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It was almost frightening to see just how much of a bubble he’d been living in before he’d taken the time off work. People he had barely spoken to out with the cases that called for extra personnel had offered him polite nods and sympathetic smiles, as if they knew. And they probably did. He had only been lying to himself when he thought that he could keep his issues hidden behind long hours, mounds of paperwork and an unhealthy dose of denial.
The four weeks he’d taken off from work had made him address quite a few home truths about himself and what he’d been doing both to himself and to those around him. He wasn’t ‘cured’, of course. But he… he was better now than he had been. Healthier, he supposed. Or at least he was trying to deal with his triggers in a healthier way.
He’d cut his nails as short as they would go, bought a box of elastic bands and a stress ball. He’d upped his therapy from once a week to twice, sometimes three if his shrink pushed him hard enough. And he wasn’t… omitting anything. He tried to be as honest with her as he could be with himself and… and it really felt as though it was working. As if he was ready. Ready to take back his life and start living instead of existing in the day to day, too terrified to confront the darkness within himself.
He wasn’t pushing people away either. Not as much as he had been anyway. There’d been a few days towards the start of his leave that had seen him on a downward spiral, cocooning himself away from the world. Everything that had happened with Miles, the scene he’d caused in the pub, things with Chandler taking an unexpected turn, and him officially taking the time off work had all seemed to coalesce into something that left him feeling both hollow and raw. He’d lay, huddled beneath his duvet, for almost two days before his flatmates had staged an intervention and called Chandler.
He’d been too out of it to really be embarrassed about it at the time, too unglued to even wonder at his flatmates knowing to call Chandler over anyone else. All he was really aware of during those first few days was waking on the third day to find Chandler lying atop his bed covers beside him. He was dressed for work: jacket and shoes still on, and Kent knew he must have dropped everything else to be there in that moment.
It was humbling. And heart-wrenching. What had he ever done to deserve this kind of dedication outside of wanting it?
“I’m sorry,” he’d said, voice raw from disuse.
Chandler’s smile was soft and sad as he leant in and pressed his mouth to Kent’s temple, left his lips pressed there a moment as he sighed out through his nose, and Kent had closed his eyes, tears prickling at the corners, fingers desperately scrabbling for a tighter hold of his duvet.
“Don’t be sorry,” Chandler had said, his words whispered across his skin.
He’d stayed longer than he should have, a phone call from work interrupting the half-doze they’d both fallen into. Seeing the look of indecision on Chandler’s face had been enough to get Kent up and moving. He didn’t want to be that person. Didn’t want to be the reason Chandler had to keep putting his life on hold. He was supposed to be getting better, fixing himself, so that he could function like a normal human being again and not this husk of a person he’d been before. He’d promised himself. He’d all but promised Chandler too.
And getting up out of bed, getting himself washed and dressed and fed, if that was only the first of many steps, then he’d take it.
Because he had to. And not just for himself.
The next of which had been to phone his therapist.
And he’d gone from there. Routine, appointments, lessons in non-avoidance, learning what his triggers where and how to safely confront and or react to them.
He’d felt like he was getting somewhere with it all.
Until he didn’t.
There had always been more bad days than good ones. And as much as Kent liked to think he’d changed, that things were getting better now, there was always something waiting to throw him off his game: A gut-wrenching nightmare; an unavoidable brush with a stranger; a doctor’s appointment he’d been putting off for months. All of it left him shaken, panicked, shoving blood stained fingers against his eyelids, dragging ragged nails through his scalp.
The guilt came then, the shame, the worry that he’d forever be taking one step forward and two steps back. Why couldn’t he just function like he had before? Why was he still so hung up on what had happened to him? Why did he let it all affect him so badly?
He barely remembered the man he used to be. This strong and stubborn man Chandler said he used to be. Said he still was. Kent couldn’t see it, couldn’t see anything past this cowed vision of himself.
And sometimes that made him angry. Made him despise himself, made him hate himself, made him wish he could…
But no. The trick was to keep going. To keep trying. To push through all the frustration and pain and maybe, just maybe he’d come out the other side only a little bit more scarred.
It had been a long four weeks. And at the same time they had been far too short.
He wasn’t sure he’d have been able to do it alone. Wasn’t sure he’d even be standing here at all if it wasn’t for Chandler. Kent could barely stand himself most days, especially the bad ones, and yet Chandler never turned him away, never made him feel unwanted.
He just sat with him. Sometimes he made him talk, other times he did the talking: about everything and nothing; little secrets about himself; innocent stories about his childhood; darker stories about his own demons. And Kent shared too: about this and that; half-remembered dreams; missing the connection he once had with his family, his sister; wild nights out with his flatmates once upon a time.
Sometimes he felt that these quiet moments with Chandler were better than any shrink session. It was all so much more personal, connected, left him feeling flush with life instead of drained and weary, dreading an inevitable night of nightmares.
The only nights he knew he was safe from dreams were the nights he’d spent with Chandler, safe in Chandler’s arms. He’d actually let himself sleep those nights too, curled up close in a way he’d never believed he could have, wrapped in the scent and warmth of him, his mouth still thick with the taste of him.
Kent bit back a smile at the memory such thoughts conjured before mentally shaking it from his mind. He didn’t have time for ruminations. Not when he was supposed to stepping into the Incident Room for his first day back on the job, not when the colleagues he hadn’t seen much less spoken to since leaving were waiting just beyond those doors.
He sucked in a deep breath. How much more nerve wracking that walking through the front doors of the Whitechapel Police Department could it really be?
Kent sucked in another breath. And another, smoothing his hands down the length of the dark tie he noosed around his neck. He could do this.
A part of him fervently wished he’d taken Chandler up on his offer to drive him into work this morning, if only to share the burden of the stares that immediately zeroed in on him as stepped into the room, the door clattering shut behind him.
Kent gave a half smile and an awkward sort of wave, his eyes roving over the room, drinking in all the ways it hadn’t changed in the time he’d been gone, until he could no longer avoid looking at the people in the room.
Miles offered him a nod and a gruff welcome as he came over and clapped him on the back before squeezing at his shoulder.
“It’s good to have you back,” he said with a seriousness that made Kent’s nerves instantly dissipate. Most of them anyway. He’d been the most worried about Miles’ reception of him. After how he’d left things between them after Miles’ attempt at an intervention especially.
“It’s good to be back, Serg,” Kent returned, smiling for the first time since waking this morning.
“Alright, Kent?” Mansell asked, coming up to him and nudging his shoulder against Kent’s own.
“Yeah,” he agreed, turning to smile at Mansell too before he heard his name called out. And not just the ‘Kent’ he was used to hearing around the department either. He turned quickly, mouth dropping open at the sight of DC Megan Riley coming towards him with a huge grin on her face.
The last time he’d seen her she’d dragged him out onto the dance floor at Mansell’s engagement party. That had been just before… before…
She had her arms around him before Kent could finish that thought, enveloping him in a massive hug.
“You still owe me a dance, Mr, don’t think I didn’t notice you’d bailed on me!” She said, pulling away with a wink. Kent blinked at her, shocked into speechlessness first by her appearance in the Incident Room and then at the welcome he’d received from her.
Miles stepped in quickly, shooing both her and Mansell away. “Alright, alright enough. Back to work you lot. Let the guy settle back in before you accost him some more.”
They went easily enough, laughing like old friends, and Kent turned to Miles unable to school his confusion.
“Joe didn’t tell you?” Miles asked, frowning.
Kent shook his head. “We didn’t talk about work,” he said, eyes trailing over to the desk Riley had claimed as her own.
“They don’t know,” Miles said and Kent’s eyes snapped back to him. “What happened at Mansell’s do,” he clarified. “Or why you’ve been off. Mansell probably has an inkling but there hasn’t been anything said.”
Miles cleared his throat. “So, you can tell them what you like. Or not.”
Kent nodded, offering Miles a quick smile. “Thanks, Serg.”
Miles nodded once before moving away and Kent made his way towards his own desk. It looked almost exactly how he’d left it. Clean, organised, there wasn’t even any dust, though his pens and post-it pad seemed to have gone missing. He felt himself quirk a smile as he pulled his chair out to sit and began to set his things out. Like he’d never left.
The door to Chandler’s office opened and he looked immediately up but it was only Miles going in to see him. He didn’t know if Chandler had seen him come in or not, and was a little disheartened that he hadn’t been one of the ones to welcome him back. Which was silly, seeing as he’d seen Chandler the night before last, and had actively refused to let Chandler bring him in this morning.
“I hope your detecting skills are better than your dancing skills!” Kent twisted his chair around at the call, thoughts immediately diverting from Chandler.
Riley was grinning at him and Kent tried for offended but found himself grinning back instead as he remembered her dancing skills. “Why, we got a case I need to be brushing them up on?” he threw back.
There was a split second of hesitation before Riley laughed, too bright and loud, her gaze skittering across to Mansell and then back again. “No, no!” She tried, smiling wide. “Just checking you’re not too rusty! We have an exciting day of cold cases ahead of us.”
She was lying. And if the way Mansell was not-quite meeting his eyes was anything to go by, he knew it too.
“It’ll be like I never left,” he allowed, smile slipping.
The door to Chandler’s office opened again and Kent started to turn himself back around, but not before he caught the look Riley and Mansell shared, their faces scrunching with exaggerated grimaces.
Miles was watching them when Kent finally turned his chair back to his desk, his stare a little too intent.
“Alright, Skip?” Mansell called out and Miles shot him a pointed look before moving towards his desk.
“Haven’t you got some files that need digging up from the archives?” he started to say but Kent zoned out, his attention immediately captured as Chandler moved into the doorway; his gaze was fond and he was smiling as he looked towards him.
“Welcome back,” he said and Kent found himself smiling again, softly, more genuinely.
“Thank you, sir,” he replied, ducking his head a little.
“Shall we do you return to work now?” Chandler asked, gesturing for Kent to enter his office.
Kent nodded, pushing up from his seat and following Chandler into the room. The first thing he noticed was the haphazard stacks of paperwork scattered across his desk, the sheer untidiness of it all a surprise even though Kent could see a conscious effort had been made to put everything into some kind of organised chaos.
He shot Chandler a disbelieving look, watching as Chandler winced and reached up to pinch at the bridge of his nose in response.
“I asked Mansell to bring me a few files,” he offered by way of explanation and Kent thought this constituted as more than just a few. He spied an autopsy report amongst the manila folders, recently dated, but let his eyes skim past it with another smile.
These weren’t cold cases.
“Do you need a hand with them, sir?” he asked, clasping his hands in his lap as Chandler gestured for him to sit.
“No, thank you. We’re just going through some of the older files,” he waved his hand as if to dismiss it, pulling a sheet of paper from his top draw and placing it on the small square of desk space left available to him.
They went through the return to work form easily enough. Kent thought that Chandler could probably have filled the entire thing in himself, the amount of time they’d spent together over the last four weeks, but he supposed protocol had to be followed. Besides, it was nice to sit here, with him, even if it was just to answer a few Q&A type questions.
He watched the scratch of Chandler’s pen move across the page a moment before he let his eyes wonder around the room. The more he looked, the more he saw. Not changes, per se, but rather signs that there was something more pressing than a cold case or two going on. They were working on something. And Kent got the distinct impression that it was something they didn’t want to let him in on.
He turned his gaze to the window looking out into the Incident Room and tried not to show his surprise to find it was now empty.
Kent bit at the inside of his cheek, not too hard, but enough to feel the pinch of his teeth against the flesh. He tried not to let his thoughts get the best of him, to dampen his mood, but it was hard. He fingered the elastic around his wrist and turned his gaze back towards Chandler’s bent head.
It was only his first day back, of course. They probably just wanted to acclimatise him before they threw a new case at him. Probably didn’t want him to feel inadequate about it, and so they were hiding it. If it were really that big of a deal they’d bring him in. The sorts of cases they were used to dealing with usually required all hands on deck.
Unless that’s why they’d brought Riley in. It had been long enough now since they’d lost McCormack, and with no actual case to work on, Kent had sort of assumed they’d never replace him. Although, if he really thought about it, it’s not as though he’d been working to his full potential either. Maybe Riley wasn’t to make up their numbers, maybe she’d been brought in to replace him.
The thought left a sour taste in his mouth and he swallowed reflexively, trying for a smile as Chandler finished and looked back up.
Why hadn’t he said anything?
“Is Riley staying?” he blurted before Chandler could say anything, and then promptly winced at his own outburst.
Chandler frowned minutely. “That’s the plan. We never replaced McCormack and it seemed like the right time to bring someone in, get them used to working with everyone.”
Kent nodded, pressing his lips together.
“Are you unhappy with this decision?” Chandler asked, carefully.
“No,” he said, quick to reply. “She seems nice enough. Just- why didn’t you say anything?”
“I-,” Chandler hesitated. “I should have,” he agreed. “I just didn’t want you to think the worst. And we weren’t talking about work so I didn’t bring it up.”
“You didn’t think I could handle it?” He asked, chewing at his cheek again.
“It wasn’t like that. After Mansell’s party, Miles came to me and suggested it was time to get someone new in, he put Riley forward and I agreed. She started last week.”
Last week. Kent nodded. Not that long then. Though he hadn’t seen much of Chandler in the last week either, he’d been working later nights, earlier mornings, looking tired and stressed the times he did manage to pull himself away from work to spend time with Kent.
He felt a little guilty now, for taking up so much of Chandler’s time. It should have been obvious that something was going on, that they’d needed the help and- unable to rely on Kent, unsure even as to when he’d return- they’d had to bring someone else in. Maybe they would have done it any way. Maybe it was just his paranoia and self-doubt. Either way, he should have noticed. Should have realised. Some detective he was. So wrapped up in-
He snapped at the band on his wrist, flinching at the immediate sting and then again at the sharp-eyed look Chandler shot him at the gesture.
He looked away, took a breath. He couldn’t think like that. He had to stay positive, stay strong. He did what he’d had to do. He took the time off for himself, to fix himself. He was making progress, enough that now felt like the right time to ease himself back into work, to get his mind reengaged with something other than his own mental state.
“Emerson?” Chandler called, voice wary.
“It’s not a problem, sir,” Kent said, turning back. “I look forward to working with her.”
Chandler’s eyes flicked down to his hands, to where he still twisted his fingers around the band.
The sound of the Incident Room door falling shut suddenly sounded in the quiet of the room and they both looked up to find Miles and Riley heading into the room. Miles gestured towards Chandler and Chandler nodded once before turning back to Kent.
“If you’re sure?” he eventually asked.
“I am,” Kent agreed, hearing the dismissal and pushing himself to his feet. “Is there anything else, sir?”
Chandler seemed to hesitate, his eyes moving to the piles of paperwork and back before he shook his head. “No, that’ll be all. See Riley for the cases we’re focussing on this week.” He stood as well and followed Kent to the door, picking up his coat and scarf as he went.
“I’ll try and see you for lunch,” he promised and Kent offered him a smile, watching as Chandler smiled back before hurrying towards Miles.
He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting from this morning, but it certainly wasn’t this. He watched as Chandler and Miles left the room together, before picking his caseload up from Riley and settling in at his desk. Aside from the brief welcome back, things were pretty much the same as they’d been before he’d left. Sans the new member to their team, and the fact that something was obviously going on.
He sighed inwardly as he flicked through a manila folder of cases nobody remembered and fewer people cared about, making a couple new notes of reference in the margins: autopsy reports to recall, witness statements missing from the file, that sort of thing.
He spent his morning like that, Riley being replaced by Mansell towards lunch, a text from Chandler apologising and cancelling their own tentative plans, and the afternoon became much of the same as the morning. Chandler and Miles appeared around mid-afternoon looking tired and unsuccessful in whatever endeavour they’d been pursuing.
Though they hadn’t spoken of work in any detail whilst Kent had been off, he had noticed how tired and stressed Chandler had begun to look towards the end of his leave. He’d put it down to little things, and with Chandler always brushing his concern away, lamenting a lack of sleep or not enough caffeine or some other inconsequential thing, it had been easy enough to let himself believe him.
Now, back at work, he could see what he’d been missing. He knew enough about Chandler and how he behaved during an investigation to easily deduce that when he’d said there’d been nothing going on at work, what he really meant was that there was a new case for the team but that he didn’t want Kent involved with it.
That was… fine, when he hadn’t actually been at work. But being forced to trawl through cold case after cold case for the better part of a week whilst Miles and Mansell came and went from Chandler’s office like a pair of revolving doors, hot on the heels of whatever leads they were being fed, it was hard not to feel a lot like a hindrance.
And then there was Riley who was obviously in the know too. And though she seemed to be designated distracter- always there with a funny anecdote or some long-winded story or other Kent was too polite to interrupt even as the rest of his team rushed in and out of the Incident Room- it didn’t distract from the fact that she clearly knew what was going on.
It wasn’t subtle at all. And there was a part of him that wanted to show his indignation, his frustration, that wanted to tell them that he wouldn’t be back at work at all if he couldn’t handle whatever the hell it was that was going on.
But he didn’t ask. And no one offered to tell him. And by the time the end of the fourth day drew to a close, Kent felt the curl of his shoulders in more than just a physical way.
He stood from his desk with a wince, stretching out his right leg in a way he hadn’t had to do for a while now, and tried not to feel the hot stares against the back of his neck.
“Everything alright, mate?” Mansell called across the room. He was slinging his coat across his shoulders, ready for home.
Kent offered him a half-smile. “Yeah. Just stretching a bit.” He said, cricking his neck as well.
Mansell nodded, eyes flicking down then away. “You heading now? I can give you a lift if you like?”
“I’m okay, cheers. Going to stay for a bit longer.”
Mansell offered him a laugh. “Glad to see some things never change.”
“Don’t stay too long,” Miles said, stepping out of Chandler’s office and catching the end of their conversation.
Kent nodded his head, watching as Miles stopped off at Riley’s desk for a whispered exchange before they both grabbed their coats and said their goodnights. He met Mansell’s gaze briefly before the other man ducked his head, said his own goodbye, and hurried out the room after them.
Kent sat back down, wincing a little at the jar to his leg. He wished he was confident enough to confront them. To even bring this up with Chandler. He wanted to prove that he was fine, that he was alright to be here and do his job, that could still do his job.
But he wasn’t. And he didn’t.
Because he’d been here before. They all had. With him being in work when everyone else though that he shouldn’t have been. And maybe he felt a little as though this was his penance, that he had to prove himself to them all over again one cold case at a time.
He dug his fingers into the underside of his thigh, gritting his teeth at the tenseness of the muscle, at the feel of thick scarring through the fabric of his trousers, and he seriously contemplated calling it a night. Considered going home, taking his meds, and curling himself away from the world.
But he pushed through. He had to. Had to stay positive and healthy, even on the bad days. Kent scrubbed at his eyes a moment before looking up into Chandler’s office to watch as he pursued the files strewn haphazardly across his desk, the pages spilling out the edges like crumpled secrets stuffed too hastily away.
It was the very definition of disorganisation, and exactly the opposite of everything he’d come to learn about Chandler over the last few years. He frowned to himself, looking back at the files he’d piled neatly upon his own desk, at the file lying open before him all straight lines and edges.
He tapped his pen against the pages before lifting the end to his mouth; teeth sinking into the plastic cap worriedly as he looked up again to find that Chandler was hunched over his desk now, head bowed, his fingers massaging viciously at his temples.
Kent checked his watch to find it was going on eight o’clock and he pushed to his feet, taking a moment to carefully stretch out his leg before making his way towards Chandler’s office.
“Everything alright, sir?” he asked after rapping softly at the open door. He leant against the doorframe, taking the weight off his leg.
“Hmm?” Chandler looked up, smiling tiredly to see him before he frowned and reached for his watch.
“It’s late,” Chandler said, as if he hadn’t realised, looking back up.
“Yes,” Kent agreed, arms folded loosely across his chest. A menthol scent hung in the air and Kent let his eyes drop from Chandler to scan across the mess of his desk.
“You should be at home,” Chandler tried, wincing as he reached up to pinch at the bridge of his nose.
“So should you,” Kent countered, feeling a small smile tug at the corner of his mouth. Chandler shot him an unimpressed look that did nothing to deter Kent as he stepped into the room and moved over towards Chandler’s side.
The small tin of Tiger Balm sat to his side and Kent reached for it, fingers twitching in hesitation.
“May I?” He asked. Chandler eyed him a long moment, gaze flickering from his hand to the tin and then back up to his face, a question in his eyes even as he nodded his permission.
Kent dipped his index finger into the tin, rubbing around the edges to get a good amount of the balm onto his fingertip. He transferred some of the balm to his other index finger before moving to stand behind Chandler.
Chandler said nothing as Kent reached out to press against his temples, massaging his fingers against them. He heard Chandler exhale heavily through his nose and pressed in a little harder, widening the circular motions until he was out of balm and massaging up into Chandler’s hairline, then just above his ears, and then rubbing his fingers lightly through his hair, gradually increasing the pressure as he went.
Chandler’s head began to bow, his shoulders slumping with relief as Kent worked his way across his scalp and then down the back of his neck, finishing off with a gentle swipe across his shoulder blades.
On impulse, he bent forward and pressed a kiss to the back of Chandler’s neck, breathing in the subtle scent of his soap (sandalwood, a hint of cinnamon spice) beneath the almost overpowering smell of menthol and clove oil.
Chandler leant back as Kent pulled away, his head coming to rest against Kent’s stomach as he looked up at him with half-lidded eyes.
“You’re good at that,” he said, blinking slowly, tiredly.
Kent grinned, squeezing his hands at Chandler’s shoulders. “You looked like you needed it.”
“Mmm,” Chandler agreed closing his eyes.
Kent smiled down at him, moving his hands up to run his fingers through Chandler’s hair again, enjoying the weight of his head as it pressed against his belly, the feel of his hair as he ran it through his fingers.
He bent over then, pressing a kiss to Chandler’s forehead. He knew it wasn’t something he should really be doing at work, no matter that it was only the two of them in the Incident Room, but the look of complete and utter bliss on Chandler’s face was hard to resist.
Chandler’s eyes flickered back open meeting Kent’s and there was a look in them that was so open and wanting that Kent wanted to throw all caution to the wind and lean in, seal his mouth over Chandler’s and kiss away every stress and worry he was carrying. They hadn’t been able to see much of each other this week and just seeing him like this made Kent realise how much he’d missed him.
He made himself look away, to curb the urge to lean down once more and slide his mouth over Chandler’s. He swallowed, eyes flickering over Chandler’s desk and then back to his mouth and then-
Kent blinked, looking back over at Chandler’s desk, at the autopsy picture he hadn’t quite managed to push all the way back into its folder, at the mutilated body that all but screamed out knife attack and a watery grave.
He felt himself tense before he could stop himself and Chandler immediately pushed himself upright, hands quick to cover up the picture and anything else he thought Kent shouldn’t see.
Kent grabbed hold of the back of Chandler’s chair, fingers squeezing. He… wasn’t sure how he felt. A little shocked at seeing the image sure, but perhaps more so at the severity of Chandler’s reaction to his own. He didn’t want to think it was because Chandler didn’t think he couldn’t handle it, and yet at the same time that’s exactly what he thought.
He knew they’d been working on something! Assumed they must have thought they were doing the right thing by limiting his exposure to a case like this after everything Kent had been through. And yes, he’d been willing to play along for a few more days whilst he settled back in, whilst they settled back in to having him around but… but he’d been off for weeks, four of them to be exact, and he’d gotten help, he was doing everything in his power to fight this with everything he had in him, he was ready to be back at work, to do his job, and… and it kind of hurt to know that not even Chandler thought he was ready for it.
He bit his lip. That was unfair. He trusted Chandler, and he trusted Chandler’s judgement, and if he thought easing him back into the job with tedious amounts of paperwork was the way to do it, then Kent would try. After everything he’d put him through, put them all through, he could give them this. He could. He would.
He offered Chandler a tight smile when he turned to face Kent with unmasked concern. Kent’s hands fell away from the back of the chair as Chandler swivelled it around.
“Are you staying?” Kent asked instead of enquiring about what they both knew he’d just seen.
“Am I-,” Chandler started, thrown. He shook his head: “Are you-?”
“I’m going to head now,” Kent interrupted, deliberately misinterpreting what he knew was going to be a question about how he felt. And he didn’t have an answer to that. Not one he could articulate with any degree of conviction.
“I’ll give you a lift?” Chandler countered, half-rising, but Kent shook his head.
“I know you want to stay,” he said and though Chandler made a face he didn’t protest. “Do you want me to get you anything before I go? Coffee?”
“No, thank you. I’ll make some tea in a bit.” He looked as though he wanted to say more and Kent tried to give him something more than a grimace of a smile.
“I’m okay, Joe,” he said, not wanting Chandler to worry about him instead of his case.
“You’d tell me if you weren’t?” he asked, frowning, his face so open and imploring.
Kent reached out, touching at the lines creasing Chandler’s forehead with his thumb.
“I’d try,” he promised.
- - -
Despite his better judgement, Kent couldn’t stop thinking about the picture he’d seen on Chandler’s desk the previous evening. He’d slept about as well as he usually did and unplagued by nightmares he’d let his curiosity get the better of him.
He trusted Chandler to look out for him, he truly did, but at the same time a part of him wanted to- needed to- know if he could actually handle seeing something like this again. Because if he couldn’t, he needed to know. They all needed to know. This job was all he had and the prospect of no longer being able to handle himself over the sight of a cadaver… well, it didn’t bear thinking about.
He shivered as he stepped into the Morgue, the lights were on but Llewellyn was nowhere to be seen. Kent looked around, almost guiltily, knowing he shouldn’t be doing this even as he pressed further into the room. Everything was sterile and pristine, the scent of bleach strong and stomach churning only for the knowledge of what other scents it was masking.
There was only one body laid out, and the sight of the carved-up face was enough to let Kent know it was the same as the one he’d seen in the picture. The entire left side of the face had been torn open from the corner of the mouth, the cut stretching up into the eye socket. The skin itself hung open in a ragged mess, giving Kent a view through to the muscle and bone beneath.
Kent swallowed heavily, closing his eyes momentarily against the image before he forced his gaze back onto the mutilated face. Forced himself to look at it. It was water-bleached but well enough preserved that Kent could tell he’d been young, barely a man, when he’d had his face ripped open and his body tossed aside to rot.
He sucked in a sharp breath, reaching out cautiously to take a tight grip of the linen sheet covering him. With his teeth clenched, Kent gingerly drew the sheet down a little, just until the prongs of Llewellyn’s Y-shaped incision met at the sternum. The chest area was littered with a series of shallow slashes, with some deeper stab wounds digging deeply through the flesh.
He’d probably died during his attack. Before they’d dumped his body in the river. He could see why they wanted to keep this case to themselves, how eerily similar it could be to Dan Street’s case except that it wasn’t. At least Dan’s death had been a choice.
This. This had been an attack. And not even one they’d let him walk away from. He hadn’t been given a choice, a chance. He’d just had his face disfigured and his body mutilated, and then he’d been thrown away. As if he meant nothing.
Kent shuddered, dropping the sheet.
He could hear a shallow gasping sound and was peripherally surprised to find the noise was coming from himself. He stumbled back, a violent shiver wracking his body and he closed his eyes, desperately sucking in breath after breath as he clenched his hands into fists, blunt fingernails digging into nothing and he could feel the sort of hot-cold sweat that came as a prelude to a panic attack begin to wash over him.
“No,” he breathed, clenching his teeth, fingers scrabbling desperately for the elastic he wore around his wrist. He pulled it taunt, let it loose with a snap! and a hiss, the sting of it hitting against the thin skin of his wrist enough of a shock to stall the bubbling panic.
He scrabbled again for it, snapping it hard, harder, and harder still, until his wrist was red-raw but his breathing was less gasping for breath and more gasping at the repeated sting of pain until even that lessened and he was left numb and breathless.
He stood there another moment, hand cupped over his wrist, fingers squeezing against the throb and waiting desperately for his heart and his breathing to return to a normal level.
The sound of the door sliding open made him tense, but the sound of Chandler’s voice calling his name had him flinching away, dropping his eyes to the floor as the guilt and the shame washed over him.
“Llewellyn told me you were in here,” Chandler said, softly, carefully approaching him from the side. “Why are you down here, Emerson?”
Kent swallowed bile, briefly flicking his eyes over towards Chandler. He tried for a smile but it slipped too-easily from his face. Chandler was watching him, his expression almost unnaturally controlled- no frown, no smile, no unconscious twist to his mouth that had always worked as a tell to how he was feeling.
“I’m sorry,” he said, choking on the words. “I had to-,” he sucked in a breath, then another. His heart was still throbbing against his ribcage. “I had to know if I could-,” he shook his head, hunching in on himself and Chandler stepped in further still.
“If you could handle it?” Chandler finished and Kent began to nod before shaking his head.
“I was wrong.” He admitted, voice hitching. “I’m so sorry. I should have known- I’m not ready. What if I’m never ready? What if I can never deal with this again?”
He tried to snap the elastic once more, but not even the snap! of it served to help this time.
He startled at the feel of cool fingers touching first at his hand, then his wrist; the touch a relief against the burn of his skin. He heard Chandler hiss and he looked down to see the redness, the almost rawness, the way the skin looked as though it were beginning to welt up.
Chandler cursed and Kent was maybe more startled by that than by what he’d managed to do to himself. He let himself be led by hand towards the sinks, let Chandler guide his wrist under the cold flow of tap water and held it there, listening to the splatter of the water in an otherwise heavy silence.
“Why didn’t you come to me?” Chandler asked him, fingers tightening against his own.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked instead, eyes still downcast. “You didn’t think I was ready, did you?” he smiled bitterly. “You were right, I guess. Not much use to you, am I?”
“Damnit, Emerson,” Chandler reached out, tipping his face up. “I’m sorry I kept this from you, but it wasn’t because I didn’t think you were ready. I didn’t want to push you into this on your first week back. I thought it would be too much after what happened-,”
“I said you were right!” He snapped, pulling his face back, tugging his hand from Chandler’s hold. He grabbed almost angrily for the paper towels, slapping them against his skin.
He heard Chandler inhale deeply. “I know it feels as if you’ve failed something here but you haven’t. This isn’t a test, Emerson. You’re allowed to react to this.”
“What use am I as a detective if I can’t even look at a body?” he spat, clinging to the anger so that he didn’t lose himself in the despair. Chandler might not see this as a test, but it was. And it was the most important one of all so far as his career was concerned.
“It’s not about you being able to look at a body,” Chandler pressed on, his tone of voice bordering on frustration. “It was about you looking at these particular bodies. After your last case we didn’t want to throw you in at the deep end and expect you to not react like this. I was the same when I saw my first body- do you remember? And Miles too- after his stabbing-,”
“And me after Dan Street, but this isn’t Dan!” he hissed. “I’ve been standing here reciting all the ways that this is not like Dan Street’s case, how it doesn’t have anything to do with him or me or anything. And I still can’t-,” his eyes moved past Chandler, to the body laid out upon the table. “I can’t-” his voice hitched.
“You’ll get there, Emerson.” Chandler said, voice so serious, so confident Kent could have cried. Chandler reached for him once more, hands holding tightly to his upper arms. “We’ll get there.”
“I want to see the rest of them.” He said then, feeling the twitch of Chandler’s fingers.
“What? Kent-,” and it was back to that now, was it? Kent straightened, pulling himself away from Chandler’s reach.
“I want to see the rest of them. The bodies. You said there were more.” He stood tall, defiant, chin up and stubborn, but inside he was shaking. Scared.
“I’m not playing the victim anymore.” He said when Chandler didn’t immediately move. It wasn’t quite a question but he felt as though he were asking one as Chandler stared at him, serious and considering.
The minutes dragged on before Chandler spoke. “A compromise,” he began and Kent opened his mouth to immediately protest.
Chandler held up a hand, stalling him.
“You’re on the case,” he said. “I’ll let you read the files, get yourself up to date on everything we have so far. You can help me put the boards back together, see the photographs. And if, at the end of today, you think you’re up to it- and don’t just say you are to prove something because you won’t be helping either of us-,” Kent winced, averting his gaze, “-I’ll bring you back here and walk you through them
“How- how many are there?” he asked, swallowing against the click of his throat.
“Four,” Chandler answered. “Three male and one female.”
Kent swallowed again, eyes creeping back towards the body on the table, unable to stop himself. “And what’s his name?”
Chandler looked over at the body, his mouth thinning. “His name is Daniel-,” Kent felt his heart stop.
“Daniel Smith” Chandler finished.
And Kent pressed his fingers against his eyes, giving himself a moment before he looked up again, blinking away the monochrome spots dancing before them as he made his way back over towards the body. Gingerly, he reached out, fingers pinching at the sheet before drawing it back up and over the body, just the way he found him.
“You’re not him,” he whispered. “You’re not Dan Street. And neither am I.”
- - -
He heard the others arrive before he saw them, heard their morning chatter abruptly cut off as they stepped into the Incident Room to find him putting together the boards; case files spread along the desks beside him as he read up on each of the four victims.
“What-,” Mansell bit off, gingerly edging towards him. “What’re you doing, Kent?”
Kent offered him a lopsided sort of smile. “You guys aren’t exactly subtle,” he said, looking down at the folder he held before turning his gaze back to the board and scrawling the victim’s name (Victoria Parker) and date of birth (11/07/87) beneath the picture of a smiling, red haired, brown-eyed girl.
Beside that picture was the one they’d taken of her right before the autopsy: she too had been cut from the mouth, each side, but this time the cuts were more jagged, as if the blade had been sawed back and forth from the corners of her mouth up towards her ears.
He heard the crumpling of paper and forced himself to loosen the vice like grip he had of the folder. He could feel Mansell’s anxious stare against the side of his head, could almost taste his indecision over what to do.
“Where did you get these, Emerson?” Riley asked then, her voice a little more subdued than he was used to hearing.
“From the pile on Chandler’s desk.” Kent said offhandedly before he frowned. “Whose idea was it to start looking into a historical precedent for these murders?”
He looked up to find Mansell and Riley sharing a worried look. “Does… does he know you have these?”
“Does who know you have what?” Miles asked stepping into the room then. Like Mansell and Riley he too stopped, thrown at the sight of the boards and no doubt at the fact Kent was the one putting them together.
“What the hell is going on here?” he snapped, looking between the three of them.
“It wasn’t us, Skip!” Mansell defended. “We just got here.”
Riley nodded her agreement, her bottom lip caught nervously between her teeth.
“Where did you get them?” Miles demanded, staring at him and Kent frowned, a little bemused, a little intimidated by their reaction.
“From Chandler-,” he began but Miles stormed over to him and snatched the file from his hands.
“You had no right going in there and taking these!” he snapped and Kent straightened defensively.
“I didn’t take anything I wasn’t given permission to!” he answered, voice rising, cheeks flushing at the insinuation
“You expect me to believe that?” Miles shot back. “What, you just walked in this morning and he thought you were ready for this? You’ve barely been back a week yet.”
Kent could feel his heartbeat accelerating, could feel the way his chest tightened at Miles’ words. Did he really think he was ready for this? He grit his teeth together.
“How are we ever supposed to know if I’m ready for this if you keep hiding it away from me?” he threw out, clawing his fingers into his arms. “You think I didn’t know you were working on something from day one? Think I’d just play pretend that I couldn’t see you all lying to me?”
“We were trying to protect you!” Miles barked.
“You were trying to protect yourselves!” he snapped. Miles looked as taken aback by his words and Kent felt for saying them. He’d meant to say he didn’t need protecting, that he could look after himself, but somehow the words got lost and tangled on the way out. He bit at the insides of his mouth, swallowed back the coppery taste of bile.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Miles asked and Kent swallowed again, half looking away. He wanted to answer, wanted to tell Miles that they’d all been too worried about what could happen to him that they’d all completely ignored what was happening to him. How he’d been made to feel unwanted, like some kind of leper, a burden to be babysat every time a fresh lead was called in.
He wanted to tell them that if he wasn’t ready to be back, he wouldn’t be. That if Chandler hadn’t though the was ready, he wouldn’t have signed him off. That if he couldn’t handle it, he’d let them know.
But he didn’t. Because, again, they’d been here before. And maybe they were right, maybe he wasn’t ready to be back. Maybe he wasn’t ready for these types of cases. If he let himself, he could still feel the throb of his wrist, a pulsating reminder of what had happened to him down in the autopsy room.
“Morning,” Chandler’s voice echoed around the room as he stepped inside, a tray holding two coffees in one hand. He took a moment to survey the tense standoff before he moved towards them, laying the tray on the desk beside Kent. “Is there a problem?”
Kent shook his head even as Miles opened his mouth to snap out that “Yes, there bloody well is a problem!”
And things sort of went downhill from there with Chandler pulling Miles into his office for another half-heard shouting match, but not before Chandler plucked the file Miles had snatched from him and deliberately given it back to Kent.
Riley moved in beside him once the door shut behind them. “Where have you got to?” She asked, shucking her coat with a sympathetic smile. “Lets see if we can’t get you caught up before they’re done in there, yeah?”
Kent offered her a shaky smile. “Just started on victim number two,” he nodded towards the info he’d just been writing on the board and they went from there. He got the highlights of all four victims, the timeline, the theories, and a brief history on knife attacks and the infamous Chelsea smile from the pair of them over the course of the day.
Sometime between victims two and three, Miles and Chandler came out of his office, neither of them looked particularly happy but as nothing was said again on the matter of him being included on the case Kent decided to bite his tongue and just take dictation for the rest of the day, only chiming in every now and then to clarify on certain details.
He was a little more quiet and subdued than he had been at the beginning of the week but no one called him on it. He tried not to withdraw too much, tried to keep offering reassuring smiles, tried to stay included even in the face of Miles’ disproval, but the longer the day went on the harder it became to pretend that this wasn’t affecting him.
He didn’t feel panicked in the same way he had at seeing Daniel Smith’s body, but there was a bubbling discontent sitting just below his skin, leaving him feeling on edge, too tense, too aware.
By the time the end of the working day came around, with Chandler pulling him aside and asking him if he thought he was up for returning to the morgue, Kent actually had to take a minute to think about it.
He glanced back at their murder boards, at the four photos, their victims all cut up with varying degrees of severity and he’d shaken his head. Seeing those photos make him feel shaken and nauseous enough as it was and he couldn’t imagine what his reaction to seeing their lifeless bodies up close would be.
Probably something quite similar to the way he’d reacted at seeing Dan’s had been.
Not Dan. Daniel. Daniel Smith.
He shook his head again, clenching his eyes shut and knuckling into them.
“Not tonight,” he breathed out.
Chandler touched at his shoulder, squeezing. “Let’s go home.” He said and Kent blinked at him, touched at more than just the fact Chandler wasn’t pushing him or making him feel inadequate for not being up to it. Because when Chandler said home, what he meant was for the both of them to go back to his apartment, and it made Kent feel warm and wanted to know that Chandler felt that way about him being there.
They managed dinner that night, some idle talking, neither of them bringing up work or the case or what had happened to Kent that very morning, and Kent was grateful. He knew he’d have to articulate how he was feeling at some point, knew he’d have to properly process and accept everything he’d seen today, but tonight was not the time to do it.
All he wanted was a chance to forget about it. To dance this dance of domesticity with Chandler and pretend that he was as alright as he claimed to be. Denial was always easier when he let himself get lost in Chandler’s arms, curled up in Chandler’s bed.
He didn’t even think about it when Chandler turned off the bedside lamp and reached for him, just let himself be manoeuvred onto his side. It wasn’t until Chandler shifted up behind him that he reacted, his entire body flinching as he twisted away, heart thundering, eyes wide with panic.
“Hey, hey you’re okay,” Chandler pulled away entirely, pushing up onto his elbow to give Kent some space.
Kent sat up, covering his face with his hands as he curled his legs up to his chest, more embarrassed than afraid. He hadn’t forgotten where he was, not entirely, nor whom he was with, but even that wasn’t enough to stave his instinctual reaction to someone being too close to that part of him.
“Sorry,” he muttered after a while, heart palpitating wildly. “My fault, I should have realised…”
“No ones fault,” Chandler reassured him and Kent dropped his hands, looking over at him.
“I didn’t mean to freak out,” he said, pressing his lips tightly together.
“It’s okay,” Chandler said, reaching over to lift the covers a little. Kent slid slowly back down into bed, turning to face Chandler this time. He sighed into the soft kiss Chandler pressed to his lips, shivering as he drew him in once more until Kent’s head rested on his chest and Chandler’s arms were wrapped around him, his hands well above waist level.
Kent turned his head a little, pressing his mouth to Chandler’s chest. “Thank you for understanding,” he whispered.
Chandler tightened his grip fractionally. “What is it you’re afraid of?” he whispered back, beginning to card a hand through Kent’s hair.
Kent tried to suppress a shiver at his words, feeling his eyes prickle a little.
- - -
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