For complete disclaimers see part 1.
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"Take care of yourself, Mikey." Denny smiled up at the wrinkle that formed between the big man's eyes at the endearment. She leaned up, placing a kiss on his weathered cheek. "Tell those kids of your hello for me, ‘kay?"
Michael nodded, looking down into moist blue eyes. "Good luck, Denny. I'm gonna miss you, darlin'." He took the tall woman in a massive hug, taking the very breath from her lungs. "Be good to yourself."
"You, too, big guy." One last painful squeeze and Denny was released. She surreptitiously took a deep breath, watching as the Texan walked over to Pam, taking her into a similarly tight hug.
Pam reached up when released, cupping Michael's newly shaven face. She smiled, he was such a handsome man. "Take care, Michael," she said softly, reaching up and placing a soft kiss on his lips.
"You, too. Go make nice with your daughter, Pam. She's all ya got."
The veterinarian nodded, trying to hold back her tears. Her family was slowly slipping away, the last vestiges boarding planes heading in two different places than herself. She and Denny watched as Michael stepped into the helicopter, Duke behind the helm. One last wave, the door was pulled closed and the giant bird gracefully lifting into the air.
Denny was surprised to feel her heart falling the higher Michael got. The world she'd known was dissolving, the people she'd come to know, love and trust, all gone, scattered to the four winds. She'd been pleased to find the note Mia had left for her at Duke's house, her gratitude written underneath her phone number, along with a reminder for that promised mocha breve. She felt a warm hand take her own.
"Your turn, kiddo."
The brunette accepted Pam's warm hug, feeling tears glaze her cheeks, for not the first time in the past hour. "I'm going to miss you, Pam."
"I'll miss you, too, sweetie. I'm so happy for you and Hannah. I'm sure she's beside herself." Pam felt Denny's pain, could see it in her eyes, and knew it had nothing to do with her partner. She also knew Denny was far too honorable a woman to not do what was right.
"Good luck with Tracy, Pam. You two can make it work, okay?"
Pam nodded. She had been shocked to find out from Colleen that Tracy and Luke had moved to Montana. Right then and there, Pam had made the decision to follow. New York meant nothing without her daughter and grandson, a realization that Pam hated herself for not making before. Life is taken so terribly for granted when it's expected to rise every day.
Denny released the older woman and walked over to Garrison, who waited beside her partner, and the Cessna that would be taking the brunette home.
"You are the most remarkable woman I've ever known, Garrison. We all owe so much to you and Keller. Truly phenomenal human beings."
The blonde pilot smile, her face flushing as her gaze dropped. It almost felt like the day after Christmas, such a let down to the great build up, as the last of what the media had dubbed The Island Six, went home. She accepted the hug, rubbing Denny's back.
"Good luck, Denny," she whispered. The brunette turned to Keller.
"Anytime you are."
Denny gave the two pilots some privacy to say their own goodbyes, ducking as she climbed into the Cessna, taking a deep breath as she buckled herself in. She wasn't too keen on another bout of flying, but knew it was a necessary evil. She took the headset that was offered to her by Keller, who settled in beside her.
"This flight will be way more cool," the tall pilot grinned, putting her own headset into place. "The world looks different from the cockpit."
"Okay," Denny said, slightly shaky.
"Let's rock and roll! Get you home!"
Denny managed to get some sleep after awhile, finally overtaken by exhaustion from such a busy, crazy day. They'd been taken to Duke's house, where a nice, hot shower, with as much soap and shampoo as their bodies could take, awaited them. The meal of homemade chicken noodle soap had been Heaven on earth. And the shower! Denny's lips were graced with a small smile as she remembered the sensation of the hot water running down her body, feeling fully clean for the first time in far too long. And the sensation of grainy toothpaste, sadly painful. Her gums were tender, teeth in bad shape. They'd done what they could, chewing on fragrant plants and picking their teeth with the tiny bones of the fish they ate. She knew she had a smattering of cavities, which pissed her off. Denny had always taken pride in her teeth, vane with their bright white perfection. A dentist was a must, and soon.
Images of Hannah swept through her mind, their house and neighborhood in Allentown. A nice place, three bedroom house, small but well-kept. She thought about the day they'd bought the house, their excitement at finally having a place of their own. They'd gone out to a home improvement store, picked out wacky paint colors, only to settle on more traditional, safer hues. The fun of painting, splashing each other, eventually making love on the plastic spread out, protecting the carpet.
Denny smiled at the memory, wondering if the house would look the same, or if Hannah had made any changes. Was Denny's old Volkswagon bus still working? Or had it just been parked at the side of the house, left to rust?
"So, are you excited to get home?" Keller's tinny voice asked in the brunette's ear. Denny thought about the question for a moment, then nodded.
Tracy Sloan looked around the ranch house, making sure it looked perfect. Her heart was pounding, and she was filled with emotions, many of which she couldn't quite identify. Colleen had called her the night before, the machine attached to Tracy's phone displaying in green electric letters what Colleen was saying. She had stared at the small screen, falling to the chair at the desk the phone rested on. Unable to believe what she was reading, deft fingers raced across the small keyboard, asking for clarification. Colleen said that, yes, she had Pam on her cell phone, she was alive, had miraculously survived the crash, and was coming home.
After the call, Tracy had cried, head buried in her hands, tears leaking through her fingers. Luke had hurried over to his upset Mommy, hands flying as he asked what was wrong. Tracy had answered with a few simple graceful strokes: Grandma's alive.
Apparently Pam had been stunned when Tracy's old number no longer worked, and the vet had been frantic, finally calling Colleen. She was due in Billings in less than six hours; Duke would be flying her in, as he had a cargo drop in Canada.
Luke wasn't sure what to think. The child didn't see much of his grandma in the first years of his life, and now, more than a year without her in his life at all, the eight year old just didn't much care either way. He knew that his grandma often made his Mom cry, so because of that, he was fiercely protective, being the man of the house and all.
Maybe this time his grandma would be nicer.
Meredith Adams' heart was pounding so loudly, she could barely hear. She hadn't believed it for one minute when the call had come in earlier that morning. It was a lie, a hoax, something. Michael could not be alive, especially after all this time. Then for a split second, the older woman's heart had sped up, maybe there was a chance for her daughter if Michael was still alive. She had gotten the answer, her heart breaking all over again, hope replaced by profound disappointment.
Michael had said he only had a minute, no time to speak to anyone else, just to let them know he'd be in Beaumont within three hours.
Meredith placed her hand over her heart, taking several deep breaths. She had to tell the children. And Walter.
Jennifer had taken she and Conrad to buy some clothes and supplies for school, which would be starting in less than a month. Meredith had to stay home and keep an eye on her cooker, Ball jars all spread out, freshly steamed and ready to be filled with the canned tomatoes, peaches and green beans.
Shaking herself out of her daydreams, Meredith took the phone into her hand again, quickly dialing the number of Jennifer's cell phone. Once the girl started driving, she and Walter felt it was a good idea for her to have one, in case her car broke down or something equally disastrous happened. It rang three times, Meredith about to give up when Jennifer's breathless voice finally answered.
"Yeah, grandma? Sorry, I was trying on a pair of jeans. What's up?"
"Honey, I need you to get Conrad, and I need you two home pronto."
"What's the matter? Are you okay, Grams? You sound like you've been crying. Is Grandpa okay?"
"We're fine, honey. Just come home. Now."
"Uh, okay. We'll be home in fifteen minutes."
Jennifer Dupree flipped her phone shut, brows drawn. She hoped everything was okay. Hurrying into her shorts, she tugged her shoes on, untied, then went in search of her little brother, who of course, was in the mall's arcade.
"Con, come on, we have to go."
"No. I'm in the middle of a game.," he muttered, never taking his eyes off the screen as he continued to kill the bad guy.
"Now, Conrad. Grandma wants us home right now. Come on.'
"Just let me finish-"
"Conrad Michael Dupree! Let's go!" She grabbed the precocious pre-teen by the back of his shirt and drug him away from the game.
Alan Dupree sighed heavily into the phone. "Grandma, I have to work. I can't just leave for some family meeting."
"Alan I really need you to come. I'll talk to your damn boss if you need me, to."
The young man grinned. "Grandma, it's not like school where a note from my mother will do it. I can't just walk out on this job. I shouldn't even be on the phone-"
"Your father's alive."
Alan felt his body stiffen, words of protest stuck in his throat. "What?"
"They've found him. I didn't want to tell you until all three of you were together. You need to come home, Alan."
"Give me ten minutes."
"Conrad! You heathen!" Jennifer yelled, dropping to her haunches to pick up the contents of the shopping bag. Her little demon brother had run by her so fast, he'd knocked the package right out of her hand. Gathering everything up, Jennifer couldn't help but be a little bit nervous. Had one of them done something wrong? Was everything truly okay, or had her grandmother just said it was so as not to worry the girl until she could get them safely home? Millions of possibilities raced through her mind, never once the truth crossing her thoughts.
"Grandma?" she called out, heading toward the stairs. She stopped cold when she saw Alan standing in the doorway to the kitchen, his eyes red-rimmed, yet smiling. "Hey," she said, voice uncertain. They rarely saw their older brother now, out on his own and having his own life.
"Hey, sis," he said softly, then walked over to her, taking her shopping bags from her hands. "Wouldn't want you to drop these." His grin was infectious, though just proved to confuse the girl even more. What was going on?
"Hello, my little angel."
Jennifer's head snapped up at the voice, deep, as well as the endearment she'd known her whole life, well, up until one year, two months and a day ago. Her breath caught at who stood in the kitchen doorway, hair long and shaggy, a neatly trimmed beard covering his handsome face, making him look even more rugged than usual.
"Daddy," she breathed, still confused, but it was overtaken by a relief and happiness she'd never known. His arms opened, and she ran to him, only to stop a foot away, looking him over, inhaling: he had the same scent as her father, looked like her father, yet there was no way it could be her father.
"I don't understand," she whispered.
"I'm alive," he said, looking into her eyes, raising a hand to gently brush a tear off her cheek, then some hair from her forehead. "I've come home, Jenny,"
With a loud sob, the girl threw herself at her father, squeezing her eyes tightly shut as she felt him consumer her slight body with his much larger one.
"My little angel," he cooed, cupping the back of her head as it rested against his chest. "I missed you so much."
Jennifer couldn't speak, couldn't think, could only feel. She felt like a life, that had become dark the day her parents died, had suddenly grown bright, the sun burning away all the inky black from her heart and mind. Finally able to breathe again, she gently pulled away, looking up into his gentle face. "How did this happen? Where's mom?"
Michael felt his heart crumble, but knew he had to stay strong. For them. "I escaped the wreckage, honey, managed to get to an island. Your mom," he swallowed, gently brushing the girl's hair behind her ears. "she didn't' make it. I tried." The last words shaky as his emotions balanced precariously on a tempest edge.
Jennifer's eyes filled again, allowing herself to be swallowed in her Daddy's arms.
Michael had never felt so close to Heaven as he did holding is daughter. It had been something watching his oldest, Alan fall apart at the sight of him, but Jennifer, his Jenny Angel, who looked so much like her mother, nearly made him lose it altogether. The big man opened his eyes and saw his third child standing at the foot of the stairs, looking on in disbelief, his face pale, mouth hanging open.
"Come here, son," Michael said softly, holding out an arm to the boy. He watched in horror as Conrad shook his head slowly, then ran out the front door.
Hannah could feel her palms sweating, heart pounding and her ears burning. She was walking through the airport, on her way to the gate for private planes. She had been surprised and overcome with a sense of relief when Tiffany had called her name after she'd hung up with Denny. Walking into the living room, the researcher had found what little she had at the redhead's house stacked neatly by the door on the end table.
A simple explanation had followed. Tiffany had known it was a possibility that Hannah could never truly give her her heart, and now with Denny's return, that fact was undisputable. She was letting Hannah go, and asking for the same in return. It had been a sad parting, but one Hannah was grateful for. She knew she had a lot to think about, and even more to deal with once her partner returned to her.
Hurrying past a small gathering of security guards, Hannah read the overhead sign, finding her terminal and rushing to the door.
Denny took a deep breath, running a hand through her hair. She was glad to be on solid ground once more, hating flying now, as well as just wanting to get settled somewhere finally. It felt strange glancing over at the airport, thinking back to her life the last time she'd seen BUF. So much had changed. She had changed.
Unbuckling herself, she saw Keller's wide smile, a spotlight aimed right at her. Denny tried to return it, but nerves and uncertainty weakened it.
"Everything will be okay," the pilot said, almost as though reading her thoughts. She leaned over and gave the brunette a tight hug. "I wish you the best of luck, Denny. If you need anything, anything at all, you give us a call, ‘kay?"
Denny nodded, pulling away. "Have a safe flight back." Keller nodded as Denny made her way out of the Cessna, one of the tarmac workers holding his hand up to aid her. She smiled her gratitude, then took in lungfulls of air, filling her chest with the smells of home.
Hannah paced, her hands wringing together in front of her before wiping them on the sides of her denim-clad thighs. She froze when she saw the small white and blue plane taxi in.
"Here we go."
Denny climbed the steps, hand running along the smooth, cool metal of the railing, then pulled open the door. The sterile, manufactured air of the airport terminal met her nose, her eyes searching. They froze on their target.
Hannah felt her breath catch, melting all over again in the blue of the brunette's eyes. They had been the first thing she'd noticed about her almost ten years ago, fixing that damn machine, which never seemed to work right.
Denny's eyes fell closed as she wrapped her arms around Hannah, feeling her own body engulfed in return. Nothing was said, no tears, just a seemingly endless embrace of relief and reconnection. Nearly ten minutes later, Denny pulled back, bringing up a hand to rest on the side of Hannah's head.
"You cut your hair," she commented, her voice soft. The researcher nodded, running a nervous hand through the pixie cut.
"Yeah. It was time."
"You're so thin, Denny," Hannah whispered, taking a step back to take in all of her partner, dressed in a pair of jeans, which were sagging off her hips, and a plain white tee shirt.
"Yeah. Borrowed," Denny said, tugging at the hem.
"Let's go home." Hannah leaned forward, cupping the brunette's face and placing a gentle kiss on her chapped lips. "Here," she said against them, holding up a yellow tube of Burt's Bees chapstick. Denny chuckled, taking it and applying as they walked back through the airport.
"What?" the brunette asked, glancing over to meet Hannah's probing gaze.
"Nothing," the researcher shook her head, a soft smile on her lips. "I just can't believe you're here." She stopped their progress with a hand to Denny's arm, moving them out of the way of rushing travelers, luggage in tow.
Pulling Denny into another hug, she buried her nose in the long hair. Her mind raced, trying to think of how to tell the brunette about DiRisio's. Though she felt she had done nothing wrong, she felt her guilt beginning to gnaw at her stomach, making her feel nauseous. DiRisio's had been Denny's dream. Hannah had thought it as dead as its owner. It had upset Hannah immensely when the last day of business, Denny's old boss and mentor, Joni Sanchez, had come in, calling Hannah just about every name under the sun but murder, for killing Denny's dream.
"I need to talk to you about something," she said into Denny's ear, the breath of warm air making the brunette shiver.
"What?" Denny tried to pull away, but was kept close.
"Not here. Later."
Denny nodded, her eyes closing once more as she tried to concentrate on being happy she was home. She felt nervous, as though she were entering a new world, one that was unfamiliar and strange. Finally she felt Hannah pull away and take her by the hand, leading them toward the parking garage.
Pam had never felt so out of place in her life. Born and raised in New York, spending much of it in Queens and the Bronx, Montana couldn't have been any more alien to her than if Duke had flown her to the moon. The wide, open spaces, endless wilderness and clear, blue skies, truly breathtaking.
For Pam to say she had been stunned to find out where Tracy had started her and Luke's new life would be the understatement of the century. She had no idea what possessed the girl to come so far west. Either way, she had, and Pam was going to do her level best to make it work with her daughter and grandson. She'd promised her new family she would.
Duke knew a woman at the tiny airport they'd landed at who had offered to drive her home, not wanting to bother Tracy with that task. After all, she had Luke to watch after.
The small farmhouse loomed just ahead, a tall, narrow two-story, painted white with dark blue trim. It was charming, Pam had to admit. She could feel her stomach responding to the building nerves, their parting not good so long ago. It just seemed mother and daughter couldn't manage to get on the same page, no matter how hard they tried. That had saddened Pam to no end. When Tracy's father, and Pam's first husband, had found out they were having a child, they had been thrilled. Theirs had been a marriage of seven, barren years, both blaming the other for their lack of conception. Then like magic, one morning Pam had gotten sick, running from the bed at breakneck speed, nearly trampling over their Pug, Ralphie, in her efforts to get to the toilet on time. Sure enough. Tests had proven positive, and plans for a new life had begun.
It was evident pretty quick that Tracy was a miracle baby, and Pam would not be having anymore. She'd been so excited when the doctor pronounced a girl had just entered the world, her cries filling the delivery room and her mother's heart. When Tracy had turned three, they began to realize that something was wrong, and the toddler couldn't hear. It had been a devastating blow, but one they'd dealt with as best they could, even as Pam and Jack's marriage fell apart. The young mother and girl who lived in a world of silence never saw eye to eye. Tracy would move in with her father every couple years or so, until she realized she hated his newest flavor of the month, then would move back in with her mother, only to dislike her newest step-father. When the girl had been sent away to school after high school graduation, it had been the best thing for all involved.
Then Luke came.
Pam stared out the window of the bucket of bolts with Ford stamped on the grill. The truck pulled to a stop in front of the house, the front door opening, and curious eyes peering out. Pam nearly swallowed her tongue when she saw how big Luke had grown. His mother stepped up behind him, her hands resting on narrow shoulders. The boy leaned slightly back into Tracy's comforting body, still not sure about this grandmother person that had arrived.
Tracy squeezed one shoulder, then stepped out from behind him, trying to decide exactly which emotion to settle on first. She felt relief to see her mother like nothing she'd ever felt before, but at the same time, she felt a sense of foreboding wash over her. What would this bring or mean to her and Luke's new life?
Pam quietly thanked Amanda Brody, who smiled acknowledgment, then climbed down from the large truck, her eyes locked on her daughter as Tracy carefully made her way down the few stairs that led up to the porch. Tracy stopped about mid-step, then a keening, almost mewling sound escaped her throat, and she raced the rest of the way, the little girl inside her winning out on the bitter adult, allowing herself to take comfort from her mother's arms and safe return.
Though she knew the girl couldn't hear her, Pam couldn't help but whisper her daughter's name, like a sacred word, against soft, chestnut hair, inhaling the fragrance and essence of her little girl. Feeling eyes on her, Pam looked down, seeing her grandson standing next to them, his big, curious, yet watchful eyes, on mother and daughter.
Sniffling back her relief, the veterinarian swiped a hand across her face, then knelt down, looking up into Luke's handsome face.
"Hello, Luke," she said, her voice soft, almost dreamy. "I've missed you, sweetheart." She took the boy's stiff body in her arms, a pang of hurt and regret shooting through her heart. Yes, she had a lot to make up for.
"I don't understand," Michael whispered, so as not to wake up Jennifer, who was curled up in his lap. He brushed his fingers through her hair absently with one hand while sipping from the cold can of Miller Walter had brought to him. Now, his father-in-law sat across from him on the loveseat, listening to the sounds of a Texas night.
"Don't know. The boy is just filled with so much anger, I don't think he knows what to do with himself no more. Meredith and I have tried everything, counselin', all of it. Nothing is helping."
The mechanic sighed, staring out into the blackness beyond the living room windows. His chest ached, heart ripped out of its hiding place. Conrad had run from the house, and was yet to be found yet. Alan was out looking for him, hoping to knock some sense into the stubborn boy.
"It's been a hard time, Mike. Don't let no body tell you different. These kids have suffered heaps."
"I know." Michael leaned down and kissed the top of his daughter's head. He couldn't remember the last time he'd done that. "I can't thank y'all enough for what you've done, Walter. These kids needed you, and y'all were here for them. Thank you."
Walter nodded, sipping from his own beer. He wasn't comfortable with all the emotional mumbo jumbo. He listened to the sounds of his wife cleaning up the dinner dishes. Normally Jennifer would help out, but tonight she wasn't letting her Daddy out of her sight, so Meredith left her to it.
"Did she suffer?" Walter finally asked, clearing his throat to cover the hitch in his voice.
Michael studied the older, hardened man for a moment, then sighed. "No. She went in her sleep. Lost too much blood." Michael could feel his throat constrict with the conversation. He hadn't had to think or talk about Melissa in over a year, and it was like losing her all over again.
"Look, Walter, Mel-"
"No," the older man stood, waving off Michael's words. "it's late. Gotta get me some sleep." He hurried from the room, his heavy boots thudding against the wood of the stairs, followed by a distant slam of a door.
"Everything okay?" Meredith asked, drying her hands on a dishtowel.
Michael nodded, resting his cheek against Jennifer's head. "Yeah. It's late. I'm gonna get this one to bed." Michael looked down at his daughter's face, seeing she was still deep asleep. Gathering her to his chest, he rose to his feet, holding her safe, and making his way up the same stairs the girl's grandfather had just scurried up.
"Daddy?" the teenager mumbled in her sleep, her voice thick and groggy.
"I'm here, darlin'. Sleep, Angel." He gently laid her on the bed, pulling the covers down around her, then tucking her in. With a small kiss to her forehead, the mechanic turned out the bedside lamp, but couldn't leave. He stood next to her bed, staring down into the face of a woman, remembering the little girl he'd left behind. Never in his life had he felt so infused with love and a need to protect another human being. This little girl was the product of his Melissa and himself, all he had left of her.
Reaching out, he brushed a few strands of hair out of her sleeping face, so easily able to see Mel, just a bit older, when he'd first seen her. Jennifer would be a spitting image of her, just as beautiful, and filled with just as much fire. He smiled at that thought, sending out a silent word of warning to all those boys who thought they could tame her. She'd slowly and quietly tame them; just like her Momma.
Meredith was cleaning up the beer cans when she heard Michael enter the room. "Out cold," he said, voice still quiet with the hush of night. "Let me help you." He took the cans from the older woman, missing the stunned expression on her face as he headed into the kitchen to dump out the undrank amber liquid into the sink, then squished the cans in his large fist.
"I talked to Leo down at the garage," Meredith said conversationally, wiping down the table once again, just to keep busy. Michael glanced at her over his shoulder.
"Yeah. He's real shocked and relieved to hear you're okay. He wants to give you your old job back."
Michael was stunned, slowly turning to face the older woman. "You're kidding,"
"Nope." Meredith smiled, the wrinkles around her eyes increasing ten-fold over the stresses of the past year. Michael had been shocked at just how old she looked when he'd walked through the door earlier that afternoon. "You're our hometown hero, Michael." His mother-in-law walked over to him, placing her hands on his chest, looking up into his eyes. Meredith tried to keep her rising emotions under control, but could tell it was a losing battle. "I'm so glad you're alive," she whispered, followed by a quiet sob. She rested her head against his chest as strong arms enfolded her.
"Me, too. God, me, too."
Matt was tired. It had been a wonderful trip, but exhausting. The guys, him and his girlfriend, Jessica, had gone fishing over the past five days, catching just about everything the fish god had to offer, and then some. He set down the cooler of iced fish on his counter with a grunt, then headed back toward the garage door to unload his gear from the back of his SUV. He noticed the light on the answering machine was flashing like mad, and wondered who had called him fourteen times.
Dropping his huge duffel and tent bag on the living room carpet, he pushed the play button, jotting down a message from his mother, grinned at the message from Jessica, wondering where he was. He had only been forty-five minutes late picking her up, after all. The next message stopped him cold. It was Reenie, and almost unintelligible. The detective hit rewind, listening again, trying to decipher what was wrong.
"Matt, oh my god! Where are you?! You need to call me right now! Right now, Matt!" BEEP "Matthew, where are you? It's beyond important. Oh my god, call me!" BEEP
Matt hit stop on the making even as he picked up the cordless phone, his insides twisting in concern. He waited impatiently for the line to be picked up, blood going cold at the voice on the other end.
"Hi, Matt. How are you?"
The detective stood silent, rooted to the spot, unsure what to say or do, but knowing that voice anywhere. "Rachel?"
"Yes. It's me."
"What, I don't understand..."
"It's a long story. I'm coming home the day after tomorrow. I'll be flying in with Reenie."
"Okay." Matt ran a hand through his hair, blowing out a breath. He wasn't sure what he was feeling; was it relief? Fear? Regret? Guilt? All of the above? One thing he did know- he was in shock.
Denny walked into the house, instantly looking around, curious of what, if anything had been changed in her absence. Hannah followed close behind, watching her closely, waiting for her reaction, and dreading the conversation she knew they had to have. Denny deserved to know the truth.
The wall to the right, that flanked the stone fireplace, was nearly bare, when once it had been covered with pictures of them, trips they'd taken, or just goofy snapshots taken by friends. The walls had been painted an off-white, when once they were dark green, the woodwork white. They'd contemplated such a bold choice for months, finally Denny bringing home cans of paint one Friday night. The rest of the weekend had been spent bickering over which room would get the treatment.
A couple pieces of the artwork they'd picked out together littered the room, the small copper Buddha sitting on the mantel. The rug under the coffee table was gone, now replaced by a large, and Denny thought, mismatched area rug.
The thing that the brunette noticed the most was that it were as if any trace of her was gone, leaving only a sterile living space with little warmth or personality.
"It hurt too much to keep some things," Hannah said from behind her, voice soft. "I had to make a change, Denny. It was the only way to keep my sanity."
The brunette nodded, though part of her understanding, she couldn't deny that she was hurt, and felt like maybe she wasn't wanted back, didn't belong.
"I uh, I'll be right back." Denny hurried from the room, back out the front door and into the cool, evening air.
Hannah sighed heavily, hugging herself.
Denny sat on the stoop, wrapping her arms around her knees, resting her chin on top. Never had she felt so out of place, certainly in her own home. She felt nervous and unsure, insecurities gripping her in cold fingers of doubt. For a moment she thought about going back inside, feeling bad. She knew Hannah couldn't keep everything as it was, nor would she expect her to, considering she thought Denny dead. But all the same, she was overwhelmed suddenly by the fact of, not only was she back to her life, but it had obviously changed.
She didn't have time to contemplate that thought as the front screen door squeaked as it was opened, softly banging back into place with a whoosh of air. Glancing over, she saw Hannah settling next to her on the stoop.
"I'm sorry," she said, her voice soft. "I guess I just got a little overwhelmed for a moment."
"It's okay. I don't imagine this is easy for you, Denny. I want to try and make this transition as painless as possible for you. What can I do to help? What will make it better?"
"Nothing. I don't know," Denny blew out a breath. "It's all just really surreal. All I could think about was coming home, for the first six months or so, everyday, marking on a tree, thinking that maybe after a few more of these marks, I'd be home. With you." She looked into concerned brown eyes, shrugged. "Somewhere along the way I stopped marking the tree. I never thought I'd be home anyway, so why keep torturing myself?"
"Oh, Denny." Hannah reached out, brushing a long lock of hair out of the brunette's eyes. "Was it bad?"
"No." Denny shook her head. "Just different." They were silent for long moments, neither sure what to say as they listened to the summer sounds. Finally the brunette took a deep breath. "So, what did you want to talk to me about?"
Panic seized Hannah's heart, her eyes growing wide before she got herself under control. Putting a smile on her face and hand on Denny's arm, she shook her head. "Not now, Denny. Let's get you settled home first."
"You sounded pretty serious about it in the airport." Denny wasn't sure why, but her heart was doing double time. "Just tell me, Hannah. I don't need to be handled with kid gloves. I won't shatter." I don't think.
Nodding, Hannah swallowed. "Okay." She felt the need to explain before she told Denny the truth. "When I found out you were dead, it nearly killed me, Denny. I felt like I had lost everything in one fell swoop. I was so goddamn angry with your cousins," she snorted ruefully. "We argued about you going on that trip alone," shaking her head, she stared out into the darkening neighborhood. "Anyway, I didn't know what to do with myself, so I kept living, going to work, coming home, all to do it again the next day. I was dying inside." She met steady blue eyes, trying to read what Denny was thinking, but there just didn't seem to be anything there, or it was being hidden well. Hannah had always been able to read her partner like an open book. "I had to do something, and as the months passed, I realized that being surrounded by you, everything that was you and reminded me of you, was making it worse."
Denny listened, doing her best to keep an open mind, as she'd want Hannah to do the same for her. She nodded in acknowledgement of what was told to her.
Hannah debated whether to tell Denny about Tiffany or not. Deciding she had enough crushing news to deliver, she'd leave that part out. Maybe later she'd tell her. "One Saturday I decided to take anything down that reminded me of you- pictures, trinkets, whatever. I was amazed to find I had filled six boxes. I guess I hadn't realized just how much our physical lives were bound until then. No wonder I saw you everywhere." She snorted. "Hell, I even had to take that god-awful troll out of my car. I couldn't help but remember when you had valiantly won him for me at the fair."
Denny chuckled at the memory.
"Anyway, there was one thing left, one last bit of you that tortured me, that I couldn't just pretend wasn't there. It was the last thing keeping me from moving on with my life." At the look of hurt on Denny's face, Hannah clarified. "I didn't want to forget you, baby, I could never, ever forget you. But I had to start a new life, without you in it."
"What was it?" Denny asked, her voice hoarse as fear gripped her heart.
Hannah took several calming breaths, trying to think of the best way to say it. "Honey, Denny," she took two cool hands in her own, the researchers almost looking pale in comparison. "I," her voice caught and she had to catch her breath. Forgive me, Denny. "I sold DiRisio's."
Denny's eyes slid closed, her gut turning over. She jumped to her feet, racing back into the house and throwing the toilet seat lid up. Falling to her knees, she grasped the sides of the cool porcelain bowl, waiting for backfire that never came.
"Here," Hannah placed a cool cloth on the back of the brunette's neck, gathering the long, thick strands of hair into a rope down her back. "Breath, baby. Just breath."
Denny tried to do as instructed, but felt her stomach roil again. Instead of throwing up, she began to sob, the sound echoing in the large bowl. Falling over to her rump, she sat against the side of the tub, Hannah kneeling in front of her, her own tears of sorrow washing down her cheeks.
"I'm so sorry, Denny. I didn't know. You know I'd never hurt you on purpose."
Denny heard the words, and somewhere inside even knew they were true, but couldn't let them penetrate. She buried her face in her hands. The only bit of normalcy was gone. Denny's sobs calmed after many minutes, her senses numbing, head pounding from the emotional roller coaster that had been her first day back in the real world.
"How can I feel so out of place in my own life?" she whispered, not expecting an answer.
"It'll take some time," Hannah responded, reaching out a tentative hand to cup the side of Denny's face. "We've both had a lot of excitement for one day. What say you we go to bed?"
Denny nodded, not entirely sure what she had just agreed to, as she was helped to her feet. She heard more whispered words, Hannah telling her to follow her. Once in the bedroom, Denny's shirt was lifted over her head, her jeans unbuttoned and unzipped, the baggy material sliding down her legs unaided.
"You have got a killer tan," Hannah commented absently, providing a shoulder for Denny to steady herself on as the researcher tugged the jeans off, tossing them aside. "Do these need to be returned?"
The tee shirt came next, Hannah's gaze roaming across the bared flesh, more toned than she'd ever seen it. She couldn't believe the fact that she was almost able to count her partner's ribs. Deciding the touching a decidedly skittish Denny wasn't a good idea, she instead helped the beautiful brunette to the large four poster bed, their fifth anniversary gift to each other, then undressed herself.
Denny rolled to her side, curling her hands under her chin. She stared into the darkness that was their bedroom as Hannah turned out the light, feeling the mattress shift as the researcher climbed on.
"Is this okay?" Hannah whispered, spooning up behind Denny. In answer, her hand was taken and tucked under the brunette's chin.
Michael sighed, once against flopping to his back, trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable on the mattress. What had once been his most anticipated act once returning home- sleeping on a bed- was turning into a huge disappointment. His body wasn't sure what to make of the softness, his bones leaning to adjust to the hard ground for so long. His mutterings and curses were interrupted by a soft knock at his bedroom door. Raising his head, he stared at the wood, as though suddenly he'd see all the answers to the world unlocked in its grains.
"Daddy?" the door was barely pushed open, a dark shadow against a darker night.
"Can I lay down with you?" the girl asked, squeezing through the small opening she'd made, then softly closing the door behind her. She heard covers ruffling, sheet held up in invitation. Without a sound, she padded over to the bed and climbed on, immediately snuggling against her father.
"Can't sleep?" he asked, placing a soft kiss on the crown of her head, feeling her shake it.
"What's on your mind, Princess? You okay?"
"I'm better than I've ever been." She smiled into the warm scratchiness of her father's neck. She'd never seen him with facial hair before, and wasn't sure she liked it. "I'm so glad you're home. I never truly believed in God until today."
Michael chuckled. "Well, don't tell your grandma that. She'd think we hadn't raised a fine, Christian girl."
Jennifer giggled softly. "Who says I am?" She raised her head to meet a hard gaze and giggled again. "I'm teasing." Lying her head back down, she sighed in contentment, smelling the laundry detergent her grandmother used in the shirt her father had borrowed. He and Alan were close to the same size.
"How is school going?" The mechanic's brows drew. "What grade are you in?"
"I'm a junior."
Michael's eyes slid shut, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed down the grief of missing an entire school year of his only daughter. Jennifer seemed to read his mind. "It's okay, Daddy. It wasn't your fault. I know that. Alan knows that. Even Conrad knows that."
"Why is he so angry?"
"I don't know." The girl shrugged a shoulder, only to have it caressed a moment later. She reveled in her father's affections, always a daddy's girl at heart. "I think he feels you abandoned him in some way. It's irrational, but that's how he feels. It's been awful for grandma and grandpa. He's in trouble all the time, at school and at home. He's just... mean."
"I'll talk to him tomorrow." He didn't want Jennifer to know just how hurt her truly was. When Alan had marched the fourteen year old into the house by the collar of his shirt, Conrad wouldn't say anything to his father, nor pay him any mind.
"What did mom die of?"
"Honey, I don't-"
"Please?" Jennifer raised her head again, meeting her father's troubled gaze. "I need to know. I need to know if she was in pain. Did you get to say goodbye?"
Michael studied the girl's face, then a slow smile spread across his lips. He nodded. "Yeah, honey. We got to say goodbye. She," he cleared his throat. "she died in my arms."
Jennifer laid her head back on his shoulder, feeling better about it, even as she felt tears sting her eyes. She listened to the low rumble of her father's voice as he continued.
"She got a nasty gash on her head. It was just too much for her."
"I wonder if she knows how much she's loved. And missed."
"Oh, she knows, Jenny. She knows."
"Goodnight, little Angel."
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