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a long, long time

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Cec isn't looking for Bert.

Or, well—not really. Not by the time he actually finds him.

(Cec has been looking for Bert since he got back to Australia—stepping off the boat in Melbourne weary and worn-down and scanning the crowds nonetheless. Unable to stop the tiny, awful flutter of fear that this is futile for more reasons than the size and bustle of the docks. That the face he's looking for is gone forever, lost on the European soil he was shipped to, leaving Cec lonely in African desert. Unable to stop the even worse flutter of hope—)

When he finds Bert, Cec is down an alleyway, getting his ribs cracked by a factory foreman and his pack of guards, who've apparently taken offense to the literature Cec was handing out during lunch break. He's smashed at least one nose, but that just seems to have made them more determined—so Cec is spitting blood and trying to stay upright when a voice, vaguely familiar even through his dizziness, rings down the alley. "Oi!"

(Cec knows that voice, somewhere far deeper than familiar. He's been waiting for that voice since the squadron split in Cairo, him and Dave hustled to a field hospital, and all the rest of 'em off to France—Art and Ken and Howie and Pete and Bert. Waiting, hoping—and flirting as hard as he could with the nurses to keep his mind from replaying a gruff goodbye, a hand tight and warm and lingering just a little too long on his uninjured shoulder...)

When he finds Bert, it's by just barely getting out of his way as the other man dives for the foreman's knees—and he doesn't even get a second to realize that he knows him, before Bert's tossing him the man's club and Cec is taking wild swings at the thugs, to keep them from getting at the tussle of limbs that is Bert and their boss. And then Russ, who gave Cec the damn pamphlets in the first place, is there throwing punches too, and Cec is starting to think they might actually be able to make a decent break of this—

Which is, of course, when the police show up to drag them all off each other, and the foreman gasps out something about inciting riots. Which is, of course, all the bloody detective inspector with his fancy hat needs to hear.

So really, by the time Cec actually finds Bert for long enough to have a conversation, the two of them are in a holding cell with Russ out cold on the cot. Cec is leaning very gingerly against the wall, trying not to breathe too deeply, and Bert is sunk down on the floor, flexing his smashed hand and wincing—and then their eyes meet, and both of them are grinning wide enough that Cec can feel it pull at his aching ribs.

"Good to see you," he manages, (because it is, because Bert's hair is longer, coming out of its slick into a mess that could almost be curls, and his face is drawn sharper, all new lines and a smile that's wearier but so much wider, and Cec's heart is beating, beating, racing out of his chest—)

Bert laughs, loud and rough, and it rings down to Cec's bones--he knows that laugh. In every inch of him.

"Shoulda guessed I'd find you down an alley." Bert tilts his head back to rest against the wall—but those blue eyes stay locked on Cec. "You always had a knack for trouble."

"Says yourself!" Cec snorts, despite the pain flaring in his side. "What've you been up to that Russ calls you for backup?"

"Bit o' this, bit o' that. I believe Inspector Robinson out there's got a file." Bert's grin goes crooked. "How 'bout yourself? Inciting riots a daily affair for you?"

"Well, probably less so after that, uh, unceremonious dismissal."

That laugh booms out again—and it thrills through Cec just the same—

"Keep it down in there!" The voice echoes from the front of the station, and they roll their eyes in accidental unison—Bert's eyes are dancing now.

"My apologies," he mock-whispers, "seems we've upset the constable," and Cec gives in, sinks down against the wall and laughs until he cries, with the fire in his ribs and the familiarity of the banter and the shaky, unmistakable thrill of Bert, here and smiling and real.