Chapter 1: Airport Karma
So I'm back, and I've actually had this story in the works since the night Sea Patrol finished. After that epilogue I went out with my friends to watch the final Harry Potter film, and while I was waiting I scribbled the start of the story on the back of the printout. So... it's old. And I've been umming and ahing about posting but I think the Sea Patrol fandom needs some love, and seeing all of you dedicated soldiers still posting inspired me to have a crack at finishing. So... this is the prologue to The Loose Ends Will Make Knots. I own all the stuff you've never seen before.
The Loose Ends Will Make Knots
Kate McGregor always had bad airport karma.
Years ago, when she was an adventurous teen fresh out of high school and traveling, she seemed to have the worst luck with flying. She never quite knew what she had done to deserve it, but she was always being shuffled around, her flights delayed or cancelled due to bad weather or congestion or the million other problems that seemed to affect her and her alone during those two months.
On one occasion that bad luck or karma or whatever you wanted to call it caused her to miss her connecting flight altogether and spend Christmas morning huddled uncomfortably on the hard plastic seats in Heathrow Airport while the rest of the world celebrated.
Admittedly, the breakfast of Smarties and Pringles had been interesting, as had the cute guy she'd shared them with sitting next to her, but by that point she had spent more time in airports than actually traveling, and she'd decided to cut her losses and return to Australia.
At least this time we made it on the plane, she muses, having panicked the entire trip that now would be the one and only time Cairns airport would be snowed in, or a Tsunami would hit or something like that. But aside from her dog tags setting off the metal detectors (in her panic she'd forgotten to remove them) the trip so far had been relatively uneventful.
She sits in silence, head leaning uncomfortably against the window, and counts down the minutes until they reach solid land again. She tries to distract herself by staring out the window at the puffy white clouds, drawing on her knowledge from her environmental science days with Mr Spalding to identify the different types. But they are barely out of Cairns when the clouds turn grey and coat the world in nothingness.
If she were any good at writing she'd see the grey clouds as symbolism. As some sort of metaphor for her heart and her soul. Darker and darker with each crash posting, each new assignment. She's so damn sick of words like unavoidable and emergency. So angry with him and the Navy and boats and everything. Until it sucks the colour out of her grey soul. Until it consumes her, day by day, bit by bit. Until she's so angry with everyone in her life that almost nothing else mattered. Until she leaves.
Beside her, Annabel snuffles slightly in her sleep, and her hand flops from the armrest into her lap. Kate stares at it for a while, her eyes focussing on the tiny fingernails lovingly painted pink. She admires the dainty wrist, the charm bracelet that sits there. He'd bought her that charm bracelet, had placed it upon the tiny wrist himself, and Belle had never taken it off since.
Kate's stomach flips. Please send me a sign. Her hand moves to smooth down Scott's soft hair. Please tell me I'm doing the right thing.
But she knows she can't kid herself anymore. There is no right decision. Either way, someone she loves gets hurt. Either way, someone cries. Someone loses something. This way, the decision, the pain and the burden are all hers. Because otherwise, it will be her children making the same choice. And she could never subject them to this pain.
Chapter 2: Bitrex and Lollipops
Nikki didn't ask how she was doing when she picked them up from the airport, and for that, Kate was grateful. She'd only just managed to hold on as Scott woke up blearily at the baggage claim and mumbled a question about where they were. She'd mumbled something about a special holiday and you like holidays, don't you Scotty and her poor, oblivious baby boy had nodded and fallen asleep once more while she bit her lip to stop the tears. She knew she'd lose all hope of holding on to her emotions if she were forced to think about her own feelings.
They drove mostly in silence, Nikki throwing anxious looks at Kate whenever she thinks she isn't looking. Kate knew she should make conversation; the silence was stifling. But all that she can think about is Mike's face when he gets home and finds her note.
The whole situation was surreal, as if it were all some crazy dream and she'd wake up tomorrow and be… well, somewhere. Somewhere better than this. Somewhere without the guilt and the fear and the depression. It was like she'd been thinking about leaving for so long, tossing and turning and contemplating. And now that she had finally done it… She hadn't allowed herself to think about Mike. Not properly. But now, images of him walking through the empty house… the dolls and toys like ghosts... the empty race car bed with no Scott… the letter.
He'd be mad at first. He'd shout out for her in the house. He'd grab a beer from the fridge and uncap the lid, throwing the bottle-cap somewhere far away in his rage. He'd dial her number, punching in the numbers angrily. The phone wouldn't ring though. Voicemail. There'd be worry then. Not for her. For him. But it would be quickly smothered by anger once more. He'd call Dutchy first. Then the preschool. And then he'd call Nikki.
Kate chanced a glance at Nikki's phone, staring cautiously, her whole body tense. As if the phone was going to suddenly leap up and bite her. But it doesn't ring, and yet she can't take her eyes of it, so sure that any minute the screen would light up. And then what?
"Mummy, don't bite your fingernails. Yuck." Annabel broke the silence from the backseat, parroting Kate's words back to her. Kate took them out immediately, looking at the tiny slivers of nail she'd torn to shreds.
"Yucky!" Scott parotted, now wide awake once more in Hunter's car-seat.
"Sorry, Belle." Kate murmured, her stomach flipping.
It was a habit she had tried to kick many times before to no avail, something she'd kept a secret from nearly everyone. It was a childish habit after all. And embarrassing. But after Mike had found out, it had ceased to be just a stupid habit. It was part of their story, part of their life together. A chapter in an unfinished book. With that one desperate, depressing thought, tears prickled at her eyes as she remembered Mike's teasing.
"Biting your nails again, Katie?" His mocking voice echoed in her head so clearly she could swear he was right beside her.
She honestly hadn't noticed she was doing it that first time he had, and she wondered how many times before that he'd held his tongue. He had a habit of doing that, of silently observing and talking later. "I'm trying to stop. But it's not working.'' She had admitted sheepishly. They'd only been married for a month, and she still kept things from him. Small things, but things none the less. She supposed that was another of her bad habits.
Now, she offered a forced smile at Annabel as Scott squealed "Yuck. Yuck. Yuck" over and over again. If she focused on her kids, maybe the memories would stop flooding over her. Because she couldn't figure out whether she was dreading the phone ringing or wishing it would.
"Tabasco sauce." He grinned triumphantly, opening the bottom drawer with a loud clang. She frowned from her perch on the kitchen bench, as she imagined all the different spices and seasonings that had just fallen over. Mike winced too.
"Is it still bad luck if you spill the salt in the drawer?" He looked up at her and flashed a nervous smile.
"It's very bad luck. For you." She growled back. He hit his head in his haste to gauge whether she was serious or not, and she couldn't help but chuckle.
"Ouch." He hissed, rubbing his sore forehead. "I'll clean it up." He assured her, catching her raised eyebrow. "Where's the Tabasco?"
She opened a cupboard to her left, placing the tiny bottle on the counter above him with an audible thunk. She was rewarded by a sheepish smile as he straightened up and unscrewed the lid. "Bird swears by it." He promised her.
"Of course she does. She's a bloody cook, Michael." She had quipped back, examining her fingers. "She was probably just talking about what to add to a taco for some zing."
Mike laughed and mentally added another point to the scoreboard that had always been there between them, since they had first met. They both just liked to win too much. Too stubborn for their own good.
"You're a cynical one, you know that?"
"That's why you love me." She smiled back at him, and he knew she had never spoken truer words.
"Just give it a chance." He urged her, dabbing the sauce over the tips of her fingers. "If I recall correctly it was you who wanted to stop biting your nails, not me. Just try it."
But even though she hadn't washed away the sauce from her fingers, all that Mike's sure-fire idea had achieved was giving her an unexpected love of Tabasco sauce.
"Mummy?" Annabel whispered, once again breaking the silence in the car. Kate twisted around in her seat, the better to look into her daughter's wide, wise blue eyes. "Where are we going?"
She'd explained to them before they left that they were taking a holiday, just the three of them. To her relief and dismay (Mike always brought out an emotional confusion in her) neither Annabel nor Scott had asked any further questions about Daddy. They'd probably been too scared. After all, Annabel and Scott had been playing in Belle's room when Kate had run up the stairs and began to randomly throw clothes in bags.
"We're going to stay with Auntie Nikki for a little bit." Kate settled on eventually. "Is that okay?"
"Yeah!" Annabel nodded, and although she looked excited at the prospect of a holiday, there was still a trace of hesitation. Maybe because Auntie Nikki was relatively unknown to both her children until about half-an-hour earlier. But Annabel had always put her brave face on. She had been the one to call Dutchy when Kate was hysterically crying on the floor. She had been the one to squeeze Kate's hand on the plane and tell her everything would be fine, despite not knowing where they were going. Kate flinched. I'm such a terrible mother, putting that burden on a six year old.
"Does that mean we get to see Pippa and Max and Hunter?" Annabel frowned as she listed each name, determined to get each correct.
"Yep." Said Nikki, offering Annabel and Scott excited smiles. "They're very excited to see you. And I'm excited to meet you guys too. You know, Belle, I don't think I've seen you since you were a newborn."
Annabel absorbs this information. "Mummy, am I older than Pippa?"
"No honey." Kate answered as she regained her thoughts. "Pippa's a little older than you. She's in Year Three next year at Big School. But Max is your age and Hunter is two, the same age as Scott."
"So they can play together?"
"They sure can."
Belle processed this information for a moment. "Good." She said, leaning back Max's carseat and turning her attention to her tiny white rabbit. "Scott will be happy."
''You put Band-Aids on all your fingers, right? And then when you're ready you just take them off.''
It had seemed reasonable enough, as she taped the multi-coloured Band-Aids to each finger and gave them an experimental wiggle. "And where did this genius-" she frames the word in quotation marks, her multi-coloured fingers adding a degree of comedy to the scene, "-idea come from?"
"2Dads." He answered, looking up when she dropped the box onto the table. "What?"
"I thought we had that rule, about you not talking about me at work." He adorned his 'oh shit' face as he remembered the argument they had after the last time he was caught talking about her at work. He had accidentally let it slip that she was terrified of clowns, and two weeks later she had called him in a rage. When he'd arrived at her NAVCOM office she was still yelling at a cowering 2Dads, who she had apparently caught trying to fill her desk drawers with plastic clown figurines.
"You're my wife." He whined, pulling her closer to him and pressing a kiss to her nose. "I miss you when I'm on Hammersley."
"Flattery will get you nowhere, mister!" She protested, her hands on her hips. "They don't need to know I bite my fingernails and hate clowns. And that better be all they know. Or you'll need a lot more than Band-Aids to fix you."
He smirked, giving her a mock salute. "Yes Ma'am."
She smiled and pressed her lips to his, pulling him close. His tongue slipped into her mouth and she moaned involuntarily, pulling him even closer. He'd been away for two months and she'd missed him… very… much…
And then he shivered, and leaped back from her.
"What?" She frowned, fixing her rumpled clothes.
"Band-Aids… feel… ridiculously creepy."
She smirked, running her hand back over his shoulder. "That?"
She let her fingers trail down his shirt, the tiny exposed bits of adhesive catching the fabric of his T-Shirt before they dipped underneath the hem and danced across his stomach. "Is that uncomfortable?"
"Yes!" He gasped, backing up against the wall. She nodded slyly, folding her arms.
"Well, if you can't deal with it I suppose I'll go start that book I bought-"
He blanched. Once she started reading, nothing could pull her away. She turned to the bookcase, only to be pulled back roughly by the belt hook of her jeans. "I can deal. Let me show you how much." He promised her.
But she knew he'd have a new plan by morning.
Kate jolted upright as the car turned expectantly, and she looked up to see Nikki pulling into a petrol station. Nikki tipped her head as she pulled the car up. "Sorry. Did I wake you?"
"No." Kate shook her head. "I was just… thinking…"
"I just need some fuel." Nikki explained. "Rhys has pretty much bled it dry and he never refuels it. Bloody useless, I tell you. I meant to get some on the way to the airport. But of course, I was running late as usual."
Kate gave a wry smile at Nikki's complaint and can't help but think about how trivial it seemed. But then, she mused, everyone had their stuff. And someone hurting more didn't make you hurt any less.
"That's okay. Don't worry. I'll give you some petrol money."
Nikki waved a hand dismissively. "Forget about it. I had to pick up some stuff from work anyway."
"Nikki, I know for a fact you work in Mosman, and you get a train and a ferry. No car involved."
"How do you know that?"
"'Cos you're always on Facebook, taking selfies on the ferry."
Nikki laughed. "That was one time, and because I met my old high school girlfriend on there! Anyway, you Facebook stalking me, Lieutenant?"
Kate's face twisted into a bitter smile. "Not like I had much else to do in that house when the kids were at school."
Nikki pressed her lips together in a thin line. "You know, Kate-" She began, but Kate shook her head, jabbing a thumb over her shoulder at Belle and Scott. Belle was making her rabbit run across the back seat, trekking a treacherous path up and down the sides of the car-seat.
"No time to say hello, goodbye. I'm late! I'm late! I'm late!" Belle sang, earning a loud giggle from Scott.
"'Gain! 'Gain!" He demanded, "Late! Late! Late!"
"Later." She whispered. "Please, Nikki. I... not in front of them, please. I shouldn't have brought it up."
Nikki nodded understandingly, before unbuckling her seat-belt. "You want anything from inside? Toilet break? We've got another twenty minute drive."
"Anna-my-Bel." Kate called out, twisting around once more. "You need the toilet?"
"No, thank you Mummy." She shook her head, sending her hair flying, before resuming her singing.
"She's got the bladder of a camel." Kate informed Nikki. "She'll be good. And Scott's still in nappies."
"You want some food? A drink?"
Nikki lowered her voice. "Are you alright if I get the kids an L-O-L-L-I-P-O-P?"
Kate laughed for what felt like the first time in years. "Half-an-hour and you're already spoiling my kids."
"I've got S-U-G-A-R cravings." Nikki spelled out. "I want one."
"Fine. I'll give you some money." Kate dug around in her pocket for some change but Nikki had already rolled her eyes and shook her head.
"Forget about it, Kate. They're like ten cents each."
''Nail polish.'' He told her over pancakes after she had dragged herself out of the empty bed and headed downstairs to meet him.
''Nail polish?'' She repeated uncertainly, munching on her breakfast.
In reply he slid a bottle of bright green nail polish across the table to her. She stopped it with a hand, wrinkling her nose at the colour. ''A bit bright.'' She sniffed.
''That's the idea. You'll see your nails, even out of your peri- uh… peripe- uh…" He hesitated, looking up at her. "What's the word for out of the corner of your eye?"
"Yeah! That! You'll be able to see it in your peri… whatever vision, and you'll be able to consciously remember not to bite them.'' He smiled as she continued to frown at the polish. ''I can get you pink if you wanted-''
''Green is perfect.'' She deadpanned, uncapping the lid at once.
The idea had worked well. Not only had she been able to consciously stop biting her nails but she had been alerted to the number of times a day her fingers drifted up to her mouth. Until-
''Is there a new dress code I wasn't informed about, Lieutenant Commander McGregor? I don't think that bright green nail polish is standard Navy uniform.'' She jumped as Maxine White snuck up on her, smirking at the slivers of green adorning her fingertips.
Time for Mike to find a new plan.
Nikki returned to the car, once again making Kate jump. In her hand were four Chupa-Chups, the plastic crinkling and causing the two kids to perk up immediately at the sound of impending sugar."I have strawberry, orange and cola." Nikki announced, holding the lollipops up. Scott squealed in delight, kicking his legs excitedly from his perch behind Kate. Annabel was a lot more reserved in her enthusiasm, but still watched the strawberry lollipop like a hawk.
"Scott, which one would you like?" Annabel held her breath anxiously as Scott's hand hovered towards the strawberry, but he changed to the cherry at the last minute. "And Belle, you want strawberry?" Belle nodded enthusiastically as Nikki dropped the orange into her lap and unwrapped each of the children's lollipops.
"And green apple for you, Kate." Nikki announced, handing it to Kate.
"These are my favourite." Kate smiled. "Thank you."
"Thank you, Auntie Nikki!" Annabel called from the backseat, while Scott said something around his lollipop that sounded something like ta.
"I know it's your favourite." Nikki grinned.
"How?" Kate frowned, spinning the lollipop around and around in her hands. "I am 100% sure I have never eaten a Chupa-Chup in front of you."
"No, you haven't." Nikki conceded, turning out into the traffic once more. "But we did room together for three years, sharing one tiny bathroom. Green apple shampoo, green apple bodywash. Plus that ziplock bag of Skittles you used to keep in your top draw. You were so OCD you used to eat them one colour at a time, and you always saved the green apple 'til last. Until they switched them for lime, and you used to buy those green apple gummi-rings instead."
Kate felt a pang of something like anger and sadness as she realised that Mike had always assumed strawberry was her favourite. Nikki seems to sense that the conversation must have brought up something else for Kate, because she changes tact.
"Just take some time." Nikki said, her voice quiet over the slurping from the back seat. "Close your eyes. Sleep if it helps. I'll wake you when we get there."
Kate knows that she is too wired to sleep, but at that moment, nothing seemed more inviting then closing her eyes and thinking about nothing for a while. So Kate leaned her head against the window once more and closed her eyes.
"It's called Bitrex. I bought it from the chemist." Mike placed the small white paper bag in her lap. She frowned and extracted the small bottle from the bag, balancing it between her knees as she read the instructions. But it hadn't been long before Mike had found the flaw in the plan.
"That nail polish... I could taste it on my sandwich today. And in the coffee you made me. It's getting on everything you touch!"
She remembered the week or so reprieve from housework and cooking as Mike insisted on doing everything in the house so that he wouldn't be at risk of tasting the Bitrex again.
Of course, it wasn't just him that loathed the taste. She herself had been at NAVCOM when she had gotten the first taste and had almost choked in the middle of a briefing at NAVCOM, much to Mike's amusement. He'd laughed so hard he'd fallen to the carpet in a heap, to the confusion of the collection of junior and senior sailors present in the room at the time, who had no idea what was happening.
But she'd gotten him back, and then he'd gotten her back and somehow it had become a game; sneaking a drop into the other's drink, under the car door handle, around the rim of a coffee mug. They'd called it Bitrex Bombing and laughed and cursed each other and everything had been okay.
They'd fought a lot during their relationship, although she had always expected they would. With two people as stubborn as they were, a good throat-ripping debate was always needed to smooth over the edges. But they'd always laughed as much as they had fought. They'd joked and teased and dropped Bitrex in each others' coffee and had sex on the kitchen floor and at the end of the day had fallen asleep in each other's arms. Until they hadn't. It wasn't just the Bitrex bombing that had ended. It was as if all the fun had been taken out of their relationship, reducing it to a mere business arrangement. It was as if they had become strangers in their own home. They didn't joke and laugh and flirt like they used to. No. She cooked a meal for dinner while he watched TV, and then they sat in crushing silence and ate.
The laughter disappeared, and the fighting had only gotten worse, until they were arguing over everything from whether or not they needed a new car – ( her old car still worked perfectly fine, thank you very much Michael Flynn) - to what they were having for dinner.
Whenever she tried to raise the issue of their fighting, her words were dismissed as nonsense. (For fuck's sake, Kate. Just quit overanalysing everything! ) But after a fight over who had radio rights in the car (her) that resulted in him spending three nights on Dutchy's lounge just to get away from her, that she first broached the touchy subject of marriage counseling. It had been several more arguments before they'd finally reached the office, and they were barely past introductions before she fainted.
One trip to the hospital later and a few test results and the answer was clear. The pregnancy wasn't planned. I've already got a son, he had shouted at her in one of their bitter arguments, and she had kept quiet about it ever since, resigned to the fact that she would never be a mother. After all, what would she know about being a mother when all her own had taught her was how to mix drinks and when to lock her bedroom door.
At least, that was what Kate told herself. But there was still that niggle, that longing. She'd caress the soft fabric of the baby blankets at the shops and find herself wishing for someone to buy them for. She'd contemplated stopping the pill, not telling him. Letting him believe that it was fate or something else. But in the end, she hadn't needed to. She had still been on the pill - despite their arguments there was never anything wrong with that part of their relationship - but something must have happened.
He'd been sceptical, reluctant, and Kate knew that when he looked at her after the doctors first told him that he was sure she'd planned it on purpose. And there was something in his eyes even then that made Kate know just how unhappy he was with the situation. But he'd tried, Kate had to give him that. And he'd been good. He'd stayed with her at the hospital, brushing the hair off her face and whispering reassurances in her ear while the nurses and doctors bustled around her, drawing blood and running scans and the million other things that made no sense and didn't matter. All that mattered to Kate was her baby.
But the baby was strong, and she was back home before she knew it. She'd had terrible morning sickness for the whole duration of her pregnancy, she'd become addicted to avocado sandwiches and jaffas, and she'd had more breakdowns than she cared to admit. For the most part though, the pregnancy had effectively put an end to their fighting, as if they expected their child would pop out of the womb judging them.
So they both took disruption without dispute, and she said nothing as Mike stayed out more and more. It wasn't all bad though, and some days were like the first time they met. Days when he'd wrap his arms around her stomach and she could never dream of ever being apart from him.
The car pulled into the driveway of a big two-story house and immediately Annabel began to excitedly unbuckle her seat-belt, her Chupa-Chup stick clutched tight in one no-doubt sticky palm. Annabel jumped out neatly but Scott let out a wail of despair at being the only one left in the car. Kate rushed to get him, and in the process pulled her ribs tight. She managed to pass off her hiss of pain as a yawn though and cuddled Scott close to her as he buried his face in her neck, suddenly shy.
"Nikki?" Kate pulled her to one side, away from Annabel, who was jabbering happily about how much fun this trip was going to be. "I know what you said, but if it's too much for you and Rhys to have us in the house-"
"Kate, it's okay. It'll be a little chaotic but it's fine. You're staying here." She paused. "I mean, I wish you didn't have to, but not because I don't want you in my house. I just wish this all wasn't necessary."
"Nikki, I couldn't stay. Not with the kids feeling the way they were."
Nikki smiled like she understood, and Kate reflected that she sort of did. Not because of the breakup so much, but she knew that when Nikki left the Navy, pregnant to her dead fiancée, she would have spent her fair share of time wishing the father of her child was there too. It was just that Mike didn't have the excuse Josh Holiday did.
Of course, Nikki had her parents, and she'd met Rhys just before Pippa was born. She'd had her three brothers and their wives and the kids and friends and Kate… well, didn't it just show how alone she was when the reason she called her ex-crew mate for the first time in five years was because she had nowhere else to go.
"It'll all work out." Nikki told Kate with such conviction, that for a moment Kate almost believed her. "You'll see."
Nikki headed for the front door, her keys swinging off one finger, and Belle followed close behind. Kate gripped the stupid lollipop in one shaking hand and her son tightly with the other, and realised how wrong she was in thinking that leaving Mike would be the end of her confusion.
Chapter 3: Missed Call / Missed Call / Missed Call
If asked later how Kate managed to fake her way through dinner, she knew she would never be able to explain. The kids were usually her protection at social events, adults directing their conversation towards Annabel instead of at Kate, but tonight even Annabel was beyond exhausted and too tired to chat, mumbling yes or no when appropriate. Most of the night though she spent cuddled into Kate and, as soon as dinner had finished, had crawled onto Kate's lap and buried her face in her mother's shoulder. Scott, who had always displayed his tiredness in bursts of rapid activity, had run off somewhere with Max and Hunter, but Kate knew it would be only a matter of time before Scott crashed too.
"I'll clean up." He told Nikki as he rose. "You ladies chat." He threw a warm smile at them all as he moved to the stairs, but not before he pressed a soft kiss to the top of Nikki's head. Kate watched with something dangerously close to jealousy at the ease of their relationship, and forced herself to take an extra-large gulp of her water to cover the moment.
"So... uh... have you gone snorkeling lately, Pip?" Kate asked, more to break the silence than anything else.
"Not so much lately." Pip shook her head. "Dad takes me when he can. Mum's not so into it anymore." Pippa threw a look that was pure ET, the cheeky grin splitting her face. "Mum worries too much."
"Of course I do. You're my baby girl."
"Mu-um! I'm not a baby anymore." Pippa groaned, rolling her eyes.
"So how are the crew doing?" Nikki asked, ignoring Pip's displeasure. So Kate had forced herself into auto-pilot. She'd answered all of Nikki's general questions about the rest of the Hammersley crew, now spread across the country, almost unconsciously.
2Dads? AWOL. In Singapore or Thailand or something like that.
Bomber? Chef at a restaurant, last time I heard. (Kate leaves out the fact that she hadn't spoken to Bomber since she had gotten her fired, aside from that one time at the hospital when Belle was born.)
Buff? Back in Cairns. Got a girlfriend. Petra, I think her name is. Petra and Peter.
She had chatted to Nikki about the work she was doing at Mosman, and when Annabelle started to nod off she had excused herself to hustle the kids into a quick shower. She'd tucked Scott up nice and snug in Hunter's room, and Annabel up on the bottom bed of Pippa's double-bunk. Both kids had fallen asleep the moment their heads touched the pillow.
"Want a wine, Kate?" Rhys asked as Kate returned to the lounge room, blinking in the bright light. Dinner had been cleaned up as promised and Rhys and Nikki were seated next to each other on a lounge.
"No, thanks." Kate shook her head. Her eye is caught on a family photo on the wall. It's the five of them, Nikki and Rhys holding hands while the kids sit on a smooth, flat rock in front of them.
"Well, I'm gonna…" Rhys trailed off, jabbing a thumb somewhere vague over his shoulder and leaving the room before either of them called him out on it.
Kate doesn't look at Nikki, instead staring around at the living room. Her eyes caught a photo of Josh Holiday, and Kate was struck by just how much Pippa looked like her father.
"Kate." Nikki pressed, and Kate knew she couldn't avoid the questions any longer. "Kate, what happened?"
But all Kate could do, all that she knew for sure, was one thing. "I don't know."
She held in the tears until she was safely in Nikki's spare room that night, leaning heavily against the door and sinking down it to the floor. She curled herself into a ball and let the tears fall. Once one trickled out, more quickly follow, until she was forced to muffle her loud choking sobs with the sleeve of her cardigan.
They hadn't had a proper wedding when they married. They'd planned on it, had disagreed on everything from the flowers to the music, until Mike had just told her that they should go down to the nearest registry office and be done with it. Or maybe he hadn't said that. Maybe it was something more romantic. Start our married lives, or, stop wasting the time we have. She was not quite sure what he said. All the memories she has of Mike are tainted, distorted. Confused by the man he had become.
But she remembered his smile as he put the ring on her finger, remembered how he looked at her like she was the most important person in the world. And how he'd kissed her, and in that moment oxygen seemed so insignificant compared to the taste of him, and that moment.
She tried and failed to hold back another sob. It would have been a lot easier to leave, a lot easier to stay away and take the kids if he was a monster. But the more time Kate spent away from him, the more she remembered the good times. She stuffed the wedding band and her engagement ring angrily into an inside pocket of her bag, and began to pull off her clothes.
One whole side of Nikki's spare room was a built-in wardrobe with mirrored sliding doors, and Kate fixes her gaze on her feet, not wanting to look at herself. But try as she might, as she stands there in her bra and undies and feels that familiar twinge in her abdomen, she looks up and sees the patchwork of green and blue bruises to her abdomen, another reminder of what Mike had done and what it had cost.
The material of her pyjamas were rough against her skin; bought at the airport in the theory - hope - that if she avoided anything to do with Mike altogether, she would be okay. But it was all in vain. He was everywhere. He was in the rough material of the top as each scratch reminded her over and over that she wasn't wearing Mike's old t-shirt to bed as normal. It was in the corner of the room; her wedding rings might as well have been flashing neon-bright for how painfully aware she was of them stuffed at the bottom of her bag. It was in the way Scott grinned his toothy grin, and the way Annabel furrowed her brow when she was concentrating hard.
He was everywhere, and nowhere near her. And it wasn't fair.
She'd gone into labour only thirty weeks into the pregnancy, and had been out of her mind with worry. Mike had been away and was unreachable, and so she'd gone through the labour alone. And then, for a moment, she caught a glimpse of her silent, still, blue baby. And in that moment the world seemed to spin, faster and faster until it seemed it would never stop. And then the moment ended and they were whisking her daughter away to NICU.
She spent the next five weeks sleeping on the lounges outside the NICU room. Mike didn't return over the next few days, so she picked the baby's name. Annabel. Her Belle. Her Beauty. Annabel Evie Flynn.
A week after Belle's birth, Rebecca Brown came to visit, holding a fluffy stuffed rabbit awkwardly in one hand. She murmured congratulations and had a look at the new baby, doing the mandatory gushing over how gorgeous Annabel is, which even Kate, in her mother haze, could see was a lie. Annabel was swamped in tubes and pipes, and Kate had lost track of what each one was doing. One to help her breathe, to feed.
Either way, Kate was too frazzled and drained to offer up much in the way of conversation, and after about half-an-hour Rebecca left, mumbling something about catching up soon. Kate doubted it will come to anything. Hanging out with the woman who got you fired probably wasn't high up on Bomber's list. Especially when it was clear to Bomber now that Kate was a complete hypocrite.
Mike skidded into the hallway some fortnight later, begging forgiveness, and in that moment more than anything she realised she couldn't care less. All she wants is Belle to be okay.
Kate doesn't sleep well that first night, or indeed the next few nights. On the second night, Scott wakes up and wanders into Kate's room, begging her to let him sleep there too. By the time morning rolls around, Kate is still awake and her other arm is holding Belle close to her as well.
Nikki, her Italian upbringing unsatisfied with Kate's lack of appetite, gets her to eat by sending Annabel in with the breakfast. It's a job Belle takes seriously, her blue eyes unrelenting as she watches her mother struggle down spoonful's of porridge or pieces of toast. The food is thick in her mouth and about as appetising as cardboard but she eats, bite after bite until the plate is finally empty and Belle grins at her, skipping away happily with the plate after placing a wet kiss on her cheek.
The first few days the food comes straight back up again, tasting a hell of a lot worse than it did when she forced it down. She sits there, shivering violently on the frigid bathroom tiles and heaving so hard she's sure her recently-healed ribs will crack once more.
But both Nikki and Annabel are relentless and soon she's eating at least two meals a day and managing to keep it down. And it's showing too. She looks healthier, exhaustion no longer enveloping her body. Her heart... her heart is still in Cairns, or at least part of it. Yes, she's still hurting. Still falling so fast and never reaching the ground. But she's healing, piece by piece.
So she eats, watching her daughter's face light up with accomplishment as she finishes a piece of toast. And pretends that she's feeling better.
That's honestly not that big of a lie. She is feeling better sometimes, in those moments when she is with her kids. But at night it all comes flooding back; the dread, the sadness, the guilt. When she dreams about life before the promotion and the frigates and emptiness, only to wake up in the cold, empty bed. Alone. It amazed her that two people could occupy the same house, have children together and a home and dreams, and yet still be complete strangers to one another. They'd both lie next to each other, both clinging to opposite sides of the bed and miles away from each other.
Kate was used to making a difference. She knew what she could do in the Navy, knew she could help people, help those in need, help her country. But she was completely helpless when it came to Annabel. So she made deals with God. She hadn't gone to church since she was five and she hadn't prayed in decades but as she watched Belle's chest rise and fall in time with the machine breathing into her, she turned to the roof.
If you just make Belle better, I'll stop the arguments. I'll stop fighting. I'll be a good wife. I'll be a better mother. Please . Her hands clasped together tighter, her fingers digging into her skin. I'll never drink again. I'll give money to charity.
Over and over, until the words blended into one another and her fingers bled. Promise after promise. Please. Please. Please.
Mike watched helplessly for a week or so, and then left again, and so Kate spends all her time at the hospital, praying for a miracle. It wasn't an immediate change, but gradually, miraculously, Belle started to improve. It was three more weeks until Kate was told she could take her home and so Kate walks the half-an-hour walk back home with the daughter she never thought she would have.
She'd expected, on their arrival, to find the baby's room just as they'd left it, still half painted with the cot still in the flat-pack. But to her surprise she found the room in perfect order, down to the butterfly window stickers and the sheets on the cot. If she hadn't been so damn worried about Annabelle she might have felt bad about always assuming the worst of her husband.
But nothing else mattered. She ate when she remembered. She smiled when her baby smiled. She slept on the daybed in the corner of Annabelle's room. Well, slept is a relative term. She stayed awake night after night, terrified if she succumbed, that something would happen to Belle, leaving her helpless.
Mike returned a fortnight later to find the house in disarray, clothes and bottles and blankets everywhere. Mike had done his best to help, but by that point she had a system, albeit a desperate, clueless system, and she'd bitten his head off for moving things or disturbing the baby. So instead he turned his attention on her, and had tried to get her to sleep, but she had barely heard him.
Eventually, as Annabel got bigger, she moved back into the bedroom, getting her sleep patterns back into order. But Mike was still on Hammersley, in and out of their lives, and communication between them grew near non-existent.
Until he'd snapped. Until he'd shouted at her that she was obsessed, that she barely spoke to him, that she wouldn't let him near his daughter. He'd told her she was shutting him out, that she was going crazy. He'd shouted so many things at her that soon a crying baby was added to the mix. She didn't feel like fighting with him. She had no energy. Lately, all he did was leave her emotionally drained. And so she did all she knew how. She fussed over the baby he'd just woken, shushing the beautiful little girl, her little girl. Shh. It's okay, baby . But the fight had been pressed.
Mike had been holding this in for too long. You've spent more time with that baby in the last few days than you've spent with me since we got married.
And whose fault is that? She'd hissed back, putting Annabelle in the cot and forcing him out the door, closing it after them. She's angry now, angry and tired. One finger jabs him in the chest. You've only ever wanted me when someone else wants me more.
He pushed her away from him, her small frame overbalancing and hitting the wall hard. The loud crack that her head makes on the gyprock left a ringing silence in its wake, and they both freeze, shock all over their faces. For a moment, she could swear that he was going to rush to her, to help her and protect her like he always used to. But then he turns away.
They started fighting again after that, whispered arguments when Annabel was asleep. He doesn't lay a hand on her though, nor does she, him. But there are no apologies either. The lump on the back of Kate's head vanishes.
Before Belle was born, they'd talked about Mike taking a shore posting. (Shit, Kate! I will! Get off my back about it) But Belle was barely four months old when he told her that he'd signed on for another six months on Hammersley. She'd thought that Belle would be enough for him to stop pining for the sea, but if anything the restlessness had made him miss it more and more. (Can't we talk this over?) (Kate, it's already done! It's my decision!) But it wasn't a surprise he took the promotion without asking her
And then he was gone, leaving her and Belle alone in the house. That was how she liked it though, when she could hold her tiny hand and examine every line and blemish for hours on end. When there was no one to tell her that she was being paranoid, or crazy, or the million other things he'd called her in the last few months.
She wondered quite a lot whether Mike was as bad as she remembered. Surely not. He loved his children. She can remember him sitting Belle on his knee and reading pages of The Odyssey to her. Page after page, while she rested her head on his shoulder and listened attentively.
She didn't even touch her phone until two weeks after their arrival in Sydney. It was the first properly sunny day since they got here, and she was all alone in the big house after Nikki and Rhys took the kids to the park. Nikki had said something about Kate needing to take a break, to just think. Kate knows that Nikki wants her to go back to Mike. She would never, ever say it. Not in a million years. But they both know it's what Nikki is thinking, and Kate just wanted to scream every time Nikki said phrases like think it over and take some time.
It's not fair on Nikki, Kate reflected, doing her best to be reasonable. You still haven't told her the whole story.
Kate knew that she couldn't, had known it since she'd first told Dutchy and he'd just shaken his head in disbelief. Said something like "oh, Kate" and pulled her into a hug. But it had all been brushed over. What a terrible thing to happen to you both. Tragic. She'd wanted to yell and scream when he said that. to happen to you both. But it hadn't happened to Mike. It had been her body. Her in hospital, while Mike dumped the kids at his Mother's and took himself to the nearest pub.
It didn't happen to us. It happened to me. And Mike made it happen.
And suddenly, she can't just sit in this dining room and stare at her switched-off phone anymore. She can't hide forever. She can't let people think that this was her fault. Mike's Mum and Dad. Dutchy. Buffer. She didn't want to hide out at Nikki's. She wanted to get back the time she wasted. She wanted... needed... to take control of the situation.
She tapped the power button before she lost her nerve. Her heart pounded as the logo disappeared from the screen before showing her lock screen. It was a picture of Annabel, all dressed up for her book character day as Alice. She stayed on the screen for a little longer, knowing and dreading what she would find when she unlocked her phone.
Her finger swiped of its own accord and she was suddenly staring at her home screen, of the photo of her and Mike. She was smiling in the photograph, eyes sparkling. She examined the photograph, marvelling at her bagless eyes and wide grin. Mike was smiling next to her too, arm wrapped securely around her waist while she rested her head on his shoulders.
Shit. We were happy once. We were actually happy.
There was a beep, and then that happy photograph is buried by a stream of alerts. Seventeen unread emails. Thirty six unread texts. Twenty-two new voicemail messages. Missed Call. Missed call. Missed call. All from one person.
"Mike." She whispered softly. It was the first time she had said his name aloud since she left. The first time she'd voiced that one syllable that used to make her heart soar. Where had that love gone? Had it dissipated, slowly but surely, day by day? Or had it just vanished? Died as quickly as-
She took a deep breath and let the messages bleed out onto the screen.
-Where are you?
-I just found your letter? Where are you?
-What's going on?
-Answer me, dammit. You do not have the right to just take my kids away from me.
-Pick up the phone. Please. We can just talk.
-I've called everyone I can think of. Please let me know where you are.
She opens a new message, ignoring all the others and typed four words before hitting send and turning her phone off.
-I want a divorce.
Chapter 4: Waterslides and Ladders
"You look terrible." Nikki observed as Kate reentered the room just after twelve. She hadn't slept much the previous night, stuck on thoughts about Mike and wondering what he would do when he got her message. And so she lay there, staring wide-eyed at her phone, torn between wanting to turn it on and wanting to fling it from a skyscraper. She'd been falling asleep all morning, eyes glazed, until Nikki had basically pushed her onto the spare bed and told her to sleep, or else.
"I slept a little." Kate assured her, lying through her teeth. She was tired, yes. Her body exhausted and screaming for rest. But her mind was racing, ticking with all the things she should have thought about.
She'd bought the tickets with her credit card, and while they hadn't gotten around to joint bank accounts (thank you very much, Mike), she was a notorious password forgetter. And so if Mike figured out which cookbook she'd scribbled her password into (and he knew it was a cookbook, stupid stupid stupid)... well, it wasn't too difficult to figure out who she was staying with in Sydney, given she only knew one person.
She had thought about taking the kids somewhere else, had spent an hour scribbling down possibilities onto a page of Belle's colouring book. She'd gotten so far as to begin investigating whether or not she needed Mike's permission to get the kids passports (they were half British, anyway) when she stopped to consider when this break from Mike had become a full-fledged dash out of the country to avoid ever seeing him again.
"You've got bags under your eyes." Nikki commented, taking a step closer to turn Kate's head this way and that. Max, Scott and Hunter were pushing a car each around the table as they picked at vegemite sandwiches while Pippa sat down on the bench and began to flick through some tween magazine, eating leftover pasta from the previous night.
"Gee, thanks, Nikk." Kate replied, blinking her bloodshot eyes and forcing a smile. "You look like you've just stepped off the runway, as always."
Nikki laughed, her head tipped back. "After three kids, maybe not. Whaddya want for lunch?"
Kate shook her head. "I'm not really hungry, thanks Nikk."
Nikki pursed her lips, and Kate wonders how long it will take before Annabel is sent in to see her with a sandwich or a fruit salad. It wasn't that she was not eating to punish herself. It was just that the thought of food, any food, made her feel sick to the stomach, and the toast that Belle balanced carefully into the spare bedroom every morning was usually all she could handle.
"Well, you're going to have to eat something! We're going to the pools." Nikki announced. "We're having an early lunch. So did you want to grab something?"
"Nikki, I can't eat now. I'm sorry."
Nikki nodded tersely, turning her attention back to the bag she was packing full of towels and goggles. "Your kids bought swimmers, didn't they?"
"Yeah, the swimmers are in my suitcase somewhere." Kate nodded. "I'll have to borrow a couple of towels though."
"That's all good." Nikki stops in her tracks. "Well, if you're not eating, you can go and put your swimmers on. This might be the only chance I'll get to see Kate Flynn in a two-piece swimsuit." Kate flinched hard at the name. McGregor. Flynn. It was all so complicated now. Nikki didn't seem to notice the reaction her words got though.
There was no way she could wear this out, Kate reflected, turning this way and that to examine her bruises in the mirror. The only swimsuit she had packed was a two-piece, and there was no way she could show her face in it. Kate twisted again a little too quickly and let out a hiss of pain as her ribs pulled. The cut had healed, now just a scabbed-over scrape reducing in size each day. And the bruising was definitely going down, the blemishes having faded from the deep black they were to various shades of yellow and green, with hints of purple.
"Where's your cozzie?" Nikki exclaimed as Kate joined them again in the kitchen ten minutes later, back in her denim shorts and t-shirt while the five kids raced around to try and find their own swimming costumes.
Kate forced a shrug. "I mustn't have packed them. Belle, did you want to grab your cozzie out of my bag while I take Scott to the toilet?"
Mike came and went, the years ticked on until all of a sudden her baby daughter was three, and she was reluctantly enrolling Belle in preschool. She hadn't wanted to at all, still couldn't bear to be away from her daughter for too long, and after she had first dropped Belle on her first day at daycare, she had cried for hours.
She'd gone back to work at NAVCOM, mostly because she couldn't stand the silence at home, and was getting way too familiar with the Coronation Street characters for her liking. But where once tide charts and weather reports had been things she'd loved to learn more about, now instead all she worried about Annabel. She was distracted more than ever now, her brain only clear when she was with her child.
Belle only went to child care three days, and it was during one long Wednesday that Kate realised in a couple of years' time, Belle would be at school five days a week. And it was then that she knew she wanted to have another baby.
She mulled over her options, before deciding to just stop taking the pill without telling Mike. She'd thrown them out when he went away for patrol, hidden them under potato peels and banana peel. But the weeks leading up to Mike's return had been wrought with guilt and fear. So it was with a fierce determination that she called up Grace, Mike's mother's, and took up her on her offer to babysit.
She'd cooked him a meal, made an effort to talk to him. They'd both gotten into a few glasses of wine when she told him she wanted another baby.
It was so strange, she had thought, that they could fight for days over whose turn it is to take out the garbage but they could have a responsible conversation about having another child. Calmy, Kate had listed her reasons. ( Yes, I know Ryan is her brother, but don't you remember all the good times you had with your sister? / I think it would bring us together again / You never got the chance to be a part of Ryan's childhood. Don't you want to do all those father-son things?)
And it was completely bizarre that he agreed. Things looked up after that talk, after their first honest conversation in years. (And if she was being honest with herself, the sex was the best they had had in years)
It was another two months until Kate confirmed her pregnancy with the doctor and they made a real effort, the disagreements seemed to fade. Mike had taken leave for the last month of the pregnancy, vowing he would be there this time for the birth of their child. And so they worked through their issues. They talked about the things that were worrying or upsetting them. They took Annabel to school together each morning, hand in hand, and every night she would drift off with his hand around her, and fall a little more in love with him.
Scott's birth was a little less dramatic than his older sister's, even arriving on his due date much to Mike's amusement. He was there for Scott's birth, and proudly cut the cord. He'd brought Annabel in to see her baby brother, and had asked a nurse to take their first family photo.
It had hung proudly in Kate's office, who was determined to make things work with her husband. And it did, for a while at least.
"Mummy! Mummy! Watch me!" Belle gabbled, waving one hand over her head to get Kate's attention. Kate waved back in acknowledgement from the shallows and watched as Belle jumped into the deep end of the pool, emerging a moment later with hair plastered to her forehead and a triumphant grin on her face.
Kate turned her attention back to Scott, who was splashing around in the shallow toddler pool next to her, a look of pure excitement on his face as he slapped an open palm against the surface of the water, giggling madly as the water splashed back at him and Kate.
"Scotty, you splashed me!" Kate laughed, flicking a bit of water back at him. He giggled madly as Nikki emerge from the change rooms, a sarong wrapped around her and her hair in a knot at the top of her head.
"Hey, these are yours, right?" Nikki frowned, passing a shopping bag to Kate. She looked inside, a lump in her throat. "Belle said she found them in the bag. You must have missed them."
She hadn't gone back to work after Scott was born. She couldn't bear it. She lived for each smile, each laugh, each hug. They kept her going, driving her through the stress of the day. It was hard enough for her when Annabel started school, when Scott was only a baby and the house was either silent or screaming. She missed Belle like crazy, with all her mad rambling stories and funny insights into life. But she got through it. She'd sing and dance and talk and spin and the hours would tick by. And then suddenly, she didn't enjoy adult company as much. She neglected her old crewmates, forgetting to text them back or blowing off lunchdates with friends.
She'd walk the ten minute walk with Scott up to Belle's school at two in the afternoon, every afternoon. When he was younger, she'd sit him on the lush green grass and let him explore under her watchful eye. And as he grew the two of them would venture out to the playground and she'd sit him on her lap on the swing, carefully swaying backwards and forwards. Sometimes, the day couldn't go slower, while other times it seemed no time at all had passed when, an hour later, the bell would ring and Belle would come tearing out of the classroom, long hair flying, and leap into her arms.
It was enough for her. Enough and everything. But it wasn't enough for Mike. Of course it wasn't. And she should have realised. Before the kids got hurt. Mike's spirit was too strong to be chained to a desk. It was alright at first, when Belle was a newborn. But he craved space, freedom. He may have been home, but his heart was still bobbing about the ocean. The sea would always be his true love.
"Holy shit, Kate. What happened to your stomach!?" Nikki gasped as Kate walked as quickly as she could from the changerooms to the water. Damn Annabel. Should have thrown the stupid two-piece out. She knew the game was up as soon as Nikki had started this whole damn idea about swimming. But just at that moment when Kate was trying to figure out what to say, Belle splashes her way over and Kate silences any further questions Nikki might have had with a shake of the head.
"Hey, baby!" Kate smiled. "I saw your jumping. You were very good. And you jumped out very far too."
"Thanks." Belle smiled her wide, toothy grin. "Mummy, can we go on the waterslide? Pippa and Maxie are going. Please, Mummy?"
"You want to go on the waterslide?"
"Okay." Kate conceded. "But you go straight to the slide and you stand with Pippy, okay?"
"Okay." Annabel splashed off, not having mastered the kicking underwater stage yet.
Scott scrambled over to the spot where Kate stood, Rhys holding Hunter right behind the pair. She could feel Nikki's tenseness, could feel Rhys' gaze, but Kate ignored them, keeping her eyes focused on Belle, waving excitedly from the top of the waterslide.
Max came down first, bellowing his lungs out like a little lion and making Scott collapse into hysterical giggles in Kate's arms. Then Belle whizzed down, waving to Scott eagerly. She made her way over to Max and the two of them watch Pip come down, squealing excitedly.
Kate had hoped to avoid getting out of the pool unnecessarily, but Scott clamboured to have a turn on the slide just like his sister, and so Kate went up several times with Scott in her lap. It wasn't until they were in the changerooms again, getting the kids showered and changed that Belle noticed the marks.
"Does it still hurt?" Belle asked as she pulled her stockings up.
"I'm fine, Belle." Kate assured her.
Belle frowned as Nikki rounded the corner, fully dressed and impeccably made-up. "Is that where Daddy-" Belle began, but Kate cut her off.
"I'm fine, Belle. Nikk, can you watch the kids while I get changed?" Kate didn't wait for an answer, shutting herself in a cubicle before she had even finished her sentence. A moment later the sound of children chattering left the room and Kate lets herself cry.
"Kate?" There was a tentative knock on the door outside and Kate felt her breath catch. "Kate, it's Nikki. Open the door."
"I'm fine." Kate managed to choke out.
Nikki gave a bitter laugh. "You have said that so many times in the past fortnight that I wonder whether you even know what it means."
Kate stared at the back of the door, reading the words scratched into the wood.
JH and FD 4EVE!
Jenna is a slut.
How hot is Tony the lifeguard?!
"Kate, the cuts and bruises… you look like you've been beaten up. I'm worried about you. Belle's worried. That's why she insists on bringing you food every morning."
Danny Lewis has herpes.
This café is a joke.
RR luvs JS.
"If Mike hit you, then you need to-"
Kate pulled the door open so fast that her hair fluttered back with the air that was moved. "He didn't hit me, Nikki."
"Kate, level with me here. Because you call me up, out of the blue and tell me that you're leaving Mike. You won't tell me anything about what happened, and you look like someone kicked your stomach in. And you keep telling me that you're fine, but that's bullshit, Kate."
Kate looked Nikki square in the eye. "Okay. You're right. I'm not fine. I'm upset, and I'm confused, and I'm scared. I feel like a failure. I feel like I used to be Lieutenant Kate McGregor and now I don't know who I am. I feel like shit for throwing my mess on you and I feel like the worst mother in the world. So, no, I'm not fine. But I can't fall apart, because I have two children who need me."
"You know, I never picked you for a stay-at-home Mum, X." Buffer grinned as he watched Kate heat up Scott's bottle.
"You know you can call me Kate, Pete." Kate returned to the kitchen table, shaking the bottle.
"You'll always be X to me." He grinned. "Same as you still mentally call me Buffer." Kate smirked. He was right, she had to give him that.
"You want to feed him?" Kate asked, nodding to the eight month old in Buffer's lap.
"Sure. What do I do?" Kate showed him how to hold Scott, and soon her son was sucking eagerly from the bottle.
"How's the new posting?"
"Pretty good. I'm based out of Brisbane normally. I was glad we were able to catch up today." Buffer stared down into Scott's eyes. "I met a girl."
"Not another Monica?" Kate laughed.
"No. Her name's Petra. She's a high-school teacher."
"Wow." Kate grinned. "What does she teach?"
"History and Photography." Buffer paused for a moment, gazing at Kate. "How did you know it was the right time to take a shore posting? I mean... we're moving in together. I just... I've never really felt bad being at sea before now."
"Sounds like you're in love."
"Who's in love?" Belle questioned, skipping down the hall towards her mother in her Alice dress-up.
"Uncle Buff is." Kate informed her.
"When can I meet her? Is she pretty? What's her name? What does she do?" Belle fired out a string of questions so quickly that all Kate could do was blink. "And Mummy, can you tie my bow?" Belle added as an afterthought, spinning around.
"Her name is Petra, she is very beautiful. She's a teacher and... hopefully I can bring her to Cairns sometime soon."
Annabel nods wisely.
"Have you got a photo?" She asked, heading towards Buffer and leaning across the table to grab one of the cookies off the platter.
"Yeah, I do." There was a gurgling noise from Scott's bottle, alerting the adults to the fact that it was empty. Buffer sat the infant up in a sitting position once more in his lap before pulling out his phone to show Belle a photo.
"She's really beautiful." Belle assured Buffer. "And her hair looks like Snow White's."
Belle slid off the chair once more and sang to herself as she skipped off. "No time to say hello goodbye. I'm late! I'm late! I'm late."
"Do you miss it?" Buff asked as Belle returned to her room. "The sea, I mean?"
Kate didn't even have consider the question. "I tried going back to work. Just a shore posting. I miss them too much." Kate bit her lip. "I feel like, if Mike's away so much, then one of us should be here all the time, you know? I mean, what's the point of having kids if work is your first priority?"
"I guess." Buff shrugged. He paused, and turned to face her, a look of concern on his face. "Are you guys okay? I mean... you and Mike?"
Now it was Kate's turn to shrug. "Same as always, I guess." She opened her mouth once more, wanting to ask Buffer whether he thought it was Mike's fault that he had only spent five weeks with his son since his birth, or whether it was bad because she was counting. She wanted to ask whether Mike had said anything to him, whether he thought Mike was happy.
But she doesn't ask him any of this.
The night after the pools, Kate and Nikki sat in the lounge room, watching some building show that Nikki had sucked her into. Rhys entered the room, phone pressed into his shirt as he whispered to Nikki two words that sent Kate's heart racing. It's Mike.
"Hello?" Nikki greeted into the phone, chancing a glance at Kate's white face.
"Hi Nikki." Nikki was sitting so close to Kate that she could hear the dejected tone through the phone. "I'm sorry to call out of the blue like this but... I need to know if Kate's there?" She could hear his tinny voice through the receiver as Nikki turned to look questioningly at her. Kate knew that she was being unfair, knew that she should take the phone from Nikki and talk to Mike. Try to work through their issues. But all she can do is shake her head.
"No, Mike, she's not." Nikki replied, falling into silence once more.
"Oh... okay, Nik..." There was a long pause, and Nikki moved to put the phone down just as he spoke once more. "I get… I get she doesn't want to talk to me. I… I wouldn't…Nik, just... just tell her I love her. And Annabel and Scott. They mean the world to me, they really do. Tell her I'm sorry. That she's my world. That it was all my fault. Just… tell her I love her. She has to know."
Kate wasn't aware of her hand moving towards the phone, or taking it from Nikki. All Kate registered was that just as she put the phone to her ear... a dial tone.
Nikki turned to Kate, opening her mouth. "He said-"
"I heard what he said." Kate snapped, and immediately burst into tears. "Oh damn, Nikki. I'm so sorry. I'm… I'm sorry. You've been so good to us and I…" But Kate doesn't know what to say, because there are no words to explain how grateful she was to Nikki for taking her in. Because it was that night when she decided to leave that Kate realised, for the first time, that she had no friends. That she was completely isolated. The only women she ever spoke to were the women she'd served with on Hammersley. Bomber had been fired because of her. She and Sally had lost contact after Swain's funeral. She'd lost contact with Nikki after they'd caught Fulton and Nikki had left Hammersley. Kate had kept in contact with her long enough to know that she was pregnant with ET's kid, and was going to stay with her parents for a bit. Kate hadn't known she'd gotten married, let alone had two kids with the guy. But when Kate had called and Nikki had answered she had wasted no time in telling her to come and stay with them.
"It's okay, Kate." Nikki whispered. "It's okay."
Chapter 5: Baggy Clothes
Some days she was fine. Some days she was happy and smiling. She would go to the park with the kids, allowing herself to be coerced into pushing her kids on the swings or playing football in the backyard (In her imagination, Mike smiles, his eyes crinkling with laughter. Soccer Katie. You're such a pom) dodging Nikki's flowerpots while she lets Scott take the ball from her. She would squeal loudly, adorning a shocked look as Scott giggles and runs off with the ball in his arms, too young to understand the rules. Then she narrows her eyes and chased after him, swinging him round over her shoulder until he's hiccuping from laughing too much.
The kids loved the library too, and they would spend hours on end sitting on the bean bags together reading book after book until Kate's throat was dry.
There was a change in the kids too. They were happier, not constantly second-guessing themselves. Scott idolised Rhys, hanging off his every word as Rhys helped him, Hunter and Max build elaborate train-tracks all over the house or taught him how to drive a remote control car. Each time Scott would run back to Kate brimming with excitement. These moments were always bittersweet to Kate. After all, they were all the things that Mike should have done, but didn't, and she can't help but feel a little jealous of Nikki, having such a great husband to help her raise the kids
Mike had tried. She told herself. You're being unfair, Kate.
But there were so many times when she just wasn't sure.
"Daddy, you can be the Hatter." Annabel smiled at Mike, handing him a worn top-hat she'd bought with her pocket money at the Salvo shop. She'd carefully traced out the 10/6 onto a piece of felt and Kate had sewed them on for her. "Scotty's the caterpillar. Absolem."
"Abso- what?" Mike frowned, sitting up from the lounge and glancing over at his Alice-obsessed daughter.
"Absolem. He's the caterpillar's name. In one of the movies, anyway."
"How… when did you watch that?" Mike's eyes roamed over Annabel in her blue and white Alice dress, to Scott, toddling around the carpet in his baby sleeping bag.
"With Mummy, when you were away." Annabel answered. She hesitated as if she thought she were about to get into trouble. "We watch it every time you're gone. It's my favourite."
"Oh." Mike grunted.
"You... you brought me back an Alice doll for my birthday." Belle mumbled. "I thought you knew it was my favourite."
From her vantage point in the kitchen, Kate flinched. She turned to look at Mike, at the guilty expression on his face. Mike had returned from the shops empty handed, claiming not to know what Belle wanted. Kate had been the one to buy the Alice doll. She had just told her that it was from Mike.
"Of course I knew, Belle." Mike smiled after a moment. "I just had an old man moment."
Kate exhaled and turned back to the vegetables she was cutting as Annabel nodded.
"So will you play?" She asked Mike. Scott toddled over to them too, stumbling slightly in his sleeping bag and grabbing hold of Mike's leg for support.
"Well, sure I'll play." Mike said, putting the hat onto his head. "But I don't know what to do."
"It's okay." Belle assured him. "I can tell you everything about it. I love Alice." She handed Mike a lurid bowtie and said, absentmindedly. "Mummy was thinking of calling the baby Alice."
Kate dropped her knife with a clatter as she heared the words come out of Belle's mouth. She could practically feel the sting from Mike's gaze as he whirled around to face her, bow tie falling to the ground.
"Baby?" Mike repeated, looking from Kate to Annabel and back. Annabel clapped a hand to her mouth, as if realising she'd said something wrong. "What baby?"
"Belle, go to your room." Kate clipped automatically.
"Go to your room. Take Scott." Kate's words left no room for refusal and Belle gave one last frightened look at her father before dashing up the stairs, carrying Scott so that he wouldn't trip in his sleeping bag.
"What baby?" He repeated, taking a step closer. Kate's hands curled into fists. She wanted to go over there and ram the hat down his throat. She glanced at the knife on the counter, and for one terrifying moment moved to pick it up once more and take it with her. But then, with a wave of panic and anger and a million other things, she realised just what she was considering and forced herself to leave the knife back on the counter.
"What baby?" He repeated for a third time as Kate edged over to him. "You're not-"
She wanted to tell him that it was all a pretend game that Belle had made up, that it was a lie. But she can't. Because she couldn't bear to see the relief in his eyes when she told him it wasn't true. So instead she confessed the secret she'd kept for five months, hidden under baggy clothes and good lies.
"Mike, I'm pregnant."
"Mummy, can I borrow your phone?" Annabel asked as she walked into the kitchen. Scott followed close behind, holding Annabel's hand tight in his own. Belle had bright green fingernails. Pippa's doing. Scott had asked for red.
"Uh... Why, honey?" Kate frowned, taking in Annabel's determined face.
"Because I need to wish Ryan a happy birthday." Belle declared.
"Oh." Kate dropped the book she was reading to the bench and moved to crouch in front of her daughter. "Honey, you can't. I'm sorry."
"Why?" Belle protested. "It's his birthday. He calls me for my birthday. I need to call him for his. He'll be sad."
"Belle, I'm sure he'll understand." Kate tried to smooth Belle's hair, but she squirmed out of her reach.
"No! I hate it here! I want to go home!"
"Pregnant!?" Mike demanded, pacing angrily up and down the living room. "Fucking pregnant?! Are you kidding me?"
"Don't Mike me. When were you planning on telling me?"
"I don't know." Kate cried, then immediately realised she had said the wrong thing. "I was just trying to find the right time."
"But you found the right time to tell our seven year old?!"
"I had to take her to the doctors with me when I had my ultrasound. It was school holidays. Scott was at daycare but... There was no one to watch her."
"Ultrasound?!" Mike spluttered. "Ultrasound?! How far along are you, exactly?"
Kate ducked her eyes to the ground. "Five months." She whispered.
Mike closed the distance between them, and for one moment she was sure he was going to hit her. But his hands seize the hem of her shirt instead, pulling it tight so that it revealed the small mound.
"You planned this." He hissed accusingly. His hands twisted around the fabric of her shirt, pulling it tighter and tighter.
"No, I didn't."
"Bullshit. You planned this so that you could get what you wanted again." His eyes narrowed. "Maybe you've done this before. Maybe Belle wasn't an accident like you-"
Kate pulled herself out of his grip, eyes narrowed. "Don't you dare say that when she is upstairs. I love my children. But I didn't plan this pregnancy, Mike."
"How? I haven't had my period since before I fell pregnant with Scott, so I didn't realise at first. But I was on the pill, Mike."
"I don't believe you." He snarled.
"Well believe this! I never wanted to have another child with you because..." But she trailed away. Mike's eyes narrowed.
"Because what, exactly?"
She took a step closer to him and lowered her voice dangerously low. "Because our two children are the only reason I am still here. I've got sixteen and a bit years until Scott is eighteen. Now I'm starting all over again."
"What?" Mike laughed. "You're going to leave me?" He shook his head. "You wouldn't do that. You love me."
Kate took another step towards him, so their lips were almost touching. When she spoke, her voice was full of venom.
"I fucking hate you."
"Look, Scotty! It's a stingray!" Belle squealed with excitement as she pointed above her, where the stingray swam.
"No!" Scott cried, running to Kate and burying his face in Kate's leg. "Don't want it!"
"It's okay, Scotty." Kate assured him, lifting him into her arms. She pointed a finger up. "It's okay, Scotty, because they've built a special wall to stop them from coming in. They can't get us. I promise."
Scott shook his head once more and buried his face in Kate's neck. She sighed. "Annabel, we're going to go soon." Kate told her.
Annabel ignored her, taking half a dozen steps away from her mother.
Scott and Annabel were sitting on Belle's bed when she went upstairs to find them. Tears spilled down Belle's cheeks and Scott looked pale. Their dress-ups lay abandoned on the floor.
"I'm sorry." Kate whispered, moving to her kids and sitting down between them. "It's okay now."
"Daddy's mad." Belle said, as Kate pulled both kids into a hug. "Why's he mad?"
"He's not mad." Kate lied. "He just needs some time to think."
"Where is he?"
"He's… he's gone to stay with Dutchy for a little." It was another lie; Kate was 90% sure that Mike was headed to the closest pub he could find, but there was no way she was telling her daughter that.
"I'm sorry, Mummy." Belle mumbled, dropping her head into Kate's shoulder.
Kate pulled her up, looking her daughter in the eyes. "It's not your fault." Kate assured her. "Belle, it wasn't your fault and I don't ever want you to feel like that. Okay?"
"Okay." Belle mumbled after a moment, lifting her fingers to her mouth.
"Don't bite your nails, Belle." Kate told her, gently pulling them from her mouth. "You won't have any left."
Belle giggled nervously, and Kate sighed. "Tell you what? How about we make a blanket fort and we can watch Alice in Wonderland in there."
"Yeah?!" Belle exclaimed.
"Yeah. You want to go and get the blanket off your bed?"
"Me do?" Scott interjected.
"Scotty, can you go and get some pillows please?"
Scott started collecting pillows around Belle's room and headed down the stairs. Kate was just about to leave the room when Belle called her back. "Mummy?" She frowned.
"What did Daddy mean when he said that I was an accident?"
Kate froze, her hand on the door frame. She had no idea what to say, or what to do. "He meant…" She began, trying to think of something that would give her the answer she wanted. But Kate could think of nothing. "He meant that you were the best surprise we ever had." Kate whispered.
By the time they had left the aquarium, Kate had realised what she needed to do, and had immediately set out to find what she needed.
Belle had dragged her heels, still sulking from earlier, and Scott was tired, nodding off on Kate's shoulder. Finally Kate spotted the booth and strode towards it, feeding coins into the slot and punching in the number.
"Annabel?" Kate called out, holding the payphone out to her daughter. "Tell Ryan that we said happy birthday too, okay?"
Belle looked at her mother curiously, as if trying to determine whether or not it was a trick. Kate waved her over once more and Belle skipped over, taking the phone from Kate. Kate took a step back, holding Scott's hand tight as Belle spoke into the phone.
"Ryan? Happy Birthday!"
The phone woke Kate up. They were still in their blanket fort, huddled together and warm and comfortable. It took a lot of effort to extricate herself from her children without waking them, so much so that she only just made it to the phone in time.
"Hello?" She answers, glancing at the microwave clock. 11.23pm.
"Sorry to disturb you." The guy at the other end of the phone greeted. "It's Gary Stirk from the Imperial. We've met before. I've got a Mike Flynn here who... well, he's being a little disruptive and has become... become quite angry when I refused service. We think it would be best if you came to get him-"
"Don't call her! Don' call 'er!" Mike's angry voice was clearly audible through the phone.
"Sorry." The man apologised, and Mike's voice became muffled. "He's not really thinking straight. Or talking sense. But he's insisting on driving home and I think that's not such a good idea. He's definitely over the limit."
Kate ran a shaky hand through her hair and turned to look at her sleeping children.
"I'll... I'll be there in a little."
"Okay, Ryan. Okay. I love you too. Happy Birthday." Kate expected Belle to hang up the phone but instead she held it out to Kate. "He wants to talk to you."
Kate nodded in a robotically and picked up the phone, swallowing the lump in her throat. "Hi Ryan."
"Kate." He greeted. "I've been worried about you guys. I'm... I'm really glad you called."
"We're okay. We're just-" Kate told him. She'd never really had much to do with Ryan. They'd seen each other enough, but they had always tiptoed around each other.
"I really don't believe you, Kate." Ryan cut her off. "Mike's been really worried. He misses the kids, you know? I miss them."
"I know you do, Ryan. I'm just…" Kate's fingers flew to her mouth once more, shredding her nails. She can't finish the sentence. She had no idea what to say.
"Look, it's none of my business what's going on between you and Mike. I just… I hope that you'll still let me see the kids."
"Of course." Kate nodded. "I'd never…" She trailed off once more.
"Mum's been really upset." Ryan cut in. Kate felt her fingernails dig into the palm of her hand. "She's been crying all the time since she heard you left. I've never seen her so upset." Kate heard Ryan shift as the phone crackled. "I don't know. Maybe you could talk to her."
"I don't want to talk to her." Kate snapped, earning a shocked look from Annabel and causing Scott to flinch in her arms.
Ryan hesitates too. "Did… did you guys have a fight? You and Mum?"
Kate sucked in a breath. She wanted to tell someone exactly what his mother did. But then, she can't tell Ryan. She can't turn him against his mother. "Look, Ryan, Belle just wanted to call you. I'm…" she glanced over her shoulder to check Belle was still standing there. "I'll call soon. I promise."
She hung up before he had a chance to protest.
"Mummy?" Belle stirred as Kate lifted her into the car. "Where are we going?"
"Mummy's just got to go and see someone." Kate whispered, smoothing Belle's hair. "Go back to sleep."
By the time Kate had returned to the car with Scott, Annabel was fast asleep again, cheek pressed against the side of Scott's car seat.
There's hardly any traffic on the road but even so, Kate struggled to find a parking spot outside the pub. There was one near the entrance but it was right underneath a street light, and there was no way that Kate could leave Belle and Scott in the car alone parked under a street light. Eventually she found a spot towards the back of the carpark and cracked the window slightly, locking the car behind her.
She pulls her cardigan tighter as she walks. It was a cool night, and she hadn't thought to bring anything warmer. She passed Mike's car on the way through, and stared at it for a moment before striding into the pub. It was crowded and noisy inside. Lots of sailors. A ship must have come in. Kate heads for the bar, realising as she did that she was wearing slippers. Shit.
"Gary?" She called out, after scanning the room for Mike. Gary caught sight of her and moved to her end of the bar. "Where's Mike?"
"He headed out the back. We got really busy so I didn't really notice until I saw him go out the door. I've got his keys though." He slid the keys across the bar to her.
"Thanks." Kate nodded, before heading out into the beer garden.
It was mostly empty, except for a few people smoking in a far corner and a couple glued together at a nearby table, kissing as if their lives depended on it. She was just about to turn when something hit her hard in the stomach, and she did a double take. Because she knew the couple kissing at the table.
"You prick." She hissed, loud enough for them to hear her. But she didn't stop to watch as Mike extricates himself from Maxine. Didn't hang around to listen to Mike curse or watch Maxine lift a shaking hand to her mouth. Instead, she turned and ran.
Chapter 6: Alice
READ ME PLEASE BEFORE YOU KEEP READING!
This chapter may contain triggers for some people as it heavily focuses on some not-so-pleasant topics pertaining to the death of an infant. So if you don't feel that you can comfortably read this, then PM me and I can give you an overview of the chapter. I also want it noted on the official record that I am a twenty year old girl who still lives at home with her parents. I've never been pregnant. I've never had a child. I've done my best to do my research but some things might not be 100% accurate. Forgive me and call it poetic license. I'm going to be jacking up the rating of this story to M because of bad language and some dark scenes. I also haven't seen Alice in Wonderland in about 15 years so... yeah. Anywho, I really hope you enjoy.
"What's this?" Rhys frowned as Kate handed him five fifty dollar notes.
"It's for you and Nikki." Kate explained. "I know that you've both been working like crazy and then I showed up and stuffed up your break so… I'd like you two to go out for dinner. Go somewhere nice. Have fun. Stay the night somewhere. You guys… you guys have been so good to me. So I'm volunteering to watch your children."
"Kate, I can't accept this-" Rhys shook his head and tried to push the money back into Kate's hands.
"Nikki is absolutely refusing to let me give her any money for letting us stay here. So if she won't let me do that, then I would like to do this."
"Kate, this is too much."
"If you don't accept it, I'm going to buy your family a puppy." Kate threatened. "I swear. A little yappy dog. That needs to be brushed every day."
"Geez, you drive a hard bargain." Rhys grumbled, although he flashed her a smile. "Thanks, Kate."
"Well, you guys are great together." Kate smiled. "You deserve some time to yourself."
"Did you find him, Kate?" Gary called out as Kate stalked through the pub, willing herself not to cry. "Kate? Kate?" His hand found her shoulder. "You alright, Kate?"
"I found Mike." Kate told him. "Thank you. I… I need to go." She pushed through crowds of people, through the flashing lights from the Friday night band and the sailors and the newly eighteen-year-olds drinking themselves to liver failure.
The cool night air slapped her in the face as she looked around to get her bearings.
"Kate, wait!" Mike ran out of the pub, breathless and staggering. "Kate!"
"Get away from me, Mike!" Kate shouted, taking another few steps away from him. "I'm done. I'm done, Mike."
"Kate, just let me explain, please." Mike begged, just as Maxine appeared in the doorway, her face white and tearstained.
"Stay away from me, both of you." She shouted again. "The kids are in the car."
She ran the next few metres, needing nothing more than to put as much distance between herself and Mike as possible. She pulled her keys from her pocket, hands quite steady despite her own heart, soul, organs, all of which are falling and falling and falling.
"Kate, I love you." Mike yelled as he ran to catch up with her.
"But you had your tongue down Maxine's throat!" She shouted, digging her hands into her pockets. She found Mike's keys and threw them hard at his head.
"It's not what it looks like, Kate!"
"How did I misread that, Mike?"
"I… it was…" There was movement from inside the car. Annabel was awake, peering through the window nervous and wide-eyed. Kate's heart clenched. How much had Belle heard?
Kate froze, her heart sinking as her she made eye contact with Belle.
"I'm not letting you leave, Kate." He cried. "I love you. You need to listen." Mike's hand wrapped around her wrist, pulling her towards him.
"Let me go, Mike." Kate demanded, tearing her eyes away from Belle. "Let me go."
"Kate, just listen! I love you."
"Let me go!"
"No!" She had known she was going to fall before he did. Had known that he had pulled her too hard. Had known she would overbalance. There was nothing to break her fall, nothing to grab hold to. And so she had fallen, had fallen straight into the back of the car parked next to her. Her side caught the towbar, and she felt a rib break with an excrutiating pain that had knocked the wind out of her.
And then… then… nothing… more...
Just sounds. Feelings.
"Oh God, Katie!"
c antbreath e cantbreath e
"Should we call an ambulance?"
"I think she's got broken ribs, Mike. She's… shit… is she pregnant?"
"Mummy, wake up!"
"Mike, there's blood here. There's a lot of blood. Mike, I think she's losing the baby."
"I'm so sorry, Katie. I'm so sorry. I love you."
"There's an ambulance on its way."
"I want Mummy!"
"I don't think we've ever made a blanket fort this big before." Max observed, admiring their work. The entirety of the lounge room was covered in blankets, sheets and pillows. They were pegged together, tied to table legs and tucked into draws so that a sheet canopy extended over their heads.
"We make them at home." Annabel explained. "They're fun. Hey, Scotty, don't pull that."
"Alice!" Scott demanded, peering expectantly at his mother. "Alice."
"Who's Alice?" Asked Pippa. Kate ran a nervous hand over her stomach.
"It's a movie. Alice in Wonderland. It's my favourite." Annabel informed Pippa.
"Can we watch it?" Pippa asked.
"Yeah, Mummy, can we? I've got my movie." Belle made to stand up but Kate called her back.
"We might watch the cartoon one today, okay? We need to ask Aunty Nikki whether Max and Hunter can watch the other one. It's PG."
"Oh. Okay. I've got that too." Annabel called out as she once again ran off to collect the DVD.
"Is it the same as the book?" Pippa asked.
"Yeah." Kate nodded. There was a chime from somewhere in the kitchen. "I think our pizzas are ready."
"I'm so sorry, but there is no heartbeat." Beside her, Mike gasped and started to shake. "It would appear that the trauma you sustained to your abdomen caused a placental abruption." The doctor continues to talk, but Kate couldn't hear him. All that she knew was her baby was dead.
She'd left the room for air after they inserted the medicine to induce her. She knew it would take some time for the contractions to start. She couldn't be in the same room as Mike anymore.
He kept trying to take her hand, to hold her, until all she wanted to do was scream at him that this was his fault.
She threw herself into Dutchy's arms, and suddenly the enormity of what had happened, and what was yet to come, hit her like an oncoming truck. It was close to three in the morning now, the kids fast asleep under Dutchy's careful gaze. She had woken at seven yesterday morning. Twenty hours ago. Twenty hours ago that she had felt her baby move inside of her. Now it was dead. And she was going to have to deliver it.
Mike stood lamely nearby, watching them. The kids were asleep. Kate had sought comfort from Dutchy instead of him. Maxine had gone. He was alone.
The labour started. She knew the signs well enough to recognise, and soon she was placed into a hospital bed just like with Belle, and with Scott. The only difference was the absence of the foetal heart monitor. Its absence hit Kate hard.
Mike tried to grab her hand through contractions, but each time she snatched it away. She couldn't even look at him, and eventually he'd moved away from her, leaning against a wall as far away from her as he could get.
"If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn't." Alice said on the TV. Kate glanced over to her daughter and saw her lips move in time with the words. "And contrary-wise; what it is it wouldn't be, and what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?"
Kate smiled to herself and pulled Belle into her lap, pressing a kiss to her daughter's forehead.
"Okay, Kate, just a few more pushes, honey. We're almost there." Kate let out a sob and shook her head. "It's okay, sweetheart. You can do this." The midwife assured her.
But it wasn't that Kate was worried she couldn't do it. She knew she could. She'd had two babies and this one was… this one was so small. No, that wasn't the problem. Once she pushed her baby out of her, that would be it. Her baby was already dead, had died soon after she had fallen.
"Kate, sweetie. You need to push." The nurse whispered, brushing Kate's hair out of her face. It was an oddly maternal thing to do. Kate's own mother never had.
"I need my baby." She had cried. The nurse had let her sob into her shoulder.
She was born not long after, and suddenly the situation was horribly, undeniably real. Her baby was limp, still and silent.
"Can I hold her?" Kate whimpered, stretching a hand out. "P... please."
The nurse hesitated for only a fraction of a second before bundling up her baby and handing her to Kate. She had thought that no baby could ever be smaller than Belle when she was born. Annabel had been miniscule. But this baby was... this baby made baby Annabel look healthy. This baby weighed next to nothing. She was almost alien-like, so small and spindly. But she was beautiful too, and despite knowing that this baby was never ever going to survive, Kate finds herself willing it to cry.
Alice. She was an Alice. Alice brought into a world that was too much for her, too soon.
"Kate," The nurse murmured. "We need to deliver the afterbirth."
"I need to help her." Kate whimpered.
"There's nothing that you can do for her."
"I need her to breathe."
"She's not going to breathe, Kate. You can't help her."
"No, I need her to breathe." Kate's voice was panicked, desperate. "Cry!" She shouted. "Cry!"
"She's not going to cry." The nurse repeated. "Kate, she's too small. She didn't make it."
And although Kate knew that it was the truth, had known it for hours and hours, it was like a knife in her chest.
"Thanks so much for watching the kids the other night." Nikki called through the change room door.
"You've already thanked me about twenty times already." Kate laughed, as Nikki emerged from the change room.
"So, I'm grateful. Rhys and I hardly ever go out. Can you zip me?" Nikki spun around. Kate did so, and Nikki examined her reflection in the mirror. "I am getting too old for this wine and dine crap." She sighed. "What do you think, Kate?"
"I think I'm three years older than you and I take offense to the fact that we are too old to do anything." Kate grinned. "Why couldn't you just wear the black dress you wore out last night?"
A sheepish smile adorned Nikki's face. "It... uh... ripped."
Kate realised what Nikki was talking about and smirked. "Good on you, Nikk."
Nikki shook her head sadly. "Not so much. That was my favourite dress."
"Well anyway," Kate told Nikki. "You look amazing."
"Not too short for a business meeting?" She asked, smoothing the hem of the dress down a little. A smirk adorned her face. "Mind you, we are trying to get more funding."
"Oh, well, it's definitely not too short then." Kate laughed, then winced.
"Kate, you okay?"
Kate grimaced and rubbed a hand over her abdomen. "I'm okay."
"I don't believe you." Nikki sang.
Kate narrowed her eyes. "If you must know, I haven't had my period in close to three years. I thought I was free and clear on that one but apparently not. Can I borrow something from you?"
"Yeah, sure." Nikki dug around in her bag. "You know where the bathroom is?"
"Yeah, I'll just follow the signs. Cheers, Nikki."
She strode off in search of the nearest bathroom. My body is healing, she thought desperately, so when will my mind?
Kate had no idea what time it was when Dutchy found her. It must have been late; the sun set hours ago, but she still couldn't muster up the energy or motivation to move. And so she stayed in the empty kitchen, slumped on the tiles with her spine against the kitchen bench. She didn't look up when he made his presence known - in fact she barely blinked.
"Kate." He whispered, tiptoeing towards her. She didn't know why her name of all things set her off again. It was only a name after all, four little letters she'd lived with her entire life. Maybe it was the fact that, in that moment, she hated herself. Or maybe it was because, despite everything, he wasn't the man she wanted to be saying her name.
"Dutchy." She sobbed, crying tears she could have sworn had dried up hours ago. He didn't say anything as he pulled her into a warm embrace, rocking her gently from side to side. He smelt like the beach and petrol and safety, and she buried her head in his chest, clutching the sleeve of his t-shirt in a balled up fist as she bawled.
He didn't say anything as her sobs turn to hiccups and she struggled to normalise her gasping breaths.
"My... my baby's dead." She murmured flatly. In her mind she was still reliving it - has been for days. The emptiness. Numb. Hollow. Her limp, stick-thin baby. "My baby died."
"It just wasn't meant to be, Kate." He knew he was in no way qualified to be telling her this. He knew it should be her husband telling her this. But as soon as Grace had called him and said that Kate had dropped the kids off two days ago and Grace hadn't heard from Kate since… well, he had rushed over here as fast as his motor bike would allow. "Where's Mike?" He asked, looking around the kitchen as if expecting Mike to suddenly burst from a cupboard.
Her head is a jumbled mess as she watches the waves crash below. It's like all her hopes and dreams were written on a piece of paper, but the ink had run. She was happy. Is happy. When she's with her kids - she'd long since stopped calling them Mike's.
She's just so damn sick of being alone. Unloved. Her kids love her, yes, but they'd love anyone who'd feed, clothe and entertain them.
And the drinking had been the last straw.
How many times had Mike gone to the pub instead of going home? How many times had she not even known he was in port?
"Don't know." Kate mumbled. "He's been gone since I got home from the hospital."
"You're by yourself?" Dutchy frowned. Kate pressed a hand to her empty stomach.
"Now I am." She sobbed. "I couldn't… I had to take the kids to Grace's. I couldn't let them see me like this."
"Kate, what you're feeling and thinking, it's okay. But you can't sit here all day."
"I don't want to remember anymore. I just want to forget." She chanted the words over and over again, dreamy and nonsensical to the point of delusion. "...just want to forget... just want to forget..."
He had no idea what to say to her. She hadn't been his XO for eight years now, but he still thought of her as The X, powerful and strong. But the woman who sat in front of him here wasn't The X.
"Everything alright?" Nikki asked as Kate caught up with her at the checkout.
"I took a few panadol. Had almost forgotten how much cramps hurt." Kate nodded at the dress in Nikki's hand. "You're buying it, then?"
"Yeah, I'm getting the dress." Nikki laughed. "Now I just need shoes, jewellery and a handbag." Nikki hands over the dress and taps her credit card absent-mindedly against her arm.
"Nikki, you have about a bazillion pairs of shoes." Kate laughed as Nikki stepped up to pay.
"Hey, I have three brothers. I'm allowed to be a bit of a girl."
Kate wrinkled her nose as they walked out of the shop with Nikki's purchases. "I guess that's why I never really got hair and make up and all of that. I never had anyone to teach me."
"Your Mum didn't teach you?"
Kate gave a bitter laugh. "My mother was not exactly the teaching type." She explained.
"Is, I guess." She caught sight of Nikki's confused face. "Oh, she's still alive as far as I know. Lives around here, actually. I haven't seen her since I joined the Navy though."
"That's sad." Nikki looked at Kate sadly. "I can't imagine life without my Mum."
Kate pointed towards Boost. "Want a drink?" She asked. They joined the queue and Kate turned to look at the menu.
"Do you ever think about getting into contact with her?" Nikki asked. "I mean, if you know where she lives?"
Kate's fingers found their way to her mouth once more. "Sometimes, I guess, in more recent times." It wasn't a lie. The idea had formed after Kate had lost the baby, and had stuck as a vague possibility in her head ever since. One that would never come to fruition though. "I just think she… went through some things that could help me…" Kate shrugged.
She knew her mother had had a stillborn when Kate was ten. The father was Bob, the opal miner that Rowena McGregor had followed to Australia in the first place. He had been overjoyed at the idea of having a son, and Kate had been talked around to the idea of having a brother. Except a week before her brother was due to be born her mother had gone into labour. Her mother had screamed and shouted out loud in pain, in agony, but the nurses had just told her that she wasn't dilated enough. And so Kate had tried her best to calm her mother, had smoothed Rowena's hair while she begged her daughter to help, to make it stop, to kill her. By the time the nurses had finally attached the fetal monitor to Rowena it had been too late. She was almost killed herself from blood loss. Kate had sat outside the delivery room swinging her legs while her mother had pushed and cried and sobbed. And then... then her baby brother was dead and Bob was gone and her mother had never been the same again.
"But I won't contact her." Kate finished.
"Why not?" Nikki questioned.
Kate gave a small smile. "I don't know if you've noticed this, Nikki." She began. "But I'm very stubborn."
Nikki laughed her tinkling laugh before her face turned serious again. "Just… just remember that everyone makes mistakes, okay?"
But Kate didn't need to be told. She knew everyone made mistakes. Especially her.
"Feeling any better?" Dutchy asked her warmly as he slid a coffee cup across the table at her.
She grunted something non-committal and shifted in her chair, curling her feet underneath her.
"I'm sorry." He whispered as he looked at her carefully.
"What for?" She snapped at him. "You're not the one I…" I hate? I love? I want? I need? I wanted to leave? You're not Mike.
"I'm sorry." He repeated, just as calm as ever. "I'm sorry you're hurting."
"It's nothing new." She cried. "I don't know why I'm so upset."
"You're both hurting." Dutchy said, with the air of pointing out something extremely obvious. "You lost a baby."
"It was my baby." She snarled, wrapping her hands around the coffee mug.
"It was his too. And it's understandable he's upset. He's really cut up."
"He should be." She hissed.
"That's not fair, Kate." He murmured.
"I'm upset." Kate heard her voice crack once more and swallowed heavily. "I'm still feel like… like I'm falling and I'm never going to stop. But I can't just go out. I can't get drunk like him. I can't… can't disappear for two fucking days."
"You know what?" She shouted, her voice rising dramatically as she rose to her feet. She held back a hiss as her ribs protested. "Don't Kate me! Why are you sticking up for him?"
"Because you're my friends." He cried.
"Is that it?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
She pulled him towards her, kissing him passionately. It wasn't romantic. It was heat and electricity so fierce and wild it burned her from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. It was anger and desire and lust and a million other things all wrapped into one deadly cocktail.
Her ribs hurt. Her lungs were empty. She didn't let go.
He tried to pull away, but she pulled him back, and he doesn't resist.
Hands were everywhere as they backed up slowly until her back collided heavily with one of the kitchen counters, knocking the air out of her already oxygen-starved lungs. And then, without warning, he pushed her away, and she was left standing pathetically in front of him.
"Stop. This isn't you!" He cried, propelling himself off the cupboard and moving to the other side of the kitchen. She ran a hand over her dishevelled hair and rumpled clothes, trying to gain some semblance of respectability.
"Oh yeah? How the hell would you know?" She challenges. "And why would you care?"
"You love Mike. You married him." Dutchy pointed out.
"'Til death do we fucking part." She muttered, a dark look on her face.
"Stop it." He demanded.
"Why? Why should I stop? I hate him."
"No you don't. Don't say that."
But she does. And she had a million reasons why. "Belle counts down the hours until he comes back from patrol. She sits beside the door for hours waiting for him while he's out drinking himself stupid at the pub." That time, the sob did escape her. "And then when he does bother to come home, he sits in front of the TV or drinks and sleeps. And Scott. He doesn't even ask about Mike anymore."
"But you've got to work through this with him."
"Dutchy, we've tried. We've tried the marriage counseling and the date nights and… a million other things that have never ever worked. We've tried talking and fighting and ignoring and… and nothing works."
"Kissing someone else isn't going to fix your marriage."
Tell that to Mike, she almost said, but Dutchy's next words stopped her in her tracks.
"And you know how I feel about you. It's not fair to use me like that." Her breath hitched in her throat and she dropped to the ground sobbing.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. I know... look, it wasn't your fault. The baby. You fell. It could have happened-"
But Kate was on her feet again, fury building inside of her once more. "Is that what he told you?!" She demanded. "That I fell?"
"He said you tripped when you went to the shops."
Kate let out a snort of laughter that had nothing to do with humour. "That fucking bastard." She hissed. "That bastard."
"No! Don't Kate me! It was his fault!"
"He got wasted at the pub. I got the phone call from the bartender close to midnight. I grabbed the kids out of bed and put them in the car, and I went to go and get him." Dutchy didn't say anything to this, but listened intently. "But when I found him he had his tongue down Knocker's throat."
"Yeah. Knocker. So when he saw me run away from him, he chased me out to the carpark. And when I refused to listen to his bullshit excuses, he grabbed me and pulled me back. And I fell onto the towbar of the car next to us." She looked Dutchy square in the eye, and felt her blood boil at his next words.
"That's a terrible thing to happen to the both of you."
Chapter 7: Text Messages
A/N: Okay, so I struggle with writing the formatting of text messages in this medium. I had one on the Mike on the left and Kate on the right, allignment-wise, but you can't d right-align on , and I struggled. So, Mike is on the left and his messages are preceded with a little - symbol. Kate's are in the middle. Hopefully it doesn't confuse too much. And thank you thank you thank you to all those people reviewing. You are awesome. Okay, on with the show
"That's a terrible thing to happen to the both of you."
Kate blinked, shocked at his words as they hit her like a slap and left her gaping like a fish out of water. She had expected him to get angry at Mike, to agree with her. This was Dutchy, who was supposed to always have her back. Who was supposed to support her and help her no matter what. And yet, here he stood, talking about the death of her child as if it was… as if it was an accident.
"To us both?" She repeated, her voice quaking with suppressed rage and indignation. "To us both?"
"Kate, it was just a terrible a-"
"Don't you dare. Don't you fucking dare call it an accident!" Her breath came in heavy, shaky breathing as she stared him down. "He caused this. He-"
"But Kate, you've got to see it from both sides. He lost a child too and him thinking you blame him-"
"Of course I blame him!" Kate exploded. "How could I not? How could I possibly look at him ever again and not think of him as the man who murdered my child."
Dutchy just looked at her with that sad, solemn look that infuriated her. "He didn't intend this to happen."
"Didn't he? He said it himself that he never wanted…" But she can't say the name. Alice. So she swallowed hard. "that he never wanted the baby. He said he never wanted Annabel. I had to talk him into having Scott. And Ryan... well, that just speaks for itself." Kate let out a snort of laughter. "Four children. And he never wanted any of them."
"But he loves them! Kate, he-" Dutchy waved a hand in the air as if trying to find the words.
"No, I've had enough!" Kate shouted, raising her voice even louder. She didn't care. What did it matter if the neighbours heard, if the police were called? Alice was dead. "Why are you here, with me? Why aren't you at Maxine's house getting him to look at things from my perspective? Our baby died and he left me in the fucking house I despise to get drunk and screw his ex. Who needs the adjustment?"
"I know you're hurting too. I understand that and I'm here for you. All I'm saying is... is there are no sides here. This isn't some witness statement. It's your marriage and Kate, don't give up on him."
"I gave up on him years ago." Kate shook her head and gave a watery laugh that had nothing to do with humour, shaking her head. "I'm done, Dutchy. And if you're on his side then… then leave me alone and don't come back."
"I'm not on anyone's side-"
"But you're my best friend." Kate whispered. "You're supposed to be on my side."
A ringing silence filled the room, until Kate broke it.
"Get out of my house."
Kate lay awake long after everyone else had gone to bed, curled up under the covers as if burrowing herself deep into the earth. In front of her, her hands clasped the only personal item she had brought with her aside from her clothes. Her phone is cold to the touch, alien-like. It was normally warm, attached to her pocket. Of course it was often switched off during long postings but even so, Kate swore it had never felt this cold before. Neglected.
One hand traveled to her mouth as she shredded whatever nails had managed to escape unbroken these past few weeks. The other switched the phone on. She put the phone on airplane mode as soon as it had loaded properly but even so, Mike's latest messages had managed to come through. She ignored them though, just for the moment, and opened up her photos.
Nikki had told her she was thin, that she had lost weight. But she hadn't really thought it true until she started flicking through their latest all-family photos. It had been Mike's sister's engagement party, just a garden party at their home. They'd had a photobooth at the party with a whole bunch of stupid props and as Mike pulled her towards it... things had almost seemed like normal. Better than normal.
He'd taken a couple with the kids, one with just him and Scott, him and Belle. Then he'd forced Kate into some ridiculous feather boa and glasses and had snapped a few more. But the smile on her face was genuine, happy, not strained like they had been lately.
She closes her photos and opens up her messages.
I want a divorce.
She had written. How callous and ugly her words sounded now. She deleted her words from her phone, wishing she could do the same on Mike's phone too, but even if she could have, it would be too late. She had sent it over a week ago. He would have read it. And he had replied too, message after message.
- Please, Kate. Can you just call me?
- I love you so much
- Kate, there is nothing going on between Maxine and I.
It was a stupid kiss that meant nothing, to either of us.
She doesn't love me like that, and I don't love her like
that either. And if you never want to talk to me again
at least know that you are the one I love, more than
anything in the world.
- I know I was an arsehole. I left you alone all the time.
And I get why you didn't tell me you were pregnant.
I know you wouldn't lie to me about something like
that. I was just shocked. I was barely there for Belle.
She's such a mini-you and I love her so much but I
barely know her. And Scott… Scott barely knows me
either. When you told me you were pregnant it was
just another child that I would turn against me. But
I so wish things had been different Kate.
- I know you've probably got your phone off. And you're
probably not checking these. I guess I just like to
imagine that this is a way I could explain.
- Ryan said Belle called. I'm glad you're okay, even if
you're not here. I miss you like crazy, Kate. I just
wish you were here. I know you're at Nikki's, but I
also know you need your space. I'm here when you
Kate wiped a tear away from her eyes and turns Airplane Mode off. Then she flicked back to her messages and after another moments hesitation, began to type.
Are you there?
It barely took fifteen seconds before he replied.
Kate let out a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob as she smiled widely.
I miss you.
- I miss you too, Kate. More than you can understand.
Kate had no idea what to write next, but soon the icon alerted her to the fact that Mike was typing.
- How are the kids?
Kate smiled and started to type. It was a question that she knew she could answer.
Belle's teaching the other children
about Alice in Wonderland. Scott's been
breaking Nikki's flowerpots with a
- Ha. Don't you mean soccer ball?
No. I meant football.
- Kate, I know the words don't change what
happened but I am really sorry.
Kate sighed out loud, staring at the phone. Then she shook her head.
I need to go. Goodnight Mike.
Kate watched the typing icon appear, then disappear, only to reappear again several times before a message came through.
- Goodnight xx
It was a Thursday afternoon, and once again she was all alone in the house. She despised the house, with its huge rooms and new furniture. No - that wasn't right. She only hated it when she was by herself. On those two days a week when Scott was at preschool and Belle was at school and she was alone in the cold, empty house.
The toys stopped being homely in the silent time. Instead, they appeared ghostlike, haunting her. Taunting her. Just like the years before, when it wasn't a cheap plastic tiara, but pamphlets and photographs. Tahiti. Their fresh start. Or rather their fresh start, attempt... what number were they at now? At least ten.
The house was supposed to be their fresh fresh fresh start. After all, that was why she bought it. It was pure chance really, that she'd found it. It was the street name that caught her eye first. Lighthouse Lane.
It was stupid, really. But immediately she was transported back to the year they met, near lighthouse bay, when he was just Mike and she, just Kate.
She'd walked through the open house purely to prove to prove to herself it wasn't for her. It was too big. Too empty. But she'd walked through the spacious yard and seen her future. Marriage, kids, maybe even a damn dog. She'd peeked in the walk-in wardrobe and imagined it stuffed full of not just her clothes, but Mike's too.
And she'd bought it, just like that.
Though of course, the universe was still conspiring against them. She didn't get the promotion, and it seemed that Mike didn't even care. It wasn't even until the day of Jim and Swain's funeral that he set foot in the house, and it was two long empty years before he'd moved in.
And then it had felt like home, for... for a few months at least. Sometimes it still was. But when the kids were out and her husband was on patrol, her life felt more pathetic than ever.
She ran a finger over the bench top, half hoping for dust so that she'd have something constructive to do. It seemed lately that's all she seemed to do, cook and clean and care. Some pathetic fifties housewife. A mere empty shell of herself.
"Hey Nikki," Kate waved as the front door closed and Nikki tiptoed into the lounge room, heels in hand.
"Shhhhit Kate!" Nikki gasped, her shoes dropping to the carpet with a muffled thud as she stumbled in her stockings. "You scared the crap out of me." Nikki left the shoes on the ground and flopped onto the lounge beside Kate, bringing the faint whiff of tequila with her.
"Had a good time wining and dining?" Kate laughed as Nikki leant back on the lounge.
"I am too old for this." She groaned, rubbing a hand over her head. "I've already got a headache. I swear, when I was on the Hammersley, I could drink all night and be on watch all day and be good. Now a couple of drinks and it's like I've got the three kids in my head."
Kate laughed at the image. "See, I can't hold my liquor. A couple of wines and I sleep all day."
"Yeah, I do recall that from our Hammersley days." Nikki's voice became muffled as she rested her head on the armrest instead. "What about after you had the kids?"
"I don't know." Kate shrugged. "I barely drank after I had Belle."
"Really? Why not? I came to your house once when your car broke down. You had so many different wines in your pantry my head spun."
"You snooped in my pantry?"
"Well, you were in the shower. And we didn't get on then, remember? I was curious about Princess Perfect." Kate winced at the name. Far from perfect now. "But don't change the subject. Why don't you drink?"
Kate looked at Nikki. "Promise you won't make fun of me?"
"Do I ever?" Nikki replied sweetly. Kate raised an eyebrow. "Fine, I promise. Are we good, or do you need me to pinkie-promise first?"
Kate tipped her head in thought. "After Belle was born, and she was in NICU, I made a deal with God that I wouldn't drink if He made Belle better."
"Oh. That's it? That's what you were nervous about telling me?"
"Not nervous. I just… it's something I keep to myself, you know." Kate looked Nikki in the eye. "I mean, I'm hardly Princess Perfect. I think I've broken it… twice? Maybe three times? But seeing as I liked to have a wine every night when I was in port… I think I'm doing alright."
Nikki nodded silently.
"But anyway, how did it go? Did the dress work?"
"I think it did its job. We got the funding." Nikki grinned.
"That's awesome, Nikk!"
"Yeah, it is." Nikki's smile faded. "What are you doing up, anyway?"
"I'm… I…" Kate looked down at her hand, at the phone still held tight in her hand. "I texted Mike."
"That's… good?" Nikki looked questioningly at Kate.
"I don't know." Kate shrugged. "But I guess… whatever it is… it's a start, right?"
Nikki smiled at Kate. "Yeah, it's a start."
I was thinking about the day we first met. I'd just dropped my bags off at my dorm and had decided I was hungry. I bought a cup of chips that was absolutely massive and walked along the waterfront, taking in the views and reminding myself that I was here, that I was on my way to my dreams. And then I saw you, yelling at a seagull that had just stolen your chips and chasing after it. You tripped and I ran over to help you. We shared our chips with each other and I think I loved you before the night was up.
It's getting harder and harder to remember that day. It's getting harder and harder to look at you without remembering the bad times too. Like the first time we fought and didn't make up. Or the way I felt when suddenly you showed up at the ship after we spent the night together and told me you were captain again. But most importantly, the day our daughter died.
And now I can't look at you, can't think about you without seeing her limp body and twig limbs. I can't look at you without feeling my ribs break. And I can't stay here and watch the kids slowly forget about the good man that you were. I can't forget too.
I've got the kids. We're going away for a while to figure some stuff out. I'll contact you when I'm ready.
Nikki headed off to bed not long after, leaving Kate alone on the lounge. She stared at the corridor Nikki disappeared down for several minutes before turning back to her phone and began to type another message.
I know that you were sorry.
And I know that it was an
accident. It doesn't make it
hurt any less, but I know it
wasn't your fault. It was just
something that happened.
- But sorry doesn't bring her
back. Kate, I swear I would
if I could.
I know you would.
- I know I was angry after I
found out but I did love her.
I was... I was so crushed
when the doctor told us that
she was gone. It felt like I
was falling and I would
Are you still falling?
I was hoping you'd figured
out how to stop it. I can't
- I don't know. I just know
that I've got a better chance
of figuring it out with you here.
You're my voice of reason. You
always have been.
- Can I call you?
I don't think that's a good idea
- I guess not. I just want to hear
I'm not ready just yet.
- Will you ever be?
I don't know.
But I hope so.
Chapter 8: Milk Chocolate, Not Dark
A/N: I know! I suck at consistent updates! I'm sorry! I'm back at work now and have been on close the last week, so I haven't been getting home 'til later and then dinner and after that I am ready for bed (sorry, I'm a total lightweight). I also discovered the TV show Weeds. Does anyone else watch that? I have fallen in love with that show (although I can't read FF yet for it because I don't want any spoilers) Urgh. So anyway, back to the story. There are no more flashbacks, because I think we've caught up in time to what has happened and why. Now they've just got to fix things. We're almost at the end though. I have one chapter plus an epilogue at the moment, but that could change depending on how I write it. So, here we go. Sorry if I didn't reply to your review personally last chapter, but I really did appreciate them all. Thanks for sticking by me :) Here are the two big conversations.
It was Saturday, and Nikki and Rhys had taken Scott, Pippa, Max and Hunter to an indoor play centre for the day so that Kate could spend some time with her daughter. The whole time they had been in Sydney, Kate had been painfully aware of the fact that she needed to speak with Annabel, and explain some of the things that Belle had heard and seen, but the time had never seemed right. The truth - the whole truth was all so ugly and raw and difficult to explain that Kate had no clue where to start. And so she just... hadn't. Hadn't mentioned it. She'd buried it deep inside her until suddenly she realised, with a pang of shame and guilt and horror, that she was doing to Belle exactly what Kate's own mother had done to her. Kate had taken Annabel away from her home, her family and her school to drag her to another state, and aside from a few rushed comments, Kate had not mentioned anything to do with Mike.
Kate watched her daughter closely after her midnight epiphany, trying to pinpoint whether there was some change in Belle's behaviour that could be pinpointed to the things that had happened lately. It was hard to tell, because at a glance, Belle was exactly the same as ever. However, during breakfast, Kate noticed just how many times her daughter's eyes flicked towards the phone, her fingers twitching as if longing to reach for the keypad, and she realised how unfair she was being. Of course she would miss Mike. Of course, she would want to know what was happening.
So Kate had organised to take Belle out to the city, so that she could see the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge for herself and they could have a girls day, just the two of them. Belle had been so excited when Kate had told her the previous night, that it had taken Kate six chapters of Alice in Wonderland before Belle finally fell asleep.
They'd gotten up bright and early and said goodbye to Scott, promising to be back soon. Scott just laughed and squirmed out of Kate's cuddle without a backwards glance. He was always the independent one.
Belle had fed the coins into the ticket machine and scrabbled for the tickets in the collection tray, and Kate squinted around at the station map, trying to find the right platform. They missed the first train, and ended up on another train that took them as far as Central before they had to change platforms. At sea, Kate could navigate a boat anywhere it needed to go. She could decipher any sea charts and map. But the map of NSW trains was another matter entirely, and Kate stubbornly studied the stupid squiggly coloured lines for almost ten minutes before swallowing her pride and asking the guard for directions.
They had to run across the platform to catch the train they needed, and only just made it as she stumbled onto the carriage after Belle. The train was crowded, and Kate was buffeted this way and that as the train jolted, rougher than the boats she was used to. None of it seemed to phase Belle though, and she jabbered away animatedly to Kate about the million different things she had done in Sydney.
It wasn't until they traipsed out of Circular Quay Station that Belle was finally rendered speechless, and her eyes widened in excitement. "Wow, Mummy!" She gasped, taking a step away from Kate to get a better view of her surroundings. Her mouth was wide open in awe, Kate barely managing to suppress a laugh. "It's the Harbour Bridge! I've seen it at last!"
"Come on, you're eight. Not forty. What's this at last business, hey?" Kate was bumped by a passer by and she took a step closer to her daughter, taking Belle's hand in her own to keep her safely at Kate's side. "Come on. We'll walk up to it if you want." Kate led the way up towards the left, but Belle shook her head.
"No, this way. I want to see the Opera House, please."
Kate grinned and corrected her directions as they began to walk hand in hand along the water. Belle's head kept spinning around in all directions, craning her neck and walking on tip-toes to get a better view, and frequently Kate felt a tug at her arm that usually meant Belle had stopped to look at something. Eventually though, the ended up at the steps of the Opera House.
Belle tipped her head to one side and smiled sweetly at Kate. "Selfie?" She smirked.
"Selfie?" Kate snorted. "You know I'm terrible at them. I hold the camera wrong."
"So I'll hold it." Belle said, pulling Kate's phone from her pocket before Kate could protest. "It's off." She observed.
"Here, let me." Kate took the phone from Belle once more and waited for it to start up, switching it to airplane mode straight away. "Here." Kate handed the phone back to Belle, ignoring the twinge of guilt she felt. It disappeared quickly though as Belle opened the camera and pulled Kate down to her level.
"Smile Mum!" Belle commanded, and Kate obeyed. They stood there for several minutes, snapping silly pictures in front of the Opera House, or smiling with the bridge in the background. Later, Belle scrolled through the pictures with a grin on her face. "Now I can remember my first time here." Belle commented, tilting the phone to show one of Belle grinning widely and pointing to the bridge.
"Second." Kate corrected automatically, earning a shake of the head from Belle.
"Nu-uh!" Belle protested, giving Kate what Mike referred to as Belle's very own XO stare.
"You have!" Kate laughed. "Your Dad and I brought you when you were Scott's age."
"Your... your Dad had a meeting in Canberra and we decided to stop here for a few days afterwards."
Annabel tore her eyes away from the bridge to look at her mother. "You don't talk about Dad much now." She mused.
Kate knelt down in front of Annabel, so that their faces were level. "I know I haven't Belle. Which is why I wanted to talk to you alone."
"Why?" Belle asked, her warm hand squeezing Kate's a little tighter than necessary.
"Because… because I know that a lot's happened and I wanted to talk to you about it." Kate stood up and waved a hand in front of her. "But I want to sit down and talk to you. So where did you want to eat?" Kate pointed out the different cafés and shopfronts. "How hungry are you?"
"Are you going to eat?" Belle asked, peering up at her mother.
"Yeah, I'll… I'll eat something little."
Belle turned her attention to her feet. "You don't eat much now." She commented. "Not for a long time."
Kate nodded solemnly and led her daughter out of the way of several shoppers overtaking them. "Well, I'm going to eat today, okay. What do you feel like?"
"Is it lunch?"
Kate consulted her watch. "Morning tea." She decided.
"That Café over there, maybe?" Belle asked tentatively, a hopeful expression on her face as she pointed towards a cafe displaying a range of different chocolates. Kate smiled at her daughter and let her lead the way into the small café. They chose a booth by the window and Belle pulled her feet up underneath her to make herself a little taller.
"I'm so short." Belle complained, straightening her back for a moment before slumping once more.
"Sorry, Annabel. You get that from my side of the family. I'm short too. You did get your Dad's tendancy to sleep like the dead, though." Belle's grin faded slightly, and Kate leaned across the table. "I know that I haven't been fair to you lately. And I know that there's a lot of questions that you probably want answered so I wanted to tell you now that it's okay to ask your questions. Is there anything that you wanted to know?"
Belle's fingers traveled into her mouth and Kate gently pulled them out. "Are you and Dad getting a divorce?" Belle blurted out in a tumble.
Kate inwardly winced, thinking that of course Belle had to ask the hard questions first. But she wanted her daughter to understand, so Kate tried her best to form an answer. "We're spending some time apart at the moment to see whether a divorce is what we want to do. I don't know at the moment whether that's what we want to do, but it might happen."
"Do you still love Dad?"
"Yeah, I do, Belle." Kate assured her daughter. "I do, I really do. I love Mike so much. But lately, we've been fighting a lot."
Kate looked up at her daughter and saw her nod. "I know."
Kate had to hold in a wince. Of course Belle knew. How could she not? "I know that you saw us fighting sometimes. That you heard us. And I'm sorry about that. That wasn't fair on you, Annabel. We haven't been very good parents."
"You're the best Mum." Belle mumbled back, staring at the table.
"No, honey. I've been a bad mum. I know it. But I'm so proud of you. You've been so grown up this whole time at Aunty Nikki's. You shouldn't have to be, but you were." Kate leant down a little so that she could see her daughter's face. "It must have been hard for you."
"I scared you, when I threw all your clothes in a bag and put you on a plane. I know it was wrong. And I'm so sorry, Belle."
"I... I didn't know whether we were coming back." Belle mumbled. "I... I didn't know what to take. Or where... where we were going."
"I wasn't too sure either." Kate admitted. "But I needed to go somewhere else and think. It just... it seemed like all your Dad and I were doing was upsetting each other."
Belle opened her mouth to speak but was cut off as a cheery looking waitress approached their table.
"Excuse me, are we ready to order over here?" She asked, glancing between the two of them.
"Oh, I… Belle, do you know what you want?" Kate scanned her eyes down the list, caught out by the sudden interruption in their conversation. "Sorry," Kate turned to the waitress. "Just a minute?"
"Sure. Take your time." The waitress walked away, and Kate turned to Belle, who was scanning the menu in front of her.
"What do you feel like, Belle?" Kate asked, looking through her own menu.
"Ice cream?" Belle whispered hopefully.
Kate laughed and nodded. "Sure. Why not?" Belle grinned. "So you know what you want, then?"
Belle nodded enthusiastically and Kate smiled at her daughter's eagerness. "Okay, then." The waitress returned and Belle spoke up first.
"Can I please have the strawberry sundae. But can I please have that with milk chocolate instead of dark."
Milk chocolate, not dark. Kate thought with a small smile, and her mind cast back to another time, when Mike used to wrap his hands around her pregnant belly and talk about what their daughter might be like. Mike had been positive that she would be a dark chocolate girl, but Kate had known better.
"You sure can." The waitress smiled. "And you?"
"I'll have a... a berry waffle, thanks. And can I grab a flat white?"
"Sure. Is that all?"
"Alright. Won't be too long."
The waitress walked away and Kate turned back to Annabel. She opened her mouth to continue their conversation but Belle beat her to the punch.
"The baby died, didn't it?" The words hung in the air between them, sticky and ugly and sour. Kate inhaled sharply but forced herself to tell the truth.
"Yeah, it did."
"After Dad pushed you?" Belle continued.
Kate stood up and moved across the table to sit right next to her daughter in the booth. "It wasn't his fault. It wasn't anyone's fault." Kate sighed. "But yes, I lost the baby after that."
"You didn't say anything." Belle accused. "I mean, I know you were in hospital, but you never said anything about it."
"I… I didn't know how, Belle. I could hardly wrap my head around it, let alone explain it."
"Sarah Carter at school's Mum lost her baby too. Then her Mum started acting funny. Now Sarah just lives with her Dad."
"Well, I'm sad." Kate told her daughter. "But I'm not leaving you or Scott. Okay?"
"It… did you see her? The baby?"
"Yeah, I did." Kate nodded. "Your dad did too. We… she was already dead inside of me. There was nothing anyone could have done to save her."
Belle nodded, absorbing the information while Kate wiped her eyes. "Where is she now?"
"We… we had her c-cremated." Kate's voice cracked on the word and she hurriedly wiped her eyes once more. "Do you... uh... do you know what that means?"
Belle frowned and shook her head.
"It means that we took her to someone who... who heated up her body in a special sort of fire until all that's left is... like a dust. It means that she isn't buried, like people in cemeteries. Instead, she becomes a special sort of dust called ashes that we can take and spread somewhere. It doesn't hurt her because she's already dead, so her body doesn't work, and it means that she can go back into the world rather than in the ground. Does that... does that make sense?"
"Sort of." Belle shrugged, biting her lip. "What does she look like now?"
"She looks a bit like grey sand."
"So where is she?"
"She's… she's at Nikki and Rhys', in my bag." Kate wondered for a moment whether that was too much information for Belle to absorb, but it didn't seem to cause her daughter too much concern.
"Is that why we left Dad? Because she died?"
"That… that and other reasons. But yes, that was a big reason."
"Are we going to stay at Aunty Nikki's for a long time?"
"I think… I think we'll go home soon. There are some things your Dad and I need to say to each other face to face, and I know that you and Scott miss him."
"Do you miss him?"
Kate considered the question for a moment. "Yes." She settled on. "I really miss him."
"So then... you can try and make things work again?" Belle asked, staring Kate down.
Kate hesitated, taking in her daughter's sweet, innocent face. "Yes." She finally agreed. "Yes, we can try."
She was not as scared as she thought she would be when she opened the door the next afternoon to find Mike standing there. Really, it had always been going to happen; she was just surprised it had taken him this long. She was once again alone at Nikki's, although here, it never borrowed her. The house was comforting, and there was always background noise. Children playing outside, the roads beyond. The distant rumbling of a freight train a few times a day.
Nikki and Rhys had taken the kids to the park, and Kate had spent most of her alone time on their computer, her cursor hovering over the confirm button on the Webjet website and the rest of the time shredding her remaining fingernails.
"Can we talk?" Mike whispered finally, holding his arms up in surrender. "Can we just fucking talk, Kate?"
She nodded dazedly, grabbing her jacket and the spare key Nikki gave her from the hook before pulling the door closed behind her.
Somehow they end up in some cushy coffee shop crammed into a booth. The coffee is too sweet, the cafe too noisy, and the windows are fogged up with the cold outside.
"I still love you." Mike broke the silence.
"I know that." She took a sip of the coffee just to break the awkwardness. "I still love you, too. But that's not enough for us anymore, is it?"
"I'm trying, Kate. I'm trying to figure out what to do to fix things but I just don't know anymore."
"You're always away. Always."
"You knew it would be hard." He reasoned, stretching out an arm to touch her. But she jerked away from him automatically. Even her subconscious was rejecting him.
"I did." She agreed. "I knew that marrying you would mean that you were away all the time. And I thought I was prepared but… but I never thought it would be this hard. I mean... what about our kids, Mike? Every time you would leave I'd have to watch their hearts break again because you broke some promise you made to the kids about staying for Christmas or birthdays or preschool graduations. I couldn't do it anymore. I can't."
"You won't have to, Kate." Mike cut in. "I… I've been looking into… into something." Mike took a deep breath. "I want to take a shore posting, Kate." She blinked at him, the shock evident all over her face. "Well," he corrected himself, "a teaching position, actually. It's at HMAS Watson."
"What?" Kate spluttered. "Down here?"
"Yes." Mike paused for a moment. His hand twitched as if he was going to reach over and take hers once more, but he stopped himself. "It would be a fresh start. A new house. A house that wasn't so lonely for you. You'd be close to Nikki. And we could try and start again." Mike peered at her. "What do you think?"
"What about… what about Ryan and the rest of the crew?"
"Ryan and Bird are going to have a baby."
"They're having a baby, and they're moving down to Sydney to be closer to Bird's family. So if you wanted… I mean, I was thinking about this even before Ryan told me. This isn't about him. I love Ryan, but he's all grown up and… and I need to focus on the family who needs me. But I think Sydney could be good. At least this way we could still see him, too. I know Belle's really fond of him." He squinted across at her, trying to read her thoughts. "What do you think? Say something."
"I… what do you think?"
"What do you mean? I just told you-"
"No, I know you told me the pros and cons. I mean, you need to be certain that this is what you want. Because if you do this, if you say it's what you want and then change your mind, I will never forgive you. I will leave you and take the kids and never come back."
"Kate, all I want is you and the kids. And if that means that I have to be a… a fucking janitor, then I will."
Kate stared at Mike for a moment. "You'd look terrible in those overalls." There was the ghost of a smile on her lips.
"Look, I think we need to get away from Cairns. And I know you feel isolated and alone, and I know that's my fault. I want to change things."
"You're... you're talking crazy!" Kate exploded. "Six months ago you were telling me you didn't want to go on holidays with your family because Brisbane was too far away and now you want to move... move over 2000 kilometres away from home?"
"Kate, we both know that you haven't thought of that house as home in a very long time." Mike sighed. "I'm trying to find a solution here."
"I think... I think..." She took a deep breath. "I think it's got its merits." She conceded.
"Well, yes. Theoretically. But I don't want you to leave your ship if you don't want to."
"The thing about that is... is it hasn't felt like my ship for a long time." He paused for a moment. "Not really since you left." This time, he does lean and take her hand, and although she flinches at the contact, she didn't pull away. "Kate, I want to do this. On top of making things work between us I... I think it would be good for me."
"You really want to do this?"
"Yeah, I do."
"And you're sure about that? I mean, you're not going to change your mind and-"
"Kate." Mike cut her off. "Do you want this? Do you still want me?"
She took a deep breath and nodded. "Yes."
Chapter 9: Ice Queen
Kate and Mike strode up the driveway just as the kids ran into the house. None of them spotted neither Kate nor Mike in their haste to rush inside, but Nikki's eyes snapped to Kate almost immediately. And then Mike.
"Come in." Nikki murmured, not saying anything else as Kate and Mike followed behind Rhys and Nikki. "Belle! Scott! Someone's here!" Nikki called out as they closed the front door behind them.
Kate counted. One. Two. Three.
"Daddy!" Belle shouted, barreling into Mike's side and wrapping her arms around him. "Daddy, I missed you." Mike staggered backwards as Belle pushed him backwards, but righted himself and wrapped his arms around his daughter.
"Did you?" He looked up just in time to see Scott run up to him too, burrowing his face into Mike's leg.
"Yeah, I did."
"Oh, I missed you too, Belle. And my little man." Belle smiled, but it was a distracted sort of smile, and Kate watched as Belle began looking between her two parents. Kate had stayed back from the reunion, nibbling on the skin around her fingernails, hovering by the front door.
"It's good to see you, Boss." Nikki broke the silence, moving forwards to hug him. "I mean, Mike. Sorry."
"Hi, Nikki." Mike greeted back with a forced smile, glancing back at Kate. And she knew that he was still on tenterhooks around her.
"I know you've met Pip, but this is my husband Rhys," Nikki gestured to Rhys, and both men exchanged a brief hello. "And this is Max, and Hunter." Silence fell in the room once more as each person thought desperately for something to say. "Uh… anyway, come and sit down." Nikki ushered them all into the lounge room. Mike followed, the kids at his heels, but Kate hung back, her hands shaking.
She had no idea what to do. All her careful plans and contemplation seemed nothing short of foolish now. She had no clue what she was supposed to do now. But she was beginning to realise that there was no correct plan of attack, and no amount of care or caution would help. And so she squared her shoulders and followed the rest of her family.
Scott was perched on Mike's lap, Belle leaning into his side. Kate hovered in the doorway once more, surveying the scene. Nikki was trying to catch her eye, and Mike was examining her carefully, but she avoided their eyes and let Belle's babbling chatter wash over her. Until Belle voiced the question that brought Kate back to earth fast.
"Does this mean we're going home?" Belle asked, her eyes darting from Kate to Mike with dizzying speed.
Mike said nothing, looking to Kate along with everyone else in the room, and she knew that he was leaving the choice up to her. And so, Kate took a deep breath and spoke for the first time. "Well, that depends on what you think of your Daddy's idea."
"Alright," Rhys stood up, clapping her hands together and making all present jump. "If your last name is Holiday, Thompson, Caetano or any combination of the three, let's go get some dinner ready."
Despite her situation, Kate jerked her head up. "That's a lot of last names for five people."
Nikki pointed at herself. "Nikki Thompson-Caetano." She gestured at Pippa. "Pippa Rose Thompson-Holiday. And the boys are all just Thompson." Nikki sheppherded her children out of the living room. "But don't worry about that now. Talk."
"Live down here?" Belle repeated.
"Yes." Mike answered, crouching down in front of Belle.
"With both of you?" Belle asked, just as Scott scrambled into Mike's lap, nearly knocking him over.
"Yes." Mike answered again.
"But… what about school?" Annabel frowned.
"Well, you'd go to a different school." Mike told her.
"And Grandma and Grandpa and Aunty Fiona and-"
"They'd be up in Cairns still. But your other Aunty Pippa lives in Sydney. Do you remember her?"
"She's… she's got the twins?"
"Yeah. They're your cousins, Sam and Chloe."
"What about Hammersley? And Uncle Dutchy and-"
"Ryan is moving down to Sydney too. He's not going to live as close as he does now… we'd probably have to drive to see him. But he's moving down here with Jess But everyone else is staying in Cairns. It's just us moving down here. You, me, Mummy and Scott. But everyone can come and visit, and we can visit Cairns too. But if we move down here, that means that I can get a job that means I'm home a lot more than what I have been." Mike hesitated, looking to Kate for support. When she offered none, he turned his attention back to Belle. "What do you think?" Mike asked. "I...we want to know what you think."
"I think… I don't know." Belle kicked her legs in the air, staring at her shoes. "I can't choose." She looked between her mother and father. "And I don't want to. You guys choose."
"Annabel, your opinion matters to us. If we decided to move to Sydney it would mean that I was home a lot more, and that we could all be closer to Aunty Nikki and to Uncle Rhys… Pip and Max and Hunter. Plus Ryan and Jess."
"But we'd have to leave everyone else behind."
"Well… yeah, we would."
"Well… it would be fun, to stay here. It's not as hot. Mum and Scott don't like the hot. And then there's the job, which would be good for you. And it's nice here. I like it. But I'd miss everyone a lot." Belle folded her arms. "That's my opinion. You guys choose."
"It's a big decision." Mike told Kate as they sat at the outdoor dining table, both staring out at the trees that bordered Nikki's backyard. The kids were asleep, excitement wearing them down to exhaustion as Mike tucked them into bed. He and Kate had retreated into the back yard.
"Yeah, it is." Kate agreed, her chin in the palm of her hand as she stared absentmindedly out in front of her.
"So we have to be sure it's the right one." Mike continued.
"We?" She questioned without looking up.
"Yes, we, Kate. I'm not going to make a decision about my career without you." She lifted her head from her hand to look at him and raised an eyebrow, but she bit back the comment about Hammersley swimming in her head. He seemed to know what she was thinking though, because he added quickly, "Again."
Kate hid a snort of laughter and moved her hand back to her palm.
"Scott will be fine." Mike reasoned. "And if you think that this is what you want to do, then it's just Belle to think about." He turned to Kate. "But you know her better than I do. I don't know much about her friends or her school. Her day to day life."
"She doesn't really have a best friend." Kate informed Mike, holding her tongue regarding any comments she might have about Mike's lack of knowledge about their daughter. Unlike all the other times, she could see now that there was nothing to be gained in making him feel bad about it. He was here, and he was trying. "She plays with a whole bunch of kids in her class. Goes where the fun is, so to speak. She does okay in her school work. She's not too good at maths, but she loves writing and acting and drama and painting. I think... I think she'd be okay, moving schools. She makes friends really easily. Scott's the shy one. Belle's the butterfly."
"And how... how often do you see my parents when I'm away?" Mike asked.
"Not often." Kate admitted. "If I'm stuck somewhere I call Grace and she can mind the kids if need be but... I don't drive a lot with the kids."
"So not seeing her grandparents for a while will be..."
"I think she'll still be okay. I mean, she loves them, but..." Kate fidgeted with her shredded fingernails. "...but..." She trailed away.
Mike twisted around to face her properly. "Kate, what do you think? I mean, I know that you and Bomber lost contact and a lot of the crew moved away but... what about Dutchy? I know you two are really close friends. Can you really leave him behind?"
Kate shifted uncomfortably. "He's not talking to me." Kate admitted finally. "We had a fight."
"We had a fight too." Mike informed Kate, still looking straight at her. "He showed up... hmm... must have been the day before you left. Found me at the pub." Now it was Mike who shifted uncomfortably, lowering his voice as if the trees around them would judge. "He told me I was being an arsehole. He said that I was neglecting you and not taking your feelings into account. He told me that I was a dickhead for kissing Maxine and that you..." He trailed off, a guilty look on his face.
"That I what?" Kate pressed, as the silence dragged on. "Mike?"
"That you deserved better than me. That there were hundreds and thousands and millions of people who would kill to be with you, to be the guy who had your heart and... to be the father of your children. He said that I didn't deserve you. But he told me that none of that mattered, because... because all you wanted me. That you'd been waiting for me to be the guy you deserved for months and months. Years. He said I was your husband and I should act like it." He turned to Kate."I know I didn't take the whole pregnancy news well." Mike began. "But you need to know that I don't regret our children. Any of them. I love our kids."
"I know you love them." Kate assured him. "I know that." She hesitated for a moment, before turning around to face him once more. "This, moving down here. This big gesture..."
"It's not a gesture, Kate."
"Yeah, well, whatever it is. Plan? Idea? Epiphany? Is it just another escape?"
"Escape from what?"
"From everything that's happened. Because if the sole purpose of this is to put distance between you and Maxine or-"
"I need you to listen to me, and I need you to listen hard, okay. There's nothing between Maxine and I. We were friends, once. And we slept together, once, over twenty-five years ago. That's it. That night, at the pub, she found me. She was trying to convince me to go back to you, to find you. The kiss... I don't even know how it happened. We both knew it was a mistake straight after. After you left... after everything happened, she kept telling me to go back to you, to make things better. But I didn't know how. We've barely spoken since it happened. But I'm not running from her, or for her, or anything like that. I'm running to you, Kate. Because you're the woman I've loved for eleven years."
"It was really just one kiss?" Kate whispered.
"Yes!" Mike repeated.
"I kissed Dutchy." Kate sighed. "Just once. I was... I was so mad at you and I just... I don't even know why I did it."
"I know." Mike sighed.
"You know? How?"
"When Dutchy came over after you left, he thought that... that I'd kicked you out or something because you kissed him." Mike leaned back against his chair. "Geez, we're terrible at being together, aren't we?"
"I'm sorry." Kate repeated. "It was stupid and... and I'm sorry. Just after the baby and... and everything else... I don't know. I lost myself."
"Listen, Kate... If you want to have another baby then... then let's do that. I'm not trying to replace... her... I just-" Mike trailed off as Kate shook her head slowly.
"I don't want to have another baby, Mike." She said. "I thought I was going through menopause, Mike. And then when the results came back... I loved our baby, and I'd never get rid of it, but it was..." Kate waved her hand in the air, as if trying to summon the words closer to her. "I'm almost forty, Mike. I wouldn't have gotten rid of a baby, but I don't plan on having any more." Kate shifted in her chair once more. "We've got Annabel, and she's our dreamer. She's so... in her own head all the time, and she's never ashamed to voice her thoughts. And we've got Scott, who knows more about Thomas the Tank Engine than any other kid at his daycare, and he loves to build things out of anything he can get his hands on. He made an igloo out of your shaving cream, a tower out of the shoes at the backdoor. Our kids are extraordinary, and they're enough."
"Look, Kate, I know that you say that you want to fix things but... but if a divorce is what you want... well, I'm not going to tie you down and keep you in a marriage that you don't want. So if you want to leave, then let's decide that now."
Kate stared at him for a long time, minutes, hours, days. "I don't want to leave you." Kate said eventually, her voice a mere whisper barely audible over the wind swishing through the trees. "We've put each other through hell, Mike. Eleven years of heartbreak and hope and tears and... and Annabel and Scott and fighting for each other. I can't just throw that all away." She took a deep breath. "I want to move to Sydney, Mike. I want to give this family another shot. We deserve that. Our kids deserve that."
"You mean that?"
"Yeah, I do." She told him. His hand found hers under the table, and she although it wasn't the closest that they had ever been, or the happiest, or the most in love, it was a start, and it was enough.
"Well, I'm glad that you guys are working things out." Nikki smiled as she swept Scott into her arms and gave him a big hug. "I'll be sad to see you all go. It'll be weird without you all."
"Quiet, you mean?" Kate laughed. "We'll be back to Sydney within a couple of months. We both have to pack and sell the house." Kate informed Nikki, as Mike placed the bag that contained the kids' clothes into the back of the car and pushing the boot down after it.
"I think that's everything." Mike reported, moving to stand next to Kate. His hand brushed against hers, and she was reminded of the time just after they had gotten married when they couldn't keep their hands off of each other. But things were undeniably awkward between the two of them still, and they had agreed to take things slow.
Kate moved forwards to hug Nikki, holding her tight. "Thanks so much for having us. I can't thank you enough, both of you."
"It was a pleasure, Kate." Rhys told her over Nikki's shoulder.
"Seriously." Nikki enforced, squeezing Kate tight. "It's been so great to see you again. I missed our chats from Hammersley."
Kate shook her head lamely as Nikki let her go. "Come on. Half the time you'd ask me for advice and I'd have no idea what to tell you-"
"Yeah, but you never lied to me. You were always honest. Told me when I was being a Princess."
"And you'd tell me when I was being an ice queen." They stared at each other for a moment before they both cracked up laughing.
"You'll be back before you know it." Nikki smiled, as Kate moved to say goodbye to Rhys. Slowly, they did the rounds of goodbyes, and Kate even managed to wrestle a hug out of Hunter
"See you all soon!"
They waved and waved long after the house and its occupants were out of sight, the kids quiet in the rented car-seats. And although Kate was terrified about the next chapter in their lives, she was ready to start.
Two Months Later
"I think she would have liked it here." Belle commented as she tilted her face up to stare at the orange and pink clouds above them, signalling dusk. "I think she'd be cheeky and she would climb the orange tree all the time." Belle mused. "She'd crawl through the gap in the fence all the time and she'd always be covered in grass and mud."
Kate doesn't bother to smother the sad smile that adorned her face, because part of her - the part of herself that she'd allowed to dream - had always pictured Alice as the cheekiest of the bunch.
"I think she would too." Kate agreed, reaching out to take Belle's hand and squeeze it tight, as she took in their surroundings.
The house was smaller than their last one, just a single story. Four bedrooms, two bathrooms. It was warmer too, the house already painted in bright colours and whites that made Kate smile every time she opened her eyes. There was a large backyard, with an orange tree in one corner and a mandarin tree in the other, and Belle had found a new reading spot there. The house wasn't perfect. The ensuite bathroom needed new tiles, and at the moment Scott's room was a deep red, something that needed to be changed immediately, but they were flaws that they would address as a family.
The major drawcard was the location. It was a ten minute walk to Nikki and Rhys' house, and only a half-an-hour drive to Ryan and Jess' new apartment. There was a bakery down the road that Belle loved to visit, and it was barely a fifteen minute walk to the train station for Mike to travel to work. They'd enrolled Belle into the school that Max and Pippa attended, and Kate was transitioning Scott back into a new child care centre.
Kate felt Mike take her other hand, and as she looked across, she saw Mike holding Scott's hand too. The four of them together. And yet, not four.
"Should we say something?" Mike murmured, and Kate followed his gaze to the urn in her lap. "I... I think we should say something."
Kate couldn't bring herself to, though. She had no idea of what to say, of how to say it and why she had to. So she shook her head sadly and stared at the urn, trying to find some way of putting into words the love she had for the child she'd never met. But once again it was Belle who broke the silence.
"I think she couldn't have stayed." Belle said as she dug around in her pocket. "No time to say hello, goodbye. You know? She had to go somewhere else." Kate turned to look at her daughter and Annabel pushed a crumpled tissue into Kate's hand. "I think she's somewhere else now, Mummy. Somewhere where she can help us." Kate's hand shook as she took the tissue from Belle and wiped the tears trickling down her cheeks. "I think she's a star now."
"A star?" Kate croaked out in a voice that sounded nothing like her own.
"Yeah." Belle nodded. "She's a star now."
"Okay, Baby." Kate half-laughed, half-sobbed. She was so used to Belle's random declarations and explanation of the things that none of them could explain. And she was so used to Annabel comparing people and situations to Alice in Wonderland that this declaration was nothing out of the ordinary. But Alice being a star seemed not only possible, but fact. Belle fell into silence once more and they continued to sit, to watch the sky become tinged with pink, then purple.
"Alice," Kate jerked her head up, staring in bewilderment at Mike. She had never heard him call the baby by name. On the rare times he mentioned her, Alice was always referred to as her or the baby. Mike had said, months ago, that it was too hard to pick a name for someone you already knew was dead, so Kate had put Alice on the birth certificate, and she had been sure that Mike hadn't noticed. But she was wrong.
Mike wasn't looking at her. He was looking at the urn, tears in his eyes as he choked out the words. "Alice, I'm so sorry I didn't get to meet you. I'm so sorry that you were taken from this family. I'm sorry your sister never got the chance to teach you about Alice in Wonderland. I'm sorry your brother never got the chance to build train tracks with you. I'm sorry your Mum couldn't teach you all about the world, infect you with her stubbornness. I'm sorry about a lot of things. I love you. We all do."
Kate felt the tears flow down her cheeks, thick and fast.
"Goodbye, Alice." Annabel whispered, patting the lid of the urn once.
"Bye." Scott echoed, his own fist nearly knocking the urn over.
"Shall we do this, then?" Mike whispered to her, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "Come on, Kate. We need to. Come on." He half-helped, half-carried Kate into a standing position, stooping to pick up the urn.
Kate picked her head up and took the urn in shaking hands. And then they all watched as she pulled the lid from the urn. "Goodbye, Alice. I love you." Kate sighed, before she let her youngest daughter get carried away with the breeze across their new backyard.
They watched her disappear into nothingness, and into everything. As Annabel watched and Scott waved and Kate cried and Mike held her, they stood, the four of them together. They could have stood there for hours, or days. Years, even. Just sitting in silence.
And then Annabel pointed up to the sky, to the first stars dotting the sky above. "There she is." Belle declared. "I think she's okay, Mummy."
Chapter 10: Irrelevant
A/N: So it's been a while, but I'm here now, and I'm pretty much finished. I've written out so many different endings for this story, with so many different possibilities. This was supposed to be an epilogue, but I'm pretty sure it's going to take me at least another two chapters or so. Hopefully I can do this story line justice. I know nothing about this in real life. The internet is my only informant, so I'm sorry if things aren't 100% correct. But I tried, I swear
A/N: So it's been a while, but I'm here now, and I'm pretty much finished. I've written out so many different endings for this story, with so many different possibilities. This was supposed to be an epilogue, but I'm pretty sure it's going to take me at least another two chapters or so. Hopefully I can do this story line justice. I know nothing about this in real life. The internet is my only informant, so I'm sorry if things aren't 100% correct. But I tried, I swear
Mike was in the city when the call came, Kate just walking back inside the house after picking the kids up from school and childcare. It was raining, the sort of misty drizzle that seemed to do nothing but make her life more difficult as she navigated her way inside with two kids and one too-small umbrella., especially in those damned heels that she'd worn today.
She'd had a job interview. Nothing too fancy, just a position at an independent harbour cruise line that Nikki had put her in contact with. It was a good job, part time work three times a day working out routes and talking to customers and one day skippering. The interview had gone well, or as well as she could have expected anyway, and Kate was fairly confident that she had the job.
She was just getting the kids inside, helping Scott untie his shoelaces when the phone rang, and Kate skidded across the kitchen floor, twisting her ankle in her rush to answer the phone. She just made it in time, fumbling slightly as she pulled the phone to her ears.
Ryan's defeated voice said something to her. A minute later, and she was bundling the kids back in the car again.
Kate hadn't been into a hospital since the day Alice had died. She knew that after childbirth, the brain was supposed to forget the worst of the pain. But whatever pain she had been suppressing flooded back as soon as she stepped in and smelt the disinfectant, felt the cold air. This was not a place of happiness. It was full of fear and cold and sadness.
"Jessica Bird." She clipped to the woman behind the counter, tapping her fingers impatiently against the desk until the woman rattled off a floor and room number, and they jumped into the nearest elevator. The room was the last on the corridor, and Kate was surrounded by the sight of pregnant woman, of crying babies.
"Mummy?" Scott whined, dragging his feet several metres behind her and Belle.
"I know you're tired, Scotty, but we've got to go." Kate called. She waited for him to catch up before they walked the last ten metres into the room. Annabel rushed forwards to jump on Jess and hug her, but Kate pulled her back.
"Is she asleep?" Annabel asked, taking a closer look as she hovered next to her mother.
Ryan looked up from his spot beside the bed, and Kate saw how red his eyes were.
"She's on some medicine at the moment, baby." Kate murmured dazedly to Belle. "Ry, what's happening?" She asked, taking a step closer to them and dropping her bag to the ground.
"I don't know." Ryan mumbled, still in that same confused tone. "I went to the shops. She called to... remind me about buying more oranges. She's been craving oranges the whole time, you know. Five months. Five months of oranges. Sometimes she'd have... she'd have three in a row, just peel them and eat them."
"Ryan?" Kate stepped forwards and placed a hand on his arm.
"She screamed. She was moaning. I called an ambulance. I... I had to hang up on her, to call the ambulance. And then she wouldn't pick up again. By the time I got home she was barely conscious. She was in so much pain."
Beside Kate, Annabel moved a step closer to her mother, resting her head against Kate's stomach. Kate absentmindedly stroked Belle's hair, pulling it out of her face.
"The ambulance showed up. I don't remember what they said but... they had to induce. And the baby was born too quick and Jess was screaming and there was... was so much blood. She lost a lot of blood."
"Is the baby okay?" Kate asked, sure that Ryan was going to tell her the worst.
Ryan shrugged, looking back at Jess' face. "I don't know." His face crumpled and he let out a strangled sob. "I couldn't leave Jess."
"I know. I know." Kate rubbed circles on Ryan's back until he managed to hiccup himself back to regular breathing. "Okay, I'm going to go and find out about the baby, okay?"
"Okay." Ryan gulped.
"Kids, are you coming?" Kate asked. Scott nodded and stood up, taking Kate's hand, but Annabel hovered unsurely. "I'll stay." Belle murmured. "I can help Ryan watch her." Kate nodded and patted Ryan on the shoulder. "I'll be back, okay?" She and Scott headed down the halls. Kate picked him up after several corridors that reveal nothing but the fact that Kate had no idea where they were going. She didn't normally like to carry him around a lot, but she knew that Scott had had a busy day at child care and he was exhausted.
"Babies!" Scott called out, pointing in front of him, and Kate stopped to look at where he was pointing. But it turned out to be just a poster of a baby demonstrating safe sleeping practices, so they moved on.
"We're looking for NICU, Scott." Kate said aloud, more to herself than to her son. "Should... be..." They rounded a corner. "There." Kate looked through the window at the incubators inside. Three impossibly tiny babies. She chanced a glance in the direction of the lounges and saw two families staring straight-backed and silent, staring fixedly at nothing in particular. She had been there. She wanted to move towards them and tell them so, tell them that she had a beautiful healthy daughter upstairs and it will all be fine. But she can't, and she doesn't. Instead she approached the nurses station and smiled at the woman behind the counter.
"I'm looking for information about a baby. Born to Jessica Bird earlier today."
The woman looked up, tipping her head. "I have to ask you your relationship with the child."
"Um..." Kate calculated in her head. "Ryan, the father, is my stepson." Kate inwardly flinched at the word she despised so much, but said nothing about it.
"Stepson?" The woman repeated.
"Yes." Kate said, more forcebly. "I'm married to his father, Mike Flynn."
The woman - Greta, her name tag said - shook her head. "I have his father listed as a Stuart White." Kate gave a dry laugh that earned her nothing but a confused and concerned look from Greta.
"Sorry." Kate apologised. "Of course you do. Of course Maxine would never change it." She muttered darkly. Greta raised an eyebrow. "The whole story will sound ridiculously made up anyway. Sorry to bother you. I'll try to get Ryan up later."
"I'm sorry." Greta apologised. "It's confidentiality, you know?"
"I understand." Kate assured her. "Thanks."
Ryan barely looked up when they reentered the room. Annabel was sitting on the opposite side of the bed, looking from Ryan to Jess and back again, nibbling on her fingernails. She jerked her head up when they returned, eyes wide.
"Did you find the baby?" Belle asked, her voice almost a whisper as she threw another anxious look at Jess.
Kate shook her head and moved around the bed so that she could see Ryan's face, addressing her words to him. "They need immediate family up there. They wouldn't tell me anything."
"I'll go when she wakes up." Ryan muttered. A doctor with her red hair in a messy bun bustled in and began performing checks on Jess, and they all stepped back out of the way.
"How is she?" Ryan asked, his voice cracking somewhat on the last syllable.
The doctor spun around and flashed him a warm smile. "She's young and fit, so that should work in her favour. But really, we're just waiting for her to wake up. She lost a lot of blood during the birth and she required some small surgery to stop the bleeding, but she has had a blood transfusion and we're very optimistic."
Ryan nodded, his jaw rigid. He indicated at Kate. "This is my... stepmother, Kate. Can she see the..." He trails off at the word baby, but the doctor fills it in for him anyway.
"Baby? Sure, I'll call and let them know you're coming up. Kate..."
"McGregor." She filled in. She'd never taken Mike's name after they got married, claiming that it was easier for work. Now, as they were trying to fix their relationship, Kate realised just how that must have made him feel, and she'd been thinking about changing it since they had gotten back together.
"Kate McGregor. Okay. I'll call the nurses up there to let them know you have permission."
"Thank you." The doctor left and Kate turned to examine her children. Annabel was still in her school dress, and Scott's shoe treads were covered in playdough, his pockets full of sand and his finger was currently in her nose.
"Scott, yukky, fingers out. Can you two stay with Ryan?" Annabel nodded absent-mindedly, her eyes already fixed back at Jess. Scott let out a moan, but did as he was told.
"So what was the crazy story I wouldn't believe?" Greta asked as she walked Kate into a room to show her how to clean herself up.
"Probably not all that crazy. It just seemed ridiculously made up. Stuart was dying. He needed bone marrow so Ryan got tested, his son, and so did his best friend, my now-husband. And the test results weren't all that yielding in the way of marrow but..." Kate trailed off as Greta chuckled.
"It does sound like a tv show or something." Greta admitted. "Must have been hard on you all."
"Ryan took it the hardest." Kate admitted, then stopped herself. This was one of those situations that they so rarely spoke about. Even now, when they all got together for family events, Ryan still referred to Mike by his first name, and never as Dad. The furthest they got to admitting it in their day-to-day life was when Ryan referred to Annabel and Scott as his sister and brother. "Anyway, how's the baby?"
"Well, it is still a bit too early to tell how she is doing." Greta smiled, and Kate absorbed the information. Girl. "We've got her on a feeding tube at the moment through her stomach, and she is on a ventilator to help her breathe." Greta turned to face her. "Now, I must warn you that she is quite small at the moment." They approached the window and Kate looked in.
"She'll grow." Kate exhaled, smiling for the first time in hours. "She's a fighter. I can tell."
Mike shows up just after six, two Happy Meal boxes in one hand. "I didn't get you anything." He says distractedly as he approaches Kate. "But you hate McDonalds and that was all I could get my hands on. I'll drag you to the cafe later."
Kate nodded absent-mindedly and rounded up the children. "Scott, Belle. Dinner."
"What's the latest?" Mike murmured once the kids were seated and eating. Kate glanced over at Ryan, still seated in the same spot, eyes fixed on Jess.
"The baby's... too early to tell at the moment. Ventilator and Humidicrib and feeding tubes. The same as Belle was." Mike looked around, taking in the white walls and the uncomfortable lounge that was the same in every room. "It's terrifying in here." Mike sighed, then pulled Kate into a hug. "How are you?"
Kate gave a dry laugh and shrugged. "You know. Just worried about everyone."
"You need to worry about yourself." Mike murmured back.
Kate shook her head and glanced at the watch on her hand. "I'm going to go and check on the baby. She should be done with the doctor." Kate turned to Mike. "Did you... did you want to see her?"
"Granddaughter." Mike murmured. "I'm a grandfather."
"You are." Kate laughed. "Come meet her."
"She's tiny." Mike mused, staring at the baby.
"Belle was smaller." Kate informed him. "She'll get through this."
"You sound so sure." Mike murmured. His finger hovered on the door handle and Kate rested a hand on his back, giving him a gentle push. "Was Belle like this? So... pale?"
Kate shook her head. "Not so much. She was jaundicey for a few days. Yellow."
Mike nodded distractedly, his eyes fixed on the baby. "Dear God, I hope Bird pulls through." He murmured, moving to run a finger through his hair but stopping short as he realised he was gowned up. "If she doesn't-" But he doesn't voice the rest of the sentence. "Thanks for being here." He said eventually. "Just... thank you."
"Of course I would-"
"No, but everything that you've done. Thanks for... for staying here and sticking around. Thanks for answering the phone when my son called you. Thanks... thanks for being the mother of our children. Just... just thank you."
"It's okay." Kate smiled. "Thanks for fighting for me."
Kate left just after eight to drop the kids off at Nikki's. It wasn't such a big hastle; they stopped by the house to grab the essentials, Belle's school uniform and clean clothes for Scott and toothbrushes. Nikki had never served with Jess or Ryan, and had only met them a handful of times since then, but Nikki had impressed upon Kate the importance of sending them her regards. Nikki assured Kate that, yes, it was fine and yes, she'd get them to school, and Kate hurriedly kisses the kids goodbye before getting into her car again.
She headed straight back to the hospital after that, Kate heading up to NICU for an hour or so before she is informed that visiting times are over, and she moved to find Mike. Together they moved into the waiting room, clutching each other's hands like a lifeline.
They fell asleep sometime during the night. When, they couldn't say, as time never seemed to matter much in a hospital. Kate's dreams were plagued with images of Alice and baby Annabel and the other child, all alone in NICU with no mother or father with her. Kate woke up with a start, and peered around. Mike was asleep on the chair next to her, head tilted back at an awkward angle. Kate could see his eyelids flickering, and wondered whether his dreams were as confronting as hers.
She left Mike to his sleep and crept up to the NICU waiting area. Both mothers from earlier were still there, curled up on the lounges. Kate had a quick peek at Ryan and Jess' child to reassure herself that she was still breathing, before she too found a spare lounge and closed her eyes.
She woke up to find that someone had covered her with a blanket. Its presence was warming somehow, reassuring. She consulted her phone to find that it was just after six in the morning. This time twenty-four hours ago she was getting dressed for work.
"Couldn't stay away?" Mike appeared behind her and handed her a cup of a coffee. Kate nodded and made to take a sip, but Mike stopped her with a hand. "It tastes like ratsac but it's caffeine."
"I'll take it." Kate murmured, and took a sip. She gestured helplessly to the small baby. "I couldn't bear the thought of her all by herself." Inside her humidicrib, the baby's stomach rose and fell in time with the machine breathing for her. "How's Jess?"
"The same. Still asleep." Mike reported.
Mike shrugged. "The same." He repeated. "Maxine's headed down, but the earliest flight she can get isn't until later tomorrow." He turned to examine her face as he said these words, to take in her expression and try for the billionth time since they had gotten married to figure out just what she was thinking. "I know that you and her have been-"
Kate cut him off, shaking her head as she took in the baby for the millionth time. "No, that's... Maxine and I... it's irrelevant. This is about Ryan, and... and I think he needs someone here."
Mike gaped for a moment, and then smiled as he pulled Kate into his arms. "You're amazing, you know that. You're... you're just amazing, and I love you."
Kate smiled into his collarbone. "I love you too." She stood there for a moment, breathing in the comforting smell of Mike. And then she pulled away and drained the last of her coffee. "You should go and see Ryan."
Mike nodded and kissed her forehead. "Yeah. Might be able to convince him to sleep for a little."
Kate watched him leave before moving to the sink to wash her hands, making sure to wash them extremely well. The she entered the room where Jess and Ryan's baby slept. Kate took her usual seat next to the baby. All yesterday she had just watched her or hummed under her breath in that way that Annabel had found comforting all those years ago, but today she opened her mouth and began to speak.
"Hi." She said, "I'm your step-grandmother, technically. But... you can just call me Kate, okay?" The baby didn't react, but Kate hadn't expected her to. "You're absolutely beautiful, you know that? So tiny though. Annabel, your... your Auntie, I guess. She was much smaller than you. But she's okay now, and so are you. You're going to be fine, you hear me? Your Mummy and Daddy love you so much, and they need you to be okay." Kate took a deep breath. "I need you to be okay."
Chapter 11: Mad Aunt
A/N: I'm twenty years old, and I've never had a baby. My only resource is the internet, so if something looks inaccurate, it's because I guesstimated. I did get called out about the time that Jess had been pregnant, because I wrote something about seven months of cravings. I realise now that women don't have cravings from the get-go. My bad. So to clarrify, Jess went into labour 28 weeks in, and the baby weighted 2 pounds, 14 ounces (dontkillmeithinkitsaccurate!)
And I *think* this is the last chapter before the epilogue. Unless inspiration hits. Thank you all for your reviews :)
Kate spent Friday at the hospital mostly on her own, sitting with the baby, one hand on her small head and the other on her tummy. She let the rise and fall of the baby's chest lull her into calm, into some semblance of meditation, trying to clear her mind, because she didn't like the things that she was thinking. She loved this baby, loved her so much. Kate knew it was only because she had been here, watching her breathe and feed and sleep. But the feeling was so strong in Kate that she could hardly bear it. She had no right to feel this way, no right. But this baby needed someone, needed her, and each time Kate swore she would get up and go to Ryan in a minute, two minutes, five. And hours and hours blurred together.
Mike brought her spare clothes from home, but forgot the shoes, so she was forced to wander the hospital in her wretched heels, click-clacking up and down. For the most part, though, she stayed with the baby, save for the occasional trips to the bathroom, and she spent Friday night on the lounge outside NICU again, waking every couple of hours to have a peek into the dark room before she let herself close her eyes once more.
Mike came down to find her Saturday morning. "I've been calling you." He informed her, waving his phone at her. "Nikki's just dropped Annabel and Scott here."
"Oh. Okay." Kate stood up and consulted her phone, only to find that it wouldn't switch on. "Battery's dead." She reported.
"I've got a charger somewhere. Fresh clothes too." Mike told her. He ran a hand through his hair as he turned to the baby. "How's she doing?"
"She's doing okay for now." Kate told him, because it was all she knew to say. She couldn't tell him all the problems that this baby faced, all the complications that were coming her way.
"Can you..." Mike gestured at the tangle of cords surrounding her, keeping the baby alive. "Can you hold her?"
Kate shook her head. "She's still too small. The nurses say maybe a week or two."
"A week." Mike exhaled deeply. "That's a long time."
"I guess." Kate murmured. She gave the baby one last touch on the head before she stood up and together she and Mike left the room.
He turned to Kate. "Was it like that with Belle?"
"Ten days." Kate reported. "But I could... hold her hand, her fingers, stroke her forehead. That sort of stuff."
"Oh." Mike had nothing to say to that, but as he turned away Kate saw the look in his eyes, and for the first time she fully appreciated just how much Mike hated himself for missing out on Annabel's first few weeks.
"How's Ryan doing?"
Mike gave a wry smile. "He's doing okay for now."
"Mummy!" Scott jumped on her as soon as she walked through the room, earning a stern shh from his older sister. Ryan barely acknowledged the sound at all, his thumb gently brushing Jess' cheek.
Kate greeted both her children with a hug and smiled at her two kids. "Did you have fun at Aunty Nikki's?"
"She made us lasagne for dinner." Belle grinned.
"Yum." Smiled Kate. "Your favourite."
They chatted for a while before the kids returned to their activities. Scott was crayonning in a colouring-in book that Nikki must have bought him, giving Spiderman a pink suit, while Annabel had her head in Alice in Wonderland for the millionth time. Kate caught sight of Mike's bag in the corner.
"Are there clothes in there for me?" She asked, moving towards it. Mike nodded.
"They're in a plastic bag at the top." He told her, and Kate removed the plastic bag and chancing a quick glance inside. She caught sight of a pair of jeans, a salmon-coloured t-shirt and a pair of ballet flats. "New shoes?" She smirked.
"You've been walking around in those wretched things for almost 48 hours now." Mike reported, gesturing towards her heels. "There's bandaids too if you've got blisters. And there's clean underwear and your toothbrush and hairbrush in there too."
"Thanks." Kate took the bag, assured her children that she would be back and had ducked into the nearest bathroom.
Kate locked herself in the cubicle and prepared herself for the mad hop-dance that she would need to perform to avoid dragging either her clothes or her bare feet across the bathroom floor. She hung the plastic bag up on a hook and untucked her shirt. Cold assaulted her body as soon as her shirt left contact with her skin, but she moved through it, quickly removing her skirt and underwear too, riffling through the bag.
Kate rolled her eyes as she saw that Mike had packed her matching green lacy bra and undies, his favourite pair, as he had dubbed them until she had told him not to say it, claiming it made it sound as though he was wearing her underwear. Fine, he had corrected, they are my favourite pair on you.
She pulled the underwear on, and her jeans, but she peeked her head around the cubicle door and, satisfied that she was alone in the bathroom, emerged from the cubicle and stood in front of the mirror. She wet a paper towel to give her torso and armpits a quick wash down, splashing water over her face before pulling on her t-shirt. She sprayed deodorant, and pulled her hair back into a messy ponytail before moving back down the hall again.
She knew that she should stay, that she needed to spend some time with her children and with Ryan, who had called her in the first place, but every beat of her heart was another reminder of the baby in NICU.
Stop it, she told herself, she's not yours. She's Ryan and Jess' and you have no right to love her like this. But suddenly Kate was looking up and she realised that she had walked past Jess' room altogether and had wandered back to NICU.
Kate dropped the plastic bag to the corner of the room and moved to sit next to the baby once more. "Hi, Baby Bird." Kate whispered. "I'm back."
"Kate, remember what we agreed. No more lies." Mike reminded her as she fidgeted in her seat, staring around the cafeteria at anyone but him. "So what's wrong?"
"What's wrong?" She repeated, gesturing around her as if all of their problems would appear on a poster-board beside them. "You... your son is catatonic, your almost-daughter-in-law is still unconscious and your granddaughter is-"
"I can't control that." Mike cut her off. "But I can help you. Kate, what's wrong?" Mike pressed. "I'm worried about you." He nodded at her yoghurt. "And for heaven's sake, eat something! When was the last time you ate? Lunchtime yesterday?"
"I can't eat-"
"-in a crisis. Yeah, I know. I know you, Kate. Which is how I know there's something that you're not telling me." He took a deep breath and plowed on. "I know that being here would bring back some memories of Alice and-"
"It's not about Alice, Mike." She cut him off, and it was true. Or, at least, she thought it was. Her head was all so confusing now. "You're going to hate me."
"I have never hated you in my life and I couldn't." He leaned closer to her. "What's wrong?"
"Me!" Kate hissed. "I... I don't know, but every time I walk into that room and see Jess still in a coma part of me is... glad." Mike's eyes widen as he choked on his bread, and Kate hastened to correct herself. "Don't get me wrong, I want Jess to wake up, but... but if she didn't, and Ryan couldn't..." Kate shook her head. "I love that baby upstairs, Mike, and I can't pretend that I don't. And there's this awful part of me that thinks that if they couldn't raise her, then..."
"You said you didn't want another baby." Mike murmured, and his voice was somewhere between accusatory and hurt.
Kate reached across the table to take his hand. "And I don't!" She cried. "I didn't... I don't know, Mike. I don't know. No, I don't want another baby. I don't want to be pregnant again. It's just... I hate myself for thinking it, and I know it's because I'm there with her, but... but it seems like a second chance." She bit her lip. "I don't know any other way to explain it that makes me seem human. But I swear to you, that I love Ryan and Jess. And I want the three of them to be a family. It was just a thought that I couldn't get out of my head. It scared me, Mike."
Mike took a deep breath and nodded. "I believe you."
"You do?" She gasped, relief flooding through her.
"Yeah, I do. And part of me... part of me feels the same way." Mike swallowed awkwardly. "It's why I stay away from her. Because it's... it's too much. She's so small." Mike's phone beeped and he consulted it quickly. "That's an alarm I set. Maxine's flight comes in in an hour. I'm going to pick her up and bring her here."
Kate nodded dazedly and Mike stood up.
"I'll take the kids too." Mike told her. He nodded at her yoghurt again. "Please, Kate. Eat something."
Kate struggled down half the tub before it turned to tar in her mouth and she could swallow no more. When Kate poked her head around the corner at Jess' room, she saw Ryan, his head rested next to Jess' arm. "I'm sorry, Jess." Kate whispered. "Wake up and be a Mum."
Kate was always amazed at how time flew in NICU. She wondered why it was so different here; time had seemed frozen when she was there with Belle. Kate whispered and sang and rubbed circles on the baby's feet. She told the baby all about Ryan and Jess, when Kate had known them as Midshipman White and Gap-Girl Bird. She told the baby all about Annabel and Scott, and Alice too. She improvised the story of Alice in Wonderland. When she ran out of things to say, she sang instead, an eclectic mix of old Whitlams songs of Mike's, the Thomas themesong, Rockabye Baby and some stupid song she'd heard on the radio on the way to the hospital and was unable to get out of her head.
She told the baby all about how to navigate an Armidale Class Patrol Boat, how the tides worked. She told the baby how much she loved her and sang Little Boxes, the themesong from Weeds.
And then the door opened and Kate whipped her head around to see Maxine standing there in her civvies. She looked different somehow, more diminished. Younger, softer out of her sharp Naval Uniform, and Kate had to cast her mind back to recall whether there was ever a time Kate had seen her out of uniform.
"Maxine." Kate greeted apprehensively, rising from the chair. And Kate suddenly felt so out of place, so in the way that she moved to the door.
"No, sit down." Maxine shook her head, hovering in the doorway. "How's she doing?"
"She's doing fine." Kate murmured, turning her attention back to the baby, because she had no idea what else to say. But Maxine broke the silence.
"Kate, I'm sorry." Kate froze, her hand halfway to the crib.
"You don't have to apologise." Kate murmured, brushing her hand against the baby's soft scalp and resting it there.
"Yes, I do." Maxine said back, with a shaky breath that betrayed her fear. "I'm sorry about everything. I'm sorry that I kissed Mike, and I'm sorry about your baby. And I'm so sorry that I never apologised to you before." She took a deep breath. "I'm really glad you and Mike are back together." Kate nodded, but said nothing, instead turning her attention back to the baby. "Kate," Maxine begged. "Please just... just say something. Hit me? Get mad? Something?"
Kate turned around once more, shaking her head. "You don't understand." She began. "I've spent so long being mad and upset and holding things in. I don't want to feel like that anymore. I forgive you, Maxine. I never really held a grudge for that long. I know... I know you didn't mean what happened to happen." Kate stood up and moved closer to Maxine. "So I'm going to tell you what I told Mike. You and me," Kate waved a hand between the two of them, "we were never really good friends. And if you and Mike weren't so tangled together I know that we would never see each other. I don't hold a grudge with you being here, but it's for your son and his family. I'm here for Ryan, and for Mike and Jess and this beautiful baby here. I'm here for my daughter and my son, because they both love their big brother very much. I didn't come here for an apology."
Once again, Kate moved forwards to face the baby, rubbing two fingers over her forehead. Behind her, Kate heard a sniffle and a sob. "Maxine," Kate called out, still looking into the baby's face. "Come and meet your granddaughter."
Maxine let out a choked laugh and in a moment crouched next to Kate, peering through the glass. "Granddaghter, hey?" She laughed once more, and Kate removed her hand from the cot to make room for Maxine. "When Ryan first told me, all I could think about were tracksuit pants and painting lessons and baking. Grandma? I'm so not a grandma. I was barely a mother."
"You were a great mother." Kate murmured. "You were a strong mother."
Maxine shook her head. "No, I wasn't. I tried to do the right thing but ultimately, I just alienated my son."
"But you fought for him. You made things right. You... you love him."
Maxine shook her head once more and pointed at Kate. "You know, I made Lieutenant young. It was a record at the time. And then you showed up and so did you. You beat me by two weeks."
"You were keeping score?"
"Everyone keeps score." Maxine murmured. "That day, in my office when I told you I knew about you and Mike. I wasn't... I didn't..." She sighed. "I wanted to protect him. He'd been burnt before and all I knew was that my best friend was... infatuated with an... ambitious woman under his command. I didn't know you. And I'm sorry if I screwed things up for you then."
"Maxine, you're kind of rambling." Kate pointed out.
"My point is, you were always the better person out of us. You were the better Lieutenant, the better mother, the better choice for Mike." She sighed.
"Maxine, I mean it." Kate repeated, turning to look the other woman straight in the eye. "It's done. It's over, and there's nothing more to say on the matter. I've forgotten about it, and I hope that you will too."
Maxine nodded and wiped her eyes, staring at the baby. "You'll be the better Grandmother than me, though."
"Grandma?" Kate spluttered. "No. See, this is why it pays to be a step." Kate brushed the hair out of her eyes and smiled at Maxine. "No one is calling me Grandma. You'll be Grandma. I'll be Kate. I'm thinking of adopting a sort of mad-aunt-esque role for this child."
"That's not fair." Maxine laughed. "So you're not going to share Grandmother duty with me?"
"Well, not how you described it." Kate laughed. "I can't bake to save my life, I don't think I've owned a set of trackpants since ADFA and stick figures are about it for me. No, I'll just... sneak her lollies and buy her clothes and take her to the park. Teach her to drive."
Maxine sighed, just as a buzzing sounded from inside her bag. She ignored it though, still smiling at Kate. "I guess I'll have to take a knitting class, then." She took in the baby and frowned. "How long until she's out of there?"
"Too early to tell. They're pumping her full of steroids to help her lungs and kidneys and a whole bunch of other stuff. She was only 28 weeks so I guess everything was still developing. But she's strong. The timing just depends on how she's doing." Kate stood up and gestured to the baby. "Say hi to her."
Maxine shook her head. "I don't know how."Kate moved behind Maxine and, after hesitating a moment, took her wrist and threaded it through the side of the cot. "You can put one hand on her forehead and the other hand on her tummy." Kate guided Maxine's hands. "It's called comfort holding. It's supposed to reassure the baby, to help her bond."
"You know a lot about this." Maxine mused, relaxing somewhat.
"Annabel was premmie." Kate said, but Maxine appeared not to hear.
"God, she's so small."
"2 pounds, 14 ounces." Kate murmured, more to herself than to Maxine.
There was a buzzing from inside Maxine's bag again, but she appeared not to notice, she was so enthralled in the tiny baby. "Hi there, baby. I'm your Grandma. But maybe we need to find another word."
"Nanna?" Kate suggested. "Nanny? Granny? Gran?"
"You are absolutely no help at all." Maxine laughed.
"Just be Max." Kate suggested.
The door opened and Mike poked his head in. "I've been trying to ring." Mike said before either of them had the chance to react. "Jess is awake."
Mike, Kate, Annabel, Scott and Maxine waited outside Jess' room while she was checked over by the doctor. None of them say very much. Scott was exhausted, and when Kate sat him in her lap, he cuddled into her like he only did when he was tired.
By the time the doctor left and they entered the room, it was to find Jess and Ryan in the midst of a heated discussion.
"-not your decision to make, Ry."
"Excuse me for being concerned. You've been in a fucking coma for forty-eight hours!"
Kate rounded the corner, turning to face the pair of them. Jess was angrier than Kate had ever seen her, her eyes narrowed, hair falling from the messy bun it had been tied up in.
"Swear jar!" Annabel called out, but Kate and Ryan both silenced her with a look.
"I can't believe you could be so heartless, Ryan White!" Jess shouted at him as she swung her legs over the side of the bed, panting hard.
"I'm not being heartless! I was here for you!" Ryan shouted back.
"Guys!" Kate cut across them. "What's going on?"
Jess just groaned and closed her eyes, and Kate took in just how dishevelled she looked. Almost absentmindedly, Kate captured the pieces of flyaway hair around Jess' face and fastened them all into a ponytail.
"She wants to go and see the baby." Ryan spat out. "But she's woken up not half-an-hour ago."
"I have to see her!" Jess exploded. "Don't you even care?" Ryan opened and closed his mouth several times, gaping like a fish. But it seemed like he didn't know what to say. Jess turned to Kate. "Take me, please. Kate, you understand. You have to. Take me to my baby."
"Ryan's been a mess, you know?" Kate murmured as she pushed Jess down the hall to NICU. Her hands gripped the handle of the wheelchair tight, terrified that one tiny bump would be the end of Jess.
"I just can't believe he'd leave our baby alone." She replied.
"He called us." Kate reasoned. "He called us to help."
"He should have been with the baby." Jess repeated. "There's no excuse."
They reached the NICU ward. "What did the doctor say?" Kate asked, more to change the subject than anything else.
"That with the scarring and the bleeding, it's unlikely I'll ever fall pregnant again. And that any pregnancy I did have would end in miscarriage." Kate gasped, and opened her mouth to say something, but Jess cut her off. "Look, I don't want to talk about it, okay? Just... just take me to my kid."
Jess burst into tears when she saw her daughter in the cot. Kate could see that she looked a lot better than what she had, but she could also see what it looked like from Jess' eyes, seeing her for the first time.
"She's doing well." Kate assured her, her voice as delicate as she could make it. "They say her lungs are developing better than anticipated. They say that they're going to turn down the ventilator tomorrow to just let it supplement the breathing rather than do it all for her." Kate smiled at Jess as she still stared, horror stricken, at her baby. "It's a good sign." Kate told her. "At the moment she's getting all her nutrients from a feeding tube. And she hasn't gone jaundicey, which is good too."
"How can she be hooked up to all these machines and be okay?" Jess breathed out, more to herself than to Kate. She stretched out a hand to touch the baby but stopped herself. "Can I even touch her?"
"You can touch her, but at the moment you can't hold her." Kate helped Jess readjust her hands. "Here, just... here... This is a good way to comfort her in the pod. She knows you're here, you know?"
"Hey, Baby Girl." Jess whispered, half-laughing, half-crying. "It's your Mummy. I'm here, now."
"We're both here." Murmured Ryan from somewhere behind her. Kate jumped, whirling around to see Ryan leaning against the doorframe. In all her preoccupation, Kate hadn't heard him come in.
Kate said nothing, but squeezed past Ryan out of the room. She knew that this was their time, that they needed this, together.
And suddenly, the hospital was suffocating, and she needed nothing more than to leave it. Kate caught sight of Mike, hovering by the lounges, and ran to him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and sobbed, sobbed like she had never done before. They fell to the floor, but Mike cradled her in his arms like she was a child, rubbing circles on her back and whispering words she couldn't understand in her ear.
A nurse comes to see if they are alright. Patients stare. But they stay there, wrapped together, and as Kate buried her face in his neck and breathed in that smell of him, she felt wet drops on the back of her neck, and Mike shaking too. Eventually, the sobs subsided for both of them, and her breathing came back to normal.
"Are you okay?" Mike murmured, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "Kate, talk to me."
Kate murmured. "I can't do this without you." She told him, quite truthfully. "I thought I could, because I'd done it before. But... but I need you, Mike."
Mike nodded and clutched her hand tight. "Good thing you're stuck with me, then." He smiled. "Come on, let's go find our kids."
And the two of them walked hand in hand down the hall to find their family.
Chapter 12: Epilogue
A/N: This is it! I'm done! This is the epilogue, and I hope I've done the characters justice. I'm not entirely happy with this ending, but I'll post it and if inspiration hits I can always post more. I just wanted to say a thank you to everyone who took the time to read, review, fave, subscribe, PM for my little story. And I want to say a big thank you to Alimoo for taking the time to review each chapter and give me lots of tips and advice and info. Thanks so much
Kate McGregor didn't need to worry about airport karma anymore. She'd cleared the check-in and the x-ray machines with no worries at all, and her flight to Cairns had been bang on time. In fact, she barely fidgeted at all as the plane began to descend.
"You're not panicking about the landing, are you?" Mike smirked as he twisted around in his seat in front to get a better look at her, his famous Flynn smirk spread across his whole face.
"No," She said back, her smile betraying her serious tone. "It just feels weird to be going back."
And it was true. She wasn't scared about her bad airport karma or delayed flights anymore. It didn't matter how many hours she spent stuck at an airport, as long as she had her family with her. There was just no other way to describe their travelling back to Cairns other than surreal, even if it was only for a fortnight's long holiday.
Mike nodded at their daughter, sitting next to Kate, and mouthed how is she?
Kate shrugged and used her hand to indicate a so-so movement. Mike nodded and turned back to face the front.
"We're almost there." Kate said, turning her attention to Belle as the plane lowered itself a few more metres in a swoop that jolted their stomachs. Out the window, the people below became distinguishable from the land. "Are you ready for the landing?"
Belle turned to face Kate, worry evident in the furrow of her brow. "What if the pilot forgets to put the wheels down?"
"He won't." Kate assured her, her hand finding Belle's and giving it a reassuring squeeze.
"But what if-" Belle swallowed thickly. "What if he gets sick all of a sudden?"
"Well, then the co-pilot will take over the plane."
"But what if-" Belle pressed, but Kate cut her off.
"It'll be fine." Kate whispered soothingly. "I promise. Okay, Belle?" Kate squeezed Belle's hand once more. "Okay?"
"Okay." Belle sighed.
"The landing is the best part." Jess chimed in, leaning forwards so that she could see across Kate. "You liked the take-off."
"I know." Annabel murmured. "But they're not the same, Jess."
"You've gone on planes before." Kate reminded her, flashing an apologetic smile at Jess. "It's been fine. There's nothing to worry about."
Kate knew what was causing her daughter's worry, though, two weeks ago when Belle had walked in on Kate and Mike watching a rerun of Aircrash Investigation. Annabel had seen enough of the re-enactment to terrify her before they had finally found the remote and switched the channel. Since then, she had had nightmares several times and had woken babbling about falling and fire.
If they hadn't already bought the tickets, they would have driven, but after a long discussion both Kate and Mike had agreed that Annabel would be alright, and that she needed to see. They had arrived at Sydney airport an hour earlier than they needed to so that they could all watch the planes land, one by one, each accompanied by an assurance or soothing comment by Kate and Mike.
Beside Kate, baby Georgia squealed in Jess' lap, slapping her hands indignantly as the change in pressure caused her ears to pop. "It's okay, Gee." Jess whispered, smoothing the ten-month-old's hair down. "Almost there."
"She okay?" Ryan called from the seat in front of Jess. Originally, he had sat next to Jess and their daughter, but Scott fussed without his older brother, and Belle without Kate, so there had been several mid-air seat shuffles.
"She's just fussing." Jess called back, shifting Gee slightly in her lap. "I think, anyway."
"She'll be right once we land." Kate assured her, glancing out the window and the land growing nearer and nearer.
"I have no clue what I'm doing, X. Uh… Kate. Geez, that feels weird. I can't get used to that-" Jess babbled on as the plane continued to descend. "I am so not cut out to be a mother." Kate had to smother a smile at the look of panic and horror on Jessica Bird's face. Due to a bout of pneumonia on Gee's part she had had a long hospitalisation.
Kate had spent a lot of time at the hospital, juggling her work in amongst hospital visits. Whenever she could, Kate would balance the work she was doing for Merkin's Harbour Cruises on a clipboard on her knee when Jess was sleeping. The rest of the time, when Jess was awake, Kate would try her best to soothe Jess out of her panic mode about the latest case study she had read about premature birth or the chance of autism or whatever else she had managed to dredge up from the internet.
The trouble hadn't stopped when they had gone home. Gee had been a colicky baby, and often during the night they would get some panicked phone call from a hysterical Jess or Ryan, and it had been a tough road for all of them. But now, at ten months, Gee was happy and healthy.
"Jess, it's okay." Kate leaned closer to her. "You're doing a great job. Seriously."
"We should have driven." Jess continued as if there had been no interruption. "I read somewhere that flying is really bad for babies and-"
"Jess!" Kate cut in, more forcefully this time. "She's going to be fine. Besides, what else can you do at the moment? She's going to be on the ground in no time."
"I just don't know what I'm doing!" Jess moaned.
"None of us do." Kate told her. "You make decisions every day. Sometimes they're the right ones and sometimes they're not, but you learn from the mistakes. Just... just don't be too hard on yourself. Gee is fine."
Jess nodded and smoothed the little of Gee's hair down. "Yeah, she's fine." She repeated.
"Mummy, my ears are popping." Belle whimpered, tugging on Kate's hand. "It hurts."
Kate dug around in the pouch in front of her and pulled out a bag of lollies. "Have a redskin. Chew it. Don't suck it. Okay?" Belle unwrapped the lolly carefully as Kate handed the bag around their group. "Annabel, I mean it. I know you suck the lollies so that they last longer, but chew it now. Okay? It will help."
The plane swooped once more, until they were barely ten metres from the ground. "Are you ready, Belle?"
"Can you hold my hand?" Belle asked tentatively. Kate took Annabel's hand in her own and squeezed. "Here we go." The plane hit the tarmac and immediately the squeal of breaks filled the cabin as the plane pulled up.
"We're alive!" Belle announced to the plane at large, a wide smile on her face. Someone a few rows back laughed.
The heat and humidity assaulted them the moment they stepped off the plane, as if they had stepped into an oven. Kate repositioned her sunglasses over her eyes and slowed her pace so that the guys could catch up to them.
Belle, watching her mother curiously, asked, "Where are my sunglasses?" Kate dug around in her handbag and pulled out Belle's sunglasses. Belle grinned and put them on, flashing her mother a smile.
"Mum's meeting us in the drop-off/pick-up area." Ryan informed the group at large as they followed the safety cordon to the terminal. "I'm calling her now."
Belle threw an anxious look back at the plane. "The guy said you needed to leave your phone off until you get inside." Belle hissed.
Ryan closed his phone and sheepishly returned it to his pocket. He listened to his younger sister, not removing it until they were well within the terminal and Belle had announced it safe.
"Baggage claim's this way." Jess reported. Kate made to follow but was stopped as Annabel cuddled up to her and tugged on Kate's hand.
"I need to wee!" She hissed.
"Why didn't you go on the plane?" Kate asked, lowering herself so that she could hear over the crowds of people passing them by.
"I didn't want to get sucked out of the plane." Annabel mumbled.
"Who told you that?" Kate frowned, familiar with all of her daughters plane fears except this one. "Honey, that doesn't happen."
Kate turned around and scanned the corridor quickly for a bathroom, and very nearly missed the accusatory gaze Belle flashed at Ryan. Jess picked up on it first.
"Geez, Ry! Are you serious?" Jess demanded, slapping his chest. He lifted his hands in surrender and jumped back.
"I was joking Belle. I didn't think you took it seriously! I…" He blanched as Kate stepped closer to him.
"She's been freaking out about flying for a fortnight now!" Kate hissed under her breath.
"I said it months ago. I swear!" His gaze flicked between Jess, Belle and Kate. "The three of you are giving me the XO stare."
"What is this XO stare everyone keeps talking about?" Kate demanded, turning around to face Mike.
"That." Mike and Ryan replied in unison.
They reached the main terminal and Kate looked around. "Come on, Belle. There's a toilet here." Kate pulled her phone out of her pocket and switched it on. "Mike, we'll meet you at the baggage claim."
"We'll come too. Gee needs a change, I think." Jess followed them.
"We'll get the bags then and meet you." Mike announced. "Come on, Scotty."
Belle turned to look at her mother as the four of them strode to the bathroom. "So, the toilet won't suck me down?"
"No, Belle." Kate shook her head. "Ryan was being mean and tricking you."
Belle pouted and headed for a cubicle, closing the door behind her. "I'm going to get him back, Mummy." Belle's voice floated through the cubicle door. "He always tricks me."
"You do that." Kate laughed. "He deserves it."
"Hey, Belle." Jess began as she fastened the new nappy onto Gee. "Ryan hates snakes."
Kate smirked as Belle called through the door. "So?"
Jess' face split into a wide grin. "So, even rubber snakes scare him. Shall we go shopping soon?"
The seven of them found their bags with relative ease, thanks to the brightly coloured strings and ribbons Belle had insisted on tying to all of their possessions, assisted by Scott, although according to Belle, he was more of a hindrance than a help.
Then they set off out of the airport, to the road outside. Kate held a hand blindly behind her and felt Scott take it.
"Annabel?" Kate called out, turning for her daughter.
"I'm holding Jessie's hand." Belle called back, her sunglasses perched back over her eyes.
"Okay, then." They crossed the road and walked towards the pick-up zone.
"Mummy, look!" Belle squealed, stopping in her tracks to point in front of them.
Kate had known that Maxine was coming to pick them all up. But Maxine wasn't the only one standing there.
"Uncle Dutchy!" Belle dropped Jess's hand and rushed Dutchy, wrapping her arms tightly around him.
"Urgh!" Dutchy groaned as the wind was knocked out of him. "How's my little Wonderland explorer?"
"I'm good." Belle detached herself and headed towards Maxine, hugging her with a little less enthusiasm than she had presented to Dutchy. "Hi, Aunty Maxine."
"Hi, Annabel." Maxine patted Belle somewhat awkwardly on her back.
Their greeting party blocked up the footpath as they all moved amongst each other, greeting and hugging. Kate hesitated for only a moment as she stood in front of Dutchy, but he threw Kate a wry smile and pulled her into a hug. The hug meant more to Kate than she would ever have admitted, that he could still care for her after everything she said to him and did. And while neither of them said anything, Kate could tell he understood.
Soon they were dividing up who would travel with whom. In the end, Maxine took Ryan, Jess and Gee, while the Flynn's travelled with Dutchy, with assurances to the children that they would see them at the hotel in less than twenty minutes. Mike climbed in the back between the two carseats before Kate could protest, and so she climbed in the front.
"Everyone all buckled up?" Dutchy asked, spinning around to examine the children.
"Check." Belle called back as Mike gave a thumbs up, and they pulled out into the traffic.
"Race Maxine! Race Maxine!" Scott giggled from the backseat, both children staring out Annabel's window to keep an eye on Maxine's blue corolla.
"Are we racing?" Dutchy asked, grinning wildly. He turned to Kate and tutted. "Teaching the kids road safety, I see?"
"Mummy's faster than Daddy." Belle called out from the back. Mike gasped in mock hurt and sent the kids into hysterics.
"Only because Mummy drives like she's at Bathurst." He called out. The kids protested, even though the reference went over Scott's head.
"Only because Daddy drives twenty k's under the speed limit." Kate quipped back, twisting in her seat to poke her tongue out at Mike.
"Good parenting, guys." Dutchy laughed, as he accelerated slightly faster than allowed and overtook Maxine's car, sending all the occupants of the car into hysterics once more.
"You look good." Dutchy murmured as Kate twisted to face the front once more, a grin still on her face as she listened to the kids tease Mike's driving in the back. "Healthy."
"I feel better." Kate told him, smiling at him. "Sydney's good for us."
Dutchy glanced in the rear view once more and murmured. "And you and Mike?"
Kate touched the wedding band on her finger and couldn't suppress the smile that spread across her lips. "Stronger than ever."
Dutchy sighed in relief and smiled at her. "Good."