of the ward.
'Feeling any better, Mr Chandler?'
Kent sits back as she approaches, folding the paper back into an approximate square and tucking it alongside the arm of the chair, and smiles at his knees as Chandler pulls that familiar, just-on-the-calm-side-of-disgusted face. It's not even a full expression, just a twist of his mouth and something changing around his eyes, but it says it all.
He clears his throat, however, and tries for diplomacy through another wince. 'As well as to be expected, I suppose.'
Lucy nods, turning to Kent for the next question. 'Did he wake all right?'
'As far as I could tell,' he says, feeling very much out of his depth.
'You didn't have to pester him?'
Kent shakes his head. He'd love to be able to offer more information, to settle all their minds, but he knows that what calms him isn't necessarily what the doctors are looking for.
'That's a good sign. I'll leave you to it, then. Hand us that, will you?' she asks, gesturing towards the forgotten tea.
Kent obliges and tries to ignore the way Chandler peers at him as he leans over. Kent hasn't said how long he's been here—it's not something he's intentionally omitted, just something that hasn't come up—but he can see that Chandler's putting the evidence together, wondering. It's a tiny bit disconcerting but he lets him do it. They can mention it or they can just ignore it, and Kent'll let Chandler choose which he prefers.
Lucy nods towards Kent just before she turns away, though her words are for Chandler. 'You've got a good man there, you know.'
Chandler looks even more muddled at that comment than he had been when he'd woken, but Lucy just shoots them a knowing smile and leaves them be. Kent doesn't know whether to curse the universe for highlighting his bad decisions or thank it for not dragging him through the muck too thoroughly; either way, Chandler fixes him with the questioning expression.
'Sorry,' Kent says, his face suddenly too hot. 'She assumed and, well, it was easier than getting my warrant card out.'
It's a shit excuse. He really shouldn't be here. It's outside everything: outside visiting hours, outside his remit, outside the normal expectations of service. They both know it. Maybe. Kent does, at least, and he glances to the speckled floors as he realises that it might not be that clear to Chandler. He knows what concussions can do—he'd feared it, when he'd hounded Chandler and Miles up the stairs, watched them joke and Chandler hold a handkerchief to his bleeding head.
'No, it's…' Chandler trails off as Kent smooths his hands against his trousers. 'It's fine.'
Kent's not sure it is. He suddenly feels like an imposition, an over-invested child barging in; the back of his neck burns as he lets his head fall forward and finger-combs his hair.
'They're not always as sympathetic to police as they are to…'
Chandler trails off. Partners, he means, or family. He speaks as if he's recalling a distant experience, one that he'd packed away but had been knocked out of place, standing out now in the fog. Kent's skin heats again as he puts the pieces together: Chandler and Miles bursting in just before he'd gone into surgery, the times his sister had come to hold his hand as he controlled his morphine with the other, the nights spent with his forehead pressed to the mattress feeling so hatefully alone, Chandler emerging from his office and making a beeline for him with a smile and a We weren't expecting you back so soon.
There are gaps—there will always be gaps, bits he's missed and bit's he's chosen to forget—but he can't stop his brain from filling them in sometimes. Suddenly Chandler's on the other side of a blank hospital wall, turned away by the dragon of the matron because his working hours are incompatible with visiting post-surgical trauma patients. But that's near on two years ago, now, and the bruise of hindsight is a sensitive one.
'Why…' Chandler trails off again, frowning softly this time, and for a moment Kent wonders if this is what they mean in the pamphlets by slow reaction times. 'This is going to sound as if I'm ungrateful.'
'Go on,' Kent says with a smile, because that sounds like Chandler. 'I won't be offended.'
'Why are you here?'
It's a perfectly reasonable question. Kent's rather surprised it hasn't come up before now, that it hadn't been the first thing out of Chandler's mouth, but he's ignored that niggling expectation in favour of sitting there with all Chandler's signs of life before him, still so carefully still but not the limp, drifting consciousness that Miles had fought to keep focused.
'Because…' Kent only manages the lone tremulous word before he has to stop and take a grounding breath. 'Because when I was in here, the thing I wanted most was company.'
It's true, because he can't lie to Chandler and he certainly can't lie to a Chandler who's looking at him with such an expectant expression and with a bruise creeping close to his throat, but it isn't the whole truth. He doesn't say Actually, I would have wanted someone sat here when I woke up, even though he had and he used to feel it again, raw and brutal, every time he woke from the dress rehearsal in his head and shook until he'd talked himself down from the edge, gulped down sleeping pills and welcomed a depth of blank unconsciousness that probably wasn't healthy.
But Chandler's different. He's nodding, a soft expression on his face that's probably more the fault of medication rather than spontaneous feeling, and Kent responds with an upturn of lips that probably only just resembles a smile. That wobbly feeling's back, the one that suggests that they've been duped by blind faith in the near future, forced now to do nothing and expect nothing on a six- to twelve-week timeline. Sympathy forces Kent to feel the sudden nausea of screeching to a halt, the mind running on without its body, having to wait for correspondence.
It'll be all right for Chandler. He's used to being on his own. He's not like Kent, who doesn't feel quite right without the sound of someone familiar in the next room or on the other end of a text conversation. Every time the nurses had told his sister that she should go, let him get some rest, he'd wanted to snap that they're going about it all wrong, that if they want him to rest they should let her sit there and tell him about her shit day at work and her meddling coworkers just for the sake of talking about something—anything—apart from what happened, and he hadn't wanted to think of Chandler lying there feeling the same.
'It's kind of you.'
'It's not a problem.' Kent smiles properly then, makes a point of it, and shrugs when Chandler steadies his gaze upon him. 'Anyway, Miles was a bit concerned you'd try and make a break for it.'
'I don't think I'm going anywhere at the moment. Certainly not at speed.'
He sounds tired, exhausted. Miles had said, once, that Chandler forgets he's not a cadet anymore, he isn't twenty, and it sounds like that knowledge has just crashed into him, all that time squeezing the ache from his bones. It's not dissimilar to the way he'd been that first week, when they'd been running back and forth trying to make sense out of the loss of the Abrahamians, pale and dangerously quiet.
Kent gentles his voice. 'Your track record's enough to make anyone think you might still try, if you don't mind me saying.'
They both smile at that, tiny slivers of the gesture. Kent slides his gaze away and brushes at his trousers with awkward hands. The hush of Chandler's voice is both too close and too far away, too small and too loud, and Kent daren't look at him in case he sees something too telling in the edges of his face, where he's letting the tiredness creep in. But of course it's nothing compared to how Chandler must be feeling, so he does look and offer up a familiar face (because God knows that's all he'd wanted, when).
He doesn't speak, because there's nothing to say: Chandler'll be all right, he supposes, but there's too many variables to define what all right really means. Kent can't see him sitting still for six weeks. He can worry about that now, or he can worry about that tomorrow, but he doesn't get a chance to choose before Lucy's reappeared at the foot of the bed and he and Chandler aren't looking at each other anymore.
'Sorry to have to do this,' she says, directing the apologetic look in Kent's direction. 'But I'm off shift in ten minutes and I can't guarantee that the night nurse won't have a few choice words about you being here.'
'Oh.' Kent looks towards Chandler, tries to ignore the way his face has changed in a way he can't quite describe, and reaches behind for his coat. 'I'd best be off, then.'
Lucy hovers at the end of the bed, carefully looking in the other direction as Kent gets to his feet and searches around the crevices of his brain for a benign end to the conversation. Everything's been said in whispers, hushed tones, and he's still not entirely sure if they've had a conversation about anything at all. Chandler, on the other hand, is watching him, his gaze a little less guarded now they're shrouded in blue shadow.
'See you soon,' Kent says, eventually, and the tight coil of preemptive embarrassment unravels as Chandler nods, apparently pleased with those parting words.
'If you could follow me,' Lucy prompts, with a hand at Kent's elbow, and they make their way back to the nurses' station. Kent resists the urge to look back, because that's not the sort of parting this is.
He shrugs on his coat as they walk, fiddling with the collar until it flattened to his liking. 'How long will he be here, d'you think?'
'We rarely keep patients in this ward for longer than forty-eight hours. We just want to keep an eye on the concussion—the man who was at the scene with him, it's down that he said he'd had a history of blows to the head—'
'He boxed, at school,' Kent says, quickly, because he can't leave a comment like that unqualified.
'—And to take a closer look at the nerve. He'll be in for a couple of tests tomorrow, for a firmer diagnosis, but you're welcome to come back.'
Kent nods, burying his hands deeper into his pockets. It's not cold inside but he still does it, fishes around for some comfort there when it doesn't come naturally. He hovers, unsure of how to end this exchange of words either, but she doesn't seem to mind; either way, she slips behind the desk and pulls a pen out of a pocket, writing something on a shadowed page.
'Thank you, for… you know.'
'Oh, visiting times can be flexible, with negotiation.' She fills in another line on the form, then looks up with a smile. 'Nurses' discretion.'
'Speaking of…' He trails off, forcing himself to meet her open gaze. 'We'd appreciate further discretion, if you follow my meaning.'
He doesn't even have to finish the sentence before he can taste his own lie, the presumption. Perhaps it's not exactly a lie, because (knowing Chandler) he would be happier knowing that it won't get out that he's ended up in hospital while the investigation he was running continues without him. It's not the worst story that's come out about them, but if he's supposed to be on complete rest then a complete blackout would be better all around. And the fact that his DC came to sit by his bedside at gone ten o'clock wouldn't help. But that's not what she thinks he means, and Kent knows it, and his face warms again when she bestows a compassionate smile upon him.
'You needn't worry about any of us.'
He nods. It's the only thing that he can do, because all of a sudden he feels incredibly tired—he has been out of bed since half-six, and it's nearing eleven, and he's still got to eat something.
'I'll just...' Kent trails off, motions with the hand in his pocket towards the dimmed empty hallway. 'G'night.'
He doesn't immediately move to leave, though, and Lucy puts down the pen in favour of cupping a hand around his elbow.
'You will sleep, you know,' she says, squeezing the joint through his coat.
'I know,' Kent says, because he does, he'd learnt that the first month on the job. 'Sorry, I'm just being stupid—'
'You're not.' She gives his arm another pat, then returns to the clipboard of forms. 'You can always give us a ring if you want to know how he is.'
'Yeah,' he murmurs. 'Yeah, I'll keep that in mind.'
A/N: Next chapter will be posted on 26 February 2015. Thank you so much for reading, I hope you enjoyed the opening chapter and will enjoy the rest just as much! For those interested, the crossword clues are borrowed from The Guardian's Cryptic crossword No 26,342 (from Tuesday, Aug 19, 2014).