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I'm Not Letting Go

Chapter Text

This is meant to be the happiest time of our lives, but I'm on the brink of losing you.

There's that horrible sound, the one that paralyses me with fear. One continuous beep that only means one thing.

Flatline.

Nurses rush in & begin to resuscitate him. I’m in the way, I know I should leave… But I can’t.

Arms wrap around me, & I'm being pulled backwards.

“NO! NO!” I say, fighting to get free from whomever is pulling me out of his room.

Just as I’m pulled over the threshold & out into the corridor, one word words rips its way out of me in a deafening scream- “MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRKKKKKKK!”

****

24 hours earlier

He can't stop kissing me- his hands on my hips, my arms wrapped around his neck. This, this is my happy place.

“Urgh, enough with the PDAs!” Aaron says.

We both part, both looking bashful.

“Sorry, Az,” I reply.

He shrugs. “I’m okay with it.” He smiles. “I just like to tease you two.”

Mark punches Aaron's arm as he passes us. Mark then turns his attention back to me.

“Are you free later?” He asks, rubbing my back gently. “This evening?”

I narrow my eyes. “What have you got planned?”

He smirks. “Come and you’ll find out.”

I raise my eyebrow. “That big a secret, huh?”

He smiles, leaning in for a kiss. “Yep.”

He kisses me, pulling me flush against me.

****

It's dusk when I return to the Brennan house. As I’m walking up the front steps, Aaron & Tyler come out.

“Oh, hey Brennans,” I say, surprised.

“Hey,” they both reply.

“Where are you off to?”

“Just the Waterhole,” Tyler says.

“Oh, cool. Have fun.”

“Thanks,” Tyler says. He steps down, stopping on the step beside me. “You have fun tonight too.”

“Thanks,” I reply, smiling. “You know what he's got planned?”

Tyler digs his hands into his pockets, the tell-tale sign he’s lying. “Nope, sorry.”

“That's okay.”

“But whatever it is, he said you should meet him in the backyard,” Aaron says.

“Okay…” I reply, wondering what's waiting for me. “Thanks boys.”

“You're welcome,” Aaron replies. “We should let you…” He points towards the front door.

I nod. “Bye.”

“Bye,” they both say.

I watch them head off down the driveway, before I turn and walk inside.

The lights are off, the large living and dining area lit by the small, flickering light coming through the back windows. I place my handbag on the kitchen bench and make my way out to the backyard.

When I step out, I see a path boarded by lit tealights in jars. I follow the path around the side of the house, the lines of candles widening at the paved dining area, now free of it's table, to form a large circle. And, standing in the heart in front of a picnic blanket and pile of cushions, is Mark.

“Hey,” he says, as I walk over to him.

“Hey,” I reply, pulling him in for a kiss.

“Had a good day?” He asks, wrapping his arms around my waist.

“Yes, it was slow at Harold’s.” I look around. “I see you had a good day too.”

“You like?”

Like?” I raise my eyebrow as I look at him. “Babe, it's beautiful! I love it!”

“Good!” He kisses me. “Because it took me a lot of careful planning to set it up without having a mess.”

I smile. “Well… I thank you and your cleanliness for making such a romantic gesture.” I pull him in for another kiss- a slow, long tongue-dancing kiss.

“Well,” he says, lips barely apart from mine. “This is just the start.”

He guides me onto the picnic blanket, getting me to sit down. He then goes over to the BBQ & opens it- getting out food he put in there to stay warm. It takes a couple of trips (he refuses to let me help), but he lays out a spread of both hot & cold food on the blanket. He then retrieves two wine glasses & a bottle of wine in an ice bucket & brings them over. He places the bucket down & hands me a glass as he settles next to me.

“Wow,” I say. “This is… Amazing.”

He smiles, reaching for the wine bottle. “I’m glad you like it.”

I gently grab his chin & turn him to look at me. “I love it as much as I love you.”

I kiss him again.

****

After dinner, we lie down propped against the cushions. I’ve got one arm around behind her, as she leans her head against my chest.

She's talking, but I’m not listening. I can't help but think about how perfect it is right now. How perfect we are. For the first time in a long time- too long, to be honest- I'm truly happy. I haven't felt like this since… since… Kate.

And then it all clicks. I can picture my future- really picture it.

And it's all with her.

“Marry me,” I say, softly.

“And I-“ She cuts off, realising what I said. She sits up slightly & looks at me, slightly confused. “Wait… what?

I smile. “Marry me.”

Her jaw drops. “Are… Are you serious?”

I nod, smiling. “Very.”

She just stares at me. Then, with eyes brimming with tears, she smiles. “YES!”

I grin as I reach for her- cupping her face with both hands & pull her into a long kiss. She straddles me as we kiss, hands splayed on my chest & I drop my hands to slip under the bottom of her shirt.

****

The next morning

I wake to kisses on the back of my right shoulder. I open my eyes & he captures my lips with his.

“Mmm morning,” I mumble.

“Morning.”

I notice he’s dressed, & frown. “Where have you been?”

“I had to go pick up your gift.”

“My gift?” I ask, confused, through half closed sleepy eyes.

With a smile, he holds a small box up in front of me. I sit up. He turns his wrist, the box now resting in his open palm. I open the box & gasp. Inside is a beautiful silver ring- simple band that's embedded with a row of small diamonds leading up on both sides to a stunning silver flower that rises up from the band to form the centrepiece, diamonds line its petals, with a large diamond in its heart.

“Thought we should make it official,” he softly says.

“It's beautiful,” I reply. “But how did you get it?”

“Uh…” He raises his eyebrow. “The usual way.”

“I meant… You asking me last night was spontaneous.”

“I have a friend who owns a jewellery store. He owed me a favour, so I called him this morning and asked if he could open early. And I know it's a little… flamboyant, but… I like it. It's unique. Like you.”

Awwww!” I reply, looking at him. “I love it!”

We kiss.

“Put it on.”

“Oh, I’d rather you do the honours.”

He takes my ring out & places the box on his bedside table. He then gently holds my left hand, & slides my ring all the way down my ring finger. We kiss. I lie down as we do, pulling him with me so his body is on top of mine.

“Mmm,” he says, breaking the kiss. “Much as I’d love to do that with my gorgeous fiancée… I can't.”

I pout. “Why?”

“You may have the day off, but I have to work.”

“Call in sick.”

“No.”

I pout bigger. “But I want to spend the day celebrating with my fiancé!”

“I can't.”

I whimper.

“Paige.”

“Stay.”

“No.”

Staaay.”

“Paige, I'm sorry.”

I furrow my brow & pout.

“I’m sorry, I have to work. But I promise you, tonight.”

“Tonight?”

“Mmmmhmmm.” He kisses my neck. “We’ll call it an early night.”

“Mmm,” I reply.

“And we'll celebrate,” he adds. “In here. Promise.”

I think it over for a few seconds. “Accepted.”

He smiles. “Good.” He kisses me. “Now, sleep. You’ll need the extra sleep because you won't be getting much tonight.”

Ohhh?” I reply, raising an eyebrow.

He gets up. I watch him change into his uniform. He then kisses me goodbye- several small kisses- & I watch him leave.

I drift off to sleep, unaware of the devastation happening mere hours later.

****

“Paige?” Aaron asks.

I groan, fighting the urge to wake.

“Paige?” He’s closer now.

I groan louder & longer. Leave me alone!

“Paige, come on. Wake up.”

I groan again, batting the air in his direction. Just leave me be!

“Please, Paige! We need to talk. It's important.”

“If I give in, will you leave me be to sleep afterwards?”

He hesitates. “If it gets you to talk… Yes,” he says. “But I don't think you’ll want to after you hear what I have to tell you.”

I sigh & open my eyes. I roll onto my back & sit up, holding the sheet against me since I’m naked. “What?”

“I’ve been trying to call you for an hour.”

“It's my day off. I wanted to sleep in.”

He notices the ring. “He proposed.”

“Yes. Last night. But he got the ring this morning.”

“Congratulations.”

I smile. “Thanks.”

“I’ll hug you later,” he says. “Don't want to…”

I nod. “Thanks.”

“I'm happy for you.” He smiles, but I see the sadness in his eyes.

“Okay, what's wrong?” I ask. “You say you’re happy, but there's sadness in your eyes. And why have you been calling me?”

He hesitates. “It's… Mark.”

I look confused. “He's at work.”

“No…” He hesitates. “He isn't.”

I narrow my eyes. “What is that supposed to mean?”

He hesitates, avoiding making eye contact.

“Aaron.”

“Just hear me out, okay? Don't interrupt, don't speak until I’m done. It's the only way I can handle telling you this.”

My breath catches in my throat. “Okay, you're freaking me out now.”

“Earlier, Mark was taking part in a raid,” he says. “The criminals ran off & he chased one.”

I smile. “Ever the hero.”

Aaron nods. “He caught up with the criminal &… I don't know exactly what happened, but his colleagues say they took a tumble off a second story balcony.”

I can't breathe. I try inhaling, but my chest is so tight I can't.

He holds my face in both hands, making me keep eye contact. “Listen to me, okay?” He says. “He's alive. Critical, but alive. So get dressed & I’m going to take you to the hospital.”

Chapter Text

I grab whatever clothes I first see, put them on, grab shoes and hurry out. I don't remember much of the car trip. Just that Aaron held my hand.

We find Tyler waiting- pacing- in the hallway. As we walk over to him, the door to the room he’s outside of opens & Karl leads several nurses & a gurney out. Karl's giving orders, but my eyes fall to the patient. And my chest tightens.

Mark!”

Karl looks at me, & then ushers the nurse to continue. We watch as the nurses wheel him away, I’m fighting the urge to rush after them, & Tyler steps over.

“I can't talk right now,” Karl says. “I need to be with Mark right now. But I will be back as soon as I can to explain.”

I nod & he rushes off.

Tyler pulls me into a hug. “He's going to be okay.”

I wrap my arms around him. “I hope so.”

****

I don't know how long we waited, my mind too focused on thinking about Mark as I stare at my engagement ring. Why can't we go back to this morning? Why couldn't he have just stayed home with me? He would be okay- we would be okay- had he given in to my pleas.

Aaron nudges me, & I slowly turn to look at him. He points behind us, so I look- Karl is at the Nurse’s station. I leap up, sensing the boys following as I head for Karl.

“Karl,” I say.

He turns to us. “His MRI indicated that there was internal bleeding,” he replies. “We rushed him into surgery- that's where we were heading when you arrived- & I can say that they've got the bleeding under control.”

All three of us sigh in relief.

“And what about his arm?” Tyler asks. “You said it was injured? Possibly broken?”

“Ah, yes. An X-ray revealed that it's just a dislocation, & they were fixing it when I left,” Karl says. “He also has several broken ribs, all of which has been set.”

“When will he be out?” Aaron asks.

“I expect him to be moved into recovery any minute now,” Karl replies. “I’ll make sure they know to come & get you when he's allowed visitors.”

“Thanks, Karl,” Aaron replies.

“No worries.”

Karl walks off.

“Karl,” I say, following him.

“Paige,” he says, stopping & turning to me. “He's going to be okay. He's not out of the woods yet, but his surgery went perfectly. It's the best scenario.”

“No. Uh, that's not why I wanted to talk,” I reply. “I wanted to ask if it's possible… if I could see him as soon as he's in recovery? I know it's a lot to ask-”

“No, not at all, Paige,” he says. “I completely understand that you want to see him. I’ll see what I can do.”

I smile. “Thanks.”

He puts a hand on my shoulder. “He's strong. All you have to do is be there for him.”

****

I stand at his room’s door, currently shut, bracing myself for what I’ll find inside. A part of me wants me to leave, so I don't see his fragile state. But the rest of me longs to see him. I can do this.

I take a deep breath in, hold & then exhale. I then reach for the door handle & slowly open the door.

I freeze, hand still on the handle, when I see him. He's lying on his back, connected to several machines- heart beat monitor, life support. He's shirtless, a bandage wrapped around his chest, while his left shoulder is strapped, his left arm in a sling.

Fighting back tears, I cross to him. There's a bump on his left temple, a bruise on his right cheek & a cut on his lower lip. He's been through the wars.

I break down, tears streaming. I reach for his right hand, desperate to have physical contact. I feel how rough his hand is, so I look at it- bruised with several cuts across his knuckles. I can't help but smile- at least the criminal had injuries inflicted by my gorgeous fiancé. I lean forward & kiss his forehead.

“You're brave,” I say. “But this? This was reckless, Mark! You can't ask me to marry you & then do…” I gesture all over him. “This!

I sit down on the edge of his bed, unable to stand any longer. I take a couple of deep breaths.

“I just want you,” I say. “Okay?” I sniff. “I want you to come back to me. I want you to pull through this, & for us to celebrate our engagement… & for us to marry & grow old together. So you better fight, Mark. Because I’m not done with you.”

I lean in & kiss his forehead. With lips brushing his skin, I whisper, “I love you.”

****

Aaron & Tyler soon join me. I’m sitting in a chair when they do, holding Mark’s hand.

“Geez, this is worse than that time he crashed his bike,” says Tyler.

I stare at him. Aaron hits him on the arm. Hard.

Owwwwww!” Tyler says, rubbing his arm. “What? Just stating the truth.”

“You could be a little more tactful,” Aaron replies.

“If it was either of us lying there, you’d know Mark would do the same.”

“If your positions were reversed, he’d be angry you’d gone & done something stupid to land yourself in here.”

“He's right,” I add.

“How is he?” Aaron asks me.

“Same as he was when I came in,” I reply. “I guess that's good. At least he's not getting any worse.”

“He’ll pull through.”

I force a smile. “I hope so.”

“Hey,” he says, placing a hand on my shoulder. “He's got a lot to live for. Like your wedding.”

“Woah, wait!” Tyler says, hands raised. He looks from me to Aaron, back & forth a few times, his brow furrowed. “Wedding?”

Aaron winces, turning to me. “He didn't know?”

I shake my head. “Didn't exactly think to tell him after we got here.”

“So… Uh… When did that happen?” Tyler asks.

“Last night,” I reply. “He didn't plan it. He just… Said it.”

“Well, I don't blame him for spontaneously asking,” Tyler says. “I mean, the last time he planned a proposal, she- OW!

Aaron had punched Tyler's arm again, causing the other to glare.

“It's okay, I know about Kate. And how she died,” I reply.

“It's still insensitive,” Aaron replies, glaring at Tyler.

“I don't want you two to avoid talking about her,” I reply. “To consider her as an ‘off topic’ topic. She was a huge part of Mark’s life.”

“Noted,” Tyler says.

****

I can't take my eyes off him. Nothing has changed in all the hours I’ve been sitting at his side, but… I can't take my eyes off him. The colour in his face is still pale- such a striking difference to his perfectly tanned tone. Under the tubing for his life support machine, lies the man that I love in the most heartbreaking state ever. Broken & so… vulnerable.

The boys had left some time ago- Az for work, Ty to get a coffee from Harold’s. I can't pull myself away from him for longer than to go to the bathroom. As much as it's heartbreaking to see him like this, being here next to him is giving me the strength to get through this. Seeing him reassures me that he's going to pull through.

I can't help but think of how happy we were last night- even first thing this morning- when we were starting the next chapter of our lives. When the world was nothing but the two of us. Oh, how happy we were!

Last night I dreamt of our future- our wedding, the children we’ll have, growing old together. Everything we’d talked about last night. Nothing but joy & happiness. A far cry from this.

My thoughts drift to the image of Mark holding our first born- cradling such a precious little bundle in his strong, heroic arms.

I gasp & leap to my feet. I cover my mouth with my left hand to suppress the cry, tears threatening to tumble down my cheeks. We may never have the chance to have that now. My dream- no, our future- ripped from us in the cruelest way possible.

I head for the door, feeling suffocated in here. But I stop with my hand on the handle. I brush aside those painful thoughts. I have to stay strong. He will get through this!

I close my eyes & breathe deeply- focusing on those happy thoughts as I pull myself together. I can't let myself fall apart. I can't lose hope.

I get out a tissue & dab away the tears. As I tuck it back in my handbag, I cross back to him.

He's a fighter. He will get through this.

I brush my fingers through his hair, the way he loves it. I lean in close, barely holding back my tears.

“I promise that we’ll have our happy ending,” I whisper. “So you better fight to stay with me, Mark. Cause I can't do this alone. I can't have my happily ever after without my knight in shining blue armour.”

I close the gap, pressing a long kiss to his forehead.

My lips are brushing his skin as I pull back when the worst happens-

There's that horrible sound, the one that paralyses me with fear. One continuous beep that only means one thing.

Flatline.

A Nurse pushes me out of the way, to the end of his bed, as she & several others work on resuscitating him. I’m in the way, I know I should leave… But I can’t.

Arms wrap around me, & I'm being pulled backwards.

“NO! NO!” I say, fighting to get free from whomever is pulling me out of his room.

Just as I’m pulled over the threshold & out into the corridor, one word words rips its way out of me in a deafening scream- “MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRKKKKKKK!

“Hey, hey, hey, shhh,” Tyler whispers in my ear. I realise he's the one holding me.

Tears streaming down my face, I stop struggling to break free. He lets me go.

“They can save him faster without you in there,” he says.

I nod. “I know. I just-”

“Couldn't move?”

I sigh, nodding.

He wraps an arm around my shoulders. “It's hard, but he's not giving up.”

I inhale, slowly. “He's… He's scaring me.”

“He's fighting for his life,” he replies. “Not an easy fight.”

Before I can reply, the Nurses come out, pulling Mark’s bed with him- one still doing compressions. There's nothing Tyler & I can do but stand where we are & watch.

I clasp my hands over my mouth. Please don't die!

I feel dizzy, knees buckling. I drop, but Tyler catches me.

Everything turns to black.

Chapter Text

I open my eyes, expecting to be in his bed. In his arms. Instead, I'm greeted with the hospital ceiling. And it all comes crashing back. I roll onto my side as I close my eyes tight- make this all go away!

"Paige?" Tyler asks.

His concerned tone makes me open my eyes. He's near me, his worriedness etched on his face. I push myself up, realising I'm lying on an examination table. I look around, quickly identifying it as Karl's office.

"Uh... you fainted," he explains. "Karl told me to bring you in here."

"Mark?" I mumble.

"Karl's gone to check what's happening. He should be back soon." He hands me a cup of water. "Drink."

I take the cup & have what I intended to be a sip, but as soon as the cool water enters my mouth, I realise how thirsty I am- so I down the whole cup in several gulps.

The door opens & Karl enters, shutting it before he crosses to us.

"How are you?" He asks me.

"Fine. Mark?"

Karl looks concerned for a moment, but choses to reply rather than push me. "He's now stable."

I glare at him.

"When he was admitted, he had a couple of broken ribs. While they fixed them, they discovered that another rib, the fourth, was fractured," Karl says. "At the time, they deemed it safe enough to not touch it. They didn't consider it a deep enough fracture to be a risk."

"But... Now?" Asks Tyler.

"Your ribs move with every breath. It's that movement that allows us to actually breathe," Karl replies. "The movement, combined with a far more serious fracture to his fourth rib, has resulted in that rib completely breaking. One half fell inwards, puncturing his aorta."

I gasp. "Oh my god."

"The puncture led to internal bleeding, which made it difficult for him to breathe. The blood loss also impacted heavily," Karl says. "They rushed him back into surgery & were able to successfully close the puncture."

Tyler & I both sigh.

"As for the rib, that's currently being reset as we speak. He's lost a lot of blood from all the injuries, but he's stable now."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"Well, actually there is, Tyler. We're currently using blood from our blood bank, but if you were to donate, that would be very helpful. You can say no."

"I offered to help. I'm happy to do anything if it gives him a fighting chance."

"That's very generous of you, Tyler," Karl says. "Thank you."

Tyler shrugs. "He's my brother. I'd do anything for him."

****

"Hey," Tyler says.

I look up from Mark to him. "Hey, how did it go?"

"Good. Donated as much as I could," he replies. "Or as much as they'd allow. I'd bleed myself dry to save him if I could."

"Well, I'm sure he'd appreciate it, no matter the amount."

He nods. "I called Az while I went down there. He came back & is currently donating too."

"Awww! Mark's lucky to have you two."

Tyler smiles a little. " Family has to stick together."

I nod. "Indeed they do."

"You're a part of our family too."

"Not yet," I reply. "Officially still Paige Smith."

"You've been a part of our mildly crazy family for a while, Paige. You may not have our surname yet, but you're family."

"Who are you and what have you done with Tyler?" I tease.

He smiles, chuckling.

I stand up & hug him. "Thank you," I whisper as we hug.

"You're welcome," he whispers back.

****

"Look who I found," Aaron says as he enters, carrying four takeaway coffees in a holder. Behind him is Tyler's girlfriend, Mavi Halstead.

"Hey," Mavi says, giving me a sympathetic smile. Tyler catches her off guard with a hug that cause her to lose balance & take a step back. "Oof! Nice to see you too, babe."

"I missed you," he says.

"I haven't been gone that long. You saw me yesterday."

"Well, today has proven that disaster can strike any day."

Mavi nods. "How is he?"

"Stable," I reply. "For now."

"Aaron told me about the two surgeries," she replies. "He's going to pull through. I'm sure you've heard that heaps today, but it's true. He's a tough one. A really strong fighter. I know, I went up against him once."

We met Mavi five months ago, in rather... Unusual circumstances. The garage was broken in to- Tyler's beloved bikes were taken (Ben hadn't locked up properly, so really it was easy to 'break in') as well as various tools. With help from Mark & myself, Tyler had found the robber- Mavi. Upon trying to bring her in for questioning, she fought back. Tyler & I watched as she & Mark went hand-to-hand in a fight. Mark held his ground & eventually got the better of the fiesty youngster. For that, she was held in custody overnight, charged with assaulting a police officer & resisting arrest. Mark asked Tyler if he wanted to press charges for the robbery. But the youngest Brennan had become smitten with the thief & practically begged his big brother to drop all charges.

And so the love story began. She returned everything (we'd tracked her down before she could sell anything) but Tyler was more interested in getting to know her better than he was having his bikes back. She didn't take to him at first, but started coming to Harold's on a regular basis clearly just to cross paths with him & if that's not love, I don't know what is. Weeks later, she agreed to go on a date, & they've now been dating three & half months.

"Oh, uh..." Mavi says, pulling me from my thoughts. "I thought you'd all like something to eat & drink. So I stopped by Harold's & got coffees & muffins."

"Ohhh, thanks!" I reply.

"You're welcome," she replies, smiling. "Lauren said she's thinking of all of you, & she'll visit after she closes."

"I'll text her soon," I reply. "Update her on him."

Mavi nods. "She'll appreciate that."

I stand as Aaron puts the coffees down on the table at the end of Mark's bed, & Mavi gets the bag of muffins out of her handbag.

"Lauren marked our initials on the lids so we know which is which, in case they got mixed up on the way here."

"Ah, clever," Tyler says, picking his up.

"That's Mum for you," I reply. "Always thinking of those things."

****

It's early evening when Mum arrives. No change in his condition. She notices me absentmindedly twisting my engagement ring while we talk, & I tell her about his proposal last night. She's happy for us, telling me he'll wake up soon. She says hello to Tyler, Mavi & Aaron who had left briefly, before leaving, offering to get us whatever we needed if we wanted.

Half an hour later we get a surprise visitor- Erin, the infamous Brennan sister. Mavi & I haven't met her till now.

"I came as soon as I could," she says.

"You're here now," Tyler says with a smile. "That's what counts."

She nods. "Oh, & congratulations Paige!"

"Thanks," I repky as we hug.

"I just wish I was saying it to both of you, not standing here in the hospital while my big bro fights for his life."

"Well, we'll have a huge party when he gets out."

"Knowing you, it will be massive," Tyler teases.

"Ha ha," I reply.

"So... Do we know what happened?"

"They've only told us that he was chasing a criminal & they fell from a balcony," Tyler replies.

"And how is the crim?"

Tyler shrugs. "Dunno."

Aaron crosses his arms. "Why do you ask, Erin?"

"Well... just curious. In case we decide to sue."

"I don't think it will come to that," I reply.

"If he has a serious, long term injury from this, or he, God forbids, dies... I just want us to be prepared, to cover all bases."

"Who would you sue?" I ask, curious.

"The crim... & maybe the AFP for putting him in such a dangerous position."

"He's a cop. Dangerous situations come with the territory."

"Okay, okay. Let's not argue," Aaron says.

****

Soon enough, another surprise visior arrives- Senior Sergeat Frost, Mark's boss.

"We'll do whatever it takes to support you, regardless of the outcome of this," Frost says. "He's one of our finest officers."

"Thank you, Senior Sergeant," I reply.

"I also came to give you several updates. The first is we now know exactly what happened in the minutes before the accident."

Aaron, Tyler, Mavi & Erin step closer.

"We've been trialling having cameras on our officer's vests, to better document their work, especially when incidents like this happen."

"And of course Markie volunteered for it," Erin says.

Frost nods. "He was wearing one today. It's taken a lot of effort from our tech team to recover the footage due to damage the camera suffered from the impact of the fall, but they were able to recover it, remarkably mostly in tact."

"So what happened?" I ask. "Last we heard, it was a raid, he chased one of them, caught up... & they ended up falling from a second story balcony."

"That's roughtly what happened," Frost replies. "He did chase after & catch a man that was attempting to flee our raid. The suspect & Mark fought. This led onto an exterior balcony, which was actually three stories up."

I gasp, swaying from shock. Aaron holds me up.

"The suspect ended up falling over the railing. Mark caught him, & only just managed to get his radio in order to call for back-up."

"That explains how the officers knew where to find them," Tyler says.

"Mark did a remarkable job trying to keep the suspect from falling... However, the building is very old, & unfortunately the railing & part of the balcony gave way under the strain of the two men's weight. This is how both fell."

"What about the suspect?" I ask. "How is he?"

Frost hesitates. "Despite doctor's best efforts, his life support was turned off half an hour ago," Frost says. "He's no longer with us."

Silence fills the room.

"Mark's efforts to rescue him were heroic," Frost says.

I smile weakily. "He's always a hero," I reply, twisting my engagement ring from side to side.

 

Chapter Text

I didn't expect I’d start the day after his accident sitting on the floor of my bathroom, huddled up against the toilet trying not to throw up for the third time. But that's exactly how it went down.

I groan, hating the war raging within me. I’d sleepily left my bed and had gone to have the breakfast Mum had made. I barely made it through five mouthfuls before the nausea was too much and I rushed to the bathroom, where I shut the door and went straight to the toilet. The first batch of vomit appeared seconds later.

I’d convinced myself that I was fine, so I flushed the toilet, washed my hands, cleaned off my lips and took one- one- step out the door before I could feel more brewing. So I spun on my heel and rushed back in, shutting the door and barely getting back to the toilet.

After that, I’d conceded defeat and settled on the floor. I grip the edge of the toilet bowl, bracing for more vomit, but… Nothing.

“Sweetie?” Mum’s voice comes from the door. “Are you okay?”

All I can do is groan. Loudly.

The door opens and Mum comes in. She sits on the floor beside me, and tucks my hair behind my shoulders out of the way.

“How long have you been feeling like this?” She asks.

“Just this morning,” I reply. “It's just stress.”

She gently rubs my back. “Are you sure?”

I look at her, confused.

“I'm just saying… It might be something else. Nausea is a sign of several things.”

I lean forward- false alarm. “Like what?”

“Well...” She says. “Once, I was in this position. Couldn't keep my food down, kept feeling nauseous for days. I didn't have a temperature, which ruled out a cold. And then certain foods would make me feel nauseous, while I was wanting to eat food that I normally wouldn't.”

“And what was it?” I mumble, head over the toilet bowl.

She doesn't reply for a minute. “I was… Having you.”

I slowly turn to look at her. “I'm not pregnant.”

“The signs are there, darling.”

“It's just stress.”

“It might be, but… I wouldn't be so quick to rule everything else out,” she says. “If you don't mind me asking… When was your last period?"

“I’ll have to check.”

“Your phone, right?”

I nod. She stands & exits, returning a few minutes later. She sits down & hands me my phone. I take it, bringing up the app I use to keep track of it. And hang my head.

Thirteen days late.

****

I nervously pace the bathroom- waiting for the home pregnancy test to give the results. Mum had gone & got one for me. I asked her to wait with me- I can't deal with finding out on my own. Not today. Since when did three minutes tick by this slowly?

“It's going to be alright,” Mum says from the doorway.

“But what if it isn't? What if I’m pregnant & then I lose him?” I reply, barely holding back tears. “I can't do this without him.”

She crosses to me, holding my arms. “He's going to be fine. And you won't be doing it alone, even if Mark doesn't make it. I’ll be here.”

I nod & she pulls me into a hug.

Then my mobile buzzes- it's time to check the test. We part, & I hesitate. Do I really want to know?

Mum puts an arm around me & gently squeezes my arm. “Let's look together.”

I take a deep breath in, hold, & slowly exhale. I nod. Together we step over to the sink, where the test is sitting near my mobile.

****

Three days later

I can't get the pregnancy test result out of my mind. Maybe it's a false positive. Maybe the stress of possibly losing Mark has affected the test. And maybe I’m just scared that I could potentially be raising our kid without Mark, that our kid won't know their father, & that's driving me to be absolutely sure.

I asked Karl if he could do a test. He said it would be better to wait a few days, in case my hormones were affected by the stress. He recommended I do what I can to keep as calm as possible. That was three days ago.

Karl slips into Mark’s room. I’m in there on my own, Tyler & Aaron have returned to work.

“Hey, Paige,” he says.

“Hey,” I replied.

“I just wanted to check to see if you still want that test done. If it is just stress, it will have returned to normal levels by now & you’ll have a more accurate reading.”

I nod. “I want it.”

“Okay. Well, if you come with me to my office, I’ll draw some blood & get it tested.”

I stand & we leave.

****

That evening, I sit beside Mark, holding his hand. They've kept him in a medically induced coma ever since the second surgery. I just want him to be okay.

I lean in close to him & whisper, “Just come back to me.”

There's a knock on the door & it opens a second later- Karl.

“Hi, Paige.”

“Hey.”

“I have your results. Shall we go to my office?”

“Actually… If you don't mind, can we do it in here? They say coma patients can hear what people are saying around them. And if he doesn't make it…” Tears threaten to run down my cheeks, & I look at Mark. “I want him to have the chance to hear this.”

Karl nods. “Of course. He has every right to know.” He walks over, standing at Mark’s other side. “Before I begin to talk you through the results, may I ask you something?”

I nod.

“Which outcome are you hoping for?”

This throws me. “Uh…”

“I don't mean to pry. It's just… You seem a little tense about it.”

“I just… Wasn't expecting we’d be starting our own family so soon. I’m just not sure I’m ready to be a mother right now. Even more so if I don't have Mark there.”

“It's understandable to be worried like that. It's a big step to take. But know that no one is ready for the challenges of being a parent. That's the beauty of it- learning as you go along. I have a long list of mistakes I made with my children, just ask Susan. You just have to trust your instincts. And you have a very loving community on Ramsay Street. You have Lauren, Brad, Terese, Sheila, Sonya, Toadie, Susan & myself who have all had experience as parents.” He chuckles. “Even Paul. We're all here to give advice whenever you need it. You may feel unprepared, but you have nine months to prepare.”

I look from Mark to Karl, as I realise what he just said. “Does that mean…?”

He nods. “Your test came back positive.”

I burst into tears. Karl comes round to comfort me.

“I'm sorry,” I say, wiping away tears.

“Don't be. I know you're scared. Your faced with the challenge of being a single mum. I watched Libby go through that. She lost her husband after an accident.”

“And how did she do it? Raise Ben on her own?”

“She had me & Susan. The way you have Lauren & Brad. And you have Tyler & Aaron, as well as Imogen, Piper & Josh. And Amber. She'll give you advice.”

I wipe away more tears. “Thanks, Karl.”

“Always happy to talk.”

I force myself to smile.

“May I give one more piece of advice?”

I slowly nod.

“You're scared now, but trust me. All of the fear & worry you feel now… It all disappears when you hold your little one in your arms for the first time.”

****

I went to his place to sleep, needing to be surrounded by his scent. I pull on one of his t-shirts, loving how it just hangs loosely over me. I stare at myself in the mirror, & find myself turning to stand side-on. I grab another of his shirts, & stuff it up the one I’m wearing to form a bump over my stomach. I stare at it in the mirror, imagining that it's the real bump I’ll have in nine months. Wearing his shirt as a dress while heavily pregnant looks remarkably good. Will have to do it in nine months. See what he thinks.

And that's when it all crashes. Thoughts of going through this on my own, without him, flood my mind. And it's all too much.

I force the shirt out, tossing it aside & throw myself onto the bed. I curl up in a ball & let the tears fall.

I can't do this without you, Mark.

I cry myself to sleep.

Chapter Text

It's evening, five days after his accident. Five days of being in a medically induced coma, five days for his body to heal. They just took him off the ventilator & he’s breathing on his own. Karl says that's good- he’ll be able to be brought out of his coma soon. And I can have my gorgeous fiancé back.

Not many people know about our engagement. Just Aaron, Tyler, Mavi, Erin and of course Mum & Dad. Everyone else has no idea. I can’t bear to tell them when Mark’s in here fighting for his life. Besides, it’ll give us something really positive to share with all our friends when this is over.

And then there's the other news. I'm pregnant. The nausea is getting easier. Karl checks in on both of us regularly, and Mum drops in with food. But all I want is for Mark to wake up, so we can go home.

I subconsciously gently rub my lower tummy, closing my eyes. Now that the shock has passed, I'm happy that I'm pregnant. I’m still scared that Mark may die, but I know that our little one will carry on his legacy. That Mark will always be with me. Our little one will know how heroic their dad was, I’ll make sure of it.

But I won't have to. Because Mark is going to get through this. I’m going to be able to tell him our news, we can look forward to meeting our little one & our wedding. And Mark will be the best dad ever.

I open my eyes, looking down at my tummy, which I’m still rubbing.

“We're going to get through this,” I softly say. “All three of us.”

****

A week after the day of the accident, Karl says Mark’s scans are showing improvement- so much, he’s confident they can start bringing him out of his coma. I’m so happy when he tells me, I cry. They begin that very afternoon- I watch on from out in the hallway. Karl comes out to me as the Nurses finish.

“It will take some time, anything from a few hours to even a day, sometimes more, for the drugs to wear off,” he tells me. “Each case is unique.”

I nod. “Just being at this stage is enough.”

He nods. “He's definitely fought hard. But it's not over yet.”

“I know. I can't wait to put this behind us.”

“Normally they frown upon visitors staying after visiting hours,” he says. “But given our current situation, I’ll put a request in on your behalf for you to be allowed to stay on overnight.”

I look at him. “Is that even possible?”

He nods. “In rare cases, they allow it. I think Mark has well & truly proven to be worthy,” Karl says. “After everything, the best sight for him to wake up to is you.”

I smile. “Thanks, Karl.”

“You're welcome.”

He walks off & I turn back to look at Mark through the window. I smile. Soon I’ll see you smile.

****

It's eerily quiet at 10pm, with all the visitors gone. Karl is on the late shift, so he's around & on call if I need him.

I’m sitting where I usually am, hand holding his as I wait for him to wake. But it's late & I’m exhausted. I fight sleep, but I find myself yawning. So I lay my head on his arm facing our entwined hands. I focus on our hands as I fall asleep.

****

7:45 AM

I stir as I feel light pressure on my hand. I open my eyes, focusing on my hand that's still entwined with his. His fingers are twitching- the first sign of movement since his accident.

I bolt up & look at his face, hopeful that he's finally waking. He's breathing heavier than in the coma, the way he does when he's about to wake. And his eyes are moving under his eyelids. I stand, leaning over him slightly as I keep hold of his hand.

“Come on, Mark,” I whisper, placing my other hand on his forehead, fingers playing with his hair.

His eyes open halfway- drooping shut & then opens as he struggles to fully wake. I hold my breath, waiting for the moment when I can lock eyes with his beautiful, brown eyes. And he doesn't keep me waiting too long. His eyes lock with mine & I exhale in relief as we smile.

“Hey,” he says, voice croaky.

“Hey,” I reply.

I kiss him- oh how I’ve missed the taste of his lips! When we stop, I rest my forehead against his. He rubs his nose against mine.

“I almost lost you,” I whisper.

Almost,” he whispers back. “Did you really think I wouldn't fight to come back to my fiancée?”

“You could have been forcibly taken. Your injuries-”

He cuts me off with a kiss. After the kiss, I pull back & sit down on the edge of his bed- still holding his hand, which is now resting on my lap.

“All week I’ve wanted nothing more than to curl up in your arms in your bed,” I say. “Instead, I’ve been here watching you fight for your life.”

“Well, when I get out of here, that's what we’ll do,” he replies, with a gentle squeeze of my hand. “I want to celebrate our engagement.”

I nod. “It's been so hard… Keeping it a secret.”

“You didn't have to.”

“I didn't want to rob you of the joy of telling everyone.”

“Much as I appreciate that, know that I would understand if you did tell everyone,” he says. “If it meant giving you something happy to think about.”

I force a smile. Now would be a good time to tell him I’m pregnant…

“So does anyone else know? I’m sure Lauren has figured it out.”

“Actually… She caught me twisting my ring around, absentmindedly playing with it, the day of your accident,” I reply. “So I told her.”

He nods. “And what about the rest of our families?”

“Dad knows. So does Erin, Tyler, Mavi & Aaron.”

“Good.”

“Az… Was the first to know. He tried calling me, to tell me about you, but I was asleep. So he came & got me. He noticed my ring before he told me what had happened to you.”

He smirks. “So observant.”

I nod. “I haven't told anyone else.”

“Well… We can start that now.”

“Oh, and Karl. I kinda had to tell him. It's why I'm even here this early.”

He smiles. “Special treatment, huh?”

I nod. “But it's a one time deal. Don't go falling from a third storey balcony ever again.”

He smirks. “I won't. Can't wait to tell everyone we’re getting married.”

“When you're not lying in a hospital bed.”

He smiles.

The door opens & we both look. Karl enters.

“Ah, you're awake! Good!” Karl says. “How are you?”

“Sore all over, some mild pain in a few places, but assuming it would be worse if I didn't have the morphine drip,” Mark replies.

“That's good to hear. How long have you been awake?”

“Only a couple of minutes,” I reply.

“Good, good. I’d uh… Like to check you over, make sure there's no signs of any brain damage.”

Mark nods. “Sure.”

Karl examines him- asks him some basic questions (name, where he is, etc.) then shines a light in his eyes to check his pupil reactions. Finally he checks his hands & feet.

“Passed with flying colours,” Karl says. “You're lucky.”

“Extremely lucky,” I add. “Your body's been through enough damage this week.”

“So, Doc,” Mark says. “How much longer before I can go home?”

“Well… You’ll need to have some scans done, to see how your injuries are healing, in particular your ribs, but best outlook… You’ll have to stay for tonight, for observation, & then be released tomorrow. Just because you're not showing any signs of brain trauma now, doesn't mean you won't. Sometimes it can be late to appear.”

“I can't wait to get home.”

“Yes, hospitals aren't as comfy as our own beds.”

Mark smiles, eyes falling on me & I know that's not what he meant.

“I’ll go book those scans,” Karl says. He looks at me. “I’ll let you notify the others he’s awake.”

I nod.

Karl looks at Mark. “It's good to have you with us again.”

“Thanks, Karl.”

Karl leaves. Mark turns his attention back to me & smirks.

I frown. “What?”

“One more night,” he replies, still smirking. “And then I can sleep with you.”

“Easy there, tiger,” I reply. “We're going to take it easy.”

He pouts. “We never got to celebrate our engagement.”

I raise an eyebrow. “And whose fault is that?” I tease.

“Oh, come on! Don't make me beg!” He half whines. “Not when I’ve been in a coma, fighting for my life!”

“I think that gives me a reason to do that.”

He gives me a pleading look, eyes burning with lust.

****

The next day, just like he said, Karl gave him the all clear. He gave Mark tablets of pain medication, insisting that he “takes it easy”. Mark agreed, but I could tell immediately that he had no intention to. He's developed a very cheeky side.

****

The house is empty when we arrive at his. Tyler & Aaron are working, though they dropped in yesterday to the hospital to see him.

“We’ve got the house to ourselves,” he says with a slight smirk.

“You're meant to be taking it easy,” I reply, placing my handbag on the kitchen bench.

He steps up behind me, hooks one arm around my waist to hold me flush against him & pulls my hair aside to expose the right side of my neck, letting my hair fall over my left shoulder. He leans in, till his lips brush my exposed neck.

“Stop denying that we do what you & I have both been longing to do since I put that ring on your finger,” he whispers, his hot breath on my skin, causing me to inhale sharply from the pleasure shooting through me.

He chuckles & then kisses my neck repeatedly, his hands slipping under the bottom of my shirt. I moan, reaching back & digging my fingers into his scalp.

I try resisting, but the combination of pregnancy hormones & not having him for just over a week makes it impossible to resist for long. I need the taste of his lips! I grip his hair, pulling him roughly off my neck & send them crashing into mine as I look over my shoulder.

He pulls back & I chase his lips, turning in a circle because he steps to my left just as I turn right. He takes my hand, pulling me down the corridor towards his bedroom. But he stops halfway, pinning me to the wall. He cups my face with both hands. His eyes drop from my eyes to my lips, stay there a ling minute till he bites his lips & looks back into my eyes. In a blink, he's kissing me, hungrily from the lack of kisses over the past week as his left hand drops & slips under my shirt.

As our kiss gets rougher, we strip down to our underwear. He slips his right hand between my legs & rubs his hand over my undies. He kneads with the heel of his hand hard over my clit, making me gasp.

He smirks, rubbing me more. The pleasure is so intense, I feel my legs begin to tremble. Just when I feel my legs give out, he lifts me up & I wrap my legs around his waist. He pins me to the wall, his body pressed against mine as he sucks my neck. I rub my clit against his erection, causing him to groan against my neck. He unclasps my bra, slipping it off & tossing it aside. He has to lower me to strip off my undies. He spreads my legs a little wider, looking up at me as he kneels. He rubs three fingers through my folds, making me moan. Then he slowly slides his tongue deep through my folds, the pleasure is so intense I nearly orgasm straight away. He continues to tease me, licking slowly through my folds. He then flicks my clit with his tongue, & I cry out. My legs buckle but he grabs hold of my thighs to keep me up.

“Please, Mark,” I whisper.

He teases me more before rising, pinning me to the wall with his body as he claims my lips. I tug his boxers down, sending him a clear message of what I want. He lifts me up once more, my legs wrapping around his waist. He then pushes inside me, causing me to moan as he slides all the way in. I’ve missed him soooo much!

It feels so good making love to him. For the last week, I feared I’d never get to do this ever again. So I hold him close, fingers digging into his back as we kiss & he thrusts deep into me.

We make love in the corridor, even though one of his brothers could come home & see us. It feels so good. I can feel it coming, the building of the pleasure, getting closer to the proverbial cliff. So I push my hips forward, changing his angle of penetration to hit just the right spot deep within me.

I cry out, my whole body shaking as I orgasm. And then his hits & we both cry out from the pleasure. We both pant as we come down. He rests his forehead on mine.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to rip those noises from you,” he says. “And there's a lot to catch up on.”

“You're supposed to be-” I reply, before he thrusts once into me. “Ohhhhh!

“I’m not taking it easy.”

“You end up back in hospital because you’ve aggravated one or more of your injuries, you can have this ring back.”

“No you won't. You love it as much as you love me.”

“I nearly lost you too many times over the last week, if you add one more I will.”

“I want to see that,” he says between kisses to my neck.

“Stop!”

He pulls back & stares at me. “For the last week I’ve not been able to touch, to hold, to kiss, to make love to my gorgeous fiancée,” he says. “So just for today, let me break all the rules.”

I stare at him, deciding what to do. Before I really know what I’m doing, I’m pulling him in for a rough kiss. He wraps his arms around me, holding me tight against him & then carries me into his room. Every step makes me moan, for he’s still inside me.

He kicks his door shut, before carrying me over to his bed. He lays me on my back & makes love to me over & over. Being pregnant makes it even more pleasurable. We continue making love until we're both too tired. I fall asleep against his chest.

This is my happy place.

Chapter Text

I wake, blinded by the low sunlight streaming through the open blinds. I’m cuddled up against his right side, head resting on his chest, his right arm wrapped around me, keeping me close, & our legs entwined.


He kisses my forehead, & I instinctively push into his lips. He then nuzzles his nose into my hair.


“I’ve missed you sooo much,” he whispers into my scalp.


“I’ve missed you too,” I whisper back.


He lifts up my left hand, which had been resting on his abs, holding it in the air so he can look at my ring. I sit up slightly, resting my chin on his chest as I look at him.


“What are you thinking about?”


“Just that I seem to be cursed,” he replies. “Every time I propose, disaster always strikes straight after.”


“Okay, you’ve been engaged twice,” I reply. “And you can’t blame yourself for what happened.”


He sighs. “But Kate-”


“Hey,” I say. “She died because a guy was seeking revenge on Paul for killing his brother. You proposing just before it was just chance.”


“And what about now?”


“Also not your fault,” I reply. “You were doing your job. And you were trying to save him. You weren’t to know that the balcony would collapse.”


Tears swell in his eyes. I sit up more, cupping his face with both hands.


“You’re not to blame,” I say. I kiss him. “You’re not to blame.”


He tucks my hair behind my left ear. “What would I do without you?”


****


We remain in his bed till dusk, emerging to get food. I’m wearing my underwear & his hoodie- the exact same one I wore over a year ago, after we first slept together. He’s wearing sweat pants. I’m cutting up some fruit when the nausea hits.


I put down the knife, gripping the edge of the bench for support. I close my eyes & take slow, deep breaths- a tip Mum had told me to combat morning sickness. I actually don’t get why it’s called ‘morning sickness’, it doesn’t exclusively come in the morning.


“Paige?” Mark says, placing his hands on my hips, his concern clear in his voice. “Are you okay?”


I nod. It’s all I can handle doing.


“Are you sure?”


I nod again. It’s starting to pass.


He turns me around, places his hand under my chin & tilts my head up. “Look at me,” he whispers.


I open my eyes, met by his concerned look.


“Tell me what's going on?”


“I just… Felt dizzy.”


His frown deepens. He then lifts me up, sitting me on the bench beside the chopping board. He stands between my legs, one hand on my hip, the other cups my face. I close my eyes as I turn into his hand.


“I should get you a glass of water,” he says.


“No,” I reply.


“You need a drink. You're probably dehydrated.”


I turn further into his hand. “Stay.”


“Hey,” he says. I look at him & he smiles a little. “I’ll be gone just a moment.”


I sigh then nod. He steps away, goes across the kitchen, grabs a glass & fills it with water. He comes back to me, hands me the glass & soothingly rubs my thighs as he watches me down it in a few gulps. I set the glass down on the bench.


“Feel better?”


I nod.


“Good.” He kisses me. “What do you think caused it?”


“Like you said… I was dehydrated. Probably from…” I give him a look.


He smiles, understanding what I mean. But then the concern returns. “Are you sure that's it?”


I nod, grabbing a piece of fruit & eat it. But the concern is still there.


“What?” I ask.


“I dunno. You just seem… Sad,” he says. “Tell me what's going on.”


I sigh. “It wasn't dizziness.”


He steps closer & rubs my legs again, waiting for me to continue.


“I felt… Sick.”


“Awww, babe. Do you have a cold?”


I shake my head.


“What is it?”


“It was…” I sigh. “I dunno why I’m feeling so… I dunno why I’m having so much trouble saying this!”


I cover my face with both hands. He kisses the top of my head, gently rubbing my back. And the comfort makes it all clearer- everything holding me back is brushed aside. I drop my hand, look him in the eyes & it just comes out so effortlessly.


“I’m pregnant.”


His eyes widen & jaw drops. “That's… Fantastic!” He frowns. “Right? I mean… You want it, right?”


I nod.


“So… Why are you upset?”


I shrug. “I dunno,” I reply. “Maybe because I…” I sigh. “I found out while you were in a coma.”


Tears spill out, & he pulls me into a hug. He rubs my back, resting his chin on my head. I wrap my arms around him, holding him tight.


“I found out, & I was sooo scared that I was going to lose you… And that would mean I would be a single mum, & I… I just freaked out.”


“Awww!” He says. “That's scary. But I’m here. And even if I wasn't, you wouldn't be alone.”


I sniff. “I know, but…” I pull back to look him in the eyes. “I don't want to raise our child without you. I want them to know you, to see the hero that I see. And… I don't think I'm a good parent.”


He cups my cheek again, wiping my tears away with his thumb. “We're not born with the knowledge of being a parent. It's a learning curve, just like other aspects of life.”


I pout. “But you're a natural.”


He smiles. “With kids, yes. But… That's mainly just holding them.”


“I’ve seen you with Nell, you know.”


“It's all instincts, Paige. You just got to trust yourself. And you know Lauren, Sonya… There are mums here that will always give you advice if you need it.”


I nod. “I know. It's just…” I sniff. “It wouldn't be the same without you.”


He places his other hand on my other cheek & pulls me in, claiming my lips with his for a long, slow kiss. After our kiss, he rests his forehead against mine, & lightly rubs his nose against mine. He smiles.


“We're having a baby!” He says.


We both smile before he claims my lips with his again.

Chapter Text

He places a line of kisses horizontally along my tummy, just above my belly button. It's the tenth time this morning.

“Are you going to keep that up for the whole pregnancy?” I ask.

He looks at me. “Would that be such a bad thing?”

I raise my eyebrow.

“I just want to show how much I love our little one.”

“Yeah, well, our little one is barely the size of my pinkie nail right now.”

He shifts, so our faces are close. “Tiny or not, I still love her or him,” he says. “Just like I will always love you.”

He claims my lips with his.

****

She frowns, pouting as we stand in my kitchen.

“I don't wanna go woooooorrrrrrrkkkkkk!” She whines, stepping closer & hugging me.

I wrap my arms around her. “So stay,” I reply, before kissing her forehead. “We could have breakfast in bed & just stay there all day.”

She groans. “Not helping!”

She pulls back to look at me, our arms still around each other.

“I’ve already taken a lot of time off already.”

“Yes, but Lauren knows why,” I reply. “I’m sure she won't mind one more day.”

“I know, I knowwwwww,” she says. “But I need the money. Besides, if I don't start back, I’m going to end up staying with you for your whole recovery.”

I pull her closer & smirk. “Would that be so bad?”

“We have to pay for things!”

“Well, we have my work insurance payout…”

“Most of which is chewed up by the hospital bills.”

“Oh, you party pooper!”

“Just being realistic.”

I narrow my eyes. “Since when did we swap roles?”

“Since you woke up,” she cheekily replies.

I kiss her. “Stay,” I whisper against her lips.

She groans. “I should go.”

I whimper.

“Oh, babe, please don't. This is hard enough as is!”

“So just stay! Call Lauren & tell her your morning sickness is hitting hard.”

She looks shocked. “I am not using our child as an excuse to stay in bed! If I’m going to do that, I’d do it when I’m the size of a whale! And that won't happen till I’m in my last trimester!”

I rub her back. “I just want to spend some time with you.”

She nods. “I know, I want to too. But…” She sighs. “I want to work. We’re going to need to save up as much as we can. In about seven months, I’m probably not going to be working as much.” She slides her hands up my arms. “And with you off work for a bit, it's up to me to keep the money coming in.”

I sigh & nod. “You’re right.”

She kisses me. She pulls back, but I chase her lips. When I try to deepen it, in the hope of coaxing her into staying, she pushes me back.

“I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

“Fine,” I reply. “But I’m coming in & having lunch with you.”

“Sounds good,” She replies, before giving me a quick kiss.

She grabs her handbag & mobile off the bench. “Bye.”

“Bye.”

I watch her leave. I sigh. And then an idea hits me.

****

I cross the street, heading to the Rebecchi’s house. I see Susan & Sonya exit just as I reach the curb.

“Oh, hi Mark!” Sonya calls out.

“Hi Sonya & Susan,” I reply, walking up to them.

“Hi Mark, it's good to see you up & about again,” Susan says.

“Thanks.” I smile. “It's good to be back.”

“I thought you would be on bed rest,” Sonya says.

“Karl told me to take it easy.”

Sonya stares at me, one eyebrow raised. “And I see you're doing that,” She sarcastically replies.

“I’m not chasing down criminals.”

“Yes, but you're walking around,” She replies. “Surely that is enough of a risk of aggravating your injuries?”

“Right. Thanks for making me regret coming over.” I turn to go.

“Oh, Mark. Mark!” She grabs my arm, & I turn back to her. “I'm just worried about you.”

“Well, I’m fine. I just can't lie around all day. I’ve done enough of that lately.”

“Alright, alright. How's Paige doing?”

“She's good. Happy to have her fiancé back.”

“Congratulations!” Susan says.

I smile as we lean in to hug. “Thanks. I just wish Paige & I had announced it, rather than it getting around the way it did.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Sonya says.

I shrug. “Don't be. I should have known by now that nothing stays secret for long on Ramsay Street.”

“That's, uh… That’s very true,” Sonya says. “Anyway… There was, uh… Was there something you wanted?”

“Yes,” I reply. “About Paige.”

“Oh?” Sonya replies, surprised.

I hold my hands together in front of me, fingers digging into the other hand. “I need both of you… I need your help with something.”

****

I walk into Harold’s, ready to have lunch with Paige, but feeling a little nervous given the surprise I have to keep secret from her. Lauren is cleaning a table by the door as I enter.

“Mark,” She says, surprised. “I thought you'd be resting at home?”

“I’m okay if I take it easy, which I’m doing. But thank you for your concern.”

She nods. “You're welcome.”

“While I have you, I’m going to need your help tomorrow afternoon.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Yes, but… I can't go into details now. It's a surprise for Paige.”

She smile- that smile she has one she knows what I mean.

“I’ll let you know later on what I need you to do,” I add.

“Okay, sounds good,” She replies, nodding. “In the meantime…” She tilts her head towards the kitchen. “She's in there making rolls.”

I smile. “Thanks.”

“No worries,” She replies as I pass her, headed for the kitchen.

I slip inside. She's got her back to the door, completely focused on making rolls to notice me. So I quietly cross to her, making sure she's not holding a sharp knife when I cover her eyes.

“Mark!”

I smile & kiss her neck as I drop my hands. I wrap my arms around her waist, placing one hand over her tummy. “Are they for us?”

“No, they're for people who have paid.”

“I’ve paid!”

She scoffs. “When?”

I rest her chin on her shoulder. “Okay, technically not-”

“Ah huh.”

“But wouldn't it be nice if we had them on the house?”

I sense her raised eyebrow. “You are aware that ‘on the house’ means that Harold’s pays, right?”

“Lauren won't mind.”

“But I will.”

“Just go with it, babe.”

“No.”

I straighten & turn her around, leaving my hands on her hips. “Tell me what's going on.”

She frowns. “There's nothing going on.”

I give her a firm look. “You’ve been resisting every romantic gesture I’ve made since-”

“Not all of them.”

I sigh. “You resisted that initially,” I reply. “And I put that down to the shock of recent events, that it was a one off. But now… Now you're doing it again. And… I'm worried.”

She sighs. “Ever since we got engaged, I’ve felt like I’m not… I’m not in control of my life. I was one step away from losing you for a week, &…” Tears fill her eyes. “And then the pregnancy news. I spent the week feeling like I was trapped in a box, forced to watch on as my world came crashing down & I could do nothing-” Her tears break free & fall down her cheeks. “Nothing to stop it.”

I gently cup her face, wiping her tears away with my thumbs. “And you think resisting me is going to help?”

She closes her eyes. “I thought it would.”

“Oh, Paige!”

“I know! I’m stupid!”

“Hey,” I whisper. “Look at me.”

She slowly does.

“You're the smartest, most beautiful woman I know,” I reply. “We all make mistakes.”

“Not like this.”

“Don't be so hard on yourself. It's been a hard week & a half, & we’ve both been rattled. But you know what? We're still standing. This,” I hold her left hand up between us, pointing to her ring. “This is not only a symbol of my undying love for you. It's a symbol of how much I’m going to be there for you. And I’m going to be there for you, & our little one. Always.” I cup her face again. “I fought my way back to you. I love you so much.”

Tears of joy appear. “I love you so much.”

We kiss. I then pull her in, wrapping my arms around her, holding her tight, her head tucked under my chin. My fragile fiancée.

But not for long.

Chapter Text

“I know you were on the afternoon shift, but… Margi is sick,” Mum’s voice comes through my mobile. “And that leaves me short staffed till the lunch rush. So… I was hoping you could come in & work the shift. You can have the afternoon off.”

I sigh, looking across the kitchen bench at my fiancé, who is making us breakfast. “I was going to spend this morning making sure Mark takes it easy…”

“If she needs you, go,” Mark says. “I promise to take it easy.”

I tilt my mobile so the microphone is down. “Are you sure?”

“I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it.”

I stare at him, then sigh. I tilt my mobile back up. “I’ll be in shortly. Haven't had breakfast yet.”

“Sure thing, darling. You’ll finish at one, is that okay?”

“That's fine. See you soon.”

****

Mark walks in at midday. Looking very happy.

“Wow. Someone's in a good mood,” I say as he crosses to the counter.

“I'm happy to see you,” he replies, leaning over the counter to kiss me.

“You're unusually happy.”

He looks confused. “Can't I be happy when I visit my fiancée at work?”

“That's… Not what I meant,” I reply. “And shouldn't you be taking it easy?”

“I'm fine.”

I stare at him, not really sure if I believe him. “What can I get you?”

“Nothing.”

I frown. “What?”

“Nothing. I don't want anything.”

“So… Why come?” I ask, confused.

“I wanted to talk to you & Lauren.”

“You could have called.”

“Dropping in is much nicer. Besides… I get to see your beautiful face.”

I smile.

“Hi Mark,” Mum says, stepping up beside me.

“Hey Lauren,” He replies with a smile. “Perfect timing.”

“Oh?”

“I came to let you both know I’m having people over for lunch.”

I gape. “Isn't that a bit too soon?”

He looks confused. “It's just a few people, to say thanks for all the support since my accident.”

“I don't think it's the best idea.”

“I think it's good,” Mum says.

Mum."

“It's just lunch, sweetheart.”

“A BBQ. And I’ve already got Az & Ty helping, & they'll be helping to clean up.”

I sigh. “I’m not going to change your mind, am I?”

He looks really cute. “No.”

I groan, rolling my head back. “Fiiine.”

He sneaks round the counter & stands by my side. He turns me to face me, looking down at me a little as he says, “I promise you'll love it.”

“You're setting the bar very high there.”

He smirks. “It's worth it for you.” He kisses me. “I gotta run. Just come after your shift.”

I nod, pulling him in for one last kiss. I then watch him go, waving bye when he pauses at the door to look at me.

****

“Explain to me again why you want us to change just to attend a simple BBQ at Mark’s?” I ask, as we walk into our lounge.

“Because… We’ve been working,” Mum replies. “I just think it will be nice to freshen up a bit.”

I place my handbag on the kitchen bench. “Okay, what's going on?”

“What? Nothing.”

Mum.”

“Does there have to be something going on for me to suggest that we freshen up?”

I raise my eyebrow. “You & Mark have been… Weird all day.”

“So?” She replies, avoiding eye contact.

“Spill, Mum.”

“I can't tell you.”

I gape. “So there is something!”

She looks at me, & sighs. “Yes.”

“Tell me.”

“It's a surprise.”

Urgh!

“Mark wants it to be a surprise.”

“Oh, so you’re siding with him over your own daughter?

“He's practically my son-in-law!” She says. “And after all you two have been through lately, I’m frankly quite surprised you're not open to all of this. You say we’ve been acting weird lately, but you’ve been so shut off the last few days.”

I look confused. “No I haven't.”

“You’ve been shutting his suggestions, like the BBQ, down.”

“Yes, that's because I'm worried he’s over doing things. Karl told him to take it easy. And he hasn't.”

“And I think you should show more trust towards him,” She replies. “Trust that he isn't going to over do it.”

I fight back tears. “I thought I’d lose him. That we’d lose him.”

“But you haven't.”

She hugs me. She pulls back, looks at me & says, “Now… Go & get cleaned up. And pick out a nice dress.”

I nod, forcing myself to smile. I then head to my room.

****

I’m looking through my clothes, trying to work out what to wear, when my mobile rings. I cross to my bedside table & pick it up, looking at the caller ID. I answer, bringing it up to my ear.

“Mark, hey. We’ll be over shortly. Mum insisted I change into something nicer, which I think is ridiculous since it's just a BBQ.”

“I know. She called.”

“She did?” I asked, surprised.

“Mmmhmm. It's why I'm calling.”

I’m confused. “Why?”

He sighs. “I… I didn't want to have you know until you arrived, I want to surprise you. But… From what Lauren said, I feel like I can't hide this any longer.”

“No! No! You’ve done so much effort, I don't want you to be so close & then have all that worked ruined by telling me early!” I plead. “Wait, we’ll be over soon.”

“It's close enough, & you’ll understand why we’ve been so… Evasive.”

Ooookay,” I reply. “You have me worried.”

“Don't be. It's good! I promise,” He says. “It's not a BBQ. Well… Sort of.”

I frown. “What?!"

He hesitates.

And then he says three word I was never expecting.

“It's a wedding.”

Chapter Text

“It's a wedding.”

The words echo in my mind.

“Wha… What?

“Paige, I know it's fast, but… Recent events have shown me that life is too fragile to waste what time we have. We don't have to do it if you don't want to. Just say so, & I’ll make this all go back to just a late lunch BBQ between neighbours,” he says. I can sense him smiling. “But… I don't want to spend another day waiting to call you my wife.”

“Yes,” I whisper.

“Fate tore away our time to celebrate our engagement. We’ve been through so much pain, I want us to have a happy memory.”

“You didn't hear me, Mark.”

“Oh. Sorry,” He says. “What did you say?”

“Yes.”

Silence.

“Mark?”

More silence.

“Say something!”

“Uh, sorry. Forgot it's a call for a moment.”

“Awwwww!!! You're cute!”

“I better be, you're marrying me in hopefully about half an hour…”

I giggle.

“I wasn't going to do this, but since you already know… I’m going to get Sonya & Imogen to come over. They have a dress for you. I wasn't sure if you’d have one that would do as a wedding dress, so I asked them to get one for you.”

“Awwww! That's so sweet & thoughtful!”

I can sense his smile. “Anything for my soon-to-be wife. I love you.”

“I love you too,” I reply. I then remember the superstition about seeing the bride (& dress) before the ceremony. “Isn't it bad luck to see the bride before the wedding? I slept over?”

“Don't you worry about that. I may have seen you, but I made sure Imogen kept the dress well away from me. That should be enough,” he replies. “Besides, what matters is that we're about to get married. All that superstition stuff means nothing in the scheme of things. Now… I’ll let you go & get ready.”

“Okay.”

“I don't want you to be late for our wedding.”

“I won't.”

“See you soon.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too, babe.”

****

Between Mum, Imogen, Sonya & myself we get ready in no time. Imogen does my hair- insisted, really, “cause it's your wedding day & you shouldn't have to do your own hair… & I’m doing it anyway.”

She pulls the top part back, pins it in place, & lightly curls the rest. Mum & Imogen then try to get me to allow them to do my make-up, but I tell them it’ll be quicker if I do it. I sneak in something quick to eat since I haven't had lunch & won't eat till after the ceremony. Plus I’m eating for two now. I then do my make-up before going with Imogen to my room to change into my dress.

“I really hope you like it,” Imogen says, stepping over to the dress in a protective jacket hanging on my wardrobe’s door. “I tried to find one that's your style, but since I only had yesterday… I’m not sure if I got it right.”

“I'm sure you’ve done the best you could.”

She smiles. “Thanks.”

“I fully trust my maid of honour.”

She gapes. “I’m your maid of honour?” She asks, then continues in a high pitch, “Seriously?

I nod. “Wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it.”

We hug. She then gestures for me to open the protective jacket. So I step closer & carefully unzip it. I push it aside to reveal the dress & gasp. It's a beautiful A-line ball gown with a sweetheart neckline on a stunning lace bodice & off-the-shoulder lace sleeves that will reach halfway down my upper arm. The skirt is layered English net, cascading down to the floor.

“That means you love it?” Imogen asks, looking nervous.

I nod. “It's so beautiful.”

She sighs, relieved.

I hug her. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” She replies, hugging me.

And then the nausea hits. I quickly withdraw from the hug.

She frowns. “Are you okay?”

“Excuse me,” I reply.

I rush out the door, & run to the bathroom.

****

“Is she okay?” Imogen’s voice drifts through the corridor from the lounge as I return to my bedroom.

I pause, hand on my bedroom door, & listen.

“Why do you ask?” Mum replies.

“Because she just bolted from her room to the bathroom. One minute she was fine, the next she looked sick.”

I slowly walk closer to the lounge, being careful not to draw attention to myself so I can listen in on their conversation.

“She's fine. It's probably just nerves,” Mum replies.

“I agree,” Sonya says. “I mean, she found out that she's getting married today. It's a lot to take in. I was nervous with my wedding to Jarrod, & I had weeks of preparation.”

“Yeah,” Imogen says. “You're probably right.”

My heart tightens at her tone. She's so sad. And I know I can't hide this any longer.

“It's not nerves,” I say, stepping into the lounge & drawing their attention. “There's something you should know.”

“Are you sure you want to announce it now?” Mum asks.

I nod. "They're going to find out eventually, anyway…” I reply. “Besides, I can't have them helping me out today without telling them.”

“Okay, what's going on?” Imogen says.

“It's not nerves, it's…” I inhale a shaky breath, slowly releasing it. “I'm…” I smile. “I’m three, almost four weeks pregnant.”

Imogen & Sonya are shocked. They stand there for a moment, gaping.

“Congratulations!” Sonya says, walking over & hugging me.

“Thanks,” I reply as I hug her back.

“Mark didn't mention anything,” Sonya says. “He does know…”

I nod. “I told him two days ago.”

“Is that why you're having the wedding so fast?”

I gape at Imogen.

"Having it before the baby comes,” She says. “It's starting to sound like a shotgun wedding.”

“Uh.. Nooo,” I reply. “Mark wants to do it because we've been through so much & he thinks life is too short to waste time. We're getting married not because we have to…” I walk over to her as I continue, “But because we want to.”

She looks slightly terrified. “I… I’m sorry. It just seemed that way.”

“It's fine. I don't blame you for jumping to that conclusion.”

We hug.

“Okay,” I say, as we part. “I think it's time for me to get into that stunning dress & get over there.”

****

I get dressed on my own. I strip, swapping to a nicer pair of underwear & putting on my shoes before carefully getting my dress off the hanger. I only notice now that it's backless- the bodice dipping down the sides to the top of the skirt. So my back will be exposed.

“May as well flaunt it while I still can,” I quietly say to myself.

It's fairly easy to get on- there's no buttons to do up. The trickiest part is stepping into the skirt without stepping on it.

When I’m wearing it, I look at myself in the mirror. It fits perfectly. Imogen, you did amazingly well.

I suck in a deep breath. I can't believe I’m about to marry Mark!

****

I walk out into the lounge, hearing Mum, Lauren & Imogen out on the deck. So I walk toward the back door. But I stop just out of their view.

“Ready to see it?” I ask, loud enough so they'll hear.

“Yes, sweetie!” Mum replies.

I step out slowly, nervously watching their reactions. Mum covers her mouth with her right hand, tears swelling. Imogen & Sonya smile. I turn around in a circle, so they can see the back as well.

"You look so beautiful!” Mum says, coming over to me & cupping my face with both hands before kissing my forehead.

I smile. “Thanks Mum.”

She's dressed in one of my favourite dresses of hers- a baby blue dress that looks amazing on her. Sonya & Imogen are wearing violet dresses- similar but just enough differences that suit each of them.

“Oh, uh, Mark… Mark thought I should be one of your bridesmaids,” Sonya says. “He thought you wouldn't mind if you mirrored each other- two siblings & then someone else.”

“Riiight,” I reply, still confused.

“Lucas has come down to be Mark’s best man,” Imogen explains. “Vanessa & the kids have come too.”

“Oh, yay!” I reply, smiling. “But… Wait… If I have you two… Who is the third?”

“Piper,” Imogen says. “She’ll meet us over there.”

I nod. Sonya's phone rings. She checks the ID.

“Mark,” She says, hanging up. “We should get going.”

I nod. “Can you text him to let him know we're coming? I don't want him worrying.”

Sonya nods. “Of course.”

****

It's a team effort getting me up the front steps of the Brennans’ house- Mum in front, holding my hand, while Imogen & Sonya hold my dress up. But it doesn't take long.

“It may have been easier having it somewhere where I didn't have to walk up stairs,” I say as we stand on the deck. “Not that I’m complaining about having it here at Mark’s… Just… Not fun getting up there.”

“Well, you won't have to worry about getting back down them later…” Imogen says, receiving shocked looks from Mum & Sonya.

“I bought a shorter dress for her to wear when they leave on their honeymoon!” Imogen says.

Mum opens the front door. As I step in, I find Aaron & Tyler sitting at the kitchen bench in their suits.

“Well, don't you two scrub up nicely,” I say, drawing their attention.

Both leap up & stare at me as Mum, Imogen & Sonya walk in.

“You look beautiful,” Aaron says, stepping over.

“Thanks,” I reply, carefully hugging him.

“I agree,” Tyler says, walking over for a hug. “Mark’s going to lose his jaw when he sees you.”

I smile, blushing. I then realise Lucas & Piper are missing. “Where's Lucas & Piper?”

“Out the back,” Tyler says. “Piper’s helping with last minute set up, while Lucas…”

I frown, worried. “What?”

Tyler looks at Aaron.

“Mark’s…” Aaron says. “Just a little nervous.”

I sigh, relieved. “For a moment I thought you were going to say he had cold feet & had gone!”

Aaron takes my hands. “He’d never do that.”

I smile weakly.

“We… Uh…” Aaron says. “We know. About the… Uh… Other news.”

I frown, confused. Then it hits. “Ohhhh! The baby! You can say it. I told them.”

Aaron nods, smiling. “Okay, wasn't sure.”

“She had the small case of morning sickness earlier,” Imogen replies.

“Congratulations,” Aaron & Tyler each say.

I pull them in for a group hug.

“Right,” I say, pulling back. “Can one of you go get Lucas, Piper & Dad? We shouldn't make Mark stress out any longer.”

Tyler nods. “On it.”

I kiss his cheek. “Thanks.”

“No worries,” He replies, smiling. He then heads out into the backyard.

Chapter Text

“I’m so glad you made it,” I say. “I know it was short notice-”

“I cleared my schedule,” Mary replies. “I wouldn't miss this.”

I smile. “She'll be very happy to see you.”

“Mark!” Lucas calls.

I turn to look at him. He's walking over.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he says to Mary as he steps up beside us.

“Not at all,” Mary replies. “It's a big day.”

Lucas nods. He then looks at me. “Son didn't answer, she in fact hung up.”

What?

“Don't freak out,” Lucas says. “It's nothing bad. She texted straight away saying they're coming now.”

I sigh, relieved. But also nervous.

“I guess I should go sit down,” Mary says.

I nod. I lean in, kissing her on the cheek as she does the same. She then walks over to the seats, sitting down in the front row, third one from the left side of the main aisle.

I look around- the last of our guests are settling in. Piper & Erin are busily making the last adjustments to the floral arrangements. Brad walks over.

“How are your nerves?” He asks.

“Not too bad,” I reply.

Lucas stares at me. “You're looking more & more nervous by the second.”

“I’m fine,” I reply. “It's perfectly normal to be a little nervous. You were.”

“True.”

****

It doesn't take long before Tyler comes out of the house. He walks over, looking a little nervous. He stays silent as he approaches. Brad, Lucas & I stare at him as he stands there with us for a minute. I flick his arm, encouraging to speak.

“It's showtime, gentlemen!” Tyler says, smiling.

I sigh. “Don't you ever do that again!”

“Sorry, bro.”

“Let's go,” Brad says.

He & Lucas head off. Tyler turns to follow, but I grab his arm. He turns back to me.

“How does she look?”

He smiles. “Stunning,” he says. “You're going to love her dress.”

I smile, letting him go. I walk over to my place in front of the floral archway. I face away from our guests for a minute, calming my nerves. I inhale deeply, hold & exhale. I'm adjusting my tux when Susan, our celebrant, joins me. We smile at each other.

****

A few minutes later, Lauren walks out. I walk over to meet her at the top of the aisle & kiss her cheek, stepping with her over to her seat- next to Mary. I then return to my spot.

The music I’d chosen starts to play- You & You Alone by Nina Tucker. Lucas & Imogen come round the corner of the house, arm in arm. All our guests rise & turn as Lucas & Imogen walk down the aisle. They're halfway down when Tyler & Piper appear arm in arm. I kiss Imogen’s cheek when she reaches me- Lucas stepping to my right, while Imogen takes several steps to my left. Piper & Tyler are halfway down the aisle when Aaron & Sonya appear. I kiss Piper’s cheek as Tyler steps beside Lucas, Piper joining Imogen just before Sonya & Aaron reach me. I kiss Sonya's cheek & she joins Imogen & Piper, as Aaron joins Lucas & Tyler.

Cause all that I know is time is precious,
And I wanna spend my time with you.

There's a tense minute when Paige & Brad don't appear. I look at Aaron, slightly panicked.

“They were right behind us,” he says.

The song is almost over & I nearly rush down the aisle, worried about what's happening. I take one step forward, when I glimpse the top of Brad’s head through the crowd. I step back, sighing in relief.

Cause nothing could ever come between us,
And nothing means more to me, than you.

And then I see her as she steps into the aisle with Brad. She takes my breath away. Her eyes meet mine & we smile. We don't break eye contact the whole time she's walking.

You are, brighter than the lights over New York city
And you are, my hiding place when the world’s not pretty.
And I swear, that I will always love you like I do,
You & You Alone
Oh-oh
You & You Alone
You & You Alone

Brad & Paige arrive at the front just as the song finishes. Our guests sit down- except Lauren & Mary, who take a few steps forward to join Brad. Paige remains, arms linked, with Brad- one of the technical parts of the wedding is “the hand off”, an overly traditional moment where the father of the bride “gives” the bride to the groom. I hate it as much as Paige does (we’d discussed it a bit the night of our engagement), but Paige knew it would be important to Brad, so we agreed to keep it. I asked Mary if she would like to be a part of this moment too. Lauren & Mary each kiss Paige, the latter excited to see Mary. Paige then returns her gaze to me.

“You're so beautiful,” I softly say to her.

She smiles, blushing. I really want to hold her in my arms & kiss her, but I hold back.

"Sorry for the delay," She softly replies. "Nausea hit."

"It's fine," I softly reply. "You made it. That's what counts."

“We are gathered here today, in front of family & friends, to join Mark & Paige in matrimony; which is an honourable & solemn estate, & therefore is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently & soberly,” Susan says. “Into this estate, Mark & Paige come now to be joined. If anyone can show just cause why they may not be lawfully joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”

Silence.

“Well, that's good,” Susan says. “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”

“We do,” Brad, Lauren & Mary reply in unison.

Brad & I shake hands. Paige then kisses each of her parents. I hold my hand out to her, & Paige unlinks her arm with Brad & takes my hand. She steps forward, still holding my hand, till we're side by side. Brad, Lauren & Mary take their seats as Paige hands her bouquet to Imogen.

“To start off with, I’m going to read two readings that Mark has chosen, before we hear the vows,” Susan says.

Paige & I nod, Paige gently squeezing my hand.

“Love should have no other desire, but to fulfil itself,” Susan says, reading from her folder. “But if your love & needs must have desires, let these be your desires: To melt & be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness. To be wounded by your own understanding of love; And to bleed willingly & joyfully. To wake at dawn with a winged heart & give thanks for another day of loving. To rest at noon hour & meditate love’s ecstasy; To return home at eventide with gratitude; Then to sleep with a vision of the beloved in your heart & a song of love on your lips.”

Paige & I look at each other & smile.

“Mark & Paige, seek from within yourselves:
The serenity to accept things you cannot change
The courage to change things that you must
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Live each day, one day at a time
Enjoying your time together, one moment at a time.
Seek the wisdom of experience,
Learning all that you can from each other.
Accept hardships as the building blocks of experience,
Realising that accepting both the good & bad,
Are simply a part of being alive.
Strive to make as many things right,
As is humanly possible in your life together.
That you may be reasonably happy,
In the life you share from this day forward.”

She looks up at us, & smiles to each of us. “And now, for the vows.”

Paige & I turn to face each other, & I see her petrified look.

“Are we doing our own ones?” Paige quietly asks Susan & myself. “Cause I have nothing prepared.”

“Hey,” I say, drawing her attention. I squeeze her hand. “You can do it.” I smile reassuringly, before looking at Susan. “Why don't I go first? Give her a few minutes to think.”

Susan nods. She then looks at our guests & says, “First we’ll hear from Mark.”

I take a deep breath in, steadying my nerves. I take hold of her other hand. “Paige, we’ve only known each other for a year & a half, but… I can't picture my life without you,” I say. “When I walked into Harold's that day, I didn't think that I would fall in love with the young brunette behind the counter who talked me into having a cake I never ordered.”

Paige & everyone else laughs.

“But I did. I found you when my heart was broken, when I thought I’d never love again. But you made me smile, you made my days a little brighter and brought the life back in when I needed it. You were staying with mine to begin with, & were were housemates & friends, & we have helped each other through hard times.” I squeeze her hands. “I was so shut off from love when we met, but you…” Tears fill my eyes. I breathe in a shaky breath. “You showed me how to love again, & I will always be grateful for that.”

She smiles, squeezing my hands.

“Now, as we start the next chapter of our lives, I look back and regret that I drove you away by keeping my undercover work from you. I know now that I was wrong to not trust you, & I paid dearly. And I know it took me a long time-”

She scoffs. “It was getting on for a year!”

Everyone laughs, even me.

“True,” I reply. “I know it took me a long time to see my wrongs & admit my feelings for you again, & now… Now I'm making up for lost time. And so, as I stand here in front of you, in front of our family & friends, on the exact spot where I proposed, I promise you this…” I swallow, steadying my nerves. “That I will always love you, that my love for you will grow & continue to grow over the days, weeks, & years we will spend together from this day forth. I promise that I will always protect you- to the best I can, cause I know you can look after yourself.”

She smiles as our guests laugh.

“I promise that I will always be there for you. That I will be your rock through the hard times, the good times, & through sicknesses,” I say. I squeeze her hands. “But above all, I promise with all my soul, that I will always come back to you- no matter what life throws at me via my work, I will always walk back in through our front door & into your arms.”

She smiles, tears filling her eyes.

“Oh, god! Now it's my turn!” She says, laughing a little.

Imogen hands her a tissue.

“Thanks,” Paige says as she takes it.

She dabs her tears away, giving it back to Imogen. She turns back to me, taking my hands again. She takes a deep breath, slowly letting it out.

“You have always meant so much to me, even when we weren't together,” She says. “I have always been really in love with you, even after you broke my heart. But that's one of the things that I love about you- you can be infuriating & stubborn, but so can I. We bring our the best- & sometimes worst- in each other. And yet, we have our differences. But no matter what, we still love each other.”

I smile.

“I came here to know my biological parents, to get the answers I had been asking myself all these years. I never thought that I’d be meeting the love of my life, my soulmate,” she says. “And yet, there you were. You have always been there for me, always showing me that you care- even though we weren't together. Like the time I cut my finger & you treated it, or the time I burnt my hand & you came over to see how I was. Those small acts of kindness, of caring for my wellbeing gave me hope that one day we would be together again, even though you kept saying things like…” She mimics me when she continues, “ “I’m just being friendly”.”

Everyone laughs.

“It was obvious that you were flirting, & even though you kept denying it whenever I asked you about it, I never gave up hope. And I got you back in the end… I’m proud that I got mad at you… again, & got you to admit what we both knew all along,” She says. “And now… Now we're making the other biggest commitment possible, & I can't wait to call you my husband.” She sniffs. “I promise not to hit you with a broom ever again-”

“That hurt. A lot,” I reply, making her chuckle.

“I promise to let you save me… occasionally. For the sake of your ego.”

Everyone laughs.

“I promise that, though we will argue, I’ll always love you. Because I know that we’ve been through so much up till now, & we're still standing. So we can survive… I think it's safe to say we can survive anything.” She smirks. “Like a fall off a dilapidated third storey balcony that left you in a coma for a week.”

I smile, gently squeezing your hand.

“I love you, Mark. Always.”

I want to kiss her so bad. But I resist, knowing we're so incredibly close to making this official. She looks at Susan.

“Uh… Can we please move on? I feel like my mascara is going to run soon.”

“Certainly,” Susan says with a nod. “Who has the rings?”

Lucas pulls the rings out of his jacket’s inner pocket, placing them on the open page of Susan's folder. She holds them close enough to us so we can reach them.

“Wedding rings are made precious by us wearing them. Your rings say that even in your uniqueness, you have chosen to be bound together. The ring has no beginning & no ending, which symbolises that the love between you will never cease. Let these rings also be a sign that love has substance as well as soul, a present as well as a past, & that, despite its occasional sorrows, love is a circle of happiness, wonder, & delight. May these rings remind you always of the vows you have taken here today.”

I pick up her ring. I take her left hand so it rests in my left hand, her ring safely in my right hand.

“Through this ring, I accept you as my wife, now & for all time. I give you this ring, a symbol of my love & faithfulness, as I give to you all that I am, & accept from you all that you are,” I say. I then slide the ring onto her finger, sliding it down her finger as I continue, “As I place it on your finger, I commit my heart & soul to you. I ask you to wear this ring as a reminder of the vows we have spoken today, our wedding day.”

I make sure it is snugly on her finger, in front of her engagement ring, before letting her hand go. She picks up my ring, holding my hand like I did hers.

“Through this ring, I accept you as my husband, now & for all time. I give you this ring, a symbol of my love & faithfulness, as I give to you all that I am, & accept from you all that you are,” She says. She then slides the ring onto my finger, as she continues, “As I place it on your finger, I commit my heart & soul to you. I ask you to wear this ring as a reminder of the vows we have spoken today, our wedding day.”

I wait for Susan to say it. When she doesn't, I look at her.

“Oh, uh sorry,” she says. “You may now kiss.”

I take a step closer to Paige, & cup her face with both hands, smiling as I lean in & claim her lips with mine. I kiss her slowly, relishing that this is our first kiss as husband & wife. She grips the side of my jacket, pulling me closer as we kiss. Everyone claps. Finally, we stop kissing- & for a moment we stand there in each others arms, foreheads touching… & we smile.

****

Our first dance consists a little of dancing, followed by mostly just swaying from side to side in each other's embrace. I rest my head on his chest, my arms wrapped around him, under his jacket that's now undone. He rests his chin on my head, one arm around my waist as he traces a pattern absentmindedly on my bare back with his other hand. He presses a kiss to the top of my head as others join us on the dance floor.

“You seem tired,” he says at the end of the song. “We should go sit.”

I nod as I reluctantly withdraw from him. He takes my hand, leading me back to our table. He stops at his chair, letting go of my hand so he can pull off his jacket. He helps me put it on, before sitting down & pulling me till I’m sitting in his lap. I rest my head on his shoulder, as he wraps his arms around me, his hands resting on my tummy. I place my hands over his.

Chapter Text

I stir, half asleep but feeling the hangover I’m starting to suffer. I feel her shift closer, snuggling into my side & draping one arm over my back. But something feels… different. I know what Mavi feels like, & something feels different. I inhale, taking in her scent. Definitely not Mavi.

I open my eyes, blinking to clear the sleepiness. My eyes focus on her face, & I’m shocked to see who it is.

Piper.

****

At the wedding

I look up from my phone when I catch sight of his hand, held out towards me. I look at him, confused to see that he's holding it out to me.

“Your girlfriend’s over there,” I quip, pointing across to Mavi, sitting at the next table.

“She's too tired to dance,” He replies, hand still out to me. “Besides, it's a tradition that the groomsmen complete at least one dance with a bridesmaid.”

I smile. “Well then, you better go find your ex that's also my sister and who happens to be a bridesmaid.”

He sighs. “You're seriously going to make me beg for this?”

I raise my eyebrow. “Oh, now I wanna see you beg.”

“So you’d rather sit here on your phone instead of dancing with your best friend?"

I scoff. “We’re not besties,” I reply. “And fyi, I was watching videos of sneezing pandas.”

“Oh, now I feel really hurt that you're choosing sneezing pandas over me.” He looks really sad.

Urgh! Will you quit it if I come with you?”

He smiles. I roll my eyes, place my mobile on the table & stand on my own. I step round him & his still extended hand, heading for the dance floor.

“You coming, Gurtie?” I ask, throwing him a flirtatious look over my shoulder.

I walk off with a smirk, knowing he'll be gaping at me.

****

We dance through the rest of the night, stopping only to eat, get drinks & bathroom breaks. Mavi joins us for some of it, trying to coax Tyler away so she could dance with him on her own. She was successful once- but only cause I encouraged him to go.

“You okay?” Paige says.

I turn to look at her. “Of course!”

She looks at me. “You sure?”

“Yeah, why wouldn't I be?”

“Cause you're staring at my new brother-in-law,” she says, taking my arms to get me to dance with her.

I pull a face of disgust. “No I wasn't!”

“Uh… You sooo were! Practically drooling as he walked off!”

“He's… Just a friend!”

She gives me her ‘are you seriously trying to bs me right now?’ look.

“Besides, he's now practically my family,” I add. “I mean, he's your brother-in-law… Which makes him kinda my brother-in-law, since we're half sisters.”

She scrunches up her face. “Don't think that counts.”

“And he has a girlfriend!”

“So you're gonna try & deny that you're totally crushing on him just cause he's dating? What if you two are meant to be together?”

I sigh. “He's a lot older than me.”

Paige tilts her head. “Mark's almost a decade older than I am, and we're now married. Don't throw away a relationship based on that.”

I sigh. “I dunno. He probably doesn't feel the same way…”

She looks surprised. “Not going to try & hide it now, huh?”

“You know it anyway… Besides, it might be good to talk about it with someone.”

She pulls me closer, leaning in so only we can hear. “I see the way he looks at you,” She says. “I wouldn't be so quick to rule out that he reciprocates.”

As we continue to dance, I can't get the thought out of my head- what if he does like me that way? What are we going to do? What about Mavi?

****

I rejoin Piper when Mavi gets too tired to dance. We laugh & goof around a bit on the dance floor. I haven't been this happy in a long time. And then the music swaps to a slow song, one clearly for couples. We both stand there awkwardly.

“Urgh, come on,” She says, stepping closer. “What are you scared of, Gurtie?”

She grabs my left arm, pulling it up till I rest my hand on her lower back. She puts her right hand on my shoulder. I nervously swallow- this is too close! She doesn't notice my nervousness, taking hold of my right hand. We start to dance.

She smiles. “See! Not that bad!”

“Didn't think you'd want to slow dance with me.”

“We're friends,” she says. “Besides, your girlfriend clearly isn't interested in dancing with you, so you’re stuck with me.”

I look over towards Mavi’s table, hoping she hasn't seen us. But she's not there. When I look back at Piper, she seems closer than before; her big, beautiful blue eyes looking at me. My eyes drop to her lips, dark red from her lipstick. I wonder what they would taste like… To press my lips against hers...

I snap my eyes back to hers, pushing the thoughts from my mind as I swallow hard. We're just friends.

As the song progresses, our dancing turns into swaying on the spot. She's much closer now- in fact, she's resting her head on my shoulder as we sway. In a moment of weakness, I rest my cheek on the back of her head & close my eyes. This feels so good!

“Well, if I didn't know better, I would assume you two were a couple.”

I snap my eyes open- finding Mavi standing in front of me, in amongst the other dancing guests, her arms folded tightly over her chest & looking very displeased.

Piper withdraws, stepping aside & just out of my reach- but the damage has been done.

Mavi glares at Piper, then me, before pivoting on one heel & storms off- grabbing her handbag from her table & then heads for inside.

“Mavi!” I call after her, but she doesn't stop.

I glance at Piper, who gives me a ‘what are you waiting for? Go!’ look. I rush after Mavi, hoping it's not too late.

Chapter Text

“Mavi!” I shout, rushing into the kitchen.

I turn the corner of the kitchen, finding her at the front door, hand on the handle. She turns slowly around, & even though we're meters apart, I can tell she's crying. I take a step towards her, but she steps back, pressing herself against the wall.

“Just… Stay back,” she says.

I stand still. “About what you saw… It's not what you think.”

She stares at me in disbelief. “Not what I think?!” She says. “Okay, here's what I’m thinking. My boyfriend has been spending the night, dancing away with some schoolgirl, who he’s clearly falling in love with, but does the typical male thing & denies it.” She crosses her arms. “How am I doing?”

I don’t know what to say. But my silence is just as bad as any words. She shakes her head as she sighs, turning & opening the front door.

I rush over, pushing it shut so she can't leave. She glares at me.

“She's just a friend,” I say, calmly.

“Do you love her?”

I don't reply. She tries to leave, but I don't budge my hand.

“Just let me leave.”

“Not until we talk.”

She sighs. “What do you want to talk about?” She asks, shrugging. “I just want you to be honest, but you won't answer. And yet you say you want to talk.”

“I… I don't know how I feel about her,” I reply. “We just… Click. We get each other better than…”

“Be honest, Tyler,” She replies. “Don't feel like you have to step around things because you're worried about my feelings. I just want to know where we stand. About us. About her. So just say it. Say that you get each other better than anyone else. Better than me. Because that's what you were going to say, wasn't it?”

I just stare at her for a minute, & then nod. She looks at her feet.

“You know, we were having trouble. Things weren't right, & I…” She sighs. She looks at me. “I thought it was just the stress of Mark’s accident. But… Now I see that that wasn't all of it.” She wipes away tears. “I'm losing you to her.”

I lean against the door, & close my eyes for a minute. “I'm sorry.”

She scoffs. “What for?”

“I never meant to hurt you,” I reply, softly, placing my hand on her cheek.

“We can't help who we fall in love with,” She says. “It takes a lot of strength to do the right thing, & admit that you're with the wrong person.”

“You're okay with this? Even though I’m breaking your heart?”

She nods, before turning in to my hand. “I just want you to be happy, Tyler,” she says. “Even though it's not with me.”

“Come here,” I say, moving off the door & holding my arms out to hug her.

She falls into my arms, her arms wrapping around me. We hug for a long minute. I hold her tight, knowing this is the last time we’ll hug. As we part, I kiss her cheek. We stop, still holding each other.

“I hope we can be friends,” she says. “Our relationship didn't work, but… Doesn't mean we can't still be in each other's lives.”

I nod. “Yeah,” I reply, with a smile. “I hope so too.”

She smiles. “And let me know what happens between you two.”

I nod. She leans forward, pressing a light kiss to my lips that I reciprocate, & then she slips out the door. I shut it, before sighing as I rest my forehead on the door.

****

“You know it's a wedding not a funeral, right?” Paige says, leaning on the bar, brushing my right arm with her left arm. “I mean, I know it's in the Brennan genes to have that brooding look, but… There's a time & a place.”

“It's nothing for you to worry about.”

She nudges my arm. “We're family now.”

“Yeah, but it's your wedding day. You shouldn't be burdened with my problems.”

She leans closer. “I always have time for you to vent to me.”

I smile a little. “Thanks, but… I’m okay.”

“You sure?”

I nod. “What's your poison?”

She looks confused, & then it hits. “Oh, sparkling apple juice,” She says. “Mum's tip. Looks enough like champagne that people who don't know about the” she lowers her voice, “pregnancy.” She then continues normally. “They’ll think I’m drinking it, but I’m being good & not.”

I reach for a bottle of sparkling juice, filling her champagne glass as I reply, “I’m no expert, but I thought you'd be able to have a glass or two.”

“Yeah, I can,” She replies. “I’m just spacing things out. Having one for the speeches, cause I feel like I can't toast with this stuff.”

“And the other one?”

She smirks a little. “Saving that one for… Later.”

I nod, grimacing. “Thanks for that mental picture of you two in the Lassiters’ honeymoon suite later on.”

"Oh, don't be like that, Tyler!” She says. She raises her glass to her lips, as she continues, “Some day that will be you.”

I scoff. “Don't think so.”

She frowns. “You don't picture yourself settling down with a pretty woman?” She asks. “Like Mavi?”

“I did for a little bit.”

Her frown deepens. “But not now?”

“Not with Mavi.”

“Did you two have a fight?”

I gulp down half my beer.

“Tyler?”

I hesitate, preparing to break the news to her. “We broke up.”

What?

“As of twenty minutes ago.”

“I'm so sorry, Tyler,” She says, hugging me.

“I didn't want to tell you.”

She pulls back, frowning.

“Today's about you & Mark.”

“Like I said before, you don't have to put this aside just cause it's our wedding,” She says. “We care about you.”

“I feel like I'm pulling things down.”

“Awww, you're not!” She says, draping an arm over my shoulders. She rubs my left arm. “Why don't, instead of drowning your sorrows here, you go over to Piper & just… Dance the night away. Put aside all this brooding, & just keep enjoying tonight.”

I sigh. “Not with Piper.”

I catch her frown in the corner of my eye.

“Why not? You two were having so much fun before.”

I down the rest of my beer.

She sighs. “Okay,” She says. “I'm not leaving till you spill.”

I shake my head.

“Tyler, I'm worried about you.”

“Don't be. I’m older than you.”

“Yeah, but you're my family,” She says. “And you're also my friend. So let me in.”

I sigh, running a hand over my face. “Piper’s part of it.”

“Of what?”

“Of why Mavi & I split!” I shrug her arm off. “Why don't you just go be with your husband, & stop worrying about me?”

“Ty.”

“I'm fine, Paige,” I reply. “I broke things off just as much as she did. Now, if you don't mind, I’d like to be alone.”

“To wallow in your misery?”

I shrug. “Better than being asked a million questions.”

And with that, I walk off.

****

“Paige,” I say, stepping up to her.

“Piper,” She replies.

“You were talking to Tyler before… Right?”

“Yeah,” She replies, confused.

“Is he okay?” I ask. “He ran after Mavi earlier & ever since he came back, he's been avoiding me.”

She looks awkward. “I think it's best you keep your distance for the rest of tonight.”

I frown. “Why?”

Her awkwardness grows. “It's not my place to explain.”

Urgh!” I exclaim, throwing my arms up. “How am I meant to keep my distance if I’m not allowed to know why the closest person I have to a friend is giving me the cold shoulder?”

"He just needs some space."

Space?! Why?”

Her awkwardness returns.

“Paige, please!” I beg. “I'm worried.”

She sighs. “Fine, but… It stays between us.”

“Pinkie swear,” I say, holding my right pinkie out.

She stares at it, a little surprised by my actions, but then links her right pinkie with mine. “He & Mavi…”

I wait for her to reply. She doesn't.

“What?” I ask.

“They…” She sighs. “Broke up.”

I’m shocked. “What?! Oh my god!”

“I don't know why, but he really doesn't want to talk to you.”

I frown. “What did I do?”

She shrugs. “All he said was that you were ‘part of it’.”

I frown harder. Then it comes back- the way Mavi reacted right before she left. The way I’d been standing so close to him, my head on his chest as we swayed. The way Tyler had been resting his head on mine...

I groan, covering my face with both hands. It's all making sense now!

“Are you okay?” Paige asks, concerned.

I lower my hands. “I think I understand what's happening.”

"It doesn't… Happen to be anything to do with the fact that there was some sparks flying between you two earlier,” she says. “Does it?”

I sigh. “Possibly.”

She smiles sympathetically. “The best thing to do right now, & it may seem like the hardest thing to do… But you have to give him the space he wants tonight.”

“Really?”

She nods. “He snapped at me earlier when I tried to get him to talk about it,” She says. “I’d hate for you to walk into the firing line.”

I nod. “You're right.”

****

I roll over, sighing heavily. I check the time- 4 a.m. I groan. Almost two hours since I’d come home. Almost two hours of lying in bed, not able to sleep.

But most importantly, not being able to stop thinking about him.

I know I shouldn't go talk to him, but not going is killing me more than risking him yelling at me if I do go.

I slip out of bed, get dressed & sneak downstairs, wary of every sound around me. Mum would kill me if she knew I was sneaking out at 4 a.m to go see a guy. Especially when that guy happens to be the one she thinks “isn't a good influence” on me. I head for the backyard, knowing exactly the right spot to climb over the fence.

Once I'm over, I quietly make my way to the windows I know lead into his bedroom. I stop, right at the edge, & peer in. The lights are off, but I can just make out that he's lying in bed. He always sleeps with one window open in Summer, so I slip through it- surprised my movement doesn't rouse him. I even manage to go all the way over to his bed & touch his arm before he even moves.

“Mavi?” He sleepily asks.

“No, it's me,” I reply. “Piper.”

He bolts up, making me step back in shock. He turns on his bedside lamp, before rubbing a hand over his face.

“What are you doing here?”

“I can't sleep.”

“So you came here?”

“Yeah, well, you're the reason I have insomnia.”

He looks confused. “Huh?”

“I know about you & Mavi.”

He looks even more confused, then it hits. “Paige.”

“Only cause I begged her to,” I reply. “I was worried about you.”

“Why?”

“You're my friend. And you were ignoring me.”

“Yeah, well, that happens sometimes.”

“Don't do it to me.”

“I needed space.”

“Why?”

“Because-”

“Because I’m the reason why she dumped you.”

“Piper.”

What, Tyler?” I ask. “It's true, isn't it? She saw us dancing, got jealous, stormed off, you chased her & then the next time I see you, you're ignoring me. And then I find out that you broke up. So basically you got dumped cause of me.”

“We mutually broke up.”

I look confused. “Is that even a thing?”

“Yes.”

“But I'm right? About it being about me?” I ask. “About the way we were dancing.”

He sighs, breaking eye contact. “You know the world doesn't revolve around you.”

I scoff. “Way to make it blatantly obvious I’m right by giving me a crap change of subject.”

"Ever consider the fact that I may be avoiding the question cause it's my private life & I don't want you to know about it?”

“Uh… I’m involved,” I reply. “That gives me the right to ask.”

He sighs. He then stands. “You should go.”

“Not until you tell me.”

“Piper, it's four a.m!”

“So?”

“One of my brothers may be staying at Lassiters tonight, but the other is here. What do you think is going to happen when it gets out that you’ve snuck into my room at four a.m?”

"We're friends.”

He looks shocked. “Piper, friends don't sneak into each other's bedrooms at four a.m to chat.”

“Well, I do.”

Clearly.”

“I’m sorry. She was… Nice.”

He shrugs. “People come, & people go.”

“And how many of them leave because of a friend?”

He stares at me. “You should go.”

“No.”

He sighs. “Piper, please.”

“No! I'm not going until you explain things to me.”

“Now’s not the time.”

“Fine,” I say, crossing my arms. “I’ll just stand here till it is.”

He places his right hand on my back- my heart rate increases. I flashback to when we were dancing- how it felt to be against his chest, to be in his arms. How incredibly good it was.

I try shaking the thought, the emotions from my mind. Just when I think I’ve succeeded, my eyes fall on his chest- the lamplight casting soft shadows across his abs. I swallow. Hard.

But I don't have much time to recover, for he guides me back over to the window.

“Leave.”

No.”

“Why?”

“We need to talk about this. Us.”

He sighs. “Not tonight.”

“No. Now.”

“Piper!”

What?

“Why are you so determined for answers? Why right now?”

“Because I can't sleep! I can't sleep without knowing exactly why I’m a part of your breakup. Why Mavi got so upset over us dancing together,” I say. “But above all… I wanna know why you thought it was such a good idea to shut me out for the rest of the night.”

“You really want to know all that?”

“Yes, & I'm not leaving till you do.”

“You really want to know?”

Yesssssss.”

He stares down at me for an incredibly long minute. His lips crash into mine, & for a few seconds I’m too stunned to do anything. I kiss him back, eager to feed the longing I’ve tried to hide for too long.

He pulls back, holding me away when I try to chase.

“That… That shouldn't have happened.”

“Why?”

“Because you're too young for me.”

“I'm the same number of years younger than you as Paige is with Mark.”

“They're different.”

How?

“Because Paige isn't still at school!”

“Why are people so quick to use that against me? Why do people think that I can't do things, that I can't date someone just because I'm sixteen? Why is it that Mum thinks she can smother me with her parenting despite the fact that I just spent two years living without her in Canada?” I ask. “I'm more mature than people think.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Mature? Really? How mature do you think you're being, sneaking in to my bedroom at four a.m when you're meant to be not seeing me?”

“How mature do you think you were when you chose to ignore me tonight?”

He stays silent.

Urgh!” I say, lifting my arms. “You know what? I’m sick of this! The way you're pushing me out. We used to be able to talk about anything, & now that you ‘mutually’ broke up with Mavi, I'm getting punished. So here you go, you're getting what you want. I’m leaving. And you don't have to speak to me ever again.”

I turn & start to climb back out the window. I’m straddling the sill, when he grabs my right arm. I stop, looking at him.

"Mavi knows."

“Knows what?”

He sighs. “She figured out I… That I have feelings for you.”

“We're friends.”

He swallows. “What would you say if I said I might be falling for you?”

“Like that kiss didn't indicate that.”

He narrows his eyes. “You know the whole biting back act is infuriating,” He says. “You say you're more mature than people think, but yet you talk like you're immature.”

I tilt my head. “Oh, thanks for that. Talking to me about how you're falling for me, & then calling me immature.”

We stare at each other. He then steps closer, cupping my face with both hands. It feels so good having his hands on me like this.

"I shouldn't do this,” He says, softly.

I swallow. Hard. “Do what?”

He leans down, pressing a soft kiss to my lips. He pulls back, but before I know it his lips are back on mine. We're both desperate for each other. But the fact that I'm straddling his window rather than him is hampering us. So I push him back, breaking our kiss.

“We can't do this.”

Piper,” He pleads.

“No… I mean… Just not like this,” I reply. “Straddling your window isn't the most romantic seating arrangement. I don't think it's even on the list…”

He drops his hands from my cheeks. “So what do you want to do?”

“Right now?” I glance down then up his body. I meet his gaze again. “All I want to do is fall asleep in your arms.”

“Piper, I…” He says, rubbing the back of his neck. “I don't think we should do that yet.”

“I don't mean have sex, stupid,” I reply, lightly hitting his arm. “I just feel like…” I sigh, looking at my hands. “It's gonna sound dumb, but I feel like I won't be able to sleep without you.”

He sighs, rubbing his face with his right hand. “Okay, but you're sneaking out in the morning & if your Mum catches on, I’m going to be dead.”

I climb back in, stepping closer to him. “I promise she won't see me sneaking back in.”

He nods. I reach up & kiss him. He walks me over to his bed, getting me to sit down.

“Take your shoes off,” he says, turning away.

He crosses to his wardrobe as I undo my boots. I take my boots & socks off, watching him the whole time as he looks through his wardrobe.

“What are you doing?”

He returns with a shirt, & holds it out to me.

"What's that for?”

“For you to sleep in,” He replies. “I thought you wouldn't really want to sleep in your clothes, so here's an old shirt of mine. I can get a pair of shorts too, if you want. I’m not sure what you normally sleep in.”

“This is fine,” I reply, taking it.

He nods. “I’ll, uh… Go stand over there, with my back to you, so you can change.”

I nod. I watch as he walks back over to the window. I admire his toned body for a moment. Never thought I’d see him in nothing but his boxers so soon. I snap out of my thoughts, stand, & swap into his shirt. I drop my jeans & shirt on the floor beside the foot of his bed, & then walk over to him. I slip my hand into his, & he turns to look at me. His eyes slowly take me in, & I notice him swallow. He wants me so bad!

We walk back to his bed, & he gestures for me to get in first. I let his hand go, & crawl far enough over so he can get in. I lie down, tucking my legs under the sheets. He then joins me, pulling the sheet up to cover us. I shift closer, turning so my back is to him, tucking my hair to my right side, intentionally leaving my neck exposed. He hooks his left arm around me, gently pulling me closer- pressing me flush against his chest. I wonder what it would be like to make love to him…

“Comfortable?” He asks.

“Very.”

He shifts, withdrawing his arm, & then the light flicks off. Seconds later, I feel his arm wrap around me again.

“Goodnight,” I say.

“Goodnight,” he replies.

I drift off to sleep, the last thing I remember is feeling him kiss the base of my neck.

Chapter Text

“One more step,” he says.

He's got both hands covering my eyes. I’ve had them shut for several minutes now, ever since halfway up the driveway. He wants our honeymoon accommodation to be “a surprise”.

“Okay, can I look now??” I ask. “This is actually terrifying!”

“Okay, okay, but I promise it will be worth it,” he replies. “Okay, stop.”

I stop, nervously waiting for him to say or do something.

“On the count of three, open your eyes, okay?”

“Okay!”

“One… Two… Three!”

I open my eyes as he drops his hands. I squint, suddenly back in the light. But I focus on what lies ahead of us. A wood cabin, nestled between the trees, with a well kept garden long the edges of the wooden veranda.

“So…” He says, wrapping his arms around my waist. “What do you think?”

“Uh…” I say, not sure what to say.

“I know it's not a lush hotel with our own chef, but…” He says. “I thought this is more romantic.” He kisses my cheek, before whispering into my ear. “And I’ll be your personal chef.”

I raise my eyebrow. “What are you going to cook?”

He steps round me, smirking. “You’ll find out as we go,” he says, bending his knees to be on my level. He presses his lips to mine. He then takes both my hands as he steps back. “Wanna see the inside?”

“Yes,” I reply, smiling.

He grins, stepping back and pulling me with him- making our way to the cabin.

“What about our bags?”

“I’ll get them later,” he says, pausing for a second so he can turn around cause we're at the steps up to the veranda.

He leads me up the steps & to the front door. He unlocks the front door, pushing it open a bit before turning to me.

“We going in or are we just going to stand here?” I ask.

He smirks.

“What?”

“Just admiring how beautiful my wife is.”

“Awwww!” I reply, blushing. I roll onto my tiptoes & kiss him.

He rests his forehead against mine, & we stand in each other's embrace for a long minute.

“I want to carry you over the threshold,” he softly says.

“Is that a good idea? You're still recovering-”

“Let me do this, Paige,” he says, eyes pleading. “I want to carry my wife in.”

I nod- how can I resist when you call me your wife? I can't believe we can call each other husband & wife now!

He steps to my left, & lifts me up- his right arm behind my back, left arm behind my knees. I wrap my arms around his neck. He then steps towards the door, turning just at the threshold so his left side & my feet enter first.

He stops a few steps inside, & I take in the cabin’s exterior. It's more beautiful than I thought. A simple kitchen to our right, looking out the front, with a beautiful oak dining table. On the other side of that, is a door into the bathroom. To our left, the lounge- a couch, two armchairs with a coffee table on a large rug… And, oh my! A fireplace!

“Oh wow!” I say.

He puts me down, slips his hand in mine & leads me across the room to the back left corner.

“You haven't seen the best part,” he says.

He pushes the wall, revealing a hidden door. He leads me through, leading me up a staircase to another door. He stops, hand on the handle.

“Ready?” He asks.

“Ready.”

He opens the door, pushing it all the way open and waiting for me to go first. I step past him, letting go of his hand, & gape. It's a large bedroom- lots of space, a large bed, & across the other side, instead of a fourth wall is a balcony. I cross to it, discovering it looks down to the level below. I turn back to him, & gape.

“I’ll take that as you love it,” he says, leaning against the doorframe.

“I’ll love it more if you come over here,” I reply.

He crosses to me, smiling as he places his hands on my hips. I take hold of his shirt, pulling him in so we can kiss.

****

I head out to the car, to get our bags like I promised her. I open the boot, reaching in to grab our bags- but stop as my fingers brush the handles. I freeze- something doesn't feel right. Like I'm being watched...

I straighten, & scan the surrounding area- aware of every noise. But nothing strikes me as unusual. I sigh, turning my attention back to our bags. It's nothing. Just relax, & enjoy your honeymoon.

I grab our bags, shut the boot & head back to the cabin. I pause on the veranda, taking a moment to push the bad vibe from my mind. I don't want to worry Paige.

****

2 hours later

We're lying in bed, her on top of me, both of us naked. Her head is resting on my chest as I lazily trace patterns on her back.

“Can we spend our whole honeymoon right here?” She asks. “I don't want to move.”

I smile. “Sure, babe.”

“How about forever?”

I chuckle. “You won't want to be lying on me like this in a few months,” I reply. “Soon enough, our little one will be big enough you'll be showing.”

She groans, lifting her head up. She lays her hands on my chest, one on top of the other, & then rests her chin on her hand. “I'm going to be so biiiiiiiiig!” She whines.

“Awww, but I’ll still love you, & find you so beautiful.”

She smiles.

“And look at it this way,” I add, rubbing her back. “In eight months, we’ll have our little one. With your cute nose…” I tap her nose & she smiles. “And your lips,” I add, brushing over her lips with my thumb.

“And your smile,” She replies. “And your beautiful eyes.”

“Yours are too.”

“They're nothing compared to yours. They're so beautiful. I love staring into those hypnotising hazel pools.”

I smile. “I can't wait to meet her.”

She frowns slightly. “Do you think we're having a girl?” She asks. “What about having a son?”

“I’d love a son,” I reply. “But I really want a daughter.”

Tears fill her eyes. “Awwww!!!!!” She says. “You're going to be the best dad.”

“Just like you’ll be the best mum.”

She shakes her head. “No, I won't.”

“Hey,” I softly say, cupping her cheek. “Stop thinking you're going to be terrible. Cause I know that you will be amazing.”

“Nothing compared to you,” She replies. “You're so good with kids.”

“And so will you,” I reply. “You just have to not let your fears hold you back, Paige. I’ve seen how amazing you can be. You just have to follow your instincts.” I gently rub my thumb back & forth over her cheek. “Besides, once you have our little girl in your arms, all these fears, all these worries… They're going to fade away.”

“I hope so.”

“I know it will,” I reply. “Your maternal instincts will kick in. And you’ll have me there to support. And your Mum is just across the road… So is Susan & Sonya. Oh, & Amber! You're not alone.”

She leans forward, pressing a soft kiss on my lips. She pulls back, but I slide my hand around to the back of her head & pull her back. She moans as I deepen the kiss, pressing herself against me. I roll us, so she's now underneath me, & we make slow, passionate love.

****

I stir, reaching out my left arm to touch him… But finding only sheets. I open my eyes, confirming that I’m alone in the bed. I sit up, wondering where he could be- & that's when the smell wafts up from below. I get out of bed, pulling on my robe. I cross to the balcony as I tie my robe shut. I smile as I clap eyes on him, busily working away in the kitchen.

I come downstairs, almost reaching the kitchen before he sees me.

“Heyyyy,” He says, smiling as he steps over to greet me with a kiss.

“Hey,” I reply. “Waking up to find you not there isn't a very nice feeling, especially when we're on our honeymoon.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” He says, wrapping his arms around me, his hands splayed across my back. “But I had to come get started on our dinner.”

I raise my eyebrow. “And what are we having?”

I try looking around him at it, but he stops me.

“That, my dear,” he says. “Is something you’ll find out when it's ready.”

I pout. He kisses me.

“Now,” he says. “Go back upstairs, get dressed & this will be ready.”

“Okay,” I reply, before kissing him.

****

When I come back down, dressed in a loose-fitting dress, barely any make-up & my hair out, I find him kneeling in front of the fireplace. He's shifted the coffee table to one side, arranged pillows on the rug for us to lean against, & is currently trying to light the fire.

“I’m really liking this very romantic side of you,” I say, leaning against the wall.

He looks at me, & smiles. “Just spoiling my wife on our honeymoon.”

“You are aware that, by doing so, you're setting the bar extremely high for future events, right?”

He stands, crosses to me, taking me in his arms. “The only thing I care about right now is showing you that I love you,” He says. “I just want this to be about us- you, me, & our little one.” He tucks my hair behind my left ear. “Our peaceful, romantic getaway… Secluded & a world away from all the troubles.”

He leans in, claiming my lips.

****

“Mmmm-mmmm!” I say as I lean back on the cushions. “That was deeeelicious!”

He smiles, placing our plates on the coffee table beside the now empty platter that once held our dinner- lasagna cupcakes, honey-lime chicken skewers (that were devine!!!) & veggie skewers. He turns back to me & shifts closer.

“We’ll rest for a bit, let that all go down, & then I’ll go get our dessert out of the fridge.”

I raise an eyebrow. “You made dessert too? Oooo!”

“It's nothing spectacular,” he replies. “Just… Chocolate dipped strawberries.”

Ohhh, that sounds sooo good!”

He smiles. “Strawberries, dipped in dark chocolate,” he says, leaning in to kiss me. “Drizzled with white chocolate.”

“Oh, you definitely know how to spoil a girl with food.”

“Only for you,” he whispers, lips ever so slightly brushing mine.

We're about to kiss when glass shatters. We both look in the direction, rising onto our knees to see beyond the couch. One of the nine panes of glass in the kitchen window above the sink is broken- a bullet hole.

The other panes are next, all being hit at once- the train of bullets making its way along the front side of the house, a few piercing through the door. Mark tackles me, pushing us onto the rug. He covers me with his body, shielding me just as the nearest window is hit with a slew of bullets. He rests his head on mine, his arm shielding our faces from the glass as it shatters all over us.

Chapter Text

Silence.

“Paige?” He asks, so worried he’s panicking.

I open my eyes & he sighs, resting his forehead on my shoulder.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

“I am now,” he says, sitting up & looking me in the eyes. “Are you okay?”

I nod.

“Good. We gotta go.”

He helps me sit up, pressing a kiss to my forehead.

“Okay, here's the plan,” he says. “We're going to crouch, & head to the back door.” He points to the door, which is across the other side by the bathroom.

“And then what?”

“I’ll check out what's happening, & then call for help.”

I nod. We rise to a crouch, & head for the back door- Mark keeping himself to my right, between me & the front of the cabin. We reach the back door, & he gets me to wait, still crouching, as he retrieves his mobile from the kitchen bench. He slowly rises, just far enough to unlock the back door & open it. He pokes his head out, checking to see if there's any danger. He then signals for me to go out first, pointing to our left. I head that way, feeling his left hand on my back. My heart is pounding.

I pause near the corner of the cabin, & Mark quietly shifts to my right side, never taking his left hand off my back.

“How you holding up?” He whispers.

Terrified,” I whisper back.

He kisses me. “We're going to be okay.”

“I always feel safe when you're around.”

He smiles. He then checks behind us, before slowly leaning forward to check round the corner. He gently pushes my back, & I take a step forward. We turn the corner, rising a little as we walk side-by-side down the side of the cabin. We're standing by the time we reach the front corner. We stop, just shy of the corner, Mark looking back the way we came to make sure we're safe. He then unlocks his mobile, bringing up the camera- he holds it out, just far enough past the cabin to snap a photo, before bringing it back to him. He looks at the photo.

“So?” I ask.

He turns it around so I can see- no one’s there.

Please tell me that means they’ve gone!”

“I hope so.”

“So what now?”

“I call the Beechworth station, get them to come out.”

I nod. “And… What if they're still here?” I ask, trying to hide my panic from my voice. “You don't have your gun.”

“Hey,” he softly says, pulling me in & wrapping his arms around me. “We're going to be okay.”

I wrap my arms around him, holding his shirt tightly. Being in his arms makes me feel so safe.

****

We head back inside, Mark feeling like we're too exposed outside. He guides me up to our bedroom, I kick off my shoes & I crawl onto our bed, burying myself in the pillows. Mark joins me a few seconds later, sitting on the quilt, keeping guard. I shift one pillow, resting my head on it, gripping it tightly as I watch him call the Beechworth station. He requests to speak to Sergeant Jacob Coggin- Mark had told me outside he has a friend at the station. He spends a while on the phone, talking Jacob through what had happened.

“Okay, thanks Jacob,” He says. “See you shortly.”

He hangs up, lying down on the other side of the pillows. He presses a kiss to my forehead.

“They're on their way,” He says. “He says it's a good sign we haven't seen them afterwards. It means they’ve gone. We just have to stay put.”

I toss the pillow I’m hugging behind me, reaching out to him. He meets me halfway, pulling me against him, holding me tight.

****

Mark creates a tent in the corner in front of the wardrobe- draping a blanket over the two chairs up here, arranging the pillows from our bed on the floor inside the tent so we have something soft to lie on. I crawl in, curling up on the pillows & wait for Mark to join me.

But he doesn't.

I roll onto my back, eyes on the opening to the tent. Mark isn't there. I panic.

Mark?!” I say, not hiding how freaked out I am.

He doesn't respond.

Maaaarrrkkkk!!!” I scream, tears streaming down my face.

He comes into my line of sight, quickly dropping to his knees with a blanket in hand. He drops the blanket, cupping my face with both hands. I grip his upper arms, holding so tight my knuckles turn white. I’m crying so much, it takes several minutes for me to calm down. Eventually, I collapse against him, resting my right side against his chest. He wraps his arms around me, rubbing my back soothingly as he rests his head on mine.

“I’m sorry,” He says. “I’m so sorry.”

“Where did you go?” I ask, gripping his arm.

“I was getting the blanket, but then remembered we hadn't locked the back door, & I was so focused on that, I didn't even think to tell you where I was going,” He says, before kissing the top of my head.

We just sit there, holding each other. Exhausted, I fall asleep in his embrace.

****

“Paige,” He says.

I open my eyes, hoping it was all a bad dream. My eyes focus, & I find myself still in the makeshift tent. I groan, snuggling even more into him.

“Paige,” He says again. “We have to get up. Jacob & his colleagues are here.”

I sit up a little, still keeping near him. I see red & blue flashing lights illuminating the lower level. Mark shifts to leave, but I grab him & he stops.

“What if it's not Jacob?” I ask. “What if it's whomever it was shooting at us, pretending to be the police to make sure that we're dead?”

He cups my face with both hands. “I know you're worried, but it's Jacob. He said he'd text when they get here, & before you ask, we have a special way of confirming that it's us in these sort of situations. It's him. Trust me.”

I hesitate & then nod. He crawls out of the tent, waiting for me just outside. I crawl out & stand. He leans back in, grabs the blanket & wraps it around me. We put on our shoes- he helps with mine- & then he leads me downstairs, holding my hand the whole time. He holds my hand tighter as we cross to the front door. My eyes drift over the destruction- our beautiful honeymoon destroyed. Obliterated.

He opens the front door, the flashing police lights blinding me for a few seconds. He guides me down the front steps, & over to a man about Mark’s age- blonde haired, similar height to Mark & surprisingly in casual clothes.

“Mark,” he says, holding out his hand.

“Jacob, hey,” Mark replies, shaking his hand.

“And you must be Paige,” Jacob says, holding his hand out to me.

But I can't manage shaking it.

“Don't worry,” he says, lowering it. “I understand your hesitation. Given what you’ve gone through tonight, I don't blame you.”

“So what's going to happen?” Mark asks.

“Well, our initial look points to there being three gunmen.”

Mark nods. “Sounded like there were about that many.”

“We’ll need to examine inside, see if there's any bullets we can send to the lab for examination, to determine the type of gun,” Jacob says. “And we’ve arranged somewhere for you to stay in Beechworth. With officers outside to keep watch. We're convinced they’ve left, but… Just to make sure, there’ll be two officers outside to keep watch.”

“Thanks, Jacob.”

“No worries. Just doing my job. Glad to see you're both safe.”

“Yeah," Mark replies, wrapping his arm around me & pulling me close. "We were fortunate enough to be sitting on the floor when it all happened.”

Jacob looks surprised. “Very lucky.”

“Before we go, can we go back inside & collect our belongings?”

“Certainly,” Jacob replies. “Just don't disturb the crime scene.”

“I’d never do that.”

Jacob nods. “Just making sure,” he replies. “I’ll also need you to leave the key, so we can access the cabin when you're not here.”

“Sure.”

“Do you have any idea who would do this?”

Two names jump to mind.

That's when I find my voice-

“Dimato and Michelle.”

Chapter Text

I’d offered to go get our belongings by myself, but she had refused. She's distraught & just wants to be with me. So I took her back upstairs & she sat quietly on the bed while I packed our things, the police busy examining the scene below.

Jacob arranged for the two officers that will be watching us to drive us into Beechworth to the hotel we’ll be spending the rest of tonight at. She's quiet the whole car ride- hand holding mine as she rests her head on my shoulder, wrapped up in my navy blue hoodie. It's her favourite.

We check in to the hotel, the officers helping us with our bags. They see us to our room, before heading outside to their car to keep watch. I close our room’s door, turning around to her, finding she's kicked off her shoes already & is curling up in bed, still in her clothes. I cross to the bed, take off my shoes & jacket, & join her. I pull the covers up over us, settling in right behind her, wrapping my arm around her & holding her close.

We don't get much sleep. Paige kept waking up, having nightmares of the shooting, always ending up crying so much she was shaking as I held her. After the third time, she said she didn't want to try to sleep again tonight, & so we lay in bed, talking. I sent Jacob a text, requesting that we come in & do our statements first thing. I need to get her far away from here.

****

Jacob sent me at text at 6 a.m., agreeing to my request & suggested we meet up at a café for breakfast at 6:30 before heading to the station. So I sent off a quick reply saying we’ll meet him there, before turning my attention back to Paige.

“Come on,” I say, moving off the bed.

“Where are you going?” She asks.

We need to have a shower,” I reply. “We're meeting Jacob in half an hour for breakfast, & then head to the station to give our statements.”

She shakes her head. “I don't want to.”

I sit on the bed, close to her, & place my hand on her arm. “We’ll just tell them what happened & then we can go,” I say, gently rubbing her arm. “We can go home. Be far away from this place.”

She shakes her head. “Can we just go home?” She pleads. “I don't want to remember all of that!”

“I know, babe, I want to forget it too,” I reply. “But we need to. They’ll need our statements to help find who attacked us.”

“Can't it just be yours?”

“Come here.”

She sits up, shifting closer.

“I would, but I know that you're not in the right state of mind. You're going to have another panic attack if I leave you, & I don't want to put you through that,” I say, cupping her face. “Not when you don't know anyone else. You’ve been through enough. So just come with me. I promise you I won't leave your side.”

She hesitates, & then nods. “I’ll hold you to that.”

I smile, laughing a little. “You have my word,” I reply. “Now… Lets get in the shower.”

She frowns.

I get up, & pull her up. I hold her in my arms. “I’ll do all the work. All you have to do is stand there.”

She slowly nods. I hold her hand, leading her into the bathroom. I turn on the shower so it can heat up while we get undressed. I strip off, before helping her. I place a kiss on her forehead before checking the water temperature. I step in first, & turn back to her, holding both hands out to her. She takes my hands & steps in. I guide her to stand just under the stream of water, & shut the door. I wash us both, always doing her first. She relaxes a little when I wash her hair, massaging the shampoo into her roots. When we’ve both got clean hair, I get her body wash & rub it all over her. I even draw a heart with the bubbles on my chest, smiling when she laughs. I rinse it off both of us & kiss her before turning the water off.

I get out, grabbing us each a towel & return to her. She's squeezing the excess water from her hair, so I wait a moment. She takes her towel, wrapping it around her as I wrap mine around my waist & secure it. I help her out.

“Thanks,” She says, smiling.

“Anything for you.”

She kisses me. We dry off, & she dries her hair while I go get dressed. I come back & she's still drying it. So I help. As she finishes styling it, I check my phone- 6:25 a.m.. So I send Jacob a quick text saying we're running late.

She emerges from the bathroom, quickly dresses- jeans, a loose fitting shirt & my hoodie. She pulls on her shoes, grabs her handbag & we leave.

It takes us about 10 minutes to walk to the café, walking arm in arm. I open the café door, holding it open for her. Jacob is seated at a table at the back, & we make our way over.

“Sorry we're late,” I say, as we sit.

“Don't be. It's early,” Jacob says. “Besides, given what you went through last night, I’m not going to be mad at you.”

I smile.

“So how are you both?”

I look at Paige, who is staring at her hands. “We're okay.”

“It's understandable,” Jacob says. “Now… What would you like? My shout.”

“Jacob, that's not necess-”

“But it's happening, Mark. After all you’ve been through, it's the least I can do.”

“It's very nice of you,” Paige says. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome.”

****

“It can't be that bad!” Jacob jokes, watching Paige push her food around.

“Are you okay?” I ask, placing a hand on her shoulder.

She nods. “Just not hungry.”

“Well, you should try to have it. At least a bit more,” I reply, leaning in. I continue, softly. “For our baby.”

“Baby?” Jacob asks.

I look at him, he has an eyebrow raised.

“Sorry, didn't mean to be intrusive,” he says.

“It's fine.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

“You were always great with kids,” Jacob says. “Even when we were training, you were always better with them than I ever was.”

“So you two have known each other for a long time?”

Jacob nods. “First day of training. We were inseparable.”

Paige raises an eyebrow as she turns to look at me, surprised by this revelation.

“Yeah, & then when we graduated, you disappeared off to Queensland.”

“Like your career has been any better than mine.”

Jacob tells Paige more about our past. She smiles & laughs, & that makes me so happy- a glimpse of her usual self is so good to see! She even manages to finish off the rest of her food. Jacob excuses himself, going off to pay the bill.

“I’ll be right back,” I say to Paige, rising from my seat & kissing her head as I straighten.

I walk over to Jacob.

“I got this, remember?” Jacob asks as I approach, handing over the money to the cashier.

“Not what I was coming over for.”

“Oh?” He asks, turning back to the cashier, who gives him his change. “Thanks.”

We step away from the register.

“I need to ask you something.”

“Go ahead.”

“It's about Paige & her statement,” I reply. “I know this will be breaking regulations… I know it's better that it's just one on one, except for when a lawyer is needed but…”

“You want to sit in with her?”

I nod. “Yeah, if it's possible.”

He nods. “Given how on edge she has been, I think it's completely reasonable that she has moral support,” Jacob says. “You're the only thing she has that's familiar here. It will actually work in everyone's favour if you are there.”

“That's what I was thinking.”

“But on a few rules.”

“Sure.”

“You're there just for moral support,” Jacob says. “No adding anything to her statement. You just sit there, letting her tell it in her own words. You're just there so she has something familiar to ground her.”

I nod. “Agreed.”

He nods. “Then I have no problem with it.”

“Thank you.”

“I just want this process to be comfortable for her,” Jacob says. “She's very shaken from the ordeal, & given the circumstances, I'm not surprised. I’m happy to relax the rules if it means she gives her statement.”

****

I leap to my feet & walk across the interview room- I can't breathe!!

We’d been here for a while, giving our statements. Jacob suggested Mark go first, so we could leave straight after mine if we needed to. Jacob had let me sit in while Mark gave his- I sat to Mark’s left, listening to music on my iPod so I wouldn't have to hear the details.

And then it was my turn. Completing it was hard & slow, because I was so scared of remembering.

Mark crosses to me, stopping close enough to comfort me but far enough not to suffocate me more.

“Are you okay?” He asks.

I shake my head, fighting back tears. “I just want to go.”

“I know, babe,” He replies, placing his left hand on my back. “But you have to summon the strength to stay. You're almost done, & then we can go get our things & be on our way.”

I shake my head again.

“I’ll go get you some water,” Jacob says.

Mark looks at him & nods. I hear Jacob leave, shutting the door behind him. Mark cups my cheek.

“I know how much it's hurting to remember what happened,” he says. “But I also know that you're a fighter.”

I turn into his hand.

“So, please, Paige. Please just hang on just a little bit longer, & then we’ll be out of here.”

I nod. He presses a kiss to my forehead, & I grip his sleeves. He presses his lips against mine.

****

I wrap my arm around her as we leave the police station, her statement finally done. I press a kiss to her temple.

“I’m so proud of you,” I whisper against her temple.

“Can we go home now?”

I nod. “How about we get some food for lunch, eat in our hotel room, & then leave?”

She slowly nods. “Sounds good.”

****

He’s hovering as I climb into the passenger seat of his car. I get comfy & then turn to him.

“You know, for us to go, you have to be in the drivers seat.”

He smiles. “I just wanted to make sure you're comfortable.”

I pout. “Awwww, you're too sweet!” I lean forward & kiss him.

He waits until I settle back in & do up my seatbelt. He then shuts the door, goes round & gets in. He does up his seatbelt & then looks at me.

“Let's go home,” he says, reaching over & rubbing my leg.

“Best thing I’ve heard all day!”

He chuckles. “Even better than when I said I was buying you chocolate cake for dessert at lunch?”

I pretend to think it over. “Yes,” I say. “But ever so slightly.”

He laughs, smiling & shaking his head. He puts the key in the ignition, turns the engine on & then we’re off.

We're an hour into our trip, when exhaustion hits fast & hard. I try to stay awake, but my efforts only last a few minutes. I lean my head on the head rest, looking out the window, & drift off to sleep.

****

I wake, shaken by our car turning a corner too fast. I open my eyes- it's now night, the headlights illuminating the road ahead. We're going much faster than before. I look over at Mark- he’s very tense, gripping the wheel so hard, his knuckles are white.

“Mark?”

“Oh, sorry, babe,” he says, glancing over at me. “I didn't mean to wake you.”

“What's… What’s going on?”

“We're…”

Mark.”

He sighs. “We're being followed.”

What?!

“There's been this car… It's been behind us for a while,” he says. “At first I thought it might be a coincidence, but they’ve made every turn that we’ve made.”

“And it's not… A police escort?”

He shakes his head, before turning us round the bend in the road. “I called Jacob. He said he hadn't ordered one,” he says. “Besides, he would have told me if he had. He wouldn't want to freak us out.”

So that means the shooters know we're not dead.

“What do we do?”

He accelerates. “We hope that I can outrun them.”

I look behind us, spotting the headlights not far behind us. Way too close for my liking.

“Can't… Can't Jacob help?”

“We passed out of his jurisdiction about an hour ago.”

I cover my face with my hands. “We're cursed!

“We're not, Paige.”

“Oh? So how about the fact that our honeymoon ended with us being shot at last night, & now we're speeding through basically bushland, trying to get away from someone who is trying to kill us!

“Paige,” he says. “I know you're freaking out, but… Can you please let me focus on getting us out of here?”

“Yes, okay. I'm sorry.”

“Don't be. I just want us to be safe.”

The words have barely left his mouth, when the headlights behind us vanish.

“OMG,” I say, double checking by looking behind us. “They've stopped.” I look at him. “Maybe they’ve decided it's too dangerous to keep pursuing us!”

“Paige, babe, please just sit properly,” he says. “I’m still going really fast here.”

I turn back to the front, sitting the way I should. Mark slows down a bit as we approach another bend. We turn it, Mark accelerating again as we come out, not seeing the hidden side road. I catch sight of headlights through the foliage as we approach.

MARK, WATCH OUT!

He sees it, tries to brake but our speed works against us. The other ute slams into us, t-boning Mark’s ute. The force of impact jerks me sideways, my head slamming against the door.

And I black out.

****

“Mark?” I say, groggily.

I force my eyes open, finding that our car is now off the road- windows smashed in, dents in the roof and my door. I ignore the pain screaming through my head, more determined to find out what's happened to Mark than my own injuries.

“Mark?” I ask again, turning to my right to where he is.

He's slumped back, very still and head turned away from me. I reach out to him, desperate to know that he's okay. I grab his hand, which is outstretched to me, gripping it as if it's my lifeline.

And then he groans, turning to look at me. I sigh, smiling at him.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey, babe,” He says, smiling & squeezing my hand. “I love you.”

He stops breathing.

“Mark?” I ask, starting to panic.

I scramble to get my seatbelt off, moving to be closer to him. I cup his face in my hands.

Mark? Come on, Mark! Come back to me!”

But he doesn't move.

“No, no, no, no, NOOOOOOOO!!!!

Tears stream down my face, & I bury my face into his shoulder.

 

Chapter Text

I open my eyes, bolting up, my seatbelt jamming, stopping me. I take deep breaths in, taking in my surroundings- it's early dusk, & the car isn't moving. In fact, it's parked. I look over to the drivers side, finding it empty. This just drives my fear shooting up.

“Hey,” he softly says, & I feel his hand on my left thigh.

I quickly look left, relieved to see him safe & unharmed as he stands in my door’s opening, his left hand on my thigh, looking worried but with a slight smile. I scramble to undo my seatbelt, shoving it aside as I turn so my feet are on the side of the car, & throw my arms around him. He wraps his arms around me tight as I bury my face into his neck & cry. He rubs my back soothingly.

After a while, I calm down enough to pull back & look at him. I see the worry in his eyes & expression.

“You fell asleep, & then a while later you started calling out my name,” he says, tucking loose strands of hair behind my right ear. “You sounded really upset. So I pulled over. What happened?”

I swallow, still so shaken by it that I can't find the words. I then tell him everything. The whole nightmare from start to finish. We're both in tears by the end.

He pulls me in, wrapping his arms around me. “It's okay, I'm here.”

****

The last of the sunlight is almost gone as we turn down the street leading to Ramsay Street. Neither of us had spoken since we started back on the road again, after my nightmare, & Mark had nearly broken the speed limit a few times in a desperate attempt to get us home sooner.

We turn into Ramsay Street, & I’ve never been so relieved to see the semi-circle of our tight-knit community. Mark pulls into his- our driveway, & I catch sight of Mum, Dad, Tyler & Aaron waiting on the balcony as Mark stops in front of the garage. He turns off the engine & hops out. I sit, frozen. Mark opens my door, leaning in to unbuckle my seatbelt. He turns my face to look at him.

“We're home,” he says softly. “You're safe. We're safe.”

He presses a soft kiss to my lips, & then helps me out. As Mark shuts the door, I watch Mum, Dad, Tyler & Aaron come down. Mum pulls me into a hug. I wrap my arms around her, watching over her shoulder as Dad and Mark shake hands. Mum pulls back.

“How are you?” She asks.

“Shaken.”

She fights back tears.

“Any idea who could do this?” Dad asks Mark.

“The only ones we could think of is Dimato & Michelle,” Mark replies.

“Wouldn't put it past them,” Tyler says, crossing his arms. “They're very violent people.”

Mark nods. “And they're out to kill us.”

“Uh… Why are you all here? How do you know all of this?”

They all look at Mark.

“I… Uh… Rang them while you were asleep in the car,” He says. “I thought you'd appreciate having a welcome home party waiting for you.”

I smile. “Thank you.”

He smiles, stepping closer & kissing my forehead. I wrap my arms around him. I rest my head on his chest as he wraps his arms around me.

“Dinner’s all organised,” Aaron says. “We got take away, that's in the oven keeping warm.”

“Sounds good,” Mark says.

“You two go inside,” Brad says. “We’ll get your bags.”

“Thanks, Brad.”

****

Mark pulls me onto his lap as we settle at the table for dinner. Aaron & Tyler try to lift the mood by telling funny stories as we eat. I force myself to smile. But all I want to do is curl up in bed with Mark, & sleep this all away.

“You gotta eat more,” he says, quiet enough that only we can hear. “I know you’ve lost your appetite, but you just have to eat.” He places a hand on my tummy. “I can't handle us getting through all of this, only to lose our little girl.”

I pick up my fork, collecting a forkful of food, & eat it. He kisses my shoulder.

****

After dinner, there's a knock on the door. Az goes & opens it, returning with Karl close behind.

“Hi everyone,” he says.

The others say hi, except for Mark, who stays silent. Mum, Dad, Aaron & Tyler head into the kitchen as Karl steps over to us, still sitting at the dining table.

“How are you?” Karl asks us.

“I’m okay,” Mark says. “Paige… Isn't.”

He nods. “What exactly can I help with?”

Mark gestures for Karl to take a seat. He does.

“Paige has had… Trouble sleeping.”

“The shock will do that.”

“How about nightmares?”

“That too.”

“Karl, I’m worried. She's barely slept since it happened. And when she does, she always wakes up screaming from a nightmare,” Mark says. “She's lost her appetite, & I’m worried. Not just for her, but for our baby.”

Karl nods. “Paige, you need to eat. Even if you're not feeling hungry, your baby relies on you for their nutrients. So even if you don't want to eat, you need to for your baby.”

I nod. “I’ll try to do that.”

He smiles. “Just keep your fluids up too. I recommend you eat regularly. Small meals, with snacks. Your body will realign & your appetite will return,” he says. “As for the nightmares… There's nothing I can do to prevent them. However, I can give you some tablets that will help you sleep. Don't worry, they're safe. They won't harm your pregnancy.”

He reaches into his bag, pulling out a small bottle of pills.

“I don't have many with me,” he says. “But these will last you tonight. I’ll write out a prescription, & you can go get more in the morning.”

Mark takes the bottle. “Thanks, Karl.”

Karl nods. “No worries.”

He gets out his prescription pad, & writes out the prescription. He hands it to Mark. He then gets another pad, & writes something else down.

“This is the name of the psychologist at the hospital,” he says, ripping the page off & placing it on top of the prescription. “I recommend you call tomorrow & book an appointment. I’ll let her know to expect you. It would be good for you to talk to someone about it.”

I shake my head.

“Paige, I know you’ve been through a lot, & you're wanting to forget it all,” Karl says. “But you can't bottle it up inside. You need to talk to someone.”

****

I visit the psychologist the next day, but the emotions get too much & I flee. Over the next three weeks, I get better at hiding my nightmares & freak outs. Avoiding the news has helped. And the case has stalled- there's no evidence to link the shooters to Michelle & Dimato. Mark is furious. We know it's them, we just can't legally prove it.

"Can you please stop pacing?” I ask him, watching him pace back & forth in front of me in the hospital waiting room. “You're making me nauseous.”

He stops & sits down next to me. He leans forward, resting his forearms on his knees, & then licks his lip. “I'm just… Frustrated.”

“About the case?” I ask, placing my right hand on his back & rub it.

He nods. “They were clever. There's nothing to point to them except for us. And that's just not enough to arrest them!”

“We’ll get them,” I reply. “Something will come up that will link them to the shooters.”

He looks at me. "It's been three weeks.”

I nod. “You can't give up. And getting frustrated isn't going to help. You have to keep calm.”

He sits back, twisting his body to face me. “I'm trying to not let my feelings cloud my judgement,” He says. “But…” He sighs. “They came after us. On our honeymoon.” He places a hand on my tummy, tears filling his eyes. “Our baby… They put our baby's life in danger. I can't let them get away with it.”

"I know,” I reply, placing my hand over his. “But you have a tendency to get so focused on a case. I love how passionate you get, but… In cases like this, you need to step back.” I cup his face with both hands. “I'm scared that you’re going to get hurt, & I’ve already almost lost you twice recently. I refuse to go through that a third time.”

He rests his forehead on mine.

We get called in to the examination room, & we walk into the room hand in hand. Karl had recommended, given the stress of recent events, that we have an ultrasound at 7 weeks to check that everything is going well. When I booked it, they said it would be best to have it done transvaginally (through the vagina)- cause that provides a clearer picture. We're left alone so I can change into a medical gown. I sit down on the special examination chair, Mark standing to my left & we wait. We don't have to wait too long for my obstetrician to arrive.

“Hi Paige & Mark,” she says, coming in.

She's not much older than I am, maybe late twenties early thirties, with blonde hair swept back in a high ponytail. She shuts the door & crosses to us.

“I’m Doctor Melinda Brooke. Now… Dr Kennedy referred you to me. He mentioned you’ve had some stressful weeks since your pregnancy started.”

I nod. “He suggested we do this. Just to make sure everything is going well.”

She nods. “You may feel a little discomfort, but that's normal for this form of ultrasound. The nurse would have told you that it's clearer this way.”

I nod. She puts a pair of gloves on.

“For this, I’m going to need you to put your legs in the stirrups, & lie back,” She says. "Usually, we don't need the stirrups, but I find it gives me better access & you'll feel more comfortable in that position."

I do so, & she covers my hips & legs with a sheet. She then takes the transducer from the ultrasound machine, along with a bottle of lubricant gel. She squirts a bit of gel on the transducer, returning the bottle to the machine. She flicks the ultrasound screen on, pushes it closer to my feet & then sits down on a chair between my legs.

“Okay, here we go,” She says. “You ready?”

I nod. A few seconds later, I feel the transducer pushing inside of me. I involuntarily suck in a deep breath. Mark takes my hand & I smile at him. It's a silent & long process, Dr Brooke not speaking as she watches the screen. A few times she presses buttons. A few instances make me want to ask her what's going on, but I know she'll speak if she finds anything wrong. I’m not sure how long, but it feels like an eternity before she speaks.

“I’ll send a full report to Dr Kennedy, but I can say now that everything is looking really good.”

Mark & I simultaneously sigh.

“Development is going perfectly. Both embryos are well within standard lengths- 7 & 6 millimetres respectively.”

Mark & I look at each other, both surprised. Mark looks at Dr Brooke first, I follow suit a few seconds later.

“Sorry,” He says. “Did I hear you right?” He pauses, brow furrowing. “Did you say both embryos?”

She looks surprised. “Oh my God! I am so sorry! I assumed you knew that already. It should have shown on your pregnancy test through higher readings than what's considered normal pregancy levels," She says. She quickly adds, "Normal meaning a single embryo."

I shake my head, eyes wide.

“Please forgive me,” She says. “I didn't mean for you to find out that way.”

“Uh… That's okay,” I reply. “But… Elaborate something for me.”

“Anything.”

I nervously lick my lips. “So… Uh… Both embryos…” I say. “That means twins, right?”

She nods. She then leans forward, turning the machine’s screen so we can all see it. I look at it- it looks almost like static, except for a dark patch of nothing in the very centre of the screen.

“See here?” She asks, pointing to two blobs of more static in the dark patch. “That's your embryos. Uh… Babies.”

My breath catches in my throat. Twins.

“As I was saying,” Dr Brooke says. “Everything is looking really good. They're both healthy looking, viable… So whatever the stressful events were, they haven't had an impact on your pregnancy.”

“Thank you,” I reply.

“No worries,” she replies. She pulls the transducer out, & wipes it clean. She places it back where it belongs on the machine. “Now… Would you like me to organise a copy of the ultrasound for you to keep? You probably won't be able to really understand what's shown, but most couples like to have a copy on file. I can also print out a photo for you.”

I nod. “Both.”

“Make that two photos, please,” Mark says. Feeling my confused stare, he looks at me & adds. “So we can both have a copy.”

Tears swell in my eyes.

"Certainly,” Dr Brooke replies. She pulls her gloves off & fiddles with the machine for a minute. “I’ll be back shortly. While you wait, you can get dressed.”

I take my legs out of the stirrups, & sit up, drawing my legs together so I’m not flashing anyone. Dr Brooke leaves. Mark walks around till he's standing right in front of me, between the stirrups. I part my legs, letting him step closer & I hold onto his shirt at his hips as he cups my face with both hands.

“Twins!” He says.

“Twins!”

We both smile as he leans in, claiming my lips for a slow kiss.

He tells me he’ll wait for me in the waiting room while I change. As I change, my thoughts drift back to our honeymoon night. Soon enough, I can't breathe. I drop my shirt & grab hold of the chair for support. I close my eyes, pushing aside the bad memories & concentrate on breathing.

Once I’ve recovered, I finish getting changed & head out to Mark. Dr Brooke returns a minute later, giving us an envelope containing the DVD & the photos. We thank her & leave, Mark wrapping an arm around my shoulders. I smile as I look up at him. I hate keeping it from him- I hate not telling him that the nightmares & panic attacks are still happening, but… He has enough to worry about.

At least… For now.

Chapter Text

That night, we’re lying in bed together. I’m lying on my back with him on his side facing me to my left. He's propped up on his right arm, his left hand spread wide over my tummy. He's smiling.

“I can't believe it,” He says. “Twins.”

“It's a big surprise,” I reply.

Huge,” He replies. “You ready to have two kids?”

I shake my head. “But I know that no one is, & I just have to take it a day at a time.”

He smiles. “Good to hear you’ve changed your tune.”

I smile. “Helps when I have my knight in shining blue armour at my side.”

He smirks, leaning in & kissing me.

“Do you mind if we keep this to ourselves?” He asks, resting his forehead on mine. “I want it to be just ours. A little secret, a little bit of hope that only we know of.”

“How long for? They're going to find out when I give birth.”

He laughs. “I don't mean for the whole pregnancy,” he says. “Just for a month or two.”

“Sure.”

He kisses me again.

****

The next morning, I wake to find myself alone in our bed. I bolt up- where is he? Was the crash real & this is all a dream I created to hide away from the truth? Is he really dead & I’m in denial?

And then the door opens & I flop back down in relief as I see him enter wearing just his boxers & with a tray of food. He places the tray down near the base of his side of our bed & crawls onto the bed. He leans over to hover above me.

“Morning,” he says, leaning down to kiss me.

“Mmmm morning,” I reply after our kiss.

“Sorry I wasn't here when you woke. I wanted to make us breakfast & then wake you up.”

“Awwww, you're so cute.”

He kisses me again. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

He leans back, shifting to grab the tray. I sit up, adjusting my pillows so I can lean back on them. He adjusts himself so he's sitting so close our arms brush. The breakfast looks delicious.

****

Mark leaves for work after breakfast, & I prep for my afternoon shift at Harold's. At 12:30pm, I collect my handbag & leave, knowing I need to leave so I have time to walk all the way there. I lock the front door behind me, & make my way down the steps & driveway. I diagonally cross the road from our driveway towards Mum’s, the way I always head off to work if I’ve slept at Mark’s- though I should start referring to it as my usual route. I’m just reaching Mum's driveway when it happens.

BANG!

I immediately drop to my knees, heart pounding. I need to find cover. So I rise to my feet, keeping low as I cross to the fence beside Mum's driveway. She's already at work, so her car is gone. I press my back against the fence, still staying low. I then check myself over for any injuries.

“No, no, no, no!” I say, discovering my upper right arm is bleeding.

I drop to my knees as I cry, covering my face with my hands. Mark had offered to drive me in early, but I had refused. I now regret that choice.

“Paige,” A familiar voice says.

I look up. Standing near me, with a small gun aimed at me is… Dimato.

“I want the last thing you see to be my face,” He says.

I stand up, & back away towards Mum's house. “Stay away from me.”

“Sorry, Paige, I can't do that.”

I back up, all the way to the house. He pins me to the wall, pressing the gun to my head.

“SOMEBODY HELP MEEEEEEEEE!!!!” I scream.

But no one comes. I clamp my eyes shut, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of him being the last thing I see. I think about Mark & our babies.

“Paige?” Nate says.

“Nate! Help!”

“Paige, open your eyes.”

I slowly do. Nate is standing where Dimato was, hands on my arms & looking worried.

“Nate… He… He was here.”

He frowns. “Who was?”

“D-D-Dimato.”

“No he wasn't.”

“He was!” I reply. I frantically look around, but there's no one else here. “He was here! He was right here! And he was going to kill me. He… He had a gun to… To my head, & he was… He was…”

“Paige, listen to me. You need to calm down, okay? Take a few deep breaths.”

I take a deep breath in- it's shaky when I inhale and exhale. That happens for the next few, & then my breathing returns to normal.

“Hey, look at me,” Nate says.

I do.

“Dimato wasn't here.”

“But he was,” I reply. “I saw him.”

He shakes his head. “I saw it all, Paige. I was checking the letterbox. You were crossing the road, but you didn't see me.”

“There was a gunshot.”

“It was a car backfiring at the corner of the street,” he says. “I watched you, saw how freaked out you got. And then you were acting weird- backing towards the house, talking to someone who wasn't there. So I came over to see how you are.”

“So… So… He wasn't here?” I ask, tears blurring my vision.

He shakes his head. “Come on,” he says, guiding me off the wall & up the driveway. “I'm taking you back to mine so you can calm down.”

****

It's just before my lunch break, & I’m talking on the desk phone to someone who called in to make a complaint when Lauren walks in, looking really worried. I smile at her & point to a seat so she can sit while she waits. She sits down & I finish my call.

“We’ll look into it, & get back to you,” I say into the phone. “Goodbye.”

I hang up, handing the report to another officer, before I cross to Lauren. She stands as I approach.

“What's wrong, Lauren?”

“Uh… Nate rang me,” She replies. “He was unable to get hold of you, so… He rang me instead.”

I frown. “What? Why?”

She hesitates. “It's about Paige.”

I’m shocked and worried. “What? Oh my god, is she okay?”

She nods. “Sort of. At least now she is,” she replies. “She had a… Uh… I guess you can call it a panic attack. Outside my home. He said she freaked out over a car backfiring, thought it was a gun.”

“But she's okay?”

“He went over to her, to see if she was okay. He said she was screaming, believing Dimato-”

She stops when I turn away, heading back to the reception desk.

“I’m going on lunch early,” I tell the other officer.

He nods & I head for the door, guiding Lauren out ahead of me.

****

I’m sitting at Karl & Susan's dining table, trying hard to steady my shaking hand so I can drink the glass of water Nate got me. He's watching from the kitchen behind me, I think.

I hear footsteps approaching the front door, followed by the noise of the security door opening as I set the glass down on the table. I turn to look just as Mark & Lauren enter. He nods at Nate as he crosses to me. He drops to his knees at my left side, placing his left hand on my knee & right hand on my back. I look at my lap, before tilting left & fall against his chest. He wraps both his arm around me.

After a few minutes, he kisses my forehead & then pulls back just enough to make me look at him.

“I want to go talk to Nate for a few minutes, okay?” He asks. “I promise I’ll be back.”

I nod slowly. He kisses my cheek & then gets to his feet. I focus on my glass of water as he walks off.

****

“Hey Nate,” I say, approaching him & Lauren in the kitchen.

“Hey,” Nate replies.

“Thank you for helping her.”

“No worries. I wasn't going to leave her out there in that state.”

I nod. “Thank you anyway.”

He nods.

“How is she?” Lauren asks.

“Shaken,” I reply. “But I think she'll be okay.”

“I don't know about that,” Nate replies.

Lauren & I look at him, confused.

“I don't want to jump to conclusions, but…” Nate says. “She's showing signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

“What signs?”

“She's been having nightmares, right?”

I nod. “The first two weeks, yes. But they’ve died down.”

“Panic attacks like today, triggered by a noise that reminded her of a gun being fired, which led to her hallucinating Dimato.”

“She's also not been as bubbly as she usually is,” Lauren says. “I didn't want to alarm you by mentioning it, but I have noticed a few times at work, she seems to be… On auto pilot. Very… Flat.”

“That's another sign of PTSD,” Nate says. “And I assume she's been avoiding the news, maybe even social media?”

I sigh, running a hand over my face. “How could I be so stupid to have not seen this?”

“Don't blame yourself, Mark,” Lauren says, placing a hand on my shoulder & gently squeezing it in reassurance. “You’ve had a lot going on since it happened. Besides, we both know that Paige is good at hiding things from us when she really doesn't want us knowing.”

I nod. “And the fact that we're having-” I catch myself just in time. “We’re having a baby.”

"Surely the stress of this is impacting on the baby's health?" Lauren asks.

“Everything was fine at the check-up yesterday,” I reply. “But… I don't know much about PTSD, but… If we let this go on, the stress will take a toll. We need to get this under control before it puts our baby's life in danger.”

“Has she talked to anyone about it?” Nate asks.

“Uh… she was seeing a psychologist three weeks ago,” I reply. “But she said she hated it, & stopped after one, maybe two sessions.”

“She should really try it again,” He replies. “It’s going to help her. And I’m here to help where I can.”

I nod. “That would be greatly appreciated,” I reply. “I should call the hospital, see if we can get an appointment for this afternoon.”

“And I’ll call my staff, arrange a replacement for Paige & myself.”

I manage to secure an appointment in an hour’s time, & Lauren not only organises the shift covers, but also calls Brad to tell him everything.

“We should head off,” I reply, crossing back to Paige, who hasn’t moved from the chair.

I place my hand on her shoulder. She gets up & leans against me. I kiss the top of her head.

“Thanks again, Nate,” I say.

“Again, no worries.”

Lauren, Nate & I say bye. We head out, Paige staying close beside me.

“You should have told me,” I quietly say to her as we walk down the path.

“You’ve been so stressed out trying to catch them,” She quietly replies. “I didn’t want to add to it.”

We stop at the end of the path. I push her chin up so she looks at me. “I’m always here for you.”

“I’m sorry,” She replies. “I thought it would go away.”

“It’s okay,” I reply. “We’re going to take this on together. And it will.”

She steps closer, wrapping her arms around me as she rests her head on my chest. I wrap my arms around her, holding her close as I rest my head on hers.

Chapter Text

Since the day after the wedding, Tyler & I had agreed we wouldn't take things further between us. Tyler said it wasn't fair on either of us to start a relationship when he's just come out of one- “It would feel too much like a rebound, & I don't want to do that to you.”

At first, it wasn't so hard. But as the days & weeks passed, it's been getting more complicated to hide how we feel.

It's been three weeks. Things have been… Intense. Our families are coping with the fact that Paige & Mark were attacked on their honeymoon, & it's made the whole street nervous. And Dad just heard that Paige has had a panic attack.

“What? Oh my god! Is she okay?” I ask.

“Nate calmed her down & called Mark & Lauren. Lauren says she's okay, but… They're going to take her to the hospital to see the councillor. I’m going to go too.”

I nod. “She’ll appreciate the support.”

“Are you sure? I know we had plans…”

“Nah, its fine. We can reschedule. Paige needs you.”

He steps over & kisses my head.

“Tell her I send my love.”

He smiles. “Will do. See you later.”

“Bye.”

I watch him leave, waiting till the door clicks shut before I sigh. I really hope she's okay. I think about how close Paige has come to dying lately, how Mark has too… I can't imagine losing someone the way they’ve each nearly have. That just makes me think about Tyler.

Before I know it, I’m heading into the backyard & over to the spot where I always scale the fence.

****

I’m lazily swimming in my pool, when I hear the all too familiar sound of the fence shifting slightly as Piper climbs it. I look over in time to see her jump down my side, crouching to steady herself upon landing.

“You know we have a front door,” I call out to her.

“I know,” She says, walking over. “But the fence is quicker.”

“Is that so?” I ask, climbing out of the pool.

I grab my towel & dry off a bit as she walks around the edge of the pool to me.

“Yeah, it saves several very important seconds.”

“And what's so important that you needed those seconds?”

“Haven't you heard?”

I frown. “Heard what?”

“Paige had a panic attack.”

My eyes widen in shock. “What?”

“I don't know the details, cause I wasn't there. But Dad heard from Lauren, who heard it from Nate, who saw it all. She's okay, but she's going to talk to a councillor about it.”

“Oh, wow. That's serious.”

She nods. “I wanted to come see you.”

“Thanks, but… It wasn't really necessary,” I reply. “Not that I don't appreciate the gesture, it's just… I had no idea about it. Probably wouldn't have till tonight… How are you?”

“I’m… Okay.”

I frown. “You don't sound like it.”

She sighs. “It's just… It made me think about how much Paige & Mark have been through over the last month & a bit, & how terrifying it would be to loose someone I love the way that they have,” She replies. “And… Well… It… It made me think of you.”

I nervously lick my lip. “You know we can't go there.”

“Tyler,” She begs. “I can't keep denying how I feel about you! What Mark & Paige are going through is hell, & I can't stop thinking about what it would be like if something happened to either of us & I never got the chance to say that I’m in love with you!” Her eyes fill with tears. “I don't want to keep burying my feelings. It's torturing me, &… It’s just wasting time. I may not have much time with you, & I know that I don't want to waste however much time we have left.”

I look at her, trying to keep my feelings contained. But after that pleading, I can't. I drop my towel, gently hold her head in my hands, lower my face & press my lips against hers. She kisses me back, & it feels so good!

“Let’s take this to your room,” She whispers.

“Are you sure?”

She nods. “I’m ready to take the next step.”

I take her hand & lead her inside.

****

We reach his room & I lean in to kiss him but he steps back.

“I should have a shower.”

I frown. “Why?”

“Cause I smell like chlorine,” He replies. “And if we're gonna do this, I want to smell better than I am.”

I want to say that I don't care, but I know it will just cause problems. So I nod. He starts to pass by me on his way out, but stops next to me.

“I’ll be quick,” he says, before kissing my cheek.

I sit on the end of his bed & wait. It feels like an eternity. He comes back, clean & dry, wearing just his towel. He shuts his door, & turns back to me. My eyes drift slowly over his abs, following his v-line down until it slips under his towel. He sits down next to me.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” He asks.

I nod. “You're the only one I want to do this with.”

“You know… Losing your… Virginity, is… It's something you shouldn't-”

I cut him off with a kiss. “Thank you for being concerned. I find that very sweet of you, Tyler,” I reply. “But I want to do this.”

“Okay,” He replies. “But… We're gonna go slow, okay? I want you to find out things about you.”

“Like what?”

“Seriously? You haven't had the talk yet?”

I slap his arm. “Of course I have! I just wanted you to clarify what you meant.”

“Oh, well… I just… I want you to discover what turns you on,” He says, rather nervously. “What you like… And what you don't.”

“Awwwww! You're so sweet!”

He smiles. “I want you to feel comfortable with this. I’m a lot older & I’m more experienced. I don't want to hurt you.”

“You won't.”

“I will a little, but we’ll get to that when we get to it.”

I nod. “Okay,” I say. “What do we do first?”

“Lie down.”

I take off my shoes, & shift back to lie down on my back. He shifts, coming to kneel between my legs. He leans forward, placing his hands on the bed either side of me. He balances over me, our chests brushing.

“I want you to get used to this feeling,” He says. “Having me over you like this.”

“I already love it,” I say, with a flirtatious smile. “Especially given how little you're wearing.”

He smiles, holding back laughter. He leans down & slowly kisses my neck. I moan.

“Well, that's one thing you like,” He says, his breath tickling my neck.

“Show me more,” I whisper into his ear.

We discover quite a few things about each other, like the fact that I suddenly have a ticklish spot on my sides, and he has an obsession with kissing my neck. Soon enough we’re both naked, & my heart is pounding. I can't believe I’m finally going to make love with him.

He leans over, getting a condom out of his bedside table’s drawer. I watch as he puts it on. He leans over me the way he had at the start.

“It's going to hurt a bit at first,” He says. “But I promise you it won't be for too long. I just want you to know in case you freak out when it happens.”

“I can handle it,” I reply, reaching up to kiss him.

He kisses me back, before pushing himself up. “You ready?”

I nod, smiling.

He gently rubs his fingers through my folds, & I bite my bottom lip hard to stop my moan. He then presses his dick’s head against my opening, watching me for a minute as he allows me to get used to the sensation. I want him in me right now, I want to know what it feels like to give him my all.

I gasp when he pushes inside, eyes blinded from the pain as my body gives way to him. I don't even realise I’m crying until Tyler leans down & kisses me.

“It's okay,” He whispers against my lips.

It hurts, but the pain is slowly subsiding. He stays still until I open my eyes.

“How is it now?” He asks.

“It doesn't hurt as much now.”

He smiles. “Good,” He says. “You ready to keep going?”

I nod.

"Tell me if it hurts too much, okay? Don't feel like you have to keep going if it gets too much.”

“Awww! You're so sweet! But I’ll be fine.”

“Just looking out for you,” He replies. “Because I love you.”

“I love you too,” I whisper, before kissing him.

He moves his hips back, & then forward. I inhale sharply. He keeps doing it slowly- back, forth, back, forth. It sends a sensation I’ve never felt before through me- & I like it. He slowly starts to move faster. I hold him tightly, fingers digging into his back. I can't hold back my moans any longer, & when I let out a long moan, he pushes in deeper.

“How does that feel?” He asks, still thrusting.

I moan again. He chuckles.

“I’ll take that as a good sign,” He says.

“Very good,” I reply.

“Good,” He replies, before kissing my neck.

I gasp, involuntarily arching my back as my inner muscles clench around him. It feels strange down there & my vision blurs.

“Hey,” He says, softly. “Relax. Don't fight it.”

“Wha? Why?”

He chuckles. “Cause it's a good thing, what you're experiencing,” He says. “It's called an orgasm.”

“Oh, that's what it feels like.”

He smiles. He then hooks an arm under me, cradling my lower back, & then rolls to my left- flipping us.

“Sit up,” He says.

“Huh?”

“Sit up,” He replies, taking his arm off my back. “So you're like… Straddling me. Like I was sitting before, but… On top of me.”

I push myself up, inhaling sharply from the new feeling of him inside. It makes me feel dizzy. I sway, almost collapsing, & he quickly grabs my hips to steady me.

“You okay?” He asks, concerned.

I nod. “Yeah.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, I’m fine. I just got a little… dizzy,” I reply. “It feels different.”’

He smirks. “That happens when you change positions. But it’s a good feel, right?”

I have the sudden urge to grind- so I push my hips down, moving them in a circular motion & he fails to bite back a loud moan. He pulls me down & kisses me as he pushes my hips down & then up, & I moan into his mouth.

We keep making love, moaning into the others’ mouth until he cums. I feel it hit- his thrusts become jerkier & he exhales heavily straight into my mouth. He grips my hips to get me to stop & I do as he leaves a line of kisses down my neck to my shoulder.

****

The sound of the front door shutting loudly wakes both of us.

“Shit, they’re home,” Tyler says.

We quickly get dressed. He ushers me over to his window.

“I hope you don’t get caught,” He says.

“I won’t,” I reply, reaching up & kissing him.

I turn to go, but he grabs my arm gently.

“Don’t tell anyone about us.”

“Why?” I ask, frowning.

He sighs. “I know that we don’t care about the age difference,” He says. “However… if any of your family find out…”

I nod. “We’re both dead.”

He nods. “Yep.”

“I promise it’s our little secret.”

He smiles. “I like the sound of that,” he replies, cupping my face with both hands. He kisses me.

I then slip out the window, looking back at him & smiling before I creep towards the front of his head.

I’m making my way down the driveway after checking that I don’t have company, when I spot Mum arriving home.

“Oh, shit!” I mutter, ducking down below the level of the embankment between the two houses.

I slowly peer above it, careful not to get seen. And I’m shocked when I see not only is she not alone, but it’s not Josh. The teenage boy with her is too slender to be Josh.

Then he turns around, & I gape.

Chas?”

Chapter Text

“What is he doing here?” I ask as soon as I'm inside, the front door shutting.

“Oh, hi sweetie,” Mum says from the kitchen.

“Hey, Piper,” He says as I cross to them.

“Seriously, Mum,” I reply, ignoring him. “What is he doing here?”

Piper!” She scolds. “That's not the right way to behave in front of our guest.”

“Oh, & not telling me that he was coming? Is that the right way to behave?”

Mum looks at him, & then ushers me back into the lounge.

“You remember what he did to Dad & Josh, right?” I ask, as we go all the way across the room.

“Yes,” She says, firmly but quietly so he doesn't hear. “He says he's sorry, & he wants your Dad to coach him again.”

“So you invited him here?”

“He deserves the chance to be heard.”

“What he deserves is to remain out of our lives.”

She narrows her eyes. “Why are you so against this?”

“Our family has been through enough the last year,” I reply. “Do you think it's wise to let someone who we once considered family but ended up being betrayed by back in?”

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” She says. “What Brodie did to us is in the past. You don't have to forgive him, but at least give him the chance to talk to our family.”

“Right, so… As usual, instead of consulting us, you go ahead & force us to accept the decision you’ve made.”

Piper!

I shake my head, trying to contain my anger. I look over to him- he’s watching us, but quickly looks away when he sees I’m looking at him. When I found out Mum & Dad were separating, I begged him to come back with me. But he chose swimming over me. I still haven't forgiven about it. And now he’s here to shake up my family once again.

“Fine,” I say, looking at Mum. “Play happy families. But you know what?” I shrug. “I’m not going to stand here & watch it.”

I head for the front door.

“Piper!”

I yank the door open, step out & slam it behind me.

****

All I want is to go back to Tyler, to cry & fall into his arms. But he’ll be busy with Mark & Paige. So I turn right & walk down the street. Mum calls my mobile.

“Urgh! Leave me alone!” I angrily say as I reject her call.

Eventually I end up at the Lassiters lake. I sit at its edge, hurling rocks into it.

“Wow, what's got you so mad?” Xanthe asks.

I look over my shoulder. She's walking over to me. I turn back around with a sigh, hurling another rock into the water. She settles on the grass beside me.

“Remember that boyfriend I had when I was in Canada?”

“Yeah,” She says. “The mysterious Chas.”

“Yeah, well… Mum turned up at home with him.”

What?!” She gapes. “Oh my god! This is brilliant! Two star-crossed lovers, torn apart by a family crisis & he comes all this way to win you back.”

“But I don't want him back.”

“Uh… Why not?”

“Because he betrayed my family, & then I was in Canada & I stupidly gave in to my silly little crush on him,” I reply, throwing another rock in the water. “We dated, & things were going good for us. But then I found out about my parents, & I knew I needed to come home. I asked him, begged him to come back with me, but he chose his swimming career over me. He broke my heart.”

“And now he's here.”

“Yeah… To get Dad to coach him again.”

“But your family doesn't know you two dated, right?” She asks. “Have you considered that he's just using that as an excuse to be close to you again? Maybe it's just a cover.”

“But I don't want him back!” I snap. “I want him gone. I want him to go back to Canada & leave me be.”

“Woah! You really feel strongly about this.”

“Because I’m finally feeling like I fit in here, & he just had to come swooping in & shake it all up,” I reply, fighting back tears. “And the one person that I so desperately want to vent this to is too busy dealing with personal stuff, so I’m having to deal with this on my own.”

“I’m sure if you just call Tyler, he’d make time for you.”

I look at her, gaping. “How did you-”

“I’m observant,” She replies. “Besides… Ever since the wedding, you two have been giving each other some serious heart eyes. I think everyone knows there’s something happening there.”

“Yeah, well… There wasn’t,” I reply. I throw another rock into the lake. “Until today.”

“Ooooo!!! The plot thickens!” She replies excitedly. “This is like a Hollywood romantic chick flick!”

I tell her about Paige's panic attack, & the decision I made about my feelings for Tyler.

“Oh, pleeease tell me he took you in his arms & confessed his undying love for you!”

“Not everything is some romantic chick flick.”

“Uhh… When you have a hottie like Tyler, it deserves a story worthy of a romantic chick flick,” She replies. “So come on! Tell me!”

“He decided that he couldn't deny it too.”

“Ooooo!”

“We ended up…” I look at her, letting it speak for itself.

She gapes. “Get… Out!” She says, way too loudly.

“Would you keep your voice down?! We’re in public!”

She shifts closer. “So how was it?”

I scrunch up my face. “I'm not going to tell you.”

“I bet he's amazing.”

“He was really sweet. He made sure that I was sure I wanted to do it. He took things slow, knowing that it was my… First.”

She rests her chin on her hand. “Now I know why you’re so wound up about Chas being back.”

“And it's more infuriating when Mum not only knows that I don't want him there, but she keeps on trying to make me accept that he's here,” I say, throwing another rock. “Instead of sending him packing, she wants me to ‘give him a second chance’, & let Dad & Josh hear him out.”

“So what exactly did he do?”

“What?”

“I’m just… Curious,” She says. “You say he betrayed your family.”

“It doesn't matter. The point is, he did something that nearly cost Josh his career. And Dad’s coaching career,” I reply. I sigh, deciding I may as well tell her. “He accused them of cheating with steroids. And then he broke my heart. There's nothing more that you need to know.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Hope that Dad has the sense to turn him away.”

“And if he doesn't?”

“I hide & ignore Brodie.”

She frowns. “Brodie?”

“Chas is his nickname,” I reply. “His real name is Brodie Chaswick. That's what my family knows him as.”

“Good to know.”

“I can't believe he came back.”

“Piper!” He calls from behind us.

I groan, covering my face with both hands.

“Is that him?” Xanthe quietly asks.

I nod. I just know she's looking at him.

“He's cuuute!”

I drop my hands. “Don't even think about flirting with him.”

“Hey,” He says, stepping up to us.

“What do you want?” I ask, glaring up at him.

“Can we talk?”

“I'm busy.”

“I actually have to go,” Xanthe says.

I shoot her a look- Please don't go! She stands up.

“Hey, I’m Xanthe,” She says, holding out her hand as I get to my feet. “I'm Piper’s best friend.”

“Brodie Chaswick,” He replies, taking her hand & shaking it. “Nice to meet you.”

“Well, I’d love to stay & chat, but… I better get home.”

I grab her arm, giving her a pleading look. She leans in.

“Talk to him,” She whispers.

No!

She gets her arm free, turns around, flashes a flirty smile at Chas & then leaves.

“Wow,” He says. “Colourful one.”

“Yeah, that's Xanthe for you,” I reply. “I… Gotta go too.”

“I’ll walk you home.”

“I can do it myself.”

“I’m heading back there anyway.”

I sigh. “Why can't you just leave me & my family alone?”

“Your Dad is the only one that's able to bring out the best in me,” He replies. “I’ve never beaten my personal bests since I stopped being coached by him.”

“Right. So… When I begged you to come back with me, you turned it down. And now you're here to beg Dad into taking you back.”

“Piper,” He says, stepping closer. I step back. He sighs. “I regret how I treated you. I’m sorry.”

“It's too late for that,” I reply, before walking away.

****

It's getting dark when I'm walking back home. I’ve been walking around all afternoon, avoiding home in the hopes that I don't have to see or deal with Brodie. I turn into Ramsay Street when my mobile rings. I look at the ID, expecting it to be Mum. But it's Tyler.

“Hey,” I say, as I bring it up to my ear.

“Hey, I just saw Xanthe. She said you were upset before. I just wanted to see if you're okay?”

“Uhh… Not exactly.”

“What's going on? Did I do something to upset you?”

“No! You were…” I sigh. “It's not you. My ex turned up just after I left you. And he's trying to get Dad to coach him again.”

“Wait… You dated someone Brad coached?”

“Yes, though he was an ex trainee when I dated him in Canada.”

“Chas is here?”

“Yep,” I reply, bitterly. “And now I don't want to go home cause he's going to be there.”

“I’d offer for you to come stay here, but… Things are pretty tense here.”

“How's Paige?”

He sighs. “Yeah, she's okay. She opened up about everything to the psychologist, which is good. But it's a long way from being over.”

“Awww, poor Paige. And here I am kicking up a fuss over nothing.”

“Having an ex rock up unannounced isn't nothing, Pipes.”

“It's nothing compared to what she's going through.”

“Where are you?”

“Almost home,” I reply. “I can't keep avoiding Mum’s calls. I don't wanna go in, but… I have to. Don't have anywhere else.”

“Well, you can always call me later to vent.”

“I would give anything up to curl up in bed in your arms right now.”

“I wish I could comfort you too,” He replies. “But running the risk of Mark finding you…”

I nod. “Yeah, I get it.”

“Call me later, okay?”

“I will just to hear your voice.”

I can tell from his exhale that he's smiling.

“I guess it's time to face the music.”

“Hey,” He says. “You can do this.”

“Don't have a choice.”

****

I step inside, instantly seeing Mum, Imogen, & Josh standing in the kitchen. I quietly shut the front door, & try to sneak upstairs.

“Piper?” Mum calls.

I freeze three steps up the stairs & grimace. Bugger. Mum walks over.

“Come into the kitchen,” She says.

“Why? So you can force me into accepting you're letting him back into our family?”

“So we can discuss it as a family.”

“You know where I stand,” I reply, before continuing up the stairs.

“Piper, please come talk with us,” Dad says.

I look down at him. “You're going to take him on, aren't you?”

“I’m considering all the options,” He says. “Just come down & hear him out.”

I stare at him, shocked. “He's here?

“He has the right to be a part of the discussion,” Mum replies.

“Just like I have the right to go to bed,” I reply.

“Piper!”

“I’m tired, Mum. I just want to go curl up in bed.”

“What about dinner?”

“Not hungry.”

They look at each other. I hate it when they communicate without saying a word. Mum heads back to the kitchen & I sigh as Dad comes up the stairs.

“Tell me why you're so against Brodie being back?”

“Am I the only one that remembers he accused you & Josh of using steroids?”

“That was years ago, Piper. He's older. Wiser.”

“But still the same liar.”

He looks shocked. “This isn't you.”

“I don't want him back in our lives, Dad. I don't get why you & Mum are making it out like I’m in need of being punished when I’m trying to give my opinion. I’m trying to show you that he’s not worthy of having you coach him again.”

“Just come & talk,” He says. “You’ll see that he's not the same as he was back then.”

I shake my head. “I’m done talking to him today.”

“Fine, don't talk,” He says. “But at least come & eat. Listen to him. Just be there.”

“How about we save the torture for another day? Surely you have enough to deal with, given your other daughter hallucinated a psycho was about to kill her.”

“Paige is in good hands with Mark.”

“Right. So you're here to force your youngest daughter to have dinner with the kid that lied & brought your & Josh’s careers extremely close to being destroyed.”

“Can you please just put all this anger aside & come have dinner?”

I sigh. “Fine.”

I head back down & into the kitchen. I avoid making eye contact with Brodie, slumping down in a chair as far away from him as possible.

****

“So Dad’s gonna coach him, even though I protested,” I say into my mobile. After the torture of having Brodie at dinner, & Dad’s bombshell, I retreated to the sanctuary of my bedroom. I’m lying on my bed, having called Tyler the second I got up here. “Josh was against it too, but he changed his position by the end of dinner. So basically I’m been shunted to the side like an outsider by my own family.”

“I think you're over exaggerating,” Tyler says.

“Nope, I’m being accurate,” I reply. “They like Brodie more than they do me.”

“That's so not true, Pipes, & you know it!” He says. “You're amazing.”

“Urgh! I wish they'd show me that they see that.”

“Maybe you should…”

“Should what?”

“I dunno… Come clean about you dating him.”

What?!” I bolt up. “And risk Mum murdering me for hiding it? No thanks.”

“I was actually thinking it would make them understand why you are so adamant about not letting him back into your lives.”

“Huh. Didn't think of it that way.”

“So… You’ll think about it?”

“Maybe.”

“And then you might wanna tell them about us.”

“Haha. One secret relationship exposed at a time, thanks. I have no idea how extreme they’ll be in reacting to hearing about me & Chas.”

“Eventually they're going to find out.”

“About which one?”

“Both.”

“Urgh!” I say, flopping back down.

“I wish I could hug you & tell you it will all work out.”

“I could sneak out & sleep in your bed?”

“Much as that sounds nice, your parents would kill me if they found out you snuck out to have a sleepover with me.”

“It's nothing compared to what we did earlier,” I reply, smirking as I think about our afternoon sex.

“Oh, that alone qualifies me for Brad to murder me.”

“I wish I could go back to then. Before all of this stupid drama ruined what had been the best day of my life.”

“Well… I can't do much to improve things right now, but I can start tomorrow off in a good way.”

“Oh?”

“We’ll go have breakfast or brunch somewhere,” He says. “My shout.”

“Awwwwww!!! That would be lovely.”

“Good. Meet at 10am?”

“Sounds good. But down the road. In case anyone sees us.”

He chuckles. “To everyone else, we’re just friends.”

“Yeah, but you don't know what my Mum is like…”

He laughs. “Okay, okay. I’ll keep in touch so we can meet up.”

“Sure. Can't wait.”

“Me too.”

“Sleep well.”

“You too,” I reply. “And Tyler?”

“Yes?”

“I love you.”

“I love you too, Pipes.”

****

The next morning, I slip out & meet Tyler at a park down the road. I smile when I see him waiting. And then I can't help but run over & jump into his arms. It feels like it's been forever since I saw him. He holds me tight, kissing my neck.

“I missed you,” I say, pulling back to look into his eyes.

“It's been less than a day.”

“Yeah, well, you know how bad the rest of yesterday was for me. It could very well have been a week since I saw you.”

He cups my face with both hands. “Well I’m here now.”

I grab his shirt, pulling him so his lips crash into mine. We share a long kiss, & I wish there was somewhere we could go & make love again.

“Where do you want to go eat?” He asks.

“Somewhere where I don't have to deal with my family.”

He smiles. “I think I know the perfect place.”

We go to this cute café & order food. We're not near Lassiters, so we can be like any other couple. He sits next to me, draping an arm around me. We talk, our attention only on each other until the waitress brings our food out.

The food is delicious. And we're having a good time. That is, until we're almost done…

“Piper?” I hear Brodie ask.

I look up & drop my cutlery. He’s walking over. Shit.

“Who's this?” He asks, frowning at Tyler.

“Her boyfriend,” Tyler replies, putting his arm around me again.

“Your mum didn't tell me you were seeing someone.”

“One, not something you should really be told,” I reply, bluntly. “And she doesn't know.”

He smiles. “Well… Some things never change with you.”

Tyler's arm tenses. I place a hand on his leg.

“Well… You may be happy now, but… Eventually you’ll be back with me.”

Tyler starts to stand, but I dig my fingers into his thigh to make him sit. Brodie laughs. He walks away.

“I can see why you hate him,” Tyler says, glaring at Brodie’s back.

“Yep,” I reply. “Hopefully Dad comes to his senses soon.”

Tyler looks at me. “Do you think he’ll mention us to him?”

“Ohhhh, I hope not.”

“I reserve the right to punch him if he does.”

“Tyler, don't.”

“What? The smug idiot needs to learn a lesson.”

“And how will Mark react if he finds out you punched him?”

He presses his lips into a thin line. “Good point.”

“But I do appreciate the thought of you defending me like that.”

He smiles. He leans in & kisses me.

****

The rest of Sunday is better than Saturday. I didn't see Brodie after our encounter at brunch, which was a huge relief. In fact, I went without seeing him at all until Friday. I came down for breakfast before school, finding him eating with Dad. I just grab some food & then head into the lounge to eat.

I meet Xanthe & we walk to school, & I vent to her about seeing Brodie at home. School is no different than usual. Tyler sends me a text at lunch, asking if I want to come to the garage after school. I reply saying I will & that I can't wait to see him.

After school, Xanthe & I head off together. We eventually part ways, her on route to Harold's.

“Have fun with baby Brennan!” She calls back to me.

“Ha ha!” I call back.

I walk alone for several meters. And then a car pulls up beside me.

“Piper!” Brodie says, getting out.

I roll my eyes. “Leave me alone, Brodie!” I say, still walking.

He jogs to catch up with me, stepping in front of me so I nearly crash into him.

“Do you mind?” I snap, glaring at him.

“Only way to get you to stop.”

“Get the hint,” I reply. “I don't want to talk to you. Its bad enough I have to see you in my home. The least you could do is give me as much space as possible everywhere else.”

 

“But why would I do that? I’m trying to prove to you that I’m not the guy I was when you broke up with me.”

“And I’m trying to prove to you that I’m not interested.”

“You belong with me.”

I raise my eyebrow. “Excuse me?

“You know we're meant to be together.”

“That's where you're wrong,” I say, stepping around him.

He grabs my arm. I try to shake free, but he holds on tighter- so tight, his fingers dig in to my skin.

“Let go.”

“You're coming with me.”

No!”

I try to keep walking, but his hold is too much & I can't move. I struggle, but he's surprisingly strong. He pulls me closer.

“I’ll scream,” I angrily say.

“We’re surrounded by nothing,” He replies. “No one will hear you.”

I struggle, pushing & kicking in the hopes he’ll let go. My schoolbag falls off in the struggle. He ends up pulling me against him, my back pressed against his chest- his left arm wrapped around my waist. I try & wriggle free, but he holds me tight.

“Come willingly, & this will be much easier,” He whispers into my ear.

“Let me go!”

“I'm sorry, Piper,” He replies. He kisses my cheek. “I can't let you go. Not again.”

I keep struggling. And then he covers my mouth with a white cloth. I fight harder, knowing exactly what he's trying to do. But my mouth & nose are covered- there's no way to avoid breathing it in.

Despite my best efforts, my body gives in to the chloroform. I start to go limp, & he pulls me back to his car. He gets me into the passenger seat, clicking my seatbelt on & slams the door shut. I keep my eyes open long enough to see him get in & roar off. And then I can't keep my eyes open any longer.

****

She should be here by now…

I check my mobile again. Still no text. So I call Xanthe.

“Tyler! Hiiiii. I thought you’d be playing snookie with my bestie.”

“So she's not with you?”

“No, of course not! She's been dying to be with you ever since you texted her! I even left her not too long ago… She was on route to you.”

I sigh, fearing the worst. “Well, she hasn't turned up & I’ve heard nothing from her.”

“Have you tried calling her?”

“Yeah, it just rings out.”

“Okay, don't panic,” She says. “I’m at Harold's. Why don't you close up, & head for the school. You know our usual route, right?”

“Yeah I do.”

“Good. Okay. I’ll meet you at the intersection where our route splits off. That's where I last saw her.”

“Okay. Keep in contact.”

“Of course!”

****

We meet up at the spot. Neither of us have seem her. I try calling her again, & it barely rings when I spot it. I hang up, walking over to it. I crouch down beside the bush, reaching under it & pulling out a school bag- Erinsborough High. Xanthe steps up just as I open it & dig through the belongings to determine if it's hers. My heart sinks when I find her printed vlog.

I drop it back in, zipping it up & stand up.

“What now?” She asks.

I hand her Piper’s bag. “Go home & take this with you.”

“What?”

“I think I know where she is.”

“You do?”

“I have an idea.”

“Take me with you.”

“No, it's too dangerous,” I reply. “Besides, I need you as back up.”

She frowns. “How can I be back up if I’m not there?”

“Because if you don't hear from me in an hour, I need you to go to Mark and tell him everything,” I reply. “Okay, leave out the fact that I’m dating Piper… But the rest. And I need you to tell him to get to Paul’s motel.”

She frowns. “Why there?”

“Xanthe! Just do it, please!” I snap. “I'm sorry, but I need to go.”

****

I force open my eyes, feeling groggy. He's definitely given me something stronger… The room comes slowly into focus, & I see that I’m lying on a bed in Paul's motel. And then Brodie leans over me, kneeling beside me.

“You should have come willingly,” He says. “But your resistance needs to be addressed.” He starts pushing my skirt up. “And I have just the right method.”

I try resisting, but I can't move. Whatever he’s given me is very strong- it's keeping me from moving. He pushes my legs, forcing me to spread them. He then moves to sit between them, & I know he's about to rape me. I know & yet I can't move. He pushes my skirt up more & rubs my undies. Tears fill my eyes as I try desperately to move my hand or even a leg- anything to stop him.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to make love to you,” He says, still rubbing me. “It's a shame you’re not willing to be with me. I really didn't want to do it this way, but… You’ve given me no choice.”

He reaches to the top of my undies & hooks his fingers under it.

“PIPER?” I hear Tyler call.

I try calling out but I can't.

Brodie laughs.

“PIPER?” Tyler's closer.

“Ty-” I force myself to speak. “TYLER!” It's weak, but I pray that it's enough.

Brodie starts pulling my undies down, determined to not let Tyler's interruption stop him. I'm starting to feel my fingers again. Brodie sees. So he pulls my undies off much rougher than he had been. He unbuckles his belt, undoing his jeans.

“TYLER!” I manage to get it out a bit louder this time.

Brodie grabs my neck, pushing down on it enough to make it hard for me to breathe.

“Call out again, & I will make you regret it.”

He lets go, needing two hands to push his jeans & boxers down. Knowing how close he is to raping me, I know this is my last chance to stop him.

“TYLERRRRRR!!!” I scream as loud as I can.

Brodie slaps me hard across my left cheek. The door into the room moves, but jams as the lock holds it in place.

“Piper?” Tyler says from the door.

“Tyler,” I say, weaker than the last time.

But it's enough for him to hear. The door bangs, & I know he’s hitting it with his shoulder to force it open.

Brodie snarls, & moves to push inside me. He gets the tip of his dick’s head inside when the door opens. Tyler stumbles a little, & takes in the view. I stare at him, & he knows that I’m unable to move. He storms over, grabbing Brodie & hauling him backwards off the bed. I watch as Tyler knocks him out, letting him drop to the floor.

Tyler then rushes over to me. He kneels on the bed, pulling my skirt down to cover me. He then cups my face with both hands.

“Hey, you're going to be okay,” He says with a reassuring smile.

I don't have the strength to respond. He pulls out his mobile, & calls someone.

“Mark,” He says into it, one hand still on my cheek. “I need you to come to Paul’s motel. And call for an ambulance.” He looks at me, clearly listening to Mark. “Cause Brodie just tried to rape Piper.”

I black out.

Chapter Text

I stand guard over Piper, watching the paramedics assess her. A couple of Police officers are with Brodie, who now has his clothes on properly & is sporting a nice nose bleed from my punch.

Mark walks in, & takes in the scene. He spots me & walks over.

“What the hell happened?” He asks.

“Piper was going to come over to the garage after school,” I reply. “She failed to turn up & wasn't answering her phone. So I called Xanthe, to find out what she knew. She said she’d left Piper on her way to the garage, & we each tracked back to where she last saw Piper.”

“How did you know she was here?”

“I found her schoolbag under a bush.”

Mark's eyes widen. “You tampered with a crime scene?”

“What was I supposed to do? Leave her bag there for anyone to take?” I snap. “If you're really that hung up, I can take you back & point out exactly where it was so you can document it.”

“Okay, Tyler. Calm down.”

I sigh, eyes drifting back to Piper. She's still unconscious- but they have her on a heart rate monitor, so at least I know she's still breathing. I can't shake the thought of what he was going to do to her.

“Had I not been so worried about her not turning up… Had I not done what I did…” I look at Mark. “I barely stopped it as is.”

“Hey, don't go there,” He replies, placing a hand on my shoulder. “You saved her. She's safe.”

I rub my hands over my face.

“She’s lucky to have a friend like you.”

“She’s more than a friend,” I correct him, before realising I shouldn’t have.

I close my eyes, hoping he didn’t hear. I look at him- he looks shocked.

“Are you…?” He looks from me to Piper.

I sigh. “Would you be angry if I said yes?”

“I don’t honestly know what I feel,” He says. “But… If you’re happy, then… I’m happy for you.”

I nod. “Thanks, bro.”

The paramedics are ready to take Piper off to hospital. They lift her onto the gurney & start to leave.

“Hey,” Mark says to them. “He’s going with you.”

The paramedics look at me. The lead one, standing at Piper’s head, nods. I nod in thanks to Mark, who pats my shoulder as I step past him to follow the paramedics & Piper out.

****

The Willis family arrive, all rushing into the waiting area. I swallow hard, preparing to face them. I stand up as they walk over. Terese pulls me into a hug, which stuns me.

“Thank you for saving my baby,” She says.

“You're welcome,” I reply.

“How is she?” Terese asks as we part.

“She fell unconscious when I was calling Mark for help at the motel,” I reply. “Woke for a little bit in the ambulance. Karl’s in with her now, checking her over while we wait for the blood test results to determine what he drugged her with.”

“I’m glad she has you looking out for her.”

I force a smile. Would she say that if she knew I was dating Piper? If she knew we’ve had sex?

Karl comes out of Piper’s room.

“Ah, good, you're all here,” He says. “Let's go into my office.”

He points to his office across the hall. Brad, Terese & Josh follow him in. Imogen grabs my wrist & pulls me after her.

“You deserve to hear all of it with us,” She says.

Brad & Lauren take the seats while Josh, Imogen & I stand behind them. Karl settles in his chair.

“We already know he gave her chloroform, which supports the theory she struggled when he took her on the street,” He says. “That's evident in several bruises she has.”

“She's a fighter,” Brad says.

“We’re still waiting on her blood tests to determine what else he gave her.”

“What do you mean?” Terese asks.

“Tyler said she was unable to move when he found her,” Karl says. “Chloroform doesn't have that affect on the body. It numbs pain, like anaesthetic. Her body is showing signs of being… Paralysed.”

“She was having trouble speaking too,” I reply. “It was by chance I heard her calling to me.”

“Well, I’m sure when she wakes up, she’ll be very grateful you were there,” Karl says.

“And… Uh…” Terese says. “She was… Brodie was trying to…”

Karl nods. “I’ve had an obstetrician examine her,” Karl says. He looks at Josh, Imogen & myself. “I'm not sure if it's appropriate for you three to be in here.”

“I’m old enough to know this stuff,” Imogen says. “Besides, Mum will need someone to translate it all into easier to understand terms for Piper.”

Karl nods.

“Oh, I’m out,” Josh says. He heads for the door. “There's some things about Piper that I don't need to hear.” He pauses at the door. “You coming, Tyler?”

I swallow. “Uh… I'm going to stay,” I reply. I look at Brad & Terese. “If that's okay? I want to know what he did to her.”

Terese nods. “You're practically family,” She replies. “And you saved her.”

I smile a little. We turn back to Karl.

“Doctor Brooke, the obstetrician, examined her. She said there wasn't any sign of forced penetration, which no doubt is because of Tyler's interruption of it,” Karl says. “However…”

I swallow, knowing all too well there will be signs she's had sex before.

“Doctor Brooke concluded that, even though she wasn't raped today,” Karl says. “There's signs she's already sexually active.”

Terese frowns. “What does that mean?”

Karl hesitates.

“Karl?”

“It means she's had sex.”

Terese, Brad & Imogen look shocked. I bite my lip, trying to hide how uncomfortable I am right now. Imogen notices. Feeling her eyes narrow as she looks at me, I turn & walk out. I try to close the door behind me, but she stops it. She follows me out, closing the door behind her.

“What was that about?” She asks, as I cross the hallway to Piper’s window.

Josh is sitting in with her. Which is good. I don't need him hearing this.

“I just got uncomfortable hearing that, okay?”

“Uh… But you wanted in on that conversation.”

“Because I thought I could handle it.”

“You know something, don't you?”

I avoid looking at her.

Tyler,” She says, sternly.

“Just let it go, Imogen!”

“Uh, no I won't! You need to tell me what you know.”

No.

“It's clearly got something to do with Piper, & right now, she's my priority.”

“So why don't you go sit there next to your siblings instead of pushing me into telling you something that I clearly don't want to tell you.”

“Tyler, please.”

I SLEPT WITH HER!” I snap. “There! I said it. I slept with her. Happy now?”

She stares at me, mouth open.

I sigh, looking at Piper.

“Are you crazy?”

I glare at her.

“She’s sixteen!”

“Which is age of consent,” I reply. “Which I thought you'd know!”

“That I’m not that worried about,” She replies. “What I am worried about, & what you should be worried about, is what my parents are going to do when they find out.”

“Exactly why I left when it brought up that she's had sex!”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I obviously wasn't planning on them finding out this soon.”

“They're going to be asking questions.”

“I know.”

“So are you going to tell them?”

I run my hand over my face. “I don't know.”

“Well,” She says. “I think you should.”

“That would be signing my death warrant. No thanks.”

“Actually… I was going to say this is the best time to do it.”

I frown. “What?”

“Mum’s practically in love with you right now for saving Piper today,” She says. “You should take advantage of that good spirit while it's still in play. It might soften the blow.”

I sigh. “You might actually be right.”

“Want me to be there when you do? As a buffer, in case they decide to lose it?”

I think it over, eyes falling on Piper. I look at Imogen again. “Moral support will be good.”

She smiles reassuringly. She then tilts her head towards Karl's office. I sigh, looking one last time at Piper- hopefully she won’t be too upset that I’ve told them. I then walk back over to Karl's office with Imogen, letting her go back in first.

“Uh… Tyler has something to say,” Imogen says as I close the door.

“Can it wait till after we’re done here?” Terese asks.

“You know what? That's a brilliant idea,” I say, smiling.

Imogen hits my arm. “Tell them now, or I will,” She quietly says.

I swallow, nervous about admitting this. “Uh… I knew… About Piper…” I look at Terese. “I knew she'd had sex before today.”

Terese & Brad look confused.

“What are you saying, Tyler?” Terese asks.

I glance at Imogen. I sigh, looking at Terese again.

“I know… Because…” I sigh, closing my eyes for a long moment. “It was me.” I open them & look at her. “She lost her virginity with me.”

Terese looks shocked. Brad, however, is harder to read. He stands up, keeping his face expressionless as he steps over to me. He stops close enough to be highly intimidating. I swallow, nervous about what he's going to do next- a striking echo of the way Dad would be with me, right before he hit me.

Chapter Text

“What… The… Hell?” Brad says.

I nervously swallow. “I care about her,” I reply. “She wanted to. And I mean that. I would never force her into it.”

“She's sixteen, what were you thinking?”

“She's old enough to give consent.”

“That doesn't give you the right to-”

“Like I said, it was her choice! She was ready. I treated her with respect the whole time.”

I see in the corner of my eye, Imogen turn to Terese. Terese stands, walks over & stands beside Brad to my left.

“Thank you,” She says to me.

Both Brad & I look surprised.

“At first, the news shocked & angered me,” She says. “I can't imagine my little girl growing up so fast. However…” She sighs. “She is. Has been since she left for Canada. And it's about time that we catch up.” She looks at me. “I know you care for her. What you did today is proof of that. As much as I want to be angry over you having sex with her, I can't ignore the fact that, if it weren't for your relationship with her, we wouldn't be standing here right now. Piper would have been raped had you not gone looking for her. So as much as I’m furious, I’m going to let it go.”

Brad looks in disbelief, his anger still there underneath.

“Thank you,” I reply.

Terese nods. “Now… You & Imogen go be with Piper,” She says. “And Karl? I’m sorry you had to witness this.”

“No, don’t worry,” Karl says. “Young love. Makes everyone a little on edge.”

None of us know what to say in response. Imogen pushes me towards the door. We slip out.

“How is it that adults somehow manage to find a way of completely embarrass us like that?” She asks, once the door is shut.

I shrug as we cross to Piper’s room. I open the door for her, & she smiles as she steps in. We both smile at Josh as I shut the door.

“How is she?” Imogen asks.

“She hasn’t woken up,” Josh replies. “Whatever he dosed her up with must be really strong.” He scoffs. “The irony of this. He accused us of using drugs, & then years later, he drugs my little sister.”

“Well, she’s going to recover.”

“Except that she’s going to be traumatised by the whole experience.”

“She has us for support.”

“Any news on what they’ve done with Brodie?”

Imogen looks at me.

I shake my head. “Last I heard, Mark was stuck at the station with him, trying to get him on the record,” I reply. “Sounded like he was resisting.”

Josh looks shocked. “He was caught in the act! What does he think he can do to get off?”

“Just leave it to Mark & the rest of the Erinsborough Police,” Imogen replies. “I really don’t think Mum & Dad would appreciate you ending up breaking your good behaviour bond over that idiot.”

“He deserves it,” Josh mutters, resting back in his chair.

****

Terese & Brad join us shortly after, Brad much calmer. After a while, Imogen suggests they go get dinner.

“Wanna join us?” Imogen asks.

I shake my head. “No, I’m not hungry,” I reply. “Besides, I want to be here when she wakes.”

She nods. “Okay.”

“But thanks anyway.”

She smiles. “No worries.”

“Immy!” Josh calls from the hallway.

Imogen waves bye & I watch her leave. I sit back down as I sigh. I reach out & take hold of her hand- the first contact I’ve been able to give her since we arrived, because Josh doesn’t know about us yet. I hang my head- Please wake up, Pipes.

Her fingers curl around my hand. I snap my head up, eyes focused on her hand. But it’s her breathing that catches my eye- her chest rises & then drops as she sighs. I turn to look at her face. Her eyes open, & then close again as she fights to wake up. It takes a few attempts, but she opens her eyes fully.

“Hey,” I say, smiling.

Her eyes turn to me. She smiles.

“Best sight to wake up to,” She replies, groggily. “Shame it’s here in the hospital & not your bed.”

I smile, chuckling. “How are you?”

“Well… I can feel my whole body,” She replies. “Which is an improvement.”

“Good,” I reply, standing up. I kiss her forehead.

“You shouldn’t do that.”

“Kiss my girlfriend?”

“What if one of my family walks in?”

“They won’t. They went to dinner,” I reply. “Besides… three of them know.”

She raises an eyebrow. “What?”

“Karl had an obstetrician examine you,” I reply. “He told your parents that although you hadn’t been raped… you’d had sex.”

“Oh god.”

“Imogen & I were present. Don’t ask why I was there, it’s too long a story,” I reply. “I left Karl’s office, in an attempt to avoid it, but Imogen noticed something was up. She wouldn’t stop pestering me until I admitted what I knew. I’m sorry. I had to.”

“It’s okay,” She replies. “I’m assuming Mum knows.”

I nod. “Imogen suggested I tell her & Brad right away. Take advantage of Terese loving me for saving you.”

“Dad flipped, didn’t he?”

“He was angry, yes,” I reply. “Thankfully, Terese was willing to forgive me, & he let it go. Though I’m sure he’s just delaying it…”

“I wish I’d been there when they found out.”

“So do I,” I reply. “But Imogen backed me into a corner.”

She nods. “It’s okay. I understand.”

“Feel free to be the one to tell Josh,” I reply. “Preferably when I can make a getaway to avoid his fury. You know he’s wanting to make Brodie pay for drugging you.”

“He’s just being a protective brother.”

“Yeah… I don’t want to get on the receiving end of it. The close call with Brad is close enough for me.”

She smiles. “If he dares touch you, I’m going to threaten to do something in return.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Like what?”

“Haven’t decided yet,” She replies, reaching up & putting her left hand on the back of my neck. “Shut up & kiss me.”

I smile as I lean down & press my lips against hers.

****

I let Karl know that she’s awake, & he comes in to check her over.

“No lasting injuries,” He says. “You’ll just be a bit drowsy.”

“Thanks Karl,” She replies.

“What about the blood test?” I ask.

“I’m still waiting to hear back on that,” Karl replies. “Unfortunately, our lab is very busy. But I’ll let you know as soon as I know.”

I nod.

****

Mum, Dad, Josh & Imogen return- all very relieved to see me awake.

“Mum! You’re squishing me!” I say.

“Oh,” She replies, pulling back. “Sorry, baby.”

“It’s fine.”

Karl enters. “I have the results of the blood test.”

“What did he drug her with?” Dad asks, arms folded over his chest while he frowns a little.

“He injected her, via a vein in her left arm, a drug named Flunitrazepam.”

Dad, Mum, Josh, Tyler & I are confused. Imogen looks shocked.

“Rohypnol?” She asks.

Karl nods. “That’s one of its many names, yes.”

“The date rape drug?” Tyler asks, earning a hard stare from Dad. “I’ve heard of its use. A girl I know had her drink spiked with it once. Her friends luckily interrupted before the guy could take her away.”

Karl nods. “That’s what most people use it for… other than addicts.”

“So what… what does this mean for Piper?” Mum asks.

“Well… she may be confused, have dizziness, confusion, drowsiness… you might not be able to move properly… And you might be feeling nauseous for tonight & some of tomorrow,” Karl says. “You will also may have what we call partial anterograde amnesia, which, in basic terms, means you won’t be able to recall what happened after he injected you.”

“He used chloroform to get me in his car,” I reply. “I woke up some time later… I think I was still knocked out from the chloroform when he injected the rohypnol.”

“Okay,” Karl says, making a note in my file of that. “I want to keep you in overnight. Just for observation. Rohypnol can cause respiratory issues. It’s usually caused by a dose mixed with alcohol, but can happen with a high dose of the drug as well. And considering we are unable to determine how much he used… I want you to stay where we can monitor you.”

I nod. “And then I can go home tomorrow?”

He nods. “If you are well enough to, I will discharge you by lunchtime.”

“Thanks, Karl.”

He smiles at me. “You’re welcome,” He replies. “Now… as much as I want you to stay, I’m sorry, but visiting hours finish in a few minutes.”

“We’ll say our goodbyes & head home,” Terese says. “We can drive you, Tyler.”

Tyler nods. “That would be good, thanks.”

Karl says bye & leaves. One by one, Mum, Dad, Josh & Imogen come over & say bye to me. They all leave. Tyler waits to say bye. He makes sure Josh is out of sight before stepping over to me & presses his lips to mine.

“Sleep well,” he whispers.

“Would be better if I was with you,” I whisper back.

He smiles. “When you’re out of here, we’ll see if you can come over.”

“Or… you could come to mine?”

He raises an eyebrow. “You wanna explain to Josh why I’m sleeping over?”

I wince. “Good point.”

He kisses me again. “Night, Pipes.”

“Night, Tyler.”

****

I arrive early at the hospital the next morning after stopping in at Harold’s to collect some breakfast for the both of us. I turn the corner to her room, & nearly drop our food & drinks when I see who’s standing outside her room.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, angrily.

He turns from the window into her room to look at me. “I came to see how she is.”

“Well, she wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.”

“She wouldn’t come of her own will,” He says. “I tried explaining it to her- that we are soulmates & that she belonged with me. But she’s been blinded by you. I had to make her see the truth.”

“Well,” I reply, smiling sarcastically. “You did a good job of that. She now knows you’re nothing more than a monster.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Oh? So you think it’s okay to drug a woman you supposedly love & try to rape her?”

“She needed to be punished.”

I place our food & drinks down on a chair & turn back to him.

“You need to get your head screwed on properly,” I say.

“Has she gone down on you yet?” He replies. “Or is she doing what she did to me? Dragging you around to be some eye candy to make all her school friends jealous?”

I grab his shirt roughly, raising my right hand to punch him.

“TYLER!” Mark barks, making me stop inches from his smug face.

I look to my left, seeing Mark followed by two officers walking over. I let Brodie go, glaring at him as he smirks.

Mark steps up, looking at me in disbelief. The officers stand a few steps back.

“You going to tell him off for that?” Brodie asks.

“He didn’t actually hit you,” Mark replies.

“So?” Brodie replies. “I want him charged for attempted assault.”

“Turn around,” Mark tells him.

“Why?”

“Just do it, or I’ll make you.”

Brodie smirks at me. “I see the anger runs in the family.”

Mark steps closer. Brodie turns around. Mark takes hold of Brodie’s left arm, pulling it behind his back.

“What the-?” Brodie says, looking over his right shoulder as Mark pulls Brodie’s right arm behind him.

“Brodie Chaswick, you’re under arrest for breaching the restraining order,” Mark says, starting to handcuff Brodie’s wrists.

“Wait… what restraining order?” Brodie asks.

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you do say can & will be used against you in a court of law,” Mark says, ignoring Brodie’s question. “You have the right to speak to an attorney, & to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided to you at government expense.”

“What restraining order?” Brodie repeats.

Mark ignores him again, turning him around & guiding him towards the two officers. “You’ll find out in time,” Mark replies. He looks at the officers. “Take him out to the car. I’ll be out shortly.”

The officers nod, taking one of Brodie’s arms each. We watch as they walk him out. Mark turns to me, looking unimpressed.

“What were you thinking when I walked in?” He asks, hands on his hips.

“He was saying nasty things about Piper!”

“And you think it’s a good idea to punch him for it?” He asks. “Do you understand how hard it was to snuff out assault charges on you last night? He wanted you charged for the punch you threw. You’re damn lucky Sarge threw it out based on the circumstances of the situation. Today’s close call could have ended differently. Do you think that Piper would appreciate you getting charged?”

I sigh. “He needs to be put back in line.”

“Yeah, but let me handle that, okay?”

I nod. “Okay.”

“Good,” He replies, before turning to go.

“Hey, what restraining order?”

“Huh?” He looks confused for a moment. “Oh, Brodie’s? Terese called me yesterday afternoon. She wanted to know if there was anything I could do to prevent Brodie from seeing Piper again. So… with Toadie’s help, & Sarge managing to get us an appointment with a judge… we were able to get a restraining order out on him, on Terese & Piper’s behalf.”

“And I’m guessing Brodie had no idea about it.”

He nods, looking a little awkward. “I may have neglected to inform him of it when he made bail at six this morning…”

I look shocked but then impressed. “Nice one, bro!” I say, giving his arm a light punch.

He smiles. “I wanted to find out what he would do,” He replies. “We had a tip off that he was here. And I’m glad that we did come. Especially when it stopped you from doing something reckless.”

"Spare the lecture,” I reply. “I get it. It was a dumb move. Just… Go ensure that creep doesn't come near our family ever again.”

Mark frowns.

“Piper is Paige's half sister, remember?” I add.

“Which means you're dating a member of your own family.”

“Piper and I aren't related, it's not illegal.”

“Says the one who just called her family a minute ago.”

“Oh, shut up & go deal with that psycho.”

****

I open my eyes as my room’s door opens. I look over my right shoulder in time to see Tyler quietly shutting the door, unaware that I’m awake.

“Hey ninja,” I say, causing him to jump a little & look at me.

"Hey," He replies, smiling as he comes round my bed. I notice he has food & coffees from Harold’s. “How are you?”

“Better,” I reply. “Desperate to get out of here & snuggle on the couch with you while we watch movies.”

He smiles. “Who says I have the day off?”

“Uh… me?” I reply, sitting up. “I think I’ve earned the right to have you.”

“I already cleared it with Lucas.”

My jaw drops. “You cheek!” I exclaim, lightly hitting his arm.

He laughs. He leans over & presses his lips to mine. He pulls back, but I grab his head, keeping his lips to mine.

“I brought us some breakfast,” He says, when I finally let him go. “I know they give you some, but… This is better.”

“Uh… Not hard to be better,” I reply. “Why is hospital food so bad?”

He shrugs. “That's a mystery for eternity.”

I smile, struggling not to laugh.

****

Mum drops in after breakfast, to see how I am & to sign my discharge papers. She & Karl return a few minutes later.

“You are free to go,” Karl says. “I want you to take it easy for a couple of days, just to make sure. If you feel unwell, sit down & call for help, okay?”

I nod. “I will.”

“Good,” Karl says. “You can get dressed & leave.”

“Thanks, Karl.”

He leaves.

“We’ll wait for you outside,” Mum says.

Tyler gives my hand a squeeze, & I watch him follow Mum out before I get up.

****

I follow Terese over to a couple of chairs in the waiting area. We just reach them when her mobile rings.

“Excuse me,” She says, stepping away to answer it.

I sit down & wait. Terese comes back before Piper. I stand as she approaches.

“That was work,” She says. “There's some crisis, & they can’t handle it without me.”

“You can go sort it out,” I reply. “I can take Piper home.”

“Are you sure?”

I nod. “She wants to curl up on the couch & watch movies with me.”

She nods. “Okay, that sounds nice. Please tell her I'm sorry for having to leave.”

“I will.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

She turns to leave. Piper emerges in a clean set of clothes & crosses to me. We wrap our arms around each other & she presses her lips against mine.

“Where's Mum?”

“Work crisis,” I reply. “She wanted to stay & drive you home, but I said I could.”

“Awwww, you're such a good boyfriend.”

“We have a date with my couch, remember? I thought I’d save her the trip, given we’re going to end up together anyway.”

****

We spend the afternoon curled up on the couch under his doona, watching movies & enjoying having the house to ourselves.

He kisses my forehead. “How you going?”

"Better now that I’m with you,” I reply, lifting my head & looking at him.

He smirks, cupping my face with one hand & pulling me in for a kiss. The front door opens & we part as Paige & Mark walk in. Paige sees us & looks surprised.

“Oooo, look at you two!” She says.

Mark gives her left shoulder a gentle squeeze in warning.

"Since Aaron is working late with Son, I thought we'd order some take away,” Mark says to us. “You can stay if you’d like, Piper.”

I nod. "That would be good. I’ll let Mum know.”

“Good.”

"Thanks, Mark.”

“No worries,” He replies. “Any preference?”

I shrug. “Whatever you all feel like.”

He nods. “Ty, come help.”

Tyler groans. “Really?”

Mark gives him a look. Tyler sighs, slips out from under his doona. He joins Mark in the kitchen. Paige comes & settles on the couch with me, pulling the doona over her lap & legs.

“How are you?” I ask.

“Says the one who just got out of hospital after being drugged & nearly raped.”

“Hey, you’ve been through a lot too,” I reply. “And I’m not the one pregnant.”

“Can you not make that sound like a bad thing?”

“Uh… Says the one who was against the idea of having kids right now until you found out you're expecting.”

She glares at me. “I was merely hesitant, okay? It's a big commitment, & I was scared of being a terrible Mum & was feeling like I couldn't go do all the things I wanted to. But that all changed when I found out about our babies.”

“Wait… what?!”

She clasps her hands over her mouth.

“Did you just use the plural term?”

She looks at me, completely petrified. It's a long moment before she slowly nods.

“Oh my GOD!” I exclaim.

“What's going on?” Mark asks, as he & Tyler come back over.

I look at Tyler. “Did you know?”

He looks confused. “Know what?”

“That they're having twins?”

“Paige!” Mark chastises.

“It slipped out!” She replies.

“So did you?” I ask Tyler.

“No,” He replies, before turning to Mark with a ‘what the hell?’ look.

“I wanted to keep it a secret for a while,” Mark replies. “We’ve been through a lot of bad stuff lately… I wanted something for just the two of us to know.”

“So… We're first to know?” I ask.

Mark nods.

"When are you telling the others?”

Mark looks at Paige. “I guess tomorrow…”

Paige looks sheepish. “I'm sorry.”

“It was bound to come out.”

We congratulate them & then decide what to have for dinner.

****

I pull him into his room & draw him in for a kiss. He pushes the door closed while we kiss, before turning us & leading us over to his bed. He lifts me up just before he backs into his bed, holding me as we fall onto it. I straddle him, rubbing my hips against him, making us both groan. He slides his hands under my shirt & up my sides.

He holds me close & flips us, so I’m now pinned on his bed. He kisses my neck, & I can't wait to make love with him again.

He reaches down, & unbuttons my jeans. He sits up, kneeling between my spread legs. He pulls off my shoes & jeans. I flashback to the motel, but push the memories down. I won't let Brodie win!

He unbuckles his belt, & as he reaches for his jeans’ button… I look up at his face, but it's not Tyler anymore.

It's Brodie.

And I’m back in the motel room.

Chapter Text

I shake my head, pushing the image away. Tyler frowns, worried.

“Are you okay?” He asks.

“Yeah,” I sigh.

“Are you sure?”

I nod.

“What's going on?”

“Ty, I’m fine.”

“Pipes…”

“The only thing I want to do right now,” I reply, sitting up. “Is make love with you.”

He looks at me, eyebrows narrowed so much he’s got wrinkles between them. It's cute. I pull off my shirt, tossing it aside as I lean forward, pulling him the rest of the way so we can kiss. We lie down, him on top of me, as our kiss deepens. He kisses down my neck, & I feel the memories of Brodie slipping away.

He pushes inside me, & I gasp as I arch my back. He slowly thrusts & I moan. After recent events, it feels so good being this close to him. He pushes himself up on his hands & looks down at me as he continues to thrust. I close my eyes, enjoying the waves of pleasure.

“Look at me, Pip.”

I snap my eyes open, faced with Brodie once again. And we're back at the hotel. We're back there, & he's raping me.

But there's one key difference this time. I’m not drugged with rohypnol. I can fight back. I will fight back!

“Get off me!” I say.

“Piper.”

“GET OFF!!!”

I push him, trying to force him off but he's too strong.

“PIPER!”

“GET OFF!!!” I shout. “STOP!”

I push his chest again, screaming with the effort. When that fails, my instincts tell me to punch him. I swing, my fist colliding with his left jaw- he falls to my left, toppling off the bed. He hits the floor with a loud bang.

The sound snaps me back to reality. Tyler's bedroom. And it all comes crashing back- that I’m safe, away from Chas. He can't hurt me anymore. But most importantly, I just punched my boyfriend whilst we were making love.

“OH MY GOD!” I exclaim, crawling over to the edge of the bed.

Tyler is pushing himself up. He kneels beside the bed, resting his elbows on the mattress. He touches his left jaw, grimacing as his fingers touch where I punched him.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don't be,” he says through the pain.

There's a knock at his door. “Tyler?” Mark’s voice comes through the door.

"Hang on!" Tyler calls out. He turns to me. “You’ll want to cover up.”

I grab my shirt off the floor, putting it on as Tyler pulls his boxers back on. I also grab a pillow, placing it between my crossed legs to cover more of me up. Tyler crosses to his door & opens it. Mark’s standing there, wearing only boxers & ruffled hair. He looks very worried.

“Everything okay?” He asks. “We heard shouting & then a loud bang from in here.”

"Yeah, we're fine,” Tyler replies.

Mark looks at me, concerned as his cop instincts kick in. I sigh.

“I flashed back to the hotel with Chas,” I say.

Both of them look shocked.

“I’m okay,” I add. “I just… Freaked.”

“Don't blame you,” Tyler says. “It was a terrifying experience.”

I nod.

“And the loud bang?” Mark asks.

“I fell off the bed.”

“After I punched you.”

What?!” Mark asks, looking at Tyler shocked.

Tyler waves it off. “She just clipped me.”

“Enough to knock you off the bed.”

“I overbalanced.”

“Tyler, stop defending me.”

“It's not your fault.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Go ice it,” Mark tells Tyler. “I'm glad you're okay.” He looks at me. “Both of you.”

I smile. “Thanks for coming to check on us.”

He nods. “You're welcome.”

“Thanks, bro.”

Mark nods. He then leaves. Tyler takes a step out the door.

“Where you going?” I ask.

“To find an ice pack or something.”

“I’ll come with you.”

“You don't have to.”

“Too bad, I am,” I reply as I stand up. I grab a pair of his shorts & pull them on. “Besides, it's my fault you need it.”

He sighs, knowing he can't fight it, slips his hand into mine & we head into the kitchen.

“Sit,” I say, pointing to a stool at the kitchen bench.

He stares at me for a moment, before doing as he’s told. I cross to the fridge, pulling open the freezer & getting an ice pack out. I shut the door & grab a tea towel, wrapping it around the ice pack so it won't be directly on his skin. I walk over to him, handing him the ice pack as I settle on a stool beside him.

“Thanks,” he says, putting it slowly against his left jaw.

“Least I could do after causing it.”

“You were just protecting yourself.”

“I still hurt you.”

“You thought it was the creep.”

“But it was you.”

“I’ve copped a lot worse than this.”

"I'm sorry."

“Don't.”

“Why? It's true!”

“You were doing what anyone would do in that situation, Pipes,” he replies. “Chas deserves as many punches as possible. I'm really proud of how hard you defended yourself.”

I look down at my lap. “I should go home.”

“What? No.”

I hop off the stool. I go to step past him, but he hooks his right arm around my waist to stop me from leaving.

“Let me go.”

“Only if you stay here.”

“I don't think it's a good idea for me to stay.”

He frowns. “Why? Because you hit me?”

“Yes, Tyler! Don't act like it's nothing!”

“Pipes, stop! Look, I should have listened to my instincts when they told me it was too soon to have sex. I should have known it would trigger bad memories.”

He puts the ice pack on the bench & cups my cheek. He locks eyes with me for a long moment.

“You’ve been through a very traumatic event,” he says. “He robbed you of the ability to defend yourself. Tonight, when what we were doing triggered your memory of that night, you were able to defend yourself. I don't blame you for what you did. I'm not even mad at you for it. In fact, I’m proud of my girlfriend. So please stop feeling so guilty. I’m okay. More importantly… you're okay.”

I sigh, resting my forehead against his. “How did I get so lucky to have a boyfriend like you?”

He smiles. “You deserve it.”

I press my lips against his & he pulls me closer as he deepens our kiss. I wrap my arms around his neck, feeling the guilt slipping away. Feeling the memories of Chas slip away.

The front door opens & we break our kiss. Aaron pauses, partway inside the house.

“Don't mind me,” Aaron says, shutting the door.

“We should head back to my room,” Tyler says to me.

I nod. I step back, allowing him to get up. He does, scooping up the towelled ice pack. We link hands & head for the bedrooms.

“Woah, Gurtie!” Aaron says as Tyler approaches the doorway through to the bedrooms. “What's with the shiner?”

We stop. Tyler sighs.

"Don't worry about it, Az.”

Aaron looks at me, before looking at Tyler & nodding.

****

We enter my bedroom & I wait for her to come past me before shutting the door. I then cross to my wardrobe, pick out a t-shirt & walk over to her.

“Wow, I could get used to this,” She says as she takes my tee.

I smile. "Just don't want you getting cold.”

“I won't,” she replies. “I have you.”

I stifle my laugh. I cross to my bed & get in. I sit there, icing my left jaw as I watch her get changed into my tee. She walks around the base of my bed, my tee flowing over her petite frame like a dress. I put the ice pack on my bedside table, turning to my right as she crawls onto the bed. I shift down so I’m lying on my back as she slips her legs under the covers. I’m surprised when she straddles me.

“What are you doing?”

“I want to finish what we started before,” she says, leaning down & kissing me.

I push her back, breaking our kiss. “Are you sure?”

“I promise I won't freak out & hit you.”

“I think we should just leave it for tonight.”

"But I want you."

“So do I.”

“So why are you saying no?”

I sigh. “Pipes, I just don't think it's a good idea. We should take it slowly for a while.”

She hangs her head. She then lies down beside me.

“Right, so just when I think I’m free of that psycho, he manages to find a way of driving a wedge between us.”

I turn onto my right side. “He hasn't, Pipes.”

She looks at me. “But he has.”

I pull her closer, & she rolls onto her side.

“He hasn't come between us,” I reply. “If he had, I would have let you leave when you wanted to. Instead, I chose to stand by you. I’m here for you. I just don't think it's wise for us to rush things. Just fall asleep in my arms. We can discuss it further in the morning.”

She looks at me for a long moment. “I can do that.”

I smile. She shifts closer & I wrap my arms around her as she rests her head against my chest. I kiss the top of her head before resting my head on top of hers.

Chapter Text

I sigh as we stand outside the court building. Mum, Dad & Toadie are to my left. Tyler stands close to my right, our arms lightly brushing. It’s the day I’ve been dreading for over two weeks. Reliving the nightmare. Facing the psycho who has traumatised me.


“If this gets too much,” Toadie says to me. “Just tell me. I’ll call for a break.”


I nod, forcing myself to smile at him.


“Is there anything we should expect?” Mum asks.


“They’ll try their hardest to have as much of our case dismissed,” Toadie replies. “They’ll most likely try & attack individuals. Not just Piper. I’m expecting them to go after Tyler, as well as Mark. But I have a strong argument to counter their attacks.”


“And what can we do?” Mum asks.


“Be there,” Toadie replies. “Be supportive.” He looks at Tyler. “No matter what his lawyer says about you, Mark or Piper, I want you to stay calm, okay Tyler? You get angry, & it could jeopardise us.”


“That’s a little unfair, Toadie,” I reply.


“I know it sounds like it, but I promise you it isn’t, Piper,” he replies. “His lawyer will try & goad us into reacting. Any sign of anger could be exploited.”


“And you’re singling out Tyler?”


“I did slug the creep,” Tyler says. “That’s put a target on my back.”


“Exactly why I singled you out,” Toadie adds. “No doubt his lawyer will try & pin some assault charge or something as a counter for our charges. They’ll want to prove Tyler did the wrong thing. No doubt your relationship will fall under attack too.”


“Great, so the psycho drugs me up & tries to rape me, but Tyler & I become the bad guys.”


Tyler puts his arm around me.


“We all know that Tyler acted in defence. Brodie knows that too. But his lawyer will push it in order to get us on the defence. Anything to get him off the hook, or at least his sentence reduced.”


“Hey,” Tyler quietly says to me. “We’ve got this.”


I nod.


Mark walks up, dressed in his formal uniform.


“Hey, sorry I’m late. Paige had a huge case of morning sickness. Didn’t feel right leaving her.”


“Its fine, Mark,” Toadie says. “We’ve still got time.”


Mark steps over to me, & Tyler lets go so Mark can give me a hug.


“How are you doing?” He asks.


“Dreading facing him again,” I reply.


“You’re strong,” he replies. “And you have both me & Tyler here for support.”


“I thought you were supposed to be unbiased,” I reply, narrowing my eyes.


“On the outside, I am,” he replies. “Internally… I’m backing you.”


I smile. I hug him again.


“We should head in,” Toadie says.


Mark & I part. Tyler slips his left hand into my right hand. I smile & he smiles back, before we follow the others inside.


****


The wait in the meeting room is torturous. We’re sitting in the same order as we stood outside- Dad, Mum & Toadie to my left, & Tyler to my right. He’s holding my hand, his thumb gently rubbing the back of my hand. Mark is waiting outside, to maintain his unbiased front.


“What’s taking them so long?” Dad asks.


“Just stay calm,” Toadie replies. “They’re trying to put us off by making us wait. Making us impatient will be a tactic to unsettle us. It’s all a ploy to get us to be angry.”


“So it’s just another attempt to make us look like perpetrators?”


Toadie slowly nods. “Pretty much, yeah.”


The door opens before Dad can reply, & the Judge followed by Mark, a transcript writer & two security officers enter. Brodie’s lawyer enters next, followed quickly by Brodie himself. He smirks at me as he follows his lawyer over to the table. Tyler & I both tighten our holds on the others hand.


Toadie stands as they all approach the table. Dad, Mum, Tyler & I follow suit. In respect to the Judge. Mark stands at the end of the table to my right, keeping his distance from both sides. The writer takes a seat between Mark & Brodie’s lawyer. Brodie’s lawyer stands opposite Toadie. And much to my dread, Brodie chooses the seat directly across from me. The Judge takes the end seat to my left, the security officers standing at the wall behind. The Judge nods at each team & we all sit.
The Judge looks at the transcript writer. She adjusts her keyboard & then nods at the Judge to signal she’s ready.


“This is the case of P Willis versus B Chaswick,” The Judge says. The transcript writer instantly starts typing. “I’m Judge Cameron Dawson. Prosecution lawyer is Jarrod Rebecchi. Defence lawyer is David West. Present for the Prosecution is Miss Piper Willis, Mr Brad Willis, Mrs Terese Willis & Mr Tyler Brennan. Present for the Defence is Mr Brodie Chaswick. Also present is Constable Mark Brennan of the Erinsborough Police Department.”


“On behalf of my client, I propose the dismissal of charges,” West says.


“Why?” Judge Dawson replies.


“The arresting police officer, Constable Brennan, is unbiased,” West says. “Not only is he a friend of the entire Willis family along with Mr Rebecchi. But his younger brother is the boyfriend of Miss Willis.”


“Constable Brennan is one of the finest officers in not only Erinsborough but the Victorian police force,” Toadie replies. “He is fully capable of maintaining professionalism & remains unbiased while working.”


“I agree with Mr Rebecchi,” Judge Dawson says. “Constable Brennan will remain. Anything else you seek to have removed, Mr West?”


“That’s all for now,” West says.


Judge Dawson nods. “This is how this will work,” He says. “Both lawyers will be granted time to ask questions to both Miss Willis & Mr Chaswick. We’ll then hear from Constable Brennan & Mr Brennan, who will be questioned by both lawyers. At the end, I will vacate to my office to consider the facts. My ruling will be final. However, if both sides can agree upon a deal while I am gone, then so be.”


West & Toadie nod.


“Mr Chaswick,” Judge Dawson says. “You will be asked first. Prosecution first.”


“Mr Chaswick,” Toadie says. “You have a history with the Willis family?”


“Yes,” Brodie says, staring at me.


“Please state for the record what that history is.”


“I used to be trained by Brad, alongside his son, Josh.”


“And why did Mr Willis stop training you?”


Brodie hesitates. “I wrongfully accused him & Josh of using steroids to improve Josh’s swimming.”


“Why did you arrive in Erinsborough this year?”


“I wanted Brad to be my coach once again,” Brodie says. “He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”


“Why would you seek that?”


“Like I said, he’s the best coach.”


“Did you think that was wise, given how your relationship with Brad broke down?”


“I approached the family with sincere apologies about my accusations. I wanted to put the past behind us.”


“And how was that received?”


“Terese was open to hearing me out. In fact, the whole family was accepting of me. Brad was open to hearing me out, & Josh took a while but he too supported it. Imogen as well. The only one who acted with hostility towards me was Piper.”


Tyler grips my hand as Brodie stares at me once again.


“You & Piper have a far more personal history, don’t you?” Toadie says. “One that was, until recently, unknown to the rest of her family.”


Brodie nods, keeping his eyes on me. “We used to date. While she studied in Canada & I was there to swim.”


“When did that relationship end?”


“Objection!” West says. “Relevance?”


“Brodie’s past relationship with my client is vital to the case,” Toadie says. “I’m merely establishing the timeline for the record.”


Dawson nods. “Continue, Mr Rebecchi.”


“I ask again, when did that relationship end?”


“When Piper returned home last year,” Brodie replies.


“And when was that?”


“September.”


“And you’ve not talked to her between September & your arrival in Erinsborough?”


“I’ve tried texting, but she continued to tell me to stop.”


“So you knew prior to arriving here that your presence would be unwelcomed?”

“I believed that, once she saw me again, the feelings we both had for each other in Canada would resurface & she would want me to stay.”


“And was she reciprocating of your feelings?”


Brodie sighs. “No.”


“Did you back off? Did you respect her choice to not rekindle your relationship?”


“Everything I did, I did to win her back.”


“So kidnapping her, dosing her up with rohypnol & trying to rape her is okay because it would prove to her you love her?”


“Objection! He’s leading my client.”


“Denied,” Dawson says.


“Do you think that, when my client said no to being with you that it’s appropriate to force her into it?” Toadie asks.


“What’s your point?” Brodie asks.


“Merely wanting to clarify why you assaulted my client,” Toadie replies. “You obviously made a conscious choice to do what you did. I just want to have a proper understanding of that.”


“For the whole time we were together in Canada,” Brodie says. “She wouldn’t ever sleep with me. Which was understandable, given she was so young back then.”


“And now that she’s of consenting age, & refusing to be with you… does that justify forcing her into having sex with you?”


“She deserved to be punished.”


“Punished?” Toadie asks. “Why would an innocent schoolgirl need such punishment?”


“Because she’s more than happy to spread her legs for an older man she barely knows, yet deny me that despite the fact that I have a much longer history with her.”


I catch Tyler tense up beside me.


"Objection! Defamation of my client!” Toadie says.


“Sustained,” Judge Dawson replies. “Please make note of that in the records.”


The transcriber nods.


“Maybe if you weren't so egotistic, you may have had a better chance of us going that far,” I say to Brodie.


“Well, well, well. There's the two-faced bitch.”


Dad & Tyler both react. They go to stand, but Mum & I stop them- I dig my nails into Tyler's hand to stop him.


“You should dump her,” Brodie says to Tyler. “She hid our relationship from her parents.”


“They know about Tyler & I.”


“But not until after I arrived,” he replies, smirking.


“You're so full of it,” I reply. “Think you're the centre of everything. But you're nothing to me. I’m glad you refused to come home with me in September.”


This has struck a nerve in Brodie. His smug expression vanishes. I hadn't planned on saying anything else for now, but seeing him react that way inspires me to continue.


“I was devastated when you turned me down,” I say. “But now that I’ve seen the real you… I’m glad we ended things. I’m glad that you were too self-centred to show your girlfriend, your so-called soul mate, the support that she needed from you as her family crumbled. That may have been a massive letdown at the time, but now that we’re here, I can see that it was really a saving grace.”


“Can we please return to the questions from the prosecution?” West asks.


Dawson nods. “Proceed, Mr Rebecchi.”


“I have no further questions at this moment, your Honour,” Toadie replies.


“Very well,” Dawson says. “Then we will proceed with the defence. Mr West.”


****


Tyler hands me a bottle of water.


“Thanks,” I say, taking it.


“You're welcome,” he replies, sitting down beside me.


After West had questioned Brodie, we were given a break. Mum, Dad & Toadie had gone to get coffees. Mark was busy checking in with Paige on his mobile, wanting to not be too close to us in case West tries to use it against us. I take a long drink from the bottle.


“How are you?” Tyler asks.


“Like I’m hanging upside down,” I reply, screwing the bottle cap back on.


“It’ll all be over after today.”


“Will it?” I ask, looking at him. “Two weeks ago, I hallucinated that he was raping me again, & I hurt you. What he did to me isn't going to easily go away.”


He nods before taking hold of my hand. “I know,” he says. “But I meant that he will be gone from our lives after today. The psychological scars he’s given you will stay, but you will be able to heal. You’ll move on with your life, leaving that behind you. There's a chance you may never fully move on from this, but I know that I will be here every single day for you.”


I smile, leaning in & pressing my lips against his.


“Urgh, gross!” Brodie says.


We part & Tyler goes to stand but I stop him.


“Awwww, Pippy, don't ruin the fun!” Brodie says. “Let him stand up. I want to see what he does.”


“And give you the strongest point to your case? Not going to happen.”


Brodie is about to reply, but Toadie, Mum, Dad & West approach.


“You three better not be discussing the case,” Toadie says.


“Never,” I reply. “Brodie was merely trying to wind us up so Tyler would punch him.”


“Pippy is controlling him,” Brodie replies. “As always.”


“Mr West, please escort your client away. I’d like to talk to my clients.”


West & Brodie leave. Brodie looks back at Tyler & I, giving us a smirk over his shoulder.


“Urgh! Any chance we could speed things up so we can leave?” I ask.


“Sorry, but I can't do anything about it,” Toadie replies. “But hopefully once everyone has testified, we’ll be able to leave.”


“We don't have to be here for Judge Dawson’s decision?” Mum asks, surprised.


“If you wish, I will stay behind to hear it,” Toadie replies. “But we're not legally required. Brodie, however, is.”


“Good,” I reply. “I’d like to take advantage of that.”


Toadie nods. “You might feel differently after Mark has given his testimony.”


I frown at him. I’m about to ask him to elaborate, but we get called back in.


****


“What was your reaction to Brodie arriving in Erinsborough?” Toadie asks me.


“Shocked… Angry.”


“Why?”


“Because Brodie had refused to come in September. He chose his career over me when I needed him. His sudden arrival just made me mad & hurt. Because once again he was pushing his career further. While single-handedly setting a bomb under my family.”


“And when he approached you to rekindle your relationship, what was your reaction?”


“I made it clear that I wasn't interested.”


“And when he persisted to pursue you?”


I sigh. Tyler rubs my leg.


“The more he didn't listen, the more angry & frustrating it was,” I reply.


“How did he react when he learned you're dating Tyler Brennan?”


“He laughed. Mocked us. Told us we wouldn't last.”


“You were on your way home after school the day he attempted to rape you. That's correct?”


“I was on my way to Tyler's work. I do that a lot, even before we started dating. Because we were friends.”


“But you never made it to Fitzgerald Motors. Why?”


“Because Brodie waited until I was on my own, on my way to the garage, to approach me. He wanted me to go with him, & I refused. I tried to leave.”


“How did he react?”


“He grabbed me, refused to let me go despite me asking.”


“How did he get you into his car? How did he make you go to the hotel?”


“I struggled against him,” I reply. “So he used chloroform to knock me out. That way he could get me into his car & to the hotel, into his room without a fight.”


“You woke up there, at the hotel, an unknown time later. Correct?”


I nod. “Yes.”


“But you couldn't move?”


“No.”


“Why?”


“He had… Drugged me.”


“I’d like to refer to Exhibit A, your Honour,” Toadie says, placing a page on the table within Dawson’s reach. “This is the test results for Piper Willis, run by the Erinsborough hospital after she was admitted there. This proves that Brodie Chaswick administrated my client with the drug, rohypnol. Known commonly as the date rape drug, because it causes paralysis, which makes it easier for rape to occur.”


Judge Dawson picks up the page & reads it.


“There's an unknown dosage amount,” Dawson says.


“The lab at the hospital was unable to determine the amount administered,” Toadie replies. “But as stated in Exhibit B-” he places a folder in the same spot at the page. “This is Piper’s medical record. Doctor Karl Kennedy concluded, based off the test results that the dosage would have been quite high. This would mean she would be unable to move while he sexually violated her for several hours.”


Dawson examines the new file for several minutes. “Do you have any further questions for Miss Willis, Mr Rebecchi?”


“Yes, your Honour.”


“Continue.”


Toadie looks at me. “When you woke in the hotel, what did Brodie tell you?”


“He told me that I needed to be punished,” I reply. “I don't know why, but the only explanation I can think of is because I had refused to rekindle our relationship.”


“How did it make you feel, lying there, unable to move when you wanted to stop him?”


I sigh, shakily. “I felt helpless. And… Frustrated. Full of anger because I knew he'd given me something so I wouldn't be able to fight back.”


“In the weeks since that night, how has the events of that night affected you?”


“I have had many restless nights, haunted by nightmares. There was also one night, two weeks ago, not long after the assault, when…” I look at Tyler. He smiles reassuringly. “I was going to have sex with my boyfriend. Something triggered memories, & I thought I was back at the hotel. Back with Brodie. And he was raping me.”


“What did you do when you believed that?”


“I… I reacted the way I hadn't been able to in the hotel,” I reply. “I fought back.”


“Objection!” West says. “What exactly does her hitting her boyfriend have to do with my client?”


“The incident is evidence of the psychological trauma my client has suffered due to your client’s attempt to rape her.”


“Your objection is overruled.”


****


“Why did you choose to punch my client?” West asks Tyler.


“He was about to rape Piper.”


“How do you know he was going to rape her? How do you know that it wasn't consensual?”


“Because he was sitting between her legs, completely naked while she was calling out to me. It doesn't take much to understand it wasn't anywhere near being consensual.”


“In hindsight, would you agree that punching him to stop him was the best course of action?”


“He needed to not only be stopped from raping her, but to be detained until the authorities arrived to arrest him.”


“That didn't answer my question.”


“Actually, it did.”


****


I hug Mark tightly. “Thank you.”


“What for?” He replies as we still hug.


“You were amazing in there.”


“I just presented the facts.”


I pull back to look at him. “Still…”


“You're my sister-in-law,” he says. “I’m not going to stand back while some kid tries to tear you down & get away with it.”


“Awww, you're such a good, protective big brother.”


He smiles. “Tyler & Paige wouldn't let me ever forget if I didn't help you.”


“You wouldn't dare not help anyway,” I reply. “You're too good. It goes against your cop instincts.”


He smiles, trying not to laugh. “You know me too well, Piper.”


“Are you gonna stay, bro?” Tyler asks.


“Would love to, but I have to get back to the station. I’m working soon.”


“We’ll keep you updated,” I reply.


He nods. “You're going to win.”


I raise an eyebrow. “That confident, huh?”


He smiles. “You had him running the whole time.”


“Didn't feel like it,” I reply, staring at the floor.


“Hey,” he says.


I look at him.


“If there's one thing I’ve learnt since your family arrived, it's that the Willis women are the strongest willed women around,” he says. “You held your ground in there.”


I smile. “Thanks.”


“You're welcome,” he replies. “Tonight, everyone come to ours. We’ll get take away & just wind down after all of this.”


“Really?”


“It's been a rough few months for all of us.”


“Sounds good.”


“Then it's sorted.”


“I’ll let the others know,” Tyler says.


Mark nods. “Invite the whole street.”


Tyler nods. “Will do.”


****


Tyler walks me back into the room, his arm around me as we follow Toadie, Mum & Dad. Brodie & West are already there, sitting down. We cross to our seats. It doesn't take long before Judge Dawson, the security officers & the transcriber enter. When everyone bar the officers have taken their seats, Dawson begins.


“Before I give my ruling,” Dawson says. “Have you made a settlement?”


“We made an offer,” West says. “The prosecution turned it down.”


“Because it was absurd & the defence knows it.”


“Alright, alright, settle down,” Dawson says. “Therefore it comes down to my ruling.”


He stays quiet & I hate it. Just hurry up so we can leave. Tyler takes hold of my hand, giving it a slight squeeze.


“I have considered everything presented here today thoroughly,” Dawson says. “And I have found there is only one possible conclusion to all of this.” He looks at Brodie. “There is an overwhelming amount of evidence to support the theory that you not only drugged Miss Willis with the intent to sexually assault her, but that you did it after thorough planning. This cannot be ignored. Therefore, I am ruling that you are guilty on all accounts. You are sentenced to five years & nine months in juvenile detention, with a non-parole of thirty months.”


Brodie & West are angry. Everyone on my side of the table sigh in relief.


“Given your age, Mr Chaswick,” Dawson says. “I must consider that you will be too old for juvenile detention before your sentence is complete. Therefore I am ordering that the last eighteen months of your sentence will be in jail.”


“Your Honour, that is far too harsh!” West says.


“Given how severe your client’s actions were, along with the long term psychological trauma those actions have on Miss Willis, I find your client’s sentence appropriate,” Dawson replies. “You may appeal this, if you wish to pursue it further. However I recommend you wave that right.” Dawson looks at me. “I am terribly sorry for what you went through, Miss Willis. You showed much courage today. I wish you the very best for the future, & I hope today proves to give you much needed closure.”


“Thank you, your Honour,” I reply.


Dawson looks at Brodie. “You have till ten o’clock tomorrow morning to get your affairs in order, Mr Chaswick. Report back here to the courts, where you will be transported to the juvenile detention facility. Fail to arrive by ten o’clock, & I will be forced to grant the Victoria Police with a warrant for your immediate arrest. Please take note that any attempt to avoid going to the juvenile detention will result in a far harsher sentence to be given.”


****


“PIPPY!”


I feel Tyler tense during our hug.


“Stay calm, Tyler,” I whisper.


We part, Tyler stepping ever so slightly in front of me to be between me & Brodie.


“What do you want?” Tyler asks.


“I just wanted to say that this is far from over,” Brodie says to me. “I will be appealing, & I will make you suffer.”


Tyler starts to step forward. I grab the back of his shirt & pull him back.


“And one more thing for your guard dog,” Brodie says. “My lawyer is filing assault charges against you for that night.”


“Do your best,” Tyler says. “You’ll just fail again. No one will accept your plea.”


Brodie grins sadistically. “Wow, she really has you wrapped around her pinkie,” Brodie says. “I wonder how long it will take before you realise that she's manipulating everything you do. That she's no more than an attention seeking whore.”


Tyler raises his fist to punch him.


“Ah ah ah,” Brodie says. “I may not be able to get the charges against you punching me at the hotel to stick, but I have far better odds if you do it right now.”


“Oh, I’ll gladly do a lot more than just punch that smug look off your ugly face,” Tyler replies.


Brodie laughs, turning his attention to me. “You really like them violent, don't you? You act all innocent, but beneath that good girl outer shell, you're a whore craving the violence. You know you wanted it so bad. Admit it. You wanted me to fuck you as hard as possible that night. To make you scream from the pain, driving your whole body wild with the desire for more. Because that's who you really are, aren't you, Pippy? A rebellious whore-”


I let go of Tyler's shirt. Seconds later, Tyler's fist collides hard with his smug face, blood spraying everywhere as his nose breaks.

Chapter Text

She lets out another long moan as I massage her shoulders, her head rolling back.

“You know,” I whisper into her ear. “If you keep moaning like that, we're gonna have to take this into our room.”

She bites her lip. “That wouldn't be such a bad idea…”

I stop massaging, stepping round her with my eyebrow raised. “Oh really?”

She bands her arms around my neck. “Yes,” She replies. “My hormones are going gangbusters thanks to our two babies.”

I smirk. “Is that so?”

“Mmmhmmm,” she replies, leaning in to kiss me.

I wrap my arms around her as we kiss.

“We have a couple of hours until everyone's here for dinner,” she says. “And we can't do it after that because you have the early shift, so…”

I smirk, leaning in to claim her lips with mine. I’m lifting her off the stool to carry her through to our room, when the front door opens. I lower her back onto the stool as we stop kissing. Tyler’s holding the door open for Piper.

“Sorry to… Interrupt,” Piper says, looking awkward.

“You're not,” Paige replies. “How did it go today?”

“Apart from being trapped in the same room as Brodie for most of the day, having to relive what he did to me? It was alright.”

Tyler nudges her slightly. “Tell them the ruling.”

Piper’s hesitation has me worried.

“They didn't find a way to get him out of it, did they?” I ask.

“He's… In juvi for the next five years,” Piper says. “Thirty months non-parole.”

Paige & I look shocked.

“So… Why the hesitation?”

Piper hesitates. “Because… Tyler…” She sighs. “Tyler may be charged with assault.”

I frown. “What?!

“After the ruling, Judge Dawson has given Brodie till ten tomorrow morning to hand himself in. And Brodie decided to approach us, purely to goad Tyler into hitting him.”

“Tyler! What were you thinking?”

“That I should have done more than make his nose bleed.”

I groan, running my hands over my face.

“Would you honestly being doing that if you were there?” Tyler asks. “What if it had been you & Paige instead of Pipes & myself? What if you were standing there, listening to a guy call Paige a ‘manipulative whore’? Would you honestly stand there & do nothing?”

“I would put the guy under arrest.”

“And if you weren't a cop?”

“You don't play into his hands, Tyler! He wanted you to punch him, because it means he can press assault charges! Do you understand that this could potentially affect the ruling against Brodie? His lawyer will try & push that your punch today is just like the one you threw in order to save Piper, & if they succeed it could aid them in their appeal & that could impact on his sentencing!”

“I KNOW! I JUST COULDN’T STAND THERE DOING NOTHING!” Tyler shouts. “He's done so much damage to our lives, & the smug idiot thought he could get away with calling her a ‘manipulative whore’ on top of ‘two-faced bitch’ & every other rude name he said during the hearing. I can see now that it was a dumb move, but in the heat of the moment it was the best thing that I could do.”

I open my mouth to reply, but he cuts in.

“Save it, bro,” He says. “I get it. You're mad at me.”

He heads for the bedrooms.

“Tyler,” I say.

But he keeps going. I sigh, turning back to Paige as I run my hand over my face.

****

I follow Paige back in from the backyard, sighing when I see Piper dragging Tyler into the kitchen from the bedrooms. He sees me & tries to head back to his room, but Piper slips in front of him & blocks his way.

“Neither of you two are leaving this room until you work things out,” Paige says. “In case you forgot, we have friends & family coming over shortly, & Piper & I don't want two brooding lovers. So just hurry up & apologise to each other.”

"What's there to apologise for?” I ask.

Paige gapes at me. She then hits my arm.

“Here's the thing, Mark,” Paige says. “Yes, it was a stupid thing for Tyler to do-”

“Hey!” Tyler protests.

“Just wait,” Paige says to him. She looks at me. “But you know, if you’d quit being a cop for long enough, you’d see that you’d do the same. Brodie had been antagonising them all day. Surely you saw some of it.” She steps closer to me. “Tyler was right before. If the two of us were in their places, & one of my exes was saying those things about me… You would honestly not defend me?”

“I wouldn't punch the guy.”

“No, you’d just arrest the idiot,” she replies. “But your brother can't do that. So just apologise to him!”

I shake my head.

“See. He can't even admit that he was wrong!” Tyler says.

“Says the one who got in trouble in the first place!” I snap back.

“At least I admitted that I did something wrong!”

“HEY!” Piper shouts. “Just drop it! Both of you! You both did wrong, & both need to apologise. Toadie is handling the charges that Brodie's trying to have put on you, Tyler, & it would be really good if you two would stop bickering like a pair of toddlers!”

I sigh, knowing Paige & Piper are right. “I’m sorry for getting cross with you.”

All three of them look surprised by my sudden change of mind.

“It was a reckless move to punch him-”

“Knew you didn't mean the sorry,” Tyler says.

“It was reckless but I understand now why you did it,” I say. “I always think like a police officer, & I judge you in that mindset. You were right before. If it was a guy saying those things about Paige, I wouldn't just stand there & not defend her.”

Paige smiles.

Tyler nods. “And I’m sorry for getting angry at you.”

“Good! Now hug it out,” Piper says.

Tyler & I look at her, confused.

“You usually do that.”

“She's right,” Paige says. “You do tend to hug after you’ve made up.”

Tyler & I look at each other. We step closer & hug.

****

Toadie, Steph & Nell are the first to arrive.

“Good, you're all here,” Toadie says to Tyler, Piper, Mark & I. “I have some good news.”

“Please tell me it's about Brodie not pressing charges?” Mark asks.

“Sort of,” Toadie says. “He did press charges.”

Mark sighs.

"But I was able to find a couple who saw the whole thing between Tyler, Piper & Brodie,” Toadie says. “And they were willing to tell the police that Brodie was taunting Tyler. The police dismissed the charges.”

Tyler, Piper, Mark & I are relieved.

“That's great!” I say.

“Thanks, Toadie,” Tyler says, extending his hand out.

“No worries,” Toadie replies, shaking his hand.

****

“Attention everyone,” Mark says, standing up. “I have an announcement to make.”

“No, no, no, no!” I say.

Everyone looks at Mark.

“Firstly, I just want to thank you all for coming. It's been a rough few months, & it's good to have a night when we can all catch up,” Mark says. “I know today was especially hard on Piper. But she has closure now with Brodie, & that's worth going through everything she did this morning.”

Piper smiles, Tyler putting his arm around her & kisses her temple.

“I think this is the best time to make this announcement,” Mark says, pulling me to my feet.

“Please don't!” I whisper, as he wraps an arm around me.

“As you all know, we're having a baby,” Mark says to everyone. “But what you don't know… We're having twins.”

Everyone but Tyler & Piper look shocked. Everyone takes turns hugging & congratulate us- Tyler & Piper do it to keep up appearances. Mum & Dad pull me aside.

“Why didn't you tell us before?” Mum asks.

“I… I thought we were,” I reply. “I didn't know Mark was going to drop it like that before we’d talked to you.”

“He's just excited about it,” Dad says.

I nod. “I know,” I reply. “It just would have been nice to do it with just us & his brothers first.”

****

Everyone's gone by 10pm, since it's the middle of the working week. Piper’s staying overnight, so she helps Tyler, Aaron, Paige & I clean up.

“You should go sleep,” I tell Paige as I wrap my arms around her.

“Only if you come with me,” She replies.

"Mmm, sounds like a good plan," I reply. I look at the others. "You three okay to finish on your own?"

“What? The obsessive cleaner wants to bail before the job is done?” Tyler teases.

“Ha ha,” I reply flatly.

"It's fine, we’ve got this,” Aaron says.

I nod. “Night all.”

“Night,” Tyler, Piper & Aaron says.

I usher Paige towards our bedrooms, as she says goodnight to the others. But just as we reach the door through to our bedrooms, there's a knock on the door.

“I’ll get it,” I tell the others.

I cross to the door & open it. Standing there with luggage, a black eye that's several days old, & a female toddler in her arms is

“Erin?”

Chapter Text

“Erin?”

I smile. “Hey, Markie.”

He frowns, stunned & confused to see me. He snaps out of it, stepping aside to let me in. I step past him, he grabs my luggage & bring it inside. I turn to the others as he shuts the door, seeing their shocked faces.

“Sorry to just turn up unexpected,” I say.

“It's good to see you,” Aaron says, giving me a hug.

“You too, Az,” I reply.

“And whose this little cutie?” Aaron asks.

“This is Felicity,” I reply. “Felicity Delta Emily… Brennan.”

They're all shocked.

“She's your…” Mark says. “Daughter?”

“No, I happened to find a toddler with our surname,” I sarcastically reply. “Of course she's my daughter, Mark!”

“How… How come she didn't come with you last time you were here?” Tyler asks.

“Because the last time I was here, Mark was on his potential death bed & I didn't think it was appropriate to bring my eighteen month old daughter whom none of you have met,” I reply.

“Why are you here?” Mark asks. “And what happened to your eye?”

“I want to tell you, I really do,” I reply. “But I’m exhausted. It's been a long day, & then the flight here…” Felicity rests her head on my shoulder. “Felicity’s well past her bedtime… I’m sorry, but… Can it wait till tomorrow?”

Mark nods. “Sure.”

“Thank you.”

“You can sleep in our spare room,” Mark says. “But we don't have a bed for her.”

“It's okay. She can sleep in my bed with me. At least until we can get her a bed.”

Mark picks up my bags. “Come with me.”

I say goodnight to the others, & follow Mark through to my bedroom. He flicks on the light, & I remember this is where I slept last time.

“The bedding is all clean,” Mark says, placing my bags down.

“Thanks,” I reply. “You're being really sweet, given how I just turned up unexpectedly on your doorstep late at night.” I look at Felicity, now asleep. “Not to mention I haven't told you about Felicity.”

He smiles as he steps over to me.

“You're my little sis,” He replies. “I wouldn't turn you away. Ever.”

I smile. He places his hand on Felicity's head.

“As for Felicity,” he says. “I don’t mind that you haven't mentioned her to us. We haven't talked in years till recently, & that wasn't under the best of circumstances. And I know you’ll tell me everything about my niece tomorrow.”

I smile. “I will.”

He pulls me into a hug, carefully avoiding squishing Felicity.

“Whatever's going on in your life,” he says, still hugging me. “Whatever happened to cause you to have a black eye & come here… You’ve got all of us now.”

“I know.”

“Get some sleep,” he says. “I better go do that myself. I have an early shift.”

I nod. He kisses my forehead & then kisses Felicity. He walks over to the door.

“Mark?”

He pauses at the door & looks at me.

“Thank you. Again.”

He smiles. “You're always welcome,” he says. “Sleep well.”

“You too.”

****

I come home after my shift at 4pm, to find Tyler, Aaron & Erin in the lounge with Felicity.

“Hey,” I say, walking over.

“Look, Felicity!” Erin says. “Look who's home! Uncle Mark!”

“Hey Felicity!” I say, squatting down between the couch & the chair.

Felicity doesn't come too close.

“Go on, Felicity,” Erin says. “Give your Uncle Mark a hug!”

“It's fine if she doesn't,” I reply. “New place, new people… Don't blame her for being so scared.”

“Yeah,” Erin replies, nodding. “Uh… Can we talk?”

I nod. “Sure.”

Erin looks at Aaron & Tyler.

“We’ll look after her,” Aaron says.

She smiles. “Thanks.”

I lead Erin over to the kitchen. “So what's up?”

She sits down on one of the stools. “I want to tell you why I'm here.”

I sit down.

“I don't really know where to start.”

“Just take a deep breath, & start from the beginning.”

She takes a deep breath in, holds & slowly releases. “For the last year, I’ve been dating this guy,” she says. “He was great. Really supportive of me. And then the last few months…” She sighs. “Not so much.”

“He's the one who hit you.”

She nods. “Yeah.”

“Oh, Erin.”

“At first, it wasn't like this,” she says. “It was about 4 months ago when it started. He would just loose his temper. Yell at me. Smash things. It would never be on me.”

“And when did he start hurting you? Physically hurt you?”

“He slapped me once,” she replies. “Uh… Like… Two months ago. It wasn't that bad.”

“Erin.”

“Honestly, Mark. It didn't leave a bruise, & it wasn't that hard.”

“Yeah, & now it's a black eye & you're here.”

“Because the black eye is the worst thing he's done.”

“Don't defend him!”

“I’m not!” She replies. “When you had your accident, I came out here. He knew I didn't trust him to look after Felicity, so I left her with a close friend. And he respected that. He kept his distance while I was gone, &…” She sighs. “When I got back, it took a few weeks, but I… I let him back in. Which was stupid, I see that now. But he wasn't so angry. And I still loved him.”

I nod. “So what led to the black eye?”

“He never got mad in front of Felicity. At least not one of his rages,” She says. “But… A couple of weeks ago… He lost his temper. Not at her, so just listen. Something else caused him to lose his temper, &…” She looks over to Felicity, Aaron & Tyler. “I feared for her. I knew he wouldn't hurt her, but there was a moment when… She was playing, & he… He came really close to her. I don't think he even saw her, he was walking around so angrily. And I… I stepped between them, to shield her. And that's when this happened…” She points to her black eye.

“What did you do? Did you report him?”

She shakes her head.

Erin!

“That's what you would do, but my priority is keeping my baby safe,” She replies. “She will always be my first priority. I packed what I could for both of us & left with Felicity. I stayed with Caitlin, my friend who looked after Felicity when I was here. We waited until the next day, when he was working & went back for the rest of our things. Caitlin & her husband, Grant came & helped. I decided I needed to get as far away as possible, so I wrapped up my work & came here.”

I frown. “Not that I’m against you being here, I think it's great that you are, but… Why didn't you ask Mum or Dad for help?”

“Mum refused,” she replies. “She hasn't exactly been supportive of my choices since she found out about me being pregnant.” She looks at her hands. “And Dad?” She looks up at me. “I wouldn't trust him with Felicity any more than I trust my ex. Not after what he did to Ty.”

“Well,” I say, reaching out & taking her hand. “You have our full support.”

She smiles. “Thank you.”

I smile. “You're welcome.”

“This is going to be good for us,” she says, looking over to Felicity.

“Yeah,” I reply, also looking over to Felicity. “It's going to be good having another kid in the house.”

“Good practice for your own two.”

I look back at her. “How did you know?”

“That you're having twins? Az & Ty have been catching me up on things.”

“Right. Would've been nice to tell you that myself.”

“Awwww!” She says. She hops off her stool & hugs me. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

We part.

“What's his name?”

She frowns. “Huh?”

“Your ex,” I reply. “I’ll organise for a restraining order so he can't get to you.”

She hesitates. In fact, retracts from me. “I… I don’t know if that's a good idea.”

“He won't be able to hurt you, Erin.”

She shakes her head.

“If you're desperate enough to have fled South Australia to get away from him, then you're clearly scared enough of him that you need a restraining order.”

“I don't want one, Mark!” She snaps, before walking off.

I get up. “Erin, please!”

She stops, hand on the front door handle. She spins around to face me.

Fine, his name is Edward Dimato!” She snaps. “There. I said it. I call him Eddie, but his name is Edward Dimato!”

Chapter Text

“Erin!” He says, following me out the front.

I head down the steps. I just want to go for a walk, let him calm down a bit. I make it halfway before I can't stop the tears & I sit down.

Mark slowly descends the stairs & sits down beside me. We sit in silence for a while, before he finally decides to put his right arm around me. I lean into him, crying as he presses a kiss into my hair.

“Were you ever going to tell me?” He asks.

“What? That I fell madly in love with an idiot named Eddie? Or the fact that he's related to your nemesis?”

“Both,” he replies. “But more the latter.”

I sniff. “I was kinda hoping… Never.”

He rubs my back. “I’d rather you be honest, than avoid the truth. I’d rather hear it from you, than anyone else.”

“Yeah, not my proudest moment,” I reply. “Not telling you and dating that idiot.”

“Just focus on the fact that you're here now. Safe. And so is Felicity.”

I sit up & wipe away tears. “Yeah. Barely.”

He frowns.

“What are you thinking?”

“He's not…” He says, looking at me. “Felicity…”

“God, no!” I reply. “Felicity's dad is another ex.”

He sighs.

“I wish that had worked out.”

“Why didn't it?”

“Ummm…” I sigh. “Jesse was lovely. I thought we could be soulmates. But… I found out way too late that he didn't want kids. Not that I knew that I was pregnant when he told me, but… I was pregnant.”

He rubs my back again.

“I told him & we had a huge argument,” I say. “I think part of him believed that I had intentionally gotten pregnant to trap him. Force him into being a family with me. But I hadn't.” I sigh. “We broke up. I said I wanted to keep her, & he agreed to help pay for things. Help pay to raise her.”

“Does he know about this?”

I shake my head. “Last time I heard, he was posted in Afghanistan,” I reply. “He joined the army when Felicity was a couple of months old.”

“Right.”

“Don't be mad. He's allowed to live his life.”

“While you end up with an abusive idiot related to the nastiest criminal.”

“True. But Felicity has her protective Uncle Markie looking out for her.”

He looks at me, eyes slightly narrowed. “Don't you dare play the cute niece card on me.”

“Well, you didn't know you had one for eighteen months of her life,” I reply. “Gotta make up all the missed opportunities to use it on you.”

He smiles.

“What?”

“It's good to see you smile again.”

I smile. “Being around you is lifting my spirits.”

“Awwww, did you miss me?”

“Ya duhhhh!” I reply. “I miss the days when you used to solve all my problems.”

“Problems being mostly boys trying to hit on you when you were fourteen.”

“And other stuff.”

He nods. “I’ve missed you too.”

I smile. "There's something else you should know.”

He looks worried. “What is it?”

“You know how Eddie is… Is related to Dennis Dimato?”

“How is he?”

“Dennis is his Uncle.”

“Right.”

"Well... Promise me you won't get too angry at this.”

He frowns. “At what?”

“A few weeks ago…” I sigh. “I met Dennis.”

What?!

“Please don't be mad!”

“Went waaaaay past that when you said you’ve met the man who almost killed Paige, our twins & me!”

“Okay, do I get the chance to tell my side of things?”

“How about you start by telling me why you let a murderer near Felicity?”

“That's unfair cause I didn't know who he was back then!” I reply. “I didn't know that your Dimato was my boyfriend’s uncle! Do you realise how many people there are in the world with that surname?”

“Alright,” he says, calming down a bit. “How did you figure out who he was?”

“He recognised a photo of you.”

He stares at me. Knowing his anger is brewing again, I grab his hand in both of mine, a tactic I figured out when we were younger to keep him focused on me.

“I wasn't there when he did,” I say. “He saw one when he was at Eddie’s home. I don't even know if he knows that Eddie told me about it.”

“But Dennis knows you're my sister.”

I nod. “Yeah,” I reply. “Eddie said Dennis recognised you, Tyler & Aaron in a photo with me. According to Eddie, he called Tyler ‘an old friend’.”

“Did he say anything about us to you?”

“Dennis?”

Don’t call him that!”

“Fine, Dimato didn't say anything about any of you to me,” I reply. “In fact, I met him before he knew who I was.”

He nods. “Did… Did you ever happen to… Overhear them… Discussing anything?”

I sigh, tilting my head to the side. “I knew you'd go there,” I reply. “Good on you for lasting as long as you did.”

“I think less like a cop & more like a protective older brother with you.”

I smile. “Your children are going to be lucky to have you.”

He smiles. “I’m lucky to have them.”

“So… Uh… If I was… Able to… Help you get Den- uhh Dimato…”

He shifts closer. “You will be helping a huge amount,” he says. “So you did you overhear them talking?”

I hesitate before slowly nodding.

"Tell me everything.”

****

“I don't know,” Erin says, as I follow her back inside.

“Just take a while to think about it,” I reply, shutting the front door.

“Think about what?” Aaron asks from the lounge.

“I told Mark that I overheard Eddie talking with his Uncle Dennis about stuff that Mark wants to use to put him behind bars.”

“Wait,” Tyler says, frowning. “So our sister dated the nephew of our worst nightmare?”

“Yes, but like I told Mark, I didn't know that until recently!” She replies. “And now I’m being pressured into testifying against the most powerful member of probably the biggest criminal family in Australia that's not behind bars. Despite the fact that I’ve just moved interstate to escape them!”

“Erin, I get that you're scared. I really do,” I reply, stepping closer to her. “But putting Dimato behind bars is worth the risk. He's created so much pain & destruction, to the community but also to all of us.”

“I’m lucky the worst Eddie did was give me a black eye,” She replies. “You haven't seen him when he's angry, Mark. You don't know what he’ll do if he finds out that I’m testifying against his Uncle. The pressure from Dimato on Eddie to hit back will be so massive, Mark! And it's not just my life at risk! Like I said before, Felicity will always be my first priority. What you're asking me to do, will put a massive target on my back! Felicity's already growing up without her father. Do not ask me to risk making her motherless!”

I put my hands on her arms, trying to calm her. “I would never put your life at risk without having a plan in place,” I reply. “Agree to this, & the police will ensure that you're safe.”

“What if that's not enough?” She asks, fighting back tears. “What if they can't keep me safe?”

“You're forgetting that I will be there,” I reply, bending my knees so I’m level with her face. “I will always have your back.”

“You're gonna be my bodyguard twenty-four seven?”

I smile. “If that's what it takes… Yes.”

She hesitates. “I’ll think about it.”

I pull her into a hug. She wraps her arms around me tightly, resting her head against my chest.

****

I’m on my way to my bedroom from the bathroom when Erin slips out of her room, quietly shutting the door behind her.

"I'm glad I caught you," She says, softly.

“Oh? Why?” I reply, softly.

“While I was sitting with Felicity, waiting for her to fall asleep, I’ve been… Thinking.”

“About my offer?”

She nods. “Yeah.”

“And?”

She sighs. “I kept going back to the same point,” she says. “That even if I refuse to do it, eventually it will come back to bite me. All I want, is for Felicity to be safe. I don't want to spend the rest of my life, looking over my shoulder, fearing whatever retaliation they’ll eventually take.”

“So you’ll do it?”

“I realise now, that taking a stand right now,” She says. “That's the best choice. Face them head on. Eliminate them.”

I smile. “You're doing the right thing.”

“Just make sure we’re protected.”

“Of course, baby sis,” I reply. I reach out to her. “Come here.”

She steps closer, arms wrapping round me as mine wrap around her.

“I’m proud of you,” I whisper, before kissing the top of her head.

Chapter Text

“You're doing the right thing,” Mark says, walking myself & Felicity out of the police station after I’ve given my statement.

“Yeah,” I reply with a sigh.

“Hey,” he replies. “There's nothing to worry about. We're going to organise for protection, which will be yours by the end of today.”

“I know, & I appreciate it,” I reply. “I just can't help but worry about what Eddie will do.”

“Call me any time you want, Erin. I’ll answer every time. Even if it's just to reassure you that you're safe.”

I smile. “I don't want to disrupt your day.”

“You won't.”

“Well then, we’ll have to call him regularly, won't we Felicity?” I look at Felicity. “Hmmm? We’ll regularly call Uncle Markie!”

He smiles, laughing a little. Sonya walks up.

“Hey Mark,” She says.

“Hey Sonya.”

“It's lovely to see you again, Erin,” she says.

“You too, Sonya,” I reply, smiling.

“And who is this little girl?”

“My daughter, Felicity.”

“Hi Felicity,” Sonya says.

“Erin & Felicity are staying with us for a while,” Mark says. “Felicity will need to be in childcare. I’d show them to the community centre, but I have to work.”

“Well, you're in luck,” Sonya replies. “I’m on my way over there now, for a meeting with our new director of our childcare. So you can come with me & I’ll introduce you.”

“If it's not too much of a hassle,” I reply.

“I wouldn't offer if I didn't mean it.”

“Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” She replies. “Are you ready to go?”

I nod, before looking at Mark. He steps over & hugs me, careful not to squish Felicity. He kisses Felicity's head.

“I’ll see you later,” he says. “Have a good day.”

“You too,” I reply, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

He says goodbye to Sonya & we watch as he walks back into the station. I turn to Sonya & smile. We walk side by side as we head for the community centre.

“So how long are you planning on being here?” Sonya asks.

“Haven't decided yet,” I reply.

“You don't want to go back home?”

“There's nothing left there for me.”

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, I’m… I’m sorry.”

“It's fine. I think being here will be good.”

“Yes. Erinsborough is a great suburb. And you have your brothers.”

I nod. “They're the reason I came here. I need them.”

“I… I don't want to pry, but… Mark, as you know, is my friend. And I’m good at listening & giving advice. I actually run the AA meetings at the community centre. So if you… If you ever want to talk…”

I smile. “That's very kind of you.”

She smiles. “I want you to feel welcome here.”

“I already do.”

“That's good,” she says, nodding.

We approach the community centre, & Sonya hurries ahead a few steps to hold the door open for me.

“Thanks,” I say, smiling as I step in.

“You're welcome.”

****

I walk into Harold’s for lunch, having spent the rest of the morning at the community centre. Sonya’s introduction to the childcare director was great. It's a good team, not too many children, so there's plenty of one-on-one time between the staff & each child. The new director had even offered for me to spend the morning there with Felicity, to see if it works for us. Felicity loved it.

I spot Tyler, Mark & Paige at a table across the far side & I cross to them. Mark’s face lights up when he sees Felicity. He instantly gets up & steps over to me.

“Heyyyy girl!” He says, taking Felicity from me.

“Wow! Dad mode has kicked in very early!” I reply.

“What? Can't I be excited to see my probably only niece?”

“I’d be offended,” Tyler says. “If it wasn't so accurate.”

“Awwww, I’m sure you'll have kids some day,” I reply, as Mark & I sit down.

“Yeeeah, no.”

I place a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll change your mind one day.”

He forces a smile. Lauren walks over.

“Hey, Erin,” she says. “It's good to see you again.”

“Hey Lauren, it's good to see you too.”

“Would you like some lunch?”

“Yes, I’m craving a chicken burger.”

“Well, you're in luck. We're testing out a new burger idea,” she says. “It's kind of like a caesar salad- lettuce, egg, bacon, and chicken, with a mayo based sauce.”

“You know me too well.”

She smiles. “What would you like to drink?”

“I wanna say a chocolate milkshake, but that's probably too much…”

“After what you’ve been through,” Mark says. “You deserve to be cheeky.”

I smile. “Then it's done.”

Lauren nods. “And would you like some mashed veggies for the little one?”

“How do you do that? Read my mind.”

She smiles. “It's just experience. Motherly instinct.”

“Well, yours is spot on. Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” Lauren says. “I’ll be back soon.”

She leaves & I look over to Mark. He's making faces at Felicity, who is sitting on his lap. I grab my phone, snapping a few photos of them. Seeing him with her is worth coming all the way to Erinsborough. I regret not bringing her into their lives sooner.

“How do you do it?” Paige asks, snapping me from my thoughts. “How do you raise her on your own?”

I shrug. “I just do,” I reply. “The first few months were hard, having to manage living on basically savings & the paid maternity leave. But I make it work. I don't regret having her. She's amazing.”

“So are you.”

“You're going to be amazing too.”

“Not as amazing as he is,” She replies, placing a hand on Mark’s shoulder.

“You’ve gotta have more faith in yourself, Paige.”

“Exactly what I’ve been telling her,” Mark says.

He leans towards her, she meets him halfway for a kiss.

“Well, there's a perfect family picture,” I say.

Mark & Paige look confused.

“You two smooching, young daughter on his lap,” I add. “If I was someone else & didn't know better, I’d think Felicity is yours.”

“Soon enough, I’ll have my daughter on my lap.”

Tyler & I look shocked.

“You know you're having at least one girl?” Tyler asks.

“Not yet,” Paige replies. “Mark has convinced himself we’re having one.”

“It's a gut feeling,” he corrects her.

****

After lunch, Mark takes Felicity & I home- to ensure we get home safely, but also to check that our home is secure. He then waited for the two officers assigned to the first watch to arrive. Once he introduced me to them, he went back to work.

Piper came over after school to wait for Tyler. She’d dropped in to the garage, but he was swamped so suggested she wait here. Felicity loved the company. I even managed to do a bit of online job searching while Piper played with Felicity.

It's 4:45pm, & I can't shake this gut feeling something isn't right. Putting my iPad mini aside, I get off the couch & walk over to the front window. I peer out, finding the street empty. My gaze falls on the unmarked police car out the front, & my stomach flips at the sight. I can just make out the two officers inside- the officer in the passenger seat is slumped over, head on the dashboard. Not the ideal way for an on-duty officer to sit. My eyes snap to the driver's side, & my worst fears are confirmed. He's also slumped over, this time head tilted towards the window.

“Piper,” I say, trying to keep as calm as possible so not to worry Felicity.

“Yeah, Erin,” She replies.

“Pick up Felicity right now & head out the back,” I reply.

“What? Why?”

“Just do it!” I say, turning to her so she sees my worried look.

Her eyes widen as she looks at me. She picks Felicity up, keeping calm as she stands up. I cross to them.

“Take her through the side gate, & head for your place,” I say, ushering her towards the kitchen bound for the back door. “Call Mark. Tyler. Keep trying until you get them. I need them here ASAP.”

“What's going on?” Piper asks, turning to face me when she reaches the doorway into the laundry.

“My life is in danger right now & I need you to take my baby to safety,” I reply quickly. “I need Mark & the police.”

She looks terrified, but nods repeatedly. She turns around & takes a step towards the back door.

“Move one more step, & I’ll blow her head apart,” That all too familiar voice says from behind me.

Piper freezes.

It's too late.

He's here.

Eddie.

Chapter Text

“Tyler!” Mark calls out as I’m crossing the courtyard to Harold’s.
I stop & wait for him to catch up.
“What’s up, bro?” I ask as he steps up.
“I just finished work & was headed to meet Paige after her shift when I saw you,” he replies. “I thought you said you had a lot of work to finish.”
“I did. After our lunch,” I reply. “Which was what? Three, four hours ago? I didn’t say how much each car needed work on.”
He nods. “You meeting Piper?”
I nod. “Yeah, she’s waiting at home. Probably with Erin,” I reply. “I was going to get a cake or something. She was disappointed that I wasn’t able to go home with her.”
He smiles. “You’re really falling for her.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m just worried that… if things don’t work out, not that I’m saying they will, but…” He sighs. “You two have a similar age gap to Paige & myself. It caused a lot of issues for us. We made it work, but… I just don’t want you to go through the same thing. I have faith that it won’t, but I can’t help being protective of you.”
I smile. “I get it. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.”
****
“Let them go,” I say, as Piper and I back towards the lounge. I keep my focus on Eddie, who is following us, gun raised at me. “You want me, right? Well, you have me. Just let Piper go. She & Felicity don’t need to be here.”
“But they do,” Eddie replies. “Piper’s seen me. She knows I have you. And I know your big brother is a cop who is determined to catch my uncle.”
“I promise I won’t say anything!” Piper says.
“You’re not going anywhere!” Eddie shouts, waving his gun at Piper’s head.
She steps back, holding Felicity against her. I step in front of Piper, putting myself in the gun’s line of fire.
****
Mark returns to our table as he hangs up his phone call. He’s frowning.
“The officers stationed outside our house have missed their last check-in,” he says to Paige & myself.
“Maybe there’s nothing to report,” Paige says.
“They have specific orders to check in regularly,” he replies. “Even if there’s nothing to report.”
“Hey, don’t stress,” Paige replies, taking his hand.
“I won’t stress when I finally have Dimato & all his men behind bars,” he replies. “I’m sick of them keeping me on edge, constantly worried about my family’s safety.”
“Which is why you need to have a bit more faith in your colleagues.”
“Paige is right, Mark,” I add.
“You should be worried too, mate,” Mark replies. “If there is something wrong, then your girlfriend is caught up in it along with our sister & niece.”
“Okay. Why don’t we just go home?” Paige says. “You can check on the officers, & you’ll see that everything is fine, & you can relax a bit, knowing that your family is still safe.”
He nods, letting out a shaky sigh. Paige & I get up. I grab my take-away box of cupcakes as she grabs her purse. She links hands with Mark & we head out to our cars.
****
Mark pulls into our driveway, Tyler’s car pulling in behind us. Mark flicks off the engine & hops out. I quickly follow. Mark heads back down the driveway, past Tyler’s car as Tyler gets out. Mark stops as he reaches the bottom. His back is to me, but I can tell he’s tensed.
I look at Tyler & we hurry over to him. He’s staring at the unmarked police car. We’d been so focused on our house, none of us had thought to look at the car, at the officers, as we drove past. I clasp my hands over my mouth to stifle a scream as I take in the sight of the two deceased officers.
Mark turns towards the house, taking a few steps in that direction before I grab his arm & stop him.
“Mark! Do this the right way,” I say. “Don’t go rushing in there, without back up.”
“But-”
“I know. I want to see them safe too,” I interrupt. “But you have to play this by the book. As much as I want them out of danger, I don’t want you to throw yourself into danger in order to save them! You’re angry & very protective, & I love that about you. But you just can’t rush in there. Not when you don’t have a vest or a weapon. So please just stay here with us, & call it in!”
He exhales shakily, before running his hands over his face.
“You’re right,” he replies.
****
Eddie peers out the front window, his gun pointed at us. I’m thinking of the best way to allow Piper to escape with Felicity, without him shooting at them. Eddie snarls.
“Which one of you two called them?” Eddie says, looking at us.
“Called who?” I ask.
“Called your cop brother, baby brother & your cop brother’s misses.”
“Eddie, calm down,” I reply, stepping in front of Piper to shield her. “All three of them live here. They were bound to come home, okay? Neither of us have called or texted. You’ve had your eyes on us the whole time.”
“How dumb do you think I am?!”
“You’re smart, Eddie. I know that,” I reply. “Just like you know I wouldn’t lie to you right now. Trust me.”
“I why should I trust you when you packed up & left me?”
“I did that to protect my little girl,” I reply. “You were losing control of yourself, & it just wasn’t safe for her to be there.”
“So why come here?”
“To my brothers? I think that’s obvious.”
He growls, turning back to the window. He peers out at Mark, Tyler & Paige. I look over my shoulder at Piper.
“Get your phone,” I whisper. “Call Tyler. I want them to be able to hear all of this. But keep it hidden.”
She nods.
****
Mark’s on the phone, organising for more cops to come. Paige & I wait at the end of our driveway, both uneasy.
“Piper’s in there,” I say, staring up at our home.
“She’s smart,” Paige says. “Just like Erin is. They’ll be alright.”
“I hope so.”
“We’ll get them out,” she replies. “Whatever’s going on in there, we’ll get them out.”
I nod. My mobile rings. I pull it out, seeing Piper’s ID. I frown & turn it so Paige can see. She frowns. I answer it, putting it up to my ear.
“Hey Pipes,” I say into my phone.
She doesn’t answer. Instead, I can hear some guy talking in the background.
“Do you really think that I would let you come here, to your cop brother & not come after you?” he says. “You’re probably snitching on my uncle, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not,” Erin says. “Like I said, I came here because I felt like Felicity was in danger around you.”
And it hits me who the man is- Eddie. I make eye contact with Paige, & then point to Mark. She understands what I’m asking & nods. She walks over to him, & I watch her talk to him as I listen to Eddie.
“Stop lying to me, Erin!”
“I’m not, Eddie!”
“Why else would you come here, without telling me?”
“Maybe it’s because I was scared about what you would do if I stood in front of you & told you I was leaving,” Erin says. “You gave me a black eye. I know you didn’t mean to, but it happened. And I was scared that it would be worse. I’m sorry that I just left. That I didn’t leave a note. But you have to understand that I was just protecting my daughter. You know she means a lot to me.”
Mark & Paige come over. I put a finger to my lips, to keep them silent, as I lower my mobile & put it on speaker.
“Yeah, just like I thought I meant a lot to you,” Eddie says.
“You do,” Erin says. “It’s just that I will always put my daughter’s safety first.”
“Is that… Eddie?” Mark mouths.
I nod. He clenches his jaw.
“But not enough to deserve a goodbye.”
Mark flicks his mobile over to its recorder, & starts recording as he puts it close to mine so it picks up the call clearly.
“I don’t know how many times I have to say it, Eddie! I was scared!”
“Or you’re lying to cover up the fact that you’ve fled here to get your cop brother to help put my uncle & I behind bars!” Eddie says. “I know that he’s after my uncle. I know that you overheard us discussing things you shouldn’t have heard. So stop lying to me, cause I know you’re here to tell him everything, so he can use it to arrest Uncle Dennis!”
Mark hands me his mobile, & steps around Paige. He starts heading up the driveway. Paige quickly stops him.
“I have to get in there!” Mark hisses.
“Just wait for the others!” She hisses back.
Mark looks at our house, & I can see him fighting himself in his mind- to barge inside unprotected & alone, or to be good & wait. It’s the hardest inner battle. I’m barely keeping myself from running up those steps & inside, so I know what it’s like.
“If they don’t get here soon,” Mark whispers. “I need to at least get a look inside. Find out what’s going on.”
“Just wait a little longer,” Paige pleads.
He nods, almost defeated. She wraps her arms around him, laying her head on his chest. His shoulders drop, & he wraps his arms around her. He rests his head on top of hers. I admire the way she can break through his walls like no other can.
****
The other officers finally arrive. The road is blocked off as I speak to Sarge about how to handle this. Tyler’s mobile has been linked up to police devices, recording the whole call, with officers listening to it at the same time so we know what’s going on.
“You can try & stop me all you want, Sarge,” I say. “But there’s nothing you can say that will stop me from going in. With all due respect, Sarge, I can’t stand here while my family is at risk.”
“Wouldn’t even dare try to keep you back,” he replies. “I can see how hard it is for you to have waited this long. I almost expected to have arrived to find you’d gone in by yourself.”
I purse my lips together. “It’s been hard resisting doing that,” I reply. “But Paige reminded me of why I need to not rush in.”
Sarge smiles. “Alright, here’s what I believe is the best scenario,” he says. “Two teams. One goes round the back, the other through the front. Breach at the same time. Locate your family & the suspect. Protect the hostages & take down the suspect. Hopefully he’ll still be alive at the end.”
I nod. “Sounds like a good plan.”
“You want to lead the front team?”
“Do you have to ask?”
“I’ll be leading the other,” he says. “So I’ll be in charge once we get in there.”
I nod. “I understand. You don’t want me in charge cause of how personal it is.”
He nods. “I want this to go as smoothly & cleanly as possible.”
“Yes, Sarge.”
We cross to where the officers of our teams are standing, ready to go. I adjust my vest, & pull my gun out of its holster.
“Team A, you’re with Brennan,” Sarge says. “Team B, you’re going round the back with me.”
The other officers nod. Three of the officers follow Sarge up the driveway. I lead the other three, bound for the front door. Tyler hurries up & falls into step with me.
“Let me come with you,” he says.
“It's too dangerous,” I reply, as we continue up the driveway.
“You do remember who is in there, right?” He asks. “It's been killing me too not to be in there. I want to be in there. To comfort Piper.”
I spin around on the steps up from the driveway, blocking his way.
“There's too many people from our family caught up in this as is,” I reply. “There's no way I’m adding you to the list.”
“Try & stop me.”
“I’ll handcuff you to the railing if I have to.”
Tyler opens his mouth to reply, but is cut off by BANG!
Everyone jumps at the gunshot, the officers & I instinctively aiming our guns at my home. A chill runs down my spine. And then the worst happens.
BANG! BANG!

Chapter Text

 

Mark & the officers are distracted. Tense due to the gunshots. I, on the other hand, have only one instinct- to get inside & find out if my girlfriend, niece & sister are all okay.

Mark’s turned sideways to face our house, exposing part of the stairs. I slip behind him, turning to the main set of stairs as he notices.

“TYLER!” He says, as I climb the stairs.

I hear him follow me.

“ALL OFFICERS STAY WHERE YOU ARE!!!” He barks into his radio, as I pull open the security door. “My brother's broken the main line.”

I burst inside, pausing to scan the area. Mark stops behind me, his gun raised. But the area is empty.

“PIPER!” I shout.

Nothing.

I take a step forward. “PIPER!”

“Ty-Tyler?” Piper replies, scared & from the lounge.

I rush over, finding her hunched over on the floor between the couch & the coffee table. I kneel down, & realise she's protecting Felicity- using the couch & her body to shield my young niece.

“Hey, it's okay,” I say, reaching out to her.

She looks up & relief spreads over her face.

“Oh my god! Am I glad to see you!” She replies. “I thought I was hearing things!”

I smile reassuringly at her. “Are you okay?” I ask. I look at Felicity. “Is Felicity okay?”

Piper nods. “Yeah, we’re both fine. I’ve been holding her the whole time.”

“Where's Erin?” Mark says.

I look at him- he’s come closer, standing beside our couch. He’s facing away, gun raised, as he looks over his shoulder at us.

“Uh… Eddie… He… He found out about my mobile,” Piper says. “He got angry. That's what caused the first gun shot.”

“Pipes,” I say, placing my hands on her cheeks. “Focus on where they went, okay? The rest you can tell Mark… Or another officer later.”

She nods. “They were heading for the kitchen last I saw.”

I look at Mark. He grabs his radio. “Sarge, the suspect & Erin are still missing,” he says into it. “Any signs of them in the backyard? They were last seen heading there.”

There's a pause.

“Negative, Constable,” Sarge replies. “No trace.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Want us to assist in locating them?”

“Stay posted outside,” Mark says. “Maintaining the perimeter will help.” He suddenly realises how that came across. “Not that I’m trying to boss you around, Sarge. Just saying I have a handle on the situation in here… For now.”

“I knew what you meant, Constable,” Sarge replies. “Please keep me updated.”

“Yes, sir,” Mark replies. The radio goes silent. “Stay here. If you see Eddie, lay low & keep them safe. Do not move from them, do you understand?”

I nod.

****

I watch him shift closer to Piper & wrap his arm around her. She rests her head on his shoulder & sighs. Tyler places a hand on Felicity to comfort her, as she's starting to cry.

I slowly head for the kitchen, gun raised & fully aware of my surroundings. As I approach the kitchen bench, I can see into the laundry, & I pause. There's a pool of blood.

I lower my gun, reeling from the sight. I holster my gun, mentally preparing myself to approach the laundry. I need to know if it's her. I need to be the one to learn that first.

I walk around the bench, trying to calm my pounding heart. I turn the corner of the side wall, & let out a huge sigh when I see her. She's sitting next to the rubbish bin, head resting on the door frame into the laundry, legs tucked up to her chest, arms tightly round them. I can see blood stains on her shirt, but the fact that she's staring into the laundry has me convinced the pool of blood isn't hers.

I grab my radio. “Sarge, I found her.”

“Oh, thank god!” Tyler says.

“Good to hear,” Sarge replies. “Is she okay?”

“Not sure,” I reply. “But she's breathing. That's good enough for me right now.”

“And the suspect?”

“Haven't found him yet, but… I have a hunch he’s not a threat any more.”

“Understood. Keep me posted.”

“Yes, sir.”

I cross to her, kneeling down & placing a hand on her back. She jumps, goes to strike me but recognises me & relaxes.

“Mark!” She says.

“Hey. Are you okay?” I ask. “Are you hurt?”

She stares at the wall in front of her, to my left, as she thinks. “Uh… No,” She says. “I… I don't think so.”

I sigh, relieved. “And Eddie?”

She leans into me, struggling to keep back her tears. She turns her head into my vest, turning her head away from the laundry. I wrap my arms around her, kissing her head.

“It's okay, it's okay,” I whisper. “You're okay. You're okay.”

She cries against me for a while.

“Mark?” Tyler asks.

“Just stay in the lounge, please, Tyler!” I reply. “Erin's unharmed.”

“Good to hear.”

I turn my attention back to Erin, but the pool of blood catches my eye.

“Erin,” I say softly. “I just need to move away for a minute, okay? I need to go look in the laundry. I need to confirm where Eddie is, okay?”

She lets out a shaky breath, before nodding. She sits up. I leave my hand on her back as I rise to my feet, leaving it there until I can't any more. I carefully step into the laundry, avoiding the blood. I step to the right of the door, towards the back door & turn around so the back door is behind me. Across the other side of the narrow room, slumped against the wall to my left, lies Eddie's lifeless body. His gun lies on the floor just out of his reach, its barrel pointing at him.

I run a hand over my mouth & sigh. I take a moment to compose myself before grabbing my radio.

“Suspect is dead,” I say into it. “I repeat, suspect is dead. In the laundry. All civilians are safe & unharmed.”

“Copy that, Constable,” Sarge says. “I’ll get the necessary teams in.”

“Thanks, Sarge,” I reply. “Can we also get a couple of paramedics in here? I just want to make sure that Erin is okay. She was with him. I’m not sure on the details, but she's in shock & covered in blood.”

“I’ll call them in.”

“Thanks Sarge.”

I carefully head back into the kitchen. Erin's still sitting where I left her. I bend over, take hold of her hands & pull her to her feet. I turn her away from the laundry, wrap an arm around her shoulder & lead her slowly over to the lounge. Tyler, Piper & Felicity stand as we make our way over. They sit down on one end of the couch, & I guide Erin to this end. She sits down, arms tightly wrapped around herself.

Felicity squirms, hand reaching for Erin.

“Erin, she wants you,” Piper says.

Erin takes a long moment to react. She looks at Piper & Felicity. She shakes her head. Piper, shocked, turns her gaze to me for help.

I kneel so I’m on the same level as Erin. She stares straight ahead, at the opposite wall.

“I know that you're in shock, Erin,” I say. “But your daughter needs you. Just like you need her.”

She shakes her head, still not making eye contact with me.

“Erin, look at me.”

She takes a minute, but she slowly looks at me. I smile at her.

“Why won't you hold Felicity?”

She uncrosses her arms & pulls at her shirt. I look down at it, & it hits me why she's refusing.

“It's okay, Erin. I understand now.”

“What?” Piper says. “Her daughter wants her to hold her, & you're siding with her?”

I look at Piper. “She's refusing because she doesn't want Felicity near her when she's covered in blood.”

Piper looks shocked. “Oh.”

"Just look after her until the paramedics have checked Erin,” I reply. “Then I’ll get something clean for Erin to wear.”

Piper nods.

****

Soon our house is a hive of activity. The kitchen is sectioned off from the rest by crime scene tape, as the crime scene team get to work documenting Eddie's body, the gun & the laundry. Paramedics examine & clear Piper & Felicity, before both focus on Erin. But their efforts are hampered by Erin's refusal to talk.

Aaron & Paige come in. Paige throws her arms around me. After our hug, I wave Aaron, Tyler & Piper over. They come, Piper still holding Felicity.

“They're going to be at this for a while, so our kitchen will be out of use for most of the night,” I say. “So I think it will be best if we spend the night at Lassiters.”

“I can call Mum, see if she can reserve rooms,” Piper says. “I’m sure she’ll offer a discount.”

I nod. “That would be good,” I reply. “In the meantime, can you all go through & pack. Take clothes for a few days, in case we have stay there longer. And can someone please pack for Erin & Felicity? I’d help, but I need to be out here.”

“We’ll all handle that,” Aaron replies.

“Thanks.”

They all head off to the bedrooms.

“Excuse me,” The female paramedic says to me. “Are you her spouse?”

“Older brother,” I reply.

“Sorry,” she replies. “We just need to confirm the source of the blood on her shirt. She's refusing to talk. I was wondering if you’d help us out?”

I nod. I step over to Erin, sitting down next to her right side & placing my left hand on her back.

"Erin, you have to let them help," I tell her. "They just want to make sure you're not hurt, & then we’ll get you changed into clean clothes & you can cuddle Felicity.”

“I’m fine,” Erin says.

“You're in shock,” the female paramedic says. “That may be masking the pain from any injuries. Which is why we’d like to check.”

“Erin, look at me,” I say.

She slowly turns to look at me.

“I’m going to be here the whole time,” I tell her. “I want you to let them do their job, okay?”

She stares at me for a minute, & then nods.

****

“Hey,” Tyler says.

I turn to see him standing in the doorway of Erin's bedroom, where I’m packing her things as I hold Felicity in one arm.

“Hey,” I reply. “You’ve finished already?”

“Doesn't need much,” he replies, walking over to me. “And I’m not the one trying to do it with a kid in one arm. Let me help.”

He takes a shirt off the bed, folds it & places it in the open suitcase.

"Mum's organised for a couple of the bigger, two bedroom suites for us,” I tell him as he continues to pack. “And she's insisting that you stay there for free.”

“Wow,” he says, surprised. “That's super generous.”

“Yep, but she thinks your family has been through enough, so she's spoiling you all with this.”

“That's very kind of her.”

“Mmmhmmm.”

“So… Have you considered who sleeps where yet?”

I raise my eyebrow. “I didn't know I had the power to.”

“You're a part of this too, Pipes,” he says, looking at me. “You were in here today, facing Eddie. You protected my niece. I want you to come stay the night with me.”

"Awwww!"

He leans in, pressing his lips against mine.

“I don't think I’ll be able to sleep if you’re not there,” he whispers, lips brushing mine.

“Shouldn't I be saying that?” I whisper back.

“I’m allowed to too,” he says, pulling back.

“Okay, so you & me in one bedroom,” I say, as he keeps packing a mix of Erin & Felicity's clothes. “And Aaron can take the other bedroom in our suite. Cause obviously Paige will be in with Mark, & I have a feeling that Mark will want Erin close by. He seems to be the only one she's reacting to.”

He nods. “I agree.”

“Mum will meet us at reception, though I think she’ll meet us outside. We’re probably gonna have to drop into the station to give formal statements.”

“Yeah.”

Felicity cries. I pace the room, bouncing her in an attempt to calm her down.

“It's okay, Felicity,” I say as I pace. “I know. You want your mum. You can have her soon. I promise.”

Mark appears in the doorway.

“Look, Felicity! Mark!” I say, pointing to him.

He smiles & waves at her. “Are you almost done packing?”

“Uh… Yeah, why?” Tyler asks.

“The paramedics have just cleared Erin. She's not injured, just covered in Eddie's blood. So I’d like to let her in here so she can change.”

Tyler grabs the last few things off the bed, puts them in the suitcase & closes it. He zips it shut.

“We’ll take the bags out to the lounge,” he says, picking up the suitcase.

I grab Felicity's nappy bag, putting the strap on my shoulder.

“Thanks you two,” Mark says as we head out.

“No worries,” Tyler replies, pausing for a few seconds to grab his bag from the hallway floor.

It's not until Tyler passes her that I realise Erin’s standing with her back against the wall to the left of her bedroom. Felicity spots her, & cries out, her short arms reaching for her mum. Erin forces a smile, fighting back tears. She then quickly slips between Mark & myself into her room.

Mummmmmyyyyyyyyyyy!!!!” Felicity cries.

I look at Mark, desperate for a solution. He reaches out, touching her small hands with a finger from both his hands.

“It's okay, Felicity,” he coos. “Mummy just needs a little bit longer & then she’ll be with you.”

He kisses her forehead, before looking at me & tilting his head towards the lounge. Understanding that he wants me to go, I nod & head down the hallway. Felicity screams, looking over my shoulder at Mark.

“It's okay, Felicity,” I say, rubbing her back.

****

“Am I bad mother?” I ask, rubbing a baby wipe to get the blood off the back of my trembling hand.

“No,” Mark replies. “Why?”

“Because through all of this, I’ve kept my distance from my baby,” I reply, scrubbing at the blood. “The whole time, she was in Piper’s arms. And now that it's over… I should be comforting her. But I’m refusing to!” I look at him, barely keeping back my tears. “I’m running away from her, treating her like I’m abandoning her!”

He walks over, steps behind me, places his hands on my shoulders & turns me to the free-standing full-body mirror.

"Look at yourself,” Mark says. “You're covered in blood. You don't want her getting that on her. So as much as you feel horrible for not giving her comfort, it doesn't mean you're a bad mother. It means you're doing what's best for her. And that makes you the best mother.”

I stare at myself in the mirror, & sigh. “You're right,” I reply, nodding.

He smiles, before kissing my head.

“Now, I’m going to go over there & wait with my back to you while you change,” he says. “I know it's weird to have me in here, but we need to bag the clothes.”

“I know,” I reply. “I feel the most comfortable if you're here rather than one of the other officers that I don't know.”

He smiles. “You're starting to get back to normal.”

I smile. “Gee, thanks.”

“It's good,” he replies. “Seeing you so out of it was heartbreaking.”

“I’m glad you were there.”

“I told you I would have your back.”

“You did.”

“I’ll be over there,” he says, before crossing to stand near my door.

“Mark?”

He looks over his shoulder at me.

“Thank you.”

He smiles.

****

Mark leads me back out to the lounge, his Sargent intercepting us as we get into that part of the house.

“We’ll need you to come to the station for your statements,” the Sargent says.

Mark nods. “I know. We were just going there now, Sarge.”

“Good,” Sarge replies. “Is that her clothes?”

“Yes, bagged and ready to examine.”

“Good,” he replies. “I’ll meet you all at the station.”

Mark nods. Sarge looks at me & nods. I nod back. We stay there, watching as he exits through the front door. Mark places the bag of my clothes on the kitchen bench, next to a bunch of other evidence bags, as Aaron, Paige, Tyler & Piper carrying Felicity walk over from the lounge.

“Mummmy!” Felicity says, reaching both her chubby arms out.

I fight back tears as I step forward to meet Piper, taking Felicity from her & holding her tight against me. “I’m so sorry, baby,” I whisper.

"Uh, Mum says they’ve moved a cot into one of the bedrooms for you,” Piper says.

I nod.

“Shouldn't we wait for the police teams to finish?” Tyler asks.

“I gave them the spare keys earlier,” Mark replies. “They’ll lock up when they're done.”

Tyler nods. “I guess we should go, then.”

We gather our bags- Mark hands me Felicity's nappy bag & takes my suitcase.

“You have enough to carry,” he says.

I smile, before following the others over to the front door. We file out, the boys taking up the back, & we head down & onto the street. Tyler moved his & Mark’s cars so the mortuary van could pull in. I stop mid-step when I realise that they're loading Eddie's body into the van. It may be in a body bag, but the sight still sends chills down my spine.

Mark's hand on my shoulder draws me from my thoughts.

“You okay?” He asks, concerned.

I haven't told him what happened. None of them know.

I nod. “Yeah, just… Still a bit shocked.”

He nods. We walk side by side the rest of the way, rejoining the others at Tyler & Mark’s cars, which are parked across the street outside Lauren’s. Aaron & Tyler are putting the bags into the back of Mark’s car, which has a bigger boot so everyone's can fit in it.

“So who wants to go in which car?” Aaron asks, as they continue loading the bags.

“How about the same grouping as the hotel rooms?” Tyler replies.

We all look confused.

“Nice one, Gurtie,” Piper says. “I hadn't talked about that to the others yet.”

“Well, now’s the time,” Paige replies.

“Terese has organised two of the bigger, two bedroom suites for us at Lassiters,” Tyler says. “Pipes & I were just thinking of how to split our group over the rooms. We thought Aaron, Pipes & I would take one… And you, Mark, Erin & Felicity would take the other.”

“Sounds good,” Mark replies. “Any objections?”

We’re all quiet.

“Good, then it's sorted,” Mark says. “Tyler, Aaron & Piper in Tyler's car. And my three favourite women with me.”

“Technically two favourite woman & favourite girl,” I reply.

He smiles. "True."

“I should start putting Felicity in,” I say.

I walk over to the back door of Mark's 4WD, open the door, toss the nappy bag onto the floor & climb in. I settle Felicity in her car seat, securing her in just as Tyler closes the boot door slowly so it doesn't slam. When I’m done, I stick my head out to see the others. We split up to our cars, Paige & Mark get in as I do my belt up. As we pull off, I rest my head on the head rest & sigh. This long day isn't over yet.

****

We park in the underground carpark at Lassiters. Mark suggests we at least go up & find out which order they want us to go in to give our statements before unloading our bags. We head to the lift, the only bags beyond our handbags is Felicity's nappy bag, which I have over one shoulder.

Terese, Brad & Lauren are waiting for us in reception. Terese hugs- practically squishes- Piper.

“Your rooms are all set up,” Terese says. “I have key cards for each of you. Everything is on the house- the rooms, room service… Anything.”

“That's too much,” Mark says.

“It's the least I can do,” Terese replies. “You’ve all been through so much the last six months.”

“Thank you, Terese,” I reply.

“You're welcome.”

“We should head to the station,” Mark says.

“I’m not needed there,” Aaron says. “So why don't I start taking our bags up to our rooms?”

“Brad & I will help,” Lauren adds.

Mark nods. “Sure.”

“Would you like me to…” Lauren says, pointing to Felicity.

“Uh… No, I’ll take her with me,” I reply. “She's been away from me enough for today. I think it’ll be best for her to stay with me. I don't know how long it’ll take for us to do this.”

Lauren nods. “I understand.”

“Thank you for offering,” I reply. “It's very thoughtful.”

She smiles. “You're welcome.”

We say bye, & follow Mark & Tyler out. Mark holds the police station door open for us. His Sargent is waiting at reception. He & Mark nod at each other.

"I think we'll start with Miss Willis," Sarge says. "And then Mrs Brennan, followed by Mr Brennan. Which leaves Miss Brennan until the end. I understand that you're the most traumatised, so I’d rather leave you until the end.”

I nod. “Fine by me.”

He nods. “Wait over there while Miss Willis comes with me into Interview Room One,” He says. “I’ll come out when we’re ready for the next person.” He looks at Mark. “You’ll need to write up a report. But given the circumstances this evening, it can wait until tomorrow. As long as you have notes.”

“I do,” Mark replies.

“Good. You can sit with your family,” Sarge says, before turning to Piper. “Miss Willis, please follow me.”

We watch as Piper follows him through to the interview room. He holds the door open, waiting for her to walk inside, before he shuts it behind him.

Tyler, Paige, myself & Mark walk over to the waiting area. We sit down in a row- Paige, Felicity & I in the middle, our handbags & nappy bag on the floor.

Mark waits with us until Paige goes in to give her statement half an hour later. Mark decides he should put his vest & gun away.

It doesn't take as long for them to take Paige's statement. She didn't see as much as Piper, Tyler or myself. Tyler's called in next.

“You can head up to our rooms,” I tell Paige & Piper. “You don't have to stay.”

“I’m not moving until Tyler's back out,” Piper says.

“We’re in this together,” Paige adds.

It takes close to 40 minutes for them to finish taking Tyler's statement. Mark explained they probably will have treated it more like an interrogation, given how he snuck past the police to enter first. Felicity's asleep on my chest by the time he comes out.

Tyler returns, looking sheepish & with his hands deep in his jeans’ pockets. Sarge is close behind him.

“In short, Mr Brennan won't be charged for recklessly running in,” Sarge says. “His actions were highly dangerous, not to just himself. However, given the rest of the situation, we’re willing to let him go with just a warning.”

"That's good,” I reply as I stand up.

I pass Felicity to Tyler. He looks surprised as he supports her against his chest.

“You sure you want me to have her?” He asks.

I nod. “I trust you, Tyler.”

“What about Mark? Piper?”

“Piper has done enough today. I need Mark for a few minutes… At least.”

Tyler’s still a little unsure, but he sits down where I was. I look at Mark, tilting my head towards the reception desk. He follows me & Sarge over to it.

“I want Mark to sit in,” I say to Sarge.

Both of them look surprised.

“I know it's breaking the rules, but I’ve been through hell & back tonight,” I continue. “The only thing that's kept me grounded since it happened has been Mark. Having him in there… That's the only way I can see myself doing this tonight.”

Sarge & Mark exchange looks.

“Very well,” Sarge replies. “But he's there strictly for support. No asking questions.”

Mark nods.

“Good. Follow me.”

Sarge heads for the interview room. Mark ushers me in front of him.

Chapter Text

“He got very angry when he found out Piper’s mobile was mid-call,” I tell the Sergeant. “He was… He was going to shoot Piper. He had his gun aimed at her head. So… So I kicked him.”

“Kicked him?” Sarge asks. “Where?”

“High roundhouse kick that hit his arm, knocking his arm sideways just as he pulled the trigger,” I reply.

Sarge frowns. “How does a woman of your stature roundhouse kick a man of Mr Dimato’s size in the arm when it's extended out holding a gun?”

“I’m not that much shorter than Edward,” I reply. “Not as much as you’re making it sound. I have a high roundhouse kick.”

“She's always been flexible,” Mark adds. “She won a lot of ribbons in gymnastics throughout her childhood & teens.”

“And I’m skilled in taekwondo,” I add.

“What happened after the first shot?” Sarge asks.

“He focused on me… I was his biggest threat,” I reply. “Piper, still holding my daughter, went & hid in the lounge. He grabbed me, forced me into the laundry. I think maybe he wanted to rape me.”

I catch Mark’s reaction in the corner of my eye. He looks shocked, then saddened & angered.

“But you fought back?”

I nod. “We struggled. I was trying to at least knock his gun away,” I reply. “It ended up between us, both pressed against it so neither of us knew where it was pointed. It went off twice. We stood there, both staring at each other… It felt like forever. Neither of us knew who was shot.” I look at my hands. “It may have felt like forever, but it was probably only thirty seconds, maybe a minute… Then he stumbled back, fell to the ground.”

"Did you check to see if he was alive?"

“He was bleeding out,” I reply. “Enough that he was probably dead by the time he slumped over. He shot himself twice in the abdomen. I don't see what you think I could have done to save the man!”

“Did he shoot himself?”

What?!

“Did he shoot himself?”

“Of course he did.”

“Do you know for sure?” Sarge asks, leaning forward. “You say the two of you were struggling to gain control of the gun. That neither of you seem to know who was shot. The intensity of the moment may have your memory off.”

“Oh, so accusing me of murder is an appropriate reaction to that?”

"You tell me."

Shocked, I turn to Mark. I can see the shock & confusion in his eyes, but the rest of his face is emotionless. Struggling to stop myself from crying, I look at Sarge.

“I didn’t shoot him,” I reply. “I just wanted to remove the gun. To buy time so you could come in & stop him. I would never kill him!”

“Not intentionally,” Sarge replies. “But in the heat of the moment…”

“I wouldn’t!”

“You were both struggling to have control of the gun. You said neither one knew who was shot.”

“I didn’t touch the trigger! I had my hand on the handle.”

“You may not remember touching it,” Sarge replies. “You were in shock when you were found. Such a traumatic event would be erased from your memory to cope with it.”

“Sarge, she didn’t do it.”

Sarge raises his eyebrow. “Do you know that for a fact, Constable?”

“I know my sister,” he replies. “And she’s not a murderer.”

“We all have the killer instinct.”

“The only one with the killer instinct tonight was Edward Dimato.”

“The evidence will provide the truth.”

“So let’s wait until you have the evidence before throwing accusations around,” Mark says.

Sarge & Mark stare at each other.

“Alright,” Sarge says, breaking the silence. “We’re all tired. We’ll end things here, for now. I want you back here tomorrow, for further questioning.”

“Sarge-”

“She’s the only witness who saw Mr Dimato’s final moments,” Sarge replies. “Which makes her very important to the investigation.”

“In other terms, the only suspect,” Mark replies. “Which is absurd, given it’s clear he accidentally killed himself. The evidence will support that.”

****

Erin & I walk out into reception. She’s barely keeping herself together, arms crossed, bottom lip trembling as she barely holds back tears. I place my hand on her back. Aaron, Tyler, Paige & Piper look shocked as they see us. They all stand up. Aaron’s about to talk when-

“One more thing, Miss Brennan,” Sarge says from behind us.

Erin & I turn around to face him, Erin shifting a step closer to me.

“I need you to hand over your passport,” Sarge says as he steps over to us.

Erin gapes. She looks at me for the answer.

“That’s extreme,” I say to Sarge.

“Merely following protocol, Constable.”

“And exactly why are you following those protocols? She’s not a flight risk.”

“It’s just a precaution.”

I look at her- she’s struggling not to fall apart right now. I look at Sarge.

“Can I talk to my sister for a minute?”

Sarge thinks it over. “As long as you remain within the station.”

I guide Erin over to the other side of the waiting area, holding my hand up when Aaron & Tyler start to follow.

“What will he do if I refuse?” She asks.

I sigh. “Given how hard he’s been with you tonight… I’d say he’ll put you in the holding cell overnight.”

She gapes, tears falling down her cheeks. I pull her in, wrapping my arms around her. She holds onto the back of my shirt tight, her head resting against my chest.

“I wish I could say something to convince him to back off,” I say.

“Your support is enough for now,” she replies.

“Constable,” Sarge says.

Erin pulls back, looking up at me. “Let’s just give him what he wants.”

“You sure?”

She nods. “Maybe if I do as they ask, it will help prove to him that I’m innocent,” she replies. “Besides, I want to get out of here.”

I nod. I kiss her forehead. We return to the others, my arm around her. Erin opens her handbag, pulls out her passport & hands it to Sarge.

“Thank you,” Sarge says, taking it. “I want you back here before noon tomorrow, for further questioning.”

“How about tomorrow afternoon?” I ask. “It’s been a long day, & Erin deserves to have a good rest.”

Sarge nods. “Very well,” he replies. “But if you fail to arrive by five thirty, I will send officers to arrest you.”

Erin trembles. I pull her closer to me. Sarge walks away. Aaron, Tyler, Paige & Piper look at Erin & myself.

“What was that about?” Tyler asks.

“I’ll explain when we get upstairs,” I reply. “Let’s get out of here.”

****

“Is he crazy?” Tyler asks.

We’re sitting in the lounge of Paige, Mark & my suite. Mark’s just filled them all in on what went on in the interview room. When we got in, we ordered room service. Mark explained everything while we wait.

“It’s a huge jump, given there’s no evidence to support it,” Mark replies. “He’s made it purely on the statements alone.”

“He shouldn’t be throwing such accusations around,” Tyler replies.

“She was the last person to see him alive.

“Why are you siding with him?”

“I’m not, Tyler! I just want you to see why he’s going after her.”

“Can we please stop talking about it?” I ask. “I’m sick of talking about it. Sick of hearing about it.”

“Sorry, sis,” Tyler says.

I force a smile. “I do appreciate the support.”

Dinner arrives shortly after, & I sit in silence while the others talk as we eat. Once Felicity has finished her dinner, everyone says goodnight to her & I take her to our room so she can sleep.

I sit beside her cot, gently rocking it so she falls asleep. I can’t believe the sergeant thinks I killed Eddie! I can’t believe that I’ve gone from fighting for her & my lives to fighting to keep me with her all in one day. If they push these accusations, they could arrest me for something I didn’t do, & I would be ripped away from my little girl. It’s hard enough as is, for her to grow up without her father. But to grow up without me? No!

The door slowly opens & Mark slips in, shutting it behind him. As he walks over, I wipe away tears I’ve only just realised are running down my cheeks. He sits down on the edge of my bed next to me.

“How are you?” He asks.

“Feeling like my whole world is crumbling around me.”

“The evidence will support us,” he replies. “They’ll find his & only his fingerprints on the trigger. They’ll look at the other evidence & they’ll see that you’re innocent.”

“And what if they don’t? What if Sarge keeps pushing that I did it?’

“I’m not going to let him.”

“He’s your boss.”

“And I will put everything on the line to protect you, Erin,” he says, before wrapping an arm around me. “I’m not going to let him arrest you for something you didn’t & never will do.”

“But if we can’t… I want you to be Felicity’s guardian.”

“Erin-”

“Just hear me out, Mark,” I reply. “I want her to be with you. If I end up in jail, I want you to be there for her. You’re everything she needs in a role model, & I know she’ll be safe with you. I know that’s harsh on Tyler & Aaron, but… they’ll be there for her too. It’s just you’re…” I sigh. “You’re the one that would make the right choices, the better parent. She loves you, Mark. And I know you love her. That’s why I choose you to be her guardian. Even if it’s not because I’m in jail after this. If anything happens to me, I want you to be her guardian.”

“And I’ll look after her,” he replies. “But you’re not going to jail.”

“I hope not. I just… I just want to be prepared. Just in case.”

He nods. “I’m going to call Toadie in the morning. See if we can meet up with him, & get legal advice on how to proceed with our fight to clear your name.”

I nod. Felicity’s asleep now, but I keep rocking her. After a few minutes of silence, Mark speaks.

“Looks like she’s down for the night,” he says. “Come out & we’ll pick a movie.”

A part of me wants to stay & watch her sleep peacefully. After all, this may be the last time I see her sleep.

“Come on,” Mark whispers, taking my hand.

He stands up & pulls me to my feet. I reluctantly let go of the cot & follow him, still holding his hand, over to the door. He opens it & steps out. I turn, looking at her one last time, before stepping out & softly shutting the door.

Chapter Text

Mark & Toadie discuss the case, but it's nothing but muffled noise for me. I keep reliving Eddie’s final moments over & over, trying to remember every little detail I can. But more importantly, where my hands were the seconds the gun went off. Did I pull the trigger & I just don't remember?

“Is there really a point?” I ask, drawing their attention for the first time since we started talking. “How much can we do without the results?”

“We can prepare for all outcomes,” Toadie replies.

“They want her to go back in, for further questioning,” Mark says.

“Today?”

Mark nods. “I want your opinion on whether you should be there.”

“I can be there if you want me to.”

“Yes.”

“No,” I reply, at the same time.

Mark & Toadie look shocked.

“Showing up with a lawyer will look like I’m trying to avoid being arrested,” I explain. “Like I’m guilty & I’m trying to get out of being convicted.”

“But it will also mean that you're unprotected,” Mark says. “Sarge will push you. He’ll expose your weaknesses, wear you down until you break & agree to it all. Having Toadie there will stop that.”

I look at Toadie. “It's my call, right? I decide whether you're there.”

He glances at Mark. “Ultimately… Yes,” he tells me. “But, given how aggressive the sergeant was with you last night… I strongly recommend you allow me to come with you.”

****

I watch from the side of the room as Sarge interrogates Erin. She's sitting with her arms crossed, unhappy with the fact I pushed her into having Toadie present. I hate that she's suddenly trying so hard to not help herself.

“Our lab examined your clothes, analysing the evidence found,” Sarge says. “The results confirm quite a substantial amount of gunshot residue on your shirt, & trace amounts on your upper jeans.”

“That also supports my client's story,” Toadie replies. “She was standing right in front of Mr Dimato. Any GSR on her clothes would have been transferred by her location. GSR can travel three to five feet from the gun. My client could have been standing anywhere in the laundry, even in either doorway, & would have GSR to some degree on her.”

I smirk, happy that Toadie was prepared.

“Maybe your client instinctively positioned herself that close to him to provide doubt over her actions to escape being prosecuted.”

Toadie’s eyes narrow. “Do you have any proof that my client is responsible for Mr Dimato's death?” He asks. “Because so far, you’ve presented nothing that definitively points to my client.”

Sarge looks at Toadie for a minute.

“We’re still waiting for the results from our lab for the scans performed to identify the fingerprints on the gun,” Sarge replies. “They were meant to be completed by now, however our lab is currently backlogged. We expect that they will show Miss Brennan was in control of the gun when it was fired.”

“Neither of us know what the results are,” Toadie replies. “And until we do have the results, which I request I receive a copy of, my client should not be harassed on such poor evidence. You're basing the entire case against my client on here-say & theories that are unsupported by hard evidence. For all we know, Mr Dimato's death was accidental.”

“I want to find out the truth as much as you do,” Sarge replies.

“So why don't you focus on establishing a firm prosecution instead of harassing Miss Brennan?” Toadie replies. “I will be recommending that, until you do have proper evidence to support your wild accusations, my client will not be coming in for any more talks. All further communications between you & my client must pass via myself, to ensure my client is treated fairly during the course of this investigation.”

“Has your client got something to hide, Mr Rebecchi?”

“My client is innocent,” Toadie replies. “However, your treatment of her in both this & last night's interrogation has been nothing but hostile. You clearly have a hidden agenda against my client, & I merely want to see she is treated fairly & unbiased by the Erinsborough police.” He gathers up his notes. “Now, I’d like to call this over. It is clear you have no further information to pursue this further right now, & I’m not allowing my client to say another word until you can provide a more substantial case against her.”

Toadie stands & Erin follows suit. Sarge sighs.

“Very well,” Sarge replies. “You will be notified when the results of our other tests are available.”

Toadie nods. “You have my contact details,” he says. “Please use them, & only them. My client isn't to be contacted directly.”

“Understood, Mr Rebecchi,” Sarge replies. “But your client should be advised that eventually the truth will come out. And lying to cover it up will only cause her more harm than if she is honest with us.”

Toadie ushers Erin towards the door & out of the interview room before she can reply. Sarge & I look at each other before I walk out.

I hurry to catch up with Toadie & Erin, joining them outside in the Lassiters complex courtyard.

“How do you think that went?” I ask.

Toadie sighs. “It's clear that he has some personal reason behind this,” he replies.

I frown. “What would Sarge possibly have against my sister?” I ask. “He barely knows her.”

“I don't know,” he replies. “All I do know is, whatever he’s thinking, it's clouding his judgement. He's ignoring the evidence, not allowing it to guide him unless it supports his personal opinion.”

“Right, so I’m screwed,” Erin says.

“Don't give up, Erin,” I reply.

“I’m just stating the truth!” She replies. “Unless he can objectively continue this investigation, I’m going to be arrested for something I didn't do!”

"We'll clear your name.”

“And what if we can't?”

I open my mouth to reply, but she shakes her head & walks off into the hotel. I sigh, rubbing my hands over my face.

****

I’m mixing cupcake mixture when the door into the Harold's kitchen opens. I look over- Mark’s peering in. I smile & he comes in. He crosses to me, giving me a quick kiss. And I see how concerned he is.

“Everything okay?” I ask. “How’s it going with Erin?”

He heavily sighs, leaning his back on the bench. “Sarge is still convinced she murdered Eddie, despite the evidence so far backing our side. Examination of her clothes show it was his blood on them, which was obvious, but also they found gunshot residue. That just proves she was there in the room. It doesn't support she was the one to pull the trigger. Yet Sarge is fine pushing for her to be arrested.”

“Must be really hard to watch.”

He nods. “I hate not being able to help.”

“I’m sure the evidence will continue to support the truth,” I reply. “Eventually he’ll see it.”

He sighs. “Hopefully that happens before Erin loses all hope.”

I frown. "What?"

“She's starting to give up.”

"I'm sure she isn't.”

“She refused to have Toadie be in there today,” he replies. “The only reason why he was there, was cause I basically pressured her into it. She was willing to risk condemning herself. And I don't know how it would have gone had Toadie not been there to defend her.”

“I know I haven't known her for long, but… I do know she's tough like you.”

“I don’t think that's going to be enough,” he says. “Sarge is putting a huge amount of pressure on her. She's been through hell, & I just don't think she's got the willpower to keep on fighting. She's going to crack under the pressure… And I’m worried that she's going to do something that we can't save her from.”

“You know what you should do?”

“Talk to her?”

I nod.

“I’ve tried that.”

“Was it as a cop or as her big brother who's looking out for her?”

“I’m always her big brother looking out for her before being a cop,” he replies. “She's always looked to me for help. And now… When she really needs me… She's determined to push me away.”

“Sounds like you're letting her.”

He frowns. “No I’m not!”

I tilt my head, staring at him for a moment. “You are. I can hear it in your voice.”

“So what do I do?”

“Well… Talking Erin into continuing to fight isn't working out all that well, right?” I ask. “Instead of focusing on her, why don't you try a different tactic?”

“What do you suggest?”

“I would start by finding out why Sarge is so set on blaming Erin for Eddie's death. Determine his motive, & you can find a way of getting him to see the truth.”

He thinks it over. “Definitely worth trying.”

I smile. “Definitely.”

“In the meantime, I need you to do a favour?”

“Oh?”

“Would you talk to Erin?”

"Didn't I just advise you not to do that? Why would I do it instead?”

“It wouldn't hurt giving it a try,” he replies. “Usually she trusts me to help her. Given that she's basically running from me, I thought I should take a page from you & try a new tactic. So… I was wondering if you would talk to her.”

I nod. “Sure. I’ll go talk to her after my shift.”

“Thank you.”

“Not convinced it will do much,” I reply. “But it's worth a shot.”

He smiles. “I love you.”

I smile. “I love you too.”

He kisses my left temple. “I better get back to work.”

I nod. “See you back at our hotel room?”

He nods.

****

Our hotel room door opens. I look up from my iPad, roll my eyes & sigh as I see that it's Mark.

“Surely you have work to do.”

“Nice to see you too, Erin.”

“You here to try & talk me into fighting harder?”

“I don't get why you're suddenly giving up,” he says, walking over. “Last night you were defending yourself. Today… You're giving in.”

“I’m just being realistic,” I reply. “Your sergeant is going to bend every piece of evidence into supporting him. It's inevitable that he’ll arrest me.”

He sits down on the couch beside me. “And what about Felicity?”

“She has you, Tyler & Aaron.”

“We're nothing compared to her mum,” he replies. “Whatever happened to the woman who was crying at Felicity's bedside, freaking out over the fact that her daughter may lose both her parents?”

“I watched as the man I once loved threaten Felicity's, Piper’s & my own life because he was scared that his uncle was going to jail,” I reply. “He's terrorised my life for months, & I finally got closure last night. Only that wasn't closure. That was me going from the frying pan into the damn fire!” Fighting back tears, I stand up as I drop my iPad on the couch. “I’ve spent the last few months fighting to keep Felicity & I safe. It's worn me down, little by little,” I add, pacing. “So now that yet another man who thinks he knows me when he knows nothing is threatening to rip my daughter & I apart… I… I can't keep doing this!”

He stands & walks over to me. “You were alone for all those months,” he replies. “But you're not any more. You have your brothers. So please don't give up.”

I sigh. "I don't want to give up,” I reply. “I just…” My tears fall. “I just don't have the energy.”

“I know you're exhausted, but you have to keep trying,” he replies. “Felicity needs you.”

“I’ve done nothing but brought pain into her life,” I reply. “She's better off without me.”

“None of this is your fault, Erin!”

"I can't do this any more, Mark! I’ve tried & I’ve tried. I just can't take this any longer. It's a losing battle, one that I will never win!”

“You don't have to fight this alone. Tyler, Aaron & I care for you. And we care for Felicity. So instead of pushing me away, let me help. Let me be the support you need. The strength you need to keep fighting. I’m not going to let them take you from your family.”

It gets all too much for me, & I collapse against his chest. I wrap my arms around him as I sob. He wraps his arms tightly around me as my body trembles from my sobbing. We stand there in silence except for my sobbing, his right hand slowly rubbing my back the way he always comforts me when I’m this upset.

“I’ll let you fight for me,” I say, once I’m calm enough to reply.

“There's my girl,” he replies, before kissing the top of my head.

****

At 4pm, Piper & I walk into our hotel room. Erin is relaxed on the couch, looking at something on her iPad.

“Hey,” I say, walking over as Piper shuts the door. “How are you?”

“Doing a lot better since Mark & I talked,” Erin replies, as she puts her iPad down on her lap.

I’m surprised. “He… He came & talked to you?”

She nods.

“I knew it!” I exclaim, sitting down on the other couch. “I knew he wouldn't be able to stay away!”

Erin looks confused as Piper sits down beside me.

“He came to Harold's earlier, after your interview this morning,” I explain. “He was really worried about you, especially since you were starting to look like you were giving up. So I suggested he back off for a bit, & try to work a different angle. Like finding out why his boss is so adamant in finding you guilty. And then he asked if I’d talk to you. I just knew he wouldn't stick with my advise! He's like a dog with a bone when there's a case this complicated. I mean, I love him for being so passionate about his job, but... sometimes he really needs to learn how to back off.”

“Much as I agree with that last bit,” Erin replies. “I'm actually glad he came to me.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” She replies, smiling a little. “He got me to finally say what's been going on in my head ever since I woke up. Things I should have told him this morning, but was too afraid to say.”

“So… Does that mean you're not giving up?”

She nods. “I should have let him in,” She replies. “I’ve always relied on him, & I…” She sighs. “A part of me was determined to show him I could do it on my own. When really… Really I needed him more than ever before.”

I smile. “Well, look at it like this,” I reply. “You realised your mistake before it was too late to fix. That's what counts.”

“Yeah. Thankfully.”

“You have your three amazing brothers.”

“And us,” Piper adds. “We may not be sisters by blood, but we're here for you as if we are.”

Erin smiles. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” Piper & I say in unison.

“We’ve all been through traumatic events lately,” Piper says. “But together we can get through this. A support network.”

“Sounds good to me,” I reply.

“Me too,” Erin says.

“You wanna join me in a group hug, sisters?” Piper asks.

“Uhh, yeeeah!” I reply.

We all stand, Erin walking over to us & we have a group hug. Erin’s mobile pings with a text. We break our hug & Erin crosses back to the lounge she’d been on, & picks up her mobile.

“Got a secret admirer?” Piper teases.

I watch Erin’s smile vanishes as she reads the text. She swallows. Hard. She stands there, reading it over & over.

I look at Piper. She looks at me, & I see that she's just as worried as I am.

“Erin?” I ask, concerned. “Are you okay?”

She swallows hard again, followed by licking her lips. She pulls her eyes from her mobile, meeting mine. The colour is drained from her face.

“Erin?” I ask, taking a step towards her. “Is it something to do with the case?”

“I… Uhhh…” She says. “I… I have to make a call.”

I nod. “Okay,” I reply, taking another step towards her. “Can you tell me what's going on first?”

She shakes her head. She then turns & heads for the balcony, pushing the door open & disappearing from our sight thanks to the frosted glass.

I look at Piper.

“What was that about?” She asks.

“I don't know,” I reply. “But I'm going to call Mark. See if he knows.”

She nods. “Good idea. Should I call Toadie?”

I nod. “Ask him if any more evidence has come in.”

****

I’m at the front desk, shifting through reports looking for one when the front door opens. I look up, surprised & confused to see my sister walking in, her eyes focused on the rooms at the back of the station.

“Erin?”

Her head snaps to look in my direction, eyes widening & mouth dropping open as she looks at me.

“Wh-What are you doing here?” She asks.

“I was about to ask you the same thing.”

"No, no, no! You're meant to be out on patrol.”

“I was, but I have paperwork to catch up on, so I swapped with another officer.”

“You have to leave.”

I frown. “What?”

“Please, Mark. Go.”

“Not until you explain what's going on,” I reply, stepping round the desk to her.

She backs into the waiting area. “Please, just go.”

“What? No! Erin!” I plead, walking closer.

She continues to back away, stepping round the coffee table in the middle of the room & backing towards the front desk as I keep following her. Just as she's approaching it, Sarge & two more officers enter from the back rooms. Erin looks at Sarge.

“You promised he wasn't going to be here,” she says to him.

“What's going on?” I ask. “Erin?”

“Please, Mark. Just go,” Erin replies. “You're not supposed to be here.”

“I'm not going to leave when you're this terrified,” I reply.

She looks at Sarge. “Make him leave!” She pleads.

Sarge doesn't.

“MAKE HIM LEAVE, OR THE DEAL IS OFF!”

I frown. “What deal?” I ask. “Erin.”

She looks defeated. She hangs her head & sighs. She then slowly lifts her head, tears filling her eyes as she meets mine.

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “You… You weren't supposed to know until afterwards.”

“Erin,” I say, taking a step towards her but one of the officers puts an arm up to stop me.

“Erin Brennan,” Sarge says as the other officer steps behind her. “You're under arrest for the murder of Edward Dimato.”

What?!” I ask, watching as the officer behind her pulls her right arm behind her back.

Erin looks at me, fighting back tears as her wrists are handcuffed behind her back. The officer next to me keeps me back as Sarge & the other officer escort Erin through the waiting room, headed for the holding cells.

Erin looks back at me, her devastation written all over her face. The officer pushes her on & I lose sight of her. I try to follow, but the officer with me stops me.

This can't be happening!

Chapter Text

I enter Harold's in the hope of finding Toadie. And there he is, having coffee with Paige. I cross to them.

“Oh, speak of the devil!” Paige says as I approach. “We were just talking about you!”

I kiss her & as I sit down, she frowns at me.

“What's wrong?” She asks. “You look worried.”

“Did you know?” I ask Toadie.

“Know what?” He asks.

“Did you know Erin would do what she just did?”

Toadie & Paige frown.

“You're going to have to be more specific,” Toadie says.

“She just walked into the station, freaked out that I was there… & when Sarge walked up, she begged him to send me away.”

“That's as weird as when she got the text when she was with me & Piper in our hotel room,” Paige replies.

“You haven't heard the worst part.”

Paige takes my hand. “What is it?”

“Sarge,” I reply. I fight my emotions. “He arrested her.”

What? ” Paige & Toadie both say.

“Neither of them would explain it,” I reply. “Erin… When she was begging Sarge to get me to go, she threatened that if he didn't make me leave, then… Then the deal would be off.” I look at Toadie. “I want to make sure that you didn't know about it.”

Toadie shakes his head. “She hasn't consulted me about it,” he replies. “And if she had, you know I would have urged her not to go through with it. And I definitely wouldn't keep it from you.”

I nod, sighing. “Thought so.”

“What's with the glum faces?” Aaron asks.

I look at him, seeing Felicity in his arms.

“Erin’s handed herself in,” Paige replies.

“Wh-what?”

“Mark says she walked into the station, freaked out that he was there, & it sounds like she made a deal with Sarge.”

Aaron sighs, closing his eyes. “No wonder she called me & asked me to pick Felicity up,” he says. “She was obviously trying to distract us all.”

I stand & head for the door. I hear Paige & Toadie stand too.

“Where are you going?” Paige asks.

“To find out what's going on in my sister's head,” I reply, pulling the door open.

I walk out, heading for the police station. Paige catches up to me, stepping in front of me so I have to stop suddenly. I sigh in annoyance.

“I get that you're looking for answers,” She says. “But the fact that Erin didn't want you there when she was being arrested is a sign that you should give her some space right now.”

“Why would I give her space when she's just handed herself in for something she didn't do?”

“She's been through a lot. And whatever that text was… It's triggered something in her mind,” She says. “You're worried & I get why, but… You look like you're going to yell at her, & right now, that's the last thing she needs. So do what's best & just leave her alone.”

I clench my jaw. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

"Mark," She pleads as I step around her.

I keep going, pausing for a second to pull open the station’s front door, & step inside.

****

Aaron & I exit the station & cross to Mark & Paige who are waiting at the statue. Mark is pacing & Paige is sitting down, holding Felicity. She gets to her feet as we approach.

“We couldn't get in,” I say.

Mark clenches his jaw.

“It sounds like she's requested that none of us are granted access to her cell,” Aaron says.

Mark sighs & then runs his hand over his face. “What does she expect us to do?”

“Do what I suggested earlier & give her space,” Paige replies.

“And leave her vulnerable to Sarge? No way!”

“She's scared, & the last thing she needs is her big brother who she admires so much going in there & getting mad at her,” Paige replies. “You want answers, but you need to look at it from her side.”

Toadie walks over. "Hey, any luck seeing Erin?”

“Sarge won't let me in, while Aaron & Tyler have been denied access to the holding cells,” Mark replies.

“Well, there's another way we can find out what's going on.”

“Anything is good right now,” Mark replies.

****

A male officer comes to the door of my holding cell, looking through the bars in the small window in it at me.

“You’ve been in here an hour & you’ve got a fourth visitor,” he says. “That has to be a record.”

“Which one of my annoying brothers is it this time?”

"None.”

“My sister-in-law?”

“Okay, I'm just going to cut to the chase so I don't have to listen to you guessing,” he replies. “It's your lawyer.”

I raise my eyebrow. “Interesting.”

“You want to see him, or should I blacklist him too?”

I sigh. “No, let him in.”

He nods, before walking off. He returns a few minutes later, opening the door. Toadie walks in & smiles. He doesn't say anything until the door closes & the officer steps away.

“Let me guess, it was your idea for you to come,” I say.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because all three of my brothers have tried to see me, & I just don't think that they would come up with the idea to send you in. They’d want to hear the truth from me.”

“They're worried about you.”

“Tell them I’m fine.”

“All three of them are outside right now,” he says. “Felicity's asking for you. Aaron’s trying to figure out a way of explaining to Felicity why her mum isn't with her for the second evening in a row. Tyler's trying to figure out why you would do this, & Mark? Do I really need to explain what he's like?”

I don't reply.

“You saw the look of devastation when he saw you being arrested.”

“That's why I didn't want him there,” I reply, fighting back tears. “I knew he'd feel like it was a betrayal. And that's what I did. I betrayed him.”

“And you know what's hurting more than that?” He asks. “The fact that he wants to help you, to be your support, & you’ve got him sitting in the sidelines. He's losing his mind.”

“And yet no one’s considering that I’m losing my mind!”

“That's what they're worried about,” he says. “They want to know what you're thinking. Why hand yourself in, when only two hours earlier you promised Mark that you would let him be your support while you fight?”

I fight back tears. “I can't say.”

“Why are you refusing our help?”

“Because I don't want it.”

****

While we’re waiting for Toadie to come back out, Mark paces again. I see Piper come round the corner of the hotel. I stand & walk over to her, giving her a hug.

“Hey, what's going on?” She asks.

“Uhhh… Erin handed herself in.”

She looks shocked. “Seriously?”

I nod. “And now she's refusing to talk to Mark, Aaron & me. Toadie's in there now… & given how long he's been gone, I think he's been successful in getting through to see her.”

“Oh my god, I’m sorry, Ty,” she replies, pulling me in as she stands on her tiptoes & hugs me.

I wrap my arms around her, holding her tight, burying my face into the nape of her neck.

“We don't know what to do,” I mumble against her skin.

“You just got to keep being there for her.”

I pull back & sigh. “She's shutting us out.”

“She knows that you're here for her,” she replies, holding my arms. “That's a start.”

I nod. “I just wish she'd let us know why she's doing this.”

“You didn't see what happened when he had us,” she replies. “He was terrifying. She's traumatised. More than I am, because she saw him die. She was the last person to see him alive. That's going to take its toll on her.”

“And pushing us away?”

“Coping mechanism?”

"Mark's taking this the hardest.”

“They're close, right? Him & Erin.”

I nod. “Aaron & I are either side of her, in terms of age. But… She's always been closest with Mark.”

“Makes sense that he's taking this hard. She's throwing her life away over something she didn't do. And he's helpless.”

I frown. “When did you get so wise?”

“I’m just not as emotionally invested in this as you are.”

“Can you use that same smartness to get in to see Erin & talk her out of this?”

“She's in shock. Give her some time. And then talk to her, when you have a better chance of her seeing things clearly.”

I smirk. She tilts her head as she narrows her eyes.

“What?”

“It's just… You sounded a lot like Paige just then,” I reply. “She's been talking Mark out of barging in there ever since she was arrested.”

“Good on him for listening to her.”

"If it keeps going, he'll eventually ignore her & go in.”

****

“I’m going to tell them,” Toadie says.

“No you won't,” I reply. “What’s said between us is covered by client-attorney privilege. Legally you can't tell them."

“They need to know.”

I shake my head. “No.”

“So why tell me then?”

“Because I need you to keep them safe.”

He frowns. “Safe?”

“I don't want them getting caught up in this,” I reply. “I’m going down, & the less they know, the better.”

“And what about Felicity? You're the only parent she has.”

“There's no other way.”

“No, you're wrong, Erin,” he says. “You have another way. It's called fighting.”

The door opens, & the male officer steps into the doorway. “Time’s up.”

"We're not done,” Toadie says.

“Sarge’s orders,” the officer says.

Toadie sighs. "Alright." He looks at me. "I want you to think hard about what we've discussed.”

“I will,” I reply. “Doesn't mean I’ll do what you want me to.”

“Don't do something you can't undo, Erin.”

He leaves.

****

We’re allowed to wait inside the station for Toadie. He finally emerges from the holding cells just after dusk.

“Toadie,” I say.

“Mark.”

“How is she?”

He sighs. "Stubborn," he replies. “But okay.”

“I just wish I could go talk to her.”

“Normally I would agree & try to help, but…”

I frown. “But what?”

“It's like talking to a brick wall,” he explains. “I know she's listening, but… She's ignoring it. Sticking to whatever weird plan she's talked herself in to.”

“Why do you say that?” Tyler asks, as he, Az, Paige & Piper step over to us.

“She told me why she's handed herself in.”

We all look shocked.

“And?” I ask. “Why did she?”

“That's the problem. Or part of it,” he replies. “Because I got in by saying I’m her lawyer… She's using that to… Basically blackmailing me into not passing it on to you.”

“Client-attorney privilege,” Piper says.

Toadie nods. “But the motive isn't what troubles me. It's the fact she said she only told me so I would keep you all safe.”

****

I stare at the tray of food the officer brought me after Toadie had left. I'm not hungry.

But the knife catches my eye.

Yes, the knife.

I pick it up.

It's sharper than you’d expect a knife given to someone in my position to be.

There's a third way out of this…

****

“Safe?” I ask, brow furrowed. “From what?”

“She was vague when I asked her that,” Toadie says. “But it seems like she fears that you’ll all be prosecuted if she does whatever she has planned.”

I sigh, trying to figure out what she's doing. I see a male officer exit the holding cells area, carrying an empty food tray.

“Hey,” I say to him. “Did Erin Brennan get one of those?”

He nods. “I gave her one a few minutes ago.”

“Was there cutlery?”

“Of course.”

“Specifically a knife?”

“I… Uh… I think so.”

"How sharp?”

“I… I don't know,” he replies. “I give them the tray. I don't pay attention to the details.”

Shit ,” I mutter.

"Mark?" Paige asks.

“Get me in there,” I tell the officer.

“But Sarge-”

I don't care !” I bark. “Get me in there. Now .”

He looks terrified. He nods repeatedly. He puts the tray down & leads me down the corridor to the holding cells. He unlocks the security door, leading me to Erin’s door. I notice the window in the door is covered over.

“Did you do that?” I ask, pointing to the window.

He shakes his head. “It was open when I left.”

My gut instinct screams that something isn't right. “Get it open.”

I wait impatiently as he unlocks her door- fumbling to get the key in the lock.

Finally he opens it & I pull it open. I step inside, pausing for a second in shock at what I see.

“Erin!” I exclaim.

I rush over, kneeling down beside her. She's lying on her left side, facing the door, legs half tucked up as if they’d been pulled up if she was sitting. She's shaking as she struggles to breathe, arms stretched out in an odd way. But what's really alarming are the two long cuts on the inside of her forearms- the knife lying in the pool of blood between her arms.

“Go call an ambulance!” I shout at the officer.

He runs off. I turn my attention back to her.

“Stay with me, Erin,” I tell her. “Stay with me.”

“I… I'm sorry,” she whispers.

She then passes out.

Chapter Text

She flatlined in the ambulance on the way to Erinsborough hospital. They were still resuscitating her when we arrived. Karl met us as soon as we arrived, & rushed her straight into surgery- leaving me in the waiting room.

I sit down & sigh. The last two times I watched someone I love be rushed into surgery, I lost the first & almost the second. And now I’m here, waiting for news if my sister has survived or not.

I lean forward, hunched over with my arms resting on my legs & clasp my hands. I stare at a spot on the floor, zoning out for a long time. After a while, Paige sits down beside me. She wraps her hands around mine.

Aaron, Tyler, Piper & Felicity join us.

“She could have died,” I say, breaking the silence.

“You saved her,” Paige says.

“If I hadn’t been there…”

“Don’t think like that,” Aaron replies.

“I just wish she hadn’t pushed us away,” I reply. “She shouldn’t have.”

Paige rests her head on my shoulder.

“She flatlined in the ambulance,” I say. “She wasn’t in the clear when they took her away.”

“We haven’t heard anything yet,” Aaron replies.

“Which is a good sign,” Tyler adds. “She’s clearly still alive. If she wasn’t, you know Karl would be out here.”

In rather spooky timing, Karl walks in. I rise & cross to him. He looks so serious.

“She's… Is she…” I struggle, choking on tears. “She's gone.”

He shakes his head & I let out a huge sigh. The others step over. Paige places a hand on my back.

“As you know, she flatlined before arriving,” Karl says. “We rushed her off to do three things- stop the bleeding, get her on a blood transfusion & get her heart beating. It was very touch & go, but she's alive. They were bandaging her forearms when I left, so I expect her to be moved to a room shortly.”

“Thank you, Karl.”

“You're welcome,” He replies. “She's not out of the woods yet, though.”

I nod. “But she's at least on the road to recovery. That's enough for me right now.”

“Unfortunately I’m going to have to keep her in for a few days,” Karl replies. “Normally I’d discharge her when she's well enough. However… given the circumstances she came in under, I have no choice but to put her on suicide watch. Which means she's legally detained here for forty eight hours.”

“Is that really necessary?” Aaron asks.

“It's hospital protocol,” Karl replies. “Even if I was able to make an exception, unfortunately I can't with Erin. While we were in surgery, the Erinsborough Police called. They are pushing for us to hold her on it.”

I clench my jaw. “Sarge is being unbelievable with this!”

“He wants her handcuffed to her bed.”

What?!

“She's still in police custody. He has the right to handcuff her.”

I rub my face as I sigh. “You know what? I wouldn't be surprised if he's the reason she tried to kill herself.”

“Mark,” Aaron says.

No! We almost lost our sister cause he's been pushing her into confessing to something she didn't do, & there's no way I’m letting him get away with it!”

“I advised him that handcuffing her wasn't necessary,” Karl says. “I strongly believe that this is a one off incident, that she won't try again. And she won't try to run away.”

“What did he say?”

“He's agreed.”

I sigh in relief. “Thank you, Karl.”

He nods.

“When can we see her?” Tyler asks.

“You can be in her room as soon as they have her in it,” Karl replies. “A nurse will be out soon to tell you when you can.”

****

Ten minutes after Karl spoke with us, a nurse came & told us we could see Erin. The others decided that I should go on my own. I hesitate at her door, preparing myself for what I’ll see. I open the door & step in.

She’s lying on her back, her face almost completely drained of colour; her arms are by her side, white bandages wrapped around her forearms. She looks so vulnerable.

I step in further & close the door. I turn around slowly, fighting back tears. How could anyone ever ruin someone's life, the way someone has broken my sister's?

I walk over to her side. She's sleeping off the anaesthetic, but is thankfully breathing on her own. I can't believe she would think the only way out of this would be to end her life. To leave Felicity without her mother. That she would let this break her for good. Where's the fighter that I know she is? Why would she let the darkness consume her?

I hate that Dimato has ruined her life. He’s done enough damage to my family- almost killing me, Paige & our twins. But watching what he's done to my baby sister- to see my strong-willed, happy sister become so worn down she wants to kill herself. It’s too heartbreaking.

He won't get away with this. I’ll make sure that he pays. Even if it takes me months to get him, I won't stop until he's behind bars.

I lean down & kiss her forehead. I then pull a chair closer & sit down, finally letting the tears fall.

 

****

I head back to the hospital straight after breakfast, ignoring the fact that I’m meant to be working. I can't stand being at the station when my sister is like this. I can't stand being around Sarge, knowing that he played such a huge roll in putting her in hospital.

Karl texted last night after we’d left to say that she had woken & was going well. I open her door, to find her sleeping on her right side, her left arm resting on her right. I slowly close the door, not wanting to wake her. As I walk over to same chair I sat in last night, I can tell the colour has come back in her cheeks. Such a relief!

I sit down as my mobile rings. I look at the ID, seeing its work- in fact, Sarge's desk. I reject the call as she stirs. She opens her eyes as I look up at her.

“Hey,” I say softly, tucking my mobile back into my pocket & leaning forward.

“Hey,” she softly replies.

“How are you?”

“Sore & tired.”

“Have you had breakfast?”

She raises an eyebrow. “You're not mad at me for this?”

“I’m your big brother. I wanna put you first for a bit,” I reply. “So let me care about whether you’ve eaten before I chastise you for yesterday.”

She narrows her eyes but smiles. “No, I haven't eaten yet,” She replies. “In fact, haven't since lunch yesterday.”

“Well, I’m gonna go see if we can get you something,” I reply as I stand. “Even if I have to go get something from the cafeteria.”

“You're the best!” She says as I cross to the door.

I go out to the Nurse’s station & talk to a Nurse. With food on its way, I return to her room. She's now sitting up. Her bandages stand out against the baby blue of her hospital gown & sheets.

“Food will be here shortly,” I tell her as I return to my seat.

She nods. “You gonna get angry at me now?”

I tilt my head, looking at her for a minute. “I’m not angry at you.”

She looks surprised.

“I’m relieved that you're still here,” I say, taking hold of her hand.

“So who's getting the cold shoulder, then?”

I frown.

“The call that you aggressively rejected,” She adds.

“You saw that?”

“I opened one eye before you noticed that I was awake.”

I smirk. “That was Sarge. I’m meant to be at the station right now.”

“You should go.”

“No way.”

Mark.”

No. I’m not going to be around him when my baby sister is here after almost dying.”

“You are aware that you’ll eventually have to go back there.”

“Yes. Just not today.”

“I’m not gonna let you throw away your career over this.”

I shrug. “Maybe I don't wanna be a cop anymore.”

“You wouldn't quit,” She replies. “It's engrained in your blood.”

“I’ve done it before.”

“You were forced to, because you did the right thing & reported a dodgy cop.”

“Yeah, well it feels like I’m back there again.”

“So don't give it up.”

I shake my head. “It's costing me too much.”

She tilts her head. “You love being a cop.”

“I love you more.”

She smiles, fighting back tears. “I love you too much to let you throw your career away,” she replies. “Being a cop makes you happy. You’ve always wanted to be one.”

“Things change with time.”

“Come here,” she says, patting the edge of her bed.

I get up & sit on the edge of her bed, facing her.

“I let the pressure get to me. It broke me down, &…” She sighs. “Don't make the same mistake. You walk away from the force, you’re going to look back at it & regret leaving. Things get tough, life tries to break all of us. Learn something from these last few days… Don't give up your career.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Good,” she says, with a nod. “Seeing you in your cop uniform makes me so proud. You’ve always made me feel safe because I had you looking out for me. Erinsborough needs you to do that for everyone. Everyone needs a cop like you.”

I smile. “You're not gonna let it go, are you?”

She smiles. “Just making sure you know what I see.”

“Are you going to tell me why you did this?” I ask, glancing at her bandages.

She sighs. “I cracked under the pressure,” she replies. “Hit rock bottom, & convinced myself that the only way out was to…”

“You promised me that you would fight.”

“I know,” She softly replies, fighting back tears. “And I’m sorry for betraying you like that. And being in that cell… Alone… I couldn't fight the thoughts running through my head any longer. It was a moment of weakness, & I hated myself for pushing you away. Had I not been so stupid, & tried to handle this on my own, I wouldn't be here right now. I wouldn't have tried to kill myself &-”

She cries & I shift closer, pulling her into a hug. She holds onto my jacket tightly, crying as she rests her head on my chest & I gently rub her back.

****

I steer the conversation away from the last few days while she eats her breakfast, trying to bring back her smile. Just as she finishes eating, my mobile beeps with a message. I check it, huffing as I see its Sarge- You're very late to your shift. Consider this a warning. Call me.

“Don't risk getting disciplinary action to be here,” she says.

I look at her as I shove it back into my pocket. “I’ll contact him later.”

“Go do it now.”

I shake my head. She rolls her eyes. I remember what Paige told me last night- that Erin received a text that shook her. But it hadn't been from the police- I’d checked.

“Aer,” I say.

“Wow,” She replies. “Haven't heard that nickname in ages.”

I smile. “Paige told me about the text you got yesterday,” I say, & she almost grimaces. “She said you were spooked by it, thought it was maybe from my work, but I checked. It wasn't.”

“I don't want to talk about it.”

“The timing of it suggests that it is connected to you handing yourself in… Possibly the suicide attempt too.”

“Oh, there's the cop in you!”

“Aer, that's not what's going on!”

Really?”

“I’m concerned,” I reply. “You told me you were going to fight the accusations, & then you get that text. Next thing I know, you’re handing yourself in, refuse to talk to me or our brothers & then you try to kill yourself. I'm just…” I sigh. “I’m just trying to figure out what caused you to be so different.”

She shakes her head.

“Aer, please.”

She shakes her head even more.

I stand up & sit on the edge of her bed. I take hold of both her hands.

“This isn't you,” I say. “Something… Maybe there's more than one thing… But something's causing you to be like this. I want to be there for you. But I can't if you keep pushing me away. So please let me in, Aer.”

She fights back tears & I can tell she's trying to decide if she should tell me.

“It was the army,” She says. “Wanting to talk to me about Zack.”

“Felicity's dad?”

She nods. “I’m listed, along with his parents, as an emergency contact,” She says. “Cause of Felicity.”

I nod.

“They never contact me, requesting that I call as soon as possible,” She continues. “So… When I got the text, I was… It shook me.”

“Is he okay?”

She stares at me, fighting tears, & then shakes her head. “He was killed in action.”

My heart sinks. “I’m so sorry.”

She bursts into tears. I pull her in, wrapping my arms around her tightly as she cries.

****

“He’s dead?” Tyler asks. “Wow. No wonder she did what she did.”

Tyler, Aaron & I are standing in the hospital waiting room. I called both of them here to tell them about Erin’s news & to be there for her.

I nod. “It definitely explains why she would give in & make the deal with Sarge.”

“And then her attempted suicide…”

“Why didn't she tell us?” Aaron asks.

“She said she wasn't thinking straight,” I reply. “Having both her exes die so close together. I can't imagine the emotional & psychological toll that would have. She was already so fragile & on the brink of giving up. I talked her into keep fighting. Hearing the news that Zack had died would have broken what little strength she had left. Pushing us away would have been her coping with it all. Probably trying to protect us from watching her self-destruct.”

“But… Suicide?” Tyler asks.

“Don’t, Tyler,” I warn him.

“No. I wanna know why our sister decided to take her own life. Even if it was just an attempt.”

“You haven't lost someone like she has,” I reply. “You haven't watched as someone you love bleeds out in front of you, & you can't do a thing to save them. So you just watch them slip away, praying that some miracle will happen & you don't have to live without them. You don't know the pain of losing someone like that. Of having to live with their last minutes on your mind.” I step closer to him. “I have. Our sister has. But her situation is way worse. She had to cope with all of that, plus potential murder charges. And then her ex, the father if her little girl, dies. That pain of losing one person is overwhelming. Losing two people like that in the space of twenty-four hours is enough to drive you into doing the unthinkable.”

“Okay,” Aaron says, placing a hand on my shoulder to defuse the situation. “We’re all stressed out. Why don't Ty & I go in & see Erin. You stay out here & take a break.”

I stare at Tyler for a moment, & then nod. Aaron squeezes my shoulder, waiting until Tyler passes behind him before he takes his hand off my shoulder. I turn around, watching as Tyler & then Aaron enter Erin’s room. I sigh heavily, before running my hands over my face.

“Hey, are you okay?” Paige asks.

I look left, seeing her approach with Felicity in her arms.

“Uh, yeah.”

“Is Erin okay?”

I nod. “As good as can be, given recent events,” I reply. “How come…” I point to Felicity.

“She wants to see her,” She replies. “Thought it would be mean not to. I thought the least I could do is bring her here. So at least she can be with us & near Erin. She may not want Felicity in there, but… I thought the proximity might do both of them some good.”

I smile. “Good idea.”

Felicity reaches out her chubby arm to me. I may have only known her a few days, but I already know that's her way of asking to swap who has her. Which is strange, given how good she is at talking. I step closer, slipping my hands under her arms & lift her out of Paige’s arms. I hold her against my chest & she rests her head on my shoulder, as if she knows I need a hug.

“Should I go see if Erin wants to see her?”

I shake my head. “Aaron & Tyler have just gone in. Let them have some time with her.”

****

Felicity fell asleep after a little while, & so I filled Paige in on what Erin had told me as Felicity sleeps on my chest. When Aaron & Tyler emerged from Erin’s room, I passed Felicity to Paige & crossed to Erin’s room.

“Hey,” I say, poking my head in.

“You should be at work,” She replies, as I shut the door behind me.

“I called in earlier,” I reply as I cross to her. “Sarge wasn't pleased with me… And so I’m… I’m on suspension for the next couple of days.”

She tilts her head, giving me a disapproving look.

“I don't care,” I reply. “If he hadn't suspended me, I would have asked for the days off.”

“You shouldn't.”

“Too late. It's done.”

“Stubborn.”

“It's called caring for my baby sister.”

“Is there a reason why you came in? Or did you just want to guilt-trip me into approving your rather ridiculously bad way of getting suspended?”

I sigh. “I came to ask you something.”

“Depends on what.”

“Whether you want to see your daughter, who is waiting outside?” I ask. “I wasn't sure if you’d want her to see you like this.”

Her eyes drift to the windows looking out to the hallway & waiting room. “Bring her in.”

“Are you sure?”

“I can't keep holding her at arm’s length,” she replies. “She's been through just as much as I have these last few days. She needs me.”

I nod. “Okay,” I reply. “I’ll go get her.”

****

The door opens again a few minutes later, & Mark steps in carrying Felicity. He acts surprised as he looks at her.

“Look, Felicity!” He says, excitedly. “There's Mummy!”

“Heyyy baby girl!” I say, smiling.

Felicity squirms as Mark shuts the door, desperate to get to me as he turns & steps over. He places a still squirming Felicity down on the end of my bed. She crawls up very quickly, into my open arms. I hold her tight against me, smothering the top of her head with kisses. Mark chuckles as he sits down in the chair at my bedside.

****

I bring Felicity out after a while, upon Erin’s request so she can sleep. I sit down beside Paige, settling Felicity on my lap, her back against my chest.

“Well, that went well,” Paige says.

I nod. “Felicity was a little curious about her bandages,” I reply. “She was touching them, feeling them as she worked out what they were. Erin said this is her first time seeing bandages, so she was very curious. But other than that, she was fine. Just happy to see her mum again.”

“I bet she was,” Paige says.

Tyler waves a toy, trying to get Felicity's attention. But Felicity is busy staring at people passing by the nurses’ station to our left.

“Daddyyyyyy!!!” She squeals.

Aaron, Tyler, Paige & I look confused.

“Felicity, honey,” I say.

“Daddyyyy!” She repeats, squirming & reaching out towards the nurses’ station.

I look towards it, trying to figure out what's captivated her. There's a young man, about Erin’s age, wearing jeans & a black leather jacket walking over to us. His eyes fall on Felicity, & he smiles at her- she squeals in delight.

“Uhhh… Can we help you?” I ask him, instantly wary of the stranger. I hold Felicity closer to my chest. She squirms, but can't get away, which frustrates her.

The man turns his attention to me. “You must be Mark.”

“And you are?”

“Zack Freeman,” he replies. “You're holding my daughter.”

I rise, holding Felicity even more securely much to her frustration. Aaron, Tyler & Paige stand too, my brothers stepping closer in defence.

“Felicity's father was killed in action two days ago,” I reply.

“I think her reaction to seeing me would indicate otherwise,” he says. “But if you want, I have my driver's license. That will verify who I am. Which you would know, being a cop.”

I pass Felicity to Paige. Felicity screams at the fact she’s now further away from the man.

“That could be forged,” I reply.

“Okay,” he says. “Thought the fact she's trying to get to me would be sufficient identification. But maybe you should escort me into Erin’s room, & she can identify me. Because I’m sure you’ll accept her word.”

“Or I could take you to the Erinsborough Police sub-station & have your identity verified there,” I reply.

“Wouldn't Erin be quicker? She's closer.”

“She's sleeping,” I reply. “And there's no way I’m letting a strange man into my sister's room after all she’s been through lately.”

****

Just as I’m drifting off, Felicity's frustrated cry pierces the silence. I open my eyes, listening & waiting to see if Mark calms her down. But she cries out again, & I can't shake the maternal instinct to go check on her. So I push aside my sheet & blanket aside & get up. I slip on a dressing gown & cross to the door. Mark pulled the blinds shut before he left, so I can sleep. But it makes it hard to see what's going on.

I open the door, squinting at the sudden brightness. I pause, letting my eyes adjust before I step further out.

I stop in the doorway, & take in the scene. Paige is holding a rather frustrated Felicity, holding her tight against her chest as Felicity squirms & cries. They're behind Mark, Tyler & Aaron who are standing in a row. All three have their arms crossed, serious expressions on their face as they stare at a man in a leather jacket, his back to me so I can't see his face. What's curious is the fact that Felicity is reaching for the man. She only does that when she knows someone.

“What's going on out here?” I ask.

Aaron, Tyler, Paige & Mark look at me.

“Aer, go back in your room,” Mark replies.

“No!” I reply. “Not until my daughter stops screaming.”

Please, Aer!”

No!” I reply, walking over. “Not until I have answers!”

The man turns around to face me, & I stop several steps back from him as I recognise him.

I feel woozy, but I force myself to stand & maintain eye contact with him.

“Aer,” Mark says, concerned.

I shake my head. “No.”

He looks down & then up me, taking me in. He smiles, relieved to see that I’m okay.

But I’m not. I’m far from being okay. I’m seeing things! He’s just a stranger, & I just think that he’s…

I shake my head as I close my eyes, trying to shake the image from my mind. I look at him again, & my stomach backflips. I’m not seeing things.

I whisper the one word I can manage to say. The most important word.

Zack?!

Chapter Text

We watch ‘Zack’ hug Erin, who stands there with arms out to the side as she looks shocked. My protectiveness kicks in & I step forward to pull him away. Erin sees & signals for me to stop. I do, but stay prepared to intervene at any moment. ‘Zack’ pulls back.

“Why… why are you here?” Erin asks him.

“He didn’t tell you?”

She looks even more confused. “Who?”

“That lawyer.”

“What lawyer?”

“Uh… Jarrod Rebecchi.”

“I’m going to call him,” I say, reaching for my mobile.

“No, don’t, Mark,” Erin replies. “This is Zack.” She steps closer, & continues softly, “Just give me a few minutes to find out what’s going on. And then you can go all cop & investigate.”

I sigh, trusting her. I nod. She smiles, before stepping back over to Zack.

“Why did Toadie- uh, Jarrod. We call him Toadie. Long story. Why did he… Just explain everything.”

“I got this call last night from Jarrod Rebecchi,” Zack says. “He was asking me questions, trying to verify who I am. And then he finally told me what had been going on with you.”

“But… but you were in Afghanistan.”

He shakes his head. “They pulled my unit out late last week, & brought us back to the base near Darwin. I was planning on coming down to Adelaide to see you & Felicity. But then I got the call.”

Erin nods. “I… I was told… you-”

“Were dead? Mr Rebecchi told me everything.”

“Wait, Toadie knew about what the text was about before me?” I ask.

Erin holds her hand up to silence me.

“It’s why he tracked me down,” Zack says. “He said he had a feeling that something wasn’t right about it, & wanted to confirm that I was dead… or not dead.”

“So why would they call me & say that you were?”

“I think that’s why he wanted me to come down. So we can find out.”

“And they… they let you come down? So quickly?”

“I was supposed to be going to Adelaide. I was scheduled to fly out at dawn, but I changed my flight to Melbourne instead.”

“I’m going to call Toadie,” I say. “He needs to come in & talk to us.”

Zack frowns. “We can't just go see him at his office?”

Erin shakes her head. “I’m not allowed to leave the hospital.”

“Why?”

She hesitates. She glances at us & then sighs as she looks at Zack again. “I’m… Under suicide watch. For the next few days, I have to stay here.”

****

“Hey, Toadie, thanks for coming,” I greet him as he walks up.

“Hey, Mark. Happy to come chat with you all.”

“Before we head in to the others,” I reply. “Would it be okay if we talked for a few minutes?”

“Sure. What's on your mind?”

“How did you exactly find Zach?”

“Well, when Erin told me about the army informing her about him, I found the timing really odd,” He replies. “I knew it might just be a coincidence, but… It was a feeling that didn't sit right. So I reached out to Nate, knowing he has military contacts.”

I nod.

“You don't believe it's him.”

I sigh. “I don't know what I think,” I reply. “Both Erin & Felicity say it's him, but… I can't shake the feeling that something's not right. Maybe I’m just overly wary given the last few days, but… I just can't trust him.”

He nods. “I understand your concern,” he replies. “I’m sorry that I didn't tell you he was coming. I was expecting he’d check in with me first.”

“It's okay. He was obviously wanting to see that Erin & Felicity are okay.”

He nods. “How did Erin react?”

“Shocked. Relieved, once the shock faded,” I reply. “We're all trying to figure out what's going on. How the army could mistakenly inform her he was dead.”

“Hopefully I can help get those answers.”

I nod. I then gesture to Erin's room, & he follows me over. I open the door, stepping inside & holding it open for Toadie. Zack is sitting on Erin's bed, at the foot, playing with Felicity & her toys. Erin is sitting crossed legged at the head of the bed, smiling at Felicity, but she looks up at me & Toadie as we come in. Paige is sitting in the chair at her bedside, Aaron & Tyler in others by the windows.

“Hey, Erin,” Toadie says. “How are you?”

“Hey Toadie. Better than I was last time we talked.”

Zack puts the toy down & stands. He steps around the bed to Toadie.

“So you're Rebecchi,” Zack says. “It's nice to finally put a face to the name.”

“Same,” Toadie says, extending his hand out. “It's nice to meet you.”

Zack & Toadie shake hands.

“Thank you for calling & telling me what happened,” Zack says.

“No worries. You deserve to know.”

He nods. “Indeed. Like I said to Erin, I’m sorry that she received the phone call that she did.”

“I was actually hoping you’d be able to explain what went on with that.”

"After your call last night, I reached out to my friend who works in the offices. It's part of his job to contact family members to inform them of any officer's life-threatening injury or death,” Zack replies. “Unfortunately he was unable to access our digital records straight away, but he texted me while I was on my flight saying he’d dug around for me. I called him as soon as I could, &… There was no record of contacting Erin.”

I look at Erin. She's shocked.

“But they called!” Erin says. “I have the number in my phone's address book. It was them.”

“Do you remember if they said where they were calling from?” Zack asks. “It's protocol during those calls for them to identify the base they're calling from. Darwin is our main base. I’m there when I’m not overseas.”

Erin thinks. “I… I don't remember.”

“Is it possible for the station to trace the call?” Toadie asks me.

“I’m not sure,” I reply. “We might have to contact her phone provider & get information from them. But there's a problem.”

Toadie frowns.

“Mark got himself a suspension today because he refused to go in for his shift,” Erin replies.

“Uh… What?” Paige asks.

“My sister is more important right now,” I reply.

“I told you to call Sarge, but you were too stubborn.”

I sigh. “I thought you had agreed to leave it be.”

Erin shrugs. “Can still chastise you.”

“Alright, you can’t do it cause you’re on suspension,” Toadie says. “However, together we can present it to Sarge, & he can give us clearance.”

“Good!” Erin replies.

I press my lips together tightly. “That will be a good talk.”

“He should be more understanding of your situation,” Paige says. “The suspension is ridiculous.”

****

“How do we know that he is this… Zack Freeman?” Sarge asks Toadie & I, as we stand outside the interview room, where Zack sits.

“Erin & Felicity Brennan have both identified him,” Toadie replies.

“So I’m supposed to take the word of a toddler & a woman who is mentally unstable?”

“Erin’s current mental state is due to the huge amount of pressure & stress she’s been under the last few days,” I reply. “And I don’t appreciate you referring to her like that, when you’ve been a major role in causing it.”

“I’m merely pointing out the facts, Constable.”

“About my family.”

“Which is exactly why you need me to be the unbiased voice in this situation,” Sarge replies. “You are both personally invested in this. You need someone to look at just the facts. Like the fact that this may not be the man he’s claiming to be.”

“That’s part of what we want to find out,” Toadie says. “The phone call that Erin had, to notify her of Zack’s death is questionable. We need to determine the authenticity of that call. And to do that, we need access to Erin’s records, which we cannot get from her phone provider without your assistance. It’s not the sort of thing that we can obtain without the police. If we can uncover the truth about that call, we’ll be able to confirm that Zack is Zack.”

“Well, your argument so far isn’t convincing me so far,” Sarge replies. “You’re basing it on a hunch.”

“Mmm yeah, like you did pushing murder charges on my sister.”

“The evidence supports her being innocent, however, given her confession, I can’t release her from police custody.”

I frown. “What?”

“I’m sorry, Constable. But until we can verify that her confession was under duress, especially given that it was provided voluntarily without police influence, I cannot simply drop the charges,” Sarge replies. “I want to drop them & apologise to you & Erin, however I’m bound by red tape.”

“Finding out the truth about him,” I reply, pointing to Zack through the window. “Will help you break that red tape. So help us.”

****

I briskly walk through the hospital corridors, tightly holding onto the folder with the information from Erin’s phone provider. I slow down as I approach her room. I open the door, finding that Tyler, Aaron, Paige & Felicity are still there. They all look at me as I close the door.

That’s the smile that I love seeing,” Erin says. “You have good news.”

“It’s somewhat good news,” I reply, stepping over to her.

I open the folder, placing it on her lap.

“Your phone provider willingly provided us with all the information that we needed,” I reply, as Erin picks up the top page to read. “It proves that the text & phone call that you received, notifying you that Zack was dead… it didn’t come from the Darwin base.”

She looks up at me, shocked. “Seriously?

I nod. “It wasn’t even from Darwin at all.”

“So where did it come from?” Aaron asks.

“According to their records,” I reply. “They have it listed as originating from here.”

“Here?” Erin asks.

“Melbourne,” I reply. “They weren’t able to determine an exact location. Their system was unable to do so- they believe there may have been a scrambler used.”

“If that’s so,” Tyler says. “How do they know that it was from Melbourne?”

“They were able to determine part of the location. Just the city. Apparently there was some way they can do that. Something technical that was unable to help them break through whatever stopped it from giving a more specific location.”

“So basically someone was messing with me,” Erin says. “Someone wanted to break me.”

I look at her & nod.

She stares at me for a long minute. “You know who. Don’t you?”

I slowly nod. “I have a suspicion.”

She clasps her hands over her mouth & nose, & struggles not to cry. After a minute, she brings her hands forward, so they’re in front of her, her lips pressed against them like she’s praying.

“I think I know too,” She replies. “There’s only one person that would want to break me down the way I have these last few days.”

She drops her hands as she looks up at me. And, for the first time in days, I see the feistiness in her eyes again. That determination, that fighter.

“You catch him,” She says.

I nod.

“Catch who?” Tyler asks.

“Even if it means that you put a bullet in him,” Erin says. “Do whatever it takes to make him pay for this. Make it impossible for him to hurt anyone ever again.”

I nod. “I promise.”

I sit down next to her, wrapping my left arm around her shoulders. She leans against me, her head resting on my shoulder. I kiss her forehead.

“I promise I’m going to make him pay for all of it,” I tell her. “For everything he’s done. Not just to our family, but to everyone.”

“Wanna catch us up, bro?” Tyler asks.

“Dennis Dimato,” Erin replies.

****

Two days later

There’s a knock on my hospital door, a pause & then it opens. Mark peers in, & smiles this big, goofy grin that makes me laugh.

“How are you?” he asks, as he comes in.

“Feeling a lot better than the start of the week.”

“That wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with the fact that the charges against you have been dropped so you’re gonna be coming home, is it?”

I smile. “That’s part of it,” I reply. “Getting to sleep with Felicity again is the best part of getting out here.”

He smiles. “I love seeing you this happy.”

“Well, it’s all thanks to you.”

“Just wanting to make sure that my baby sister doesn't end up in jail when she's innocent.”

“You found the truth.”

“Technically Toadie did.”

“He found Zack, but you were the one to convince Sarge to pursue the line of investigation that led to my charges being dropped,” I reply. “You’ve been there for me. You never gave up, even when I completely shut you out. So thank you.”

“I’ll always be there for you, Aer.”

“Don't make me cry,” I say, holding back tears.

He steps forward, enveloping me in a hug. I wrap my arms around him tightly.

“I love you, Aer.”

“I love you too, Markie.”

After a few minutes, we part.

“You ready?”

“Mmmhmmm!” I reply with a nod. “My things are packed, Karl's given me more bandages to get me started for the next few days… And my discharge papers are all signed. So I’m officially a free woman!!” I raise my right arm straight up & my left to the side as I say ‘woman’. “In every sense of the word ‘free’.”

He smiles, chuckling a little. “You're definitely back to your normal self.”

“You betcha!”

He laughs. He then reaches for my bag on the end of my bed.

“Come on,” he says. “Let's go.”

I grab my handbag, put it on & we head out, he wraps his arm around my shoulder as we walk through the corridors.

****

“You know what I’m gonna do when we get inside?” I ask Mark, as I step round to the back of his car.

He shuts the back door & steps round to meet me with my bag.

“What are you going to do?” He asks.

“I’m going to take a nice, long, uninterrupted hot bath.”

He smiles. “Would you like me to run it for you?”

“That would be perrrfect!”

“Big brother, at your service!”

“I’ve missed you!” I reply, putting my hands on his cheeks.

This squished his face, by accident, & I smile. I run with it, moving my hands up & down to move his face.

“Stop it,” he says, muffled slightly.

I laugh.

“Erin!” Toadie says.

I drop my hands & turn to see Toadie walking up our driveway.

“Am I… Interrupting?” Toadie asks, waving a document between Mark & I.

“Actually, you were saving me,” Mark replies.

“Good,” He replies. “We need to talk.”

“Oh, this is bad!” I say. “You have a serious face.”

Toadie hesitates. “We should go inside.”

“Good idea,” Mark replies. “Follow us.”

“No,” I reply.

They frown.

“I’ve been through hell pretty much three times this week,” I tell them. “I’m sick of everyone delaying telling me things, tiptoeing around my emotions & coddling me! So if you have something to tell me, just tell me. Right here.”

Toadie looks at Mark.

“Nuh uh,” I say. “No more looks. Just come out with it, Toadie.”

He sighs, before handing me the document. Frowning, I take it & start to read it. The front page is confusing, so I flip to the second page & read that. Very quickly, my confusion turns to shock. As my jaw drops, I look at Toadie.

“Erin?” Mark asks.

Tears burn my eyes. Mark steps towards me, but I just want to escape. I shove the document into his hands, seeing his confusion as I turn. I run over to the stairs, barely keeping back my tears.

“Erin!” Mark calls as I climb the stairs two at a time.

****

“Erin!” I call out, watching her reach the front door.

She yanks it open & disappears inside. Confused, I look at Toadie.

"What's going on?” I ask.

Toadie presses his lips together tightly. “You should read that.”

I look down at the document & read it. It's a printed out letter. From Zack.

Dear Mr Rebecchi,

I am writing to you because I know you will handle this the best out of all of you who know Erin.

I am asking you to please pass the attached document on to Erin. Legally, I can't do it myself. As you are a lawyer, you will understand why.

Please tell her that I’m sorry, but this is the best for everyone.

Sincerely,

Zack Freeman

I turn to the next page, knowing that's what upset Erin. I don't have to read far to know why. It's a request for full custody of Felicity.

****

I pull the front door open & run through to my room. I grab Felicity's favourite big teddy bear & sink down in front of the closet. I pull my legs up to my chest, bury my face into the teddy’s tummy & let the tears out.

I’ve just got my life back on track.

And now it's falling apart all over again.

Chapter Text

I hear footsteps in the hallway, & then in my room, before I feel someone sit down beside me. He puts his arm around me & pulls me close. I can tell that it's Mark. He holds me as I continue to cry into the teddy.

Eventually I lift my head & look at him.

“I read the first two pages,” he says, softly.

“Why would he do this?”

“Toadie says he looked through it before he brought it over,” he replies. “He knew you wouldn't cope reading it, so he read through it so he could tell you.” He brushes back a bit of my hair that's fallen into my eye. “According to the papers, he’s requesting full custody because… He's claiming that you're unfit for parenting.”

“Wha-… what?!

“Toadie believes that Zack is using the fact that you tried to kill yourself as an excuse to take her from you.”

“But… But… He doesn't even want her! He's never wanted her!”

He nods. “I know, Aer.”

“I can't believe he would do this! After everything I’ve been through, I’m finally getting my life back together, &…"

He pulls me in to him, holding me tight as I cry again.

****

I’m perched on the edge of the bath, watching as Mark runs a bath for me. He smells one of the bubble bath bottles, scrunching his nose up at a smell he clearly doesn't like & I smile a little. He then smells another, liking this one much better & squeezes some in to the running water that's currently filling the bath.

Once it's filled, he turns off the taps & looks at me.

“I can ask Paige to come sit with you,” he says. “If you want.”

I tilt my head sideways. “Worried that I’m going to drown?”

He sighs. “A little. Yeah.”

“Well, I’m not,” I reply. “I’m not going to let him win. Dying is as bad as signing over her guardianship to him.”

“We’ll find a way to talk him round.”

I nod, letting out a shaky sigh. “I hope so.”

“We will,” he replies. “I promise. Just like I promised to find Dennis Dimato.”

I force a smile.

“Things are going to get better.”

I sigh. “I hope so.”

“It will,” he replies. “But for now… Have your bath. Felicity will be home soon.”

I nod. He steps over, kisses my forehead & then walks out. I don't move until the door clicks shut. I stand & undress. I then take off the exterior bandage, exposing the sealed, waterproof bandage beneath. Karl advised me to do this, & then change them afterwards.

I get in the bath, the hot water so comforting after the troubles of the week. I lean back, resting my head on the wall & relax.

****

“Erin?” Paige’s voice makes me slowly open my eyes.

“Hmmm?” I mumble, struggling to keep my eyes open.

The door slowly opens, Paige peeping around the door to check where I am. I realise I’m still in the bath. She steps in & shuts the door.

“Hey,” She says, stepping over to me. “You’ve been in here a long time. Mark’s a little anxious. I told him you’ll be fine, just relaxing… But I got ordered through.”

“Well, I’m fine,” I reply.

“Yeah, just like I told him you would.”

“What… What time is is?”

“Uh… A few minutes past quarter to six.”

“Oh, wow. I’ve been in here almost an hour. No wonder he’s worried.”

She frowns. “Why would he be worried.”

“He thinks I might try to kill myself again.”

“Why?”

“He didn't tell you?”

She shakes her head. “He just kept pushing for me to come check on you. Has something else happened?”

I sigh. “Yeah,” I reply. “We just got home from the hospital, & Toadie came over.” I hesitate, trying to find the strength to say it. “Zack’s… Filed a case to get full custody of Felicity.”

She gapes. “What?” She crouches beside the bath so we’re at the same level. “I’m so sorry.”

“I just hate him so much,” I reply. “We’ve been through so much, & Felicity needs me. She needs to have her mother, & he thinks just because I tried killing myself that I’m an unfit mother & wants to pull her away from me.”

“Hey, don't cry,” Paige says. “I know this is the last thing you need, but you have all of us to support you. You're the best mother & Zack knows it. He's just being an idiot.”

“I thought my life was getting back on track.”

“And it is,” she replies. “You know what? Forget about all of that tonight. Lets just have a nice night with our boys & Felicity, & forget about all of the problems. Felicity's out there, playing with Tyler in the lounge. But she wants you. So I’m going to head out & tell your overprotective brother that you're fine, while you get dressed.”

“Sounds like a good plan.”

She smiles. She then stands, moves my towel so I can reach it & walks out. Once the door is shut, I get out & wrap my towel around me before pulling the plug out. I dry off as the bath empties. I grab my dirty clothes & bandages & then head to my bedroom. I close the door behind me & get dressed. I then sit on my bed & change the bandages on my forearms. I pause when I see the exposed scars- still red & not completely healed. More like scabs, with stitches along them. I put clean waterproof bandages on & then wrap clean cloth bandages around my forearms the way they had been at the hospital.

I return to the bathroom, dump the old bandages in the bin & hang up my towel. I stare at myself in the mirror, preparing myself to face my family for the first time back here. And more importantly, face the kitchen & laundry- the place where Eddie died. The spot where my life went to hell.

I sigh & walk out of the bathroom & through to the main living area. I stop in the doorway, watching them all for a minute- Tyler's keeping Felicity entertained in the lounge, Paige is finishing setting the table & Mark & Aaron must be in the kitchen.

Paige sees me & smiles. She then nods her head towards the lounge, a quiet encouragement for me to go to Felicity.

I cross over, planning on just watching her with Tyler, but she sees me as I approach.

Mummmyyyyyyyyy!” She squeals, walking over to me.

I smile as I crouch down & open my arms to her.

“Hey, my baby!” I reply.

I hold her tight, trying hard to push away the thoughts of having to say goodbye to her for good. I carry her over to the couches, & play with her & Tyler.

A few minutes later, Aaron comes over. He waves at Felicity & then whispers something to Tyler. They then each take one end of the coffee table & move it further towards the TV. I frown.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“What does it look like we’re doing?” Tyler replies.

Paige walks over with placemats & arranges them on the coffee table. Mark comes with plates & cutlery. Paige takes the cutlery & they place them on the placemats.

“Are we eating over here?” I ask.

“Yep,” Paige replies as Tyler & Aaron bring the drinks & cups over. “I thought we might just change things up.”

“And Mark’s fine with it?”

“Not exactly,” Mark replies. “But we’ve been through enough this week, so I’m happy to bend a little.”

“Is it to try & avoid me seeing the laundry?”

Mark & Paige look at each other.

“I’m going to have to see it eventually,” I reply. “It's hard to miss, given it's right off the kitchen.”

“I’ve been thinking of renovating,” Mark says.

“Can you afford to? I mean… With your babies on the way.”

“I have savings,” he replies. “And everyone's going to pay a share.”

"Okay... But in the meantime… I'm going to have to look at it.”

“I know.” He smiles. “But not tonight.”

I give him a sarcastic smile.

“Now sit on the floor. We’re all going to sit around the table.”

I raise my eyebrow. “On the floor, huh? Really driving your OCD crazy tonight!”

“Ha ha,” he replies flatly, as he heads back to the kitchen.

I sit on the floor, crosslegged & Felicity climbs into my lap. The others bring the containers of Chinese take-away over, placing them on the coffee table between the plates. Paige settles to my left, because we’re in front of the couch, with Aaron & Tyler on her left. Mark sits down on the end to my right, with Felicity's food.

****

Felicity's bedtime routine has become so autopilot for me- minus the new addition of saying goodnight to everyone else (which consists of a lot of kisses from Mark), the rest I’ve done so many times before. Bath, toilet, brushing the few teeth she has, a few stories in bed while she has a sippy cup of warm milk (which I’m slowly weening her off by putting less in it). Mark had organised it while I gave Felicity a bath.

With Felicity asleep, I take the cup & press a kiss to her forehead. I tuck her in a bit more & then slip out of the room. It's become such an integral part of my night routine, I tend to work on autopilot. So I don't think much of it as I head into the kitchen to put the cup in the sink.

The others are finishing cleaning up our dinner in the lounge as I turn into the kitchen. I’m halfway to the sink when it catches my eye. The bloodstain on the floor in the doorway to the laundry.

I freeze, eyes focused on the bloodstain. My chest tightens & I can't breathe.

I faintly hear the sippy cup hit the floor, faintly hear Mark call my name. I want to look, to tell him that I’m okay, but… I can’t.

He steps beside me, blocking my view of the laundry, & wraps his right arm around me. He slowly walks me round the bench, his left hand on my cheek as we pass the other side of the bench so I don't look right to the laundry. He guides me over to the couch & I faintly hear him tell me to sit. As soon as I sit down, my senses return to normal.

“Are you okay?” Mark says from beside me, gently rubbing my back.

I nod, trying to act strong, but I can't keep it up so I shake my head. Mark pulls me closer & I collapse against him. Aaron sits down on my right & Tyler kneels at our feet. And we’re in a group hug as I cry.

****

I wake up to find Felicity isn't there in bed with me. I bolt up, on the edge of another attack. I push back the covers & get up, crossing to the door & pulling it open. I make my way through to the living area & sigh when I see Mark sitting in the armchair with Felicity in his lap as he reads her a book.

“Hey,” he says as I walk over. “She was crying earlier, & when I looked in, you looked like you were in a deep sleep. So I took her & gave her breakfast.”

“You shouldn't have.”

“You’ve been through a lot. You needed the sleep. I’m happy to help out when I can.”

“Well… I guess it's good practice for later in the year.”

He looks confused & then smiles when he realises what I meant. “Yeah. Plus I get to have some bonding time with my favourite niece!”

He tickles Felicity & she laughs. He then looks at me.

“Let me cook you breakfast.”

I nod. “That would be good, thanks.”

“No worries.”

“Uhh… I’m… I’m going to get dressed first.”

He nods. “We’ll finish this story while we wait. Won't we, Felicity?”

“Ya!” She replies.

I smile, before heading to my room.

****

I’ve just finished breakfast when Aaron comes through the front door.

“Ah, good! You're here,” he says to me.

I frown. “Where else would I be?”

“Out for a walk? Finding a job?” He replies, sitting down at the head of the table.

Mark comes around & gives Felicity to me. He takes my plate & heads into the kitchen to clean up.

“What do you need me for?” I ask.

“You said you work in PR, right?”

“Uh, yeah, sort of.”

“What would you say if I offered you to work with me?”

“I’d say you're getting desperate.”

He smiles, laughing a little. “Seriously, Erin,” he replies. “I want you to come work with me.”

“Pitch to me why you want me.”

He frowns.

“You want me, you should pitch to me,” I explain. “Just because we're related, doesn't mean you get out of doing it the right way. If you're gonna hire people without asking- it's called recruiting, by the way- if you're gonna do it, the least you can do is learn how to do it properly. Starting with pitching why you want them. What makes you interested in having them on your team? Why they should choose you over a rival company? It's similar to how you pitch to your clients, really.”

“See! That's why I need you!” He replies. “You know all this stuff.”

“And having a job will help you keep Felicity,” Mark says as he does the dishes. “It will show them that you can support yourself & Felicity.”

“But going into business with my brother? No offence, Az.”

“None taken,” Aaron replies. “I get it. You're worried that us working together will look like you can't find anywhere better. But you’ve always been a local girl. You’ve always had that passion to help out the local community. Remember how you used to volunteer in Port Lincoln? And I’ve looked at your past clients in Adelaide. The majority of them are local businesses. Small ones who needed a PR boost. And you helped them.” He leans closer. “That's the sort of thing I want to do. I’m almost signed on to another case that I can't manage on my own. Not without knowledge like you have.”

I sigh. “Alright.”

He smiles. “I knew you’d agree.”

“Hey, don't get too cocky.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I roll my eyes. “So what's this new client?”

He hesitates. “Lassiters.”

I look shocked.

“The Quills have been kicked out for insurance fraud-” He looks at Mark & adds, “don't ask for details, I don't have them.” He looks at me. “Somehow, Paul's talked his way back in as CEO & he wants a PR facelift for it.”

“That's surprising,” Mark says, walking over to us. “Paul's the last person I’d suspect to come asking to be your client.”

“His reputation is just as broken as Lassiters is right now,” Aaron says. “He needs outside help.”

I narrow my eyes. “What aren't you telling us?”

Aaron hesitates. “Paul didn't make the decision,” he says. “He told Terese to find someone. She's the one that chose me. Terese said Paul wants a presentation before he signs off on it.”

"Which is why you want me,” I reply. “To help make the presentation the very best it can be.”

He nods. “If we can secure this, & it's a successful project… I’ll be able to gain more clients.”

“Right. Okay… So when do we need to do this by?”

Aaron looks awkward.

I roll my eyes. “How many hours do we have?”

Aaron looks very apologetic. “Two,” he slowly replies.

“That's not much time,” Mark replies.

"I know, but Terese says Paul want to get it this PR thing started ASAP, so she's feeling pressured into finding someone fast,” Aaron explains. “She talked to me & when I said I’m interested, she called Paul… Who set the time.”

“And what were you going to do if I hadn't agreed to be on board?”

“Hoped for the best?”

I sigh. “Okay. Grab a laptop. Lets get started.”

****

“Aaron. Erin. Hi,” Terese says as we walk into the Lassiters reception.

“Hi Terese,” Aaron replies.

“Hi Terese,” I reply. “I’m so sorry about having Felicity with me. I was going to drop her into the community centre for a few hours, but as soon as I approached the front door, she screamed. After all we’ve been through this week, I just don't have the heart to push her into being away from me. Everyone else is working.”

“Well, I don't mind, as long as you can present without her causing too much of a disruption,” Terese replies. “You’ll find that I’m going to be more understanding than Paul will be.”

"That's what I'm worried about,” I reply.

“I’ll take you up to the penthouse,” Terese says. “We’ve converted the lounge into an open planned office, & that's where you’ll be doing the presentation. We’ll see what Paul says when he arrives.”

We go up in the lift, Terese swiping her card to get it up to the penthouse. The doors open, & Terese falters as she steps out- Paul’s already there.

“How did you get in?” She asks, leading us around into the main area.

“I have a card,” Paul says, turning to us. “And what's with the kid?”

“She's not well,” I reply, the lie slipping out before I can stop it.

“So leave her at home.”

“You might be okay with leaving an eighteen month old home alone for several hours, but I’m not,” I reply. “Everyone else is working.”

“That's what we have the childcare group for.”

“Paul, the Brennans have had a really tough week,” Terese says. “You could be more lenient, especially since Erin is willing to help you with this.”

He sighs. "Alright, alright. Let's just get this done.”

****

“Well,” I reply, as Aaron, Felicity & I leave Lassiters. “That was fun.”

“He can be a real sourpuss, can't he?” Aaron replies.

“That's a more PG version of what I was thinking.”

He chuckles.

“Erin! Aaron!” Terese calls from behind us.

We stop & turn around, as she hurries over.

“Firstly, I want to apologise for his attitude towards you having Felicity,” she says.

“To be honest,” I reply. “He's not the worst.”

Aaron raises his eyebrow.

"I know he sent you packing, saying that he would think it through,” Terese says. “However, I talked to him & it really wasn't hard to convince him to hire you both.”

Aaron & I smile.

“That's great!” Aaron says.

Terse nods. “I don't have an issue with you bringing Felicity with you. However, I strongly advise that you make plans for her to be cared for elsewhere when you have meetings with Paul.”

I nod. “I won't bring her again, if I can help it.”

“We can come in tomorrow with more ideas, if you want?” Aaron asks.

“That would be good,” Terese replies. “Come in at noon. I’ll arrange some food for us. Spend some time tonight coming up with some ideas for the new logo. I know Paul is keen to make that a priority.”

“We can do that,” Aaron replies.

“But don't feel pressured into spending too long on it. I know how hard it's been for you this week.”

"We'll do what we can," I reply.

“Good. I’ll arrange for access keys for the penthouse for each of you. That way you can just let yourselves up. I’ll leave them with reception for you to collect.”

“Thank you,” I reply.

“I should be thanking you,” she replies. “You're taking a load off me.”

"We're happy to help. Especially when you were so generous towards us earlier in the week.”

“Oh, don't be silly! That was the least I could do!”

Felicity rests head head on my shoulder, & I feel her sigh.

"I'll let you go," Terese says. "Felicity looks like she needs a nap."

I smile. “I think so.”

We say goodbye & head off towards Aaron's car as Terese heads back to Lassiters.

****

“Wow. Is there anything you can't do?” Tyler asks, peering over my shoulder at the drawing I’m working on as one of our mock ups for Lassiters.

I look at him. “I’m multi-talented,” I reply. “Thought you would have figured that out by now.”

He sarcastically smiles.

“Can I see?” Az asks, walking over having come from a shower.

He looks through the various sketches I’ve done across several pages, finishing with the one I’m working on.

“These are fantastic!” He says.

I smile. “Thanks.”

“I told you this would be good, having you on board.”

“You’ve gotta up your game, Az,” I reply. “It's not going to look good if the worker is outshining the CEO.”

“You’re the co-CEO.”

I raise my eyebrow. “Am I?”

“Mmmhmmm. Didn't you read your contract?”

“You haven't given it to me.”

"Oooo, Az!” Tyler says. “Just got burned!”

Az punches Tyler's arm as the front door opens & Mark & Paige walk in.

“Evening,” Paige says.

“Hey,” I reply. “How was your day?”

“Exhausting,” She replies, coming to sit down across the table from me. “It's going to get worse before I have these two,” she adds, rubbing her bump.

“Well, you don't have to worry about helping with dinner,” Mark says, unpacking grocery bags.

“Yeah. Mum made a spare lasagna at Harold's today, & insisted that we have it,” Paige replies. “Anyway… Mark told me you have a new job!”

“Mmmhmm. Working with Az.”

“Yaaaay!”

“How did it go with Paul?” Mark asks from the kitchen.

“Other than his near tantrum over Felicity being there,” Az replies. “It was really good.”

“So good we have the job,” I reply.

“That's fantastic!” Mark says, coming over. “Congratulations!”

“Thanks,” I reply, smiling.

“Wow, who's are these?” Paige asks, picking up one of my pages.

“Mine.”

Paige gapes at me.

“Why is it such a shock that I can draw?”

“It's just… Surprising.”

****

The next afternoon

“Hey,” Piper says.

I turn from the car engine, & smile as she walks over to me. She grips my shirt with both hands, pushing up on her tip toes to press her lips against mine.

“Hey,” I reply, claiming her lips with mine.

"How's things?” She asks after our long kiss.

“Good,” I reply. “Catching up on the backlog from the last couple of days. How was school?”

“Oh, the usual,” She replies. “How long do you reckon you’ll be till you finish for today?”

“Hmmmm… Not sure.”

“Can I sit here & wait?” She asks. “I can go through your books, if you want.”

“If you want, go for it,” I reply. “But having you here is good enough for me.”

She smiles, before drawing me in for another kiss.

****

I walk in to the community centre, ready to collect Felicity & then walk home. I catch the eye of one worker & smile. Her shocked face as she looks at me makes my chest tighten.

I step further into the space, & scan the area for Felicity.

But she's not there.

The worker approaches me slowly, wary of how I’ll react.

“Where…” I ask, as calmly as possible. “Where's my daughter?”

Chapter Text

Aaron pulls up outside the community centre as I briskly walk up from the station. I meet him at the door, holding it open for him.

“HOW COULD YOU LET SOMEONE JUST WALK OUT WITH A KID THAT ISN’T THEIRS?” Erin shouts as we enter.

She's standing in the middle room of the centre with a childcare worker, who looks terrified. I hurry over to them, Aaron close behind.

“Hey, hey, hey, Aer,” I say, placing my hand on her shoulder.

“Mark!” She says, throwing her arms around me.

I wrap my arms around her. The worker takes this opportunity to go back to the children.

“They say some guy came & picked her up, but they won't tell me anything else!” She says.

“Okay, shhhh,” I reply. “It's going to be alright.”

She pushes me away. “It's not alright! My baby girl is missing!”

I place my hands on her upper arms. “I know, Aer,” I reply. “I need you to calm down a bit, okay? You're scaring the staff, & I need to talk to them to find out who took her, okay?”

She hesitates, trying to breathe & not cry. She then nods.

“Good,” I reply. “I want you to go with Aaron into the front room, get a drink of water, & wait for me.”

“Sit with me.”

“I would, but I need to talk to the staff, remember?”

She struggles not to cry. I pull her in for another hug, holding her against me until she calms down again. I kiss her head before guiding her towards Aaron. He puts his right arm around her. I watch as they head back into the main room, before I turn & head into the back room where the childcare is.

****

Aaron sits down with me, handing me a tissue as he holds a plastic cup of water. I wipe tears from my face & then he hands me the cup.

“Thanks,” I say, taking it.

“You're welcome,” he replies, as I take a sip. “Mark will find out what happened.”

“I know, it's just… I thought we’d moved past all the bad things this week!”

He nods. “We’ll have her back in no time.”

“She should be here.”

“I know.”

It hits me that there's only one person that Felicity would willingly go with outside my brothers & Paige- who would tell me if they’ve picked her up. Only one who could talk the staff into letting her leave.

I stand up, placing the cup down. I head further into the centre.

“Erin!” Aaron says.

Mark hears & looks. He puts his hand out to stop me, but I ignore him.

“If you saw his face again, would you recognise him?” I ask the worker.

“Uhhh, sure,” she replies.

I get my mobile out & flick through my photos until I find one of Zack.

“Is this him?” I ask, showing her the photo. “Is this the man who took Felicity?”

She stares at it for a long moment. And then nods.

I cover my mouth, stifling the distressed cry. Mark puts an arm around me.

“Thank you for your help,” he tells her. “If you remember anything else, please call the station.”

“Of course,” she says. “I am truly sorry for the mistake we made.”

“It's okay.”

He turns me around, arm still around me & guides me towards the front door. Aaron holds the door open for us.

“I want you to put out whatever you have to put out to get his face out there,” she says. “I want his face on an alert list or whatever! He's got her, & I know he's gonna try & leave the state. So you have to get them on the lookout for him, okay? He has to be stopped!”

“Aer,” I say, taking hold of her arms & turning her to face me. “I need you to keep it together, okay? I know you're worried, so am I. But you're not going to do yourself any good working yourself into a hysterical fit. I’m going to find her.”

She nods.

“Seeing you this distressed makes me want to stay with you,” I tell her. “But I can't, because I need to find her.”

She nods again.

“I need you to stay strong, Aer,” I tell her. “I need you to not fall apart so I can find her. I’m going to do whatever it takes to bring her home.”

She nods again. “I know you will.”

I pull her into a hug, holding her tightly.

“You should go home with Az.”

She pulls back, looking at me in disbelief. “No!”

“Erin,” I reply, softly.

“No. I’m not going to go sit at home, slowly going out of my mind, wondering what's happening to my baby!”

“I promise I’ll keep you updated.”

She shakes her head. “You can't make me go home,” She replies. “I need to be there, at the station with you. I don't know if I can keep it together if I’m not near you.”

I sigh, knowing I won't be able to change her mind. “Alright,” I reply. “But you stay out of our way. Stay with Aaron, & let us do our work. I’ll update you when I can.”

She nods. I kiss her forehead. I put an arm around her as Aaron steps to her right. We head off towards the station.

****

Waiting is the hardest thing. I’m sitting in the waiting area of the station, struggling not to fall apart in tears as I watch Mark lead a team of officers in the search for Felicity. Aaron stays with me the whole time, his arm around me.

Mark has my phone, so they can access the photos of Zack & Felicity. But also monitor my calls in case Zack has the twisted thought to call me.

I pray that she's okay. I know he wouldn't hurt her. Not physically. But she's spent very little time with him. Up until this week, she's only ever been with him via Skype. So being alone with him would be terrifying. No doubt he told her & the childcare staff that he was taking her to meet up with me.

All I can picture is here screaming & crying for me. What lies will he be telling her, what empty promises is he making to calm her down? Where will he take her?

****

I lift my head at the sound of the roller door being pulled down. Tyler locks it from the inside.

“Are you finished?” I ask, as he walks over to me.

“For now,” he replies, stepping round the desk to stand beside my chair. “Stand up.”

Frowning, I stand, pushing my chair back & turn to face him. He cups my face with both hands, & I tilt my head up slightly as he brings his down, pressing his lips against mine for a long kiss.

“I know we haven't… Slept together since Brodie,” he says. “And if you're not ready, then that's fine. But I want you.”

“I want you too.”

He smiles. “Good.”

He leans in to kiss me again, but I push his chest, keeping him at bay.

Here?” I ask, raising my eyebrow.

He nods. “This is the only place we’ll be alone,” he replies. “Erin's bound to be home, & I really don't want to take my chances at yours. Terese could come home, &… I’d hate to see her react if she found out we’d snuck home to have a bit of afternoon delight.”

“Wow. How much time have you spent thinking about this?”

“Longer than I wanna admit,” he replies. “Plus… I think it would be pretty hot to make love to you in your school uniform.”

I raise my eyebrow. “Got a thing for schoolgirls?”

“I’m crazy in love with you,” he replies, before kissing me again.

We break apart & he moves things around on his desk, clearing space in the middle.

“Take your jacket off,” he says, still clearing the desk.

I take it off, draping it over the chair.

“Sit,” he says, pointing to the desk.

I sit on it, legs dangling off the side. He steps between my legs, places both hands on my hips & pulls me forward, closer to the edge. He pushes my skirt up slowly, fingers brushing my thighs. He rubs his fingers on his right hand over my undies, making me moan. He claims my lips in another kiss, suffocating my moans as he keeps rubbing me.

I find myself reaching for his belt as we kiss, his hand still rubbing me as I unbuckle his belt. I undo his jeans, & push them & his boxers down. He pushes my undies aside, holding them by my right thigh. He slips his left hand between us, covering my opening. He then pushes his middle finger inside, & I gasp into his mouth. He wiggles his finger, making me wet, before he pulls it out & pushes his cock inside.

He thrusts, pulling me closer each time. I wrap my arms around his neck, panting as our tongues clash. I grind my hips every time they meet his, making him moan & tighten his hold on my hips, his fingers digging into my skin.

Just as we get a steady rhythm, his mobile buzzes with an incoming call. We stop & he checks it. He sighs, before hitting the reject button.

“Aren't you gonna answer?” I ask.

“Nope,” he replies, dropping his mobile onto a pile of paperwork to my right. “Not when we’re like this.”

“But what if it's impor-”

He thrust into me, making me gasp. He holds my hips in place, keeping himself pressed deep in me. He leans forward, kissing my neck before lightly nipping. I grind my hips, & then rock them back & forth, encouraging him to thrust again.

He thrusts & I arch my back, giving in to the pleasure. I support my upper body with my arms, hands splayed on the desk behind me, as I tilt my head back. He growls, upset that he can't reach my neck. So he rubs my clit, making me gasp.

“Tyler?” Aaron calls from outside.

Tyler places his hand over my mouth to quiet my moans, slowing his thrusts a little.

“Tyler?” Aaron calls, as the side door opens.

Tyler uses the split second we have to pull my skirt down with both hands, before Aaron comes into view.

There you are!” Aaron says as he walks beside a car. “Why didn't you answer when- Woah! Oh! Oh!”

He stops & turns around, putting his back towards us.

“What do you want, bro?” Tyler asks.

“Can you please not be in that position?” Aaron asks. “I’d rather not have this conversation when you're like that.” He brings his hands up to his face. “I’d rather not be here right now… This is soooo awkward!”

Tyler steps back & I bite my lip to stop the involuntary moan as he pulls out of me. He pulls his boxers & jeans up, stepping to my right to allow me to stand as he zips his jeans up. I pull my skirt down a little further as he does his belt up. Tyler looks at me, before looking at Aaron.

“You can turn around now,” Tyler says.

“Piper?”

“You're fine to, Aaron,” I reply. “Sorry.”

Aaron turns around. “Just be glad it was me & not Mark. He’d freak if he saw you two… Doing it in such a… Dirty place.” He rubs his face. “I personally wish I hadn't seen that. There's some things a brother should never see.”

“Sorry, bro,” Tyler replies.

“Just don't do it again,” Aaron replies. “Or at least lock both doors!”

“Yep, gotcha. Won't happen again,” Tyler replies. “What did you want?”

“Wanted to find out why you weren't answering your phone… Which I now know.”

“There's an urgency to it, isn't there? Why else would you come?”

Aaron nods. “Felicity’s been kidnapped.”

What?!” Tyler & I say.

“Mark’s already onto it, & they even have confirmation of who took her from the childcare,” Aaron says. “But Erin’s barely keeping together while she waits at the station & I think it would be best that you're there too.”

Tyler opens his mouth.

“Before you say you're busy, save it,” Aaron interrupts. “It's obvious that you have the time.”

“Actually, I was gonna say wait outside for a minute,” Tyler replies.

Aaron nods, before heading out. Tyler looks at me.

“Massively awkward conversation,” Tyler says. “Never gonna live that one down.”

“Yeeeah,” I reply.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don't be.”

“I should've remembered to lock that one.”

“At least it wasn't a client.”

“Yeah, thankfully clients don't use that little hatch door,” he says. “But I’m sorry that my brother saw you like that.”

“To be honest, I don't mind that it was Aaron,” I reply. “Better than Mark or either of my parents.”

“Ohhh definitely better than your parents,” he replies. “Brad would have killed me.”

“Yep,” I reply, nodding. “Anyway… I should grab my things & we should go.”

We?” He replies, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” I reply. “I’m gonna come with you. Your family is my family.”

He smiles, before leaning down & kissing me. I push him away.

“Don't,” I reply, hands on his chest. “I’m going to want to keep going.”

He smirks, but then drops his head. “You're right.”

I grab my jacket & bag, putting one strap on my shoulder as Tyler grabs his mobile & keys. We cross to the door, Tyler letting me go out first. He locks up & we walk around to the front. Aaron's waiting out by his car. He looks at Tyler & then tilts his head towards the van.

“I guess we’re banished to my van,” Tyler says, as Aaron gets into his car.

“Mmmm,” I reply.

“I don't blame him after our little show in there,” Tyler replies as we cross to his van.

He unlocks it. I open the passenger door, dumping my bag on the floor before climbing in as Tyler walks around the front to the driver's side. He gets in as I’m doing up my seatbelt & Aaron turns his engine on. Tyler pauses as he’s doing up his seatbelt & watches as Aaron drives off.

****

Aaron returns with Tyler & Piper in tow, & I notice the awkwardness from Aaron as he walks briskly ahead of the other two. I frown as first Aaron & then Tyler & Piper all sit down without a word- Aaron to my left, the other two to my right.

“What's up with you three?” I ask.

“Nothing,” Aaron replies.

I narrow my eyes, trying to figure out what he's hiding.

“Don't worry about it,” Aaron says.

I open my mouth, wanting to know more, but I know he won't so I sigh & turn my attention to looking through to the back room. That's where Mark is, discussing the case with other officers that are working on it.

The reception phone rings for the hundredth time & another officer answers. I notice in the corner of my eye as he puts the call on hold & then steps over to the doorway through.

“Constable Brennan,” he says.

Mark turns around. “Yes?”

“They're on line one,” the officer replies.

“Put it through to my desk.”

“Already have.”

I watch Mark hurry over to his desk, quickly picking up his desk phone. There's too much noise from other parts of the station for me to hear him, but I do see him look relieved at one point so my hopes of a breakthrough rise.

He hangs up & beckons his team over. He speaks to them for a minute, pointing at several of them who nod. Two of the four head out the front door, while two more wait for him. Mark puts on his vest & thigh holsters, & I straighten up. He leads the officers into reception, pointing for them to head outside. He watches them go before stepping towards me. I quickly stand.

“I have to go, so I’m going to make this quick,” he says. “That was Melbourne Airport. Security has identified him going through security there-”

I gasp.

“They didn't want to raise too much suspicion, so they let him go & they’ve been tailing him to his flight's gate,” Mark continues. “They're going to monitor him & detain him if his flight starts to board before we get there, which is why I have to go.”

“Let me go with you.”

He shakes his head.

“Mark. Please! I want to be there for Felicity.”

He falters slightly when I say Felicity.

“Mark?”

He sighs. “They're unsure if he's travelling with a small child.”

What?

“Brief version- he has two tickets, & is carrying something that's the size of a child Felicity's age, but there's a blanket over it & he told the security team that she's sleeping & they weren't able to lift it. Seems weird that they’d let him go, but he cleared the metal detector so they didn't think it might be a bomb & they're watching him anyway, they won't let him on the flight.”

I shake, struggling to keep back tears.

“Trust me, if he has Felicity, I’ll make sure that she's okay,” Mark replies, squeezing my arms. “That's why I’m taking two squad cars. But I really have to go. I’ll explain everything in more detail when I get back, okay?”

I nod. He kisses my forehead & then turns to leave. I watch him rush out the door. Aaron & Tyler stand & hug me.

****

Paige arrived shortly after, having come from her shift at Harold’s. When it was clear I was hyperventilating, she guided me outside for some fresh air, sitting me down under the statue. The others followed us outside, & we’ve been waiting there ever since.

I spot two squad cards drive into the carpark & I stand up. It’s an anxious wait, but soon enough two officers escort Zack through the greenery towards the station. The other two officers follow a few beats later, Mark close behind them. Initially the other officers block my view of Mark, but soon enough I can see him clearly & my chest tightens as I see that he's not carrying Felicity.

In seconds I’m running over to Zack, landing a hard punch against his cheek. The officers struggle to hold me back as well as hold him.

“WHERE IS SHE?” I scream.

Mark’s arms wrap around me, pinning my arms to my side & I struggle to get free.

“Get him inside!” Mark barks at the officers.

They nod & hurry him past me. I struggle to break free, but Mark’s holding me tight.

"Calm down, Aer," he whispers into my ear, as Zack is taken inside the station.

“I won't calm down!” I reply, still fighting him. “Where's Felicity?”

“I’ll explain, but not until you calm down.”

I stop struggling & he holds me for a few more seconds to make sure, before relaxing his arms. He turns me around to face him.

"She wasn't with him.”

I can't breathe! He places his hands on my cheeks, cupping my face & forcing me to stay focused on him.

“He refused to explain it, so we brought him back here,” Mark says. “I’m going to go talk to him now. I’m going to get to the bottom off this, but I need you to stay with the others.”

I nod. He looks over to Aaron & Tyler, & tilts his head towards me. Mark turns his attention back on me, giving me a smile. He lets go as Tyler steps beside me. I sway, feeling dizzy, & both of them grab me. They walk me over to the statue, sitting me down. Tyler & Aaron sit either side of me, & Mark squats in front of me, holding my hand while Piper disappears into Harold's. She returns with a bottle of water, which Mark takes & then pushes into my hands.

“Drink,” he says, undoing the cap.

I take a small sip. He smiles.

“Make sure she drinks more,” he says to Tyler & Aaron as he stands. “I need to get inside.”

I watch as he turns & walks towards the station, not taking my eyes off him until he disappears inside & the door shuts.

****

“How's Erin?” Zack asks as I step into the Interrogation room & close the door.

"A mess thanks to you," I reply, taking a seat next to my colleague. “You better start explaining yourself.”

“The day after I arrived in Erinsborough, I received a call,” he says. “They didn't say who they were, just that they knew who I was, that I had a daughter, & if I wanted to see her stay alive, then I needed to do what they told me.”

"Why didn't you report the call?” I ask. “You’ve known all this time that I’m a police officer.”

He nods. “I wanted to,” he replies. “But they threatened to kill Felicity if I did. They sent me photos of her. It was clear someone was following Erin. And I know, I should have warned Erin, but I knew she would alert you & I feared they would attack Felicity.”

“What did they want you to do?”

“I assume you know about the custody request.”

I clench my jaw. “I was with Erin when she found out about it. We’d just arrived back home after the hospital.”

“I don't want to take Felicity from Erin,” he replies. “She's better off with her mother than she will ever be with me. But they demanded it.”

“And taking her today?”

He hesitates. “That was all me.”

"Why?" I ask. "Surely you knew how much the custody request was stressing Erin out. Why would you think it was okay to take Felicity without telling Erin? Don't you realise that makes you look like you were doing a runner?”

“I know, & I’m sorry for that!” He replies. “But I couldn't explain to her the truth, for the same reasons as I couldn't the other day. I was scared for Felicity, & my instincts told me to take her & get her into the army base. They can't get her there. I planned on calling Erin once I was there, & explaining everything.”

“You said you believe there was someone following Erin. Did you think you could take Felicity without them noticing?”

“I thought I could get away before they could catch me.”

“So you had Felicity. But when we picked you up, she wasn't with you. So… Where is she?”

“I don't know.”

I sigh, glaring at him.

“Honestly, Mark, I don't know,” he replies. “I had her, parked in the car park at the airport & was about to get her out of the back, when I was attacked. Someone hit me from behind. When I woke up, they’d put me in the car. Felicity was gone, a doll in her place. I knew it was them, because I got a text from a blocked number saying so. It's still on my mobile.”

My colleague passes the evidence bag with Zack’s mobile. I place it between Zack & myself, & he unlocks it through the bag. I pull it over to me, & check the messages. It opens in the thread- blocked number but the message is there.

You shouldn't have tried to run. She's mine now.

I pass it to my colleague & look at Zack.

“For the record, Zack's phone confirms the text,” I say. “It says, & I quote, ‘You shouldn't have tried to run. She's mine now’. The number has been blocked.”

“Believe me now?”

“Why did you still try to get on the flight?”

“I knew they would be monitoring me,” he replies. “The text came through just after I woke. It's clear they have a way of watching me. I was afraid of what they’d do if I called you. I knew Erin would have discovered that Felicity wasn't at the centre, & that you’d know too. I figured, given the custody request, you’d alert the airport & that authorities would be watching for me. So I knew that was the best way to draw your attention but not alert whoever was watching me to it.”

“And the doll?”

“Taking it was stupid, I know. But it was the only way to cover myself. I was scared about them watching me.”

“Do you know who it is?”

Zack sits back & crosses his arms. “And why would I keep giving you information? You clearly don't believe me.”

“I’m concerned about the safety of Felicity,” I reply. “So should you. Which is why you need to keep telling me everything you know.”

He shakes his head. I clench my jaw.

****

“Erin,” Mark calls.

I look towards the station, seeing him walking over. He seems agitated. I stand & meet him partway over.

"What's going on?” I ask.

“Zack’s explained some of the story, but he's holding back crucial information.”

“What? Why?”

He sighs. “I don't know. Maybe to cover his own ass?”

“What do you know so far?”

“He's been threatened by someone, we’re not sure who, but they threatened to kill Felicity in order to get him to comply.”

I gasp, covering my hand with one hand. Mark holds my upper arms.

“He's admitted they forced him into the custody request, that he would never want to take her away from you, but they put him in a position where he had no choice,” he says. “He couldn't tell either of us, for fear that they’d do something to Felicity.”

“And… Today?”

“He was trying to get Felicity out of danger,” he replies. “He says he planned on taking her to Darwin, to the army base where whoever is threatening her can't get her. And then he would call you.”

“In the mean time I lose my mind, worried sick!”

He nods. “I know. I’ve already told him.”

“Do you believe him?”

He hesitates. “There's a text on his mobile that supports his story as to where Felicity is right now, & we’ve requested his phone records to verify the calls.”

“Where is she?”

“He says he was attacked at the airport carpark,” he says. “He was knocked unconscious & when he woke… She was gone. All he has is the text.”

"But you say he’s holding something back?”

He sighs. “I have a gut feeling that he knows who has her,” he says. “He just refuses to tell me. He thinks I don't believe him enough.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’ve talked to Sarge about an idea I have.”

“And?”

“It's a very unusual tactic, completely off book.”

“Just tell me, Mark!”

“I want you to be in there with him,” he says. “Maybe he’ll open up to you.”

“Is that a good idea?” Tyler asks, stepping over. “I mean, he’s done all of this. You sure you want to leave her alone in the same room as him? She might kill the guy.”

“I’ll kill him after I get Felicity back.”

****

I sigh, fed up with the silence. I’ve been sitting in with Zack for a while. He hasn't said a word to me. Mark had shown me in, using me to distract Zack so he could turn on the recorder again. Mark knew it would be good to have our conversation recorded, but felt like Zack wouldn't be honest if he knew it was being recorded.

“You need to tell them everything,” I say.

"I have."

I shake my head. “You're hiding something.”

He leans forward. “I’m not.”

I get up & pace. I then step back over to the table, place both hands on it & lean in close to him.

“You want to ensure Felicity is safe?” I ask. “There's one way you can do that. Tell us what you're hiding.”

“Honestly, Erin. I'm not hiding anything from you or the cops! I care about our daughter.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Where was this care two years & three months ago, when I told you I was pregnant?” I ask. “Where were you when I felt her kick for the first time? When I spent thirteen hours in labour, screaming from the pain, all alone? When she crawled for the first time? When she walked for the first time? When she said her first word? You’ve never shown much care for her. You never wanted her.”

“I sent you money.”

I scoff. “More like threw it at me. You made me feel like we were nothing to you. You chose to put the army before us. So why should I believe you when you say that you care for her, now that some stranger has her? When you're the reason that she's even there?!”

“When you told me you were pregnant, I… I wasn't ready for kids,” he says. “I was already training in the army, & I wasn't ready to settle down with a family. You’ve let me stay in her life, which is more than I deserved given how badly I treated you. Yes, I haven't been there the way you wanted me to. Yes, I’ve missed those big milestones so far. But even though I’m not there every single day to see her grow, it doesn't mean that I don't care for her.”

He reaches out & places his left hand on top of my right. I pull mine back, standing up & crossing my arms.

"Do you know how stressful it's been this afternoon?” I ask. “Knowing that she's out there with you? She barely knows you. Up until this week, you’ve been just a face in photos & a handful of Skype calls. So it would be distressing enough for her to be with you without me. And now I find out that she's been taken, & all I can think of is how terrified she is!”

“I’m scared for her too.”

I shake my head.

“You can think of me as the enemy if you want, Erin,” he says. “But don't use that to claim that I don't care about my own flesh & blood. I may not be there all the time, but I’m still her father & I still care about her.”

“So prove it, Zack! Help me get her back!”

“I’ve told you everything that I remember!”

I shake my head, fighting tears. “Why don't I believe you?”

“You tell me.”

"Surely there's something else,” I say, placing my hands on the table & leaning over. “Even if it's a small thing.”

He sighs. He then frowns, thinking hard. “When they knocked me out at the carpark… I wasn't completely out when they moved me into the backseat.”

“Yes! Good. Keep going.”

“Felicity… She was crying. Screaming.”

My chest tightens. “My poor baby.”

“There was this man… Who opened the door… The other side.”

“Okay. What did he look like?”

“Uh…” He closes his eyes, brow furrowed as he thinks hard. “Bald. Slightly scruffy beard. Uh… I’d say older than us. Was wearing an expensive looking suit.” He looks at me. “I can't recall any more of what he was like.”

“That's okay, Zack. It's a good start,” I reply with a reassuring smile. “Mark can look through the security footage for him.”

“I… I think there was more than just him.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I… I remember several voices.”

“Okay. Anything you remember? Any words you remember hearing?”

He shakes his head. “It was in a different language,” he says. “Either Italian or Greek. I get the two confused.”

“It's okay. What about names? Surely they said each others’ names?”

He thinks. “The bald man talked to Felicity in English,” he says. “I… I don't remember anything else. I think that's when I passed out.”

I sigh, hanging my head. Sooo close, yet so far!

"Although..."

I look up at him. “Yes?”

“I do vaguely remember one man said a name,” he says. “Just as I passed out.”

“Close your eyes for me.”

He frowns. “Why?”

“I’m going to talk you through a relaxation method. It's worth trying in order to shake those memories to the surface.”

He nods, & then closes his eyes.

“Sit back, & take three deep breaths,” I say. “Slowly inhale, hold, slowly exhale.”

He sits back in his chair, & I watch him take three deep breaths.

“Think about being in the car, that moment when the man said the name,” I tell him. “Focus on just that, & my voice. Can you understand what he's saying?”

He’s silent for an excruciatingly long minute. I let him have time to think, knowing pushing him will risk him to be frustrated & he won't find the word.

After several minutes, he sighs as he shakes his head & open his eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

“Try again.”

“I can't!” He snaps, hitting the table with both his hands.

“Take a moment to think of this image then,” I reply, leaning in close to him. “Felicity sitting in a room, crying & screaming for me. Maybe even calling out for you. She's terrified & distraught. And the best chance we have of finding her is for you to remember that name. So please try again.”

He stares at me. He then sits back & relaxes, closing his eyes.

"Tomato," he says.

I frown. “What?”

He frowns. “No… That's not right,” He says. “Something similar to that…”

I shake my head. I turn away, struggling to keep back tears. I walk across the room as I slide my hands into the hair on the top of my head & hold my hands there. I close my eyes. Any chance of us finding her soon is slipping through our hands. And there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

"Dimato.”

I freeze, my stomach backflipping. I slowly turn around as I drop my hands.

What?

He opens his eyes & looks at me. “That's the name.”

I cross back to the table, once again putting my hands on the table. “Are you sure?”

He nods.

“You have to be absolutely positive.”

“Erin, I promise you that's what I heard,” he says. “One of the men called the bald guy that.”

Feeling my chest tightening from panic, I push aside the bad thoughts threatening to consume my mind.

"Erin?” Zack asks, but it's faint as I step back.

I turn, reaching the door in one stride & yank it open. I run out, crashing into Mark as I reach reception. He steps back to regain balance, holding my arms tightly.

"Aer?" He asks, looking concerned.

I try to hold back the tears, but I can’t.

"Hey, shhh," he says. "Tell me what's wrong?”

I struggle to get the words out. “Felicity… Felicity's been taken… He’s got her.”

“Who has her?”

I grip his shirt, desperate for something to hold on to. Something to ground me.

“Aer,” he says, “Look at me.”

I look him in the eyes.

“Take a deep breath,” he says. “And tell me.”

I take a few shaky breaths. And then the word falls out of my mouth.

“Dimato.”

Chapter Text

I follow Mark back into the interrogation room. He holds the door open for me, closing it behind me. He then places a piece of paper down on the table in front of Zack. Six mugshots, each numbered. Zack looks at them.

“That one,” he says, tapping number five.

“Think carefully,” Mark replies.

Zack stares at the photos, studying each of them. His eyes keep returning to number five.

"That's definitely him,” Zack says, pointing to number five. “He has a scruffy beard now, but… That's definitely him.”

I cover my face, fighting back tears.

“For the record,” Mark says. “Zack Freeman has positively identified Dennis Dimato from a mugshot line-up. Dimato has kidnapped Felicity Brennan.”

Mark steps over, wrapping his arm around me. I drop my hands, wrapping my arms around him.

"I'm sorry, Erin,” Zack says.

I let go of Mark, stepping forward & slamming my hands on the desk, making Zack jump.

“She was safe until you took her!” I shout. “And now she's in the hands of the nastiest man, hell bent on destroying my family. I will never, ever forgive you for this!”

Mark pulls me back before I can do anything else. Zack's phone beeps with a message. We all frown. Mark steps over, picking up the evidence bag. He turns the screen on. I peer at it.

Come find me, Constable Brennan.

“How… How does he…?” I ask.

Another message appears- a photo. Mark takes the phone out of the bag & places it in front of Zack. Zack unlocks it, quickly disabling the passcode.

“So you don't have to keep handing it to me to unlock it,” Zack says, sliding it back over to Mark.

Mark picks it up & looks at the photo. I try to look, but he turns it so I can't see. I can tell from his face that it's of Felicity. I grip the chair in front of me for support, forcing back the image in my mind of Felicity dead.

And then Zack's phone rings. Mark places the phone on the table & answers, putting the call on speaker.

“You’ve been awfully quiet, Erin,” A man’s voice comes through the phone. Going off Mark’s jaw clench, I know it's Dimato. “I thought you’d be far more vocal after seeing your little one’s face. Or has your cop brother denied you the chance to see her one last time?”

“Just let her go!” I reply.

“And why would I do that?” He asks. “Why would I return to you the one thing you cherish most, when you killed my nephew?”

“Is that why you're doing this?” I ask. “Because you think that I killed Eddie?”

“I don't think. I know you did.”

“He killed himself. All the evidence proves that,” I reply, leaning in towards the table. “Your nephew was stupid enough to kill himself.”

Mark lightly hits my arm. I look at him & he glares as he shakes his head.

“And I’m supposed to believe the colleagues of your brother?” Dimato asks.

“Yes.”

Dimato laughs. “Maybe I should keep you on the line so you can hear her scream for you.”

I snatch up Zack’s phone, stepping away from Mark before he can take it from me.

“Listen here, Dimato,” I snarl into it, holding it close to my face. “You hurt her in any way, & I will ensure that you get buried six feet under. Maybe you’ll still be alive, so you can slowly suffocate while surrounded by darkness as black as your heart.”

Dimato laughs. “Speaking like a true murderer, Erin,” he says. “I wonder what your by-the-book brother has to say about that?”

Mark comes over, & opens his mouth, but I get in first.

“Just give me my daughter back!”

"You want her back, you better get started finding where we are.”

“Or, we talk,” I reply. “Face. To. Face.”

Mark’s eyes widen. “No,” he mouths.

“And how do I know that you're not luring me into a trap?”

“You get to pick the place,” I reply, watching as Mark tries to be angry quietly. “And I’ll come alone.”

Mark runs a hand down his face.

Dimato stays silent.

“Do we have a deal?” I ask.

“If it turns out that you're lying, I won't hesitate to put her down.”

“The police don't even know this is happening. I’m talking to you on my own. Mark’s out of the room.”

“Then you’ll keep it from him,” Dimato replies. “I’ll text Mr Freeman’s phone the details shortly.”

“Good.”

He hangs up. Mark looks furious. He opens his mouth but I hold a hand up to silence him.

“The phone is tapped,” I mouth.

He nods, & I lower my hand. He snatches the mobile from me, puts it back into the evidence bag & places it on the table. He grabs my arm, pushes me out of the room, shuts the door behind us & then escorts me into the other interrogation room.

“What the hell?!” He says.

Hey!” I reply. “Before you jump down me for that, hear me out, okay?”

He sighs, crossing his arms as he scowls.

“We set up a perimeter around wherever he picks,” I say. “At a distance where he won't see you, but one that blocks all his exits- both road & by foot.”

“What about you?” He asks. “What about Felicity?”

“I’ll go in-”

He sighs, shaking his head.

“But you’ll be tailing me, okay?” I reply. “You’ll be there, hidden but watching the whole thing. You’ll have our backs.”

"It's a very dangerous plan.”

“And the only way we have of getting my daughter back, Mark! I’m not going to leave her with him overnight!”

“And what happens if he catches on?” He asks. “What happens if you don't have Felicity back, & he opens fire? What if Felicity or you get hit?”

“So get an ambulance on the perimeter!”

He shakes his head.

“Mark, I’m not asking for your permission,” I add. “I’m asking you to help me.”

“And I won't.”

“Fine. I’ll go on my own,” I reply, stepping past him towards the door.

He stops me by putting his arm across the doorway to block my path.

“No, you won't.”

“I’m getting my daughter back,” I reply. “With or without police assistance.”

He sighs. "You're stubborn, you know that?”

“I just want my terrified daughter back,” I reply. “You’ll know that feeling soon enough.”

He hangs his head. “Fine,” He says. “But I’m going to need to talk to Sarge. He’ll need to give permission, as we’ll need a large amount of our officers.”

I nod. “I’ll go wait in with Zack. Wait for the text.”

“If it comes in… wait for me.”

I smile. “I wouldn't leave without my protective brother.”

He narrows his eyes. “You just threatened to.”

“Emphasis on the threatened,” I reply. “You know I was just trying to get you to look past your anger over my plan & agree to help.”

He shakes his head, sighing.

****

At 6pm, as the sunlight is fading, Mark walks out of the station. Alone. He crosses to us, greeting me with a kiss.

“You look mad,” I say, wrapping my arms around him.

“You should all head home,” he says to Tyler, Aaron, Piper & myself.

“What about Erin?” Aaron asks.

“She… She has to stay,” Mark replies.

“What's going on?” Tyler asks.

Mark explains that Zack’s identified Dimato as the one behind all of this, & how Erin recklessly arranged to meet him face to face & alone.

"We'll be heading out soon to the arranged meeting place," he says. "It would be good for you to all go home & wait for us there.”

The others say good luck & goodbye. I hang back. Mark pulls me into a tight hug.

“Come back to me,” I whisper as he hug.

“I will,” he whispers. “We all will.”

We part. I give him a long kiss.

“Bye,” I whisper.

“Bye,” he whispers back. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

I watch him head back inside, before heading to the carpark to catch up with the others.

****

After the police confirm that Dimato, Felicity & his men are in the building, Sarge gets the perimeter set up- road blocks at all main roads a block away in every direction, with the back streets covered by on-foot officers.

Mark tightens a bulletproof vest on me.

“Is this necessary?” I ask.

“You wanting to go in on your own is too much of a risk,” he says. “This way, I can feel a little less anxious about your safety.”

“And what if he gets his men to search me?”

“Then you come up with a way of getting him not to,” he replies. “If they open fire, get Felicity & find the closest place you can hide.”

I tilt my head. “Like I needed that advice.”

“Doesn't hurt to reiterate it,” he replies. “There's also a microphone hidden right here…” He points to the top of the chest plate, at the neckline. “So we’ll be able to hear everything.”

“Your team came up with this so fast.”

“We already had the vest. It's a new bit of our gear.”

“Right,” I reply. “I feel less special now.”

He smiles. “You're always special to me.”

I smile as I pull my jacket back on. I do it up to hide the vest.

“Unfortunately we don't have an earpiece that will be easily hidden, so I won't be able to talk to you once you're in there.”

“Ah, there's the silver lining,” I tease.

He looks unamused. “Now’s not the time to joke, Aer.”

“Alright, let's do this,” Sarge says.

Mark & a team of four officers escort me most of the way from the command centre to the building where Dimato is.

“Aer,” Mark says, when we reach the point where I go on by myself.

I turn to him. “I’ll be alright.”

He sighs. “If anything happens, promise me you won't go after Dimato,” he says. “Leave him to me. You only need to care about getting Felicity into a safe spot.”

I nod. “I will.”

He smiles. “Good.”

He pulls me in, giving me a crushing hug.

“Can't. Breathe,” I say.

He relaxes a little, still hugging me but I can breathe now. “Be careful.”

I nod. “I will.”

He lets me go, & I head off towards the building. I turn back, seeing him standing there watching me, looking extremely worried. I give him a reassuring smile, before turning around & continuing on my way.

****

I walk into the warehouse, escorted by two of Dimato's men. Dimato is waiting with more of his men in an open space.

“Well, well, well,” he says. “You're pretty.”

“Where's my daughter?”

“We’ll get to her in a minute,” he replies, walking over to me.

He circles me, creepily looking me over.

“You really are a beautiful creature,” he says, stepping in front of me, well in my personal space.

I lean back slightly. “We’ve met before.”

“Eddie wasn't good enough for you,” he replies. “He’s a good kid, but… Not the sharpest tool in our family. Doesn't know how to...” He strokes my chin. “Treat a woman right.”

I lift my hand & push his hand away. “What do you want?”

“I want to make a deal with you,” he replies. “I’ll drop all this… Hate. All the blame I have for you over Eddie's death.”

I roll my eyes.

“I’ll let that all go, & give you- & Felicity- a life of luxury for the rest of your life.”

****

“And what's the catch?” Erin's voice comes through my earpiece as I lead my team towards the warehouse, ready to storm it if she needs us. Three other teams are waiting at other entry points.

“That you…” Dimato says. “You become my mistress.”

I tighten my hold on my gun. I’ll kill him!!!

****

I step back, feeling sick at his suggestion. Repulsed.

“I’m giving you the chance to provide Felicity with the best life she could ever have,” he says, circling me once again. “She’ll have our protection. You won't have to worry about her being taken ever again.”

“You are aware of the fact that Felicity isn't Eddie's. You have no obligation towards us.”

“I am fully aware of that fact. I’ve been blackmailing her stupid father all week!” He says. “I’m simply giving you the opportunity for a much better life.”

“As long as I hand myself over to you, so you can rape me whenever you wish.”

He steps really close to me. “It won't be rape,” he replies. “Over time, you will love me.”

I scoff.

“You can sleep in a different room until you do,” he says. “Until you're ready to share my bed.”

“I will never love you.”

“You haven't given me a chance.”

“Don't need to. I know what you're like,” I reply. “And do you really think that I would even consider sleeping with you after everything you’ve done to my family?”

He grabs my neck. “You're being rather ungrateful,” he replies. “I wouldn't be so bold, given how much power I hold. I could get my men to bring out your little girl. Let you watch her die.” He brings his face very close to mine. “Or watch you die a slow, painful death.”

I lift my right knee, colliding it with his private parts, before punching his gut. He lets go of my neck, stumbling back a few steps as he bends over in pain. His men move towards us, but Dimato holds his hand up. They stop.

“Feisty,” he says to me. “You’d make a good asset.”

“Mmm,” I reply. “But you’ll never find out.”

He reaches into his pocket, bringing out a radio. He activates it. “Bring in the screamer,” he says.

A door across the other side of the space opens. An Asian woman walks out & I gasp as I see Felicity in her arms. Crying.

Mummmmmmmmyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!!!!” She screams when she sees me as she reaches for me.

I step towards her, but Dimato grabs me. I try & fight, but he has a tight grip on my arm.

“You can have her back,” he says. “Only if you agree to my condition.”

I think through the situation- Mark & the other cops could barge in now. I could say the code word, the signal we agreed upon to bring them in. But that leaves me with getting Felicity from that woman. And I don't like my chances of attempting to fight her without hurting Felicity. Especially with the police fighting Dimato & his men.

So there's only one way I can get Felicity safely. But in order to get her, I have to do the only thing that makes me so sick.

I close my eyes, taking several deep breaths to ease the nausea. I then turn to Dimato, look him in the eyes, & say, “I agree.”

“I don't believe you.”

“I’ll do whatever it takes to save my baby girl.”

“Prove it.”

“How?” I reply. “Do you want me to pull my pants down, spread my legs & let you screw me?”

He smirks. “If that's what you’d like.”

I stare at him.

“How about just a kiss?” He asks. “For now.”

I suppress the urge to vomit. I glance at Felicity, knowing I have to keep this up until I can get her. And then this can all be over.

I step over to Dimato, grab his shirt, get on my tip-toes & kiss him. He pulls me in closer, to deepen the kiss. Scared he’ll feel the vest & not wanting to kiss him too much, I push back, breaking us apart.

He laughs. “Playing hard to get, are we?”

“You need to be lenient if this is going to work,” I reply. “You can't expect me to be all over you from right now. Not with what you’ve done to me, to Tyler, to Paige & Mark.”

“Do you know what I do to show my dominance? To bring new members under my command?”

“A few things spring to mind,” I reply. “But I’ll keep them to myself.”

He smiles. “I use force. As much as is required to bring them in.”

He takes a step closer. I instinctively step back.

“Test my patience any more, Erin,” he says. “And I’ll have no choice but to use all the force I have to to bring you in to line.”

“What? You’ll rape me until I submit?”

“You should be more grateful.”

“It's been a very tough week.”

He looks me up & down. He then looks at the Asian woman. “Let her have her screaming kid back.”

“Are you sure?” The woman asks.

“Maybe she'll be more compliant if she gets to hold her.”

He then looks at me. He gestures towards Felicity. I walk over, holding back from running so I don't look too eager. Felicity leans forward, reaching for me. I put my hands in her armpits & lift her from the woman's hands. I hold her tight, putting her head high near my neck so she'll hear my heartbeat. I cup her head with my right hand, my fingers playing with her hair. It's a comforting method. I kiss her head as she grips my jacket.

“Lets get out of here,” Dimato says. “In case Constable Brennan is smart enough to track his sister here.”

His men close in on us, & Dimato walks over to me. His men make a formation- two ahead of us, one either side of us & then the last three behind us. The Asian woman stands behind us, ahead of the men.

We walk off, Dimato next to me the whole time. I realise we’re heading straight towards the side where Mark & his team are waiting. I have to warn them somehow.

I look down at Felicity, knowing if I whisper to her, I can cover myself.

“Hey, we're almost out of here,” I whisper, just loud enough that I know Mark can hear. “Almost out.” I kiss Felicity, leaving my lips against her & drop my voice a little more. “South side.”

I pray that Mark heard all of it & that they're prepared. We approach the door & my heart pounds. One of the men in front reaches for the door. Just as he does, it flies open- he gets shot & the team come in, shooting the men that they can.

Dimato grabs my hair, yanking me towards him. Mark clenches his jaw, training his gun on Dimato.

“I knew you were a two-faced bitch,” Dimato snarls into my ear.

“Like I said,” I reply. “I’d do anything to get my baby back.”

“Well,” he replies. “Your brother here now has a tough decision to make.”

“I’m not afraid to take you out,” Mark replies.

Dimato pulls out a gun, & presses it to my temple.

“But can you kill me faster than I can kill her?” Dimato asks.

This is a difficult situation- I have hold of Felicity, Dimato has a gun to my head but is still holding my hair tightly, & Mark won't be able to kill him in time.

Mark looks behind us, at the Asian woman. He then looks at Dimato again.

“Shoot my sister,” Mark says. “And I’ll make sure Michelle dies.”

Dimato laughs. “Go ahead,” he replies. “I don't care. She's replicable. Your sister, on the other hand, isn't. So risk losing her.”

“Do it, Mark,” I say. “Save Felicity.”

Dimato lowers his gun. He then forces me to turn towards him, & points the gun straight at Felicity.

“Want to risk it now, Constable?” Dimato asks, looking at Mark.

I study the way Dimato is standing, noting how high his arm is. Just within my roundhouse kick range, adjusted to take into consideration Felicity. I can disarm him long enough to protect Felicity & give Mark a chance to take him down.

I look at Mark & he glances at me long enough to see my nod. I shift Felicity a little, putting her in the best position to be protected when I twist mid-kick. I’m just about to launch into it when…

More of Dimato's men appear behind us. I see Mark tap the button on his radio he normally holds down to talk- he taps it twice, quickly. A signal, for sure. Calling the other teams in.

But there's no time to waste.

I do a roundhouse kick, turning my back to Dimato afterwards to shield Felicity. But as I put my right leg down again, I feel a sharp pain in it- so much that my vision blurs.

Both sides fire & I feel someone push me over & down behind a large wooden crate. I kneel on the floor, staying hunched over to give Felicity as much protection as possible. I look over my shoulder, finding Mark crouched next to me- he pops up every so often to fire off a few bullets.

Within minutes, the gunfire ceases.

“Where's Dimato & Michelle?” Mark asks into his radio.

There's a moment of silence.

“Both are in custody,” Another officer responds through the radio. “They tried to run, but encountered Team Bravo. We have them both.”

“Good,” Mark replies, relieved.

"The rest of his men are all dead.”

“Even better,” Mark replies. “Good job everyone.”

“What about your sister & her daughter?” Sarge asks over the radio.

“Both are with me,” Mark replies. “Both safe.”

I straighten up, sighing as I shift to sit on the floor. The pain in my right leg returns & I cry out.

“Erin?” He asks, concerned.

“Right leg,” I say, through the pain.

Mark runs his hands over my leg, searching for an injury. His left hand touches the back of my thigh, & I cry out.

"You're bleeding,” he replies, reaching for his radio. “I need the ambulance to the south breech point immediately. Erin's been shot.”

Chapter Text

Erin nearly passes out while we wait for the paramedics- from the pain more than blood loss. I get her to lie down, her head in my lap. The paramedics examine her thigh.

“It looks worse than it is,” The female paramedic, Gina, says. “Deep graze.”

“The pain?” Erin asks, breathing heavily.

“You said you were moving when it happened,” Gina replies. “Your muscle was tight. The natural movement your thigh muscles make, combined with the damage the bullet made would create the intense pain you’re feeling.”

“We can give you a green whistle to ease the pain,” Darren, the other paramedic, says. “You’re going to need to go to Erinsborough hospital to get it stitched.”

I nod. “Sounds like a good plan.”

Darren hands her a green whistle. She sucks on it as they put a bandage on her leg.

“I’ll go get the gurney,” Darren says.

“No,” Erin says.

“We need to get you into the ambulance.”

“I wanna walk.”

“Aer, you almost passed out,” I tell her.

“I can do it!” She replies. “I’m not going to let Dimato have the satisfaction of seeing me being carried to the ambulance.”

Darren & Gina look at me, waiting for my call.

“Let her walk.”

Gina packs up their things as I help Erin sit up. She still has Felicity cradled against her chest.

“It will be easier to help you up if you let her go,” Gina says.

Erin shakes her head.

“This was all to save her daughter,” I explain.

“Okay,” Gina replies. “Can you get her up?”

I nod. Gina & I both crouch. I wrap my arms around Erin's waist.

“On the count of three, we’ll stand. Okay, Aer?”

She nods.

“One… Two… Three,” I say, before standing up.

It takes a bit of effort to get her up, but I manage to pull her to her feet. Or really foot, given she tentatively puts weight on her right foot. I step to her right, wrapping my left arm around her back. I walk her out.

****

As Mark & Gina escort me to the ambulance, I look towards the cop cars to my left. I watch as two officers escort Dimato, handcuffed, over to one of the cars. He sees me as he waits for them to open the back door. I smirk, holding Felicity just that little bit tighter.

One officer guides him into the car & shuts the door. I look at Mark & smile.

“What?” He says.

“Thank you,” I reply. “For everything tonight.”

He smiles, before kissing my temple. He & Gina help me climb into the ambulance. Once I’m settled on the gurney, Mark sits down in the chair behind my head & buckles in.

****

Getting up the front stairs at home is a slow process. Karl gave me some pain medication, so it doesn't hurt that much. But it still aches. Mark walks up behind me, to make sure that I’m okay & don't fall. We’d dropped by the station on the way home, so Mark could return his gear & the vest I’d worn.

Mark opens the security door & then the front door, holding it open so I can walk through first. Paige is sitting in the armchair, while Aaron, Tyler & Piper sit on the couch, the latter two cuddled up together. They all look as I step in with Felicity.

They all get up & come over, taking turns hugging me. Paige hugs Mark.

“There's food keeping warm in the oven for you all,” Paige tells Mark & I. “Mum made it & brought it over.”

Mark nods. “Thank her for us.”

“Already have.”

“Go sit at the table,” Aaron says. “We’ll get it for you.”

In a daze, I follow the others over to the dining table & sit down. Felicity opens her eyes, looking sleepy. I turn her around, resting her back against my chest.

I feed Felicity, the others talking sounding nothing but distorted noise. The few times I look up from Felicity, I can tell that Mark’s filling them in on what happened. I can't get the image of being forced to kiss Dimato out of my head.

"Hey," Mark says, some time later. “You should eat.”

I shake my head.

“Aer, you need to.”

“I’ve had enough.”

“You’ve barely touched it.”

“I’m not hungry,” I reply, meeting his eyes.

And there it is- the sudden recognition in his eyes. The understanding of what's going on in my head. He nods.

“Alright,” he says. “Lets get you through there. I’ll give Felicity her bath while you do whatever you want to do before bed.”

I nod. We both stand. I follow him through to the bathroom. I sit on the floor, getting lost in my own nightmare memories, as he gives Felicity her bath.

"I'm… I’m going to have a shower,” I say, as he dries Felicity off.

He looks at me. “Okay. I’ll keep going with her bedtime routine.”

He wraps her in her towel, picks her up & then stands. He crosses to the door.

“Call out to me if you need me,” he says.

I nod. He leaves.

****

I run the shower very hot. Not enough to scold me, but hot enough that I feel it. I feel so numb.

As much as I try, I can't shake the memories from tonight. I can't shake Dimato's smirk. The smug look when I agreed to his sick plan. Having to kiss him.

I sit down, letting the water hit my back as I draw my legs up & wrap my arms around them. I let the tears out.

****

I push the door to my room open, finding Mark sitting on my bed. Felicity's tucked in, barely keeping her eyes open.

“Hey,” he softly says.

"Hey," I reply. "Thanks for taking care of her.”

“Always happy to help,” he replies, smiling. He kisses Felicity's forehead & then stands. “I’ll let you get dressed.”

I nod as he walks over to me. “I think I might just sleep.”

He nods. “Thought you might,” he replies. “It's been a long day.”

“Long week.”

He smiles slightly. “True. But it's all over now.”

I nod. “Finally.”

“Sleep well,” he says, before kissing my forehead. “Night.”

“Night.”

I watch him head back to the others, waiting until he disappears from view, & then I shut the door. I get changed into my pjs, dump my towel over the back of a chair, & then crawl into bed. I switch off the bedside lamp, the room still lit a little by Felicity's nightlight.

I lie down beside her, lying on my left side to face her. Her eyes are drifting shut. I smile, leaning in & kissing her cheek.

“Good night, my little angel,” I whisper.

****

Two weeks later

Given the severity & amount of charges against Dimato, the court fast-tracked his trial & it begins today. He faces charges for the attempted murder of Paige & Mark, ordering my murder by sending Eddie to kill me, blackmailing Zack & the kidnap & attempted murder of Felicity. As well as a range of other lesser charges.

For a while, it was uncertain that I would attend the trial. Toadie gave me the choice to testify via video link, giving me the opportunity not to be in the same room as Dimato. But I’m determined to face him & show him that he hasn't broken me.

Mark, Paige, Piper, Tyler & myself are taken into a separate room where the witnesses wait. One by one, they are all called through- Tyler first, then Piper, Paige & finally Mark.

“Are you going to be okay?” Mark asks. “I can ask if they’ll let Aaron come sit with you.”

“I’ll be alright.”

“You sure?”

I nod. He kisses my forehead, giving my hand a squeeze before he walks over to the door. He looks over & smiles at me before disappearing out the door.

I sigh, sinking into the chair. Being alone in the room leaves me to my own thoughts for the first time all day. I’d intentionally kept myself busy up until now- talking to the others or Felicity, who is now at childcare. We're not allowed to discuss the case, but they let us talk about other things while we waited. Impossible to have a conversation when you're on your own- unless you want to look crazy. And so I’m left to my thoughts. But they fall almost immediately into reliving the night I faced Dimato.

I grab my sketch book out & focus on finishing a drawing of myself & Felicity that I started a few days ago.

Soon enough, those memories return, & I can't breathe. I ask the guard if I can go to the bathroom, & he escorts me to it. I go inside & grip one of the basins, staring at myself in the mirror.

“You can do this, Erin,” I say to myself.

I splash my face with water, dry it off & then head out. I return to the room with the guard. It's only a few minutes later before I’m called to the court room. I pack up my sketch book & pencils, before being escorted to the court room. I take a moment at the doors to compose myself. I close my eyes, taking a deep breath in… Hold… Slowly exhale. I open my eyes & nod at the assistant, who opens the door for me.

****

“Here we go,” Aaron says, as he, Mark & Tyler return to our table at The Waterhole.

Aaron has hold of an open champagne bottle & a champagne glass, Tyler has two champagne glasses & a glass of coke a cola, while Mark has two champagne glasses & Felicity’s sippy cup that's freshly filled with apple juice. They put everything down on our table, except Mark hands Felicity hers straight away. Piper takes the glass of coke as my brothers take their seats.

“That's an expensive bottle,” I say, as Aaron starts to pour the glasses.

“Sheila gave it to us for free,” he replies. “Spoiling us.”

“She said we deserved a treat,” Mark adds.

“Hmmm, if this is what we get,” I reply. “Maybe I should sleep with psychopathic nephews of crime lords more often!”

Mark gives me an unamused look.

“Too soon to joke?” I ask, giving him a smile.

Way too soon,” he replies.

“Argh! Party pooper!”

A waiter places the large platter of chips down on our table.

“Oooo!” I say. “Lets dig in, cause this looks delicious!”

“Hang on,” Aaron says, as I reach for a chip. “I want to make a speech first.”

I scrunch up my face. “Really?”

He nods. “I’ll keep it short, alright?”

I nod.

“Over the last few weeks, we’ve been through a lot. Actually… Basically the whole year so far…” He says. “But we’re all still here.”

“Dimato's finally behind bars,” Tyler adds.

Finally out of our lives,” Mark adds, putting his arm around Paige. “Forever.”

“We’ve got Erin & little Felicity with us,” Aaron says. “And soon, two more little ones. Every time our family expands, it strengthens us. Both as a group, but as individuals. We’ve got each others’ back.”

He raises his glass & we all do the same.

“So here's to a much happier rest of the year,” he says. “But even if we’re faced with more drama, here’s to us supporting each other through the highs & lows to come.”

“How about just ‘to family’?” I ask.

Everyone nods.

“To family,” Aaron says.

“To family,” Mark, Paige, Tyler, Piper & I echo.

We all clink glasses, except of course Felicity, & take a sip.

“Now can we eat?” I ask.

Aaron chuckles & nods.

We all dig in to the chips. I put a handful on a napkin, letting them cool off for Felicity. After all of the events this week, it's so good to finally unwind with my family.

Chapter Text

“Wow,” I sarcastically say, standing in the kitchen with Mark. “It's a floor!”

He sighs, unimpressed with my reaction. “It's new!”

“Am I meant to be excited?”

“Yeeeah!” He replies. “We don't have that nasty bloodstain anymore!”

I smile at his cuteness. “How much did it bug your OCD to have that there?”

He puts his arm around me. “I did it for you.”

“Yeah. Three months after it happened!”

“Hey, we were busy dealing with Dimato,” he replies.

“Uh, yeah, for two weeks after it happened.”

He puts his hand under my chin, & squishes my cheeks. “Just be nice & say thank you Mark.”

“Thank you, Mark.”

Paige comes through from their bedroom, hair a little messy from her nap. As she approaches her due date, she's been finding it easier to have an afternoon nap. Mark lets me go & turns to her. He cups her face with both hands & kisses her. He then bends down & kisses her large bump. There's a tight pang in my chest- that's what I missed out on while pregnant with Felicity. I had to do it all on my own, & a part of me is jealous that Paige & Mark get to experience this together, even though I’m really happy for them. Maybe some day I’ll have the chance to have what they have.

"I was just showing Erin the new floor," Mark says, turning back to me & snapping me from my thoughts.

I step aside so Paige can see the floor as she steps closer. She stares at it & nods.

“Looks good,” she replies.

“Am I the only one excited by this?” He asks.

Paige & I look at each other.

“Yep,” we both reply.

He sighs, turning away.

“But,” Paige says, turning him back. “I’m happy that you're so happy about it.”

They kiss & I suddenly feel awkward. Thankfully the front door opens & Tyler steps in, holding the door open for Piper.

“Hey, how were your days?” Paige asks.

“Busy,” Tyler replies, shutting the front door as Piper walks over to the kitchen bench.

“Boring,” Piper says, sitting down at the bench. “Until I got to be at the garage.”

Tyler settles in a chair beside Piper, his shoulder brushing hers. I see the two pairs, at different stages of their relationships but both very happy. And I miss that- having someone there for me. I know I have my brothers, but… It's not the same. I miss being able to curl up in bed after a long, tiring day & have someone there next to you. To hold you, kiss you, make you forget about the troubles of your day. A month after that hellish week, we finally got Felicity's cot. Which means for the last eight weeks, I haven't been sharing my bed with her. And it's been over three months since I’ve dated. My heart has healed from the heartbreak over Eddie, & the loneliness is sinking in. Deep & hard.

I sigh, fighting back the emotions.

“Hey,” Mark says, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

"Hmmm? Oh, yeah, I'm fine."

He frowns. “You don't sound like it.”

“I’m… I'm gonna go… Check on Felicity.”

I head into the corridor to our bedrooms, stopping far enough in so they can't see me & lean my back against the wall, letting my tears silently fall. I didn't think this would be so hard.

“You think she's okay?” I hear Mark ask the others.

“She said she is,” Tyler replies.

“I agree with Mark,” Paige says. “She's not happy & she's trying to hide it.”

“What do you think we should do?” Mark asks.

“Just be there for her,” Paige says. “Don't push her into opening up. Let her open up when she's ready.”

I wipe away my tears, push myself off the wall & head towards my room.

****

I walk in to the Waterhole the next morning for my meeting with Sheila about what we’re going to do next to promote the pub. Sheila's behind the bar when I walk in. She sees me, & waves as she smiles at me. I smile & wave back. She points to the couches & I go & sit down. I place my sketch book, files & my iPad down on the glass table, & place my handbag on the floor.

A group of four young men about my age are playing pool. Four very handsome men. The most appealing looking one I note has a wedding band, which makes my chest tighten. But then my eyes meet the eyes of one of his mates as he crosses to their table, which is the next high one over from me. At first glance, I wouldn't take much notice of him. He's not quite as handsome as his friends- baby faced compared to the chiseled jawlines of his mates- but there's something so… Captivating. He's very casually dressed, his brown hair a spikey mess on top. Neither of us can stop staring at each other. He picks up his glass of beer in his right hand, resting his left arm on the table. He smiles, lifting his beer a little higher in a toast like fashion, & then takes a sip. I smile back.

“Sorry about that,” Sheila says, stepping over & sitting down. “Sudden rush of patrons.” She sees that I’m making eyes with him. “But I see that you’re keeping yourself entertained.”

I look at her. “What?”

“Like the view?” She asks, glancing over at the guy.

My jaw drops open a little, not sure how to respond to that.

“What's your plan?” Sheila asks.

“Just to clarify, we’re talking business now, right?” I ask.

She smiles. “Unless you want to talk pleasure?”

I just stare at her for a long minute. “I think you should look into having The Waterhole actively posting things on social media,” I tell her. “You know… Events coming up, both run by us & any community ones we’re involved in. As well as any specials you have. Photos from the events, as well as bringing in musical acts. I know when it was called Charlie’s that that was a regular thing, & I think we could bring them back.”

"Sounds like a brilliant plan,” She replies. “But… There's a problem.”

“I know. You're not very tech savvy, & I’ve already worked out a plan.”

“If it's teaching me how to operate social media, you’re barking up the wrong tree, love.”

I smile. “Actually, I was going to pitch that I run the pages,” I reply. “To begin with. Until we find an Assistant Manager who can handle managing the pages.”

“Are you sure?”

I nod. “The Lassiter’s folio is our biggest at the moment,” I reply. “Aaron has the smaller clientele handled, & has most of the hotel handled too. Besides, I’m better suited to running clients the size of The Waterhole. Much as Lassiter’s is important, we’re liaising with the other hotels around the world, & I’m more comfortable handling smaller businesses.”

“Well, aren't you just the life saver!”

I smile. “Happy to help.”

“You definitely have the kindness gene in your family.”

“Oh, you definitely are the Brennans number one fan!”

“Did your handsome eldest brother tell you he dated my daughter?”

I raise my eyebrow. “No.”

“Well, he did. Her name is Naomi. They were lovely together. I’m very disappointed that she dumped him to chase after moneybags…”

I raise my eyebrow even more. “Naomi dated Paul?”

She nods. “He was conned by Terese’s brother of all people. Was made to believe that he had cancer, when he didn't. And Naomi, who was working as Paul's PA at the time, fell for him, breaking your brother's poor heart,” she says. “Dumped him when he was sick. She almost married Paul, too. Thankfully she didn't.”

“Wow,” I reply.

“Anyway… Let me get us some drinks, & then you can show me these new social media pages.”

She scurries away to the bar. I catch sight of the four young men in the corner of my eye. I look over, once again meeting his eyes, this time just as he bends over setting up a shot.

****

“Enjoying the eye candy?” Sheila asks.

We’ve been here for most of the day, setting up the various social media pages- Facebook, Twitter & Instagram- & looking into the things we can upload straight away. But my eyes kept drifting to the men who are still playing pool.

“What?” I reply, looking at her. “No.”

She gives me a look. “For someone who says they’re not, you're giving a lot of your time to staring at him.”

“Them,” I correct.

“Oooh, got your eyes on more than one?”

I shuffle pages around, trying hard to hide how flustered I am.

“Word of advise, from someone with a world’s experience,” She says. “A young woman who has been through half of what you have deserves happiness. Which means you deserve the world.”

I turn to her, confused. “What are you getting at?”

“If you like what you see… Go for it,” she replies. “He looks like he’ll be nicer to you than that Edward boy ever was. So stop fussing over an old chook like me, & go talk to the handsome young fellow!”

"Oh, I... I don't know.”

“Oh, look! His friends are leaving!”

I look up & sadly find that she's right- his three friends are leaving. I look at him, praying that he leaves too. But he settles at the table.

“So go talk to him!”

I look at her. “No.”

“Take a risk!”

I sigh, looking at my stuff. I turn back, ready to say more, but she's already halfway over to the bar. I glare at her.

“Subtle!” I call to her.

I look at him- he’s looking at his mobile. I don't want to disturb him. So I lean back with my iPad, looking at the new social pages. Once we’re doing events or musical guests, I’ll set up Snapchat & Periscope. But, for now, the ones we have will do.

But my eyes keep going back to him. One time he catches me, & instead of darting my gaze away, I hold it. He smiles at me.

As I smile back, I find the courage to approach him. I get up & walk over to him, holding his gaze the whole time.

“Hi,” he says, & I instantly recognise he has a British accent. “I'm Jay. It's nice to finally talk to you.”

“Hi,” I reply. “I’m Erin.”

“Erin. What a beautiful name.”

I smile. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” he replies, smiling. “Has your friend left?”

I frown. “Friend?”

“Mother?” He asks. When I’m still confused, he adds, “That woman you were with.”

"Ohhhh!" I reply. "Sheila. Not my mother. Or a friend. She's a client… And my neighbour…”

He nods. “So… What do you do?”

“PR,” I reply. “I took the pub on a couple of months ago.”

“Why would a pub need a PR woman?”

“When they're owned by the hotel next door?”

He nods. “Well, if you're not working any longer,” he replies. “You can always gather up your things & join me.”

"Technically I’m still working,” I reply, before looking at Sheila. She's back to serving patrons. I look at him. “But Sheila has abandoned our work, to force me into coming & talking to you.”

He raises an eyebrow at me. “So you didn't want to come over?” He replies. “Get out.”

“Excuse me?” I reply, looking shocked.

“I’m joking,” He replies. “Which… Totally backfired.”

I tilt my head a little. “You're… Kinda funny.”

“So does that mean you’ll join me?”

I think it over. “You buy the first round, & I will.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Coming round to the idea of speaking to me then.”

“Mmmm call it trying something new.”

“Well, go you!” He replies. “What would you like?”

“Get me a coke.”

“Not a beer? Cider?” He asks. “Wine? You're definitely a wine woman.”

I narrow my eyes a little. “I'm still working.”

“Try something new.”

“I'm talking to you, aren't I?”

He looks shocked. He points a finger at me. “I like you.”

I shrug. “Everyone says that.”

He smiles. “Go get your stuff before someone steals it,” he says, picking up his glass. “I’ll go get our drinks.”

He downs the rest of his beer. He then waves me off, encouraging me to go get my things, before heading to the bar.

As I collect my things, I can't help smile. Maybe my loneliness will be over soon…

****

Urgh!” Paige says, as we walk into our home. “Can we get an alternative way into our house? Those stairs are making me feel like I’m climbing Mount Everest!”

I smirk. “How about a foot massage?”

She turns to look at me. “Best hubby ever!”

I step over to her, cupping her face with both hands. I then lean down & press my lips to hers. She moans into my mouth, sliding her hands up my chest to wrap her arms around my neck. I hold her as close as I can, being careful of our two bundles of joy. After our kiss, she walks over to the couch. She lowers herself down & I can't help but smirk at the way she does now as I walk around the back of the couch & sit down at the other end.

She kicks off her shoes- she's been wearing flats the last few weeks that are easy for her to slip on & off, & are comfortable- & slowly shifts so her legs stretch out along the couch, her feet in my lap & her back supported by a cushion. I gently massage her left foot, & she lets out a contented sigh.

****

“Am I boring you?” He asks.

I look up from my mobile, having checked the time. He’s looking at me, his blue eyes waiting for mine. I drop my eyes, staring at his lips & I wonder what it would be like to kiss him.

“No,” I say, softly. I snap my eyes back to his, regain my composure, & add, “I… I have to go collect someone shortly.”

“Oh,” he replies. “Husband?”

“No.”

“Fiancé?”

I raise an eyebrow. “Do you see a ring on my finger?”

He shrugs. “He could have just proposed & hasn't got the ring yet.”

“If I was gonna get engaged, I expect some kind of ring before I accept it.”

"Ooo, princess!”

“Wow, how charming of you!”

“Okay… What about a boyfriend?”

I scoff, rolling it into laughter. “What?”

“Just… Scoping out if I have any competition.”

“If I had a… Any of those,” I reply. “Do you think I would've spent my afternoon chatting with you?”

He raises an eyebrow. “You saying I’m not good enough?”

“Nooo.”

He narrows his eyes. “Alright,” he says, letting them relax. “So… Do I get to find out who you have to leave me for?”

I move my straw around in my glass, trying to figure out if I should admit that I’m a single mother to a twenty-one month old girl.

“You… Don't have to say,” he replies. “Not if you don't want to.”

“Uhh… It's my daughter,” I reply. “I have a young daughter. Almost two. Years old, not two kids…”

He smiles. “You're really cute when you babble like that.”

I smile, trying not to blush.

"So... Father not in the picture?"

“Yeah, you could say that,” I mutter.

“Ooo, sensing tension,” He replies. “So I’m going to steer us away from that topic.”

“Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” he replies. “Got time for another one?”

“Uhh… No,” I reply. “Sorry. I should… I should go.”

“No worries,” he replies. “It was nice meeting you.”

I smile. “Same.”

He pulls a blank page from my things, & writes down a phone number along with his name.

“In case we don't happen to see each other here again,” he says, placing the page back on the pile. “And I won't ask for yours in return. That way it's your call if we see each other again. Though I strongly vouch for that being a ‘yes’. We clearly get along.”

I smile. I then get up, but overbalance as I do. He quickly reaches out to support me, the movement causing me to end up pressed against his chest, my hands splayed either side of his collar bones as his left arm wraps around my waist. We're close enough for the sexual tension between us to intensify so much, there's an overwhelming urge to lean forward an inch & kiss him.

But my instincts kick in. My heart has been broken too many times the last few years- even just the last few months- & I can't open up my heart to love again, even though it feels so right to be in his arms.

I push myself back & he drops his arm.

“Uhh… Thank you,” I say, turning to gather up my things. “For… Catching me.”

He smiles. “You're welcome,” he replies. “I hope to see you again.”

I smile. “Maybe.”

“Well, you have my number,” he replies. “If that ‘maybe’ ever becomes a ‘yes’.”

I smile, holding my things tightly against me. For a long moment, we stare at each other.

I snap out of it. “I… I should go.”

He nods. “Have a safe trip home.”

“You too.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

I turn & walk out casually, not wanting to hurry out like I want to, because I know he’ll be watching. Once the door is safely shut, I stop for a moment. I close my eyes & deeply sigh. I haven't felt like this in a long time. Am I being too cautious about opening myself up again? Should I see where this is heading?

Chapter Text

“Hey, Az,” I say, walking through the corridor out into the main area. I’m still in my pjs, & turn the corner, stopping the second I see him. Jay. Sitting at the island bench. “Woah!”

“Hello to you too,” he replies.

“What are you doing here?”

He opens his mouth to reply, but-

“Ah, good!” Aaron says, walking out behind me. “I see you’ve met our new client.”

I look at Aaron, shocked. “New client?!

He nods. “Yeah,” he says as he walks over to Jay, placing paperwork in front of him. “This is our first meeting. The one I told you about last night.”

“And we're having it here?” I ask. “In our kitchen?”

Aaron looks confused. He then looks at Jay. “Excuse us for a minute.”

Jay nods. “Sure.”

Aaron walks over to me, taking my hand & pulling me out into the backyard.

“What's got into you?” He asks.

Me?” I reply. “What's got into you? Holding meetings with clients in our kitchen?”

“We don't have an office.”

“Well, maybe you should invest in one.”

“You're just annoyed because you're meeting him in your pjs.”

“Uh, no, I'm annoyed because I should be able to walk out into my own kitchen in my pjs, & not be blindsided by some random client!”

He crosses his arms, burrowing his frown. “What's got a bee in your bonnet?”

“My business partner dumping our new client on me at home,” I reply. “The least you could have done is told me that he was here. It's simple, Az. You knock on my bedroom door. ‘Morning, Erin! Get changed before you come out. Our new client is sitting in our kitchen’.”

He looks at me, trying to figure out why I’m like this. His eyes widen. “Ooooo! You like him!”

“What?! Noooo!” I reply. “I barely know the guy.”

“Give it up, sis,” he replies. “I know you two met yesterday.”

I frown. “How?” And then it hits. I shake my head. “Sheila.”

“She told me, cause she gave him my contact details,” he replies. “She thought I should know.”

“Urgh! I should have known she’d go spreading it around! She's the gossip queen! One woman rumour mill of Erinsborough!”

“She's also looking out for you.”

“Did she tell you she ditched me mid-meeting just to make me talk to him?”

“Erin. You’ve been through a lot. Just… Just let yourself have some fun. If you like the guy, go flirt with him. Live a little,” he says. “Don't put your life on hold.”

“I’m not putting my whole life on hold.”

“Mark told me how sad you got around him, Paige, Tyler & Piper the other day.”

Great,” I reply. “Everyone's talking about me behind my back.”

“We’re just looking out for you, Erin.”

“By gossiping behind my back?”

“You're our sister,” he says. “We want to see you happy.”

I sigh.

“Look, I’m here for you,” he says. “Being single sucks. And it's hard to get back out there, when you’ve had your heart broken. But you’ve just got to take that leap of faith.”

I sigh again. “I don't have the best track record when it comes to relationships.”

“Don't let two bad eggs put you off dating forever.”

“I… I don't know,” I reply. “A part of me hates the loneliness that I’m starting to feel, & yet…” I sigh. “We were having a good time yesterday, sitting there talking… And… It was nice to have that sort of attention again.” I shift my weight from one leg to the other. “There was this one moment, when… I was about to leave to get Felicity, &… We almost kissed.”

He looks surprised. “No wonder you're little miss cranky this morning.”

I glare at him. “I feel there's an attraction between us, & I want to see where it goes...”

“But?”

“I… I'm petrified to open my heart up again.”

“Have you told him that?”

I shake my head. “I left because I felt like an idiot.”

“Right, well… Here's your chance.”

What?!

“He’s our client now,” he replies, guiding me over to the door. “And I’m giving him over to you.”

“What? No, no, no, no!”

“I’m busy with other clients,” he replies, pushing me back into the kitchen.

“Yeah, & I have a toddler.”

“Oh no, you're not gonna get out of it by playing that card.”

“I could quit,” I reply. “I can be a full time PR manager at The Waterhole.”

“Or you could quit & be just my manager,” Jay says.

I look at him, suddenly realising he can hear us again.

“I…I…”

He smiles at me. “I think it would be best for you & I to work together, Aaron,” he says, looking at my brother. “At least, for now.”

“Are you sure? You're not just saying that cause my sister's protesting?”

“I want an easy going relationship with my PR manager,” he says. “And right now, I can see that the best fit for that is you. I don't want to push your sister into being around me.” He looks at me. “Even though it would be nice to see her smile regularly.”

“Good, then it's sorted,” I reply. “Anyway… I don't really like mixing work &… Uh… Pleasure.”

There you go again, Erin. Losing your words cause you're staring at him again.

****

“Hey,” She says, following me out the front door.

I stop on the verandah, turning to look at her. She's still wearing her pjs, arms crossed over her body to try & keep warm.

“Hey,” I reply.

“Look, I just… I wanted to apologise for that,” she says. “For making things awkward.”

“It should be me apologising,” I reply. “I didn't realise you lived with your brothers. If I had, I wouldn't have agreed to having the meeting here. I don't want to interfere with your life.”

“You're a new client,” she says. “Hard to not interfere.”

“Exactly why I told him that I’d work with him.”

“What exactly is it that you do? Why do you need him?”

“I'm a singer,” I explain. “I wanna get my music out there, but I need help getting people to see it. Find the edge that I’m clearly missing. Sheila suggested your brother, said something about him being an ex entertainer, so she thought it would be good for me to ask him.”

“Of course Sheila recommended Aaron.”

I frown. “Have I done something wrong?” I ask. “You seem rather agitated.”

She sighs. “No. It's stuff going on in my head.”

I nod. “I like you. And you like me,” I reply. “It's clear that there's a strong attraction between us. And… Maybe… Someday, it will turn into something more.” I watch her swallow, her eyes darting to my lips & then back to my eyes. “But you need to work out whatever is going on in your head that has you so over the place with me. I really hope we can be friends… For now.”

She smiles. “You're not upset at me? For being so… For leading you on?”

“We barely know each other,” I reply. “I’m honestly not surprised that there's some hesitation.”

She nods. “Well, in that case,” She says. “I’d like to be friends. Get to know you more.”

I smile. “I’d like to get to know you more too.”

She nods.

“Anyway… I should go. Let you get back inside before you freeze.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Have a good day.”

“You too.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

I watch her head back inside, before heading down the stairs as I smile to myself. There's still hope.

****

“You kissed him yet?” Paige asks from the kitchen as I close the front door.

“Does the whole house know about him?” I ask Aaron, who is sitting at the island bench.

“For someone who kicked up a fuss about being his manager, you are stepping into lovesick puppy territory,” Aaron replies. “You did rush out after him.”

“Yeah, to apologise for how unprofessional I was,” I reply. “Which is all thanks to you surprising me with a pre-breakfast meeting.”

“Important question though,” Paige asks. “Is. He. hot?”

“Is who hot?” Mark asks, stepping out from the bedrooms with just sweat pants on.

“A singer guy that Aaron’s taken on as a client but your sister met him yesterday at The Waterhole & they both like each other but she’s too scared to go for it, even though it's clear that she wants to get all hot & heavy under the covers with him.”

PAIGE!!!” I exclaim.

“What?” She replies. “Just telling it like it is.”

“In front of two of her brothers,” Mark replies, stepping beside her. “There's some things we don't need to know.”

“Or see,” Aaron adds, scrunching up his nose.

“So?” She asks. “Is he hot?”

“I'm not answering that,” I reply.

Paige looks at Aaron.

“Nuh uh,” Aaron replies. “Leave me out of this.”

Paige huffs. “Oh come onnn!”

“You’ll have plenty of time to see him for yourself,” Aaron replies.

“I expect you to introduce me to him very soon,” She replies, shaking a finger at him.

"Why are you so keen on it?"

“I want to find out who my future brother-in-law is.”

“Okay, you're getting way ahead of yourself.”

“Hey, if he's got you this fired up, I think he's got a really good chance.”

I roll my eyes. “Nothing's going to happen between us.”

“Uh… So explain the sparks flying between you two?” Aaron asks.

“We're just friends.”

“Because you're scared to let him in because of what Eddie did to you.”

Mark looks shocked. Then worried.

“Is that true?” Mark asks me.

“Not exactly,” I reply. “I’m just… Scared to open up again, because I keep thinking about what's happened in my past. Eddie turned out to be a psycho, & Zack?” I shrug. “Zack fled when I told him I was pregnant.” I fight back tears. “I know it's crazy, but… I feel like I’m not meant to be with anyone.”

Mark walks around & pulls me into a hug.

"You're going to find a man who will treat you right,” he says. “You can't give up.”

I pull back. “But what if I can't?”

“You just have to keep trying,” he says. “Don't go closing off your heart just yet, Aer.”

****

“Ahhh good! Just the woman I want to see!” Sheila says, as I cross to the bar.

“Hello to you too, Sheila.”

“Oh,” She replies, smile fading. “What's got you in a foul mood?”

“Other than the fact you encouraged my brother to take on the one client I wish he hadn't taken on?”

“Oh, love. Whatever insecurities you have, you should let them go.”

“You know what?” I ask. “I came here to do my job. To be professional. Not have another person meddle in my love life.”

I turn & walk towards the door. Sheila comes hurrying after me, basically trotting. She blocks my path & I sigh in annoyance.

“I’m sorry if I’ve upset you, love,” she says. “I’m just a hopeless romantic, & I can't help myself when I see a pretty, young woman like you shy away from having a romance.”

“Thank you, but… I can handle it on my own.”

“And I can see that now,” she replies. “Please stay. I’ll get you a drink on the house. I’d really like to run a few ideas by you for events we could hold.”

I sigh. “But only on one condition.”

“Name it, love.”

“That my romantic life stays out of it.”

She nods. “It will.”

“Completely out of it,” I reply. “Not even a hint.”

She thinks it over. "I'll do my best."

I nod. “Good.”

"Now, go find a table & I’ll go get you a drink.”

She hurries off before I can say what I want. I sigh, before looking around for a table. I find one, sit down & set up my iPad. A few minutes later, Sheila places a large glass down. I look up from my paperwork, seeing it's a cocktail. I look at her as she sits down & raise my eyebrow.

“Oh, relax! It's a new mocktail!” She says. “There's not a drop of alcohol in it! I want to see what you thunk of it.”

I pick it up, take hold of the straw, & take a sip- all under her stare.

“It's good,” I reply, putting it back down.

“Oh good!” She says, smiling proudly.

“You said you had ideas?”

“Yes. Well… idea.”

“Mmmm.”

“How about a singing competition?”

“Mmm,” I reply. “Cliché.”

She frowns. “I’d like to see you try.”

“No, oh Sheila! I didn't mean to upset you. I just… It could do with some improvements.”

“Well, it's a start. And you said you wanted to get back to the musical nights.”

“True.”

“So you’ll think about it?”

I nod. “I’d like you to think about ways we can make it more unique,” I say. “You won't always have me here to help. So you should learn early on to handle this without me.”

"How about we discuss it now?"

****

“Judges,” Sheila says. “You, me, our lovely Mayor Sonya… And… One of your brothers?”

“No,” I reply. “You're not abusing my family.”

She looks shocked. “But we need a male judge!”

“Find someone else!”

“Hmmm… What about that handsome young suitor of yours?”

I sigh, rolling my eyes. “How about you consider someone who isn't connected to me?”

She sighs. “Doesn't give me many options.”

“I'm sure you’ll come up with someone in the next three weeks.”

“Three? But it's a month away!”

“Yes, but you should have someone locked in by a week before the event,” I reply, checking the time on my phone. “Oh, shoot! I have to get going to pick up Felicity.”

“Oh, but I still have more ideas!” She replies, as I quickly pack up my things.

“Write them down, Sheila,” I reply, closing the cover on my iPad. “We can discuss them tomorrow.”

“But...”

“Sheila, I’m sorry, but I have to go,” I reply, picking up my handbag as I stand up.

I scoop up my things & leave. I push the door open, & crash into Jay. By some sheer miracle, I avoid dropping anything, especially when he holds my hips to stop me from falling over.

“You're in a rush,” he says, his thumbs gently rubbing back & forth over my shirt.

For a long moment, I forget everything. Everything but the urge to lean in & kiss him.

“Uh… Yeah,” I reply. I swallow. “I'm late… To pick up Felicity.”

He nods. “May I walk with you?”

I frown. “Weren't you going inside?”

“I came to find you.”

“If we hadn't agreed to be friends, I’d find that creepy.”

“I would have called, but I don't have your number.”

“Right,” I say with a nod. “I’ll have to give you that some time.”

“You could now,” he says. “If I walk with you.”

The sensible me says no, because that means he’ll be near Felicity. And I don't know if I’m ready to let that happen. But before I can think properly, I find myself nodding. He lets me go. As he turns around I cringe.

We fall into step & there's an awkward silence.

“I… Uh… I need to stop by my car & dump these,” I say, lifting the folders I have.

He nods. “Lead the way.”

We walk over to the carpark & to my car. I awkwardly fumble to hold onto everything as I try to find my keys.

“Here,” he says, taking the pile from me.

“Thanks,” I reply, giving him a small smile.

“You're welcome.”

I find my keys & unlock my car. I open the back passenger door. Before I can take it back, he places the pile on the backseat. I reach in, grab my iPad & put it in my handbag.

“I hate leaving it in the car,” I explain as I shut the door. “I feel like it could be stolen.”

He nods as I lock my car. “Understandable.”

We head off towards the community centre.

“I… Don't know what to talk about.”

“How about you tell me what you like to do to relax at the end of the day?”

“That's… A very personal question,” I reply. “More like… A date question.”

“It's also fine for two people who are getting to know each other as friends.”

I hesitate. “As long as you answer it too.”

He nods. “You first.”

“I don't really have anything in particular I do,” I reply. “Felicity's routine keeps me busy in the evening. And when I do get to relax, it's mostly curling up on the couch & catching up with my TV shows.”

“I watch TV too,” he replies. “But I also unwind by playing music. Writing my own songs. Raising a child on your own must be hard.”

“It is, but… I couldn't have an abortion, or go through giving her away. It just didn't feel right,” I reply. “It gets hard, but… She's worth it.”

“I’m sure she takes after you.”

I smile. “You have to stop doing that.”

“Doing what?”

“Being so charming,” I reply. “I feel so guilty for making you wait for something that might not ever happen.”

“I’m not going to force you into having a relationship,” he replies. “I want you to be ready to start one before we go there. In the meantime… I get to know you.”

I smile, closing my eyes for a few seconds. “You're too good for me.”

He shrugs. “I get the sense that you need a friend.”

I nod. “I do.”

“Well, it's a good thing that Sheila encouraged you to talk to me yesterday then.”

I smile. I wonder what he would be like around Felicity. Normally I wouldn't rush into introducing her to a new friend, but… There's something about him that makes me feel so comfortable, even though I’ve barely known him 24 hours.

“This is a crazy idea,” I reply, as we stop outside the community centre. “But… Would you like to meet her?”

“If you're comfortable with letting practically a stranger meet your twenty-one month old, then… Yes.”

“If I wasn't comfortable, I wouldn't ask,” I reply. “Um… I think it would be best if I go in on my own & get her. You can meet her out here.”

“It's fine by me.”

****

It's a nervous few minutes waiting outside the community centre for Erin & Felicity. This could go either really well, or be a complete disaster.

The door in to the centre opens, & Erin emerges. She's got Felicity's bag hanging off her right shoulder with her handbag, & Felicity in her left arm. As they walk over to me, Erin points to me. Felicity gives me a shy smile.

“Felicity, this is Jay,” Erin says as she steps up to me. “Can you say ‘hi, Jay’?”

Felicity looks shy, before smiling & mumbling “Hi, Jay.”

Erin & I both smile.

“Hi Felicity,” I reply. “You're cute. Like your mum.”

I catch Erin blush in the corner of my eye. I reach out to Felicity, who reaches out & taps my hand. I tickle her palm with two fingers, & she giggles.

“Wow,” I reply. “She doesn't take to new people quite so quickly. Normally she's quite shy.”

“They say young children are good at telling who is trustworthy.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

“Or maybe she just senses that I’m friendly,” I reply. “She knows you know me. And I’m sure she knows you wouldn't introduce us if you didn't trust me.”

Erin smiles. “We should head back to my car.”

I nod. “I’ll walk with you.”

****

I watch Jay playing with Felicity as I make her dinner, & smile. When we reached my car, I took another leap of faith & asked if he wanted to come home & get to know me & Felicity more. He’s been here ever since.

He's so good with her. I find myself imagining what it would be like if he was here every day for her- if he became her step-father. What it would be like if we had our own kids…

I shake my head, dismissing the thoughts. Don't get caught up in fantasies, Erin. He's just a friend.

A friend that you have a massive amount of sexual attraction with.

Maybe you should give him a chance romantically…

Chapter Text

Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. I hold a steady rhythm, watching the punching bag swing with every hard hit. It’s been a month since I met Jay, & yet I just can’t let myself move over that line into something more than friends. I mean… I want to cross that line. But… I just can’t. Each time I think I will, something stops me at the last moment.

Wow. You are really going at it!” Paige says.

I stop, holding the swinging bag as best I can given that I have boxing gloves on. I look at her as she slowly walks up the rest of the driveway. Now that she’s into her third trimester, she’s finding it harder to get up the entrance to our home. Her bump is now quite large, & she’s carrying quite a lot more frontwards than the sides- a sign, they say, of baby boys. Though she’s not carrying low, like they say for boys. So there’s a bit of mixed signs. They’ve decided not to find out the sexes until the birth, which is why there’s so much interest in other signs- though Paige is being her usual sceptical self about it all. Regardless, the bump is making it difficult- she’s had to change her gait to compensate, & that makes going up any sort of vertical surface hard. Actually, anything that requires vertical movement is hard for her. She’s now on maternity leave from Harold’s.

“Just… keeping in shape,” I reply.

“If it’s just training, then you’re doing it wrong. You can’t be so aggressive with it all,” She replies, stepping- or more waddles- up to me. “Which means you’re doing what most of us do. Use it to vent our frustration over something.”

“So what if I am?”

She shrugs as I let go of the bag & adjust my stance to box again.

“Does the source of that frustration’s name start with a… J?” She asks, as I swing at the bag.

I fall short of my target as it registers she mentioned Jay.

“Oooo! So it is frustration!” She says, gleefully. “And if I had to guess what sort of frustration, I’d say it’s… Sexual.”

I sigh. “I get that you like to chat rather openly about your sex life, regardless of it being existent or not existent,” I reply. “But I’d rather keep mine to myself.”

“I know I come from a biggish family, with half-sisters,” She replies. “But you know I grew up with an adopted family. I had a brother. I didn’t get to have ‘girl talks’ with my sisters.”

“So you’re over compensating by pushing me to do it?”

“Can you blame me? I have two babies growing in me. My hormones are going gangbusters.”

“And talking about my sex life is how you’re venting your hormones?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” She replies. “I find it strange that you’ve found a guy who you have great chemistry with, who makes you laugh & smile & then there’s the fact that Felicity’s so smitten with him if I didn’t know better, I’d think he’s her father… & yet you don't go beyond being friends. I can’t believe you’re not going for it! What does he have to do to get you to see that he’s perfect for you?”

“What do I have to do to get people to understand that I will go there when I’m ready?”

“Oh, babe, you’re waaaaay past ‘ready’!”

“No I’m not!”

She crosses her arms as best she can & tilts her head to the side. “I’ve seen the moments you two have. The sparks that fly whenever he touches you. Like the other day, when he helped you up when you needed to get something when playing with Felicity, & you overbalanced once you were standing so he caught you. You stared into his eyes for a very long moment, & I could see you both wanted to kiss. You’re holding back, I don’t know why cause he’s cute, & he’s being too respectful of you to make the move himself. And as much as I find it really sweet that he’s doing it, it’s highly frustrating to see you two dance around the truth instead of going with the flow.”

“Why can’t you just leave me to it? Why keep pushing me when you know how much I hate having you push me for information?”

“You’re deflecting your sexual frustrations into anger towards me.”

I clench my jaw, before turning to the bag & throwing several very hard punches at it.

“Look. I care about you. I really do,” She says. “I get that you’re scared to open up to him. But you deserve to be happy. And I really think that you should give being with him a go.”

“What if things don’t work out between us?” I ask, continuing to box. “What if I open up my heart & I end up with a broken heart all over again?”

“You can’t let two douchebag exes chase you off,” She replies. “I know it’s scary to take that jump back in, but… you just have to go with it.” She sighs. “When Mark & I met… he was still mourning Kate. And… it took him a while to start over. To let himself love again. But we got there. And yes, we had our insane moments where we fought & broke up. But… look at us now.”

I stop & look at her. She’s absentmindedly rubbing her bump.

“So… just because you & Mark got a happy ending, I should jump into something when I’m not ready?”

“Do you feel happy when around him?”

“Yes.”

“Do you look forward to spending time with him?”

“He’s my friend. Of course I look forward to seeing him.”

“Does your heart beat just a little faster when you see him?”

This feels like a police interrogation. “Where are you going with this?”

“Just answer it.”

I hesitate. “Maybe.”

She raises an eyebrow at me. I expect her to push me to change my answer, but she continues. “Does your breath catch every time he touches you? Even if it’s a simple touch, like your hands brushing.”

I take a long moment to think it through. And there’s just no way I can lie. It happens all the time.

“You’re ready,” She says.

Nooo,” I reply. I look at her for a moment. “Really?”

She nods. “What about you thinking about him?” She asks. “Do you find yourself thinking about him all the time?”

I pause for even longer. He pops into my head, & I involuntarily smile.

“Oh. My. God!” She says. “You’re totally thinking about him right now!”

“Yeah, cause you’re putting the image in my head!”

“What about sex dreams?”

Urgh!” I reply. “Can you just go inside, please? I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

“I’m not leaving until you agree to give the poor guy a chance!”

“You know what?” I say, spinning on my heel to face her. “He’s the only one in this situation who is being understanding about this! He respects that I have things that I need to work through before I can date, & he’s okay with having to wait while I deal with that. So why don’t you just stop with the constant pestering about it, & leave. Me. Alone!

“You can’t keep bottling these feelings up! Your head may be telling you all of these crazy things that have you scared to let him in, but your heart is ready,” she replies. “Actually, every part of you outside of your brain is ready. So instead of pushing him away & trying to suffocate those urges, go with it.”

I glare at her.

“You just need to leave Felicity with her clucky Uncle who happens to be my husband, have a hot night out with Jay & then sleep next to him,” She says. She then smirks. “Or not sleep.”

I sigh in annoyance. She smiles & then finally heads upstairs into the house. I turn back to the punching bag, hitting it very hard- throwing punches with both arms in quick succession.

****

After I’ve finished, I have a quick shower & then head down to The Waterhole to check in with Sheila. The singing competition is tomorrow night, & I left her to organise the final few days. But since it’s the eve, I want to check in & see how she’s going.

“Well, hello love!” Sheila says as I enter, turning away from the men setting up the stage.

“Hi Sheila,” I reply as I walk over to her. “I see that you have everything under control.”

She nods. “These fine, young men are almost done setting up the stage,” she replies. “And then the speakers will be up.”

“That’s good.”

“Mmmhmmm.”

“One of the key things I wanted to see you about is the line up,” I reply. “I left the sign-up sheet with you, & normally I would have had it by now to work out the right order to put everyone in, but… I left it here in case there was any last minute sign ups.”

“Ah, yes,” she replies. “I have it at the bar.”

She walks over to the bar & I follow a few steps behind. She walks behind it & I take a seat at the bar. She picks up the clipboard, brings it over to me & hands it to me.

“Thanks,” I say, taking it.

“You’re welcome,” She says. “You’ll enjoy our latest competitor.”

I look confused. So I look at the sheet.

“Next page, love,” She softly says.

I lift the page, folding it up over the top of the clipboard to reveal the second page. I scan the list, my eyes finally falling on the last name. Jay Soffer. I look at Sheila & glare.

“You should be happy! He’ll win!”

“It’s not going to be rigged, Sheila.”

“Trust me, love,” She replies. “Even if you play it fair, the talent of the others aren’t going to be anywhere near as good as him.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Doesn’t take a genius to know it.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“I’ll leave you to organise the order.”

I smile. “I’ll come find you when I’m done.”

She nods. Another customer approaches the other end of the bar, & Sheila goes to serve him. I turn my attention back to the sign-up sheet. I grab out my notepad, & work out how many men & women we have. The best course of action would be to alternate the sexes, so to know if that’s possible, I need to make sure that there’s an equal amount of each. It comes out as more men than women. So I double check. Same. But it’s only by a few. Which means I can do what planned- I just need to have a few times throughout where I have two males & then the female.

I get a new lined page, numbering each line from one to 30. I know that doesn’t seem like much for the amount of sign ups, but I formatted the sign-up sheet so each person would leave contact details & their song choice (so I can make sure that we don’t have any double ups). This means only 15 people on each page of the sign-up.

I then go down the sign-up page, placing the men at every odd number- writing their name & song choice down, as this will be the list we introduce them off of. When I get to spot number eleven, I take a moment to work out when I should add in the extra males. It takes a bit of time, but I work it out. I give Jay the last spot- I need to be fully prepared to hear him sing, so giving him the last spot should do that. I then write down the last female to sign up as the second last singer.

Eventually all thirty have been filled. I have a look over it, making sure that I’m happy with the flow. Sheila walks over just as I finish.

“How’s it going, love?” She asks.

“Good,” I reply. I turn the page around to face her. “What do you think?”

She takes it & reads down the list. “Looks good.”

“Great.”

“Except…”

I groan.

“How come your handsome friend is last?”

“They’re mainly in order of sign up.”

She nods. “Saving the best till last.”

I roll my eyes.

“Ohhh speak of the handsome devil!”

I frown. She’s looking over towards the door with a big smile. I look over my shoulder & see Jay walking over. I quickly turn back around & swallow the lump in my throat. I haven’t seen him in a few days, having spent my down time taking Felicity out to places for some much needed mother-daughter bonding time. It’s getting harder to hide my reaction when I see him- even more so now that I’m having rather wild sex dreams about him.

“Hey Sheila,” Jay says as I see him lean both arms on the bar to my left.

“Hello Jay,” Sheila says. “Can I get you anything?”

“Just a beer, thanks Sheila.”

“Coming right up,” She says, before flashing a look my way & walking off.

I look at Jay, giving him a small smile.

“Hey,” he says, smiling at me.

“Hey,” I reply.

“How are you? Feels like ages since we talked.”

“I’m good. How are you?”

“Good,” he replies. “How’s Felicity?”

“She’s good too.”

“That’s good,” he replies. His eyes fall on the pages. “Is that the line-up for tomorrow night?”

I nod. “Yeah,” I reply. “I see you’re going to sing.”

He nods, looking sheepish. “I was kinda hoping to surprise you tomorrow night,” he replies. “I didn’t think you were the one to work out the order. I thought Sheila would.”

“Well, I should have guessed you’d be drawn to this,” I reply. “It’s your career field. Actually… wouldn’t be surprised if Sheila chose it to be a singing competition purely to have you sing in front of me.”

He leans closer. “Is that a bad thing?”

He’s close enough to kiss. If I just lean just a little more to my left, I could kiss him. But now’s not the right time. Or the right place. If I’m going to take this massive leap of faith, I’m going to do it in a much more appropriate place than the pub.

I can’t keep my eyes focused on his eyes for long. I look at his lips for a few seconds, & then back up to his eyes… but the intensity of the desire in his eyes has me dropping my eyes to his lips again as I swallow the lump I feel in my throat.

Sheila places his beer down & both of us jump apart. I busy myself with my papers, trying to ignore her but keeping her in my peripheral vision. I glance her- she’s looking rather smug. Jay hands her money. She takes it, but hovers. And I can’t take it anymore.

“I’m… I’m going to go home & contact everyone about tomorrow,” I say as I start to put all of my things into a pile.

“Stay,” Jay says. “Please.”

“Yes, love. Stay,” Sheila adds.

I glare at her. Sensing my feelings towards her, she heads down the other end of the bar. Jay settles on a stool beside me.

“So… uh… What are you going to sing?” I ask. “I mean… you wrote ‘original song’ on the sign-up sheet…”

“That’s cause I wasn’t really sure which one I was going to sing.”

“And have you now?”

He nods, before drinking some of his beer.

“Do I get to find out? Even if it’s just the title?”

He smiles. “I like this you.”

I frown.

“When you get all flirty.”

“Flirty?” I ask, surprised. “No… I’m not being flirty.”

“You just don’t realise it.”

“And? So?”

“Whatever held you back a month ago is clearly fading away, &… when you get all flirty, all I want to do is kiss you,” he says, making me swallow hard. “But I don’t. Because I don’t want you to feel like I’m pushing you too soon.”

I look down, turning my head to try & hide the blush rising on my cheeks. It takes me a few minutes to compose myself enough to look at him again.

“Hypothetically,” I say. “What if I… said that I… want to kiss you too?”

His eyes drop from mine to my lips, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips, but he doesn’t let it turn into a full smile.

“I’m just… waiting for the right moment.”

His eyes meet mine again. He leans in closer, & my heart rate goes into overdrive.

“I can’t wait for that moment,” he says softly, so only I hear. “Hypothetically, of course.”

He pulls back, picking up his beer & drink it. I let out the breath I didn’t realise I was holding.

****

I walk in the front door, finding Tyler getting a snack in the kitchen.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” I reply, shutting the door.

I trudge over to the kitchen bench & dump my things on it before sitting down.

“Long… Afternoon?” He asks.

“Sheila’s driving me nuts,” I reply. “She’s trying to constantly push Jay & me together.”

He frowns. “It that a bad thing?”

“When I have our sister-in-law giving me a rather intense interrogation about him… having Sheila giving me her stuff… it’s just too much,” I reply. “Honestly, if I had to pick just one, I’d keep Sheila. At least she knows when to back off.”

“Yeah, Paige can be overly pushy.”

“Wanna give me advice on how to stop her?”

“Deflect her attention, find something else to occupy her mind,” he replies. “She’s just a bit neurotic cause of her hormones. But that will also work to your advantage. The other day, she was grilling me about something & I got sick of it. So I deflected her attention to something else. A few minutes later, she couldn’t remember what she’d been grilling me about.”

I tilt my head to the side. “You can’t abuse her pregnancy brain like that.”

He shrugs. “You want her to stop hassling you about your friend…”

“Friend!” I reply. “You don't know how happy that makes me to hear that!”

He looks confused.

“People keep pushing that we're more than that,” I explain. “Which, one day… Maybe we will. But right now we're just friends.”

“Don't bite my head off for saying this, but…” He says, before leaning closer. “Take this from someone who has been there- had a massive attraction to a friend & tried their very hardest to ignore that. The more you try to fight it, the stronger it gets. You're better off just letting go & just embrace it.”

“Speaking of Piper…”

“We’re going well,” he says. “We're both happy.”

I smile. “Good. Just keep hold of it. You never know when it's going to be ripped apart.”

He nods. “I thought everything with Brodie would rip us apart,” he says. “I thought she wouldn't want our relationship after what he did to her. She had flashbacks to it for weeks.”

“She knew how much you were there for her,” I reply. “Having that support would have helped a lot. But above all of that… She knows you love her.”

“You didn't have anyone, yet you went through something far worse.”

“Romantically, I didn't,” I reply. “But I had you, Az & Mark. The support system doesn't have to be romantic. It can be family. Even friends.”

“And now you could have all three of those.”

I sigh. “Please don't.”

He holds his hands up in defence. “That's all I’m saying.”

****

For the last week, Felicity has been sleeping in her own room. There's a study down the hall, beside Tyler's room, that none of my brothers use, so Mark decided to divide it into two rooms- a nursery for their twins, & Felicity's room. It was a tough few weeks to get the new wall & doorway added, & then paint Felicity's room so it was ready for her, but we got there. The first two nights, Felicity screamed every time I left her in there to sleep. But now she’s happy.

It's been nice having my bedroom to myself. Having to slip in & not disturb her was getting more & more difficult. It's also been good, because I’ve been having sex dreams. The more times I have them, the more… intense they get. And I usually wake wondering if Felicity's ever heard me. So now I don't feel so bad about having them.

Some people consider dreams to be our brain handling unfinished business from when we’re awake. But I don't. Dreams are dreams.

Exhausted & wanting to be well rested for the chaos tomorrow, I crawl into bed early. It doesn't take me long to fall asleep…

I’m in the Lassiters lift. I exhale to try & calm myself down. It's a mix of excitement & nervousness. I also can't stop fidgeting, fixing every piece of my clothes as possible. The doors open on a floor & I step out. I hold my head high, acting more confident than I feel. This is a big moment.

I reach room 709, & stop a few steps from the door. I take a deep breath in, hold, & slowly exhale. On the other side of the door is the man that I love.

I step forward & raise my hand to knock. But before I can, as if he sensed me there, the door opens. We smile at each other & he holds the door open, standing to the side to let me in. I walk in, slowly passing him as we hold eye contact. I feel him staring at me as I walk further into the room & smirk- satisfied that I picked the right outfit. My little red, figure-hugging dress.

The door clicks shut as I place my clutch on the desk. I turn on my heel to face him as he walks over to me, his eyes taking every inch of me in. He cups my cheek with one hand, his other on my hip. He leans in, pressing his lips against mine. I wrap my arms around his neck as he pulls me hard against him.

He backs me over to the bed, falling on top of me. He breaks our kiss, & runs a line of kisses down my neck. We kiss as we strip each other, our hands exploring each other. I’m in my undies when he kisses down the centre of my chest, his hands rubbing my sides. His lips reach the middle of my bra, & he pauses to unclasp the front clasp. He slowly pulls the straps down my arms, & I arch my back so he can pull my bra out from under me. He tosses it aside, continuing his line of kisses down my tummy. I squirm, eager to have him between my legs as soon as possible- I’ve waited too long for this.

He runs a line of kisses from my left knee, up my inner thigh to my undies & pulls back. I whimper in protest. He does the same with my right thigh, once again stopping at my undies. He hooks his fingers under the top of my undies, slowly pulling them down my legs- I have to lift my legs up in the air so he can take them completely off. He flicks them aside as I lower my legs. He shifts back, giving himself enough room to lower himself down onto his forearms between my legs.

He looks at me a long moment, before leaning forward just a little bit &… I gasp as he flicks my clit with his tongue. I look down & see that he's lifted his head just high enough to smirk at me. He then lowers his head, slowly dragging his tongue through my folds & I moan. He continues teasing me, making me moan as drives me incredibly close to an orgasm. He stops & I open my eyes to protest, only to find him hovering above me. He pushes inside me, making me gasp again.

He thrusts into me as he claims my lips with his. I wrap my legs around his waist, & let out a long moan as the pleasure intensifies from the new angle. We hold each other tight, my nails digging into his back, as he thrusts harder & deeper.

He breaks our kiss, turning his lips to the nape of my neck. He sucks my skin, & I pant into his ear. It doesn't take much longer for my orgasm to hit- I moan in his ear as it hits, my whole body shaking. I’ve never felt one as strong as this before.

His hits just as mine starts to fade- his thrusts getting jerky. He kisses my neck as we both come down. I cup his face with both hands, pulling him up & kiss him.

****

Despite being fully dressed in my suit, I shuffle out into the kitchen, squinting my eyes at the brightness. When my eyes adjust, I see Mark sitting at the dining table, feeding Felicity breakfast.

“Sleep well?” Paige asks.

I turn towards her voice, finding her standing at the kitchen bench.

“Yes,” I reply. “You?”

“Oh, as good as can be, given I’m seven almost eight months pregnant,” She replies. “I have to get up during the night for the toilet…”

It takes me a few seconds, but I close my eyes as it clicks- she has to go past my room to get from her & Mark’s bedroom to the bathroom.

“Oh god!” I moan.

“Heard that last night.”

Paige!” Mark chastises.

What?” She replies.

“You told him?!” I ask her.

“I wish she hadn't,” he replies, looking as miserable as I feel.

“You were the one that had to ask why Erin wasn't up!”

“You know what?” I ask. “I’m done with this. I’m out.”

“What about breakfast?” Mark asks.

“I’ll grab it at The Waterhole,” I reply. “Are you okay with her?”

He nods. “Yeah,” he replies. “Don't worry. I’ll get her to childcare.”

I smile as I walk over to them. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” he replies, smiling back. He then lowers his voice so only we can hear. “Consider it compensation for my wife.”

“Not nearly enough, but it's a start,” I reply as I bend over. I rub Felicity's cheek, & she giggles. “Bye, my Princess.”

I kiss her forehead a few times. I turn back to Mark, smiling at him as I give his shoulder a squeeze.

“Have a good day,” he says.

“Hopefully I can pick her up this afternoon, but-”

“Text me if you can't,” he replies. “I finish at four. Happy to pick her up if you can't.”

“You are the best brother!”

He smiles. “It's good practice.”

“Yeah. In a few months, you’ll be collecting three of them.”

He smiles.

“Anyway… Thanks again,” I reply. “Bye.”

“Bye.”

I walk over & get my documents & iPad off the kitchen bench, scooping up my handbag off the floor below. I wave bye to Felicity, who flaps her arm in what I assume was an attempt to wave back, & then walk over to the front door.

“Say hi to Jay!” Paige says, as I reach for the front door handle. “Or better yet… Moan his name! He’ll love that!”

The last thing I hear is Mark sternly saying, “Paige!”

****

As the day passes, Sheila’s calmness fades. By mid-afternoon, she’s trotting around the room either bossing staff as they finish off preparing for tonight or clearing tables & making sure patrons are looked after.

“Sheila,” I say.

“Not now, love,” She says. “Lots to be done!”

“Yeah, you need to stop & listen to me.”

She stops, & I can tell she’s running through what’s left to do.

“You’re working yourself too hard,” I tell her. “You look frazzled. You need to stop spreading yourself too thin. Why don’t you focus on your usual responsibilities, & I’ll handle the prep for tonight.”

“No I’m not!”

“Sheila,” I say, placing my hands on her arms. “You are. And I need you to be fine for tonight. So why don’t you head into your office & just relax for a bit. I’ve got a handle on running the pub.”

“Oh, that’s too much to ask you to do!”

“You’re not asking,” I reply. “I’m telling you.”

She sighs. “Alright,” She says. “But if any of my staff give you hell, come & get me.”

I nod. I watch as she heads into her office, waiting until the door closes before I sigh.

****

“Well, look at you! Woman of power!” Jay says from behind me & I jump at the sound of his voice.

I turn to him as he steps up to me, frowning. I see his guitar in its case hanging from his back.

“Are you okay?” He asks.

“Yes,” I reply, trying to suppress the flashbacks to my steamy dream about us. “Just… You took me by surprise.”

He nods. “Thought I’d come & see if you need a hand.”

“Uh… Thanks, but… I think we’re fine.”

“You’re welcome. You sure?”

I nod. “Most of it is done. And what’s left, we’ve got enough staff to have it covered. But I really do appreciate the offer.”

He smiles. “You’re welcome.”

“Why don’t you settle at a table, & I’ll get one of the barmen to bring you a beer?”

He looks a little nervous. “Actually… I was hoping to talk to you.”

I swallow the lump in my throat. I have the time, but… last night’s dream was the steamiest one I’ve had. And I really don’t know if I can handle being alone with him- I feel so nervous around him right now. I can’t imagine how flustered I’ll get if I’m alone with him. Maybe I should just give in & be with him romantically…

“Umm… Sorry,” I reply. “I… I don’t have time to talk to you.”

I see the devastation in his eyes & my chest tightens. My instincts scream for me to kiss him, but it’s just not the right time.

“Right,” he says. “How about you have dinner with me?”

“Uhhh… That would be good, but… I was going to head off soon. I haven’t spent time with Felicity today, & I want to pop home & see her before she goes to bed.”

He forces a smile. “Okay.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. I understand.”

“If I have time later, I’ll hang with you.”

He smiles. “That would be good,” he says. “What’s the chances it will be before the competition?”

“I don’t know. We’ll just have to see.”

He nods. “Okay. It’s just… I really want to talk to you before it.”

“Well, you’re last in the line-up,” I reply. “We’ll have a break halfway through.”

He nods. “If we don’t get to talk before it starts, I’d like it if you could give me time in the break.”

I smile, nervous about what he wants to say. “I can’t guarantee it, but… yeah.”

“It won’t take long, just a few minutes,” he says.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He hugs me & I hug him back, trying not to let the images from my dream get in the way. I breathe in his cologne, & I wonder what it would smell like while we made love…

“See you later,” He says as we part.

“Yeah, see you later,” I reply.

He smiles before crossing to a table across the room. I watch as he takes off his guitar, resting it against the bench seat & sits down. I turn my back to him & sigh. It’s going to be a long night.

****

I manage to get home just as Mark is finishing giving Felicity her dinner.

“Heyyy baby!” I say to Felicity, taking he bib off & scooping her up into my arms.

I kiss her cheek repeatedly & she smiles. Oh, I miss spending all my time with you!

“How much time do you have?” Mark asks.

“Long enough to give her a bath, read her a story & hopefully get her asleep,” I reply. “We’ve pushed the start back a bit.”

He nods. “That’s good,” he says. “You go give her a bath. I can clean this up.”

“I feel really guilty. You’re doing more to raise her than I am right now.”

“I don’t mind,” he replies. “It’s good getting to spend time with her. I wasn’t there when she was a newborn.”

I nod. “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you about her.”

“Don’t, Aer,” he replies. “Just go give her a bath. That way you can have more time to settle her in bed.”

I smile, before looking at Felicity. “Let’s go give you your bath! Yeah? Yeah!”

****

“Oh, hottttt mumma!” Paige exclaims as I walk back into the living area.

With Felicity asleep, I had just enough time to have a quick shower without washing my hair. I then changed into a fancy pair of underwear & a nice, casual but slightly sexy dress. My hair’s curled & pinned back slightly & a light layer of make-up.

I look at Paige. She’s standing with her jaw open. She signals for me to turn around, & I comply.

“Wow. You look like you’re heading out to a club, not a singing competition at the pub!”

“It’s too much, isn’t it? I’m gonna go change.”

“NO!”

I look confused.

“Don’t, you look fine!” She says. “Dressed to impress.” She smirks. “And I’m sure there’s only one guy you’re trying to impress.”

I sigh, rolling my eyes.

“And a dress,” She says. She smirks. “No pants. Perfect for sexy time.”

Thankfully, there’s a knock at the front door.

“Oh thank god!” I reply, crossing to the door.

I open it, & gesture for Piper to come in. She’s carrying a bag of her schoolwork. She’s agreed to come & be here in case Paige needs help. Felicity will sleep through the night, but just in case, I thought it would be good for Paige to have help.

“Hey, Piper, thanks for coming over,” I say.

“Hey Erin. No worries. Happy to come help out.”

“You ready to go Aer?” Mark asks, emerging from the bedrooms. He’s dressed smart casual, fixing up as cufflink as he walks. “Oh, hey Piper.”

“Hey, Mark.”

“I’m ready to go,” I say.

He nods, before turning & crossing to Paige. They kiss, getting all lovey-dovey & I avert my eyes. Mark then walks over to us.

“Have a good time,” Piper says.

“Thanks,” I reply.

We say goodbye & head out.

“Let me know what Jay says when he sees you!” Paige calls out.

“Not a chance!” I reply before Mark shuts the door.

We head down the stairs. “I can’t wait until she gives birth & is too tired from looking after your twins to be saying stuff like that.”

He smiles. “You do look stunning,” He replies.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” He replies, as we reach the bottom of the stairs. “You know she’s right. You’re clearly dressing to impress Jay.”

“Please, please, please don’t you start too! I’m sick of this family sticking their nose into my love life!”

He takes my arm, turning me to face him. “We just want to see you happy. Jay makes you happy. It’s not hard to see that. Which is why we’re encouraging you to follow your heart.”

“How did you do it?” I ask. “When you moved on from Kate with Paige?”

“Made a bet with her that I thought was just us being friends, betting on our workout & the loser pays for dinner,” He says. “Sonya pointed out that it was a date. I freaked out, cause it was the first time since Kate died. And… bailed. Paige was furious, & we ended up having an argument in the middle of a tornado.”

“Wow.”

He nods. “I ended up kissing her at the end of that argument.”

I raise my eyebrow. “Wow. That must have been a lot of sexual tension built up.”

He nods. “That’s why Paige is pushing you so much about you & Jay. She’s clearly being reminded of us. Maybe a part of her wants you to not waste the time that we did before getting together.”

“Well… He wants to talk to me tonight.”

“Oh?”

“Before the competition.”

His eyes widen. “Well, what are you doing standing here wasting time talking to me?”

“I’m not wasting time, I’m getting advice!”

He places his hand on my shoulder, turns me towards his car & guides me over to it.

“We are getting you over there right now to talk to him.”

****

I see her walk in, Mark a few steps behind. She looks absolutely stunning. Her purple dress clings to her body & hips, becoming more loose & flowing as it reaches her legs. I wish that I could take her home, tell her how I feel about her, & make love to her.

I stand & step round my table as she & Mark approach. She smiles & I smile back.

“Hi,” She says.

“Hi,” I reply. “You look stunning.”

She smiles, blushing. Mark smirks.

“I’ll leave you two be,” Mark says. “Good luck for later, Jay.”

“Thanks, Mark.”

Mark & Erin exchange looks, Erin glaring as he walks away, heading to the bar where Tyler & Aaron are seated. But I can’t take my eyes off her. I hope I get the chance to slowly take that dress off her later tonight.

“So… uh…” I say, pushing aside my desire. “Have you eaten yet?”

“Uh, no, not yet,” She replies. “I spent my time at home with Felicity & then getting ready.”

“Let me order something for you.”

“Oh, that’s too much.”

“You need to eat.”

She opens her mouth to reply, but Sheila comes over.

“There you are!” Sheila says. “Oh, don’t you look gorgeous!”

Erin smiles at her. “Thank you.”

“I need your help.”

“We were in the middle of something,” I reply.

“This can’t wait,” Sheila replies. “It’s an utter disaster.”

“What’s going on?” Erin asks.

“We’ve had five people pull out, which isn’t a big deal until I’ve had I don’t know how many of the remaining people complain to me where they are in the line-up,” Sheila says. “The only one setting a good example is your friend here, who hasn’t uttered a peep about it.”

Erin looks at me, before looking back at Sheila. “Have you told them the order remains the same?”

“I’ve tried, but most of them are being pushy about it,” Sheila replies. “I can’t handle it, so I need you to come & be referee.”

Erin looks at me again, giving me a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry.”

“Go,” I reply. “We’ll talk later.”

“For being that sweet, I promise I’ll make time in the break for you.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” I reply, giving her my most charming smile.

I see her take a deep breath in, her eyes locked with mine. And for a long moment, there’s a really strong chance that she’ll tell Sheila she can handle it for a few more minutes so she can stay & talk to me. But she looks away & I watch her walk away with Sheila.

I sit back down & sigh. To get so agonisingly close to telling her what I wanted to, only to be interrupted. Again. I just want to tell her, so she’s not taken by surprise later.

****

Sheila gets me fish & chips- especially made for me so I can eat while standing up, so the fish is in bite sized pieces- & I’m getting this situation under control. I’ve talked to most of the contestants, & the majority of them have agreed to go with the original line-up order. However, there’s still a handful who are still pushing that we put them up the list, in spots free thanks to people dropping out.

With only a few minutes until we’re meant to start, I need to reel this in. So I gather the pests by the judging table.

“Here’s the deal. It’s final, so listen up,” I tell them. “You’ve known the order for twenty-four hours. If you have an issue with it, you should have spoken up earlier today. Leaving it to the last minute is rather childish. And very stressful for myself & Sheila. Given that we’re meant to start in a few minutes, I am laying down an ultimatum. You either accept your position in the line-up as I scheduled you, or you drop out.” I look from one to the next, to the next, holding eye contact with each of them. “So what will it be?”

All of them thankfully accept to stay in the order they are & I dismiss them. I sit down in my chair at the judging table & sigh. I mark on the line-up sheet each of the troublesome entrants. Sheila places a glass of champagne down.

“I thought you could do with this,” Sheila says. “The very best. On the house. Call it a thank you for handling the situation.”

I smile. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“There’s one more thing you can do for me,” I reply. “I know that I agreed to do the hosting for the first half, but…”

“You rest up, love,” She replies. “You’ve done more than enough since this afternoon. I’ll handle it. You can see how you feel in the second half.”

“You,” I reply, pointing to her. “Are the best.”

She smiles. “Not as much as you are.”

I smile. Jay walks over just as I take a sip of my champagne.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey,” He replies. “Do you have time to talk?”

I look at Sheila.

“I’ll go wait at the stage,” Sheila replies.

I smile at her. She smiles back, smiling at Jay as she walks off. I relax back into my chair.

“So…” I say. “What’s up?”

“Uh… Can we go somewhere more private?”

“Not really. My feet are killing me, & we’re about to start at any moment.”

“I just wanted to say-”

“Am I late?” Sonya says, walking up. I look at her & she realises she’s interrupted. “Oh! I’m sorry! I interrupted.”

“No, it's fine, Sonya,” Jay replies. “It can wait till later.”

I frown, looking at him. “Are you sure?”

He nods. “We have more time in the break,” he says. “Anyway, I better get back to my table. Pretty expensive guitar over there.”

“Alright,” I reply. “I’ll come find you in the break.”

He nods. “Bye.”

“Bye,” I say.

“Bye,” Sonya replies.

Jay leaves just as Aaron steps up.

“You’re officially off hosting duties,” Aaron says to me.

“What? Why?” I reply.

“Sheila’s having a stress out, & so I offered to take over hosting,” he replies. “I just came to get a copy of the list.”

I nod, swivelling my chair so I can access the table. It takes me a minute to dig out a spare copy. I hand it to him.

“Great. Thanks,” he says, taking it.

“You’re welcome,” I reply. “Uh, I’ve crossed out the ones who have dropped out. So just go down the list & skip those ones.”

He nods. “Easy,” he replies. “Where’s Jay on the…” he frowns. “The last one?”

“He’s not getting special treatment. And he’s happy to go last. He happened to see the list straight after I finished it.”

He puts up his hands in defeat. Sheila steps over.

“Get up on stage, & get this started before we have a riot!” Sheila says.

“Yes, ma’am!” Aaron replies, mock saluting.

****

The singing gets worse & worse the further through the first 15 we get. Some are okay, but most are off key & others are really, really cringe-worthy. I need more & more drinks just to get through.

At the halfway point, which was sadly cut so we could try & catch up the time we lost at the start due to the delayed start time, Jay crosses to me. But as he approaches, I get dragged off by Sheila to pose with some of the singers. When I finally get the chance to slip away, Sheila ushers Aaron back onto the stage to start the second half. I make eye contact with him, giving him a sympathetic smile & mouth “Sorry” at him.

The talent barely improves as we go through the early singers of part two. Sheila’s right- Joe will win. Even if he doesn’t hit all the right notes, he’ll win. The bar is set really low.

“And we’re up to our final contestant, ladies & gentlemen!” Aaron says. Sonya, Sheila & I sigh. “But before I introduce him, I’m just going to run through some rules again. There will be one winner & two runners up. The judges will have fifteen minutes after our last contestant to decide the three. We will be presenting them with their prizes, starting with the second runner up. So stick around. We will also draw the raffle while the judges make their decision.” He pauses for a few seconds. “Alright. Our last contestant is going to be singing an original song. The first for tonight. I’d introduce the title, but… he hasn’t given it. So I’m going to hand it over to him. Please give a warm welcome to Jay Soffer!”

The crowd applauds as Jay, his guitar hanging from its strap by his side, climbs up on stage. Aaron shakes his hand & hops down, going to join our brothers. If Paige was here, I know she’d be cheering him wildly. He adjusts his guitar to be in front of him & plugs it in, giving it a few strums to make sure that it’s in tune.

“Thank you,” he says into the microphone, & the applause fades. “Umm… this is a song I wrote last night. I was going to sing another song, but… inspiration hit & I knew I had to sing this.” Some people laugh a little. “This is called Only Want.”

Everyone claps & he waits till it dies down a bit before starting. With just a few bars, he’s already the front runner. And then he sings. I haven’t heard him sing yet. Oh my god! He’s just incredible!

I can’t keep my eyes off him… and then it hits. I’m pretty sure it’s the chorus when it dawns on me what he’s singing about.

Me.

I sit there, stunned & gaping the rest of the song. I don’t even register the ending for a minute. Not even the standing ovation from everyone including Sheila & Sonya really sinks in. I get up, catching sight of Mark’s worried look in the corner of my eye.

The audience all sit as I swallow a lump. I can’t even look at him.

“Are you okay?” Sonya asks.

“I’m… I’m gonna go,” I reply.

“But what about the judging?” Sheila asks.

“You two can figure it out,” I reply, grabbing my handbag.

I turn towards the door, having to step past Mark at his table. I steer clear of him, & he gets the message- leave me alone.

“Erin!” Jay calls as I reach the door.

I don’t look back. I don’t stop. I have to get out of here.

****

“ERIN!” Jay calls, as I hurry to get under the Lassiters awning to escape the rain.

I don't look back, continuing to walk around to the main entry point as I get my mobile out to call for a taxi. He catches up with me.

“Just go back inside,” I tell him.

“Come with me.”

No.”

“Okay, so let me explain, alright?”

I sigh in annoyance.

“I tried to tell you about the song earlier,” he says. “Tried to give you the heads up you deserved.”

“So why didn't you? You had plenty of chances, & yet you backed out! Like when Sonya arrived. You bailed.”

“Because I wanted to tell you in person,” he replies. “On our own.”

I shake my head. “I can't believe you just let it drop. You let it blindside me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You know what? It's not the song that I’m upset over,” I reply. “It's the fact that…” I sigh, closing my eyes & trying to focus my thoughts. I look at him. “You’ve been so, so kind & generous… & understanding. You’ve waited all this time despite you wanting me so bad & all I do is keep you friend zoned.”

“You're working things out.”

“You’ve been so good, patiently waiting & then… this,” I reply, pointing to the pub. “I’m not annoyed about the song, I’m annoyed that you are happy to wait for me & then you go & confess your love for me in front of a crowd of strangers, my three brothers, Sonya & Sheila. And telling her is like telling the whole street!” I shake my head. “And what cuts me the most, is that you didn't try hard enough to give me a heads up. Instead, you let it hit me by surprise & think that I’m going to stand there & act like everything is okay. When it's far from it.”

“I'm sorry,” he says, stepping towards me as his hands reach for me.

I step back & he stops.

“Just go,” I say. “Go back inside. You're going to win. The rest of them were so shit, all you had to play was the introduction & you’d beaten them all.”

“Erin-”

No. I need some space. Okay?” I reply. “So just leave me alone for tonight.”

****

I get a taxi home, taking off my heels as I climb the stairs. I force back the thoughts of Jay as I unlock the front door. The living area is in darkness, so I quietly shut the door & make my way through to the bathroom without turning on a light. I step into the bathroom, shutting the door almost all the way & then turn on the light. Once my eyes are adjusted to the light again, I put my heels on the floor & cross to the sink. I remove my make up, take out the bobby pins holding my hair in place & brush my teeth. I pick up my shoes, flick off the light & open the door.

As I reach my room, I see further down the hall that Tyler's bedroom door is shut. Piper must be sleeping here. I step into my bedroom & close the door. I cross my room, put my shoes down, & flick on my bedside lamp.

I unzip my dress. I push the sleeves over my shoulders, & let it cascade into a heap on the floor. I step over my dress as I unclasp my bra, pulling it off & tossing it aside. I pull back the covers on my bed, grab my loose fitting pj top & put it on. I crawl into bed, lie down & then flick off the lamp.

I settle on my right side, the way I always fall asleep, & yet… Nothing. It's late, I’m tired, yet… My brain won't let me sleep.

I lie there, willing myself to sleep. I go through every method I can to get myself to sleep, but nothing works.

I can't get my mind off him for more than a minute. Dreams blur with reality, whether my eyes are open or closed.

I turn to look at the time on my mobile- 1am. Been lying here for a little over two hours.

I sigh, looking at the ceiling again. This is ridiculous.

And there's only one way to solve this.

****

I walk out of my bedroom, wearing nothing but my boxers & rubbing my eyes with my right finger & thumb. Another round of knocking on my front door happens, & I flick on the hallway light as I step over to the front door. Who drops by at 1:45am???

I undo the security chain & then turn the handle. I pull it open, surprised to see her. She's wearing the same dress as earlier, this time with knee-high boots & a leather jacket. I push the door open wider & let it go, knowing it will stay all the way open.

****

Without a word, I step inside, stopping right in front of him as I place my hands on his chest, either side of his collar bones. He instinctively places his hands on my hips, & his touch sends a sensation through me that I can't explain. This is the first time that I’ve seen him this naked. I haven't even seen him shirtless before. Other than my dreams, of course. I find myself running my hands over his chest, mapping out every inch, every high, every low, with my fingers. I get so lost watching my fingers, I loose track of time. He tightens his hold on my hips, pulling me back to right now.

I snap my head up, meeting his eyes. I hold his gaze for a long minute. My eyes drop to his lips, & I can't take this any longer. I had this whole speech worked out in the car on the way here, but now that I am here… Seems pointless. Actions speak louder than words.

I lean forward, & press my lips against his. He's surprised at first, but kisses me back. It feels sooo good to finally give in.

But just as quickly, the fear of letting someone into my heart crashes in again. Before I know it, I’m pushing off his chest, breaking our kiss & us apart. I shake my head, fighting back tears. I want to tell him what's going on, but… I just can't find the voice.

I turn & step out the door. He grabs my arm, pulling me back to him. I turn to him & he cups my face with both hands. He kisses me, short & sweet, before resting his forehead against mine. And then he pulls back, making me frown, but it's just to shut the door. He quickly hooks the security chain back on & then turns back to me, his hands cupping my face again. His lips crash against mine, but I don't care. This is right. This is where I should be.

Chapter Text

I sigh as I stir, & I feel his arm band around me & pull me closer to him. We rub noses & I smile. I open my eyes, greeted by his & we both smile as he closes the gap & kisses me.

“Morning,” he says.

“Mmmmmorning,” I reply.

“Best middle of the night wake up call.”

I chuckle.

“Does that count as make up sex?”

“Technically we weren’t together when we fought.”

“Seriously, I’m glad that you came over.”

I smile. “Me too,” I reply, leaning in & kissing him.

He wraps his arm around me as we kiss, pulling me on top of him. I grind my hips, making us both moan into our kiss. He pushes inside of me & slowly thrusts as I rock my hips.

He holds my hips, making me stop moving, & then thrusts faster. The pleasure gets too much & I orgasm, collapsing against him. He holds me close, not losing his pace. He then flips us, so I’m on my back, & kisses my neck as I pant. I grip his back- this is better than all my dreams. He continues on & I feel another orgasm coming. So I wrap my legs around his hips, both of us moaning as my inner walls tighten around him. We climax at the same time, his thrusts slowing as we come down. I turn & kiss his jaw. He turns & meets my lips.

****

“Hey, hey, hey, don’t fall asleep!” He says, squeezing my shoulder.

We’re standing in his quaint little kitchen. He’s cooking us bacon & scrambled eggs, his left arm around me & I have my arms around him, my head resting on his chest. I’m wearing one of his shirts.

“Well, someone kept me up all night.”

“Oh, says the one who turned up on my doorstep at almost 2am for a booty call.”

I lift my head up to look at him & gape. “It wasn’t a booty call!”

He grins. “Just teasing,” he replies, leaning in for a kiss.

I rest my head on his chest again as he turns back to cooking. “You know we haven’t talked about last night.”

“About the fight?”

I lift my head, looking at him as I nod. “I’m sorry for getting mad.”

He smiles a little. “You had the right to,” he replies. “I made a very private thing public without telling you.”

“I shouldn’t have pushed you away.”

“Hey,” he says, putting down the tongs. He cups my cheek. “You did the right thing. Outside The Waterhole & when you turned up at my door.”

“Why do you have to be so understanding & kind to me? It just makes me feel so bad for treating you like crap.”

“Because I’m in love with you.”

I stare at him. My heart probably stopped for a few seconds too. That’s the first time he’s ever said he loves me.

He looks nervous. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s too soon to be saying it.”

“Well, you do have a strong habit of blindsiding me,” I reply with a smile.

He chuckles. “True.”

I press my lips to his. He pulls me closer & I wrap my arms around his neck. We break apart when we smell our breakfast burning.

****

“Have either of you seen Erin this morning?” Mark asks Paige & me as we make breakfast.

“No,” Paige replies. “Haven’t seen her since she left with you for the competition.”

“Haven’t seen her since she bolted after Jay’s song,” I reply.

Paige drops the butter knife she’s holding, turning to me & raising her eyebrow. “She bolted?”

I nod. “Jay sang a really beautiful original song that was a love song to Erin,” I reply. “She freaked out, & left straight after it. Jay chased after her, but came back without her.”

“Wow,” Paige says.

“I just hope she’s okay,” Mark says. “Her bedroom door has been open all night.”

I frown. “I swear it was shut when we got home.”

Mark frowns. “Maybe it was…” he replies. “But it’s not now.”

Paige shrugs. “Maybe she’s gone for a run,” she says. “You know, to clear her head. Wouldn’t be surprised if she’s still upset over the song.”

****

I stop on our front veranda, psyching myself up for the onslaught of questions. Mostly from Paige & Mark.

I sigh, cross to the front door, open the security door & then main door. Mark & Paige are standing in the kitchen making breakfast, while Aaron’s seated at the bench. All three look at me.

“There you are!” Mark says. “Where have you been?”

Paige looks me over. She looks shocked but then smirks. She slaps Mark’s bare left bicep with the back of her hand, doing it repetitively, each time getting harder.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow, OW!” he says, moving his arm out of her reach on the last one. “What?”

“She’s been with Jay!”

He frowns as I cross to the bench.

“How do you know that?” he asks as I sit on a stool.

“She may be in the same dress as last night,” She replies. She looks at me. “Which still looks smoking hot, by the way.” She turns back to Mark. “But she wasn’t in knee-high boots or wearing that jacket when she left with you. So clearly she’s been back here & then went back out.”

“You are extremely observant,” I reply.

“When it comes to you slipping out in the middle of the night to go finally get all hot & heavy with the lovesick puppy you call a friend, then… Yes.”

“Don’t call him that.”

“So… was it as hot as your dreams?”

I fight back the urge to puke. “You are unbelievable!” I look at Mark. “Intervene, please!”

“Paige, leave her alone,” Mark says.

“Awww, come on! This is exciting!”

“I’m not going to talk about it!” I reply. “Yeah, I went to see him. Yes, I slept with him. That’s all you get to know.”

She pouts. She thinks for a minute & a small smirk appears.

“Don’t you dare harass him for details!” I say, sternly.

She frowns. “You’re no fun!”

Exasperated, I look at Mark.

“Paige,” He says, looking at her. “You need to give Erin space, okay?”

She raises an eyebrow. “So she makes us wait a month & then when it finally happens, I’m supposed to ignore it?”

“Yes,” I reply. “You’ve been driving me nuts pushing me to do it, despite knowing that I hated it. What makes you think that I would want to spill the details now?”

Tyler emerges from the bedroom. “What’s going on?”

“Erin slept with Jay,” Paige says.

Tyler looks at me, surprised. “Really?”

I nod.

“That’s… Surprising,” he replies. “Given how you reacted to his song last night. He was kicking himself when he came back.”

“Makes two of us.”

“Betcha the make-up sex was hot.”

Paige!” Mark says.

“If you want an escape route,” Tyler says quietly to me. “Felicity’s fussing. Pipes is in there now, but I’m sure she’ll want her mum.”

“You’re a life saver!” I quietly reply.

He smiles. “I’m just happy you worked things out with Jay.”

I smile. “Me too.”

“So am I,” Aaron says, patting my back.

“We all are,” Mark adds. “We’re just more respectful.”

Paige, shocked, hits him. I get up & head off to get Felicity.

****

I’m in the middle of giving Felicity her breakfast, when my mobile buzzes. I put down her spoon on her high chair, & pick my mobile up off the table. I smile when I see the text.

Come down to the Waterhole. Need you. Sheila’s pestering me. Jay xx

“Loverboy sending you a love note?” Paige asks.

“So what if he is?” I reply, unlocking my mobile to reply to him.

“It’s so cute!” She says.

I type a reply- You have the wrong number. You’ll want your manager.

I hit send, put my mobile down & then continue feeding Felicity. It buzzes again just as I’m crossing to put her empty bowl in the sink. I put it in & cross back.

Officially asking for you to take over. Besides, I want to see you. Xx

I reply- We’ll be there soon. Xx

I’m about to put my mobile in my pocket when he replies.

Please let that be you and Felicity!! Xx PS love seeing the kisses on the end ;)

I reply- You’ll see ;)

****

Aaron & I walk into The Waterhole. Sheila is hovering around Jay, trying to take photos of him. He’s unimpressed.

“Sheila!” Aaron says as we approach.

She looks at us, & then looks at Jay. “You called tin reinforcements?”

“Actually, I texted just her,” Jay replies.

He raises his right arm to wrap around me, but at the last second stops. I see him nervously look at the other two.

“It’s okay,” I say quietly. “Az knows.”

He puts his arm around me & presses a kiss to my left temple.

“Well, that’s a better sight than last night!” Sheila says.

I smile. “Stop taking photos of him, Sheila.”

“But they’re for our social media!” She replies. “He won the competition. Which you would know had you stuck around for the voting & announcement.”

That affects me more than it should. I fight back tears. Aaron guides Sheila away.

“You okay?” Jay asks.

I nod “Yeah,” I reply. “I don’t know why that got me so much.”

He pulls me in for a hug. “You’re probably just tired.”

“Yeah, probably,” I reply. “Or maybe I’m feeling guilty for not staying professional last night.”

He pushes me back to look me in the eyes. “You did the right thing. Sheila’s just being too harsh. They didn’t need all three of you there to decide.”

I force a smile.

“How about we sneak out, & we can have a quiet day back at mine?”

“Sounds like a really good plan.”

He smiles. We then head out.

****

“Erin,” Jay says, rubbing my arm.

I groan, snuggling into him more. It’s just too good being here to move.

“Come on, babe,” he says.

I open my eyes, turning my head to look at him. He smiles & presses a kiss to my forehead. I look at his TV, seeing the credits rolling on the movie we’d been watching.

“I missed the end,” I say.

“You’ll have more chances to see it,” he replies. “Besides, you needed the sleep.”

I look at him. “You make a good pillow.”

He smiles, chuckling. “Thank you,” he replies. “I think.”

“You’re welcome,” I reply, pushing myself up to kiss him.

“I should take you home.”

I pout. “Don’t you want me to stay the night?”

“I could be selfish & keep you all to myself for another night,” he replies. “But I was thinking how Felicity will want to see her mum.”

“Oh.”

“Can’t have that beautiful little girl missing her mum.”

“Stop it.”

“Stop what?”

“Being so perfect.”

He smiles, leaning in to kiss me as he replies, “I’m not.”

“You are,” I whisper against his lips after our kiss.

“Just looking out for the most important girl in my most important girl’s life.”

I fight back tears.

“Awww, don’t cry!”

“That was just so beautiful.”

He smiles. “Just stating the truth. It’s how I see things.”

****

It’s dusk when Erin & I walk up the drive at hers. We reach the top when she stops. I turn back to her.

“What’s wrong?”

“Can I just call Mark, find out if he’s in there?” She asks. “Can’t we just slip in, grab a few clothes & take Felicity back to yours?”

I pull her closer, wrapping my arms around her as she places her hands on my chest.

“Why don’t you want to be here?”

“Because we’re going to be met by an endless wave of questions from my hormonal crazy sister-in-law.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

She tilts her head. “You haven’t been on the receiving end of it yet.”

I smile. “I think I can handle it for one night.”

“Ha!” She says. “I can barely last five minutes of it!”

“You’re not alone this time.”

She smiles before kissing me.

Someone clears their throat & Erin jumps back. Tyler & Piper are walking up the last bit of the drive.

“Enough with the PDAs, sis!” Tyler says.

“Oh, yeah? Remember that when you get all lovey-dovey with Piper later,” Erin replies.

“Oh!” Tyler replies, faking being hurt. “But seriously, it’s good seeing you happy.”

She smiles. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” he replies. “Now… are you coming or going?”

“Coming,” Erin says. “Though I wish I could leave so I don’t have to be in the same room as Paige.”

“I don’t think you have to worry about that,” Tyler says. “After you & Az left, Mark gave her a long speech about it.”

Erin raises her eyebrow.

“So come in & see if she hounds you,” Tyler says.

Erin sighs. “Fine.”

She gestures for Tyler & Piper to go past & they do. I put my arm around her & we follow them up the stairs.

When we enter their house, Paige is sitting in the armchair while Mark is sitting on the couch with Felicity.

“Ah, the other lovers have arrived home!” She says.

Mark stands, Felicity in one arm. He steps past Paige just as she reaches out. He helps her to her feet, & the trio come over to us. Paige makes a beeline to me, throwing her arms around me. I hug her back.

“I’m so happy Erin finally went for it,” She says as we hug.

I catch sight of Erin fuming, reaching with both hands in Paige’s direction like she’s going to strangle her. Paige & I part, & Erin quickly drops her arms. She takes Felicity from Mark, smothering the little girl’s face with kisses.

“You staying for dinner, Jay?” Mark asks.

I nod. “That would be good. Thanks, Mark.”

He smiles as Paige quietly claps excitedly.

“You’re welcome,” Mark says. “We were going to get Chinese.”

“Sounds good.”

“What about Az?” Tyler asks.

“He’s on his way shortly,” Mark replies.

****

I quietly shut Felicity’s bedroom door so not to wake her. I jump a little as arms wrap around me, but relax against his chest.

“She asleep?” He whispers.

I nod, resting my head back on his shoulder. This is the first time all night that we’ve had a moment to ourselves. It’s a much needed break from being around Paige. She’s been fairly quiet about bombarding us with relationship questions, but has been giving us looks & asking Jay heaps of personal questions. So getting away from her for a few minutes with him is relaxing.

“We should head back out to the others.”

I shake my head. “Let’s go to my room.”

He chuckles. “Is it really that bad spending time with your family.”

“My brothers & Piper, yes.”

“Paige isn’t that bad.”

“You haven’t seen how bad she gets yet.”

He kisses my cheek. “Just ignore her. She’ll get over it soon enough.”

“She hasn’t dropped it yet & it’s been a month.”

“Hold on just a little longer,” he says. “Besides, you have me now.”

I turn around in his arms. “Can’t we just go to my room?”

“Just come back for a little while,” he says. “And then we can go curl up in your bed.”

I pout.

“I’ll make it worth your time later.”

I narrow my eyes. “You better.”

He gives me a quick kiss, before taking my hand & leading me back into the lounge. The others have set up a game on the coffee table. Paige is sitting in the armchair, Mark perched on the arm, while Tyler & Piper sit on the couch. Aaron’s sitting on the floor to the right of the table. Jay leads me round the back of the couch. He sits down & pulls me down so I’m sitting on his lap.

“Three teams of two & I’ll be the game master,” Aaron says. “Any objections?”

“Nope,” Tyler says. “But be prepared to be annihilated by me & Pipes!”

“HA! In your dreams, little bro!” I reply.

“Oh, game on!” he replies.

****

“Okay, we just need to roll a three or higher to win,” Tyler says, shaking the dice in his hands.

Jay & I currently hold the lead. We’re two moves from the end. Tyler & Piper are just behind us. Mark & Paige are three behind them. Tyler had been gloating for most of the game since they were smashing it. But luck swung my & Jay’s way shortly after, & we took the lead.

“Just hurry up & roll it,” Aaron says.

“What will you do if I don't?”

“I’ll make you go back fifteen places.”

Tyler gapes. “That's not in the rules!”

“I’m Game Master,” Aaron replies. “I can change the rules whenever I see fit.”

“Just roll it!” Piper says.

Tyler gives his hands one last furious shake, blows his fingers for luck, & then releases the dice onto the game board. We watch them bounce. It's an anxious few seconds, but they finally stop.

“Snake eyes!” Aaron declares.

Tyler groans, flopping back. I punch the air. Piper moves their piece forward two spots, onto the square one ahead of mine & Jay’s but one before the finish mark. Which means we still have the chance to win.

“Which one of you wants to roll the winning numbers?” Aaron asks as he picks up the dice for us.

“Oi, potentially winning!” Tyler says.

“You go for it,” Jay says. “Beat him.”

I smirk as I turn & take the dice from Aaron. I give them a quick shake & then toss them onto the table. One bounces a few times & then stops. The other rolls across the table, only just managing to stop before toppling off. Aaron checks each one. He then looks at Tyler, who is nervously waiting.

“Sorry, Gurtie,” Aaron says, causing Tyler to flop back. “Erin, you rolled a ten!”

“YESSSS!” I say.

Jay pulls me closer to him & I lean down to meet his lips. Paige whistles & we part, looking sheepish.

“Congratulations,” Mark says.

“Thanks,” Jay & I say in unison.

“And Ty?” Mark asks. “You're a sore loser.”

“Says the guy who came last.”

“I’m not the one complaining!”

“Well, this has been fun,” Paige says. “But I’m going to head to bed.”

“No! Stay & we’ll do a rematch!” Tyler says.

“Uh, no. One time is enough,” Paige replies. “Besides, I have two babies who love to use my bladder as a kick bag.”

Tyler scrunches up his face. “Too much information.”

“Awww, poor widdle Gurtie.”

Paige gets up with Mark’s help. They say goodnight & head through.

“I should go home,” Piper says.

“Nooo,” Tyler says. “Stay.”

She sighs. “I don't know, Ty.”

He nods slowly & looks down.

“You're such a toddler!” She says, shaking her head.

She stands & walks away. She stops, looks down at him. “You coming or what?”

He leaps up as he grins. They say goodnight, & I chuckle as I watch him follow her through to his bedroom. She still looks annoyed.

Aaron’s packing up the game. I get up & start helping, Jay joining in.

“I thought you two would want to head to bed too,” Aaron says as we pack up.

“And leave you here cleaning up? Not a chance,” I reply. “Besides, there’ll be a queue for the bathroom.”

He smiles. “True.”

****

We get into my bed & Jay flicks off the lamp. We get comfortable, Jay lying behind me. He wraps his left arm around me, hooking his hand around my right side, & pulls me even closer so my back is flush against his.

“Comfortable?” He asks.

“Yep. You?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

He kisses my shoulder. A part of me wants to make love to him, but I know we’ll get carried away & we won’t sleep for half the night. So I just lean back more against him. It feels so good to lie here in his arms. To have his warmth against my back. I never realised how much I’ve missed this.

****

It's 9am when I make my way through to the kitchen for a drink. Everyone else, including Piper, are still asleep. After all, it’s Sunday. I’m gulping down a glass of water when there's a knock at my door. Frowning, I place the glass down on the bench & cross to the door. I open it, shocked to see Mavi standing there. She walks past me without a word.

“Sure, let yourself in,” I say, shutting the door.

I turn to face her.

“I know it's been a really long time since we broke up, & it's a shock to see me here.”

“Yeah, it is,” I say. “A huge shock.”

“I’ve been missing you lately,” She says. “Initially I was okay, but lately I can't get you out of my head & I had to come & see you.”

“I’m with Piper now.”

She raises an eyebrow. “You're still with that little schoolgirl?”

“Yeah.”

“Dump her.”

What?

“You heard me. Dump her.”

“No.”

“You & I belong together.”

“Do you even remember how we broke up?”

“Whatever you have with her is just a little infatuation, that's going to sizzle out sooner rather than later,” she says, stepping closer. “But we always had lots of fun. We’ll out last what you have with her.”

I shake my head. “I’m with Piper,” I reply. “I love her.”

“But you love me.”

Used to.”

She steps even closer, placing a hand on the back of my head before I can step back. She pulls my head down, pressing her lips to mine. I try to pull back, but she holds me close.

“What the hell?!

Mavi pulls back, smirking. I look over to Piper, who is standing in the doorway to the bedrooms in one of my shirts.

Shit.

Chapter Text

“Oh, look! Little schoolgirl trying to look older by wearing your shirt as a dress,” Mavi says. “How cute.”

“At least I don't go around kissing other women's girlfriends,” Piper replies.

“No, but you stole him from me.”

“No I didn't.”

“Don't you remember what happened at his brother's wedding?”

“You broke things off with him.”

“Yeah, because it was clear he was more interested in you than he was me.”

“And you think kissing him now is gonna magically win him back?”

“Maybe,” Mavi says. She smirks. “But it's definitely made you mad. So that's a win.”

“Oh, you little-”

Piper,” I warn her.

“Awww, don't ruin the fun, babe,” Mavi says. “I wanna see what she does.”

"He's not your babe.”

“Oh, little girl, he was mine a long time before you came along.”

Mavi steps closer to me, clearly planning on getting all handsy to drive Pipes mad. I step back, but bump into the front door. Mavi steps closer & I swallow the lump in my throat. She places her hands on my bare chest, & I quickly put my hands up, away from her.

Mavi looks over her shoulder at Piper, & I see her face shift as she smirks. She looks at me again.

“Don't do it, Mavi,” I tell her.

“Do what?” She replies. “You know you want me. I can feel you're breathing faster. The way you would whenever I teased you right before we made love.”

“Maybe that's because you’ve got me pinned against my front door in front of my girlfriend.”

“Or maybe I’m right & you want me as much as I want you,” she says, before leaning in closer. “How hot would it be if you & I made love while the little schoolgirl watches?”

“Not gonna happen.”

“You say that now,” She says. “But once I start, you’ll love it. Just like you always have.”

She keeps her eyes locked with mine, her hands slowly sliding down my chest, her right fingers slipping beneath the top of my sweat pants…

****

Watching her slowly slide her hands down him is enough to make me snap. I run over, yanking her by her shirt backwards. I let go, watching her fall backwards.

“PIPER!”

I ignore him, filled with anger & the need to make her pay. We fight- hitting, kicking, & pulling each other’s hair- & scream insults as we roll around on the floor. I dig my fingernails into her forearms, dragging them down like nails on a chalkboard. She screams out & then slaps my face repeatedly- alternating hands just to make it hurt more.

Eventually Tyler manages to pull us apart, his arms wrapping around me so my arms are pinned to my sides.

"Let me go, Ty!"

“No!”

“What the hell is going on out here?” Mark asks as he enters the room.

Mavi gets up.

“Hi Mark,” she says, acting innocent. “Piper here attacked me. I want to press charges!”

Mark frowns at her. He then looks at Tyler & me. I’m still struggling to free myself.

“Tyler?” Mark asks.

“Mavi started it,” Tyler replies, with a grunt from the effort of keeping me in his arms. “She's trying to get me back, so she intentionally did things to set Pipes off. Will you stop it, Pipes?

“Not until that skank gets what she deserves.”

“Okay, it is way too early for this,” Mark says. “Mavi, you need to leave.”

WHAT?!” Mavi & I both say.

“This is over,” Mark says. “And this is our house, so you need to leave right now, Mavi.”

She crosses her arms. “Not until that little immature brat apologises.”

Mark rolls his eyes. He steps over, grabs Mavi’s arm & escorts her over to the front door. I struggle to get free, desperate to give her one more slap, but Tyler holds me tighter. Mark guides her out the front door. She turns back & opens her mouth to complain, but Mark shuts the door hard enough it slams a little.

Mark turns around to face us & Tyler finally lets go of me.

“Do I need to know the full story?” Mark asks.

“Just that if I see her again, I’m going to rip her hair out.”

“Pipes, you need to calm down.”

No!” I snap. “I walk out & she's there kissing you. And then the smug bitch thinks it’s okay to try & force you into having sex while I’m standing right there!”

Mark sighs, rubbing his hand over his face. “You two need to sort this out,” He says. “But not right now. Leave it for a few hours. Let Piper calm down. And let the rest of us sleep.”

“Sounds good,” I reply. I head for the bedrooms.

“Where are you going?” Tyler asks.

“To get dressed so I can go home.”

“Pipes.”

I stop in the doorway to the bedrooms, & look back at him. “I need time alone.”

****

“Mumma!” Felicity says.

I open my eyes, finding Felicity sitting there. And behind her, Jay. Felicity crawls to me, & I pull her up onto my stomach.

“Hey, baby girl.”

“Mumma!”

I smile as Jay shifts closer.

“She was crying,” he says. “So I thought she could come see you.”

“Awww,” I say, rubbing her back soothingly.

“Dadda!” Felicity says, reaching for Jay.

“Felicity, baby, that's Jay.”

“Dadda!”

I look at Jay, apologetically. “Sorry.”

He shrugs. “I don't mind it.”

“Really?”

“Do you really expect your almost two year old to be able to say Jay?”

I look at her. “Felicity. Can you say ‘Jay’?”

She looks blankly at me.

“Come on, baby. Say it. Say ‘Jay’.”

She looks at him. “Dadda!”

I sigh. Jay tickles Felicity's tummy.

“It's fine, Erin,” he says. “I honestly don't mind.”

“But I do! She should learn your real name.”

“Well, until she can. She can call me Dadda.”

I shake my head.

“Just embrace it,” he says, leaning in & kisses me.

“You won't let me stop it, will you?”

“Nope,” he replies as he lies down on his back beside me.

Felicity crawls onto his chest, Jay welcoming her with a smile as he holds her for support. He's always been so good with her. So maybe her calling him ‘Dadda’ isn't such a bad thing… Maybe one day he really will be her dad…

****

I open my front door, finding Erin standing there. She smiles as she lifts up a giant tub of my favourite ice cream.

“Thought you could do with this,” she says. “And a chat?”

I tilt my head. “You know.”

She gives me a sympathetic smile. “Thought you could do with someone to vent to.”

“How about someone who isn't related to him?”

“You need someone who knows you both really well,” she says.

I sigh, open the door wider & walk off. She comes in & shuts the door. I cross to the kitchen to get spoons & she settles at the dining table.

“Okay, rule one to comfort eating,” She says as I go to get bowls. “Ice cream always tastes better eaten straight from the tub. No bowls.”

I cross to her as she opens the tub, handing her a spoon as I sit down.

“You first,” she replies, sliding the tub closer to me.

I dig my spoon in, getting a big scoop. I eat it as she gets a smaller scoop.

“So… What's your advice?”

“Firstly… From what Tyler told me, she deserved what she got.”

I raise my eyebrow at her. “Wasn't expecting you to take my side.”

“No, I’m just saying I would have done the same if I was in your shoes.”

“You seem too nice to get into a cat fight.”

She smiles. “I can be tough when I need to be,” She replies. “Take Eddie & his Uncle for instance.”

I nod. “Yeah, I forgot about that.”

“You know he loves you, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s at home, going out of his mind trying to figure out how to fix things with you,” she says. “He's done nothing wrong.”

I scoff.

“It was all her, Pipes,” she says. “You know when he said he was with you, she pushed him to dump you for her. And when he said no, she kissed him. He was trying to get her off him when you walked in. He was trying so hard to defend his relationship with you.”

“He didn't try hard enough,” I reply as I get more ice cream.

“Don't let her get between you two,” she says. “That's what she wants. She wants to cause problems for you. Make you fight & break up. But he's madly in love with you, & no matter what Mavi says or does, he wants you.”

“What if that's not enough?”

“Then Mavi wins,” she replies. “Even if she doesn't end up with him, she still wins because she broke you two up. I know you love him too. I also know you're that you're hurting, but so is he. Don't punish him when he's done nothing wrong. He did the best he could to stop Mavi. Don't give up on him or your relationship.”

****

I’m half asleep on the sunbed in our backyard. All I want to do is go next door & beg Piper to forgive me. But I need to leave her be.

“To get a tan, you need the sun to be out,” Piper says.

I open my eyes. She's standing beside my sunbed.

“Hey,” I say, sitting up a bit.

“Can I sit?”

I nod & cross my legs so she can sit down. She purses her lips into a thin line.

“I’m sorry,” She says. “For getting angry at you before. It’s just… seeing her get all over you like that. It got under my skin &…” She sighs. “I lashed out at you because I was furious at her. And that was wrong. I’ve had time to think, as well as some time chatting with Erin, & I see that I let her get the better of me. You were trying to stop her, & I did the childish thing & played straight into her hands.”

“You did what you thought was right,” I reply. “Yes, it wasn’t the best choice, but… you see that now.”

She smiles a little. “I’m still sorry.”

I lean forward. “And I’m saying that I forgive you,” I reply, pulling her in & claiming her lips with mine.

I cup her face with both hands as we kiss, leaning back & pulling her with me. I uncross my legs & she straddles me, hands on my chest. She grinds her hips against mine & groan into her mouth. Her hands tug at my pants…

“We can’t,” I say. “What about my family?”

“Erin’s taken everyone out of the house,” She replies. “So we’re all alone.”

I raise my eyebrow. “And you wanna…? Here?”

“Shut up,” She replies as she leans in & kisses me.

We make love on that sunbed, over & over & over again.

****

I poke my head through the front door, finding Tyler standing in the kitchen. Alone. I push the door further open & walk in.

“Hey, where’s everyone else?” He asks as I shut the door.

“Waiting at Harold’s for me to let them know it’s safe to come home,” I reply, walking over to the bench. I rest my arms on it. “So… Did it go well between you two?”

“We worked things out.”

I smirk. “Not going to pry, but… You might wanna take a shower before the others get home,” I reply. “Paige has some insanely accurate sixth sense at the moment. And I can tell she’ll be…”

He raises an eyebrow. “Point taken.”

He heads for the bathroom, stopping at the doorway through & looks back.

“Thanks,” he says.

“You helped me with her yesterday,” I reply. “Just returning the favour.”

He smiles, before walking out. I give him a five minute head start before texting Mark to say that they can all come home.

****

I pull up at the garage the next morning, sighing as I see Mavi standing by the roller door. I turn off the engine, pull out the keys & then get out.

“So how did the little schoolgirl take the news that you two are done?” She asks as I cross to her.

“I’ll let you know,” I reply. “When pigs fly.”

“Awww, is she giving you the cold shoulder?” She asks as I open the roller door. She follows me inside as she continues. “Why don’t we jump in that car over there & I’ll make you forget all about that naïve girl.”

I turn around to face her. “You need to stop, Mavi!” I say. “I’m not interested in getting back together with you, okay? I love Piper. I want to be with Piper. I am with Piper. You & I… we ended months ago. On good terms. Please don’t ruin that now.”

“I’m just trying to reconnect with you.”

I sigh. “I get that, Mavi. But…” I sigh again. “I’ve missed you. But not the way you miss me. I missed talking to you about things, missed having you around. But I don’t love you anymore.”

She looks so shocked. Heartbroken. And a part of me feels sorry for her. But I also feel relieved that she finally understands.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Don’t be,” She says, putting on a brave smile. “I’m the idiot that thought I could just show up unannounced & you’d welcome me back into your life & heart.”

I nod. “Kissing me wasn’t the smartest move either.”

She closes her eyes. “Yeah, I did some ridiculously stupid things yesterday. I made an idiot of myself because I still love you & I underestimated what you have with Piper.”

“Come here,” I say, pulling her into a hug.

She sighs as she rests her head on my chest. “I’m going to miss you.”

“Keep in contact,” I reply. “Just because we’re over romantically, doesn’t mean I don’t care about you still.”

She pulls back. “I’d love that,” She replies. “But I won’t. At least not for a while. I need some time to heal. To get over you.”

I purse my lips together into a thin line & nod. “I understand.”

“I hope that you have a happy future.”

“You too.”

“Please tell Piper that I’m sorry.”

I nod. “I will.”

She reaches up & kisses my cheek, slowly withdrawing. “Goodbye, Tyler.”

“Goodbye Mavi.”

I watch her walk out. I sigh & then get started on my work.

****

“Hey,” Piper says, smiling at me as she crosses the courtyard to me just as I exit Harold’s with a coffee.

She’s wearing her school uniform, her schoolbag hanging off one shoulder. She reaches up & kisses me.

“Hey,” I reply, placing my free hand on her hip.

“I was gonna meet you at the garage, but it was closed. I guessed you were on a coffee run, so I came here.”

“Well, you found me,” I reply, smiling.

She grabs my shirt & pulls me down, giving me a hot kiss.

“What was that for?” I ask, lips brushing hers.

“I’ve been wanting to kiss you all day.”

I smile. “Missed me, huh?”

“Like crazy,” She replies. “Walk back to the garage with you?”

I nod. I take her hand in mine & we walk off. She talks about her day, I tease her occasionally, & things are good. And I wonder if I should ruin the happiness by mentioning Mavi coming to see me.

“What’s wrong?” She asks.

“Hmmm?”

“You’re frowning. The way you do when you’re thinking hard over something.”

I look up, finding that we’re outside the garage. I usher her up & inside the side door.

“Just stand there & listen to everything I have to say before you react, okay?”

“Tyler, you’re freaking me out right now.”

I sigh. “Mavi came & saw me here this morning.”

“She what?!

“Just listen,” I reply. “She was still pushing me, trying to win me back. But I talked to her. I told her that I am over her. That I don’t love her anymore…” I swallow the lump in my throat. “I’m in love with you. And that’s all that I want.”

“Why would you talk to her? After what she’s done to us?”

“To clear the air!” I reply. “To make it clear to her that I’m not interested in her.”

She just looks at me. I step closer, but she steps back.

“Pipes.”

She shakes her head. “I can’t.”

“Pip-”

“I can’t do this right now,” She says, fighting back tears.

I step closer, wanting to wrap my arms around her & take away the pain. But she steps away, ducking past me & hurries over to the side door. She slips out without looking back. I rub my hands over my face & sigh.

How did this go so wrong?

Chapter Text

Tyler comes through the front door as Mark & I are prepping dinner, & shuts it rather forcibly.

 

“What's with the foul mood?” Mark asks.

 

“How is it that the Willis women can forgive us one minute & then go back to hating us?” Tyler asks.

 

Mark looks at me confused. Then it hits.

 

“Piper,” I reply.

 

Tyler nods as he sits down at the bench. “I thought we’d put it behind us.”

 

“What happened?” I ask.

 

“Mavi came to the garage.”

 

I raise my eyebrow, noting a similar reaction from Mark.

 

“She was trying to talk me into basically cheating on Piper. But I set her straight. I told her that I love Piper, & that I choose her over Mavi.”

 

“Did Piper see this?” I ask.

 

“No, it was this morning when Pipes was at school,” he replies. “But…” He sighs. “Pipes found me this afternoon outside Harold's when I got a coffee, & we talked on the way back to the garage. It was going well, we were happy, &… I wondered if I should tell her about Mavi.”

 

“Oh god, you did!”

 

“She picked that I was thinking about something. And I figured that I should be honest with her. Mavi's gone for good this time, &… I thought she should know that we don't have to worry about her,” he says. “I thought she'd appreciate the honesty rather than hiding it from her.”

 

“Yeah, but… Telling her your ex visited you at work while she was at school?” Mark asks.

 

“What Mark’s trying to say is… Look at it from Piper’s point of view,” I say. “She's feeling insecure ever since she saw Mavi kissing you. Yes, you made up, but… She finds out you saw Mavi again? That's going to hurt her, Ty. I get that you were being honest with her, & that's good of you. But… It's a very sensitive topic. She feels threatened.”

 

“What do I do to fix it, Erin?”

 

He looks so defeated.

 

“Give her time to calm down,” I reply. “Work things out tomorrow.”

 

“Really?”

 

I nod. “I know you want to work it out right now, but… I’ve had experience handling this. Not gonna go into details, but… You just need to give her space & then talk to her tomorrow. She needs time to see things clearer.”

 

****

 

“I’ll leave you two it,” Mum says.

 

I look up to see her head back in to our house, Erin standing near the table.

 

“Tyler told you,” I say, slumping back in my chair.

 

“Yeah, but… Not here to discuss my lovesick baby brother,” She replies, sitting down next to me. “Remember a couple of months ago, when I had that week from hell thanks to Eddie? We agreed to be there for each other. Our little sisterhood with Paige.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Well… I know what it's like for you right now. Having a relationship threatened by an ex-girlfriend. And I thought you could use some advice.”

 

I narrow my eyes. “I thought you weren't here to talk about your brother?”

 

She smiles. “I'm not. I'm gonna tell you about my idiot boyfriend from my university days.”

 

I raise an eyebrow. “The use of ‘idiot’ gives a hint things didn't go well.”

 

She nods. “When we started dating, he hadn't been out of a relationship for long. Which, in hindsight, should have been a warning sign,” she says. “Things were going well for us… & then his ex came back into his life. They… Eventually got back together. And I spent the rest of the year watching their PDAs every single day because he was in most of my lectures.”

 

“Sounds like a jerk.”

 

“Yeeeah,” she replies. “I’d use stronger language, but… Yeah.”

 

I smile. “But… How does that help me?”

 

“I don't want you to make the same mistake with Tyler,” She says. “I had the chance to be with my uni boyfriend. He chose me over his ex. But I let his ex get under my skin, & that caused things to self-destruct. I see that you're on the edge of that right now.”

 

“What do you want me to do?”

 

“Telling him how you feel would be a good start,” She replies. “I know that you're feeling insecure right now. But he chose you. He was trying to tell you that Mavi is gone. She understands that he’s with you. That there's no chance that he's going to leave you for her.” She leans forward. “I know how you feel right now. When your first love starts to get shaky, & instead of standing tall & with him, you run away because it's easier to hide away than face it. But you’ve been through so much since you started dating my brother, & I know that having Mavi back is crushing you. You have nothing to worry about. So just let him in.”

 

“I… I'm not sure.”

 

“Sleep on it,” She replies. “A new day always helps.”

 

I smile. “Thank you.”

 

She smiles. “Always happy to help you.”

 

She stands & turns to go. I stand & stop her. I hug her. She's taken off guard but hugs back.

 

****

 

“How did it go?” Mark asks as I walk in the front door.

 

I nod. “Good.”

 

He nods. “That's good,” he replies. “Mopey has retreated to his bedroom.”

 

I tilt my head as I cross to him. “Don't call him that.”

 

“It's true. He's acting like a toddler.”

 

“His relationship is crumbling, give him a break,” I reply. “You were like that too when you were his age.”

 

He scrunches up his face. “Don't remind me of that time.”

 

“Well, be more sympathetic to our baby brother,” I reply. “Just be there for him tonight. Until he can talk to Piper & work things out.”

 

He nods, before draping an arm around my shoulders. “You're a good sister.”

 

“Learnt from you.”

 

He smiles slightly. “You seem to have the knack of talking them through this,” he says. “You're gonna be amazing when Felicity needs relationship advice.”

 

I scoff. “No I won't.”

 

"Yeah you will," he replies, before kissing my temple.

 

“You’ll be good at it too.”

 

“Oh god! I’m actually dreading the day my daughter starts dating.”

 

I smirk. “Between you & Paige, the boys will be keeping their distance.”

 

“Oh, they better!”

 

I stifle my laughter.

 

“But you’ll be there, being the best auntie ever to give her advice.”

 

“Yeah, like how to get her parents to stop being so fiercely protective of her & let her live her life.”

 

“Don't push your luck.”

 

I shrug. “Just telling the truth,” I reply. “You're also going to be a good role model for Felicity when she's older. It's really good that she has you, Az & Ty. She needs as many male role models in her life as she can, given her father isn't in the picture.”

 

He frowns. “Things that bad between you & Zack?”

 

“Haven't talked to him since Felicity was kidnapped.”

 

“Wow.”

 

“That sort of betrayal isn't easy to forgive & forget,” I reply. “Even though he was scared & threatened. That doesn’t justify risking our daughter’s life like that.”

 

He nods. “Can't imagine being put in that position.”

 

“Exactly why I’m glad that we have you.”

 

“What about Jay?” He asks. “Do you see him as a good role model for Felicity?”

 

“Yeah,” I reply. “Felicity adores him.” I look a little awkward. “She now calls him ‘dadda’.”

 

He raises an eyebrow. “And?” He asks. “What do you think of that?”

 

I shrug. “I don't know,” I reply. “I don't want to let her get in the habit of calling him that.”

 

He frowns. “Why not?”

 

“Because I’m…” I sigh. “I’m scared that things won't work out with Jay, &… I don't want Felicity adjusting to him. I don't want her calling him ‘dadda’. Because what if he isn't around anymore? How do I explain to her that yet another father figure has left?”

 

“Don't be so scared, Aer,” he says. What if Jay is who you're meant to be with? Kids have this weird ability of sensing things. What if Felicity calling him that is a sign?”

 

I hesitate- do I have a response????

 

He smiles reassuringly. “When you're torn like this, & you don't know whether to listen to your heart or your mind,” he says. “And trust me, I made the wrong choice several times with Paige… You should follow your heart. No matter how great the risk is. You gotta have faith in your relationship. Have faith in your heart.”

 

I smile, fighting back tears.

 

“Come here,” he softly says, pulling me in for a hug.

 

****

 

The next day

 

I stop on my driveway, seeing Tyler heading down the stairs for his car. I dump my bag & cross my front lawn & stop on top of the dividing wall. He falters when he sees me standing there.

 

“Hey,” I say, smiling.

 

“Hey,” he replies. “Don't you have school?”

 

I nod. “I think we should talk.”

 

“Don't be late.”

 

“Oh, come on! I'm trying to make up with you!”

 

“Yeah, & I don't want it to make you late for school.”

 

“Well I have a study period first thing, so it's not a bother,” I reply, as I lower myself down onto his driveway. “So let's talk.”

 

“Just get it over & done with, then.”

 

I look confused. “What?”

 

“You're gonna dump me, right?”

 

No,” I reply. “Do you want me to?”

 

“No,” he replies. He sighs. “It feels like you were.”

 

I place my hands on his cheeks. “I don't want to dump you, you fool,” I reply. “I love you too much to lose you. Yes, I hate that Mavi got between us, but I’m angrier at myself than I am at you.”

 

He sighs, leaning forward & resting his forehead on mine as he closes his eyes.

 

“I'm sorry,” I whisper.

 

He kisses me, pulling my hips closer to crash my body into his.

 

“I’ll drive you to school,” he says.

 

I smile. “I’d love that.”

 

He smiles. “Good. Go get your bag.”

 

I grumble. “I don't wanna leave your embrace.”

 

"You can be in it again tonight.”

 

I smile. “I’m holding you to that.”

 

He kisses me again, & then I go & grab my bag. He pulls his van up outside mine & I climb in. He waits until I have my seatbelt on before he pulls off.

 

****

 

“Maybe you should be a couple’s therapist not a PR manager,” Jay says.

 

I frown, looking up from my work on the table outside The Waterhole. He’s standing beside me, one hand on the table the other on the back of my chair. He nods off towards the courtyard, & I look. Tyler & Piper are sitting at a table outside Harold's, looking very much loved up. I smile, happy to see that they’ve worked things out.

 

“Just cause I gave my baby brother & his girlfriend advice, doesn’t mean I should do it professionally,” I reply. “I just got them to see things from the other’s point of view.”

 

“Well, whatever you said to them, it worked,” he replies.

 

“I also spoke from experience, told Piper about something similar that happened to me.”

 

“You’re full of mysteries,” he says softly.

 

I look at him. “Maybe I am.”

 

He smiles before leaning down & kisses me. He sits down beside me. “What are you doing?”

 

“Trying to work.”

 

“Anything interesting?”

 

“Not really,” I reply. “I’m scoping out what The Waterhole’s rivals are doing so we can come up with different ideas to draw people here. It’s a big game of who can stand out the most.”

 

“Sounds thrilling,” he sarcastically replies.

 

“Mmm,” I reply. “But the fact that we’re connected to Lassiters is a good thing. We can use that as an edge. Not just for reeling in customers, but also budget wise. Bigger budget means we can go more out. But I’m not going to let that get the better of us. Each event will be carefully kept within a budget.”

 

“Wow, you really do know your stuff.”

 

I smile. “My ex-boss was training me up to basically take over from him.”

 

“And you thank him by quitting.”

 

“Mmm yeah,” I reply. “That wasn’t where I intended on going with it. But thanks to Eddie, my plans changed suddenly & all that hard work felt like a waste.”

 

“Maybe you’ll go back there one day.”

 

“Maybe,” I reply. “I haven’t thought of that.”

 

He smiles. “In the meantime… I have you.”

 

I smile. “Yeah you do.”

 

He leans in to kiss me, our noses brushing when my mobile beeps with a text. I turn to get it & he sighs.

 

“Really?” He asks, as I see that it’s from Paige.

 

Firebird.

 

“Erin?” He asks, hand coming to rest on my back.

 

“Uh… I need… I need to go.”

 

“Everything okay?” He asks, concerned.

 

“Not exactly,” I reply, showing him my mobile.

 

He frowns. “Firebird,” he says. He then looks at me. “As in… the code word for…”

 

I nod as I gather up my things into one pile. “Exactly why I need to go home. Find out what’s going on.”

 

“Here, lemme help,” he replies, taking the pile from me.

 

“Thanks,” I say with a smile.

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

I grab my handbag & we head for the carpark. I see Tyler & Piper are still sitting at their table & divert to them. Piper sees me coming, & points me out to Tyler.

 

“Hey sis,” he says. He then frowns when he sees my expression. “Everything okay?”

 

“I just got a text from Paige. She used our code word & I wanna go check on her,” I reply. “But I was wondering if you two would come too. I need to be able to leave Felicity with someone if we need to get Paige to the hospital.”

 

“We’ll come,” Piper says.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“No worries,” She replies as they get up.

 

The four of us head to the carpark.

 

“Shouldn’t we tell Mark?” Tyler asks.

 

I shake my head. “I wanna find out what’s going on first,” I reply. “I don’t want to pull him from work if it’s just a false alarm.”

 

****

 

“Paige?” I call out as I walk in the front door. Jay & I were the first ones home. He’d encouraged me to get inside while he collected my things off the backseat.

 

“Over here!” She calls from the laundry.

 

I hurry over, finding her bracing herself on the doorframe- her left hand clinging to the wood, her right on her bump. She looks terrified & in a lot of pain.

 

“Okay, take some deep breaths for me, okay?” I say, placing my hand on her back. “Let’s do the breathing together, okay?”

 

She nods. I guide her through the breathing technique she’d learnt.

 

“What’s happened?” I ask her, once she seems calmer.

 

“I was doing some washing while Felicity has her afternoon nap,” She says. “And there’s this pain all of a sudden & I don’t know what it is.”

 

“Have you felt it before?” I ask. “Maybe just a little, over the last few days?”

 

“There’s been some discomfort over the last couple of days,” She replies. “But I thought it was just cramping given how far through I am. But…” She groans. “Not like this.”

 

“It may be contractions,” I reply.

 

“What?! No! No, no, no! It’s too soon for that!”

 

“Hey, stay calm, Paige,” I reply. “It could just be a false labour. It happens.”

 

“Everything okay?” Jay asks.

 

I look over my shoulder, seeing him place my files on the kitchen bench.

 

“We need to get her to the hospital,” I reply.

 

He nods. “Tyler & Piper are outside.”

 

“Good,” I reply. “Help me get her into your car.”

 

We help her slowly towards the front door. We’re halfway there when Tyler & Piper enter. Both look shocked.

 

“Felicity’s sleeping, so stay here & look after her,” I tell them as they step aside so we can leave. “Tyler, I need you to call the hospital. Talk to Karl, let him know we’re coming in. If he wants more details, he can call my mobile.”

 

“Got it,” Tyler says, pulling his mobile out of his pocket.

 

Jay pushes the security door open with his foot, leading us out. We start making our way down the stairs.

 

“What about… what about Mark?” Paige asks.

 

“Let’s focus on getting you there & get a better understanding of what’s going on,” I reply. “Then I’ll get hold of him, okay?”

 

She nods, before crying out with pain. We get her in the backseat, Jay staying with her while I go round & climb in the other side, ignoring my seatbelt. Jay gets in, starts the engine & we’re off.

 

****

 

We’re halfway to the hospital when my mobile rings. “Hey, Karl.”

 

“Hey Erin,” Karl replies. “Can you give me more information on the situation?”

 

“She’s getting pains that I suspect may be contractions,” I reply. “They’re not very close together at the moment, but they’re very intense.”

 

“How far apart?”

 

“I’m not sure, but it’s not the final stage, not yet.”

 

“Okay, well I’m here waiting for you.”

 

“We’ll be there soon.”

 

“Good,” he replies. “And Erin?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“I recommend you call Mark, let him know what’s going on if you haven’t yet,” Karl says. “There’s a good chance that she’s gone into premature labour, & you’ll need as much time as you can to get hold of him.”

 

“Okay, I’ll do that,” I reply. “Any tips on what to do with Paige till we get there?”

 

“Just keep her breathing as calmly as possible.”

 

“Will do,” I reply. “Thanks Karl.”

 

“You’re welcome. Call me if you need anything else.”

 

“Will do. See you soon.”

 

I hang up, turning my attention back to Paige. “Paige, hey. Focus on your breathing, okay?”

 

She nods, but then shakes her head. “I feel sick.”

 

She leans forward & throws up- & I watch it land on the floor.

 

“It’s okay,” I reply, handing her a tissue.

 

She wipes her mouth. I then hand her a bottle of water so she can get the taste from her mouth. I then speed dial Mark, putting my mobile to my ear & listen to it ring.

 

“Hi, you’ve reached Mark Brennan,” His voice comes & I huff in annoyance at the voicemail message. “I can’t come to the phone at the moment, so leave a message & I’ll get back to you.”

 

“Mark, it’s Erin,” I say into it. “You need to call me back as soon as you get this, okay? It’s important.”

 

Paige screams out in pain just as I’m hanging up. Hopefully that will give him an extra incentive to call me back.

 

****

 

Karl & a nurse are waiting at the door to the hospital when we get there. Jay pulls up & I climb out as Karl opens the back door on Paige’s side. Together we help her out & into the wheelchair that the Nurse has. I shut the door & Jay pulls off to go park. We head inside.

 

“I think they’re getting closer,” I tell Karl.

 

He nods. “Doctor Brooke is waiting, she’ll be able to tell us what’s going on,” he replies. “Have you managed to get in contact with Mark yet?”

 

I shake my head. “His mobile keeps ringing out to voicemail,” I reply. “I’ve sent a text, but he hasn’t replied yet.”

 

“Keep trying.”

 

I get my mobile out again & call Mark. But it just rings out again.

 

“OH COME ON MARK!” I shout into it. “Call me back!!! What good is it that you’re a cop & I can’t get hold of you in a damn emergency?!”

 

****

 

What?!” Paige asks. “Premature labour?!”

 

She’s in a hospital bed, Jay & I with her, Karl & Dr Brooke, her obstetrician.

 

“I’m afraid that’s the situation,” Dr Brooke says. “Twins tend to hold a higher risk of premature labour.”

 

“But… but I’m only 31 nearly 32 weeks!”

 

Dr Brooke nods. “It happens, Paige. But you need to relax.”

 

“Everything will be okay, Paige,” Karl adds. “There’s a really good percentage of survival with prematures from 32 weeks.”

 

“How far through the labour is she?” I ask.

 

“She’ll be ready to push in a little over an hour at the earliest,” Dr Brooke replies.

 

“I need Mark,” Paige whimpers.

 

“I’ll get back on to calling him,” I reply.

 

I head out of the room into the corridor, getting my mobile out as I shut the door. I give his mobile another call, but when it rings out to voicemail I hang up. I then dial the station number.

 

“If you’re gonna ignore my calls, I’m gonna get answers from the station,” I mutter.

 

“Good afternoon, Erinsborough Police Sub-Station, Constable Holland speaking,” a male voice comes through my phone.

 

“Hi, can I please speak to Constable Mark Brennan please?”

 

“Who may I say is calling?”

 

“His sister,” I reply. “Tell him it’s an emergency & he has to talk to me.”

 

“Okay, ma’am,” he says. “Please hold.”

 

I’m put on hold & I pace nervously. It takes a long minute on hold before it picks up again.

 

“Aer, what’s going on?” Mark asks.

 

“Oh my god, finally!” I reply. “Haven’t you seen my billion calls & texts?”

 

“I’m swamped with paperwork,” he replies. “I haven’t had a chance to respond.”

 

“Well you need to put it aside.”

 

“I can’t, Aer,” he sighs, & I can sense he’s pinching the bridge of his nose.

 

“Yeah, well I’m standing in the corridor outside Paige’s hospital room,” I reply. “Does that trump your paperwork yet?”

 

What?!” He says. “Oh my god, is she okay?”

 

“Not really, no,” I reply.

 

“What’s going on?”

 

“She’s gone in to premature labour,” I reply. “And she wants you here. And I mean that, Mark. You need to be here already. So please leave your paperwork.”

 

“Okay, yeah I’m on my way.”

Chapter Text

Sarge gave me permission to take one of our squad cars, & I used the sirens to get through the traffic until I approached the hospital carpark. I find a park, & quickly get out. I jog inside.

****

I come out of Paige's room to get more shaved ice for her, & cross to the nurse’s station.

“Erin!” Mark says, & I look up to see him hurrying over.

“Heyyy!” I reply, before giving him a hug.

“How's she going?”

“Hanging in there,” I reply. “She's freaking out, but I think that's more over the fact that she's barely 32 weeks than anything else.”

He nods. “Thank you for being there.”

“No worries. I said I would be on call if she ever needed me,” I reply. “Anyway, let's get you in there.”

He nods. “Wait, weren't you doing something?”

“Just getting ice, it can wait,” I reply, guiding him towards her room.

He opens the door just in time to hear her screaming.

“Hey,” Mark says, stepping past Jay as I shut the door.

“Mark!” Paige exclaims, reaching out to grab his hand.

He presses a kiss to her forehead as she grips his hand.

“I’m scared,” she says. “They're not meant to be coming yet.”

“I know, babe,” he replies.

“I was scared too, Paige,” I say. “But you have Mark. I had no one. In fact, Felicity was almost a premature. I got put on bedrest in hospital for a fortnight cause they gave me drugs to slow down the labour to give her a chance to develop more.”

“Why… Why can't they do that now?” She asks, looking between me & Mark.

Mark looks at me.

“Doctor Brooke says she is too far into the labour for the drugs to do anything,” I reply. “She says the best course is to let it go, & have them in NICU.”

“No, no, no, NO!”

“Hey,” Mark soothingly says, running his hand through her hair. “You’ve done what you can for them, Paige. You have to let them come out.”

She shakes her head. I walk around to her other side & sit down on the edge of her bed. I take her hand.

“It's scary, but you need to relax & just let it happen,” I say. “You getting stressed is going to make you tired, which not only will make it harder for you to give birth, but it's going to cause your little ones distress. It's more of a risk you being stressed than it is for them to be premature. So just breathe & relax.”

She looks terrified, but slowly nods.

“Okay, so just do the breathing that you’ve learnt,” I say, giving her a reassuring smile. “Why don't Mark & I do it with you?”

She nods. Paige & I start doing it, & Mark joins in, carefully watching us to pick up on what to do.

After a while, Dr Brooke comes in.

“Oh, good! Nice to see you made it, Mark,” She says. “I just came to check how things are going?”

“I’m going to wait outside,” Jay says.

I nod. “Me too.”

“Stay!” Paige pleads, squeezing my hand. “I need you here. You know more than I do.”

I smile. “Okay.”

I look at Jay. He smiles at me before exiting the room. Dr Brooke checks Paige.

“You're almost fully dilated,” Dr Brooke says. “Which means soon you’ll need to push.”

Paige looks scared again. Mark kisses her temple.

“You can do this, Paige,” he says.

“I’m not ready,” She replies, on the verge of crying.

“You are,” he replies. “I’m here with you.”

****

“Hey,” I say, smiling at Jay as I step away from Paige's room.

“Hey,” he replies, standing up & giving me a hug. “How's it going?”

“They're just waiting for her to be at the stage to push,” I reply. “It could be minutes away or an hour…”

“Well, the troops are here,” he says.

I turn around, seeing Lauren, Brad, Aaron, Tyler & Piper with Felicity in her arms coming over.

“What's going on?” Lauren asks.

“I was just filling Jay in,” I reply. “She's almost at the stage of pushing. She's also terrified because it's too soon for her to give birth.”

Lauren wrings her hands. “I don't know whether I should go in.”

“Actually, I think you should,” I reply. “She could do with seeing you. It might calm her down a bit. I’m concerned her stressing out will affect the birth.”

She nods. “I will go in.”

I nod & point towards Paige's room. She disappears inside. Felicity is reaching for me, so I take her.

“Tyler & Piper were telling us how good you’ve been with Paige since this started,” Brad says. “Thank you.”

I smile. “Happy to help her out, especially since I have the experience.”

“Well, I’m still thankful.”

“So what's going to happen?” Tyler asks.

“Since their babies are underdeveloped, they’ll be staying in the NICU,” I reply. “That's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. They’ll be there for about a month & a half, maybe more.”

“That's where Matilda was,” Piper says.

I nod. “But these two will probably be in the NICU for a longer time than Matilda,” I reply. “They're younger, so will need a longer stay.”

“How do you remember all of this stuff?” Tyler asks.

“Felicity was almost one,” I reply. “Thankfully the doctors were able to hold it off until she was full term, but I spent two weeks in hospital & had a lot time to research about premature babies. I wanted to have an understanding of it as best I could.”

“And you went through that all on your own?” Aaron asks.

“Can we not discuss it right now?” I reply.

The door to Paige's room opens, & they wheel her bed out. Mark’s still holding her hand, one hand on the top of her bed. Lauren follows them out, but comes over to us.

“Doctor Brooke says Paige is stressed & there's a chance her babies are about to go into distress,” Lauren says. “So she's moving Paige to a birthing suite that's closer to the NICU, just to be on the safe side.”

****

“Okay, Paige, get ready for one more push,” Dr Brooke says. “And… Push.”

Paige pushes, screaming from the effort & grips my hand.

“Okay, relax now Paige,” Dr Brooke says. “The first one is out.”

“Why… Why aren't they crying?” Paige asks, resting her head back despite looking very worried.

“He's not able to yet,” Dr Brooke replies, handing our baby son to a nurse.

I watch the nurse take him to one of the special cribs waiting across the room, where she & another nurse work on keeping him alive.

“Is he okay?” Paige asks, her panic clear in her voice.

“I don't know,” I reply, turning back to her.

“He's in good hands,” Dr Brooke replies. “Now focus on your other one, Paige. You’ll need to push again soon.”

“I can't,” Paige says, closing her eyes.

“Paige,” I say softly. “Look at me.”

She turns her head to me, eyes barely opening as she breathes heavily.

“I know you're tired, but you need to keep going,” I tell her. “You need to find the strength to help our other little one into the world.”

“I can't,” She says.

“You can,” I reply.

I hold her face in both my hands. She's so tired & drenched in sweat. And my heart aches to see her like this.

“Just a little bit more, okay, Paige?” I ask. “Just hold on a little bit longer. You can do it.”

She takes deep breaths, still breathing heavily & eyes drooping shut.

“Come on, babe,” I say, rubbing my thumbs over her cheeks. “You can do it.”

“I can't,” She whispers.

“You can, Paige,” I reply. “Where's that strong-willed, fighter that I love?” I grab the damp towel they gave us & place it on her forehead. “Just a few more pushes, & then you can rest.”

She leans into my hand & I can sense that she's summoning the strength to keep going.

“Okay,” she whispers, lifting her head up.

I smile. “That's my girl,” I say, leaning in to kiss her temple.

“You should be feeling another strong contraction in a minute,” Dr Brooke says. “I want you to push when you feel it, okay Paige?”

She nods & I see her struggling to keep going. I hold her right hand with my right hand, slipping my left arm around her shoulders to give her head some extra support. She cries out as she pushes, gripping my hand tightly as her left hand grips the sheets.

“Good, Paige!” Dr Brooke says as Paige relaxes. “Okay, baby number two is crowning. Just one more push should do it!”

“Hear that, Paige?” I ask. “You're almost there!”

“I don't know if I can do it,” She replies, leaning her head back on my arm. “I feel weird.”

“Talk to me,” I reply. “How?”

“Sick…” She mutters. “Dizzy…”

I look at Dr Brooke for help.

“That's normal for a woman in your position, Paige,” Dr Brooke replies. “You just need to give me just one more push, then you’ll be done & you can recover.”

Paige screams out much louder this time. I watch as she forces every inch of her strength into the push.

“Relax now, Paige! Baby number two is out!” Dr Brooke says. “We have a girl!”

I look over as Dr Brooke hands our daughter to the nurse & cuts her umbilical cord. The nurse hurries her over to a special crib next to her brother's.

I smile as I turn back to Paige. She panting, head drooped forward.

“Paige?” I ask, worried. I put my right hand under her chin & lift it up. “Paige?”

“I…” She whispers. She swallows hard. “I can't… I can't breathe.”

“Relax, Paige, okay?”

But her eyes roll… Flickering at the top of her eye sockets.

“PAIGE?!”

The monitor hooked up to her beeps out of control- flatline.

PAIGE!

Dr Brooke & a Nurse rush over. The Nurse guides me back & Paige slips from my arms. Another Nurse rushes in as they lower her bed so she’s flat & Dr Brooke starts compressions.

I look towards our babies- two small, fragile shapes fighting for their lives- & then turn back to Paige. I cover my mouth with my right hand.

This is meant to be the most joyful day of our lives.

Instead, I’m watching three members of my family fight for their lives.

Chapter Text

I walk the corridors in a daze, somehow making my way to where the others are waiting.

“Mark?” Erin says, but it's distant to me.

When I don't reply, she gets up & crosses to me. She places her hands on my arms & the world around me snaps into sync again.

"Mark?” She asks again, her concern written on her face.

I wrap my arms around her, burying my face into her left shoulder as I cry. She holds me tight.

****

Lauren & I sit down either side of Mark, having decided we should find out what's going on without overwhelming him with too many of us. He's leaning forward, elbows resting on his thighs & he's struggling not to cry. I put my hand on his back & rub in small circles.

“She gave birth to one,” he says. “A boy.” The slightest smile appears. “But then she was tired… So tired… And I had to talk her into finding the strength to keep going.” He sighs heavily, rubbing his hands over his face. “I should have seen the warning signs.”

“It's not your fault, Mark,” I reply, still rubbing his back.

“An hour ago it was just our son & daughter who would be fighting for their lives,” he says. “And now Paige could die too!”

He breaks down & I pull him against me, holding him tight as I fight my own tears.

“I wanted to stay,” he says. “But they pushed me out. Something drew me back here.”

“You probably just wanted to be around us,” Lauren says.

We sit there in silence for a moment. Lauren looks at the others. She points to them & I nod- they should know. Lauren stands & I watch her cross to them.

“I can't lose any of them,” he whispers to me.

“I know,” I whisper back. “Paige is a fighter. And so are your son & daughter.”

He sits up & I lower my arms. He nods.

“I hope so.”

“Why don't you focus on the fact that you have a son & a daughter?” I ask. “I think it's pretty cute that you have one of each. And you were right! You have a daughter to spoil!”

I give his arm a light punch & he smiles a little.

“I think I now know why I came back out here,” he says, looking at me. “A part of me knew you’d find a way to give me hope.”

I smile. “You already had it,” I reply. “I just helped point you in the right direction.”

He smiles as he pulls me in for a hug, pressing a kiss to my temple.

****

It's an anxious wait, but finally Karl walks into the waiting area. I rise to my feet as he crosses to us, everyone else following suit.

“Hi Mark,” Karl says. “Everyone.”

“Tell me you have an update,” I reply.

He nods. “Both babies have been taken into the NICU,” he says. “They're stable for now, but as expected, they're looking at at least a month’s stay.”

“See, good news,” Erin says, rubbing my shoulder.

I nod. “And…” I choke. I swallow hard. I try to get the question out, I need to know the answer. But it sticks in my throat. The only thing I manage to get out is a whispered “Paige?”

“It's suspected she suffered a cardiac arrest,” Karl says & my chest tightens, fearing the worst. “But Dr Brooke & the Nurses were able to get her heart beating again.”

There's an audible sigh from our group, but none as much as me. Erin rubs my shoulder again & I smile as tears fill my eyes.

“I suggest you all go home & get some rest,” Karl says. “Except you, Mark. Paige is in the birth suite. She's unconscious at the moment, but I’m sure you’ll want to be there when she wakes up.”

I nod. “Would it be alright if Erin stays for a while? I don't think I can be alone right now.”

Karl nods. “Of course,” he replies.

We say goodbye to the others & then follow Karl through to the birthing suites. Erin links arms with me as we walk.

Karl takes us to one of the suite’s door & then leaves us. Erin quietly waits next to me, letting me make the call when we go in. I suck in a deep breath, preparing myself for what I’m about to see.

I open the door, Erin staying back to let me enter first. I stop in the doorway, hit hard by the sight of my beautiful wife lying in bed. She's unconscious, like Karl said, but thankfully she appears to be breathing on her own.

I fight back tears as I cross to her. I lean down & kiss her forehead. Erin pushes the visitor chair closer & I smile in thanks as I sit down. I take hold of Paige's hand as Erin gets a chair for herself & brings it over next to mine.

“She's going to wake up soon,” Erin says.

I nod. “I hope so.”

****

I force my eyes open, feeling that they're heavy. The room is blurry at first, but focuses & I see I’m in a birthing suite. I sigh as I turn my head to my right, my eyes instantly falling on my gorgeous husband & I smile as I watch him sleep in a very comfy looking chair. He looks so cute- his hands resting on his chest, head turned towards his left shoulder. I wish that I was curled up next to him in bed.

“Mark,” I say, finding my voice croaky. “Mark.”

He stirs, eyes slowly opening a few seconds later. I smile as they lock with mine.

“Hey sleepy,” I croakily say.

“That was my line,” he replies, leaning forward.

He presses a long kiss to my lips, & I moan into his mouth.

“You gave me one hell of a scare,” he says.

“Sorry.”

He smiles. “I'm just glad you're okay.”

I look around, realising our babies aren't here. I frown as I push myself up.

“Hey, hey, don't,” he says, placing a hand on my shoulder to stop me.

“Where are they?” I ask.

“Both are okay,” he says, giving me a reassuring smile. “Karl said they're in the NICU.”

My frown deepens. "You haven't seen them yet?”

He shakes his head as he sits down on the edge of my bed. “I’ve been here ever since Karl came & got me,” he replies, his right hand coming to rest on my left hip. “It didn't feel right seeing them without you.”

I fight back tears, but it's hopeless. He leans forward, pulling me the rest of the way & wraps his arms tight. I hold tight onto the back of his police uniform as I cry against his chest.

****

Dr Brooke gives me the okay to leave my bed. It's already after normal visiting hours, but this part of the hospital are more relaxed with their visiting hours, so Mark has stayed. Dr Brooke brought me a wheelchair. Initially I refused, trying to walk out of my room on my own… But the pain in my chest & between my legs is too much by the time I cross to the door, & I grip the doorframe. Mark wraps his arms around me for support as I cry.

Mark wheels me down the corridor to the NICU. Dr Brooke went ahead of us to ensure that our babies would be close enough to the window so we could see them.

“There they are,” Mark says, pointing to two side-by-side cribs near the other end of the window.

I push myself up, tentatively rising to my feet. I wobble & Mark’s hands suddenly rest on my hips. I summon my strength & take a step forward, eyes focused on our son & daughter. I hold onto the window sill with my left hand, Mark’s hands never leaving my hips as we slowly walk the width of the window.

Seeing them is heartbreaking. Both are in closed off cribs, hooked up to machines monitoring their vitals while one helps them breathe. Both wear no clothes, just a nappy & a little beanie- one pink, the other blue. I place my right hand on the window, fighting back tears.

Mark wraps his arms around me, stepping closer so his chest is pressed against my back. I relax against him, letting him support me up, & turn my head to look at him over my right shoulder, only to be met by his lips as he presses a kiss to my cheek.

****

We stand there in silence for ages, watching our little ones. Our family is broken & I can't do anything to fix it. I just have to hope that both make it through the next six weeks.

“They're so tiny,” She says.

“I know, babe,” I reply. “But they're fighters like we are.”

She fights back tears. “I just want to hold them.”

“Me too,” I reply. “But Dr Brooke recommends that we wait until at least tomorrow.”

Whyyy?”

“Give their immune systems a chance,” I reply. “Or something like that.”

She fights her tears, taking in deep breaths. “I don't want to wait.”

“I know, babe, I want to hold them so bad too,” I reply, giving her cheek a kiss. “But you need to get better too.”

“Can't we just go in? We’ve come all this way…”

“We can't, Paige.”

“This is so mean!”

“I know.”

“How are you so calm about this?” She asks. “Why aren't you angry, fighting to get in there & see them?”

“Just think about it this way,” I reply. “When we do finally get to hug them, it's going to be worth it.”

She shakes her head. “I can't wait.”

She steps towards our right, for the door, but I stop her with my arm. She tries to push past, tears streaming down her face.

“Shhh,” I whisper, resting my head against her.

I feel her start to fall, so I wrap my left arm behind her back. I slip my right arm behind her knees, lifting her up into my arms. She rests her head on my left shoulder, & I press my lips against her forehead in a kiss. I walk down the corridor back to her room with her in my arms. She snuggles her face into my neck.

****

He helps me back into bed. He presses his lips to mine.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” he says.

He stands up & turns to leave. I grab his hand & he turns back to me.

“Stay,” I plead. “At least until I fall asleep.”

He smiles & then nods. I turn onto my right side & he lies down behind me. He shifts closer, leaving no space between us. His arm bands around my waist as he kisses my shoulder.

His warmth is comforting, & for a while I forget the toll this afternoon took on us. I fall asleep quickly.

Chapter Text

I stir & he pulls me closer. He exhales, his breath warm on my shoulder. I open my eyes, the birthing suite coming into focus, & it all comes back to me- the fact that our babies were born yesterday, I almost died, & they're fighting for their lives.

I whimper, fighting back tears. Mark pulls me even closer, crushing me slightly, & kisses my cheek repeatedly.

“What's wrong?” He asks.

“I forgot what happened to us,” I reply, still crying. “And then it all came back to me.”

“Hey,” he says. “We’re going to get through this.”

“What if…”

“No matter what the outcome is,” he says, turning my head to look at him. “We’ve got each other.”

He leans down & kisses me. I sigh against his lips & turn around to face him. His mobile buzzes in his pocket, & he groans in annoyance as we part. He pulls it out & checks it.

“Huh,” he says.

“What?” I ask.

“It's a text from Sarge,” he replies. “He says he heard about our babies & he’s organised for my shifts for the rest of the week to be covered.”

“Awwww, that's so nice of him.”

“And he’ll make sure they pay me for them.”

I gape. “Seriously?!”

He nods. “See,” he replies, showing me the text.

I read it several times. “Wow.”

“I’m going to call him & thank him,” he says. “You’ll be okay for a few minutes?”

I nod.

“Good,” he replies. He gives me a quick kiss. “I’ll be back.”

“You better!” I reply as he gets off my bed.

He looks back at me as he smirks. I watch as he walks over to the door, opens it & slips out. I roll onto my back. Hopefully we can see our babies much closer this time. Maybe we’ll get to hold them.

****

After breakfast, I go home to have a shower & get changed into casual clothes. I open Paige's suite’s door, finding her sitting up in bed. She's with Dr Brooke, but sees me as I shut the door. She smiles- no, grins- & claps excitedly.

“Someone's a lot brighter,” I say, crossing to them.

I give her a quick kiss.

“That's because Doctor Brooke just told me we can go see our babies!” She replies. “And not just stare through the window! We can actually go in & be next to them!”

“That's good!” I reply, smiling. “I told you last night we would.”

“Yes you did.”

“Unfortunately, you won't be able to hold them quite yet,” Dr Brooke says. “I know it's going to be hard, but their lungs are underdeveloped & they need assistance from our machines to breathe. Until they’re able to breathe more on their own, we won't be able to have them out of their cribs.”

Paige nods. “Getting to be next to them is enough,” she says. “It's a step closer, & that's all that matters right now.”

Dr Brooke nods. “Just come down to the room when you're ready,” she says. “You’ll have to get dressed into our protective clothing. We have some waiting for you there. Anything else you need, just ask the nurses there. And you can spend however long in there that you want.”

“Thank you,” I reply.

“You're welcome,” Dr Brooke replies with a smile. “I’ll drop in later to see how you're all going.”

“We’ll see you then,” Paige says. “Thank you so much for everything.”

“All part of my job,” She replies. “I'm glad they're making good progress, even in such a short time.”

I smile. “They're fighters like their mum.”

“Oi, & their dad,” Paige replies, hitting me lightly.

“Just because they're doing well, doesn't mean they’ll be able to leave any earlier than six weeks,” Dr Brooke says. “Maybe a few days early, but nothing more than that.”

We nod.

“And how long can Paige stay?” I ask.

“I’ll have to double check our bookings, but I do believe we can have you here for almost the whole time your babies are in the NICU,” she replies. “I know you won't want to be too far from them.”

“I’d sleep next to them if I could,” Paige says.

“It's always hardest for parents of premmies,” Dr Brooke replies.

Paige nods. “I can't wait to be able to hold them.”

Dr Brooke nods. “And you will. In about five weeks. Their lungs will be developed enough for them to leave their incubator cribs.”

Paige smiles.

****

I place my hand on my daughter, being careful not to put too my pressure on her fragile body. The nurse had told us we could put our hands through the access holes if we wanted, as long as we followed the hygiene rules- which were to use the hand sanitiser upon arrival & departure, on top of the protective clothing. It's all to help support their immune systems, which aren't ready yet.

“She's going to grow up & be as feisty as you,” Mark softly says.

I look at him. He's standing by our son, his hands resting on the top of his crib, but he's watching me.

“And she’ll have you wrapped around her finger,” I reply, making him chuckle.

“While this one will be running round, causing trouble,” he says, looking at our son.

“Or he’ll be like you.”

“Whatever they’ll be,” he says, walking around to me. “We’ll love them.”

I nod. “I'm already crazy for them.”

“Me too,” he says. He wraps his arms around me & kisses my neck. “Just like I’m crazy for their mother.”

I smile, relaxing against him. “I'm crazy for you too.”

He kisses my cheek. “I told you you’d be a good mother.”

“You did,” I reply. “Neither of us expected it would start like this.”

“We’re all still here,” he says. “And we’ll all make it out.”

I nod. “I hope so.”

****

Two weeks later

“We should name them,” She says, as we sit with our babies.

“Yeah,” I reply.

“I’m sick of just saying ‘our daughter’ or ‘our son’,” She replies. “Sure it's accurate, but…” She sighs. “I feel like it will be nicer to name them. It's been a fortnight. And they're progressing really well. They deserve to be named.”

I nod. “I agree,” I reply. “Have any ideas?”

She thinks. “I’ve always liked the name James.”

“Mmmm.”

“Or Scott.”

I smirk. “And what about girl names?”

“How about you suggest something, before I feel like I have to name both of them.”

I raise my eyebrow & teasingly say, “Bossy, much?”

“You married me.”

“Mmmhmmm,” I lean in, stopping just before our lips meet. She inhales sharply, & I smirk. I give her a quick kiss, before leaning back. “What about Lilly?”

She frowns. “As in…?”

I nod. “What Lauren was going to call you,” I reply. “I thought it would be a nice gesture.”

She smiles, the one she gives me when I’ve just said something really sweet & her heart is melting.

“It's beautiful,” She says.

I wrap my arms around her waist. “I thought so.”

“Okay,” She says. “So we’ll call her Lilly.”

“Mmmhmmm.”

“And he’ll be either James or Scott…”

“How about James Scott Brennan?” I ask. “Or Scott James Brennan?”

Oooohhh, that's hard!” She replies. “Which would you go for?”

I sigh, thinking it through as I rub her back. “Scott James Brennan sounds nicer.”

“Mmmm, yeah it does.”

“So we’ll call him Scott James Brennan?”

She nods.

“Lilly should have a middle name too.”

“Emma.”

I raise an eyebrow. “That was a quick response.”

She shrugs. “It just feels right.”

I smile. “Lilly… Emma… Brennan.”

She smiles. “I love it.”

“Me too,” I reply, rubbing her back. “I love both names for both of them.”

She smiles. “Me too.”

I lean down & kiss her. We look at our babies & she rests her head on my chest as I wrap my arms tightly around her.

****

“Hey,” She answers my call. “Where are you?”

“Hey. On my way back from Harold's.”

“Okay, I’m at the garage.”

Things had been tense for us ever since Mavi had shaken things up. We're still together, but our relationship had slowed completely down. Glacier melting slow. She’s been spending more nights at hers than sleeping at mine. That, I can take. But lately, she’s been avoiding being at the garage. So hearing her say she's there is a surprise.

“You are?”

“Yeah,” she says. She hesitates. “I thought I would drop by… Before I go home.”

“Oh?”

I can sense her pursing her lips into a tight line. “Thought you could do with some… Stress relief.”

I stumble slightly at what she's suggesting. “Are you… Saying what I think you are?”

She hesitates & I can picture her seductive smile. “Yeah,” She softly says. “I know you like me in my school uniform.”

I swallow the lump in my throat, suddenly feeling hot.

“You better hurry up,” She says. “Because you're going to want to get here fast.”

“What if I don't?”

“I’ll have to relieve my urge,” she says very seductively. “All on my own.”

I swallow the lump again. “On my way.”

“Just over at Grease Monkeys,” She replies. “If you're not here in five minutes, I’m using my key to get inside. And you better be here by then. Or I’m forging on without you.”

“I'm almost there,” I reply. “I’ll be there in less than five.”

I know she's smirking. “Good boy,” she replies. “See you soon.”

“Very soon,” I reply, before hanging up.

I’m walking up the road before the garage’s road, keeping a brisk pace to get there as soon as I can. A car screeches round the corner ahead, narrowly avoiding sliding onto the wrong side of the road. As it approaches, I catch sight of a young female behind the wheel. Who looks a lot like Mavi. But they speed off before I can look properly. I turn around, watching the car speed off down the road & disappear round the corner.

HEEEEEEEELLLLLLPPPPP!!!” A woman calls from around the corner towards the garage, making me snap back around.

Sensing her distress, I run down the rest of the road. As I turn the corner, I see a group of people standing in the middle of the road outside the garage. I race over, knowing someone has been hit.

I falter when I see who it is. I push away my worst fears, kneeling down & checking her pulse. She’s got a nasty gash to the right of her head, which is bleeding. Her right shoulder sitting out of place, definitely dislocated, & her right leg looks out of place too. But at least she's still breathing, & I sigh in relief.

“I’ll call an ambulance,” One of the bystanders says.

“Do you know her?” A woman asks me, & I instantly recognise she's the one who screamed for help.

I drag my eyes off her & look up at the woman, who is crouching on the other side of her. I nod, turning my attention back to her & I press my hand over her head wound to try & stop the bleeding.

“What's her name?”

It takes me all the strength I have to reply. Two words I never thought I’d say in this situation.

“Piper Willis.”

Chapter Text

I pace the waiting room, feeling so helpless as I wait for news from Karl.

“Tyler!” Terese says, & I turn towards her voice.

She, Brad & Erin walk over to me. I give Terese a hug.

“What are you doing here?” I ask Erin as we part.

“I saw them just after they found out,” Erin explains. “I didn't think it was a good idea for either of them to drive, so I offered to drive them.”

“That's nice of you.”

She nods. “I also wanted to be here for you.”

I pull her into a hug. “Thank you,” I whisper.

“You're welcome,” she whispers back, hugging me tightly.

“What's the latest about Piper?” Terese asks as we part.

“Uh, she has a concussion,” I reply. “And a dislocated shoulder. But Karl suspects she has a broken leg, maybe a broken hip. He rushed her off for scans to confirm the breaks. And he’ll come tell us if she requires surgery.”

Terese & Brad nod.

“Where's Mark?” Erin asks.

“He's back outside the garage. Getting the statements from the witnesses,” I reply. “He’ll come by when he can to get mine & to see how Piper’s going.”

Karl approaches. “Ah, good. You're all here.”

“How is she?” Brad asks.

“I’m assuming you know about her head injury & dislocated shoulder?”

Brad & Terese nod.

“I took her for an x-ray, which confirmed she has a fracture to her right femur, with a deeper one to her right tibia,” Karl explains & we all gasp. “But I’m more concerned over damage to her right hip. Her right ilium bone has been almost broken in half, as well as damage to her ischium & pubic bones. They're already prepping her for surgery, but given she's still a minor, I need to get parental consent.”

“You have it,” Terese says. “I’ll sign whatever paperwork you need me to.”

****

Brad, Terese, Erin & I wait nervously after Terese signed consent forms for Piper’s surgery.

“You should go home,” I tell Erin. “Felicity will need you.”

“She's with Jay,” She replies. “And I’m not leaving your side. Not until we know more.”

“Mark,” Terese says, drawing our attention.

We look up as Mark walks over to the four of us, & we all stand.

“Hey, what's the latest with Piper?” Mark asks.

“Still in surgery,” Terese replies. “She has multiple broken bones & a concussion.”

He nods. “She’ll get through. The Willis women are strong willed.”

Terese nods. “How's the investigation into finding who hit her going?”

“I can't say much, but we have a car that we’re looking for,” Mark replies. “I need to talk to Tyler for his statement.”

I nod. “Can Erin join us?”

Erin & Mark look surprised. Mark ushers us away from Brad & Terese.

“I saw the car. It sped past me just after I finished my call with Piper,” I explain.

“What did it look like?” Mark asks. “I want to compare it to the description from the other witnesses, just to make sure.”

“Uh… A Toyota or Honda. Silver, I think,” I reply. “The details are a bit muddled.”

Mark places his hand on my shoulder. “I understand, mate,” he replies. “You're in shock.”

“Have you requested the CCTV footage yet?” Erin asks.

Mark nods. “Lucas is sending us the files for the garage cameras, & I’m still waiting to hear back from the others,” he replies. “Though Amy will be hard to reach, given she's away.”

“Has anyone identified the driver?”

“No.”

“I can.”

They both look shocked at me.

“Are you sure you saw them?”

I nod. “There was a moment when she faltered when she saw me,” I reply. “Just long enough for me to see her properly for a few seconds.”

Mark frowns.

“It was Mavi.”

They both gape.

“That's a wild accusation, mate,” Mark says.

“Think about it, Mark,” I reply. “She has motive.”

“I thought you’d sorted that all out with her,” Erin says.

“It was her!”

“It may not be her,” Mark says. “You're in shock. There's a strong chance that it's someone else, & your brain is imposing Mavi into your memory.”

“No,” I reply. “I remember identifying her before I found out Piper was hit.”

Mark & Erin exchange looks.

“Oh, come on!”

“Look, I don't want to jump to conclusions so soon,” Mark replies. “Let me see what the CCTV footage reveals before I go down that route.”

“Yeah, & in the meantime Mavi could flee.”

“Hey, just trust Mark, alright?” Erin replies.

“How would you feel if your ex ran Jay over?” Tyler asks. “Or if it was Felicity?”

The words have barely left my mouth & I regret it. But the damage is already done. Erin looks furious, like she'll punch me, tears brimming her eyes. She shakes her head as she turns to walk away.

“Erin,” I plead as she walks off.

“Give her some space,” Mark says, putting a hand out to stop me from following her.

“I… I didn't mean it.”

He nods. “She knows,” he replies. “But it still hurts.”

I rub my face & sigh. “I’m an idiot.”

“Well, yeah, but… You're stressed out.”

“I’ll let that backhanded insult slide,” I reply. “How's things with Paige & the twins.”

“Good. Making progress every day.”

“That's good.”

“Yeah,” he replies, nodding. “We’ve even picked out names.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Let's just leave the reveal until we’re both not stressed out.”

I nod. “Sure.”

His mobile buzzes. He pulls it out, looking at a text.

"Sorry, I have to go,” he says.

“It's fine.”

“Keep me updated, yeah?”

I nod. He pulls me into a hug. He then leaves, saying goodbye to Terese & Brad on his way out.

****

It's well into the night when Karl escorts Piper into a hospital room. She's still unconscious from surgery, but at least she's pulled through. He gets her settled & then comes out to speak to Brad, Terese & I.

“Her surgery went well,” He says as we all sit down in the waiting area. “They were able to repair the worst of the damage to her hip & leg.”

We all sigh in relief.

“She's going to need a lot of rehabilitation,” Karl says. “She's going to have to learn to walk again.”

“We’ll be here for her,” Brad replies.

“I’ll take her to her rehab,” I say.

“We’ll take turns,” Terese says.

“I also want to be upfront with all three of you about the future,” Karl says.

“That sounds ominous,” Brad replies as I swallow the lump in my throat.

Karl hesitates. “As I told you earlier, her ischium & pubic bones were damaged,” Karl says. “They're the bones at the front of the hip. They’re delicate bones, especially in women, because of child bearing.”

Terese looks shocked. “No,” she whispers.

“The surgeon was able to repair the bones,” Karl says. “He's put screws in to help keep the broken parts together while they heal, but there's a high chance that the ischium & pubic bones are going to be permanently damaged.”

“What are you trying to say, Karl?” Brad asks as he crosses his arms.

“If they don't completely heal,” Karl says. “There's a high chance she won't be able to be pregnant, with an even higher chance of serious complications to herself if she does.”

Brad, Terese & I are shocked. The image of Mavi in that split second I saw her in the car before she floored it jumps to the front of my mind. This is all my fault.

I get up, & walk across the room. But there's only one place I want to be right now.

“Can I go be with her?” I ask Karl as I cross back to them.

He nods. “Of course,” he replies. “Her room is just over there.”

I nod before making my way over to her room. I open the door, feeling like I’m punched in the gut when I see her lying there. Her head is bandaged, her right arm in a sling, while she has a bandage from her waist all the way down her right leg. I shut the door, let out a heavy sigh before crossing to her left side. I sit down in the chair next to her bed & take hold of her left hand.

“I'm sorry,” I say, fighting back tears as I squeeze her hand. “If I’d just been at the garage, all of this wouldn't have happened.”

I bury my head into her mattress beside her hand & let the tears out.

****

I shut the front door & drop my keys on the bench as I head straight for the fridge. I grab a beer out & open it as I head for the couch. Brad & Terese had joined me at Piper’s bedside for a while before visiting hours ended & I took a taxi home with them since none of us had a car, given Erin had brought them & I’d come in the ambulance with Piper.

I sit down on the couch & drink half my beer in one go. Where did all of this go wrong?

****

I walk into the ward where Piper is & over to her room. I open the door, surprised to see her awake.

“Well, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” She says with a smile.

I smile as I cross to her. I lean down & press my lips to hers as I cup her left cheek.

“I'm so glad that you're alright,” I reply, resting my forehead against hers after our kiss.

“Me too,” She replies, before kissing me again. “Have they found who ran me over?”

“Mark’s working his butt off to find the car,” I reply. “He’s got a number of witnesses & CCTV footage, so the lead is good.”

“That's good,” she replies as I sit down in the chair beside her bed.

“Yeah,” I reply. “I saw the car.”

She looks surprised. “Really?”

“I was in the street just round the corner when it happened,” I reply, getting uncomfortable.

“What aren't you telling me?”

I swallow a lump. “It was… Mavi.”

She gapes. “You sure?”

I nod. “I can't get the image out my head.”

“You sure it's not your mind okaying tricks on you?” She asks. “You’ve had a lot happen. It could be your brain squishing two thoughts together.”

“You sound like Mark.”

“Hmmm maybe that's a sign that we’re both right,” she says as she tilts her head.

Before I can reply, she closes her eyes as she rubs her right temple with her left hand. I stand up.

“Are you okay?” I ask, reaching for her.

“I…”

She slumps back, her body going limp. The machines start beeping crazily. Nurses rush in, one guiding me out of the room as another undoes her sling & places her right arm at her side. I watch on through the window as they resuscitate her, feeling the world around me spinning.

Karl rushes in & gives orders as he takes over the compressions. I’m not sure how long it takes, but eventually he orders them to stop- the machine monitoring her heartbeat still showing a flatline.

“No, no, no, no!” I say, rushing back into her room.

“I’m sorry, Tyler,” Karl says as he holds me back from her. “She's gone.”

NO!

Chapter Text

I sit by her side, her left hand cradled in both of mine. She's gone because of me.

The door opens & I look over in time to see the wave of shock & disbelief cross Terese’s face as she takes in her daughter's dead body.

“Oh my baby!” She exclaims as she walks over.

She touches Piper’s face, cradling it in her hands as she breaks down.

“It happened so fast,” I say.

“What does Karl say caused it?”

“They won't know for sure until they examine her,” I reply. “But he believes, based off what I said happened, that she had a brain aneurysm. A clot they missed is probably to blame.”

“My poor baby girl,” she says, stroking Piper’s cheek.

I swallow the lump in my throat. “Karl says… He says if it was a clot, she wouldn't have felt it. She would have gone quickly.”

****

Tyler!

I open my eyes, the ceiling in our lounge room coming into focus. My head is pounding, so I squint. I look around, finding Erin crouched in front of the couch, one hand on my shoulder. She's in her pjs- a tank top & very short shorts. Soft light filters through the window behind her- its early morning.

“What?” I mumble.

She raises her eyebrow. “What?” She asks. “How about the fact that you were obviously having a nightmare.”

I groan. “I was?”

“Yeah, you were calling Piper’s name,” She replies, taking her hand off my shoulder. “Which I hear a lot, but not usually in this way. You sounded very distraught.”

I rub my face.

“Remember any of it?”

I sigh. “That she was dead.”

Fricking hell.

I stare at her. “Thanks for the support.”

“No, I’m just shocked,” she replies. “And surprised. You really do have it bad for her, Gurtie.”

“That would be nicer if you didn't use that nickname.”

She smiles slightly, before looking at the coffee table. I look too, noticing the set of four empty bottles of beer.

“I see you hit the booze hard,” She says, looking back at me.

“Can you blame me? My girlfriend got run over & might not be able to have kids, & it's all thanks to my ex who won't take no for an answer.”

She looks shocked. “Pip might not be able to have kids?”

That's the bit you focus on?”

“Yeah, it's news to me,” she replies. “I knew the rest of it.”

“And I blame myself.”

“Ty,” she sighs.

“If I’d just been there, if I hadn't decided to grab my coffee from Harold's instead of Grease Monkeys, she wouldn't be in hospital with a concussion, a leg that's broken in two places & a damaged hip that may prevent her from having children.”

“You can't blame yourself for that.”

“Why?” I ask. “I wasn't there-”

Exactly.”

“And it's my ex who did it,” I say. “Ergo… My fault.”

“Actually…” She replies. “It's Mavi's fault. If it is her that was driving…”

“It was.”

“Okay, so answer this,” She replies. “Can you control what Mavi does?”

“No.”

“Then you can't beat yourself up for this,” She replies, & I sigh. “You can't blame yourself for the actions of someone else, Ty!”

“Fine,” I reply. “But I can say sorry to you.”

She frowns. “For what?”

“For saying what I did say to you yesterday,” I reply.

Her frown deepens before she realises what I’m on about. “Oh, that. Forget it,” She says, batting the air with her hand. “You were struggling with the situation. I understand you didn't mean to say it. I’ve known since the moment you said it.”

“But you walked away.”

She smiles slightly. “It still hurt me,” She says. “I just needed space to recompose myself.”

I nod.

“Come here,” she says, holding her arms out.

I push myself up with a lot of effort & we hug.

“Now,” she says as we part. “I’m going to make you something that will help with that hangover you’ll be battling pretty soon.”

“Oh, it's definitely here already,” I reply, my head pounding.

“Well, this will help,” she replies as she stands. “You’ll want to be in better shape to be there when she wakes.”

“Yeah,” I mumble.

She walks off towards the kitchen.

“Hey,” I say.

She stops beside the couch & looks at me.

“Thanks, sis.”

She smiles. “You're welcome,” She replies. “Gurtie.”

I groan & she chuckles as she turns & continues towards the kitchen.

****

Walking over to her room has me reeling with a massive sense of déjà vu. It's startling how much I remember of my nightmare, given how drunk I was at the time. I pause at her door as a chill runs down my spine.

I hold my breath as I turn the handle on her door, exhaling in relief as I see she's still unconscious. At least that's one thing different to my nightmare...

I shut the door & make my way over to her left side, sitting down & holding her hand in both of mine.

“Just wake up, Pipes,” I whisper. “I need you to wake up. I need you to be okay.”

She groans & I sit up more. Her eyes slowly open, her eyes falling on me as I smile & sigh in relief. I drop my head, my forehead resting on our hands as I laugh.

“What?” She says, her voice croaky.

I lift my head, meeting her eyes. “You have impeccable timing, Pipes.”

She looks confused. I stand up, letting go of her hand as I lean over her. I cup her face with both my hands, pressing my lips hard against hers & she moans.

****

I call Terese, Brad & Mark to let them know as Karl checks Piper. He clears her, & we talk while we wait for the others to arrive.

“Oh, my baby girl!” Terese says, hugging Piper tightly.

“Mum! You're squishing me!” Piper says.

"I'm so glad that you're okay!” Terese replies, letting her go.

Brad kisses Piper's forehead & she smiles as she looks up at him.

“How much does she know?” Terese asks me.

“Know what?” Piper asks.

I swallow a lump in my throat. “I haven't told her any of what Karl told us yesterday,” I reply, watching Piper stare at me in confusion. “I didn't want her to worry. And I was so happy to see her awake.”

“Uh… Do I get to know now?” Piper asks, looking between me & her parents.

They exchange looks.

Mum!”

Terese sighs. “Karl says the damage to your hip,” She says, struggling to find the words. “It may not fully heal.”

“Oookay,” Piper replies, eyes narrowing. “What's so bad about that?”

Terese hesitates.

“Pipes,” I say, stepping closer. I sit down on the edge of her bed, careful not to bump her broken leg. “The damage is to your upper hip bone…” I hover my hand over her broken hip. “But also… The front.” I shift my hand to hover over the central part of her hip. “Karl is concerned that, given how important the bone is…” I swallow hard. “There's a strong chance that, if it doesn't heal like they expect it to… You won't be able to have children.”

She stares blankly at me.

“Piper...”

“It's going to be at least ten years before I even think about having children,” She says. “How about we just see how it goes before we freak out about something that far away?”

“Piper, honey-”

“Mum, please don't.”

There's a knock on the door followed by a short pause before it opens, & Mark steps in.

“Hey, all,” he says.

“Hi Mark!” Piper says, cheerfully.

“Wow,” he says, surprised as he walks over. “Didn't think you'd be this chirpy.”

“What? Can't I be happy to see my handsome brother-in-law?”

He smiles. “How much morphine are you on?”

“Ha ha,” she says, flatly.

“I'm here to take your statement.”

She nods. “Assuming there has to be an adult with me when I give it, yeah?”

He nods. “Yeah.”

She looks at me.

“What?”

Please.”

“Your parents are right here.”

“You have work, right?” She asks, looking at her parents.

“I should be getting back to school,” Brad says.

“Mum?”

Terese looks at her watch. “I have a meeting shortly.”

Piper looks back at me. I look at Mark.

“Doesn't it have to be her guardian?” I ask.

“For something like this,” he replies. “Not necessarily.”

“Thanks for the backup, bro.”

“I'm sorry, but this needs to be done,” he replies.

“Isn't it a conflict, given I’m a witness?”

“Technically you'll be a prosecution witness, which puts you on the same side as Piper,” he replies. “Why are you so adamant to avoid it?”

Because of the nightmare… I swallow a lump in my throat.

“We’re off,” Terese says.

She & Brad give Piper a kiss goodbye, saying bye to Mark & I before they leave.

“You're stuck with it now,” Piper says. “So please just sit there & listen.”

“Pipes...”

“Please, Ty,” she pleads. “I need you.”

****

“Is that all you need?” I ask Mark, watching him writing a note.

“I think that should do it for now,” he says, checking over his notes. Satisfied, he flips his pad shut. “I’ll be in contact if I need any more information. But we will need a formal statement from you at a later date.”

I nod. “Sure.”

“And call if anything else comes to mind.”

“Of course.”

He nods.

“How's finding-” Tyler says, cut short by Mark punching his arm.

“Finding what?” I ask as Tyler glares at Mark while rubbing his arm.

“We have a person of interest,” Mark replies. “But there's not much proof at the moment to prove that they were there. I’m waiting to hear back from that person, so I can establish where they were.”

“Okay,” I reply. “But… That doesn't explain why you punched Tyler.”

“Yeah, bro,” Tyler adds.

Mark sighs. “I don't want you to know who it is,” he says. “Not right now.”

I frown. “Why?”

He glances at Tyler. “You… Sort of know them.”

My frown deepens… Then it hits. “Mavi.”

Mark looks shocked. “How did you…?”

“There's a very short list of people I ‘sort of’ know,” I reply. “Plus… She's the one with the most motive.”

“Right,” he says.

His mobile buzzes & he checks it.

“We’ve found the car,” he says, shoving his mobile back into his pocket.

“Seriously?” Tyler asks.

Mark nods. “It's smashed up, whomever was driving clearly wanted it to be hard to match,” he says. “The number plates have been forcefully removed, but the Eden Hills team have found them in the muddy creek near by.”

“That's really good!” Tyler says. “It's progress.”

“It's not as much progress as we need,” Mark replies. “It's going to take a while for us to get it checked out by our forensics team, to see if there's any fingerprints. Which, going off how much damage was done to try & disguise it… It's probably going to bring up nothing.”

“Well, then, I guess you should go hunt down Mavi.”

“We still don't know if it was her!” Mark says. “All we have is your word, & frankly, given the situation, that doesn't have much weight.”

“She has motive!”

“Until I have substantial evidence to support it, I can't keep chasing her,” Mark replies. “I’m sorry, mate, but I have to play it by the book.”

****

In the evening, my door opens & Paige walks in.

“Hey,” she says, smiling.

“Hey,” I reply as she shuts the door.

“How are you?” She asks as she crosses over to me.

“Okay,” I reply as she sits down. “The pain isn't too bad thanks to morphine.”

“And psychologically?” She asks. “You were in a hit & run. You almost died.”

“I’m fine.”

“Piper.”

“Honestly, Paige, I am,” I reply. “These things happen. I’m happy that I’m still alive. Not everyone does survive. I can't change what happened. But I can change how it affects me to come.”

“You don't have to be so strong, Pip,” She replies. “It's okay to fall apart.”

“I’m fine,” I reply. “How's your twins?”

She tilts her head, eyes narrowing in response to my change of subject. “They're doing really well,” She replies. “We’ve picked their names.”

“Oh? Do share!”

“Scott James,” She replies with a smile. “And Lilly Emma.”

“Awwww! Lilly! Like you were going to be called.”

She nods. “Mark thought it would be a lovely tribute.”

“You definitely have a sweet husband.”

She smiles. “Too sweet, sometimes.”

“Hashtag husband goals.”

She laughs a little.

“So are you going to have a christening?”

“We haven't really talked about it, but… I’d like to just have a naming ceremony,” She replies. “Neither of us are religious enough to warrant the christening. And right now, we’re so focused on making it through their time in the NICU.”

I nod. “Understandable.”

****

“Hey,” Mark says, wrapping his arms around me & presses a kiss to my cheek.

“Hey,” I reply, relaxing against him. “How was your day?”

“Tiring,” He says, before sighing. “We’re making progress with the hit & run case, but… Still nowhere near making an arrest.”

“Its early days.”

“Mmmm,” he says, staring through the window at our babies. “Tyler's convinced it's Mavi, & I dunno if I should throw all my effort into finding her or wait for more evidence.”

“What does your gut say?”

He sighs. “Wait.”

“Then wait,” I reply. I turn around in his arms to face him & place my hands on his chest. “In the meantime… Doctor Brooke told me something exciting before.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Oh?”

“She's very impressed with Lilly & Scott’s progress,” I say. “So much… She's happy to let us hold them.”

His jaw drops. “Seriously?!”

I nod excitedly. He kisses me.

“When can we do it?”

“Now.”

We go into the NICU, using hand sanitiser in the foyer room. Now that they're older, we don't have to wear protective clothing, which is a big time saver. Mark’s first through the door, & I smile at how keen he is to finally hold our babies. I’m excited too, but I’ve had time to get my head around the idea. As we approach their cribs though, my excitement levels shoot sky high.

“Who do you want to hold first?” He asks.

I sigh. “I don't actually know,” I reply. “I’ve been standing out there waiting for you, & yet I can't pick which one to hold first.”

“I know,” he replies, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “I’m torn too.”

I look from Scott to Lilly, looking back & forth for a while. But my eyes land back on Scott, & I know who to hold first.

“I want Scott,” I say.

Mark raises an eyebrow. “I was expecting you to go for Lilly.”

“As much as I want to cuddle my little girl,” I reply. “Scott was born first. It just feels right for him to be in my arms first.”

Mark nods. “Okay,” he softly says. “I guess it's time for my princess to have some daddy time.”

“Oh, stop being so cute! You're gonna make me cry!”

He smiles as he leans in & kisses my temple. The nurse comes over & shows us how to open the cribs. She talks us through how to lift them up, & the best position for them to lie in against our chests. We sit down in the chairs behind us. The nurse even offers to take a few photos for us, since this is such a big milestone, so I give her my mobile & she takes photos.

When the nurse leaves us, I look over to Mark. He's staring down at Lilly, lying on her front against his shirt. He's smiling at her, looking every part a natural. It fills me with so much joy & love to see how quickly they’ve bonded. I turn my attention to Scott, who is lying in the same position on my chest. Both are still connected up to their machines, but it's absolutely amazing being able to hold them. After a while, we swap over so we get to cuddle both.

“I can't believe how small they still are,” I say, looking down at Lilly.

“Mmm,” Mark replies. “But they're growing every day, which is good. Soon enough, they’ll be chubby.”

“And hopefully at home.”

“Oh, they’ll definitely be home by then!”

I smile. “I’ll need to get used to feeding them before then.”

“You're going to be fine.”

“Yeah, how about the middle of the night feeds? You know I’m expecting you to pull your weight with them!”

“I will happily get up at two a.m. to feed them if I have to,” he replies. “Any excuse to spend time with them.”

“I’m going to hold you to that.”

He smiles. “It's really good seeing you be so confident about being a mother.”

“There’ll come a day where I won't be.”

“And I’ll be there to support you.”

I smile.

****

“Well, you're a sight for sore eyes,” I say, smiling at Tyler as he arrives.

He gives me a forced smile as he shuts the door, & I frown.

“What's got you in a bad mood?” I ask as he crosses to me.

“Nothing,” he replies, before giving me a kiss. “Sleep well?”

“Nice try, Gurtie,” I reply. “You don't get to change the subject.”

He sighs as he sits down in the chair beside my bed. “Before you woke up yesterday,” he says. “I had a nightmare.”

"About me?"

He nods. “You…” He nervously licks his lip. “You died.”

“Oh my god, Ty,” I reply, reaching for him.

He takes hold of my outstretched hand. “You were awake when I got here, we were talking… Your heart hurt, & then…” He nervously licks his lip again. “That was it. You died. From a brain aneurysm.”

“Wow, you have a creative subconscious,” I reply. “A scary one, but… Wow. So what triggered you to remember that?”

“Your first words to me was exactly what you said to me when I arrived today.”

“Oh, shit.”

"So that's why I wasn't cheerful.”

“I'm sorry.”

He shrugs. “It's fine.”

“No it's not,” I reply. “Now come here. I wanna hug you.”

He gets up, steps over & we hug as best we can without me moving too much.

"So what's the timeline?” He asks, sitting back down. “How long must you stay in here?”

“They want me to rest up till the weekend,” I reply. “Karl wants to let my leg & hip have time to heal a bit post-surgery, & if the swelling reduces by the weekend, I can start having physio sessions to regain my ability to walk.”

He gives me a really cute smile. “That's really good.”

I nod. “Mmmhmmm.”

****

It's Friday afternoon, Tyler & I are playing yet another round of Uno. I’m winning, & we’re both having so much fun teasing each other & laughing. There's a knock on my door & it opens. We both look as Mark steps in & closes the door.

“Hey, bro,” Tyler says.

“Hey you two,” he replies, walking over to us. “I have an update.”

“You could have just called,” I say.

He nods. “I wanted to tell you it in person.”

I raise an eyebrow. “That serious, huh?”

“Yeah,” He replies, digging his hands into his pockets. “It's actually a huge breakthrough.”

“Well, you have my full attention.”

“About half an hour ago, we had a surprise visitor at the station.”

“Who?” Tyler asks.

Mark hesitates. “Mavi.”

What?!” Tyler & I both ask.

Mark nods. “She just walked in, asked to talked to whoever is in charge of your case, which, as you both know is me, &…” He sighs. “She announced she's handing herself in.”

I drop my cards & I watch as they scatter across my bed.

“So she's confessing she did it?” Tyler asks.

“Sarge is making me hold her in the interrogation room for a while before I talk to her,” Mark says. “So I thought I’d take the time to come & talk to you both.”

“Can I see her?”

Both of them look at me, brows furrowed.

“Pip?” Tyler asks.

“You heard me,” I ask. “Can I see her?”

Chapter Text

“Can I see her?”

“Why?” I ask her.

“Because I deserve to get answers!” She says. “I want her to look me in the eyes, & tell me why she ran me over.”

“I don't think that's a good idea, Pipes.”

“Well, thanks for the non-support, but I’ve made up my mind.”

I look at Mark, hoping he’ll back me up.

“If Karl gives you clearance… I really don’t think there's any reason for you not to,” Mark replies.

Seriously, bro?”

“If she wants to, there's no way I can stop her unless Karl says no,” he says to me. “There's no threat to her life from Mavi, she’ll be monitored the whole time… She does have the right to face Mavi & get answers.”

I shake my head as I stand. I head for the door.

“Tyler,” Piper says.

But I open the door & walk out. Karl’s at the nurses’ station down the hallway, & as I walk over, I know Mark is following me.

“Karl.”

“Yes, Tyler?”

“Piper wants to go see Mavi at the police station, which I think is ridiculous given her current state,” I say, just as Mark catches up to me. “Mark says he’ll allow it, but only if you clear her.”

“Well, she's been progressing well,” Karl replies. “She’s healing really well, & given she’s basically ready to begin physio… I have no objections to her leaving for a couple of hours.”

I sigh. “Isn't there a psychological reason she should stay?”

“I understand that you're trying to protect her,” Karl replies. “It's very noble of you, Tyler. But if she wants to leave, I have no reason not to grant it. All I ask is that she stays in a wheelchair.”

“Easily done,” Mark replies.

****

Karl organised for a mini bus shuttle to take us there. I’d tried to get him to see that Mark’s car would suffice, but Karl wouldn’t listen. He wanted me to not be moving in & out of the wheelchair, & the mini bus would allow me to stay in the wheelchair. When I suggested a disabled taxi, Karl still insisted- saying his was free.

“You sure you want to do this?” Tyler asks as he pushes me across the complex towards the station.

“I just want answers,” I reply. “I want to hear it from her why she did this to me. Why I may have my life changed forever because of her actions.”

“Okay,” He replies. I look up, seeing his jaw clench for a minute. “I’m going to be in there with you.”

“No, Ty.”

He stops just as we approach the station. He comes round & crouches in front of me.

“I know that you’re independent,” He says. “But the only way you’re going in there right now, is if I get to sit in there with you.”

“You don’t have to be so damn protective of me, Tyler!” I reply. “I’m sixteen! I can look after myself!”

“Please, Pipes,” he says, pleadingly. “I can’t just sit in the waiting room while you’re in the same room as the woman who tried to take you from me.” He places his hand on my left knee. “You know what she did to us before. And now this.” He swallows hard, eyes filling with tears. “I wasn’t there the day she hit you. I couldn’t protect you then. But I’m here now, & I’m not letting you out of my sight.”

I press my lips tightly together, trying to suppress the tears stinging my eyes. I nod. “Okay,” I whisper.

He smiles. He gets up, leaning over & presses his lips against mine.

****

The interrogation room door opens & Mark comes into my view.

“Oh, here for round two?” I ask, crossing my arms.

“You have a visitor,” He replies flatly. “Well… two.”

I frown. “I have no family or friends here.”

He steps aside, waving his hand to gesture someone in. I turn my eyes to the doorway in time to see Tyler wheeling Piper in. I swallow as I see the full leg cast & her right arm in a sling.

Tyler shifts the chair on the other side of the table to one side, & pushes Piper closer to the table.

“I’ll be watching on the monitor from out there,” Mark says.

Tyler & Piper nod.

“Thanks, bro,” Tyler replies.

Mark nods, gives me a stern look before he steps out & closes the door. Tyler slumps down in the chair beside Piper.

“Didn’t expect you two to want to see me,” I reply.

“We’re here cause Piper wanted to,” Tyler replies.

****

“I want answers,” I add.

I watch her swallow hard. She didn’t think she’d have to look at me & explain why.

“I came to the garage… to talk to you both,” She replies. “I wanted to apologise to both of you about what happened the last time I was here.”

“And I told you to leave me in the past,” Tyler replies.

“I know, but… it’s been weighing on my mind & I…” She sighs. “I can’t move on without seeking closure… from both of you.”

“Well, congratulations!” I reply, sarcastically. “You got it! By running me over!”

“I didn’t mean to.”

I scoff.

“Honestly, all I wanted to do was to talk,” She replies. “But I saw you, &… all the anger & jealousy came back.” She looks at Tyler. “I can’t cope not having you, Tyler. I know that you don’t love me back, but… I can’t handle it. I thought I could, but… It’s like losing the love of my life.” She looks at me. “I want to be where you are, Piper. To be the one that he loves. And… I know that I shouldn’t have done that to you, but… My jealousy clouded my judgement, &…” She sighs. “I was just trying to scare you a little. To just… clip you. But I hit the accelerator too much, &… I’m sorry.”

“If it was an accident,” Tyler says. “Why did you keep driving? Why didn’t you stop to help her?” He leans forward. “I saw you, Mavi! Why didn’t you stop then?”

“I left because I was in shock,” Mavi explains. “Shocked & ashamed.” She looks at Tyler. “I was going to go back, but then I saw you. And I knew that she would be okay with you watching over her.”

“Why didn’t you come forward straight away?”

“I was scared about what would happen to me if… if she died.”

“I’m right here,” I reply. “Don’t talk like I’m not in the room.”

She looks at me. “I’m here now though,” She says. “And I’m ready to face the consequences of my actions.” She leans forward. “I am really sorry, Piper.”

****

Tyler wheels Piper out. He shuts the door as I walk over to them.

“I don’t want to press charges,” Piper says as Tyler & I step up to her.

Tyler & I look at each other, both shocked.

“She’s guilty, yes,” Piper says, drawing our attention. “But she’s owned up to what she’s done.”

“Pipes…”

“I believe her when she says that it was an accident,” Piper replies. “I’m still alive. Which deserves to be acknowledged. Therefore, I don’t want to press charges beyond whatever you need to for reckless driving or whatever it is.”

“You know you mum won’t agree,” Tyler says.

“Well, she can just deal with it,” She replies. “It’s my choice.”

****

Two & a half weeks later

Piper’s physio rehabilitation is going really well. Her arm is out of the sling, & she’s almost regained full movement. Her leg, though, is a much longer term issue. She can walk, but it’s slow & with assistance. The bones in her leg have healed, but her hip bones haven’t fully healed yet & that’s holding her back.

I watch from the side of the room as she walks between the two bars, hands gripping the bars as she slowly makes her way along & her physiotherapist, Annie, walks along the other side of the bar to make sure that she’s fine.

“Yes! Good!” Annie says when they reach the end. “Okay, now turn around & we’ll go along it one more time.”

Piper slowly turns around & I watch as she makes her way back down the bars, Annie with her the whole way. And then Piper does the unexpected- she lets go of the bars. I instinctively stand, taking a few steps towards her but stop when she manages to take a few steps completely unassisted.

We both laugh in delight as I cross to her, meeting her at the end of the bars. I cups her face with both hands, lowering my lips to meet hers.

“I’m so proud of you,” I say, lips hovering near hers.

“Damn right!” She replies.

“This is really big progress,” Annie says & I lower my hands.

“How long till I can ditch the crutches?” Piper asks.

“If you keep doing sessions every day this week with me, & we keep practicing having you walk unassisted,” Annie replies. “I think you’ll be able to be downgraded to just one crutch by the weekend.”

Piper smiles. “Yes!” She says, clapping excitedly. “Perfect!”

“What?” I ask.

Piper looks at me. “Paige & Mark are having their naming ceremony for Lilly & Scott on Saturday, remember,” She replies. “I want to surprise them by not only being there, but walking.”

I smirk. “Trying to steal their thunder, huh?” I ask. “Such a typical Piper move.”

“I want to be there for their special day.”

“And show them all up by walking in.”

She lightly hits my arm. “Shut up! They’ll be happy for me. Just like I’m happy for them!”

****

Jay & I bring out more glasses & put them on the table set up in Lauren’s backyard. Today is the naming ceremony for Lilly & Scott, my niece & nephew.

“Do you think there’s too much stuff?” Jay asks. “I mean, there’s… how many people coming again? Isn’t it just the street?”

I smile. “It’s always better to be safe & have too much, then not enough,” I reply. “Besides, it’s Paige. She loves a big party.”

“Mmmm, true,” He replies. “So… did you have something like this for Felicity?”

“A naming ceremony?”

“Yeah,” he replies. “Or a christening. I don’t know if you’re religious.”

I shake my head. “I’m not,” I reply. “I mean, I went to church cause I had to for school, but… No. No christening, no naming ceremony. I was close to my parents… geographically, but… I didn’t do anything.”

“That’s fine,” he replies, putting his arm around my shoulders. “We’re each allowed to have our own way of doing things.”

He kisses my cheek.

“Oi, you can be all cute & lovey-dovey later on,” Paige says, making her way over from inside with more decorations. “But right now, I need you to keep on decorating!”

“Surely you’ve got enough already up,” I reply.

“There’s never enough,” She replies.

I look at Jay & roll my eyes. He stifles his laughter.

****

Soon enough, Mark & Aaron arrive with Lilly, Scott & Felicity.

“Hi darling!” I say to Felicity as I take her from Aaron.

I kiss her cheek & she makes a happy noise. Then Jay walks over.

“Dadda!” Felicity squeals, reaching for him.

“Hey Felicity,” He says, smiling as he gives her a tickle.

“It looks fantastic!” Mark says, taking our hard work in.

“It better,” I reply. “Your wife overkilled it.”

He smiles. “Thank you both so much for helping set it all up.”

“No worries. Always happy to help.”

****

“Are you ready to begin?” Susan asks Mark & myself.

“Uhh…” I say, as I do a scan of our friends, checking that everyone is here. “Not quite. Tyler’s not here.”

“He won’t mind if we start,” Mark replies. “I’m sure he’s on his way.”

“Mmmm,” I reply. “But he’s a part of our family. And I want him here.”

He nods. “Alright, we’ll… Ah, there he is!”

I turn, seeing Tyler coming in through the side gate. He sees us, waves at us but then gestures for us to stay there. He then steps back over to the gate, pushing it back open. I frown as he holds it open. My jaw drops as I see Piper.

And she’s walking.

Sure, it’s with a crutch, but… she’s walking.

“Oh my god!” I exclaim.

I walk over to her, meeting her halfway & give her a big hug. We part & I look her up & down.

“I wanted to surprise you,” She says.

“Uh, well… consider mission accomplished!”

“It’s really good to see you, Piper,” Mark says, stepping up & leaning in for a hug.

“Thanks Mark,” She says as they hug.

“Sorry we’re cutting it fine,” Tyler says as they part.

“Oh, hush!” I reply. “This is worth you being almost late!”

“We should start,” Mark says, lightly rubbing my back. “Before the little ones start to get fussy.”

I nod. “Come on.”

The four of us make our way over to the others. Mark & I take our babies from my parents, & stand with Susan ready to begin. Everyone else gathers around.

The ceremony is simple- Susan leads, with her, Mark & I each giving small speeches. Mark & I talk about our hopes for our children, as well as making commitments to be there for each of them & also reflecting on their lives so far. Mum & Dad, Aaron & then Erin all give speeches too, for we chose them to be godparents. I also asked Jay if he could write a song for us, & he performed it before Mark & I closed the ceremony with one final set of promises to our children.

****

Jay & I are dancing- well, swaying in each other’s embrace, really. Felicity is spending time with Tyler & Piper, who is sitting down to rest her leg & hip for a bit. It’s also so I can have some alone time with Jay before he has to go for an audition for a new opening at a venue.

“Hey,” he says.

“Mmm,” I reply, sighing contentedly as I rest my cheek against his.

“Ever thought about… having more kids?”

I lean back to look him in the eyes, gaping slightly. “Uh… Well… I dunno,” I reply. “It depends.”

“On?”

“The situation.”

“Mmm.”

“I don’t want to go through what I did with Felicity,” I reply. “To be a single parent.”

“And,” He replies. “What if… what if you had one with me?”

I’m speechless. I stare at him, wide eyed & mouth ajar.

“Relax, Aer,” he says, rubbing my back. “I’m not saying right away. I just want to get a reading on what you think of it.”

I swallow the lump in my throat. “I… I haven’t thought about it.”

He nods. “That’s okay.”

“I mean, it’s a huge deal,” I reply. “I want to be in a lasting relationship before having another child. I don’t want to be raising another kid on my own. I mean, I love Felicity. She’s my world, but… I don’t want to be a single mother of two.”

He nods. “But who says you will be alone?”

I sigh. “Neither of us knows for sure how this will end,” I reply. “Love… it’s unpredictable.”

“It can also be eternal,” he says. “If you give it a chance to grow.”

“Having a child is a big commitment,” I reply. “Feelings can change over the space of nine months. What if we decide we want to have one, & in the nine months of my pregnancy, things don’t work out between us & I end up having to raise a second child on my own?”

“I’m in love with you, Erin,” he replies. “I’m going to be here for the rest of your life, if you let me. And if we make that commitment, to have a baby together, I will always be by your side. I would never walk away from you if you were having my child. Even if we start to fall apart, I will fight for us.”

Tears fill my eyes. “You can’t promise stuff like that.”

He cups my face with both hands. “I can & I just did,” He replies. “I will wait however long it takes for you to be ready to have one. But once we do, I’m there. Always.”

I close my eyes, struggling to keep back my tears. I feel his lips press against mine & I kiss im back.

****

“You’re hitting the hard stuff rather fiercely,” Paige says, stepping over to me as I down the strongest booze I could find.

“Well, do you blame me?” I reply. “My boyfriend asked me out of nowhere how I feel about having more children, before basically professing his undying love & devotion to me… & I can barely manage to say ‘I love you’ to him.”

“Awwww! That’s really sweet!”

“Sure, but it’s a giant guilt trip too,” I reply. “I can’t seem to tell him I love him, & there he is saying ‘I’m in love with you’ for the hundredth time- which, by the way, carries a lot more weight than ‘I love you’. But he’s there, saying that & planning our future out & I suddenly feel like our relationship is on that really fast train in Japan or wherever it is in Asia.”

“Is it really such a bad thing that he’s picturing spending the rest of his life with you?” She asks. “Just look at it- you have a great man who loves you, who loves Felicity & she loves him back & that means a hell of a lot… You have everything that any woman could hope for, & you’re holding yourself back because of a few crappy exes.”

I take another big sip of my drink. “I don’t know.”

She places both hands on my shoulders, giving me a firm stare. “Go take that giant leap of faith, & give in to him. Be happy with him. Build a life, a future with him,” She says. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

I think about it for a few seconds, opening my mouth to reply, but…

“Looks like I missed things,” A male voice says.

Paige & I turn towards the voice. A young man of similar age is walking over to us from the side gate. He looks a lot like a younger, hotter version of Brad- with a far nicer haircut & stubble. He smiles at Paige.

“Ned!” Paige says, surprised & excited.

“Surprise!” He says, extending his arms out either side of him.

She throws her arms around him & he wraps his arms around her as he chuckles. I watch on awkwardly.

“Your friend seems awkward,” he says as they part.

Paige looks at me & then back to Ned. “Ohhh riiight!” She says. “You two haven't met.”

“No,” he says. “Are you gonna introduce us or should I?”

“Ned, this Erin,” Paige replies. “Mark’s sister.”

He looks at me & smiles as he extends his hand out to me. “Nice to meet you, Erin.”

I take his hand. “Nice to meet you too,” I reply as we shake hands. “I’m… Not really sure…”

“I’m Brad's son,” Ned explains. “And Beth’s. Before Terese… & Lauren.”

“Ah, well, it's nice to finally meet you.”

“Same.”

Paige hits him. “Why didn't you tell me you were coming?”

“Pip told me about today, & I wasn't sure if I’d be able to make it,” he replies. “Or welcome. Given what happened last time I was here.”

I frown, looking at Paige for an explanation. But it goes unnoticed by her.

“I’m glad you did!” Paige says, hugging him again.

They part.

“Come on,” She says, taking his hand. “I want you to meet your niece & nephew.”

She drags him off & he pulls a face at me that makes me laugh.

Chapter Text

I slip into her room, being quiet as her light is off. I strip down to my boxers & climb into her bed. In the dim light filtering through the window, I see her look over her shoulder at me.

“Hey,” She sleepily says.

“Hey,” I reply, draping my arm over her body. “Sorry I woke you.”

“Its fine,” She replies, rolling onto her back. “How did it go?”

“Yeah, it went really well. They were impressed enough they gave me a trial tonight. That's why I’m so late.”

“That's really good!”

She leans in & kisses me.

“I'm sorry that I freaked you out earlier by bringing up having more kids.”

“Don't,” She replies. “I was just taken aback. I haven't thought about it. I’ve been so… Afraid of letting anyone in, I haven't let myself even imagine my life in the future.”

“You’ve got to stop letting the past hold you back.”

She nods, before turning to face me.

“You know I’m not saying no to it, yeah?” She asks. “I’m just saying it's going to take me a while before I’m ready to have another kid.”

I nod, rubbing my hand along her back. “I didn't mean I wanted us to start trying,” I tell her. “I just wanted to see where you stand.”

“And… Where do you stand?”

“I want to have kids,” I reply. “But I’m not in any rush. I don't want to pressure you into it. I know that you're an amazing mother, & I hope that one day I get to have a child with you. I suppose the idea came to mind because of Mark & Paige.”

She smiles. “You’ll be a great dad someday,” she replies. “I see it every time I see you with Felicity.”

I smile, before kissing her. “I think it's time we get some sleep.”

She nods before turning around. I shift closer, draping my arm over her. I kiss the back of her bare shoulder & she sighs contentedly.

****

I wake to the sound of our babies crying. As much as their nursery is ready for them, I don't want them being away from us- especially given how much time they spent in hospital. I get up & cross to them.

“Hey, shhh,” I whisper to them.

I rock their cribs. Mark steps up, looking just as sleepy.

“Think they need feeding?” He asks.

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Well, I’ll cuddle one while you feed the other if you want.”

“Awwwww!” I reply & then kiss his cheek. “I’ll start with Lilly. She can be fussier sometimes.”

He nods before scooping up Scott. He cradles our son against his bare chest, walking around to his side of the bed as I pick up Lilly. We both get back into bed to keep warm. I support Lilly with one arm as I adjust my pillows so I’ll be comfortable while feeding. When I’m settled, I position Lilly before dropping one of my straps & feed her. The first few times I’d tried breastfeeding them was just over a week ago when we were still in the hospital. It had been a difficult few attempts, both myself & each of our babies having to adjust to it all. But by the time they were allowed to leave, I had gained some skill with it. Dr Brooke reassured me that we could always bottle feed them, but I’d been determined to keep at it. And it paid off when I was successful at feeding them.

I look over at Mark, watching him as he cradles our son. Scott has quietened down now, which is good cause he won't wake the others, but he’s still fussing in Mark’s arms.

“Okay, she's done,” I say. “Can you take her?”

“Of course,” he says, smiling.

We do a slightly awkward swap & I watch Mark for a minute as he holds Lilly higher up on his chest & lightly taps her back to burp her. Scott fusses in my arms, his way of demanding my attention, & I feed him on my other side.

I look over to Mark as I burp Scott. He realises I’m watching & looks at me.

“She's asleep,” he mouths.

I nod before tilting my head towards the cots. He gets up & carries her back to her cot. It's surprising how quickly we’ve adjusted to having them home. How well we’re handling their night-time routine. How well they're handling it.

“How about him?” Mark whispers as he crosses to me now Lilly's in her bed.

I look at Scott. “He's asleep,” I whisper.

I go to get up, but Mark blocks my way.

“I’ll do it,” he whispers. “Save you getting up.”

I smile. “Thank you.”

He smiles. “You do most of the work,” he whispers. “The least I can do is put them back to bed.”

He leans down to take him from me & I take the opportunity to kiss him. I watch as he carries Scott back to his crib, admiring Mark’s body. I find myself staring at his butt as he bends over to place Scott down. It's been a while since we made love, & I long for it.

Mark slips back into bed & I busy myself with lowering my pillows so I can sleep again. We lie down, Mark shifting so his front is almost moulded to my back & drapes his arm over me, his hand resting on mine like it always does.

“I want us to make love,” I whisper.

“Now?” He whispers, surprised.

I shift so I can look at him. “Do you want to? You don't have the early shift, so… We can.”

He swallows. “I want to,” he whispers. “But… What about…?” He tilts his head towards our babies.

I smirk. “You’ll just have to make sure you don't make me scream.”

“Oh, that's going to be hard,” he replies, closing the gap between us.

He rolls on top of me as we kiss, & I spread my legs as I wrap my arms around his neck. We strip off & he pushes inside me, both of us sighing contentedly. We kiss as he thrusts slowly, to keep the noise down.

****

“Oi!” Mark says as Tyler snatches his freshly buttered toast.

“Sorry, bro,” Tyler says before taking a bite. “I gotta fly. I’m late to see Pipes.”

Tyler heads for the door & Mark sighs as Tyler exits. Felicity laughs & I turn back to her. She's sitting on Jay’s lap & he's feeding her. I smile. This is the kind of family that I want. This is enough for me. At least, for now.

“So what are your plans for today?” Mark asks as he makes more food for himself.

“Working,” I reply. “I have a meeting with a client, & then I’m heading to the Waterhole to run through things with Sheila.”

“Well, I’ve got the morning off,” Mark replies. “If you want, I can look after Felicity & take her to childcare for the afternoon?” He looks at Jay. “I mean, if you're busy too.”

“Yeah, they want me back at the venue,” Jay replies. “To play the lunch crowd. Part two of the trial.”

Mark nods. “That's really good, mate.”

Jay nods. “Yeah.”

“I’ll take you up on that,” I tell Mark. “It will be good for her to have some time away from childcare during the day.”

“Yeah,” he replies with a smile. “Plus, who wouldn't want some one on one time with Uncle Markie.”

He pulls a face at Felicity, who laughs.

****

I’m sitting outside Harold’s, reading the newspaper & enjoying a coffee when I spot her. Erin. Beautiful Erin. Jogging towards the lake, her blonde hair tied up in a ponytail. She doesn't look like her brothers. Maybe she’s adopted… Which means technically we could date without it being weird since we’re practically family thanks to Paige.

I wonder what it would be like to kiss her, to press my body against hers, to hold her… And suddenly she's making her way into the complex, stretching as she goes. She looks gorgeous, her figure exposed by the workout gear she has on- especially the sports bra style crop top she's wearing. How I wish I could hold her hips, make her moan as we make love… Oh, how I would kiss every inch of her!

Annnnd now she’s looking at you from several meters away.

I swallow the lump in my throat as I quickly turn my focus onto the newspaper, hoping to avoid her eyes for long enough that she doesn't suspect I was staring.

“You know, the key to perving is to not get caught,” She says.

I look up, finding her standing on the other side of my table. She's holding onto the back of the chair, her right hand on her hip. And I suppress the urge to stand up & kiss her right now.

“Sorry?” I reply. “I don't know what you're talking about.”

She rolls her eyes. “I saw you,” She replies. “You were staring at me.”

“How do you know I wasn't staring into space?”

“Because,” She says, sitting down. “You looked like every man caught perving. That deer in the headlights look, panics & then averts his eyes quickly like it's gonna hide the fact that he was staring but it is way too late.”

I put the paper down, resting my arms on the table & lean closer. “Would it be such a bad thing if I was checking you out?”

She tilts her head slightly, eyes narrowing as she thinks. “It's a little weird.”

“Oh? How?”

“We’re family,” She replies. “Remember I’m Mark’s sister. Which makes me your sister-in-law.”

“Technically half sister-in-law,” I reply. “Paige is only my half-sister.”

“Same same.”

“I’m not ashamed of admiring such a beautiful woman,” I reply. “Even if she’s distantly related to me.”

For a few seconds she looks flustered, & not from her run. I smirk.

“Do you try to get in the pants of everyone you're ‘kinda’ related to?”

I smirk. “Just the stunningly beautiful ones.”

“And where does Lauren land in that scaling?”

“What?”

She smirks. “You didn't think I would know so quickly,” She replies, leaning back & crosses her arms. “You see, yesterday you mentioned to Paige about something that happened the last time you were here that would make you unwelcome here. And so I asked Sheila. I'm sure you know she's a really big gossiper. Well, she was delighted to fill me in. So I know that you kissed Lauren. That you wanted to sleep with her. Maybe it was to get back at Brad, but either way it was so massively wrong of you. And that's my rather long-winded way of telling you that you can flirt all you want with me, but you're not getting anything in return.”

“That's a bit harsh,” I reply. “Judging me on a mistake I made months ago.”

“I should probably also tell you I’m in a relationship.”

I shrug. “Not gonna stop me.”

She stands up &, instead of walking off like I expect, she steps round to beside me.

“Keep having those little fantasies where you picture yourself touching me,” She replies. “Wouldn’t be surprised if you have hot fantasies where we do it. But keep having them, by all means, don’t stop.” She then bends over, putting herself very close to me. Close enough to kiss. My eyes drift down, looking at her cleavage that is on full display. “Cause this is the closest you'll ever get to it.”

And with that, she walks off into Harold’s. I sigh, trying to relax.

****

“I thought you were going to see Sheila,” Paige says as I walk in after my run.

“I pushed it back a few hours,” I reply. “My other meeting went so well, I’m in a good mood. And handling Sheila can kill a good mood in… Ohhh thirty seconds.”

“Mmm,” she replies. “She has that knack. Just like she's able to gossip in lighting speed.”

“Yeah, that has its benefits sometimes.”

She nods. “Anyway… Have you talked to Jay again about having children?”

I raise my eyebrow. “Wow. Direct, much?”

“Hey, I’m just saying I know what it's like to throw a relationship under a bus over talking about babies,” She replies. “I want you to be okay.”

I sigh as I flop on the couch. “We did talk about it late last night, after he got home from his trial at the new venue.”

“That's good!” She says. “Right?”

I shrug. “I hadn't even considered it until he asked me about it,” I reply. “I told him that I want to wait. That it doesn't feel right to have one right now, which he’s fine with, cause he wasn't trying to pressure me into it. But…” I sigh. “The more I think about it, the more I wonder if I’ll ever be ready to have another kid. What if I’m happy with just Felicity?”

“If you're really that unsure, stop stressing,” She replies. “You need to forget about it. Cause you’ll talk yourself into doing something you’ll regret later on, & you’ll end up paying the cost. Jay says he’ll willing to wait. That's really good. Trust that. Listen to him.”

“He wants to have a family,” I reply. “I’ll just hold him back.”

“Uh, have you seen him with Felicity? The guy’s a fricking natural! Having her will help him. He’ll get in the practice, & it will do until you two have one of your own. He loves her like she’s his own,” She replies. She shifts closer. “You know, I once felt like you. I mean, I didn't have a kid already, but… I faced that burning question- settle down & have kids. I didn't think I was ready to start a family. Mark said he was willing to wait, but I ignored it & it eventually added to us breaking up. And now… Look at us. We're married & have two gorgeous babies.”

“What's your point? That I should break up with him?”

“That you should listen to him when he says he's willing to wait,” She replies. “A guy who’s willing to lay down that much devotion is worth keeping around.”

****

I’ve decided to walk to The Waterhole to take advantage of the beautiful day. It's winter still, but the weather is surprisingly warmish. On my way there, I come across a heavily pregnant woman who looks lost- she keeps walking off in one direction, but stops, hesitates & walks back.

“Hey, excuse me,” I say to her. “Sorry to intrude, but… Are you okay?”

“Hey, uh… Yeah, I’m… This is embarrassing to admit, but… I’m a bit lost.”

“Okay. Maybe I can help. Were you trying to get somewhere?”

She nods. “Yeah,” She says. “I'm trying to find a local pub. I was told by the staff at the motel I’m staying at that it wasn't too far away, so I decided to walk. But… As you can tell, I got myself lost. And I’m not local, which is obvious from the fact that I’m staying at a motel & got myself turned around.”

I smile. “Don't worry, it happens to the best of us,” I reply. “What's the name of the pub?”

“Ummm…” She says, putting her hand on her forehead. “It’s the billabong?? No, that's not right…”

The Waterhole?”

“Yes! Yes! That's it!”

“Well, you're in luck,” I reply. “I’m actually on my way there now. If you want, you can walk with me.”

“Oh, that would be really good!” She replies. “Thank you so much!”

“You're welcome,” I reply, smiling. “It's this way.”

We walk off side by side.

"I'm Erin, by the way."

“Nice to meet you, Erin,” She says. “I’m Rachael.”

“It's lovely to meet you, Rachael,” I reply. “So what brings you to the area?”

“Oh, well, I’m going to meet my husband at The Waterhole,” She replies. “I would call him, but he doesn't know I’m here & I’m ashamed to call him for help.”

“Okay.”

“See, we live in Sydney,” She replies. “And he's down here for work. So I thought it would nice if I popped down & surprised him.”

“Awww that sounds really lovely.”

She smiles. “I hope so,” She replies. “And what… Why are you going there?”

“I actually work at the pub.”

“Oh? A barmaid?”

“Actually, I’m the PR Manager,” I reply. “The pub is owned by the Lassiters hotel, which is next door. My brother & I have a PR business, & the hotel is one of our clients. And the pub falls under our folio.”

“Wow. That's impressive.”

****

“Here we go,” I say as Rachael & I turn the corner & the complex comes into view.

“Oh, I cannot thank you enough for your help!”

I smile as we continue walking. “You're more than welcome. Happy to help out a stranger.”

“Well, you are a true angel!”

I smile. We walk in silence for a bit.

“This place is so beautiful,” She says, as we walk outside Harold’s. “Maybe we should move down here permanently once the baby is born…”

“It's a great place to raise a family.”

“I can get that feeling,” She says as we stop outside the pub. “Well, thank you again for your help. I really do appreciate it.”

“You're welcome.”

“Erin!” Sheila says, trotting over from one of the outside tables.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Rachael says. “Bye.”

“Bye, Rachael.”

Rachael passes Sheila on her way to the door. Sheila looks at Rachael.

“Who's that?” Sheila asks. “Got a new friend?”

“No, she was lost & so I offered to walk her here since we were both coming here.”

“Well, I came over to tell you that your handsome man is inside,” Sheila says. “I thought you might want to go say hello to him before we get stuck into it. He’s looking pretty lonely in there.”

I smile. “Thanks.”

She smiles before heading off to another table. I cross to the front door & I pull it open. I scan the room as I step in. I smile as I see him across the room, but as I’m about to head to him, still hidden out of his sight by one of the partitions, I notice that he's not alone. I stop mid-step when I realise that Rachael is with him. They're hugging. But that's not what cuts me deep.

I watch in shock as they kiss.

Not just a simple, friendly kiss on the cheek. A full on lip lock.

Devastated & unable to breathe, I turn around on one heel & walk back outside. I falter a few steps outside, feeling the world spin. I close my eyes, trying to steady everything.

“Erin?” Sheila asks.

I open my eyes, feeling them stinging with tears. I can’t face her right now. I walk off, moving as fast as I can as I struggle not to cry.

How could he do this to me????

Chapter Text

“Hey,” I say to Paige as I walk through the front door. “I got your text. Sorry, I couldn’t get away any sooner.”

“Hey, it’s fine,” She replies. “I’ve tried talking to her, but she’s holed herself in her bedroom & refuses to talk to me. Aaron’s going to collect Felicity. I thought she might open up to you.”

I nod. “I’ll go try now.”

She nods before giving me a kiss. I walk through to the bedrooms & along to hers. The door is shut, as I expected. I knock on it.

“GO AWAY!” She shouts.

I open the door & peer inside just as she pulls her doona up to cover her head. I sigh, walking over & kneeling beside her bed. I pull her doona back- she’s lying on her side facing me, her mascara streaked over her cheeks & her eyes puffy from tears that are still falling.

“What’s happened, Aer?”

“Why do I keep falling for men who rip my heart out?” She asks, sobbing.

I frown. “What’s going on?”

“Jay,” She whispers. “He’s… he’s married.”

What?!

“I went to The Waterhole to see Sheila,” She replies. “And I saw this woman who was lost. And she was looking for the pub & so I walked with her the rest of the way. And when I got there, Sheila encouraged that I go inside & say hi to Jay before we begin. So I did. Only, I found him hugging Rachael, the woman I helped. And then they kissed. Not just a kiss on the cheek… but a full on lovers kiss!”

“Oh, come here,” I reply.

She sits up & leans towards me as I wrap my arms around her. She buries her face into my shoulder & cries.

“I can’t believe that I was that stupid!” She says. “That I was foolish enough to ignore myself when I was hesitant to start anything with him! That I let him in when I was afraid of going there again, that I was stupid enough to let him get close to Felicity, to lull me into a false sense of security!”

“Hey, shhh,” I whisper. “Are you sure you’re not reading into it?”

She pulls back & stares at me. “Rachael told me she was going to meet her husband. And I think it’s pretty damn hard to not believe it when I see them kissing.”

“Why don’t you talk to him?”

She shakes her head.

“Give him a chance to explain everything,” I say. “You never know, there might be more to it than it seems.”

“She’s pregnant, Mark!” She replies. “She’s heavily pregnant, they’re married & I was stupid to fall for him! This whole time, he’s been lying & the only thing that matters is that I’m once again left with a broken heart & wounded ego for being a dumb blonde once again!”

“Hey,” I reply, cupping her face with both my hands. “You are not dumb, Erin. You’re brilliant. This, whatever it is, is not your fault. So don’t put the blame on yourself.”

“How did I not see this coming?”

“You weren’t to know,” I reply. “See, this is why you need to talk to him. To find out what’s going on.”

She shakes her head.

“What if I come with you?”

She shakes her head again.

“Aer,” I whisper.

“I just want to forget it for tonight,” She replies. “I can’t face him. Not tonight.”

I nod. “Alright,” I reply. “Aaron’s going to get Felicity. Why don’t you go have a shower or a bath, & then come have dinner.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You need to eat, Aer,” I reply, wiping her tears away with my thumbs. “We’re all here for you. Shutting yourself up in here all night isn’t going to help. You’re going to think the worst of yourself, & that’s only going to damage yourself. So go have a relaxing bath & then come out & be with us.”

****

I walk through towards the living area, having just had a bath. I was tempted to slide under & not come up, but the one thing that kept me going was the thought of Felicity being without me. I stop when I’m almost out in the large room, hearing the others all sounding happy. I can’t face them right now. I turn to head back to my room.

“Hey, where are you going?” Aaron asks.

I turn back around, finding him a few steps away.

“I can’t go out there,” I reply. “They’re all so happy.”

“Nuh uh,” He replies. “Mark told me what’s going on. Tyler knows too. And Paige. But look, we’re here for you. So come out & be with us.”

I shake my head. He pulls me into a hug.

“You know Felicity is out there,” he says, still hugging me. “She wants you.”

“How am I meant to tell her that she’s lost another male figure in her life?”

“Just take it one day at a time,” He replies. “I’m sure you’ll find out that it’s not as bad.”

I pull back. “The man I let into my heart when I was scared to let anyone in just broke my heart by lying. How is that ever going to be not bad?”

“Talk to him,” he replies.

I shake my head. “I don’t want to.”

“What you need is closure.”

I sigh. He leads me out into the main room. The others have gone quiet. In fact, Tyler & Paige are standing at the front door, which is open a little bit. Both seem to be listening to something outside.

“What-” Aaron says.

Shhh!” Paige hisses.

I follow Aaron over, noting that Felicity is sitting on the floor in the lounge.

“Mark’s outside,” Paige says softly to Aaron & I. She hesitates, looking at me, before she continues. “Jay’s here.”

It’s like a punch to the gut. But all that hurt & anger drives me- I need to know the truth.

I step around all of them, heading for the door. Tyler holds me back.

“I need to find out the truth!” I hiss at him.

Tyler looks at Paige & Aaron to get a consensus.

“She has a point,” Paige says.

He lowers his arm.

“Someone please go watch Felicity,” I reply. “Before she bangs her head on something.”

I pull the door open wider, the others stepping back to allow it to, & I push the security door open. The noise draws Mark & Jay’s attention.

“Erin!” Jay says, stepping towards me.

But Mark slides in front of him, blocking him.

“Leave us,” I say.

“You heard her,” Mark says.

“Actually, I was talking to you,” I reply.

Mark looks over his shoulder at me & frowns. “What?”

“You’re right, & so is Aaron,” I reply. “I need to find out the full story.”

“I’m not leaving.”

I sigh. “Mark, I completely admire you for being protective of me right now. I actually really appreciate knowing that you, Tyler, Aaron & Paige have my back,” I reply. “But I need you to back off & let me do this with just Jay.”

Mark looks at Jay, & then sighs. “Fine,” He says. “But I’m right inside if you need me.”

I nod. “Tell the others to move away from the door,” I reply. “I don’t need you all eavesdropping.”

He gives Jay one more stern look, before turning & heading inside. I watch him leave, waiting until the door shuts before I turn back to Jay.

****

“What’s going on?” I ask. “Mark won’t let me inside, &…” I notice her puffy eyes. “You’ve… you’ve been crying.”

I step towards her, wanting to comfort her, but she takes a step back, her hand out to stop me.

“Who's Rachael?”

“What?”

“You heard me. Who is she?” She asks. “And be honest with me.”

“She's my ex wife.”

She scoffs. “You're doing it. Lying.”

“I’m not, Aer!”

“I saw you with her!” She replies. “I saw you two at The Waterhole earlier, kissing.”

Suddenly all of this makes sense. I run my hand over my face.

“Did you honestly think that you could meet her there & I wouldn't find out?”

“I didn't know she was coming!” I reply. “She just showed up!”

“Yeah, cause I was stupid enough to go help a complete stranger who was lost,” She says.

My stomach flips. “You're the one she was praising.”

“I found her, she was lost. And so I was helpful & walked her there… Not realising that I was hand-delivering a bomb to under my relationship!”

“How much did you see?”

“Enough to know that you're a liar.”

“No, Erin. Not good enough. If you want me to be honest, you need to do the same in return,” I reply. “I want to discuss this with you, but you need to be honest too.”

“I walked in, saw you two hugging… & then the kiss,” She replies. “I’m sorry if you don't feel satisfied that you rubbed it in. But I didn't want to stick around & face you.”

“Well, had you stayed thirty more seconds you would have seen me push her away,” I reply. “As I’ve been trying to tell you, she's my ex wife. That kiss was initiated. By her. Because she thinks she can rebuild what we had, even though it's been done for me for a long time.”

She shakes her head. “How can I believe you?”

“Because you love me.”

“What if that's not enough?”

“I don't know what you want me to say, Aer!” I say, barely holding back my frustration. “I’m trying so damn hard to prove to you that it's over between Rachael & I, that everything you saw was one sided from her, but you keep blocking it. I am not lying to you. I would never lie to you. If I could go back in time & tell you about her before she turned up, I would. But I didn't think you needed to know about her right now. Because I know that you are vulnerable & hurt by your past relationships & I just want you to be happy. And we have the chance to be happy, but how can I make you happy if you keep throwing up walls & shutting me out?”

“I let you in, despite the fact that my gut said no,” She replies. “I’d been broken & gave up on love. But the attraction between us was so strong, I thought ‘why not?’. I let you in, I let down those walls. We were happy. And all that time you were hiding this from me. You knew how many trust issues I have, & you went on & lied to me. You lied over, & over, & over again.”

“I’m sorry,” I reply. “I wish you hadn't found out this way.”

“No, you're ashamed that I caught you out.”

“This isn't you.”

“This is me when I’ve just had my heart broken by the one man I thought I could trust,” She replies. “And you know what? I was seriously thinking about our future today. Of settling down with you, maybe having another baby with you. And maybe, just maybe I was coming around to the idea of making long term plans with someone. But you know what hurts the most in all of this?”

I sigh. “Honestly, it doesn't matter what I say. You're gonna ignore it.”

“What hurts the most is that you had me fooled last night,” She replies. “You romanticised it all- painted the perfect image, the undying love & faithfulness. The promise to be there if I was pregnant, even if our relationship was gone. And yet that's exactly what you've done to Rachael. You’ve left her to raise your child on her own.”

I frown. “What?” I ask. “Rachael… No.” I shake my head. “That's not my baby.”

“Stop lying!” She shouts.

“I’m not!” I shout back. I sigh, before continuing normally. “I get that you're hurt, & I wish I could break through those defensive walls & make that pain go away. But I am being honest with you. Every word that I have ever said to you is the truth. And that's because I’m in love with you. I’ve loved you from the very moment I saw you at The Waterhole. This whole situation kills me. Because I stopped loving Rachael long before I met you. Long before she fell pregnant. She's gone & knocked herself up in the hopes of tricking me into reconciliation. It's not working, cause I know the truth. Because the only woman I have slept with in a long time is you. I may be a guy, but I know the maths. That baby is not mine.”

She shakes her head.

“You're pushing me away, & I get why,” I reply. “But you need to stop listening to the pain & start listening to what I’m saying. Because I feel you slipping away, & I don't want to lose you. And I know, under all that hurt & anger, that you don't want to lose me too.”

“Or maybe I’m finally realising that I shouldn't have let you into my life so openly.”

“Marrying her was the worst mistake.”

“Guess we’ve both made our worst mistakes.”

I step towards her, but she steps back as the tears fall.

“The only difference is… I’m getting out before it destroys me.”

“What… What are you saying?”

“I’m sorry,” She says, backing towards the front door. “It's over.”

“Aer,” I plead, stepping towards her.

She backs away as she shakes her head.

“It’s over,” she says again.

I stand there in shock as she turns & disappears inside. The woman I love is gone. And her final words echo in my mind…

“It's over.”

Chapter Text

I stir, groaning as my head hurts before I’ve even opened my eyes. I open my eyes slowly, the room coming in to focus… Not my bedroom ceiling. I look around the room. Definitely not my bedroom. I sit up, noticing I’m in an overly large t-shirt.

I try to remember what happened last night, but… Nothing. So I fold back the sheets & get up, holding my forehead as my head throbs. Definitely hung over.

I spot my clothes draped over a chair, my handbag on the seat & my shoes on the floor in front of it. I get dressed, collect my handbag & shoes, & leave the room. I vaguely remember going to The Waterhole to drown my sorrows following having my heart crushed. The irony of going to the place where I had it crushed is overwhelming… Which must be why I can't remember anything else- I must have gotten pretty wasted.

I look around the hallway for any signs of whose house this is. But there's no personal photos- just a range of artwork. Maybe I had a drunken one-night stand…

“Awww, damn! I was hoping to see you in the light of day wearing my shirt,” A familiar male voice says.

I spin around, seeing him standing further down the hallway. Shirtless.

“Ned,” I mumble.

His well-toned chest is on display, & I can't help but stare at it.

“Come on,” he says, tilting his head towards the kitchen. “I’ll get you some breakfast.”

I walk down the hallway, it suddenly hitting me that I’m in Lauren's house. Shit. Lauren.

“Don't worry,” he says, as if he knows what I’m thinking. “We're alone.”

I frown at him, but he turns & heads for the kitchen.

****

He places a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon & buttered toast in the bench in front of me. I peer over my glass of water, raised to drink from, at him.

“Dig in,” he says.

I set my glass down & pick up the cutlery as he comes around & sits down on the stool next to me with his own plate of the same thing.

“So, do you remember anything about last night?”

“Going to The Waterhole to get drunk,” I reply. “Which, given the searing headache, I’d say I achieved that.”

He smiles. “I found you there. You were drunk already, so… I can't help you regain all your memory.”

“But you know how I ended up from there, to here.”

“You were drunk, Sheila was going to call Mark to come get you, but I offered to look after you. Didn't think it was worth making him come get you when I was there.”

I nod. “But that doesn't explain why I’m here, & not at mine.”

He gives me a sympathetic smile. “You were too drunk to take home,” he replies. “You could barely walk, &… Trying to get you into a house without waking up three youngsters & all the other adults… That's a feat I didn't want to test out.”

“Huh, true.”

“So I brought you here,” he replies. “Brad's taken Lauren away for the week, so the house is empty except me. No risk of waking anyone up.”

“Did we…”

He looks at me, waiting for me to continue. I raise my eyebrow, giving him a look.

“I slept on the couch,” he replies, & I sigh. “Not that you didn't give your best to end up in the same bed as me.”

“Uh… What?”

“You came on to me,” he replies. “Quite strongly.”

I groan, covering my face with both hands.

“I was a real gentleman, & didn't let it go any further. I sent you back to my bed, even though watching you drunkedly walk around in my shirt was quite hard to resist.”

“Oh, how kind of you,” I sarcastically reply.

“But… You did kiss me.”

I gape.

“We could… Always kiss again?” He says. “See if it jogs your memory.”

I laugh… Until I see how confused he is, & that's when I realise he means it.

“Oh,” I reply. “You're being serious.”

****

The night before…

I lie down on the couch under a spare doona. I sigh, forcing back the way too tempting thoughts of her being naked in my bedroom. I could always just slip in there, kiss her & take full advantage of her drunk state to make love to her. But if I’m going to do it, if I’m going to make love to her, I want it to be for real. I want her to be wanting it just as much as I do. Not a drunken mistake.

I feel the doona shift & a weight on top of me, mainly on my hips. I let my eyes adjust to the low light, & she comes into view. She’s straddling me, wearing one of my shirts. She places her hands on my bare chest, leaning down so our faces are close.

“You should come curl up in bed with me,” She whispers, louder than she thinks she's being.

I swallow the lump in my throat. “I’m fine out here.”

“Really?” She replies, & I’m sure she's raised an eyebrow. “I thought you wanted me?”

“I do,” I reply. “I want you so bad.”

“Well, you have a chance right now.”

“Not like this.”

“Awww, come on,” She says, sitting up slowly as she slides her hands over my chest. “We’re all alone… You want me… I want you…”

She grinds her hips, rubbing herself against my crotch- nothing between us but her undies, the doona & my boxers. I groan, feeling myself get hard. I involuntarily twitch my hips. She grinds her hips against mine & I moan again.

“See, you like it,” She says. “I could do a lot more.”

I inhale deeply, resisting the urge to give in & cross that line.

“You need to go.”

“And you need to come with me.”

“Sure.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

She grinds again & I moan loudly. Giggling, she gets up. I push back the doona & get up. I put my hands on her shoulders, turn her around & march her back to my bedroom. It takes a lot of effort to resist the urge to kiss her neck, to pull my shirt up & slide my hand between her legs & rub her.

We reach my bedroom & I stop in the doorway. She walks over to my bed, as seductively as she can while drunk, & sits down on the end of my bed. She leans back, supporting her weight on her hands & spreads her legs- my shirt riding up just high enough I seriously consider breaking my own promise.

“What are you waiting for, stud?” She asks.

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I summon the strength to close the door. Once it's shut, I head back to the lounge, running my hand over my face. It's going to be a long night.

****

“Oh,” She says. “You're being serious.”

I nod, maintaining eye contact with her for a long minute. I watch her eyes drop- first to my lips, then my bare chest, & then up to my lips again. I can tell that she's resisting the urge to kiss me.

She swallows hard. “I should… I should go.”

“You don't have to.”

“Yeah, I should.”

“I sent a text to Mark earlier,” I reply. “Told him you were here, so he wouldn't worry.”

“I really should get going,” She replies, getting up.

I grab her hips as she stands, pulling her closer to me between my legs. She places her hands flat on the front of my shoulders to stop herself from toppling over from the sudden forward motion. We stare at each other, both fighting the chemistry between us.

And it all gets too much for me. I slip my right hand up to cup the back of her head, my left hand still holding her hip, & pull her even closer. I press my lips against hers, finally getting to kiss her. She's startled at first, instinctively pushing back to try & get away. But then she gives in, eagerly kissing me back. She presses herself against me, her left arm wrapping around my neck as her right hand slides into my hair. She moans into my mouth, really getting into our kiss.

Chapter Text

Our bodies press together as we deepen our kiss. It feels so good to be wanted like this. His left hand slips under my top, sliding up my back & he rests it with his fingers splayed over my spine just under my shoulder blades. I can feel us building up to taking it further, & suddenly I’m reminded of Jay. The way it felt to be in his arms, to feel loved when I’m broken, & being with Ned just doesn’t feel right.

I place my hands on his chest & push back, forcing him away. He chases my lips, but I push his chest harder.

“I… I can’t do this,” I say.

He stares at me in disbelief. “What?”

“I’m sorry.”

I step around him & he tries to stop me but I push his hand away. I grab my handbag & shoes & walk out, not looking back.

****

“Hey,” Mark says.

He’s in his uniform, on his way to work as I reach the front door.

“Hey,” I say, giving him a weak smile.

He looks at my shoes still in my hands. I’d not stopped to put them on since leaving Ned’s. He then looks up at me, & I can tell he’s thinking it’s a walk of shame.

“Don’t,” I say. “I was just in a rush to leave. Nothing happened.”

He nods, raising his hands. “Wasn’t gonna say anything.”

“Good.”

“All I was gonna say is, I’m glad that Ned helped you last night,” he replies. “I wish that I’d been there, but at least you weren’t alone or been taken advantage of by some stranger.”

I nod. “Yeah,” I reply. “Anyway… I should let you go. And I need a shower.”

He nods. “Oh, Aaron’s taken Felicity to childcare for you. Paige offered to have her stay home with her, but… Aaron thought she has her hands full enough with our two.”

I smile. “I’ll thank him for that later.”

He nods. “I also don’t want you to take what I’m about to say the wrong way,” He says. “I’m just looking out for you.”

I nod. “I know you are. You always do.”

He smiles. “Yeah.”

“So… what did you want to say?”

“Just that… I get that you’re hurt by all of this stuff with Jay, but… going out & getting so drunk you have to crash at a friend’s house… It’s not going to do anything good for you.”

“Yeah, that’s…” I shake my head. “I’m not going to do that again.”

He nods. “Good,” he replies. “I’m here if you want to talk.”

I nod, giving him a small smile. “Thanks.”

He wraps his arms around me. I sigh, resting my head on his chest as I wrap my arms around him. He kisses the top of my head.

****

I have a shower, & find my thoughts returning to Ned. To our kiss. And I feel the longing, the need to be with him again. To lie in bed as we make love. I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I’ve just had my heart broken. Again. I shouldn’t jump into another relationship, to try & have sex with another man who will just end up breaking my heart. I shouldn’t be wanting to fuck him senseless when he’s practically my brother. And yet… here I am, having as shower & wishing he was here with me.

I rest my back against the wall & close my eyes, trying to slow my breathing. But my brain has other ideas- imagining Ned kissing my neck as he holds my hips. He slips his hand between my legs & I gasp as he teases me. I moan as he continues to tease me, before lifting me up & sliding himself into me. He presses me hard against the wall as he thrusts into me & we both moan.

I snap back to reality when my mobile buzzes, the noise making me jump as it echoes in the silent room. I turn off the water, grab my towel as I step out & wrap it around me as I cross to it. I reach for my mobile, but it stops just as my fingers brush it. I sigh in annoyance as I pick it up. I turn the screen on- one missed call from one of my clients. I unlock it, about to call him back when they text. I frown at the simple message, saying that I’m late for our meeting. I look at the time- Oh shit! I am!

I send him a reply, apologising & asking to delay it further. I quickly dry off & dry my hair. I quickly go get dressed & hurry out.

****

“Hey,” Mark says as he walks over to me as I’m sitting outside Harold’s.

“Hey, Mark,” I reply. “How are the little ones?”

“Good, good,” he replies. “I actually wanted to thank you.”

I frown. “For?”

“For what you did last night,” he says. “Making sure Erin was safe. I really appreciate you being there for her.”

I smile. “No worries.”

“She’s having a rough time at the moment, so it’s really nice to see she has someone other than me or our brothers looking out for her.”

I nod. “Hey,” I say, as he turns to go. He turns back. “What… what exactly happened?”

He frowns. “You don’t know?”

I shake my head. “She was saying a lot of weird things last night. Not entirely sure what to take as real.”

He sighs. “Well, she just found out the man she’s been dating is married.”

I gape. “Wow.”

He nods. “Yeah. So she dumped him,” He replies. “And decided getting wasted was a good way of coping.”

“Right,” I say. “That explains a lot.”

He frowns. “What?”

“Oh, um… nothing. Just something she said this morning.”

He looks confused but nods. “Well, thanks again.”

“You’re welcome,” he replies. “Uh… so she wouldn’t be interested in…” I shrug. “Having another relationship?”

He frowns. “She’s just gotten out of a pretty serious relationship,” He replies. “And given how messed up she was going into that, given how her last ex tried to murder her… I really think she’ll be steering clear of any relationships for a long time.”

“Yeah, of course.”

He frowns. “You’re not… interested. Are you?”

“What? Me?” I ask. “Nooo. She’s basically related to me.”

He nods. “Still… you tried it on with Lauren, & she was even closer related to you than Erin.”

I roll my eyes. “What happened between Lauren & I was a stupid mistake. I’m not going to make the same mistake.”

****

I’m jogging up the street at the end of my run. My meeting was a disaster, & I decided a run would be a good move to clear my mind. I see a car in the corner of my eye, & turn to look at it. It’s Ned. I sigh, & jog towards mine.

“Erin!” He calls.

I stop at the end of my drive & sigh. I turn around, watching him cross the road to me. He smiles & I resist the deep urge to jump him.

“What do you want?” I ask, panting from my run as I put my hands on my hips.

“Wow, you really have the knack to sound annoyed for no reason,” He replies.

“I’m annoyed cause I wanna go inside & get a drink to cool off.”

He nods. “Won’t keep you long.”

“Okay,” I reply, still breathing heavily.

I see him stare at my chest, watching it rise & fall as I pant. I see his hand twitch as he resists the urge to touch me.

“You gonna say what you came over to say?” I ask. “Or do I have to watch you blatantly perve on me?”

He looks up, meeting my eyes. “I just wanted to say that I understand that you don’t want to have a relationship, & to be honest, I don’t blame you. You’ve had a rough time.”

“Yeah. So?”

“There’s clearly a lot of sexual attraction between us, & it’s bad because we’re kinda related,” he replies. “You’re not interested in a relationship, &… So am I. I like to have fun. So… how about we just see where this goes. Just… have some fun.”

What?”

“I’m saying we be friends,” he replies, stepping closer. “With benefits.”

I raise my eyebrow.

“We both get to have fun, this… attraction between us is fulfilled,” He replies. “And you don’t have to worry about being left broken hearted, because technically we won’t be dating. So what do you say?”

He’s close enough to kiss & my breath catches in my throat. He smirks & leans in to kiss me. But I pull back. He looks away & sighs.

“Normally I like it when women play hard to get,” he says. “But you… it’s frustrating having you taunt me.”

“Just… give me some time to think about it.”

He looks at me- pleading & longing. “Don’t keep me waiting too long.”

And with that, he walks off.

****

“Hey,” I say to Az as I step over to him in the kitchen.

We’ve just finished dinner & he’s doing some of the cleaning up.

“Hey,” he replies.

“Firstly, thanks for taking care of Felicity ever since… Jay…”

He nods. “It’s fine. We’re here for you.”

“Good,” I reply. “Cause… I need to ask you a favour.”

He frowns slightly.

“I need you to look after her again.”

“When?”

“Now?”

He nods. “Where are you going?”

“I need to talk to Ned.”

He nods. “You know, you should be careful.”

“Careful?”

He sighs. “I see the way he looks at you,” he replies. “If you spend too much time around him, he’s going to get the wrong idea.”

I smile. “We’re just friends.”

“Okay,” he replies. “Sure. Go over & talk to him. I’ll look after Felicity.”

I smile. “Thanks, Az.”

“You’re welcome.”

I kiss his cheek. “I love you.”

“Love you too, sis.”

****

I walk to the front door as someone knocks continuously on the door. I pull it open, surprised to see Erin standing there.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hi,” She says, smiling.

“Didn’t think I’d see you.”

“Yeah, well… I’ve… I been thinking,” She replies, looking slightly awkward.

“I’m hoping that’s about my offer,” I reply, smirking.

She hesitates, clearly flustered. “It’s…” She sighs. “I’m not one to be having those kind of relationships. It’s just not me.”

I nod, disappointed. “Right.”

“However…”

I look at her.

“My run of relationships has been… a giant train wreck,” I reply. “And maybe I’m being stupid ruling out having a non-serious relationship.”

I frown. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying…” She looks me over. “I wanna give this a go.”

I smile. “Really?”

She nods. “It’s going against all my instincts, but…” She sighs. “Following my instincts when it comes to my love life hasn’t proven to be very successful, so… I’m ditching them.”

I step closer to her, smirking when her breath catches. We stare each other. I wanna build the tension for as long as I can.

She grabs me, pulling me down & crashing my lips against hers. I pull her close, wrapping my arms around her tightly.

Chapter Text

I lead him down to his room. I step inside, but he pulls me back. He pushes my back against the doorframe, & I tilt my head up to meet his lips. He pushes against me, pinning me to the small wall & I moan into his mouth as I feel his erection. I dig my nails into his scalp, forcing him to deepen our kiss. He slides his hands under my shirt, gripping the skin on my waist hard.

I force his shirt up, eager to not have an inch of anything between us & we break our kiss for a split second to pull it over his head. I toss it aside as he claims my lips again. But then he's pulling my shirt off, once again forcing us to part. He tosses it aside, neither of us caring where it lands, & he kisses me again.

He lifts me up & I wrap my legs around his waist. Once again, he presses me hard against the doorframe & I moan into his mouth as his erection rubs me. He kisses down my neck & I dig my nails into his back. I grind my hips against his, desperate to have him inside me, & he growls before pushing me harder against the doorframe so I can't move.

“I want you,” I whisper into his ear.

He stops, still holding me hard against the doorframe, & stares into my eyes.

“Stop getting so impatient,” he replies. “Good things come to those who wait.”

“But if you stop with the foreplay,” I reply. “We get to have more fun with the rest of it.”

“Are you always this pushy with your boyfriends?”

“Shut up,” I reply. “There's only one noise I wanna hear come out of your mouth right now, & so far… I’m not hearing it.”

He thrusts his hips & I gasp. He smirks, before returning to kiss my neck. I return the favour by grinding my hips as hard as I can against his, our jeans rubbing together. He bites my skin & I dig my nails into his back.

He steps back, pulling me with him as he wraps an arm around my back to keep me pressed to him. He turns & walks over to his bed as we kiss. Instead of lowering me onto it, he turns around & sits down on the end so I’m straddling him. He splays his hands over my back, my hands in his hair as I grind my hips again, frustrated that he's not moaning.

“Stop it,” he growls, gripping my hips incredibly hard to stop me.

“Get us naked & I won't have to,” I whisper against his lips.

“Can't I enjoy holding you for a while?”

“Not when I came here to fuck, not straddle you while we make out.”

He pulls back, eyebrow raised. “You want more than just a make out session?”

“Well, duh.”

He undoes my bra, pulls the straps down off my arms & then tosses it aside. He kisses from the base of my neck down my chest, capturing my right nipple in his mouth. I arch my back as he lightly bites it, before sucking it. He teases me, playing with it for some time before he does the same to my other nipple.

Fed up, I push him back, smirking as he falls back so he's lying down. I grind my hips again as hard as I can. He bites his bottom lip, suppressing a moan. So I unbutton his jeans before unbuttoning & unzipping my jeans.

“Flip us & get these pants off,” I say. “I want you in me right now.”

“What if I want to tease you more?”

“I’ll get up, gather my clothes & leave.”

“Do you really think you can just walk away from this?”

“Just shut up,” I reply, grinding my hips.

He groans & I smirk. He pulls my arms, forcing me to lie down on him. He captures my lips, wrapping his arms around me & flips us so I’m underneath. He pulls back until he’s kneeling, & admires my naked upper half for a minute. I slip my right hand under the top of my jeans, under my undies & rub my clit. I moan as I rub myself, showing him that I can manage without him if need be. He pulls at my jeans, practically ripping them off & I smirk with satisfaction at finally making him snap. He rips my undies off & tosses them aside, before pushing my hand aside & rubbing his fingers through my folds making me gasp & arch my back.

He lifts up my hips, easily moving me further up the bed & gently lowers my hips down. He lies down & flicks my clit once.

“Oh, fuck!” I moan.

He licks me some more until I’m squirming. He then takes off his jeans & boxers. He shifts closer & places his right hand flat on my lower stomach. He rubs my clit & I arch my back. I watch him through half closed eyes as he smirks, rubbing his left hand up & down his cock. He shifts even closer & pushes the head against my opening, & I moan. He pushes in just a little & my moan gets louder. He waits a moment, before sliding all the way in & we sigh contentedly. I can feel that he's all the way inside me, & it feels soooo good!

He rubs my clit again & I cry out, seeing stars from the intense pleasure. He then thrusts, building up a steady rhythm & all I can do is lie there & grip the doona cover as I close my eyes.

He lies down, bracing himself on his forearms as he continues to thrust. I wrap my legs around him, both of us moaning. He thrusts deeper & I cry out- he muffles it by claiming my lips with his.

I can feel my orgasm building, my walls tightening around him. His thrusts get harder, as if he knows I’m almost there. This works & I moan into his mouth as it hits.

As I come down, he flips us & starts pushing my hips as he thrusts, making me pull back from his lips as I cry out.

“Be loud, baby,” he says. “I want to hear you enjoy this.”

“Only if you moan too!” I reply.

He shakes his head. So I sit up, biting back a loud moan as he sinks deeper into me. With him buried deep in me, I grind my hips. He fights to silence a moan. But the new position & movement sends so much pleasure through me, I struggle not to orgasm again.

“Don't fight it, babe,” he says, hands gripping my thighs. “Just let it out. Cum for me.”

I shake my head. “What about you?”

“Oh, I’m nowhere near being done,” he says. “I’m going to last a long time.”

As much as I try to resist, I orgasm, shaking from the intensity. He smirks. We keep going until he orgasms. Exhausted, we climb under the sheets & I fall asleep in his arms.

****

I stir, convinced it was all a dream. But before I even open my eyes, I feel her pressed against me. I open my eyes, instantly met by her bare shoulder. Her blonde hair falls either side of her left shoulder, partly obscuring her face. I kiss her shoulder over & over. She stirs, head turning towards me & I capture her lips with mine.

“What's the time?” She asks.

“Morning to you too.”

She sighs. “Sorry.”

“It's fine.”

She sits up & looks at my alarm clock on my bedside table.

Shit!” She replies, scrambling to push the covers back.

“What?” I ask, as she gets up.

“I gotta go!” She replies, hurrying to get her undies.

I look at the clock- it's barely 9am.

“What's the rush?”

She stops, undies on & bra in hand. “You're not the one who has to sneak into a house where my cop brother lives.”

I smirk. “I can sneak in if you want me to.”

She scoffs, before putting on her bra.

“Seriously, Erin,” I say. “Why don't you just hide out here until he goes to work?”

“I have to get to work myself.”

“Ditch it,” I reply, sitting up. “Stay here & spend the day with me.”

“Firstly, we’re not dating remember,” She replies, crossing to get her jeans. “And I have to keep working so I can raise my daughter.”

And there it is- the punch to the gut. I'm sure Felicity is a great kid, I did meet her at Paige & Mark’s naming ceremony, but it's a reminder that I’ll always be second. And yet, I'm wanting this to last. I want to be with her. I know I shouldn't, this will always be nothing more than sex, but… She's amazing. And I want her in my life.

“I gotta go,” She says, snapping me from my thoughts.

She's fully dressed now, & all I wanna do is pull her back to bed & make love to her.

“I’ll talk to you later,” she says.

“Come back tonight,” I reply. “I’d like to see you again.”

She smiles. “We’ll see,” She replies. “I need to spend some time with my baby girl.”

I get up, smirking as I see her eyes drop to my cock as I walk over to her.

“Come back tonight,” I say. “Or I’ll come over to yours.”

“Nuh uh, no way.”

“Why not?”

“Uhh… Cause if either Mark or Paige get wind of our… Arrangement, I will never hear the end of it.”

“Why?” I ask. “We’re both consenting adults.”

“Who are technically related.”

I cup her cheek. “Just makes it that much hotter,” I reply before kissing her.

I push her backwards, pressing her up against the wall & she moans. But just as I’m deepening our kiss, she pushes me away.

“I gotta go,” She says, stepping towards the door. “Bye.”

“Oh, you're gonna pay for that!” I call after her.

****

I sneak in the back, getting all the way in to the kitchen before…

“Morning, sis,” Mark says, making me jump.

He's leaning against the doorframe of the doorway through to the bedrooms, his arms crossed.

“Jesus, Mark!”

“How come you were out all night?” He asks. “What were you discussing with Ned that took all night?”

“We got talking, & next thing I know, it's late,” I reply. “So I slept there… On his couch.”

He nods. “Right.”

I tilt my head. “What?”

“You seem to be spending a lot of time over there.”

“He's a friend.”

“So was Jay.”

I glare at him. “That was different.”

“Really?”

“What's your point, Mark?”

“I'm just looking out for my sister,” he replies. “Especially when she's had such a hard time.”

“I can look after myself.”

“By spending all your time with the bad boy across the street?”

I raise my eyebrow. “He's your brother-in-law.”

“He's yours too.”

“What's your problem with him anyway?” I ask, crossing my arms.

“You're not handling breaking up with Jay,” he says. “And I’m worried that he's taking advantage of your fragile state of mind.”

I step towards him. “Nothing is going on between Ned & I,” I reply. “And even if there was something going on, I really don't see how you could have a problem. Because I could do a lot worse than Ned. Like… I was very wasted two nights ago. Could've gone home with anyone. Thankfully, Ned turned up & took me home. He's just a friend. And I need one now more than ever.” I place my hands on his chest. “So please stop being so protective.”

He sighs. “I'm just… Worried about you.”

I smile. “And I appreciate it,” I reply. “But… I can handle it.”

“I'm still going to worry.”

I nod. “I know.”

He pulls me into a hug.

****

I’m working at The Waterhole when Ned comes in. I quickly gather my stuff up & head for the door.

“Hey,” he says, smiling as I pass him.

“Hey,” I reply, not stopping.

“Erin,” he replies, following me outside. “Erin!”

I stop, letting him catch up.

“I was wondering,” he says. “If you were planning on spending the night with me?”

“And as I said earlier,” I reply. “I’ll have to think about it.”

He frowns. “Have I done something wrong?”

“This. What we have,” I reply. “It's just fun.”

He looks confused. “Yeah?”

“And yet you're acting like a boyfriend.”

“So… Me wanting to spend another night with you in a house where we won't get disturbed is considered boyfriend zone?”

I sigh. “Mark’s already suspicious about the two of us,” I reply. “He caught me sneaking back in this morning. Asked a lot of questions about us suddenly hanging out. So I’d rather stay at mine tonight. Get him off my back for a bit.”

“Would it really be that bad if he knew about us?”

“He’s already being overly protective & that's off him thinking there's something going on,” I reply. “He's going to lose it if he finds out. He already thinks I’m not coping after my break-up. Finding out that I’m sleeping with you…” I shake my head.

He sighs. “Alright.”

“Good.”

“But I would like to see you again,” he says, stepping closer.

“Don't,” I reply, stepping back. “You need to start downplaying it in public.”

He raises his eyebrow. “Ashamed of me, huh?”

“No,” I reply & he smiles. “I just don't want people catching on. Especially when there's Sheila in the area.”

He nods. “Duly noted.”

I place my hand on his chest. “Thank you.”

“You can thank me tomorrow,” he replies. “In the afternoon?”

I sigh, rolling my eyes slightly. “You're unbelievable.”

“What? Because I want to make the most of an empty house with a beautiful woman?”

“I have work.”

“You feeling me up completely contradicts that.”

“What? I'm not feeling you up!”

He looks down at my hand, which is still on his chest. I quickly remove it. He smirks.

“Come on,” he says. “Come over tomorrow afternoon. We’ll have some afternoon delight.”

“Oh, how subtle of you!”

“I like being forward with you.”

I raise my eyebrow. “Well, I find it arrogant of you.”

He smirks. “You're still gonna sleep with me.”

“Urgh!” I reply, rolling my eyes.

I step around him & walk away.

****

“Oh, that's fantastic!” Aaron says as I walk in the front door, Felicity in my arms.

He's sitting at the kitchen bench, talking on his mobile, his smile & excitement vanishing as he sees me.

“Uh, mate, I gotta go,” He replies. He listens to the other end. “Yep.” Listens again as I shut the front door. “I am really happy about that. Keep me posted, yeah? Okay, bye.”

He hangs up. I put Felicity down.

“Baby girl,” I say to her. “Go play with your toys over in the lounge, okay?”

“Okay,” she says.

I give her a kiss & watch her walk into the lounge. I cross to Aaron. I give him an awkward smile.

“Heyyyy,” I say.

“Hey,” he replies. “How was your day?”

“Good,” I reply. “So… Was that…”

“Jay?” He asks.

I nod.

“It was him.”

I exhale slowly. “So he's still… Your client.”

He slowly nods. “He tried to quit,” he replies. “But I talked him out of it. I didn't want him to be giving up our great work relationship just because things didn't work out between you two.”

I raise my eyebrow. “And how am I meant to feel about that?”

He closes his eyes. “I didn't mean to make it sound like I don't care about you, Aer.”

“Mmm.”

“Look. Jay has potential. I wanna help him,” he replies. “I respect that you're hurt. And I do care about you. But… I’m following you. You keep your work & professional life separate. That's what I’m doing.”

I sigh. “You're right,” I reply. “I guess I just wasn't expecting to hear you talking to him.”

He smiles sympathetically. “I know. It's why I ended it.”

“So… How… How is he?”

“He's good,” he replies. “Misses you.”

I sigh. “He shouldn't.”

“He was in love with you,” he replies. “Still is, actually.”

“But he has a wife.”

Ex wife.”

“She was wearing her wedding rings.”

“Have you actually talked to him about it?”

“No.”

“Then I really don't think you should be so judgmental about the situation,” he replies. “Look. He misses you. But he's gone away. There's a few opportunities for him to sing interstate, & he’s taking them up. Which… He needs right now. He's still trying to get over you.”

“He should have thought about that.”

“There, that's the judgement I want you to put aside,” he replies. “I want to tell you the whole story, because you need to know all the facts. But that attitude… No wonder he’s desperate to go interstate.”

That hits me like a punch to the gut.

“He wants to be with you,” he replies. “But he understands that you're too angry right now. So he's burying himself in his career so you can have the space you need in order to see the truth.”

Aaron gets up & walks out. I stand there for a minute, reeling from his words. Have I been too harsh with Jay?

Chapter Text

I rest my forehead on his shoulder, both of us panting as we come down. I had a rough night’s sleep last night, after Aaron’s comments to me about Jay. It had reopened wounds I thought were closed for good. And so this morning, I cancelled all of my meetings after taking Felicity to childcare so the others don't get suspicious, & then came over here to have it on with him. Against his bedroom wall.

He lifts my head up & kisses me. He pushes against me, pinning me to the wall & I moan from the pressure of still having him in me.

“I wish I could keep you like this forever,” he whispers.

“Well, you can't.”

“Oh, don't,” he says. “Getting bossy with me just makes me want you so much more.”

I smirk. “So why don't you take full advantage of my current position?”

He stares at me, trying to figure out if I’m being serious. So I flex my lower muscles, tightening around his cock. He moans, head bowing as grips my thighs.

“Get to it, boy,” I whisper. “Or I will do that again.”

He holds my chin. “God, you're so fucking hot right now.”

“Fuck. Me,” I mouth.

He kisses me, distracting me for a few seconds- long enough to pull almost all the way out of me, before thrusting in so hard I scream.

****

“So what exactly did he do to you?” He asks, wrapping his arms around me from behind as we stand in the kitchen.

“Who did what?” I reply.

“The man who has you scared enough not to want anything more serious than what we have,” he replies. “What did he do to shake such a strong woman?”

All the emotions come flooding back, & I can't breathe. He’s swaying a little, the movement pushing my hips against the bench- it's all too suffocating. I place my hands on the bench & force him back. I slip out of his arms, heading out of the kitchen.

“Hey, what's wrong?” He asks, following me.

“I don't wanna talk about that,” I reply.

He stops me, turning me around to face him.

“It's okay,” he says, cupping my left cheek. “You don't have to.”

“I want to, it's just…” I sigh. “It hurts too much to talk about it.”

He nods. “You don't have to,” he replies. “Not right now.”

I pull him in for a kiss.

****

The next day

“You do tattoos, right?” I ask him as he makes us some food.

“Yeah,” he replies. “I mean, I prefer to design them than actually do them, but… I am trained to do it.”

“Awesome,” I reply, leaning forward. “I want one.”

He raises his eyebrow. “You serious?”

“Yeeeaaah.”

“How long have you thought about it?”

“Long enough to know that I want to do this.”

“You know it shouldn't be something you make a rushed decision about.”

“I’ve been thinking about it for years.”

“Alright,” he replies, nodding. “What are you thinking of getting & where?”

“Well… My name literally means Ireland,” I reply. “So I was thinking of an Irish theme.”

“What? Like a leprechaun, or a clover or a map of Ireland?”

“Ha ha,” I reply flatly.

He smirks. “Okay, what are you thinking?”

“Well… My Celtic zodiac sign is the butterfly.”

He snort laughs.

“What?”

“You want a tramp stamp?”

I gape. “Nooo,” I reply. “I want to get a butterfly. Green & Purple, cause they go nicely together & my favourite colour is purple. And I also wanna get the Irish word for butterfly written either under it or above, haven't figured exactly which yet.”

He nods. “Okay.”

“So…”

“So…?”

“Will you help me?”

He shrugs. “I’ll help you work out the design & recommend where to go to get it done…”

“I want you to do it.”

He raises his eyebrow.

“Come on! I trust you!” I reply. “I don't want some random guy or woman doing it.”

“Yeah, & the last time I did a tattoo for someone on this street, her parents flipped,” He replies.

“Good thing my parents are interstate.”

“Yes, but… Your brothers are just across the street.”

“Pfft! I'm an adult & can make my own decisions.”

“Says the one hiding our relationship from her brothers.”

“One, I dislike you labelling it that,” I reply. “And two, they don't have to know that it was you who tattooed me.”

“Uhh, I don't know.”

Pleeeease!” I plead. “If you do it, I’ll make it worth your time.”

He drops the knife he’s using. “You're evil.”

I smirk. “It's called knowing how to persuade.”

“Well, you definitely have me wrapped around your pinkie.”

I hop off the stool & walk around to him.

“Thank you,” I say, before kissing his cheek.

He turns to me, cupping my face & presses his lips to mine.

****

I lie on my back, floating in the pool & sigh. I can't get her off my mind. I want her. More than just this no strings arrangement. I want to be able to call her my girlfriend. To walk around in public holding her hand, or my arm around her shoulders. I should be able to kiss her in public. I want to kiss her in public. But I won't get that.

“Hey,” She says.

I move too fast at the sound of her voice, & end up flailing & sinking under. When I come up she’s fighting back laughter as she stands by the pool.

“Hey,” I reply, running a hand over my face. “How did you get in?”

“I do know how to use the side gate,” She replies. “And I figured you’d be out here.”

“How?”

“Freakishly warm weather for this time of the year… You love getting your shirt off at any opportunity… Need I go on?”

I glare at her slightly. “How's the tattoo healing?”

She nods. “Yeah, it's not as sore as it was.”

I’d done it a few days ago. The day she asked me to do it, we sat down & worked out the exact design. I drew out the design twice- with the writing in different spots so she could figure out which one she liked the most. I made her sleep on it before I did it for real, just to make sure she was absolutely sure she wanted it.

I nod. “Good.”

She reaches behind her, favouring her right shoulder more, which indicates her left is still a little sore from her tattoo, & then she's pulling off her dress, revealing a rather skimpy bikini. I swallow hard at the sight. She steps out of the dress, tossing it on the chair nearby & tosses her sunglasses to join it. She slips off her slip-on sandals, & then sits on the edge of the pool. She then pushes herself off, going under. I try to keep calm as I watch her swim over to me, not coming up until she's right in front of me.

She wastes no time closing the gap & kissing me. I wrap my arms around her, holding her tight as she wraps her arms around my neck & legs around my waist.

“What the hell?!

We jump apart, turning towards the voice. Mark is standing at the pool fence on the house side, looking at us as he scowls, hands on his hips.

Shit.

Chapter Text

“Mark!” I call, rushing as fast as I can after him as he climbs our front steps.

I’m still wet from the pool, my dress clinging to me making it hard to move. I'm also worried about slipping from the water. He hasn't stopped walking since he left Ned’s backyard. After he sprung us, he demanded I get out & I had no choice to. He hadn't been impressed & had stormed out mid argument. So I quickly dressed & rushed after him.

“Mark, please!” I beg.

He ignores me, yanking the front door open. Aaron & Paige are standing in our kitchen, both looking at us in shock as we come in.

“What the hell were you thinking?!” Mark says, spinning around to face me.

“Oh, so now you wanna talk?” I reply.

“What's going on?” Aaron asks, walking over to stand between us, clearly noting how tense things are.

Mark looks at him. “Did you know about it?”

“Know what?”

“That our sister was over at Lauren’s, swimming with Ned.”

“Aren't they friends?” Paige asks.

“How many of your friends do you kiss while wearing a bikini?” Mark says.

Paige gapes at me. “You're dating my half brother?”

“We're not dating!” I reply.

“It looked awfully like it!” Mark replies.

“We're not, okay?” I reply. “It's more of a… Friends with benefits type of situation.”

Mark scoffs, shaking his head. “How long have you been… Whatever you want to call it?”

“Does it really matter?”

“Yes, because you're really not in the right frame of mind to be doing this.”

“You have no idea what's going on in my head lately, Mark.”

“No, of course I don't!” He snaps. “Because you're over there almost every day.”

“Well maybe I wouldn't be spending so much time over there if you weren't acting like you're my father.”

“Okay,” Aaron says, stepping further between us as he raises a hand out towards each of us. “You both need to calm down.”

“And what? Let her get away with sleeping with him?”

“I could go out & hook up with the first guy I see at The Waterhole if you’d like?” I reply. “Or find a drug dealer & let him fuck me in an alley.”

Mark clenches his jaw, hands tightening into fists.

Erin!” Aaron warns me.

“What?” I reply. “I'm just trying to make him see that Ned isn't the worst choice & he needs to chill.”

“You're losing it,” Mark says.

“Am I?”

“Yes. It sucks that Jay did what he did, but you're acting very immature ever since.”

“You know what? I can see that I’m not welcome in this house anymore.”

“That's not true, Aer,” Aaron replies.

I shake my head. “I’m not staying here with him,” I reply. “I’m moving out.”

“Oh, Erin. Please stay,” Paige says.

“If she wants to go,” Mark says. “Let her.”

Mark!” Paige & Aaron both say.

“I’ll start looking for somewhere else to live,” I reply. “But I’ll book into Lassiter’s for tonight.”

“Please stay, Aer,” Aaron says, stepping closer. He continues softer. “You know he doesn't mean it.”

“I’m sorry, Az.”

I look at Mark, still glaring at me. I shake my head before walking through to my bedroom.

****

I had a shower, wishing I was back with Ned. I then dry my hair & grab my iPod to go for a walk. I find walking really clears my head. I find myself at Sonya's Nursery. Sonya is rarely there, but she is today.

“Hey Erin,” She says as I approach.

“Hey Sonya,” I reply, draping my headphones around my neck.

“I don't mean to pry, but… You look… Mad.”

“Mark listens to you.”

She pouts a little. “He does sometimes,” She replies. “Why? What's going on?”

I sigh. “How long have you got?”

“Enough time to talk to you. I told you you can come talk to me any time,” She replies. “Lets… Lets go sit down.”

We walk over to the bar, Sonya pulling off her gloves as we cross, & stay silent until we’re both sitting.

“I’m sure you know I broke up with Jay.”

She nods. “Yeah. I'm sorry things didn't work out between you two. You two seemed like a good couple.”

I force a smile. “Yeah, well… So did I. But fate has it's ways of screwing me over.”

“Are you… Are you sure on that?”

“He lied to me,” I reply. “About something so big, I can't forgive him for it.”

“Well… When you love someone… Sometimes it's better to just put aside your hurt & forgive them.”

I shake my head. “Anyway, that's not what I want to talk to you about.”

She nods. “Okay,” She replies. “You were asking about Mark before.”

I nod. “He's mad at me.”

“Okay,” She replies. “What for?”

I swallow the lump in my throat. “This week… I’ve been… Sorta seeing… Ned.”

She looks surprised. “Oh.”

“It's just a bit of fun, because I can't deal with everything that comes from breaking up with Jay,” I reply. “And Mark? He just found out earlier today, &…” I sigh. “He's furious. He's treating me like he's my father, not my big brother. And I really don't know what I’m supposed to do.”

“Okay,” She replies, nodding. “If you don't mind me asking… What is it that you're trying to hide? That you “can't deal with”. I just want to get an understanding of your side.”

I nod. “Having Jay lie to me the way he did,” I reply. “It brought up a lot of old wounds. From when I was… From after Eddie tried to kill me.”

"I remember,” She replies. “You really struggled. And attempted suicide.”

I nod. “Yeah,” I reply. “I find myself with those dark thoughts again. That…” I sigh, fighting back tears. “I hate myself for having another failed relationship, that I’m alone again, with a small daughter who relies on me so I can't fall apart & its… its getting way too hard to keep it all together. I want to give it all up.”

“Oh, Erin,” She says, placing a hand on my shoulder.

“Being with Ned,” I say. “It's helping me keep all that at bay. I feel… I feel wanted. I don't feel the pain, the heartache of breaking up with Jay, who I’d started to see spending the rest of my life with.” I fight back tears. “Being with Ned is keeping me going. And… I'm scared that if I stop being with him, that those dark thoughts are going to consume me… And I really don't think that I can come back if that happens.”

“I assume that, uh, Mark doesn't know that?”

I look at her with tears in my eyes. “He's being so stubborn. He's too angry to hear me out,” I say. I sniff. “I just hate it. We used to be so close. I could confide in him. But… He won't listen.”

“You just need to wait for the right time.”

I scoff. “I don't think that will happen.”

“Hey,” She says, rubbing my shoulder. “I’ve known your brother since he moved here. And I know that he has a tendency to get a little hot headed when he’s trying to protect the people that he cares about. You need to let him have some time to calm down, to get his head around this.” She smiles reassuringly. “From what you’ve said, & from what Mark’s told me about you two… It's clear that you two are close. He's used to you turning to him, & it's a shock for him to see you seeking comfort from someone else.”

“He could just say it, instead of getting so mad at me.”

“And you could tell him how you feel.”

“I was trying,” I reply. “But he got so angry, I couldn't take it. And then I made the stupidest attempt to snap him out of it, & said I’d move out.”

“Okay,” She says. “I’ll see if I can talk to him. Get him to give you a chance.”

I force a smile, tears falling. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome.”

****

I sigh, relaxing into the booth at Harold's on my break from work. I hate myself for getting so mad at Erin. But she's getting out of control, & I don't know how to make her see it.

I pick up my coffee & take a sip just as the door opens & Sonya comes in. She sees me & I smile weakly at her.

“Ah, good,” She says as she steps over. “Just the person I need to talk to.”

I frown as I put my coffee down. “Everything okay?”

“Well… Sort of,” She replies as she takes a seat across from me. “I had a visitor at the nursery earlier.”

I tense, worried about her. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. It's nothing bad.”

I nod. “Good.”

“It was Erin.”

My breath catches. “Right.”

“She told me what's going on.”

I sigh. “Great.”

“She opened up to me because she doesn't know how to break through to you,” She says. “She tried explaining something to you earlier, & you shut her out.”

I lean forward. “Did she tell you everything about the situation?”

“Yes,” She replies. “Plus everything that she's desperate to tell you, but you're letting your anger & wounded pride get in the way.”

I frown. “I don't have a wounded pride.”

She tilts her head. “You need to put aside your anger & see what she's scared to tell you.”

I frown. “What?” I ask. “She's scared to tell me something?”

Hearing her say that cuts deep. Erin has always turned to me for advice. So hearing that she's scared to come to me hits home hard.

“You need to talk to her, Mark,” Sonya says. “It needs to come from her.”

I sigh. “She hates me.”

“Not true,” She replies. “All she wants is her big brother to hear her out. She needs you to be there for her, but you're blocking her out.” She sighs. “Look. You want to be there for her. She wants you to. Whatever issue you have with her being with him, forget about it long enough to let her open up.”

I shake my head. “I can't.”

“You know she said you're acting like you're her father,” She says. “So stop being so protective of her & let her tell you what she needs to. You’ll find you’ll get back on good terms with her.” She pats my hand. “I’ll let you think about it.”

I force a smile as she stands. I watch her leave as I take a deep breath in. I roll my eyes slightly as I exhale. Maybe I should talk to her.

****

I walk out of my bedroom, having unpacked after Aaron had convinced me to stay. I step out into the living area, stopping when I spot Mark in the lounge.

“Aer,” He says just as I turn around to head back to my bedroom.

“What now?” I ask, turning to him.

“Come & talk to me,” he says. “Please.”

I sigh, before walking over to me. He moves to the other end of the couch & we sit down.

“I want to apologise for getting angry at you before,” He says. “I'm just worried about you.”

I nod. “I know,” I reply. “I said some pretty bad things this morning too.”

He smiles slightly. “So what's going on?” He asks. “Sonya mentioned you're scared to talk to me.”

“I know that you're worried about me, & that you want to protect me. But I’m doing okay,” I reply. “Maybe I need to stop fighting it & just go off the rails. Maybe I’m meant to do the craziest things in order to stop all of this pain & destruction in my life.”

“Aer,” he says. “I don't think that it's a good idea. I want you to rely on me to keep you together instead of falling apart like this.”

I give him a small smile. “I appreciate that, but,” I reply. I shake my head. “I can't.”

“Why not?”

I lick my lip, fighting back tears. “Losing Jay has… Brought back the dark thoughts,” I reply. “And… It may be stupid, but…” I swallow the lump in my throat. “Being with Ned somehow keeps those thoughts from taking over. I'm…” I sigh.

“Erin,” he says softly as he reaches for me.

“I need to do this, Mark,” I reply. “Someday I may look back on this, & be ashamed of it all. But… Right now, it feels right.”

“Why didn't you come to me about this?”

“Because you have more important things to worry about. Like your babies.”

“You are important to me, Aer,” he replies, shifting closer. “You're my little sister. I don't want you to feel like you can't come to me.”

I fight back tears. “I shouldn't have to keep relying on you.”

“Hey,” he says, taking hold of my hands. “Don't do that. I’m always going to be there for you. And for Felicity.”

“So do one thing for me.”

He smiles. “Anything for my baby sis.”

“Let me keep on being with Ned.”

He looks shocked. “What?!

“Please, Mark.”

He shakes his head. “I can't.”

“If I stop this thing with Ned, I have no doubt that those dark thoughts are going to consume me.”

“They won't consume you, okay?” He replies. “I'm going to be there for you.”

I shake my head. “You can't this time,” I reply. “Just let me do this, please.”

“Aer…”

“I can't handle it without him.”

“Aer,” he begs.

“Do you really want me to end up in hospital again?” I ask, getting to my feet. “Or maybe this time it will be six feet under?”

He looks at me, a mix of shock & confusion. I can't deal with this any longer. I need to go. I walk away, intending on heading for my bedroom. Instead, I find myself heading for the front door. I push the security door open & run out as the tears fall.

****

I’m sitting at the table on the deck, enjoying a beer when the side gate opens forcefully. I rise to my feet to investigate as I put my beer down on the table. Erin comes into view, looking very upset.

“Hey,” I say. “Are you okay?”

She shakes her head as she crosses to me. She grabs my shirt as she steps up to me, pulling me in for a long kiss. She pulls at my shirt, trying to get it off, so I push her away.

“Come on,” She says. “I want you.”

I shake my head. She looks at me, her hands dropping to my belt. She starts to undo it, but I stop her.

“I'm not letting you come in here & demand sex when you're clearly upset.”

“Well tough,” She replies. “I want to do this.”

I cup her face with both my hands. “Tell me what's going on.”

That seems to flick a switch in her. She starts to cry, slowly breaking down the walls until she can't stop the tears. I pull her in, wrapping my arms around her & holding her tight against me. She wraps her arms around me, holding the back of my shirt. I rest my cheek on top of her head, & just hold her as she cries.

Chapter Text

I open my eyes, squinting as the morning light hits them. My eyes adjust, & I see that I’m lying on the couch in the back room at Ned's. In fact, I’m resting my head on his lap. His hand rests on my hip, under my shirt. I look over my shoulder at him- he’s resting his head on his other hand. I slowly sit up.

“Hey,” he sleepily says.

I look at him. “Hey. I'm sorry,” I reply. “You shouldn't have to sleep like that.”

He smiles. “You're worth it.”

“And I should apologise for coming over & throwing myself at you like that.”

He leans closer. “I don't care,” he replies. “I’m just glad you sought comfort from me.”

“But I shouldn't be.”

“Why not?” He asks. “We're friends. I’m glad that you're coming to me for more than just insanely good sex.”

I smile. “But it's coming at a cost that I wish it wasn't.”

“Mark?”

I nod.

“I’m going to make us breakfast,” he says. “And we can talk about how to fix things.”

****

He places the dishes in the sink & turns back to me.

“Don't let what we have come between you & him,” he says. “What we have isn't worth losing your brother over.”

I sigh. “I wish it was that simple.”

“He just wants to be there for you,” he replies. “What's so bad about that?”

“I can't keep falling apart & expect my brother will be there to support me.”

“Do you know how much I’d do to have that sort of relationship?” He asks. “Growing up, I never had my father. I grew up resenting him for leaving Mum & I. And I would do anything have a relationship that is better than that. To have one like you have with Mark. I know it's not the same, but… You're lucky to have a family who cares as much about you as Mark does. So don't throw that away over something as fleeting as us.”

“What if it's too late?”

“It's not, Erin,” He says. “One of you needs to put their feelings aside & do what's best for the both of you.”

“And what is that?”

“End the fight & mend your relationship.”

I sigh. “If I do that,” I reply. “I lose you.” I fight back tears. “I don't wanna choose.”

“So don't,” He replies as he wraps his arms around me from behind. “Just explain to him what's going on in that beautiful head of yours, & I’m sure he’ll understand.”

“I hope so.”

“Have some faith in yourself, Aer,” He says softly. “He cares for you. He would move the world for you if he had to. Let him in.”

I don't reply. I just relax against him, closing my eyes as he traces patterns on my hips.

“There's one thing I can do to help right now.”

“And what's that?” I softly ask.

He rocks his hips, the way he does when we're having sex & I bite my bottom lip. Breathing heavily, I nod. He scoops me up & carries me into his bedroom.

****

I’m playing with Felicity in our lounge when the front door opens. I glance over, seeing Mark stepping in.

“Hey,” He says.

“Hey,” I reply.

“Hey cutie,” He says to Felicity as he steps over to us.

Felicity reaches out to him. He smiles & picks her up, giving her cheek a big kiss as he sits down on the couch, sitting her on his lap.

“Can we talk?” He asks me.

I swallow the lump in my throat. “Not when Felicity’s here.”

“She can come through with me,” Paige says.

We look over. Paige is walking over from the bedrooms.

“Oh, I…” I stammer.

“You two need to work this out,” Paige replies. “Lilly & Scott are down for the next few hours. I'm happy to spend some time with Felicity. Especially when it means you two can get back to getting along.”

“That can wait till later.”

Paige picks up Felicity, resting her on her hip. “Too bad. It's happening now.”

She pivots on her heel & walks off. I sigh. Mark lowers himself onto the floor, sitting with his legs half up to his chest. He tilts his head slightly, one eyebrow raised a little as he smiles ever so slightly. I call it his puppy look.

“Don't do that look,” I groan.

“Aer,” He replies. “It's breaking my heart to see you in so much pain & pushing me away.” He pauses. “I thought we’d learnt not to let that happen after what happened with you earlier. What Eddie did to you.”

I lick my bottom lip, pushing back the whirlwind of emotions. “I feel like I’m falling back into that again,” I reply, looking at my hands. “I feel like I’m losing my mind all over again.”

“Hey,” he says, nudging me slightly with his leg. “Look at me.”

I slowly look at him.

“Why didn't you tell me sooner?” He asks. “What happened to the woman who would come to me when she needed someone to talk to?”

“Like I said yesterday, you don't need to be distracted by my troubles.”

“That's not true, Aer,” He replies, placing his hand on my arm & rubbing it. “When you couldn't cope after Eddie tried to kill you, you pushed me away. That scared me, not because you're my sister, but I wasn't able to help you when you needed me the most. And I was terrified that I was going to loose you. Do you know what scares me right now?”

I shake my head.

“I’m finding myself in the same position,” He replies. “Only it feels a million times worst, because it shouldn't be happening again. And I’m doing all I can to try & keep you from ending up where you were the last time. But you’re holding me at arms length again.”

I lick my lip again. “You know how I mentioned the dark thoughts yesterday?”

He nods.

I sigh. “They're the same thoughts I had when I thought Zack was dead.”

His face drops- the overwhelming sadness. “Aer,” He says softly.

“Those thoughts fade to the background when I’m with Ned,” I reply. “I don’t have to worry about having him break my heart, because it's never going to be serious enough for that to happen. I just need him to ground me. We have this connection & we’re just going with it. He gives me the stability that I so desperately need right now in order to stop those dark thoughts from taking me over.” I let out a shaky breath. “I’m scared to stop being with him… Because…” I swallow the lump in my throat. I need to tell him. I look at him as I fight back tears. “I’m petrified that it will end with me trying to kill myself… & I might not be as lucky as last time.”

“Oh, Aer!” He says as I start to cry.

I continue to cry, unable to stop myself. He shifts closer, pulling me into him & I fall against his chest as he wraps his arms around me. He cups the back of my head in his right hand, his left hand gripping my right arm & kisses the top of my head.

We sit there until I’m too exhausted to cry anymore.

“You can always come to me, Aer,” He whispers. “No matter what. I’m not going to stop ever caring about you. I want to help you when you feel like this. When you feel like it’s all too much, I want you to never feel like you can turn to me.”

“I know,” I reply. “I’m sorry for shutting you out again.”

“It's okay,” he replies, rubbing my arm. “You’ve told me now. I’m relieved you didn't wait until it was too late.”

I sigh. “I should have told you from the start.”

“Shhh,” He whispers. “It's okay.”

“It's not okay!” I reply, lightly hitting his chest. “I’ve been acting like a rebellious teenager, running away from her feelings.”

“You're not running away from them,” he replies. “You're doing the best to cope with your world being turned upside down again.”

I scoff. “Yeah, by throwing myself into a fling,” I reply. “I’m not that kind of woman.”

“It's filling the hole in your heart,” He replies. “And I’m okay with it.”

I sit up slightly to look at him. “You’ve changed you tune.”

“Because I understand what's going on in your head now.”

“Urgh! Why do you have to be so understanding!”

He smiles. “You're my sister,” He replies. “And… I love you.”

I fight back tears. “I love you too.”

****

“Hey,” I say, stepping into the kitchen after having a shower.

“Hey,” Mark replies as he finishes making himself a coffee. “Feel better?”

I nod.

“Good,” He replies, before kissing my forehead.

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Mmmm.”

“Why don't you take Paige out tonight?” I ask. “I’ve basically left you, Az & Ty to raise Felicity for the majority of this week. Tyler's spending time over at Piper’s, & you… You & Paige deserve some one on one time. So… I'm offering myself up as a nanny for tonight.”

“Are you sure? You’ll have three kids under two.”

I nod. “Az will be here soon. Between the two of us, we can handle it.”

“Handle what?” Paige asks.

I look over my shoulder as she steps over to us. “I suggested that he takes you out tonight & I’ll look after the kids.”

She looks at Mark. “And you were going to turn that down?”

“I was just thinking about it,” He replies. “I’m worried about her.”

“Look, I’m not going to do anything to myself, if that's what you're worried about,” I reply, noting Paige's confusion. “So just take my offer & go have a lovely night out with your wife. I’m not taking your relationship down as well.”

He sighs. “I’m not gonna win this, am I?”

I smile, lightly tapping his face. “You're a smart cookie.”

He pulls me in, holding me for a tight hug.

****

The front door opens.

“Did you forget something?” I ask as I turn around. I’m stunned to see him. “Ned!”

“Hey,” he says, smirking. “Sorry I’m not your brother. He… Actually suggested I come in.”

I raise my eyebrow. “Really?”

He nods. “I saw him & Paige outside,” He replies. “I was kinda expecting him to send me packing.”

“Yeah,” I reply before sighing. “We… Had a long chat.”

He smirks, walking over to me. “So… Does that mean…” He says, placing his hands on my waist. “We don't have to sneak around anymore?”

“Uh,” I reply, putting my hand on his chest. “Don't jump to conclusions.”

He sighs, hanging his head. “I want to be with you.”

My chest tightens. “How… Exactly?”

“Well,” he says, rubbing my back. “I don't want to keep hiding us, okay? I want us to be able to… Express our feelings in public. I want to be able to touch you in public without you shying away, as if it's wrong for me to touch you.”

I sigh. “We're not-”

“A couple, I know,” he replies. “But we’re also not just friends. So why don't we find a middle ground?”

I sigh. “I don't know.”

“Think about it.”

I nod. “I will.”

He kisses me. “I’ll talk to you later.”

I nod. I watch him leave, staying still until the door clicks shut. I rub my hands over my face. This is getting out of control.

Chapter Text

“She asleep?” Aaron asks as I walk over, having just come out from putting Felicity to bed. Scott & Lilly have been asleep for a while.

“Mmmhmmm,” I reply with a nod. “She’ll be out for the night… Hopefully.”

“Good,” he replies as I sit down on the couch next to him. He picks up a glass of red wine from the table & holds it out to me. “Here.”

“Ooooohhhhh!” I reply, taking it. “You are a genius.”

He smiles. “Just thought you’d appreciate it.”

“Well, I do,” I reply, before taking a sip. “Mmmmm!”

“So… You & Ned.”

I narrow my eyes at him. “I knew there was an ulterior motive behind this!”

“Hey, I’m not judgemental,” He replies, raising his hands in defeat. “Go be with who you want.”

“Thank you.”

“But…”

I roll my eyes. “There's always a but!”

“I want you to be careful.”

“If this is about having safe sex, you missed the boat by a couple of years.”

He stifles a laugh. “No. And we both know that would have come from Mark not me.”

“True,” I reply, barely keeping back my laughter.

“What I was going to say, is… Just because you want it to stay casual, doesn't mean he’ll keep it that way.”

I swallow the lump in my throat, reminded of what Ned was saying earlier.

“His feelings won't stay casual forever,” He replies. “You're a kind woman. You're easy to love.”

“I love that you & Mark are worried about me,” I reply. “But I’m okay.”

“Actually… I'm more worried about him than you,” He replies. “If you don't treat this carefully, you're going to end up with him being in love with you & he’ll be broken hearted when you stop it. It's not like you're gonna keep seeing him for too long.”

“He doesn't love me.”

“Not yet.”

“He knows that it won't turn into something more serious.”

“You can't help who you fall in love with, Aer,” He says. “Just because he knows that, doesn't mean he’ll be able to stop himself from falling in love with you.”

****

“Hey,” She says as I’m bent over getting the newspaper.

I stand up, seeing that she’s walking across the street.

“Hey,” I reply, giving her a smile.

“Can we go in?” She asks, looking at my house.

I hesitate. “Uh… No,” I reply. “Sorry, but… Dad & Lauren got back this morning. Which makes our hot rendezvous harder to make happen.”

She nods, looking slightly awkward. “Actually… I wanted to talk to you about that.”

I swallow the lump in my throat. “You're not…”

“No,” She replies, & I sigh in relief. “I just… Aaron said something last night, & I can't get it out of my head.”

“Oh?”

“He warned me.”

“Warned you?”

She nods. “Told me I should be careful,” She says, looking hesitant. “He said I need to be careful, because you might fall in love me.”

“Right.”

“I told him you wouldn't, but…” She sighs. “I can't stop thinking about his words. And…” She licks her lips & I want to kiss her so bad. “You’d…” She sighs. “You’d tell me if that happened, right? If you were in love with me. You’d tell me, yeah?”

“Of course.”

“And?”

I swallow the lump. “And?”

“Are you?”

I stare at her- This is the time. Tell her. Tell her. See, it's simple, Ned. Five short words. How hard is that? Just say it! ‘I think I love you’. Simple, right? I open my mouth to say it, but… “No.”

“Okay,” She replies, nodding slightly.

Does that mean she's not happy with that response???

“But you’d tell me if you ever felt that way, right?”

“Of course I would,” I reply. “I want us to be honest.”

“Good,” She replies, with a nod. “I’d tell you if I did.”

I nod. “Good.”

“Good.”

We stare at each other for a long minute, both smiling. And I catch a glint of love in her eyes. I could have it all- I could get her to see that I’m not like the others, & that we should make this more serious. If only I could say those words…

“Anyway,” She says, pulling me from my thoughts. “I should go. Got a little one to get back to before work.”

I nod. “Sure.”

“I’ll text you later if I have time,” She says. “We could always meet up at a hotel.”

I smirk. “I hope you do get time.”

She smiles, bowing her head to hide the blush. She looks at me. “Talk to you later?”

I nod. “Sure.”

She smiles. “Bye.”

I smile back. “Bye.”

I watch her cross the road for hers. I want to chase after her, to tell her that I lied. Tell her that I want to cross that line with her. But I know if I do… I’ll lose her.

I sigh & run my hand over my face. Better to have than to let go…

****

“You don't look too good, love,” Sheila says, taking my plate as I sit at a table in The Waterhole. “No offence. You're a beautiful young woman. You have to be, coming from your genetically blessed family. But… You seem a little off.”

I force a smile. “Just tired, Sheila.”

“Not getting much sleep now that you have two more little ones in your home?”

“There's a number of reasons.”

She nods. “Missing the squeeze.”

I tilt my head. “My life doesn't revolve around men.”

“Doesn't need to for you to miss him.”

I sigh. “Yeah, well… Not my fault we broke up.”

She places a hand on my right forearm. “No matter who is to blame, it can still hurt. You can still miss him. You're not a bad person if you do.”

“I find myself sometimes wishing I could tell him something… Or Felicity will say something,” I reply. “And it just hurts even more to think about what ended us.”

“It always hurts more when a child is involved,” She replies. “But you need to be making sure that you're taking care of yourself.”

I nod. “I am.”

“Well, whatever it is, it doesn't look like you're just tired.”

“Okay. Maybe I’m getting a cold or something.”

“Or it could be more than that.”

I narrow my eyes. “What's your point, Sheila?”

“You’ve had a hectic week, post break-up, & now you’re looking unwell… Not to mention the fact that you’ve barely touched your food!” She gestures at the plate.

“Just… Not that hungry today.”

She leans in closer. “You might have another little bun in the oven.”

“I’m not pregnant, Sheila.”

“Have you been able to keep food down?”

I sigh in annoyance, rolling my eyes slightly.

“Just think about it, love,” She replies, giving my arm a pat.

She trots off to the bar with my plate & I turn back to my work. I reread the same sentence several times, unable to focus. Maybe she’s right.

Sighing, I reach for my diary. I open it up to the calendar to check when I had my last period. I always mark the day it starts.

Late.

It could just be late because of how stressful it has been lately. So I shouldn't worry about it.

Right?

****

Woah! You’ve had a bad day or something?” Tyler asks as I walk in, arriving home with Felicity. “You look like a mess.”

I glare at him. “Geez, thanks.”

“Sorry,” he replies. “Just… Haven't seen you look so… Worn down.”

“Really not improving there, Ty.”

“Okay, shutting up,” he replies, hands up in defeat.

“Can you look after Felicity for a bit?”

He raises an eyebrow. “You're entrusting her with me after I basically insulted you?”

“Yep,” I reply, placing Felicity in his lap. “I wanna freshen up before the others get home.”

“Oooookay.”

I give Felicity a quick kiss & she giggles.

“I’ll be back soon,” I tell Tyler.

He nods. “We’ll be fine.”

“You better be better than fine,” I reply. “Or I will have your head.”

He mock salutes & I roll my eyes. I turn & head through to the bedrooms. I slip into the bathroom, shutting & locking the door behind me. I place my handbag onto the vanity, & grip the edge with both hands as I stare into the mirror.

I close my eyes. I can't believe this is happening again.

I try & calm my heart rate by slowing my breathing. When it's as calm as can be, I open my eyes & let go of the vanity. I turn to my handbag, pulling out the home pregnancy test that I’d gone & bought before picking up Felicity. I go through the instructions again, just to make sure. I take the test, resting it on the instructions page so I can wash my hands before I set a five minute countdown on my mobile.

Waiting is the hardest part. I nervously pace the room. I even splash my face, praying that my queasiness dies down.

My mobile beeps, signalling the end of the countdown, but the noise breaks the silence & I jump. I silence it, praying Tyler can't hear it. I suck in a deep breath & turn to the test. I’d placed it face down so I wouldn't be tempted to look early. I nervously reach for it, praying that it's negative. I turn it over, but I look away as I do. I don't want to know. I mean, I do, but… I also don't.

I don't want to be raising another baby on my own.

But the need to know overwhelms me.

So I look.

I see it.

Disbelieve it.

So I pick it up, holding it with both hands as I look.

I read it over & over.

And over.

I close my eyes.

Fuuuuck.

Chapter Text

I shove the test back into the box, shutting it & shoving it back into my handbag. I turn the tap on, letting the water run until super cold & splash my face. I end up filling my cupped hands with water, gulping down the water over & over. As I dry my face & hands one thought keeps going through my mind- This. Isn't. Happening.

I snatch up my handbag & turn to the door. I unlock & open it, surprised to see Paige there- she too surprised.

“Oh, hey!” She says. She sees my rather pale face & frowns. “Are you okay?”

I nod. “Yeah.”

She looks down at my handbag, which I’m gripping tightly. Her frown deepens. But she gets her ‘oh, shit!’ look. “Oh my god, you're pregnant!”

Shhhhhhh!!!!” I reply, looking to see if any of my brothers heard.

I push her down the hallway & into my bedroom.

“What the-” She says as I push her inside.

I shut the door, pressing my back against the door. “How the hell did you figure it out?”

“Because I had that same terrified look on my face when I found out about Scott & Lilly,” She replies, sitting down on my bed like this isn't a big deal.

“I hate that I’m here in the same position as I was a few years ago,” I reply as I dr