Author's Notes: Before 'End of Innocence' goes to air, I figured I'd try to write about it myself. Keep in mind that we (or at least, I) don't know much about the story taking place during the episode, and as such, I have decided not to write one in. I've also decided to keep Nick out of this one, despite his return to Mount Thomas, just for simplicity's sake. Ditto on Clancy.
Summary: When it all seems to have gone, just what do you hold on to?
AftermathGravel crunched underfoot as Tom Croyden climbed out of his station wagon and stepped onto the driveway of which belonged to the Mount Thomas Police station. Oddly, he noticed the ivy starting to creep up the sidelining trees again, and subconsciously made a note to himself to get something done about it before the poor trees choked.
However, a majority of his mind was elsewhere. With Grace involving herself in matters that were nothing of her concern, and putting both her and innocent people in danger, he felt he had to do something to cease the potential feud that was heating up all over town. Why his wife couldn't just leave the problems to him and the rest of his team was beyond him, although deep down he knew he should be feeling, to some extent, grateful that she was trying to help. It just complicated things.
He felt somewhat relieved he had sent Jones and Raynor out to deal with the Baxters'; it was one thing off his plate for the moment. And with Stewart and PJ out at the Imperial to warn Chris about the prospective havoc, as well as Parrish manning the phone inside the office, he felt that perhaps, for once, he had all grounds covered.
Then why did he have such a feeling of impending doom, he wondered as he began to make his way up to the front door of the station, a route he had done so many hundred times.
Before he had another second to contemplate this, his ears burst with the sound of a deafening bang. Almost immediately, Tom felt a great wave of burning heat wash over him, as he numbly wondered what the hell was going on.
Bricks, shards of glass and hot, twisted metal flew in all directions; he felt a pebble hit him in the head, causing him to fall to the ground. Not noticing the sharp edges of the gravel sticking into his legs and back, he pushed himself towards the street, away from the flames that were now engulfing what was, moments ago, his police station.
He wasn't sure how long he had been staring, in complete disbelief, at the crumbling building, before he heard the screech of brakes from somewhere right behind him.
Ben and PJ jumped out of the CI car, their faces both equally alarmed at the sight.
"Shit," Ben managed to mutter, then spotted his superior, half-lying, half-sitting, on the ground in front of them. "Ah hell – Peej, help me," he appealed to the senior detective, helping Tom up from the ground and sheltering him behind the car. PJ turned behind him to check the sergeant was handling their boss alright, and suddenly his heart stopped beating with sudden realisation.
"Jo!" he cried, turning back to the station, his eyes widening. Ben predicted his colleague's reaction, and managed to leap forwards just in time to grab one of PJ's arms.
"Don't, PJ – you'll only hurt yourself!"
"She's in there... Shit, Ben, get off!" PJ yelled furiously, trying to break his arm free.
"You can't – don't -"
Ben was interrupted by a second bang, not quite as loud as the first, but sparking another fireball rising into the air. Flames probably hit one of the gas tanks, he numbly thought.
"NOOOOO!" PJ roared, still trying to free himself. With a hard tug, he broke Ben's grip and dashed forwards, looking desperately at the building.
Ben raced after him and brought him to the ground, letting PJ travel only a few metres. Knowing they had to get away from the building before anything else happened, he hauled the detective to his feet and dragged him back over to the car. PJ had thankfully gone into a state of shock and didn't seem to physically protest anymore.
"Sit," Ben ordered, pushing him down into the back passenger seat, before grabbing the radio.
"Mt Thomas 358 to D24, we need an ambulance at the station immediately – the whole station's burning up, fire engines also needed ASAP..." Ben dropped off as he tried to clear his head. Finding it near impossible, he gave up and replaced the radio in its holder.
He looked back to his colleague. PJ didn't take his eyes off the station, and he sat, motionless, as if seeing the flames on a screen rather than metres in front of him.
"Radio the others," Tom croaked from the back, reminding Ben he was still there. His face was bleeding, and one of his eyes was swelling rapidly, but his voice was steady, if not grating.
Ben nodded and reached once again for the radio. "Mt Thomas 358 to Mt Thomas 208."
"Mt Thomas 208 receiving," Evan's voice spoke up.
"Jonesy, the station's exploded," Ben said bluntly.
"The – what?"
"The station's exploded, fire everywhere..."
"Shit," Evan swore. "We'll be right there."
Ben, PJ and Tom watched incredulously as their workplace was gradually blackened and eaten up by the orange tongues of fire, threatening to destroy everything in its path.
A marked police car pulled up behind the parked fire engine, and Susie and Evan leapt out of the car.
"Oh God," Susie breathed, not believing what she saw. "Is everyone all -" she began, racing up to her colleagues with Evan close behind her, then noticed one very prominent absence. She stopped mid-sentence, suddenly remembering where her fellow female officer was ordered to be, and realising what must have happened. A hand flew to her mouth, and she stifled a gasp. "Oh no... Jo..."
None of her colleagues spoke, although she desperately wanted one of them to pipe up and say Jo was fine, or at least being taken to hospital... As silence from the group fell around her and Evan, their worst fears were confirmed.
Her eyes flew to PJ, who sat as though he was a fragile, marble statue. His eyes were dark, empty holes; ones that would not see the light for a long time. None of them knew what to say.
Susie's thoughts flew towards the police residence next door, as she watched the fire services do their best to fight the flames. It had eaten the whole station... was it too much to ask that her house was undamaged too?
She craned her neck, and strained to see over the wreckage, the still-existent flames that flew towards the sky, just to see if the back building was intact.
Ben noticed and regretfully shook his head. "Suse, it's right next door to the station – the chance that it's alright is so small," he added.
She knew this already, and nodded, wondering if she could cope with all of this.
Blaring sirens sounded closer, and the ambulance pulled up, lights flashing. Spotting Tom, the personnel calmly and efficiently tended to him, taking him to the waiting ambulance.
"Boss, I -" Evan began, not really knowing what to say, but felt he should extend some sort of acknowledgment to him.
Tom shook his head. "Don't worry."
The ambulance doors slammed shut behind him.
They all proceeded to go to the hospital. The ambulance officers had insisted upon it, but they all wanted to be there for their senior sergeant. Plus, they reasoned, there was not much else they could do.
The corridors were eerily quiet, as though there was nothing wrong with the world. Patients, staff and visitors milled about the hospital, unaware of the pain that was ripping through each and every one of their police officers' hearts. Ben wondered how people could be so calm when all was so wrong.
"Can I help you?" the nurse at the desk questioned politely.
None of them spoke, each thinking the same thing. Nothing would be able to help. There was too much to be undone.
Finally, Ben stepped forwards. "Ah, yeah. We're here to see Tom Croyden?"
The nurse nodded. "Just down the hall, turn right and it's the first door on your left. Room seven."
He nodded and they all made their way down there; Evan and Susie in front, him and PJ behind. PJ had not uttered a word since being at the station, and Ben couldn't possibly think of what to do. He settled to just being there, hoping that PJ would once more find himself. God help him if he doesn't, Ben thought.
They all piled into the small hospital room, where Grace was seated by the bedside. She looked up at them as they entered, and gave a small smile. "Are you all alright?"
"We're -" Evan began, before stopping. No, they weren't fine. None of them were. One of their colleagues was dead, the whole station burnt to charcoal black, their boss injured, their detective in shock... Nothing was fine.
Grace seemed to understand, and gave them all sympathetic looks, with tears in her eyes. "It's terrible, I'm so sorry."
"Is he alright?" Susie asked, gesturing to Tom, who seemed to be asleep. A white eye patch was taped over his right eye, and numerous scratches and cuts to his face glowed red.
"He'll be fine," Grace replied. "Concussion, no doubt, but I think his skull was thick enough to take most of it." She smiled weakly, standing up. "Anyway, I said I would collect the boys from school, so I'll leave you to it. Oh, and please," she touched Ben's arm lightly as she passed, "Take care of yourselves. We don't need anyone else hurt."
She left the room, and the group stood in silence.
Tom started to stir, and they looked at each other uneasily. Should they go? Between exchanged glances, they decided to stay. Tom may need them right now.
He opened the eye that was visible to them, looking up at them all. He didn't say a word.
"It's – it's gone, Boss," Ben said quietly. "It's all gone."
Raw pained etched into Tom's eyes as the news sunk in. The station had been his second home for as long as he could remember, and it being gone, so suddenly, was hard to comprehend. The building held so many memories, so many stories...
He glanced at PJ, the person he felt would understand his view the most. But although his detective looked at him, his eyes were empty. PJ was physically standing in the same room as him, but it was clear his mind was in another place.
A certain tightness clutched at Tom's heart as he thought of Jo. PJ had now lost two loves, and it would take a long time for the wounds to heal. Goodness knows, Maggie's death had been a hard enough blow to them all. Now Jo, as well as the whole station...
Tears stung at his eyes, and for once Tom didn't bother hiding them. Grief engulfed him so fiercely he wondered if he would be able to see daylight again.
His officers all looked down, worried that if they looked at their boss for too long, they would too cry. And they couldn't all handle that. It was better to be solid for the moment, refuse to think about what had happened. The longer it took for it all to sink in, the softer the fall.
The less pain from the fall.
Or so they believed, if only just for the moment.
The nurses had finally kicked them out, hours later, claiming the need to tend for Tom. They let themselves be, if only to bring an excuse to leave.
They agreed to go to the Imperial. If the station was their second home, then Chris' pub was probably the third.
Chris, upon seeing them enter, didn't know what to do or say first. "I'm so sorry," she said, hugging them all. "I'm so, so sorry."
They all mutely nodded, sitting themselves around a table. Chris brought over the drinks, and they all sat in silence. No one wanted to be the first one to speak.
Finally, Ben decided to break the stillness. "We're going to have to find somewhere to work until this -" he swallowed, "is all over."
"Widgeree would probably be the best option," Susie nodded. "The right resources, if not a bit far away."
"We'll make do," Ben said firmly, and he, Susie and Evan all nodded in agreement.
"Someone's got to identify her," PJ suddenly said, startling them all. He didn't look at them, but rather his relatively untouched glass.
"PJ, I don't think -" Ben began.
"Gotta talk to Falcon-Price," PJ continued, as if he didn't hear the sergeant. "Also talk to St David's. Set up an alternative phoning system. Possibly recruit more members from the surrounding area to help us out."
"PJ, stop," Evan cut in before the detective could rattle off any more instructions.
Finally, PJ looked up at them, and from his face and eyes, they knew he was running on total autopilot, not stopping to think of what else he may have to face.
He was going to run, run so hard that he wouldn't be able to think. Throw himself into his police work, for that is what she would have wanted.
He would never stop, not until he could face it all.
"I think we should call it a night," Ben said, putting his empty water glass down. The last crisis Mount Thomas had, namely the bushfires, had taught him that the only way to fix things was to keep his head. He couldn't afford to do anything less, not with Tom in hospital. "We'll meet, say, here tomorrow morning at seven thirty. Okay?"
They murmured their agreements, as Ben and PJ stood and left Evan and Susie alone at their table. Susie drained her glass and stood up, intending to go home as well, when she stopped halfway. Her house, if still standing, would be a wreck. Chances were it wasn't even there anymore. She bit her lip, for once feeling lost. The past few hours she had been around her colleagues, who were all in the same position as she. But now, they all had homes to go to, except for her. She didn't even have the luxury of security in her own bed.
Evan could see her predicament, and swiftly stood and walked over to the bar. "Chris, we're going to need a room."
"A room?" Chris repeated, and then glanced at Susie. "Oh, no... her residence – I didn't even think of it..." She shook her head as if to clear her thoughts. "It's fine, Jonesy. I'll just get the key."
She disappeared, and quickly returned with the metal ring in hand. "I'll give her room eleven, it's just down from yours."
"Thanks, Chrissie," Evan replied, taking the keys and going back over to the table. He dropped them down in front of Susie, and she picked them up somewhat gratefully and reluctantly at the same time.
"Ta," she said quietly.
He glanced at his watch. It wasn't altogether late, but as Ben had also thought, it was going to be a huge day tomorrow. The whole week was going to be overloading. If they could start afresh tomorrow, it would be better on everyone.
"Suse? We better head off," he suggested.
She nodded. "Good idea."
With an appreciative nod at Chris, the two constables silently made their way upstairs, both knowing that it would be near impossible to sleep.
"See you tomorrow," Susie finally said, reaching her door along the hallway.
"Yeah, sleep well," Evan replied, although they both knew they would do anything but. He walked down a few doors and let himself into his room.
Susie lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling. Chris had lent her some clean clothes as a pyjamas substitute, and although she felt better out of uniform, her nerves wouldn't calm. She wondered if they would within a week.
She squeezed her eyes shut, thinking of the last time she had seen Jo. It had been at the station, only hours earlier but feeling as though it was weeks ago. She had come back with the lunches, and Evan and Ben were cracking jokes about the food. They had all been laughing, bar Tom and PJ, who had been locked in their respective offices.
It was only this morning that Susie got the chance to ask Jo about her and PJ. Jo hadn't wanted to talk about it at first, but after a bit of gentle probing, had finally revealed all. It was obvious she was heartbroken, and Susie felt that no amount of reassurance and words of comfort from herself would be able to fix things.
She hadn't died a happy woman, Susie thought, as she blinked tears out of her eyes. She hadn't even died in the line of duty. Technically, she had been on duty and she had been carrying out police work, but Susie knew that Jo would have preferred to have died by doing something, by making a difference to a situation. Not by being at the station, checking out background information on the Baxters' and keeping the phone in check.
It wasn't fair, she thought bitterly. Jo didn't deserve to die. Why did she die, while old, sick people lived on? People who were a burden to society survived, while Jo, who had fought for justice for so many years, had to die.
Jo did nothing but try to keep innocent people free from pain.
What would she do now, Susie wondered. What could she do, without the only other female officer and her friend around? And as much as she loved the boys, she needed someone else as well.
She needed Jo, and didn't know how she could handle it now she was gone.
God, she needed to do something. She couldn't just lie here all night, waiting for the sun to rise to the sky.
Without another thought, she got up and left her room with a slam of her door.
Evan heard a knock, and looked at his door from his bed, not moving. After a few moments, he slowly got up and wrenched it open.
"Suse," he said, not really surprised to see her there. No one else in the right mind would come knocking on his door at night, especially not this very night.
"Sorry, you weren't asleep, were you?" she asked worriedly.
He gave a bitter laugh. "No, I wasn't. Come in." He stood back to let her inside.
"You okay?" he asked, wanting to take the question back as soon as it had left his mouth. Of course she wasn't okay. None of them were, nor would they be for a long time.
She didn't seem to mind him asking, however. With an honest look at him, she shook her head. "No. No, I'm not okay. Are you?"
He merely shook his head.
Her eyes welled with tears once more, and she pressed her fingers to her mouth. "God, Jonesy – what are we going to do?"
He pulled her into his arms, partly for comfort for her, but also for himself. Because he too was asking the same question. What were they possibly going to do? The station was gone, as well as everything inside it. Jo was gone, and their team was never going to be the same without her. They would have to change everything: recruit a new member or two, rebuild the station, restore the contents that were lost... it was mind boggling, really.
"Hell, Susie, we're going to have to do something," he replied, holding her tight.
She nodded against him, letting the tears in her eyes overflow and run down her cheeks. Swallowing, she said, "The only thing is what to do first. There's so much..."
"I know," he replied.
They stood like that for a time that was hard to put a finger on; it could have been mere seconds, or several minutes. For the first time since the station's explosion, she felt secure. Which, she thought, was saying something, taking into account her current vulnerability.
She looked up, just to see his face, just to see what he was thinking. His eyes were red, in the same way as they had been when Dylan had died. They were both falling with grief, and she wondered if they, or any of them, would be able to climb out again.
His face reflected her pain, and despite feeling the way she was, she wanted to take that pain from him. She could deal with pain – she had before – but others too...
She put a hand to his cheek and kissed him, surprising herself as much as him. There wasn't any particular reason why, yet she felt that it was what they both wanted at that moment. A way to show that there could be a tiny ray of sunshine through the bleak clouds, and she would do anything for him to be able to see that too.
He kissed her back, drinking the taste of her in. It was a feeling of comfort, and God, did he need that now, more than ever. They needed each other, and that was the end of that, he decided.
A moist drop stained his cheek, but he wasn't sure if it was her tear or his.
Ben turned over for what seemed to be the hundredth time. His eyes were open, and he couldn't feel more awake.
He and PJ had come home, and instantly left for their separate rooms. It felt strange only having two of them there. Just the two men; they would now be able to leave empty pizza boxes around, the toilet seat up, shoes at the couch... and Ben didn't feel any better.
The house reeked of Jo, and it always would. So she had moved out only a week ago, yet she still very much lived here. There had been the three of them for so long now, that anything else seemed wrong.
It seemed impossible that she really was gone.
It had only been this morning that the whole station had been standing in the main office, listening to him do the typical morning readout of the day's activities. Now Tom was in hospital, the station was nothing more than a pile of blackened bricks, and Jo was dead. Not to mention the rest of them were never going to be the same again.
It was unbelievable, almost too much so to comprehend or even vaguely absorb.
He took several deep breaths, steadying his breathing. So much was out of his control right now, but he felt some grim satisfaction at being in control of his breathing, at least.
Still, there wasn't much else he could control, and he had the deepest feeling in his stomach that tomorrow would be even worse.
Across the hallway, PJ stared at the ceiling, his eyes hardly blinking, his body motionless. All afternoon he had felt a certain amount of separateness between his body and mind, and it didn't look like it would subside any time soon.
He turned his head to the right, looking at the empty pillow beside him, just like he had every night that week. The other nights, he had felt a pang of guilt, and an ache of sadness that things had turned out the way they had. But despite Jo's attitude towards him, he always had the hope of fixing things up with her. After all, it had happened before.
Tonight, he just felt an incredible loss. There was no hope of making things right; the way things were now was the way things always will be.
He couldn't even begin to think of what he was feeling right now.
But I'm all, all alone again
Thinking you will never say
That you'll be home again
Their break up had been his fault more than hers. He couldn't really blame her for doing what she did. He probably would have done the same. But it had just been so hard, a week before, when Maggie's old case had reappeared. It had triggered so many memories, memories he hadn't forgotten, but more or less tucked into the back of his mind, out of reach. He hadn't fought them; on the contrary, he had embraced them, even though he knew it was wrong. And despite what he had told Jo, the words he had spoken that day about great loves was true. And so Jo couldn't be blamed for not wanting to be second best. But he hadn't meant for it to be heard like that, for he did truly loved her. And although he still held Maggie in his heart, she was in his past, and he could do nothing but to move on. Jo was the one he now wanted to spend his life with... why couldn't she have understood that, he wondered frustratingly.
There was a stab in his heart when he thought about all he had wanted to say to her, and never did. All that had been lost in the past week.
But most of all, he had wanted her to be happy.
"But you weren't, Joanna, were you?" he whispered to the pillow beside him.
He got no reply.
I never thought one day you'd be gone,
Away forever more
No one can say, no one could explain
Why you were taken
Susie woke up to see Evan lying on his side next to her, propped up on his elbow, just watching her.
"What're you lookin' at?" she asked tiredly, blinking the sleep out of her eyes.
"Nothing in particular," he said with added vagueness.
She couldn't decide whether to be offended or not. "Thanks a lot."
There was a pause, and he carefully asked, "Regrets?"
She held his stare for a moment, before shaking her head. "Never."
"Good," he whispered.
A small smile began to form on her lips, a movement that seemed so foreign to them now. Surprised, he frowned slightly.
"Jo would have laughed," Susie said quietly, rolling over onto her side to face him.
Her smile glimmered in the morning sunlight. "She wanted this to happen from the beginning."
"Did she now..." Evan gave a smile too, before both their smiles diminished to be replaced with new-found sadness. "God, I can't believe she's gone."
"I know. She's never coming back." At her words, Susie's insides tightened with grief. "It's not fair, Jonesy."
He cupped her face with his hand. "It never is, Suse."
Ben entered the Imperial just before seven thirty, alone. PJ hadn't emerged from behind his bedroom door, and Ben didn't have the heart to disturb him. And despite being down two members already, he thought PJ would probably be more of a hindrance than a help – at least for today.
He almost laughed at himself for being so ludicrous; one sergeant and two constables would not be able to do this by themselves. He knew that, yet he still left PJ where he was.
He nodded at Chris, who was unstacking chairs to the side of the pub, before spotting the two constables descend from the stairs. Their expressions mirrored his: mournful, and apprehensive of what this day may have in store. Today, and the next week, would probably be the hardest for them all.
"Morning," he said, as they approached him. They echoed the greeting in reply.
"Susie, if you want to go back to the police residence, and..." he trailed off, his meaning clear.
Susie shook her head. "That can wait."
"I know what it can be like -"
"Really, Ben," she interrupted, "I'll go later."
"Fine," he sighed, knowing it was her choice, and appreciating the fact that she preferred to stay and help. "I'm going to St David's. Falcon-Price is there and I think I better talk to him before he comes over here. He was meant to be here at nine this morning, but..." he shrugged. "Do you two want to go out to Widgeree? Talk to Rochelle – God knows, we need her help."
"Sure," Evan answered easily. "Don't worry, Ben, we'll handle it."
Ben looked at them carefully, and although he didn't doubt their abilities, his brain reminded him that they were only constables, and fairly young. They weren't naïve, but he couldn't expect everything from them.
Then again, he wasn't much better at this sort of thing, either.
"How's PJ?" Susie asked.
He gave a deep sigh. "Dunno. Hasn't spoken a word since yesterday... I didn't even see him this morning."
"Leave him be," she advised.
"Yeah, for today, anyway," he nodded. Straightening his police jacket collar, he looked at them. "Keep in touch, won't you?"
"Of course we will," Susie replied, and Evan nodded firmly. "We'll see you later."
PJ heard Ben get up and pad around the house, but he didn't move from his bed. A small part of him felt guilty about leaving the sergeant to do it all, but a larger part was overridden by an incredible sense of loss.
What was the point of living, he wondered. Things would never be the same again. Maggie was hard enough to get over... come to think of it, he never really got over her. Now Jo, who he knew would also be exceptionally hard to get over as well. With two such heavy burdens on his heart, he wondered if he would ever be able to live so lightly again. Or would he just seemingly drown in his own sorrow?
And now he had also lost the station, which was a part of him as much as the people around him. So many memories of Maggie... Everyone had that special bond of working in the same place. Not just now, but also in the past. There had been Nick, and Dash, and Tess, plus many others, who had all shared something special with the station. Now it was all gone.
The slate was almost wiped clean now, there was no standing monument of the past decade of his work and the people he knew.
They would have to start over.
Now it's morning light
And it's cold outside
Caught up in a distant dream
I turn and think that you are by my side
The two constables entered the Widgeree police station, peering inside. "Rochelle?" Evan called out.
The senior constable's blonde head appeared from beneath the counter. "Oh, hello," she greeted with a cheerful smile, which quickly faded. "I'm sorry to hear about what happened," she said, looking ashamed for not thinking of it earlier. "If there's anything you want me to do -"
"Actually, that's what we're here for," Susie cut in. "What with the Boss in hospital, and -" she stopped abruptly. "We only have us and Ben on operational duty."
"Oh, of course," Rochelle nodded earnestly. "Where would you like me to start?"
"Well..." Susie exchanged a glance with Evan, "Technically you're the senior here, so whatever you think is best..."
"Oh." Rochelle seemed stunned. "Er..."
"You could probably start by creating a call diversion, though, just so this can be used as our temporary station until we can find somewhere else," Susie put in tactfully, surprised at her sudden sense of logic.
"Yep, righto, I'll do that now," Rochelle agreed.
"Great." The two constables exchanged another look, before both agreeing to leave.
"Can we stop by the police residence," Susie requested quietly once she and Evan had climbed back into their car. "I didn't want to go before, but I want to see..."
"Sure, Suse," he agreed, turning the key in the ignition.
"You don't have to come, if you don't want to," she offered, knowing that even she didn't really want to. To arrive at the scene, to see really how much had been destroyed, would be hard.
"No, I'll come," he said. Glancing at her, he added, "Of course I'll come with you."
"Alright," she agreed gratefully.
The rest of the journey from Widgeree was silent. But that suited them both just fine. In situations like these, words didn't need to be spoken, and Susie was just glad that he was there. It was enough.
She drew in a sharp breath when they got to the station – or, should they say, where the station used to be.
Seeing it yesterday was troubling enough. To see it on the second day made it seem that, really, it hadn't been a bad dream at all. Nothing had changed since it had burnt, nor would it for a long time.
They climbed out of the car, just staring at where they used to work everyday. Most of the brick walls were still standing, but they had been coated a sooty black. Glass and metal were strewn all over the ground, and it crunched underfoot as the two constables made their way over.
"The safe," Evan said, pointing it out. It too had turned a dark shade of charcoal grey, yet it still seemed as solid as ever. Susie nodded, and turned to look behind the brick.
Craning her neck, she stepped forwards towards her house, bracing herself against the worst. Evan followed without a word.
She stopped abruptly, not uttering a sound, yet looking as though pain was ripping through her all over again. Evan looked over her shoulder, and seeing what little was left of her home, his stomach dropped.
"God, Suse..." He put an arm around her shoulders, as though she might fall. She didn't, however. But she didn't look at him either, just at what used to be her house, as though she couldn't believe it.
She didn't want to believe it.
She shrugged his arm off and stepped over the brick wall that had mostly collapsed, looking at the ground. There were a few possessions of her that were recognisable, but not worthy of keeping. The front of her house had been the most seriously destroyed, the back being mostly burnt with the heat of the explosion.
A glint of metal caught her eye, and she bent down to pick the object up. It was a silver photo frame, now marked black around the edges, a piece of melted photographic paper stretched raggedly in the middle. She rubbed a finger over a hole in the centre, a hole where Brad's face was meant to be.
She felt Evan stop behind her. After a moment, he asked quietly, "Was that one of Brad?"
She nodded, tears stinging the corners of her eyes again. Not just for Brad, but for everything she had now lost. Upon seeing the wreck she used to call home, it was only now that she felt the impact of what the explosion had.
Although he couldn't see her face, he knew what she was thinking. "Come here," he said quietly, pulling her around to face him, and wrapping his arms around her body. Her shoulders shook, and he wished he could take some of that pain away.
"I'm so sorry, Suse."
She nodded, knowing he meant it. But what could he possibly do to take even a fraction of that hurt away? They had all lost so much, and she, PJ and Tom had lost the most.
"I'm going to have to start again, Jonesy," she whispered, almost in fear. "Get everything back..."
"I'll help you – we'll all help you, you know that, don't you?" He drew her at arm's length to look at her earnestly. She nodded.
"I know... thank you." She still fingered the frame in her hands, as though if she did it enough, the photograph would reappear.
"Do you want to go?"
"No," she replied, although sounding as though she wanted to contradict herself. "Not yet. I better check out what's still standing here..."
"Are you sure?" he asked, concerned.
"Yeah, I really should."
He nodded, and patiently waited while she walked around, occasionally picking up bits and pieces of what was left behind.
While he waited, he turned to look at the station wreckage. Where would they work now? Would they rebuild the station, or just move somewhere new? And if they did rebuild it, would it be the same, or something completely different?
The Inspector was sorting it out now. It wasn't up to them, not even Tom. They had to leave it to the high flyers.
It was both a relief and frustrating at the same time. Relief because they wouldn't have to deal with the mess, or pick up the pieces... but still, it was their mess, and they didn't seem to have much say in the matter.
"Thanks for waiting," Susie said, approaching him. In her hands held several items of jewellery that hadn't been damaged, as well as a few other random items.
"No problem," he replied, looking down at them. "Is that..."
"All that's left, pretty much, yeah," she sighed, the tears seemingly dried out of her.
He couldn't seem to come up with an adequate reply to that, but she understood anyway.
There was a faint thumping somewhere near his right temple, and Tom opened his eyes. He lifted a hand up to his right eye, and felt a soft cotton patch covering it.
Blinking, he stared at the blank, milky white wall in front of him, wondering where to start.
Moments later, Grace quietly entered his room, carrying a coffee. Seeing he was awake, she smiled. "It's about time you woke up."
"Time?" he asked, his voice nothing more than a strained croak.
"Nearly eleven AM."
"Yes." She sat down next to the bed and lightly touched one of the cuts along his cheek. "How are you feeling?"
"Barely awake," he replied honestly.
She laughed. "I'm not surprised."
"How're the boys?"
"They're both fine, worried about you. They said they'll come by later this afternoon, on the way home from school."
He managed a nod. "And the others?"
"From what Chris tells me, Ben, Evan and Susie are all fine. They're all working right now."
Grace sighed. "I'm really not sure. But I suppose you can imagine."
Tom nodded again. "The station?"
"Not much left of it, I'm afraid. Susie will have to stay in the Imperial, I should think, until she can find somewhere else."
"The police residence," Tom remembered. He had to admit it wasn't his first thought when the station had exploded.
"Don't worry, Tom, I'm sure she'll get by."
He nodded again, and although he knew there was so much to be done, that he wasn't able to be there for, he felt somewhat reassured that the rest of them were still standing. And PJ... he'll deal with that when he came to it.
His eyes drifted closed again as he fell asleep.
"Stewart," Falcon-Price greeted, managing to lift his attitude towards Ben slightly as he shook hands. "I'm sorry to hear what happened."
"Yes, it's rather unfortunate," Ben said calmly.
"I understand that these times must be extremely difficult on you all, especially to do with Senior Constable Parrish."
Ben's eyes flickered, but returned to their resolute manner before the Inspector could see. "We'll manage."
"And how's Senior Sergeant Croyden?"
"He'll be fine. Concussion is about the worst of it."
"Right, good to hear, good to hear..." Falcon-Price nodded. "Now, about the station -"
"Completely destroyed, sir," Ben put in.
"Nothing left, then?"
"Constables Jones and Raynor have gone to the site and have reported that nearly everything has been damaged in some way. I'll get them to fax through a complete list, if you want."
"That would be good," Falcon-Price nodded. "Have you organised somewhere temporary?"
"We felt that Widgeree Police station would be best in the circumstances, sir," Ben replied. "It has most of the resources needed, and Senior Constable de la Rue will be an asset to our team."
"Very well," the inspector relented. After a pause, he looked down at Ben. "Well, I would have preferred if you had consulted me, or at least Tom before making any decisions -" Ben opened his mouth to argue when Falcon-Price continued, "but I understand that the circumstances are very difficult, and good work, Sergeant."
Ben glared at him. "Thank you, sir," he said stiffly.
Hours passed before the three of them met up at the Widgeree station once more.
"How was Falcon-Price?" Evan asked as Ben shrugged off his jacket.
"Completely charming and kind-hearted, as per usual," Ben replied flatly.
Susie frowned. "Ben -" she started.
He held up a hand. "I know, I know – I shouldn't like that," he sighed. "Falcon-Price was Falcon-Price."
"Falcon-Prick," Evan muttered under his breath.
"Falcon-Prick?" Susie repeated. "Who made that one up?"
Evan and Ben exchanged a glance. "Jo," they said in unison.
Does the sun shine up at you when you're looking down?
Do you get along with the others around?
It's got to be better than before
You don't need to worry now you're gone
The phone rang in the living room, and although he heard it, PJ didn't bother moving. There was one person he wanted to talk to, and it wasn't going to be her.
It never would be her.
Sure, he could always imagine it, just like he did with Maggie, but who was he kidding?
It was his fault Jo was dead.
His fault she had been angry at him, his fault she had moved out. His fault that she died with a broken heart.
Mags, why couldn't you leave me alone, he thought furiously. If you hadn't reappeared, then none of this would have happened...
He stopped himself. None of this was Maggie's fault – she was dead, he thought, and had been for years. Dead people couldn't do this. It was he, and he should just face it. Passing the blame for all of this onto Maggie was a feat so cowardly, so disrespectful, that it was no wonder she wasn't coming down to kick his arse for it.
Then he remembered she couldn't even do that.
Jo had left because she didn't want to be second best, and that was no one's fault but his own. If he had just stopped hanging over Maggie, then Jo would never have gone. And then he would have taken Jo with him to see the Baxters' instead of Ben, and then she wouldn't have been in the station when it exploded...
And she would still be alive.
But then Ben wouldn't be, a small voice spoke inside his head. He pushed the thought away, because he didn't want to think about it. But it was true: almost certainly, one of them would have been killed.
He just didn't want that one to be Jo.
Ben put the phone down, and shook his head at Susie and Evan. "No answer."
"Guess you couldn't really expect that from PJ, could you," Susie said in a low voice.
"Maybe I shouldn't go home tonight," Ben thought aloud. "Reckon Chris has another room free?"
"Nah, I probably should stay, right?" he said reproachfully. "Yeah," he added in assurance, "It'll be better if I stay where I am."
"He'll want you there," Evan put in.
"Nah, Jonesy, he won't – but thanks anyway," he replied. "The house is empty enough with just the two of us, he doesn't need me disappearing either."
"Do you want to go to the Imperial, grab something to eat?" Susie suggested. The two men murmured their agreements, and she looked over to where Rochelle was completing some paperwork. "Rochelle? Do you want to come too?"
"Dinner?" Rochelle said hopefully. She looked up at the three other officers, standing together by the doorway, and suddenly shook her head. "Actually, I've got a lot of work to catch up on – a lot of crooks out there today," she added heartily.
"You sure?" Susie asked, her forehead wrinkling at the senior constable's sudden change of mind.
"Yep, you go. I'll see you tomorrow."
They shrugged, and left her alone in the station. Her cheery smile faltered slightly; to be honest, she wouldn't have minded a meal with some others for a change. But the way the other three were standing there together, expressions exactly the same, how could she intervene? They were together, a team and a solid group, and she was the outsider. They probably wouldn't have wanted her there anyhow, not with the way things were.
Rochelle sighed, and turned back to her report, wondering if there was still another frozen dinner left in her freezer.
It turned out that the three Mount Thomas cops didn't have much appetite, nor any urge to hold a forced conversation. They sat at their table in silence, but that was enough.
"Tell me about Maggie," Susie suddenly spoke up, reaching over to take another potato chip from the bowl Chris had provided.
Ben nearly choked on his orange juice. "Maggie?"
"Yeah; I've heard so much about her, especially lately... I just don't know who she is," Susie admitted. At this, Evan also began to look curious.
"Maggie..." Ben trailed off as he thought. "Maggie was... one of the most honest, caring people I knew," he finally replied. "She was an absolute sweetheart, who could make even the most difficult people open up and talk. There was a certain air about her, one that made people trust her."
"PJ obviously loved her," Evan put in.
"He did... oh, he really did," Ben nodded. "And she loved him back. They were going to get married, before she died, you know?" He adopted a pensive, almost regretful look about him, and Susie wondered if there had been something with Maggie that he wasn't telling.
"And Jo?" she asked.
"Jo knew Maggie – not for too long, mind, but they did work together for a bit. I don't think she and PJ ever initiated anything happening between them, especially soon after Maggie – it just happened."
"About a year and a half ago, wasn't it?" Evan answered. Susie glanced at him, surprised. "What? I don't totally miss things, do I?" he added defensively.
Ben drained his orange juice and sat his glass back down with a clunk. "Look, I better get going," he said, standing up. "To make sure that he's – well, okay," he struggled for a word.
"See ya," the two constables replied as he left the Imperial.
"You hungry?" Evan asked Susie as he checked his watch.
"Nah – are you?"
Silenced floated over again once more. "You know, maybe Ben has a point," Susie said eventually.
"Call it a night, you mean?"
"I don't know – what do you reckon?"
"Yeah, I guess we should." Still, neither moved.
Susie absently traced around the rim of her glass with her finger, before standing. "If I don't move now, I don't think I ever will."
He nodded and stood up to follow her. "'Night, Chris."
"Night," the publican replied from the bar as they walked past her to the stairs. "You two gonna be okay?"
Evan briefly nodded at her in reassurance. Despite his own emotions, if he could settle Chris' concerns, than that was one less thing on his conscience.
They reached Susie's door, and as she went to unlock it, she stopped. "Jonesy," she said suddenly, turning to face him, "I – I don't think I want to be alone tonight."
He took her statement without humour. "You don't need to be," he replied softly.
It was then she realised that perhaps he needed her, just as much she needed him.
Now we're alone
Gonna show much I need you
Kiss you so
You won't ever want to leave me
"Rochelle, did you get hold of the Bomb Squad about the detonation device?" Ben asked, when the four officers were assembled in the Widgeree station the next morning.
"I spoke to man who couldn't help... he gave me the name of someone you should speak to," Rochelle replied, handing over a slip of paper. "Plus a phone number."
Ben sighed in frustration. "Yeah, thanks. If Falcon-Price asks me one more time to..." he muttered under his breath, then stopping.
"How's PJ this morning?" Susie asked quietly.
"Same as yesterday. I don't know whether to leave him to his own devices, or force something out of him..."
"Mmm," she nodded distractedly.
"Anyway, can I get you and Jonesy out to the Bomb Squad yourselves?" Ben asked. "The way we're going with phone calls, we're never going to talk to them."
"Er, do you mind if you and Jonesy go instead?" Susie requested, holding her breath.
He frowned. "Why, you got something against Bomb Squad?"
"No, I just have to do something first. Give me, say, ninety minutes personal time?" Susie started backing out of the station. "Thanks, Ben."
She left as Evan came out from the back room. "Where's she going?" he asked curiously.
"Have no idea, mate," Ben shook his head. "So, I guess it's up to us."
Susie raised her hand to knock, hesitating for a moment. She shouldn't really be doing this, she knew, especially not while on duty. Ben needed her to work; yet she knew that if she didn't do this, she wouldn't be able to concentrate at all.
Finally knocking, she waited for an answer, or at least a sign of movement. Several moments later, she knocked again.
"PJ, it's Susie. Please open up for me." She knocked again, harder this time, letting him know she wasn't going to give up. "PJ, open up or I'll rip the door of its hinges myself."
Finally, just before she was going to carry out another round of rapping, he jerked the door open.
She looked carefully at the senior detective, who looked back at her with vacant eyes. "PJ... can I come in?"
"Sure," he muttered, moving over to let her step inside. "What is it?"
"I want to talk to you," she said bluntly, sitting down on the couch.
He busied himself in the kitchen. "Want a coffee?"
"No thanks," she declined. "I wanted to see how you were."
PJ too sat down on a chair, rubbing his eyes. "I'm still breathing, if that's what you're asking."
"You know that's not." He didn't reply, and she sighed. "Look, I understand what you're going through."
He kept silent, and in all honesty, she rather he be like that. Just so she could say what she needed to.
"Jo really loved you, you know."
"I know," PJ muttered at last. "That's the problem. I couldn't give her what she wanted. I wasn't returning what she felt for me."
"But you loved her."
"I did, I really did... It just wasn't the same."
Susie looked sympathetic. "It wasn't ever going to same as with Maggie, PJ, you know that."
"I wasn't being fair to her," he continued. "I was expecting her to be what Maggie was, I was trying to make myself believe it was her." He looked up, and instead of the empty eyes that he had acquired over the past two days, Susie saw raw pain, a pain so great that it would take a long time to heal.
She reached over to touch his arm lightly. "I made the same mistake once too."
"Brad?" PJ asked, brow furrowing. "How?"
"I wanted him to be the person he was before the accident," she said, giving a crooked smile. "I so desperately wanted things to be like the 'old times', that I was willing to hurt him by treating him like someone he wasn't anymore." She looked at PJ sincerely. "You know, you're going through what I went through."
"You haven't lost two."
"No, but I lost mine the same way you lost Jo," she said. "I blamed myself over Brad's death; because although he wanted to die, I was the one who contributed to that. You're blaming yourself over Jo."
"Emotionally, I had just lost her, and you had just lost him," PJ added, nodding in understanding. "They both died with unhappy hearts."
"And we're still standing to pick up the pieces," she pointed out.
"How did you do it, Suse?"
"How did you do it the first time, PJ?"
"It was so hard..." he whispered. "Now it's happened again."
She squeezed his hand. "It'll get better. It has to. You pick up the pieces... and you move on."
PJ's eyes had brimmed with tears that had not yet been cried. For there had been so much pain within him he didn't know where to start, or what to start crying over.
He wiped them away with the back of his hand. "I've been such an idiot."
"Yeah, but you can always fix that up, eh?" Susie retorted with a gentle smile. He didn't return the smile, but his face eased slightly, which was more than what she was asking for.
"What about you? How are you feeling?" he asked, realising how selfish he had been. He wouldn't be the only one suffering.
"The police residence... it's wrecked," she answered quietly.
"Maybe we really are in the same situation more than we thought," PJ suddenly remarked.
"What?" she asked, completely confused.
"Did you ever wonder why this house is so new?" he questioned.
She shook her head. "Not really, no. What happened?"
"My house burnt down at the beginning of last year. Mount Thomas went through a round of very nasty bushfires." PJ avoided revealing the real reason why his house had burnt down, figuring that what Susie didn't know wouldn't hurt. "Us three lost everything."
"That's terrible," she said, for what better things to say. A flash of a silver photo frame entered her mind from yesterday afternoon. "You lost memories of Maggie, didn't you?"
"My last photo," he nodded. "Tom gave me a new one, but..." he shrugged his shoulders. "It was all gone."
"Your memories don't fade, though, at least," she murmured. He nodded, wiping at his eyes again.
"God, PJ, we're all going to miss her so much," Susie said, pulling him into a hug. He returned it gratefully.
"We will." In a whisper, he added, "I'll always miss her."
When your day is long
And the night
The night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough of this life
Well, hang on
They had all opted for a quiet memorial. Jo had been given a police funeral with full honours, with half the town turning out. Much sympathy had been extended towards the police officers of Mount Thomas by the community, and even the criminals seemed to be giving them a rest for once, if only short-lived.
But it was on this quiet afternoon, a week after the explosion, that a small group gathered to acknowledge the life of a young woman whose years had been cut too short.
Tom stood with Grace, Susan, Daniel and Nelson, his eye patch having been removed, yet several scratches still scarred his face. They would heal, yet he had a feeling it would take a lot longer for his heart to.
Ben stood silently, looking up at the sky and wondering what it held for him. Was he, too, going to have his fate sealed by the work he did? Or would he get the chance to grow old?
Evan stood with Susie, hearing Jo's laugh, and her telling them to get on with their lives. And he vowed that he would.
Susie stood, wondering how she was left to be the only female at the station. Tom had mentioned the arrival of another female constable, but Susie knew she would miss Jo all the same.
And PJ stood to the side, alone, wondering if this would be the last time this would happen to him.
Forgive me, Jo, he pleaded with her, hoping she could hear him.
Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom
Well who am I to keep you down
It's only right that you should play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost
Life did go on, it seemed. The Mount Thomas Police had found themselves a new station; somewhat more modern and larger, but it suited them nicely.
Inspector Falcon-Price had insisted on introducing four new members to the team: two young constables, a sergeant, and an additional detective. All together, they made a new team, if not a larger one than before, but a team that functioned well.
There were still odd moments that reminded the other members, however, of what they had lost. A casual joke or remark, a reference back to the old station. Tom, PJ, Ben, Susie and Evan exchanged smiles, albeit sometimes sad ones, and the group seemed to have a bond that extended beyond a work team. They had all experienced their own personal dilemmas, as well as something that had impacted them all so hard, and for that it was something that the newer members couldn't possibly understand.
Tom remained on as the Senior Sergeant, although he was now contemplating life a lot more than he used to. He realised that perhaps it was time for him to move on. There had to be more to life than police work, he reasoned, although sometimes it was hard to convince himself. He wanted to spend more time with Grace and the boys before time ran away from him. He knew how precious time was.
Ben found himself in a new situation when the new sergeant was brought in. The new sergeant was a lot older than he was, yet he looked at it as something more of a challenge, to gain experience and grow as both a police officer and a person. To his delight, Rachael had become more lenient with Maddie, and as a result, he was able to see his oldest daughter more often than before. It wasn't as good as seeing all his kids, but it was the next best thing.
Susie still called the Imperial home. Right then, she wasn't sure if she wanted to move out just yet. She knew she couldn't stay there forever, but it suited her for now. A third house in Mount Thomas in the space of less than a year seemed somewhat daunting, and she preferred to stop and look before leaping.
Plus, staying at the Imperial had its advantages. She was close to all the action every night, and better still, she would be closer to Evan. She still didn't know what to think of her and him together, but she liked it, and he didn't seem to mind either. Discussions on the topic between them had been short and vague, with neither of them wanting to spoil it. For now, she was happy with where she was.
Evan's cowboy nature didn't seem to diminish overnight, although it did dim somewhat. Some said Susie was responsible for the regulating, although no one pursued it, especially not within earshot of either constables or Tom. They regularly left the pub table at the same time, and although obvious suspicions were made, no one could prove anything. And Evan or Susie certainly weren't telling.
PJ still caught himself staring at old photographs on occasions. Not necessarily of Jo, or even Maggie, but of old memories that made his life what it was. Especially of his mother. Or from time to time he would stare out the window, thinking of what might have been. But he didn't let it keep him down; instead, it reminded him how precious life really was, and how to cherish the ones around him, because he never knew how long they would be here for.
He continuously threw himself into his police work, for that was what he was there for. Having another detective there was a help to him, of course, although he would have done fine without.
Ben occasionally asked why PJ would work so hard. He was concerned that the detective was tiring himself out so much so he wouldn't have to think about anything else. But for once Ben was wrong.
For PJ wasn't working for himself. He was working for the Victoria Police, for the community, to see that justice was served. And he would do everything he could to see that that justice really was served on more occasions than not.
And, most of all, he worked for Maggie and Jo, who were probably looking down at them all, as he fought relentlessly against the criminals they too had dedicated their lives towards stopping.
It was a small part of himself that he felt he owed them, and he'd be damned if he didn't serve it through.
He felt sure that both women had forgiven him, and that in turn, had created a path of forgiveness for himself, and a pledge that he would never let a moment of life go to waste.
It was just the first step in the journey, a journey where the beginning, middle and the end seemed to be blurred. He wasn't even sure if it had an end or not.
And, to be honest, PJ liked it that way.finis
It's time to change
Throw out the books and start again
Break all the rules, fall on your face
Don't be ashamed
You can't waste more time
'Cause you've been gone for far too long
Lyrics (in order of appearance): Long night; Goodbye; Radio; Angel; Even If; Everybody Hurts; Dreams; Hideaway – all by The Corrs, funnily enough (with the exception of Everybody Hurts, by REM, although The Corrs also performed it). Their latest album was made for this story, methinks. :)