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sometimes it takes a jolt

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The weird thing was, he was thinking about Rebecca when it happened.

While he’d been back in Kansas at the beginning of the summer they’d exchanged emails and texts and occasional phone calls, that started out talking about team stuff but slowly, gradually became more personal. He told her what he was doing with Henry; sent photos; even, haltingly, once told her about a fight he’d had with Michelle. She passed along greetings from Keeley on their nights out – even though Keeley was usually also texting him, in strings of emojis and candid photos of Rebecca taken when she wasn’t looking – updated him on her progress through the latest season of Bake Off; sent photos of Tina Feyhound.

It wasn’t until he returned to Richmond, and felt the same old distance settle in between them like an unwelcome third wheel, that he realized she hadn’t actually shared anything very personal.

And she still didn’t. They never went back to “girl talk” or any discussion of her personal life. He was pretty sure the . . . Sam thing was really over, but the awkwardness of it still sat there. Changing the air. She didn’t come down to the dressing room as much as she once had, and on the rare occasion that she joined a team celebration at the pub after a match, she hovered in a corner close to Roy and slipped out as soon as she could.

In a way it was like that first season, except that he wasn’t trying to win her over anymore. He was just trying to remember how to be friends, or to figure out how to erase the look of doubt on her face whenever they were together. As if she were always questioning if he was mad at her, or disappointed, or judging.

(Sam was a separate issue. On the pitch it was fine, on the pitch he was Sam. But whenever Ted thought of him in context of Rebecca, he was . . . Sam. The ellipses had become a part of his name.)

(Ted really wanted someone to tell him how to erase the ellipses, along with Rebecca’s fears.)

Anyway he happened to be dwelling on all that on his way home from dinner with an old college friend who’d moved to London, trying out lines in his head and wondering if any of them were the right thing to say to her, the right pep talk; when Sayid his Uber driver swore and did something, wrenched the wheel, and Ted looked up and saw the car speeding through the intersection right at them. It hit in what felt like slow-motion, and Ted was looking at the other driver slumped sideways against his window as the two cars spun together, an interlocked mass of metal, and finally came to a stop against the curb with a lamppost buried in the hood of the Uber.

Someone had screamed, or was screaming, but that was out on the sidewalk. The Uber was dented in pretty good on the passenger side, but luckily the ride had been a share and Alice who’d gotten out a few blocks back had been sitting on that side, so Ted was behind Sayid and he was fine. Or at least he felt fine.

“You okay?” he asked Sayid as he unbuckled his seatbelt.

The driver’s hands were clenched on the steering wheel and he was frozen, but he said, “Yes. I am all right.”

Ted was already opening his door. “There’s something wrong with that guy. I think he was passed out before he hit us.”

Ignoring the crowd that was gathering, he ran to the driver’s side of the other car, where the driver was slumped sideways in his seat. Despite the damage Ted was able to get the door open, and quickly determined that the man wasn’t breathing.

As he was unbuckling the seatbelt, another man came up beside him yelling, “Here! Leave him alone!”

Ted assessed the guy – wiry, but strong, about his own age – and said, “He’s not breathing, help me get his seat back.”

“Oh, I thought you were going to fight him. Sorry.” The other man reached into the car and fumbled for the seat controls. “You know what you’re doing?”

“I know enough to do CPR till the ambulance gets here,” Ted replied. “Anybody call one?”

“I think he did.” The man pointed and Ted followed his gaze to Sayid, standing next to his car on wobbly legs and talking into his phone.

“Hope he’s not just calling Uber,” Ted muttered as he crawled into the wheel well and started compressions. “I’m Ted,” he added while he could still use his breath for talking.

“Louis,” the other man replied.

“Thanks for your help, Louis.”

The time passed in a blur until he heard sirens, and then an EMT, or whatever they called them in England, was easing into the car and Ted was tipping himself into the passenger seat and letting the experts take over while he blurted out what he’d seen, that the man was more likely to be suffering from a heart attack or a stroke than a concussion.

When he’d climbed out of the car, the gathered crowd had grown and there were police officers waiting to talk to him. But they were quickly distracted by the plight of the unconscious driver, and as he was being loaded into an ambulance the officer in charge briskly suggested Ted come along to the hospital to be looked over – he almost protested, till he remembered it was probably free – and answer questions there after the crisis had passed. Once he made sure Sayid was getting checked out, too, he let DC Varma and her partner (“Bill”) give him a ride.

The other driver was being whisked off on a stretcher when they got inside, and the ER (A&E, maybe, like the TV station?) was chaotic with other injuries and illnesses and families accompanying their loved ones. It was Thursday evening; Chelsea was getting an early start on the weekend.

(At least he thought he was still in Chelsea. His Greater London geography still wasn’t that great, and that’s when he wasn’t being driven around in a police car.)

Michelle called while he was waiting, to tell him the plans for him to FaceTime into Henry’s parent-teacher night, and he gave her the barebones, no-drama version of the incident to explain why she could hear hospital announcements over a loudspeaker in the background of the call. Henry got on to tell him about soccer practice, and that passed the time.

In the end, a doctor looked him over while he sat on a plastic chair in a hallway. Shortly after he was pronounced sound, and after he’d politely interrupted instructions about heat and ice and paracetamol with the information that he was a professional coach with a wealth of experience in soft tissue injury and access to a physiotherapy staff of his own, DC Varma reappeared with the information that the other driver did indeed seem to have suffered a cardiac event and was being taken into “theater”. Luckily, Ted had developed a taste for British medical dramas so he understood what that meant.

“You may have saved his life,” she told him. “If you’re all right waiting another few minutes, I can take your information.”

With a quick thought sent up to the heavens, or wherever, for the driver going into surgery, Ted wandered back out to the waiting room to . . . wait. And saw one of the last people he expected to see in an emergency room in Chelsea.

Rebecca. Alone, looking as though she’d just come in. Looking, for Rebecca, terrible. Face pale, hair pulled into a sloppy ponytail, coat unbuttoned and half off her shoulders, shirt rumpled, shoes on but no socks. And then she saw Ted, and their eyes met, and she stared.

“Rebecca?” Ted called, weaving his way around the warren of chairs. She wasn’t bleeding, and she wasn’t limping, and she was standing up and breathing. Was she sick? Something sprained or bruised or broken that he couldn’t tell? And what was she doing in Chelsea? He suddenly wondered if she was still on any of those apps, was she meeting strangers from the internet? The idea that someone might have hurt her turned his blood to ice water.

“You okay?” he asked, trying to control his voice. “Something happen?”

She was still staring, not saying a word, and then suddenly she covered the distance between them and launched herself at him, arms tight around his neck.

“Okay,” he said automatically, arms going around her by reflex. It felt natural even though they didn’t do this, they hadn’t done this since he’d hugged her goodnight on Christmas last year. Since then, even when they’d won matches, won promotion –

– when her father had died –

– they just didn’t.

Distance.

But she was clinging to him now, and he was just saying whatever came naturally. “Okay. Okay. It’s gonna be okay. What happened?”

Instead of answering, she turned her face into his neck and held on even tighter. He could hear her deep and shaky inhale, as if she were trying not to cry.

Ted took a deep breath himself, drawing in the smell of her hair and the clean laundry aroma of her shirt, and repeated, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” He swallowed, and said, “The nurse was just here, should I get – do you need –?”

She shook her head, face still buried between his neck and his shoulder.

“Okay,” he said again, just trying not to panic. He’d never, not when she broke down confessing to him, not at her father’s funeral, never seen her like this. He ran his hands up and down her back, trying to think. “Then let’s – let’s sit down, okay?”

She let him lead her to a couple of chairs in a relatively isolated corner, and finally separated from him enough for them both to sit down. She was still pale, but her eyes were reddening. Not that she was looking at him; her gaze was focused somewhere past his knees. While he looked into her face with concern, she reached out, put a hand on his thigh, and said, “You’re here.”

She sounded in shock. Ted wrapped an arm around her shoulders again and said, “Yeah – yeah, I’m here, I’m right here. Can you tell me what happened? What’s wrong?”

She reached into the pocket of her coat and pulled out her phone, unlocking it with visibly shaking hands and swiping at something he couldn’t see. Then she handed it to him.

On the screen was a tweet showing a photo, taken from slightly above, of the twisted wreck of a car accident, but what Ted saw first was the headline: AFC RICHMOND MANAGER IN FATAL CRASH.

And then the caption under the photo: Casualties taken to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.

It took a second or two to sink in, and then all the air rushed out of his lungs.

“Oh, no. Rebecca.” He handed the phone back to her and watched her slip it into her pocket. “Is that why you’re here?”

She nodded, with another slow, shaky inhale, and he reached out and pulled her back into a tight embrace.

“Oh no, no,” he said, rubbing her back with one hand and cupping the back of her head with the other. “I’m fine, everything’s fine. I don’t think it was even fatal for anybody – the driver of the other car had a heart attack or something, that’s why he hit us, nobody’s fault, but he’s in surgery and I think he might be okay.” He felt her hand land on the back of his neck, pulling her closer into him. “I’m so sorry,” he said.

She nodded with a quiet sniffle.

“You’re really okay?” he checked, still holding her. “You just came here looking for me?”

Another nod.

He carefully pulled back so that he could look her in the eye. Hers were shining, and he was starting to feel not so dry-eyed himself. “I’m completely fine,” he promised. “Doctor looked at me and everything. I’m really only here because the police wanted to talk to me.”

She nodded again, her gaze dropping to their laps. Then she reached out with a sudden move and grabbed his forearm. “Oh God,” she said. “Everyone else. The team.”

Oh no. Of course. They’d have seen it, too.

“Keeley,” Rebecca said. “I was talking to her on my way over. She has a group chat, I think about all the players are in it.”

“I’ll call her,” Ted said, reaching for his pocket.

“No!” Rebecca’s hand tightened on his arm. “She’ll have a stroke if she sees your name. I’ll call her.” She took a steadying breath as she pulled her phone back out of her pocket and dialed. Ted could hear the ring, and a high, wordless, almost inhuman sound as Keeley answered. He bit his lip to contain the rush of guilt and sympathy and sadness.

“Keeley?” Rebecca said quickly. “Ted’s fine. He’s completely fine. He’s right here with me.”

Through the phone, Ted heard a sob.

“He’s really, properly fine,” Rebecca repeated. “Fucking Star got it wrong as usual.” She sniffled a little. “Here, I’ll put him on.”

Ted accepted the phone and said, “Keeley?”

“Oh my God, Ted,” she said, her voice thick.

“I’m so sorry everybody got scared like that,” he said. “But look, I’m completely fine, huh? You can ask Rebecca, not a mark on me.”

“Then why are you in hospital?”

“Just to get checked out. Honestly, I mostly rode along so I could answer the cops’ questions.”

“Thank God,” Keeley said, and then, in a clearer voice, “I’m going to fucking murder that reporter.”

“I’m not too pleased with him myself,” Ted said, a smile breaking through.

“I’m so glad you’re all right,” Keeley said. “And if you ever do this to us again, I’ll kill you.”

“Fair enough,” he said.

“I love you.”

His smile spreading, Ted replied, “I love you, too. I’m gonna put Rebecca back on, okay?”

Rebecca took the phone back and said, “Keeley? Can you make sure everyone else knows Ted’s all right? Your group chat – okay. Perfect. Thanks.”

Keeley’s tone had gone back to normal; Ted couldn’t make out what she was saying.

“Okay,” Rebecca said. “Okay. We will. Okay. Bye.” She ended the call and dropped her phone back into her coat pocket. “She’ll take care of it,” she said, and then her eyes widened. “You have to call Michelle. Or should I?”

“No, no, Michelle actually called a little while ago and I told her all about it, she knows I’m fine.” He was touched that she’d thought of it.

Rebecca nodded, and wrinkled her nose in a way Ted recognized – not from her, but from himself. It meant trying to hold tears back.

“C’mere,” he said, pulling her back into a hug. “C’mere. I’m so sorry you were scared.”

“I’m sorry,” she said into his shoulder. “You don’t need all this – histrionics.”

“Don’t apologize.”

She lifted her head and sat up away from him, not meeting his eyes, face flushing. “I threw myself at you like a maniac, Ted. I’m sorry, I’m done –”

“Hey now,” he said, his hand on her shoulder. “Maybe I wasn’t done.” He stroked his thumb gently against her skin, just over the line of her shirt. “One more minute?”

Looking both embarrassed and grateful, she leaned her head on his shoulder and let him wrap his arms around her.

“Everything all right?”

Ted looked up into the concerned and curious face of DC Varma. “It seems the reports of my death were greatly exaggerated,” he told her. “Go on, show her, boss.”

Rebecca, having straightened up while he was talking, offered her phone to the officer, who swore under her breath when she saw it. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wish we could stop them printing rubbish, but we can’t.” Handing Rebecca’s phone back to her, she said, “Is this an all right time for you to answer a few questions, Mr. Lasso?”

“Should I step away?” Rebecca asked.

“It’s not an interrogation,” DC Varma said with a smile. “Actually – Williams?” She looked over her shoulder, and a weedy young officer looked over in response. “I think maybe Ms. Welton could use a cup of tea. Lots of sugar.” She turned back to Ted and asked, “Mr. Lasso?”

“Oh no, I’m fine,” Ted said, suppressing his wince.

DC Varma sat down opposite Ted, notepad out. “All right then. Can you tell me which street your car was driving along before the incident?”

There was that gap in his London geography again. He leaned into Rebecca, who was sitting close enough that their knees touched. “Can I see that again?” She handed him her phone and he pinched open the photo of the crash until something looked familiar. “There,” he said, showing the officer. “That Nando’s was on the right. So, there.”

“And did you see what color the light was?”

“It was green. We got into the intersection and then Sayid swore –”

“That’s the driver?” DC Varma said, checking her notes. “You know him?”

“Only met when he picked me up,” Ted said.

“He knows everyone’s name,” Rebecca muttered.

“A useful skill,” DC Varma said.

Ted continued relating the events of the evening while the officer took notes, while someone handed Rebecca a paper cup and her shoulder shifted against his as she drank it, while the occasional other person in the waiting room started to notice them. When the police were finally finished with him, Rebecca stood and said, “I’m taking you home. I drove.”

With the state she’d been in, it was a wonder she hadn’t crashed herself on the way over.

They left the hospital with her arm around his waist, and drove the twenty minutes back across the river mostly in silence. She surprised him by parking when they reached his flat, and announced, “I’m coming in.”

“Okay,” he said, as if this were something they did all the time.

Once inside the flat, she asked, “Did they give you any instructions?”

“Ice. Paracetamol. Just in case, I really feel fine.”

Rebecca faced him with her hand on her hip, obviously not inclined to hear excuses. “You’re forty-six, you won’t feel fine tomorrow. Have you got ice packs?”

“I’ll get them,” he said, eyeing her standing there, tall and foreign in his space. “Want a cup of tea?”

She shook her head.

“Okay, well . . . have a seat.” He waved a hand at his thankfully clear couch. “Be right back.”

By the time he took a handful of paracetamol – because, why be a hero – and found an icepack that was intended to be strapped to a leg, Rebecca had found the Bake Off episode he’d been in the middle of. “You seen this one yet?” he asked. “They’re doing brandy snaps, which I thought were gonna be the same thing as gingerbread but apparently not.”

“Why gingerbread?” she asked, a flash of normal interest on her face.

He shrugged. “Because of ginger snaps? Which I guess aren’t the same as gingerbread, either.” He sat down close to her, and felt her settle against his shoulder as he started the episode.

An episode and a half later, Ted wasn’t much more enlightened about what milk bread was and Rebecca was asleep. It was nearly midnight. He thought about waking her, about sending her home? (probably not, not at this hour), or about sending her to his bed, which he definitely should have done and taken the couch himself; but he was starting to feel soreness creeping into his neck and back already despite the ice and he was frankly feeling selfish. Also, she was dead to the world and didn’t stir even when he gently extricated himself. So he laid her down carefully against a pillow, tugged her shoes off and lifted her feet onto the couch, and covered her with a blanket.

Her phone was lit with dozens of notifications she’d missed, most of which seemed to be from Keeley. From his own phone, Ted texted her – pausing for a moment to make sure he conveyed all the pertinent information at once, to avoid any misconceptions. Rebecca fell asleep on my couch. Think I’m going to leave her be, seems like she needs the rest.

Three dots appeared, and then Keeley replied I was asking if she’d seen these. Photos followed from Twitter, of Ted and Rebecca leaving the hospital with her arm around him.

Nice photos he replied.

You’ll probably get questions.

I’ll tell them your friends tend to get emotional when they think you’re dead.

Keeley replied with a thumbs-up.

Ted woke in the morning to a stiff neck and shoulders and the smell of coffee. Rebecca was in the kitchen looking a bit sheepish.

“Sorry for falling asleep,” she said.

He waved that off, and winced. “Rough day for everybody. You okay after a night on the couch?”

“Better than you, I think.” She grimaced in sympathy. “You should stay home today.”

“No, no – the boys have to see me. I’ll take it easy.”

He was hovering in her general vicinity, not sure how to behave or what to say, but she solved that by finishing the cup of coffee she was drinking and saying, “I’d better get home and change.”

“Yeah, okay.” He leaned against the counter beside her. “Thanks for coming to get me last night. For the company.”

“I know I’m the one who needed it, not you,” she said, briskly rinsing her cup. “Thank you for humoring me.”

“Hey, thank you for caring.”

“I wasn’t scared,” she said abruptly, setting her cup in the sink.

“No,” he said, remembering what he’d said to her in the hospital. “No, of course not. Didn’t mean to imply – ”

“I don’t mean that.” She looked up at him – which she just barely had to do, seeing as she was barefoot. “I mean, it wasn’t fear. It was . . . loss.” She shook her head, and didn’t seem able to say anything else.

Feeling like it was probably the last time he should do this before they went back to normal, Ted pulled her into a hug.

“I love you,” she said, quickly, stiltedly. It wasn’t anywhere near as casual or as comfortable as when Keeley said it, but then, Ted didn’t feel exactly the same about it as he did from Keeley either. And he could tell how important it was to her to say it. So he let himself say honestly, “I love you, too,” with his face against her hair, and didn’t overthink it.

If the distance that had grown between them was “normal”, then maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t go entirely back to normal.