The rain was pelting the windows of the car and Charlie cursed his bad luck. This whole day seemed like one big mess. Starting with the feeling of stuffed ears he woke up with, the dull sinus headache continuing thorough the day, not even letting up upon hefty application of hot tea. The fact Ballarat had fallen under the dark embrace of cloudy skies wasn't helping with anyone's mood. Hobart was grumpy because his favourite boxer had messed up and he lost quite a money in a bet. Charlie was steering clear of the man, only grateful that Lawson seemed to be in better mood. Well, the man was supposed to go on a prolonged weekend with Alice to some small hotel. They had finally started dating, even though it was only semi official. Charlie didn't care for the label. He was happy for Lawson, even more so that a happy Lawson equated a happy department. Or at least a more peaceful one.
Of course, Lawson appointed Charlie as the chief in his absence. While any other time Charlie would've jumped at the chance and felt ecstatic about the chance to prove himself, the way his body felt ever since the morning rang warning bells for him. He didn't tend to get sick often, but when he did it usually wasn't pretty. He tried to stave off the feeling of apprehension every time Lawson spoke about one thing or other Charlie should keep in mind during his absence. He had a crawling feeling in his stomach that the following three days would be anything but restful for him. He just hoped that the local crime would take a break as well and that his own body won't betray him. He could get sick once Lawson returned from his retreat... hell, he would probably take a day off even if he wasn't feeling like dying. He wanted to visit his mother and make sure Ray was still on speaking terms with him.
Charlie's wish for the day to be peaceful, and the following ones as well, wasn't exactly heard out. The downcast weather seemed to draw out the scum of the town and Charlie was forced to brace the weather several times, helping out with skirmishes, arresting some old drunk for indecent exposure, almost giving their local librarian a heart attack. To top it off on the way back to the police station Charlie caught sight of a well known thief running out from a shop that was definitely above his financial possibilities. Charlie managed to follow in the car and corner the thief in a one way street, but when the man jumped over the fence, Charlie had no choice but to follow him. Out into the rain. Needless to say, he was more than happy when the clock hit five and he was free for the day. Lawson bid him good luck and with a cheeky grin retreated to his abode, ready to take Alice out for the weekend. Charlie was almost jealous.
It must've been that momentary sparkle of jealousy - or well, the thought of spending few days away from all this hubris with a loved one - that made Charlie's heart leap at the sight of Rose. They were once again trying out the whole 'dating' thing. Neither of them were sure where it was going, but they both enjoyed spending time together. And catching sight of the familiar red hair and the almost sheepish grin, Charlie couldn't help but feel some of the exhaustion leave his body. So when Rose walked up to his desk and asked if he wanted to maybe spend some time with her that evening, Charlie agreed.
He had the presence of mind to call home and let Jean know not to wait for him with dinner and that he wasn't sure when he'll be coming home. Jean took it with good humour and wished him and Rose a nice evening.
It almost was.
Charlie took Rose for a nice dinner and then they headed to Rose's apartment. This wasn't new, Charlie had already spent a night at her place before. Usually it meant staying up late with a bottle of wine, some music and a good talk. Talking led to kissing and that led to other things. Charlie always felt weird leaving in the morning, as if it was his walk of shame. Especially when Jean caught him sneaking into the house and had her knowing grin. Charlie supposed he could live with that though, as long as Lawson wasn't the wiser. He really didn't know how would Lawson react to Charlie and Rose being together. Charlie didn't want to think about that right now... or maybe ever.
The dinner went well but Charlie didn't enjoy it all that much. Either the food he ordered was just a bit too bland or his taste buds were off. Everything tasted like cardboard and worse, it also felt like cardboard going down his raw throat. He sipped more on his drink, wishing either for a cup of hot tea or a strong liquor to wash away the burning. But they had wine and water.
Rose's company drew his mind off the way his body was feeling for long enough and they ended up at her place. Rose put on some music and they were on the couch, talking and relaxing. Well, Charlie was trying to relax and focus on the conversation, but there was a slight thumping behind his temples that was getting stronger by the moment. He had to clear his throat a few times too and overall wasn't much of a conversationalist. Of course Rose tried to compensate for that and misunderstood his growing silence as disinterest in the topic. Growing a bit weary of pulling the fiddle by herself, she turned to the topic she knew Charlie would have to react to.
Now the question she asked about his day sounded innocent enough and Charlie gave her a short description, taking a sip of water. They were sitting side by side and he could feel the heat of her body seeping into his own. While any other time it would have sparked his interest, right now he felt her closeness as a stifling presence. His skin hurt and he found himself pulling away from the contact.
Rose grew suspicious and did what she was best at. She started investigating.
"What's wrong?" she asked when she felt Charlie moving to sit just a few inches aside. "You barely spoke ten words tonight."
Charlie sighed. He was just about to tell her that he simply felt under weather and that maybe this was a bad idea, when Rose took his silence as an answer in itself.
"Are you still pouting about the whole thing with the Reynolds case? I told you... I got the information from his wife right before press. I had to either publish it or lose a whole day."
Charlie bit back his intended answer. Because yes, now that she mentioned it, he was still pissed off about that one.
"He read the newspaper and ran away before we could arrest him! Of course I'm angry about that," Charlie protested, feeling his cheeks heat up along with his heart rate.
"Oh, stop being so melodramatic," Rose rolled her eyes. "I called you right after it went to post and you arrested him before he reached Melbourne."
"That's hardly the point, Rose. He could have hurt someone."
"He was a thief stealing money from companies, not an armed bank robber."
"Doesn't mean he wasn't desperate enough to do something stupid. Reynolds had a knife on him when he was apprehended!"
"Well, I was just doing my job. Maybe if you'd done yours a bit better, you would've known his alibi wasn't true!"
Usually, Charlie would have tried to deescalate the whole fight. It was stupid. They had already talked about this... they had already cleared up their differences. And Charlie had closed the case two days ago, to Lawson's joy. But he really didn't appreciate Rose's investigation this time; for one reason it could put her into danger as well, for other, Charlie had enough to deal with trying to keep Lucien Blake from taking over all of his cases. No, truth was he was over the anger and mostly also over the hurt. But the argument escalated a bit too quickly and Charlie's brain worked a bit too slow. Before he realized he said some things he shouldn't have, he found himself standing outside Rose's apartment, the door clicking angrily closed with a parting words that he better go home and cool down.
Feeling his skin prickle with heat and the growing tightness inside his chest that had nothing to do with the argument itself, Charlie found he couldn't but agree. So he got into his car and headed home. Maybe he really needed to cool down. The car itself felt stiflingly warm so Charlie pulled down the side window. The sun had already settled behind the horizon but he couldn't see the stars or the moon. The sky was downcast, filled with heavy, dark clouds. Charlie could feel the air setting heavily in his lungs. It was going to rain soon, he just knew. The promise of rain and storm fit well with his own stormy mood. He felt a bit like jumping out of his skin and was equally angry at Rose for the whole Reynolds affair and at himself - for still being angry with her and losing his cool. This just wasn't his day... or even week.
With a sigh, Charlie turned towards the car radio. Maybe a bit of music or the late night news would make him calm down. He was just fiddling with the button, the damn thing seemed to be stuck for some reason, when he noted a sudden movement in front of his headlights.
Eyes going wide, Charlie focused back on the road and for a millisecond his eyes connected with an equally surprised look of a kangaroo, stopped right in the middle of the road.
Charlie let out a curse even as his hands were turning the wheel to stop the inevitable collision.
While he managed to steer the car away from the frozen animal, the road was still a bit wet from the previous rain. The wheels lost traction and Charlie's reaction were just a bit too slow, a bit too off. He knew not to jump on the brake, knew where to turn the wheel, but it didn't work. The car started knife jacking through the road, the kangaroo left behind unharmed but Charlie lost control of the car. It took barely a second or two, even though Charlie felt it was an eternity, as his car headed towards the small slope by the side of the road.
Charlie could only brace himself for impact and pray that the slope was just a small one and that his car wouldn't flop over.
There was a rattle and Charlie was tossed against the hard steering wheel as the car came to a stop.
For a moment Charlie didn't know what happened. Was he dead? He didn't feel dead. His heart was thumping too hard inside his chest cavity to be anything but scarily alive.
Something wet ran down his cheek and Charlie blinked, sure it was blood, but when he reached up all he could feel was sweat. Letting out a sigh of relief, Charlie carefully leaned back on his seat, trying to calm down enough to assess his situation.
Well, he was off the road, no doubt about that. His headlights were shining on some bushes and Charlie could feel the car was tilted to the side. Not much, but enough that he knew there was no way he would just start it up and drive it back up to the road.
"Great. That's just... great," Charlie sighed and thumped his head against the steering wheel. The hollow thump inside his skull turned into a jackhammer and Charlie groaned. He might've not cracked his skull, but the little tumble didn't help his headache any. Or the pains in his joints.
Charlie spent several minutes bemoaning his own dumb luck, when he finally found the courage to try and get out. He needed to see the actual damage to the car, he needed to see where the hell he was. Most of all, he needed to get home before his luck turned even more rotten and he ended up killed by a falling tree or a rabid kangaroo. Somehow both of those options looked more probable than just him catching a break. Huh, maybe he did hit his head after all.
Charlie reached for the door handle, silently praying that nothing was bent or broken there because he really didn't want to try and crawl out through the window.
The door creaked open however and Charlie pushed himself out of the seat. He grimaced as his body protested. Whether the pain was due to the accident or the growing sickness Charlie didn't know. But seeing as he was mobile, had nothing broken and nothing bleeding, Charlie thought himself to be actually lucky. Grabbing the heavy flashlight he carried in the car with him, Charlie took a proper look at the car and the damage.
It was with relief he saw nothing wrong... except the few scratches and a bent fender. Nothing that would put him out of a month's pay to fix. No, the only problem with the car was the fact it was stuck on the side of what looked like a small hill, in a position that Charlie couldn't manoeuvre it out of by himself. On closer look, Charlie noted a big old tree stump that made a small dent in the backseat door, but also stopped the car from further descent.
It was after ten at night, dark outside... and Charlie knew the road he used wasn't exactly full of traffic. He could stay there on the side of the road with his flashlight, hoping no one will run him over and will give him a ride, or he could start walking home. It couldn't have been more than ten miles... maybe fifteen.
Charlie groaned and started walking. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, he knew he was getting sick and he didn't think spending several hours sitting at the side of the road in the cold night would help him. At least if he was moving he shouldn't get cold and if he really stepped it up, he might even make it home around midnight. The idea of getting at least six hours of proper sleep in his bed was like hanging a carrot in front of a horse.
Charlie walked. If every step he took hadn't jarred his headache and felt like someone heavy was sitting on the top of his shoulders, weighing him down, he would have contemplated running. He knew he could make it home in half the time that way. But even just the idea of speeding up his steps made his breath catch in his chest and Charlie let out a startled cough.
Nope, no running. He kept the flashlight off, turning it on only occasionally to make sure he hadn't veered off the road. Though at least the moon had come out and shone in between the clouds. Charlie looked up at the sky, trying to see the stars, but was dismayed to see darkness, only few stars shining through. With a sigh, he fastened his steps. He wasn't very good at weather casting, but he could feel the heaviness in the air. More rain was coming.
True to his thoughts, an hour of walking later the sky seemed to open up and pour the whole lake right on top of Charlie's head. At least that how he felt as the heavy raindrops kept hitting his skin with abandon. Charlie clenched his teeth, the flashlight now turned on constantly to keep him on the road although he was trying to shade it from the rain as much as possible. He really didn't fancy the idea of being left in total darkness in the middle of the monsoon or whatever this storm was supposed to be.
On one pass the flashlight caught a familiar road sign and to Charlie's relief he knew he was closer to home than he originally anticipated. His relief was only short lived though as the sky was lit afire by a lightning bolt. Charlie could almost feel the static on his skin. The blast hit somewhere close, he could smell it in the air. His heart was beating so fast for a second he thought the lightning actually hit him, but no. The sky cracked again, this time somewhere further down the road and Charlie was standing still, breath frozen. Then his flashlight gave a warning blink and Charlie shook off the stupor. He had to move, before he got really hit by lightning or before his flashlight decided to give up on him. Biting down feelings of discomfort, Charlie started running towards home.
Jean Beazley was already lying in the bed, the night lamp turned off. She was ready to go to sleep when the rain started. She didn't mind, she actually liked falling asleep to the sound of rain, however rare it was in their part of the country. But it was somehow different trying to sleep in an empty house.
With a sigh, she turned on the bed, fluffing up her pillow. She wished Lucien wasn't called off to tend to Miss Beaufort, even though it felt a bit selfish. But the woman was almost ninety year old, her closest relative out of town for the week. When she called that there was pain in her chest, Lucien rushed to his car. He had already called Jean to tell her he would be staying at the hospital during the night, keeping company to Miss Beaufort. If Jean knew him well, he would also try and help out the night staff with any interesting cases.
Jean had long ago accepted that work duties often came first to Lucien, so she didn't begrudge this. However, with Charlie and Matthew out of the house, well... they could've had a nice romantic night. Especially with the rain outside. But now she was alone and while the clapping on the windowsill was making her drowsy, the ensuing crack of lightning made her just about jump out of her skin. She didn't like storms, especially when her loved ones were out of the house. At least she knew both Charlie and Lucien were cosy in their respective places, but still. She would've much preferred knowing everyone was safe under the roof.
Jean clutched the spare pillow closer to her chest and pulled the blanket over her shoulders. What she wouldn't give to have Lucien by her side right now... cuddling to her, making her feel safe. Or sitting in his recliner, perusing over some case files under the gentle light of the night lamp. Instead she had the cold side of the bed.
A few more lightning strikes later, the storm seemed to ease off. There was still the sound of raindrops hitting the window, but their cadence had lessened and Jean found herself drifting off to sleep.
Jean bolted upright in bed, eyes wide and heart beating wild.
'What in God's name?' she thought as her mind replayed the loud crack.
For a moment she thought it might've been just another lightning bolt, but the sound was too close. It came from inside the house, she was sure of that. And it sounded more like something breaking.
Jean sat unmoving, willing her breathing to calm down so she could actually listen. A minute later her ears caught the sound of something crunching, like glass. There was a gruff curse, definitely male and Jean jumped out of the bed. It was either Charlie or Lucien coming home early... or a burglar. Jean didn't think either of the man would be making such ruckus though... or coming home in the middle of the night. Another sound... this time someone looking through the cabinets in the kitchen. Jean knew that because she recognized the creak the bottom cabinet gave when opened with a bit more force than necessary.
Grimacing, Jean was thinking about calling for help. There was a phone line upstairs, right outside her door. She could get there and call the precinct. But she knew it would take them at least fifteen minutes to arrive and if the intruder heard the call... she would be in trouble. Still, she wasn't about to just hide under the bed and hope for the best. Jean was never one to back down or cover in fear, so her hands automatically went for the first firm thing that could work as a weapon.
It happened to be an umbrella. Not exactly what she would've liked, Jean wowed to make sure she had an iron poker in her room for future situations such as this. But the umbrella could still be useful and Jean didn't want to lose time trying to find something else and risk warning the intruder about her presence. So she tiptoed out of her room, thankful that after so many years she knew the house well. She knew which floor board made a sound and which stair to skip. She made it downstairs, ignoring the phone. If it was a foe, she will have to deal by herself in any case. And if by chance it was Lucien or Charlie, well... she'd rather not make a fool of herself.
Carefully she continued towards the kitchen. She could see one of the kitchen lights was on and there was a shadow moving slowly around the room. Jean paused, leaning against the wall and listening to any sound telling her who it was.
The man - and Jean was sure it was a man - was breathing raggedly, letting out an occasional muffled cough. Jean frowned when she heard something that could be described as chattering of teeth... then a soft curse and the sound of crunching glass.
„Charlie?" Jean stepped out from behind the corner and almost took a step back, for a second sure that she was mistaken and the drenched man in front of her wasn't their young tenant. But at the sound of her voice the man startled and looked up and she saw the unmistakable blue eyes, now wide from surprise.
"For God's sake, you scared me half to death!" she said, one hand resting over her heart, the other letting the umbrella touch the ground.
Charlie, wet hair half covering his eyes, blinked.
"I could have used that... about an hour ago," he commented, pausing in between trying to suppress some coughing and Jean cringed.
"Look at the state you are in!" She dropped the umbrella and headed for Charlie, wanting to make sure he was alright.
"Careful," Charlie warned her, nodding towards the broken shards from the teapot that now littered the ground.
"So that's what woke me up," Jean muttered and paused, frowning. It was her favourite teapot too.
Charlie looked at her with his wide puppy dog eyes, all contrite and regretful.
"I'm sorry. I just... wanted some warm tea but it slipped and... I'll clean it up," he said and was already down on his knees, water dripping from his soggy clothes all over the floor, mixing with the puddle from the teapot water. His hands were shaking as he was trying to pick up the biggest shards and Jean cringed, already imagining the cuts on his hands.
"No, stop," she said and turned towards the corner, grabbing a broom. "Step aside, Charlie. I don't want to be cleaning up your blood as well."
She shooed him out of the way even as Charlie kept apologizing. Jean ignored his stuttering and made quick work of the mess. Once she was sure neither of them risked cut limbs, she turned back towards Charlie. The boy was standing near the table, out of the way but still dripping water. He was shaking and looked miserable and Jean couldn't help it, her maternal instinct flared up. She put away the broom and walked up to him, steering him towards one of the kitchen chairs. She knew he should probably go straight up to take a hot shower or at least get out of those clothes, but she wanted to make sure all that ailed him was a little rain.
Jean turned on the main kitchen light and cringed at his appearance. Charlie's skin was white, lips grey, almost bluish. The only colour he had was on his cheeks, which were rosy.
"Sit down for a moment and tell me what happened. Why... why are you all wet and why didn't you stay at Rose's place?" she asked, while filling up the kettle and putting it on to make some tea.
"I wasn't... feeling well and we had an argument," Charlie tried to explain, grimacing as his throat was obviously hurting now. Jean could hear the scratchy quality already. She really wished Lucien was home right now, but she didn't want to call him for a simple cold. Jean nodded, listening to Charlie recount his decision to come home early. He admitted that the argument was stupid.
"I'm sure Rose will understand that you weren't feeling well. And if all else fails, a bucket of roses and some chocolate should help," she said with an encouraging smile even as she put some biscuits in front of Charlie. He returned a shaky smile.
"I hope so," he mumbled, looked at the biscuits and then made a point of ignoring them. She could've sworn he turned even paler.
"Are you alright, Charlie?"
"Y-yeah, just... my stomach feels a bit wobbly," he admitted and Jean wondered if he was sick, but didn't ask.
"The tea might help settle your stomach a bit," she said instead and stepped towards him, running a hand over his wet hair. Charlie seemed to lean into her touch, eyes getting heavier. Jean frowned. His skin was cold from the rain, but she could feel the heat in his cheeks. With a sigh, she stepped back to give him a proper once over. She noted the muddy shoes and knees, a sign that he managed to topple into a puddle or two. His hands were clean, washed off by the rain, but she could see abrasion on one of the palms. He either fell down right in front of the house and lay out in the rain for quite some time, or... he walked home. Seeing as Jean didn't hear the sound of the car...
"Did your car break down?" she asked and Charlie blinked. He looked confused for a second, but then his eyes cleared and he gave a simple nod.
"Yes, ma'am. I couldn't get it moving, so I thought I'd walk home..."
"In that storm?" Jean looked dubious.
"It wasn't raining then."
The kettle whistled and Jean turned to make the tea. Behind her Charlie kept shuffling on the chair and she could swear she heard water dripping from his drenched clothes onto the floor. When she heard him sniffle, her patience had just about run out.
„Why don't you go upstairs and take a shower? The tea is still scalding hot. I'll bring it up to you in a minute, okay?" Jean looked at him and cringed at the pitiful sight. Charlie was now rubbing his hands over his legs as if trying to warm them up. Jean sighed and reached for his arm.
"Come on, Charlie. Up you go," she pulled and Charlie stood. She gave him another look then reached for the lapel of his jacket and nudged him, helping him take it off. Charlie followed her motions and soon he was divested of the wet jacket and shirt, leaving him in his undershirt and pants.
"Take off your shoes and socks. I'll bring you a towel so you can dry up your feet. I'd like to keep the mess in one place if possible," she said and left Charlie alone in the kitchen for a moment, hoping he would listen and won't wander off. As she grabbed a towel from a nearby cabinet she noted with dismay the wet and muddy footprints in the hall. More cleaning to do before Lucien returned and dragged the mess all over the house.
When she came back to the kitchen Charlie was in the same place she left him, though he did follow her commands at least. Jean decided not to berate him for the muddy footprints. When he looked up at her he already had the kicked puppy look on his face that reminded her so much of her own boys, especially when they knew they did something wrong. Jean sighed and handed Charlie a towel to dry off. He did so clumsily, hopping first on one leg than the other. It would've been funny if it wasn't the middle of the night and if he wasn't swaying almost drunkenly.
"That will do. Can you manage up the stairs?" Jean asked a bit more strongly than she meant to. Charlie blinked, then gave a nod.
"Yes, Miss Beazley," he muttered almost sheepishly. "I'm sorry... for the mess," Charlie said then let out a mighty sneeze. "I'll... I'll clean it up-"
"Nonsense!" Jean waved him off a bit snappishly and saw him flinch. She let out an annoyed sigh, though this time it wasn't aimed at Charlie. "I meant... there's no need. I can clean it up much faster and you need to get warmed up before catching your death. Now come on, upstairs," she shooed him out of the kitchen, ignoring his quiet protests.
She pointedly waited at the bottom of the stairs until he successfully reached the top. Charlie looked down, a bit taken aback at seeing her there. Jean just raised an eyebrow and nodded her head. When she finally heard the bathroom door close she returned to the kitchen. Well, this wasn't exactly how she imagined spending her night, but at the same time she felt more at peace. She knew there was something wrong that didn't let her go to sleep. Call it an intuition or just a feeling. But having Charlie home and safe made her much calmer. Now she only needed to take care of the mess in the kitchen and the hall before the mud dried up and then she could go make sure the boy didn't fall asleep in the shower.
Charlie had felt so damn foolish. First, he made a mess coming inside the house. Then he woke up Jean, startling her enough to bring an umbrella as her protection - and Charlie really should have a talk about that with her. If nothing else, Jean should have something sturdier to protect herself with. But that was beside the point. The point was, after all this, Charlie broke a teapot. Not only a teapot... but Jean's favourite one. He knew it was her favourite one, saw the look of remorse in her eyes as she was sweeping up the shards. He felt bad about that and swore he would try and get Jean the same teapot... somehow. But first he had to get out of those damn wet clothes, warm up and get some sleep. And preferably not catch his death.
Right now that seemed like a rather poignant concern.
Shivering, Charlie closed the door to the bathroom and more clumsily than he expected, he let the wet shirt and pants fall on the floor. He would have much more preferred taking a bath, but he knew that if he got the chance to really immerse himself in hot water he would most probably fall asleep. And he definitely didn't want Jean coming into the bathroom to check if he was alive, thank you very much.
Groaning and letting out two big sneezes, Charlie slipped in under the spray of hot water, yelping and jumping out in the next second. The water felt scalding hot on his skin. Cursing, Charlie adjusted the temperature. He was sure the water was now only lukewarm, but it would have to do.
After a moment he got used to the temperature and started adding more hot water. After the downpour outside it felt like heaven. Charlie rested his head against the bathroom wall and watched the mud and some blood from his skinned knees run down the drain. He had slipped more than once during his run home but the lightning blinking through the sky always made him get up hastily and continue. He really didn't fancy being stricken down by a bolt of lightning, especially not so close to home.
When he spotted the house he thanked God and almost kissed the entrance door. That might've been a bit of an overkill, Charlie thought and hoped there were no muddy prints on the front door for Jean to find in the morning. Oh well. Maybe he would sneak down later and check, just to be sure.
For now he would just stay under the hot spray and try and forget the whole messy week.
"Charlie? You okay in there?" Jean's voice sounded even through the water and Charlie startled, realizing he must've dozed off, standing as he was. The water was also starting to run a bit cold for his taste and he fumbled to turn it off quickly. Great, he was still shivering.
"Y-yeah, fine. I'll be right out," he called as he stepped out of the shower. Only to realize that he didn't bring in any dry clothes with him. Charlie cursed, feeling like he would weep any moment. He grabbed two towels from the rack, but there was no way he was putting a nose out in the hall with Jean being nearby. He really didn't fancy the idea of mooning Lucien Blake's future wife.
"I brought you some dry clothes," Jean spoke and Charlie blinked. "I'll leave them next to the door, alright?"
"T-thank you," Charlie croaked out, his voice all choked up with emotion. He felt like he could kiss that woman for her thoughtfulness. He stepped next to the door and waited until he heard an unnecessarily loud creak from down the hall, letting him know the air was clear. Charlie peered outside and quickly grabbed the clothes.
When he finally entered his room, he found it empty. But the bed was made up with a spare blanket and there was a cup of tea on his bedside table. Charlie was just about to hide under the blankets when there was a knock on the door.
"Come in," he said, cringing at how raw his voice sounded. Jean entered carrying another glass with water. She put it down on the bedside table along with a couple of white pills.
"Aspirin," she explained at Charlie's questioning look.
"I'm fine, Miss Beazley," Charlie started to protest, not really sure why he was even trying to keep up the charade. As if the shaking bed wasn't enough of an evidence to the contrary. Jean just raised an eyebrow and Charlie thought that Lucien sure as hell knew how to pick them. He doubted anything could go past Jean Beazley at this point.
"Just take it, Charlie. Now... do you need anything else?" she asked even as she was plopping up Charlie's pillows, straightening the blankets and essentially tucking him in like a five year old. Charlie could only blink as he had the glass of water and pills pushed into his hand, an imploring look making him obey instantly.
"No, th-thank you. I'm sorry... for the mess," he tried to apologize once again but Jean just shook her head and pulled the blankets up to his chin, her hand brushing the wet hair out of his face.
"Shush. Nothing to apologize for." She frowned, her hand pausing on his cheek and Charlie couldn't help but turn a bit into the warmth of it. "You're still a bit cold. Maybe I should check your temperature?"
Charlie shook his head, then yawned.
"It's okay. I'll just sleep now," he mumbled, eyes already closing as he turned on his side and buried himself deeper into the blankets.
He heard a huff, then a soft but somehow familiar "Good night, Charlie."
He was already half asleep as he muttered: "Night, mom."
There was only silence, then the light was turned off and he heard a door pulling closed.
Jean Beazley stood in the hallway, her mind awash with old memories of hearing those words coming from her own children. There was the familiar ache in her chest, because she knew her chances of hearing those words in the future were getting slimmer and slimmer. It was much more likely she would be told Night, Nana by her granddaughter when she comes to spend the summer with them. But that was far away and for now she would take what she could get. She knew the words didn't really belong to her, but that didn't wash the smile off of her face as she lie down in her own bed. This time falling asleep almost instantly.
The weather was still overcast and gloomy when Lucien Blake drove towards his home. It was early morning though and the rising sun was breaking through the clouds. Lucien wasn't an early bird, he'd much rather stay up all night solving some mystery, but he still enjoyed the sight of the world waking up. Especially when he knew that he would be going to sleep shortly.
Biting back a yawn, Blake played with the radio in search of something that would help keep him awake. After some fiddling he just gave up. He was currently catching about two stations and both were crackling. He would have to check the antenna later on, see if it wasn't damaged. For now opening the window and letting in some fresh air seemed to do the trick anyway.
Lucien heard his stomach give a hungry rumble and he grimaced. It was still too early and he doubted Jean would have breakfast prepared yet. Or that she would be even awake. He was half hoping she was actually still in bed when he returned. Maybe he could convince her of staying in bed a little longer... Lucien's lips quirked up in a smile. He couldn't believe how lucky he was of having Jean in his life.
As if in some subconscious effort to get home that much faster, Lucien put a bit more pressure on the gas pedal. He was only few miles from home after all and there was no traffic at this time of the day. He didn't expect anything on the road ahead or outside of it for that matter. Maybe that's why the glint of metal to his right caught him by surprise.
On instinct, and being familiar with the road well enough to know there was no signage or anything else around that should give off that glare, he automatically slowed down and put on the breaks. The car stopped maybe a hundred meters further from the place, so Lucien put it in reverse, slowly backing up. There... something silver. He squinted and could recognize a car bumper.
"Bloody hell," Lucien uttered even as he stepped out of his car. He walked to the side of the road, knowing well there was a slight slope behind the row of bushes. He looked back on the road and as he squinted he could see some skid marks on the pavement.
Lucien was overcome with a feeling of apprehension as he followed the skid marks direction and his eyes caught sight of the back of the car. Not losing time, Lucien forced his way through the bushes, ignoring how his shoes were becoming covered with dirt and mud. He was afraid there might be someone in the car, hurt or dying. Every minute could count...
Lucien came to a sudden halt at a familiar sight. It wasn't just any car. It was a police car... and looking at the license plate number Lucien was pretty sure it was the one Charlie used to drive from time to time.
His blood seemingly turned to ice. Lucien talked with Jean last night and according to her, Charlie was supposedly staying out for the night. But the car was his... and as Lucien made his way up to the car he could see the all too familiar police hat laying on the back seat. The driver's seat was empty and Lucien was heartened to see that the door was open. He let out a sigh of relief. There was no blood anywhere and the car seemed mostly intact. Still... there was no telling if the occupant didn't get hurt and wandered off somewhere into the bush.
Lucien straightened up and closed the car door with a bit more force than necessary. Then he looked around, eyes searching everywhere for some sign of movement or body.
"Charlie?" Lucien bellowed, then waited. No answer. He looked for tracks on the ground, any sign where the driver of the car (was it even Charlie?) had gone, but it seemed that the rain had washed off any evidence. Lucien repeated his call two more times, walking around the car in widening circles, but no reaction came. Finally he decided that the best course of action would be to get home and see if Charlie turned up. Then call the police station and let them know one of their cars was in an accident.
Decision made, Lucien returned to his car and turned on the engine. His foot was itching to step on the gas pedal so he could reach home all that faster, but at the same time he realized it was prudent to drive slower. Make sure there was no one walking on the road, or lying in the nearby ditch. The drive home took him almost thirty minutes at the speed he was going, occasionally slowing down to a crawl when he thought he caught sight of movement off to the side. Finally he reached his house. It looked calm and quiet and Lucien wasn't sure if it was a good sign or bad. He walked up to the front door and paused upon seeing the muddy footprints on the porch. He swallowed down a curse and entered the house.
Inside everything looked normal. No other muddy footsteps on the floor. That was good. Still, he couldn't help but call out "Charlie?" even as he was making his way up the stairs. He had just reached the top of the stairs when a sleepy looking Jean stepped out of her room, wrapped in a nightrobe and looking uncharacteristically disgruntled.
"Lucien! What on earth are you shouting for?" she asked, although it was clear she was trying to keep her voice down.
"Is Charlie home?" Lucien asked, one hand already on the doorknob to Charlie's room.
Jean blinked and Lucien felt a pang of regret at waking her up.
"Yes, of course," Jean said gruffly. "He got home in the middle of the night, all wet from the rain. Almost gave me a heart attack. And you just did the same. I swear, you men will be the death of me," Jean said exasperatedly.
Lucien just felt relief at hearing that Charlie was home. He opened the door and peered inside, as if to make sure. At first he didn't even see Charlie, the boy was hidden under several blankets, only the top of his head was visible from the door.
"Lucien! What is the meaning of this?" Jean asked in half whisper as she walked up to Blake and pulled him back from the door. Lucien, satisfied with the sight relented and turned towards his future wife.
"I'm sorry. I just saw Charlie's car in the ditch and no sign of him, so I panicked he got hurt and wandered off somewhere," Blake explained. "Looks like he got home just fine."
He expected Jean to roll her eyes and tell him he was exaggerating, of course Charlie was fine. But instead her mouth set in a tight line. She was obviously pissed about something.
"Did he crash the car?" she asked, voice tight.
Lucien did a double take and decided to proceed with caution.
"I'm not sure it was a crash per say," he started, carefully. "The car seemed to be fine, but it was off the road and down a decline. There was no way he could get it out alone."
"But it wasn't exactly intact, was it?" she said in a tone that spelled trouble. Lucien shrugged, unsure of what was really going on, but knowing he didn't want to be on Jean's bad side. She huffed and pushed past Blake.
"Charlie!" Jean exclaimed from the door, startling Charlie awake. And sure, it was a bit cruel, but she never liked people lying to her. Especially not those she thought of as family.
The lump on the bed moved, dislodging the blankets and popping up a messy crown of dark hair. Eyes barely open and voice painfully croaky, Charlie looked towards the two people inside his room.
"What?" There was so much confusion on his face that Jean almost relented and told him to just go back to sleep. But then she got a look at his face and saw what appeared to be a starting bruise just under the hairline and the anger returned.
"You didn't tell me you crashed the car!" she said, arms crossed over her chest.
Charlie blinked, taking a moment to realize what was going on. He was in the middle of some crazy dream about taking a joyride across an African jungle... the sun beating down heavily on his skin as different animals kept jumping out of the way of his jeep, when he was rudely woken up by Jean.
Chasing away the remnants of the dream, he tried to make head and tails of what was being asked of him. Or of the fact that both Jean and Lucien Blake were inside his room, looking like a pair of pissed off parents after they caught their child sneaking in after curfew. Charlie shook off the ridiculous thought. Those weren't his parents and he wasn't sneaking out. He was trying to sleep, for goodness sake.
"Charlie!" Jean was still waiting for an answer and Charlie huffed.
"I didn't crash the car," he retorted, hoping it sounded strong and not whiny. "I didn't hit Hopper," he added for good measure.
Blake and Jean exchanged a confused look.
"What on earth are you talking about, Charlie?" Jean asked, while Lucien seemed to decide that it was a good time to practice some medicine. Charlie didn't even have time to react as the man walked up to him and without warning put his awfully cool hand on his forehead. Charlie shivered.
"He's burning up," Blake said with a frown, totally ignoring Charlie's attempt at evading this intrusion and trying to explain his encounter with the kangaroo. For goodness sake, doesn't anyone know that kangaroos were called hoppers?
Charlie blinked, caught on the thought. Well, maybe not. He doubted everyone had a younger brother whose favourite toy was a stuffed kangaroo called hopper. Maybe he should try to actually try and explain before those two decided he was crazy.
Charlie opened his mouth to do just that, but before he could even utter a word, Lucien had rudely pushed a glass thermometer into his mouth and with a flick of a finger closed his jaw shut. Where the hell did he even get that thing?
Charlie frowned, for a second thinking this was just part of his dream. A rather twisted and unwarranted dream. He would rather get back to trying to navigate the African jungle with all of its fauna, thank you very much.
"Did you hit your head when you crashed the car?" Blake asked and Charlie once again tried to speak, only to get a glare.
"Don't talk, you'll mess up the reading. Just nod."
Charlie rolled his eyes in reply, crossing his arms in exasperation. Can't Blake just make up his bloody mind?
"Charlie," Blake admonished, still waiting for an answer. Charlie shook his head and let out a grumbled no. He looked up to see Jean bringing the doc his bag and thought this was truly ridiculous. He didn't need all this attention, he was completely fine. Well, maybe not completely fine. Everything kinda hurt and he felt as if his eyeballs were going to boil inside his head. His skin felt too tight and it hurt wherever it touched something, making him feel like one big bruise. The worse thing was his chest. He could feel the congestion building up, was already trying to force back a cough. No need to worry Blake or Jean any more. They were already looking at him like he was some kicked puppy and Charlie suddenly felt all of a three feet tall.
The scene reminded him of perhaps the only time he allowed himself to be sick as a child without feeling the guilt of it... that was when his father was still alive. He was maybe seven then, stricken down by pneumonia. He didn't remember most of the ordeal, but what he would never forget was his father, the strong and always bit distant Norm Davis sitting on his bedside, looking worried. He remembered his father pulling him up when he coughed and wrapping him in his arms, cradling him like a little child he was. He remembered his father telling him stories for hours on end during the night, trying to keep him from thinking he would die. Despite how sick he felt then, it was the last time he felt truly safe and carefree. His dad was there and he would make sure everything would be alright.
Of course it didn't last. As soon as Charlie was out of the woods, Norm Davis resumed his position of a stern although loving father. He gave pats on the head, ruffled Charlie's hair and offered a proud smile when Charlie hit a ball in the batting cage. But he didn't give a hug or lose time telling Charlie stories from his childhood. There were moments when Charlie wanted to ask, when he wished the illness came back so that his father would be there for him. Just him. Not his brothers and mother... but Charlie. He wished not to be the oldest one. But before he could make up the courage and ask his father to maybe tell him a story, before Charlie could approach his dad and just give him a hug, Norm Davis was shot in an alley by another crooked cop.
From that moment on, Charlie had to grow up. He had to be the oldest brother, he had to look out for his siblings. Most of all, he had to be there and help his mom. It was what his father would have wanted after all.
Charlie missed being seven again.
A hand tapped his cheek gently and he felt a tug at his mouth as the thermometer slid out. Charlie blinked, feeling something wet running down his cheek. He blinked again, realizing it must've been tears and instantly felt ashamed.
What the hell was wrong with him?
He wasn't a child anymore. He wasn't seven, or eight. He had long ago dealt with his father's death. He was a grown man, for heaven's sake. A man with an important job, walking in his father's footsteps. He was a police-
Charlie's eyes went wide and he almost head butted Blake when he jumped on the bed, trying to get out of it.
"Work! I'll be late for work and Lawson will kill me!"
"Whoa there, Charlie!" Blake was holding him back, though it was totally unnecessary. The sudden outburst caused Charlie to lose control over his breathing and he was overwhelmed by a painful coughing fit. Doubled over, Blake's hands were now more support than restraint.
"Just calm down, that's it. You're not going anywhere, dear boy."
"But... the Boss-" Charlie managed in between coughs, shooting Blake a pleading look.
"Matthew and Alice had left town last night, Charlie. But I'm sure he would understand you not going to work with a fever of almost 39," Blake said with a warning glower, then handed Charlie the glass of lukewarm water from the bedside table. Charlie took it with shaky hands, wishing for the earth to swallow him.
"I need to go to work," he tried once again, although even to him it sounded weak and ridiculous.
"You need to let me check you out than get some rest. And stop worrying about work. I'm sure Bill Hobart is more than capable of handling the station for a few days."
"He will be so pissed," Charlie groaned and Blake rolled his eyes.
"Please. Bill will be happy not to have you and Matthew around breathing down his neck." Blake paused, pursing his lips. "I'm not so sure about the other officers, but... that's not your problem."
Another groan and Charlie tried to bury himself under the covers. Maybe he could just sleep through the weekend, or hell, through the whole week. Let Lawson get over the fact that he crashed the car...
The blanket was pulled off of his face.
"Now now, try not to suffocate yourself with the blanket. I'd rather not explain that one to Matthew," Blake said with a smile as he made sure Charlie had enough air.
"The car?" Charlie mumbled, his energy levels waning quickly. After all, he barely got any sleep before being so rudely awoken. And did Blake said he had a fever? Well, that might've explained all the aches and pains.
"I'll call Bill and explain what happened," Blake said reassuringly.
Charlie nodded, eyes closing.
"Thanks," he muttered and turned, attempting to get back to sleep.
"Hey now, just stay awake a bit longer, alright?"
Charlie grumbled and peered an eye open, only to close it again with a groan. Blake was already rummaging through his medicine bag, pulling out a stethoscope.
"Later please?" he tried and it decidedly didn't sound like a whine. Nope.
"Trust me, I'm just as tired as you, Charlie. Let's get this over with so we can both get some sleep."
Charlie wanted to protest, but found he had no energy that was usually required to argue with Lucien Blake. It seemed much easier to just give in.
"Sit up a bit... and tell me. What is a Hopper?"
Somehow, Charlie survived Hobart's wrath. It wasn't such a feat after all. Bill was actually rather enjoying being the boss for few days. While some of the other men at the police station were not that happy about it, they didn't dare to complain. Bonus point was that they were extra happy when Lawson returned after the weekend.
Seeing as the station didn't blow up in his absence and there was no mysterious murder to solve which would've needed Blake's assistance, Lawson couldn't really complain about Charlie's absence either.
Not that Charlie could have done anything about it anyway. All the rain and the traipsing through the storm gave him a proper chest cold that put him out of commission for a good week. The first few days were a blur. The fever and the constant coughing made Charlie rather miserable and weak. When he slept he was troubled with vivid dreams that made him toss and turn. He often woke up with the feeling of drowning or suffocating. The first time it happened it was scary and Charlie sat up in bed, gasping and coughing for breath, eyes bulging wide. He was sure he was dying. But Lucien was there, propping him up, clapping on his back and keeping a mantra of soothing words until Charlie could finally breathe again.
"You'll be just fine, Charlie," Blake kept saying and Charlie slid down back into the covers, usually falling right back to sleep again. There was a reassuring hand on his shoulder and for the moment he felt as if he was seven again. Safe and loved... without obligations and duties.
Other times he woke up from a nightmare to the sound of Jean's voice, reading to him from one of her books by Agatha Christie. Her voice was soothing and it was usually accompanied by a cold compress on his head, chasing away the heat. Charlie watched from under hooded eyes as Jean flipped the page. It was dark outside, probably time where she would be better off getting ready to sleep. Instead, she was sitting in a chair by Charlie's bed, under the lamp light, reading to him from Crooked House. She haven't noticed he was awake... or maybe she didn't think he was all there. Charlie didn't mind. He didn't want conversation anyway. Just the fact he wasn't alone was enough for him. More than enough.
There was a soft creak of the door and Jean looked up, a smile on her face as Lucien stepped in. Charlie closed his eyes, unwilling to spoil the moment. He felt a hand touch his cheek and neck, checking gently for the fever, then a hushed voice.
"I think his fever's coming down," Lucien said.
"Yes, I think so too. Finally," Jean said and Charlie heard footstep going around his bed, paper rustling. He dared to slid open one eye, just to see the silhouette of Blake standing behind the chair and wrapping his arms around Jean.
"It's getting quite late, dear. Don't you want to go to bed?" Lucien whispered and Jean took his arm in hers.
"In a bit. I'll just finish the chapter."
Lucien leaned down and planted a gentle kiss on the top of Jean's head.
"I love you, you know," he said and Charlie closed his eyes. He felt a bit bad, like a spy to a private moment. At the same time though, he felt happy. For Lucien and for Jean. That they found each other. And somewhere deep he also felt a bit of happiness for himself. For finding his second family.
Lucien said something to Jean that Charlie couldn't hear, but it made her giggle like a school girl and slap him on the arm. Charlie almost opened his eyes but thought better of it. Lucien chuckled.
"I'll get us something to drink. Don't start another chapter please. The boy needs his sleep."
And before he left the room, Lucien patted Charlie's feet under the blanket.
"Good night, Charlie. Sleep tight and don't let the bed bugs bite," he added with what Charlie assumed was a smirk on his face.
Charlie knew his charade was up and he opened his eyes, looking at Jean with embarrassment.
"And how long have you been awake?" Jean asked with a raised eyebrow, but there was no sternness, only amusement.
"Since Charles arrived to Three Gables," Charlie admitted.
"Ah. Not long then. How are you feeling?"
"Useless?" he muttered, then coughed. Jean handed him the glass of water.
"Don't worry. Once you're up and about, I'll let you peel all the potatoes you want. Or chop the onions."
Charlie snorted. That wasn't exactly what he meant, but he saw the knowing look in Jean's eyes and decided not to elaborate.
"Will be my pleasure," he said instead and settled back in bed with a yawn. Whatever chores Jean could come up with, they would have to wait a day or two more at least.
"Good. I am missing my helper. Now... do you want me to finish the chapter or let you sleep?"
"Finish please?" Charlie didn't want to say, but he was sure listening to the story will actually help him fall asleep way faster than if he was left to his own devices.
"Okay then. Let's see where we stopped. Ah, here."
Jean resumed reading and Charlie drifted off. And if there was a content smile on his face, no one really saw it, buried deep under the blanket.
It was two days later when Charlie started feeling human again to brave the stairs and spent the day reading on the couch, occasionally joined by Lucien or Jean, who kept him updated with the local grapevine.
Charlie was halfway through another detective book, this one borrowed from Lucien's library, when there was a knock on the door.
"Coming," Jean called out, passing next to Charlie. "You stay put. "
Charlie sighed but didn't argue. Despite doing nothing but sitting around and trying to cough up a lung, he felt constantly tired and ready to fall asleep at any moment. He was just contemplating whether he should go upstairs or risk dozing off on the couch, when he heard a familiar voice.
Charlie perked up a bit. It sounded as if there was a small argument going on in the hall. Well, maybe not exactly an argument, but he could hear Jean's tone taking on a stern note.
When finally Rose appeared in the living room, her cheeks were a bit red and she threw a cautious look behind her back.
Jean headed back towards the kitchen with a brusque "I'll bring you some tea."
Charlie raised an eyebrow questioningly and Rose let out a sigh as soon as the coast was clear.
"Hey, " Charlie croaked out and Rose grimaced.
"I wanted to say that you don't look that bad, but... that voice just ruined it."
Charlie smiled, a bit confused.
"Thanks I guess?"
Rose shook her head and walked up to Charlie, holding out a box of chocolate.
"I brought gifts. How are you feeling?"
"Better," Charlie admitted and pointed towards the armchair for Rose to sit down. There was an awkward silence between them, until Jean walked in with a plate of biscuits and two cups of tea.
"Don't tire him out too much," she told Rose then turned to Charlie, her tone much warmer. "I'll be in the kitchen if you need anything."
Both Charlie and Rose took their cups of tea and exchanged a look. It was Rose who broke the silence first.
"Is it safe for me to drink?" she asked, only half jokingly.
"What? Why?" Charlie asked as he took a sip. Rose nodded towards the kitchen as if in explanation.
"I called you Sunday but she just told me you were sick and not to come. I got a feeling she was pissed at me, even though I have no clue why. Well... I didn't. Just now... when I asked if I could see you, she said 'Well, I suppose.' Then I heard her mutter something about how I should've known you weren't feeling well and kicked you out in the rain. So I was just wondering... if it's safe to drink the tea."
While Rose was trying to explain, Charlie took another sip of the tea, but hearing her last words, he sputtered. The tea splashed around and Charlie was overcome by another coughing fit, though this one was interspersed by chuckles of laughter.
Rose quickly took the dangerously wavering cup from his hands and started clapping him on the back, throwing covert looks towards the kitchen.
"Hush... stop that. Or she will come and blame this on me too. "
That of course didn't help Charlie's amusement and it took Jean calling out 'Everything alright in there?' for Charlie to finally settle.
"S-sorry," he choked out between breaths, facing a disgruntled looking Rose. "I just... never imagined you... being scared of Miss Beazley." Another chuckle and this time it earned him a punch on the arm.
"That's not funny! She will be marrying Lucien. Anyone who thinks they can handle that man is more dangerous than one of your criminals. Even uncle Matthew stays out of Jean's way when she's on a warpath," Rose said seriously and Charlie wondered if perhaps that is the reason why his boss wasn't already hauling his ass to work. Well, it was good to know for future reference, Charlie thought.
Seeing the still dubious look on Rose's face, he reached out and pulled her to sit down next to him.
"Don't worry, I'll protect you," he said with a smile. Rose sighed, some of the tension leaving her shoulders.
"But she is right. I should've noticed."
"I'm a good actor," he said, voice cracking at the last syllable. Rose rolled her eyes.
"You're an ass. You should've said something, instead of getting into an argument. I would've taken care of you. Instead you crashed your car and scared some poor Hopper half to death."
Rose's eyes glinted.
"Well... Jean might be angry at me, but Lucien isn't."
"Please tell me he told you between four eyes. Tell me he didn't talk about it at the station."
Rose just shrugged, then pulled away, reaching for her purse, until she pulled out something wrapped in paper. Charlie looked at it with suspicion as she put it into his hands.
"I almost forgot. I did actually bring another gift," Rose said with a cheeky grin and Charlie let out a groan. He could already tell what it was just by touch. Pulling the paper off, he discovered a stuffed toy kangaroo.
"Charlie... meet Hopper."
Charlie didn't know if he should laugh or cry. He could just imagine his desk at work being filled with kangaroos of all sizes once he got back. He could already hear Lawson or Hobart calling him Hopper. Groaning, Charlie buried his face in Rose's shoulder.
"I swear... if the others know, I'll request a transfer."
"Now now... don't worry about it."
"Mhm. Will you run away with me?" Charlie asked, head still on her shoulder, taking in the gentle smell of her shampoo.
"If worse comes to worst," she agreed. "Till then... I can provide you with a copy of a photo of uncle Matthew in swim shorts sleeping on a deck with his head resting on a rubber duck."
He looked up, his eyes filled with mirth.
"I think I love you, Rose Anderson. Will you marry me? Together we can drive the whole Ballarat crazy."
Rose laughed and Charlie joined her, only occasionally interspersing it with a cough.
Back in the kitchen Jean paused her peeling of potatoes and listened to the sounds coming from the room. She smiled, then grabbed a few more potatoes from the bag. She better prepare one more plate for dinner.