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It’s raining. Then again, it’s Bristol, and it’s always fucking raining. She shouldn’t be surprised. She’s not really. She just wishes she hadn’t been stupid enough to forget her fucking umbrella. She’d thought about it in passing when she’d left the house, but there were only a few clouds in the sky, and the pink and black pattern of the umbrella had seemed inappropriate on such an occasion. She also hadn’t figured she’d have to wait for him. Then again, she should have known better than to expect the justice system to do anything on time. His last parole hearing had actually taken place two weeks after they’d said it would.

That’s when she spots him, finally. He looks small, trudging towards the massive gates. No bag. No personal affects. Just the clothes on his back. White shirt, navy blue trousers. He’s got no umbrella either, of fucking course, and she can see already that his shirt’s starting to stick to his chest, getting see-through in the process.

He’ll get the seat all wet, for fuck’s sake, she thinks, shifting uncomfortably in her heels.

By the time he reaches the gate, she’s tapping her foot anxiously. She’s more than ready to just get the fuck away from here. It fucking creeps her out. She can’t help it.

He grins broadly when he sees her, and she rolls her eyes, but she can’t help but note the way that his smile doesn’t come anywhere near his eyes. Even when he lets out a booming laugh and a “Katie fucking Fitch, what a sight for sore eyes!” it sounds hollow to her ears, like he’s forgot what it’s really like to be that stupid twat he always used to be.

He wraps her in a hug, despite her protests, and she’d probably mind more if she wasn’t already partially wet because the small overhang she’d found to wait under didn’t do shit when the wind blew. (Fucking cashmere top ruined, thank you very much.)

She pushes him away, regardless, complaining that he’s wet, and he shoots her a sceptical look but simply shrugs. She leads him to the car and instructs him, pointlessly, not to get the seat wet on pain of death.

He laughs, and the sound is rough, harsh. “Four fucking years in prison and here I am being intimidated by a midget.”

She rolls her eyes again as she climbs into the driver’s side, but it’s half hearted. She knows she doesn’t really intimidate him. She hates to think about what actually might have over the past four years.

He doesn’t get in immediately, so she thinks maybe the lock is stuck. It does that sometimes. She leans over and pushes his door open. “Come on! Don’t just bloody stand there all night! It’s raining, you know!”

He tilts his head up, letting the rain fall onto his face. “Yeah,” he murmurs, so quietly that she almost misses it over the subtle roar of the raindrops. “Feels good.”

Something about his tone of voice makes Katie’s chest constrict. She swallows down a sudden lump in her throat, as he finally climbs in next to her.

.

.

The seat’s soaked through, she’s sure, by the time they get back to her flat. He’s staying there tonight. Just tonight, ideally, but maybe a little longer. He has to at least start looking for his own place tomorrow. She’s not a fucking bed and breakfast, and she tells him as much as she leads him up the stairs.

She takes him into the kitchen and instructs him to stand still and not drip anywhere while she runs and grabs a pair of sweatpants and a dry T-shirt that Alex left there before they broke up. She changes her own wet clothes quickly, throwing on a comfortable jumper and a pair of jeans. She stops in the hall and gets a towel from the linen closet as well. She throws the towel to him first before laying the dry clothes over the back of a chair.

“For you to put on so you don’t get anything else wet,” she informs him.

He eyes the clothes and a small smirk graces his features. “Got lots of boys coming through here, then, Katiekins?”

She glares, but doesn’t dignify his question with a response. She simply sets about putting the water on for tea.

He peels off his wet T-shirt, and she really can’t help it that her eyes drift towards him. He’s definitely been working out. Then again, something had to fill his days, she supposes. Anyway, it’ll probably help him out in the long run, because muscles that ripple like that just from towelling off his chest must be strong and that will be useful if he’s applying for any manual labour jobs (which, without his A levels, he most likely will).

The kettle whistles and Katie turns her attention back to it. “Earl Grey, English Breakfast, or something herbal?”

When he doesn’t reply immediately, she turns around impatiently, which, unfortunately, gives him the opportunity to shake his head, spraying water off of his now a little shaggy hair at her.

“Cook! What the fuck do you think I gave you the towel for? What are you, a dog?” she yells, but he just grins up at her.

“Oh, was that to dry off?” he asks cheekily before rubbing the towel through his hair and then tugging on the shirt she’d brought him.

She glares, but she can’t keep the scowl on her face, not with the infectious and kind of goofy grin that he shoots at her once the neck of the shirt’s over his head. She shakes her head, turning back to the still boiling water with a muttered, “Your hair’s a mess. Now what do you want to drink?”

“Earl Grey, please,” he says.

Her hand hesitates as it reaches for the cupboard where the tea’s kept at the word “please”. The Cook she once knew would never have said please unless he was trying to charm a girl into a shag. The Cook now sat in her kitchen, however, was a few years older and apparently politer.

She hears another rustle of the towel and when she glances over her shoulder, she sees he’s running it over his hair again, stopping to pat down his shaggy locks a little, looking almost sheepish standing there in her kitchen. It throws her off again, and she tries to forget the uncertainty in the expression on his face as she sets the tea to brew.

When she turns around, he’s seated at the table again, staring at his hands clasped together before him, his thumbs fiddling nervously. She takes a seat beside him, trying not to look at him too closely. She doesn’t want him to feel like she’s staring at him like he’s some criminal or some freak now that he’s out of jail.

“So, I wanted to say thanks, Katie, for coming to get me and everything.”

“It was nothing,” she responds automatically.

“But it’s not, innit?” he replies just as quickly.

She glances at him and finds him looking up at her, head tilted down, but eyes holding hers brightly, depths of emotions swirling in them. She nods, breaking the eye contact and bringing her eyes to a knot in the wood of the table, tracing the lines of it absently with her finger.

“My seats better fucking dry out, though,” she mutters, pretending to be mad.

Predictably, Cook chuckles, and it’s exactly what she wanted, to bring some levity back to the room.

A silence descends on them after that, and it’s an odd mix of comfortable and awkward. It’s a bit of a relief when she gets to get back up and pour the tea.

“Milk? Sugar?”

Cook lets out a short laugh. “You sound like my nan.”

Katie slaps the back of his head lightly. “I am young and sexy and don’t you forget it, Cook.”

He grins at her. “Well, I have to admit that it’s nice seeing you still got that grade A arse of yours.”

She pretends to ignore him, but she makes a mental note thanking the heels she’s in. She can’t help it if a compliment like that still serves to boost her ego.

“You didn’t answer the question.”

“Just like it is, please,” Cook replies.

His manners throw her again for a second, but she recovers quickly and hands him the cup of tea, adding a single spoonful of sugar to her own before taking her seat again.

Katie watches Cook as he cups his hands around his mug. He takes a deep breath as if absorbing the warmth the hot mug provides. He doesn’t sip at it, he simply blows on it from time to time, the steam rising up in front of his face, as he seems to stare past it.

Katie blows on her own tea and takes a small sip, letting the tea settle her a bit.

“So tell me things, Katiekins. How’re Emilio and Blondie doing these days? Still great big muff monkeys?” Cook breaks the silence, finally picking up his mug and taking a big gulp, wincing slightly, undoubtedly from the still hot liquid.

Despite his words, Katie detects a weary twinge to his voice, as if he’s merely putting on an act of his former self for her benefit. She decides not to comment on it. “They’re good. Living happily in Birmingham. Ems is teaching and Naomi’s writing. You know they’re expecting?”

Cook shakes his head. “Not heard from anyone in a while.”

She can hear a faint twinge of bitterness in his voice, and she can guess those he’s most disappointed about not hearing from. Hopefully she can put off talking about them until another night.

He takes another sip, and seemingly gets himself back together because, when he next speaks, his voice is even and cheerful. “So they figured out how to let two birds reproduce while I was away, eh? Does it involve any fun toys?”

He waggles his eyebrows at her, and she has to laugh, even as she slaps playfully at his arm and makes a face. “That’s my sister, you perv!”

He chuckles, a deep robust sound that Katie’s glad to hear.

“Anyway, they used a donor,” Katie explains.

“And they didn’t ask me to donate? I’m offended.”

Katie rolls her eyes and Cook shoots her a cheeky smile.

It falls far too quickly, though. Far quicker than it would have before...Well, before lots of things.

“How far along is...wait, which one of them’s actually the pregnant one, then?”

“Ems,” she beams back at him. At least one of them can get pregnant and she can’t wait to be an aunt.

The smile that Cook gives her then is both wistful and genuine. He’s happy for them, she can tell.

“They’ll be great parents,” he murmurs, as if half to himself.

Katie nods in agreement. “The best.”

She watches as he downs the rest of his tea and stifles a yawn.

“Long day,” he mutters sheepishly.

She nods in understanding, then realises that she probably has no fucking idea, really. She doesn’t want to have any idea what it’s like to realise that you’re finally going to get back to your real life after four years of restrictions, schedules, and discipline, only to then be forced to wait the better part of a day to actually get to step out into freedom. “You should get some rest. The spare room’s already made up.”

Cook stands slowly, stopping to rinse his cup out in the sink, and he pauses.

“Second door on the left. Bathroom’s the first door. I’m across the hall if you need anything. There’s towels on your bed,” Katie fills him in, realising she hasn’t necessarily been the best hostess.

He nods without looking at her, but doesn’t make a move towards the bedroom. “Thanks, Katie. What you’re doing...I just –“

“Sleep well, Cook,” Katie cuts him off when she hears his voice crack. She feels herself well up with emotion as he nods again and disappears around the corner.

She sips the rest of her tea in a contemplative silence, acutely aware of the shuffling of Cook down the hallway as he makes his way into the bathroom.

It’s not right that she’s the only one around these days. She wishes that there was someone, anyone else still around so that she wouldn’t be solely responsible for catching him up. A lot happens in four years, after all.

Then again, she thinks, as his head peeks back around the corner and he mumbles an awkward, “Good night, Katie,” maybe I’d have gone to get him and taken this on anyway.

.

.

She wakes up to the sound of rain slapping against the window. Great. Another fucking dreary, wet day in Bristol. What else is new?

That’s when she hears the unfamiliar sound of someone tinkering about in her kitchen. She has a slight moment of panic as a cupboard pounds shut with a thud and a pot clanks loudly. When a familiar voice swears prolifically a moment later, she remembers. Cook.

She throws on a robe before heading out to see what he’s got up to. When she rounds the corner, he freezes, pan full of scrambled eggs in one hand, cold water running over the other.

“Trying to cook breakfast,” he mumbles, shooting her a hopeful smile that fades to a wince a moment later. “Mighta burnt myself.”

“Maybe cooking isn’t your thing,” she suggests with a smirk.

“Haven’t got a lot of practice in the last few years. Folding laundry, though? I’m ace at that,” Cook replies.

She can tell he’s trying to joke, but it falls flat.

He puts the pan back down on the stove and shuts off the water, wiping his hand on his shirt, wincing slightly as he does so. He moves quickly, then, pulling out a chair for her. “Here. Sit. Sit.”

She eyes him sceptically for a moment before moving and taking the seat he’s offered. It feels weird being waited on in her own kitchen. Especially by Cook. Not even Alex, who she’d dated for six months and even considered moving in with, had bothered cooking for her.

In mere moments a plate of eggs and toast is set before her. A few seconds later, a glass of orange juice joins it.

Cook stands there, eying her eagerly. She can’t help thinking that he reminds her a bit of a puppy eager for its owner’s approval. She shovels a bit of her eggs onto her toast and takes a bite.

“Mmmm...Okay, I take it back. Cooking is so your thing. What’d you put in the eggs?” Katie sighs contentedly, her mouth still half full of food.

Cook beams down at her. “You like it? Dermy, that’s my cell mate, he was doing some culinary school when he got put away for boosting a car, right? And, well, four years, you got lots of time to talk, so he told me a few recipes and whatnot. The eggs have a bit of cheese, a touch of cream, salt, pepper, and thyme,” he announces proudly.

“I’m impressed, Cook.”

Cook grins at her again, then gets a plate for himself, sitting down across from her. He shovels food in his mouth at first, then pauses with a small hum. “I’ve fucking missed real food.”

Katie feels a twinge of sadness in her gut. She hates to think about what they’ve been feeding him for the past four years, though clearly he’s not malnourished.

“It’s raining again,” Katie changes the subject.

Cook nods with a slight grunt, his mouth full of food.

The rest of the meal is mostly spent chewing, with a sparse scattering of small talk. Cook, fortunately, seems far more interested in his food than in anything Katie might have to say at the moment.

Katie lets out a small laugh when she thinks that there was a time when she almost never shut up, and here she was, having trouble finding anything to say.

.

.

“Oh, so, Katiekins. Got any more men’s clothing laying around? I hate asking, it’s just, I’ve just got what they let me out with, and it ain’t like I’ve got loads of money to go shopping with, you know?” Cook asks when he stands and clears the plates before Katie can make a move to clean up.

Katie frowns. “Cook, you really don’t have to cook and clean.”

Cook shrugs, looking suddenly uncomfortable. “Well, yeah, I do, right? I mean, it’s the least I can do, you letting me stay here and all.”

Katie opens her mouth to argue, but Cook looks almost like a school boy sent to the headmaster who’s expecting a caning, and she can’t quite manage it. If this makes him feel better, then she can’t really complain.

“About those clothes?” Cook reminds her.

“Right, sorry. I think Alex left a few other things here, but you need to go shopping. I’ll take you later. I’ve just got to make a few calls this morning.”

“Alex?” Cook asks.

“Ex,” she supplies.

Cook nods.

There’s a moment of awkward silence in which they both just look at each other, before Katie says, “Right, so I’ll go look for those clothes.”

.

.

Cook, it seems is impossible to shop with.

“God, you’re the least fucking cooperative male on the planet!” Katie sighs in exasperation. Fucking, this is what she gets for doing people favours.

“I’ve got my style,” Cook says defensively, looking at the shirt she’s holding up with disdain.

“Well you bloody pick something, then,” she declares.

He rummages around the shelves, making faces, and she starts tapping her foot as she grows increasingly irritated.

“Here!” he declares in triumph. “What about this?”

He holds up a green polo shirt.

Instantly, she flashes to him wearing an almost identical shirt when they were in college, collar popped sloppily, food stain on one part of it. She’s surprised to find herself swallowing down the threat of tears. She nods, her irritation dissipated. “Yeah. That works. But you need a proper button down too for job interviews. And a tie. I’ll go pick you out a tie.”

She ignores the face he makes and brushes past him, feeling the sudden need for some air, or at least some space.

“None of that swirly, flowery design shite!” he calls after her.

.

.

She finally gets him sorted with the start of a new wardrobe. It takes surprisingly little out of her bank account, which makes her wonder if some of his pickiness was simply him wanting to save money, seeing as it seemed like almost everything he picked out for himself was on sale. He promises to pay her back, nonetheless.

They spend the rest of the day wandering around, despite the gloomy weather, huddling beneath Katie’s umbrella. If it weren’t for the fact that Cook’s eyes are so sad when he finds out that the Fishpond Tavern’s been replaced with a Boots, or that he stops and looks around every once in a while, as if he still can’t quite believe he’s out there, in the world, she can almost forget that Cook isn’t just any old friend that she’s simply spending the day with.

They pick up Indian food on the way back to Katie’s flat because Cook has, “been fucking dying for a good curry!”

By the time they actually reach Katie’s flat, they both look like drowned rats. The steady drizzle of the day had decided to turn into a true downpour just as they picked up their food, and the short walk from the takeaway to Katie’s flat has drenched them completely, despite the umbrella (which became useless the second the wind became involved and the rain started flying at them from what felt like straight on).

“Don’t you fucking dare sit down on that!” Katie stops Cook as he’s lowering himself onto the sofa when she turns around from setting the bags of food on the kitchen table.

He freezes like a deer in the headlights, a comically surprised expression on his face.

“You’re soaking wet!” she points out, when he makes no move to straighten.

“Right,” he mumbles, standing up straight again and stepping away from the sofa for good measure.

She sighs dramatically, then takes the bags he’s carrying out of his hands. “Take your trousers off. I’ll go put some of your new clothes in the wash. You never know what kinds of chemicals they use in production. And I’ll grab you those sweats again.”

“Katiekins, if you wanted to get me naked, all you had to do was ask,” Cook replies, grinning cheekily at her before peeling off his shirt.

Katie’s eyes are immediately drawn to his sculpted abs and chiselled chest, and then his words sink in. She wrinkles her nose in disgust. “Cook! Just take the wet stuff off and don’t let it drip anywhere! Don’t take off everything!”

“What if everything’s wet?” he suggests, wiggling his eyebrows.

Katie’s eyes unwillingly follow Cook’s fingers as they work the button on his jeans open. She shakes her head, turning away. “Just…go to the bathroom and hang up your clothes. I’ll get you something else to wear,” she dismisses him, heading on down the hall.

At least, she thinks, he seems to be settling back to his old self a bit.

.

.

“Hear anything from Thommo and Panda these days?” Cook asks, his mouth half full of curry.

It catches her off guard. She wasn’t expecting more catching up yet. She was hoping the conversation about Emily and Naomi the night before might have bought her a little more time so she could figure out the best way to tell him things. Still, at least Thomas and Pandora should be fairly safe to talk about. “They split, you know.”

“Really? When they headed off across the fucking ocean together, I figured that’d be it. I half expected a wedding invite,” Cook jokes, but, when Katie looks, his eyes aren’t laughing.

Katie shakes her head. “They weren’t even together for three months before they split again. Sometimes there’s just too much history, I guess.”

“Yeah. I know what you mean.” Cook’s voice is cold and weary, and his eyes shift, looking past her at nothing in particular.

Katie knows that he’s seeing things that they’re just not ready to talk about yet.

He shakes himself a moment later and focuses back on her. “So what are they doing these days?”

“Thomas is doing the Peace Corps in Cameroon, last I heard. His access to e-mail is sketchy so I only hear from him once every few months at best, so he might be back in America by now. Panda, believe it or not, is going to get her Master’s in History. At Harvard. Says she wants to be a professor there some day.”

“Our Panda-pops? A professor?” Cook chuckles softly to himself.

“I know, right? Apparently she’s done fabulously in all her classes. Who knew she was secretly a genius!? And apparently they take her wackiness as a sign of a brilliant sense of humour over there or something. At any rate, she loves it there.” Katie fills him in, unable to keep the amazement out of her voice. No matter how much she hears from Pandora, and how much time she has for this to sink in, she just can’t shake the image of the zany Pandora who had eaten all of the drugs at Cook’s seventeenth birthday party and who’d had a bouncy castle in her back garden at her own.

“Well, good on her. I always thought she had untapped potential,” Cook replies after a few contemplative moments of chewing.

Katie shrugs. “Apparently you were right.”

.

.

Cook isn’t interested in any more reminiscing or catching up that night, thank goodness. Instead it’s talk about the future that occupies the rest of their evening.

“I mean, who wouldn’t hire me? Nobody can resist the Cookie Monster’s charms,” Cook says, winking at Katie before he pops another of the Hob Nobs Katie’d pulled out for dessert into his mouth.

Katie laughs, ignoring, for now, the difficulties that Cook will no doubt face in his job search. She knows that neither of them is naive enough to think that him having been in prison won’t be an issue. “Well, there must be some truth in that. You certainly were always good at charming your way into girls’ knickers.”

Cook nods. “Speaking of which. When we gonna go out partying? It’s been a while, and little Cook’s ready for a celebration.”

Katie rolls her eyes and wrinkles her nose. “Ugh, Cook. Tact? Heard of it?”

He grins at her. “Never.”

“Tell you what, you get a job, I’ll take you out for a few celebratory drinks.”

“A few?” Cook looks up at her, his eyes showing the disappointment she’d heard in his voice.

“Not sure proper partying’s such a good idea, Cook. Besides, you’ve probably got the tolerance of a ten-year-old girl at this point after four years sober. A few drinks and you’ll be on the floor,” she teases, trying to dance nicely around the real issues at hand.

“Nah. I’ve got crazy tolerance! Shit like that doesn’t go away. Not for me!” Cook pounds his chest proudly, but Katie sees the look in his eyes and knows that his words are a front.

She can tell from the way he quietly nibbles at his next biscuit that that was something he hadn’t considered.

“Do you at least have some hot friends you could introduce me to?” Cook suggests hopefully a few minutes later.

Katie just chuckles as she shakes her head. Some things will never change.

.

.

It rains for the next three days straight. Literally and metaphorically. Every day, Cook leaves the house with her and she drops him in town on her way to work, complete with pink and black umbrella despite his initial protests. (She was not going to have the seats of her car ruined just because he wanted to appear more manly, thank you very much.) Every evening she picks up an increasingly downtrodden looking Cook at the café they’ve agreed upon. Every night it’s the same news.

“Apparently the fact that I’m missing my A levels means it’s a no goer,” Cook sighs, shaking his head and spraying her with water, since he’s obviously neglected to actually open the umbrella remotely recently.

Boys, she thinks, but she can’t really be mad, not when he’s looking so miserable.

“What’s it bloody matter where I was the past four years!? I’d have been a fucking brilliant employee. I’d certainly have been better than the greasy fucker who looked down his nose at me as he led me into the office. Bet he’s never gotten laid in his life.”

“I’m sure tomorrow will be better,” she attempts to console him as they pull up in front of her flat.

He shoots her a sceptical look. They both know it probably won’t be.

They make a dash for the door, and, once inside, Katie goes and grabs Cook a fresh towel to dry himself off a bit.

“I was thinking, Katiekins,” Cook says when she reappears, throwing the towel to him.

“Mm?”

“Well, I could just take the bus back. There’s no need for you to keep picking me up. There’s that stop just down the way.”

“The weather’s been horrible lately. You’ll get soaked walking from the bus stop,” she argues.

He waves away her complaint. “Nah. It’s not right you having to run me around and wait for me. What if an interview runs really late and you’ve got shit to do?”

“Cook, it’s fine. Then I have a cup of tea or two.”

“I’m not your responsibility, Katie. I’m a big boy,” Cook says, his voice firm.

Katie looks at him, sees the set of his jaw. He doesn’t like asking for help and she can tell he feels like a burden. He’s right, too. He is an adult. It’s not like he can’t get the bus. She’ll give him this if this is what he wants. “You’ll have to buy an umbrella. I won’t have you dripping all over my floor when you’ve walked back from the bus stop in the rain.”

He grins. “Yes, ma’am,” he attempts a horrible imitation of an American accent that makes Katie laugh.

That’s the thing about Cook. Even now he’s always good for a laugh.

.

.

“You hear anything from JJ? I mean, I know yous was never exactly close or nothin’...”

It’s so out of the blue when he asks, that it leaves her reeling a little. He’s caught her completely off guard. It’s been a week since he’s asked after anyone and she’d half hoped he’d decided he didn’t want to know any more about anyone else. There’s only the...well, the hard ones left, really. It’s because of this that she fumbles with the plates she’s pulling out of the cupboard, almost dropping them, and she ends up stammering out the beginning of her reply. “N-no. Well. Yeah. I mean, I’m not, but Ems –“

He looks at her expectantly and there’s a mix of hope and repressed pain in his eyes.

It’s as hard for him to ask, she realises, as it is for her to tell him, if not harder. (How can one really tell someone that everyone has moved on with their lives while he’s been stuck in place...Well, almost everyone, at least.)

“He’s good. Based in Edinburgh doing some sort of computer work. Making them or designing them or something, I think Ems said. Something super technical with teensy little parts, I think.”

Cook nods. “I can see that. He always was good at detail. Made loads of models and shit back in the day. I wonder if he still does.”

She gives him his moment of silent contemplation and finishes setting the table.

“He still with that blonde bird? What was her name? The one with the nice arse?” he finally says as she’s setting the lasagne down on the table.

“You mean Lara?” Katie asks.

“She’s the one with the kid?”

“Albert. Yeah. They’re engaged. Lara’s amazing. She was really supportive after –“ she cuts herself off a moment too late when Cook winces and then his entire body tenses.

It’s the first time either of them’s come close to even referencing it.

Nice fucking work, Katie, she scolds herself internally. It’s just fucking like her to go and stick her foot in it just when the conversation seemed to be going so well.

Just then thunder rumbles outside and she can hear the rain picking up again outside. Bloody perfect, that is, she thinks.

She sits down cautiously as Cook’s still frozen in place, staring at the table, but not really seeing it. He’s clenching his teeth so hard that Katie’s surprised they’re not breaking.

To her relief, a few moments later he relaxes again, unclenching his hands on the table to reveal white crescent marks where his nails had dug in. It must have hurt, Katie knows, but he doesn’t seem to have felt it at all. Some pain just runs deeper and blocks out all the rest, she knows.

“Right, well I’m fuckin’ starvin’!” he declares with a joviality that sounds far too hollow. “Had to walk fucking all over today.”

“Good thing you bought that umbrella,” she says, sticking to a far safer subject.

Cook lets out a chuckle. “More like good thing I beat you home and had time to clean up.”

“What!?”

He grins at her so cheekily that any anger or annoyance she might have felt drains away and she finds herself smiling back at him, shaking her head. “You’re lucky I like you, Cook.”

.

.

They’re standing outside just under the overhang of the roof, watching the rain drizzle down in front of them, sharing a smoke. She didn’t used to smoke. She used to be rather against it, actually, but then...Well, things change, don’t they?

“Weather’s shit in England,” he mutters, passing the cigarette to Katie, smoke billowing out of his mouth as he talks only to get suffocated by the rain.

“England: land of the wet and rainy,” she agrees, looking out at the grey sky. There’s not a break in the clouds in sight. She inhales deeply and blows out the smoke slowly, watching it curl and dance away before it dies in the wetness of the day.

“I’ve been thinking about moving,” he informs her, holding out his hand expectantly for his dose of nicotine.

“Out of England??” she asks in shock, almost dropping the cigarette before remembering to hand it over.

He lets out a small laugh and shakes his head. “Nah. Out of your place. Not fair on you, me living off you like this. Been almost two weeks now and no job’s even called me back.”

Katie frowns. She’s grown rather used to having him around. They’ve fallen into a routine of sorts. He’s not half as cumbersome as she’d thought he’d be to have around. It’s actually oddly comfortable coming home to him every night. She’s learned she can rely on him for good conversation and a bit of a laugh, among other things. Plus, his comments might be on the crude side, but at least they’re always complimentary. (The one he said about how he always thought she had the best tits at Roundview made her more chuffed than it should have, probably.) “But...why?” she asks when she realises she’s been standing there simply staring at him for a while. She takes the cigarette back when he offers it, inhaling quickly and deeply, hoping it’ll calm the sudden feeling of unease in her.

“I don’t like being a burden on you, Katiekins.”

“You’re not,” she responds quickly.

He shoots her a sceptical look.

“You’re not!” she insists more emphatically.

He shrugs, snagging the remains of the cigarette off her and taking one last drag before flicking it away.
“You can’t afford to live anywhere else.”

“A few blokes inside owe me some favours and they’ve got people out here who owe them. I talked to my mate Charlie the other day. He thinks he can hook me up.”

Katie’s frown deepens. She doesn’t need to ask inside where. She doesn’t like the sound of that. It all seems a bit...well, fucking shady, to be honest. Besides, she doesn’t want him to leave, even if he can’t seem to learn to take his fucking shoes off by the door so he doesn’t track water and mud across her flat. At least he usually cleans up after himself.

“No.”

Cook’s eyes widen in surprise and the corners of his lips curve up in amusement. “No, what?”

“No. You’re not moving out,” she informs him.

“Katie...”

“Don’t you fucking argue with me, James Cook. I may be small but I can kick your arse if I want to. You’re not moving in with strangers.”

Cook lets out a howl of laughter and pulls Katie into a hug. “Oh, Katiekins, I have no doubt. I heard about you knocking out that bird back in college. You’re a feisty little Fitch.”

Katie attempts to pull away or at least to straighten, acutely aware of the attention of the people passing by on the street. “I didn’t knock her out. I just...well, I broke her nose because she was a stuck up, pretentious little bitch who deserved it.”

Cook laughs harder, a deep, pleasant noise that makes Katie smile. “That’s my Katiekins. Nobody better to put a stroppy bitch in her place. Fierce little Katie Fitch. All right. You’ve convinced me. I’ll stay.”
“Good.” She crosses her arms and can’t help looking a bit pleased with herself, even if people are still looking round at them and Cook still has his arm slung over her shoulders.

“Hi, Kate.”

Katie uncrosses her arms and waves, stepping aside as her neighbour turns and heads up the stairs to the building, smiling at her and nodding politely to Cook.

“Hey, Amy.”

“Nice weather we’re having this week, huh?”

“Tell me about it,” Katie agrees just before Amy unlocks the door to the building and steps inside.

“Kate?” Cook asks curiously as she turns back to him.

She shrugs self-consciously. “It’s sort of what I go by now. More grown up or something. I dunno.”
He hums to himself, then nods. “Right, then, Kate. Let’s get back inside, then, shall we?”

For some reason, even though she’s called Kate all day at work and by most of the friends she’s made in the last few years, it feels weird to have Cook call her that. Somehow ‘Katiekins’ just feels more special.

.

.

He’s losing his patience, she can tell. Being told no day after day, even when it’s phrased, “I’m sorry we’re not interested” or “Thank you, but you’re not quite what we’re looking for” ends up sounding like a big resounding “fuck you” from the universe, and Cook never had the best temper in the world.

“Fucking bollocky wankers with their freshly pressed Egyptian silk shirts and their shiny cars and their fucking ‘better than you’ attitudes,” Cook rants one night as he picks at the piece of quiche on his plate.

“Cotton,” Katie corrects automatically.

“What?” he asks, wrinkling his nose in confusion.

“It’s Egyptian cotton, not silk.”

“Still a fashion queen, then?”

His tone stings more than it should, really. It’s just Cook, after all, for fuck’s sakes.

“Knowing fabrics isn’t a crime, Cook,” she replies icily.

He pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs. “Look, sorry. I didn’t mean...Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.” He sighs again. “It’s just these fucking interviews that go nowhere! I’m fucking sick of it. It’s the same questions time after time and then the same judgmental reaction to my answers. Uptight bastards. This weather’s not fucking helping either. Did the sun actually forget how to fucking shine in Bristol while I was in prison?”

His attempt at a joke falls feebly flat.

Katie turns her eyes to the window and watches beads of water drip down it. She pushes her half-eaten plate of food away. Suddenly she’s lost her appetite.

Cook attempts a smile, but ends up sighing again and putting his head in his hand. “This has to break eventually, right?”

Katie’s not sure if he means this spell of bad weather or his rubbish luck, but then again it doesn’t really matter. They both have to believe that both will eventually come to an end.

She feels the weariness in his tone wash over her and suppresses a yawn. She pushes her chair back with a slight screech of wood against tile, and she clears her plate quickly. She turns back to find him still sitting there, looking defeated and small with his head still in his hand. On impulse, she leans down and kisses the top of his head. “It will,” she murmurs into his hair. (He smells good, she notices, clean. Like shampoo and a trace of cologne and then a hint of something else that just makes her think ‘Cook.’)

.

.

It’s a month before something breaks. As it turns out, it’s neither the weather, nor Cook’s rubbish luck. It’s Cook himself. His spirit and his temper blown away in one fell swoop of corporate prejudice.
He’d got a call for an interview somewhere he’d applied a week before and he’d been as giddy as a five-year-old on Christmas morning before Katie’d left for work.

He comes home in a flurry of slammed doors, curses, and wetness.

“Fucking fucked-up fuckholes! Bloody, wankery bollocks munchers! Cunting –“

“Cook!”

He freezes for a moment and follows Katie’s eyes to where he’s raised his leg to kick her sofa (again) and he’s dripping a nice puddle of water onto the rug.

It’s then that he crumples and Katie feels her chest ache just at the sight of him slunk down against the sofa, knees to his chest, rubbing angrily at the tears streaming down his face.

Without a word she goes to the fridge and pulls out a beer (from where she’d stashed it in the back behind the orange juice so Cook would be less tempted). She opens it and then goes back and sinks down beside him. She sets the beer on the floor in front of them and then she waits.

“Do you know what they said?” Cook spits bitterly, his voice sounding as broken and battered as he looks.

Katie shakes her head, pressing her shoulder firmer against his side, her show of support.

“They said they didn’t care about my record, but they couldn’t hire me ‘cause of my tattoos. My fucking tattoos, they said, ‘Uniform’s short-sleeved and you can’t have tattoos,’ they said. ‘Bad for our image.’ You know what I say? Sod them and their sodding image!” Cook pounds the floor with his fist and Katie instinctively reaches out for his other hand where it’s clenched tightly on his knee.

She pulls it into her lap and strokes it gently until Cook relaxes it a bit, and then she slides her own hand into it, her small fingers fitting neatly between his big ones. She gives his hand a squeeze as Cook’s shoulders shake and the tears continue to stream down his face.

He flops his head back against the arm of the sofa with a thud and makes a half-hearted attempt to wipe the tears from his cheeks with his free hand, but it’s no use.

Katie swallows hard, feeling tears well up in her own eyes at his obvious pain.

“Wankers,” she mutters, hearing the way her voice breaks as she chokes back her tears. “I should fucking give them a piece of my mind. Who gives a flying fuck about bloody tattoos in this day and age? Honestly!”

It’s easier to cling to her indignation, to the burn of anger that wells up inside her on Cook’s behalf. Cook’s next sob wipes it away, though, and all that’s left for her to feel is the pain and the sadness that they’ve both been repressing.

“Freds,” comes Cook’s hushed cry at the end of the sob.

She squeezes Cook’s hand again and lets her head fall to his shoulder as the tears begin to spill from her eyes.

“He’d have known what to do, Freds would’ve. He’d have kept me out of trouble in the first place. He was...He always kept me in line, you know? Or he tried to. He’d have tried to stop me from going after Foster even after what the bastard did!”

The name sends a chill down Katie’s spine and she closes her eyes.

“He’d have talked to the judge on my behalf, too, I know it. And today...today when I walked out of that interview ready to fucking kill someone, when I had a rock in my hand ready to throw it through this pompous arsehole’s windscreen, you know what happened? I heard Freds in my head saying, ‘Don’t do it, mate,’ and I dropped the rock and I ran.”

Tears are slipping down her cheek fast and furious now, burning a hot trail to where they’re dropping off onto Cook’s shirt, but he doesn’t care. His mind’s elsewhere.

“Wish he’d stopped me from bargin’ in ‘ere like I did. Kicking your furniture. You’re the only thing keeping me fucking sane right now and I’m abusing your furniture.” He lets out a harsh, humourless laugh.

“It’s okay, Cook,” she soothes, squeezing his hand still tighter.

He squeezes back.

“He was the best fucking friend anyone could have and I wasn’t there when he needed me.”
Katie almost gasps. Is that what he thinks? Has he been carrying this guilt since the night he discovered Freddie’s bloody shoe in John Foster’s house?

“You would’ve been if you could, Cook. Foster’s in prison thanks to you! You owned up to his beating when the police showed up, you told the truth and the judge recognised that, you served your time, and you grew up! Freddie’d be proud, Cook.” She wipes away her tears and looks at him, pleading with her eyes for him to hear the truth in her words. Cook shakes his head. “But Freddie’s still dead.”

The final truth of it sits there heavily between them.

Katie’d grieved once, but maybe not enough because the way Cook says it makes her feel the wound raw and painful once more.

Cook reaches for the beer in front of them, his crying having either calmed or run dry, but his pain and sorrow still etched clearly on his face. He wipes his nose on his sleeve before he takes a swig and closes his eyes.

Katie sits beside him, saying nothing, but not moving either.

Her mobile ringing in the kitchen breaks the silence, and she’s tempted to just leave it, but Cook stares past her at the kitchen expectantly and her ring tone seems suddenly annoyingly persistent.

Naomi’s name is on the screen when she gets to it.

“Hello?”

.

.

Cook isn’t the only thing that breaks that day.

.

.

“What?” Katie stands there in shock as Naomi repeats herself. “What do you mean her water broke?”

“It means she’s in labour, Katie, you nitwit!” Naomi practically yells back at her, and in the background Katie hears Emily groan.

She sounds in pain.

“But it’s a month early!” Katie declares, her mind reeling. She feels like she’s riding an emotional roller coaster and it’s still fucking going and exerting far too many G’s on her current, fragile emotional state.

“You try telling that to the baby,” Naomi retorts.

“Naomi,” Katie hears Emily moan.

“I’ve got to go. Get here as soon as you can.”

There’s not even a goodbye before she’s gone.

She feels the phone being slowly coaxed from her hand, and when she looks up, she realises Cook is right beside her. He looks remarkably composed given how she’d left him. She’s sure she looks a right fucking state and, inanely, her brain chooses that moment to think that she should really run a brush through her hair.

“Baby time?” Cook asks, looking at her expectantly.

His words hit her and then the whole situation slaps her in the face. Baby. A baby. Emily’s baby is being born. She’s going to be an aunt. “Yes. Baby time,” she confirms.

“Well, what are we waiting for?”

What, indeed?

.

.

She calls work as soon as they’re on the road.

“Joyce? Hi. It’s Kate. I know the deadline is looming for the Bloschichak account, but I’ve got a family emergency. I’ll be out the next few days.”

“Oh, dear! Is everyone all right? Is it James again?”

“Ha, no. Ems went into labour today!” Katie informs her, unable to keep the excitement from her voice.

“Oh, wow! Already? Didn’t you say she wasn’t due until the end of next month?”

“Apparently the baby had other ideas.”

Katie turns and smiles at Cook as he chuckles beside her at that.

“Oh, well tell her congrats! She and Naomi will be amazing parents. Tell you what, take the rest of the week. Actually, if I see you in the office before next Wednesday, I’ll fire you,” Joyce tells her playfully.

Katie almost drops her phone in shock. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she effuses after Cook pokes her in the arm. “You are the best boss ever!”

“So I’ve been told. Now go be a good sister. And congratulations Auntie Kate.”

“Thanks,” Katie says, grinning from ear to ear. “See you Wednesday.”

“Everything good, then, I take it? She didn’t think the world of interior designing would fall apart while you were away?” Cook teases.

She’d told him all about Joyce and how she’d been responsible for all of the design elements of her wedding a few years back when she was still working for her mum’s company, and Joyce, who owned an interior design business, had been so impressed that she’d called to offer her a job the day she got back from her honeymoon. More than that, they’d been fast friends ever since.

Katie nods. “Apparently not. She’s the best boss ever.”

Cook smiles. “Good, I’m glad. I still can’t get used to you being called Kate, though. Sorry Katiekins, but you’ll always be Katie to me.”

Katie feels her heart, that’s already on the verge of bursting from happiness, swell a little bit more at that comment. Somehow it just feels right.

.

.

“I know now’s not really the time, Katie, but I have to know. Where’s Ef?”

She’s so lost in thoughts of babies, imagining what her little niece or nephew (Naomi and Emily had annoyingly decided not to find out the sex of the baby beforehand) might look like, that Cook’s question catches her completely unaware.

The sound of the windscreen wipers swishing back and forth and the rain rapping on the roof of the car stretch out between them for a stunned moment before Katie can manage to ask, “What?”

“You haven’t mentioned, and I haven’t wanted to ask, but today seems to be the day that everything happens, and I know once we get there I won’t want to know ‘cause there’ll be so much happiness. I just...I need to know, Katie.”

Katie swallows hard, unable to not pick up on the fact that he’d asked “where” not “how” she is. “London. She’s in London with her mum. They moved there about a year after –“

She sees Cook nod out of the corner of her eyes.

“Better hospitals. Less memories,” she explains. “She’s better. Been out almost six months this time.”

“This time?”

“She has relapses sometimes. And there was another suicide attempt almost two years ago, so they’ve been a little more cautious since. I saw her a few months before you got out, actually. She looked good. Seemed the healthiest she has for a long time.”

“Good,” he says, but his voice is strained.

She knows he loved her once. She can’t help wondering if maybe he still does.

“Is she –“ he cuts himself off with a shake of his head.

“She doesn’t date,” Katie says, guessing at where he was going with that. “Her rule, not the doctors’. She thinks it’s best for a while,” she adds.

“It’s smart, that,” Cook agrees. “But she was happy? When you saw her, I mean.”

Katie nods. “Yeah. I think she really was this time.”

She’s aware of his whole body relaxing beside her. “Good. She deserves to be happy.”

“We could visit her sometime, if you want.” Katie’s stomach twists uncomfortably as she offers it.

“Nah. She’s got to live her life and I’ve got to live mine. It’d just cause pain seeing each other now. Too many memories,” Cook replies. “Maybe someday, but not soon.”

She nods again, feeling relief flood through her, but why that is she can’t pinpoint. Concern for two friends, she decides. Cook’s made a smart decision.

“What about Karen?” Cook moves on after a few minutes of contemplative silence during which they listen to the windscreen wipers squelch back and forth, the clouds having decided to lessen the rainfall temporarily.

Katie shakes her head. “No one knows. Up and left right after the funeral. Before her dad sold the house and moved away, even. JJ mentioned something about her going to Italy, so that’s our best guess.”

Cook nods again. “If I hadn’t been forced to stay around by the powers-that-be, I’d have skipped town too.”

“For what it’s worth, I’m glad you didn’t.” She’s not sure what makes her say that, other than that it’s been pretty nice having him around of late, but the smile he shoots her in response makes her glad she did.

The smile reached his eyes, she notes before she turns her eyes back to the road.

.

.

To say that things are chaotic once they reach the hospital is a bit of an understatement.

For starters, though her mum had called her twice on the way there to make sure she knew where she was going, her mum and dad seem to have gotten horribly lost on the way there.

On top of that, there doesn’t seem to be hide nor hair of Gina yet. At least not that Katie can see.

Then there’s how nobody at the bloody hospital seems to be able to tell her where the fuck her baby sister (who’s having a baby, for goodness sakes) is or how she’s coming along. “Fucking incompetent,” Katie mutters under her breath, growing increasingly infuriated. “Can’t anybody here tell me where my sister is? I’m looking for Emily Fitch-Campbell. She’s in labour. Are there lots of those at this hospital? I don’t bloody well think so!”

Cook’s got a restraining hand on her shoulder, and a fond, clearly amused grin on his face.

She glares at him. “You could fucking help, you know.”

“I suggest you look up Emily Fitch-Campbell in one of your computers there, unless you want her to start roaming the maternity ward looking in doors,” he says to a flustered looking nurse with barely contained mirth in his voice.

“Good idea,” Katie says, marching off in the direction the signs indicate without waiting to see if Cook follows (he does) and without giving the nurse a chance to try to stop her (she doesn’t).

She’s only made one turn before she hears a, “Yo, Fitch! This way!”

Right at this moment, Katie thinks it’s the most beautiful voice she’s ever heard, even if it does belong to Naomi, because it obviously knows where Emily is.

“How is she?” Katie asks frantically, running to Naomi and throwing her arms around her.

“Good. Contractions are still decently far apart,” Naomi replies, hugging Katie back.

“Good. Now, where is she? And why aren’t you with her?” Katie demands, stepping back and crossing her arms in front of her.

“She sent me to find you. Said you should be here by now. I didn’t want to leave her, but you know how she is.”

“Stubborn as a mule,” Katie sighs with a nod, letting her arms drop to her sides.

“Must be a family trait,” Naomi teases, but when she opens her mouth to give a clever retort, she truly sees Naomi for the first time since she got there. Stress is written all over her sister-in-law’s features.

She might sound relatively okay, but she’s anxious as fuck, Katie realises.

When Naomi glances nervously down the hallway a moment later, fists clenching at her sides, Katie knows she wants nothing more than to get back to Emily.

“Right, then, Campbell, now you’ve found me are you going to take me to my sister, or what?” Katie demands. What Naomi probably needs right now is a sense of normality, Katie decides, and she’ll do her best to provide it.

Naomi smiles in relief and takes off back down the hallway she appeared from with a, “This way,” called over her shoulder.

Katie looks behind her to make sure Cook’s still following and freezes. It takes her a second to spot him, as nurses, doctors, and orderlies are all rushing up and down the hallways, but then she sees him lingering just down one of the hallways off the one she’s standing in.

He looks a mixture between sheepish and...shy? James Cook shy? It sounds impossible, yet there he is clearly hiding.

“Cook! Come one!” She beckons vigorously.

He hesitates and, without hesitation, she marches over to him, grabs his arm, and drags him hastily down the hall after Naomi’s retreating form.

“I think maybe I should hang back. Give you lot a little family time or something,” Cook protests.

“Cook, you’ve known all of us since we were sixteen and you’re living with me. You’re close enough,” Katie replies, keeping a firm hold on his arm.

“Yeah, but I haven’t even talked to them in a while, and they’ve got other things goin’ on right –“

“James Cook, if you do not walk in that room with me and check on my sister with me I will kick your scrawny arse all the way back to Bristol!” Katie threatens, turning on him as she points down the hall at the doorway through which Naomi’s just disappeared. “I need to be strong for my sister today, so I need you to be strong for me. Got it?”  

There’s a moment where Cook just looks at her, a mixture of emotion on his face making him virtually impossible to read, and then he grins broadly. “Whatever you say, Katie. But my arse is not scrawny. It’s a nice arse, thank you very much.”

Katie rolls her eyes, but feels herself relax a little at his cheek. She needs him, today, she realises. She needs that friend who can stand by her side when she’s stressing out, just like she knows she’ll have to do for Emily and Naomi today. She turns back around without another word and leads him on down the hallway, relaxing her grip on his arm a little.

She pauses in the doorway, looking in to find Naomi brushing back hair from Emily’s sweaty brow. They’re gazing lovingly at each other even though Emily’s clearly in pain and, by the white of the fingers gripping Naomi’s hand, she probably is as well.

Katie feels herself well up with emotion. She swallows hard before stepping into the room with a bright smile. “There’s my beautiful sister.”

“Katie!” Emily sounds tired already, but her face is jubilant as she spreads her arms wide to her sister.

Katie rushes to her and holds her as tight as she dares, mindful of the large bump containing her little niece or nephew. “How’re you holding up? Do you have everything you need? The nurses around here are bloody useless.”

“Naomi’s been whipping them into shape some,” Emily replies with a chuckle and a loving smile thrown towards her wife. “I’m fine, Katie. Everything’s going well. Still only four centimetres dilated.”

“Did they say why the baby’s early?”

“It happens, Katie,” Emily says, “It’s just a month.”

To anyone else Emily would sound completely calm, but Katie knows her sister well and knows she’s a little worried.

Katie notes the way Naomi gives Emily’s hand an extra squeeze and remembers that she’s not the only one who can read Ems so easily any more.

Katie looks back automatically for Cook, only to find that he has yet to step into the room. “James Cook!” she calls with a warning in her tone.

Emily and Naomi’s eyes widen, then, as Cook shuffles sheepishly through the door.

Katie marches over to him, takes his hand, and yanks him fully into the room.

“Cook!” Naomi is the first to recover from her initial shock. She lets go of her wife’s hand and throws her arms around him. “It’s good to see you.”

“How’s it going, Naomikins?” he asks, voice muffled as he buries his face in Naomi’s shoulder, but Katie catches the way it cracks in emotion.

“You look good,” Naomi says, stepping away and shooting him a broad grin.

“You too. Both of yous.” Cook nods towards Emily. “Look at you, Emilio. Swallow a whale or somethin’?” he teases, and Katie sees a true spark of his old self, but there’s no hiding the sudden dampness under his eyes and the telltale extra sparkle of unshed tears welling up.

“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to tease a pregnant lady about her weight?” Emily retorts with a grin. “Come give me a hug.”

Cook does as instructed, his body language relaxing as Emily wraps him in a warm embrace. “Just kidding, Emilio. You look gorgeous as ever.”

“Too right,” Naomi agrees approvingly, as Cook steps back from the side of the bed.

“So how’s my two favourite muff monkeys, then?”

“Oh, you know...pregnant,” Emily replies.

It’s nice to see that she hasn’t lost her sense of humour, Katie thinks. She looks so weary, though, and Katie can’t help but be worried.

“I’m here! I’m here! Stupid wankers driving under the bloody speed limit all the way here, idiots scared of a little rain, but I made it! Sorry I’m late!” Gina Campbell strides into the room in a flurry of movement and stray flicks of rain water. She comes to a halt in the centre of the room and runs a hand through her dripping hair. She looks up and surveys the room’s occupants.

“Emily, dear, you’re looking ready to burst. No wonder the little tyke decided to get out early. Giving his poor mum a break, eh?” she says first.

“Mum, we don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. We’ve told you a thousand times,” Naomi sighs, but she willingly falls into the hug that her mother offers her.

“Call it grandmother’s intuition,” Gina mutters, waving away Naomi’s complaint. “Lovely to see you, dear,” she adds, kissing Naomi on the head before releasing her. “Stop worrying. Everything will be fine.”

She turns to Katie next with a warm smile. “You must have made good time. And you’re looking gorgeous as always. Do you even know how to look unfashionable?”

She wraps Katie in a slightly wet hug, but Katie doesn’t mind. Gina’s practically adopted her along with Emily, and Katie couldn’t have picked a better surrogate mum. They’ve been conspiring for months about things to do with the baby once it’s born.

“Hello, James! Fancy seeing you here! You’re looking fit as ever,” Gina declares, releasing Katie and giving Cook a quick peck on the cheek. “Keeping our Katie company, these days, then?”

Cook nods, and Katie can tell that he’s thrown off by the immediate, no-questions-asked welcome from Gina.

“Job search going well?”

“It’s shit, actually,” Cook replies with his usual candour.

Gina laughs. “Well, you never know what life will throw your way.”

Katie frowns when Gina throws her a look she can’t quite identify, but shrugs it off a moment later when Emily erupts in a long, loud, grunt of pain.

“Breathe, love,” Gina says, giving Naomi a shove back over to Emily’s bedside and stepping up to the other side of the bed herself. “Let Naomi coach you like you practised.”

.

.

Things progress quickly after Gina’s arrival, it seems, and all too soon the doctor is shooing them out of the room.

Katie’s not having any of it.

“I’m sorry, but only one of you can stay.”

“She’s my twin,” Katie argues.

“It really is in her best interest. And the baby’s,” the doctor explains.

Katie looks desperately to Emily, who’s squeezing Naomi’s hand so tightly in her own that Naomi’s wincing in pain beside her. Remarkably, though, Naomi’s still looking down at Emily adoringly, whispering sweet, soothing nothings to her.

Katie feels Cook’s hand heavy on her shoulder, tugging her backwards ever so slightly.

Naomi looks up at her, and there’s pleading in her eyes. Unspoken, but clear as day, Katie gets the message. “I’m here. I love her. I can’t leave her. I’ll look after her.”

Katie blows Emily a last kiss. “I love you. You’ll do great,” she tells her, before she lets Cook lead her out of the room.

.

.

Waiting feels like an eternity, despite the fact that her mother calls her what feels like every five minutes to check on the progress (because they still haven’t managed to find the right road and apparently James has the map now, so Katie’s not sure they ever will) until Gina finally takes the phone from her and says in a gentle but firm voice, “We will call you as soon as we know anything. Goodbye, Jenna.”

Katie finds herself looking out of the window at the end of the hallway, listening to her sister scream in pain. She watches the rain slap against the glass and puts her hand up to it, feeling the coolness of it, and willing the rain to wash away her anxieties.

All people fucking scream like that when they’re giving birth. It’s an entire person coming out of a small opening for fuck’s sake. Pull yourself together, Katie.

But all people aren’t her twin sister, and if something happens to Emily or the baby...

“Katie, she’ll be okay.” Cook’s voice is steady and just behind her, making her jump.

He wraps a strong arm around her and holds her close. “You know Ems. Strong as anything. Remember when she slammed me against that locker?”

“I missed it, but I heard about it,” Katie murmurs, turning in his embrace and resting her head against his broad, muscular chest. “Sorry I missed it, really.”

Cook chuckles and she feels it rumble through his chest as he throws his other arm around her too. His laughter’s oddly comforting, and she slides her arms around his waist, letting him be the support for her that she asked him to be earlier. She breathes in deeply, inhaling a hint of cologne and sweat, and then just the smell that she’s come to associate with Cook.

“You’re just the same, Katiekins, you know. Both of yous are the strongest little girls I’ve ever met.”

She pokes him in the side hard without letting go. “Watch who you’re calling little, Cook.”

Cook’s chest rumbles with laughter again. “Littlest girls with the biggest personalities.”

Katie pokes him again, then squeezes him tight as another long, drawn out wail echoes down the hallway from Emily’s room.

It’s not until he squeezes her back that she feels like she’s able to breathe again.

.

.

A shrill cry joins a deeper grunt, and Katie surges towards the door. Crying is good, she knows. Crying means breathing.

Cook holds her back. “They’ll let us know when we can go back in,” he soothes in her ear.

She knows he’s right, but she can hardly wait.

She paces before the door for what feels like hours, but in fact is only a matter of minutes. The crying stops, and Katie feels her blood run cold and her heart stop.

A moment later the door swings open and the doctor steps out with a smile. “All good,” she says, stepping on down the hallway.

Naomi is revealed just behind her. She appears exhausted but elated, her face glowing with pride as she looks up from the bundle in her arms. “It’s a boy,” she says, tears of joy in her eyes. “Meet Robert Ethan Fitch-Campbell.”

Katie feels herself tear up. “He’s okay?”

“He’s perfect,” Naomi replies.

“Of course he is,” Gina says, but Katie can hear that she’s a little choked up.

“Naomi,” comes Emily’s fatigued voice from inside the room. “Let me hold him.”

“Can’t deny your mum, now, can we?” Naomi speaks to the bundle of baby boy cradled carefully in her arms. “Come on,” she says, nodding to the rest of them.

Katie’s right on Naomi’s heels as she carries the baby back into the room, ignoring the nurse lingering in the corner, and heading straight to Emily’s side.

Emily looks even worse for wear than Naomi does, but the smile on her face is the widest Katie’s ever seen. She takes her baby boy gingerly from Naomi and gazes down at him adoringly. “Hey there, Robert.”

Emily beams up at Katie a moment later. “Isn’t he gorgeous?”

Katie leans in and gets the first good view of her nephew. His face is scrunched up and red, but his dark eyes are open as his teensy fingers find his mouth. Katie melts. “He’s the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen,” she replies sincerely, feeling herself well up with pride at her baby sister producing this beautiful boy. She places a tender kiss on Emily’s temple, not caring that she’s still covered in a sheen of sweat from the effort of childbirth.

A choked sob from beside her makes Katie look up. Cook’s standing next to her, eyes brimming with tears and the goofiest grin on his face. He wipes his tears away self-consciously as he takes in the scene.

Katie smiles at him and holds out a hand to him which he takes and squeezes before dropping it again.

“Come see, Cook,” she beckons. Gina’s already crowded around the other side of the bed next to Naomi, making cooing noises at the baby.

Cook hesitates then steps in and looks properly at the baby. “Fucking cutest baby ever,” he declares.

“Watch your mouth around my nephew,” Katie scolds with an elbow to his side, but she has to smile right now.

“Want to hold him?” Emily offers, looking up at Katie.

Katie’s eyes widen as Emily holds up the tiny infant, and she nods eagerly. He’s light as a feather, is her first thought once he’s situated safely in her arms. His bright eyes look up into her face, and she feels tears well up again. He’s just so beautiful. “Hi, Robert. I’m your Auntie Katie.”

It’s only a few minutes before he starts to cry, but it feels like an eternity that she gets to simply stare into his adorable little face and feel the small fingers of one hand grasp her thumb. It’s time she’d never ever give back in a million years.

“He’s probably hungry. We should see if he’ll latch on,” the nurse says helpfully, moving to the bedside as Katie hands baby Robert back to Emily.

“We’re here! We’re here! Did we miss it?” comes a frantic voice from the doorway.

In all the excitement, Katie realizes that they forgot to call her parents back. It doesn’t matter now, though, she thinks. Right now, everything is good.

“Come meet your grandson, Mum,” Emily says.

“Grandson?” her mum asks, taking the place that Katie’s just deserted at Emily’s bedside. “It’s a boy?”

“Robert Ethan Fitch-Campbell,” Emily says proudly as the nurse reaches over to adjust the two of them a little.

“Robert?” her dad says stepping further into the room.

Katie goes and wraps her arms around her dad as he chokes up a bit.

“Why not James?” James asks from the doorway.

“’Cause we didn’t want him ending up a perv,” Naomi teases, shooting James a wink.

“Oi!” Cook joins in. “I take offense at that.”

Naomi laughs, knowing full well that he doesn’t.

“Right. I think this room is plenty crowded. Katie? Cook? How about we step outside for a while. Let the baby feed and let the stragglers meet him,” Gina suggests none-too-subtly.

Katie’s reluctant to leave, but she knows Gina’s right.

“Fag break?” Cook whispers in her ear.

Now that he mentions it, a hit of nicotine would feel good after the stress of the day. She nods and lets him and Gina lead him out of the room.

“Love you,” she calls from the doorway. She’s not sure who she means it for. Emily and the baby, probably, but right now she’s so filled with love that as far as she’s concerned, she means everyone in the whole world.

.

.

Emily’s sofa is not overly comfortable.

It beats the hell out of the floor, though, Katie’s sure, which is where Cook’s insisted on spending the last two nights.

Of course, it wasn’t like anyone was getting good sleep. Not with Emily and Naomi up every few hours with the baby.

It also doesn’t help that her parents are over from their hotel, dragging a groggy-looking James along, at the crack of dawn every morning. At least Gina has the common decency to wait until Naomi shoots her a text in the morning.

It’s her mum, of course, that’s the problem, marching in like she owns the place, telling Emily how she should feed the baby (even though she’s doing it perfectly as far as Katie can tell), telling Naomi exactly where to place the support pillow (as if she wasn’t already putting it exactly there), and being generally paranoid about anyone who so much as dares breathe on baby Robert. Forget the stereotypical overprotective first time mum, it’s the first time grandmother that’s clearly the problem, as far as Katie can tell.

Her dad would happily sit on the sofa and occasionally hold the baby named after him, as long as there’s footie on in the background. Not that he’s not thrilled about his grandson, but in all fairness, baby Robert doesn’t do much yet.

“All he does is cry and sleep and shit,” James complains, earning him a smack upside the head from Katie.

“He’s your nephew, you twit. Show a little respect,” she scolds.

Emily just laughs tiredly. The circles under her eyes have only grown, but the smile has yet to leave her face.

“Hey, Katie. Isn’t that that footballer you used to date?” her dad calls from the living room just as Naomi calls Cook to come help her set up a second chest of drawers that they’d bought at IKEA in the baby’s room as the first one had fast been filled up within the first twenty-four hours of them coming home.

“What?” Katie frowns, walking around the side of the sofa and taking a seat beside her father.

“Where?” James asks, leaning over the back of the sofa to peer at the screen.

“Playing defence for Blackpool.”

Katie’s jaw drops. There’s no way he was good enough. Danny Guillermo had been 90% talk and 10% talent. Her dad was right, though. “Hell must have frozen over.”

“Maybe all the flames just got put out with all this sodding rain,” James suggests.

Katie shrugs. “Possibly.”

On the day they brought baby Robert home from the hospital the skies had given them a half hour reprieve, but since then it had been a virtual non-stop downpour.

She watches in shock for a few minutes as her ex-boyfriend from college runs around after the ball, actually making a few decent plays.

“Shame he’s not still around. Looks like he turned out okay. We could really use someone down at the gym. Leo’s just bloody useless. Can’t get him to even wipe down the equipment properly. He’s got no spirit. No drive. I had to close the gym to come here, and you know I like to keep it open as much as possible. I just don’t trust him to run it.”

Katie nods along. This is not the first rant about Leo and the gym she’s heard since her parents got here. Her dad’s been rather protective of the gym since he managed to get it back three years ago. At least he’d got a proper accountant to come and help him out once a week so that he wouldn’t have to worry about losing it again.

“Right, so Naomikins is not allowed to use a hammer, for future reference. Especially with a screw. And Emilio, I’m sorry about her finger, but I swear it wasn’t my fault,” Cook calls from the other room before a sheepish looking Naomi rounds the corner from the hallway holding onto one hand.

“James, get her some ice,” Emily instructs from where she’s nursing Robert.

“She shouldn’t hold the baby until her finger’s okay,” Jenna interjects from where she’s cooking lunch.

Katie rolls her eyes then looks towards the hallway where she can hear the whirr of a screw gun. A thought strikes her that seems so obvious she can’t believe she didn’t think of it before.

“Hey, Dad? Can I talk to you about something?”

“Can it wait until after the game? There’s only eight minutes left.”

“Sure,” Katie agrees, smiling to herself. Eight minutes is nothing to wait if this actually works out okay.

.

.

They end up heading back earlier than Katie wants to, but Emily takes her aside and begs her.

“If you don’t leave then Mum’s not going to either and I swear to God if Mum and Dad don’t leave today I’m going to strangle someone,” Emily threatens. “You know how she is. She’ll use you being here as a reason she has to stay, too.”

“I know, but Ems –“

“You know you can come back and visit as often as you want. Just as long as Mum leaves today,” Emily pleads as baby Robert stretches and lets out a small cry before settling down again in her arms.

Katie looks down into his little scrunched up face, watches the faint rise and fall of his little chest as he sleeps, and sighs. “Okay. I’ll fill Cook in.”

Emily smiles gratefully, then raises an eyebrow. “So Cook’s been awfully helpful. It’s really good of him to have come and stuck around. He’s done wonders keeping James out of trouble. He’s really grown into quite a man.”

Katie grins and nods, feeling almost proud of him, although it’s not really like she’s had anything to do with that fact. She’s pleased that other people are able to see how far he’s come, though, how much he’s grown up. “Yeah. He really has.”

A look flashes across Emily’s face that she can’t quite read, but then baby Robert whimpers softly and stirs again, and Katie’s distracted.

“You be good for your mums, little boy. Auntie Katie will be back to visit you as soon as she can,” she murmurs, placing a soft kiss on his cheek. She looks back up to Ems with a smile. “Right, let’s go get rid of Mum and Dad.”

.

.

“So I had an interesting conversation with your dad,” Cook says when they’re only about a half an hour from home. She’s felt his eyes on her for a while, but hasn’t commented.

Katie suppresses a grin. “Oh?” she asks innocently.

“Yeah. He offered me a job,” Cook continues.

“Really? That’s incredible!” Katie flashes him a smile quickly before getting her eyes back on the road.

It’s decided to bucket down for their drive home, of course, and visibility’s hardly good.

“Mhm,” Cook agrees. “He says he’ll try me out but he reckons he’ll take me on as a manager. Said they’re looking to open another Fitch gym up near Ems so they can be nearer the baby and help out more and whatnot. Said he needs someone responsible who can watch over the Bristol one for him.”

“Cook, that’s amazing!” Katie hadn’t known all of that. She made a mental note to give Ems a heads up that their parents might be moving closer than she’d ideally like.

“Yeah. It’s an awesome opportunity.” Cook nods. “Funny thing is, yeah, is that he mentioned that you might’ve suggested he hire me.”

“Oh?” Katie reinstates her innocent act.

“Yeah.”

“Hmm. I might have mentioned something in passing.”

“Just maybe, huh?”

Katie shrugs. “He needs a good worker, I knew someone in need of a good job.”

She sees Cook nod again out of the corner of her eye.

There’s silence for a while, and then a quiet, “Thanks.”

It’s Katie’s turn to nod, and she reaches out and finds Cook’s hand, giving it a small squeeze. “I didn’t do a thing, Cook.”

.

.

She’s exhausted as she stumbles through the door, Cook right behind her.

She drops her bag in the entryway, not even bothering to turn the lights on, and turns to say goodnight to Cook, too tired to even attempt getting something to eat before bed.

When she turns, though, Cook is right there, in her space, looking down at her. Suddenly a jolt of something that’s been lying dormant for a little while now surges through her, and she can’t remember what she was going to say at all. “I, uh –“

Cook’s eyes feel like they’re burning into hers. Even with just the faint light from the street trickling in the windows she can see the focus in his eyes.

When did this – is all she has time to think before Cook’s arm is around her waist, pulling him to her, his lips crashing into hers, full of hunger.

“Fuck,” she gasps against his lips, her fatigue now pushed away, replaced by things she hasn’t dared think, let alone properly feel. She throws her arms around his neck as he almost lifts her off her feet, their lips meeting again and again.

His kisses are frantic and needy, as if he thinks if he stops even for a second she’ll disappear in his arms and he’ll be left kissing air.

He has nothing to worry about, though. She wants this. She wants him. She has for a while, but she’d pushed it away, thinking it not right, not returned, not something either of them need to deal with right now.

She lets her hands trail down the front of his shirt and starts unbuttoning. He staggers forward into her touch, and she goes right along with him.

They make their way clumsily down the hallway towards the bedrooms, a jumble of arms and legs and movement as clothes get shed along the way.

Thunder shakes the building as they enter her bedroom, but Katie barely hears it, her mind focused elsewhere as they pause and she runs her hands up and down Cook’s exposed chest and abs, her eyes trailing them. He shivers under her touch, and she looks back up into his eyes.

“Is this real?” he asks, his voice hoarse.

She surges forward, kissing him again, answering his question with her hands as they grasp his shoulders then stray down over his back. She answers again with her lips and her tongue as they play against his.

He picks her up and she wraps her legs instinctually around him before they crash onto the bed together. His hands are in her hair as he starts to kiss across her jaw line, his lips demanding as they reach her neck.

“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he breathes as he kisses across the top of her breast, reaching around and undoing her bra with ease as she arches off the bed to accommodate him.

She lets out a gasp as his hot breath hits her chest, his words impacting her afterwards. “Cook,” she murmurs, her hand tangling in his hair as his lips latch on to her right breast.

He ghosts kisses across to her other breast and sucks her nipple into his mouth as his fingers hook into her knickers.  She lifts her bum off the mattress and scoots back as he slides them down and throws them aside.

She pushes his boxers down in a rush, as he climbs back up her, their mouths meeting again in a fierce frenzy.

They move together seamlessly, bodies writhing together in their passion, his cock hard against her thigh.

“I think I love you,” she whispers into his mouth as he positions himself and starts to work his way slowly into her.

The kiss he responds with leaves no need for more words to be spoken.

.

.

Katie stretches before she opens her eyes. There’s a brightness in her room she’s aware of, lighting up the inside of her eyelids. She rubs her eyes and rolls onto her side, smiling as she sees Cook beside her still asleep.

He looks peaceful, more relaxed than she’s seen him since he got out. She bites her lower lip as she replays the night before, remembering just how much she’d exhausted him…how much they’d exhausted each other for that matter.

She moves closer and snuggles into his side, resting her head on his chest and breathing in deeply before letting out a contented sigh as his arm comes down automatically and cradles her to him.

She closes her eyes, still smiling to herself as she lets the gentle rise and fall of his chest lull her back towards sleep.

It’s not until she feels Cook’s hand wander to her breast and begin to massage it gently that she realises he’s awake too. “Fucking hell, Cook,” she mutters playfully, unable to keep the smile from her voice. “Always the perv.”

“Eh, you love it,” he responds, pinching her nipple lightly and placing a tender kiss into her hair.

She fully opens her eyes as she pulls herself up a bit so that her face is even with his. “Good morning,” she murmurs huskily.

“Good morning, sexy,” he replies with a broad grin.

Katie glances up and realises that the brightness in the room is the morning sun streaming through the windows.

It seems the rain has finally decided to stop. She turns back to Cook and kisses him softly.

Things, she thinks, are looking up.