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A Life Worth Living

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Kate’s starting to develop a serious aversion to the sound of her door opening because, at this rate, it feels like she’s never going to get a moment alone with Jo again. It’s only been ten minutes since her parents left and Jo’s spent most of that time tidying away crisp wrappers and coffee cups. They still haven’t had the opportunity to talk properly - not about the serious stuff - but Jo’s had this small little smile on her face ever since Kate’s parents hugged her goodbye and told her they were looking forward to seeing her tomorrow, and Kate’s not in any rush to burst her bubble.

She could deal with the interruption if it was Steve, because at least then she’d be able to stop fretting over what he couldn’t tell her in front of her parents and Josh, but when a junior nurse wheels a trolley stocked with flannels, wipes and a couple of washbasins over to her bed, Kate can’t hold back a sigh.

“Kate?” the nurse asks hesitantly, glancing at the chart at the foot of Kate’s bed, “My name’s Abby. I’m just going to check on your wound, get you cleaned up a bit and then pop on a fresh dressing for you.”

Abby’s so young, Kate wonders if she’s qualified to be roaming the wards without supervision.

“Do we have to do this now?” she asks wearily, and Abby’s eyes widen.

“The charge nurse said I had to get around everybody by two o’clock but I didn’t want to disturb you while your family was here. I’m only a couple of months into my probationary period, so I’m doing my best to stick to her schedule,” she confides, and Kate remembers what it was like to be young, eager to please and at the mercy of an overbearing boss.

“OK,” she reluctantly relents, sending up a silent prayer that Abby actually knows what she’s doing, in spite of her self-professed inexperience.

“I’m just going to shut the curtain in case anyone walks in. Are you happy for your friend to stay?” Abby asks, gesturing towards Jo as she moves to pull the curtain around Kate’s bed, and Kate nods in the affirmative.

“Yeah, it’s nothing she hasn’t seen before.” 

“Oh, you’re the lesbian couple!” Abby exclaims excitedly, and Kate realises that the entire nursing team must have heard about last night’s fiasco.

“What happened to patient confidentiality?” she demands, sharing an amused look with Jo, but then she sees the panic on Abby’s face.

“I’m joking,” she reassures her, and Abby’s face melts into a relieved smile.

“I’m just going to untie the back of your gown for you,” she informs Kate, reaching for the drawstring behind her neck.  

“You don’t need to give me a running commentary,” Kate grumbles, but this time she smiles to take the sting out of her words.

To her credit, Abby doesn’t seem remotely fazed when Kate’s hospital gown pools around her stomach, leaving her naked from the waist up. It’s Jo who promptly averts her gaze, but Kate gets the impression it isn’t to preserve her modesty.

“Can you lift your left arm up for me?” Abby asks, so she can unravel the bandages running underneath Kate’s left armpit and over her right shoulder, and Kate’s forced to grit her teeth against the pain as she slowly obliges. She can’t stop the sharp intake of breath when Abby gingerly peels away the blood-stained gauze underneath the bandage, though, because it’s still partially stuck to her wound.

“All done,” Abby assures her, like she’s a child having an injection.

Kate inwardly braces herself before she looks down to survey the damage for the first time, and Abby helpfully reaches for the vanity mirror on the trolley, holding it up for her so she can see the wound from a better angle. 

Kate breathes a sigh of relief when she realises it’s nowhere near as bad as she was anticipating, even though it feels like her chest’s been hit by a steamroller. The doctors were able to extract the bullet using pincers and forceps, so they didn’t have to make a wider incision around the wound, and even though they’ve left it open to heal rather than stitching it shut, the mottled bruising around the entry point looks a hell of a lot worse than the circular bullet hole itself. It’s already starting to scab over, and when it fully heals, it probably isn’t going to look dissimilar to the cigarette burn on Jo’s shoulder – just over a centimetre in diameter and only noticeable in direct light. The wound is on the right-hand side of her chest, directly underneath her collar bone and, even though Kate isn’t in the habit of wearing anything revealing, it’s not going to be enough of an eyesore to make her shy away from something low-cut, if the occasion ever calls for it.

“Trust me, with boobs like that, no-one’s going to care about a piddly little scar,” Abby informs her, and Kate laughs out loud at the unexpected, if slightly inappropriate, compliment. She expects Jo to do the same, but when she glances at her, Jo’s staring at the floor, hands gripping the side of her chair convulsively, and even though she must have seen countless GSWs over the course of her career, Kate realises she can’t bring herself to look at hers.

Abby turns bright red, obviously misconstruing Jo’s silence as anger.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for that to sound pervy or anything. I just meant - I just wanted to - ”

“It’s fine,” Kate informs her with a warm smile, “I know you were just trying to make me feel better.”

For the second time in as many minutes, Abby sighs with relief.

“What I should have said is that it’s looking good. No signs of infection,” she hastily amends, and Kate glances at Jo again, hoping she’ll be buoyed by the good news, but it doesn’t do anything to dissipate the tension in her posture.

“Jo,” Kate says gently, trying to encourage eye contact, but her heart sinks when Jo abruptly gets to her feet.

“I’m going to wait out here for a minute so I don’t get in your way,” she says, pushing past the curtain and drawing it closed behind her.

Abby watches her retreat with concern and then levels Kate with an empathetic expression. “It must be hard for her. I’d be in bits if it was my boyfriend,” she admits, and then she glances at her watch. “I can give you a couple of minutes to talk in private, if you want?” she whispers, just loudly enough for Kate to hear, “I can’t leave you for long, though, or that water’s going to get cold.”

“That’d be great. Thanks.”

Abby leaves a small gap in the curtain when she draws it back, but it’s wide enough for Kate to see Jo standing rigidly by the window, arms folded across her chest.

“Jo…” she ventures softly, “Come here for a sec.”

“I can’t.” Jo’s voice is strained. “If I look at that bullet wound it’s all going to come flooding back and I can’t think about losing you again, Kate. I can’t.”

And Kate doesn’t want to push her, but she knows she needs to if they’re ever going to get past this.

“Please, Jo. You heard what she said. It’s not as bad as you think, I promise.”

“You don’t know what it was like - seeing you get shot, sitting in the back of that ambulance, waiting for hours to find out if you were going to make it or not,” Jo informs her quietly, and it’s like the curtain between them has turned into a confession box. “I haven’t felt like that since my Mum died and I don’t ever want to feel like that again. I’d rather be dead than live without you, Kate, and you know that, because that’s what got us into this mess in the first place, so why would you…” she trails off, and Kate can see her expression now - anger mixed with anguish - so she gives her the only answer she can, and it’s heartfelt; vehement.

“Because I’m in love with you, you idiot.”

She half expects Jo’s tirade to continue, but it doesn’t. There’s a ragged sigh, a muted sniffle, and then she murmurs,     

“I love you, too.”

“Then come here,” Kate coaxes her, mindful that they probably don’t have a lot of time left.

It takes a moment, but Jo takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders and then slowly makes her way back across the room. Kate can see her white-knuckled grip on the edge of the curtain before she slips behind it, but even though she’s clearly going to great lengths to avoid looking down, this time she manages to meet Kate’s reassuring gaze, laying a hand on her thigh like it’s some kind of anchor.

Kate reaches for Jo’s other hand, bringing it to rest against her chest, a couple of inches to the left of the bruising, so Jo can feel her clamouring heartbeat.

“You’re not going to lose me, Jo. I’m right here,” she says softly, twining their fingers to try and stop Jo’s hand from shaking, remembering Jo doing something similar for her in the bathroom of their B’n’B when the roles were reversed and she was the one scared out of her mind.

Jo squeezes her eyes shut for a moment, evidently trying to collect herself, but when she opens them again, they’re still flooded with tears.

“I’m so sorry, Kate,” she murmurs, and Kate regards her with a gentle smile.

“Hey, no crying, OK? If you get salt in this wound it’s going to sting like buggery.”

Jo’s lips quirk at the corners and, finally, there’s a spark of something other than sadness in her eyes, so Kate decides that maybe humour is the best way forward.

“I never thought I’d see the day where I had to persuade you to look at my boobs,” she adds wryly, and Jo chokes out something resembling a laugh this time, but her smile rapidly falters when she finally musters the courage to glance down at Kate’s chest.

She can’t hide her initial horror, or the strangled noise in the back of her throat, but she doesn’t immediately look away again, and Kate swallows her relief when the haunted look in Jo’s eyes gradually gives way to grim acceptance.

“Well, Abby’s right, your boobs still look amazing,” Jo eventually concedes, and it doesn’t sound like she’s fighting back tears anymore. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to touch them for a while, though,” she concludes ruefully, so Kate impulsively relocates Jo’s hand to her left boob, levelling her with an impish grin.

“Kate!” Jo exclaims, glancing at the small gap in the curtains, but Kate can feel the curve of her smile when she leans in to kiss her, careful to keep her jumper from brushing against Kate’s exposed chest in the process.

“Maybe you could give me a bed bath instead?” Kate proposes, raising her eyebrows suggestively, but Jo shakes her head, smiling.

“I think we’re better off leaving it to the professionals.”

“You did a pretty professional job last time,” Kate reminds her with a devilish grin.

“I mean it. No funny business,” Jo warns her, but her eyes are still crinkling at the corners, “Not until you’re fully recovered.”

“What if it assists with my recovery?” Kate persists, and Jo rolls her eyes.

“Just let the nurse do her job, Kate,” she admonishes, but then she starts to laugh. “I bet it’ll be the best ass she’s seen all month too.”

When Abby re-enters the room, she seems surprised, but pleased, to find them grinning at each other like a pair of love-struck idiots.

“Right then, let’s get you freshened up,” she announces, reaching for the washbasin, and Jo looks thoroughly entertained by Kate’s less-than-enthusiastic response.

“I think I could probably manage a shower,” Kate tells Abby hopefully, “With Jo’s help.”

“Maybe in a couple of days but, for now, I’m under strict instructions not to get that wound wet,” Abby explains, “It needs time to heal. I’m happy for you to do what you can yourself, though, or if you’d prefer, I could talk your girlfriend through it, but we have to do things in a specific order, so…”

The thought of Abby watching Jo give her a bed bath while telling her which flannel to use where takes all the fun out of it, so Kate finally resigns herself to the inevitable.

“Can you find me some clean clothes?” she asks Jo, and Jo nods.

“At least you won’t have to wear a bra for a while,” she jokes, and this time, she kisses Kate’s forehead before she steps behind the curtain.  

In fairness to Abby, she does everything she can to preserve Kate’s dignity by covering her with towels, and she’s being as gentle as possible, but even the weight of the fabric against her chest is uncomfortable. Abby tries to keep her talking, tries to distract her from the pain, but Kate knows her answers are starting to sound clipped. She can’t withhold a few groans as she’s manoeuvred into a variety of different positions and she ends up taking the various flannels Abby hands her and doing most of the job herself, even though tears are pricking at the back of her eyes by the time she’s finished.

“Everything OK?” Jo asks worriedly from behind the curtain, and Kate grits her teeth.

“Mmm-hmm,” she just about manages to get out, vowing never to take the ability to move without pain for granted again.

“You should see a difference in a few days, once that bruising’s gone down,” Abby reassures her as she redresses her wound, “I can see you’re in a lot of pain, though, so if it gets too much, I can speak to the sister about upping your meds.”

Kate nods, trying to concentrate on breathing in and out, but even that hurts like hell.

“Do you need a hand getting dressed?” Abby asks her kindly, but Kate shakes her head.

“No, I can manage, thanks.”

“OK, well, I’ll leave the curtain closed for now and you can draw it back again when you’re ready. We’ll check on you later, but let us know if you need anything in the meantime.”

Abby tucks the bedsheets back around Kate before she grabs the trolley and heads towards the door and Jo ducks around the gap in the curtain, closing it back up again.

“These OK?” she asks, holding out a set of powder blue joggers, and Kate manages a weary nod. She haphazardly applies some roll-on deodorant and lets Jo help her into her clothes, having to stop mid-way through to give herself a break, even though Jo’s worried expression compels her to continue, but by the time they’re finished, her pain threshold is maxed out. When Jo says she wishes she was taking her trousers off instead of putting them on, Kate can’t even bring herself to crack a smile and she flops listlessly back onto the bed.

“Kate,” a hand settles against her shin, warm and comforting, even through the bedsheets, “Tell me what I can do?”

“Lie down with me. Just for a minute?” It comes out sounding less like a question and more like a plea.

“I wish I could,” Jo admits, and Kate can see how much she means it, “But there’s not enough room, and I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t,” Kate assures her, and she forces herself to shuffle to the side a bit, “Just lie on your side. If we keep the curtain closed, no-one’s going to be any the wiser.”

Jo gingerly sinks onto the left side of the bed, and Kate can see that she’s doing her damnedest not to jostle the mattress too much when she lies down, resting her head next to Kate’s on the pillow. She presses a kiss against Kate’s cheek and then nuzzles into her neck, and Kate lets her eyelids flutter shut contentedly.

A hand tentatively works its way underneath her sweatshirt, settling lightly against her stomach. Jo’s thumb moves back and forth over her bare skin, but she keeps the rest of her hand still so the fabric doesn’t rustle against her dressing.

“OK?” Jo asks, and Kate nods, because this is doing a hell of a lot more to distract her from the pain than the morphine.

“Just what the doctor ordered,” she mumbles, and she can feel Jo smiling against her neck.  

“Only for a minute, though,” Jo warns her.

Five hours later, they both jolt awake to the sound of the curtain unceremoniously being pulled back and someone clearing their throat. It’s the nurse from last night, and she’s regarding them indulgently.

“I know I said we pride ourselves on our inclusivity, but we do draw the line at patients canoodling with their significant others in bed,” she informs them, and Jo hastily scrambles to her feet, looking mortified.

“We weren’t canoodling, we were sleeping,” Kate protests, and the nurse smiles.

“Just don’t let me catch you doing it again,” she warns them, but judging from her good-natured tone, Kate gets the impression she might not be quite as passionate about enforcing that particular policy.

“These are today’s dinner options,” the nurse informs her, handing her a piece of paper, “And no ordering extra for your girlfriend this time,” she adds, laughing.   

Steve’s always done a terrible job of hiding his anger, and when he gingerly lowers himself into one of the visitors’ chairs at the side of her bed two days later, Kate can see the rage simmering just below the surface.

“Took you long enough,” she jokes, in an attempt to coax a smile out of him, because aside from a brief update courtesy of one of the AFOs - which left them with more questions than answers - he hasn’t been in touch since he took her first account a couple of days ago.

Steve heaves an aggrieved sigh.

“It’s been a busy couple of days, mate. I was going to try and smuggle you in a takeaway, but you’re probably going to lose your appetite when you hear this.”

Kate glances at Jo, who looks as concerned as she feels.

“You’re not going to like it,” he warns them both, only adding to Kate’s trepidation, but she forces herself to smile through her reservations.

“I didn’t much like being shot, either, mate, but here we are,” she counters, regarding him expectantly.

Steve pauses for a minute, looking like he can’t quite bring himself to get the words out, but then he eventually proclaims, “We think Buckells is the fourth man.”

There’s complete silence at first, and then Jo snorts in disbelief, looking at Steve like he’s lost his mind.

“Yeah, good one, Steve.” Kate attempts a small smile, but it’s quickly followed by a frown of disapproval, “But this is Jo’s future we’re talking about, so now’s really not the time to be playing wind up merchant.”

“I wish I was joking, mate, but it looks like Jo was pointing the finger at the right guy all along.”

Kate glares at him for a moment, waiting for his sombre expression to give way to an amused grin. Then she sees the defeated look in Steve’s eyes and realises that he’s deadly serious. 

“No. No way,” she objects. “The bastard can barely tie his own shoelaces, there’s no way he’s been running rings around us for years.”

“We managed to find the kid who put the tracker on Carmichael’s service vehicle. The gaffer put the fear of God into him and luckily for us, he’s not quite as cocky as Pilkington was at that age,” Steve notes, with a bitter smile, “He said, and I quote, some “curly-haired bloke with a Brummie accent” paid him fifty quid to do it. We showed him Buckells’ mug shot and he gave us a positive ID.” 

“But how do we know the OCG hasn’t coerced him into saying that?” Jo counters. “Buckells was already under suspicion and he’s only just been released - he’s the perfect scapegoat.”

“That’s what we thought too, until we searched his house. We recovered a laptop and the hard drive contained all the messages he exchanged with Jo - including the order to get rid of you, mate,” he informs them, turning his attention to Kate. “We’ve found additional communications sent during the period when Buckells was on remand, too, so we suspect a bent prison officer helped him to smuggle the laptop into his cell. We’ve got him liaising with the Witness Protection Officer who gave up Brian’s location - we’re working on identifying them through their IP address - and we’ve got him issuing the kill order against Jo.”

“Yeah, but it was easy enough for Jo to plant those files in Buckells’ boot, Steve – so what’s to stop someone planting a laptop in his house?” Kate points out, because it seems like the only logical conclusion.

“Except it’s got his prints and DNA all over it, no-one else’s.”

They fall silent for a moment, and Jo glances anxiously at Kate, expression torn between disbelief and dismay.

“Come on, Steve. Buckells is barely literate,” Jo protests, sinking back against her chair. “I’ve spent the past six months rolling my eyes at his emails, trying to make some sense out of them. Don’t you think I would have known if it was him sending me those messages?”

“That’s actually one of the avenues we’re pursuing,” Steve informs her. “We’ve had a forensic linguist compare the syntax and spelling used in the messages you received with Buckells’ emails and it’s a 95% match. We’ve got him consistently misspelling words like “definitely” all the way back to when he was a junior officer working under Osborne and Thurwell.”

“Him and half the planet, Steve,” Jo reasons. “If I had a quid for every copper who couldn’t spell, I’d be able to retire tomorrow. If the similarities were that obvious, I would have noticed them.”

“She’s right, Steve,” Kate hastens to reassure him, “You’re talking to the woman who used to correct Simpkins’ spelling before he was allowed to submit his incident reports.”

“How do you know that?” Jo asks, and Kate manages a small smile.

“He used to watch you reviewing his write-ups and say, “fucking hell, she’s got her red pen out again,”” Kate informs her, and they both start to laugh.

“Look, Buckells’ messages were short,” Steve cuts in, “A few words here and there. No one’s going to blame you for not connecting the dots, Jo. None of us did.”  

Kate shakes her head. “I’m sorry, Steve, but I still think you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“There’s more, mate,” he informs her ruefully. “The search turned up deeds to a five-bed in Edge Park, owned by a shell company with an offshore account in the Cayman Islands. We searched that house, too, and found another laptop under the floorboards - again, Buckells’ prints and DNA - and it looks like he ordered the raid on the Eastfield Depot as well. His families’ DNA is all over the rest of the house, too, so he must have been using it as a weekend or holiday home.”

“You’re fucking kidding me?”

Steve grimaces. “I really wish I was, mate. He’s in custody and Carmichael’s interviewing him with Chloe and the gaffer as we speak.”

“But what did he have to gain from coming after Jo, Steve?” Kate asks him, brow furrowing. “She didn’t even know he was bent. He doesn’t have any obvious connections with Fairbank or Hunter, so where’s the risk?”

“We think it was personal,” Steve explains. “Jo framed him; outsmarted him, and she planted enough evidence to put him away for a long time. The OCG knows any copper facing a prison sentence is going to look for a way out, so it’s likely they started doubting Buckells’ loyalty; wondering if he was going to talk. Buckells knew he wouldn’t be as much use to the OCG from behind bars - that he couldn’t influence investigations anymore - which meant he stood to lose all the proceeds he was making from organised crime. Based on the evidence we’ve gathered to date, he was raking it in - to the tune of three million - but Jo put an end to all that when she arrested him.”

“Three million?” Kate echoes disbelievingly, sharing a look of disgust with Jo. “The stingy bastard wouldn’t even fork out for a packet of biscuits in the break room, Steve. Didn’t stop him from scoffing them all, though.”

“But it was Kate he came after first,” Jo interjects, and Steve nods.

“Because he needed to prove he wasn’t feeding intel to AC-12; that he still had the power to call the shots, even from the inside. And what better way to do that than by arranging the murder of an ex-anti-corruption officer who was threatening to blow the lid on the Gail Vella case – the case that would have established a definitive link between corrupt police officers and organised crime?”

Kate hates to admit it, but it makes sense.

“You were still useful to the OCG at that point, Jo,” Steve reminds her. “It was Kate who was the thorn in their side - but then you refused to follow through with Buckells’ plan to take her out of the picture and started cooperating with our enquiries, so he decided to come after you instead. Tommy might not be alive anymore, but everyone still knows his name - everyone still knows what he did - so Buckells must have assumed that killing his niece, who was a rat just like her uncle, would win him some brownie points, too; help to show his loyalty.”

“So you think he knew who I was all along?” Jo asks him, clearly perturbed.

“He specifically requested to bring you on board, Jo. He knew what he was doing.”

“So that’s why he was putting so much pressure on me to charge Terry Boyle, to close the case?” she deduces, and Steve nods.

“It looks like it, yeah.”

“I’m sorry, Steve, but I’m still not buying it. There’s no way Buckells orchestrated all of this himself,” Kate proclaims, and Jo nods her agreement. “There has to be someone higher up, someone who decided to promote the bastard time and time again so he could do their bidding, because every officer who’s ever worked under him knows he doesn’t have two brain cells to rub together. I mean, I’ve worked with him three times now and I didn’t twig on. What does that say about my detective skills?” she asks despairingly.

“What does it say about mine, mate?” Steve counters. “I interviewed him the first time around and I thought he’d been fitted up, not that he was guilty of everything Jo accused him of and more.”

“You should be there now, Steve,” Kate tells him earnestly, feeling guilty that Steve’s been reduced to playing messenger boy instead of sitting in on what could be the most important interview of his life. “You’ve worked your whole career for this.”

“Yeah, only to find out that our “big bad” is a bumbling idiot who couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag,” Steve spits out, and Kate understands why he looked so pissed off when he arrived, because now she’s feeling exactly the same way and if the enraged look on Jo’s face is any indication, so is she.

“So either we’re all a bunch of mugs or Buckells is a hell of a lot smarter than we gave him credit for,” Kate concludes, and now her head is starting to hurt every bit as much as her chest. “It’s enough to make you want to jack it all in. What do you reckon? Should the three of us try our luck down at Aldi?” she jokes, in an attempt to lighten the oppressive atmosphere.

“I don’t know mate, shifting stock might wreak havoc with my back,” Steve deadpans, and they manage a chorus of strained laughter.

“Have you thought about what you want to do, Jo, after all this is over?” Steve asks her, and Kate’s not sure whether to be grateful for the change of subject or concerned that he’s pressing Jo on something she might not be ready to discuss.

“Maybe a charity or a non-profit? Something where I could do some good in the world. It might mean making some cutbacks, but I can downsize if needs be. I’ve got some savings so I’m hoping they’ll tide me over until I find the right fit,” Jo tells him, and it doesn’t surprise Kate that she’s thinking along those lines, but she hopes it isn’t just because Jo feels compelled to atone for her sins in whatever way she can.

“You’ve got so many transferable skills, Jo - leadership, communications, project management, not to mention that big brain of yours - you could do whatever you set your mind to,” Kate informs her earnestly, earning a shy smile. “What did you want to be when you were growing up?”

“I always…” Jo hesitates, looking embarrassed, “I always wanted to work with animals. It’s a little late in life to start training as a vet, though.”

“It’s like - what - a five-year degree course?” Kate asks, regarding her thoughtfully, “You’d still have a good twenty years to give the Supervet a run for his money.”

Jo shares an amused glance with Steve.

“Kate, as much as I appreciate the vote of confidence, it’s a competitive course and I don’t even remember what I studied in primary school science, let alone A-Level Biology and Chemistry. There’s no chance,” Jo tells her frankly. “Besides, I’m not sure I’d want to be the one actually doing the operations, I always wanted to be the one looking after the wee animals afterwards, but it pays a pittance and I couldn’t afford to live on that kind of salary.”

“You could if you moved in with me,” Kate points out, but even though her offer’s genuine, she can’t help laughing when Steve starts to choke on his own spit.

Jo looks touched, but then she ducks her head. “I can’t ask you to do that, Kate – you’ve got Josh to think about.”

“He’s only round every second weekend and he’s got his own room. We could probably squeeze a second wardrobe into my bedroom - ” she starts to say, but then she turns to glare at Steve when his grin gets too wide to ignore, “What’s so funny, Steve?”

“Mate, I’ve seen both of your places and let’s just say Jo’s tastes are a bit more high-brow than yours. As in, her gaff looks like something out of an interior design catalogue and yours is more DIY SOS.”

“Piss off, Steve. It’s not that bad. It’s really not,” she hastens to reassure Jo, who looks like she’s making a valiant effort not to join in with Steve’s laughter.

Kate gives her arm a gentle squeeze. “Look, no pressure, but the offer’s there if you want it.”

“I’d love to see Mark’s face when he finds out you’re shacking up with another woman,” Steve confesses, and Kate breaks into a megawatt grin.

“Oh, mate, you missed a classic moment the other day. Mark came to pick up Josh and started laying into me – because apparently, I brought all of this on myself - and Jo decided to put him in his place. Sent him packing with his tail between his legs. He looked a bit like you after she got a moratorium from the DCC, actually,” she teases, and Jo winces reflexively.

“Too soon, mate,” Steve admonishes her, but he’s smiling.    

“I didn’t mean to throw oil on the fire,” Jo hastens to reassure her, “I just couldn’t sit there and let him speak to you like that. He won’t…” Jo’s voice falters as she regards her worriedly, “He won’t stop you from seeing Josh now, will he? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.” 

Kate expression softens.

“I don’t think he’d stoop that low, but even if he does, Josh turns sixteen in a couple of months and then he won’t have a leg to stand on. Things always get a bit tense when we’re in the same room together but I meant what I said, Jo – you have no idea how much it meant to have someone fighting my corner for a change. He’ll go home, nurse his wounds for a bit, but he’ll come around eventually.”

“He’s just bitter because you’ve got a bigger set of balls than he has,” Jo proclaims, and Steve laughs, opening his mouth to respond. Then his phone starts to ring and he jumps to his feet.

“It’s the gaffer. Give me a second.”

He disappears out of the room for a moment, and when he comes back, he looks like a changed man. The fire’s back in his eyes again, like he’s ready for battle.

“You were right, mate,” he tells Kate, “Buckells is hinting that there are bigger fish to fry than him. It looks like Osborne’s involved, but Buckells wants full immunity and witness protection before he’s willing to disclose any details.”

“Surprise, surprise,” Jo says sarcastically, but she looks slightly vindicated after hearing the news.

“I’m going to head back to Birmingham, see what we can dig up, but you know the drill,” Steve informs them, “We can’t go anywhere near Osborne until the evidence is watertight and we can’t let him find out we’re onto him until we bring him in, but Carmichael had to get his authorisation to draw up that paperwork for Jo, which means Osborne knew she was intending to meet with you both to get it signed.”

“So Osborne got Buckells to tie up the loose ends for him?” Kate observes, and Steve nods.

“I always knew this went all the way to the top, mate, and if we can nail the Chief Constable…” he levels them both with a warm grin, “Maybe we can draw a line under this once and for all.”

Steve has a spring in his step as he heads towards the door and Kate and Jo both call after him,

“Make sure you get the bastard, Steve.”

“Nail his arse to the wall.”

Kate waits until the door closes behind him and then she turns her attention to Jo, and it takes her a moment to decipher the expression on her face, because it’s an emotion she’s never seen her express before. Hope. And then they’re leaning in and losing themselves in each other, in the promise of a future they hardly dared to imagine, until the sensation of Jo stroking her thigh makes Kate want to start something she knows she can’t finish and she’s forced to pull back before the urge becomes too insistent to ignore. She reluctantly drops her head to Jo’s shoulder instead, and when she inches her arms around her waist, the pain isn’t as excruciating as it was before.

“You’re coming home with me, Jo Davidson,” Kate promises her, and for the first time, it looks like Jo actually believes it.