He didn’t hadn’t minded the explosion, at first.
No, when Clive made his way home from school that day, his head was filled with nothing but excitement. He'd made new friends at school earlier, and they’d spent the afternoon running through small stores and alleyways. He’d even used the bit of the money his parents gave him to buy a new hat. Clive was all too excited to show them.
So excited that when a rumble shook the earth beneath him, he merely brushed it off. It was probably nothing, he mused, because when you’re twelve, seemingly nothing could ruin a good day.
Except, maybe, the stench of smoke that had begun to fill the air.
Clive only froze for a second before bolting down the street. Everything is fine , he thought, he hoped. He turned one corner, then another, going as fast as his small feet could carry him.
They’re fine , he insisted, even as he landed on his block, with smoke so thick his eyes began to water. They’re fine, they’re fine. There was a large fire burning from the building next to his- he never did remember its name, though it hardly mattered now as he watched it crumble further, chunks of debris falling onto the collapsed heap of rubble he used to call home.
They have to be fine.
Tears stung at his eyes as he charged forward, smoke and heat be damned, ready to throw himself into the fiery mess. He'd almost made it, but before he could reach the sidewalk, a strong pair of arms lifted him up. Clive screamed in protest as he was whisked away far from the complex, his cries battling with the sirens that wailed in the distance. But no matter how much he kicked and screamed, the stranger didn’t let him down until they were a good distance from the wreckage.
“Let me go!” he yelled. “My parents are still in there! I have to go! I-”
He was cut off by a firm hands gripping his shoulders, shaking him hard. Clive finally looked up to see the stranger who stood in his way. He'd laugh, if the situation wasn’t so bleak.
The man was dressed almost comically, a large black coat draped over a bright red suit. A tall top hat was perched on his head. Though as funny Clive thought he looked, the man fixed him with a stern expression.
“You can’t go in there,” the man told him. “You’ll die too!”
Clive tried to shake him off, but his grip was firm. “I don’t c-care! I have to save them-!”
“You can’t! ”
The boy blinked. The strange hatted man began to shake, and Clive noticed there were tears in his eyes as well.
“Listen to me,” the stranger continued, “I know how you feel. But it’s too dangerous. Believe me when I say that right now, the best thing we can do is stay put.”
The man held him closer; to keep Clive from running or for his own comfort, it was hard to tell. Clive buried his face in the black coat, cries wracking his body.
When Clive didn’t seem to try and run anymore, the man loosened his hold, moving one of his hands to his coat pockets, going over something inside, though he never removed it. Police and firemen swarmed the area while Clive and the stranger sat on the sidewalk for what felt like hours.
When the fire had died down and ambulances sped away, an officer approached the duo. The man straightened himself and tried to shake the officer’s hand, though tears still continued to slide down his cheeks.
“Well, what’re you folks sittin’ out here for?” the policeman asked, despite the answer being glaringly obvious. “Are you lookin’ for anyone that might’ve been in that mess?”
“Claire Foley!” the man blurted out. “I- I mean yes. My… girlfriend. She worked in the lab. Her- Her name is Claire Foley. Is she- Have you heard anything-”
The officer held up his hand. “Slow down, buddy.” He pulled a notepad from his pocket and flipped through it. “Foley, Foley… Ah!”
“What is it?” The top hatted man seemed ready to jump at him. His hand rummaged around in his pocket again.
“Miss Foley had been admitted to the general hospital, three blocks down. She survived, but her injuries- sir!”
The officer was cut off as the man gave a quick tip of his hat to him, then to Clive, and bolted away. The thing he held in his pocket tumbled to the ground, forgotten as he made a mad dash down the road. Clive picked the little box up in his daze, sticking it in his own pocket for later.
The policeman rubbed at his forehead. “Well, alright then. And what about you?” He bent down to Clive’s eye level. “Was that man your father?”
Clive shook his head. The officer’s eyebrows shot up.
“Well, did you know anyone who lived around there?” He pointed at Clive’s apartment complex, which now looked more like a smoking trash heap than a building. The boy’s mouth went dry.
“My… My parents.” he managed.
“Parents, huh..” The officer shifted his gaze. “Say, what’s your name, kid?”
“Clive. Clive Dove.”
“Dove… Dove...” The officer flipped through his notepad again, falling silent. His brows furrowed. He returned the notepad to his pocket and stood up, offering a hand to the boy. “Alright, kid, how 'bout you come with me for a sec, okay?”
Clive didn’t think he had a say in the matter.
The first thing Claire felt was pain.
It flared from all over her body, most prominently from the side of her head. She tried to open her eyes, but found that making any movement was difficult. All she could manage was a little wiggle of her fingers.
It’s a start , she told herself. She tried to move her hands again, and found that she could move her arm, at least a bit. Next she tried her legs, but froze in terror when she realized she couldn’t feel them.
What kind of nightmare is this ? she thought. Nightmare, Nightmare… Wait. What am I waking up from?
Claire forced her eyes open with a loud groan, but quickly shut them again when white light flooded her vision, hands gripping at the bedsheets. Why am I in a bed?
Her eyes shot open again, startled by the sudden noise. Her panic subsided a bit when she realized who was with her. When her vision cleared, she saw her sweetheart next to her, worry lacing his features.
“Claire, can you hear me?”
“Hersh…” Her mouth was dry, but forced herself to speak. “Hershel!”
Hershel’s shoulders began to shake as he gingerly took her hand in his. She could see that he was crying. Guilt began to cloud over her confusion.
“Y-You’re awake,” he sniffled. “You’re actually…”
“Of course I am, silly.” Claire tried to give him a reassuring smile. “We still… have to go to dinner together, remember?”
Hershel only sobbed harder, and Claire was afraid she’d said something wrong. “Hershel?” she prodded.
“They said… The doctors. Th-They said, with your injuries, you m-might not…” he stuttered. “They said y-you might not make it.”
The scientist frowned. She tried to sit up, but pain flared through her body again.
“Claire!” Hershel stood up in a panic, gently holding her down. “Don’t overexert yourself, your injuries-”
“Hershel, what happened!?” Claire's eyes darted around the room. Everything was a starchy white, the smell of disinfectant reeking in the air. Her heart pounded as she found herself hooked up to a few machines.
Her boyfriend’s expression softened again, his eyes starting to glaze over. “Your laboratory…” he said, almost in a whisper.
All at once, the fight drained out from Claire’s body. “Hershel?” she asked again.
“You said you were going to perform an important experiment at the laboratory, yesterday. You l-left, then you got hurt. I let you go. I shouldn't have let you go.”
Talking about it clearly pained him. He wasn’t even speaking as clearly as he usually did. But Claire needed answers, so she pressed further.
“What happened after I left?”
Hershel stiffened, hesitant to speak. His mouth was pressed into a thin line, like he didn’t intend to continue.
“Please,” Claire pleaded. “I need to know.”
The professor looked away. “Your colleague explained things a bit, before h-he left for the night.” Claire figured he was talking about Dimitri. “You were testing a time machine, but the calculations were off. He- He said you were the test subject, but the machine-” Hershel was talking too fast now- “It exploded , you were still inside, they’d found you in the rubble but you weren’t moving and... and…!”
Claire gave his hand a squeeze, cutting him off. Yes, she remembered now- hearing the machine whirr around her, everything growing too loud, too bright, too hot all at once then-
She blinked hard, pushing the memory from her mind. It hurt to think about it, so she’d focused her gaze on Hershel again. His eyes were shut tight now, breath shaky and uneven. Claire squeezed his hand once more.
“Hey…” she said. “Hershel, look at me.”
“I shouldn’t have let you go…” he sobbed.
“It’s not your fault.”
Hershel shook his head. “I shouldn’t have let you go,” he repeated. “I shouldn’t have let…”
Claire's frown deepened. She’d seen the man babble like this before, shaking in his sleep, sobbing from nightmares he didn’t think she’d heard. Whenever she tried to approach the topic, he’d shut himself off from everyone.
She’d always meant to find out what was troubling her boyfriend so much. It hurt her to see him like this, more than anything. Now wasn’t the time, though, so she settled for brushing her bandaged fingers over his.
“Hershel,” Claire said, tugging at his hand to get his attention. Hershel finally looked back up at her, eyes watery. “It’s not your fault. I’m alive, okay? I’m here.” She offered him a smile.
Hershel nodded, pressing her hand to his face. Claire rubbed his cheek with her thumb. “I’m here,” she repeated, both to reassure herself and her boyfriend.
The professor made a noise that sounded like both a choked laugh and a sob. “Forgive me,” he said, his frown growing deeper. “I’m making a fuss while you’re the one in a hospital bed.”
Claire shushed him. “Don’t apologize for being upset, Hershel.” Her hand playfully flicked at the brim of his top hat. I can’t believe he’s still wearing it.
He gave her a dry laugh. “You still won’t let me apologize for anything, will you?”
Claire’s heart fluttered at the small smile that creeped onto Hershel’s face. “Actually, you’re wrong,” she teased. The professor tilted his head. “I believe you’ve forgotten to alert the nurse that I’ve woken up. I’m a bit parched, you know.”
Hershel flushed and quickly stood from his chair. “I- That’s right, I’m-” he stammered. Claire giggled. “I’m terribly sorry! Wait right here- although you don’t really have a choice, do you-”
“Hershel,” she laughed. It was always adorable, getting him flustered like this. “The nurse?”
“Right!” He tipped his hat. “I’ll be right back, don’t worry!” Hershel rushed out of the room, leaving Claire to lie alone with her thoughts.
Now that her boyfriend had left, it was harder to distract herself from the pain that ached through her body. She shut her eyes again, trying to force the memories of the explosion out of her mind. Hershel would be back soon enough. She didn’t need to start panicking before then.
Claire tried to make herself focus on the memory of Hershel's cheeks beneath her hands. She'll be strong, for him.
“I’m here,” she repeated, now just for herself. “I’m okay. We’ll be okay.”
Hershel was exhausted by the time he'd made it to the hospital’s cafeteria. The doctors had instructed him to give Claire space while they ran a few tests, so he figured he’d occupy his time during the wait.
It occurred to him that he hadn’t eaten since Claire had been admitted the day before. He was mind was too consumed by dread to notice that it was now early morning and he hadn’t so much as moved from the chair at her bedside.
Perhaps she’d make fun of him being a worrywart again later, but it didn't matter now, she was still here. He doesn’t know what he’d do if he had to lose someone all over again…
Hershel was quickly shaken out of his thoughts. The lunchlady was shooting him a bemused expression. “You’re holding up the line, sir.”
The professor flushed, quickly thanking the woman and taking his meal away. Thank goodness nobody he knew was here right now. With his new profession, he couldn’t afford to let anyone see him so off his game.
He scanned the cafeteria, briefly considering sitting at an empty table- he couldn’t handle much social interaction, for now- when his eyes landed on a familiar blue cap. Right, he’d left that poor boy with the police officer. Did that mean his parents made it to the hospital, as well?
Hershel gingerly set his tray down next to where the boy sat, silently asking for permission. He didn’t look back up at him, but the man took his seat anyway.
“Forgive my rudeness,” the professor said, “I wasn’t able to properly introduce myself, yesterday.” He extended his hand. “My name is Professor Hershel Layton.”
The boy didn’t acknowledge him. He continued to glare holes into the table, fiddling with something in his pocket. Hershel slowly lowered his hand.
“The circumstances of our meeting were rather, er, unfortunate,” he continued. “But I’m glad to see that you’re alright.”
The boy raised an eyebrow at him. Hershel coughed. “Right, a hospital isn’t the best place to meet, either,” he said. “I apologize. I thought you might appreciate some company, given the circumstances.”
The child looked like he was about to protest when a faint gurgle cut through the silence. He glared at his stomach, as if making the noise had betrayed him.
“Oh dear,” Hershel said. “My boy, have you had your breakfast yet?” The boy slowly shook his head. Layton tutted. “Now that just won’t do. Here,” He slid his sandwich across the table. “You can take mine.”
“Then what will you eat?” Well, at least he was talking.
“I can always buy another. It’s no problem.” He hoped his smile was reassuring. The boy looked at him for a second before attacking his meal.
Hershel chuckled, then excused himself to go purchase another two sandwiches. The boy didn’t seem to have money to buy meals for himself right now. The professor frowned, wondering what state the child’s parents must be in.
By the time he'd returned to their table, the boy was picking at the remains on his plate. Hershel slid over the extra sandwich and a carton of juice. He was rewarded with a questioning look.
“Don’t worry about it,” Hershel assured him. “You may save it for later, if you’d like…”
The boy straightened a bit, then gingerly offered his hand. “Clive. Clive Dove,” he said.
“Well, you may save it for later then, Clive.” Hershel smiled and took his hand. “It’s my pleasure to meet you. Me and my girlfriend are staying over at room 143. If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”
Clive slowly nodded and returned to his meal. The boy looked exhausted, though Hershel guessed he’d looked pretty haggard himself. “My parents are in room 114. The doctors said I shouldn’t stay in there too long.”
Hershel raised an eyebrow. “I don’t mean to pry, but why shouldn’t you..?”
Clive frowned. “They said a kid like me shouldn’t have to see my parents like that.” He didn’t elaborate, but Hershel could guess what he meant. “Especially because they might not wake up.”
Hershel furrowed his brows. It must be awful for Clive to deal with this, but what was he doing here alone?
“Don’t you have any relatives you could stay with?” the professor asked. Clive shook his head.
“My grandmother passed away last year. I'm not related to anyone else in the city.”
Hershel didn’t know what to say. He returned to his own meal. “Well, as I said, me and Claire are staying down the hall, should you need anything. I doubt we’ll be leaving any time soon.” Clive nodded, but didn’t respond. Hershel couldn’t blame him. He turned back to his tray, forcing himself to keep his thoughts light. Perhaps he could use a distraction...
A few minutes passed in silence before Clive finally spoke up again. “Mr. Layton,” he said. “Why haven’t you touched your meal?”
“Hm? Oh,” Hershel looked up from his tray. “You see, this sandwich is shaped rather oddly, wouldn’t you say? It reminded me of a puzzle.”
Clive shot him a look. “You’re an odd man, Mr. Layton.”
Hershel chucked. “Yes, so I’ve been told.” He slid his plate over to the boy. “Here, I’m a bit stumped. Why don’t you give it a try? See if you can divide this into seven equally shaped parts.”
Clive gave him another questioning look, but obliged anyway. Only a minute passed before he picked up a toothpick and began tracing lines over the bread. “How about this?”
“Excellent work, my boy!” Hershel’s eyes lit up. “You’re rather talented with puzzles, aren’t you?” Clive chucked as well, and Hershel was relieved to see a smile on the boy’s face.
The moment was broken when a nurse approached Hershel, tapping him on the shoulder. “The doctors said you may see Ms. Foley again,” he said.
The professor nodded. “Thank you, sir.” He tipped his hat to the nurse, then to Clive. “Forgive me for leaving you so suddenly, but I wouldn’t want to leave her alone. Will you be alright, Clive?”
The boy nodded. Hershel picked up his sandwich and stood up. “Remember, we’re just down the hall from you if you need anything. Room 143.” Clive gave him a timid smile as he made his way out the door.
Claire was sitting up in bed when he entered the room. Her face looked troubled, but she smiled as Hershel took his seat next to her, holding her hand. “How are you feeling, love?” he asked, giving her a kiss on the forehead.
“Like I’ve been in a time machine explosion,” she grumbled. “Can you believe they won’t let me out for another two weeks?”
“It’ll fly by before you know it, dear.” Claire grumbled again. “I’ll call your colleagues to visit, if you’d like.”
The scientist’s eyes lit up at that. “Oh, do let Dimitri know that I’m alright, would you? The poor man must be worried sick.” Hershel smiled. It always reassured him to know she had good friends at work.
“I believe he may be busy with the mess with the lab, but I’ll let him know.”
“Mess?” Claire asked. Hershel stiffened. “Hershel,” she spoke slowly. “What happened to the lab?”
Hershel tried to look away, but Claire gripped his hand harder. “Tell me,” she insisted, her big brown eyes looking pleadingly into his. He hesitated, knowing Claire didn't need the stress, but he’d never been good at saying no to her.
“Your entire laboratory had collapsed,” he conceded. “It was a miracle you’d survived, with all that damage.” Then there were the apartments taken as collateral damage, but she didn’t need to know that. Not right now.
Still, tears began to flood Claire’s eyes. Hershel panicked, taking both her hands in his. “Don’t cry,” he hushed her. “You’re alright.”
“But what if someone else got hurt!” she cried. Hershel winced, and Claire noticed. “Oh, god, Hershel, did…”
He shushed her again. “It’s alright, dear. It's not your fault.”
“How many people-!”
“You don’t need to-”
“For God’s sake Hershel, don’t keep things from me!” She glared at him. Hershel felt his heart plummet, and he stared down at his hands. He didn’t want to hurt her, but he could understand her frustration.
Claire’s face softened when she saw tears in Hershel’s eyes as well. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to yell at you, I just...”
“It’s alright,” He gave her a reassuring smile. “I’m sorry. I just don’t want to upset you any more.”
“I’m more upset with being kept in the dark, Hersh,” she said. He gripped her hands tighter.
“I understand,” he said. “How about this. Once you’re cleared from here, I’ll look into it with you.”
Claire sighed, leaning back into the bed. “I think I can live with that.”
Hershel smiled. “Every puzzle has an answer.” She gave him a smile back, her eyelids beginning to droop. “Now, you should rest. All those tests must have been tiring.”
“But I want to stay with you,” Claire protested.
“I’ll be here when you wake up. Don’t worry.” Hershel leaned over and gave her a light peck on the lips. “I’m not leaving your side again.”
The next two weeks did fly by, as Hershel said. Claire was exhausted from the all the physical therapy they had her do, and spent most of the time asleep. Hershel paid no mind. He stayed at her bedside, keeping her entertained with puzzles and his studies. Claire had chastised him for taking the entire semester off, but he’d insisted that this was far more important.
Dimitri often passed by at night after work, but he could never stay very long, with all the cleaning up he’d had to deal with. Oddly enough, they’d heard nothing from Hawkes, but the three decided to deal with that once Claire was recovered enough to leave.
Clive visited them once a day, though he didn’t speak much at all, aside from Hershel asking if he'd like to eat or handing him the occasional puzzle. The couple couldn’t blame him.
Though on their last day, as Claire and Hershel were preparing to leave, Clive timidly entered their room, and finally gave them an update on his parent’s situation.
“They’re not going to wake up.”