Tom knows he's in the middle of a dream but he can't wake up and, for once, he doesn't want to. The sky over Evans' dam is a deep, cloudless blue and the sun shines down on the water, making it sparkle as he moves easily through it. There's the gentlest of breezes blowing, not enough to cool him down completely but just right to counter the heat of the sun, making it a perfect day for a swim. He ducks down underneath the water, swims a couple of metres before coming up for air and as he does, he hears laughter behind him.
The sound is familiar somehow, yet different enough that he can't place it immediately. Running a hand over his face, he pushes his hair out of his eyes, turns around so that he can see who it is -
And he wakes up with a gasp.
Immediately, the heat of the Australian sun beats down on him, reminding him where he is and he stands quickly, heads to the shower and hopes the warm water will wash away the last of the dream. It doesn't work though, any more than it's ever worked any time he's ever had that dream. It had started about a month after he'd left Cooper's Crossing, recurring every so often, and though he might have his guesses as to who was with him at Evans' dam - it's not like he'd taken a huge amount of women out there - he knows it's not Chris's laugh that he's hearing. He'd thought the dream might become more frequent once he was back in Australia, but no. His dreams up until now have all been African based, dying woman and children, their big eyes staring up at him, tears streaming down their cheeks as the camps were bombed around them. This is the first time he's had the swimming dream since he's been back in the country and maybe that's why it stays with him even as he heads out into the pasture ready to drill fence posts for the day, good honest hard work where he won't be able to think about the people - some patients, some not - who he's lost, won't be able to think about that dream.
Except it doesn't work like that, not today.
He knows he's in trouble when the drill slips and when he looks down, sees the deep gash on his leg, he knows, like he knows his own name, exactly what's going to happen next, what has to happen. He spends the next while assuring himself that there must have been a complete change of Flying Doctor personnel since his time, there's no reason for whoever comes out here to know who he is.
Then he hears a familiar voice. "Let's see what we have here," and the bed of the truck dips as someone climbs up on it.
And he knows, just like that, that there's a reckoning in his future, his very near future.
Lifting the hat from his face, he looks up into the shocked face of Chris Randall, the woman he still considers the love of his life, even after everything, the woman whose heart he knows he broke when he left for Africa.
He didn't know how much he'd missed hearing her say his name until just that moment and there are a million things he wants to say to her but they all die in his throat. He manages only "G'day, Chris," and he's only peripherally aware of the surprised faces and concerned glances from the others.
All he wants to do is look at her.
Instead, he looks down at the gash on his leg and pretends he doesn't hear her swallow as she does the same, pretends that the touch of her fingers against his skin isn't something that he's longed for for years now, isn't just as good as he remembers. Talking to her on the plane, in the hospital, that's another matter though. She thinks, along with the whole town, that he's the same old Tom, but he knows he's not. He's seen too much, been through too much for that. And being back in Cooper's Crossing, where it feels like time's stood still, is just too much for him, too painful, because it reminds him of everything he used to be, everything he walked away from.
And facing Chris is the hardest thing of all, because every time she looks at him, every time he looks into her eyes, sees the curve of her smile, all he wants to do is take her into his arms and never let her go again.
So he leaves, goes back to Windara and mends a few more literal fences rather than face the metaphorical ones.
Seems broken arms and legs keep finding him though, and he's patching them up until the day he finds himself helping out the RFDS, meeting Chris after she's been out all night tracking a diabetic girl and her father. She and Dougie are carrying the stretcher with the unconscious child on it and he meets her halfway, but not before he's seen the effect his presence has on her, how she pauses and catches her breath, like she can't believe he's there.
He takes the stretcher from her grasp, sits behind her on the plane trip back, and it feels like old times.
And he realises, somewhere between a night of worrying about her out there in the bush and sitting with her on the plane that he wants that, wants it more than anything he's wanted in quite a long time.
So he rejoins the service, rejoins the medics in Cooper's Crossing.
But he soon learns that it's not quite as easy as he wishes it were.
Chris knows that the Tom who came back from Africa is not the same Tom that she once knew. That's evident from day one in his snappish manner, the way that he disappears from the pub in the middle of the homecoming bash laid on by Vic and Nancy. And he explains it to her, he does, and once he explains about the things that he's seen, she can understand it, understand his pain, even if understanding doesn't make it easier to bear.
Once he comes back, rejoins the service, she thinks that things are going to get back to normal, or at least some new version of normal. It turns out, though, that things aren't that simple. Not always possessed of huge amounts of patience, it seems like Tom is quicker to anger now than he ever was and while Chris wouldn't want to be accused of paranoia, it seems like she's the one who usually bears the brunt of it.
She tells herself she's imagining things, even if she knows she isn't because the second looks and curious glances that seem to follow her and Tom around can't be explained away by paranoia. She doesn't talk to anyone about it, because after all, who can she talk to, but the answer to that particular question comes when there's a knock at the door one evening and it happens to be the very day that Kate Standish, née Wellings, has returned to town. Thus, Chris isn't the least bit surprised when she answers the door that evening and finds Kate standing there, a bottle of white wine in one hand and a half worried half curious expression on her face.
"Welcome back," she says as she pulls open the door and Kate gives her a look before she hugs her.
"We can catch up on all my news later," she says and Chris smiles as she leads the way into her kitchen where she finds her corkscrew and two glasses. "Tom's back? And he's working at the base again?"
"I'm sure Geoff has filled you in." It does nothing to divert Kate's attention but then, she hadn't really expected it too.
"Geoff is a man." Kate announces it with a desultory tone in her voice that Chris hasn't heard in a long time when her friends talks about her husband. "Men never notice all the important details. Besides, Geoff never knew Tom before, he never knew you and Tom before."
Chris pours herself a glass, goes to stop and, on second thought, makes it a large one. "He's not the same Tom we knew, Kate," she says, shaking her head. "He can't be... not after everything he's gone through."
Kate accepts the glass that Chris hands her. "But you're not the same after everything you've gone through," she points out, and Chris smiles sadly. "Fostering Zoe, getting involved with Mike, the tumour... have you talked to him about any of it?"
Chris shakes her head quickly. "I wouldn't know where to start," she says, leading the way into the living room. "Besides, it's not like he's exactly seeking me out for a chat."
"I heard." Kate's lips are pressed into a thin line and Chris suddenly wonders exactly what Geoff has noticed and reported back, no matter what Kate might profess to the contrary. "Geoff says he can be a little... abrupt."
Geoff has been soft selling it and Chris hides her smile in her wine glass. "Just a little." She lets her sarcasm bleed through. "He's not like the old Tom, Kate... but every so often I look at him, or I catch him looking at me and I can see him there... just out of reach. And I just can't find a way to get through to him. That's if he even wants me to."
Kate lifts one eyebrow. "Chris, I can't imagine a world where Tom Callaghan wouldn't want you. He adored you."
"Past tense." Chris knows her smile is tight and the wine isn't doing anything to loosen it. "We're not the same people any more."
"But you still love him." Chris looks down and Kate makes a noise of pure impatience. "Don't you dare try telling me you don't... it's written all over your face."
"Well, of course I do." The words come out with a force that surprises Chris. "I always have. Even with Mike..." That particular set of memories has her taking a long swallow of her wine. "I thought I was falling in love with him... I certainly wanted to. But the second I saw Tom again..." She sucks in a shuddering breath, looks up to the ceiling as she battles sudden tears.
"Are you going to tell him?" Kate's voice is very quiet, very gentle, and for a second, Chris can't quite make sense of the question.
Then she does and her heart breaks as a single tear rolls down her cheek. "How can I?" she asks. "After everything he's been through..."
"Chris, what about you? Everything you've been through? He deserves to know... maybe it'll wake him up."
Chris wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, shake her head. "I can't, Kate," she whispers. "I just can't..." She claps her hand over her lips to stifle the sob that she feels getting ready to escape and she hears Kate sigh as she takes the glass from her hand, lays it down beside hers on the table and pulls Chris into a hug, letting her cry.
three years ago...
Kate was worried about Chris.
It hadn't been lost on her, or anyone in Cooper's Crossing and the surrounding area, how hard the other woman was taking Tom's leaving. She did her best to put a brave face on it, and to some, she might have even succeeded, but Kate knew better. Kate saw her on the early morning and late night clinic runs, between patients in homesteads all over the Outback, reading charts in the nurses' station in the hospital, those moments when Chris wasn't aware of anyone watching her, those moments when she let her mask slip and Kate could see the devastation plain as day on her face. The new doctor wasn't exactly making things easier for her either because to say that Tom Callaghan and Geoff Standish were worlds apart in temperament was putting it mildly. Oh sure, Tom had had his moments, but that was all they had been, moments. Geoff was a cat of another colour and not, Kate thought with distaste, in a good way. After a month of working with him, Kate was more than ready for him to grow tired of the Outback and head back to the city, and good riddance too.
But in the last week, looking at Chris, Kate had noticed other things too, things that led her to stay late at the base one night after everyone else had gone home. Knocking on Chris's office door, she stepped inside and closed the door behind her as Chris looked up at her with a tired smile. "You can go home," she said as she placed a file on the stack already teetering precariously on the edge of her desk. "I won't be too much longer."
"You should go home too." Chris pressed her lips tightly together and looked down and maybe once upon a time, Kate would have taken the hint, left it at that. "You're looking tired."
Chris didn't look up as she took another file. "We're flat out. You know that."
"Is that all it is?" She'd surprised her, Kate could tell by the way that Chris froze ever so slightly, so slightly that even Kate might have missed it had she not been looking for it. "Because we've been flat out before... but we're always flat out. And I know you have your reasons for not sleeping well... but I've been watching you the last few weeks and you're getting worse, not better. You're not eating properly, I thought you were going to pass out when Molly Hogan offered you a cup of coffee on the clinic run yesterday..." Chris was looking at her now, face chalk pale but with two pale spots of red burning high on her cheeks. For all that, though, her face was a mask and Kate couldn't tell what she was thinking. All she could do was press on with her next question. "Chris... do you think it's possible you could be pregnant?"
There was a pause that seemed to stretch on forever before Chris sighed and set down her pen very carefully on her desk. "No," she said and Kate was about to argue the point until she continued, "I know I am." She was so matter of fact about it that it took the wind out of Kate's sails somewhat and Chris gave her a sad little smile. "I did a test yesterday... I'm probably about six weeks along, maybe seven."
Kate dropped down into the chair opposite Chris's desk. It was one thing to suspect, quite another thing to have her suspicions confirmed. "Have you told anyone?"
She didn't actually mean Tom, but that's what Chris interpreted it as. "I don't know how to get in touch with him," she said. "I can contact the organisation, find out... but I need some time to think first."
"Think about what?" The words were out before Kate could stop them and she knew that Chris was upset by the way that she sat up straight, lips pressed into a thin line, eyes glittering dangerously.
"He left, Kate. Left me, left us, when we were supposed to be planning a life together. So forgive me if I'm not sure that his first reaction will be to hand out cigars." She clamped her jaw shut, taking a deep breath as she did so. "Besides... I don't know what to tell him."
Kate blinked, a thought suddenly occurring to her. "Are you thinking about-"
She stopped at the look on Chris's face; clearly the thought had never occurred to her. Kate braced herself for another withering put down, but instead Chris shook her head slowly, leaning back in her chair. "No," she said softly. "No. I wasn't planning this... anything but actually. But now that it's happened..." Her voice trailed off, a tiny frown appearing on her face. "It's not going to be a popular decision though, is it?"
It happened to be the God's own truth and Kate, born and bred in Cooper's Crossing didn't even try to deny it. "Single woman, unmarried... there's going to be talk."
"You forgot a doctor." There was a small smile playing around Chris's lips. "I can hear the 'wouldn't you think she'd know better?' comments from here."
Kate could hear them too but that wasn't why she said, "For what it's worth? You're not alone... I mean, I know I'm not Tom... but if there's anything I can do..."
The small smile on Chris's face blossomed into a full fledged grin. "Thanks, Kate," she said. "That means a lot."
"Yeah, well..." Kate found herself grinning too. "What are friends for?"
They left the base together that night, Kate promising to keep Chris's secret until she was ready to tell people. It was a promise that she had every intention of keeping and she did.
Right up until the next week when she missed Chris in the middle of a clinic run and found her sitting on the stairs of the Ramsey property right outside the bathroom. Her face was pale, her eyes red and her arms were wrapped around her middle. Kate's stomach dropped at the sight. "Chris?" She kept her voice low and her stomach dropped even more at the look Chris gave her.
"I'm bleeding," she whispered. "And the cramps started a few minutes ago."
Which could only mean one thing. Kate closed her eyes, took a moment as a friend before flicking the switch on her brain and going into nurse mode. "I'll get Geoff." Chris opened her mouth as if to protest then closed it again, nodded once and let her head fall against the wall.
"Stay here," Kate said, as if she was going anywhere, then with one last look back, she went to the front of the property where she'd last seen Geoff.
He was just finishing up with a patient so she pulled him aside and for all the times she'd wanted to kill him since he started working with them, today she was grateful because he took one look at her face and frowned, asked one simple question. "What's wrong?" He let her talk without interrupting her, listened to what Kate was telling him, his face outwardly betraying nothing. Only someone who was standing as close to him as Kate was would be able to see the understanding of the implications of the situation the concern in his eyes, the tell-tale tightening of his lips. "Get her to the plane," he said so quietly that Kate could barely hear him. "If she can walk. Can she walk?"
Kate nodded. "I think so."
"Get Gibbo to help you if she can't." Geoff's eyes moved across the lawn to the patients still waiting for them. "I'll tell them Chris has been taken ill, I'll get over to see her in a few minutes, Mrs Ramsey's been after me to take a tea break for at least the last fifteen minutes, I'll do it then."
"Will she be ok on the plane? What if-"
"We'll get Gibbo to stay with her, he can get us if she needs us." Kate's doubt must have shown on her face because Geoff took a step closer to her. Over his shoulder, Kate could see two of the women looking at them and then exchanging raised eyebrow looks with each other and she knew exactly what the Bush Telegraph was going to be banging on about in the next few minutes. Normally, she'd rail to the high heavens about that; today she was just glad of the cover story. "Kate, you know as well as I do this is going to get worse before it gets better. If she's still here when the worst of it hits, people are going to work out what's wrong with her and it's all anyone's going to talk about for days. Weeks, even. Chris wouldn't want that. Besides, she'll have enough to deal with."
"You're right." For once, it didn't even irritate Kate. She took a deep breath, looked at him with what she hoped was a friendly enough expression just to keep the galahs chirping. "I'll get her over there now... stay til you get there?" It probably wasn't the best way to do a clinic run, being both a doctor and a nurse down, but it was a measure of how worried Geoff must be that he nodded.
"Ten minutes," he said, his hand landing on her elbow and squeezing gently.
The eyebrows Kate had noticed moments earlier went all the way up, but she didn't have time to worry about it. Making her way back into the house, she found Chris, still sitting where Kate had left her. She looked paler than she had then, her arms tighter around her stomach, her shoulders hunched up. Kate's heart ached just looking at her but she knew she had to put friendship aside as best she could. Chris needed her not to fall apart on her. "C'mon, Chris," she said, putting her arms around her friend's waist and helping her up. "We're gonna get you to the plane."
Chris's eyes showed her surprise but she didn't ask any questions. Instead she gave a little moan as she stood up, leaning heavily on Kate as they made their way through the property and out the back door towards the landing strip. As they walked, Gibbo came jogging up from the other direction. "Geoff said Chris was crook-" He stopped talking the second he laid eyes on Chris's face, his eyes going wide. "Jesus," Kate heard him mutter and she gave him a look that brought him up short. "Right. C'mere, you." He was by Chris's side in a second, scooping her up into his arms and carrying her to the plane. Her arms went around his neck and she let her head fall to his shoulder as she let out a little whimper that had the perpetually cheerful pilot tightening his jaw as his eyes flicked over to Kate. Once they were on the plane, he laid her down carefully on the bed before stepping into the cockpit and out of Kate's way.
Kate kneeled down beside Chris, kept her voice low. "Geoff's on his way, he'll be here in a few minutes."
Chris closed her eyes, turned her head away. "He can't do anything." Kate could barely hear the whisper but she didn't miss the tear that trickled down Chris's cheek. All she could do was take her hand and hold it until she heard the steps of the plane creak, felt it rock as Geoff climbed in, dropping his medical bag beside the door. Even that small movement of the plane had Chris pressing her lips together to hold back a cry and Kate looked up at Geoff, saw that, when it was just them, he wasn't even bothering to hide his worry.
"How is she?" he asked and Kate shook her head.
"Not good," she told him, standing up so that he could kneel down beside Chris. She watched as he took her pulse before lifting his hand to smooth back her hair, his other hand running over Chris's abdomen, making her moan.
"We're going to get through the rest of the clinic as quickly as we can," he told her. "Then we'll have you back home in no time." Kate half expected him to pull out the usual platitudes - "you're going to be fine," "it's going to be ok," all that kind of stuff. But Geoff didn't do that, just kept running his hand over her hair as Chris turned her head to look at him, huge tears rolling down her cheeks. Gently, carefully, Geoff reached out and wiped them away and there was an expression of such tenderness on his face that Kate couldn't look at them. "I'm going to give you a shot of pethidine," she heard Geoff say and she knew her role, reached for his medical bag and snapped the clasp open. "It'll help." He turned as if to fetch the bag himself, blinking in surprise when he saw Kate holding it, already open. "Thank you," he said with surprise in his voice, almost like he'd forgotten Kate was there.
"Is that wise?" she couldn't help asking and Geoff looked back over his shoulder at Chris. Her eyes were closed, but pain was etched in every muscle of her body. Geoff sighed.
"There's nothing we can do except let nature take its course." In the few weeks they'd been working together, she'd never heard him sound so sorry to be delivering bad news. "At least with the pethidine she'll sleep through the worst of it... it'll make her more comfortable on the flight home too, you saw how she was when I came in..." He sighed again, rubbed a hand over his forehead. "It's all I can do." He sounded apologetic, like he was letting her down and Kate bought her hands to her lips, sucked in a deep breath. "Are you ok?"
The question took her completely by surprise. "Me?" It also restored some of her equilibrium. "I'm fine. You worry about her."
Geoff's lips quirked up in the ghost of a smile. "They're not mutually exclusive you know." With that, he turned back to Chris, drew up the shot and administered it all while Kate was still trying to stop her head from spinning. Geoff wasn't watching her though, which was a good thing. All his attention was on Chris, one hand on her head, moving over her hair, the other on her wrist, feeling her pulse. Kate didn't know how long he stayed there, she wasn't looking at the clock, but eventually he stood up, gave her another of those little half smiles. "My tea break must be up by now," he said. "I'll get back to it. Come when you're ready."
And then he was gone, leaving Kate staring after him in shock, wondering who exactly Geoff Standish was - the arrogant man she'd spent the last few weeks fighting with, or the gentle caring one she'd just seen?
She jumped at the sound of Gibbo's voice - she'd been so intent on Chris that she had actually forgotten he was there. Her hand went to her chest and she took a deep breath in, smiling an apology at the pilot. He tilted his head in silent acknowledgement, then tilted it again in Chris's direction. "She's gonna be ok?"
"Just a touch of stomach flu," Kate told him, the first thing she could think of, and Gibbo gave her a version of the look that she'd given him right before he'd taken Chris into his arms and carried her to the plane.
"Since when do you give pethidine for the stomach flu?" he asked pointedly and Kate had to give him that. "Look, Kate, I'm just the pilot, I know that... but two and two makes four no matter what your qualification is, you know?" Kate did, in fact, know that and she looked down at Chris, finding herself fighting back tears. It was a surprise to her when Gibbo closed the gap between them, pulled her into a hug, resting his chin on the top of her head. "You reckon I could fly this thing to Africa, find Tom and pound some sense into him?"
He sounded as if he was really considering it and suddenly Kate was fighting back a giggle. "It's a bit out of range, Gibbo," she told him. "But if you figure it out, let me know... I'll help."
At first Kate is sure that Geoff and Chris must be exaggerating the change in Tom since he's been back. After all, she's known him longer than either of them and with the way things ended between Tom and Chris, it was always going to be awkward between them. And knowing her husband, Kate reckons his overprotective big brotherly tendencies towards Chris have probably put Tom's back up, more than likely without either of them knowing it. It'll be different with her, she knows it.
That knowledge lasts approximately the length of her first clinic run when she realises that if anything, Geoff and Chris were soft selling things.
By the time she gets back to the base, she feels like she's been in a war zone herself, which is an unfortunate metaphor given Tom's travels, but she can't help that. She's been walking on eggshells the entire clinic run and on the flight home, she'd sat up front with Sam just to have someone relaxed to talk to. Except even the usually garrulous pilot had a thin line of tension running along his shoulders, wasn't much for conversation which made her even more tense. Therefore, she's extremely happy that the first thing she sees when she gets inside is Geoff standing at the door of his office. Sometimes, when she's gone all day on a clinic run, he'll go home before her and she'll walk into their house to the smell of dinner cooking, bottle of wine already open and two glasses beside it. Ordinarily, that's her favourite way to end the day, today she's incredibly grateful that he stuck around the base. He takes one look at her, tilts her head back in definite invitation and while usually she'd be a whole lot more circumspect, she makes a beeline for him.
He has the grace, or at the very least the good sense to step out of her way, let her into the office before closing the door behind her and pulling her into his arms. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she buries her face in his shoulder. "I thought you were exaggerating," she mutters after a few moments and she feels him huff a laugh into her hair.
"Me, exaggerate?" His voice is muffled but she can hear the grin there. "Never in a million years."
It's a fairly pathetic quip as far as jokes go but it makes her laugh as she straightens up. "I knew it was bad," she says. "I mean, I've seen him around here and he's been less than chatty... but put him and Chris anywhere near one another..."
"And you could cut the atmosphere with a knife." Geoff doesn't sound surprised, just sad. "Mostly from one direction."
Kate sighs heavily, shakes her head. "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes..."
"He's been through a lot, Kate," Geoff reminds her and she knows that, she does. She also knows it's not a one way street.
"And Chris hasn't? If he knew half of what's gone on here since he left... I bet he hasn't thought to ask either, just like a man..."
She stops abruptly at that but Geoff doesn't rise to the bait, just chuckles as he squeezes her shoulders. "No comment."
"I didn't mean you." Geoff looks at her with a tilt to his head and slightly narrowed eyes and she has to concede his unspoken point. "This time," she allows and he laughs as he pulls her back in for a hug. His hands move up and down her back and she closes her eyes, takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, more grateful than she can say for his presence, his knack of knowing exactly what to say to her. It's so far removed from what she'd initially thought about him that it still surprises her sometimes just how wrong she'd been about him back in the day. Well, right about some things, she knows - just not about the things that really matter. "Take me home," she asks softly and when he draws back, his eyes are narrowed.
"I was going to suggest the pub," he says. "I'm not sure what's in for dinner..."
Kate laughs softly as she straightens up. "I'll be happy with cheese on toast if it means I don't have to deal with people," she says and she means every word.
Opening his mouth to reply, whatever Geoff is going to say is cut off by the sound of two voices coming from the office next door. Geoff's eyes are immediately drawn to the wall, Kate's too, and she fights back a groan. Yes, the partition is thin, but it's not that thin. "Don't tell me they're up for round two," she mutters, but the slam of a door puts that possibility to rest.
Kate is moving before she even realises it, Geoff at her heels and they reach the hall just in time to see Chris at the front door of the base, a thunderous look on her face. Tom is standing at the entrance to DJ's radio cubicle, his face impassive but spots of colour flaming high on his cheeks. He calls out Chris's name and she pauses for the briefest of moments before she huffs out a breath of air and walks out.
"What did you say now?" Kate hears the words flying from her lips and she knows straight away that they're the wrong thing to say. She shouldn't be talking like this to a colleague, to a doctor. But it's the end of her shift, and the only people here are Geoff and DJ and, from what she's heard from the latter anyway, he'll be on her side.
Tom turns to her, his eyes wide, his expression still unreadable. "I don't know-"
"Oh come off it, Tom, of course you do!" Kate can't stop herself, not that she tries very hard. "Ever since you've been back, you've been chipping away at her every chance you get - she says up, you say down. She says it's black, you say it's white. I was on that clinic run with the two of you all day today... Chris could have walked on water and all you'd have asked was why wasn't she swimming." He looks stricken at her words, like it's never occurred to him before and Kate realises, with stunned insight, that it probably hasn't. Which only serves to make her even more angry. "Look, Tom, I know you had it tough out in Africa." Kate bites out the words, only keeping from screaming them at the top of her lungs with considerable force of will. "But you have absolutely no idea what Chris has been through since you left her high and dry holding-"
"Kate." Geoff is standing beside her, her voice quiet but firm. His hand is gentle on her arm, his fingers exerting only the slightest bit of pressure but it's enough to bring her back to her senses, to have her pressing her lips together so that no more words can slip out. The knowledge of how close she'd come to blurting out Chris's secret has her looking down in shame, cursing her temper. She half expects to see recrimination in Geoff's eyes when she looks up at him but what she sees instead is understanding, sympathy even.
Geoff looks over at Tom, who is looking between the two of them. His brow is furrowed in a frown, his face a mask of confusion. In all her years of working with him, Kate has never seen him look so completely lost for words, and that includes all the times when he had to field several head scratching requests from Violet Carnegie and the fine women of the C.W.A. "Africa might have been hell, Tom," Geoff says and he's using that firm voice of his, the one that tells Kate and anyone else who might be listening that he's not going to be argued with. It strikes Kate suddenly that, unlike most people around Cooper's Crossing, Geoff never knew Tom before Africa. He only met him when he stepped off the plane from Windara Station with a busted leg and a bad attitude. Chris, on the other hand, he's worked with for the last three years, has literally fought death - hers, his and countless others - with her during that time. The rest of the Crossing might have divided loyalties, but Kate knows that despite what he might have said a few minutes ago in his office, her husband has no such confusion - if there's a side to be picked, Geoff will be Team Chris all the way. "But the last few years here haven't been easy either. For Chris more than any of us." Geoff slides his hand down Kate's arm, laces their fingers together and squeezes. Tom's eyes narrow still further and he opens his mouth. Before he can speak, Geoff cuts him off. "It's not our place to say any more than that. But if I were you, I'd pull your head out of your arse and talk to Chris."
In all the time she's known Geoff, she's heard him speak like that only a handful and Kate feels like her eyes are going to fall out of her head. "Come on," Geoff says, squeezing her hand again. "Let's go home."
For once, she lets him drag her out of the base, away from Tom's questioning glance and DJ's awkward attempts to look down at the radio and pretend like he wasn't listening, like he hadn't heard a thing. Once they're out on the path, heading to the car, Geoff turns to her and she's ready to defend herself for what she said, or nearly said, is ready to admit her temper nearly took her too far. He doesn't let her speak though. Instead he tilts his head and says quietly, "I think we'd better call Chris, don't you?"
three years ago...
Chris was lying on her couch, feet curled up on the cushions, a blanket loosely covering them, when she heard a hesitant knock at the screen door. For a long moment, she debated getting up to answer it at all. Surely if there was no answer, whoever it was would assume she wasn't there, or was asleep, and just go away. The moment the thought ran through her head, she dismissed it. For one thing, if it was Kate or Geoff, or both of them together, as unlikely as that was, they were more likely to try to break down the door if she didn't answer, fearing that she'd collapsed in an unresponsive heap somewhere. For another, if it was anyone else in Cooper's Crossing, they'd just keep knocking until they wore her down, probably having ascertained already that she was neither in the pub nor at the base. Sighing, she pushed herself into a sitting position just as the knock came again, moved slowly to the door on legs that were shakier now than they'd been all day, probably as a result of her lying down on the couch for so long.
When she opened up the front door, she knew her surprise was plain on her face, and definitely in her words. "What are you doing here?" might not have been the most welcoming greeting she'd ever extended in her life, but Gibbo didn't look the slightest bit perturbed by it. Instead, he just held up a brown bag, his usual smile on his face. Still though, Chris couldn't help but notice that it didn't quite meet his eyes.
"Geoff said you were taking a few days off. I, ah, didn't think you'd be up to cooking, so I asked Sharon to do a fridge raid at the pub. We managed to cobble you together some salad and a few turkey sandwiches." She stared at him, not having expected that and he swallowed, shuffled on his feet. "It's Nancy's cooking," he reminded her. "The good stuff."
Chris felt herself smiling, relaxing, even as she leaned heavily on the door. "I've eaten your cooking," she told him, and he looked down, more than likely remembering those occasions when it had been her and Tom and him, with him good naturedly grumbling about being a third wheel. She and Tom had always reassured him that they didn't mind in the least, while secretly counting the minutes until he left them alone. She pushed the memories away with some effort. "You shouldn't sell yourself short."
Gibbo tilted his head. "Not something I've ever been accused of doing." She laughed at that, or maybe it was the expression on his face when he waggled his eyebrows. "So, you gonna let me in?"
The last thing she wanted was company but she found herself opening the door anyway. He stepped past her and watched her as she pushed it closed, waiting for her to turn before he walked into her living room. It was a good job he did too because she got light-headed suddenly, found the room tilting around her and she had to reach out and grab the wall to steady herself. Not that she needed to because Gibbo was there in a flash, dropping the brown paper bag on the hall table, his arms going around her waist, supporting her weight easily.
"You're ok." He said the words before she could. "Come on, let's get you into the couch." She wanted to tell him that she was more than capable of walking under her own steam but the words died in her throat when she tried to put one foot in front of the other and it took all her energy to do even that. Swallowing her pride, she let Gibbo all but carry her to the couch and he set her down gently, so gently that she felt tears beginning to rise up her throat. "I'll get you some water," he said and by the time he'd located a glass and filled it, came back and was kneeling in front of her, she felt much better. Also much more embarrassed. "I put the food into your fridge," he told her, still down on one knee in front of her, one hand on her knee. She really hoped that no-one walked in, or there'd be a whole new set of rumours doing the rounds in Cooper's Crossing. "Didn't seem like you were in the form to eat it. Maybe later, eh?"
"Yeah." Chris sipped her water, tried to smile. "Silly virus."
It was the lie she and Geoff and Kate had come up with so that the town wouldn't rally around, demanding to know her business. A virus was nice and nondescript, and more importantly for a doctor, non-contagious. Still though, when she said it to Gibbo, he frowned. "Some virus," he said and then it was her turn to look down as she felt her cheeks grow hot. Gibbo's hand tightened on her knee and when he spoke, his voice was more gentle than she'd ever heard it. "Look, Chris, I'm not a doctor, or a nurse, I'm just the pilot. And I might be just a bloke, but I'm not an idiot." The tears that had been in her throat made a reappearance, higher this time, somewhere around the back of her eyes. "Do I need to take the plane over to Africa and kick Tom's arse for him? Because I will."
He was half teasing yet half in earnest and the words made Chris laugh and cry in equal measure. "He doesn't know," she whispered and Gibbo moved from kneeling in front of her to sitting on the couch beside her. Looping one long arm around her shoulders, he pulled her closer to him and she went willingly, more than happy to lean against him. "First I wasn't sure how to get in touch with him... then when I was, I wasn't sure what to tell him. I was going to do it tomorrow..." A single tear ran down her cheek and she made no move to brush it away, not when she had a feeling it was only going to be the first of many.
"You know he would have come back, right? You know that." Chris narrowed her eyes, unsure of that, and she felt Gibbo lean his head back so that he was looking down at her. "Chris, the bloke was head over heels for you."
"Not enough to stay." She felt her heart break all over again at the simple truth. "And if he had come back just because I was..." She faltered over the word, couldn't bring herself to say it aloud, not now. "Would he have been happy?"
"Yes." Gibbo didn't sound like he had a doubt in the world but Chris wasn't so sure.
"I wouldn't have wanted to trap him like that," she said and Gibbo's response was succinct, a snort of derision and one word.
As much as she wanted to - and she really wanted to - in that moment, Chris knew she couldn't deny it. She wanted Tom back, wanted it more than anything and however that was accomplished, she wouldn't have cared. She wondered briefly if that made her a bad person, if her miscarriage was some kind of punishment for being so selfish, as if losing Tom in the first place hadn't been punishment enough for being too selfish, to wrapped up in her own career, her own needs, to go with him. Oh, she knew, in the back of her mind that such thoughts were ridiculous, the result of a broken heart, of hormones run amock, but here, tonight, they were all she had.
"I wish he was here," she heard herself whisper and she was surprised when Gibbo reached up, wiped away the tears from her cheeks.
"One day," he said, "he's going to waltz back into Cooper's Crossing, drop down on one knee and give the galah session something to remember for the next hundred years. Of course, I'm going to kick his arse for breaking your heart in the first place, which means they'll have something to talk about for the next two hundred years... but he will come back, Chris. I'm sure of it."
Chris pressed her lips together. "I'm not." The words were accompanied by a sob and Gibbo didn't say anything after that, just pulled her close and, wrapped in his arms, he let her cry until there were no tears left.
When Chris answers the phone and hears Kate's voice on the other end, cautious and hesitant, she knows that whatever she's going to hear can't be good. That suspicion is confirmed when her friend tells her about the conversation - well, fight is more like it - that she had with Tom where she took issue with his treatment of Chris.
"I'm sorry, Chris," Kate says and Chris knows she means it. "All I could think about was everything you went through after he left and he doesn't know the half of it and I just got so mad..."
Chris sighs. "It's all right, Kate," she says, even though she's not so sure that it is. "It had to come out somehow." That much is the truth - she's been in Cooper's Crossing long enough to know that gossip travels faster than the speed of light and nothing, no matter how hard you try, how much you want it to, stays a secret for long. She's actually had quite a good innings.
"I feel like I should also point out that while I shot my mouth off first, Geoff was the one who told Tom to pull his head out of his arse and talk to you." Chris can't quite reconcile vocabulary like that with the Geoff that she knows, not the Geoff that frequents the RFDS base anyway. Geoff when he's trying to save a patient's life, on the other hand, has quite the colourful tongue but, then again, Chris knows that every doctor does, even her. Any possibility that Kate might be making that up, however, vanishes when Chris hears an indignant, "Hey!" in the background, followed by a very unapologetic, "Sorry," from Kate. She belies that word in the very next breath, dropping her voice to tell Chris, "So really, if Tom comes calling, it's all Geoff's fault."
At that precise moment - and really, Chris would roll her eyes if she didn't think that the universe hated her just that much and she was actually expecting it - there's a knock on her door and one glance out the front window tells her that it's Tom. "Tell your husband he owes me a week's worth of drinks in the pub," she says and Kate inhales sharply.
"Do you want us to come over? I'll stay with you and Geoff can kick his arse." Chris has a sudden flash of memory, Gibbo sitting on her couch and saying much the same thing. It makes her head swim and she almost misses Kate's next words. "Or, you know, the other way around."
"I'll be all right." Chris tries to sound confident but if Kate's tone is any indication, she may not have pulled it off too well.
"Call me if you need me. Hell, call me if you don't need me. You're sure you're ok?"
Chris smiles as another knock, more impatient this time, rattles the door. "I'll see you tomorrow."
When she answers the door, Tom's hand is raised, poised to knock again. In the split second before surprise shows on his face, she takes in every emotion that's showing on his face, from the stubborn set of his lips and jaw to the frown lines etched on his forehead and between his eyes. When he actually registers that she's standing in front of him, he blinks, his eyes moving all over her body before coming back, to rest on her face. "I didn't think you were in."
Chris takes a deep breath, steeling herself as she reaches for the handle of the screen door. "I was on the phone."
A flicker of recognition lights his eyes. "Let me guess," he tries. "Early warning system?"
She steps back to let him in. "Kate mentioned you might be stopping by," is all she says, turning around and heading into her living room. She doesn't expand on that, doesn't ask him in - she's pretty sure he'll follow her no matter what.
She had intended to sit down on the couch but when she gets there, she can't. Memories of that night sitting there with Gibbo, him holding her as she cried, are crowding her head and she takes a deep breath as she turns to face Tom, stays standing. She thinks he might come to stand close to her, but he stays on the other side of the room, his hands in his trousers pockets, his shoulders somewhere around his ears. She waits for him to speak and what he comes out with makes her smile. "So, apparently, I've been an arse to you."
Chris lifts both eyebrows, stares him down. "It took two of our friends to tell you that?" she asks.
"And a couple dozen looks from various people that range from confused to downright dirty, not to mention hearing Nancy ask Vic to talk to me about how I should treat a woman." He looks embarrassed and Chris is sure that he is - what she's not sure about is how much of that embarrassment comes from him over the way he's been treating her and how much is more to do with how people are talking about him in less than favourable terms. The Tom she knew had always had difficulty with people seeing him as less than perfect, hated saying no to people for fear of disappointing them. It had been one of the things they'd often disagreed on. "Kate and Geoff going off on me was the last straw."
"So you're admitting it then? That they're right?"
Tom sucks in a deep breath, tilts his head back and looks at the ceiling. "Yes, they are right." Every word is forced out, like a tooth being pulled and he can't - or maybe won't - look at her. "I've treated you badly... and not just in the last few weeks either."
She never thought she'd hear those words come from his mouth and hearing them lifts a weight from her shoulders that she hadn't even known she was carrying. She still wasn't going to let him off the hook too easily though, not when there were more answers she needed to hear. "Do I get to know why? Or is this our new normal?"
"I hope not." The answer comes so quickly that it can't be a lie. He lifts a hand, scrubs it across his face. "It was hell out there, Chris... you know that, I've told you some of it." She does, just like she knows that what he has told her most likely hardly scratches the surface. She'd let it go, sure that he'd talk to her when he was ready. The last few weeks have had her wondering if her trust was misplaced. "Coming back here... seeing everyone, seeing you... it all seems the same. Like I've never left. But I did leave and I'm not the same person I was then but everyone's treating me like I am..." He shakes his head, turns away from her. "It's confusing. And I guess I lash out at you because..."
"Because?" When he doesn't finish the sentence, she prompts him, does it again when he turns to her and just stares at her. "Why, Tom?"
"Because." The word comes out on a heavy sigh. "Because of everyone here, everyone in Cooper's Crossing... you're the one who meant the most to me. You always did." A pause, another sigh. "You still do."
Chris snorts at that, she can't help it. "You've got a funny way of showing it, Tom Callaghan."
He looks stricken, takes a step towards her then visibly checks himself, stopping like any advances he makes might not be welcome. "Like I keep saying... my social skills are a little the worse for wear." He makes a face. "Or it could be that I'm just a bloke."
Whatever he's about to say next is cut off by Chris's very loud, and very sudden sob.
Which she hates herself for doing when she'd sworn she was going to be so strong and in control when she and Tom finally had it out, but she can't help it. Because those words were some of the exact words that Gibbo had said to her the night she'd cried on his shoulder, the night that he'd sworn to her that one day Tom would be back in town and he'd personally kick his arse for the way he treated her. She'd give anything - anything - to be able to tell Gibbo that he was right after all and she's honest enough to admit that there's a tiny bit of her that would relish seeing that arse-kicking in person.
Except that Tom doesn't know, can't know, any of that. All he can see is her falling to pieces in front of him and Chris tries, she does, to pull herself together. Clapping one hand over her mouth, she closes her eyes in an effort to prevent tears from falling and she stands very still because maybe then she won't shake.
That's when disaster happens.
Because Tom says her name with such tenderness, such worry in his voice, that it could be three years ago again, back when they were everything to each other. It wrenches another sob from deep within her chest and when she hears him cross the room, when she feels him wrap his arms around her and pull her into his chest, there is nothing else she can do but fall against him and sob. She cries for him and everything he saw in Africa, for herself and everything she went through without him. She cries for the baby she never got to hold, for Gibbo and his big smile and bigger heart, and she cries for them and all that they could have been.
And when she can't cry any more, she lifts her head and looks into Tom's eyes. What she sees there nearly makes her want to cry again, because he's looking at her the way he used to on quiet nights in when it was just the two of them. She'd given up hope of ever seeing that look again and she drops her head against his shoulder, sucks in a shuddering breath. He lifts one hand up, runs it over her hair, down the back of her neck and letting it come to rest on her shoulder. He rubs there gently and she looks back up at him again and once again, she waits.
"Chris..." When he does speak, it's slow, careful, as if he's just realised something and is afraid of what she's about to say. "What happened to you?"
It's a simple enough question but the answer is anything but and Chris knows that this is a conversation that simply must be had sitting down. She inclines her head towards the couch and he takes the hint, walks over there with her without taking his arm from around her shoulders. Once sitting, he takes her hand in his, sits facing her so close that their knees are touching.
This time, he waits for her.
"When you left..." She drops her eyes to their joined hands as she speaks, because it's easier than looking in his eyes. "What I didn't know... what I only found out a month later..." She runs her tongue over her suddenly dry lips and maybe he senses what she's about to say because he breathes in sharply. She looks up at that, sees his face blank with shock. "I was pregnant," she tells him quietly. "And I wanted to tell you, I did, I would have but at first I didn't know how to get in touch with you... I didn't know how you'd react, I didn't want you to think I was trapping you..."
"Chris..." Shock gives way to amazement and he shakes his head. "Chris, I would never think that about you."
Which is what Gibbo had said and Chris can practically picture him standing in the corner of the room, arms crossed, shit-eating grin on his face, wagging his finger in an "I told you so" gesture. Closes her eyes, she tells him that he was right, hopes that wherever he is, he can hear her.
Tom's hand squeezes hers and she opens her eyes again. "I was going to tell you," she says. "But I miscarried before I could." He must have guessed what had happened but he still reacts as if she's slapped him, his face twisting in pain. "It was in the middle of a clinic run," she continues, the words tumbling from her lips. "Kate and Geoff were both with me... they put me on the plane, Gibbo kept an eye on me until it was time to come back... we told everyone that it was a virus and that was that. Except Violet was convinced that it was heartbreak catching up to me and made it her personal mission to keep me supplied with lammingtons and lemon cake." It's funny now, to her at least, but Tom doesn't laugh. "Geoff, Kate, Gibbo... they were the only ones who knew the truth." She shrugs her shoulders. "After that, there didn't seem any point in telling you... I mean, you were over there, helping to save people's lives, you couldn't do anything here..."
"I would have." His voice is low, intense, as intense as the way he looks at her when he brings their joined hands to his lips. "I would have come back the second you told me."
"And in time, you would have resented me." He shakes his head, but his eyes tell a different story and that's fine by Chris. She's long since made peace with this particular part of their story. "You needed to go over there, you needed to get that out of your system. And if you found your way back here... well, maybe we could look at things again." She reaches out, touches his cheek. "I wasn't expecting you to be so different."
Tom chuckles, but there's no humour in it. "And there I thought that was my line." He shifts, moves closer to her, something she would have said wasn't possible, but he seems to manage it anyway. She can feel the warmth of his body through the leg of his trousers pressed up against her bare leg and she fights, with everything she has, the urge to lean into his body, to melt against him and never let go. "Every time I looked at you, you were just the same old Chris. A few changes." He reaches up, touches her hair and she couldn't stop the shiver that courses through her if she tried. "But still Chris. My Chris. I never knew..."
He stops talking when she lifts her hand from his, bringing both hands to the buttons of her blouse. He blinks as she begins to slowly unbutton them one by one, looking at her like she's got ten heads. "Chris, I don't know what you think you're doing but-" He stops when she's halfway down the line of buttons and her bra is clearly visible, but she knows it's not the sight of her chest that's rendered him speechless. Or rather it is, but more specifically it's the long white scar that runs along her sternum, the scar he's never seen before, the scar she's never shown anyone else.
He stares at it for what seems like an interminably long time. Then he reaches out and slowly, ever so slowly, runs one finger along the mark. He looks slightly dazed, slightly horrified and he opens and closes his mouth a few times before she figures out that he's actually not capable of speech right now. "An intramural pheochromocytoma," she tells him and he closes his eyes, obvious pain written in every line of his face. "Almost a year ago." He drops his hand and she starts busily fastening the buttons back up, sure that with her luck, someone would come along and find her and Tom sitting there like that, her in a state of undress and put two and two together and make fifty. Best case scenario it would be Kate or Geoff, but even at that, they'd have more than their fair share of questions for her and she doesn't know if she'd ever be able to answer them all. "So now you know."
She stops fastening buttons when his hands, cold in contast to his warm body, close over hers. She drags her eyes up to his face and her breath catches in her throat when she sees tears in his eyes. It's the same look that was on his face when he'd told her about what finally made him leave Africa, about the camps being bombed and the little girl dying in his arms. What's different though is that then, the tears stayed in his eyes, or at least fell when his back was to her. Now, as she watches, one rolls down his cheek, then another and another. She's shocked, because she's never seen him cry before and she reacts on instinct, breaking the hold his hands have on hers and winding her arms around his neck, pulling him into a hug. It's her turn to hold him as he cries, but he pulls himself together a damn sight faster than she'd been able to. When he straightens up, he rubs at his face and then, after a look at her, reaches out and cups her face in his hands. She'd been crying too, she realises when he wipes the tears away with the pads of his thumbs but when her cheeks are dry, he doesn't drop his hands.
"You," he says softly, "are an amazing woman, Chris Randall."
There is untold admiration in his voice, but that's not what causes Chris's cheeks to flush, what causes her heart to beat faster. That's all to do with what she sees in his eyes, and it's far more than admiration. It's the look that he always used to get right before he kissed her, the look that always ended up with the two of them wrapped up in each other and completely oblivious to the world around them.
That look always took her breath away and a gap of years hasn't done anything to change that.
Especially not when she realises that he's staring at her lips, his own slightly parted. One of his thumbs sweeps up and down her cheek and her eyes flutter shut of their own accord. He repeats the movement and her eyelids feel heavy as she forces them open, realises he's closer than he was a moment ago and she's not sure which one of them has moved. She breathes his name, but that's all she's capable of doing right now and his lips curl in a smile.
"Kiss me quick?" he says and those three simple words have her head spinning, joy and hope and memory bursting out in a breathless laugh.
"What, now?" she says, remembering her line and he smiles too, right before he does now exactly what he did all those years ago, or almost. Then, the kiss had been quick, passionate and hopeful all at once. This kiss is slower, more tentative, his lips moving against hers carefully, like he doesn't want to push her too far, like he's afraid of what might happen if he does. Chris lifts her hands so that they can tangle in his hair, shifts so that she's pressing more closely against him. He makes a little noise in the back of his throat which she takes to be approval and she opens her mouth to deepen the kiss, shuddering with pleasure as his hands move from her face down to her side.
She lets herself get lost in how good this feels, how right it is, and she only comes back to herself when Tom pulls away, just enough so that she can look at him. She's half lying on the couch, she realises, with his body pressed on top of hers and he's frowning as he reaches up to touch her cheek. "You're crying," he tells her and she's shocked to realise he's right.
"Happy tears," she tells him and his frown changes into a smile as he leans forward to kiss her again.
When Chris wakes, she's alone in her bed and for a second, she thinks that she dreamed the whole conversation with Tom and all that came after. But as she shifts to look around, she feels the rustle of sheets across her naked skin and there's a pleasant ache between her thighs that she hasn't felt in much longer than she cares to think about. Sitting up, she sees a familiar looking checked shirt lying on the floor and she grins to herself. Definitely not a dream then. Plus if his shirt is still here, then so is Tom - no way would the ever so proper Tom Callaghan walk out of her house in a state of undress, the rumour mill would never recover.
A wicked impulse seizes her and she slips out of bed, grabs the shirt from the floor and puts it on. She only does up a couple of the buttons - hopefully it won't be staying on for long - and she pads down the hallway in search of Tom.
She finds him in the kitchen, standing with his back to the door, wearing trousers that are a damn sight more rumpled and creased than he'd usually let himself be caught in. She can smell the scent of toast in the air, hears the rough sound of a knife scraping across the bread but she can't take her eyes off the ripples of the muscles of his back as he moves. And yes, fine, there are a few red scratches she can see that have her biting her lip in what should probably be shame but somehow is anything but.
"You going to stand there all night?" He doesn't turn around but she can hear the smile in his voice. Taking the hint, she comes to stand beside him, slides her left hand onto his left hip, lets her right hand rest on his right elbow as she presses her cheek against his bicep.
The rush of goosebumps that erupts along his skin when she kisses him there makes her smile inwardly. "Keeping your strength up?" she quips as she sees the plate of toast he's made, a quick glance in the direction of the toaster letting her know two more are forthcoming.
He shrugs his left shoulder, the one she's not leaning against. "More like both our strength." He drops a kiss to the top of her head. "I know it's not fine dining but I didn't exactly want to be rattling around your kitchen for hours..."
Chris arches an eyebrow. "Somewhere else you'd rather be?"
"Yes." Tom doesn't blink and ok, she has to kiss him when he's saying things like that, looking at her like that. So she does and he responds quite enthusiastically, wrapping his arms around her waist and lifting her off her feet. They stay like that until the toaster popping interrupts them and she knows her cheeks are as pink as his are. He sets her down and she watches him as he goes to the toaster, brings the two slices back to the table and starts buttering them too. While he's doing that, she goes to the fridge, grabbing two glasses on the way, and pours them some orange juice. When she looks back at he's staring at her, eyes dark as they roam over her body.
"Nice shirt," he says and she grins as she puts an extra swing in her hips as she walks back to him.
"This old thing?" She tries for nonchalance but she suspects she misses it by a mile the way her voice comes out a little higher than usual, a little breathless. Maybe that's to do with the way his hand tugs at the hem of the shirt before moving underneath it, finding the soft skin of her hip. His fingers flex against her and she feels her body starting to respond to him before he drops his hand, hands her a slice of toast with the other.
"Less of the old," he tells her, his voice almost a growl and she grins as he leans down and brushes a kiss across her lips.
She'd skipped dinner so the toast hits the spot nicely, especially when they eat it in her bed, curled up in one another's arms. Sure, crumbs get everywhere but Chris figures they've done a pretty good number on the sheets already. Besides, when Tom lays her back on the bed and covers her body with his, she has other things to think about.
Tom knows he's in the middle of a dream but he can't wake up and, for once, he doesn't want to. The sky over Evans' dam is a deep, cloudless blue and the sun shines down on the water, making it sparkle as he moves easily through it. There's the gentlest of breezes blowing, not enough to cool him down completely but just right to counter the heat of the sun, making it a perfect day for a swim. He ducks down underneath the water, swims a couple of metres before coming up for air and as he does, he hears laughter behind him.
He turns and he expects to wake up because that's what always happens.
This time is different.
This time, as he treads water, pushing his hair back and shaking droplets of water out of his eyes, he's able to see who's there with him and his breath catches in his throat at the sight. Her hair is longer again, damp curls brushing her shoulders, and unlike most times he took her out to Evans' dam, she's wearing a simple one piece swimsuit.
She's near the edge of the water, it's lapping around her ankles and she's not alone. There's a little boy with her who looks to be about three years old, curly haired like Chris, black haired like him. As Tom watches, Chris lifts the boy up, holds him high in the air and the kid shakes his head, drops of water making mini rainbows in the air as they hit Chris's face. She laughs, the sound carrying clearly across the water and the boy turns his head, his eyes, so like Tom's own, looking right at Tom. He points, his lips forming one unmistakable word and Chris looks around, follows his gaze and her smile is more brilliant than any he's ever seen.
Tom wakes with a gasp, heart hammering, mouth dry.
Beside him, Chris stirs, probably disturbed by his movement. He hears her take a deep breath in, let it out with the kind of sigh that lets him know she's not quite awake yet. Turning her head, she looks at him over her shoulder, gives him a sleepy smile that turns into a frown when she sees whatever expression is on his face. "Tom?" she says, caught between worry and fear and he can't blame her for that. He's well aware he's not the man he once was and while sleepy morning cuddles that often led to more had been one of the hallmarks of their earlier relationship, she can't depend on that now.
"I'm ok," he tells her, drawing a hand over his face as he tries to find the words to make sense of what he'd seen. "I just... I had a dream."
Chris rolls over, lays a tentative hand on his arm. "A nightmare?" She knows about those, anyone who's seen him jerk to wakefulness while catnapping on the plane does.
"No, not a nightmare. It's a recurring dream... I've had it off and on since I went to Africa... started about a month after I left..." In the light of Chris's story from last night, the timing takes on a whole new significance and while Tom's a man of science, is not superstitious in the least, a shiver runs up his spine.
Chris looks down and bites her lip and maybe she takes the shiver as something it's not because she says, "You don't have to tell me if you're not comfortable..."
"I think I do." He pulls himself into a sitting position, looks down at her, lying on her side, propping her head up on one arm. Even with her frown, her worried eyes, she's still the best thing he's seen in years and he can't help himself, he reaches out and smooths a lock of hair behind her ear, leans down and kisses her softly, briefly.
"It's always the same dream," he tells her. "I'm in Evans' dam, swimming, and it's one of those perfect days, like when we used to go out there... blue sky, not a cloud to be seen, light breeze, the water's perfect..." He reaches out, laces their fingers together. "I'm swimming in the middle of the dam, I go under the water and when I come up for air, I realise I'm not alone, because I hear laughter coming from shore. But I always wake up before I can see who's with me. Except for today."
Chris's eyes flicker somewhere between curiosity and hope. "And? Who was it?"
"You." She smiles at that, happy, but the smile falters when he doesn't smile back. "But you weren't alone either. You were with a little boy... our son."
Tears fill Chris's eyes - well, he'd expected that. "Our son?" she echoes, her voice soft and he nods, the image of the two of them together seared into his mind's eye.
"Cute little fella too," he says and she makes a noise that's half giggle, half sob. "Black curly hair, your smile, my eyes... you had him near the shore and you were picking him up, you were both laughing... and he looked right at me, pointed and said, 'Daddy.' You were looking at him like he was your whole world... and then you looked at me... and I knew that you were mine."
Tears are streaming down Chris's face now, not the wracking sobs of last night, but not far behind. Tom knows his own eyes are none too dry either and he pulls her towards him so that he can wrap his arms tightly around her. Her head falls to his shoulder and he doesn't know how long it is before she lifts it again. When she does, her face is red, blotchy and he still thinks she's the most beautiful thing he's ever seen.
"Can I take you to dinner tonight?" he asks her and when she blinks, he thinks she's going to say no. "Look, I know we can't just leap into this, there's too much water under the bridge and we need to talk, really talk about the last few years but-"
He stops talking when she moves so that she's straddling his waist. The motion makes the sheet fall away from her body, which would be distracting enough on its own, but the way she moves against him makes him lose his train of thought altogether. But that's ok, because she leans in and kisses him, whispers, "Yes," before she does and after that, thought isn't exactly required.