Hershel had been settling down into his new office when he heard of it. He had become deeply absorbed in a puzzle book by accident when he was shelving his books, and after solving it with immense satisfaction, realised the level of noise in the corridor had reached an unusual (though not unnatural considering the nature of young men and women) height, and thus went out to investigate, delicately adjusting his hat as he did so (he was still getting used to the height of it, but if Claire liked it...).
Though at this time of day the university corridors were naturally busy, right then, it was a hive of activity. Groups of students were walking around briskly, talking in hurried tones and lone students were bouncing off the walls and running around to talk to anybody who would listen. The atmosphere was tense, excited, and eerily sombre.
'Is something going on?' Hershel asked one of the lone students bouncing on the balls of his feet restlessly.
'Oh... hey... the new archaeology professor, right?' the boy asked, and Hershel nodded, if a little bashfully. 'It's just some excitement for the physics kids. There was going to be some new experiment on time travel something or other at some place... what was it called...'
At the mention of experiment on time travel, Hershel's heart dropped as suspicion and fear clouded his mind. 'The Institute of Polydimensional Research...?' he said breathlessly, hoping against hope for a shake of the head and a No, I don't think that was it, but today wasn't really his day, seeing as the boy immediately snapped his fingers.
'Yep, that's it! So you heard about it? Well it didn't go too well. Blew up the whole place –'
'Yeah, shocker. I'd hate to be the scientists in there.'
Hershel didn't hear any more. Without pausing for so much as a Thank you for your time, he ran off, clutching the brim of his hat. Tears were already springing into his eyes as every dark suspicion clouded his mind. For God's sake, Claire, please be alright. Their time together had been far too short – weren't they going to dinner later tonight to celebrate his new job? Those plans wouldn't be cancelled, they wouldn't, couldn't, shouldn't...
He stopped short when he arrived at what had been a lab, and several other buildings, including an apartment. He didn't notice that his lungs were gasping for air and that he was weak-kneed from having run so fast and so far. He only knew that he was in a daze from shock and Oh God if anything's happened to you Claire, I'll never forgive myself.
He heard the young voice from a distance, yet the child couldn't be a foot away from him. A weight pushed against him and he looked down, his vision unfocused, to see what was probably a boy of about ten screaming and trying to run to one of the burning buildings, tears streaking down his face.
'M-my parents...! I have to save them!'
The boy's despair jerked Hershel out of his shock, and he grabbed the boy's shoulders before he could go any farther. 'No! It's too dangerous!'
'My parents are in there! I've got to go back!'
'There's nothing to be done,' Hershel reprimanded to the best of his ability. 'Jump back in there, and you'll die too!'
'No!' the boy shrieked again, barrelling against Hershel's body and beginning to sob into his shirt. Hershel held on to him as best as he could, but he understood the boy's feelings completely. If he could, he, too, would have jumped into the lab to find Claire, but such a mission would be futile, and she wouldn't want him to put himself in danger, dead or n-
No. No, Claire hadn't died yet. She was badly injured, perhaps, but she hadn't died, surely not. It was a moment before he realised there were tears falling from his face as well, and he wiped them away hastily. Fear coursed through his body, but he remained calm for the boy sobbing in his arms.
After a moment of helpless gazing at the scene, a small change came over it. Hershel forced himself to focus when he saw a man appear, walking as fast as possible while still holding something or somebody delicately in his arms. Hershel stared for a while before he realised what he was seeing. He bade the boy to stay where he was. Almost immediately, an elderly woman appeared from the crowd and began to talk to him. The boy would be alright. Hershel looked up again, and his heart really was hanging on by a thread when he saw that the man was indeed holding Claire, and he ran up to them, numb with horror.
'I-is she... a-al-alright...?' he stammered, unable to even begin to fathom that the worst might have happened.
'She still has a pulse,' the man answered grimly. He was wearing a lab coat like Claire's, and Hershel gathered he was a colleague. 'But it's very weak. We have to get her to a hospital and fast. You wouldn't happen to be a doctor?' he added hopefully, looking up him.
At that moment, Hershel would have given anything to be able to say Yes I am, I might be able to help her, but his expertise was, unfortunately, the dead and not the living. He shook his head. 'No, I'm – I'm Hershel Layton, Claire's-'
'Oh.' The scientist looked surprised for a moment before shaking it off. 'Alright. Come with me, I have a car that can bring us to a hospital as soon as possible.'
Hershel raised his arms to take Claire himself and the other man hesitated before allowing him to do so. He then ran off, and Hershel followed at a slower pace, gripping Claire's body tightly. He kept his eyes focused on the man running in front of him instead of on Claire's face – he didn't want to see the whole extent of injury that had been done to her.
They rounded a corner and the pale man climbed into a car parked there. Hershel followed, taking off his hat, careful with Claire's body. As soon as he shut the door behind him, the man was off at full speed, talking all the while as if he felt he owed Hershel an explanation. 'My name is Dimitri Allen,' he began. 'I'm one of the lab scientists, but I swear I wasn't in favour of this experiment – at least, not at this stage. I had discovered a huge flaw in the contraption, but I never imagined my partner would go along with the experiment anyway.'
'I quite understand,' Hershel replied quietly, not because he did but because it sounded like the right thing to say.
They were then silent for a while, and though he was not sorry for the loss of conversation, Hershel wished there was more noise, if only so that he didn't have to hear Claire's shallow breathing. Every moment stretched out the fear that it would suddenly stop and he would be left with nothing else to hold on to.
'The fire's caused some traffic accidents so the ambulances haven't been able to come yet,' Dimitri started again. 'This is a bit illegal,' he muttered in a lower voice, suddenly turning a corner and driving in the opposite direction of a one-way street, 'but the ends justifies the means.'
Hershel didn't see it this way but didn't protest. Claire would scold him later for ungentlemanly behaviour, but he also couldn't help thinking that would be better than for her to never hear about it at all.
When they finally arrived at the hospital several eternities later, Dimitri took charge. He appeared well acquainted with the hospital staff, and it was clear from his furrowed brow and white face that he was just as concerned about Claire as Hershel was, so he trusted him to carry things out properly. Hershel felt ill and dizzy when they took Claire away for treatment – holding her had given him the sense that he was doing something, but now he simply felt useless. He sat down in the waiting room, hands pressed to his eyes, trying to calm himself.
'Coffee?' Dimitri appeared in front of him, holding out a cup.
'No, thank you,' Hershel answered hoarsely, looking up at the other man to be polite.
He gave a brave attempt at a smile. 'I'm joking, I know it's tea,' he said, handing Hershel a cup with the blessed beverage. 'Claire, too, only takes tea, never coffee unless she has to work later than usual. Of course, that hasn't happened lately. Not since...'
This made Hershel feel a little guilty, even though he knew that if it was anybody's fault, it was Claire's. He said somewhat awkwardly, 'I apologise if my presence has become a block in your research.'
'No, no.' Dimitri waved it away. 'Claire is happy. That should be enough as far as I – that is, we – are concerned.'
A pause hung in the air before Hershel could pose the actual question. 'She... will she be alright?'
'I hope so,' said Dimitri solemnly. 'She's badly injured and has a concussion, but it could have been worse. Claire's strong; I'm sure she'll pull through. There's nothing else you and I can do right now other than pray.'
Hershel nodded, and, ungentlemanly as it was, let out a sigh. The waiting was almost physically painful. He tried to do a puzzle in his head to take his mind off things, but slumped in his seat three minutes later when he failed spectacularly. The room was warm, but goosebumps rose over his arms in his fear. After a moment, he recalled that Dean Delmona had wanted to meet him at this time, but Hershel simply couldn't bear to leave Claire without first hearing news of her condition, and he wanted to be the first person she would see when she would awaken. He didn't try to consider the possibility that she might not wake up, ever. That was unfathomable.
Eventually, he stood up and began to pace around the room.
For how long he walked from the seats to the window, to the magazine rack and back to the seats, he wasn't sure. At one point, Dimitri got up too and moved to the corner of the room, occasionally trying to read a magazine. Hershel didn't know how long he paced before a nurse came inside and said, 'You can see her now, sirs.'
Dimitri almost bolted out of the room. Hershel merely stared at the nurse for a few seconds before understanding what she had said and following Dimitri. He realised now that the long wait had numbed him – he felt fear and apprehension flow anew through his entire body, and fought the urge to throw up. The nurse hadn't said anything, but surely she would have if it was anything to worry about? Unless, of course, the sight of Dimitri dashing at her had frightened all other words out of her mouth.
'In here,' the nurse opened the door for them. Here, Dimitri hesitated, so Hershel pressed past him and went inside.
Claire was in a private room for the peace and quiet she needed. Her head was wrapped in bandages, which seemed to serve no purpose other than to highlight the scratches across her face. Her shattered glasses were on the table beside the pocket watch Hershel had given her. His eyes were drawn to the latter. It didn't have a dent or scratch on it. He walked slowly to her side, sank onto a chair by the bed and covered the hand that lay limp on the bed sheet with his own.
'Claire...' a voice murmured softly. Hershel looked up to see Dimitri on her other side, looking down at Claire with an almost frightened expression on his face.
'She's weak, and her condition could go either way right now,' the nurse said. 'We'll know tomorrow morning. Are you two her closest family?'
There was a short, awkward pause as Hershel and Dimitri glanced at each other. 'I'm her colleague...' the latter began slowly. 'And he's her...' he waved a hand at Hershel, trailing off.
'She has her mother, though,' said Hershel, recalling a conversation he had had once with Claire. I'll bring you to meet the old witch with me someday she had said. She lives in the country. When do you think we'll be free? They still had time for that. Their plans didn't need to be rearranged, not that he was here now to watch over her. 'I don't know if she's heard; she lives in the country. I'll try to get in contact with her tomorrow.'
The nurse nodded. 'Will you stay the night, Mr...?'
'Layton. And yes.' He did not like the thought of leaving Claire in the least. 'I will.'
'Alright.' The nurse turned to Dimitri. 'Visiting hours end at six.' She then left, shutting the door after her.
Dimitri pulled up a chair on Claire's other side and simply watched her in silence. Hershel redirected his attention to her as well and noticed with unease how dark her collarbone was.
'Was it that bad?' he said aloud.
'She was practically buried underneath the rubble.' Dimitri choked on the words, and Hershel fell silent again.
The two might have sat there an hour, unmoving. At one point, Hershel could have sworn he felt Claire's fingers twitch in his grip. He was continuously biting his lip as tears threatened to engulf him. He could still hear her words from the morning in his head: Oh, look at the time. I didn't realise how late it was! I have to go to the lab. We're running a very important experiment today. Let's continue this celebration over dinner tonight. Oh, and promise me you'll wear the hat. It's not your usual style, but keep an open mind. After all... isn't that what a gentleman does? Her eyes had softened then, looking at him affectionately. The love in her gaze had filled him with something warmer than tea, and he remembered then that he never wanted to let that go. He never would.
A sigh sounded, followed by a scraping of chair legs, making Hershel look up. 'I must go,' said Dimitri. The words sounded forced, as if leaving Claire's side was the last thing he wanted to do. 'If she wakes up, give her my well-wishes. I'll be back tomorrow.' He glanced back at Claire momentarily before hastening from the room.
Hershel lingered for a while longer before he realised he had missed his lunch. He gently released Claire's hand, then padded out in search of a canteen or something of the sort, hurrying, as if afraid Claire's condition would worsen without his supervision. He was back very quickly, but of course, nothing had changed about Claire's state, whether for the better or for the worse. He looked down at her for a moment, his entire body feeling numb with anxiety.
He brushed a hand against her face, from her jaw to her bandaged cheek. Perhaps some people would have been concerned by the marks her injuries would leave on her, but not Hershel. Claire would always be Claire to him, sweet and beautiful.
Without taking his gaze off her, he sat down again. It wasn't a very comfortable chair, but he pulled it closer to the bed, taking Claire's hand again. Perhaps hours passed, or maybe it was minutes, but he eventually fell asleep.
When he woke up, he was rather confused. The lights were far too bright for sleeping and he was curled up on a chair – a hard, uncomfortable one at that. He was also cold, although his hand was oddly warm.
Then everything came flooding back to him, and he opened his eyes.
'Oh, Hershel, you're awake.'
He whipped around to look at Claire, cricking his neck in the process. Unconsciously rubbing his neck, he blurted out, 'Claire! You're awake!'
Claire was indeed sitting up in bed, smiling at him. The smile pulled at the scratch on her cheek, extending it a little, but it was still Claire's smile. He realised then why his hand was warm – when she had woken up, she had taken his hand. He couldn't do anything past staring for one still moment before he flung his arms around her, holding her tightly.
'Cl-Claire –' he gasped in stunned shock, relief unable to come to him. 'I – I'm so – g-glad –'
'Hershel...' She returned the embrace, hugging him as tightly as he held her. 'Come on now, I'm fine you see,' she said gently. 'Don't worry any more. We'll be alright.'
Still he clung on to her, afraid that she would prove to be an illusion if he released her. She didn't move at all, but let him press her to his body, exchanging warmth. No words came to him. His eyes were shut tightly, trying to digest that she was still here, not going anywhere. Eventually, his shallow, distressed breathing slowed and he slowly released her and sat back down, but he continued clutching her hands.
'Hershel, please.' Claire's smile softened at the almost panicked look on his face. 'I'm not going anywhere, you know.'
'Yes,' he answered. 'I know.' But still he looked at her as if she were an apparition that would disappear the moment he blinked.
'I'm not leaving you. I can't leave you before I get to know everything about you. I'll be right here as long as you need me.' She edged closer, before leaning forward and kissing his cheek.
And he believed her.