Charlie knew he was in trouble the moment his head started to hurt. It was one hour past the time his replacement was supposed to arrive, but no one had shown. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn't be a problem. After all, Charlie had no plans for the afternoon or evening...
He had no real friends in the town and after the fiasco with his last date turning into a killer, well... Charlie swore off dating for the foreseeable future. It didn't matter that he felt more alone than ever before.
The guys at work were keeping their distance since they realized Charlie was under Lawson's purview. Charlie didn't mind that much at first... he didn't use to do much socializing even back in Melbourne, what with trying to help out his family as much as possible and focusing on his career. He had a small group of friends to relax with and he would be lying if he said he didn't miss them. Just sitting down, having a beer and a chat without worrying about giving anything away accidentally. He was still on a verge about Blake yet Lawson was already hot on his heels. Charlie didn't know what to do really. He needed to gain both men's trust it seemed, but he kept screwing up.
The latest showdown with Lawson was proof enough. Charlie still felt shaken up about the dressing down he got for the screw up... and the subsequent threat of resignation. Of course Lawson didn't take him up on his offer, no. That would've been too easy. Lawson wanted him under his watch.
Why then was he stuck out there, in the sweltering heat? Alone and forgotten...
Charlie sighed and leaned back against the tree trunk, cringing when the hot bark pressed against his shirt, wet with sweat. The material was clinging to his body like a second skin and Charlie wished for nothing more than to be able to take it off. His blazer was already hanging from the branch, airing out, but he couldn't be running around shirtless however much he wanted to. He needed a shower, hell, he needed a sip of water. Anything cool or wet would do.
The bottle he took with him in the morning was long gone and he was pretty sure he managed to sweat it out several hours ago when the sun reached its peak.
God, how he hated this stupid event. Just the idea of all the people enjoying the boat race on the lake, while he was stuck on guard duty. Stupid equipment, stupid thieves who kept stealing things. Stupid Tyneman too, for making a ruckus and requesting police presence at the event, sans there be some theft and bad press for the town.
Of course Lawson sent him. To stand under the boiling sun, in the middle of summer and keep guard over equipment that no one really cared about, just so one Tyneman wouldn't bash them with complaints. Of course it was him... despite the fact Lawson wanted him under his watchful eye... well, maybe first he just wanted to exact a little bit of punishment perhaps.
By sending Charlie on guard duty and forgetting to send replacement.
Charlie knew he should have just relinquished his post and went to find a phone after the first half hour passed without his replacement in sight. In this heat, the officers weren't supposed to be outside for longer than four hours. There were schedules making sure of that.
Yet still, an hour later and Charlie was alone in the heat.
He should have called.
Trouble was, Charlie didn't know whether this was an accident or a deliberate action. After the cold shoulder Lawson was giving him the last few days, Charlie wasn't very keen on finding out either. Perhaps being here was the better option, rather than having to face Lawson's ire.
And besides... the race would be over and done within an hour. He could last one more hour surely... someone was bound to appear then.
He leaned his head back against the tree trunk, closing his eyes for only a moment. The sunlight felt like knives piercing through his eyeballs. He wished to escape, unfortunately the sun was right up above and there was barely any shade. Only place he found was right next to the equipment shack he was guarding, but the pavement there was giving off so much heat that Charlie preferred the measly protection of the gum tree.
In the not so far distance, he could hear voices, shouting and cheering, laughter and splashing of water. As if to drive in the punishment, Charlie could see the glinting surface of Lake Wendouree, just calling out to him for a dip. He could smell the water and fish, beckoning him.
It was so close... yet so far. He just knew that if he went there someone would sneak right around and steal a precious piece of junk. That would be the straw that broke the camel's back... Lawson would absolutely kick Charlie out of the force. And what would he do then?
He would have to return to Melbourne, like a kicked dog. The higher ups wouldn't look kindly on his failure either and Charlie was sure there would be no more work for him in the police.
He would bring shame to his father's name, disappointment to his mother. And his brothers... what an example he would be?
Charlie let out a groan and opened his eyes. Thinking like this wasn't helping any. He ran a hand over his hair, then down the back of his neck. The shirt wasn't even damp anymore, sometime during his short maudlin session it managed to dry up and now it was just uncomfortable and irritating. Grimacing, Charlie pushed off of the tree, deciding to stretch his legs and walk the perimeter. Only then did he notice the sun was at a different angle. Charlie blinked. He looked at his watch and cursed.
His quick shut eye took over an hour! An hour during which anything could've happened and he wouldn't be wiser.
A bit panicked, Charlie looked around. He couldn't see a living soul. The cheering in the distance had stopped and it seemed that the event had either finished or was moved further down. Charlie headed over to the shack, hoping that no one had lurked around. Opening the door and peering inside, he was relieved to see that nothing seemed to be missing.
Charlie let out a sigh and then stumbled back outside the shack. The place felt like an oven, and just the few seconds of peering inside made his head spin with dizziness.
Charlie swallowed and took a few deep breaths outside. When that didn't help, he leaned over, eyes set on the ground. It looked strangely shimmering.
Charlie grimaced, running his tongue over chapped lips. Damn but he was thirsty. And hot and sore all over. Somewhere in the back of his mind there were hazy memories of similar experience as a kid when he spent too much time outside in the beating sun one summer afternoon. What he remembered afterwards was feeling miserable and being sun burnt, then spending the next week inside the house while his kid brothers were running outside, playing.
Charlie shook his head, regretting the movement instantly.
Nah. He just needed some water and a shade. All the things available to him back at the station or even in the small, dusty room he rented. Well, the coolness might be a bit of a problem there as it tended to get pretty warm during the afternoon, but Charlie supposed he could just hunker down in the shower until the sun vanished. Yes, that would be much more preferable to standing here, feeling the sun baking his brain.
Only trouble was, his replacement still hasn't come.
He supposed the event had finished but then why didn't anyone come to retrieve their stuff? Charlie was having trouble coming up with answers to his questions. Thoughts just seemed to start and wash away before he could grasp at them properly.
He should call someone.
He should go... and find some water to drink.
But then... he couldn't leave his post.
If something happened, Lawson would have his head and Charlie would have to go looking for a new job and hell, was there even a place he could crash at if Bernie had already moved into their house?
The feeling of nausea grew and Charlie found himself stumbling back towards the tree. At least it seemed to offer partial shade now that the sun had moved.
In the distance, the lake kept twinkling at him tauntingly.
It wasn't even like he could grab a radio and request a leave. He shared a ride with another constable that was supposed to keep an eye on the event. Of course the constable took the car so he could request assistance if there was any trouble at the race. Charlie would have to walk almost a mile to get down to the event itself, or to a place with a phone.
All in all, he was screwed.
Charlie was lost in his self pity and growing anger at Lawson. If the man thought this was a fitting punishment, well. Charlie wasn't sure he really wanted to stay in Ballarat anymore. His thoughts were turning darker and darker until he was pretty sure Lawson sent him there to die.
It was irrational and if Charlie had been thinking straight, he would have realized that. Unfortunately, hours spent in the sun made rational thinking a bit of a problem.
He was in the middle of a one sided conversation with his future self about the perks of putting in his resignation and going to work at the docks. The biggest advantage he could come up with was the presence of water. If he worked at the shipyard, he would be close to water. He could take a dip whenever he wanted surely...
He was so enthralled by the idea of a swim that he missed the sound of the car. Until he saw movement in his peripheral vision.
He turned around quickly.
The world spun even faster and he would have nosedived, but he managed to catch himself on the tree. Charlie was still trying to calm his breathing and still his vision, when a familiar figure stood in front of him. Brow furrowed in semi concern, Blake inclined his head.
"Charlie? What are you still doing here?"
Charlie would've liked to know that as well. The only reply he had was a shrug and a small shake of his head.
"Guard duty," he muttered, cringing at how scratchy his voice sounded. His mouth was parched and he would have killed for some water.
Blake's brows rose.
"In this heat?"
Charlie glared. The last thing he needed was to be reminded of his shitty predicament thank you very much.
"Why are you here Doc?" he asked, turning the topic.
"Well, the race is over and most of everyone had headed to the club for a celebratory lunch or drink."
"You aren't," Charlie pointed out. Blake curled his lips.
"I grew rather tired of the company to be honest. I'd prefer lunch at home."
Charlie wanted to ask why then was he standing here instead of sitting in the car, but he felt it was too much effort to open his mouth at this point. Everything seemed to be getting too much of an effort and Charlie leaned back against the tree.
Blake was eyeing him with a frown.
"You alright there Charlie?"
He just nodded.
"To be honest, I didn't instantly recognize you from the road. Just saw someone lurking around and with all the burglaries going on, I thought I'd check. Patrick Tyneman was a bit salty earlier about the subject," Blake added with a roll of eyes.
"I wasn't lurking," Charlie protested with a frown, then looked around. Maybe he did miss someone after all?
"Not lurking perhaps," Blake corrected himself with a smile. "Are you sure you're alright? You look a bit... peaky around the edges," Blake said putting an arm on Charlie's shoulder.
Charlie tried to shrug it off at the same time as he gave a short nod.
"I'm fine," he snapped.
It was a mistake.
There was a sharp stab of pain behind his eyes and the feeling of nausea was suddenly too overwhelming.
Charlie managed to pull back and turn to the side where he promptly leaned over, heaving.
Blake stepped back quickly, out of the splash zone. Charlie was too miserable for being thankful for that.
The spasm lasted only a short moment but it left Charlie feeling spent and more than a little embarrassed. He was still leaned over, one hand holding on to the tree for dear life. He kept his head down and eyes closed, focused on breathing and stilling his traitorous stomach.
"Indeed, you look just fine," Blake said, voice dripping with sarcasm.
Charlie felt like flipping him the bird or telling him to go stick it. He did neither, only opened his eyes and shot Blake an unfocused glare.
"Here," Blake held out a bottle of water. In that moment Charlie felt that perhaps Blake wasn't the worst person to have around. He took the bottle, a bit disconcerted by the fact his hand shook.
"Slow sips," Blake admonished him when Charlie started chugging the water thirstily. He didn't have to say it though, Charlie's stomach churned in warning and he forced himself to stop for a moment, then resumed at a much slower pace.
He could feel Blake seizing him up but he couldn't care less at the moment. The water just felt too wonderful. Of course the bottle wasn't bottomless. Once finished, Charlie reluctantly put it down and tried to straighten up.
"Thanks," he grumbled, not really looking at Blake's face. "And sorry for that," he added with a grimace.
Blake waved him off.
"How long have you been standing here in the sun?" he asked instead and reached out, putting his palm on the back of Charlie's neck. Charlie was startled to realize it felt actually cool against his skin.
"Morning," he said, tongue running over still dry lips. He felt ungrateful, but he just had to ask. "Uh... do you have... more water?"
"Sorry, that was the last bottle." The grimace then turned into a frown. "You don't have any?"
Charlie gave a small shake of head, cringing. The headache still wasn't gone. He really wished for this blasted day to be just over, but there was still no replacement. Only Blake. And Blake wasn't a cop. He could hardly ask him to stay there for a bit and watch a stupid shack now could he? While Charlie went over to the lake and took a proper dip to cool down?
He was startled out of his thoughts when Blake's hand moved to his face, joined by the other. Charlie blinked, not having noticed when Blake moved to stand in front of him.
"Doc?" he muttered, trying to move his head when one hand ran over his forehead, the other pulling down the skin under his eyes.
Blake muttered something under his breath, eyes narrowed.
"Anything else bothering you besides the nausea?"
Charlie wanted to shake his head but changed his mind, so he just shrugged.
"Headache," he admitted and let out a relieved sigh when Blake finally relinquished his hold. He didn't have anywhere to go; he was effectively trapped between a Blake and a tree. He would've found it funny if he wasn't feeling so miserable.
"Any reason why you haven't left your post to grab some water or call for replacement?"
Charlie gritted his teeth. He knew that Blake heard every damn word Lawson told him just a few days ago back at the station. He was there after all. Did the man really need Charlie to say it out loud?
The raised brow and expectant look said yes. He did.
"My order was to wait here until replacement arrived," Charlie said rather stonily.
"Yes and when was that supposed to happen exactly?"
Charlie looked at his watch, then with a sour face answered: "Three hours ago." Damn, he didn't realize so much time had passed.
"Who was supposed to come?"
Charlie shrugged. He didn't know. He didn't bloody care anymore. Seven hours. He had spent seven hours here in the sun and no one even thought to check. Bloody Lawson. Was this his idea of punishment?
The anger welled up inside him surprisingly fast. Wait. That wasn't the anger.
"Damn!" Charlie cursed and this time he managed to stumble a few feet away, getting down on his knees before all the water he drank had came back up.
He could hear Blake muttering a few choice words as well, but right now he could barely focus on staying upright. To hell with Ballarat.
"You done?" Blake asked once the heaving stopped, leaving Charlie panting and feeling as if the shirt was burning his back. Leaving the shade of the tree was obviously a mistake. The sun felt heavy against his skin, the air too stuffy.
"Leave me 'lone," Charlie muttered, suddenly wishing Blake to be gone. He didn't need the man to witness his weakness. Taken down by a bit of sun. Ridiculous.
"Of course. I wish for nothing else than having to return in a few hours with a body bag!" Blake snapped. "Come on, it's time we got you into some shade."
Blake leaned over and helped Charlie back up on his feet. Charlie wavered for a moment then pulled out of Blake's hold.
"Not leaving," he said stubbornly when he figured Blake was trying to steer him towards his car.
"What?" Blake looked at him in surprise.
"Waiting for... replacement. Orders," Charlie said with a glare that let Blake know he meant business.
"You can't be serious!"
"Gotta follow orders," Charlie repeated.
"Oh for God's sake!" Blake rolled his eyes, throwing his hands in the air. "You are serious."
Charlie blinked. Of course he was.
Blake took in a calming breath, running a hand over his eyes then coming to a decision, he gave a nod.
"Alright then. You want someone to come replace you, yes?"
Charlie nodded and swayed.
Blake glared at him.
"Fine. Then get yourself back to that tree and sit the hell down. I don't need to be sewing up a cracked head as well," he muttered, ushering a suddenly rather confused Charlie back towards the tree. He was about to turn and rush to the car when he paused.
"Take off that shirt," Blake said and Charlie thought he misheard.
"Shirt. Take it off. I'm not letting you cook here like a bloody chicken."
Charlie wasn't sure what a chicken had in common with him. The mere idea of a cooked bird made him swallow shakily. But Blake seemed to be persistent about divesting him of his shirt so for whatever reason, Charlie started fumbling with the buttons. It took him a lot longer than he would've liked and it was clear Blake was on the verge of changing his mind when Charlie finally handed him the slightly damp and crumpled shirt.
"Stay here," Blake said rather unnecessarily, then headed towards the lake. Charlie watched him until he lost sight of the man. He blinked, rubbing at his eyes. Maybe Blake was just a hallucination, he thought. But no... there was his car, parked right next to the damn shack. Hm.
Did Blake decide to go for a swim?
Charlie felt a jolt of jealousness. Of course the man had time to go for a swim. But why did he have to steal Charlie's shirt? Charlie huffed, thinking himself an idiot for letting Blake leave him standing here, shirtless. A police officer on duty at that... he hoped his replacement didn't decide this was the best moment to appear.
There was no movement anywhere, not a sound except for the birds and the insects playing their songs. Charlie's eyes were becoming heavy and his calf twitched. Charlie frowned, then let out a startled gasp as he felt his left calf seize in a painful cramp. He slid to the ground, his back scratching against the bark but all he could focus on was the discomfort in his leg. He pulled the offending appendage over and kneaded his fingers against the muscle. It hurt more but years of running taught him that was the fastest way to deal with a cramp.
He was still trying to massage it out when he heard Blake returning.
"Alright there Charlie?" the man asked and Charlie raised his head, face scrunched up in grimace.
"Muscle cramp," he muttered then further frowned at seeing his shirt in Blake's hand. It was soaked through with water. "Doc?"
Blake nodded, spreading the wet shirt and putting it over Charlie's shoulders. Charlie yelped at the sudden coldness, trying to shake it off.
"Keep it on," Blake admonished him with a stern voice. "You need to cool down, before you get a heat stroke. Muscle cramps are just one more symptom," he said as he leaned down, checking Charlie's leg.
"I'm fine," Charlie protested feebly.
"Really. The nausea and headache are all gone then I suppose?" Blake asked sarcastically.
Charlie averted his eyes.
"As I thought. Now... do you need more convincing to give up your post?"
"Not leaving," Charlie said once again. He wasn't even sure why he was doing it at this point. Or well, maybe he did. If this was indeed Lawson's punishment, Charlie decided to see it through. And if not... well. Someone still messed up, but Charlie won't be the one having to deal with the consequences. If he didn't count his health.
"Bloody fools, all of ya," Blake muttered under his breath, though Charlie caught it. "Alright. Sit tight, I'll be right back."
Charlie managed a nod, leaning his head back against the tree. He blinked... and the car along with Blake was gone. As if he wasn't even there.
But his shirt was cold and wet, smelling oddly of stale water and fish. Charlie crinkled his nose, but still he pulled the fabric tighter against his skin. He slipped his arms through the sleeves, feeling goose bumps raise on his flesh at the cool wetness. It was uncomfortable, but at the same time it brought relief. Charlie sighed, lazily focusing his sight on the blasted shack. The door was closed. Good. It was his job to keep it that way.
Blake was of half a mind just to manhandle the senior constable into his car and drive him to the police station, let Lawson deal with the bloody fool. Of course he would probably need to dunk him in an ice bath first to make sure his brain didn't boil itself.
Blake stepped on the gas.
While he could've forced Charlie, he really didn't want to have to fight the man in his state. And he had a point, however foolish it might've been. Blake had listened plenty enough to Tyneman's complaints to know that if they left the shack unguarded and something went missing, the Courier would make a field day out of it and Lawson would face more complaints.
So Blake drove up towards the clubhouse by the lake where he was sure to find another officer. He wasn't sure where the lines had crossed but he knew that Lawson wouldn't have left Charlie to hang there all day without a replacement, however angry or distrustful he might've been of the man. Lawson's punishments tended to be more... subtle. And he would never endanger his men this recklessly.
No, someone else must've messed up. And he had a pretty good idea who it was.
Speak of the devil. Sergeant Gareth was standing in front of the club house, chatting up a young lady and drinking fresh lemonade. Blake was pretty sure he saw the man arrive to the race around noon with another copper. They must've been the replacement. Question was, why didn't anyone arrive at Charlie's post?
Blake pulled up with his car almost to the Sergeant. The man noticed him and gave him a questioning look.
"Dr. Blake? I thought you were heading home," Gareth said, smile still on face.
"Yes, I was. Until I spotted constable Davis guarding that shack... I stopped by to say hello and wouldn't you know. For some reason there was no one to replace him. Do you have any idea why's that, Sergeant?"
Even as he spoke, Blake knew it was Gareth who was supposed to be there. The smile slipping from his face was evidence enough.
Blake gritted his teeth, feeling his ire raise.
"Oh. My bad. Constable Harris was supposed to replace Davis, but he fell ill and had to go home."
"So you decided not to call it in and request another replacement?"
"Well, I called it in, but with the burglaries and the heat wave, we are short on people. Superintendent asked if I and Davis can handle the situation alone and I said yes."
"Of course. Did it even occur to you to perhaps go check on Davis and let him know he is to stay here several more hours?"
"Ah... I didn't want to leave my post..." Gareth started looking a bit uncomfortable. The lady he was chatting up had long vanished and Blake was sure to keep his scowl.
"I'm sure the folks here could've handled a lack of police presence for the ten minutes it would've taken you. Just as I'm sure Constable Davis could've used access to water after standing in the blazing sun for the last seven hours!" Blake was fighting down the urge to shout at the sheer stupidity of the man in front of him.
To his credit, Gareth's face paled as he realized what was being said. He visibly swallowed, suddenly nervous.
"Is Davis alright?"
"Hopefully he will be. Once you call Lawson and let him know you are another man down. Then get your ass in the car and drive down to that shack to take up his post. And for God's sake... take some water with you." By the time Blake finished, Gareth was nodding fervently, standing almost at attention.
"Is that clear Sergeant Gareth?"
"Yes, Doctor Blake," Gareth nodded.
"Good! Now... I'd appreciate it if you arrived within the next ten minutes. Otherwise I'll have to let the Superintendent know it was you who left the place unguarded and one of his man with a heat stroke."
Gareth's eyes widened and without another word, he turned on his heel and run towards the car to use the radio.
Right. Now Blake could return to Charlie and make sure the man didn't self combust.
The air in front of him seemed to dance. Charlie blinked, but didn't dare to close his eyes. He had an order after all. Protect the door...
Charlie wasn't sure what was so important about the shack right now. He knew there were things inside, things that Tyneman didn't want to lose. Charlie couldn't care less for that. What he cared about was Lawson. The fact he sent him there to do a job, however mundane. The fact Charlie couldn't screw up because next thing he would be doing will be putting in his resignation. Then he would have to face his mother and worst of all... Bernie. He would have to look that bastard in the eyes and admit defeat. And the man would be happy about it.
Charlie growled and shook his head, trying to shake off the lethargy. It helped only in the way that the throbbing increased and Charlie's whole body tensed as nausea once again reared. He swallowed compulsively, feeling his too dry mouth. The bottle of water he had drunk a moment ago felt like a long lost memory.
Was it even real?
Charlie didn't know.
Maybe the whole meeting with Blake was just a dream. Maybe he would be stuck waiting here until nightfall. Maybe Lawson would finally notice his absence in a day or two... but Charlie would be only a dried up corpse by then.
He had to chuckle.
Would Blake and Lawson investigate his death?
Now that would be ironic indeed.
Charlie was still chuckling when he heard the engine of a car. The amusement quickly left him.
Who was coming?
Better question, was it friend or foe? And would Charlie want to meet them sitting on the dirty ground like a limp doll?
Of course not.
Charlie struggled to his feet, thankful for the tree and its support. He was sure without it he would've fallen down. The world was still wavering in front of his eyes so it was nice to feel something sturdy and still under his hands.
Squinting, he recognized the car as Blake's.
Oh. Maybe the Doc had been there before, Charlie thought a bit dismayed. He stood in place, watching as the man stepped out of the car. He would've approached him, but the tree was still his only anchor to stability. Charlie wasn't willing to let go that easily, unless there was something threatening the safety of the shack.
"Ah, I see you're up. Feeling better?" Blake asked as he neared him.
"Fine. Am fine," he muttered. Blake raised a brow in doubt.
"Alright then. Good news is I found your replacement. So why don't you come to the car?"
Blake came alone. Was this some trick to get him away from the shack? Was Blake trying to get him fired? Maybe the man figured out Charlie was sent to report back about him and was about fed up.
"I'm good," Charlie said with a shake of his head. Under different circumstances he might've trusted Blake but right now everything seemed just a bit off. The world didn't seem real, more like a strange dream. Charlie was losing grasp on the reality, sinking into a dream like state and it was giving him the creeps. How could he trust the man in front of him if he barely trusted his own eyes?
"Come on, Charlie. You need to get out of the sun," Blake said with a frown, reaching out for him. Charlie pulled away, back flush with the tree trunk.
Blake raised his arms in the sign of peace.
"I mean no harm," he spoke, voice lower and soothing.
Charlie stared ahead, unsure. He felt stupid and confused. He shouldn't be scared of the Doc. Yet he felt strangely skittish, as if danger lurked around the corner.
"Charlie? Sergeant Gareth is on his way. You can go home."
That sounded good.
Charlie wanted nothing more than to get home, put his head under the faucet and drink until he was too full to drink anymore. Then he could pull down the drapes, take off all those uncomfortably sweaty and scratchy clothes and fall into bed, hopefully falling asleep for the rest of the summer. Yes, that sounded splendid.
Only trouble was he saw only Blake standing there and Lawson's order rang in his head. He could still see that pissed look on the man's face, hear the disappointed and angry tone. For a moment it wasn't Lawson standing in front of him shouting, but his father. Disappointed by his oldest son.
Charlie couldn't bear that.
"I've an order. Not leaving," he muttered and crossed his arms over his chest stubbornly.
Blake let out a frustrated sigh.
"Stubborn fool," he said but then seemed to give up. He walked up next to Charlie, who tensed, expecting some kind of reproach or struggle. Blake did no such thing. The man nodded at Charlie to move a bit, then leaned back against the tree as well. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small cigarette case. Charlie watched with dreamlike interest as Blake slowly took out a cigarette, closed the case and returned it to his pocket. Then he pulled out the matches. Charlie watched every move as if hypnotized, not even sure why he was so fascinated by such a simple gesture.
"You smoke?" he asked once Blake took a drag.
Blake raised a brow. Of course he did... he wouldn't light a cigarette just to wave it around after all.
"I'm not offering you a smoke," Blake said after a second and Charlie snorted, his face scrunching up in a grimace.
"I hate that stuff," he said and made an effort to pull his gaze from the lit end of the cigarette. He could practically see the heat coming off of the cherry.
"Does it bother you?" Blake asked, curious.
Charlie shrugged, averting his sight. He couldn't care less. He supposed it was better than people drinking themselves to death, but he never favoured either. Alcohol gave him headaches and cigarettes made him hack up a lung. A nice run in the morning was much more preferable.
They stood there in a somewhat amiable silence, Blake smoking the stupid cigarette and Charlie watching the door to the shack, forcing his head to stay upright instead of lolling down as it wanted every few seconds. He took a few dry swallows, trying to get some spit but to no avail. His mouth was dry like the desert.
"So... tell me, Charlie. What's so important about that shack?" Blake spoke all of a sudden, startling Charlie.
Blake nodded towards the shack.
"Why you risking your health for that?"
"Am not," Charlie frowned. "Got an order."
Blake rolled his eyes.
"Yes, I heard that. Someone else messed up though, so you are in the clear."
Charlie looked at Blake with some distrust. Then he shrugged.
"I'll wait," he muttered, wishing that Blake had just left already. Standing upright was becoming a chore and he would have preferred to crumple to the ground in private if possible.
Blake didn't move though.
Charlie felt annoyed by that then thought maybe he could use it. Maybe he could ask the questions the higher ups wanted to hear the answers to. Only problem was, Charlie wasn't sure how to start. And by the time his brain might've formulated a question that almost made sense, he heard another car approaching.
"Finally," Blake grunted, putting the cigarette out and pushing off of the tree. Charlie watched dazedly as a police cruiser pulled up next to Blake's car and a somehow flustered looking Gareth stepped out.
"Took your time didn't you?" Blake commented.
Gareth cleared his throat, ignoring Blake.
"Sorry for the wait, Constable. I'm here to relieve you of duty," Gareth spoke, giving Charlie a quick once over then shooting a glance towards Blake. "Due to the... delay, Superintendent Lawson said you have the rest of the day off, Constable Davis."
Charlie wanted to ask what the hell took him so long. Or what was the delay. But he had pushed away from the tree and the movement brought back the dizziness. He was worried that if he opened his mouth something else than words would be coming out. So he just gave a nod, grabbed his blazer from the tree branch and without another word headed towards the cruiser. He would drive himself home; Gareth can walk for all he cared.
"Charlie?" Blake's voice stopped him before he could sit in the car.
"Yeah?" Charlie croaked, cringing at the bad taste in his mouth. He really needed some water.
"My car," Blake said pointedly.
Charlie frowned, ready to protest.
"I'm not debating this," Blake said and from his tone it was clear his patience was running out. Charlie didn't feel like getting into a fight and losing it in front of Gareth, so he shrugged.
"Sure," he muttered and slipped onto the passenger seat of Blake's car. He flinched as he leaned back in the seat, expecting his shirt to feel damp against his skin, but it seemed to have dried up. Well, he might've still been smelling like stale water and fish, but at least he won't mess up Blake's upholstery. Not that it wouldn't be Blake's fault in the end.
"Pull down the window," Blake told him as he rolled down the window on his side and started the car. Charlie did so, leaning his body against the door so that his face could catch the airflow as the car rode off. It was hot inside, but at least the air was moving around, offering some relief.
They rode for a moment in silence and Charlie had to fight his eyes from closing. He lost that fight and would have fallen asleep if his elbow hadn't slipped from the car door and his head fell down. He came to with a jolt, looking around in confusion. Some time must've passed because the lake was nowhere to be seen anymore. Actually, he realized he didn't have a clue where they were going. Did Blake even know where Charlie lived? He didn't remember telling the man.
Blake turned to him.
"Can... can you drive me home?" Charlie asked then swallowed. The car ran over some rocks and the nausea returned. Before Blake could answer, Charlie grunted.
"Please stop," Charlie said, eyes shut tight in an attempt to force back the dizziness, to no avail though.
Thankfully, Blake wasn't stupid. He pulled the car over and Charlie opened the door, hastily stumbling out. There was nothing to bring back up, but his body still tried.
Blake had stepped out of the car as well but thankfully kept his distance. Charlie really didn't enjoy giving the man a show but he was too busy to tell him to leave. Not that he would have listened. Charlie had learned right from the start that Blake didn't do anything he didn't want to.
"You finished?" Blake asked when Charlie sat back on his hunches, spent and trying to catch his breath.
Charlie grunted, eyes closed.
"Come on, back in the car," Blake said and Charlie was startled to note that somehow Blake made it to his side without his notice. He had a hand on his arm. This time Charlie didn't protest the offered help. Though he did wish he could lie down in his bed instead of sitting on the seat in the too warm car.
"Home?" He tried again as Blake started the car.
"Mhm," Blake gave a noncommittal sound. "First we make a stop at my house though, alright?"
Charlie moaned. Last thing he wanted was to appear at Blake's house in such state. He was there maybe twice and each time it was an awkward situation, what with O'Brien being pissed at him for locking her in a cell. Mrs. Beazley also wasn't a fan of his and although she never said a word against him, he could feel she was wary when he was around. Not that he could blame her.
"I can walk home," Charlie said, ready to open the door the moment Blake stopped the car.
Blake shot him a look of disbelief.
"That's the most stupid thing I heard from you today," he said. "The only thing that excuses you is the apparent heat stroke."
Charlie wanted to protest that he was fine.
But his brain felt like it was half cooked and he already forgot what he was trying to say.
"You have some water Doc?" he asked instead.
"I'm afraid you'll have to wait until we get home," Blake said apologetically. Charlie grimaced, leaning his head back against the seat and closing his eyes.
"Head hurts," he muttered already half asleep.
He heard Blake sigh and say something that might've been reassuring or lecturing. Charlie didn't know. He was already asleep.
Blake let out another sigh. Really, sometimes he thought that returning to Ballarat and taking up medicine was a mistake. He should've stayed in the army. Yes, as a soldier he would've just listened to orders or gave out his own. He wouldn't have to tiptoe around stubborn constables, mull headed Superintendents and a housekeeper that could send his heart into a tailspin with one glance.
Who was he kidding though. He was quite happy where he was at the moment, even if it meant trying to fix up a man that was most likely reporting back on him to people who wanted his head. It was hard to tell with Charlie though. Blake was still giving him a chance to decide whose side he was on... and if Lawson's reaction was anything to go by, he wasn't ready to give up on the kid yet either. Which meant he better make sure Charlie came out of this without any after-effects, or there would be consequences. Blake was quite aware that if something happened to Davis, it would be pinned on Lawson and his friend could very easily lose his job.
That was one of the reasons why he didn't drive the car to Charlie's place of residence - although seeing as he didn't know the address he couldn't have even if he wanted to - as well as why he decided to skip the hospital. That would mean a record in Charlie's file, which could easily be traced back and used against either of them.
No, home it was.
He was hoping that Mattie would be at work though. Blake was aware there wasn't much love lost between Charlie and Mattie ever since their first meeting and while they could use a chance to patch things up, Charlie was hardly in a state to do so right now. Jean was another matter, but Blake had a feeling one look at Charlie will make her put aside her misgivings, at least for the moment.
He parked the car in front of the house and gave Charlie a nudge. He grimaced when he felt the heat of his skin even through the shirt. The shirt which had already dried up.
Charlie grunted but didn't seem to wake.
"Charlie? We're here," Blake said loudly and squeezed Charlie's shoulder. If he didn't wake up, they were in trouble.
Fortunately, the voice made the trick.
Charlie's eyes opened and he looked around, confused.
"Doc? Have a case?" he muttered, obviously trying to figure out what was going on.
"No case Charlie, no. Do you know where you are?"
Charlie frowned, looking at Blake, then at his house.
"Uh... your place?" he asked, sounding as if he was questioning Blake's own sanity. Blake chuckled.
"Indeed. Alright, come on out."
"Why we here?" Charlie asked, looking lost even though he did open the car door. "Doc?"
Blake had already gotten out and walked over to his side to offer a hand if needed. Charlie shot him a glare and stood up, though he did falter. Blake steadied him but let go once he seemed to be steadier on his feet.
"You weren't feeling well, remember? I want to make sure you're alright before sending you home to rest."
"Oh," Charlie sounded a bit uncertain, but then nodded. "Yeah. Feel funny, Doc," he admitted.
"Let's fix that, right?"
Charlie gave a reluctant nod. Blake waited patiently for him to get away from the car and make a few steps, but when he saw Charlie sway a bit too much for his comfort, he put an arm on his shoulder, steadying him.
Charlie didn't even seem to notice. Though he did notice Jean when they stepped into the hall and she came to look who arrived. Blake felt his shoulder tense as he came to a halt.
"Lucien? A bit early, aren't you?" Jean asked with a smile but that quickly slipped from her face to be replaced by a frown. "Constable Davis?" she asked first in surprise, then her brow furrowed as she took in the rumpled state of his shirt and the unfocused gaze.
"Is everything alright?"
"Uh, hello, Mrs. Beazley," Charlie mumbled, quickly averting his gaze. Blake gave his shoulder a slight squeeze.
"Yes Jean, everything's alright. Charlie here just got a bit too much sun it seems. I thought some shade and a nice drink of water might help."
She quickly shook off her surprise and nodded, putting a smile on her face.
"Of course. I'll bring a pitcher to the living room."
"The surgery please, if it's not much trouble," Blake said. "And maybe some ice if we have any?" he added as an afterthought. Feeling the heat seeping through Charlie's shirt he was thinking a glass of water would hardly be enough.
"I'll bring some," Jean agreed and headed for the kitchen.
"Come on, Charlie. Let's get you more comfortable, shall we?" Blake led Charlie towards the surgery. Charlie's steps slowed down as they entered. He was looking around and Blake realized he hasn't been there before.
"Why don't you sit down there?" he steered him towards the exam bed.
Charlie didn't seem happy about that though.
"Its fine... am fine," he muttered and turned around, as if ready to leave.
"I'd still prefer if you took a seat while I check you out. Please," Blake added, gesturing towards the bed. He realized how outside his comfort zone Charlie was right now, and his confusion wasn't helping any. It was like dealing with a hurt, skittish animal. Blake needed to gain Charlie's trust if he wanted him to relax and not fight his attempt at help.
The gentle tone seemed to work. Or maybe it was the fact Jean appeared in the door and Charlie didn't have a way to escape. He backed up towards the bed and reluctantly leaned against it, eyeing both of them with a wide look.
Jean noticed and after a short questioning glance at Blake, she pretended everything was absolutely alright and normal. She smiled at Charlie and put the tray with the water pitcher and a bowl filled with ice onto Blake's desk.
"If you'll need anything else, I'll be in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Should I get one more plate ready?" she aimed the question at Blake and he gave a nod.
"That would be lovely Jean, thank you."
She shot another smile at Charlie and a nod but didn't stick around. Blake thought under the circumstances that was the best. Charlie might be a bit easier to handle without anyone else around. At least Blake hoped so.
"Why don't you take off that shirt, Charlie?" he said while he poured the glass half full of water. He didn't hand it to him yet though. First he wanted to check his temperature. While Charlie reluctantly fumbled with his shirt buttons, Blake searched for the thermometer and some other instruments. Once ready, he moved everything to the table beside the bed. Charlie had the buttons undone but he didn't look keen on taking the shirt off.
"Don't tell me you are actually too cold to take it off?" Blake joked, trying to ease the tension.
Charlie gave a half shrug, his eyes darting towards the thermometer and pressure cuff Blake put on the bed, then towards door. It seemed he was ready to spring to his feet and run.
"Hey, nothing to worry about here Charlie. I know you might have your opinion about my meddling in police affairs, but rest assured, my medical expertise has never been in question."
Charlie blinked and Blake realized he might've been a bit too wordy.
"Can you trust me?" he asked instead and after a second of deliberation, Charlie nodded.
"Good. Now... open up?" he took the thermometer and held it out for Charlie.
"Not sick," Charlie glared at it and Blake forced back a sigh.
Finally Charlie consented and took the thermometer from Blake's hand, putting it under his tongue.
"Splendid. Now... shirt." He didn't wait for Charlie to move, figuring things would go faster and easier if he just did them himself. With a bit of nudging the shirt was off and thrown at the nearby chair. Charlie shivered as his skin was exposed to a relatively cool air. At least what it must've felt against the heat emanating from him.
Blake took note of the fact Charlie's skin was dry and flushed. He wasn't sweating, which was worrying. The distant look in his eyes was just one more symptom to add to the pile and Blake quickly manoeuvred Charlie's left arm into a blood pressure cuff.
The measurement wasn't too bad, though when he made Charlie stand and repeated the process, his pressure was low. He didn't really need the cuff to see that, Charlie's swaying and almost hitting the floor was evidence enough.
Blake grabbed him and helped him back on the bed, raising it so he could lean back and rest. Charlie did just that, closing his eyes momentarily, running a shaky hand over his forehead, palm pressed over the bridge of his nose.
"Headache?" Blake asked and took the thermometer out, checking the reading. 40.1°C. Well, that wasn't good... though it could've been worse.
"Yeah," Charlie grunted, squinting up at him. "Can I get some water, Doc?" he asked, voice low and scratchy.
"Yes, of course," Blake turned and grabbed the now lukewarm glass of water, then handed it to Charlie. "Small sips, alright?"
Charlie listened, obviously remembering his previous bout of illness. However slow he tried though, after several sips it was clear the water wasn't staying down. His flushed face turned a lighter shade and his eyes widened. Blake managed to grab the bin just in time. Not that there was much need for it.
Charlie was leant over, heaving and making miserable sounds, while Blake was thinking how best to proceed. It was clear he needed to rehydrate his patient and get his temperature down before it rose even more and caused a seizure or some permanent damage.
There wasn't much choice, though he knew he would have to do some convincing, if he didn't want to wait for Charlie's state to worsen enough to render him unable to protest. It wasn't ideal but maybe Blake could use a bit of... scare tactic.
He waited until Charlie once again calmed down and put the bin aside.
"Sip and spit," he said, handing back the glass of water and a kidney. Charlie followed the order, grimacing at the taste. With the matted hair, furrowed brow and the flushed skin, he looked truly miserable. Blake had to force down the urge to ruffle his hair like he would with his younger patients to offer some comfort. He was sure Charlie wouldn't appreciate it at the moment. Still, he couldn't help but lay a hand on his shoulder in support.
Charlie groaned, looking at him from half closed lids.
"Doc? Don't feel good," he said, clenching his teeth.
"I know, Charlie. But I'm here to help with that, alright?"
Charlie gave a barely perceptible nod, one hand reaching up and rubbing at his forehead. The headache seemed to trouble him the most.
"Here's what we're going to do. Are you listening to me Charlie?" Blake waited for another nod or acknowledgment. Charlie made a sound and Blake patted his arm.
"You're dehydrated, which is causing the headache. Ideally, you could rehydrate by drinking, but seeing as that doesn't work, I'll give you some IV fluids. You with me so far?"
Charlie didn't look very happy about the idea, but gave a croaky "Yeah."
"Good lad. Then we will need to bring down your temperature... preferably before you set this bed on fire," Blake said, trying for a joke. Charlie's lips twitched for a moment. Good. That meant he was still aware enough.
"Now, there's two ways to go about it. Cold compresses or a cold bath. Your pick."
"W-what?" Charlie stuttered, eyes widening even as he shook his head. "No bath," he said before Blake could repeat the offer. Obviously the idea of being submerged in cool water wasn't an attractive one. Blake wasn't surprised. He knew that with such a high body temperature, even lukewarm water would feel like ice. He thought the compresses might do their job anyway, but knew that Charlie would be more open to cooperate if he had a 'worse' alternative awaiting.
"Alright then," Blake said, probably with more enthusiasm than it deserved, if the glare from Charlie was anything to go by. "Let's fix you up, shall we?"
Charlie hated this. It took Blake several tries to find a vein and Charlie might've let him off the hook for that when Blake commented about the difficulty due to dehydration, but the look of surprised satisfaction on the man's face when he finally managed to drive the needle home convinced Charlie that Blake just wasn't as good with needles as he thought. At least in his befuddled mind. Or he was just trying to exact revenge in whatever small ways he could right now.
Perhaps Charlie was a bit too paranoid at the moment, but it was hard not to be. As if the IV wasn't bad enough, he was promptly divested of his pants as well, despite his protests. Blake threw him one glare and warned that if he preferred, he could go and set the bath.
Charlie closed his mouth, unsure how serious was the man. What he realized a moment later was that perhaps the bath would have been a better option after all.
Feeling the cold and wet towels being wrapped over his limbs and torso was like being dunked in ice. Charlie would have tried to extricate himself and flee but there was still some part of his brain realizing this was being done for his well being. Not to mention... how far could he really go only in his underwear? The idea of running into Mrs. Beazley or O'Brien halted all his attempts.
Still, he couldn't help but at least try to put up a token fight. When Blake approached him with a cold pack and put it under his armpit, Charlie squirmed and groaned, dislodging at least half the towels.
"Come on Charlie, don't make this harder than it is," Blake muttered, going for a soothing tone but to Charlie it only sounded annoyed.
"Too cold," Charlie protested and turned on his side, ignoring the pull of the IV on his hand. "Wanna go home," he grumbled, but the moment he changed position the world threatened to turn black. He didn't even feel Blake's hands pushing him back down onto the mattress, didn't hear the frustrated sigh as the wet towels were replaced. His eyes closed tight and he let out a pained moan, willing the darkness to finally overcome him at least and drive away the discomfort. If he couldn't escape physically, hell, the least he could do is try and fall asleep.
He wasn't fortunate enough though. His brain was fuzzy but he was still aware enough of his situation to feel the embarrassment and helplessness. He was basically at the mercy of the man he was sent to spy on... a man that should be keeping him as far away from his home as possible. Yet here he was, offering help. Charlie felt shame. And cold. Yes... the cold... seeping into his skin, like tiny needles of ice. But at the same time he could still feel the heat enveloping his head, burning his eyes and cooking his brain.
"Rest up, Charlie. It will be alright," Blake kept saying in a calming tone every time Charlie as much as groaned in discomfort. It was oddly soothing, even though Charlie didn't want to admit that. But after a while, his body relaxed and he was almost on the verge of sleep. Of course that was the moment Blake decided to replace the warm towels with fresh and cool ones, causing Charlie to startle and renew his attempts at escape.
"Oh, hush now, or I'll have to call in Jean to help me," Blake warned.
Charlie went still.
"No," he uttered, sending Blake a glare of betrayal from under the freshly applied head compress. It might've been more impressive if he hadn't had to squint from a few drops of water trickling down to his eyes.
Blake chuckled and patted him on the shoulder, somehow managing to tuck him in to the blasted cold towels like a shroud.
Charlie felt his teeth rattle.
"Now now, no reason to fret. I'm sure Jean had to deal with worse in her time," Blake said with a smirk.
Charlie knew that, logically. But the mere thought of Mrs. Beazley seeing him in this indignity caused his body to shiver.
"N-no," he repeated, more adamant this time. He didn't know the woman after all but he knew there were some barriers that should be upheld if he wanted to be able to face her with a straight face ever again.
Blake at least took pity on him.
"Alright, we can handle this alone then. As long as you don't try to escape."
Charlie muttered a reluctant assent then closed his eyes. Perhaps he could try to sleep finally.
He only wished.
Not even a minute later that he relaxed, both his legs were hit with muscle cramps. He grunted in pain and sat up, leaning over to grab at his legs and try to massage out the cramp. It would've been easier if he didn't have to fight through the towels or if his head didn't feel like blowing up the moment he got into upright position.
But Blake was there in an instant, steadying Charlie. Without a question he reached out and his fingers dug into the seizing muscles. Charlie hissed and jerked back, but then he did the same to his right leg, head resting on his raised knee as he was trying to massage out the pain.
It took a minute or two but the spasms finally relented. Charlie went still, too spent to move. All he could focus on was keeping a hold on his breathing, to try and stop the sounds of distress that had unwittingly left his body moments ago. He was aware of Blake's warm hand releasing his left leg, then manoeuvring him until he was lying down. Charlie didn't seem to have the energy or wherewithal to protest. Finally, after all that extortion, he succumbed to sleep.
He woke to the... sound of music?
Charlie's brows furrowed as he just lie there, listening. Someone was playing on the piano. But he didn't remember hearing the piano before at the boarding house... he was pretty sure the landlord would have kicked out anyone playing an instrument.
Whoever it was wasn't shoddy at it either. Charlie didn't know the song, but the melody was upbeat, happy. He swallowed and opened his eyes.
His confusion deepened even more. The ceiling was unfamiliar, at least as much as he could tell in the darkness of the room. It must've been late evening or even night, the only light source a small lamp at the desk to his left.
Charlie blinked, turning towards it then grabbing for the edge of the mattress as he almost toppled down.
Finally his brain caught up with what he was seeing and he remembered.
He was at Blake's house, at his office. Though Blake wasn't there, the room was empty. Charlie was glad for that. He had an uncomfortable memory of being in his underwear and being covered only by icy wet towels. His body shuddered at the mere thought, but a quick look reassured him the towels were gone. Instead there was a light sheet, providing at least partial cover. Charlie still shuddered, feeling strangely cold, despite the fact the room was warm. He noticed the IV was also gone so he came to the assumption he was going to live.
At least he felt somehow better. The headache still lingered and his stomach felt queasy, but that might've been just because it was mostly empty. The muscle cramps were gone though, leaving him only with a dull discomfort. All in all, he felt ready to leave this joint. As soon as he located his clothes. Both his pants and shirt lay folded up on the nearby chair, although the shirt had much to be desired for. His blazer was nowhere to be seen and Charlie tried to remember whether he left it by the lake or in Blake's car. He hoped for the latter.
Getting to his feet and putting on the clothes took him a bit more time than he would have wished, but he felt steady enough to brave the world. Well, maybe not the world, but at least Blake. He looked at his watch and noted with a startle that it was already past nine in the evening. He definitely overstayed his welcome.
The music was still playing, interspersed by occasional laughter or exclamation. Charlie cringed, recognizing Mattie O'Brien's voice. Perhaps he could slink out through the back door?
He really didn't feel like facing the girl or Mrs. Beazley either in the state he was in. His shirt smelled of fish and he himself was in dire need of a shower. That wasn't even taking into account the state of his hair surely.
But even he knew that leaving without an explanation or a thank you would be rude. So steeling himself, Charlie slowly made his way towards the door. He made it about three steps into the hall, walking rather reluctantly, when out of nowhere Mattie appeared at the other end of the hall. She blinked in surprise, giving him a quick once over, then turned her head back towards the living room.
"Lucien? Your patient is trying to escape," she hollered.
Charlie opened his mouth.
"What? I was not-" he protested even as she crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow in a challenge.
"Never mind," Charlie muttered. "Is Dr. Blake there?" he asked a bit uselessly, seeing as Blake was already coming out into the hall.
"Ah, Charlie! Finally awake I see," he said with a smile and beckoned him to come closer. Charlie reluctantly did, a bit taken aback when Blake put his arm around his shoulder and lead him inside the living room.
Mattie behind them let out a theatrical sigh and continued to wherever she originally planned to go.
Charlie wanted to stop and really just tell Blake a quick thanks and leave, but the arm around his shoulder made it pretty clear the only place he was going was the couch.
"Mrs. Beazley," Charlie said with a nod and a flush to his face. He remembered seeing the woman when he arrived in the less than ideal state. Jean looked up at him and gave him a small smile. She seemed more relaxed than Charlie ever saw her, most likely because until he appeared, they were having a fun night. If the glasses of cherry on the table was anything to go by.
"Constable. Glad to see you feeling better," Jean said and Charlie nodded, biting at the inside of his lip a bit nervously.
"Thank you, Mrs. Beazley. And sorry, for..." he paused, unsure how to continue. After all, it wasn't like he came by choice. "... the inconvenience," he finished a bit uncertainly. Jean gave him a glance as if trying to figure him out, then nodded at Blake.
"It was hardly an inconvenience for me, Constable," she said with a quirk of her lips.
Charlie cleared his throat, wishing he could be already home. On that matter... he turned to Blake who had settled himself on the armrest of the couch next to Charlie. He was currently giving him an assessing look and Charlie squirmed.
"Uh Doc... I... thanks. For... you know. Helping," Charlie stuttered, feeling all of a seven year old standing in front of his principal. It was ridiculous.
Blake had reached out, running the back of his hand softly over Charlie's forehead before he could protest or pull away.
"Your temperature seems to have settled down at least."
"Uh... yeah. I feel much better now, thanks," Charlie repeated, feeling rather uncomfortable by being the centre of attention, especially with Mrs. Beazley in the room as well. Last thing he needed was for Mattie to return and... damn. Talk about the devil.
Mattie had waltzed back into the room with a glass of water and plopped herself down right next to Charlie. His eyes widened a bit. Was she smirking?
"How's the headache? Any nausea?" Blake kept asking, obviously not caring to protect Charlie's pride.
Charlie only shook his head, trying not to blush.
"Well, he still looks flushed, but less like a cooked crab than before," Mattie teased and Charlie's head spun to look at her with wide eyes.
"What? I wasn't... you weren't there when..." Charlie frowned while Mattie shrugged.
"I peeked in when I called Lucien for dinner. You looked like a freshly baked lobster," she said with a grin before Jean admonished her.
"What? You were the one who sent me there," she argued.
"That'll be quite enough Mattie," Blake spoke calmly. He was eyeing Charlie carefully.
Charlie didn't know where to look anymore. He felt embarrassed enough by getting himself into such condition in the first place. He really didn't want to think about the fact Mattie had seen him at his most vulnerable. Feeling a wave of heat rushing through his skin, Charlie quickly stood, ready to bolt. He wanted to be alone.
Of course maybe he miscalculated a bit. Getting up so fast still wasn't a wise move, as the dark dots in his vision and the return of the headache announced. He hissed and swayed but before he could stumble, Blake had a steadying hand on his arm.
"Slowly, Charlie. Your body still needs a bit of time to catch up."
Charlie swallowed, feeling uncomfortably hot and aware of everyone's eyes on him.
"I uh... I need to go home. Sorry..." he shook his head and took a few steps from the couch, until Blake caught up and blocked his way. He once again reached up, touching Charlie's shoulder and Charlie really wasn't sure whether he did it to stop him or to steady him. Charlie's head was still spinning slightly.
"Alright there Charlie?"
Charlie gave a short nod, reluctant to open his mouth at this point.
"It's quite late now and you still look a bit peaky around the edges."
"Am fine," Charlie protested with a frown.
"Be as it may, I'd prefer if you stayed for the night. Unless you have someone who could keep an eye on you tonight?"
Charlie grimaced. He was living at the boarding house. Unless he asked the weirdo from the next room to peep in on him occasionally through the window, there really wasn't anyone.
"I don't need a babysitter," Charlie said. "I feel fine."
It was funny, but repeating the same thing didn't help. Maybe it would've been easier to convince Blake if the man couldn't feel the slight shivers running through Charlie and subsequently the shoulder he was clutching.
"Still. I have a perfectly fine guest room. Jean had already made up a bed. Seems like more trouble to get you home than let you spend the night."
Charlie wanted to argue that, he really did. But some part of him, a very deep and hidden part, was actually preferring the however awkward interaction with Mattie and Mrs. Beazley to the silence and loneliness of his room at the boarding house. He most definitely preferred the sound of Blake playing the piano to the sound his other neighbour made every other night when he brought in a lady friend.
There was also a slightly clearer voice of his superior in Melbourne telling him that this might be a good opportunity to do some of the spy work he was sent out to do. Or at least try and gain Blake's trust. Whatever came first.
Charlie tried to argue with both of these voices, in the end though his body's needs won over them all. He was tired and he ached and just the idea of a car ride or a walk home to that stuffy room with miserable air circulation and even worse water pressure made him relent.
"If it won't be too much of a bother," he muttered somehow sheepishly. The smile on Blake's face might've been worth it.
"Splendid! Now... do you want to eat something? Jean put aside a plate for you, or there is toast."
Even though Charlie's stomach felt achingly empty, he really didn't want to risk upsetting it.
"Thanks but I think... I would like to just lie down now, if it's no problem."
He might not have been ready to sleep, but he definitely wanted to have some privacy and pull himself together before facing O'Brien anytime soon. Albeit one look into the living room let him know that perhaps he shouldn't need to be so wary anymore. While Blake was trying to convince him on staying, Mrs. Beazley seemed to have been berating Mattie. She at least seemed to shoot him a slightly apologetic glance before taking a sip from her glass.
Charlie could live with that.
He let Blake show him to the room, even more appreciative when he was shown the bathroom door. He had just realized that even though he barely kept down any water, the IV had worked at least. Blake chuckled when Charlie excused himself and told him to feel free to grab some food when he felt like it or get him if there was any problem. Charlie nodded, saying his thanks then quickly closing the bathroom door.
After taking care of business and running a quick shower of lukewarm water, Charlie felt closer to being human. Still, the bed was calling him louder and louder. He could still hear voices from downstairs but they were muffled and somehow calming.
Charlie headed back to the guest room, pausing in the hallway.
Here was his opportunity. He was standing right next to the door to Blake's upstairs office. He had time and opportunity... but he was lacking the drive.
Even just the thought had felt wrong, twisting his stomach more than the idea of food. Maybe later, when the house was asleep, Charlie told himself. But he knew that was a lie. He wouldn't be able to do it, to betray the man that had just invited him to his home, who spent hours making sure Charlie's brain didn't boil.
Charlie might've been sent out on an assignment and he might've had his doubts about Blake from the get go. About his way of operating, about ignoring the rules. Blake might've been an unsecured grenade waiting to blow up and take down the whole police station with him, but he wasn't a bad man. He had his morals and he was trying to help, however misleading his ways might've been.
Charlie grew to respect the man. It was one thing to let the brass know Blake stepped on someone else's feet, it was quite different to betray the man's trust in his own house.
So he passed the office without a second glance. The only thing that mattered right now was the bed with the cool sheets and soft pillows as Charlie realized when he burrowed his face into one. He took in a whiff on lavender then let out a deep breath.
This was so much nicer than the lumpy bed in his apartment. The window was open to a slit, letting in a cooler night air and the smell of flowers from the nearby garden. Charlie heard soft footsteps in the hall, muffled good nights. Then only blessed silence.
Charlie wasn't sure if it was the after effect of the heat stroke or just the fact the bed was comfy and there wasn't anyone trampling on the floor above him at four in the morning, waking him up. Be as it may, Charlie had slept well perhaps for the first time he arrived to Ballarat.
Of course the feeling of content lasted only until he opened his eyes and realized where he was. At Blake's house, after a day he would hardly want a repeat of. Grimacing, Charlie rolled out of the bed. He was happy when the room stayed still and there wasn't even a sign of a headache. Besides the empty pit where his stomach used to be, he felt relatively fine.
Looking at the clock he figured that if he moved fast enough, he might make it out of the house before everyone woke up. He would just leave a note and perhaps call back at a later time to thank Blake, but he hoped to be gone before Mrs. Beazley and Mattie got up.
It was funny how despite the rocky start, Blake's presence never made him as nervous as either of the women. Blake just had that effect on people, Charlie supposed. You either enjoyed the man's company, or you wanted him dead. Despite all the warnings and misgivings Charlie had gotten from his superior in Melbourne before even leaving for Ballarat, he had quickly befallen for Blake's innate charm. Of course there were still moments when he wanted to kill the man.
Like for example now.
Charlie had put on his rumpled clothes, trying not to scrunch up his nose in disgust and was tiptoeing through the hall, heading downstairs. He wasn't sure when everyone woke up but so far he didn't hear any movement from the kitchen so he assumed Mrs. Beazley was still asleep. It was barely seven in the morning after all.
He might've miscalculated.
"Leaving so soon?"
Charlie froze then slowly turned on his heels.
Blake was leaning against the doorjamb of his bedroom, an amused look on his face.
"Uh... good morning," Charlie said, then gave a half shrug. "I thought I might get a... early start at work," he said quickly.
Blake raised an eyebrow.
"No need for that," he noted and walked up to Charlie. "I forgot to mention last night but Matthew had called yesterday."
Charlie blinked, feeling a bit of apprehension.
"What did the Boss say? Am I in trouble?" His thoughts went right to the worst possible scenario. Perhaps he should have stayed at his post? Did someone come to replace him or was that just a hallucination?
"No, no trouble at all," Blake quickly raised his hand to calm him down.
Charlie let out a sigh then frowned.
"What did he want then?"
"Ah, he was just inquiring about your health and the whole situation."
"Oh." Charlie bit at his lip. "I don't really know what went wrong there though..."
"I know. Don't worry, it wasn't your fault. Actually... your replacement needed to leave and when calling it in, Sergeant Gareth decided you two could handle the situation and didn't need anyone else sent out. Of course he chose to stay at the club house where he had access to water and shade." Blake said that in a tone that assured Charlie Lawson already knew about the situation. He cringed internally for Gareth's sake, though he hardly felt much sympathy for the man. The idiot could have at least found the time to inform him and bring him some water after all.
"So uh... was the Boss angry?"
Blake gave Charlie a pat on the shoulder.
"Not at you, rest assured."
"Good," Charlie said with a sigh. He wasn't sure how many more problems would Lawson accept before deciding to sack Charlie for good. Despite his statement of wanting to keep him under watch, Charlie had a feeling that he was just one step away from Lawson's patience snapping.
"In any case, I told Matthew you could use a day off. So he asked that you called in later on but doesn't want to see you near the station until tomorrow." Blake said this with a smile, earning a startled look from Charlie.
"What? But... I'm fine. I don't need a day off..." He didn't want a day off. What was he supposed to do all day?
"Rest up, read a book. Keep out of the sun though. You'll be more prone to a heat stroke for a while."
"I don't want to rest," he grumbled. He wanted to go for a run, preferably near the water. Of course by the time he made it out of there it would be too late for that already, and Charlie didn't really feel up to braving the summer heat. His room then it would be.
With that bleary image of the rest of his day, his shoulders sagged.
"Ah, no need for the long face. Come... I bet you are hungry."
As if in response, Charlie's stomach gave a growl. He cleared his throat while Blake chuckled.
It turned out that Mrs. Beazley was already awake after all and busy in the kitchen. She must've been keeping down the noise, though as soon as she saw them up and about, Charlie noted the sound of knife chopping up onions.
There was a bit of an awkward hello between Charlie and Mrs. Beazley as Blake announced Charlie was staying for breakfast. Mrs. Beazley nodded with a smile.
"I figured as much," she noted. "Are you feeling better, Constable?" she asked as Charlie stood there, unsure of what to do.
"Yes, much better. Thank you. Uh... can I help somehow?" he asked, not ready to sit down and watch her bustle around. Blake obviously didn't have the same compulsion. It was clear she wanted to tell him to sit down, but must've taken pity on him.
"Could you... bring in the milk? Should be right outside the front door."
Charlie nodded, thankful for something to do. He really didn't fancy having to sit at the table in awkward silence, but it was too late to get out of it. And his stomach also kept letting him know quite angrily that it had been neglected.
He grabbed the milk along with the newspaper and brought it inside. The air was already turning warm and he cringed, the too bright light outside reigniting a throb behind his eyes. Perhaps Blake was right. One day of rest might be a good idea.
When he returned with the milk, he put it down at the table and handed the paper to Blake, who was sipping the tea.
"Ah, thank you Charlie. Let's see if anything interesting happened last day," Blake begun reading and Charlie stood there once again reluctant to sit down. Mrs. Beazley sighed.
"Perhaps you can... pour yourself some tea, Constable? Or if you prefer coffee, it's over there."
"Tea is fine, thank you," Charlie said, poured a cup and settled down, hoping he didn't pick someone's favourite chair. Blake was nice enough to start reading out the articles that caught his attention to fill the time until breakfast was ready.
Charlie would have tried to offer his help once more, but it was clear Mrs. Beazley might take offence at that. So he sipped his tea and nodded here and there in reaction to Blake's comments.
When few minutes later Mattie stepped into the kitchen, Charlie wasn't sure whether he was relieved or feeling more out of place. She gave him an unreadable look, then without word walked over to the coffee pot. It wasn't until she took a few sips and let out a satisfied noise that she finally spoke to Charlie.
"Is that your new style, Constable Davis?"
"The rumpled look," she nodded towards his shirt then scrunched up her nose. "And the fishy smell."
Charlie bristled. He hardly had a chance to wash his clothes now, did he?
"Only if you start going out with that spectacular bed hair," he retorted, indicating several strains that were standing rather unflatteringly over the top of her head.
Mattie quickly ran her hand over them, rolling her eyes.
Blake let out a sound that might've been a snort or a chuckle, Charlie wasn't sure because the man had also quickly cleared his throat and his face was hidden behind the paper.
Things went a bit smoother from there. Some of the tension released, and then Jean served breakfast and the focus turned to food. For his part, Charlie had to fight down the urge not to wolf it down in one bite. He was hungry he realized and Mrs. Beazley was a wonderful cook. Even if it was just ham and eggs with toast, to Charlie it tasted wonderful.
There wasn't much conversation, Mattie looking like she would still like to crawl back to bed, even though she managed to throw a few scathing remarks towards Charlie. He either pretended not to hear or well... gave as good as he got. He would not dare talk back at Mrs. Beazley and he and Blake had their own kind of rapport, but Mattie? She was fair game.
It was maybe somewhere in the middle of it, when Blake started speaking about the small thefts going on around the town, the reason why Charlie had spent the day guarding a stupid shack. He started theorizing about the culprit. Mrs. Beazley was rolling her eyes at each name he dropped, saying why that person wasn't making sense. Mattie sometimes popped in with her own outrageous guesses and even Charlie joined in at some point. Then he fell silent, letting the conversation wash over him.
This was familiar.
It hit him, suddenly and mercilessly, just like the heat wave. The memory of his own family at a breakfast table. His brothers bickering, his father pointedly ignoring them in lieu of finishing the coffee before calming down whatever issue aroused from four boisterous boys around one table. His mother's smile or frustrated sigh when it all became too much, too loud for such an early hour.
Later on, the table held one less person. His mom smiled less, Charlie and his brothers were a bit calmer. But the bickering remained, that feel of the family.
Charlie hasn't felt that for some time now. Ever since he came to Ballarat... though to be fair, that feeling of belonging, that ease had perhaps been missing for much longer.
Suddenly he was overwhelmed by the realization he wasn't supposed to be here. This feeling... it didn't belong to him, this wasn't his family. He was just a guest, already overstaying his welcome. Surely, he shouldn't take such comfort from the presence of strangers.
It was half an hour later, after he said his thanks to Mrs. Beazley for putting up with him, after he bid a somehow less awkward goodbye to Mattie and got a half smile in reply instead of a sarcastic remark he might've gotten a day before, that Charlie thought something might've changed.
He was sitting in Blake's car, the man having offered to drive him home on his way to the town. Charlie was absentmindedly clutching at his blazer that he found waiting on him on the passenger seat and staring out the window, lost in thought.
Having felt the camaraderie around the breakfast table just reminded him how much of an outsider he still was. And it was only now that he realized that perhaps he didn't want to stay that way. Ballarat... it had meant to be only a short stop on his road. He didn't have reason to try and fit in. What for? He would return home soon. But the road kept getting longer and longer and Charlie knew that he was lying to himself. Even if he could've returned to Melbourne right that day, things wouldn't return to normal. His mother had fallen in love with a man Charlie couldn't stand. His brothers were growing up, needing him less and less. His career... well, Charlie wasn't sure where that was leading. Despite several years of dutiful work, despite having trustworthy colleagues back in Melbourne, he didn't feel half the support from the people around as he felt here in Ballarat from the man he was supposed to think of as enemy.
There was also Lawson. He might've been a mean bastard, but he was someone Charlie grew to respect very quickly. The man knew his job and what was more... he stood behind his people. Charlie worried that the same couldn't be said about his previous superior, the one that was expecting another report on his desk by the end of the month. A report that would help nail the lid on Blake's coffin just a bit deeper.
He didn't know what Blake did in his past. But he was pretty sure right now the man was doing his best. Charlie didn't want to bring an end to that. He didn't want to break up the little family he had become a reluctant participant of for the very short time. Most of all, he just felt sadness upon having to return to his empty room, his family far away.
"Alright there Charlie?" Blake spoke up from behind the wheel. Charlie gave an absentminded nod.
"Yeah. It's fine. Everything's just fine," Charlie said, realizing how big of a lie that was.