Actions

Work Header

Where you go, I will follow

Chapter Text

It was snowing again. If it didn't quit soon, the four foot powdery drifts would double overnight. The flakes were tiny, and fell like an endless, soft, white rain. Driving home at night in such a flurry looked like one was maneuvering a submarine...floating down into the depths, all the tiny creatures and sediments caught in the lights and floating by.

Jo parked her car and quickly gathered her thermos and backpack. She made a mad dash for the front door. Her body was not made to endure this kind of weather.

She banged her wool mittens together and stomped her feet before entering the small wooden cabin. A small gust of snow followed her, and swirled close to the hardwood floor until she booted the door closed with her rear.

Wisconsin winters were legendary. She could still see her icy breath in the mud room, and hesitated to remove her thick coat. Never in her life had she needed such heavy material wrapped around her for eight months out of the year. It seemed like everything she owned now was either wool or thermal or a combination of both.

Jo kicked off her boots and dragged off her hat and mittens. Finally she braved the freezing air of the uninsulated mud room and shrugged off her coat. She threw it on the silver hook against the wall. She blew out a quick, frosty breath and bent to pick up a couple of logs for the fire from the small stack near the entryway, and then shoved the kitchen door open.

After she'd entered and closed the door, she leaned into it for a moment and let the warm cabin air welcome her home. There was a cauldron of apple cinnamon cider on the stove, and she moved towards it gratefully, absentmindedly placing her armload of wood and belongings on the farm table. Her stomach growled as she bent slightly over the cast iron pot to inhale the sweet aroma of cooking spices.

As she stood over the stove, she heard the soft pad of slippered feet walk up behind her. A warm pair of hands slid around her waist and a gentle voice breathed in her ear.

"Welcome home, baby."

Jo turned in the arms holding her and draped her own lazily around the shorter woman's neck. She smiled into the brilliant blue eyes looking up at her. When she leaned down for a kiss, the other woman raised her hands to her cold cheeks and pressed their lips together. Jo wrapped her arms around her waist and pulled her closer.

"It's fucking cold out there, Brenna."

Brenna caught the slight mischievous tone and her eyes narrowed. "Don't you dare…AUGH!"

Jo had already shoved her icy hands up the other woman's shirt and splayed them with a delighted groan against the warm skin of Brenna's lower back.

Brenna squirmed as she hollered and Jo laughed and made exaggerated noises of pleasure against the woman's rapidly cooling skin. Brenna ripped herself free and fled, laughing, into the living room. Jo grinned and raced after her. In a delightful tangle of arms, legs and cable knit sweaters they collided onto the thick, fluffy rug by the hearth. Jo's wicked grin let the other woman know that she wasn't interested in anything else until she was as warm as the woman beaming beneath her. Dinner could wait.

...

After dinner, Jo sat back with her hands comfortably warm against her streaming mug of cider. She watched as Brenna once again reached for the small journal tucked amongst the magazines and books on the small bookshelf. They'd done this for months. She was past the point of arguing its necessity, and simply waited for her lover to begin.

Brenna flipped open the journal. She could feel the other woman's exasperation, but she grimly took a breath and began their nighttime ritual.

"First meeting or longer conversation?"

Jo huffed at her. She could do both easily, but tonight she was worn out from the long day, the cautious drive home in the blizzard, and from the delicious things Brenna had done to her earlier in the living room. "First meeting. I'm pretty wiped out." She winked. "Your fault."

Brenna's blue eyes twinkled smugly but she only nodded. "Who are you?"

Jo sipped her cider. "My name is Josephine Elisabeth Walker."

Brenna smiled slightly. "Where are you from?"

"Originally I'm from Cape Cod, but I moved to this fucking icicle state after college."

Brenna pursed her lips but continued, feigning surprise. "So far away from your family?"

Jo looked at the deep blue of the ceramic mug in her hand and swirled its contents before answering. "They are very understanding of my... independent streak."

Brenna smiled widely at her. She muttered something under her breath before continuing. "So what brought you to Wisconsin?"

Jo grinned back at her. "Lucky for my wandering heart, tutors are needed everywhere!"

Brenna jotted some notes and nodded, satisfied, handing the journal over to Jo. Jo passed her the mug of cider and took the little book, flipping a few pages. She waited for the other woman to take a long sip of the spiced drink before beginning.

"Who are you?"

Brenna got up from the table to refill the mug. She sat back down with a sigh. "My name is Brenna Dean Matheson."

"Where are you from?"

Another sigh. "Originally I'm from Washington State. I came here on a scholarship to finish my master's degree."

Jo heaved her own sigh and cast a wearied look at her partner. She opted not to complain, and instead looked down at the worn pages in front of her.

"What was your master's degree in?"

Brenna took another sip of cider. "Social work."

"And what made you stay in such a freezing fucking place?"

Brenna chuckled. "I met my wife. It wasn't a hard decision."

Jo blushed. "That's not the right answer, you little minx."

Brenna put her chin in her hand. "I happen to enjoy eight months of winter?"

Jo shut the journal and looked up at her. "Are you trying to tell me that you are finally getting sick of this routine?"

Brenna stood and traced her hand against the farm tabletop as she walked smoothly over to the other woman. She wrapped her arms around Jo's neck and sat in her lap, brushing their lips together. "I stayed because I found there was a need. I am eager to help the young people lost in the system. Lucky for me there is a need for social workers everywhere."

Jo shoved the journal away and hugged Brenna closer into her lap, nuzzling and kissing her neck before looking up at her. "Finally, woman. I swear you say this shit in your sleep!"

Brenna looked away briefly, a flash of sadness in her eyes. "Good." She said quietly.

Jo saw her sadness and hugged her tighter. She raised her chin and kissed her lover long and deep. She gently moved her hands up and down the other woman's spine in soothing strokes.

"Why don't we turn in early tonight? I'll stoke the fire and be right behind you."

Brenna gazed down at her a moment, studying her soulful green eyes. Then she nodded and got up, heading for the bedroom.

Jo watched her go, biting her lip. For one horribly long moment she allowed old and insecure thoughts to drown her mind. They were quickly followed by the very real and present danger they were constantly in. She looked at the little leather journal, filled with questions and memories and other fictional things. They memorized it, added to it and stored it in the very forefront of their minds. As much as she knew they were both sick to death of that damn book and its significance, she knew their lives depended upon its memorized fiction.

Jo shoved herself away from the kitchen table and shoved all thoughts out of her mind. There was no tomorrow. There was no next week. There was only now. They had lost the luxury of the future, and time would never be in their favor. As she turned the white hot coals of the fire and added more logs, Jo stared at the dancing flames and the peculiar shadows they cast against the bricks. There was only now, and in this moment they were safe, and her lover was waiting for her in the mess of thick quilts piled on their bed. Now was a good moment, and she wasn't going to waste it staring into a fire.

Jo stripped to her boxers and donned a clean tee before climbing in next to the protesting lump under the covers.

"You're letting in cold air!"

Jo grinned and fluffed the covers, earning a solid smack on the rear as she turned to shut off the lamp. She yelped and grabbed the arm, dragging Brenna against her. "Come here," she laughed quietly.

Brenna snuggled up close to her and threw a leg over Jo possessively. Jo wriggled a bit until she was even with the drowsy woman, and they lay still for a long while, facing each other and breathing the same air.

In the darkness and warm security of their secluded cabin in the woods, Jo finally relaxed her throat and let her true accent come forth. "I love you, Bridget Westfall." She whispered.

"And I love you, Franky Doyle." Came the almost inaudible and very Australian reply.

Chapter Text

They had both known that running was going to be spectacularly difficult, but neither of them realized just how taxing it was going to be. Physically, they had aged greatly in the ten months they had been fugitives...their faces and bodies showing years beyond the truth. Bridget would often stroke the hair close to Franky's ears while the other woman slept, both marveling and saddened by the recently graying strands. Mentally they were exhausted from challenging each other in their nightly ritual. Names, birthdays, memories...they all jumbled together now. How many aliases had they had? Seven? Eight? How many fictitious lives had they lived until they finally found this secluded cabin? When would either one suddenly declare that it was time to leave again, and would the other follow? Emotionally they had to stabilize each other. It was more than either of them expected...the level of commitment needed. They had to be more than partners. They had to be one.

Every day they obsessively scanned the internet for news. They used untraceable burner phones. They had bought extremely expensive new identities from extremely dodgy people for when they finally settled. They paid cash for everything. For nine months they roamed Europe, Asia, Africa…until finally deciding on the States. America was vast, the majority of its population in just a handful of cities. It was not a simple choice to select a monstrous, secluded state. Bridget had opted for losing themselves in a city that held millions. In a sea of faces it would be easier to hide.

But Franky had wanted utter isolation. A quick internet search had informed them that some American states, despite vast land mass, held less than half a million people.

“Franky it would be hard to keep to ourselves. Everyone would know that we were new. Curiosity is a dangerous thing."

Franky had bit her lip as she scrolled through the population rankings. Her bright eyes had settled on Wisconsin. She looked hopefully up at Bridget and the other woman had conceded to the compromise. They could be fairly anonymous among roughly six million.

“Identity isn't in just a name, Franky. Think of every memory you have, every single one, and change it completely. And then memorize it. Then change your accent, appearance, mannerisms and habits. A person's life is so subtlety entwined…so intricately woven…to fool ourselves will be how we fool the world."

So they had changed their names and used burner phones, only calling each other. They endlessly studied the fabrication of their fictitious lives to rest easy, if only for one more night.

They had spent months conforming their throats to the local dialect before immersing themselves into the working population. Every state had its own unique dialog, its own special brands and quirky sayings. It had been the most difficult to stave their native tongues.

Franky had learned that people from Massachusetts have the closest similarities to the Australian accent. Claiming to be from there created a more intricately believable backstory. Lucky for them, each American state remained relatively ignorant of each other’s accents, aside from general stereotypes. All they could tell was that Franky and Bridget weren't local, and after a few mundane and harmless questions they would be handed their change, or their groceries or their lunch.

Franky was content to let Bridget do most of the talking in these arbitrary conversations. The blonde was much easier around strangers and had a naturally kind demeanor.

But they both found it exhausting, and it was a long while before they could both easily slip into a passable American tongue. When strangers went from asking questions, to simply giving them bare second looks, to ignoring them completely did the pair feel comfortable enough to look for work. This compounded their stress levels. As simplified as their lives were now in regards to possessions, they had become monumentally complex in other ways. They were now around people daily, and every interaction was a chance for someone to recognize them.

Franky worked odd jobs as a tutor during the day, and at night she donned a blue jumper and worked the cleaning shift at the University…both easily hidden community roles that paid cash under the table. Bridget found it harder to place herself. With her poise and obvious education she had trouble being a believable waitress or janitor. She, unlike Franky, was not used to hard labor. Franky was determined to support them for as long as she could while Bridget hunted for the least obvious position for her class. Franky never complained about the twelve hour shifts, but Bridget hated it. They rarely saw each other, and when they did, Franky could only tiredly kiss her cheek, work through the journal with one eye open, and stumble into bed.

"Just go into social work, hey? That's what Brenna went to school for." She offered one night, barely awake.

Bridget shook her head. "I can't, love. I'd be in the system we are trying to stay out of."

Franky fell asleep before Bridget had finished her sentence. She gently stroked the younger woman's cheek and again thought that Franky might be better without her. She felt tears in her eyes at the thought. Until she found work she was dead weight, and besides, they were more likely to be caught if they were together. She felt selfish for staying, especially on nights like these, where Franky's exhaustion overtook her almost immediately…these nights that were becoming too common. Franky was killing herself keeping them afloat. Should she leave? Could she? Bridget closed her eyes against the power of the thought.

She could go now, knowing that Franky was completely capable of caring for herself. It would be easier for her in some ways, only looking out for herself; only watching her own back.

Bridget reached out and stroked Franky's long hair as she slept. She moved her hand to stroke her cheek bone, her eye brow; the soft skin of her neck. She looked so tired, even relaxed in slumber. Bridget knew she'd never complain about the long hours draining her. It was true that everything she was doing she'd done at some point in the prison, but it still pained Bridget to see the level of weariness each and every night. She'd even lost some of her spunk, and often that charming lopsided grin was replaced with serious concentration.

Bridget sighed, still lost in her thoughts. She missed her lover, she realized. It was fairly easy to spiral in thinking that their lack of physical contact in a while had to do with Bridget's self-worth. Her value in this new life. She knew better, of course, but she was only human. They needed so much from each other now, and when her thoughts turned dark and lonely she hounded herself. And she missed Franky.

She brushed a thumb over the soft lips, and Franky opened her mouth slightly at the sensation. Her eyelids fluttered. Bridget's heart ached looking at her. She was so beautiful. She deserved and was worthy of so much, fugitive or not. She was so fierce and wildly strong and capable, but she was also fragile, tender and vulnerable. It was her strengths that shone now, not Bridget's. All that she was drew Bridget to bend down and barely kiss her lips.

She found she couldn't stop. She kissed her cheek, her nose and her eyes before pressing into her lips again. Franky partially sighed, and partially groaned. Bridget moved to her neck, and wound her fingers around her hair. Her eyes glistened, but she wasn't about to cry. She simply felt so emotional for the woman next to her. She needed her. She couldn't help pressing her body into Franky's as she moved her lips to her neck and jawline. Thoughts of leaving tortured her heart and she pressed closer to the sleeping brunette.

Franky sleepily raised a hand and wrapped her arm around Bridget's waist, dragging her on top of her own body. She groaned again when one of Bridget's hands moved from her hair to her breast. Her eyes fluttered as she was squeezed and fondled through her tee shirt.

Franky's tired limbs were finding renewed strength due to her rapidly increasing heart rate. Her other hand joined her first against Bridget's lower back and pulled the blonde more intimately against her, spreading her legs and letting her fall between them.

Bridget lowered her mouth onto Franky's hardening nipple and sucked it through her shirt. Franky finally opened her eyes. "What are you doing to me, woman?" She gasped quietly, fighting exhaustion and arousal equally.

Bridget didn't answer, and sucked the other nipple while teasing the first between her fingers. Franky arched her back, snapping her eyes shut again and holding her breath, letting it out in quick spurts. She cupped Bridget's rear and pulled her close, rocking her own hips slightly.

Encouraged, Bridget paused her assault briefly to roll her hips with Franky's until they connected in such a way that made them both moan. Franky gripped her tighter, but Bridget suddenly pulled completely away and was gone. Franky opened her eyes and felt her boxers being ripped off. She grinned in the dark room when Bridget fell on top of her again.

"Someone's feeling frisky, hey?" She laughed.

Bridget pushed her tee up and latched onto an already sensitive nipple, sucking it and holding it between her teeth. She flicked her tongue against it. Franky threw back her head, forgetting that she had been teasing the older woman. Forgetting that she had to be at work in just six hours. When Bridget thrust her hips against her and connected them once again, Franky forgot how to even breathe.

Bridget braced her hands on either side of Franky and they lost themselves in their joined motion. The freezing cabin air seemed to melt around them. But again Bridget stopped moving. Franky whimpered and thrust her hips up, but Bridget wasn't paying attention. She collapsed her arms and crushed Franky, breathing out excitedly, "I've got an idea!"

Franky squirmed beneath her, her body loudly aching for the promised release. "Me too…"

Bridget laughed softly and kissed her heated lips. She pulled away when Franky reached for her face. Franky moaned, frustrated.

"You're killing me, woman!"

Bridget laughed again. "Advice columnist!"

Franky was surprised at its simple brilliance. Why hadn't they thought of that sooner! Free-lanced writing, helping people, and more importantly, under the radar. It was perfect. A slow smile stretched across her face. "That is an idea, Brenna!"

Bridget grinned back at her and rose up again, grinding slowly back into her lover. "Jo sounded pretty Australian just then…"

Franky gripped her hips, afraid she'd pull away again. Her breathing became shallow. "Well you can take a girl out of Australia…" she started breathlessly.

Bridget reached down and teased the warm, wet opening before plunging two fingers deep into the other woman. "But you can't take an Australian out of the girl?" She finished with a smirk.

Franky had gasped when Bridget entered her. She held the blonde tighter. "Brenna, you dirty…UH!"

Bridget had exited and entered again, effectively silencing Franky's voice box. She didn't quit until the panting woman beneath her came hard onto her hand, all the breath forcibly knocked out of her. Bridget smiled down at her. Franky had flopped her arms straight out against the sheets, trying to recover. Her chest heaved and her eyes were closed and a sweet smile played at her lips. Bridget lay on top of her, planting soft, wet kisses on her skin as she came down. Franky tried to lift her arms but she was still shaking.

"Oh my god, Gidge…just…give me a minute…"

Bridget grinned again, ignoring the burn of desire in her core. She could be patient. She wasn't going anywhere. 

Chapter Text

Bridget had been killed in a car accident. The scene was horrific…blood, broken glass, a thick fire. Franky watched frozen among the gathered crowd. Her feet were locked in place. Her voice was a soundless wail. The paramedics pulled Bridget's lifeless body from the wreckage. They searched for identification but found none.

"Does anyone know this woman?" They pleaded with the crowd. One of the paramedics looked directly at Franky. "Do you know her? What's her name?"

Franky could only shake her head. She tried to move but her body remained frozen to the ground. No sound came from her lips, but not because she'd lost her voice. This time, she chose to be silent. She stared into the unseeing blue eyes she'd long since memorized and didn't say a word.

Bridget was buried alone, in an unmarked grave…forever anonymous. Franky desperately searched the blank sea of grey marble stones. Desperately sought out the reminder that Bridget once existed. Desperate to tell her that she remembered everything.

"I was afraid! I'm sorry!"

But her reaching hands never found her. Her searching eyes never saw her. As far as the world was concerned, Bridget Westfall had never existed.

Franky started awake. Her fists were clenched tightly. Sweat beaded her forehead. Her body felt like it had been tense for hours, and she tried to relax each muscle while she caught her breath. As far as nightmares went, this one was the most recent...her greatest fears playing her troubled mind. There were no indicators of a fretful sleep. No flailing limbs. No screaming. Her fight or flight response hadn't even been triggered. No, this was a terror born of fear, guilt and shame, and it turned her into stone. Franky clapped her hand to her mouth and bit back a sob.

Warm, tentative fingers touched her arm. "Franky?"

Franky pulled away quickly and got out of the bed, immediately stubbing her toe on a trunk she didn't recognize. "OW! Fuck!"

As she stumbled around the small bedroom, knocking things over and cursing, Bridget sat up and switched on her small bedside table lamp. She saw Franky turn her head towards her sharply. She saw the look in her eyes. Bridget got out of the bed and stood before her, her hands outstretched.

"Franky, it's okay. I'm right here."

Franky shook her hands out and continued to look around wildly. She didn't know this place; this small wooded room with its bare furnishings. She rubbed her own arms. It was fucking freezing! When had she ever been this cold?

Bridget sighed and stepped closer, putting a gentle hand on the other woman's upper arm. She didn't say anything, and Franky took the moment to clear the haunting images out of her mind and focus on what was real. She steadied herself under Bridget's calming touch and let her memories flood her now awake brain. Familiar waves of fear and guilt washed over her. Fear of discovery. Guilt that she'd been unable...unwilling...to keep Bridget from following her. She'd had many nightmares over the past few months, and they'd all been centered around Bridget and the life she'd left behind.

Bridget waited patiently, studying Franky's face. After she saw the troubled confusion pass, and fear and guilt replace it, she moved her hand slowly downwards until it was resting over Franky's still rapid heartbeat.

"What was it this time, love?" She asked quietly.

Franky stilled, pressing her own hand over her heart, covering the other woman's. She finally met the deep blue eyes. "The one with the unmarked grave."

She could hear the compassion in Bridget's voice. "Oh baby…"

Franky backed away from Bridget's touch and shoved her knuckles into her eyes. "This won't ever stop, Gidge, until we're caught or fucking dead!"

"Franky in time…"

"We can NEVER be who we were meant to be!" Franky screamed at her. Agony etched her features. "EVER! You will NEVER be safe. We will NEVER BE FREE!"

In one frustrated motion Franky heaved the trunk on its end and scattered the contents across the room. Bridget backed up a step, her eyes narrowing. She sucked in a breath when Franky lifted the now empty trunk and hurled it into the wall. The trunk was something they'd bought together to hold spare blankets. It was solid, but the sheer force at which it was thrown cracked the heavy wood in several places and when it fell to the floor, it crumpled on its side.

Franky whirled around for something else to vent out her frustrations on. In the sparse room there was nothing...except Bridget.

A sliver of fear ran down Bridget's spine. She knew the caged animal look in Franky's eyes. She knew what a desperate Franky was capable of. Whether in Wentworth or on the run the result was the same. She would never be free. Bridget could walk away at any time and feign ignorance. Without the burden of proof no charges would stick. Only if she was found with Franky could she be charged. As of right this moment, she could walk. And Franky knew it. How often their roles reversed now! They flipped constantly between the anguished and the assured as their bond of trust deepened.

Bridget closed her eyes and waited for Franky to move against her in anger. She'd proved, albeit just the once, that she could physically abuse Bridget if she chose to. She certainly was stronger. Bridget didn't know how else to prove her commitment to the tortured woman other than staying in moments like these. Foolishly giving her a chance to strike. She heard Franky move and squeezed her eyes tighter. Franky, I love you, please don't hurt me! Please, baby! Her clenched fists shook.

Her heart rate spiked when hands touched her neck. They didn't tighten, however, and soft fingertips brushed her skin. She didn't open her eyes.

"Gidge?" There was pain in Franky's voice. "Are you afraid? Of me?"

"No." Her response was whispered. Franky knew she was lying. She'd used the same inflection almost two years ago in the prison's kitchen.

"So, what, you're in love with me?"

"No."

It was a lie then, and it was a lie now. The fingertips stroked her face. Hot lips touched her forehead. "Please..." Don't be afraid of me.

Bridget knew the end of her sentence. She opened her eyes and Franky was inches away, consternation on her face. Bridget looked at her and felt tears in her own eyes. She regretted the lie immediately, as see-through as it had been. "You get so angry."

Franky shook her head, upset with her own reactions. "I'm sorry, Gidge. I'm sorry. I won't ever hurt ya." Again. I won't ever hurt you again.

She bent her forehead and pressed it into Bridget's. "I'm so sorry, love."

Franky rarely called Bridget any term of endearment other than her nickname. She didn't waste her words by making them common. It made them all the more noticeable and important when she used them. Bridget pulled away slightly so she could see the other woman's face. "Franky…"

It was hard to finish. They'd been here before, many times. Tortured green eyes clashing against disturbed blue ones. It wasn't a secret that the younger woman had a volatile temper, her rage against the inanimate knowing no bounds. "How can I get you to talk to me before you frighten me?"

Franky ducked her head and cried then, Bridget's question bringing her to shame. It wasn't the intent, but she'd made her point. Bridget threw her arms around Franky and held her, rocking her slightly and murmuring quiet, calming words. Franky mumbled something against her shirt that Bridget didn't catch. "What?"

"Is hard to be gentle all the time."

Of course it was. The fiery brunette was a pent up, tumultuous and boiling ball of energy. The constant fear. The fictional and exhaustive life. The tedium of tutoring and janitorial work when she was made for something more. Something she never could attain. It was killing her slowly. Bridget constantly worried about her mental health. She had to remind Franky often that she couldn't achieve her life goal of becoming a lawyer in prison either. Most nights it calmed and refocused her. Tonight it had set her off.

"I know, baby," was her only reply.

Bridget tightened her arms around Franky and hugged her close. She pressed their chests together and breathed deeply. Franky lifted her hands to Bridget's head and buried them in the soft, cropped, blonde hair. She matched her breathing with the other woman's. She'd had this dream before...different variations, always ending the same. Always waking confused and lost. Always desperate for the only arms that could ground her.

"Who am I?" She whispered. She silently pleaded for an answer.

"You are the love of my life." Came the firm reply.

Franky melted into the arms holding her. Both the question and the answer were always the same. Every other night one of them would wake, terrified, discombobulated, and need the reassurance of the other. Most nights it was Franky, with her proclivity for nightmares and in being the origin of their predicament.

But Bridget was not immune to the nightmares. Hers revolved around discovery, losing Franky, the family and friends she'd left behind...and that maybe Franky would decide that she didn't want or need her anymore. Franky sagged heavier into the arms holding her as she remembered this.

Her hands left the blonde hair in favor of wrapping around Bridget's body. "Gidge," she whispered, "how long can we do this…knowing an entire country is looking for us?"

Bridget didn't answer. In truth, she would do this for as long as she could…until she died of old age in Franky's arms, or until they were both found and hauled off to prison. She'd known the second Franky came to her, weeks after her escape, that the inmate before her was about to go on the run.

"I couldn't find proof, Gidge. I can't clear my name."

"What will you do?"

She'd known the answer. Franky would rather die than go back to prison...especially for crimes she didn't commit.

"I'm gonna run, Gidge. I'm gonna go where I'll never be found. I wanted to tell ya. I wanted to say goodbye."

Bridget had held her for dear life then. Her mind refusing to believe that the smartest woman she'd ever known couldn't prove her own innocence. When Franky let her go and tried to step back, Bridget held her tighter, beginning to panic. Franky was gentle as she untangled herself.

"Live, Gidge. You live your life and don't you think one more second of me, yeah? I love ya. I always will."

Bridget had closed her eyes then and came to a decision. It was foolish and dangerous and instantly made her a felon. But she hadn't cared. She had grabbed Franky's arm when she'd turned to leave and breathed out her own death sentence.

"Where you go, I will follow."

Now, in the quiet stillness of the first hours of yet another freezing morning, in a place she was still growing accustomed to, she simply held Franky. She didn't once regret her decision, as difficult as it was sometimes.

 

Chapter Text

Franky woke up with a smile on her face. She'd slept long and hard, and no nightmares had assaulted her subconscious. She lay on the bed with her eyes closed and let the early morning sunlight bathe her in its yellow warmth. It was cold in the little cabin. The fire she'd built last night would be reduced to ash and embers by now. She'd gotten pretty good at coaxing a new flame from just a few small embers every morning. Tending the fire was one of her daily rituals that she really enjoyed. It gave her a sense of satisfaction, seeing a tiny flame turn into roaring warmth under her administrations. There was something hopeful about a fire that could never die as long as it was cared for.

Franky opened her eyes and blew out a quiet breath. She could just see her expelled air in the brightening room. It was damn cold, but at least the sun was out. It had been snowing heavily since yesterday morning, and it seemed to have finally let up, at last allowing the sun to appear.

Franky stretched luxuriously and automatically felt for the person buried under the bundle of quilts next to her. She smiled wider. Bridget was forever cold nowadays, and inevitability by the morning she had claimed more than her half of the blankets. When Franky flopped her arm over the pile of quilts, it groaned.

"Too early."

"Come on, it's Saturday! The sun is finally out!" She shook the bundle gently. "And I miss ya! I hardly see you anymore..."

The bundle grunted and the edges of the thick quilt were pulled in tighter. Franky poked experimentally until she discovered roughly the position Bridget was in. With a grin she pounced.

An arm snaked out from under the quilt and swatted at her, but Franky caught the hand and loudly kissed it. The hand jerked away and retreated back under the covers. Franky followed its path with her arm and prodded around till she felt the body it belonged to.

"What's this?" She asked, playfully poking.

Bridget halfheartedly squirmed under her. "Shoulder." Came the grumpy reply.

Franky poked more invasively. "What's this?"

Bridget sucked in a sharp breath. "Ribs." She mumbled. "Get off, you. Let me sleep in."

Franky grinned and held on tight when the bundle underneath her suddenly tried to heave her off. She moved her hand again. "Nice try. Come on, Gidge, this is the first weekend in weeks neither one of us has to go to work!" She poked again, laughing. "So play with me...ooh...what's this?"

Franky's seeking hand was smacked. Bridget growled. "Boob. Franky, get off."

Franky shook her head against the blankets and traced a teasing pattern on the soft bulge of flesh. Her fingertips glided smoothly and she gently brushed her hand back and forth.

The bundle shifted again, and Franky giggled when she realized that Bridget had moved her arm so Franky's hand had better access. She obliged by giving the newly exposed area a loving squeeze.

Bridget groaned, her mutter muffled.

"You are insufferable."

Franky laughed and tugged the blankets down just enough to see the other woman's face. She kissed the warm nose.

"Hi Spunky."

Bridget kept her eyes closed, so Franky leaned down and kissed them. The other woman frowned and again tried to roll out from under her. The brunette laughed again and held on stubbornly. Bridget finally sighed and gave in, cracking her eyelids slightly. "What time is it?"

Franky bumped their noses together and rubbed them before kissing Bridget's cheek. She tugged the blanket away from the blonde's neck and tried to pull it away but Bridget grabbed it back. "Freezing!"

Franky raised an eyebrow, grinning again. "Oh? Lemme in. I'll warm ya up..."

But Bridget suddenly pulled the quilt firmly over her head and rolled over, effectively knocking Franky off of her. Franky heaved an exaggerated sigh and burrowed under the blanket, wrapping an arm around Bridget to pull her close. They wrestled for an instant, and she smiled into the back of Bridget's head when she felt the stiff and cranky older woman melt into her. She felt for the swell of breast again and teased the flesh while planting chaste kisses on any part of Bridget's neck she could reach.

Bridget groaned again, but this time it didn't sound grumpy. Franky grinned and rolled her over, finally eliciting laughter from her lover.

Bridget had burrowed back under the covers. Franky, still grinning, tugged on her jeans and boots. She threw on her heavy cable knit sweater and turned back to the sated bundle of blankets.

"I'll get the fire going and make us breakfast, yeah?"

Bridget reached an arm out and caught her leg. She pulled Franky closer, exposing her tousled head for just a moment. Franky bent down and took her chin, kissing her lips. She made a soft noise in her throat. "Or I can stay...?"

Bridget pushed her away and threw the blanket over her head again. The brunette laughed at her. "Cold, Gidge. Cold."

The reply was muffled. "Yep. Go light a fire and make me breakfast."

Franky straightened up and smiled again. She reached out and ruffled the bundle fondly before heading to the kitchen. She cranked the oven to 350° and pulled out the ingredients for cinnamon rolls. They so rarely had breakfast together now that she felt the fresh baked treat was appropriate. The smell would certainly entice Bridget from bed. She loved Franky's baking so much that she'd banned Franky from making anything unless it was a special occasion.

Once the little sugary balls of dough were settled in the oven, Franky went over to the hearth. She crouched down and used a stick of kindling to stir up any embers that may have survived the night. She raked the simmering coals into a pile and fed them bits of kindling, once again enthralled by the first, eager flame. It wasn't long before the fire hungered for more than just thin sticks of pine. Franky pulled the last several logs from the side of the hearth and lay them in careful union amongst the flame.

She swept up the hearth checked her cinnamon rolls. The cabin was starting to smell very good. She smiled at the thought of Bridget's face when one of her favorite smells reached under the blankets she'd buried herself beneath.

After starting the kettle, Franky went to the mudroom and scooped up a container full of wild bird seed from the barrel in the corner and braved the crisp morning air to carefully fill each of the three bird feeders Bridget had bought her a month or so earlier. The blonde had caught her trying to feed the fat little winter birds bits of stale bread. Franky was delighted with the feeders, and maintained the seed levels religiously to the point where Bridget playfully began calling them her "stew birds."

On her way back inside she grabbed an armload of logs from the woodpile under the coat rack. She needed to go into the woods and cut more dead limbs to dry out. It was a tedious process to gather and dry the scavenged wood, but it was a hell of a lot cheaper than buying bundled logs in town. Franky sighed as she knocked the snow off her boots and entered the kitchen. Cheap won over tedium. Looks like she'd spend the better part of the morning in the woods.

After she dumped her load of wood on the hearth, she pulled the steaming cinnamon buns out of the oven. The cabin temperature had risen significantly from the combined heat of the oven and the fire. The inside air smelled a mixture of pine and sugar.

"If I could make a candle out of the way it smells in here, we'd be famous."

Franky laughed, not looking up or turning around as she whipped up homemade frosting. "We already are famous, Gidge."

She felt arms encircle her waist as she continued to stir the frosting. A forehead pressed into her upper back before a cheek lay against her shoulder blade. She craned her head back and Bridget stood on her tip toes to kiss her.

"Did you feed your stew birds?"

Franky huffed at her and moved the bowl of frosting over the cooled buns, drizzling the contents onto the bun tray and effectively making a delightfully sugary mess.

"You’re not eating my birds, you horrible woman."

Bridget laughed and let her go, leaning against the counter and watching Franky smooth the last of the frosting over the buns. She knew why Franky loved both the fire and the birds. She knew why the younger woman lost herself gazing at either one. They were both free. They were both wild. One was fierce and reckless and could cause great harm, and the other was fragile, carefree, and often allowed the wind to carry it away. Of course she stared at them. If Bridget thought too much on the similarities and longing both symbols represented, her heart ached. Franky had never shown interest in birds before, aside from her remarkable tattoo that was always covered now. But over the months as Bridget quietly observed her, she could see a shift of interest. When she'd brought home the feeders, Franky had been delighted. Secretly the gift had a dual purpose. Bridget hoped that Franky would find comfort in seeing such flighty and wild things feeling secure in one place as long as they were cared for.

She didn't realize how much joy it would bring her lover, gorging the spoiled birds every morning, and she couldn't help but tease her sometimes.

"They are certainly fat enough, baby…I bet they'd be delicious..."

Franky looked up at her, still enticing the last bits of frosting onto the tray. She smiled at the blonde's teasing. "You're pretty naughty when you don't get to sleep in."

While she was talking, Bridget reached out her hand, passing a finger through the last of the drizzling frosting and bringing it to her lips. She made eye contact with Franky as she slowly sucked her finger clean. "So punish me…" she whispered.

Franky lost her smile. Bridget barely had time to pull her finger from her mouth before Franky pounced on her for the second time that morning.

They had to catch their breath before gathering their scattered clothing and going once again into the kitchen. Bridget poured the coffee as Franky served them each cinnamon buns. She laughed at the face Bridget made when she bit into one. The blonde ignored her and continued eating, determined to enjoy every decedent bite.

Franky pulled out their laptop and sipped her coffee. Bridget waited for a moment before asking the same question she always asked.

"Anything new?"

Franky shook her head, still searching. "No." She sighed and closed the laptop. "It makes me anxious, Gidge, like we are missing something important."

Bridget nodded. "I know. But we were quick, Franky. By the time Australia's resourced were depleted looking, we'd been to several countries. The no fly list hit American airlines weeks after we'd arrived. A long as we lay low, they can't possibly find us."

Franky fiddled with her coffee cup, biting her lower lip. They had been quick. The night she'd gone to Bridget with her plans to run, Bridget had packed them each a pack and then had driven to the bank to wipe her saving. She'd wiped Franky's too, being the joined account holder. With more cash than they've ever held, they caught the bus to the airport and left Australia behind. Had they stayed even one more night, Franky's face would have been blasted all over the news, and leaving the city, let alone the country, would have been impossible.

Franky mentally tipped her cup to Channing. His prideful need to keep her disappearance under wraps had essentially allowed the pair to escape undetected. She had no doubt that Bridget's place had been torn apart by now. But it would have taken days to get the right paperwork in order to lobby for a warrant to get her account records. Before they could even get a warrant they would have had to prove Bridget's involvement. Same with the house. Franky wondered at Vera's role in this. She knew for a fact that they'd been together, but then Bridget had resigned, and Franky was still incarcerated. For all she knew, the pair were over. She'd already risked her career once to prove to the Ombudsman that Bridget wasn't involved with Franky. How long would she wait until she'd redacted her statements? And at what cost?

Franky sighed allowed her thoughts to stray once again to all they'd left behind. Bridget seemed to read her thoughts, and reached over to squeeze her hand. Franky looked at her sadly.

"I had to run, Gidge. I had to leave them."

Bridget squeezed her hand again. "And I had to follow."

"Did we do the right thing?"

Bridget was quiet. Of course they hadn't. Under any law in the world they were criminals. But she knew that Franky didn't mean any of that. She'd meant leaving behind all those they cared about. Tess. Her father. Bridget's parents and friends. They had never said goodbye, and could never contact them. By now their families would have realized or had been told that they had chosen each other over them. Had they done right by them? No. They'd been selfish and unkind.

Bridget sighed. "We can go back, Franky. We have that choice."

Franky stared hard at her. "Do you want to?"

Bridget took her hand away and rested her chin in it, thoughtful. "The reality of turning ourselves in would be a lifetime of incarceration. At best, our love ones would visit, until the pain of seeing us behind bars proved too much. It may take years, but it always happens."

Franky knew she was right. She'd seen it before. Bridget sighed again. "The ache of missing them would be no less potent if they were a town away. It would be as if they were across the world."

Bridget got up and went over to sit in Franky's lap, draping her arms over her shoulders. "Right now they certainly know we are on the run, and they would know we are together. I almost wonder if the unknown is kinder to them? They all know how in love we are, and that we love them. As much as I'd love to tell them of our adventures, and how even more in love with you I am...I suspect, deep down, they know. They will instinctively imagine the very best life for us. It is our responsibility to them to live it."

Franky hugged her middle and lay her forehead against the blonde's chest. They'd had this conversation before, and they would again. But each time Bridget reassured her, Franky felt overwhelmed with emotion. "I couldn't have done this without you."

Bridget scoffed lightly, but Franky lifted her head and looked her in the eyes. "Gidge. I couldn't have. Surviving is one thing. Living is another. I didn't know the difference until I met you." She buried her head again. "Thank you."

Bridget smiled and kissed the top of her head and lay her cheek down on it. This morning she had almost forgotten that they were fugitives. She'd delighted in Franky's cheeky nature as if they were both free and safe back in Australia. The brunette had a way about her that could make Bridget think of little else, actually, other than the feel of her skin against her own.

They could do it. Live out life like this. Grow old among these piney woods. They'd left virtually no trail. Each new day undiscovered brought with it renewed hope. It may only be the illusion of freedom, but she could live with that as long as she had Franky. They would always have to be careful, and continue to hold one another accountable in actions and thoughts, but they could do it.

She smiled as she pulled back a little. "We have the whole weekend together, love. What would you like to do?"

Franky tilted her head and that irresistible lopsided grin crept into her face, erasing all previous worry and doubt. "Stuff that needs doing." She said, and then winked. "And you."

"Did you just reduce the next two days down to chores and sex?"

The emerald green eyes sparkled mischievously. "It's a winter weekend! That's what we're supposed to do, Gidge!"

Bridget laughed and shook her head, leaning down for a kiss. "Insufferable," she whispered.

Yep, she thought with an inward smile as she felt Franky shift beneath her. She knew she was about to be laid back right there on the kitchen table. They could do this.

 

Chapter Text

Franky bit her bottom lip, trying to focus on the book in front of her. Early afternoon sunlight filled the cabin and lit up the couch where they were peacefully reading. Franky had always preferred to be alone when she read, as inevitably anyone next to her would cave to the stillness and begin to chatter. Bridget reveled in the quiet as well, and more often than not, when Franky was tucked up on the couch with a book, Bridget wordlessly joined her. Franky loved it.

Franky kept biting her lower lip. Every now and then she'd look over at Bridget, sitting opposite her on the couch, legs extended and feet absentmindedly rubbing against Franky's lap. She was fully absorbed in the book she was reading. Franky had an arm draped over the thin ankles and her hand cupped around one of the socked feet. She played with the arch as she read. But after a while she knew that she would never get off the page she'd been staring at for the last thirty minutes. Not with her mind racing. She finally put her book down and focused on massaging Bridget's feet. The blonde smiled into her book and wiggled her toes appreciatively.

"That feels good, baby," she murmured.

Franky worked each foot, but her mind lost focus yet again and her thoughts strayed back to what was hounding her. She squeezed Bridget's feet to get her attention.

"Gidge, could you kill someone?"

Bridget looked up, startled. "What?"

Franky bit her lip, her agitation reflecting in her voice. "Could you do it...if you had to?"

"Franky, where is this coming from?" Bridget put her book to the side and sat up, removing her legs from Franky's lap and tucking them beneath her. Franky raised her eyebrow.

"Seriously? You're asking me that?"

Bridget looked at her thoughtfully. She'd seen every emotion, every nightmare, every reaction…every side of the woman before her. But she could still be thrown off by her seemingly random trains of thought. Franky would be quiet sometimes, but she was forever processing something. She was never as peaceful as she looked from the outside. Every once in a while she'd blurt out a thought or question and Bridget would once again marvel at the secret depths of her silence.

"Baby it's been over a year. We've been to a dozen countries, and have had as many aliases. We've been so careful." She said patiently.

But Franky shook her head, clearly not satisfied. "Gidge it was never a question of if we get caught...it's when. So when we are found, would you fight? Or just...be caught?"

"Franky..."

Bridget saw the agitated insecurity becoming anger. Franky was bouncing her knee. "Well? Is this worth fighting for? Is this worth your life, or someone else's? How far would you go?"

"I don't want to kill anyone, Franky."

"Neither did I, but I've done it."

That brought Bridget up short. Franky didn't talk about what she'd done to the former governor. Ever. She kept her voice gentle. "That was an accident, you said it yourself."

Franky looked hard at her. Her face cleared of emotion, a trait that Bridget didn't like at all. It meant bad things when her lover became expressionless.

"An accident, Gidge, would have been to punch her in the tit. I thought she was Jacs, and I rammed that shiv into her chest just has hard as I could."

Bridget held her breath a moment, not understanding. "You meant to kill her?"

"I meant to kill Jacs. Yes. Are you surprised?"

"Well, yes. You told me it was an accident."

"It being Meg Jackson was the only accident."

Bridget hadn't thought of it that way because Franky had led her to believe the entire incident was an accident. She'd lost control in Bridget's office almost two years ago. It had been a hell of a moment. It has been a changing point in Franky's life, and certainly the trust between them had shifted mightily.

But what was this? Had Franky really sought to murder? Had she honestly manipulated the blonde instantly to cover for her mistaken outburst? Bridget narrowed her eyes, thinking back to the Franky of two years ago. She was frighteningly clever. Bridget didn't put it past her to maneuver around such a confession with ease...but when she had yelled, with tears streaming down her cheeks, that it was an accident...Bridget had believed her. Now, it seemed, the whole truth bore an important role in their present conversion. Franky kept bouncing her knee, arms now folded.

…"So could you kill someone if it meant preserving what we have?"

Franky was looking at her expectantly, but all Bridget could see was the broken woman crying against her office door. Had she really tampered with Bridget's feelings for her so instantaneously? Had she known, the second she'd blurted her confession, that to save her own skin her reaction better be even more convincing? Had she seen the triumph of a breakthrough in the psychologist's eyes and leapt at the proffered opportunity?

Bridget put her head in her hands, suddenly feeling ill. Franky had used her and her love of her profession to both heave a burden off her chest and secure an ally.

Franky seemed to know what the weight of her words was costing Bridget. She sighed and got up from the couch to kneel in front of her. "You didn't know me back then, Gidge. And I didn't know you." She spoke quietly. "Whatever conclusions about me you are coming to right now, I'll bet every one of them used to be accurate."

She used the past tense purposefully. She reached out a hand and tentatively placed it on Bridget's knee. "Jacs and her crew beat the fuck out of me my first day of prison," she whispered. "And again and again. Before I met Booms and the other girls, I was a loner. And I was famous. Jacs didn't like that. She didn't like competition. I spent three days in the infirmary that first time. All the other times they were...more careful. They beat me enough to bring me to the ground, but never enough that I couldn't get up. Jacs tortured me for weeks, somehow seeing me as a threat."

Bridget looked at her then. "I never knew that." She said quietly.

Franky nodded. Of course she didn't. She'd never been told every horrible and humiliating thing Jacs had done to her. Some of it was on file, but only if she went to the infirmary. There were a hundred ways you could torture someone and not be caught.

"She waited for me. She stalked my every move, and in my own anger and arrogance I defied her every chance I got. I was recklessly going toe to toe with a woman far more dangerous than anyone I'd ever come across." Franky laughed humorlessly. "In trying to eliminate a potential enemy, she created one instead."

Franky squeezed Bridget's knee. "She trapped me in laundry. Did you know?" Franky held up the back of her left hand. A small circular burn scar was all that was left of that hideous moment. "Her crew forced my hand into the stream press. She made Red slam the handle down. My whole hand bubbled and my skin melted away."

Bridget took Franky's hand and traced the scar. She'd read about that one. She'd seen the photos. She felt sick again.

"Jacs cornered me in the gym. Her crew pinned me down and teased me with the screw driver they were going to gang me with."

Franky met Bridget's eye. "I hated her more than I've ever hated anyone. Her cruelty knew no end. She started the riot to cause enough confusion to kill me. When it didn't go her way, I ran after her, foolishly. I found a shiv. The second I picked it up a hand grabbed my arm and spun me around.

So yeah. I killed who grabbed me. I thought it was Jacs. I hoped it was Jacs. But it was the fucking governor. Fucking Meg Jackson." "Did you regret it?" Bridget whispered.

Franky looked at her, honesty flooding her features. "Not then, no. I only felt frantic. I didn't know then what killing someone would do to me. It ate me up inside." She paused. "I was sorry for Mr. Jackson. More sorry than I'd ever been."

Franky looked at the floor for a moment, remembering Will's wail echoing down the halls. When she looked up at Bridget again, her eyes hardened.

"But when I realized it wasn't Jacs, I still ran to find her! Something in me snapped, and with the alarms going off and all the confusion and from the adrenaline of what I'd just done…I knew if I didn't kill her then she'd kill me...after doing whatever else her sick mind could come up with.

I ran into her cell but before I could do anything, I was pinned again. They'd been waiting for me. Jacs said she was going to "strip me of my tits." You know what that means, right?"

Franky took Bridget's hand and placed it over her heart, where hidden under her sweater was the thin scar cutting across the swell of her left breast. "If she'd gotten the chance, she would have flayed my chest wide open. She wasn't going to stop, Gidge. If Red hadn't killed her then I would have."

She let go of Bridget's hand, and smiled sadly. "The second I realized that being top dog meant that I wouldn't get beaten anymore, that is what I strove to be. I almost lost myself along the way. Losing the fight with Red brought me back. I was still…a bad person...and because of that, bad things happened to me."

Franky gently pressed her hand into Bridget's knee. "And then I met you. And everything in me changed."

Bridget was quiet, looking at her. She'd just been handed more of Franky's prison life than she had in the last two years. She'd heard of Jacs, and read from Franky's file some of the brutality she'd shown to the brunette. Franky didn't know that Bridget had read her complete prison medical file. A whole lot of what had physically been done to her was recorded...and Bridget had read it all. She never spoke of what she knew, seeing it as a pretty invasive advantage.

But she didn't know everything. She didn't know the torture Jacs had put Franky through. She could understand, if even a little, why Franky had come to the conclusion of killing Jacs. It had been kill or be killed in that prison, and regardless of all the security...the women were alone. Not everyone was able to defend themselves when the wife of a mobster fixated on them.

Sometimes, Bridget would be lost in loving Franky's body and come across a scar on her beautiful olive skin. She would inadvertently flip through the files in her mind and know where it was from. Who it was from. As she looked into Franky's face, all she could see was the woman she was now. Her past didn't matter, had never mattered. Bridget had always seen who she could become. What she had become. A woman that wouldn't have been able to live if Jacs had her way.

Bridget knew that Franky was still unsettled by something. There was a reason for this conversation that had yet to be revealed. She was urging Bridget to acknowledge that her violent side wasn't all that far into her past...that she could recall it in a moment’s notice. That she could kill if it meant saving hers or Bridget's life. She sought Franky's face and saw that her stoic expression had grown softer. She saw concern and sincerity. Bridget knew the kind of woman she had followed across the world. She knew that Franky had given herself completely to Bridget, but the origins of their bond of trust troubled her. It was important for her, in this moment, to hear more truth.

"When did you begin to be real with me?" She asked quietly.

Franky didn't hesitate. "In the kitchen."

"When you offered yourself to me?"

Franky smiled at her. "No, Gidge. When you refused."

That's when I stopped using you. That's when I really saw you. Franky could see that Bridget was troubled by her revelations. Bridget wasn't naïve. She was completely aware that Franky's demons had fully manifested in prison. She knew, better than anyone, what an uphill battle it was to shake them. Franky bit her lip and wondered what the truth would cost her this time.

This fucking wilderness had brought about more difficult conversations than she'd had in her entire life. She desperately wanted to lay Bridget back and prove just how gentle she could be...but she also wanted her to know that with the runner came the fighter. She couldn't fully shed her old self. Not while they were fugitives. And she knew that there would come a day when flight was no longer possible.

She would never go back to prison.

Franky sat back and hugged her knees at Bridget's feet, cursing herself for starting yet another conversation that left her transparent. She wasn't certain she'd ever become accustomed to Bridget holding her entire heart in the palm of her hand.

Franky looked down at her hands and saw they were shaking slightly. Talking about her time in prison always had this impact on her. She could expect nightmares tonight. Bridget noticed her hands as well and reached out to hold them. "It's ok, Franky. Thank you."

Franky laughed once and sniffed. "For what?"

Bridget pulled her from the floor and Franky gratefully sat next to the older woman, wrapping her arms around her and burying her head in the blonde's shoulder. Bridget held her.

"For talking to me. For telling me the truth. How I interpret your actions are my own fault. Unless I ask you, and you are honest with me, I can never hold my assumptions against you."

Franky held her tighter and Bridget kissed her head. "Jacs was a monster. I'm...I'm glad she's gone and can't hurt you anymore."

They were quiet for a long while, each lost in the past. Their lives up until they met were so very different, so polar opposite, that they were constantly amazed that they fit together so easily.

"I love you, Gidget."

"I'm not sure I can kill someone, baby."

Franky sighed and twisted in Bridget's arms until her head rested in her lap. She folded her hands across her chest and looked up at Bridget while the older woman played with her hair.

"I think I know a way around that." She grinned. "We'll go buy you a pistol. From what your dad has told me, you're scary enough holding one. You wouldn't have to kill."

Bridget burst out laughing and though Franky joined her, there was an element of seriousness behind her eyes. Bridget noticed and shook her head. "Franky, I haven't shot a gun in years."

Franky was still grinning. "Your dad showed me the trophies.

You were pretty deadly..."

"No he didn't! I thought I'd thrown those away!" She smiled fondly. "He was so proud."

"Of his award winning ace of a daughter. He told me you could shoot through a playing card twenty yards away."

Bridget huffed. "I was a teenager. There's no way I could do that now."

Franky sat up. "I want you to buy us a gun." She said firmly.

The blonde looked at her, thinking. She wouldn't need to research the gun laws in this state. Ten to one Franky had already done the leg work. Hell, she'd probably already picked out a gun. Bridget was more than comfortable with a firearm, but she knew Franky hated them. Her asking for one was the strongest indication that something had rattled their relative calm.

"Franky…" She started slowly. "Did something happen today?"

The younger woman bit her lip. "A man...he was staring at me. In the shops this morning. He…smiled."

Bridget raised an eyebrow. "Oh baby, he was probably just being flirty!"

But Franky tuned her mouth down. "I know that smile, Gidge. I know what it means."

"And what does it mean?" Bridget cocked her head, a small smile on her lips. Franky had said that same thing to her once, a long time ago.

"Jacs used to give me the same one. So did my mother. So did Ferguson. It means I know you. It means I'm going to get you."

The smile left Bridget's lips. So this is what started this conversation. Why Franky had suddenly asked her if she could kill. This stranger had looked at her in such a way that had obviously shaken her, and she wasn't feeling safe anymore. Bridget put a calming hand on her knee. She was bouncing again. "Baby? Do we need to go?"

She didn't want to. Franky didn't either. They were finally in a place they both could call home. They had bird feeders! Their little cabin, as tiny and simple as it was, gave them comfort. Relief from months upon months of running.

Franky shook her head, desperately grasping at the last thing that would make her feel safe, apart from running again.

"Buy a gun."

"Learn to shoot." Bridget shot back.

Franky hesitated. She could handle the feared weapon if it meant it was in Bridget's hands ninety percent of the time. That's where she needed it to be.

"Teach me." She whispered, sealing their agreement.

Chapter Text

 Franky couldn't help but burst out laughing when Bridget came home and showed her their latest purchase. Bridget just raised her eyebrows and gave her a knowing smile. "Did you do as I asked while I was out?"

Franky nodded, still giggling. The hand gun that Bridget had returned with was a light pink. The entire gun. Pink. The sight of it didn't make her heart race; familiar fear flooding her veins. It made her laugh. She shook her head and kissed Bridget on the temple. "Any trouble?"

"Brenna has an impeccable record, so no. I paid cash, too." She gave her lover a rather stern look. "Were you planning to tell me that along with our questionable IDs you had also gleaned a firearms permit?"

Franky dipped her head. She'd handed Bridget the faded little card a month ago when she went to purchase the gun. She knew there wouldn't be a problem while they waited the mandatory thirty days while Bridget's ID was checked and processed. "It was spontaneous. He offered, and I took it." She peeked at the older woman. "I'm sorry,

I should have told you."

"Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?"

"You look smoking hot holding that thing?"

Bridget pursed her lips, but couldn't help but smile at her. She nodded to the woods. "Show me what you set up, then."

Franky grinned and led her outside, grabbing her heavy coat along the way. It was bitter cold, but the sun was still out. They trudged up the hill behind their cabin and in union turned to face the Great Lake in the distance. The combination of snow and sunlight made it look like a vast sea of diamonds.

"When summer comes…" Bridget breathed.

Franky put an arm around her. "Aye, Gidge. We'll get there."

They both missed the sea desperately. Neither had ever lived near enough to a lake, but both had grown up just a short distance from the spectacular Australian coast. All of their memories were fond. For Franky, a special reverence was held. There were so few good memories in her past, and just the thought of sand between her toes relaxed her. She smiled. When summer came, they would spend as much time as humanly possible at the body of water that covered such a huge portion of their new home. It wasn't the ocean, but it was damn near enough to make her heart flutter with joyous anticipation.

A short distance from the peak of the hill, Franky had set up an area for their target practice. She'd lined jugs of water and empty beer bottles along a fallen log facing the valley below. The stray bullets would be lost towards the lake. There was no danger of accidentally hitting anything alive. They'd chosen their location well.

Bridget nodded in approval when she saw the set up. She moved about twenty paces away and looked at the targets. Her sharp eye caught a previously missed object. She huffed. Franky had carefully set up a playing card…the Ace of Spades…at the very end of the log. Little smartass.

Franky was grinning at her. Bridget rolled her eyes and opened the little black case and took out their new gun. She was amused with the color as well, but she chose it specifically. She knew, with all of Franky's determination and bravado, she was terrified of guns. She'd stared down the barrel of one a few years ago trying to talk a young man out of throwing his life away. From what little Bridget had gotten from her, Shane had been close to pulling the trigger and ending Franky's life. It had been too close, and Franky had shook for hours in her arms that night. What she held in her hand looked rather like a toy, removed of the colder steel color. She was right in thinking that pink would relax the nervous brunette, if even a little.

Bridget skillfully loaded the ten round clip and firmly drew the slide back, loading the chamber. She looked up at Franky. The younger woman was watching with interest, not fear. Bridget held out the gun. "Come here, love."

Franky came forward, her lower lip tugged between her teeth. She took the gun and held it, testing its weight and feel. "It's lighter than I thought it would be. And it looks fucking ridiculous."

Bridget laughed at her as she put little foam ear plugs in her ears. She handed Franky a pair and then moved behind her. She guided Franky's arms towards the targets. "Pick a target, line the sights, and squeeze the trigger when you are ready. Take your time."

Franky did as she was told, blowing out a cold breath of air. She stuck her tongue out in concentration and closed one eye, lining the sights. Her heart rate quickened. Her hands shook slightly. She hesitated.

"Pull the trigger, baby." Bridget encouraged. Franky barely heard her with her earplugs in. She closed her eyes and squeezed the trigger. The boom was deafening and the recoil raised her arms a foot higher in the air. When the sound of the shot had finished echoing around the valley below them, another sound reached her ears. Laughter. She spun around. Bridget was barely containing her mirth. Franky was indignant, and turned back to the targets to see if she had hit anything.

She hadn't.

Bridget was still laughing. Franky frowned. "Oi!"

Bridget came over to her and cupped her face. "Baby, I'm so proud of you, but please keep your eyes open this time!" She wasn't done chuckling, and Franky huffed and pulled away from her, turning back towards the targets. Bridget quieted when she raised the gun again. She kept her eyes open this time, but after the shock of the next shot cleared from her ears, the targets were still unimpressed with her assault. She blew out a breath of impatience, and raised the gun again. She shot until the clip was empty, and hadn't hit a fucking thing. She dropped her arms to her side and looked over her shoulder. "I think it's broken."

Bridget bit her laughter back this time and held out her hand. Franky handed her the gun and Bridget reloaded it. When she offered it back, Franky took a step away. "Nuh. I'm done humiliating myself. You go."

Bridget tilted her head, her smile still playing her lips, but her eyes serious. "This was the deal Franky. I know how to shoot. Now come here."

Franky bit back her pride and took the gun again. After ten more rounds of nothing but air she howled in exasperation. "I'm hopeless, Gidge! Fuck, this is hard!"

"Move closer?"

Franky scowled at her, but Bridget put a reassuring hand on her arm. "You'll only be a few feet away when it really matters." She said quietly.

Franky conceded and took several large steps closer. Bridget offered as many pointers as she could, but after going through the first box of ammo, it was pretty clear that Franky Doyle was a rotten shot. It was actually amazing. Bridget couldn't believe that after dozens of rounds not one bullet reached even close to where she was aiming. She hadn't even hit the dead log. She was actually thinking there was something wrong with the gun. She took the gun from Franky and checked it carefully. She reloaded it and cocked the slide several times, letting the bullets hit the snow at her feet. Franky picked them up and handed them to her. "Just shoot it, Gidge. If you can't hit anything we'll know it's the gun."

"And if I can?"

Franky shrugged, a smile appearing through her previous frustrations. "Then I'll be satisfied. Go on then. It's not getting any fucking warmer out here."

"This is supposed to be your practice."

Franky flopped her arm towards the targets. "Give my ego a break, woman. Come on, show me how it's done."

Bridget griped the gun experimentally. She was careful in picking it out. The color was for Franky, to ease her fear of the weapon…but the feel had been for her. It was almost an exact replica of the one she'd shot really well all those years ago. She aimed for a bottle and looked back at Franky. The younger woman raised an eyebrow in a silent challenge. Bridget only gave her a small smile and fixated on the bottle again. Within seconds it had exploded, and the air was momentarily filled with light brown glass. Bridget closed her eyes briefly, inhaling the freezing air and trying to steady her heart. She'd forgotten how much she'd loved to shoot.

Another bottle exploded. And another. In six consecutive shots, Bridget cleared the dead log of all targets. She hadn't missed once. She turned a quick look at Franky, suddenly exhilarated and unable to fight the overwhelming flood of emotion. In a few quick motions she shed her cumbersome jacket and reloaded the gun. For once the cold didn't seem to bother her. She was unburdened and wildly lethal. In another seven shots a smiley face appeared on the tree trunk forty yards to the left. A small stone was blasted off the top of a boulder. Bridget threw back her head and laughed from deep inside her. It sounded feral to her ears but she didn't care. The stress and fear that had all but consumed her was falling away, leaving her at last with a deep sense of confidence. She took aim again, unable to keep the smile from her lips.

The Ace of Spades flipped into the air, a perfect hole in the center of the card. Another quick shot blew it out of the air, and it fluttered to the ground in two pieces.

She finally dropped her arms, chest heaving with her adrenaline and excitement.

"Holy. Fuck."

Bridget spun around at Franky's exclamation. Franky took a step back. Her mouth open. Bridget came down from her high pretty quick the moment that she saw past the admiration on her lover's face and noticed the flash of fear.

She deftly cocked the slide and double checked the empty chamber, dropping the clip into her hand and flipping the safety on. She put the gun back in its little box. She could clean it tonight. She reached for the coat that Franky offered her. She smiled shyly up at the brunette. "The gun works." She teased gently.

Franky must have realized that her mouth was open because she shut it with a snap. She tried to get a grip on the sudden jolt of both fear and arousal that was slamming her system at the last two shots. She'd put the card there as a joke. Seeing her woman grip the gun, pink or not, and blast through everything she aimed at, did things to her that she didn't expect.

"Franky?"

There was concern in Bridget's voice. Franky could only shake her head and pull the older woman into a hug. "Remind me to never fuck with you when you're holding that." She could feel the blonde stiffen at the implied danger, but Franky hugged her tighter for a moment. "And thank you for making me feel like I'm the safest woman in the world." She muttered.

Bridget laughed, relieved, and Franky joined her as they walked back down the hill towards the warmth of the cabin. She shook her head again, glancing at Bridget as they walked. She couldn't help the flash of fear she'd felt watching her gentle lover annihilate every target. The look on her face had been frighteningly calm. It was easy for her, to pull that trigger. To hit everything she'd sought to destroy. Woe be the one who tried to separate them now! Franky inwardly grinned. Bridget wouldn't kill, but she would damn near scare to death. That was enough for now. That would give them time to run if they needed to. Franky stole another glance at the blonde walking beside her. She had never seen this absolutely uninhibited side of her lover before. When she tore off her jacket…she looked so…free. And hot. She looked pretty fucking hot as well.

When they entered the cabin, Bridget put the gun box on their farm table. "You'll keep practicing, right?"

Franky nodded, looking at the gun box. She reached over and flipped the little case open. "Is it safe?"

"Yes. It's unloaded and the safety is on. Franky…?"

Franky had picked up the pink gun and grabbed Bridget's hand, leading her deeper into the cabin.

Bridget didn't fight her, but eyed the gun. "Baby, what are you…?"

Franky looked back at her, and the look in her dark green eyes stole Bridget's breath away. Franky tugged her into the bedroom and wrapped a strong arm around her waist. "I wanna fuck Annie Oakley." She whispered.

Bridget laughed at her. "Oh, Franky, for goodness sake!"

But Franky tossed the gun onto the bed and backed the blonde up until the backs of her knees hit the edge. Franky kept advancing and Bridget sat and scooted back, allowing the brunette to lay herself on top of her. Bridget picked up the gun to move it but Franky was quick, and pinned her hand and the gun to the bed. With her other hand she gently stroked the older woman's face.

"You are fucking amazing. Your dad would be proud."

Bridget reached up and caught the back of Franky's neck, brushing their lips together. Her breathing was becoming shallow. "Can we not talk about my father right now?"

Franky laughed and wriggled her hips until Bridget opened her legs and let her fall between them. "Yes, Ms. Oakley…"

Bridget's tinkling laugh filled their small bedroom. "Just kiss me, you idiot."

Chapter Text

*One year ago

Bridget was startled from slumber the instant her semi-conscious ears pricked against the faint and foreign sound coming from down the hall. She rose slightly from the couch, brow furrowed in concentration. Had she been dreaming? She tilted her head again. No, there was definitely someone in her house! Fuck! They hadn't come through the front door...did they climb through the window? Really?

Franky?

Her already rapid heart flipped in her chest. She got off the couch soundlessly and crept cautiously down the hallway. She hadn't seen Franky since...that night. Outside her new therapy office. She remembered being frozen as the only woman she'd ever truly loved held out her arms from across the street.

I love you! I'll be back!

Bridget had had no time to even open her mouth before Franky turned and disappeared into the night. That was a week ago. For seven long and terrible days Bridget had agonized over that sudden and brief interaction. She'd been so... proud…oddly enough. Franky was everything she knew she was, and more. But Bridget was also terribly afraid for her. Her love's life seemed to take one tragic turn after the other. And how would this end?

She'd also been questioned by the police. She'd been interrogated by Vera. Her home has been searched. She'd been called on so often by the authorities at odd hours she'd begun to sleep on the couch. Easier to answer the door. She was fatigued of the blatant mistrust. Franky wasn't here, and honestly, Bridget never expected her to ever come home until her name had been cleared. Until she proved her innocence. And if she did, then what? Hadn't Bridget finally walked out on her? Franky's declaration in the darkened street that night had rattled Bridget to her core. Seeing her, hearing her unashamedly calling out…was something that Bridget hadn't stopped thinking or worrying about.

Never. I'll never see her again. That's what she thought. Even if they loved each other too much to ever truly walk away...how was she ever going to find proof? What was she doing? What was she thinking?

Now, however, as she moved quietly towards the bedroom, she thought Franky had finally come. If it wasn't her, Bridget would flee. She peeked around the door frame of the bedroom, and there was no mistaking the lanky figure hunched in their closet.

"Franky?" She whispered.

Franky leapt up, grabbing her chest. "Shit! Fuck! Gidget!"

They were still for a moment. Bridget took a step, entering the bedroom. "What…what are you doing?"

So many thoughts were clogging her brain. She was getting clothes, of course. But the real meaning behind the question went deeper than just the basics.

Franky stood awkwardly in the dark room. "I thought...I didn't know you were home..." She stammered. "You weren't in bed."

"I fell asleep on the couch."

Were they really having this mundane conversation?

Bridget took a step closer. "Where have you been? What have...what have you been doing?"

Franky looked away. Bridget couldn't see her expression in the darkness. "I'm sorry, Gidge. I thought you were out. I just came to get some things. I'm sorry."

Bridget moved to the bedside and turned on the lamp. The sudden light, though dim, seemed blinding. Franky was soaking wet, and looked wildly uncertain about being in their bedroom. She was thinner, and rather filthy. She held a pack in one hand and a sweatshirt in the other. She seemed rooted to the floor.

"I didn't want ya to see me like this." She muttered, looking down at the pack in her hands. "I knew I shouldn't have come…I just..."

"Needed clothes."

Franky nodded miserably. Every second she stayed Bridget was put in an increasingly dangerous position.

"What else do you need?"

Her question took Franky of guard. "What?"

Bridget sighed. "You're here, Franky. You might as well get what you came for."

The last bit sounded rather cold, but that wasn't her intention. She saw the flicker of hurt cross the other woman's face. Their last pitiful conversation ringing in both their ears.

But I fucking love you!

And I fucking love you.

We aren't done!

Bye, Franky.

There was so much hurt. So much anger and suspicion and regret. Franky closed her eyes and leaned against the closet. "I'm so tired, Gidge." Her voice was barely audible.

She was utterly alone. No one believed her. The world was against her. She was rapidly losing an impossible battle. She would die before going back to prison. Bridget closed her mind firmly to that last thought. She wouldn't think that. She took a breath and held her arms out and walked purposefully forward. Franky took a step back and Bridget growled softly, "if you push me away I swear…"

She hugged Franky firmly. Held her until the other woman's initial stiffness melted and then Franky's arms were around her, hugging her just as desperately.

"Oh my god, I miss you," she mumbled. "I'm so sorry, Gidge…please...I'm so sorry."

Bridget held her closer and felt Franky shiver underneath her rain soaked clothes.

"You're drenched."

Franky pulled away and stepped back. She looked towards the window. "It's raining pretty hard."

Bridget thought back. "Franky, it's been raining for days! Where...where have you been?"

Franky sighed and leaned against the closet entrance again. "During the day? Everywhere. At night? By the train tracks under the 15 bridge."

Bridget made a noise in the back of her throat, but Franky shook her head. "Gidge, please. I just need some clothes." Let me go was the plea behind her eyes.

Bridget looked at her and slowly shook her head. Sleeping in the dirt under a bridge. Wandering. Lost, wet, cold, afraid...

"Take a shower. I'll make you dinner."

Franky looked quickly at the window again as if she were going to bolt. She squeezed her eyes shut. "Don't. Don't be kind. If you are, I'll lose what little courage I have left."

Bridget had to look away from her then. Her heart ached in her chest. "I'm not being kind. I'm being decent. I'd would do this for anyone who came to me in your state."

Franky looked at her remembering. Would you do this for any of the women?

Bridget had shaken her head then. No, she wouldn't.

Bridget stating now, clearly, that she was no more put out than if Franky was a stranger made Franky feel ridiculously better.

Bridget saw she'd won, and nodded the brunette towards their bathroom. Without a backward glance she left the bedroom and went into the kitchen, feverishly hoping that this wouldn't be one of the spot check nights the police seemed fond of. What was she supposed to do now? Call Vera? Convince Franky to turn herself in? Bridget gnawed her lower lip while she fixed a simple turkey sandwich. She automatically toasted the bread, knowing how much Franky loved warm mayonnaise. She couldn't think straight. She hadn't really thought straight in the past week. Now, the subject of her all-consuming thoughts was currently showering in the master bath.

When she returned to the bathroom, holding the plate with the sandwich, Franky was just wrapping herself in a towel. She took the sandwich gratefully and before Bridget could blink, it was gone.

"You were hungry."

Franky nodded and poured herself a glass of water from the sink. "Thank you." She mumbled.

They stood awkwardly for a moment, each unsure what the next move ought to be. Finally, Bridget sighed.

"Franky get into bed."

"Gidge…"

Bridget was firm. And exhausted. "No. You aren't sleeping outside tonight. Just...just get in."

There was a spare bedroom, but never once did it cross Bridget's mind…that is, until Franky dropped her towel and bent to put clean boxers on.

Shit, didn't think that through…

Franky caught her eye as she straightened up and smiled sadly, knowing that even in this awkward moment all they both really wanted was to be near each other. "Say it." She whispered. "Just say it, Gidge."

Tell me to make love to you and I will…god, I will until the sun comes up or you beg me to stop...

Bridget closed her eyes for a moment. "Just come to bed." It was all she could say.

Franky nodded and followed her to the bed. It was unconscious how easily they moved. They'd done this a thousand times before. Bridget was in Franky's arms before either one of them realized what had happened.

But neither moved. For this one stolen moment they were together. Bridget felt tears in her eyes. She knew that Franky would be gone soon…in a bare few hours. She gripped her tighter around her middle. "Tell me what to do with you?" She begged softly.

Whatever smartass comment Franky could have made, she held it in. Instead she softly kissed Bridget's head. "You're doing it."

"You’re not taking any clothes."

Franky leaned back to look at her. "What?"

Bridget buried her head in Franky's shoulder. "You will come back here every night to sleep."

"Gidge…it's too risky for you. I won't do that. I shouldn't even be here now."

Bridget held onto her tighter. "Every. Night." She growled through clenched teeth.

Franky shook her head and smiled, settling down against the soft mattress. "You would do this for just any stranger, huh?"

Bridget didn't answer, and Franky didn't need one. The brunette kissed her head again. "Thank you," she whispered.

...

It was very close to morning when Franky awoke, startled. She was laying on her side, in a bed, facing… Bridget.

She closed her eyes tightly and felt a warm hand touch her own, grasping her fingers. When she opened her eyes again, Bridget was awake, looking back at her. Franky closed her eyes again and groaned, leaning her forehead into their joined hands. She couldn't stop the tears from welling up in her eyes. She'd thought falling asleep last night in Bridget's arms had been a dream. She almost would have been happier if it had been fabricated by her subconscious.

But it was real. The freezing, rainy nights had proven too much and against her better judgement she'd crept home to get her coat and a few other things. It looked as though Bridget wasn't home. Franky couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy and hurt at the thought that she may be with someone else, but she knew she had no right to those feelings.

But then there she was. And she was hugging Franky and making her a warm sandwich, and tucking her into bed. Jesus Christ, it had all really happened.

When Franky opened her eyes her tears fell freely. She didn't want to get out of this bed, or ever leave the sight of the woman looking at her. She held the hand holding hers tighter and wiped her eyes with her other hand. "You're real."

Bridget smiled sadly at her. "I was just wondering that about you." She whispered. She reached out and pulled on Franky's shoulder, urging her to come closer…to press against her until there was no space left between them. Hip to hip, chest to chest, forehead to forehead they lay, arms draped across shoulders and clutching the fabric of night clothes.

"Stay." Bridget breathed.

"It's almost light. I can't be seen here, and I can't be seen leaving here."

Bridget gripped her when she shifted as if to get up. Franky stilled again. "Gidge…"

"Where will you go? What will you do?"

Franky looked at her and bit her bottom lip, remaining silent. Bridget sighed. "You're still doing it. Protecting me."

Franky smiled sadly. "I can't help it. I've never felt the need to guard someone so carefully. I've never loved so hard."

Bridget closed her eyes. "I know what you mean."

Franky touched her face gently, mapping its features. "Why haven't you told me to turn myself in?"

Bridget was quiet. Because it was pointless? Because she didn't want Franky back in prison? Because they were both crazy? 

Franky sighed. "I should have let you help me when I was inside." She pressed herself closer into the woman holding her. "I'm so sorry, Gidge," she whispered.

Bridget felt tears in her eyes. "You'll come back?"

"I'll come back." The answer was firm.

Bridget closed her eyes as Franky leaned in. "Can I kiss you?"

Bridget nodded, and felt soft lips press against her own. "I'll come back. I promise."

When Bridget opened her eyes again, Franky was gone.

Chapter Text

Franky moved her hands down her torso and made a noise of pleasure. “That feels so good, Gidge.”

Bridget smiled at her. “It's not too rough? You can take it, can you?”

Franky finished putting her new, orange, ultra-thick wool sweater on and looked in mock horror at the smirking older woman. “Oh my god, you are so dirty!”

Bridget chuckled and slipped her arms around Franky's waist, hugging her. “Happy birthday, baby. You home early tonight?”

Franky kissed her, taking her time in answering. Finally, she pulled back, smiling. “Mmm…yep. Right around dark. Still up for seeing the meteor shower tonight? Want me to pick up something for dinner on my way home?”

Budget chuckled again and patted Franky's rear before letting her go. “Yes to the meteor shower, no to dinner. I'm home first and I’d rather like to cook for you tonight.”

“Gidge, don't cook on your night off!”

Bridget raised her hand. “Nothing fancy, I promise. You can still eat Martha's sandwich.”

Franky laughed and before she could turn to leave, Bridget caught her hand. “Thank you.”

Franky tilted her head, still smiling. “For what?”

“For taking Nick’s shift this morning and working through the evening so you could be home tonight. Thank you.”

Franky brushed a blonde stand from Bridget's forehead. “I need this. We need this.”

And it was true. Since Bridget had picked up the job at the paper, Franky had been able to quit tutoring, and only joined the night shift at the university. Her shift started an hour before Bridget even got home. To her credit, most nights her love forced herself to stay awake until Franky got home. But they didn't cross paths at all if Bridget succumbed to her weariness and fell asleep before Franky wearily climbed into bed beside her. Working a double seemed beyond worth it if they could enjoy an evening together.

Franky bent down and kissed her lover one last time before heading for the front door. When she looked back, she couldn’t help but just watch the other woman bustle around the cabin. She was clearly going to be late again. The town’s paper she worked at forgave her endless tardy mornings. Sales had increased since Brenna’s Council had been added to the small paper. Her little mailbox was constantly overflowing with letters and questions. Franky smiled to herself. Neither of them were really fulfilling their true calling, but damn if her woman still hadn’t found a practical way to make a difference in people’s lives. Her heart swelled as she gazed at her. Bridget looked up when the draft of the open door reached her. She saw Franky staring and raised an eyebrow. Franky mentally shook herself and winked. “I love ya, Gidge. See you tonight.”

“Jo, I need you to get the 3rd floor tonight.”

The brunette already had her back pack on and one foot out the door. “Bernie, I'm headed home!”

“One more floor kid. Just mop it, ok? I'll get everything else. Andy called in with a sick kid and my back is killing me…come on. Fifty bucks that you can take home tonight. I know you've already worked a double.”

He pulled out his wallet and took out two twenties and a ten. He slid the money across his bench and tapped it. He watched Jo catch her bottom lip between her teeth and grinned. She always took the money. What she didn't know, is that he went out of his way to offer her overtime first. None of the other guys wanted it anyway. Jo was the only one who silently begged with those deep green eyes for more hours.

Bernie watched her hesitate for a moment longer. He liked this one. She was quiet and punctual and damn meticulous with her work. It didn't take a rocket scientist to mop a floor, but there was a decent amount of effort that had to go into it and it was easy to get sloppy. Jo never got sloppy.

When she slowly took off her backpack, his smile widened. They'd come a long way in the months she'd been working for him. During the first few weeks she rarely spoke, smiled or made any sound whatsoever. She just came in, nodded to Bernie, and started her shift.

He remembered the first time she beamed at him. He’d told his wife about her…this skinny, shy, beautiful young woman. She obviously wasn’t from around here. His wife told him to let her be.

They both knew that strangers didn't settle in a tiny, secluded town such as this unless they needed to. The love of his life began to pack two sandwiches into his lunchbox instead of one. The first time he gave Jo a sandwich she narrowed her eyes, not trusting the gesture.

He’d expected it.

“From the missus.” He’d shrugged.

She took it cautiously, as if waiting for him to strike. She whispered a thank you and bit into it.

And beamed at him.

Bernie loved her.

He didn't care what her story was. After that first smile all he could think about was getting her to do it again. After that first token of friendship, Jo began to soften towards him. She caved to his light banter and responded good-naturedly in kind. He loved her gentle, subtle accent. Her application said she was from Massachusetts, but she didn’t sound like the folks in the movies. Bernie didn't care. True to his word to his wife, he didn't ask her any questions.

Franky eyed the money on the bench. The big man was grinning at her. He knew she'd take it. Hell, she would have done it for less. But tonight was special, and Bridget was waiting for her. Tonight they would lay under the immense and endless sky to watch the meteor shower. They needed this time together.

They also needed the money. She sighed as she stared at the cash. An hour more. She could do that. Bridget would understand.

She bit her lip and looked at Bernie. She liked him, and didn't want him to be in a bind. Over the months she began to realize that he had no intention of asking her questions about her life. He never invaded her personal space with his sizable bulk. He was always kind, and not in a creepy way. He brought her some kind of sandwich every night, and left her to her work. He rather reminded her of Mr. Jackson. Firm, safe and kind. She could do this for him.

Franky finally gave in and pocketed the money, grinning at him. “Tell Martha that meatloaf sandwich tonight was my favorite.” Bernie shook his head vigorously, feigning a scowl. “No way. She'll serve it for a month just so she can have leftovers for you!”

Franky laughed as she headed for the elevators. She liked this man. Maybe she'd meet the mysterious sandwich maker one day.

The third floor was dark, and Franky frowned. She'd only been up here a few times, earlier in her shifts. She scanned the walls for a light switch. The fuck were the lights? She sighed. There was one office still lit up, and maybe she could ask whoever was in there.

The office was empty. Franky was about to leave when she noticed a thick, leather bound book at the edge of the desk. She inadvertently took a step closer and touched it. It was the latest edition of her favorite law book…the one she’d read in prison a hundred times. She smiled to herself and opened it, skimming the pages and picking up on delightfully new tidbits. Her heart ached suddenly, and after a moment she closed the book firmly. She didn't have room in her world right now to fantasize on what her life could have been.

She pulled the garbage bag from the bin and left the office, leaving the door wide open to cast enough light on the floor to do a good job. She dipped the mop in her bucket and began her work.

She was still thinking about the law book and didn’t hear the soft footsteps behind her. A male voice startled her and she whirled around.

“I knew I recognized you. From the shops last week.”

There was a man leaning against the wall, in the backdrop of the office light. He moved away from the light and closer into shadows. Closer to Franky. She narrowed her eyes. Oh yes, she remembered this one. There was a pretty pink gun tucked away in her cabin because of the way he had leered at her. The man smirked at her in the darkness.

“You went into my office.”

Franky was still trying to calm her heart. “Garbage doesn't take itself out.”

“You touched my stuff.”

Franky leaned against the mop. “I opened a book.”

“Why?”

The man moved closer. Franky didn't like how he was inching nearer. She kicked the mop bucket between them. “Get off the wet floor.” Her voice was firm; she was still fighting to calm her racing heart. Why hadn’t he turned on the lights?

He took a step closer. “You stared at it for a while. You were reading.”

Franky grit her teeth. “So? Looks like I wasn’t the only one staring. Liked what you saw, did you? Creeping in the dark looking at people? Why didn’t you turn on the lights?”

The man smirked. “Why didn’t you? Seems like we both enjoy the darkness. And not people. You. I knew I recognized you. From the shops.” He took a bold step forward.

Franky backed up a step, her muscles tense. What the fuck did this guy want? He'd regret it if he got too close. As it was, he was only idly leaning against the corner wall. She didn't like it, her back too close to the end of the hallway and the lights off. She didn't like the way he was looking at her. She forced herself to remain calm.  “So you said. Congratulations.”

She eyed him as she kept moping, and the man kept watching. Franky was irritated and fuming…but held her tongue. Her days of brazen and cocky arrogance were over.

“You aren't from here. What's your name?”

Franky remained quiet, and continued working, hoping if ignored, he’d simply go away. From the corner of her eye she saw movement. The man had reached out a hand to her. Franky snarled at him. Before she knew what was happening, he'd jumped away from her as if burned.

“HEY! What's going on here?”

The lights came on with a sudden hum of florescent electricity. Bernie came forward. He had a roll of garbage bags in his hand. He handed them to Franky. “Was gonna help with the garbage.” He murmured. When he saw the gratitude on her face, he knew it wasn't because he'd just handed her trash bags. He narrowed his eyes and turned to the man. “I asked a question.” There was anger in his normally jovial voice. He hadn’t liked what he'd just seen.

“Nothing.” The man had backed up several paces.

“Doesn’t look like nothing. Jo, you ok?” He glanced back at her.

She nodded, silent. Her large expressive eyes clearly indicated that she was not ok. Bernie growled quietly. If this fucker made her crawl back into her shell he’d punch his lights out. Seeing her grin was the best part of his night. He looked at the man. He was young, maybe in his early 30s. “Buildings closed for a reason. People are trying to work.”

The man raked eyes quite rudely over Jo. “I see. We were just talking.”

“Look man, I don’t care what you were doing. You cornered my employee in a dark hallway. That’s not ok anywhere.”

“Do you know who I am?”

Bernie snorted. “Some entitled prick who creeps around dark halls after hours?”

“I'm the assistant chair of this department.”

“Still doesn't explain why you backed my employee into a corner.”

Bernie folded his arms across his chest. He was over six feet, and built like a tank. The man took another step back.

“I was just being friendly with her, man. Take it easy.”

Bernie snorted again. “Friendly is talking to her in a nice restaurant, not cornering her in an empty, dark hallway.”

“She was in my office.”

“I was looking for the lights.” Franky uttered quietly.

“You were going through my things.” The man accused, eying Bernie. “She's new. I haven't seen her before.”

"Why the sudden interest in my staff?" Bernie growled. He looked at Franky over his shoulder.  “You go through his stuff?” He asked quietly.

“I took the garbage out. I opened a book.”

Bernie studied her for a moment and then turned back to the man. “There. She opened a book. Isn’t this the Law department? Surely you know that’s not a crime? She won't do it again. Next time one of my employees…displeases…you, you'll flip on the fucking lights and come to me. You won't back them into a dark corner.”

The man raised his hands. “I didn't back her into a corner, man. We were just talking. Thought we shared the same interest in law, that's all. Chill. I didn't know she'd freak out.”

Bernie pointed firmly to the exit “After 8pm, this building is mine. You can go.”

The man looked rather offended at his dismissal, but wisely held his tongue and took his leave. When he was gone, Bernie heard a quiet sigh of relief behind him. He turned to the brunette, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. He removed it quickly when she flinched.  “You ok? He hurt you?”

“Scared me, is all.”

For the first time Bernie noticed the broken mop handle in her hand. He whistled. “Shit, Jo.” He muttered.

Franky looked down and cursed inwardly. She hadn't even realized she'd broken it. “I'm sorry...”

Bernie raised a hand to silence her. He took the mop handle from her. “Don't be. Looks like that prick got lucky. I'll get rid of this.”

They rode the elevator in silence. When they got back to the main office Bernie cleared his throat.

“Can’t touch their things, kid. These assholes are ticky with their stuff.”

Franky looked down. “I'm sorry.” She said again.

Bernie fiddled with the broken mop handle. “I heard he was asking your name. You know you can tell him to shove off right? Before you stick him with one of my mops?”

He smiled gently at her, but when she looked up at him he was a bit unnerved. There was much more behind those pretty eyes than a sweet, shy girl. There was something dark…feral. He frowned slightly.

“Look...I've had trouble before with some of the staff here. Young, bright ivy leaguers with positions too big for their britches. They aren't much better than frat boys. I don’t really care if you opened all his stupid books. That doesn't give him the right to corner you. You'll holler for me next time, won’t you?”

Franky nodded at him, frustrated that she'd allowed even a moment of her old self to come out. Free folk can fight. Fugitives flee. She couldn't afford a confrontation...especially with the assistant chair of the law department.

Bernie looked seriously at her. “Look, there's always a reason people come for the night shift. Cash, quiet, no questions...whatever the reason, all I care about is that you are on time and do a good job. You satisfy my only two rules, and that makes you ok by me. It’s your job to clean floors, it's my job to see that you are safe doing it.

What happened tonight won't happen again.”

“Thanks, Bernie. “

“Go on home. Let his majesty’s floor be dirty for tomorrow. His own fault.”

Franky sighed and dug into her pocket for the cash. She hadn’t really finished the job. Bernie stopped her. “It’s yours. We’ll keep you clear of the hallway for a while.”

“Maybe just tell me where the lights are next time.”

She smiled shyly at him, and he returned it, shaking his head. “Deal. Now get out of here. Go cuddle your man. See you tomorrow night.”

Franky had barely parked next to Bridget’s car and turned off the engine before the adrenaline wore off and her emotions caught up with her. She squeezed her eyes shut and let out a soft cry of pain at the sudden onslaught of fear and panic. She panted, trying to catch her breath as memories and reality jumbled together and left her afraid and disoriented. She sat for a moment, gripping the steering wheel. In less than a minute the freezing air outside had permeated her car and she began to shiver. She remain still, however, using the cold to keep herself in the present.

The freezing temperature only served to make her teeth clatter together. Her mind spun out of her control and she didn’t even try stopping the sob that escaped her throat. Broken mop handles meant rape, severe beatings, torture…that was what they were used for in her experience. Tonight, in one fluttering heartbeat, she recalled the monster within and was terrified by it.

Franky shook her head and took several breaths. Even while she sat frozen she could feel sweat beading her forehead. One ten minute interaction with that asshole on the third floor had swept away her calm and normal existence and reduced her back into nothing more than a fugitive. Where there was once excitement and anticipation for the evening, now a sour and unsettled feeling filled her. Her heart still flipped at the sudden burst of adrenaline when he’d reached for her. When she’d snapped the mop. Oh, it had terrified her all right. She tightened her hands around the steering wheel.

He may have been teasing her, toeing the line between flirting and intimidating. He may have thought he was being charming or mysterious or a bad boy. He may have been a predator, seeing an opportunity with her alone in a dark hallway. He certainly became defensive when Bernie showed up.

Whatever his intent, Franky instinctively snapped the mop when he reached for her. But she knew, as she sat in the increasingly freezing car in the darkened driveway, that breaking a mop handle wasn’t what scared her.

What terrified her was that she meant to kill him with it.

When Bernie took the handle from her, his eyes widened slightly. He’d seen something in her then, and though he tried to settle her, tried to reassure her…Franky could tell he’d been deeply troubled. Of course he had been. He'd caught a glimpse of who was barely concealed inside her. She closed her eyes, fighting the panic that was welling up in her again. What would the consequences of her actions be? Was this man out to get her? Did they have to run again? She clutched her chest. She couldn’t breathe. The sound of the broom breaking echoed in her ears. Were they still safe here? Would she have to bear seeing Bridget's heartbroken face when she told her they had to leave their latest sanctuary because of Franky's lack of control? Because in her fear she reacted instead of thinking? Because even as far removed from the prison as she was, she was still a prisoner? Would Bridget even go with her, if she'd known how close Franky was to murdering again? When will she finally see I'll never be good?

With a grunt, Franky grabbed the car door handle and shoved. An icy blast of air hit her body and she tipped out of the car on her hands and knees. She heard Jacs laughing. She saw Juice sneer. She saw the man reach for her. Mother, Jacs, Ferguson, Mike, Iman, Wentworth, trapped, lost, broken, afraid, fear, death...

Her head spun and she clawed at the frozen ground. Not safe, not safe anymore. Bridget would never be safe. She would never be free. In this vast, open wilderness there was no oxygen. She couldn’t get enough air, and she desperately gasped between sobs.

“Br…idg…et!” Her shivering cry was barely audible, and lost in the night.

A stout wave of dizziness washed over her and she collapsed face first into the snow.

 

 

Chapter Text

"How long were you laying there?"

Franky didn't look up when the shower curtain was pulled back. She faced the steady stream of water, both hands against the sandstone tiles, and let both the steam and hot water thaw the ice in her bones.

Bridget watched her for a moment. She was rather surprised at her own anger. She struggled to get a grip on the other emotions coursing through her. Panic, fear, worry...all jammed into the Franky part of her heart.

She watched her lover silently shiver under water that was burning her. Her olive skin was turning a shade of red that should have concerned them both. As it was, Franky stayed under the stream, and Bridget waited for an answer.

Franky rubbed a hand over her face and spat water. A quick glance at Bridget was the only indication that she'd heard the question. In truth, she didn't know the answer. What was time, anyway? A prison sentence? Stolen moments across the world? A split second to remember?

Bridget lifted her towel and held it out. "Come out" she said gently. "You're turning red."

Franky put her head back under the stream of water, blocking out all sound except the rushing of water in her ears. If she came out, she'd have to talk. She'd have to tell Bridget what she'd done. She'd have to bear the consequences. Fear froze her warming skin and she knew that all the boiling water in the world wouldn't thaw her heart if Bridget left her. She would succumb to the inevitable transformation and turn to stone.

Bridget sighed when Franky ducked her head back under the stream of water. She knew when she was being effectively blocked out. But they had been through too much for Franky to behave this way. Bridget took a breath and felt anger rise in her again. On a whim she'd gone outside, sick with worry that Franky was so late. She hadn't called, which could have meant that she hadn't been able to. That she was in trouble. Bridget hadn't dared call or text her in fear that if Franky was in trouble, any amount of noise would give her away.

And when Bridget had first seen her car, and then her still body lying in the snow...Bridget needed a dictionary to label the amount of emotions flooding her system. The temperature was in the single digits, and Franky lay as if dead. The time it took to get to her to feel for a pulse was arguably the worst few seconds of Bridget's life.

But she wasn't dead. She hadn't been shot or stabbed or beaten. Her eyes were closed but she mumbled when Bridget had rolled her over and cried out her name. It had taken considerable force to get her into the cabin and get her into the shower. Franky was frozen, and not entirely helpful.

When the hot water hit her body she seemed to withdraw further into herself, rather than come back to Bridget.

As patient as she was, Bridget needed her to talk. She needed her to explain what had happened that she was two hours late and hadn't called. Why she was lying face down in their drive. She knew from long and difficult experience that the younger woman couldn't be pushed, but they couldn't afford to shut each other out. Not now, not ever again.

Bridget reached into the shower and cut the water off. It was getting luke-warm anyway. She slung the towel around Franky and urged her gently to come out. It was a good sign that Franky didn't struggle against her, but it was also alarming.

"Are you hungry?"

Franky shook her head. She took the towel and dried herself, beginning to shiver again. Without a word she hung the towel back up and crawled naked into bed, burying herself under the thick quilts.

Bridget sighed again. Clearly they were not going to talk tonight; not going to do anything they had planned. The silence was difficult and frustrating, but Bridget let it go. She had to. All she could do was go back into the kitchen and pack up the dinner she'd made and put it away. When she came back into the bedroom, she opened the broken trunk at the foot of the bed and piled more blankets over Franky. Then she undressed and climbed in beside her.

Franky had her back to Bridget and flinched when the other woman put an arm around her. "Shh, shh. Let me hold you, love" Bridget whispered.

Franky turned over and tucked herself into Bridget's arms. The heat from the shower and the warm body next to her was more than enough to cause her eyes to droop. She couldn't remember a time when she'd been this tired.

Bridget stroked her hair soothingly. "I thought about laying naked in bed with you all day." She laughed quietly. "But this isn't quite what I had in mind."

The only indication that Franky was still awake and listening was the arm around her ribcage tightened. Bridget smoothed the wet brown strands from her forehead and brushed her thumb across Franky's cheek.

"Whatever happened tonight, Franky, I'm here."

The arm tightened again. Bridget nodded to herself. "I know you, my love. I've seen the darkest side of you, and I've seen the light that shines through it."

Franky squirmed a little but Bridget held her fast. "I'll not leave you, Franky. It's simply not an option anymore."

Franky stiffened in her arms and Bridget knew she'd hit a chord. She tightened her arms. "I'll not leave you. Ever."

She felt Franky shiver, but not from cold. If anything, it was damn hot under all their quilts. She felt a wetness on her chest. Franky was crying. Bridget rocked her gently. "Just sleep, my baby. Sleep. I'll be right here when you wake up."

Franky nuzzled closer and let her body sink into Bridget's warmth and kindness. She closed her eyes and relaxed her face under the other woman's gentle touch. The evening's strife dulled somewhat and lingered more towards the back of her mind. Her senses were only filled with Bridget's love. She inhaled deeply and sank further into the steady arms holding her.

"I love you," she murmured.

Bridget kissed her head, relieved at the sound of her voice; for finally feeling her body relax. "I love you too. Sleep now, Franky. Just sleep."

Franky pushed her hand between Bridget's legs, her grip tightening around her neck. Bridget struggled with the hand around her throat while fighting Franky's other hand. She choked as she sobbed. "Franky, stop! Please!"

But Franky didn't stop. Her eyes blazed a terrifying green. She crushed Bridget into their dresser and forced her legs apart. Bridget turned her face to the side when she felt Franky roughly shove her hand between her legs again.

And froze. Bridget turned her head slowly to glare at the brunette through her tears. Franky looked down at the pink gun pressed firmly into her ribs.

"Get your hands off me." Bridget growled.

Franky was breathing as hard. Her eyes flashed and for a second the grip around Bridget's throat tightened. Then she let go and stepped back.

"Gonna shoot me, Gidge?"

Bridget was still catching her breath. Her voice shook and tears still streamed down her cheeks. "I've a mind to."

Franky smirked at her and turned her back, headed for the door. A shot rang out in the small room and Franky jumped away from the door in shock. The bullet hit the door inches from her face. She whirled around to face Bridget.

"The fuck!"

She reached back for the door handle and jumped again at the deafening echo of the shot. Bits of wood splintered a few inches from her hand. Franky sucked in a breath and faced Bridget again.

"Bridget..."

Bridget cocked the gun swiftly and this time aimed it right between Franky's eyes. The younger woman instinctively raised her empty hands and backed against the door, fear finally replacing her previous rage.

"Would you like to know how it feels to be fucked when you're afraid?" Bridget asked. Her tone was low, lethal.

Franky swallowed and kept her hands up. She shook her head. No, she didn't. Bridget closed one eye, aiming.

"Bridget!"

The shot rang out and suddenly Franky felt a searing pain on the side of her head. She dropped to the ground and felt blindly at the burn along her temple. Her hand came away bloody. The bullet had barely grazed her, and the utter control Bridget had over her now made her shiver. She looked, horrified, at the other woman. Her voice wavered.

"Are you going to kill me?"

Bridget's voice was stronger. Her tears had stopped. "I don't know yet. Get up."

Franky stood, slowly, eyes darting back and forth between Bridget's cold stare and the barrel of the gun. Bridget jerked her head towards the bed.

"Sit down."

Franky eyed the weapon and slowly did as she was told.

"You were going to rape me. Just then. That's what you were going to do. To me."

Franky sat stiffly and clutched the edge of the bed. Bridget hadn't asked her a question, so she stayed silent. Bridget slowly dropped the gun to her side. She shook her head in disbelief.

"To me. After all we've been through."

Franky kept quiet and Bridget nodded. "Fine. I'm leaving. For good. If you chose to be everything you think you are, then I can't stay."

"Gidge…"

Bridget growled at her. "No, Franky. Don't. I…I don't even want to hear it."

Franky hesitated. "Please…"

Bridget stared hard at her. "Do you really think you can say anything that will justify your actions? That will change my mind?"

Franky shook her head mutely. Bridget nodded again, opened the door, and was gone. Franky stood to go after her but she was rooted to the bed. She tried to move her legs but to her horror, they'd already become stone. She pounded them to bring them back to life, but she watched helplessly as first her arms and then her torso became hardened marble. She shifted her eyes to the door before the transformation was complete, and only a forlorn statue remained.

Forever facing a closed door on what could have been.

Forever alone.

Franky woke screaming. Sweat plastered her hair to her face and she sat up, held her head, and sobbed.

Bridget started awake next to her and immediately grabbed for her.

"Jesus, Franky! You scared me! Hey, hey! It's ok…I'm here!"

Franky was rubbing her temple and got out of bed. Bridget quickly turned on their little bedside lamp and was shocked to see Franky staring at her in fear. She wasn't afraid of an unknown terror, she was afraid of her.

Bridget carefully got out of the bed to face her. "Baby?"

Franky shook her head and suddenly ran into the bathroom. She barely made it to the toilet before vomiting. She quaked against the power of her nightmare, and spat her mind's poison into the toilet bowl.

Bridget wrapped herself in a quilt and leaned against the door frame.

"I think it's time for us to talk now, my love."

Franky flushed the toilet and sat on the cold tile floor. She wrapped her arms miserably around her body and leaned her head down on her knees. Bridget crouched down.

"Get dressed. I'll make us some tea. Come into the kitchen when you're ready."

Finally, Franky nodded.

Chapter Text

It took another ten minutes for Franky to heave herself off of the bathroom floor. She dragged on clothes and made her way slowly to the kitchen. It was no great distance in the small cabin, and when she saw Bridget pouring two cups of tea, she couldn’t help but feel afraid. Most of her was ashamed…of her actions at work, of when she got home…that fucking nightmare. She sat at the table and let Bridget fix her tea. When the older woman sat, Franky blew out a breath.

“I'm sorry, Gidge.”

Bridget frowned. “Don’t begin like that, Franky. Just tell me what happened, ok? We’ll figure out together if there's something you need to apologize for.”

Franky looked at her tea cup and wrapped her hands around the warm mug. She closed her eyes and began to verbally relive every moment of the evening…right up until she woke up. She couldn’t look at Bridget. Instead, she spoke to the warm liquid surrounding her hands.

When she was through, she found the silence unbearable. Any minute now and the love of her life would decide that she was too fucked up to be around anymore. The last, most terrible moments of her nightmare were about to become her reality.

When she couldn’t bear the silence anymore, she peeked up at Bridget. What she saw surprised her. No fear or disgust…just thoughtfulness.

Bridget took in Franky's confessions in silence. She was angry at the stupid antics of the man in the hallway, and pretty fucking grateful that Bernie showed up. This conversation would have been very different if he hadn’t. She was also quite sickened by the nightmare. No wonder Franky looked so ashamed.

But there was something spectacular about the evening’s events that Bridget's psych-sharpened mind had picked up on. She knew Franky couldn’t see them, and she hoped the agitated woman across from her would allow herself to hear Bridget’s perspective. The only way to find out was to try.

“Franky,” she started gently, “you have to let go of the idea that this dark part of you is wrong…that it doesn’t belong in you.”

Franky gripped her tea cup and raised her voice. “I don't want it to be inside me!”

“Personally, I love that part of you.” Bridget answered calmly.

Franky looked at her, startled. “What?”

Bridget got up from the table to refill her tea cup. “It’s what has protected you from unspeakable things over the years.”

Franky was silent, watching her pour boiling water over a fresh tea bag. Bridget sat back down and rubbed her eyes. It was 3am, but neither of them was willing to go back to bed. Not now. She put her chin in her hand and looked thoughtfully at her lover. “You know what I can do, Franky. Give me permission and I’ll go there.”

Franky mirrored her pose, and tugged her lower lip between her teeth for a moment. As uncomfortable as this conversation was, she needed…a therapist. Bridget was so careful to never bring that part of her intelligence into their conversations. Normally, Franky appreciated the way Bridget let her come to conclusions on her own. The older woman never psychoanalyzed her…out loud anyway.

But tonight she fucking needed it. She’d almost frozen to death and suffered the worst nightmare of her life. She needed Bridget to figure this shit out and tell her, because as of right now, Franky was at an utter loss.

“Go on, Gidge. Lay it on me.”

Bridget appraised her for a moment longer before continuing.

Once opened, this can of worms couldn’t be closed again.

“Think back to when you were a child.”

She paused when Franky sat back suddenly and crossed her arms. Her body language was crystal clear. Bridget smiled gently. If this was the only push back she received she'd count herself lucky. Franky bounced her knee and raised her brow. She was waiting. Unhappily…but waiting.

“No one taught you boundaries and you were trod on mercilessly by the ones who should have protected you.” Bridget said. “Because you were a child, you couldn't fathom the injustice of an abusive mother. You internalized your rage, not knowing the why, but instinctively knowing that you should be angry.”

Franky shrugged. “Yeah, so I was an angry kid. We’ve been through this, Gidge.”

“Let me finish. Origins are important. So you had no outlet, no peace…no tools to rely on to help you sift through your feelings. You had no safe place or safe person. You, a little kid, had to rely on yourself. Without knowing it, you became your own safe person.” Franky snorted, thinking of Wentworth. “Didn't do a good job of that, hey?”

Bridget frowned at her. “You didn't know how. Through observation and experience you learned that violence was a way to protect yourself or get what you want. This part of you, this adult sized child in you had fearlessly guarded you your whole life, without really knowing how. It was all instinct.”

Franky mulled over her words. She was beginning to see where Bridget was going with this. She looked up at the older woman and nodded for her to continue.

“But now, as an adult, things are different. The change in you simply means you've learned other, healthier ways to cope with what frightens you.”

Bridget smiled at her fondly. “Sometimes, like last night, the child’s and the adult’s ideas of what the best course of action is in an intense situation collide, and you end up not killing a man and face down in our driveway.”

Franky breathed out a sigh. There was some relief behind it. She ended up almost freezing to death because she was a changed person. A good person. The irony made her laugh. Bridget cocked her head but Franky waved it away. This was a fuck load to think about, and none of it was really funny. She put her head in her hands. “Fuck.” She said quietly.

“Franky…”

“Nuh. Keep going.”

Bridget sipped her tea and studied the brunette. This conversation was a first for them. Franky had never been open to hearing any of this, and Bridget knew it was a lot. Trusting that her love would tell her when she'd had enough, Bridget continued.

“This side of you doesn't define you, Franky. It's never been who you are. Yes, it's who you had to be...for years...maybe long enough to believe that's who you've always been. But it’s not the real you. It's not who you were meant to be, and it’s certainly not what you've become. The very fact you are fighting that part of yourself proves that it’s not who you are or even want to be. We all have demons we wrestle with, Franky. We all have a dark side. It's the center of our survival mechanism...it's how we are able to do terrible things in a life

or death situation. We all have darkness in us.”

Franky folded her arms again and huffed. “You don't.”

Bridget laughed once, but her kind blue eyes cooled. “Try and rape me when I can reach a gun.” She said softly.

Franky looked away, terribly ashamed, but Bridget reached for her and reluctantly Franky took her outstretched hand. Bridget smiled at her. “Don't you see? Your dream highlighted both of our dark tendencies. Your conscious self may think I have none, but I'm telling you, baby...my reaction in your subconscious wasn’t that far off. You see this in me as well.”

“Defense is different. You defended yourself.”

“True, but I didn't let you leave, did I? Didn't I shoot you in the head? Confront you? True defense is doing the minimal to escape and survive. If I was utterly blameless I would have gladly let you leave when you first tried. But I didn't, and I wouldn't. I threatened you and made you feel just as afraid as I had been. I took control over you, like you tried to take control over me. It's what the darkness is, Franky. Constant shifts in power to make us feel in control in an uncontrollable world.”

Franky was bouncing her knee again. Bridget squeezed the hand she was holding, encouraging the younger woman to stay with her.

“This is what we are fighting. I've certainly not had to become my darkness for as long as you have. Maybe that's what made it easier for me to realize that it was only a part of me...not ALL of me.”

She frowned. “You, my love, have been warring your whole life. But you can’t escape your adult-sized child protector, you overpower her. You remind yourself daily that you are good, and brave, and worthy and capable. I know you would have killed that man...if you needed to. But you didn't.

“Bernie stopped me.”

“No, he interrupted you. There's a difference. Bernie didn't grab you and wrestle the mop from your hands. His presence made you realize that you didn't have to kill that idiot in the hallway. So you didn't. You realized, consciously or not, that he was just a little prick trying to fuck with you. He'd probably piss his trousers if he knew who you were.”

Bridget paused and looked her girl up and down. Even in her softest most vulnerable moments she was a force to reckon with.

“You didn't kill him because you know the difference between real danger and an ignorant asshole. You may have been afraid in the moment, and I don't blame you. But what lay you out on our drive was not fear from what you thought of doing, but grief from what you could have done. That is the woman you are, Franky. That is the woman I love. One who hesitates, calculates, thinks, feels, loves…that is who you are. Not a killer. Not a monster.”

It was Bridget’s turn to chuckle. “Do you honestly think I would be here with you if that was who you were? Do you think so low of me and so highly of yourself that you think I’d leave my whole world for a murderer? For a callous and frightening demon?”

Franky didn't answer. She hadn't thought of it that way before. Bridget was quiet, letting her think. She smiled at the way Franky absentmindedly played with her hand. When Franky finally looked up at her, Bridget smiled again.

“I've told you before. I see who you are. I really see you. And baby, I love what I see. I do not have it in me to love a monster, so you must believe me when I tell you that your light shines far brighter. It’s the only beacon I'll ever need, and it's fucking blinding.”

Franky bit her lip. “You aren't going to leave?”

“Franky, the only way you can get rid of me is to stop fighting and trying to be the woman you are. If you fully succumb to your demons, I will go. I assure you, my love, I will go.”

“Before I hurt you.” It was a demand. Bridget shook her head.

“No, my baby. Before I hurt you.”

Franky let out a shaky laugh. Her fear still lingered towards the small woman sitting calmly in front of her. But maybe that was a good thing. She had worked so hard to acknowledge her own terrors that she failed to see that her lover had some too. Bridget had never been easily trod on, and had risen to every challenge Franky had thrown at her. She was not weak, this little woman. She was gentle and kind, yes, but she also had the confidence and capability to be terrifying. Franky gazed at her in open admiration, feeling monumentally better knowing that she would never be able to take advantage of Bridget simply because the other woman wouldn't let her. There was freedom in that truth.

She sat back. “Huh.” It was all she could say. She looked at Bridget and wondered how long she'd been waiting for her to be able to handle such revelations. Her slow, lopsided smile crept onto her

face. “Have me all figured out, do you?”

Bridget laughed at her. “God, no. But I've an idea.”

Franky reached for her hands again. “I'm sorry, Gidge. I'm sorry tonight...last night...wasn’t what we'd planned.”

Bridget pulled her to her feet. “I wouldn't change a thing.”

Franky looked down at her. She still had the quilt wrapped around her small frame. She grinned. “Still naked under there?”

Bridget turned from her and headed towards the bedroom. “Come and see,” she called over her shoulder.

Franky's grin widened as she followed the gentle sway of those perfect hips to their bedroom.

Chapter Text

Franky carefully topped her last bird feeder before she noticed it. She almost dropped the canister of feed she was holding. She stared for a moment longer before bursting back into the cabin.

"Gidge! GIDGET!"

There was a sudden thump from the bedroom, followed by a loud curse. Franky rushed to the bedroom as Bridget was hurrying out. They collided in the small entry way.

Bridget was still more than half asleep, but she was forcing her eyes wide open. There was panic in her voice. "What? What's happened?"

Franky grabbed her hand and quickly led her to the front door. They passed through the mud room and Franky kicked open the door leading outside. She swept her arm wide with flourish.

"Look!"

Bridget squinted in the bright sunshine and shivered in the early morning chill. She gathered that there was no danger, mostly due to the blinding grin she was receiving. She couldn't for the life of her see what Franky was so excited about. She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. "What?" She asked again.

Franky looked at her like she was blind and strode out into the yard. She pointed to the ground.

"Look!"

Bridget wasn't going to follow her into the partially melted snow.

She clicked her tongue impatiently. "Franky…what?"

The beaming woman was still pointing to the ground. "Grass!"

Bridget was speechless. She focused on the tiny patch of green that had forced its way through the melting snow. Franky was still grinning at her.

"Franky...tell me you didn't scare me half to death because of grass."

Franky laughed and came back over to Bridget, wrapping her arms around her. "But Gidge...Spring!"

Bridget looked at the tiny patch of life and couldn't help but feel a twinge of excitement. Eight months of bitter cold and snow could make anyone thrilled at the sight of green. But still...7am… She looked up at Franky. "This couldn't possibly wait till I woke up?" Franky was still grinning and shook her head earnestly. "I wanna have a garden when the ground gets softer."

Bridget tugged herself free, shaking her head. "Fine. But until then, I'm going back to bed. You and your domestic little internal prison alarm clock can make me an omelet when I wake up."

Franky caught her up in her arms again and nuzzled her neck, sighing contentedly. "I love it here."

Bridget returned the embrace, stunned. A surprising and wonderful warmth spread over her. Franky had never said that before, anywhere. She was constantly agitated and the longer they stayed somewhere, the more her agitation would increase. In some parts of the world, her insecurities compounded so exponentially, they had to pack up and move as quickly as they had tried to settle. There were areas of certain countries where men with machine guns roamed the streets as comfortably as the vendors hawked their wares in the open markets. They never stayed long in those places.

But now, for the first time, Franky was happy. In truth they both were. It had crept up on them in the months they'd shared their little cabin in the woods. As the months carried on, their lives had slowed to the gentle and rhythmic loop of living day to day. Bridget suddenly felt like they could literally spend the rest of their days in peace, far away and hidden from those who would tear them apart. For the first time in too long she allowed herself to relax in their new life. They weren't going to move again. There would be no need. As claustrophobic as this planet felt sometimes, she finally believed that they were two lost little needles in the cosmic haystack. They would never be found.

Her mother's kind face suddenly flashed in her mind's eye. The bitter reminder that they would never see their loved ones again caused her to squeeze Franky tighter for a moment. Here and now had to play a larger part in her mind, or she would tip into despair. Instead, she turned her thoughts to the moment when they were both old and grey, walking hand in hand across the beautiful valley that led to the great lake far below them.

Bridget felt the younger woman's ribs expand as she breathed in the morning. The palpable life in her excited body caused Bridget to finally grin with her, finding comfort in her joy. She suddenly didn't feel the cold anymore, and she didn't want to go back to sleep. She pulled away and took Franky's hand, leading her back inside and into the bedroom.

Franky laughed when Bridget pushed her onto the bed. "Gidge! Thought you wanted to sleep some more, hey?"

Bridget pulled off her night dress in one fluid motion and Franky caught her breath when Bridget climbed up her. It was oddly imbalanced, Franky being fully clothed and Bridget stark naked. Bridget hovered over her.

"We are going out to breakfast after this. You won't have the energy to cook for me."

Franky's eyes widened and she laughed at the suddenness in the way Bridget tore off her sweater.

"Jesus, Gidge, I'm going to show you grass more often!" She was effectively silenced by a searing kiss.

Franky put aside her menu and looked up at their waitress.

"Mmm…the Mediterranean omelet, please, and coffee."

The waitress smiled cheerily and scribbled in her note pad. "And for your mother?" She turned her smile towards Bridget. And faltered.

Franky had to bite her tongue to prevent her laughter from coming out. Bridget's sudden stormy expression and the crimson shade of the waitress's cheeks were priceless. The waitress looked from Bridget to Franky, embarrassed. "Not your mother? I'm so sorry!"

Franky quickly reached across the little booth and took Bridget's hand, mostly to prevent the indignant older woman from responding. She winked at the waitress. "Nope. Not my mother...but I do call her daddy."

Both the waitress and Bridget looked at her, mouths slightly agape. Bridget recovered first, and with a slight choke in her voice said, "the Mediterranean omelet for me too, please."

The waitress nodded quickly and left, the crimson shade had spread to her neck and ears. When she was out of earshot Bridget snatched her hand away and leaned forward.

"Jo!"

Franky couldn't hold it in anymore. She put her head down on the table and burst out laughing. Bridget waited for her to come up for air. A bare smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, but then she frowned. She was uncertain about this little town's views on lesbian couples and she didn't want to call attention. She sighed. As if they needed another reason to be cautious! She wrestled with her self-consciousness and her amusement as she watched Franky laugh herself into a coughing fit. At last, when she could breathe again, Franky sat up and wiped tears from her eyes. She caught the stern look on her lover's face.

"Sorry, Brenna. God, I couldn't help it...her face!" She took a long drought of her water. There was still laughter in her voice.

Bridget pursed her lips but couldn't help chuckling a little. "Jesus, you're brash."

"Come on! You don't look nearly old enough to be my mum. And ick. Couldn't let that slide." Franky snorted into the back of her hand. "Besides, if you were my mum, you sure broke some pretty big laws this morning…"

Bridget wrinkled her nose at her and cocked her head, the twinkle in her eyes belying the sternness around her mouth. "You call me daddy, do you?"

Franky sat back and winked at her. "I'll call you whatever you want, Gidge, as long as you can make me scream like you did a few hours ago."

It was Bridget's turn to go crimson. With wide eyes she looked around before hissing, "Jo! Oh my god, what's gotten into you? Public place, remember?"

Franky took her hand again, her huge and irresistible smile covering all of her features. "Don't tell me you are ashamed of us?"

When Bridget didn't answer, Franky's smile faded. "Gidge?" She asked quietly.

"It's Brenna," came the automatic response. Bridget sighed. "And no, of course not."

Franky's face began to smooth of emotion and Bridget scrambled to collect her thoughts before the other woman's walls rose against her. "I can't believe you can ask me that. I can't believe you can even think it!"

But Franky crossed her arms, bouncing her knee. Bridget smiled fondly at her, teasing gently. "Your insecurities are showing, my love."

Franky scowled, and her features slowly crumbled. "Are you ashamed of us? Of me?"

Bridget saw the barely concealed heartbreak. She was so secure in her knowledge that Franky loved her that she often forgot that the fragile little thing needed reassurance once in a while. It was hard to remember that she was Franky's first real relationship. Not to mention everything they'd been through!

She reached across the booth and took the younger woman's hand. She rubbed her thumb over her knuckles and didn't give a damn who saw her look at Franky like she was looking at her right now.

"Remember all those events I used to drag you to? Conferences and dinners and really any work related or social gathering?"

Franky nodded, and Bridget smiled at her. "Think it was because I was ashamed of you?"

The other woman shrugged. "Always thought you just didn't want to walk in alone."

Bridget shook her head and laughed quietly. "No, baby, I couldn't wait to show you off."

Franky raised her eyebrow, and Bridget squeezed her hand. "Don't you remember? I'd introduce you to my colleagues and within minutes you would have them all enthralled with you. You used to say that you should charge them for all the insight you gave!"

Bridget laughed again. "All I could think of on those nights was that this woman, who held her own against some of the keenest minds in the business, was mine. I got to take her home at the end of the evening. I got to strip her and lay her down and make love to her. Me."

Bridget looked at her squarely. "Never once have I been ashamed of you or us. It’s just...we have to be careful now, baby. My priority now is to keep you hidden. Nothing stands out in a town this size like the only lezzo couple, yeah?"

Franky breathed out, shaking the last of her worries from her shoulders. At times she felt bipolar, and was eternally grateful that her trust in Bridget to be honest with her outweighed her sudden insecurities. Her lover was good at easing her mind. She looked around scandalously. "You think we're the only lezzo couple around here?"

Bridget sipped her water and said dryly, "If I'm being mistaken for your mother, then yes."

Franky leaned forward a bit provocatively. Her voice dipped an octave. "Wanna give them something to talk about?"

Bridget laughed and shook her head quickly. "No. No. For fucks sake. But when I get you home..."

She let the threat hang in the air and Franky grinned at her. "Am I gonna have to call social services?"

"I'll give you daddy." Bridget muttered.

Chapter Text

Bridget sat bolt upright, hand clutching her chest. She covered her mouth and whimpered. She automatically reached out for Franky, but her hand only waved through empty space. She looked at the clock. Just after 1am. Franky would be home now, unwinding before crawling into bed. Most likely she was on the couch, scanning through the news on their laptop. Bridget wiped her face and lay back, thinking. Her nightmare was old…her parents killed in a car wreck and she couldn’t get to them. Couldn’t go to the funeral. Couldn’t see them laid to rest. It had been a year since she had disappeared with Franky. It was such a sudden upheaval there was no time for any sort of goodbye. No closure. No warning. They had just packed and quickly left in the middle of the night.

She was consumed with thoughts, late at night, of her parents and friends. Their shock at her disappearance, her obvious choice of a felon over common sense…over them. She had never been rash, in all her life, and she could imagine the hurt and betrayal on their faces when officers arrived at their doorstep, questioning them about her and Franky’s whereabouts. If she still had her cell phone, she imagined it had over a hundred missed calls and messages, begging her to come home…to see reason and obey the law.

But it was too late now. She’d made her decision...made her bed in a burning house and lay amongst the flames. She wiped her face again. Tears had mixed with the sweat that covered her face. She got up and rummaged under their bed for the little metal box they’d hidden there. She knelt on the floor and opened it, touching their real identities, their real passports with their real names. Their drivers licenses, birth certificates, a few family photos. The only tangible evidence left that once they existed in another part of the world as Bridget Westfall and Franky Doyle.

She picked up a photo of her and her parents. It had been taken just a few years ago. They were all laughing. It had been such a happy time. Franky had grabbed her phone and said or did something to leave them all in stitches. When Bridget saw the picture, she knew she would treasure it forever.

She touched the laughing faces longingly and a fresh wave of grief struck her. The nightmare had been so real. She didn’t know how her parents were, if they were ok, if they had forgiven her for abandoning them. She could only guess their health and hope that under much of the anger and hurt, they still loved her.

Bridget was still kneeling on the floor when Franky came into the bedroom. She was surprised that the blonde was up and a look of concern covered her features. Bridget was holding the sacred little box in one hand, and her passport in the other. She was crying quietly. Franky leaned against the door frame and called out softly.

“Gidge?”

Bridget looked up at her, tears streaming down her face. Franky closed the gap between them and wrapped her arms around her.

“Hey, hey! What is it?”

Bridget wriggled free and stood, still holding the box. “I…I have to go.”

Franky was still on the floor, confused. “Go? Go where?”

She eyed the box and realization struck her. Her tone now had panic in it. “Go where, Gidge?”

Bridget looked down at the box in her hands. “Home.” She whispered. “I have to go home.”

Franky stood carefully. She reached out a tentative hand. “Gidge? You awake?”

It wasn’t a ludicrous question. The blonde was a notorious sleep talker. But when Bridget finally looked at her, Franky's gut clenched. She was awake. Bridget walked to their closet and pulled out a bag. She pulled clothes from their hangers and stuffed them in. Franky stood helplessly watching for an instant, and then shook herself. It was 2am for fucks sake!

“Gidge? Can we talk?” She asked quietly.

“I need to go, Franky. I need to see them.” She kept packing. Franky crinkled her brow.

“Who?”

“My parents.”

Franky sighed. In truth, she knew this day would come. A secret part of her hoped that it wouldn't...that their lives together could be enough. But she knew she was dreaming. Bridget had given up far more than she had. Loving parents, friends, career...freedom. The real, honest kind. Of course she couldn't stay forever. No one was worth that kind of loss.

But Franky still stood frozen to the floor. So was this it? Was this what turning to stone felt like? She inwardly cursed herself for beginning to love their little cabin and their simple, quiet life.

“But…what brought this on?”

Did I do something? Did I make you unhappy? Franky miserably waited for an answer.

Bridget stopped packing for a moment and faced her. “I had a nightmare. They were dead.”

Relief flooded Franky. Nightmares she understood. She nodded and left the bedroom, returning with the laptop. Bridget eyed her as she sat on the bed and tapped the keys for a moment.

“There.” She said firmly, facing the little screen towards Bridget. “Melbourne obituaries. I just searched their names. They aren't in here.” She got up and held the bright screen out for Bridget to see. “They’re fine, love.”

Bridget didn't take the offered laptop, nor did she soften to the term of endearment. “So what, I'm to look for their obituaries every day? I'm to wait till they die?”

“No, no, no…I was just showing you it was a bad dream, Gidge. It wasn't real, hey?”

Franky put the laptop on the bed and stood, holding out her arms invitingly. Bridget remained by the closet, pack in hand.

“I need to see them before they die. The dream was just a reminder of how selfish I've been. What kind of daughter disappears with her lover without a word? Without any sort of explanation?” She continued packing.

Franky dropped her arms to her sides and tried to get a grip on her tightening chest. She didn't know what to say or do. Bridget was always the one that reassured her. With their roles reversed, Franky was at a loss.

“Gidge, please. This is too big a decision to make at this hour. Can you sleep on it? Talk to me tomorrow? We’ll figure this out together, yeah?”

Bridget didn't stop packing. “No. I need to do this. I'll be back, baby.”

Franky slowly nodded her head. The tears would come later. Her heart gradually closed and began to petrify. She went to the closet and pulled out her pack. She took it to the bed and reached inside it. A smaller pack was tucked away there, and she laid it out on the bed.

She walked over to Bridget, who’d paused to watch her, and pulled a few things out of the box the older woman had placed on the dresser. Franky added her real ID, passport and other items to the wad of cash rolled neatly in the small pack.

“What are you doing? You aren't coming with me.”

Franky tightened her jaw and without turning around, answered, “You’re right, I'm not.”

Her actions were enough to get Bridget to stop altogether and face her. “Then what are you doing? Where are you going?”

Franky shrugged as she went back to the dresser and pulled a few intimates out. “Don't know.”

Bridget kept watching, confused. “I said I'd be back, Franky.”

“And I won't be here!” Franky snapped. She kept stuffing her pack. Her movements were less methodical and more jerky as the reality of packing once again settled in her.

Bridget sighed and threw her pack on the bed next to Franky. “Franky, I'm not leaving you. I just need to go for a while. I'll be back, I promise.”

Franky finally turned to face her. “I don't want you to come back.”

“Franky…”

“No. Go if you have to. You aren't a prisoner, Gidge. You do what you need to do. But I'll be damned if I let you lead the Ombudsman right to our front door!”

Bridget put her hands on her hips and raised her voice. “You think I'm an idiot, do you? Think I wouldn't use Brenna’s ID and passport? Think I wouldn't pay cash? Do you think for one second I'd put you in danger by being careless?”

Franky folded her arms and squared off with her. “Do you really think that if you swipe Brenna’s passport at customs, photo ID won't flag your picture? You aren't getting out of this country, Bridget. And even if you do, you sure as hell won't be able to leave Australia.”

She paused, anger leaking into her voice. “This decision you are making, you are making for both of us. After one nightmare you are willing to never see me again. Just like that. I don't...I can't...I didn't know I’d have to decide my future tonight! ”

Franky stopped before her tears fell. She turned away and snatched her pack from the bed and headed for the closet. She ripped a few items from their hangers, just as Bridget had done moments earlier. Bridget narrowed her eyes.

“So this is it, is it?”

Franky stopped jamming clothes into her bag. She didn't need half of them anyway. She pulled out the thick orange sweater Bridget had bought her for her birthday and tossed it aside. Bridget sucked in a breath.

“If you don't want me to come back, then I won't. If you think it will put you in danger, then I'll just...stay…” Bridget choked on her words a little. They became real when said out loud. She didn't think, even for one moment, how Franky would react to her decision. How cold and detached she'd be. Bridget wasn't stupid. She'd known the woman before her for long enough to know that her walls were firmly in place. She was hurting too much and had forgotten how to process through it.

Because Bridget wasn’t helping.

Bridget battled herself internally. She needed to go. She had to see her parents. But what if she was remanded at the airport like Franky feared? Their truest form of being anonymous was their commitment to never travel outside the confines of a car. If she was remanded, and caught with fake IDs, that would be enough evidence that she was with Franky. If the authorities got ahold of her fake passport, it wouldn't take too much leg work to find that Brenna Matheson traveled with one Josephine Walker. And that would be the beginning of the end.

Bridget put her head in her hands. Of course she would be caught. She wouldn't even get out of the States before she was in handcuffs. Even though she hadn't really committed a crime, she was traveling with a known felon, a suspect in multiple murder investigations, and at the very least an escaped convict. For the first time since she committed herself to running with Franky, she felt trapped.

She started to cry. Franky looked over at her, partially bent over her bag. She sighed. Why did these things happen at this time of night? Every fucking crazy conversation they'd had, apart from her idea to buy a gun, had occurred at some ungodly o’clock in the fucking morning. She sat on the bed.

“Done the math, have you? You wanna check out, but you can't ever leave?”

Bridget’s shoulders heaved with the force of her grief, but Franky stayed put. Her heart hadn’t softened, and Bridget hadn’t unpacked. There was still the chance that she would try to leave the country, and even if she decided against it, she just might leave Franky. Certainly the full cost of bedding a fugitive had finally caught up with her.

Franky waited for Bridget to calm down enough so they could keep talking, but the older woman seemed to be getting more and more hysterical. Franky’s eyes widened when Bridget fell to her knees and wailed. Her breathing was borderline hyperventilation. She clawed the throw rug and began to dry heave the burden of her sorrows.

Seeing her lover so ultimately distressed blasted through any wall Franky had put up. She simply couldn't help it. Not anymore. She jumped off the bed and knelt beside Bridget, dragging her into her chest.

“Jesus, Gidge. Shh, shh. Calm down, love. Just breathe. Just breathe.”

She kept her voice soft and gently rocked Bridget, repeating the same soothing words. “Just breathe, baby. It’s ok. I'm here. Just breathe.”

They sat like that until the merciless storm of tears had slowed, and only sporadic hiccuped sobs remained. Finally, after several shuddering breaths, Bridget fully collapsed into Franky’s arms and was still. Franky kept rocking her, feeling her petrified heart succumb to the love she had for the woman she was holding. She bent down and kissed Bridget’s sweaty head and brushed the plastered hair against her face out of her eyes.

Bridget squirmed a little until she could curl up and place her head in Franky’s lap. Franky brushed her fingers in long strokes up and down her arm.

“I know I can’t be enough for you.” She whispered. “I tried. God, I tried. But how can I hold a candle next to all that you’ve given up?”

She felt tears in her eyes but turned her head swiftly to wipe them on her shoulder. “Give me a bit to think, and I'll find a way to get you safely back to your folks, ok? It may take a day or so, but I'll figure something out. I promise.”

Bridget took another shuddering breath. “But you won’t be here when I come back.”

Franky closed her eyes. “I didn't mean what I said. I want you...god, I want you! And it's not that I don’t want to be waiting for you, it’s that I can’t. I can’t risk it, Gidge. Don’t you see? Even if we get you to Australia, it would only be a matter of time before the wrong someone saw you. ..”

Bridget started to cry again and Franky held her tighter. “Don’t cry. Please. I'm sorry, Gidge. I'll get you to your family. I swear!”

“You're my family too.” Came the whispered response.

Franky didn't answer. She wasn't able to wipe her own tears away anymore so she just let them fall. She held Bridget, there on the floor of their little cabin, for what she thought might be the last time. She didn't have enough energy in her to respond. She was busy memorizing. 

Chapter Text

Franky leaned her back into the foot of the bed. She'd lost track of the time, there on the floor, but she wasn't going to move. She wasn't going to let go of the woman curled around her. As long as Bridget found comfort against her, she would stay like this. She continued to absentmindedly stroke the arm wrapped possessively around her thighs.

Her tired mind couldn't think of a solution right now. They both had known this day would come, but had pushed it far from them. It had been foolish not to come up with a plan sooner for Bridget to safely return to their homeland.

In truth, Franky thought it would be years down the line before they were confronted with this obstacle. Their lives, up until they found the cabin, were too fast paced and filled with fear to even fathom a time when going back to Australia was an option.

But once they finally settled in their new life, once they'd worked out jobs and schedules and bird feeders and security…they'd had the time. All of those lazy wintry weekend mornings spent between the sheets, all of those still afternoons reading quietly on the couch, all of those snow shrouded evenings cooking and dancing in the living room…they should have had this conversation. They should have, but they didn't.

Part of Franky hoped that it was because Bridget didn't want to. Part of her couldn't even believe that the same traumatized woman in her lap had also danced with her just last night; swaying her hips and laughing and moving them to the rhythm of her favorite music. They'd collapsed in a heap by the hearth afterwards, out of breath and still laughing, and while Bridget gazed contentedly into the fire…Franky had gazed contentedly at her.

How easy life had seemed just a few hours ago! Even with all the unsettling nightmares and flurry of insecurities and challenging discussions orientating around the past, they had still found joy and peace within each other. Up until tonight, Franky had only fleetingly remembered all they had given up to dance in each other’s arms.

But now, now tucked against her, was the miserable reminder of the truth. Bridget had finally and messily caved to the unparalleled loss of her old life. If Franky loved her at all, if she'd truly meant everything she'd whispered in this woman's ear…then she would at last wrap her mind around a problem they should have dealt with in the very beginning.

"Gidge?" Her whisper seemed loud in the silence of the early morning. "Do you trust me?"

Bridget stirred in her lap. She'd fallen asleep. "Yes." Came the equally quiet reply.

"Then come to bed."

Franky waited for the other woman to rouse herself from her emotional exhaustion. When she finally lifted her head, they had to help each other up on shaky limbs. Franky laughed softly, steadying her lover. They were both too old to be crumpled on the hard wood floor for so long.

The anger was gone, but the sadness remained. They were too tired to really think on anything other than moving as close to each other as possible in the dark little room.

Bridget wriggled first, her temperature rising with their proximity. She ran her hands over Franky's abdomen and tugged at her shirt. "I need your brilliant mind to fix this, baby. Please…"

Franky held on to her and nodded. Yes, they should have done this sooner, but right now her woman was in her arms and right now was what she needed to hold on to. These precious moments were coming too rapidly to a close.

Bridget put her lips close to Franky's ear. "I also need to feel you inside me."

Franky's heart let out a sudden spurt of thumps at the deep desire she heard in those words. A flood of sensation washed over her and her stomach muscles clenched. Whatever tomorrow brought, this moment would be theirs, and theirs alone.

"Come here," Franky murmured. She sat up and rested against their head board, guiding Bridget onto her lap. Bridget clutched her neck and shoulders, kissing and touching and rocking in her impatience. Franky felt the heat coming from her and heard the keening when she ghosted her hand between the legs straddling her.

Bridget wasn't kidding when she used the word need. She thrust her hips down onto the hand and expected Franky to pull away, teasing. She let out a breathy moan when instead, her seeking body found relief on Franky's grounded fingers.

Franky held her tightly around the waist as Bridget rolled her hips forward and pushed herself onto the fingers…riding her and working herself hard over and over. As her movements became more frantic, a desperate cry escaped her. It was becoming clear that she would not find release working alone.

"Franky…" she breathed. "Franky, please…"

Franky had her face pressed into the blonde's chest, holding tight and focusing on letting her lover take what she needed from her. At the desperate plea she raised her head. She saw the frantic desire and the ache of unfinished sex on Bridget's face. She removed her hand and drew it slowly up the other woman's stomach to her heated and heaving chest. There, she pushed lightly.

"Lie back." She whispered the commanded to soften it, and Bridget fairly threw herself backwards onto the bed. The ache in her lower abdomen begged for relief and she pulled Franky on top of her as soon as the brunette had shifted her position.

Franky kissed her hot cheeks and smiled sadly into her lips. God, she loved this woman. Her heart bled in her chest as she deepened the kiss. Remember me, my love…

Bridget dug her fingernails into her back, urging her to continue the paused pleasure. She groaned into the lips still kissing her. "Franky…"

Franky rubbed herself against her and smiled again when Bridget stiffened with anticipation. "Shh, shh, baby. Slow down. I've got you now. I've got you."

Bridget cried out and tried to lose herself again in the new friction, but Franky slowed again. She put her lips into Bridget's neck and kissed her as she breathed in. "Slow down, love. Trust me. Let me feel you. Let me worship you tonight."

Bridget held her close and tried to calm the pulsing need in her core. Tried to calm the erratic thumping in her chest. Franky was patient, but it was easier than she thought it would be to settle herself down. What she needed, she realized, was not the completion itself so much as the woman above her completing it. There was no doing this on her own anymore. That ship had long sailed without her realizing it…probably just as soon as those perfect fingers swept over her body for the first time. How, she wondered, could she ever be satisfied again apart from Franky's touch?

She let out a breath and relaxed her body under the other woman's weight. The brunette bumped their noses and smiled at her.

"There you are."

Bridget nodded, once again at ease, and Franky rested against her. She began to run her hand over every inch of the soft skin beneath her. She marveled at the way her hand glided over its peaks and valleys; as awed as the first time Bridget had allowed her to touch her.

She shifted off of Bridget to the side, and the whimper of loss was quickly replaced with a more sated sound. Franky grinned into her flesh and continued to kiss and run her tongue over Bridget's torso. Her hands continued to map out her lover's body, pausing to acknowledge and explore sensitive places, while lightly gliding over others. Tense muscles were found and kneaded until the knots were worked out and the older woman was a boneless pile beneath her. Each trail she left with her hand was followed by her mouth, and she hummed as she worshiped Bridget's body in every way she knew how.

Where there was once erratic frustration, there were now sighs of pleasure and luxurious stretching and low moans from the building, delightful tension deep inside the blonde. Franky couldn't help but grin at the sounds of contentedness she heard.

She finally raised her head. "Are you ready for me now?"

Bridget chuckled at her and drew her in for a long, deep kiss. "Aye, love," she breathed. "Give it to me."

When Franky moved down her body, Bridget grabbed her. "No…"

Franky waited as the older woman struggled with her words. Bridget pulled at her and Franky obediently crawled up and lay across her again. "Tell me, Gidge. Tell me what to do."

Bridget held her tightly across her shoulders and buried her face in the long brown hair. "Just cover me. I want to feel all of you."

Franky smiled into her neck and shifted her weight. Bridget stopped her again as she tried to slide a hand between them. The blonde laced their fingers and held them against the sheets beside her head. "Move against me, baby. Let me feel you."

"Gidge…"

"It's ok, love. Please."

Franky did as she was told, and lowered herself into a position that would please them both. When Bridget thrust up to meet her, Franky immediately closed her eyes to the overwhelming sensation. As they moved together, it was getting increasingly hard to focus on anything other than the spots of white light behind her eyelids. She dipped her head down. "Gidge, you're losing me…" she gasped as her heart-rate spiked. This position always unglued her too quickly, and within seconds her arms were quivering and her breathing came in sharp moaning gasps. "Please…" she begged, "come with me...!"

Bridget let go of one of her hands and Franky pushed it between them. She pleaded with her eyes and Bridget raised her hips to meet her. "In this together," she promised breathlessly, unable to control her breathing anymore. This time, relief came almost immediately. Franky tumbled first and Bridget followed close behind her. They rode out the same wave, tangled together and holding on for dear life.

At last Franky collapsed her arms and fell to the side. Bridget immediately reached for her and with effort, Franky heaved herself back to lay across the blonde. She brushed hair out of her face and rested her head against Bridget's sternum. She felt the older woman draw random circles across her cooling skin. They breathed together and steadied themselves against the calming and rhythmic beat of their slowing hearts. They didn't dare speak. Not while the air still cooled from the intensity of their love.

The coming of dawn lifted the last of the night's darkness from their bedroom and fingers of grey, welcoming light filled the room with oddly shaped shadows. Each creeping tendril of new light brought with it both memory and thought, and sought out their wakefulness. The two women, independent of the other, closed their eyes against its intrusion, and held each other tighter.

Chapter Text

Bridget's alarm clock chimed the gentle music they always woke up to. Usually, Bridget would smack at it and try for the snooze button, and Franky would mumble at her and try to push her out of bed.

"Quit being late," she would say with a sleepy smile.

But this morning, they were both already awake. Bridget reached over and shut the alarm off. When she rolled over, Franky was looking at her. There was both resignation and pain on her face. Bridget tucked her arms under her chest and met the stare. She smiled sadly.

"Was earlier this morning you trying to change my mind, or say goodbye?"

Franky gave a slight shrug. In truth, it may have been a little of both, although now, facing her lover, she knew she could never say goodbye. "I don't know." Was all she said.

Bridget reached out and stroked an errant strand of her long brown hair. "It was amazing."

"Was it enough?"

Bridget stopped stroking her hair. "No." She whispered. "But you are."

She sat up and swung her slender legs over the edge of the bed and was still.

The reminders of last night were littered all over the room. Their closet was open, and two half-filled bags were laying on the floor. Bridget rubbed her eyes and sighed. Her desire to leave seemed foolish now, born from guilt and hysteria in the wake of a nightmare. She'd acted childishly, and in the process had seriously rattled the one person who should feel the safest around her. She turned to look at Franky.

The brunette had a guarded expression, unsure of anything after Bridget's last statement. She was looking at the bags on the floor.

Bridget reached back and took her hand.

"I'm sorry, Franky."

Franky didn't look at her. Their love making had completely overwhelmed her as well, and she was afraid she'd cry if she looked into the beautiful face beside her. She'd never been with anyone like she'd been with Bridget earlier. It frightened her, how close she'd been to losing her. How close she was.

Bridget squeezed her hand. An apology wasn't enough. "And thank you."

Franky finally looked at her, and sure enough, her eyes filled with tears. "For what?"

Bridget scooted back on the bed until she could lean against Franky. "For what?" She chuckled softly. "How can I leave someone like you? You are the largest part of me. You always have been."

She turned her body and wrapped her arms around the younger woman. "I was afraid. That fucking nightmare shook me." She admitted quietly. "I still long to see my folks…to feel them…"

Franky sniffed and put her head on Bridget's shoulder. The blonde kissed the top of her head. "But not if that means giving you up. I could never give you up."

Franky cried then, and shook her head. "You shouldn't have to choose, Gidge."

"I made my choice over a year ago, baby. It was the hardest, but best choice I've ever made."

"But you still want to leave."

Bridget hugged her firmly. "No. I will always want to see them, Franky, on some level. Like you think of Tess. Our relationships with our family are special, and rooted deeply within us. The way we left didn't offer either side closure. They are still open chapters in our lives."

Bridget pulled back and lifted Franky's chin, looking deep into sparkling emerald eyes. "But I will never again try to leave you so suddenly. That was unfair, and irrational and totally selfish."

Franky wiped her eyes. "I want you to be happy, Gidge. I never meant for any of this. You should be happy. You should be with your family."

Bridget shook her head. "I didn't mean it, baby. Where you go, I will follow, remember? If seeing them means losing you, then I need to let that go, because I won't let you go."

Franky turned away, unsure of her feelings. Bridget seemed to follow her wild train of thought. She brought Franky's chin around to face her again. "You are worth this. You have never been selfish. I chose this life with you. You didn't manipulate me, or trick me into coming with you. You didn't force my hand."

She dropped her hand from Franky's face and looked down. "God, I'm so sorry, baby. I'm sorry for scaring you and making you feel unsafe. I love our home, our life...you. I'm sorry."

Franky studied her for a moment. Finally she cocked her head. "Do you remember what I asked you last night? Before we got into bed?"

Bridget looked at her thoughtfully, trying to remember. "You asked if I trusted you."

Franky brushed her hand softly across the older woman's cheek.

"And your response was…?"

"It was yes."

"Is that still true?"

"It is."

Franky smiled at her. "Then give me time to think, Gidge. I might never come up with a way to get you back to Australia, but I will try."

Bridget felt tears in her eyes and she looked down again. She didn't want that anymore. Not if it meant losing Franky. She didn't know what else to say. She'd fucked up royally last night, shattering their calm with her fucking fears. Franky couldn't hear that she didn't want to leave anymore…she only heard that she'd wanted to. And didn't Bridget beg her last night to find a solution? What good were her apologies now after such a demand? Franky didn't need to fix this…Bridget did.

Franky watched her lover's face intently, and smiled sadly. "And I'll be right here when you get back." She said softly.

Bridget looked up sharply. "Franky, no! No. I don't want to go, and I'd never put you in danger like that. I wasn't thinking last night."

Franky shrugged. "What kind of woman would I be if I wasn't willing to sacrifice as much as you have? Just…let me try, ok? I want to."

She put her arms around the blonde. "And I swear I'll wait for you. How could I not? As much as you don't want to lose me is as much as I can't live without you."

Franky pressed her forehead into Bridget's and cupped her face with one hand. "You are the biggest part of me too."

Bridget sighed into her touch before pulling away and getting out of bed. She looked at the mess they'd made last night. How she regretted her impulsion!

"Is there a way I can change your mind?"

Franky stooped to one of the strewn bags and began unpacking.

"From finding a way to reconnect you with your family? No, Gidge. We should have thought of this a long time ago."

Bridget frowned, unhappy with the consequences of her actions last night. "I hurt you." She said quietly.

Franky paused and looked up at her. "Have you ever lied to me?"

Bridget raised her eyebrows, shocked. "What? No!"

Franky smiled crookedly at her. It was almost her signature smile, but there was just a hint of sadness behind it. "Then I've no reason not to believe the things you said just then."

Bridget nodded slowly, hearing the forgiveness she was receiving. "Can you promise me one thing?"

Franky cocked her head, listening, and Bridget crouched down in front of her. "If any idea you come up with for one second puts you at risk, we will both wash our hands of this. Agreed?"

Franky bit her lip and then leaned in closer. Bridget met her lips with her own and Franky smiled into the kiss. Her sadness had faded, and a bit of mischief touched the bright green of her eyes. Bridget couldn't help but feel a twinge of anxiety. Franky's magnificent mind frightened her with its prowess sometimes. She wondered what sorts of ideas already rattled around up there.

"Agreed?" She asked again, a bit stern.

Franky kissed her again, grinning the last of her sadness away.

"Agreed. Now go get dressed. You're going to be late again."

Franky stared at the open laptop, her mouth slightly open. Her tea had gone cold, but she paid it no mind. She was staring hard at the screen and didn't move a muscle. The words she read a hundred times were bold, but tucked away from the normal bustle of the Melbourne Times website. They hailed from the Missed Connections section of the little online newspaper.

After Bridget had left for work that morning, Franky put away everything that had been ripped from the closet the night before. She cleaned the little cabin and filled her bird feeders. She stacked wood.

She made strong tea.

And she thought.

She couldn't just put Bridget on a plane. There had to be some communication first. Both parties needed to collaborate on a plan. She had to find an untraceable way to get in touch with Ron and Betty.

She thought of everything, but everything led back to her own paranoia. Everything led to exposure and eventual capture. Cell phones, letters, planes, boats, email…she went through every scenario, and it all came down to the promise she'd made to Bridget this morning. All of her ideas led the authorities back to her. One shred of trace evidence and she was screwed. They all would be. Having Bridget on the other side of the law was one thing…but dragging her parents into it as well? Jesus, there would be a special hell reserved for Franky Doyle if she dragged all the Westfalls into her crimes.

She was frustrated by the time she found herself idly browsing the Melbourne Times. She'd loved the little paper and missed it banging of their front door every Saturday morning at dawn. Thankfully the paper realized that the Internet was also a good way to promote themselves and had created a website. It wasn't the same, but Franky often found comfort, late at night, in just knowing the weather back home. It was a weird little guilty pleasure that she'd never told Bridget about.

To ease her frustrated mind she found herself once again scrolling the website, drinking in stories and pictures and feeling connected to the city she loved. She even found herself engrossed in sections she previously ignored. The Classifieds now had her complete attention. The Missed Connections section, and the eight bold words that fairly jumped from the screen, to be exact.

To the Phoenix and her eyes of blue

Underneath that was a short message that Franky read countless times.

Beloved eldests, we miss you. We love you. We understand. -ATRB

Franky continued to stare at the tiny print of an ad placed not one week ago. She suddenly typed the subject of the message in the search bar and sat back in her chair with a heavy thump.

Fifty-two of the same message, dating back to the month she'd left Australia with Bridget a year ago. It had been posted every week…posted, and never answered. Lost and unnoticed…dangling in cyberspace for an entire year.

The second Franky saw it she understood its meaning. Her mind swirled with dizzying thoughts and hopes and confusion and worry and questions and...utter joy.

She reached out and traced the little words. "Dad?" She whispered.

Her keen mind was able to decipher it immediately because it was made for her to see. Her tattoo. Her Bridget. Both of them eldest daughters. Alan. Tess. Ron. Betty. Her father had been reaching out to her all this time…done the best he could with what little he had, and hoping against all hope she would somehow discover his message.

Franky's eyes filled with tears for the second time that morning. She couldn't help but smile fondly at the thought of her father religiously placing the ad week after week. She didn't need to think of a solution anymore. Her father had been trying to hand her one for a solid fucking year. Joy flooded her and Franky threw back her head and laughed. She grabbed her phone from the table and sent Bridget a quick text.

Come home. 

Chapter Text

Bernie was finishing the last of his paperwork before meeting his wife for lunch. They always had lunch together on Wednesdays, and this week he got to pick the spot. He loved the little diner downtown. That rickety old train car turned restaurant was one of the first places he'd taken her on a date almost fifty years ago. Every now and then, especially in the springtime, he'd get a hankering for a big juicy burger and a strawberry milkshake.

He looked at the papers on his desk and picked up the final check release form. Sign these, mail them to HR, and go meet his love. His stomach growled and he bent over the last slip. He was about to sign it when he stopped. And squinted. He'd done all the guys, leaving only Jo. But…the signature he was reading wasn't Josephine Walker. He picked up the paper and frowned, studying a name he'd never heard of.

Franky Doyle

Did she sign a different name? The fuck? Who the fuck was Franky Doyle? He sat back in his chair, still holding the paper, completely confused. The date she'd signed was just shy of a month ago. Bernie frowned, trying to recall when that was.

He sat up. Yes. That was the night Jo had been cornered up on the third floor. He knew she'd been the one to sign the form because on that night he had been standing close to her, worried about her. She'd been seriously rattled that night. He'd seen something in her large, frightened eyes that still haunted him. He'd seen those eyes before, overseas, during his tour with the army. Sudanese child soldiers had those eyes. Trapped souls forced into doing terrible things. The way they'd looked at him when his unit had set them free...like zoo animals suddenly set into the wild. Terrified. Suspicious. Wildly capable of more than they should ever be able to. And they would never be free. They would always be followed by their bloody past. They'd looked at him with gratitude...but there was a darkness shrouding their young faces. A darkness of unspeakable horrors. Yes, they'd been returned to their families, but whatever little village they settled in, that haunted look would remain.

Whatever little village…or whatever little town.

So Jo…or Franky…had a past. Something was stirred in her that night that shook her to her core, and in her own frantic desire to escape the building she'd hurriedly signed the wrong, or right, name on the form and fled.

Bernie put his chin in his hand. He'd never broken his promise to his wife. He never asked Jo any questions that might make the little thing feel insecure around him. But he was troubled. He couldn't get around this error. He needed her signature so she could be paid. If he showed her the mistake, would he ever see her again? He knew the upheaval of displacement. It took quite a lot to begin again, and if someone was also inclined to change their name along the way…well, they didn't want to be found out, did they?

Was she running from an abusive relationship, maybe? That would certainly explain the terror he'd seen in her eyes that night on the third floor. Bernie frowned. But it didn't explain the way she'd snapped that broom handle. She didn't act like any victim of domestic abuse he'd seen or read about. She acted like those shell-shocked Sudanese kids. He absentmindedly reached for his keyboard. Maybe, just maybe he could run a google search on her? That wasn't breaking his promise to his wife, right? He wasn't asking questions, per se…

He looked at the little slip in front of him to check the spelling, and before he could change his mind he typed the name in the search bar and hit the enter key. At first he laughed, but it didn't take long for the color to drain from his face. He stared, flabbergasted, at the mug shot on his screen. It was Jo, but it wasn't.

But it was.

Underneath the sleeved tattoos and layered hair and stormy expression, the prison issued uniform and black plaque with her name and prison ID number…there was just no mistaking the startling green of her eyes.

Franky Doyle was Australian, and a wanted fugitive for multiple murders.

Bernie felt sick. If someone had simply told him this, he would have laughed it off. No way were those skinny little arms always hidden under a blue jumper toned and hardened and covered in tattoos. No way could that tiny frame be capable of killing. No way under the scowl of that mugshot was the beautiful smile he looked forward to every night. No way.

And yet, he was seeing it with his own eyes, and he knew, maybe better than anyone, that terrifying things sometimes came in tiny packaging.

Bernie blinked and rubbed his eye. His hand came away wet. The fuck? Was he crying? But he was. His big heart broke for those babies in the Middle East and it was breaking now for the woman he'd hired almost a year ago. The same woman who beamed at him for handing her a meatloaf sandwich. The same woman that took months to whisper any words to him. The same sweet, shy, beautiful woman he'd told his wife about. He found that his heart was breaking for that woman, and for whatever horrible things that had happened in her young life that had stolen the chance for a normal and happy existence.

Bernie looked at the screen again. Australia's most wanted. He huffed. He should have picked up her accent right away. Hell, he'd been married to a native Australian for damn near fifty years! As few words as Jo spoke, he should have known. He knew she didn't sound like the folks from the movies. He scrolled down the page and came across another picture. He narrowed his eyes. Now why was that face familiar? He looked closer. It seems that a Bridget Westfall was also being sought after. There was no evidence of her colluding with Jo…Franky…but she disappeared just a month after Franky escaped the maximum security prison.

Holy fuck, she escaped a maximum security prison?

Bernie focused on the blond again. What a looker. He wondered if they were related. Something connected them, or her picture wouldn't be tied to the mug shot he'd looked at earlier. Something nagged his brain. Why did she look familiar? Bernie frowned again. He was going to give himself more wrinkles. He got up from his bench and walked over to the filing cabinet in the corner. There, he pulled Jo's file and flipped to the emergency contact information. There was no number or address, but there was a name. Brenna Matheson. He snapped his fingers and went back to his bench for the paper he'd picked up that morning. He flipped to the page he was looking for and frowned again. There, under a brief description of Brenna's Council, was a tiny, black and white, rather blurry photo of none other than Bridget Westfall. Only, the name under the photo, the writer of the advice column he and Martha loved so much, said that her name was Brenna Matheson.

Fuck. Both of them. Both seriously wanted women were in his home town. One he didn't know but still looked forward to seeing in the paper every week, and the other he did know, and looked forward to seeing in his building every night. Just…fuck.

Bernie sat back down heavily and tossed the paper aside. He closed the tab on his screen and wiped his eyes again. He didn't want to know any more. As an afterthought, he wiped the search bar history. He scrunched up his face. That last action didn't make it seem like he was about to call the authorities. It made it seem like he was going to help these women with their new life, much like he had done in the Middle East all those years ago.

He rubbed his eyes again. He still needed a signature that reflected the woman he hired. His old brain hurt with memories and old traumas he'd not thought about in years. He needed to talk to Jo, but he didn't want to trigger the flight he knew she had in her. He wanted her to feel safe. He wanted her to be safe. He didn't care what the internet said. The woman he'd hired was good, regardless of her difficult past. If she was to be found, then she would be. But it wouldn't be because of him.

He sighed. But he still needed that damn signature. He couldn't think of a way around confronting her, and this was too big a decision for just him alone. He needed Martha. He heaved himself out of his chair, grabbed his coat and the little slip of paper, and went to go meet his wife for lunch.

Chapter Text

Bridget stepped out into the bright sunshine and inhaled the sweet, spring afternoon. She leaned back into the busy little paper to wave at the receptionist.

“Want anything from Bill’s?”

The receptionist laughed and shook her head. “The only thing you’ll get there, Brenna, is heartburn!”

Bridget laughed with her and shook her head, leaving the paper and heading across the street to the little diner. She’d been other places for lunch, but this diner had sentimental value to her. This was the first place Franky and she had ventured out to eat. It was always busy, and they had blended in nicely with the other locals on that chilly winter Saturday morning. She always missed Franky during the work week, and going to the diner made her feel better.

She was seated and a waitress came to serve her. When she placed her order, the older woman sitting at the table beside her whipped her head around and stared at her. Bridget looked back at her, a bit nonplussed, and finished her order. As soon as the waitress left, the older woman got up and without a word took the seat opposite her in the booth.

Bridget tilted her head, a bit startled and more than a little concerned. The older woman didn’t say anything…she just…stared.

Finally, awkwardly, Bridget cleared her throat. “Is there something I can help you with?” She asked kindly.

The older woman smiled broadly at her and nodded. “I’d like a conversation with someone from my homeland, if that’s alright with you.”

Bridget gasped at the subtle Australian accent. A twinge of fear elevated her heart rate and she was eternally grateful that this wasn’t a day that Franky joined her for lunch. She tried to compose herself under the wide grin she was receiving. This woman obviously meant her no harm. “You are from Australia?” She stammered.

The older woman grinned wider. “Oh, relax your tongue, dear. Let me hear you. It’s been a long time!”

Bridget sat back in the booth and tilted her head, lifting her eyebrows in surprise. The diner was busy, and no one was paying them any attention. “I’m sorry, it’s been a while. Where are you from?”

The older woman sighed happily, chuckling. “There it is. My god, girl, you sound sweeter than Christmas morning!”

Bridget couldn’t help but laugh with her. She was surprised at the relief that flooded her. This was the first time she felt even the slightest bit comfortable speaking in public. The older woman sat back comfortably and her blue eyes crinkled at the corners. She studied Bridget for a minute. “When did you move here?”

Bridget looked at her, suddenly at a loss. The little leather journal they’d memorized would not work for this conversation. They never practiced this scenario because never in their wildest dreams did they think that another Australian had settled in this tiny, country town. In less than six seconds this old woman had blasted through her story of being from Washington. She simply had no idea what to do now. The older woman winked at her, seeing her hesitation.

“Maybe we’ll start smaller, yeah? My name’s Martha.”

Bridget smiled at her. “Brenna.”

“Ah, I knew I recognized that pretty face! Brenna Matheson, who writes those amazing advice columns?”

Bridget nodded and the two women spent several minutes amicably talking about the paper. The waitress came by and set two cups of tea beside them. When she’d left, Martha fiddled with her tea bag and grinned at Bridget again.

Tell me, Brenna, did it take you as long as it did for me to get used to these bumpkins? God, I miss the sounds of Sydney!”

Bridget felt her eyes sting for just a moment. She longed, she realized, to be as carefree as the woman across from her, sharing stories and memories of a country they both loved. Her throat closed and she suddenly didn’t have any words. Martha reached over and took her hand. “I’m going to wager a guess, my dear, that leaving that country wasn’t your first idea?”

She’d lowered her voice significantly, Bridget could only nod her head. She couldn’t believe she was admitting it, but she was. This old woman had completely disarmed her. It may have been her sweet, gentle accent, or the fact that she was just about the age of her mother, or because of the way she was holding her hand so tenderly. For whatever reason, this woman had wrapped herself around Bridget’s heart in no time at all. Martha saw her face and squeezed her hand gently. “Aye, love. That’s usually how it goes.”

When Bernie finally lumbered his bulk into the crowded diner, it only took him a moment to spot his wife. She was sitting at a booth against the far wall. She wasn't alone. She was laughing at what the blonde woman across from her was saying. Bernie grinned. That was his Martha. Most likely they'd have a dinner guest this weekend.

When he’d made his way over to them, Martha caught his eye and beamed at him. He bent down and kissed her waiting lips before turning to smile at her new friend.

And faltered. His wife was sharing a booth with none other than Bridget Westfall. Martha took his large hand and pulled him into the booth next to her.

“Bernie! I met an Aussie! Meet Brenna Matheson! She’s writes for the paper! The advice columns! We love those, don't we?”

Bernie looked across the booth at the woman he'd just read about online. She was studying him as well, a small smile playing at her lips. She'd caught his initial hesitation and her guard was up. He shook himself slightly. He’d catch her alone, maybe, and they could really talk. As for right now, he wasn’t going to rob his wife of a conversation she was seriously enjoying. He smiled warmly.

“Brenna, we love your articles. Martha here says it’s about damn time someone with sense answered those foolish questions.” He looked at her kindly and to his relief she smiled back, relaxing.

“I was lucky a position opened up. It was rather difficult to find work in a town where…everyone seems to have a place.”

Martha snorted. “You mean where nothing ever changes, hey? I didn’t think anyone was hiring besides my Bernie here. But you always are looking for solid folks at the university, aren’t you, bub?”

Bernie smiled grimly at her before nodding. “Yeah, it’s hard to find someone who wants to clean floors and take out other people’s garbage. Got lucky with the new girl, didn’t I?”

Bridget stared at them both for a moment and before she could stop herself she blurted, “Martha…the sandwich maker? And you are...her boss?”

Martha looked puzzled but Bernie nodded. “Know her, do you?”

Martha caught on. “Oh! You must mean the skinny one…the shy girl. Jo. Bernie’s told me all about her. He likes that one, he does. Do you know her, dear?”

Bridget caught Bernie’s eye. The way he was looking at her was troubling her, as if he already knew the answer. She’d been a damn fool to slip so hard just then. Her brain raced through appropriate answers, but put on the spot, she settled with the truth. “I do. She’s my...I live with her.”

Martha beamed at her. “She’s your mate, then? How wonderful!”

Bridget nodded shyly and Bernie frowned. “Wait…mate? Or mate? You know I can’t tell the difference with you Aussies.”

Martha bumped his shoulder, still grinning at Bridget. “Lovers, my darling. They’re lezzos.” She said quietly.

Bernie raised his eyebrows. “We have those in this town?”

Martha swatted him, laughing. “Honestly, Bernie.” She turned to Bridget. “Pay him no mind, love. You and Jo must come to dinner this Saturday. I’ve been absolutely dying to meet her and I couldn’t find a way without making myself out to be a creepy old woman.”

Bridget laughed at her and glanced quickly at Bernie. “I’ll talk to her. I’m sure we’d be delighted. That’s ok with you?”

Bernie looked at his wife and shook his head, his own smile broad and real across his face. “I don’t argue much with this one, Brenna. Come on at 7. We’ll have a good old fashioned Barbie, eh?”

Both Martha and Bridget giggled at his attempted Australian accent. He huffed at them good naturedly, and they spent the next 30 minutes enjoying their lunch with each other. 

“Brenna, Brenna wait up a moment!”

Bridget turned and saw Bernie puffing his way from the diner. When he caught up with her, he hesitated. “Got to talk to you.” He finally said. His voice had changed from the playful banter at lunch to a rather serious tone. “Won’t take but a minute.”

He was shifting nervously. Bridget wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, but it was very clear he needed to say it. She waited patiently as he gathered himself.

“Look,” He started, “you don't have a reason to trust me, but I’d really like you to. I can't say much more than that, I guess. I hope showing you this proves that I'm not going to burn you.”

Bridget tightened her grip on her purse. He knows. If she hadn't been holding anything her fingers would have reflexively balled into fists at her sides. Her adrenaline was elevating, and she glanced at her car. She didn't know how he knew, but he did. How long would it take to get home? To get Franky and a few things? How much time would they have before the United States government issued a manhunt? Her throat was dry and she fought against the tears trying to form in her eyes. Did she do something at lunch to trigger a memory in this man? Was she the reason that they now had to flee again?

Bernie watched her face carefully. He was barely keeping her in front of him, and caught the quick and desperate look to the safety of her car.

“Please.” He whispered. “Wait. Trust me. I'm just going to show you something, ok? It’ll make you afraid, but please just wait.”

Bridget stood frozen to the pavement when the big man reached into his pocket. He was still speaking in a quiet, soothing voice.

“Jo left work pretty upset about two weeks ago. Some jackass in the law department was messing with her. We got it sorted, she signed for her check, and then left. Been sitting on this a minute, but I need to turn in her signature so she can get paid. That time has come, and I don’t know what to do...and I…well, here.”

Against her better judgement, Bridget took the little slip of paper and carefully unfolded it. She remembered the night he was referring to very well. She saw the error immediately, but hid her recognition. She held out the slip as if she didn’t understand the problem. Bernie shoved his hands into his pockets and lowered his voice. “I have the internet, Bridget.”

When Bridget heard hear real name from his mouth she couldn't stop the well of tears. They flooded her vision and then fell on the damning slip of paper. Finished. It was finished. Bridget just dropped her arm to her side, put her chin down to her chest, and wept. In seconds she'd be surrounded by officers. She'd be cuffed and dragged away. She'd never tell them where Franky was, but the cabin was in Brenna's name, and it wouldn't take long for her love to be discovered.

What would she be doing when they came, sirens screaming, up the drive? Would she be filling her feeders? Stacking wood? Would she see them coming and run for the forest? Would she run for the gun? Would she get herself shot down in her adamant refusal to get caught?

Bernie watched her face crumble with a sadness so deep it made his heart ache. He saw the panic, the fear…but it was the sadness that got to him. Hardened criminals showed guilt or anger, not sadness. They would run, not weep. This little woman before him wasn’t a criminal, and she wasn't weeping for herself. He kept his deep voice soft and calming.

“Listen. Hey, listen! Can you hear them? Can you?”

Bridget looked up at him, registering his words and confused by them. Bernie smiled gently at her. “All the sirens of the cops I didn't call? Can you hear them?”

Bridget shook her head, still not understanding. Still seeing in her mind’s eye her lover being gunned down. Bernie leaned in a fraction. “Wipe your eyes, girl. The only one who will be arrested is me if the folks starting at us think I terrorized you.” He winked at her.

Bridget wiped her face automatically but didn't bother looking around. She locked eyes with the big man before her. “Why? Why did you show me this, if not to turn me…us… in?”

She held out the slip of paper, and Bernie looked evenly at her. “I told you. I needed a signature so she can get paid.”

Bridget started shaking her head and backed up a step. She was about to bolt. Bernie said quickly, “Cause if I just told Jo, she'd freak, and I'd never see her again. She'd disappear.”

Bridget narrowed her eyes. “What's it to you?”

“I like her.” Bernie said simply. “I’m not in the business of lagging. And if I'm a damn good judge of character, my wife is a thousand times better. All I needed was to see her interact with you to know you were good. I already know that about Jo.”

Bridget was still looking uncertain, and looked at the slip of paper again. “You looked her up?”

Bernie rubbed a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I did. Did she do it?”

“No.” The answer came out before she could stop herself.

“I figured. But she escaped prison.”

“Yes.” She sighed. Might as well tell him what he wanted to know. He might be stalling her until the cops arrived, but somehow she doubted it. His honest, old face showed no indicators that he was deceiving her. She was a damn good judge of character too. Bernie looked at her thoughtfully.

“And you helped her get here to my hometown.”

“Yes.”

“Is she dangerous?”

“No…don’t corner her.” She smiled through her slowing tears for the first time and Bernie grinned with her.

“Yeah, I got that. You two like it here?”

“What?”

“Are you settled? Do you want to stay? Do you like it here?”

“Very much.” No hesitation there. “I'm not sure if we can stay now, though.”

Bernie ignored that last bit. “Can you forge her signature? I already tried, but these big hands can’t write like a woman.”

Bridget narrowed her eyes again. “Bernie, not going to the authorities right now makes you an accomplice. If you want to be kind, just give us a head start, and wash your hands of this.”

“Nope.”

She was believing him, and was exasperated. “Why?”

“I'm trusting my gut. And I like her. And you don’t seem like the kind of woman to get yourself mixed up in something like this without a good cause.”

“She’s innocent. Australia was determined to see otherwise.”

He raised an eyebrow. “See? Good cause.”

“Bernie…”

“Look. You settled here for a reason. Both of you. You’re tired, Bridget.”

Don’t call me that!” Bridget hissed.

Bernie flapped his arm. “Ok! But nobody cares. Half these folks watch the local news and that’s it. We’re too small to care much about anything until election time. The rest just stick to those crappy soap operas. You’re safe here.” He pointed to the slip in her hand. “The only reason I brought it up is that I want the little thing to get paid this month. Need a new signature, and for the life of me I can't get these big old man paws to forge a lady's name.”

Bridget shook her head, sighing. “It’s not up to me. It’s up to…Franky.”

Bernie sighed. “So you are gonna tell her that I know?”

He looked at Bridget sadly. He knew she would, but he’d been hoping she wouldn’t. “They ain’t ever going to find you here.” He whispered. “Don’t go. Don’t tell her. Just…just sign the slip.”

Bridget frowned at him. “Why do you care? If we leave, you and Martha will never be culpable.”

Bernie looked away from her then. How could he explain his heart? How could he help her understand? How could he ask her to trust him when all they both had were gut instincts towards each other? He simply knew what it was like to have a shitty past and how important it was to be loved in spite of it. His mind flashed to the kids in Sudan again. He sighed heavily. “You’re right, I guess. You do what you need to do.” He smiled at her, a bit sadly. “But I’m telling you. You will be safe here until you are old and grey. If you want this life in this tiny country town in the middle of nowhere, you can have it.”

He turned and headed back into the diner. At the door, he paused and looked back at Bridget. He tilted his head at the slip of paper in her hand. “If I see her tonight I'll know what you both decide. Martha will be heartbroken if you don’t come to dinner. Don’t break the old girl’s heart. She misses home something awful, and you two are as close as she’s gotten in years.”

He grinned at her suddenly. “If Jo does come in, tell her to sign her goddamn name right this time.”

Bridget opened her mouth slightly but Bernie just winked at her and disappeared back into the diner.

Chapter Text

Bridget called the paper and explained a small family emergency. Working the rest of the day at home was not a problem. When she pulled up to their cabin and entered the mud room, she saw a healthy pile of drying firewood. Franky had spent the entire morning in the woods. Bridget felt a surge of gratitude that Franky had it in her to complete such taxing chores. They had naturally gravitated to their strengths out here, and while Bridget maintained an impeccable home, Franky kept the fire blazing.  

When she entered the cabin, she expected to find Franky in the living room, relaxing before her shift in a few hours. When she wasn't in her favorite spot on the couch, Bridget walked into the bedroom.

The bathroom door was ajar.

“Franky?”

There was no answer. Bridget peeked into the bathroom and smiled. Franky was asleep in the tub, her head tilted to the side and resting against the tiles. Bridget couldn't help but watch her for a moment, thinking for the millionth time how endlessly beautiful her love was. Totally relaxed in slumber, the swell of her breasts just visible over the water, long hair pulled messily back in a knot on the top of her head...she was stunning. Bridget knocked quietly on the door jam.

“Franky?”

Franky sat bolt upright, instantly alert. When she saw Bridget, fear replaced shock. “Gidge? Why are you home? You right? Something happen?”

Bridget caught her breath at her new view. “Needed see you, baby. It's ok. We just...need to talk.”

Franky pulled the drain in the tub and stood, taking the towel Bridget handed her. She saw her lover's face. They could read each other well. In the very recent past, Bridget had cried. The evidence still glistened in her startling blue eyes. But her features were now peaceful. There was no alarm. “Something on your mind, Gidge?”

Bridget nodded truthfully. “Get dressed and come into the living room when you are ready.”

Franky wrapped herself in the towel. Worry lines were appearing on her face. “Are we ok?” She asked softly.

Bridget hesitated and then nodded slowly. “Get dressed, love.”

She said again. “I'll put on the kettle.” Franky bit her lip and watched her leave.

Bridget filled their little tea pot and set it on the stove. Approach was everything. She remembered her reaction to discovery. She'd cried on the streets of downtown. She felt the panic and fear, she grieved for the loss of their beautiful life. Franky's reaction would be worse. Magnified, intensified and wildly out of control unless approached with great caution and understanding.

She thought of how Bernie convinced her. His honest face and kind eyes. The fact that he'd only brought up the revelation because he wanted Franky to get paid. The fact that he didn't call the police. His assurance that if they chose this life, they could have it. She filled their tea cups and went to find Franky in the living room.

“I made a friend today, at the diner.”

Franky cocked her head. “Did you?”

“You’ll never guess who. She invited us to dinner.”

Franky's eyebrows shot up. She grinned cheekily. “Us? As a couple of hot lezzos? Or as a couple of housemates?”

“She knows about us.”

Franky laughed. “Jesus, I hope not.”

 Bridget’s heart skipped a beat, but she smiled. “I mean she knows that we do this...” She bent over Franky and kissed her lips before handing over her tea. Franky grinned.

“Oh, right. That. So who was it?”

“Bernie’s wife, Martha.”

Franky laughed, delighted. “You met the sandwich maker, did you?”

Bridget smiled. So far so good. “And Bernie too. I can see why you like him, baby. He is a bit like Will Jackson isn’t he?”

Franky nodded, and Bridget smiled at her again. She took a breath. “Franky, Martha’s from Australia. She heard me ordering food in the diner today. She wanted to hear my accent. We talked.”

Franky frowned, suddenly not so convinced that any of this was good. “Umm…”

But Bridget pressed on. “She’s been in this town for thirty years. She doesn't know us.” She paused. She wasn’t convinced that Bernie would tell her, so her statement wasn’t a lie. She hoped.

“She doesn't know you, Gidge.” Franky didn’t hear the catch Bridget’s voice. She still hated her old fame.

“I asked her if she kept up with back home. Her and her husband visit once every few years. They want us to come to dinner this Saturday.”

Franky got up and went into the kitchen, dumping her tea. “Nuh. No way, Gidge. Fuck! What are the fucking odds?”

“Franky, she’s 70 years old!  She won't recognize you, baby.” “Have you ever met an old lady who wasn’t into cooking shows? Jesus, no way.”

Bridget was quiet for a moment. That didn’t go well, and she’d hoped that by reminding her that Bernie was good and telling her about Martha would ease her into the next bit of the conversation. The more important bit. But Franky was feeling paranoid already, and for just a second, Bridget thought of forging her name to save herself from the imminent storm. She watched Franky as she came back to the couch and sighed internally. What kind of lover would she be to keep such a massive secret? Their lives depended upon their constant trust and transparency with each other. When Franky sat down again, Bridget took the little slip Bernie had given her out of her pocket and fiddled with it. Franky eyed it.

“What’s that?”

Bridget hesitated, but then held it out. ”It will make you afraid,” she said, mirroring Bernie’s words, “But wait, ok? Everything is ok.”

Franky took the slip and unfolded it. Bridget watched the same roller coaster of emotions flood her features. Franky had lost color in her face. “Where did you get this?”

“Bernie. He said the only reason for giving it to me was that he was afraid you’d just bolt. He just needs you to sign as Jo so you can get paid. That’s it. He’s not going to turn us in.”

Franky sucked in a breath, fear setting off her adrenaline. He knows. “We need to go. Now.” She jumped off of the couch, raced into the bedroom and ripped her pack from the closet.

Bridget was expecting this, and followed her. “I don’t want to. Baby, it’s ok.” She said calmly.

“The fuck is ok? Gidge, why the fuck aren’t you packing? Let’s go!”

Bridget folded her arms. She kept her voice soothing. “No. I trust him.”

That brought Franky up short. She looked up. “Over me? Really? Jesus, this has been our biggest nightmare for almost two years!”

Bridget held out her arms. “Baby please, calm down. Just wait a minute. He’s not going to burn us. He won’t. He would have done it already.”

Franky snorted and resumed packing frantically. “I'm not waiting around till he comes to his senses! I'm not letting anyone hold that over my head!”

“I'm asking you to trust me.”

Franky growled, frustrated. She’d asked Bridget, not a bare few nights ago, to trust her with something fragile and huge. The reciprocate was staggeringly unfair. Franky threw her bag onto the bed and tore open their dresser. She shook her head. “The fuck you are! You are asking me to trust two complete strangers with the fine line between my freedom and a life sentence! NO!”

“Franky, please...He showed no sign of wanting to tell me, much less his wife! Will you stop for a second?”

“No. Come with me, or go back to Australia. Or stay here. Make a hundred friends and tell them all you've been fucking a fugitive for two years. Do what you want. Since it's MY life on the line, not yours, I'M fucking leaving.”

Bridget sucked in a sharp breath, hurt. “That’s not fair and you know it! Franky just stop! Calm down and talk to me!”

“I can't believe you lagged on me!”

“Lagged? He already knew! He looked up the name YOU wrote down! And in case you forgot, my photo is RIGHT next to yours under Australia’s Most Wanted!”

Franky slammed more things into her bag and moved to the kitchen. Bridget followed her. This conversation was spinning out of her control. She stopped in the doorway as the brunette began rummaging for non-perishables in the pantry. Franky was shaking with anger. “The second he told you, you should have RUN! You knew I was here!  We should be GONE!”

“This life we have...Franky we can have it. They will never find us! We are finally safe!”

Franky stopped shoving food into her bag and shook her head in utter disbelief. She felt like someone had punched her in the gut. “Oh my god.” She choked out. “You really believe that. But you've never really been the one in danger, hey?”

Bridget lowered her voice. “You would dare say that to me after all we’ve been through?”

Franky huffed at her. “We? You came along for the ride, Gidge. Want to get off now, do you? Roller coaster not fun anymore?”

Franky turned away from her and finished shoving supplies into her bag. She was fuming and her mind splintered around the only woman she’d ever loved. Old insecurities flooded her heart and clouded her judgment. In this moment, under the terror of discovery, it was easier to shove her walls firmly into place.

Bridget had never been the one accused of murders she didn't commit! She'd never get locked up! She'd never really been in danger! This was all just a season of her life, running with the bad girl, and she was ready for it to end. The adventure was getting old. She was tired of feeling like there might be danger. She liked the idea of the little town and her new life. For the sake of her next whim, Bridget was betraying her. Franky shouldered her bag and headed for the door. She knew if she didn’t leave right now, she would be in handcuffs by nightfall.

Bridget furiously wiped tears from her eyes and ran after her. This wasn’t supposed to go this way! She caught Franky’s arm as the brunette reached for the door. Franky snarled and struck out at her in anger.

Fuck off me!”

Franky’s elbow struck her chest and Bridget fell back against the force of the blow. If it wasn't for the kitchen chair she might have held her footing. As it was, she struck the chair in such a way she fell heavily backwards to the floor. They both heard the audible crunch as her ankle broke underneath her. Franky froze, her eyes wide.

Bridget gasped and grabbed her ankle, her face turning white with instant shock. She looked up at Franky, not really seeing her. Not registering much of anything. She started to shiver and she looked at her ankle again, trying to comprehend what had just happened. Her face was puzzled. “I can't get up.”

Franky looked down at her. Her own shock and apology was fleeting. Bridget had betrayed her. She would process that later. Right now she was running out of time. Her face cleared of emotion. She would not feel. She would not change her mind. She would not go back to prison. She shouldered her pack again. “Can’t follow me now, can you? I’m going.”

Bridget looked blankly up at her. Even her lips were white. She tried to get up and managed to use the chair to stand on seriously unstable legs. “Where…you...go…I…”

She collapsed suddenly and if Franky hadn't expected it, Bridget would have fallen to the floor again. As it was, Franky instinctively dropped her pack from her shoulder caught Bridget before she hit the ground. She eased her gently down to the floor. Bridget’s eyes were closed. She'd fainted. Franky squeezed her eyes shut and was angry and frustrated and afraid and sorry all at once.

“God dammit, Gidge.” She whispered.

Chapter Text

The last several hours had been a blur. Bridget had woken up in the car on the way to the hospital. She was confused, and in so much pain. There was nothing Franky could do about the bumpy country road and each time her car hit another pothole, she would curse, and Bridget would whimper in the back seat. When they arrived at the hospital, Franky shut off the engine and turned in her seat to look at the injured woman. She tried to convey how important it was for Bridget to remember that her name was Brenna Matheson.

“Please Gidge.” She begged. “Never mind all the other details…but please don't forget that name!”

She knew she had no right to ask her for anything, and watched as Bridget focused on her through her pain. Franky couldn’t read her expression at all, and it terrified her. But the blonde simply nodded. “Okay.” She said quietly, and then closed her eyes again. Franky ran to get a wheelchair and sign her in.

The little hospital wasn’t too busy. It wasn't even 3pm yet. Bridget was taken to the back almost immediately. It didn't take long for the doctor to look at her X-ray. It was a clean break, he explained, and surgery wouldn't be necessary. He would cast it, give her something for the pain, and she could be discharged.

Once it was clear that she wasn't an emergency, Bridget was left alone and it was a long wait to be released. She was fighting sleep, finally too high to feel any pain, with her newly casted lower leg propped up on several pillows.

Franky stood by her side the entire time, but only looked at her when her head lolled to the side and the nurse took the needle out of her arm.

“She’ll be pretty happy for the rest of today and tonight, but make sure she gets that prescription filled, ok?” The nurse said kindly. “I'll get the discharge paperwork started. She doesn't live alone, does she? Someone will be with her tonight?”

Franky had to work around the sudden lump in her throat to answer her question. “I'll stay with her,” she managed softly.

The nurse left and Franky dragged a chair over to the bed. Bridget was looking at her, fighting the drugs coursing through her blood stream.

“Is this the last time I'll see you?” Her voice was raspy and thick.

Franky shook her head mutely. Bridget started to cry and her little monitor beeped unhappily. Franky jumped to her feet and took her face firmly, pressing their foreheads together. “No. It won't.” She breathed. Bridget pushed at her chest weakly so Franky would look into her eyes. She was looking for any indicators of dishonesty.

Franky smiled sadly. “Barring being dragged away in handcuffs, I'm here. Gidge.”

Bridget turned her head away, and Franky’s heart broke with shame. “Please,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

Bridget turned back to her. “Just stay.” She said, equally as quiet. Franky gripped her hand and brushed her thumb gently over Bridget’s cheek. “I’ll stay.” She promised. And meant it. Thankfully, Bridget’s breathing gradually deepened and she dozed off. Franky sat as close to hospital bed as she could, reaching out to hold the small hand and lean her face against the warm fingers.

Can't follow me now, can you?

You never really were in danger.

You were just along for the ride.

Franky closed her eyes tight against the sudden onslaught of her own venomous words. Jesus, if Bridget ever said those things to her, she would be irreparable. They hadn't spoken hardly at all in the car or in the waiting room. Once Bridget was brought back to be casted she was pumped so full of pain killers Franky was surprised the little sleep talker hadn't spilled all their secrets. But she'd just dropped her head to the side, opting for a coma-like daze over acknowledging the anxious brunette beside her.

Franky kissed the hand she was holding. Kissed it and held it and let her tears fall freely. What a colossal fuck up she was!  How was this woman even in her life? She knew she was nothing more than a violent, abusive piece of shit that should be in prison.

Bridget had come to her with hope. She'd asked for trust in her patient, soothing voice. She'd asked Franky to be calm, to talk to her, to listen to her. Franky had completely missed the apprehension, hope and joy in her words. She only saw that she'd signed the wrong name and fucked them. In spite of all their caution, their paranoia…Franky was the one to screw up. All their hiding and running and discretion gone in one careless memory lapse. She might as well have just told Bernie who she was if she was just going to advertise it only a year later. Her guilt had struck her in a mighty and hideous wave, and lay in a thick, suffocating blanket over all of her other senses. She’d been wrestling with the instinctual woman she'd been fighting for years to keep locked away. But today? Today she'd flung the door wide open and let her demons fully defend her…and leave nothing but destruction in their wake.

Her anger and hurt at Bridget wasn't unfounded. She'd learned long ago from her lover that even the most seemingly irrational emotions were just as valid as the crystal clear ones. She had been hurt that Bridget hadn't immediately begun to pack with her. She'd been angry that she'd dropped her guard for the sake of a conversation with the sandwich maker, and had foolishly connected Franky with herself. She felt betrayed when Bridget had been confronted and then had admitted too easily to knowing Franky and her crimes. Of course Bernie would choose to confront her. Of the two women, Franky would have chosen Bridget herself for any sensitive topic.

Because Bridget was a good listener. She absorbed words and inflections and body language and was able to process and filter and assess. She was so very rarely wrong in her judgements, it made her a hell of a safe person to be around. Of course Bernie approached her. If she'd stopped to think, even for a second, she would have realized that Bernie might have known her real name for damn near two weeks, and he hadn't said a word. The only reason he'd brought it up, Bridget had said quickly, was that he wanted her to get paid.

Even if he just noticed it that very day, he hadn’t turned them in. He'd asked Bridget to get her to sign a new form to prevent the very freak out she was now guilty of.  

Franky felt another tear leak from her eyes. But she didn't just freak out.  She went into full blown panic without once fully listening to the words Bridget begged her to hear. She, unlike her love, was a shit listener. In fact, she was just shit. Boomer’s heartbroken voice echoed in her deeply saddened mind.

You don't care about anybody because you're shit! You're shit, you're shit!

“I'm shit.” She cried softly, and covered her face with her other hand and wept.

Bernie leaned against the hospital doorway and watched his little employee cry. He'd gotten her voice mail that Bridget had hurt herself, and needed to go to the hospital. He wasn't sure if that was an excuse to not show for her shift and flee, but figured if she was going to run, she wouldn't have called him. It was a good sign, he decided, and opted to leave Nick in charge to go to the hospital to see her. Maybe they could talk, if Bridget hadn't told her already.

He watched her frame shake against the storm of her tears. Bridget didn't look bad. A leg cast. Nothing really to fuss about. But the tears he was witnessing were raw grief, born of some other, darker reason.

A loving hand tugged his arm away from the door. Martha looked at Franky for a moment before pulling Bernie away completely. “Get me some tea, love. It should take you about thirty minutes.”

Bernie smiled at her, thankful he'd brought her along. He could handle broken broom Jo, but was clueless how to deal with a weeping Jo.

When he'd left, Martha stepped into the room and pulled a chair up to the other side of Bridget's bed. Franky looked up quickly and wiped her eyes. “Can we go?”

“Not yet.”

Franky looked sharply at her, hearing her accent, and Martha smiled. “My Bernie is right,” she said, “you are too skinny.”

Franky opened her mouth in recognition, but Martha raised her hand. “Nuh. Just listen, girl.”

Franky closed her mouth and watched the old woman studying her. Martha finally looked at Bridget. “Is it bad?”

Franky shook her head. “It's broken, but she'll be right.”

“How'd it happen?”

The old but piercing blue eyes demanded honesty. Franky dropped her head. “We had a…fight. She fell.” Her shame muffled her words.

Martha kept looking at Bridget, who was now sleeping peacefully. “I'm betting the blue was about her believing my Bernie, and you opting not to?”

Franky didn't answer, and she didn't look up. She was rather uncomfortable by the way those blue eyes made her feel so exposed.

“I was the number one heart surgeon in Sydney.” Martha said casually. Franky finally looked at her. She couldn't help it. Martha winked at her.

“Top of my class. Top of everything, really.” She settled back in her chair and stared hard at Franky.  “An escaped convict came into my OR one night. He was dying. Cop chasing him shot him right in the chest. I was trying to save him, but the higher ups wanted his heart to go to the Gordon kid.”

She paused for a moment, reading the flash of confusion on Franky's face. “Little kid with a terminal heart condition, a golden child, on the waiting list. The whole city was cheering for him.”

She looked at Bridget’s sleeping form again. “But I wouldn't deliberately let the man die on my table. I couldn’t. So against my orders I saved him.”

She sighed heavily and looked back at Franky. “I was hated for it. Two weeks later, the Gordon kid died. It likely to have killed the whole city, and the family was out for blood. Make it worse, the convict was sent back to prison, only to be killed in an altercation a few days later.”

 Franky didn't know what to say, but Martha wasn’t finished. “The family went after the hospital, and the hospital went after me. Lost my license. Lost everything. The family sued, and I was summoned for remand. They were calling it murder. Hadn't touched a hair on that child’s head, and they called me a murderer.”

Her eyes bore into Franky's, unblinking. “Prison was the end game, and damned if I’d be put behind bars. So I ran. I packed up my things, my Bernie, and my life, and we ran. We came here, and have been here for thirty happy years.”

She finally smiled. “I don't quite make the top ten list, but I'm on that damn list somewhere. A hundred and sixty-seven, I think.” She finished her sentence rather proudly.

Franky’s mouth dropped open. As intelligent as she was, she simply couldn't process what she'd just been told. Martha stood and stretched out her lower back, grunting. Her kind face grew stern. “So when my husband says he's not a lagger, girl, you'll believe him, if you don't mind.”

Just then Bernie poked his head around the door shyly, and Martha beamed at him. “Speak of the devil! Was just telling our girl here how we ended up in this little town!”

Bernie walked in and handed her a paper cup of tea. He looked at Franky’s shell-shocked face and chuckled. “I reckon you just got an earful, eh? Still feeling flighty, are you?”

Franky shook her head dumbly. No, no she wasn't. In fact, thirty happy years in her little cabin with Bridget sounded mighty nice.

Bernie slung a big arm tenderly over his wife's shoulders. “Good. I'll see you tomorrow then. Got a slip for you to sign.”

He winked at her and Franky finally found her voice. “Thank you.”

Martha waved her away as they headed to the door. “Words.” She scoffed. “I want food. Chef like you? Bring me something delicious when you both come to dinner on Saturday. 7pm.”

Franky could only stare at them as they left. She looked after the bizarre old couple long after they were gone, until she felt a warm hand wrap around her fingers. When she looked down, Bridget was gazing at her sleepily. She was high as a kite.

“You're still here?”

Franky kissed the hand holding hers. “Aye, love. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere.”

Bridget didn't know yet how deeply rooted that statement now was, but when she woke up tomorrow and wasn’t as stoned, Franky was determined to spend the next thirty years showing her.

Chapter Text

The way the early morning sunlight hit Bridget’s face was mesmerizing. Franky reached over and stroked the soft blonde hair. It was getting so long now. The light illuminated Bridget’s face and hair and her queen was shrouded in a crown of gold. She was amazing.

“How many time will you forgive me?” She breathed softly.

Bridget shifted minutely and crinkled her eyebrows. Suddenly her eyes snapped open. “The fuck? What are you doing?”

She jerked away from Franky’s touch and sat up. She cried out and immediately grabbed for her casted leg. Then she noticed she was naked. She pulled the sheet up to cover her body and blasted Franky with anger.

“Where are my clothes? Did you fuck me last night? Did you DARE?”

Franky scrambled from the bed, wrapping a blanket quickly around herself. She held out a hand, palm up. “What? No! I mean…we made love…yes.”

She dodged the book Bridget suddenly grabbed from the nightstand and threw at her.

“I was STONED! I can't believe you took advantage of me!”

Franky made a face. “Can you not say it like that, please?”

Bridget grabbed another book and Franky was suddenly alarmed that she was such an avid reader. She had several heavy novels to choose from. “What would you call it? You had sex with me while I was drugged! I can think of another word for it...”

Franky gagged. Last night had been beautiful…full of passion and forgiveness. She couldn't understand what was happening. “You are making me feel ill.”

“That makes two of us!” Bridget spat back.

Franky clutched the blanket around her. “We talked! Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember what I said?”

Bridget snarled at her. “Oh, I remember what you said, alright. Just along for the ride, am I? How dare you!”

She hurled the second book and Franky ducked again. She took a very careful move forward. “Gidge, we talked. I met Martha at the hospital. She told me her story and I believed her. I believe that they won’t burn us. Remember? Remember we talked? I told you I’d stay.” Bridget stared daggers at her. “Don't come near me. And I told you, if you ever physically hurt me in anger, then we were through. Get the fuck out, Franky!”

When Franky didn't immediately go for the door, Bridget reached for the last book. Franky put out a hand and turned to leave the room. “Stop! Stop throwing books at me! I'm going. I left your pills on your bed table. You’re due for two more.”

She barely closed the bedroom door against the final book hurled furiously at her face.

Franky gingerly cracked the bedroom door and peeked inside. It had been several hours since she'd fled the bedroom, and the cabin atmosphere had settled on an uneasy silence. “Gidge? Do you want lunch?” She barely spoke above a whisper. When she heard a contented sigh she opened the door a fraction more and looked further inside. Bridget was spread-eagle on the bed, covered only with a thin sheet, leg propped up on Franky's pillow. She saw Franky and hummed as she stretched.

“Baby? Is that you?”

Baby? “I made lunch if you're hungry. I'm coming in. I need to get some clothes, so don't throw anything at me.”

Bridget laughed at her, and pulled the sheet down a little. “I would never throw anything at you!” She giggled again. “Wouldn't mind throwing you around though…come here…”

She took a swipe for Franky's passing leg and only managed to snag the blanket still wrapped around her. “Got you!”

Franky tugged back. She kept waiting for Bridget to lash out at her again. “I'm not in the mood, ok? Two hours ago you accused me of taking advantage of you. Let go.”

Bridget kept ahold of her blanket and tried to pull her closer. She giggled. “Franky Doyle, not in the mood? Come on, baby, take advantage of me!”

Franky looked down at her, shocked. “The fuck is wrong with…oh my god, you’re high again! The fuck is in those pills?”

Franky gave over the blanket in favor of climbing across the bed and snatching the little pill bottle off of Bridget's nightstand. She was squinting at the label in the afternoon light when Bridget pounced on her. Franky let out an oof and let Bridget pin her to the bed. She was terrified of hurting her by accident. She looked, in total confused surprise, into the blonde's smiling eyes. Her own widened.

“Gidge, baby, you're stoned.” She said, trying to keep Bridget's wandering hands from roaming her naked body. “I promise you, you don't want me.” Her voice hitched and she gasped when Bridget bent and put her warm mouth against her bare chest. “Gidge, you don't want this.”

Franky held onto her hands, so Bridget simply straddled her, grinning. “Mmm…but I do.” That husky voice Franky loved more than anything else was what made her cave to the blonde’s desires last night. But that was after they'd talked and before she knew better.

She bumped Bridget lightly and tipped her to the side. She let go of her hands and got quickly off the bed. As she went to the dresser to finally get dressed, Bridget sat upright in the bed and pouted, slurring. “You always play with me! Baby, are you ok?”

Franky looked at her impatiently, her mouth open, but then her face softened. She wasn't going to bother talking to this version of Bridget, but she wasn't going to crush her either. She pulled open the drawer of her side table and took out a pen and small pad. She turned to Bridget and plastered a broad smile on her face. “I do wanna play with ya, Gidge! Look!”

She handed Bridget the paper and pen. “I'll fix your lunch, and you write down everything you wanna do to me, yeah? Then you take a short nap and then we'll do it!”

Bridget’s eyes twinkled. “Everything?”

Franky poked her nose lightly. “Everything. Get writing. I'll get your lunch.”

When Franky returned with a simple lunch, Bridget grinned at her and handed her the pad. Franky set the plate down and read what she'd written. Her eyes widened. She looked at Bridget. “Um…there's a lot of things with food, Gidge. You hungry?”

Bridget nodded happily and Franky laughed at her, pushing the plate towards her. “My god, you're a freak. Why…spaghetti?”

Bridget bit into her sandwich and grinned. “You'll see!”

Franky watched her eat and sighed. This made her sad. She missed laughing with her love. She hated the thought that this silly, adorable woman beside her wasn’t the truth. The truth had thrown books at her this morning. She looked at the list in her hand and thought quickly. No way in hell she was going to put up with half of what was on that list. As Bridget finished the last few bites, Franky held up the pad again. “One more game before your nap...and the spaghetti.”

Bridget’s eyes were already drooping. Franky pushed the pad into her hand again. “Write me a letter.”

Bridget giggled. “A love letter?”

Franky shrugged and picked up the plate. “Whatever you want. Just write how you feel about me or whatever.”

Bridget grinned again. “And then the list?”

Jesus. “Nap first. Then...yeah. List.”

Franky got up and returned the plate to the kitchen and cleaned up. By the time she got back to the bedroom, Bridget was asleep. The pad had slipped from her hand and had fallen to the floor. Franky sighed, dejected. It was worth a shot, anyway. She covered the sleeping blonde carefully and bent to put the pad back into the drawer. She was surprised that there was writing on it.

My Franky

To write you a love letter would be as though writing to myself, since you are the biggest and best part of my heart. All I can think about is you. Want to grow old with you!  Nothing can stop my love I love you my sweet soulforever and ever I love youmydarling peaches are fuzzyand spaghetti.

Bridget.

Franky chuckled quietly and wiped her eye. “That’ll do, Gidge. That’ll do.”

She hoped.

Franky called Bernie two hours before her shift. “Having a bit of trouble with Bridget's meds.” She explained. Bernie let her off, telling her that one of the guys offered to take her shift anyway.

“We’ll see you tomorrow night, though?” He asked. His question was loaded, and Franky nodded grimly into the phone. It was going to take her some getting used to…this trusting them thing.

“You bet, boss.” She said firmly.

When she hung up the phone she heard a crash from the bedroom followed by a loud, screaming curse. Franky raced for the bedroom and flung open the door.

“Gidge! You right?”

She knew instantly by the stormy expression which Bridget she was talking to. The blonde was on the floor, crawling back to the bed. At least she'd made it to the toilet on her own. She'd also gotten dressed before, Franky assumed, she'd fallen. There was a bite in her tone. “I'm fine. I thought you'd be gone.”

Franky stood in the doorway, unsure of what to do. “Where would I go? This is my home. You are my home.”

She watched Bridget struggle back into the bed and moved to help, but froze when the other woman snarled at her. “Don't touch me.”

Her words cut Franky to the bone. She fleetingly thought of the way Bridget had smothered her against the bed earlier, eagerly pushing her naked body into her. Bridget finally got into the bed with a huge sigh of relief and stuffed Franky's pillow back under her leg. She eyed Franky, who was still locked in place by the door.

“I'm home, hey? You've a funny way of showing it.” She sat up against the headboard, shifted her leg a bit, and glared at the brunette.

Franky looked at her, deeply unhappy. “I'm sorry, Bridget. I didn't mean to push you. I was panicking. I'm so sorry.”

This was déjà vu, but she would do it a hundred more times of she had to, until Bridget could remember the conversation. The blonde sighed and shook her head. “I know. I know you were panicking, Franky. I knew better than to grab you in that moment. I was talking about what you said.”

Franky looked down, shame burning her eyes and making them sting. “I didn't mean it, Gidge. Of course I didn't mean it.”

Bridget crossed her arms. “Your words were grounded in truth somewhere. How could you make me feel so worthless?”

“I was scared! I've also said a thousand times that I couldn’t do this without you! I was either going to convince you to come with me or stay. Those were ever the only two options.”

Bridget studied her hard. She was agitated with her own memory. She was troubled by the fact that Franky was so peaceful this morning. Like they had really had a conversation and everything was ok. They’d made love. Bridget grit her teeth, aggravated. All she remembered was pure heart break and agonizing physical pain. Nothing else. When she woke up, she'd felt horribly violated, being next to a happy Franky, and completely out of character, had thrown things at her until she ran from the room.

“We talked last night?”

Franky nodded. “Yeah, a lot. Can't you remember?”

Bridget shook her head and frowned at the woman in front of her. She watched Franky bounce slightly on the balls of her feet, ready to run in case Bridget began throwing things again. She sighed.

She'd only ever been afraid of Franky once…truly afraid. She still remembered the feel of the cold, hard concrete of the prison cell when Franky had slammed her into it. The moment was utterly terrifying, but the rationale…when she'd been able to think hours later...was clear.

In the past, it was true Bridget’s patience had been tested. Franky was instinctual and volatile. She yelled, threw things, stormed off…in prison she lied, manipulated, cajoled and deceived. She was a plethora of reactions disproportionate to the circumstances.

They had one year of complete freedom with each other. Just one. In that year it was like someone had flipped a switch in Franky's brain. Like they had turned off the woman she'd been and revealed the woman she really was.

Bridget had never fallen so hard for someone in her life.

But whoever said that love was easy? Hell, Bridget had never met an incredible person with an easy past. All the marvels in history had slogged through great trials to become legends. It wasn't their past that ever defined them, either. It was who they chose to be in spite of it.

Franky was her legend.

Bridget looked at her steadily. Her face was open and honest, and Bridget had no doubt that they had come to some peaceful resolution last night. This morning must have been as great a shock to Franky as it was to her.

But there were things she needed to say…to hear. Knowing that for Franky it might be round two of the same thing frustrated her. Bridget looked at her, bobbing with uncertainty, and noticed she was holding something.

 “What are you holding?”

Franky looked down at her hand. She was holding both the list and the letter. She faltered. This was going to be awkward, and most likely Bridget would be angry again. She looked into her favorite blue eyes, silently begging for kindness.

“Um…after you took your pills this morning you…were out of it again. They really knock you for a loop, Gidge.”

Bridget just stared at her and Franky looked at the floor. “I came to see if you wanted something to eat, and you were different…like last night.”

Bridget narrowed her eyes. “How so?”

Franky was fidgeting with the scraps of paper. “You were…uh…frisky.” She looked up quickly. “But we didn't do anything. I know it was the drugs. I know that now.” She hung her head again. “I wish I’d known last night.”

Bridget couldn't remember anything after throwing books at Franky. Her curiously was getting the best of her. Apparently, they'd had an eventful day. “So what happened?”

Franky looked up at her again. “Nothing! I swear. I got you to write a list of what you wanted to do to me to distract you. Then you ate a sandwich and fell asleep again. That's it.”

Bridget cocked her head. “I wrote a list?”

Franky nodded, and after hesitating moved slowly forward and handed her a scrap of paper. She backed away as Bridget read it. She watched the older woman's eyes grow wide. To her great relief, Bridget actually laughed.

“I wrote this? Really? Spaghetti?”

Franky smiled tentatively with her. “I think you were just hungry.”

Bridget looked at the list again. “Jesus,” she mumbled. “What the hell are in those pills?”

Franky took a breath and held out the last bit of paper. “You also wrote me this, before you fell asleep.”

Wordlessly Bridget took the paper and read it. At first she looked puzzled, but then her face seemed to crumple. She looked at the note for a long time. When she finally raised her head to Franky, there were tears in her eyes. “Oh, baby…”

She held out her arms and Franky rushed forward into them. They held each other tighter than either of them thought possible.

“Gidge, forgive me. Please. I was an idiot.” Franky mumbled into the arms holding her.

Bridget kissed her head and rocked her gently. “I think I'm ready to hear what Martha said to change your mind.”

Franky snuggled in closer. “You aren't going to believe it…again.”

Bridget laughed quietly and stroked her hair. “Well I did the first time, didn't I? Try me. And afterwards, maybe we can try that thing with the spaghetti.”

“I can't even tell you how uncomfortable that makes me, Gidge.”

Chapter Text

Bernie swept up a huge pile of leaves and pushed it towards Franky. She was kneeling on the ground, opening the last of the leaf bags. This would be the seventh one…not bad at all for such a beautiful Saturday morning. His back yard had never looked so good in such a short amount of time. How had he ever done this for so long without her help? Bernie leaned on his rake, catching his breath and watching Franky begin to stuff the bag. “How long we been doing this, Jo?”

She squinted up at him. “’Bout an hour. You right?”

Bernie waved her concern away. “Naw, I mean this. Me and you, Marth and Bren…this.” He waved an arm out encompassing them along with his house to the left, where Martha and Bridget were preparing lunch. “’Bout a year? A bit more?”

Franky tilted her head, studying the large, kind man in front of her. She’d been working under him for a little over two years now, but that's not what he meant. The this he was referring to was the weekends and holidays they’d spent together. The long walks, and chores and meals and big belly laughs. The quiet hours over beer or wine, talking on the porch. Bernie teaching Franky odd fix-it-yourself and home improvement jobs. Martha and Bridget spending endless cups of tea over the kitchen table. Rearranging both house and cabin. Raking leaves, shoveling snow, tending gardens; the countless afternoons at the lake.

Franky wasn't certain if it was Bridget or Martha that decided they needed to be a part of each other’s lives. Somewhere between them meeting in the diner and that first shared Saturday dinner, they had become inseparable. At first it was just the two of them, lunch dates here and there. And then weekend get-togethers. The four would chat for a minute, and then Bernie would wander off with Franky. Neither of them was any good at the depths of conversation the other two women dove into so naturally, but surprisingly found great pleasure in each other’s company. Most often Bernie would help her with something around the cabin, or they would spend hours in his wood shop out back, where he was teaching her to build the little rocking horses he sold at the farmers market. Sometimes they would simply crack beers and sit on the back porch, facing the lake and talking periodically about everything and nothing at all.

As for Bridget and Martha…their brains seemed to have a special way of communicating. They would gradually lean in closer to each other over their tea cups and have conversations so deeply intense that each time Franky was a part of one she felt flayed alive. She was pretty relieved that Bernie felt the same. She felt at ease around the big man’s few words and quiet calm.

Both couples breathed life into the each other. Bernie and Martha didn't have children, and Franky and Bridget were without parents. They gravitated towards each other automatically and had created, in every sense of the word, a family together.

Franky had to really try to remember a time when this old couple hadn't been such a leading part in their lives. Had it only been a year?

She smiled up at him fondly. “Yeah.” She answered. “About that.”

“Think it's time I asked you a personal question?”

Franky loved that he asked. It was what made him so consistently safe to be around. His wife on the other hand…that old woman could lay her bare with a look. But Bernie kept his promise to not bug her with personal questions. Over the last year the bond between them grew. He taught her things and told her stories and gave her advice and made her laugh. He listened to every word she said and kept up with her playful, teasing nature with ease. He was the only father figure in her life now, and although she’d never admit it aloud, she loved him. She started packing leaves into the bag again. “Alright, then.”

Bernie took up raking again, leading small piles into her waiting hands. “Why a janitor, eh? Really like mopping floors, do you?”

Franky laughed at his serious expression. “That's your big question? Lucky for you, hey? Blessing you with this gorgeous face every night? You'd be looking at Nick’s butt crack all the time if it weren't for my love of mopping floors.”

“Ugh. I'll give you that one. Nothing makes a man straighter that having to look at that boy’s hairy ass.”

Franky grinned cheekily at him. “I don't know, bub. Never know till you try…”

Bernie grinned right back at her. “Can’t do it. One look at my smokin’ hot wife all naked and oiled up...mmm…”

Franky made a face, rejecting the image pushed into her mind. “Jesus, Bernie!”

He burst out laughing at her. “I win, kid. Now answer the question.”

Franky put her head down and gathered more leaves. In truth, she didn't knew how to answer him. How could she explain how she was crawling out of her skin? That she still thought about what she'd read from that law book she'd opened at the university? Everything she’d studied in prison? How much she missed her work at Legal Aid? How could she ever do what she craved with all her heart? How could she, a fugitive of the law, ever become a lawyer?

Bernie was looking down at her patiently. “Your life didn't stop when you got here, Jo.” He said gently. “It may have paused for a bit, while you sorted yourself. But every dream and passion that was inside you in Australia didn't die just because you settled here. Can't really kill something like that.” He looked at her thoughtfully. “Ever wonder why I chose my profession?”

Franky hadn't, but the way he was looking at her made her feel like she was missing something important. He was trying to tell her something. She squinted up at him, repeating his own question with a grin. “Like mopping floors, do you?”

He snorted at her and over-raked the pile, spraying her with leaves. “It's not what I do, smartass, it's where I am.

A flickering light was going on and off in Franky's mind. She wasn't quite there, but she was gathering this conversation had a more important endgame than just curiosity. Bernie could tell she was trying to follow him. He huffed a sigh and sat down on a stump.

“That university has a hell of a medical program. I got the job there so my wife could go through the program for free. She couldn't stay away from her passions any more than you can.”

“So Martha flew under the radar by becoming a heart surgeon when she moved here, yeah?” Franky was sarcastic.

Bernie put his chin in his hand and tipped his mouth in a sardonic smile. “You really think Martha is her real name?”

Franky stopped shoving leaves into the bag in favor of giving Bernie a surprised look. He laughed at her.

“Thought that would get your attention. No, she didn't become a heart surgeon. She finished med school...again...and then opened up her own little clinic here in town. Thirty years ago the nearest one was an hour away.”

He looked sternly at her. “You were made for more than what you are doing. At first I thought taking courses was your plan all along, seeing as it would be free as long as you work at the university, but now I can see it isn't. So my question was why? Why did you settle on being a janitor?”

Franky was staring off into space, her mind racing, and Bernie chucked at her. “Would you look at that? You didn't know you could take classes there, did you? Didn't cross your mind once?  Good lord, girl, I can see the steam, you are thinking so hard!”

Franky was still dazed, not willing to believe such an opportunity existed for her. Whoever heard of free classes if you worked at a university? That happened here? Really? Her brow was so scrunched up with so many thoughts that Bernie chucked at her again. He put a big hand on her shoulder to get her attention. He smiled when she tore her thoughts away from the vast possibilities before her to pay attention to him.

“Just saying, kid. Do what's in you to do. It can't be mopping floors.”

He cocked his head at her. “I've a feeling you opened that law book for a reason, eh? Remember that night? Wanna go into law, then?”

“I thought I wanted to be a chef. But it was just something I was really good at. Took me years to love it again…after the thing with the TV show.” She said quietly.

“And law?”

Franky looked down. “I…love it.” She admitted. “Everything about it. The first time I really started to study it, I couldn't get enough.”

Bernie picked up the rake and heaved himself to his feet. “Then do it, kid. Jo Walker would make a hell of a good lawyer. Maybe you can't be a shit hot attorney with all the high profile cases that make the news, just like my Martha couldn't go back to being a shit hot heart surgeon...but tons of legal aid is needed for us country folks on a smaller scale. You wanna go that route to help folks out? Do it.” “Bernie, I…”

“Do it. What’s the point of making it through all you've been through if you don’t live? There’s a huge difference between a life, and a satisfied life.”

He put aside the rake and stooped to help her lift the heavy bag. They tied it and dragged it over with the others. He nodded at their work, pleased. He glanced a bit shyly at Franky. She’d been quiet since he planted a seed of thought in her mind. He bumped her shoulder. “Martha and me…we never had kids. At first it was because we were afraid she’d be caught, and our child would be taken away from us…then, well, over the years…it just got too late.”

The sadness in his voice caused Franky to lean into him to show she was listening. He smiled down at her. “I love ya, kid. Like you were my own. You know that, right?”

Franky nodded, and Bernie uncharacteristically put his arm around her, giving her a light squeeze. “I want you to live a satisfied life, Jo. Will you try?”

Franky felt her eyes sting. She wanted to, so very badly. A huge an unexpected door was just thrown wide open in front of her, and she was peering in, terrified. Bernie was asking her to face those fears. To just try. To register under her new name. To boldly step into classes like she didn’t have a sordid past. To finally become a lawyer and give back to the community she’d long since fallen in love with. Franky leaned against him and nodded, laughing a little. Bernie grinned and squeezed her again.

“That’s my girl. Good. Now let’s go eat. This old man is starving!”

Chapter Text

Franky cracked an eye and saw the beginnings of sunlight peering around the shade hanging down over their bedroom window. She inhaled deeply and her waking mind began to race with everything she wanted to do today. She loved the weekends. In a few weeks, the farmer’s market would open for the season, and all the little rocking horses she and Bernie had labored over were almost ready. Maybe she'd stop by later today to help him paint them. She also needed to study for the two classes she was taking this semester. It had taken all of the three influences in her life to settle her and convince her to take it slow. She'd wanted a full course load immediately. She'd even bought the law book she'd opened that one night, and she wasn’t even a quarter of the way through it. Reading on the back porch was a must today.

 

She quietly removed the covers and tried to sneak out of bed. Bridget was a persistent snuggler on these weekend mornings, and if she didn't sneak out of bed while the blonde was still asleep, she'd be held onto until midday.

 

Franky grunted in surprise when an arm suddenly snaked around her middle and held her fast.

 

“No you don't.” Bridget’s voice was muffled in the sheets. “Stay with me.”

 

Franky tugged at the arm holding her. “It's already 7am! Stuff to do!”

 

She sat up and Bridget flung a second arm around her middle. “It’s still fucking dark out, Franky. Stay.”

 

Franky laughed quietly at her and tried to tug herself free. “I'm not tired anymore, woman…Jesus, you're strong. Let go, Gidge!”

 

Bridget stubbornly held on and rallied herself. There were many ways to keep the brunette in her arms, and Bridget knew all her secrets. It wasn't long before Franky was saying her name quite differently.

 

Thirty minutes later Bridget leaned on her elbow and stroked her fingers lightly up and down Franky's bare back. She traced her spine and shoulder blades and ribs. She watched her own hand glide smoothly over the soft, olive skin and felt each peaceful intake of air.

She marveled at the stillness and now calm of her lover. There was nothing she loved more than the feel of Franky in the early morning.

 

Franky hummed at the feel of her soothing touch. “I love you,” she murmured.

 

Bridget laughed and leaned in to kiss her shoulder. “You love that I can put you into a near coma.”

 

Franky kept her eyes closed and grinned. “Mmm…yes, yes I do. You blow my fucking mind before 8am. Now I'm trying to get my body to respond to my brain and get back up.”

 

Bridget turned the kiss on her shoulder into a more seductive one with her tongue. The hand that had been stroking along her spine slipped lower, pushing underneath the thin sheet covering Franky's lower half.

“I don't want you to get up yet.”

 

She squeezed the flesh she found under the sheets and reached even lower. Franky squirmed a little.

 

“Gidge…it’s Saturday. It’s beautiful out. We should get up and enjoy it…”

 

“I want to sleep in. With you. Now roll over,” Bridget growled huskily, grinning at her lover’s sharp intake of breath when her fingers lightly invaded an already over sensitive area.

 

Franky let out a low moan. She couldn't prevent her body from responding to the feel of Bridget's fingertips. She sucked in another sharp breath when the blonde nipped her shoulder.

 

“Over.” Bridget commanded again.

 

Franky groaned and flopped over, exposing herself once more to her lover's heated touch. “Again? How are you this insatiable?”

 

Bridget laughed and languidly brought their bodies together. She kissed the corner of Franky's mouth before breathing, “Because I love you too.”

 

Bridget watched as Franky slowly drank her coffee, still trying to bring her body back into the morning. Usually the brunette was out of bed and dressed by 7am, regardless of what could be a delightfully lazy Saturday morning. The only way to keep her still…just a little longer…was to release all that pent up morning energy. Bridget grinned.

 

Franky looked up at her and shook her head. “It's 10am, Gidge. Half the morning is gone. Don't know why you're grinning at me like that.”

 

Bridget shrugged, content to lessen her grin into a little smirk. They'd stayed in bed most of the morning, and after three attempts to get up and three subsequently powerful orgasms later, Franky had collapsed into an exhausted heap in Bridget's arms and they had fallen back asleep. When Bridget was finally satisfied and ready to leave the bed, she'd giggled at Franky's sluggish attempts to follow her.

 

“I'm going to eventually destroy your internal prison alarm, baby, or at least retrain more acceptable habits in you.”

 

“I love the mornings!”

 

Bridget finished her coffee and smiled at her. “And I love holding you in the mornings. Sometimes I wake up and you’re not there…it makes me a bit lost.”

 

Her smile faded and she quickly looked down at her coffee cup. Franky looked at her quizzically. “Lost? Like you forget where you are? Still?”

 

Bridget shook her head, rather abashed. When she didn't answer right away, Franky reached across the table and brushed her hand with her fingertips.

 

“Gidge?”

 

Bridget finally took her eyes from her empty cup. “It’s nothing. Never mind.”

 

Franky frowned. “Nuh. Don't do that. Come on, Gidge. I'm listening.”

 

Bridget looked at her shyly and sighed. “It’s just that...you aren’t as feral as you were, but it’s still in you. I can see it. The restlessness inside. Some mornings I wake up and I just know you've gone. Left without me.”

 

Franky tried to keep the shock from her features, but she couldn’t help it. She had to bite her tongue to keep herself from laughing aloud. Left, as in went on the run again? Seriously? Without her Bridget? She knew by the other woman’s expression that she didn't just mean a stroll in the woods. There was a fragility in her lover's body language that warranted thought, not teasing. She put her chin in her hand, thinking…trying to place where this seemingly sudden feeling was coming from. It had been over a year since that horrible night when she'd wanted to flee. When she accidentally caused Bridget to break her ankle. When she, in her hurt and panic, had screamed devastating things in her lover's face.

 

But since then, not once had it occurred to her to leave again. Not even once. She couldn't bear the thought of uprooting from their little cabin, their bird feeders, their beautiful garden; her future law degree. She could barely breathe at the thought of no Bernie or Martha in her life.

 

She stared at the woman across from her. And leave without Bridget? As if that was an option now! She took the small hand across from her and held it firmly.

 

“How could I tear myself in two and expect to survive?”

 

Bridget scoffed at her, taking her hand away and sitting back in her chair. She wasn’t in the mood for romantic language. “We’re two people Franky. We would both survive on our own.” There was a bite in her tone. Something was troubling her.

 

Franky shook her head at the retort. She was a bit confused. Her body was still recovering from the love Bridget had poured into it earlier. That feeling didn't just happen. There wasn't a doubt in her mind they'd become irreversibly entangled in each other.

 

“Nuh. Two people maybe, but one heart. I tried going it alone, remember? How long did it take for me to come back to you? A week?”

 

“You didn’t even know I was home.”

 

Franky gathered the blonde’s insecurities and held them carefully. “That first night maybe.” She said gently. “But the next night? And the next? I could no more stay away from you than you could let me go overseas alone.”

 

She also sat back and tilted her head. “So tell me. Why would you feel lost on mornings when I get up earlier than you? Why would you feel afraid, after all this time, that I would abandon you?”

 

Bridget rubbed her eyes and sighed. “Maybe it’s because I'm afraid that being happy has made us complacent. We aren’t as careful as we used to be. How long has it been since we opened the journal?”

 

Franky scrunched up her nose. “We’ve memorized it, Gidge. We live it. We really ought to burn it before someone finds it.”

 

“And what about our box of old IDs? Should we burn those too? Why have we even held on to them? If we are really going to commit to this life and each other, how can we harbor such tangible evidence of our old selves?”

 

Oh, there it is. Franky was still. Bridget was questioning her commitment to not only her, but their new life. Old Franky would have flared up instantly in defense. What else could she do to prove that she was in this for the long haul? But now, after everything,

Franky only nodded thoughtfully. There was no sense in asking if it was something she'd done to cause the shift in Bridget’s mood. Worries were always rooted in truth, some way or another. Hadn't it been Bridget that taught her that? And they had certainly chosen a worrisome life. Neither of them could be blamed for sudden spurts of insecurity. Hell, she'd certainly had her fair share in the past. The solution had never been to become defensive so much as it was to simply continue the dialog. She smiled fondly at the fidgeting blonde. Bridget had taught her that as well.

 

“Ok then,” she said calmly. “You’re right. Let’s do it. Let’s burn the fucking lot. Commit to Jo and Brenna completely from here on out.”

 

Bridget raised her eyebrows, startled. Whatever she was expecting, it wasn't agreement. “Really?”

 

Franky nodded sincerely. “Sure. But on one pretty big condition…”

 

Bridget tilted her head. “And what would that be?”

 

“We kept those old IDs because, at least for me, I hoped to one day be able to return to Australia as a free woman. That somehow my name would be cleared and we could go home. I still call you Gidge and you call me Franky because we still hope that one day we will be able to be those women again. The more years that fly by, I'm starting to think that may never happen. I'm betting you are coming to grips with that as well, hey?”

 

Bridget nodded honestly, listening. Franky smiled at her, encouraged to ease into a topic that had been on her own mind for months. “So we, Franky and Bridget, can’t go back. Those two names need to disappear and remain gone forever.”

 

It was a difficult statement, said boldly aloud like that. Both sets of ears burned with its truth. Both hearts clenched with its reality.

 

Franky let her words settle uncomfortably within them both before continuing. “Our names are not who we are though, are they? Haven't we proved that it’s not the name, but the souls behind the name that identify us?”

 

She smiled at the women across from her. “I don't care what people call me. I don't care what they call you. My soul loves your soul, and we are in this together.”

 

She got up from the kitchen table and went into the pantry, rummaging around noisily. At last she came out with a small tea tin. She held it for a moment, a slow smile spreading across her face. Then she walked slowly towards Bridget.

 

“So you want to burn away a couple of names. The main reason why I'm so very ok with that,” she said casually, “is that Franky couldn't marry Bridget. Not in Australia, and not here. They were forever stuck in limbo...whether it was because of patient/therapist restrictions, Aussie law, or the whole fugitive/accomplice thing. It was never going to happen.”

 

Franky stopped when she was standing in front of Bridget. Her smile grew wider and she slowly dropped to one knee. “But Jo,” she continued, opening the tea tin and shaking something out into her palm, “can marry Brenna. Different names, same souls. And this ragged old soul wants yours more than she’s ever wanted anything in her whole life.”

 

Franky held out a little silver ring and looked up into deep blue eyes. “I will reduce any evidence we have of Franky Doyle and Bridget Westfall to ashes and become Jo Walker with all that is within me...if Brenna Matheson will be my wife.”

 

She took Bridget’s left hand and placed the ring in her palm. There were two small stones, a blue and a green one, embedded in an engraving of the infinity symbol. “My love, be my forever. Let my soul cherish yours for the rest of our lives. Brenna Matheson, will you marry me?”

 

Bridget held the beautiful little ring in her hand before slowly gliding it onto her left ring finger. She felt tears in her eyes. “Oh my god,” she whispered.

 

She sank onto the floor in front of Franky and the brunette gathered her in her arms. “You are the other half of me. You always have been, and you always will be. I will never leave you. I will always love you. I want to spend the rest of my life being the woman you deserve. Now and forever, I'm yours. Please, baby. Please say yes.”

 

Bridget hugged Franky with all her might. “Yes!” She cried, laughing through her tears. “A thousand times…yes! “

 

Franky laughed with her and helped her up off the floor. She took her face and brought their lips together passionately. When they finally parted, she pressed her forehead into Bridget’s. She felt light headed with joy.

 

“Mine?” She breathed excitedly.

 

Bridget smiled broadly at her, her eyes shining with renewed hope and love. “Yours.”

 

Franky mirrored her grin, took her hand, and pulled her towards the bedroom, snatching up the little journal from the shelf along their way. Bridget laughed at her.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“I'm gonna get that box. We're burning it, this instant.” She turned suddenly and pinned Bridget into the wall, pressing into her and kissing her deeply. “Our new life, our final life, Brenna, starts right now.”

Chapter Text

Jo suddenly pushed away from the table. “Yep. That’s it. I’m out.”

Brenna laughed at her and Martha snorted into her tea cup. “Oh, come on, girl,” she teased, “I want to get inside that mind of yours.”

“Just my mind?” Jo muttered so that only Brenna heard her. Brenna swatted at her and laughed even harder. Seeing that her wife was not going to be helpful, Jo looked desperately at Bernie. He chuckled at her and also stood from the table. “Give her a break, Mar. You got your open one, I get the quiet one.” He looked fondly at Jo. “Come on, kid. You’re due for an oil change. We’ll learn car stuff today.”

Jo gratefully dumped her tea in the sink and helped Bernie clean the cups. Martha winked at Brenna. “Not much for talking, that one, hey? No wonder Bernie loves her so much. Two peas in a pod, them.”

Brenna laughed lightly. “She’s married to a psychologist, Martha. She’s damn careful what she says around anyone.”

“Talks to you though, does she?”

“Oh yes. Her mind is always processing something. She shares when she’s ready. It’s taken her quite a bit of time to trust my intentions in asking her questions, but once she did and the floodgates opened…” she sighed adoringly and Martha snickered at her.

“Oh, you got it bad. That girl could be the devil and you’d have the same doe-eyed expression.”

“She’s not.”

“Of course she’s not. Not even close. The devil isn’t capable of the love that I see pass between you two.”

Bernie came back into the kitchen to give his wife a kiss, but when he turned to leave again, she put a hand on his arm to stop him. At one look from her, he shrugged and sat back down. She turned to Jo, who was already half-way out the door. “Jo?”

“Ma’am?”

“Sit.”

Jo craned her neck around and saw that Bernie had seated himself again. She shook her head and made her way back to the table. “Whipped.” She muttered at Bernie.

“Oiled up…” He muttered back with an unapologetic shrug. She made a face at him and took her seat next to Brenna. Martha usually let them escape on these gorgeous fall afternoons, but this time, she had something on her mind. When she took Bernie’s hand, a look of understanding swept over his face. “You sure?” He asked quietly. Martha closed her eyes briefly and nodded. She looked at the young couple across from her.

“Something we wanna ask you two. It’s been on our minds for some time, and we need your help. But I've got to begin with an apology.” She looked at Brenna. “I’ve only lied to you once.”

Brenna wrinkled her brow. “Have you?”

“Aye, in the diner, when you asked if we ever went back to Australia. The answer was really no, for the same reasons you can’t.”  She sighed heavily and Bernie put an encouraging arm around her. Martha leaned into him. “Was easier to just say we went every few years. It removes the ‘why not’ can of worms I’d rather not open for just anyone.”

Brenna glanced at Jo. They understood the need for discretion more than most, and she waved the confession away. She’d done her fair share of lying in the last two years. It was getting frighteningly easy. Hell, her whole life was a lie now. Or was it the truth? She smiled to herself and fiddled absentmindedly with her wedding band.

Martha was looking rather hard at them. “You know we don’t have kids, Bernie and me, but we love you both like daughters. You know that?”

They both nodded. Martha shook her head sadly. “I can’t imagine losing you. Either of you. I simply can’t.”

Brenna reached for her hand. “We aren’t going anywhere, Martha.”

“No, girl, listen. If we can’t imagine losing you, and you aren’t even ours, how must your real folks feel, hey?”

Both Brenna and Jo froze under the piercing blue stare. They had been able to send Jo’s father coded messages through the Melbourne Times weekly, and that had somewhat eased the pain of the separation. It would never be the same as seeing them again, but they had agreed that what they were doing was the safest solution, for all parties involved.

Jo leaned into Brenna and took her hand. “We’ve been in communication with my dad, remember? The weekly ads?”

Martha nodded at her. “Aye, I’ll give you all points for brilliance…but none for smarts.”

Brenna raised her eyebrows, taken aback. “What now?”

Martha tipped a smile at her and cocked her head. “Want to see them?”

Jo felt a flash of anger and, sensing this, Brenna squeezed her hand. She knew what her wife was upset about. She remembered all too clearly the breakdown she’d had on their bedroom floor. The tears of frustration and grief. The anger at her loss. Jo’s desperate scramble for a solution. Martha seemed to be dangling the impossible in front of them, and after all they’d been through, it seemed cruel. She had to shake herself from feeling despair all over again. “You know that’s impossible. It’s too dangerous. We’d never make it out of customs.”

Bernie looked at his wife and then nodded. “No, you won’t, but they will.”

“What?” Jo was surprised. Martha shrugged her small shoulders out from Bernie’s arm and leaned forward.

“Here. Bring them here. Haven’t you ever heard of a house swap? People do it all the time all over the world! You want to visit another country? They want to visit yours? There’s a whole site online dedicated to this kind of thing. Bernie and I want to go visit home. It’s been thirty years, and it’s time. We’ve both got affairs that need settling. That's where your folks come into play.”

Jo bit her bottom lip, frowning through the flurry of thoughts congesting her mind. It was like a fucking traffic jam between her ears. She was worried for the old couple. “But customs…”

Martha huffed at her. “All they have is a thirty year old picture, girl. I've got a different ID and I’m seventy-two and full of grey hair and wrinkles! They won’t give me a second glance. Besides,” she added with a little smile, “I was never on the top ten of our shared little list.”

When neither of the younger women responded with anything other than seriously wrinkled brows, Martha sighed. Their fear and doubt and anxiety was palpable in the tiny kitchen.

 “We don’t want you to do what we had to do. Have to wait. Have to read the obituaries years later when the internet came out and then…find your parent’s names in them.”

She dropped her head, a sudden wave of grief making it hard to speak. She heaved a sigh laden with remorse. “We found Bernie’s mum first. Then his dad. Both of mine passed several years later, just a few months apart. I’ve never felt a heartbreak so physically before.

We both thought I was having a heart attack. Grief will get you, my dears, in different ways. No two people are alike when it comes to sadness. What it boils down to, is who will stick around to walk with you through it. That was my Bernie. And we learned together that as hard as our hearts broke, they still kept on beating. Love is a funny thing. I was likely to think the world would cease to exist without his angel of a father walking it.”

She paused to pull Bernie’s arm around her shoulders again. “So don't wait. The options you have before you were not available to Bernie and me for a very long time. We left at night and stayed in the dark. You want to compare hardships, my girls, we’d win in that department. But times have changed. There are ways around the system that are untraceable, unnoticeable and absolutely doable. House swap. Between the pair of you I’m betting you can set it up for us. All of us. Get us to Australia, and get the Westfall’s and Jo’s father here. See your folks for a couple of weeks each year. No one will be the wiser.”

She took a breath and sat back, waiting for them to respond. Jo was watching the hope and excitement flood her wife’s face. She pushed herself from the table suddenly. “No.” She said loudly. “I don’t want to.”

The other three turned to her in surprise. Brenna tried to take her hand, but Jo jerked away. “I DON’T WANT TO!” She yelled. She stormed out of the kitchen and went into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. Brenna made as if to go after her but it was Martha who stood. “I got this,” she murmured.

Jo was sitting on her side of the bed, her back to the door; her fists in her eyes. When it opened, she snarled, “I don’t want to talk about it, Bren.”

“Well I do.”

Jo leapt up at the sound of Martha’s voice. The anger in her eyes faded at the sight of the old woman, but it still simmered under the surface. She shook out her hands in agitation. “I want to be alone.”

Martha closed the bedroom door firmly and went over to the bed. She sat down on it with a sigh. “Think I don’t know what you are going through, hey? Think you’re all alone in what you are feeling?” Jo started to pace, barely keeping her temper. She couldn’t stop her voice from raising. “You don’t know what I’m feeling. You don’t understand!”

“What don’t I understand?”

Jo snapped and angrily swept her arm over the top of the dresser, sending the few items on top of it crashing to the floor. “ANYTHING!” She yelled.

Martha raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Well there it is, isn’t it? Bernie said he saw it in you one night. I didn’t believe him, but there it is.”

Jo growled at her and picked up a folded pile of clean laundry and hurled it across the room. She didn't care what the old woman thought of her. How was any of this a good idea? She couldn't get the image of Brenna's excitement from her mind. She kicked one of the fallen items and it broke against the wall. Martha frowned at her temper, reached over, and pushed Brenna’s bedside lamp onto the floor. There was a small pop as the bulb broke. “Are we breaking things? Or do you want to talk?”

She took Jo’s momentary surprise to pat the quilt beside her invitingly. “Calm your demons, girl, and listen to an old lady, yeah? I won’t bite."

I might.” Jo snarled. But she couldn’t help but laugh once at her own foolishness. She took a breath and sat heavily down on the bed. Martha reached out and brushed a wild strand of hair from her forehead. “You and I have more in common than you think. Probably why we love the same woman.”

Jo dipped her head, frustrated with her temper and the too many thoughts swirling around her mind. “She deserves better.”

“And you don’t? Hush. Come here.” Martha put her arm around Jo, tugging her closer, and to her satisfaction Jo melted into her. “There now, little monster. There. Now tell me, calmly please. I’m old, not deaf. What is troubling you?”

Jo had never been held by her mother. The closest thing she’d ever known was Liz, back in Wentworth. She didn’t even know she needed such a thing until Liz came into her cell one night, after one of Franky's tempers, sat next to her on her bed, and simply held her. She hadn’t wanted anything in return. It wasn’t an apology for a lost temper. It wasn’t a come on. It was only a mother recognizing the look of a lost child and being unwilling to pass by the opportunity to comfort. Jo remembered the instant distrust and fear that shot through her. She froze that first time, waiting for the shiv to be buried in her back. But Liz only rocked her, and whispered nonsense in her ear in the most gentlest of voices. A mother’s voice. After that first time, every now and then over the years during her time at the prison, she’d creep into the older woman’s cell and be held; rocked until her insecurities and fears subsided. She never let the other girls see her like that, but there was something about the comfort of a mother figure she instinctively craved.

When Martha reached for her she felt tears in her eyes and knew before it happened the old lady beside her would begin to rock her in a soothing cadence. She seemed to know the right frequency to unlock her troubled heart. “I’ve only been married to Brenna for six months. If her parents come, she will be Bridget again. She won’t be my wife.”

Martha continued to rock her. “Jo, that statement doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. Are you saying you want to keep your union from them, then? Your new names too?”

Jo sniffed. “It’s not that I want to, but the less they know about our life and new identities the safer they will be.”

“So you will go back to being Bridget and Franky for a few weeks, so what? Brenna is yours whether you see a ring on her finger or not. I’ve a feeling she was yours long before you began to call her Brenna, yeah?”

Jo was still struggling with her words. Martha was content to rock her until she could process what was really bothering her. “Her parents…never liked me.” She whispered. “In fact, they hated that their daughter got mixed up with someone like me. It almost broke the relationship they had with her.”

“Because she chose you.”

Jo nodded. “She always defended me, and I was always trying to prove that I could be the woman their daughter deserved. I never added up in their eyes.”

Martha leaned her cheek against the top of Jo’s head. “Ahh. So. Call it what it is. You stole their daughter away from them, in every sense of the word. Nothing you say or do will ever be right in their eyes. Not then, and sure as hell not now. Knowing you'll be able to face them in the very near future…it’s a frightening thought, no?”

Jo nodded into her shoulder and Martha laughed quietly. “Well I’d have to say, you win, love. Never got a chance to hear just what Bernie’s mum thought of me after we up and left.” She squeezed Jo fiercely. “But I will tell you, I wish with all my heart that Bernie could have had the opportunity to see her. Even once. Even if she'd lashed my heart open with her tongue and never wanted to see me again. I would have given anything. For him.” Jo felt a tremor run through the arms holding her and she pulled back, surprised at the tears streaming down Martha’s cheeks. Martha cupped her face. “Don’t you dare take this away from Brenna. You make it happen for her, and like any decent spouse, you shoulder the responsibility for your actions. If they hate you, they hate you. But she will see them. You will know for sure what they are thinking and feeling. Even if it's what you fear. It’s worth a lifetime of distance and ignorance. I promise you.” She leaned in and kissed Jo’s forehead. “I promise you, love.”

Jo crinkled her brows and tears formed again. “What if she leaves with them? What if seeing them is too much, reminds her of everything she gave up, tries to go back with them to Australia…what if she leaves me?”

“I’m familiar with your fears, girl. Let me ask you…has she ever?”

“Ever what?”

Martha chuffed. “Left you. Has that woman out there in the kitchen, who adores you more than the sun and moon combined, ever left you?”

“Just once.”

“Humph. Came back around though, didn’t she? Ever done anything to her that you regret?”

Jo covered her face with her hands. Oh yes. But Martha pulled her hands away and tilted her chin up to look into her eyes. “My point is that through all of that mess she is still here. You both are. And at the end of the day, love, when you got down on one knee…Brenna said yes. To you. All of you. I going to bet it will take a whole lot more than the emotional upheaval of seeing her folks to shake that level of commitment.”

“And... you could trust me.”

Jo and Martha both jumped at the sound of the quiet voice in the doorway. Brenna was leaning up against the now open door. “I heard crashing. I just came to check on you.” She eyed the state of disarray their bedroom was now in. Jo jumped to her feel and rushed into Brenna’s arms, hugging her fiercely. “I'm afraid,” she whispered.

Brenna hugged her back and buried her head in the crook of Jo’s neck. “So am I, baby.”

Jo pulled away just a little. “Do you want to do this, then? Because we can. We will. I’ll do anything for you.” It rocked her already frayed nerves that she meant it.

Brenna clutched at her and nodded. “I really do. Please. Please can we try? It will never mean that you aren’t enough.”

Jo pulled her in again. “I know. And I do trust you. Jesus, I trust you with my whole life. I’m sorry.” She sighed. “Ok. Ok, we will try this. And Martha broke your lamp.”

The old lady snorted and heaved herself off of the bed, not looking a bit remorseful.

Chapter Text

Martha and Bernie hugged them fiercely. Their flight left in two hours, and Brenna and Jo met them in their driveway for one last goodbye. Martha held Jo a split second longer, putting her lips close to her ear. “This will hurt you, Jo. You know that. But you'll take it. And you'll take it like the woman you are, not the woman you were. Be who your wife deserves.”

Jo nodded, swallowing the lump in her throat and pressing herself into Bernie's chest. “Take me with you,” she murmured,

He held her tight. “Nuh. I like you too much, kid. I reckon you look better in the great outdoors than you do behind bars…”

Brenna and Jo stood in their driveway and watched them drive off. This time tomorrow their parents would arrive at their small cabin. Brenna reached for Jo’s waiting hand and held it.

...

Jo was anxious all morning. She cleaned the kitchen three times and when Brenna bumped into her for the tenth time in as many minutes she sighed in exacerbation and threw her out of the cabin. Jo stood miserably in the drive. “What am I supposed to do?” “I don't care, Jo. You can come back at noon to start dinner. They'll be here around 4pm.”

Jo continued to stand, rather lost, in the drive until Brenna took pity on her. She put the broom aside and came out of the cabin. She wrapped her arms around her. “Your nerves are not unwarranted, baby. But I promise you, I'm on your side. You aren't going to face anything alone. Remember, we both left that night. Why don’t you go for a walk?”

That wasn't a bad idea. Nature had always settled her heart. It would give her a chance to sort out recipes in her head, anyway. She reluctantly left Brenna’s embrace and turned towards the woods. “Better start calling me Franky again, Gidge,” she called over her shoulder.

There was barely a knock on the door when Bridget flew past Franky and leapt into her mother’s waiting arms. They jabbered at each other a mile a minute as only they could. Franky could barely think that this had been a good idea after all when Bridget’s father stepped through the door. She was looking past him into the smiling eyes of her father, and didn’t notice the sudden shadow cross Ron’s features. He had Franky backed into the wall in seconds. He wasn't a big man, not like Bernie, but he was a former marine, and had retained every ounce of ferocity since his military days. He grabbed her roughly by the front of her sweater and shoved her into the wall. Bridget let go of her mother and tried to get to them.

Dad!”

Her mother held her back. “Don't.” She warned. There was a glint in her eye that suggested that she'd expected this…and maybe approved of it.  

Allan stepped into the cabin and went to put a resigned hand on Ron’s arm. “Get your hands off my daughter, Ron.” He said quietly.

Bridget jerked from her mother's grasp and went quickly to Franky's side. She put a hand on her father’s other arm. “Get your hands off my wife, dad.”

Franky groaned internally when she heard the room take a collective breath.

Ron growled. “Your wife?”

“Yes. And your daughter-in-law. Let her go.”

Ron shook their hands off but let Franky go, eyeing her with fresh hatred. He looked back at Bridget’s mother. “This was a mistake. I can’t do this.”

Allan had shifted minutely to position himself in front of Franky. He raised a calming hand. “We have a lot to talk about, yeah? Why don’t we go into the living room and have it out over a cuppa? Bridget?”

Bridget nodded to him gratefully and pushed Franky towards the kitchen to help. Allan ushered Bridget’s folks into the living room, whispering to them under his breath. Neither Bridget nor Franky heard what he was telling them, but whatever it was, they responded by moving grudgingly into the next room. Bridget put on the kettle while Franky got out the mugs. Her hands were shaking. She didn’t like being man-handled, and it had taken everything in her not to fight against Ron.

Bridget gently took her arm. “Hey,” she whispered. “They need this. Please baby. Please hold on. Remember I’m with you, ok?”

Franky nodded but didn’t trust herself to speak. She was either going to lose her temper in the next few minutes, or she would begin to sob uncontrollably. Neither reaction would be good. It was taking every ounce of her will to remain in the cabin. Martha’s words echoed in her mind.

You’ll take it like the woman you are, not the woman you were. Be who your wife deserves.

She took a breath and helped Bridget carry the mugs of tea into the living room. When she sat down on the couch next to her father, he squeezed her knee. “I’m that glad to see ya, Franky.”

She smiled at him, slightly reassured. Two were in her corner.

Ron took a deep breath. He looked at Franky, raw anger on his face. “I only agreed to this, coming here, to know where you were. To know where my daughter was. To turn you in for good.”

Franky closed her eyes and Bridget grasped her hand tightly. She looked at her father, struck. “Dad, please...”

Ron ignored her and kept glaring at Franky. “Why did you do it, hey? Why didn't you let her help you? WE could have helped you! You weren't alone in there!”

Franky bowed her head. Of everything she’d expected to come out of his mouth, hurt for this reason wasn’t it. “I wasn’t thinking,” she said quietly.

“Yes, you were! You were only thinking of yourself!  You weren't thinking of Bridge at all and you know it!”

Allan cleared his throat. “All due respect, Ron, but Bridget wasn't facing a life sentence.”

“It doesn't change the fact that we were all there for her. She only had to swallow her pride and ask for help!” Ron snarled.

Bridget set her tea cup down and frowned at her father. “She did ask for help, dad. But after Ferguson killed Iman, all chances of redemption died with her. Without the burden of proof, Franky would have been sent away for life for two murders she didn't commit.”

“It doesn’t change the fact that she escaped justice and made our daughter a criminal by taking her halfway around the world!  For two years there was nothing! Do you have any idea what that's like? Either of you? How dare you do this to us?” He leaned forward. “I want to turn you in, Franky. You’re just no good. You never were.”

Franky was breathing too quickly. This she’d expected, but his pain was so palpable and she felt every word like a knife in her heart. She had been believing that she had changed, that she deserved to be happy. That she was worthy of a woman like Bridget. But the walls closed in on her mind and suddenly she was every bit of the horrible person he accused her of being.

“Enough.”

It was Bridget who spoke. As much as she respected her father and could understand his anger, she couldn’t let him say such things. When she watched the love of her life crumple under his accusations, the protective side of her kicked in. Franky was fully capable of defending herself, but she wouldn't, because she was backtracking in her progress of believing her worth. Bridget wasn't going to sit back and let anyone take that from her. She looked at her parents. Her heart ached in her chest, but she was firm.

“If you betray this life we are living together, you will not have a daughter anymore.”

Franky looked at her sharply but Bridget only took her hand and held it tightly in her lap. “This is my wife, dad. My love. My heart. Do not threaten our happy life. Not ever again. Is that clear? This is how it is now. There is no going back, and if she goes down, then we go down together.”

Betty leaned forward, pleading. “Bridge, baby, you can’t mean that. You can’t want this to be your life!”

Bridget shook her head. “If you love me, you will trust that I'm completely and utterly at peace with what I have done. Did Franky make mistakes? Aye, but we both did. But everything that happened after the night she came to say goodbye, everything we did then, we did together. Be angry, if that is how you need to feel…but be angry with us both.” She sat back against the couch and lifted her chin thoughtfully.Or, you can think back to how you brought me up. Think of every value you've ever instilled in me. Think of everything you've wanted for me. Travel. See the world. Find irreplaceable love. Marry. Chose a career that is deeply gratifying. Haven't I done these things? Isn't this what you've always wanted for me?”

The room was quiet, each person mulling over her words. Franky bit her bottom lip and took a breath. “We know we hurt you…deeply. I didn’t want any of this. I’m…I’m sorry. Please. I’m sorry for everything. As soon as we were able to figure out how to get you here safely, that’s all we thought about. We were desperate to see you; to connect with you.” She looked at her father and smiled at him. “You were brilliant, dad. Those ads. I can’t believe it took me so long to find them.”

Allan smiled back at her, pleased with himself and proud of her. “The point is, you did find them, Franky.”

Bridget’s mother put her head in her hands and her father quickly put an arm around her. He looked sadly at his daughter. “We just wanted more for you, Bridge. More than a life so secret and apart. More than a felon. Just…more.”

Bridget shook her head, disbelieving. “Dad, Franky is every bit the woman I deserve. I couldn't ask for a more supportive, loving and kind spouse. She is my rock, my best friend, and I've never loved anyone like I love her.”

Again the room was quiet. Emotions ran thick in the air and each person struggled to get a grip on them. Ron looked at his eldest child and there was no denying the glow she had around her. He watched her absentmindedly stroke the hand she was holding. It was such a loving gesture. He looked at Franky. He had been surprised that she hadn’t wrestled with him at the front door, instead letting him slam her into the wall. He realized, just then, that this was not the same woman he’d met years ago. So much had happened to her…to both of them…in the last few years. They were years that Ron himself hadn’t been able to protect them. They’d had to protect each other. They’d dove into a frighteningly large world together and had actually made a home for themselves. Like Franky had said earlier, they had reached out as soon as they felt comfortable to. He studied the brunette and suddenly felt ashamed of his actions and words. No, this was not the same Franky he’d known. She was different. She was grown.

She was his daughter-in-law.

Ron sighed heavily and cleared his throat. “Maybe…maybe we can eat what I’m smelling? Jesus, Franky, it smells good in here.”

Bridget laughed at him, and there was a great relief behind it. “How do you know it wasn’t me who slaved over the hot stove for three hours?”

Both Betty and Ron grinned at her, and the thick cabin atmosphere lightened with their duel accepting smiles. Betty reached across the couch to tug her daughter’s hair. “Sweetheart, you have so many strengths…”

“But cooking?” Ron finished.

When they stood to move into the kitchen, Ron held Franky back.

“I’m sorry.” He muttered.

“Me too.” She said, just as quietly.

...

Franky leaned against the dresser for a moment. She was happy for Bridget, being able to spend so much time with her parents, and she was happy to see her dad. They had talked more in the last three days than they ever had before. They had all taken walks in town, spent a day at the lake, and shared meals together. It was wonderful. And exhausting. At the end of each evening, when they had finally said goodnight, Franky found herself needing to be still for a few minutes.

She heard the bedroom door close behind her and in moments felt warm arms encircle her middle. She leaned back into Bridget with a soft hum. Bridget rested her head against Franky's back. “You ok?”

“It’s a lot to take in, yeah? Sometimes I think your dad still wants to hit me.”

Bridget squeezed her. “He won't. I won’t let him. It's a lot for them too, baby. These last few days have been as upheaving for them as it’s been for us.”

Franky turned and draped her arms over the shorter woman's shoulders, swaying them slightly. “I hope he can see, Gidge, how much I love you. That I'll always protect you.”

Bridget matched her rhythm and drew her closer in their show dance. “Even if he can't, he will see how much I love you. They have to be hurt and confused by my decision, but it was my choice to follow you. I think they just needed to see that for themselves and come to peace with that knowledge.”

“What, that I didn't beat you over the head and drag you with me?

They really thought I kidnapped you?”

“It may have crossed their minds.”

Franky sighed sadly. “I'll always be the felon you followed, Gidge.”

As soft as she said it, Bridget heard her. She nuzzled closer into Franky's chest. “Where you go...”

Franky smiled against her. God, she loved this woman. Bridget rubbed her back soothingly. “I think your father was who brought them around. He's amazing. He never gave up on you.”

Franky leaned down and smiled into her hair. She was pretty proud of her dad. She kissed the top of Bridget's head. As they danced to their own rhythm, Franky sighed a more relaxed sigh. “This feels good, just me and you. Alone.” She pulled back quickly and amended, “but I love that we get to see our parents. I do.”

Bridget pulled her back in with a chuckle. “I know, baby.” She dipped her hands lower and rubbed them over Franky's rear. “I miss you…”

Franky caught her tone and narrowed her eyes, gently removing her hands before pulling away. “Uh uh. No way, Gidge.”

Bridget caught up with her and backed her into the wall. She teased her hands on Franky's waistline. “Baby, you haven't touched me in days.”

Franky shook her head vehemently. “And I'm not going to either. Our folks are sleeping in the living room! Your dad is less than twenty feet away!”

Bridget tugged the shirt hugging Franky's abdomen before lifting it slightly and brushing her fingertips against the soft skin underneath. Franky sucked in a breath and held her hands still.

“Jesus. No, woman!” She cast a wary eye on the door.

Bridget leaned into her, breathing warm air on her neck and causing goose bumps to appear there. “Please, baby. I want you. I'll be quiet.”

Franky had turned her head away from those searching lips and laughed. “You're never quiet, Gidge.”

Bridget laughed with her, and lowered herself to her knees in front of the brunette. Franky's eyes widened when Bridget managed to fight the hands holding hers and push her shirt up a fraction to kiss her abdomen. “No, I’m not. But you can be.” She grinned and put her mouth to Franky's stomach again, shaking her hands free and wrapping them around the backs of her thighs. Franky groaned at the feel of her tongue against her skin. The hands massaging her legs. Her burning fingertips inches from where Franky's desperately wanted them. For three days she'd kept herself from ravaging this woman. After that long, every surface of the cabin began to look like a good place to take her… parents or not. Apparently, Bridget was having the same thoughts.

Franky watched her wife, on her knees in front of her, kissing and sucking her flesh and blowing hot air over her. When one of her hands slid up her leg and pressed into the apex of her thighs, Franky groaned again at the pool of desire she felt rush there. Her struggle against the persistent blonde became a caress. She put her head back into the wall and closed her eyes when Bridget tugged at the button of her jeans with her teeth.

Suddenly, an image of angry Ron popped into Franky's mind. She snapped her eyes open and shook her head again. That image killed her lady boner for sure. She reached down and pulled Bridget to her feet.

“Seriously, Gidge. I can't do this with them in the next room! It's too fucking weird!”

Bridget stood in front of her, wrestling with her own desires and her lover's discomfort. She looked up at Franky. “Jo,” she begged softly. “I need my wife.”

Franky stared at her for a second before groaning again. She grabbed the back of Bridget’s neck. Bridget parted her lips immediately and deepened an already passionate kiss. Franky roughly pushed her up against the dresser and it rocked dangerously. Something fell to the floor. Bridget giggled. “Shh…”

Franky took ahold of the hem of her shirt and tore it from her. She quickly wrapped her arms around Bridget’s waist and brought her mouth to her chest. Bridget grabbed fistfuls of her long hair when Franky skipped the foreplay and latched on to an already peaked nipple.

Oh my god!”

Franky straightened quickly and pressed their lips together again. “Shh!!!”

Bridget bit her lower lip and dug her fingers into Franky's shoulders. The brunette slammed her back into the other wall, attacking her neck with hot, wet, kisses. A picture frame fell off the wall and hit the floor. Franky cursed when she stepped on it, breaking the glass.

She grunted when Bridget got her attention again by pulling her shirt over her head and throwing it aside. She pushed herself into Franky and shoved her back into the dresser, kissing her hard, her fingers jerking the button of her jeans loose. The dresser teetered dangerously and Franky barely had the mind to gasp out a breathy “wait, wait!” And catch it before it fell. When Bridget slid her hand down the front of her pants, Franky thrust herself forward automatically and her shoulders hit the dresser again, threatening to topple it once more. Bridget moved her from the tipping dresser and forced her into the wall, bumping into the nightstand along the way.

The lamp fell over and loudly hit the floor.  She cursed when the bulb broke.

“Goddammit,” she panted, attacking Franky's neck again; fingertips seeking.

Franky moaned as the hand between her legs found her sweet spot. “I just fixed that, too.” She gasped. She squeezed her eyes shut. If she didn’t move now, Bridget was going to have her against the wall.

She heaved herself away from the wall and spun the blonde towards the bed. With a rough push, she threw Bridget backwards onto the soft quilts. Her eyes smoldered green lust and she pulled her own jeans off, never looking away from the matching heated blue stare. Bridget pulled her own pants off and Franky fell on top of her.

They wrestled for dominance, breathing heavily, touching, caressing, rocking, thrusting, biting; losing themselves in each barely muffled moan or cry of pleasure; stifling each other’s sounds with hands or lips or tongues. Someone kicked the nightstand over and it crashed to the floor. Three days was a long fucking time.

....

The next morning, Franky woke early to get breakfast started. She was grateful that Bridget slept through her movement, and eased carefully out of the bed. Her father was in the kitchen, already drinking tea, and she hugged him around the neck before getting herself a cup and joining him at the table.

Allan grinned at his eldest child, nudging her lightly. “Rearranging furniture last night?” He asked quietly.

Franky blushed. “Jesus, dad.”

Chapter Text

The library was quiet. Normally it was bustling with students filling the air with the tapping of computer keys. But tonight, most of the campus was gathered in the largest auditorium to hear a special guest lecturer. Jo had been interested, but she'd missed several classes when the parents were visiting, and she chose the refuge of an abnormally quiet library to catch up on her studies. She was eternally grateful for the guys at work who’d switched shifts with her on the nights she had classes or desperately needed to study. She was rapidly learning how very different American law was. There were some basic similarities, yes, but some of the defenses and conclusions continued to baffle her. She had a lot to learn, and she spent the silent hours poring over her books and taking meticulous notes. The scribble of her pen was the only sound to be heard.

After a few hours, she put her pen down and rubbed her eyes. Then she massaged her hand. Brenna had wanted her to take the laptop to classes with her, but Jo was only used to studying with books and a notepad. She preferred her archaic method and assured her love that she would retain more if she wrote her notes by hand.

She'd been alone for so long, she was rather surprised when another person entered. Her blood froze in her veins. She recognized him immediately as the prick from the third floor and narrowed her eyes. He hadn't seen her yet, so she quickly and quietly began to pack up her things. She had no desire for a repeat of their last interaction and the consequences it’d had on her. She fleetingly thought of the conversation she'd had with Bernie earlier in the semester.

“You know he works here. You’re gonna see him, kid. Just stay calm.”

“I hate the way he looks at me.”

“Yeah, me too. No mop handles, ok? Just try to ignore him. You know I'm always here until midnight.”

She shouldered her backpack and put her head down, making her way through the many studying tables and towards the exit. It was a big room. Surely she could leave unnoticed? She froze and sucked in a sharp breath as the lights went out.

“I remember how much you like the dark, janitor.”

Jo gripped her pack and narrowed her eyes, squinting in the sudden darkness to find him. She could just make out his silhouette.

The lights from the hallway shone through the library doors and acted like a beacon to her. She kept her eyes on his form and slowly moved towards the illuminated exit sign. The man moved with her, standing in front of the doors.

“Think you're a student now, eh? Regular Cinderella story aren’t you?”

Jo stood still, weighing her options. Free folk fight, fugitives flee. She needed to get out of here. She lifted herself to her full height and stepped forward. The man folded his arms and watched her walk towards him.

“Where's your boss? His basement office?”

Jo’s heart rate quickened. She was far from stupid, and knew the imminent danger she was in. His brazen actions might as well have been a neon sign. In fact, his intentions had been pretty fucking clear since that morning he'd looked at her in the shops. The same sliver of fear she’d had then now traced its icy path down her spine once again and caused the tiny hairs on her arms to stand at attention. She was very familiar with monsters, and although she’d tried to believe that he was just a harmless little asshole like both Bernie and her wife claimed, she’d instinctively known the truth immediately.

When she’d finally gotten the courage to ask Brenna to buy them a gun, she had told her of the man and his little smirk. The look in his eye. She had told her that she knew what that look meant.

I know you. I’m going to get you.

But only the second part of it had been true. Jacs had never looked at her that way, and her mother sure as hell hadn't either.

But Juice had.

She couldn’t bear to tell Brenna then how near to that kind of danger she’d been before. To admit the truth was to also admit to some of her more shameful and horrific experiences in Wentworth. In fact, she’d gotten far too close to Juice’s predatory nature. Her stomach tightened when her mind inadvertently flashed back to that hellish afternoon in the prison. Franky had been in trouble. Juice had used her fear and desperation to force her to prostitute herself. Jo had to shake her head against the powerful memory of being forced to her knees in front of the older inmate. In her mind’s tortured eye she saw Juice gleefully lower her track pants and thrust her hips into her face. Franky’s face. The boys crowded around her and held her firmly when she gagged and tried to change her mind. Jo felt bile rise in her throat. There had been no escape for her that afternoon, and she could still feel clawed fingers at her throat, aggressively drawing her lips deeply into a vile, wet stench.

One of the boys had gotten so aroused by watching her please Juice, that she'd barely finished before he'd grabbed her and threw her to the floor. She’d choked back a sob as she'd fought against the meaty hands holding her down, knowing that she was outnumbered four to one. Knowing that the look in their eyes would be burned into her memory forever. In the back of her mind Franky had known that this was a risk, but she'd been desperate for drugs and protection…and as too many hands began to grope her, she hated herself for needing to put herself in this position in the first place.

Thankfully though, even someone like Juice had a code. She waved the big dykes away. “This was a business transaction, boys. Nothing more...today.”

Stella had not been pleased, and lay one of those huge hands on the heaving breast beneath her, squeezing roughly. “But I want to play with her now!”

Juice tugged her track pants up and smirked at Franky, lying helpless on the floor. They were still touching her. Violating her. “Not this time. I've a feeling we’ll all get at her one of these days.”

Franky had fled when they’d reluctantly let her up, and immediately went for the showers. She’d vomited her disgust in herself and her fear from what she'd narrowly escaped into the stream of water. Juice had made it very clear that she'd not be so lucky the next time. There weren’t enough business transactions in the world to stave her predatory nature for long, and her sights had been on Franky for years. Having lost her status as Top Dog, Franky had known that her time was almost up.

Yes, she thought, shaking herself back into the present. She knew that look all too well, and if the lights had been on in the library, Jo knew the man in front of her would have the same evil glint in his eyes. She took another step forward and he moved a fraction closer.

“No mop to snap this time.” He chuckled to himself, enjoying his game of cat and mouse. His comfort level was alarming.

Jo narrowed her eyes. “You stay the fuck away from me.” She said quietly.

The man clapped his hands in mock pleasure. “She speaks! Now we're getting somewhere!”

Jo grit her teeth. “You are rapidly bringing out the worst in me,” she warned.

The man spread his arms, his voice low; delighted. “Bring it. I could use a challenge. Bitches like you never put up a good enough fight.”

Jo caught her breath, sickened by his open admission. He’d hurt girls before. Most likely cornering them in darkened areas of the campus. While he hid behind his position at the University, they became just another statistic. Her fear was replaced with a jolt of indignation. How dare he? How dare he abuse his position to terrorize the girls on campus! She knew the stats. They wouldn’t come forward out of fear or shame or both, and he would continue to strut around his domain. Her heart rate quickened again, but for a different reason. Yes, her fear was gone. She felt it ebb from her as the tide, and flowing back into her was something far more terrible. She clenched her jaw and growled softly. When she looked up at him, it wasn’t Jo that met his dark silhouette.

It was Franky.

She dropped her backpack to the floor and folded her arms across her chest, studying the threat in front of her with steeled nerves. She was suddenly very familiar with this scenario, and put her hand on the proverbial door inside of her, barely maintaining the terror within.

“I knew someone like you once.” Franky said, quite calmly. Her demeanor had changed, but the man didn’t pick up on the difference in her. He was arrogant enough to simply straighten up, listening. Franky cocked her head at him and showed him her teeth.

“Disgusting, like you. A predator, like you. Went around with relative immunity…protected by the gang surrounding him. Picked any little thing he wanted and dragged her off. It didn’t matter how much she screamed. He liked the sound. He’d rape her, and then his boys would take turns. He did this for years.”

She studied his shadow carefully. He hadn’t moved any closer. He was too curious to recognize the subtle shift in the control in the room.

“One day he fucked with the wrong woman. She strapped him to a chair and cut his fucking tongue out.” He was surprised at that, and laughed at her. “Not his cock?”

“Didn’t have one.”

“You called him a he.”

Franky shrugged. “That’s what you call predators in a women’s prison.”

His tone indicated surprise. He hesitated. “You've been in...a women’s prison?”

Franky bared her teeth at him and took her time in answering. “I worked in one. Saw all sorts of horrible shit. And compared to them…” She huffed at him contemptuously. “Just a little boy, aren’t you?”

He made a displeased sound in the back of his throat. He didn’t like that. His voice dipped dangerously. “And the point of your little story?”

“Keep on fucking with people and eventually you will fuck with the wrong one.”

“Is that a threat?” Control teetered in the dark library.

Franky leaned forward a fraction. “It’s the best advice you'll ever receive. You’re welcome. Now fuck off.”

She bent, picked up her pack, and pushed past him. As soon as she put her hands against the door to open it she felt him grab her by the hair and jerk her back.

“I’ll take my chances,” he snarled in her ear.

Chapter Text

Franky lay on her side against the cheap, rough library rug. She was breathing too hard for her lungs to keep up, and her chest ached. Her hands were still balled into fists. Her eyes were wide. Too wide.

He'd grabbed her by the hair and jerked her back into the dark library. She didn't scream. She didn't cry out. It wasn’t in her nature to whimper or plead. She didn't know how to do those things.

What she did know how to do, was turn in his grip and smash an elbow in his face. She knew how to follow that with a haymaker to his temple to bring him to the ground. She knew how to kick his teeth into the back of his head with size 9 boots. She knew how to stomp on his neck and face over and over until his arms fell away from their protective cover over his head and flopped uselessly to the floor.

She didn't know how to beg for mercy or cry for help, and, fully unleashed, she didn't know how to stop either. She'd straddled his chest and punched his face in with alternating fists until his features were unrecognizable mush.

Apparently she'd gotten it all wrong. Free folk flee, fugitives fight.

She had collapsed beside him on the floor, unable to hold herself up anymore. She lay there for an augmented eternity, shaking out the last of her adrenaline and making room for shock to settle in.

She stared at his unmoving form and couldn't tell if he was dead in the dark room. Her arms and hands were stiff and numb. She couldn't feel anything except the shadow of the feel of his hand grabbing her hair and pulling her into him. His other hand a vice-like grip on her collarbone. He was strong, and if she hadn't used the momentum of being pulled back to spin around and elbow him in the face, these moments would have turned out very different.

“Good enough struggle for you, asshole?” She whispered.

There was no answer, and there was a fuck load of blood. It was everywhere, splattered on the rug, his face and torso, her hands and chest. His and hers combined and mixing with the soft fabric of her flannel shirt. She suddenly sat up and tore the shirt from her. She scrubbed her hands and arms with it and choked on a sob. She was rapidly losing what little control she had left. She had to get up. She had to get out of there.

She got up off the floor and looked down at the still form at her feet. A sudden anger swept over her again. “I didn’t just work in a prison, motherfucker.” She growled softly. “I was also an inmate.” She drew back and kicked him one last time. His body absorbed the blow and he didn't stir.

Franky backed away from him and used her body to push open the library door. Her hands didn't seem to be working anymore, and the fist clenched around her bloody flannel seemed incapable of opening. Her mind became cloudy and her focus was in an out. She felt tears in her eyes. She forced her body into a loping run.

The halls were still quiet as she vaguely ran down them. She didn't have a clue as to where she was going until she stumbled down a corridor she knew all too well. Her eyes focused on the warm light coming from the small janitorial office at the end of the hall.

She staggered into Bernie's office, and leaned into the safety of its inner wall. Bernie was filling out paperwork at his desk. His eyes grew large when he saw her and he immediately jumped to his feet.

“Jo! Jo, baby, what happened?”

She could only sag against the wall, drawing some semblance of calm in the big man's presence. Now that she was safer, she lost her voice and let the full force of her shock overcome her.

Bernie rushed to her, but even as he got to his feet, he knew not to touch her. There was nothing about her he recognized. She was holding a flannel shirt, and her sleeveless top showed off the magnificent ink up and down both of her rather toned arms. He had just a split second to think that he'd never seen her little body uncovered by a blue jumper or heavy sweater. Even in the summer time, down by the lake, she had preferred a light long sleeved shirt to block the wind and mist coming from the glacial waters.

 He watched her sink to the floor. She was looking at him, but he wasn't certain she was aware of much. Her hair was a wild, windblown mess. Her muscles twitched as they tightened and released sporadically. Her hands were covered in old and new blood, and balled into fists. All these things would have still drawn him to gather her into his strong embrace. But it was the look in her eyes that caused him to freeze. He wasn't looking at Jo, not in this moment.  He was looking at the live version of Franky Doyle’s mugshot.

Bernie didn't need to ask what happened. He saw her bloody knuckles and the bruising around her neck and shoulders. His old eyes swept over the rest of her, all of her, for any indication of his worst nightmare. He felt every bit his age when he crouched down in front of her. He couldn't tell, not yet, how badly she was hurt. But he knew damn well that look in her eyes. Tortured fear. Aye. He'd seen it many times. Something very bad had happened somewhere within these walls.

There was a tightening in his chest as he fought his own anger and grief at the sight of one of his three favorite little women.

“Jo?”

She kept staring at him blankly. She was lost as to where she was. He tried again, softer. “Franky.”

Her eyes shifted slightly and she actually looked at him, instead of through him. He nodded, and kept his voice gentle.

“Where is he?” He asked almost inaudibly.

“Library.” Her tone was dull.

Bernie stood and looked down at her, grimacing. He needed help. “Franky? Call Bridget. Call Bridget, baby. It will be ok.”

He knew she registered what he'd said, but she didn't move. He nodded and pulled out his own cell. “Stay here. She'll be here in a moment.”

Franky took a breath, trying to shake herself from her state. It wasn't working. She looked up at Bernie. “Don't go.” She pleaded quietly.

Bernie crouched down again. “I got to find him, kid, before someone else does. Bridget is coming.”

Franky nodded and turned her head down. As soon as she stopped looking at him, his gentle features fell away and hardened resolve took their place. He wasn't sure what he'd find in the library, but he knew if whoever he found wasn’t dead, it would take everything in him not to finish the job himself.

Bridget didn't know the University at all. She blindly followed Bernie's hurried instructions and could only register that he'd called both her and Franky by their given names.

As she raced down yet another unfamiliar hallway, she was surprised to run into the big man. They reached for each other at the same time.

“Bernie…where?”

“Next left. End of the hallway.”

He let her go and she caught him again. “What happened? Is she…?”

Bernie shook his head. “I'm not sure. She had a run in with that jerk in the law department. She's shook up pretty bad. Said she left him in the library.”

Bridget gasped. Her hand flew to her mouth. Left him in the library. As in, he wasn’t able to follow her. As in he may have realized too late that he had tangled with the wrong woman. As in he might very well be…oh Jesus, Franky! “Is he…?” Complete sentences were evading her. She struggled with her words but Bernie understood.

“Not sure. Gonna find out. Stay with her. I'll be back.”

He turned once again and hurried down the hall. Bridget looked after him for a moment and then raced the other way. Something terrible had happened…again…and she remembered all too well the night she'd found Franky face down in the snow. Her heart raced and she took the left and sprinted to the end of the hall. She saw the light from the office and burst through the doorway.

Bridget didn't see her at first. She was hunched against the wall to the right of the door. When she did see her, she crouched down in front of her carefully. There was a lot of blood on her hands. It dripped hypnotic drops onto the floor and she seemed memorized by it. “Baby?”

Franky looked up, unseeing. Her brilliant green eyes were deeply troubled. Bridget had only ever seen that look when Franky was coming down from a terrible nightmare. She wasn't comprehending her surroundings and was unable to register much of anything apart from her bleeding hands. Bridget tried to calm her heart and ignore the terrible violence that had split her lover's knuckles to the bone. She had to get through before she could ask questions. She needed to find Franky and bring her back. She took a calming breath and forced her voice away from the panic she felt to remain calm.

“Who are you?”

Franky’s face collapsed in shame and she looked down at her hands again.  “Franky.”

Bridget shook her head and reached out a hand to cup her face. Franky closed her eyes against the warm touch. She felt a thumb lovingly brush over her cheek.

“No, my love. Who are you?”

Franky kept her eyes closed and tried to pierce though her foggy thoughts and remember her new life. A life where she was good, and valued…a life she'd chosen and where she was unconditionally loved and accepted. Where she had found happiness. She breathed out shakily. “Jo.”

She heard a soft laugh. “No, my baby. Look at me.”

Franky opened her eyes and raised her head to look into the kindest blue she'd ever seen. Her favorite blue. Bridget smiled softly at her. “Who are you?”

At last she knew the answer. She'd known it all along. She smiled sadly. “I'm the love of your life.” She whispered.

Bridget nodded fondly and moved closer until she could rest her forehead against her wife's. “There you are.” She whispered back.

Franky felt herself falling apart. “I fucked up, Gidge. Badly. You have to go. You have to run. I'm…finished.”

But Bridget shook her head firmly. “Not if you can't come with me. Your mess is mine. We are, and always will be, in this together.”

Franky grabbed for her desperately, her shock finally dissolving into tears. Through her sobs she told Bridget everything that had happened in the library. When she was finished, Bridget just held onto her, stroking her hair and pressing her cheek into the top of Franky's head. It took along while before Franky finally pulled away.

“What do we do?”

Bridget tried to think. In truth, she didn't know. This was as unprecedented as the last three years had been, and as much as they'd been here before, she didn't know what to do now. The extent of the interaction was beyond anything either of them had faced as fugitives. How difficult to do what most people would naturally gravitate towards! Calling the police should provide comfort, but it only twisted her stomach in knots. She didn't answer, instead opting to pull away and check the immediate damage.

“Let me see your hands, love.”

Franky shifted in her arms and did as she was asked. Her fingers were stiff and inactive, locked into painful, twisted digits. Bridget sucked in a breath. Bright white bone showed in two places on the knuckles of her right hand, and one on the knuckles on her left. Deep purple bruising had already formed and both of her hands were swollen. Bridget looked up and saw angry red finger marks on Franky's collarbone. She showed no other signs of trauma, but Bridget had to ask.

“He grabbed you from behind. Did he…baby, did he rape you?” She couldn't help but whisper the last bit, already feeling nauseous. 

Franky shook her head. “Didn't get the chance.” She also looked sickened.

Bridget breathed a sigh of relief and gently held her swollen hands.

“We need to get you a doctor, Franky. You need stitches.”

“I couldn’t stop.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry, Gidge.”

Bridget shook her head firmly. “I'm not. I'm proud of you. We need to follow normal steps, baby, for this situation. Don't be afraid. You've done nothing wrong.”

But as Bridget looked into those endlessly worried green eyes she wondered at the truth of her own words. Franky had clearly almost beat a man to death. She still wasn’t convinced that he wouldn't die. Any of the kicks to the head or stomps on the throat could be deemed beyond the sanctuary of self-defense and declared assault…or manslaughter. Their best defense would be the truth. Franky, in her heightened state of fear, had lost her head and not only prevented her own bodily harm, had obliterated the threat completely. All they could do, in the moment, was wait for Bernie to come back. Their fate rested on his pending news.

Chapter Text

Bridget held Franky until her phone rang, scaring them both. It was Bernie. He sounded out of breath.

“He’s here, and Bren, she did a number on him. He’s barely breathing.”

Bridget closed her eyes. Bernie understood her silence. He sighed heavily. “I’ve got to call the cops. But look, I got it figured out. I’ll tell them it was me. That I did it. ”

Bridget snapped her eyes open at that, scrambling to her feet. “What? Bernie don’t you dare!”

Franky looked at her, worried, and Bridget mouthed, “He wants to take the blame!

“The fuck? NO!”

Bernie heard Franky’s yell. “Listen. Listen! I can bash up my hands. I’ll do it. I’ll tell them we had a fight. We've had run-ins before. Boys fight, right? He won’t dare deny it…if he wakes up.” He paused for a moment, seeming to weigh the severity of the outcome if the man died. “You girls go home.” He was resolute. He wasn’t asking anymore.

Bridget adamantly shook her head. “No. absolutely not.” Franky nodded forcefully in agreement. Not in a million years, bub.

Bernie tried to reason with her. “An assault between equals. He won’t dare file charges lest Jo comes forward with the truth. The most that will happen is that I’ll lose my job. Was gonna retire soon anyway. Tell her Bren, and then take her home!”

It wasn’t even remotely tempting, and Franky saw a flicker of anger in Bridget’s eyes. Bridget hurriedly told Bernie to call back in five. When she’d hung up, she turned on Franky with furious eyes. “Bernie wants to tell the police that they had a fight. But that's not happening. I…I want to press charges.”

“Nuh. No way. We can’t!” Franky shot at her. She felt sick again.

She couldn’t process so much in such a short amount of time.

“He's not going to get away with this.”

Franky looked up at her and saw the distant look in her eye.

“Gidge,” she said carefully; gently, “what happened to you back then…didn't happen to me tonight.”

Bridget squared off with her, bristling. She knew very well what this was bringing up for her personally. The memory had settled uncomfortably in the pit of her stomach as soon as she'd realized what had almost happened to her love. “You want Bernie to lie? Really?”

Franky leaned her head back into the wall. Letting Bernie take the hit would be the safest, easiest thing to do. But it would keep her up at night…forever. Pressing charges would mean…being in the system again. Her heart thudded in her chest as her panic level rose.

“Bernie's not going to lie. We can't let him.”

Bridget nodded in utter agreement. “Charges, then. I want that prick to suffer.”

Panic level rose higher. “No, Gidge. I can't…I'll be…in the system!”

Bridget flapped her arms. “As Jo Walker! Franky, we have to do this! There isn't another way!”

Franky looked at her ruined hands. There was always another way. “We run. It’s what we do.”

Bridget looked at her, startled. That hadn’t even crossed her mind. “We can’t do that either and you know it. We will just…tell the truth.”

Franky was shaking her head again. “And what, hope for the best? Fuck if that’s ever worked! We’re going.”

“And find new IDs, and another state and leave all we've built in the last three years? For him? Absolutely not!”

She was indignant and angry, but Franky was already looking at the door. They could figure it out on the road.

Bridget had suddenly tilted her head. She raised a hand thoughtfully. “No, wait, wait. Franky…think. This could work. We are so afraid of exposure we are forgetting that you only defended yourself. You had a right to! Regardless of our past we still have a right to defend ourselves! The police don’t know anything other than a woman fought off her attacker!”

But Franky had made up her mind. She wasn’t going to let Bernie take the fall and she sure as hell wasn’t going to try to defend her actions against an assault. She’d tried that before when Mike shoved a blow torch in her face and damned if the fucking cops still hadn’t chucked her in prison! This country was huge. The world was huge. They would run.

She struggled to her feet, her intentions to bolt from the University…from their lives…quite clear. Bridget didn't think. She grabbed Franky's crippled hands suddenly and squeezed. She winced when Franky cried out and fell to her knees in front of her, crumbling from the pain. She looked up at Bridget, shocked; angry.

Gidge, my hands! Fuck, let go!” She gasped.

But Bridget didn't let go. It was the hardest thing she'd ever done. She'd never ever chosen to physically hurt Franky, but here she was, literally bringing her to her knees in pain. It was killing her. Franky looked up at her, confused.

“You’re hurting me.”

Bridget could barely look at her. “I know. I need you to listen.”

Franky’s heart twisted as she realized that Bridget was acting intentionally. Holding her wounded hands tight enough to bring her to the ground was not accidental. When she’d fallen and cried out she fully expected Bridget to let her go, horrified that she’d caused her any pain. But she didn’t. Her jaw was tight and she was looking down at Franky with a look that verified that she knew exactly what she was doing. A part of Franky died a horrible death when she realized that her lover was deliberately hurting her to keep her still. Indignant anger filled her.

“This is how we get what we want now, is it?”

Bridget tried to soften her features under the stress of the present.

“I know it's asking a lot right now. But please. Hear me out.”

Franky huffed at her. “Let go.”

“No.”

Franky bared her teeth and bunched her muscles. Bridget saw the flash of stubborn determination in Franky's eyes and knew she was gearing up to wench her hands free. Bridget winced again and clamped down harder. Franky crumpled before her, gasping at the pain and burying her face in her outstretched arm, refusing to cry out again, but losing the desire to jerk free. She couldn’t stand, she couldn’t move. The fire in her hands was almost more than she could bear. This whole situation was almost more than she could bear. When she finally looked up at Bridget, there was such an intensity behind the betrayed look that Bridget began to cry.

“Please.” She begged. “Please, Franky, just listen.”

Franky's face cleared of emotion, further breaking Bridget's heart. “Well I can't do much else, Gidge. Floor’s all yours.”

Her tone, thick with pain, was so cold. Bridget had never heard it before. Not from those lips. Even during those terrible moments when Franky had attacked her in her cell, her tone hadn't been so icy.

Franky was waiting, helplessly on her knees before her. Both of them knowing who had the power in this moment. Both of them hating it. Bridget knelt down as well…trying to level the field. It was a poor attempt, but it was all she had.

“Franky, please. We can do this. We can. Because you are not Franky Doyle anymore, right? You are Jo Walker. You are a janitor. You are a student. This man has harassed you before…Bernie was witness to that! You were attacked and you defended yourself. Franky Doyle doesn’t matter because Jo Walker didn't do anything wrong.

Bridget paused and looked deeply at her. She knew she'd grossly betrayed the younger woman's trust, holding her against her will. They would have to deal with that. But not now. In this moment she needed Franky to fully be Jo, and realize that her reaction to the man was one that everyone would have hoped a young woman had.

“No one knows you. The old you. Your name isn't black, baby. All they will see is an innocent young woman who fought for her life. That's all they will see. I promise you. And,” she added, “We can’t let him get away with this. We can't let him hurt someone else.”

She looked desperately at Franky. Desperate for her to see the truth behind her words when all she'd ever known was a twisted justice system bent out of her favor. Desperate for her to understand Bridget’s violation of her trust only moments after she'd been attacked. Begging for forgiveness in stealing her freedom, if even for a moment. These were big asks, and Bridget knew it. Franky was still staring at her coldly.

“You are asking me to turn myself in.”

Bridget let her tears fall freely. “I'm asking you to be brave.”

“Let me go.”

“Baby, please…”

“Bridget. Let go.” She didn't yell or struggle. That was more alarming than even the use of Bridget’s real name. She was frightfully still, and her face was dead of emotion. Bridget didn't know what to do with a dead-pan Franky. All she knew was that what she was doing was irreversible. She shook her head and cried, but she released Franky's hands.

Franky got slowly to her feet. It was hard to watch, but Bridget didn't dare go near her. She was clutching her broken hands tightly to her chest and used the wall for support. When at last she was standing, she leaned back into the wall to catch her breath. Her face was twisted in pain and her hands were bleeding again. She looked at them, and then at Bridget.

“Like putting me on my knees, do you?”

Bridget stayed where she was on the floor, her tears subsiding. “Bringing you, yes, forcing you, no. You know that.”

Franky grimaced at her, and Bridget stood a bit stiffly and faced her. She was being watched warily. “Should I have let you bolt?” She asked softly.

“As opposed to turning myself in? Yes!”

“Please,” Bridget begged quietly, one last time. “You are the bravest woman I know. You can do this. Please.”

She stood in front of Franky miserably, not willing to force her to be still again. If she was going to go, Bridget wouldn’t stop her. She clenched her hands into fists at her sides as if to prove it. “Don't leave me. Not now. Not like this.”

Franky froze, stunned. She had never heard that plea before. She herself had said it so many times she'd lost count, but never had Bridget uttered those words. She knew exactly what it felt like to fear abandonment. To be abandoned. She caved, incapable of letting the woman in front of her suffer that fear…even for one second, regardless of what she'd just done. Franky shoved aside her hurt and anger, growled, and used her forearms to draw her wife into her chest.

Bridget threw her arms around her middle and began to cry again. “I'm sorry, baby! I'm so sorry!” She wept.

Franky held onto her as best she could, wincing. “I'm angry with you. You hurt me.”

Bridget nodded unhappily. “I know.”

Franky looked down at her open, tear stained face. Her hands were on fire. She couldn't drive like this, and the cabin was too far too run. She couldn't even pack with bones protruding from her knuckles. She needed medical. She was trapped, and she knew it. The only thing she could do, she realized, was do what her wife was asking of her. Think.

So she eased herself against the wall, pulling her woman against her. As hurt and appalled as she was at the length Bridget took to get her to listen, she still wanted that slender form pressed against her. She would never cease to need its comforting feel.

What Bridget had said made sense, but to actively face a uniform and willingly cooperate seemed the quickest way back to prison. She squeezed her eyes shut. She was Josephine Elisabeth Walker. She was a janitor. She was a student. She was a model citizen. She had no record. She was attacked, and had defended herself. If she could shed all of the fear and mistrust she had against the law, it might finally work for her, instead of against her. Her mind scrambled to collect data from her memory of all the self-defense cases she'd studied in the past. The victim was always innocent. No one had ever accused someone who’d suffered assault of being in the wrong trying to defend herself. Except the prosecution, that is. They would say anything to show that their client had every right to fuck an unwilling woman in a dark library.

There were some anomalies for sure, when the accused walked away with no penalty, but from what she'd studied…those were very rare. America took self-defense seriously.

For once, she'd go against every instinct she had and give the fucking impossible a chance. She had no other choice. When she looked again at Bridget, she nodded. “Alright.” She said quietly.

Bridget sighed in audible relief, and buried her head back into the crook of Franky's neck. The brunette put her lips into her hair, whispering, “If we get out of this one, Gidge, we are going to have a conversation about power and bondage.”

Bridget nodded, feeling a bare shiver run down her spine. She shook herself. They would get to that when the time came. First things first.

Franky took a breath and recited softly, “My name is Josephine Elisabeth Walker.”

Bridget put her head up to look at her. “And my name is Brenna Dean Matheson.”

They stared at each other, both of them equally troubled by the past, present and future.

Bridget's phone rang. She dug into her pocket and answered it. She looked at her wife, who had turned away. “Do it.”

She closed her eyes and gripped the front of Franky's shirt with her other hand. “Call the police.” She told Bernie. “We will tell them the truth.”

Chapter Text

They were escorted to the hospital, where Jo’s hands were cleaned and stitched and wrapped. Martha whistled at her X-rays. “Fifteen stitches and three broken fingers. My god, girl, carry a taser!”

The doctor grimly finished wrapping Jo's hands. “She gave him what for, alright. I'll take this any day over having to get out the rape kit.” He looked cautiously at Jo. “You are certain I don't need that?”

Jo shook her head firmly. “You don't.”

Bernie put a big, safe arm around her, giving her a loving squeeze. “You did good, kid.”

The doctor picked up the bloody gauze and suture items and packed them away. “There’s a few officers that want to speak with you.” At the sudden look of fear from his patient he raised a hand. “You don't have to. Not yet. I'll tell them to leave a card, ok?”

Jo looked at Brenna for help, and her wife nodded. “Now is best, love. Everyone is on your side.”

Jo put her head down. “I'll see them,” she said softly.

The doctor nodded encouragingly at her, but then he frowned. “Only one visitor is allowed at this time. I'm sorry. I'll go get the officers.”

Martha stood and kissed Jo loudly on the forehead. “We’ll be waiting for you. Come on, Bern.”

Bernie shook his head. He didn’t want to leave. Jo smiled at him warmly. “Thank you, Bernie.” She whispered.

Bernie was being tugged away. He looked at Jo before he disappeared around the doorway. “Was the easiest decision I ever would have made, kid.”

And then he was gone. Jo reached automatically for Brenna and found her waiting arms. “How did we find them?” She breathed. Brenna laughed lightly. “We can't ever leave them, baby.”

Jo nodded firmly in agreement. As soon as both Bernie and Martha tried to hug the life out of her earlier she knew that she never could leave them. She glanced at her bandaged hands. How close she'd been! Brenna had been right to keep her still. Wrong, but so very right. She sat back in the hospital bed and leaned her head back against Brenna's chest, feeling her warm arms encircle her from behind. A small hand rested briefly over her heart and Jo covered it with one of her own. “I'm scared.” She admitted.

Brenna didn't need the admission to know that. The pounding heart under her hand was a big enough tell. She stood closer and tightened her grip around the body in front of her. “I am too. I'm right here, baby. I'm not going anywhere.”

They both looked up at the two officers who entered the room. The lady officer took one look at the petrified faces in front of her and asked her partner gently to leave the room. He didn't argue, and shuffled out of the small space.

The officer waited for him to close the door behind him before turning back to the women in front of her. They wore carefully neutral expressions, but she'd questioned enough victims in the past and could see the dual fear and shame on the victim. There was some other expression she couldn't read on the older woman. Resignation? An odd look for sure. There was something else too, in both of them, and she tentatively placed it as mistrust. It didn't bother her especially. Emotions ran rampant in situations like these. She smiled and pulled up a chair. She focused on the shaking brunette in front of her.

“My name is Anne Brunswick. I thought you might be more comfortable with only me. Had enough of guys for one night, eh?”

They both nodded mutely, unsure of what to say. Brenna could feel the tremor in her wife's body and kept her arms firmly around her.

Anne pulled out a pad and pen. “Josephine? Can you tell me what happened?”

“It’s Jo.”

Anne nodded. She smiled kindly at her and indicated her head towards Brenna. “I'm proud of you for calling your family, Jo. This is difficult to do on your own. It's good that your mother is here.”

“Goddammit.” Brenna muttered under her breath.

The officer didn't hear her and Jo sighed, about to defend her wife’s rightful position in her life. She tilted her head back to look at her and caught the imperceptible shake of Brenna's head. Let it be. Jo gave the arm around her a grateful squeeze, making a mental note if they ever got out of this, to address Brenna's wounded pride.

She looked at the officer in front of her. She was in her mid-fifties. Her eyes were kind. She had none of the suspicion permeating from her that the detectives who questioned her back in Australia had.

Jo remembered every second of Ansari’s smirk of disbelief when Franky had relayed the terror of being attacked in her car. To that detective, Franky Doyle would always be guilty. She remembered the frustration and helplessness as she tried to tell the detective that Mike had stalked and attacked her...but she was already guilty in their eyes. She had deserved to be attacked because that's what happened to violent criminals. For them, it was the same old story. They hadn't seen her as a victim, they'd seen her as an accomplice in her own assault. They didn't care that she'd fought off a man wielding a blow torch in her face. They looked past the fact that she'd done her time and earned her freedom once again, becoming a respective member in society.

No. All they saw in the attack was a motive behind his sudden murder, and she was the only suspect they had eyes for. The fact that she'd fought him off only proved their point that she was a vicious human capable of killing. They weren't proud that she'd escaped being torched. They weren't grateful that Mike hadn't burned half of her face away. They were simply resting their hands on her thick file full of her horrid history and, looking past the assault, accusing her of murder. Nothing she did could convince them that she was innocent because she'd never been innocent before.

But this officer in front of her was looking at her much differently than the detectives had. This officer was looking at her with sympathy, not accusation. She realized that under this compassionate stare, she wasn't just another violent criminal bashing yet another person. Her past as Franky Doyle wasn’t behind those kind, brown eyes. Anne only saw a victim of what could have been the worst night of a young woman's life. She only saw that Jo had stopped him before he could hurt someone else.

She didn't question why Jo beat the man so badly he was sent directly to the emergency room. She nodded her head in grim approval when Jo verbally relived the moments in the library again. Brenna tightened her grip when she began to shake again. Jo couldn't look at either one of them. When she was finished, she put her head down. This was when she would be declared a no good, violent criminal and be remanded to yet another prison. She felt tears in her eyes. “I'm sorry.” She mumbled. Her whole life she'd been sorry, and each time remorse had hit her, it had been too late. She was plucked, labeled and dropped into prison, forever scored as a felon.

Anne looked at Brenna knowingly before reaching out to put her hand on Jo’s knee.

“You have a right to protect yourself, Jo. You have a right to make certain that the threat is gone, and will never harm you again. In fact, if you had been armed, you would have been well within your rights to shoot him dead.” She smiled reassuringly when Jo looked up at her, surprised. Anne nodded in satisfaction. “Didn't need one though, eh?” She seemed quite proud of her. “That stupid boy got very lucky you just gave him a beating and didn't blow him to bits. You did nothing wrong.”

Jo heard Brenna breathe a sigh of relief behind her, her own words sweet music in her ears.  Jo automatically hugged her arms, feeling almost like the moment when she read her letter of granted parole. But this feeling was even more than that.

So this is what a clean slate feels like?

All her life she'd been to blame. Abused. Angry. Criminal. Easy to see her at fault for everything, and then more. What was one more charge added to a record already tainted? She'd never caught a break, ever. Until she'd met Bridget…and until this officer smiled benevolently at her and assured her that beating a man to near death was a perfectly acceptable reaction to his assault on her. Nothing could have prepared her for this response. The kindness. The understanding. The pride in her actions. The relief that she wasn't hurt worse than her own self-inflicted injuries. It overwhelmed her already tense body. It was simply too much.

So she leaned over the bed and dry heaved until the nurse came running. In the flurry of everyone present trying to help and soothe her, she felt firm hands grab both sides of her head and the only voice that could pierce through the darkness whisper, “hold tight, baby. Just hold tight for both of us. It’s almost over.”

Jo got the message. Get your shit together, babe.

Jo laughed a little and felt the grip on her face lessen. Someone was still rubbing her back but she only looked at her wife. Brenna nodded at her, affirming what she’d just heard from the officer was real. “That's it.” She murmured encouragingly. “You're good.”

They both were. This was fucking better than parole day!

Anne had stood aside while Jo had been surrounded. She stepped forward once more when the nurse stepped aside and the young woman had gathered herself once again.

“Jo, once this gets out,” she said, “I'm betting others will find the courage to step forward. You mentioned he indicated that he'd done this before? I'll search around campus and interview the students in his classes. In no time at all we’ll have enough on him to send him away for a long time.”

She sounded pretty pleased with that, but Jo started to panic again, shaking her head suddenly and seeking Brenna's face with huge, terrified green eyes. The officer quickly added, “No, don't worry. Victim’s identification is never revealed in assault cases. Only prosecution will know who you are…and even their information is limited to simply your name.”

Prosecution. Defense. Lawyers. Courtrooms. Judges. Jo put her head between her knees and began to hyperventilate, dry heaving over the bed again. There was no fucking way she was going to look into the cold and unforgiving eyes of a judge again!  

The nurse rushed to her side. “Enough.” She said rather sternly to the officer. “Let her rest.”

Anne stood quickly and apologetically gave her card to Brenna. “It's a lot to process. It will take time, and we will be thorough. She will have time to rest. Call in a few days, ok?” She looked one last time at the once again calming brunette. She'd handled the whole thing remarkably well, considering. Anne smiled at her. “You are a rare hero, Josephine Walker,” she said. “Without you, who knows how long he would have gotten away with all he's done.”

Jo looked up at her, again surprised, and Anne nodded with conviction. “A rare hero.” She said firmly. Then she gathered her coat and hat and left the little hospital room.

When they were alone again, Jo reached for Brenna and their lips collided, kissing through all the stress and worry and raw relief of the last two hours. When she finally needed to breathe, Jo pulled back.

“Holy fuck, what just happened?”

Brenna smiled and leaned into her for another kiss. “That's what justice really looks like, my love.”

Jo looked up at her. “When we get home, can we…can we just go to bed? I know there are things we need to talk about…”

Brenna brushed a strand of hair from her forehead, nodding consent. They would talk, as they always would, when the time was right. But now, she just wanted to hold her wife until they both fell asleep. They were given the most spectacular gift tonight, one that they wouldn't have known existed unless everything that had occurred happened. They were believed. The power of that was both exhilarating and freeing. Whatever else would come of this, they would face together knowing they were fully backed by a government who only saw them as Brenna and Jo.

Mother and daughter.

She snorted suddenly, and Jo looked at her, eyebrows raised.

Brenna was scowling. “Tonight, bed. Tomorrow I'm dying my hair.”

Chapter Text

 Brenna came into wakefulness with a start. It was just dawn…about the time Jo tried to slip out of bed. She immediately stretched out an arm, convinced that she was too late, that Jo had snuck out again. Even after their conversation and Brenna's admissions, it was still so hard for the early rising brunette to cuddle with her on Saturday mornings.

 To her surprise, however, her arm touched the slender body she was seeking, and with sheer delight Brenna slipped her arm around Jo's middle and pulled her little spoon closer, capturing her before she could escape. She sighed happily into the long brown hair and nuzzled her nose deeper until she found skin. She kissed her wife's neck, humming with grateful pleasure.

Jo stirred at the kiss and pushed herself back, closer into the embrace. Brenna eased her other arm under her head and wrapped her lovingly against her chest.

"Are you feeling well?" She whispered, suddenly afraid that the only reason her wife hadn't gotten up was the onset of an illness. A hum of pleasure was the only answer she needed. Brenna smiled with silly joy and settled in to sleep the morning away, snuggled up tightly against her favorite body.

When at last she opened her eyes again, the cabin smelled a delicious combination of pine and breakfast. It was after ten in the morning, and when she sat up, she saw a small faded note card on Jo's otherwise empty side of the bed. With a confused little smile, Brenna picked it up and read it.

You are the best part of my morning. I love you. Come to the kitchen, my queen.

Brenna smiled wider and got out of bed, took care of necessities, and padded quietly into the kitchen. A fire was roaring in the fire place to ease the chill of the bright fall morning. Jo was nowhere in sight. At the kitchen table, under a bowl to keep it warm, was Brenna's favorite omelet with a side of fruit. A steaming mug of tea sat beside it. Under the mug was another faded note card. Brenna sat at the table and read the card.

Everything you are satisfies everything I am. I love you. Eat, my queen.

Brenna scanned the living room and kitchen, but Jo wasn't there. What was she up to? The smell of the delicious food in front of her called her attention away from her search. She ate slowly, savoring each bite. When she'd finished her breakfast and her tea, she picked up the plate and mug and headed to the sink. Only when they were washed and she reached to put them in the drying rack did she notice a small, flat, wrapped present on the counter with another note card on top of it. She grinned as she reached for it, her heart melting for the author of each note.

I've learned more from you than I ever could apart from you. Your wisdom is my strength. Come into the bathroom, my queen.

Brenna opened the present and to her great pleasure saw the book she'd been eyeing for weeks. She must have mentioned it, but she didn't recall. With a wider grin she went back into the bedroom and into their bathroom. The tub was full and there were rose petals and soapy bubbles floating in steaming water. Her brow crinkled. How…?

It was obvious what she was to do, but she called out anyway.

"Jo? Baby?"

There was no answer. Brenna grinned. "Come join me?" Still no answer. That for sure would have drawn the brunette out of hiding. Brenna cocked her head and listened, but the little cabin was as quiet as could be. She looked down at the book she was holding and smiled again. In a few short moments she eased her body into the delightfully warm water and opened the book with a contented sigh. She was engrossed in minutes.

Only when the water had cooled did she finally put the book down. She lay peacefully in the bath for a bit longer before getting up and showering off. Her skin tingled peculiarly and her muscles were so relaxed. Jo must have put something in the water. When she came out of the bathroom, there was an outfit laid out on the bed that was definitely not there before. There was another note card.

Good book? Get dressed, my queen, and come outside.

Brenna furrowed her eyebrows. How had she not realized that Jo had been in the bedroom while she was in the bath? She looked at the little note card again and read the laughter behind the words. Good book indeed! Hell, the whole town could have roamed through her living room and she wouldn't have noticed. She laughed aloud at herself and her lover's knowledge of her preoccupations when she held a new book.

She dressed in the simple slacks and warm button down and slipped on shoes before heading out of the cabin. To her surprise, Bernie was waiting for her. She laughed at the sight of the big man in a driving tux, complete with cap.

"Bernie!"

He winked at her. "Morning, my lady. Won't you come with me?"

Brenna stepped out into the cool air, eyeing her friend. "What's going on?"

"Just go with it." He grinned.

"And where are we going?"

Bernie only winked at her again and opened the back passenger door, offering his hand. She took it and giggled when he put his lips to the back of her hand and kissed it loudly. After helping her into the car, Bernie got in and drove them into town. He was deliberately evasive as to where they were going, and expertly diverted any questions Brenna asked. She finally huffed at his playful dodging. "Oh, honestly, Bernie!"

He laughed with her. "I'm just the driver, ma'am, following strict instructions."

She shook her head good-naturedly and sat back to enjoy the ride. When Bernie pulled up to their favorite diner, she smiled. He got out and opened the door for her. "I'll be waiting," he said with another wink.

She laughed again and walked into the diner. A waitress came up to her immediately. "Mrs. Matheson? Right this way, my lady."

Brenna stared at her for a moment and the waitress went scarlet. "She told me to say it," she mumbled. She then cleared her throat, taking her role seriously. "Won't you come this way?"

Brenna only shook her head and followed her, smiling, further into the diner. She opened her mouth in surprise. Martha was waiting for her. The older woman beamed at her. "Well it’s about time, girl, I'm starving! Must have been a damn good book!"

She laughed uproariously at Brenna's expression as she sat. Martha raised a hand. "Don't bother asking me what this is all about. I've not the slightest clue except that we are to have lunch together."

Brenna smiled broadly at her, never one to pass at the opportunity to spend time with her dearest friend.

They lost track of time in their meal and conversation until the same waitress came over to them. Brenna pulled out her wallet but the waitress shook her head. "It's been covered, my lady. I'm to give you this."

She handed Brenna a now familiar note card.

You are the light of my life. Where you find joy, I find my heart. I love you. Come outside, my queen.

Brenna showed the card to Martha, who only shrugged and got to her feet. When they exited the diner, Brenna looked hopefully around for Jo. There was only Bernie waiting for them. He opened the car door with flourish and helped his girls inside, sneaking a chaste kiss from his wife along the way.

They made many more stops that day. Brenna was taken to a spa where all three of them enjoyed a deep tissue massage. She couldn't help but laugh as Bernie squirmed under the strong hands of a woman a quarter his size.

She was given a beautiful bouquet of eleven colored roses at the flower shop, a savory array of new plants for her garden at the greenery, a new hand-carved bird feeder at the farmer's market, a cinnamon bun from the bakery and an intricate silver bracelet at the jewelry boutique.

Everywhere Bernie drove her she was known and treated like royalty. Brenna didn't know how Jo had convinced half the little town to go along with her, but whatever she'd said to them had worked, and Brenna walked the red carpet all day long. After every gift and act of service, the blushing patron would hand her another faded little note card.

My heart beats stronger next to you. I love you, my queen. Stay with Bernie.

You are the calm in my storm…the only voice I need to hear. I love you, my queen. Stay with Bernie.

My only goal is to satisfy you, my queen, I will love you forever. Tell Bernie to put his cap back on. We made a deal.

When we are wrinkled and old, and still in each other’s arms, I will consider that the greatest achievement and blessing of my life. I love you, my queen. Come home.

That last note made her heart skip. It was dusk when Bernie and Martha drove her back to her cabin. She was happy and exhausted and her face hurt from laughing and smiling all day. The old couple helped her put her new plants and bird feeder by the front door, and Bernie grinned at her and handed her the final card.

Meet me, my queen, in our perfect home.

She looked up at them smiling at her. Martha chuckled. "You must have done something right, love." She teased. "Go on then."

Brenna kissed both their cheeks and watched them drive away. They had to be equally exhausted, and she chuckled to herself when she thought of just how persuasive her wife could be. She hurried into the warmth of the cabin. Jo wasn't in the kitchen or living room.

Brenna raced to the bedroom and took in a sharp breath. Jo was standing there, finally. She held the twelfth rose. "My queen," she said softly, holding out the flower. Brenna ran to her and threw her arms around her neck, mouth seeking her lips. Jo grinned into the kiss. "Did you have a good day?"

Brenna laughed. "Apart from spending it entirely without you? It was glorious! Baby, what's the occasion?"

Jo only held her and smiled that lopsided grin she was famous for. Brenna shook her head and kissed her again, deeper; urging the brunette to grant her more sensual access. She'd wanted to do this all day. Jo buried her hands into soft, blonde hair and opened her mouth, pleasing her wife with a more passionate kiss. She began to roam her hands down Brenna's back, causing the blonde to melt into her. When she pulled back from the kiss, she looked at the clock on the bedside table.

Brenna didn't care what else she had up her sleeve. She wanted her woman now. She pulled Jo's face around to meet with her lips again. Jo dodged her, grinning, and tried to break away. "Not yet, not yet!"

Brenna pushed herself into her again. "Baby, take me!" She begged. Jo groaned helplessly and quickly complied, lowering her head to give attention to Brenna's sensitive neck and throat, fingers already working the buttons of her shirt.

Jo pushed the soft shirt off of Brenna's shoulders and dipped her head lower, planting sweet, wet kisses on her chest. Brenna moaned when she finally raised her hands and cupped her breasts. Jo smiled into her skin. "Lay back on the bed, my queen."

"You had the entire town treating me like one, today!"

She guided Brenda backwards until she could lay her down. Instead of following her, Jo remained standing, looking down at her. "It's all you deserve. My god, you are so beautiful."

Brenna moaned again and reached for her, but Jo only caught her hands and lay them down on the bed. She moved closer and put her hands first on her wife's upper chest, and then slowly moved them downward. She took her time in her decent, palming breasts and stroking the smooth skin of her sides. She rubbed her warm hands over Brenna's abdomen before teasing her fingers on the button of her slacks.

She looked at Brenna, green eyes alight, and suddenly jerked the button open, tugging the slacks off and flinging them aside. She put her hands against the quivering thighs and pulled them apart, sinking to her knees on the floor and pulling her woman into her.

Brenna raised her hands and gripped the sheets by her head, crying out at the feel of the hot mouth on her. Every stroke with the tongue, every suck, every lengthy exploration drew deep sounds of pleasure from her throat. She felt the tips of fingers and she thrust her hips, needing to be filled completely.

Her lover didn't keep her waiting. Brenna exhaled her relief and almost immediately her breathing hitched again. She squirmed as the building inside her reached almost painful heights.

"Oh my god!" She screamed. Her body was not her own. It was Jo's. Utterly at the mercy of every thrust, playing to her perfect rhythm, until at last light exploded behind her eyes and no more sound could come from her lips.

Jo guided her gently back from the stars, tracing a smoother pattern over sensitive flesh. When she felt her lover's body finally quiet, she got to her feet and crawled up her, laying on top of her and kissing her deeply.

Brenna had only half a mind, and it was focused on just one thing. She tugged at Jo's jeans, trying to ease them over her slender hips. Jo laughed into her neck. "No, no. We have to get up."

Brenna grabbed her when she moved to do so. "What? Why?"

Jo laughed again. "You'll see. This night's not over yet. You distracted me."

She untangled herself and stood, holding out her arms. Brenna reluctantly took her hands and allowed herself to be pulled from the bed. Jo got her slacks and knelt before her again, helping her back into them. When she stood, Brenna seized her and pulled her close. "Are you sure I can't distract you again?"

She teased her hand on Jo's hip, bringing it to the front of her jeans. "Let me have you, baby," she breathed.

Jo closed her eyes briefly when she felt the roaming hand dip between her thighs and settle firmly against her. She leaned forward automatically, breath quickening sharply, and Brenna grinned, rubbing through the fabric of her jeans and placing her other hand to her lower back. She guided her just three steps towards the bed before Jo snapped out of her trance and jumped back.

"Gah! You minx! Not yet!" She took Brenna's hand and grinned at her. "Nice try though. Now come on."

She led the blonde to the mudroom and handed her a heavy coat. Taking one for herself, she took her lover's hand and led her out into the brisk evening. Brenna held onto her warm hand and without question followed her around the cabin and up the hill.

She exclaimed with delight at the little camp fire blazing happily at the peak of the hill, casting light on a lain out blanket. There was a bottle of wine and two glasses, along with a steaming tray of something delicious for dinner. Jo looked at the sky before bringing them to sit on the blanket. She poured them wine and fixed her wife a plate.

"I love you, Brenna."

The blonde smiled at her. "That's an understatement, baby."

Brenna moved closer and took a bite of a dish she'd never tasted before. It melted in her mouth and her taste buds exploded. She groaned with happiness and couldn't stop eating until her plate was clean. Jo laughed at her while she herself ate, a pleased look on her face.

Brenna sipped the complimentary wine and tilted her head. "Are you going to tell me, now, what brought this wonderful surprise on?"

Jo put her empty plate aside and leaned her back against a stump, pulling the blonde backwards to rest between her knees and facing them toward the lake in the distance. Brenna settled herself against her and Jo wrapped another blanket around them, holding her tight. "Any moment now." She whispered.

She held Brenna, absentmindedly playing with her hands under the warm blanket. Suddenly she pointed at the sky. "Look!" She whispered excitedly.

Brenna looked up and gasped. The night sky was lit with ribbons of green and pink light, undulating a slow, random pattern amongst the stars. They watched the Arora borealis in awed silence, drinking in its splendor.

Jo wrapped her arms tighter around her wife, bringing her lips closer to her ear. "One year ago," she whispered, "I, from the lowest station in humanity, laid myself at your feet and begged for your hand." She kissed Brenna's cheek and breathed in her sweet scent. "And you, my queen, said yes."

Brenna turned her head away from the brilliance in the sky and looked at her in surprise. Their wedding anniversary was not for another month, but as she gazed at her wife, she realized that that wasn't the happiest day of Jo's life. It was the moment when Brenna agreed with all her heart to marry her.

"All of this…sleeping in...the whole day…you proposed a year ago?" She couldn't believe it. 

Jo nodded. "It was the most significant moment of my rather odd life." She rested her forehead against her woman's temple. "For the first time in my life, I was an equal. You made me royalty."

Brenna felt tears in her eyes, overcome with the love she felt for the woman holding her. She couldn't say it, fighting the lump in her throat, but it was her most favorite memory as well. Jo leaned in and kissed her softly. "You are the eighth wonder," she whispered. "Happy Yes-iversary, my love."

Chapter Text

Jo blew icy breaths into the night sky as she trudged through the snow. It was falling thick and fast, and even though she knew Brenna had shoveled the walkway earlier, it was already covered again. The wind ripped through the trees and swirled even more snow into the freezing air. Jo thought of how fucking grateful she was that both her and Brenna spent so much time gathering wood last weekend. They had also made several trips into town during the week to buy the expensive bundles at the feed store. For this particular winter, it hadn't been an option.

When she entered the mud room, she immediately went for the wood, knowing they would need a roaring fire all night long. As she reached for the pile, she frowned. Quite a bit of the wood was gone. Brenna was always cold, but surely she didn't go through half their precious supply in one afternoon? She always waited till Jo got home, anyway, so one bundle could last the whole evening.

Jo picked up a few logs and entered the cabin. She frowned again. If was fucking cold in the usually warm space. She went to the hearth and saw a small blaze. It was new...not an indication that it had been burning all day. Jo quickly added more logs and stoked it, coaxing more heat out with the addition of the dry wood.

She looked up at the sound of footsteps. Brenna had entered the living room, wrapped in their huge bed quilt. Jo got up and subsequently got wrapped in both the quilt and her wife.

“I had to light it, baby. It was freezing in here!”

Jo kissed her head. “When did you light it?”

“About an hour ago. Why?”

Jo looked down at her, confused. “Bren, half the wood is gone. How much did you use?”

Brenna looked at her, equally confused. “What? No, I used maybe four pieces out of a bundle. What do you mean it's gone?”

Jo stepped away from her and pointed to the mud room. “Almost all the bundles we bought in town are gone.”

Brenna hurried to look. Jo heard her exclaim before she came back into the cabin. “I don't get it. It was all there when I got home from work!”

“You were here all afternoon?”

Brenna frowned. “No, I ran some errands in town…Jo?”

She didn't like the sudden, dark expression that replaced the confusion on her wife's face. “What? You think someone took it?”

Jo ignored her and went into the bedroom. She was there for a minute before coming out into the living room. She was holding their pink gun. “I'm gonna check to see if there's someone still out there.”

“Baby, there's no one out there. If they took the wood, they took it and left.”

“How do I know if I don't check?”

“Why you?”

Jo paused, a bit thrown off. “Because I’m…”

Brenna huffed at her. “What? Braver? Tougher? Such a good shot?”

Jo bit her lower lip. “No! I just…”

Brenna cocked her head, waiting. She was rather curious to know how Jo would respond to the sudden confrontation of gender roles in their relationship. Brenna had always seen them as equals. There were some areas where their strengths shone, and both were happy to let the other shine in them. But this was different. Jo was about as useless with a gun as a baby giraffe was on ice. Yet here she was, holding the weapon firmly, ready to face potential danger so that Brenna wouldn't have to. It was too fascinating to let slide.

Jo was looking both anxious and embarrassed. They didn't have time for this kind of conversation if there was someone skulking around their home. “Can we save the psych evaluation until I get back, please?”

Brenna pursed her lips and reached out, pulling the gun from her hand. Jo only protested for a second, but after seeing her wife expertly check the clip and snap the slide back, she bit her tongue. Brenna tipped her a small smile. “How about I go check for an intruder while you think on it?”

She didn't wait for an answer, but shrugged out of the quilt and strode confidently to the kitchen door. Jo stood by helplessly and watched her exit, waiting on bated breath for the sound of a shot.

Her heart leaped into her throat when she heard the single shot pierce the still night air. “BRENNA!”

She raced for the door and collided with the smaller woman. She grabbed her, eyes wide with fear and panic. “Was there someone there? Are you hurt? Did you get them? What did you hit?

Brenna shook herself free of the frantic grip. “No, there wasn’t anyone. I fired the gun towards the lake. I thought it might be good for anyone listening to know we had a weapon.”

Realization dawned on her what the sound of a gunshot would mean to Jo and she quickly pulled her back into a hug. “Sorry, baby. It was a decision I made without thinking.”

Jo was still rattled, but she laughed a little, eyeing the gun. “Shit. Well it was brilliant, but it still means we have to go into town tomorrow and buy more wood.”

She followed Brenna into the bedroom and watched her put the gun away. She didn't like the idea that some creep had come all the way to their secluded cabin and stole from them. Had walked into their home. If they had been watching the cabin, learning routines, they would have known that Brenna was home alone all afternoon. Every day, her beautiful, petite, little wife was home alone. There would be nothing Jo could do to protect her from across town at the University. Her shifts with Bernie changed week by week due to her class schedule, but she still always came home well after dark.

To boldly walk up to their cabin, to know where they stored their wood, was deeply unsettling. Their nearest neighbors were a mile away, in a little house between them and the town. The next closest house belonged to Bernie and Martha. Unless you had a car somewhere close, there was no way you could walk all the way from town. Not in this weather.

So what, more locks? Security cameras? A dog? She looked at Brenna, getting ready for bed. It struck her again just how beautiful and how tiny she was. She suddenly strode forward and wrapped protective arms around her. “I would never forgive myself if something happened to you while I was gone.” She muttered.

Brenna returned the embrace. The loss of a week’s supply of wood was only inconvenient. She, too, was greatly disturbed that someone had walked into their home. It wasn't called an invasion for nothing. How deeply violating that a stranger put their hands and feet anywhere near the safety of their home without invitation? She knew the reason Jo held her so tightly. The helplessness she must be feeling, being so far away all day, had to be killing her. Secretly, Brenna knew the answer to the question she'd asked the brunette earlier. Of course she knew.

Jo was braver and tougher. She instinctively protected those she loved. She'd done it in prison and she'd done it for the entire duration of their relationship. Once she had chosen Brenna, the blonde had been tucked under the umbrella of her protection.

It wasn't as if Brenna herself wasn’t strong or brave. But she didn't have the deeply ingrained levels her wife had. They hadn't bought a gun to alleviate Jo’s paranoia. Not really. They'd bought it because her wife needed her to be safe. To have a means of protecting herself when physical fighting had otherwise alluded her. Jo knew her darkest and most horrific memory back when she was a student. She knew that, though of course Brenna had fought with everything she'd had, it hadn't been enough. She'd been overpowered and forced to give what her attacker had been determined to take.

Brenna squeezed her tighter. Unwilling to let her mind wander too far into the past. “Come to bed, baby.” Was all she said.

She got under the warm covers and watched Jo complete her nightly routine before climbing in beside her. She held out an arm and Brenna snuggled up against her. Jo sighed into the dark.

“I just wanna protect you, Bren. I don't mean to make you feel incapable of caring for yourself. But the second I laid eyes on ya, all I could think about was keeping you safe. And once you were actually mine…that feeling just got stronger.” She kissed Brenna's head. “I can't help it. It's not a possessive thing, it’s…” she struggled with her words.

“A love thing?” Brenna finished.

Jo held her closer, nodding. “And some creep slithering around stealing our shit seriously brings it out in me.”

Brenna smiled against her chest. “If there had been someone out there, what were you going to do with the gun?”

Jo huffed at her. “Miss? I don't know, at least scare them.”

“You are pretty scary with that thing.”

Jo made an indignant sound and rolled over, effectively pinning her wife under her. “Geez, you go through one box of ammo without hitting anything…”

Brenna giggled and squirmed underneath her as Jo attacked her face her in loud, wet kisses. When she got to her lips, the kiss became slower, deeper; gentler. Through its tender delivery, it was clear that both minds had wandered to the more serious matter at hand.

Jo broke the kiss and rested her head against Brenna’s chest. “So what do we do?”

Brenna wrapped her arms around her shoulders and shook her head. She didn't know either, but they would have to think of something. They couldn't afford to buy wood throughout the winter for themselves and whoever else wanted it. She couldn't help but wonder at the psychology of the thief. It was almost sacrilegious to steal wood here. Possessions, maybe, but the means to prevent oneself from freezing to death? It was simply not done. They were either dealing with someone who didn't care, or was simply too desperate to. Neither thought brought her comfort.

Chapter Text

Neither of them slept well that night. Both sets of ears were strained against every noise they couldn’t identify. Every branch that fell, laden with heavy snow, caused them to jump. Each time the wind blasted over the cabin just right, causing the old wood to creak in protest, sent shivers down their spines. Every foreign sound caused by the relentless storm was yet another thief in the night, seeking entrance into their home. At three different hours, Jo got out of bed to check on a particularly odd sound, until finally Brenna retrieved the gun from their dresser drawer and laid it and a loaded clip on her bedside table. That seemed to alleviate some of the stress, and Jo remained in bed after that. But sleep never fully overcame their own troubled imaginations. After hours of fitful semi-consciousness and trying to be still for the other person, they both gave up pretending rest would happen and began to whisper quietly in the dark.

“Jo?”

“Yep.”

“Do you want me to go on the couch?”

Brenna grunted in surprise when Jo jerked her closer. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Brenna laughed quietly and let herself be wrapped in tired arms. She slid her hand under the hem of Jo’s shirt and brushed it lightly over the warm skin she found there. She’d never tire of the feel of the impossibly soft flesh covering the toned stomach. “I need to tell you something.” She whispered. “Been meaning to…”

Jo let out a sigh at the feel of gentle fingers playing with her abdomen. “What’s that?”

“How easy you are to talk to.”

Jo huffed quietly and Brenna tapped her stomach. “No, baby, really. Think of when we first met. Think of the trust we had to build. Think of all we’ve been through since.” She moved her arm across Jo’s middle and turned her light touch into a hug. “You are amazing. I wanted you to know that.”

Jo stroked her long blonde hair and stared at the dark ceiling. She could just make out the thick, secure beams, packed tightly together and creaking oddly from the wind. Sometimes when she looked at them, she imagined herself in the belly of a ship, sailing to an unknown destination over a quiet and dark sea.

She did as her wife asked and thought of their journey together. It was nothing short of spectacular. How had she become so still? How had she, of all women, become so utterly willing to reign in her wild nature long enough to learn how to use her words instead of her fists? They had come far, the two of them. Not just in distance, although that in itself was remarkable. She’d inadvertently seen much of the world with the little woman in her arms. But she knew what her wife was referring to. Their openness with each other. Their determination to stay in difficult…or damn near impossible…moments with each other for the sake of a deeper understanding. For the unequivocal love they held for each other. Jo marveled at the thought that this had only been possible when she began to believe she was worth staying in the moment for. Brenna, who had always been worth it, had somewhere along the line finally convinced Jo that she was as well.

And besides, the time for lies and secrets had long since passed them by, mostly out of necessity. How could they ever have survived such trials and tribulations they had faced with hidden secrets and desires, thoughts and feelings? How could they have come so far without the bond of trust between them? She thought of Brenna. If Jo was honest with herself, she knew the reason for her ability to express herself. How could she take any credit, when the greatest and most patient communicator had stuck with her over the years...gently teaching her through example how to break through the walls surrounding her voice? Brenna had seen her darkest, most horrible tendencies, and had retained a steadfast and predictably calm voice through all of her many storms. When Jo pushed, Brenna had pushed back, but not like in Jo’s previous relationships from her past life. Those altercations always ended with the other walking away from her. She had been too difficult to love. Too hardened and too unemotionally attached to bother with. They hadn’t cared to imagine what she could become, they only saw and used her for who she was at the time. A good root. A protector. A leader. She didn’t share her mind with them, ever, and they took her body without the realization that she was so much more than what any of them had ever cared to discover.

What had Brenna seen in her from the beginning that caused her to drop her anchor at her feet? What was it that, when faced with the demons of Jo’s past, caused her to open herself up completely to its devastating outcomes? How could anyone so gentle and good cling so fearlessly to the juggernaut she offered?

Brenna had known love before she met Jo. She’d basked in its temporary bliss long enough to recognize the need for it in her life. Jo had asked her once, in a small tent in the foothills in China, why on earth she’d chosen this unpredictable and troubled life. Why she had chosen her.

“It was always you.” Came the simple reply.

It was so hard to grasp then, even with the proof laying naked in her arms, in a makeshift and tattered tent and hidden in a wilderness of a foreign land. Hard to grasp that the beautiful, mysterious psychologist had actually cared to discover who she really was, and actually see through her past and desire only her future…the woman she could become. Even now, after years of slogging uphill and beating back her demons, Jo was still amazed that the woman in her arms hadn’t been at the top of the hill, beckoning to her. She hadn’t been standing behind her, shoving with all her might against Jo’s rigid back, pushing her towards the woman she was today. No. She’d been holding her hand and walking next to her. When it became too scary, and the night closed in around them, and the gnashing teeth of her demons were all she could see…they would stop, and Brenna would sit with her in that season of darkness for however long it took for her to remember the light.

Your mess is mine.

Brenna had said that to her months ago, and in the moment, Jo hadn’t fully appreciated the stark truth of that statement. Brenna had chosen her long before Jo had decided that she wasn’t just another skirt to chase. All the way back to her time in Wentworth, her mess had been Brenna’s. She’d shouldered it without complaint until Jo realized its burden, reached out, and they had begun to carry it together. The astronomical amount of trust to share the weight of herself was a testament to who Brenna was from the very beginning. In truth, the woman hadn’t changed much over the years. She was as feisty and firm and patient and dedicated now as she was in the moment when Jo, then Franky, had screamed her confession of killing the Governor of Wentworth during a riot.

If she had changed at all, it was subtle. Maybe more difficult to notice because it wasn’t a shift in her behavior or character, it was simply a more finely honed edge to what she had always offered. More love. More patience. A greater calm. A deeper willingness to understand. And as always, a consistent dedication to trudging up Jo’s mountain, firmly tucked against her in endless and mighty support.

Jo had always prided herself on being strong…both physically and mentally. She was not easily rattled, intimidated, manipulated, or beaten down. She was sharper than most. More perceptive, more intelligent, and more willing to maneuver the intricate web of humanity to satisfy her own wants, desires and needs. She had thought, way back then, that she would never come across an individual as holistically strong as herself. It was why she trusted no one. It was why it was so lonely for her at the top. She could draw anyone in that she desired; testing, prodding...hoping...but one by one they all fell in line behind her leadership.

Red was the very first person in her life to stand her ground. Franky had missed it in her initially because she had been so timid…shy…helpless. In her arrogance, Franky had pushed her around and used her and then cast her in line with all the others. It was a bit late when she realized just how strong Bea Smith really was. When she did realize, she was mesmerized. Not in a sexual way, which rather surprised her, but Red acted more like a gravitational field, pulling her into her orbit. Just enough for Franky to realize their equality, but never close enough to ever collide again after that hellish battle in the laundry room. Red was the first equal Franky Doyle had ever acknowledged, and losing her threw Franky haphazardly out into space once again. She would have been utterly lost had it not been for Bridget Westfall, and the stronger magnetic pull she possessed.

If Franky had been a rock, Bridget was a mountain. If Franky was the king of her pond, Bridget was the queen of the ocean. There had never been another, even Red, who could reduce Franky to a place where she keened for vulnerability, if only it meant she could draw closer to the blonde.

Jo was shaken from her thoughts when Brenna chuckled and said, “You are making a liar out of me, love.”

“Hey?”

Brenna laughed again and lifted her head in the dark room. “I just remarked as to how very easy you were to talk to, and you’ve spent the last twenty minutes in utter silence.”

Jo raised her eyebrows. “Have I?”

“You have.”

Jo laughed with her and held her closer. “Was just thinking how much I love ya.”

Brenna hummed softly. “What I wouldn’t give to have unfettered access into that mind of yours.”

“Just my mind?”

Brenna giggled and shifted until she was laying on top of the grinning brunette. She found her lips in the dark and lazily kissed them. “Oh, I believe I already have complete access to your body, baby.”

Jo opened her legs so Brenna could settle more intimately against her, without words confirming what they both already knew. Everything Jo had was hers. She was truly helpless under that kind blue gaze, and her insides melted at each sensual touch. Never before had she been so equally weakened and strengthened by a woman. And Brenna, in the infinite wisdom of her compassionate and loving soul, had never been reckless with the heart she so fully encompassed in her delicate hands.

Brenna laughed again and kissed her more fully, teasing her hands into Jo’s hair before moving her lips to the sensitive skin of her neck. She let her hands travel idly, enjoying the little sounds her touch brought out in her lover. They were both too sleepy for sex, and were content to touch and soothe and relax each other with gentle fingertips; alternating between slow kisses and quiet sighs. They lay entwined until the graying light of dawn filtered through the bedroom window. If the sun was up, it didn’t make an appearance. The snowstorm had only seemed to gain strength during the night. At some point this morning, Brenna would brave the dangerous roads into town to buy more wood, and Jo would reign in her imagination to catch a thief.

Chapter Text

His breathing was as jagged as the crunchy snow he fell into. Any warmth he had gleaned slogging through the deep snow was gone the moment he hit the ground. It rushed through the holes in his sweater, and the bitter wind eagerly took its place. The sheen of sweat that had gathered under his arms froze against him and his teeth clattered together. He’d been cold before, but this seemed different. This cold was hurting him. Every breath he drew into his lungs turned his blood to ice. His chest ached with each exhale. He was terrified that if he remained still, even for a moment, he would freeze to the ground and be buried among the swirling storm. He shivered uncontrollably as he heaved himself to his feet. He didn’t want to freeze to death, or be buried alive, and this storm seemed determined to try its hand at either one. He hugged himself and tucked his chin against the wind and ice blasting his cheeks and whipping his wild hair. Without warning he stumbled again and with a frustrated cry he fell forward into the snow.

He was wearing boots many sizes too big. They came up to his thighs and felt like a thick wall between his legs. He stumbled a lot and each time he fell to the ground, he’d instinctively put his hands out. Bare fingers disappeared into the deep snow and were immediately frozen. He never got up quick enough, encumbered by the floppy and heavy snow boots. He pushed himself off of the ground for the umpteenth time and shoved his fingers into his mouth. Even his tongue was cold and not much help. He shuffled forward more slowly, trying not to let his frustration get the better of him. He took a deep breath, coughed out freezing air and lifted the boots one at a time in careful rhythm.  He knew he was lucky to even have anything on his feet. He’d made this trip last night in just one sneaker. He might as well have just gone barefoot. There was a quite a sobering moment when he looked at the pale blue toes of one foot and seriously questioned if he’d lose some of them. There was absolutely no one in his life that cared one way or the other, and he spent a rather long and frightening night rubbing blood and warmth back into them...all the while crying quietly alone in the dark.

When he finally came to the tree line at the top of the hill, he crouched low and tucked himself against the base of a large pine.

There was a ring of soft needles untouched by the snow, and he was grateful to be on a more level and less difficult surface. It wasn’t any warmer, but it was a small respite from the bitter wind, and the sharp icy flakes still rushing to the earth couldn’t sting his cheeks anymore.

He looked at the small cabin below for any signs that the two women living there were home. Both cars were in the short drive. They wouldn’t be crazy enough to go for a walk, right? Not in this weather? He looked around nervously. He was half-way home last night with an armload of their precious wood when he’d heard the gunshot. He ran faster, not sure of the distance a bullet could travel and not waiting to find out. It had been so dark then, and he hadn’t been able to feel his right foot at all. He had just dropped the logs in terror and stumbled blindly into the darkness.

At last one of the women came out of the cabin. He watched her carefully drive away, and was disappointed that the other, taller woman hadn’t gone with her. Still, he liked his chances with just the one. He could out run one, even if her legs were scary long. He waited for just a moment longer before creeping down the hill. The snow was up to his knees here, and he forged a careful path to his destination. He’d have to come this way upon his return, already burdened with logs, and he couldn’t afford to make his path sloppy. He shuffled the large boots, building a track he could easily find.

It was really, really scary to be out here in broad daylight on a weekend. The ferocity of the storm had brought with it a need greater than caution, and he subsequently found himself taking a huge risk and was terribly afraid. He hadn’t been able to find the wood he'd dropped last night, and coming home without it proved to bear terrible consequences. He simply had no other option.

He clenched his teeth together to keep them from chattering and crept up to the little outer room of the cabin. It may be broad daylight, but he was determined to succeed this time. Some things were even scarier than the risk of being caught. Much scarier.

The woman that had left hadn’t closed the door all the way, and he reached his freezing fingers around the frame and gently pulled. This door creaked, and in the quiet of the relentless storm, the brown headed woman would surely hear it. He stepped as quietly as he could with his huge boots and crouched down. There was only the door and a little window in the small space, and he felt that he might not be seen if he stayed low. The pile was to his right, and there on the floor just within reach was an already cut bundle. She must be making a fire now! He blew out a breath at his luck. She was distracted, and had also opened a bundle for him! He couldn’t carry a full bundle by himself and it had taken an alarming amount of time yesterday to bite through the strings fashioning one together. He didn’t waste time snatching four logs from the opened bundle and hurrying out of the room. He could stash them at the tree line and maybe come for the rest before anyone knew he'd been there! Hopefully the double load would be enough and he wouldn’t be punished again.

He’d just hopped down the single step with his load when his big, stupid boots tripped him up. He fell heavily, arms clenched tightly… utterly unwilling to let go of the logs. As he struggled to his knees he felt a rough hand grab him by the scruff.

“Gotcha!”

He screeched and threw the logs at the woman holding him. She cursed as one hit her thigh, but her grip never loosened. To his acute horror, she turned him around and lifted him off the ground.

He wriggled furiously for a fraction of a second, but it did nothing except cause his boots to slip off his legs and fall into the snow. He didn’t have socks on, and when the over-sized boots hit the snow, he automatically curled his toes against the cold air. He clung to the strong hands holding him by the front of his sweater and looked with wide, terrified eyes into the angry face of his captor.

The woman froze, staring at him and blowing out a few quick, startled breaths. Her anger melted and something else replaced it. Whatever the expression, it seemed a bit softer. He dangled helplessly as she held him aloft, hoping that if he was limp she’d go a bit easier on him. Grown people didn’t like it when he tried to defend himself.

The woman studied him…really studied him, for a moment. She looked at the tattered sweater, the dirty jeans and the bare feet and hands. He trembled when he heard the low growl come from her throat.

The thick snow swirling around them was picking up its pace again. The path he’d meticulously made moments ago would rapidly be disappearing. If she only put him down, he might catch her by surprise and bolt…

 The woman narrowed her eyes, seeming to come to a sudden decision, and walked, still carrying him, back into the mudroom. She set him down, surprisingly gentle, but she kept a firm grip on his sweater. Something told him that he wouldn’t catch this woman by surprise. He stood miserably on the cold wood floor and kept his head down. He was trying not to cry.

“Jesus, kid.” The woman muttered. She tugged him a little and jerked her head to the inside of the cabin. “How about we go in, yeah? Maybe warm up a bit?”

He shook his head. He didn’t want to go in the cabin. If he did, he’d be trapped, and she’d hurt him. He certainly deserved no less. But that brought him no comfort.

He resisted her pull…not enough to make her angry…but if she was asking, he made it clear he wanted to be let go. She frowned, reading his mind. “I wasn’t asking, bub. Now come on.”

His little heart sank as she dragged him easily to the inside. He couldn’t prevent the barely audible whimper he let out when she pulled him into the kitchen. His guts clenched and twisted inside him as she kicked the door shut. His breathing quickened with the anticipation of the pain he knew was coming. He didn't know what she would to do him…all he knew was that grown people were really good at causing pain. He couldn't stop himself from shivering from both fear and cold.

But she didn’t hit him or kick him. She didn’t begin to scream at him and reach for a heavy object to throw at him. She pulled him through the kitchen and into the living room. The fire she’d built earlier was a beautiful blaze, warm and inviting. Its heat permeated the cabin and effectively warded the cold away. She led him to the hearth pointed to the fire. Was she going to burn him? He had immediately reached for the warmth. His tiny fingers stretched out and flexed stiffly. At this point he wondered if being burned would feel good on his freezing skin. He jumped a little when she knelt before him.

“Not gonna hurt ya, bub.” She said in a quiet, calming voice. “I’m sorry I scared you.”

His little brow crinkled at the sound of her voice. It sounded a bit funny…not like anything he’d heard before, and her words were certainly not what he had expected.  He only stared at her kind face and kept his hands outstretched towards the fire.

The woman cocked her head at him. “It’s about lunchtime, yeah? I was just making a sandwich, but it’s too big for me. Will you help me eat it?”

He eyed her for any sign of danger, but her voice was soothing and almost hypnotic. Her smile was pretty and her teeth were very white. He still didn’t know what she had planned for him, but it was hard to be alarmed by her face. He’d seen enough monsters in his life to know that he simply wasn’t looking at one. Even though he stole from her, she didn’t seem angry or ready to strike him. He didn’t know what would happen next but he was going to warm his fingers for as long as she’d let him. That way, if he needed to suddenly fight her, he could at least make fists.

When he didn't answer, she got up anyway and went into the kitchen. His large eyes watched her every movement. His heart rate quickened when she picked up a knife, but she only used it to cut into whatever she’d made. He ought to make a break for the door. He ought to flee now while she was distracted. He ought to…but his bare feet, now finally warming up, didn’t obey him. They tingled painfully as feeling came back into them, and he bounced slightly from one to the other.

She came back into the living room and knelt down in front of him, offering him a plate. He hesitated, but took the offered plate and looked at the huge, neatly cut sandwich, filled with meat and vegetables and on toasted bread. When he touched it, he was self-consciously aware of how dirty his hands were.

He suddenly realized that everything in the cabin was neat and clean. The woman sitting in front of him was calmly eating her half of the sandwich and was making noises in the back of her throat like it was the best thing she’d ever eaten. He was grateful that she wasn’t looking at him. He sat down with a bump and held the plate tightly. He knew he was filthy. He was aware of the holes in his clothes and wet dirt plastered to his knees. He knew he smelled bad and was leaving a wet and muddy print where he sat on the soft hearth rug. He felt ashamed against the backdrop of clean and kind, more out of place than ever before. He didn’t belong here. His nose stung and he started to cry.

The woman looked at him when she noticed the tears running down his cheeks. “It’s ok, bub. Just eat.”

Her voice was barely above a whisper. He hiccuped and coughed and tried to settle himself under her watchful eye. He wiped his grubby sleeve across his wet face and picked up the sandwich. It was gone before she changed her mind and took it away. And it was good. If he’d been alone, he would have made it last for as long as he could. He was still sucking on his fingers when he noticed she was looking at him again. He met her eyes and was suddenly desperate for her to forgive him. To forget that he’d stolen her wood and maybe let him stay by the warm fire a little longer. To not snap suddenly as grown people will and decide to punish him. His belly was tight with the food he’d eaten too quickly and he felt so tired. He didn’t want to be hurt by this woman. He wiped his face again with his sleeve, unsure of what to do.

The woman’s eyes widened a fraction. “Hey, bub? How about we clean that up, yeah?”

She was looking at the burn on his forearm. It was caked with dirt and the blisters had popped on one of the many times he’d fallen in the snow. He looked at her with sudden, fresh, fear, but he only registered concern on her features. He looked towards the door, towards the bitter cold outside and the mile he’d have to walk in the deep snow in over-sized boots. Towards a house he hated, that smelled of filth and alcohol and violence. Towards a man who kicked him and a woman who burned him and screamed in his face. He shivered with confusion and his little heart hurt in his chest. He didn’t want to go back there. He wanted to stay here, where so far he’d only been treated in a way he was unaccustomed to. He thought that maybe, just maybe, he could stay a little longer with this tall, brown haired woman and her kind green eyes and soft voice.

He looked up at her and nodded. He flinched again when she stood, but didn’t hesitate when she reached out a hand. He took it and looked up at her. She didn’t jerk him in the direction she wanted to go. She simply held his hand, helped him to his tired feet, and led him down a short hall past the kitchen.

The bathroom was larger than he'd ever seen. She helped him pull off his sweater to reveal his bare chest underneath. He heard her suck in a sharp breath. When he looked up at her, she only shook her head grimly. “Ok, bub. It's ok. Just going to get you cleaned up, yeah?”

He nodded and was still. She wasn't going to hurt him, right? Not this person. He watched with both trepidation and interest as she took a soft cloth with warm water and cleaned his hands, his wrists, his upper arms. She rubbed it carefully over the fresh bruising and old scars across his chest and back. She rinsed the cloth and gently wiped the grime from his face and neck. He was as still as a statue under her care. No one had ever cleaned him, not that he could remember.

When she finally addressed his burn her touch became even lighter. She was, he realized, trying not to hurt him. In spite of him stealing from her. He watched her hands as she cleaned and dressed his arm. There was a faint scar on her own hand the size of his fist. She’d been hurt before too.

She rinsed out the cloth again and rubbed it over his torso one more time, almost like she was tracing each puckered scar and dark bruise and committing them to memory. He didn’t care. He found himself leaning into her touch more and more, until she finally put the cloth down and simply held him. He kept his arms close to his sides and closed his eyes when she wrapped her arms around him, and without meaning to, he rested his forehead into her shoulder. She smelled so good. And she was emanating a greater warmth than he’d ever felt by the open flames. She was strong, and he found comfort in the tightness of her hold on him. He decided right then that this grown person wouldn't hurt him. He heaved a sigh and melted into her.

The longer she held him, the heavier his legs seemed to get. He was so tired! He let his eyes droop. When he sagged into her, she pulled back a fraction so he could see her face. A tiny muscle jumped near her jaw. “Hey, bub? Can you answer me something? Can you tell me the truth?”

He nodded, barely awake, and she tilted her head. “Are your parents going to worry where you are?”

He looked down and felt tears in his eyes again. He didn't understand why the question made him cry. He shook his head. No one would ever look for him.

“Stay with me, bub. One more question, ok?”

He looked up at her and blinked. There was a sudden fierceness in her eyes that rather scared him. He shook slightly. She rubbed his upper arms soothingly and asked, very quietly, “What happens when you don't go home with wood?”

His chest heaved suddenly in panicky breaths and he didn't answer, but they both looked at the burn on his arm. He felt a gentle tug and without thinking he let himself be drawn back into the security of her arms. Her long hair tickled his face but he buried his cheek into her shoulder anyway.

When she picked him up it was different than before. There was a tenderness to the way she carried him, and he automatically wrapped his limbs around her.

She was whispering something in his ear. He lifted his sleepy head from her shoulder so he could listen.

“Think you could stay here, bub? Maybe until the storm passes?”

He nodded against her, and she leaned him away to look into his eyes. “You won’t try to run out into the storm?”

He only leaned his head back on her shoulder again. No, he wouldn’t run out into the storm. She nodded and before he knew it he had been bundled up under thick quilts and settled among soft sheets.

“I'll be right here, when you wake up. Don't be afraid.”

He looked up at her, eyes peeking around the blanket, and another foreign feeling washed over him…one that he'd never felt in his five short years. He could barely place it as the beginnings of hope. That this woman, with her funny sounding voice and gentle touch, would rescue him. He was too tired to think on it and settled instead for closing his eyes and immediately collapsing into an exhausted slumber.

Chapter Text

Jo closed the bedroom door partially so she would hear it when the little boy softly snoring in her bed awoke. He would be confused and disoriented, and would need the light from the cracked door to gather his senses.

Jesus fucking almighty Christ, what now?

She knew, the second she swung that child into the air, that something was seriously wrong. From his hollow cheeks and eyes too big for his head to those fucking grown man boots…

And the burn. That coupled with his wretched appearance had struck a nerve in her uncomfortably close to home. She instinctively needed to see more of him; traumatic memories inside her already beginning to awaken. When she'd helped him remove his only upper layer, she had gasped. She hadn't meant to, and the little thing had noticed. It took every ounce of strength she had to keep her voice calm and level.

She recognized those bruises and the small circular shapes of the scars on his torso. One day he, too, might create a tattoo and turn them into a lotus tree. For now they were as common in his little world as being hit and starved and freezing cold. For him, having no other experience to draw from, it just was what it was.

Jo studied him closely while she gently wiped the cloth over his skin. She wanted to give him a full bath, but she didn't know the rules surrounding strange kids and nakedness. She was a large proponent of privacy anyway, so his grubby, tattered jeans were left untouched.

Was he five? Six? No older than that, surely. But she had been a scrawny, neglected kid too, and even when she was eleven she was often mistaken for no older than seven. There was no denying that this kind of trauma in a child's life stunted growth.

When he began to lean more into her touch, she took a gamble and drew him into her chest. She couldn't remember when her fear and sadness became insurmountable anger, but she'd been older than this. This little boy still unknowingly craved kindness. He still secretly believed that, regardless of however many times he was proven wrong, whoever had been hurting him loved him deeply. That one day, through his ceaseless efforts, they would see that he was good, and hug him and whisper words of love into his ears. He hadn't reached the point when he began to mistrust everyone and harden his heart to the world. He wasn't cynical or angry or violent.

He was simply a little boy, doing his best with the hand he'd been dealt, still determined to please whoever owned him. He was barely older than a toddler, and his youth made him sweet. When he fell into her, she held him a bit tighter than she meant to, but he didn't mind, and lay his head on her shoulder. She knew the exhaustion he felt. She knew it by heart. It went deeper than just the exertion of the day. It was a weariness that made up the very marrow of his bones. Years of interrupted, fitful sleep. Laying down with one eye open, wondering at each sound if it meant the monster was coming. Constantly, sore, hungry and afraid.

She picked him up then, and tucked him into her bed. She’d seen the beginnings of hope in his eyes. She assured him that she would not leave him as she watched him close his eyes. I’m right here, little one. And I will beat back any fucker who dares come near you again. She knew he'd fall asleep immediately. That was the survivor in him. She remembered falling asleep anywhere instantly whenever she was left alone. Sure enough, as soon as he closed his overly large eyes, his face slackened and his mouth opened slightly and there was a distinctive change in his breathing.

Jesus fucking almighty Christ.

She was looking at herself at five years old.

She made it all the way into the kitchen before the nausea hit and she suddenly lunged for the sink and threw up violently. She tried to be quiet, stifling every retch as she lost the food she'd just eaten. She sagged against the kitchen counter, stomach still churning; mind in over drive. She had to get her shit together, that was for sure. She looked at her hands, gripping the edge of the sink so hard her knuckles were white. Memories that still haunted her dreams flashed across her vision and her familiar anger bubbled to the surface. She was so dangerously close to impulsive behavior, that she started violently when Brenna suddenly burst through the kitchen door.

Her arms were full of grocery bags, blocking her face from view. She didn't see her wife jolt upright nor did she see her tumultuous expression. She only kicked the door closed and puffed her way to the kitchen table to put her sacks down.

“Baby, they are closing the whole town! It took forever to get home! I got wood and groceries, but I think…”

She didn't finish her statement because she finally set her bags down and saw her wife's face. Whatever had happened, it had unglued her. Brenna ran to her side. “Jo?”

Jo grabbed onto her, and all her previous composure collapsed into her wife's capable arms. It was such an absolute relief to not be alone in her own head anymore that she forgot herself completely. Brenna grunted as her full weight fell against her, and there was nothing she could do except guide them both to the kitchen floor. Jo went to her knees, leaning over and holding her head. She was silently crying an alarming amount of tears. Her body shook and Brenna held onto her and waited, increasingly worried, for her to be able to tell her what had happened.

Jo stifled her sobs into Brenna’s sweater until she wore herself out. When there were no more tears, only the shell shocked stupor they left in their wake, she finally sat back on her knees. “Bedroom.” She whispered. She grabbed Brenna's sleeve as she made to stand. “Quietly.”

Brenna furrowed her brows but got up and noiselessly walked towards their bedroom. She was back in a flash.

“Jo? Baby...why is there a child sleeping in our bed?”

Jo had shifted until she was sitting on the floor, leaning her head against the cabinet. She felt weak and she shook herself mentally. Brenna had only seen a tousled head buried under their covers. She hadn't seen the terror in his eyes, his bare clothing, the bruising; the wound on his arm.

The cigarette burns on his torso.

She hadn't had to drastically lower her voice and slow her movements in fear that the terrified little thing would run back into the blizzard. She didn't see how quickly he crammed food into his mouth as if he hadn’t eaten in days. She didn't see every rib and feel each ridge of his little spine. She hadn't cleaned a month’s worth of grime from his skin, or feel him tremble as he leaned into her.

That was why her wife was looking at her, confused and lost. Jo shook herself again. She was going to need all of Brenna for this one. Especially the therapist in her. She lifted her hand and Brenna helped her to her feet. Blue eyes raked over her face, alight with curious worry. “Baby?”

Jo stood and rinsed her mouth out in the sink, thankful she'd cleaned her mess before Brenna got home. Vomit in the kitchen sink was fucking disgusting. As an afterthought, she reached under the sink and pulled out the bleach, and flushed a healthy amount down the drain.

Brenna wrinkled her nose, and waited for some semblance of explanation. Finally Jo leaned her lower back against the sink and took a calming breath. Now that Brenna was here, she felt stronger, and better able to handle this situation. She jerked her head towards the bedroom. “Meet the wood thief.”

Brenna raised her eyebrows. “That little boy? But where…?” Her hand flew to her mouth. “The gun!” She'd left it on her bedside table.

“Relax. I moved it after he fell asleep. I don't even think he noticed it.”

Brenna let out a huge sigh of relief, and Jo looked at her. This was the last time she would see anything other than strife on her woman's face. Not until they could resolve the gently snoring situation down the hall. She felt a flood of gratitude towards her wife. If anyone would be fully equipped to handle this, it was her Brenna.

Jo took a breath.

“Someone's been hurting him, Bren…badly.”

“How so?”

Jo grimaced and jerked her shirt up just high enough for the red circular burns on her side to be visible. She'd masked them into a tattoo but any fool could see that those deep pink blossoms hadn't been inked on. Brenna caught her drift and folded her arms, leaning back against the opposing counter.

Jo let her think. This certainly was unprecedented, but then, so was their entire existence in this wilderness. She bit her lip anxiously. Keeping this child for any amount of time was certainly kin to a crime. The law often frowned on good intentions, especially when it involved minors. Following the rules would be the best course of action, but it didn't satisfy her at all.

When somebody, a teacher maybe, had finally noticed that she needed to be removed from her mother's care, the law had offered her no relief. Once in the system, she was pushed from foster home to foster home, thrown about until she was too old to shuffle around anymore. For years she waited for her father to find her, but he never came. She wasted years waiting for him in places no better than her original home.

One of the greatest days of her life was being released from other people's care. But her new found freedom brought her nothing but grief, as the only way she'd ever learned to protect herself was to lose her temper. After only seven tumultuous years on her own;  eight messy and violent breakups, two DUIs, three different apartments and even a short stint under the 18 bridge…her juggernaut met its match against an arrogant and cruel TV personality and slammed her behind bars for a three to five stretch.

As her wife had pointed out one night, she went from bad to worse because there had been no stability in her young life. At the most pivotal age she'd been tossed out like garbage from so many homes she'd lost count. She never learned other methods of curbing her rage. This little boy hadn’t been through that yet. There was still time to save the sweet side of him and cultivate it into a kind and tender young man. One without demons. One who wouldn’t end up in prison.

Fuck the system.

Brenna cleared her throat. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Jo had long since pulled her shirt back down and had spent the last few minutes looking at the floor and biting her lip, thinking.

“Hey?”

“What’s been stirred inside you. Do you want to talk about it?”

“Shouldn't we discuss the big fucking elephant sleeping in our bed?”

“You first.”

 “No.”

Brenna frowned. She could gather that interacting with a victim of abuse, especially one so young, triggered all sorts of terrible memories in her lover. She’d read her file, but it was grossly inadequate in revealing a lifetime of torture. Brenna had never asked about her wife’s experience in foster care, but it was clear that Jo’s world had been up-heaved by this child, and an up-heaved Jo was an impulsive Jo. Brenna held up a hand in peace.

“I would never and have never pushed you into reliving any of your childhood with me, my love.” She said gently. “I'm only asking because I'm afraid your experiences will be a stumbling block to your better judgement for this particular situation.”

“We aren't sending him back to his house!” Jo suddenly whispered angrily.

Brenna looked surprised before nodding in full agreement. “Of course we aren't. We'd be no better than the ones harming him.”

Jo sighed in relief, realizing that her greatest anxiety up until that point was her better half insisting they return the boy to his parents. Brenna shook her head in slight admonishment as if to say you know me better than that, and opened her arms. “Come here.”

She pulled the taller woman against her and held her. “I can’t imagine what you are thinking right now.”

“I'm thinking I would have given anything to know us when I was a little kid.”

Brenna suddenly smiled broadly and hugged her tighter. “God, I can’t tell you what it means to me to hear you say that!”

“Hey?”

“Because you know you are a true safe person now. That is an exceptional accomplishment, baby. Not only to be it, but to know it.” She pulled back. “Now tell me everything that happened after I left this morning.”

It was dark outside when they heard the thump and small cry from the bedroom. They had been on the couch, talking out scenarios for two hours. The only safe bet was the immediate one. They certainly weren't going to go out in this weather tonight. With the whole town closed off and everybody warned to stay in their homes, they could actually have perfect cause to keep the boy safe for a few days. After that, they were at a loss. They had just decided to bring Bernie and Martha into the mix when the sound of the child's wakefulness caused them to pause their whispered discussion and head down the hall.

Jo stood in the bedroom doorway, waiting for him to get his bearings. He was standing rigidly by the bed, as if he'd either fallen out of it or jumped out. Either way, his eyes were huge and he was trying to place his surroundings. Jo was immediately glad that she'd asked Brenna to wait outside the room and out of sight. 

She let the boy’s eyes adjust to the light streaming into the dark room from the hallway. He was starting to hyperventilate, and she realized that her tall, lanky form was nothing but a silhouette to him. She knelt down slowly. “It's ok, bub. You’re right. Remember where you are?”

His little body quivered slightly, but then he stepped forward, closer. When he was right in front of her, he put a thin arm out and touched her hair. “Are you real?” His voice was so quiet, like she would disappear if he raised it even a little.

Jo felt like someone had kicked her in the chest. “Aye, bub. I'm real. My name is Jo.”

He was still stroking her hair. She smiled at him and gently took his tiny hand. “What's your name?”

His response was barely audible. “Pete.”

Jo reached out and pulled a blanket off of the bed and wrapped it around his bare shoulders. “Pete, I want you to meet my best friend. She lives with me. Will you meet her?”

Pete looked unsure, but nodded anyway, soothed by her soft voice. His eyes widened as he looked behind her. Jo gave the small hand a comforting squeeze. Brenna knelt down beside her wife. Now that he was standing, even wrapped in a blanket, she could see the blatant signs of neglect. She, too, kept her voice gentle. “My name is Brenna.”

Pete just looked at her, mouth slightly open, breathing in anxiety and exhaling hope. Brenna nodded, almost to herself. “Jo, please find this boy something other than a blanket to wear. You and I,” she stated firmly, rising to her feet and holding out her hand, “are getting you a proper bath. Then pancakes, please, my love.”

She said the last bit to Jo, who was looking rather stunned at how easily the frightened little boy took her wife's outstretched hand. Apparently, she wasn't the only one at the mercy of the blonde’s charismatic nature. She shook her head and smiled. You and me both, bub.  

She also stood and watched them disappear into the bathroom. She heard the water running and Brenna's kind voice, muffled by the water, permeate through the closed door. She was absurdly grateful to have her own little jobs to do, and set about them immediately. Little kids and nakedness made her quite uncomfortable, and she was much better suited finding things for him to wear and making her famous pancakes for dinner. Brenna didn't mind a naked little boy at all, apparently, and Jo knew her love would also take that time to study for herself the history marked out on the boy’s skin. Honestly, it was probably why she'd suggested it in the first place.

Jo was just finishing flipping the last pancake when Brenna came into the kitchen. Jo looked behind her for the boy, but didn’t see him. She frowned slightly.

“Pete ok? The clothes fit him?”

Brenna nodded before clearing her throat. “Uh, Pete isn't a he, baby.”

“What now?”

“He's a she.” She shrugged. “Pete…is a little girl.”

Chapter Text

It was clear that Pete had never been given pancakes before, let alone be allowed to sit at a kitchen table. She took the plate Brenna handed her to the hearth…her only point of reference where it was safe to eat in the cabin. She picked up the sweet, flat treat, dripping with syrup, and stuffed it into her mouth. She looked wildly unsure when Brenna invited her to join them at the table. Jo smiled when her wife twitched while they watched the little thing eat with her fingers. Utensils, it seemed, were a luxury she'd never been afforded either.

When she was finished, she hopped off her chair, set her plate on the seat, and wordlessly dragged the whole lot into the kitchen. Jo raised an eyebrow. “Uh…bub?”

They watched the little girl push the chair over to the sink, climb up to stand on it, and begin to wash not only her plate, but the dishes left in the sink from earlier. Jo frowned. “Nuh. No way.” She muttered and got to her feet. Brenna stopped her.

“Let her.” She said quietly. “It's all she knows. If we make changes, they have to be in small moves, ok?”

Jo frowned again, thinking. She understood what her wife was telling her, but she wasn't able to watch the kid do their dishes. “I got this.” She said, equally as quiet, and walked casually over to the little girl.

“We take turns in this house, bub. Tonight is my night to clean up.”

Wide eyes weren't comprehending. Jo sighed and picked up a dish towel. “Can I help you?”

The little hands started to shake and Jo looked to her wife helplessly. Brenna only shook her head and beckoned her back to the table. As soon as she backed away, Pete relaxed and began washing again. Jo miserably watched her. “The fuck do we do?”

Brenna put her chin in her hand calmly. “Let her do everything she knows how to do.” She answered softly. “She’s on auto pilot right now. We step in when that part of her brain switches off and she's at a loss again. Then we create new memories, routines and behaviors for her to hold onto until being in this cabin isn't what frightens her.”

Jo blew out a breath. “I am so fucking glad you are here.”

Brenna smiled at her. “No more cursing in the house.”

It was difficult for them both to maneuver around the child’s nighttime rituals. They both had to force themselves to sit back and let her do what was hardwired in her to do. She did the dishes. She brought in more wood. She loaded the fire and cleaned up the mess. She wiped the table down.

Then she froze, and glanced nervously at the two women sitting in the living room. “That's your cue, love.” Brenna whispered. “Brushed teeth and night clothes. Then bring her back out here.”

Jo didn't question the beginnings of an evening ritual. She got up from the couch and held a hand out to the little girl watching her carefully. “Come on, bub.”

Brenna watched them disappear down the hall before getting up and thoughtfully strolling over to the bookshelf. Their little cabin hadn't been empty when they moved in, and though most everything left had been thrown away, they had kept a few odd things. One of which she pulled from the bookshelf. She had no idea why she'd kept it, apart from fond memories reading it as a child. The Secret of Nimh. And not the baby book either. The full-fledged, rather magnificent tale. Pete was about to get a bedtime story.

They opted to let the child sleep in their bed for the night. Putting her in a room where she'd slept before seemed like the easiest thing to do. Brenna would take the couch and Jo insisted that she'd be fine on the love seat.

“Slept on something that size for three years,” she chuckled when Brenna protested. “No worries. We’ll figure out something tomorrow.”

After assuring Pete that they would both be there when she woke up, they closed the bedroom door partially and moved to the other part of the cabin. Jo went absentmindedly into the kitchen and started wiping the counters again. It wasn't necessary, but it had been a rather huge and unexpected day, and being in the kitchen helped her unwind.

Brenna leaned against the counter and watched her. Her own mind was tumultuous with the turn the day had taken. “I can’t believe she made it through three chapters.” She said with a smile.

Jo laughed quietly. “She’s been tired for a long time, but I don’t think anyone has ever read to her before. She was enthralled.”

Brenna was quiet for a moment. “She's got quite a few scars on her.” She said suddenly.

Jo kept wiping, not realizing she'd gone over that spot twice already. “She does.”

Brenna came up beside her. “There were a few I didn't understand, but still know their shape like the back of my own hand.” She wrapped her arm around Jo’s waist, her hand resting on the upper side of her thigh. She'd spent years kissing and caressing the u-shaped scar that was hidden there. Jo had four others just like it on different parts of her, and Brenna had memorized each one. Brenna kissed her shoulder and tapped the scar. “She’s got three on her lower back. Just like yours.”

Jo kept wiping the same spot. She'd seen the marks when she'd washed his…her…little body. She knew what they were from. Of course she did. “Belt buckle.” She said, matter of factly. She felt her wife jerk her arm reflexively and she tossed the rag into the sink and covered the hand pressed over her scar. “Was a long time ago, Bren. I'm worlds apart from those years now. ”

Brenna was thinking through the times she'd laid her wife down, oh so gently, and skimmed that scar with her fingers or her tongue. She thought of the lazy afternoons when she'd grabbed the brunette playfully by her waist and they would dance in the living room. She thought of the years spent suddenly seizing those slender hips in orgasmic bliss. Just how many times over the years had she touched, rubbed, held, rocked, hugged and kissed this woman? How many times had she brushed her fingertips over her scars?

Tears filled her eyes. Seeing the same ones on a child brought her wife's reality crashing to the forefront of her mind. Had Jo ever endured a painful thought during their lovemaking? Did Brenna ever trigger a memory whilst loving every inch of her body? Did Jo ever lay back and inwardly flinch when Brenna ran her hands over her?

When she thought of love, did she think of pain?

How had she never asked herself these questions before?

Part of her knew that Jo loathed questions about her childhood. There wasn't a need to ask her for details. It certainly didn't make Brenna love her less just because she didn't know the origin of each mark on her skin. She had understood enough to walk with her lover through her most rewarding growth spurts…as damn near impossible as they seemed at the time. It had been like driving blindfolded, and letting the younger woman dictate what obstacles were in the road. She never knew how to avoid them, and Brenna only accelerated and jerked the wheel around…somehow avoiding collision and death with the barest of information.

 Jo turned away from the counter when she felt the change in her lover's mood. She draped her long arms over the shorter woman's shoulders and kissed her forehead. She studied the tearing blue eyes. “You right?”

Brenna was still looking at her thigh, still imagining the violence surrounding the force it took for a parent to strike a child hard enough to leave a scar. A permanent reminder of that terrible moment when the one person who should protect and love the hardest lost their mind and raised their fist. She brushed her hand over Jo’s leg. “I'm sorry, baby.”

Jo took the hand touching her leg and kissed it, understanding. “Worlds apart,” she said again.

Brenna shook her head, her long blonde hair spilling about her shoulders. Jo knew the storm was coming and pulled her in quickly. Frankly she was surprised it had taken this long. “Shh, shh. I got ya.”

Brenna cried then. Really cried. Not just for the little girl that was sleeping peacefully in their bed, but for the little girl, now a grown woman, holding her so tightly.

I wish I had met us when I was a little kid.

Brenna gripped her wife and sobbed harder. In her immediate joy of seeing an accomplishment, she'd missed the underlying grief. Jo may be worlds apart, but her beautiful body was a constant reminder that there had been nobody to rescue her. As much as she was going to protect this child under their roof, she still, even now, wished that someone had protected her. When Brenna could finally speak, her voice was muffled in Jo’s chest.

“I'm sorry baby, that you were not cherished as a child. I'm sorry you ever had to endure one second of such undeserved pain.”

Jo didn't answer, but laid her cheek against the top of her wife's head. She was surprised to hear Brenna's words. She rather thought she'd been thinking of Pete, and couldn’t quite follow this new twist. Brenna lifted her lips to her neck and kissed her, letting her tears fall on Jo’s collarbone.

“I'm sorry that I wasn’t in your life back then to protect you, that no one thought to stand up for you.”

Jo pulled away slightly, embarrassed. She wasn't a defenseless little kid anymore! She was strong! “Bren, stop. It's ok.”

But Brenna didn’t stop. She held onto those slender hips with their hidden scars and let her tears fall freely. Her tone held a more ferocious tone now. “I'm sorry that we ever changed our names! You are Franky! Franky beat the odds. Franky survived! Franky lived!” She shook her head in disbelief. “Franky is the strongest, most loving woman I've ever met in my life! She was willing to cast aside all that she'd fought for her entire life to surrender herself completely to another. What have I done to deserve you? Who am I to so easily change your name and mold you into another's history?”

Her words were completely throwing the brunette off. She tried to let go of her wife but was held too tightly. She settled on flapping her arms once helplessly. “I'm still me! And we had to change our names. You know that.”

“We did NOT. I'll not minimize the insurmountable strength it took for this woman to stand in front of me today. I will never take that away from you again. I don't care who we are on paper, or the fact that we must don different identities outside of these walls. But at night, when you bring me to my knees, no other name will ever again be on my lips. In that moment, I will never call you anything other than the name you earned. You are, and forever will be, Franky Doyle.”

She was shaking uncontrollably. Jo looked down at her, both alarmed and confused. She wasn’t used to the blonde unraveling, and didn’t know how to proceed. Meeting Pete had certainly stirred up her old memories, but it was doing something she didn’t understand to her wife. No one had ever, ever, made her feel like how Brenna was making her feel now. In so many words, she was flipping the bird to anyone who had ever hurt her. She was literally agonizing over her tortured childhood. She was validating that what had been done to her was fucking wrong. It wasn't pity, it was empathy. She wasn't wishing for a different past, she was openly admiring the present in spite of her past.

It felt…good.

The brunette grabbed her into a fierce embrace. She wiped her eyes, not realizing until just then that she'd been crying. “Hang on. Just hang on a minute. I know why you are saying these things.” She whispered.

“Forgive me, Franky.”

“It’s just a name, love.”

“No. It's not, and it never was. I will never know the kind of strength that you had to have to be who you are today, and in my ignorance I didn't see that I had willfully replaced your triumphant history with a vapor.  I didn't get to marry some fictional persona. I got to marry Franky Doyle. The brilliant, persistent, tough, fierce fighter. The beautiful, loving, kind protector. The top dog. The survivor. My lover. My best friend. That is my wife. That is who chose me.” She pulled back and stared into Jo’s impossibly green eyes.

“I love you, Franky Doyle. You and no other.”

Jo smiled hugely and held her close again. “I know. But I still want you to call me Jo.”

Brenna bit her lip. “I wonder if it was this hard for Bernie…to call his wife by a name that all but erases who she was?”

Jo shook her head firmly. “No. There is nothing in a name. The soul behind it is what matters. Different name, same soul, remember? Being Jo, for me, has been so freeing. Don’t you see? Don't you see what a relief it has been to finally shed my old self? I've tried to do that my whole life!”

“I remember you.”

“Aye, love. I know.” She tilted Brenna's chin and kissed her softly. “Believe me though, when I say that as Jo, I've never been happier. Please don't make me go back. I don't want to be Franky. For the first time in my life, I’m proud of who I am.”

“Baby…”

“Please, Bren. Please. Jo is who I’ve wanted to be all my life, and without my Brenna, that would have never happened.”

Brenna tucked her face into the crook of her shoulder. “If that is truly what you want…I'm not going to make that decision for you ever again.”

“It is.” Jo confirmed. “With everything that's in me. If I'd known that to be right here, right now, I had to endure what I did, I still wouldn't have changed a thing.” She kissed the blonde head. “You did that. You weren't meant to rescue me as a little kid. You were meant to save me as an adult. I wouldn't change the order of that for all the world.”

She pulled away and looked towards the living room. “Think Pete will wake up if we...?”

“If we what?”

Jo took her hand and led her into the living room, tugging off her shirt as she went. Brenna eyed the direction of the bedroom. “What are you doing?”

Jo sat by the warm fire and let the heat wash over her. She held out her hand for her wife to join her. “What I should have done a long time ago.” She put Brenna's hand on the beautiful tattoo covering her rib cage. “I'm going to tell you the story of my body. I'm going to tell you what I think and feel when you examine my history as you touch me. And then,” she smiled at the woman sitting in front of her and lowered her voice, “I'm gonna make love to you right here by this fire until you completely forget my name and feel only how my heart beats for you, and you alone.”

Brenna drew a shaky breath, fully comprehending the gift being offered. “I love you,” was all she could say.

Jo drew her closer and covered the hand already on her burn scar blossoms. “Look at me, Bren.” She whispered. “Touch me. We will start with what you already know, and end with a new beginning.”

She told her full story, for the first time in her life, and when she was done…true to her word, Brenna could only lay on her back on the soft hearth rug and pant in time to her rapid heartbeat and the rhythm of her lover. When she'd moaned her last breathy exhale and began her dissent, Jo gazed at her, satisfied, and bent down to kiss her lips. “Now, my wife, who am I?”

Brenna smiled up at her, returning the kiss and wrapping her exhausted arms around her shoulders. “You are the love of my life.”

 

Chapter Text

As many nights as she'd slept on the thin single mattress at Wentworth, Jo realized she never wanted to experience anything like that again. She tossed uncomfortably on the love seat and seriously debated the floor. She cast a rather envious eye at Brenna, breathing in peaceful slumber and stretched out on the couch. If she thought she could squeeze in beside her without waking her up, she would have, but at least one of them ought to be fully rested. She even thought about crawling in next to Pete. It would be easy enough to lay on the edge of their queen sized bed without disturbing a five year old, right? She sighed. Of course Pete would notice a grown woman climbing into bed with her. Jesus, all she needed was to terrify the fragile thing even more. No, the kid needed a good night’s sleep. They could negotiate her sleeping on the couch tomorrow. She sighed again and closed her eyes, letting the sound of the howling wind lull her into semi-consciousness.

She wasn't sure if she'd fallen asleep, but sometime during the night she rolled over on the love seat and her arm flopped over the side. She opened her eyes with a start when, instead of hitting the floor, her arm dropped onto a tiny body. She glanced quickly at her wife, who was still sound asleep on the couch.

“Pete?” She whispered.

The little girl just shivered and packed herself closer to the side of the love seat. Jo hesitated, and then rubbed her gently. “Are you afraid?”

She felt, rather than saw, the nod. She tugged the shirt. “Come here.”

Pete got up off the floor and Jo moved to make room. There wasn’t a lot to work with, but Pete jammed herself into the small space anyway. Jo draped her arm over her and pulled her closer into her chest. She put her cheek against the small head. “Ok?” She asked quietly.

Again the nod. Jo smiled and settled back into her pillow, briefly grateful that she’d put her clothes back on before climbing onto the love seat earlier. She listened to the little girl begin to breathe heavier against her chest and smiled again. Maybe she wouldn't have startled her after all if they shared the bed. Hell, she thought sleepily, maybe all three of them could share it. She would deal with the awkwardness of that thought later.

She could still hear the storm raging outside, and if the town was shut down, they most likely had a few days to figure out what to do. Her mind tried to wake up and think about every possible outcome, but she sleepily pushed her thoughts away and just held the little girl. She needed Brenna to think this through with. They would figure something out together. Right now, she was content to lay in an uncomfortable position so the child tucked into her could rest.

“Well would you look at that?”

As soft as the whisper was, Jo opened her eyes. She was on her back, and Pete was snoring softly against her chest, wedged firmly between the back of the love seat and Jo’s body. Her skinny arm was draped across Jo’s middle, gripping the fabric of her shirt almost possessively.

Jo turned her head and looked into the amused blue of her lover’s eyes. Brenna was sitting up on the couch drinking tea, leaning idly against the arm rest, watching her. Her smile was wide. “Of all the things that would defeat my wife’s internal prison clock and make her sleep in…”

Jo rubbed her eyes with her free arm. “What time is it?”

“After nine.” Came the amused reply.

Jo groaned quietly. “You’re loving this.”

“I am.”

“How long have you been awake?”

Brenna looked at her fondly. “Long enough to fall even harder for you.”

Jo looked down at the child on top of her and smiled, gently rubbing her bony spine through one of Brenna’s shirts. “She was lying on the floor next to me. What was I supposed to do?”

Brenna got off the couch and stretched, still smiling. “Exactly what you did. I’m going to shower. We need to figure out if any of the shops will be opened today. She can’t go around in just my old shirt.”

Jo listened to the wind howl outside and frowned. “The storm hasn’t let up. Think we’ll have a minute to think?”

She watched her wife’s face darken for a moment. “I’ve an idea.”

She said vaguely. She bent and kissed Jo’s lips. “What I wouldn’t give to be the one in your arms right now.” She whispered. “I love you, baby.”

When she left the living room and headed towards the bedroom, Jo looked after her, moved by the adoration she heard in the other woman’s voice. She had it pretty bad for the blonde, as well. She looked down at Pete again, knowing with an uncertain heart, that Brenna wasn’t the only little woman she’d fallen for.

The kitchen table was a mess of paper and every writing tool they had. Jo just grinned as she vacuumed, stealing glances at the odd pair. They’d been at it for over an hour. There was a neat stack of masterpieces to the side, and it didn’t seem like they were going to quit anytime soon. Over the noise of the vacuum, she couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but she could see their lips moving. She shook her head, once again grateful that Brenna seemed to know exactly how to handle this child. Seeing her little mouth move was all she needed to feel a bit more relaxed. Jo huffed to herself. If her wife had gotten her to open up, she shouldn’t have been all that surprised to see the child talking freely.

She had just shut off the vacuum and was wrapping the cord up when they heard the loud backfire of the town snow plow. “Finally.” She muttered. If the plow was out, maybe the shops would open, and Pete could have something more to wear. But then again, if the town opened up, their situation got a bit more serious. She looked up from her thoughts quickly when the little girl jumped from the table and ran into the bedroom. She saw Brenna’s face. “What happened?”

Brenna frowned. “The backfire?”

The noise of the plow was closer than normal, and when it seemed to be right in their driveway, the engine quit. Brenna got up, brows furrowed, and looked out their kitchen window. “The plowman is in our drive…” she sucked in a breath. “Jo, he’s holding Pete’s boots.”

It only took a second for them both to register what that meant. Jo snarled and made for the door. Brenna didn’t think and jumped in front of her. Because the angry brunette didn’t slow down, they collided. Jo growled again when she was forced to wrestle her wife. In the very back of her mind she remembered her promise to do no harm as they shuffled and grunted around the kitchen. Finally, Jo had enough and pinned Brenna against the fridge.

“Stop it.” She said through clenched teeth. “Let me by.”

“No.”

Jo leaned in and whispered savagely, “they’ll never find the body!”

Brenna lifted her chin stubbornly and Jo knew the second she let her go the smaller woman would pounce again. She blew out a breath of annoyance and looked at the ground, trying to calm herself. Turning her eyes away from her wife's stubborn face, Jo noticed that Brenna's hands were clenched into fists by her sides. She felt the slight tremble in the upper arms she held against the refrigerator. As naturally as a fight came to her was as unnatural as it was for the gentle blonde, and regardless of lack of pain in their altercation; Brenna was afraid.

Jo sighed and let her go, mollified by the other woman's uncharacteristic actions to stop her, and the subsequent fear it brought. “Ok. I'm sorry.”

Brenna looked at her firmly. “Are you with me?”

“I am.”

Brenna stepped away from the fridge and went to the front door. “Good, because I need you. Will you check on Pete?”

Jo bit her lip but didn't argue, and went into the bedroom. Her adrenaline spiked at the thought of her wife confronting the man outside, and it took quite a lot of will power to be the one to handle the kid instead.

When she stepped into the bedroom, it was empty. Maybe the little thing had just suddenly run to the bathroom? But the bathroom was empty. Jo knelt and looked under the bed. Pete was there, and she was terrified. “Bub?”

The girl was sobbing quietly, shaking from head to toe. Her tiny hands were balled into fists and she was face down on the floor. She had completely withdrawn into her own mind and didn’t notice the soft call.

Jo felt the last of her anger melt away. Only sadness remained. She lay on her stomach and put her hands under her chin, watching the girl working herself into hysteria. Her abdomen tightened, knowing she couldn’t fit under the bed and be with Pete in this moment. She kept her voice soothing, trying to get the little thing to at least look at her. To remember where she was. “Pete? Baby, it’s Jo. I'm here.”

Pete looked up at her then, mouth open, tears and snot a mess on her red, sweaty face. She was gulping in huge amounts of air and coughing them back out in panic. Worry was rapidly replacing concern. Jo reached out a hand. “Hey…”

But the little girl flinched and scooted back farther under the bed. Jo withdrew her hand slowly. “Ok, bub.” She said quietly. “I’m just gonna stay right here with you, ok? You’re safe.”

Her words fell upon deaf ears. Her nightmare was just outside the cabin. Nothing was safe.

“Please.” Jo said softly. “He won’t come near you. He can’t get in. We won't let him.”

Pete only plastered herself closer to the floor. Jo settled on her stomach and frowned, watching the little girl tremble just out of reach. She wanted to haul her out and wrap her in the safety of her arms, but that would only frighten her more. In this moment, she was not to be touched. Jo knew all about the sacred line of physical contact. Sometimes it just felt safer to be in control of your own skin. Other hands, in these moments, regardless of their good intent, were unwelcome. She knew the feeling all too well…when her body rejected all contact. It didn’t matter if it was tender and coming from one who had only ever loved her. In those moments it felt like molten knives against her skin. It hurt deeper than physical pain…it hurt the very depths of her mind. As much as she knew it pained her lover when she flinched away, Brenna had always seemed to understand the times Jo needed to be left alone when it came to touch. It was rare now, but there were still some nights where she felt too prickly to love, and Brenna would content herself to simply lie next to her, just far apart. More often than not, Jo would wake up entwined with her lover, completely baffled as to how she could ever not want those arms holding her.

Remembering this, she extended her hand again…not to touch or grab, but as a token of presence and understanding. She left it outstretched and rested her cheek on her other hand. It didn’t matter how long she had to lay like this. She just breathed deep breaths and hoped Pete would hear the peaceful rhythm and begin to match it. She wasn’t looking at the terrified child under the bed, but was relieved when she felt tiny fingertips ghost over her hand and hold her thumb. She gently closed her fingers over the hand. She moved her head so she could see the little face peering at her. Her tears had stopped, but she was casting wary eyes at the bedroom door. An edge of resolve leaked out of Jo’s voice, roughening the gentle tone she tried to keep.

“No one can get you, bub. Not while I’m here.” She whispered. “I promise you.”

The little hand held tighter.

Brenna opened the kitchen door and went through the mudroom to the outside. There was a tall, thin man standing in their yard. He was wearing a black snowsuit and holding the boots that had fallen off of Pete yesterday. His face was rough with years of frowning. When he noticed Brenna, he showed her the boots. “My boy here?” He asked gruffly, by way of a greeting.

Brenna folded her arms against the bitter wind and leaned into the door frame. He expected her to know the huge boots were worn by a five year old. She frowned at him. “So your teenager has been stealing from our woodpile?”

The man looked surprised. “Ain’t got no teenager.” He growled. “My boy, yay high.” He lowered his hand to about knee height.

Brenna raised her eyebrows, also surprised. Either there was a missing child out in the woods, or this man had no idea that his child was a girl. Or didn’t care. She needed more clarification. “You are missing your son? In this storm?”

The man looked confused. He shook the boots. “These are mine. Boy borrowed them.”

Brenna blew out a quiet breath in annoyance. They were talking about the same child. If the little girl who had suddenly bolted at the sound of his backfiring plow was his, she was staring at the possible giver of all the scars and bruising and fresh burns she’d seen last night. Thank god her many years as a psychologist corrected her expression and her tongue. It took everything in her to keep the indignant anger from her voice, and until he acknowledged her gender, she wasn’t interested in answering his questions. Two could play this game. “Did he not come home? Do we need to call the police?”

Brenna watched him back away from that suggestion. His eyes were darting around the cabin grounds. She knew exactly who he was looking for. She kept a tone of level concern, reading into his agitation. She’d already startled him twice, once with the boots and once with the revelation of stolen wood. At the mention of the police he was simmering with barely concealed aggression. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled from the way he was looking at her. He knew, and she knew, but they continued their dance.

“If your child hasn’t been home,” Brenna said calmly, “we should call the police. Do you have a cell, or would you like to use mine?”

The man backed away another step and turned away from her dare. It was obvious that he didn't want anything to do with the police. He was frustrated and his fists were clenched. He wasn’t used to being the helpless one. “He ain’t missing, lady. Just thought these were my boots.”

“You have remarkable eyes, to see them buried in the snow by our front door all the way from the road.” And fuck you, she thought angrily. She knew why he’d driven up to the house. They were the only cabin in a mile radius. Of course he’d come by, just close enough to look around. Pete hadn't come home last night, and a much as she was neglected…her absence was noticed. Seeing the boots had caused him to stop the plow to have a look.

The man turned back to look at her, hearing the thin sarcasm. He took a few steps closer, narrowing his eyes. “He here?”

Brenna lifted her chin, not intimidated by his sudden move closer.       

“No. No little boys have come up this way.”

The man walked up to her, stopping just shy of the front step where she stood. “Why don’t you just bring him out, lady, and I’ll be out of your hair.” He said quietly.

Brenna studied his face. “I’m not housing a little boy.” She said firmly. She’d told the truth, and he believed her. His confusion against what he knew and the truth behind her words created a deep frown on his face. Brenna was also baffled by his lack of recognizing his daughter’s gender. To insist that Pete was a boy in his own home was one thing. To be so fluid about it to a stranger was quite another. It was…as if he really thought that the little girl hiding in the cabin was a boy. They had only mistaken Pete for a boy because of her name. Surely her father would know her better? She cocked her head.

“What’s his name?”

“What?”

Brenna pointed to the boots. “Your son. What’s his name?”

“Pete. He was out getting wood.”

Brenna’s heart clenched at his admission, but she casually shrugged it off. “He’s not here. If he didn’t come home last night we should really call for help, don’t you think?”

The man looked as if he was going to push by her, but thought better of it. He just shook his head and threw the boots back into the snow. “Made a mistake. Those ain’t mine.”

She held her tongue and watched him trudge back to his truck. Without another word he turned and got back into his plow. Brenna watched him drive off, another backfire from the old truck making her jump. They both knew his child was in her cabin. He'd known from the start, but had opted to not tangle with her. She didn't like the sudden lack of anonymity, and they were getting closer to a confrontation with the law. She doubted that this man would ring the authorities himself, but she didn't put it past him to nab Pete if he got the chance.

She stood in the doorway for a split second more, wrestling with the theory she'd come up with last night. They were dangerously close to kidnapping now, and it would be better to call the police today, before too much time had gone by. Brenna frowned, her plan too slow to fall into place. It was a long shot, and if she misjudged even a single step, Pete would be given back to her parents by nightfall. She turned and went back into the warmth of the cabin. It didn’t take her long to find Jo on the bedroom floor, looking under it, her outstretched arm disappearing beneath it. Brenna got down beside her. She looked into the huge fearful eyes and said quietly, “he’s gone, Pete.”

Pete looked at her, as if desperate to believe her, and when Brenna nodded, she wriggled out from under the bed. Jo sat up and Pete crawled into her lap without hesitation.

“Papa drives the plow.” She whispered, burying her head in the crook of Jo’s shoulder.

Jo put her arms around the little girl and looked at Brenna. Fuck, she mouthed.

We need to talk, Brenna mouthed back.

Chapter Text

The decision to call Martha and Bernie was made as soon as they could calm Pete down and get her to continue drawing by the hearth.

Brenna made the call while Jo sat with the little girl.

“Hey bub? This is all pretty scary, yeah?”

Pete nodded, looking up from her drawing. She still had tear stains on her cheeks. Jo wiped them gently away. “It’s scary for Bren and me too. We need help, bub. Think it will be ok if our best friends come by to help us out?”

Large brown eyes stared at her, confused. Jo realized that she'd never been asked her opinion before, but waited patiently for the child in front of her to process her request. She smiled when Pete nodded. “Thank you.” She said quietly. She watched the little girl draw for a moment longer before getting up and going into the kitchen. Brenna had just hung up the phone and nodded to her.

“They are on their way. They are…bringing a policeman friend of theirs, too.”

At the last bit, she looked anxiously at her wife, but Jo just wrapped her arms around her. “I'm sorry.” She whispered.

Brenna was surprised. “For what?”

Jo chuffed at her. “Are you so used to me slamming you around?”

Brenna sighed. Their brief confrontation in the kitchen. “That was as much my fault as it was yours. I'm sorry, too.”

Jo was quiet, content to just hug the woman in her arms. She knew she had been impulsive, and in her anger she'd acted as such. When would she outgrow her foolishness? If it hadn't been for Brenna’s influence over the years, she would have been allowed to make a grave error. One that would have not only affected them, but the little girl in their living room. Because of Brenna, she was able to calm herself down enough to listen to reason. She smiled to herself. Because of her, maybe Brenna had pounced? She would forever be awed by the depths of her wife’s resolve to be the wiser one. The woman simply never took the easy way out. She wrapped her arms tighter. “I love you.” She murmured.

Brenna rested her head against Jo’s shoulder, and moved her hands soothingly on her back. She thought about the time in the cell at Wentworth, when a physical altercation had left her numb with fear and heart break. Earlier in the kitchen…how they both had grown!  She knew Jo held back. She knew the frightening strength of this woman holding her. She could have easily gotten out the door had she a mind to. What was different, this time, was that she listened. And as strong as she was, she only used a fraction of it to pin her against the refrigerator. Brenna, for her part, didn't shy away from her aggression. She didn't flinch against being grabbed and tossed around. She initiated it. She held her ground. She'd been afraid, but only just so. Her shaking limbs were only a reaction to the adrenaline it took to wrestle the angry brunette. In that moment they had, in fact, brought out the best in each other. Brenna moved, and Jo was still. And together they brought about the best outcome. She hoped, as she lovingly rubbed her wife's back, that Jo understood that.

The officer was on the phone for a long time. The four adults watched him on bated breath as he paced the corner of the kitchen, speaking in low tones, being put on hold, being transferred, speaking a bit louder…by the time he hung up the phone and joined them once again at the kitchen table, he looked…baffled.

“I didn’t even know Pat and Mel had a kid, and according to our records, they didn't. Pete…doesn't exist.”

Brenna and Jo both looked at the officer in surprise. He turned his kind, weathered face to Bernie and Martha, but they both shook their heads as well. Bernie looked at the little girl, calmly drawing in the living room by the fire. Pete had opted not to acknowledge their presence, and they had all, in turn, let her be. “They kept to themselves. We rarely see Pat in the shops, and we all know Mel drives the plow…but we never saw a child. Just figured they didn’t have any.”

Martha shrugged. “This happens more than we realize, I think. Folks can't afford hospital care and chose to have the child at home. The birth is never recorded. The child is given no social security number and as far as the government knows, he or she doesn't exist.

There are thousands of kids like Pete around the country.”

Brenna pushed her chair back from where they all sat around the kitchen table and went to get the kettle. “They had her. Only…Mel…was trying to convince me that she was a boy.”

The officer held out his cup for a refill. “Do you know why that is?”

“I have a theory. He was adamant enough to convince me that he didn’t know the actual gender of his child.”

Jo looked at her. “What’s your theory?”

Brenna shook her head. “I don’t want to speculate. I want the truth.”

Martha looked towards the living room and sipped her tea. “Her mother knows the truth. You need to talk to Pat. They need to be arrested.”

The officer frowned. “This little girl doesn’t exist, Martha. Without proof, I can’t arrest the nearest neighbors. For all I know,” he waved his arm at Brenna and Jo, “These ladies have been the ones to abuse her.”

Jo’s mouth opened but Martha was quicker. “Oh, horse shit, Charlie. We all know Pat and Mel are no good. Hell, you’ve booked them a hundred times over the years!”

“Petty theft and drunken misconduct are a far cry from the kind of neglect and abuse I’m being told, Martha! All they have to say is that Pete isn’t theirs; that they’ve never seen her before, and my hands are tied.”

“Well what about what Pete says? She can identify them, right? She knows who did this to her!”

Charlie looked at the ceiling. “She can say what she wants to, Martha. They would only have to refuse DNA testing and stick to their claim that they don’t have a child. She was never registered. She’s never been to the doctor. She’s too young for school. She doesn’t exist. I need you to keep in mind how complex this situation is.”

Jo looked sharply at him. “If they do that, refuse to claim her, what will happen to Pete?”

The room held its breath as Charlie sighed. “The only upside to this so far is that you ladies found Pete. Apart from that…the nearest safe home is an hour away, but they don’t except children under thirteen. She’d have to go into foster care until a more permanent home can be found.”

Brenna nodded and with a quick glance at her wife she stated firmly, “we’ll take her.”

Charlie raised his eyebrows at her sudden offer. “We don’t just hand out children, here, ma’am, whether they exist in the system or not.”

Martha huffed at him. “Honestly Charlie. A social worker and a lawyer. A stable home. What better place for her? Bernie and I will vouch for them.”

The officer wiped his hand over his eyes. He hadn’t run across something like this in all his twenty years on the force. He looked at the little girl by the fire and frowned again. The blonde woman, Brenna, had shown him the drawings. They weren’t of princesses and rainbows or anything else his own children had ever drawn. They were a scribbled mess of angry faces, fire and black clouds. There was a stick figure chasing a smaller stick figure with a shotgun. There was a house on fire. There was a long haired stick figure holding a bloody knife. Not the kind of pictures any little kid should be drawing. Brenna had explained to him, while she showed him each one, Pete did not have an imagination. One had never been cultivated in her. What she drew was what she’d seen.

He wrapped his large hands around his tea cup. Someone had been seriously mistreating this kid, and his gut told him the perpetrators lived only a mile from here. But his hands were tied. He looked up at the petite blonde woman who’d filled his tea cup. Brenna Matheson, the advice columnist that took their little town by surprise with her wisdom, had a degree in social work. The other one, her…wife…was a few years shy of becoming a lawyer. She was also in the system for beating a young man within an inch of his life and subsequently helping his force finally catch the serial campus rapist they’d been after for years. He was a bit unsettled by the way her green eyes bore into him, but from what he could tell, they were strong, decent, educated women. If Bernie and Martha stuck by them so firmly, then his gut about them was correct. If they could be approved by the courts as foster parents, then he felt like he could rest easy knowing the little girl would finally be in good hands. He pushed his chair away.

“I need to take Pete to the hospital for a full medical check-up. Then I will go and talk to Pat and Mel.”

Jo looked at him, and he was taken aback by the fierceness in her stare. “And what happens to Pete?”

It was the same question she’d asked him only moments ago, her intensity unwavering. She cared about the little kid, he’d give her that. “While she’s getting a check-up, I’ll call the Judge. If he approves the foster care request, she will be back under your roof by the end of this evening, and we can fill out the paperwork in the morning, ok? Pending approval, you will be her foster care parents until we can figure something else out.”

“We want her.” Jo said quietly. Brenna nodded beside her.

Charlie stood. “That isn’t up to me. I can recommend this as a safe home for fostering only. Adoption is another department.” He looked kindly at Brenna. “Call the agency in the morning. Talk to your people, and get the right documents in order.”

Brenna nodded at him. “So either way, Pete will not have to go back to that house?”

Charlie shrugged. “If they claim her, then they will be held accountable, and no. If they don’t, then they don’t have a right to her at all, so no.” He smiled at her. “She will not have to go back to that house ever again.”

Jo clenched a fist. “They need to pay for what they did to her,” she said quietly.

Charlie just shook his head. “Burden of proof. You know that, don’t you? Pete doesn’t belong to anyone, and that means no one has touched her.” He raised a hand against her indignation. “No one that can be held accountable, that is. I’m sorry. I know it’s unfair, but it’s the law. What’s important, is that from here on out, that little girl remains safe.”

He nodded at the four pairs of determined eyes staring at him. If they really knew the statistics of all the children that ended up dead or in prison as a result of this kind of abuse, then they would understand that his resolve went far deeper than theirs. Usually these cases didn’t have happy endings. He was determined to be a part of the one that did.

They all stood and Charlie walked into the living room and knelt down by Pete. “I need you to come with me, darling. Just for a little while, ok?”

Pete shied away from him and jumped up, running to Jo and clinging to her legs. She was shaking her head quickly from side to side. Jo bent and whispered to her softly, but whatever she said caused the child to shake her head more furiously. When Jo straightened up, she looked helplessly at Charlie. “Can I go with her?”

He hesitated for a moment. If this had been Chicago, his previous beat, the answer would have been no. Of course not. There were all sorts of people and services and departments and regulations for this kind of thing. But they weren’t in Chicago. They were in a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, and they basically had to stretch themselves thinly over a variety of departments. They followed all regulations…but made their own protocols to fit their circumstances. They had to. With that in mind, he shrugged. “Ok,” he said simply.

At the hospital, Jo was constantly wrestling with her grief over what had been done to Pete and her frightening determination to protect her. Both the nurse and the doctor were extremely kind, and although Pete didn’t say a word to them, she did everything she was asked. She was still for the X-rays, the blood work; the physical. She kept her eyes on Jo and for her part, Jo stood as close to her as humanly possible.

When the examination was complete, Charlie came into the room. He spoke with the doctor for a while, frowning at the images and reports being shown to him. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the little girl clinging to Jo had been abhorrently mistreated. When the doctor left, Charlie turned to Jo.

“Judge gave approval,” he said. He handed a large bag to Jo. “The wife came by and dropped these off. Our girls outgrew them years ago.”

Jo, still stunned by the Judge’s decision, looked into the bag and grinned, showing it to Pete. Charlie watched, a smile on his face, as the two looked through the clothes. The little girl felt the soft fabric of one of his daughter’s shirts. She closed her eyes and rubbed it against her cheek. He watched Jo gently put it over her head and tug her arm through. Pete felt it on her body for a moment, and then suddenly tore the shirt off and picked up another one, looking anxiously at Jo for permission.

She couldn’t help but laugh. “Go on, bub. Try them all on.”

Charlie watch them try on every little shirt in the bag. Pete finally settled on the one with a large, colorful flower and other loud designs on in. She looked up at Charlie and he smiled down at her. That one had been his daughter’s favorite. The more he watched them, the more he believed that this case would have a rare happy ending.

While Pete tugged on some pants, Charlie pulled Jo aside and said softly, “I spoke to Pat and Mel. They said they never had a kid. Ever. Mel completely denied coming to your house this morning. I looked around. There was nothing to indicate a child ever lived there.” His expression darkened. “I don’t want to think what that meant for Pete during the five years of her life.”

Jo lowered her voice. “Is she ours then?”

Charlie nodded. “For now. I dropped Martha and Bernie’s name and the Judge said he’d sign the paperwork tonight. Told me to tell you both to get the adoption papers in front of him by next week, if that's what you both want.”

“We do.” She said firmly. “What about Pat and Mel…what if…”

He saw her agitation and nodded. “I made it very clear to them what would happen if they suddenly decided they did have a little girl. They'd be fools to do anything rash, but if anything happens, you call me, you hear?”

Jo nodded and picked up the bag and reached for Pete’s hand. She smiled down at her. “Wanna go back to the cabin, bub?” The little face nodded enthusiastically, and Jo smiled at her.

“Good. Let's go home.”

The second Pete had fallen asleep on the couch and the two women had closed their bedroom door, they fell into each other’s arms.

“Did we just become temporary parents?” Jo breathed, awed.

Brenna just held her close, still trying to process that in just one day, their lives had been completely upended once again. They had never talked about having children. Not once. Had they been back in Australia, free from the charges stacked against them, they may have found the topic a pleasing new adventure. But their lives now? How utterly backwards to hand a child to a pair of fugitives? She was finding it difficult, in that moment, to reconcile who they were then with who they were now. Were they ready to raise a child? Just this morning they had a physical altercation in the kitchen that ended with Jo ramming her into their refrigerator!

She shuddered in Jo’s embrace and the taller woman pulled back to see the consternation on her face. She flinched, as if reading her mind. “Oh my god…” she started, panic flooding her features.

Brenna quickly cupped her face. “No. No. Don’t you do that, my love. We are good, and no child will be better cared for. We can…we will do this. For Pete.” She smiled. “We never talked about having children.”

Jo blew out a breath. “And now we have one. Jesus.” She pulled Brenna back into her chest. “And I’ve never wanted something so badly in my life, apart from you.”

Brenna raised her chin and pulled their lips together. “Things will change between us.”

“They won’t.”

Brenna laughed quietly at her. “They will. And they will be for the better if we continue to talk to each other. That is now more important than ever. Neither of us has done anything like this before. I need you, baby.”

Jo brought their lips together again and hummed into the kiss. She traced her fingertips down Brenna’s cheeks and throat before resting them against the top buttons of her shirt. “I need you too,” she whispered with a grin. She played with the buttons for a moment before tugging a few loose. Her green eyes darkened at the soft, newly exposed skin.

Brenna caught her hands. “You know what I mean. Jo, please…”

Jo forced herself to look away from her desires and into the deepening blue of her wife’s eyes. “I know, Bren,” she said seriously. “I’m with you, forever. We can do this.”

Brenna let out a slow breath and finished unbuttoning her shirt. She smiled slowly at her wife. “We can do this too…”

Jo grinned at her and pulled her close again, breathing in and kissing her neck, backing them towards the bed. “Quietly, please.”

Chapter Text

For the next two weeks Brenna worked from home. Jo only left for her classes and her cleaning shifts with Bernie. The big man didn't need to convince the guys to juggle hours with her, and on the days she worked, she was overwhelmed by their willingness to help her get home by dinner. She repaid them by leaving an endless supply of fresh baked treats by the time clock.

A social worker came by in the first week to inspect the cabin, and spoke with them for a long time. Surprisingly, she only hesitated for a fraction of a second when Jo corrected, once again, Brenna’s status in her life. The social worker smiled apologetically and got down to business. She was here to clarify a stable, healthy and loving home. Nothing more. She interacted with Pete as much as the child let her, and was satisfied with what she could glean from her. After a look around and two hours speaking to the two women, it was clear that she approved of who they were. The only concern she had was that Pete needed her own room. The couch simply would not do.

“It's a far cry from what she’s used to, that's for sure,” She said kindly, on her way out. “I have the paperwork started. You have time to figure out a space for her before the next inspection.”

The next round of days were spent growing accustomed to each other. Both Brenna and Jo were consistent in their daily routine, maneuvering around pre-established habits until Pete melded into their dependability and they were able to steer her away from just being the maid. Together, they gradually drew the little girl from her horrid past and into their calmer, kinder environment.

Their sudden fame was another thing they had to maneuver around. The town paper had picked up the story, and to their combined alarm, embarrassment and gratitude, the little town rallied behind them and the donations of toys, clothing, books and even money flooded in. For such a small town, it was a huge story that simultaneously touched and outraged, and everybody wanted to help. It was all a bit overwhelming, and the sudden lack of anonymity took them uncomfortably by surprise.

“So much for hiding,” Jo murmured as she brought in yet another gift box and heartfelt note left on their front porch. Brenna added the note to the growing pile of thank you cards she'd been writing. She pulled her wife into her arms and kissed her.

“I love you.” She said simply.

The changes brought to their quiet existence were only voiced at night, away from sharp little ears. Veterans of both panic and reassurance with each other, they constantly flipped roles back and forth in the stillness of the late hours, when they finally fell into each other’s arms and breathed out another full day as parents. Worry ran thick between them as they took turns wondering if Pete was getting everything she needed and deserved, but also of how Pat and Mel were being received now. Small towns were notorious gossips, and it wasn’t long before every household growled against the pair. Though no charges had been filed and the couple firmly held to their story that they never had a child, nobody was fooled. As the two women held each other at night, they alternately whispered fears of retaliation and grim determination to protect the little girl sleeping soundly on their couch.

On the fourth night, Jo held her wife against her and looked up at the ceiling. “I keep waiting for someone to realize who they’ve given a kid to…” She whispered.

Brenna knew her deepest fears reflected her own and laid her head down on Jo’s chest, absentmindedly slipping her hand under Jo’s shirt and tracing little circles on the smooth skin. This was why Bernie and Martha never had children. Suddenly, they had something far more precious to lose than just their freedom, and it was terrifying. They may not have deliberately chosen to have a child of their own, but there had been no other option in this situation. There had been no hesitation, no doubt seen in the other, no permission asked. There had only been bare glances of silent communication and an instant decision made. Neither regretted it apart from dealing with the new stress of the irreparable loss if they were ever discovered as fugitives and Pete was taken away from them. As they held each other every night, they dared to hope in the reality that they had suddenly gone from being a couple to a family.

They learned quite a bit about Pete in just the first week alone. One being, she did not want to go play outside. She didn't want to play pretend, or dress up, or have tea parties. She didn’t want to scoot cars around the kitchen floor or build castles with Legos or play with any of the other toys donated by the small community. In fact, playing completely eluded her. It was as foreign and unknown as belly laughs and vacations. The toys remained untouched in a milk crate by the hearth. She was steadfastly serious and unsmiling, in constant observation and a heightened awareness. Only by her large eyes could they ever tell when she was excited, or interested or happy.

But she didn't play. What she wanted to do, was keep the fire going. She wanted to clean. She wanted to stack wood and sweep the floor and do laundry. Her needs and wants were too intertwined in her mind to unravel in just a few days. She also wanted to eat every scrap of food she was given. Both of the women were a bit astonished by the sheer amount the tiny child could eat. They had to constantly give her snacks throughout the day to prevent her from storing food under the couch. Her squirrel-like tendencies were unsettling, but they simply kept feeding her exorbitant amounts of everything until she could trust them to feed her when she was hungry. They taught her how to use her fork and spoon, and she was content to oblige them…except, to Brenna’s exasperation and Jo’s utter amusement, with pancakes. Those were forever and joyfully eaten with fingers by the hearth.

She also wanted to sleep…for hours. Sometimes, alarmed, Jo would gently put her hand against the sleeping child’s chest to check her breathing. It seemed, once she determined that the cabin and its occupants were safe, she was an extremely heavy sleeper. At odd hours throughout the day she would disappear, and after the initial panic at losing sight of her, they would always find her curled up somewhere, sound asleep. They would make the gentle transfer to the couch and go about their day until she woke up on her own again.

After that first bedtime story, she was also adamant about being read to each night. It was the one time during the day when she allowed herself to completely relax against Jo and be held and rocked slightly while Brenna read to them. After her nightly bath she would run into the living room, Brenna’s old shirt, now her favorite night shirt, flapping around her little legs. She would go to the bookshelf and take the Secret of Nimh from its place among their books and hand it to the waiting blonde. Then she would pull a smiling Jo from her studies and insist upon being cuddled. Most often, she would fall asleep after a few chapters, lulled by Brenna’s soft reading voice and the safety of Jo’s arms around her.

When she wasn't eating or sleeping or cleaning…she was learning. They figured out pretty quickly that she didn't know shapes or colors. She couldn't count or read even the basic words. She'd survived thus far on memorization through trial and error. They were realizing that her rapt attention span to things they said to her was due to the fact that she had been both literally and mentally starving. She craved any attention they gave her; any direction they offered. Any look, touch, word, instruction and story. She soaked them in as if they might disappear. Brenna sat with her for hours patiently going over basic knowledge. She drew shapes and labeled them. They colored and worked on letters and numbers. All the while Brenna gently and expertly inserted fragments of therapy. She asked questions about certain drawings and listened as the last five years of Pete’s life unfolded with each explanation. Some explanations were simple fact, while others caused a more rapid breathing pattern. Brenna always remained with her in the moment, softly validating injustice and alleviating worry in a way the little girl could understand.

The things Pete did know constantly amazed them. In the two weeks they studied each other, they learned quite a bit about the brilliant, practical mind behind the quiet voice. She could build a roaring fire out of anything. She knew what mushrooms and berries and tree nuts were safe to eat out in the forest. She knew that rubbing herself with wild leeks kept the mosquitoes away. She knew that crushed and brewed oak bark helped just about every goddamn ailment known to human kind. Her burn hadn't been caked in dirt, Jo realized one day, after a particularly odd conversation. It had been deliberately smeared with the boiled bark of a fucking tree.

She knew how to snare rabbits and woodchucks and squirrels. She knew how to skin and clean them. She knew how to cook them. The many little white scars on her fingers were from her cutting herself accidentally with a boning knife.

She knew how to build weatherproof shelters to hide the night away from drunken rages. She knew that snow was the best insulator and could make needles and fish hooks from the tiny bones of the animals she snared.

And she was obsessed with the kitchen. She had her own peculiar way of making things, and the first few days the women were constantly cleaning green pine needles out of their teapot. Apparently, tea meant to boil handfuls of the prickly things. Jo fussed quietly about the gathering sap cooking on the inside of their teapot, but Brenna only kissed her in the way that always made her melt, and told her to let it be.

Every time Jo went in to prepare a meal, Pete materialized from nowhere and hovered by her, absorbing everything. Jo, unaccustomed to another body in the small kitchen, constantly had to keep herself from knocking into the child. After several near spills, Jo began to call her Petey Underfoot, and dragged a chair into the kitchen. She pointed to it.

“Up, Underfoot. You can watch from there, yeah?”

She saw the wide eyed fascination with her cooking and began to explain each and every thing she did. She handed the little girl vegetables to cut in careful slices and a long wooden spoon to stir the sauces.

Brenna came into the kitchen one evening to watch them working together over dinner. She smiled as she studied them, listening to soft questions and quiet explanations. She loved the way the rough edges around her wife’s face melted away with each interaction with the little girl. They had a special connection from the start. Jo was the first safe person Pete had ever come across, and the understanding between them ran deep and naturally magnetized them to each other.

As she watched them lovingly, her heart filled, and she leaned over and switched on the little stereo by the bookshelf. A popular pop song flooded the cabin and she began to dance along with the music. Both Jo and Pete looked up at her in surprise, and Jo grinned. She tossed her oven mitts onto the counter and grabbed her wife, spinning her to the beat of the melody.

Brenna moved with the brunette, raising her arms and losing herself in the music and her lover's hands guiding her in perfect rhythm. When Jo suddenly dipped her and kissed her lips loudly, she laughed.

So did Pete.

The dancing woman froze for an instant, looking at the little girl. She was staring back at them with huge brown eyes and her mouth was wide in her sudden laughter. Jo reached for her and Pete was swept off of her chair and spun around. Brenna caught them and they twirled and danced and laughed until they collapsed in a giggling heap on the kitchen floor.

Dancing before dinner had just been added to the nightly routine.

 

Chapter Text

Jo pulled into the driveway exhausted. She’d known weariness before, but it had only been physical. The last few weeks had mentally and emotionally drained her as well. She gathered up her backpack and her travel mug and pushed her car door open. The biting air immediately brought water to her eyes and she quickly stomped up to the mudroom. Her favorite part of the whole day was about to happen, and she was already smiling. In a few seconds, her little girl would come crashing through the kitchen door and throw her little arms around her. Jo would get the life squeezed out of her as if she’d been gone a hundred years. Those huge brown eyes would look up at her adoringly and a wide grin would be stretched across the tiny face from ear to ear. Jo would pick her up and Pete would begin to whisper all of the things she did or learned that day. Jo hated that she had classes and work four days out of the week, but she wouldn’t trade her baby’s determination to fill her in on everything she’d missed for all the world.

To her surprise, Pete wasn’t the one who greeted her. Brenna burst through the kitchen door and instead of a hug around her middle, Jo got a smoldering kiss on her mouth. The second their lips collided, her backpack fell from her arm and she raised her hand and held her wife by the back of her neck, running her other hand through her hair. As she was pushed into the woodpile, she thought that though she missed her little girl, she now most definitely wanted her little woman. She grinned and came up for air, leaning her head to the side and immediately feeling hot lips against her neck.

“Did ya miss me?” She asked with a laugh.

Brenna groaned in mock frustration. “I’ve been with only grown men and a child all day, what do you think?”

Jo shifted a log away from her spine and pulled her wife in again, feeling herself melt into burning lips. The cold little mudroom was no match to the flame they held when they were together like this.

What was it about this woman’s perfect love? She thought. But she knew. It wasn't the way the older woman could reduce her to a puddle underneath her administrations. It wasn't her stunning beauty.  It wasn't her playful side or her dry sense of humor or the way her eyes almost disappeared when she laughed. It wasn't even the fact that she'd followed Jo around the world.

It was her consistency. That was it. Everything else fell into place just behind it. Her trust, her devotion, her care and wisdom had all been constants over the years. It had snuck up Jo so gradually, that it struck her only recently how much she utterly depended on the woman in her arms to never deviate from her course.

Jo herself had been like the tides. As unrelenting as her love for Brenna was, she had, in the past, drawn away only to come back. Only to push away again…and to come back. 

As much as Jo would have loved to move from the cold mudroom and uncomfortable woodpile digging into her back and take her wife into the cabin and ravish her on the first surface they came across…they didn't quite have that freedom anymore. It didn't bother her as much as she might have expected. It was still way too easy to act like a teenager around the smoking hot blonde, and even against the woodpile her knees felt weak.

But there was something richer in the way they kissed nowadays. There was a greater appreciation for moments like these, away from the confines of the bedroom. They never kept their adoration for each other from their little girl, but the ratings were kept appropriate for her curious brown eyes.

There wasn't an urgency or desperate need or unbearable, pent up desire to tear off Brenna's clothes. Not all the time anyway. But having a child under their roof had settled them into a more…graceful pattern. They were lacking nothing, and she'd even go so far to say that she preferred these hidden moments. They pleased her, when her wife leapt into her arms the moment they were alone. It was reassuring that she was still so desirable to the blonde, regardless of how their dynamics changed.

As her wife simply stroked her face and kissed her, she realized that she needed this. Just this. A surprising and sweet make out session with her love. Her passion with the other woman had evolved so much over the years…it had gone from simmering to reckless, from daunting to dangerous…and damn near everything in between.

But now, she thought as she broke the kiss and just hugged her wife, now it was evolving again. There was a greater appreciation, a deeper understanding and an impenetrable trust between them. Where once a kiss had never been enough, now it was everything, because of the depths they’d gone together in this shared life.

The body pressed against her was warm and soft. She loved the little noises Brenna made when she was being kissed. She loved that she knew, if she spun them and put her wife’s back against the woodpile, she’d hear that sharp gasp of arousal. She loved that she knew if she slipped her hands over any other part of Brenna’s body aside from her head, they would both need more.

As it was, she enjoyed this moment, never once regretting any of the additions that prevented more than this welcoming kiss. When it was time to separate and walk into the cabin together hand in hand, she wasn't bitter that she couldn't satisfy both her and her wife right now…because right now she wanted to see her daughter.

How she had grown!

Her smile broadened at the sight of Pete, hunched over something on the hearth. She looked up when the two women entered the cabin and she fairly flew to the brunette. Jo laughed as she caught the child up in her arms and beamed at her. Brenna only smiled and stepped aside. This moment was theirs. It wasn't a quick hug and release, either. It was a solid, all limbs wrapped around Jo’s torso, both pairs of eyes closed, hum of relief kind of hug. And it needed an unhurried amount of time as they silently reassured the other that the pair of them still existed. Jo would never tire of this.

When she finally put the little girl down, Pete took her hand and tugged her excitedly into the living room, pointing to the ceiling. Jo looked up once, and then looked back at Brenna.

“The loft? It's finished?”

Brenna leaned against the wall and nodded. “It’s been an absolute madhouse for the last four days, but the guys wanted to finish it by the weekend, so here we are.”

Jo looked up, amazed. Their beautiful, high and tented log ceiling was gone. A lower flat log ceiling replaced it. It spanned the entire width and length of the living room. It was closed against the hearth and the opposite end towards the kitchen, but both sides were open. There was a railing on each side, and a log ladder had been built right into the living room wall, between the window and the bookshelf by the hearth. It was perfect. 

Jo heard a giggle from somewhere above and she stepped further into the living room, looking up. Pete was beaming at her, poking her head through the railing. Then she disappeared. Brenna pointed to the ladder, smiling.

“She’s been dying to show you all day. Go on up.”

Jo eyed the loft again. If she stood on her tiptoes and stretched her arm all the way up, she could just barely touch the ceiling…now the floor of the loft. “It'll hold me?”

Brenna chuckled. “It's been holding four grown men all week long. Go see.”

Jo climbed up the ladder and turned and stepped into the loft. Her first thought was that it was bigger than the bedroom she shared with her wife. Her second thought was that Pete deserved every inch of it. Light and warmth from the living room below permeated the space, but it was the new large skylight that would flood Pete’s room with light. Jo looked up and saw nothing but stars, and could have spent quite a bit of time enjoying that view if her attention hadn’t been drawn away by her little girl. She was zipping around her loft pointing to everything. There was a soft throw rug covering the wood floor, three toy chests, a dresser, a little desk with a lamp, and right above the fireplace, bumped up to the warm bricks, was her new bed. Jo grinned. They'd picked it out last weekend. The guys must have brought it over when the loft was complete.

Pete was bouncing on the balls of her feet, her huge smile lighting up all of her features. Do you like it? Do you like it? Her large eyes asked.

Jo nodded at her, grinning. “Yeah, bub, I love it.”

Pete squealed with delight and ran to the railing on the far side of the loft. Without slowing down, she climbed over the railing and disappeared over the side. Jo cried out in shock and ran to the edge of the loft and looked down into the living room.

Pete, who’d safely landed on nothing but fluffy couch, was rolling around and laughing uproariously at the brunette’s shocked expression. Brenna looked up at her wife and sighed. “She’s been dying to show you that as well.”

The next morning was Saturday, and Jo smiled even as she opened her eyes. Brenna had sometime during the early morning wrapped an arm around her middle so she would feel it if the brunette tried to slip away. She rolled slightly back to nuzzle the blonde head stuffed into her neck. The arm around her squeezed.

“Too early.”

Jo laughed quietly. “Gotta pee. I’ll be back, I promise. It’s way too early.”

It wasn’t, and she was itching to get up, but her wife had a way of utterly exhausting her until well into the late morning, and Jo figured she could stand to cuddle for another hour if it meant getting released at a reasonable time...with energy. She laughed again when Brenna hesitated. She patted the arm, a bit urgently, and was reluctantly let go of. Jo got out of bed and padded quietly into the bathroom, stretching and already thinking of the things she wanted to do today.

When she walked back to her side of the bed she stopped, surprised. Pete had replaced her as Brenna’s little spoon, and though their eyes were both closed, they were both grinning.

Jo put her hands on her hips. “Oi!”

Pete giggled and squeezed her eyes tighter closed and Brenna held her even closer. “Lost your spot, baby.” There was absolutely no apology in her tone. Jo huffed down at them as she conceded. Brenna had found, apparently, her Saturday morning snuggler.

“Fine,” she whispered in mock defeat, “I was gonna get up anyway. Stuff to do.”

She was ignored completely, and if she didn’t know better, she would have thought the pair had fallen back to sleep with huge smiles on their collective faces. Jo leaned down and whispered, “Pancakes or waffles this morning?”

Pete cracked and eye. “Pancakes.” She whispered back. Jo laughed at her and kissed them both loudly before tugging on some clothes and her boots and heading out the door. She knew they wouldn’t be up for another hour or so, so she went to the mud room, gathered her coat and the ax, and headed out the door. She tilted their wheelbarrow back into her hands and made her way up the hill and into woods. She could bring back a load of wood to dry before they even thought about getting out of bed. Most likely as soon as she stepped into the kitchen, her little Petey Underfoot would be right at her side. She could give Brenna an hour of snuggle time at least.

It was fucking freezing. Snow was falling in large, fat flakes and the wind was starting to pick up. She regretted her decision to leave her hat and gloves behind, but she wouldn’t be gone long, and she knew the exertion of cutting down limbs and gathering them into the wheelbarrow would warm her up considerably.

She was half a mile away before she filled the wheelbarrow to dangerous heights. The previous storm had knocked quite a few limbs loose, and she worked up a sweat chopping them and throwing them into the growing pile. She was just turning to go back when she heard a loud, vaguely familiar sound behind her. It frightened her immediately and she instinctively froze. Slowly she turned around.

Mel was leaning against a large pine, his cocked shotgun pointed directly at her chest.

Chapter Text

Jo looked at Mel and the shotgun pointed at her. Fuckfuckfuck! She hadn’t even heard him come up behind her, and couldn't fathom how long he'd been watching her work. Her only semi coherent thought was if he was going to kill her, he would have done it already.

“Mel…”

His tone was furious and deep. “You have something that belongs to me.”

Jo held up her hands, helpless. All her intelligence and quick wit were nothing against a shotgun. This very moment was the fear that she and Brenna had been whispering about at night, but after weeks of beautiful calm, they had almost begun to relax. “Please.” She begged. “She's safe. She's happy.”

It just came out…a desperate plea to a father. It fell on deaf ears. Mel gripped his gun tighter and Jo flinched. “She’s MINE! All these years…that fucking bitch kept her from me!”

Jo crinkled her brow, not entirely understanding. They had obviously never cared for Pete. Not even for a moment. His words didn't make sense. Mel stepped closer, causing her to straighten up even more and clench her hands. She wasn’t going to ask, but he was going to answer.

“She knew.” He growled. “She knew I needed them young. That soft skin...and finally I had my very own and that fucking whore told me she was a BOY!”

Jo felt the bile rise in her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut and ached to disappear. To be anywhere else. Pete’s mother had known the kind of man she lived with. She'd known, and as horrible as she was, she'd kept Pete’s gender a secret from the monster living with her. It had been the only act of love she'd ever shown to her little girl. Jo kept her eyes closed and tried not to think too much about what would have happened if Pete’s mother hadn’t…

“I blew her head off. This morning.”

The casual tone caused Jo to snap her eyes open. She looked at the man in shock. He was looking off into the distance. “You have no idea what it's been like! To say that boy wasn’t MINE, to find out she was a girl from a goddamn cop...and this whole fucking town…judging ME!” He looked at her again, and his look was of that of the completely unhinged. “I'm leaving, and my girl is coming with me. No one…NO ONE…keeps me from what's rightfully mine.”

He raked his eyes up and down the terrified woman in front of him. “Your coat." He snarled.

Jo froze under his crazed glare, again not understanding. She was still struggling with the fact that he'd murdered his wife. Killed her and come for his daughter. Most likely he had a bullet for Brenna and herself as well. He was going to kill them after all. Take Pete, and kill them. She couldn't think beyond the heartache of this knowledge, that after everything she had overcome…her mother. Mike. Prison. Being a fugitive. The man in the library. She thought of her wife. Her beautiful, kind and loving Brenna, who had for better or worse stuck by her. She thought of the smiling faces of Bernie and Martha. She thought of Pete. Was this how it would all really end? Was it?

Mel leveled the shotgun purposefully and raised an eyebrow. Jo backed up a step, her hands held out. She could already feel her sweat freezing in her stillness. And that was with her coat on. The wind had picked up, and the large, fat flakes had become smaller. Another storm was coming, and the temperature was easily in the negatives.

“Please.” She said again. “Please. She’s just a child.”

But there was no softening his resolve. He bared his teeth at her. "Take it off. I won't ask you again."

Jo looked at his hardened face and knew he wouldn't be swayed. He wasn't a frightened delinquent making a mistake, being led on by a sociopath behind bars. He knew exactly what he was doing, and by the casual way he held the shotgun...he held it like Brenna held a hand gun. Completely confident. Totally capable. She squeezed her freezing hands into fists, keeping them raised by the side of her head. She was shaking from head to toe, and the freezing air wasn’t the only culprit. She tried one more time. She had to.

“You had a pass, mate. Just let it go.”

She yelled in fear and went quickly to the ground when he suddenly raised the shotgun to his shoulder. She knelt in the snow and held her ears against the anticipation, but the deafening sound never came. She was barely aware that he never took the shot. She was only aware of her pounding heart and her crippling fear.

The double barrel came into her view and she lifted her head slightly. She could only watch as the man took a few steps closer and put the barrel under her chin, forcing her to lift her head to look at him. He was waiting. He wasn't going to fire the gun, she realized. He wasn’t about to advertise his presence to the whole fucking town. Even so far into the woods the sound of the shot would carry for miles. And even if no one else thought anything of it, her wife would, and she'd have the entire police force in their driveway before Jo and Mel would be visible at the top of the hill.

He prodded her chest with the shotgun impatiently. She was frustrated and angry…and afraid. She was fucking afraid, and not just for herself. The two people she cared about most in this world were a half mile away and that’s where this would all end. She knew Mel wanted her too cold to run or fight, and unless she pushed him to kill her right now, there was no way around handing over her coat.

She shuddered out the icy air in her lungs and wrapped her hand around the zipper of her coat, slowly sliding it down. The biting wind eagerly whipped into the newly created space between the insides of her coat and her ribcage. She began to shiver harder even before she shrugged it off and let it fall to the ground. The man picked up the coat and threw it towards the trees. “Sweater, too.”

Jo fought through the shivers shaking her frame and tugged off the thick orange sweater Brenna had gotten her for her birthday. She'd only thrown a tank top on this morning, reveling in the warmth of the small cabin. Now, instantly and dangerously freezing, she regretted that decision.  

The man raised his eye brows in surprise at her colorfully inked arms and smirked at her. Some of the wildness went out of his stare, being replaced by a more glazed look. She knelt in the snow, hugging herself, and had the queasy impression that he was enjoying what he saw. She grit her teeth defiantly. If this asshole got off on suffering, he was going to get blue balls waiting for her make a sound.

"Get up. Walk."

Jo got to her feet and looked at the ground, arms still wrapped tightly around herself, knowing where he wanted her to go. Mel pushed the barrel of the shotgun into her ribs and shoved her towards her own footprints. Towards the cabin.

Towards her girls.

Jo stalled, physically unwilling to lead him. Her teeth were chattering together and it was getting hard to move. Her muscles clenched and unclenched in almost painful spasms, trying to fire independently to keep her warm. It was the last ditch effort before they wouldn't fire at all. She either moved, or froze to death, and she knew what she preferred. She remained stubbornly rooted to her spot and tried to keep the fear and panic from overwhelming her senses. Tried to ignore the gun pressed into her side. Tried to prevent herself from hyperventilating in the sub-zero temperature.

She didn't see the blow coming and doubled over and fell to her knees once again when he suddenly jammed the butt of the shotgun into her abdomen. He kicked her viciously onto her back and into the snow, leveling the barrel at her chest.

“We both know I'm going to get what I came for." He narrowed his eyes. “Keep tempting me, bitch. Keep stalling and I'll show you what I can do to you. I don't give a fuck if you are an icicle.” He dipped the gun even lower until the barrel was just touching her breast. “That what you want? Do you want it right now?”

Jo’s heart plummeted quicker than her body temperature, and she shook her head. She inadvertently flinched when he reached down and grabbed her arm, pulling her to her feet. She suffered one last jab of the gun before trudging through the falling snow, in the direction of the cabin. She knew her little girl would see her. She knew Pete would be at the kitchen window waiting for her to come home and make pancakes. She could see her sitting by the hearth, eating them with her fingers. She could see Brenna’s small, enduring smile as she continuously caved to Pete’s favorite breakfast habit. She could see her beautiful wife, her favorite grown person, planning all the fun things they would do together that day. They had tried to explain to Pete last night the glorious fun it was to build a snowman. To throw snowballs and build snow forts. Today they had planned to invite her imagination to come forth and learn that there was more to the great wintry outdoors than just scavenging. She closed her eyes briefly, begging the child from afar to run when she saw them. Take Brenna and run. Please, oh, please, baby!

It was the longest half mile of her life. She couldn’t feel her body at all, and was vibrating so powerfully from the bitter wind, she stumbled every other step. Every time she caught herself it felt surreal…foreign steps on lead legs that didn't belong to her. The whirling snow wasn’t even melting on her skin anymore, and simply gathered on her body until the wind whipped it away again.

When they got to the tree line, Mel grabbed her roughly and forced her to walk in front of him, keeping one hand on her shoulder and the shotgun pressed firmly lengthwise against her spine. The barrel bumped into her ear as they walked and she could only hope his finger was off the trigger.

She lost her footing several times down the hill. Her heart sank as her home got closer and closer. She saw smoke billowing gently from the little crooked chimney. Her girls were up, and Pete had already gotten the fire going. They were waiting for her.

Tears froze in her eyes and blinded her. Her body wasn’t responding hardly at all, and the weight of her wooden limbs was proving too much. Several times the man behind her had to jerk her upright and push her forward. If he had let go of her at all, she would have fallen and not been able to get back up. When they got to the bottom of the hill, Mel pushed her into the middle of the driveway and moved behind her car and out of sight.

The front door opened suddenly, and Jo finally fell to her knees in the driveway, unable to yell a warning. She could barely breathe in enough air and knew her lungs were freezing right in her chest. If she didn't warm up soon she would actually suffocate.

She helplessly watched her little girl run to her. Pete looked both excited and confused as to why her favorite brunette was kneeling in the snow. Jo could only suck in chattering and painful breaths and watch her close the distance between them. She tried again to stutter out a warning but her jaw was locked. She couldn't stop what was happening. She could do nothing but sluggishly lift arms she couldn't feel and be crashed into.

Pete almost knocked her over and pressed her warm body against Jo’s chest. The brunette wrapped her in her arms quickly, feeling a surge of pain with the sudden contact and warmth. She closed her eyes briefly when Pete began to quake, finally realizing that something was terribly wrong. It might have been the alarming temperature of Jo’s skin, or the fact that her father had just stepped out from behind the car.  She stared, wide eyed over Jo’s shoulder, at her father...at the shotgun. Jo turned her head to face Mel. He leveled the gun at them both.

“Gimme my girl!”

Jo shook her head and hugged Pete tighter. She felt burning drops on her neck and knew the little girl was crying. She couldn't get up, and only clenched her jaw and shook her head more adamantly.

Mel suddenly lunged at her, raising the shotgun like a club. Jo turned her body automatically, shielding Pete from the heavy blow. The gunstock came down on her shoulder blade and she cried out, sagging against the child still in her arms. Pete cried harder in terror and held onto her with panicky strength. Jo felt the pain of the blow, magnified in the cold, but she refused to let go. Her arms were locked around Pete. Mel screamed at them, crazed in his rage.

“Give me my girl!  She’s MINE!”

Jo took three more hits just like the first when she heard a loud shot ring out in the cold air.

“Hit her one more time.”

Jo looked up, dazed and shivering uncontrollably, and looked into the most fearsome face her wife had ever shown. Never in her life had she seen that look, or heard such a dangerous dare from her lover. Brenna held their pink gun with steady hands, aiming it directly at the man towering over her wife and child.

Mel smirked at her and raised his gun again. Another deafening shot cut through the icy air, and Pete screamed with shock. Jo held her close and glanced around. Mel was standing just behind her, rubbing his hands together as if shaking life back into them. His smirk was gone, and he was eyeing the angry woman in the cabin doorway. Brenna had shot the gun right from his hands, and it lay useless in the snow, out of reach.

Mel balled his hands into fists and the four remained frozen, locked in the sudden, apprehensive and highly unstable moment. Brenna never looked away from him. She stepped slowly into the snow and ice swirling around and aimed her weapon between the man’s eyes. She had never in her life experienced the level of fury she was feeling now. She had also never seen anyone beating the love of her life. It had taken more than she thought she had in her to keep her finger off the trigger, and when she had first aimed, she had to move the sights away from the man’s face. Shooting the shotgun from his grip had been easy. Not shooting him in the head had been impossibly hard. When she spoke again, it was to her girls. “Come here, baby. Come to me now.”

She wasn't sure if the brunette could. She was absent of any upper covering other than the thin tank top she'd been wearing this morning. Her beautiful skin had an alarmingly bluish tint, and her entire body quaked. Her lips were a deep purple, and the same alien hue had spread under her eyes and cheeks. She was freezing to death. The skin around her shoulder had already turned an ugly dark color, and Brenna was certain that if she had been warm at all, she’d be bleeding. To not be able to run to her…the fury rose in her chest and contorted her heart, but her stance was locked and her arm was steady. She glared her murderous intent at the man standing just behind her girls…daring him to move. “Come to me.” She said again to them.

Jo was struggling to move. She let go of Pete and pushed her towards Brenna. She finally found her voice. “Go, baby. I'm coming.” She murmured shakily, not wholly convinced that she could.

Pete looked wide-eyed from her father to Jo and took a tiny step back towards Brenna. Mel snarled. He suddenly reached out and jerked the girl into him, lifting her kicking little body into the air.

“JO!” She screamed. “JO!”

“BREN…gah!”

Jo’s yell for help was cut off when he grabbed her around the throat and hauled her to her feet. Her frozen limbs refused to react and she grunted with both surprise and pain when he locked one arm around her throat and pulled her roughly into his chest. Pete stopped kicking with Jo’s sudden proximity and dangled unhappily from her father’s arm, her little hands gripping Jo’s shoulder in her panic.

Mel hid behind his hostages and took a step back. He glared at Brenna from in between Pete and Jo. “I'm taking what’s mine!” He screamed.

Brenna took a step forward with each step he took back. “There’s nowhere to go. It’s over.”

He tightened his grip around Jo’s throat, causing her to choke and scrabble at his arm. A lethal look flashed in Brenna’s eyes. Colder than the air she said softly, “Let. Them. Go.”

Mel growled in frustration, knowing he was once again out matched by the blonde in front of him. She held her gun like a man, and despite the now howling wind and snow, she didn’t seem to feel the cold. And the way her eyes bore into him…he was under the distinct impression that if he moved even a fraction of an inch in her sights, she'd shoot him dead. He’d lost, and he knew it.

He came to a decision and threw Pete away from him. He needed to press the bigger shield into his chest. He knew he was safe as long as the helpless brunette was between him and that fucking pink gun.

He could come back for the child again, and he would. But right now, as furious as he was, he didn't want to be shot. Not by a woman. Not with a pink fucking gun. “How about I just take this one?” He snarled. “Show you how it feels when someone steals your shit?”

Brenna held out one arm to Pete and gripped her tightly when the little girl flew to the safety of her side. Without taking her eyes off of the man choking the life from her wife she murmured, “Call the police, baby. Do you remember what we showed you?”

Pete was holding her in a death grip and staring at Jo. She shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut. Brenna tugged her coat. “Please, Pete.” She said quietly. “Please. Do as I say, love.”

Pete looked up at her, took one last frightened look at Jo, and then set her jaw in determination. She turned and fled into the cabin. When she was away from danger, Brenna finally showed signs of both fear and cold. Mel noticed.

“We’ll be long gone, you bitch, before those pricks arrive. One more step and I'll just break her fucking neck!”

Jo gasped at the added pressure around her throat. If his other arm hadn’t been around her waist, she wouldn’t have been able to stand. Her heart rate jumped erratically and her eyelids felt heavy. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. She was hardly aware of the stand-off. She was only aware of the cold, the lack of air, and the piercing blue fury of her wife’s stare.

She didn’t see much, that is, until she saw Brenna’s aim shift slightly. Her eyes widened in unparalleled terror and her eyes refocused. “Bren…!” she gasped out sharply.

Brenna didn't move. Against her will, tears were filling her eyes and freezing to her face. Her expression was agonizingly torn. “Baby...”

Jo bunched whatever muscles that still worked and tried to wrench herself free from Mel’s grip, desperate for another option, but he only snarled and choked the fight from her, dragging her back with him. “You're gonna wish I just took the little bitch after I’m done with you,” he growled wickedly in her ear.

Jo wasn't listening. She was staring at her wife. A deep understanding passed between them. A horribly twisted and unnatural choice.

Could you kill someone, if you had to?

Could you do it...if you had to?

Well? Is this worth fighting for? Is this worth your life, or someone else's? How far would you go?

She swallowed nothing but fear and a sudden, crushing sadness at her past words. She knew what Brenna was aiming at now. She met her lover's eyes and dropped one of the hands gripping the arm around her throat and tapped her chest, right below her collarbone. Now was the time to answer her questions. She could hardly get her frozen mouth around the words. “I…trust…you…”

The whipping wind carried her words to Brenna's ears. She was still fighting her own terrible internal battle. She locked eyes with Jo and saw her resignation. Her fear. Her permission. Brenna whispered her love into the storm and quickly wiped the ice from her eyes. She needed to see very clearly.

Jo could only see her lips move, and she set her jaw and tapped her chest again. Of all the nightmares she had faced in the past, this one was…

The single shot rang out and the bullet struck her in the chest with more force than she'd ever imagined. It felt like she'd been hit with a molten sledge hammer. All the breath was knocked from her lungs and she felt herself falling backwards down…down…down…but she never hit the snow. She landed on something soft but unyielding, and with her last presence of mind, she knew that she had been the Ace of Spades. Her wife had shot through her upper chest straight into Mel’s heart. Her final fleeting thought, as she drifted away on unbearable, freezing pain, was that her girls would finally be safe.

Chapter Text

The grey morning light washed into the warm bedroom, and Brenna smiled as she held Pete loosely. She’d been awake the entire time, not quite able to take her eyes off of the sleeping little girl. Pete had fallen asleep almost immediately after she decided what she wanted for breakfast. Now, tucked securely into Brenna’s chest, she slept as a child should. Completely relaxed and without concern. Brenna gently lifted the arm wrapped around the small torso and brushed the light brown hair away from the little face. She didn’t want to imagine her world without Pete in it. Where it was once an emergency to keep her safe, it was now crucial to simply keep her. Jo had finalized their part of the legal documentation earlier in the week, and they would mail it come Monday. They had asked Pete if she wanted to stay with them, but she had just stared at them blankly. They waited patiently for her to process the question, but she only answered them by getting the Secret of Nimh from the bookshelf and handing it to Brenna. The night time ritual was not to be interrupted…ever. The two women had smiled at each other then, and Brenna had opened the book and waited for the pair opposite her to settle in just the right snuggle position.

As she continued to stroke Pete’s soft hair, the child stirred. She suddenly jolted awake, and Brenna remained still while she got her bearings. She, more than anyone, was used to sleeping next to someone who startled awake. Pete turned to look at her with her huge, serious brown eyes, and Brenna smiled at her.

“Well, good morning.”

Pete relaxed and rolled over, pushing herself close, until they were sharing the same air. She reached out a hand and stroked Brenna’s hair. Brenna smiled again. Pete was learning to mimic affection. If she enjoyed it, she would mirror the action on the two women. If she didn’t mimic a gesture, then they would cease to do it. Since she was too little and too behind in normal cognitive development to say when she didn’t like something, it was an excellent way to communicate respect where none had ever existed. She didn’t like to be touched while she was eating. She did not like to be tickled, or teased in any way. They were slowly working on coaxing her sense of humor out, as Jo was an incurable tease…but they were careful and patient. Nothing was to be hurried.

But Pete loved it when either one of the women played with her hair. She mimicked that almost immediately. Now, in the small bedroom, she stared deep into Brenna’s eyes and ran her small fingers through the long blonde hair. Quite suddenly she leaned forward and pressed her forehead into Brenna’s, humming quietly. She put a tiny hand on the woman’s cheek and remained still for a moment. Brenna closed her eyes as her heart expanded in her chest. As far as she knew, neither Jo nor herself had ever done this to her before. It was something that they often did with each other under the watchful eye of the five year old. It was a stance they both loved, originating years ago. There was something so deeply intimate and special about that connection, and it was as affectionate to them as a kiss.

And Pete was copying it, for the first time. Doing something she gathered through observation that she knew Brenna loved. It was as if, for the first time, her little girl was telling her that she loved her. I see that you love this so I’m going to do it for you.

Brenna battled the sudden mist that covered her vision. She knew she could absolutely not cry in this moment. She closed her eyes and rested her hand against Pete’s cheek, much like she would do to Jo, and hummed back.  I love you too, little one. She thought.

Pete pulled away, satisfied, and beamed at her. Brenna laughed. “Time to get up?”

The little girl nodded and bounced out of bed, disappearing into the bathroom. Brenna smiled after her, knowing that she would dutifully wash her face and hands and brush her teeth and fold her little towel neatly back onto the rack. If there’s one thing the girl loved, it was her routine. There was a safety in knowing what was expected of her, and she was eager to do it well. When she came out of the bathroom, Brenna was already dressed. She pointed towards the living room. “Get dressed, love. Will you help me light the fire if I go and get some wood?”

Pete nodded at her and disappeared from the bedroom. Brenna chuckled to herself, loving that her wife and their little girl shared a proclivity for making fires. She had been anxious at first…it seemed a dauntingly dangerous chore to ask of such a young child, but Jo was interested to watch her. It was fascinating. She didn’t have the giddy, overly-excited movements of a child handed the monumental task of playing with fire, because Pete didn’t play. She was methodical and her fine motor skills were far more advanced than any other child her age. She could coax a flame even faster than Jo, and their cabin would be comfortably warm in no time. Watching her with the fire had eased some of the stress when Jo handed her a kitchen knife. She’d had a small stroke the first time she saw the little girl chopping vegetables next to her completely relaxed wife, as if a small child wielding a sharp blade was no big deal. If there was one thing they both were learning from her, it was that Pete was capable of doing far more than they’d ever expected.

Brenna had just finished dropping an arm load of wood on the hearth when Pete landed on the couch. The woman looked up in shock, still not used to the fact that Pete preferred to launch herself over the railing to come down from the loft.

“What would you do if I ever decided to move that couch?” She asked sternly.

Pete lost her grin and her eyes grew large and uncertain. Brenna winked at her and waited…waited…waited as Pete sorted through the complexities of the stern tone coupled with a wink. She giggled timidly, and when Brenna laughed with her she giggled louder, delighted with herself. Brenna shook her head and grinned at her, proud of her leaps of faith this morning. Once, trying to show love by mimicking affection, and twice by realizing that Brenna would never move the couch if it meant Pete would get hurt. Love and trust were built both deliberately and constantly, and it was more than gratifying to see the confident growth spurts from the consistency offered. Have mercy, she loved this child!

After the fire was built, Brenna established herself on the couch with a cup of tea, gently declining the offering of pine needles. She watched as Pete tugged her drawing pad and crayons from the toy crate by the hearth and begin to draw, and they both settled peacefully next to the now roaring fire and waited for their other favorite woman to come home.

Brenna looked up quickly when Pete suddenly rushed to the kitchen window and bounced. Jo must be home. The little girl definitely had a weird sixth sense where the brunette was concerned.

Brenna smiled at the large brown eyes that begged for permission. “Aye, love. Put your coat on, please.”

She was still smiling as she got up from the couch to put the kettle back on. Jo, after being outside for so long, would want something warm before she started making breakfast. After breakfast they would make their first snowman. The women had never made one either, but they saw them all over the yards in town. They covertly watched children roll huge snow balls and help each other stack them and put clothes on them. It looked delightful fun, and they couldn't wait to show Pete how to make her very own. They might have to wait until this pop up storm subsided, but she wasn't concerned. Between Pete and Jo, staying inside was never boring.

She had just turned the burner on when she heard the yell. It was unexpectedly male, and it took her brain a moment to decipher all its meaning.

“Gimme my girl!”

Her heart skipped a beat and she turned the stove off and looked out the kitchen window, peering through the flurry of snow and ice. Her hand flew to her mouth in shock. Jo was kneeling on the driveway, holding Pete. There was something odd about what should have been a heartwarming sight, and with a sickening sensation she thought, where the fuck was her coat? Why was her wife wearing nothing but a tank top?

Then she saw a man…she sucked in a breath…holding a shotgun. Mel. He was screaming at Jo, who seemed only able to clutch the child in her arms. She saw Mel raise the gun and… No, you fucking didn't!

Brenna let out the breath she'd been holding and raced in indignant fury for the front door. She heard, rather than saw the second blow, and an anguished cry escaped her. In a split second decision, she tore herself away from the front door and ran instead to their bedroom. Her hands were shaking right up until she wrapped a fist around their gun. In seconds she slammed the clip into the shaft and jerked the slide back. She had only about seven steps to calm herself or commit murder in front of her wife and child. There was no time for a coat. She left the safety and warmth of their home and kicked the mud room door open just as Mel raised his gun again for another strike. Brenna ground her teeth together angrily and fired a single shot into the air. Her eyes narrowed and her vision tunneled her focus down to a pin point. She wrestled with her rage and directed her sights to the only target she could see…the inch of flesh and bone right between Mel’s eyes.

“Hit her one more time.”

There hadn’t been another choice. He was dragging her back, crushing the life out of her. Her blue arms could barely hold onto him. Brenna didn’t know if Pete had called the police. She didn’t know how long it would take the child to whisper her fears into the phone, or how long it would take for help to arrive. All she knew was that her wife was dying…her love was dying right in front of her as the three scrabbled in their messy stand-off. Neither would yield and against everything she was, Brenna shifted her aim.

Mel must have found her in the woods and forced her to remove her protective layers before coming to the cabin. He had known that Brenna and Pete wouldn't have left the safety of the cabin if he didn't have Jo to draw them out.

How terribly afraid she must have been!

Brenna couldn't fathom what Mel had done to convince her to go with him, but it didn't matter. She knew her wife. Crippling cold and fear aside, Jo knew how to survive, and as long as she lived she'd known there was a chance for the tables to turn. She knew Brenna would see her and she knew about the gun. Anger and hope had always been her strong suits, and the greater of the two…hope…shone brightly in her sharp green eyes.

Brenna couldn’t keep the tears from misting her eyes when she aimed at two targets, one seen and the other invisible. Her last look at her wife’s wide and fearful face was burned forever into her memory. She begged Jo with her eyes to understand her sudden decision. She put her finger on the trigger and silently pleaded with her to be still. She barely stifled the crazy laugh that threatened to burst from her lips.

Be still, my love, so I can shoot you.

Only one target mattered, and she carefully locked her aim onto a spot on her wife’s chest.

She knew it was a last ditch effort when the brunette tried to jerk free. It had been her nightmare, Brenna shooting her. She knew the blonde…the way she thought. And she’d seen her shoot. Her sharp green eyes didn’t miss the tiny change in the way Brenna held the gun. Of course she noticed. She cried out, petrified.

“Bren…!”

She might have thought Brenna’s hesitation meant that she was struggling with her sudden decision. In reality, Brenna had already made up her mind, but she wouldn’t fire until she had a clear shot.

Jo’s final struggle was all that Brenna needed. That minute shift. Was it on purpose? That last, desperate try to tug herself free lined both her and Mel up just right. Jo looked at her with such open fear and panic, but she’d heard Brenna’s soft “baby,” and resignation flooded her features. Brenna watched her tap her chest. Three inches lower than Brenna would dare hit her, but the brunette was making a point, and the whipping wind confirmed it.

I…trust…you…”

Just how much could Brenna ask from this woman? Stay. Be brave. Fix this. Tell the truth. Be still so I can shoot you.

Live.

Live.

I'm not sure I could kill someone, baby.  

Her own words echoed in her mind even as her third shot rang out loud and clear in the storm. It burned her ears and for an instant her mind tried to process what she had just done. But it all went away when she watched in slow motion as both man and woman fell backwards into the snowy drive. She wiped her eyes furiously and held the gun ready, but it wasn't necessary. Neither moved. A sob escaped her throat as she ran to them and crashed to her knees before them. Mel was dead. Her wife was…

Brenna saw the perfect hole she'd created, just below her collarbone. There was no blood, and that frightened her more than if it had been freely flowing. She didn't know what to do. She reached out and tugged her wife off of the dead man, another sob ripping from her. She was so cold! Brenna tried to drag Jo to the cabin…into the warmth they so desperately needed, but her own cold limbs were sluggish to obey her. She screamed a curse and demanded her freezing body to work, and heaved the dead weight in her arms with all her might. She made it to the front steps before she slipped on the ice and fell hard to the ground. She was simply unable to lift the still woman into the cabin and she cursed again in helpless frustration, letting her go and running back inside. She grabbed everything from the little silver hooks in the mudroom. Coats, pullovers …everything she could hold. She raced back outside, shrugging her own coat on and piling everything else on top of Jo. She dragged the unconscious brunette as close as she could and held her tight, her mind furiously trying to think.

Pete came barreling out of the cabin and, ignoring her father completely, fell on top of Jo, clutching her desperately. Her eyes were wide with shock and though her mouth was open, no sound came out. Brenna reached out and gripped the child, unable to wonder if she had seen what happened. Unable to ask if she had called for help like they had taught her weeks ago.

But in the near distance, she heard sirens, and she closed her eyes in relief and held her girls closer.

Chapter Text

The timeline of the morning was so crystal clear in her head. It was so vivid in her mind that she felt she could close her eyes and see each blissful moment replay. Five hours ago she’d awoken to warm hands sliding up her leg, drawing her nightdress up and exposing her to the full warmth of her wife’s touch. She’d groaned quietly, rolling onto her back under the covers, when the other woman roused her gently from sleep and silently begged to please her. Her mind had been too muddled with sleep to ask if Jo was ok…knowing the brunette often chose sex over thinking or talking as a way to escape her mind for a little while longer. They’d certainly had plenty to process over the last few weeks! Brenna let herself be consumed by her wife’s fire until they were both spent and lay once again entwined. Only when she could speak coherently again, she quietly breathed out her question.

“I just love ya,” came the whispered reply.

Two hours ago she had slipped an arm around her wife’s warm middle and held her close…almost hoping that she would resist being held in bed just so that Brenna could work on her favorite wife-exhausting skills. Sometimes she was convinced that Jo put up a fight on purpose. Some mornings the delightfully green pupils were just too dilated, and her groans of complaint were too husky for the blonde to fully believe she really wanted to get out of the bed. Brenna had acquiesced this morning, still rather sated from earlier. Only an hour ago, Pete had surprised them both by sneaking into their bedroom when Jo was in the bathroom. Brenna had pulled the covers away invitingly, and was both surprised and warmed when the little girl had climbed happily in next to her. Thirty minutes ago they had been by the fire, waiting in happy anticipation for Jo to come back from the woods.

Everything was crystal clear, that is, until ten seconds ago her third and final shot echoed around their driveway and she watched two people fall into the snow by the time that last copper casing hit the icy drive.

The ringing in her ears muffled all other sound. She didn't hear the bodies land. She didn't notice the casing clink against the ice. She didn't hear the whipping wind blow the fury of the storm around them.

But she could feel. By god she felt everything. The sting of the cold, the painful pop off her eardrums, her wife’s icy skin, the hardness of the driveway when she fell, and the weight of Pete colliding with them.

And her heart. All else faded into the background against the terrible tearing in her chest as soon as she saw the perfect, bloodless hole in Jo’s chest. The stabbing, aching, ripping sensation that had sapped her strength and brought her to the ground. One thought…just the one…pierced through everything she felt.

She’d missed

In that most horrifying juxtaposition of uncertainty and clarity she'd fired the only shot that had ever mattered in all her life and she had missed.

She must have. Jo didn't howl in searing pain, grab her shoulder and glare at Brenna with a mixture of horror, pride and gratitude. She'd simply fallen back just as lifeless as the man holding her. Brenna’s fingers were too frozen to feel a pulse…but she knew if her aim had been true, her wife would still be conscious. Frozen and suffering…but alive.

As it was, Jo’s skin only got hellishly bluer, and her eyes remained closed.

Brenna was vaguely aware when they weren't alone in the storm. The alternate flashing of brilliant blue and blinding white of the police clashed against the equally painful strobe of red and yellow of the ambulance.

Only when she felt herself being tugged away from Jo’s unconscious form did she snap back into focus. Her cold fingers jerked and her ears painfully popped again when she suddenly screamed and held her girls tighter. She couldn't hear what the officer looming in front of her was saying because she'd missed. She'd missed.

She'd missed.

“Brenna! Let go! We need to get her to the hospital NOW!”

Strong hands ripped her grip free and just like that, her arms were bereft of her love. She struggled against the man holding her, dragging her away from the gurney and towards the cabin.

Pete!

Another officer was pulling the screaming child away as well. Brenna saw red as she watched her frightened baby fight tooth and nail for release. She wasn't aware what she'd done to the officer holding her but he suddenly let her go with a cry of pain. She sprinted for the man holding her daughter and when he saw her coming he quickly let the child go.

Woman and child crashed into each other in a flurry of limbs and suddenly she was holding her little girl for dear life. They were both crying, and some of Brenna’s hysteria subsided as she pressed Pete into her chest. They were both too cold. They needed warmth now.

Independent of her cognitive capabilities, she moved swiftly for the cabin. She didn't stop until they were both in front of the blazing fire Pete had built earlier.  Brenna knelt by the fire, holding the child and rubbing warmth back into her shaking limbs. As their circulation began to flow and heat permeated their bodies, Brenna finally was aware that the officer that had followed them into the cabin was the same one that had brought Pete in for an exam. With the ambulance gone and the other officers finished with their duties, he alone remained and waited patiently for Brenna to gather herself. When she at last looked up at him, he nodded grimly. The women weren’t the only ones who had been afraid of some sort of backlash revolving around the removal of Pete from the couple who had denied claim to her.

Charlie had made them both steaming cups of the hot chocolate he’d found in the pantry. He handed them each a cup and took a seat next to them on the hearth. “I’ve called Bernie and Martha. They are on their way over now.” He said quietly. Brenna sipped her drink and nodded numbly. Charlie rested a comforting hand on her knee. “They can stay with Pete tonight. I’ll need you to come with me to the hospital. I’ll need a statement, ok?”

Brenna was stroking the child’s hair, and she nodded again absently. Nothing felt real until the little girl suddenly turned her huge brown eyes up to her and asked quietly, “Jo?”

Brenna couldn’t get words around the lump that had formed in her throat, and she looked to Charlie for help. He dropped his deep voice to a gentler tone. “She’ll pull through, Pete. I’ve a feeling that woman is a lot stronger than we know.”

He looked at Brenna for confirmation, but she’d closed her eyes and turned her head away.

Charlie was talking to the social worker in hushed tones. Brenna could only glance at them once before burying her head in her hands and trying not to feel the darkening unease pressing into her gut at the whispered conversation between the policeman and the social worker.

There had been no time to process with either Bernie or Martha on just how she should handle this. They had arrived at the cabin in a short time and had instantly made her feel assured about leaving Pete in their care. Martha hugged her firmly and whispered a loving “I’m so proud of you, girl,” into her ear before walking over to Pete and sitting close to her on the hearth. The old woman didn’t say one word, and within moments, the little girl was in her lap and the old woman was rocking her slowly and whispering things Brenna couldn’t hear into her tiny ears.

Bernie stopped her for a moment before she left the cabin with Charlie. He handed her a small folded piece of paper and whispered, “Wrote this for you on the way over. Things are different here. You’ll be ok Bren. Just bring our girl home, ok?”

But there had been no time to think. She knew that Charlie would eventually pull her aside and take her statement. She knew that the social worker would be with him, determining whether or not she’d made a grave error recommending them as a safe couple. Brenna wondered now if she could even tell the truth, as she had always done in the past. To do anything else would be to prove, if even to herself, that she was an unfit parent. But to do so made her sound like a fucking lunatic.

What she was struggling with, is how to explain exactly why her wife had a bullet hole in her chest. Why had she taken a shot at Mel?

Because he was killing my wife right before my eyes.

Why had she not actually aimed for the man, if she was going to pull the trigger? How had Jo been hit? Had she been so wildly reckless with a loaded gun that she just shot blindly in the direction of the threat? To explain her true rationale, in all its horrific intention, would be to put the final nail into the coffin of her newfound family. She had wanted him dead, and he was covering his vitals with Jo’s body. It had been so clear in the moment that not just any bullet would do. It had to be aimed with great intent, to both save and execute…it had to be implemented with the poise indicative of an expert, albeit rusty, sharpshooter.

Yes, officer, I wanted to kill and unarmed man, but my wife was in the way. So I shot through her to kill him.

How on earth would any judge ever agree that they could provide a safe home? Had the adoption been complete, this would play out differently. But Brenna knew that they were only a shadow away from losing Pete for good. It wouldn’t take much to see how careless she’d been, even in the heightened peril of the moment, to fire a bullet at two unarmed people. No one would ever know the anguish it would cause her forever…to have taken that shot, and no one would ever know that it wasn’t just an arbitrary, hasty shot taken by a woman overcome by panic. They wouldn’t know that it was perfectly timed and calculated and waited for. They would never know that she didn’t hesitate even for a second when the timing was right.

They would never know that Brenna never missed.

She groaned internally, amending her own thought. Never missed until, that is, it had mattered the most.

Brenna shook her head against the fresh onslaught of tears that threatened to fall. She had to pull herself together for when the doctor came back. It made little sense to fall apart even before she knew the outcome. She leaned back in her chair and stuffed her hands into her pockets. She felt the little scrap of paper that Bernie had given to her earlier. She’d forgotten all about it. She cast another wary look at Charlie and the social worker before unfolding the piece of paper.

Castle Doctrine Law (2011 Wis. Act 94) “In the state of Wisconsin, the law on self-defense, otherwise known as the Castle Law, generally states you may employ lethal force to defend yourself or another if you or they are in reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm.”

Brenna reread the note in shock, not fully understanding.  What was this, now? There were laws similar to this in Australia, but there were many loopholes to the standard. As much as anyone had a right to defend themselves in a life threatening circumstance, she’d seen victims land in prison for using lethal force against their unarmed attacker.

She wasn’t proud of what she’d done, and she also wouldn’t have done anything different. To do so would have meant to watch the love of her life be murdered. Thirty seconds ago she had been fully expecting to face the legal repercussions of her decision. But now? Had she really done nothing legally wrong? What was this hope that Bernie had handed to her? This state…this state expected her to do no less when faced with such peril? To the authorities, the fact that her wife had been shot as well might easily be written off as an accident in Brenna’s attempt to shoot the menace in the heart.

Jesus Christ she didn’t have to figure out an explanation. She simply had to tell them what happened.

Brenna crinkled her brow and wiped a hand over her face. She needed Jo to explain this to her in a way she could comprehend. The brunette had a way of understanding legal terms and clarifying the confusing bits whenever Brenna asked.  As a psychologist, Brenna’s mind wasn’t orientated towards the law…only the criminal minds behind the crime itself…in this instance…herself.

She groaned quietly and buried her face in her hands again. She felt no remorse in killing Mel. She was greatly disturbed by that, but pushed it away for later. She didn’t want to spend one second thinking about him while she was waiting for Jo to come out of surgery. Right now, she could deduce that she might have acted in accordance with the law and tried to relax her anxious heart. She looked at the two in the corner again.

She realized, for the first time, that there was a lightness in the way Charlie and the social worker were communicating. She hadn’t noticed before because she was burdened with the deep anxiety and paranoia that she had done wrong in their eyes. Now that she knew what they had already known, she saw them differently. Their body language was open. Their voices were quiet but calm. They weren’t here, she suddenly realized, to take Pete away from her. They were here out of a concern for Jo and herself. Brenna felt tears in her eyes. Was this backwards, or how it should always be?

“The cold saved her life. She didn't lose a drop of blood.”

The doctor stood tiredly in front of Brenna, Charlie and the social worker. He frowned at Brenna. “You took a huge risk with that shot, Mrs. Matheson. Even a centimeter in either direction would have had devastating effects. As it was, that lucky shot only hit soft tissue. We were able to repair the damaged tissue and stitch her back up.”

Brenna forced herself to pay attention when all she wanted to do was scream in relief. She hadn’t missed her shot after all! Her Jo was ALIVE!

There was something more the doctor wanted to say, and she waited, hardly breathing. When he finally spoke again, her heart plummeted back into despair. “The only thing is…she hasn’t woken up yet.” He saw the color drain from her face and quickly put up a hand. “That's not entirely unexpected. She was too cold for too long and then suffered quite a trauma, both physically and mentally. Sometimes the body and the brain need some peace and quiet before coming back to consciousness.”

Brenna was well aware of what a situation like this could do to someone else...anyone else. If she hadn’t known Jo Walker at all, she'd be nodding her head in complete understanding. But she did know her. Yes, Jo Walker lay there, but so did Franky fucking Doyle. If anyone could reconcile a traumatic situation it was her.

So she didn't nod her head in understanding. She began to shake it even before the doctor finished speaking. She was simply not accepting that.

“Can I see her?”

“Of course. Right this way.”

Jo lay in the hospital bed. She looked pale, but peaceful. Brenna reached out to brush a strand from her forehead, relieved to feel warmth from the skin she touched. “But she’s physically ok?” She asked.

The doctor nodded. “Oh yes. All her vitals are stable. All we can do now is wait for her to wake up.”

Brenna held her composure until the doctor left her alone. She stood by the bed and held her wife's hand and was barely conscious of any other bits of information she was offered from the nurse or the technician. When the room became theirs and theirs alone her face collapsed and she crumbled against the bed, tears streaming down her cheeks.

This woman had survived it all! There was nobody in the entire world who knew the fucking mountains she'd moved to live this long better than Brenna. The blonde grit her teeth and leaned down until her lips were close to the brunette’s ear. “You wake up, Franky Doyle. You fucking wake up right now!”

She fully expected to see those impossible green eyes open and be blessed with her wife's lopsided smile. When it didn't happen, Brenna stroked her cheek and pressed her forehead into the other woman's. “Don't you leave me, Jo.” She said, softer. “Don't you dare. Come back to me, love.”

But the steady rise and fall of Jo’s chest was her only response. Brenna laid her head against the strong heartbeat and wept.

Chapter Text

“Brenna, we’ve tried everything, love. We’ve kept her routine, but that is the only thing she’s responded to.”

Brenna frowned into the phone. She hadn’t left Jo’s side in two days. How could she? Even stepping away to use the restroom caused such a panic that Jo would open her eyes and be all alone. All of the blonde’s responsibilities had been put on the back burner in favor of her other half. She simply couldn’t stand to be apart from her sleeping wife. Not for a minute. She curled up each night on the little couch and jumped at every sound. She woke every time a nurse came in to check Jo’s vitals. The answer to her questions were always the same.

She’s stable, Mrs. Matheson. We just need to wait for her to come to on her own.

“Bren?”

Brenna sighed, holding the hospital’s phone in one hand and her wife’s hand in the other. “I’m here, Martha. Are you reading to her?”

Martha snorted into the phone. “Books. She needs you.”

The panic welled in Brenna’s chest at the thought of leaving Jo. “I can’t come home without her.”

 “Jo is in good hands, love.”

“So is Pete.”

Martha was stern. “Aye, love, but it’s not our hands she needs to be in. She’s lost without you. We’ve tried coloring, dancing, cooking, and reading…she does everything we ask of her, but, Bren…she’s blank. Bernie even brought her one of his rocking horses.”

“She doesn’t play.” Brenna said automatically. She closed her eyes, and tightened her grip around Jo’s hand. “Martha, I can’t…”

“You can and you will. She stopped eating this morning. She simply stares into the fire all damn day. You come home to your girl, you hear? Bernie and I will trade places with you and stay with Jo.”

Brenna opened her mouth to argue, but she had a vision of the destitute little girl slowly losing her mind in the flames, waiting for them to come home. Brenna had pushed away every other thought in her mind to focus on Jo, and knew her wife would be furious with her if she neglected their little girl, even for a second. Tears sprung in her eyes and she swallowed hard. “Ok. Ok, I’ll be there soon.”

When she hung up the phone she bent down and kissed Jo’s lips. “Baby? Will you wake up now? Will you wake up so I don’t have to go home without you?”

She waited on bated breath, but only the steady beep on the heart monitor answered her. She let her tears fall and kissed her wife one last time. “I’ll come back, my love. I promise.”

Brenna clutched her phone tightly the whole way home, ready to turn around should the hospital suddenly call her. She had pulled into the driveway of the cabin before she realized she was even home. She fought tears as she pulled her coat closer into her body and made her way to the front door. She was careful to skirt the area where both Jo and Mel had fallen. There was no evidence that a death had happened in their drive, but she could still see flashes of the moment if she looked too long.

When she opened the door and stepped into the kitchen, Pete came running from the living room to meet her. The little girl froze a few feet away and looked past Brenna. Her face went from joyous hope to…blank. She took the last few steps slower, and Brenna knelt down and hugged her. The hug wasn’t returned. Pete lay her head on Brenna’s shoulder, but her arms were loose at her sides. She seemed smaller; frailer, than the last time Brenna had seen her. Holding her was like holding water. She knew she was holding something, but there was no substance, and the tighter she held, the more the little girl seemed to fade away.

A sob stuck in Brenna’s throat. What a selfish fool she had been! She knew that look. She knew it well. The blank stare, the slightly open mouth. The shallow breathing. How many times had she looked in the mirror and seen that same look in her reflection? Grief. It went deeper than sadness; was felt more potently than pain. In the months following her wife’s second incarceration she had begun to avoid mirrors completely, unable to look into her own eyes anymore.

All the while she was at Jo’s side, their little girl was grieving as if Jo had been killed right along with her father. She didn’t understand comas. She didn’t understand the term her vitals are stable. All she knew was that Jo had been put in the same ambulance as her father and neither one of them had returned. In her little mind, Jo was dead. Brenna coming home without her seemed to confirm it.

Up until a few weeks ago, there had only been two people in Pete’s life. They had both terrified her greatly, but they were consistently in her life. Then she had met Jo, or rather, she’d been caught by Jo. And without any warning, her little life had completely been uprooted. The sky of her world had fallen into darkness and then had risen into light. Now there were two other people in her life. People that brought out her silly side. Her laughter. People that resonated safety and love and compassion. People that never hurt her or caused her to be afraid. In the weeks following her rescue, she had, with their patient coaxing, come alive. Pete began to understand what love was, and first through imitation and then through actual emotion, she began to love them back.

Brenna knew of the special bond she shared with Jo. She wasn’t convinced that it was solely due to the fact that Jo had stumbled upon her first. There was something else. It wasn’t because Jo had suffered much of the same abusive treatment. Pete didn’t know about Jo’s history. She didn’t know the brunette shared many of the same scars as her. But for some reason, the little girl had latched onto Jo with a fierceness she’s never shown to Brenna. Somehow they understood each other, and their mysterious connection had only grown stronger in the weeks they spent together. As much as their little girl shared her growing affection for them both, the blonde was wise enough to know that she wasn’t the only one hopelessly and irreversibly in love with her wife.

But then, in a fragment of one freezing morning, all was upended again. Her skies had fallen and Pete was left in despair. She’d lost the only human she’d ever truly and instantly connected with. Jo might have well been dead for all she knew, and as Brenna knelt on the hard floor and held her, she understood that Pete had never experienced anything like this before. No one in her shallow world had ever died. No one had ever abandoned her. She was never taught about grief because there had never been a need. Now, all alone in her head, she’d withdrawn from the world she’d come to love and was slowly slipping away.

It didn't matter if she was told that Jo was either alive or dead because she couldn't see her. She couldn't touch her or lay her head on the warm safety of her chest.  She couldn't be wrapped in that strong embrace. She couldn't feel her hair or hear her voice or be consumed by her laugh. She only knew absence, and in that absence was a nothingness that made room only for the grief Brenna could see in her features now.

Pete didn't need to be sheltered from this, she needed to be invited into it. She needed to be a part of the hope they all had that any moment now Jo would wake up. Trying to protect her from seeing her beloved brunette in a comatose state had quite the opposite effect of ignorance being bliss. Of course it did. While Brenna could stroke Jo’s hair and whisper her love for her and see her breathe and feel her strong heartbeat, Pete had been left in the dark…apart from any tangible indication that Jo was even alive.

Brenna cursed herself and her selfishness. All she could do now was try and make up for her error by drawing her child into absolutely everything. Her fragile emotional state was balanced upon the truth, and Brenna had seriously tipped the scales into the danger zone. This was not a regular child, happily oblivious to pain and trauma. She knew what suffering was, though she still couldn't label every thought. But she was well aware of it and thus needed to be allowed to wrap all of her senses around Jo and what was happening. Brenna was determined to let her feel everything and would stand with her every step of the way to help her process.

Brenna pulled back and cupped the child’s face. “I’m sorry, my love.”

Pete just stared at her blankly. Brenna rubbed her thumbs against her soft cheeks and nodded. “Get your coat, Pete.”

The gentle command was obeyed automatically, and when Pete had left to gather her coat, Martha and Bernie eyed the blonde. Bernie cleared his throat. “Are you sure? You had not wanted her to see Jo like this for a reason.”

Brenna shook her head. “I was wrong. We are a family, and we are going to stick together. I’m taking her to the hospital.”

Martha leaned into her husband. She appraised Brenna proudly. “It’s about time, girl. Go get changed. We’ll stop by tomorrow with lunch.”

Brenna moved forward and hugged the older woman. “Thank you. Thank you both.”

Bernie put a kind hand on her shoulder. He had had this discussion with his wife yesterday, but they both knew that Brenna had to see for herself what her absence…what both of their absences…were costing Pete. Martha had declared that if she didn’t come home today, they were going to bring the little girl to the hospital themselves. They knew that being parents was new to the young couple, and even normal pairs faced difficult choices when it came to their spouses and their children. Jo and Brenna couldn’t afford the luxury of selfishness. Not anymore. Pete needed to forever come first, and they were both relieved to see a shift in Brenna’s resolve once she laid eyes on the little girl.

When at last they had arrived to Jo’s room, Brenna opened the door and led Pete in. She explained to the huge brown eyes on the way to the hospital what could be expected and what was feverishly hoped for. Now she just had to sit back and let the little girl react.

Pete crept on soft feet towards the bed. Her head was slightly tilted and her eyes never left the sleeping woman's face. When she got to the side of the bed she hesitated for just a moment, but then she put her tiny hands on the bed rails and climbed into the bed. She knelt next to Jo and put her hand against her heart, feeling the healthy thump in time with the heart monitor. Then she stroked Jo’s cheek.

“I’m sorry.”

It was barely audible, but Brenna heard it. She reached out immediately and rubbed Pete’s arm. “No, baby. This was not your fault.”

Pete’s eyes were wide and sparkling with unshed tears. She shook her head and her little chest heaved. “My fault.”

Brenna leaned into the bed and wrapped her arms around her little girl. Pete clutched at her, still shaking her head. “Mine. Mine. MINE!”

She struggled against Brenna as she screamed her anguish to her fallen sky. Brenna held her firmly, refusing to let go…ever again…until finally Pete collapsed against her and sobbed. Her fists were clenched around the fabric of Brenna’s shirt and she buried her face in the blonde’s chest. They held each other close for an unmeasured amount of time, until the wracking sobs quieted. Brenna rocked the little girl gently.

“This was, and never will be, your fault, Pete. You hear me?”

Pete didn’t answer except for another hiccuped cry of pain. Brenna rubbed her back soothingly. “We cannot shoulder the burden of every evil man’s actions, or we would crumble under the weight.”

She was uncertain if the little girl understood her, and was relieved when she slowly nodded. Her brow furrowed and her jaw clenched. “Papa.”

Brenna gripped her, unable to ask if the child had seen the last moments of her father’s life. All she could do was whisper, “I’m sorry, baby.”

But Pete shook her head again and pulled away, turning to tuck in next to Jo. Brenna didn’t have to remind her to be careful. The little girl was meticulous with her every movement, and gingerly snuggled into Jo’s uninjured side. When she took Jo’s arm and draped it over her own little body to squeeze in closer, Brenna knew that she had made the right choice. She pulled the visitors chair as close as she could, knowing that their lives were far richer with this small child in it, and never again would she think otherwise. She leaned in when she realized the little girl was mumbling. It was breathy and soft and could hardly be heard against the backdrop of the bustling hospital.

“Mama. Mama, wake up.”

Brenna almost choked on a sob. That was the mysterious connection. Pete had instinctively envisioned a mother her whole entire existence. That void had never been filled…until she met Jo. Then, suddenly and as if by magic, the maternal core of her wife had aligned with what Pete had been craving all of her five years, and it could never be severed. Not now, and not ever. It was as if Pete had always belonged to Jo, and Jo had unknowingly been seeking this child her entire life. It didn’t matter to either of them that it wasn’t biological because they had finally found each other. The thin compromise that had barely gotten the fugitives to this wild state was just enough to pull them within arm’s length to each other. The rest happened naturally as the universe satisfied itself on a job well done. She reached out and stroked the resting child. She wanted to offer wisdom or comfort, but this was where she was at a loss. She had no answers as to why Jo wouldn’t wake up. She didn’t, the doctors didn’t…all anyone could say was to wait.

Wait.

Wait.

And they would. They would put roots down in this tiny hospital room for however long it would take, and they would do it together. She watched Pete raise up and press her head against Jo’s forehead, much like she had done to Brenna only a few short mornings ago. I love you.

“Wake up, mama.”

Brenna opened her mouth to answer the quiet plea, but her heart suddenly lodged in her throat. Jo’s eyes had fluttered and opened, and she smiled lazily at her little girl.

“Hey, bub.”

Chapter Text

You wake up, Franky Doyle. You fucking wake up right now!

Prison walls. Graying blue paint chipping off of cold concrete. Heavy iron bars. Tiles floors and teal and a sea of women constantly on the verge of violence. She didn’t want to see that. She didn’t want to open her eyes.

Don’t you leave me, Jo. Don’t you dare. Come back to me love.

A little cabin in the woods. Cold, wintry nights wrapped in warm, loving arms. The smell of pine and sugar. The feel of her wife. Bridget…Brenna. The love of her life. Her co-wanderer, fellow fugitive; her best kept secret from the world that would see her burn. She felt her favorite hands on her chest and relaxed further into them. She was home, but now she couldn’t open her eyes.

Baby? Will you wake up now? Will you wake up so I don’t have to go home without you?

Go without me? We are home, my love. I’m right here. I’ll always be here. Shapes moved behind her closed eyes and she felt tears on her face; lips on her cheek. What is the matter, my love? Where are you going? Wait…

Don’t go.

Don’t go!

BRENNA!

 …

Little hands touching her chest, feeling her heartbeat and calling her from sleep. Shadowy dreams came and went, until she had little idea what was real and what was not. She could feel her heart thump under the warm fingers. She felt so...drowsy...like she'd been woken too quickly after days of being awake. She didn’t want to open her eyes just yet. Her bed was warm. She couldn't remember if she needed to be at class today. She actually didn't know what day it was. Had she tried to get up already this morning? Was it morning? Had Brenna already held onto her stubbornly and loved her into a deep submission? Her body felt tired, for sure, but it wasn’t the sort she was accustomed to. 

There was no blissfully burning sign that her body had been spent by her lover’s touch. There was no satisfied warmth between her legs. No shaking inner thighs, or exhausted stomach muscles. Her skin didn't prickle pleasantly from a recent memory of her wife’s hands and tongue. She couldn't taste Brenna on her lips. Her breasts didn’t gently throb and already miss heated hands upon them.

But there was pain. It was dull, like she was feeling it from a great distance. It radiated there in her chest, just above her heart. Each breath she drew was getting more and more cautious as she came slowly into wakefulness; experiencing the foreign hurt just a little bit more. It was uncomfortable, and it rather troubled her that she couldn’t immediately place its origin.

She felt the little hands moving. She heard sounds…finally pushing through the sleepy fog of her muddled mind. Had Brenna gotten up before her? That would be a first! And…what on earth was she doing? She could hear beeps and bustling and all sorts of things in motion. Her heart thumped a bit faster. Was she in the kitchen? They had agreed long ago that the kitchen was Jo’s domain, and Brenna was content to let her wife rule that space. The more Jo thought and tried to decipher the strange sounds, the more awake her puzzled brain became. Her heart thudded again when a little forehead bumped into hers. Tiny hands followed suit against her cheeks in the same, favorite gesture she shared with her wife. She was warmed by the surprise of this newest mimic of affection. As far as she knew, neither Brenna nor herself had done this particular act of affection on their baby girl…and yet, here she was, doing it on her own! Her chest expanded in the last breath of sleep and she tried to open her eyes. She couldn’t wait to tell her wife what Pete had just done!

Her body was too slow to respond to her brain’s command to wake up and acknowledge the little girl pressed against her. It was a bit frustrating and very confusing, and she wrestled with a clearer mind to force herself to open her eyes.

“Mama, wake up.”

Soft brown hair tickled her face and warm breath breathed those sweet words into her ears. Another first…and oh how beautiful it was! A feeling washed over her that she’d never felt before. It was like glowing, warm electricity…running in a blissful current and bringing life to her unresponsive limbs. There was no more room for her heart to expand with the joy and pride she felt. She had never dreamed in her wildest, untethered imagination that she would ever hear those words. That she would ever hear that name, spoken so tenderly and directed at her. Mama. She was someone’s Mama…and not just any someone…her beloved Pete. Her sweet, shy, most precious baby girl. Her eyelids finally fluttered and she felt a lazy, happy grin spread across her face.

“Hey, bub.”

Her confusion in finding herself in a hospital bed instead of her bed at home graduated quickly into fear when she saw the haggard, tear stained faces of both her child and her wife. She cleared her raspy voice as she tried to get a handle on her surroundings. When she opened her mouth again she didn’t have time to ask anything because suddenly Brenna was there…grabbing her face and pressing their lips together more intimately than she’d ever done in front of Pete before. There was a feverish urgency behind the kiss, a desperation that Jo struggled to understand. It was far more than any other good morning kiss she’d ever experienced, and in the back of her still cloudy mind she had a deep and unsettling suspicion that something terrible may have happened while she slept. When Brenna pulled away at last and looked deeply into confused green, she crinkled her brow and breathed a quiet, “do you remember?”

Jo shook her head, eyes widened to take in all of her surroundings. Fresh tears sprung into Brenna’s eyes and she straightened up. “I’m getting the doctor, hang on, baby.”

There wasn’t much more clarity when the little hospital room buzzed with new life. Nurses checked her vitals and a doctor spoke kindly to her, but she only shook her head in frustration when their tentative questions had to go unanswered. She didn’t know, and she had questions of her own. Many of them. She caught the frightened look her wife shot at the doctor. She lifted her arm. “Bren…?”

Brenna was there immediately, and her troubled blue eyes softened. “I’m here, baby.”

“What happened? Why am I here?”

Brenna looked at Pete and shook her head in a not yet kind of way. This only served to frustrate Jo further and she tried to sit up. The sudden, blinding pain in her chest caused her to gasp and a flurry of hands rushed to settle her back on the bed. The nurse moved in the corner of her eye and she barely had time to register the needle coming out of the saline tube in her arm. She felt the drugs immediately and couldn’t help but lay her head back on the pillow. “What happened?” She slurred. No one answered, and a dark and dreamless sleep overtook her once again.

The next time she woke, only Brenna was with her. The blonde was sitting by her bed, her head resting on her arm against the mattress. She stirred from her sleep when she felt Jo move. “Jo?”

“I’m here. Don’t let them put me out again.”

Brenna laughed gently. “They’ll have to get through me first. I didn’t know she’d do that.” She stood and leaned over, kissing the brunette on the forehead. “How do you feel?”

“Where’s Pete?”

Brenna smiled at her and gently brushed a strand of hair from her forehead. “At home, with Bernie and Martha.”

Jo was confused by the timeline in her head. Her daughter had just been there next to her, calling her Mama. She scrunched her nose and groaned. “Why does my chest hurt?”

Brenna brought her a glass of water and helped her take a sip. She put the glass on the side table and sighed. “You don’t remember? Not anything?”

“No.”

Brenna sat back in the chair next to the bed and rested her elbow on the mattress and put her chin in her hand. “Try, please. Take your time.”

Jo studied her for a moment. There was something wrong. Her wife seemed as hesitant to say the truth as Jo was anxious to hear it. Brenna wanted her to remember so they could process together. She was fighting herself from saying whatever it was aloud. It was…disturbing. Jo leaned back on the pillow and closed her eyes. With a sudden surge of panic, she remembered something. Brenna grabbed her hand when she gasped. She remembered the sound of a shotgun being cocked behind her. She’d been in the woods. Mel had been there. She sucked in a sharp breath and fought herself for more. Dark, cold voids floated intrusively in her mind surrounding all of the moments beyond hearing Mel cock the shotgun behind her in the woods. However hard she tried to recall anything, she only felt frozen, and quite alarmingly her hands began to shake. She felt ice in her veins and the ache in her chest. Mel. The shotgun. That loud, metal drawing against metal sound echoed against the walls of blackness in her mind. Her chest constricted and her nose began to bleed.

Brenna jumped up and grabbed for a tissue, pressing it against Jo’s nose. She saw the frustration in her wife’s face and realized that she would have to say it after all. All of it. A part of her was hoping against all hope that Jo would remember what she had done…that she had known there had been no other choice and had finally given her permission. She took a breath.

Stay still so I can shoot you.

“Mel found you in the woods when you went to go collect wood. He had you at gunpoint, and brought you to the cabin. He was after Pete, baby.”

Jo wiped her nose and struggled to sit up. She refused to lay down anymore and pulled Brenna in closer so she would help. “I remember the sound of him behind me with the shotgun.”

“Anything else?”

Jo finally found a position sitting up that she could tolerate. Everything ached. She pulled the hospital gown down away from her neck and looked at the bandage over the space between her heart and her collarbone. “No. How did I get hurt?”

Brenna reached out and traced the bandage gently. “He…grabbed you…you were so frozen that you couldn’t move…and used you as a shield. He was choking you. Do you remember?”

Jo looked at her, hearing the soft plea in the question. She furrowed her brow. “I was cold.”

“You were freezing.” Brenna corrected. “He’d taken your coat and sweater. We don’t know how long you were exposed, but it was long enough to turn your skin blue.” Brenna took the brunette’s hand and rubbed it as if it were still cold. “Like ice,” she whispered.

Jo covered the hand holding hers. “Bren…what happened?”

“I had our gun and I…shot through you and into him. Into his heart. I…killed him.”

She looked at Jo, her blue eyes pleading for forgiveness. Her last sentence didn’t even touch on the agony of her choice…of its outcome. She herself hadn’t even processed that she’d killed a man in cold blood. She had been too frantic that she might have also killed her wife. She felt the start of tears in her eyes as Jo stared at her, shocked. “You…shot me?”

Brenna looked away then. “I thought I had killed you, too. You fell with him and you didn’t get back up. You were so cold. The ambulance brought you here two days ago. We’ve been waiting for you to wake up.”

“Mel is dead?”

Brenna nodded, facing her again. “Yes. His wife was found later that day. She had been shot with his shotgun. The police think Mel killed her before coming for Pete. He found you in the woods on his way to the cabin. The police think he walked so we wouldn’t hear the backfire of his plow.”

Jo’s heart clenched when she thought of her baby. Both her parents…dead. “Petey…” she wailed softly. When she looked at Brenna’s heartbroken face she couldn’t ask if their little girl understood any of this. Not yet. Not until they had come to grips with everything else together and were one again. There were still things she needed to understand. She touched the bandage on her chest, just above her heart. “You shot me?” She asked again, quietly.

Tears pooled in her wife’s eyes but they didn’t fall. She only nodded and stared at the bandage. “He was killing you, right in front of me.” She whispered. “You tried to fight him, and when he shifted behind you I saw…I saw the shot and I took it.”

Jo closed her eyes. Saw the shot and took it. Brenna had first aimed, and then fired a bullet through her chest to kill Mel. She opened her mouth but then cried out in sudden pain as the onset of memories flooded her brain. She slammed her eyes shut and grit her teeth. She remembered. Mel, his hateful, sickening words, the freezing cold, the walk back to the cabin, Pete running to greet her, the terror, the unbearable pain of being hit with the shotgun.

And her wife. She remembered the cold fury of Brenna’s face as she dared Mel to hit her again. She remembered the rigid spine and steady hands and dangerous tone as she aimed the gun at them. She remembered being choked, barely keeping consciousness. She remembered the shift in her lover’s aim.

And she remembered tapping her chest. Brenna may have thought of it first, but Jo was right there with her. I trust you. She opened her eyes and saw the pain on her wife’s face. She reached out and Brenna was in her arms, clutching her and crying and kissing her face. “I remember.” She said quietly.

“Baby! I’m sorry!”

Jo held her as tight as she could, wincing through the pain of the motion. She shook her head. “You saved us, Bren. You fucking saved us.” Even as she said it, her admiration for the woman in her arms overwhelmed her and she shook her head again. “Jesus, what a woman you are.”

“I killed a man.”

Jo pulled back a little so she could see Brenna’s tear stained face. “You saved my life. You saved Pete.” She said firmly. “That man…he was a monster, Bren. Pat hid Pete’s gender from him her whole life because he…was inclined towards little girls.”

Brenna closed her eyes briefly and nodded slowly. That had been her theory, when she had first met Mel in their front yard. His stubbornness to claim Pete was a boy had been born of the only truth he’d ever known. She felt sick. Having a theory and knowing the truth were two different things. Jo brushed a thumb over her cheek, catching a tear and wiping it away. “He was a monster.” She said again, softly. “Pat knew it, and he killed her for it. He was going to kill us, too. He was going to take Pete.” She leaned back a little. “I didn’t want to go with him to the cabin. I felt like I was leading him right to you.”

Brenna wiped the last of her tears away. “If you hadn’t, he would have taken us by surprise. This would have ended much differently.”

They both stared at each other, not intending to but thinking anyway of the very different outcome. Jo blew out a breath. “Are we in trouble?”

Brenna smiled in spite of herself. We. Your mess is mine. “Does the Castle Law mean anything to you?”

Jo raised her eyebrows and nodded, a smile finally tugging at the corner of her mouth. “Aye, love. It does.”

That was enough for Brenna. She climbed into the hospital bed carefully and tucked herself against her wife’s uninjured side. They were quiet as they held each other, exhausted and grateful and knowing they were the fucking luckiest women alive. There was more to talk about…to process, but for now, in this moment, they simply needed to be close. Jo hugged her fierce, beautiful, brave and brilliant Brenna…and Brenna rested her head lovingly against her Ace of Spades.

Chapter Text

He didn’t notice anything other than the fact that his favorite person was home. He barely heard the gentle reminder to put on his coat before crashing out of the kitchen doors and into her waiting arms. He had a brief thought of how cold she was…like his toes had been that one night he’d cried himself to sleep rubbing them.

And then there was only terror. Blinding, crippling terror. He screamed when Papa raised the gun. He felt the shockwaves as his nightmare struck down over and over. He heard the cry of pain from the woman holding him so tightly. These hits were meant for him, and Mama was taking them all, shielding him; protecting him. It was the first time in his life someone had shouldered his punishment so his little body wouldn’t have to. He clutched her tighter and hid his head in her freezing chest. He was so sorry!

Two deafening shots hurt his ears and he cried in fear.

He was jerked off of his feet like a ragdoll. He kicked furiously, screaming the only name he ever loved. He couldn’t call her what he thought in his head. He just begged her to understand. Begged her to know who she was to him.

“JO!”

‘JO!”

But she was wrenched to her feet as well, choking under Papa’s frighteningly fearsome hold. He stopped fighting, afraid that he would hurt her even more by accident.

And then Bren was there. He’d seen anger before. He’d seen rage. But he’d never seen fury. Her bright blue eyes pierced through the white surrounding them and she was pointing a gun at them all. His heart lifted slightly. He finally had a side, and this furious woman was on it.

He was thrown roughly back into the snow, and his bare hands scraped against the snowy drive. He ran to Bren when she called for him, and clutched her for all he was worth. She was asking him…begging him for help. He was rooted to his spot by her side, and buried his face in her shivering body. She pleaded with him again. There was a hitch of desperation in her voice. She needed him.

It had taken more than he thought he had in him to run back into the cabin to find Bren’s phone. He almost forgot that it was always on the kitchen table. He fumbled at the only three digits they had meticulously taught him. They had practiced this, over and over. He knew what to say, but when the dispatcher answered the call he could barely speak. His chest was tight and his throat closed in horror and fear at what was happening just outside the door. He growled to clear his voice box and desperately whispered his cry for immediate help. The woman on the other end had wanted him to stay on the phone, but he only dropped it onto the table and ran back the way he’d come. He couldn’t hide under the bed. Not now. This was all his fault.

All his fault. He had caused this. He had chosen to stay under the blanket of kindness and warmth. He had been drawn to their love and was fiercely loving them in return. But he knew THEY would come. How many times had they threatened to kill him if he left? How many times had he cowered under their violent threats? He knew it had only been a matter of time, and yet he found that he couldn’t leave the cabin. He couldn’t leave the two women who were teaching him a better life. He tried over and over to slip away in the quiet of the morning…to save them from what he had always known was coming…but he always ended up snuggled up in bed with them instead. He selfishly pushed down his heavy burden of responsibility for just one more kiss from Mama. To hear Bren’s gentle voice whispering love into his ear just once more. One more bedtime story. One more dance. One more night in a bed of his very own. Just one more. He promised himself every night that THAT would be the last night. He would leave in the morning.

But he never did.

All His fault.

Bren had told him that Mama would be home soon. He’d already dragged his observation chair into the kitchen to watch her make her special pancakes. He stood on the chair now, and looked out the kitchen window. His sharp, wide eyes took in everything. He watched Mama being dragged back. He watched her tap her chest.

He watched as Bren fired her gun and take them both down. Papa and Mama fell into the snow.

He fell backwards off the chair.

He heard Bren scream. He heard the mud door open, and then slam shut. And then it was quiet.

He forced himself to move. His legs felt heavy and he knew he was crying and he couldn’t think. He pushed himself off of the kitchen floor and bolted through the doors and back into the freezing storm. Papa was already covered in snow. Bren was holding Mama and she was covered in coats and all he could do was lunge at them and try to cover Mama and protect her from the same snow that was making her Papa disappear.

Mama couldn’t disappear.

She couldn’t.

After her third coughing fit, Bernie put down his paintbrush. “Alright, kid, we’re done for the day. Come on.”

Jo was wincing and holding her chest. She shook her head. “Nuh, I'm good.”

“Sounds like it. You've only been out of the hospital for a week.”

“Bernie, we need to finish these by Christmas!”

The big man waved her concern away. “We will, but not at the expense of your bronchitis. I'm not interested in both of our wives coming after me because you aren't getting any better.”

Jo kept painting, ignoring him. Her chest ached with the last rumbling cough, but she didn't want to stop. She'd never dabbled in anything artistic, apart from her cooking, and was pleased to find that she was rather good at bringing colorful life to the wooden horses.

And it was therapeutic, there in the workshop. It was a bit drafty, but the old barn had been converted into a shop years ago, and she found peace among the smells of tools and wood and drying paint. It relaxed her to concentrate on nothing but mixing colors and listening to Bernie’s stories.

Bernie huffed at her and began to pack up the paints. He looked across his wood shop at the hanging tarp in the corner. “Pete? A little help here, darling?”

Jo frowned at his tactic and looked over at the hanging tarp as well. Pete had insisted on complete privacy as she painted her first rocking horse. After Bernie hung a tarp from a low rafter and dragged a horse behind it, Pete had disappeared from view and had refused them even the slightest peek at her progress. Jo couldn’t help but smile fondly.

There was the sound of a paintbrush swishing around in water before the little girl backed out from behind the tarp and made her way through the sea of drying rocking horses towards them. She slipped her hand in Jo’s and tugged.

“Mama.” She said firmly.

Jo shot Bernie a scowl before looking down at her baby. She sighed as she felt her resolve to finish her work melt under Pete’s serious brown stare. She was absolute mush in this child’s hands. She sighed again. “Alright, bub. Can we take a look yet?”

Pete shook her head earnestly and made an indignant cry when Bernie moved in the tarp’s direction. He put up his hands in surrender. “Alright, alright! I won’t go near it.”

Pete held Jo’s hand as she watched him maneuver around the shop, waiting for him to lead the way. Bernie looked at them. “You girls go ahead. I’m going to clean up a little…”

Neither moved, and Jo cocked Bernie a knowing smile. “Nice try, old man.”

Pete was also staring at him suspiciously and he chuckled good-naturedly and led the way out of the shop and across the snowy yard to the warmth of the farmhouse. By the tantalizing smells in the air, they were about to enjoy a delicious meal with his other two favorite women.

After the third chapter, Brenna peeked over the book. Pete was still wide awake, leaning against Jo and absentmindedly stroking the colorful ink of the arm draped loosely around her. Jo had fallen asleep, and was snoring softly. Her head was tilted to the side against the couch and her face was smoothed in contented rest.

Pete looked back at Jo. She held the arm closer to her and Jo automatically shifted in her sleep to accommodate the hold. Pete kept stroking her arm. “Mama’s still sick.” She whispered. It wasn’t a question. She turned her large eyes to Brenna.

“Aye, love, but she’s getting better. Every day she is getting stronger.”

Pete tilted her head and leaned against Jo’s chest, still looking at Brenna. The older woman looked back at her, raising her brow a little. Pete religiously kept to her routine, and after three chapter she was always asleep. This was the first night she’d deviated. Brenna could see she was fighting it…her big brown eyes kept wide to stay awake. Her little brow was furrowed in thought. Brenna smiled at her, and simply waited for the reason behind her child’s stubborn unwillingness to allow herself to be lulled to sleep by her raspy, hypnotic reading voice to be revealed.

Jo’s arm slipped to the side and Pete caught it, wrapping herself up again. When her wife’s arm slipped a second time, Brenna closed the book and laid it to the side, opening her arms. Her baby wanted to be held. “Come here, love.” She said gently. Pete tenderly wriggled out of Jo’s arms and crawled across the couch to be wrapped up in Brenna’s. The blonde held her close and kissed the top of her head, rocking her soothingly. “Something on your mind, baby?”

She waited patiently for a response. She waited for quite a while, until she was certain the child had fallen asleep after all. She was about to carefully rouse her for bed when Pete suddenly whispered, “Am I good?”

Brenna couldn’t help but pull back a little to look at her. Pete hid her face and held the blonde tighter. Brenna rested her cheek against the top of the little head. “You are more than good, my love. You are sweet and kind and smart and loving as well. We love you, with all our hearts.”

Pete heaved a sigh. There was more on her mind, and it troubled Brenna. But years in her field had taught her vast patience. They always talked, when they were ready. All she had to do was be there for them when it was time.

“I’m glad,” came the hasty whisper.

Brenna had to think to be sure she heard correctly. It didn’t seem like the response was meant for Brenna’s answer. There was something deeper…darker…behind it. “What are you glad of, Pete?”

Another long pause. “That you shot Papa. I’m glad.”

Brenna fought composure. She hugged the child and closed her eyes, feeling the tear in her chest as her heart broke. So Pete had seen her take the shot. Seen her murder her father in cold blood. She had to swallow several times before she carefully replied.

“I’m glad he can never hurt you or anyone ever again, but I’m not glad that he’s dead.” She took a breath and whispered words she desperately hoped the child would understand. "I'm sorry, Pete."

“I hate him!”

The sudden ferocity of her words caused Jo to stir in her sleep, and Brenna to hold the little girl tighter. Tears sprung unbidden in her eyes and she closed them. “I know, baby. I know.” It was all she could say.

“Is he coming back?”

Brenna’s tears squeezed out of her closed eyes. She shook her head. “No, my love. He can never come back.”

Pete wrestled with her words. “Will mother?”

Brenna’s heart ached in her chest. She looked at her wife, peacefully sleeping through one of the most difficult parental conversations she’d faced. She wished with all her heart that the brunette was awake, and able to take on some of the weight of the words she herself was struggling to carry. She kissed Pete’s head again, reminding herself that the child was no more than five, and although the truth was of the upmost importance; simplicity was as well.

“No, Pete. She can never come back either. They are both gone for good.”

Brenna wasn’t convinced that her baby girl was fully comprehending the death of her parents. They had had a city burial, and although both she and Jo tried to explain what that meant and asked Pete if she’d wanted to go and say goodbye, the child had only stared at them briefly before continuing to color. Jo had tried one more time, deeply feeling the responsibility to offer closure to the little girl, but Pete simply shook her head and pulled Jo down to color with her. Brenna realized that because of her and Jo, Pete had shifted her conscious away from her connection with the only other adults in her life. Where once she had been attached to them out of fear and need, now she was completely untethered. She had cultivated the beginnings of her love solely upon her and Jo, and because there had been no love from her parents…none was lost. Pete had chosen her and her wife as much as they had chosen her.

Later in her life they might broach the topic again…run their fingertips gently against the scar tissue of the little girl’s heart to be certain that it was healed. But right now, tucked on the couch by the fire, Brenna could only reassure Pete of the one still lingering fear in her young mind. No, those people will never harm her again.

Pete seemed satisfied with the answers she’d been given, and melted further into Brenna’s arms. She sighed again, not in thought, but as if a weight had finally and permanently been lifted from her small shoulders. Whatever it had been, the removal of its burden exhausted her immediately. Her little hands balled into fists around Brenna's shirt as she let the rest of her muscles relax. It was a sign she was about to fall asleep, and she was desiring whatever she held so firmly to remain near. Brenna nodded to herself and settled back against the couch, drawing Pete closer into her chest. If she was uncomfortable, her body didn’t register it. All she was aware of, as she closed her own eyes, was that the two most important people in her life were fast asleep and safe at last. 

Chapter Text

The morning had been filled with light. The social worker came by early to hand deliver the finalized adoption papers. Pete was theirs. Both women bubbled with joy and tried to bring Pete into their happiness, but the little girl only looked at the papers with a confused sort of expression. She already knew who she belonged to. Jo laughed at her and scooped her up, twirling her around. Brenna flipped on the radio and they laughed and spun the child to a talk show. They didn’t need music to dance, and they didn’t need a piece of paper to be a family.

Later in the day, when Pete disappeared for a while, they went on the customary search, and found her tucked up on the floor against their bed. Brenna bent down and gathered her up. “Why doesn’t she go to her bed when she’s tired?” She whispered with a smile. Jo shrugged and followed her wife to the couch. “Just set her here. When she wakes up, maybe we can go down to the lake.”

It was too cold to be anywhere near the glacial waters, but Pete had a fascination with the river rocks, and gathered each pretty stone she deemed worthy and lined the mudroom shelves with them. Jo had promised to help her build a rock garden in the spring, and their little girl had been happily hauling home river rocks ever since.

Brenna smiled at down at the sleeping child and nodded. “I could do with a bit of a lie in as well. Join me?”

“Nuh, you go. I need to study for mid-terms.” Jo suddenly grinned at her. “Wait…were you offering actual sleep, or…?”

Brenna laughed quietly at her and swatted at her playfully. “Sleep, you wicked thing. I’m exhausted. Come lay with me for a while.”

Jo grinned at her again and took her outstretched hand, allowing herself to be led into her favorite room in the house. They lay facing each other for a while, and Jo snuck in several long and sweet kisses before she realized Brenna was a million miles away. She smiled and tugged to other woman’s hair to bring her back. “What are you thinking about?”

“How to discipline her.”

Jo pulled back, sitting up slightly. Her heart rate spiked and she didn’t like the feeling that suddenly settled in her gut. She wasn’t expecting that at all. “What? Why? She's done nothing wrong!”

Brenna frowned slightly at her wife’s unexpected and venomous reaction. She raised up on one elbow. “Relax.” She said soothingly. “I know. I was just wondering how we should handle it, keeping in proportion with the infraction.”

Jo looked at her, too many thoughts flooding her mind. She couldn’t peg any one of them down to label it properly. She just felt abruptly angry. “She's a good kid. We don't need to punish her for anything.”

Brenna sat up fully and cocked her head. “Jo, relax. We just became parents today. There are things we should talk about, don’t you think? This is a pretty big deal.”

Jo got out of the bed and crossed her arms in her widely known defense and attack posture. She bit her lower lip and silently wrestled with her warring thoughts.

Brenna also stood, but deliberately opened her stance as she faced the prickly brunette. She had honestly only been thinking out loud. She didn’t want to ever discipline Pete any more than her wife did, but the child was now theirs forever. She wasn’t going to remain sweet. Not when puberty struck. It may be years down the road but she was coming to grips that everything wouldn’t always be so easy with Pete. It was a rather overwhelming realization, and she was just…processing. Now, looking at her defensive wife, she was glad she’d brought it up. She was never eager for an argument, but clearly she’d struck a nerve that needed to be aired. She raised her hands gently. “Not yet we don't. Why are you pushing back so hard? It's a good idea to discuss this now, rather than be at odds with each other in the moment, don't you think? We’ve never experienced raising a child, and we didn’t have the first five years of her life to discuss this. We didn’t have that luxury, and I'd rather commit to being on the same page with you now as opposed to confusing Pete by disagreeing in the future.”

Jo was now openly angry, and shook her head. “I don't want to start planning ways to punish Pete just in case she might be naughty!”

Brenna spread her arms wide. “Baby, all I’m suggesting is that we come up with some acceptable ways to discipline her that we both can agree on, when the time, if ever, comes.”

“You aren't hitting her!”

The outburst froze them both. Brenna sucked in a sharp breath; a gasp... hurt flashing across her face before being quickly replaced with anger. “Say that to me one more time.”

Jo snapped her mouth shut immediately. Her thoughts had suddenly zeroed in on her greatest fear, and the worst words had burst from her mouth before she even realized or remembered who she was talking to. She took a step back as Brenna took one towards her, growling softly. “I fucking dare you.”

Jo shook her head quickly. “I'm sorry.” She mumbled. “I don't know what's wrong with me.” She glanced at her wife. Those clear blue eyes were staring at her coolly, anger and hurt boiling behind them. She didn’t know how to retract her statement. She was having difficulty even guiding the proper words to her tongue, much less get them out in a way that conveyed her fears. She reached out without looking...offering herself as an apology. For too long her hand was alone in empty space. Jo peeked at Brenna, and saw that her arms were securely crossed against her chest in a gesture that clearly said no fucking way.

Brenna tightened her arms around her chest, almost as if to hold herself together. Her wife’s words acted like a hot knife against her heart. “That's twice now you've assumed the very worst in my abilities to do what is best for that child.” She said quietly. “Once when you actually thought I would return her to her abusive parents, and now...this.”

She waited for a response, but Jo clearly didn’t have one. She clicked her tongue impatiently…a warning for her wife to sift through her thoughts right fucking now and explain herself.

Jo shifted slightly on the balls of her feet. She would give much to be elsewhere. She looked at the floor, mollified by her own words and her wife’s hurt and anger. “I didn’t mean you…I meant us…I don’t want that to be how we discipline her. I meant us…”

“You meant me.”

“No…”

Brenna took another swift step forward. “Yes.” She hissed. “Because you know what it’s like to be beaten, you know that you would never ever do the same to our baby.”

Jo was still staring at the floor, her breathing becoming hitched. She was starting to panic under her wife's anger, but Brenna only narrowed her eyes and continued, the pain in her heart unwilling to be silent.

“But I've never been hit before, have I? It doesn’t seem to matter to you that I’ve been pushed, thrown, slammed and pinned. I've been assaulted. I've been raped. But I've never been hit. So naturally you are assuming that would choose violence?

Brenna choked on the last word, her indignant anger and sudden memories overwhelming her naturally calm demeanor. Her chest continued to ache. She was breathing heavily and her hands were now clenched into fists at her sides. She looked away briefly before rounding on her wife again. “What is it that you think you know about me that causes you to jump to these conclusions? When have I ever struck you in anger? When have I ever raised a hand against you? When have I ever used your nightmares against you to make you feel like violence was an underlying theme in this relationship?”

She took another micro step forward, her voice low and laced with her acute pain and fury. Tears sprung into her eyes. The words were pouring from deep within her, and it seemed as if a dam burst inside her. She cried as she raised her voice, hating every second of what she was feeling…what they were doing to each other on what should have been the happiest day of their lives. She just couldn’t stop. “But you've used mine against me, haven't you? My worst nightmares? How many times have you frightened me with your violence? How many times have you hurt me physically in your anger? Do you remember? Do you remember the things you’ve done to me?”

A sob escaped Jo’s lips and she clapped a hand over her mouth. She reached out a hand and grabbed the dresser for support and bent slightly under her shame and grief. “Yes!” She sobbed. She remembered all too clearly every second she had ever come at the woman before her in a temper. There weren’t many moments, but even one was enough to torture her for all time. She furiously wiped her eyes and tried to face the angry blonde, deeply regretting her outburst. She flinched at the cold look still dominating her wife’s expression. “Bren, please. I'm sorry.”

Brenna shook her head, uncharacteristically unforgiving. “Of all the hurtful things you’ve said to me…done to me…” she huffed humorlessly and flapped her arms once against her sides. “That’s it, baby. You’ve topped yourself.”

You want to hurt me? Mmm? Well congratulations, baby.

Jo wiped her eyes again and tried to shut out the flashes of cold concrete and a torn shirt and the fearful cries of the woman she loved most in the world. “I said I didn’t mean it.”

“I think you did.”

“Well I didn’t!” Jo snapped. She could feel her anger rising to cover the pain of the blonde’s words. There was always anger, and it had always been used to guard her bleeding heart. If cut too deep, that rage would well out of the hurt and consume her. Right now, it was as if all the growth she’d done over the years melted away and her chest constricted as her walls rose and her anger came forth.

Brenna raised her eyebrows, recognizing that the rational mind before her was rapidly shifting. For some reason, seeing the angry face before her caused her to tip her mouth sarcastically. “So now you get to be mad? Really?”

Jo straightened up fully and squared off with her, brushing the last of her tears away. “Well, Jesus Christ, Brenna, you’re really laying it on! I’ve already said I didn’t mean it that way. Maybe we can talk about it without you dragging me through the past, hey?”

Brenna narrowed her eyes, her own tears vanishing. “Your past is why we need to talk about this in the first place!”

Jo grit her teeth, feeling herself becoming angrier. She stepped closer. “Oh, what, you think I’d hit her? You think that’s what I really meant to say? After years and years I've finally become my mother, is that it?”

Brenna stood her ground and lifted her chin. “Is that what you are hearing? Have I ever, even once indicated that I was afraid you'd become as abusive as your mother? No, I haven't, and I wouldn't. I know what you've been through and I know how hard it has been for you to overcome your instincts!”

“And yet here you are, telling me that you are afraid I'll overreact!”

 Brenna groaned in frustration. “You were the one that went there, Jo! That thought hadn’t even crossed my mind!” She narrowed her eyes when Jo came a fraction closer. “But while we’re on the subject, do you know how hard it is to force myself to stay in a moment with you when you've lost your temper? Do you realize how hard it is to give you the chance to hit me? Or assault me...again? How can I not want to lay down acceptable boundaries with you involving that child?”

Jo clenched her fists, also frustrated. She felt herself dangerously close to losing her temper over a fucking misunderstanding. How many times must she pay for her mistakes? “I already told you, years ago, why I did that! I only meant to drive you away! I would have never taken it farther!”

“I didn’t know that at the time! My point is that you react Jo, in way I’m incapable of, and to think you would ever suggest…”

Brenna quieted suddenly. She took a shuddering breath. “Look down.”

“What?”

Brenna looked at her with a disappointed resignation in her eyes. Jo looked down. And gasped quietly. She hadn’t realized she’d backed Brenna into the wall and was now holding her upper arms against it. A look of confusion crossed her face. Brenna leaned her head against the wall.

“Let go of me, please.”

Jo opened her hands immediately and stepped back several steps, horrified. She looked down at her own hands as if she’d never seen them before. “I'm sorry!” She choked out.

Brenna pushed herself from the wall and forced her breathing to remain even. She’d seen the warning signs and had pushed through them. She was only aware that she was backing away from her wife’s anger when her back hit the wall. When Jo kept advancing…“That's not good enough right now. I'm going for a drive.”

Jo reached out helplessly. “Wait…”

Brenna jerked her arm out of reach. “Don’t. I need to be alone. I need to think. I'll be back later.”

“Gidge…please…”

Brenna paused, her hand on the bedroom door, their entire history laid out with that one recollection of her former pet name. She looked at the floor. “Don’t,” she said again. She met the brunette’s broken expression. “I'll come back,” she said quietly. Then she was gone.

Jo sat heavily on the bed and stared at the door. She wanted to run after Brenna, but her legs wouldn’t move. She slammed her fists into her thighs and felt nothing. Her chest tightened and she clutched at her abdomen, frantically feeling for cold marble instead of skin. This had been her nightmare, so very long ago…frozen in place and broken and sorry and try as she would, her body didn’t respond. She couldn’t stand to be petrified completely with her head facing the door, so she dropped her head into her hands and wept. If she became stone now, it would be fitting to lay her weeping marble form across the tombstone of their love.

Chapter Text

There was no dancing that evening before dinner. There was no bedtime story. Pete had stood between the kitchen and the living room, stuck between what should be happening…and what wasn’t. Jo tried to tempt her to eat, but Pete only looked at the front door. The brunette sighed and knelt down and quietly explained that Brenna would come back, but Pete had only reached up and traced a tear that was still on Jo’s cheek. It was foolish to pretend that all was well...the little girl was far too in tuned to them to be convinced. Jo stood and looked down at her, watching her stare unhappily at the front door again, and thought of how different she must be in this moment. She couldn’t curl up in bed and sob until Brenna came home. She couldn’t rage and destroy the insides of the little cabin. She couldn’t follow suit and get in her car and drive into the frigid darkness to think. She actually couldn’t leave the cabin, and she wouldn’t leave Pete. She had to still be a parent, when even simply acting like an adult was so very difficult right now. As she looked down at the miserable, lost little girl, she thought again of how important this moment was. There was nothing about their situation that fell in line with other, more conventional families. The three of them had collided in space, and had clung to each other for dear life lest the force of their trajectories caused them to spin away from each other…forever alone.

Jo cursed herself internally for the umpteenth time for her temper. When…when would she outgrow such nonsense? How dare she behave in such a way! How dare she EVER invoke the look of disappointment and fear on her wife’s face? How dare she ever cause her to desire the escape to a safer place to think? She absentmindedly rubbed the healing scar just above her heart. It was aching dully, but she wasn’t convinced that the bullet wound was actually the source of the discomfort in her chest. In fact, she knew it wasn’t. It was only another reminder of all they had been through to get to this very place, and how scary and fragile their lives together were. How easily shattered. Unless she was far more careful in the future, it wouldn’t be an outsider who would finally tip the scales and destroy them. It would be her. She drew a breath and displayed her broken heart.

“Can I hold ya, bub?” She asked quietly.

Pete looked up at her. Jo held out her arms, again dangling them into the uncertain space between her and someone else she desperately loved. “I just wanna hold ya.”

This time, there was a response on the opposite end of the fuck off she’d received earlierPete lifted her own arms in permission and Jo swiftly and gratefully scooped her up and held her close. Pete wrapped all of her limbs around the brunette and Jo carried her into the living room and sat with her on the couch. She needed to comfort a child she barely knew, but still was hopelessly attached to. She tried to settle her thoughts and fears and hold to Brenna’s method of simplistic truth.

“I messed up, bub.” She whispered. “I hurt Bren’s feelings.”

Pete laid her head down on Jo’s shoulder. “Why?”

Jo huffed humorlessly. Why indeed. “Because I was afraid, I think. Sometimes it's easier for me to hurt someone else rather than be the one who's hurting.”

Pete leaned back in her arms and studied her face carefully. She traced her finger down Jo’s cheek again. “Are you sad?”

Fresh tears pooled in the brunette’s eyes and she nodded, unable to answer. Even simple truth hurt. Pete laid her head back down on her shoulder and hugged her tighter around her neck.

“Will Bren come back?”

Jo’s heart ached. “Aye love,” I hope. “Sometimes she needs to be alone to think.”

Pete played with the long brunette hair tickling her face. “Is she angry at me?”

Jo pulled back to look at her. “What? Of course not!”

Pete’s breathing was changing…hitching a little in the beginnings of panic. “She wants to punish me?”

Jesus fuck! The cabin walls were too thin, and Jo immediately felt sick thinking of everything else the little girl might have overheard. She shook her head firmly. “No baby. Not ever.”

She put her hand against the quickening heartbeat and rubbed the little chest soothingly. She offered a smile. “We don’t know what to do with such an awesome kid. I think we were both afraid of being bad parents to you.” She brushed soft brown hair away from Pete’s head before leaning her forehead against her child’s, holding her cheek and humming softly. Their newest and most comforting gesture. “We want to be the best parents for you…and sometimes in our lack of understanding as to what that looks like, sometimes we…accidentally…hurt each other with our words.”

Pete clutched the front of Jo’s shirt and pressed into her harder. “My fault?” She breathed.

Jo shook her head. “Absolutely not. Brenna and I love you to the moon and back, bub. And we love each other the same. Nothing will ever change that.”

She leaned back against the couch and looked into the wide, serious face. “It’s going to be ok, bub. I promise. Bren and I need to be able to…argue once in a while. It’s healthy for us and sometimes helps us understand each other better. It might hurt a little, but we will never stop loving each other, and we will never stop loving you, yeah?”

The little girl nodded slowly and looked in the direction of the front door again. “Bren.” She said sadly.

Jo pulled her down into her chest and couldn’t help but sigh. “Yeah, bub. I know. I miss her too. She’ll come back, I promise.”

As Jo rocked her child gently, she thought about where she was and what she was doing. Never in her wildest dreams had she ever thought she’d be a parent! This interaction would have caused her to flee had it been only a few years ago. She may have uttered a hurried explanation and then waited for her better half to fill in the many gaps. But something in her had changed the second she lifted the little wood thief from the snow. The second her anger and indignation melted away at the sight of the frightened face and traumatized little body. Something deep inside her had shifted in a mighty way, and she was determined to stay in this moment until her baby’s confidence was fully restored. She played with Pete’s hair, loving the content little sigh she got in return.

“Our biggest job as your parents is to guide you and teach you good things.” She said gently. “We want to help you grow, and keep shaping all the beautiful things you already have in you.” She pulled back and kissed the little nose and Pete squeaked, a tiny smile on her otherwise serious face. “Your creativity.”

Another kiss. Another squeak. A wider smile.

“Your wisdom.” A more exaggerated kiss. A giggle.

“Your insufferable charm.” A loud open-mouthed kiss and Pete squirmed and giggled again. Jo held her fast and placed big, loud kisses all over her baby’s face until Pete laughed and wriggled in her arms. Jo laughed with her and smoothed her wild brown hair, placing one more, softer, kiss on her forehead. “We love you, bub.”

She looked at the face staring adoringly at her and ran her hand lovingly through her soft hair. Her smile faded and so did Pete’s. They stared at each other intently for a moment, and Jo finally whispered, “We will never hit you or hurt your body, Pete. Ever. We will always talk to you, and if there comes a day when we need to guide you away from a bad choice you may make, we will do it with understanding and love.”

Pete tilted her head, thinking. “I want to be good.”

Jo smiled at her again. “You are good, love, but if you make a mistake, we will be right there for you.”

“Promise?” She barely whispered the plea.

Jo looked at her thoughtfully. Her baby certainly didn’t understand the vast and complicated nature of parenting, but neither did Jo. As the brunette gazed at her, she understood the importance of the pact they were making. Jo nodded firmly.

“I promise. We promise. We’re in this together, bub, for life.”

 

Pete finally agreed to dinner, and though it was rather subdued without Brenna, she ate hugely in her customary style until her little belly was slightly distended. It was the truest sign that their conversation earlier had the desired effect of easing the little girl’s troubled heart. Jo watched her begin her nightly routine of putting their plates on her chair and scooting them over to the sink to be cleaned. Jo looked at the clock. Brenna had been gone for only a few hours, but to her, it felt like an eternity. She was accustomed to people storming away from her in anger or frustration, but not her wife. Never Brenna. Every minute that passed felt like little razors slicing away at her heart. She had both apprehension and longing for the blonde to return.

She bathed Pete and helped her get ready for bed. When they came out in the living room, Pete looked at the bookshelf once, where her bedtime story was always kept, and then looked at the front door. Jo was about to offer herself as the reader tonight, knowing with a sinking feeling that she wasn’t who Pete really wanted. The dynamics of their little team’s efforts simply could not be tampered with. There was no replacement for Brenna’s perfect reading voice or the way she brought life to each character. Secretly, Jo basked in their nightly story telling as much as Pete did. She could listen to her wife’s voice forever. The razors twisted further into her heart.

Just then, the kitchen door opened. Pete cried out and before Brenna was all the way into the cabin she was tackled at the knees. She almost lost her balance as the child held onto her legs. She bent down and scooped her up and received the same limb-wrapping hug she’d watched her wife receive for weeks. She closed her eyes and hugged Pete just as tight, whispering softly into her ear. By the look on her face, she was both surprised and remorseful because of the hug. This kind of suffocating, limb-wrapping hold was normally reserved for Jo, and Pete’s no-holds barred clasp solidified her desperate need of Brenna’s important and irreplaceable role in their family. Brenna looked over the child’s shoulder at her wife, standing still by the bookshelf. Jo flapped her arms helplessly.

I’m sorry.  She mouthed. Brenna’s blue eyes softened under the grip of the little girl in her arms. I love you. She mouthed in return. She finally put Pete down and the child ran to the bookshelf and tugged The Secret of Nimh from its place, running back over to Brenna and handing it to her. Then she raced into the living room, catching Jo’s hand along the way and leading her to the couch. The women nodded once to each other, instinctively placing the importance of Pete’s routine first. They would have to talk…address the pain they had both caused in each other, but both blue and green silently came to a truce in favor of the little girl tucked between them. Pete was now comfortably oblivious to the tingling electricity between her two favorite women. Her world had righted itself once again, and as she wriggled in just the right position in Jo’s strong, safe arms, she missed the heavy and silent communication passing between Brenna and Jo. She was unaware that as much as her day was winding down, theirs had really only just begun.

Once they had all settled on the couch in their favorite positions, and after a slight hesitation and a final look at her wife, Brenna opened the book and began to read.

Chapter Text

 “Where did you go?”

They had finally, together, tucked Pete into her bed and kissed her goodnight. With heavy hearts they made their way from the loft and towards the bedroom, both knowing there would be no rest until they had talked. Jo cast a saddened look to the couch as she passed it. She had no doubt that after their conversation, she would be sleeping there tonight. She wished it was already over…that she could tell her wife the beautiful and difficult interaction she’d had with their daughter. She wished the couch wasn’t an option.

She met Brenna in the bedroom. Her wife was holding her nightdress but hadn’t begun to change. She was stiffly moving around the bedroom, picking up clothes and other things strewn around. The room wasn’t a mess, but she didn’t seem eager to get into bed. “I went for a walk with Martha.”

Jo wasn't eager to lay next to Brenna either. The blonde was still spiky, and she had the distinct feeling that if she lay close to her, she would be skewered. She leaned against the wall with her arms crossed and looked intermittently at the floor, the bed and her wife. “You can’t leave like that again. I was worried sick.”

Brenna looked up at her sharply, but then softened. “I know.”

“Pete thought that you wanted to hit her. She heard us arguing.”

The blonde closed her eyes, once again regretting their interaction this afternoon. Regretting that she had left. “What did you tell her?”

Jo hesitated. Now was not the time to share the conversation in its entirety. “I told her the truth…you’d…we’d…never hit her. I tried to explain that adults fight sometimes to help each other process big things, and that we would always love her.”

Brenna leaned against the opposite wall, the bed now between them. She appraised the brunette, feeling a warmth in her. She had to remind herself, especially after such an intense fight, that Jo was highly capable when called upon. She had no doubt the younger woman had handled Pete in a way that would make anyone proud. Brenna looked away for a moment, ashamed that she had missed such an important interaction. She would give quite a lot to have been there. When she thought of their little girl being afraid of her for even a second, her stomach twisted.

“The thought of you thinking I could strike our child in anger or as a way to punish her sickens me. You really hurt me, Jo.”

“I know. It was unfair of me to put my fears on you like that.”

“Yes, it was.”

“Please. I'm sorry, Bren. I really am. You threw me off, and I just got really fucking scared that you thought I would turn into my mother. I’m afraid of that. Discipline still means cigarette burns and belts. I know better, but…it just scared me.”

Brenna nodded slowly, turning her nightdress over in her hands. She briefly marveled at her wife’s openness. This conversation couldn’t have happened years ago. “It didn’t help that I sprung the thought on you with no warning.”

When Jo didn’t answer, Brenna sighed, and then took a deep breath, encouraged by Jo’s willingness to be vulnerable. “You have got to stop putting your hands on me when you are angry. It kills me inside and frightens me and makes it difficult to think. It makes it harder to process the interaction when all I can think of is that I'm afraid of my wife.”

Jo wrapped her own arms around herself and nodded, unable to look at Brenna. As hard as the words were to say, the blonde had to say them. Martha had warned her that she had held this in far too long. Anything that happened years ago that was then brought up years later needed to be discussed. Honestly she should have known better. She watched her wife miserably hold herself and continued.

“I thought I had forgiven you for that time in your cell, but I hadn't. Understanding why and actually forgiving you got mixed up in my head. So I allowed you to touch me in love again. I allowed you complete access to my body. I pushed my fears down and convinced myself that it was a one off…but you have frightened me several times since. The moments are rare and far between, Jo, but where once I thought it would never happen again...now I have anxiety in waiting for the next time.”

Jo let out a small cry and hugged herself tighter. Brenna longed to hold her. She longed to say everything she needed to say quickly and then lay her wife down and make love to her to prove that Jo was still the love of her life. After everything, how could she not be labeled as such? It took so much out of her to open this wound in her heart. She promised herself it would be the last time she did. This would be the very last time she would address her deep pain, and then she would commit to letting it finally be healed. They just had to make it through this moment.

“I believe you when you tell me you love me. I believe it every time you apologize. I believe you are a flawed, but changed person. I don't want to be afraid of what you are capable of doing to me when you are angry. I want…need…you to be my protector.” She tried to soften her voice against the growing agitation in her heart. Martha had been right. It had been unfair of her to leave this festering inside her for so long. She looked at Jo, who was still looking at the floor. “I feel so helpless with you because you own my entire heart.” She said quietly. “That scares me so much…the way I feel like I couldn't physically live without you. Please. You would never let anyone harm me…so please, please baby…I'm begging you. Don't use your hands to hurt me anymore. Please.”

Jo finally looked up at her. As twisted in agony as her face was, there was a fierce resolution in her eyes. She nodded slowly. “I won’t.” She said firmly. “And however long it takes for you to forgive me, is how long I will try to prove myself. I will never stop trying. Ever.”

Brenna sighed and looked at her nightdress. She nodded to herself and when she looked at her wife again, all traces of hurt and anger were gone. “How we finish this will be the corner stone for all our other parenting collisions. Come here, Jo. Show me how you can love me. Despite the shame and hurt and anger you are still feeling. Come to bed with me now.”

Jo had already planned to sleep on the couch. She couldn’t do as Brenna asked. She didn’t deserve it, and she wasn’t done. She turned her back and leaned her head against the wall with a quiet and dissatisfied groan. She didn’t hear it when Brenna came up behind her and jumped slightly when the shorter woman slipped her arms around her waist. “Shh, shh,” Brenna whispered. “I love you, baby.”

Jo bowed her head. She took a breath and blew it out, her darkest fears flowing with it. “What if I lose my temper on Pete…what if I actually…what if you can’t stop me?”

Brenna rested her forehead against her wife’s stiff spine. She deeply regretted leaving her in favor of her own hurt and anger. She’d left Jo to turn her words endlessly in her mind and torture herself, all the while needing to be wholly present for Pete when the little girl expressed fear that Brenna wanted to hurt her. She squeezed her eyes shut and sighed a small cry. It was true she had taken a walk with Martha, but what she didn’t tell Jo was that after only a short time, the older woman had sternly sent her home to face her wife and their problem. Brenna hadn’t gone home immediately, and drove around aimlessly until she had come to the lake. There, she’d sat for a long time, looking out over the darkening waters and thinking of everything that had happened to her in the last few years. It was a fucking lot to think about.

What finally brought her home was that she knew she couldn’t have made it over the years without the woman in her arms. Jo was her past, present and future. Brenna had never committed to a more difficult and rewarding relationship. In her arms, right now, was her one and only. She hugged Jo closer and stroked her abdomen.

 “That isn’t who you are, my love.” She said softly. “That is the one thing that you simply are not capable of. I truly believe that. I never should have made you think I have worried for one moment that you would do such a thing. I was angry and hurt. I’m sorry, baby.”

Jo held the arms around her stomach and bowed her head. “I don’t deserve you, Bren. I never did.”

“Turn around and hold me.”

Jo hesitated at the command, but then slowly turned in her wife’s arms and pulled her close. Brenna leaned away only slightly so she could touch the brunette’s cheek. “Come here,” she murmured.

Jo stared at her intently, looking for any sign that her wife was forcing herself to be close. She saw nothing but tenderness in those deep blue eyes, so she lowered her head and brushed her lips against Brenna’s. The warm touch felt so good…so right. The blonde sighed against her and wrapped her hand around the back of Jo’s neck, drawing her in again.

“I don’t deserve you either,” she whispered. “And yet here we are. I'll not give up on you, my love. Will you not give up on me?”

Jo could only answer her with another, deeper, kiss. She felt her wife’s hand slip from her neck and down her side, gripping her hips and automatically pulling her closer. She moved her own hands slowly, and Brenna melted into her. Jo wasn’t quite able to say it so eloquently, but she hopelessly belonged to this woman in her arms as well. She was everything she’d ever wanted and all she ever needed.

The heat of desire she felt from both of them caused her to hesitate again, breaking the kiss and pulling back. “Bren?”

The blonde looked up at her and Jo swallowed. Jesus, her eyes. Dark, hooded blue left her with no doubt what Brenna wanted, but she still had to ask. For the sake everything that had just been laid out, she was going to ask.

“Is this ok? Should we talk some more?”

Brenna tilted her head. “Do you want to?”

“I never want to talk.”

Brenna smiled slightly at her and waited patiently. Jo sighed. “I’m…ashamed. I'm sorry. I need you to know that back at Wentworth in my cell…a part of me died, knowing what I had done to you. And I did it with great intent. Instead of talking to you, I gave up completely and became everything I ever hated about myself. I can't take it back, Bren. I wish I could, with all my heart, but I can't. I don't know what to do with that.”

“Maybe it would help if I actually forgave you?”

Jo bit her lip. Part of her didn’t want to be forgiven. She certainly hadn’t forgiven herself, and every subsequent violent outburst had inevitably brought both of their minds back into her cell. “How can you, Bren? Especially when I continue to…hurt you.”

Brenna reached up and stroked her sad face. She looked into the deep green eyes that were expressing far more than the brunette was saying. She sighed. “I think I owe you an apology as well, my love. When I said I forgave you long ago, there was always a caveat attached. To never do it again. Each of the few times you’ve lost control I would remember that moment with you in your cell…your promise to never touch me like that again. Each time my pain was compounded because I would relive each time before. That isn’t forgiveness.”

Jo looked away. The kinder and more understanding Brenna became, the more she felt like a manipulative abuser. She was her mother. Brenna was the one apologizing. She started to shake her head and before the blonde could stop her or catch her, she fell to her knees. She wrapped her arms around her wife’s legs and cried bitterly. “How can I show you?” She wept miserably, “how can I show you that I won’t become my mother? That I’m not her?”

She looked up at her wife and Brenna gasped quietly at what she saw. “Get up,” she said, barely audible.

Jo stood and Brenna led her into their bathroom. There, she flipped on the light and faced Jo towards the large mirror over the sink. “Look at yourself.” She commanded gently.

Jo barely glanced before her face collapsed again and she tried to turn away, mottled with the sight of her own shame. Brenna grabbed her and held her firmly. “No, baby, please! Please…look at your reflection. Look.”

Jo took a deep breath and did as she was told. All she saw was a fucking sorry mess standing next to the most beautiful woman in the world. She averted her eyes from her own face to look at Brenna. To her surprise, Brenna was smiling. The blonde caught her eye in the mirror and squeezed her. “Look at you, baby. And tell me…the truth, please…did you ever see that look on your mother’s face?”

Jo looked back at herself in surprise. No, no she hadn’t. Shame, remorse, guilt, pain…never once had she seen any of the expressions she was seeing now. Brenna smiled at her and leaned into her lovingly.

“I know the difference between an abusive person and one who wrestles with anger. Sometimes it is a fine line between the two, but the difference is very clear. You are not an abuser, Jo. You are not your mother, and you are incapable of becoming her. The look on your face reflects your true heart…it always has, to me anyway.”

She smiled again and Jo found a small smile of her own. The blonde always had seen right through her. Brenna put her lips close to her wife’s ear and whispered, “I forgive you.”

Jo heaved a sigh at the weight being lifted from her chest…a huge and unbearable burden she’d carried for years. She knew without a doubt that there was truth in Brenna’s words. She would leave that part of their story in the past from now on. Never again would she fling it roughly into the present on the wings of another argument. She turned in her wife’s arms and breathe a quiet “thank you,” before pulling her close and hugging her hard. The bones and skin and muscles and every other physical part of this woman that she desired with all that she was would never compare to the need and desire she had for her heart and mind. She wanted all of her, and the more they grew together, the more convinced she was that she would wither up and die without her Brenna by her side. Jo knew she held a long and painful collection of descriptives that could be attached to her name. Runaway, vagabond, chef, criminal, prisoner, fugitive. But because of Brenna’s steadfast commitment to love her, she was also now somebody’s wife. Somebody’s mother. Two gifts she never in her wildest depths of imagination thought she’d have. They were more than she’d ever thought she’d be, and it wasn’t because of the body she was holding firmly...it was because of the soul within it.

 When she was finally able to break away and look down at Brenna, all she saw was her favorite shade of dark blue desire. Her mouth tipped into a lopsided smile and she nodded, backing them both out of the bathroom and towards the bed. There was no couch. There was no cabin. There was no snow or wilderness or anything other than the look her woman was searing her with.

The second she fell on top of Brenna the blonde rolled them, swiftly dominating her, and Jo relaxed fully underneath her. This wasn’t the night to wrestle. Tonight was about complete submission and relinquishing control and putting all her heart and her body into the trusted hands of her wife. It had always been easier for her to be the giver in bed, but as Brenna began to tenderly explore her neck and chest with her lips and tongue, Jo thought that learning to receive…fully and without reserve…never felt so good.

Chapter Text

He opened his eyes suddenly, automatically clapping a hand over his mouth to stifle the whimper that always followed a nightmare. Vague visions still lingered behind his eyes and he looked up at the grey dawn, just visible though his skylight. It was calming, to see the sky. It made him feel free now, where seconds ago he had been trapped against a cold fireplace being beaten with the wet wood he’d brought home. He hadn’t been able to light a fire that night. The consequences had left him writhing in pain and unable to move. When he had finally been released, there had been nowhere to go, and he had lain on the unyielding bricks in a crumpled heap.

He looked at the sky and rubbed his hand over the soft cotton shirt covering his chest. He felt the uneven ridges of the scars there. Mama had promised that they would never return…that they couldn’t. Both of his new parents had told him about death, and explained that there was no coming back from that. He had asked them individually, just to be certain. But they always lurked in his mind, and in the still of the morning he felt their dark presence. He wondered if he always would.

He sat up in his bed and looked at the backpack in the corner. Today was his first day of school…a place filled with other kids…and they would learn all sorts of things that were important. Today he would be dropped off and left in a sea of strange things. Mum had been teaching him for months now, at the kitchen table. He knew numbers and letters and could even write his own name. He knew shapes and the names of animals he’d never seen. He could sing the alphabet and knew where he lived.

But a fear settled in his chest. It wasn’t the learning that frightened him…it was the other children. He’d never interacted with so many people his own height before. He’d seen them in town, when he went with Mum on errands. A few weeks ago, she’d brought him to a playground full of screaming children running around and climbing on big plastic things. But he’d shaken his head. He had absolutely no intention of deviating from their normal day of going to the shops and walking around.

And the playground looked unbearably chaotic. He had little desire to be swept away by their lawless current. Mum had asked him to simply sit and watch them, and only to please her, he did. He listened to her soothing voice as he observed. She had told him about school then, and how he would soon be a part of what he was seeing on the playground. She walked him through what a day at school would look like, and he decided right then that he’d much rather stay with her during the day. He said as much, and she smiled his favorite smile…the one where little crinkles appeared around her blue eyes…and said that she’d prefer that as well. But it was unlawful for children of schooling age to be kept at home, she explained gently, and as new and scary it seemed, she was certain that he would enjoy it and make friends.

Friends. People that were not related to you but ones you liked to be around. Like Bernie and Martha. He liked very much to be around them. They were his friends. Mama and Mum were his friends, too, but in a different way. Parents were a special category all of their own.

He had sat on the park bench that first time and looked at the wild bunch of unorganized beings and narrowed his eyes. They seemed unpredictable and flighty and…loud. They would suddenly scream and run. They laughed big. They chased each other and threw things and climbed all over the big, colorful plastic shapes. Absolutely nothing they did made sense to him. Why were they screaming? No one was hurting them. Why did they run when there was no danger? Why did they climb up the plastic shapes over and over, tirelessly and in an endless loop? It rather exhausted him, watching them.

Mum had taken him to the playground every day after that. He understood that she was making it more familiar to him, to see the chaos every day. It did get less frightening, but it made him feel no less apart from their wild games. He couldn’t gather what rules they were abiding by, and the more he observed, the less he understood.

One day, as they sipped hot chocolate and sat on their bench, they saw a group of boys surround another boy. The cornered child was rather fat, and Pete had silently been studying him for days. He was usually alone with a red truck, and rolled it endlessly through the sand, making little beeping noises to himself. He rarely interacted with the screaming bunch flying around him, and would passively move out of their way when their lawless games got too close to him and his truck. The only interactions he couldn’t seem to avoid were ones like that particular day. They’d seen it several times, and each time Pete would look at Mum and see that her mouth was a thin line of disapproval and her eyes were narrowed. She was unhappy. He didn’t understand why she didn’t do anything to help the boy, so he asked. Mum quietly said that his parents were watching, and she couldn’t intervene. No real harm was being done, she explained. The boy was not in danger, he was just being…picked on. Children could be cruel to those they found interesting or different. It was unfair, but it was the natural progression of human growth, and it took many interactions and teachings to fully become aware of how to treat others. Sometimes people never learned. While they are young, it was up to the child’s parents to handle the situation, and rarely were other grown folk allowed to interfere. That explanation only made Pete frown, and he concentrated on the fat boy each day he saw him.

Today, he was cornered yet again. It seemed random to Pete, this unscheduled decision to be cruel. The pack of boys would be doing other things, and then come to a silent agreement and approach the fat boy and his red truck. He understood sudden punishment, and a feeling rose inside his chest that he couldn’t comprehend. He’d never wanted to fight for himself, but he felt a powerful urge to stand in front of the fat boy today, and somehow cause his tormentors to flee. All the other children disappeared from his vision and he only had eyes for what was happening in the corner of the playground.

There was a sudden, rough push. Pete sucked in a breath and automatically slid off the bench. He looked at Mum. You can’t do anything, but can I?

Mum looked at him thoughtfully. She read him well, and his large brown eyes asked her to trust him. She finally nodded, her brow crinkled slightly. “Aye, love. Be gentle, please.”

Pete stood still and watched for a minute longer. Other parents had seen the push as well, but didn’t move. They were talking to other grown people and didn’t bother to intervene. The boy’s parents didn’t see their child fall into the sand. They didn’t see another boy pick up his red truck and drop it over the fence just out of reach. They didn’t see the other boys laugh as the fallen boy tried to reach a pudgy hand through the chain link in vain to reach his truck. They didn’t notice he was all alone again, covered in sand and terribly unhappy as he pined for his lost toy. They couldn’t tell that he could see it, but couldn’t get to it. They didn’t know the sadness of his heart.

But Pete did. He walked forward slowly, braving the droves of little bodies flying haphazardly around him. Some came far too close, and he felt a growl of warning in his chest. He had no interest in their lawlessness.

When he reached the boy in the sand, he was alone in his misery, and didn’t notice that he had company. He was crying quietly and trying to shove his big hand through the chain link fence, helplessly reaching for his truck. Pete knelt down in front of him and waited to be noticed. The boy finally stopped struggling with the fence and their eyes met. His face was red from his silent, frustrated crying, and there was snot dripping down his nose. His hand was stuck in the fence and there was sand in his hair. Pete tilted his head and studied this boy in front of him. Then he carefully rolled up his sleeve and easily slid his thin arm through the chain link fence. He picked up the truck and brought it close and lifted it to his other, waiting hand. He repeated the motion of walking the truck up the fence. There came a point where he couldn’t reach any higher, so he gripped the fence and climbed. He suddenly felt a hand on his back and he started, looking down. The fat boy was standing next to him and holding a steadying hand in his lower back. Pete didn’t like the touch, but realized the fat boy was trying to help, and nodded a curt thank you before continuing to walk the truck hand over hand to the top of the fence.

As soon as he handed the truck to the waiting boy, Pete hoped down from the fence and started back to Mum and their bench. The fat boy followed him until he turned back to stare at him quizzically. The boy held his truck close to his chest for a minute, and then held it out. Pete tilted his head again. He didn’t understand this interaction at all. He shook his head. He didn’t want the truck. He started walking again, and eyed the boy following him. He looked at Mum for guidance, and saw the little smile on her mouth…the one she reserved for him when he had done something to please her. She raised her eyebrows at him and glanced at the other boy. Pete stared at her for a moment, thinking. Oh.

Friend.

He looked at the boy again. He was bouncing slightly and clutching his truck. Pete decided right then that he liked him. Since he had no idea how to proceed, he reached out and brushed some sand from the other boy’s sweater. “I’m Pete,” he offered quietly.

The boy beamed at him and whispered, “Robin.”

When Pete only stared at him, he sat and started rolling his truck. He looked up at Pete. “Do you want to play trucks?”

Pete shook his head, but sat down across from him anyway, and watched him roll his truck through the sand. He seemed happier, so Pete stayed with him and listened to the odd little story he was whispering about how his truck was rescuing lost people in the big mountains in the north. None of it made sense, but Pete found himself rather captivated by it. He did love to be read to, and this little boy didn’t need a book in front of him to create another world in Pete’s mind. He scooted closer and rested his elbows on his crossed knees to listen. Robin grinned at him and spoke a bit louder, and Pete leaned in as a tornado came and lifted the truck to impossible heights and a dragon came and carried it away and then there was a giant rock man and flames and the truck grew wings of its own and…

He didn’t notice when Mum came up beside them until she called his name. They both looked up at her and Robin blushed furiously and ducked his head, tugging his truck once again to his chest. Mum knelt down and smiled at him. She asked his name and he mumbled it shyly, before running back towards his waiting parents. Pete looked after him and felt Mum slip her hand in his. He looked up at her and saw the same look of pleasure he adored.

“I love you, bub.” She said. “And I’m proud of you.”

Pete squeezed her hand. Yes. He did something today that she had been trying to encourage him to understand for weeks. He pointed to Robin’s receding form. “Friend?”

Mum nodded. “Aye, love.”

Pete nodded thoughtfully. He helped Robin, and Robin had told him a story. He wasn’t sure if that’s quite how it worked. He wanted to investigate this new thing more.

Every day since then, when they went to the playground, he would immediately seek out Robin. Sometimes he wasn’t there, but usually he was. Pete would sit with him and listen to his stories. They were always different, and sometimes Pete couldn’t help but laugh in delight. Robin always blushed and grinned shyly at him whenever Pete laughed.

One day he gave Pete a pile of rocks and showed him how to bring the giant rock man to life. As they built the giant bigger and taller, Robin suddenly threw himself to the ground and piled rocks on his chest. He yelled like he was in pain and tossed the truck to Pete. Pete found himself suddenly the sole and last survivor of the dreaded rock man and bravely shouldered the responsibility of flying the truck towards the eminent danger. He gripped the truck in his hands tightly, and with a wild yell he plunged it at a crazy angle towards their created monster. Robin shoved the rock giant out of the way and rolled to the left, laughing uproariously as Pete continued to run in circles around him, flying the truck and completely lost in the story of their shared mind. At last he felt dizzy, and dropped to the ground next to Robin, still holding the truck. They both grinned at each other and laughed in their strange little victory. Friends.

 Pete looked up at the sky again. It was brighter now, as the sun rose and light poured over him. He looked at his backpack again. Today was a day at school, filled with the same group of loud, wild children he’d observed on the playground. It wasn’t as scary as he originally thought, because today also meant a day with Robin.

Chapter Text

Tuesday mornings were always hectic. It was the only morning that all three people living in the cabin had to be out the door at roughly the same time. They had their routine down to a science, and while Jo helped Pete get dressed and gather her things for school, Brenna packed them all lunches. It was the quicker of the morning tasks, and the blonde needed the extra time to get ready. As she prepped the triple lunch sacks, she marveled how efficiently Jo handled both her own morning needs and their child’s. They would both be done before her, and Jo would head to the college and Pete would sit patiently and wait for Brenna to finish getting ready and drive her to school.

Jo ambled into the kitchen and leaned against the counter, sliding the last of her papers into her back pack and watching her wife work. Something melted inside her as she stared at the blonde. Warmth, desire…all a bit feral…flooded her. She put her back pack down and gripped the counter, unable to take her eyes off of Brenna’s body. Unable to remember the last time they had made love with reckless abandon…or at all for that matter.

They had run into dry seasons before. The last spell had been when they had initially moved into the cabin. Their schedules crossed at awkward times and the stress and exhaustion of their new life drove them to the point where they could only collapse side by side in fitful slumber…only to awaken the next morning and repeat the same wearying process. There hadn’t been room for sex…not when there were too many other things distracting their minds and exhausting their bodies.

But that season hadn’t lasted. They had adjusted themselves and once again mended the rift between their frames. That blissful time had lasted for several years, until newness once again infiltrated their lives. It was richer and more dangerous and cast a heavy shadow on the safety of their anonymity. But they hadn’t once rejected the arrival of Pete. With bare communication they welcomed her as the next and most pivotal addition to their world.

But looking at her wife this morning, her slender form gently moving to the task she was doing…Jo wanted…needed to feel her. They had survived on sweet, secret make out sessions and playful touches and holding each other close at night for so long that the actual act of making love had been shelved. It was an accidental sacrifice, but one she wouldn’t change. Pete came first. Her needs and growth and structure and learning and emotions would always come first. Neither women had to agree on that. They simply and automatically made it happen.

It wasn’t till Jo actually focused on the little sway of her wife’s hips did she realize how long it had been. The night of their last argument, when demons fled and old wounds were finally healed. Brenna had taken her hand deliberately and led her to their bed. They could end the day screaming at each other, she said huskily, but the cause would be immeasurable pleasure. That had been weeks ago. They literally hadn’t had sex since. Elongated mornings exploring each other in bed gradually gave way to packing lunches and braiding hair. Spontaneous, afternoon quickies slowly disappeared to make room for dancing before dinner and bedtime stories. Their lives were mostly full of happiness.

Mostly.

When Brenna brushed a wet hand over the seat of her slacks to dry it, Jo stared at the fading wet mark and felt a jolt in her lower abdomen. She stood.


Brenna jumped and gasped slightly when a hand suddenly pinned hers and the cutting knife against the cutting board and another snaked around her chest. She felt Jo press against her and she felt hot breath on her neck. Jo kept her knife hand pinned while she skillfully undid a few of the buttons on Brenna’s shirt. Brenna gripped the cucumber in one hand and held the knife tighter. This was more than a good morning…this was…she let out a breathy oh when Jo slid her hand through the opened space between silk and skin and covered her breast.

“I think you should call in this morning.”

Brenna laughed lightly at her and leaned her head back against her wife’s shoulder, both enjoying and welcoming the surprising touch. “I think I can’t call in every time you are horny.”

Jo also laughed in the soft skin of her neck and moved her hand from the gentle caress to a more firm, insistent squeeze. Brenna gasped quietly again and made a little noise of pleasure. Jo hummed at the sound. She kissed Brenna’s neck, just below her ear, before biting down on the sensitive skin. It was a bit hard, and Brenna cried out and tried to turn in her grasp. Jo held her tighter, soothing the bite with her tongue and another kiss. “Maybe you can just tell them you’re gonna be late?”

Brenna caught her breath and forced her legs not to sag under the hand still fondling her; under the feel of heated lips whispering in her ear. “I am going to be late. You are too. You can’t miss class, not with finals coming up.”

Jo let go of the hand she had pinned to the counter and wrapped it around Brenna’s taut stomach, teasing the fabric just above her waist band.

“Jo…”

Jo grinned into her neck and slid her hand over the front of her wife’s slacks and cupped her, pulling her closer by the apex of her thighs. Brenna sucked in a breath and gripped the counter top, raising up on her toes slightly at the sudden pressure on her center. “Jo, we don’t have time. You need to let go.”

Jo moved both of her hands simultaneously. “I don’t want to…”

She leaned against the blonde, putting even more pressure against the places under her hands. Her wife’s back was just stiff enough to tell Jo that she didn’t want to stop either. She was feeling the jolts of longing as well. Brenna rolled her head to the side under her administrations, and let out another soft groan. “Where’s Pete?”

“In the bathroom, getting ready for school…I think…” Jo sighed under her breath. Gone were the days of recklessly taking her wife on any surface in the cabin. Pete was a fucking ninja, noiselessly appearing and causing both adults to jump. She’d never caught them indecent, thank goodness, but that didn’t prevent Jo from mumbling one afternoon that the little thing needed to wear a bell. She kissed Brenna’s neck again and gently sucked her earlobe.

When Brenna moaned again, Jo grabbed her arm and spun her around. As soon as their lips collided her insides turned to jelly. She missed this! Her feet moved automatically and suddenly Brenna was backed into the counter again. With their hips and stomachs and breasts pressed into each other, hands moved on their own accord. Jo rubbed up against her wife, slipping her hand once more between her legs and continuing their friction. “I want to take you right here…” she breathed roughly.

Brenna slid her hand to the brunette’s hips and gripped her almost painfully. “I know.” The desperation in her voice caused a more ferocious attack on her neck and throat. More pressure between her legs. She closed her eyes and leaned further back into the counter when Jo pressed their lips together again. She missed this!

Call into work for a few hours. Drop Pete off at school. Come back to the cabin and fall into her wife’s strong embrace. Ravish and be ravished. Everywhere. How long had it been? Her heart sank as she realized she couldn’t remember. Work, class, cleaning, Pete, reading, baths, bedtime rituals, homework, exhaustion…did all parents go through this? The passion was there for sure…it was the time that wasn’t…and they were like ships in the night, gliding over the same ocean but never colliding. Windows were open only a crack and closed just as quickly as they opened. The whole world couldn’t disappear in favor of their passion anymore.

Brenna closed her eyes as she felt a pool of desire rush to her center. There was little fabric between her wife’s rubbing fingers and the flesh that wanted them so badly. But there were many hours and obligations between them and any passion they might share. Too many hours. She desperately wanted to get lost in the feel of the olive skin pressing against her. She wanted to wrestle her and win…pin her down and make her squirm under her lips and tongue. She wanted to hear her pant and beg and finally cry out in ecstasy. How was it that after this many years she hadn’t grown accustom to what this woman could do to her? How she made her feel? How was it that although they were more than familiar with each other’s rhythm, their love making was always as deeply satisfying as their first time? She wanted the woman in front of her as badly now as she had when they’d met years ago. Maybe even more so.

Brenna couldn’t look at her. The shade of green she would see would unglue her. They needed to stop now, and gather their senses. They needed to…
She had to bite back a cry when she felt her wife’s lips around her exposed breast. Felt her tongue through the lace of her bra. Brenna flopped her head back and groaned, fighting her weakening resolve. This was not the time. “Baby, please. Stop.”

Jo stiffened and let her wife go immediately, stepping back. She hadn’t wanted to let go. She felt the telltale shivering in the blonde’s abdomen. She knew that groan. But Brenna had employed the word that would always back her away. Always.

Stop.

Brenna realized what she said and her hand flew to her mouth. They had flayed each other wide open just weeks ago, in a bitter upheaval of the past, and the pain of it came flooding back. Jo had come up with a safe word…made her wife promise to use it should the need ever arise.

If I ever hurt you or scare you or make you uncomfortable…all you have to say is stop.

Can we choose something less common? Perhaps a stranger word will trigger a quicker response?

No. That word will do.

Why that word?

It’s the word you used once and I didn’t respect it. It’s a word I’ll never forget.

As they stared at each other now, Jo felt a stone in her chest. Their fight had been weeks ago, and now, hearing the safe word from a voiced husked low with arousal, caused her to back away in confused shame. She didn’t think the blonde would ever have to say it to her. Ever again.

Jo turned away and gathered up her back pack. “I’ll be home late tonight. I’ve got the night shift.”

Her tone was stiff and guarded, and her statement was loaded. Too many hours between them. More than a day. Brenna bit her lip, realizing what she had said loo late. “Baby, I didn’t mean to say that. I didn’t. I’ll be awake when you get home.” It was all she could offer in the moment.

Jo shrugged and walked towards the bathroom to say goodbye to Pete. “No worries, Bren. Don’t wait up. I’ll see you tomorrow morning, yeah?”

There was a falseness to the cheer, and when she left the kitchen, Brenna closed her eyes and growled her frustration with herself. Shit! After everything they had talked about…how the fuck did that word just come out of her mouth? She had wanted a less common word for this very reason, knowing that she might use it by accident and cause…well…this moment to happen. Shit. She would give much to be able to rewind the last few seconds…when her wife’s fingers had stroked her in places that sorely missed her touch. She could still feel the ache of desire.

She heard them coming back down the hall and when Jo passed her, Brenna lightly brushed her arm. “Jo…” Stay. I’ll call in!

The brunette shouldered her backpack and shrugged again, walking out the front door. “See you tomorrow,” she said, and was gone. Brenna looked after her unhappily. Shit.

Jo sat in the auditorium and barely paid attention. This was the last class before finals, and none of this material would be on the exam. It would have been the perfect class to skip, had Brenna allowed it. Calling into work a bit late was a bit more inconvenient. The town’s paper was more than forgiving, but Tuesday was a day before the paper rolled into print, and there was always a bit of a scramble as last minute articles and news were crammed in at the last moment. Brenna had the luxury of taking her work home with her, and could prepare plenty of material by the Tuesday deadline. She could have called in. It was irresponsible, maybe, to flaunt her freedom when everyone else was floundering, but she could have done it.

As the TA drove his bullet points to a conclusion, Jo absentmindedly scribbled notes and wrestled with her thoughts. Their refusal of each other had always been out of a mutual exhaustion. This morning was a first, and, coupled with the accidental use of a pretty significant word, had left Jo feeling insecure and confused. This would not break them, of course. Not by a long shot. Their love had withheld through all the tests of time. They leaned on each other, back to back when the world pressed in on them, and face to face when their hearts pressed against each other. They had reached into the depths of the others soul and gathered towards them kindness and patience and love and everything in between. They had followed each other, sometimes blindly, enduring the knowledge that the further they went the harder it would become. Somehow all of their mess had caused them to adhere more fiercely to their love. The result was more beautiful than tragic, and even though they constantly had to gather up the pieces of themselves and hold each other together, they only became stronger. There was no replacing the other. There was no trading the choice to remain steadfastly connected. There was no independent heartbreak. When one broke, the other was quick to follow. At the repair of one, the other would heal.

This morning they had stumbled once again. They seemed to make an art form of causing pain. They once again managed to shake loose the bond holding them together. Their fragility was as frightening as their strength. It had happened too quickly to process, and there had been no time to fully feel the rejection and shame surrounding her confusion. She saw Brenna’s face. She knew that using their safe word had been unintentional, but it was too raw in Jo’s mind to not feel its sting.

But she knew it wouldn’t break them. She was frustrated that there were too many hours between now and the time they could finally communicate their different perspectives. She valued her wife far too much to let such a slip open a chasm of hurt, and she had a need that only Brenna could satisfy. They needed to work harder to find the time to be together. They had both felt its presence…the ache of desire…and it was regrettable that it had come to a head in such a disagreeable way.

Jo sighed. They would fix it, of course. Brenna would be awake when she got home, and they would talk and reassure the other and hold one another close in the few remaining hours of the night. It wouldn’t be everything, but it would be enough to start on.

Jo looked up as her pre-final paper was handed back to her. She glanced at the grade and frowned. She was a straight A student, and the large F circled and placed boldly in red over her meticulous work surprised her. There were no comments indicating what she had done wrong, and she knew damn well that paper was a fucking work of art. She had read it to Brenna before handing it in, and had gotten the seal of approval from the smartest woman she knew. Jo needed this grade. This paper was worth 50% of the final score for the class, and even if she aced the exam now, she wouldn’t pass the class.

The auditorium was emptying, and she gathered her things and made her way through the crowd of students to the quieter halls of the professor’s offices. Maybe if she spoke to the professor, he would explain his decision to her and maybe give her a chance to defend her work. This was the law department after all.

She had never met this particular professor. She’d seen him in class, of course, and knew his name, but she never had cause to interact with him until now. The office door was slightly ajar, and she knocked before opening it further. The man behind the large mahogany desk looked up at her.

“Yes?”

It was not a friendly greeting. Her instincts warned her to just go and try another time, but she entered the office anyway. “Dr. Stampley? My name is Jo Walker, I’m in your Adjudicative Criminal Procedures class.” She held up her paper. “I’d like to talk to you, sir, about the grade I received on this assignment.”

The professor looked at her in a way that triggered something in the back of Jo’s mind. It was a hard stare, unnecessarily intense for the circumstances. She eyed him as he rose from his desk and walked towards her.

“Ah, yes. Ms. Walker. Or is it Mrs.?”

Jo watched him walk around her and close his office door. She frowned slightly as she backed up a step. The professor leaned idly against the closed door. His body was relaxed, but the intimidation of now being trapped was palpable in the small office. He may have been offering privacy, but that didn’t prevent Jo from feeling the same uneasiness she’d felt initially. She met his stare and answered his question. “Mrs.”

The professor raised his eyebrows. “So you are married? Do you have any children?”

Jo looked at him, a little taken aback. She didn’t like small talk, and she didn’t like nosy strangers. She gripped her paper a bit tighter in her hand and held it out. “I thought we could talk about the grade you gave me on this assignment.”

“So...no children?”

Was he being deliberate aggravating in his actions, or was this his nature? Nothing he was asking seemed appropriate, and had nothing to do with why she’d come to see him. She clenched her jaw slightly. “We have a little girl.”

The professor finally took the offered paper and scanned it. “Ah, yes. Little girls.”

He said it as a statement, and didn’t offer anything else as he looked over her work, and Jo wondered if she’d missed something. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. When he looked up at her again, she suddenly wanted to leave the office. If he hadn’t been in front of the door, she would have left without another word. There was no rationale behind her feelings…it was purely instinctual. She forced herself to relax while she waited for his response. Her instincts had been wrong before, and she knew she needed to be willing to learn people before casting them in good or bad categories. Bernie came to mind. If she had followed her instincts and gone on the run as soon as that sweet old man had discovered who she really was, she would have missed out on one of the most beautiful friendships she’d ever enjoyed. Meeting the professor’s eyes, she knew that they would not be friends, but that didn’t mean he was to be quickly labeled and avoided. She couldn’t go through life like that. This wasn’t prison, and heightened instincts would only serve to collect unnecessary trouble. Just act like a normal person and figure your shit out!

The professor tapped the paper before handing it back to her. “My TA usually grades the assignments. I chose to grade these myself. You earned an A, Mrs. Walker.”

 Jo raised her eyebrows in surprise, her relief clouded by her confusion. “But the F…?”

She looked at the paper to be certain she’d seen it correctly. After Brenna and the kitchen this morning, her mind had definitely been distracted all day. But the large red F was as clear as when she’d first seen it. She looked up at the professor. He was staring intently at her again, and had lifted himself away from the door to stand his full height.

“Your grade is properly recorded in the system. You can check if you’d like.”

She wasn’t understanding at all and the unease in the back of her mind was closing in on her. She pushed it away again and tilted her head. “Then why on earth did you put an F on my paper?”

“Because I knew you’d come find me, Mrs. Walker. I wanted to finally meet the little bitch who nearly beat my son to death.”

Chapter Text

Jo backed up. It was just a small step. There was nowhere to go in the small office. The all too familiar icy fingers of fear closed in around her heart. She was trapped again by someone who wanted to hurt her. Fucking again! Her whole life had been like this. Part of her just wanted to throw up her hands and scream Fine! Just kill me and put me out of my misery! No matter how far she ran, it wasn’t the people she met…it was her. She attracted demons because she was one. Her heart sank in a deep despair and she felt tears sting her eyes. She wouldn’t cry and give this man the satisfaction. She wouldn’t. The small space closed in on her and once again she was in that fucking garden shed with Bates. She wouldn’t try to flee this time, only to be caught in arms far stronger than her and bent forward over the fucking desk. She clenched her jaw and stood her ground, waiting.

Her mind suddenly flashed her images of Brenna laughing, the early morning sunlight streaming through their bedroom window. Giggling as she invoked all of her savvy moves to keep Jo next to her in bed a little longer. She thought of the aftermath, when her wife gently stroked her cooling skin and whispered words of adoration in her ears. She thought of Pete. Her beautiful little girl. The greatest bonus of her existence. The way she launched herself from her loft with screams of delight. The way she snuggled up against Jo’s chest for their bedtime story, never seeming to get close enough. She thought of teaching her how to cook and forever cleaning sap out of their tea pot. She thought of Martha, and her kind, unyielding character. She thought of Bernie.

Bernie.

Jo looked at the man in front of her, and suddenly she wasn’t afraid. It was the middle of the day, and the office was surrounded with bustle. The law…as unfamiliar as it seemed…was on her side. The professor hadn’t moved. He seemed to be waiting for a reaction. Something he could use against her. Something that would throw her testimony out of court when his son’s case went to trial. She wasn’t a demon. No, she was a demon hunter. That’s why she collected constant trouble. She hadn’t, until this very moment, fully understood her true calling in life. Why she was so keenly attracted to becoming a lawyer. She had studied tirelessly for the moment when she could finally stand up for herself and others. Up until this point, she had only reacted in a way to further delight their evil intent.

But not this time. She had a life worth fighting for. She was worth fighting for.

She wasn’t going to beg him to let her leave. She didn’t want to escape. For the first time in her life she had enough in her arsenal to face the demon in front of her. She cocked her head “Like father like son, hey? Like cornering woman, do you?”

The professor raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t expected the cool response. “Don’t flatter yourself. I’ve no interest in the likes of you, janitorProud of yourself, aren’t you?”

“Of being a top grade student? Yes.” She tilted her head. “Of beating your asshole of a son into the ground before he could rape me? Yes.”

The professor sucked in a sharp breath and took a step forward. Jo took another back. “You stay the fuck away from me.” Oh, had she said those words before! She internally fought the anger trying to bubble to the surface. He had lured her here intentionally, but until he moved against her, she was going to remain calm.

His tone hardened. “We’re just going to talk.”

“The fuck we are.” She leaned back and picked up his desk phone. She quickly dialed the only three numbers she needed. “It’s Jo. I’m in Dr. Stampley’s office, and I’m fresh out of mop handles.”

She replaced the receiver and tipped a small smile. Part of her arsenal included a 6’3” barrel chested janitor who held a fierce fondness for her. Bernie would come. She just had to keep her cool until then.  

The professor looked at the phone and frowned. When he looked at her again, his anger had returned. “I don’t care who you called. We’re talking, that’s it. You could have killed him.”

Jo was careful with her words. Wires, recordings and legal terms rushed into her brain. He’d planned for her to come, and everything screamed entrapment. “Your son attacked me.” She said softly. “Tell me, did you know who he was? Were you aware of how he treated…little girls?”

Contempt dripped from her voice…the same amount that had dripped from his earlier statement. Father and son had zero value for the female gender. She narrowed her eyes, but held her tongue again. Her phone call had thrown him off, and his eyes flitted back and forth between the phone and her. There was the static electricity of barely contained violence in the air, and she had no desire to tangle with this man. Come on Bernie! Find me!

The professor took a deep breath through his nose. He was gearing himself up for whatever his intentions were. Jo remained stiff, waiting.

“He said you came on to him. He said you went crazy when he rejected you.”

Jo scoffed at him. She couldn’t help it. The thought of it turned her stomach. “Is that why there were bruises around my neck?”

The professor folded his arms and glared at her. “He said he was trying to get you off him.”

Jo narrowed her eyes. “From behind. The bruises were from behind, as in your son grabbed me when I tried to leave.” She met his eye. “Is that what you are going to do? If I try to leave?”

“We’re just talking.”

“No.” Jo said coldly. “We aren’t. I’m done here.”

Neither moved. The standoff was interrupted by a slight commotion outside the office, and Bernie’s big booming voice echoed just outside, causing them both to jump. “Susan, my darling!”

The woman in question laughed. “Where have you been hiding, you old charmer?”

The office door opened suddenly, and Bernie moved his sizable bulk into the small space, past the professor, to stand in front of Jo. “Hi, kid.” He murmured. He cast a wary eye on the startled professor. “Need one of my mops, do you?”

“Meet the father of the guy who attacked me in the library.” She whispered back.

Bernie raised his eyebrows at her and turned to face the professor. He crossed his arms and growled, “What is it with your family and cornering my employee?”

“We were just talking!”

Bernie snorted at him. “Funny. That’s what your boy said the first time I caught him cornering Jo in a dark hallway.” He raised his voice a little. “Susan, love, a little help here, please?”

Susan stepped jovially into the crowded office and her round, pleasant face took in the situation with surprise. When her eyes met Jo’s she smiled. “Oh! You’re the one who rescued that baby girl! Did you get the basket my husband and I left you? We didn’t want to crowd you but we wanted…” she trailed off and her brows crinkled together. Another news story must have jolted her memory, because her kind eyes darkened immediately and her jaw dropped. She turned to the professor sternly.

“Bill, what the hell are you doing?”

Jo watched the professor wipe sweat from his upper lip. How do you like being pinned in, asshole?  He stared angrily at her before defending himself to the very stern woman in front of him. “I just wanted to talk…”

Susan cut him off sharply, raising her hand. “You’ve been ordered to stay away from this girl and the others! The whole department knows that!”

“She came to my office!”

Jo growled and pulled her paper from her back pocket. “You lured me here with a false grade. You wanted to ‘finally meet the little bitch who nearly beat your son to death’. I believe those were your words?”

Susan gasped. “Bill!”

“My son didn’t do anything to deserve what she did to him…to our family!”

Susan shook her head firmly. “That isn’t for you to decide! Jesus, Bill! His court date hasn’t even been set! Now get out of the way and let her by!” She took his arm.

The professor jerked his arm free and glared at Jo. His time was low and dangerous. “I’m going to ruin you.”

Susan hissed sharply and pointed a finger into his chest. “You are not, you old fool! You are this close to felony charges!”

“I want to hear her explain herself!”

Jo took a breath, a wave of indignant anger washing over her, but Bernie gripped her arm and stepped forward, blocking any forward movement she may have made. “Then go to court and listen to her testify.” His tone was quiet and cold. Jo relaxed under his grip. She didn’t need to defend herself. Not this time.

The professor took an angry breath. “My son…” He began.

Susan scoffed at him and shoved him forcefully away from the door. “Your son is the devil and everyone knows it. That girl there is the only one with the ability to prove it! Now step aside!

He had no choice but to acquiesce. He moved to the left and scowled as Susan planted herself firmly in front of him. “You think, Bill,” she said quietly. “You think very carefully about what your actions might mean for Roger.”

The professor looked at Jo, and suddenly his anger was gone. The color drained from his face. “Are you going to tell…are you going to…?”

Jo looked at him firmly. “Don’t come near me again.” She held her head high as she strode from the office, Bernie close behind her. She looked at Susan. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

Susan nodded, still keeping a sharp eye on the professor. “You go ahead, darling.”

Jo looked one last time at the professor. He would leave her alone now, and yes, she damn well was going to tell the prosecutor of this. She was done hiding and staving her tongue in fear of retaliation. She was done with people trying to intimidate her and making her feel like she was wrong…that she deserved everything that happened to her.

When they had rounded the last turn and entered the safety of Bernie’s office, she sagged against the wall and covered her face. “Thank you,” she mumbled between her fingers.

Bernie sighed and wrapped his big arms around her and held her tight…too tight. Jo squirmed and let out a small laugh. “Easy big guy. I still have to push a broom tonight.”

Bernie chuckled as well and let her go, but then his face became serious and his large hands remained on her upper arms. He looked down at her. “You ok, kid?”

She patted his chest reassuringly. “I’m glad you were in your office.”

Bernie let her go and frowned, appraising her. “So this is what being in your life means, eh? Assault and hospitals and abused children and gunshot wounds and threats from every direction? Is this what it means to love you? Have you always been like this?”

Jo looked down, suddenly ashamed. Yes Bernie. It’s always been like this. She was still trying to figure out a way to explain herself when he reached for her. She gasped slightly when he took her into his arms again. She wasn’t used to being man-handled by him and for a man in his seventies, he was fucking strong.

“It’s never been easier to love someone.” He said quietly. She could hear the emotion in his voice. She smiled to herself when he let go and bustled back to his bench, obviously a bit embarrassed. He caught her staring at him and winked.

“You going to the café for lunch?”

“Nuh. Going home. I could use a bit of quiet.”

Bernie turned back to his paperwork and Jo grinned at him as she headed for the door.

“Jo?”

She looked back. “Yeah boss?”

“Get a goddamn cell phone.”

When she pulled into the driveway she was startled to see Brenna’s car. When she pushed the front door open, Brenna was sitting quietly at the farm table sipping tea. They both looked at each other in surprise. Jo dropped her back pack on the floor.

“What…why are you home?”

“I left some articles on the table. I came home for lunch…why are you here?”

“I…” Jo leaned against the kitchen door and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I needed to get away from campus.”

Brenna stood. “Are you ok?”

“Professor Stampley lured me into his office with a false grade. He knew I’d come to speak to him.”

Brenna had the same confused look that her wife had earlier. “Whatever for?”

Jo sighed and leaned her head back against the door. “He’s Roger’s father. He wanted to…talk.”

“What?” Anger replaced the confused look. “Baby, isn’t that against the law?”

Jo laughed humorlessly. She nodded and went to the kitchen sink to wash her hands before answering. “Yep. And he knew it too. I’m calling the prosecution this afternoon. Fuck him.”

Brenna still had her mouth open slightly in shock. “Baby did he…did he threaten you?”

“He said some stuff. I called Bernie from his desk phone.” She suddenly smiled at the memory. “The old man brought back up, too…another lawyer in the department. She put him in his place right quick.” She laughed again. “It was fucking beautiful, Bren.”

Brenna shook her head, still concerned and indignant, and Jo came forward, holding her arms out. “Come here.”

She held the blonde and when the other woman put her arms around her, Jo felt the little rift between them begin to close. They stood like that, holding each other, rocking slightly in the kitchen, for some time. Finally, Jo whispered, “Did I frighten you this morning?”

Brenna pulled back just enough to see her face. “You know you didn’t. I’m so sorry baby. It just…came out. We really need a different word, yeah?”

She stroked her hands on Jo’s lower back. “I would have given anything to be with you this morning.”

As Jo gazed at her, they both seemed to realize that they were completely alone in the quiet cabin. “Bren…” The husk in Jo’s voice was clear.

Brenna gasped quietly and gripped her. “Bedroom.” She managed, before Jo was kissing her and leading her down the hall. They bumped several surfaces in their unwillingness to let go of their embrace and watch where they were going. Clothes were an obstacle easily overcome. Jo made as if to push Brenna onto the bed, but the blonde spun her quickly.

“Brenna…”

Her wife only shook her head as she ran her hands over the smooth olive skin of Jo’s thighs before opening them. “No, baby. Let me show you how badly I need you.”

Jo let herself be pushed backwards on the bed and felt Brenna’s warm hands on her. She sighed the rest of her tension away as warm breath drew closer and closer to her aching core. It wasn’t long before they were both laying haphazardly in the bed, panting. Brenna stretched an arm over Jo’s naked chest and hummed contentedly. She looked at the clock and smiled. They had consumed each other in a record short time of just twenty minutes. It was more than apparent that both of them had needed the kind of release only the other could provide. She leaned on her elbow and gazed at her wife. “I thought you had back to back classes today?”

Jo teased her fingers over Brenna’s thigh. “No, there is about two hours between the first two. It’s the afternoon ones that are back to back, and then my shift starts.”

“You have a two hour break at the same time I take lunch?”

The soft skin under her fingertips was distracting. “Yeah, I usually grab something to eat and study at the café…oh…oh!”

Brenna moved her body on top of Jo’s again. “Looks like we will be coming home this time every Tuesday from now on.”

Jo sighed a soft groan when Brenna rubbed against her, gently rocking herself against already sensitive flesh. “It’s not enough…”

Brenna found a rhythm that made them both reflexively grab for each other. “No, but it’s a start…and after this…we can…oh god…go through our schedules…!”

She breathed out a cry of pleasure and sped up her motion. Each breath exhaled had a moan attached. Jo pulled her down and wrapped a leg over her thigh and held her tight, moving with her and increasing the friction. She put one hand on her wife’s rear and pressed her harder, urging; demanding more, and with the other she cupped her neck and drew her down into a deep kiss. They were too out of breath for it to last and settled on gazing at each other with barely opened eyes. Harder, faster, hands moving, touching, squeezing, lips grazing, teeth scraping, biting, moaning soft cries becoming louder and more desperate, panting, building, building…until finally Brenna snapped her eyes shut and froze, ecstasy quivering through her once again. Jo only needed to see that look, feel the muscles tense and roll, feel her wife’s body stiffen between her legs…she clamped her thighs around Brenna’s as she tipped over the edge and stars exploded behind her eyes and rippling warmth spread from her core to every part of her body.

Jo exhaled both relief and exhaustion and guided Brenna back into her chest. They lay entwined, breathing heavily and laughing quietly. “Best lunch break ever.”

Brenna hummed contentedly and planted feather light kisses on the sated brunette’s upper chest. She slid her hand up and rested it over one of Jo’s ample breasts, covering it possessively with her warm hand. She lifted her chin and Jo held her close while they kissed the last of their ebbing passion away. “I don’t want to move. I just want to stay here with you for the rest of the day.”

Brenna grinned against her lips and kissed her again. “Just hold me, baby. Hold me now and never mind the time. My god I’ve missed you.”

Jo couldn’t answer. She didn’t want to. She just did as she was asked and held her wife against her burning skin and closed her eyes. Her mind tried to force her to think of all the other stolen moments they could have together during the day, but she pushed them away. They would think of them together. But not right now. She grinned and suddenly flipped Brenna over and pinned her to the sheets. Right now they still had thirty minutes, and she was going to spend each and every one of them enticing pleasure from the woman beneath her. Tuesdays were now her favorite day.

Chapter Text

“Oh god, baby, you feel so good!”

Jo already was hyperaware of all of her nerve endings and senses. Her body rocked and quivered, and an electric current raced from her core to her abdomen and back again in intermittent waves of pleasure. That one little sentence, drawled raspy and low against her ear and laden with awe and arousal…playfully timed just right...caused Jo to snap her eyes shut and hold the woman on top of her still while she blissfully exhaled her release.

When she finally collapsed against the twisted sheets, Brenna continued to move in and out of her slowly, drawing her fingers gently through and around swollen and tender flesh until Jo could breathe in a more relaxed, natural way. Then she lowered herself down on top of her, letting her warm weight further secure the still shaking brunette. They held each other close, limbs entwined and hands lazily roaming, until the early morning light touched the inner sanctuary of their bedroom.

Brenna rarely cried after sex, and Jo never did…but this morning she felt tears in her eyes. She exhaled again and laughed quietly. Brenna heard the shuddering vulnerability in the sigh and raised her head. She smiled and gently kissed the fallen tears, softly uttering the same words already being whispered to her.

“I love you.”

A small hand on her sleeve tugged Jo from her sweet memories of earlier this morning. She looked down at her daughter, and then scanned the playground. She smiled when she saw what...who...had caught Pete’s attention. Robin and his mother had just arrived. Jo smiled and nodded her head in their direction. “Yeah, bub. Go on.”

Pete hopped off the park bench and raced to meet Robin. Jo raised a hand to his mother, who waved back before making her way through the playing children to come and sit with her on the bench. Jo smiled at her as she sat her sizable form down with a sigh.

“My child is enamored with that girl.”

Jo grinned at her. “Hi, Abigail.”

They sat in comfortable silence for a while. Jo liked this woman. Not only because she was the mother of Robin, but because she wasn't nosy. She'd no doubt read every article and watched every news broadcast on the death of Pete’s parents, but she never asked the kind of pointed questions the other parents had tried to insert into otherwise normal conversion. What's more, she didn't seem one bit concerned that Jo and Brenna were married. The only lesbian couple in town had caused a slight ripple, and while Jo had to sometimes grit her teeth and bite her tongue, she always remembered the brief interaction she'd had with Brenna when they had first encountered ignorant comments from other parents.

“Jesus, Bren, I feel like a fucking zoo animal. All they want to do is stare and poke.”

“Are you a monkey or a lion?

“What?”

“Are you going to give them what they want and act the fool, or are you going to maintain your dignity and pride and realize that their opinion doesn't matter?”

“I'm a fucking lion!”

“Of course you are, baby.”

They had both burst out laughing after that, and their silly interaction had stuck with Jo and caused her to grin internally instead of losing her temper every time a careless comment made her angry.

Abigail looked over at her. “Still bothering you?”

Jo realized that she was absentmindedly rubbing her shoulder. Five inches lower underneath her clothes was a perfect circle. An angry red scar, still raised slightly against her olive skin. Another image woven into the tapestry of her body. She shrugged and dropped her hand.

“Sometimes.”

Abigail nodded in understanding and lifted her right leg straight out, rubbing her knee. “Three surgeries and six years later and this bugger still gives me fits when it's cold.”

Jo smiled at her…at the purely innocent comparison between a bullet wound and a knee surgery. Abigail made her feel normal, as if her aches and pains were the natural progression of getting older, and not as a result of her wife shooting her in the chest to save their family. She nodded towards their children, playing quietly in their favorite spot in the corner of the playground; just outside of the screaming mass and untouched by their chaos.

“Did you know that Robin is the only one who's ever gotten Pete to actually play?”

Abigail smiled fondly. “Brenna told me a little. I'm glad. That child has already lived an adult life. It's about time she can be a little kid.”

Jo smiled and settled herself more comfortably on the bench. They'd been doing this for weeks now. Brenna, in her uncanny brilliance, had slowly integrated their child into a world of people her own size. Pete had initially pushed back from the wild unknown, but had been drawn into their ungodly dance by a shy, sweet boy and a little red truck.

Jo glanced at Abigail and wondered just how much of Robin was because of her gentle influence. She didn't have any experiences with good mothers, and used much of her playground guarding duties to observe any interaction between parent and child. Abigail was always firm, but kind. Robin was her only child, and his shyness made him easy going to her soft spoken commands.

Abigail caught the glance and winked. “I could have beat my fool of a husband with a rolling pin for not seeing Robin being bullied that day.”

She sighed and frowned slightly. “John means well, but he wants Robin to be something he isn't.”

John was a firefighter in town, as well as the local superstar on the Bell’s Angel’s baseball team, where every season the firefighters would go against the police department’s Blue Servers to raise money for the children's hospital. He was pretty much all man, Abigail explained once, and the only thing he lacked was understanding a boy with his genes was just as opposite of him as could be.

“Robin is all me,” she laughed. “And John is just stuck with us. ‘Marry one, raise one’, I always tell him. We have a laugh, but I know he'd like to connect with Robin more. He just doesn't know what to do with him. They’re as opposite as camels and butterflies.”

Jo laughed, and Abigail beamed at her. “But my boy is exactly what your girl needed. And that one moment unseen by John brought them together. Look at them, in their own little world.” Jo could hear the pride in her voice. “When I watch them, I feel like I've done right as a parent.”

Jo nodded in agreement. “Robin is an amazing kid.”

“He gets that from me.”

Jo laughed again and Abigail chuckled with her. They sat in silence again, watching the haphazard, dizzying interactions contrast starkly against the quieter, private duo in the corner. All seemed normal…until it wasn’t. Jo narrowed her eyes, swinging them back and forth amongst the children. She knew tension when she saw it. She'd been in enough riots to recognize when something was about to happen. She leaned forward on the bench...watching. She'd promised Brenna that she would relax and just let Pete interact naturally. She promised not to interfere. But this wild and chaotic bunch had quite suddenly settled somewhat. They were...organizing…themselves. It was fucking creepy, watching them communicate by pulling, pointing, talking at the same time or not at all. Like little telepathic ants they regrouped and separated themselves. Girls on one side, boys on the other. Jo relaxed slightly. This was not a riot. They weren't about to fight. They were simply about to begin a game that needed teams, and since they were too young to grapple the complex process of picking sides...they fell back on the timeless divide of gender. Girls against boys. 

“Freeze tag.” Abigail murmured. “I’ll give you $100 if our two join in.”

Jo settled back against the park bench once again. She could see how watching these little kids would be heaven for her wife. Brenna absorbed every nuance in the little humans and cataloged each interaction in the storehouse of her brilliant mind.

“How do they suddenly go from running around like crazy to this?” She waved an arm out, indicating the relative calm as the kids situated themselves. Abigail laughed.

“If I knew their secret, I'd bottle it up and sell it.”

Jo huffed in agreement and relaxed further. She tried to channel her inner Brenna and take in everything. But when she looked over at her daughter, she stiffened. Pete had sensed something off as well, and stood, staring at the shift in the dynamic on the playground. She tugged on Robin’s shoulder to get his attention, and he looked up at her. Then he, too, saw the divide in the other kids.

Abigail appraised them. “Perceptive little thing, isn’t she?”

Jo gripped the edge of the bench. Old memories tried to resurface and she leaned forward slightly with a sudden, anxious heart. She hoped against all hope the kids would simply begin their game and leave her daughter out of it.

But their absence in the line-up was noticed, and two little girls were somehow elected to approach them, offering inclusion as only little kids could. There was some conversation between them that Jo would have given much to hear, and she watched both her daughter and Robin shake their heads. She wasn’t convinced that Pete even knew what freeze tag was, but she did know that she was content to simply play with Robin. She willed the girls to let them be and fought to shove down a nagging memory in the back of her mind.

But the two little girls were persistent. Robin was the first to resign, and with a shrug at Pete he trudged to the boy’s side. Pete automatically padded after him. There was a moment’s confusion when Robin noticed her by his side and pointed to the line of girls. Pete only looked at him. The other boys began to laugh, and Robin turned a shade of crimson and ducked his head. He mumbled something to Pete. She shook her head when he pointed to the girls again. Pete looked in the direction of the girls, seemingly frozen in place. They beckoned to her and the boys laughed at her.  Robin whispered something to her again and gave her a gentle push towards the line of girls in front of them. Pete looked at him and purposefully walked towards the boys. All the children, apart from Robin, were now screaming with laughter, pointing to the befuddled pair between them.

“What is she doing?” Abigail muttered softly, perplexed. "Oh dear. This isn't good. Jo, should we...?"

Jo didn’t answer. She couldn’t. Her mind was racing furiously back in time and reliving every single moment she’d ever had with Pete. Catching her stealing wood. Cleaning her up. Holding her. Dancing, laughing, teaching, loving, affirming, learning…she shook her head slowly and a small flower of disbelief blossomed in her tightening chest. During all their interactions, had they never once acknowledged aloud Pete’s real gender? Hadn’t they ever called her their baby girl? Had they actually just glossed over the fact that she’d been raised as a boy for her entire life? Had they honestly missed such a colossal impact on her entire identity?

But they did. They had, and as she watched the scene before her unfold, she realized with a sinking heart that Pete didn’t want to stand with Robin in his line because they were friends, she wanted to stand with him because she still thought she was a boy.

“Oh my god,” she whispered quietly. Fail. Fucking parenting fail. What was she supposed to do? She gripped the bench tighter for a moment before suddenly standing. She had to get her little girl out of there before…Jo’s heart twisted painfully as the children began to chant.

“Pete thinks she’s a bo-oy! Pete thinks she’s a bo-oy!”

Jo froze where she stood and balled her hands into fists, snapping her eyes shut against one of her earliest memories.

“Go away, Franky! You can't play with us!”

“Why not?”

Screams of laughter. She stared at the little girls, at all of them. They knew something she didn't. She wrapped her thin coat around her and ignored the sudden sting of the fresh burns on her ribs. Burns the other children didn’t know about. Burns they’d never see. She raised her voice above their laugher, desperate to belong.

“Why NOT?”

They laughed harder and pointed at her. One of them taunted, “Because you're poor!”

The other children surrounded her and crowded her, singing, “poor…poor…Franky is pooooo…rrrrr!”

They closed in on her, their original game completely forgotten, until Franky and turned and fled the playground.

She never went back.

Jo let out a small cry as she opened her eyes. Pete was staring directly at her, her large brown eyes wide and filled with hurt and confusion. She didn’t see the boy behind her step forward and give her a rough push, knocking her over into the sand. She didn’t see Robin pounce on the boy, hitting him with his truck. She didn’t see the other kids moving closer, laughing and chanting louder. She lay where she fell and looked up at Jo again. The brunette couldn’t hear her, but she knew the shape her lips were taking by heart.

Mama?

Something almost audible snapped in Jo’s mind and suddenly she was running towards the playground. 

Chapter Text

The pack of chanting kids became silent at the sudden appearance of an adult. She had forced herself to slow her sprint to a walk as she got closer. The last thing she needed was to barrel among the kids like a rhinoceros.

I'll give you a fucking zoo animal.

The children backed up several alarmed steps when Jo entered their space; eyes averting and feet shuffling…their sudden cruelty recognized. They weren’t a bad lot, and Jo understood more than any one of them the pull of a pack mentality. It was like the riptide, sucking you into the surf and casting you out to sea. Before you knew it, the very thing that drew you in was drowning you. Jo hadn’t always been kind, either, and had it not been for a select few, she would have drowned years ago in an ocean of teal. She took a deep breath to calm herself.

Pete was still on the ground, looking up at her, and Jo softened her expression immediately, crouching down beside her. She ignored the shuffling feet and murmurs around them. She only had eyes for her little girl.

“Hey bub.”

Pete only looked at her, reverting back into the safe shell of silence. Her wide eyes, still too big for her face, expressing all too clearly that she was deeply troubled. Jo brushed a sandy strand of hair from her face and offered her a small smile.

“How about we get out of here, yeah?” She looked up and found Robin. He was also sitting in the sand, clutching his now broken truck. His lip was bleeding. She smiled at him, too.

“What do you think, Booms? Want to go get a hot chocolate with us at Bill’s?”

Abigail came puffing up to them and reached down to help Robin to his feet. “I could use a hot chocolate! How about it, fella?”

Robin, also withdrawn into silence, looked down at his mangled truck before nodding. Jo smiled at him and turned back to Pete. She raised her brows invitingly and Pete held out her arms to be held. Jo helped her to her feet and drew her in for a hug.

“I want nothing more than to pick you up and carry you out of here, bub.” She whispered quietly in Pete’s ear. “But I want you to do me a favor, ok? I want you to walk beside me with your head held high. Can you do that? Can you do that for me?”

She pulled away just enough and looked into her daughter’s eyes. Pete couldn’t understand why, for the first time, she wasn’t being held when asked. But Abigail had been right. She was perceptive. She nodded, and lifted her chin a little higher.

Jo smiled at her, satisfied, and stood. She took Pete’s hand and took a step to lead her off the playground, Abigail and Robin close behind, when one of the little girls sprung forward, haughty indigence in her voice.

“MY mama said that YOU are a CAT lover!”

Jo turned back to the child, raising her eyebrows in surprise. The little girl lifted her chin stubbornly, not understanding what she had said, but hurled it as an insult anyway. She clearly wasn’t used to other grown-ups interrupting her fun.

Jo burst out laughing. “Did she now? Well you just tell your mama that I said it sounds like her cat hasn’t been fed in a long time...she must be starving.”

The child crossed her arms and opened her mouth, no doubt to regurgitate other derogatory things. Jo lost her grin, letting go of Pete’s hand and taking a step towards the little girl. It was a small step, but she lowered her head and looked up as she took it. Her eye shadow, though far lighter in the recent years, still gave her an edgy, dangerous look when a shadow crossed her face. She’d sent legions fleeing with this particular look...seasoned and hardened criminals. The little six year old bully in front of her didn’t stand a chance.

She gave the child in front of her a slow smile. It was such a stark contrast to the fire burning behind her lurid green eyes, the little girl lost her nerve completely and grabbed her friend’s hand, running back to the small group of oncoming parents.

Jo suddenly straightened and waved her arm out, casting the same glowering stare at the other little faces staring wide eyed up at her. “GIT!”

The rest of the stragglers scattered, and Jo looked after them, frowning slightly. She could see the parents coming, whispering to each other, and one angry looking woman was heading directly her way.

Abigail huffed. “That was brilliant.” She murmured. “Better scram, Jo. I'll intercept. Take Robin. I’ll meet you at the diner.” She walked quickly to the oncoming parent, effectively blocking her from Jo’s retreat and taking the brunt of parental wrath.

The car ride to the diner was deafeningly silent. Jo white-knuckled the steering wheel…head spinning, mind racing, spurts of rage and heartbreak still pulsing through her veins...and glanced intermittently at the two shell shocked faces in her rear view mirror, wishing desperately that her wife was in the passenger seat. She needed that brilliant mind and ever-calming presence to guide her through this new nightmare attacking her precious little family. 

Once inside the diner, Jo sent the kids off to the restroom to wash their hands and faces, while she ordered four hot chocolates. It wasn’t long before Abigail arrived, shuffling to the counter and grabbing two of the four sleeved paper cups that Jo had been attempting to balance all at once. Jo offered her a grateful smile of relief, then leaned forward to whisper discreetly, “are we okay, or is there going to be a Wanted poster tacked to the park entrance with my mug shot on it?”

As soon as the words left her mouth, she cringed internally and closed her eyes. The image of her actual mugshot flashed behind her eyelids, and she shook her head once, huffing out an ironic laugh at the memory of her former life. Abigail, completely oblivious to any knowledge of Jo’s past, let out a boisterous cackle, pulling Jo from her previous trance and jolting her back into the present.

“Nah, I think I settled them before they could fire up their torches. Those prissy bitches, they just love to have an excuse to make a stink about something. All it’ll take is a new mom giving them a dirty look, or a sports car cutting them off in the school drop-off line, and this little mishap will be long forgotten. Don’t you worry, hon.”

Jo chuckled at her friend, surprised at the relief she felt just being in her company. She smiled warmly, gently bumping her shoulder in silent thanks, as they made their way to the little table where Pete and Robin waited for them, their faces still marred by solemn frowns.

The two women instinctively made the trip to the diner lighthearted. They sipped hot chocolates and spoke gently about nothing and watched the kids begin to relax against the backdrop of a different environment. Jo watched as Abigail wiped a wet napkin over Robin’s lip. It was only a small cut, and he bravely held his face still under his mother’s ministrations. She tilted her head at him.

“Know why I call ya Booms?”

Robin grinned timidly, finally ducking the napkin to look at her. “Because I laugh big.”

Jo laughed. “Aye, you sure do, and I love it! You got a cannon in your chest, fella.” She winked at him and he giggled shyly.

Jo looked at him thoughtfully. “There's another reason too. Wanna know it?”

Robin nodded, and Jo smiled at him. It had been awhile since Jo had thought of Boomer. Until she met Robin. With wide eyes she watched how he interacted with Pete. How could she not draw the comparison? His big booming laugh aside, this little boy was everything to Pete that Boomer had been for her…right down to the moment of breaking his favorite truck across the side of another boy’s face. Sacrificing his most prized possession to protect someone he loved. She had first called him one of her favorite pet names weeks ago, and his big booming laughter subsided into a large, pleased smile. Brenna had only raised her eyebrows and gave her a knowing smile. The nickname was approved, and had stuck ever since.

 “I knew someone, a long time ago, who was just like you. She was strong…so very strong, like you. She was kind and a bit shy, also like you. I loved her, and more importantly, she loved me back. I never had to be afraid when she was with me. She was the most loyal, loving person I had ever met. Her name was Boomer, and she was my best friend.”

Jo reached across the table and held his pudgy little hand. “You remind me of her, Robin. Your friendship with Pete is my most favorite thing. I'm not ever afraid for her when you are around, protecting her. Thank you.”

Robin thought for a moment, and then showed her his broken toy. “I broke my truck.”

Jo smiled at him fondly. “Yeah, Booms, I know. Give it here and we’ll let Bernie fix it, yeah? He’s ace at this kind of thing.”

Robin sat back, satisfied, and the four finished their drinks. As they got up to leave, Abigail leaned in. “What happened to your friend?” She asked quietly.

“Hey?”

“You used past tense, and you seem a little sad.”

Jo zipped Pete’s coat before shrugging into her own. “I had to go, and she couldn’t follow, but she risked everything to get me here.” She closed her eyes briefly, their last interaction haunting her once again.

“You’re escaping.”

“Hey?”

“I’m not dumb. You’re going out in the garden shipment, and Allie’s been helping ya.”

“Oh Booms. I don’t have time for this.”

“If you try it, I will fucking lag! I swear.”

“You’re not a lagger, Booms!”

“If you go, the workshop with be shut down and everything I worked so…so fucking hard for…will be fucked!”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t. I’m important in here, Franky. You can’t take that away from me. I will lag.”

“Booms, I need to prove to those dickheads that I’m innocent. Now I had a taste of my life and I want to go live it. Are you going to take that away from me? I love you Booms, but I got to go. I’m sorry.”

 

Seconds later, when she was quite clearly fucked, Boomer saved her again…for the last time. She had thrown her own needs and desires to the wind to once again protect her Franky.

Jo would wake up crying sometimes, wracked with guilt and heartache. She would lay, letting Brenna hold the broken pieces of her together, and weep for the loss and repercussions her friend must have faced upon her escape. Did Boomer ever regret helping her that one last time? Did she hate the memory of Franky now and forever?

Abigail brushed a hand over her arm and Jo shook herself, seeing the woman smile kindly at her. “I didn’t mean to pry, Jo. I’m sorry.”

Jo returned the smile somewhat sadly. “No, I’m sorry. I just…I love your son, and what he means to Pete. You both really mean a lot to Brenna and me.”

They parted ways, Jo taking the truck to hand off to Bernie, promising to return it good as new. They waved goodbye to their friends and headed home. Jo quickly texted her wife to meet them at the cabin. She wasn’t due home from work for a few more hours, but Jo had little desire to broach the pending discussion alone.

Trouble on the playground. Pete thinks she’s a boy. Come home?

Jo knew that Brenna would see the text and immediately backtrack all of her own interactions with Pete as well. She would come to the same sinking conclusion, and they would face this together.

Brenna wrapped her hands around her tea cup and looked at Pete. The little girl was nestled between her mothers on the couch, holding Robin’s broken truck and inspecting the damage. “Pete? Can you tell me what happened on the playground today?” Brenna pried gently.

Jo had told her already, of course, in the seconds it took for Pete to hang her coat up in the mudroom and wander into the living room. It was hurried and whispered and Brenna felt the same stone in her stomach as when she read her wife’s text earlier.

Pete looked up at her, frowning. “I didn’t want to play with them.”

Brenna nodded, encouraging her. “Aye love. But you changed your mind?”

Pete nodded her head, her little chest starting to heave. “They laughed at me when I went with Robin.”

Jo laid a reassuring hand on Pete’s back and rubbed. “Why did you go with Robin, bub?”

Pete looked back at her and furrowed her brows, shrugging unhappily. Robin was her friend, and, for better or worse, she stuck with him. Tears formed in her eyes. “He told me to go to the other side, and then they all laughed at me.”

Jo looked over Pete’s head and meet Brenna’s eyes. This was the first real betrayal Pete had experienced. In this moment, she was more confused by Robin’s actions than she was at the other children's cruelty. Brenna nodded slowly.

“Robin wasn’t trying to hurt you, my love. He was trying to protect you.”

Brenna tilted her head. “Did you want to be on Robin’s team?”

Pete nodded, quiet for a moment. Then she asked, “Why did they laugh? Why did I get pushed? Did I do something wrong?”

Brenna shook her head. “No, baby. You did nothing wrong.” Her voice cracked with the emotion tearing at her insides, and she cleared her throat before trying to speak again, careful not to upset her daughter any more than she already was. “The other children just didn’t understand why a little girl would want to be on the same side as the little boys.”

Jo held her breath and studied their daughter. Pete was looking at Brenna, baffled. “I’m a boy.”

“No, love, you’re not.”

“I’m a boy.” Pete said, more firmly, now looking to Jo.

Jo returned her stare gently. “No, bub, you’re a girl. Your…other parents...they called you a boy, but that was wrong. They were wrong…about so many things.” Jo rubbed her back again. “We’re sorry, bub, for not talking about this sooner. It caught us off guard as well.”

Pete looked back at her again, trying to understand. “You thought I was a boy?”

Jo nodded. “Aye, love, at first. But you aren’t.”

Pete continued to stare at her, a pensive scowl plastered on her face. “How do you know I’m not a boy?”

Jo’s face froze at Pete’s question, and she immediately looked to her wife again, silently pleading with her. Take over. She realized she had no idea how to answer this; she had no idea what to say to her baby, and it fucking killed her. Brenna paused for a moment, wracking her brain as well, for an explanation that would not further upset or confuse her innocent five year old.

“Pete, do you remember during bath time when we talked about the parts of our body that we don’t let people see or touch?” Brenna stroked her soft hair, hoping that Pete’s favorite show of affection would calm the anxieties that were obviously rising in her.

Pete nodded, frowning, and Jo winced visibly, shifting in her seat. She had been surprised when a month ago, Brenna asked to shift their nightly routine around slightly. She wanted to be the one to give Pete her bath. Jo had shrugged, acquiescing. She hovered just outside the door on a few of those occasions, and it was clear why Brenna had wanted to take over. Jo had blushed, listening to very clinical words being repeated by a very young voice.  She couldn’t help it. She herself could talk anatomy all day long, but she wasn’t used to hearing those words come out of her five year old daughter. On the same hand, these teaching moments were of the utmost importance, and she was eternally grateful that Brenna could do it without stammering or blushing.  Clinical, anatomically-correct terms were a necessity, her wife had explained later, especially when dealing with a child who had been abused. Jo had blanched visibly, and Brenna had smiled softly and was the giver of baths ever since.

 “And you remember when we talked about how boy’s and girls’ bodies are made differently? There are many ways to tell them apart, but sometimes it’s difficult unless you see them without clothes?”

 Pete was chewing her bottom lip, a habit she no doubt picked up from her Mama. “Like in a bath tub...” She said quietly, almost to herself. Realization was becoming evident on her face, but her furrowed brow proved that she was still unsettled by this new information.

“Is Robin a girl?”

Jo looked at Brenna, who frowned again. “No, Pete. Robin is a boy, with a boy body. You are a girl, with a girl body. You are both children, but you are different in this way.”

Pete’s facial expression hadn’t changed, she was frozen as if in a trance. Brenna’s years of education and expertise flew out the window when she looked into the haunted eyes of her daughter. All she knew was that she wanted to take her little girl’s pain and confusion away and before she knew it, words were tumbling from her lips without cessation.

“Pete, darling, I’m so sorry that we didn’t talk to you about this before. I know you are feeling so many things right now, and you have so many questions. Those kids today, they didn’t know what they were saying...they saw a little girl trying to play on th…”

“I’m A BOY!” Pete screamed suddenly. She hopped off of the couch and raced to the ladder of her loft. Jo, shocked, made as if to follow her, but Brenna stopped her, her own breaths coming out in panicked bursts. She held Jo’s arms firmly and closed her eyes, counting to herself to slow her own breathing. She raised her head and slowly opened her eyes, holding them level with her wife’s.

“Just...leave her, baby. Let her calm down.”

Jo jerked slightly in her arms. “She shouldn’t be alone right now!” She whispered heatedly.

Brenna rubbed her agitated wife’s arm soothingly. “She’s not alone. We are right here, and we aren’t going anywhere.”

She got up off the couch and, after one last unhappy look at the loft, she left the living room and walked towards the bedroom. Jo got up as well and followed her. As soon as she closed the door, Brenna turned to her and flapped her arms helplessly. “I think I just fucked up in the worst way.”

She brought a hand to cover her mouth, tears welling in her eyes. With Pete safely out of sight, she stopped resisting them, and they fell freely down her cheeks.

Concern flooded Jo’s face and she wrapped her arms around Brenna’s trembling body. “Hey…” she soothed in her ear, “It’s okay, Bren, you did great. Fuck, sure had no idea what to say to her. It’s not like this shit’s in any of those parenting books.” She laughed quietly to herself, gently rocking Brenna, her fingers lightly brushing against her spine.  “Can you see it? In between potty training and tying your shoes, there’s that little hidden CHAPTER on ‘what to do when you forget to tell your daughter she’s a gir...’”

Her attempt at humor was cut short when Brenna abruptly jerked back from her arms.

“That’s what’s fucked up, Jo!” She whispered angrily. “It’s not about a parenting manual, it’s about the fact that this is...was...my job. It was my life.”

She paced the small bedroom, fingertips incessantly rubbing together. “My god, I’ve read hundreds of books and articles on child abuse, gender confusion, and post-traumatic stress, I’ve studied…”

Brenna paused, taking a breath to steady her voice. She looked at Jo, who looked back at her helplessly. “But when it comes to helping my own child, I forget everything I’ve ever learned, ever studied, ever experienced… oh, god, Jo, what have I done? Our little girl looked at me with those big brown eyes, full of terror and confusion, and all of my knowledge and experience just flew out the window! All I could see was that someone had hurt my baby, and I wanted that hurt to go away. But I’ve just made it worse, I made her pain worse.”

Jo had remained silent and still while Brenna processed out loud, but as her wife’s voice rose and her movements grew more agitated, she quietly eased her way back into Brenna’s personal space, taking her hand and gently guiding her back into her chest.

“She’s not your patient, Bren.” She said softly. “She’s not your client, she’s your daughter. You weren’t thinking like a shrink...you were thinking like a mum. Because you are her mum.  No one would ever blame you for not giving her an explanation straight out of a fucking textbook.”

She held her wife tight, and Brenna lay her head against her chest, listening to the steady thump of her heartbeat. They stood together in silence, gathering thoughts and resting in the comfort of each other’s arms. Brenna finally pulled away, just a little, to peer up at Jo’s face.

“Pete isn’t confused about herself, you know?”

Jo only tilted her head, waiting for more. Brenna pulled from her arms and sat down heavily on the bed.

“Pete is a boy, simply because it’s the only thing she’s ever known. To Pete, being a ‘boy’ is only a way to describe herself, as simple as her own name. This isn’t an issue of gender or sex, here. Pete doesn’t wish she had a different body… at least, she’s exhibited no signs of that. But it is an issue of identity.” 

Brenna paused, taking a breath. She looked at her wife, leaning cross-armed against the wall. “That first night she was with us, do you remember when you tried to help her with the dishes?”

Jo nodded. “You told me that we needed to take small moves.”

Brenna put her head in her hands. “Yeah, and we just fucking moved a mountain.”

Jo shook her head and knelt down in front of the blonde, gently stroking her hands up and down her calves. She was quiet, trying to keep up with her wife’s train of thought. She’d thought they had handled it in the best possible way, even if it wasn’t accepted at first. How many hundreds…thousands…of times had Brenna told her that she was a good person before Jo finally believed her? They would treat this the same, and have this conversation for as long as it took for their baby to understand and believe them. “How is this an issue of identity, Bren? She just didn’t know, and we will teach her for as long as it takes, yeah?”

Brenna shook her head, and leaned back on her arms. She watched Jo continue to rub her legs soothingly before answering.

“When we told Pete that she is not a boy, we took a piece of her identity. We just ripped it from her, and replaced it with a word she isn’t even familiar with. God, the harm that did… the confusion it created. Pete does not know the world in terms of boys versus girls. And to suddenly force those concepts on her, with no prior education… Jesus, baby, what did we just do?

She put her head in her hands again and groaned. There had not been enough time to fully gather themselves for this moment, and she cursed herself for a fool for not realizing any of this sooner. “A fine therapist I was just then.” She muttered quietly.

Jo looked up at her sharply and squeezed her calves to get her attention. “Don’t you do that, Bren. We aren’t going to fall apart on ourselves. We can’t. Pete needs us, and I need you. So we missed this…big time. But how we react now is what sets the bar for the future, hey? Think this is the first screw up we’ll face as mums, do you?”

Brenna looked at her thoughtfully, and finally huffed a smile at her, appraising her wife. “I wasn’t always a bad therapist, I see.”

Jo grinned and got up off the floor to sit next to the blonde, gathering her into her arms again. “Glad looking at me reminded you of that.”

Brenna laughed quietly again and turned her head to kiss Jo’s cheek. The brunette leaned against her and looked at the bedroom door.

“So what do we do now? How do we make this easier for our daughter? Do we lie and tell her she’s a boy? Do we leave the door open for her to be bullied relentlessly? Or do we keep on telling her she’s a girl and hurting her?” She rubbed her temples. “That kid has been through enough.”

Brenna sighed. “I know, baby. I think we let her lead the way. We have to, yeah? We’ve just given her a huge shock, and she still is learning how to process emotions that she’s never had before. She’s really only had one constant in her life, and that’s her identity. Pete. Child. Boy. In removing that from her today, we basically told her that we only love the version of her that we have put on her. Onus is on us to prove that we love her regardless of the pronoun attached to her name. She’s our Pete, no matter what.”

She huffed a laugh again, only this time it was humorless. “You and I know better than anyone what it feels like to have a label slapped on us. It’s a battle we’ve fought our entire lives. Pete’s situation is different; it’s unlike anything either of us has ever encountered before, so of course we’re overwhelmed with how to handle it. I want Pete to discover who she is on her own....she’s never had that opportunity before. On the same hand she is simply too young to be able to process anything other than simple anatomy. I say we start there. She will learn through her own exploration what it means to be a girl, in society’s eyes, and what it means to be a boy. When she’s older she will decide where she falls…who she is…on her own. And we’ll be there with her every step of the way…to help her; to protect her. Agreed?”

Jo hugged her firmly. “Aye, love. Agreed.” She laughed. “We’ll write our own parenting manual, hey? Petey 101?”

Brenna groaned, but she was smiling. “Get dinner started. I’m going to have a shower.”

Brenna walked into the kitchen, running her fingers through her drying hair. Jo was busy, and didn’t look up from the simmering pots on the stove and scattered vegetables on the counter. The blonde frowned slightly. “Where’s Pete?”

Jo looked up from dicing an onion. “Little ninja probably fell asleep somewhere. Have a look, will you?”

Brenna frowned again, hesitating. “She always helps you in the kitchen.”

Jo stopped dicing and laid the knife down. Pete was always in the kitchen when she cooked, and the little thing simply didn’t break from her habits. Jo glanced at Brenna in silent agreement and they both quietly searched the cabin. They met in the living room only minutes later. Jo felt a rising panic in her chest. “She’s not here?”

Brenna shook her head, also trying not to let the surge of panic overcome her thoughts. What had they done? They had come to a peaceful agreement together, and all the while their baby was in torment in another part of the cabin! Pete had left, and she’d done it quietly and without telling anyone. They needed to think, but Jo was already headed to the kitchen door to get her coat. The blonde caught up with her quickly. “Where…where are you going?”

“It will be dark soon! I need to find her!”

Brenna reached out unhappily and Jo quickly held her.

“Brenna, please don’t…don’t make me be still. Not now. Please.” She clutched her wife desperately. “Please. Let me go.”

Brenna looked at her, her brow crinkled in concern. She was just as desperate and at a loss as the brunette, and she understood the deeply wild need to comb the woods herself. She took a deep breath. “Take your cell…”

She barely finished when Jo grabbed her in a fierce hug. “Thank you. I’ll call when I find her. You’ll stay?”

Brenna nodded, still forcing her panic down. Of course she’d stay. Someone needed to be home in case Pete came back on her own. “You’ll call me…?”

Jo nodded firmly. “The second I have her.”

And then she was gone.

Chapter Text

As soon as Jo raced outside, she hesitated, looking at her car. She made a frustrated noise in the back of her throat and used both hands to push back her long hair from her forehead. She wasn’t going to drive anywhere. She’d easily miss the little five year old. And besides, she couldn’t drive a car into the woods. She searched the cabin grounds quickly but thoroughly, but she knew in her heart that Pete wasn’t anywhere near the cabin. She then scanned the melted snow for tracks and absentmindedly wandered in the direction of the hill behind the cabin. It was going to be difficult to know exactly where their girl had gone. There hadn’t been a storm in a few weeks, and all the tromped on thinning snow would be no help at all.

Her heart sank when at last she located one, fresh little boot print, pointing up the hill. Pete had gone bush.

Jo stuffed her hands into her coat pockets and made her way quickly up the hill. In the fading light of the afternoon, she had no hope of seeing anymore prints once she hit the tree line. She just had to think. Think! Pete knew every inch of these woods. Every tree, rock, nook and cranny. She’d built her life around the safety of these big pines, and with a sinking feeling, Jo knew if she didn’t want to be found, then she wouldn’t be.

She had wanted to be the one to search for Pete because she knew what it was like to be afraid and confused and angry. She knew what it was like to want to run and hide from it all. Hell, she’d done it all her life. She ran from place to place until she landed herself in prison, and then when she could run no more she learned to hide. Thick make-up and swagger was her forest of pines. She had hoped that this connection would steer her to places Brenna might not think to look.

Jo brushed another strand of hair from her face and called out in the dying light. She was surprised at the desperation of her voice…how it cracked and wavered in the clear, crisp air.

But she was desperate. All she had wanted, from the moment she’d angrily swung the little wood thief into the air and causing her oversized boots to fall off, was to protect the child. Something in her heart shifted mightily when she saw the freezing toes curl and the terrified eyes beg her to be merciful. How could she desire anything else?

It had taken weeks for Pete to discover what love was. Weeks for her to remember that she was safe in the cabin. Weeks to believe that she would be fed and cared for…and finally to know that both Jo and Brenna were hers. The more she relaxed under their deliberate administrations, the more hopelessly devoted they had become to her. They hadn’t realized that their lives were…incomplete…until Pete came along. Now that she had, Jo could hardly believe that they had gone even a moment without her.

At the top of the hill Jo looked back once at the cabin. Their cabin. How much had happened in such a short amount of time! It was difficult to remember she was still a fugitive, running from an entire world. Hard to believe that her mugshot was blasted across cyberspace, pinging for recognition from every swiped ID of a brown haired, green eyed foreigner. As she made her way through the dense forest, eyes ever searching, she couldn’t remember any of that at all because right now, in this moment, she was only a mother, desperate to find her baby.

The sun was setting. Fading colors blended with the low hanging clouds and bled through them, casting an eerie orange light on the tips of the pines. Jo stopped moving and listened, cocking her head to the sounds of the forest. She’d almost walked a mile, calling for Pete every now and then. When she came to another sloping hill at the opposite edge of the forest, she frowned. Three little boot prints, one half buried in mud, were all pointing down the hill. She took one more step forward and sucked in a breath. Of course.

Her feet had lead her here automatically…a place where it had all begun. She scanned the property below her for any signs of life, but the ramshackle house looked like it had been abandoned for generations. Jo knew better. Only a short while ago, three people had lived in that house. One had been murdered here, the other murdered on Jo’s driveway. The last one was the light of her world, and without a doubt crouched somewhere within its walls.

Of course Pete would come here. This is the first and last place she identified her gender with, and even in its history of terror, it was familiar. Nothing had shattered her…not even the murder of her father…until her very identity was called to question. It was simply too big for her to wrestle with, and the very women that had rescued her and brought her under the umbrella of their safety had finally been the ones to break her. So she had come back to this house…this place that haunted and tortured her subconscious…because this was the place that still believed what she believed to be true.  

Jo sighed and made her way down the hill and stood in front of the house. She’d never been here before, and took in the peeling paint and overgrown shrubs. The house was wood, with coastal shingles overlapping one another. They were painted white, but over the years large patches of paint had peeled off and the raw grey of the shingles was visible. The porch was old wood, rotted away in places, and hastily painted a dull grey. Everything was chipping paint and dilapidated wear. This had been Pete’s home. In its prime, it must have been quite lovely. But years of neglect and the harsh Wisconsin weather had beaten the house into a cold, damp submission. There was nothing happy here.

Jo studied the house for a moment and then deliberately walked to the front porch and sat on the only step that hadn’t rotted away. With her back to the front door she faced the woods and waited. Pete was inside, she was sure of it, and when she chose to come out, Jo would be there. She pulled out her phone and shot a quick message to Brenna.

“Found Pete. She’s at her old house.”

The responding ding was immediate. “Do you need me?”

“Always, love, but not yet. Give me a minute with her.”

Jo tucked her phone away and sighed, rubbing her temple. She actually would love it if Brenna was sitting next to her, ready to respond to whatever state their daughter was in when she came out of the house. But there was no emergency now. The only tangible thing either one of them could offer was time, and a safe place to return to. She tucked her coat tighter around herself against the chill of the early evening and closed her eyes. She could smell the damp, rotted wood. It was a familiar smell, and her stomach clenched for a moment. It smelled like the shed she used to hide in, when her mother was too drunk to care what harm she inflicted. As a small child she would pack herself under an old workbench, amongst the dead leaves and spiders and rotting wood, and watch her mother stomp around the yard looking for her. If she could make it to the shed in time, she was never found.  

She picked at a bit of flaking grey paint on the step and wondered at Pete’s memories later in life. How would she remember this house, and how would she relive its horrors? Would she even remember? She was so very young, but so very smart…and far too wise for her age. Would living with her and Brenna for triple the amount of time she lived in this house be enough to chase the nightmares away? By the time she was grown, would she recall being beaten against a cold stone hearth, freezing and starving…or would she bask in warm memories of dancing in the kitchen before dinner? The weight of such a responsibility crushed Jo’s heart in her chest and she rested her forehead against her bent knees and groaned quietly. The anguish of being a parent, knowing her child was in turmoil just through the wall behind her, was almost more than she could bear.

There was a creak behind her and she lifted her head and looked back at the front door. Pete was standing in the doorway, staring at her. Jo smiled gently, relief flooding her.

“Hi bub.”

Pete bit her lower lip and studied the woman in front of her, as if seeing her mama in this environment, at this house, confused her. Jo lifted her arm invitingly, and Pete came closer, letting herself be drawn into a hug. She sat down next to Jo and held her mama’s arm around her shoulders, leaning slightly into her side.

Jo kissed the top of her head. A dozen parental phrases popped into her head, all in the same category of worry and fear and disappointment and admonishment. But none of them made it from her brain to her mouth. Pete didn’t need to hear that she had done anything wrong…not yet anyway. Maybe later on they could have a conversation about leaving the cabin without telling anyone and how much that upsets her mothers. But Jo didn’t need to say those things now, because she understood why Pete had done what she’d done. She wasn’t being a spoiled brat, running from the cabin for attention. She wasn’t trying to hurt her mothers with her disappearance. She was simply trying to understand the turmoil inside her little mind, and to do that she did what anyone might do. She went back to her roots…where it all began…to try and make some semblance of sense out of what was troubling her.

Jo squeezed her lightly. “Missed you.” She said quietly.

Pete looked up at her, and Jo tilted her head. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

It may have been an odd question to a more…conventional…child, but Pete was anything but conventional, and she had come here for a purpose. She looked up at Jo with her huge brown eyes and nodded. Jo waited and watched her daughter struggle to find her words, when silence had been her safety for years. When she did speak, she looked at the ground and barely spoke above a whisper. “I was their little boy.”

She looked up at Jo again, questions and fears and insecurities in her eyes. “But I’m your little girl?”

Jo raised her brows. That was an interesting conclusion, and she was impressed. Pete knew who she was for all the years she lived in this house. Body parts didn’t matter to her…it was who she knew she was inside. As Jo looked at the impossibly large eyes staring hopefully up at her, she realized that Pete was offering to give up her former self to be who Jo and Brenna saw her. To throw anatomy to the wind and create a gender from the heart alone was a…staggering…thought, to say in the least. Pete would do this for them. She would stop fighting all that she knew and be a little girl because she loved them. This is what made sense in her young mind. She might not understand fully all the biological bits that Brenna had tried to explain to her in the bath tub. Looking back, those conversations must have been damn confusing. Being told a boy looked one way and a girl looked another, and then to look down into the water and not see what was supposed to be there. Jo wondered if any of the bath time conversations caused a sliver of anxiety in her little girl. If not seeing what she was told little boys had between their legs caused her to feel even more isolated and confused.

Jo turned slightly and lifted Pete onto her lap and hugged her close. Whatever the reason, whatever the depths her baby’s mind had gone to pull this conclusion out…she was offering up the last bit of her former self in favor of her new life.

I choose you.

Where you go, I will follow.

Jo’s eyes stung with unshed tears, no more able to refuse this little girl than she had the grown woman. “Aye, love. You are our little girl.” And, because she understood the cost of Pete’s conclusion and realizing the gift it was, she also whispered, “thank you.”

Pete leaned into her, sighing with satisfaction. She relaxed against Jo’s chest and leaned her ear against her mama’s heartbeat. Jo pulled out her phone and kissed Pete’s head again. “Can we go home, baby?”

The little girl nodded and Jo sent a quick text to her wife to come pick them up. Then she held her child tightly on the porch of bad dreams and rocked her. They might need to address Pete’s gender and identity later on in life…or it might never come up again. But as Jo rocked her in her strong embrace she knew one thing for certain. They would never come here again. There would never be a need.         

 

                                                                                                                                    Fin.